Sunday, June 28, 2020

On Persuasion

The Jane Austen SocietyThe Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The jacket copy says that fans of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir will enjoy this book; I’m a fan of the first and not of the second, but I did enjoy this historical fiction tribute to Jane Austen and her fans. I think the book was written expressly for them; deeper familiarity with her novels would certainly enhance the reading. I’m not sure that it will convert those unfamiliar with her work; it didn’t inspire me to reread Austen, but it kept my interest because it celebrates reading.
Jenner has invented a group of characters who form the Jane Austen Society in the post-WWII village of Chawton (Austen’s historic home). In homage to Austen, she concentrates on illustrating issues of class and romantic expectations in the closed-environment Petri dish of an English village; in service to her own muse, there’s a 21st Century perspective that makes it more bearable to me than Austen’s own works. The author’s outlier characters, Evie and Adam (oh, the symbolism—but no, there’s a huge age gap and they’re never associated romantically) are the ones who made the book interesting to me. I really liked them. Adam, a village farmer, discovers Austen from the visit of an American girl on Austen pilgrimage in 1932, thereby obtaining the gift of companionship and wisdom that books can bring to a lonely life. Evie’s introduced to Austen in school by the dynamic village teacher. Though she has to leave the village school before graduation in order to work in the manor where Austen once lived, she has her master reading list and she’s able to nurture her native intelligence through access to the manor library.
Most of the other characters are flawed but sympathetic, just like real life. The village doctor, the village lawyer, and the lady of the manor all have starring roles, along with the teacher and the American—later a movie star who never lost her love for Austen—her movie producer fiancĂ©, and a Sotheby’s assistant director of estate sales. Couples find happiness and the entwined threads all tie up nicely in the end. I’ll look forward to another book from the author, especially if she steps further from Austen’s shadow.

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Monday, June 1, 2020

Post-Apocalypse Hope

A Beginning at the EndA Beginning at the End by Mike Chen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The current crop of apocalyptic sci-fi books shows clearly that fiction is a form of thought experiment and that science fiction is really about the present time. I’ve got at least 4 books stacked by my chair that I’ve had to put down because the authors picked pandemic for their apocalypse and I don’t want to read about them. Chen was coming to the Tucson Festival of Books so I started reading his book with its hopeful title in March, having forgotten—if I knew—that he picked pandemic, too. I was able to keep reading this one. Chen’s book centers around people, not ideas, and that’s why it’s readable and hopeful in the current situation.
A decade after a global pandemic wiped out most of the planet’s population, the survivors are rebuilding the country, split between self-governing cities, hippie communes and wasteland gangs. The poor, as always, are stuck in one place or the other. Tensions are rising again, along with the threat of new outbreaks. The plot centers around Moira, a former child star voice artist who’s been hiding from her domineering stage dad for years; Rob, a single dad who has to keep proving to social services that he deserves custody of his daughter Sunny; and Krista, an event planner with a big heart and radical friends. Their challenges are both personal and communal, with society in such flux, but people of good heart usually find a way to achieve their dreams, especially with a little help from friends—and they do.
There’s definitely a difference between the newer sci-fi authors and the Boomers; Chen is definitely new school. The real feat that Chen pulls off is to embed his hopefulness in an engaging plot, with likable characters, and to keep the politics offstage and out of total war, through compromise. Usually in these books there are clear winners and losers; Chen has written a way into the future that is workable and believable because the only thing that works in our lived reality is compromise: nobody wins everything but nobody loses everything, either. If only the politicians would quit living in the fantasy worlds of total domination and move into the world where the rest of humanity resides. Books like this remind us of what’s really possible. Recommended.

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