Discussion One: The Historical Context of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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In this video, I provide an overview of the Regency period as it pertains to Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility. I discuss the characteristics of a patriarchal society, social structure, marriage politics, and other important aspects that will help contextualize this book’s setting. Whether you are reading for pleasure or academic purposes, it is essential to understand life in the Regency period. Enjoy!

Women of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

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Mrs. Willard

“I had a picture of Mrs. Willard, with her heather-mixture tweeds and her sensible shoes and her wise, maternal maxims,” (Plath 218).

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“‘What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinite security…What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is a place the arrow shoots off from,’” (Plath 72).

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“…I knew Mrs. Willard was a real fanatic about virginity for men and women both. When I first went to her house for supper she gave me a queer, shrewd, searching look, and I knew she was trying to tell whether I was a virgin or not,” (Plath 71).

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Jay Cee

“Then she slipped a suit jacket over her lilac blouse…powdered her nose briefly and adjusted her thick spectacles. She looked terrible, but very wise,” (Plath 39).

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‘“You ought to read French and German,” Jay Cee said mercilessly, “and probably several other languages as well, Spanish and Italian – better still, Russian. Hundreds of girls flood into New York every June thinking they’ll be editors. You need offer something more than the run-of-the-mill person. You better learn some languages,”’ (Plath 33).

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“Jay Cee was going to lunch that noon with two famous writers, a man and a lady. The man had just sold six short stories to the New Yorker and six to Jay Cee…Jay Cee said she had to be careful at this lunch, because the lady write wrote stories too, but she had never had any in the New Yorker…Jay Cee had to flatter the more famous man at the same time as she was careful not to hurt the less famous lady,” (Plath 39).

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A Two Euro Purchase

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It was nine twenty in the morning when I arrived at the used book sale. In forty minutes my English class would begin just down the hall. I stood in line for a few minutes, holding a list of required textbooks and forty euro in my hand. A black Dooney & Bourke tote bag hung from my elbow. Since it was only a few days into the semester, I carried only pencils and a yellow folder with me. Other minuscule details lived in the bag: lipstick, hair ties, a journal, a new currency.

Three students worked the book sale. They searched for and retrieved textbooks based on ISBN numbers. I handed my list to a girl wearing a mustard yellow turtleneck and round glasses. She walked to the room behind her, examining my list. In a few minutes she would reappear with a stack of books pressed to her chest, the pages already wrinkled with sentences highlighted, and notes sketched into the margins. All signs of someone else’s experience with the text. And soon, my own cursive evidence would be added.

For a moment, I peered over the collapsible table, watching the girl search for my books, using her first finger to guide her eye along the shelves. I pictured her in a library doing the same thing. A bustling sound near my feet pulled my eyes away from the girl. It was another student. I could only see the top of his head–tan curly hair, a navy blue collar lining his neck. He was digging through a cardboard box filled with soft and hard cover books. A sign was taped to the box: TWO EURO EACH. I squatted down next to the boy, joining his excavation. I placed my tote bag on the floor next to me for optimal use of my arms. A strange territorial mood overcomes me when a box of books appears before me for so little a price. I makes me ravenous, excited. I love to sift through the books, listening to the thump of book covers falling into the next. A few minutes passed and the boy had left. I continued my search in privacy: just my squatting body and a large quantity of discounted books. A familiar title fell before me: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. It had a different cover than the one I read, the one that didn’t make the journey with me over the Atlantic. This cover was better. It was the silhouette of a woman with her hair parted in the middle. The dark browns and purples of its soft cover were irresistible. It felt like a portrait. And suddenly, I realized, I needed the profound consolation of Jhumpa’s words and stories. I needed it on me, bouncing within my tote bag.

I walked to English class with a stack of books beneath my chin. It was now nine forty-five, fifteen minutes until the professor would continue her lecture on Queen Victoria’s life and reign. After settling at my desk, I opened the two euro paperback to a short story titled Mrs. Sen’s. It felt good to read it for a second time, like revisiting a terrain I’ve walked before. Jhumpa’s writing is simple, inviting. Many people describe it as unpretentious and I agree. I read the first page, noticing how it feels to be familiar with words and details. The story is about an Indian woman named Mrs. Sen who babysits a young boy. During the day, she chops vegetables and skins fish in her living room on a piece of plastic tarp. And just like Eliot, the boy she babysits, the sounds of Mrs. Sen’s chopping and the jingling of her bangles invigorate me.

Because I was reading mindfully, aware of each word’s essence and impact, I only got through a page and a half by the time class began. The professor, a tall British woman, entered the room. Her bell bottom pants sat high on her waist. They looked uncomfortable but regardless she moved fluidly. With her back toward the students, she wrote that day’s topic on the board. Queen Victoria: Empress of India. It was written in an effortlessly pompous script that only a woman of her demeanor could contain. I was hardly amazed by the coincidence. Something about it made sense just like finding Jhumpa’s book earlier that morning.

Later in the semester, March 18th to be exact, I met Jhumpa Lahiri at a public event in Rome. I skipped my six o’clock religion class to cross the Tiber River and helplessly search for the address listed on the FaceBook event. After excessive wondering and nearly giving up and going home, I found it. It was a theatre with wide stone steps and massive pillars. Inside, the room was hot and filled with people. Every seat was taken. Some people even sat on the radiators. I saw a table in the back corner stacked with Jhumpa’s books. I noticed that, after purchasing the books, people formed a line in front of a chair that held a beautiful Indian woman. It was Jhumpa. In the most gentle and sincere way, I was envious of her. Of her talent and success. Of her ability to affect people. Of her use of words. Of her culture.

I joined the line. Waited. Listened. When I got closer, I heard a woman telling Jhumpa that she was an English teacher, that her students just studied her works. When it was my turn, I pulled the softcover book from my tote bag. A mild shake ran through my arms. I handed Jhumpa the book.

“My mom turned me on to your writing. Could you sign it to her, to Erin.”

It is now a Sunday evening in August. Since giving her the signed copy of Interpreter of Maladies, my mom keeps it on the coffee table on top of a stack of Food Network magazines. I spent this afternoon re-reading a short story just as I did that Monday morning in Rome. By the time I finished the story, my mother returned home from grocery shipping. She walked into the living, asked me what I was up to.

“Reading,” I stated, holding the book up into her view. Suddenly, I imagined Jhumpa’s hands holding the book, bending the soft cover in order to sign the book to my mother.

“I can’t believe Jhumpa’s held this book,” I said. And then I realized how Jhumpa’s mark, her inscription is embedded into the pages. Her presence will always be contained within the softcover, beneath the silhouette of a woman with a middle part in her hair.

I am grateful to have met Jhumpa. But most importantly, I am grateful for the companionship her texts provide.

Book Spotlight: A Thousand Splendid Suns

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A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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I could picture myself as a mother. The children and laundry. The sacrifice. The teaching. I could picture myself at a sink full of dishes, my hips bones pressed into the counter. I could see the bare nails, never painted. Always a bath to give. Always a plate to wash.  The names my mother and I discussed, would they be used? Or would I come up with new ones by then? It was a clear and certain future. A satisfying one. I had already accepted the extra weight that would accumulate on my thighs from finishing the children’s leftovers, trying not to waste food. How else should I spend my life?

There is a sweater of my mother’s that I wear often. It is light blue with smooth wooden buttons. The cotton is soft and retains her scent.

In freshman year, I brought the sweater to college. I wore it to class paired with sweatpants and rain boots. Sometimes paired with jeans if it felt right. One time I slept in it. The next morning a girl who lived in my hall needed coffee creamer. I handed her the cold, plastic container. Before leaving, she told  me that I looked like Mary.

“It’s just so maternal,” she added. “The blue with your dark hair.” It made me feel whole. As if all the things I was reaching for–motherhood, a family–would one day be handed to me.

What is the opposite of motherhood? Of family? Of children? Is it unbruised hips? Is it one stack of laundry instead of six? In the past few months I’ve tilted in this direction, indulging in the thought of developing stories instead of kids. Bathing in the excitement of traveling instead of settling down.

“Do you have your heart set on being a grandpa?” I asked my dad.

“Mom, would you be heartbroken if I didn’t have kids?”

But there is a middle ground. A terrain in which I am living abundantly, not worried about my future identity. My identity is now.

I finished the book yesterday, shuffling through the beautifully crafted sentences, slightly envious of them. The last sentence bulldozed me. I stared at it, read it over and over. It is a story in itself, I thought. A poem. Then, like a hiccup, a laugh popped out of my throat.

Thank you, Khaled Hosseini, for taking me to Afghanistan, for introducing me to Mariam and Laila. Thank you for showing me the height of womanhood. For reminding me of life’s abundance. For describing motherhood in such an irresistible manner. Khaled, your book A Thousand Splendid Suns calmed me. I feel peaceful. I no longer reach for a certain life. My life does not have to be aligned in a certain direction. I can point and elbow and look and acknowledge so many different directions.

And I don’t know how love will change me. You made me see this. You taught me to be open to the potency of love. Like Laila and Tariq. A friendship. A profound understanding of the other, manifested in the most gentle of acts.

After memorizing the last line, I closed the book feeling satisfied and whole. Then, draped over my shoulder, I noticed my dark hair against light blue cotton.

I want to leave you with my favorite quote from this book (besides the last line which would be a HUGE spoiler if I typed it).

“She had this laugh. I swear it’s why I married her, Laila, for that laugh. It bulldozed you. You stood no chance against it.”

 

Book Spotlight: Unaccustomed Earth

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Book Spotlight: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

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I finished the book beneath a hot Michigan sun with a baseball cap protecting my scalp. In a reclining Adirondack chair, I sat on top of a floral beach towel; my feet rested on a plastic table, crossed at the ankle and absorbing the heat. I noticed a heat rash developing on my thighs. My arms appeared tanner than usual as if my skin had retained color from last summer. Besides a pot of lavender, I was alone. No finches or bluejays. No bees. Even the ants gave me privacy. A tear fell, following my cheek’s curve and dripping into cotton shorts. I let the water rest on my skin, resisting the urge to wipe away its path. I let it exist. It felt wrong to abolish the evidence of good literature, the evidence my body had produced.

I closed the book and stood up. Instead of a head rush, my brain flipped through pages of short stories, reminding me of names–Hema, Kaushik, Ruma–that now sounded personal as if I’d known them. Seeing that I had not yet digested this literary journey, I sat back down. Scenes began to resurface. Bengali phrases knocked against each other in my skull. I could smell the lamb curry and pullao as if my own mother were cooking nearby. And for a moment I was convinced that I’d lived through each of the stories, tasted all of the dishes, made the long journey from Bombay to America. For a moment, I believed that all the love I would ever need could be found in this soft cover fuchsia book.

With the back of my hand, I erased the tear’s salty path and went inside. A spontaneous urge filled me like the need for chocolate or poetry.  I craved something tangible and binding. Something to pull me inside the text. Something to prove that the margins now contained my fingertips. I remembered a small compartment in my mother’s jewelry box, one that contained bracelets and thin, paper notes that I have written to her throughout the years. Opening the drawer, I saw a gold bangle and picked it up. I looped my thumb and first finger through its shape, sliding it over my fingertips and knuckles. It travelled up and down my wrist. Then, finding the thickest spot, the bangle locked itself in place, embracing me just as I had pictured it would, just as Jhumpa Lahiri described it.

Later that week, the Salvation Army had a green tag sale. A long line formed outside the fitting rooms. People waited with sweaters and pants and dresses slung over their forearm, listening to the Gospel music that played on the speaker. With my arms stretching for the ceiling, Ally tried to tug electric blue fabric over my head. With each  maneuver, silver and gold beading made the sound of a waterfall. We realized that this one wouldn’t fit. We giggled like schoolgirls at the sight of me trapped inside the fabric, my arms locked straight above, my head almost emerging like a second birth. The next one was fuchsia. I pulled the jaw-string tight, securing the pants around my waist. Numerous gold strands dangled from the ankle. This fabric went over my head with ease. Ally and I were certain that a seamstress intended it for me, in this moment. She must have expected my curiosity. I removed the scarf from its hanger and draped it over my shoulder. Ally helped the material float down my back, making adjustments when needed. In the dented, slim mirror, we both observed my new reflection. Those names–Hema, Kaushik, Ruma–now felt familial. I was convinced, in this fitting rooming, that I could find their phone numbers in my contact list, dial, and ask about their day. Ally helped me remove the fuchsia sari. We placed the three-piece set back on its hanger, clipping the pants onto the prongs. We left the fitting room. I returned the saris to their home among other dresses and long jackets. I observed them one last time, imaging the person who donated them. I wondered what short story their life could tell. My mind produced one more Bengali phrase. I touched the gold bangle on my wrist and then walked toward the jean aisle, leaving the saris for the next curious person.

Unaccustomed Earth on GoodReads