Day 733: Little Women

Cover for Little WomenOver the past months I have occasionally reread a childhood favorite to see what I think about it now. The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, for example, came through with honors. Not only were both beautifully written, but I found them as entertaining as an adult as I did as a child.

Little Women doesn’t fare quite as well. I found some of the same parts of it affecting as I did when I was young. Who wouldn’t sympathize with these girls, bravely coping without the things their friends have, doing without their father for over a year, getting along as cheerfully as they can? However, as a child reading the book, I didn’t notice that almost every chapter ends with a moral lesson.

The novel covers about 12 years in the lives of the March family, beginning during the American Civil War. For the first half of the novel, Mr. March is away as a chaplain for the Union army. The main character is Jo March, at the start of the novel a tomboyish, gawky 15-year-old who loves writing and putting on plays, reading, and writing stories.

Her older sister Meg is more ladylike and laments having to wear old things to parties. Beth is the third sister, who is too shy to go to school. Amy is the youngest and a little spoiled. Although there are certainly events in their lives, the story is about how Marmee, their mother, raises them all to be good, productive women.

One of the closest relationships in the novel is the friendship between the family and their neighbor Laurie, a rich young man being raised by his grandfather. This and other relationships are warm ones, and the Marches all seem like real people, as do their friends.

If Alcott could have let up a bit on the moralizing, I would have enjoyed the novel more. The other two novels I mentioned earlier also have moral messages, but they leave the reader to figure them out themselves. Still, I’m sure any young girl reading this novel would be as drawn by it as I was years ago.

My comments have made me wonder what I would think of Eight Cousins, which was actually my favorite book by Alcott when I was a child. I’m a little afraid to find out.

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Day 698: The Namesake

Cover for The NamesakeIn 1968, Ashima Ganguli gives birth to her first child. She has travelled from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to live with her husband, whom she barely knows, and is missing her family in India. When she has a boy, she and her husband Ashoke run into difficulty because they are waiting for a name to arrive from her grandmother. But the American hospital needs to put a name on the birth certificate. Finally, Ashoke picks Gogol, after Nikolai Gogol, a favorite author whom he credits with saving his life after a horrendous train accident when he was a young man.

Gogol grows up embarrassed by his name and rejecting the traditions of his Bengali parents. He is bored through the endless Saturdays spent with his parents’ Bengali friends and the biennial trips to India where they do almost nothing but visit family. His mother, on the other hand, has never stopped missing India. His parents want him to observe the customs of his homeland, while he just wants to be American.

This novel insightfully explores the stresses for Indian immigrants adjusting to American ways and the tensions between the traditional and the present for their first-generation American children. Lahiri’s prose is full of minutely observed details as well as empathy for both generations.

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Day 378: Cascade

Cover for CascadeIt would be nice to know how much O’Hara expects us to like Desdemona Hart Spaulding, the heroine of Cascade. Unfortunately, I think we may be thrust too abruptly into Dez’s troubles to get to like her.

A promising artist who has studied in Boston and Paris, Dez has already been forced to leave that life when we meet her. The Great Depression cost her father his fortune, and he had to close down the famous theater he founded in the resort town of Cascade and sell his treasured First Folio of Shakespeare. Dez was forced to withdraw from art school and hastily married her childhood friend Asa Spaulding so that she and her father would have somewhere to live. Her father dies soon after, and she is taken aback to find he has left the theater to Asa.

Still, considering she married a man with little interest in or understanding of her drive to create art, Asa has set aside a bright room in their house for her studio, and she paints for several hours on most days. Asa wants a child, though, and Dez fears that her precious painting time would be taken up with child rearing. She is secretly doing what she can to prevent conception.

Two things soon make her dissatisfied with her life. Her art school friend Abby stops by on her way to a new life in New York, and suddenly everything in the depressed town looks shabby, even the beloved playhouse. Dez has also formed a friendship with a Jewish man named Jacob Solomon, who has taken over his father’s peddlar’s route. Jacob, though, is a gifted artist who plans to sell his father’s inventory and move to New York, hoping for a job with the Works Progress Administration. He meets Dez once a week to discuss art, but after a dispute, Asa asks her to stop meeting Jacob.

Asa is concerned because the town is under threat. Cascade is one of two possible towns that may be flooded to create a reservoir that will supply water to Boston. Asa wants to mobilize an effort to save Cascade, and Dez has the idea to paint a series of postcards showing Cascade in the past and present in an attempt to garner public support for the town. She is able to sell this idea to a prominent national magazine. All the while, however, she is secretly hoping the town will lose and she will have an excuse to move to a large city. The agreement she makes with the magazine and other disastrous decisions cause her to betray her husband, her town, and finally even Jacob.

I think O’Hara wants us to sympathize with Dez in her growing ambition to go to New York and take up a career in art. But some of her actions don’t just show poor judgment; they are despicable. As the plot advances, I feel less and less sympathy for her.

A review from the Boston Globe calls Dez complex and says she doesn’t always make the right choices. I think it’s worse than that; the trouble is really with where she places her priorities. The town is in danger of dying, in the horrible economy many people’s welfares are at risk, but Dez puts her future as an artist first and barely gives the other townspeople a thought, in fact, seems to feel superior to them. She supposedly yearns to reopen her father’s playhouse but doesn’t seem to give it much attention when it is threatened, although she eventually makes a deal that saves it. She has married for selfish reasons and is all too ready to give up on her marriage.

Of course, the principal theme of the novel is how much to give up for art, but in this case, it is not Dez who does the sacrificing. I wish I had liked this novel better. I think that if we’d had a longer time with Dez in her art student life and gotten to know her before she began a series of lies, deceptions, and betrayals, I could have felt more sympathy with her struggle.

Day 249: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Cover for The Physick Book of Deliverance DaneBest Book of the Week!
Connie Goodwin has just passed her orals in history at Harvard and is one thesis away from her doctorate when her advisor, Manning Chilton, challenges her to find an undiscovered primary source on which to base some subject about Colonial America. She is almost immediately side-tracked in her research by a request from her mother to sort out her grandmother’s long-abandoned house in Marblehead and sell it to pay off back taxes.

Connie finds a very old, filthy house with a gate so overgrown with vines that it’s hard to find the house. Almost immediately she has a few odd glimpses, as if she can vividly picture her grandparents and other people in the house.

While sorting through the objects and papers in the house, she finds evidence of a woman named Deliverance Dane, who was found guilty of witchcraft in the Salem trials and left behind a “recipe” book, possibly of spells. Chilton immediately begins putting pressure on Connie to find the book, as it could provide the first evidence that people were actually practicing witchcraft at that time in Massachusetts. As Connie searches for the book, she makes some astonishing discoveries about her family and herself.

Back in the 17th century, Deliverance Dane, a wise woman or healer, is called to attend a child she cannot save. When the child dies, her father accuses Deliverance of satanism.

Some small things at the beginning of the novel irritated me. In laying the foundation of some basic history, I think Howe condescends to the reader a bit too much. For example, she finds occasion to tell us what a familiar is. Although many people may assume that all familiars are cats and find out differently from this novel, I would be surprised if people didn’t know what they were, if only from remembering their grade school lessons about the Salem witch trials. But perhaps I’m wrong.

There are also a couple of instances where Connie takes awhile to figure out something that she, as a graduate history student, should already know. For example, she doesn’t immediately know that “receipt” is another word for “recipe,” and then she has to explain this term to her professor, supposedly an expert in Colonial America. I am no historian or even generally interested in this period of history, but I knew immediately what the word meant. She does the same thing with figuring out that “Deliverance Dane,” mysterious words on a piece of paper, is someone’s name, as if in all her studies of the period she never encountered such an unusual name.

It is also very easy to see where the novel is going and who will turn out to be a villain. However, I still found it interesting enough to regard it as a strong first novel, especially if you enjoy the mixture of historical fiction and the supernatural. The characters are believable, and both story lines kept my attention. The historical portion seems solidly researched.

And I won’t mention the tomatoes, because it’s just too picky.

Day 247: That Old Cape Magic

Cover for That Old Cape MagicI was so excited by discovering Empire Falls earlier this year that I went right out and bought a more recent book by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic. This novel observes the thoughts of Jack Griffin as his marriage implodes and again a year later as he tries to make amends.

Griffin is obsessed with not becoming his parents, a couple of academic snobs who have spent their lifetimes criticizing everything, willfully ruining other people’s possessions, and making enemies in their Midwest university departments. Yet he has given up a successful screen-writing career to teach at a New England college that his parents always aspired to, and bought an old, charming house. These decisions make him feel like he is living the lives they wanted.

As Griffin carts around his father’s ashes on the way to a wedding on Cape Cod, he behaves spitefully to his wife Joy, whom he blames for the changes in his life. In his drives around the Cape, where he and his family spent all their summers, he thinks about his past, his parents, and his marriage.

In the second part of the novel, he returns to the Cape for his daughter’s wedding with his father’s ashes still in the car, along with his mother’s. He has come with a date but his real desire is to win back his wife.

I think several things hampered me from enjoying this novel as much as I did the other. First, Griffin isn’t very likeable and his parents seem repellant, although we have some evidence that his memories may not all be accurate. One of the difficulties in Griffin’s marriage is his dislike of Joy’s family, but Joy’s family is almost stereotypically drawn as wacky, loud, and obnoxious, so it’s hard to appreciate why Joy cares for them as much as she does. Aside from being uncaring about his wife’s family and her needs, Griffin seems to be clueless about many things in his own life. Generally, since I usually need to relate to at least one character and only Griffin is fully realized, I found the novel a little unsatisfying.

Day 221: The Postmistress

Cover for The PostmistressIn The Postmistress, Frankie Bard is a radio reporter working with Edward R. Murrow in London at the beginning of World War II. She meets an American doctor during the Blitz who has left his new wife at home to come help in London, inspired by Frankie’s broadcasts. He gives her a letter for his wife right before he is hit by a car and killed.

Instead of mailing the letter, Frankie carries it around Europe for three months while she interviews Jews who are fleeing their countries. All that time, the wife, Emma Trask, doesn’t hear from her husband and is not notified of his death. Frankie also witnesses the murders of innocent people by Nazis and never reports them. She just goes home.

In the doctor’s small Massachusetts home town, the postmistress is Iris James. She doesn’t seem to be that important a character, although the book surrounds her with this great mystique that she is the center of the village because she knows all its secrets. What she actually does is withhold a letter to Emma from Dr. Trask’s landlady saying that he has disappeared, and she does this because Emma is pregnant.

I felt this book was entirely frustrating, because I found the characters’ actions inexplicable. What kind of person carries a letter for someone else around in her pocket for three months without mailing it? What kind of reporter witnesses the deaths of innocent people and doesn’t tell anyone about them? A postmistress who withholds a letter from its recipient is disobeying federal law, and I suggest that the upright, responsible Iris wouldn’t think of doing that, let alone reading the letter in the first place. And who would decide it is better for a wife to be left in limbo for years? Trask has already deserted her for the war with very little explanation, which is traumatic enough.

Everything pivotal in this novel seems like a contrivance to me. In addition, the novel that is supposed to be about the postmistress gets hijacked by the reporter, whose actions throughout are irrational. I also feel as though too little attention is paid to the details of life during the war. Frankie’s journey to the continent during the height of German occupation seems to be completed with very little difficulty, and in record time. One reader on Amazon points out that Frankie and her London roommate Harriet have a refrigerator in the room, even though they were uncommon in England in the 1940’s. In other respects, the characters seem oddly untouched by the war. Although Sarah Blake wrote another novel that I enjoyed very much, Grange House, I cannot recommend The Postmistress.

Day 184: Caleb’s Crossing

Cover for Caleb's CrossingBest Book of the Week!

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks is a wonderful novel about life in 17th century Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge. The novel is focused around Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first American Indian to take a degree at Harvard. It is narrated from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, a girl whose thirst for knowledge is only slaked with great difficulty in Puritan New England.

Bethia meets Caleb when they are both twelve. She is wandering around the beaches of her home island, Noepe, later to be called Martha’s Vineyard, in a small act of rebellion because she is not supposed to be alone. She has already been halted in her education by her father, a minister and missionary to the Indians, who sees how her superior abilities humiliate her brother Makepeace.

Caleb is not one of the “praying Indians” who have adopted Christianity and moved closer to town. By all rights Bethia should avoid him. But she loves nature and is happy for Caleb to teach her about the island’s wildlife and learn his language while she teaches him English, reading, and writing. Although their relationship is perfectly innocent, it remains a secret and is naturally broken off as they grow older.

In learning more about English ways, and particularly about writing, Caleb decides he can best help his people by becoming more educated. His path continues together with Bethia’s, as a series of tragedies result in Bethia’s agreement to sacrifice herself for Makepeace’s tuition by working as an indentured servant for the teacher who is preparing Caleb, his friend Joel, and Makepeace to enter Harvard. As Caleb struggles with his adoption of the English culture, Bethia struggles with her own desires for an intellectual life in a culture that only recognizes one path for her–marriage and motherhood.

Although a few historical figures appear in the novel, little is known of Caleb and Joel–both historical figures–so the account is completely fictionalized. For example, Bethia’s father Thomas Mayfield is based on Thomas Mayhew, Jr., who did not have a daughter.

This is an enthralling novel, an evocative picture of the place and times, and Bethia and Caleb are memorable characters.

Day 148: The Map of True Places

Cover for The Map of True PlacesThe Map of True Places is another very good book by Brunonia Barry. Zee is a psychotherapist with a shattering past. The death of her patient Lilly, a bipolar housewife who jumped off a bridge, has brought back to Zee memories of her own mother’s suicide. Her father Finch was unfaithful to her bipolar mother with another man, and when Zee was 11, her mother committed suicide by swallowing strychnine. Zee came home in time to witness the fatal convulsions.

Zee goes to visit her father and finds that his Parkinson’s disease has turned to dementia and he has kicked his partner Melville out of the house. She decides to take a leave of absence from her practice to care for Finch. Trying to come to terms with the past and figure out what to do with Finch, she begins to doubt everything in her life. As she finds out the truth about many of the myths in her life, Zee also finds clues about what happened to Lilly in her final days.

This second book of Barry’s is also set in Salem, Massachusetts, and features some of the same characters as in The Lace Reader. I have really enjoyed both of Barry’s books. She creates a strong sense of place in the quirky Salem and populates her novels with complex, interesting characters.

Day 145: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Cover for MayflowerMayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War is an eye-opening history of the Pilgrims, starting with their journey to America in 1620 and ending roughly 50 years later with King Philip’s War. King Philip’s War began as a small local conflict between the Plymouth Colony and King Philip, the sachem of the Pokanokets, and ended as a regional war that killed, author Nathaniel Philbrick reveals, a higher percentage of the population than any other American war.

What makes Mayflower most interesting is how Philbrick takes on the old myths–Plymouth Rock (if a rock was used, it wasn’t that one), the first Thanksgiving (actually begun by Abraham Lincoln, although there was a feast in early fall), Squanto (not such a nice guy), the courtship of Miles Standish–and provides new ways of looking at what happened.

Although the book touches on many aspects of the Pilgrims’ lives, a major theme is their relationship with the native people. The very bonds formed when Massasoit and the Pokanokets saved the original settlers from starvation and illness, when broken by the Pilgrims’ sons, are those that resulted in the destabilization of the entire New England region for years to come.

The book provides fascinating insights into these people, who had a mission for their own lives but little tolerance for others, who bravely founded a successful colony but fathered offspring whose greed, rigidity, and racism almost destroyed the results of those efforts. With his focus on relations with Native Americans, Philbrick skims over some other important elements, for example, the Pilgrims’ dissident faith, the expulsion of Roger Williams, the relationship between Plymouth and the colonies founded by Puritans and others. However, the book is focused on a topic that is interesting to a 21st century audience and has not had much discussion.

Day 68: The Lace Reader

Cover for The Lace ReaderFrom the very beginning of The Lace Reader, the main character tells us she is a liar. The first time I read this book, I paid attention to that comment, but I could not detect any lies and eventually I forgot about that statement. As it turns out, Towner is not really lying, but Brunonia Barry’s novel is an outstanding example of the use of an unreliable narrator, and a haunting story.

Towner Whitney has not been home to Salem, Massachusetts, for 17 years, ever since her twin sister Lyndley committed suicide and she herself had a breakdown and was institutionalized. Now her brother calls asking her to return home because her great-aunt Eva has disappeared.

Towner’s female relatives are all unusual. She comes from a family of lace readers–people who can read the future in a piece of lace–and although she refuses to read, she is clairvoyant and can read people’s minds. These abilities, which she rejects, make her feel unstable, especially since she has gaps in her memory from electro-shock therapy. Towner’s mother May never leaves the island where she harbors abused women and teaches them how to make lace, and her aunt Emma has brain damage from a history of abuse by her husband Cal.

In Salem again, Towner waits for news of Eva. She learns that one of the police officers, Rafferty, is sure that Cal had something to do with Eva’s disappearance as he has been threatening her and other members of her family.

Salem itself is almost a character with its witch-based tourist industry, and now Cal has formed a group of religious cultists who call themselves Calvinists and who taunt the witches and threaten them with damnation. It’s a bad place for Towner to be, and she is just deciding to leave again when Eva’s body turns up.

The Lace Reader is a wonderful book, layered with secrets, an exploration in the difference between perception and reality. With an atmospheric setting, characters to care about, and a compelling plot, the book is a real page-turner. The last few paragraphs made me re-evaluate everything I had read.