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huck-finn

I apologize dear reader(s), for being gone so long.  My blogging has been stymied by other obligations.  I have been reading like crazy, however.   I promised to get back to y’all about that.

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I decided to devote some of new year to books that high school or junior high has ruined for millions.  Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are two of these.  I must admit I was looking for the same lightning in a bottle as To Kill a Mockingbird.  Alas it was not to be, though I can’t say I’m disapointed either.

Tom Sawyer has been accurately described as a children’s book about a boy.  I would venture to guess that if it were written today it would not make the best seller lists.  What it lacks in complexity, it doesn’t make up for in plot.  There is a lot of action and adventure and not much substance.  One wonders how one boy got into so many scrapes in such a small amount of pages!  I must be getting older, because I wonder about Aunt Polly’s fitness as a guardian.  Though her Mary seemed to turn out alright.  All in all, it’s over too soon and not much of it sticks with you, besides the whitewashing scene.  Though cultural prevalence probably has more to do with that than anything.

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Jane Austen presaged the current obnoxious teenage girl, equipped with walks down country lanes rather than cell phones, and letters instead of text messages, in most of her stories.  Clearly part of her popularity today is due to the fact that movies (like Clueless) can be made from her work that appeal to the modern teenage audience.  She’s certainly the least painful of high school reading assignments.

Though Emma  is her most finely drawn version, Northanger Abbey gives us Catherine, who is probably the worst uber-teen there is.  She would have done well with Bratz dolls and Juicy sweatpants.  Without a wit of commonsense and a lack of wit to boot, she’s the epitome of flighty, willfully silly girl.  She’s got a brain she just won’t use,even when her future husband points the obvious out to her.  One wonders how quickly the appeal of this student/teacher relationship will last.  Poor Henry (and poor Catherine) in the age of no divorce, once her girlish charms become churlish wifeliness.

Jane Austen is famously attributed to have said that girls are no use to anyone until they grow up.  And though she illustrates this opinion broadly in Emma and specifically in Pride and Prejudice (especially with Lydia) there is no other book that tops the sneering, snarkiness of Northanger Abbey.  It is called her most lighthearted book.  But I think it her darkest, in the sense that she lets her real opinions on girls out.  It is humor, but humor at someone’s expense.

This is the book in which I wholeheartedly embrace what I see as the real Jane Austen.  The girl who saw other women’s mistakes and grew up to be the woman who did not repeat them.  She chose not to get married to save her self and she chose not to tolerate the foolishness of others, regardless of gender. 

Though she makes Catherine likable enough to keep the reader interested (she uses her heavy artillery on Isabella) she is almost certainly laughing at loud at her own creation’s naivete.  

And that makes me like Jane all the more.

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{Full disclosure:  I’m a little defensive lately.  My best friend got married in the last of the weddings for this season (what a relief) and we didn’t make it to rehearsal dinner before the “When are you getting married?” questions started.  I’ve mentioned before that reading keeps me sane and my choices this week are no exception.}

I’ve had my anti-bride rant already so I’m moving on to bigger prey.  In a long hot summer filled with wedding after wedding (really it was only three, almost four, but it seemed like exponentially more) I’ve become increasingly frustrated by social expectations being laid at my feet.  Everyone wants to marry me off. 

It still amazes me how rude some people can be.  When are you getting married is not, by any means, an innocuous or polite question.  And yet it’s completely socially acceptable.   Even if we excuse the blatant invasion of privacy there are issues with the semantics.  Firstly there is the “when” of it which implies there is no choice not to – it’s  pretty clear that this is not a question of “if” after all.  Secondly there is the fact that the questioner even has to ask the question, which implies that you’re taking too long (the poor, frustrated souls, I really feel for them).  This questions belongs, along with its sister when are you having kids, to a society where people had no choices in the matter – matrimony and childbirth were inevitable – and frankly, they had nothing better to talk about.  I for one think we’ve moved past that and our social manners should evolve as such.  Unfortunately it appears that I’m in the minority on this one.

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P&PI’ve never been one for “studying” literature.  Dissecting plot lines, themes and social context doesn’t really inspire me.  That is the main reason why I never pursued a degree in English Literature, despite my passion for reading it. I didn’t want to make it work.

My senior year in high school AP English is a perfect illustration.  We studied a lot of works that year (1984, Canterbury Tales, and Macbeth to name a few).  The total number of pages I read can be calculated easily – zero.  How did I pass?  My class was filled with the smartest of the smart kids that year (one major exception being my friend Christine who, I suspect for communist reasons, opted out of AP for regular English class *gasp*) and all I had to do was let them start the discussion and take their talking points a bit further down the road. 

I’ve never been haunted by the ghosts of AP English past, and I’ve never taken the time to read the books I should have read ten years ago.  In fact, I always felt as if I had already read Pride and Prejudice.  It’s such a famous book that it’s wormed its way, Jungian style, into the literary and popular culture (see it referenced in the movie You’ve Got Mail).  Between the BBC version, the new Keira Knightly movie and the pervasive Bridget Jones I’m sure everyone feels it would be a bother to actually open the pages.  We already know the story. 

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