Little House in the Big Woods–Laura Ingalls Wilder

little house in the big woods

I first read this book, like many women my age, as a young girl.  At some point my mother bought me the boxed set illustrated by Garth Williams.  Since my youngest daughter is now reading at a fourth/fifth-grade level, I thought it was time for us to tackle these as part of our reading together time.

What a gift to me.  As a girl, I focused on the adventures and wondered at how anyone could live without stores or in a world where Christmas gifts were a rag doll and peppermint stick and kids were thrilled.  I still remembered Pa’s encounters with bears and the girls sleeping in the loft.  What a different read as an adult, especially one who has lost her father.

This book is a love song to Pa.  Pa is Laura’s playmate, her security, her provider, and her moral compass.  Ma is there, but Pa is at the center.  Ma and the girls go about their days, but the action begins when Pa walks in the door, hangs up his rifle, and begins to tell stories and, if they’re lucky, play his fiddle.  Pa can do anything.  He shoots deer and bears and processes the meat and hides.  He carries hides to town on his back and comes home through the dark woods at night without a gun for safety.  He rushes a bear with a club he grabbed from the forest floor and has enough humor to laugh at himself when he realizes it’s a tree stump.  He teaches the girls to clean a gun and refill bullets.  Pa teaches them gentle moral stories by telling of his own childhood or retelling stories his father had told of his.   When Laura strikes Mary, Pa whips her, but then pulls her into his lap to comfort her and, when she asks if he prefers golden or brown hair, he replies that his own hair is brown.  Pa is clever and brings a threshing machine to the neighborhood from which everyone benefits.  He appreciate progress while valuing tradition.  Near the end of the novel, Laura shows again Pa’s soft side.  The family had not had fresh meat since winter and it’s now fall, but Pa comes back from the woods, rifle in hand, without meat.  He tells them the story of letting a buck pass because he was lost in its beauty, then a bear, then a doe and her yearling fawn.  Pa kills game to feed his family, not because he doesn’t value life.

The novel closes with a passage that took my breath away.  As a child I’m sure it slipped right past me because it was not an adventure, but a piece of wisdom.  Laura writes, “Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gentle rocking and knitting.  She thought to herself, “This is now.”  She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago.”

Unless you are writing about the adventures of your childhood and the eyes through which you saw your father from the distance of decades when you father is gone and your love and longing for him has sharpened the value of what used to be now.  What a gift to herself to relive those days and capture those memories so that little girls and older women could relive them as now and Pa through the eyes of his little Laura could be never forgotten.

Finished 1/24/15

My Life–Isadora Duncan

my life isadora duncan

I had never heard of Isadora Duncan until I was searching for an example of a scandalous woman from the 20s for a presentation as part of our local public television station’s Downton Abbey premiere.  Isadora Duncan was incredible.  She created modern dance and fought against the “unnatural” strictures of ballet.  She refused to marry and followed her heart–several times.  She had children with two different men, lived in multiple countries, lived as if money didn’t matter and was always rescued by the very wealthy people whose privilege she rejected with her populist and eventually communist politics.  She danced for kings and paupers.  She combined movement and poetry and painting with philosophy and politics and architecture and religion.  She inspired others’ passions and rages.  And in the late 1920s she wrote a painfully honest account of her life and her ideas.

Several times in reading this book I had to turn back to the copyright page to confirm that it was originally published in 1927.  By the second chapter I had to begin listing the important people who had inspired her and how.  Her world was full of shining stars.  She was often the center of the constellation.  The fin de siecle shines through as she attempts to lose her virginity and the men at whom she throws herself run away, honorably preserving her virtue.  When she says that her critique of marriage is common now but twenty years earlier was unheard of, I was crushed by the recursive nature of history.  The progress she saw in the late 20s disappeared in the heat of the second world war and the fifties.

Isadora’s pilgrimage throughout Europe and the United States and through the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, into the First World War, are well worth a read.  Her life, while scandalous, is far from the staid rhythms of Downton Abbey’s characters, but her world was real.  Her scandals and tragedies real.  They are so real that I was relieved at the last page to realize I would not have to read about her tragic death shortly after the publication of her memoir.  At the same time I realized that her tragic death was fitting and likely welcome

Isadora’s star continues to shine in her memoir.

Finished 1/24/15

Everything I Never Told You–Celeste Ng (Audio)

everything i never told you

I feel I must rewrite this post. It’s so dry and reveals little of what I felt while listening to this book. Marilyn and James feel different. Marilyn is proud of this difference. She is not like her Betty Crocker home economics-teaching mother who was abandoned by her husband despite her home arts. She is a scientist, a math whiz. She wants to be a doctor. She scorns her mother’s hopes that she will meet a nice Harvard man while at Radcliffe. James is Asian-American, educated in an east coast private school to which his parents moved and for which his parents worked as janitor and cook so he could receive a free quality education. He has always been different. He is not proud of this difference and is drawn to Marilyn’s blond hair and blue eyes and in her arms finally feels he fits in. Marilyn both thwarts and meets her mother’s expectations by finding an Asian-American Harvard man. Their own expectations are frustrated as she becomes a housewife and mother and he settles for teaching at a second or third tier school in Ohio when he is passed over for a position at Harvard in favor of someone who is a “better fit.” They leave their pasts on the east coast.
This novel is a perfect illustration of how one cannot escape the past. It’s also a terrifying tale of how our own frustrations and failures can come to oppress and suffocate our children, all while we believe ourselves to be working in their best interests and giving them freedom to choose.
When Marilyn’s mother dies she has to confront the past she has tried to bury and it overwhelms her and pushes her to flee from her present. When pregnancy forces her to return she puts all of her hopes and dreams in her daughter, Lydia, whom she wants to have the chance to do everything she did not. Desperate to please her mother, Lydia accedes until she no longer knows who she is or what she wants and is so out of touch with herself that she misjudges her abilities.
James’ shame about his Asian heritage expresses itself in his need for his children to fit in. He encourages and goads but, because he has forsaken the past, does not equip them with the tools to deal with their own misfitness.
Listening to this novel was like watching a train wreck that you fear you are in. Parents are supposed to want the best for their children. They’re supposed to help guide them away from making the mistakes they made. How does a parent know when her efforts for her children have gone from helpful to destructive? Twenty years after they leave home and everyone is tipsy around the dinner table post-Christmas dinner?
Marilyn meets devastation by turning in upon herself. James with the cliche in the arms of another and younger woman. Their children are left to wander alone in their grief and, in fact, to worry over their parents’ creating more devastation.
I wanted to scream at Marilyn. At James. At both. To hug their children.
Then wondered who was seeing my family with clear eyes and wanting to scream at me and hug my children.
How does anyone survive after losing a child? After losing a child to what seems suicide?
How does anyone survive parenthood? And why do we inflict so much pain on the people for whom we would do the most with everything we never say?
This novel is amazing and painful and absolutely hypnotic. Read it. Listen to it. Repeat.
Revised 1/24/15

1/20 Version
Celeste Ng begins with a disappearance and ends with discovery.  In between she peels back the layers of complexity that make up a family, friends, lovers and pulls apart the weave of past, present, and future.  It’s an ordinary morning as Marilyn Lee gets her family out the door–Nathan, about to graduate from high school, Hannah, the youngest and quietest of her children, her history professor husband, James– until the Lees discover that sixteen-year-old Lydia is missing.  Her body is discovered at the bottom of the lake near the Lees’ home and Ng begins yo-yo’ing us through time.  Marilyn as a blond-haired, blue-eyed young girl, her father having abandoned her and her mother, her mother responding by becoming the perfect house wife and teaching generations of girls to do the same.  Marilyn fighting her mother’s dreams and chasing science and male-dominated visions of success.  A young student at Radcliffe taking a history course on the cowboy and meeting a young unexpected Asian-American professor, whose fragility provokes a kiss, then love.  That love rejected by family and most of their society and their response to leave the past firmly in the past–or to try–as Marilyn leaves her dreams for love.  A move to the homogenous Midwest, where Asian-American faces are painfully different and children feel secure enough to call names and exclude with impunity.

Years later and death calls Marilyn’s mother and that death calls Marilyn to the past she is trying to deny and the future she forsook for love.  We all, eventually, become our mothers and Marilyn looks in that mirror and flees to that lost future.  That flight changes the future as her family molds to secure her presence.  Marilyn replaces her lost future with a promise for her daughter’s future and her daughter promises to do anything to keep her mother happy.  Young Nathan is pushed aside and both children are lost in the hopes and disappointments of their parents as young Hannah comes into the world, unplanned, unwanted, and mostly unnoticed.

Everything I Never Told You is painful.  As a parent, I want so much for my children–for them to do and for them to avoid.  Much of that comes from my own successes and my disappointments.  The Lees’ story made me question how my past has shaped my children’s present and future and whether that shaping has been for the good or ill.  Gestures like smiles, pats on the head, small gifts become weapons rather than signs of love and self-preservation becomes rejection.

Everything I Never Told You is so powerfully mimetic that the web of struggles, of silences, of unspoken loves made me grieve, and hope, and rage.  And then question what I’ve never told and how it may be impacting the people I love as well as those I do not.  And then wish everyone had the opportunity to look in its mirror.

Finished 1/20/15

The Innovators–Walter Isaacson (Audio)

The innovators

I heard a lot of buzz around this book around the same time that I had several students working on history of science projects and Isaacson was the Jefferson Lecturer for the NEH. With Audible credits to burn, I went for it.  Isaacson tells the story of the computer and the internet through the interconnected stories of individuals.  His thesis is that no individual can be given credit for innovations such as these.  Only through collaboration and building on each other’s successes can we go to great heights.  He begins his chain of successes with Ada Lovelace, whose combination of science and poetry gave those who came after her a vision for a computing machine and the way it would interact with humanity.  I met new characters such as Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider, and Doug Engelbart.  Isaacson places better known contributors, such as Alan Turing, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, into a wider context that takes the popular vision of them as rugged individual geniuses and explains their debts to those before and around them.  Many of the figures in Isaacson’s story begin their careers in the basement with their fathers working on circuitry, which led to a focus on hardware over software. Their denigration of the role of software opened a temporary space for women to engage in emerging computer science without receiving much credit for their contributions.  In fact, the further Isaacson gets into his story, the less aware he seems to be of the role of a hyper-masculine culture in constructing what became Silicon Valley.  Hot tub parties replete with liquor, drugs, and women became the perks of employment that lured talented mathematicians to new companies housed in sometimes questionable digs.  Women were perks of employment similar to hot bubbles, not employees.  So much for Ada Lovelace’s vision.

Not all contributions led to new advances.  Working alone in his parents’ kitchen in Berlin during WWII led Konrad Zuse’s to be largely unnoticed as other innovators moved beyond his discoveries.  Zuse’s story fits Isaacson’s story of collaboration for success, such as that which occurred at Bell Labs.

I was intrigued by the first half of The Innovators and only lost steam in the midst of the story of the internet, but it may have been because I had too much time between periods of listening and started to lose track of the various characters.  This is not a book for those who struggle with a short attention span, but for those who can give it their attention, the payoff is worth the investment.

Finished 1/12/15

A Year In Provence–Peter Mayle

year in provence

Yes, I know, this book has been out for more than two decades and every book group and woman over 25 has read it–but somehow it missed me.  It was gifted to me this year through a “random acts of kindness” challenge from a woman I deeply respect and who is always ready with a good book recommendation.  How, oh how, did she know I hadn’t read Mayle I will never know, but I’m so glad she did.

I took Mayle with me for airplane reading because I suspected it would be soft and light, like lightly salted popcorn in the theater.  I was not disappointed.  The book recounts highlights of Mayle and his wife’s adventures after buying a house in the Lubéron and taking up year-round residence.  Food and wine are recurring themes, as are misadventures with local contractors as the Mayles attempt to modernize their new home.  Mayle added an afterword for the 20th-anniversary edition of the book and addresses the development that has taken place in the Lubéron since A Year became wildly popular all over the world.  This was a question in the back of my mind throughout my reading–how did this book change the very quirky life he documented?

One of my favorite elements of Mayle’s year was the presence of his dogs in the background.  I wished he had talked more about the dogs.  Mayle’s romanticized view of the laborers was also frustrating.  They work in the cold and the heat and are ever cheerful in Mayle’s eyes.  They happily put their shoulders to moving a huge table during a break from work.  Villagers and the family who tend the vines on the Mayles’ property pitch in to plant new vines and later the family harvest the grapes while the Mayles watched with amusement.  What the hell was wrong with them that they didn’t roll up their sleeves and pitch in?

Don’t get me wrong–I enjoyed the book, but I couldn’t like Mayle and the privileged voice of his year.

Finished 1/7/15

Outside the Bones–Lyn Di Iorio

Outside the Bones

I heard Lyn Di Iorio speak at a conference for a Bridging Cultures grant from Community College Humanities Association and the NEH at an airport hotel conference room in Washington, DC.  She was inspiring and amazing and beautiful.  She talked about her novel, Outside the Bones, and I put it on my Amazon wish list.  That was two years ago.  I just finally read the novel and the timing was perfect.  Outside the Bones takes place in New York City and I was on my way there, which made the geography seem sharper and less storybook, more real-life.  Fina is a healthy-sized Puerto Rican-descent woman whose obsession, kindled on page one, with her upstairs neighbor, jazz trumpeter Chico, drives the novel’s plot.  Fina is a bruja who enjoys the fear and respect her powers bring, but who isn’t ready to go further in her spirit world training until a powerful spirit pulls her forward.  Fina is confident and insecure by turns, like most women, but when a mysterious female spirit grabs her and takes her own spirit souring, Fina first loses her touch with the material world and finally allows two spirits to let go of the material and take their place with the spirits.

The question of the relationship between the material and the spiritual worlds haunts the novel and, it seems, the Afro-Caribbean Puerto Rican culture Di Iorio celebrates.  Pots full of sticks and dirt that house spirits move across the floor, seeming to defy physics.  Spirits cause trees to fall.  People harness spirits to their bidding.  Corrupt powerful men send people to the spirit world, but cannot keep them there and ultimately are brought to it themselves in layered acts of revenge.

Fina’s story is about the material and spiritual, but also immigration and family and women and the way we are often connected in ways we don’t anticipate.

Di Iorio’s novel contains a glossary, which was hugely helpful and also troubling, because it points to the exceptional nature of stories like hers being published for mainstream (read mostly white) American readers.  The fun of reading about Fina’s spiritual beliefs suggests the ongoing calls for more voices of color in publishing (and at big presses as well as small risk-taking presses) need to be heeded.

Finished 1/1/15