Month: April 2010

Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott

I re-read Little Women last year and was surprised to find that my memories of the story had been unduly influenced by the wonderful Winona Ryder-Kirsten Dunst-Claire Danes film version I watched as a child; in comparison to the film, half the book appeared to be missing, and I wondered why the filmmakers had taken such liberties in extending the story so far beyond Louisa May Alcott’s imagination! It was then that I realised the film had depicted not just Little Women, but its sequel, (one of three sequels, actually) Good Wives, too, and so off I set to find myself a copy of the latter. I found a gorgeous early 20th century edition that matches my copy of Little Women shortly afterwards, but as usual, it was left to gather dust for a few months before I got around to reading it. I never change! Last week I was finally in the mood for a bit more Louisa May Alcott and so out came Good Wives, and I was enchanted all over again by the world of the March girls.

Good Wives takes off about three years after where Little Women left off. Meg is about to get married, Jo is attempting to launch a literary career, Beth has sadly never recovered from her scarlet fever and is now virtually housebound, and little Amy is maturing fast, and about to go off travelling with a wealthy aunt. Each girl is struggling with her own problems; for Meg, she must learn to be a good wife and mother, and juggle the demands of the two; Jo must learn how to maintain her morals in a corrupt business, and rein in her headstrong and often selfish nature; Beth has to come to terms with the fact that she may never grow old, and learn to enjoy the time she has left without dwelling on what may come, and Amy must learn to put others first, and understand that money and fine things are nothing in comparison to a good heart and unconditional love. As they make their way from childhood to womanhood, each of the four March girls has her own path to tread, and though there is much joy to be found along their way, there is also much sorrow, heartache and lessons to be learned. In all things, they look to the quiet strength and wisdom of their mother, whose gentle reprimands and loving encouragement sees all of them through their trials and helps them to greater appreciate their blessings.

Louisa May Alcott is very much a Victorian writer, in that her stories are all about girls being obedient, self governing, faithful to God and developing characters and hearts that reflect the great virtues of patience, love, and charity, so that they can be a blessing to all around them, and bring perpetual sunshine to their homes. Little Women and Good Wives are a thinly disguised Pilgrim’s Progress, the March girl’s favourite book, and I can understand that the didactic and religious overtones can be a little too much for the modern reader. However, I absolutely adored this book and it gave me a lot to think about, as I dripped tears onto the pages, laughed, and gave satisfied sighs at these delightful girls’ various antics. These books have both made me search my soul and promise myself I will be a better person. More patient, more kind, more compassionate, more considerate, more tactful, more loving…and then I continue to get REALLY ANGRY AT EVERYONE on the tube and fight with my brother and tut loudly behind SLOW people and open my big mouth where it’s not wanted and think evil thoughts about people who take the last seat on the train even though I was clearly waiting ten minutes longer than them…but still, the willingness is there, I suppose, which is a start.

I think any story that makes you want to be the best person you can be has got to be worth reading, and when I closed this book, in the midst of Mrs March smiling at her girls and grandchildren and saying this, this is happiness, and nothing more, it was like a little ray of light beaming into my soul, reminding me that it is the simple things in life, like family, and friends, and sunny days, and walking barefoot on grass, that are important, and not the rest of it that we stress ourselves out about on a daily basis. It might be cheesy, and it might be old fashioned, and the characters might be a little bit too good to be true, but it works for me.

Little Women and Good Wives will always be amongst my favourite books, because they are not concerned with being flashy or different or clever, but about inspiring and encouraging their readers to grow, and change, and love, and dream, and live, and to never give up, because no matter what, life is worth it. What could be better, and truer, than that? I urge you to read them; they’re not just for children, and I promise you’ll close the pages with a smile.

Want to read some Alcott? Join Margot at Joyfully Retired in her All Things Alcott Challenge!

Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie

Melanie at Short Books was so kind as to send me Chocolate Cake with Hitler to review after my disappointment with The Diary of Miss Idilia. I was intrigued by the idea of writing a fictionalised version of real events from the point of view of a twelve year old; not a particularly easy task but one Emma Craigie manages excellently. I was totally enthralled by the story and by the angle it takes on Hitler and the Nazi regime. It was much like a fictionalised Anne Frank’s Diary.

The book is told from the point of view of Helga Goebbels, the eldest daughter of Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s right hand man. The story opens as Josef, his wife Magda, and their six children leave their home in the countryside outside war torn Berlin and enter Hitler’s bunker underneath the city. Helga and her siblings, highly protected from the happenings of the war so far, are told that this is for their own safety, and that nothing can happen to them while they are safe underground. The children must go about their usual routine; lessons, playing, rests, mealtimes, all whilst the bombs of the Russian army boom above them and the atmosphere within the bunker becomes more and more tense. Every day they have tea with Hitler, who embarrasses twelve year old Helga by gulping chocolate cake down greedily and spilling his tea with his shaky hands. Hitler’s increasingly morose demeanour is very disturbing for Helga and her younger siblings, as they begin to suspect that all is not well, and that perhaps they are not going to win the war after all.

Helga is a lively and intuitive narrator, understanding far more about her situation than the adults around her realise. Her fear is painful to read about; it is only she out of her siblings that seems to wonder why none of the other high ranking members of the Nazi Party have brought their children with them into the bunker, and a sense of foreboding underlies every hour. Everyone else has sent their children to safety, well outside of Berlin, and as the sounds of bombs and rifle fire come closer and closer, sending clouds of dust down from the ceilings of the bunker, Helga begins to wonder whether they are going to get out alive. Her uncertainty and worry never leave her, and her insights into the behaviour of Hitler and his staff, noting how their conversation, appearance and habits have changed over the course of the past few days, demonstrate how intuitive children can be.

Juxtaposed with each day in the bunker, there is an interesting memory of Helga’s from her childhood, pointing to times when all seemed well, but actually, this end was already on the horizon; friendships with Jews forbidden, forced curtsies to Hitler at rallies, overhearing arguments between her mother and grandmother, a fierce anti Nazi…These memories paint a picture of an intelligent, high spirited and magnanimous child, innocent of her parents’ crimes, who took great joy in life and had many hopes and dreams for the future, which tragically would be destroyed by those who were supposed to love and protect her the most.

This is a short but incredibly emotive and powerful book, and I did have to blink back tears when I read the postscript about how the Goebbels children were murdered by their mother. According to a letter written by Magda to her eldest son Harald (from an earlier marriage) she killed her six children with Goebbels because she and Joseph thought a world not ruled by Hitler was not one worth living in, and if Germany looked like it was going to fall, they felt they were doing their children a kindness by killing them before that became a reality. I find it difficult to understand how intelligent people could become so blinkered by an ideology, so much so that they would be prepared to force cyanide down their own children’s throats. It’s just incomprehensible to me.

It’s a tragic story, but told beautifully and sympathetically by Craigie, who convinces utterly in the voice of 12 year old Helga, wistfully remembering the happy days of her childhood as she lies awake with worry, listening to the sounds of the adults she used to so admire and trust shouting and crying in a bunker miles under the surface of a half destroyed Berlin. I can’t imagine the terror the real Helga must have felt, and I only hope that she suffered no pain as she was murdered. It’s a hard book to read, knowing the outcome before you start, but at the same time, I think it’s important these books are written, and these stories kept alive, to remind us from where we have come, and to what we never want to return. Craigie is sensitive enough not to sensationalise or elaborate, and in Helga she has drawn a realistic and empathetic narrator who draws us into the story of the last days of Hitler’s Reich. It’s a brilliant book, especially of interest for those fascinated by the war or German history, and if you can bear to read it, knowing that everyone in it ends up dead (I don’t feel I’m spoiling the plot by saying that, as it is historical fact!), then you will be richly rewarded. I think I am quickly becoming a convert to historical novels, after all!

DIY

I’m just doing a bit of maintenance on the blog this afternoon…apologies if you get an onslaught of posts in your Google Reader/inbox! When I switched over from Blogger my old posts that did come over weren’t formatted correctly and now they’re in teensy tiny print you need a magnifying glass to read, so I’m just amending fonts and photos etc to make sure my older posts are readable and presented attractively!

I might do some more tinkering around but I’ll leave you to discover any more exciting new additions and changes!

Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

This is about to be republished by Persephone and I think it will be the most modern of their novels. Published in the 1980’s, I just so happened to find a copy secondhand a while back, and picked it up after reading a story about a boy who disappeared in New York in the 80’s and was never found. It’s interesting that Persephone has chosen to reprint a book that is so recent in comparison to their others; they have become synonymous, for me, anyway, with mainly mid century novels by authors who were popular but have sunk into obscurity, and Still Missing doesn’t fit this mould at all. However, on opening it, I found it to be quintessentially ‘Persephone’ in its exploration of the marriage of Susan Selky, her role as a mother, her emotions, and her relationships with those around her, and with herself. It is a startlingly good novel; beautifully and realistically written, powerfully moving, and excellently characterised and plotted. I was so drawn into the story that I could hardly bear to put it down, and it moved me to tears in several places. Don’t be put off by its seeming incongruity amongst the usual fare of the Persephone catalogue; it fully deserves to be there, and I can’t understand why Beth Gutcheon hasn’t had more success or fame. A common lament amongst us Persephone readers about its authors, I fear!

Susan Selky is a Harvard English professor, living comfortably in Boston’s Back Bay neighbourhood with her almost seven year old son Alex. She is recently separated from her husband Graham, a fellow English professor, who has been consistently unfaithful. Despite this they are still close and Susan is far from moving on from him. It is a sunny summer’s morning when Susan, as usual, watches Alex walk to the corner of their street on his way to school; it is only two blocks away from their front door and Susan has allowed Alex to walk alone for quite some time. He is a sensible and reliable boy, and Susan has never had any concern for his safety. Returning home from work later that day, Susan becomes anxious when Alex doesn’t return home and calls her good friend Jocelyn, whose daughter is in Alex’s class, to check whether he is playing at her house. Susan’s blood runs cold when Jocelyn’s daughter tells her that Alex never showed up at school that day. Moments later the police have arrived, and Susan’s worst nightmare begins. Her beloved little boy is missing, and she has no idea where he is, or whether he is dead or alive.

The lead Detective on the case, Detective Menetti, assures Susan that children just do not disappear without a trace, and that Alex will undoubtedly be back with them by that evening. But as the hours go into days, and the days into weeks, and the weeks into months, with no sign of Alex, the only person with any hope that Alex is still alive is Susan. Her husband Graham moves back into the family home, but their relationship is pushed to breaking point by Susan’s inability to accept that Alex is not coming back. Graham has given up hope, and when a friend of the family is arrested for Alex’s murder, Susan’s refusal to believe that he did it and that Alex is dead infuriates Graham, as well as everyone else who knows her. Her friends stop calling; they can’t deal with Susan’s pain and her insistence that everyone is wrong about Alex. Even the loyal and conflicted Detective Menetti, one of the standout characters in the book, is becoming frustrated with Susan’s phone calls about what, as far as he and the rest of the police department is concerned, is a closed case. Susan is unable to go back to a ‘normal’ life; her perceptions of everyone around her and everything she does have been permanently changed. Friends she thought she could trust have turned their backs on her; Graham has given up on their son, something Susan can’t understand; and everyone who wants to get involved with the case seems to have their own agenda. Susan’s struggle to have her voice heard and to recover a sense of her life without her son in it is painful to read, but it’s also a powerful exploration of love, loss, and the devastation grief can bring to an otherwise ordinary life.

What I loved most about this book is how real, and how emotive, it was. Beth Gutcheon perfectly describes how suddenly a life can go from being normal and uneventful to being ripped apart from the core, with no way back to that previous normality. Susan is a wonderful character, whose strength throughout her ordeal lies in her hope and belief in her son, and in her firm conviction that she would know in her heart if he was dead. This mother love overpowers all sense and all other relationships in her life, pushing away her husband and her friends, who quickly tire of having to be around someone whose life is now defined by the pain of losing her son. The selfishness of her friends was difficult to read; at first they are all there with offers of help and support, but their own lives soon take over, and before long they start criticising Susan for her negative attitude. They resent her for not responding to their attempts at ‘helping’, and then drift off to live their own lives, bored of being associated with a woman who can’t deal with the fact that her son is, to them, anyway, clearly dead. This is all too easy to do; people can only bear so much of another person’s suffering, after all, but I found it so poignant that it was only in her time of desperate need that Susan realised how empty so many of the relationships in her life had always been, and how little she knew the people she thought she was closest to.

This is an emotional, and at times frustrating read, but it is, overall, a magnificently written novel about the unravelling of one ordinary woman’s life, that you definitely don’t need to be a parent to relate to and empathise with. It is so much more than just the story of a missing boy, and Gutcheon’s insights into relationships and grief and the true nature of people’s hearts is what made this such a gripping and excellent read for me, and reminded me very much of that other Persephone favourite, Dorothy Whipple. A must read; and, according to the website, it’s out tomorrow in lovely Persephone grey livery!

FINALLY: The winner of Foreclosed is A Bookish Space! Congratulations! Email me your address and I’ll send it out asap.

Wise Children by Angela Carter

I’m not really sure what to say about this book. I finished it a few days ago and was waiting for some sort of intelligent analysis to appear from the recesses of my brain but sadly I am still lacking in wise insights. All I am able to express is the sheer exuberance, vitality and fun of this novel, which felt very much like being on a rollercoaster. I have read Angela Carter novels before and so I knew I was in for something a little less than ordinary but this really does leap outside of the box and transcend all of your expectations. I loved it!

It is the story of the Chance sisters, or ‘The Lucky Chances’, Dora and Nora; identical illegitimate twins, born in a Brixton boarding house to a parlour maid mother and a scion of the world’s greatest acting dynasty, who would go on to become Sir Melchior Hazard, greatest actor of his time. Told through the eyes of Dora, it is a rip roaring ride through the 20th century, taking in the sleazy dressing rooms of backwater theatres as the girls make their high kicking debuts on the stage as chorus girls, the glitz and glamour of 1930s Hollywood, and the squalor of the old boarding house in the early 90’s, packed with memories and memorabilia as the sisters enter their late 70s, still just as glamorous and unconventional as they were in their youth.

It is a cast packed with unconventional and almost unbelievable characters; the twins Sir Melchior and Peregrine Hazard, illegitimate sons of the famous actor Ranulph Hazard and his beautiful actress wife Estella, Dora and Nora, their ‘Grandma’ Chance, who raised them from birth but who is really no relation to them at all; Saskia and Imogen Hazard, daughters of Melchior and his first wife, the beautiful aristocrat Lady Atalanta, and sworn enemies of Dora and Nora, plus a wide cast of lovers, other family members, friends and hangers on who populate the glamorous and eventful lives of the Lucky Chances over their 75 years. The story begins on Dora and Nora’s 75th birthday, also the 100th birthday of Sir Melchior, to whose party they are going, and this triggers Dora’s memories of her life, which the book tells in hilarious and entertaining fashion. Dora’s voice is authentic, bawdy, and filled with joie de vivre; the Chance girls don’t live with regret or sorrow for the past and they packed their lives with as much as they could fit in; lovers, incestuous relationships, Hollywood movies, theatre performances, fur coats, lacy knickers and exotic perfumes. They danced and sung their way through their troubles and it is this sense of life as a performance, as something to be enjoyed and indulged in and not taken too seriously that gives the novel such a refreshingly vivacious feel. It is truly a celebration of life, and as it was written by Carter while she was dying of cancer, I think it is that message of life being a wonderful, exciting gift to be rejoiced in that really shines through the pages.

Of course, being wirtten by Angela Carter, it is a very witty and subversive novel, using plenty of Shakespearean conceits to great effect and to produce fantastic, larger than life characters. There are the infinite succession of twins, some identical and some not, whose identity is fluid, as well as that of their children. Most characters are illegitimate, some knowingly, most unknowingly, and this makes for interesting observations as to the source of our identity and history, and whether a parent is more than just biology. Dora and Nora swap identities and play on their identical faces; twins swap sexual partners and produce children who could be or could not be their own. Incest also features, with the shaky definition of who is whose parent making it difficult to know whether any of it really is incest, and the amount of marriages and sexual partners and random babies belonging to who knows who results in a cast of characters who are dysfunctional, mad, and absolutely hilarious. I felt like I was watching the cast of The Tempest on a high. Favourite characters include Peregrine, the girls’ ‘uncle’, an indestructible, adventurous lothario who lavishes love and attention on Dora and Nora and as far as everyone else knows, is their real father, ‘Grandma’ Chance, the girls’ guardian, who keeps her past shrouded in mystery and likes a tipple, and Lady Atalanta, otherwise known as ‘Wheelchair’, abandoned by Melchior for a Hollywood floozy during the filming of his one and only Hollywood movie, a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also starring Dora and Nora, and now resident in the basement of the Brixton boarding house where the Chances have lived all their lives.

This is a wonderful, clever, funny and life affirming novel that had me rejoicing in the possibilities of life and the adventures I could go on. I can’t recommend this enough and I can’t wait to read more Carter. Thanks to Claire at Paperback Reader for encouraging me to finally get around to reading this by hosting an Angela Carter Month!