A bicentennial edition of Jane Austen’s Emma from Penguin Classics

IMG_0032

Last month, to mark its bicentennial, Penguin Classics published a deluxe edition of Jane Austen’s novel Emma. It’s a beautiful, hefty book, with deckle edges, French flaps, and a cool cover by Dadu Shin.

IMG_0038

Beyond its obvious aesthetic appeal, Penguin’s new edition offers its readers helpful resources, including a note on spelling in the novel, a glossary, and a range of essays that offer context for better appreciating the plot (topics include “Dancing,” “Food,” and “Health”). Indeed, this edition seems geared towards helping younger readers appreciate and enjoy Emma. In a prefatory note, editor Juliette Wells writes:

This edition is designed to help. It’s a reader’s edition, not a scholarly one. In other words, the information you’ll find here is intended to support your understanding and appreciation of Emma rather than to instruct you in literary terms, theoretical perspectives, or critical debates. In choosing what to include, I’ve borne in mind what I’ve heard from students and others over the years about what has intrigued, and frustrated, them in reading this novel.

Wells’s brief introduction helps offer new readers context about the novel’s composition, publication, and reception. She even offers a short series of tips for reading Emma (sample: “If you’re feeling frustrated or bored because nothing much seems to be happening, remember that Austen’s own contemporaries commented on how little plot Emma contains and how ordinary its characters and events are”). The edition also features helpful maps (by Wells), along with illustrations and title pages from previous editions. The volume concludes with a suggested reading and viewing list “for further exploration.”

Emma is obviously in the public domain and available in plenty of inexpensive versions (like the Dover Thrift copy I read in high school)—but this new Penguin Classics edition makes a strong case for itself as the future go-to version for high school students. Wells’s editorial vision (and the aesthetic design of the book) show a strong love for Austen’s text that will carry over to a new generation of readers.  Continue reading “A bicentennial edition of Jane Austen’s Emma from Penguin Classics”

Eudora Welty on Austen, Chekhov, and Woolf

INTERVIEWER

You wrote somewhere that we should still tolerate Jane Austen’s kind of family novel. Is Austen a kindred spirit?

EUDORA WELTY

Tolerate? I should just think so! I love and admire all she does, and profoundly, but I don’t read her or anyone else for “kindredness.” The piece you’re referring to was written on assignment for Brief Lives, an anthology Louis Kronenberger was editing. He did offer me either Jane Austen or Chekhov, and Chekhov I do dare to think is more “kindred.” I feel closer to him in spirit, but I couldn’t read Russian, which I felt whoever wrote about him should be able to do. Chekhov is one of us—so close to today’s world, to my mind, and very close to the South—which Stark Young pointed out a long time ago.

INTERVIEWER

Why is Chekhov close to today’s South?

WELTY

He loved the singularity in people, the individuality. He took for granted the sense of family. He had the sense of fate overtaking a way of life, and his Russian humor seems to me kin to the humor of a Southerner. It’s the kind that lies mostly in character. You know, inUncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, how people are always gathered together and talking and talking, no one’s really listening. Yet there’s a great love and understanding that prevails through it, and a knowledge and acceptance of each other’s idiosyncrasies, a tolerance of them, and also an acute enjoyment of the dramatic. Like in The Three Sisters, when the fire is going on, how they talk right on through their exhaustion, and Vershinin says, “I feel a strange excitement in the air,” and laughs and sings and talks about the future. That kind of responsiveness to the world, to whatever happens, out of their own deeps of character seems very southern to me. Anyway, I took a temperamental delight in Chekhov, and gradually the connection was borne in upon me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever return to Virginia Woolf?

WELTY

Yes. She was the one who opened the door. When I read To the Lighthouse, I felt, Heavens, what is this? I was so excited by the experience I couldn’t sleep or eat. I’ve read it many times since, though more often these days I go back to her diary. Any day you open it to will be tragic, and yet all the marvelous things she says about her work, about working, leave you filled with joy that’s stronger than your misery for her. Remember—“I’m not very far along, but I think I have my statues against the sky”? Isn’t that beautiful?

From Eudora Welty’s interview with The Paris Review.

I Riff on Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Which I Haven’t Read (Book Acquired, 8.22.2012)

 

20120902-141345.jpg

1. Jeffrey Eugenides’s third novel The Marriage Plot is out in paperback from Picador this month. I haven’t read it.

2. I like the cover, a sort of watercolor job on thick textured paper.

3. I read Eugenides’s first novel The Virgin Suicides in 1997 or 1998. I was a freshman or sophomore in college. It was one of those books that everyone had on their shelves (I read my girlfriend’s roommate’s copy in maybe two sittings). I recall liking its style but the story had no emotional impact on me.

I was suspicious of the talent everyone ascribed to Eugenides.

4. I bought Eugenides’s second novel Middlesex in a train station in Rome. I bought it because I needed something to read. I read most of it on trains. This was the summer of 2005 or 2006, I think.

5. Middlesex is one of the first novels I can think of that I read and thought, “Here is a writer trying to fool me. Here is a writer trying to hide a fairly predictable plot under a mask of thematic importance. Here is a writer trying to hide mundane and often clunky prose beneath relevant issues. Here is an author trying to hide a lack of penetrating insight beneath the dazzle of historical sweep.”

6. Middlesex: The seams show. It’s literary-fiction-as-genre. And I have no problem with that. I wish it was weirder.

7. Here’s the back cover blurb for The Marriage Plot:

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes—the charismatic and intense Leonard Bankhead, and her old friend the mystically inclined Mitchell Grammaticus. As all three of them face life in the real world they will have to reevaluate everything they have learned.

8. I sort of feel like I’ve already read the novel after reading this. Or maybe I feel like I could guess the trajectory of the novel.

9. Okay, so maybe I should read the first few pages . . .

10. I stopped on page 11, at this paragraph:

The cafe had just opened. The guy behind the counter, who was wearing Elvis Costello glasses, was rinsing out the espresso machine. At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities. “Tainted Love” played from the stereo on top of the refrigerator.

Espresso! Cloves! Soft Cell! Calvino! Costello!

Okay. Maybe it’s Gloria Jones’s version of “Tainted Love.”

Anyway. There’s something insufferable about the paragraph.

I suppose I need to name or define the “something.”

11. Let me backtrack then, to the first paragraphs of the novel, to its first line even: “To start with, look at all the books.”

I like that as an opening line. I do. And I don’t mind an intertextual read. I’ll even accept this opening gambit as a form of characterization for our heroine Madeleine—this listing of authors—Wharton, Henry James, “a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope” (a smidgen!), “good helpings of Austen, George Eliot” etc. etc. We learn she reads Collette “on the sly” (who is stopping her?).

The references pile up: The surroundings of College Hill are compared to a “Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story”; those damn RISD kids are “blaring Patti Smith”; Madeleine has borrowed her roommate’s Betsey Johnson dress; you might recognize Madeleine by her “Katherine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline”; etc.

For, fun, let me pick three pages at random:

On page 75, we find out that someone named Dinky is “a frosted blonde with late-de Kooning teeth.”

Page 187 is clean.

Page 87: Roland Barthes. Harpo Marx. Grolsch beer.

(I can’t help but skim over 86, a motherlode: Kafka, Borges, Musil, Vanity FairThe Sorrows of Young Werther, Derrida).

12. Erudition in a novel can be a fine thing, and works that explicitly reference and engage other works can be marvelous (Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is an easy example to go to here). But references can also be used lazily as placeholders for real meaning, or even as a substitution for an entire milieu. (This is what I mean by the “something insufferable,” re: point 10).

13. There seems to be a trend in genre-bound “literary fiction” novels (again, I mean literary-fiction-as-genre) that lazily tie themselves to another, greater novel, without actually adding to the themes. I’m thinking explicitly of Franzen trying to borrow some of the weight of War and Peace in Freedom and Chad Harbach’s bid for Moby-Dick comparisons in The Art of Fielding. My intuition is that Eugenides is doing the same thing in The Marriage Plot.

14. Of course I’m probably (improbably enough) not the ideal audience for The Marriage Plot, not despite the fact but because of the fact that I happen to dig Talking Heads and Derrida and Barthes and literary theory &c. A romcom that involves a semiotics seminar as a setting is especially unappealing to me.

My wife, on the other hand, snapped up the copy of The Marriage Plot that the kind people at Picador sent me. I had to pull it from her night stand to write this riff. I’ll get her reaction down the line, which will certainly be more informed than my own.

 

Books Acquired, 1.27.2012

20120204-134620.jpg

Frances Brody’s Dying in the Wool is a mystery from Minotaur/St. Martin’s. Their description:

Take one quiet Yorkshire village

Bridgestead is a peaceful spot: a babbling brook, rolling hills and a working mill at its heart.  Pretty and remote, nothing exceptional happens…

Add a measure of mystery

Until the day that Master of the Mill Joshua Braithwaite goes missing in dramatic circumstances, never to be heard of again.

A sprinkling of scandal

Now Joshua’s daughter is getting married and wants one last attempt at finding her father.  Has he run off with his mistress, or was he murdered for his mounting coffers?

And Kate Shackleton—amateur sleuth extraordinaire!

Kate Shackleton has always loved solving puzzles.  So who better to get to the bottom of Joshua’s mysterious disappearance? But as Kate taps into the lives of the Bridgestead dwellers, she opens cracks that some would kill to keep closed…

20120204-134647.jpg

Jane Vows Vengeance is the third (and final?) in a series by Michael Thomas Ford where Jane Austen is a vampire. I covered the first book here (and was perhaps way kinder to the book than its conglomeration of trends deserved) and the second here. Let me cannibalize text from both previous write ups (the second write up cannibalized the first!):

In the past few years we’ve seen a spate of books where public domain characters and historical figures feature in supernatural tales, usually written in an ironic, or at least parodic mode. It seems like a heavy percentage of these books are mixed up somehow with Jane Austen, whose legacy has become grist for a literary cottage industry, with a new “re-imagining” of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility coming out every season. Last year, Michael Thomas Ford offered the public the mix of Jane Austen and vampires we had been so desperately clamoring for,Jane Bites Back. By way of a little more context (and pure laziness), I’ll quote Biblioklept’s review of Ford’s novel–

Jane Bites Back reveres its subject, Jane Austen, even as it blatantly cashes in on the very trend that it satirizes. The book’s program shouldn’t be confused with the absurdity behind Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters (which we liked) or the wackiness of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which we didn’t like), but it does adhere to the same sense of fun. Ford seems to delight in corny, over the top passages, and we’ll take it for granted that his literary tongue is in his cheek . . .

New in the Stack: Werewolves and Angels and Faeries (Oh My)

As always, the stack overfloweth. Here are some of the more interesting looking titles to make their way to Biblioklept International Headquarters.

Glen Duncan’s new novel The Last Werewolf is a book about a werewolf. That’s kind of a terrible way to begin a write-up, but let’s state the obvious: you probably know if you want to read a werewolf book or not. Duncan’s hero Jake Marlowe skews more noir (as his name suggests) than twinky Twilight—he’s a hard-drinking , chain-smoking, 200-year-old rascal who’s just learned that the only other living werewolf has just died (hence, he’s like, the last werewolf, man); compounding matters, he’s more than ready to die himself. A sinister cabal called the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena is after Jake, testing the limits of his suicide wish. Duncan’s prose is harsh, visceral, and occasionally a bit purple, but horror genre fans looking for more, uh, bite (jeez, sorry) from their books may wish to check out The Last Werewolf, new in hardback from Knopf. You can read Justin Cronin’s (The Passage) take at The New York Times; in the meantime, a morsel—

Transformation woke me to the smell of rust and fuel and seaweed. I was lying on my spasming back on a metal table and the restraints were gone. So were my clothes. Shoulders, shins, head, hands and haunches shunted blood and hurried bone to meet the Curse’s metamorphic demand. My circus of consumed lives stirred. The world felt strangely undulant. I thought, Well, I hope you’re ready for this, kidnapping fuckers, whoever you are. Then, throbbing with hunger for living meat, I howled and rolled over onto my side.

Bright’s Passage is the début novel from songwriter/musician Josh Ritter. This slim novel tells the story Henry Bright, a man who returns to the hills of West Virginia after the trauma of World War I only to have his wife (who is also his first cousin) die in childbirth. Bright buries her body and sets fire to their cabin, which sparks a massive forest fire. Bright then takes his infant son and flees, both from the fire and his unstable father-in-law, “The Colonel,” a vet of America’s adventures in the Philippines who still wears his uniform. The Colonel and his crazy sons pursue Bright, who is guided on the lam by the angel who talks to him—yeah, an angel directs Bright; in fact it was the angel’s idea that Bright marry his cousin, burn down his cabin, and run . . . also, the angel swears that Bright’s son is going to be, like, the new Messiah. Also, Bright’s horse talks. Ritter moves the action between Bright’s flight, his ordeal in WWI, and his youth in simple, concrete, declarative prose. There are echoes here of Chris Adrian’s angel stories (The Children’s Hospital and A Better Angel), and perhaps something of a Cormac McCarthy-lite vibe. Here’s an excerpt from obscure author Stephen King’s review in the Times

At its best, “Bright’s Passage” shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime. When Henry, his talking horse — a kind of holy Mr. Ed — and the Future King of Heaven leave the woods and enter a small town, Ritter writes: “It seemed a tidy place of dappled white houses and American flags. . . . Even the trees here seemed to have a kind of deep green and prepossessing prosperity that the trees of the forest could have no share in.” Recalling his mother’s death, Henry remembers “a windstorm that made the trees bow to one another like ballroom dancers.” More striking still are Henry’s memories of life in the trenches, some of which compare favorably to the prose in Mark Helprin’s “Soldier of the Great War”: “Artillery passed high above their heads in singsong trajectories that merged and lifted with one another into strange musical chords, like cats crossing pump organs.”

Bright’s Passage is new in hardback from Random House.

So we hit on the werewolves and angels, but what about those faeries? Honestly, that might have been a bit of a bait and switch, although David Liss’s new novel The Twelfth Enchantment does have faeries—but Romantic poets are slightly more prevalent in the book—only “Werewolves and Angels and Lord Byron and William Blake” sounds a bit clunky, doesn’t it? In any case, mea culpa. There are also Luddites and ghost dogs and alchemy and magic spells and all kinds of Gothic business going on in The Twelfth Enchantment, which gets a lot of mileage simply from its setting (the dawn of the Industrial Revolution), themes (the intersection of magick, alchemy, literature, and Gothic Romance), and characters (Byron, Blake, and Mary Crawford of Austen’s Mansfield Park). Our orphan heroine Lucy Derrick is in the clutches of her unsavory uncle who aims to marry her off until handsome, club-footed Lord Byron shows up at her house. He’s been hexed with a mystical curse and needs Lucy’s help; she soon finds herself snared in a web of dark intrigue, magic, and romance. The Twelfth Enchantment is a whimsical and lovingly crafted adventure story that will appeal to folks who dig literary mysteries (à la Jasper Fforde or pretty much any book that appropriates Jane Austen). The Twelfth Enchantment is new in hardback from Random House.

Romantic Remixes: We Look at Jane Goes Batty and The Raven’s Bride

In the past few years we’ve seen a spate of books where public domain characters and historical figures feature in supernatural tales, usually written in an ironic, or at least parodic mode. It seems like a heavy percentage of these books are mixed up somehow with Jane Austen, whose legacy has become grist for a literary cottage industry, with a new “re-imagining” of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility coming out every season. Last year, Michael Thomas Ford offered the public the mix of Jane Austen and vampires we had been so desperately clamoring for, Jane Bites Back. By way of a little more context (and pure laziness), I’ll quote Biblioklept’s review of Ford’s novel–

Jane Bites Back reveres its subject, Jane Austen, even as it blatantly cashes in on the very trend that it satirizes. The book’s program shouldn’t be confused with the absurdity behind Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters (which we liked) or the wackiness of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which we didn’t like), but it does adhere to the same sense of fun. Ford seems to delight in corny, over the top passages, and we’ll take it for granted that his literary tongue is in his cheek . . .

Ford’s inevitable sequel Jane Goes Batty arrives this month, and showcases a willingness to take vamp-camp into new directions. Plot: big time Hollywood folks are out to “sex up” Jane’s latest manuscript; Jane’s editor decides to become an agent and leaves her with Jessica Abernathy (evil nemesis in Batty); Jane has to run constant interference on her wacky/charming friend Lord Byron (also a vampire, of course); etc., etc., etc. The most ridiculous/campiest plot device of all though is that Jane is converting to Judaism to please her boyfriend Walter’s judgmental mom. Yes. That’s right. We also learn that Jane played Magenta in a traveling production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the seventies, a minor detail to be sure, but one that seems to reinforce Ford’s whimsical kitsch. Batty aims for a kind of sassy brevity in its scene constructions, and while its certainly not a book for me, I think that those who want to see Jane Austen as a 21st century vampire will probably enjoy it quite a bit. Jane Goes Batty is new in trade paperback from Ballantine.

Lenore Hart’s novel The Raven’s Bride tells the story of the marriage of Edgar Allan Poe from the viewpoint of his child-bride/cousin Virginia “Sissy” Clemm. The decidedly tragic arc of their union is set against a supernatural backdrop — and an often morose tone. While The Raven’s Bride takes liberties with history, it seems well-researched and faithful enough to its subject. Compared to Ford’s campy take on the supernatural, Hart’s novel seems a bit too self-serious, but again, I’m hardly the audience for this book. Still, I suppose the tale of an alcoholic horror writer’s incestuous/underage marriage might have been easy fodder to exploit, yet Hart focuses a keen sensitivity on her characters, particularly her narrator Sissy, Poe’s muse demystified. While Poe buffs will know how the story turns out, those interested in reviewing Poe’s marriage through a new perspective may want to check out The Raven’s Bride, new in trade paperback from St. Martin’s Griffin.

New in Paperback: Ali Shaw Does Creepy Fables, Cathleen Schine Channels Jane Austen, and Joan Schenkar Plumbs Patricia Highsmith

The Girl with Glass Feet is the début novel from British author Ali Shaw. Set in the remote archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land and steeped in the traditions of English folklore, Shaw’s novel works in the idiom of magical realism. His titular girl Ida Maclaird suffers from a strange affliction: she’s slowly turning into glass. She returns to St. Hauda’s land in the winter (after a previous summer holiday there) in the hopes of finding a cure. There she meets Midas Crook (whose symbolically overdetermined name seems part and parcel of Shaw’s program), a photographer fascinated by his father’s ghost stories about the isolated archipelago who is trying to capture something of its haunted spirit in his pictures. Together (and with the help of some strange locals) the pair tries to find answers against a melancholy and magical backdrop of tiny winged cows, albino crows, and other grotesques. A sample ghost story, one of many in Glass Feet

His father had once told him a legend: lone travelers on overgrown paths would glimpse a humanoid glow that ghosted between trees or swam in a still lake. And something, some impulse from the guts, would make the traveler lurch off the path in pursuit, into the mazy trees or deep water. When they pinned it down it would take shape. Sometimes it would form a flower of phosphorescent petals. Sometimes it drew a bird of sparks whose tail feathers fizzled embers. Sometimes it became like a person and they’d think they saw, under a nimbus like a veil, the features of a loved one long lost. Always the light grew steadily brighter until–in a flash–they’d be blinded. Midas’s father hadn’t needed to elaborate on what happened to them after that. Lost and alone in the cold of the woods.

In The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Cathleen Schine transposes the Dashwoods of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to a dilapidated beach cottage in Westport, Connecticut. When 78 year old Joseph divorces his 75 year old wife Betty, and his mistress essentially forces her from their high-end NYC apartment, Betty rallies by moving to the beach cottage with her daughters, impulsive Miranda, a literary agent, and practical Annie, a library director. The premise may sound like the domain of that most maligned of genres, “chick lit,” a fact that many reviewers tackled when it debuted in hardback last year. Here’s Dominique Browning in The New York Times

Schine sets her novel squarely in the most appealing part of chick-lit territory — its light-hearted readability — and then thumbs her nose as she starts kicking up the dust. The strange thing about the Jane brigade is that most of its practitioners have raided only her plots, apparently not quite up to the task of honoring the essence of Austen. But Schine’s homage has it all: stinging social satire, mordant wit, delicate charm, lilting language and cosseting materialistic detail.

Before looking over Joan Schenkar’s exhaustive biography of Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, I have to admit that I thought of the writer primarily as a practitioner of pulp fiction, the kind of lurid crime tales at home in airport bookshops. In recent years, I’ve come to reevaluate my stance on crime noir in particular (which I wrote about here), a genre whose conventions I find increasingly more apparent in the “literary fiction” that I enjoy. Anyway, Schenkar’s book places much stress on the Serious Art section of Highsmith’s biography. I knew Highsmith mainly from her Ripley novels, which I’ve never read, but gather to be smart and psychologically complex. I didn’t know that Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train, adapted by Hitchcock into a noir classic. I didn’t know that she wrote comic books for years — the weird crime ones that stirred up so much commotion in the fifties. I didn’t know that she worked homoerotic themes into her novels, and wrote one very openly lesbian novel that was published during her lifetime (albeit under a pseudonym), The Price of Salt. Schenkar makes a case for a Highsmith as an underappreciated novelist, a contemporary of Mailer and Capote who never got her due (even if her novels were bestsellers), a writer in the tradition of Kafka and Freud. Rounding out the biography is a complex investigation of Highsmith’s strange relationship with her mother, a look at her long list of lovers, and plenty of charts, diagrams, and photos (Schenkar even sneaks a topless pic in, if that piques your interest).

All three titles are new in trade paperback from Picador.

Jane Bites Back — Michael Thomas Ford

In Michael Thomas Ford’s novel Jane Bites Back, Jane Austen (you know, the Jane Austen) is an incognito vampire/bookstore clerk in upstate New York. Poor Jane is trying to get a new novel published (under a pseudonym, of course), but she suffers scores of rejection letters for her new work. Even worse is the horror of the Jane Austen industry, which, under the auspices of public domain laws, clutters Jane’s own bookshop with awful books that, like, don’t “get” the Austen oeuvre (in the climactic scene of the book’s opening chapter, Vampire Jane gets some measure of revenge by consuming the boorish author of an execrable volume entitled Waiting for Mr. Darcy). Of course, there’s got to be a plot, so Jane does get an offer for a book deal, one that’s complicated by accusations of plagiarism and other woes. To make matters worse, her old lover Lord Byron shows up (yeah, Byron, duh. How else would Jane Austen catch the vampirism?) There are other ghosts of literary past who show up, too, but why spoil surprises?

Jane Bites Back reveres its subject, Jane Austen, even as it blatantly cashes in on the very trend that it satirizes. The book’s program shouldn’t be confused with the absurdity behind Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters (which we liked) or the wackiness of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which we didn’t like), but it does adhere to the same sense of fun. Ford seems to delight in corny, over the top passages, and we’ll take it for granted that his literary tongue is in his cheek when he writes a paragraph like:

When his hand cupped her breasts she gasped, and when his mouth touched her skin she felt her knees buckle. He caught her, sweeping her up in his arms and carrying her to the bed. He placed her atop the sheets and stepped back. She watched through half-closed eyes as he removed his clothes. His chest was lean, his skin pale as milk. When stepped from his trousers she glanced briefly at his manhood before looking away.

His “manhood”?! Jeez, we hope this is parody. In any case, we were laughing. (Sidenote: How does this stack up against the sex scenes in the Twilight books? Are there sex scenes in the Twilight books? What Biblioklept reader will even admit to having read Twilight?)

Ford’s style is, on the whole, redolent with the tropes of YA fiction–not that Jane Bites Back is necessarily YA–but there’s not a challenging sentence in the book, which may or may not be a compliment for the writer. Clear, lucid writing is difficult to do. Still, we tend to value ambiguity around here; being perplexed and furious is a good reaction from time to time. Jane Bites Back reads with an anonymous speed that’s not particularly invigorating.

If we were really feeling adventurous today, we might wax heavy on the all the implications, meta- and otherwise, of a book that purports to criticize the Austen fad while at the same time indulging in it…but we’re not feeling up to it. There’s also a neat Venn diagram in all of this: vampires, Jane Austen, feminism (yeah, there are feminist themes here. Did we forget to mention them? Sorry). Suffice to say that any reader whose ears perk up at the notion of “Jane Austen + vampires” will not be disappointed in this book.

Jane Bites Back is new from Ballantine Books.

A Truth Universally Acknowledged — 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen

In A Truth Universally Acknowledged, editor Susannah Carson collects thirty-three short essays on Jane Austen. In her introduction, Carson notes that each “of these essayists has taken a shot at defining and explaining Austen’s place both in the literary canon and in the cultural imagination.” And while there’s no mention of Austen’s recent tangles with zombies and sea monsters, the collection does cover quite a route of the cultural imagination that Carson promises. How could it not? There are short (and longish) essays from E.M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham, Martin Amis, and C.S. Lewis, all proffering different reasons why Austen rules. Contemporary writer Susanna Clarke scolds those of us who might mistake film and TV adaptations as authentic representations of the lady’s work: “Austen wasn’t a visual writer,” Clarke writes, ” Her landscapes are emotional and moral–what we would call psychological.” Harold Bloom goes as far as to suggest that, “Like Shakespeare, Austen invented us.” Bloom’s usual Oedipal anxiety manifests itself in a more palatable line: “Because we are Austen’s children, we behold and confront our own anguish and our own fantasies in her novels.” (Never fear, Bloom gets some axe-grinding in as well: “Those who read Austen ‘politically’ now are not reading her at all.” Thank you again, oh great master critic, for telling us how to read our books). Benjamin Nugent gets pragmatic, seeing Pride and Prejudice as something of a self-help book: “Young nerds should read Austen because she’ll force them to hear dissonant notes in their own speech they might otherwise miss, and open their eyes to defeats and victories they otherwise wouldn’t even have noticed.” One of our favorite writers, Eudora Welty, writes a loving appreciation of the marvel of just how Austen constructed the complex ironies of her works: “Each novel is a formidable engine of strategy.” Rebecca Mead’s “Six Reasons to Read Jane Austen” is both funny and convincing. Reason four: “Because we are made to in school.” Mead’s little essay would be a worthy primer for any high school senior dreading wading into Pride and Prejudice. The great American critic Lionel Trilling points out, as those high schoolers know, that Pride and Prejudice “is the one novel in the canon that ‘everybody’ reads.” He wants you to know that of “Jane Austen’s six great novels, Emma is surely the one that is most fully representative of its author.” He makes a good case for this argument as well, comparing it to the “difficult” books of Proust, Joyce, and Kafka–company that we don’t always associate with Austen. Indeed, many of the essays here focus on Austen’s lesser-read volumes–Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma–and to a positive end: these essayists will make you want to read these books. And isn’t that what real literary criticism should aim to do anyway–make the reader read the book herself, think critically about it herself? While Austen is hardly in need of a revival, A Truth Universally Acknowledged does a lovely job of balancing academic criticism with a popular appeal. Like Austen’s own work, it tempers social critique with sharp humor. A Truth will, of course, appeal mostly to Austen fans (many of whom will surely find it indispensable), but it’s also the sort of volume that will find a place in the hearts of those who simply love to read great writers writing about great writers. Recommended.

A Truth Universally Acknowledged is new in hardback this month from Random House.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters — Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

sense-and-sensibility

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is a mannered romance about class and love, family and duty, and the fine balance between logic and emotion. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters adds giant mutant crustaceans, two-headed sea dragons, and rampaging narwhals to the mix. Don’t worry, Sea Monsters still tells the protofeminist tale of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (sense) and Marianne (sensibility) as they try to navigate the upheaval of their changing fortunes. After their father dies, under the strict (and unfair) laws of primogeniture, the family estate must go to their half-brother and his wicked wife. Co-author Ben H. Winters moves the milieu to a bizarre aquatic world populated by pirates and monsters, full of desert islands and undersea domes. You probably know just by looking at its remarkable cover whether or not this book is for you.

Quirk Classics had a big hit earlier this year with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which, uh, added zombies to a Jane Austen classic. In our review of that book, we praised the concept but found the delivery flat. The zombies-and-ninjas riffing seemed a bit trite by 2009–there just wasn’t enough weirdness to make the book especially engaging. In contrast, Winters’s injections in Sea Monsters are wholly bizarre. The disaster of the patriarch’s death–and the loss of inheritance–is metaphorized in the setting, “the Alteration, when the waters of the world grew cold and hateful to the sons of man, and darkness moved on the face of the deep.” Colonel Brandon, a prospective groom with a dark past becomes a betentacled monster here. The entire oppressive system of Regency laws and social customs takes the symbol of a devouring Leviathan, eating up dreams and hopes. In short, Winters takes his conceit beyond mere ironic fancy and actually weaves it successfully into Austen’s classic. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters succeeds because Winters juxtaposes his sea monster tropes so cleanly and weirdly against Austen’s mannered prose without the least bit of ironic winking at the audience. The sheer silliness of it all is beautiful fun.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is available September 15, 2009 from Quirk Classics. You can watch the book’s trailer here.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

pride-zombies

The blurb on the back of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies brazenly declares that Seth Grahame-Smith’s addition of zombie-fighting action to Austen’s classic “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.” Perhaps the blurb’s brag is just a bit of cheeky fun; after all, Austen’s staid survey of manners and mores is a perennial favorite, coming in second to only The Lord of the Rings in a recent BBC poll of British readers, as well as topping a similar poll in Australia. Clearly, people not only want to read it, they actually do, and in large numbers each year. There’s even been enough interest in it for a not-that-bad movie update just a few years ago. So it’s hardly as if Pride and Prejudice is a corpse in need of resuscitation. This begs the question: What nuances and comments does Grahame-Smith have to add? Not much, we’re afraid.

The most interesting aspect of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is its concept, a promise for weird laughs and sick kicks neatly summed up in its fantastically morbid cover. Grahame-Smith doesn’t so much re-imagine Pride, but simply stuff a murderous host of zombies into Austen’s romance. These “unmentionables,” as the polite Regency society folks call them, wage a war on good stolid Englishmen. Fortunately Mr. Bennet has trained his daughters, led by feisty Elizabeth, in the ways of the ninja. Between matchmaking, letter-writing, polite dances, and furtive glances at Mr. Darcy, the Bennet sisters slice up zombies left and right with their katanas. The press-release for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies claims that the book retains 85% of Austen’s original, and no major plot points are changed or missing. Instead, the reader is subjected to seemingly purposeless bouts of zombie fighting after every scene. Of course, to decry these fights as purposeless seems silly; after all, when you pick up a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you expect zombies, don’t you?

Grahame-Smith’s premise sounds like great good fun in theory, but it turns out that adding zombies and ninjas to a classic beloved romance is neither terribly engaging or interesting. We love zombies at Biblioklept, but the most effective zombie tales–28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead–work beyond horror and serve also as a form of social commentary or even satire. Grahame-Smith seems to miss, or even ignore, any opportunity to comment on, criticize, or otherwise inform the novel he’s cannibalizing. Instead, his additions convey the energy, wit, and sophistication of a one-note SNL sketch. The premise gets old fast, and it becomes increasingly confusing who this novel is for. It’s unlikely to appeal to most Austen fans, as it provides no real comment on her methods, plotting, or characterization, and as far as a zombies-and-ninjas riff goes, it’s pretty standard fare. Ultimately, it seems like more of a conversation piece than something you’d actually read for enjoyment, a little coffee table book that might evoke some interest. Flick through the amusing illustrations, chuckle, and move on.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is available soon from Quirk Books.