Thursday, April 30, 2015

SENSE & SENSIBILITY by Joanna Trollope and EMMA by Alexander McCall Smith

As long as Jane Austen fans don't take themselves too seriously, they may find themselves enjoying books in The Austen Project--rewrites and updates by best-selling novelists of all six Austen novels. So far three have been published:

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, British author of contemporary and historical fiction

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, Scottish author of many series including The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency and 44 Scotland Street

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, Scottish author of 27 crime novels (so far)

Still in preparation is Pride & Prejudice by American novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, and still to be assigned are Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

I've read the first two.

I always enjoy Joanna Trollope's domestic adventures of mildly troubled middle-class English suburbanites, so I looked forward to her rewrite of Sense & Sensibility. So did the book group at my church. We were somewhat disappointed.

The assignment is admittedly difficult: how do you bring people living with 19th-century inheritance laws and outdated courtship practices into the 21st century? Trollope stayed close to Austen's story, updating it with automobiles and electronic devices, but her characters were still stuck with 19th-century ideas and behavior. No doubt she was doing as she was told, but if she had allowed herself to stray further from Austen, her book might have been less anachronistic and more believable. If you're not already a Trollope fan, don't start here.

McCall Smith, on the other hand, did not trouble himself about anachronism (or even chronology, as it happens: the age difference between Emma and Mr Knightley varies wildly from page to page). Facing the same problem that stymied Trollope--how to portray 19th-century dilemmas in 21st-century garb--he mostly just makes us laugh. Mr Woodhouse is a hilarious neurotic and food faddist. John Knightley is a smart-mouthed London photographer. Mrs Goddard ("Mrs God") bakes cakes with funny ingredients. Mr Elton marries an Edith Piaf impersonator (who can't pronounce "Piaf"). Frank Churchill pretends to be gay.

Jane Austen's story is very much present, and you'll enjoy this book more if you're familiar with it. But mostly this is a book for McCall Smith fans, of which I am one.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Freedom, security, and flagrant misquoting in Baltimore

Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake raised an important issue in her comments to the press Saturday night. Unfortunately, her point was drowned out by certain pundits who either totally misunderstood or cynically twisted her words in order to mount a diatribe against her.

Here is her complete answer to a reporter's question:
We've had these types of conversation before, and I've made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act, because, while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to deescalate, and that’s what you saw.
That is, if you protect peaceful protesters, you're going to be inadvertently protecting the thugs as well. (Yes, she did call violent protesters "thugs.") It isn't easy to balance freedom and safety.

That isn't how the usual blowhards read her words, however.

Glenn Beck opined that "during a recent press conference, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake confirmed that the protesters were being given 'space' to 'destroy.'”

Fox News changed her words into “I wanted to give space to those who wished to destroy,”

Rush Limbaugh--after changing the punctuation in what the mayor said so that half of the disputed sentence made no sense at all and the other half said the opposite of what she meant--suggested that Rawlings-Blake is "probably a racist."

Rawlings-Blake was not amused.

The thing is, Rawlings-Blake was discussing something that should be very important to all Americans, whatever our political leanings, and it's a shame her point was lost in the uproar:

How can we guarantee First Amendment freedoms, which include free speech and "the right of the people peaceably to assemble," and at the same time assure public safety?

As the mayor pointed out, "it's a very delicate balancing act." If we allow people to gather in a public space to express their anger, some of them just may go out of control. There may even be a riot.

But would we really rather have a government that prohibits public demonstrations in the name of law and order, and backs up its prohibition by preemptively sending in the National Guard? (Do the words "Kent State" ring a bell?)

A lot of Americans complain that their freedom is being infringed when they are required to wear motorcycle helmets or register their guns or remove their shoes at the airport, even though such regulations are intended to keep them safe. Some of these people can get pretty mad at the government. Do they really want the police or the military to forcibly keep them from getting mad in public?

Obviously (at least to anyone with a sense of punctuation) Mayor Rawlings-Blake chose freedom, even at the risk of disruption. The results were more than messy. But would it really have been better if she had tried to shut down freedom in the name of security? And what do you suppose would have happened then?
I'm new to the Baltimore area, and I have no personal experience of the decades (and even centuries) of strife that have led up to this month's conflicts. If you'd like to look at the Baltimore situation through genuine Baltimore eyes, read Baltimore native Ta-nahesi Coates in The Atlantic, "Nonviolence as Compliance," or Baltimore native Rafael Alvarez in USA Today, "Baltimore Is Broken, But It's Home."

Friday, April 24, 2015

Today, even better 50 years later

David recently posted this picture on Facebook along with a line from the 1964 hit "Today" (New Christy Minstrels): "I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine."

I love that song even more than I did fifty years ago, but for different reasons.

Back then it was a sweet love song for the uncommitted. I was 16, living away from home for the first time, falling in love every week (not that the lucky guys were aware of this), living on the edge (if hitchhiking in Italy counts), and thinking I might spend the rest of my life wandering the world. I had no trouble with the line from the second verse, "I'll be a dandy, and I'll be a rover..." As far as I was concerned, "Green, green, it's green, they say, / on the far side of the hill," and I was goin' away to where the grass was greener still.

"Today" is still a sweet love song, but if a million tomorrows haven't all passed away, 18 or 19 thousand have. Now I'd just as soon skip over that second verse and go right to the third:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine,
I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine. 
I can't be contented with yesterday's glory; 
I can't live on promises, winter to spring. 
Today is my moment and now is my story. 
I'll laugh and I'll cry and I'll sing ... 

A few blossoms are still clinging, but people my age had better not live on promises of future springs. And if we're contented with yesterday's glory, we become awful bores. Today is our moment, and now is our story. Let me suggest a rewrite of verse 2 for those of us who came of age in the 60s:

Though now we're grandparents, we still can be lovers.
You’ll know who we are by the songs that we sing. 
You’ll feast at my table, I’ll steal all the covers, 
Who cares what tomorrow shall bring?

Or we can just sing another 60s song, one that hit the charts right about when David and I got engaged: