Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book 7: Austenland by Shannon Hale

I'm not sure if I've made this adequately clear in the past, but I am not a huge fan of Jane Austen's.  While her stuff is, yes, entertaining to a degree, I can't help but feel like every story is the same and every character is just a reconstituted Mr. Darcy or Ms. Bennett.  And, yeah, her characters sometimes have rather witty, snarkastic (sarcastic + snarky; I think it's clever) things to say, but nothing from a Jane Austen novel has ever inspired me to love, admire, or even loathe her characters.  
In light of this, I find it highly amusing that Shannon Hale's Austenland, a novel entirely concerned with Jane Austen and the women who love her work, is one of my favorite frivolous reads of all time.  I say "frivolous" simply because, having read a few of Hale's other novels, I can safely call Austenland one of her more playful endeavors (it's meant to be funny and ridiculous, unlike Goose Girl which is much more literary in nature, for lack of a better description).  
The plot of Austenland is as follows:  Jane Hayes is a successful working woman living in New York.  She has, it seems, everything a girl wants--beauty, youth, a good job.  Everything, that is, except a healthy love life.  Jane is a Pride and Prejudice addict of the highest order and a lover of everything Jane Austen.  And she is obsessed--OBSESSED--with Mr. Darcy.  No real boyfriend could possibly compare in her eyes to the perfection that is Fitzwilliam Darcy.  It's a guilty habit--one she's aware of and knows, on some level, that she has to get rid of if she wants to move on with her life.  So when a recently-deceased relative wills her an all-expenses-paid trip to an English resort built specifically with her type in mind--that is, a three-week immersion in a re-creation of Regency England that caters to the Austen-obsessed--Jane decides to go on the eccentric vacation for one last hurrah before dumping the Darcy habit for good. 
For three weeks she dresses in ball gowns, learns the talk and the manners, dances, and interacts with Martin the Gardener and the broody Mr. Nobly (or is it the actors they're played by?) and the other vacationers, and she eventually finds herself in her element, thriving in the synthetic setting and loving it.  The true question by the end of the vacation is this:  will she bid Pembroke Park adieu having left the obsession in the past or will she, perhaps, end up with a flesh-and-blood Mr. Darcy of her own? 
It's a seriously delightful novel, and a very quick read.  It's chick-lit, to be sure, but even the most straight-laced readers will have to laugh and sigh with the believable and relatable character that Hale creates in Jane Hayes.  The narrative reads with an ease and a wit that I really can't get enough of.  
Yeah, maybe it does have a happy ending, but it's so much better than that.

Grade:  A+
Rating:  14+ for (ew omgsh) making out, etc.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book 6: "Covering: The Hidden Assault On Our Civil Rights" by Kenji Yoshino

Since I'm part of the housing staff at my college, I'm supposed to read the summer reading book that the college assigns to incoming freshmen so that I can discuss the book with the freshies when they get on campus.  

I picked the book up before school let out, and started reading it during the train ride to the beach on my last day in Southern California.  While the material was relatively interesting, I only got through the first few pages before falling asleep (credit for the doze-off goes to the groovy motion of the train, though, not the book).  

I was recently reminded of the task I had been charged with, and since I didn't have anything to read, I picked this one back up.  

Covering:  The Hidden Assault On Our Civil Rights is a memoir/essay by Kenji Yoshino on the broad subjects of identity and society.  More specifically, it's about society's demands for conformity through an act which Yoshino calls "covering".  Covering is defined as the process by which people "tone down" or de-emphasize stereotypes or stigmas associated with their racial, gender, sexual, religious, or other identities.  According to Yoshino, one can cover along the four axes of appearance (by making sure we don't look stereotypically ___), affiliation (by not associating with ____ culture), activism (by not engaging in ____ causes), and association (by keeping a distance from other ____ people).  

  Aside from addressing a very interesting and current topic, Yoshino does a great job of building  the book into a delightful cross between an expository essay and a memoir.  By using his own experiences as fodder for the discussion of covering, Yoshino builds context and provides resonant parallels between his life and the sociopolitical precedent that legitimizes covering in American society.  I found the format in which Covering was written to be very effective in not only giving readers a reason to care about the subject, but also in forcing readers to think about how they themselves capitulate to and impose covering demands.  Yoshino's style is also very appealing to me, in that he neatly balances the flourish of more formal, lyrical writing with a very frank, honest discussion of the issue and its effects.  He is also very even-handed, and seems to never make the mistake of taking himself too seriously--a quality that I respect very much in a writer.  

Professor Yoshino actually came and spoke at my college on the subject of covering, and I was pleased to find that he is as well-spoken in the flesh as on the page.  (He also dresses excellently, but that's quite besides the point)

I think Covering is one of those books that everyone should read, both for the purpose of better understanding society and to, more importantly, gain better understanding of the self.  Covering is an issue that touches everyone, and understanding it helps us know how it relates to us and influences our place in the world.  

Grade:  A
Rating:  15+; it would probably bore anyone younger
Considerations:  None.  It's appropriate for just about everyone

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Life Update 2

Things have been pretty crazy of late.  I'm back at school now, and it's only just hit me how crazy this semester is going to be.  Still, things are good.  I like my classes (or, rather, I like them as much as I am able, given that Organic Chemistry has officially put its devil mark upon my brain as of today), I love my room (it's GIGANTIC and all mine), and I adore my freshmen.  I hope they like me as much as I like them.  
It's been insanely hot here in Claremont, though right now it's pleasant and cool in my room (the breeze blows in through the balcony door once in a while and it really is the most exquisite thing).  The local fires are burning themselves out slowly, so the air quality is gross.  I find ash on the balcony in the morning sometimes, and smoke clouds rise out of the North and make me think of Mordor every time I turn towards the mountains.  
According to my freshmen, a "blonde guy" keeps showing up at my door when I'm not around.  I have no idea who this person is, since he's never left me a note to indicate his identity despite the fact that a good portion of my door is taken up by whiteboard.  Hopefully he'll come by while I'm here and solve the mystery.  That would be good.