My most frantic stretches of reading fall during the same two months every year: in December, when I try to catch up on all the year’s books that I’ve missed; and in August, when I try to cram in as much as I can before faculty obligations begin. Reading during these times has a different feel—pleasurable, still, but also a little panicky. The clocks begin to whir and chime, I hear time’s chariot hurrying near, and then I remember that old Cheever biography I’ve been meaning to read, and then I think of that new Téa Obreht novel I’ve been saving for the summer, and I start to freak out.
This fall, I’m on research leave, and so my August reading should have been more leisurely. But old habits die hard. My tote currently has four books in it, all of which I’m reading. This number is the result of careful pruning.
Here’s what one reader read while summer ran out.
The past few months have seen several Jane Austen–inspired titles. (Is there ever a publishing season without them?) The most surprising addition to the Janeite canon is Karen Tei Yamashita’s Sansei and Sensibility (Coffee House Press, $16.95). This collection has two sections: “Sansei Stories,” short pieces of fiction and nonfiction focusing on the experience of third-generation Japanese Americans living in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s, hearing stories (or sensing silences) about internment camps and the difficulties of assimilation; and “JA Stories,” imaginative flights that graft the novels of Jane Austen (one JA) onto the experiences of Japanese Americans (another JA). Pride and Prejudice becomes “Giri and Gaman,” with Mr. Darcy as a high-school quarterback and class vice president, a young man “so perfect, he was just plain boring.” Emma is reimagined as “Emi,” with Austen’s famous opening turned into something quite different: “Mukashi, mukashi, Emi Moriuchi, intelligent, headstrong, privileged, and cheerfully positive, came of age in the sixties. O.K., no big deal.”
How much you like this will depend upon your familiarity with Austen and your tolerance for goofy puns. (My familiarity and tolerance are both pretty high, so I loved when Mansfield Park’s “Fanny Price” became “Fanny Rice.” Another story title: “The PersuAsians.” Ha!) The second half of Sansei and Sensibility reads like high-level fan fic. I mean that as a compliment; Shakespeare wrote his share of the stuff, too. Even in the first, ostensibly non-Austen half, Yamashita’s stories channel Austen’s sharp social vision and exhibit her tart, sometimes icy meanness. At its best, Sansei and Sensibility works as imaginative criticism. Sense and sensibility, social propriety and conversational facility: these help Austen’s heroines place themselves, and to be a Regency Era–woman, propertied or not, is to know that one must have a place in order to have an identity. Yamashita’s sansei characters share these concerns. Like Persuasion’s Anne Elliott, they’re often caught between the demands of the previous generation and the demands of the present, trying to place themselves in a world that is both completely bewildering and depressingly provincial.
Early on in Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), Rachel Cohen writes, “In my reading life, I had, to this point, avoided memoirs.” In my reading life, I have, to this point, avoided books like Austen Years: an account of Cohen’s reading and re-reading Austen in the time surrounding her first child’s birth and her beloved father’s death. To my nose, nothing stinks more than literary criticism that doubles as therapeutic self-help. Despite the setup, though, that’s not what Austen Years is at all. Rather, it’s a stylish, sophisticated reading of Austen that doubles as an Austenian reading of Cohen’s own life.
Cohen’s criticism is exquisite: sensitive, lucid, and rigorous. She notes how, “in Jane Austen, there are actually few particulars, not many adjectives or textures or facial features.” (Maybe that’s one reason Austen is so often adapted, to put a face and a texture to the characters we love so much.) Cohen observes how essential a kind of “gentle forgetting” is for Austen’s heroines: Lizzie Bennet forgets Darcy’s earlier imperiousness; Fanny Price forgets the many slights she has suffered. But Cohen also thinks about her own life—her habits of being, her relationship with her father—through the lens of Austen. After describing how close Austen gets to her characters, Cohen talks about the importance of reserve, a deference to the inner lives of others that is as essential to love as closeness: “Close by but not suffocated, room enough to think and change. Circumspection is one of the deepest and most moral qualities in intimate life.” There’s a composure to Cohen’s writing, a circumspection both moral and psychological, that makes this a superb memoir and an even better piece of criticism.