THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT

Poor Hannah Green, the protagonist of Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, by Michael Marshall Smith.  At the outset of the book, she’s an 11 year old girl living in Santa Cruz, California, going to school, doing all the usual boring things kids have to do.  Her parents are separating, her mother going to London for a “business trip”, her father sinking into depression as he tries to take care of her and himself. Her life seems utterly mundane and she can’t see any possibility that it’s ever going to be different.  Things pick up a little when her father sends her to stay with her Granddad, a somewhat eccentric itinerant free spirit, living to the north. At least she gets out of school for a while, and she gets to spend time with an interesting person whose behavior is never quite predictable.

Then things start getting a little odd. It turns out that her grandfather is somewhat older than she’d thought.  In fact, he’s a couple of hundred years older. And those bizarre little sculptures he gave her and her parents might not just be attempts at art, but protections against dangerous forces.  Her grandfather, Hannah slowly comes to discover, knows quite a lot about those dangerous forces, because two hundred years ago, he built a device for the devil which converts human evil into energy the devil can use.  Her grandfather has been taking care of this device ever since, but now, for reasons unknown, something has gone wrong with it, and the devil himself is coming to ask for her grandfather’s help, and of course her grandfather isn’t going to leave her alone while he gallivants around creation with the devil.  Mundane is now a thing of the past.

This is a great fun book, one you’ll keep reading just because you have no idea what’s going to happen next: at one point the devil, Hannah, her grandfather and an accident imp named Vaneclaw find themselves in a spot in Siberia which is the exact middle of nowhere; at another point, Hannah finds herself in hell, though it’s called the Behind here and isn’t at all the sort of hell you’d picture from Dante and other medieval sources.  They run into all sorts of other characters, both demonic and human (and non human and non demonic, but I’m not going to spoil the fun on that). One of the critical mechanisms in the plot involves an antique roller coaster (and believe me, you will never ride an old roller coaster with quite the same mentality again after reading this). All the while, the author has such a sure sense of character and plot that you’re confident this will all come together somehow, but you have no idea how, and that’s what keeps you reading.

Well, that’s part of what keeps you reading.  The other part is the characters, all of whom are vivid and fully developed, from Hannah (who is not, fortunately, one of those utterly precocious and unbelievable children you see too often in fiction, especially fantasy), to her grandfather (whose hidden depths never quite obliterate our sense of who he has been throughout the book), to Hannah’s parents (both clearly drawn and neither a cliche of midlife crisis and working too hard to be a good spouse or a good parent), to the aforementioned Vaneclaw (whom most of the characters can’t see, but who is described as looking like a large mushroom with arms and legs), to Nash (a particularly nasty gang member who’s traveling across country to fulfill a destiny he can’t quite understand), to the devil himself.

I really want to give a shout out to the author for the character of the devil. It’s not easy to take a figure so infamous, so often portrayed in fiction and movies and the like, and make him fresh and interesting, but Smith manages that trick.  The devil is not a nice guy; he doesn’t even have redeeming social value, and a couple of times in the course of the book I had to stop and wonder why I was rooting for him to succeed when he spends so much of his time and energy causing destruction and misery to others. But I do root for him, and Hannah’s grandfather and the rest of the characters on his side, to succeed, despite his horrible behavior in general.

The book is full of surprises, including the humor that pops up here and there, and the way the plot winds and unwinds itself, and the way the characters keep revealing different abilities and quirks.  The ending is satisfying without being obvious, and from now on I, for one, will be looking around for other books by Michael Marshall Smith, if they’re as much fun as this one.

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ANOTHER SIDE OF DRACULA: RENFIELD, SLAVE OF DRACULA

I’m a cautious fan of alternate versions of famous books.  Sometimes a new writer looking at a classic is able to illuminate it, show us aspects we never would have seen for ourselves.  Longbourn, by Jo Baker, is a good example of this, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants working in the Bennet’s household.  It can be difficult, though, to get it right, especially if the point of view character in the new book is someone who doesn’t last through the whole of the original book.  Renfield, Slave of Dracula, by Barbara Hambly, stars one of those characters, and if Barbara Hambly weren’t an excellent writer (she is; go check out her other books, especially her Benjamin January mystery series), I would have been reluctant to give the book a try.  Which would have been too bad, because she manages to pull it off: a view of the events of Dracula from a character who’s usually seen as minor, which brings depth to that character and to all the other characters he touches.

We all know the outlines of Renfield’s story from Dracula: he’s the guy who was involved with Dracula before Jonathan Harker, who had a complete breakdown as a result and ended up in the asylum run by Dr. Jack Seward, eating flies and spiders and ranting about the lives he needed to ingest.  He’s something of a grotesque in the original, a contrast to Jonathan and a person who invites Dracula into the asylum where Mina Harker is staying, so Dracula can attack her and so the rest of the book’s plot can unfold. In the original, Dracula kills Renfield in the asylum for his unfaithfulness, long before Van Helsing and the others chase Dracula to his home in Transylvania.  

Hambly turns Renfield into a person with his own history, his own needs and his conflicts.  For most of the book, Renfield relates his side of events via letters to his absent wife and daughter, whom he has hidden away before his commitment to Seward’s asylum, to protect them from his wife’s conniving family.*  He comes across as an erudite, educated man with a past in India of the British Raj, and his obsession with eating flies and spiders and the like becomes more understandable (though still kind of bizarre). His relationship with Dracula is complex; we never learn how he met Dracula and how Dracula achieved his power over Renfield, but he finds himself seeing through Dracula’s eyes and feeling what his master feels (which, by the way, gives us the events we’re familiar with from Dracula).  He’s a sympathetic character, especially when you see how mentally ill people are treated in this era and especially in this asylum, where the lovesick Dr. Seward isn’t paying too much attention to how his staff earns extra money.  

Even where Hambly diverges from the original plot, she’s scrupulous about using characters and events that are part of the original.  In this version, Renfield allies himself with Dracula’s wives, who have come to England to follow their master and to make sure he’s not setting himself up a new harem in England.  We’ve seen the wives in Dracula, though they weren’t as differentiated as they are here.  Each has her own personality (Elizabeth, the oldest, is the most like her husband, cold and cruel), and one of them, Nomie, sees Renfield as more than just a means to their ends but as a person in his own right. She becomes such a major character that if you’re aware of the fates of Dracula’s wives, you spend a lot of time worrying about her fate and how Renfield is going to react to it.

Ah, you ask, but how does the author get around the death of Renfield?  Very cleverly, I answer, but I’m not going to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that his destiny makes perfect sense in the context of the vampire world (and that’s as much of a hint as I’m going to give), allowing him to be an actor in the events that lead to Dracula’s destruction.

There’s one major twist in the book which I didn’t foresee, but, shocking as it is at the time, when I thought about what we already knew up to that point, it felt fair, not as if the author were twisting the plot just for the sake of twists (coughGoneGirlcough).  Renfield is our protagonist; he’s not a hero, but he’s understandable and he brings new light to Dracula and the other characters around him.

You don’t have to have read Dracula in order to enjoy this book (though why haven’t you read it? It’s a fun book and a classic); what you probably already know from having seen various movie versions of Dracula and what you know from living in this culture will be enough to give you all the background you need. Of course, if you have read the original, it’s even more fun to read this.  Introduce yourself to a new and fascinating Renfield, here at The Field Library.

 

*And yes, this means this book can be used as an epistolary novel for the purposes of the 2019 Reading Challenge.

 

MOTHER LOVE: WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE

It seems as if I’ve been circling around Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette for years.  I know I’ve suggested it to the book group a couple of times, though it’s never become one of our selections.  It qualified on last year’s reading challenge as a Book Set in the Arctic or Antarctic (though most of the action of the book takes place in Seattle, the parts set in Antarctica are a key part of the book, and as you know, I am pretty open minded about what qualifies in any given category), and this year it will qualify for the category “Read a Collection of Letters or an Epistolary Novel” (and while there is some actual narration interspersed with the various emails and other documents of the book, this one definitely qualifies as an epistolary novel). If at some point I choose a category like “Read a book about architecture or architects,” it would qualify there, too.  It was, finally, about time I read the book, and, having done so, I’m a little annoyed at myself for having waited so long.

Don’t let the fact of its being an epistolary novel scare you.  While much of the story is told through emails and memos and magazine articles, it is perfectly easy to follow, and in fact, the different tones and perspectives of the writers of those emails make for a great deal of the humor of the book. You have no problem figuring out who’s talking even without looking at the headings of the emails, and of course our narrator’s first person additions and interpolations help set the contexts too.

The thing I loved most about  this book were the characters, and what juicy, fun characters they were!  Bernadette is a middle aged woman with a teenage daughter, a husband who’s a genius working at Microsoft, and serious problems dealing with the world.  She doesn’t fit in with the other mothers at her daughter’s school: she doesn’t volunteer, she doesn’t gossip, and she basically considers those other mothers as “gnats”, small annoying things that aren’t worth the effort to swat. Naturally, those other mothers have issues with her, especially Rachel Griffin (one of the other main characters of the book), and these issues reach tragi-comic proportions as the plot winds on (including a mudslide that nearly destroys Rachel’s house, for which both Rachel and Bernadette share the blame).  Bernadette doesn’t get along well with most people, and spends most of her time in the family’s home, which is a horror movie dream, a former school/home for unwed mothers which leaks everywhere and is being infiltrated by blackberry vines even under the floors. What makes Bernadette’s willingness to hide away in that particular house all the more curious is that, before she became something of a hermit and a professional character, Bernadette was a brilliant architect, awarded a Macarthur Genius Grant back when she was living in L.A. (a case, clearly, of the shoemaker’s kids going barefoot).  She rants at other drivers and at all aspects of Seattle life (don’t get her started on Canadians), she doesn’t care what people think of her, and she’s something of a scandal in town in general. But as we get to see her through her daughter’s eyes, and through her own words, we come to realize that she’s not just a stock “nutty mother” type, but an interesting person we come to care about.

Part of the humanizing of Bernadette comes from her daughter, Bee’s, perspective on her. Bee, a very smart and accomplished young lady who’s planning to go away to boarding school in the East for high school, adores her mother, and sees nothing wrong with Bernadette’s behavior.  She stands up to the other mothers of the school and to anyone else who tries to give Bernadette a hard time, and she’s willing to upend her whole life when Bernadette goes missing.

Which happens twice in the novel, first when Elgin, Bernadette’s husband, tries to stage an intervention to get Bernadette committed to a mental hospital (there’s a lot going on in this book, all of which makes sense in context, but all of which, when looked at from a wider perspective, is kind of bizarre), and Bernadette disappears from a locked bathroom, leaving no note or other hint of where she’s going, and second, when she disappears from a cruise ship in Antarctica.  Bee refuses to believe that her mother is dead, and especially not that she committed suicide, so Bee and her father head down to Antarctica themselves, officially so Bee can get “closure,” but actually so Bee can find out what actually happened to her mother.

I am not doing this funny, fast-moving and charming book justice.  It came out in 2012, so I have come late to its delights (though I am certainly going to read Maria Semple’s other books now that I’ve seen how well she writes), but the best thing about reading in general is that it’s never too late to discover something wonderful.  So spend some time with Bernadette and Bee and the whole wild cast of characters orbiting around them, and settle in for some fun.

 

TIME TRAVEL FOR FUN AND CONFUSION

The later part of 2018 was a good time for books about time travel (or possibly I was just looking for time travel books and happened to get lucky).  We had Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates, and Time and Time Again: Sixteen Trips in Time by Robert Silverberg, and Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas, which I’m going to review here.

But first, I want to nominate this book for the worst title of 2018.  Is it easy to remember? Not in the least; I had to look it up myself to check it out.  Is it a clever, pun-like title, or a play on some well-known phrase? Not at all. Is it a title that gives you an idea of the book’s genre?  Nope; between the title and the cover, you’d be forgiven for thinking this might be some kind of historical novel, possibly a romance (and yes, I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but obviously we all do, to some extent).  Does the title reflect what the book is about? Not really. Yes, the main character had been a prefect for Miss Blaine, and there is a golden samovar in the story which does play a minor role, but it’s not the focus of the book in any way (I kept hoping, as I read on, that the samovar would play a more prominent part, but it doesn’t). The worst part about the title, though, is that it doesn’t invite a reader to check the book out, and that’s a  shame, because the book is a hoot.

Our protagonist, Shona McMonagle, is a Scottish graduate of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a fact of which she is very proud, and a connection which leads directly to her time traveling adventure.  She is, in the present world, a librarian (another reason to like her), and she has a particular loathing for the book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for its slanderous portrayal of her alma mater, to the point where she deliberately tries to keep the book out of the hands of unsuspecting readers (and I will admit here that I had a sneaking admiration for her efforts in that regard; there are books I’ve felt the same way about, though I haven’t gone as far as Shona).  When the founder of the school finds Shona at the library and offers her the opportunity to travel back in time for a week to complete a mission, Shona is the kind of woman who jumps at the opportunity, even though she doesn’t know exactly what the mission is (and for most of the book, she’s in the dark about the nature of her mission, and even about exactly when she finds herself).

She goes back to Tsarist Russia, and finds herself in the middle of a mystery  involving the strange deaths of certain widows, which she assumes is part of her mission.  She’s provided with a house, money, and a serf, “Old Vatrushkin,” who acts as her coachman and in various other capacities as he’s needed.

If you are a fan of Elizabeth Peters, you are going to enjoy Shona.  She has the Amanda Peabody certainty of her rightness, and the indomitable spirit, with a modern feminism and egalitarianism thrown in.  If you are a fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next (and if you haven’t read that series, starting with The Eyre Affair, you don’t know what you’re missing), you’ll also like Shona’s roll-up-your-sleeves-and-deal-with-the-weirdness attitude, which is like Thursday’s.  Shona has all kinds of modern knowledge and skills, but the humor in the story (and there’s a lot of humor in it) lies in the fact that Shona isn’t as smart as she thinks she is.  You, the reader, will be a couple of steps ahead of her, shaking your head at her assumptions, as bodies pile up and attempts are made on her life as she tries to accomplish what she thinks is her mission (she’s wrong about that, too), but that’s part of the fun.

Don’t bother trying to figure out how historically accurate Tsarist Russia is here.  Just sit back and enjoy the wild ride, the amusing characters, from Shona herself to the multitalented “Old Vatrushkin” (who’s actually only 29, so hardly old; he reminds me of Mel Brooks’ character in The Twelve Chairs, in fact), to the evil duchess and the intriguingly gorgeous Sasha and the innocent Lidia and her nanny, and the many almost farcical incidents of the plot (an early scene in which Shona wows a bunch of decadent Russian aristocrats by teaching them Scottish dances is one of my favorites, and it leads to other plot developments later).

There’s a hint at the end of the book that we haven’t seen the last of Shona and her time travels, and I, for one, am looking forward to her future adventures, though I certainly hope whoever names the next book will do a better job and make it more likely that she will have the readership she deserves.

 

FACING THE DARKEST PART OF PARENTHOOD: THE CHANGELING

Did you ever read a book that was so good it made you want to look up the author and read everything else that person ever wrote, including short stories, novels, essays, shopping lists?  I’ve had that experience a few times this year, and the most recent time was with The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle.  This book was tied for the World Fantasy Award for 2018, and, having read it, I can certainly understand how this would have been one of the very best.  It’s so good I now have Victor Lavalle on my list of authors whose back catalog I want to explore at length.

One of the things that makes The Changeling such a powerful read is how deeply it’s grounded in the real world. Yes, it’s a fantasy novel, and yes, there are some supernatural things going on (though it takes you a while to realize what they are, and they are not necessarily the things you think might be supernatural, and I am not going to be more specific about that, lest I spoil the fun of the book), but the world in which the main characters live and move is the incredibly detailed and believable world of modern day New York City.  The parties’ baby is born, for instance, in a subway car stuck between stations, and both the details of the labor and birth and the details of the setting are so vivid you feel as if you were actually witnessing it as it happened. The climactic battle takes place in Forest Hills, Queens, in a park and a neighborhood that likewise is filled with mundane, telling details that make it clear this is a place the author knows and understands.

Apollo Kagwa and his wife, Emma, are African Americans with pasts they think they understand.  Apollo’s father deserted the family when Apollo was a child, leaving him with a strange box of memorabilia and a creepy recurring dream.  Emma and her sister lost their parents in a house fire when Emma was only five. Both of these stories are partially true, and both characters find out, in the course of this book, how the people they love and trust have lied to them (from the best possible motives in both cases), and how those lies have shaped their lives since.

The two of them fall in love, get married, and have a baby, Brian (in the subway car; the fact of the baby’s being born there turns out to be significant for the story as well as something nobody who reads this book is ever going to forget), and just when everything should be going their way, disaster strikes.  They’re both sleep deprived (as people with newborns often are), Apollo’s starting to get those dreams again, and Emma is acting strangely. Possibly it’s postpartum depression, possibly something more sinister, but Emma’s attitude toward the baby changes, as she starts denying this baby is hers, and then, more disturbingly, that Brian is a baby at all.  In a horrific, nightmarish scene, she turns on Apollo and then on Brian, and then disappears altogether.

Things are not what they seem, neither Apollo nor Emma, nor Emma’s actions, and it’s up to Apollo to find the truth and restore what he can of his family and his life.

This would be a fabulous book group read (for a book group strong enough to deal with the violence at the heart of the book; that scene with Emma and Apollo is not for the fainthearted or the weak of stomach), bringing up questions of parenthood and how far one goes to protect one’s children, the use of fairy tales or other untrue stories to convey more important truths, the presence of what Fred Rogers would call “helpers,” the way racism seeps through the story and changes the way these characters react from the ways white characters would in similar circumstances.

But more than anything else, this is one hell of a read.  Once you get sucked into the story, you have to keep reading to find out what happens, and no matter how strange and even supernatural the events of the story are, you’re with Lavalle for the long haul and ready to follow him to the ends of the earth, or to Forest Hills, whichever comes first.

If you’re ready for a good, dark, scary but enthralling read, check out The Changeling, but make sure you set aside enough time to read the whole thing in one sitting.  

ANOTHER LOOK AT LITTLE WOMEN: MEG, JO, BETH, AMY

I usually don’t change my opinions about a  book just because of what critics thought of it, or what other readers thought of it, nor do I believe it’s essential to know everything that was going on in the author’s life when the book was written in order to understand the book. Sometimes, in fact, it’s detrimental to learn more about the author’s life, especially when there’s a possibility that the book was semi-autobiographical.  However, even if a book like Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux doesn’t change my opinions about the fundamentals of Little Women, I still found it an interesting read, and it did give me perspective on Louisa May Alcott and the writing of the book.

At the outset, I feel there are a lot of nonfiction books that would have been great magazine articles which lose some of their power by being padded out to book length. While Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy doesn’t quite fall into that category, there’s a certain amount of repetition in the text, and there are details about more modern books and television shows that supposedly show the influence of Little Women that feel more like filler than like useful insights into the book.

Rioux gives an excellent short biography of Louisa May Alcott, locating her in her specific time and place, demonstrating how her fictional family, the Marches, was in some ways a revision, a fantasized and more bearable version of her own family.  If, for instance, you’re wondering why Mr. March, the father in Little Women, plays so small a part in the book, even after he returns from the war, knowing what kind of father Bronson Alcott was helps put Mr. March in perspective.  Louisa had little enough experience of a father who was deeply involved in the life of his family, as opposed to living up to his own dreams and ideals regardless of how they affected his family, so her placing Mr. March deeply in the background makes him actually an improvement on the father she knew.  

There’s always the question of how much Jo March was based on Louisa May Alcott herself, and the book does a good job of drawing the parallels between Louisa’s career and Jo’s.  Like her literary alter ego, Alcott wrote gothic, sensationalistic stories to make money to help support her family, but ultimately made her lasting fame by writing more realistic works about families she knew.  When Jo considers her future after Beth’s death and sees herself as a spinster aunt, and Alcott interjects a few paragraphs extolling the virtues of maiden aunts, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to guess that Alcott herself never married or had children of her own. It’s possible that in a different era, Alcott might have been brave enough to allow Jo not to marry anyone, but in the era in which she lived and wrote, that would have been a bridge too far.  As it was, Alcott deliberately subverted the expectations of her readers by having Jo turn down Laurie’s proposal and instead get married to Professor Bhaer, one of the least romantic men in the novel.

While it’s moderately interesting to read about the development and the critical responses to the different film and stage versions of Little Women, I would have liked more analysis of the book and of the characters, and fewer repetitive quotations of people, especially women, talking about Jo’s being their inspiration for writing. Rioux discusses the questions of whether Little Women is a feminist book or a regressive book, whether it actually subverts the standards of the time and if so, how much, and gives a nicely balanced view of opinions on both sides.  She shows how, despite the overt support of marriage as the best life for a woman, Little Women actually advocates for a less patriarchal, more egalitarian kind of marriage, not just in the case of Jo and her professor, an unconventional couple, but also in the much more seemingly ordinary marriage of Meg and John. Marriage is not the end of the story, or the end of the growth of a woman’s character; Meg and John spend a certain amount of time learning how to be spouses and how to be parents together (a confession: those chapters I skimmed when I first read the book because I thought nothing could be more boring than reading about Meg now that she was married and a mother).

A case can be made that Little Women discourages women from living their dreams, considering that Amy gives up art because she’s not a genius, and Jo ends the book running a school for boys and putting off writing her masterpiece.  However, a case can also be made that Alcott supports women (and men) testing the waters, doing unconventional things (like Jo’s moving to New York and delivering her manuscripts to publishers directly) to see whether their dreams are practical.  Even Jo’s ending is a postponement rather than and end to her writing career, and, as Rioux reminds us, in the third book in the series Jo’s Boys, Jo writes a book not unlike Little Women and it becomes a success (this is a particular trope that I dislike in general, the book about a writer where the climax is that the writer writes this very book you’re reading, but Louisa May Alcott was one of the first people to do it, so I’ll cut her some slack).

Probably the most intriguing insight of this book has to do with the cause of Beth’s death, which is left fairly vague in Little Women.  Looking at Beth’s childlike nature and her unwillingness to grow up as symptoms of depression and possible eating disorders, none of which would have been diagnosed as such at the time, but both of which undoubtedly existed in Alcott’s world, makes a certain amount of sense and turns her death into something more meaningful than her just being too good for this world.

If you enjoyed Little Women and you want a little more background into the book and the causes for its popularity, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is a good place to start, and don’t feel guilty if you decide to skip the chapters on Gilmore Girls or the movie versions of the book; you’ll still get a good read and some extra dimensions on the classic book.

 

JANE YOLEN DOES IT AGAIN: HOW TO FRACTURE A FAIRY TALE

It should come as no surprise if you’ve been following my blog that I am a fan of Jane Yolen, though I confess I have not read all her writings.  How could I? She’s written more than 365 books, in all different genres, for all different ages, and won just about every writing award she could have, including Hugo, Nebula, Caldecott, and World Fantasy awards. So it was with delight and fascination that I picked up her new book of short stories, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, and I have to say, they do not disappoint.  If you’re a fan, grab this book, no further information is necessary.  If you’re not a fan yet, this is a good place to start, because the short stories in it demonstrate some of her range, her  sense of humor, her powerful use of language, and her sensibility.

Now, I am not saying that every story in the book is a success, but that’s always the case with collections of short stories, in my experience. There will always be a few that leave me scratching my head, either saying “What was that about?” or “Why was that included in here?”

When Yolen’s good, as she mostly is in this collection, she’s very good.  I’ll just mention a few of my favorites.

Humor-wise, there’s no question: the funniest story in the collection is  “Happy Dens, or A Day in the Old Wolves’ Home”, which is a collection of famous fairy tales twisted to reflect the wolf’s side of the story, as the elderly wolves in an Old Wolves’ Home relate what really happened in the stories of Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and Peter and the Wolf.  You probably know the official versions of those stories, and possibly even some variations, but these are especially amusing, and the idea of a retirement home for wolves, staffed by lambs and pigs, is a clever one.

She can also write a chilling story, as in “Allerleiraugh”, which is a version of Cinderella where the father promises his dying wife he will never marry anyone who isn’t as beautiful as his wife, and when his daughter reaches adolescence, he discovers the only woman who could be as beautiful as his wife.  In the fairy tale, she escapes from her father. In this one, not so much.

They’re not all based on fairy tales, though you can usually see the bones of another story under Yolen’s twists and turns.  For example, the modern story, “Wrestling with Angels”, is based (sort of) on the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God and getting the worst of it.  Yolen’s version is a kind of cross between the Biblical story and an episode of the X Files, with a poignant underpinning of parental regret.

And one of the best stories in the collection, in my opinion, “Mama Gone,” isn’t really based on any particular story, but is a vampire story set in the hills of Appalachia, with a unique vampire and a unique and touching way for the main character to defeat the vampire.

There are stories based on Eastern folk tales (“One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox and the Dragon King”), stories based on Native American stories (“The Woman Who Loved a Bear”), as well as Greek mythology (“Sun/Flight”) and the more recognizable Grimm’s and Mother Goose stories.  She adds a little extra in a section at the end of the book where she discusses the sources and origins of each story and includes a poem related to the story’s themes. The book is a rich feast, whether you’re familiar with her sources or not, and there’s plenty of thought-provoking twists to the stories.

Make the acquaintance of Jane Yolen through this book, and look at old stories with new eyes.  You’ll be glad you did.

 

ANOTHER LOOK AT LITTLE WOMEN

Usually I don’t write about the books the Field Notes Book Group is reading, at least not before the discussion, because I don’t want to prejudice the people in the group, or influence people’s opinions to align with mine (of course, there are probably people in the group who would change their opinions to be the opposite of mine if they knew in advance what my opinion was; it’s a good group).  However, I’m going to make an exception in the case of this month’s book, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, because I have already postponed the meeting once (due to a funeral), and because Little Women is the kind of book people think they know, but might, on rereading (or reading for the first time) discover is more than what they remember. It certainly was that way for me.

As I said to the group in October when we chose the book, I read Little Women when I was 12 years old and hadn’t picked it up since. Most of the women in the group had also read it, similarly in the past.  There were things I remembered vividly about the book from my one reading, and other aspects that were just a general blur. For instance (spoilers ahead), I remembered Amy’s destroying the book Jo wrote (is there anyone who read that book who doesn’t remember that scene? Is there anyone who wasn’t as furious at Amy as Jo was at that? Is there anyone, besides me, who found it impossible to read anything more about Amy for the rest of the book without carrying a grudge for that?).  I remembered Jo’s turning Laurie’s proposal of marriage down (more about that later), and of course I remembered Beth’s death. I had a general sense that all the surviving characters got married and settled by the end of the book, which seemed to me, as a 12 year old girl, to be the only way these kinds of stories got resolved.

Reading Little Women as an adult in the 21st century isn’t like reading modern books. When I tried to explain to my husband (who, like most men, hadn’t read it) what the book was about, I foundered around, finally lamely saying that it was about four young women growing up during and in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, in Massachusetts, which is an accurate description as far as it goes. There really isn’t a plot per se. There are incidents, some of which lead to other incidents, but if you’re reading it for an overarching plot, you’re going to be disappointed.

You’ll also be disappointed if you’re looking for a modern writing style. Alcott wrote in the 19th century, before the adage “show, don’t tell” was a mantra drummed into the heads of writers.  She tells a great deal, with frequent authorial commentary on the characters and their behavior. Sometimes it’s like having a moralizing parent telling you a story; you want to urge her to leave out the sermons and get to the action.  If you’ve read other 19th century authors (like Charles Dickens, an author I love, about whom someday I will write at greater length), then you’re prepared for Alcott’s writing style, and willing to be patient with the digressions and the sermonizing.  You’ll also be prepared for the religiosity of the asides, which didn’t strike me as strongly when I was 12 as they did on this rereading.

That said, it’s a better book than I remembered in a number of ways, and well worth reading, or rereading if it’s been a long time since you joined the March girls.

For one thing, it’s a story of girls coming of age. A pet peeve of mine is that there are boatloads of books and movies about boys coming of age in various circumstances, and girls and women are expected to read or watch them, but stories of girls growing up and becoming women are much scarcer and much less likely to become part of the canon. If Tom Sawyer can be considered a classic American novel, Little Women can serve as its female counterpart.

Then there are the characters. The parents remain mostly archetypes; Marmee is everyone’s ideal mother, watchful of her children but not suffocatingly so, always ready with good advice when a person is ready to listen to it, but not pushing anyone to do things her way at the outset. She’s warm-hearted and affectionate, and so much the center of the girls’ lives that she gets the closing line in the book (Jo gets the opening line). The girls’ father is away at the Civil War at the outset of the book, and there’s drama when he’s wounded and Marmee has to go and nurse him, and drama when the father comes home, but after that, he’s just a figure in the background.

In the foreground are the four “little women” of the title: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, in order of age. They’re sisters and they act like sisters, which is refreshing. One thing I remembered liking about the book when I first read it, which I still like, is the relationships between and among the sisters, the alliances and antagonisms within the group as well as the girls’  loyalty to each other against any outsiders. Yes, it was probably convenient for Alcott to match Meg, the oldest, with Amy, the youngest, and to have Jo, the wild one, be especially close to saintly Beth, but those combinations also make sense within a family universe. Naturally Amy and Jo would butt heads and fight with each other; Amy is the somewhat spoiled youngest child and Jo is stubborn and independent.  Naturally Jo and Meg would go to parties together as the two oldest and since they’re only a year apart in age. Naturally they would confide in each other as having more in common (their jobs, their ages) than either one would with the younger girls. In their relationships with each other, they feel like real girls, like sisters in the 20th and 21st century, as well as in the 19th.

My favorite character, then and now, is Jo. I have a feeling she’s everybody’s favorite character, not because she’s a Mary Sue for the author (though I suspect Alcott based Jo on herself to greater or lesser extent; Jo’s an aspiring writer who’s trying to support her family through her writing, as Louisa May Alcott was), but because she’s the one character who’s not an archetype, who seems to break free of the expectations readers have for a girl in her position. She’s far from perfect. She is, as I mentioned, stubborn and difficult. She loses out on the chance to take a much anticipated trip to Europe because she’s deliberately being contrary when she and Amy go to make visits to relatives (a sequence that’s very funny because of Jo’s behavior even as we, the readers, know it’s going to end up biting her), for instance, and while she sees how her behavior contributed to her losing out on that trip, she doesn’t really change her behavior either. On the other hand, Jo is wildly brave and willing to defy expectations for her gender.  She gets her long hair cut off to raise money for her mother to go to Washington to take care of her father, which surprises all her sisters and everybody around her as her long hair was her one beauty. She writes stories and actually takes them to newspapers to be published, facing personal rejection with gumption and guts. She turns down a marriage proposal that would seem to be really advantageous for her and for her family, because she doesn’t love the suitor that way. She ends up running a home and school for boys, while her sisters engage in much more ordinary and socially sanctioned pursuits. Yes, she does get married; I suppose Alcott felt she had to marry Jo off eventually rather than have her be a spinster aunt (and maybe that was wish fulfillment on the part of Louisa May Alcott, who never did get married and was a spinster aunt), but it’s an unconventional and unexpected marriage, which makes it fitting for someone who’s as willing to buck conventions as Jo is.

About that marriage proposal: when I first wrote about the book group’s reading this book, I mentioned wondering whether Jo’s turning down Laurie’s proposal would strike me as more logical this time around, and I’m happy to say that it did. If you read the book closely (as I didn’t when I was 12, but did now), you can see that Jo never thinks of Laurie as anything other than a buddy. While there was (and still sometimes is) a convention that close friends ultimately discover they’re made for each other and get married, Jo makes it clear that this is not her idea of how things are going to work. From early on, before Laurie (their friend and next door neighbor, who’s handsome and charming and also rich) starts thinking romantically about Jo, she’s treating him as one of the guys, and herself as one of the guys, too.  When Laurie goes to college, his friends fall in love with the beautiful, flirtatious Amy, not the boyish and plain spoken Jo, and that’s fine with Jo. She never wants romance in her life (in her stories, that’s a different matter, but she’s got an eye on what sells, so that explains her writing focus), she never moons around about Laurie or any other boy, and when she meets the man she’s ultimately going to marry, she doesn’t think about him as a potential husband until he all but throws himself at her. While I, as a 12 year old, wanted Jo and Laurie to marry because Laurie was so crazy about her and because I wanted Jo to live happily ever after, and that was how women lived happily ever after to my mind, as an adult I can see that Jo really wasn’t interested. If she had married him, she probably would have made a go of it, but it’s clear from his later behavior that Laurie would have wanted a more conventional wife than Jo was ever willing to be. She did the right thing, and in this context it was remarkable that she was able to do it (yes, Elizabeth Bennett turned down two marriage proposals in Pride and Prejudice, but one of them was by the person she ultimately married, and her turning down his proposal was a spark that led to their finally seeing eye to eye later), and not be punished for it.

Although Alcott does, for the most part, send the characters down conventional paths, she also allows them to be ambitious, to take on more of the world than their conventional roles would seem to allow. At the outset, both Meg and Jo are working outside the home, Meg as a governess and Jo as a companion to her rich aunt.  Jo and Amy consider themselves to be artists (Jo a writer and Amy a visual artist), and spend a great deal of time working on their respective crafts. Jo even sells a number of stories and a novel, and makes money to support her family as a result (Alcott feels the need to turn Jo away from the sensational stories she writes at first to something more realistic, possibly like Little Women, though I will forever be grateful that Jo doesn’t turn out to have written Little Women, which is so often the convention in books about young writers; still, I would love to see the kinds of stories Jo wrote before she was tamed, which were probably like the other books Alcott wrote for money).  While Amy (and Laurie) decides that since she’s not a genius she shouldn’t dedicate herself to her art, at no point does the book suggest that Amy didn’t have talent or that she shouldn’t have given her art a decent chance.

Spend some time with Little Women, and I think you’ll appreciate anew the world of the March family, their humors, their tragedies, their growth and maturing.  I’m glad the book group gave me the spur and the opportunity to reread it myself, and I recommend you give it a try as well.

 

DON’T BE AFRAID OF SCIENCE FICTION: THE NEXT READING CHALLENGE CATEGORY

As many of you know, this year The Field Library is running a reading challenge in which we have a number of different categories in which people are encouraged to read, ranging from how-to book to cozy mysteries, from manga to books about natural disasters (yeah, we are deliberately all over the place; the goal is to get everybody to read outside their comfort zones).  Our latest category is “Read a Science Fiction Book”, and if you’re the kind of person who sees the words “science fiction” and automatically thinks, “not for me, that’s not my kind of book,” allow me to disabuse you of that notion and encourage you to try one of the many different kinds of science fiction books we have here at The Field Library.

Of course we have the classics, the books by H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and the names you’ve probably heard many times before.  If you’re a fan of classic science fiction, you might want to check out one of our collections of short stories from the classic era, like Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, or Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, to add to your repertoire.

But what if you’re not into classic science fiction?  You still can find something in this category you’ll enjoy reading, because the category is so broad.

Let’s say you want something funny to read, something not too deep, something that will make you laugh aloud.  Try Space Opera by Catherynne Valente (reviewed here), or try any of the books in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.  The destruction of the earth to make room for an interspace bypass is just the beginning of this very quirky and funny series, which leads us to the reason the earth was built in the first place and the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (42, just for your information), not to mention the causes of the most deadly war in galactic history.  You get to meet the one-time President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (my favorite character), Marvin the Paranoid Android (immensely quotable), and a host of other bizarre creatures. Better yet, all the books are relatively short and fast reads, so you can devour them quickly. Oh, and if you saw the ill-conceived movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t let that prejudice you; the book is so much better.

Or perhaps you’re more of a graphic novel kind of person.  There are some terrific science fiction graphic novel series, but let me point you in the direction of two that I particularly love.  There’s Y: the Last Man, by Brian Vaughn.  The premise is that all of a sudden, all male mammals in the world (including those in utero) died, with the exception of one man, Yorick Brown, and Ampersand, his Capuchin monkey.  An all-female society struggles to deal with the immediate chaos and the question of what actually happened and whether it can be fixed, with the probability of human extinction looming over them all. Filled with fascinating characters and a plot that twists and turns, the series keeps you turning pages.  Saga, also by Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples, isn’t finished yet (and we all know my rule about not reading series until they’re finished, a rule that I have violated from time to time), but it is so wonderful I’m willing to wait for each installation. You might say Saga is a story of star-crossed lovers from different races which are at war with each other, and that is part of the story, but only part.  Alana and Marko shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, but they fall in love and have a child, Hazel (who grows up over the course of the series), and it seems as if everyone in the galaxy is out to get them for various reasons. Just describing the cast of characters gives you an idea of the breadth of the worlds Vaughn and Staples have created: a ghost babysitter, a giant cat that announces whether someone is telling the truth or not, robot people, amphibian characters, winged people, horned people, people who look like giant insects.  And all of them are characters, with families and politics and relationships and issues of their own.  Somehow the authors keep all the plot lines clear and ever-developing. The art is amazing, wonderfully visualizing the worlds and the people who populate them.  Try just the first volume and you’ll be hooked.

You can also get your mind blown by big concept science fiction, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, reviewed here, which talks about what the world would be like after catastrophic global climate change causes all the oceans to rise dramatically, focusing specifically on how New York City would deal with being partially underwater.  Or you could read Semiosis by Sue Burke, which I reviewed here, a book that follows generations of settlers on a world where the dominant intelligence belongs to plants rather than mammal-like beings.  

Or, if you’re not sure whether you’re going to find something you’ll like, try short stories.  One of the best ways to see what speculative fiction is all about is to check out what the people in the field think is the best stuff being written.  Try one of the Nebula awards compilations, or any one of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year collections, and you’re sure to find something that speaks to you.

In retrospect, maybe I should have narrowed the category down when I was setting up the challenge for this year, because there’s so much science fiction here at The Field Library, and of such variety, but that should just make it easier to test the waters, try something new and get a sense of how broad and wonderful the genre actually is.  Come to The Field Library and check out our display if you want some more ideas.

 

ONE WAY TO HEAL OUR BROKEN SOCIETY: PALACES FOR THE PEOPLE

I confess it: I’m a sucker for the big concept nonfiction book, much more than I am for other kinds of nonfiction.  You know what I’m talking about: the book that takes on the large issues with a twist, something I wouldn’t have considered before. I’m not really interested in the books that tell us we’re doomed and there’s nothing anyone can do (or there’s nothing anyone can do that’s remotely practical); my feeling is, if that’s the case, why even bother reading about it?  A recent book that offers fascinating and (at least to me) novel solutions to America’s problems is Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life, by Eric Klinenberg, and I recommend it highly for anyone who wants to think about how we can make America work better.

Klinenberg starts out with a provocative scenario, a terrible heat wave in Chicago that resulted in a number of deaths in poorer neighborhoods.  The interesting thing was that two neighborhoods, in close proximity, with similar demographics (income level, ethnic distribution, etc.) had wildly different death rates.  Why did more people survive in one neighborhood than in the other? Asking that question led to deeper questions about resilience and what makes one neighborhood or one housing project work while another turns into a disaster area, and this brought him to the heart of this book, the question of what social infrastructure is, how it works, and how we can make more of it.

This is a book full of anecdotes and stories, not a lot of dull statistics.  The author begins with an easy and familiar illustration of what social infrastructure is, by taking us to a branch of the New York Public Library.  Now, I’m not going to lie: obviously I’m a big booster of libraries, and anyone who praises libraries is already on my good side, but he does more than just talk up all the programs the libraries provide. He demonstrates how a good public library is a place that brings together people of different social and economic classes, building relationships between and among people who might not ever have anything to do with each other socially otherwise. He then progresses to other examples, some obvious (when they’re pointed out) and some surprising, until it’s clear he knows what he’s talking about and the promise of his subtitle (and do all nonfiction books have to have subtitles?  Is there some kind of rule about that?) seems well-grounded and not an empty promise to sell books.

One of the more eye-opening chapters talks about the infamous “broken windows” theory of policing (you know, where bad actors see that things aren’t kept up and therefore feel free to steal, sell drugs and engage in other illegal activities without fear of reprisal, so therefore the police crack down on the small offenses to prevent the big ones from happening), and turns it around, focusing on the abandoned properties that are usually part of the initial supposition of the theory.  He studies neighborhoods where those abandoned properties are turned into community parks and gardens, and how that changes the whole feel of the neighborhood, lowering its crime in the process. This chapter was excerpted in a recent New Yorker issue, so it may sound familiar to you, but it’s nonetheless fascinating and very plausible.

The author’s agenda isn’t right wing or left wing, but very practical: he wants Americans to have a civic life again, and to be more resilient in the face of disasters or near disasters, and his ideas for how we can achieve these goals are backed up by evidence and seem extremely reasonable.  For a good read about important issues and a fascinating look into urban planning and how that impacts our lives, check out Palaces for the People.  You won’t regret it.