Tuesday, July 26, 2011

March by G. Brooks

I have a long history with March, but just read it myself a few weeks ago. After it came out I read some reviews and knew my sister would love it, so I gave it to her and she did, but I wasn't too jazzed to read it myself. Then I saw a free copy over at the community center and thought that was a sign. I love found books. Also, it DID win the Pulitzer in 2006.

It's told (mostly) from the POV of Mr. March, the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. If you don't recall, in Little Women, the young women and their mother are alone while their dear father is serving as a chaplain during the American Civil War. It is a fine book that I loved very much as a child and have not read since then, but now I recall it being sort of treacly.

March is really quite brilliant because what Brooks does is sort of merge the character of Mr. March and Louisa May Alcott's father, Amos Bronson Alcott (surely something LM Alcott did herself, at least to some extent). Amos was a rather fascinating person - a Transcendentalist who was pals with Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a vegan, a starter of vegan communes, an abolitionist and an educator. Mr. March is all of these things as well. He's a kind and thoughtful man who quickly decides that he must spin the truth to his Penelopean wife and daughters, shielding them from the horrors he sees (and sometimes commits) and instead painting a picture of bon amie with his comrades at arms.

Something Brooks is extremely skillful at is weaving back and forth in time - she easily moves between Mr. March's experiences in the war to his interpretations to his family, to the time before the war as he traveled through the south to a later time, but still before the war when he met his wife and back and forth again. To change the timeframe so much without loosing or annoying the reader is pretty remarkable.

Just about when I was starting to question this white, male authority figure of Mr. March, Brooks swiftly (I don't think I ruin it for you by telling you) turns the book on it's end and switches the POV to Mrs. March, who is also hiding her true emotions. She is full of anger and resentment with her husband for the rather selfish act of volunteering for the war and leaving her with the hardships of raising her daughters in near poverty. He describes, for example, his wife's announcement of joining the troops with tearful adulation. She says:
He looked me full in the face, he saw my tears, and he ignored them and did as he pleased. And then I in my turn had to pretend to be pleased by my hero of a husband. When he stepped down, and came to me, I could not speak. I took his hand and dug my nails into the flesh of it, wanting to hurt him for the hurt he was inflicting on me.

I am not alone in this. I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with.

Brooks also allows another woman, a slave, autonomy as well (in this case I will not ruin it for you!) In the end she turns the telling of the civil war, often a story about the brave, anti-slavery, white men from the north and retells it from the perspective of women and people of color. This isn't too different, in fact, from what LM Alcott does - her's is not a story of men and wars, but capable women in a society nearly lacking men. Brooks shows such a generosity to LM Alcott's story, by framing the events of Little Women as merely the outward performance of a loving, perfect, happy family (know any of those?), while what is really felt remains unsaid. What she ultimately does is make Little Women a richer story as well. Not an easy feat for any beloved treasure.

And now I think it's my duty to set this one free again to find the lucky arms of someone else.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Foe, by Coetzee

I read this great article on my new favorite website, Flavorwire, called "11 Great Literary Spinoffs" - you know, like Wide Sargasso Sea (a "spinoff" of Jane Eyre). Anyway, it mentioned Foe, which I had never heard of, by J.M. Coetzee - inspired by 1719's Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe - which I have no intention of reading. It was an intriguing enough post that I picked it up from the library right away.

Reading Foe might have been a slightly richer experience if I had read Robinson Crusoe, but, for me the wikipedia article seemed to suffice. What Coetzee does is write the book from the perspective of the female castaway in the story, Susan, as well as Crusoe's black companion, Friday. Told from this perspective, Coetzee reframes the story (generally acknowledged as a [white] man's triumphal conquering of strange lands and people's unknown) and exposes the colonialism of the story. When the castaways are rescued, Susan takes responsibility for the mute Friday and further questions the relationship between Friday and Crusoe.

To raise money, Susan tries to sell her story and confronts the inherent challenges of telling any history:

I am not a story, Mr. Foe. I may impress you as a story because I began my account of myself without preamble, slipping overboard into the water and striking out for the shore. But my life did not begin in the waves. There was a life before the water which stretched back to my desolate searchings in Brazil, then to the years when my daughter was still with me, and so on back to the day I was born. All of which makes up a story I do not choose to tell. I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even to you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world. ...I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire.

Coetzee's writing style reminded me a lot of Jeanette Winterson, who, in my small experience with her work tells a great story but also slips in a hefty dose of theory. I thought it was a really cleverly told story and I appreciated the thoughtful questioning about what it really means to attempt to tell or re-tell a story.

Saturday, July 09, 2011


In Luxe, 19th century teenagers dress up and pout, try to get laid while maintaining an air of respectability. It's a YA book by Anna Godbersen (Nom de plume? I'm too lazy to find out...) billed as a 19th century Gossip Girl. I read Gossip Girl, or tried to. It is essentially unreadable. At first I thought Luxe was merely painfully readable, but I'm now ready to downgrade that to unfinishable.

I do have to give Godbersen (if that is her real name) props (or snaps) for utilizing a rich vocabulary - I wouldn't be surprised if the average teenager reader had to make frequent trips to the dictionary. It's the plot that killing me, and my own lack of interest in vapidness. But, to each his own!

I grew up on the Sweet Valley High series and find it interesting how influential those books continue to be. If the authors of these new "bad girl" books were not directly influenced by Francine Pascal, her work has just sunk that deep into today's consciousness. For example:
Now, observing her family's ballroom from the mezzanine, her torso cinched beneath her flamenco dancer's red flounces to a perfect eighteen inches, she felt supremely confident that he would come. It was the evening of the Richmond Hayeses' ball, the evening when they reached their apotheosis as a top-drawer family - there was simply no place else to be. She was certain he would arrive shortly. Well, almost certain.
This is a spoiler, probably. I'm not going to finish it but it's pretty obvious that the "good" sister, Elizabeth (He-Llo?!?) is going to fake her own death and move to California with her coachman boyfriend, thus allowing her younger, more daring sister Jessica, I mean, Diana, to marry her wealthy, roguish fiance and save the family from financial ruin because those two are in love anyway.

If I am incorrect, please let me know! Anyone ready any great YA books lately? I would love to know!