Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

On rereading Sense and Sensibility slowly and with immense pleasure, as befits this beautiful Belknap Press annotated edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, I am awestruck by Austen’s maturity and delicacy in this her first published novel. The opening two chapters which set the scene with the death of Henry Dashwood and then set the plot ticking with the magnanimous ungenerosity of the sole heir, John Dashwood, toward his step-mother and his three step-sisters are so finely polished that you might imagine Austen writing and rewriting them for years on end. Indeed, much of the first volume is near this level of concentrated effort. The second volume, less so, and the third more sprawling still. But by then the reader hardly notices being so caught up in the all too real lives of Elinor and her sister, Marianne. And the horridness of John Dashwood and his wife is equalled, or possibly surpassed, by the self-serving self-love of the faithless Willoughby.

Apart from the mixed characters of Elinor and Marianne, who partake of both sense and sensibility in different measures, the reader is struck by how generous Austen is with the less than perfect men, Edward and Colonel Brandon. These are specimens not on a par with Mr. Knightley from Emma, though clearly gentlemen. They are sad men, stunted in some ways. And it isn’t until their happiness is realized at the end of the novel that the possibility of their being more than they seem can even be considered. Or take a character like Mrs Jennings, who is comic in many respects yet in Austen’s hands becomes the very essence of generosity, kindness, and fellow feeling. These are characters who are determined to think well of and do well by others. If only the same could be said of all of us.

The lengthy opening essay in this edition by Patricia Meyer Spacks is wonderful. After an entire career teaching and writing on Austen and related authors, Meyer Spacks still writes with verve and economy and real interest. Proof, if any could be given, that Austen’s novels have enduring charm and bear repeated readings. By all means, if you are planning to reread Sense and Sensibility, do consider this lovely edition.

See also


In the autumn, my wife and I attended an “experimental” jazz performance held at the Kitchener Art Gallery. It was a lead guitarist (and composer), electric bass, sax, synth, and drums. The music was scored but I think the “experimental” bit was that they were all playing their own thing with no reference whatsoever to the others. The drummer was off in her own world totally drowning out everyone else. But no one seemed to mind. They all seemed to be having fun. At the end of it I turned to my wife and said, “You know, I think I should take up an instrument.” (Because it is unportable, I never really think of the piano as an’ ‘instrument’; it’s more like furniture.) “You should,” she said. “Maybe I should get a guitar,” I said. We often have scintillating conversations like that.

I set about doing my research. I did a fair bit of comparison online in terms of quality at various price points. I settled on either a Seagull S6 Original or a Simon & Patrick Woodland Cedar. I arranged for the local music shop in uptown Waterloo to order both in for me to try out. As it happens both of these guitars are made by Godin in Canada. They are sold at exactly the same price point. And they both have exceptional features for the price. So the decision would largely come down to how they feel.
Simon & Patrick Woodland Cedar
Having tried them both, I decided to go with the Simon & Patrick Woodland Cedar. There was a noticeable difference in the width at the nut and with my smallish hands I liked the smaller dimensions. Although the bodies vary marginally, I couldn’t really find a preference. Both are full size guitars so for me they are rather large, but still manageable.

Along with the guitar I also purchased a hard case so that I can transport it easily and safely in my car. I got a capo and I got a guitar stand because, well, this guitar looks beautiful just standing there in our living room.

Of course once I’d selected my instrument, I needed to relearn how to play the guitar. I had originally learned how to play in school in a guitar group organized by our grade 5 teacher. But I’ve never played very well, and mostly just cowboy chords. These days, however, you can get any amount of teaching you desire on YouTube. And there are dozens of really good intro books in the library. So in what seemed like no time at all I was up and playing better than I ever had before.

Since then I’ve even learned some new songs, including some Billy Bragg tunes and a Hey Rosetta song that we love. And I’m looking forward to many a pleasant hour in the year ahead.


Technical Interlude

During the summer, I was inspired by a friend in England to get back in touch with my inner geek. The result was both surprising and predictable.

Powerline Network

Somewhere along the line I missed out on the news about powerline networks. A powerline network uses your existing home electrical wiring in order to convey network access to, potentially, any electrical outlet in the house. The network connection is hard-wired rather than wireless and thus both more stable and able to support a higher throughput. In theory.

Also in practice, as it turns out. I chose to use a TRENDnet Powerline 500 AV Nano Adapter Kit with Built-In Outlet, TPL-407E2K in order to set up my system. Our house does not have an over-abundance of electrical outlets, so I could not afford to sacrifice any in order to “play” with adding a powerline network.

I installed the principle adapter in our kitchen where our router is located. The other adapter I installed in my office upstairs. Then I hauled out our old Dell computer that was languishing in the basement in order to have something useful to plug into the network. (Everything else in the house runs off the wireless, but that old Dell has no wireless card.) I was delighted to discover that this worked exactly as promised. I appear to now have a wired network running at 100 Mbps.

Installing Linux (again)

With a solid wired network connected to my old Dell, I took the opportunity to bring my Linux skills back into shape. The first step would be to install the latest version of Ubuntu. That old Dell is a 32-bit Pentium with 1GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive. It’s got a nice monitor as well. And it had Ubuntu 13.04 installed on it. So the first step was to do a clean install of Ubuntu 15.04. It was certainly a pleasure to have a wired network connection here in my office thus avoiding the need to set up this computer in the kitchen so that I could plug it directly into the router for the inevitable raft of software updates that follow any new Linux installation.

One of my intentions in re-exploring Linux on this Dell was to see whether it could be used as a potential media storage device on the network. My thinking was that I might follow my friend’s lead and install Freenas and then, potentially, connect to the media via Raspberry Pi devices. (Yes, his setup was very nerdy and very cool.) Alas, this Dell is underpowered for such work. So the Freenas option was quickly ruled out. And that scuppered my Raspberry Pi envy as well. So instead I decided to try to solidify my working knowledge of Linux. And that gave me the opportunity to exploit our local public library’s fine collection of geeky books. I started with Ubuntu Made Easy: A Project-Based Introduction to Linux by Rickford Grand (2012) in order to ease my way in. But what it really aided was pointing me toward Linux Mint, which is an Ubuntu derivative that is allegedly more user friendly, especially for those not afraid to work on the command line.

Ah yes, the command line. As it happens, I’ve never been a real adept. So, back to the library. This time I got out Linux Command Line and Shell Scripting Bible: The Comprehensive, Tutorial Resource by Richard Blum and Christine Bresnahan (2015). Now I felt like I was definitely learning something. I even hauled out my rusty knowledge of GNU Emacs and burnished it. Clearly I was having too much fun.

The end result of all this is less satisfying. Since I don’t use these skills on a daily basis, I find that they very quickly drift away. I did take notes this time, but whether I’ll even be able to comprehend my notes come the next time I get my geek on, who knows?

Rethinking Music Options

As mentioned, part of the motivation for both the powerline network and for re-igniting my love of Linux was to potentially mirror the media setup that my more technically able friend was deploying. Although that wasn’t possible, I did continue thinking about whether or not we ought to transform our music setup in the house.

At the moment we have an excellent stereo (amplifier, cd-player, receiver) purchased back in 2000. That does seem like a long time ago now, but these are solid pieces of kit. Yes, they still run on UK voltage, so I have to use transformer. No big deal. And yes, the receiver is calibrated to UK frequencies which do not match up with North American frequencies. So the receiver is less than wonderful. But really we only ever use the cd-player anyway. We also have two Boston Acoustics radios which have fabulous sound for their size. All of our cds are ripped in iTunes (sigh). And we don’t ever merely purchase digital downloads of music. So, is there a game changer out there that could transform our listening lives?

There might be. I’ve recently been enticed by the heavy promotion of SONOS, at least enough to have a salesman walk me through a demo. Impressive. No doubt. But at the moment I (and more importantly my wife) remain unconvinced. I’ll keep thinking about it.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Once again, Elena Ferrante brings the intimate friendship of her principle characters, Elena and Lila, to life, though much of what occurs in this final novel in her Neapolitan series is harmful to their friendship. Elena rushes into her relationship with Nino Sarratore, all the the while trying to suppress her suspicion of Lila’s disapproval. Indeed, much of what Elena does and thinks and even writes in her growing career as a novelist and intellectual is shaped and conditioned either by Lila’s explicit critique or by Elena’s imagined version of what Lila might say. And so Elena acts both for and against her childhood friend, desperate to attain some form of autonomy even whilst she foregoes it in her anxiety. Elena has moved back to Naples, though not the old neighbourhood, with her two daughters. And it is motherhood that comes to dominate the themes here as first Elena and then Lila herself become pregnant. Their shared condition is emblematic of just how entwined their lives have been throughout whether they were conscious of it or not.

Eventually Elena moves with her now three daughters into the flat above Lila’s in the old neighbourhood. Here the ties with the past are strong. But so too are the ties with elements from the earlier three novels. Ferrante weaves the stories together so tightly that everything in the current novel feels as though it might have been there in the very first one, just hidden around a corner. The lives of Elena and Lila, their lovers and children, and their friends from the old neighbourhood breathe with fire. And once that fire catches you, it is nearly impossible to put the book down.

Ferrante’s Elena narrates the whole of this volume but she is not spared. Even when she is most critical of her friend, the reader sees through her fears to the self-doubt at its root. While not an unreliable narrator, we come to see her view as slanted, as given to jealousy and pettiness as any other, and so she becomes, unsympathetically, even more believable. It is a remarkable balancing act. By the end, I found myself reading ever more slowly, fearing with each page the inevitably loss of this brilliant friendship. Fortunately, I can start again almost immediately, which is surely one of the great blessings of novels as fine as these. Highly recommended.

See also

Munich Airport by Greg Baxter

An ex-pat American living in London learns that his sister, Miriam, who had been living in Berlin, has died of starvation. The news is both a shock and possibly expected. At any rate, it catalyses arcane reactions in her brother, who has not spoken to her in at least five years, and in their elderly widowed father whose estrangement from her extends even further into the past. Father and son meet in Berlin and undertake the repatriation of the body with the help of a consular official named Trish. Apparently standard bureaucratic delay prevents the release of the body for more than two weeks. And in that time both father and son, and to a lesser extent Trish, undergo flights of alienation and excess — renting a furnished luxury penthouse, hiring a car to undertake a trip down the Rhine and into Belgium and Luxembourg, immodest gourmandising, drinking to excess, sexual profligacy, and self-harm. This, followed by a starvation diet which may purge them of both their excess and their reason. Once Miriam’s body is released, they can begin their journey home. The father has chosen to fly them all out of Munich Airport so that they will not need to change planes, but when they reach Munich, the airport is socked in with heavy sleet and fog. So much so that their flight — indeed all flights — has been delayed interminably. And this is where we pick up the story with the brother narrating their current predicament interspersed with reflections on what has preceded that in the previous two weeks as well as earlier moments in the lives of Miriam, her brother and her father.

In the stateless state of those who have already passed through security at an international airport, grounded by the murky fog that paralyses airports and action, and faced with a constitutional ambivalence about his father, himself and everything else, we follow the brother’s not always trustworthy impressions. But ultimately nothing is clear or fully explained. An underlying sense of menace pervades but it has no clear source. Emotions are fractured and changeable. And perhaps the only moments of clarity come when the son speaks about the advent of twelve-tone music and especially the music of Alban Berg.

That singular break with tonality seems also to be the model for Baxter’s treatment of the novel. Not so much a case of anti-narrative as the abandonment of narrative, or rather narrative as the underpinning structure of the novel. Themes of death and excess cross against those of loss and abandonment or harm and self-harm. But there is no centre, per se, and so we are carried along solely by the power of Baxter’s prose itself. And what prose that is! I was transfixed. Constantly unsettled. And ultimately a bit in awe. This is a novel that warrants re-reading almost immediately. Highly recommended.