Coming to Grips with SEO and Well-Meant Advice

Over the past few weeks, I’ve really been struggling with writing for my blog.

The combination of the everlasting winter and the everlasting knee replacement rehab certainly contributes to my Debby-downerism, but it’s more than that.

On one hand, all the SEO tips and blogging experts tell me that I need to focus on one area and write compelling content about that area.

On the other hand, the reason I started blogging was to write about what was on my mind and to share information and visuals that I thought people might be interested to see. Continue reading

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...

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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

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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…

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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

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 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.

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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!

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!

Book Club: The Louisa Challenge

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I’ve been listening to a book in the car during my commute; so far it’s interesting but I’m not sure it’s great. It has, however, stirred me up about reading Louisa May Alcott’s body of work again. You may remember that I’m an Alcott groupie; I’ve read pretty much everything she wrote, including her journals as well as many of the biographies about her, and I’ve put a commemorative stone on her grave in Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. Yes, I’m that person and I’m proud of it.

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The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott (2010) is a debut novel by Kelly O’Connor McNees, who, according to her bio, lives in Chicago. Why haven’t I met her? I clearly need to get out more or read different blogs.

The Lost Summer imagines a summer romance between a local heart-throb and our beloved Louisa, who has published Flower Fables (1849) and is hopeful that she can escape the confines of her impoverished and demanding family by moving to an apartment in Boston to write and experience life. Mind you, this is early in the 1850s — she was well ahead of her time in wanting to live and work on her own in the big city, something our daughters take for granted these days.

Your challenge: read one Alcott work a month and share your thoughts. Were you brought up with Alcott as I was? Did you read her and put her aside because of her preachiness that seems out-of-place in our modern world? Are you now old enough to appreciate her? I will certainly invite Kelly O’Connor McNees to participate with us!

Given that you may not have Louisa deep in your bones, I suggest we start with a biography for the first Sunday in December. There are three seminal pieces.  Cornelia Miegs’s children’s biography, Invincible Louisa, received the Newbery Award in 1934 for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. It’s a classic and well worth reading. Ednah Cheney‘s Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals (1888) is a contemporary look at an extraordinary woman of her time. Madeline Stern‘s seminal biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (1950), brought to light parts of Alcott’s story that had not previously been told due to gender sensibilities and lack of modern scholarship on the part of the previous biographers. Stern was the foremost Alcott scholar of the 20th century; who among us will emerge as Louisa’s new partisan?

I’m hoping that you, my faithful friends, are willing to climb on the Alcott bandwagon with me. Comment or send me an email ( regarding your participation, and read one of the biographies before January. Each is good in its own way and will get you started on your Alcott journey.

Here’s the schedule for the Louisa Challenge in the order that she wrote them; free online books can be found at The Literature Network, but your local library will probably have hard copies of most of these titles. Louisa would approve of your actually holding the treasured book in your hand. Some of them are also available from Project Gutenberg.

January:  Little Women — originally serialized as Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy followed by the second half of the story as Good Wives (1869)

February:  An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870)  — you’ll find out in this one why my name ends in “ie”

March: Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys (1871)

April: Eight Cousins (1875)

May: Rose in Bloom (1876)

June: Jo’s Boys and How They Turned Out (1886)

There’s much more available to you from the Orchard House Bookstore. I have read many of these books, but not all. Challenge me to a new read! I also haven’t read or seen the movie made of  Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women (2009), so I’m all for finding the book and the movie and making it part of our book club.

Get your friends involved! I’m on Facebook at Got My Reservations; maybe we can even share some digital wine at our book club.

P.S. You’re welcome to read The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, which appears frequently in Little Women, but I think I’ll pass on that one. 🙂

Book Club: True Stories

I love memoirs and personal tales of motivation, achievement, and best of all, obsession. I also really love historical fiction, especially that which is so well researched that it’s hard to tell what is fact and what is fiction. That’s why my two most recent books really hooked me and why I think you should definitely read at least one of them.

E.L. Doctorow garnered a lot of attention following the publication of his 2005 novel, The March, which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner award. The March was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and nominated for the National Book Award. I read it; it was a cultural tour de force that gives new insights into the plight of the American South during General Sherman’s march to the sea. If you’ve been reading for a while, you probably already read Ragtime (1975), which has been consistently included on the lists of the 100 best English language books ever written. And, if you are one of my Ohio relatives, you will know that it is most likely Doctorow’s four years at Kenyon College that is bringing him all of his success :).

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When our book club chose Homer and Langley (2009) for inclusion in our year’s reading, I thought it sounded interesting. The idea that the novel is based on the true story of the Collyer brothers of New York, men who were recluses and hoarders, seemed kind of interesting and ticked all my reading boxes. I figured that in Doctorow’s hands, a story of obsession could be worth reading. Boy, was that the understatement of the year! I devoured this delectable little morsel of New York lore as quickly as possible, given that I was listening to it in the car during my commute to work. After researching the Collyer brothers and reading some reviews, I found that Doctorow turned the somewhat sad story of the eccentricities of these men into a fantasia of historical allusion — kind of a Forrest Gump story that also puts the Collyer brothers in the path of American history. Unlike Forrest, however, America came to the Collyers rather than the Collyers going after it as Forrest did.

I don’t recommend that you learn the true details of the Collyers’ lives first; let Doctorow weave his spell around you before you go to Mr. Internet. I do recommend that you try listening to it as I did. Arthur Morey’s voicing of the two brothers’ story is spell-binding. I can’t imagine hearing them speak any other way. It’s probably at your library in CD version or you could do the free trial of Audible from (let me know how that works out).

And then there’s my other book for this week. Are you a closeted Laura Ingalls Wilder fan? Do you still have your box set of the Little House books that you are saving for your daughter? If so, you will absolutely adore The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie (2011) by Wendy McClure.

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Although it’s probably difficult for anyone to believe, I did not grow up reading the Little House books, nor did I get interested in them when I began to read children’s book as a teacher. I did watch the television show occasionally, but all that earnestness wasn’t really my cup of tea.

That’s why it’s really hard for me to figure why I absolutely loved McClure’s book about tracing the path of Laura Ingalls and her family through their real homesteads. I just had this awesome connection with someone who could be so obsessed with pioneer living that she bought a churn on eBay and actually made butter in her Chicago apartment. How cool is that? Possibly running a close second to my obsessive visits to Tudor castles in England, but that’s surely not the same.

And then I actually went to Wendy’s website and found that she lives in our old neighborhood in Chicago and just got married to Chris. It must be serendipity and I’m going to have to figure out how to be her new best friend. Or not. Maybe that would look too much like stalking her.

If you loved Laura Ingalls and her family, you should definitely read The Wilder Life. If you don’t even know what I’m talking about, forget it and stick with Doctorow. Both are good reads and I recommend them both.

P.S. Just so you know,  I want to write this same book about following the path of Louisa May Alcott, which is my dirty little secret. I’ve read everything Louisa — we’re on first name basis — ever wrote, have of course communed with her ghost in Concord, and have stood in the street outside of her Louisburg Square house in Boston, just drinking in the literary air.

P.P.S. Wendy, if you’re reading this because you have a pinger on your web site, don’t steal my idea for the Louisa May Alcott book. It’s mine, even though you did a really good job hooking me into The Wilder Life. Message me, okay? Or comment — either would be good.

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