Thursday, September 30, 2010

Happy Birthday Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy!

Today is the birthday of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, one of the best loved books of my childhood. It was one of several books that I read because I was fascinated with the idea that my mother had read the same book as a little girl, but it became a favorite on its own merits. My sister and I reread Little Women and its sequels more times than we can remember, and we moved on to read Alcott’s other books for girls, including the lesser known ones such as Under the Lilacs and Jack and Jill. But none captured our imaginations as did the story of the March sisters, who became as real and as cherished as the cousins and friends who shared our lives. The first full-length stage production we ever saw was Little Women, performed by the drama department of the local college with matinees especially for area elementary schools. Even though we knew everything that would happen, we cried copiously when Beth died, and we argued heatedly about heroes, an argument that remains unresolved till this day. Today I celebrate Alcott’s story, my memories of it, and the remarkable history of a book that girls are still reading.

On September 30, 1868, the first volume of Little Women was published by Roberts Brothers of Boston. The book has never been out of print since. The girls who read that first edition of Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy read only twenty-three chapters rather than the forty-seven that I read nearly a century later. That first edition ended with the words “So the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception give the first act of the domestic drama called LITTLE WOMEN.”

Critical reception for that first volume was tepid at best. The Nation, for example, condemned it with faint praise, calling  it “an agreeable little story.” Even the author lacked real enthusiasm for the book. Alcott tried her best to get out of writing a girls’ story, much preferring to write about boys because she found them more interesting. In May 1968, she wrote in her journal, “Mr. N. [from her publishers] wants a girls' story, and I begin ‘Little Women.’ Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don't enjoy this sort of thing.” “Plodding” seems a strange description of the two and a half months of furious writing that produced the first volume. And despite the author’s reluctance and the critics’ condescension, her audience loved the book. More than 2000 copies sold immediately and another 3000 sold before the second volume was published.

In fact, readers wanted a sequel, and Alcott, surrendering to their requests and to pleas from her publishers, wrote the second volume. Originally called Good Wives, it was released April 14, 1869, and early sales more than doubled those of the first volume. Fourteen months later, more than 30,000 copies had been sold. In a letter written not long before the release of the second volume, Alcott wrote,

A sequel will be out early in April, & like all sequels will probably disappoint or disgust most readers, for publishers wont let authors finish up as they like but insist on having people married off in a wholesale manner which much afflicts me. ‘Jo’ should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didnt dare to refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her. (The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott 124-25).

More than 140 years after Alcott wrote these words, some readers still complain about her choice of a "funny match" and feel cheated that Jo and Laurie didn’t get their HEA.

However, Little Women served its purpose for Alcott. It helped her to relieve some of her family’s pressing financial problems. It also made her an immensely popular writer and a founder of the new genre of juvenile fiction, the girls’ book. In 1870, parts one and two of Little Women were published together as a two-volume set, and in 1880, they were combined into a single volume. Alcott’s success with Little Women was followed by other girls’ books, including An Old Fashioned Girl (1870), Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (1871), Eight Cousins (1874), Rose in Bloom (1876), Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out: A Sequel to "Little Men" (1886), and other lesser known books. Before her death in 1888, Alcott’s book sales had reached one million, and she had earned $200,000 from her writing.

But none of her other novels attained the iconic status of Little Women. Perhaps the unique position of this novel within Alcott’s oeuvre can be attributed to the character of Jo. From the beginning, the flawed Jo has been the character with whom most readers have connected. In an article, “Books That Girls Have Loved,” published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine (Sept. 1897), Erin Graham wrote of the March sisters: "We liked them all, but with one voice Jo was declared our favorite. Every girl whom I have known regards the boyish Jo with feelings of tenderness. Meg was more domestic, Amy more graceful, and Beth more gentle; but Jo, dear old blundering Jo, romped into our hearts at once" (430-31). A century later, author Anna Quindlen, who put Little Women in first place on her list of “Ten Books for a Girl Who is Full of Beans (Or Ought to Be),” must have had Jo in mind when she described Alcott’s best-known novel as "the first great American coming-of-age book for girls, the companion piece to Huck Finn's raft trips down the Mississippi."

Countless girls have read Little Women in the past 142 years. They have grown up like Meg and Jo and Amy to become “good wives,” or like “Naughty Nan,” the irrepressible tomboy of Jo’s Boys, they have grown up to become become “spritely spinsters.” Writers, actresses, politicians, doctors, and teachers affirm the influence of Alcott’s first girls’ book on their lives. The novel has been adapted for stage, television, opera, anime, and more than a dozen movie versions from a 1919 version shot in and around the Alcott home to the 1994 version starring Wynona Ryder as Jo. My personal favorite is the 1933 George Cukor-directed film that starred Katharine Hepburn as Jo. An Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, that version also has been credited with being “an important step forward in the cinematic treatment of women.” I think Alcott would like that.

Did you read Little Women as a child? Was Jo your favorite character? What’s your favorite film version? Do you think Jo and Laurie should have ended up together?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Celebrate the Freedom to Read!

What do an anti-war comedy about a sex-strike in ancient Greece, a collection of poems for children, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning modern classic about racism, an exposé on the effects of welfare reform on the working poor, and a standard collegiate dictionary have in common? Lysistrata by Aristophanes, A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary are all books that have been challenged, restricted, removed, or banned. Lysistrata, along with other classics of Western literature such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders were all banned from the U. S, mails because they were deemed “lewd” or “indecent.” Shel Silverstein’s humorous poems have been banned in schools because some people believe poems such as “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes” encourage “selfish and disrespectful behavior.” To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been much lauded during 2010, its 50th anniversary year, has been attacked for its use of racial slurs, profanity, and rape. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America has been labeled as “anti-Christian” and “harmful to minors,” and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary has been deemed suspect because it contains the words “oral sex.”

These books are just a handful from a long list of works that some individual or group has decided not only that they should not read but also that others should be denied access to them. Banned Book Week 2010: September 25-October 2 is the twenty-ninth such observance in the United States. Begun by the American Library Association (ALA) in 1982, when the increase in the number of challenges to books in schools, libraries, and bookstores created new concern about literary freedom, the week-long emphasis is designed to remind Americans that the freedom to choose what to read is dear and that the responsibility to ensure that all opinions, popular and unpopular, are heard is one we share.

Too often Banned Book Week is just routine. Libraries mount displays of banned books, blogs sporting the current ALA poster appear and bloggers deplore censorship. Groups of readers and writers, most of them small, gather to read from banned or challenged books, and people act properly indignant when they are reminded that some literary classic or popular children’s or YA title is on the most challenged list. But the week is barely a blip on the consciousness of most readers. We take our liberties for granted.

My hope is that the recent storm over the attack on Laura Halse Anderson’s Speak will remind readers that the threat of censorship is real in 2010. All it takes for school boards to consider removing books is one person convinced he or she owns The Truth and has the moral obligation to impose it upon others, throwing around words like “filth” and “pornography” to recruit the frightened and the uninformed to the cause. For those who may be unaware of the recent controversy, here’s a brief summary. Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor at Missouri State University, delivered a twenty-nine page screed to his local school board, characterizing current curricula as erroneous and immoral and calling for sweeping changes. Among the changes he demanded was the elimination of three books from the English curriculum: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, named to Time Magazine’s All Time 100 novels; and two young adult novels, Anderson’s Speak (an award-winning novel about a girl who is raped and unable to talk about her experience to anyone) and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer (a novel about losing someone you love and the complexities of friendship). When the school board moved too slowly for Scroggins’s purpose, he took his case to the public in the form of an opinion piece in a local paper. He found Slaughterhouse Five “demeaning to . . . education” because of its “vulgar language” and “topics such as sex outside of marriage and homosexuality.” Speak earned his disapproval for “two rape scenes, drunken teenage parties, and teenage pre‐marital sex,” and he charged that Twenty Boy Summer “glorifies drunken teenage parties and teen pre‐marital sex.” He termed all three as “soft pornography.”

Slaughterhouse Five has already been eliminated from the curriculum. Speak and Twenty Boy Summer are under consideration. Books that are eliminated from the classroom are also withdrawn from the shelves of the school library. If Scroggins wins on all counts, he will have denied all students in the area high school free access to these books. Slaughterhouse Five has been a frequent target of banning; it is #67 on the ALA’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999. Anderson, author C. J. Redwine, and many others have spoken out eloquently in defense of Speak and against the horrific error of equating rape with sexual stimulation. Ockler, who is new to the censorship wars, states her views on her blog. Young adults who have found comfort and courage in the novels have added their voices to those speaking out.

I am angry and dismayed by Scroggins’s attack. As a former high school teacher, I have seen the importance of novels that address the real concerns of students.  As a Christian, I know that labeling Scroggins's position as “the Christian view” is a claim as false as any Scroggins himself made. But I am heartened by the response of readers and writers to the attack. Within hours of the news, a Twitter campaign (#SpeakLoudly) was gaining wide-spread support, and bloggers in large numbers were expressing their indignation over Scroggins’s challenges, offering their support to Anderson and Ockler, and making clear their opposition to censorship.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something positive and lasting came from Scroggins’s asinine accusations? I haven’t seen sales figures on the books involved, but I will be very surprised if all three titles aren’t selling more now than before the controversy. That’s a plus. I'm sure some of you added a Twibbon to your Twitter avatar and/or your Facebook profile photo.  If you choose, you can still blog about the issue or express your opinion on the blogs of others. These are all worthy actions.

But your activism can move beyond this single incident. According to ALA, “More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities" Your community may be one of them. Most of the challenged books will not be banned, but often challenges result in boards of education and school administrators and curriculum directors choosing a more covert form of censorship, avoiding books that may be controversial. Protecting our freedom to read is not a one-week or one-incident task. I hope you are participating in the Speak Loudly campaign and in your community’s celebration of literary freedom September 25-October 2, but I also hope you stay informed and ready to express your opinion when those who would limit your freedom sound their challenges during the other fifty-one weeks of the year. Remember the words of poet Archibald MacLeish: “Once you permit those who are convinced of their own superior rightness to censor and silence and suppress those who hold contrary opinions, just at that moment the citadel has been surrendered.”

I only have two questions for you this week. Do you believe in the freedom of a reader to choose her/his reading materials? What are you doing to defend that freedom?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bandit Signs

I never knew what bandit signs were until artist John Morse nailed his haiku to streetlamps and utility poles at intersections around Atlanta and attracted the attention not only of local media but also of such representatives as The New Yorker , that prestigious and hoary periodical known for its commentary on popular culture, and The Guardian online, one of the highest-traffic English-language news sites on the web. Bandit signs, for those of you who share my unenlightened state and need a definition, are those ubiquitous illegal ads, usually designed to appeal to the desperate, that promise rapid weight loss, quick and easy loans, or high-paying work from the comfort of home. Morse combined this 21st-century guerilla marketing strategy with the ancient poetic form to create what he calls “poetic snapshots of the urban condition.” He placed fifty copies each of ten different “Roadside Haiku” at busy sites around the city, hoping to provoke passersby to stop and think.

I find Morse’s project interesting, and even viewing his haiku via the Internet has prompted me to stop and think. BUT—his project also set me thinking that bandit sign haiku would be a great way to get the message out about a favorite book or about romance fiction generally. Using guerilla stealth, we could post them in our own towns and cities, or we could be virtual gorillas and tweet the haiku or post it on a blog, in a forum, or on a Facebook wall. Since I’m much too timid to actually break a law, even if it’s only a violation of a city ordinance, I think I’ll opt for a cyber posting. You probably should too.

Remember that a haiku in English is a three-line, seventeen-syllable poem of 5-7-5 syllables.

Bodice Rippers? No!
Relationships, HEAs,
Empowered women.

Fairy tale romance
delivers sizzle and smiles:
A Kiss at Midnight.

My challenge to you: between now and midnight (EDT) September 22, write a haiku in praise of romance novels generally or of a specific novel and post your virtual bandit sign here and somewhere else in cyberspace. I mentioned some possibilities above--another blog, a forum, Facebook, Twitter. I'm sure you can think of others. Then, post a link here. I’ll let the Randomizer pick a winner from among those who post, and I’ll send the winner a bag of books that I consider bandit-sign worthy.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Born in the Wrong Age

When I hear people, particularly romance readers and writers, talk about being born in the wrong age, they are typically speaking of a longing to dance at Almack’s, experience life at some intriguing court, or be claimed by some heart-stopping, chest-thumping alpha in a kilt. I don’t share those sentiments. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m eager to experience all of these things vicariously through the pages of a well-written book. I’ll even go so far as to concede that an occasional chest-thumping alpha, with or without kilt, can beguile me for a few hours, beta lover though I am. But the only way I’d sign up for time-traveling is if the ticket came with a guarantee to have me home by midnight. I’m sure I’d be more than ready by then for toilets that flush, showers that run hot, warm, or cold at my command, clean pajamas, Internet access, and, before bedtime, a reading lamp for a quick chapter or two in a paperback I paid under $10 for . I like my mod cons and have no wish to give them up even temporarily. I don’t even like camping. A friend, a camping enthusiast, once said to me accusingly, “Your idea of primitive is not having reservations at the hotel.” He was right. I’m afraid time traveling conditions might make a camp site seem positively luxurious.

However, I’ve been reading articles recently that make me wish I were now eighteen or twenty or even twenty-five and enrolled in college. I’m not one of those people who changed majors a dozen times--or even half a dozen. From the time I was old enough to understand what “major” in an academic context meant, I knew I’d be an English major. I never wavered from that idea. And I loved most of my course work from Greek tragedies to epic poems to Arthurian tales to Elizabethan plays to metaphysical poetry to 19th-century novels to modern and contemporary poetry to Southern literature, my field of specialization. I still read poetry and literary fiction along with romances and mysteries, and I can become just as defensive when some of my romance-reading friends dis Milton or Faulkner or Woolf as when some of my academic friends denigrate Nora Roberts (their usual target since she’s often the only romance writer they can name).

Even so, there were English courses I was forced to take that I loathed. I’d have more choices now. My course work could be fun! Just think--instead of taking that course in early American lit that had me sleeping in class, I could take “Reading the Historical Romance Novel.” Instead of ruining my eyes reading obscure 18th century plays that can be found only on microfiche, I could take “Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion.” Instead of horrifying my American lit professor with my suggestion that there should be two versions of Moby Dick, one without “all that whaling stuff,” I could be analyzing Jenny Crusie’s Bet Me, Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades, Mary Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous, and Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me in a course called “Popular Literature: Romance.”

These are all actual courses. “Reading the Historical Romance Novel” is the title of the course Lauren Willig and Cara Elliott, both Yale graduates, taught at that university's Saybrook College last spring. I was not at all surprised to learn that eighty students applied for the eighteen spots in Willig and Elliott’s course. Had I been among their number, I would have been the first one to register. The syllabus includes a full week devoted to Lisa Kleypas and Loretta Chase and another devoted to Julia Quinn. The supplemental reading list boasts more than two hundred titles, including too many of my favorites too count and a few that were new to me. There’s even a section on beta heroes. Sigh! (You can see both the syllabus and the supplementary reading list at Cara Elliott's website.)

According to the Guardian, approximately seventy students are already registered for “Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion,” which will be offered at Durham University (UK) as part of the Education Studies BA degree. That same Guardian article quotes the university as saying that the course will require students to place Rowling’s series "in its social, cultural and educational context and understand some of the reasons for its popularity." I’m betting that the Cap’n over at Romance Writer’s Revenge would go for a Ph. D. if they offered enough courses like this one.

 The “Popular Literature: Romance” course is one Eric Selinger has been teaching for several years at DePaul University, one that lists the novels I mentioned as required reading. The course also offers students a chance to do a project on a subgenre or “exemplary text” not covered in class. I once had to work on a project that required me to count the number of performances of a Colley Cibber play. There are no words adequate to convey how much I would have preferred a project on any one of at least a dozen dozen “exemplary texts” in romance fiction.

Reading about these courses definitely makes me feel as if I were born in the wrong age. I bet I would never have cut class.

What about you? Have you ever felt you were born in the wrong age? Would you be ready to sign up for a ticket today if time travel were possible? Do the course descriptions make you wish you could be a student taking courses like these?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ten Under-read Romance Novels: Part II

Just to refresh your memory, these five books, like those I blogged about last week, are novels that get less attention than others by the author or are the work of an author who gets less attention than her books merit. They offer the reader so much that I find it difficult to understand why more people don’t read these books and rave about them.

The Quiet Gentleman, Georgette Heyer (HQN, 2009--not edition shown above)

This tale of Gervase Frant, Earl St. Erth, and his return to Stanyon Castle and the relatives who had counted on his not surviving the war rarely shows up on lists of favorite Heyer novels. It’s certainly different from other Heyer romances. St. Erth is a far remove from arrogant, aristocratic heroes, and Drusilla Morville, a practical young woman with no claim to beauty and the disadvantage of a novel-writing mother who is a follower of Wollstonecraft and a democratic father who is a crony of Southey and Coleridge. The confident aristocrat and the innocent beauty do appear in the novel, but they are relegated to secondary roles. But readers who venture beyond the usual Heyer favorites will find in this novel some of the author’s most trenchant observation of Regency society and a heroine whose conversation is a delight. See the example below.

"Why, yes! It aches like the very deuce, but not, I assure you, as much as does my self-esteem! How came I to fall, like the rawest of greenhorns?" He received no answer to this, and added, with an effort at playfulness: "But I forget my manners! I must thank you for preserving my life, Miss Morville - even though it may have been at the cost of my cravat!"

"I am not, in general," said Miss Morville carefully, "an advocate for the employment of hyperbole in describing trifling services, but I believe, my lord, that in this instance I may be justly said to have done so."

Reforming Lord Ragsdale, Carla Kelly (Signet, 1995)

Carla Kelly is an under-read writer. I don’t understand why every book she writes isn’t on the best seller lists. Her most recent books, a Harlequin Historicals trilogy (Marrying the Captain, The Surgeon’s Lady, and Marrying the Royal Marine) joined the more than a dozen Kelly keepers already on my book shelves. Most of her novellas are there as well. But Reforming Lord Ragsdale is my favorite Kelly novel. First it pairs a self-destructive English aristocrat with an Irish indentured servant. Both characters are grieving losses they cannot speak of, but one of the book’s strengths is its wit and humor. Another strength is the friendship that develops between this unlikely pair as they save one another and as the hero grows to be the man he was meant to become. The first time I read the book I knew it was a romance and that the HEA was a given, but even knowing this, I couldn’t see how Kelly was going to allow the lord and the servant to remain together without pulling off some most un-Kelly trick. She doesn’t. They do. I love it!

Prospect Street, Emilie Richards (Mira, 2002)

Emilie Richards is one of those writers that I have followed through several genres and enjoyed every part of the journey. I started reading her books when she was writing categories, and her Men of Midnight trilogy and The Trouble with Joe are still among my keepers. I’ve read all her single-titles from Iron Lace (1996) through Fortunate Harbor (2010), including her Shenandoah Album books and her Ministry is Murder mysteries. But Prospect Street is the one I return to again and again. Faith Bronson leads a privileged life as the daughter of a Senator, the wife of a conservative lobbyist, and the mother of a son and a daughter. One evening she sets out to surprise her husband at their cabin and finds him in the arms of his male lover, a journalist. Her private discovery is followed by a media frenzy that insures her husband loses his job with Promise the Children, the organization he works for. Not only is Faith’s marriage disintegrating, but suddenly money is also a major concern. She finds sanctuary in a house on Prospect Street, a fixer-upper that has been in her mother’s family for generations. Prospect Street is the story of Faith’s journey to redefine herself and her relationships with her parents, her former husband, her children, the new man in her life, and the house on Prospect Street and the secrets it holds. Richards doesn’t vilify David Bronson, and she doesn’t turn Faith Bronson into a saint. He is the product of a conservative Christian upbringing and has spent his life denying his sexual preference. She is filled with anger and resentment over the shambles of her life. Their children are confused and troubled; the daughter Remy particularly is transformed by the destruction of the life she has known, changing from good girl to bitter, rebellious teen who refuses to see her father and constantly challenges her mother. Richards does not use her novel to sell a political or religious (or anti-religious) message. She presents complex characters with messy lives who struggle to forgive and to grow. The ending may be a bit too easy for all this complexity, but the book is a fascinating, human story.

In the Midnight Rain, Ruth Wind (HarperTorch 2000)

Whether she’s writing as Barbara Samuel, Barbara O’Neal, or Ruth Wind, this writer creates stories that engage me intellectually and emotionally. She also has a gift for creating places so detailed and richly textured that I finish her books feeling as if I’ve smelled the flowers and felt the breezes that ruffle the trees. Pine Bend, Texas, the setting of In the Midnight Rain is a place I know by heart after half a dozen readings of this book since its publication in 2000. Ellie Connor, the heroine, is a writer whose specialty is biographies of musicians. She comes to Pine Bend to research her next subject, Mabel Beauvais, a gorgeous and talented blues singer who mysteriously disappeared just as she was on the cusp of stardom. Ellie is also searching for her father; the only thing she knows about him is that a post card from her mother links him to this East Texas town. Via the Internet, Ellie becomes friendly with Dr. Laurence “Blue” Reynard, a handsome, wealthy widower, who offers Ellie and April, her dog, a place to stay while she is in Pine Bend. Blue is a needy soul whose love of music is as deep as Ellie’s, and despite his reputation as a heartbreaker, Ellie finds him irresistible. Ellie and Blue’s love story is interwoven with the double mystery and connected to the lives of a large and fascinating cast of secondary characters—black and white. These characters, major and minor, are flawed adults who inhabit a place entangled in history, personal and public. Racism is part of the world Wind shows readers, but so are the solid friendships that exist across racial lines. This is a novel as filled with difficult truths and emotional power as the blues beloved by the characters. And, unlike some of the under-read books I’ve blogged about that are hard to find, In the Midnight Rain is now available as an ebook.

Venus in Blue Jeans, Meg Benjamin (Samhain, 2009)

This novel, coincidentally another Texas book, is different from the other books in this two-part blog. I’ve only read it twice, and those readings were both recent. I might have missed it if not for my friends and former Romance Vagabond companions, Lindsey (Managing Editor for Samhain), who sent me a copy, and Manda, whose rave first alerted me to the book. I immediately fell in love with Konigsburg, a small town that is not idyllic but rather filled with the kind of characters a reader can believe in. Docia Kent, bookstore owner, and Cal Toleffson, veterinarian, are relative newcomers to the town and still learning its quirks and customs. Their status offer a point of view that is different from the more common small-town heroine/hero who is either championing the hometown or in conflict with it. Another thing that set VIBJ apart from many contemporary romances is that while the attraction between Docia and Cal is instantaneous, a relationship develops between them before they fall into bed. The reader has time to find the characters likeable and to find their liking for one another as credible as their lust for one another. Their story is funny and sweet and sexy—a combination I favor, and the secondary characters are individual and interesting. Not many authors enter my autobuy list on the strength of one book. Meg Benjamin did. And Venus in Blue Jeans is just the first book in a four-book series that also includes Wedding Bell Blues, Be My Baby, and Long Time Gone.

What under-read books do you recommend I try? Do you have an autobuy list? What makes an author an autobuy for you?