Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Information

Little Women by Louisa May AlcottGoodreads: Little Women
Series: Little Women #1
Source: Gift
Published: 1868

Summary

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March are doing their best to grow up into women their father would be proud of.  If only he weren’t so far away at the war!  Still, despite their poverty, they try to be happy.  Along with their neighbor Laurie, they have plenty of good times, from producing plays in the garret to writing their own newspaper.

Review

Little Women is one of those classics that never grows old.  Perhaps it is because the titular little women range in age (12 to 16 at the start) and so can present an array of experiences sure to resonate with a wide audience.  Perhaps it is because they age over the course of the book (Jo ends it at the age of 30) and so can encompass the humiliations of childhood, the first blush of love, the trials of married life, and the rocky starts of careers.  Or perhaps it is because the characters are so vibrant, so lifelike.  Who would not want to spend a day with the March family?  Whatever the charm, Little Women endures.

And Little Women endures despite the complaints of some readers, who find the tale too wholesome, too moralizing.  But this, I believe, is part of its charm.  The book, it is true, makes no secret of its desire to instill good morals in its readers.  It opens, after all, with the girls playing Pilgrim’s Progress and receiving Bibles or New Testaments for Christmas.  Yes, it wants it readers to learn to fight vanity, to control their tempers, to become generous and loving and uncomplaining.  But the book really believes in all this.  It does not feel like a moral tale, but like the inspirational example of a friend.  And, in the end, even though we may be uncomfortable with a book that points out that we are not perfect, its message that we can all try to do better is a message I believe that many people still need and want to hear.

I have always appreciated Little Women for its encompassing look at womanhood, from Jo’s fiery independence to Beth’s comfort in domestic life to Meg’s struggles to be the wife and mother she thinks she ought to be.  There is no one right path here, no correct way to be a woman.  Rather, all the girls’ choices are valuable just as all their personalities are appreciated.  Each one gets to be the focus so that readers can see their flaws as well as their strengths, and learn to love them even when they are weak.

And you get to grow along with them.  Today, we might not think that a chapter about learning how to balance childcare with a relationship with your  husband is the type of thing children want to or should read.  We might not think that a child or teen wants to read about a character in her late 20s falling in love with a man nearly forty.  Or that any child wants to read about a thirty-year-old running a school.  And yet it works.  The work is beloved by many.  Because it gives a glimpse ahead.  It says that life is weird and unexpected and sometimes painful or tragic.  But life goes on.  And you have a hand in shaping it.  It tells its readers that they have agency and that they are important, no matter the path they choose.

5 stars

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How to Write an Engaging Discussion Post

how to write an engaging discussion post

Read a Lot

Excellent writing typically does not occur in a vacuum.  Most often, excellent writing is a conversation with someone else.  This does not mean that you have to flat out agree or disagree with something that you read.  You might be expanding upon someone else’s point, applying it to a new situation, or looking at it from a different angle.  But, to do that, something needs to have sparked an idea.  Often that idea comes from reading widely.  My own discussion posts do not only come from reading other blogs.  They also come from reading literary criticism, perusing a magazine, or reading the newspaper.  They might even stem from conversations I have with other readers.  Inspiration is everywhere, if you know where to look.

This approach can also help you to be timely.  For instance, when discussion posts picked up years ago, people started noticing that they have a tendency to get more traffic than reviews and some considered dropping reviews altogether.   This raised the question of whether it was feasible to run a book blog without book reviews.  And every now and then discussions of plagiarism rock the book community.  So we’ve written several posts clarifying where the boundaries are.

Identify a Need

By reading widely, you might also notice a need that no one is directly speaking about.  For instance, Briana noticed that bloggers were feeling stressed by the increased number of things they are expected to do (not just blogging anymore–also social media, web design, graphic design, etc.).  This allowed her to write a post about the possibility of cutting down your workload by co-blogging.

On the other hand, I noticed something because people weren’t talking about it.  Realizing that the book blog community focuses primarily on YA, I wrote posts discussing the joys of reading other types of books such as middle grade and picture books.

Bring Something New

Discussion posts that really catch my attention are ones that bring something new to the table.  If everyone is talking about Topic X, once I’ve read two posts on it, sadly, I’m pretty much done clicking on any other post addressing it–unless there’s a spin.  If everyone is talking about why they hate X, I’d like to see someone write why they love X.  Or, if everyone is talking about how they hate X for the same five reasons, I’d like to see a post about why someone hates X for five different reasons.

Do Research

Doing research is one way that enables you to bring something new to a conversation.  For instance, I still see bloggers worrying that YA isn’t a respected genre.  And yet, its incredible popularity, its inclusion in college courses, its presence in academic journals and panels, all suggested to me that literary establishments have accepted YA.  (What your aunt or BFF says to you personally is a different story.)  So I did some research and I concluded that the debate over YA is over.  Generally speaking, not many people are arguing adults should not read YA–actually, few people ever did!  I still have not seen another blogger write about this, suggesting to me that doing the research really did bring something fresh to the conversation.

Write about Literature

I don’t often see discussion posts about the actual content of books, just about the reading or buying of books.  However, I would enjoy seeing more literary analyses.  We’ve done some here in the past, such as this post about whether Eowyn is a feminist character and this one on whether Cath is an unlikable protagonist in Heartless. We also ran Classic Remarks for a time, encouraging people to discuss a literary question each week (and people are still joining in the conversation!).  Adding more literary analysis would be to do something radically different–and different is often engaging.

What are your tips for writing engaging discussion posts?

Don’t Stress about How Many Books You’ve Read This Year

Don't Stress about Your Reading-min

It’s December, which means a lot of readers are getting their Goodreads challenges and making note of how much they’ve read this year. Some of us are checking quietly, and some of us are celebrating with large wrap-up posts on our blogs, Youtube channels, or Bookstagram accounts.  Personally, I love seeing wrap-ups and getting an overview of how other bookworms spent their reading year.  However, the downside of this sharing is that sometimes other readers feel discouraged by how much (or, rather, how little) they’ve read in comparison to others.  Hopefully we can find ways to turn this around and focus on our love of reading and what we have accomplished instead.

I admit, I always get a bit wide-eyed when I see other readers proclaiming they’ve read 300, 400, even 500 books in the past calendar year.  Who, I wonder, has time to read more than one book per day?  Is it real?  Were they all picture books?  Do these people have jobs or any responsibilities at all? Are they actually reading the books or just skimming them?  Basically, I vacillate between being impressed, jealous, and slightly skeptical.  (My apologies if you are someone who has truly read 400 books this year; I don’t mean to doubt you.)  After experiencing this roller coaster of emotions, I try to refocus on what I’ve read this year, how, and why.

It turns out that, once I reflect on the matter, I don’t want to read 350+ books a year.  I love reading, but I also love doing other things.  (And I also have to do plenty of things I don’t really want to, like clean my apartment or go to work.)  If I read a book or more a day, I don’t think I would have time for much else in my life.  Frankly, I also think I would get bored.  I read a lot of books each year as it is, and I’m happy with the amount. I don’t need to double my reading consumption just to feel “on par” with other people.

The reality is that if you read books and like reading, you are a reader.  It doesn’t matter if you read 12 books this year or 120 books or more.  In fact, you should probably keep in mind that polls over the past few years seem to consistently indicate that about 25% of American adults do not read any books at all each year. (Here’s an article, for instance, from 2014.) If you read one book this year, you’ve read more than about one quarter of of the US population.  And in 2015, Iris noted that:

The average number of books each person read over the course of a year was 12…but that number is inflated by the most avid readers. The most frequently reported number was 4 books per year.

So if you read 5 books this year, you’re above average.  You’re basically a super bookworm.

(Do keep in mind, however, that reading correlates pretty consistently with education level and household income–the more you have, the more you probably read. Also, people in countries besides the United States frequently read more than Americans.  So the average number of books that people in your exact demographic read may be different than the average for American adults.)

The point is, I hope we can all find joy in the books we have read this year and try to refrain from comparing ourselves too much to others.  Reading is a very personal experience, and you should always feel confident about having read books you like in an amount that fit into your lifestyle (not that we all probably wouldn’t like at least a little more time to read….).  However, if you’re really worried about tackling that towering TBR pile, you can always check out this chart that purports to predict how many books you’ll have time to read before you die. Plan carefully, friends.

Briana

The Fog Diver by Joel N. Ross

Information

Goodreads: The Fog Diver
Series: The Fog Diver #1
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Years ago the Fog rose.  Humanity escaped to the highest peaks in order to avoid its deadly embrace.  Now Chess and his salvage crew live in the slums in one of the only two pockets of civilization said to be left.  They spend their days steering their raft through the air while Chess dives into the Fog to find items to sell.  But Chess hides a secret.  And the evil Lord Kodoc is looking for him.

Review

The Fog Diver is a fun, fast-paced read set in a fascinating world where humanity has built their last hold-outs on the highest mountain peaks.  There they hide from the Fog that covers the earth–Fog that has the ability to kill.  Only the most daring venture into its depths to scavenge for the food and riches that remain.  And Chess our protagonist is one of the  most daring.

The book opens in an action-packed scene that follows Chess as he explores the earth below.  He’s a little full of himself, but he’s good enough at his job that readers might feel he really can’t be blamed.  And he’s joined by a crew equally skilled and equally compelling from Hazel his fearless captain to Bea their genius mechanic.  They’re all orphans (of course) but they have formed a family.  Readers may be hard pressed not to cheer them all along.

The Fog Diver is a satisfying middle-grade fantasy with an original world, likable characters, and plenty of action.  (Actually, it reminds me slightly of Castle in the Air with its ship-filled skies and its lovable if fierce pirate crews.)  If you’re looking for an entertaining way to pass the afternoon, this might just be the book for you.

4 stars

Littler Women: A Modern Retelling by Laura Schaefer

Information

Goodreads: Littler Women: A Modern Retelling
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Sept. 2017

Summary

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March receive a modern makeover in this retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic.  They attend school dances, go to sleepovers, and have jobs babysitting.  As they grow up, they hope to make their father, on active duty overseas as part of the National Guard, proud upon his return.

Review

When I read a retelling, I hope for something that strikes me as original, something that makes me see the work it is based on in a new light. Unfortunately, Laura Schaefer’s Littler Women, while a pleasant read, does not do anything new with the story.  Rather, it follows Alcott’s work pretty faithfully, slightly reworking episodes and even paraphrasing parts.  It also greatly shortens each episode, giving the characters little space to change.  I wanted to love Littler Women, but it falls far too short from the original text to impress.

From the first page, it becomes apparent that this story has a largely one-to-one correspondence with Alcott’s work.  The dialogue is moved around a little and modernized, but the girls express the same emotions and even do the same actions such as putting their mother’s shoes to the fire.  The rest of the book follows suit.  Their father is away, but as a member of the National Guard and not a chaplain.  Their mother works for social services instead of volunteering for the Union Army.  Meg is a babysitter instead of a governess.  She and Jo attend a school dance instead of a dance at someone’s home.  And so on.  Jo’s poem in their homemade paper (now a “zine”) even appears in paraphrased form.  The book follows Little Women so closely that it feels like you might as well read Little Women itself.

There are two major changes, but neither does much service to the story.  The first is that episodes are greatly shortened.  This makes the girls’ temptations seem less serious and their changes less evident.  After all, is one instance of Jo containing her temper really evidence that she has had a character arc?  The shortened episodes also mean readers have less time to get to know and love the characters.  Beth falls ill (with the flu instead of scarlet fever) and I did not even care because I barely felt like I knew her, much less realized how sweet and caring she is.  I really have no emotional attachment to any of the characters and so never felt invested in their stories.

The second major change is the excision of religion from the story.  The girls’ faith is integral to their lives in the original book, inspiring them to do better.  In Alcott’s story, they play Pilgrim’s Progress and read their Bibles regularly.  However, it appears that religion is not modern enough to appear in a “modern retelling.”  Or perhaps having characters live out their faith was seen as embarrassing or alienating.  So Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible s are gone, as is any indication that their father is a chaplain or their family religious at all (aside from a vague reference to “church” at Christmas).  Yet, with it gone, much of the heart has left the story.  It is also unclear what motivates the characters or why they want to do better.

Little Women was my favorite book while I was growing up, so I was looking forward to this retelling.  However, though I enjoyed passing a few hours with it, I find that the story lacks depth and the characters do not possess enough character to convince me to care about them.  I wish I could say that I loved this book, but I am mostly disappointed.

3 Stars

What Is the Content of English Classes? Do They Only Teach Critical Thinking?

Discussion Post

I have written before about how English classes should be valued for their content and not only for the skills they provide.  After all, literacy, composition, and even higher-level skills like creativity and critical thinking can be taught in a number of disciplines including history, philosophy, religion, math, and science.  (We read, write, and think in all these disciplines!  There is no need to relegate the teaching of reading, writing, and analysis to English classes alone.)  What literature classes offer that is different is, of course, literature.

However, in the U.S.’s high-stakes testing culture, literature itself seems hard to justify.  Its outcomes can’t be measured by numbers. So English departments and English classes try to fight for funding and for relevancy by arguing that they teach things like how to communicate and how to think.  This is true.  English classes tend to do this and they tend to do it effectively. And yet, by focusing only on these arguments, proponents of English are forgetting to argue for what sets English apart–the texts that comprise the discipline, the works that are what we read, write about, and think about.

Interestingly, the GRE (an exam taken for graduate school admittance in the U.S.) attempts to give a numerical value to what goes on in English classes.  And looking at what the GRE tests can give us a general idea of what the content of an English class is.   It is not just the critical thinking–critical thinking is what we do with the content.  It is the texts themselves.  English–or literary studies as I like to call it, to distinguish it from composition–is comprised of texts that are considered important and influential.  These are the books, short stories, poems, etc. that inspired genres, historical movements, and other authors.  English is the study of what these texts are, how they adhere to or break away from generic forms, how they intersect with history or with social movements, and how people have thought, written, and taught about them.  Generally we call these works the canon, though the GRE also tests students on other classic works, fiction and nonfiction.

The canon, of course, is ever-changing and there are (valid) arguments that the canon unfairly emphasizes white male authors.  Still, the canon is the current yardstick by which experts in literary studies tend measure their expertise.  The idea is that you can’t understand later works and later movements if you don’t understand their roots–what they are alluding to, imitating, satirizing, or breaking away from.  Not knowing classical authors like Virgil, never having read the Bible, and not being familiar with Shakespeare will all hinder the aspiring student of literary studies.  Not having read Dante or Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison will make an aspiring English student a source of bewilderment to their peers.  It would be like an art student never having seen Picasso or a math student admitting they are trying to learn calculus but do not know algebra.  You cannot be considered an expert in your field if you do not know the content.

If you search for lists of works to study for the English GRE (including novels, short stories, drama, poetry, and literary fiction), you will find some that easily have 200 or 300 suggested works.  Of course, the average test taker is not likely to have read all of them.  However, they will want to have read as many as possible.  Not only because some of the test questions will ask them to identify the title and author of a literary work but also because increased reading will give them a better basis at recognizing trends.  That is, even if they have not read a specific Romantic poet, they should be able to recognize a Romantic poem when they see one.  Even if they have not read every Dickens novel, they should be able to distinguish his work from another author’s.  Even if they have no idea who they are reading, they should be able to date it to a general time period and to name its genre.

There are plenty of calls to do away with the canon and the classics (here’s the difference) in favor of classes that allow students to pick what they read.  I support a classroom model in which students can pick some of their own books (even if they are from a list of recommendations).  However, allowing students to choose all the content of an English class could very well be doing them a disservice.  When you are expected (in theory) to have read 200-300 books in your discipline in order to be admitted to grad school, you need all the help you can from your teachers in order to prepare.  Spending years with popular YA books instead of the classics means that you will have to play catch-up while others are merely trying to fill in their gaps.

I am not a fan of the GRE or of high-stakes testing in general.  I am not convinced that the test actually tells us who is adept at literary studies, rather than who is adept at taking the GRE.  However, because the U.S. places such importance on test scores and what they supposedly tell us, I think it is worth looking at what a test like the GRE supposes competency in the discipline of English is–and thus by extension what the experts in grad school departments think competency is.  That competency assumes not only that students can think critically and do literary analysis, but also they they have read specific texts.  Not any text that got them reading or that inspired them or that they enjoyed.  Texts that are widely considered influential or important.  English classes do have real content.  And we should be teaching it.

The List by Patricia Forde

Information

Goodreads: The List
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Aug. 2017

Summary

Years ago climate change caused the waters to rise and the earth to flood.  Only the believers escaped into the city of Ark, along with a few others who now live destitute outside the walls.  In Ark, Letta works as the apprentice wordsmith, collecting and keeping all the words until the people are ready for them.  For now, they are permitted to speak only 500 words.  Speaking others results in banishment.  But then one day Letta’s master dies and she is suddenly promoted.  Questions about his death lead to only more questions.  Is Ark really the utopia its founder says?

Review

The marketing and reviews for this book suggested that The List is a thoughtful look at the power of words and the perils of censorship.  However, even though the citizens of Ark are only legally allowed to speak 500 words–the language of List–the book does not really focus on the implications of this system.  Rather, it turns into a pretty standard dystopian novel in which the protagonist attempts to thwart the experiments of a tyrant.

Notably, Letta does not really develop any deep understanding of the implications of List.  Her actions are primarily driven by the discovery that her friends ,and later the people of Ark, are facing violence at the hands of Ark’s leader.  Interestingly, Letta, like all the people of Ark, is aware of much of the violence and corruption.  She just doesn’t care until people she knows are left to be devoured by wild animals.  Or until, apparently, the violence becomes more violent than she thinks acceptable. It’s impossible not to wonder if Letta does not care about List because List does not affect her much, either.  As an apprentice wordsmith, she can speak the old language with her master.  She can also speak it with the leaders of Ark.  Letta, as a bit of snob, does not associate much with the “common” people.  Thus, her world is not really the world of List.

List, then, does not play as pivotal a role in the story as the summary might suggest.  Letta typically does not speak List and neither do the people she associates with.  It might have been interesting if the book itself had been written in List, really illustrating the implications of attempting to communicate meaning with only 500 words (and no tone or body language!).  However, it seems like the author was so well aware of the limitations of List, that she did not want to use it much either in the narrative or through her characters.  This means that Letta never really has to engage with List, never has to wonder what emotions or ideas people are lacking because they do not have the words.  Letta has the words.  And she’s not overly concerned with the people who do not.

The List ultimately disappointed me.  I was promised a book about censorship, but received a book about a girl joining (sort of) a secret organization that promotes paintings and music, and sometimes rises up if they perceive an immediate threat to their survival.  Any conclusions about the perils of List, however, must be drawn by readers thinking about the implications beyond those depicted in the story.

3 Stars