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destroyed by the family as they approached death, and it’s her interpretations of these intimate works as well as historical documents and issues that she uses to establish her premise that LMA’s mother had influenced her more greatly than her father ever did.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.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #49: Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith

Although I’ve never read any of McCall Smith’s other novels in his “Isabel Dalhousie” series, this one’s title caught my eye and I settled in for a warm romantic visit. No such luck, I’m afraid. Instead, I got a meandering inconclusive plot which goes nowhere, with characters that learn nothing, and without even a good mystery behind it all. So what’s the point?

Isabel is editor of an erudite magazine on obscure philosophical matters. She is in her late thirties, living alone in Edinburgh, Scotland and still licking her wounds after a love affair gone bad many years earlier. Isabel maintains a close friendship with twenty-something Jamie, the jilted musician boyfriend of her niece Cat, who runs a high-class delicatessen blocks away. Cat has never looked back at Jamie after dumping him, but Jamie still lives in hope of recapturing Cat’s attention. Isabel discovers—rather late, it appears—that her “friendship” with Jamie is in fact an unrequited crush on the young man, who is in fact having a fling with an older married woman. Two other men enter the picture. One is a wealthy older Italian who follows Cat back to Edinburgh after her vacation in Italy, but who makes a romantic play for Isabel that goes absolutely nowhere, and the other is Ian, a fascinating man just recovered from a heart transplant, who is having visions that don’t belong to him. Isabel takes it upon herself to uncover the mystery behind the visions, even after she discovers that Ian is married and not a potential love interest. Why she pursues this mystery without even consulting Ian is anybody’s guess.

At this point, the plot should thicken, as they say, but instead it dribbles here and there and it was all I could do to finish this book. Isabel is a self-indulgent and very irritating busybody who fancies herself a philosopher and clearly considers herself superior to those around her. She enjoys giving charitable contributions anonymously, so she can pat herself on the back every chance she gets. She drops quotes from prominent poets into every conversation, clearly hoping to impress. She sticks her nose into everybody’s business—including that of her housekeeper and even grieving strangers! Worst of all, she pities herself constantly and is, in sum, a thoroughly unappealing “heroine.” Does she solve the mystery of the visions? Well, yes and no. Not really, but sort of. Get it?

While I’ll confess to finding some of Isabel’s (that is, McCall Smith’s) divergences into philosophy, morality, ethics and religion interesting, they are as out-of-place in this book as Isabel’s interferences in other people’s lives are simply out of order. In sum, I don’t think I’ll be visiting Isabel Dalhousie again anytime soon.

TheGreatUnstainer’s #CBR5 Review #03 ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ by Slavoj Zizek


I have no idea who would read this book.  I just don’t.  This is the sort of book that sits on a bookshelf, conspicuously at eye-level in a living room.  As a totem, it is a visible demonstration of the owner’s intellect and keen insights into the world.  The possessor of the book does not have to be able to quote from it or even understand it for this totemic magic to work.

With Zizek pumping out several books a year, you could enhance its magic with a few of his other works.  ‘Oh!’ your guests would say, ‘You have more than one of Zizek’s books!  How clever you must be!’

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is an extremely difficult book.  Difficult and turgid, but rewarding.  Published in 2009, Zizek explores the philosophy and social constructs which provided the background of both the cause of the Global Financial Crisis and the response to the Global Financial Crisis.

Zizek’s project is to act as the philosophical optometrist to the world.  We, the ordinary folk of the world, cannot see what is really going on because we have the wrong pair of glasses.  Worse, we the ordinary folk of the world have been self-prescribing our glasses using WebMD and have strong emotional attachments to the glasses that we have prescribed for ourselves.  As philosophical optometrist, Zizek not only wants to prescribe a new pair of glasses but also wants to convince us that we should put aside our emotional attachment to our current glasses.

This is where the difficulty comes in.  When discussing the background philosophical issues — for example, the analysis of how capitalist ideology has become invisible to most people — he is subtle, nuanced, even beautiful in his expression.  More than that, he is persuasive and (as a conservative myself) confronting.

But when it comes to fields of expertise beyond philosophy — particularly economics — Zizek becomes increasingly less subtle and nuanced.  It should go without saying that the causes of and responses to the GFC have an economic element to them, but it is difficult to find that economic element expressed satisfactorily in the book.  Although both Michael Moore and the Tea Party make functionally the same claim (‘bailing out the banks is robbery!’), it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are both equally correct.  Or even that they are saying the same thing, as strange as it sounds.  One is saying: ‘[Giving money to the people who caused the problem] is [morally impermissible because they should be punished for what they did to everybody else].’  The other is saying: ‘[Giving money to people whose business model failed] is [morally impermissible because taxation is theft and propping up businesses distorts the market].’  The focus on the US contributes to this myopic view.  Here in Australia, while fending off dropbears and hating on the Lebanese, we invested taxpayer dollars into various areas of the economy in order to ride out the GFC.  By most reasonable accounts, it worked well.  If you can extrapolate Zizek’s reading of the US experience to Australia, the coherency of his discussion breaks down.  In other words, his analysis of their social engagement only seems plausible because the actions failed.  Had the actions not failed (as was the case in Australia), the analysis would not look plausible.

Philosophy gets an unfair wrap in public opinion due to films like The Matrix or whatever which make philosophical questions look easy.  Where philosophy is absolutely at its best is when it is informed by the very best in other fields of research.  First as Tragedy, Then as Farce desperately needs more input from economists (and not just of the ‘I have a popular column in a newspaper’ variety).

The act of reading therefore becomes an act of sifting.  You have to filter out all the gobbledegook about economics in order to focus back on the questions Zizek answers best: where are our blindspots when it comes to arguing about politics and economics?

Then again, Zizek does absolutely everything he can to push the reader away.  Jokes that are seriously NSFW litter the book.  And the jokes don’t really serve much in the way of a purpose.  A joke about a peasant’s wife getting raped doesn’t contribute much to the argument.

Towards the end of Zizek!Zizek complains that the ‘enemy’ tries to marginalise his views by laughing at them.  ‘Ho, ho. That funny Zizek.  He’s not a serious commentator on politics or culture!’

Here he is, for example, complaining about tulips:

But it’s not the ‘enemy’ making him look foolish there.  It wasn’t the ‘enemy’ which littered First as Tragedy, Then as Farce with awkward jokes.  It was Zizek himself.

And thus we get back to the start.  I have no idea who would read this book.  Is Zizek simply writing book after book to his fans?  Are they dutifully purchasing each one, making room for it at eye-level in their living rooms?  Do fans of Zizek even have money?  Worse, Zizek doesn’t seem to have a particular audience in mind.

Which is a shame because three-fifths of the book (the non-economics stuff) is genuinely great.

So, if you’re a masochist with an interest in the philosophy of politics and economics, grab a copy of this book and read it in a really busy cafe so that lots of people can see you.

Three stars.


Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #9: What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel

Alright, back to the non-fiction books I love. Michael Sandel is a modern philosopher who is interested in issues of justice. In fact, his book “Justice” is a fantastic read for people who are interested in philosophy but cringe at the idea of popping open Hume or Kant on a cold winter’s day.

This book looks at whether there are any moral reasons to not allow the market to ‘take care of things.’ Some of his areas of focus are likely ones that you have considered previously (possibly over a beer with friends). Should people be able to sell their kidneys? Did that student really get into Harvard because of his talent, or because his mom could buy the entire campus twice over? Is that fair? Does it matter if it is or isn’t?

Sandel argues from a premise that some might not accept: that “making markets more efficient is no virtue in itself.” Instead, he’s interested in why people might cringe at the commodification of certain components of our lives. Why, if markets are so great and supposedly will sort out the distribution of goods and services in the most efficient way possible, do some markets make us so uncomfortable?

Each example in the book addresses one of two arguments – the argument from fairness and the argument from corruption. In the first case, we might consider where a certain market is fair if the person participating may not REALLY have much of a choice. Again, think about the kidney example. Sure we all own our bodies, but the concern with allowing a market in kidneys is that only the poor would end up selling them, essentially turning them into spare parts for wealthy people, and leaving people who cannot afford kidneys at the whim of donors. The second argument looks at whether the nature of certain things might be corrupted simply by market involvement. Advertising in schools is a prime example of that.

The book is broken down into five parts – an introduction to the issues he plans to address (and a background on markets and examples of market transactions that might raise an eyebrow), a section on incentives (and how they don’t always work the way you’d think), markets replacing moral discussion, the insurance market (which features my favorite portion of the book, where he examines third-party life insurance purchasing), and the right to name different public and private spaces (think Citibank Field in NYC). The concepts are not difficult to grasp and are well-written and interesting.

While I do have a philosophy background, I want to emphasize that one is not necessary AT ALL to enjoy this book. If you’re interested in markets and a discussion about why they might not always be the best way to distribute goods, this is a really great read for you. In fact, I suggest getting your favorite discussion partner (perhaps someone who doesn’t always agree with you) to read the book at the same time so you can have a lively chat about it all.