Jo Baker. Longbourn (2013, Knopf). Like Geraldine Brooks’ March and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Baker’s fictional Longbourn takes a literary classic as its starting point. Where Brooks and Rhys re-tell familiar stories (Little Women and Jane Eyre, respectively) from different points of view, Baker grafts a different, related, and contemporaneous new story onto the well-known Pride and Prejudice of Jane Austen. Baker’s Upstairs/Downstairs tale is both love story and picaresque novel about the Bennetts’ staff, particularly a maid called Sarah, the housekeeper Mrs. Hill, and a thin, strange, secretive and mysterious new footman. The Bennetts and the Austenian world of loves and embroidery are replaced by chilblains and sex, chamber pots, and the messy realities of life in the Napoleonic era. It is not a subtle reminder: the chilblains, the blisters, the chamber pots, and the soiled linens are on every page. It is a wet, dirty, at times nearly bestial world for the serving class. Unfortunately, with Baker, what begins as verisimilitude becomes weary redundancy within 25 pages or less. But Baker doggedly hits the “gross” button long after her point has been made multiple times. Equally unfortunately for Baker, she waits until too late in the novel to provide any background or motivations for her primary characters. Sarah treats the new footman badly from the start (until she doesn’t, which is the most Austenian thing about this book) and Baker gives Sarah less emotional depth and complexity than a ubiquitous chamber pot to explain why. The footman and Mrs. Hill receive their backstories; Baker tries valiantly to flesh out her protagonist, and even Mr. and Mrs. Bennett. But she waits until the reader has been nearly too chilblained and irritated to care all that much. It’s a pity, really. Using the plot and timeline of Pride and Prejudice to craft a story which occurs simultaneous to it and is related but dissimilar is an interesting tack. The author just took too long in her telling to make her characters interesting, too.
Jill Lepore. Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2014, Vintage). Having previously read Lepore’s The Mansion of Happiness (because the desired Book of Ages had been borrowed by some other library patron and I couldn’t read it yet), I had already fallen in love with Lepore’s writing. There are writers who are capable of being endlessly witty and clever; there are writers who can wring deep, complex, overarching meanings from anecdote, narrative, and old records; and there are writers whose word choice is so apt and so precise that the meaning is clean and interesting and the prose is very nearly perfect. Lepore manages to be all three types of writers at once. In this biography and history of Jane Franklin, Benjamin’s sister, the lives of the Franklins and the Mecoms bloom into important, big subjects: the American Revolution; what it means to be lost to history based on gender or exclusion or historical insignificance or chance; what circumstances and factors create a Benjamin versus a Jane; how the lives and opinions of Janes have always been as important as any Great Man Theory of History; what language, the press, and the written word mean to those who read and disseminate them. Lepore gleans so much from the close and careful study of a woman and her letters, most of which did not survive. I can’t recommend this book highly enough— or Mansion, either — both books have something essential to say about the epic theme of American identity.
Robert Massie. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011, Random House). Catherine the Great lived from 1729 until 1796 and lived a life of complexity and conflict: conflicting loves, conflicting values, conflicting passions and desires. In this volume, Massie creates an image of a complicated and very real woman, equally intelligent and petty, autocratic and humane, strong and weak, and ultimately a ruler unbowed and unbroken by ill-treatment and cruelty early in her life. He also manages, a bit, to fall in love with Catherine, as have other writers like Will (and Ariel?) Durant (Age of Reason) and Jacques Barzun (the truly excellent From Dawn to Decadence). Massie’s strengths in this book are managing to elicit sympathy from his readers for people whose actions are so often inhumane: the Empress Elizabeth and Catherine’s husband Peter are not likable people. Yet Massie is able both to suss out the reasons for their madness and to craft tiny pieces of empathy or decency which motivate the reader to see them both as multi-dimensional humans. It would have been simple to write them as uni-dimensional monsters but Massie didn’t do that. And, on an even bigger scale, this is what he does with Catherine, especially as her reign progressed and her treatment of the serfs became more draconian and her need feel young, beautiful, and loved became sadder and more intense. This book is useful in filling in part of the backstories of Crimea, Ukraine, and Poland and the cultural and military grip of Russia on these areas. Descriptiveness is a less consistent gift of Massie’s here: he is better at describing the straw mats on cold Russian wooden floors (even in castles) than evoking the ornamental and even exotic elements of Imperial Russia. It would have been nice to have felt as much pomp as circumstance here, but still, you can see a bit of Russia from your house when you read it.
Norton Juster. The Phantom Tollbooth (1960, Random House). Weird, whimsical, and wildly witty, this modern juvenile fiction is justifiably considered a classic. Sure, it’s clever, but for an adult reader (or re-reader), this book reminds one what it’s like for time to be open and unpressed; what it is like to feel bored with endless time and no responsibilities. Better than that, it reminds the adult reader what a marvelous, mischievous, and malleably surprising thing our language can be. And, like so many juvenile fiction classics, it ends up with home-sweet-home after a strange and magnificent journey that took no time at all. The Phantom Tollbooth speaks to what it is to be a human in a crazy age in ways that are surprisingly profound and modern. For example, the Dodecahedron: “…it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.” Or the Mathemagician: “You’ll find…that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort.” Or the Terrible Trivium: “If you only do the lazy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.” A brilliant and wise book that’s truly worth revisiting: insight and humor in a tidy, easily-digestible package.
*All links lead to Amazon (there are free versions available for some of these books).