Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

I think that I fell in love with Eve LaPlante when I read American Jezebel perhaps last year or the year before. I thought that LaPlante was my type of historian - a feminist that delved into the women in America's history and then told their stories in a way that was accessible. But then I found out that not only did I love her books, but she is related to Louisa May Alcott - she is a cousin and her great great great grandfather, was Louisa May Alcott's uncle!! So, when I saw that she wrote a book about Louisa May Alcott, I was so excited and, after reading this book, I am convinced that I was Louisa May Alcott in a previous life (or, at the very least, I would totally have been friends with her if I lived when she did because she was awesome).

If you read the first of Alcott's works: Flower Fables, it is inscribed to her mother, Abigail May Alcott. That inscription states: “Whatever beauty or poetry is to be found in my little book is owing to your interest and encouragement of all my efforts from the first to the last.” It's so apparent that Abigail Alcott plays a prominent role in everything that her child did; however we know next to nothing about her and that should be disturbing. It's even more disturbing because it came to light that Louisa and her father burned her papers after her death in order to perhaps protect the families' privacy and also to protect what they believed was Abigail's straying from the script so to speak. It also has to do with the fact that nless yo were a woman like Loisa Alcott (i.e. exceptional in some way), many woman were (and are to some extent still) invisible. Their voices didn't mean mch at the time so the steps weren't taken to preserve the papers that they left.

However, there were a number of primary sources that Eve LaPlante, who is a descendant of Abigail's brother, uses magnificently to tell the story of a woman that was smart and creative but constrained by society. I found Abigail to be a fascinating woman. She was drawn more to the intellectual to the domestic, which often lead to much emotional suffering and misery on her part. She was a strident abolitionist and a feminist, who believed that all people (including slaves and her daughters) should be treated fairly and equally - which meant that they should be able to vote and work for wages outside of the home. Interestingly, she was of almost pure Boston Brahmn blood - with judges (one of whom was a judge responsible for the Salem witch trial and who publicly renounced his actions in Salme and one of whom was JOHN HANCOCK - how awesome?!). She met Bronson Alcott in 1827 and married, much to her dismay later on in life as Bronson was, apparently, the 19th century version of a deadbeat dad. Bronson was either indifferent to the suffering that his family underwent as the result of his inability to support them, or absent, or both. AS a result, in part of necessity, she sought and was often employed - usually as a landlady, seamstress or social worker.

Louisa was exposed to this mentor during her life. And it was apparent, and compellingly argued, that it was Abigail and not Bronson, who encouraged Louisa to become the wildly successful author that she was. Many of Louisa's notes in her journal talk about how she idolized her mother. The inscriptions in her book were mainly to her mother. Her mother often was the person that initially reviewed and edited her book. Abigail was the practical and emotional support to Louisa, while Bronson was the absent leech, for lack of a better description. The book was tremendously researched. It drew upon the words written by all of the main players - including Bronson and other people that Louisa interacted with. The use of primary sources has been unparalleled in the books that I've read, at least since I've been out of college. And the book was wonderfully written - it was a coherent and lyrical narrative of Alcott and her life.

I look forward to Eve LaPlante's next books because they are wonderful.

Friday, February 22, 2013

In One Person by John Irving

So, I started reading books by John Irving way back when I was in college and a friend of mine recommended that I read The World According to Garp (a book that I should probably re-read along with The Cider House Rules and a Prayer for Owen Meany). I should probably send a very heartfelt thank you because Irving has become one of my most treasured authors of all time, and his place in my heart has grown since I learned that he's from New Hampshire.

In One Person is told from the viewpoint of Billy, who always seems to have a crush on the "wrong person," including gender bending types that one wouldn't necessarily expect a young man growing up in the 50's to confidently express a desire for (but whom Billy does). It focuses on his years as a faculty brat at a prep school in rural Vermont and then the years shortly after - I think that it's accurate to say that most Irving's attention is paid to Billy's adolescence and college years. There are big questions about what constitutes sexuality, sexual and gender identity, family and personhood. Billy is born into a family where his father is mysteriously absent - in fact, the ghost of his existence is what we end up being most familiar with; where his mother is seemingly disgusted by him (maybe because he reminds her of his absent biological father?); a kind stepfather that is actually a father; an aunt who hates anyone that doesn't fit into her (conservative) view of life; a cross dressing grandfather and a drunk uncle. The tale spans his whole life - with heavy focus on the preop school years, when he seems to have a crush on everyone from his friend Elaine, to a male wrestler, to the librarian and even his stepfather.

What I think that this book set out to do is to teach people about bisexuality and gay culture. I think it also attempted to portray the struggles that a young male teenager has in coming to terms with his sexuality on his own and the struggles that he has with acceptance in the world at large. Don't get me wrong - those struggles really struck me but what also struck me were the struggles that Billy experienced during the AIDS epidemic in the 80's. I think that, in part, it was because I grew up in the 80's and I don't remember hearing a whole lot about that - my parents didn't really talk to me a whole lot about it - but I learned a lot about it in high school and of course in college and have done a lot of reading since. That part of the book really struck me the most and remains with me a lot. I think that the parts that Irving dedicates to the AIDS epidemic is devastatingly beautiful and perhaps some of the best prose I've seen from anyone and particularly from him.

I loved this book, as I have loved most of his novels.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie

I don't remember where I heard or saw this book, but it was an interesting read. It is a collection of short stories written by a man that is Native American and grew up on a reservation near Spokane, Washington (he is in fact, a member of the Spokane tribe) and the stories heavily portray the Native American experience and are autobiographical in nature. I guess not truly autobiographical as they are classified as short stories/fiction; however they took root in experiences that Alexie had while he was growing up and as an adult.

The title of the collection is appropriate because it seems like the main characters are always committing some sort of sin or other blasphemy. I loved how all of the protagonists, like the author, are Native American and literally make everyone uncomfortable because they all push the envelope in some way. And while they push the envelope, they are also addressing issues that Native Americans currently face: alcoholism, joblessness, transitioning from the rez to mass white culture. It deals with failed dreams and drugs. It deals with death and loss. It would be really easy for Alexie to just be depressing and morbid while telling these stories; however he's not and that's what makes these stories so amazingly wonderful. He tells the story with rueful humor and the characters always seem to find the humor in the situations, allowing us to blow off a little steam while trying to digest the awfulness of some of the struggles that they are facing. I also enjoyed the language that he used - he used a ton of memorable images. For instance, he wrote "Eucharist, that glorious metaphoric cannibalism of our Messiah." And that wasn't even one of the best ones.

All in all, this completely irreverent collection of stories makes the book a funny and quick and wonderful book to read. Grab it immediately.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Southbound by Lucy and Susan Letcher (aka Isis and jackrabbit, the "Barefoot Sisters")

I have been scouring my local library for tales about hiking and the mountains, with a focus on first person narrative but also history. I found this book by doing a Google search for hiking memoirs and it landed on a number of top 10 lists so I picked it up. This book is a memoir told in the first person voice, an alternates between the perspectives of the two sisters: Lucy and Susan.Thru hiking, or hiking the entire AT from North to South or South to North is not something that I want to do right now although I'm not dismissing it completely - perhaps when the kids are older - anyways, this was a good intro to it.

Lucy and Susan have jsut graduated from college and are trying to decide what to do with their lives. As they attempt to find themselves, they decide to hike SOBO on the AT. Barefoot. While it's still fun, at least. The narrative often alternates between either girls' perspectives, never really repeating itself but alternating visions of a single, chronological narrative. I really enjoyed the stories that the girls told. I was able to conjure up the community that they experienced and the people that they met with my senses - I could see them, hear them and yes, sometimes even smell them. I could imagine how wonderful a shower and a clean bed and a pizza would have been after hiking for a week and attempting to break 20 miles a day but my imagination was driven into overload by the ways that the girls told the story. And I have to say - two women hiking the AT, which is very male dominated, was pretty ballsy in my book and earned them points with me. I loved how I got a vivid picture of trail life - including the travails of hiking in winter (hello frostbite and snow up to yoru hip!) and injuries and having to carry enough gear and food to get you to the next drop). Loved it

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Defending Jacob by William Landay

I heard about this book on one of my favorite book podcasts: Books on the Nightstand. I was surprised to find a copy available in the library for me to take out. Pleasantly so. This novel looked and sounded intriguing because it is about Andy Barber - a high powered assistant district attorney in a county that borders the city of Boston. He is so high powered, that he is the first assistant and is often the go guy for the homicides and other serious offenses that crop up in his jurisdiction. Anything involving lawyers and criminal law is intriguing. Not only is he well respected at his job, but he is loved and respected in his family and in his neighborhood as well. He seems to have the most perfect life that anyone can imagine having. His perfect suburban life is shattered by an odd homicide in his neigh brood - a 14 year old boy is killed as he was walking to school and Andy's son Jacob, has been arrested and charged in the death.

The book starts out with what is obviously the transcript of grand jury testimony where Andy is being interrogated by a former colleague and menthe. I didn't think that it would be promising - the predictable old legal thriller coming up. But I was pleasantly surprised because this didn't turn out to be the run of the mill legal thriller that I had just about convinced myself that I had picked up. The book ended up containing an interesting mix of legal/criminal justice issues that many contemporary lawyers and those involved with the criminal justice system deal with and familial issues - how is this going to impact the marriage, are our children really who we think we are, etc? It also interestingly, takes up issues of nature v. Nurture - Andy apparently comes from a long line of men that have brutally murdered people, with Andy being the first to break the chain. Was this something that was ingrained in Jacob's being, like eye color?

One line in particular struck me: “Our blind trust in the system is the product of ignorance and magical thinking,” Andy says about the law, “and there was no way in hell I was going to trust my son’s fate to it.” I found that this statement rang hauntingly true. In this country we must have faith in the system because we have to believe that it works.If it doesn't, what does that mean? But sometimes the system doesn't work because it's made up of human components: a prosecutor that loses their vision of justice, a judge that isn't neutral, whatever. And what would a parent do if their child is in this situation, particularly when that parent has spent their life prosecuting the people that have committed these acts?

All in all, a good book and a good read.

  • Books Read in 100 Book Fiction Challenge:4
  • Books Read in 100 Books in 2013:6

Saturday, February 9, 2013

This is How You Lose her by Junot Diaz

This book has been all over the place from NPR to the book podcasts that I listened to. In this book, we are introduced to Yunior again - Yunior and his family have emigrated from the Dominican Republic and have settled in the northeast - New Jersey is the setting for many of those tales. We learn that he grew up in a poor immigrant community there. Yunior's life with his family is the focus of his most recent collection of stories - that is what this book is - a collection of short stories, the common thread of which is Yunioor's life and his interactions with his family. Yunior's voice also holds the stories together because they are all told from his perspective and it is a really unique and interesting perspective.

I particularly like the first story entitled "The Sun, the Moon and the Stars," a story in which Yunior brings his girlfriend, with whom he has had a pretty serious romantic relationship, to the Dominican Republic for a vacation. They visit both the "tourist" part of the island and the "real" part of the island, where Yunior's family used to live. I loved this line in particular. "A goddamn fortress, walled away from everybody else,” with “beaches so white they ache to be trampled." Diaz was describing the resort that he ends up having to take his girlfriend to because she seemingly can't handle being on the other parts of the island. This is highlighted when Yunior states that he feels sequestered there and surrounded by "by “Garcías and Colóns” who “come to relax after a long month of oppressing the masses,” and the “melanin deficient Eurofucks” who look like “budget Foucaults … too many of them in the company of a dark-assed Dominican girl.”

I loved that story, and most of Diaz's other stories, because not only did I get a satisfying narrative and development of character development, but that issues of class were being addressed as well not by an in your face "look at awful these people are" but by a description of what Yunior was seeing and smelling and experiencing. I loved being able to use my senses to realize those experiences. I liked how Diaz also connected the past and present through Yunior's experiences - I could see him becoming the person that he was by using his past and the present in conjunction to transform himself into a person that he wanted to become.

The title of the collection also provides some insight. Violence in many forms is used by the characters to get power. Yunior never really uses physical violence against his girlfriends; however he seems to use emotional violence an awful lot. For instance, he cheats on his girlfriends quite often. He lies and isn't ashamed of it or necessarily even sorry that he's cheated. And by doing this, he ends up losing every single girlfriend that he manages to land over the course of these stories. He is very demeaning towards women as well using words like "slut" and "whore" to describe them. You can see that he is perpetuating the views of women that his father and older brother have and it's so clear that this is where he learned that mindset.Even with that, I truly enjoyed reading these stories because the characters are absolutely fascinating.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Up by Patricia Ellis Herr

I found this book while doing a search for books that related to hiking in thee White Mountains and the 4000 foot club. The search may have even been more narrow in the sense that I was looking for the best hiking books out there that weren't guides of some sort and were mostly if not all memoir. It took root in Herr's blog about hiking with her daughters. She also has nother blog about hiking here. After having done my research on her, I was quite frankly fascinated. I admire her drive - she's a homeschooling feminist thta dropped out of the workforce and before getting her Ph.D from Harvard in order to do what she did - and I wanted to do what she did at least as far as the hiking with the kids thing. So I eagerly went hunting for this book at my local library and I found it.

Tricia and her 6 year old daughter start hiking on a whim - she's one of those moms that believe in indulging her daughter to some degree and encouraging her to try new things in the hopes that her daughter will develop a passion for them and continue to do them. In this case, they both quickly become addicted to and passionate about hiking and they set out to hike all 48 mountains above 4000 feet in the State of New Hampshire. When they initially start, they experience a number of mishaps, including hiking without the proper gear when there is still snow in the higher elevations when there was still snow on the ground - and not simply an inch or two. Tricia fell in p to her hip!!

What I quickly feared was that the book would be over the top and preachy - I wrongly assumed that she would be like some of the homeschooling parents out there that were in the holier than thou school of thought; however I wasn't right at all. I found myself respecting Tricia because she explained herself but didn't preach about how her way of life should be the way of life of all around her. I found that this book was very inspiring and made me very excited to hike on my own and to conquer my own mountains with my children and on my own. The book also moved pleasantly quickly. This is a definite must read.

    Books read in the 100 Fiction Challenge: 2
    Books read in 2013: 4

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...