Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Literary Birthday Book Reviews for November

This month I have been reading two very different books by authors with November birthdays.  As always, my reading selections are chosen by sorting a list of numbered titles with an online random number generator.  Since I have such long lists … 'books to read before you grow up' and 'books to read before you die,' the random sorting makes it easier for me to decide what to read next.  When you want to read everything, a decision like this is very hard to make!

Typically books listed as ones to read before growing up are suggested for children, but sometimes a book is so good it is recommended on both lists.  Louisa May Alcott's book Little Women is noted as “required reading” before growing up and strongly suggested as a “must read” before you die.  I accomplished the first requirement as a young girl of eight years old, with the help of my mother.  Each night she would read to me a chapter from Little Women before bed and once the lights were out I'd sneak to read it again with a flashlight under the covers.  Little Women is one of the few books that I consider to be “flashlight worthy.”  I have reread this book several times throughout my life, which is also a testament to its worthiness.  
Louisa May Alcott

This story is about four sisters and their mother, holding down the home-front during Civil War times, while their father is away.  In studying about Alcott, I learned that she worked as a nurse on the battlefield during this war and that her character Josephine March, affectionately known as Jo, is written as a semi-biographical comparison.  Alcott also created characters in Little Women that represent her own three sisters.  Each one has special personality traits and even though they are fictional, from another time period, they truly become your friends.  I was so enamored by these characters that all my dolls and kittens were named after them. 

Little Women is a story of family love and hope during the worst of times.  And while experiencing hardships, these sisters kept little journals inspired by the struggles of Christian from John Bunyan's book Pilgrim's Progress.  Though some of their burdens were heavy and hard to bear, they learned to find the 'sunnyside' and helped each other through dark hours.  I wouldn't have discovered Bunyan's book without reading about its influence on the March sisters.  Yes, I read that book too after my initial consumption of Little Women. I think the scene that left the most impression on me was the sad time when Beth died.  I cried for at least a week after this character left behind her beloved family for the celestial city.  I truly felt Jo's pain from the loss and now know that Alcott wrote from experience after losing a sister, Lizzie, to Scarlet Fever.

This book provided many real life comparisons to assure me that we are not alone in our struggles.  Like Amy I wanted to be well-liked and fit in with my peers at school. Like Meg I worried about my appearance to others.  Beth was a shining example of goodness who served as a role model for me.  And Jo, who I felt most in tune with, taught me that there may be obstacles in the way, but with perseverance you can overcome.

While male readers may be intimidated by the title, Little Women, this book provides boys (and men) an excellent view of how the opposite sex thinks and acts.  In a Literary Hub article, columnist Anne Boyd Rioux asks, “How can boys respect girls if they are never encouraged to see the world as girls do?”  Even though this book probably has the most feminine title of any published book, it remained in the top ten as number 8 out of a nominated list of 100 when competing for the recent accolade of Great American Read.

If you haven't read Little Women or maybe you're considering it as a re-read, I suggest this universal coming-of-age story in honor of Louisa May Alcott's birthday, November 29, 1832.  There are also several films made of this novel, and a 2018 PBS Masterpiece Theater version that will have you spellbound.

John Berger, cultural art critic and novelist was born on November 5, 1926.  His award-winning book G. was an interesting read, and somewhat controversial among my co-readers.  Several members of my book club abandoned the story after reading only a few chapters.  Though the title is a single letter – G. - the content cannot be described G-rated.  Berger does include some explicit scenes, but that is to be expected when you consider that the main character, Giovanni (known as G.), is a womanizer … a seducer.  

The story is set on the eve of WWI and has many historical references to European events, which I noticed were all documented by Berger in crowd scenes.  His descriptions are so vivid, I was inspired to dig deeper and look for background information by Googling some of the incidents surrounding his character (G.).  Following the story’s timeline, Berger takes readers to Naples, Italy as Garibaldi’s Army makes an entrance in 1860.  Then to riots in 1898 on the streets of Milan and again with the mixed crowds of Bosnian nationalists, Italian Irredentists, and Hapsburg soldiers in 1915 on the streets of Trieste. 

Berger’s character, G. (said to be a “modern Don Juan”) is rich, privileged and free to travel.  A product of an illicit affair, G. is heir to his father’s candied fruit business.  His first encounter with sex is rather warped, learning from a widowed aunt how to pleasure a woman.  The novel takes off here with meditations about sex and follows G. through relationships with a series of women.  The disturbing parts of this novel weren’t so much the graphic intimacies, but the manipulative mindset of this character.     

John Berger
Berger is well-known for his talks on art: Ways of Seeing, which were featured as a BBC television series and in print.  His art critiques were published in 1972, the same year his novel G. won a Booker Prize.   In accepting this award, Berger made an unforgettable statement that probably caused more controversy then the book itself.  At that time, the company who sponsored the Booker Award had a history of exploitive trading in the Caribbean.  In a radical show of support for this impoverished territory, John donated half of his prize money (£5,000) to the London Black Panther Party.  From Berger’s acceptance speech; “The London-based Black Panther movement has arisen out of the bones of what Bookers and other companies have created in the Caribbean; I want to share this prize with the Black Panther movement because they resist both as black people and workers the further exploitation of the oppressed.”  John kept the other half of his prize money to assist with research expenses on a book he was writing about immigrant workers.

Over the past few weeks, I listened to a variety of lectures and interviews to learn more about this author and understand the meaning of his story about G. One idea that is mentioned in both his art lectures and his novel is that men survey women before they relate to them and that women’s actions indicate the way they would like to be observed. I wonder if this theory is true in our world today. I can say that listening to Berger ruminate on what he thinks about and his reflections on how he writes “life on the page” is fascinating.  One example of his mind’s wanderings (quoted from G.): “Do you know the legend about cicadas?  They say they are the souls of poets who cannot keep quiet because when they were alive, they never wrote the poems they wanted to.”   

My favorite image from this novel was the last sentence.  I think it is a perfect way to close the novel … a scene, which I cannot describe for you without spoiling the story. “Uninterruptedly receding towards the sun, the transmission of its reflections becoming faster, the sea neither requires nor recognizes any limit.  The horizon is the straight bottom edge of a curtain arbitrarily and suddenly lowered upon a performance.”

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