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Thoughts On Leaving Reviews Until Later And The Results Of Your Chosen Time Slot

A photograph of an open notepad with a big question mark drawn on it and a pen lying on top

When I originally wrote about (not) leaving reviews until later, I was roughly two and a half years into blogging. That was a long enough time to have collected some experience of the process, but I knew I had a lot left to learn.

I now find that the concept and resulting act of writing a review immediately after finishing the book is not always the best choice. (Or writing as immediately as possible – you can’t always time your reading of the last pages to match a following time slot in which to write.) If a book is simple or just straightforward, and doesn’t require too much thought, an immediate review can work, but most often I have to let ideas I want to include percolate for a while; I also sometimes need time to think back on what I’ve read to work out what I want to say or what I can say – some books’ themes are not immediately apparent.

Yet I still subscribe to the idea of writing as soon as possible in terms of getting things done. I’ve been using it consistently for a while now; done is better than perfect. It really is – you can have the best ideas in the world but if they’re only in your head and not on the page, their worth isn’t tangible. Done rather than perfect can result in the feeling that you’ve not done your best, and that’s frustrating, but better to have something rather than nothing. Certainly there’s a correlation between the numbers of notes made on a book and the time it takes to finish the review unless those notes are structured as a plan already.

Allowing thoughts to percolate works best if note-taking happens concurrent to the reading. I realised this recently; if not taken at the time of creation, as much as you might remember what the note was, you lose the context surrounding it. This context might not be important; when it is, it’s generally vital. I don’t mean references or anything like that, I mean the sort of context that involves where you were when you had the thought, what your exact feelings were – the specifics behind the note that transcend the text you were taking notes on. For example if I copy out a passage from a book with the comment ‘this shows what the weather was like’, when I come back to the note later I’ll miss my own added subtext that would have otherwise brought clarity. The comment with the subtext included might be ‘this shows what the weather was like, specifically I’m looking at the first sentence which links to…’

It’s a certain sort of thoroughness.

Something I find endlessly fascinating the thought that if you written the piece – review in my case, sometimes another type of post, but rarely – at a slightly different time, you might or probably would have written it differently. I feel this most when I’m happy with the finished piece, when I’ve been surprised by the routes my thoughts took during writing flurries, which can happen regardless of whether I was following a plan – that all makes sense. What might you have written if you’d started an hour prior to the one you did? What might you have focused on then? What might you have lost or gained in pausing as you did to get a coffee? I find I tend to feel that I wouldn’t have done so well but there’s always that thought – if I’m happy with what I did write, how much happier might have I been if I’d written it earlier or later?

(When I went back to my older post after writing this, I realise these thoughts have been with me for a very long time. It’s a shame that, except for fiction, we’ll never be able to really look into it. There’s a reason Sliding Doors is so well known.)

What is your process like in this regard, no matter what you write (or compose or paint, and so on)?

 
Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

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Please note that this is a commentary of what is sometimes referred to as Little Women Part One. Part Two, also known as Good Wives, will be discussed in a separate post.

Playing the part but not without diversions.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1868
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

The four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their mother – are living in relative poverty; their father had been let down by people whose businesses he had invested money in. Now it’s Christmas, and Mr March is serving as a chaplain in the American Civil War. As the girls look towards a lacklustre season and future, their mother reminds them of what they do have – a home and each other – and as time goes on, the four take it on board and live life to the full, making friends with the boy and his grandfather next door, working for money, and loving each other.

Little Women is a book of family, hope, and love, and all those wonderful things we still long for today.

Looked at in the context of our 21st century, it must be said that the book is fairly low on content. Alcott herself disliked some of the book, which she had written under pressure from her publisher1; her publisher also found the first chapters very dull and it was only after a young girl read the book, and following this the manuscript was passed to others, that it was given the go ahead for publication (Wikipedia, n.d. a). After this it became a bestseller and Alcott was asked by readers to finish off the story which she did swiftly – hence Part Two. (Perhaps the pressure was the reason Alcott chose to make the book semi-autobiographical. Little Women is based on the author and her sisters: Alcott is Jo – her life, personality, and the language of her letters are very similar to that of her character’s – and Amy her artistic sister May who became well-known; thus it was likely very easy to write. Certainly a lot of both Little Women and Good Wives mirrors her life – some things she writes about as the experiences of the others were in fact her own experiences2.)

The book is little difficult today. The most obvious issue is the sugary sweet nature of it, what we might think of as too goody-goody and overly wholesome, but a full reading shows off the moral values that we don’t adhere to so much any more. Whilst the love of family and being kind within the unit are still very relevant, the wish for girls to be interested in house and home beyond all else has largely become a thing of the past, and therefore in a way, it is far better to read this book as a product and example of its time than it is anything else; this is to say that the values it promotes for children, particularly girls, are often irrelevant, some even potentially harmful as we move away from the idea that women should be polite and modest beyond all else; thus it may no longer be wholly appropriate for the target age it was written for, but an older child and adult readers will appreciate the novel for what it is. (Children can of course still read it, but support of parents in terms of questions they may have will be required for many and would be beneficial for reasons above and beyond questions of morality.) We should perhaps look to a near-contemporary opinion of the book for guidance: editor Ednah Cheney noted in her commentary that ‘One of the greatest charms of the book is its perfect truth to New England life. But it is not merely local; it touches the universal heart deeply’ (Cheney, 1889, p. 190).

And Cheney is right about its charm; the use of place, albeit that most often scenes take place in only one or two houses, is lovely. Rather like the Anne Of Green Gables series in terms of life on Prince Edward Island in Canada (a book that was published just less than half a century later), Little Women shows well life for the average person in New England – Concord, Massachusetts, to be exact, if we trust that Alcott’s hometown is the setting. It introduces us to the general atmosphere of the place and the diversity of society in its nextdoor neighbour set up of a newly poor family residing beside a rich one, and the way Mrs March visits the homes of families who are even worse off than her own. As well as this, despite the fact that it could be something not so much universal as simply important to Alcott, the book shows the humanity and humility in charity, helping those worse off than oneself, putting others ahead of your own comfort. This is where Amy, otherwise a bit frivolous and vain, shines, adding a subtly to Jo’s more obvious acts of kindness.

Where the domesticity and general life goals of the March family do not match with us today, there is a bright light in Josephine. Alcott’s writing of Jo as a personality match for herself means that Jo’s independent nature and dreams for her future have more relevance than before; Jo is known for having inspired girls of the time, with Alcott providing both the social norm of domesticity and an instance of the value in having individual identities3 but our present day wider acceptance of female agency, and our drive for it, makes Jo perhaps the most resonant character for all. And the slight to moderate gender nonconformity (it’s hard to say exactly how much due to Alcott’s limitations) has surely more worth today than ever before, bringing in new conversations that would have been unthinkable in Alcott’s time (though quite possibly welcomed by the author if they could have happened).

Continuing on that positive note and offering a reversal of something that has already been said, the quietness, that lack of action and the dull quality that Alcott and her publisher found – as much as it’s a drawback it is also a major highlight of the book. The relative solitude of the family and their limited times away from home does well to remind us of the value to be found in a more laid-back way of life – or just a laid-back few days. Time full to the brim with busy-ness and travel is excellent, but a ‘staycation’, to use an instantly-recognisable example, can be just as wonderful if for very different reasons. There are treasures in life’s monotony.

It is due to this that Alcott’s lack of any plot – in its formal terms – and her concentration on characterisation and conversation over all else works. The everyday hobbies of piano playing and games of make-believe are enjoyable to read. And as much as some of the traits of the characters can be difficult – anyone who has worked for weeks or months on a hobby could be forgiven for feeling that Jo is hard done by by the author in the episode of Amy’s revenge – they slowly work their way into your heart.

The book-about-books factor is omnipresent. A fan of Dickens and other authors of her time, Alcott peppers her work with references both obvious and, to our time almost 200 years in the future, more vague. (Of Dickens the references are particularly plentiful and to no surprise – Alcott and her friends made a point of seeing the English author on stage when in Europe4 – however the novel also pays a fair debt to Puritan writer John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, including the book as an item the girls own that they use in their favourite imaginary games. Away from the Bunyan, the various book references span centuries and include both timeless classics and bestsellers of the day.

It wouldn’t be wrong to speculate that with the continued passing of time, Little Women will inch towards being viewed less for its story and more for its great value in terms of the history it includes of time and place, the further movements towards gender equality and female independence and choice, the extremely detailed information it offers on the life and opinions of its author, and the slight material on the trends in publishing at that time, which when placed beside Alcott’s letters and journals is a vast amount5. Certainly questions already abound the Internet as to the suitability of the novel for children – especially girls – in terms of content as well as language; you do have to be on the ball and in the know if you’re to catch the various references that will give you a better idea of how a reader in the 1800s would have understood and received it.

This book has never been out of print and it’s not hard to see why. Suitably ending with a note that suggests the not-so-neatly-tied threads can be undone for another book if the reader so desires, and with all its morals and background, its purpose was achieved and then some. It may not tick every literary box or every reader box today but it ticks more than enough of them. It is fun, it is sweet, and for all the reliance on Alcott’s particular Christian denomination, its lessons are of worth to all.

A note on the religious aspect: the debt owed to The Pilgrim’s Progress pervades the book (even the chapter headed ‘Vanity Fair’ is more about a place in Bunyan’s novel than it is Thackeray – ‘more’ because Alcott liked Thackeray, too, and Thackeray’s own use of the name was due to Bunyan). As much as Little Women isn’t called a Christian book, it well could be, however it’s more along the lines of The Lord Of The Rings than The Chronicles Of Narnia, the religion there for the taking if you have the wish or knowledge – it’s a long way from being pushed on you.

Footnotes

1 In her edited collection of Alcott’s journals and letters, published in 1889, Ednah Cheney includes this entry:
“September, 1867 – Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girls’ book. Said I’d try. … Began at once on both new jobs; but didn’t like either.”
The editor follows this up with a commentary: ‘…in May, 1868, they [the publishers] repeated the request through her father, who had brought to them a collection of short stories for publication. Miss Alcott’s fancy had always been for depicting the life of boys rather than girls; but she fortunately took the suggestion of the publisher, and said, like Col. Miller, “I’ll try, sir.” The old idea of “The Pathetic Family” [this appears to be her description of her own family] recurred to her mind; and she set herself to describe the early life of her home. The book was finished in July, named “Little Women,” and sent to the publishers, who promptly accepted it, making Miss Alcott an outright offer for the copyright, but at the same time advising her not to part with it. It was published in October, and the result is well known. She was quite unconscious of the unusual merit of the book, thinking, as she says, the first chapters dull, and so was quite surprised at her success. “It reads better than I expected,” she says; and she truly adds, “We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds, that will be the reason of it.”‘(pp 186, 189-190)
2 Louisa travelled to Europe, seeing all the sights she would later ascribe to another sister/character.
3 Wikipedia (n.d. a) says, with a quotation from Alcott scholar Joy Kasson: ‘In the 1860s, gendered separation of children’s fiction was a newer division in literature. This division signaled a beginning of polarization of gender roles as social constructs “as class stratification increased”.’ The page continues, quoting Barbara Sicherman: ‘After reading Little Women, some women felt the need to “acquire new and more public identities”, however dependent on other factors such as financial resources. While Little Women showed regular lives of American middle-class girls, it also “legitimized” their dreams to do something different and allowed them to consider the possibilities.’ These comments cover both Parts of the book combined into one – it could be argued, considering the notes about dreams and possibilities, that they are most relevant to the second, but this is not exclusive.
4 ‘Went to a dinner-party or two, theatres, to hear Dickens read, a concert, conversazione and receptions, seeing English society, or rather one class of it, and liking what I saw.’ (Alcott, 1866, in Cheney, 1898, p. 183)
5 Good Wives unarguably takes the publishing trends and readership information a lot further, resulting in a fair overview of the time.

Book References

Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1889) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) Little Women, accessed 4th July 2019
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) The Pilgrim’s Progress, accessed 3rd July 2019

 
First Half Of 2019 Film Round Up

Looking at my list over the weekend, knowing I hadn’t watched many films but not thinking it was as ‘bad’ as it turned out to be – I last watched a new film in April – I already expect to do better in the latter six months this year. I’ll be wanting to up my numbers and I’m always aware of the short shelf life of films on subscription services.

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Beauty And The Beast (USA/UK, 2017) – I’d been ready to find this not as good as hoped, having read a few negative reviews, but I have to disagree with them. It is a great pity that so much of this film is CGI – Dan Stephens in a mask would have been better however outdated it may have looked – but the script and the acting is a lot of fun. I was hoping for a copy of the much-loved library but the use of a library in a historic house wasn’t bad.

The Black Knight (USA, 2001) – The reality of this film wasn’t at all what I’d expected, a seeming vehicle for the actor, a slapstick comedy rather than something more thought-out. I didn’t hate it, but I won’t be watching it again.

Charade (USA, 1963) – Really good film with constant red herrings and changes of perception. But perhaps the best part is that it’s in the public domain and there are some wonderful high-quality versions about. I put Grant and Hepburn into Google, hoping this wasn’t the only film they made together; unfortunately it is.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (UK/France, 2018) – A very good adaptation of the book which gets around the ‘problem’ of story being epistolary with aplomb.

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Jumanji (USA, 1995) – I’d seen parts of this film before and enjoyed it. It is still good fun in adulthood.

La La Land (USA, 2016) – This was strictly okay; I liked the music but I’m glad I didn’t make a trip to the cinema for it.

The Lego Movie 2 (USA, 2019) – Absolutely awesome. This Song’s Gonna Get Stuck Inside Your Head did get stuck in my head and I didn’t mind a bit.

What films have you seen recently?

 
June 2019 Reading Round Up

The past month has been pretty topsy-turvy. Whilst I still read a fair amount it was with the use of the lots-of-books-at-once method; I’ve two books not quite finished, and I read half of another that, in a rare show of defiance for my usual sunk cost reading fallacy I decided not to complete. At the tail end of last week, summer finally begun in Britain after weeks of rain, which led to some evenings outside. I have also given time to the Womens’ World Cup, switching reading for knitting as I cheer on England (next match is against the USA, tomorrow evening).

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Birgit Vanderbeke: You Would Have Missed Me – A young girl moves from East to West Germany with her parents, who look forward to the luxury to come whilst neglecting their child; she struggles to work out her life. A difficult but very good read.

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Louisa May Alcott: Little Women – Four girls learn to live with their mother in relative poverty following their father’s losses in investments and his leaving to serve in the American Civil War. Very good, but sugary sweet at times; the morality is strong, suited to the era and target audience.

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Nicola Cornick: The Woman In The Lake – A Lady is given a gown that, when asked, her maid does not destroy, instead hiding it away; centuries later a girl on a school trip takes a gown from a room (that suddenly looks nothing like the one she’d been viewing), and for the next several years finds the thrill from stealing things too attractive to ignore, and the gown a scary reminder of a strange time few know about. Pretty good, but not quite as good as Cornick’s previous two books.

It has been a month for literary satisfaction. Apart from the three above which were all enjoyable (the Vanderbeke wins) I’ve about 150 pages left of Michelle Obama’s Becoming and am a good way through Little Women part two, which I’ll be referring to as Good Wives and reviewing separately. (This two book set up seems to be the standard in the UK and is how I’ve always seen the series; it also means it’s easier to review as I’ve found part two very different and, for all the domesticity, the – spoilers until the end of this sentence – seeming kow-towing to anger-prone husbands, and Amy’s future that I know is coming up soon, it’s been enjoyable.) I’ve realised how silly it was to define it as something that should be read at Christmas – it certainly suits, but with the narrative taking place over a whole year it’s not really all that festive.

I’m going into July with a plan to continue reading as I have been; I’ve a couple of obligations but mostly it’ll be whimsical.

How is your summer (or winter) going? Are you watching the World Cup? And is it worth reading all 4 (3) books of Alcott’s series?

 
A Short Biography Of Jean Saunders And Agora Books’ Latest

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Agora Books, previously Ipso Books and established in 2015, is the digital-first publishing arm of literary agency Peters Fraser Dunlop. The publisher releases two sorts of work – brand new books, and the books of forgotten authors of the past decades, such as Anne Melville’s 1980s historical novel which I reviewed last month.

Their latest reprint, Taking Heart, will be released tomorrow; it’s the first book in a historical series by Rowena Summers (a pen name for Jean Saunders), originally published in 2000. It’s a book that will interest you if you like pre-war (WWII in this case) family sagas. I received a copy of the book; I’d thought I’d introduce you to the author in case she’s someone whose work you’d like to look into yourselves, and I’m posting the synopsis here in lieu of a review.

Jean Saunders, who also wrote under the names Jean Innes (her maiden name), Sally Blake, Rachel Moore, and, once, Jodi Nicols (for her solo erotic novel), became a writer in 1974. Born in 1923, she passed away after an illness in 2011. Her second novel was her first published, and following this she received several rejections. It’s a bit different to the usual story.

Saunders wrote just over 100 novels, and published approximately 600 short stories in magazines. Her 1970s début was in the gothic romance genre, in which she continued until the 1980s when she switched to regular historicals. Her books under the name Rowena Summers were the most popular.

The author was the 17th Chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, holding the post for two years between 1993-1995. In later years she lectured in writing, often on cruise ships, and wrote a number of books on the craft.

Agora Books have so far published 6 of Saunders’ books; Taking Heart will be the first under a pen name. Here is the synopsis:

Imogen and her sisters are fighting to save their childhood home and remain in Bristol. Their father has announced the sale of the family business and everything is about to change.

But when a terrible tragedy tears the family apart, the Caldwell girls must forge their own paths in life. And with the Second World War looming over England, their lives begin to change more drastically than they could have imagined.

Through love and heartbreak, fear and loss, can the Caldwell girls make it out unscathed? Or will they be swept up in the chaos of the changing times?

And here’s the first line:

As the family gathered in the sitting-room of the tall Bristol house that Sunday afternoon, Quentin Caldwell looked at his three daughters with immense satisfaction and pride.

Agora’s books are available on Amazon; both ebook and paperback copies of Taking Heart are here.

 

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