In the last two months of 2011 and the first month of 2012, the book discussion group that I have the privilege to facilitate here at the Crescent Hill Library read three books in the following order: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever, and March by Geraldine Brooks. What began as somewhat of a scheduling whim became literary magic, as these books, when combined, assist each other in completing their stories and providing the necessary details to fully appreciate the intricacies of the relationships among both the fictional and real characters as well as enhancing the storylines themselves.
Little Women, which is counted among the finest works of American literature, chronicles the lives of daughters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March during the American Civil War as they contend with all those issues that one faces when growing up, while at the same time supporting their mother, Marmee, in a trying domestic situation and one another while their father is serving with the Union Army. Based loosely on Ms. Alcott’s own life and family, this novel slightly rings of sentimentality from time to time, but the life lessons it conveys and philosophical concepts it examines bring a depth to the book that leaves the reader with a good deal to contemplate.
The nonfiction work American Bloomsbury is a fascinating look into the intermingled lives, both private and public, of those great intellectual and literary minds that were drawn to the Massachusetts town of Concord in the mid and latter 1800s; included were such giants as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau , and it is through this examination that certain aspects of Little Women come together and are illuminated. Despite having a somewhat tabloid feel at times, this work brought forth aspects of the lives of these historical figures that made them seem far more human and within reach, as opposed to simply occupying their hallowed space in literary celebrity, existing only in marble and bronze.
And then we come to March, which I consider to be fan fiction of the first order, as Ms. Brooks provides the reader with the story of none other than Mr. March, the mainly-absent father of the March family in Little Women. Suffice to say, Ms. Brooks paints a picture of Mr. March, the American Civil War, and the pre-Emancipation South that challenges the reader in a number of ways. Furthermore, Ms. Brooks blends the fiction of Little Women with the nonfiction of American Bloomsbury, resulting in an incredibly engrossing tale.
Individually, all three books are fine reads for a number of reasons, but when they are read as a series, the result is truly educational, entertaining, and enlightening, a perfect selection for the single reader or book discussion group.
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Set during the Gold Rush, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is narrated by a tenderhearted and remarkably self aware hit man, Eli Sisters. Eli struggles with his weight, matters of the heart, and the conflicting desire to venture into a simpler line of work. His brother Charlie on the other hand is an impenetrable killing machine who wakes up sick beside an empty bottle more often than not.
The story begins with the odd pair setting out on a job for a man known only as The Commodore. The Sisters boys are directed to head up to Oregon to meet up with a lookout then hunt down a prospector and return with his secret formula. They start their trip in a bit of a quarrel with Charlie being appointed the lead man on the trip then getting the better horse and all.
There are many points of hilarity as the brothers encounter both obstacles and pleasures on their journey. Readers will find themselves laughing and stopping to reflect, sometimes in the same paragraph, at the elegant yet deadpan dialogue that's easily imagined as an indie western screenplay.
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Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues puts to rest the romantic idea of the bluesman as illiterate troubadour. Author Elijah Wald’s book shows that the true pioneers of the blues were Vaudeville-trained female singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louisville’s own Sara Martin. These women recorded at least a decade earlier than most of the Mississippi bluesmen, but they have been ignored by contemporary scholars or reassigned to the jazz bin. Escaping the Delta restores them to blues history and recasts the music as a story about African-American aspirations at the beginning of the 20th century.
“For its first fifty years, blues was primarily black popular music,” Wald explains. “Like rappers or country-and-western stars, the top blues singers were assumed to come from poor backgrounds and to understand the problems and aspirations of the folks on the street or out in the country, but they were also expected to be professional entertainers with nice cars and fancy clothes, admired as symbols of success.”
Wald was inspired to reexamine the story of the blues after he performed at the dedication of a grave marker for Robert Johnson, the most celebrated bluesman of the pre-war era. Johnson was rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his extraordinary talent. He died at the age of 27 having recorded just 29 songs; some of them, like “Love In Vain” and “Hellhounds On My Trail,” classics that have been covered by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the White Stripes, and many others. However, Wald was shocked to find that many of the elderly African-American members of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where Johnson is buried, didn’t know anything about the singer.
Johnson was only a minor recording star when he died in 1938. He gained international fame in the 1960s when fans of the folk revival began buying a reissue of his music called “King of the Delta Blues.” Johnson’s musical stature is totally a creation of critics, musicians, and scholars who were born decades after his death. Wald exposes the part that record company marketing and romanticism (if not outright racism) played in the modern perception of the blues and the intention of its artists. By telling the story from the perspective of the African-American record buyer Wald provides injects a new voice into the discussion of one of America’s most important art forms. The result is a fascinating and entertaining book.
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Full Steam Ahead: Reflections on the Impact of the First Steamboat on the Ohio River, 1811-2011, edited by Rita Kohnsubmitted by Luke
Two hundred years ago, citizens of Louisville awoke to the shrill blasts of the New Orleans, the first steamship to sail the Ohio River. At the time, many waterfront dwellers thought that the great comet of 1811 had fallen to earth and landed in the river. Instead it was the beginning of a brand new way of life for the people of Louisville and the Ohio Valley, one that was driven by steam. This story has been documented in the new book, Full Steam Ahead, edited by Rita Kohn and published by the Indiana Historical Society Press, with support from the Rivers Institute at Hanover College.
It can be argued that the steamboat has had the greatest impact upon the development of Louisville and the greater Ohio Valley than any other innovation of the past two hundred years. This collection chronicles this impact, exploring the rise and development of river boats, river life, and river culture over the past two centuries. Several local authors have contributed to this book, including Rick Bell, who wrote “The Era of Town Building Below the Falls,” a history of the development of Portland, Shippingport, and the Louisville-Portland Canal. Two Portland residents are included in this volume, Jack E. Custer, who wrote the article “A Synoptic History of Towboating and Its Origins,” and Susan M. Custer, who wrote “Steamboat Music.” Other articles include a discussion of the impact of the steam ship on black urban life in the Ohio Valley. Another article focuses on the effects that paddle boats had on the colonization of the area, as it opened up the lower Ohio Valley and the western territories to a far greater number of settlers and immigrants.
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I was recently asked “Why do you read fiction.” My first reaction is that it entertains me and that is absolutely true as I have spent many hours being entertained by novels. After some thought I realized that I like that fiction often leads me to seek out more information on a topic, place or person l, especially when it is historical fiction. This is how I became interested in Frank Lloyd Wright.
It all started with Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. Prior to reading this book, the extent of my knowledge of Wright was that he was a famous architect and that my husband had a slight fascination with his work. Reading the fictional representation of Wright’s relationship with Mamah Borthwick Cheney and the initial building of Taliesin, Wright’s home outside of Spring Green, Wisconsin, left me wanting to know more about Frank Lloyd Wright, the man and the architect.
I immediately checked out filmmaker, Ken Burn’s documentary on Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright, from the library’s DVD collection. My husband encouraged by my interest suggested places to tour.
On a trip to Chicago, we visited the suburb of Oak Park and toured the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Wright's private residence and workplace during his early career. Take an armchair tour with The Oak Park Home and Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright by Ann Abernathy.
We next vacationed in Wisconsin, with Taliesin being the first stop. The docents told the tour group that Horan had spent time there doing research for Loving Frank and how they felt she had done an excellent job getting the facts straight. We also heard about another author who did research there, T. Coraghassen Boyle, and his novel The Women, a fictionalized account of not only Wright’s mistress but his three wives. Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and Taliesin West by Kathryn Smith showcases not only his Wisconsin home and studio, but another place we hope to visit, Taliesin West, Wright’s winter residence outside of Scottsdale, Arizona.
On a recent beach vacation we just happened to read in the local paper that Auldbrass, a private residence designed by Wright, was open for tours that weekend. We immediately made a reservation. Auldbrass: Frank Lloyd Wright's Southern Plantation by David G. De Long offers another visual tour.
In the future, high on our list of places to visit is Fallingwater, the home where Wright incorporated a natural waterfall in the design, which is detailed in Fallingwater rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House by Franklin Toker.
For biographical information on Wright go to the source himself Frank Lloyd Wright: an Autobiography, the 2004 Penguin Life biography Frank Lloyd Wright by Ada Louise Huxtable or William R. Drennan’s Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin murders .
I’m not sure how long this fascination will last but I am enjoying some nice vacations and I’ve even branched out to learn about other architects and architectural styles. All inspired by a novel.
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