The Library of America edition.
I had a caffeinated readathon on Sunday. Too little sleep, too much coffee, and I read parts of four books, but finished only my comfort book, Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins.
It started when I woke up on Sunday at 3:45 a.m. I thought it was near dawn, and realized I would be up in time to watch the men’s Olympic marathon.
AND THEN I LOOKED AT THE CLOCK.
WHY WAS I AWAKE? The marathon didn’t start till 7:30. There was no possiblity that Bob Costas was working at 3:45, even Brazil time.
So I got up and I played String with the cats–this involves swinging a string , and my cats are so lazy that after a while they lie on the floor and bat at it. (They learned this from the oldest cat, who is their street-wise role model in all things).
Then I read for several hours. Here’s what I’ve been reading:
My original Whitman Classics edition from the ’60s!
Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins. A few years ago I bought a Library of America volume of Louisa May Alcott’s work, edited by Susan Cheever, one of Alcott’s biographers. This is a superb collection of Alcott’s children’s and adult writing, and includes the novels Work (known as “the adult Little Women”), Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, and “Stories and Other Writings.”
Alcott is witty and her dialogue is rambunctious, her best books are so fast-paced they can be inhaled, and her female characters are never, as Jo says in Little Women, “affected, niminy-piminy chits.” In Eight Cousins, the heroine, Rose Campbell, an orphan, is a bit “niminy-piminy” at first, when fresh from boarding school, she is living on the “Aunt Hill,” with her great-aunts Plenty and Peace Campbell, both spinsters, who don’t how to raise a teenager. In the neighborhood live four other aunts, three of whom are the mothers of Rose’s seven male cousins, and each has her own ideas about bringing up girls. Aunt Myra, a gloomy hypochondriac whose daughter Caroline died as a child (poor Myra and poor Caroline!), is convinced Rose is not long for this world and doses her with pills. Fortunately, Rose’s guardian, Uncle Alec, a charming doctor, returns from sea and throws out the pills and forbids Rose to drink the coffee which was supposed to calm her nerves. He has brought back a chest of gifts from the exotic East to bribe her with, though that word is never used: Soon she is drinking fresh milk in a special wooden cup that is supposed to make everything taste better, substituting colorful sashes for the tight fashionable belt, wearing beautiful loose dresses, running (the Olympics marathon next?), gardening, and even camping (God help her!). Endearingly, she befriends and “adopts” the teenage maid, Phebe, who was raised at an orphanage. And the girls have fun together and prove to be equal in intelligence, as we learn when Rose later helps her with her writing. (Phebe surpasses her in arithmetic, due to keeping accounts.)
Alcott understands boys so well, yet she had only sisters. When Uncle Alec arrives unexpectedly, a “warning” is sent to the Campbell boys to prepare them for Uncle Alec’s presence at church.
It was evident that the warning had been a wise one, for, in spite of time and place, the lads were in such a ferment that their elders sat in momentary dread of an unseemly outbreak somewhere. It was simply impossible to keep those fourteen eyes off Uncle Alec, and the dreadful things that were done during the sermon will hardly be believed.
My favorite of the cousins is Mac, the bookworm, and when he strains his eyes, has to wear an eye shade, and cannot reads, Rose is the best “nurse”: she spends hours reading to him and entertaining him. (Mac plays a big role in the sequel, Rose in Bloom. when they grow up, but I won’t breathe a word about it.) Anyway, Rose learns to hold her own with the boys: when Charlie (known as Prince) and Archie stop speaking to each other–both have fallen into bad company, the one drinking too much, the other in debt for betting–Rose sets a good example and mediates. They have an easier time talking to a girl about their problems than to each other.
Alcott moralizes more overtly in Eight Cousins than in Little Women or my favorite, An Old-Fashioned Girl. but Rose is not perfect, thank God. When her fashionable frenemy, Annabel Bliss, tempts her to have her ears pierced, Rose cannot resist, even though she knows Uncle Alec will disapprove.. It hurts like hell–there is no numbing with ice cubes–and she plans to keep it secret for a while–but she has forgotten that her six-year-old cousin, Jamie, and his little friend Doodie were witnesses: they were playing in the corner! And they tell! ( I couldn’t resist getting my ears pierced either, though, alas, I have a metal allergy! No jewelry for this girl…) Uncle Alec gives Rose a break, and she does wear little gold earrings/
THE OTHER THREE BOOKS I’M READING.
2. Eve Babitz’s Eve’s Hollywood, which I learned about this from Jacqui Wine’s blog. Babitz’s autobiographical novel about coming of age in L.A. is witty and hilarious!
As a fan of Dancing with the Stars, I especially enjoyed the chapter about ballroom dancing in gym class. When it rains, Eve and the other girls are thrilled, because instead of changing into smelly gym clothes, they get to dance to records by Chuck Berry, etc. They love it, but the best dancers are the tough, cool Mexican girls. Here is a description of one of their dances.
The Choke was a Pachuco invention. The Pachucos were what we called kids who spoke with Mexican accents whether they were Mexican or not and who lived real lives. The Choke looked like a completely Apache, deadly version of the jitterbug only you never thought of the jitterbug when you watched kids doing the Choke. There was no swing in the Choke, it was staccato. It was Pachuco, police-record, L.A. flamenco dancing.
3. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. What can I say? It’s Jonathan Franzen, and it’s addictively readable. I’m fascinated by the characters living in a squat, but it unfortunately breaks up when a wife leaves her husband. I’ve only read 100 pages so far, but much more on this later.
4. David Means’ Hystopia, nominated for the Man Booker Prize. So far I love it: it is reminiscent of Samuel R. Delany’s very weird post-modern SF classic, Dhalgren. Hystopia is an alternate history of the ’60s in which Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and is in his third term, Detroit and the rest of Michigan are burning because of fires that started in riots in Detroit, and Vietnam vets are treated with a combination of drugs and reenacting their traumas that “enfolds” their traumas and sometimes cure them but also causes amnesia. Some rogue Vietnam vets have not submitted to treatment or have not responded to it and are raising hell… (Very well-written. So far this seems Booker-worthy!)