Jane Austen by Carol Shields

One imagines a sensitive novelist of particularity, such as Carol Shields, measuring herself in the process of writing this short literary biography of Jane Austen. For what better measure might there be? Now two hundred years since their initial publication, Austen’s novels continue to delight and surprise. Writing in obscurity away from the bustle of the writerly world of “workshops”, “MFAs”, “public readings”, “writer circles”, and “literary festivals”, without the input of her literary contemporaries, without the lucrative compensation of a hefty advance or a well-publicised book tour, with only the modest praise and encouragement of family and a few close friends, Jane Austen made the novel form her own. Shields strikes precisely the right tone here – respectful.

Shields’ prose is crisp and insightful, with just enough facts drawn from Austen’s correspondence and other sources to gently move along the progress of her life, whilst keeping the focus where it ought to always be, on Austen’s texts. A literary biography succeeds when the reader finishes it and wants immediately to immerse himself or herself in the subject’s texts. Reader, the desire to plunge headlong into a rereading of each of Austen’s novels is nearly irresistible. Delightfully recommended.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

Set aside the wartime heroics, the picaresque buddy story which undoubtedly has its roots in Cervantes, the burgeoning of love in mid-winter. Set it all aside and just admit that this is a story about the power of literature to raise us beyond ourselves in order to create something new. In the prologue to City of Thieves, David Benioff’s grandfather, in response to his grandson’s importuning questions about his time during the siege of Leningrad, exhorts him: “’David,’ he said. ‘You’re a writer. Make it up.’” It’s good advice. And also lucky for us as readers because the story he goes on to make up is compelling, thoughtful, witty, and tragic. In short–brilliant!

Teenager Lev Beniov is forcibly paired with Kolya Vlasov, a verbose private from the Red Army who has inadvertently gone AWOL. Colonel Grechko tasks them with securing a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake. They can find the eggs or die. Of course since they need to find these eggs in the besieged city of Leningrad, whose inhabitants have been starving for the past ten months, both options look to amount to the same. Fortunately Kolya considers their being alive to be already an improbability, so they might as well get on with the task.

Kolya leads Lev from one adventure to another in the few days they have been given to complete their task. Along the way they debate Russian literature from Goncharov’s Oblomov to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Relevancies abound but are never laboured. Benioff maintains a light touch that keeps the action to the forefront and lets the erudition coast along in the wake. It lets the story be enjoyed on many levels at the same time. This is ‘making it up’ the right way. Highly recommended.