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

Book Club

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

Book Club

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

Book Club

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.

The Silent Intruder

Personal Essay

It is two o’clock when I make the boys lunch. Peanut butter sandwiches on white bread. I spread the peanut butter evenly across the bread’s softness to avoid clumping. Line up the crust. Place one slice on top. Swipe crumbs into the wastebasket. On ceramic plates, I carry the diagonally cut sandwiches up wooden stairs to the boys’ bedroom. They say thank you and take their lunch. In a few minutes I will be back here, collecting the plates, asking them to eat just one bite of the crust.

In the meantime, I wash the peanut butter from my fingers. And as the faucet streams warm water on my hands, I remember a time when peanut butter sandwiches were romantic. It began on a university campus. It was a Thursday night. Lightning bugs flew low on the pavement. My bike was chained to a bench outside his dorm. For a while that night, it was just him and I, slowly getting to know each other, drifting toward familiarity with slight caution in our speech. I remember standing, overwhelmed by the choice to make myself comfortable or not. He pointed to the new string lights hanging from the ceiling’s perimeter. He opened a tin container of tea bags, offered me a cup. I liked how unfazed he was to it being midnight. How normal it was to prepare tea at this hour. Why should we not? he might have said. Then, his cell phone began to vibrate in his pocket. He told me to answer the call because it would be funny. I did. The girl sounded confused, irritated perhaps. I handed the phone back to him immediately.

She arrived five minutes later, wearing wedge heels and tight jeans. A patterned blouse with tassels hanging from the neckline. We went back to his room. This time I lingered in the doorway, aware of the intruder I was about to become. I watched her relax onto the mattress as if it were her own. I watched her unstrap the Velcro on her heels. Her laugh made me envious. How pretty and strong. Its sound masking my presence even further.

Deciding to force myself into comfort, I sat down on the cold concrete floor. I felt small looking up at them, into the space between their eyes, into a private terrain. He straddled a wooden chair, sitting at eye level with her. It felt pathetic to watch them interact so carelessly as I sat like a stone beneath it all. I remember feeling rage build inside me. I was pissed at my inability to relax and be myself. Maybe I could have joined the camaraderie. Maybe I would have been welcomed into their world.

I seldom spoke, inserting a comment or scoff at random. I mostly listened to the fusion of their laughter. The way his eyes watched her body jolt and rock with ab-engaging laughter. The squint in his eyes.

“I haven’t had anything to eat all day,” she said.

“I’ll make you a peanut butter sandwich,” he said. “And how about some tea?”

He untwisted a plastic bag, removing two slices of bread. She began to tell him about a lecture in her literature class that day. In the palm of one hand, he held a slice of bread, spreading the peanut butter with the other and listening to her words with his lips pulled into a grin.

The cement was cold on my thighs. My neck was strained from observing. But before excusing myself, lying about an early morning exam or an assignment I had to finish, it occurred to me that this could be the moment he decides to love her. The sandwich and a cup of tea solidifying it all. A few years from now, when he is retelling this moment to friends or relatives, my name will not be spoken. I will have no role in the story besides the inessential onlooker, the extraneous person, the silent intruder.

That night, riding my bike across campus, I wondered how I became entangled in their night. I wondered how long she’ll stay. How long they will sit, laughing and talking. Will they steep more tea? Will they split another sandwich? I wonder if they’ll kiss, uniting the remnants of peanut butter in their mouths just like their laughter.

The Description of Details

Poetry

I think about all the melted chocolate, all the stained purses. 

I think about the intricacies of naming. Calling it something. 

Call it dark or white or milk. Call it almond and honey. Traces of coconut. 

Call it pinched in sea salt. 

I think about use.

I think about naive pillows, not knowing the weight of heads. 

I think about unlearning the alphabet just to start something over. 

Sound out the words again. Give attention where it is due.

I learned intentionality in the first grade, forgot it by sixth. 

I think about house plants, how loyal they are. How they would never unlearn the fundamentals of sunlight just for the sake of beginning again. 

I think about origins and Michigan.

I think about oval eyes and whipped cream lips. 

I think about distinct voices. How each is a flavor. 

I think about the night I sampled yours. A spoonful of rare, astringent honey. 

The blooming of frankincense trees in Israel. The Dead Sea in my throat. 

I think about the different varieties of love. How many can fit in one person? 

I think about sleeping without covers. 

I think about the music of simplifying worry into bed sheets that can be stripped away or tucked far beneath a mattress. 

I think about my scarred knees and how, if anyone asks, 

I’ll tell them a story that begins with a shattered snow globe.

Reading in the car causes headaches

Poetry

Once, while they were driving, Lucy told her dad that she felt like the adult in their relationship.

He drove out of traffic, into the parking lot of a dentist office and yelled at her for feeling this way.

He told her all the reasons why she was wrong, all the reasons why she was a child and he, a man.

After clarifying the roles, they rejoined the evening traffic, driving in silence until Lucy’s father asked her to read again.

She opened the book to where they left off. She read to him, emphasizing the pause after each period as he requested.