Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women"

Just finished Harriet Reisen's new biography, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.  This was an incredibly thorough history of a writer who has to rank among the top children's writers of all time, painstakingly researched through the journals and letters of the Alcott family and friends, as well as more public records.

I'll start off the top with my criticisms of the book.  Two issues stood out for me.  For one, there are no pictures or illustrations.  Now, I'm totally able to read a book without pictures, but when reading non-fiction I find that maps, photos, or other visual aids are worthwhile.  In this case, I think it would be appropriate to have reproductions of portraits of members of the family (as available), and perhaps some of May's paintings--maybe including the apparently rather bad illustrations she did for the first edition of Little Women.  As a non-local, I wouldn't even have minded maps showing the relationships of Louisa's various homes to one another.

My second issue with the book has to do with an odd disconnect between the author's proclaimed life-long love of Louisa's books and a few errors with regard to characters and events in the books.  Most striking, to me, was a point where she notes that "Jo March" has twins, a boy and a girl.  In fact, it is Meg who has twins, and Jo has two boys, about 2 years apart.  It wasn't clear to me if the confusion was over which real sister was referred to or which children belonged to Jo (who does, after all, raise them all in Little Men), but the error jarred.  In light of the degree of research involved in following Louisa's life, I would think that a little more care in writing of her books would be in order.

The story begins with Louisa's parents--as any meaningful study of her must.  Louisa M. Alcott was inevitably strongly shaped by her parents' personalities, but also by their beliefs.  Everyone knows, at least to some degree, about Bronson Alcott's Transcendentalism and the group of philosophers he hung about with (Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne. . . ), which influenced Louisa's thinking.

Less is typically said about the grinding poverty that Bronson's inability to hold a steady job (in part because of those beliefs) inflicted on the family.  But that poverty--and a determination to use her own strongest skills to get out of it--drove Louisa's writing nearly as much as her own desperate need to "get it out."  I thought that Reisen's insights into the connection between Louisa's writing of "thrillers" and her own difficulty with containing her spirits in the mold required of a 19th-century woman of New England made a great deal of sense, but the push to sell each and every story for the greatest possible amount came straight out of the need to pay the bills.

I had also always vaguely understood that Alcott, who never married, had never really had much in the way of a love life, or maybe even social life.  There were rumors, of course, about the "Polish boy" who was the model for Laurie Laurence, but I'd never been clear if that was true.  It was, though it's not clear exactly what their relationship was (she was cagey about that even in her journals).  Nor was he the only (much younger) man with whom she was involved.

Louisa also, again contrary to what I'd always vaguely thought I'd read somewhere, traveled extensively on the Continent at least twice, the first time following much the same itinerary as Amy March does in Little Women.  Again, this helps to make it more comprehensible that she could write of travel and love as she does.

In the end of the book, Reisen reports on some speculation about the cause of Louisa's poor health and eventual death (at 55; her father died only 2 days before her at age 88, so it was pretty clear it wasn't just genetics--nor the other killer of so many women of her era, childbirth, since she never went that route).  Louisa herself always attributed her pain, poor digestion, and array of other intermittent symptoms to the residual effects of the pneumonia she suffered while an army nurse in the Civil War and the mercury-based treatment she was given.  Reisen reports that modern medicine dismissed that cause, as mercury doesn't linger in the body, and could not have caused symptoms decades later.  Instead, they speculate that she suffered from Lupus, a disease not then known and even now lacking a cure.  I don't know if this is a sound assessment, but it does make clear that she very probably did suffer from a real illness.  The tendency to dismiss vague sets of symptoms (especially ones that come and go with the levels of stress in her life) as psychosomatic is, at least, dealt a serious blow by the doctors' work.

In some ways, this book was almost "TMI" for a fan of Alcott's works for children.  Her life was both greater and more sordid than that of "Jo March," and I was both fascinated by the reality and a little sorry for the tarnishing of an idol (yeah, I know I'm too old for that!).  It isn't the writing of thrilling tales that is hard to take (I've known about those for years, and have read my share of what she dismisses in Little Women as "trash").  It's more the exposure of Louisa as at times manipulative, even greedy.

Though I can't deny she had good reason to be both.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Books about writing

Over the years, I've read a lot of books by writers (duh) about writing.  Some have been helpful.  Anne Lamott's  Bird by Bird stands out.  I whole-heartedly cling to her advice about writing crappy first drafts, perhaps because I haven't much choice.  Others, not so much (I never even finished Annie Dillard on writing). 

One book, however, stands out in my mind as the best book I've encountered on what being a writer is about: Cynthia Rylant's Mr. Putter & Tabby Write the Book.  Okay, it's a book for beginning readers, with more pictures than words, or nearly.  But I absolutely love the picture Rylant paints of the writing life (or, perhaps more accurately, the would-be writing life). 

Stuck indoors in a big snowstorm, Mr. Putter decides to follow through on a long-held desire to be a writer.  Rylant tells us:
"He had everything a writer needed:
a soft chair,
a warm fire,
and a good cat.
And he had a pen and plenty of paper."

Thus fully equipped, Mr. Putter sits down to begin.  After long thought, he comes up with a title for his book.  Pleased, he goes and spends four hours fixing a "snack."  Then he takes a nap. 

This pattern is repeated until the third day, when he "woke up ready to write again.  He liked being a writer ready to write."  Ouch.  All of us who write know that the idea of being a writer is a great deal less work than the reality!

In the end, Mr. Putter is forced to conclude that being a writer isn't so good for him, as it makes him eat too much and take too many naps.  Still, he looks forward to the next snowstorm so he can be a writer again.

I have to laugh every time I read this book, even if the laughter is a little rueful.  When I can't get started writing, I make coffee and a snack.  When I really can't get started, I got out for coffee and a snack.  And some days, only the thought of the nap I get at the end (and maybe another snack) can keep me going for even a few paragraphs.

Yes, I think between Anne Lamott and Mr. Putter, I have it figured out.  Now, I'm off to write another crappy first draft, then have a snack.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Self-indulgent vacation thoughts

Our family recently spent a week on Hawai'i (Big Island).  Since we never do anything quite like other people, we did our trip with camping (backpacking) gear, a rented mini-SUV, and some high-mileage hiking, often in the rain.

Spent the first three days in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, which encompasses the "live" volcanic areas.  In fact, parts of the park roads and trails were closed, as Halemaumau was smoking and steaming and emitting noxious gasses.  We saw signs everywhere warning about air quality and cautioning those with breathing issues to clear out.  We didn't notice anything except in a couple of spots where I found my eyes stinging.

Our arrival in Hilo was stereotypical--a sunny, warm day, got our car and went in search of supplies (we needed a pile of food and some camping stuff, notably fuel for our stoves and a foam cooler).  In the process, we stumbled on the Hilo Farmers' Market, where we picked up some local fruit, picking things the kids (and we) either hadn't tried (like rambutan, though that's not a native plant) or thought we didn't like (like mango.  The stuff we get here on the mainland, I swear, tastes NOTHING like the stuff we got there).  The pineapple was a bonus, though the boys, especially, had never tasted fresh pineapple and were blown away by how good it was.

We headed for the park at last, and got our first look at the steaming crater on the summit.

There was a fair bit of steaming going on all around us, too, and part of the parking lot was closed because a vent had opened up in the middle of it.  Food for thought, in my opinion!  The campground was only about a half mile away, as the crow flies, and well under a mile from the steaming vent itself.  I had to remind myself that Kilauea is an oozy volcano, not a St. Helens-style explosive one.

Halemaumau in the early morning, while still dark enough for the steam to be lit by the lava out of sight below.

 Ropey pahoehoe lava on the Napau Trail.

Kilauea Caldera

 The End of the Road.  Chain of Craters road dead ends in a lava flow from the 1990s.

When they say "Road Closed," they mean it!

This might be the tropics, but at 10,000' on Mauna Loa at the crack of dawn, there's frost on the lava.

Mauna Loa summit, more or less.  As high as we got (13,000')

Early morning light on the east coast.

Waipio Valley from the overlook.  We did hike down to the beach, but couldn't cross the stream to continue.

Honaunua Bay, where we did some snorkeling.

At the southernmost point in the U.S. 

This was my first trip to Hawai'i, and I was probably most struck by what it was not: not a steamy tropical jungle full of bugs.  We did find a few hot places, but spent a lot more time at altitude, often in the rain (and therefore not very warm!).  The landscape was so much more varied than I expected, as we went from nearly-fresh lava flows to beaches to, yes, rainforests.  

Stargazing at the Observatory Visitors Center on Mauna Kea required all the warm clothes we'd brought (and we'd brought most of what we'd take backpacking anywhere), but gave us a view of the night sky I've never seen, even in the High Sierra or the deserts of the Western US.

And one rainforest where we spent a few hours hiking struck particularly, because it wasn't crowded.  All the images I get of a tropical rainforest are much like the temperate rainforests I know (Olympic Peninsula, for example) only hotter, steamier, and even more thick with undergrowth.  This forest, at 2000' above the NE coast, was relatively open.  I didn't really believe it was a rainforest until it started to rain on us.  And kept on raining.  

Finally, I had completely forgotten how easy it is to swim in salt water (I hadn't been in salt water since the mid-80s).  What fun to be able to just hang out in the water and not have to work to stay afloat!  The incredible sea life we saw when snorkeling was a treat, but just swimming in the ocean was another sort of treat (as was the local coffee and ice cream we enjoyed afterwards!).