I recently stumbled across a beautiful new edition of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women, and decided to reread it. I had read it two or three times before, but the last time was in my early twenties (now a fond memory). In my recollection, the book was pleasant but a bit shallow, and of course a major tear-jerker in the second half. This time around, my impression was decidedly different. It’s not a shallow book. The writing is beautiful and the story lines are engaging. But the book cannot escape its firm setting in 1860s America, and doesn’t even try. It’s racist (though there aren’t many African-American characters, the few there are are treated with ridicule and condescension); sermonizing (and not in the gentle, allegorical manner of The Chronicles of Narnia–this is straight-up Lessons on Being a Better Christian); and weirdly chauvinist (every other nationality is feeble-minded or arrogant, but Americans represent all that is good in the world). None of this is intentional or malicious–I believe it is the natural consequence of the deification of the March family. They are presented as a perfect unit–not individually perfect, but balancing and correcting one another until their little estate operates as smoothly as a Christian commune. They eschew the company of others, admitting only those who commit to joining the March clan and living in the immediate vicinity. Any mention of non-March friends serves as a negative reflection of the outsider: the poor Hummel family, whom Beth aids with charity and attention, is responsible for infecting her with scarlet fever. Their own baby dies, but Alcott extends no sympathy–only mocks their German accent. Meg’s friend Sallie Gardiner, who pops up numerous times, offers a parallel life to Meg’s–what Meg might have been, had the Marches not lost their fortune. But Sallie only exists to show off Meg’s virtue, and despite never doing anything very bad, comes off the worse at every comparison. It’s as if Alcott couldn’t conceive of a happy, fulfilled life outside of the March cult. When I read that the March family was loosely based on the Alcott family, this made more sense.
That said, I managed to enjoy most of the book. As I mentioned above, it is beautifully written, and the characters of the four sisters are deep and complex. They flatten out a bit at the end, when they have all become grown women, but the boisterous energy of their youth lingers in the memory. Recommended with caveats.
Read if you enjoyed: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Find Little Women at Multnomah County Library
I have never seen the show Girls, which Lena Dunham writes, directs, and stars in. But based on her memoir (of the whole 28 years of her existence), I now want to. She doesn’t strike me as an obvious friend (she’s a city girl, through and through; more neurotic than Woody Allen; and fully aware of her Millennial brand of narcissism). But she writes about herself and her life with disarming frankness and humor, and now I certainly know more about her than I do many of my real friends. The facts of her life are mildly interesting, but she turns them into wildly entertaining cocktail-party anecdotes and the rambling confessions of a late night drunk-dial. Despite the loose structure of the book, her mission in life shines through clearly: she wants to create. I’ve heard many criticisms of her generation, not the least of which is that they were crippled by their parents constantly telling them they could be anything they wanted. Apologies to the hordes of baristas and freelance designers, but Lena Dunham seems to be making it work.
Read if you enjoyed: One More Thing by B.J. Novak, Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown
Find Not That Kind of Girl at Multnomah County Library
No one knew Andre the Giant. Everyone knew who he was, once he gained fame as a professional wrestler, once The Princess Bride was released, and once Shepard Fairey plastered his face on a million buildings. But Box Brown’s new graphic novel biography highlights how little people knew of Andre Roussimoff in real life. He had colleagues in the wrestling world, he was friends with actors and celebrities, he had girlfriends, he even had a daughter. But he remains a mystery. Readers looking for an answer to that mystery will be disappointed by this biography. It’s entertaining, well-written, and masterfully illustrated, but the story of Andre’s life is told from the outside looking in, with no special insight into his point of view.
It’s worth reading, and I certainly learned more about Andre’s life than I knew before. But if anything, Brown’s book heightens the mystery surrounding the man. Fair warning: this book will whet your appetite for the full story, without providing satisfaction. Reading it is a bittersweet experience.
Read if you enjoyed: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Find Andre the Giant at Multnomah County Library
This slim little nonfiction book is weightier than its size suggests. McDade is a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, and I imagine his classes must be fascinating. In Thieves he has perfectly blended history, law, and bibliophilia. In less than 200 pages of text, he recounts the history of the thriving booksellers’ district in New York known as Book Row, the infancy of public librarianship on the East Coast, the individual lives of the library detectives, book thieves, and booksellers, and the various methods thieves used to identify, steal, and disguise valuable library books.
The book does incline to be academic. The writing is (very occasionally) dry, and the lengthy cast of characters can be hard to follow, particularly as many used aliases. But overall, it’s the most fun I’ve had reading about book theft since library school. Required reading for library staff, historians, and literate street gangs.
Read if you enjoyed: Bookhunter by Jason Shiga, Scribes, Script, and Books by Leila Avrin
Find Thieves of Book Row at Multnomah County Library
I picked up this book for the wrong reason: it was supposedly set in Sitka, Alaska. The truth is that it is set in an alternate Sitka–a federal district housing millions of Jews, who were temporarily relocated there after World War II. Sixty years later, their residency is about to expire, and the Alaskan Jews are preparing for yet another diaspora. The best reason to pick up this book is for the alien mix of Jewish and Tlingit references, the intricate characterizations, or the classic noir detective story. The narration skips around disconcertingly. It’s a mess of politics, religion, (alternate) history, and fateful coincidence. It’s not quite as good as Chabon’s masterpiece The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (then again, what is?). But what anchors the story and elevates it above a cliched thriller is the characters: Meyer Landsman (detective and protagonist), his partner Berko Shemets (mixed race Jewish and Tlingit), Landsman’s ex-wife and current boss Bina Gelbfish, the deeply conflicted man whose murder sparks the token homicide investigation (and whose identity I will not spoil here, because even though the book came out in 2007, I am proof that some people come late to good books), and others. They are complex, variously flawed, unlucky but optimistic, ruthless, and hopeless. It is the most engaging and varied cast I have encountered since Mink River. We’ll call this Chabon’s lesser masterpiece.
Read if you enjoyed: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell
Find The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at Multnomah County Library
America is over itself. What else can you assume, given the appetite for post-apocalyptic books and movies right now? Dystopia is the buzzword of the day. That’s not to say California, Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, isn’t interesting. It follows Frida and Cal, a couple who have escaped the violence and destruction of L.A. to live in the wilderness. But of course, the solitude is oppressive, and when they discover even the suggestion of others nearby, they have to investigate. It’s a provocative meditation on homesteading–the requirements of the body and those of the spirit. Lepucki’s message seems to be that when people are forced to rely on one another for survival–when there is no infrastructure, no social backup–no one is ever truly safe.
It’s a decent premise, but unfortunately the writing doesn’t quite live up to the book’s potential. The two main characters feel thoughtless and irresponsible, rather than conflicted and complex. Despite hearing all their thoughts, I never felt like I understood them. The tone of the book is also uneven–sometimes slow and monotonous, sometimes jarringly (misleadingly) suspenseful. And despite the implied promise of the suspenseful tone, the end lacks resolution. Recommended reading for devotees of the dystopian genre or back-to-the-land fanatics–others would do better to read the older masterpieces of the genre.
Read if you enjoyed: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle.
Find California at Multnomah County Library.
Englander’s novel is both comic and bleak, entertaining and heart-wrenching. I picked it up because of the setting in Argentina, without knowing anything else. It tells the story of the Poznan family in 1970s Buenos Aires, at the start of the Dirty War. The Poznans are low on the social totem pole–Jews in a Catholic country, pariahs in the Jewish community. Despite their social standing, Kaddish and Lillian have managed to carve out their own place in society. Their son Pablo (known as “Pato,” or duck) is a typical 19-year-old: rebellious, irresponsible, passionate and vocal without a clear cause. These traits are enough reason for the police to arrest him, one of tens of thousands of “disappeared.” As the Poznans fight for their son’s return, they seek help from anyone who has ever owed them a favor.
This is a brief glimpse into an obscure (to me) community, a fictional account of an outrage that was real to thousands of families, and in the character of Kaddish, a tragic portrait of a desperate outcast. Englander assumes the reader has some familiarity with Argentina’s history, so if that’s not the case, read the book with Wikipedia handy. This is a well-written story about a horrible chapter in history–if that’s what you’re in the mood for, you could do worse.
Read if you enjoyed: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Álvarez, Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman
Find The Ministry of Special Cases at Multnomah County Library
This graphic novel memoir is adapted from Brosh’s blog, also titled Hyperbole and a Half. And like a blog, the chapters jump about fairly randomly–this is not a comprehensive life story. But the sections on Brosh’s childhood are the weirdest, funniest stuff I’ve read in a long time. She strikes the reader as a kind of Calvin without a Hobbes, a chaotic force far more powerful than her tiny size would suggest, but with a surprising level of self-awareness. In one chapter she writes about reading at age 27 a letter that she had written to her future self when she was 5.
Some parts of this book made me shake with laughter. Some parts were quite dark. She describes her crushing depression very frankly, in a way that highlights the futility of other people’s efforts to “cheer her up.” The book as a whole is uneven but very refreshing. I feel torn. One one hand, I hope Brosh continues the blog because it’s extremely entertaining. But on the other hand, her main source of material seems to be the misfortunes in her life, and I certainly don’t wish her any more of those.
Read if you enjoyed: Monster Party by Lizzy Acker, Bookhunter by Jason Shiga.
Look for Hyperbole and a Half at Multnomah County Library
As a near-total ignoramus on China, this collection of nonfiction stories was just the right pace for me. I say stories because Fuentes is a journalist, and her writing is clearly marked by the straightforward, reporterly tone that you find in newspapers. The book consists of ten stories, each one about a different individual in Beijing. Her subjects include the privileged daughter of a wealthy businessman; a woman who chose to marry a gay friend rather than remain single; a taxi driver struggling to make ends meet, a kung fu master, a former political prisoner, and others. Fuentes’s writing is sometimes critical of her subjects, and it’s probably more eloquent in the original Spanish, but the book was fascinating from beginning to end. Recommended reading for those interested in China, international journalism, and cultural immersion from an armchair.
Read if you enjoyed: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez.
Look for From the Dragon’s Mouth at Powell’s Bookstore
Cracking open Tenth of December is like wading into a stream of consciousness. The traditional omniscient, third-person narrator is rare in this collection of short stories–most of the stories are told through people’s inner thoughts and diaries. The voices are plaintive, petty, desperate, funny, lustful, and very human. Saunders’s characters stumble around, trying to improve their lives or impress other people, struggling ineffectively against an indifferent universe. But that makes the book sound bleak, which is only one small aspect of the whole. The stories are dark but not oppressive. In their very shortsightedness–in their total lack of insight and self-awareness–the characters reveal the absurd humor inherent in their situations. Saunders’s writing is reminiscent of the great short story masters of the 20th century, but also distinctly fresh. Recommended reading for daydreamers, misfits, and social climbers.
Read if you enjoyed: Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
Find Tenth of December at Multnomah County Library