Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two different books unfolding in Little Women

Little Women cover

Somehow my American girlhood went by without a single reading of Little Women. So for the Classics Club Challenge, I read it. I can't react to it anymore the way I probably would have as a teen, though I know I would have strongly identified with Jo and enjoyed the book as a whole.

What struck me, reading it now, is how throughout the book there's a tension between two authorial voices. It's almost as if there are two different books in Little Women, one of them brighter, more picturesque and calling more attention to itself, and the other one a subtle, shadowy book that adds disquiet to the story.

The vignettes in the lives of the four sisters - Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth - often get wrapped up neatly. Though Alcott isn't preachy, and though her characters come across as real and not like cut-out figures serving as moral examples, there's a tidy lesson from many of these episodes. It's what you'd expect in a 19th-century book geared towards a younger audience; the girls need to become proper little women. On the other hand, throughout these vignettes there are some darker currents and some sources of tension that persist even after the tidier resolutions. Sometimes the text is sentimental, even verging on treacly; other times there's a surprising wry humor and unease.

Let's look at Jo, for instance. While capable of great devotion and care towards others, she's also the most spirited and unladylike of the girls and wishes she could have enjoyed a boy's greater freedom. Like Alcott, she's a writer. Jo settles into a more conventional role at the end (mothering boys, when she can't travel much or go to school like one) - though at the same time she keeps her ambitions to write. The resolution to her story is complicated; she has made major concessions to what's expected of her as a proper little woman, but her old restlessness and dreams are by no means entirely tamed (what will become of her dreams is left open-ended).

Death, poverty, the conflict between what you want or need for yourself and what's expected of you - all of these the novel touches on, in a more tidy way front and center, but with the rawness at the edges, unexplored territory on the margins. Alcott was deeply familiar with all of these themes and with the messiness of life. And the fact that she lets this untidiness into her book to varying degrees, and gives her own strong personality some room to play throughout the text, keeps it from being only charming or sentimentally affecting in a simple way.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Week in Seven Words #256

I'm sorry for the nearly month-long absence on this blog. The reason was a combination of lots of work and a needed blog break.

She peers into the audience, her face nervous and expectant, knowing her family will be there but needing to see them.

"I stink at this," is what one child says every time she doesn't get something right the first time. Who is she echoing?

She sits on the floor in her power suit, at ease when kids tumble around her legs.

They're the same type of people - same background, same lifestyle - so it doesn't matter what they say to each other; they're happy with the knowledge that they're the same and that their conversation will be safe.

Out of pity I buy a small stuffed animal with lumpy ears. A dog, I think. An aspiring dog.

The clean scent of linens in a drawer.

While the others are match sparks and unsteady flames, she's a lamp, steady and gentle in the dark.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Hike in Inwood Hill Park, Walk Down Riverside Drive

At the end of April, I went on a ranger-led hike of Inwood Hill Park at the north tip of Manhattan, then afterwards walked down along the island's west side. The title of the post is a little misleading, because not all of it was on Riverside Drive, but I did cover a long stretch of Riverside Drive too.

The outskirts of Inwood Hill Park look like a typical city park, very pretty in the spring.


Further in, you start getting some more of the local history. Like, here is what some people believe is the exact spot where the Dutch purchased Manhattan for a paltry sum.


As discussed by the ranger, the Dutch and the Native Americans appeared to have different ideas of what the transaction meant (there's an interesting discussion of it here).

The spot, marked by a boulder called Shorakkopoch Rock, used to be the site of a massive, centuries-old tulip tree that was eventually cut down.

Nearby, there are still other tulip trees soaring up.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Week in Seven Words #255

He'll ask you a question he thinks you can't answer. As you pause to think, he'll line up the first words of his lecture. Don't disappoint him by knowing the answer.

Her voice comes at me in puffs and crackles from hundreds of miles away.

Not for a minute do I buy into his kindly Kris Kringle routine. There's a knife's edge to his smile, the glint of a blade.

They leave their office doors open so they can banter across the hallway.

As the elevator takes us down, she crouches in a corner, her arms wrapped around her knees, and watches the numbers with solemn attention.

It's a dystopian scene, the gray crowds removing shoes and belts before filing through the metal detectors.

As they give him advice, he turns his cellphone over and over on the table, his leg shuddering up and down. From time to time, he starts to say something - to defend himself or make himself look more experienced than he is - but they talk over him, and he subsides into a disgruntled silence.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Five Short Stories Featuring Mothers and Daughters

Title: Ashputtle: Or, the Mother’s Ghost
Author: Angela Carter
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

Carter writes three versions of the Cinderella story, not with the 'bibbity bobbity boo' Disney godmother, but with Cinderella's dead mother helping her in some way (usually in the form of a guiding animal spirit). The three versions vary in violence, in the desperate competitiveness between the girl & her mother vs. the tormenting stepmother and her brood, and the freedom the dead mother grants her daughter.

There's only one version where the mother gives her daughter some gifts and then sets her free to embark on life, where it may take her. In others, the vision she has for her daughter is more fixed; she controls her daughter and maneuvers her into a narrow role. It's for her daughter's own good, she would say, because why take chances? But taking chances makes that third version, the freer one, so compelling. The mother trusts her daughter most in that one.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Five Short Stories Featuring Mothers and Sons

Title: Donal Webster
Author: Colm Tóibín
Where I Read It: The Book of Other People

This is a meditative and melancholy story, where the narrator shares his thoughts with someone off-screen. He reflects on the time his mother was dying. They had been distant from each other, and he wonders if he'd made the right choice to move so far from home, to a different continent. Then again, the distance between them was never only physical.

Of the three children (two boys and a girl), he's the less preferred son. It always seemed to him that way. It's possible his mother loved him, but he isn't certain of her love or its strength. Maybe, had he remained close to her side throughout his adult life, they would have enjoyed a more loving relationship, but there's no guarantee it would have made any difference. He's considering what a second chance between them might have meant, knowing it might not have changed anything important. Maybe circumstances were set against him from the start, and he was never meant to receive his mother's closeness or love.

There's much that's left unresolved in this story. The narrator shares it not because he's cleared up a mystery or made a last-minute connection to his distant mother, but because the story seemed to have been echoing in him until he needed to let it out.