I have not read the first volume in this series, Murder in Absentia, and it was not necessary to have done so to enjoy the second one. This book’s strengths are world building and the seamless integration of the world into the mystery plot. I also got the sense that the characters are becoming more well-rounded as the series progresses.
My knowledge of Roman culture is superficial, and so I found the world of Egretia to be fascinating, from the Roman Numerals that number the chapters, to the sporting and debate contests, to the theology of the Numina themselves. I suspect a classicist might be bothered by the liberties taken with magic in Egretia the way I am by silly neuroscience in science fiction, but for the intelligent lay reader, the author’s research presents a pleasing and believable world. The magic fits well with the materials and knowledge available to its inhabitants. And I loved that the climax of the book came at a trial with a famous orator showing off his skills.
Unfortunately, for me, the plot took a little too long to get going. I picked the book up and put it down several times before I really got into it. Felix and his sidekick-and-sometime-love-interest, Aemilia, spend too much time investigating haunted houses in which nothing much happens except that the reader is given a detailed description of the truly gross and horrifying demise of the former occupants. I think that for such scenes, less would be more, and I found it somewhat difficult to suspend my disbelief that there wouldn’t be more swift and serious consequences–both legal and social–for a landlord whose tenants died such gruesome, unexplained deaths.
So in these early sections of the book I found the romantic subplots a bit more interesting than the main plot, in particular Felix’s relationship with Cornelia. I was a bit surprised to learn in the bonus material that Cornelia, a widow and Aemilia’s mother, was only a few years older than Felix himself. The love triangle between Felix, Cornelia, and Aemilia was something new that I haven’t seen much of in fantasy or anywhere else.
I was glad that the female characters were not simply ciphers or cliches, but I still felt that they could have had more depth. Felix was a decent narrator and came across as thoughtful and level-headed, but his voice was a little generic. He was neither a relentlessly logical Sherlock Holmes nor as introspective or passionate as I might have liked. He seemed only intermittently capable of strong feelings, and I wondered about the origins of his ability to compartmentalize them. The allusions to his lost love, Helena, are tantalizing but very incomplete. Perhaps here is where I would have benefitted from reading the first book the most. Overall this is a well-done series with an intriguing protagonist. I am interested in reading more! View all my reviews
Yesterday I gave a talk about Little Women at the Mountain View Public Library. It was similar to my presentations about geocaching and Geocaching GPS a couple of years ago.
The librarian was also a fan of Little Women as a child, and she organized the tea party and made the lovely flyer. I set my childhood copy of the book, and my Madame Alexander Jo March doll (in red), there on the table. And I dressed up like a character from the book too: long brown skirt, high collar with a brooch, lace sweater, hair up. (What does it say about my wardrobe that I had all those pieces easily available in my closet?) This is what I talked about.
The 150th Anniversary
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Volume I was published in September of 1868, and volume II, originally called Good Wives, was published in 1869. Nowadays they are usually combined into 1 volume and published that way. Louisa wrote the first part–402 pages–in less than 6 weeks. Good Wives especially was written at the request of her publisher and readers. They all wanted to know who the girls would marry. Louisa herself wasn’t particularly interested in this: she said it was better to be an elderly spinster and paddle your own canoe. And she purposely disappointed all the Jo and Laurie shippers and made Jo what she called a “funny match.”
Many modern women writers claim to have been inspired by Little Women and its unforgettable protagonist, Jo March. Among them are J.K. Rowling, Simone deBeauvoir, Nora Ephron, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and Ursula K LeGuin. Singer-songwriter and punk rocker Patti Smith wrote:
There are some moments within literature when a new character is born, one who sits at the summit with others, emblematic of an age, or steps ahead of it. There have been many high-spirited characters before Jo March, but none like her, who wrote, remained herself. Creating Jo at a time when women had not yet won the right to vote was an unflinching move. She was an activist by example. And standing apart to extend a sister’s hand, she has always been there to greet maverick girls like myself, with a toss of her cropped hair and a playful wink to say come along. To guide us, provide encouragement, lay her footprints on a path she beckons us to follow.
Louisa May Alcott
Portrait of Louisa May Alcott
Jo in her “scribbling suit”
Louisa May Alcott was a writer, Unitarian, feminist, and abolitionist living in Concord Massachusetts. She hobnobbed with the Transcendentalists and had a crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, when women were given school, tax, and bond suffrage in 1879 in Massachusetts.
As many of us know, Little Women was largely autobiographical. Like Jo, Louisa wrote, published, and supported her family with what she called “blood and thunder tales”–gothic thrillers with names like “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” and “The Abbot’s Ghost or Maurice Treherne’s Temptation.” She wrote under the androgynous pseudonym AM Barnard.
But when asked by her publisher Thomas Niles to write a book for girls, she acquiesced, writing in her journal: “Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.”
Bronson Alcott and Fruitlands
Portrait of Amos Bronson Alcott, from the NY Public Library
The Fruitlands farmhouse, from the Fruitlands museum
Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, was an idealist, philosopher, progressive educator, and man ahead of his time. He was not, however, a practical man, a farmer, or someone who knew how to put food on the table. When Louisa was 10, Bronson moved the family to Fruitlands, a utopian community based on Transcendentalist principles that he founded with Charles Lane in Harvard Massachusetts. This community had high ideals–for example, they eschewed cotton clothing, because cotton was picked by slaves, and they were abolitionists. But Fruitlands lasted only about 6 months. The men were more interested in talking about the Oversoul than bringing in the harvest, and the women and children couldn’t do all the work themselves. Louisa later wrote about her Fruitlands experience in the satirical short story, Transcendental Wild Oats. Because of Bronson’s inability to make money, the Alcott family was often poor. Louisa’s writing career was a passion born of necessity.
Orchard House photos courtesy of Richard Ragan
Orchard House, where Louisa wrote Little Women
When the book was first published, it was extensively pirated, and now it is in the public domain, but it is estimated that more than ten million copies were sold, not including abridged editions. It has been through 100+ editions and been translated into more than 50 languages. Her publisher persuaded Louisa to take a royalty rather than a flat fee, and as a result, the book and its sequels supported her and her relatives, plus some of her relatives’ relatives, for the rest of their lives.
Little Women and I
My Madame Alexander Jo March doll
My childhood copy of Little Women, the Illustrated Junior Library Edition
So what about me and Little Women? I had a Jo doll, whose head and legs I had to reattach to bring her to the library. I was pretty into playing with dolls back then. I didn’t play mother and baby much though; I used dolls to act out stories. Little Women was one of those stories, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were another. Some of my dolls had an elected government, with Chrissy, a tall leggy redhead whose hair grew when you pushed a button on her belly, at the top. It was like a girls’school or a women’s college: girls did everything.
I received the Illustrated Junior Library Edition of Little Women as a gift. I read and enjoyed the book as a tween, and my mother also read it to me. One of the things about this book that has stayed with me since childhood is the image on the cover: the family gathered around the piano singing. Even though I’m not much of a singer, I am a musician. I play the violin and viola. My daughter played a number of different instruments growing up and my son plays the cello. I’ve always felt that was the highest purpose in music, not performance or musical skill or putting in your 1000 hours, but to bring people together.
As they explain in this interview, Gordon and Kelley believe that Little Women is a pivotal book for many women, one that they return to in different phases of life and learn something new each time. “I’m delighted to be part of it,” says Gordon of the anthology, “and to connect with a community of readers who are as passionate about the book as I am.”
Finding the Googleplex Beautiful
I reworked the ideas from my violinist dot com blog and submitted them as an essay called “Finding the Palace Beautiful.” As part of the publicity for the anthology, the publisher asked the authors to send a picture of themselves reading Little Women next to a local landmark. I chose the Googleplex.
One hundred and fifty years later, is Little Women still relevant?
When I told my writers’ group that I would be doing this reading, one guy said that he tried but he couldn’t get past the first chapter of Little Women. And some people claim, not without justification, that it’s not really a feminist novel. Everyone gets married off. Ambitions get smaller. Beth dies from her own self-sacrifice. And Jo marries Professor Bhaer, a man who deprecates her writing. Tween and teen girls these days read dramatic tales with kickass heroines like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Hate U Give. Is there still space for a book about four flawed sisters in which nothing much really happens?
For me the relevance of Little Women 150 years later is captured well in Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article of August 2018, called “How Little Women Got Big”. Acocella argues that Jo had to marry Friedrich Bhaer, a poor immigrant Professor, because Jo, unlike her rich neighbor Laurie, thinks hard about things and fights (her) way through them in darkness.
Not surprisingly, since like Jo I moved to New York and married a German, I’m “team Friedrich” not “team Laurie.” But even without that personal analogy, Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer isn’t just a funny match to me. It is a marriage of true minds and intellectual equals. Jo asks him to sing, “Kennst du das Land,” a favorite song that at first meant to him Germany, his country of birth, but later meant to both of them a purer, higher vision of home and love. The book’s ending is Louisa’s transcendentalist love letter and her philosophical masterpiece.
Driving to Belgium from Germany, one has to pass through the Netherlands. We didn’t have time to stop much, but we did need to: 1. eat, and 2. find geocaches.
For Thursday doors, just under the wire here on Saturday, I offer these bathroom doors at a McDonald’s in “De Loop” in Echt. De Loop is a business park on the A2 motorway. The McDonalds in Europe are surprisingly nice, and convenient, although no one admits to eating there. If you’re in Europe you’re supposed to sample local cuisine–which we did, but we were also in a bit of a hurry to get where we were going. So Mickey D’s it was.
Rather than the standard blue and white signs, there was what looked like hand-drawn art on the rest room doors:
On that day we also stopped in a park to find some geocaches for the day. They were just ordinary containers, so nothing in particular to blog about.
But in this same park in Roermond there was an art installation with a series of objects up on poles. Most of them had round disks with different sized and shaped appendages. Some of them looked more human than others. I couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to represent, and a Google image search I did later didn’t help. So I feel free to add my own interpretation.
Not a door, but this particular flying disk on a stick up in the trees really looks like the Starship Enterprise to me.
Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog.
Follow my European trip with this and previous posts:
The contributors to the Little Women anthology are a group of very interesting women. Read about Marlowe Daly here.
In this blog post series, we’ll feature contributing authors from our new anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. Today we’ll catch up with Marlowe Daly, who teaches literature, writing, and humanities at Idaho’s Lewis-Clark State College.
Marlowe Daly reads Little Women at the Spalding site of Nez Perce National Park near her home in Idaho. Photo by Anahi Galeano.
If the March sisters were employed where you work, what would their jobs be?
Although Jo and Meg do some teaching, I can’t really picture either of them working at the college where I teach. I’m happy to say that my colleagues are deeply devoted to teaching and make great efforts to continually improve their pedagogy and practice. Meg and Jo, on the other hand, seem to lack a passion for teaching. Even later on, in Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Jo seems more interested in the duties that…
This week I am featured on Pink Umbrella Books’ blog! This appearance is part of a blog tour featuring contributing authors to “Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes,” an anthology for the 150th Anniversary of Little Women.
In this blog post series, we’ll feature contributing authors from our new anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. Today we’ll catch up with KL Allendoerfer, California-based writer, science educator, and musician.
Contributor KL Allendoerfer reads Little Women with “Pie,” the ubiquitous green droid in front of Silicon Valley’s Googleplex.
What is your favorite scene from Little Women?
It would be easy to say my favorite scene is the one I wrote about in my essay, in which Beth thanks Mr. Lawrence for the use of his piano and they become friends. I do love that scene, but there are so many others as well. I think the one that most got under my skin, and that I remembered many years later, was Jo’s disaster of a dinner party when Marmee decides to let the girls run things themselves. It shows Louisa has a wonderful sense of…
Pink Umbrella Publishing is doing a blog series on the authors of “Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes.” Meet K.R. Karr, another West Coast author with German connections!
In this blog post series, we’ll feature contributing authors from our new anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. Today we’ll catch up with K.R. Karr, West Coast writer and academic.
Contributor K.R. Karr on Puget Sound with the Washington State Ferry in the background. Photo credit: Kristina Berger.
What is your favorite scene from Little Women?
My favorite scene from Little Women is when Jo comes home with her hair cut, having sold it to pay for Marmee’s train ticket after Mr. March is wounded in battle. This scene really demonstrates to me Jo’s inner qualities, as well as her love for her family.
Who are some of your other “imaginary heroes” from literature?
I love this phrase “imaginary heroes” and some of mine include Emily of Deep Valley, Jane Eyre, Cassandra Mortmain of I Capture the Castle, Renee in Colette’s The Vagabond, Lucy Honeychurch and George…
Pink Umbrella Books is doing a series of blogs of featuring the authors of the “Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes” Anthology. This post features Susan W Bailey of “Louisa Alcott is My Passion.” I learned about the anthology on her blog, and have learned a lot about Louisa from her!
In this blog post series, we’ll feature contributing authors from our new anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy. Today we’ll catch up with Susan Bailey, author, Louisa May Alcott devotee, and proud New Englander!
Contributor Susan Bailey cozies up with The Annotated Little Women in Massachusetts.
What is your favorite scene from Little Women?
My favorite scene is when Beth runs over to thank Mr. Laurence, impulsively puts her arms around his neck and kisses him, and ends up sitting in his lap. I thought that took a lot of guts to do that! I am a typical Yankee (“frozen chosen” as they call us in New England) – quite reserved, especially when it comes to showing physical affection, and I know I would have been far too self-conscious to do what Beth did. She totally forgot herself in the spirit of love and gratitude towards…
I had to ask: Team Laurence or Team Bhaer? Editors Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelly talk Jo March’s ending, how they’d put the March sisters to work at Pink Umbrella Books (not just work of course – they’d go on holiday too), and surprises for fans in the to-be-released anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy.
Jo March’s ending – Jo with Friedrich Bhaer, Jo with Theodore Laurence, Jo single, or something else?
MERRY: I’m Team Friedrich. Unpopular opinion, perhaps, but Laurie is such a puppy.
MARNAE: I’m a big Bhaer fan because of the equality of minds in that relationship and the opportunities for growth in both characters.
Who of all the March sisters would you go on holiday with, where would you go, and why?
MERRY: I’d take an English holiday with Jo – specifically to hit up the literary landmarks, as we are kindred spirits that way.
I went into this book with low expectations. It was on my kindle, I had finished my previous book, and I was out of wifi range on a boat so I was unable to download anything else. I thought, I’ll give it a chance for a few chapters. And after a few chapters I was hooked.
I would probably be best described as a Trekkie alumna. I loved Star Trek in my teens. I read all the novelizations of the original series, had seen all the episodes several times, went to a convention, owned a real tribble, and for a while could probably have done pretty well in a trivia contest. But that was before the post-“Voyage Home” original cast movies, before “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” and “Enterprise,” before “Discovery,” before “!@#$%^&* My Dad Says,” and before the current movie reboot featuring an entirely new set of actors. I am enjoying the reboot well enough, but at this point Star Trek is just another science fictional franchise in a universe crowded with them. I have graduated from that phase of my life, and moved on to the next shiny object.
This book took me back to what I loved about Star Trek. Structured like a good TV episode or one of the better movies, it has all the tropes and character types you have come to expect, and more. It takes place at a hotel called the Botany Bay, and each chapter is named for a different TV episode. I noticed a few clever in-jokes as I read through them, enough to know that there must have been many more embedded in the text that I missed due to having been away for so long. There is little point to summarizing the plot because that would spoil the ride. But I will say that it has one of the best explanations for how zombies are turned and develop that I’ve read in a while. (This may be faint praise, as I’m not a zombie connoisseur.) And Houston, we really have a problem . . .
I will go out on a limb here and speculate that one of the reasons the modern manifestations of the Star Trek franchise seem less special to me now is that they have become darker, grittier, and more morally ambiguous, with visual effects so polished that they have taken on a life and story of their own. The original Star Trek was a rag-tag child of the 1960’s, motivated by the promise that science and technology can be a force for good, and optimism that humankind has the capacity to better itself and transcend its worst impulses. The first movies and the TV series of the 1980s and 1990s were in this mold too. Night of the Living Trekkies draws on this optimistic tradition in a way that is surprisingly touching in the midst of chaos, death and destruction. I don’t know if this book will convert any newbies to Trek fandom who weren’t already here, but it’s great fun for those of us who love the universe and still hope that it has something to teach our cynical age.
A central tenet of this myth is that the monster, cobbled together from dead body parts and animated by electricity–created by man not God–is against the natural order of life. The story’s horror comes not just from fear of dying at the monster’s hand, but from a more primal sense that the universe itself will not abide this creation or those that created it. In the words of Ian Malcom, “Life finds a way.”
The Myth Updated
The original Jurassic Parkupdated this governing myth for the 20th century. Instead of electricity and magnetism, the sexy new science to be harnessed is genetic engineering. And instead of a humanoid monster killing everything its creator loves, we have dinosaurs. But the same hubris, greed, and willful ignorance remain–along with the same sense of wonder and naive good intentions.
In a humanizing scene, John Hammond (played by Santa Claus from the remake of Miracle on 34th Street) explains to Dr. Sattler that he wanted to bring magic to children with Jurassic park, just as he did years ago with a flea circus. But his park is collapsing, melting all around him, along with his ice cream and his dreams.
John Hammond, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, gets his comeuppance by the end of the book (although it takes a few movies to finish him off). And, the other craven greedy villains such as Donald Gennaro and Dennis Nedry become dinosaur food quickly and spectacularly. While of course the cute kids, Hammond’s grandchildren, survive.
Leaving the island of the dinosaurs after his misadventures, protagonist and good guy Dr. Alan Grant looks out of the helicopter to see modern pelicans flying as they should. His theory of dinosaur-to-bird evolution has been validated. His skepticism about Jurassic park itself has been vindicated, too, at great cost, and all is back in balance.
Life found a way to put humans in their place.
Science, not Myth
The original Jurassic Park had unforgettable characters, amazing effects, an awesome music score, and was thematically resonant with Frankenstein, a timeless classic of English literature.
Jurassic Park also, almost unique among modern science fiction movies, contained a testable scientific hypothesis. The story spawned a virtual cottage industry of scientists looking for ancient DNA in amber until the half-life of DNA molecules was calculated several years ago. These results showed definitively that Jurassic-era DNA could not have survived long enough to be reconstructed to clone dinosaurs. Real-life Henry Wu wannabees will have to make do with trying to bring back animals more recently extinct.
The Myth Transformed
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is like Jurassic Park‘s ugly stepsister, a monster cobbled together crooked from all the shiny parts of the original. Its dinosaurs are bigger, badder, and uglier. The heroes are hiding out in remote cabins and ineffective non-profit organizations. The benevolent-ish grandpa, this time named Ben Lockwood, isn’t Santa Claus. He’s an invalid who is being taken advantage of by his underlings.
And the cute grandchild, Maisie? There’s something otherworldly about her too. She lives by herself, except for an elderly governess, in a creaky old mansion above a museum, and looks and talks like English musical child prodigy Alma Deutscher.
Most of the plot of Fallen Kingdom will surprise no one. People stand there, mouths open, until they get lunched by dinosaurs. Greed and hubris are again on display in ever-uglier forms. A plucky child escapes death by dinosaur and makes a fateful decision. The audience will probably cheer when a particularly horrible example of humanity tries to take a trophy from a dinosaur he thinks is asleep and then loses his arm, and his life, in the process.
What is different in Fallen Kingdom is that while the body counts pile up, balance is no longer restored to the movie’s universe. The otherworldly Maisie turns out not to be Ben Lockwood’s granddaughter at all, but a clone of his deceased daughter. The flying creatures Owen sees at the end of Fallen Kingdom aren’t Dr. Grant’s friendly pelicans. They’re pteranodons.
In their race to save and weaponize the most clever and aggressive dinosaurs, the humans of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom abandon another of their creations, the gentle plant-eating brachiosaurus. This is the same species that first evoked awe and wonder in the original Jurassic Park. The scene where a brachiosaurus calls to the retreating human ship as it awaits its own death on the island has become an audience tear-jerker. “That scene represents the ending of a dream that started 25 years ago,” says director J.A. Bayona.
I think this scene represents a new reading of the Frankenstein myth for modern scientists. Frankenstein’s creation does not start out cruel and murderous. He only becomes that way when he is abandoned by his creator. Hank van den Belt, a Dutch professor of philosophy, writes in Science magazine that Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest moral shortcoming was that he did not assume responsibility for his own creature and failed to give him the care he needed. Owen’s conscience is similarly pricked when he realizes how he may have failed to give Blue the care she needed.
Modern audiences for Frankenstein sometimes confuse the name of the scientist with the name of the monster. This confusion mirrors the increasingly monstrous behavior of the scientist. Dr. MG Bishop of King’s College Hospital in London is quoted in the same issue of Science:
Read the book and weep for those we have rejected, and fear for what revenge they will exact, but shed no tears for Frankenstein. Those who think, in ignorance of the book, that his is the name of the Monster are in reality more correct than not.
In Fallen Kingdom, life as we know it no longer finds a way back. Instead, the worst impulses of human nature have found a way to transform nature itself.
This review also appears in slightly edited form on Movie Babble.