200th Anniversary of Pride & Prejudice

Okay, so the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was actually back on January 28th.  However, as it is such an important novel I’m going to make it okay to celebrate the book and its author all throughout 2013.  Yes, I can do that.  (They’re doing it in the UK so it’s allowed, okay??)

“Oh no, another chick who is crazy about Jane Austen,” you say?

Yes.  Yes, I am crazy about Jane Austen.  My most prized possession is a 1975 London Folio Society box set of her complete works.  I have read them all at least once, and most I have read more than once.  Persuasion is my very favorite, though of course Pride and Prejudice is the acknowledged masterpiece.

As anyone who loves costume dramas knows, there have been numerous dramatizations of Pride and Prejudice (some better than others, I suspect).  Who could forget Bridget Jones’ Diary?  (Yes, in case you didn’t know, that is based on Pride and Prejudice like Clueless is based on Emma.)  The most recent film adaptation stars Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen (not my favorite) and perhaps the most popular version (and what set off the latest Jane Austen craze) is the BBC’s 1995 TV adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.

Hey Girl Mr. Darcy
If this confuses you, look up Ryan Gosling and “hey girl”.

Over the past year (since April 9, 2012), the classic has inspired the online YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  I stumbled across this series via Facebook and spent almost an entire afternoon watching the 5-minute videos from the first episode.  The vlogging (that’s “video blogging”) setting gets old pretty quickly (especially when you watch them all in quick succession), but it’s a clever and fun way to bring Pride and Prejudice to life for a modern audience.

But what, you may ask, is it about this novel that makes it so enduringly popular?  Many like to say it’s the romance.  Even Henry James apparently complained at the end of the 19th century that people (read: women) were reading Austin for the romance.  I have to admit that I was disappointed to read the BBC’s emphasis on the romantic side of the story in their coverage of the 200th anniversary.

Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice especially, are more than romance novels or the origins of what naysayers call “chick lit”.  They are, in essence, comedies, which in the Shakespearian tradition end with a wedding.  They are far more subtle, though, than most comedies and chick lit.  They are written with an undercurrent of social commentary and with fabulous wit, intelligence and insight.

If you were to actually pick up Pride and Prejudice, you would immediately realize that Austen possessed an incredible understanding of human nature, and was blessed with the genius to convey her insights in engaging language.  Who cannot sympathize when Elizabeth Bennet says, “Till this moment, I never knew myself”?  Without being pedantic or preachy, Austen gives Elizabeth (and us) a lesson in self-understanding to which most readers can relate.

So if up to now you have rejected Pride and Prejudice as “chick lit” or a romance novel, I encourage you to try reading the first three chapters (they’re short).  Yes, the romantic story of love thwarted and then resolved is there, but it acts as a vehicle for so much more.  Read it for the wit (because it really is funny), and read it as a testament to the value of good, strong understanding of self and others.

 

And in case you were wondering, yes.  I am re-reading Pride and Prejudice right now.  Whee!

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Book Review: Learning to Die in Miami

This weekend I finished Learning to Die in Miami, (2010) by Carlos Eire.

Learning to Die in MiamiThis is the follow up memoir to Waiting for Snow in Havana, published in 2003, which told the story of Eire’s childhood in Havana, Cuba.  Born there in 1950, Eire grew up with his older brother Tony and his parents, whom he refers to as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (due, apparently, to his father’s belief that he was the reincarnation of the beheaded king of France).  The book ends when he and his brother are evacuated from Cuba in 1962 as part of Operation Peter Pan.

After seven years, in Learning to Die in Miami Eire brings us back to that moment when he and his brother landed in Florida.  As you can probably imagine, this is not a light, easy read.  Already in Waiting for Snow in Havana, you know that the seeds of heartbreak are sewn in his family.  His father is distant and unable to express his affection.  He adopts Ernesto into the family, but is blind to his abusive behavior.

Learning to Die in Miami takes us through the many deaths of Carlos, Charles, Chuck and Charlie.  Eire writes with heart-wrenching eloquence about a young boy’s fear of total loneliness (the Void, as he calls it), and his desperate desire to let his past die and fully become an American boy.  We learn of his brother Tony’s distancing behind a wall of isolation and his descent into an unescapable abyss.  He examines his father’s motives behind his choices, and his mother’s unceasing efforts to follow her sons out of Cuba.

Though while he touches on the flaws and failures of his family, Eire does not spend his memoir witnessing for the sins of others.  Nor does he assign blame to anyone or write about them as anything other than entirely human.

What is most captivating to me about this memoir is how Eire seems to step outside of himself to look back in.  He uses language that makes him seem apart from his experiences in order to make us understand, but at the same time he does not remove his feelings, his reactions or his fears from them.

I am also fascinated by his clinging to spirituality, despite the horrors of an abusive foster home, and constant abandonment by people he comes to trust.  It is this spirituality, and his coming to believe in an unending source of grace, which give this memoir an edge of humor and of hope.

It would be dangerous to say more, for fear of giving too much away.  If you haven’t read Waiting for Snow in Havana, I highly recommend picking it up, especially as a vehicle towards Learning to Die in Miami.  Carlos Eire’s memoirs are heartbreaking yet life, faith, and family-affirming.

Reading them will take you out of your comfort zone and challenge you to see the world through the eyes of a boy whose life’s path has most likely been so unlike your own.  But it will not seem unfamiliar.

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