Monday, July 25, 2011

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees

My mom loaned me her copy of this book.  I liked the story, and I think it's cool that someone would attempt to fill in some of the unknowns about a beloved author.  The idea of researching all they can, finding holes, then using facts and imagination to fill them in appeals to me.  I think that's why I liked this book.

The story is exactly what the title says.  It takes place during the summer of 1955 when the Bronson Alcott familymoves to Walpole, New Hampshire.  Louisa comes alive as a young woman who desperately wants to be a writer and struggles with society's rules and expectations for her. "Why would God give a woman talent if He meant her to be confined to the kitchen and washtub?"  Her character is of course similiar to Jo, and the story for awhile seemed too much like a Little Women copy cat.  But then as I got more into the romance, and the inner struggle that Louisa wrestles with, I felt like it did have merit of its own.

I loved studying the transcendentalists in high school and college, but I don't remember a whole lot about Bronson Alcott.  It was interesting to read the author's ideas, which are probably fact-based, about the effects that having a highly philosophical father might have had on his daughters.  Bronson refused to work for money, and so the family was always poor, however their mother Abagail thought constantly of those less fortunate, and gave away anything they might store up.  I hadn't really thought about how living those transcending ideals would work in a family.  Thoreau could go live at Walden without depriving anyone but himself, but the Alcott daughters didn't have a lot of options themselves.  This theme is mentioned a few times throughout.  Emerson is portrayed well here, and it made me wonder how many of his friends he helped keep afloat!

Joseph Singer is introduced as a young man who might be a intellectually stimulating match for Louisa.  They  connect over Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, so of course now I've got to read it.  Louisa describes it,
"Her father would say that the chaos of life, its unpredictability, existed to challenge one's commitment to improvement, that one must extract himself piece by piece out of the wildness and assemble a spirit that transcends the sum of mere body parts.  Mr. Whitman seemed to say, rather, that the wildness itself was the thing to cultivate.  For him, the spirit and the flesh were one, the physical experience of the world was divinity."
Then she says that men will go on arguing these matters forever, "The women, meanwhile, would continue to peel the vegetables and soak the linens in boiling tubs and mend the torn seams and bring new lives into the world."

Another thing this book reminded me of was how much work there was to be done in 1855.  These young women spent so many hours of each day doing menial tasks.  I feel that way a lot, but reading this made me so grateful for my leisure time.  For not having to mend clothing each day, or wash dishes by hand, and glad to have vacuum cleaners.

As a reader, I wanted Louisa to fall in love, to believe Joseph when he says, "There are some men out there who are charmed by an independent woman, who feel that marriage can be an equal partnership of head and heart.  Who would love you just as you are..."  But I do like her choice at the end better than her choice in the middle.  I don't want to spoil much, but if you read this, lets talk!

I also thought this comment was insightful, because haven't you heard people try that excuse before?
"I think this real love you talk about is only an excuse for selfishness.  It is the love of an inpatient boy, not a grown man.  A grown man knows that in life we may not always simply have whatever we want."

I liked this book and I think it was a fun idea for a story.  I think this qualifies as a fun, light summer read.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

I'm pretty sure I put a hold on this book after hearing about it from my cousin Betsy, but I can't remember.  I haven't written a review for awhile.  I'm still working my way through The Optimistic Child, which I am really liking, and it's just been a busy end of school-start of summertime around here!

This book was a nice dive back into novel reading for me after taking a few weeks off.  You know how I love a spunky 12 year old girl protagonist!  Abilene has been sent to live with strangers while her father works on the railroad for the summer.  She is brave and knows how to take care of herself, but is still lonely for her father that loves her and worries that their separation might not be temporary.  She has a sweet voice, and talks about "universals," the things you can count on in any town.  Things like snobby rich girls, chalky classrooms and things "everyone knows" except the new girl.

Abilene is anxious to learn more about her father's life in Manifest, and is searching for any stories about him.  There's a really poetic part where she notices footprints all over the wood floors, and wonders if any might be her father's from when he lived there.  She sets off to discover the mysteries hidden in a box of letters and mementos she has found.  As she reads the letters, her neighbor Miss Sadie fills in more stories.  So the book switches back and forth from 1936 when Abilene is living in Manifest, to 1918 when her father was living there.  I think the two stories weave together well.

I liked how the characters were nice!  The circumstances were often sad surrounding both Abilene and Jinx, but you could feel that they felt safe and loved in Manifest.  My favorite part was when the town (in 1918) worked together to outbid the coal mine bosses for some property.  It was a perfect example of coming together and making something good out of what seems like a hopeless situation. (Even if it did involve alcohol and a con!)

"'Amen,' they said in unison, these citizens of the world, and they held their breath as the many and varied ingredients that had been simmered and stewed, distilled and chilled, were combined to make something new.  Something greater than the sum of its parts."

There were times when the story felt a little slow to me.  Like there were a few threads going, and many of them weren't going anywhere.  The search for "the rattler" for instance, seemed to go by the wayside, then was wrapped up at the end without much to do.  And Sister Redempta, who I loved, seemed to fade away too.

I liked the characters in this book, but didn't really fall in love with them the way I hoped.  The small town setting, characters trying to discover more about their past, growing up, working together, these are the kind of themes that endear books to me, but this one fell a little short for me. 

BUT, I would recommend this.  It is a good read.  I think it would be great for anyone who likes heart-warming stories, and especially if you like historical fiction.  I would recommend it for kids too.  Maybe 9 and up?  This is Clare Vanderpool's first book and it won a Newbery medal! I'm looking forward to reading the next books she writes and I hope I like them even more!