BOOK REVIEW: The Story of #LittleWomen by @AnneBoydRioux

This is a fantastic book. Perfect to read if you’ve been to see the recent film and want to find out more about the author and her famous work. The full title (a bit cumbersome for a blog post title!) is Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and why it still matters. Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor in English at the University of New Orleans, is a great writer, informative and entertaining and with an enjoyably light touch. The book is packed with fascinating details about Louisa May Alcott and her famous book.

Here are some to amuse you:

  • Readers as varied as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Patti Smith, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, JK Rowling and Caitlin Moran have all been inspired by it.
  • In My Brilliant Friend  by Elena Ferrante, Lila and Lenú meet every day for months to read chapters of Little Women together.
  • Ironically given the readership of her book, Alcott wrote in her diary that she, “never liked girls or knew many except my sisters.”
  • Her first title for the book was My Pathetic Family, a name she used for her own family!
  • Her father, Bronson, was, depending on your point of view – a philosopher with his head in the air, a religious fanatic or a manic depressive. He seems to have felt under no obligation to financially support his wife and four children. He was friends with Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson. On the plus side he was a transcendentalist who thought that genius was innate in each child, male or female. On her 14th birthday he gave Louisa a journal into which he had copied her own original poetry, showing he took her writing seriously. He built her a desk. He told her: “You have the genius to write a book that would reach the wider circle of readers.”
  • Bronson did not go away and fight in the American Civil War. Louisa was the one who went away to nurse wounded soldiers in Washington. It was she who came down with typhoid fever, which was treated with mercury, which badly affected her health and contributed towards her death.
  • Marriage? She did not marry and she did not want  Jo to marry but was pressurized by her publisher: “They insist on having people married off in a wholesale way which much afflicts me.”
  • She wrote the book when she was 35. It was published in 1868 and sold 2000 copies in 2 weeks.
  • By the mid 1870s the book had been translated into Russian, Swedish, Danish, Greek and Japanese. The Dutch title was Under Mother’s Wings, the French title, The Four Daughters of Dr Marsch [sic]. The father was turned into a doctor for the French version because being a catholic country it was thought that his profession as a pseudo-minister would not go down well. The Japanese title was A Story of Young Grass – young grass representing adolescence.
  • She did not like being famous: “This sight seeing fiend is a new torment to us.”
  • She died in 1888 of a stroke, two days after her father. They both shared the same birthday, November 29th.
  • The first sound film to be made of the book was directed by George Cukor in 1933 and had Katherine Hepburn playing Jo. When the film opened it broke box office records. 3000 people turned up at the theatre with 1000 gathered outside. 30 mounted policemen were called to manage the crowd. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and won for Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • The book has been turned into a play, radio plays, films, TV series, a musical and opera [1998 Mark Adamo] and it’s been translated into a huge number of different languages.

Finally, a question to entice you to the book:

1.What connects actors William Shatner [of Star Trek fame] and Gabriel Byrne [The Usual Suspects/ In Treatment] in the context of Little Women.

Read the book to find out!

Here are the links:

 

Twitter: http://twitter.com/AnneBoydRioux

Website: http://www.anneboydrioux.com

REVIEW: EXPOSURE by OLIVIA SUDJIC

I was going to begin this post with the line: Emerson seems to have finally deserted me. But then just before sitting down to write it, I came to the end of a short book I’ve been reading called EXPOSURE by Olivia Sudjic. I had reached the second to last page, in fact, and there he was. Sudjic is writing here about the experience of fictionalising experiences that overlap in her own life:

This state reminds me, once I came back to earth, of Emerson’s transparent eye-ball. (“There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, – no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair … all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all”.)

exposure

 

I found this book fascinating. It’s extended essay length and, among other things, is about Sudjic’s experience when her first novel Sympathy was published. She writes about the crushing levels of anxiety she felt. So much so that her agent advised her to take beta blockers. She did take them but didn’t like the concomitant feelings of numbness and disassociation she felt when she was on them.

This book is very smart and quite complicated to sum up but I loved it. For an anxious writer like myself, it was reassuring, dreadful and very funny in just about equal measure. I particularly loved this bit:

So why do it? Why continue to write for a living if writing is so solitary and publication is so masochistic, like throwing the contents of your own life out onto the street for passersby to salvage.

My first instinct is to stop. Though the horse has already bolted, I could shut the gate behind it and withdraw in an attempt to protect myself and I suppose recover some feeling of control, assuage some of the identity-loss that accompanies book-births.

My second is to steel myself and carry on like Macbeth midway across a river of blood because … this is what I’ve chosen to do and I hate changing plans. I would then be faced with the anxious dilemma of what to do instead.

My third is to acknowledge the anxiety writing generates as an inextricable element of who I am and that the triggers that exist there are to be found everywhere. Anxiety will fill whatever receptacle I give it …

How I love that line about Macbeth and the river of blood. Recently I’ve been weighing the cost of writing because books do cost the writer. What that cost is will vary of course from person to person. Often this isn’t talked about or writers are chary of talking about it. They realize that they are perceived to be very lucky and as having got away with something. Writers, after all, drag themselves from bed to computer (no commuting to work), they sit about in cafes, they indulge themselves by making things up and then they expect to be read and lauded. What is not talked about is the wrestling with demons and also wrestling with various aspects of the commercial side of getting a book out there: agent, publisher, the set backs, the rejections, the utter bollocks of it all (if you’ll pardon the expression). That side of it is rarely written about with any degree of honesty because writers are not fools, they want to be published and slagging off their publishers or agents is not going to help that at all. We are supposed to be ever so grateful but the reality can be far, far removed from anything that could reasonably be expected to generate gratitude.

As a writer of eight books my experience of publication hasn’t really varied much.  It is both something I am very proud of because I’ve worked incredibly hard and yet at the same time, emotionally, it can feel like a car crash. I do feel very, very exposed. Publication thus becomes something that has to be got over rather than celebrated. And this can be confusing and rather irritating  for the people close to me to fully understand. Well, don’t write a book I hear you say. But I am a writer, I reply.

Sudjic is also very good on the different ways men and women fiction writers are judged.

Female experience tells you that the personal is political while the world tells you there is something wrong with you personally and the system is fine. When (white, cis-gendered) men write even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition and, … their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women about women are not. That’s Women’s Fiction for which category there is no male equivalent.

For my part I hope Sudjic doesn’t stop writing. She’s very good. But having read this book I could understand if she did. As for me, the jury is out. I highly recommend this book; it’s excellent and extremely thought provoking.

 

REVIEW: COGHEART by PETER BUNZL

The very beautiful cover of COGHEART

I’ve just finished a wonderful book called COGHEART by Peter Bunzl. I think its age range is supposed to be pre-teen but frankly it could be enjoyed by anyone from 8 to 80, as far as I’m concerned. It reminded me of the Joan Aiken books (Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Night Birds on Nantucket) I read when I was younger and if you’re looking for a Christmas present for a passing child this will do nicely.

The story is set in an alternative Victorian universe (1896) and it starts with John Hartman and his mechanical fox Malkin being pursued by a Zeppelin. Malkin is put in the escape capsule  with a note to John’s daughter, Lily. She is in a terrible school where she is practising her lock picking skills and reading her Penny Dreadfuls. Excellent heroine!

Robert Townsend is a clockmaker’s son, who is drawn into the story when he spies Malkin being pursued by the terrifying baddies – Roach and Mould. He puts them off the scent and then repairs Malkin and winds him back up again. Malkin is an excellent character, ingenious and mouthy. Just the kind of fox you would want to rescue you from trouble.

The world setting is excellent part Victorian, part alternative universe; it is inhabited by humans, mechanicals, mechanimals, and hybrids. There are some vile baddies and some splendid oaths:  ‘Cogs and chronometers’ probably being my favourite. If you’re interested in airships and Zeppelins there’ll be enough detail to keep you entertained.  The book ends with a thrilling denoument on top of Big Ben. A splendid story sweetly told. It left me with a longing for a mechanical fox called Malkin. Well, one can always dream. Are you listening Santa?

Finally, this is the 100th post of this blog and so it’s an opportunity to thank those of you stalwarts who have supported the blog from the beginning and welcome more recent followers. Thank you for following and welcome. I hope you enjoy the ride although unfortunately it won’t be in a  Zeppelin!

What is your favourite book that you read as a child?

http://www.peterbunzl.com

CONCLAVE: ROBERT HARRIS

A book has come out recently on the subject of bestsellers:The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel. In it the authors, two Stamford academics, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, describe how they created an algorithm and then used it to scan 20,000 New York Times bestselling novels, in order to find out what components they have in common. Among the topics you should focus on apparently are marriage, funerals, guns, schools, children, mothers and vaguely threatening technologies. I wonder what that last one means? These are the topics you should avoid: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Makes you wonder about where Fifty Shades of Grey fits in, doesn’t it?

I would propose that one of the simplest predictors is the presence of a name like ROBERT HARRIS on the cover of a book.

His most recent book CONCLAVE is set in the Vatican.  The skeleton of the plot is this: The pope dies, the cardinals gather for the Conclave, the cardinals vote and keep voting until three quarters of them agree on a successor, the pope is chosen, the book ends.

Not, you might think, particularly promising material. The book however is very entertaining – both page turning and wickedly funny. Along the way  you will find out all kinds of things about the Catholic Church that you probably didn’t know. It also has a very modern twist at the end that I am not going to divulge but which amused me.

Part of the pleasure of Robert Harris’ books is the combination of elegant writing, gripping hooks to make you want to know what happens next, and some excellent jokes.

Here’s a lovely description of the recently dead Pope as Lomeli, the Dean, leans forward to kiss him:

Often the faces of the dead, in Lomeli’s experience, were slack and stupid. But this one seemed alert, almost amused as if interrupted in mid-sentence. As he bent to kiss the forehead he noticed a faint smudge of white toothpaste at the left corner of the mouth, and caught the smell of peppermint and the hint of some floral shampoo.

But later Lomeli frets about the treatment of the Pope’s body and thinks about some of the unfortunate things that happened to the bodies of previous popes. In 1978 the face of Pope Paul VI’s body in St Peter’s

. . . had turned greyish-green, the jaw had sagged, and there was a definite whiff of corruption. Yet even that ghoulish embarrassment wasn’t as bad as the occasion twenty years previously, when Pope Pius XII’s body had fermented in its coffin and exploded like a firecracker outside the church of St John Lateran.

Here is the description of the Pope’s apartment. He had insisted on living in the Casa Santa Marta rather than the Apostolic Palace.

Fifty anonymous square meters, furnished to suit the income and taste of some mid-level commercial salesman.

Lomeli casts a somewhat jaundiced eye over his fellow cardinals. Here he is in contemplation of Cardinal Tremblay, one of the more ambitious ones:

Despite the hour, his appearance was fresh and handsome, his thick silver hair immaculately coiffed, his body trim and carried lightly. He looked like a retired athlete who had made a successful transition to television sports presenter; Lomeli vaguely remembered that he had played ice hockey in his youth.

And here is Cardinal Simo Guttuso:

His personal chaplain struggled behind him with his three suitcases.

Lomeli, eyeing the suitcases, said, ‘My dear Simo, are you trying to smuggle in your personal chef?’

Little wonder if he was, given the appalling descriptions of the food the Cardinals suffer. Someone needs to give the nuns cooking lessons. ‘Veal scallopini – the meat looked rubbery, the sauce congealed’. ‘Chicken wrapped in Parma ham. It was overcooked and dry but they were eating it none the less’. ‘Some unidentifiable fish in caper sauce.’

If anything forces this Conclave to a swift conclusion, thought Lomeli, it will be the food.

Lomeli, the Dean in charge of the voting, is struggling with his own faith, as he struggles to run the Conclave. There are, of course, various twists and turns along the way.

My feeling is Robert Harris could probably conjure a bestseller from two elderly crumbs playing dominoes inside a paper bag but until he writes that one, I suggest you read CONCLAVE. If you buy the hardback, it has nicely blackened edges to the pages. It’s a new fashion this and I rather like it.

If you’re interested in what makes a bestseller you’d be better off buying a few Robert Harris books and making careful notes, rather than buying a book about an algorithm. To my mind, it is thorough research, lightly used, combined with a finely honed talent to amuse and entertain in words. Incidentally, he does conform to one bit of data that the algorithm throws up; apparently a disproportionate number of bestseller writers have worked in journalism and advertising and Harris  was a political journalist before turning his hand so successfully to writing fiction.