Victoria Jelinek


Emma by Jane Austen

emma_jane_austen_book_coverOn a long list of my favorite authors and beloved books, Jane Austen is always prominently featured. I think she’s hilarious and subversive. I’d even argue she’s a feminist. Other readers have obviously found Emma irresistible because the book has continuously been in print since 1816 (it helps, however, that it’s mandatory reading for most secondary schools in the English-speaking world).

My favorite Austen book is without-a-doubt Persuasion, even as I truly appreciate Northanger Abby. Nonetheless, this is a brief review of Emma, which I have just re-read, so while it’s fresh I thought to write a note encouraging readers to read this novel if they haven’t already.

Emma is a special work. Along with Pride and Prejudice it’s frequently adapted for film and television. Austen wrote this book shortly before she would die and by this time, she was at the height of her authorial skills. While the deceptively simple plot of Emma is similar to Austen’s other novels – a cycle of wrong-headedness, misunderstandings, remorse, penitence, and, finally, self-realization (inclusive of a romantic pairing of ‘equals’) – this work is richer in its twists-and-turns even as it maintains narrative control. Moreover, the themes of status and marriage are still relevant. As is the ‘moral’ of the book, which is that self-knowledge is elusive, and vanity a source of pain. What appeals to me most about Austen’s work in general is that they are all acute studies of humanity: “the happiest delineation of its varieties,” prompted by “the most thorough knowledge of human nature.” Her ability to create compelling and universal characters is awe-inspiring. Sly and subtle observations, humorous quips and asides, and we’re chuckling at the foibles and frustrations of humankind. Moreover, the omniscient narrator, which Austen had perfected by the time she wrote Emma, means the reader is privy to the innermost thoughts of our heroine as she finds her way through the narrative. And this heroine is complex and difficult. Austen famously wrote to a friend that in Emma she had created “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It’s true. There are times when I find Emma’s character repugnant – snobbish, rude, obstinate, foolish and thoughtless – but then I find patience and kindness for her. She is young after all, and she doesn’t mean to be hurtful. In the end, I find my own best nature in my judgement of Emma, which parallels the heroine’s own journey, and makes for a richer literary experience.

 

 

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Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

indexAn English friend of mine loaned me this “must read” book because she had so thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted me to share in the experience. Indeed, Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell is fascinating because Bell is a strong female character and the Middle East remains relevant.

The book begins with Bell’s birth in 1868 to industrialists in the North of England. Outspoken and quick-witted, she became a historian, a linguist, an “Arabist,” an archaeologist, a mountaineer, an author, and a photographer. After many explorations into the Arabian deserts and a passion for Arabian culture, she became one of the architects for an independent kingdom in Iraq, helping to put its first king, Faisal, safely onto the throne in 1921.

Queen of the Desert is superbly researched and includes Bell’s own writing, both published and unpublished. However, while I admired Bell’s courage and persistence, I was not particularly intrigued by her personal story. Even as she was a woman in a man’s world who achieved things most women wouldn’t dream of, she was the daughter of an extremely privileged family with immense resources at her disposal. Instead, I found the information about the history and politics of the region captivating. The insight into the historical meddling from foreign countries, the social protocols of the desert, the diverse sects that abound throughout the Middle East, and their respective perceptions of the world as well as their feudal wars, are, in my opinion, the most engrossing aspects of this book. The information gained from reading Queen of the Desert also made me realize that the challenges that existed at the turn of the 20th century in the Middle East still exist today.

 



Open Letter to the English regarding “Brexit”
June 14, 2016, 11:17 am
Filed under: From the Soap Box | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

imagesMy love affair with England began in 1990. I was an undergraduate student in London. I loved the particular energy of the city. The diversity of shoes on display in shop windows and on people’s feet. The apartments over ground floor shops. The double-decker red buses. The black cabs. The deep, smelly, hole-in-the-wall pubs. The trains. The humor – which is everywhere – from the people you meet casually or in passing, to radio and TV broadcasts, to one’s friends. The literature. Oh, the great literature. The libraries. The music. The history. The architecture. The pride. The Indian food. The bacon sandwiches and brown sauce. The pastoral countryside. The rivers. In fact, returning to the USA, I moved to New York City because it was the closest approximation of London that I could find in America. In the years since, I have repeatedly returned to London to live – for graduate school and, later, for work. It’s the only place I’ve lived – of several – which I continually and almost religiously, return to. Livings as I do now in an unnatural habitat for me (and at the risk of sounding dramatic) my regular visits to London are the lifeline that sustains me. Without that vibrant, majestic, complicated, dirty city and my community of friends – honed over 25 years through school and work – I would be bereft.

That said, for the first time my beloved adopted country precariously sits in my heart and mind due to its likely vote to exit Europe. This makes me terribly sad, troubled and confused. Over the course of the last month or so, in London and with the English expatriates who populate the region I currently live and work in, I have been surprised to hear that they mostly favour an exit. Their reasoning? That it’s “better for England.” When I ask exactly how it’s “better for England,” their arguments are thin, though impassioned – “It’s not right that England is ruled by unelected foreign officials!” It’s been “co-opted” by people they can’t see and who are not English. Ultimately, however, it comes down to this: “We are full and can’t accept anymore.” To paraphrase a dear friend who is truly English, the motivation to exit doesn’t seem to be just from fear (tribal basics of ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ – see Social Psychology), but from the very real difficulty in getting a GP appointment. From meeting droves of Polish and Asian people waiting in the doctor’s surgery, who are often waiting for translators for their appointment, which is an additional burden on the NHS. The desire to exit is because locals find that their kids are unable to get school places. The parents chat in a multitude of languages in the playground, which promotes fear in the English-speaking parents that their kids are being held back ‘cause they have twenty-four languages in a middle-class white school in Surrey, for example. It’s folks seeing foreign food aisles in supermarkets. British folks looking for a builder and struggling to find one that isn’t Polish, or having carers who can’t speak to them because they’re foreigners without the ability to talk competently in English. It’s black cab drivers that are losing work ‘cause there are flocks of mini cabs being driven by foreigners offering cheaper rates. It’s the fear that unwanted hordes of migrants and refugees will be granted citizenship in France or Germany and then move to England with their fresh passports. The thing is, England needs these workers. Without them, who will do the work that the average English man doesn’t want to do, certainly for a lower wage?

The ‘un-elected foreign officials’ making laws are in Belgium. They’re an amalgamation of Europeans, including the English. Moreover, it’s a miniscule fraction of the laws in England that have their origin in Europe. And likely less so with the recent concessions Cameron has received. On top of that, the laws that have been enacted in England from Europe are about the environment – housing is built to an environmental standard and there are incentives to make one’s homes more environmentally sustainable. The waterways of England have been greatly cleaned up and are protected by EU laws regarding dumping and waste. The EU protects workers rights in an environment of vicious capitalism. For example, the right to ask for overtime pay if your employer requires that you work more than 48 hours a week is protected by an EU law. And if you’re into vicious capitalism (or simply growth and invention), the EU allows English companies to trade and expand more easily, thereby creating jobs and revenue for the country. The EU protects human rights laws –the ability to have a safe place to live subsidized by the state for example. The lack of wars and infighting between countries within the EU has ceased since the 1950’s, when the EU was just a good idea – one that took decades to create and enact and which has consequently ensured peace between the nations of Europe since the (that’s only just over 60 years of peace!). What about the sharing of information? If England secedes, there will not be the same level of cooperation between countries to find a given ‘bad guy’ (and there are already problems given language and bureaucratic realities). Freedom of movement for the English and their children is a product of the EU. The ability to buy houses in warmer countries outside the UK. The ability to work and live out your retirement on the continent with protection for health and welfare as you age, are products of the EU. Low airfares to/from the continent for holidays are a product of the EU. Protection during your package holiday such as travel insurance and charlatan deals are a product of the EU. The ability to buy loads of wine and cheese ‘cheaply’ with a mere crossing of the channel is the result of the EU. The hordes being held on distant shores are the product of the EU – without the EU, the reception will be in Dover, not Calais. Lack of roaming charges on mobile phones is a EU invention (and hasn’t even gone into effect yet). If England exits, it will be the end to the welfare state most English people know. Certainly those under fifty years of age. And one still won’t get a school place or go to a GP appointment without incident or have more material possibilities outside the EU because it’s lack of good management and long term planning that are the problem as well as inequitable distribution of wealth.

I do understand those desiring a frustrated exit from the EU, even as I disagree. I, too, worry about practical and material possibilities for my child in the future. I worry about the influx of migrants – the Trojan horse theory that there will be ‘bad ones’ mixed in with the ‘good ones’ simply seeking a safe haven for their families has entered my construct of reality, too. I am troubled by the prospective entry of Turkey into the EU. I appreciate the country, its beauty, history and music, but it’s not a culture that shares the same values as other European nations – which includes England – about gender roles, education, religion, marriage, work, freedom of speech, and penalties to criminal offenders. Why then would they be a part of the EU? Well, that’s a larger argument about global tactics, side deals, and corruption. The Brexiters are right to complain about the EU’s endless hassles, choices, and its bureaucratic administration, but one does not change things from without. One changes them from within.

Referring to the primal fear in England that the country is losing its national identity, it begs the following questions: despite being a country of immigrants, when you think of Americans, do they not share a common identity in your mind? (For better or for worse). In an increasingly global world, where increased knowledge of other cultures – namely languages – is a practical benefit, why would one want to eliminate that exposure for your children? (Also, look at the neuroscience regarding bilingual abilities and the positive effect on a child’s brain). Does it make sense to break the bonds with your neighbours in such troubled times?

In my opinion, the finest qualities of the English are their language, their humour, their resourceful stoicism, and their generosity. Would not the best way to ‘fight’ the feeling of losing one’s identity be to uphold these values despite the seemingly fierce opposition to them? Figure out ways to teach foreigners the native language and bring ‘em over to the English POV. Find the ways to solve the real problems of mismanagement, poor bureaucratic processes, and lack of material possibilities and wealth (starting with the NHS, the Inland Revenue, namely tax evaders, and foreign home ownership would be a good start). Dearest England, despite your fears and frustration, act in solidarity for what is essentially a good idea for everyone, including you. The European Union is a positive force, not a negative one. Personally, I fear that I’m going to lose friends over this vote…I might find it hard to look those opposed to the EU in the eye because to me a vote to exit is on par with a vote for Trump (who supports Brexit btw) — it’s yielding to the lowest common denominator in each of us.

A few resources for information on Brexit:

http://www.theguardian.com/global/video/2016/may/31/eu-referendum-brexit-for-non-brits-video-explainer?CMP=share_btn_link

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/comment/what-would-brexit-mean-for-travellers/

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-32810887



The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea book reviewIn 1708, a fleet of French and Scottish soldiers almost succeeded in landing the exiled Stuart prince in Scotland to reclaim his crown. In the present day, author Carrie McClelland wants to turn this story into her next bestselling novel. Settling into the shadows of an ancient castle in the highlands of Scotland, she creates a heroine named after one of her own Scottish ancestors, and begins to write the tale. Soon after, she finds that the details she’s intuitively including in the book are factual, and she ponders whether she’s dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only person alive who knows the truth about what happened over 300 years ago.

I was skeptical about reading what looked like a tome of historical fiction, but my doubt was quickly allayed. The concept is great – a writer has characters and their actions, circumstances, and dialogues, coming to her as memories, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The locale is vividly, but not overly described, and the Scottish landscape is romantic. The characters – both in the present day and during the 18th century – are compelling. The story is suspenseful (and there’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming). Finally, without being drawn into tedious text-book-type writing, I learned a great deal about the Jacobites, the feuds between Scotland and England, and the alliance between France and Scotland, which is immensely interesting and explains a lot about the social politics between these three countries today.