Jane Austen saved Emma Thompson, and she can save you too: the healing power of books

How did I not know that Emma Thompson is married to Willoughby? I’m jumping in the middle of things, but I happened upon the fact that Emma is married to actor Greg Wise in a recent Telegraph article. I’m notorious bad about not paying attention to celebrity news. Well, good for her. I assume he’s nothing like the character he played, of course. Anyhow, back to the point at hand:

It’s not just about escaping back to the 18th century, to a land of petticoats and Regency toffs in breeches. Austen, like Shakespeare, still resonates because she tells us modern truths: that decent people end up in impossible situations through no fault of their own. And that if they are good (Emma Woodhouse), honest (Lizzie Bennett), and true (Fanny Price) there is a good chance it will all come right in the end. (Interestingly Claire Tomalin, Austen’s biographer, suggests she too may have suffered deep depression, which may have helped her to write so humanely about the complexities of emotional life.)

From the Bible onwards, people have looked to books to tell us how to live through adversity. And for those of us born prior to the escapes of YouTube, instant messaging and alcopops, medication through fiction was a habit we learned early. Comic novelist Jenny Colgan estimates she has read Little Women “something like 9,000 times”. “I use Little Women as a security blanket if I’m feeling down.”

There’s definitely a healing power to the escapism of reading. It’s taken me out of a lot of hard times, to the extent that I sometimes feel a little guilty about it, as if I’m burying my head in the pages in order to avoid harsher realities.  But to be kind to myself, I think we all need that kind of escape sometimes. The problems will still be there, after all, when you’re done reading, but you might be a little less stressed and anxious, and a little more capable of dealing with them.

Not all books make good “comfort reading”, in my opinion. Right now, for example, I’m very much enjoying Hillary Martel’s Wolf Hall. It’s spectacular and challenging, but it’s not great for when I need solace. My go-to comfort books do include Jane Austen, but more regularly, Anne McCaffrey. Yes, I like dragons. Also Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. It’s not exactly happy, but it’s a completely different universe than the one my problems live in.

Book review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Review of: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Quirk Books (2009), Edition: Paperback, 320 pages

Zombie fans and Jane Austen fans unite! Or perhaps not, as I suspect this novel will make neither group entirely happy. Nevertheless, Seth Grahame-Smith’s modern twist on a classic has been very successful, spawning several similar offerings (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and the upcoming Android Karenina, for example) and his own just-published Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

I fall in the latter category of card-carrying Austen buff. I’ve read all of Austen’s novels  and am something of a movie-version expert (I enjoy many adaptations for their own merits, but the BBC’s P&P will always reign supreme in my heart). Having said that, I enjoy a good zombie story, if told with humor, and this one is. Overall, it seemed like a funny concept, a new way to reread a book I’ve certainly paged through more than once already.

And it *is* a fun idea. There are some snicker-worthy moments, such as Mr. Collins’ fate and Kitty & Lydia’s reaction to their sister’s abduction, not to mention much racier repartee between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy than could be found in the original.

Cute idea… but I’m just not sure it sustains the whole book. If I didn’t enjoy P&P itself so much, I would have put this down long before finishing it. The joke gets overdone, at a certain point. And by the same token, as a zombie thriller with some Jane Austen thrown in, I doubt there’s really enough undead-hijinks to keep those readers glued to the page.

But for the Austen devotees, at least, I’d still recommend it. It’s a new, different way to experience Jane, at least. And if nothing else, the study guide questions, at the end, are brilliant. (“Many critics have addressed the dual nature of Elizabeth’s personality. On one hand, she can be a savage, remorseless killer. On the other hand, she can be tender and merciful. In your opinion, which of these best represents the real Elizabeth?” and “Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?” are a few of the gems found therein.)

Jane Austen, Zombies and Sea Monsters: Have you ever been “attacked by giant lobsters,” either figuratively or literally?

As an unabashed Jane Austen fan, I’ve been meaning to put both “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” (though I agree with the person who questioned that one in the comments; the obvious Austen choice for a sea monster crossover should have been “Persuasion”) on my to-read list.  I don’t think my book club would go for these as selections for next year (they didn’t even care for the actual-Austen we read last year, “Mansfield Park”), apparently both come equipped with discussion guides for book clubs that do. From the New York Times’ ArtsBeat:


How to Discuss ‘Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’
By Dave Itzkoff

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

These days, it seems, any book that stands a chance of being read by more than five people must include a reader’s discussion guide: a set of proposed questions at the back of the book for lazy book-group leaders and readers too timid to start conversations on their own.

Even the coming novel “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters, includes a discussion guide. But given that it’s a satirical work that combines Austen’s original text with sinister, tentacled creatures, its living co-author has decided to have a little fun with the questions.

Among the discussion topics that Mr. Winters suggests:

2. In “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” painful personal setbacks often occur at the same moment as sea-monster attacks, suggesting a metaphorical linkage of “monsters” with the pains of romantic disappointment; for example, Marianne is rebuffed by Willoughby at Hydra-Z precisely as the giant mutant lobsters are staging their mutiny. Have you ever been “attacked by giant lobsters,” either figuratively or literally?

5. Which would be worse: being eaten by a shark or consumed by the acidic stomach juice of a sand-shambling man-o’-war?

8. Have you ever been romantically involved with someone who turned out to be a sea witch?

10. Is Monsieur Pierre a symbol for something? Name three other well-known works of Western literature that feature orangutan valets. Are those characters also slain by pirates?

Readers of the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which kicked off the whole Austen-horror-mashup literary craze, may recall that its author, Seth Grahame-Smith, similarly refused to take his discussion-guide assignment seriously. Among the questions he suggested in that book:

6. Some critics have suggested that the zombies represent the authors’ views toward marriage—an endless curse that sucks the life out you and just won’t die. Do you agree, or do you have another opinion about the symbolism of the unmentionables?

7. Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?

10. Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen’s plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?

Do you use discussion guides in your readers’ groups? Are there particularly good (or bad) questions that they have provided to you? Have you ever been romantically involved with someone who turned out to be a sea witch?

Also: don’t miss the trailer for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Quite a hoot.

Google Books may want to rule the world, but can they actually produce as promised?

Here’s an admission for you: I have a hard time comprehending all of the details around what Google Books is up to. I gather they’re scanning everything (though not necessarily well — more on that in a sec) ever published, posting the out-of-copyright stuff, linking to snippets of the other stuff, and there are some folks objecting to that, so there’s a lawsuit, and a settlement in the works. This article, The Audacity of the Google Book Search Settlement, caught my eye today, and laid out some of the legal hoop-jumping, so that helped. And I know that the American Library Association has been having their say, as they generally do (not a fan, but that’s another post). I’m just not sure what I think of it all.

I digitized a book myself last year, a book the Town of Amherst holds the copyright to so no worries there, and is long out of print (A History of the Town of Amherst, New York, 1818-1865). It was a painful, arduous process, and I even had a grant to do it, but oy, I’m not sure I’d gear up for that again. But there’s Google Books, with tons of resources, just scanning and posting away, and doing all the heavy lifting, so that’s good, right? For the same reason I scanned my one book (it’s useful to local researchers and there are only a few copies out there, so this way anyone can access it), Google Books is scanning, well, all the books.

But — I’ve been playing around with the Barnes & Noble ereader app for the iPhone, and used it to download a handful of free ebooks from Google Books. The results have all been poor. Emma chopped off a few words at the beginning and had all kinds of bad characters, poor OCR. Ditto for Persuasion. Virgil’s Aeneid wasn’t so bad. But Anna Karenina was missing the first four chapters — completely missing them. I was appalled. The sloppy OCR I can try to get past (though…) but leaving out four chapters?!