Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011.

Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Real Jo Marsh

I just finished reading Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever. I knew that Little Women was a fictionalized and romanticized story of Alcott's life, and I wanted to know more about the real woman behind Jo Marsh. I knew that her life was not as happy as the books would have us think, but I had no idea just how difficult and rich it was. Her father invented himself, including a name change, to present himself to the world as an intellectual philosopher. The great literary names of the time: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Henry James, Hawthorne, Peabody, Horace Mann were close family friends, some lending housing and financial support to the idealistic, unworldly Alcott and his starving family.

LMA wrote to survive and support her family and felt the financial pressure of having people depending on her throughout her life. Her most honest writing was contained in her memoir of her time as a nurse in a Union Hospital, where she was treated with mercury. This "cure" damaged her health, and she never recovered the robust health of her youth. Her family avoided doctors, which accounts for their generally healthy and long lives. Medical treatment of the time was as likely to kill as cure.

The book is a good overall general introduction to the real woman behind Little Women without going into so much scholarly detail that the reader becomes lost in the thicket. There are references to other, more specialized studies and biographies for the curious reader.

For me, this fit the bill admirably. It told me just what I wanted to know without being overwhelming.  Cheever's personal experience and insight into the writer's mind and the writing process brings a depth of understanding to bear on a person whose entire life revolved around the creative process and the life events that supported or thwarted this impulse.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Goodbye to Maeve Binchy

I was sorry to read of Maeve Binchy's death at age 76. She was one of my favorite authors. I admired her ability to create a sense of place without heavy use of dialect. A word here and there, a particular choice of word order, now and then an eejit accusation leveled against a character was all it took to let us know that we were in Ireland. Her books have given me hours of pleasure over the years. It is some consolation to learn that she had just turned in a manuscript to her editor that is slated for publication in October. We will have one more Maeve Binchy book, this one called A Week in Winter, to warm us inside an out during the cold weather. I plan to brew a cup of my favorite tea, toast some soda bread, and snuggle up and relax one last time with one of the great ones.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Happy birthday, Maeve Binchy. I suppose it's not fashionable to admit reading your stories with their happily-ever-after endings. Not edgy enough, I suppose. But I do love your storytelling ability, and your characters seem so real. You make me believe that if I ever visit Dublin that I could have a meal at Quintons, and find my own circle of friends, or study Italian at night school. Your people are so sensible, even when they make wrong choices or hurt one another. Your readers care about them and what happens to them. We learn about life, love and happiness. And this is no small thing.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Catherine the Great v. Marie Antoinette

Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette were nearly exact contemporaries. Both were obscure princesses moved about on the political chessboard that was 18th-century Europe. Both left their homes at a very young to live in a land where they were considered to be foreigners, auslanders, outsiders, to be married to men who weren't particularly interested in getting down to the responsibility assigned to them: produce an heir to the throne. The people, food, and language were strange. They were surrounded by intrigue and untrustworthy "friends." They both had rather overbearing mothers who couldn't seem to understand that they couldn't continue to pull the strings and make their daughters dance. Such different results, though. One becomes a great success, one of the greatest leaders Russia has ever known, and the other . . . well, not so much. Why?

I have read several bios of Marie Antoinette; my favorite is by Antonia Fraser. I just finished reading a biography of Catherine by Simon Dixon while I'm waiting for my name to float to the top of the wait list for Robert K. Massie's new bio. I realized while reading Dixon's book that Catherine and Marie Antoinette were not unusual in their circumstances. A princess is only as good as her marriage, and princesses were moved all over Europe like chess pieces. What makes the difference between Catherine and Marie Antoinette is not the circumstances but the personalities. Catherine grasps the reality of her situation immediately and settles down to spend eighteen years studying how best to please her mother-in-law, her husband, and the Russian people. Two out of three isn't a bad score, and she becomes a great leader. Marie Antoinette is the poster girl for the song "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Liberated from the strict oversight of her Austrian mother and turned loose in the French court, she didn't know where to stop while enjoying herself. Tragedy ensues.

After reading the books, I realize that pure situational intelligence, shrewdness, and survival skills were gifts that Catherine brought to the game, while all Marie Antoinette had to depend on was a pretty face a gentle nature, and trust that men meant what they said. Not enough. A princess needed a bit of ruthlessness to survive then, and now as well, I suspect.

There once was a man . . .

There once was a fellow named Lear
Who brought lots of laughter and cheer
With poems full of cheese
And bad rhymes like these
And to us he became rather dear.

The best limerick I remember was written by a friend, John Woolley. From memory, it goes something like this:

A pretentious young poet named Tennyson
Called every blessing a benison.
A lake was a mere;
When dry it is was sere;
He referred to his wife as "my venison."

What are your favorite clever limericks?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Happy Birthday, Marge Piercy

You are an amazing writer: novelist, poet, memoirist, essayist. Your works shine with a brilliant light. I wish I had time to sit and read everything you ever wrote. I'm working my way through your works and dread the day I run out of your material. I'm reading slowly to make them last.

Whose work do you read slowly?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Summer blockbuster

Last fall I saw a trailer for a movie coming out this summer. Remember the game called Battleship? My father taught me how to play when I was about eight years old. It involves pencils and graph paper. You draw ships in the little squares and call out coordinates to find your opponents ships and destroy them. Nothing could be simpler. No moving pieces to lose, no strategy, just search and destroy. Great game for a kid. Two pencils, two pieces of paper, two players, and you're in business.

Well, Hollywood has taken this simple concept and turned it into a special effects extravaganza due to be released this summer, and my heart rejoices.

Is it because of the fond memories I have of playing with my father? No.

Is it because Hollywood has turned it into a thing of beauty and a joy forever, fleshing out the simple game with memorable, three-dimensional characters? No.

Is it because of the quality of the casting? No.

The reason?

When it's been 100+ degrees for two months, and the heat rash is attacking me, and I can't touch any of the metal parts of my car for fear of second-degree burns . . . then it is I desire to sit in an air-conditioned movie theater and watch things blow up. I particularly enjoy watching things come out of the ocean to be blown up, although watching things blow up and then sink into the ocean is also good. I couldn't care less who is the the movie so long as lots of things blow up and/or sink. I saw a trailer for this movie last fall and felt the thrill of the promise of the perfect summer movie.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Pillars of the Earth

Finished reading Ken Follett's epic novel that centers on the building of a cathedral and the people whose lives are bound up with it.  I have been plagued lately by the memory of a scene in a book but couldn't remember title or author. I wish I had kept a book log all my life instead of just the past five years. I have bits and pieces of books floating around in my memory, and matching them up with titles and authors is sometimes impossible. As I'm reading POTE, I realize that I had read it before and forgotten everything except the one scene I've been trying to remember. No chance of losing it this time. I put it in my book log.

I like to read all my books simultaneously on my Kindle. I read a chapter, then move on to the next book. Coming around to the start is like meeting old friends again. Sort of like watching a miniseries on television, it's a way of making a book last longer. This didn't work with POTE. I was so engaged from the very beginning that I had to read it straight through, and I put all my other reading aside to do it. It was worth it, but I was exhausted by the end of the marathon read.

Now I'm reading the sequel, World Without End, and I'm back to my old method - read a chapter then move on to the next book.

What was the last book that gripped you so much you couldn't put it down?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Happy birthday, Christopher Guest

You are responsible for many of the laughs I have enjoyed. From This is Spinal Tap to Best in Show, your wit and humor light up my life.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Crispin photos

I love the work of Jon Crispin so much that I asked him for permission to use the image at the head of my blog and for a print I could frame. I also loved this image:

The serene monochrome colors of the beach photo are going into my bedroom for relaxation. The image of the wound up energy and power of the swimmer, just waiting to be released, is going by my door. It will be the last thing I see as I leave to release my own energy onto the world. If you would like to see more of Jon's work, here's a link to his blog:

The swimmer's story is in the October 2010 archive.

Thanks, Jon.