Proud to be back (but not excessively proud)

By Guy Somerset In Book Club, Books

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31st January, 2013 Leave a Comment

After two months at the beach, ours heads buried in a succession of Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins novels (by far and away our preferred reading matter – you don’t think we’d be reading this nonsense we fob you off with if we weren’t being paid to do so, do you?), the Listener Book Club, in association with Booksellers New Zealand, is back, refreshed and ready to go for a second year.

Our first book of 2013 is one first published in 1813 and celebrating its 200th anniversary (but then you could probably do the maths on that yourself): Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Penguin English Library, $12.99).

Whether you’re a committed Janeite (and when you see the lengths some Janeites go to, they should be committed) or coming to the novel for the first time (where have you been?), you will find plenty to think about and comment on during the next month.

We kick off today with an interview with Paula Byrne, author of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (Fourth Estate, $39.99) – Austen herself being unavailable.

Over the coming weeks, we will also be drawing on John Mullan’s new What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (Bloomsbury, $39.99), and considering such aspects as what Pride and Prejudice has to say about the sexual politics of the age (an age, remember, that had just seen Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [1792]); its place in the evolution of the novel; the benefits and losses of a rereading of it; whether TV and film adaptations (okay, let’s not mess around, that TV adaptation) have ruined the book for any subsequent reading (is it possible to think of Mr Darcy without seeing Colin Firth?); the value placed on reading in the book; the layers of class and snobbery in it; the city versus the country; the joy of piquet; the awfulness of Mrs Bennet (forever blighted in my mind by Alison Steadman’s performance as her in, yes, that TV adaptation); the wondrousness of Mr Bennet; the initial anonymous publication of the novel “by a Lady”; Austen’s literary successors; the role of the entail in the book – a term now familiar to us thanks to “cousin Matthew” in Downton Abbey (and don’t anyone dare suggest that as one of Austen’s successors) …

Really, where to end? And where to begin? Actually, I know the answer to that – on Monday we’ll have a roundup of the many articles published around the world this past week to mark the anniversary.

Also next week, for those courageous enough, we’ll be inviting you to write yourself as a Jane Austen character – how do you think you would have fared beneath her penetrating gaze? Would you have been a Mr Collins? A Mr Wickham? A Miss Bingley? A Lady Catherine De Bourgh? Please don’t kid yourself you’d have been an Elizabeth Bennet or a Mr Darcy. Just writing the sketch will be a psychologically bruising enough exercise, but if you are feeling especially courageous you can post it here in the Book Club section and be in contention for a prize.

Oh, the cruel games we like to play.

There are a couple of minor tweaks from last year’s format: both our “real-life” book club discussion of books and our panel dicussion will now be presented as podcast recordings, with the latter now opened up to include reviewers and bloggers as well as booksellers.

There will continue to be a reviewer’s verdict on each month’s book in the print edition of the magazine and online, although this month we are loading the dice against Pride and Prejudice and have poet and lecturer Tim Upperton putting the case for everything that’s wrong with it. We think, under the circumstances, Austen can take the criticism.

As ever, we welcome, nay thrive, on your comments here, via Twitter (@nzlbookclub) or at our Facebook page, New Zealand Listener Book Club.

And because we know reading, particularly reading properly, takes time, here’s a steer on our other Book Club choices in the months ahead (although they aren’t all available to buy yet): How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid’s follow-up to The Reluctant Fundamentalist (March); Life After Life, the new novel from Kate Atkinson (April); and F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, to tie in with Baz Luhrmann’s film of it (May).

A good mix there, we like to think – but don’t be shy with your own suggestions as the year continues.

Finally, although another of our summer beach reads, EL James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, has opened us up to the joys of bondage, we have unchained the Book Club section so you won’t see a padlock keeping non-subscribers out – we are free to all.

Now, back to applying balm to our sunburn – and all those whipping-induced welts.

More by Guy Somerset

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