Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why We Love Jane

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is more popular today than she ever was in her all-too brief life. Arguably the best-known female writer in literary history, Jane wrote only six books—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion—before she died at the age of forty-two. Some think of her as the ultimate romantic, the founding mother of the chick lit genre. Some admire her keen wit and observant eye, seeing in Jane an uncanny ability to critique society. Not merely content to read Jane’s books, we’ve created an entire industry around her legacy—sequels, prequels, spin-offs, modern adaptations, and a unique body of work that analyzes why exactly we’re so fond of dear old Jane.

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, 1997, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Biography/ 19th Century English Novelists) 

The first biography of Jane Austen was published a few years after her death by a nephew; it was meant to be the final word on “Aunt Jane” and her quiet, humble existence. To her later biographers, Jane proved exceptionally elusive—despite leading such a supposedly ordinary existence, there are very few records, notes, letters, or other papers that reveal what Jane was really like. Guesswork is a must for an Austen biographer, especially since sister Cassandra destroyed many of Jane’s letters, which hints at a private life that was more dramatic than historical fact leads us to believe. Jane Austen: A Life, the 1997 biography by Claire Tomalin, is one of the best. Tomalin reveals details about the lives of family and friends to throw light on how Jane lived and worked and thought and felt; Jane’s life is placed firmly in its context of 18th and 19th century religion, politics, and war. Most importantly, the evolution of Jane’s writing is thoughtfully traced. The reader is left with a vivid sense of Jane, her work, and her life. And that, given the difficulty of truly explaining Jane, is the best Austen fans can wish for.

Becoming Jane Austen: A Life by Jon Spence, 2007, Hambledon Continuum Books (Biography/ 19th Century English Novelists)

The only other writing Jane left behind (besides her novels, a few half-finished works-in-progress, and a handful of childhood scribblings) is her letters. Jane’s elegant literary style is not on show in these missives; these are everyday thoughts put down on the spur of the moment, gossip, news, and family jokes. But there is one tantalizing incident—a flirtation with one “Tom Lefroy.” Tom and Jane met, danced, chatted, and parted forever. Schoolgirl crush or doomed love affair? We’ll never know, but that doesn’t stop biographer Jon Spence from speculating that this relationship was a turning point in Jane’s life that directly inspired the love stories she later wrote. Spence also highlights the possible influence of Jane’s fashionable, glamorous cousin Eliza de Feuillide, whose first husband was guillotined during the French Revolution. By making connections between historical fact and literary fiction, Spence infuses Jane’s life with the romance and drama that Austen fans long to know she experienced. Becoming Jane Austen was the inspiration for the 2007 Hollywood movie Becoming Jane, which firmly casts Jane Austen as the heroine in her very own romantic comedy.

“The Janeites” in Collected Stories by Rudyard Kipling, 1999, Everyman’s Library/ Alfred A. Knopf Books, originally published 1922 (Fiction/ Short Story Collections)

Rudyard Kipling’s 1922 “The Janeites” is one of the first stories to mention Jane Austen as a member of the literary canon, as an author one is expected to know and love. In the story, a simple-minded ex-soldier recounts how, thanks to Jane, he survived World War I. Humberstall is wounded and reassigned to the position of assistant mess waiter. While he’s working, he notices the senior mess waiter conversing on equal terms with military officers. The subject, of course, is Jane Austen. Humberstall has never heard of this “Jane woman,” but he can tell that a passion for her is something akin to being a member of a secret society. Soon Humberstall is escaping the horrors of war by learning the meaning of “Tilney,” learning how to spell “Catherine De Bugg,” naming artillery after other characters, and gossiping about whether Jane ever got married. Humberstall tells his own story so Kipling writes in a lower-class British dialect; it’s charming (once you get used to it) and Austen fans will get a kick out of Humberstall’s crash-course in all things Austen.

“Jane Austen Faints” in Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography by Hermione Lee, 2005, Princeton University Press (Nonfiction/ Literary History and Analysis/ Biography)

How does a biographer handle the ambiguities, contradictions, missing years, mythmaking, facts, and fictions? When British writer Hermione Lee gets to the case of Jane Austen, she has plenty to talk about. Given the piddling amount of factual information that exists from Jane’s forty-two years on earth, Austen is a notoriously tough subject. Any incident that is known—no matter how trivial—is ripe for debate. Once, according to family legend, Jane Austen fainted. The cause was the unexpected news that Mr. Austen had decided to move the family to Bath; the result has been intense biographical speculation. This is Jane exhibiting extreme emotion; it must be important. Lee examines various Austen bios see what different writers have made of the incident. Is Jane shocked by how sudden the news is? Terrified of city life, away from the familiar green countryside? Afraid a secret love affair has been uncovered and she is being forcibly separated from her suitor? The real cause is unknown, and so every biographer’s point of view colors our vision of Austen—and forces us to question whether we can ever really know Jane as well as we think we do.

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman, 2009, Henry Holt and Co. (Nonfiction/ Literary History and Analysis/ 19th Century English Novelists)

Even if you’ve never read any of Austen’s books, you’re familiar with their titles and plots. Note the success of the BBC’s TV Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, or the chick lit bestseller Bridget Jones’s Diary (a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, complete with its own Mr. Darcy), or the Hollywood movie Clueless (a modern retelling of Emma), or the recent book mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Today, Jane is everywhere, and author Claire Harmon shows us how she got there. This is a biography not of Jane’s life but of her fame—her quiet life followed by a few brief decades where no one knew her name, and then a century-long revival that has yet to end. Harman shows us Jane as a feminist and as an anti-feminist, Jane as a prickly old maid and Jane as a token for “girl power,” Jane as a Hollywood heroine and as a Bollywood starlet. We meet Jane’s detractors (Charlotte Brontë, Mark Twain) and Jane’s fans (Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf). We figure out our own personal reasons for loving Jane. However she is viewed and analyzed and adapted, one thing becomes very clear in this fascinating exploration—Jane Austen is here to stay.

Sanditon and Other Stories by Jane Austen, 1996, Everyman’s Library, originally published 1870-1871 (Fiction Classics)

Forget all the sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. Never mind the sexual innuendos in Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife and the cartoon violence in Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Throw out the mystery series starring Mr. and Mrs. Darcy (by Carrie Bebris) and the mystery series starring Jane herself (by Stephanie Barron). You don’t need the next best thing; there IS more Jane. When she died, Jane left several unpublished works. Two of these we know as Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but the fragmentary Sanditon, the few chapters of The Watsons, and the novella Lady Susan showcase Jane at her finest. Sanditon begins with an overturned carriage, several gossipy chapters about the characters’ lives, and ends just when the heroine becomes entangled in a romantic mystery. The Watsons features a young lady brought up by wealthy relations and shipped back to her poor family in the country—rather the opposite of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. Lady Susan is a sassy little tale about a man-hunting widow who wants her daughter to marry well—and herself to remarry even better. These fragments, believe it or not, are every bit as good as the real thing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Judge A Book By Its Cover

We’ve all heard the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But of course we do, and publishers spend money and time galore on book design and cover art. Who loses when the shelves are full of beautiful books? The classics, of course. A dusty leather-bound tome with Moby-Dick stamped on the cover doesn’t stand much of a chance next to bright colors and bold images. So for the past few years, Penguin Classics has been releasing “Graphic Classic” and “Couture Classic” Deluxe Editions with some of the best and most intriguing cover art out there. Modern and artistic, these covers make you stop dead and cry out loud, “What is this book about?” The classics have stood the test of time for a reason: They are damn fine stories, and they deserve to shine.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, cover art by Ruben Toledo, 2009, Penguin Books, originally published 1850 (Fiction Classics/ Historical Fiction)

You’d think a tale of sin and betrayal in colonial New England would never go out of style, and you’re right—The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne’s masterpiece. The new cover is stunning—a surly woman with flaming hair strikes a pose behind a large, bright red letter A. Glittery threads across her arm and there’s a big-eyed babe clinging to her shoulder. This is Hester Prynne, a lively young woman who, in the year 1642, has a baby. What’s shocking is that Hester’s much-older husband is not the father—he’s not even in America. Adultery is a major sin to the local Puritan folk and Hester is forced to live publicly with her shame, a red letter A buttoned to her clothing. Years pass, and Hester never reveals the name of her lover, not to her daughter, not even to her husband who has returned and is living apart from Hester under the guise of the town doctor. But as daughter Pearl grows up, she senses a connection between her mother and Dr. Chillingworth—and between her mother and the eloquent but tortured minister Dimmesdale. Hawthorne, exploring the morals of 17th century from a distance of two hundred years, writes strikingly about the enduring conflicts between nature and culture, desire and law, right and wrong. Descriptive, symbolic, and thought provoking, The Scarlet Letter is an American classic of the finest caliber.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, cover art by Daniel Clowes, 2007, Penguin Books, originally published 1818 (Fiction Classics/ Horror)

No cover is more appropriate for Frankenstein—a story that has been turned into cheesy horror movies and campy Halloween costumes—than the one artist Daniel Clowes designed for Penguin: an eye-catching comic strip in which Frankenstein meets his monster on a windswept hillside. Victor Frankenstein is a dashing young man, educated, intelligent, with a passion for science. Inspired by his work in chemistry, Victor creates life by reanimating dead matter. But the result—after an obsessive frenzy of experiments—is horrible. The new creature is not the height of human perfection that Victor dreamed of; it’s a hideous, freakish ogre. Repulsed, Victor retreats into a “normal life,” leaving his monster to make its own confused way in the world. Naturally, things do not go well for either Victor (wracked by guilt) or monster (lonely and angry) and creator and creation are destined to meet again and again. Eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley started writing her masterpiece on a dare, when she and boyfriend Percy Shelley were staying with Lord Byron. It was a dark and stormy night, and Byron challenged himself and each of his guests to pen a supernatural tale of suspense and horror. Considering the classic status of Frankenstein and its never-ending influence on modern culture, it’s pretty safe to say that Mary won.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, cover art by Jeffrey Brown, 2009, Penguin Books, originally published 1911 (Fiction Classics)

One of the most intriguing covers, Ethan Frome depicts a big tree with a dent in the bark and a pair of intertwined legs flailing on the ground as they trail off the cover’s edge. One leg is bent at an odd angle, and are those flecks of blood on the white snow? The branches of the tree weave through the bright red letters of the title and the whole thing inspires one reaction: “What on earth is this book about?” Ethan Frome is about a man named Ethan Frome, of course, as well as his sickly wife Zeena and her cousin Mattie, who helps around the house. Ethan is in the habit of walking Mattie home from the church dance on her nights off; Zeena is (rightly so) suspicious of Ethan’s attentions. Still, Zeena goes away overnight to visit a doctor, leaving her husband and cousin on their own. Romance is in the air, but then the cat breaks Zeena’s favorite pickle dish. It may seem a trivial incident, but it’s all downhill from there for this love triangle. Author Edith Wharton is a master of literary symbolism, and the setting (winter in the fictional Massachusetts town of Starkfield) only adds to the desperate mood as Ethan dreams of a life different than the one he has—a theme so universal and timeless that Ethan Frome was destined to become a classic.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, cover art by Ruben Toledo, 2009, Penguin Books, originally published 1847 (Fiction Classics/ Romance)

Wuthering Heights is the story of the foundling Heathcliff and headstrong Catherine Earnshaw. The Penguin “Couture Edition” depicts these two characters in all their gothic, romantic glory. Catherine graces the front wrapped in shawls and beads, wide-eyed and willowy like a spooky version of Betty Boop. Heathcliff is the tall dark figure on the reverse side, eyes glowering under furrowed brows and a wild mane of hair as the dark outline of the Wuthering Heights farmhouse rises behind him. Heathcliff is an orphan adopted by the Earnshaw family; little Catherine takes an instant liking to him but brother Hindley is bitterly jealous. When Hindley grows up and takes control of the Earnshaw estate, Heathcliff is regulated to servant-status. Catherine is still Heathcliff’s ally—until they meet the neighboring Linton family. When Catherine chooses gentlemanly Edgar Linton over wild-child Heathcliff, the stage is set for a multi-generational drama of passion, jealousy, and revenge to be played out amongst the Earnshaw, Linton, and Heathcliff families against the backdrop of the wild and windy Yorkshire moors. Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s first and last novel; she died only a year after its publication at the tender age of thirty. She left behind quite a legacy—Heathcliff and Catherine’s love is not only stronger than life or death, it has endured for over a century as one of the most intense love affairs in English literature.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, cover art by Thomas Ott, 2006, Penguin Books, originally published 1962 (Fiction Classics/ Mystery) 

Two thin faces stare out at us from the cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—three if you count the cat, a few more if you consider the lurking townsfolk in the background. Their wide fearful eyes, drawn in stark black-and-white, are more than enough to convey the haunting atmosphere within the pages. The two grim faces belong to Constance and Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, and six years ago the rest of their family (save Uncle Julian) was killed, poisoned when the sugar sprinkled on the blueberries was laced with arsenic. Uncle Julian survived; Merricat had been sent to bed without dessert; Constance—who did not put sugar on her berries—was arrested and acquitted. Since then, the trio has lived in seclusion, shunned by the neighbors. Constance has retreated even farther into solitude, becoming something of an agoraphobe. Only teenage Merricat maintains contact with the outside world, fetching home groceries and library books while schoolchildren mock her. But Merricat is happy surrounding their home with her own superstitious brand of magic, nailing charms to trees and the like. Then cousin Charles comes to visit. He’s got his eye on the Blackwood family fortune, but he little knows the depths to which Merricat will go to protect what remains of her family. Dark, quirky, with a deceptively light touch and a gothic flare, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a compelling modern classic.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, cover art by Tom Gauld, 2007, Penguin Books, originally published 1844 (Fiction Classics/ Adventure/ Historical Fiction)

The Three Musketeers is an intimidating book: over 600 pages long. But every page is packed with danger, adventure, and humor, and the Penguin cover reflects that in the simplest way—with cute little stick figures. On a pale pink background, a dapper fellow with big boots and a feather in his hat waits for the man he challenged to a duel to show up for the big fight. He’s hungry, he wishes he’d had lunch before he came, and he can’t actually remember what his opponent looked like. This is brash young D’Artagnan, whose only goal in life is to join the ranks of the Musketeers who serve as the King Louis XIII’s personal bodyguards. Soon, not one but three men show up with swords drawn—D’Artagnon is a hotheaded youngster who really challenges a lot of fellows to fights. But the four gentlemen unite forces when agents of the vile and corrupt Cardinal Richelieu attempt to arrest them. And so D’Artagnon has three new friends—Athos, Porthos, and Aramis (the dashing three Musketeers of the title) and the quartet cry “All for one and one for all!” and are off on the adventure of a lifetime. Seductresses, spies, assassins all make appearances; there are love affairs and political intrigue galore, quips aplenty, and lots of swordplay. In fact, 600 pages flies by in this action-packed swashbuckler. The new cover pokes a bit of fun at author Dumas too, on the back cover, where those dashing little cartoon figures make a comical reappearance.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, cover art by Ruben Toledo, 2011, Penguin Books, originally published 1891 (Fiction Classics/ Fantasy)

Best known for his sparkling wit in plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windemeres Fan, Oscar Wilde had a dark side. The Picture of Dorian Gray is his only novel, and it’s a doozy. Lord Henry is watching his friend Basil Hallward paint a striking portrait. Soon the subject himself arrives—handsome young Dorian Gray. Lord Henry takes a liking to Dorian and extols the joys of a life devoted to pleasure. Dorian’s all for it, and is soon carousing with the best scoundrels of his day. In a grimy theater, Dorian spies the lovely actress Sibyl Vane—and breaks her heart. Dorian continues to rabble and rouse. He even becomes disdainful of good old Basil, whose portrait of Dorian has begun to take on some unusual characteristics of its own. As the years go by and Dorian revels in vice, he retains his youthful good looks. And when a conscience rears its ugly head, the picture of Dorian Gray has a one last surprise in store. Much more than a cautionary tale, Wilde’s novel is fraught with atmosphere of the deliciously creepy-crawly variety. The Penguin cover has a bit of fun with Dorian, featuring a stage and curtain and a fainting lady whose hand is clutched by a golden picture frame with tuxedo-clad arms and legs. Just a trace of the painting inside is visible, and that’s more than enough to pique the curiosity of any reader.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Whales and Their Friends

We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean’s depths, but we have figured out that there’s some remarkable creatures swimming around down there—whales not the least of them (because whales are really, really big). From the near-mythical giant squid to the quirky little seahorse, the creatures of the deep are extraordinary and they’re about to become your new best friends.

The Whale: In Search for the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare, 2010, Ecco Books (Nature Writing/ Marine Biology/ Whales)

Spellbound by the model of the blue whale at the Natural History Museum and inspired by the elusive white whale in Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick, biographer Philip Hoare turns his attention to his favorite subject: whales. Combining science, nature, history, literature, and personal experience, Hoare waxes poetic about all things whale. From the creation of that infamous whale model to the arctic narwhal’s horn to the exotic uses of ambergris (not to mention explaining what exactly ambergris is), The Whale is an eloquent exploration of our enthrallment with the giant beasts of the deep. Hoare delights in little known facts, curious anecdotes, historical photographs, and elegant illustrations to round out his portrait of the ages-long relationship between man and the original sea monster. Winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, you’ll have a whale of a time reading The Whale (sorry; couldn’t resist!).

Grayson by Lynne Cox, 2006, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Nature Writing/ Wildlife Rescue/ Memoir)

When Lynne Cox was seventeen years old and finishing her morning swim off the California coast, she suddenly found herself surrounded by a swirling school of anchovies, grunion, and tuna. But Lynne could sense another, larger presence in the water with her. After another mile or so, Lynne got her answer—an eighteen-foot-long baby gray whale was following her. Lynne knew that this “little” whale was migrating with its mother to the Bering Strait. But there was no mother whale—and at forty feet in length, Lynne would know if she were nearby. Soon a network of fishermen and lifeguards were on the lookout while the youngster—dubbed Grayson—swam with Lynne. And Lynne had to stay in the water, because if Grayson tried to follow her to shore, he’d die. This true adventure is fraught with danger, emotion, suspense, and an overwhelming sense of awe at the beauties of the ocean and its creatures.

The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists are Unraveling the Mystery of Our Favorite Crustacean by Trevor Corson, 2004, HarperCollins (Nature Writing/ Natural History/ Marine Biology/ Lobsters) 

Ah, the lobster—big, red, juicy, delicious. Of course, a lobster’s goal is not to end up on your dinner plate, but to eat and mate and thrive in the deep blue sea. The fishermen who harvest this tasty seafood would agree, believe it or not, since their livelihood depends on there being enough lobster to meet demand. Journalist Trevor Corson traces the circle of life that is Maine’s lobster industry. Now, lobsters are not cute. But what they lack in the grace of a leaping dolphin or the majesty of a diving whale, lobsters make up for in sheer tenacity. Having survived overfishing, artificial insemination at the hands of scientists, and ferocious claw-to-claw battles, lobsters are thriving. With a cast of dashing fishermen, witty marine biologists, and the bold brash crustacean itself, there’s a lot to be said for The Secret Life of Lobsters indeed.

Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality by Helen Scales, 2009, Gotham Books (Nature Writing/ Natural History/ Marine Biology/ Seahorses)

Greek mythology casts the seahorse as the “hippocamp,” a magical part-horse, part-fish beast that pulls the chariot of Poseidon, god of the sea. To modern sea-gazers, the seahorse is simply adorable. It has a charming little silhouette (long snout, round belly, curly tail) and a whimsical love life (a heart-shaped mating dance that leads to papa seahorse bearing babies in a kangaroo-like pouch). The dainty seahorse is also a rare delicacy sold on the streets of Hong Kong’s black market, a supposed cure for everything from baldness to impotency, and a collector’s treasure in aquariums around the world. The delicately balanced undersea ecosystem of the seahorse is at risk, a fact which marine biologist Helen Scales (who learned to scuba dive just so she could someday observe the wild seahorse) is careful to point out. But mostly, Poseidon’s Steed is a love letter to the seahorse, and the author’s passion for the dazzling little critters shows on every page.

The Search for the Giant Squid: The Biology and Mythology of the World’s Most Elusive Sea Creature by Richard Ellis, 1998, Lyons Press (Nature Writing/ Natural History/ Marine Biology/ Giant Squids)

Meet Architeuthis (arki-TOOTH-iss), otherwise known the elusive, mysterious, very rare giant squid. Until 1997, no one had ever observed a living, healthy giant squid. Dead squid—often more than fifty feet long—had been washing up on beaches or getting tangled in fishermen’s nets for decades, but it took a fully-funded voyage manned by experts and equipped with deep-sea cameras (attached to the backs of whales) to actually capture the first images of giant squid in action. As marine biologist Ellis recounts the details of the National Geographic-sponsored expedition, he tells us everything we ever wanted to know about the giant squid—and really, it’s all completely absorbing and utterly fascinating. From the facts of the squids’ biology to the tenuous theories about its behavior, from myths and legends to historical tall-tales and classic literature, one thing about The Search for the Giant Squid rings true: Architeuthis is irresistible.

The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss edited by Claire Nouvian, 2007, University of Chicago Press (Science/ Marine Biology/ Deep Sea Photography)

Okay, so maybe whales never meet the sea monsters that swell in The Deep. Thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface, far from the sun-kissed waves, down where light cannot reach and where the water pressure is thousands of pounds per inch, there is life—weird, bizarre, uncanny life. Translucent jellyfish abound in seas across the globe. Every other fish lights up the dark water with bioluminescent headlight-eyes. Anglerfish prowl the deep with dangling glow-in-the-dark tentacles to lure prey straight into their big-toothed jaws. And everything has a fantastic name, as if the scientists who discovered these creatures just couldn’t resist the strangeness of it all. So get ready to meet googly-eyed glass squid, fanfin seadevils, elephant fish chimaeras, and naked sea butterflies in all their glory as you pour over the amazing colored photographs that make up The Deep.