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Archive for the ‘Literary Criticism’ Category

My memories of reading prior to Grade Three are very hazy.  In Grade One, there was a very serious non-fiction treatise on the daily lives of bunnies that introduced me to the wonderful world of independent reading but my recollection trails off after that.  Until Grade Three when I picked up Anne of Green Gables for the first time.  In retrospect, it was a major life event for me.  I had loved reading before that but more for the sense of accomplishment I felt, for the pleasure of being good and quick at something, not out of any particular fascination with my reading material.  After all, when you are seven or eight what is going on in your imagination is often far more interesting that what any adult could think to put down on paper.  But then I had my first encounter with Anne and I fell completely, utterly, and eternally in love with her.  I delighted in her escapades and saved my allowance money for weeks to buy all the other books in the series, reading them over and over again until they fell to pieces.  Anne led, of course, to Emily, and once I’d exhausted all of her works, L.M. Montgomery led to Laura Ingalls Wilder, to Louisa May Alcott, to Roger Lancelyn Green…to everyone I have read since that day, really.  I became not just someone who could read, I became a Reader.   

I read and reread everything I can by and about Montgomery but, until now, I had never touched a volume attempting to analysis the works and their cultural significance but I am so glad I did and that I started with the delightfully wide-ranging Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture edited by Irene Gammel, described in the introduction as” …the first critical book examining the national international popular industry that has emerged in Montgomery’s name.” 

The book is divided into three sections: Mapping Avonlea: Cultural Value and Iconography; Viewing Avonlea: Television, Drama, and Musical; and Touring Avonlea: Landscape, Tourism, and Spin-Off Products.  The tourist mecca that is Cavendish, PEI and the Japanese obsession with the red-haired Anne have very little to do with how I experience the books and, honestly, Anne’s role in Canadian tourism is far too well-documented, even in school books, to be of much interest to me and, for that reason, Touring Avonlea was probably my least favourite section.  It was still interesting, absolutely, particularly the “Day in the Life” provided by a young woman who is ‘Anne’ at a Japanese theme park, but I was far more intrigued by the other sections.

Mapping Avonlea is wonderful.  This is where the literary criticism of the Anne and Emily books (the only works touched on) happens and where Montgomery’s own life and her records of it (her journals, her photography) are discussed. Montgomery’s journals are wonderful and, as is only right given Montgomery’s significance in my reading life, reading them was my first real encounter with primary sources and I can’t think of a more engaging way to be introduced to the research process than uncovering information about a person you’re already so passionate about.  I have lost count of the number of times I have reread the journals since then.  I love Montgomery and appreciated her books even more after gaining insight into her life and her struggles, so Margaret Steffler’s essay on the value of the journals in giving adult readers an even greater connection to Montgomery and her works was particularly resonant:

As our reading of Anne and Emily helped us to construct our girlhood identity, so our reading of L.M. Montgomery in the journals has played a role in confirming our places as women; and few of us have been disappointed in the role she had played.  The reading of the novels and the journals, when viewed as a continuous process, connects girlhood and womanhood in a remarkable manner, accounting to a certain extent for the popularity and attraction of the journals and of the persona of L.M. Montgomery as a woman as well as a writer.  It is a connection that we welcome and crave, as our reading of Maud, developing out of our earlier reading of her characters, continues to be an active process that often recognizes and validates our needs, choices, and decisions as Canadian women at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (‘This has been a day in hell’: Montgomery, Popular Literature, Life Writing by Margaret Steffler, p. 72 – 73)

And I’ll certainly never be able to read the already unsettling Emily books again without thinking of Irene Gammel’s “Safe Pleasures for Girls: L.M. Montgomery’s Erotic Landscapes”.  It definitely made me think more about the books than I had done in years, though I was both delighted and vaguely alarmed by how many of the small details I still remembered.  I loved the Emily books but they scared me as a child and even as an adult I’ve never been comfortable with their gothic overtones and intensity, which is why I rarely reread them.  Emily, with all her darkness and brilliance, her passion and otherworldly ‘spells’, was too extreme for me, at any age.  Her devotion to her writing was too complete, too exhausting.  Dean Priest was the only alluring thing about the novels for me, until he is disappeared in favour of the insubstantial Teddy.  Dean was unsettling in a good way, an exciting and terrifyingly sexual figure in what unsuspecting adults might consider tepid children’s books.  But his desire and passion for Emily pale in comparison to her obsession with her writing. 

Viewing Avonlea is simply fun.  It is hard for me to take the miniseries and television shows based on Montgomery’s works all that seriously (and, honestly, if you’ve seen even an episode of “Emily of New Moon” you should be able to understand this) but I loved both “It’s all mine: The Modern Woman as Writer in Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables films” by Eleanor Hersey and “Who’s Got the Power?  Montgomery, Sullivan, and the Unsuspecting Viewer” by K.L. Poe, which discuss Kevin Sullivan’s alterations to Montgomery’s plots in his television adaptations and the late twentieth-century feminist agenda imposed on the character of Anne, vastly exaggerating her interest and seriousness about writing.  There is also a wonderful discussion of Sullivan’s decision to use “The Lady of Shallot” in the first adaptation rather than “Lancelot and Elaine”, which is the Tennyson poem Montgomery’s references, and the implications of that change.  I am a firm believer in loyal adaptations and have never forgiven Sullivan for his many liberties so I was in full sympathy with K.L. Poe’s argument against the modernization of my most beloved literary heroine:

…what is the value of books written in the past if we perpetually modernize them?  First, if we insist on wiping away any contextual traces under the misconception that modern audiences won’t ‘get’ what is going on, we risk pushing the past farther and farther out of sight.  Second, if we continually privilege the present over the past, there is little way we can educate ‘unsuspecting’ younger generations, and girls in particular, about how far people (especially women) have come in the intervening years.  The homogenizing effect creates a world in which no one is able to understand that other live(d) and believe(d) differently than they do; it emphasizes not the internal elements that can bridge the gaps of ages but rather the superficial aspects that are ultimately meaningless without the contextual situation.  The extreme devotion of the Japanese to Montgomery’s Anne should be evidence enough that a work must not reproduce its readers’ world exactly to be loved and respected.  (“Who’s Got the Power?  Montgomery, Sullivan and the Unsuspecting Viewer” by K.L. Poe, p. 152)

The essays are written primarily by scholars yet most are highly readable and entertaining (yes, this betrays my expectation that academics are only capable of dull writing but I am always happy to be proven wrong).  Carole Gerson’s “Anne of Green Gables Goes to University: L.M. Montgomery and Academic Culture” may be the exception, though Gerson’s tracking of Montgomery’s popularity as a research subject over the twentieth century and her explosion in popularity as a ‘serious’ subject after the airing of the miniseries in the 1980s in quite intriguing.  Still, its tone is rather dry compared to the other essays.  As always, the most personal contributions were the most interesting ones.  Brenda R. Weber’s “Confessions of a Kindred Spirit with an Academic Bent” is a delight from start to finish, recalling how she bonded over the books with her grandmother during summer vacations and how, as an adult, she was able to reflect on how much of her personality was influenced by Anne Shirley.  She also captures what it is, at least for me, that made the Anne books so special, so different from the countless other children’s novels about young girls:

Yet the figure of Anne is unlike other orphans in literature…predominantly because the reader is encouraged to laugh at Anne even while admiring her.  This is an interesting writerly device on Montgomery’s part, for it pulls the reader not through common devices of sentimental fiction (for instance, tears, pious lessons, and innate goodness, though certainly the Anne books have those too), but through a shared field of humour.  The result is a re-imagination of what a childhood heroine might look like…She can be a girl both ardent and ridiculous, trying and talented.  (“Confessions of a Kindred Spirit with an Academic Bent” by Brenda R. Weber, p. 49)

I had a delightful time reading this.  Growing up, I tried endlessly, pathetically, to get my friends to read the Anne books with me.  I just wanted to share the reading experience with someone, to have someone at least understand what a kindred spirit was.  Anne of Green Gables is the most famous children’s book Canada has ever produced and yet I was surrounded by people who had never read it!  I suspect my paternal grandmother read the books as a child and, given our similar tastes in reading, probably loved them, but we lived too far apart to be familiar enough with one another for such conversations.  Instead, I grew up surrounded by my mother’s family, a trio of women who had never read, had never even heard of the English-language classics I was raised on.  My maternal grandmother was a great reader but there was no common literary heritage between us – indeed, at one point she insisted that I abandon what she was certain were trashy light romances (the cover art on those editions did not help my argument that they were in fact classic Canadian novels) and move on to ‘real’ literature.  Given that, I suppose it is not surprising that to finally read an entire book devoted to Montgomery, full of the kind of discussions and analysis I love best, made me irrationally happy.  I loved reading this, both because it engaged me on an intellectual level and because, finally, I felt I had found other readers who connected withMontgomery on the same emotional level that I did.

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There are books that we skim over happily, forgetting one page as we turn to the next; others that we read reverently, without daring to agree or disagree; others that offer more information and preclude our commentary; others still that, because we have loved them so long and so dearly, we can repeat, word by word, since we know them, in the truest sense, by heart. (p. ix)

A Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books by Alberto Manguel documents a twelve month period where, each month, Manguel commits to rereading one of his favourite books and recording his thoughts on it.  Of the twelve titles that Manguel reacquaints himself with there were those I was familiar with (Kim, The Sign of Four, The Wind in the Willows), those I knew by reputation (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Don Quixote, Surfacing) and those I had never heard of before in my life (The Invention of Morel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas).  Not being familiar with a title in no way impaired my enjoyment of reading about it though.  Even if the experience did not make me eager to read the book itself, it was still fascinating to hear of it and to read of the thoughts and emotions in elicited from Manguel.  Indeed, it is the very randomness of his thoughts, the graceful and yet careless way he careens from one topic to another, than makes Manguel so very readable.  The joy of reading something by some so educated, so cultured and yet so accessible really cannot be overstated.

Like the best reading diaries, this small volume is eclectic and occasionally disjointed, bouncing from one fascinating tidbit (which is by no means guaranteed to have anything whatsoever to do with the book being discussed) to another.  Manguel quotes widely and freely from poets I have never heard of, performs his own translations from German, Spanish, and French, and shares with us conversations held with learned friends – discussions, for example, with Rohinton Mistry on Kim (…he finds Kipling’s dialogue, and the descriptions of the vast troupe of Indian characters, absolutely true to life. P. 48) and Margaret Atwood on Robert Frost (Once Atwood said to me that Robert Frost’s line ‘The land was ours before we were the land’s’ has no meaning in Canada. P. 217).  How not to be fascinated by a man with such a circle?  Particularly fascinating for me, as many of the authors he seems on good terms with are, like Manguel, Canadian writers, whatever their origins might have been.

What A Reading Diary does better than most books of its kind is to capture the true reading experience – as with my own reading diaries, very little has to do with the actual book Manguel is reading, consisting mostly of the endless quotes he is reminded of, themes that lead him to other books and authors.  Tangents, spreading outwards in all direction, entwining vine-like around new ideas that must be explored, must be discussed.  To have such a memory, to be able to make these links unaided – it is a very special gift and one I am in awe of. 

And when Manguel does direct his thoughts to the books themselves, they are fond ones.  After all, this is an adventure in rereading – a journey where the goal is pleasure and enjoyment.  There is no need for harsh analysis here, as Manguel’s thoughts on Kim reveal:

Kim is one of the few books that constantly delights me: it grows friendlier with each reading.  I want to apply to it a word used in Quebec to denote a particular state of happiness: heureuseté.  I love the tone of the telling, the vividness of every minor character, the moving friendship between the lama in search of a river and the boy in search of himself.  I never want their pilgrimage to end.  (p. 46)

I think my greatest take-away from this reading experience is that I adore the way Manguel writes.  It is beautiful.  At times funny, at times thought-provoking, his prose is always gorgeous and makes me eager to read more of his works (A Reader on Reading has been on my TBR list for some time now but will clearly be bumped up in priority now).  I found myself reading passages aloud to an empty room just to glory in how they flowed so perfectly together.  It’s a simple style, clear and elegant, and I could not be more pleased by it.

As I read, I scribbled down countless passages in my own reading diary, ranging from the humourous to the profound or nostalgic:

I will sleep one night in the library to make the space totally mine.  C. says that this is equivalent to a dog peeing in the corners. P. 25

 Spent yesterday rearranging the detective fiction.  We’ve put it up in the guest bedroom, now to be known as the Murder Room. P.98

 We read what we want to read, not what the author wrote. P. 52

I recall the physical pleasure of coming to the end of my book and then daydreaming about the characters (if I liked them) for many days after, imaging their ongoing lives and other endings.  Now it seems impossible to find such periods of long calm. P. 157

 

And, finally, the quote that sums up my own experience as a reader:

It seems to me that as I read I am taking notes, without knowing it, for what I will one day experience, or what I once experienced but failed to understand. P. 247

 Is that not the perfect sentiment?

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I have been reading romance novels of late.  More specifically, the excellent, highly entertaining, amusing novels of Susan Elizabeth Phillips.  And not just one or two – eight in the last sixteen days.  No wonder I haven’t been posting reviews of other books: there haven’t been many.

In order, I’ve read:

What I Did For Love (2009) – so many Hollywood plotlines thrown together in one wonderful muddle.  The hero and heroine (Bram and Georgie) have known and hated each other since they were teenagers, costarring on a long-running sitcom.  Bram’s bad boy behaviour led to the show’s cancellation and they went their separate ways, Georgie eventually marrying one of Hollywood’s leading men.  Cue the Jen-Brad-Angelina storyline that destroys her marriage.  The book begins as year after that, when Bram and Georgie unexpectedly reenter one another’s lives.  One thing leads to another and Bram and Georgie wake up married in Las Vegas.  As you do.  Georgie, who can’t face the idea of more public pity, convinces Bram to keep up the sham of a marriage, though they still hate each other.  We all really know though that ‘hate’ means ‘clearly will fall in love and make everything way too complicated for themselves.’  Huge cast of supporting characters (many of whom are key characters in other Phillips novels), which only makes it more enjoyable.        

Ain’t She Sweet? (2005) – painful.  I should know by now that books set in the American South irritate rather than intrigue me.  Why do I never remember this or, when I do, why am I so freakishly optimistic?  The heroine is named Sugar Beth – enough said.  And the hero, Colin, is incredibly unappealing.  Cruel, overly dramatic, vain and, at least at one point, long-haired…none of it is remotely alluring.  To be entirely honest, I picked this up because it was mentioned in Crystal Renn’s memoir Hungry as one of her favourite books.  Stupid Claire, taking recommendations from models. 

Glitter Baby (revised 2009) – Hollywood, Paris, New York.  Errol Flynn.  Supermodels and movie stars.  Over-the-top glamour.  Can you tell this was originally written in the 1980s?  The novel focuses perhaps too much on Belinda and her twisted relationships at the expense of her daughter Fleur, the heroine of the novel.  One of the major plotlines, dealing with Belinda’s French husband, is intensely dark and uncomfortable, almost gothic.  This is definitely the bleakest of Phillips’ novels that I’ve read, but still enjoyable due mostly to the incredibly strong main characters, Fleur and Jake.    

Natural Born Charmer (2007) – On his way to Tennessee, NFL quarterback Dean Robillard picks up a woman dressed as a beaver on the side of the road.  Together, Dean and Blue (sans beaver costume) clash and sizzle their way through a number of unexpected family reunions.  Weak start but definitely picks up as you go along.  The focus here is much more on family than on the romantic relationship between Dean and Blue (their storyline made less and less sense as the focus shifted).  The misunderstandings between them were a little too contrived – but communication issues in relationships always bother me because I’m so ridiculously blunt myself. 

Match Me If You Can (2005) – Annabelle Granger inherits her grandmother’s match making company (and, with it, her geriatric clients) but is determined to turn it into a success, starting with sports agent Heath Champion who knows exactly what he wants.  Heath is wonderfully selfish and unapologetically masculine – none of that touchy-feely, all-he-wants-is-a-little-woman-and-a-few-kids business.  Annabelle could be a little flighty and insecure but only a little – she’s not one of those Chick Lit too-dumb-to-live heroines.  Anyone who can take charge of a house full of drunk football players is worth some respect.  The supporting cast here was mostly composed of the heroes and heroines of Phillips’ other Chicago Stars novels – always fun to see characters either a few years after or before their novels take place.   

 

This Heart of Mine (2001) – Molly Somerville has had a crush on Kevin Tucker, the Chicago Stars’ handsome quarterback, for years though he can’t even remember her name.  After a few disastrous missteps, they find themselves married and trying to make sense of their feelings for other another while sorting out the camp site that Kevin has inherited (look!  Convenient, remote location in which hero and heroine are forced to get to know one another away from the pressures of normal life!).  The entire premise of this one is a little too much, so right from the start it’s difficult to form much of an attachment to Molly.  Naturally self-destructive, she doesn’t exactly grow on you as the novel progresses and Kevin is less well sketched-out than most of Phillips’ other heroes.  However, as escapist fantasy fiction it’s still good fun.

 

It Had to Be You (1994) – the very first of Phillips’ Chicago Stars novels.  In the wake of her estranged father’s death, Phoebe Somerville finds herself the owner of the struggling Chicago Stars football team (not to mention guardian to her younger sister Molly).  The blonde bombshell with a troubled past soon finds herself clashing with Dan Calebow, the Star’s attractive head coach.  It may not be Phillips’ most polished work, but there are still glimmers of promise.  Phoebe is a little too transparent, too simplified but she’s easy to sympathize with (even if she does look like Marilyn Monroe).  Dan is a textbook Phillips’ hero: strong, athletic, combative, intelligent, emotionally-scarred by parental neglect/abuse, and ready to settle down.    

 

Fancy Pants (1989) – Francesa Day and Dallie Beaudine – a penniless English socialite and a blue-collar Texan golfer with nothing in common.  Never thought I’d say this but I much prefer reading about football to golf (though I loathe watching both).  A rebel, playboy golfer is still a tough sell (despite “Tin Cup”), especially to a reader who thinks it’s the dullest sport on earth.  And the secret baby cliché is never a favourite and, provided he isn’t an addict or abusive, I invariably take the father’s side.  Francie only came of age because she struck out on her own, baby in tow, but she cheated Dallie out of 9 years of fatherhood.  Rather selfish (though Dallie –worst name every, by the way – made a rather big mistake by not telling her he was married). 

I think that, after reading eight of them with varying degrees of enjoyment, I’ve finally figured out what I like so much about Phillips’ novels.  It’s not her heroines, not even her heroes, and it’s certainly not her plots (her books have excellent dialogue but typically outrageous scenarios).  It’s the families she creates, the web of people she ties together so that no one is ever alone, not even minor, supporting characters.  And who doesn’t want that, all that unconditional love and security?

Tying in with all these romance novels, I borrowed Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan.  As much as I love to read, I love to read about reading and, in this case, the various preconceptions and stereotypes active within a genre that I’m not overly familiar with.  And what a great introduction: crass and hilarious, fond and irreverent, it’s everything you needs to know about romance novel clichés, the people who read them and the people who bash them.

Reading Phillips’ novels after reading this was a revelation: the changes in genre conventions over the past twenty years are really echoed in her works, as the novels shift to focus more on the emotional development of characters in their own rights, rather than miraculously finding themselves because of some relationship they mind find themselves in.  Heroes have become more complex and far less likely to get away with the rapes so common to the romance novels of the 70s and 80s (and even early 90s).  The virginal (or semi-virginal) heroine, while still around, is far less dominant that she used to be as social conventions have changed and more and more contemporary romances have heroines in their late twenties and early thirties who have sexual pasts (sometimes more active ones than the heroes). 

One section of the book that brought me up short was this quote: “One African American romance reader said to us directly, ‘Black people like to read about other black people.  And I look for romance about black women in the black section of the bookstore” (p. 192).  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  Dear Americans, WTF?

There are some things only a reader of romance can understand and appreciate.  The bemulleted cover models.  The alpha hero whom you love to read about but who’d be fodder for COPS episodes in real life.  The heroines who are either so feisty they make your teeth hurt, or the embodiment of every virtue known to man, dog, and Chthonic deities. (p.2)

This lack of anything resembling common sense, coupled with the need to show us that the heroine has more than a limp noodle for backbone, often leads to annoyingly feisty heroines, who in turn are the precursors to the dreaded Too Stupid to Live heroines. (p.23)

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“The significance of Jane Austen is so personal and so universal, so intimately connected with our sense of ourselves and of our whole society, that it is impossible to imagine a time when she or her works could have delighted us long enough.” (p. 229)

 I love reading about Jane Austen.  Yes, I love her books, but, sometimes more than reading them (particularly in the case of everyone’s least favourite Austen, Mansfield Park), I like reading books about the author and her influence.  From the moment I first heard of Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, I knew I had to read it.  In essence, it is a survey of Austen’s popularity, from the very first editions during her lifetime through to the recent wave of Austen-mania, sparked in the 1990s by the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries (full credit going to Colin Firth and his wet shirt).  It’s an entertaining book, written in a very informal style with a clear understanding of its target market, namely Janeites, those devotees of Austen (or “dear Jane”) who are compelled to consume everything by her, about her or even remotely related to her. 

The book follows a chronological format, which works very well here, starting with biographical details on Austen life and the creation of her works.  Harman makes excellent use of Austen’s remaining letters and other primary source to paint a portrait of the author that stands in stark contrast to the pious, selfless spinster her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh would present her as in A Memoir of Jane Austen.  The story of Austen’s short and uneventful life is well-known though and it isn’t until after her death that Harman delves into fresh and more interesting material.  The idea of Austen being out of print seems outrageous now but such was the case.  Even when the copyrights expired on the novels (between 1839 and 1860), there was “no rush by publishers to pick up the free texts” (p. 94).  Despite famous admirers like Tennyson, Austen remained mostly unknown while Victorian readers indulged in the more salacious works Dickens and his contemporaries.

When Austen Leigh’s saccharine biography of his aunt was published, demand for her works suddenly soared.  And not just for the six novels in print – readers demanded to know more of the unfinished and unpublished works mentioned in the biography (Lady Susan, Sandition, etc).  The first wave of Austen-mania had been launched and the lucrative literary tourist trade began as disciples of the “divine Jane” toured the country to view the places she had lived as well as Winchester Cathedral, her final resting place.      

I enjoyed Harman’s liberal use of contemporary reviews and reactions to illustrate the changing attitudes of the time.  As always, the negative reactions are the most intriguing: Emerson considered her “without genius, wit or knowledge of the world” (p. 131) and Twain complained that “every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone” (p. 131).  Just think how many schoolboys have had the chance to feel that way in years since…

After the Victorian boom, Austen remained popular and in print, her volumes to be found even in the sparsest of home libraries.  For most of the twentieth century, she was a comforting read, something to be enjoyed by respectable, middle-aged people looking for unchallenging narratives with happy endings and a bit of humour.  But then the BBC introduced the average housewife to Colin Firth and…certainly we know the rest?

“AustenTM” is the final chapter of Jane’s Fame and both its most fascinating and most disturbing.  Do I really want to live in a world where a pseudo-scholarly book makes reference to YouTube fan videos (set to “It’s Raining Men” no less – see embedded)?  Or to blogs and fan fiction web sites?  I admit that Harman gave me a bit of a turn when she referred to Emma Tennant’s works as “the most intelligent” of all the published sequels (p. 217).  No.  Just…no.  There is also a jarring typo, mentioning a ‘Mrs Hirst’ (p. 218), that, coming only one page after the Tennant upset and so near to the end, soured my reading experience.

Overall, I found this to be a very interesting examination of popular reactions to both Austen herself and her novels.  Certainly not my favourite Austen-related book, but a worthy contribution to the ever-growing library of non-fiction volumes devoted to her, if only for its unique focus on her publishing history.

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Every second week since April 16, 2007, writer Yann Martel (author of the Booker prize winning The Life of Pi) has sent Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper a book, accompanied by a letter explaining the choice.  The selection has been varied: plays, novels, essays, and non-fiction, by writers from many countries and many eras.  The project has been catalogued online, which is how I first discovered it, at What Is Stephen Harper Reading? and was published last fall in the book What Is Stephen Harper Reading?  This project is a response to what Martel (and many Canadians) views as Harper’s antipathy towards the arts.  Martel believes that:

If Stephen Harper were shaped and informed by literary culture, if he read novels, short stories, plays and poetry, he would love them, he would defend them, he would celebrate them.  He would not try to scuttle the public means of sustaining our nation’s artistic culture, retreating from doing so only when it’s politically expedient.  If Stephen Harper is informed by literary culture or, indeed, by culture in general, it doesn’t show in what he says or what he does. (p.9)

To some, this may seem a presumptuous project: what right does Martel have to lecture Harper on reading material?  Surely, if the Prime Minister is able to find a few free minutes for himself, he should be allowed to spend it as he chooses, even if he does seem to prefer watching sports to reading (he once named the Guinness Book of World Records as his favourite reading material…enough said).  But Martel argues that “once someone has power over me, I have the right to probe the nature and quality of their imagination, because their dreams may become my nightmares.” (p. 10)

The letters accompanying each book are beautifully written.  I found The Life of Pi a difficult read, one that never caught my interest and which I was unable to finish.  But this is lovely.  His arguments for each choice are elegant and passionate but it’s really his enthusiasm for reading that draws me in.  I marked down several passages throughout the book that I found particularly clear and compelling.  Should the Prime Minister ever read the letters (and, as yet, there is no indication that he ever has), they themselves, free of the books they champion, should speak for the importance of literacy and culture in our society, examples of beautiful prose and the highest ideals.

All of the letters (including the ones written since the book was published) can be accessed online.  Below, I’ve listed and linked to some of the ones that stood out for me, either as books I love or books that have now been added to my TBR list as a result of Martel’s passionate promotion (and a few that just amused me):

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart 

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan 

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke 

The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway 

Artists and Models by Anaïs Nin

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi 

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (sent in frustration at further cuts to funds for the arts) 

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror by Michael Ignatieff (a rather cheeky recommendation, as Ignatieff is the leader of the official opposition party)

Jane Austen: A Life by Carol Shields 

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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Having only done four years of post-secondary education (and in Commerce, no less!), I am no where near academically-minded enough to attempt to review a book of reviews so I shall be brief in my thoughts on A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Clarke.  Essentially, it does what it says on the tin: 33 writers, some more famous than others (Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham), share their opinions on Jane Austen, her works, and her legacy. 

I was glad to see old favourites included here: there’s Fay Weldon with an excerpt from her wonderful Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, Amy Heckerling discussing how she adapted Emma into her film Clueless, and W. Somerset Maugham on Pride and Prejudice.  There are articles that one finds difficult to take seriously (Diane Johnson compares Marianne Dashwood with the heroine of Johnson’s own novel, Lulu in Marrakech – seemingly without irony) and then those that one delights to discover (David Lodge’s “Reading and Rereading Emma” – a favourite author on my favourite Austen book, also fulfilling my desperate need to hear reviews of Jane Austen from the male perspective).  The essays (or excerpts from them) are short, which makes for delightful mid-week reading, when you don’t necessarily have the time or patience for lengthy, intensive criticism.

Everyone, no matter which Austen novel they champion as their favourite, will find quotes enough to satisfy them that their choice remains the best.  Each novel is given the due respect and fawning adoration that it deserves, from multiple perspectives.  Already, I am fighting the urge to reread those novels I am least familiar with (Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park) with new eyes and a new appreciation for them. 

There are far too many fascinating Jane Austen-related lines of discussion I could bring up after reading this book.  However, there are several blogs out there already devoted to covering these questions, so I shall leave you with some favourite quotes from the various essays contained within this thought-provoking and terribly satisfying volume:

“Think of today’s fiction in the light of hers.  Does some of it appear garrulous and insistent and out-of-joint, and nearly all of it slow?  Does now an then a novel come along that’s so long, arch, and laborious, so ponderous in literary conceits and so terrifying in symbols, that it might have been written (in his bachelor days) by Mr. Elton as a conundrum, or, in some prolonged spell of elevation, by Mr. Collins in a bid for self-advancement?” p.14-15, “The Radiance of Jane Austen” by Eudora Welty

“I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen…I read and reread, the mouth open and the mind closed.  Shut up in measureless content, I greet her by the name of most kind hostess while criticism slumbers.  The Jane Austenite possesses little of the brightness he ascribes so freely to his idol,  Like all regular churchgoers, he scarcely notices what is being said.” – p. 22, “Jane Austen: The Six Novels” by E.M. Forster

“Dating guidebooks have been compiled from advice culled from her novels, suggesting that much of Austen’s current appeal lies in her treatment of the romance plot.  If we read Austen, will we improve our chances of finding the right mate?  Perhaps, but such instruction is incidental: Austen does not set out to describe ideal relationships.  Her interest is in flawed characters who achieve a greater level of self-understanding throughout the course of each novel and who are rewarded at the end with relationship which, although never entirely perfect, are perfect for them.  Elizabeth will always been a bit too cynical, Emma a bit too full of herself, and Anne a bit too reserved for some.” – p. 41, “Reading Northanger Abbey” by Susannah Carson

“She had too much common sense and too sprightly a humour to be romantic, and she was not interested in the uncommon, put in the common.  She made it uncommon by the keenness of her observation, her irony and her playful wit.” – p.79, “Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice” by W. Somerset Maugham

“The whole novel in a way is about people who don’t notice other people’s feelings, and the extraordinary rarity of people who do notice other people’s feelings, or who can act on this noticing.” – p. 130, A.S. Byatt on Mansfield Park

 “…we believe we are peculiarly close to her [Jane Austen] as a person and would somehow be appreciated by her were we to know her.  Her characters can seem to walk free of the books to live in quite other spheres and contexts.  The narrator of the novels often gently mocks us for accepting the heroines as ‘real’, but we go on doing it nonetheless.” – p. 158, “Why I Like Jane Austen” by Janet Todd

“She has made leading ladies of the sensible sisters.  She created a world where dashing, if arrogant, men seem to fall madly in love with the women who have more brains than fancy ribbons.” – p. 175, “The Girls Who Don’t Say, Whoo!” by Amy Heckerling

“We love Jane Austen through her heroines.  Knowing so little about her, we worship her surrogates.  And generally speaking, unless we are cranky scholars or celibate critics, we love and rank the novels according to our regard for the female principles.” – p. 269, “Beautiful Minds” by Jay McInerney

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