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"Jane Austen," by Carol Shields, and "An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood," by Jimmy Carter

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A Sense of Jane Austen Penguin Lives is a series of small and readable biographies of well-known people. Each of the volumes in this series has been assigned to a writer of whom we have heard as a skillful author in his or her own right. Louis Auchincloss has written on Woodrow Wilson, Garry Wills on Saint Augustine, Edmund White on Marcel Proust. I have read, enjoyed and admired Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse and Peter Gay on Mozart. In this new contribution to the series, Carol Shields has given us a meditation on "Jane Austen" (Viking, $19.95). Because Shields is so familiar with Austen's work — she is a longtime member of the Jane Austen Society — she weaves much of the story around that work and the way it reflects its author's life. She has to use this device because, as she tells us in the first chapter: "Today Jane Austen belongs to the nearly unreachable past. She kept no diary that we know of. There is no voice recording such as we possess of Virginia Woolf, and no photograph like the one that George Eliot denied she had had taken. Also, her sister Cassandra destroyed the letters she wrote during a full 10 years of her life." But Shields performs a magic trick and tells us what is known, relating it to what she can divine from the wonderful stories Austen has given us. Still, she says, "...the point of literary biography is to throw light on a writer's works, rather than combing the works to re-create the author." Shields in some measure has done both of these things. But true to her intention, she sums up: "Her legacy is not a piece of reportage from the society of a particular past, but a wise and compelling exploration of human nature. Her men and women speak their needs and define the barriers that separate them from peace and satisfaction. They are as alive today in their longing as they were, two hundred years ago, when she fist gave them breath." A measure of the success of this little book is that I am heading back to "Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility," "Persuasion" and Austen's other stories. And this time, I will read them with a feeling of friendship and sympathy for their author. — Rozanne Epps Growing up to be President "An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood," (Simon & Schuster, $26) is Jimmy Carter's 15th book. It is a collection of reminiscences of his early years growing up in Georgia. These reminiscences meander like the Chattahouchee past flat land and rolling hills, from Archery, the ghost town where Carter is born, to Plains, close by, where Carter's father, a prosperous farmer, raises cotton, peanuts and sugar cane. From Atlanta where Carter crams for the Naval Academy, to nuclear-driven submarines and, finally, with Rosallyn back to Plains. We leave him there before he enters politics and is elected our 39th president. His style is folksy, anecdotal and unadorned — an easy read though occasionally repetitious. Topics are in sequence or in flashback: the hard labor of hauling buckets of water to sweating farmhands, shaking peanuts and picking cotton. We feel the soil's unrelenting demands, its rigid economy and begrudging satisfactions. We sense the role of Carter's adored, magisterial father and his mother, a nurse adept with castor oil and arnica. We witness the ambiguity of politics and the deep, interwoven tensions of race in the simplest matters. Carter cites chilling statistics, notably those of the Great Depression, when unemployment was emptying the cities and suffocating the provinces with homeless refugees. A time when the per-capita income for sharecropper families was $28 a year. The book's final pages reflect the sensitivity of Carter that must have undermined his leadership in the hurly-burly of politics, but has endeared him since in his striving for peace and social benefits. "These sometimes recollections are my most vivid ones," he writes. "Others are embarrassing, including the treatment of our immediate neighbors, all of them black. … No one would want to return to the old days of unchallenged racial segregation when blacks 'knew their place' … but in the dramatic changes we have witnessed something has been lost as well as gained. My own life was shaped by a degree of personal intimacy between black and white people that is now all but unknown and largely forgotten." —-John McClenahan

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