Apple’s Collusion with Big Publishing to Raise E-book Prices: The Saga Continues

consumer case captionRemember when the U.S. Department of Justice sued Apple and five big publishers* for antitrust violations? The publishers all settled before trial. Then, after a trial last year, Judge Denise Cote of the U.S. District for the Southern District of New York found Apple liable for violating antitrust laws by conspiring with the publishers to raise prices on consumers.

Cote’s opinion meant that a related consumer class action case against Apple would go to a damages trial to see just how much Apple would have to pay to compensate readers. However, a week ago, Apple and the lawyers for the consumer class proposed a settlement, which now goes to Judge Cote for approval. (Individuals can settle their own lawsuits whenever they want, but class action settlements have to be approved by the Court to make sure that they’re fair to all the members of the class.)**

I’ve written before about Apple’s rather unrealistic view of their own products, and their proposed settlement reveals yet another example of Apple’s penchant for hyperbole. Just a few months after Apple attempted to remove Judge Cote  from the case because she had noted “consumers of e-books—including Apple’s own consumers—suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in harm,” Apple is now proposing a settlement that would pay up to $400 million to consumers (plus $50 million to the states and the attorneys).

But there’s a catch, and that’s what Judge Cote was concerned about in a conference call with the lawyers yesterday. The proposed settlement would not end the case, but would simply avoid the damages trial. Apple would continue with its appeal of Judge Cote’s findings last year: if Apple lost that appeal, Apple would pay $400 million towards a fund for consumers who bought e-books from any of the settling publishers between April 1, 2010 and May 21, 2012, plus $20 million to States that sued Apple, and $30 million to the lawyers for the class. Conversely, if Apple won the appeal, Apple would pay nothing.

This is the part Judge Cote was worried about: if Apple wins just a part of the appeal, even on a very technical issue that simply results in a new trial, then Apple only has to pay $50 million to the consumer fund, plus $10 million to the States and $10 million to the lawyers for the class. That is a significantly worse deal for consumers, and it could end up creating a situation where Apple has been found, conclusively, to be liable for antitrust action, and yet walks away paying only a fraction of the apparent damages.  $50 million for consumers is chump change for a company with $160 billion in cash on hand. It’s probably not enough to truly deter them from violating antitrust laws again as soon as they have the chance.

If we want to keep the e-book market lawful and competitive, companies like Apple need more than a slap on the wrist and a suggestion that they behave better next time. We’ll see whether Judge Cote approves the settlement proposal.

*The list of publishers accused of collusion includes Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan.

**Here’s Apple Proposed Settlement (a PDF).

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The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Short Novel or An Inflated Novella

Storied Life of AJ FikryA.J. Fikry, the title character of Gabrielle Zevin’s slim novel, is a thirty-nine year-old, lonely bookseller at Island Books. He will only stock books which meet his high standards for literary content. As he explains to Amelia Loman, the new Knightly Press representative:

I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mashups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy… I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying–vampires. [The list goes on and on]

With A.J.’s taste, it’s hard to believe he finds anything worthy enough to grace the shelves of the store he started with his wife, the more socially-inclined half who died in a car accident. How is his independent bookstore going to survive in the increasingly competitive bookselling world? As Amelia tells him, tearfully on her way out, “[with] this backward way of thinking, there won’t be an Island Books before too long.”

But A.J. isn’t in the right mindset to care. He’s barely hanging onto life after his wife’s death. He’s an eccentric man with a tragic past who happens to have a very big heart underneath his cold exterior.

I loved the first 50% of this book for its quirky, endearing characters and the sweet story, but I wish The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry had stopped there (at the end of the chapter named after Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find). The rest of the novel felt rushed, as it sped through time and tied up loose ends by focusing on too many people and subplots, including one about the stolen copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane and a fraudulent memoir à la James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.* The extra characters and storylines either needed more development to make them worthwhile, thus resulting in a novel longer than 273 pages, or they needed to be cut entirely, halving the book.**

The second half of the book took me forever to read, partly because my real-life was too distracting last week (with work deadlines and my twins’ camp show, which was lovely), and partly because it just felt superfluous to me (I wouldn’t have minded a few loose ends). Nevertheless, I’m glad I powered through it, and that I read this novel in the first place, which I probably never would’ve picked up had it not been for The Fellowship of the Worms read-along at Words for Worms (thanks, Katie!).***

A.J. Fikry’s “storied life” reminds us that there are many ways to form a family, including through blood, marriage, adoption, and even shared interests, like books. This novel made me think about the last time I set foot in a bookstore, which was a long time ago. In my area, the indie bookstores disappeared a decade or more ago, and the large chains are following suit. I am primarily an e-book reader now.

I love e-books for the freedom that comes with them—i.e., the ability to read a wide selection of books instantaneously and to carry around my entire library wherever I go—but, naturally, A.J. hates them. He believes they’re destroying his business, ruining literary culture, and enabling readers who have “bad taste” to “read crap.” He says:

Everyone thinks they have good taste, but most people do not have good taste. In fact, I’d argue that most people have terrible taste. When left to their own devices—literally their own devices—they read crap and they don’t know the difference.

Well, of course, a snobby (but still lovable) bookseller like A.J. would think readers need him to help them choose books because they can’t trust their own taste.

Personally, I don’t care what a person’s reading, as long as they’re reading something, but maybe A.J. has a point. Independent booksellers who understand the tastes of their community (often unlike the massive chain stores that just stock national bestsellers) can certainly help us separate the wheat from the chaff. Book blogs are important for recommending books–I rely on several of them–but they (we) can’t entirely replace professional booksellers, because most of us don’t have the time, resources, or incentive to tailor recommendations to individuals or to survey all of the new releases across a wide variety of genres. I do this as a hobby; it’s not my profession.

What I’d love to have in my neighborhood to complement the expertise at our local library is a co-op bookstore. I’d pay a membership fee to browse selected titles and receive recommendations from people dedicated to books that appeal to my community. I’d love to attend readings and author events in my neighborhood, and I’d love to have the ability to connect with real-life readers in addition to the “virtual” ones that I’m lucky enough to meet through this blog. It’s too late for me to go back to buying primarily paper books—though I do buy them occasionally—but I’d be happy to buy e-books through a local seller. It might be hard to compete with Amazon’s prices, but I’d pay more per e-book to support a business that is part of my community.****
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*The charlatan responsible for the memoir defends herself by saying, “All the things in it are still emotionally true even if they aren’t literally so.” For my thoughts on consumer fraud in fiction (under U.S. law), see J.K. Rowling as “Robert Galbraith”: Is It Consumer Fraud? (I briefly mention A Million Little Pieces in this post, but its focus is on the fake military experience in the biography of Robert Galbraith).

**The advertising material online lists the book as being 273 pages long. I read the e-book, which doesn’t have page numbers.

***Have you read this novel? If so, please check out Katie’s Fellowship of the Worms to join the discussion on The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.

****Not that I find Amazon particularly troubling. See What’s Troubling About Amazon?and Did Apple Leave Amazon’s Kindle “In The Dust”?

 

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The Mockingbird Next Door: A Parasitic Memoir?

TKaMB_cold metal and soft pages_misfortuneofknowing blog

The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills’ memoir about the “great friendship” she developed with To Kill a Mockingbird’s Harper Lee and her sister, hit bookshelves this week amid controversy. Lee has released a statement saying that “any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” She even suggests that Mills’ “true mission” in befriending her family was to write this book, a realization that she says left her feeling “hurt, angry, and saddened, but not surprised.”

It’s heartbreaking (no matter how you look at it).

Harper Lee, who published her only novel in 1960, has shied away from the public spotlight for decades. It’s hard to believe that someone with such a reputation for reclusion* would open her door to a journalist like Marja Mills, particularly when, as The Mockingbird Next Door’s advertising materials state, Lee turned away other journalists who have “trekked to [Lee’s] hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.”

For such a reclusive person, though, Lee has been in the headlines quite often lately.

As I discussed in When Our Literary Heroes Become Victims, Lee sued her former agent last year for allegedly breaching his fiduciary duties and manipulating her into signing away the copyright to her classic novel. The case settled a few months later.

She was also in the news for filing a trademark application for the four words in the title of her book. Last fall, with the application still pending, she filed a lawsuit against her hometown museum, a museum dedicated to the area she immortalized in her work, because they were selling clothing and merchandise bearing the words she made famous.

Now we have this public statement about an unauthorized book about her life (and an earlier statement from 2011, when Penguin acquired the Mills’ book). Lee’s version of events suggests that Mills is nothing more than a journalist trying to find fame (and royalties) by exploiting a beloved, elderly literary hero and her centenarian sister. In some ways, Lee’s story is similar to what she said about her former agent and about what she said about her hometown museum, situations that became the basis for litigation.**

In this situation, though, based on what I know from the media reports, I don’t believe Lee has any viable legal claims against Mills and her publisher, Penguin. Lee can’t stop Mills from writing truthfully about her own experiences, about what she saw and heard in her time around Lee and her sister. Even if the book portrays Lee in an unfairly negative light — which I doubt is the case — Lee would still have considerable difficulty prevailing in a defamation suit. Generally speaking, defamation law protects private individuals from untrue accusations more than it protects public individuals, who, like Lee, have a big enough “microphone” to fight defamation in the court of public opinion.

That ‘court of public opinion’ is what Lee is using now to counter what she believes is essentially an unauthorized biography — only the effect of her public statements, which have been picked up by virtually every major news outlet, might actually increase the sales of Mills’ book. Controversy sells, unless it results in the loss of a publishing contract (Remember Paula Deen?). Mills’ publisher released a statement supporting the book, saying, “Mills’ memoir is a labor of love, and Marja Mills has done an extraordinary job. We look forward to sharing her story of the wise and wonderful Lee sisters with readers.”

I had considered reading The Mockingbird Next Door, wanting insight into the author behind one of my favorite novels.*** Not only do I have multiple “soft page” editions of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I also have the recently released “cold metal” e-book version (why did it take so long?).

But, in light of the controversy, I’ll probably never read Mills’ book. Whatever the truth is about how she obtained access to Ms. Lee, even the possibility that Mills exploited Lee and her sister renders The Mockingbird Next Door unpalatable.

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*Really, “reclusivity” should be a word.

**I was actually sympathetic to the hometown Museum because (1) as a legal matter, I think Lee shouldn’t be able to trademark the four words in the title or the use of the title with regard to clothing (the museum initially opposed Lee’s trademark application, but ultimately they withdrew their opposition while settling the lawsuit); and (2) the museum’s public mission is to preserve the area’s history, to which To Kill a Mockingbird is inextricably linked. That’s quite different from Mills’ purported agenda, if Lee’s allegations are true, resulting in a product that is significantly more personal than the museum’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” memorabilia.

***For my thoughts on the novel (rather than on Lee’s recent legal battles), see (1) Revisiting the “Soft Pages” of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, (2) Our Morbid Curiosity: Watching “Poor Devils” (Or Maybe Just “Devils”) on Trial, (3) We Were All Children Once (Even Lawyers).

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History: Without An Imagination, It’s Only “Old Rocks”

Misfortune of Knowing_Abbey from 2006In Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s The Grand Tour Or The Purloined Coronation Regalia, the sequel to Sorcery & Cecelia Or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot,* ancient artifacts might look like nothing much, but in the right wizard’s hands, they can change the course of human history.

I’m sure that many people can sympathize with the sentiment that, as one (minor) character put it as she stood before an ancient temple: “Old rocks are not at all fun.” Even one of our main characters, Cecy Tarleton (née Rushton), thinks it’s a “rather unimpressive ruin.” Meanwhile, her father, Arthur Rushton, who recommended she and her husband James visit the site, “hasn’t much regard for appearances. He’s only interested in history.”

Mar is a RobotHistorians like Arthur see more in old rocks and masonry than meets the eye. Just as my daughters use their imaginations to create a robot from a stack of cardboard boxes, history-lovers use their imaginations to reconstruct the past from historical evidence. They envision the people who lived in those ancient places, piecing together how they lived and what impact their present continues to have on our present. With the discovery of new original sources—or of new insights into known sources—historians re-imagine the past, trying to get as close to what “really happened” as they can.

Knowing that “the thoughts we record today will become the treasured historical documents of the future,” Arthur Rushton presents his niece Kate with a diary, in which she chronicles her honeymoon. Since Sorcery & Cecelia, Kate has become Lady Schofield, having married Thomas, the “mysterious Marquis.” In The Grand Tour, Kate and Cecy are taking a joint wedding journey with their husbands through continental Europe. Their plans suddenly change when a mysterious package puts them on a quest to stop the ruthless rise of an empire built on historically-informed magic.

Kate and CecyIn The Grand Tour, Wrede and Stevermer once again bring to life the Regency Era—albeit with wizards. It’s an enjoyable sequel, even though it lacks much of the charm of the original novel. In particular, the intelligence and independence that made Cecy and Kate so endearing in Sorcery & Cecelia is largely missing from The Grand Tour, as the two young women settle into the confines of married life in a fictional version of the Regency Era.

While the first novel is based on juicy letters between Cecy and Kate, the second novel tells the story through Kate’s personal diary and Cecy’s formal deposition to the British Ministry of Magic, the War Office, and the Foreign Office. As a result, we receive a more intimate look into Kate’s life than into Cecy’s, and we find that Thomas’ surly exterior from the first novel remains intact. Kate loves him, despite his “bossy and devious and obstinate” demeanor, but I didn’t, and I found myself wishing that Kate would challenge Thomas’ controlling behavior more directly and consistently than she did. I liked James Tarleton more than I liked Thomas, perhaps because I knew less about him due to Cecy’s more formal description of the underlying events.

Thankfully, in a satisfying twist at the end, the reliance on Regency Era gender stereotypes hinders the group’s ability to solve the mystery, hopefully teaching an important lesson to everyone involved. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that by Book 3 in this series (published in 2006), Cecy and Kate have found their footing in their marriages and exert more independence from their husbands. Such behavior might be “inappropriate” and unlikely for married women of their social class in the early 19th Century, but let’s not forget that this series of novels is fiction, not history.

*I discussed the first novel in this series in Entertainment for the Cost of a Stamp (How Much Is That Now?).

Image: Kate’s description of a “maimed old abbey church” in France reminded me of England’s Hailes Abbey, which I visited in 2006.

 

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“I wish Juliet Stevenson Would Read Supreme Court Decisions To Me”

So Mr. A.M.B. said, having just finished listening to the audiobook version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.* It’s narrated by Juliet Stevenson, whom many of us know as Mrs. Elton from the 1996 movie version of Emma or as Keira Knightley’s mother from Bend It Like Beckham.

Screenshot of Jane Eyre audiobookStevenson’s expressive and often soothing British voice couldn’t possibly mitigate the pain I felt while reading the U.S. Supreme Court opinions this term, but my husband has a point. Her voice is phenomenal.

I only know of it from her films. She has narrated many of my favorite novels, including Jane Eyre, Persuasion, and North and South, but I’ve only experienced these books on an e-reader or on paper.** I’ve never listened to an audiobook, except for snippets of the audiobooks that help my three little night-owls fall asleep (A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh read by Judi Dench, Geoffrey Palmer, Stephen Fry, and others is particularly wonderful).

According to the Pew Research Institute’s Snapshot of Reading in America in 2013, 14% of surveyed adults listened to at least one audiobook last year. The survey revealed that “adults with higher levels of education are more likely to have read audiobooks than those who did not attend college” and that audiobook listeners have the most diverse reading habits in terms of consuming books in a variety of formats (audio, e-book, and print).

So why am I not one of these “diverse” consumers of literary material?

There are at least three reasons: (1) I am too impatient to listen to an audiobook; (2) I hate to drive; and (3) I absorb information better in print (whether on an e-reader or on paper).

As Mr. A.M.B. mentioned in his review earlier this week of Jane Eyre, the unabridged Stevenson narration is close to 20 hours long! It’s a long book, but it wouldn’t take me anywhere near that many hours to read it. Without a long car trip during which I can’t read my Kindle—and really, I don’t do that much driving—I can’t justify spending that much time on a single novel (as much as Jane Eyre may deserve an endless amount of time focused on it!).

Plus, I’m not a good listener, at least when I have to listen to one type of content for any extended period of time. I am easily distracted, and I don’t retain the information. Lectures in college and law school were pointless for me — it was in one ear and out the other — unless I took copious notes by hand.

So, audiobooks aren’t a good choice for me. Unlike some people who prefer to read the words on the page, though, I don’t think that listening is an inherently inferior way to consume literature. As a Forbes article from 2011 pointed out, there’s no clear scientific evidence that audiobooks are necessarily worse for comprehension or retention. Audiobooks might give people an opportunity to listen when they can’t read (like when they’re driving a car), and they may be ideal for readers who aren’t really in the mindset to read.

That supports what Mr. A.M.B. said: he’d never listened to an audiobook until he’d had a week during which he spent over a dozen hours either driving a car or crammed on an airplane (feeling “too tired and uncomfortable to read, but not tired or comfortable enough to sleep”), creating a perfect opportunity to listen to Juliet Stevenson’s rendition of Jane Eyre. The audiobook made Mr. A.M.B.’s car and plane rides far more tolerable and introduced him to a classic work of fiction.

Who cares what the format is as long as it encourages people to enjoy literature?

*He listened to the audiobook and also read parts of the e-book version of Jane Eyre.

**For more from this Blog on Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, see (1) Is Persuasion Better with Age?; (2) Jane Austen Teaches Science, (3) North and South or Margaret Hale: How Much Control Should Authors Have?

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Jane Eyre: A Contemplative Traveling Companion

Jane Eyre quoteWhile traveling for work last week, Mr. A.M.B. mentioned someone named “Jane” repeatedly in the emails and text messages he sent me. Was he talking about a colleague? Or the person sitting next to him on the plane? No, as it turns out, he was talking about Jane Eyre, the protagonist of the eponymous novel I recommended he read after he finished Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which he reviewed on this blog in Persuasion: Is It Better With Age? He took the audiobook and also an ebook version of Jane Eyre with him to San Diego.

I’m glad to say that my husband has developed a deep appreciation for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, just as he appreciated the merits of Jane Austen’s work (while Charlotte never thought highly of Jane Austen’s novels).

This is what Mr. A.M.B. has to say about Jane Eyre:

I’ve seen two relatively recent movie versions of Jane Eyre and neither did much for me. When A.M.B. recommended Jane Eyre as the next book for me to read, my response was, “isn’t it really gloomy?” I don’t mind a good tragedy — one of my favorite movies is La vita è bella — but Jane Eyre struck me as depressing without many redeeming features.

As I remembered the plot from the movies (1996 & 2011), we follow the tragic backstory of a cold, difficult orphan who comes to know a cold, difficult rake. Lacking any other suitably morose and misanthropic candidates for one another, Jane and Rochester plan to marry, but their marriage is thwarted by his own tragic backstory. Jane flees in confusion, but returns out of a sense of ennui, finding Rochester living under tragic circumstances. They marry, the end. Who wants misery for the sake of misery?**

The problem with the movie versions is that Jane Eyre is a contemplative novel. The plot is dreary and depressing. It’s the details in the story, particularly the details about how the characters think and act, that give the reader, to quote Jane Eyre, “real knowledge of life amidst its perils.” There’s simply no way to compress that kind information into a movie or even a prolonged mini-series. The audiobook is just under 20 hours long, and there’s not much to leave out if you truly want to understand Jane.

So, having now experienced Jane Eyre as Brontë wrote the story (as opposed to how screenwriters interpreted it), here is some of what I learned:

(1) Brontë Really Knew How To Inveigh

In my review of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I wrote that “If the English language was a hammer for Hemingway, it is a Masamune samurai sword for Austen.” For Brontë, the English language is the HMS Dreadnought, loaded with cannonballs:

Georgiana, a more vain and absurd animal than you was certainly never allowed to cumber the earth. You had no right to be born, for you make no use of life. Instead of living for, in, and with yourself, as a reasonable being ought, you seek only to fasten your feebleness on some other person’s strength: if no one can be found willing to burden her or himself with such a fat, weak, puffy, useless thing, you cry out that you are ill-treated, neglected, miserable.

That’s just the opening salvo of the fusillade, which continues:

Then, too, existence for you must be a scene of continual change and excitement, or else the world is a dungeon: you must be admired, you must be courted, you must be flattered — you must have music, dancing, and society — or you languish, you die away. Have you no sense to devise a system which will make you independent of all efforts, and all wills, but your own?

It gets worse from there, as Eliza advises her sister Georgiana to “go on as heretofore, craving, whining, and idling,” and thus “suffer the results of your idiocy, however bad and insuperable they may be.” Then Eliza says, upon their mother’s death, she will continue on as if they never knew each other, then ends, for sport, “if the whole human race, ourselves excepted, were swept away, and we two stood alone on the earth, I would leave you in the old world, and betake myself to the new.”

The book is loaded with similar stemwinders* delivered by multiple characters against people, circumstances, ideas, and, tellingly, against themselves. In less capable hands with themes that were not as good a fit, this would feel preachy (see, e.g., Atlas Shrugged), but here it flows in an introspective, conflicted way — the way a real human consciousness does, or at least the way a particularly insightful and disciplined consciousness flows.

It takes some time to get into the style and rhythm of the book, but, once you do, it’s richly rewarding. The book is carried far more by its prose and its characterization than by its plot, which is why neither of the films I’ve seen have done it justice.

(2) Edward Fairfax Rochester Isn’t As Weird As I Thought

Having only seen the movies, I bought the line — one repeated on Wikipedia and in hundreds of “sample essays” online meant to be plagiarized by high school students — that Rochester was a “Byronic Hero,” a moody, mysterious outcast of high passions and principles. Having read the book, however, Rochester didn’t seem nearly as weird or obnoxious as he has been made out to be.

The scene where Rochester pretends to be a gypsy is unbelievable and just plain weird. But I must admit that I see the point of it: to show that Rochester, who is able to toy with everyone around him, is incapable of drawing anything out of Jane that she does not want to give up.

As unromantic as his marriage proposal might be — e.g., “you strange, you almost unearthly thing!” — it makes sense in the context of their relationship.*** He is captivated and vexed by Jane’s extraordinary intellect and self-control, and is inescapably drawn to it. When they talk, he’s constantly asking her what she thinks (despite caring not one bit about the thoughts of anyone else) because he knows she has some sort of piercing remark, and yet she also has the ability to hold back and restrain her impulses. This quality vexes Rochester greatly, which is why he repeatedly refers to her as having come from the Devil, but it’s also why he’s so intrigued by her, and so desperate to understand her and to win her love.

[spoiler alert--Does anyone interested in this novel actually need one?]

Consider one of their final interactions, after he’s been blinded and partially crippled in a fire that destroyed his home:

“Am I hideous, Jane?”

“Very, sir: you always were, you know.”

“Humph! The wickedness has not been taken out of you, wherever you have sojourned.”

This is all in playful jest between them, and it’s part of why Rochester’s remarks about her are so odd and unromantic — it’s the only way he can express how fascinated he is by her.

Conclusion:

All in all, like the Jane Austen books, it’s not a book I would have fully appreciated in high school, or perhaps even in college. I’m glad I finally read it. More men should. It has at least as much to tell men about life as the book the teenage girl who sat next to me on the plane was reading, one of my personal favorites: Fight Club. (So much for gender stereotypes.)

 

* “Stemwinder” came into vogue a generation after Brontë’s death, meaning “first-rate,” particularly “a stirring speech.” It is a bit of a Janus word these days, though, because of misuse of the word to mean a long, boring speech.

** That’s how I felt about Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, one of the finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: it was a sad story, but nothing more. I recommend it to no one.

***My wife thinks it’s one of the worst marriage proposals she’s ever seen in literature; it’s a good thing I didn’t use a similar line on her at any point. I wouldn’t have been able to get away with it.

 

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Entertainment For the Cost of A Stamp (How Much Is That Now?)

SCSorcery & Cecelia Or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer, features “the correspondence of two Young Ladies of Quality regarding various Magical Scandals in London and the County” between April 8 and July 17, 1817. It is the first novel in a three-book series.

Cecelia “Cecy” Rushton is stuck in Essex, while her cousin Kate Talgarth is spending “the Season” in London. The letters between these magically-inclined cousins begin with Cecy begging her cousin to “write and tell me everything!,” a correspondence that ultimately plays a vital role in thwarting the black-magic-laden plans of wizards who masquerade as upstanding members of society.

This is an epistolary novel, which means that readers experience the action by reading Cecy and Kate’s letters, which, conveniently for the story, the villains never interrupt or intercept (Napoleon learned the perils of unrestrained letter-writing when the British intercepted his personal letters and published them).**

It took me a little while to adjust to the writing style and the format. I know it’s fiction, but I still felt like I was invading Cecy and Kate’s privacy at first. Once I squelched that creepy feeling, I ended up really enjoying the book. It’s an ideal choice for Jane Austen fans, who will appreciate the characters’ quips, the Regency Era setting, and the Austen-like courtships. The romance is predictable, but it’s a satisfying addition to the light magical mystery that brings these couples together.

I particularly liked the fact that the heros — the “Mysterious Marquis” (who, reminiscent of Mr. Darcy, wears “a sardonic expression of pained civility”) and James Tarleton (initially misperceived as a voyeur) — cannot defeat the villains without Kate and Cecy, a feisty and intelligent pair. As Kate explains to the Marquis when he asks her why she disregarded his message, “You were reasoning from incorrect information… You said you could handle things by yourself… Plainly you are mistaken.”

In the Afterword, I learned that this novel has its roots in “The Letter Game” between the authors in 1986. Wrede assumed the role of Cecy, and Stevermer played Kate, as the two sent letters back and forth to each other in character. As Stevermer explains, “Our letters were long on gossip and short on plot, but they provided good clean fun for the cost of a postage stamp.”

In the U.S., where Stevermer and Wrede are from, a first class postage stamp cost 22 cents in 1986. Today, it costs 49 cents, which I actually had to look up. The only stamps I could find in the house say “Forever” in place of a price, which, according to the U.S. Postal Service, “can be used to mail a one-ounce letter regardless of when the stamps are purchased or used and no matter how prices may change in the future.” The entertainment Wrede and Stevermer received from the traditional version of the “Letter game” would cost more than twice as much today, but would be essentially free if played by email.

There is something magical about receiving a letter in the mail, but the ease of email is hard to beat. If too much of the charm would be lost by a typical Gmail or Outlook message, why not prepare a formal letter with fictional letterhead and PDF it?

I left this book wondering what Cece and Kate’s correspondence would look like had they lived in a fictional version of today instead of 1817. In a fast-paced, information driven world like ours, their communications would probably be a third as long, full of smiley faces, and supplemented with Skype, text messages, Facebook status updates, and phone calls. That’s not necessarily worse than the 1817 version. It’s just different.***

*I read a reasonably priced e-book version. When I bought it, it was less expensive than the paper back version but more expensive than a stamp (for now!).

**Is any casual communication truly private? If it isn’t our employers reading our email, then it’s the government. And we haven’t even mentioned Facebook’s disturbing emotional experiment. (As Mr. A.M.B. quipped, “I assume Mark Zuckerberg was trying to determine whether or not humans had feelings, a question that had eluded him for some time.”)

***Not that there aren’t any potential drawbacks to these modern forms of communication. See Pew, How Teens Do Research in the Digital World (Nov. 2012); Maria Konnikova, What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades(June 2, 2014).

 

Check Out These Reviews of Sorcery & Cecelia:

  • Jenclair at A Garden Carried in the Pocket: “Set in Regency England, the book is a comedy of manners, a paranormal fantasy, an epistolary novel, and an absolute delight.  I loved it, and I suspect Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer would have loved it, too.”
  • Thea’s Take at The Book Smugglers: “The book absolutely delivered the type of lighthearted, escapist, frothy regency fantasy I was yearning for. I loved it. LOVED it.”
  • Melanie at The Indextrious Reader: “Quite clever and amusing; if you like Regencies you’ll like it. If you like fantasy, you’ll like it. If you like both, you’ll love it. And the good news is, it’s the first book of a series.”
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