Sunday, December 27, 2015

Book #52: Little Woman in Blue

I was planning to finish Thoreau's Walden this week - a book I have never read in its entirety despite growing up within miles of the site where he lived his life in the woods. We're going to be discussing it in book club in a few weeks.

But, I got sidetracked when my sister gave me this novel based on May Alcott's life for Christmas.

I figured it was an appropriate book to read in the middle of reading Walden. The Alcotts were Thoreau's transcendental contemporaries and neighbors in Concord. He even turns up on page four of the novel (though he's dead by page 16).

While this is a novel, author Jeannine Atkins drew heavily on writings from the era, including May Alcott's letters and diaries.

It would be nice to separate fact from fiction in this account, but I trust that Atkins reflected the overall spirit of who May Alcott was and how her life unfolded accurately (which, by the way, was not exactly how Amy March's story unfolded in Little Women).

Two key themes emerged, which are consistent with everything I've learned over the years about her family, her geography, and her era, and to which I very much relate.

One, Alcott grapples with the tension between wanting to live a finer and larger life and being raised with the belief that there is virtue in poverty and sacrifice for others and that nature can provide all the beauty one needs.

Two, she grapples with the tension between wanting to pursue her life as an artist (her passion, though she is not so confident in her ability and receives little encouragement early on, surprisingly not even from her sister Louisa!) and also to have a husband and children.

I'm looking forward to finishing Walden with this book fresh in my mind.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Book #51: Essays of E.B. White

I bought this book at Shakespeare & Company a few years ago while I was traveling with my sister and it disappeared into Roger's reading stack when I got home. He turned it up for me a month or so ago and I've been reading a few essays here and there since then.

Coincidentally, I'm sitting in a hotel room with the same sister as I write this. Traveling again, though in Charlotte, NC, not in Paris.

E.B. White, who is probably most well known for writing Charlotte's Web, wrote many essays on a wide variety of topics and was often published in magazines like The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's.

Most of the essays in this collection were written in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Basically, he wrote about the world my generation was born into.

What struck me as I read is how the more things change, the more things stay the same. Nature. Technology. World peace. Progress. Resistance to progress. Gentle nostalgia. Harsh reality.

Seriously. The details may be different, but we're repeating the conversations.

"All I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world," White once said. "I guess you can find it in there, if you dig around." 

I wish we still had E.B. White around to add his reasonable and often delightful two bits.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Book #50: Jim the Boy

This week's selection comes with a confession: This is not my book. I have a copy lent to me by my sister-in-law years ago and that I unearthed from my Grammie's old desk in our front hall.

It doesn't happen all the time, but once in a while I become a black hole, and it can be risky lending something to me. Beware.

It's serendipitous that this particular book caught my attention this week. It's a gentle novel about a boy being raised by his mom and three uncles on a farm in North Carolina in the 1930s. In the first chapter he turns ten, and bit by bit as the story unfolds over the course of a year, his world gets a little bigger.

It's serendipitous because I happen to be leaving Jack and Roger behind and heading to North Carolina in a few days. Not only that, the reason I'm heading there is my cousin's daughter's Bat Mitzvah, which will mark her coming of age in her Jewish community.

Her world (and all of ours) is getting a bit bigger.

In a moment he was lost amid the uncles, who swarmed around the table and hustled him to the door, their voices combining into a single, unintelligible din of laughter and teasing. Mama handed him his notebook and his ball glove as the uncles jostled him across the porch and down the steps.

When Jim reached the state highway, he turned and looked back. Mama and the uncles waved from the porch.

"Be good, Doc," called Uncle Zeno.

"Study hard," said Mama.

"Pay attention," said Uncle Al.

"Don't get a paddling," said Uncle Coran.

"'Bye," yelled Jim, waving back. "'Bye, everybody."

And when he turned and looked up the hill toward the school, he wished for a moment that he did not have to take another step, that he could stay right where he was and never have to leave again.

It's nice, this idea of staying wrapped up in a safe, comfortable place. Growing up can be hard, sometimes scary, even painful. And it doesn't actually ever end, not that I know.

But, honestly, the widening world of experience? Even when it's hard? Maybe especially when it's hard? It's amazing.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Book #49: Frankenstein

A little over two years ago, I invited my friend Boyd to talk about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein at a library lecture series I used to host called "So You Want To Read." I meant to read it then, but didn't.

Last year, Jack read Frankenstein for his sophomore English class, and I started reading it in solidarity. I meant to finish it then, but didn't.

A couple of months ago, Roger reviewed this edition of Frankenstein, illustrated by Gris Grimly, for BYU's Children's Book and Media Review. I meant to read it then, but didn't.

This week, though, I was in a bit of a funk and a horror story seemed like good medicine. So I picked it up and read it (and thoroughly enjoyed Grimly's fabulous steampunk illustrations).

My timing ended up being just right, at least in terms of maximizing the impact of the Rorschach test that is Frankenstein and his creation on me. The past few months have been tough, and now I have a few new metaphors I can use to help process it all.

At times I saw myself and others in Frankenstein, who misunderstood what he created, who wanted to ignore the consequences, and who never realized that he actually held the power (love) to reverse the course he had set.

At times I saw myself and others in the monster, who, when he revealed himself, could not be seen for who he truly was, people feared him, and in his resentment and isolation, he became something he regretted.

At times I saw myself and others in the ship captain, who rescued Frankenstein in the frozen north and who took on the weight of Frankenstein's tale.

Several times I was startled by how much I saw myself and others in both Frankenstein's cousin, who became his unwitting bride, and the unrealized female monster he started to create as a companion to the first, but ended up destroying because she would dangerously have a mind of her own.

I'm quite sure I saw all sorts of things in the text that Shelley never dreamed of, as I viewed her work through the lens of modern day politics and the history that informs our struggles to see "the other" as fully human, the uneasy relationship between organized religion and people who do not fit in prescribed boxes, and, of course, the challenges I create for my own self that would not be so destructive if I faced them head on and made peace with them.

But that is the mark of a good universal and enduring (and cautionary) tale.