A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

Subtitled “How Six Novels taught me love, friendship, and the things that really matter,” A Jane Austen Education is partly the story of how William Deresiewicz, now a well-regarded Austen scholar, evolved from being dismissive, to being a true fan.

There are chapters devoted to Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. It’s a close textual study of the best kind, not overly academic and pedantic. He explains why Austen has endured. Not because of the quaint period film adaptations, but because form and style drive Austen’s message.

Long passages in Emma are devoted to trivial matters and gossip. Austen skewers the mundane conversation of characters like Miss Bates, and the cruelty of Emma. She forces readers to confront in themselves  easy and cavalier meanness.

Entwined in the literary criticism, is memoir.  Deresiewicz movingly relates how the novels changed his life for the better. Austen’s message of compassion and kindness improved his relationships.

This all sounds like it would be a tough and boring slog, but it’s actually very accessible – especially for English lit (and Austen) geeks. If you didn’t know what the big deal was before, this is an enlightening read. If you were already a devotee, you’ll enjoy it even more.


My Gentle Barn by Ellie Laks

my gentle barnEllie Laks started The Gentle Barn after adopting a sick goat from a run-down petting zoo in 1999. Some two hundred animals later (including chickens, horses, pigs, cows, rabbits, emus, and more), The Gentle Barn has become an extraordinary nonprofit that brings together a volunteer staff of community members and at-risk teens to rehabilitate abandoned and/or abused animals. As Ellie teaches the volunteers to care for the animals, they learn a new language of healing that works wonders on the humans as well. My Gentle Barn weaves together the story of how the Barn came to be what it is today with Ellie’s own journey.

Filled with heartwarming animal stories and inspiring recoveries, My Gentle Barn is a feel-good account that will delight animal lovers and memoir readers alike. (description from publisher)

Pay It Forward

pay it forwardRemember the movie, Pay It Forward (2000) with Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt?  The one in which the teacher (Spacey) encourages his students to make the world a better place?  By the way, in case you don’t know — as I didn’t — the movie is actually based on a book with the same title by Catherine Ryan Hyde.  Anyway, in the book or the movie,  one of his students actually comes up with a plausible plan: to pay it forward.  In other words, if someone does you a kind deed, rather than paying it back, you pay it forward, to three new people.

Well, recently, my husband and I were recipients of a kind deed.  We were out shopping for replacement steps to our hot tub; after 16 years, its wooden stairs had finally disintegrated. We looked at building them ourselves (cost: $50 plus, not to mention time and effort).  Another store sold cedar steps for $100 — a bit pricey.  At our final stop, the salesperson was showing us floor samples in hard plastic.  Another customer spoke up and said, “I have three of those at home; if you want one, just follow me home and you can have one.”  At first, we weren’t certain he was serious and we didn’t want to appear cheap.  But even the sales guy offered, “Well, you can’t beat a deal like that!”  So, we followed him home, got the steps and offered to pay him.  His reply: “Just do something nice for someone else.”  Translation: pay it forward.

So, I’m still looking for ways to do just that.  Though I’m not quite ready to donate a kidney, I am hoping some random act of kindness will make itself blatantly obvious.  In the meantime, if you know of a need — please let me know.  I need to forward some payments.