Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Introduction to Verne

From Goodreads
Believe it or not, I've never gotten around to reading a Jules Verne book until recently. I've seen many a movie based on his stories, adored a ride at Walt Disney World where he was a main character and certainly loved the ideas he stood for - exploration, the impossible is possible, innovation, imagination, time travel. But, I'd never actually read one of his books. I have a bunch of them on my to-read list and I thought now, as I was already in a deep science fiction haze, was an ideal time to finally read one. I chose Journey to the Centre of the Earth to start myself off. I thought perhaps I should step away from the time machine stories for awhile.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is aptly named. It is about an adventure, undertaken by an English geologist, his brilliant uncle, also a scientist, and their mute Icelandic guide to the center of the earth after being tipped off that a path exists thanks to a scrap of paper with runes on it that falls out of a book the uncle has recently acquired. 

One thing that was comforting about Verne immediately was his style is a lot like a personal favorite, Charles Dickens. I'm not sure why Verne reminded me of Dickens so much. I think it was the earnest English narrator, his grumpy if fabulously funny uncle and the silent but loyal servant that did it. It was the cast of many of a Dickens novel, just missing about another 20 characters. Verne is more sparse in his character list but the three men, who must carry the entire narrative, never bored me. I liked them, even when I did want to lovingly hit them up side the head and tell them they are being idiots. At times the story is predictable and a little cliche. But Verne is one of those wonderful writers where I can step back and remember he wasn't being cliche. He was actually the first one to do it this way.

Verne also frames the story as a memoir, being written after the adventures have been completed. It does take a little of the fun out of it when the characters are in dangerous situations. We know very early on that everyone survives. Where Verne hooks you is putting the characters into situations and making a reader wonder how on earth they survive it. His storytelling, because of the format, is very matter of fact and full of facts and figures. Verne is believable as a science fiction writer because he based his ideas on facts and possibilities, not far-fetched too-fantastical-to-be-real theories. We know no lost world exists beneath the crust of the earth but Verne surrounds his fantasies with enough fact to leave you wondering. I liked my first meeting with Verne. I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of his work.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Always nice to visit with Jane

From Austenprose, excellent Austen site!
I came to Jane Austen very late. It wasn't until high school that I sat myself down to read Pride & Prejudice once a friend gave me a lovely collected works of hers. And while I enjoyed it, I wasn't quite caught yet. It wasn't until my semester in Bath, taking a class on Jane Austen, that I become a Janeite for good. Something about her snarkiness, her brilliant observation of the small world she lived in, finally captivated me and I've been hooked ever since. I don't often wonder why if I'm being honest. I simply found a kindred spirit in her books, a familiarity that just makes her a favorite author. I have my favorite book, my favorite character, and my favorite hero (All from Persuasion if you're interested in knowing). But mostly, I adore her tone, her style, her complete knowledge of herself that let her explore in such a narrow field of topics some of the most interesting characters we have the luck to read about still today.

Reading Austen in the spring just seems to fit. Pride & Prejudice is nothing if not spring-like, full of possibility and hope, the belief that everything will work out in the end, even for Lydia and Wickham. In fact, her books all fit into seasons for me. Early spring is Northhanger Abbey with its creepy early spring gothic tone, Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility fit the spring renewal theme, the sense that the stories are only just beginning as we say goodbye. Mansfield Park and Emma have the sophistication of summer, the heat and oppression of the sun seem to lurk in the heroine's journeys of those books. Persuasion, my favorite, is universally acknowledged as an "autumnal" book, a book of second chances and of people later in life, who have the knowledge of spring and summer to guide them to their conclusion. Fascinating isn't it? No matter how often I read her works or read essays on her work or even watch a film adapted from a book I am struck by another facet to her writing that seems to change the game yet again.

Austen's gravestone at Winchester Cathedral. Photo by me!
This spring I got around to reading the collection of essays aptly named A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen and the English geek in me thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only is it fun to read Austen, it is fun to read people talking about Austen, people who are far smarter and more observant readers than I am. As writers, they marvel at what a spinster from the country could do with limited experiences and knowledge. They puzzle over what makes her books last and finally conclude she was a genius, of the sort that come around once in a lifetime. On paper, she shouldn't have succeeded and the fact that she did and still does hundreds of years after her death truly seems to astonish the essay writers in this collection which I enjoyed. You like to think that some people, however unlikely, can thwart the experts. In fact, I am sure Jane is still having a laugh about that somewhere. Some of the essays are definitely more of a scholarly bent, others more on a personal level, but all are trying to get at that mysterious ingredient of Austen's that keeps us reading and none really succeed but I commend them for trying. And I commend Jane for avoiding detection once more.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A new opinion of Cather

From Goodreads
Willa Cather and I have always had a rocky relationship. I enjoyed my first introduction to her in eighth grade when my English class read O Pioneers!, a book in retrospect that was really not appropriate for eight graders but that is neither here nor there. It was still a delightful read about high drama on the Great Plains. Murder! Love! Misunderstandings! To a girl raised with a healthy dose of soap operas, I could appreciate and enjoy Cather's subject matter. It was always my intention to read My Antonia shortly after but life got in the way and I ended up re-reading O Pioneers! in an American Lit survey class in college before I got back around to My Antonia. I read it the summer after, or tried to several times before I finally powered through it one stormy Saturday afternoon. I found the subject matter boring and uninteresting. It was set in the same place but lacked the action and strong characters of O Pioneers! to keep my attention for long. I was sad that I hadn't enjoyed and scrapped plans to read Cather's other often-mentioned work Death Comes for the Archbishop that summer.

Well, flash forward to now and I finally got back around to reading Death Comes for the Archbishop and was pleasantly surprised. For one, this book is nothing like O Pioneers! or My Antonia. Different setting, different subject matter, and a completely different reason for writing the book. As a reader, that threw me for a loop at first. I was expecting a version of My Antonia, just moved to a new location. Instead, what I got was a series of vignettes starring the man who was tasked with bringing Catholicism back to the newly acquired Southwest territories of the United States and the path his life took over many years to his death (I feel that is not a spoiler since the title is a dead giveaway. Pun intended.). I liked the many stories Cather chose to highlight in the Archbishop's life. His travels throughout his massive diocese, his intellectual approach to the world he lives in, and the many friends he meets and loses along the way. There is always the undercurrent of religion but I liked that the Archbishop appreciated and respected the traditional religions and cults of the Native Americans in his diocese. I, never one for religion and especially not all that fond of the idea of missionaries, not once felt like I was being hit over the head with the religion of this book. It was more an exploration of daily life on the southwest frontier and the good, and bad, that entailed for the characters, many of whom just happened to be Catholic clergy. There is no overarching story to the book, just episodes in the priest's life from the moment he arrives in his new territory to the moment he dies there many years later. I found it a comforting read; each chapter was like checking in on an old friend to see how he has fared in the few years since we last spoke.

So Cather surprised me in a good way. Maybe one of these days I'll come back around to her short stories and see how they fit into her oeuvre. For now, it is spring (or will be one of these days around here) and I felt it was time for some Austen. Or at least, for the book of essays that came out on Austen last year. The book gives me an excuse to say "It is a truth universally acknowledged" a lot which always makes me happy.