Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

By Anne Boyd Rioux

W.W. Norton, 2018

This month is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. Over the years, Jo, the fictional March family’s second, rebellious daughter, has been seen by adventurous girls as a role model. Apparently Jo was based on Alcott herself, and the other three March sisters in the book mirror Alcott’s own three siblings.

When it first appeared, Alcott’s book was ground-breaking because it was written in a realist style. While Marmee’s admonitions to her girls are sometimes preachy, the book lacks the deadly sermon-like style of most Victorian- era children’s books.

Still, Alcott’s book sends a mixed message. Alcott, who famously said, “I’d rather paddle my own canoe,” than be dependent on a man for financial support, never married. And in her book Meg marries a man who is poor, Beth dies, Amy is regarded as frivolous because she aspires to wealth and beauty, and Jo, after an early start as a writer, ends up marrying a man old enough to be her father, and running a school.

To my childish understanding, this sent the same message that I saw at my all-girls’ school, where all the teachers were what used to be called spinsters: that being a writer – or a teacher – means giving up the idea of a joyful, companionate marriage of equals. For boring Professor Bhaer, whom Jo chooses as her husband is anything but sexy, and he talks down to her. So for reasons described further in my article, How Childhood Reading Shapes Identity, which appeared this week in the online magazine Women Writers, Women’s Books, I identified with both Jo and her older sister Meg, my namesake. I wanted it all.

As time went on, generation after generation of girls identified with the March sisters, and more intellectual girls identified with Jo. As Anne Boyd Rioux points out in her new book, in the middle of the twentieth century feminist scholars began to dissect Little Women with new intensity. They brought to light Alcott’s darker theme. Jo, who fought against conventional behavior for women, is eventually controlled by her older husband, and Beth, the perfect, submissive adolescent, dies. Rioux suggests that Beth died of anorexia, a symptom of girls who resist the physical and mental changes puberty brings.

Rioux is concerned that Alcott is no longer taught in American schools. Apparently teachers feel boys won’t read books about girls, while girls are expected to devour classics about boys. Huck Finn is in, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are out.

In a telling paragraph, Rioux notes: “The main obstacle to Little Women’s continued popularity, though, is that young readers are interested in a fundamentally different kind of literature. Girls want adventure, not domestic drama, and they are much more interested in fantasy than realism.”

To my mind, this demonstrates that not much has changed. If girls like heroines who are “witches, warrior princesses or hunters”, then the idea that a girl on the cusp of puberty can truly aspire to the same life choices that are held out to boys, is still far from being the norm.

Read my article in Women Writers, Women’s Books here:
http://booksbywomen.org/how-childhood-reading-shapes-identity-by-margaret-ann-spence/

The Pumpkin Eater & The Bell Jar

The Pumpkin Eater
By Penelope Mortimer

NYRB Classic, The New York Review of Books, 2011
Originally published, 1962

The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath
Harper, Reprint Edition 2015
Originally published, 1963

The sixties seem to be having a moment. After all, it is fifty years since that fatal year of 1968, when students all over the world rebelled. They’d had it up to here with call-ups for The Vietnam War, with parents who seemed to live in the dark ages, with college parietal rules, with laws that acted like scolds. The right to use contraception was not recognized by the US Supreme Court until 1965 – and then only for married couples. Women could not apply for a credit card without a male guarantor. Abortion was illegal.

When I told a young man I know about these restrictions, particularly on women, he was aghast. “It sounds like Saudi Arabia,” he said. Indeed. The times, they needed a-changin’. My work in progress begins in that energetic, crazy, and hopeful time. I’ve been reading a lot to research the period. I’m not up to that era quite yet. The books I have been reading lately are about the first half of the sixties. It was an entirely different time, it seems, from the public turmoil of the second half.

But the turmoil was there, seething away inside, for women. This is the take-away from each of these books. When I saw the 1964 movie, The Pumpkin Eater I was shocked, absolutely astonished, at the subject matter. The movie starred Anne Bancroft, who played a woman who, pregnant again for the umpteenth time, was persuaded by her husband and her mother to have an abortion. This was apparently legal at the time in England, where the movie was set, but illegal elsewhere, and the mere word was unmentionable in polite discourse. The movie followed the book almost exactly, and the book, according to its author, followed her own life almost exactly. The events “are all true…all real”, she said in her afterword. Tellingly, the number of children the author/writer had is never exactly spelled out, and only one, Dinah, is given a name. This is a portrait of a woman in the midst of what used to be called a nervous breakdown. And most interestingly, everyone, including her husband, her mother and her psychiatrist, blames “Mrs. Armitage”, the protagonist, for her pregnancies. As if she created them on her own.

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel by the Boston-born poet, Sylvia Plath. The story starts with the protagonist Esther Greenwood’s internship at a New York women’s magazine. If it has the ring of truth, that’s because Sylvia Plath began her literary career here. The first half of the book is lively and very funny. The second is darker, chronicling the protagonist’s descent into depression, the suffocating bell jar of the title. It’s tragic in that one knows Plath’s ending. She took her own life in 1963, when she was the mother of toddlers, felt trapped, and was resentful of her estranged poet husband. The extraordinary gift of this novel is its immediacy, allowing the reader to actually feel how it is to become suicidal. While the book was published in January 1963 (Plath died a month after its publication) it is set ten years earlier. There is a prescient paragraph in the early part of the book when the editor of the magazine to which Esther is apprenticed laments the difficulty that faces her when she must have lunch with two writers. The magazine had bought six stories from the man, only one from the woman. The implication is that the nineteen-year-old Esther knew that both were equally talented.

The theme uniting these two books is that both authors were professionally very successful, with Sylvia Plath achieving world-wide fame. But both were defined in their own minds and the minds of others as mired in domestic difficulties, difficulties their husbands, who were also writers, did not recognize, let alone acknowledge.

I leave political commentary to others. But these two books made me realize that the efforts of our very slightly later generation to enhance the rights of women did reach fruition, even if many obstacles to equality remain. The societal changes of the sixties and later enabled so many of us to lead more fulfilling lives.

In this present moment, we must not let these gains slip away.

Refuge

By Dina Nayeri

Riverhead Books, A Division of Penguin Random House, 2017


What does it take for a child to be taken from her native country as her mother flees persecution, to be a homeless, penniless refugee in America, and then to graduate from Princeton and Harvard, and by the age of 40 to have published two novels and won many writing awards? This is Dina Nayeri’s life story and we get glimpses of the psychological cost of her experiences in this semi-autobiographical novel.

In this riveting story the main narrator is Niloo Hamidi, who, like Nayeri, is the daughter of a fundamentalist Christian mother who fled Iran in 1987. The novel is told in the voice of Niloo and her father, Bahman, who stayed behind.

Bahman is a wonderful character. An exuberant dentist who indulges in chocolate, alcohol, and opium, he chose not to leave Iran with his wife. He didn’t want to leave his respected profession, his ancestral village in Isfahan, his house and his drug habit. The novel hinges on the four visits Bahman made to his family through 2009. They meet in the United States, Madrid, Istanbul, and Amsterdam. Over time, Bahman sees his daughter change beyond recognition, and her teenaged embarrassment over her father’s behavior hardens. He’s a mess, and she’s tried so hard not to be.

Niloo is married to Guillaume, aka Gui, a wealthy French-American (the nicest man, she tells her father, and he is). They live in Amsterdam. That’s significant, because an anti-Muslim politician is on the rise, and the city is crowded with refugees who have no visas, no jobs, and no hope. The marriage seems tenuous, despite’s Gui’s best efforts. This couple can’t understand one another. Niloo both depends on and resents Gui’s assumptions of well-being and financial security (he’s an international lawyer), while she creates boundaries between them. In every place they live she makes a “Perimeter”, a few square feet of personal space to hold her treasures. She’s succeeded in her profession as a paleontologist because she works relentlessly. Gui asks her to “waste time”, i.e. to have fun. Unable to understand this concept, Niloo befriends a community of Iranian refugees. All are trying to get asylum in The Netherlands. Gui offers professional legal help for them; she refuses. It takes her a while to realize that in pushing away her husband and bonding with the refugees she is processing her own childhood experience and learning who she really is.

In the twenty-two years this story encompasses, the Iranian situation has worsened. We see this through Bahman’s courtroom plea for his third divorce. The courtroom scenes, spread over several chapters, are a brilliant authorial device, showing Iranian values and how different they are from Western ones. This novel does not shy away from political truths. And it’s beautifully written.

It’s beyond the scope of this review to unearth the ways in which Nayeri demonstrates the complex self- hatred and conflicted identities of refugees, just as she excavates the feelings of Bahman, who stayed behind, feeling guilty he cannot effect change. Niloo’s academic work involves interpreting the teeth of prehistoric peoples, an interesting choice, given her father’s profession. All humans, Nayeri implies, lived through a full gamut of emotions in turbulent times either never recorded or now forgotten, migrating, and evolving as they did so. But their bones and their teeth tell us of the universality of humanity.

The Pink Heart Society Review

The Pink Heart Society, a new online magazine, published this review of Lipstick On the Strawberry in their August edition.

Estranged from her English family, Camilla Fetherwell now lives in the United States and owns a successful catering business. Returning home for her father’s funeral, she reunites with her first love, Billy, whom she hasn’t seen since her father broke up their teenage romance. Billy seems eager to resume their love affair. But after one blissful night together, things take a turn.

Camilla suspects her father may have led a secret life, and when Billy reveals something he, too, has discovered, her apprehension grows. Billy holds her heart, but their relationship might be tainted by what her father hid. A reunion seems impossible.

Her life feels as splattered as her catering apron. As she watches her food stylist make a strawberry look luscious with a swipe of lipstick, Camilla wonders if a gloss has been put over a family secret? Can she and Billy survive what’s underneath?

Rated: 4.5 Pink Hearts Reviewed by: Tamara JK

“This book kept me awake for 4 nights in a row, and I needed 2 days afterwards to recover. The story develops slowly but never gets boring, with enough detail to prevent you from speeding through the pages in order to savor every word. Camilla is poignantly sad, the events which marked her teenage years leaving an indelible imprint on her adult life. She measures everything by past standards, worrying what the people around her might think of her actions and accomplishments. Then along comes Billy. Years have passed, lots of things have happened, and suddenly they find themselves at a crossroad again. The connection between this lovable couple is very deep and passionate, you feel that they are two parts of one soul. But Camilla has to find the strength to choose her own happiness instead of considering what would everyone else think and as a reader, you soon end up cheering her on.

This was an eye-opening story for me, one that touched me on a personal level, and I will definitely be recommending it to all my reader friends.”

Learn more about The Pink Heart Society.

First Anniversary Sale!

Ever since I was a kid who wrote a “novel” in a blue exercise book, complete with hand-done drawings, I wanted to see a book of mine in actual print.

Last summer, that happened.

It was an amazing feeling to see Lipstick on the Strawberry in print, with its gorgeous cover, designed by Debbie Taylor of The Wild Rose Press. Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive, have written reviews (so important to authors) or have written me a personal note.

I’m especially tickled by the fact that though I consider women to be the book’s target readers, a number of men have commented on how they enjoyed it. They even liked the recipes!

To celebrate the anniversary, the e-book is on sale from August 17-31!
ONLY 99 CENTS!


The Wild Rose Press

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

iBooks (Apple)

The Ones We Choose


By Julie Clark

Simon & Schuster, 2018

The urge to procreate is profound. It’s driven by the genes of every living thing. In the past few years our knowledge of the human genome has revolutionized science, and reproductive technology also advances relentlessly. In this fascinating debut novel, Julie Clark combines both themes. When a geneticist has a baby by an unknown father, can she ever feel secure?

Surrogacy, egg donation, and IVF have all brought the joy of parenthood to countless people who thought they could never have a baby. There is one technology that it old hat by comparison – sperm donation. There are men who donate semen for money or for altruistic reasons. Women who do not have a partner or whose partner is infertile can select donor semen and become pregnant. If they use a sperm bank they never know who sired the child.

This is the story of Paige Robson and her charming, funny, clever eight-year-old, Miles. Paige almost left the baby boat behind because she’s been so damaged by her own childhood that she’s built a wall up around herself. That’s immediately apparent in the opening pages of this book, but Julie Clark’s characterization is so deft that this reader liked Paige immensely, and adored her son. Clark is an elementary school teacher by profession and her descriptions of PTA meetings, a “drill sergeant” third grade teacher, and playground bullies are often hilarious. Her rendering of Miles and his heartbreaking wish to know who his father is centers the novel.

There are so many layers to this book beyond the paradox that Clark poses at the beginning. Paige’s own Dad has been largely absent from her childhood, and this fuels her anger. But she then chooses to create a child who will never know his father. In Clark’s writerly hands, this
makes sense. As the novel progresses, a tragedy happens, and another question occurs to the reader. To what extent is our foreknowledge of a future genetic possibility useful, given that life is so unpredictable? Is the passion for control more important than being vulnerable to pain? And should love for a child trump all other relationships?

Julie Clark signals all these questions in her title. The word “Choose” implies control. But how much control do we have over other people and over ourselves?

A most thought-provoking book.

The Salt House

By Lisa Duffy
Simon & Schuster, 2017

This book grabbed me from the first page. The story of a family unhinged by grief over the death of their toddler, it is told from the points of view of each of the four surviving family members. The author does a remarkable job of getting inside the head of each of the parents, Jack and Hope Kelly, and of their daughters, sixteen-year-old Jess and eight-year-old Kat.

As a writer, I am in awe of Lisa Duffy’s daring to do this in her debut novel. It is hard to create mannerisms and dialogue that reflect each viewpoint character’s personality. There are a number of books that alternate the voices of husband and wife – Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and The Silent Wife, by A.S.A Harrison, come to mind. Each of those stories features childless couples and involve murder. Duffy’s genre is women’s fiction, a supposedly gentler medium. But the plot builds suspense in The Salt House as Duffy writes each member of the family’s reaction to the death of baby Maddie. A sub-plot holds the story together, fueled by the behavior of the taciturn lobsterman Jack Kelly when an old antagonist reappears in town.

With four viewpoint characters, who is the protagonist here? Duffy’s point seems to be that in a house of grief, all the residents are entitled to their own struggle. By writing them all in the first person she enhances our ability to empathize with them. She does an excellent job in her portrait of the two partners in a marriage. She’s able to write the voice of a teenager so the reader feels again the wash of emotion of first love, and then takes us into the language and understanding of an elementary school child. Kat’s misunderstandings and malapropisms provide light relief from what could be an overwhelmingly sad story. It’s fitting that her action provides a turning point in the family’s move from despair to healing.

Lisa Duffy’s ear for dialogue is spot on. Her settings, too, ring true. Having spent some delightful vacations in coastal Maine, I recognized her descriptions of lobster boats and the territorial fishing culture, the hard, sometimes dangerous work of fishermen mitigated by the gorgeous natural beauty of the sea and shore. It’s summer-time Atlantic coast setting make this a great book for late summer reading. Recommended.

Circe

By Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury Publishing, U.K. 2018

The enchantress Circe, who lived alone on a magic island, lured Odysseus, on the last stretch of his long journey from the battle at Troy to his home in Ithaca, to her bed. His men, she turned to pigs.

In this gorgeous imagining of Homer’s story, the classicist Madeline Miller makes Circe intelligent and independent, more mortal than goddess, a woman reacting to men’s betrayal, a young girl considered ugly and stupid by her mother and siblings, an outcast, a single mother, and a woman who escaped danger over and over again by her own ingenuity.

That made the male species wild. In Miller’s telling, Circe’s father Helios exiles her because she used her magic powers to turn a romantic rival, Scylla, into the six-headed monster who haunted the Strait of Messina. The strait was narrow, and ships were forced between two terrors, the monster and the whirlpool known as Charybdis. Miller’s Scylla is the undercurrent of the novel. Perhaps a projection of the evil that jealousy causes, she’s Circe’s nemesis. But then, so are most of the other characters who populate the story, from her hateful siblings to the gentle Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife. Circe, Miller seems to say, will always be alone, because she acts with an agency denied to females in the ancient world.

Circe works hard at her profession. After the first night in exile, she wakes and goes into the forest surrounding her house. “I stepped into those woods and my life began.” Circe tells us that witchcraft is like any other trade. It must be learned and practiced. ”Sorcery…must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods cannot…Day after patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again.”

Fortunately for Circe, she has years, centuries even, to perfect her craft, undistracted by domestic chores. I loved this passage about her island home: “Though the rooms were deserted, there was no speck of dust, and I would learn that none would cross the marble threshold. However I tracked upon it, the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood regrew overnight. In the pantry there were jars of oil and wine, of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”

And so she gets on with it. Miller brings many other Greek myths into her episodic story, and Odysseus only appears in the latter third of the book. In the meantime, Circe has learned not to trust sailors who happen upon the island and discover that she lives there alone. Miller’s voice is strong and powerful when she describes Circe’s reaction to rape, and later, her wary reaction to Odysseus, who charms her by his diffidence and friendship. It is not a spoiler to tell of Circe’s pregnancy by Odysseus, who sails off unknowing. Here Miller shows us, movingly, Circe’s struggles to bring up a baby alone, while trying to work. What mother cannot sympathize when Circe describes her desperate attempts to get her infant to sleep? “However I wrapped him, however I rocked and sang, he screamed…. The only thing that helped was if I walked – walked the halls, walked the hills, walked the shore.”

The last part of the book is a delight. In a twist on how Homer must surely have imagined Telemachus, Odysseus’s son by Penelope, Miller portrays him with the soul of an accountant. He is no warrior.

Quite simply, I loved this book. Read it.

Educated

By Tara Westover
Random House, 2018

This beautifully written memoir is on the best seller list, and deserves to be.

Tara, the youngest of seven children of a fundamentalist Mormon family, never went to public school. Instead, she worked from the age of ten as a babysitter, in a grocery store, and for her father in his scrapyard. She also helped her mother midwife babies, and used elementary first aid skills when her family members were injured, which was often. Amazingly, encouraged by one of her older brothers, who had escaped through going to college, Tara took a college entrance test at the age of sixteen and was admitted to Brigham Young University. Eventually she went on to earn a doctorate at Cambridge University.

What struck me about this memoir – and I have been reading a lot of survivalist and counter-cultural memoirs lately, researching my new novel – was how intelligent the members of this family were. Given Tara’s father’s religiosity, which bordered on insanity, and his psychological hold on the family, the five sons and both daughters managed to support themselves while still very young. The father shouted that women should not work outside the home, but pushed his reluctant wife into being a midwife. With the money she earned, she put in a phone line to the house.

Except for the phone, the trucks and cars, this could be life in the American West in the nineteenth century.

Tara portrays her parents with unflinching realism. Her mother constantly placated her father, who, though not deliberately violent with his family, made dangerous decisions, including not trusting the medical profession. Even when one of his sons was so badly injured in a motor-cycle accident that Tara, coming upon the scene, could see his brain through the head-wound, the father wanted Tara to bring the boy home so his mother could treat him. To her credit, Tara took him to the hospital.

Tara’s internal conflicts make up the core of this story. One suspects that what made her so conflicted, as opposed to so angry at her father’s treatment of his family is that when he did get pushback from them, he allowed whatever it was they wanted to do. His control over them was actually weaker than any of them believed. Tara Westover’s love for her family and for the Idaho mountain where they lived, pitted against her determination to make something of herself, makes this a compelling read.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London

By Rebecca Rosenberg
Lake Union Publishing, 2018

I am at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, as I write this. Only its location as a terminus of the ferry to San Francisco reminds us now of London’s love of the sea and of nature. In this historical novel Rebecca Rosenberg reminds us of California in the early twentieth century – a growing, vibrant, place where there was room to build a new society among the redwoods and ranches.

Jack London was one of California’s most influential early writers, a best seller who pursued new ideas of socialism and sustainability while mortgaging himself to the hilt to become a land baron, collecting admirers, and drinking round the clock. He also had a wife who was his close collaborator. Yet Charmian, who was as bright, ambitious, as intellectually curious, and even wealthier than he in her own right, has been forgotten.

Beginning eight or so years into the marriage, the novel shows Charmian’s growing frustration with Jack’s waning desire for her, even as she does everything for him.

He says, “It’s the institution of marriage that strangles love, isn’t it?…over the years the face of your beloved becomes as familiar as your own.”

She says, “You take my visions and ideas and turn them into literature that will be praised and read by generations to come…I tell myself it’s enough to be part of your genius. But is it? Is it really?”

This classic interplay between writer and his female muse infuses the novel, whose tension gathers with Charmian’s increasing frustration. She’s a writer too, but because she’s a woman, is seen only as his wife and typist. In Rosenberg’s excellent portrayal, we are in Charmian’s head, unable to work a way out of her dilemma. Her constant attention to Jack’s needs becomes claustrophobic. Rosenberg cleverly uses the escape artist Houdini, a friend of Jack and Charmian London, as a metaphor as well as a key plot element to enable her to unlock the key to a wider world.

Rosenberg writes evocatively of the gorgeous natural environment of Glen Ellen, a place where vineyards now thrive, of Hawaii and of the cities of the East Coast on the brink of America’s involvement in World War I. But it is her insightful and compassionate understanding of the complex relationship between two brilliant people that really makes this novel stand out.

Highly recommended.