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Thursday, October 19, 2017

“Sense and Sensibility”, by Jane Austen

299 pages, The Folio Society

Dare I? Dare I review one of the classics – nay, legends – of English literature? Oh, what the hell…my edition of Sense and Sensibility is part of “The Complete Novels of Jane Austen” slipcase edition published by The Folio Society, the London-based publisher that produces illustrated hardback editions of classic fiction and non-fiction books, poetry and children’s titles and that feature specially designed bindings and include artist-commissioned illustrations (in this instance, by Joan Hassall). Originally produced in 1975, my edition was printed in 2005 and purchased by me around that time, when I got the whole shebang for cheap with the intention of reading all of Austen’s works…one day. Well, that day is today, and here is my review. You’ve been warned.

Sense and Sensibility, for those readers who don’t know (and how could you not, you cretin), is primarily the story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sisters who encounter many obstacles on the path to true love. As with Pride and Prejudice (next up, I promise you), the title Sense and Sensibility is significant, as Elinor, the older of the sisters, is ruled by sense and is not given to great shows of emotion or passion, whereas Marianne thrives on drama and grand expressions of emotion, or, sensibility. Elinor is by far the more sympathetic of the sisters for most of the book, though some readers may, I suppose, find her coolness and perfection a bit off-putting. I found her very sympathetic, since as the reader we’re privy to her inner thoughts and realize how hard it is for her to maintain her calm facade at times – especially with her drama-queen of a sister.

The story opens with the death of Mr. Henry Dashwood, Elinor and Marianne’s father. Soon, their half-brother and his rapacious wife descend on Norland Park, the family’s estate, and take over the place. Mr. Dashwood had hoped to provide well for his second wife and their three daughters (Elinor and Marianne have a younger sister, Margaret), being that his son John was already wealthy from an inheritance from his late mother, as well as from having made a good marriage. But the estate had been passed down to Mr. Dashwood in such a way that he was unable to leave it to anyone but his son John, and so as an alternative he asked John on his deathbed to look after the interests of his stepmother and sisters.

Soon they have decided that this “generous spirit” only requires them to help the ladies find a suitable place to move to, and nothing more. In Mrs. John Dashwood’s opinion, the move cannot come too soon, for she is concerned about the connection forming between Elinor and her brother, Edward Ferrars, who is a frequent visitor at Norland. Mr. Ferrars is the eldest son of a wealthy family and his sister and mother have big plans for him that don’t include a quiet, modest non-entity such as Elinor. Marianne also disapproves of the growing affection between Elinor and Edward, for entirely different reasons: she sees Edward Ferrars as too boring and passionless and cannot understand the attraction that Elinor feels for him. Marianne is not just set on being emotional and dramatic herself; she dislikes and distrusts anyone who does not wear his heart on her sleeve.

Soon the widow Dashwood and her three daughters receive an offer from a distant relative for a situation in Devonshire: a comfortable and affordable cottage near the relative’s estate. They leave Norland with some regret (it has been their home for quite a while, after all) and embark on their new life. Once settled in Devonshire, the Dashwood sisters meet a veritable host of new people, many of them very amusing (Austen’s gift for satire really shines in these characterizations, I think): Sir John Middleton, their jolly but rather silly benefactor; his wife, who thinks of nothing but her children, and Mrs. Jennings, the wife’s mother, vulgar and gossipy but with an unexpected heart of gold. They also meet several eligible gentlemen: Colonel Brandon, a friend of Middleton’s who takes an interest in Marianne (an interest not returned because she finds him to be even more of a dry stick than Edward Ferrars) and John Willoughby, a dashing young man who does attract Marianne’s notice.

Oh, there’s a lot going on in the plot of Sense and Sensibility; I haven’t even mentioned several major and minor characters (my favorite of which are probably Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, Lady Middleton’s sister and brother-in-law – he is gruff to the point of rudeness, a quality that his silly wife seems to delight in, insisting that he is “droll”). Nor have I really managed to dig very deeply into the plot. Suffice to say that there are a number of twists and turns to Elinor’s and Marianne’s romances; the story eventually moves to London and both sisters suffer a fair amount of heartache before each finds her Mr. Right.

I liked pretty much everything about Sense and Sensibility: the plot, which is intricate without being too convoluted (there are some unlikely coincidences of the sort that make the reader think that there must have only been a few dozen people in Regency England, but I can handle coincidences pretty well in a well written book – what might be unbelievable in a bad book feels symmetrical to me in a good one), the characters, several of whom have unexpected depth – even some of the villains are not entirely without nuance, and the writing, which is the very definition of droll (unlike Mr. Palmer). I loved this bit about Edward Ferrars’ controlling mother, who briefly disowns him:

Her family had of late been exceedingly fluctuating. For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward, a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resuscitation of Edward, she had one again. In spite of his being allowed once more to live, however, he did not feel the continuance of his existence secure, till he had revealed his present engagement; for the publication of that circumstance, he feared might give a sudden turn to his constitution, and carry him off as rapidly as before.

If I have any quibbles or criticisms of the book, it would be a slight sense of apprehension over the resolution of one of the romances (I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling anyone) and an occasional difficulty with the old-fashioned writing, which did feature the same long, indirect sentences that I tended to get lost in and have to reread to understand. Still, I feel such a sense of triumph and pleasure at being able to say that I am an official “Jane Austen fan”, whereas before I was a mere “admirer”, having only known these works in their televised form.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

“Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans”, by Gary Krist

448 pages, Broadway Books, ISBN-13: 978-0770437084

Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist is a well-researched and well-written account of this period in New Orleans’ history, just as it was acquiring it’s now-familiar reputation for corruption, sin and greed. While the book breaks no new ground, it does a rather nice and readable job of weaving together the major incidents and forces that shaped New Orleans life during this time, what with all of the ax murders, point-blank shootings in brothels and in the streets, and self-proclaimed dens of sin where jazz is thought to have been born. He also takes us to the crusade of lily-white reformers in positions of political power who not only sought Victorian-era respectability for their city, but wanted people of different races than theirs to stay far away from their vision, a dramatic reversal to what until then had been a remarkably tolerant view of the mixing of races.

The center of Empire of Sin is “Storyville”, named for city alderman Sidney Story (much to his chagrin), who wrote the legislation to control prostitution within the city. The ordinance designated a sixteen block area as the part of the city in which prostitution (although still nominally illegal) was tolerated or regulated and removed from – ahem – “respectable” New Orleans. It is here that Krist shows himself to be, again, the multi-faceted historian he is as he exposes us to many sections of New Orleans, and by simply reporting on the happenings in each, he gracefully points out their differences and illuminates how they were sometimes woven together. All the while, he sticks entirely to the historical record – without deviation, and without speculation. With that said, however, I did rather think that there was an overemphasis on some of the more notorious crimes committed during the period which would have better been gathered in a single chapter, rather than serve as the principal organizing theme of the book as a whole.

Empire of Sin also unfortunately adopts the nostalgic and popular view of Storyville as a noble social experiment were women willingly entered the life of prostitution which they happily practiced in glamorous salons. The reality of course was otherwise; these women (often only teenagers, or even younger) were forced into the life by crushing poverty where they were victimized by pimps and madams and spent their typically short lives addicted to drugs and afflicted by STDs – thus, instead of gracing the beginning of chapter 10 with one of E.J. Bellocq’s more famous photos of a seemingly happy and carefree prostitute, Krist would have better used one of the photographer’s darker images of the face of a much older and worn sex worker staring at the lens through an ugly black eye.

All is not darkness and gloom, however: there is the introduction of Louis Armstrong to the world, for example, who was inspired by listening to Buddy Bolden, the father of jazz (we think); there’s also Mary Deubler, going by the names Josie Lobrano and Josie Arlington, who had to make sure her beloved niece didn’t find out that she was the madam of a brothel in Storyville (didn’t work – the lengths to which she went to keep her niece from finding out are amusing, but sad as well, because where could Josie find the time to simply appreciate her niece with all that effort expended to cover her tracks? The eventual revelation is bittersweet). These bits of lagniappe make the book come alive for Empire of Sin is a swift, breathtaking read that adds more depth to the history of early New Orleans for those already familiar with it, and tidal waves of emotion for whom it is new. It’s jarring to learn that after the Civil War, during the early 1870s Reconstruction, schools were desegregated, interracial marriage was fine, and blacks and whites lived side by side in the same neighborhoods…then came the end of Reconstruction and white reformers wanted things their way. Much of the New Orleans profiled here is like that, where you can’t believe what you’re reading, and you're interested to see how it plays out, even hoping the smallest hope that it might be able to get back to what it once was. Krist takes us there, but of course, we must eventually return here. It is a spectacular journey though, and we're richer for the experience.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

“Le Portrait de Petite Cossette 1” & “Le Portrait de Petite Cossette 2”, written by Cossette House/Aniplex, illustrated by Asuka Katsura

194 pages, TokyoPop, ISBN-13: 978-1598165302 & 178 pages, TokyoPop, ISBN-13: 978-1598165319

Le Portrait de Petite Cossette by Katsura Asuka (as well as an outfit billing itself as Cossette House/Aniplex; I don’t know either) is the Manga adaptation of the famous Anime. The story centers around Eiri Kurahashi, an art school student with a job at a local antique store who develops an unexplainable obsession with a portrait of a Victorian-era girl named Cossette. The portrait has a strange history, as everyone who has owned it has been murdered in a bizarre fashion, and so when the new owner of the portrait nearly kills himself Eiri decides to get involved and figure out just what in the hell is going on…and that’s when Cossette begins speaking to him. No one else can hear or see her, and Eiri is not about to tell his friends (as is to be expected) that he is talking to the ghost of the girl in the portrait. You see, Cossette has a problem, and no one can help her but Eiri: she needs to gather her former possessions, each one of them cursed and causing their owners to go insane. But, how long can one deal with cursed objects and hysteria before descending into madness himself?

Though it is classified as a horror Manga, I think that it more of a gothic-style Manga with mystery, romantic and tragic elements (that’s as good a definition of gothic as can be). Le Portrait de Petite Cossette matches this very particular style very well, and it gives a very interesting perspective to its story. It is, above all, an aesthetic experience (almost…haunting, one could say): the plot is a bit typical, but it manages to differentiate itself through the take on the relationship between Eiri and Cossette (as well as Cossette’s dubious intentions concerning Eiri). The plot is memorable, and the ending is even better. The art took a bit of getting used to, but I liked it all the same. The way in which the characters and the backgrounds were drawn gave a very good atmosphere to the Manga, especially when it involved Cossette, her cursed possessions and the drawings of her; it all fit perfectly with the plot and the characters and pulled both through very well. The characters themselves fit with the style of art and are memorable as well as three-dimensional; rather than being cliché or overdramatic, they are realistic in both their personality and how they react to events (Eiri is the best example of this, and it is interesting to see how his perspective changes as the story progresses; particularly relating to Cossette herself). Overall Le Portrait de Petite Cossette was an enjoyable Manga to read (even if the plot isn’t the most original one out there, this doesn’t bring the overall story down).