Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

The great Jane Austen read-through continues with Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey is not as deep of a character study as Emma, nor as serious a rumination on England’s class system and women’s role and opportunity within it as Sense and Sensibility or Mansfield Park. Nor is it as thoughtful a meditation of romantic love and what goes into a good marriage as Pride and Prejudice. But what Northanger Abbey lacks in weight it makes up for in humor.

This book is funny. 

Now, all of Jane Austen’s books are funny. But Northanger Abbey is more biting, almost acerbic, than Austen’s previous books. Austen’s descriptions are sharp and, while veering a little into caricature, stop just short of being mean. And of particular note is her satire of both novels and those critics who despise the artform. Continue reading “Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen”

Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

I am four books into my read-through of the entire Jane Austen canon, and all I can say is that I enjoy each book more than the last.

So does that mean that Emma, the topic of this review, is a better book than Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park? Only in the sense that I seem to enjoy whichever of her books I am reading at the time the most.

Everybody knows Emma, right? Emma Woodhouse, the matchmaker who cares so much about the romantic goings-on of others, and so little for her own, that a few early successes blind her to the romantic blunders she is making others step into.

This matchmaking aspect is a large part of Emma. But it’s not the only part. I am finding it difficult to say anything about the Austen oeuvre that hasn’t been said before and have instead tried to extract from them why I think they are worth reading aside from the entertaining stories. And two themes that I took from Emma are those of self-awareness and that people can change.

Let’s have some plot for context: Emma is the youngest daughter of the hypochondriac widower Henry Woodhouse. She is charming, rich, witty, attractive, and too clever for her own good. After successfully matching her sister Isabella to family friend John Knightly, she fancies herself somewhat of an expert on matchmaking. And that is where her trouble begins.

Emma is also flighty, inconstant, and never spends enough time devoting herself to the improvement of anything, as John Knightly’s brother George, who serves as her conscience, is so fond of pointing out. She is, in other words, a middleweight despite her obvious energy and intellect:

“She was not much deceived as to her own skill, either as an artist or a musician; but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.”

What’s worse, many of her schemes to bring people together go wrong, with sometimes humorous, sometimes harmful results.Her friend Harriet Smith; the priest Mr. Elton; the farmer Robert Martin; Frank Churchill, the stepson of Emma’s governess; family friend Jane Fairfax . . . they are all on the receiving end of Emma’s machinations. The fun and poignancy of the story is seeing all of these little stories play out, and the effect that they have on Emma and her conception of self.

I won’t go into spoilers except to say that, as with all of Austen’s works, her characterizations are sharp and deep, her insights into human nature are masterful, and there is always that dialogue . . . some of the best written by anyone, ever, in the English language.

But Emma might be my favorite Austen character thus far, and here’s why: While clearly intended to be unlikable at the outset, she does what she does not out of malice, but out of what she thinks is for the best. So there’s a clear intention/outcome dichotomy, but it works because of Emma’s  willingness to change. Continue reading “Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen”

Book Review: Down the Dragon Hole by Morgon Newquist

I’m not a big “genre” guy, whether it comes to movies, music, or books. If I like something, I like something, regardless of whether it ticks all of the boxes for “fantasy” or “sci-fi” or “horror.”

That said, I do enjoy a good fantasy from time to time, and I recently finished one, Down the Dragon Hole: A Tale of the School of Spells & War by Morgon Newquist.

Morgon and her husband Russel run the independent publishing company Silver Empire, and are both authors. In fact, it is through Russell that I came across the term “superversive.”

And in the interests of full disclosure, I have to let you know that I have become friends with both Morgon and Russell online over the past year.

With that out of the way, on to the review. Continue reading “Book Review: Down the Dragon Hole by Morgon Newquist”

Book Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Another book finished in my read-through of the works of Jane Austen, that famous British author known for her tales of romance that were simultaneously good entertainment and critiques and commentaries on British society. This time it’s Mansfield Park, Austen’s third novel, published in 1814.

Some consider her works to be, and I hate this term, “chick lit.” That is, not a type of gum, but “literature for women.”

To borrow a phrase from our English friends, bollocks.

Good literature is good literature. Calling Austen “chick lit” is like saying a book like The Killer Angels a “guy book” just because it’s about the Civil War.

I see Jane Austen, in a way, as the intellectual forefather (foremother?) of Ray Davies, the great singer and songwriter for the rock band The Kinks. Both of them poked fun at English society and norms, not with meanness and snark, but with a great deal of love and affection.

Enough background. On to the review.

As with my reviews of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, I don’t to rehash plot points here, and instead answer a very simple question:

What should anybody, particularly a male-sort of person living in the twenty-first century, read this book? What did I get out of it?

Again, being an American living in the year 2016, I am not quite as familiar with what was going on in English history in the year 1814 except as it implicates America (for example, there was this war between England and America that started in 1812 . . .). And to be fair, Mansfield Park is no sweeping historical novel, using world events as a backdrop.

I am also not that knowledgeable about the norms of the British class structure in the early nineteenth century, save for that it was pretty rigid and that, for women, marriage was one of, if not the, only way to improve one’s lot in life.

Instead, while reading, I focused on some of the more ordinary points that Austen tried to make, particularly as they pertain to relationships.

And in this regard, as with the other Austen novels I’ve read, Mansfield Park doesn’t disappoint. Continue reading “Book Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen”

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

jane-austen-pride-and-prejudice

Here I go, continuing with my read through of Jane Austen novels. She is “for chicks,” so I’ve heard. I don’t care. I am enjoying the hell out of her work. For supposedly “frivolous” stuff written some two-hundred years ago, Austen’s work still has a lot to offer us in our oh-so modern age.

In my review of Sense and Sensibility, I discussed how Austen offers great insight into different types of people and how their natures or flaws shape their actions. I also realized, as I read that book, the following:

. . . it’s good for men to read things written by women to understand their perspective.

I stand by this statement as it comes to Pride and Prejudice, as it relates to Austen’s view on marriage and relationships, and what goes into a good one as opposed to a bad.

I’m not going to get too much into the plot, save that it centers around the five Bennet sisters, primarily the oldest two Jane and Elizabeth, and their various love affairs. It’s all told through the perspective of Elizabeth, the most prideful, free-thinking, and I would say rebellious of the bunch, and it is her courtship with the haughty and proud Mr. Darcy that most people remember and love about this book.

My conclusion is that the book is entertaining, witty, and romantic as hell. I’m not going to lie: My manly self loves a good love story if it’s well told and the author makes me actually like the characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen does all of this and then some. There’s nothing wrong with a good happy ending, after all. It’s a nice respite from life.

In addition to being a better-written and more entertaining book than Sense and Sensibility, in Pride and Prejudice, Austen shows us two important things:

  1. What goes into a good marriage, days
  2. The importance of courtship

Marriage has been on my mind lately, especially since I recently had my sixth wedding anniversary. So much ink has been spilled, and dollars spent and made, in the marriage-help business. I argue that Jane Austen does at least as good a job as all of these relationship gurus in describing what goes into a good marriage and why. Let’s take a look at some of the principal relationships in the book and see how they relate to these two factors. Continue reading “Book Review: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen”

Book Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is chick lit.

Yeah, I know. So the next question is: Why is such a manly man of manliness like me reading her?

Let’s get some stuff out of the way first: My brother, who is also quite manly, enjoyed and highly recommended her. And then there’s my good buddy the author, English scholar, and manly man who recommended them to me. So my manly credentials remain intact.

And second, most importantly, if something is good, it’s good, regardless if I’m a member of its so-called intended audience.

I recently finished reading Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first novel, and let me tell you, it’s good. And I think men should read this book, and Jane Austen in general. Why?

Because it’s good for men to read things written by women to understand their perspective.

There. I said it. No, I haven’t gone full feminist. But I am concerned by how messed up man-woman relations are in the twenty-first century. In reading Sense and Sensibility, I’m struck by how nice it is to enjoy a story where men are manly and women are womanly, each sex exhibiting strengths, weaknesses, and in general complimenting each other the way those in healthy relationships should. Throw away all of the social stuff regarding the limited opportunities for women at that time and enjoy the story for what it is. Continue reading “Book Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen”

Book Review: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The Civil War is one of the most fascinating periods in American history. It largely shaped many facets about the kind of country we have today: The relationship between blacks and whites, the States and the Federal Government, and the various regions of the country. As the U.S. expanded in size and influence over the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th, the fallout from the Civil War loomed over it all. 

Unfortunately, my understanding of the Civil War is very general. I don’t know much about the individual battles or the people involved. And so a few weeks ago I finally got around to reading a book my mother recommended to me years ago, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. 

This review is about the book and not the man. All I am going to say about Mr. Shaara is that he can write his ass off. 

The Killer Angels is a fictional, though historically accurate, account of the the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.  The book picks up in the third year of the war on June 29, 1863, two day before the battle, which lasted from July 1 to July 3, began.  The battle turned the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg into a charnel house and marked the beginning of the end for the Confederates. 

The timing of this review is no accident. For whatever reason, this was the book I decided to pick from my to-read like a few weeks ago. Like I’ve said before, I used to believe in coincidences. 

Shaara writes battle scenes with such force and tension that you will get chills. But what makes this book so riveting is that the actual fighting is almost incidental to the story. The Killer Angels is about the men who fought. Continue reading “Book Review: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara”