Monday, July 21, 2014

Louisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology

The title: Louisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology
The author:
Publication: New York Public Library Collection, 1997
Got it from: Annapolis Valley, 2013

I bought this book in anticipation of a trip I would be making last year and began it while I was visiting Concord, which you can read about here.  Louisa May Alcott is an author I admire almost as much as Lucy Maud Montgomery, and that's really saying something.  This collection is an excellent find for someone who, like me, knows Little Women back to front but wants to find out more about the author behind it.  There's a little bit of everything here: biographical sketches by those who knew her and selections of her diaries, poetry, letters and short stories.  The more I read, the more I was impressed by how ahead of her time Alcott was (as is the case in all the historical women I admire).  She understood the need for women to exercise, to learn and to be independent.  She had a sensitive and humorous understanding of society (G.K. Chesterton compares her to Austen) and advocated for women's rights and abolition long before it was fashionable to do so.  It is very difficult for me to separate the March family from the Alcott, and in fact when I visited Orchard House I had the disorienting experience of seeing both at the same time.

There are three very personal autobiographical sketches in this anthology.  In "Transcendental Wild Oats," Alcott paints a very vivid picture of her family's somewhat horrifying experiment with living in a commune at Fruitlands.  A hundred years before hippies made it popular, Bronson Alcott was advocating for peace, vegetarianism and brotherly love.  Unfortunately his lofty ideals couldn't support his family for long.  Particularly interesting to the history buff in me are the letters that comprise "Hospital Sketches," detailing Louisa's ill-fated experience as a nurse during the Civil War when she was thirty.  How exciting to read about the war firsthand from a woman my own age!  Unfortunately the experience doesn't last long, as Louisa developed typhoid fever and never fully recovered.  Perhaps the most amusing story is "How I Went Out to Service," chronicling a time during Louisa's youth that she went to work as a companion and ended up being taken advantage of by the family.  She ends up leaving in disgust but the family's vulgarity provides much fodder for amusement.

In addition to the lively glimpses of her life are some of Alcott's delightful stories.  "Debby's Debut" is a classic love-triangle story, with the "right man" obvious from the beginning.  "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," an early story of Alcott's, is a drawn-out melodrama that could easily have been one of the thrillers Jo March pens to amuse her sisters.  "Perilous Play" is actually about the dangerous effects of (shocker!) drugs.  Didn't I tell you she was ahead of her time?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness

The title: Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness
The author: Sheila Kohler
Publication: Bantam, 1994
Got it from: Book sale, 2011

Happy Bastille Day!

By coincidence, I have just finished reading Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness.  It's set during the time of the French Revolution, a time I always enjoy visiting, despite the rather gruesome realities.  The story is of one Lucy Dillon, a fictional biography of the real-life Henriette-Lucy, Marquise de La Tour du Pin Gouvernet.   Her mother is a favourite of Marie Antoinette and young Lucy herself visits court, hobnobbing with French nobility at Versailles and in Paris.  In her early twenties, the Revolution breaks out and she is forced to flee to America with her husband and young children.

The narrative is divided between Lucy's travels on board the ship crossing the Atlantic and flashbacks to her life of (caged) privilege back in France.  The story really picks up when the Revolution does.  The strength of the book lies with seeing how dramatic the day-to-day change was for an aristocrat before and after the Revolution.  The ordered world suddenly collapsed, leaving chaos and uncertainty on an unprecedented scale.  For many watching their friends and family members die at the guillotine, it must have felt like the world was ending.

Interestingly, the author chooses to paint Lucy as an unhappy victim of her circumstances.  It is only when she arrives in America that she gets to take control of her own destiny, becoming an ambitious dairy farmer in the Hudson River Valley.  This part of the story is very different than the 4/5ths of the book before it, now that Lucy is no longer a pawn in someone else's scheme.  Without spoiling the ending, it did leave something to be desired and I felt the narrative should have wrapped up differently.  However, it was a fascinating look at an absolutely fascinating time in history.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Last Bachelor

The title: The Last Bachelor
The author: Betina Krahn
Publication: Bantam, 1994
Got it from: Massachusetts, 2013

I don't know what's more of a crime - the fact that Betina Krahn isn't more celebrated and well-known, or the fact that she hasn't written a book since 2009.  How is it that she remains in near obscurity despite her wonderful, warm, intelligent, feminist and romantic novels, while other writers who shall remain nameless continue to churn out dreck and are beloved by millions?  Case in point: The Last Bachelor was published exactly twenty years ago and even though it was written in an "old school" environment it's practically perfect in every way.  It explores, in-depth, the nature of men's and women's roles in Victorian society in a way that's still relevant today, while crafting a deeply romantic and well-rounded relationship between two smart, believable and interesting people.  And yet millions of people are reading and buying antifeminist drivel involving airheaded 21-year-olds being spanked by billionaires.

Why?  Why?  Whyyyyyyyyyy?  There is no justice in this world.

So far I've reviewed three other Betina Krahn books on this blog which I've rated highly because of their original feminist content.  Between The Last Bachelor and Sweet Talking Man, I enjoyed Sweet Talking Man more because it was funnier, livelier and I loved the New York setting.  But I have to concede that I think The Last Bachelor is the better novel.  At over 500 pages it's the longer by far and I read it slowly, over several months, so that I could really absorb the story and the characters.  

The heroine, Antonia Paxton, is a young widow who's made a career out of trapping eligible bachelors into marriages with spinsters and widows.  While this may seem reprehensible (and based on some of the reviews I've read of this book a lot of readers feel this way) Antonia has a very good reason for doing so.  In Victorian society there was really no other option for unmarried women other than being disgraced and destitute.

Naturally, these trapped bachelors are angry about this situation, and set out to get revenge on Antonia, who they call "the Dragon."  Their plan is to enlist London's most notorious bachelor, the Earl of Landon, to seduce and disgrace her.  Landon is (in)famous for his unconventional views on women's rights.  He thinks men are better off never being married and that women should get jobs and work outside the home as men do.  He ends up making a bet with Antonia that traditional women's work is easier than men's work.  Before he knows it he's wearing a corset, peeling potatoes, scrubbing floors and eating his words.

There's a scene at the beginning - when Landon is playing cards with the disgraced bachelors - that I almost gave up on the book.  The way the author painted the scene made Landon seem so repugnant in his views on women, only my faith in the author's previous feminist works pushed me to continue.  Boy, was I glad I took that leap of faith.  Clever Betina Krahn, writing that scene in such a way to make him seem despicable, but then later revealing him to be entirely reasonable and sympathetic.  Giving away the key to the Earl's behaviour would spoil the revelation, but I have to say I've never seen it done better.  (No, it's not the usual, "my mother/last wife/last mistress was a horrible harpy and therefore I hate all women!"  It actually makes sooo much more sense than that, and anyway Landon becomes a total feminist and also, by the way, I love him so much.)

This book just gave me so much to think about and so many happy feelings.  I could go on but I won't bore you, except to end with this.  There's been so much said about marriage over the years: who should get married, why we should get married, is it in women's best interest?, etc.  This book shows the best of what marriage can be, and by doing so, shows what it should be.  It is about sharing your life with a person who loves and respects you, who watches out for you and helps make life easier.  Seeing both Antonia and Landon change their mind about marriage and each other is a revelation.  This book will be the benchmark by which I measure all other romances.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

On Vacation

Yep, posting has been light.  I'm on holiday right now in the Maritimes.  We'll return to our regularly scheduled reviews soon.  In the meantime, please enjoy this photo of my snuggly bunnies.  I love how belligerent Darwin looks here.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Heaven to Betsy and Betsy in Spite of Herself

The title: Heaven to Betsy and Betsy in Spite of Herself
The author: Maud Hart Lovelace
Publication: Harperperennial, 2009 (originally 1940s)
Got it from: Amazon, 2013

I am returning to Betsy's world for the first time since last winter.  In the two books of this compilation, we return to the world of Deep Valley, Minnesota during Betsy's freshman and sophomore years (1906-1908).   As much as I enjoyed reading about Betsy's childhood adventures, I have to say I loved Betsy's high school adventures more.  Many of them were taken directly out of Maud Hart Lovelace's own teenage years.

Reading these stories almost breaks my head as I try to grapple with the contradiction of having everything feel so old but so familiar. On the one hand, Maud was born ninety years before me.  Think of "old timey" and these books are it.  We're talking pompadours, "socials," ice cream parlours and Nickelodeons.  It's a world that seems remote, but yet close enough that I could almost reach out and touch it.  My grandmother's descriptions of her growing up years remind me very much of Betsy's.  Betsy herself even feels that strange sense of touching history when she hears a friend's grandmother talk about pioneer days and Indian raids fifty years earlier.  In Betsy's world, there is no television or radio and no electricity.  In Heaven to Betsy, the Ray family gets indoor plumbing for the first time.  Only a few cars exist on the scene and their presence is noted as being remarkable.  Kids roam the streets freely and pop in and out of each others' houses daily.  When they get together, they make taffy and sing around the piano.  Make no mistake: this is the past.

And yet - and here's the contradiction - reading this book I thought, this is the story of my high school life.  I honestly felt like I was watching my high school years in the 1990's play out all over again.  What is it about the teenage years that feels so universal, no matter what century you're in?  Suddenly friends burst out onto the scene like never before, shaping your outlook and experiences.  Betsy suddenly finds herself hanging out with a "crowd" that encompasses new and old friends, much as I did.  Like every (straight) fifteen-year-old girl in the history of ever, including me, Betsy becomes obsessed with boys.  (A footnote at the back of the book states that Lovelace destroyed he high school diaries in later life because they were too full of boys.  A shame!)  Basically everything Betsy experiences reads like a checklist from my high school years: Suddenly becoming obsessed with how pretty you are?  Check!  Trying and failing to reinvent yourself?  Check!  Dating the "wrong" boy just because he's exciting?  Check!  Being extremely silly and passing notes in class?  Check!  Having your first dance be the most exciting thing ever?  Check!  Letting your schoolwork slide because you're having too much fun?  Check!  Experiencing that bittersweet agony of a first breakup?  Check!

And this may in fact be the key to why the Betsy-Tacy books have endured all these years, and why so many other coming-of-age stories from those years have faded into obscurity.  Betsy is so much more relateable than, say, Elsie Dinsmore*.  Yes, she sometimes does silly things like trying to change her personality for a boy, but you can't help rooting for her because we were all there at one time, we all know it's going to work out in the end and mistakes are an important part of growing up.  Another "draw" for me is that despite the many, many problems of living in the early 20th century, I can't help feeling a pang of nostalgia for the days of school dances, picnic socials, musical evenings and recitals.

Or maybe it's the rose-coloured view of high school that I'm really remembering.  

*Because I spent most of my childhood living in the late Victorian era, I knew who Elsie Dinsmore was before I read this book.  She's a goody-goody that all Victorian parents want their daughters to be.  Every self-respecting Victorian heroine hates her.  Betsy even makes fun of her when she's trying to decide if it's wrong to go to a play on a Sunday.  "Elsie Dinsmore, she remembered, had refused to play the piano on Sunday; she had fallen off the piano stool instead.  But Betsy had never thought much of Elsie Dinsmore."

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Demon-Haunted World

The title: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
The author: Carl Sagan
Publication: Random House, 1995
Got it from: The library

So far in this blog, I haven't reviewed very many science books although they are a passion of mine (even more so since I started down my journey of critical thinking in my twenties).  When I take a science book out of the library, I tend to just tip my toes in it, reading over the parts that interest me.  So many books I've read in the past referenced this book as one of the canon in skepticism.  I think watching Neil deGrasse Tyson's wonderful Cosmos finally convinced me to read The Demon-Haunted World cover to cover.

This book is more than just a debunking of pseudoscience, it is a critical plea for scientific thinking in all aspects of our lives.  Sagan wrote this book just before he died in 1996 but he accurately foresaw the "dumbing down" of American culture and the move away from thoughtful analysis.  A large chunk of the beginning of the book deals with Sagan's interest in extraterrestrials and why there is so far no credible reports of alien abductions.  He got me thinking about it in a way I never have before, showing the similarities of "alien abductions" in the 20th century and witchcraft in the 17th century.  Back then our culture was steeped in stories of witches, much the same way that ours is now saturated with movies and TV shows about aliens.  How interesting, then, that there are few cases of witchcraft reported now (at least in the developed world) and how there were no alien reports before the birth of science fiction.     

The middle and latter part of the book are devoted to outlining the tools we need for our "baloney detection kits," and the need for a proper understanding of science in our culture.  There are some extremely powerful passages here, including one on the importance of basic literacy, as seen through the story of Frederick Douglass, a black slave who taught himself to read and thus freed himself and many of his fellow slaves from ignorance and captivity.  Even when some parts of this book depressed me (TV has only gotten worse since the 1990's in terms of ignorance and sensationalism),   there is also hope, such as one community raising the money to build a children's science centre.  Overall this book provides another important argument in favor of critical thinking being a necessary skill as members not just of democracy, but of the human race.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Serial Garden

The title: The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories
The author: Joan Aiken
Publication: Big Mouth House*, 2008
Got it from: MC

Before there was Harry Potter, there was his smarter predecessor, Joan Aiken's delightful Armitage family.  Back when Mr. and Mrs. Armitage were first married, Mrs. Armitage made a wish on a wishing-stone that their lives would never be boring.  Years later, young Harriet and Mark Armitage experience a life full of strange occurrences (usually on a Monday), which they take in stride with good humour.  A unicorn that shows up in the garden?  A governess ghost who is still trying to teach?  A doll sized family in the attic?  No big deal.  

Each of these short stories can be read as a self-contained treasure, but they are loosely linked and best read in chronological order.  (Joan Aiken wrote them starting in 1944 and continuing until, incredibly, her death in 2004.)  Each story is really a mystery to solve.  The formula runs like this: bizarre events happen, children uncover the reason why, unexpected resolution, things return to normal, Mr. Armitage makes a hilariously sarcastic comment, The End.  Toward the end of the book, the stories start taking on darker, deeper layers that I won't spoil.  Suffice to say that intelligent adults and children will be satisfied.

*Looking at the back of the book, I see the publisher has the following statement: "A new imprint devoted to fiction for readers of all ages.  We will publish one or two weird and great titles (short story collections and novels) per year. We expect to publish books for readers ages 10 and up."  How awesome is that???

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