Saturday, April 4, 2020

Topsy-Turvy Jo

There are so many lovely covers to the book Little Women. Here’s one, though not the copy I am reading, an image of which I cannot find online. Today I learned (or re-learned, if I once knew it) that May Alcott, Louisa’s little sister, illustrated the first edition. May was the real Amy. Her name was Abigail May Alcott, and, Wikipedia tells me, she was known as Abba or Abby until she chose to be known as May, and that’s how she is listed on this title page of the first edition, with her illustration opposite. So “Amy” is not just an anagram of “May” but echoes the two nicknames!

I loved this article about the real Amy—“What Greta Gerwig Got Right: Rethinking Amy March in Light of May Alcott Nieriker,” by Kelly Blewett in the Los Angeles Review of Books—re-seeing her in light of Greta Gerwig’s movie adaptation as well as a new book by Jane Smiley, The March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women. Both authors recognize May Alcott as a modern woman and a feminist of her own times.

Clearly, a lot of us are re-reading and re-thinking Little Women right now. I am turning to it as a kind of “comfort food” during this time of crisis. Imagine my astonishment at discovering May Alcott’s illustration of Beth greeting her father on his return—wearing his scarf like a coronavirus mask!

And there are various other surprises, among them the number of nicknames. I had remembered Topsy-Turvy Jo, and, for Theodore Laurence, the boy next door, Laurie, of course, and Teddy, but I had forgotten Toodles as one of his nicknames!

A somewhat unnerving surprise was the common use of the word “trump” in a slang sense, with the entirely positive connotation it has from cards, where the trump beats everything! “Three cheers for dear Father! Brooke was a trump to telegraph right off, and let us know he was better.”

We live in a topsy-turvy world right now, changed forever. When we come through this hard time, and I hope we will, let it be for the better. I know we’ve been made vulnerable by the current president, a “trump” with entirely negative connotations, who  must be voted out, my dears, so let us be strong and kind and do what needs to be done. There! That shows the influence of listening to Marmee and spending time with some admirable “little women.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Pertinence of Little Women

As a comfort during this strange and difficult time, I am re-reading Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, first read in childhood. I recalled the March family hunkered at home during the Civil War, their father off serving as a chaplain for the army, but little did I know quite how much their situation would resonate now!

When I picked up my book this morning, opening to where my bookmark had fallen inplace the night before, the little women and their mother had received news of the illness of Mr. March. Illness in war is common, and our big flu pandemic of 1918 happened in war, and here we are again. So Marmee, as her daughters call her, packs a trunk and heads off to tend him, leaving the little women on their own, in the care of Hannah the cook, and with the protection of the neighbor, Mr. Laurence, and his grandson, Laurie.

The next morning, they wake to the completely changed circumstances. “’I feel as if there had been an earthquake,’ said Jo…” Indeed! And not only does the disruption current in our lives feel as devastating as that, but there has just been another earthquake—in Idaho!

And for those of you who are stress eating (or stress baking), look at the pertinence and needed humor of this! “’I think anxiety is very interesting,’ said Amy, eating sugar pensively.” I laughed a little, while maintaining my compassion for those whose anxiety is hard to manage, and probably not with sugar, and definitely not straight from the shared sugar bowl!

I am reading a hard copy of Little Women, a paperback I got for my son when he became enamored of the movie (with Winona Ryder) one Christmas season. (I don’t think he read it, though, as the binding was very tight, until, alas, I broke it, but now I am not straining to read in the gutter, so to speak.) And I was eager to re-read this novel after seeing the new film version this Christmas season, directed by Greta Gerwig. But you can easily find e-book versions at the library, along with Little Men and Jo’s Boys, so I might try those as our “shelter in place” continues.

So many wonderful details from the book are coming back so vividly from my first reading! Others I had forgotten: for instance, that the sisters had girlfriends in the neighborhood who attended their little plays. And that they went on a picnic with Laurie’s British friends and played croquet. That is, there’s not as much “social distancing” in Little Women as I had remembered.

Ah, but I know what’s coming next in the plot: Beth’s visit to a house with illness in it. Again, the pertinence of Little Women.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

My First E-Book

I read my first e-book, The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, for my book club. I had recently read/re-read The Handmaid’s Tale, in hard copy, borrowed from the library, in preparation. It was high time I tried checking out an e-book, and now it’s the only way to check out a book, but I did it with some fumbling and trepidation. For the past couple of weeks, there are so many new sign-ins and passwords. I had to change my Facebook password, due to a recent surge of hacking. While some kinds of phone calls have stopped, I’m now being notified, in the voice of A.I., of lots of cash prizes I’ve won. The hackers and scammers have already discovered new opportunities and pounced on new vulnerable prey. That potential for doing harm and being harmed constant in humans is part of the plot of Testaments.

It was fascinating to re-encounter certain characters from The Handmaid’s Tale and meet the new ones. I appreciated the connections in structure between the two novels—testimony, academic lecture. And I heard the feminism, in waves, the sad wisdom, and both the awareness and lack of awareness in the young:

The Founders and the older Aunts had edges to them. They’d been moulded in an age before Gilead, they’d had struggles we had been spared, and these struggles had ground off the softness that might once have been there. But we hadn’t been forced to undergo such ordeals. We’d been protected, we hadn’t needed to deal with the harshness of the world at large. We were the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by the forbears. We were constantly reminded of this and told to be grateful for the absence of an unknown quantity. I’m afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia’s generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness abut them that we lacked.

I appreciated the complexity of some of the characters, the gray areas in the thinking. Like the “grey market” (not black market) for desired commodities. While this novel lays out a parallel history to our own, and an alternate present and presumed future, it could not have anticipated the current coronavirus crisis. Yet there is fever, there is fake news. And the ending made me cry.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Sleeping in Place

As we shelter in place, I see that many of my friends and online acquaintances are having trouble sleeping. And some are dealing with surges of depression and anxiety. My heart goes out to everyone in this. I go through periods of change in my sleep patterns, and, yes, I am in one now. My usual solution when I find myself awake in bed, and sense I am unlikely to go back to sleep, is to accept this and get up and go downstairs to read on the couch, where I fall asleep reading.

The new twist is that I may doze while reading on the couch, well before bedtime, and 1) just stay there or 2) go up to bed, find myself awake, and come back. This morning my husband greeted me with a kiss (ack! too close! social distancing! but we know we've already been too close and can't do anything about it now!) and the comment, "You are becoming one with that couch."

I arrange myself in various ways to 1) avoid a crick in the neck in the morning 2) have the bookmark fall into the right spot when I fall asleep and the book closes. Today I finished Rebecca Solnit's Recollections of My Nonexistence, which I wrote about yesterday. (Was it yesterday? I know I am not alone these days in losing track of what day it is.) I'm sure I'll share more about it, but this seemed particularly pertinent this morning:

So much of the work of writing happens when you are seemingly not working, made by that part of yourself you may not know and do not control, and when the work shows up like that your job is to get out of the way.

She describes my own experience of writing, and this also relates in a weird, funny way to my work-at-home situation. Generally, I worked in the morning at my library job and worked in the afternoon at home and on into the evening with my freelance writing and editing. There were clear distinctions in my day. Now it all folds together, alternating with physical tasks. I've structured things so I can keep track of actual hours for my "job job," and yesterday I worked too many hours, so today my "job is to get out of the way" for a bit!

Solnit was talking about the kind of writing that comes out quickly after a long time percolating:

The essay poured out with ease or rather tumbled out seemingly of its own accord. When this happens it means that the thoughts have long been gestating and writing is only a birth of what was already taking form out of sight.

OK, she used a birth metaphor, and I used an old-fashioned way of making coffee, but we understand each other, yes? This is a more rambling blog entry, I see. I have probably gotten way too far out of the way. Time to wake up and....

A big thank you to Bill Kemp, librarian at the McLean County Museum of History, for the photo of Abe Lincoln social distancing on a bench in front of the phrase "In this together." And a big thank you to the sidewalk chalkers!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Recollections of Reading

I am in the middle of Recollections of My Nonexistence, by Rebecca Solnit, a memoir. Recently I got myself paperback versions of her Hope in the Dark, to uplift me, and Men Explain Things To Me, to update myself on all that. I am staying calm, so far, in Recollections of My Nonexistence, despite the bad behavior of some men over time, in her life, in my life, and in history. Sigh…

I’m reading the hard copy, sheltered in place at home, and now I realize my library has an e-version, so go for it! Right now I am enjoying her reflections on reading in general—how it is not so much escape as immersion in other lives and a way to develop empathy. 

Here is her description of reading as an experience, a kind of transformation:

There is something astonishing about reading, about that suspension of your own time and place to travel into others’. It’s a way of disappearing from where you are—not quite entering the author’s mind but engaging with it so that something arises between your mind and hers. You translate words into your own images, faces, places, light and shade and sound and emotion. A world arises in your head that you have built at the author’s behest, and when you’re present in that world you’re absent from your own.

So if you feel absent from your own (former) life now, you might choose a book to be present in for a time. Solnit has made me want to read Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather, “in which the ambitious, amorous, extraordinarily talented heroine is not punished” as women are so often in books by men, or by women overly influenced by patriarchy. 

Fortunately, Song of the Lark is available in e-book form at my library, too!