The Annotated Emma
Jane Austen fans will lovingly quibble over which of her novels is the best. Pride and Prejudice is a universal favorite (and my personal choice), while Sense and Sensibility has a strong following behind it. But scholars often point to Emma as her finest work. It is her longest work and she excels at using dialogue as the vehicle for telling you the most about her characters. Seemingly unimportant conversations are essential at showing you the motives, the tenancies, the strengths, and the errors of her characters. I’ve read this book several times and now spend more time on these character-driven sections than in the past. It is truly some amazing writing.

But what has held me, and perhaps others, away raising the Emma flag too often is, well, Emma. Austen herself famously wrote in a letter prior to starting the novel that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” I must say, I’ve always felt she hit it on the mark. Emma is a manipulative person who feels she knows what is better for everyone else than they do themselves. When her attempts at matchmaking fail, she shows temporary guilt, and then unconsciously moves on to the next matchmaking attempt. She grooms one young lady like a puppy, and then sets her up for one fall after another (unintentionally, but still!). And then (PLOT SPOILER) in the end she gets all that she wants. Clearly, if you are familiar with Austen you expect a happy ending, so that is not much of a spoiler, especially she does not figure out what she wants until near the end of the novel.
Perhaps the most damaging mark against Emma comes close to the end when she makes  an accurate, but hurtful, comment toward a woman who talks too much. The “Box Hill Incident” shows Emma at her worst in that she seems unaware of the influence she has on others. Only when she is taken to task by her friend, Mr. Knightly, for her comment, does she begin to understand the damage she has done. That she is unable to immediately undo the damage gives her time to consider the consequences. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this scene because, to put it simply, it is uncomfortable. You watch helplessly as one person makes a fool of themselves and then makes it worse by her cutting remark. However, reading it this time, I was uncomfortable because it is a great shot — she is right on mark and she is funny. That line to one person may have returned with an equally adept shot, but in this case she hits a person who is defenseless in so many ways. Mr. Knightly highlights this in his censure of Emma’s actions.
Which brings us to the underlying issue of class distinction found in the novel. What makes Emma’s comment so wrong is not the comment itself, but the person she hurt. It is someone beneath her social circle, someone who has seen her social stature drop, and someone who will not see it rise. She is down and Emma has kicked her.
Emma should have see the fault because she is very conscious of class. But as Mr. Knightly implies, that is simply a matter of birth. While she will have advantages that others will not, that only makes it more important for her to reach out to others.
Austen shows the breaking down of the social classes in the early 19th century. Wealthy tradespeople are buying property and asserting their social demands — think of it as the New York battles between “old” and “new” money seen in Edith Wharton’s novels. In Emma we see the blurring of these lines, especially in a small society, but the lines are still there. By the end of the novel the lines have been broken in one case, but maintained in two other relationships. Austen blesses them all with happiness.
As for Emma, she is unlikable in that she is really like us. She is a flawed character. Austen does not present too many stereotypes, and, in fact, Pride and Prejudice relies on our character flaws for driving the novel forward. But Emma is more flawed, more realistic, than most of Austen’s characters. It may be that glimpse in the mirror which has driven me away from Emma since I first read this novel many years ago. As I get older I find I’m more comfortable acknowledging my faults. Perhaps that is why I’m now more comfortable with Emma.
A final note. I read the “Annotated” version by David Shapard. This is the third of these editions I have read and I enjoy them immensely. On the left hand page is the text and on the right hand page are Shapard’s notes, which at times are reflections on the text, at times clarifications of definitions, and at times insight into time-specific elements (such as what the different carriage styles signify). For a first-time reader I would recommend focusing on Austen, but then be sure to return to one of these versions for a fresh look at a classic.

Keepsakes and Other Stories

KeepsakesJon Hassler is a deceptively simple writer. One can read his stories as quaint tales of a forgotten time, but just as you settle in he quietly drops in a plot twist or unexpected story. His novel, Staggerford, is an excellent introduction to his uncanny ability to create character driven stories with plot driven diversions.

The book, Keepsakes and Other Stories, shows his range of interests and writing talents. The book itself is interested, being published in 1999 by the Afton Historical Society Press, a non-profit publisher focusing on work centered in Minnesota, where all these stories take place. It was Hassler’s first collection of short stories, and contains works he wrote prior to his breakthrough as a novelist in 1977 (with Staggerford). The book is beautifully laid out with small illustrations in the opening paragraphs, and generous space for the text — not a cheap, trade book with words tucked into the fold.

The seven tales, although early in his career, point to themes developed in his novels. There are the rural Minnesota settings, the realistic, yet positive role of the Catholic Church (Hassler was a devout Catholic), and when you least expect it, some cold-blooded murder. The murder comes from “Yesterday’s Garbage,” the strongest story in the collection. Here we meet a garbage collector, and his wife who likes to read letters left in the garbage, as they find themselves in possession of some unusual knowledge. If you’ve been lulled into complacency by Hassler’s other stories in the collection, his truly horrendous description of a murder in this story will have you rethinking the author’s take on life. He later turned this story into part of his play, The Staggerford Murders.

But Hassler is equally captivating his description of a forgotten rural time. His stories are no “Thomas Kinkade” paintings with words. Instead, Hassler shows the simple rural life of 50 years ago contains people who are like many of us, but also includes those whose simple life offer a generous view of humanity. The title story, “Keepsakes,” along with its companion “Resident Priest,” paint that glow of rural warmth, but goes deeper as the simple veneer of people break away to reveal complex individuals.

Spending time with Hassler in all these stories, you realize he too is far more complex than any single story will show. I would still point a first time reader to Staggerford for an introduction, but fans should definitely find their way to this collection.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is certainly one of the most read and most debated books in our canon. Because of its straightforward plot and writing, it is a popular requirement in high schools. While I was not required to read it, like many high school students I had my “Bradbury” phase and read many of his works. But like many books, the central idea becomes detached from the novel as memories fade and is used in all types of ways that Bradbury likely never intended.
It is a book on censorship. It is book on government control. It is a book about the power of books.
All of that is true. What does happen when thoughts are censored and governments control what we know and do not know. What would happen in a world without books, where those ideas can no longer be debated. But really, this is a book about us. The readers. The should-be-readers. The once-upon-a-time readers. Because this is really a book not about books, but what we take from them. The books hold no value. And the people who memorize books hold no value in and of themselves. Both books and people are simply vessels in such cases. It is the ideas that are essential.  And Bradbury is bemoaning a society, although set in the future, which is already at hand. How do the ideas in the books change us? When did we start to allow others to think for us?
As the scholar and drifter, Granger, says at the end of the novel, “even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead.” What good are all the ideas if we simply read and do not act on them, do not allow them to challenge us, to penetrate us, to alter us. It is ironic, and Bradbury no doubt lived to see this, that his own work would likewise be distorted and misunderstood. It is not about books. It is about ideas and people and their need to interact.
For those not familiar with the book, or like me have about 30 years since the last reading, a quick summary. Montag is a fireman in the not so distant future, but not a fireman we would not know. He does not put out fires, he creates them. In a world of fireproof buildings his job is to burn books (which burn at Fahrenheit 451) in a world where books are not allowed. He is 30 years old, good at this job, and should be happy in life. Of course, he is not.  His wife has tried to commit suicide, a common problem at the time, and there is really no strong emotional tie to her. Most relationships at that time are bereft of emotions, which instead get channeled into interactive tv-like walls which can serve as your world. These walls appear often and hint at an early and well-placed concern about how television (and expand that out today to any number of electronics) robs people of substantive thought, making them passive bystanders in a world of their own creation.
Montag meets a teenage girl who simply questions his life and thus sends him reeling. It turns out he has hidden some books away, and finally watching an older woman burn herself with her books pushes him over the edge. He seeks the hidden mysteries of the book, which brings him into conflict with his fire captain, a suspiciously well-read man for someone who burns books.
To say more would be to give away too much of the ending, and this is a plot driven story which features a climatic ending. What is interesting, in today’s electronic world (and I read this on my Kindle), is how clearly implausible such a plot would be today. But the book does not suffer from age since the vehicles for reading are not as important as the ideas behind the books. Bradbury’s exploration of a life well lived in a web of relationships is not held back back by a nearly 60-year-old imagining of the future.
As such, it is worth a return visit if you have not read it in many years. Or a first visit if this is all new. But do Bradbury a favor. Do not value the book. Value what you take away from it.

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman

Fragile Things CoverI started this book simply to read the Sherlock Holmes meets H.P. Lovecraft story, ” A Study in Emerald,” which was recommended to me by my oldest son. Being a fan of Holmes stories and anything Lovecraft writes, I was looking forward to Gaiman’s interpretation. Suffice it to say that I liked the story enough to work my way through Gaiman’s complete collection, which was a worthwhile endeavor.

For those not familiar with Gaiman, he is a prolific writer who made his name with comic books and graphic novels (The Sandman), but has branched into novels (American Gods, Coraline) short stories, CD texts (for Tori Amos), poetry, and almost anything else which strikes his fancy. In fact, one of the more interesting parts of this collection is his introduction, in which he gives the background on every piece of writing in the book. Many of these works started from invitations, and Gaiman seems open to taking on a variety of challenges. He is not always equally successful, but you have to admire a writer who so clearly likes writing. He is not afraid of stretching and trying something new.

“A Study in Emerald,” which is a play on Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet,” finds a doctor and Holmes meeting and taking lodgings, which eventually leads to the doctor’s discovery of Holmes’ unique skill as a detective. The story steals glances at some of other Doyle’s other stories, most notably “A Scandel in Bohemia,” but with a twist of the fantastic that screams Lovecraft at you. If I’m being vague, it is my attempt not to give too much away.

As noted, I continued on and found several of the works to be outstanding, while others were simply there (e.g. “Instructions” and “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot”). Others are very strong. “Closing Time” incorporates the old man telling a story motif into a terrifying story of childhood. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a story which takes a mundane rite of passage for many young adults and turns it subtly into a story of horror. Gaiman’s strength in this area is to hint at the possible, at would could have been, but then take it in another direction. Although at times he is clumsy in his “gotcha” endings, at other times he has a subtly which speaks of true horror mastery.

Gaiman also has a sense of humor, displayed in many of the writings, but played out best in “Sunbird,” a story of epicurean club enjoying a last meal. But the highlight of the collection is “The Monarch of the Glen,” which is subtitled, “An American Gods Novella.” American Gods is an excellent novel, and in this story Gaiman builds on the main character, Shadow. The story falters a bit as it hits a graphic section and Gaiman does provide another “gotcha” moment near the end, but overall it quietly builds a scenario with a reluctant protagonist who is as familiar with his weaknesses as his strengths. In fact, his ability to recognize his limits is his greatest strength and allows him to outsmart those who believe they have outsmarted him.

The collection contains 31 stories, poems, and “other wonders,” so one will be hard pressed to like it all or dismiss it all. But is worth keeping nearby when a quick read is all that is available.