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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Lost Years of Jane Austen

I am not quite halfway through Barbara Ker Wilson's novel The Lost Years of Jane Austen (#112) but I thought I'd better post on this now, since both Jane Austen and I are on our way to Australia, and it will be mid-October before I can post again.

Ms. Wilson has written her book in the style of, and as a tribute to the works of Jane Austen.  What is interesting about this book is that it is not entirely fiction.  The deus ex machina to get Jane out to Australia is the true story of her aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot, who was a victim of a shoplifting con.  Although she was eventually aquitted, the trial caused quite a scandal in Bath.  Transportation to Australia was a real possibility under the circumstances. 

In the novel, Jane has met her soulmate while visiting the seaside town of Sidmouth with her parents.  His intentions are plain to everyone, but her hopes are dashed when news is received of his death.  Her uncle, in the meantime, has grown fascinated with the idea of Australia and the wonders to be found there.  He is determined to see it for himself, but realizes that his wife cannot face the trip on her own.  Why not ask one of his unattached nieces to be her companion?  The entire family is shocked when Jane jumps at the chance. 

That is as far as the plot has advanced in the first one hundred twenty plus pages I've read so far.  Jane is only mentioned briefly in passing until eight chapters of exposition have passed.  Since the book is supposed to be about Jane's trip to Australia, it would be nice if she a) played a larger role in what is supposed to be her story, and b) traveled out there a little sooner.  Since Ms. Wilson is speculating on the time in Jane's life between 1801 and 1804 when her sister Cassandra burned all her letters, not much is known, so anything could have happened to Jane.  This is a nice imagining, but let's get on with it, please.  (I think that Syrie James does a much better job with this in her The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, told in Jane's own voice.  Most of my friends who are Austen fans think that this book is a cut above the average in this genre.)

Oh, and did I mention the shocking use of vulgarity in the book?  Ironically, in The Lost Years of Jane Austen, Jane's lost love is a clergyman, who upon meeting her in the circulating library in Sidmouth, strikes up a conversation about her taste in reading.  He quizzes her about Fielding's Tom Jones and Sterne's Tristam Shandy, and is surprised to learn that she not only has read them both, but thinks them somewhat "morally lax".   Therefore I was suprised at some of the situations and language used by Ms. Wilson.  Would Jane Austen approve?  I think not!  I wonder what will happen when romance blooms again for Jane in Sydney?  Will Jane be a party to improper conduct?!  (The cover blurb promises a "passionate and risky romance")  I'll have to let you know...

And just a note about the cover art.  I thought the picture was perfect for the cover.  I got the impression that it was a Victorian re-imagining of the Regency period, but it's a delightful picture nontheless.  The cover illustration only credits the London Art Archives, so it's not possible to track down the painter or see any other examples of his work.  Too bad....

Just because I won't have an opportunity to blog while I'm traveling, doesn't mean that I won't be reading.  In fact, I've been stockpiling paperback books that I won't mind leaving behind for others to enjoy.  I've got my notebook from the library to keep track of what I'm reading on those twenty two hour trips out and back, and the commutes by plane around Australia.  I promise to fill you in when I get back.  Keep reading, and look for my next post after October 10th.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Rape of Nanking; The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II

I seem to be bumping into twentieth century Asian history in a number of books I've read lately.  I believe I found the reference to Iris Chang's 1997 best seller The Rape of Nanking; the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (#111) in Lisa See's Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy (See my post on 6/22/11).  I decided it was time I read more about the history behind some of the novels for myself.  Based on the condition of the paperback edition I checked out of the library, this volume has had a host of readers.

Ms. Chang's interest in the subject of the fall of  the Nationalist Chinese capital of Nanking to the Japanese in 1937 and the subsequent atrocities arose from the whispers she heard from her parents growing up in Illinois, and as she grew older, her failure to find any information on the subject readily available.  The result of her research is The Rape of Nanking, a story that is both easy and difficult to read.  Easy, because of the way Ms. Chang has organized the materials; she tells the story of the capture of Nanking first from the Japanese sources available, next from the Chinese witnesses, and finally from the viewpoint of the Western foreigners who did their best to save as many Chinese lives as possible.  It is hard not to be caught up in this narrative.  Difficult, because the litany of torture, rape and murder so surpasses the bounds of civilized behavior that it is impossible to read without a shudder.  The accompanying pictures are almost unbearable to look at.  It is estimated that more than 350,000 Chinese lost their lives in Nanking during that six week period in 1937 - 1938.

But what may be the worst outcome of all for those victims in Ms. Chang's opinion is that they have been forgotten.  Germany had its Nuremberg Trials.  War criminals were actively pursued and punished, and the German government made restitution to many of the victims of the Nazis.  The same cannot be said of the War in the Pacific.  Although a few Japanese military commanders were tried and executed by the International MilitaryTribunal of the Far East, the majority were not, and because of the politics of the time, many resumed their positions of power and influence.  Any hint of atrocities committed during World War II are routinely whitewashed to this day.

This book certainly changed my perspective on Asia.  I know that I will be thinking about the news from Japan and China in a different light, because, after all, the future is built on the past...  I hope you find this book as worthwhile and interesting as I did.

Monday, September 5, 2011

In A Sunburned Country

I've been saving Bill Bryson's book on Australia In A Sunburned Country (#110) as a special treat before leaving for Australia myself.  It was recommended both by the tour company Grand Circle Tours/Overseas Adventure Travel, and in a recent posting on NPR Book Notes as an ideal read  for "stay"cationers.  I'm happy to say that for me, this book lives up to the hype.

In fact, when I started reading about his first trip to Australia and the tour he got from one of his reporter friends and family around Sydney, my husband asked me if I could please go and read it someplace else.  I was making the bed shake I was laughing so hard.  That's what I love about Bill Bryson: he's so funny, yet full of really fascinating information you just won't find anyplace else while veering both off and on the beaten trail to make his observations.  This book is a result of several trips to tour different parts of Australia -  Western Australia, the Outback, the rainforest and Great Barrier Reef of Queensland , the cities of Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney among others.  And Bill Bryson loves Australia.  That comes through loud and clear.  That's encouraging for someone like me who has spent her whole life dreaming about going there.  After reading this book, how could I possibly be disappointed?

That is, if I make it back alive...  I first discovered Bill Bryson when wandering around a decent bookstore in the Atlanta airport in search of what was new, different and interesting in between flights.  The bear on the cover of A Walk In the Woods was staring at me at eye level.  I bought it and I was hooked.  I certainly did gain a new appreciation for bears after reading the book.  Imagine what Mr. Bryson can do with a whole continent of deadly and scary creatures - mammals, insects, fish, invertebrates, snakes, and even innocent-appearing sea shells!  He does talk about sitting in a cafe one evening casually reading a field guide called something like Australian Animals That Can Kill You (Volume 19).  I'll be fine as long as I don't go in the water (either fresh or salt!), brush against anything, walk under any trees or take my shoes off - EVER! 

Gotta love a book that gets you so psyched up to go and visit Australia despite all that!  Even if you never plan on traveling to Australia, you're bound to thoroughly enjoy the experience of reading about it.