Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!
It’s a little hard to focus on Library Chicken today. As I write this (on Friday), it’s gorgeous outside — good weather for everyone who is in the traffic jam that is I-75, heading north from Florida up into Georgia, and for all the folks in Savannah and on the coast who will be heading west today and tomorrow. I hope that everyone is able to ride out the storm safely with family, friends, and pets, and plenty of board games and books to keep you busy.
I’m still working my way through a stack of Alcott and Alcott-adjacent fiction and nonfiction — as usual, I’ve gone way beyond normal prep (for my middle schoolers who will be reading Little Women soon) into near-obsession, but that’s part of the fun of Library Chicken, right? This short book is a good introduction to the astonishing group of literary giants and Transcendentalist thinkers who became friends and neighbors in Concord, Mass., though it’s not without flaws. Cheever’s chronology is hard to follow and she can be sloppy about details. She also seems to disapprove slightly of abolitionists and their uncompromising stance on slavery which seems...odd? To say the least? That said, it’s a quick, engaging read and a good way to get to know the players.
(LC Score: +1)
Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia by Sterling F. Delano
Okay, Mr. Delano, if you’re going to promise me the “dark side”, you’d better have something more up your sleeve than a smallpox scare and mismanaged finances. Brook Farm was an 1841 experiment in utopian communal living founded by George Ripley and inspired by Transcendentalist thinking. Nathaniel Hawthorne was an early resident but he didn’t stay long, and the community failed to attract the support of other notable Transcendentalists, including Emerson. (It did, however, last a heck of a lot longer than Bronson Alcott’s version of utopia, Fruitlands. And no one almost starved to death, Bronson.) Despite the subtitle, there’s nothing salacious in this scholarly account of the community, which actually worked out pretty well for a while (lasting about 5 years), all things considered.
(LC Score: +1)
[Note from Amy: Fruitlands was a HOT MESS. And Bronson Alcott is THE WORST. You can go read a little summary of the sheer terribleness of the venture on the New England Historical Society's website, but do so with care because it is a rabbit hole, and you will want to find out more and more. And you will become increasingly convinced that Bronson Alcott is a terrible, terrible father, despite what Little Women may have led you to believe. OK, that's it, carry on.]
The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall
WHY am I just learning about the Peabody sisters NOW? How is it that we’ve all heard of Emerson and Thoreau but no one knows about Elizabeth Peabody? (And Margaret Fuller, but I haven’t gotten to her bio yet.) This wonderful, entertaining biography follows sisters Sophia (an artist who married Nathaniel Hawthorne), Mary (who married educational reformer Horace Mann), and the amazing Elizabeth, who, aside from being a prominent Transcendentalist thinker, was also a writer, speaker, small business (bookstore) owner, editor, publisher, and educator who opened the first American kindergarten and successfully campaigned for free public kindergarten throughout the United States. WHY HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF HER? (I mean, I think we all know why, but I’ll spare you my rant about sexism and patriarchy <sigh> so we can get on with the books.) I loved this bio, but was frustrated when it ended with Sophia’s marriage to Hawthorne, about halfway through the sisters’ lives and well before the kindergarten campaign that was to be Elizabeth’s primary legacy. There’s no apparent reason to end it there; it seems almost as if the author intended to write two volumes (there’s certainly enough material) but decided to stop after the first one. I am now on a hunt for other Peabody biographies (of which there seem to be very few <sigh>).
(LC Score: +1)
The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel’s been popping up all over Library Chicken today, so it’s appropriate that I’m revisiting his novels. I read Seven Gables two or three times growing up but I had almost no memory of the plot, about a family cursed by greed, whose patriarch condemned an innocent man for witchcraft in order to get his land. It’s not a complicated story, but the tone and descriptions are delightfully grim and creepy, which is, I think, what drew me to the book when I was younger.
(LC Score: 0, still working on the Library of America anthology)
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Stephenson is a modern master of science fiction and I was looking forward to this (very long) book, but ended up spending most of it trying to decide if it was entertaining or irritating. There’s good stuff here — time travel powered by quantum physics and magic! satire targeting governmental bureaucracy! witches who just don’t give a damn! — but ultimately the clash of fun over-the-top ridiculousness (Vikings attacking the local Walmart!) with the literally world-changing and death-dealing effects of time travel (that our main characters have zero ethical qualms about putting into the hands of the American military) didn’t work for me. And it turns out to be part one of a series (presumably), ending on a cliff-hanger and leaving the main plot unresolved, so yeah, not for me, unfortunately.
(LC Score: +½, returned late)
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Well, darn it. Amy made me read this even though I’ve told her and told her that (1) I hate Southern gothic literature (where everyone is sweaty all the time and has an insane cousin living in the attic) and (2) I hate Faulkner in particular (I had to read As I Lay Dying in high school and have never recovered), but then it turned out that I kinda-sorta didn’t hate this which is the worst. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Ivy Compton-Burnett: both authors have distinctive, easily-parodied, hard-to-understand narrative styles, and both demonstrate a refreshing unconcern as to whether readers will be able to successfully navigate their text. (I imagine them having tea together, discussing the art of writing:
“Can you believe all those so-called writers who actually care about whether people can understand their work?”
“What I say, my dear, is that if someone isn’t willing to spend an hour or two close-reading each page — well, then, clearly they are some kind of reading dilettante who has no business opening one of my carefully crafted novels.”
“Hear, hear. More Earl Grey?”)
(NOTE: The preceding is almost certainly not an accurate representation of said authors, but Wikipedia tells me that their lifetimes overlapped very closely so that’s my new headcanon and you can’t stop me.)
For me, there’s a puzzle-solving aspect with both authors that I enjoy — at least up until the point where I’ve had enough and throw the book across the room. I did not enjoy all the racism and misogyny, but it wasn’t unexpected. I have long had the impression that Faulkner was one of those manly-men authors (see: Hemingway) who I’ve felt free to despise without ever bothering to read their work, but now I guess I’ll go back and read some of his other books and see if any of my ideas were accurate. Ugh. THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT, AMY.
(LC Score: +½, returned late)
Library Chicken Score for 9/12/17: 4
Running Score: 102
On the to-read/still-reading stack for next week:
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (my name finally came up on the hold list, yay!)
- The Lizard in the Cup by Peter Dickinson (James Pibble mysteries #5)
- The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (sequel to The Three-Body Problem)
- Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings (let’s see if other people were able to go longer than six months, Bronson)