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isLongbourn

by Jo Baker

Toronto: Random House, 2013.

Jane Austen and her characters were focused on marriage; Jo Baker and hers have their eyes on the linens.  The opening sentences of Baker’s novel say it all:

There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.  Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household’s linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah.

A far cry from “a truth universally acknowledged,” and more true to the spirit of Jane Eyre, which also echoes through this passage.  Sadly for Sarah, the Bennets’ maid, there is every possibility that a walk will be taken that day, and that the ladies will return with their petticoats three inches deep in mud.  The book is full of the details of the lives lived around the events that coat petticoats in mud, around the glittering glory of the Bennet girls at a dance or a dinner: the hours of preparation and clean-up that go into the glitter.  We learn that the velvet ribbon that trims the dress must be unpicked before every wash and then sewn on again so that the dye will not bleed.  We learn that the housemaids had to coat their hands in goose fat to soothe the chilblains that were caused by all the washing of linens.

Longbourn tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from below stairs, and we have the story (re)told in neat parallels.  A James Smith arrives in the household at the same time that Bingley arrives at Netherfield Park.  Sarah, like Lizzie, has two men to interest her.  There is mystery and romance and an awful lot of lovely detail.  Baker is marvellous at packing the novel full of sensory information: the sounds in the hedgerows in the early peppery-cold morning, foxes barking, the smell of spearmint, the pain of chilblains.

There is a good deal about reading in the book, too.  Sarah reads a lot, and often reads aloud to the servants.  Lizzie lends her Pamela, she burns through triple decker novels, and she learns a great deal about the mysterious footman, James Smith, by secretly looking through his books in his bedroom.  It is clear that books are a mixed blessing, though.  Through books, Sarah learns about the world beyond the walls of Longbourn,  and she chafes against the restrictions of her role and her sheltered life.  She yearns to travel and to get out from under the work that defines her.  Here she is during one brief escape, in the company of Ptolemy Bingley, a black servant of the Bingley household:

he drew her along into the little wilderness, and they followed the path through the tangled dead grass.  He lifted a low-hanging branch to let her pass.  The rowans still had a few scarlet berries unpecked by the birds, and everything was hung with raindrops, and smelling of rot.  Behind her, in her absence, the house was grinding along, its cogs turning and teeth linking, belts creaking, and there must come a moment–any moment now–when a cog would bite on nothing, and spin on air; some necessary act would go unperformed, some service would not be provided; the whole mechanism would crunch and splinter and shriek out in protest, and come to a juddering halt, because she was not there.

Mrs. Hill (she always gets the honourific) is a kindly woman, scrupulously fair and trusting, but she wants none of this kind of hanky panky from her staff.  She comes marching along to put a stop to what could easily have been a threshold moment for Sarah.  Sarah, to her credit, is smart enough to weigh her options as far as the men go, and while the plot travels neatly along the lines of the original for the first two volumes, the plot’s twists open up considerably in the third.  Wickham comes off decidedly less appealing than in the original.

I was transfixed at how well and apparently seamlessly Baker shaped her novel in neat parings and echoes of the original.  In addition to the lush detail about the house and its setting, I absolutely loved all of the information about life below stairs.  I often find myself wondering who is doing the cooking in the finer fictional households, and this book gives all the details that we might desire.  Baker also introduces into this retelling issues of race, slavery, class, inheritance, gender and homosexuality.  Refreshing, to be sure, but a little forced if I am to be honest.  I think that this book might have ticked fewer politically correct boxes and have been the stronger for it.

That is my only quibble, and it is a small one.  A delightful read.

Longbourn is released in paperback this week.

 

 

untitledWhat Makes This Book So Great?: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Jo Walton
New York: Tor, 2014.

I am on a Jo Walton tear.  I have gobbled three of her books in about as many days, which would be impressive if I wasn’t comparing myself to her and her mind-boggling reading rate.  She can get through four to six books a day.  Not for her the lament, “So many books, so little time.”

I could say that there are never going to be sufficient books to fill the voracious maw that is me.  Get writing!  I need books!  If I didn’t re-read I’d run out of books eventually and that would be terrible!

Jo Walton is a prodigious (re)reader.  It was her devotion to books that landed her a gig as a blogger at her publisher Tor.com, where she blogs about re-reading.  This book is a selection of those blog posts.  I love this idea for all kinds of reasons, but most especially because it puts fans in touch with books tried and true.  It’s not all about the latest thing, but about books that have enduring appeal or that deserve a revival or that need their praises sung.

Singing praises is something Walton does well and very persuasively.  There’s a wonderful quality of immediacy to her blog posts about her favourite books, which contrasts nicely with what she has to say about their enduring qualities.  The majority of posts are about science fiction, there is a fair bit of fantasy, but she also includes some surprising books.  In one particularly brilliant piece about Middlemarch, she argues that George Eliot could have invented science fiction.  For the bibliophile, there are also several wonderful pieces about the joys of reading, ways to read and re-read, essays on genre and sub-genre, and on how to speak to an author.

I do not read science fiction, though since having kids, I have added a lot of fantasy to my reading diet.  I’ve tried Ursula le Guin many times, and each time lamented that she just did not speak to me.  I think the closest I’ve come to reading science fiction in the last 25 years was Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.   Walton is such a persuasive enthusiast, though, that I’ve added a dozen books to my wish list and TBR pile on the strength of her endorsements.  Her expertise is unimpeachable, and her enthusiasm so infectious.

When I had only a few pages left of this book, I put it down in order to re-read Among Others.  I did so to honour Walton’s own practice, and I am so glad I did.  Among Others is almost the novelistic equivalent of this book of recommended reading.  The protagonist joins a science fiction book club, and so many of Walton’s favourite titles come into the novel through this thread of finding community and a sense of home in books.  Reading one in light of the other gave both a wonderful new richness.  Then I read her newest book, My Real Children, and I think it was my first truly cover to cover, do not move, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, gobble of a book.  I began at midnight, and I did not move until 4 am when I finished the book and reached over to turn out the light.

How wonderful it has been to be immersed in so much bookish goodness.  Off now to find her first two books!

 

 

Aroma-Chemistry-The-Smell-of-Books-724x1024from Compound Interest

SansomMr. Dixon Disappears

Ian Sansom

New York: Harper Perennial, 2006

The second in The Mobile Library series of mysteries by Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears is full of misanthropic charm and bookish goodness.  The titular mobile librarian, Israel Armstrong, BA (Hons), is disenchanted:

He was sick of the excuses and lies.  He was tired of the evasions and the untruths, of people refusing to stand up and speak the truth and take responsibility for their own actions.  It seemed to him like yet another symptom of the decline of Western civilization; of chaos; and climate change; and environmental disaster; and war; disease; famine; oppression; the eternal slow slide down and down and down.  It was entropy, nemesis, apotheosis, imminent apocalypse and sheer bad manners all rolled into one.

People were not returning their library books on time.

And if that’s not bad enough, hapless Israel finds himself arrested for the disappearance of department store proprietor, Mr. Dixon, and 100,000 pounds from the store safe.  When he wakes in jail, he faces a dark night of the reader’s soul: there is nothing to read, and, worse, he begins to doubt the very value of reading:

Library users were exactly the same as everyone else, it seemed, and this came as a terrible shock to Israel.  He had always believed that reading was good for you, that the more books you read somehow the better you were, the closer to some ideal of human perfection you came, yet if anything his own experience at the library suggested the exact opposite: that reading didn’t make you a better person, that it just made you short-sighted, and even less likely than your fellow man or woman to be able to hold a conversation about anything that did not centre around you and your ailments and the state of the weather.

Things improve marginally for Israel once he’s sprung from jail and can investigate the mystery himself, but he still finds himself woefully short of reading material.  He reluctantly picks up a murder mystery from the shelf of the room into which he’s had to decamp:

He’d never read a lot of crime fiction before; it was the covers, mostly, that put him off.  He was very anti-embossing.

I’m anti-embossing, too!  Mr. Dixon Disappears has no embossing on its cover, and on its insides, it’s a fairly meandering sort of a mystery; it’s wry and clever about books and bookish enthusiasm gone wrong.  The mystery plot never really grabbed me, however, so it’s not a book to come to if you want a good mystery with which to wrestle.

I read the first in Sansom’s new series of County Guides Mysteries last week, The Norfolk Mystery, and it felt a bit flat.  There was a lot of setting up of the series to come, I think, so I’m glad that I started with the second in the Mobile Library series.  I will go back for more non-embossed helpings.

if-i-were-a-book_9781452121444_largeIf I Were a Book

Jose Jeorge Letria, illustrated by Andre Letria

San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014.

This was my Mother’s Day gift to myself on our trip to Type Books.   Though this was housed in the children’s section, and though it appears to be a picture book, it really does appeal to book lovers of all ages.  In fact, it probably appeals more to adults than to kids.  While the illustrations by Andre Letria are marvellously accessible, the simple words by his father Jose Jeorge Letria are almost too gnomic to be perfectly suited to children.

“If I were a book, I wouldn’t want people to only pretend to have read me.”

Then again, if only the adults can pick up the irony, anyone can understand the sentiment, “If I were a book, I’d crush violence with knowledge.”

As for me, if I were a book, I’d want someone to read me and love me and write a blog post about me.

 

 

lexiconLexicon by Max Barry

New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.

Late to the party, as I often am.  This book made a number of “Best Books of 2013″ lists, and Jenny named it winner in the Jolliest Good Fun category, an award that fits this book perfectly.

It was jolly good fun, and I could not put it down.  I suppose calling it a book about books is a bit of a stretch, but when an author names his characters after famous poets, and when those poets can use their words to control people, I think you have to say that this is a thriller that supplies thrills to bibliophiles.

Lexicon engages with multiple tropes from romance and westerns and thrillers, as well as with versions of the myth of Babel.  Barry brings that myth into the twenty-first century using linguistics, psychology, comparative mythology and computer science.  It’s a fascinating fantasy of how the brain and its operations might be compromised by a person in possession of the right words to override the brain’s normal operating system, the right words being a proto-language with enormous power.   A mysterious society of “poets,” led by the nefarious Yeats, recruits people who have a natural gift of persuasion, then trains them in the use of secret words that can control others’ behaviour.  Some of these recruits get out of hand.  Thrills ensue.

Of course, magic words can be a bit of a magic bullet in terms of plotting, and Barry explains away how a lot of the odd events never get investigated because the poets have managed to make reporters and the military and governments (!) believe what they want them to believe.  Whatever.  It’s just greasing the wheels of the story.

I think what I liked best about the book was Barry’s ability to take the myth of Babel and modernize it as a means to satirize our contemporary consumer and popular culture.  I found his use of linguistics and neurology so fun, and while I’m sure experts in these fields would find much to quarrel with in his application of them to this fantasy world, I did not want to quarrel.  Like so many characters in the book are forced to do, I was willing to suspend thought that would impede his goals with words.  I was willing to be enthralled.  Something about the quality of his scientific realism reminded me often of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King and The Magicians, and the descriptions of the school where the recruits are trained was a lot like Grossman’s college of magic.  The books share an ability to ground magic in something plausibly real, they make magic a difficult and often frustrating academic discipline.  I was also reminded of Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife.  Barry and Pullman both describe a locksmith’s sense of intuiting a precise sliding into place of all the pieces needed to make the magic work.

The magic worked on me.  Jolly good fun.

lateThe Late Scholar, Based on the Characters of Dorothy L. Sayers

Jill Paton Walsh

London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.

Let me begin by saying that Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night is one of my all-time favourite mysteries and that her Five Red Herrings was one of the worst books through which I’ve ever struggled.  Train timetable mysteries may have been all the rage when she wrote Five Red Herrings, but, like bell bottoms, these are a thing very much better left forgotten.  Alas, it is on the strength of this last book that I have not gone back to read all of her Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mysteries.  In a way, the fact that they are there waiting for me is a comfort, but I’m also not in a rush to repeat the disappointment of the herrings.

Still and all, when I read Alex’s review of the book and heard about Jill Paton Walsh’s project to revive the late Dorothy Sayers’s detecting duo, it was inducement enough to break one of my usual habits of beginning at the beginning and working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre.  Not only have I missed some of the originals, but Walsh now has four Wimsey books under her belt, and I’m only just catching on.

No matter, this is a book that can largely stand alone, and, like Gaudy Night, it’s a campus novel.  The mystery plot revolves around an ancient manuscript and the murderer seems to be using Harriet Vane’s own plots to knock off scholars at St. Severin’s College in Oxford.  Campus novel, academic politics, libraries, poison pen book reviews, books and intertextuality–The Late Scholar ticks lots of boxes in my list of things to love.

And this book is palpably a labour of love for Walsh:

In bringing Peter and Harriet back to Oxford it resumes the setting, although not the epoch, of Gaudy Night. And it brings them very nearly into my own epoch; it is set in 1952 and I went up to Oxford in 1955. I am writing them for the first time into a world that I actually knew, my Oxford, as beloved to me as Sayers’ Oxford was to her.  I have had the most tremendous fun doing that. (More here.)

And I had tremendous fun reading it.

 

 

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