Discovering Jane Austen

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, two hundred years ago tomorrow. I first encountered her novels in the spring of 1970, when I was in the ninth grade and cooped up at home with the mumps. I didn’t have a bad case of the mumps, and I felt pretty healthy. But I couldn’t return to school until the swelling in my cheeks and jaw went down.

“I’m bored,” I whined to my mother.

“Find a book to read.” That was her stock answer any time one of her children said they were bored. Either that, or she told us to clean our rooms.

“I’ve read everything.” I whined some more, as only a fourteen-year-old girl can whine to her mother.

Mother went to the bookshelf in the living room, which contained mostly adult books. Other than the encyclopedia (which was educational) or the twenty or so volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books (which were pretty well sanitized by the editors who condensed them), I was only allowed to pick a book from the living room bookshelf if I had parental approval.

She skimmed the shelves and pulled down a book. “Here,” she said. “Read this.”

It was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

I took it back to my bedroom and curled up under the covers and opened the book. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Well, that sounded promising. Even fourteen-year-old me got the humor in that line.

I read the whole book over the next few days. And loved it.

After I was fully recuperated and able to go to the public library again, I searched for other books by Jane Austen. I didn’t read her novels back to back, but I did read them all over the next couple of years.

I really liked Northanger Abbey (a lot like Victoria Holt and other Gothic novels I had read), but I didn’t think any of Austen’s other novels were as good as Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility was supposed to be her best—and Mother said she liked that one best—but I preferred Pride and Prejudice. Marianne Dashwood was too silly. Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park were fine, but still not as good as Pride and Prejudice.

By the time we studied Pride and Prejudice in my Honors English class during my senior year of high school, I had read everything I could find by Jane Austen—all the novels she had published in her lifetime. My classmates complained about having to read Pride and Prejudice. “Oh, no,” I said. “It’s wonderful!” Not many of them believed me.

Fast forward to when I learned there was a partial manuscript by Jane Austen that someone had completed and was publishing—something new by Austen! I was a working mother, with very little time to read. But I rushed out to find a copy of Sanditon. And I did the same thing when I found a volume that included both Lady Susan and The Watsons, which I’d never read before either.

And, of course, I have watched every televised and movie version of Austen’s novels. I saw the 1940s version of Pride and Prejudice when I was in college. I was very disappointed—the costumes were all wrong, Mr. Darcy was not particularly compelling (sorry, Mr. Olivier), and they skipped huge chunks of the book. The 1980 BBC version shown on Masterpiece Theatre was much better.

In fact, that 1980s version got my husband interested enough in Jane Austen that he read Pride and Prejudice, and later took on some of Austen’s other books as well. (At least Sense and Sensibility—I’m not sure if he read them all or not.)

And then there was the very swoonable 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

Sigh. . . .

I learned to like Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park better from the Masterpiece and movie versions, though I still like Pride and Prejudice best.

At this point, I’ve read all her novels at least three times. I’ll probably read them all again at least once more before I die.

I look forward to seeing new film versions in my lifetime also. All in search of the perfect Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. And the perfect Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson, wonderful actress though she is, was too old for the role) and Edward Ferrars. And Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow was pretty good, but not quite officious enough for me) and George Knightley.

I have so many more contacts with Austen’s work to look forward to in life. And my interest all started because I was bored one day in 1970.

What have you done out of boredom that turned out to be a good thing?

Mid-Continent Public Library ReadLOCAL Initiative

I wrote last week about National Library Week, and I announced that the Mid-Continent Public Library was now offering my books, Lead Me Home, and Now I’m Found. This week I want to tell you about the library’s new ReadLOCAL initiative, which MCPL announced last week.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big proponent of the Read Local movement to promote local authors. I’m one of the administrators of the Read Local KC Facebook group and I’m also involved with Hometown Reads Kansas City. These groups are working to connect authors and readers in our community.

Now, the Mid-Continent Public Library has taken the Read Local philosophy one step further—they’ve curated a special collection of books by writers who live within the library’s service area.

As the MCPL website says about their collection,

“ReadLOCAL encompasses a vast range of writing styles and genres—from mysteries and westerns to juvenile nonfiction and healthy cookbooks. Books in the ReadLOCAL collection stem from various publishing backgrounds—self-published, hybrid published, small press, and large or traditional publisher (with the odd New York Times bestseller sprinkled in)—and have all been published within the past few years.”

And I’m pleased to say that they have put my two novels in their ReadLOCAL collection.

I encourage all readers in the Kansas City area to browse through books in the MCPL ReadLOCAL collection. Just one more reason to appreciate your local library.

And keep coming back to this MCPL site, because more books and more writers will be added over time!

What programs are available to support local authors in your community?

Libraries Transform—Celebrate National Library Week, April 9-15, 2017

This week, April 9-15, 2017, is National Library Week. It’s a time to celebrate libraries and library workers and to promote library use and support. According to the American Library Association website, the theme for National Library Week this year is “Libraries Transform.”

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for public libraries. I remember many trips to the library in my hometown when I was a child. When I visited my grandmother in the summer, she took me to the library near her house so I could check out a stack of books to keep from being bored between trips to the beach.

Later, I was the “library mom” for my kids when they were each in first grade—I checked books out of the library to take to their classrooms every few weeks. And I enjoy libraries now as places to meet with other writers, to hang out in between appointments when going home is inconvenient, and to write when there are distractions at home.

As for being “transformed” by libraries, I think it is fair to say that I wouldn’t be the reader—and therefore the writer—that I am today if I hadn’t spent so much time in libraries as a child. Over the years, I’ve used the books I’ve checked out of libraries to learn and to escape. Books let me experience the world as it really is, as the ideal it should be, and as the fantasy I sometimes wish it were. Most evenings, I choose to read instead of watching television—even when I can stream programs I like. There’s something about using my imagination as I read that visual experiences like television and movies can’t duplicate.

The library I use most frequently now is the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL).  It has many branches throughout the Missouri side of the Kansas City region. I also have library cards with the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) and with the Johnson County (Kansas) Library, because I’m in those libraries often enough that I might want to check books out there.

All three are excellent library systems. I live midway between two MCPL branches, and the system has many other branches throughout the part of Kansas City in which I live. I’m at some branch almost every week. And I check out most of my ebooks through the MCPL Overdrive system.

Kansas City Public Library parking garage

The KCPL system has a beautiful branch in downtown Kansas City which offers excellent literary and historical programs for readers, and it also boasts an art gallery with changing exhibits, often related to Kansas City history. Another KCPL branch near the Plaza shopping that is a great place to hang out. Both branches have nice coffee bars also.

And I have regular meetings in the newly renovated meeting rooms at the Johnson County Central Resource Library. If it had a coffee bar, I might even be tempted to move to Kansas.

All three libraries, as well as the Olathe (Kansas) Public Library, have recently joined their catalogs. So now I can link my three library cards and search on one site to find books anywhere. I still have to check them out of the library where the book is located, but the combined catalog makes my searches much easier.

I’m also pleased to announce that the Mid-Continent Public Library has acquired my two novels, Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found. The Olathe Public Library already had a copy of each book, so now they are available on both sides of the Kansas/Missouri state line. I’m most pleased when readers buy my books, but I’m thrilled when people read them—however they find a copy.

So, those of you in the Kansas City area who have not yet read my books, now you have no excuse! (Unless all copies of the novels are all on hold at the library.)

How have libraries transformed you?

How Do You Choose What To Read?

RLKC profile picI mentioned in a recent post that I’m a part of Read Local Kansas City. I am also a part of another “read local” organization—Hometown Reads, which lists books by local authors in many cities across the U.S. Go check out this site and see what books have been written by your hometown authors—you might find a gem.

Hometown Reads wants to learn more about people’s reading habits, and they have a few questions for readers. These questions include:

  1. When do you read books?
  2. How do you choose the books you want to read?
  3. Do you read print books or ebooks?

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, I’ve been a life-long reader. While there were periods in my life when I didn’t read for pleasure, it has been my first source for entertainment since I was four or five years old, and even earlier when my parents read to me.

When do I read? Any time I can. As a child, I read in the afternoons during the school year when my homework was done. And I read all summer long, devouring six to ten books a week.

During the years I was in college, law school, and employed full-time, I had little time for reading. But it was my guilty pleasure to curl up with a book on an occasional weekend afternoon, though I had work to do, kids to feed, and laundry to fold. On weekends when my husband was away on Naval Reserve training, I could get through a book or two, and I often did.

Now that I’m retired, reading is no longer a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure. Though at times I feel guilty, because I have a blog post to write or a critique partner’s chapter to edit or groceries to buy. Daily life continues to intrude on time I’d like to spend reading. Or writing.

How do I choose what to read? I’ll read whatever books come into my hands. I frequently receive books as gifts. Some family members give me books they think I’ll like. Others give me books they think would be “good for me.” One nephew works in an independent bookstore, and he finds unusual books that suit my interests, like this year’s gift, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, by Claudio Saunt, which is awaiting my attention.

I read literary bestsellers. I read books that friends recommend (which have led to some very good finds, like Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, and The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore). I read books for my book club, and I read books that other book clubs are reading. I read books that our local library selects for community-wide “Big Reads.”

I read them all, or put them in a stack “to be read.” Most of the books in my stack I eventually read. Others I don’t, which makes me sad.

When I’m browsing, whether in a bookstore or library or online, I often look for books by authors I love. Those tend to be genre books in series, whether they be thrillers or mysteries or romances. But any book with an intriguing cover, or one I’ve read a review of, might get picked off the shelf and find its way into my stack.

The problem isn’t finding books to read, it’s making the choice between books.

Print or ebooks? I’ve addressed this question in earlier posts. I’ll read both, but I’ve switched largely to ebooks, except for books I’m given, books I can’t find in ebook format, and occasional forays to the library. The reason? My budget and my bulging purse. I can carry a tablet with Kindle, Nook and Overdrive apps loaded on it, each giving me access to dozens of books, or I can carry a single paperback, which gives me no choice of reading material when I’m stuck waiting in line or for an appointment. The Overdrive books from the libraries I belong to are all free, as are many Kindle and Nook books. Otherwise, my reading habit would break the bank.

And I can read on my tablet in the dark. That’s my new guilty pleasure. Waking in the middle of the night gives me the opportunity to read a chapter or two before I fall asleep again. I put on the blue light filter and read without bothering my husband.

What about you? What’s your answer to the questions posed above?


On Rocking Horses, Reading About Horses, and Real Horses

Xmas 56 (cropped)I’ve posted about my first Christmas before. Someone in the family—my father or grandfather—was good enough to take a picture of all the presents I received from Santa Claus before I was awake to see them. (Not that, at eight months, I could have done too much damage to them.)

Many of those first Christmas presents remained in our family a long time. My first doll, mentioned in an earlier post, that my mother kept, and that I found after my parents died. The rug in the shape of a cat that I took to kindergarten.

rocking-horseAnd my first rocking horse.

Actually, I think this was the only rocking horse that I or any of my siblings ever had. I used to love visiting friends who had the big horses on springs that really bounced the rider around like a bucking bronco. But all we had was this sedate little fellow that moved gently back and forth on an arced wooden base when propelled by the rider’s weight.

Like many preteen girls, I went through a stage of fascination with horses when I was about ten. I read Misty of Chincoteague and all the sequels by Marguerite Henry. I read The Black Stallion by Walter Farley and a couple of those sequels. And I read My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara and its two sequels.

But I rarely encountered an actual horse in my life. Only once or twice did we ever vacation in a place where we could take trail rides. My first substantial time spent on horseback was when my husband and I took our kids to a dude ranch in Wyoming in 1990. After a week on horseback, I yearned for the gentle swaying and narrow girth of my toddler-sized rocking horse.

So I was thrilled a few years ago to see the old nag when I visited my youngest brother around Christmas time. Somehow, his family ended up with my little pony. His daughters are too big for it now, but I imagine he still has it. Maybe they even bring it out of storage to put under the Christmas tree.

What old relics from your childhood have you found?

Haunting Book: The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson

bookseller-coverLike A Murder in Time, The Bookseller haunted me because of how the novel deals with time and reality, though The Bookseller is not a time travel story. In this debut novel by Cynthia Swanson, the protagonist, Kitty Miller, owns an independent bookstore in the early 1960s, together with her friend Frieda. Kitty lives alone with her cat, but at night she dreams of another life, a life set in a slightly different time. In her dream world, she is married to a wonderful husband named Lars, and she is the mother of triplets, two of whom are normal children, and the third is autistic. In that dream life, she is Katharyn Andersson.

Through the course of the novel, Kitty also comes to doubt which world is real. The story becomes like the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, with alternate views of reality. Is it autumn in 1962 or spring in 1963? Is she Kitty, the bookseller? Or is she Katharyn, wife to Lars and mother of three children? Which does she want to be? Can she choose?


Kitty likes the freedom of her solitary life as a bookseller, but she finds herself more and more drawn to her dream world, hoping each night to find her way back. She falls in love with blue-eyed Lars and with their children, though she has trouble understanding and dealing with her autistic son. She realizes that she knew Lars in her life as “Kitty” several years earlier, and that the life she dreams of might have been hers, had one conversation been different.

Interwoven with this alternate reality story is the story of women in the 1960s, at the cusp of cultural change from being housewives to having paid careers. Does Kitty want her bookstore—which is hers, though it is failing because of the new shopping center in town—or does she want Katharyn’s Jackie-Kennedy-era life of a housewife dependent on her husband, while raising kids and attending cocktail parties?

Over time, Kitty doubts the choices she’s made in life and comes to wish that her dream world were real. In fact, she starts to think it is real. However, Katharyn’s world is not perfect, and Kitty learns that her parents—alive in her bookseller’s life—died in a plane crash in her fantasy. She also learns that her alter-ego Katharyn has had a falling out with Frieda, the friend with whom Kitty owns the bookstore in the real world.

As Swanson says in The Bookseller, “There is no such thing as a perfect life.” We all discover this for ourselves in our own lives, but part of the reason I read fiction is to watch the characters discover the pros and cons of their choices. In this case, the choice was between two different lives—each with its own rewards and problems. Friendship and career, or family and tragedy—which would you choose?

I won’t tell you where Kitty/Katharyn ended up. But I will say, I enjoyed her journey.

What books have caused you to think about life choices you have made?

A Review of the Amazon Bookstore in Seattle

On a recent trip to Seattle, I took some time to go to the Amazon bookstore in University Village. I wanted to see what the behemoth online retailer would do with a bookstore. Although Amazon began as an online bookseller, it has morphed into the Wal-Mart of the Internet. It still sells books, but books are not its purpose any more.

What I discovered was a very inviting bookstore. Most bookstores these days seem to cram their merchandise into every nook and cranny. Only the bestsellers get full face treatment, with the bulk of the inventory showing only the spines, so that unless you know what you want, it is hard to browse.

The Amazon bookstore showed the full face of most books. In this store, book covers matter even more than most places. The result was an uncluttered, open feel, more like an art gallery than a library. True, there were fewer titles available than in most large bookstores, but there was still a broad collection—fiction and nonfiction bestsellers, regional books on the Pacific Northwest, various genres, and some displays that tied to Amazon online ratings.

20160930_100529I was intrigued by one display of “Highly Rated Debut Authors” and found a couple of titles I’d like to read. My only criticism of this display was that it appeared to only feature traditionally published titles. Moreover, some of the books were “highly rated” with only fifteen or twenty reviews. Why wouldn’t Amazon feature some self-published authors who have used Amazon’s own CreateSpace imprint on their books and have garnered far more favorable reviews than those featured?

If Amazon expands its bookstore concept to cities around the U.S., I’d like to see a display focused on local authors in each city, including self-published authors with highly rated books. Amazon’s ability to curate its online resources surely gives it the capacity to tailor a display to each store.

I also liked the integration of print and ebook inventory and browsing opportunities. Both the technology and paper books were attractively displayed, with opportunities to browse both. Kindle devices were available for purchase, of course, but Kindles were also available in reading areas in both the children’s and adult’s sections for customers to use for browsing.

Unfortunately, the magazines and books loaded on these devices were limited. By contrast, customers who bring their Nooks into Barnes & Noble stores can read any Nook ebook while they are in the store. While it was nice to have Amazon’s recommendations for books as featured on the in-store devices, there was no opportunity to examine other books by those authors, nor to browse for new ebooks from one’s favorite authors. Amazon should at least permit the browsing of all “read inside” portions of ebooks—customers should be able to browse at least as much in the store as they can at home.

Despite this criticism, I enjoyed the opportunity to sit for a few minutes and play with a new Kindle device while reading some periodicals I wouldn’t typically look at.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, I’d love to see a bookstore that combines the attractiveness and “browsability” of the Amazon Bookstore with on-demand printing of books. Why not include an Espresso press in the store so customers who want the hard copy of a book not available in inventory can print their own? Many readers are satisfied with the ebook reading experience, but some are not. I believe prices someday will make this possible.

In summary, while the Amazon Bookstore is not the place to go to find a gently used treasure, it is a nice complement to the Amazon online book-buying experience (for both tangible books and ebooks). It is also a worthy competitor to Barnes & Noble and local independent bookstores. Other bookstores can learn from Amazon about the integration of print and digital.

For two good reviews of the Amazon Bookstore, see Amazon Books: 4 months later, the retail giant’s bricks-and-mortar experiment feels like a winner, by Frank Catalano, March 13, 2006, on Geek Wire , and  I shopped at Amazon’s first real-life bookstore ever and it was freaking awesome, by Matt Weinberger, Aug. 13, 2016, on Business Insider.

What do you like best about bookstores?