Saturday 30 July 2011

DOUBLE REVIEW: The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler (3.5*)


The Jane Austen Book Club is one of those novels that might be dismissed as 'chick lit' but actually turns out to be a sharp, witty, intelligent and well-written book that, whilst certainly a light read, is also one to be deliciously savoured.

The premise is simple but original. A group of friends start a book club. Not just any book club, but, in light of their collective issues with modern life, an 'All-Jane-Austen-All-The-Time' book club. Six people, six books, with each of the group hosting the meeting for their chosen novel. The chapters are structured around these meetings, so the first chapter is 'MARCH, CHAPTER 1... in which we gather at Jocelyn's to discuss Emma', and so on. In each chapter the host's history and personality is more fully explored, the month's novel is discussed (but never so much that it bores or alienates the reader), and at the same time the other characters are lightly threaded through the background to keep the overall plot evolving.

As well as showcasing Austen's novels, this is very much a character piece. Each of the six book club members are entirely individual and it makes for much more interesting and amusing reading. Bernadette is a serial wife, rather eccentric and flamboyant, with a liking for yoga and Pride and Prejudice. Loyal Sylvia works at the library and has just had her life shattered by her husband Daniel's confession that he is leaving her for another woman. Her beautiful daughter Allegra is constantly doing daring things - not always without paying the price - and is getting over a devastating betrayal by her ex-girlfriend Corinne. Jocelyn is a dominant terminal singleton, afraid of being hurt and making up for it by matchmaking everyone else. Prudie is a rather artificial, self-conscious young French teacher who doesn't quite know how to interact with other people without coming across all wrong. And Grigg, poor Grigg, a sci-fi fan and Austen virgin brought into the group by Jocelyn as a distraction for Sylvia, is entirely out of his depth and trying not to make an idiot of himself. The novel is narrated by a kind of all-seeing other, one who describes each character in the third person but frequently mentions 'us' and 'we'; part of the fun of the reading is trying to work out which of the six, if any, might be telling the story.

Thus characters are strengthened, love blossoms and dies and blooms again, and the story goes on. Of course it ends with optimism, hope and a well-timed bit of Austen wisdom. To my surprise, at the end of the book Fowler has also added some little extras which add to the reading experience - some contemporary and modern literary criticism of Austen and her novels, a brief summary of each of the books (handy for those not familiar with all of the works, or those who might want a quick refresher on characters and plots), and at the VERY end, a funny set of 'Questions for Discussion' on Austen AND Fowler presented by each of the six book club members.

Clearly a liking for Jane Austen helps when reading this novel, but ultimately there is nothing in here that should put off a less knowledgeable reader, particularly given the handy summaries at the back (which I wish I'd noticed earlier, I must admit). It is a scrumptious book - funny, romantic, inspiring and positive - and definitely one I'd like to read again sometime.


This is a great ensemble piece with a fantastic cast and a good sense of humour!  I can never not be in the mood for such an all-round charming movie - it offers up romance, books, heartbreak, humour, and oh yeah, more books... 

Like the book, the movie is divided into sections by month and Austen novel, with each new section heralded by a yummy montage of the characters reading that month's book.  These mini montages are one of my favourite things about the film!  Whether it's Bernadette reading in the local coffee shop, Jocelyn relaxing on the porch or poor old Grigg poring over his huge all-in-one collection while tucking into an enormous sandwich, they make me want to run and pick up a book, right now!

I think one of the reasons I like the movie better than the book is the fact that it doesn't dwell too much on the characters' back stories.  Essential details are explained, of course, like the fact that Jocelyn and Sylvia have been friends since childhood and that Jocelyn used to date Sylvia's husband as a girl, but the fun of the book club never gets weighed down by their history.  In the book, for example, there is a long description of Grigg's experiences at a party as a boy, which really doesn't add anything to the story or to his character.  Here the characters and their links to the novels they're discussing are more clearly defined, and the focus remains mostly on the present and, naturally, on the books.

Ultimately, I just think the film takes everything the book did and does it better.  It aligns the characters' experiences with the six Austen novels, it offers humour and romance, it knocks ten years off Allegra's age (thus broadening its appeal down an extra generation, I think), it has plenty of bookish chatter, and most importantly of all, I never ever get to the end without having a big smile plastered across my face.  That's movie love, folks! 

Kathy Baker (Bernadette), Emily Blunt (Prudie), Amy Brenneman (Sylvia), Maggie Grace (Allegra), Maria Bello (Jocelyn) and Hugh Dancy (Grigg) 

Thursday 21 July 2011

BTT: On re-reading

What’s the first book that you ever read more than once? (I’m assuming there’s at least one.)

What book have you read the most times? And–how many?

I'm not sure really!  I used to re-read books constantly as a child.  Some of the books I remember reading and re-reading over and over again include various Enid Blyton series (The Magic Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair, Noddy, Malory Towers, St. Clare's, The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, The Famous Five...), Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did.  Stories about good kids with rampant imaginations who went on adventures and did all kinds of wonderful things!  I took a subset of these books everywhere - in the car to the shops, on holiday, anywhere that involved travelling really - and read and reread them voraciously in between trips to the library.  Lordy, those were the days...

These days I still re-read my favourite books, but at a rather slower and less frantic pace!  Aside from the Harry Potter books, which for the most part I used to reread every time a book came out (I've only read #7 once - I think it might be time for a renewed sweep through the whole series...), I'm not really sure what I've reread most.  There are definitely certain books that seem to keep swinging around on a regular basis.  I know it's 'time' because it becomes like an itch that needs to be scratched, or a craving that won't go away - I get preoccupied by that book and within a couple of months will have picked it up to enjoy again. 

Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are fairly regular re-reads, the latter more so than the former I think.  I first read Jane Eyre at a much younger age, and the shadow of my earlier fear of Lowood school and the terrifying presence of Bertha Mason at Thornfield still hangs over me when I think about it! 

I reread The Picture of Dorian Gray very regularly - that might be my most-reread title, in fact.  I bought it when I was about eleven, a Penguin Popular Classics edition from Waterstones in Llandudno (how's that for buyer memory?), fell totally in love with Dorian and the witty pleasure-seeking Henry, and have never looked back!  It's just an amazing book.  It's decadent and sensual and witty and gothic and scary - and I always well up a little bit at the end.  In fact, I'd even say that when that idle question 'Hmmm, what would I call my future kids?' comes up, Dorian's right up there for a boy.  Fabulous.

In terms of non-classics, there are a few more books I regularly re-read.  Bill Bryson is definitely up there, particularly Notes from a Big Country.  Being a collection of short articles, rather than one long narrative, it's that much easier to dip in and out of when I'm bored or need an easy read or a light pick-me-up.  Plus it's very funny, which definitely helps!

I also re-read two books I found around the same time and which are now firm favourites of mine: Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Jeremy Mercer's Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co.  Both are fantastic and come highly recommended!  And both are fairly bookish, of course.  The Secret History is about a group of elite scholars at a small American college whose preoccupation with the classics leads them to murder the most annoying of their number.  Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs is Mercer's account of his time living and working at Shakespeare and Co. under the watchful eye of wonderfully eccentric owner George.  I know both of these are due a re-read because I'm getting all twitchy just writing this!  It's been too long since I read either of them...

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to carry on with my all-new exploration of The Princess Bride, and rather appropriately, to continue my re-read of So Many Books, So Little Time, which is proving much more enjoyable the second time around!