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Posts Tagged ‘classic books’

First, I had a cold. Now, I fear I might catch Austen-itus, a strain of  the virulent Austenmania, which is rampant in bookstores everywhere these days. Here a Darcy, there a Pemberley, everywhere an Austen wannabe. That “Clean-up on Aisle 2” must be yet another victim of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I’m not an Austen purist. Far from it.  I adore Clueless, the clever movie adaptation of Emma.  I swoon for Colin Firth, both in the miniseries and Bridget Jones’ Diary. I think the mash-up P&P&Z is hilarious, and am looking forward to the prequel, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, which drops next week.

But I couldn’t bring myself to read Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters because the cover showed poor Colonel Brandon looking like Bill Nighy/Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean.  I also have grown weary/leary of all the Austen faux sequels, in which major and minor characters from Austen get new lives. Some of them might as well be zombies, they’re so lifeless and dull. Jane herself is a vampire in Jane Bites Back, and really, who can blame her?

Still, because Austen only wrote six books, and I can only reread them so many times, I find myself looking for books written with her kind of wit and style. For as Mr. Bennet once said, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

It’s Cathleen Schine’s turn in The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a contemporary comedy of manners a la Sense and Sensibility. If you’re familiar with Austen’s tale of the Dashwoods’ descent into genteel poverty and their troubles with reason and romance, you’ll appreciate Schine’s book all more. She parallels the plot and characters when it suits, but she’s smart and skilled enough to go her own way.

The three Weismanns — 75-year-old mother Betty and her middle-aged daughters, pragmatic librarian Annie and emotional literary agent Miranda — are engaging and endearing characters in their own right. Because Betty’s husband of nearly 50 tears has dumped her for his young assistant, Felicity, Betty is forced out of her Manhattan apartment to a shabby Westport cottage owned by wealthy Cousin Lou. She is joined by Miranda, disgraced and bankrupt by her “Awful Authors” who have been faking their memoirs, and by Annie, who rents out her New York apartment so the three have a little money. Both sisters have love affairs — Annie with the novelist brother of the duplicitous Felicity, and Miranda with a handsome young actor with a cute toddler son. Difficulties ensue, some of them farcical. 

Schine is an artful satirist who lets the arrows fly. But her heroines know fear and doubt. At one point, Annie, in Palm Beach at Christmas (the equivalent of Austen’s Bath during the season) wonders if this is “real life.”

“Sometimes her life struck her as a mistake, not in a big, violent way, but as a simple error, as if she had thought she was supposed to bear left at an intersection when she should have taken a sharp left, and had drifted slowly, gradually, into the wrong town, the wrong state, the wrong country; as if she returned to a book she was reading after staring out the window at the rain, but someone had turned the page.”

Schine’s on the right page, whether or not she borrows a few from Austen.

Open Book: I bought my copy of The Three Weissmanns of Westport (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If you like it, try Paula Marantz Cohen’s Jane Austen in Scarsdale, Or Love, Death and the SATs (St. Martin’s, 2007)), a lively updating of Persuasion. I bought it, too.

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I’m ready to follow Tim Burton’s Alice down the rabbit hole, curious to see how his imagination meshes with Lewis Carroll.  I love Alice ‘s Adventures in Wonderland and its companion Through the Looking-Glass and often find myself quoting from the books. “Down, down, down.”  “Curiouser and curiouser.” “I knew who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” “Oh, my ears and whiskers!”

I admit there’s not much call for “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:/All mimsy were the borogroves,/ And the mome raths outgrabe.”  But I love the sound of the words. Jabberwocky!

But as Alice herself says, “what use is a book without pictures and conversations?” Carroll’s tales have many nonsensical conversations and fantastical characters, but the illustrations can make a difference between a nice children’s book and a masterpiece. Like filmmakers, artists are challenged to bring Wonderland to life.

I think my first Alice was a laminated copy with a cover illustration from the 1950s Disney animated version. It disappeared years ago, but I still have a red leather “classic” with the famous John Tenniel illustrations. I can remember drawing pretty good copies of Alice looking up in the tree at the Cheshire Cat.

Tenniel’s Alice is a stumpy little thing (except when her neck grows), quite different from Arthur Rackham’s more ethereal, fairy-tale creature or Mervyn Peake’s sprite. Michael Hague depicts her with long brown tresses in a party dress and Mary Janes, while Barry Moser’s wood engravings show a more modern moppet with a cloud of dark hair. To my mind, Moser has the best white rabbit. Having seen several of Burton’s drawings, I like his Cheshire Cat.

If you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s Coraline with its illustrations by Dave McKean, or seen the animated film, which is up for an Oscar, you’ll know that a talking cat plays quite a large role in that story. Other similarities include a small locked door, a tunnel like a rabbit hole, a beguiling heroine, assorted eccentrics and a rather terrifying adventure in an alternate world.  Watching the movie the other day, I hoped that Burton does as good a job with Alice as director Henry Selick did with Coraline, which has a bit of Burton about it. Turns out that Selick also directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Ah! Curiouser and curiouser.

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cover of first edition of Newbery Award-winning classic

It was a dark and stormy night.

Really. The rain and the wind woke me up Thursday night, and I knew what I wanted to write about as my first post on my new blog.

Many of you know that Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the stirring phrase “It was a dark and stormy night,” which became so associated with bad florid prose that San Jose State University annually sponsors the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the best worst opening sentences. And, of course, Snoopy of Peanuts cartoon fame also opts for the dramatic words for the beginning of his many novels.

Extra credit, though, if you also recognize “It was a dark and stormy night” as the first sentence of Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy novel that won the 1963 Newbery Award, thus assuring its place as a kid-lit classic. Miranda, the 12-year-old narrator of Rebecca Stead’s novel When You Reach Me, knows the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time without looking because she is always re-reading her copy. “I had probably read it a hundred times, which is why it looked so beat-up,” she says.

Ah, Miranda. Know exactly what you mean. After reading When You Reach Me, which uses L’Engle’s time-travel tale as a touchstone, I went in search of my own beat-up Scholastic Book Fair paperback. I re-read it, then re-read Stead’s book, enchanted again by its own artful puzzle plot, with its fantasy elements neatly embedded in the down-to-earth setting of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, circa 1979.  Middle-school magical realism, if you will.

Miranda’s everyday world, in which she wonders why her best friend Sal has stopped talking to her and where she is helping her idealistic single mom prep to be a game-show contestant, tilts when she receives four mysterious letters that seem to predict the future.  An apartment key also goes missing. And what’s up with the homeless guy – dubbed “the laughing man’’ by Miranda’s mom – who lies with his head under the corner mailbox, and frenemies Marcus with his head in a book (or the clouds) and  Julia with her nose in the air and a ready explanation of the nature of time using a ring of diamond chips?

When You Reach Me last week won the Newbery Award from the American Library Association. Hurray! It deserves to be timeless.

(Open Book: I’ve owned my paperback of A Wrinkle in Time for years, and I bought a hardcover When You Reach Me (Random House) last fall. It’s already looking a bit beat-up)

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