Little Women

A brown haired girl dressed as Jo March.
Me in my Jo dress, age ten.

Yesterday Steve posted that he’d seen the new Little Women movie and liked it, and I wrote that I had too much to say to respond on my phone.

Reader, I hated it. I hated it so much I almost walked out, but I’ve never done that, even when I should have (I’m looking at you, The Godfather, and Empire of the Sun–both are, I understand, great movies, but I didn’t understand the former and I had a terrible, terrible cold with a runny nose and a total of three tissues during the latter). As mine is a minority report, I feel I owe you some explanation for my dislike, but indulge me while I report a bit on my Louisa May Alcott background first.

When I was in third grade and my friend in second, we decided in September to go as Little Women for Halloween. We both got the book from the library, and every night we’d call each other. “I’m on chapter five. What chapter are you on?” (It will surprise no one that I was a competitive reader as a child.) In one of the few times in my life that brown hair has really paid off, I got to be Jo. My friend fluctuated between Amy and Beth, and her mother found some teenaged girl to be Meg and escort us around.

I’ve since read Little Women many times. I’ve read most, though not all, of Alcott’s other books, including all her children’s books (my favorite is an Old-Fashioned Girl, though Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom are also good–the Little Women sequels are dull, and Jack and Jill and Under the Lilacs are nearly unbearable). I’ve read some of her blood and thunder stories (as she called them) and an unintentionally hilarious novel called Moods in which the heroine is deciding between marrying a character based on Emerson and a character based on Thoreau. She chooses the former and is miserable, but it’s clear that marrying the Thoreau guy would have been miserable, too. I have toured Orchard House, where she spent most of her life, first growing up and and later taking care of her parents, for the real-life Jo never married. Alcott spent most of her adult life supporting her family, including her parents, as her father was, well, misguided would be the kind way to put it.

I’ve also seen four the the five film adaptations of Little Women, missing only the miniseries.

My grandmother used to tell me that whenever her mother, my great-grandmother Hazel, saw her reading Alcott, she’d say, “I don’t know how you can stand all that moralizing.” It’s a good question. Moralizing is, on the whole, not what we call in librarianship an appeal factor for most people. I find it unbearable in other books, although in the 21st century, it rarely shows up in any genre outside Christian fiction. But for those of us who love Alcott, the moralizing is integral: it is part of the appeal. There is a scene early on in Little Women where Marmee gives each of the girls a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, each bound in a different color of leather. Who would not want such a thing?

“Girls,” said Meg seriously, looking from the tumbled head beside her to the two little nightcapped ones in the room beyond, “mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we must begin at once. We used to be faithful about it; but since father went away, and all this war trouble unsettled us, we have neglected many things. You can do as you please; but I shall keep my book on the table here, and read a little every morning as soon as I wake, for I know it will do do me good, and help me through the day.

Modern film adaptations, knowing how poorly this sort of thing goes over, tend to replace the moralizing with political speeches. That’s not historically inaccurate–the Alcotts were abolitionists, and they hung out with a crowd that was fighting for the progressive and civil rights issues of its day. Thus in the 1995 adaptation with Winona Ryder, you get Marmee (as portrayed by Susan Sarandon, surely a political choice if there ever was one) discussing the evils of corsets, and in the current version, Laura Dern’s Marmee speechifies from time to time on the evils of slavery and the rights of women (and gets schooled briefly by a black woman in a scene I’m still trying to decide if I find token or not not). And Amy–in perhaps the most unbelievable scene in the movie–delivers a lecture on women and property.

I don’t think you could do a completely faithful film adaptation of Little Women that anyone would want to watch, and so my issue with the current version isn’t its diversions from the text. Nobody, but nobody, ever represents Professor Bhaer as he is in the book–much older and much more German, in what I suspect are horrifically stereotypical ways. The book has never done a good job of convincing anyone that Jo marrying him is a good idea, but, as my mother once said, Alcott doubtless had to make character she herself could imagine leaving her father for–in other words, someone as similar to him as she could imagine.

What bothers me about the new movie (you were wondering if I would ever get there, I know) is the lack of chronological order. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of chronology–while we are all forced to live that way, few of us think about our lives that way, drawn back ceaselessly into the past as we are. But Little Women is nothing so much as a coming-of-age story: when it starts, the girls are girls. By the end, they are little women. The effect of the flash backs and flash forwards is to rob many of the most poignant scenes of their poignancy and to rob us of our understanding of the shifting alliances among the sisters.

Would a viewer who had never read the book fully understand the drama of the pickled limes, as portrayed in the book, or the betrayal Jo feels when Aunt March chooses Amy over her? The advantage to chronological order is that you see growth over time: you age as the character does, whether over the course of seven Harry Potter novels, 500 pages of Little Women, or two hours of a film. To disrupt that growth deprives the viewer of the chance to watch a life unfold in real time.

Most people I know loved this Little Women, so clearly there’s much to be said in its favor. But I’ll let others do that, and let this minority report stand as is.

Dear Elizabeth Wurtzel

Where and when I read Prozac Nation

I’m so sorry I never got to write to you. I thought about it a million times. I wrote about you (or rather about your work) in one of the earliest posts on this site, back when it was just a website where I hand-coded html files and then ftped them to my site, hosted by my local ISP, via a 28.8 modem.

It was about Bitch, a book I still love, despite its messiness. It occurred to me the other night that you were quite possibly the first person to say that Hillary Clinton should have said, back in the day, “yes, I am a bitch, so what?”, thus predicting a debate we’re still having about how angry women are allowed to be.

I quoted you on Bob Dylan and the sound of redemption back when I was pregnant, an assessment I have always agreed with.

I once stayed a night or two in an apartment building on the Upper West Side that I am almost certain was the one you grew up in, but I didn’t ring what I thought was your mother’s buzzer to find out because I’m not a jerk.

I bought More, Now, Again on my next trip to New York a couple of years later, just after it came out, because I saw it in a display in a bookstore I walked into, and I hadn’t seen it here yet at home.

I thought about writing you so many times to say what Prozac Nation meant to me, to tell you it was the first thing I read about depression that reflected how it truly felt to live inside my head, to say how it allowed me to be depressed and angry and love rock and roll and be all the things William Styron wasn’t, because though Darkness Visible was a beautiful book, he was an old man whose life I couldn’t imagine, whereas you were like someone’s cool older sister, just six years older than I am, the kind of person who’d be home from college on winter break when you were over at your friend’s house and who might magically talk to you or play you some music or tell you what to do with your hair. But then I didn’t, because I didn’t get around to it, and because I figured you got a million letters like this a day, and who needed one more?

Then you wrote that piece about copyright for the Wall Street Journal and I thought about writing you to tell you how wrong you were, because I’m a librarian and I have opinions about copyright. But I didn’t get around to it, and then months had passed, and I had a little kid by then, and what was the point.

Earlier this week I learned that you’d died. I was looking at the books session of the New York Times online because I have to give a talk about the best books of 2019 and I figured I’d kill some time on the desk by looking at their lists, and there it was — Elizabeth Wurtzel, ‘Prozac Nation’ author, is dead at 52. It was so stark. I told myself not to cry. I read the Times obituary, and then I read all the other remembrances and obituaries I could find, and then I came home and got out my copy of Prozac Nation, which I stole from my mom’s house one summer because I liked the cover image, and I looked inside the cover, because I used to have this thing of writing down where and when I’d read and reread a book, and I saw the first entry: On the road, August 1996. A few months later I’d slide into my first major depressive episode, or at least the first one that was identified as such to me. How did I know?

I wish I could write to you now just to tell you of that discovery. I started rereading it that night, and on almost every page there was a sentence that made me wish I could write to you about something. Yes, yes, me too, me too, me too. And God, yes, what a beautiful sentence that is.

I’m sorry I never got to do that.

Love,

Laura

Picture Window

map of Africa from the 1911 Encyclpaedia Britannica
Map of Africa from the 1911 Enyclopaedia Britannica [source]

This is an old, old essay from my MFA thesis, posted in honor of the Shelter House Used Book Sale, happening again today from noon to 4 pm at 1925 Boyrum Street in Iowa City. Many of the books mentioned below are for sale there, as well as many other books you might actually want to read. Every kid who goes gets a free book, and proceeds go to support services for the homeless in Iowa City.

For four years, from third through sixth grade, I lived with my mother and our cat in a brown shingle house tucked far to the back of its lot on a side street near a large park in our small midwestern city. The house was an ordinary split level, ugly and unprepossessing, with a sad band of trees planted haphazardly in its yard: a tilted Russian olive, a sinking willow, a nearly barren pine, trees I climbed and sat in and put stones around, even in their brokenness. The house’s chief feature, and the reason that my mother bought it, was that in back, opening out from the living room, there was a library, added by the house’s previous owner, a lawyer, who moved out when he needed even more room for his books.

Although we gave away 108 boxes of books to my father’s former students and colleagues shortly after we moved in, we still had over 2000 volumes, which is what you get from the marriage of two Ph.D.s with eighty years of book-collecting between them.

My mother kept fiction and children’s books in the living room, and sci-fi novels in her room, but the mass of books was in the library.

The library had greenish-blue industrial carpet and a sloped ceiling. The wall on its higher side was made of bookshelves, and the wall on the lower side was dominated by an enormous picture window.

Out the window you could see our yard and into our neighbors’ and almost all the way to where the street dropped off into a sudden ravine. Over the years, fueled by enthusiasms from reading A Girl of the Limberlost and Gerald Durrell’s The Amateur Naturalist, I learned the rocks and plants and birds outside—shale and limestone, columbine and yew and wild rose, cardinals and chickadees and mourning doves with their low, insistent notes.

I spent a lot of time in this room, often looking out the window instead of doing math homework or practicing viola. But, especially as twilight darkened the window so that it reflected the space in time, my attention turned to the other wall, too, to the shelves and shelves of books.

They were arranged, I now realize, by the Library of Congress system, by genre and nationality and century. The volumes were elegant, many of them hardback, black or grey or blue or olive green or, occasionally, red, with gold leaf and lettering on their spines. The titles and the covers o f these books were as much a part of my landscape as any living aspect of the natural world: The Oxford Book of English Verse, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Studies in Words, De Boetheius, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse, and its companion, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, The Imitation of Christ, The Vagabond Scholars, The Greek Stones Speak, The Faerie Queene, and, at the bottom, the twenty-odd volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1911. Unlike the World Book at school, these encyclopedias, though alphabetical, were not separated a letter at a time, but in groups — ITA to LOR, one was called, LOR to MUN, MUN to PAY. I often pulled them out so I could wonder at their tissue-thin pages and unfold with care their delicate and ancient maps, as if they might hold some key to these lost worlds, these foreign words.

* * *

When people asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid, I said a naturalist and a writer, which produced a certain degree of puzzlement, the latter being an impractical career and the former an obscure one. One could be a journalist or a scientist, but the desire simply to study nature and write of what you saw was, I suppose, peculiar.

The belief that nature has something to teach you, and that you can start from scratch, with the world around you, is as arcane to the world of science as the notion that you can read literature without theory is to the world of letters, but it was not always so. When Aristotle w anted to know how many teeth a horse had, he went out and counted them. That later generations took his word for it seems to me a sign not of progress but of an appalling lack of curiosity. Book-learning may help me identify the species of a bird or the meter of a poem, but what the bird and the poem have to teach me they will do themselves.

In college I was technically a Classics major, but I spent a great deal of time in the eighteenth century. It was an age that seemed to have much that the present one lacks. They all read Latin and Greek, they had intelligent and witty conversations, they never tolerated a fool, and even when they were angry, they were very, very elegant. But, most appealing of all, they seemed genuinely interested in human nature and natural law. All the men I read seemed to be natural philosophers — natural both in that they were observant of the ways of nature and natural in that their observations seemed to come from them, not through any critical or sociological theory. I read Hume on natural religion, Rousseau on man in a state of nature, and Montesquieu on natural law, and I wrote an entire term paper
on American natural history of the eighteenth century, when everyone was trying to figure out the nature of the New World, its new governments, and what Crevecoeur called “this American, this new man.”

But I also learned -— or was told -— that by and large, these men got nature wrong. Their ideas of order and equality left a lot of people out -— had I been around at the time, in fact, they would have excluded me by mere fact of my sex. Rousseau, that great proponent of noble savagery, had no desire to live amongst the “savages” himself, and abandoned his illiterate wife and five children to schmooze with the upper classes. Benjamin Rush, an American physician much enamored of Enlightenment philosophy, believed that black skin was a disease of the moral faculty (located, he posited, in the spleen), though by selective breeding, it might eventually be possible to purify the morals and thus lighten the skin. That phrase that Thom as Jefferson so charmingly altered to “the pursuit of happiness” was still understood by all to mean what John Locke had originally written, “the pursuit of property.” The prescription for manifest destiny and destruction was carved on the cornerstone of the country, and much of it, I was told, came from pondering not only nature but also the very books I had stared at in the library as a child.

Somehow, it seemed, I had horribly misread the words and the world. Growing up in that space where art and nature met had made me want to plunge more deeply into each. Apparently others were similarly impelled, but for them that plunge meant drilling for oil in the wilderness and arguing for the advancement of one group of people by the oppression of another. The effect was something like that of learning you and your worst enemy share a common ancestor or a fondness for the Gospel according to John -— yet it makes sense in a way, for what is enmity if not a belief that someone else is perverting that thing which is dearest to your heart?

Lately I have been reading Longinus, the first century AD rhetorician, in a translation with commentary done by my father and his former student and colleague, James Arieti. His chief work is On the Sublime, a treatise on composition that deals explicitly with questions of art (or technique, as my father and Arieti translate it) and
nature. Are poets born by nature or made through technique? An old question. Both, says Longinus: without nature, art would have no substance; without art, nature would have no form.

Always I find myself back in the library at dusk, watching the world as it fades and then reappears, as the trees turn to books and the leaves to words printed on a page. Always I remember searching for smooth flat black stones to place in a circle on the ground beneath a tree, and lying on the ground to listen and feeling something listening back. Always I remember the night my m other turned to the shelf, pulled out a volume, and read to me from Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy.

Now if nature should interm it her course, and leave altogether though it were but for a while the observation of her own laws; if those principal and mother elements of the world, whereof all things in this lower world are made, should lose the qualities which now they have; if the frame of that heavenly arch erected over our heads should loose and dissolve itself; if celestial spheres should forget their wonted motions, and by irregular volubility turn themselves anyway as it might happen; if the prince of the lights of heaven, which now as a giant doth run his unwearied course, should as it were through a languishing faintness begin to stand and to rest himself; if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gasp, the clouds yield no rain, the earth be defeated of heavenly influence, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mother no longer able to yield them relief: what would become of man himself, whom all these things now do all serve?

See we not plainly that obedience of creatures unto the law of nature in the stay of the whole world?

Perhaps, then, these things, this space, are more than just a hall o f mirrors, art and nature, nature and art. Perhaps they were preparing me to walk that narrow, filmy spider’s thread that connects the ages, touching mountain peaks and hidden caves, galaxies and nuclei, tangled in spots and often invisible, but ever present, just waiting for you to find it.

One Year of Self-Publishing

Update: My friend Greg Bales reminds me that you don’t need an agent to get a good editor. NB: He’s a great editor!

graph of sales of night sweats

One year ago today, my self-published memoir went out into the world. Since then, it’s been purchased by 515 people or entities (60+ of those are libraries). Since I published it really just so that family and friends could get copies, I’m rather stunned and flattered.

I have done very little to promote the book but have been fortunate to have several strokes of very good luck, as you can see from the graph above. There was an initial rush when I first put the book out and my friends and family and the first few libraries bought it, and then, as you would expect, there was a rapid downward trend. The next two spikes on the graph are the result of Will Manley’s column in Booklist and my piece in the New York Times. I still have no idea how Manley heard about the book (although I know many of the people who have written reviews of it, he is not one of them), nor do I have any insight into how to get one’s writing accepted for publication, other than the usual chestnuts of reading the publications you submit to and then submitting writing to them.

Those 515 sales represent 312 print books and 203 ebooks. The only piece of advice I can offer about selling books, at least based on my numbers, is that it’s useful to have your book available through Amazon, in whatever format.

pie chart of ebook sales pie chart of print salesIt is ridiculously easy to buy things through Amazon, and it’s apparently (or so I am told; I’ve only ever purchased one) especially ridiculously easy to purchase Kindle books. My sales numbers would seem to bear that out. A few people purchased the epub through Lulu, and an even smaller number apparently bought it through the Nook store, but Amazon’s Kindle store is by far the big winner.

In print, the book was initially only available through Lulu. It took a few months for it to get to Amazon, and Lulu only began offering distribution to Ingram a few months ago. It’s possible that the Ingram sales might be larger had that option been available earlier, but, again, I’m guessing Amazon would still take the cake.

I would not recommend self-publishing if you want to get rich. Then again, I’m pretty sure no one really recommends traditional publishing as a way to get rich, either. Very few people, relatively speaking, make a living from writing books. I was all on fire about self-publishing (or perhaps I was all defensive about self-publishing) when I started out on this adventure. I look at my book now and realize it could have benefited from further editing. But I lacked both the patience and the courage to pursue an agent — if I hadn’t hit Publish the day I did, I’m pretty sure it would not have happened at all.

I enjoyed the process of putting it together. I like learning things, and, as it turns out, I enjoy typesetting and copyfitting. I have Walt Crawford’s excellent book The Librarian’s Guide to Micropublishing to thank for everything I know about doing that. I’ve enjoyed being able to send some money to Our Bodies, Ourselves, and of course I have not been opposed to earning some money myself. Money is not everything, but it is very, very helpful. And I remain proud of the little book I produced, despite its flaws, or maybe even because of them. It is, as it was always intended to be, a document of a very particular time in my life, a time that was, as Euripides once wrote of the powers of the gods, most terrible and most wonderful. Thank you to everyone who has shared it with me.

Night Sweats on March 8 at New Bo Books

Laura poses with a copy of her book Night Sweats and the Library of Congress Subject HeadingsI took this series of selfies with my book and the Library of Congress Subject Headings by way of self-indulgence (and to show off my white hair) and to promote my reading tomorrow at the fabulous New Bo Books in Cedar Rapids.

That’s Saturday, March 8 at 2 pm! Be there to hear me read from Night Sweats, to buy some books, and to check out the artsy-fartsy section of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (really, there is one).

They’re doing a whole March is for Memoirs series with a lot of great events, so you should check those out, too.

I’d Rather Be Smart: A Review of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

book cover of How to Work for a Woman Boss
Possibly the worst awful library book out there, happily now gone from our collection.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a book written by a privileged white lady for other privileged white ladies, and most of the criticism of it — much of which I agree with — is based on that limitation. I needn’t rehash it here. It did dawn on me, though, while listening to her book (as read by Elisa Donavan), that if I were going to dismiss books by privileged white ladies written for other privileged white ladies, I would also really have to dismiss A Room of One’s Own, which was, after all, based on talks Virginia Woolf gave to the early 20th century British equivalent to the graduating class at Barnard (which Sandberg addressed in 2011). Thinking about that leads to all kinds of places I don’t really want to go, along the lines of I should just shut the hell up because I am just another goddamned privileged white lady talking. That’s a worthwhile pursuit, to an extent, in that it’ s important to consider what one might do (or not do) to increase the diversity of the voices that we hear. Unfortunately for me it usually ends not with me coming up with radical new plans for myself and society but rather with me thinking I should probably either kill myself or quit my job to do something more demeaning or ennobling, or both.

So instead I’ll say that I decided to approach the book both as a laugh (because really, it is kind of funny to hear a near-billionaire discuss her difficulties with having it all) and with at least the possibility of an open mind. And I was down with that for quite awhile. I was grooving on all the statistics she and her research team dug up on all the ways that women are dismissed and overlooked professionally, a few of which were even new to me. I was even kind of digging her attempts at humor (doubtless aided by her cowriter, Nell Scovell). Then I got to the part of the book where she’s discussing high school and how she was known as the smartest girl in the class, and “who wants to go to the prom with the smartest girl in the class?” And then I knew for certain that Sheryl Sandberg and I are and always have been engaged in fundamentally different projects.

I didn’t want to be the smartest girl in the class. I wanted to be the smartest person in the class. I still have and treasure a geometry test on which I got the highest score and, if I recall correctly, the only A. I beat my friend Aaron (who now works at Microsoft). I was pleased as all get out that my thrown-together the night before term paper for German class got an A+ when the smartest guy in the class, who had actually worked on his paper, only got an A. I was properly miffed when an English teacher commented that my paper was good but probably too out of reach for the seminar audience of high school students for whom it was intended.

So yeah, I wanted to be smart. And I didn’t aspire to go to prom. I wanted to end the war (the “first” Gulf War took place my freshman year of college). I wanted to keep Operation Rescue out of my town (they visited my sophomore year) and out of everyone’s town. I wanted to learn more and do more and go more places, on the Greyhound, if that’s what it took.

Sheryl Sandberg wanted — and wants — to change the world, too, and it’s undoubtedly true that her work with the US Treasury, Google, and Facebook has changed the world far more than I ever have or will — for better and for worse.

I suppose ultimately my objections to the book aren’t that it offers bad advice (it doesn’t) or that its facts aren’t good (they are). It’s that it’s shallow. A world that she envisions — one where half of companies and governments are run by women and half of households are run by men — will still be one with rampant poverty, disease, and homelessness. I don’t think that having women in charge of governments will change the unemployment rate or make transgender youth feel safer in their homes and their communities. It could do a lot of good. I would love to see better maternity care, from pregnancy parking for everyone (not just senior executives) to affordable prenatal care for all, and I do think those things are more likely to be enacted by women.

Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time includes, as I recall, several passages describing the main ongoing argument in her corner of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s — is the problem men or capitalism? — and I suppose as I read what I’ve written here that I am coming down on the side of capitalism. That’s not surprising. It was also in high school that I began to think it was the worst economic system out there (aside, of course, from all the other ones that have been tried). I still think that, and I’d like to see something better come along, though I’m not sure what that is yet.

As I was listening to the book, I kept thinking, “Oh, that, I have to write about that,” where that was yet another example of privileging the prom over, I don’t know, authenticity and revolution. I’ve forgotten what all those instances were now, of course, because I listened to the book in bits and snatches in my car only at times when I wasn’t driving my toddler around, since then we have to listen to the Beatles. They sing about how you ain’t gonna make it with anyone carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, and I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with that song. I’m not in favor of destruction, but I’m not at all sure it’s going to be all right. Sheryl Sandberg has a lot to say about how you are and aren’t going to make it, too. She probably is right, but I don’t want her to be.

Discussion Questions for Night Sweats: An Unexpected Pregnancy

A group recently decided to read my book Night Sweats together and asked me to send along some questions for their discussion. It’s a bit awkward to write discussion questions for your own book, so I put my clever (and occasionally obnoxious) friends on the internet up to the task. Here’s what they came up with. Use at your pleasure and/or peril.

  • What anxieties did you have/do you have about becoming a parent (or choosing not to)?
  • How might this book be relevant to all women, not just ones who are pregnant?
  • Talk about the narrator’s relationships with other people in the book. Why do you think she chose to make the baby’s father mostly absent from the narrative?
  • How has ready access to contraception changed women’s lives, family dynamics, and societal expectations? How has it not changed them?
  • How do we, presuming we are contraception users, balance the assurance of not conceiving against the known failure of all contraceptives sometimes?
  • What would you have done in the narrator’s position? What makes your choices different or the same?
  • Did it surprise you to learn that almost half of pregnancies are unintended?
  • Did this book change your mind about anything? If so, what, and why?
  • People expect pregnancy to be all joyful anticipation. What feelings do you have about pregnancy and parenthood that you feel aren’t acceptable to express?
  • The narrator structures her book around the church year. What role does religion play in her life and in the book? Did her faith add to or detract from your reading of the book?
  • What are your thoughts on pregnancy as it intersects with mental health and mental health care?
  • Does this book have anything to say to men?
  • What subject headings would you assign to this book?
  • How do you feel about “Pregnancy, Unwanted” as the Library of Congress’s description of unplanned pregnancy?
  • What should the IUD company have brought to Laura’s baby shower?
  • What kind of birth control are you using and how much do you trust it after reading this book?