Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Jane Austen Education

How six novels taught me about love, friendship, and the things that really matter.

The title is telling, but I was deceived by the playful jacket illustration. I believed I was going to read a trendy life-according-to-Jane-Austen confection, more sugar and air than substance. Instead, A Jane Austen Education allowed me to eavesdrop on a college course intended for English Lit majors.

William Deresiewicz was an English professor at Yale until recently, and his literary criticism cred shows. Each novel is treated carefully as a jewel: the critical overview of the story is interwoven with events from Jane Austen's life, and the meaning Deresiewicz took and applied to his own life. Each novel is credited with teaching him an essential life lesson, helping him mature from an angry young man to an adult who says, at the end, "Reader, I married her."

If an abbreviated course on the novels of Jane Austen sounds appealing, this is the book for you. I could see myself, in the right mood, reading this again.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Night Circus

I struggle with this sort of book, because usually they are disappointing. But Erin Morgenstern wove an exceptional tapestry of magic, character, and mystery as she unfolds the story of The Night Circus. The main characters, Celia and Marco, have been magically bound by dueling enchanters to a game that centers
on Le Cirque des Reves. Only gradually do they see how complicated the game has become, and what the stakes mean to them and to those they love.

How did I like it? Like the story itself, my opinion of it gradually unfolded.

On page 10, when Prospero swore, I had half a mind to stop reading, because books filled with swearing annoy me. On page 28, when Celia tries to heal her sliced fingers, I had 3/4 of a mind to stop reading, because books filled with pain and abuse hurt me. But Morgenstern's storytelling had already captivated me, and I persevered with the quarter-mind I had left. And before long, I was, like so many of the characters, enchanted.

Not-as-bad-as-they-might-be things:
The Night Circus is not filled with swearing. There is the one afore-mentioned f-bomb.
The overt pain and abuse end quickly, and...are like the brutality in fairy tales, demonstrative of villainy but not the stuff of monstrous nightmares and broken lives.
The single semi-explicit scene is short and near the end. But you can easily skip it altogether and not miss a thing. You can see it coming on page 295, and it ends on the next page, at the asterisk. Do read the part after the asterisk; there are plot points there.

Good things:
A plot that unfolds richly, beautifully, and subtly, much like Le Cirque des Reves. Characters that are likeable (mostly), multi-dimensional, and compelling. The imagery is stunning, with mesmerizing images that linger--a cauldron burning with white fire, spell-binding rings, red scarves, and an entrancing clock.

If this sounds like something you will like, read it. Because you will.