Review: The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin

Mary Austin wrote about nature, specifically in the American Southwest.  The Land of Little Rain is a collection of essays celebrating the California desert, an area many would consider a formidable, unforgiving landscape.  She brings it to life, describing the flora and fauna in minute detail.  Even Scavengers, an essay about buzzards, makes for fascinating reading as she shows how the birds help keep the desert clean — except, of course, from the litter left by careless humans.

This book was published in 1903, and Austin’s language takes some getting used to.  In the introduction, Terry Tempest Williams writes about recording these essays as an audiobook, and initially

missing her voice completely.  It was only in hearing the text out loud that I realized the era that held Mary Austin. It was a Victorian diction written through the perceptions of a radical spirit. Mary Austin wrote through the lace of her age. (p. xiv)

Reading this book piqued my interest in Mary Austin, en early feminist who worked tirelessly for Native American rights and what we now call “sustainability.”  I’m saving these essays for a re-read after I learn more about this fascinating woman.

Midweek @ Musings: A Truth Universally Acknowledged (an essay collection)

Last weekend, my reading plans were thwarted by a less-than-stellar book, and my thoughts turned to finishing something that had sat on the table, partly read, for a few months.  The book was A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why we Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson.  I first heard of this book from Rachel at Booksnob (her excellent review is here).  I’m very pleased to have this book in my library, because it goes so well with any Austen novel (sort of like coffee and chocolate, mmmm ….)

So today, by way of a review, I’ll share more of this book with you …

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As the title implies, this book is a collection of essays about Jane Austen’s work, written by notable writers from Virginia Woolf to Lionel Trilling to Amy Bloom.   Their tone ranges from academic to casual.  Each essay conveys a deep and abiding respect, even love, for Jane Austen.  The essays were not written specifically for this book; rather, they were written for a specific purpose in the writer’s career.  Because of this, there are some repetitive themes and elements.  Several writers summarized Austen’s upbringing, her family, and her all-too-short life.  More than one expressed surprise that Austen’s work never mentioned significant current events like the Napoleonic wars.  Other essayists defended her in this regard.  It was interesting, and sometimes humorous, to see how each author approached their task. One essay began with the phrase, “A truth universally acknowledged,” while another decried this cliché.

Some of the essays discussed Austen’s entire body of work, while others focused on specific novels.  I began reading this book concurrent with a re-read of Pride and Prejudice, and found those specific essays enhanced my reading experience.  Over the next several weeks I read an essay here and there, and then sat down to finish the book over a long weekend.  I do not recommend the latter approach.  The essays are so different from one to the next, that sequential reading is difficult to digest.  The book did, however, reinforce my intent to re-read Austen’s novels.  The collection is best as a companion read, and I will take it off the shelf each time I read one of Austen’s books.

I’ll close with a paragraph from Janet Todd’s essay, “Why I Like Jane Austen,” which described better than any other my own reasons for enjoying the divine Jane:

Jane Austen seems to the writer nearest to a composer of classical music, her novels well-wrought symphonies; turbulent depths coexist with ordered surfaces and the ration of the expected to the unexpected feels just as it should. Each time I read her — and she is one of the few novelists who can be read and reread — I know I have not exhausted the books; something has again escaped me, as it does from a concert performance of a complex musical piece.  It was beautiful, but did I listen as closely as I should? Like Lyme in Persuasion, Jane Austen’s books “must be visited, and visited again.”

Review: At Large and at Small, by Anne Fadiman

This lovely book celebrates the “familiar essay,” a lesser-known genre popular in the early nineteenth century.  Author Anne Fadiman describes it:

The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side … His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was often so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy. (p. x)

This book contains twelve essays, each infused with Fadiman’s own enthusiasm and delivered as if I were sitting right there with her.  As with any collection, I had a few favorites:

  • Ice Cream: Fadiman shares her love for ice cream, while weaving in a bit of history and a story about her brother, who is obviously very dear to her.
  • Procrustes and the Culture Wars: In a similar vein to Ex Libris, this essay discusses interesting questions about literature including, “Should the life of a writer affect our valuation of the work?” and “Should a book be demoted if its plot fails to meet standards of behavior that have changed since it was written?”
  • Mail: a brief history of the postal service, a celebration of old-fashioned mail, and a self-deprecating look at the author’s early foray into email.  I found this one amusing, and also a reminder of how far technology has brought us in the 10 short years since the essay was written.
  • Moving: Fadiman shares a personal experience moving from New York City to Massachusetts.  This essay made me reflect on my own attachments to specific places, and on the importance of taking chances now and then.
  • Coffee:  a wry take on the importance of coffee, a beverage I also adore!

I enjoy Anne Fadiman’s writing, and liked this collection just as much as the earlier Ex Libris. And since each essay is only around 20 pages long, this is the perfect book to slip into a briefcase or handbag for reading on the go.

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