Tag: Austen

My Top 11 Favorite Classic Novels

When people see how much I love movies they sometimes assume that I don’t also like to read. This is probably because in my experience many men choose movies over reading but I think both are essential to be a full complete person. I love movies but there is something about the experience of living in stories that only books can give you. Movies give you a 2 hour story but a book can delight you for weeks depending on its size.

Recently I enjoyed watching the kickoff program for The Great American Read. This is a 2 hour show on PBS that has compiled a list of the 100 best books of all time. Some are questionable such as 50 Shades of Grey and an embarrassing number I haven’t read but watching the show inspired me to do more reading and to tell you my lovely readers about the books that I love.

To start off I thought it would be fun to share My Top 11 Favorite Classic Novels. Classic is obviously a relative term but for the sake of my list I started at 1960 as the end point (the year To Kill a Mockingbird was written). Some of these books are helped by nostalgia but they are all excellent on their own. It is also interesting that 8 of the novels are written by women. So here goes:

middle march

11. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872)-

There was always a high chance I would love Middlemarch because it is my Mother’s favorite novel. Still I put off reading it for many years because its length intimidated me. However, if you can brave it Middlemarch treats you to a beautiful story about a woman named Dorothea who is trying desperately to do the right thing over what is convenient and easy. She marries out of a desire for intellectual enlightenment and then is sorely disappointed when it proves cold and distant. Then she meets Will Ladislaw and the 2 become friends. Everything is kept honorable but the connection Eliot has with her characters is beautiful and gives you hope for the goodness that lies within all of us.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

my antonia

10. My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918)-

Like Eliot, Willa Cather is a novelist who always seems to find the humanity in her characters. It’s like she is writing about her dear friends not just people in a book. In My Antonia she captures the beauty and burdens of life on the American Prairie for orphan Jim and immigrant girl Antonia. We see them as children and then read as they grow up and life doesn’t turn out the way they think it will.

“Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

adventures of sherlock

9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)-

Where Middlemarch is beloved by my Mother, Sherlock Holmes is beloved by my Father. I’m not sure why he loves him so much but he always has. What appeals to me about the character is how Sherlock uses his brain as his super power. He’s unpredictable and intense but in the end always comes up with what is just and true- and usually staring the victims/police in the face the whole time! This first book has 12 of his stories including A Scandal in Bohemia, The Red-Headed League, and the Man with the Twisted Lip. So fun!

“As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.”

howard's end

8. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (1910)

I love novels that have a sense of humanity for all its characters and that is what I get with Howard’s End. What I love the most about Forster’s writing is he doesn’t have villains. In a lesser hand the rich capitalist Wilcox’s would be the greedy villains but that isn’t the case. They are operating within their upbringing and doing what they think is right. When Mr Wilcox gives advice to the struggling clerk Leonard Bast he isn’t trying to be underhanded but is genuinely passing on knowledge without thinking of its ramifications. The Schlegal sisters are of an intellectual class that have the money to think about such things without having the burden of leadership. Every character has clear motivations and a story that feels real and moving and Howard’s End feels like a sanctuary we all yearn for and seek out.

“Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.”

little women

7. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)-

Little Women was the first big novel I recall reading and being proud I had finished it. I loved the story of each of the 4 girls. I loved the romance both scorned and returned. I cried my eyes out at poor Beth. As an adult, I can see the pulpy nature of especially the follow up book but I still love it. Just like most, I relate to Jo who wants to make a difference in the world and be independent and free. But I also relate to the selfish Amy, insecure Meg and shy Beth. I have all of those sides in me. And it always made sense to me that Jo refused Laurie. They were not only very different but she needed to go out and see the world and not get married in some stuffy house. With Professor Bhaer she got someone who was experienced and she had lived a little bit more. She needed a thoughtful yet adventurous spirit and that’s what she got in the Professor!

“I want to do something splendid…something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all someday.”

jane eyre.jpg

6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)-

I have always loved a great romance and what makes Jane Eyre so great is it is about 2 troubled souls who find each other and just when all seems to be lost it all works out. As readers we start with Jane as a young girl being treated terribly by the Reed family and then being sent to Lowood School where she is beaten but finally finds a friend in Helen and Miss Temple (so sad with Helen). Then she is grown up and it is time to go to Thornfield Hall and meet Mr Rochester. These 2 have such chemistry because they both have been battered and bruised by the world. I love the dialogue between them and how it builds slowly over time. And then when his secret is revealed Jane’s morals must send her away and it is devastating. Then we get the contrast between those morals and the missionary whom she has no chemistry with at all. It’s a fantastic love story.

“I have for the first time found what I can truly love–I have found you… I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wrap my existence about you–and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.”

anne of green gables

5. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery (1908)-

Much like Jo March, Anne Shirley was a literary hero for me as a child. I was not a child that loved fantasy stories with mysticism and lore but I did like to daydream and Anne is the ultimate daydreamer. You could say that daydreaming rescued Anne. I love the way she see’s everything through her own world and is confident enough to voice that world out loud. She doesn’t care what the locals call the pond. To her it is the Lake of Shining Waters. There is something so appealing about this kind of hope and dream. The rest of the characters are so lovely and it has such heart. It made me constantly search for kindred spirits and hope for a love I might want to occasionally break a slate over his head!

“Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it… Yet.”

christmas carol

4. A Christmas Carol (1843)-

We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge (you can read my Scrooge Month reviews here) but I fear our familiarity with the text causes us to forget how great a story it truly is. I love stories of redemption and Scrooge coming to know Christ through Christmas is one of the greats. Like so many Scrooge has become bitter because of the disappointments and tragedies of life. He has decided to separate himself from Christ and his fellow mankind because he doesn’t want to get hurt. This is the lesson he learns from his ghostly visitors and from the frail but faithful Tiny Tim.

“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused”

to kill a mockingbird

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)-

If someone asked me for a novel that might help them become a better person I would give them To Kill a Mockingbird. Told from the innocent perspective of a young girl observing her father, we learn in the novel what it means to have integrity and to fight for lost causes. Atticus knows representing Tom is a futile endeavor but he does it anyway. He see’s the value in the mockingbird which is ordinary and worthless to others. To Kill a Mockingbird gives us hope that good people like Atticus will always do what is right and will love no matter what. Boo Radley in contrast is the quiet one who saves Scout when nobody else can. It’s just beautiful and perfect.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

pride and prejudice

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)-

I could easily put Sense and Sensibility or Persuasion on this list but when it comes down to it Pride and Prejudice is my favorite from Jane Austen. As a teen I got caught up in the romance of this book. Will Darcy forgive Lizzie after she so hotly rebuked him? Will they survive the shame of Lydia’s carelessness? Will Bingley and Jane ever get together? It was all very compelling stuff! But as an adult I appreciate the novel on a deeper level. Austen really doesn’t have much romance in her books but she has characters that have to make choices and that are brave for their time. Lizzie could even be considered reckless considering the financial state of her family for refusing Mr Collins let alone Darcy. This is what makes her story compelling and their final union so satisfying. It is also full of witty satire that still holds up and is funny over 200 years later.

“I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.”

north and south

1. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)-

Elizabeth Gaskell is my favorite author and I try to read her books each year. When I do I am always struck by how modern her characters feel. If they were to sub out more modern language the characters choices would feel right at home in a contemporary novel. In North and South she creates 2 fantastic characters in Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Margaret has been forced to move the Northern city of Milton where she meets the proud self-made Thornton. He is strong-willed like her but not a gentleman in her eyes. Then she and him get mixed up in the woes of the factory workers at his mill and the tension begins to mount. There is such chemistry between Margaret and Thornton from the first moment they meet, but it is not just a romance but an exploration of these 2 characters and how they let go of their pride to love. It will be too long for some folks but I adore it and find it endlessly re-readable.

“He knew how she would love. He had not loved her without gaining that instinctive knowledge of what capabilities were in her. Her soul would walk in glorious sunlight if any man was worthy, by his power of loving, to win back her love.”

So that is my list! What do you think of it? Let me know! I will be putting out a couple more book lists so let me know what you would like to see.

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Austenland: A Review

austenlandI know I am about a year and half late on this review but I put off seeing Austenland because I hated the book so the movie didn’t hold much promise for me.  However, enough of my friends and family encouraged me to see it, and claimed it was better than the book, I finally decided to watch it on my Netflix.

And the verdict is….

Basically the same as the book but I didn’t have to live in the movie for days so I suppose the movie is more tolerable.

So some things to mention before the review- I am a huge Austen fan.  I read her 4 most popular books in the winter break of 1998 and was hooked.  Since then I have read all 4 and even all 6 every year usually in the summer.  They are witty and the heroines are bold and yet weak.  Of course, I love the romance but it is the characters journey as told through romance that works.  The romance itself is fairly predictable.

That’s where this book and movie are misguided.  Austen’s stories are not great because they are romantic.  They are great because they involve choices, judgements, forgiveness, foolishness and of course love.  In the story of Austenland we lose all but the love and it makes for a very unsatisfying story.

The story of Austenland starts out with an interesting lead character.  Jane, played by Kerri Russell, is a die hard Austen fan.  This could be the female version of the many ‘manchild’ movies we’ve seen with men who can’t grow up (usually with Will Farrell or Seth Rogan).  I would be interested to see more movies with these type of women.

Austenland was also directed, written, and produced almost entirely by women, which I think is great.  In the words of Cate Blanchett ‘the world has curves’ and movies should reflect this.  The fact that so many movies fail something as basic as the Bechtel test is very sad indeed. We should do better.

That said, I am not going to give it a pass merely because of it’s female pedigree. That would be unfair.  I have to judge it like any other movie.

So, back to the story… Jane gets an inheritance and decides to fulfill her life dream and go to a living play experience called Austenland.  It is similar to the murder mystery parties that were popular about 10 years ago but over a few weeks.  All of the staff are actors playing parts down to the servants.

Jennifer Coolidge gets some of the funniest bits as a ditzy American guest (she has played this role many times before with funnier dialogue. See the Christopher Guest movies).  But even her lines feel so strained and molded into this ridiculous premise.  Whether in the book or movie I couldn’t buy this place existing and appealing to anyone, even the most die hard of Austen fans.

However, even if you accept the premise, so many of the jokes fall flat. For example, there is an extended scene with a play that I didn’t think was funny.  There are pratfalls and falls on horses that weren’t funny.  And a horse giving birth scene, which would have you believe a foal comes out in the time it takes a woman to grab a handful of hay or at least that Jane believes such a thing. Really, Jane?

Then things became awkward when a member of the ‘cast’ assaults Jane and yet she continues on with her stay.  Did she just think that was part of the play?  A little regency era attempted rape to complete your stay….Like I said it went from unfunny, to uncomfortable, to even a little creepy.

You also see the behind the scenes of the actors which makes the scenes in costume feel even weirder.   And yet with all that they tag on the most unbelievable ending.  Like I said earlier, Austen’s romances worked because of choices the characters make, tough choices.  They are often brave and loyal to a fault.  The characters that are impetuous, romantic and silly, are all either taught to be more sensible or are unhappy in their choices (Lydia, Marianne, Mary Musgrove, Catherine and even Emma).

Aside from coming to the park and then leaving, Jane in Austenland, doesn’t really make any tough choices.  Everything happens to her not by her, making the story less gripping. There is not the sense of a character growing and the viewer isn’t left wondering ‘will Jane’s foibles spoil her chance at real love?’.

Austen’s heroines do not need rescue, and they would not have had dramatic romcom scenes at airports.  Maybe a letter perhaps (or lengthy email). but I can’t think of any bold romantic gestures in any Austen book.  Perhaps Darcy fixing Lydia’s problem but even that expected no fanfare. and he didn’t even want Lizzy to know of his involvement.  Such soft and subtle characters build tension and makes the endings so satisfying.  They are not simply wild passionate love but the careful consideration of two hearts meant to be together, that almost weren’t.

The couple in Austenland don’t spend much time together, and they have even less actual conversations (and a lot of that is staged for a long time or we don’t know how much is staged by either one).  The ending would have been a lot more satisfying if she had sued the place and changed her life (actually learned something…).

In the end, it just didn’t make me laugh.  A big problem in a comedy.  I think I’ll go watch Mr Collins propose.  Now that is funny…

Overall Grade D

Content Grade B+ (It’s pretty innocent.  Even the assault is tame, birth tame, some heaving bosoms, no bad language)

I’m always open for others opinions.  Don’t worry I have thick skin, so please comment.

If you want a more satisfying, if still imperfect, modern version of women confronting Jane Austen try The Jane Austen Book Club.