MANSFIELD PARK: Tips for reading

The book: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, published 1814.

My relationship with the book:

As much as I am a Janeite, I have never particularly liked Mansfield Park. My first acquaintance with it came from the 2007 adaptation (starring Billie Piper, Hayley Atwell and Blake Ritson), and subsequently the controversial Patricia Rozema adaptation from 1999. I read it for the first time in 2011, spring semester of my first year at uni, for the Jane Austen class I was taking at the time. I didn’t particularly like it – I found Fanny and pretty much everyone except the Crawfords annoying and/or boring. However, I recently got very intrigued by it after reading some critiques and close readings of it, and reread it in January 2016, with much more interest.

Why it can be scary:

It is, I would say, the generally most disliked Austen. The main character splits people up pretty evenly, and nothing too dramatic in the modern sense happens, and you sort of need to have a grasp of nuance regarding the time to get the magnitude of things. It’s a rather cumbersome novel compared to Pride and Prejudice or Emma – or any of the others, really. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but many people are dissatisfied with it. (There is a lot to be said about the endings in Austen, but that might be an essay right there so maybe I will save it for another time.)

My five tips to reading it:

  1. Look for irony. This applies to all Austen, really, but I can’t emphasise it enough, because it seems people miss it. The questions you need to ask is who is saying it, how they phrase it, and what they actually mean. A lot of Austen’s characters contradict themselves a lot – just look at Mrs Elton in Emma or Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, or Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice! It’s usually the unpleasant characters who do this, but the narrator does it also – there are some excellent bits of narration that are merciless when it comes to the characters. Pay attention to wording, because that is so important.
  2. As with War and Peace, you may want to write down some names in the beginning. The book opens with a description of the family situation, and it requires some concentration. Basically though, the odious Mrs Norris is the eldest sister, Lady Bertram the middle one, and Mrs Price, Fanny’s mother, the youngest. Of the Bertram girls, Maria is the elder. I am saying this because I keep forgetting, which way around they are.
  3. Pay attention to Fanny. This may sound like silly advice when you consider that she’s the main character, of course you’ll pay attention to her – except you don’t. Fanny is so easy to forget. As John Mullan says, you forget that she’s in the room, or, indeed, in the book. For most of the book, it seems more like Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford are the main characters, but don’t forget Fanny. If you keep an eye on when you and the other characters forget about her, and when they notice her, you’ll find that this is very interesting in terms of the message of the book.
  4. Related to point three, pay attention to emotion. People call Fanny cold, but she really isn’t. She feels very deeply, but keeps it to herself – indeed, there is a lot of scholarship discussing the way she self-confessedly doesn’t and cannot act. Don’t let her inactivity fool you: she is absolutely brimming with emotion and feeling, especially when it comes to a certain letter. (I was reading that bit on the bus and wanted to scream because of how incredibly, if unintentionally, cruel it is. Poor Fanny!)
  5. There are some important themes that you might keep in mind. Theatre and acting is absolutely one of them – everyone is putting up an act, or at least everyone central, that is, Fanny, Edmund, Mary, and Henry. There is some delightful ambiguity about the last of that list though. It’s also interesting to read this novel from a postcolonial point of view (this explains the curiously long conversation about an apricot tree, as observed by Kathleen Fowler). Indeed, I would suggest looking up some thematic analyses of the novel, especially if you’re about to read it for the second time, as this illustrates with how many focalisers one can look at it.

As I said, upon the second reading I enjoyed Mansfield Park much more. I’m still annoyed at myself for disliking Fanny Price for so long; she’s not everyone’s cup of tea and I can certainly understand that, but I don’t think she should be judged for the wrong things. Five years has also made Mary and Henry Crawford more interesting – I can’t decide what to make of them. Are they sincere? Are they not? Are they bad people, or just misguided? Is there a difference? A fact often ignored is that Mansfield Park is Austen’s most scandalous novel, when it comes to events, and it addresses a number of moral questions. No, it’s not light and funny, but that does not make it any less good. I hereby publicly admit my shame and claim Mansfield as just as worthy of my love as the other Austens.

If you have misgivings about the book, I recommend you watch/listen to John Mullan’s speech at the Hay Festival. In this speech he sets to reclaim Fanny and her novel, and does it extremely well – it is this speech that ignited my interest in this book in earnest. He is also an excellent close-reader, and a hugely entertaining and energetic performer! One of my favourite things he does in this speech is draw attention to the similarities between Elizabeth Bennet and Mary Crawford.

Katherine Addison: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR

Looking at the prospect of the next few novels to review on my Epic Reading List (a long stretch of scifi from the late ’70s that I didn’t particularly enjoy), I have suddenly and inexplicably decided that it’d be more fun to just review novels as I read them, particularly ones that I really loved, instead of trying to talk about them in any particular order*.

SO.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Katherine Addison’s THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, Hugo nominated in 2015 (and my #1 pick for its category).

You guys. YOU GUYS. If you haven’t read this book yet, you are missing the fuck out. Fantasy! Politics! Worldbuilding! Court intrigue! People trying to behave as ethically as possible in a position which is inherently unethical! There is nothing not to love here.

I had some slight hesitations when I set out to read THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, because politics can get very dry in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Court intrigue can get to be a real strain on the ol’ suspension of disbelief if too many of the characters start acting like they’re not real people — being evil and conniving for no reason beyond “The author needed someone to be evil and conniving”, for example. The thing is, you see, that people are basically the same everywhere: The vast majority of people act in accordance with their own moral code, whether they realize it or not. Most people don’t do things they know are bad. They do things that they think are the right and noble thing to do, and turmoil arises when their personal moral code diverges from the society’s moral code, or from another person’s.

(Which is not to say that we shouldn’t hold people accountable when their actions hurt other people — we should. We absolutely should. But a person who is setting out to Do A Thing generally tries to find a way to justify that the Thing they’re Doing is fine, really, whether it’s helping the little old lady cross the street or arming themselves and occupying a government building to protest ‘injustice’ — the brain finds a way to say, “This is necessary, this is important, this is a thing I have to do to uphold my personal worldview.” We can hold people accountable for their actions at the same time as understanding the mechanism of how they decided to do it. These things are not mutually exclusive.)

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR’s politics and intrigue works exactly because Katherine Addison understands this concept. She understands that 99% of people will act according to their personal ethical code, and if people act unethically, it’s proooobably because it didn’t occur to them that what they were doing was an asshole thing to do. So the book is full of people with contradictory and conflicting moral/ethical codes, who are all trying to uphold their own beliefs in a world which has suddenly changed around them. It’s FANTASTIC. It’s amazing commentary, and it investigates questions without beating the reader over the head about it. You can read the book on many different levels — read it shallowly and it’s a delightful story about an unpopular, semi-forgotten prince, the youngest of his siblings, who suddenly finds himself crowned Emperor when everyone else in line to the throne dies, and (being a generally decent person) what he does with his position afterward. Or you can read it more deeply and get your teeth into all this political and philosophical commentary. There is nothing not to love about this book.

As my final note, I completely, completely ship Maia (the titular goblin emperor) and his bodyguard Cala. I was begging them to make out the entire time. My god.

Love yourself: Read THE GOBLIN EMPEROR. I recommend it with zero reservations whatsoever.

WAR AND PEACE: Tips for reading

One of my reading goals for 2016 is to read more classics – mostly English, but others as well – and, since I know many find them hard to tackle, it occurred to me it might be of some use to discuss them when I read them. I don’t have a strict plan like reading one a month or anything like that, because I’m completely a slave of my own fancy as well as due dates at the library, but I will post about them whenever I read them! I have a list of ten, but if you have requests or suggestions or would like a post about something I’ve perhaps read earlier, leave a comment!

As the new BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace started in the States last week, on the 18th, I thought I would start with this mammoth of a novel. (You can watch the trailer for the miniseries here – so far I find it delightful and so beautiful!)

The book: War and Peace (orig. Война и мир, Voina i mir) by Leo Tolstoy, published 1864–1869

My relationship with the book:

War and Peace is one of my dad’s favourite books, and it’s been in my line of sight all my life – the delightful four-volume set has patiently sat in the bookshelf and has now been appropriated to me own bookshelf. I used to think it’s something you read when you’re old and wise; but after reading Anna Karenina I decided Tolstoy was awesome and I really should read his most famous work. I first read War and Peace in the summer of 2013, when I was very into the Napoleonic Wars, and absolutely loved it. The translation I read back then was the Finnish one, Sota ja rauha by Esa Adrian from 1975. I reread it in December 2015, this time in the 2007 English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Why it can be scary:

It’s huge. No joking. The Finnish translation is some 2,000 pages, and the English one around 1,200 – in a much smaller font. It’s quite a commitment, and I also know some are put off by the Russian name system, which requires you to have a fairly good grasp on how naming works and what the standard nicknames are. There are a lot of characters, but they’ll narrow down to a very manageable number of principal ones.

My five tips to reading it:

  1. Don’t be scared of it. It’s huge, but Tolstoy’s writing isn’t too heavy. You’ll fly through it, especially when you get into it and grow familiar with the characters. My approach has been to read a hundred pages a day, but I’ve habitually read more: set a pace that’s good for you, and don’t force yourself. Keep it enjoyable. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ll want to be comfortable.
  2. It takes a while to get started: don’t be daunted by this. Once you get past the first 100 or so pages, it’ll pick up. This might also be a matter of translation – the Pevear & Volokhonsky has left all the French in, which means you have to keep referring to footnotes to know what’s going on, but the Adrian translation just translated everything. It’s well worth it, and the beginning sets the scene very well, even if it may appear a little pointless at first.
  3. Keep a list of names, and you may want to have little notes of relationships between characters, as well as nicknames if you’re finding the name system hard to keep track of. And write down the full names – first name, patronym, family name. The families you need to know are the Kuragins, the Rostovs, and the Bolkonskys. You will also want to pay attention to Pierre and Boris, as the former is a main character and the latter a permanent fixture. Dolokhov is also a name to keep an eye on. There are obviously character lists online, but at least the Wikipedia one gives you spoilers as to the fate of them, so I don’t recommend using it. I was spoiled rather badly the first time I checked for a name…
  4. You don’t have to read every word. I did the first time, but the second time it just wasn’t necessary. Tolstoy writes a lot about the disposition of troops and hypothetical conversations between generals and about the philosophy of war in general. Most of the time these bits don’t really move the plot or even include any of the main characters, so you can pick up what has happened when the characters are returned to. Of course, you might be very into this kind of thing, in which case you should of course read the descriptions. But if you, like me, are not particularly keen, my advice would be to scan the chapters that seem to be about tactics or some such for main character names, and if none appear, it’s probably safe to skip it. (Mind you, I do feel a bit guilty for skipping, so I scan these chapters in general just to make sure I don’t miss anything.)
  5. I’m a bit of a hypocrite for suggesting this, but keep notes. I haven’t, although my English copy is full of flags. There’s just so much to this book, and so much happens, often off page, that has an effect on how things work. I’d completely forgotten a lot of what goes on in about the last quarter of the book, and so I flagged all the important turns for the characters. It’ll help you keep things in order and remember where people are and who is dead and who is married and who went where and what is going on. Notes will help you refer back – at least at the pace I was reading I kept forgetting what had happened to some characters, and I imagine that reading it over a longer period of time would have a similar effect.

The last thing I will say about this book is that it’s one of those that you can return to over and over and over again. There were about two years between my readings, and it was a completely different book; I imagine next time it will be another book again. The characters I liked initially turn out to be ones I dislike; characters I didn’t care about the first time were my favourites this second time; War and Peace is such a well-rounded novel that it simply keeps on giving. I doubt it’s even possible to grasp all of it at once, for the sheer volume of subjects and stories it covers. It’s well worth reading, and nothing to be apprehensive of, and just such a delight. Read it.

Patricia McKillip: THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD

Published: 1975
Winner or Rec? World Fantasy Award winner
Started reading: September 28, 2014
Finished reading: September 29, 2014

A momentous occasion! The first-ever World Fantasy Award winner, and glad we are to see her too. The Epic Reading Project has thus far been a long, long tour through the great (overwhelmingly white, male) authors of science fiction, with only the occasional break for fantasy (THE LAST UNICORN, ILL MET IN LANKMAR, THE BROKEN SWORD, Earthsea — I’m looking at you guys. I appreciate you).  McKillip’s third novel marks a significant change in the landscape of the genre from here on out, and damn if it’s not a great one to kick off the WFAs with.

As you may have figured out, I am a terribly soft touch when it comes to lush worldbuilding, and THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD provides that in no small measure. McKillip’s writing is rich and detailed and helplessly lovely, but it’s a quiet, cozy sort of thing.

And then there’s Sybel — cold and emotionally distant Sybel, who has very little need for other people, and who cares for perhaps two people and her animals. Sybel keeps the world at arm’s length, and I love her for it.

Really enjoyed this book, I’d recommend it!

Jonathan Gottschall: THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL

Another once-in-a-blue-moon review! This week I’m reviewing a nonfiction book, THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: HOW STORIES MAKE US HUMAN.

I picked this up on a rec from a friend, seeing how I am in the thick of a manuscript that is all about stories and our relationships to them, how they affect us as individuals, and as communities, and as macro-scale societies. Which sounds really boring when I put it like that, eh? Think of THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS. It’s like that.

Gottschall’s book is mesmerizing — it’s a paean for story and language, and it explores the biological impetus that makes humans tell stories. From a scientific stance, I felt like Gottschall was citing studies that were rather older than ideal, and perhaps using too many anecdotes. HOWEVER, if you approach this book as if it is philosophy — one man’s personal argument on the importance of story in human life, and indeed the inability for story to be extricated from human life —  rather than as if it is science, these problems vanish. It’s a lovely book, and while it didn’t really introduce any new concepts to me (having been aware of story and its impact both as a reader (for my whole life) and as a writer (for roughly fifteen years)), it put into words some nebulous ideas that I have always understood but never had concrete ways to think about.

It’s a lovely book, and I recommend it particularly for writers.

KJ Parker: ACADEMIC EXERCISES

KJ Parker (an alias of novelist Tom Holt, but I’ve never read any Tom Holt novels, only KJ Parker novels) is my second favorite author of all time, period. Period.

ACADEMIC EXERCISES is an anthology of his short stories and three of his essays, each one a jewel. Parker writes beautifully, with no false sense of self-importance; where other writers would dress something up in silver and spangles, Parker depends on the natural beauty of the unadorned and the sheer splendor of flawless craftsmanship — the difference between a reasonably-made floor of pine boards covered in gold leaf and a perfectly made wooden floor made of barely-varnished rosewood and ebony marquetry.

Parker writes pornography for perfectionists. If you’re not a perfectionist, you might misunderstand — not sex. But he’ll tell you in lush and loving detail about things like… engineering. Interchangeable parts. The process of making twelve absolutely faultless and identical pieces, all laid in a neat row on a length of white cloth.

This is a man who has either a ridiculous practical knowledge of six or seven different fields of study (history, economics, war tactics and strategy, blacksmithing, engineering, fencing…), or a comprehensive theoretical knowledge thereof and a real talent for sitting down and figuring out the sensible, practical parts mentally. Or both. I don’t know which option is more impressive.

So the stories themselves, flawless. The essays, though, are on another level completely. Just when you thought KJ Parker couldn’t get any better, he sits down with you, as if over a companionable pint of beer, and spends a few thousand words telling you the sensible, practical ups and downs of sieges, swords, and scale-mail, and he does it with this down-to-earth language and a wonderfully wry sense of humor about the whole thing.

KJ Parker, you guys. KJ MOTHERFUCKING PARKER.

Arthur C Clarke: RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA

Winner or Rec? Hugo and Nebula winner 1974
Started reading: September 26, 2014
Finished reading: September 27, 2014

Arthur C Clarke, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

The thing about Clarke is that the entire book is a lead up to the very last sentence. He’ll distract you with his lovingly-described science, with his inventive little things, with some fairly solid characters, with a little bit of wry humor here and there… and then at the end, he does this thing — have you heard “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas? If you haven’t heard it since the last time you watched Disney’s Fantasia, go listen to it again now, because it is exactly the plot of an Arthur C Clarke book. If you don’t have nine minutes and fourteen seconds to spare at the moment, just listen to the last minute and a half, which is the climax and the denoument of the piece.

You have this torrential cascade of sound and fury, and then it winds down… and winds down… and then pay specific attention to the last five seconds of the piece. That last little thrilling burst of music that sends you back on an upward trajectory, just when you thought you were winding down to a sleepy, sedate ending.

That is what Clarke does at the end of RAMA (and at the end of THE FOUNTAINS OF PARADISE, but we’ll come to that later on). And that is why he’s a motherfucking genius.

Read this book. And read his other books too!