Monday, May 20, 2013

Body of Lies, by David Ignatius

We are living in a shockingly dissimilar world from the one I grew up in.  It’s a cliché, but it’s true.  And we all know what preceded the change – it was the morning of September 11, 2011.  On that morning, North Americans were introduced to a level of violence that we had never seen before, and it had far-reaching consequence that, more than a decade later, we’re still feeling.

That week, I was still pretty young and naïve (I was in high school at the time), so I didn’t know what it meant or what it would mean; my Dad, however, put it all into perspective.  Having served with the Canadian Army in Egypt, Germany, and making visits into Israel during the 70s, he had experienced the level of fear which permeates the atmosphere of a culture after experiencing a terror attack.  So, North America in the days after September 11th wasn’t foreign to him.  He pointed out to me that we were now going to be living the same way that millions of Europeans and Middle-Eastern people lived.  Terror attacks, a previous fringe type of violence in our society had finally crossed the Atlantic, and we would forever be changed by it.  But, since I was 16 at the time, my Dad didn’t know what he was talking about.  It took me years (and two degrees in history) to finally understand the wisdom in that observation.

Personally, I’m still uncomfortable and upset with what happened on September 11th – I don’t think I’ll ever put it completely past me, because it happened at such an impressionable age.  Having parents that worked for the federal government in either target-rich buildings, or that drove past even more prominent targets to get too and from work, I became obsessed with the dangers they faced getting to and from, and while at, work; my mother had to travel for work shortly after the attacks, and I sat in class with my cell phone on my desk, diving for it when it rang (and this was a time before cell phones were ubiquitous, but I think it was a sign of the times that the teachers let it slide when they understood my concerns).  Maybe I was over-sensitive, but as my Dad pointed out, I was catching up to a way of life that millions over-seas had been living for millennia, and I had some adjustments to make.

Over the last 12 years, we’ve seen a lot of fall-out from September 11th.  Many would characterize that fall-out as having done more harm than good, and many more would say it was all a means to an end; of course, I’m referring to the war(s) in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo, and the larger debate around torturing enemy combatants.  I’m not concerned about what your opinions are, and I’m not about to tell you mine, but I wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page before (finally) launching into my thoughts on my latest read, Body of Lies, by David Ignatius.  (PS. Thanks for letting me get out the parts above – it was cathartic, and as I’ve never discussed it/put my feelings in writing, I think I was due.)

Body of Lies is the story of Roger Ferris, a CIA operative.  While serving in Iraq (c. 2005-ish, I think?) he stumbles across information regarding a high-level Al Qaeda operative, known as Suleiman.  Suleiman is credited with a series of car-bombings in Europe, and Roger, now based in Jordan, is working to uncover the network to which he is connected.  This Zero Dark Thirty, but with a dude, who is chasing a fictional character.

The draw of Body of Lies is that it was written by a long-time journalist who covered the Middle East, so there is a level of authenticity and sincerity to this work that is shockingly real.  In Ferris’ quest to discover Suleiman’s network, he crisscrosses the globe, puts himself in danger, and has to continuously re-evaluate his loyalties.  One might imagine that Ignatius has sat down with former operatives for some in-depth and frank research.

While the plot is fast-paced and the characters interesting and engaging, I think the real pay-off to this book was the big dose of reality it serves the reader.  We are living in a world of layers – the surface layers are barely being held together by the people who are working the under layers.  It’s the hot dog paradox; you might enjoy them, but you never want to see how they’re made, or else you’ll never eat another.  Ignatius has given his reader a hypothetical tour of the hot dog factory; we might now have an idea of how they’re made, but with enough plausible deniability to ignoring it and get on with our days.  The Suleimans of the world are out there, and they surface in our layers occasionally, but the Roger Ferris’ are also out there, doing a thankless job (often in a moral grey-zone) trying to keep our plausible-deniability in place.  Body of Lies reminds the reader of this reality.

So, final verdict?  I would say it’s worth a read.  Maybe as a beach-blanket read, but worth a read none the less.  It’s cathartic to read about this (much as Zero Dark Thirty exercised a lot of our society’s demons), but take it for what it could be – a thriller not a study in CIA operations, and recognize the tiny chip it puts in the veneer on the top layers of our society.  But, for the love of God, don’t follow Ignatius down the rabbit hole of the larger picture he’s telling us about, or you may never get a good night’s sleep again.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

I need to learn to listen to Chapters a bit more – they clearly know what’s better for me when it comes to my reading list…. This was the realization that came to me after finishing my latest read The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.  Chapters has been peddling this book hard since it was first released, giving it prominence of place in its displays, so every time I turned around, there is was.  I finally got the message this week, and picked up Morgenstern’s work, thinking I’d get around to it eventually.  But it only sat on my coffee table for a couple of days before I took the plunge, and boy am I glad I did.

Now, fair warning, I still have a bit of a book hang-over from this one (that’s where you’re still wrapped up in a book, and may not be able to give yourself enough distance to fully appreciate all the nuances), but here goes the review anyway.  So, a word on plot: The Night Circus tells the story of Marco and Celia, students of two great magicians who are bound together at a young age in a magical dual; the rules are never quite explained to them, but the venue for the dual becomes the Cirque des Rêves, in which Celia is the illusionist, and which Marco helps to manage.  The problem is, neither Celia nor Marco understand what their mentors have engaged them in, and so they fall in love.  The conflict comes from how to engage and finish the magical challenge in the face of the consequences for all those around them.

If I had to pick one word to describe this book, it would be unctuous.  Reading is a visual medium, with a slight aural component that each reader adds via our own internal voice, which provides the voice for the narrator and character.  Other than that, reading is mainly an activity that we undertake with our eyes.  Morgenstern, however, set that paradigm on its head with The Night Circus, which sets out (and in my opinion manages) to capture all the senses, and actively engage them with the story.

The story Morgenstern paints is one of ocular mystery, as her circus is set in a world of black and white with pops of colour; the reader can almost hear the crowds that mingle and rush between the tents of the Cirque des Rêves looking for that one tent that will satisfy their curiosity; the smell of caramel on the breeze is almost discernable while reading; as is the taste of the caramel apples, popcorn and cider.  The last sense, that of touch, is engaged through strolling around the tents, seeing the performers, interacting with them…. Morgenstern engages all the physical senses in the same way that Perfume (by Patrick Suskind) engages the sense of smell, and she does it with a deft hand.

But Morgenstern was clearly not satisfied with just engaging the physical senses of her readers – she also set out to engage the emotional senses as well.  By drawing the reader in with the feel, look, smell and taste of the Circus, Morgenstern is then able to trade on the emotional feel of her setting, and on the emotional investment that the reader has made to the setting and, by extension, the characters; reading about the loves, challenges, and successes of the characters put the readers in the story on a level that is very hard to attain.  I honestly cared about the happiness of all the characters, even the less sympathetic ones; my heart broke along with several of the characters when each of their realities became clear.  I often engage emotionally with characters that I like, but Morgenstern upped the ante on this one, and really had me involved.

So, final verdict?  Obviously it’s ‘read this book’.  I’m already looking forward to re-reading it in the future, so I can once again engage in the unctuous environment that Morgenstern has created and to catch the nuances that I’m sure I missed.  Much like the Cirque des Rêves popped in and out of the lives of the people that visited it, so too did The Night Circus pop into my life unexpectedly; but now that I know about it, I’m on-board in a big bad way.  So, thank you Chapters, for knowing what was best for me, and putting The Night Circus in my path more than once – I finally got the message.  

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris

I recently joined the 21st century and got myself a PVR.  Now, as much as I love reading, I love watching TV, so this was a huge step forward for me.  The first thing I did after hooking up the PVR?  I set a recording reminder for The Daily Show – I used to live and breath by Jon Stewarts one-liners, but then I stopped being a student with a random schedule, and instead became a professional with a job which started around 7am (my choice, but still).  So, in order to get enough sleep to function as a normal human being, Stewart was dropped; but I always regretted this, since I used to get my news from The Daily Show, and I also learnt about new authors and books from Stewart’s interviews.  But, now that I had a PVR, I am back on track, and that led me to my latest read…. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris.

While being interviewed by Stewart, I realized that Sedaris had a similar sensibility to mine; why worry and get yourself worked up about things when laughing at them is so much easier and enjoyable?  And that’s the sentiment that runs through Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, which is a collection on essays about Sedaris’ world, both past and present.

The main theme that runs through Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is that of family; how we might interact with parents, the role of siblings in our lives, and the place of a partner in your world.  Though Sedaris’ essays are about his personal history and experiences, they are full of life-lessons that are applicable to everyone.  What helps these ideas to be transferable is Sedaris’ approachable and friendly writing style; it is almost as if he is writing each reader a personal email with this observations.  It’s an intimate and enjoyable (and incredibly humourous) way that Sedaris has found of conveying his stories.

My only complaint (which resolved itself) were the “Forensics” chapters.  As Sedaris tells us in the Author’s Note, a performance art has been developed in which people take passages of the written word and edit them for performance in competitions.  As such, Sedaris has provided a handful of chapters that could be used to this end.  These chapters are some of the most humourous, but they are unidentified as being Forensics scripts, so it can take a page or two to catch up with Sedaris; this means going back to start of the chapter with re-aligned expectations and understandings to truly enjoy them.  In retrospect, it’s not a major flaw (as I mentioned, I found them to be hilarious, so the annoyance was worth it), but it is a flaw none the less.  

These Forensics chapters give Sedaris a chance to stretch his satirical muscles, and they are more than up for the task.  Taking on the voice of hypocrites, well-meaning idiots, and aggressively dangerous morons, the Forensics chapters mainly tackle the themes of same-sex marriage and dissatisfaction in every-day life with such a panache that it made me want to hug Sedaris for turning the spot-light on ‘these’ types of people.  

So, final verdict?  Read Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, and then do what I’m going to do, and read the rest of Sedaris’ works.  In a world that seems bound and determined to tear itself apart over the dumb things (like who gets to love who) while ignoring the real things (like that scary looking person over there with his finger on a dirty bomb), Sedaris steps in and reminds his readers to laugh, and to find the humourous side of every-day life.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Inferno, by Dan Brown

There’s nothing that I love more than a literary-zeitgeist bandwagon and, in my experience, one of the best known band-leaders from the last decade has been Dan Brown.  Brown’s success is almost like a fairy-tale that all author’s aspire too; Brown had written and published several books before he became a household name with The Da Vinci Code, and even when the Code was released, it was a little slow to garner attention.  The plot, however, soon fixed the problem of any lagging sales; the Code proposes a radical redefinition of accepted Catholic dogma, and so became a must-read for the devout, for the lapsed, and for the conspiracy theorists.  For a while, getting your hands on a copy of the Code was impossible (I checked my local books store several times, but they were always sold out), but eventually the publisher caught up with demand, and it seemed as if everyone was reading Dan Brown.

Of course, once you’ve read the Code, you realize that it’s actually the second book of Brown’s the features his main character, Robert Langdon.  Readers then rushed out to read the first book, Angles and Demons, and then snapped up The Last Symbol when it was released a few years ago.  Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon novel, Inferno, was released this week, and is what sent me into the book store over lunch on Wednesday.  

Inferno hits all the expected notes of a Robert Langdon/Dan Brown novel; lots of talk about art and architecture, a crazy millionaire who has master-minded a dastardly plot, and Robert Langdon’s self-deprecating and yet highly knowledgeable abilities.  This book, rather than being centered around the Church (like the first two) or the Masons (like the third), uses Dante Alighieri’s epic work The Devine Comedy as inspiration for the plot.  This book’s crazy millionaire master-mind is worried about over-population, and desperately feels someone needs to do something to keep humanity from over-populating the earth.  What follows is the usual race against a clock to stop the plan from coming to fruition, guided by a set of clues, riddles and artifacts.

If I sound less than enthralled with this work, it’s because I am.  I had promised myself after The Last Symbol that I was done with Brown; his works all use the same tropes and follow the same patterns.  In the case of Inferno, those expectations are sound, I think.  I’ll give it to Brown that there were a couple of twists that I found interesting, but he back-peddled on them pretty quickly, which just left me annoyed.

With Angles and Demons and the Code, I was engaged because Brown’s works were novel to me, and they were based on history and in locals that I was interested in; Inferno, uses a book I’ve never read (but that’s been mocking me from one of my bookshelves for years) and a set of locations that I’ve never visited and that aren’t high on my Bucket List.  In reality, with the predictability of the plot and the lack of interest I had in the art and architecture that was key to the story-line, I often found like I was sitting through a series lectures that I never signed up for.  Menh.

Here’s where I’m worried about myself though; the main villain of the story is worried about over-population and is set on finding a way of reducing humanity’s exponential growth.  Earth only has a finite number of resources, and humanity is using them up pretty quickly, and destroying the resources that we don’t have a use for.  With people having hoards of children for ideological reasons or through medical intervention (I’m looking at you, TLC, for showing the world the life of the Duggars and the Gosselins), and the regular exponential growth of the population, we’re quickly running out of room and time.  As someone who decided long ago that motherhood wasn’t for me, Brown’s villain kind of speaks to me; who are we to keep populating this finite space and wasting our resources?  As the end of the book, I was sitting there thinking “Man, this dude was miss-understood.  Someone give him a medal.”  And, you know what, it almost seemed like that was Brown’s cautious assessment too.  I don’t know – it’s always unnerving when you empathize with the bad guy in a book; it makes you question your own moral code…

So, final verdict?  Menh.  If you love Dan Brown… well, if you do, I’m sure you already have bought/read this book.  If you’re new to Brown, welcome to life outside the rock you were living under!  Definitely read one, so you know about this big piece of the Western literary tradition.  If you’ve read a few Brown novels, and you’re on the fence like I was, I don’t think you need to hop down to this side; while I always found that I couldn’t read Brown novels back-to-back because of their repetitive nature, if it’s been a while since you read one, you might enjoy Inferno.  Well, this was neither a glowing, nor a scathing, review; I think that reflects my own impressions of the work – it’s not worth getting fussed about in either direction.

Exit the Actress, by Priya Parmar

Do you remember all the hubbub around the Royal Wedding back in 2011?  Around that time, everyone was Monday-morning quarterbacking William and Catherine’s relationship, assessing the when, how, and why of it.  Common knowledge attributes Will’s interest in Kate as more than just a friend to a fashion show, and this little number that Kate rocked down the catwalk:

When I saw this picture, I said “Nell Gwyn would be so proud…” and people looked at me like I was nuts.  Most people don’t know who Gwyn was, so I let it slide.  My latest read, Exit the Actress, by Priya Parmar, does a wonderful job at educating the reading public about the force of nature that was Gwyn.

Parmar’s work tells the (very) personal story of Ellen Gwyn, from her early teens to her death in Restoration England.  Ellen, born to a middling-sort family who fell on hard-times, began her professional career as an oyster seller before becoming an orange-seller at the Royal Theater, then an actress at the same local (with the stage name of Nell Gwyn).  It was during her time as an actress that she began rubbing shoulders with the upper-classes of society, eventually become a mistress and close confident of King Charles II.  

Historically, Ellen life is part of a very interesting period of England’s national story.  Charles II was the son of King Charles I (real original, I know) who was executed by Oliver Cromwell and his bunch following the civil war for what was seen as abuse of his position.  Charles the younger went into exile at the age of 12, and only returned to England when the Protectorate set up by Cromwell fell apart after his death (that’s an interesting story in hypocrisy and madness, if you’re interested in doing some extra reading).  Charles returned to the land of his birth, and took is place as King.  But he was reigning in a new dynamic – personally and ‘professionally’ affected by his father’s death, Charles spent years trying to regain what he saw as the rightful powers of the kings of England.  This goal was further complicated by his personal life.

Charles was a consummate ladies-man.  Married for political reasons (as all Kings are, and that’s another interesting story, if you’re looking for yet more extra reading), Charles was loyal, but far from faithful, to his wife.  Before being married, Charles’ official mistress (maitress en titre, a convenient court posting borrowed from Louis IVX of France) was Barbara Castlemaine.  Barbara bore the King multiple children, in stark contract to his wife, who was unable to give him an heir.  Barbara, however, took advantage of her position, and bled all the money, titles and gifts she possibly could from the King, making Charles permanently broke.  In an era where the King was trying to regain his prestige and power, he was constantly having to go begging (to Parliament or money lenders) for more cash.

This is where Ellen enters the stage (see what I did there?).  The business about the King’s positions and finances is well known in history, but what I enjoyed so much about Parmar’s work is that she brings Ellen into the story in such a way that allows the readers to humanize bigger historical events.  Told through Ellen’s journals, news clippings, and court circulars (all fictionalized, of course), the reader is taken to the era of 1660s London to explore the restored monarchy, the court intrigues, and larger historical events (such as the plague and Great Fire of London).  Parmar deftly winds her fictional account of Ellen (Nell), Charles, Barbara, and a whole host of historical and fictional characters into a readable and enjoyable history lesson for the general public.  In terms of character development, I found Parmar’s skills to be robust and engaging; her writing style is fast-paced and fluid; and her ability to fictionalize reality without loosing a sense of authenticity is to be commended.

I want to stress before signing off that, when I likened Kate Middleton to Nell Gwyn, I meant no disrespect (which, many who know the surface history of the situation might think).  As Parmar’s work reminds us, some women burst onto this pages of history by very public and alluring means, and then live their lives to the fullest from there.  Nell is a perfect example, and I think Kate is following nicely in her footsteps. 

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  As I’ve said before, it can be hard to find historical fiction about Britain that’s not Tudor-based these days, but Exit the Actress is a wonderful account of Restoration England.*  Parmar’s skills as a writer seems to promise a long career, and I, for one, and am looking forward to following her efforts in the future.

*I’d also recommend Forever Amber, by Kathleen Windsor, for another excellent piece of Restoriation fiction.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I came to age in the era of Romeo + Juliette and Moulin Rouge!, so you might think that I’ve recently read The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, so I can rush out and see Baz Luhrmann’s latest flick.  No so – I’m apparently the only one of my friends who can’t stand the movies Luhrmann makes.  So, what inspired me to read The Great Gatsby now?  Stephen Colbert.  He had a show this week in which the cOlbert Bookclub discussed the book and, to fully appreciate that episode, I felt I had to read the book.  Never let it be said that I don’t appreciate the zeitgeist – I just do it in my own way.

Okay, The Great Gatsby.  A word on the plot:  Fitzgerald’s work tells the story of, who else, Jay Gatsby, an eccentric millionaire in inter-war era New York/Long Island.  We are introduced to Gatsby through Nick, who moves next door to Gatsby and acts as primary observer to the drama that unfolds.  Nick, who is a cousin to Daisy (who is married to Tony), ends up playing matchmaker in brining Daisy and Gatsby, who knew each other before the War, together.  The love triangle that emerges, and the consequences, is at the heart of the story.  I won’t say anymore, because I don’t believe in spoilers.

The first time I read this book, I only got through the first half of it – I found the characters less than enjoyable and so I walked away.  I don’t know if I was in a more appropriate head-space this weekend to enjoy this work, or what, but I found I didn’t have that problem this time.  The opening chapter contains an injunction from Nick about judging people – his father encouraged him to be non-judgmental as much as possible to those who were worse off than he.

Taking that piece of wisdom into the rest of the work is key to understanding it.  On the surface, Gatsby, and Daisy and Tom (as well as a host of other lesser prominent characters) are completely unredeemable; adultery, shifty deals, self-delusion, and lies are all easily identifiable in the characters Fitzgerald created.  One part of my mind refused to judge them.  But, as the plot developed, I realized that the advice Nick got from his father didn’t necessarily apply here; in the world of Long Island, Nick was the lesser of the gang.  He was renting a small shack in comparison to the people around him.  So maybe a little bit of judgment on their foibles wasn’t all that harmful.  But as the plot continued to developed, it became clear that all that glitters is not gold; Nick, though a little light in the pockets in comparison to his social set, was far better of in terms of morality and self-understanding.  Once again, my mind-set shifted, and I found I couldn’t pass judgment on the other characters.

I just want to make some observations about Gatsby as a character.  The Gatsby we meet is like the spider at the centre of a glittering, drunken web – he is the coolest cat on the block with his mansion, his parties, and his seeming self-assurance.  But, in reality, Gatsby is crippled by self-doubt and fantasy.  It was like finding out that Gerard Butler is a cuddler – ladies, you know what I’m talking about…  The Gatsby we meet is so far from the Gatsby we leave, that I’m left pulling out my dictionary for the various definitions of ‘great.’  I suppose the first Gatsby we meet is great in the traditional sense – that is, he’s amazing and you want to be around him; however, the Gatsby at the end is ‘great’ in a different sense – it’s more that he is a legend with a lot of history behind him, but the truth to who he is is ultimately lost.

So, final verdict?  I never thought I say this (because I had this book classed in the same category as Catcher in the Rye), but I do recommend you read this book.  It’s short, and a quick read, and the characters and plot comes with depth and dimensions I never expected.  I know this is a book that I’ll be re-reading again in the future, so that I can pick up on more of the nuances that I’m sure I missed the first time around.  While I look forward to re-visiting Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I’m pretty sure I’ll be skipping Luhrmann’s.  Why?  Because Nicole Kidman can’t sing, that’s why….

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

I sometimes feel, as an educated woman, that my degree(s) came with an imperative to love Jane Austen’s works.  And, in certain cases, I do – Pride and Prejudice is amazing, Emma is pretty good, and the first half of Sense and Sensibility (that I read before life got in the way and I got distracted) has it’s charms.  So can someone please tell me where Mansfield Park fits into the larger Austen of it all?

Mansfield Park hits all the same notes of the rest of Austen’s works – it shines a light on society’s hypocrisy, it’s basis is an uncomfortable love story, and its has (at moments) an innate sense of humour that is all Austen.  But unlike her other works, Mansfield Park feels like a puzzle that was put together all wrong.

A word on plot: Fanny Price is born to one of three sisters, but the sister who married beneath her station and proceeded to have too many children to comfortably support; in order to help, Fanny’s aunts encourage her mother to send Fanny to live with them at Mansfield Park, the typical English country estate.  Fanny goes, and finds a prickly existence waiting for her – being in the unenviable position of a dependent, Fanny doesn’t seem to fit in either above or below stairs, and yet her aunts treat her as both an unwelcome burden and a domestic.  The rest of the family reflects, to some degree, this dynamic.  The exception is Edmund (and later his father), who takes Fanny under his wing and helps her adjust to her new family life.  The plot of Mansfield Park takes place at the time when Fanny’s two female cousins are looking for husbands, and new (and town-ified) visitors come to the area.  What ensues is the usual Austen back and forth between all parties as they try to sort out their feelings for each other and find a path forward that they can live with.

All of this exposition had so much promise.  I fully expected Fanny to be another Elizabeth Bennett (or even Emma) who, in a take-no-prisoners kind of way, was going to run the table and settle her own affairs to her satisfaction and no one else’s.  Fanny, however, is closer to milquetoast than a Bennett.  She is withdrawing, expects no better than how she is treated, and refuses to acknowledge even her own feelings in order to find an actionable way forward.  If anything, the typical Austen heroine is embodied in Mary Crawford, the vicar’s sister-in-law who visits the area; and yet, Miss Crawford is viewed by the reasonable elements in the story (Fanny and Edmund) as being too forward, too quick to speak, and too insensitive.  I suppose this could be said about Bennett and Emma, but that was part of their charm when contrasted against the stuffy, Georgian society they lived in.

In the end, I felt to emotional connection to Fanny – I didn’t care if she got the man of her dreams in the end, or if she sunk into obscurity as her social position seemed to dictate.  Where we do get a glimpse of the Austen I love so much in her other books is in the resolution of the fate of the other characters; there is a healthy dose of comeuppance, some redemption, and a bit of obscurity thrown in.  I found the conclusions of the stories of everyone but Fanny to be more interesting than that of the main character.

More than just my issues with the character/plot development is the writing style in Mansfield Park.  It is so slow in comparison to other works in the Austen catalogue; it feels like the first half-dozen chapters or so are given over the describing exposition, and describing it in such a way that drags.  This is a common issue I have with a lot of the ‘classical’ works, but had never before encountered in an Austen work.

I realize that there are probably English/Women’s Studies/History grad-students out there who can give me chapter and verse on why Mansfield Park is either the best or the worst or the outlier in Austen’s catalogue.  And that’s all well and good.  But coming to this novel as the casual (and not as an academic) reader, it doesn’t matter all that much to me – these are my impressions, and they are what they are.  So, final verdict?  If you want to read an Austen work, there are so many other, more engaging works to choose from; don’t saddle yourself with Mansfield Park.