Islands Apart by Ken McAlpine

Islands Apart by Ken McAlpineTitle:  Islands Apart:  A Year on the Edge of Civilization

Author:  Ken McAlpine

Paperback:  256 pages (Advance Reader’s Edition)

Published: 2009

ISBN:  9781590305300

Acquired:  won in the May 2009 LibraryThing ER batch

Challenges:  ARC Reading Challenge, New Author Challenge, We Didn’t Start the Fire Challenge (under California)

A humorous and wise look at contemporary American life—and how time spent alone in nature can give us a fresh perspective and greater clarity about what matters most.

In this touching and often humorous book, author Ken McAlpine does what many of us long to do. Overwhelmed by the hectic pace of his life, he escapes to a beautiful, remote location where he finds the open spaces and solitude that bring him some peace of mind. McAlpine camps alone in the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California, a place where time slows down, the past reveals itself in prehistoric fossils, and where a person can become attuned to the rhythms of the natural world and find their rightful place in it

For McAlpine the Channel Islands become a modern-day Walden Pond—an enchanting, isolated location from which to reflect on nature, civilization, and what matters most. Back on the mainland, McAlpine continues his explorations by seeking out experiences that reflect who we are and what we value today. His travels include spending time at a soup kitchen in Beverly Hills; a Catholic monastery; and visiting Arlington West, a veteran-run memorial to soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Islands Apart is an engaging meditation on what we can learn about ourselves and our world when we open ourselves to the wisdom of nature and begin to look more deeply.

-Product description at Amazon.com

I have had Islands Apart by Ken McAlpine on my ARC-alanche pile since June of 2009.  It’s one of my way-overdue ER books, and the second one I’ve completed this month (three more to go, woot).  When I first read the description and clicked the button to enter my name in the fandangled LT ER algorithm, I was intrigued by the premise of the book.  McAlpine wants to get away from it all, and find a quiet place to reflect on humanity… kinda like Thoreau with Walden, but on the Channel Islands in Southern California.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this book.  The chapters on time spent between the islands and the mainland alternate, so that it has a feeling of interaction with people and then reflection on our place in this world.  I liked this book so much, that I have struggled to understand how the two diverse world are suppose to relate to each other because a lot of the time it felt like I was reading two different books that were mashed together.  What do a hustler/wannabe actor, a tree-loving priest, homeless diners, veteran protestors, and preschoolers have in common with each other, let alone with the foxes, eagles, and xantus murrelets of the Channel Islands?

We lay claim to the things we come across in our lives, as if it is possible to own them, but you can no more own an island or a stoic gull than you can possess the fleeting moments that accumulate into a lifetime.  It is good to recognize life’s gifts, but foolish to hold them too tightly.

-Islands Apart by Ken McAlpine, page 201 (ARE)

I think what McAlpine was trying to do was to show that there is a deep desire in all things, in people and in nature, to know that there will be some piece of them left behind after they die.  To know that they won’t just fade into oblivion.  It is why we have children.  It’s why writer’s write, cavemen drew, why the park ranger’s work so diligently to preserve the foxes and murrelets and the ugly scrub that’s native to the islands.  It’s why the xantus murrelets continue to lay eggs in caves where rats destroy the embryo within before it’s even had a chance to firm up.  What’s more, in an effort to ensure we continue on, we do what we can to control what little bit we can, whether by planting a tree in the desert or by working long hours to invest every cent possible in a future hoped for. 

This book was a slower read, no matter how much I wanted to hurry, and I almost abandoned it at one point.  Despite absolutely loving the first 127 pages, when I hit the chapter on San Miguel Island, it was like falling into a pit of quicksand.  It’s the only part of the book that I hated.  I think it was too long, too boring, and interminable (a word I had to learn to spell to describe this chapter)  That chapter should just say, “Spent a week on San Miguel. Ian was cool. The elephant seals were horny buggers. The fur seals are mean little shits. And all the pinnipeds are louder than a Greek convention at Grant’s Farm! There’s bird poop everywhere, the ravens know how to pick locks… oh, and some dude killed himself because he thought this place was Heaven on Earth.” Next chapter!

I’m very glad I didn’t abandon it, because the next chapter, “Almost Famous”, was the best part of the whole book.  In this chapter, McAlpine explores the extent people go for the chance to be famous.  He spends long hours with James, a Captain Jack Sparrow working the tourists outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  I liked James, and you can tell McAlpine does, too, but I can’t help but wonder how much more he could accomplish if he would put his hard work toward something tangible.  At what point in time do you accept the reality that your dreams are just that, pipe dreams, and the real world is calling.  James wants nothing more than, and WORKS harder than anyone I’ve seen to achieve it, to be a star.  But does he have a viable and real future in it?  Sadly, I don’t think so.  I think he should grow up and get a job and find a way to contribute that way.  But… no one’s depending on him, he’s his own man, and he’s not taking public assistance, so who is he hurting?

I also relished the chapter “Lunch in Beverly Hills” where Ken spent time getting to know and gaining an understanding and appreciation for the homeless.  I have a personal interest in this issue.  You see, seven years ago, the girls and I WERE homeless.  We weren’t without a place to stay, there’s a large shelter here in town, and the people who run it are fantastic.  Thanks to them, I was able to take some time to look at my life and where I was taking my kids, and to reevaluate my priorities.  I want to go back to school to finish up my degree in Sociology so that I can get a job as a client-to-community liaison in a homeless shelter.  In this book, McAlpine says that homelessness is a complex problem, and that is very true.  Some people have chosen it as a lifestyle, others are there because shit happens, while still others are there because it’s better than where they came from.  We were in this last group, having left an abusive and volatile situation with the hope of something better.

I must admit, however, that I can very much relate to MRS. McAlpine, who told him at one point in his working on this book, “I hate you, you know.”  Ken is a white professional male, close to, if not already, middle-age, and has the means, ability, and the people in his life that affords him the ability to just take off whenever he feels like it to spend a week camping on an island or at a monastary, to just sit and think.  Kathy McAlpine makes the statement that she doesn’t have time to go off and think.  And I have to say this:  Where are the books where women just take off, leaving their children for weeks at a time with their fathers, so they can go listen to their inner voice? 

No Where.

Why?  Because we live in a society that, despite the lip-service of equality, that if Ken had been a Kendra, she would have been railed against as a bad mother who abandoned her kids to selfishly wander.  Mr. Kendra would have filed for divorce, and NOT wanted custody, so that Kendra would have had to either cart the kids around, (What a bad mother, not giving her kids a stable place to live) or leave them with someone (What a bad mother, she just dumps her kids and runs off). 

Okay, social rant is over.  In the interest of full disclosure, I hate Ken, too, and wish I could run off to an island and just sit and ponder, too. But, I still love the book, even if I am jealous. ;-)

I think Islands Apart by Ken McAlpine is a book that will stick with me for a while.  The Channel Islands are a beautiful place, and I recommend you take time to check out their website.  The Parks Department has put together an extensive, multimedia site with details of what’s being done to preserve as much of the indigenous species as possible, as well as the discovery of the best preserved and most complete fossilized remains of  a pygmy mastodon.

4 out of 5 stars

Emma by Jane Austen

Title:  Emma

Author:  Jane Austen

Paperback:  416 pages

Date Published: 1997

Publisher:  Wordsworth Editions Ltd

ISBN:  1853260282

The very first subject, after being seated, was Maple Grove, ‘My brother, Mr Suckling’s seat’; a comparison of Hartfield to Maple Grove… ‘Very like Maple Grove indeed! She was quite struck by the likeness! That room was the very shape and size of the morning-room at Maple Grove; her sister’s favourite room.’ Mr Elton was appealed to. ‘Was not it astonishingly like? She could really almost fancy herself at Maple Grove.

‘And the staircase. You know, as I came in, I observed how very like the staircase was; placed exactly in the same part of the house. I really could not help exclaiming! I assure you, Miss Woodhouse, it is very delightful to me to be reminded of a place I am so extremely partial to as Maple Grove. I have so many happy months there!’ (with a little sigh of sentiment.) ‘A charming place, undoubtedly. Everybody who sees it is struck by its beauty; but to me it has been quite a home. Whenever you are transplanted, like me, Miss Woodhouse, you will understand how very delightful it is to meet with anything at all like what one has left behind. I always say this is quite one of the evils of matrimony.’

Emma made as slight a reply as she could; but it was fully sufficient for Mrs Elton, who only wanted to be talking herself.

-Emma by Jane Austen, pages 217-218

I finished this book almost a week ago after being stuck in it for about six months.  I’ve wanted to give it time to sit and think about it before making an official judgment by way of a review.  And, while I still say it was the hardest Austen book so far and my least favorite, I have to admit a serious amount of respect for the women of the era.  I’m definitely grateful times have changed since then!

Long and short of things, Emma Woodhouse more or less grew up the Miss Woodhouse of her father’s home, meaning she was the society keeper.  The golden daughter, beautiful and clever, she has never been denied anything by her father, who’s a bit of a hypochondriac, nor by her governess Miss Taylor, who has just married Mr. Weston in the beginning of the novel.  Emma believes she is responsible for making this match and decides to aim her powers at the single vicar, Mr. Elton.  Her brother-in-law’s brother, Mr. Knightly, however, admonishes her to leave match-making be, to let love take its course, but she doesn’t listen (OF COURSE!) and this sets a series of events into motion that forces Emma to grow up and re-evaluate her own position and judgments and that of those around her. 

What Austen does in Emma is to recreate the sense of isolation and near-claustrophobic sensations of the life and choices living as an early 19thcentury English woman.  She equates the life of a governess as a polite form of slavery.  She also conveys the sense of captivity and inertial force of the class stratification of the era.  Everyone had a place, and everyone had acceptable and unacceptable pools of “friends” within the system to choose from:  Either their equal or many levels beneaththem so as to help improve them, but no one only a little below them.. lest they degrade themselves.  Those who tried to improve their social standing by latching onto those above them and trying the seem their equal were treated with civil incivility:  Invitations “forgotten,” stories told to remind them where they belong, arguments about things immaterial that vented hostilities and prejudices.

Emma by Jane Austen presents the parlor life of  emotional constipation and gilded-cage existence without choices beyond who to invite for dinner that ran on and on until death was begged for.  In this day and age, when I can tell my neighbor flat-out, he’s an ass, and go on.  He and I live a life of pretending the other doesn’t exist, which works well.

The book also conveys the sense of the inescapable lot assigned to a person because of who one’s family is and what they’ve done.  Harriet is a persona somewhat non grata because her parentage is unknown.  She could never expect to marry a gentleman, because no respectable man would take in the chance of social disaster if her father ever turned out to be a criminal or worse.  You are who your grandparents were, and if you screw up your life, you ruin your grandchildren’s chances for a future, destroy your siblings’ reputation and shame your parents. 

It amounted to a suffocating life where the most seemingly trivial choices could destroy one’s life and reputation.  While Emma by Jane Austen is not one of my favorites, it’s a worthwhile book to read.  I’m glad to have read it, as much as I am glad I’m DONE reading it.  4 out of 5 stars.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Title:  Fahrenheit 451

Author:  Ray Bradbury

Paperback:  191 pages

Date published:  1953

Publisher:  Del Rey (div of Random House)

ISBN:  9780345342966

Miscellaneous:  This book was first published in 1953, and has since won the National Book Award and the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.  The copy I have is a 50th anniversary edition, and has an interview with Bradbury in the back of the book.

“With schools turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.  You always dread the unfamiliar.  Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him.  And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours?  Of course it was.  We must all be alike.  Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal.  Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.  So!  A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.  Burn it.  Take the shot from the weapon.  Breach man’s mind.  Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?  Me?  I won’t stomach them for a minute.  And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world… there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes.  They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior:  official censors, judges, and executors.  That’s you, Montag, and that’s me….  You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.  Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all?  People want to be happy, isn’t that right?  Haven’t you heard it all your life?  I want to be happy, people say.  Well, aren’t they?  Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun?  That’s all we live for, isn’t it?  For pleasure, for titillation?  And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these….  Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo.  Burn it.  White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Burn it.  Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?  The cigarette people are weeping?  Burn the book.  Serenity, Montag.  Peace, Montag.  Take your fight outside….  Burn all, burn everything.  Fire is bright and fire is clean.”

-Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, pages 58-60 (emphasis added)

In the first line of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury,  Guy Montag tells us, “It was a pleasure to burn.”  Guy is a fireman who loves setting fires and watching things undergo change via the flames.  He aims his firehose and sprays the kerosene over the contents of a house and lights the match.  A permanent smile is plastered to his face from the hundreds and hundreds of fires he’s set over the ten years he has spent in service to his city.  Life for Montag is good and makes sense.

Then a series of events occur that rocks his world.  He meets Clarisse McClellen, who is “seventeen and crazy” as she says.  She’s been labeled “anti-social” for asking “why?” instead of “how?” and for wanting to connect to people instead of merely co-existing with them.  She likes to go on hikes and collect butterflies, and is forced to see a psychiatrist for such odd behaviours.  Clarisse’s innocent questions and simple, romantic views on life awakens some long-comotosed awareness in Montag’ssoul.  With the question, “Are you happy?” Guy is forced to re-evaluate himself and the world around him.  His wife attempts suicide, then goes on pretending it had happened and, in fact, refusing to believe Guy. 

The crisis moment for Montag happens when he’s at a house to burn and the older woman chooses to set herself on fire with her books, rather than leaving them.  He is forced to question whether it is morally right to destroy something of such value that people are willing to die for them.  And if such an act is wrong, what can he, MUST he, do about it?

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradburywill have to go on my top 10 list… just not sure which book to bump for it.  First off, I love dystopic books, it’s probably my favorite genre.  My definition of Dytopia is:  Someone’s Utopia is another’s HELL.  Second, Fahrenheit 451 speaks to the time it was written, but also has something to say to future generations of readers.  It’s a cautionary tale of a possible future, barely imaginable when he wrote it nearly 60 years ago, and frighteningly close to life today.  And as I read this, I couldn’t help but feel we did not listen to the warning.

For instance, when Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, wallscreen and battery operated televisions weren’t around.  Black and white television itself was in its infancy, but the love of Mrs. Montag’s life is her parlor wallscreens that allow her to be surrounded by her “family”, virtually live and in color.  A device allows the people on the shows to insert her name and even look like they’re saying it.  A device called a Seashell is worn in the ear, and allows a person to hear music, without disturbing those around them, and Mildred Montagwears hers so often that she’s become a proficient lip-reader.  I immediately thought of MP3 players… Sam wears hers so much that she had a meltdown the other day when I told her she couldn’t take it to church with her.

Truly, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was prophetic.  The society found in within the pages of the book bear a lot of similarities with our culture today.  Disconnected from one another, they/we go about with our devices in our ears (Seashell, MP3 player, cell phone, etc) and no longer take the time for conversations with our neighbors and others we meet in passing, and if we do happen to “chat,” it’s shallower than a pie pan. 

They/we are so afraid of offending others that the thought police (Firemen or Political Correctness) have made it socially unacceptable, and in some cases  criminal, to express ourselves, even monitoring our own self-talk.  Free speech?  HA!  Congress is doing everything they can to eliminate that little inconvenience.

They/we are so obsessed with instant gratification that they/we no longer want to take the time to think about what they/we read, to let it distill in our souls.  So books are flatter and more “pastepudding,” as Bradbury calls it, and the average person is no longer able to read and comprehend a newspaper article… not that they actually have the patience to read a whole one, just the headline and first paragraph, then onto the funnies (and even they are getting too long).  Supermarket tabloids, Harlequin romance novels, car and sports magazines are the only books found in some homes, and to be “intelligent” is to be reviled.

I don’t say this often, if I’ve ever said it at all, but Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is a MUST READ.  It should be taught in schools and read every year.  Oddly enough, this book was actually challenged as part of a school curriculum… A parent wanted to ban a book that is a warning against book banning!  How ironic.  

Obviously, I give Fahrenheit 451 5 out of 5 stars.  READ IT!

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The Stettheimer Dollhouse by Sheila W. Clark

Title: The Stettheimer Dollhouse

Author: Sheila W. Clark

Photography: Ali Elai of Camerarts, Inc.

Hardback: 64 pages

Publish Date: April 2009

Publisher: Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

ISBN: 9780764948022

One of the most celebrated and distinctive objects in the Museum of the City of New York’s Toy Collection is the Stettheimer Dollhouse, made between the world wars by Carrie Walter Stettheimer (1869 – 1944).  The dollhouse reflects a remarkable life lived during a remarkable time in the city’s history.  Along with her mother Rosetta and two of her sisters – Florine (1871 – 1944), an artist, and Ettie (1875 – 1955), a scholar and writer – Carrie hosted one of the most notable literary and artistic salons of early twentieth century New York society.  The Stettheimers’ sophisticated gatherings brought together a vibrant group of modernist intellectuals and artists of widely varying backgrounds, among whom were leading avant-garde painters, writers, and musicians, both Americans and European émigrés.

…Over the course of almost two decades, Carrie devoted what spare time she had to decorating the dollhouse’s interior, transforming it into a three-dimensional work of art.  Ettie later said she believed the dollhouse served as the outlet for Carrie’s artistic expression, a substitute of sorts for the career she aspired to in set design… Etti’s conjecture proves exceptionally revealing, and in this light the house may be seen as a series of fully conceived and executed stage sets, each awaiting the entrance of the players.

…Unlike most dollhouses, which are played with by children, this one was intended to be appreciated by adults, even by connoisseurs of art.  It’s decor reveals the sophisticated sensibility of its creator, combining different styles in the eclectic taste that was the epitome of New York fashion in the 1920s.

-The Stettheimer Dollhouse by Sheila W. Clark, pages 7-8

The Stettheimer Dollhouse by Sheila W. Clark is a darling little informative book about one of miniaturists favorite buildings.  Complete with near-impossible photography, this book brings the dollhouse’s minute details into focus, from the weave of the needlepoint rugs to the optical illusions of the foyer wall decor.  I was continually delighted and impressed by the room by room descriptions and pictures.

My first reaction when I pulled this sealed book from the mailing envelope was childlike wonder.  I quickly tore the plastic wrap off of it and began to flip through, examining each beautiful image after the next.  Maggie peeked and peeped with excitement over my shoulder and is now intent on buying her own dollhouse from a soon-to-open pawn shop here in town.  The Rose Bedroom is one particularly adorable room we’ve both decided to live in.  If the impressive photos weren’t enough, the story behind the house is a rather interesting one, too.

The second thing I did after flipping through the book was to stick my nose into the middle of the book and breathe in deeply.  Silly as this may be, the scent of the book brought back memories of my mom’s craft room where she built several dollhouses, as well… two of which were my Christmas presents (she made a Barbie house for me out of a metal workshop shelf when I was 5 or 6, then a miniature dollhouse when I was 10 or 11).  The smells of wood glue and balsam, fabric, lacquer and turpentine, all brought back memories of shopping at hobby and craft stores, making trips to Indianapolis to buy special order dolls and hard to find pieces because I had to have a redheaded family or a bow window.  Not only was this book a treat intellectually, but it provided me that proverbial “walk down memory lane.”

The only complaint I could possibly have about it is that the writing is a bit dry. Honestly, though, I wouldn’t expect anything could change that.  I’d expect it’s rather difficult to describe chintz, chiffon and taffeta an keep your readers riveted, so I won’t hold that against the book.  Quite a joy of a book, and Maggie won’t let me mooch it away ;-) I give The Stettheimer Dollhouse by Sheila W. Clark 4 out of 5 stars.

The Stettheimer Dollhouse is on exhibit in the Museum of the City of New York.  The following is a promotional video for the museum:

Book Club Classics -Classics Meme!

In order to promote her new site, LitGuides.com (a site dedicated to helping teachers/students navigate classic lit), Kristen over at Book Club Classics has started her first meme – and S. Krishna has tagged me for it! The questions are below, and I’m tagging: Katleen, unfinishedperson, meghan, Mrs. Hall, and Traci.

  1. What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?
  2. What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?
  3. Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?
  4. Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?
  5. **Bonus** Why do you think certain books become classics?

What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?

The best classic I was “forced” to read was The Pearl by John Steinbeck. I was in 7th grade, and this book was my introduction to critical reading. It was the first time I was taught I could think for myself, not just espouse my parents’ ideas. When I started teaching my daughter to read the same way, The Pearl was our first book. The school’s no longer seem to be teaching logic and reason, only sheep-think.

What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?

Oh gawd! That would be Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I seriously do not think most teenager have the patience for this largely philosophical book. It bored me to tears, and most likely went over my head. I should try to reread it, but I’m just not that masochistic!

Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?

To be honest, and I’m sure this will offend a few people, The Bible. My reason for saying this is, in our Western society, so much of our collective conscious comes from this classic. Shakespeare took from Solomon’s writings, the moralities many books are built around are Judeo-Christian ethics, and most social structures stem from it. We would not be the society we are without The Bible.

Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?

I really don’t know of any that should be put to rest. Maybe some should be saved for older ages, but a classic is a classic because it is always relevant.  Even Harry Potter is relevent for all ages (though I don’t think I’d count it as a classic yet.  We’ll have to see how it goes).

Why do you think certain books become classics?

As I said above, a classic is always relevant. It’s not restricted to it’s own time or place, but speaks to everyone, everywhere, at any time. It reveals something of humor nature, whether it’s arrogance and assumption as in Pride and Prejudice, or the desire to be important and matter as in Vanity Fair, or the evils of the pursuit of power and control as in Animal Farm and 1984. Sometimes they warn us not to give up our power because of fear as in The Giver and Fahrenheit 451, and some mock society to reveal it’s failings as we read in Candide and Le Tartuffe. They challenge us to think and act, and broaden our views of the world around us.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

Title: Pride and Prejudice
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Barnes & Noble Classics
Publish date: 2003
ISBN: 1593082010

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried. “I who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

Pride and Prejudice, or First Impressions, was first published in 1813 simply “by a lady”.  It is the story of two sisters, the one prefers to view the world through optimism, while the second with sarcasm and pleasure with her own wit and views.  While the first sister, Jane, learns by the end of the book that evil can and does exist in people, and that people can be vicious and cruel all the while wearing a pleasant face and friendly voice.  The second sister, Elizabeth, learns that all is not as it seems on the first impressions, and judgement should be reserved until more facts have come to light.

In Pride and Prejudicewe see Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s family of five girls and no sons,  whose estate must fall to a male heir,  deal with concerns for their future.  Mr. Bennet prefers retreat to his study and occasionally regret not having saved for his family’s future after his death.  He is permissive of his youngest daughters’ wild and flirtatious behaviour chasing after soldiers.  He continually berates his younger three daughters in deference to the older two “sensible” daughters.  Mrs. Bennet chooses to contrive opportunities for her daughters to be alone with a potential suitor, such as sending her daughter out in the rain so she can catch a cold and be forced to stay at the suitor’s home.  She shows wanton favoritism of her silly, ill-behaved youngest daughters, making a fateful choice to send her to Brighton where the daughter makes a socially reprehensible choice that threatens to ruin the family all together.

The lesson learned in Pride and Prejudice is that appearances are not often what they seem.  Mr. Bingley’s sisters seem friendly and doting to Jane, but it is all an act, as their true feelings are that of superiority and disdain.  Mr. Wickham is attractive, affable, and pleasant, but in truth is a wicked womanizer who runs out on his debts and responsibilities.  Mr. Darcy seems cold, snobbish, proud and ill-mannered, but this is really how his shyness and fear of meeting new people, as well as his choice not to reveal the truth of his past with Wickham in order to defend Wickham’s maligning him.

I have read Pride and Prejudice before, and rereading it reminded me how much fun and funny it was.  Many of the tete a tetes between different characters are delightful: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s interactions, Elizabeth and Darcy’s verbal volleys, and best of all, Lady Catherine’s demand the Elizabeth NOT to accept a proposal from Darcy is met with the latter’s socially inexcusable refusal which leaves the Lady sputtering and hissing disdain for the entire Bennet family.

I have found that the first time I read this book, I was definately Elizabeth.  Now, about 15 years later, I am still Elizabeth Bennet.  I tend to jump to judgements, though not as quickly as before.  I am a fierce defender of my family, more now than before.  I have a sarcastic wit that I enjoy in myself, which is richer with the experiences of life and a better understanding of people.  I love and respect those who champion integrity and help the loved ones of the one one loves.  I am, however tempered with a little Jane: I do choose to believe people good until they prove themselves otherwise.

Like Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice could be modernized and be just as true and socially relative as in 1813.  Parents still desire for their grown children to be successful and  happily married to a good person.  Children still die of embarrassment when out in public with their parents.  And the fiercest enemies of happiness is our own friends and family. 

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility

“You have no confidence in me, Marianne.”
“Nay, Elinor, this reproach from you – you who have confidence in no one!”
“Me!” returned Elinor in some confusion. “Indeed, Marianne, I have nothing to tell.”
“Nor I,” answered Marianne with energy. “We have neither of us anything to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.”

Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen’s first published novel, and, as writing wasn’t considered something a “proper” woman would do, it was released anonymously as simply “by a lady”. It was never expected by Jane or her family to do well, and they were shocked when it sold out within two years.

Sense and Sensibility is the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, who couldn’t be more different. Elinor prefers decorum and reserve, biting her tongue and following the rules or polite society. Marianne, on the other hand, is passionate, impulsive, and speaks her mind, society be damned.

When it is revealed to Elinor in confidence that Lucy is engaged to the man Elinor loves, it is a crushing blow. She cannot relieve herself of this burden by “getting it off her chest” because she has promised Lucy to tell no one on her honor. In contrast, when Marianne discovers the man who made promises of love to her by his actions is to wed another, she falls into an uncontrollable downward spiral of depression, at one point nearly dying from the sorrow.

Both sisters approach life from different view points, both thinking the other wrong for theirs. But in the end, like most black-and-white views, they come to realize the validity of the other’s point.

What is interesting to me is that I have read this book twice in my life: the first time when I was about 21 or so, the second one now, on the precipice of 35 (my birthday is in four days). At each point in time, I have been first Marianne and now Elinor. I, like Marianne, had to learn that passion burns fast and leaves you with nothing but an empty stomach and disconnect notices. Like Marianne, I also had to learn that a handsome face that spews sweet words and then disappears like a fall-morning fog when the sun comes out cannot compare to an average man who’s not quite so eloquent but is there for the long hall and can be trusted.

The main points I think Austen was making in this book is that the society of her time was too quick to judge and condemn a woman for doing the same thing it found amusing in its men. A woman who expressed her mind was considered ill bread and of low-class, whereas a man doing the same thing went to Parliament.

Austen shows the results of society’s double standards with the dinner party at the Dashwood’s party. As the women are sitting at dinner, Austen describes the conniving thoughts behind Mrs. Ferrar’s behavior and treatment of Lucy over Elinor, whom she believes is trying to trap her son into marriage (Lucy is really the one she should worry about, yet she unwittingly encourages her in order to humilate Elinor). An argument begins over whose son is taller, Fanny’s or Lady Middleton’s, and lines are drawn, offending each other, in an attempt to gain superiority.

Ultimately, of course, love wins out, wrongs are righted, and justice is served.

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