Writer’s Workshop: Book Reviews

Like all readers, I always have stacks of books laying on surfaces in my home and I’ve enjoyed writing about them on my blog. I keep a yearly tally on one of my blog pages (on the 2012 Book List tab) and link up my book reviews, so I hope you’ll take a look at what I’ve read and reviewed over the last few years.

Recently, I’ve been putting photos of the book covers on my sidebar when I start a new book. Let’s just say I have eclectic taste in what I read. There have been a few books that I’ve hidden from sight — I wasn’t prepared to tell the world everything I was reading. 🙂

So I’m going bare — here’s the full list of what I’m currently reading and may review, depending on how much I like (or hate) the book. It’s not embarrassing, thank goodness.

I always try to read the nominees for the Rebecca Caudill Award every year, which is an Illinois award conferred by student vote in grades four though eight. This year, the winner was Powerless. It’s a super-powers preteen-boys-book, but I’ve decided to read it anyway.  I doubt I’ll review it…

My eighth graders read Warriors Don’t Cry as the centerpiece of their study of Civil Rights. It’s the story of the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. I don’t think I actually read it again last year as my kids read it; it’s on my to-do list for the weekend. It’s a compelling story even as a reread.

I’m still working through An Old-Fashioned Girl on my Kindle — the Louisa Challenge seems to have stalled — and I’m looking forward to moving on to Little Men.

I just started The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on audiobook during my commute. It’s our May book club choice and I already know it’s going to be thought-provoking.

It appears that the only thing that’s slightly embarrassing is the Sophie Kinsella entry, but I’m not uncomfortable with my choice on that one. I enjoy her books and so do a lot of other people!

I’ve been lucky to connect with great readers through blogging, so let me introduce you to places you can read fabulous book reviews.

Jenners at Life With Books reads and reads and reads — and writes book reviews about intriguing books. I have three books on reserve at the library based on her recommendations!

A blogger with a different take on books is Jillian at A Room of One’s Own. She’s on a mission to catch up! Her reviews are thoughtful and full of insight about the “classics.”

I’ve enjoyed the creativity of Michele at The Great Read. If you’re looking for books for yourself or for your kids, she’s got you covered — at your library.

I can’t do this post without linking up to my niece Jessie at Vanderbilt Wife. She got me started writing again and I owe her my sanity. As both a writer and a reader, she’s got interesting reviews and commentary on books for adults and kids.

So we’re done for today. As my favorite flawed literary heroine says, “Tomorrow is another day.” Scarlett didn’t read, but her fame lives on through the genius of Margaret Mitchell. I can’t wait to read this

I’m linking up to Mama Kat again this week. Give my friends some comment love!

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Book Club: The Little Women Letters

It’s Sunday, so it must be Louisa time.

English: Image of American author Louisa May A...

I grabbed The Little Women Letters off of the “new books” shelf at the library. The modern cover with a bright turquoise background practically jumped off the rack at me, and it looked like an intriguing read.

Author Gabrielle Donnelly reframes the Little Women story by creating adult lives for Jo, Meg, and Amy March, a story discovered by one of Jo’s descendants and told through letters written by Jo. It’s a stretch for an Alcott historian, because for anyone who has read either Louisa May Alcott’s sequels to Little Women or anything about Louisa’s real life, Donnelly’s new vision of the adult March sisters doesn’t make much sense. In fact, in this picture, Little Women doesn’t even exist. I had to force myself to focus on Donnelly’s narrative and to try to disconnect from everything I know about Alcott’s writings beyond Little Women.

Once I got past the obvious continuity flaws, I enjoyed the book. Lulu Atwater, a direct descendant of Josephine March, lives in London with her two sisters and parents. Her mother, Fee, is a Bostonian who married an Englishman and left her New England roots behind. With her came family recipes and papers, including a set of letters written by Lulu’s great-great-grandmother, detailing the day-to-day thoughts and dreams of Jo March, including her excitement at meeting a certain interesting young German professor.

The Atwater sisters are obviously patterned after the March sisters and Fee Atwater provides a strong, nurturing center for the three young women who are finding their places in the world. As a tribute to the beloved Little Women, Gabrielle Donnelly has created a contemporary story of sisterhood, just as Louisa May Alcott did in her day.

For The Louisa Challenge, I’m reading An Old Fashioned Girl right now, and finding it fascinating to also compare it to its contemporary counterparts. I hope that you stop back next week to lend your voice to our study of Louisa May Alcott’s chick lit.

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The Louisa Challenge: Little Women

Illustration from: An Old-Fashioned Girl. By L...

Image via Wikipedia

Welcome to the second installment of The Louisa Challenge where we read one Louisa May Alcott book every month and then discuss it. You can find the prompts here. If you wrote a post yourself, please link it up in your comments so that we can all read your work!

I was watching Midnight in Paris (for the fifth time) last night, and Woody Allen’s script calls for a character to say that Mark Twain is the father of the American novel. I’ll accept that, but I’d like to add a mother to the little family. I’d like to propose that Louisa May Alcott is the mother of the American chick-lit novel.

Louisa May Alcott has long been known as the forerunner of the Young Adult genre of authors we know today. In her time, her popularity was based on the fact that most other writers for children were moralizing and preachy. Her characters resonate with real-life drama — they don’t always behave well, they feel guilty when they misbehave, and they don’t always marry the man of their mama’s dreams.

Are Louisa’s string of novels the archetypes for such popular books as Lisi Harrison’s Clique series?  At first glance, one might be horrified at such a comparison, but let’s extrapolate, applying a little Midnight in Paris – style time travel. If Alcott were alive today, would she embrace Facebook and Twitter and use it for her characters to gossip about each other? She writes with an almost vicious delight at the “mean girl” antics of Meg’s friends and she gets even better at it in An Old-Fashioned Girl. They make the perfect foil for the March sisters who struggle to be “good” while also wanting to enjoy the good life. Only Beth seems immune to peer pressure, but then she doesn’t get out much.

How many times have you read a current novel in which the heroine realizes that the hunky bachelor, while providing social standing and sinful delight, is not the one to settle down with and marry?  Sometimes the heroine even passes off the hunky bachelor to a friend, and that relationship turns out to be a marriage made in heaven. Goodbye Laurie, hello Professor Bhaer.

I need to go on record here that I’m frequently appalled at a lot of what my students read today. I believe that constantly reading about the mean-girl phenomenon legitimizes its inevitability, even though many of the popular books do have heroines with a heart of gold who make the right choice in the end. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that in our drive to present young girls with realistic role-models, we’ve also given them permission to misbehave because “everyone does it.”

But let’s get back to that time travel thingey. Louisa as YA Queen. No wonder people came to her house in Concord and asked for locks of her hair. If she were a modern woman, would she also be appalled? After all, she often called her YA novels rubbish and was kind of embarrassed about them.

Can you see her on The View? What do you think?

P.S. I really struggled with writing to my own prompts, and thus found myself straying off-task. I hope you will forgive me, and I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say!

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The Louisa Challenge: February Prompts

“Sorry you could find nothing better to read. I write that rubbish because it sells, and ordinary people like it.”  ~~ Louisa May Alcott

Image via victoriantradingco.com

Louisa May Alcott was a woman of her time yet manages to remain a contemporary woman of our time. She knew the difference between reality and dreams, and she did what she needed to do to keep her family fed, clothed, and sheltered. In that respect, she isn’t much different from any of us.

Alcott’s best known book, Little Women, still inspires dollhouse dolls, paper dolls, and her childhood home, Orchard House, was celebrated by Department 56 in their Literary Classic Series of porcelain replicas. Given my love of all things Alcott, I’m not quite sure why I don’t own this…

Image via http://www.dept56retirees.com

In 1868, she put aside writing her beloved mysteries and thrillers to write Little Women, which is loosely based on her own family life with her three sisters. After having read Little Women, the Louisa Challenge asks you to respond to one or more of these prompts — or make up your own. There are no rules in this literary challenge!

P.S. There are spoilers here…

  1. Which is your favorite character in Little Women? Why?
  2. Do you find it surprising that once Laurie is rejected by Jo, he falls in love with Amy? Do you feel his characterization is complete and he is acting within the “norm” of the personality Alcott has created for him, or does Alcott simply dispose of him once our heroine rejects him?
  3.  Some critics argue that the characters are masochistic. Meg is the perfect little wife, Amy is the social gold digger, and Beth is the eternally loving and patient woman. Do you believe these characterizations are masochistic? If so, do you think Alcott could have characterized them any other way while maintaining the realism of the society she lived in? And if this is true, what of Jo’s character?
  4.  The last two chapters find Jo setting aside her budding literary career to run a school with her husband. Why do you think Alcott made her strongest feminine figure sacrifice her own life plans for her husband’s?
  5. Do you believe this is a feminine or a feminist piece of work?
  6. Who would you cast in the next movie adaptation?

Join us on Sunday, February 13, as we celebrate Little Women in the Louisa Challenge. I look forward to hearing what you have to say!

Prompts via Lit Lovers

Saturday Linky Love: Book Challenges and Reading Dreams

My recent foray into The Louisa Challenge has introduced me to some interesting new online friends. I had no idea that I had not created something original — there are LOTS of book challenges out there among the book bloggers. It makes me feel kind of naive; I’ve just been poking along in my little 4th bedroom/office, writing about my life and the places to which I travel and dishes and catalog dreaming and the books I read.

My son, the social media guru and recently published e-book author, has told me that I need to isolate my niche. Contentedly blathering away about the things that touch my heart, I’ve been blogging for about 2 1/2 years, but I’ve yet to gain a widespread following. My loyal friends and family comment regularly, and I love them for that. Frankly, I’m satisfied with a small group of online friends, because it fills a gap in my soul to just write about what’s on my mind. Many of you probably feel this same need in our busy society; expressing one’s self is difficult because very few people actually take the time to listen. After all, we can always read about it later… or look at the video online. But who doesn’t want to be Pioneer Woman deep in one’s private soul?

Recently I got one and then another email from a medical malpractice attorney (???) who apparently stalks blogs to see if she can convince someone to allow her to do a guest post along with a link-up in return. I’ve always figured this was a scam, but surely many bloggers get unsolicited requests to promote a product. I have assumed I was small potatoes and there was no way I could ever “monetize my blog.” And did I want to? When Illinois no longer allowed amazon.com to pay me referrals, I kind of gave up. Do I actually have a niche, or am I just writing an online diary for the world to see about being an empty nester and woman in her latent prime?

Miraculously, I’ve been saved from these difficult questions by finding a bunch of kindred spirits. I immediately recognized the reconstructed shack on the shore of Walden Pond and the allusion in Jillian’s A Room of One’s Own. I’ve been intrigued by the reviews and challenges provided by Jenner at Life With Books. I’ve been inspired by the photography and creativity of  Michele at The Great Read. I was absolutely thrilled to find out that someone loves Louisa May Alcott as much as I do by meeting Susan at Louisa May Alcott is My Passion. I’ve met Merrick at Elf Paper who’s reading along with us on The Louisa Challenge. I love that my niece, Vanderbilt Wife, who is raising two toddlers, editing other people’s books, cooking, and reading and writing as much as her busy life will allow, connects up with The Louisa Challenge.  She also loves Gwendolyn Brooks and March, the fictional biography of Bronson Alcott, while he’s “off at the Civil War.” Who else is lurking out there? I’ve yet to meet her or him, but I’m looking forward to it.

Linking up with my new online friends,  I was obsessed with the layers of book challenges:

My students are currently deciding which book to read in literature circles for the Holocaust unit. I’ve recommended Night by Elie Wiesel if they’ve never read it; it’s a classic and belongs in the current canon, in my opinion. What’s in your canon? Many of the writers I’ve linked here have ideas about what should be in a modern-day list of must-read books.

To paraphrase one of my favorite movies, what’s your dream? What do you wish you had time to read?

“Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? Everybody comes here; this is Hollywood, land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don’t; but keep on dreamin’ – this is Hollywood. Always time to dream, so keep on dreamin’.”

My Book Club’s More Scintillating Than Your Book Club

Image via www.erinsmithart.com

Thanks to a dear friend in my book club, I now have this magnet. It says it all.

Here’s a good idea to make your book club as scintillating as mine…

I started reading  In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (2011) by Eric Larson on my Kindle. It’s a thought-provoking book, but it took longer than the library’s allotted two weeks to read it. I’m getting back on the queue and the beauty of Kindle is that all my bookmarks, notes, and last page number will be there, waiting for me.

From Amazon.com:

Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the bestselling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance–and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming–yet wholly sinister–Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

“Larson is a marvelous writer…superb at creating characters with a few short strokes.”—New York Times Book Review

I also have Good Christian Bitches on reserve for obvious reasons. With Kristin Chenoweth at the helm, how can ABC’s new show CGB be bad, even if the book is?

Hopefully, you are also continuing The Louisa Challenge and will be ready to talk Little Women on February 13. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

The Louisa Challenge: The Biographies

Welcome to the first installment of The Louisa Challenge. I hope that you will join us in our online salon as we examine the life and work of one of America’s most popular authors.

Scene from the 1994 movie adaptation of Little Women, starring Winona Ryder as Jo March. The women are reading a letter from their father and husband, Mr. March, who is serving in the Civil War.

According to Jessica of Scholastic, Little Women consistently comes up as a favorite book among people who follow the BookPull blog. The curators at Orchard House say that Alcott’s alter ego, Jo March, “was the first American juvenile heroine to act from her own individuality –a living, breathing person rather than the idealized stereotype then prevalent in children’s fiction.” According to this satirical web site, Little Women is also a book that makes you dumb — I just had to include it because it touched my funny bone to think of English majors going crazy analyzing whether or not the guy from Cal Tech had chosen the correct genre or not! And when you type in Louisa May Alcott on the Amazon.com search engine, you get 10,011 results. As a comparison, John F. Kennedy garners 63,000 hits, and Beverly Clearly only gets about 900. Louisa continues to be talked about and written about far beyond her relatively short period of fame in the second half of the 19th century.

The same scene from the 1949 version of the movie, starring June Allyson as Jo.

This month we are talking virtually about the Alcott family biographies, and there are lots of them! For those who haven’t quite had the time, the Library of Congress has published a simple biography of Louisa May Alcott with lots of related links. We may all want to bookmark this site as we go through the Alcott canon; it’s chock-full of interesting information and photos.

The challenge was to read at least one Alcott biography and respond to a prompt. I’ve chosen Prompt #1.

1. After reading an Alcott biography, how did you feel about the real Bronson Alcott?  How do you think his family and especially Louisa were affected by him? Are there fathers like him today?

Mr. March (Bronson Alcott) appears in Little Women as an almost mythical figure; at the beginning of the story he is off working as a chaplain in the Civil War and upon his return, he continues his ministerial work in a local church. As a role model for Josephine March and her sisters, their father is clearly not the driving force. They love him, they respect him, and they try to follow his teachings, but for day-to-day getting-it-done, Marmee makes things happen, not big daddy. It appears that Louisa May Alcott could not face representing her father realistically, but rather than be mean, she just made him disappear.

Based on all sources that I have read, it’s pretty clear that Amos Bronson Alcott was a dreamer, was unrealistic, and depended on others to keep him and his family from destitution. Yet, his personal magnetism and intellectual acuity convinced many people that he should be protected, honored, and saved from financial disaster. I’ve never been able to understand this.

Image via paw.princeton.edu

John Matteson says in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Eden’s Outcasts that “the world had no good yardstick for measuring Bronson Alcott. His inspirations seemed saintly to some and deluded to others.” He was a vegan before the word was even coined, and his vegetarian family wore linen shoes while pulling a plow attached to their shoulders through frozen ground at Fruitlands. He convinced them that it was not only unkind to the oxen to eat them or to use their hides for sturdy boots, it was a sin to ask the animals to labor for the humans’ sakes. Geraldine Brooks invents a fascinating backstory for March/Bronson in March, where March’s pride and faith are tested during his Civil War sojourn in the South, and he returns to his family a different and more humble father and husband. Unfortunately, that’s not what actually happened.

Given his successes and failures and emotional breakdowns, it’s hard to understand why Louisa and her father were somehow psychically joined at the hip. Like any daughter, she wanted her father’s approval, and he rarely gave it to her, despite that fact that for the last two decades of their lives, it was Louisa who kept the family out of the poorhouse. His Transcendentalist indoctrination was so strong that she struggled with her very normal desire to achieve fame and fortune; in Little Women we see Jo “trying to be good” all the time, when she is clearly an altruistic and caring person. Louisa basically was forced into writing not just one, but almost a dozen 19th century chick-lit YA novels that she hated to write, but which kept her parents, sisters, brother-in-law, and nieces and nephews fed, clothed, and housed.

I find it very interesting that Louisa managed to stay alive and making money for twenty years while dying a long slow death from fatal mercury poisoning. She didn’t give up until her father passed away in 1888; at age fifty-six, she died just two days after her father. For a woman who spent her entire life being the “man of the family,” Bronson Alcott’s death allowed her to finally stop caretaking and supporting her entire family. It’s pretty clear to me that Bronson’s irresponsibility — his Pied Piper nature combined with his total inability to sacrifice his principles for the people who loved him — made Louisa May Alcott the woman she became, and thankfully, we are the better for it. It’s a mixed blessing.

Now it’s your turn! What did you read and what do you want to tell the members of our Louisa Salon? Just link up or leave a comment. I can’t wait to hear what you think. Don’t forget to check back regularly for new comments and links and start reading Little Women. Our Louisa Salon meets again on February 13, 2012.

Your post and button will show up in a new page when you click on the froggie, and don’t forget to grab my button to link back to the Louisa Challenge page!

Spirit Fish Friday: Who’s That Finger Puppet?

Two days ago, I received an email from a school colleague telling me that Friday’s Spirit Day Challenge was to “wear something that isn’t yours” and if willing to take the challenge, I should “wear a hand puppet all day to greet students.” You can imagine my “enthusiastic” support of this youthful esprit de corps.

I fired off an email to a good friend of a similarly experienced age with a cynical comment about the ease of finding a hand puppet among my treasures with 36 hours to spare. Right.

When I opened her response at 5:00 am and change this morning, I found her cheery message. “But this is SO easy,  you get your _________ finger puppet and wag it at everyone, with a “prize” for the person who can identify the author!” The blank spaces are mine, because she KNEW I had a finger puppet. She bought it for me.

So I did wear it in every class and wagged it at my kids and colleagues. I invited my students to win a $15 iTunes gift card if they could figure out who my girlie was.

They couldn’t, but they don’t know me well enough to be sure whom I really love. Maybe you do. Here are the clues I gave them, and here are their wrong guesses. Who DOES my little finger puppet represent?

Clue: She is a real person who is no longer alive, and the puppet was purchased in a museum.

Wrong guesses:

Laura Ingalls Wilder (in all her middle school spelling permutations, and I did talk about her in one of our lessons)

Louisa May Alcott (I was proud of this guess — apparently this student listens to me)

Margaret Thatcher (does she look like Meryl Streep in a cap?)

Harper Lee (I’m pretty sure Harper wasn’t wearing a mobcap in the 1940s)

Marie Antoinette (another student who must listen to me ramble about France)

Betsy Ross (not a bad guess)

Virginia Poe (lots of these; we studied Poe earlier this year and they were impressed by his child bride — there must have been a photo of her wearing a mobcap in the literature we read)

Annie Oakley (???)

Miss Muffet (a real person? Hmmm.)

Mary Todd Lincoln (I’m not sure where that came from)

Britney Spears (a real person who is “dead” that I sometimes talk about was the rationale — maybe she needed the mobcap while her hair grew back?)

Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde ( another big question mark)

Florence Nightingale (not bad; at least it’s in the right century)

Mary Washington (a museum, real person, dead, correct century)

Julia Child (that’s really funny)

And the BEST wrong answers were:

Emily Dickenson (2), Charlotte Bronte, and Emily Bronte.

Surely by now you have figured it out, so leave your answer in the comments below. I will have blown my entire prize budget by purchasing the runner-up cards for the four students who got close (a teacher needs to stand by her agreements), but you’ll receive my kudos for the entire week if YOU get it right. Thanks for playing Spirit Fish Friday!

As for wearing something that wasn’t mine, my choices were something of darling husband’s — a physical impossibility — and something of my mother’s — kind of eerie to go to school declaring that I am wearing a deceased person’s clothing. I was really glad I had the finger puppet so that I could play along. Thanks, Michele!

The Louisa Challenge: January Prompts

I got started on the Louisa May Alcott kick after reading Kelly O’Connor McNees’s The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. I blogged about it here, and suddenly had a group of people signing up to read Alcott’s body of work with me in 2012. That in itself was fabulous, but just as Louisa’s fame grew, so is momentum growing for The Louisa Challenge. I’m honored to have inspired these wonderful readers and writers to join me on a pilgrimage back to the American Renaissance and one of its most revered authors.

The rules are easy; read the book of the month and comment or link up your post. I’ll post prompts the previous week, but you’re not locked into anything. As Louisa herself said, “We all have our own life to pursue, our own kind of dream to be weaving, and we all have the power to make wishes come true, as long as we keep believing.” I look forward to reading about your response to Louisa and her books.

The Louisa Challenge for January: thoughts after reading an Alcott biography

1. After reading an Alcott biography, how did you feel about the real Bronson Alcott?  How do you think his family and especially Louisa were affected by him? Are there fathers like him today?

2. Louisa May Alcott seems like a character who could be time-traveled to 2012 and still be successful. Why did Louisa need to protect her independence during her lifetime and how would she react to today’s complex and frenetic pace of life?

3. Did you know about Louisa’s relationships with the great American writers living in Concord along with the Alcotts? How did being a part of the informal writers’ colony that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller (as well as her father) affect Louisa?

4. Is there anything about Louisa’s life that really surprised you? What was it and why?

5. Which Alcott biographies have you read and which would you recommend to readers? Why or why not?

Watch for Mister Linky on Sunday, January 8. It’s going to be fun, friends!

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