Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley – Book Review

Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley
Published by Penguin (Non-Classics)

From the publisher:

With delectable wit and characteristic sensitivity, Jane Smiley presents a fresh, illuminating take on the life of Charles Dickens. Smiley naturally finds a kindred spirit in the author of such classics as Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol, who was not only a prolific writer but also one of the first modern “celebrities.” She offers interpretations of many of Dickens’s major works, exploring his narrative techniques and his innovative voice and themes. Smiley’s Charles Dickens is at once a perceptive profile of the great master and a fascinating meditation on the writing life.

In addition to being a sketch of Dickens’s life, Charles Dickens: A Life provides a description, and some degree of comparative analysis of his work. Being able to see how Dickens’s work changed over time, and how his own life influenced what he wrote was, in my mind, the most valuable part of Charles Dickens: A Life. Understanding his place as, essentially, one of the first modern celebrities was fascinating as well, but did less for my depth of understanding of Dickens than the exploration of his work.

If you are looking for a hugely in-depth biography of Dickens, then Charles Dickens: A Life may not be exactly what you are looking for. Smiley herself, it seems, would recommend Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens.  Indeed, she uses Ackroyd as a source extensively, mentioning many of his hypotheses and discoveries throughout Charles Dickens: A Life. However, if you are looking for a brief biography of Dickens with an easy-to-read and engaging style, a book that blends beautifully his work and his private (and public) life, Smiley’s biography is a great one to pick up.

All in all, Charles Dickens: A Life is a short but successful biography, and one I would recommend to those with an interest in Dickens and his work.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz – Audiobook Review

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, narrated by Sean Pratt
Published in audio by Penguin Audio, published in print by Penguin Press

Deresiewicz was recently interviewed on the podcast I cohost, What’s Old is New

Synopsis:

When Bill Deresiewicz was in graduate school, he knew exactly the authors he wanted to study, including among them some of the manlier men of literature in the 20th century. Jane Austen was nowhere on his list of authors that intrigued him. In fact, when he was finally assigned one of her works, Emma, for class he was annoyed just thinking of the girly drivel he was going to have to read. And then something happened.

After complaining about the minutia-laden novel for nearly half the book, Deresiewicz had a revelation when Emma behaved cattily towards her friends and neighbors:

By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face…. Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are. All that trivia hadn’t been marking time until she got to the point. It was the point. Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter – and much wiser – than I could have imagined. -p. 12 (Emma)

This realization changed Deresiewicz’s life in more ways than one. First, it transformed his interactions with friends and family:

There was one more thing about my life that had to change, now that I’d read Emma: my relationships with the people around me. Once I started to see myself for the first time, I started seeing them for the first time, too. I began to notice and care about what they might be experiencing, and they began to develop the depth and richness of literary characters. -p. 36-37 (Emma)

Perhaps more importantly, though, this experience with the transformative power of Jane Austen’s work led Deresiewicz into a life-long love affair with Austen that would teach him what it really meant to be a human being.

Thoughts on the story:

Part memoir, part literary criticism, and part Austen biography, A Jane Austen Education is an absolutely wonderful little book. Particularly impressive was the balance Deresiewicz struck while explaining the revelations Jane Austen brought him. It is not uncommon in this sort of memoir for either the events/books or the lessons to feel shoehorned in. This was simply not the case in A Jane Austen Education. Every lesson seemed to be authentically in tune with what was happening in Deresiewicz’s life at the time.

In addition to outlining the lessons learned, A Jane Austen Education also serves to educate the reader about Austen and her work. A number of biographical details are included in order to ground Austen’s oeuvre in her reality. Also offered was a scholar’s understanding of Austen’s work, including a comparison of Austen and her great detractor Charlotte Bronte that I myself found revelatory in understanding why I enjoy Jane Austen and couldn’t really stand Jane Eyre:

In Pride and Prejudice, reason triumphs over feeling and will. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s own typically Romantic coming-of-age story, emotion and ego overcome all obstacles. Those of us who chose Pride and Prejudice couldn’t imagine how you could stand to read anything as immature and overwrought as Jane Eyre. Those who chose Jane Eyre couldn’t believe that you would subject your students to something as stuffy and insipid as Pride and Prejudice. -p. 70 (P&P)

Thoughts on the audio production:

Sean Pratt did a fabulous job narrating what at times was a really very personal memoir. Like all of the best memoir narrators, he became Deresiewicz for the duration of the audiobook, to the point where I was momentarily taken aback when I spoke to Deresiewicz for What’s Old is New and he sounded different than the voice who had relayed his story to me

For a more completely review of this as an audiobook, please see my review for Audiofile Magazine.

Overall:

Highly recommended in either print or audio for fans of Jane Austen, or anyone who is interested in the power of literature to shape lives.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Print*
Indiebound: Print*
Audible.com

Source: Audiofile Magazine.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Atlantic by Simon Winchester – Audiobook Review

Atlantic by Simon Winchester, narrated by the author
Published in audio by Harper Audio, published in print by Harper, both imprints of Harper Collins

Synopsis:

Although millennia old, the Atlantic ocean is a relatively new concept, truly recognized only when people began venturing across it, and realizing that it ended, that it was not simply one huge body of water. Still, human recognition was neither the beginning nor the end of the Atlantic’s story, but at the same time we are more than a blip, irrevocably changing the ocean itself. Although ambitious, it is this entire span of history that Winchester covers in “Atlantic.”

Thoughts on the story:

My only experience with Winchester’s other work was “The Professor and the Madman,” which is a biography of the Oxford English Dictionary. Based on that book, I was expecting more in the way of narrative structure in “Atlantic.” Winchester isn’t really telling a cohesive story, however, he is relating the vast histories of an ancient body of water. And, in fact, the lack of narrative thrust ended up not to be a problem. Winchester’s structure seemed very professorial to me, perhaps a semester’s worth of lectures, linked by the general subject matter, but not necessarily continuous from day to day. Like the best professors, Winchester is full of amusing anecdotes and fascinating tidbits, so that the reader and listener absorb information almost without realizing. I never knew that an ocean could be so interesting, and I am quite anxious to explore some of the aspects Winchester discussed more fully.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Authors narrating their own work is usually a red flag, but Simon Winchester takes on the task with gusto. In fact, if I didn’t like his books so much, I would suggest that he try a new career path in narrating audio books. As with the writing, the narration style was very professorial, everyone’s favorite history professor, the one who was completely caught up in his subject, but at the same time didn’t take it to too very seriously. Just an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Overall:

I’m sure this would be fabulous in print, and is probably aided by great maps and figures, but Simon Winchester’s narration is engrossing. What higher praise can I give a work like this than it inspired me to explore aspects of the topic more closely? Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound: Print*
Amazon: Audio/Print*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.