Owlcat’s CBR V Review #24 of Marmee & Louisa, the Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother by Eve Laplante

NPR thought this was one of the best books of 2012 and as a result, I had been long intending to read it, not only because of their recommendation and high praise, but also because, since my ‘tweens, I had been a huge fan of Louisa May Alcott, totally loving Little Women and Little Men, though not aware then of her other novels, nor her poetry that was mostly addressed to her parents.  Like most people, too, I had been under the assumption that much or most of her influence and encouragement came from her father.

I have to admit, however, that I disagree with NPR and, instead, found this book to be dry and written as if it were someone’s doctorate dissertation.  Laplante is a descendent of Louisa May Alcott and had access to her and her family member’s diaries, the ones that weren’t destroyed by the family as they approached death, and it’s her interpretations of these intimate works as well as historical documents and issues that she uses to establish her premise that LMA’s mother had influenced her more greatly than her father ever did.

She begins the book with a detailed account of her mother’s upbringing and the historic figures and events occurring around her – these followed the American Revolution before and after and life in Boston for the most part. Throughout her own life, the mother was thwarted by society and tradition in terms of education and access to independence and, though clearly an intelligent and creative woman, had great difficulty living under these circumstances.  That time period did not allow a woman to be much more than chattel and to be instead, subservient to her family and later her spouse.

According to Ms. Laplante, Bronson Alcott, LMA’s father, was incapable of viewing his effects on his family that his Utopian philosophies imposed on them.  He tried and failed at numerous conventional jobs as a teacher and when he attempted to establish his own schools;  at first he would do well but as his teachings became more radical, even the more liberal families would take their children out of his schools.  LMA’s mother did much to help with the teaching, supporting him through his various attempts, and eventually even becoming what would be considered a social worker (one of the few positions allowed to a woman) in order to help support the family.  His move to Concord and his establishment of his community there, Fruitlands, resulted in near starvation at times for his family and only through help from friends (including Ralph Waldo Emerson and other renowned philsophers) were they able to cope. Society would pity Mrs. Alcott and the children and would be critical of Bronson because he so often failed and abandoned his family for long tours through the country espousing his philosophy, but society wouldn’t allow Mrs. Alcott to do anything beyond the norm for those times.

Consequently, because she was always the present parent, when she realized LMA’s talents and determination, she seemed to vicariously push her into the direction of writing for a living.  Her health was somewhat fragile over time and LMA also was influenced by this, feeling her father was in many ways responsible for her condition, and it was up to her to help her mother and to give her what she needed to overcome everything she had endured with her father.

We see the early attempts at writing, Louisa’s choices to work in Boston as a governess (which she hated but found necessary to earn money), her brief nursing career during the Civil War, and gradually a sense of the disparity in the social norms that had become even more evident after the war.  In a sense, her mother’s greatest influence was her always sacrificing for her daughter(s) and finding ways to enhance their talents (another sister was an artist who eventually moved to Europe, where social norms were much more lenient), and giving Louisa a sense of permission to override the local norms as times changed.

As time passed, Louisa was afflicted with an apparent autoimmune disease (likely lupus) that would be debilitating at times, and which made writing and caring for her mother, her two great causes, extremely difficult, though she still managed both.  Again, I felt it was more the influence of her mother’s sacrificing everything that required her to do this.

The information in this book is interesting, to say the least.  I particularly enjoyed reading about the early childhood/teen period of her mother but got bogged down by the minute details, particularly around family members, that went beyond explaining Louisa’s mother’s upbringing.  I did learn some things; I hadn’t realized that the family tree on her mother’s side included John Hancock and other well-known Bostonian and colonial persons.  I also hadn’t been aware of the prevalence and importance of ministers within the family on both sides, including her mother’s brother, a prominent Unitarian minister, and that influence on both her mother and herself. Nor was I aware of her autoimmune illness and her stint nursing during the Civil War and the typhus she developed as a result. But again, though interesting, much of the information was not relevant to what I felt was the story being presented and like a dissertation that might lack enough pages, had been added to “pad” the book.  While reading the last few chapters, I began wondering if it would ever end!  I think it could have been half the length it was and we would still have enjoyed the information presented and recognized the connections Laplante was drawing.  I had the sense, too, that she was vilifying Bronson (understandable) but hadn’t enough information to develop the premise that Louisa’s mother was more influential than her father.  This was a very disappointing book, particularly in light of my admiration for Louisa May Alcott.

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pyrajane’s review #33: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

Jim HensonWhen I heard there was a massive biography of Jim Henson coming out, I was excited and worried.  I wanted to know more about the man who created so many things that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, but I knew I was going to cry when they talked about his funeral.  I was also worried that he might turn out to be a jerk, even though I had no reason to worry about this.  But still, what if the guy who brought Kermit to life ended up being kind of a dick?  I don’t want that knowledge in my head.

Happily and not surprisingly, Jim Henson was lovely.

Brian Jay Jones spent several years with those close to Jim and the result is a wonderful book.  Reading it was pure pleasure because of Jones’ writing style.  It’s conversational, emotional, smart and incredibly informative and was extremely satisfying.  The combination of Jim Henson and Jones is magic and I’m so glad that Jim’s life was handed to Jones to be documented and told so carefully.

Reading Jim’s life and watching him grow from a creative child into a creative powerhouse is exhausting and impressive.  The man never stopped making things.  While he was in the middle of a massive project, he’d start thinking about how to do things better and how to improve the technology and techniques that they were currently using.  He was often a few steps ahead of what hadn’t even been made yet.  He knew that things could be done and had to wait for the technology to catch up.  He was fascinated by television and how it could be used, and later when hand held cameras began appearing, he knew it would change everything.  He didn’t live to see it, but he predicted YouTube some twenty years before it became popular.

Jim’s goal was to improve the world by learning and teaching.  He was constantly seeing what could be and was rarely satisfied with what currently was.  Pages and pages of notes were waiting to be realized.  He would have to shelve projects that proved too massive for his current budget and schedule.  He would exhaust and inspire his crew into performances and creations that no one had dreamed could be possible.  Simply by being, he created.  His employees were committed to his projects, even if they didn’t fully understand them, because they were Jim’s ideas.  They’d go on crazy journeys with him through the workshop to put together new creatures.  Even if they weren’t designing for a specific project, they’d work on the art and development because at some point, Jim would want it.  By then, they’d need to make it better, always trying to catch up to him.

I adored this book and wrote more about it on my blog.  I highly recommend it.

 

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #39: Triumph

Guess what! You can read more of my weird commentaries on my personal blog! What’s that you say, you have better things to do? Well…tough…read it anyway! (Here at the Scruffy Rube)

Running is a writer’s world. Alone with the sound of your breath and the pounding of your feet against pavement, you have all the time in the world to imagine and create stories, legends and myths. You can take your time to chronicle each and every alteration of the weather and the body until you have a big pile of overwrought imagery and irrelevant symbolism.

Jeremy Schaap cuts through a lot of the running falderal with his book about the Track and Field battles during the 1936 Olympic Games. Naturally the focal point is Jesse Owens, and he devotes most of the book to both illuminating and complicating the Buckeye Bullet for readers who know him only as a name from the history books. Owens is a reluctant father and an uneasy political figure who has no choice but to accept his position in the athletic pantheon. At times, he seems to be little more than a cliche spouting, anti-septic athlete, but that has less to do with Schaap’s writing and more with the carefully reassembled hodgepodge of quotes given to sportswriters of the day (making the plethora of cliches much more understandable). And a fair amount of time is spent reflecting on the Nazi ne’er-do-wells whose dreams of a demonstration of aryan supremacy were foiled by Owens, including Goerbles, Goering, Leinie Reifenstahl and, of course, Hitler himself. Their villainy is despicable to be sure, but in the context of their political standing, not wholly different from how the Olympics are sought after today.

Triumph is at its best when it focuses on Owens’ interactions with lesser known luminaries of his time, including AAU chairman and manipulative mastermind Avery Brundage, sprinting rivals Ralph Metcalf and Uliss Peacock, coaches Charles Riley and Larry Snider and the reluctant Nazi/Owens-ally-to-be Lutz Long. The audiobook’s narrator (Michael Kramer) doesn’t ape accents, but offers subtle variations on a slow, well measured drawl, to give each quote a degree of gravitas. There are some characters (including several inconsequential sportswriters and the utterly irrelevant Eleanor Holm-Jarrett) who bog down the story rather than support it, but those are minor complaints of a broadly interesting and honest look at a defining moment in American sports history.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #11: Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson

The gaps in Saving Mr Banks scream to be noticed — what happens between the sweet, imaginative, tremulous Ginty Goff, and Miss Travers, the crotchety, chic and red-lipsticked dame who holds the keys to something Walt Disney very much wants and refuses to release them for mere filthy lucre? While the film links Miss Travers to Ginty through (some might say excessive) flashbacks, a great deal must have occurred between the ages of 10 and 60, between the Australian drawl of Ginty and the clipped upper-middle-class accents of Miss Travers, between the blazing red dust of the Australian outback and the twee terraced house with the cherry tree outside it.

Apparently, between Allora and Los Angeles, Travers fell in with various spiritual gurus, travelled the world, was a published journalist and poet, had a stint acting, and did a great deal more with her life than write about a stern governess and whimsical adventures that  she always insisted were not “children’s books”–and the people she knew, her triumphs and suffering, and her accomplishments and ambitions far exceed the brief list I have given as well.  She was, as everybody is, a person of contradictions, who tried to hide her past (including her name and nationality) but gave hints of it in her work, and wanted no biography but meticulously kept records and sold them to public archives. (Lawson uses this last as a justification for breaking Travers’s command to have no biography, which is a bit tenuous.) Suggestions of the author’s vulnerability and powers appear in Emma Thompson’s marvellous performance in the film, but unfortunately the gaps in the film don’t allow her to fulfil the full potential of the role and the story.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers (1999) goes a long way towards connecting the dots, but unfortunately–or perhaps inevitably–draws some of its lines out of conjecture and flights of fancy, trying to recreate Travers’s process and imagery–”she might have felt this” or “she probably remembered that.” Nevertheless, it’s a persuasively argued biography, with the evidence it produces going a long way towards sharpening a great deal of the sugar of Saving Mr Banks. I won’t spoil all the revelations, but I must say that if Disney did indeed use this biography as a basis for the film, it’s an extraordinary case of double-think at work; Travers’s experience with Disney did not end in a heartwarming scene of reconciliation between Walt and P. L., and she publicly criticised the film for the rest of her life. I recommend Mary Poppins, She Wrote to anyone who loves the books (not children, though!) and was left wanting by the film.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review # 45 What is the What by Dave Eggers

Listening to the news about South Sudan, I can’t help but think of the author of this book and what may be happening to him today.  What is the What was written about 7 years ago.  It is the biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a “lost boy” of Sudan.  It is characterized as a novel because Deng cannot remember all of the details and all of the conversations going back to when he was 7 years old.

The book is told in the first person and begins in Deng’s Atlanta apartment that he shares with another Sudanese. A man and a woman con him into opening the door, beat him, tie him up and rob him.  As he lies there, he begins to tell of his childhood in Marial Bai. He has experienced things much worse than robbery, yet the fact that this is happening in the country in which he sought asylum and safety is jarring.

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LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Searchers – The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel

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This remarkable, unique book (the best nonfiction of this year so far) cannot be solidly categorized: it is a sweeping, historical Western tale of ‘savage’ Indians and ‘new frontier’ homesteaders in the mid-18th century, recounting the eventuality of a nation of Cherokee and other Indian tribes being reduced to near-extinction when refusing to yield the vast prairie lands to these white, brazen settlers intent on eliminating their very way of life and survival. It is an earnest, carefully-researched and vivid true story of a nine-year-old white girl who was abducted by Cherokee Indians in 1836, after the brutal slaughter of her family, and her subsequent life being integrated back into ‘white society’ after years of captivity.

This biography continues, encompassing the life of her son, a pivotal figure in the history of Indian ‘Americanization’, along with a literal history of our country’s “Taming of the West” and its uneasy, violent transition into the 19th century, with a massive Civil War preceding and the migration of millions from East to West following; a hindsight indictment of early America’s intolerance and racism, describing the demise of 30,000 Cherokee Indians as ‘The West Was Won’, their population reduced to less than 2,000 by the late 1870’s, by the ‘progressive’ settling of a civilization completely foreign to and dismissive of them.

It is a chronicle of the overwhelming magnitude of relentless hunting and wholesale slaughter of over six million free-roaming bison throughout the west, buffalo herds that were initially shot down in deliberate and precise fashion for the sole purpose of eliminating the Indians’ principal source of survival in the treeless, rugged and brutal plains throughout Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding territory.

There’s also the life story of an author, Alan LeMay, who writes hugely popular, best-selling Western stories in the new 19th century, utilizing all available documentation and first-hand accounts of the actual (then-recent) histories of Indians and settlers and their violent encounters, including the abduction of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker and the years-long search to rescue her by surviving family members like her uncle – a story that would be reinterpreted, re-invented and, in 1956, dramatized in a big-screen Western film called ‘The Searchers’.

And with the close of this prelude, beginning roughly 200 pages into Frankel’s book, there is an entirely new, freshly-detailed and revealing story of the making of an American motion picture classic, derived from all of the above-mentioned sources the author has coalesced and thoughtfully organized to guide the reader into this penultimate story of legendary, classic ‘Hollywood’ storytelling.

Directed by a veteran ‘Western’ film maker named John Ford, and starring an already-iconic leading man named John Wayne,The Searchers was one of many collaborations between the volatile, racist, misogynist, alcoholic, hot-headed ‘Pappy’ and his ever-loyal muse, a lanky, struggling B-actor born Marion Morrison, later given the more appropriate cinematic handle of ‘John Wayne’. Together, they made some of the best Western movies ever produced for the big screen, such as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Red River, and Stagecoach. The author-slash-History teacher unearths the reality of the off-screen ‘Duke’, a constant victim of derision and humiliation by his closest mentor, intimidating director John Ford, a man of unpredictable disposition and generally a bigoted, belligerent dictator on his film sets, where no actor or production member was spared his outrageous and crude insults (he actually punched actress Maureen O’Hara in the face when she made a now-forgotten remark he took offense to).

To read about Ford alone, one might wonder why someone, anyone, didn’t kick this man’s ass out of town before completing his first movie – but Ford was not just a ‘Western film’ maker, as the director would proudly refer to himself otherwise. Considering that Ford made a quartet of classic films in at least as many years (‘Young Mr. Lincoln‘, 1939; ‘The Grapes of Wrath‘, 1940; ‘The Long Voyage Home‘, 1940; and ‘How Green Was My Valley‘, 1941), that were as far removed from the ‘Western’ genre as could be imagined, the man’s genius as a director was undeniable, which in turn afforded him great indulgences, including making stars like John Wayne tremble before him on a movie set. While Ford is certainly not the only ‘auteur’ director who could be absolutely intolerable to work with in their film making process, to read the accounts of his withering criticisms to Wayne the actor, who passively suffered them all and consistently surrendered to Ford’s will, is an extraordinary contrast to how the public perceived this strong, manly symbol of American Patriotism and willful spirit that is so ingrained in cinematic legend. Film directors in Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ were revered and omnipotent throughout the industry, until their creative powers were lost and their films had become tired and unoriginal – even by the mid-fifties, the Western was already being dismissed as an archaic film formula, but Ford’s Westerns were an exception to the rule.

In the years following its not-very-major release and initial underwhelming response, The Searchers has been rediscovered and hailed as a major inspiration to some of the greatest film directors of the latter 20th century, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich and George Lucas; in the years following its release, The Searchers has ultimately achieved the status of the Greatest Western Film ever made, and is in the Top Ten of the 100 Best Films, as designated by the American Film Institute. This dark, rueful movie that stands apart from any other formulaic ‘Western’ film of its time, is a subject of continuing debate regarding its all-too-apparent hatred towards, and outright disdain for an entire nation of Indian people, portraying them in only the most derogatory light possible, and notable for the out-of-place, shocking treatment of a female Indian character, which was Ford’s singular interpretation of ‘humor’, albeit at the expense of an entire race and gender. But a reader doesn’t have to seek out the movie and scrutinize it to fully appreciate the narrative that presents most of the screenplay treatment, with all of the relevant subtext, through its beautifully-written pages.

Author Glenn Frankel’s comprehensive work is simply astonishing. There are at least three full-length books that this one tome manages to condense between the covers to a fully satisfying degree. For one like myself, anxiously starting a new ‘making-of’ classic film story, it was a slow realization that this film ‘story’ had a 200-page background history, starting well before the invention of film itself, much less before production began on the actual movie almost a century later. Frankel writes with the authority of a confident historian, who guides us seamlessly through this saga that ends up as an equally-compelling and authoritative film history. Frankel writes with such an economic ease that the reader doesn’t notice the voluminous information he provides simultaneously with whatever story he is relating throughout.

If the concept of absorbing American history, Western myth versus fact, and the byzantine journey from History lesson to Hollywood film-making seems a bit exhausting, well, it can be, if one is not prepared to follow the unhurried and attention-demanding rhythm of Frankel’s book – he has a story to tell, much more informative and complete than would be expected in any other genre-oriented book focusing on a single time and/or subject – but the sooner this ‘rhythm’ is adopted by the reader, the greater the reward is for those absorbed in its telling will be.