Tuesday, February 24, 2009

1970s Anger Clouds Nineteenth Century Life

8. Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxton

Not only is this biography outdated, but it exemplifies a wonderful reason why some books deserve to be outdated. I picked it up in a used bookstore, and bought it because I adore Louisa May Alcott and the last biography I read on her was definitely a children's book. Still, from what I remember of that book, one or the other has got to have some facts wrong.

The problem I have with Martha Saxton is not that her facts are wrong in general, but that she speculates far too widely and twists every word to make her point. Her thesis, essentially, is that Louisa was never happy with herself and was stunted emotionally and sexually due to her upbringing, namely her mother's martyrdom and her father's philosophy, and that most of her books are examples of her stunted, morally binary pain. That makes me so angry.

Saxton makes statements like (I'm paraphrasing) "Moods is undoubtedly her best work," and "Louisa never lived up to her potential because of her father," and "Abba (Louisa's mother) was unhappy all of the time." You can't say that! No biographer writing seventy years after her subject has died, knows that! Yes, all of the Alcotts left copious journals, but Saxton herself admits Louisa burned many of her journals. And then she makes assertions about what was in those burned journals! How does she know?

The book is not even particularly concerned with Louisa for at least the first half. The book begins with her parents' (Bronson and Abba) courtship and focuses (with much speculation) on their relationship, characters, motivations, and behaviors. At least title it, A Biography of the Alcott Family then!

The parts that annoy me most though are when she deconstructs Louisa's books and "explains" them in terms of who or what Louisa is "really" writing about. Apparently, half her male characters are actually Henry Thoreau. It's certainly accepted that Louisa had an adolescent crush on Thoreau, but Saxton takes it far too far.

She calls some of my favorite characters, like Rose from Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, priggish and boring and claims that not only Louisa, but her readers, didn't like them. She did help me see patterns in Louisa's writing and of course it relates to her transcendental upbringing, and yes there is "preaching" in the books, but isn't it possible Louisa believed she was doing a good thing or even being satirical? Perhaps I too, am obsessed with moral goodness and believe women can only be realized through men.

Alcott's books do reflect the views of her time, but her characters really are timeless. Even if Saxton's claims are true, why does it take away from Louisa's literary merit?

This was published in 1977 and is highly reflective of extreme feminist views. She continuously writes (another thing, she is REALLY repetitive) how Louisa's mother taught her to be afraid of men, and she could see all their problems stemmed from her father. It really makes me want to write my own, hopefully less biased and more accurate, biography of one of my favorite authors. Are there any more 'modern' biographies on her out there that I should know of?

Friday, February 20, 2009

I Think I May Become a Regular...

at the Harvard Bookstore's events. I heard Azadeh Moaveni speak there on Thursday night.

Despite her bronchitis, she was extremely well-spoken and very, well, different than I had imagined her while reading Lipstick Jihad. She came across as a lot more politically observant, calm, and thoughtful in person. She talked about the issues of her new book; the rise and fall of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's popularity, the changing priorities as her generation in Iran grows up, and her own experience with Persian weddings. I did purchase Honeymoon in Tehran and get it signed, and will be reading it probably within the next few weeks or so. I'm still chugging on through a bitter feminist biography on Louisa May Alcott (though I may take a break for Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ch-ch-check it out

I was just in Rodney's Bookstore. Their postcards are kind of hilarious, I bought two. Also, they have a ridiculous poetry collection, like I'm going straight there next time I have to read a bunch of emo Victorian poets.

Note to self: Stop saying ridiculous so much.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Get Your Lobo Ready

7. World War Z by Max Brooks

Read this book NOW. World War Z is an account from multiple survivors all over the world of the Great Zombie War. Find out how the outbreak began, how governments reacted, the catastrophes that resulted, how rebels and soldiers and ordinary people survived.

In all seriousness, this book feels absolutely accurate. Beyond the questionable existence of the undead, the accounts from all facets of every society; Israel's self-quarantine, the several versions of South Africa's "Redeker" plan (protect a desirable percentage of the people, hole up and cut your losses), the nuclear outbreak between Iran and Pakistan, the abandonment of Japan and China (the outbreak begins in China), various navy defections, of course the behavior of idealistic, individualistic Americans, and all variety of psychological epidemics; seem plausible. Which returns me to why this book needs to be read now.

Max Brooks demonstrates at least a shallow if not thorough understanding of the current culture of every country he portrays. This book would be a great way for teens to start learning, in a fun way, about what motivates the international community. This is the best time to read it to get references that I'm afraid will quickly be out of date. I'm sure this book could be classic, but let's face it, Cold War references aren't so hot anymore. That said, it does even hark back to earlier periods in history that will always shape some part of the culture of certain places.

I tend to be a scaredy-cat sometimes with books and especially movies (at 8, the madwoman in Jane Eyre made me hide under the covers with the lights on). The descriptions are naturally a little macabre, as with the use of the "Lobo," a two-sided spear intended for zombie brain destruction, but nothing that can't be read in the daytime. I liked it so much, I bought it for my sister for her birthday. I can't praise it more than that.

Friday, February 6, 2009

6. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Margaret Lea is an irresistible narrator. The back story of her character provided the basis for this entire literary suspense novel. While I tend to look down on sensationalism and mystery, this book was so well written as almost to obliterate my prejudices. The book is infused with smooth literary references and the absolute truth of certain lines is memorable and valuable.

Perhaps I was seduced more than other readers would be by the bookshop Lea grows up in, and by the two main characters, Lea and Miss Winter. Like Margaret, I am quiet and bookish. Like Miss Winter, I write dark stories and have green eyes.

I was quite impressed by Setterfield's description of settings. It has been a long time since I have been able to so vividly picture a place in a book. Yet, again and again, from the bookshop to Miss Winter's home to the dilapidated estate Angelfield, I felt as if I were there too. This kind of skill is particularly important to a suspense novel.

The main story centers on Miss Winter's alleged biography, which Margaret is transcribing. Vida Winter is a world-famous British author of several novels, yet she never tells anyone the truth about where she came from. Whether she really is telling Margaret the truth is part of the mystery. The story, while alluring, was not all it could have been for me because I've heard it all before. What is with the current craze on incest and mental disturbance in old aristocratic families? From Philippa Gregory's Wideacre Trilogy to the Bastard of Istanbul, I'm sick of it.

I don't need more deviant sex, or even the implication of it in my books. I WANT THIS TREND TO BE OVER. It's not liberating at this point, it's just...boring. *end rant*

I would recommend The Thirteenth Tale despite my objections merely for the sake of what I did love about it. It is an engrossing read, and I am curious as to whether it will stand the test of time.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Always More Where That Comes From

5. Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi

Everyone has something they'd rather not talk about; their true feelings for parents or relatives, youthful mistakes, diseases, money, religion, death, sex. Azar Nafisi has tried to set loose her memories and feelings about her mother, and to a lesser extent, her father and other relatives and old family friends. She is upfront about her uneasiness, even an unwillingness to do what she feels she must, go against her mother's wishes and "air her dirty laundry." While the book is certainly exposing, of her father's affairs, of her less than charitable feelings, her favoring of her father over her mother, it always feels like there is something left hidden. I'm not even saying there shouldn't be, just that there is. Maybe it is because Nafisi herself has so little information about her mother and her mother's mother. Just like in Reading Lolita, when the Islamic Republic of Iran tries to deny her fiction, her mother's fictions deny her the truth.

Again, Nafisi delves into the relationship between fiction and reality, but not so deeply nor intellectually. This is not a "self-help book" as Nafisi says, neither is it particularly illuminating in the realm of ideas. One does see the shadow of the book Nafisi wants to write, the one she put aside for this memoir, called The Republic of the Imagination.

Nafisi's style is inherently readable, it is pleasant, well-organized, and reminiscent of a conversation with a friend. It can be repetitive, but she is so persistent and charming that it does not irk overmuch. The setting of her childhood and adulthood, Tehran, lends some interest to her memoir that the typical American suburbanite could never have. Her previous book lends her authority as well.

In terms of literature, Things I've Been Silent About is not important. In terms of getting to know one of my favorite authors even better, I am very well satisfied.