Saturday, March 17, 2018

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (98 down, 2 to go)

"I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!" ~ Jo March


Such a charming little tale, and quite a change from my last read: The Stand - terrifying, poignant, death and destruction, heroes and villains, epic world changing conflict. By contrast Little Women is a tender tale, with only one “small” conflict – a mother’s labor to make something beautiful and useful of the lives of her four little women. (Not surprising, but worth noting – I loved both stories.)

Mother, or Marmee to her daughters, would probably object to my assertion that the book is about her, but she is the hero, though the narrative is dedicated mostly to the girls: Margaret (Meg) age 16 at the beginning, Josephine (Jo) 15, Elizabeth (Beth) 13, and Amy 12.

The March family, once a prominent mid 19th Century Massachusetts family, keep a humble but idyllic home. Mr. March is away serving as a chaplain in the Union Army during the War Between the States. The girls, usually sweet and sincere, are not yet the beautiful women they will become. I’ll offer a glimpse of the girls with the author’s words.

Poor Meg seldom complained, but a sense of injustice made her feel bitter toward everyone sometimes, for she had not yet learned to know how rich she was in the blessings which alone can make life happy 
Jo never, never would learn to be proper… 
Beth: Spoiler Alert – an excerpt from a poem that Jo wrote about her sister Beth.
        O my sister, passing from me,
        Out of human care and strife,
        Leave me, as a gift, those virtues
        Which have beautified your life

So Amy sailed away to find the Old World, which is always new and beautiful to young eyes, while her father and friend watched her from the shore, fervently hoping that none but gentle fortunes would befall the happy-hearted girl, who waved her hand to them till they could see nothing but the summer sunshine dazzling on the sea. 
The girls gave their hearts into their mother’s keeping, their souls into their father’s, who lived and labored so faithfully for them, they gave a love that grew with their growth and bound them tenderly together by the sweetest tie which blesses life and outlives death.
And the wisdom of Marmee:
Mothers have need of sharp eyes and discreet tongues when they have girls to manage. …the great charm of all power is modesty.

Of course, a story about teen girls becoming women includes embarrassing balls, awkward suitors, broken hearts, unlooked for love, and the obligatory wealthy busybody aunt.

Alcott gives nods to two classic authors. Marmee cites frequently from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as a guiding light for her daughters. There is even a chapter titled: "Meg Goes To Vanity Fair" (Vanity Fair being an allegorical city in The Pilgrim’s Progress). And then the girls were apparently avid readers of Charles Dickens as they make numerous references to his characters, and play act the Pickwick Club. There is also a reference to “the cricket on the hearth” but I believe it was more a reference to the tradition that a cricket on the hearth brought good fortune, rather than a reference to Dicken’s short story.

My Rating: 4 ½ of 5 stars

This novel satisfies – a classic by a woman author in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

This is my first time reading Louisa May Alcott or Little Women. The novel is a third-person narrative with definite transcendentalist theme. I toured Alcott’s childhood home, Orchard House, many years ago, and the guide stated that young Louisa would sit on the stairs at night while her father philosophized with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne – can you imagine? Have you read Little Women? What did you think?

Other Excerpts:

Beth ceased to fear him from that moment, and sat there talking to him as cozily as if she had known him all her life, for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride.

Jo’s only answer was to hold her mother close, and in the silence which followed the sincerest prayer she had ever prayed left her heart without words.

As she lifted the curtain to look out into the dreary night, the moon broke suddenly from behind the clouds and shone upon her like a bright, benignant face, which seemed to whisper in the silence, “Be comforted, dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds.”

Then it was that Margaret, sitting alone with tears dropping often on her work, felt how rich she had been in things more precious than any luxuries money could buy – in love, protection, peace, and health, the real blessings of life.

She could not speak, but she did ‘hold on’, and the warm grasp of the friendly human hand comforted her sore heart, and seemed to lead her nearer to the Divine arm which alone could uphold her in her trouble.

…love is a great beautifier

She began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty, and to feel that if greatness is what a wise man has defined it to be, ‘truth, reverence, and good will’, then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.

The fresh winds blew away desponding doubts, delusive fancies, and moody mists. The warm spring sunshine brought out all sorts of aspiring ideas, tender hopes, and happy thoughts.

For poverty enriches those who live above it, and is a sure passport to truly hospitable spirits.

…Beth still seemed among them, a peaceful presence, invisible, but dearer than ever, since death could not break the household league that love made dissoluble.

Little they cared what anybody thought, for they were enjoying the happy hour that seldom comes but once in any life, the magical moment which bestows youth on the old, beauty on the plain, wealth on the poor, and gives human hearts a foretaste of heaven.

Film Rendition: The 1994 version with Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale, is an excellent rendition. Well cast, true to the book, and a GORGEOUS film score.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

NOVA this week - The Greatest Novels

Observations from my weekly wanderings, usually in Northern Virginia (NOVA).

I’m usually all about reading here, but if you’d like to SEE what The 100 Greatest Novels look like – here ya go.

All six rows in the left column plus the top row in the second column. Alphabetical by author from Douglas Adams – Richard Wright. If you bother to count, there are 117 because six of the novels came in more than one volume (Les Mis 2 vol., The Chronicles of Narnia 7 vol., Remembrance of Things Past 3 vol., Dance to the Music of Time 4 vol., The Hobbit + LOTR 4 vol., and War and Peace 3 vol.)

Here is a different visualization. These are not necessarily the versions I own, but rather, covers I like. In the order I read them from The Great GatsbyThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

This blog was originally about my Quest to read the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. It has since morphed into something more, which will allow me to continue blogging once the quest is complete, but…

As I near completion of the original quest, I am contemplating the meaning of “Greatest Novels of All Time”.

It’s a misnomer – there is no indisputable list of “Greatest Novels”. There cannot be as there is no official keeper of literature in the world, no person or organization with claim to final authority.

Truthfully my quest then, is to read 100 Novels that are widely, but not universally, believed to be some of the greatest.

I have to admit, I’m a little frustrated by the imprecision of that. The pragmatic within wants an unbiased test that results in “GREAT” officially stamped on dustjacket, but the poet says, it’s art – you can’t – you can’t objectively measure the quality of art.

I’m tempted to declare the poet the winner and close the debate, but there remains that part of me that wants the official seal of greatness on the dustjacket.

There is something pretty close – the test of time. It is not a criterion but rather evidence of greatness. If a novel passes the test of time, if 100 years later people are still reading it, discussing it, adapting it to stage and film, if it appears on some list of 100 Greatest – that’s about as close as it’s going to get to the official seal.

Are there contemporary authors whose works are great? Undoubtedly, but they don’t get that “official seal” until they pass the test of time. I read Stephen King recently for the first time and loved it. I’ll go out on a limb and say I think he’ll still be read 100 years from now. Not much of a gamble that, but if so – then it’s official (almost).

Author Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit: An American Legend; Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption) wrote an opinion piece for the NY Times in 2001: Waiting for the Next Secretariat, in which she wrote, 
True greatness is extremely rare…

I think that’s very important. If we dole out the greatness label too liberally…if too many novels are great – then none are. Greatness by definition MUST be rare.

The Greatest Novels? Everyone is entitled to an opinion, no one has the final say, time will tell.

Mind blowing eh?

And I’m not even close to done. Changing subjects – slightly

I’ve read these 100 novels (actually 97 as of today). I loved some, liked a lot, disliked a few, and a couple – nearly hated em.

How can that be? They have all stood the test of time; they are all widely considered great, and yet I didn’t like some? I mean Ulysses – really? I must be a simpleton.

That can’t be right, so I will now search for a more flattering explanation.

The simplest is this: What I like is not necessarily synonymous with what is great.

***mic drop***

You can quit reading now. The rest is just expounding on that thought.

What qualities of a novel will cause me to love/like it?

It must be a compelling story, competently told.

Does that remind anyone of this scene from Dead Poet’s Society? For the record – I love this movie, but I do not concede to Mr. Keating’s romantic assertion that the pages of the imaginary text are excrement, let me posit that there is some merit to the two axis graph. I think poetry, or any art form, can be subjected to scholarly criticism. An evaluation of “how artfully the objective was rendered” and “how important is that objective” might be good measures for poetry, but I think less so for prose fiction. For one thing, I don’t think the axis are of equal importance. Secondly, and since this is about my perceptions of a novel, I will change the axis slightly to suit my own purpose.
-- Axis A: Compelling / Good Story (more important than Axis B)
-- Axis B: Competent / Prose aptitude (not to be discounted entirely)

Compelling – having a powerful or irresistible effect. For fiction then, in my opinion, the powerful effect is making me think and/or feel; the writing should be thought provoking and/or emotion evoking. The more profound my thoughts or the more powerful my emotions – the more compelling the novel.

Competently written – obviously, this would be a lengthy discussion and one I am not particularly well qualified to expound. Suffice it to say, the stylistic aptitude of the writer certainly has an effect on the appeal of their work, just less so in my opinion, than their craft as a story teller.

Obviously, the ideal is to have a compelling story that is competently written, but my point is, they are not of equal importance. STORY is the thing.

I am certain to like a good story, expertly told (high compelling, high competent). I may still like a good story that is told with adequate skill (high compelling, medium competent). I will probably not like a good story, that is poorly written (high compelling, low competent), but I will certainly dislike a story told with perfect prose that is not at all interesting (low compelling, high competent), like an elegant narrative describing the life cycle experiences of a kitchen sink.

I’m going to circle back to “Greatest Novels” briefly. Just my opinion, but I think those novels that have passed the test of timelessness, have done so because they are compelling (at least to a large segment of readers) and competently written.

Great Novels – open for debate; difficult to define, easier to recognize by their timelessness.
Wanderer’s Favorites – Compelling and competent: novels that inspired thought and/or emotion, also easy to recognize by 4 to 5 stars.

Sorry, you could have skipped everything and just read the summary.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Stand by Stephen King (97 down, 3 to go)

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?  ~ from the poem The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats, quoted by Glen Bateman in The Stand

Believe it or not, this is my first time reading Stephen King, who is probably best known as a horror or supernatural or suspense writer – but I wouldn’t quite categorize The Stand as any of those. I call it a post-apocalyptic tale with magical realism, and a definite Christian theme.

Not at all what I expected. At first I was a bit disappointed. There haven’t been many horror, sci-fi, fantasy, or suspense thrillers in my reading quest, and I was hoping for something…overtly SUPERNATURAL and spooky.

My disappointment quickly subsided though. King creats such marvelous human characters: Larry, the aspiring West-Coast rock star with his first big hit climbing the charts; Frannie, the well-bred New-England college girl unexpectedly in the family way, Nick, the admirable and pitiable deaf-mute from nowhere just trying to make his way in the world; Stu, the good ole boy from Texas; and Tom, the man-child with feeble mind and heart of gold. I was immediately invested in their fates, and painfully aware their fates would be agonizing, uncertain, heartbreaking and heroic.


The world has come to an end – well very nearly: 95% of the world’s population killed by an escaped viral weapon. Early in the novel, when the virus is having its way, King focuses on a handful of human souls, and by his focus, the reader can surmise – these will be – the lucky ones? randomly immune from the dread virus. They are separated by sociologic and geographic divides, but slowly as their lives go inexplicably on, they also become forever interconnected.


And then there is a bit of the supernatural, in the person of 108-year-old Mother Abagail, on close terms with the Almighty and calling survivors to herself in their dreams.  There is also her opposite number whom she calls the devil’s imp, known to others as The Dark Man, The Walking Dude, or Randall Flagg.


Both are mustering forces for an epic showdown – or as one character opines:


...if you look at it from a theological point of view, it does rather seem as if we’re the knot in a tug-o-war rope between heaven and hell, doesn’t it?



Well, I’m hooked. I’ll be reading more Stephen King soon. 1,200 pages in two weeks, for me an extremely fast pace – testimony as to how fascinating I found it. Have you read The Stand? Stephen King? What did you think?


My Rating 4 ½ of 5 stars


Stephen King’s characters often quote other authors or read classic literature. I love it when authors do that. References in The Stand included:



The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

The Scarlet Letter

Animal Farm

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Watership Down

Flowers for Algernon

H.P. Lovecraft

Edgar Allan Poe

And my favorite. There are three old ladies who raise chickens/eggs in the new world, who are known as – the Weird Sisters. I can’t be certain, but I believe this is a reference to the witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (who are never referred to in the play as witches, but as the weird sisters).



Film Rendition: 1994 TV mini-series (6 hours) – a pretty good adaptation. Even in 6 hours they had to cut a bit, and they made a few changes, but overall it was well cast (quite a few big stars) and true to the book. As usual the book is better, but I enjoyed the film as well.