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Remembrance Day; a time to think, read and learn

Japanese Canadian War Memorial

Japanese Canadian War Memorial

Yesterday on November 11, my husband took the girls to a Remembrance Day ceremony held at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park. Justin’s great-grandfather’s name is upon the cenotaph and the ceremony they attend commemorates the sacrifices Japanese-Canadians made for their country. I always find this interesting in light of the fact that these men and their descendants were treated as foreigners and enemies in the next war and interned in prison camps. But that’s another post. It’s interesting to note, however, that in 1916 volunteers were not accepted in British Columbia, so they travelled to Alberta in order to enlist.



Justin’s great grandfather Masahiro Shishido. I was describing the Kaiser’s mustache to the girls and here Grandpa shows us how it’s done.

When I ask the girls what Remembrance Day is all about, they parrot, “To remember the soldiers who served their country in war,” which is what they’re told at school. When I ask, For which war was Remembrance Day created in 1931? they’re not sure. They’ve heard of Hitler but that’s about it. They know I like history so they begin asking for a complete rundown of World War I and World War II – over breakfast. I’m not equipped to deliver a history lecture but I did my best with the little I know. I am in the process of learning about World War I, which is further back in history and therefore harder to grasp and understand. I have a whole list of books I’m working on, although the best starting place has been Ken Follett’s recent history trilogy that begins with Fall of Giants and World War I. Winter of the World deals with World War II and the third one, Edge of Eternity, is about the 1960s and the changes of that era. Ken Follett has a great way of giving immediacy to history and is one of the best authors for providing a coherent framework on which to hang further research.

My plan is to try to teach the girls a bit of history at a time and to try to bring that sense of immediacy to them. I think it’s important that World War I was the first mechanized war. Men from farms and villages who had never seen machinery were now overwhelmed with technology. People who had never heard so much as a firecracker were stunned by colossal explosions. Horses were used in the war, which seems incredible now.  Shell-shock was the old term for PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, only of course in the 1910s people didn’t understand what the soldiers had truly endured, unless they’d been there themselves. There are so many things to learn about this war and it spread out in all directions. I’m actually feeling that I should learn more about the Crimean War to get more background on World War I! It never ends, does it?

I think that books and movies are the places to start. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is good, as is Passchaendale. Legends of the Fall is on my list and also possibly Gallipolli, although World War I in the Middle East is an entire category on its own.

For books, Charles Todd’s series about a Scotland Yard detective who is a veteran of World War I is well done, as is Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. I remember reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school and not understanding a bit of it because there was no context. None of us had any clue about the history of the novel. I should reread that.

For nonfiction, on my list I have Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace, Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, A World Undone by G.J. Meyer (I love this author), and Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson. But there is a whole slew of nonfiction books on the subject so – lots of reading to do.

I think for the kids, perhaps the best introduction might be Rilla of Ingleside, one of the last books in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. They absolutely loved Anne of Green Gables and we will continue the series although I’m waiting for them to get a bit older. In Rilla, war touches Anne’s family with tragedy. It’s the saddest Anne book and L.M. Montgomery’s books are full of tragedy so that’s saying something.

I’m also considering an introduction to World War I poets. Every single school Remembrance Day ceremony features John McCrae’s In Flanders Field, which is beautiful, but I take mild exception to the third verse which exhorts the living to continue the war, to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” The poem was so popular it was used as war propaganda to whip up support. I prefer Siegfried Sassoon, who used poetry to express his disillusionment with those who perpetuated a jingoistic and useless war. His poems powerfully convey an enormous grief and bitterness. No pro-war propaganda here; Sassoon was seriously angry and you get a very sharp sense of that in his poetry.

I am aware that Remembrance Day is a day we keep aside to honour those who felt it was their duty to try to protect other people, regardless of which specific war they served in. I also feel that it our responsibility to take the time to consider those who volunteer to be prepared to protect us and our system of belief. And of course we think about the lives of those who sacrificed themselves in the service of their country.  But I tend to think most about the First World War, the war that shocked the world and changed us forever.



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Rushing to 1-click: Love Nina by Nina Stibbe

I love epistolary memoirs. The first one I read was Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road. The minutiae of daily life, the interpersonal exchanges, the casual musings of someone who has a definite worldview – and a sense of humour – this is literary gold. It hardly feels literary, however; it’s just a peek into someone’s life, someone you wish you knew. It’s very close to a diary, although a letter has an audience whereas a diary isn’t supposed to.

Love, Nina is a wonderful example of an epistolary memoir. In the early 80s, Nina Stibbe became nanny to a literary household, with two boys aged around 10 and 11, and a dryly witty writer mother. Various friends, including Alan Bennett, add their two cents to dinnertime conversation, which Nina reports verbatim in her letters to her sister in Leicester.

By page 17 I knew this was going to be one of my favourite books ever, so rushed to 1-click it on Amazon and had it delivered to all my devices, although I also want a hard copy to lend to friends. This book is, like The Rosie Project, one of my big laugh-out-loud favourite books this year. The Rosie Effect, which I am reading on my Kindle app on my phone while I exercise on the treadmill at the gym (it’s ok, everyone else is wearing earphones so they can’t hear me laughing) is another one but as it’s a sequel of The Rosie Project perhaps doesn’t count.

It helps if you can hear an English accent while you read. London/Estuary accent for most of them, and Northern for Nina (I can’t conjure up a Midlands accent, even in my head, so figure Northern is the next best). And sometimes cockney, especially this part:

“The best bit was when we went into an antique shop and Misty picked up a pickle fork with a pretty green jewel on the end.

“How much is this pickle fork?” she asked the antique man.

The man said it wasn’t a pickle fork but a runcible spoon.

Misty: What’s a runcible spoon?

Man: One of them in your hand.

Misty: But what’s it for?

Man: Pickles and such.”

When I read this exchange I heard the voice of Mike, my cockney co-worker at a jewellery store in London. It’s exactly the kind of thing he would say, too, which I suppose is why he was in the basement doing all the shipping/receiving instead of being on the floor selling silver shooter cups to punters like the rest of us.

I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s wonderful, I hope you read it.



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The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

I’m so far behind on book reviews….for some reason book reviews are really dominating my blog. At some point soon I’ll try to get back to other topics but for now, here’s another book review:

headmasters-cover-US-220wideVincent Lam grabbed everybody’s attention by winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2006 with his book Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. I was not actually able to get heavily into this book (my fault, clearly), but when I saw The Headmaster’s Wager at the library I picked it up. I found the premise very intriguing and as soon as I started reading knew I was reading something wonderful that was nevertheless going to devastate me. It takes place in Saigon and Cholon during the Vietnam War, so that’s a rather a giveaway.

In 1994, my husband and I moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for his job. While there I began to read books about the history of the region and became interested in the Chinese Diaspora. There’s a great book called Sons of the Yellow Emperor by Lynn Pan that traces the emigration of millions of Chinese across the globe. I also read about how the Chinese became scapegoats for nationalists in South East Asia in the ’60s. Chinese were victimized wholesale in Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries that were looking for external enemies in their drive for self determination, even though the Chinese had been there for generations and had contributed significantly to those countries’ economies. In Indonesia, Chinese-owned businesses were appropriated, but when the Indonesians had trouble running them, the Chinese were quietly asked back. In Malaysia, the bumiputra laws ensure that every corporation has to have a certain percentage of Malay directors, but when I was there, it was common knowledge that the Malays often sold their seats on the board to Chinese. Racism in Malaysia was institutionalized in the bumiputra laws which were enacted in the 1970s. These laws led to an increase of Malays in the middle class, but marginalized other races such as the Chinese and Indian Malaysians. There was a saying that if you were Malay, you could get into university with a 60% average; if Chinese, you’d need 90%, and if Indian, you’d need to be Einstein. I remember meeting privileged Malay kids at parties and was always disgusted by their attitudes of entitlement, knowing that it was these unfair and unearned advantages that allowed their parents to send them abroad to school and spoil them (not that there aren’t entitled kids everywhere). A lot of Malaysians also had lots of deep-seated insecurities that they masked with arrogance, because at some level they knew what was what. When I was writing for local magazines I got to know the people who were running volunteer organizations and it wasn’t usually the Malays (mind you, there weren’t a lot of Chinese tai tais there either). Most of the volunteers I met were Malaysian Indians who were concerned with social injustice and inequality, and worked hard to alleviate the problems of Malaysian life. Now, I am wildly generalizing here; I also met a brilliant female Malay lawyer who worked for women’s rights. (Now, would she have arrived at that position if she hadn’t had “unfair” advantages? Hmm.) Overall, I found the institutionalized racism detrimental to Malay society and it also lessened my respect for that country’s government. Here in Canada we have laws and programs to give advantages to First Nations communities, but again it’s a racist policy that I’m not sure is achieving its goals. I think these policies infantilize people and unless carefully policed lead to corruption.

Wow, what a rant!

Anyway – in Vincent Lam’s book, it becomes clear that it wasn’t easy to be Chinese in Vietnam in in the 1960s either. The South Vietnamese were becoming nationalistic, and the Viet Cong also targeted “foreigners” on assassination lists. Talk about a rock and a hard place. The issue of half-French children also comes up, as the headmaster, who is quite Chinese-centric and has sent his son to China (not knowing the situation there) to avoid the Vietnamese draft, falls in love with a half-French, half-Vietnamese girl and has a child with her. As it becomes clear that Saigon will fall and as Chinese and foreigners flee the country, the headmaster becomes anxious to send his girlfriend and son out of the country; their foreignness is stamped on their faces. I visited Vietnam in 1997 and remembered reading about the Vietnamese hatred of mixed-race children, so I was mildly worried about showing my half-Japanese self there. I needn’t have; the only remark I had was in the hotel and it was more a compliment than anything else. But after the war, mixed race children were victimized by the Viet Cong. Here in Vancouver, mixed race kids are everywhere and I make a facetious prediction that one day most of the world will look like us. But until very recently, being mixed race, or “Eurasian” was a stigma. Han Suyin, who had a Chinese father and Belgian mother, talks a lot about the difficulty of being half-European and half-Asian in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Her excellent autobiographical series (The Crippled Tree, A Mortal Flower, Birdless Summer, My House Has Two Doors, and Phoenix Harvest) contains many incidents that prove this. Because of colonization, there was always a wrong-side-of-the-sheets association with Eurasian children, and even the word “Eurasian” was considered a dirty word by the British of the Raj. So the headmaster’s story spoke personally to me on many levels.

The writing is the kind where even if nothing happens, the sentences flow so beautifully that it’s a pleasure to read them, but lots happens in this novel. I don’t want to give a lot away; I want you to read it. Be prepared to stay up late a few nights and to require some “digesting” time afterwards. It’s worth it.

(If you are interested in Chinese history, Han Suyin’s autobiographical series is hard to beat. My favorites are Birdless Summer and My House Has Two Doors. She really is one of my heroes; if my husband had allowed it, I would have named one of my daughters Suyin. In the 193os, she responded to the misery she saw around her in China, and studied to become a midwife. She adopted an orphan girl and wound up with her diplomatic husband in London, where she left her husband and, supporting her young daughter, studied to become a doctor. So not just a woman, but also half-Asian, and she braved the racism and misogyny of 1930s London to become a doctor! Her independence and strength of character are inspiring. Her experiences in Hong Kong and her love affair with a British photojournalist resulted in her book Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing which made her a household name, especially after the book was made into a movie.)

I’m going to go back to Bloodletting as I’m sure I didn’t try hard enough there. This sometimes happens, especially when I have a huge stack to get through. It took me 3 tries to get into The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. All that stuff about Mikael’s court case, blah. But it was worth it! So I’m going to get Bloodletting and also Lam’s book about the flu pandemic.


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Christmas looms but there’s still time to read a few more good books

I’ve done all my Christmas shopping so I’m taking a minute to do a quick post, but the books I’ve read lately that I felt were noteworthy had to go back to the library!

(I know authors love to hear that. Not. Honestly, I would love to buy every book I read but a) I can’t afford it and b) there’s no room in my house for more books.)

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. Lionel Shriver is a totally fearless writer and in this book she tackles the issue of obesity. The main character’s brother comes for a visit and has put on so much weight he’s unrecognizable. He’s become an obsessive eater, much to the alarm of his sister and her family. He actually breaks handmade furniture with his bulk. Shriver looks at the root causes of this character’s obesity and makes links to depression, the dangers of peaking too early, and self-worth. There were great paragraphs about youthful entitlement that I wanted to quote but I already owed the library major late fees. I actually don’t mind paying money to the library; I figure it’s going to a fantastic public service that I’m happy to support.

The Gates, The Infernals and The Creeps, by John Connolly. This trilogy is actually YA fiction, but I enjoyed it mightily. I’m a Christopher Moore fan, and John Connolly is essentially a British Christopher Moore. Basically, a Hadron collider opens a wormhole between Hell and a small village in England. Mayhem ensues. It’s very fun and witty, and I was reading bits out to my sister that made us laugh out loud and now she’s reading the series.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Book Reviews in brief: The Golem and the Jinni, The Abominable, etc.

I have powered through a pile of library books and some, in fact most, have been absolutely wonderful. I’d like to say I bought them all but I can’t afford my own reading habit. There are some books I will buy for my Reader and then I hoard them for holidays and for reading on the elliptical machine. Right now Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam and Bill Bryson’s One Summer are on the Reader for when we go to Hawaii. Also G.J. Meyer’s history of World War I, A World Undone. Remember him? He wrote about the Borgias and the Tudors and I am a fan. But I thought I’d quickly run through some of the fabulous books that have kept me reading late into the night….

1. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. GolemI didn’t know what to expect from this book but from the first paragraph I was totally mesmerized and neglected my work and family so I could finish it. I think everybody’s enjoying this book because it took AGES to get from the library. I love stories about magical creatures finding their way in our world and in this novel a golem and a jinni find themselves in New York City circa 1910. I was rhapsodizing about this book to anyone who would listen, forcing my husband to look up from the sports pages, and found that I had to explain what a golem was quite a few times. I guess everyone hasn’t read Marge Piercy’s amazing book He She and It, and if you haven’t you should. Its main point is the immorality of creating a self-aware intelligent being for your own purposes and denying its right to its own life. In Piercy’s story a futuristic self-aware robot is created for the defense of a community, yet it has its own needs and desires. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the golem of Prague, the clay man brought to life by a rabbi who also desires to protect his community. In Wecker’s book, the golem’s master dies within hours of bringing her to life and she arrives in New York masterless. Wecker just takes it from there and she does it beautifully. Thank you, Ms. Wecker, and please get right to work on your next novel. I’ll buy it.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. On the theme of intelligent self-aware beings, this book is about the fallout when a family that has adopted a chimp is forced to give her up. I heard today that there is a lawsuit in the United States being filed on behalf of a male chimp named, I believe, Tommy, which is interesting as it argues Tommy’s rights as a person, so the whole issue of personhood will soon be wrangled in the courts. This book is gripping and made me remember the films from Psych 101 with the signing gorillas and chimps. I didn’t really consider what would happen if one of them threw a grad student into a wall. If you raise an ape with a human family, they believe they are human. To then – even though it’s clearly necessary for everyone’s safety – send them to an ape research facility is incredibly cruel. It’s hard to believe that smart people like psychology professors don’t see the eventuality looming, but there you go. Fowler’s previous book, The Jane Austen Book Club, was a good read but this one blew me away. I needed to take a break after I read it so I could properly process and then I told the whole story to Justin. It’s ok, he wasn’t going to read it anyway. I’d love it if he would read more fiction, but you know. Horse, water, drink.

3. The Abominable by Dan Simmons. I just love books about climbing, even though you would never get me near a mountain. I’m fascinated by the thought processes of people who can’t wait to endanger their own lives and those of others in this totally unnecessary physical feat. Into Thin Air? Awesome, and it got me started on this genre. Abominable The Abominable is a novel about climbers in the 1920s and has a great spy-novel-ish plot. There are lots of minutely detailed descriptions of climbing that made my eyes glaze over a few times, but overall it’s great fun to read. It’s even more fun if you read it with Google Earth by your side so you can look up the Matterhorn and the Eiger and say knowledgeably, “Yeah, that north face does look pretty tough,” from your warm and cozy bed.

4. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. I put off reading this book because it was about the Balkans and everything I’ve read about the Balkans has been devastating. Then the due date loomed and I was forced to and I was glad I did. This book is, unsurprisingly, devastating but it’s a very good read nonetheless. It’s one of those “small world” plots in which the main characters’ stories are entangled together but they don’t know it and the reader gets to put it all together. Layers of tragedy and irony. Cue the dolorous minor-key Chopin Nocturne.

5. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s books are just pure fun. My seven-year-old watches a good movie with wide eyes and a big smile on her face (it’s hilarious) and that’s what I look like when I read Neil Gaiman. I think I’ve already established myself as a fan in a previous blog post. I love it when characters from our world encounter some alternate reality and are going along with the quest or whatever but their internal thoughts are, essentially, “WTF!” That’s so fun.

6. The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar. WeightofWater Another devastating tragedy, but beautifully written and so worth staying up late to finish. You know it’s well written when even though you know where this is going you still read on and on because every word is worth savouring. Then you get to the end and it’s heartbreaking but you knew it was going to be. It’s like watching a car crash. Horrid but it gets your attention. Let me start you off: A couple from Ann Arbor move to India after their 7-year-old son dies of meningitis. That’s just the beginning and it gets even more tragic. And it’s set in India, so cultural misunderstandings just make matters worse. But it’s so good.

OK, it’s bedtime and I have to make sure the kids’ light is off. (They’re allowed to read until 9.)


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Back to Back Borgias: Blood and Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant, and The Borgias (The Hidden History) by G.J. Meyer

One of my favorite things is to read a historical novel and then follow up with non-fiction  on the same topic. The novel pulls me in, and the nonfiction fills in the gaps. If I were a history teacher, this is how I would engage my students. So here we have a novel on the Borgias by Sarah Dunant, and then a nonfiction treatment of the family by G.J. Meyer, whose book The Tudors I absolutely loved. See blog post here.

Blood and Beauty opens with the election of Rodrigo Borgia to the papacy. Instead of a modest acceptance of the election results, he exults in his new office, sort of like an over-the-top Oscar winner. He immediately begins planning and plotting, insisting his son Cesare become a cardinal even though he will have to do a lot of plotting to pull that off, and building family alliances through his daughter Lucrezia and sons Juan and Jofré. There is lots of political finagling and positioning, interspersed with sessions in bed with his mistress, Giulia Farnese, who is the beautiful blond wife of his nephew! There is much about the political situation of Europe at the time, and the careful balancing of power between France, Spain, and the various principalities that made up 16th-century Italy. Great stuff. If you have the vague notion of the Borgias as this evil, conniving family, with Lucrezia as an incestuous poisoner and Cesare as equally evil (he was the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince, after all), you will be pleasantly surprised by this more sensitive treatment of a very human family, especially the portrayal of Lucrezia. Interested in learning about the Renaissance? This novel is a good way to start.

(spoiler alert)

Until you read G.J. Meyer’s The Borgias. And realize that all that Borgia hype is just anti-Catholic propaganda! I was very surprised by this. Apparently a few scholars have dug deeper and discovered that 1) Rodrigo Borgia did not father Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofré, they were his sister’s kids 2) nepotism was normal in those days and if they weren’t his kids it’s not exactly nepotism, 3) they didn’t poison anybody, 4) they didn’t commit incest, 5) Cesare did not kill Juan….and so on. Most importantly, the rise of anti-Catholicism which led to Martin Luther and the Reformation meant that there were writers who had an agenda: blackening the Catholic church in order to justify the Reformation. Why the Borgias, specifically? For one, the pope who succeeded Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) was one Giuliano Della Rovere (Pope Julius II) , who was beaten out for the papacy twice, once by a man to whom Borgia was close, then Borgia himself. He hated Rodrigo Borgia. So when he finally got on the hot seat, he was intent on discrediting his predecessor. In fact, he tortured known Borgia associates hoping to extract “damaging material.” Nothing came up but no matter; rumours were good enough and Julius would reward those who provided such fictions. There’s a lot of this in history (i.e. Tudor propaganda vigorously disseminated in order to make Henry VII feel secure, which is why Shakespeare portrayed Richard III as a villainous hunchback; it was the kind of thing that pleased a Tudor monarch), you’d think we’d have learned by now. When writers seeking to advance the cause of the Reformation needed colourful stories to illustrate the corruption of the Catholic church, they easily found all this Julius-promoted scandal and didn’t really question their sources. G.J. Meyer, on the other hand, is very clear about his sources, so I’m inclined to believe this version. He points out that most of the scurrilous stories about the Borgias were written by people who weren’t even alive during the Borgias’ lifetimes. The stories began once the Borgias were dead and the next Pope, a real hater, wanted dirt. When it comes to supposedly-incriminating Vatican documents, he points out that Vatican documents were often forged, and the Borgia-scandal Vatican documents are not even good forgeries. He maps out where Rodrigo Borgia was when the children attributed to him were born, and it’s clear that it was geographically impossible for him to impregnate Vannozza when he was in Spain and she was in Italy. Lots more of that, and it becomes very clear that the Borgias were an interesting Renaissance family, but that’s about it. Although when you look at his achievements, Rodrigo Borgia was a very good Pope! Rather boring, actually! So if you’re enjoying the HBO series The Borgias, just remember to take it with a grain of salt. It’s about as truthful as The Tudors series was.

As a history of the Renaissance, The Borgias is a great book and improves vastly one’s understanding of the political landscape of Italy and Europe. There are many explanatory chapters interspersed with the narrative that deal with the rise of ambassadorships in Europe (started in Italy!), the emergence of global exploration as a powerful mechanism by which a country might rise to prominence (Portugal), and similar Renaissance-related topics which enhance one’s understanding of the narrative.

I’m loving G.J. Meyer’s work and can’t wait to get into another of his books, A World Undone, which is about the First World War.

(please excuse some clunky prose; I’m WAAAAY behind on blog posts and am trying to get it all done before the Christmas rush starts so I’m not editing very carefully)

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What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

If you’re not an Austen fan, this post probably isn’t for you. Fortunately, I am a big Austen fan and I LOVED this book. I wish I’d had it when I was studying the 19th-century novel in university. There are so many significant details to notice in Austen and of course while we noticed some, this book is crammed with many we totally missed.

John Mullan is a professor of English at University College London who also appears on the BBC, and writes a book column for the Guardian, and judges the Booker Prize, so while he is a credited academic he also has a flair for writing for Everyone, which includes me. If you have read at least a few of Austen’s books, you will find this book very entertaining and fun to read. For me, it was revelation after revelation and feeling simultaneously exhilarated by Mullan’s insights and also very foolish for not having noticed these details before, myself. After all, I have read and re-read Austen’s novels for well over 20 years. But I was reading for enjoyment and not necessarily for literary criticism, so that’s my excuse.

What does Mullan investigate? Well, age, for one. He points out that the film adaptations of Austen’s books often miscast actors by age. For instance, Mrs. Bennett is usually portrayed by an actress in her 60s, but as her eldest daughter is only 21, and she was likely married by 18, she is closer to 40. Mr. Collins was played by Tom Hollander, 38, in the most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but he is introduced by the author as being 25. Similarly, Emma Thompson in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is 36, but the character, Elinor Dashwood, is 19. And on and on.

The notion of the seaside being a place of instability is actually something we touched on in English class, along with the idea of indoors being somehow more safer and regulated than the outdoors. Brighton is where Lydia Bennett meets up with and elopes with Wickham. In Lyme, Julia Musgrove acts like an idiot and becomes injured. However, Lyme is also the place where Anne Elliot, her complexion revived by the sea air, attracts the admiration of Mr. Elliot (the younger and heir of her father) and also regains the attentions of Captain Wentworth, so there is an element of liberation and freedom along with the danger.

Other issues such as names – what do characters call each other? – are also exposed and examined in great details. How much Money is Enough? and Why is the Weather Important? are chapter titles. I also loved Chapter 16: Are Ill People Really to Blame for Their Illnesses?

Mullan also looks at sex in Jane Austen. Before I read this chapter, I would have said, essentially, that there isn’t any. Well, ok, off the top of my head: Lydia Bennett and Wickham, Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford and Julia Bertram and John Yates. That’s it, along with the awareness of illegitimacy here and there. However, guided by Mullan’s keen take on Jane Austen and the 19th-century novel, I realized that her books are actually seething with sex or at least the understanding of it, and the impact of sex on the lives of her characters. One of Austen’s themes is that of the marriage made on the basis of sexual attraction which then dissipates, leaving a mismatched and unhappy couple. Mr. Bennett is saddled with the foolish Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Palmer (S & S) with his equally silly wife.  Sir Thomas Bertram and the indolent Lady Bertram and Mr. John Knightley and his wife are more examples. Lucy Steele too, is credited with “considerable beauty” and we must assume that she must be pretty sexy because there is no other reason to marry her, yet she manages to ensnare both Edward Ferrars and his brother Robert. The very famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice gives away a man’s “need” for a wife. Not because he wants to enter into domesticity per se, but because of a need for a sexual relationship – gasp! I never even considered that before, and I was blown away by this chapter. Armed with a new understanding of Austen code, I now find the novels almost embarrassingly racy: the “great happiness” of Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars’ honeymoon, the month of sex enjoyed by Lydia Bennett with Wickham before marriage – yikes! Not only that, but Austen indicates which couples enjoy an active sex life via evidence of fertility. Catherine Morland has something like 13 siblings! Yow. Mr. Palmer, though he clearly has contempt for his wife, still also clearly sleeps with her, because she is pregnant in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. and Mrs. Weston, who are married at the beginning of Emma, are pregnant within a month. Hot stuff.

I was also very taken by the chapter on blushing: What Makes Characters Blush? Again Mullan refers to film adaptations: though actors can usually weep on demand, it is impossible to fake a blush, yet blushes are very key to understanding Austen’s characters. Blushing can indicate a social awareness, embarrassment for someone else’s insensitivity. Elizabeth Bennett blushes for her mother’s silly remarks, because her mother lacks the awareness to blush for herself. Elinor Dashwood blushes for the dishonesty of Lucy Steele. Charlotte Lucas blushes when her husband, Mr. Collins, blathers on pompously. Blushing is also connected to innocence, virtue and simplicity. Fanny Price is a champion blusher, always colouring in angry response to others’ indiscreet or disparaging talk, blushing when teased about the unwanted affection of Henry Crawford. Because Fanny is one of Austen’s most silent heroines, her blushes serve as statements of opinion and feeling in lieu of dialogue. She blushes when she’s treated rudely, she blushes when she’s complimented, but she rarely is bold enough to make open remarks. Harriet Smith and Catherine Morland are also blushing left and right, mostly because of their innocence. Blushing also indicates truth and awareness, as Anne Elliot blushes when Mrs. Smith guesses her secret desire for Captain Wentworth. Elizabeth Bennett and Marianne Dashwood also blush with self-consciousness of their secrets, Elizabeth because although she knows that she and Darcy are falling in love, other people are still acting on the assumption that she dislikes him. Marianne blushes because people begin to assume, wrongly, that she and Willoughby are engaged. She knows darn well they aren’t and that they have been behaving in a way that leads to that assumption. Mutual blushing is also given as evidence of mutual love, such as Elizabeth and Darcy’s blushing together. Awwwww.

That’s more detail than I usually give in a book review, and it’s only brief snippets. But it’s pretty interesting, no?


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