Thursday, July 29, 2010

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen (2009)

As I've probably mentioned before, I've loved Louisa May Alcott ever since I read Little Women as a child and then found out that Alcott and I shared the same birthday. When I picked her as the topic for an elementary school report I also learned that she was tall and thin, had only sisters, and that she loved to read. And now that I've read this well written biography by Harriet Reisen, I've also learned that, like me, Alcott shared a birthday with one of her relatives (in her case, her father; in my case, my sister) and that she loved to read (and made quite a bit of money writing) pulpy fiction serials for popular magazines.

Okay, the similarities between myself and Louisa May Alcott pretty much end there: my dad is sometimes philosophical, but he is a good provider and way more down to earth than Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott; I only lived in three houses growing up -- Alcott moved 30 times before she was in her mid-twenties; I'm no fiction writer; and my personality tends to be pretty even keeled and not as frenetic as Louisa May Alcott's. Still, I like to think we would be good friends if she hadn't passed away back in 1888.

Reisen's biography is an extremely readable exploration of Louisa May Alcott's life, starting with her parents' childhoods and ending with her death (which, incidentally, was only two days after the death of her father). While the author is closely focused on the life of Alcott, her family was at the center of many important aspects of 19th century America (abolition, Transcendentalism, the Civil War, women's suffrage) that the reader can't help but get a healthy dose of American (and Bostonian) history.

It is well known that Alcott based her best-selling novel, Little Women on her own family, and in fact much of Alcott's fiction was drawn from her real life experiences. And while all the characters and many of the events in Little Women have their parallels in reality, Louisa May Alcott's childhood was much rougher than the book allows. Having a Transcendentalist father meant that Alcott grew up with Emerson and Thoreau as neighbors and friends, but her father's writing was never successful, and for much of his life he was not much respected outside of his circle of friends. He never made money at his philosophical and educational work, and the Alcott family struggled to make ends meet through loans from friends and family (that were never paid back), and by moving frequently to escape their debts. Bronson Alcott's philosophies of diet (nothing but bread, water and apples) and cleanliness (cold shower outdoors) didn't make life any more comfortable for his wife and four daughters. And yet, the family was very close, and Louisa May Alcott was ultimately able to support both her parents and her sisters through her writing.

Lucky for us, an intellectual family like the Alcotts placed a big emphasis on writing and Alcott kept a journal from the time of her childhood and sent out a huge number of letters to her friends and family. Because of this, Reisen is often able to tell us Alcott's story in her own voice and cut our impression of the moralistic narrator of Little Women with the biting wit and outspoken nature of the real Louisa May Alcott.

And now that I've read this biography, I want to go out and read everything by Louisa May Alcott that I can get my hands on....

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels by Barry Gifford (2010)

Lula Pace Fortune. Sailor Ripley. Coot Veal. Buford Dufour. Rip Ford. Dalceda Hopewell Delahoussaye. Lefty Grove. Elmer Désespéré. The names alone make this collection a first rate contribution to American literature.

Sometimes (although not often) I have to slog a bit to get through a free book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Other times the magical algorithm reads my tastes perfectly and sends me a book that couldn't do anything else but make me smile -- Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels by Barry Gifford (2010) is just that kind of book.

If you have seen David Lynch's movie Wild at Heart, (which includes one of my favorite Nicolas Cage lines of all time) then you are already familiar with the cast of the first novel in this collection: the star-crossed lovebirds, Sailor and Lula; Lula's overprotective mother, Marietta; and the ill-fated Bobby Peru and his girlfriend, Perdita Durango.

In fact, the second novel in the collection, Perdita Durango was also made into a movie -- I've never seen it, but it has been added to my list. And if you take a second to watch the trailer, you will see that Javier Bardem's haircut in No Country for Old Men is actually not the most unflattering hairstyle he has ever sported.

Gifford wrote the screenplays for both of these film adaptations of his work (as well as the original screenplay for Lost Highway), and while Lynch obviously brought a big bag of his own Lynchiness to Wild at Heart, these books have the same humor, violence, philosophies, and energy.

I won't go through the whole collection except to say that the books as a whole, written between 1990 and 2009, take us way beyond the end of Wild at Heart, through Sailor and Lula's middle age, the life of their son, and all the way until the end of their lives. In each episode, the main narrative shoots out on side stories, brushes up against minor characters with one-paragraph plots (and awesome names), steps up to the radio to tell us of a crazy crime, has a little sex, reads the newspaper for a bit, tells us about someone's dream, and then unexpectedly and inevitably blows apart with a breath-taking (and plot changing) act of violence. And just when things seem like they can't get any worse, an equally unexpected act of violence and some good luck set everything right again.

Oddly enough, even though this collection is sub-titled "The Complete Novels," there is another Sailor and Lula novel that wasn't included, Baby Cat-Face (1995). That the publishers didn't include that novel doesn't make me too sad, though, because just when I thought I had exhausted the Southern mythology of Sailor and Lula, I've found that there is a whole other chapter waiting for me.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Bread Bible by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter (2006)

One of my resolutions this year was to finally get tough and make my own bread. I had made my share of banana bread and beer bread, but I wanted to make the kind that uses yeast and that you have to knead and wait around for. The internet led me to some tips and simple recipes, and I completed my goal pretty early in the year. But I wanted more!

I found just the book to scratch my bread knowledge itch in Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter's The Bread Bible (2006). This book starts with some introductory material on the history of bread making and the ingredients used in baking bread, then moves into some nicely illustrated step-by-step techniques and a nod to the different equipment a bread-maker might want. After this preparation the book pushes into an encyclopedic look at different types of bread from around the world, with a pretty heavy emphasis on breads from the U.K. and Europe. Finally, after reading about all the tasty bread options and drooling over the full-color photography on every page, Ingram and Shapter give us over 100 step-by-step recipes for a selection of breads that we read about in the first section of the book.

I haven't tried making any of these yet, but I have about a dozen recipes marked for immediate experimentation. My only qualm is that this book is a British publication and while the measurements are converted into US units, I still think a certain amount of translation is going to be necessary. There are also some endearing (and sometimes confusing) Britishisms used throughout: "greased greaseproof paper," "maize meal" (instead of corn meal), and she always seems to call a measuring cup a "jug." Overall, this is a fun read for a curious breadmaker and includes such a variety of recipes that it should cover pretty much every bread baking need (or knead).

Let the bready experiments begin!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Giant by Edna Ferber (1952)

I bought this copy of Giant by Edna Ferber (1952) about a year ago when I was up in Madison, Wisconsin for the wedding celebration of a year. It may seem odd to have purchased a novel all about Texas in a state about as far from Texas as you can get, but Ferber herself was born in Michigan and raised in the lovely city of Appleton, Wisconsin, so it is actually quite appropriate.

Giant is the story of Bick Benedict, the head of the Benedict Ranch, one of the largest and most prosperous in Texas. After the first World War, while doing business in Washington, he stops in Virginia to see a man about a horse. He comes back to Texas not only with the horse, but also with the man's lovely and outspoken daughter Leslie. Bick and Leslie are about as different as 1920s Virginia and Texas, but they are passionately in love and Leslie makes plenty of sacrifices to make their family work. Things aren't made any easier by Jett Rink, a crude and outspoken ranch hand who pretty awesomely crosses Bick and becomes a lifelong enemy of the family at the same time that he strikes it rich in oil.

Giant encompasses the story of the Benedict family and their friends and neighbors, but it also gives the reader a series of contrasts: cattle vs. oil, the old generation vs. the new one, the east cost vs. Texas, men vs. women, Mexicans vs. Anglos. Not surprisingly for Ferber (who also wrote the novel that Showboat -- one of the best musicals of all time -- was based on), racial equality and social justice are big themes in the book. While sometimes these themes are pushed at the expense of the story, the book is an interesting read as a non-Texan's view of these ranching men and women with all their quirks -- both the endearing ones and the irritating ones. Of course, maybe I liked it because I'm not from Texas either, even though I've lived here for ten years. I could see "real" Texans having some problems with the book...

I haven't ever seen the film version of Giant, the one staring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, but I have put it high on my list. I imagine it is chock full of 1950s hugeness and melodrama, and sometimes that is just the thing I want.