Thursday, August 21, 2014

Jo Baker's 'Longbourn' Does Not Disappoint

By Jo Baker
Vintage Books, 2013
332 pages

Jane Austen’s world is filled with carriages, ball gowns, manor homes, and elaborate dinner parties. Part of the fun for me has been dreaming of these glorious occasions, of someone lacing me into my gown or cooking every meal.

But who cleaned Elizabeth Bennet’s muddy dress after she trudged to Netherfield Park?

Jo Baker provides a possible answer in her excellent novel, Longbourn. Although described as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, it really is so much more.

For all my years of reading Austen, I never once thought about the Herculean task of laundry day at the Bennet home, where the book opens, or the monumental effort it took cooks of the period to serve three meals a day plus tea from scratch.

This is not a piece of Jane Austen fan fiction. Yes, the Bennet family, plus Darcy, Bingley, and the lot appear, but it is through the servants’ eyes that we see them. Baker researched the duties and lives of Regency workers and describes in detail how they kept the households running.

Sarah, the protagonist, is compelling and her perspectives and ruminations enlightening. We also see Mrs. Hill and her staff, comprised of her husband, James, the footman, and Polly, the youngest maid. The novel does a solid job of illustrating class differences. The Bennet girls and their mother diddle around with needlework, music, and flower arranging, while Sarah and Polly boil petticoats and polish boots, empty chamber pots and feed the pigs.

The characters come alive through a strong narrative. It’s not necessary to have read Pride and Prejudice to enjoy Longbourn; it stands on its own quite well. If you fancy yourself a Janeite, however, I think you’d truly enjoy this piece for a fresh perspective on a most beloved literary world.

While I’m talking about books…

I spent the last day of summer (my youngest started high school on Tuesday) cozied up on my favorite chair reading a charming novel, Painting the Moon, by Traci Borum, a well-written tale filled with great characters that takes place in a tiny town in the Cotswolds. Noelle Cooke receives a letter that she has inherited a cottage and art gallery from her reclusive great aunt. Reel me in, right? I don’t know how many times I’ve had that fantasy of a long-lost relative leaving me some property in England. Probably more than is healthy. Anyhow, the book is a darling little romantic tale, which was perfect to snuggle up with for a day. Check it out here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Flash Fiction

The Mirror of Dorian Gray

Sarah Anderson* Flash Fiction by Karen Wojcik Berner

My three-year-old and his teddy bear leap onto my bed, dangerously close to my head, and jolt me out of a deep sleep. Soon, my bladder reminds me that I am awake and must move. The morning routine begins. I rinse my eyes and look in the mirror to see what alien life form I resemble with my bed head. Something sparkles in the mirror. I don’t remember adorning myself with glitter, so I look again.

Oh, Lord, it’s a gray hair.

This cannot be. I'm only in my early (very early) thirties. I check my head again and confirm the sad fact. I grab to pluck it out, then remember my mom telling me that her mother said to never pluck a gray hair out because it will return thricefold. That can't be true, so I tempt fate.

Over the next few days, the scenario repeats itself. Look in the mirror. Pluck it out. Claim temporary victory over the aging process. I ask my husband if he notices any gray. He says no. I ask friends and relatives who reply the same. Yet, every time I glance in the bathroom mirror, I see more. Only I, while looking in my mirror of Dorian Gray, am painfully aware of how I am aging day after day.

For those of you who don't remember, The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s book about a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. In return, only his portrait ages. Now, I have no plans to sell my soul for anything. My common sense tells me that growing old is inevitable and that with age comes a wisdom and serenity that escapes most of us at this age, which is certainly something to welcome and even to celebrate.

Then my vanity takes over, followed closely by fear. Plain and simple, I am scared of getting old. I saw how it incapacitated my grandparents. Time is flying by so quickly these days that before I know it, my son will be getting married, and I’ll be checking out retirement communities. That realization is painful enough without having to face a daily affirmation of my mortality courtesy of my bathroom mirror. No, I will not accept this gray hair. I choose to do battle with these intruders.

Another few weeks go by. I have mastered grabbing the gray hair with one hand and executing a quick pull. It is swift, clean, and efficient. This technique allows only the gray one to be yanked, instead of sacrificing two or three precious brown strands.

They are coming fast and furious now. So much so that when I go for a haircut, I tell my stylist I'm thinking of coloring my hair to cover all of the gray. She fluffs it around and says she doesn't think that's necessary. I must be hallucinating. When I return home, I look in the mirror and, sure enough, there they are glistening away in the bathroom light, taunting me.

My friend Annie comes over, and I tell her my sad tale. She asks to see the mirror. I take her into the bathroom. She lets out a yelp, but instead of being frightened by my decaying reflection, says “Good God, it’s bright in here. No wonder you can see every gray on your head.”

Can this be? I quickly replace them as soon as she leaves and smile at all of the brown hair reflected in the mirror.

I have won.

For now.

Copyright ©2014 by Karen Wojcik Berner. All rights reserved.

*To read more of Sarah's story, click here. She is the co-protagonist of my first novel, A Whisper to a Scream, and of the digital short  "A Bibliophile Christmas."