On the Shelf: Jo Baker’s Longbourn

   I’ve wanted to read Longbourn, the clever and original new novel from Jo Baker, all year. Last week, I finally got my hands on it and it proved to be one of the first novels I’ve read in awhile that I absolutely devoured.  As in, staying up too late night after night even though I know I’ll wake up bleary-eyed the next morning.

Set in eighteenth-century England, Longbourn follows the ‘downstairs lives’ of the servants scarcely mentioned in Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice.  Austenites will find the novel especially delightful, but even if you’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, readers with a taste for evocative language and a setting which feels real enough to live in, will want to curl up with this cosy read.

Like millions of readers, I was enchanted by Pride and Prejudice; by the love story of Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy; appalled at the self-importance of Mr. Collins and humored by the high-strung antics of Mrs. Bennet. Longbourn not only heightened this interest, but offered a deeply satisfying and engrossing perspective on P&P’s other world through the observations and experiences of the servants.

Baker’s careful and considered details brought regency England to life while her realistically-drawn characters offered fascinating insights into what life was like for most people. This is not the England of ball gowns and pump rooms, but one in which day to day living is only wrought by cracked hands, sore backs and hour after hour of exhausting labor.

Above all, you’ll become deeply concerned for Sarah, a young servant discovering what it means to find happiness and fulfillment in a class-constrained world. You’ll cheer on her budding romance with James and effortlessly turn the pages for hints, clues and lush details about the characters’ past and present lives which are anything but simple.

If you enjoyed Crusoe’s Daughter, you’ll definitely enjoy Longbourn.

Happy Friday

colorWe made it through the week, everyone. It was a good one, but who isn’t always ready for Friday? Do you have many plans? B’s brother from California is flying in tonight and his parents are driving up tomorrow. We’ll all be attending the Bash4Guild event to support a great nonprofit committed to those struggling with mental illness. Those of you in the Twin Cities area, do come! It’s co-hosted by a friend of ours and is sure to be lots of fun.

Other than that, I’m starting to plan my sister’s bachelorette party! She’s been so stressed with planning her August wedding and I want to make sure she has one weekend where she can simply kick-back.

I hope you all have a great one and here’s some clever links from across the web…
Cute, easy and attractive kitchen art.

70 (!) cheap or free date ideas.

Yes, please!

You’re going to love this home tour (just wait for the shoe closest!)

The story behind this intriguing new movie.

A thoughtful essay on deep, consuming love.

I wish I could get to this exhibit at the V&A.

Until Monday!

xo, Em

Picture courtesy of bien.tumblr

On the Shelf: William Shakespeare Without the Boring Bits

ws With the exception of acting the part of Mustard Seed in my junior high’s production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream and reading Romeo and Juliet in high school, my Shakespeare education has, at best, been minimal. Even in light of graduating from an English university with a masters in English (and visiting Stratford-on-Avon), my knowledge  of Shakespeare has remained embarrassingly slight.

So, in a valiant effort to correct this glaring literary gap, I picked up a copy of Peter Ackroyd’s William Shakespare Without the Boring Bits. Let me start off by saying the volume of books on Shakespeare is overwhelming. Amazon him and no fewer than thousands of guides appear. Look him up in a bookstore and you’ll still find a dizzying array of nonfiction all promising to easily reveal his genius.

I picked up Ackroyd’s book because, after reading a few paragraphs, it seemed approachable and relevant. And, as I can now say, wholly worthwhile.

After a helpful introduction, Ackroyd organizes his book according to the Plays (History, Greek and Roman, Comedies, Tragedies and Romances) along with a section devoted to the poems and sonnets. I particularly enjoyed the last section-titled the Wit and Wisdom of Shakespeare-for explaining just why famous passages have remained popular.

The sections about the plays are thorough, yet not overbearing, and provide the context along with their possible  inspiration and plot and character synopsis. While I definitely didn’t retain every details, these sections were enlightening and will be even more helpful when I see a Shakespeare play in the future and need a quick update.

How well do you know Shakespeare? Do you have a favorite play? Quote? Ashleigh read sonnet 116 at our wedding and it has remained hopeful and special to me.

 

Travel Mondays: 9 Ways to Judge Europe by its Cover

ws1

How stunning is Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-on-Avon? Visited March 2012.

Sometimes I still need to pinch myself over the fact that I survived my MA year at Bristol. So much work, but so many more fantastic travel experiences. Not only was I studying my favorite authors, but I was able to visit many of their former homes and favorite haunts. So of course I had to write about them for DreamPlanGo:

For those who own more dog-eared paperbacks than they’d like to admit, there is no richer travel destination than Europe. Explore the haunts of literature’s most enduring authors and their beloved characters in these nine destinations made for bibliophiles:

Keep reading over here for the full article and let me know which literary destination you’d choose!

On the Shelf: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

lifeKate Atkinson is as precious to me as my first author-love Charlotte Brontë. Atkinson’s novels, like Brontë‘s, tremble with wit, comfort, and significance. She writes the words at the tip of your tongue with clarity and logic, achieving that incalculable balance of beauty and blood in the process.You become dizzy with the loveliness of her shapely scenes but aren’t allowed to be oblivious to the strong undercurrents of disaster.

I first discovered Kate Atkinson in Bristol–in a “Space and Place” class taught by Professor Ralph Pite. We read Behind the Scenes at the Museum and I was utterly absorbed by the feisty narrator and the novel’s hurtfully honest portrayal of family. Next I discovered Jackson Brodie and the magical combination of Atkinson’s prose in mystery form. Yet none of this reading prepared me for the force of her newest novel.

 Life After Life is spun with gold. If you read anything this year, Life After Life must be it. The story-or stories- of Ursula Todd is utterly compelling and lingers with depth and spirit long after you close the cover. The Todd family is as real as your own flesh and blood and you can’t help but absorb their joy, their loss and their tremendous fragility.

In a nutshell, it’s Ursula’s brother who expresses the hope (purpose/beauty/tragedy) of the novel:

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally got it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

The wholly lovable Ursula Todd is given the chance to do just this. As she dies and returns to us throughout the novel-set before and after the second world war-we become intimately aware of the infinite value of a single life. Not only is the novel a powerful encapsulation of English identity  in the midst of ‘the war to end all wars,’ but it answers the question we so often ask ourselves–“What If?”

If you pay any attention to book awards and bestsellers, you’ve heard about Life After Life, and I don’t need to say much more. But this is, hands down, the sweetest novel I’ve read in years and one which I know will bring you joy.