"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: Jane Austen

gift . . .

DSC_0819With all the flotsam and jetsam that floats by each day, it is heartening to read a book that engages, entertains and edifies one’s view on life, all at the same time. Such is “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. As you might recall, she became famous for her memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love” which sold 10 million copies, was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts and which has made her rich enough to begin rebuilding (including buying houses for friends) a small town in New Jersey where she lives with a husband whom she married to ensure he could stay in the U.S.A. on a green card. You might think that would be enough to handle in the past few years, along with setting up a shop of imported wares like Buddhas and other Asian things that her husband manages.

But no, apparently, that’s not been enough to occupy her time/life. With the publication of “The Signature of All Things,” Elizabeth Gilbert reveals that she has been busy researching 18th and 19th century botanical history, including the commerce of ocean trade between the West and obscure locations yielding up medicinal plants and potions that ebbed and flowed with plagues, fevers, malaria and other illnesses that could not be treated otherwise than with exotic potions and herbs. She has constructed a tale (that’s the only word for it) of a family, and especially a heroine named Alma Whittaker who is not pretty but is very intelligent, feisty and hard-working who perseveres through a life of disappointments and wishes that go unfulfilled in unwinsome ways. That this story is told in a narrative fashion (“telling” rather than “showing” through dialogue) is a huge relief because stories matter and I’m so glad to be able to simply read for pleasure without having to deal with all the annoying current artificial fads in writing/publishing.

That being said, another bonus in the writing is that for me, at least, the narrator’s voice sounds awfully familiar to that of Jane Austen. In fact, I enjoyed reading this book much more than some Jane Austen’s novels because the humor and wit come easy, comes often and is awe-inspiring in its light touch. So, it even kind of out-Austens Jane, but seems so effortless that it’s not a contest, just fun.

To be honest, I read a lot and am one of those readers who, unless engaged and interested, do not suffer books (or fools) gladly. This is the first book in a long time that I marveled at while laughing out loud. I also appreciated the more sobering discussions about the relationships of all things, (never mind the signature as explained in the novel,) and the spirited attitude of the heroine. I can’t wait to read it again, more slowly this time, and savor the writing of someone who has already won the writing lottery with “Eat, Pray, Love,” a book that I wanted to throw across the room numerous times except for the “Pray” section. Now, against some odds, she has succeeded in writing literature. No wonder Elizabeth Gilbert is smiling in the photos that accompany the book. She’s done what many of us want to accomplish in our lives: to be original in our creativity, to persevere until it is finished and to be published. I wish I had come up with something like this. But it’s more than enough pleasure for me just to hold this volume in my hands and to know I can read it more than once and enjoy it more fully after an astonishing first time through. What a gift!


wading in the water. . .

Are you familiar with Eva Cassidy’s song, “Wade In The Water?” When I think of wading in the water, I think of getting my feet wet for the first time in a new endeavor. You don’t know how shallow the water is, or how deep. It looks clear and clean. What will the bottom feel like? Will you be able to stand or will it be rocky or slippery?

I guess doing anything new feels a little like this. Entering the unknown. I was thinking of taking a trip with my alma mater to see Jane Austen’s environs and other 19th century writers, like Thomas Hardy in Dorset, John Keats and so on. It sounded like a fabulous trip and I was excited to contemplate going on it. There was a Yin and a Yang aspect for me that presented itself: the Yin part being the places these writers worked in, their books, their writing. That part appealed to me a lot because it deepened and inspired me to read more and to write more, just thinking about the trip, never mind going to visit these places.

The Yang part surprised me when I google-ed the 5 star hotels featured on the tour. They were gorgeously appointed and very formal. Marble bathrooms. Swimming pools, HUGE. Gourmet food. I realized that the expense of the trip was perhaps inflated due to the cost of accommodations and gourmet meals. Perhaps it was because important people were going to be coming along on the trip and the hotels reflected what someone thought their prestige deserved. It was very Yang energy–over the top, aggressively appointed. I even wondered if my usual simple casual clothes would fit in. Or whether I needed to buy a bathing suit. What I feel comfortable in is a cozy 15th century stone cottage bed and breakfast, close to meadows, a small town with an Oxfam thrift shop among the pottery and bakery shops.

I went to Barnes and Noble and bought books on Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. I wanted to immerse myself in the writing and to learn more about them to see if I could justify the expense of this trip and to feel it would be worth it for the sake of literature as well as inspiring my own desire to write. I was amazed to learn in “The Jane Austen Pocket Bible” that her first book was rejected, that she sold a book but then was not published, that she re-wrote her first novels, re-named them, and published her first book, “Sense and Sensibility” herself! Two of her novels were also published posthumously. I bought an annotated edition of “Pride and Prejudice” edited by someone who apparently has read everything ever written on Jane Austen and her writings. I didn’t get very far with Thomas Hardy except to read the beginning of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and to order the movie from Netflix–reminded that Roman Polanski made a famous version of it.

So that was my research, wading in the water, to evaluate whether or not to take what sounded like a fabulous trip to England in the beginning of June. I even drove to the Fed Ex building to mail in my check which had to arrive on Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day. Then, I decided to take another day to think it over.

Now, it feels like the ‘wading in the water’ was the best part: reading these classic books again while learning more about the writers and how they lived. I also came across a 150th anniversary edition of “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson which I purchased along with the Austen and Hardy books. Re-reading Emerson’s words sustained me in my quest to understand what I wanted to do. And to stay home.

P.S. Today, I happened to pass by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord, MA. on the way up to the North Shore. It was open and I thought to myself, that’s where I want to go and visit in the next couple of weeks!