It strikes me as weird that I have never read Edgar Allan Poe before. I mean, I think an English teacher read The Raven to us once, but I barely rememIt strikes me as weird that I have never read Edgar Allan Poe before. I mean, I think an English teacher read The Raven to us once, but I barely remember it. In my effort to correct this gap and oversight, I read The Pit And The Pendulum via a read-by-email service called DailyLit.
I guess the biggest marvel for me was that this was such an effective bit of mood evocation. Even read serially, even with the sort of obvious tense spoiler, even with the requisite stodgy and old-fashioned language, I found this kind of heart-stopping and deliciously horrible. It helped that somehow I had no preconception of the story's structure or progression, but the tale of Inquisitional torture from a first-person account was able to crawl under my skin.
I think what really makes it work is the visceral way Poe inhabits his unnamed narrator's body, working within the confines of a dark cell. I've written in the past about my distaste for "torture porn" in which human cruelty is the villain in horror story contexts, where the threshold for disturbing events is showcasing the brutal activities and the aching ends of the victims. And I think what Poe showcased back in 1842 is that the fear of such things is far more effective than the bland display of them. A modern writer might not give a story like this a happy ending, but it is telling that Poe can (and in fact must, considering the first-person account unless it were to be some ridiculous "I'm sending this from heaven" claptrap) while still retaining the sinister and macabre atmosphere throughout the bulk of the story. Perhaps the reason why the devastating "ironic" tragedy that caps most modern horror tales feels unfulfilling is that it seems more or less logically sound but provides no relief to the suspense, like a piece of music with no coda. As a result it may feel as if the suspense and tension to that downbeat was wasted as there was no resolution, no satisfaction to lend it resonance.
I say all this because my first reaction to the conclusion of The Pit And The Pendulum was, "What? Really?" And then I thought about it some more and realized it not only had to work that way but it was perfect that it did because it lent heft to the narrative. It helps also that Poe doesn't telegraph his plot; it doesn't feel contrived that the narrator almost but not quite falls into the pit. It seems for a time as if there will be no way for him to escape the swing of the pendulum. There is equal parts cleverness and serendipity in the climax and finale.
And any story that teaches me awesome new words like "surcingle" and "viand" I can't possibly criticize. More Poe to come, I'm sure of it....more
There's a point I reached in my reading of Cannery Row where I flipped to the back and noted the tightly-margined pages only counted 120 or so, and itThere's a point I reached in my reading of Cannery Row where I flipped to the back and noted the tightly-margined pages only counted 120 or so, and it made me sad. John Steinbeck's tale of a place and time, filtered through the experiences of a cast of people in a meandering, semi-linear narrative snapshot is one that I wished would go on a bit further. I suppose the beauty of Cannery Row could be in the way it doesn't wear out its welcome, but it was so descriptive and transportive that I found myself lingering on it, taking longer to read each page than even my usual slow reading requires so I could stay in the Row.
It's possible that part of my affection for the novel is that I live in Northern California, close enough to Monterey that I can visit in a day and still return home. I've vacationed there several times for longer stretches; I genuinely love the area, and did so before reading Steinbeck's book. Reading Cannery Row then is like seeing a well-made documentary about your hometown or discovering an old diary from a favored relative. I don't know exactly how realistic Steinbeck's depiction of Cannery Row during the Depression is, but I find that I like to believe that his portrayal of the area is at least spiritually accurate.
I suppose it can't be possible for it to be completely grounded in truth; Steinbeck's obvious fondness for vagabonds and drunks and whores probably doesn't mean that down-and-outers all have hearts of gold. Still, the world that is presented here, fantasy or not, is one that I completely fell in love with. Steinbeck's ability to describe and conjure is startling. He doesn't rely on literary gymnastics like Vladimir Nabokov, nor does he simplify to the point of relying on mere suggestion like Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Instead, Steinbeck achieves a kind of homespun poetry that lacks pretension but is, in its own rootsy way, very stunning. It's also funny, which was something I didn't expect.
Take, for example, this description from Chapter 30:
"The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied. It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of an individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual. And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended. This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses. These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product."
There isn't much of a plot to Cannery Row, the loose connection of vignettes regularly returns to the band of hobos who live in The Palace Flophouse, led by Mack, who try throughout to do something nice for the neighborhood benefactor (of sorts), Doc, who runs the marine biology lab on the Row. Throughout, Steinbeck weaves shorts about the couple who move into the abandoned industrial boiler, Lee Chong who runs the local grocery and operates almost exclusively on credit, madam Dora Flood and her prostitutes at the Bear Flag Restaurant, and other less frequently appearing characters who all serve to give Cannery Row its distinct, homesick-inducing personality.
By now I suppose it's redundant to say I really loved this book, but I think any work that gave me a new appreciation for a place I already thought had a certain charm, that made me want to visit again right away, that made me laugh and that simply made me happy that I could step into its world even for a short time is one that deserves to be called out as not just good, but especially remarkable....more
I can see the genius inherent. Tolstoy captures the time and place of Russia in the late 1800s and paints his fairly wide cast of characters with subtI can see the genius inherent. Tolstoy captures the time and place of Russia in the late 1800s and paints his fairly wide cast of characters with subtle shades of complex and often perplexing realism. I can recognize why this is considered a masterpiece.
And yet, I didn't love the book. Despite the fact that I could probably concede the point that most of the many, many extraneous sections have some sort of literary or symbolic purpose, I just had no appreciation for them. Lengthy, draining sequences of fowl hunting, horse racing, international travel, long nuanced asides about Russian politics, or contrasts between city life and country living. The heavy, philosophically broad and far-reaching themes were okay but often they take place as a matter of internal monologue instead of livelier conversations (though there are plenty of those and they manage to overstay their welcome as well).
It doesn't help that in spite of the skillful hand at drilling down into the mad core of human behavior—based so often on false supposition, near arbitrary whim, unrelated circumstance, and flat misunderstanding—Tolstoy struggled to connect his flawed, human characters to me as a reader. In short, I found almost every single character in the book to be insufferable.
It's kind of unusual for me to admire a book and yet also kind of detest it. Usually in those cases I simply can't bring myself to forge through to "The End" because reading—even classics or "important" works—is supposed to be fun and I no longer have instructors assigning me books to read. So it maybe says something about Anna Karenina that I had a lot of issues with it but I still stuck it out to the end.
This is probably a very personal reaction. A book this well-crafted, this ambitious, that manages to reach the level it aspires to, there are going to be plenty of people that find it works for them. For me, I was fascinated by the craftsmanship but never fully engaged in the story being told. There are portions that were flat brilliant ((view spoiler)[the depiction of Anna's state of mind leading up to her eventually giving in to her lust for Vronsky and then again at the end when she makes her fateful decision to go down onto the train tracks are both astoundingly well executed (hide spoiler)]) but there felt like a lot of expendable sequences.
Not that a book this venerated could ever be modified at this point, but I feel like there is a near perfect novel hiding in here that a bit of judicious editing could tease out. But, being what it is, I'm not sorry I read it but probably won't be able to sing high enough praise to really recommend to anyone else....more
The thing I liked the best about Scott O'Dell's Newbery-winning story Island of the Blue Dolphins comes actually in the Afterword, where it is revealeThe thing I liked the best about Scott O'Dell's Newbery-winning story Island of the Blue Dolphins comes actually in the Afterword, where it is revealed that Karana, the story's protagonist, is based on an actual person, the Lost Woman of San Nicolas. This is a very fictionalized account according to O'Dell since very little is known about her other than the barest of facts: White explorers did in fact collect all of the natives from an island off the California coast save one girl who jumped off when she found her brother had not made it to the ship; the brother was killed by wild dogs and the girl was later rescued wearing a cormorant skirt and accompanied by a wild dog. The rest has been added by O'Dell's extrapolation of those few facts.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is not altogether unlike plenty of other cast away stories, like Robinson Crusoe, although it is a bit less of a self-discovery tale since Karana is a native of the island and not an accidental visitor so she is already familiar with the basic skills needed to survive. What she doesn't have is accompaniment, assistance or support (until she eventually befriends the leader of a pack of wild dogs, whom she dubs Rontu), and that makes the novel incredibly lonely and often very melancholy.
What is interesting is that O'Dell allows the inconsistency of loneliness to shine through as well. Sometimes, loneliness is a terrible, oppressive thing. But solitude can also be incredibly liberating and one gets the sense that while ultimately Karana desires the company of others more than anything, she mentions the island and the animal friends she makes in a wistful, contented sort of way that suggests she doesn't always long for escape from her life.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is kind of a strange, sad little book. I like that Karana has to buck the societal conventions that her tribe set for her as a girl/woman in order to survive which makes her a strong and admirable female character, and I like the adventure it conveys that is frequently devoid of any exploitative elements (it is never overly violent, not oppressively preachy nor saccharine). Karana's voice is somewhat clinical and detached which at first I thought was odd and off-putting but later seemed to be more deliberate in its effort to characterize a girl who grew up and lived nearly all her life with only her own thoughts and some domesticated animals for company.
I definitely plan to keep this book on hand and give it to my daughter when she's a little bit older; a very good children's book and every bit deserving of its fondly-recalled reputation....more
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, due to an uninteresting sequence of academic mishaps, was never an assignment for me in school. However, the promiseAldous Huxley's Brave New World, due to an uninteresting sequence of academic mishaps, was never an assignment for me in school. However, the promise of an early work of dystopian characterization was something that had intrigued me since I saw some peers carrying it around in high school so after much delay I finally decided to check it out.
Brave New World is set in a future world where civilization is divided into castes based on birthright. All infants are 'decanted' in a sort of laboratory environment and lower castes are populated by large batches of identical multiples (actually the term "twin" is misused in the book) while upper classes (Alphas and Betas) are also manufactured but in a more naturalistic single embryonic state (i.e. they are individuals as opposed to functional clones). A form of sleep hypnosis is used as a form of conditioning to drum societal morals into the populace and the civilians, regardless of caste, exist in a kind of regimented consumerized infancy, encouraged to pursue id-inflected pastimes like complicated, manufacturing-friendly recreation, casual sex, social bonding via ritualistic orgy, and heavy drug use when not fulfilling their societal labor obligations. In this society, individualism, family structures and especially natural parentage are considered so outdated as to be crass or pornographic.
Against this background we are introduced to Lenina, a popular, prototypical Alpha girl and Bernard, an Alpha boy who is dissatisfied with civilization and infatuated to a degree with Lenina. The first part of the book establishes the context of Huxley's dystopia and lays the groundwork for Lenina and Bernard's trip to New Mexico where they vacation in an uncivilized Native American reservation and are introduced to John (also referred to as The Savage).
John is a bastard whose mother was from civilized London and was accidentally left in the company of the Natives some eighteen years prior, impregnated and injured. Her transition into the lifestyle of the tribe has been marginally successful at best and John has felt himself an outsider in the only world he's ever known since birth, but has also grown up hearing his mother's tales of modern life. When Bernard finds himself stricken with John's potential as a unique artifact and arranges to have him and his mother brought back to London, the stage is set for the book's final act in which John disrupts and questions the standards established in the new world and ultimately seeks to forge his own tragic path.
As a novel, Brave New World is kind of messy, I thought. The structuring of it means that the actual protagonist of the story, John, isn't even introduced until halfway in and the remaining characters who carry the first half don't really have much in the way of complete arcs. The plot is pretty sketchy overall, and you can see how Huxley's nods to decency as he lampoons an indecent world struggle to convey a true sense of the nightmare he's trying to set forth. It comes across (perhaps only modernly?) as a timid book that is trying to be courageous and outrageous which minimizes the overall impact. I suppose eighty years ago when the book was published it might have been downright scandalous but for all the talk I've heard about the book being as resonant today as when it was contemporary, I feel that in a world where Chuck Palahniuk publishes regularly, this isn't shocking in the least.
As social satire, it works pretty well I think. I got the points Huxley was making about promiscuity and the dissolution of core social structures like family; I understood the fearmongering about industry and modernization/mechanization; I saw the validity of the concerns over disintegration of interest in promoting individualism and critical thinking, literacy and the like. It's not exactly subtle, though, so saying I grasped the point isn't actually saying that much.
As a dystopian vision, I'm not quite sure what to think. It's certainly no 1984, for one thing, in terms of effective realization of the core ideas. Parts of Brave New World's vision seem founded on some pretty shaky science which makes it into more of a wild fantasy to the modern reader. However, while 1984 outlines a path to ruination that is clear and observable, Brave New World is at times more haunting because it better describes how such societies could realistically emerge through the utter disenfranchisement and indifference of the populace. Which, for example, is more likely: The abolishment of books by an oppressive regime or the gradual decline of interest in books or of knowledge itself as fashionable characteristic? I think the popularity of drivel like Jersey Shore shows that Huxley may have been the more prescient. The fact that 1984 is constantly referenced (every political action these days seems destined to be decried by someone or another as being indicative of the inevitability of "Big Brother") alone probably indicates that 1984 is an extreme which will never truly emerge, but the relative indifference of Brave New World might indicate that people are paying almost exactly as much attention as Huxley feared they might.
As a random aside, I will say that Brave New World gave me an interesting new perspective on another book I read recently, Lois Lowry's young adult novel, The Giver, which I now think of as a middle schooler's intro to Huxley, for what it's worth. I saw an awful lot of parallels between the two, especially in how the authority figures justified and rationalized even the social norms that were clearly divorced from innate human inclination (subversion of the family unit, for example).
So the bottom line to me is really that Brave New World is a middle-of-the-road work: Somewhat interesting, clumsy as a novel, feels a bit dated, containing some decent satire but really strong as a work of dystopian alarmism. I think the struggles it has as an actual story make it harder to recommend than something comparable but I'm definitely glad I read it and am now sadder than ever that I didn't get the chance to have it discussed and dissected in a classroom environment....more
Classic literature, especially classic Russian literature, vexes me. I know roughly nothing about the Russian language so I sometimes console myself aClassic literature, especially classic Russian literature, vexes me. I know roughly nothing about the Russian language so I sometimes console myself as I struggle with Dostoevsky or Tolstoy (which I've occasionally attempted but never fully conquered) with the notion that written Russian is particularly difficult to translate into smooth reading English. But then again, I get this way about classic English lit sometimes as well, where I see words on the page and just can't seem to get through them into that fugue state where I'm not really reading as a mechanical word-eye-brain-context-thought-idea process, but as a sort of direct input from the author's imagination, utterly unaware of the printing or the sentence construction; it's like drawing ideas from the page via some kind of mind vacuum.
I guess there is a reason why I'm not an English major (or any kind of major for that matter). Chalk me up as just another filthy soul populating the unwashed masses.
But I like stories. I love books and written words and I have enjoyed some classics, even some stuffy and difficult works, both modern and time-honored. So I don't always know what it is that may cause me to go cross-eyed with frustrated agitation that a story just won't seem to let me in.
So consider my first foray into Anton Chekhov. On one hand, there are moments in the fairly limited collection of Chekhov's work included in this old paperback printing I found for a song at a used bookstore which reveal clearly why he is considered a master of the short form. "The Kiss," for example, an early inclusion about a lonely young soldier who happens upon a stolen moment of intimacy, intended for someone else entirely, and uses that off-handed experience to construct for himself an entirely new persona, a boosted ego of imagination and possibility which has, in spite of the joy it brings him, a tragic collision with the reality of, well, reality. Another pair of tales, "A Father" and "A Problem," highlight a certain astonishing insight into human nature, simply revealing complex elements to relationships in a relatable way.
But then you get to some of the longer works included here, such as "Ward No. 6," and I start to hang back on the dry exposition, the deliberate pace to a character study that, too, has something interesting to say but says it in such a dull fashion that I struggled to get through the 30-some page short over the course of about four days. Again I found myself looking back on my own Russian lit crutch and saying, "Well, maybe it's just the translation?" But maybe it isn't. At least in the case of Chekhov, or perhaps in the case of this particular collection, the longer the story gets the harder it was for me to muddle through. I like the way I can see his mind working: his philosophy and his understanding of what makes a character interesting combined with a detailed sense of realistic arc make for living souls in the stories but at some point it's like reading 500 pages about a grandmother spending an evening watching TV: no matter how good the writing is, the subject is bound to wear out its welcome if you linger too long.
I couldn't help contrast this selection with the Raymond Carver volume, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that I read earlier in the year. Carver's direct-to-the-point simplicity doesn't need fantastical things to happen to be compelling. The slice of life examinations are reminiscent to Chekhov's, in spite of being separated by nearly one hundred years and half a planet. But Carver (or his editor) never let those tales overstay their welcome, stripping them down to their barest necessities leaving only that which absolutely must be revealed. They both traffic in sadness and irony and the bitter pill that is life, but where I could not put down What We Talk About, I couldn't wait to set down Great Stories. I can attribute this fact to the editors, to the translators, to the authors or to myself but in any case, what I cannot escape is that I didn't much care for enough of this book to recommend it or even like it. At best I can say it was okay and I'm intrigued to know more about the author's work, but when I dive in again, I'll be sure to be more selective about which volume I choose and not let a bargain make my decision for me....more
Despite a near universal loathing for the ridiculous concessions writers force upon audiences of time travel tales, I love them. I'm not even sure whyDespite a near universal loathing for the ridiculous concessions writers force upon audiences of time travel tales, I love them. I'm not even sure why since I so often find myself annoyed when the logic—even the story's internal logic—stumbles, but something keeps me trying them over and over. H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, written over 100 years ago, is probably as deft a treatment of the subject as I've yet encountered.
In large part this is accomplished by avoiding the messy paradoxical elements of visiting the past (other than returning through time to the origin point, all time travel occurs to the future in this novel), and focusing instead on a nineteenth century scientist/scholar visiting a far-flung future in which the evolution of humanity has branched into a parable of class division and a political dissection of, essentially, socialism.
Politics aside, this book does what most good speculative fiction does which is frame a particular thought process into a fantastical story which is both entertaining and thought-provoking at once. I read the entire 128 page book in a few hours which speaks to its readability and found myself enchanted by the descriptions of the Morlocks and the Eloi, the struggle for the narrator (referred to only as "The Time Traveler") to escape his uncertain fate and the reactions by the crowd of dinner guests who form the audience hearing of the Traveler's tale. The bulk of the book is devoted to a quoted first-hand account by the Traveler of his eight-day adventure with the Eloi and Murlocks, but the framing of the story as a spoken-word tale amongst society gentlemen works well to create a particular sense of setting and atmosphere, such that it feels a lot like a valiant campfire tale.
In particular I found the end of the book to be remarkably unkempt—satisfying while being fairly open-ended instead of trying, as too many time travel tales do, to draw to a conclusion a narrative that almost by definition defies beginning and end. It seems almost comical to me that one of the earliest and most drawn-upon sources for time travel fiction turns out to be one of the best but I suppose there really shouldn't be much surprise there. Of course, this is all only true if you focus solely on the nuance of plot and the intrigue inherent in the story itself. The main flaw in the book is that Wells scarcely bothers to create much in the way of character (perhaps this is obvious of a writer who doesn't even bother to name the protagonist); the most well-rounded character of all is an Eloi female named Weena who herself is remarkable only for her devotion to the Traveler. Additionally there is a fairly unnecessary sequence late in the book where the Traveler proceeds beyond the year 802,701 AD and watches as the sun dies, a sequence that defies some commonly understood modern scientific notions and doesn't really add much to the overall tale.
Still, I enjoyed The Time Machine and found it to be, especially for a beleaguered time travel devotee, a pleasant reminder of why this particular subgenre holds fascination in the first place, coming straight from one of the original inspirations....more
People seem to struggle with Lolita (the book, not the character or even the iconography the name has come to embody). Perhaps this is because it is aPeople seem to struggle with Lolita (the book, not the character or even the iconography the name has come to embody). Perhaps this is because it is a ghastly tale about a stark taboo, a sick protagonist's wrenching account of limply justified wickedness. But then again, if it were merely that—dark, vile, unscrupulous—it would be simple enough to marginalize along with the other subcultural perversions found in seedy red light district back shelves or your average horror film set. Instead, Lolita dares to exist aboveground because within the tragedy at its core, it is a masterpiece of literature, a poet's novel filled with passion and wit which elevates itself (self-consciously) on a rhythmic crest of gorgeous wordplay and wry humor.
In a sense Lolita is all the more provocative because it's so well written that it manages to very nearly sway the reader into thinking the first person account of deplorable exploitation is, perhaps, well... Not understandable or forgivable since not even Humbert Humbert himself understands or forgives his own actions. But readers may find themselves horrified to begin to sympathize in a way with the opportunistic and self-obsessed (though unnervingly self-aware) ogre. Nabokov carefully treads a tightrope (or is it tight-thread?) of motivation and madness such that it is never thought by author or character or audience that Humbert is anything but a demented predator, but he is far from a caricature or a silly incarnation of evil. At his most chilling core, Humbert the pedophile, Humbert the rapist, Humbert the murderer, Humbert the kidnapper and devourer of innocence is, in fact, a human.
This, I suspect, is what mortifies some readers. But then, I'd argue, that is precisely the point. Humbert pays for his sins, and Lolita in a way pays for both of theirs. We aren't meant to cheer for anyone (except maybe karma?) in the novel's sprawling spiral downward, but just to perversely enjoy the ride, safe in our own self-righteousness. There isn't anything about us so revolting or antisocial as to grope gratification at the expense of innocence, is there? Of course not. Or at least, nothing we aren't better than Humbert Humbert about keeping locked safely, deeply, away.
There is, I'm afraid, one sour spot in the edition I read that may not appear in all printings which is Nabokov's afterward. I instinctively read these in all books as part of the prose though doing so often leads to similar regrets: The defensive and shrill posture Nabokov presents in his own voice at the end of the book undermines the conviction of the book to stand on its own. He jests off the irony of affecting perhaps a third character (this one named, coincidentally, Vladimir Nabokov) since there is a faux foreword in the voice of John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. But it would almost be better if one could presume the writer were affecting a phony and reactionary whinge in prescient anticipation of the moralist outrage expected from characterizing such an undeniable rake. Instead it just feels feeble and haughty, adding nothing of value but detracting from a picture I had of the author as courageous and defensible. I waffled on whether or not this addition impacted my view of the novel enough to alter my rating and ultimately I decided the wordsmithing skill on display is sufficient to overwhelm a poorly advised tack-on, but I'd advise new readers to skip the inclusion and stick to the novel itself. ...more
I've no idea if this was a good place to start reading Agatha Christie books, but I found myself very much enjoying it. This far removed from the poliI've no idea if this was a good place to start reading Agatha Christie books, but I found myself very much enjoying it. This far removed from the political climate The Secret Adversary relies on for its setting required some independent research to make full sense of, but once engaged the mystery is as gripping today as it was 87 years ago.
The story revolves around two young friends with more pluck than prospects, Tuppence and Tommy, who decide to become adventurers for hire. Quite by accident they find themselves blundering into a national conspiracy plot where the existence of damaging documents were last seen in the hands of a beautiful American girl who has since disappeared. Everyone wants to get their hands on the documents and the girl, Jane Finn, from the Labour party extremists hoping to use the information as part of a plot to incite revolution to a strange American millionaire claiming to be Jane's long-lost cousin to the British government themselves.
Lurking like a shadow over the entire affair is an enigmatic Mr. Brown, a mysterious figure whose true identity no one quite seems to be sure about.
I thought for a while that the book was perhaps clearly written for a much less sophisticated mystery-story-reader than I, maybe owning to the age of the novel. However, in spite of how clever I thought I was I found myself questioning the conclusion I'd come to in the chapters leading up to the climax and even though my initial hunch proved correct I had to admit that The Secret Adversary is as well-crafted as any of the modern thrillers I originally wanted to compare it to....more
I had thought, going in to this, that I read Louisa May Alcott's most famous work a long time ago. Several chapters in, I realized that wasn't the casI had thought, going in to this, that I read Louisa May Alcott's most famous work a long time ago. Several chapters in, I realized that wasn't the case at all. None of these descriptions or events—except where they overlapped the various film versions—were familiar. So okay, what I thought I knew about the book was no longer applicable and I carried on with a willingness to give it a fresh take.
This is one of my wife's all time favorite books. In a way, I get it. As with most tales of bygone eras, especially those aimed at younger readers, there is a romanticism inherent that appeals to contemporary readers. These depictions of idealized life have profound impacts on young minds. Anne of Green Gables, Little House On The Prairie, The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer and many others—perhaps intentionally, perhaps inadvertently—seem to kind of say, "Check out how much easier/cooler/more fun things used to be!" And even now as a supposedly critically thinking adult I spent certain moments in the world of Little Women thinking, "that must have been nice."
But then again we're talking about the Civil War in the case of Little Women so "nice" is relative to your race or, curiously, your gender. What I think stood out most to me reading Little Women is how oddly dissonant Alcott's view of her own gender comes across. On one hand you have at least two of the four titular characters who kind of embody the sort of strong, independent characteristics modern readers might want in a female protagonist. But they sort of seem to try throughout the book to overcome these "flaws," including such dastardly vices as artistic inclination. I had a hard time figuring out if this was the kind of book I'd want my own daughter to find inspirational or not.
The audio version I listened to was an abridgment, which I didn't realize when I picked it up and kind of irked me. I think the worst part about abridgments is not knowing what might have been removed. Was it large sections with key subplots? Just a few sentences here or there? Whole chapters? As a result it's hard to know what issues I had were with Alcott and what were with the edits. For example, in the version I heard, once Meg is married she basically disappears from the story. In fact at that point the story really should be called "The Jo and Amy Show." Which is okay to an extent since they are the most interesting characters anyway, but I wonder if there isn't more about Meg and Beth that is in the original version, omitted here. I flipped through one of my wife's dozen or so copies and quickly realized that this wasn't a few passages here or there that were missing, and that frustrates me all the more because I still don't feel like I've read the book all the way through.
I'm giving Alcott, generations of readers, and my wife the benefit of the doubt on this one. I probably won't pick up the full text and read it right away but I will probably read it to my daughter at some point, so my opinion here is necessarily asterisked due to the annoyance of the truncated version I went through. But I will say this much: Alcott has a way with words in certain sections that are quite unexpected in their potency. A particular scene ((view spoiler)[Beth serenely passing away (hide spoiler)]), which I knew very well was coming, caught me unguarded with how moving I found it. This is a solidly written book with a quiet sense of happiness and familial bonds that I enjoyed very much and am glad to be that much closer to understanding part of what shaped my wife's formative reading life....more