Reviews: Books: Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict #everythingausten

2everythingausten [Cross-posted to GoodReads and LibraryThing. The entry chronicling my #everythingausten list, has also been updated.]
Several years ago, while working at $corporate_bookstore, I came across Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler which promised a fresh perspective in the Jane Austen paraliterature canon. I had been burned before by authors who use Austenmania as the foundation for their work, usually bogging themselves down by trying too hard to emulate Austen instead of just using her or her work as inspiration. What I really adored about Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict was that it didn’t seem to fall into the same tangles and missteps as other Austen inspired novels: the writing was contemporary and not fake-Georgian/Regency era, story was well paced, background was well researched, the comedic errors were indeed funny and above all else, I really liked the heroine Courtney Stone.

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict
Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict

I could relate, which is hugely important when writing chick-lit, to the heroine’s experiences and I could also identify with her. This is really where Rigler excelled: she wrote chick-lit without making the heroine vacuous or implausible and she stayed (more or less) true to Austenesque style, which is where 90% of Austen regenerators fail.
One of the advantages of working in a bookstore is that you usually have your finger on what is going in the world of books and publishing much sooner than the general public, which was fantastic for me since I could keep atop on my Austen paraliterature better than the Austen blogging world. Having not worked at $corporate_bookstore since January of 2009, I’ve not been as diligent at finding new authors and books. Thus when finding out Rigler had written a parallel novel, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, to tell Jane Fairfax’s side of the story, I was intrigued and hopeful. If Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict was fabulous, how much more awesome would be Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict?
The answer is: Not so much.
If you haven’t read Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, here is a quick recap: Courtney Stone, 21st century Angeleno, finds out her fiance is cheating on her and breaks up with him. Stone’s passion is everything Austen (natch) and after days of obsessive reading/watching/listening, she smacks her head while drunk in a pool and wakes up in Georgian era England (Austen’s period) in the body of Jane Fairfax. Courtney has her own personality/memories, she also must contend with the memories of Jane Fairfax. Hilarity, anachronisms, misunderstandings and love ensues (obvs).
While Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict concentrated on 21st Courtney’s story, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict would tell of 19th century Jane Fairfax in the wilds of L.A. The premise then, is that while Courtney fixes Jane’s “life,” Jane too must fix Courtney’s “life.” Supposed hilarity, anachronisms, missteps and love ensues. Everyone goes home happy.
While I liked the idea and the concept, the execution was not as well done as Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. Rigler tries too hard to bridge the misunderstandings of a 19th century girl in a 21st century world, but the whole thing fell apart for me. I thought Rigler could have had a lot of fun with this, but the situations and problems she throws Jane in seem to be too conceptualized and trite. (Jane stumbling about as she learns about modern living for EVERYTHING LITTLE THING was stifling at best.) What I wanted, and what the premise of the book foreshadowed, was a young woman who had been oppressed for years, finds her own voice and freedom. Instead, she falls into the same trap as every other damn heroine in chick-lit.
In the end, SHE MARRIES THE FUCKING MAN! What would have worked is having Jane/Courtney come into her own, find her own footing, become a 21st century woman, make her passion (drawing) into a career. She doesn’t. Instead, she flounders for a few weeks, has everything taken care of for her by a man (just as in her past “life”) and learns nothing about freedom or independence. Wasn’t the point for Jane to fix Courtney’s life, thus by ensuring “Courtney’s” ability to stand on her own two feet and becoming her own person?
I was also confused as to what moral message Rigler was attempting to give here, surely if she is attempting to project that Jane/Courtney understands that things are different in the 21st century (as such Courtney/Jane discovers about 19th century in the first book), so are the mores of women. However, Rigler doesn’t do that, instead she just throws in some proto-feminist crap, makes weak argument about the sexual life of today’s woman and then drops it.
What the hell?
I adored Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict because of all the reasons I stated at the beginning of this review, but the Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict was nothing more than a huge mess. Rigler could have a had a lot of fun with this book by using Jane/Courtney to give a fresh perspective of 21st century life via a 19th century set of eyes. Instead, the text is a muddled piece of vacuousness with unbelievable and creepy characters1.
Also, the leading man? Wes? Man has no balls or spine but he DOES come from money, so obviously this fixes everything. If you want fun, read Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and forget that the second book exists. I think Rigler has a lot of talent, I’m hoping Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict is not indicative of her future works. If so, well, she needs to find another shtick because this 21st century girl won’t be buying.
1. Deepa creeped me out — I didn’t find her to be “helpful” or “guiding” Jane towards the answers, for surely, that is what she was supposed to have been doing. Again, another character whose life was made simpler by a divorce from a man with money – how fitting. Rigler seems to be saying here, then, that the only way to true happiness is to marry a man with money. Because obviously, our sister suffragettes struggle for over 200 years means shit.

To: Read: Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargave Manor #everythingausten

[Cross-posted to GoodReads, LibraryThing and Opinions of a Wolf. The entry chronicling my #everythingausten list, has also been updated.]
One of my, um, “hobbies” is that I’ll occasionally google authors/books/characters/worlds whatever and see if there is fan fiction for a particular pairing, no matter how bizarre or unlikely that pairing may be. Then I get obsessed for hours reading the wretched details of say Lizzy Bennett (from Pride and Prejudice) is having sex with Captain Jack Harkness from (Doctor Who/Torchwood), moments after she’s already, supposedly, banged Darcy.1 Paraliterature, which is to say materials derived from their original works but reworked/reedited/completed with additional new elements, is a twin sister to fan fiction, but in a much more structured and in some cases, academic way. Where as one can write about Draco Malfoy having sex with Hermione’s nose2 and publish it on their blog or fan fiction website, paraliterature usually requires vetting in the form of research, editors and physical publication. Another way to look at it is that paraliterature is usually in a physical book format, typically novel length while fan fiction tends to languish on the internets. And another confusing aspect of this? Paraliterature is fan fiction, but not all fan fiction is paraliterature. Right now, this is how I understand it and my definition is pretty fluid. For the rest of this piece, I’ll use “paraliterature” in the context of the above definition.

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being the First Jane Austen Mystery

With all that being said, I love Jane Austen paraliterature. I love the idea of her stories being continued, of her unfinished books being completed and of the reinterpretations of her novels. Jane Austen paraliterature has been around for nearly 100 years, according to The Republic of Pemberley, with the publication of Old Friends, New Fancies in 1913, but it’s been in the last 30 or so years that it has really skyrocketed to a whole new level. 3 I knew, then, that finding materials to read for the “Everything Austen” challenge would not be terribly difficult. I discovered Stephanie Barron and her “Jane Austen Mystery” series when I was working at $corporate_bookstore a few years ago. The books were never HUGELY popular4, but they did occasionally sell and the concept, I thought, was clever: Friends of Barron “discover” via happenstance letters/materials, secreted away in the family’s cellar in the Colonies (America), apparently having been written by Austen herself. And lo’ and behold! Austen is a sleuth! The family demurs to Barron, gentle reader, as the editor and keeper of the volumes instead of donating the material to Oxbridge or anyone of note. Each JA Mystery, then, is a portion of Austen’s “diaries” that Barron has “edited” and published for public consumption. Like I said, clever idea. While the series has spawned 10 books, with the 10th one (Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron) coming out in September, I realise the first few books would be a little rough and that it would take a few books for Barron to get her writing chops in order. But there are some picayune points that kind of drove me nuts that I wanted to address:

  • Barron claims that she wrote Scargave Manor before any of the J.A. books were made into films – for someone who has an incredibly impressive resume and worked as a CIA intelligence analyst, apparently she forwent her research skills – JA material has been on the silver screen since 1938. There has not been a decade since when something of Austen’s was not made in some capacity, so while yes, Barron’s publication of her first book was timed well with the release of BBC adaption of Pride and Prejudice, she was not the first person to write paraliterature nor did she start the fires for Austenmania.
  • Verbal anachronisms: Barron has the fictional Austen saying “fiddlesticks” a lot, which is more reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara than of Austen (or of any Austen characters). Fiddlesticks, as an exclamation (according to the OED), made an appearance once in 1600 and was not seen again until the 1840s, decades after Austen dies. In addition to “fiddlesticks,” Austen is doing a lot of “espying,” which also according to the OED, has been long obsolete before Austen’s time, this is not something she would have said. There were also a few others, but these stuck out in particular.
  • Repetitiveness of phases: In the book, Austen (or a minor character) cannot possibly have X issue because it cannot “be born.” Fictional Austen is also running around doing a lot of “espying” (see above) on people (typically as “espied,” so always in the past tense).
  • The servant’s speech, regardless of where the servant is from, is ALWAYS Cockney. I hope Barron learns later that not all servants come from East London.
  • Barron uses a variation “It’s a truth universally acknowledged” in some format, which drives me NUTS in paraliterature, particularly in materials that are spin-offs rather than rewrites or completions.
  • The killer is announced in the first paragraph, in the last chapter which to me signals a classic rookie mistake. You never announce who the killer is in the last few paragraphs because you’re essentially telling the reader: “Hey, don’t read my stuff! Don’t use a few braincells to figure out WHODUNIT! Let me feed you the answer and save you the trouble!”
  • Unnecessary minor characters with similar names. This is nothing but filler, right thar.

Barron suffers, at least with this book, from the delusion that more flowery the language is, the closer it must be to Austen’s time. I also hope in future tales she calms down a bit on this aspect of the story. Many (not just Barron), it seems, think that JA’s time is distant enough that Modern English was still in its infancy when in actuality, they are confusing Modern English with Contemporary English5. ME has been around since the time of Shakespeare (Elizabethan – Late 1400s) but CE has only been around since the Industrial Revolution (1850s)6. The distinction is not so much how English is used but growth of vocabulary, verbal usage, and structure. The older English gets, it seems, the more erudite it becomes.
Okay, I’ll stop pontificating. Overall: a decent read. Not fantastic, but not awful either. The story flowed, mostly, and despite my above criticisms, I did not feel bored or impatient with the book. I did, however, felt that the overlap between drawing JA out as a fictional character and Barron’s attempt to emulate Austen prose kept swapping the driver’s seat. I wasn’t quite sure what voice Barron was attempting to write in and that did get confusing. The plot seemed to dip in and out of consciousness, some of the characters seemed weakly drawn while others were extremely vibrant. Barron DOES have tremendous skill at writing and what parts she was lacking in with creativity she more than made up for in talent. Would recommend with a caveat that it is the first book in a series and might be a little rough. Am extremely hopeful that book two will be much more fleshed out.

1. Yes, this pairing does exist. If you google it, it will come.
2. This also exists. See, what I do for my readers?
3. For a wonderful list of JA paraliterature, The Republic of Pemberley has wonderful list, sorted by book as well as searchable, complete with reviews.
4. Clearly Jane Austen is not as fetching as a sleuth as Stephanie Plum or as a Cat.
5. Technically, CE is not an “official” term since the CE period referred to is known academically as Late Modern English, but most people’s eyes glaze over so I just define it as Modern English and Contemporary English.
6. For the sake of argument, I’m referring to what is known as the second industrial revolution but is more commonly known as THE industrial revolution.

Everything Austen II: The Jane Austen Challenge #everythingausten

So, Jane Austen. Woman writes six books, dies at the age of 41 with something no one is quite sure what killed her and is discretely known during her lifetime for her writing. BUT! And here’s the big but, she’s NEVER gone out of print in the nearly 200 years since her death. She’s as beloved today as when she began publishing as “A Lady,” is if the “not being out of print for 200 years” doesn’t grab you by the cajones, than it should be the fact that there is a pop culture explosion of Jane Austen goodness has been going on for the last couple of years.

Entrance to the Jane Austen Centre
Bath, England

Her popularity is so huge that when I traveled to England in 2008, there were two things I had to do: Visit the For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond exhibit at the IWM and lodge in as many Jane Austen locales as humanly possible. My friends Andy and Charlotte, whom I stayed with on this particular trip, graciously drove me to various points around south east England to get my fix. They even suffered through a talk at the Jane Austen Centrein Bath for my benefit. True friends will suffer for anything with you (and hide the bodies later). Andy and Charlotte also lived within minutes of Basildon Park, which was the location of Netherfield in the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice1, and I had to suffer through Andy’s mockery of holy that is Jane Austen and P+P as I toured the estate. But then again, Andy continually mocked just about everything I did on that trip because he loves to remind me that my country is mere toddler to his country and I’m easily and suitably impressed with any structure, monument, or bridge over 50 years old. In America, if it’s over 50 years old, it must be knocked down and the space made into a car park. Yes, apparently England is up to HERE in castles.3
You may remember that book-thing, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which came out in the spring of 2009? The mash-up of the old and the new has spawned a whole new industry and it’s not even just the mash-ups, it’s also the paraliterature, retellings (Clueless, Bride & Prejudice and cannot forget, Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy (Yes, it IS a Mormon version!) – which I willingly did watch.), action figures, t-shirts, and the list goes on.
P+P and Zombies did not start the paraliterature trend, not by a long shot, but it DID push to public Ms. Austen’s popularity beyond that of Janeites and English Lit majors the world over. However you wish to explain Ms. Austen’s renaissance in the 21st century, it does go without saying that one could read/watch/listen to a plethora of retellings/mashups/adaptations/etc and not run of things to do for a very long time. When I stumbled across the Everything Austen II Challenge a few weeks ago, I knew this would be a perfect opportunity to organize my obsession a bit better. Goal: Pick any six Austen things (books/paraliterature/movies/audio/etc) and read/watch/listen to them between July 1, 2010 and January 1, 2011. Because there is so much, and I also read/watch/listen rather quickly, I’m fattening up my list to more then six items because I want to take pleasure in this for quite some time.
To Read:

To Watch:

  • Pride and Prejudice (1940), with Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy and Greer Garson as Lizzie. [With a tagline of, “The Gayest Comedy Hit of the Screen! Five Gorgeous Beauties on a Mad-Cap Manhunt!,” it will surely be hard to resist.]
  • Sex and the Austen Girl. [A webseries based off the work of Laurie Viera Rigler.]

To Listen:

  • Old Harry’s Game. [A BBC comedy radio show, Harry is actually Satan and the series, based in Hell, revolves around Harry\’s relationships/conflicts and tensions with his minions and the damned. J.A. is played as a foul mouth creature. Can’t wait to listen!]

Updated: 07/14/2010

1. In the holy war of the 2005 vs 1995 version of P+P, I’m firmly in the camp of 2005. Before someone starts squawking about the “integrity” of the 1995 version and how “true to the book” it is, let me remind one and sundry that there is not a single effing scene in the book describing Mr. Darcy’s exit from the lake. SECONDLY! Having re-read P+P after watching 2005 and 1995, 2005 is MUCH CLOSER to the book than 1995 version. Besides, K.K. is much “truer” to Lizzie’s spirit than Jennifer Ehle.
2. Grabbed P+P and Z when it was first published and tried desperately to read it. DESPERATELY is as close of word I can come up with because it is essentially JA’s writing worked around some awful “writing” that is to allude that if P+P had Zombies, this is how it would go. But the book is awful not because it’s a mashup but it’s awful because Seth Grahame-Smith delivered a great idea but an awful execution. What’s obvious is that he “attempted” to imitate JA’s voice but he fails madly at doing so so instead of having a blended work that is to be “80% JA and 20% SGS” comes out as “100% dreck.” Having started on the prequel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, which is far and away 1000 times better than the P+P and Zombies, this is the one I recommend for JA paraliterature/mashup over that other one.
3. Nod to Eddie Izzard for that one.