The Immortality of Love: Little Women

Friday, December 19, 2014 | 8 comments

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-9; Penguin Classics, 1989)

What makes Louisa May Alcott's Little Women immortal, when as a nineteenth-century moral story for the young it should properly have been forgotten long ago? A portion of the reading population might like to forget it, as Elaine Showalter points out in her illuminating introduction to my Penguin Classics edition: "in male literature. . . Little Women stands as a code term for sentimentality and female piety. . . . In a typically dismissive critical judgment of the 1950s, Edward Wagenknecht declared that Little Women 'needs -- and is susceptible of -- little analysis.' " Yet it is still read and loved, at a time when the mores of American society have changed almost beyond recognition from those of Alcott's day. Clearly, more is at work here than mere "sentimentality and female piety."

As a child, I was simply entranced by the adventures of those four wonderfully realized characters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. When Alcott decided to draw on her own life to create the moral tale her publisher requested, she feared the result would be dull. The reverse was the case, as the homely details of family life are what lend the story its irresistible charm and vitality. Who can forget Jo selling her hair, Amy bringing forbidden pickled limes to school, Meg succumbing to the temptation to dress up in "frills and furbelows," or Beth's joyful reaction to the gift of a piano? The girls' idiosyncrasies and foibles are described with a wry humor that saves the narrative from becoming overly sweet, and their relationships with one another are spiced with realistic quarrels and quirks as well as love and tenderness.

When I went back to Little Women as an adult, I did find the moralizing aspect to intrude somewhat, but not as much as one might expect. With her unfailing perception and equanimity, Marmee is an idealized quasi-divine mother figure whose words of wisdom bring each episode to neat closure, especially in the first half of the book, which explicitly takes its theme and direction from the Christian precepts of The Pilgrim's Progress. Yet the undogmatic, sensible nature of most of these lessons saves them from being only examples of that dreaded "female piety." The underlying message is to be true to one's inner core, and to find value in the lasting treasures of life: integrity, self-knowledge, human connections. Though the trappings of time and culture may change, this moral journey is universally valid, and surely a key to the book's continuing relevance.

Meanwhile, the marvelously unconventional character of Jo, Alcott's own alter ego, also plays a large part in its enduring appeal. With her exuberant speech and behavior, disregard of propriety, and literary creativity, she points toward a later time when women would be able to more fully express themselves and their potentialities. For modern readers, it can be disappointing when Jo's youthful urges and artistic ambitions, along with those of her sisters, are partly squashed in favor of the ultimate female consummation of marriage and motherhood. But her spirit remains unquenched for readers and writers who have found in her a soul-sister, an inspiration and a companion when "genius burns."

Opposite to Jo is gentle Beth, whose death is one of the other indelible experiences of reading Little Women in childhood. Saccharine Victorian death scenes are notorious, but Alcott's sincere depth of feeling born of her own sorrow and loss gives this one a poignant simplicity, and I still cannot read it without sobbing. "Love is the only thing we can carry with us when we go," Beth says. For me, this "belief in the immortality of love" is the gift and the legacy of Little Women, one for which I am forever grateful.

Review copy source: Personal collection

Classic MG/YA Challenge
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Gems of 2014

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 | 22 comments
It's time for an end-of-year roundup! With this post, I'm introducing the Emerald City Book Review Gem, to be awarded to my favorite books of the year in various genres and categories. (Note that books were read and reviewed, but not necessarily published in 2014.) Click on each title to be taken to my original review, or click here for a page that lists all of them. Visit Top Ten Tuesday for many, many more best-of-2014 lists.

2014 Releases: Fiction: Hild   Nonfiction: In the Kingdom of Ice
Rereads: Witch Week

Fiction: My Brother Michael

Classic Fiction: Barchester Towers and The Brandons (review to come)

Historical Fiction: The White Witch

Fantasy: The Islands of Chaldea

Children's: All-of-a-Kind Family

YA: A Solitary Blue

Memoir/Biography: Strings Attached and My Life in Middlemarch

Nonfiction: The Age of Wonder

Do you have a Best of 2014 list? Please share it in the comments!

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A Christmas Gift: I Saw Three Ships

Monday, December 15, 2014 | 16 comments

Elizabeth Goudge, I Saw Three Ships (1969; Godine, 2009)

Just in time for Christmas, the wonderful folks at David R. Godine, Publisher have reprinted their edition of Elizabeth Goudge's story I Saw Three Ships. In this brief tale set in the West Country of England a couple of centuries ago, we are introduced to the irrepressible orphan Polly, who knows she has heard angels climb the stairs on Christmas Eve; her very proper maiden aunts, Dorcas and Constantia, who yet harbor secret dreams and longings; and three wise men of a rather unexpected sort. How they all come together is Christmas magic of the very best kind.

As fans of Elizabeth Goudge may expect, there is a marvelously evoked historical setting, with a lovably mischievous child character, adults of varying degrees of eccentricity, and a contented cat. There is charm and mystery and humor, and a hint of something beyond the everyday world. At appropriate moments, the old English carol named in the title enlivens the text with its jaunty tune -- a different one than most Americans may be familiar with, so it's good that words and music are included at the end. The numerous pen-and-ink drawings by Margot Tomes capture the early-nineteenth-century atmosphere perfectly, and Godine's usual fine production values enhance the book's appeal even further. A small paperback (about 5 by 7 inches large and 60 pages long), with a heavy, durable matte cover and French flaps, it would slip nicely into a large stocking. If you're looking for a gift for an older child -- or adult! -- who enjoys historical fiction by the likes of Joan Aiken or Leon Garfield, this would be a fine choice.

For those who already know and love the books of Elizabeth Goudge, or would like to discover a splendid but often sadly underrated author, I'm pleased to announce that I'll be hosting an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week from April 24 to 30. Keep your eye on these pages for further details in the New Year, and enjoy whatever you choose for your holiday reading.

Review copy source: Finished paperback from publisher
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Remember Them in Bonds: Sapphira and the Slave Girl

Friday, December 12, 2014 | 10 comments

Willa Cather, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (Knopf, 1940)

Willa Cather's quiet, elegaic final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, is the only one of her novels set in her birthplace of rural Northern Virginia. Taking up events and characters from the author's own family history, it gives us a window into a time and place where, not long before the Civil War, slaveowners and those with abolitionist sympathies co-existed uneasily.

The title characters are Sapphira Colbert, wife of a prosperous miller and daughter of a longtime slaveowning family; and Nancy, the mulatto daughter of the slave Sapphira has brought up and trained to be her personal maid. Sapphira has taken a dislike to Nancy because she unjustly suspects that she is dallying with her husband, and eventually an escalating sequence of events causes Nancy to leave for freedom in Canada. The final scene, one taken from Cather's own memories and so the seed of the whole narrative, is of her return 25 years later.

This makes the plot sound much stronger and more unified than it is; in fact, it moves in a meandering fashion, with many detours, and nearly loses momentum altogether toward the end. What would seem to be the most interesting portion of all -- how Nancy makes the huge transition from South to North and becomes a free woman -- is skipped entirely, and the ending is rather anticlimactic. With a lesser writer, this unsatisfying trajectory would no doubt have bothered me much more. But I was so caught up in the scenes and characters that Cather portrayed with such compassion and insight that I didn't mind much at all.

Many different viewpoints on the central issue of slavery are represented, even within a single character, creating a complex and multi-faceted picture of this moral dilemma. Henry Colbert, perhaps the novel's moral center, is deeply conflicted: he personally does not wish to have slaves, yet accepts them as part of his wife's heritage and tries to treat them as honorably as he can. He searches for answers in Scripture:
Nowhere in his Bible had he ever been able to find a clear condemnation of slavery. There were injunctions of kindness to slaves, mercy and tolerance. Remember them in bonds as bound with them. Yes, but nowhere did his Bible say that there should be no one in bonds, no one at all. -- And Henry had often asked himself, were we not all in bonds? If Lizzie, the cook, was in bonds to Sapphira, was she not almost equally in bonds to Lizzie?
Sapphira's attitude toward Nancy is hard to understand or forgive, and yet even she cannot be seen as wholly evil, but as one who has not managed to escape the limitations of her upbringing and culture. At the end, though, she does break through to an act of reconciliation that suggests change is possible. If we are all in bonds, Cather suggests, we are all working our own way to freedom. Wrong as it is to think that we can "own" another human being, it is equally wrong to imagine that this outer form of slavery is the only kind. Is our task perhaps to transform our bonds of intolerance and distrust into bonds of love?

The language of the book will be somewhat startling to a modern reader, as it freely uses terms that have become derogatory when applied to black people -- not only in the mouths of the characters, which makes sense for historical accuracy, but also in the narration, which does not seem so necessary. Certain remarks are also made that apply stereotypical judgments to people of color, and it's not clear whether these embody the prejudices of the author or only of her characters. Certainly, they are mild in comparison to the opinions held by most people during the time of the novel's setting and even during the time of its writing, yet they still strike a discordant note that I regretted.

In spite of this, once again Cather has impressed me with her rich portrayal of character and setting, and her thought-provoking approach to questions of the heart and spirit. Sapphira and the Slave Girl is perhaps not the strongest of her works, but it is still a rewarding read. Thanks to Heavenali and the Willa Cather Reading Week for inspiring me to pick it up.

Review copy source: Print book from library
Classics Club List #29
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Words and Pictures: A Lost Lady

Thursday, December 11, 2014 | 2 comments
He did not think of these books as something invented to beguile the idle hour, but as living creatures, caught in the very behaviour of living, -- surprised behind their misleading severity of form and phrase. He was eavesdropping upon the past, being let into the great world that had plunged and glittered and sumptuously sinned long before little Western towns were dreamed of.
Willa Cather, A Lost Lady (1923)
Image: Man Reading by John Singer Sargent
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Literary Pilgrimages: Willa Cather's grave site

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 | 18 comments
On a bleak winter afternoon in early December, I set out to find Willa Cather's grave at the Old Meeting House in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire. By her own wish, the author was laid to rest near the site where she had often spent the autumn months and worked on many of her novels, including My Antonia.

After a few mishaps due to my confusion of the towns of Jaffrey and Jaffrey Center, and the total lack of signage identifying the Meeting House (yes, this is New England -- if you don't already know where you're going, you shouldn't be here), I found the magnificent old building and its small burying ground that looks out onto a view of Mount Monadnock.

The oldest marked grave on this site dates from 1777, and many of the stones are centuries old. Often tall and narrow, they lean at odd angles in the frost-humped ground.

Willa Cather's grave stands alone in a corner, facing away from the meeting house and toward the mountain (as most of the gravestones do). The stone has weathered quite a bit in the past sixty-odd years, and the inscription was not easy to read in the dim light.

According to a sign near the entrance, the grave of Cather's companion Edith Lewis was very nearby, but I didn't see a stone. I took a guess at the location and scraped away some snow, and there it was.

Just as I was about to leave, a ray of sun broke through the clouds as the Meeting House clock tolled two, and the words on the stone were illuminated.

December 7, 1876-April 24, 1947
The truth and charity of her great 
spirit will live on in the work 
which is her enduring gift to her 
country and her people.
"...that is happiness, to be dissolved 
into something complete and great." 
From My Antonia

This still-unspoiled spot seems an appropriate resting place for Willa Cather, surrounded as it is by great natural beauty while also bearing witness to centuries of human striving and endeavor. I'm so glad that I finally made the pilgrimage to view it, and hope to return again to experience its peaceful spirit through the changing seasons.

Posted in honor of Willa Cather Reading Week, hosted by Heavenali 

Click here to view images of Cather in Jaffrey from the Willa Cather Archive
More information on Cather in Jaffrey, from the Willa Cather Archive 

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A New Look!

Monday, December 8, 2014 | 24 comments
Almost a year ago, I started this blog on a whim when I had some extra time on my hands during a vacation (a rare occurrence indeed, let me tell you). I nearly stopped after just a few weeks, as you can see from my lack of posts in February, thinking it wasn't worth the time and effort. But with some encouragement from my family I kept going and have enjoyed it more and more. I like the challenging mental exercise of formulating my thoughts about books, and the chance to connect with others who share my love of reading. To anyone who happens to actually be reading this, thank you! It means so much to me that you spend some time visiting my little blog. I hope you'll say hello in the comments.

Since I will most likely continue blogging for at least another year, it seems a good moment to give ECBR a more polished appearance for myself and others to enjoy. When I looked for designers, I found Stephanie of New Chapter Designs through the Book Blogging directory, and then discovered that she had designed River City Reading, one of my favorite blogs in terms of both looks and content. I liked Stephanie's portfolio and found her prices very reasonable, so I signed up.

Stephanie was so great to work with -- very helpful, accommodating, and professional, with a real artistic sensibility as well as technical skills. From my vague indications she delivered a design concept that only needed a bit of tweaking to make it perfect, and all along the way she was patient with my questions and requests. I highly recommend her to anyone who wants a fresh, one-of-a-kind blog design that doesn't break the bank. Here's a recent interview with Stephanie at Nose Graze that gives a glimpse into her life and work.

Let me know what you think about the new look! Do you have any thoughts or wishes for ECBR as it enters its second year?

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An American Tragedy: The Home-Maker

Friday, December 5, 2014 | 2 comments

Dorothy Canfield Fisher, The Home-Maker (1924; Persephone Classics, 2011)

I was inspired by the readalong at the Old-Fashioned Girls Book Club to pick up this recently reissued novel by a once-popular author who is now mostly forgotten except for her classic children's book, Understood Betsy. It tackled some very timely subjects -- the imprisoning effect of gender-based roles, the right of both women and men to choose work that suits their abilities, and the question of what children really need and deserve from their caregivers -- at a time when these ideas were not very widely considered. Though we may think we have gotten past some of the difficulties encountered by its characters, their dilemma still speaks to us today, and reminds us what a long way we really have to go.

Eva and Lester married impulsively fourteen years ago, and are now locked in an impossible situation. Eva hates housework and childcare but does it with grim perfection, making her husband and three children miserable in the process. Lester has no aptitude for his low-paying job at a department store but also no prospects for anything else. When Lester is disabled and has to stay home with the children, while Eva gets to use her very considerable talents in a job that she loves, the family finds unexpected and precious happiness. But will they get to keep it?
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Five Favorite Books About Books

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 | 22 comments

Today, I'm joining in the fun of A Month of Favorites with the topic, "Five Favorite Books by Theme." For us bookaholics, what's even better than a great book? A great book about books, stories, or reading! Here are five of my personal favorites.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
While he was in hiding from those who would have murdered him for writing The Satanic Verses, Rushdie produced this rollicking, pop-culture-sprinkled comic fantasy. Centered around a quest to save the very source of storytelling itself, it is a moving tribute to the life-giving power of words and language.

Possession by A.S. Byatt
An astonishing feat of literary ventriloquism, as well as an absorbing historical mystery and a double love story, this book concerns two Victorian poets and the modern scholars who are trying to discover the truth about them.

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
If you've only seen the movies (especially the horrible later ones), please read the real thing! When a lonely child escapes his troubles by means of a magical book, he must learn the true meaning of heroism before he can save the world within its pages -- as well as his own.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Another historical mystery, this time set in a medieval monastery, where secrets, lies, and old manuscripts are turning deadly. If you find Eco's esoterica too baffling, there's a little booklet called "The Key to The Name of the Rose" that is very helpful in navigating this huge and complex novel.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
When his home planet is destroyed, hapless Englishman Arthur Dent must take to outer space with only the eponymous guidebook to help him, encountering the craziest denizens of the universe along the way.

Honorable Mention:

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The recent read that got me thinking about this theme -- not quite up there with my faves, but worth a mention nevertheless. The fate of an unnamed Persian Gulf state hangs in the balance when a hacker comes into possession of an ancient, mysterious book of stories that may hold the key to the ultimate computer code. Will it lead him to freedom -- or destruction?

Do you have any further variations on the theme? I'd love to hear about them!
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Put the Library on Hold: A month of reading from our own shelves

Monday, December 1, 2014 | 19 comments

When I read this post from Lark Writes...On Books and Life, I knew that I shared her dilemma: how will I ever get to read all the books I already own, when I always need to finish the books I've checked out from the library first? I suggested we make a pact to eschew the library for just one month in order to make some headway on the books that have been languishing on our own shelves.

Lark was up for it, and so we decided on January, 2015 as the month to make a fresh start. We can  read all the wonderful books we've received over the holidays, as well as some that have been waiting patiently for us to get to them, before heading into the library stacks again.

If you'd like to join us, feel free! You can grab the button if you wish, link back to this post, post your own goals or plans, or just follow along in your own way. There are no "rules" to the challenge, but at the beginning, middle, and end of January I'll post a progress update for myself, and you are welcome to do so as well.

Will you join us? What books are you hoping to pick up this month?

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