Beginning the Year with Austen and Tea

2016 was a lot of ups and downs for me. But on the whole, it was not one of my better years. So, 2017 is going to be about small steps and silver linings (it is; I have as my theme in my new planner). And honestly, 2016 needed one helluva chaser so it was time for some Austen. And tea.

Luckily, Austen fit in well with one of my reading goals. I need to empty my to-read drawer and two books are fit my need for an Austen chaser. I started with the annotated version of Pride & Prejudice that I picked up in the coolest bookstore I have even seen in an airport during my work trip to Milwaukee in November (a trip I’d otherwise happily never think of again as it was over election). It was too good a deal for the copy that I happily hauled the substantial volume back to Tallahassee. This annotated version is edited by David M. Shapard and I’ve seen added his other Austen annotated versions to my reading list. P&P of course can always stand on its own but add in lots of footnotes, explaining language, social customs, Austen’s own experiences as well as literary criticism and this Janeite is in a particularly fabulous nerdy heaven. I savored both re-visiting my second favorite Austen and learning more about all the world it inhabits historically and along the author’s timeline.

Which brought me neatly to a biography on Austen. I’ve read quite a few and honestly, unless someone stumbles across a hitherto unknown cache of Austen letters (swoon at the thought! Can you imagine?!), her story isn’t changing much these days. So finding a new take on her life story was a pleasant surprise. Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is delightful. It looks at Jane through the window of different objects, big and small, that she either owned or would have interacted with often throughout the course of her life and then frames that chapter around the item and its significance. These range from her writing desk to a bobbin of lace. I have read Byrne’s excellent biography¬†on the actress Mary Robinson so I knew she would do Jane justice and she does (and refrains from too much poetry this time around so gold star for that!). I particularly loved the chapters on her writing desk and her first check from her publisher John Murray. Jane is often presented through the framework of her family but she is at her best in my opinion when she is being presented on her own and shown as the genius she was, even if she deviates them from the usual Austen family memoir line.

These books were just what I needed. I have moved onto Phryne Fisher now (who could not let me down if she tried – she’s too fabulous) and I have a retelling of Beauty and the Beast in the wings so happy reading times ahead!

Influential Books

Not sure how I started thinking about this but I suspect it came from reading Lies My Teachers Told Me. It looks at textbooks used in high school history classes and all the ways they are inadequate to the task of teaching students history in the correct way. It made me reflect on my high school experience (and perhaps the fact this year is my 10 year reunion has me thinking about it too) and that moved me more towards the books I read in English class (overall, I don’t remember my history texts being the end all be all of my history classes). However, I soon realized limiting myself to books I read in class would leave out perhaps some of the most important. Books I stumbled into on library shelves, books given to me by relatives and friends and books that I, truth, can’t remember how I found them anymore. All I know is these books have permanent spots on my bookshelf where real estate is at a premium and I revisit them often. They have influenced me in some fashion – be it they introduced me to a genre of books that greatly influence me or the book itself I met at just the right point in my life. So, here in no particular order:

Anthem, Ayn Rand

Of all my classes over the years, 9th grade English stands on its own. It was a unique group of people with a teacher who pushed us further than anyone had up to that point. He expected more from us and while we moaned and groaned over it, I remember “By The Waters of Babylon” being particularly painful, we enjoyed it. It’s a class we still reference to this day and was the place I was first introduces to Anthem. This was, upon reflection, both a good and bad thing. Good because Anthem was pretty defining at the time. Think about, a bunch of freshman reading a book that is about creating individual identity, forging one’s way outside of the safety of one’s family and community, discovering how you are going to define yourself? It was also good because it introduced me to the dystopian genre, a genre I went on to devour over the following summer. This was before Hunger Games, Matched, Divergent. I had only the classics of the genre: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World. It’s a genre I still love today and kind of love that it’s mainstream now. Bad? Well, Ayn Rand comes with her own set of problems. Anthem is a novella and about as likable as Rand gets. It’s because of Anthem I worked to read Atlas Shrugged so hard. I succeeded but I definitely did not like Rand as much when I was finished. What had been such a celebration of individuality and exploration in Anthem just became the story of selfish, insufferable, unlikable people in Atlas Shrugged. But, I still take a summer afternoon and read Anthem, if only to remember my 15 year old self.

Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery

I sadly have no idea how I found Anne. Was it a gift? Did I buy it myself? Did I, horrors!, watch the movie and Road to Avonlea long before I read the first book? Anything is possible. I just remember begging my mother to drive me out to Waldenbooks in 6th grade because I HAD TO HAVE THE NEXT BOOK. I even recall buying the last three books at the same time as I just knew I was going to read them in record time. What would my life had been like if no precocious redhead hadn’t assured me there were no mistakes in tomorrow yet? Anne was the first fictional best friend I wanted, Gilbert definitely my first fictional boyfriend and Marilla the best aunt a girl could ask for. I wanted to live in these books so bad it wasn’t even funny. And hey, they were educational as well. Thank you Walter for where you fought in WWI as I distinctly remember it helping me on a test in school. Anne also introduced me to more of L.M. Montgomery’s books and short stories which I still pull out for comfort reads whenever I have the chance.

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

My aunt gave me this book in 4th grade. I have no idea why to be honest. Maybe she’d liked it as a kid and wanted to share it with me, her bookworm niece? For whatever reason, I am forever grateful. I didn’t get this book at first. WWII was just a vague concept in my head, the Holocaust a word that I knew was bad but didn’t really get why. Anne explained that to me. She also though was infallibly honest. I think we heroize her a bit too much. She was a teenager; she fought with her mother and her sister, she had a crush on the only boy she could, she was a brat at times, a saint at others. Her flaws were amplified by the situation she found herself in, as were her great moments. I appreciated her more when I was older and I marvel now. This girl, in hiding for persecution based only on her beliefs, wrote that, in spite of everything, she still believed that people were good at heart. One of my favorite moments of my semester abroad was visiting the Secret Annex and paying my respects to the dreamer who hid there. It brought into my world something I had only imagined in a book.

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

I came very late to Austen. Shocking I know and one of my best friend was the one who properly introduced me to her finally in high school. Once I’d had my first introductions, there was no going back. Austen’s brand of romance, humor and tone hits such a perfect cord with me, I read a lot of literature simply because it is marketed as “Austenesque.” I even read all the continuations, moderizations; I watch all the movies, no matter that I’ve seen five other versions. Hell, I own three versions of Pride & Prejudice on DVD. Well this isn’t my favorite of Austen’s work (Persuasion holds that honor), it was the first I read and therefore the one I owe for making me a Janeite.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire

I think I found this wandering the aisles of Borders. I had read Wicked and enjoyed it though it was a dense read and Confessions sounded as if it were along the same lines. Not so. Confessions was a much more approachable book, a book with a much clearer plot and the lines of the story, while still grey, a bit easier to follow. It was not the first time I had read a revisionist novel (clearly since I had read Wicked), but it was the first time I grasped how cool the concept could be. Iris was my kind of girl; a brilliant, plain Jane, someone who is just trying to do the right thing and who, in a moment of weakness, thinks about doing the selfish thing. Many years later, Confessions would inspire my senior thesis ensuring that fairy tale retellings will always fascinate me and also remind me that nothing is as black and white as we would like.

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I think perhaps I saved the best for last. The Little Prince is a book you have to grow into. I had a copy on my shelves from an early age though I’ve no idea where it came from. I had read it, enjoyed it and then forgotten about it. Then it was handed to me in 11th grade French class and suddenly it was a book of wisdom, of life lessons, a book I could always turn to for comfort, for hope, for a touch of whimsy when I needed it. It teaches you that there is always more than one way to look at something, that you must always tend your baobabs, and that sometimes, those things staring you in the face are the very things you were looking for in the first place. It is a story of trying to find one’s way home and the things you discover along the way. While high school French class touched me in many ways, The Little Prince is the gift I treasure most and I’ll pull out my copies (one in English and in black and white, one in French with the color illustrations) and remind myself of its lessons whenever I have a bad day.