Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women

Young adult literature has changed profoundly over the past century and a bit since Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, was written. While modern young adult literature encourages readers to stand up against tyrannical governments, experiment with relationships with vampires, and navigate the darker sides of life, Little Women is part and parcel of how literature for minors used to show youngsters the benefits of following tradition and being a good Christian. There are some parallels in terms of doing the right thing even when its hard, but books like Alcott’s are difficult to read in this age because the characters are just so wholesome.

I first read Little Women when I was a teen, probably because I enjoyed the 1994 film version and wanted more time with Jo. (To this day, the film’s plot is the version that sticks in my head rather than the book’s plot.) Now that I’ve reread it, years and several gender in literature courses later, I have more than a few problems with how the March sisters are hammered into the shape of “angels in the house” while living in genteel poverty during and after the Civil War. I also have serious issues with Laurie, the boy next door who loves Jo but later marries her younger sister Amy. These problems are much better expressed by Maddie Rodriguez in her article for Book Riot, “Laurie Isn’t a Good Guy; He’s a Nice Guy™.”

The first half of Little Women is the one most familiar. In it, we are introduced to the four March girls, each with their particular vanities and quirks. Apart from the saintly Beth, each one is encouraged by their mother (who speaks mostly in parental lectures) to work on their character defects. Jo is too boyish—wild, messy, inclined to pull pranks, etc.—and has a temper that frequently flares up. Meg is too fond of material comfort and wealth. So is Amy, but Amy is also vain about her appearance. Some of these flaws are genuine concerns, but I was uncomfortable with the way the girls were taught to strive to become the Victorian ideal of wife and mother. Meg and Amy come the closest by the end of the book. Jo preserves some of her delightful eccentricity, but even she becomes a somewhat idealized wife and mother.

The half of Little Women reads like an extended epilogue in which we learn about what happens to the girls as they grow up, after their father returns from war and Beth fails to die of scarlet fever. (Beth’s death is completely different in the book.) It’s episodic and has little of the depth of the first half. We see less of the characters struggling with flaws and more hearing them talk about it, giving the appearance of summary rather than development.

I can’t help but be a product of my own time. I suspect this is the big reason why I dislike Little Women so much now. I’ve been taught about the virtues of individuality, how women have been culturally oppressed for centuries, and the myth of the friend zone. The narrative pushes its mid-nineteenth century values and morality through the characters and onto the reader. (I daresay readers in another century will say similar things about contemporary young adult fiction.) There are moments—usually when the girls are allowed to be themselves—that I enjoyed. For these moments, I think Little Women remains a classic that readers will look on fondly—but maybe shouldn’t reread after they’ve gotten a degree in literature.

Modern Gods, by Nick Laird

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Modern Gods

What does religion give us? Most would answer, I think, with comfort, answers to big questions, and so on. In Nick Laird’s Modern Gods, the answer is a lot more cynical. This novel takes a while to approach its thesis, treating us to the domestic dramas of a North Irish family before heading into the wilds of Papua New Guinea to explore an emerging cargo cult. By the end, however, I was left with some profound thoughts about what religion gives its adherents in this life, in addition to its promises about the next.

Northern Ireland and Papua New Guinea might be the furthest places from each other in terms of geography and culture. But in Modern Gods, the two countries are linked by the Donnellys. Liz Donnelly, an anthropologist and former TV presenter, is given a new job presenting on a program for the BBC about the world’s newest religion. After stopping in her hometown in Ulster, she heads off to the island of New Ulster in Papua New Guinea. The novel then splits its time between what Liz is learning about a conflict between a woman who is creating her own religion on the spot and the local Christian missionaries. Meanwhile, her sister, Allison, learns that her new husband Stephen was once an active member of the Ulster Freedom Fighters. (We also learn about Liz’s mother’s cancer and her brother’s affair, which I don’t think add all that much to the narrative.)

By the middle of the book, things start to become clear as Liz’s subject and Stephen start to talk about why they’ve done certain things. We learn that religion, in addition to providing emotional comfort and answers about where we came from and what will happen after we die, also has some tangible benefits in this life. Liz’s subject, Belef, has turned religion into a means of getting back at the Christian missionaries she thinks killed her daughter. Her son, however, has turned to Christianity because being the right-hand man for the missionaries has raised his status to the point where he gets to call the shots around the village instead of the men who would traditionally lead. It was fascinating to see religious people from Northern Ireland and Papua New Guinea reflect on their beliefs in parallel.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the end of the book where it became clear that religion is a road to power for some people. On the other, it takes Laird a long time to get there—so long I wasn’t sure what Modern Gods was trying to say. Thinking back, I’m not sure if more editing would’ve helped this book reach its target more quickly because I can see why we needed so much of, for example, Stephen’s story to understand how religion gave Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants an almighty okay for their fighting. That said, I still feel that the first half of Modern Gods is front loaded with too much family drama that does nothing for the overall purpose of the narrative.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 27 June 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam

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The Story of a Brief Marriage

Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage captures the same feeling of ponderous mindfulness of L’Étranger by Albert CamusThe main character, Dinesh, has been living every day as though it’s his last. Given that his country has been gripped by a deadly civil war, this is not a radical position. The Story of a Brief Marriage unfolds over a scant two day period in which Dinesh might have the opportunity to look ahead to a future without war, if he and his new wife can survive the present.

Dinesh has, after months of constant moving, fetched up in a refugee camp where he works as a sort of orderly in a makeshift hospital. He hides in the nearby jungle most of the time because the camp is frequently shelled and cadres of the “movement” are always looking for healthy men to press into service. Dinesh has gotten used to thinking that he could die at any time and the chapters are full of long, detailed descriptions of Dinesh taking in everything about his bodily functions and actions. Early in The Story of a Brief Marriage, for example, we are treated to pages of Dinesh making what he thinks might be his last bowel movement. Everything is significant to him because it might be the very last time and he wants to remember what it felt like.

Dinesh is one of the few young, relatively healthy men left in the refugee camp, which makes him one of the few options for a old man looking for a husband for his daughter. The man worries that, without him, Ganga will have no one to protect her. So he talks Dinesh into marrying her, arguing that the movement might be less likely to take a married man and bribing him with the deed to his house and land. Dinesh takes the offer, but mostly to learn what it would be like to be married, to have companionship after so long alone.

Once married, Dinesh reflects (at length) about trust and touch and what the future might be like for he and Ganga. Ganga is understandably wary of Dinesh and I appreciated her prickly practicality, especially after Dinesh’s fleshy meditations. Dinesh is so zen-like most of the time that I admit to skimming paragraphs of his ponderings. Because of the title of this short novel, however, I knew their relationship wouldn’t last. I was braced for whatever it was that would end it.

I thought a lot of L’Étranger as I read The Story of a Brief Marriage because they are both existentialist. L’Étranger is a philosophical, slightly artificial examination of existence by a bored, disaffected pied-noirThe Story of a Brief Marriage is much more realistic in that Dinesh constantly faces his own mortality. Both novels have a slow pace, full of reflection and wondering about the meaning of every detail and action. The pace forced me to slow down as well, to consider the outsized significance of the little details of living in an active war zone.

Crane Pond, by Richard Francis

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Crane Pond

While I know some of the history of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible still pops up in my mind whenever I see the Trials referenced. For those not familiar with the play, The Crucible focuses on the accused and their accusers to show how revenge-based hysteria can destroy a community. Many other accounts of the Trials also tend to focus on the accusers and the accused to try and understand what really happened. Crane Pond by Richard Francis, however, centers on one of the judges who condemned accused witches to hang. This novel is based on the writings of Samuel Sewall, the only justice (as far as I know) to express regret for his actions during the panic of the Trials.

Because of Sewall’s writings, I think Crane Pond comes the closest to explaining how the mass hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials became a great injustice that politicians have later apologized for. The novel opens some months before the first trials occurred, allowing us to get a sense of Sewall as a person and a judge. Sewall was a leader in his Puritan community in Boston, well respected as a fair judge. In those opening chapters, we are also introduced to the Puritan mindset of a world in constant struggle between god and his elect against the devil and his forces. Sewall constantly tries to turn every day events into divine lessons (which sometimes involve impressive mental calisthenics). Sewall sees the world the way his fellow congregants do. This worldview, however, makes it possible for him to allow the shenanigans of the accusers (fainting, hallucinations, dreams, etc.) to be admitted as legal evidence.

Crane Pond has a long arc. At first, Sewall joins the group of five judges assigned to Salem Village to determine if there is witchcraft involved. To our modern eyes, it seems like the judges are far to willing to believe the accusers. They put the burden of evidence on the accused (mostly older, unconnected, and often cantankerous people) to prove that they are not witches. The insanity spreads until upwards of 300 people were accused of witchcraft and dozens were executed. Sewall is troubled, then disturbed at the way his fellow judges drive the accusations and panic until he feels that continuing to serve is a great sin. By the end of the book, as public opinion shifts away from the court and the accusers, Sewall is tormented by his guilt for voting in favor of execution for so many of the accused.

What fascinated me most about Crane Pond is the way that an intelligent man can bend his reason to believing that witchcraft exists (and that the devil can work retroactively in one astonishing episode). Further, that intelligent people can rack themselves into constant states of anxiety as they worry about the state of their souls and their destination after death. Sewall and his fellow Puritans never rest easy. Because Crane Pond illustrates this struggle so well, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read about the Salem Witch Trials. It captures something that gets lost in modern history books because, I think, one really has to spend time in a Puritan brain to truly understand their actions.

Mischling, by Affinity Konar

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Mischling

I can understand why twins fascinate scientists. Watching them can reveal much about how personality develops, whether nature has more of an influence than nurture. But I feel for them, too. They’re children, not test subjects. At least, they shouldn’t be test subjects, which is what happens to Pearl and Stasha Zagorski in Affinity Konar’s troubling novel, Mischling. When the Zagorski family arrives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, they make a deal with Josef Mengele. In exchange for putting the twins in his “zoo,” he will spare the lives of the girls’ mother and grandfather.

While most novels with multiple protagonists have converging plots in which the protagonists join together to accomplish a goal or defeat an enemy, Mischling tells the story of two twins who grow further apart. At the beginning of the novel, Pearl and Stasha finish each other’s sentences and feel each other’s pain. They divide up the world so that one takes responsibility for remembering the past while the other is in charge of keeping hope for the future. But as Mengele’s experiments begin to take their toll, the girls’ different methods of coping with the twisted laboratory environment cause them to lose their close connection.

Stasha’s method of coping is to study Mengele and medicine, to become like the so-called doctors so that they might pass over the Zagorski sisters. Her delusion that she can understand Mengele and his people slowly detaches Stasha from the world—to the point where it’s clear she’s not living in quite the same reality as everyone else. Pearl, in contrast, becomes pragmatic and cynical. She lives in the zoo with her eyes wide open to Mengele’s lies and the cruelty around her. Near the end of the book, it’s clear that the girls have lost their connection as twins. Konar, for a long time, leaves the question of survival open so that I had to wonder if the twins would ever re-connect.

Mischling is one of the most disturbing pieces of Holocaust literature I’ve ever read. It provides a close look at what Mengele was up to in his laboratory at Auschwitz, which is chilling enough. But what really makes this book stand out is the way that we see how Mengele and the Nazis attacked the Zagorski twins’ minds. It wasn’t enough for them to conduct pseudo-scientific experiments on their bodies. The pressures of living in the zoo, in the middle of a death camp, break the girls’ spirits in irreparable ways. They might survive technically, but they will always have a part of them that was lost forever.

 

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle

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The Changeling

Apollo Kagwa thought he had the perfect life. He’s got his dream job as a rare book dealer. He’s deeply in love with his wife and they’re expecting their first child. Unfortunately for Apollo, he’s in a Victor LaValle novel, which means that things quickly get strange, dark, and dangerous. In The Changeling, Apollo soon finds himself in a parental nightmare that stretches back centuries.

The Changeling takes several chapters to gain traction as LaValle starts Apollo’s story with his parents. While we learn why Apollo is so determined to have a traditional family and so happy when he thinks he’s found it, I wondered all through those chapters when the action was going to start. When it does start, the plot took me for a terrifying ride alongside Apollo.

A few months after Apollo’s son is born, his wife, Emma, starts to behave strangely. A doctor might diagnose her with post-natal depression. After six months of Emma’s loathing of their child, she attacks Apollo and murders the child. Then she disappears. Apollo goes to jail for holding Emma’s co-workers hostage in an attempt to find out where she went. And then, things get very strange when Apollo realizes that the son he’d cherished was not at all what he thought it was.

The Changeling is, on its surface, a horror story in which the ordinary becomes supernatural and deadly. Underneath that surface, it’s a story that asks serious questions about what it means to be a parent when the day-to-day reality of the job is far from the ideal. Being a parent is about sacrifice, but I doubt that any parent has to face the struggles Apollo and Emma go up against when they find out what happened to their real son.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 June 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Rebecca Hussey reflects on her changing attitude toward dark books. (Book Riot)
  • More fragments of books printed by William Caxton have been found. (Moby Lives)
  • Melissa Baron found the book she needed because another reader left it behind. (Book Riot)
  • Victoria Jaggard reports on newly recovered text from charred scrolls found at Herculaneum. (Smithsonian Magazine)
  • Many readers would argue that she has too many books on her to-read list, but Danika Ellis defends her list. (Book Riot)

Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly

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Amberlough

I think it’s clear that the western world is still processing World War II because the war, the Holocaust, and the run up to both still feature heavily in our fiction—even in genres you might not expect. In Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly grafts elements of Weimar Germany onto a fantasy novel, with a healthy dollop of Cabaret on top, to tell a story about lovers caught in impossible situations as their world changes for the worse.

Amberlough centers on three characters. Cyril DePaul is a spy who has seen better days. He has a desk job when we meet him, but is sent back out into the field shortly after the opening of the book. Meanwhile, his lover Aristide divides his time working as a drag queen at the Bumble Bee Theater and smuggling things into the city to support his lavish lifestyle. Lastly, Cordelia strips at the Bumble Bee and juggles lovers (unsuccessfully). Cyril is our entry point into life in the city of Amberlough and the changing political landscape, as the country begins a rapid descent into fascism.

Curiously for a story about love, the various lovers spend a lot of time apart. Cyril and Aristide are separated when Cyril is sent north to investigate election shenanigans. The fascist party has pulled a lot of strings to win an election (the beginning of the end for free-wheeling Amberlough). They spend most of the rest of the novel trying to get back to each other. Cordelia makes mistakes that sends her lovers running. (Though I think she later learns that she likes blowing things up more than men.) All three get more and more political as the fascists infiltrate parliament, the police, and the rest of Amberlough.

All three characters—Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia—are fighting the same fight for their loves and their city. But they fight from different angles. Cyril has been blackmailed by the fascists, so he’s trying to fight them from within. Aristide and Cordelia fight back from varying levels of the city’s criminal underworld. They intersect frequently and it’s a marvel sometimes to watch the plot threads weave together and apart for the length of the book.

Amberlough, though it borrows heavy from pre-war noir, had me guessing almost constantly. I had no idea what would happen next because Donnelly consistently defies genre convention. By that I mean that nothing goes right for the trio. Their plots get found out or they just have bad luck. Because of Cyril and Aristide’s love and Cordelia’s spunk, I couldn’t help but root for them. Some of the events of the end of the book punched me right in the feels.

I sincerely hope we see more from Donelly about the city of Amberlough.

84, Charing Cross Road

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84, Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff’s collection of letters to her book dealer in London, 84, Charing Cross Road, kept coming up in the various book recommendation lists that algorithms have created for me over the years. I finally gave in and bought a copy of this brief book because, honestly, it sounded delightful. I was not disappointed.

Hanff was a mid-century screen writer who lived in a tiny apartment in New York. Her first letters to Frank Doel at Marks & Co., in London reveal her frustration with bookstores in New York: too expensive, too beat up, or absent altogether. The letters in this collection span twenty years as Hanff and Doel develop a pen-friendship. Hanff also becomes a friendly American Santa Claus to the staff of Marks & Co. in the early 1950s because she keeps sending them food and supplies as rationing in Britain didn’t stop until 1951 or so.

The best aspect of 84, Charing Cross Road is Hanff’s caustic wit. She’s an impatient reader and holds no cow sacred. She “yells” at Frank when he can’t find an obscure book quickly enough and regularly demolishes editors who, for example, cut out her favorite entries in Pepys’ diary.  I find Hanff hilarious when she writes things like:

Savage Landor [referring to a collection of dialogs and essays by Walter Savage Landor] arrived safely and promptly fell open to a Roman dialogue where two cities had just been destroyed by war and everybody was being crucified and begging passing Roman soldiers to run them through and end the agony. It’ll be a relief to turn to Aesop and Rhodope where all you have to worry about is a famine. (Hanff to Doel, December 8, 1949*)

I just happen to have peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q, whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. (Hanff to Cecily Farr**, April 10, 1950)

They told [one of Hanff’s friends] to write an essay in Early Anglo-Saxon on any-subject-of-her-own-choosing. “Which is all very well,” she said bitterly, “but the only essay subject you can find enough Early Anglo-Saxon words for is ‘How to Slaughter a Thousand Men in a Mead Hall.'” (Hanff to Doel, August 15, 1959)

I smirked and snorted my way through the whole collection.

Though the letters are short and this collection does not include all of Hanff and Doel’s correspondence, there is enough to see the good-hearted Doel and the acerbic Hanff bond over their shared love of secondhand books. I would recommend 84, Charing Cross Road to fellow book lovers who would like to kill an hour or two with a pair of kindred bibliophiles.


* Quotes are from the 1990 Penguin Books paperback.
** Another employee of Marks & Co.