Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 11 2019 01:00PM

It’s always encouraging when excellent contemporary writers turn out to have great taste in literature (i.e., taste that agrees with my own). Reassuring. Suggests a well-ordered universe. That kind of thing.


So two weeks ago, I was delighted to read this interview with the wonderful British novelist Kate Atkinson. (If you haven’t read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Case Histories, or Life After Life, you should repair those omissions immediately.)


Asked which book she would take to a desert island, Atkinson couldn't quite decide: “Just William or Persuasion (don’t make me choose!). Both are equally brilliant in their own very, very different ways.”


Just William, better known in Britain than in the US, is the first in an extraordinarily long series of comic short-story collections for children. The books, which appeared from the 1920s to the 1960s, were written by Richmal Crompton, a clergyman’s daughter from the north of England who spent a decade as a schoolteacher, worked for women’s suffrage, and was partially disabled by polio.


Persuasion and its author, of course, need no introduction here. As someone who always finds it hard to decide which Austen novel to enlist for desert island duty, however, I was glad to see that Atkinson is also a bit torn. “It’s always a difficult hypothetical choice between Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice,” she told the Daily Mail. “The latter is the more brilliant of the two, but Persuasion speaks to the heart more.”


The rest of the interview offers further proof of Atkinson’s fine taste, at least in children’s literature: She’s a fan of books I treasure -- The Wind in the Willows and the works of the great E. Nesbit – and dislikes a writer I can’t stand, the dreadful Enid Blyton. Obviously, Atkinson is brilliant. Can’t wait to read her latest novel.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 13 2018 01:00PM

One of the occupational hazards of Janeite life is a heightened sensitivity to every mention of Jane Austen, no matter the context. Whatever you’re reading – a cookbook, a computer manual, an obituary column – if you stumble across an Austen sighting, that’s what will stick in your memory later.


Thus it was that my last few days’ perusal of the New York Times turned into a veritable festival of Janeite delight, as I ran across no fewer than three Austen mentions in three different sections of the paper.


* Saturday: As a subscriber, I get my physical copy of the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review a day early, and as usual I turned to the “By the Book” column, in which a famous or semi-famous author answers assorted questions about her/his reading life. This week’s participant, the excellent novelist Kate Atkinson, cited Pride and Prejudice as the last great book she’d read and Elizabeth Bennet as one of her favorite literary heroes. No quarrel there. *


* Sunday: I usually skip the business section – this may explain why I am not richer – but the headline on the day’s top story pulled me in: Young law student’s theory of anti-trust law could help bring Amazon to heel. (OK, yes, probably the book connection helped.)


Deep in the story came this cute anecdote, describing the recent marriage of the law student, Lina Khan, to cardiologist Shah Ali. “The honeymoon was in Hawaii,” the story explained. “Dr. Ali took Jane Austen’s Persuasion, because he hadn’t reread it in a while. Ms. Khan brought a book on corporations and American democracy.”


To which a Janeite can only say: Lina, honey, you’ve married the perfect man – a man who not only reads Austen but rereads her.


* Monday: I love the quirky, obscure stories in the obituary section, and this day featured the poignant tale of crime writer Amanda Kyle Williams and her untimely death at sixty-one. Although I’ve never read any of Williams’ books, I was pulled in by the headline, which mentioned her dyslexia. And my reward came right there in the sixth paragraph, after an account of Williams’ miserably illiterate childhood and eventual dyslexia diagnosis, at twenty-two.


“With the psychologist’s help, she learned to read, and at twenty-three she did something that had once filled her with dread: She walked into a library,” the obituary said. “There she finished her first book, Pride and Prejudice.“


Talk about starting at the top! And yet, unintimidated, Williams went on to write seven novels of her own. It’s quite a story.


Three days, three Austen sightings: Such is the life of a Janeite. OK, I admit that none came in a cookbook or a computer manual. But there’s always next week.



* Blog readers will recall that five years ago, I calculated that seventeen percent of the first fifty-eight “By the Book” subjects had mentioned Austen, one way or another. I haven’t kept track since then, but perhaps I should.


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