Are you a Kindle or a paperback fan? I admit to preferring paperback (easier to underline, and flip back or even forwards …). But, the Kindle’s useful: to buy and read books which aren’t stocked in our local Independent Bookstore (tiny, and very exclusive) or our large but tourist-oriented emporia – Waterstones and Blackwell’s.
So, Four books from my Kindle…
I write books about women’s lives … (Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year …)
I read books about women’s lives (though not exclusively – I just read one (by a man) about Mindfulness …)
But it’s a paperback, back to the Kindle…
Two are Austen re-writes: the Austen Project rolls on …
I read Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (updated Pride and Prejudice) with interest. Northanger Abbey was a set text at school. (Ever noticed that name – North Anger Abbey?) We were set to read, alongside Jane’s ‘spoof’, The Mysteries of Udolpho (published 1794) by Ann Radcliffe, to appreciate the irony of her take on women’s popular literature of her time. Girls back then were in a Gothic Novel phase: sound familiar?
McDermid moves further into ironic observations of teenage girls obsessed with boys, and with reading scary tales of vampires and mysterious discoveries, in this amusing story. Reviews on Amazon vary, some even in the ‘I threw the book across the room’ style. Some reviewers had not read Austen’s original. Unless you have read Austen’s novel, how can anyone fully appreciate this clever update? McDermid exploits both the Austen writing style and the recent teenage/YA fascination with Gothic themes. Moving the action from fashionable 18th century Bath to the contemporary Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the story is a silly riot just as it should be. A fun read, well written and well observed.
The Sittenfeld, (which I read second) is set in Middle America, Cincinnati, Sittenfeld’s family home. I noticed, after I’d read it, that Amazon advertises the book as ‘humour’. Humour it may be, but satire is more like it. With far too much about specific Cincinnati eating places, roads, neighbourhoods. Sittenfeld’s Prep I enjoyed, but in her Sisters I found a sleazy and uninteresting slightly satirical take on the foibles of humanity. So how does Eligible do Pride and Prejudice?
The updated characters – Elizabeth is a thirty-something magazine journalist with a selfish married boyfriend, who on fancying Darcy indulges with him in ‘hate sex’ left a nasty taste, because it didn’t capture and update Austen. Sexual tension between Elizabeth and Darcy in P and P expresses itself cleverly in witty dialogue, not in simple lust. The fact that this is how a 30-something might behave today doesn’t justify substituting foreplay for that Austen’s stylish sharp amusing verbal interplay. Which credits her Elizabeth with a self-confident intelligence and ability not usually allowed a woman of her time. And Austen’s subtle irony doesn’t imply contempt for those she depicts as ridiculous (Mr Collins in P and P). Darcy is attractive, yes, but in Eligible we have the updated Colin Firth in wet shirt, not the Darcy of Jane’s novel. Sittenfeld’s writing lacks stylishness. And she’s lost the plot, updating with no more reference to Austen than writing a loosely based ‘comedy of manners’ which picks out social types and holds them up for our prejudice and amusement. Austen uses wit: Sittenfeld relies on curled lip contempt.
That said, some of it is indeed quite funny, especially the lampoon of a wedding (Jane Bennett the pregnant bride) on reality TV, which brings the story pretty much to a close. But no, I wouldn’t call this, as it is advertised, ‘The Summer Book’. Plenty more out there to choose from for beach reading. Or is it simply that I don’t go for this writer’s work?
Two by One
My other two latest reads in the ‘women’s novels’ genre are delightful books by an unknown, compared to McDermid and Sittenfeld: Vivienne Tufnell’s Square Peg and Strangers and Pilgrims. Tufnell is a fellow member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors).
These are straight novels, placed in unusual settings and displaying a deep observation of nature (as in human) and nature (as in the wilderness around us). They are pleasure to read, as Tufnell writes well about what she knows, displaying a real eye for compassion and acute observation/insight.
Square Peg tells the story of a young woman whose husband is studying to be a Vicar. Without satire or lampooning, but with incredible insight, she accurately captivates the culture of a residential College. The men study, while wives languish producing endless babies or darting into the outside world to work in the real world of contrasting environment. It didn’t have to be a Vicar-factory of course: any residential College would do, but an extra spin comes from the religious angle. Group hysteria among the wives with their inward looking lives, deprived of a wider community or a job, creates the crisis, for the main character, Chloe, (a civil engineer by training, but raised by a sensible, but hippy-type, Gran) is so ‘different’ in so many ways that they spook themselves she’s some kind witch. Okay, today such colleges are mixed: but it totally captures when they weren’t…
Strangers and Pilgrims explores another assorted group, who gather at a remote venue in hope of healing from emotional pain. Cleverly Tufnell weaves her story to demonstrate of how the healing takes place: not by the miracle workings of the mysterious Warden or the holy Well, but by the relating, co-operating, living together, of the six lonely and hurt individuals, over about a week. It is realistic, and down to earth, and the surprise at the end gathers up the meaning: who is this Warden, who nobody has seen? Does s/he exist? (And it is not a predictable solution, nor is it a spirit or God …)
Tufnell deserves a wider audience. Her books are delightful: great reading on the beach, or anywhere that a person can curl up, undisturbed, with a glass of wine or a mug of tea.
And the Mindfulness book? That’s for another time!