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Archive for April, 2011

Mansfield Park

I’m embarrassed to say it, but this is the first Jane Austen book I’ve ever read. One of my favorite movies is the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice, but I’ve never read the book. I’ve also seen bits of the other famous movies (Emma, Sense and Sensibility), but I have still not read the books. The main reason I decided to read Mansfield Park as my first Jane Austen book was because of my ‘bucket’ problem. I recently saw something about a new book called Murder at Mansfield Park and I thought it would be fun to read Mansfield Park, and then to read the murder mystery about Mansfield Park.

So, this is yet another combined review! I LOVED Mansfield Park. I never thought that a Jane Austen would be a page-turner. I always thought they would be light, enjoyable, easy reads, but not necessarily ‘page-turners’. I was very pleasantly surprised! Mansfield Park is about a manor in England where a baron and his family live. The baron took in his niece, whose poorer family had many other children to take care of and so we get to read about her life as she is thrown in with this wealthy family with 4 other children. Additional characters are also introduced in the form of rich neighbors (possible suitors) and poorer neighbors (possible foils). The characters each had very different personalities and it was fun to see the interaction between them all. Even though I have not read any other Jane Austens, Mansfield Park seemed to fit the mold of a ‘normal’ Austen book – the main issues surrounded entitlement, legacies and marriages (with some flirtations and elopements thrown in for good measure).

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Mansfield Park. It was almost comforting to read a book that is considered a classic. The book was so well-written that it was a real pleasure and obvious to me why Jane Austen books are so popular.

Murder at Mansfield Park

Because I enjoyed Mansfield Park so much, I immediately started reading Murder at Mansfield Park. But maybe I shouldn’t have started reading this one right away? There were so many passages and events that were almost exactly the same that at times I felt like I was reading the same book twice. Once I got into the book though, it started diverting from Mansfield Park and became its own book. One of the major changes that the author made (aside from the murder, of course!) was that she attributed different personalities to different characters. In this respect, it was fun to try to determine who had taken whose personality (i.e., it seemed to me that Fanny had become Maria, Julia seemed to become Fanny, Rushworth seemed to be Henry Crawford). The story was a page-turner, with sudden illnesses, balls, outings, secret loves, and a runaway. All of this served as an enoyable first half of the book, and I found myself trying not to put it down because I wanted to see who would be murdered!

When the murder did happen, the author was clever to insert an inspector-type-of-character. The book felt a little like an Agatha Christie, as the inspector made his way through the house and the grounds, interviewing all of the relevant characters. It provided a different perspective on what happened when the murder took place, and the steps that were taken by various characters to cover up the murder. As I said earlier, I am a relative Jane Austen newcomer, but in the end, I think that Murder at Mansfield Park had an ending that was very much a Jane Austen ending – love and happiness after all. Thinking back on the two books as I write these reviews, I think it was actually a good idea to read one right after the other – so I recommend BOTH of them at the same time!

[On a side note – because I am, myself, a cribbage player – it was fun to read the characters having conversations over a game of cribbage (“And that makes thirty-one, Mary…Four in hand and eight in crib.”)!]

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I had no real desire to read about Voltaire when I started reading this book. I picked up Voltaire in Love simply because I am infatuated with the Mitfords, and Nancy Mitford is the author of the book. Once I started reading though, I forgot that the author was the reason I had picked it up, and I got drawn into the lives of Voltaire, Richilieu, Louis XV and Frederick of Prussia.

In 1733, Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet began a relationship that lasted for 16 years. She was married to someone else the entire time, but her husband was content to stand aside and let Emilie and Voltaire be together. Their relationship was complicated, as I could tell from the many stories that are told in this book, as well as from the letters from some of their visitors that are re-told in this book. But it also very obvious that they were each other’s “rock,” “support system,” “shoulder-to-lean-on…” Any of these descriptions would apply. Emilie was a very intelligent woman who spent her time translating and studying the works of Newton and other mathematicians. Voltaire was, of course, a writer, who wrote many plays and some philosophical works.

I can definitely say that this was a biography that felt like a work of fiction. It felt like I was reading someone’s juicy online gossip blog. The way Nancy Mitford wrote it made it seem that it wasn’t at all a work of nonfiction – it just seemed like a little look into the lives of high society and royalty in France. The excesses of the chateaux and the parties and the meals is wonderfully described in detail throughout the book. One of their guests described Emilie’s bathroom in a letter to a friend, “That is an enchantment! It is entirely lined with tiles, with a marble floor and porcelain baths. The little cabinet de toilette has carved and gilded panels of celadon green – so gay, so divine – with a tiny sofa and chairs of the same wood, also carved and gilded. There are prints and pictures, china, a dressing-table, and the ceiling is painted.” Their life together at the du Chatelet’s house in Cirey seems almost like a movie – they would have yelling and screaming fights and be jealous of each other one night, and the next they would get their neighbors together to perform plays that Voltaire had written. Voltaire’s silly feuds with other writers of his generation also add to the gossipy nature of the book, as do the multiple times that Voltaire was forced to leave Paris in exile and stay away from the censors or the royalty whom he had most recently displeased.

This book was an easy and… delightful read. I was hesitant to use the word ‘delightful’ because it is not a word that I would use in normal conversation, but it is the perfect description of this book. My only complaint would be that some of the passages in French (from letters or plays) were left in French and not translated. While I read French pretty easily, I sometimes found it difficult to get the full meaning of those passages as the language was a bit more rustic than I am used to. It was fun though, while reading about French lives to read a bit of French here and there. I give Voltaire in Love a *** star review (ENJOYED it!) (un grand plaisir!)

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I’m embarrassed to say it. I read Sweet Valley Confidential. I am 33 years old, and I just finished a Sweet Valley High book. The funny thing is – I was excited to read it. I got it almost the day that it released and immediately started reading it. The first time I got to Francine Pascal’s much-used-over-dramatized-absolutely unrealistic description of Elizabeth and Jessica though…I knew that this was going to be a very hard book to get through. (“Gorgeous. Absolutely amazing. The kind you couldn’t stop looking at. Their eyes were shades of aqua that danced in the light like shards of precious stones, oval and fringed with thick, light brown lashes long enough to cast a shadow on their cheeks. Their silky blond hair, the cascading kind, fell just below their shoulders. And to complete the perfection, their rosy lips looked as if they were penciled on.”)

I finished this passage, and literally thought to myself: “BARF.”

I knew it wasn’t going to be quality literature. I knew that it wasn’t going to be the best book I’ve read this year (or even this month…). I knew all this, and I still looked forward to reading it. Man, was it a letdown. I know that I loved these books in junior high, and there is absolutely no reason why I should love them now – except for the memories, which is why I thought I’d at least enjoy it. I like to read books that I call ‘guilty pleasures.’ They are fun to read when I’m stressed out about something, or when I’m at the gym, or when I’m getting a pedicure. This book was NOT fun to read.

I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes!!! The fact that Francine Pascal made Elizabeth drunk after two sips of one martini; the fact that she would throw in “like” in every sentence when it was from Jessica’s point of view (“We are having like such a good time we practically have to drag ourselves away from the party”) (“Daily, I like beg myself to do it, to end it”); the fact that she switched perspectives every chapter so that the story was told by no less than five people; and the fact that she used the word “rapprochement” twice in this book – all these facts produced significant eye rolls and sometimes verbal comments “Really, Francine?!?”

Reading this book made me immediately go online and look for something smart. Literature, or something nonfiction, or a biography. Anything smarter than this. I am currently reading Jane Austen, and feel like the void of ‘dumbness’ that Sweet Valley Confidential left in me is slowly being refilled. (But I’m so totally, like, going to see the movie when it is released!)

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