We bare our souls and tell the most appalling secrets

I must confess a truth: I've never read Little Women. I've seen three different film versions of it (with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, 1933; with June Allyson as Jo, 1949; and with Winona Ryder as Jo, 1994) and one made-for-tv version (with Susan Dey as Jo, 1978), and two of the films I've seen more than once, so I think I have the basic story down pretty well. But I've never read the book.

My least favorite film version (I'm in the minority, I know).
Doesn't it look like Meg, Jo and Beth are severely disappointed with Amy

because she has been careless about using contraceptives?

Here's a better picture, except Beth (Jean Parker, far right)
looks like she's already dead.

My favorite version for a long time (I'm in the minority, I know).
It has that great sobbing contest between Margaret O'Brien and June Allyson.

This one kind of replaced the 1949 one as my favorite.

I also really liked this one.

By saying I've never read the book, I don't mean to advocate film adaptations as substitutes for reading the original books. In fact, I am generally against such practices, especially when the educational process is involved. Once, a long time ago when I was a student teacher in a high school English class, I gave a student a failing grade on a book report she did on The Swiss Family Robinson because there were a number of things that didn't seem quite right, and I concluded that she had not really read the book. She was shocked and dismayed at her grade, and so were her parents, who subsequently requested a parent-teacher conference. The mother, who was very angry (and was probably thinking "Stupid student teacher, ruining my child's chances at a good grade!" - a sentiment I myself have felt on occasion), went on and on in the meeting about how I was being completely unfair, and how her husband and daughter had spent many an evening in the past week reading the book together, trying to get it finished by the deadline.

"Well," said I, not disputing the veracity of her claim of quality father-daughter time spent, "the main reason I thought she had not read the book is that, in her report, she keeps talking about the three boys doing this, that, and the other. In the Disney film version, there are indeed three sons, but in the actual book there are four."

As the mother cast some unreadable glances at her now-silent husband, I offered to ignore the grade on The Swiss Family Robinson and to let the student do a makeup book report. This solution seemed to please everyone, more or less, and the parents left, mollified. After they had gone, my master teacher said to me in a confidential tone: "I don't think she read the book. I think her father is lying."

Well, maybe. Or maybe they got through some of the book and then watched the film to finish. Or maybe they read the entire book and then watched the film for fun, and the poor little student got mixed up on how many boys there actually were in the family. It happens. Anyway, she turned in another book report, I gave her a well-deserved A, and she went from hating me to thinking I was a fair teacher with a good sense of humor.

And I do have a copy of Little Women, and I do intend to read it. One of these days.

My purpose in bringing up my lack of familiarity with the written works of 19th century American women authors in general and Louisa May Alcott in particular is that, in our RS book group this week, the book under discussion was Alcott's A Long, Fatal Love Chase. I didn't read that book, either - not beyond the first five or six pages and the last two, anyhow. And yet I feel I did pretty well in the discussion. In fact, if I may be so bold, I would venture to say that, if I had been in my former student's position, I could've written a report on Love Chase worthy of an A or B without reading the entire thing, and I wouldn't have made any silly errors about the number of children in the family or anything really obvious like that. (By the way, I've never read Swiss Family Robinson, either, but I have seen the film three or four times. I had a big crush on Kevin Corcoran way back in the day.)

If our discussion leader had asked "Did you read the book?" I would've answered "No." As it was, she didn't ask, and I had done enough research (reading not only the first part of the first chapter and the last part of the last chapter, but a handful of reviews as well) that I was able to be fairly conversant about the book. I even made a point of comparison between Love Chase and Little Women. And for good measure I tossed in a few references to Jane Eyre and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Good enough for high school level work. (Of course, if I had both the time and the inclination, I would recount how this method did not work for me in my college courses.)

The main reason I didn't want to read A Long, Fatal Love Chase is that, in spite of all the feminist applause from Alcott's 20th and 21st century critics, Alcott still followed the basic pattern she was familiar with from her reading of 18th and 19th century literature, and that is: if a heroine is going to be so foolish as to disgrace herself by falling in love with (or merely allowing herself to be seduced by) a cad/rake/roué/profligate/bounder, she should then have sense enough to make up for her extreme silliness by being dead at the end of the book, if not sooner. And Alcott's heroine obligingly died, even though she wasn't half as much of a literary twit as Tess Durbeyfield. Tess gets involved with a libertine (error #1), has a baby out of wedlock (error #2 - although the baby does its expected part and dies right away), marries the man she loves (who hypocritically abandons her) and then becomes the mistress of the aforementioned libertine (error #3), then murders him (error #4), for which she is executed, thus paying for her appalling lack of judgement. Rosamond didn't do any of that. True, she ran off with Tempest, whom she knew to be not such a nice guy, but at least she though she was marrying him. When she found out the ceremony was bogus, and that Tempest was incorrigible, she tried to get away from him. She did everything she could to make a new life for herself. But this guy was so obsessed with Rosamond that he kept following after her and following after her, and finally he killed her. Well, in that sense, Alcott was perhaps ahead of her time. In a way, that's a very 20th century story, one we see played out in the news with depressing frequency.

But that's not my point. My point is how refreshing it would have been if Rosamond had escaped once and for all from Tempest, like by telling the police what he'd done to his first wife. Oh, wait. The law back then was on the side of the husband. Okay, she could've at least stopped using silly aliases that have the same initials as her real name that made her easier to find, and she could've...she could've...oh, forget it. There's no getting away from an obsessed, evil man if your author doesn't want you getting away from him.

So anyhow, at the end of the discussion, I told the group members if they wanted to read another 19th century author who wrote about women in a realistic and sympathetic manner, they should try Anthony Trollope - at which point most of them rolled their eyes and snorted and made motions of falling asleep from boredom. I should tell them The Barchester Chronicles is available on dvd.


I was reading a book the other day

I don't think I read enough. Some of you who know me might think that's kind of a weird/untruthful thing to say. But I've been thinking about it a lot lately ('it' being how much time in a week I spend reading for pleasure), and I really think I don't read enough.

Last week I went to a book signing for fantasy author Raymond E Feist. As usual, I found plenty of things - from the practical to the irrational - to worry about beforehand: What if I bring too many books and he doesn't want to sign them all? What will I say to him when it's my turn? What if he asks me which book is my favorite (as if he cared)? What if all the first printings of his new book are sold out when I get there?

To ease my mind about questions like these, I usually try to do some advance preparation. I decided early on to take only five books. Who can be mad about signing five books? As it turns out, I could've taken all my Feist books - 12 hardcovers and 11 paperbacks - for him to sign. Apparently, people do stuff like that. I saw dealers and collectors there with two and three carry-all bags filled to the top with books for Feist to sign. The managers of the store where the signing was held decided that we'd all make a line (which I somehow always wind up at the end of), then we could have Feist sign a maximum of three books, and then we had to go around and get in line again. Next time I'll know.

I also thought up a question/remark that I could use when meeting Feist to fill in any possible awkward silences. Authors probably don't think silences are awkward. They probably welcome them. But I feel awkward. Anyway, I decided that a nice, bland, innocuous, all-purpose question to ask was, "How did you come up with the idea for the world your books take place in?"

Raymond E Feist

The signing was preceded by a short talk Feist gave about his current book and what he's got coming up in the future. During this talk, Feist volunteered that the world of Midkemia featured in his novels had its roots in a role-playing game he used to play with his college friends. I felt a twinge of panic as I realized I no longer had a viable question to ask him, not at least without sounding like a complete idiot. And I thought perhaps it would be better under the circumstances for me not to engage the author in conversation. I much preferred the awkward silence to his asking me which book was my favorite, because I have not read a single one of his books. I've been meaning to; they're on my to-be-read list, but I haven't gotten to them yet.

Once again, as it turns out, I didn't have to worry. On my first go round, with the first three books, Feist said nothing. All he did was pull up his coat sleeve with a finger and look at his wristwatch, then sign my books. We told each other "thank you" at the same time, and then I got in line again. On my second go round, he said, "How many more do you have?" and I said, "Oh, just the two. I'm done." Then he looked at the people behind me, the ones with the three bags full, and said half to himself, "Oh, it's moving along then. It won't take long."

In spite of the initial misgivings and gentle panic I may feel, I like going to author signings and book sales and conventions, partly because I enjoy listening to what the other dealers and collectors are talking about. I learn stuff that way. For instance, at this very signing, I learned that Connie Willis is going to be at the LA Times Book Fair at the end of April and that I am going to miss seeing her because I'll be out of town. I also learned that, if I ever do make it to the Fair in my lifetime, I ought to park in the North parking lot because it is nearer to the place where they have the signings and thus more convenient for lugging books to and from. I also learned that Easton Press printed a fine edition of Feist's first two books. And I learned that I don't read enough.

There's always some know-it-all type guy at the signings or sales or whatever, wearing a hat that he refuses to take off - even indoors - who strikes up a fairly loud conversation about some aspect of book collecting or book selling; and, although I find such people somewhat on the obnoxious side, I usually glean a bit of information that makes the inadvertent eavesdropping worthwhile. So this guy was holding forth as we stood in line, opining on a variety of books, and another guy said, "You've read all those books?" and the first guy says, "Oh, sure", and the other guy says, "You must read a lot!" And the first guy says, "I read two or three books a week." Everyone within earshot oohed and aahed for a moment, and I thought to myself, I don't read enough.

I've been reading the same book for the last three weeks and I'm just over halfway through.

Evelyn Wood, the speed-reading guru, used to have an office under the football stadium at BYU. I used to clean her office now and then when I worked as a janitor during my sophomore year at college. That's the closest I've ever come to speed reading.

But I'm not sure I really want to speed read. I just want to spend more time enjoying the book I happen to be involved in. I'd be happy finishing one book a week. So I've decided I need to rearrange my priorities a bit. I'm going to concentrate on making more time for reading. I'm going to stop spending so much time teasing the cats and spend it reading instead, and I'm going to read during mealtimes, like Ian does. And I'm going to be happy instead of annoyed when my favorite tv programs go on hiatus because then I can read instead. Until the programs come back, that is.

I know, sometimes I truly am busy. But I don't think it's good to stretch the reading of a book out for too long, because you can lose the effect the book is having on you, not to mention the storyline. Taking forever to read a book is kind of like having to get back in line time after time to get an author to sign your books, and then having him look at his watch every time you approach him. If you've decided to read a book (or sign one), you should give the process the time it's due.