Austenland: Leave the tea and biscuits at home

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Jane Hayes has a problem. She suffers from a severe case of Austenmania, and I mean mania. Her bedroom, littered with porcelain teacups, stuffed dolls, and a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth in Darcy regalia, looks like a 5th-grader’s shrine to Pride and Prejudice. That this woman managed to go on dates boggles the mind. So it comes as no surprise that when Jane sees a commercial for Austenland, a themed British estate with period actors that promises romance with an Austen-type hero, she cashes in her life savings and flies her sad, sad self off to England.

Hayes gets a rude awakening on her arrival. The “bronze” package she bought — the cheapest available — seems reserved for Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. The management snubs her, gives her drab gowns, a tiny bedroom on the top floor, and excludes her from fun activities. To make matters worse, the Darcy-type period actor, Mr. Henry Nobley, is in the extreme pre-Elizabeth Bennet stage. still-of-jj-feild-in-austenland

Mr. Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild) looking haughty.

Luckily, Jane can vent her frustrations with Martin, the handsome stable hand. Their relationship develops quickly — a little too quickly. One minute he’s pitching hay in the barn and the next they’re making out to the strains of a cheesy 80’s pop song.

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Jane (Keri Russell) and Martin (Bret McKenzie)

None of the other relationships evolve smoothly, either. Character development in this film sacrificed itself on the altar of time in favor of farcical scenarios. I found myself thinking, “When did that happen? And why?” I assume Jerusha Hess’s book, on which the film is based, elaborates more on this and Jane’s troubled romantic past, which is mentioned but never explained.

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Austenland tries too hard, but isn’t completely lacking in charm. That’s largely due to the cast, who strove to make this a watchable film. In the end, the plot good-naturedly pokes fun at “Janeites,” only to fall short of its potential and succumb to Hollywood rom-com predictability. If you enjoyed the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries, though, you may find the film’s occasional nods amusing, as I did. Also if you’re a fan of Nelly. And that’s all I’m saying.

Beaver couldn’t make it to the showing, sadly, so I’m rating it by myself: 2 carrot sticks (out of five).

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American Authors — Huckleberry Finn — Life-Threatening Plots

Tom Sawyer gets on my nerves.

But this story isn’t about Tom — although he does try to sabotage it. Isn’t that just like him. And the brat almost succeeds. Huck Finn, on the other hand, possesses innumerable contradictory facets that when juxtaposed reveal enlightening viewpoints on ethnic prejudices and compass — Wait, where are you going? Come back!

Mark Twain saw this coming. Realizing critics and literary scholars would analyze Huck until nothing remained but used bird cage liners, he penned the following introduction:

NOTICE

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Which tells you what kind of a sense of humor he had.

I got another revealing look at Twain’s quirky sense of humor while reading a compilation of the author’s witticisms. A reporter visited Mark Twain’s home for an interview and was told by his wife, Olivia Clemens, that he was still in bed (a preferred place to write), but that she would tell him. When she informed Twain of the man’s visit, he refused to get up. Instead he invited the reporter to hop into bed with him for the interview.

I never found out if he accepted the invitation.

I’d go in-depth on the novel only I’m terribly intimidated by Mr. Twain’s threats, plus I’m feeling a little lazy. Basically it’s about a boy in the mid-19th century who escapes from his abusive, alcoholic no-good father on a canoe/raft, then joins a runaway slave named Jim and they get into all sorts of adventures and mishaps on the Mississippi river. Then Tom Sawyer butts in. The End.

If you’re looking for a good movie adaptation (albeit not 100% faithful), try Huck Finn starring a young and very cute Elijah Wood. It’s funny, emotional and exciting and features Wood wearing an endearing mischievous grin.

I will only add that Huckleberry Finn is an amoral, plotless book with not a hint of a motive to it. Happy, Mr. Twain? Good.

American Authors: Louisa May Alcott

Liz: This month is American Author month on Our Mutual Friends blog, and this week our author is Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame.
As most of you, I read Little Women as a teen for school and saw the movie with Winona Ryder. Here are my comments on the tale:
  1. It deserves its status as a classic story.
  2. I can’t believe they used an actual iron to straighten their hair.
  3. Let’s just say nobody better destroy a manuscript of mine.
  4. Poor Laurie. Love you like a brother.
  5. Sometimes a good scolding from a pretty girl can bring a guy back from his dissolute ways.
  6. How exactly do you pronounce “Bhaer”? (Jaz: Jo writes that it’s a cross between “bear” and “beer.” Bah-eer?) And did he have to be so much older than Jo?
  7. I admire the Littles’ charitable spirit.
  8. A tragic death seems to be inevitable in a classic. R.I.P. Beth
  9. If you feel inclined to see how your first name would look with a certain guy’s last name, don’t leave the slip of paper lying around where someone else can find it.
  10. If you have an interesting life like Jo’s, write about it instead of writing trashy or gory tales or whatever else is popular.
In addition to Little Women, I’ve read three other Louisa May Alcott tales. Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom were entertaining and enjoyable books, particularly Eight Cousins—a tale of an orphan girl and her hitherto unknown family, including a very likable bachelor uncle who becomes her guardian, seven male cousins, and several aunts and uncles. My favorite Louisa May Alcott is about a boy who runs away from the circus with a trained dog after his father, who left to find a better job, didn’t return. The boy and his dog are befriended by two girls and eventually taken in by a kind woman. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the book. (Note from Jaz: I googled it. Under the Lilacs. I forgot about this one — thanks for the reminder!)

Jaz: If I were to rewrite Little Women, it would go something along these lines:

Amy, the spoiled little brat, dies in Beth’s place. Beth marries the cute crippled boy and they produce five happy, healthy children. Jo and Laurie wed after all, globetrot the year round, and get into trouble and adventures. Marmie catches whatever it was Amy got, dies nobly and tragically, and the father returns from the war to board comfortably with Laurie’s lovable old uncle next door (Beth keeps the house). Meg moves far, far away with John The Tutor Man. Mr. Bhaer never enters the picture.

I read Little Women eagerly at the age of 11. Several rereads later I realized it was a bit … saccharine. And preachy. The end, where Joe marries the professor, seems abrupt, as if the author married her off simply to please her audience. Maybe not. It is a good book, well-written and full of most excellent morals and amusing situations. My cynical opinions are likely due to an overdose of L. M. Alcott literature. Among the novels I read (Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Jack and Jill, etc etc etc…), An Old Fashioned Girl and Eight Cousins proved the most enjoyable. Also, don’t forget to check out The Inheritance, Alcott’s first novel. It gives an enlightening look into the talent and imagination of a 17-year-old aspiring novelist.

These books are pleasant reading enough, but – as I learned the hard way – a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Which explains why I found her sensational romance novel, A Long Fatal Love Chase, refreshing. Romance! Intrigue! Suspense! And all so delightfully overdone. And if you can find other earlier novels of hers, I’d suggest those as well. You may be surprised.