Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 1 2016 02:00PM

The year is young, and already I’ve read a book that I consider a masterpiece worthy of my rare five-star Goodreads rating, which I reserve for true classics. Even more exciting, it’s a book that combines two genres – memoir and nature writing – that seldom interest me, proving once again that a great writer can spin any variety of straw into gold.

The book is H Is For Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s fascinating, moving, altogether thrilling account of how she healed from profound grief by training a fearsome goshawk named Mabel. Just read the first few pages. Trust me – you’ll be hooked. It’s an amazing book.

So imagine my sorrow when I read this New York Times Book Review interview* with Macdonald – part of the “By the Book” series, wherein contemporary writers discuss the books that matter to them – and came to this exchange:

Q: Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

A: It’s not her, it’s me, I know, but I have never, ever been able to finish anything by Jane Austen.

Helen! Say it ain’t so! And this after she had just finished recommending some of my all-time favorites, including Euripides’ play “The Bacchae,” the Sherlock Holmes stories and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, one of the great literary experiences of my childhood. I was beginning to feel like I had a kindred spirit here.

Immediately I began wondering how we Janeites could stage an intervention. Which Austen work would most likely convert a person who likes watching birds of prey rip out the innards of small furry animals? That's basically the plot of Lady Susan, wouldn't you agree? Or maybe Macdonald would prefer Mansfield Park, for the Mrs. Norris scenes?

We need to get to work on this project immediately, because Macdonald’s interview concludes this way:

Q: What do you plan to read next?

A: I’m going to try Jane Austen again. Millions of people can’t be wrong.

* The Austen bits are included in the online version, not the print version.

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 10 2015 01:00PM

Jane Austen has been a semi-regular presence in the New York Times Book Review’s weekly “By the Book” feature, in which noted authors talk about the books they like best.

But this week’s column, featuring acclaimed science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, may be the first in which Austen has been prescribed as executive reading material.

Asked which book she would require the president to read, Le Guin answers, “Poor man. Something as far as possible from Washington, D.C., and noisy self-righteous jackassery. Mansfield Park, maybe?”

Though I take Le Guin’s point – Mansfield Park is a novel that values quiet, steadfast virtue over the loud self-promotion that seems de rigueur in political circles – her suggestion got me thinking along completely different lines: Mansfield Park goes to Washington! What an Austen fanfic that could be! The novel is filled with morally questionable characters who would fit perfectly in a story set in the halls of the Capitol.

Let’s see: Fanny Price is a Jimmy Stewart-type idealist whose blue-collar upbringing in a down-at-heel Long Island town leaves her feeling out of place amid the Ivy League graduates she encounters as a staffer in the office of Sir Thomas Bertram, a pompous, silver-haired senator who has chaired the same second-tier subcommittee on national park policy for decades.

She’s pursued by Henry Crawford, the junior senator from Sir Thomas’ state, a born politician who conceals his ruthless pursuit of self-interest under a smothering blanket of charm. Mary Crawford, adept at behind-the-scenes manipulation, manages Henry’s next campaign. Edmund Bertram is an inner-city high school teacher whose students are rallying to close the trash plant polluting their neighborhood. Meanwhile, the polluters have hired the bustling, sycophantic Mrs. Norris to lobby for their disreputable cause. A big set piece involves preparations for a skit to be performed at the annual Gridiron Club dinner.

OK, some details remain to be worked out, but you see? Practically writes itself.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 16 2014 01:00PM

Janeites come in all political flavors, and I have no desire to split our cheerful community along partisan lines. But I hope we can all agree that, other things being equal, we’d rather have a Janeite commander-in-chief than not.

And so it was with some satisfaction that I read the New York Times Book Review’s interview this past weekend with Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was the subject of Sunday's “By the Book” feature, wherein well-known authors discuss their reading preferences.

Last year, I catalogued mentions of Austen in this column and found that she came up pretty often. In the intervening months, however, she’s gotten barely a mention. But yesterday. . .

“Is there one book you wish all students would read?” the interviewer asked. “Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen,” Clinton replied. Then, having secured the Janeite vote, she went on to add Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List to her universal syllabus.

Yes, I suppose you can count on a politician to list three titles when asked for one. And yes, these are inoffensive, less-than-dariing choices. But still. Give her credit for taste.

By Deborah Yaffe, May 23 2013 01:00PM

Last Sunday, the British novelist Hilary Mantel was featured in the New York Times Book Review’s weekly "By the Book" feature, in which writers talk about the books that matter to them.

“I get impatient with love; I want fighting. I don’t like overrefinement, or to dwell in the heads of vaporous ladies with fine sensibilities,” Mantel said. “(Though I love Jane Austen because she’s so shrewdly practical: you can hear the chink of cash in every paragraph.)”

Mantel’s exemplary shout-out got me wondering how many authors have mentioned Jane Austen in their "By the Book" interviews since the feature launched on April 12, 2012. And the answer is. . . (drum roll, please). . .

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