Book recommendation: The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick

I have had a secret longing to read young adult books because they read quickly. With all the heavy reading I’ve had to do lately, it’s nice to just fly through a book without taking notes or analyzing each paragraph. Yet, I always felt I should not be reading such books since I am an adult. After hearing Cathlin Davis’ stirring defense of the value of children’s literature at the Summer Conversational Series (see previous post) I confessed to the group that I felt like I had received permission to read children’s literature!

I had already started reading The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick and this made the reading even more fun.

About the author and the premise of the book

Heather Vogel FrederickThe Mother-Daughter Book Club (first in a series) focuses on four mothers and their pre-teen daughters living in Concord, MA and reading Little Women. The project was suggested to the author as she herself lived in Concord for seven years, right down the street from Orchard House. In the notes following the story she writes that she rode her bike past the home, dreaming of becoming a writer. She likens herself to Louisa in her love of exploring nature, reading books and writing stories.

Main characters

The main characters mirror in part the March sisters: Emma is the wanna-be writer and bookworm, Jess is the gentle and shy animal lover, Megan is the vain and spoiled aspiring fashion designer and Cassidy is the rambunctious tomboy and athlete who plays hockey. It appears that Meg is the only March sister not represented by this group.

Unique point of view

the-mother-daughter-book-club (for LMA blog)Frederick uses an interesting method in laying out the story, devoting chapters to each girl, using their unique point of view to describe what is happening. While it gets a bit confusing trying to remember whose mom is whose, it’s a wonderful way to get inside the head and heart of each character.

Familiar territory

The Mother-Daughter Book Club covers the sixth grade year of the girls with all the familiar drama of middle school. I found myself reminiscing about life in the sixth grade as I read about the Fab Four (the cool kids who terrorize everyone – Megan is a part of this crowd), crushes on boys, the obsession with clothes, and sticking out for being “different.” It reminded me of just how complicated it was to be twelve years old.

Each daughter has a dilemma:

  • Emma, who is plain, overweight and wears hand-me-downs, has a mad crush on Zack, the hunk.
  • Jess lives on an organic farm that dates back to the Revolutionary War and is teased mercilessly by the Fab Four who call her “Goat Girl.”
  • Megan comes from a family who suddenly came into wealth and has been changed from Emma’s imaginative friend into an elitist snob who shuns her friend in favor of becoming part of the Fab Four.
  • Cassidy is an out-and-out tomboy who is grieving the loss of her father and finds comfort in playing hockey, something her mother disapproves of.

The mothers have their stories too:

  • Emma’s mom is the town librarian and cooks up the idea of the book club so that mothers and daughters can spend more time together. She is supportive of Emma and the family is close.
  • Jess’ mom up and left Concord suddenly, deciding to live out her long-held dream of being an actress and landing a plum job on a top soap opera called Heartbeats. Jess, her dad and her younger twin brothers miss their mother desperately.
  • Megan’s mom is the in-your-face champion of all kinds of causes. She is a big believer in all-natural and organic foods and wants to push Megan into attending MIT so she can become an environmental lawyer. Megan would prefer being a fashion designer, something her mom feels is a frivolous pursuit.
  • Cassidy’s mom was once a fashion supermodel known as Clementine. She is all woman: beautiful, gracious and very talented in the domestic arts; a total opposite of her daughter.

Well developed, poignant and fun

little women norton versionThis then is the set-up for the four arcs of the story. They are well-developed, funny and sometimes rather poignant. There are the stereotypical minor character “bad girls” (Becca, one of the Fab Four and her obnoxious mother Calliope) and of course the book club meetings where there are many references to Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Frederick also uses many references to Concord right down to street names, Sleepy Hollow cemetery and the recreation of the first battle of the Revolutionary War at the Old North Bridge. Being so familiar with Concord, it was fun imagining the scenes.

I enjoyed being a witness to the response of today’s pre-teens to Little Women. I also appreciated that the girls, although similar to the March sisters, had their own very distinct personalities and stories.

While the book does wrap up all the loose ends and everyone lives happily ever after, the solutions are, for the most part, believable because of the care Frederick takes in working out each dilemma.

Stamp of approval

I very much enjoyed The Mother-Daughter Book Club; it read so fast that it was hard to put down; I was sorry to see it end. I enjoyed reliving my own memories of being twelve and identified with each character.

So Cathlin Davis was right: there is no shame in reading children’s literature. I will have to do it more often as it gives me a chance to “get away from it all.” Is it a guilty pleasure? A pleasure, to be sure, especially with books like The Mother-Daughter Book Club.
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Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – the role of Faust

560 steve burby1Continuing with the Monday sessions, Dr. Stephen Burby was a new face on the scene. He currently teaches English in Brentwood, NY and has authored of AP English Language and Composition: An Apex Learning Guide (2004 and 2005 editions) as well as contributing to the production of editions in Barron’s No-Fear Shakespeare series and to their latest edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Faust, Goethe and Louisa

His topic, “Goethe and the Transcendendalists: How Faust Shaped the American Renaissance” traced the history of the Faust myth from its beginnings and through its evolution by the pens of Christopher Marlow, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and finally, Louisa May Alcott.

The myth, the man, the devil

faust and the devilThrough the characters of Johann Faust and the Devil (aka Mephistopheles), the myth began as a folk tale that was used by the Church (mainly the Calvinists) to warn the faithful against the intellectuals and the idea of the individual which could lead anyone into hell. Aimed at the working man, Burby described how the people wanted a “quick laugh”, a “quick tear” and the didactic lesson. In other words, keep it simple. Faust therefore represented the everyman; his fate could be anyone’s fate.

The story

So what did Faust do? Desiring youth and wealth, he sold his soul to the devil in return for twenty-seven years of youth and the “good life.” In the end the devil would have his way with Faust torn to shreds and his soul carted away to hell.

Not exactly subtle, but it served the particular historical period from which it came.

Deeper meaning

560 steve burby2Burby maintains that Faust speaks to us universally which is why the tale was explored more deeply and expanded, first by Christopher Marlowe and then by Goethe.

Marlowe’s take

Marlowe changed the legend in a subtle way by exploring the inner turmoil of Faust who comes to regret his bargain with the devil. The ending remained the same but the torture of Faust was more profound.

Goethe deepens the myth

Goethe took the story a step further. Burby suggested that Goethe was one of the “rock stars” of the era because of his poetry. By the time he took on Faust, it had lived out its usefulness and was often viewed as parody. By using Faust as the jumping off point, he transformed the legend using Faust and the devil as metaphors for striving versus stasis. Goethe not only has Faust repenting of his sin of bargaining with the devil, he also allows Faust to escape his fate. His point was to promote the idea that striving for knowledge, both for the mind and of the self, was important. Stasis was considered “evil” because of its prevention of indivdiual growth and creativity. This was the emerging German romanticism which eventually made its way over to New England, spawning the Transcendentalist movement.

Faust’s salvation and God’s role

Burby described the eternal feminine in the character of Gretchen whom Faust was madly in love with. It is through Gretchen that Faust finds his salvation. Burby also mentioned the comparison between this version of the legend and the story of Job in the Old Testament. In both cases, God makes a deal with the devil regarding the victim. God puts his stamp of approval on both Job and Faust thus justifying the need for struggle and striving.

Thus the legend of Faust has moved from concrete to the symbolic. What did Louisa do with the story?

A pleasure to indulge

Louisa enjoyed writing her “trash,” her potboilers, giving her a chance to express a side of herself she could not express in public. It was a creative vent for her passion, anger, sense of injustice, and for romance.

Two stories based on the myth

long fatal love chase2She devoted two books to the subject of Faust: A Long, Fatal Love-Chase and A Modern Mephistopheles. In each case she wrote about Faustian bargain more explicitly. The latter was discovered in the 1990s and published to great success; the story had been considered too risqué in Louisa’s time. In the story, Rosamond makes a deal with the devil for a year of adventure and Phillip Tempest comes along. When she realizes she cannot save him, she seeks to escape him. The novel turns from the legend to a gothic chase in which the heroine dies in the end. Phillip however suffers the harsher fate knowing he will never be reunited with his lover again.

The most lurid of them all

a modern mephistophelesA Modern Mephistopheles was published anonymously as part of a series in 1877, allowing Louisa to indulge in the lurid which she so enjoyed. The story deals with lust, deception and greed, touching on the controversial with references to sexuality and drug use, the deal is made between the starving poet Felix Canaris and the devil, Jaspar Hellwyze. The poet becomes celebrated and then lives a desolute life. It turns out he never wrote the poetry in the first place so he takes his name off the volume to free himself. The devil falls in love with the poet’s wife Gladys and feels remorse over the havoc he caused.

How much of Louisa was in the story?

Burby posed an interesting question: could A Modern Mephistopheles be about Louisa and her art? Do each of the four central characters represent parts of her whole?

As masculinity was thought to have created evil, it was also believed that it needed to be tempered by the eternal feminine. Louisa, being “masculine” in her thinking, often longing to be a boy, was right in the middle of this conflict. Her father complicated matters by exhibiting more feminine traits than his daughter. While I haven’t read A Modern Mephistopheles it would be interesting to approach it with this thought in mind.

Needless to say, Dr. Burby challenged all of us with his excellent and spirited presentation.

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Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – Is it Talent or Genius?

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

I am grateful to be able to attend again the annual Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House this year. The theme concerns talent versus genius, and the abundance of genius that existed in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.

I was not able to take in all five days of the series but I will present the speakers that I was fortunate enough to see.

Was Louisa a genius?

Was Louisa May Alcott a genius or merely a crackerjack professional writer? Was she both? These questions and more were explored during Monday’s session.

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D

560 cathlin1

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D on Talent versus Genius

The first speaker was a perennial favorite, Dr. Cathlin Davis, professor of Liberal Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. Dr. Davis probably knows Louisa’s juvenile canon better than anyone with a particular emphasis on her numerous short stories.

Louisa’s breakthrough work in children’s literature

Dr. Davis is passionate about elevating children’s literature to the level of respect it deserves by highlighting its most prominent authors. Dr. Davis maintained in her presentation “Is it Talent or Genius?” that Louisa’s unique genius was the ability to get inside the mind of the child and voice that child’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. Before Louisa, children’s literature presented all-too-perfect children presenting moral teaching through stilted dialog. Dr. Davis compared a sample from Nathanial Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales of a twelve year old’s conversation (stiff, formal, full of long words and complex sentences) to Louisa’s An Old-Fashioned Girl featuring childish conversation laced with slang and grammatical errors; in other words, the way children of that era really talked.

Examples from Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis spelled out the qualities of talent and of genius, displaying them on a poster (see photo). She then took several examples from Louisa’s books and short stories to illustrate. These included Amy and Laurie from Little Women, Rose, Charlie, Phoebe and Mac from Rose in Bloom, Psyche and her little sister from the short story “Pysche’s Art,” Clara from “A Bright Idea” (from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Volume V), and Diana and Persis. As you can see from the photo, she listed who she thought had talent and who possessed genius.

560 talent versus genius

 

Louisa herself is on that list.

Louisa’s genius was her genuine love of children, her commitment to truthfulness and accuracy, and her passion. She respected children, never writing “down” to them. These qualities were instantly recognized by her adoring public with the first publication of volume one of Little Women.

Much to find in Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis concluded that Louisa wrote extensively on the subjects of talent and genius. She remarked that preparing for this presentation, she realized that Rose in Bloom is not just about romance but about discovering one’s talent, determining whether or not it is genius, and using it to benefit others. While Louisa did often focus on the fine art talents of music, acting, dancing and painting, she also pointed out those talents which often go unnoticed – the talents for helping others which Rose displayed so well in the story.

True confession

rose in bloomI have a confession to make which has probably been obvious to you who read this blog regularly: I enjoy writing about Louisa more than writing about her books and stories. It is an odd disconnect, one that I am seeking to correct. Having listened to Dr. Davis’s presentation (and later having the pleasure of conversing with her over dinner), I have a better sense of what to look for when I read Louisa’s juvenile works. Dr. Davis is convinced that in spite of the infamous quote (which she is loath to use) of writing “moral pap for the young,” Louisa was in fact proud of her juvenile writing and poured herself into her writing.

You all of course have always known that. I felt that way about Little Women despite Louisa’s protestations about having to write it. Perhaps the author doth protest too much?

Needless to say, I have much catching up to do and a pleasant task it will be!

More to come …

In my next post I will present more about the other presenters in Monday’s session.

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“I Will Remember You:” a video and musical tribute to Louisa May Alcott and her sister Lizzie

louisa and lizzieI created this video in tribute to these two special ladies in our lives. In a previous post I had mentioned how Louisa and Lizzie had changed my life; thus I put together this song and video in tribute.

Enjoy and spread it around!

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Alcott Immersion Warning: the wondrous things that can happen when you study too much!

After four years of constant reading, study, writing and pondering on one family, I think I understand now how actors prepare for their roles, and the subsequent consequences of their immersion into their characters.

Taking on the Louisa persona

I’m acquainted with a couple of people (Jan Turnquist and Marianne Donnelly) who, as actresses, take on the role of Louisa May Alcott to share with school children and adults alike in various educational venues. They dress like Louisa, walk as she might have walked, speak like they imagine she would have spoken. They share her stories, her feelings, her passions, her humor, her pathos and every audience is treated to a living, breathing Louisa.

jan turnquist-horz

Jan Turnquist (L) and Marianne Donnelly as Louisa May Alcott

It makes me wonder just how much of Louisa they have integrated into themselves. I’ve emailed them to ask and will share their answers with you as they come.

Who is your literary heroine?

Are you immersed in Louisa? Or perhaps Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson or Charlotte or Emily Bronte? How about Margaret Mitchell? Do you find yourself becoming like your literary heroine?

jane-austen-horz-horz

Jane, Charlotte, Emily B., Emily D. and Margaret

While I am no actor, I certainly know now what it is like to immerse yourself into a character and to have that character become a part of you. For me it is not only Louisa but Lizzie as well.

Channeling Lizzie Alcott

I’ve read Lizzie’s letters (some of which I have shared with you, see previous posts) and I’ve read family letters about Lizzie. I know of her suffering and struggles. I know how much her family and friends loved her and why. And I find myself wishing to emulate her.

lizzie alcott2Lizzie as comforter

Recently I had to go into the hospital for a minor surgical procedure (which ended well). With each person that I encountered, from the nurses to the anesthesiologist to the surgeon himself, I found myself channeling Lizzie, working to be as kind as I imagined she had been. I tried to be of good cheer, using humor to diffuse fear as I imagined she might have done. It came as naturally as breathing. I found her presence inside of me to be a great comfort.

This was not the first time I had channeled Lizzie while in the hospital. Last year after a car crash I found myself in the ER, doing the same thing.

Now I find I am inadvertently channeling Louisa as well, in my writing.

Loss, grief, transformation … and Louisa

The book I am working on to be published sometime in late 2015 or early 2016 is on loss, grief and transformation. As this has been the story of my life since my mother passed away four years ago, I find easy to write about the subject. I do not fear loss or grief and know that transformation is life-giving and empowering, filling my heart with joy and gratitude.

Louisa’s mostmemorable writing

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches" historicaldigression.com

From an 1897 edition of Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”
historicaldigression.com

I always found Louisa’s writing on this same subject to be her most brilliant. Poignant, hopeful, gritty, honest and moving, her work has resonated with me and consoled me. Some of her most memorable writing is about noble John Suhre’s death in Hospital Sketches. Generations of girls and women have wept openly over the death of good Beth March in Little Women. I found great comfort in Christie Devon’s experience of her dead husband David in Work A Story of Experience when a breeze blew past his flute, creating music and a sense of his presence in the room.

Grieving through reading and writing

I only recently realized that I write about loss, grief and transformation as a way of grieving over my mother. I never cried at length over losing her, never felt despair, never felt lost. I always wondered what was wrong with me that I didn’t grieve in the usual way much as I loved her. I now know that I am working through my grief in my writing.

Louisa_May_AlcottThe art inherent in grief

Louisa did the same when she lost Lizzie. She was intimately involved in Lizzie’s care, staying up all night to give her sister the strength she needed to endure her suffering. When Lizzie died Louisa was relieved that her sister was “well at last,” past her pain into a new and glorious eternal existence. After an initial spell of despair, Louisa admitted that she didn’t miss Lizzie as much as she thought she would indicating that her sister helped her spiritually. Louisa worked through her grief in her writing. She as much as admits it in Hospital Sketches (get quote). There is no doubt that Beth March is in fact, the perfected Lizzie.

My expert guide

Louisa worked through her grief in her writing and she is teaching me how to do the same. I am channeling the writing I admire most from my literary heroine and it gives me shivers to recognize that connection. My own humble work is a mere shadow of Louisa’s but it is comforting to know that I am following an expert guide.

  • What literary figure do you admire?
  • How have you immersed yourself in her life (or his)?
  • What traits have you inadvertently taken on?

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What would May’s life as a wife, mother and artist have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

Jo’s Boys is tinged with sadness. And wistfulness. Louisa worked on Jo’s Boys for seven years beginning in 1879, the year her youngest sister May died six weeks after bearing her daughter Lulu. Abba, known as “Marmee” had died in 1877.

Laurie and Amy’s idyllic life

Chapter Two, “Parnassus” has us visiting the palatial home of Laurie, Amy and Bess, built on the grounds of Plumfield. Louisa goes to great pains to remind the reader that although wealthy, Laurie and Amy put their money to good use. They were “earnest, useful and rich in the beautiful benevolence which can do so much when wealth and wisdom go hand in hand with charity.” (Jo’s Boys, page 26).

Tributes to the family

The home was “full of unostentatious beauty and comfort” which included busts of John Pratt and Beth (lovingly created by Amy) and portraits of Mr. Laurence and Aunt March. A memorial to Marmee consisting of a portrait surrounded by green garland was in the place of honor. Undoubtedly Louisa was writing about Abba with these lines:

little women with marmee“The three sisters stood a moment looking up at the beloved picture with eyes full of tender reverence and the longing that never left them; for this noble mother had been so much to them that no one could ever fill her place. Only two years since she had gone away to live and love anew, leaving such a sweet memory behind her that was both an inspiration and a comforter to all the household.” (Ibid, page 33)

The March sisters versus the Alcott sisters

anna and meg, louisa and joThe March sisters are shadows of the real women upon which they were based. Meg is Anna without Anna’s angst and secret creative urges. Beth is Lizzie without the profound suffering she endured in her death. Jo is Louisa, tamed. Amy is May without the physical energy, ambition, independence and high spirits.

May and Amy

lizzie and beth, may and amyAmy started out like May but like Jo, was tamed. She became a wife and mother, laying aside her ambitions as a professional artist. Like May she was tall and gracious, giving off the impression of beauty even if her features were a bit irregular (remember the nose). Amy however returned from Europe with Laurie while May remained in Europe, pursuing her art with committed passion, eventually knowing success with two paintings put on display in the Paris Salon.

What if …

May married a much younger man and they had a child, Lulu. Tragically, May died six weeks later. We were never to know how this modern, independent, career-minded woman would have blended her work with marriage and mothering.

Louisa gives us a clue of her wish for May in Jo’s Boys.

Louisa’s dream

Amy lived out her dream as an artist by mentoring younger artists. Her own Bess was a committed to art and mother and daughter were devoted to each other and their art. Bess at fifteen resembled Amy with her “Diana-like figure, blue eyes, fair skin, and golden hair, tied up in the same classic knot of curls. Also,–ah! Never-ending source of joy to Amy,–she had her father’s handsome nose and mouth, cast in a feminine mould.” (Ibid, page 28)

Would mother and daughter have gotten along?

may and luluAmy and Bess were much alike: gracious, feminine yet fiercely devoted to their passion. There was a peaceful harmony between them. In real life May and Lulu were also alike both in appearance and personality. Their similarities, however, might not have produced the harmony that Louisa dreamed up for Amy and Bess. Lulu was described by Louisa as willful, physical and spoiled, much like the Amy (and May) of childhood.

May as a mother and artist

All this bring about tantalizing thoughts: how would May have dealt with a younger version of herself? I’m guessing the battles could have been epic and the love fierce and loyal. Nothing was said about Lulu having the artistic ability of her mother so we will never know if they would have shared that passion as Amy and Bess did. It would have been a lot of fun to witness their relationship.

May’s legacy

It’s hard to know whether May died before or after chapter two was written. The poignancy of Louisa’s loss, however, is there in any case. She gives May her happily ever after with her daughter in the guise of Amy with Bess.

How do you think May and Lulu would have gotten along? Could May have juggled career with motherhood?

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Boston is creating a Literary Cultural District: here are a couple of the places where Louisa May Alcott lived

I am very excited about this since I live an hour out of Boston. There are already many sites in Boston that are related to the Alcotts but having a literary cultural district is very cool. Here is more information about that effort: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/61917-boston-creating-a-literary-cultural-district-spotlight-on-new-england-2014.html

In a quote from the article, the idea grew from a fortuitous conversation:

“The idea for a literary district grew out of a conversation between GrubStreet executive director Eve Bridburg and MCC head Anita Walker when the former bemoaned the fact that even though there is a lot happening culturally in Boston, you don’t often hear about the writers. The goal is to provide a series of walks through Boston’s literary history, while supporting writers and publishers working today. It’s also about including all the literary efforts in the city under one umbrella. “We’re thinking about branding the work that everybody is doing so that there’s one place to look for the literary arts,” says Bridburg, who plans to create a website to go with the district. “There’s a lot going on [in Boston] and everybody’s working in their own little silos.””

There are already many sites in Boston that concern Louisa May Alcott. The Alcotts moved so many times in their lifetime that it would be almost impossible to gather all the addresses. We do know, however, that in 1853, they lived for a time on Pinckney Street:

October 2003 20 Pinkney Street, Boston where the Alcotts lived in 1853Photos by Kim Wells, October 2003, editor Domestic Goddesses http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess

October 2003 20 Pinkney Street, Boston where the Alcotts lived in 1853
Photos by Kim Wells, October 2003, editor Domestic Goddesses http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess

Pinckney Street boasts other literary residents: “Pinckney Street formed a literary row with the childhood home of Henry David Thoreau at #4, Louisa May Alcott at #20, and Nathaniel Hawthorne at #54.” (from the aforementioned article)

Here is a previous post about a visit to Pinckney Street.

And Louisa bought a fine home in Louisberg Square:

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

 

There are so many other landmarks – King’s Chapel where Abba and her family worshipped, the original site of Roberts Brothers which published Little Women and subsequent books by Louisa, and “The Old Corner Bookstore was the original site of the publishing company Ticknor & Fields, founded in 1832, which published Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emerson, Longfellow, and Thoreau. The Atlantic Monthly also got its start there in 1857.” (Ibid)

Such a wonderful way to tour Boston – can’t wait!

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