Louisa May Alcott

lmaI’ve posted here before that the book I’ve re-read most in my life is probably Little Women. I started reading it when I was about ten or eleven, and I’ve read it over and over since then, understanding it differently as I grew older. If you told me I’d read it more than a hundred times, I might believe you; I expect to read it many more times before I’m done.

I’ve always understood that Little Women has a lot of autobiographical content in it. But until I read this biography, Louisa May Alcott, by Harriet Reisen, I didn’t know what sort of a patchwork it was: bits of Alcott’s childhood and adulthood, some pieces taken directly from her life and her journals, other pieces romanticized or given a glow, other pieces completely invented. And of course, some parts of her life left out entirely. How could it be otherwise?

Louisa Alcott was born in 1832, the daughter of Bronson and Abigail Alcott. Bronson Alcott was a minor member of the Transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau. Those gentlemen certainly had their occasional issues with structures of authority (see “Civil Disobedience” for a good example), but Bronson Alcott went much further, declaring that work for wages was beneath him, that eating meat was murder (not a widespread 19th century opinion), and that he and his family should only bathe in cold water. He tried to earn money by giving speeches, or “Conversations,” about his principles, but they were surprisingly unpopular, and his family was always grindingly poor. Abby, Louisa’s mother, took in sewing and occasionally taught school, which were the only genteel ways for a woman to earn money; it kept the family fed, but little else. In Little Women, Louisa Alcott gives the March family a servant, but her own family always did their own basic chores. While she praised the dignity of honest work, she longed to be “rich and happy before I die.”

Of course, as soon as Louisa was old enough, she took to her pen to support her family — something she could excel at, and something she loved doing (as opposed to being in a schoolroom or scrubbing floors.) She wrote to suit her audience — from fairy tales to Christmas stories to lurid pulp fiction about the fate of young girls who accept hashish-laced candies from strangers. (Pro tip: not good.) She wrote novels looking at marriage in new ways; she furiously supported temperance and abolition. And in the middle of all of this, she went to nurse Civil War soldiers and dispatch sketches from the hospital, so everyone would know the experience of “our boys.”

This time at the front destroyed Louisa’s health. She contracted typhoid pneumonia, and was given calomel for it, which contains high doses of mercury. She didn’t recover from the pneumonia for months, and her health was never the same again. There’s a theory that this grave illness — and its “cure” – triggered an autoimmune response, and that for the rest of her life she suffered from lupus. There’s no real way to diagnose such a disease at this distance in time, but doctors from Johns Hopkins have made a pretty good stab at it in their paper “Louisa May Alcott: Her Mysterious Illness.”

Reisen’s biography does a lovely job of showing Louisa’s relationships, especially with her immediate family. Her mother Abby was as tempestuous and hot-headed as Louisa herself, and we see the faint echo of Marmee’s confession that when Jo was small, she herself had a temper; Lizzie’s quiet, early death mirrors Beth’s; older sister Anna is the gentle dove, and May is the artist who has her path smoothed by her sweet temperament. Laurie, it turns out, was based on a young Polish man named Ladislas Wisniewski whom she met on her travels. It seems clear their connection was brief, good-natured, and romantic — a sort of fling with no major expectations on either side, with Ladislas’s youth and energy being one of his main attractions. (Go, Louisa!) The one character whose personality does not appear to be at all the way it appears in the novel is Bronson Alcott’s. Louisa’s father was probably mentally ill, suffering from chronic depression and perhaps from hallucinations and delusions. He was often hypercritical of Louisa and the rest of his family, and certainly rarely did any work to support them. He had young female devotees as he got older, and spent his time in “conversations” with them, which at least kept him busy. Not exactly the wise, gentle March father who is portrayed in the pages of Little Women. That at least is a lovely little piece of wishful thinking.

Louisa’s great satisfaction as she got older was to provide for those she loved by her writing: to make her mother comfortable in her old age, to care for her niece when her sister May died in childbirth. Her novels were tremendously popular during her life — she was mobbed by fans, a bit the way Dickens was, though she didn’t capitalize on that the way he did — and she was able, indeed, to be “rich and happy before she died.” That was in 1888, at the age of 55. She died only two days after her father did.

I enjoyed this biography a great deal as an introduction to Louisa May Alcott’s life, but I would by no means say it was perfect or exhaustive. Reisen has that biographer’s trick of saying things like “no doubt wits at the time made thus and such a joke” or “no doubt Abby thought thus and so” without a shred of evidence that it happened. She doesn’t pay much attention to social history, either; she glosses over what Trancendentalism is, and what it must have been like to live in Concord at that time; she doesn’t talk a lot about the abolitionist movement; she barely touches on the woman’s suffrage movement. Some of that context would have put Louisa May Alcott’s life into perspective, instead of the isolation it currently stands in. But even so, it was very interesting to read about the life of such a vivid, strong, intelligent person, the author of some of my favorite books.

Do you like Louisa May Alcott? Have you read any of her pulp fiction? What’s your favorite of hers?

Posted in Biography, History, Nonfiction | 20 Comments

The Circle

The CircleIn order to have any hope of enjoying Dave Eggers’s The Circle, I had to put aside two major reservations right from the start. The first is the fact that the online social network at the heart of the book is built on the premise that if everyone uses their real name online, civility will reign supreme. Anyone who thinks that hasn’t been on Facebook. Or lived in the world. However, I can see how linking everything to your real name and making everything you say easily findable by employers, spouses, parents, and so on, might stop some people from making nasty remarks. (It might also silence some good and useful speech, but lets leave that aside. We’ll have to for the novel’s premise to work.)

My other reservation was my distaste for the main character. She immediately struck me as a terrible snob. She quit her job at a public utility in her hometown to take a job at The Circle, the social network that has subsumed all other social networks and all online commerce. Of course, I can’t fault her for wanting to take on what seems like an incredibly exciting opportunity, but her attitude toward what seemed like a perfectly good but ordinary and somewhat dull job put me off. Sorry, honey, a stable job like that is hardly a “gulag” and preferring to tell people you’re unemployed rather than working at a utility company only makes you look bad, like you think you’re too good for honest work. (You’re not, Mae, you’re really not.)

As it turns out, though, Mae needs to be terrible for the story to work. Her job at The Circle depends on her competitiveness and need for constant affirmation. Her employers are able to manipulate her into centering her whole life on The Circle because of the sort of person she is. Mae is not alone in falling into The Circle’s trap. Many other employees have given their lives to the company, making it the center of their social lives and even taking up residence in the company-provided dormitories. But Mae’s especially quick rise at the company is surely partly attributable to the fact that she cannot be content to be ordinary. Adding to my distaste, Mae gets involved in a couple of sexual relationships during the novel that don’t make even a speck of sense to me. One in particular is bizarre because the mysterious character she gets involved with is, well, mysterious and therefore interesting, but all she seems to think about is the sex. Any questions about who the guy is or why is he there are fleeting, because the sex is supposedly just too good. (I was utterly unconvinced on this point.)

But enough about Mae. She’s awful, both because she’s awful and because she’s sometimes awfully written. Let me tell you about The Circle. The Circle is a sort of composite of all the social networks we already know and love/hate. People share status updates, endorse others’ posts by sending smiles or sharing Zings about them, launch protests by starting petitions or sending frowns, and find kindred spirits by creating social and support groups around shared interests. All online activities happen under one umbrella, making it easy for The Circle to know just about anything about anyone who bothers to build an online presence.

The Circle’s campus might look to some like a dream office—it certainly does to Mae. There’s great food, fitness facilities, social groups for almost any interest, great entertainment and educational options brought in free. The health plan is comprehensive, and Mae is even able to get her parents on the health plan, which is a wonderful benefit given her father’s struggles with MS. It has always seemed to me that a company that makes it possible to get all your needs met at the office may not want you to leave the office, and that’s certainly the case at The Circle. Mae’s activities are carefully monitored, and when she leaves campus without reporting in on her activities, even if just through posting a photo taken while kayaking, she loses rank within the company. (Climber that she is, Mae cannot accept a low rank.) Employees are expected to share everything because “Sharing Is Caring” and “Privacy Is Theft.” As the book goes on, it becomes clear that this kind of open, “transparent” life is not meant to be limited to The Circle’s employees. Soon, no one will be able to hide.

The argument Eggers is making is not a subtle one, nor is it particularly original. I think anyone who spends time online has given some thought to the implications of our sharing culture. But he puts some interesting spins on the topic that will probably give some readers pause. How much is too much to share, and how much control should we have over our own information? What responsibility do we have for other people’s privacy? How much data is too much? In some cases, the work of The Circle seems helpful, for stopping crime or promoting health, but what becomes of personal choice and privacy? How does constant monitoring affect our behavior? If everything we say and do is monitored, can we ever be truly ourselves? Or will we become our best selves? If so, is it worth the price? What happens when the entire world is a panopticon?

So The Circle is nowhere near perfect. It has some serious flaws, but it’s an entertaining ride. The characters never seem quite real, especially if they’re connected to The Circle, which may be intentional. It’s a long book, around 500 pages, but it moves quickly, and I certainly wanted to see how far The Circle in The Circle would go. There are a couple of twists toward the end, one a serious eye-roller and another that I enjoyed. And there are some hilarious moments. One of my favorites involved the constant pressure Mae is under to endorse anyone who asks—and make it snappy, Mae, so you don’t get frowned at publicly. (So much for authenticity in transparency, right?) I don’t think it’s as important a book as some of the press around it makes it seem, but it does add to a conversation we need to keep having as we put more and more of our lives in the cloud.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Ringed Castle

ringed castleThe last scene of Pawn in Frankincense left us standing, bereft, as Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny left his friends, his opium habit, his country, his son, and his virgin wife. He left unexpectedly, for parts unknown, in the smooth and intelligent company of Kiaya Khàtùn, the former mistress of Dragut Rais. We didn’t know where he was going, but we knew he never intended to return. At the beginning of The Ringed Castle, we discover where he was going — the frozen, entrenched country of the Tsar — and why: he means to earn the half-mad Tsar’s trust, and build a modern country on Russia’s medieval foundations, with the help of the men of St. Mary’s. But intrigue is afoot to bring Lymond back to Scotland, whether he wants to come home or not.

Jenny: This is the third time I’ve read this book, and I honestly think it’s the first time I’ve really enjoyed it. I spoke in our review of Pawn in Frankincense about how Lymond had grown into his leadership, and how much his relationships meant to him. In this book, thanks to his experiences with Gabriel, all of that is gone: Lymond has frozen any personal touch deep inside himself. He is utterly restrained, able to endure anything, physically or emotionally. The first couple of times I read the book, I think I missed his humor and his wit too much to be able to see the depth of the Voevoda Bolshoia (Lymond’s title as general of the Tsar’s armies.) This time, I loved the richness of what Dunnett shows us about him, even under all that ice.

Teresa: This book is not among my favorites in the series, but I liked it the first time I read it. I think getting to know Lymond better through this second reading makes it more rewarding. You’re right that he’s a more serious man than in past books. He’s always putting on a show, but I think the kind of show he put on in the previous books just isn’t possible for him now. He has to be hard, lest he break. He looks stronger than ever, but inside he’s at his weakest.

My main complaint about this book, what keeps it from being one of my favorites, is that there’s almost too much going on. The political plots, which I often find hard to follow, completely lost me at times in this book. And I longed for an edition with a character list at the front. Why don’t they all have that? But I did what I always do when I start to get lost in the labyrinth of these books; I focused on the central personalities, on Lymond, Philippa, and Diccon Chancellor. Dunnett’s characters are always interesting enough to get me through the rocky bits.

Jenny: I agree that the list of characters is very long, and almost all of them are historical. I looked up many of them online to find out more about them, and some of them I knew from other contexts — my recent reading of Wolf Hall, for instance, or from John Crowley’s novels. This third reading for me has been focused on the political plots; I feel that this time I have the constellations of relationships in better order and can understand the politics a bit better. That, in turn, enriches my understanding of Lymond, because, as Dunnett observes in this book, in large part he exists at the level of nations. His driving desire to be in Russia and lead the Tsar’s armies is not because he wants to escape his personal problems, it’s because he wants to give an entire nation a two hundred years’ short cut into the modern world.

But the personalities are irresistible. Diccon Chancellor is one of my favorite characters in any of the books, given (perhaps) my own love of travel and exploration. There’s Slata Baba, the great golden eagle. And Philippa! I adore her in this book, as she slowly comes to realize some of the policies and relationships that surround her, and to put her seraglio education to real use.

Teresa: One of the great things about these books is how each reading allows you to focus on new and different aspects of the story. There’s so much going on that it’s impossible to take it all in the first (or second!) time.

Philippa is a highlight of this book for me. I feel like this is the book where she really grows up. The events of Pawn in Frankincense opened her eyes to so much, but I think she still has a somewhat simplistic view of the world when this novel opens. She knows what’s right, and she will do it. But right and wrong are not always so simple, and I think she see begins to understand the limits of acting on her principles, particularly when it comes to finding out the truth about Lymond’s family.

Jenny: That’s exactly right. If you look at it objectively, she’s dreadful in this book: she digs up unsolicited information about Lymond and lets it fall into the hands of his worst enemies; she meddles in treason and unknowingly implicates Lymond; she doesn’t allow a man ten years her senior and worlds her better in experience to use his own judgment about his chosen work and his fate. Yet we love and admire her. (And so does Lymond!) How Dunnett does it I will never know.

That news about his family is one of the strings that’s plucked over and over in the book. Lymond wants to teach himself not to care, but he can’t. When he returns unwillingly to Scotland and meets Richard on the beach, it’s one of the most devastating scenes of the novel. His distrust of Sybilla is similar: she always trusted him, even when no one else did, and now he can’t have faith that there’s more to her situation than meets the eye.

Teresa: I think what makes Philippa so appealing is that she looks out for other people in a way few characters in the series seem to. Her judgment is often flawed, and she crosses the line between active concern and intrusive meddling more than once, but she does it out of genuine concern for Lymond, Kuzum, Sybilla, and so on. And it’s not as if Lymond’s approach to life is healthy. He needs someone like Philippa to make him look at the truth and accept it. Philippa is flawed, but Lymond needs a Philippa in his life.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 10 Comments

Nervous Conditions

nervousconditionsTambu, the narrator of this 1988 novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, begins her story with what seems like a confession:

I was not sorry when my brother died. Nor am I apologizing for my callousness, as you may define it, my lack of feeling. For it is not that at all. I feel many things these days, much more than I was able to feel in the days when I was young and my brother died, and there are reasons for this more than the mere consequence of age. Therefore I shall not apologize but begin by recalling the facts that led up to my brother’s death, the events that put me in a position to write this account.

Tambu was 13 years old in 1968, the year her brother, Nhamu, died. He died at the mission where he went to school, an opportunity he was given because he was a boy. Nhamu was a bully and a snob, and his death opened a door for his clever and hard-working sister, Tambu, to get the education she had been denied. So it’s no wonder she was ambivalent about his death.

Education, however, is not a ticket to a perfect life. In fact, as Tambu moves out of the village where she grew up to live with her uncle, the headmaster of the mission school, she sees that injustice takes many forms, and moving from one class to another is always complicated.

The novel focuses on the trials women faced in post-Colonial Rhodesia, but the challenges depicted are not unique to women or to that particular place and time. Tambu, like all the women in the novel, is figuring out who she can and will be in a society that is changing around her. The traditional society she hails from values clear hierarchies and respect, evident in the sometimes confusing rituals surrounding who sits where. But her uncle and his family, educated in England, have different values—though these values are not entirely egalitarian, as Tambu’s cousin Nyasha learns when she begins to rebel. Nyasha is in a particularly difficult position, having moved with her family to England when she was young and returned to Rhodesia when she was a teenager. She has a foot in two worlds but is secure in neither. Her cousin Tambu is the only person she trusts, and that trust wavers as Nyasha tries on new identities, one after the other.

Race, sex, class, and colonialism all inform this story and complicate the characters’ situations. Each person in the book seems caught between worlds in one way or another. And every choice, whether to embrace traditional ways or become Westernized or try to mix both cultures, has consequences. No path is easy, and the novel’s exploration of these dilemmas is interesting, although at times the story felt overstuffed with characters and traumas to sort through. What really made the book work for me is how universal much of the story is. Women in 21st-century America still struggle to escape patriarchal mind-sets and set out on their own paths. Children from poor families who get an education find it difficult to go home again. Everyone has to figure out who they are and who they will be in the world. The specifics of these question vary from place to place, and age to age, but the questions don’t go away.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments

Necessary Dreams

I was about to say that I’ve been quiet around here lately, but that just isn’t the case — I’ve been totally silent for over a month. I can’t remember a busier time at school. And it’s meant not only not-blogging, but really not reading much, either — something that’s rarely been true all my life, even as a graduate student. I’m looking forward to spring break, because while I do have work to do, I’m also going to set aside some time just to read.

One reason I’ve been so busy at school is that I unexpectedly had to teach a class for a colleague who was unable to teach it for personal reasons. This is a Women’s and Gender Studies capstone course, and I am using the syllabus my colleague had prepared. Naturally, I hadn’t read most of the books on the syllabus (!) and so I am reading them as we go along, staying ahead of the students so we can keep up with discussion in class.

necessary dreamsNecessary Dreams, by Anna Fels, was the first book we discussed. Fels discusses the topic of ambition, which she defines in two pieces: mastery of a skill, and appropriate recognition for that mastery. In other words, you can be a wonderful cook or data analyst or hurdle-jumper, but if no one who matters tells you that you are, in any way that counts, you’re not satisfying ambition. (Fels’s contention is that doing something for yourself is certainly laudable but not ambitious.) Fels then goes on to point out that, while women have many more opportunities for mastery of various skills than we did, say, fifty or a hundred years ago, we are socially influenced against saying we want recognition, either in its most impersonal forms (money, promotion) or in its more visible and personal forms (awards, highly visible positions, plaudits from those in the know, etc.) Women, even very ambitious women, have a strong tendency to say, “Oh, it was a group effort,” or “I don’t do it for myself, I do it for the children,” or “I only ran for office because I thought I’d lose,” or “Don’t take a picture of me, I’ll stay in the background here.” Men rarely do this.

Fels’s book has some interesting things to say. It was written a decade ago, in 2003, and I think my students would probably make some good links to Lean In if they read the two books side by side. But the book is extremely limited in scope. Fels is writing for a narrow demographic: white, middle-class to upper-middle-class American women. She addresses race in perhaps two or three brief paragraphs in the book: once to say that African-American teenagers have better self-esteem than their peers (! I’ve rarely seen such a poor use of statistics) and once to say that slave narratives were really great for white women: “The stories of such self-reliant women helped provide a template for white, middle-class women to imagine their own lives as distinct from those of men.” Yes. Because I’m pretty sure that’s what those narratives were all about. Fels also fails to distinguish any other ethnicity than African-American when she does talk about race, despite the fact that interesting ideas about Asian or Latina or other groups’ notions about ambition might be teased out from the big lump of “women” she keeps referring to. It’s a similar story with class, which I believe is addressed twice. And what about women around the world who may have no ambitions for the corporate ladder at all? Ambition would be a much more interesting and complicated subject if we took some of these other things into account.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to introduce my class of Women’s and Gender Studies students to any of these questions. After a thorough critique of the book’s narrow focus, we were able to take Fels’s rather narrow questions for what they were. We explored how these students might face their own healthy ambition, and how they might protect themselves from some of the risks, in the workplace and at home, that face ambitious women of whatever race or class.

I won’t, unless there’s a giant clamor for it, do a thorough review of Gayle Letherby’s Feminist Research and Practice. That book is a practical take on feminist social-science research and epistemology, and while I liked it and learned quite a bit from it, I’m not sure my readers would be riveted by a review of it. But if this is something you think might be worth your while to read, I’d recommend it; my students got quite a bit out of it, even though none of them are social scientists (they are all English majors except one who is in math.)

And that, along with Anthony Trollope, is what has been keeping me so busy! Another review of The Way We Live Now coming soon…

Posted in Nonfiction | 4 Comments

The Tiger in the Smoke

TigerintheSmoke (368x640)I think I’ve reached the apex of Margery Allingham’s series of novels about detective/adventurer Albert Campion. Published in 1952, the 14th Campion novel, The Tiger in the Smoke, brings us a Campion who is a husband and a father. He still sometimes puts on that mask of dim-witted affability, but on the whole, he’s a more serious man than the one from the first books.

In this book, he’s called upon to help a young war widow, Meg Elginbrodde, who, as she prepares to remarry, begins receiving photographs in the mail that appear to be of her  husband, Martin, who was presumed dead in World War II. Set against a backdrop of fog-engulfed London, the mystery that unfolds leads to a bloody triple murder, a kidnapping, and a prison escape by a man named Jack Havoc, who the police inspector handling the case believes to be the most evil man he’s ever encountered.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how evocative Allingham’s descriptions of the city are. It’s a cold, dark, place, with fog covering it like mourning clothes, as the city grieves the many losses of war. The fog, with its ability to hide killers, kidnappers, and corpses, makes everything feel sinister.

As they waited, Mr. Campion reflected that the evil smell of fog is a smell of ashes grown cold under hoses, and he heard afresh the distinctive noise of the irritable, half-blinded city, the scream of brakes, the abuse of drivers, the fierce hiss of tyres on the road.

Just above it, like an appropriate theme song, sounded the thumping of the street band. There was nothing of the dispirited drone here. It triumphed in the thick air, an almighty affront of a noise, importunate and vigorous.

The knot of men who were playing were half in the gutter and half on the pavement. They were moving along steadily, as the law insists, and the rattle of their collecting boxes was as noisy as their tune. They were some little way away and it was not possible to distinguish individuals, but there was a ruthless urgency in their movements and the stream of foot passengers narrowed as it flowed past the bunch.

The street band becomes important to the plot, and the way Allingham describes their music as insistently cutting through the fog—an almighty affront, suggesting both something divine and something offensive—makes me think of the way good and evil, justice and grace are juxtaposed in the book. Toward the end of the novel, a key character has to choose justice or grace in the face of great evil, and the results of the choice are ambiguous. Nearly, but not quite, disastrous. Perhaps saving the day, perhaps leading to ruin. There’s more than one way to read it.

Like Campion himself, Allingham’s Campion novels have gotten more serious. This book in particular has a lot on its mind, but it raises questions, rather than answering them. As usual, we do learn who did it in the end, but that question isn’t the important one. Why did he do it? What makes a person evil? How should the good respond to the evil? How will evil respond in the face of goodness?

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 16 Comments

A Question of Power

Question of Power (426x640)Huge chunks of this 1974 novel by Botswanan author Bessie Head were entirely incomprehensible to me. But in between those chunks were bits that I found interesting—glimpses of the main character’s life and the odd off-kilter insights of her mind. Because so much of the novel traces the main character’s descent into madness, it’s entirely possible that it’s not meant to be understood in any conventional way. Her mind is throwing ideas at her. Sometimes those ideas form a pattern and have a sort of sense to them. Sometimes they don’t. And always it’s a battle for her to work out which ideas are real and reliable and which must be abandoned.

The novel, which I understand is to some degree autobiographical focuses on Elizabeth, a biracial woman from South Africa who has brought her son to live in a Botswanan village called Motabeng. Elizabeth has visions centered on two men. The first, Sello, is a priest-like figure who attempts to teach Elizabeth about good and evil but who is eventually caught up in battle with a Medusa figure. The second, Dan, is all id. He surrounds himself with women, each of whom he uses and discards, taunting Elizabeth all the while.

Most of the book, particularly the first half, which focuses on Sello, is consumed with Elizabeth’s visions. Wading through these visions is a challenge to any reader, but I often wondered whether my lack of background in African literature and politics caused me to miss references that would enrich my understanding (or allow me to understand the material at all). I was at times able to pick up bits of prose that I found interesting or insightful. For example, there was this discovery that Elizabeth made as she listened to Sello:

It was the kind of language she understood, that no one was the be-all and end-all of creation, that no one had the power of assertion and dominance to the exclusion of other life. It was almost a suppressed argument she was to work with all the time; that people, in their souls, were forces, energies, stars, planets, universes, and all kinds of swirling magic and mystery; that at a time when this was openly perceived, the Insight into their own powers had driven them mad, and they had robbed themselves of the grandeur of life. As Darwin had perceived in the patterns of nature: ‘There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

She was talking to a monk who had used an unnatural establishment to express a thousand and one basic principles as the ideal life because, in the heat of living, no one had come to terms with their own powers and at the same time made allowance for the powers of others.

I can’t say I followed every bit of her train of thought here, but this idea of how the individual relates to the wider world seems significant. Each person has powers and a choice of how to use those powers, to nurture or destroy, for self or for others. And those choices touch others’ lives.

We see this awareness of community in the way the people of Elizabeth’s village, along with Peace Corps volunteers from around the world, draw their collective knowledge together to figure out how to plant and maintain a garden. The success of their planting depends on the soil, which must be carefully tended. And when a crop does well, decisions about using and selling the crops are important. All the pieces—and the people—are important to making the system work. The last half of the book, which offers more glimpses of the world outside Elizabeth’s mind, show us what the community can be, even in its imperfections.

There’s a lot more going on in the book. I’m sure papers could be—and have been—written about the attitudes toward gender, sex, and sexuality in the book, as well as about race, colonialism, and mental illness. Her visions are full of imagery that I feel sure has meaning I didn’t see. It’s a rich book, possibly too rich for me.

I sometimes see people say they just want to know whether a blogger enjoyed a book or not, or whether a blogger would recommend a book. With a book like this, I don’t think it’s possible to say. I’m not sorry I read it, but I didn’t love it and am unlikely to ever make  books like this a cornerstone of my reading diet. I don’t know that it enriched my reading life that much, although I do find value in trying out books that aren’t quite for me, and I’m glad to know a little something about a major African author like Bessie Head. I can’t recommend it, but I can’t disrecommend it either. It comes down to what you’re looking for, and only you can know the answer to that.

Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

Catching Up on Comics

HawkeyeI had high hopes to get a lot of reading done over the last couple of weeks, but life keeps getting in the way. I did finish The Ringed Castle, the fifth book in Dorothy Dunnett’s legendary Lymond Chronicles, and Jenny and I should have a review for you in a couple of weeks. But that’s about all the reading I’ve managed lately, thanks in part to good stuff, like yoga classes and cooking and theatre and church stuff. But also thanks in part to a cold that wiped me out and turned into a mild sinus infection. And the middle of this week brought a tooth infection that may be the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. Today has been the first day since Tuesday that I’ve felt even slightly normal, and even that normal feeling is due to strong painkillers that are keeping me a little off my game. So although I’ve been too sick to do much work, I’ve also been too sick to read dense text and too sleepy to watch TV without napping. Yet I need distraction from pain. The solution? Comic books.

FablesI think I’ve mentioned before that I’m interested in comics but intimidated by them. With so many long-running series out there, there’s a high bar for entry, and it seems like a lot to keep track of. For a long time, I relied solely on trade paperbacks to read Fables, but even then, I’d lose track of when new trades were published. When I read the first trade paperback of Matt Fraction’s HawkeyeI knew I didn’t want to wait for more. Enter Comixology.

I discovered Comixology when I took the Gender and Comic Books MOOC last year, and it’s a wonderful service if you’re intimidated my comic shops and don’t really want to fill your house with hard copies of new comics. Probably my favorite thing about it is that you can subscribe to comics that you like. A few days before an issue of Hawkeye is released, I get a note saying it’s coming (so I can cancel if I’ve lost interest), and then on the release date it appears in my account. They have a comic reader that works well on my laptop, phone, and Kobo tablet, so I can read on whatever device I have handy. It’s probably not the same experience as reading and enjoying the art on paper, but it works for me.

Hawkeye2So I’ve used Comixology to keep up with Hawkeye for a while now, and a new issue dropped just this week, and it was perfect reading for a sick day. Right now, the two Hawkeyes, Clint and Kate, are on opposite coasts, and although I’m enjoying their separate adventures, I miss seeing them together. The latest issue focuses on Hawk-guy Clint and is very cleverly put together. It also pushes the story further into more serious territory, but it doesn’t neglect the comedic touches that make the series so great.

Fables2I wrote a while back that my feelings about Fables had soured a bit, but after reading Jenny and Vasilly‘s reviews of Volume 18, Cubs in Toyland, I decided to give it another try, and I really loved that book. So I used my sick time to download Volume 19, Snow White, and all the issues that are available (so up through issue #138). The current story arc, Camelot, focuses on Rose Red, one of my favorite characters, and Snow White’s story has taken some interesting turns as well. When I gave up before, I was getting frustrated with the depiction of women in the series, particularly with the idea that youth and beauty equal power, but in recent issues, gender roles have been subverted and toyed with in interesting ways, sometimes through pure reversals, but also through the use of women’s vulnerabilities in relation to men. I’ve been pleased with how it’s going.

Ms MarvelSo far, all the series I’ve followed are ones that were well-established when I got interested—at least established enough to have led to a trade paperback. But I thought it might be fun to get in on the ground floor of a new series, and thanks to Pop Culture Happy Hour, I found one to try. The new Ms Marvel series features a teenage Pakistani-American superhero. Ms Marvel is not a new hero, nor is she part of a new universe. Kamala Khan will actually be the fourth Ms Marvel, part of the larger Marvel universe. The first issue features several well-known Avengers characters and provides Kamala’s origin story. By the end of the issue, this misfit teen who wants to be popular and powerful is given her new identity as Ms Marvel, but we don’t know what’s in store for her. The first issue was a fun read, respectful of Kamala’s religion and family without denying some of the challenges she faces as a Muslim in America, and I’m interested to see where it goes.

So, dear readers, are any of you comics fans? Are there any series out there you recommend? How do you manage your comics habit?

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics | 14 Comments

The Love of a Good Woman

Love of a Good WomanI don’t know exactly what I expected from my first experience reading Alice Munro’s short stories. I knew that she’s considered a master of the form, winning the Nobel prize in 2013. But for some reason, I’d slotted her stories into the quiet domestic drama category, thinking that they would be nice stories of people struggling with ordinary life. I don’t know whether that mental categorization has to do with the way her books are marketed or the non-specificity of the writing I’ve seen about her books or my own inattentiveness. Because her stories aren’t particularly nice at all. They’re quiet, yes, but only because the drama primarily resides in the characters’ minds, bursting forth only when they cannot cope and choose to take decisive action, to leave, to confess, to seduce, to kill, to love.

The stories are intimate, focusing on family and neighborhood drama (I had that part right). A woman writes letters to her lover while visiting her doctor father. A child is born to a war widow. A girl visits her mother for the summer. A grandmother takes her grandchildren for a drive. But each of these seemingly ordinary incidents that have a significance that reverberates throughout the characters’ lives. The narrators, whether first-person or third-person, are watching from a vantage point that allows them to see those reverberations, to recognize these moments’ significance. The narrator in “The Children Stay,” for example, notes how the story’s protagonist will cope with the consequences of her choice, once she begins to realize what it means for herself and her children:

This is acute pain. It will become chronic. Chronic means that it will be permanent but perhaps not constant. It may also mean that you won’t die of it. You won’t get free of it, but you won’t die of it. You won’t feel it every minute, but you won’t spend many days without it. And you’ll learn some tricks to banish it, trying not to end up destroying what you incurred this pain to get.

(I particularly like this quote because it seems to be a pretty good description of all kinds of chronic pain, physical and mental.)

The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the highly fraught in these stories opens our eyes to the ways there’s more going on under the surface that we might suspect in any life. We don’t know what’s going on in the mind and heart of the woman watching her two children playing on the beach. We might think we know, but people are good at hiding. You might assume that a young girl in a hospital bed longs for her mother’s touch, but she may be glorying in her own separateness, as Karin in “Rich as Stink” does when her mother, Rosemary, complains that she couldn’t touch her daughter:

Karin says yes. She understood. What she doesn’t bother to say is that back then she thought Rosemary’s sorrow was absurd. It was as if she was complaining about not being able to reach across a continent. For that was what Karen felt she had become—something immense and shimmering and sufficient, ridged up in pain in some places and flattened out, otherwise, into long dull distances. Away off at the edge of this was Rosemary, and Karin could reduce her, any time she liked, into a configuration of noisy black dots. And she herself—Karin—could be stretched out like this and at the same time shrunk into the middle of her territory, as tidy as a bead or a ladybug.

In these stories, Munro often plays with timelines and plot development. Characters are looking back at past events, sometimes withholding key pieces of information that affect how readers interpret those events. In the title story, for example, we get what seem like two separate stories: one of a group of boys finding a dead body, another of a young woman nursing a woman through her last days. Both stories take place in the same Canada town, and the women in the second strand know the dead man from the first strand, but we don’t know how tightly these strands are linked until the story’s final pages. The revelations are often dark, but sometimes they just cast what we thought we knew in a different light. In the collection’s final story, the tragedy I expected proved to be a different, less distressing tragedy that became nearly as distressing as the one I expected as I thought about it.

That’s the interesting thing about these eight stories, the way they turn over and over, going against our expectations and forcing us to rethink what we see, just as life does.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 16 Comments

The Home and the World

Home and the World (426x640)As a young bride, Bimala took pleasure in “taking the dust” of her husband’s feet each morning as an act of reverence, believing that her woman’s heart “must worship in order to love.” But her husband, Nikhil, didn’t want her worship. He wanted her to have freedom, to go out into the world and discover and become her true self so that they could truly know and love each other.

Bimala and Nikhil take turns as narrators in this 1916 novel by the Nobel prize–winning Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore. As they are trying to figure out how to love each other, a third narrator, Sandip, Nikhil’s old school friend, brings a new point of view, one that appeals to Bimala and pulls her away from her husband. Sandip is a political activist, driven to promote Indian independence from foreign influence. When Bimala hears him speak, she is riveted:

I returned home that evening with a new pride and joy. The storm within me had shifted my whole being from one centre to another. Like the Greek maidens of old, I fain would cut off my long, resplendent tresses to make a bowstring for me hero. Had my outward ornaments been connected with my inner feelings, then my necklet, my armlets, my bracelets, would all have burst their bonds and flung themselves over that assembly like a shower of meteors. Only some personal sacrifice, I felt, could help me to bear the tumult of my exaltation.

The trouble is that Sandip is the last person anyone should give this sort of devotion to. His politics may be on the right side, but his methods and his personality are terrible. My own dislike for Sandip was visceral almost from the start. He is manipulative in all the worst ways. Bimala, longing for a man to worship, gives her worship to the worst possible candidate. And he accepts, as of course he would, although he does so in the guise of making her the personification of the goddess who will drive their political movement. The fact that he accepts her devotion—and that he accepts it in such a skeevy and objectifying way—is indeed a sign that he’s unworthy of it.

In her introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel, Anita Desai says that when The Home and the World was first published, critics lambasted it for its unrealistic two-dimensional characters and for its tendency to preachiness about its politics. It may be true that Sandip is too evil to be believed, but I bought it. This kind of manipulation is not unheard of today. (See, for instance, this recent post at Captain Awkward. Sandip is totally a Darth Vader boyfriend.) Sandip knows exactly how to get Bimala to do what he wants, usually in the name of the greater good of the cause. Really, though, he’s out for himself. He tells us this almost from his first appearance:

Every man has a natural right to possess, and therefore greed is natural. It is not in the wisdom of nature that we should be content to be deprived. What my mind covets, my surroundings must supply. This is the only true understanding between our inner and outer nature in this world. Let moral ideals remain merely for those poor anaemic creatures of starved desire whose grasp is weak. Those who can desire with all their soul and enjoy it with all their heart, those who have no hesitation or scruple, it is they who are anointed of Providence.

OK, it is maybe a wee bit unlikely that the entitled jackasses of the world will declare themselves as openly as this, but this is Sandip talking to the reader. When he’s talking to Bimala or Nikhil his desires are all for the cause, for making India stronger and getting free of foreign influence. Yet even here, his actions show a lack of compassion. One of his main principles is eliminating the sale of foreign goods, which sounds like a fine plan in theory, but the practice is more complicated. English cloth might be the only cloth some of the poorer merchants can obtain to sell. Nikhil, while agreeing with Sandip in principle, refuses to force anyone to stop selling foreign goods. He believes in freedom, for the merchants who sell in his market, just as he does for his bride, even if that freedom means they act in ways he disapproves of.

In her introduction, Desai says that the love triangle between Nikhil, Bimala, and Sandip represents the choices Bengal itself was having to face. Bimala is torn between two paths, just as Bengal was. Not being familiar with the politics of Bengal, I can’t speak to this, but I can certainly see that Bimala’s dilemma is about more than two men. It’s a choice between two ways of being—between being free and being governed. And in Bimala, we see how freedom is not always the more appealing option. Freedom is terrifying, for everyone involved. But it is the only right option, whether for a couple or a country.

In case you can’t tell, I absolutely adored this book. I loved it for the personal story of these three people (and the people their lives touch) and for the bigger story it points toward. It’s a tremendous novel, and I hope more people read it.

This novel was translated from the Bengali by Surendranath Tagore.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 18 Comments