Public Service Announcement

Are you one of those people who can’t get enough of Pride and Prejudice? Do you have strong opinions on whether the BBC series is better than the movie because you have watched both numerous times? Are you mesmerized by the characters and just can’t let them go?

Well, I have good news for you. P.D. James, the grand dame of classical British mystery, has published a sequel to this great novel. It is titled Death Comes to Pemberley. Of course, P.D. James is no Jane Austen. Nobody can really compare to this brilliant, amazing, fantastic writer. (This is a cue to all haters of Jane Austen that this is not a blog for them). But among all of the sequels, prequels and rewritings of Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley is definitely the best.

December is a very harsh month, especially for academics. Finals, grading, finishing up the service requirements, submitting reams of paperwork – all this makes one incapable of processing any profound kind of reading. P.D. James’s novel has come out at a very propitious moment. It is a lot of fun to read about the Bennetts, Mr. Darcy and his sister Georgiana, the Bingleys, and the new people P.D. James introduces into the lives of these immortal characters.

P.D. James is 91 years old right now. I only wish we all preserve her sense of humour and her freshness of perception at that age.

Here is a video of P.D. James discussing her new novel and her love of Jane Austen. Ninety-one years old, people. She should publish a book on how to be so beautiful and alert at that age.

Do You Like San Francisco?

If you do, chances are you are a fan of writer John Lescroart who has created a series consisting of really great courtroom dramas set in this great city. One of the many cool things about Lescroart’s novels is that somebody is always cooking something delicious in them. Now the writer has his own blog and is publishing some of the recipes that have appeared in his novels.

Today, I decided to use Lescroart’s recipe called Mickey’s Rice-A-Roni, and here is how the end result looks:

Here is the recipe from Lescroart’s site:

1/4 stick butter
2 TBS EV Olive Oil
1 shallot
2 or more cloves garlic (to taste)
1 tbs dried thyme
1 tbs dried rosemary
2 tbs allspice
1 cup Arborio rice (but any rice will do)
1/2 cup orzo (or linguini broken up into small pieces)
3 cups chicken stock

Combine first seven ingredients over medium heat until shallot and garlic soften. Pour in rice and orzo and stir until thoroughly mixed with the oil and spice mixture. Turn heat to high and add chicken stock. Bring to the boil, then turn down to low and cover. Cook twenty minutes, or until rice is cooked and all the liquid has been absorbed. Makes four cups cooked, serving four to eight.

I changed it a little bit, of course. I skipped the shallots (I don’t eat them), used Arborio rice with sun-dried tomatoes because I really like some acidity in my rise and cooked it as a regular risotto. I also added some white wine (what’s a risotto without wine?) and some turmeric because I love it.

If you like both courtroom dramas and San Francisco, you need to check out this writer. All of his novels are great but The Second Chair and Guilt are my favorites.

Comfort Reading

I think time has come for us to discuss what we read for comfort. What is the trashiest kind of reading you enjoy when you are exhausted, sick, or simply need some really mindless entertainment?

For me – and I’m kind of ashamed to confess this secret that nobody knows about me – the trashiest author of choice is Jodi Picoult. If there is one author who knows nothing about psychology and always presents the most incongruous (from the psychological point of view) plots, it’s her.

She keeps creating characters who embody the most monstrous type of motherhood you can imagine. From a mother who gives birth to a child to harvest organs from her and who doesn’t relent even after the kid goes to court to stop the barbarity, to a mother who responds to a daughter’s incarceration by having another baby to substitute for the child who came out wrong – Picoult loves celebrating this type of outrageous mothers. She never condemns them, mind you. They are all heroes in her novels. The fathers are usually simply absent, clueless and useless.

All of Picoult’s novels are badly written and quite ridiculous. One that is the least so is Nineteen Minutes. It narrates a story of a school shooting and its aftermath.

Whenever I’m sick or very tired, I read or re-read a novel by Picoult. No matter what’s going on in your life, you will never fail to feel very normal and adequate in comparison to her characters.

And now that I’ve shared my deep, shameful reading-related secret, feel free to share yours.

What Book Made You Cry?

Reader Evelina Anville mentioned that Uncle Tom’s Cabin made her cry when she was a kid. I had the same experience with the book at about the same age (9 or 10). But the book that I read 5 times when I was a child and then a teenager and that made me weep hysterically in a way that no other book has since was The Gadfly by Ethel Lillian Voynich. The relationship between father and son it portrays is so tragic that its trivial little love story pales in comparison.

I’m pretty sure that if I read it again at my current advanced age, it will still bring me to tears.

I also cry every time at the end of the second part of Don Quijote.

Which books made you cry?

P.S. I just noticed that I tend to cry for male characters and not for female ones. 

W.B. Maxwell’s Vivien: A Forgotten Book by a Forgotten Writer

William Babington Maxwell (1866–1938) was a super popular British writer at the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century. Now, W.B. Maxwell is mostly forgotten. Like John Galsworthy and Somerset Maugham, he was born a little too late. His firmly Realist style of writing, alien to any kind of Modernist experimentation, mirrored his rejection of modernity and made it easy for readers to forget him in spite of his initial popularity.

Vivien was published in 1905, and what a great novel it is! I love reading the forgotten literature of the late XIXth and early XXth century because it tells you so much about how people actually lived. In this novel you see the waning years of the Victorian era, the Boer War, the changing status of the aristocracy, the debates surrounding pre-marital sex, the massive entrance of young women from impoverished “good families” into the workplace, the way these women were exploited, harassed and abused at work. You find out how these young women dressed, the efforts they made to pretend they had a good wardrobe, how they dealt with the scarcity of men in the imperial society, what they ate, how they addressed their sexual needs, where they lived, and many other fascinating things. In the midst of all this, you hear the voice of a narrator who is devastated by the disintegration of the old order and sees no place for himself in the changing reality of a new century.

This is a female Bildungsroman written by a male author, and a very conservative one at that. This makes the novel deeply interesting to me on a number of levels.

I read other novels by W.B. Maxwell but they are much lower in quality than Vivien. I bought this book in Kharkov 15 years ago. (How I wish I could find out the way it got there!) Since then, the book traveled with me everywhere until it disintegrated. I don’t mean fell apart, I mean that many pages actually disintegrated making it unreadable. I could, of course, keep requesting it through the interlibrary loan, but I needed a copy of my own. Once, I found a copy at a used books website. It was a very good, high-quality copy, too, but it cost $65 which was an impossibly high price for me at that time. So while I waited to get rich, somebody snapped it up.

And now, finally, after years of searching it became available on Amazon, and I can finally have a copy of my own. Which is what prompted this review.

The problem is that the copies of this book are limited in number. When this one disintegrates after years of massive use, what will I do? If anybody has any tips on how to preserve first editions of old books, feel free to share. Vivien and I will be very grateful. 🙂

NB: Everything I mention in this post is based on my own vision of British literature. Please don’t ask me for sources for my explanation of Galsworthy’s and Maugham’s loss of popularity, for example. I studied British literature for decades, so there is no single source for my opinions.

Ana Maria Moix’s Julia: A Painful Coming-of-Age Story

I had no idea that Ana Maria Moix’s Julia was available in English. But it turns out that a translation exists and you can find it right here. Amazon charges a completely ridiculous price for it but there are always used copies and libraries. 

This fairly short but brilliant novel was written in 197o when Spain’s fascist dictator Franco had only five years left to live. The novel was considered groundbreaking when it first came out because it addressed rape and introduced themes of female homosexual desire in ways that were very subversive of the patriarchal regime of Franco’s Spain.

I keep mentioning Franco, but this doesn’t mean a young woman growing up today would find Julia’s coming-of-age story impossible to relate to. Forty years after the novel was written, women who grow up in societies that consider themselves a lot more liberated than Franco’s fascist Spain still get initiated into the world of human sexuality through violent invasion of their bodies. They still feel unable to inscribe themselves into a demanding standard of “correct” femininity and struggle to reconcile their love of learning with living in a world that only accepts them as pretty, silly, and passive. They still often discover that experiencing queer desire marginalizes them.

The masterpieces of Spanish literature – which is obviously the most fascinating literature in the world – don’t get translated into English as much as they should. As a result, people who don’t speak Spanish are deprived of partaking in the joy and the beauty of these great works of literature. It’s good to know that Ana Maria Moix’s Julia will not join the ranks of books that are inaccessible to an English-speaking reader.