November 29, 2009


Recently, my boss and I were talking about our mutual and undying love for Persuasion when she mentioned Jane Austen Ruined My Life. Because I was intrigued by the title, she was kind enough to lend me her copy. I know that Austen-inspired fiction is a strangely huge genre; every time I enter a bookstore I seem to come across a new book with some play on ‘Mr. Darcy’ in the title. As an Austen fan myself, I certainly understand the appeal of such a genre and respect that it reaches so many readers, but I’ve never had much interest in any of these types of books. While I did mostly enjoy reading the breezy Jane Austen Ruined My Life, it certainly didn’t change my mind on its genre.

The book follows Emma (what else?) Grant, an Austen scholar from an unnamed prestigious American university who has been betrayed and abandoned by her cad of celebrity-scholar husband and subsequently fired from her teaching position. Falsely accused of plagiarism and shamed in the academic community, she escapes to England to meet with a bizarre hermit who sets her on a trail throughout the country that will, she says, lead to hundreds of Austen’s lost letters. As Emma attempts to complete the tasks she is set, she visits Austen’s own England, runs into an old near-flame (of course), and reflects on how Austen indirectly contributed to the failure of her marriage.

Though far-fetched, Pattillo’s imagined fate of the letters is interesting and entertaining, especially in light of my recent visit to the Morgan Library. Though many of Austen’s letters survive (and are currently on display at the Morgan), far many more do not. She was a prolific letter writer, and apparently upon her death had her sister Cassandra destroy or edit the majority of her correspondence. The book proposes that she did not actually do such a thing, and that these lost letters have been protected by a secret society of ‘Formidables” since her death. Patillo nicely arranges the reasons for the secrecy of these letters around actual and unexplained facts about Austen. This is what I enjoyed most about the book; the biographical information on Jane Austen that provided the basis for the plot. And even though I was rolling my eyes almost every other page (there are only so many fluttering hearts and Austen metaphors I can take), I did sometimes find myself identifying with Emma. I’ve had many conversations with friends about how things we love – whether they are Jane Austen novels or Disney cartoons or romantic movies I watched on TV when I was probably too young to be doing so – have ruined us by raising our expectations so high that we are only set up to be disappointed. Case in point: I will settle for nothing less than Captain Wentworth. It is nice to know that there are others out there with the same problem, but I think that in the future if I am in the mood for some Jane Austen, I’ll be reading one of her own novels rather than one inspired by her. In fact, I think it is about time for a rereading of Persuasion.

While we’re on the topic of Jane Austen, here are a few recent articles on her:

What Would Jane Do?”, a great article on the morality, and wonderfulness, of Jane in the WSJ

No Plain Jane”, a review of a new book of essays on Austen, in The Economist

A review of the Morgan Library exhibit in the NYT

November 24, 2009

Poetic & Artistic Inspiration

The Lady of Shalott
John William Waterhouse, 1888

"On either side the river lie 

Long fields of barley and of rye, 

That clothe the wold and meet the sky; 

And thro' the field the road runs by

To many-tower'd Camelot;

And up and down the people go,

Gazing where the lilies blow 

Round an island there below, 

The island of Shalott."

from "The Lady of Shalott"by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1842

November 21, 2009

THE PENELOPIAD by Margaret Atwood

There is nothing like a good retelling of a canonical work. As arguably one of the most canonical works, Homer’s Odyssey has been adapted and retold many times in many ways, from the film O Brother Where Art Thou? to James Joyce’s amazing (and canonical itself) Ulysses. Margaret Atwood contributes to this tradition with The Penelopiad, a look at the events of The Iliad and The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope. As she wanders through the many levels of Hades and (often amusingly) encounters old acquaintances, Penelope gives us her take on the epic. She recounts how she felt about Odysseus, from the start of their arranged relationship through his long absence. She offers her own account of what happened at home in Ithaca over those twenty years without her husband, paying particular attention to the years the suitors descended and how, with the help of her servants and maids, she was able to keep them from overwhelming her. In telling Penelope’s side of the story, Atwood offers a completely new way of looking at Homer’s epic, making me question what I know and how I feel about this story that is so much a part of our culture.

The image of Penelope as put forth in The Odyssey and its countless subsequent retellings is almost invariably the same: she is the loyal, steadfast wife who patiently awaits her husband for twenty years while he wages war, makes a name for himself as the wisest king, battles monsters of land and sea, and beds nymphs and sorceresses galore. I always imagined (with the help of a TV movie or two) that the only thing that kept Odysseus going and Penelope from succumbing to her dangerous suitors was their undying love for one another. But, as most feminist retellings do, The Penelopiad completely changes the outlook of the original source material. Gone is the romance between Odysseus and Penelope, the image of Odysseus as the ultimate hero of wisdom and morality, the loving mother-son relationship between Penelope and Telemachus. Odysseus, though wise and brave to a degree, owes his heroic reputation more to his cunning and shrewdness than to deep wisdom. He uses these powers of persuasion and craftiness in their own marriage, which is certainly not based on the love and trust of Homer’s telling and the idealistic retellings. It is an arranged marriage of convenience in which Penelope will always only be the second place prize to her cousin Helen. Penelope does what she does not because of an undying love for Odysseus or a reverential obligation to her new kingdom, but because it is what is forced upon her as a woman.

Penelope’s is not the only voice we hear in The Penelopiad, however. Also narrating is the set of twelve maids who were loyal servants to Penelope throughout her husband’s absence, only to be murdered upon Odysseus’s return for liaising with (aka being raped by) the suitors. The hangings of these women are seldom discussed; with all the violent deaths and adventures of The Odyssey, how much do the deaths of these servant girls matter? Atwood, it seems, took issue with this absence of discussion and fittingly included it with her story of Penelope. These maids, in the tradition of the Greek Tragedy, act as the chorus collectively offering their thus far silent account of events through ballads, poetry, and plays. As Penelope is continually haunted by their violent hangings, the maids serve as a constant reminder of the place of women in their time – and, even more so, the place of women servants.

I often have a hard time reading revisionist works, especially when it comes to stories or books I love. Whether it is a reworking of a fairy tale or Jean Rhys’ reimagining of Jane Eyre, I don’t always want see my idealistic perception of the story or its characters changed (even if it becomes more truthful). And yet, I do read these reworkings and almost invariably enjoy them. Usually, despite my initial misgivings or natural aversion to changing my opinion, I end up better appreciating the original text and developing a much more well-rounded understanding of it. I think that is the importance of these kinds of works; to widen the conversation on classic texts by bringing certain aspects of them to the forefront and making us take a closer look. The fact that The Penelopiad does so much to change how I see these characters and the myth itself speaks to the power of Atwood’s writing – and her talent for shining light on the cracks in the epic that were hidden, but not invisible.

November 13, 2009

Interview with Cormac McCarthy

It seems that every weekend the WSJ features great articles on books and authors. I live for the Weekend Journal. Today's paper has a wonderfully extensive interview with the notoriously private Cormac McCarthy, in which he comes off as decidedly more personable than I imagined him to be. The interview comes in time for the upcoming theatrical release of "The Road" (which promises to be horrifically depressing), and it is interesting to hear McCarthy's views on his books' translations to film. Among the many other topics he discusses are religion, his son as inspiration for The Road, his relationships with filmmakers, his future book, and the status of the modern novel. Some excerpts:

On the unamed disaster in The Road:

I don't have an opinion. At the Santa Fe Institute I'm with scientists of all disciplines, and some of them in geology said it looked like a meteor to them. But it could be anything—volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do? The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who've gone diving in Yellowstone Lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it go on Thursday. No one knows.
[I knew it!]

On lengthy books:
People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Moby-Dick," go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

On what he writes:
I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

I highly suggest reading the rest of the article and interview, "
Hollywood's Favorite Cowboy."

Also in today's Journal is an article, "
When Brevity is a Virtue," about a number of short story collections by established authors being published this season. I've been reading more short stories than usual lately, so I was especially interested to read the article's discussion of the place and purpose of the short story today. And it definitely got me interested in reading some of these upcoming collections, namely Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness. Hopefully there will be more great literary articles in tomorrow's Journal as well.


A few weeks ago, I went to the Strand Bookstore to see A.S. Byatt read from and speak about her newest novel, The Children’s Book, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I have yet to crack open the book (personalized and signed by Byatt herself!), but my anticipation for it continues to build. I had been meaning to read her books for a long time now, so when I saw that she would be at the Strand I decided to build at least a working familiarity with her work by reading some short stories. The Matisse Stories, as the title implies, is a collection of three stories loosely inspired by and centered around paintings by Henri Matisse. Each story is a glimpse (as short stories are) into the life of a middle-aged woman and her relationship, however varied, with art.

The woman of the opening story is drawn into her hair salon by the Matisse copy hanging inside. As she develops a play on the standard relationship with her hairdresser, her deeply rooted insecurities about growing older begin to manifest with the painting of the rosy nude (and its incongruous salon setting) as a strangely fitting background. This discomfort with aging is certainly a running theme throughout the stories, continuing with the woman of the second story as she attempts to reconcile the artistic dreams of her youth with her abandonment of this passion to support her family (particularly her failed and spoiled painter husband). As this self-proclaimed ‘creative’ family is forced to reassess what they accept as art through a surprise of their housekeeper, Byatt brings up questions on the limits and purpose of art and how different people in different situations view it. This discussion is expanded in the final story, which follows the dean of women at a London university and her struggle in dealing with the accusations of an unstable Fine Arts graduate student against an elder, distinguished visiting professor. Should the principles of art, beauty, and the devotion to artistic scholarship be upheld? Or should this woman and the university do what it can to help this unwell, but also untalented, student? What is more important – art or human compassion?

The stories are artistic in themselves; Byatt evokes paintings – Matisse ones especially – with her colorful and descriptive language. Her depiction of objects – their colors, light and presence – is striking. In fact, this is something Byatt discussed at the signing, in relation to The Children’s Book. She said that she often writes towards objects; that she develops ideas, and then has specific ideas of what objects she wants to write about and how she wants to represent them. Specifically, she spoke of a candlestick in The Children’s Book (I suppose that will mean something to those that have read the book). She had a very specific idea of what kind of candlestick she wanted and, with the help of the curator of The Victoria & Albert Museum, found precisely what she was looking for and made it an important part of the novel.

Both The Matisse Stories and seeing A.S. Byatt read have certainly whet my appetite for more of her stuff (The Children’s Book and Possession are eagerly waiting for me in my to-be-read pile). And she was very nice, which is always a plus. As I nervously approached her to get my book signed, I mumbled something about loving The Matisse Stories, and she told me how earlier that day she had tried to go to the MOMA to see their Matisse collection but was unable to get in because of the long line. MOMA, you should have been rolling out the red carpet for her!

November 10, 2009

The Morgan Library

Because Tuesdays are my free afternoon days, today I decided to venture to the Morgan Library to see the Jane Austen exhibit I had heard about. Amazingly, I’ve never been to the Library before – it is certainly an overlooked gem. It began as J.P. Morgan’s personal collection of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, and artwork, and was given to the public by his son in the 1920s. The reading rooms that make up Morgan’s personal wing of the museum – with their massive collections of old books, dark wood shelves, plush couches, and beautifully frescoed ceilings – are a literary dream. The permanent collection boasts a Gutenberg Bible and a number of great pieces of art (I spotted a few Hans Memlings), in addition to all the rare books and illuminated manuscripts it contains. It was the special exhibit I came to see, however, and was excited to find that not only was there and exhibit on Jane Austen, but one on William Blake as well.

The Jane Austen exhibit was wonderful, featuring lots of Jane’s original letters, manuscripts, and first editions. It is always so exciting to me to see something originally from a writer or artist I admire up close, so I loved seeing her own handwriting in her copious and exhaustive letters. There was also a short documentary featuring well-known writers and artists discussing Jane and her effects on them – I especially enjoyed Colm Toibin’s (a writer I love) wish to invite Jane, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung to dinner, feed them lots of alcohol, and see what they made of each other. All the while, of course, I thought of my favorite Austen novel (Persuasion), and my favorite part of the novel (Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne). To avoid the risk of ruining the experience of the book for any unacquainted readers, I will refrain from saying more – just know that you must read Persuasion and savor your
first reading of said letter. Gosh, I love Persuasion.

The William Blake exhibit featured his many etchings and engravings – I often forget he was as much an artist as he was a poet. Engravings fascinate me. The great ones are so intricate and detailed, and to me evoke a certain kind of beauty I automatically associate with literature and poetry. I suppose it is people like Blake that are the causes of such associations – his etchings are beautiful, and of course literary. Here are the first few lines of “The Echoing Green,” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence (and his frontispiece):

The sun does arise,

And make happy the skies;

The merry bells ring

To welcome the spring;

The skylark and thrush,

The birds of the bush,

Sing louder around

To the bell's cheerful sound,

While our sports shall be seen

On the Echoing Green.

I was also happy to learn of Blake’s love for John Milton, and Blake’s poems and engravings inspired by Milton. This illustration, “The Wandering Moon,” was done by Blake to accompany Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, and features Milton in his Cambridge robes observing the moon, personified as a young woman. I just love his artwork (and poetry).

The Blake exhibit runs to January, while the Austen exhibit is until March. Go!

November 09, 2009

Two for One: IN THE WOODS and THE LIKENESS by Tana French

I’ve never been much for mysteries or thrillers. Aside from the odd Alexander McCall-Smith or Agatha Christie novel (and a brief obsession with Helter Skelter – though I suppose that would be categorized more as True Crime), I have had very little experience with the genre. What drew me to French’s novels (In the Woods first, followed by The Likeness) was their Dublin setting. I’m a sucker for anything Irish, a pseudo-weakness that really worked out in my favor here. Both novels, which are related without quite being a series, center around the attempts to solve mysterious murders. The books, however, are not so much about the crimes themselves as they are psychological explorations of the detectives and their unexpected personal connections to these murders. With both books, French effortlessly weaves through literary genres and creates, with her unique characters and stories, works that are engrossing and difficult to classify.

In the Woods follows a case assigned to Detective Rob Ryan that unexpectedly leads him and his partner towards two decade-spanning murders. As a young boy, Ryan and his two best friends disappeared into the woods of a small town outside of Dublin. Hours later he alone was found – catatonic and uninjured, yet with a torn shirt and blood-filled shoes. Twenty years later, he still has no memory of those hours and his friends have never been found. As he attempts to solve the murder of a young girl in the very same woods, Ryan is forced to revisit his past and face what he fears most – his untapped memories. Though the mysteries of both murders are gripping (I was up until ungodly hours while reading this book), what is most powerful is seeing how the case personally and psychologically impacts all involved. French explores – with Ryan especially – the impact of memory on the psyche, the transient nature of human relationships, and the ability of the subconscious to determine our actions. As first person narrator, we see everything through Ryan’s eyes. Over the course of the case it becomes apparent what an unreliable observer he has become – he veers all over the place, from likable to unlikable, trustworthy to deceitful. French’s characterization of him, however, skillfully makes this unreliability part of his nature. These paradoxes, instead of being problematic, reinforce the latent effects of his past and directly lead to the troubles of his present.

I especially loved (of course) the Irish setting of the book. It wasn’t just, however, that the story itself took place in and around Dublin (or the fact that she often mentioned places and pubs I used to frequent when I studied abroad); French draws in so many ways from her Irish literary and cultural background. Throughout the book, and in The Likeness as well, hints of mysticism and the supernatural are always quietly present – rarely spoken of, but always there. These folkloric traditions that are so intrinsic to the Irish mindset – from the titular importance of the woods to the mystical undercurrents that are often invoked to explain unspeakable crimes – meet the characters at every twist and turn. And to think, this was French’s first novel.

Her second novel certainly didn’t disappoint – I liked The Likeness just as much as In the Woods, if not more. It picks up after the events of the first novel and follows Detective Cassie Maddox, Ryan’s partner. Several other incidental characters make appearances, but this is essentially Cassie’s book. Following her switch from Murder to Domestic Violence, she finds herself thrust into a bizarre undercover murder investigation with the discovery of the body of a young woman in the outskirts of Dublin. The circumstances that bring Cassie into the investigation are even more bizarre: besides looking nearly identical to her, this dead woman shares the name of Cassie’s former undercover persona, Lexie Madison. How often does one get to use the term ‘doppelganger’ in such a perfect context? As Cassie inhabits Lexie’s life (rules and ethics be damned), she is pulled into a strange world. She studies Literature as a postgraduate student at Trinity while inhabiting the eccentric Victorian-like lifestyle Lexie shared with her four very closely-knit (often strikingly so) housemates in their manor home in the country. As she tries to solve the puzzle of Lexie’s life (who was she really, and how did she get the name Lexie Madison?) and death while continuing to convince the housemates that she is indeed Lexie, Cassie gets increasingly drawn into this new strangely enticing world.

As we saw (though to a lesser extent) in In the Woods, Cassie is a strong character: smart and tough – perfect as a hard-ass detective – yet with personal vulnerabilities that, though they help her with the finer points of profiling and catching a killer, also slowly erode her mental stability in a case as complex as this. As with In the Woods, French explores the psychological effects of this case on Cassie. The more she settles into Lexie’s life, the more she becomes her – at the expense of her own life. Though we know better, we as readers fall into the same trap. I could see the mistakes Cassie was making in failing to distance herself from the case and suspects, yet I understood why she made these mistakes. Lexie and her housemates’ lives – with their deep camaraderie, endless poetry, philosophical discussions, constantly flowing whiskey, and magical country environs – is near irresistible. I was pulled into this strange world right along with Cassie, even as her inability to distance herself puts the case, the knowledge of what happened to Lexie, and Cassie herself in danger. As Cassie attempts to balance this lifestyle with solving the murder while undercover, the suspense of The Likeness kicks in and keeps you reading until you get answers.

By the time I finished both books, I felt as drained as the detectives solving these crimes. I got so wrapped up in them that I began to see everything as potentially dangerous or as a mystery that needed to be solved (I know now why I don’t read books like this more often). Aside from the skilled storytelling and accomplished writing of both books, I respect that French didn’t always feel the need to tie things up neatly at the end of the book. Some mysteries – small and large – are left unsolved, details are left vague, and questions are left unanswered (though, for the most part, not frustratingly so). This is an extension of something she manages to do throughout her books: to ground her stories in reality, somehow making the bizarre and sometimes unbelievable aspects of the stories plausible. I’m excited for the release of her next book (whenever that will be), whether it features Detectives Ryan and Maddox or not.

November 06, 2009

Writers on Writing

Here is an excerpt from a wonderful article that appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. It chronicles the actual writing techniques of a number of contemporary authors - where they write, the many steps they take, how long it takes them to write a novel. I find it fascinating to learn the actual day-to-day of so many contemporary writers (Margaret Atwood, Junot Diaz, and Hilary Mantel, to name a few), and to see how different each writer's technique is from the others. Because of my love for Kazuo Ishiguro, I included the article's look at his writing:

From the time he was a teenager until his mid-20s, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro tried, unsuccessfully, to make it as a songwriter. His early career helped him to develop his style of spare, first-person narration where the narrator seems to know more than he or she lets on at first.

Mr. Ishiguro, author of six novels, including the Booker-prize winning "Remains of the Day,"typically spends two years researching a novel and a year writing it. Since his novels are written in the first person, the voice is crucial, so he "auditions" narrators by writing a few chapters from different characters' points of view. Before he begins a draft, he compiles folders of notes and flow charts that lay out not just the plot but also more subtle aspects of the narrative, such as a character's emotions or memories.

Obsessive preparation "gives me the opportunity to have my narrators suppress meaning and evade meaning when they say one thing and mean something else," says Mr. Ishiguro.

He collects his notes in binders and writes a first draft by hand. He edits with a pencil, then types the revised version into a computer, where he further refines it, sometimes deleting chunks as large as 100 pages.

In spite of all the groundwork, some novels fail to come together, including one that took place in medieval Britain. "I showed my wife a segment that I had honed down and she said, "This is awful. You have to figure out how they speak to each other. They're speaking in a moron language," he says.

You can read the rest of the article here.