Little Women (1994) Deep Dive: Part Two

I pick up my deep dive as the story moves into spring. This is a perfect opportunity to praise Thomas Newman’s score, as the theme for spring is particularly sublime.

I acquired the soundtrack on CD when I was in college and have almost as much attachment to the score as I do to the movie itself.

Meg is preparing to go to Boston to attend Sally Moffat’s coming out with the help of the whole family.

Jo’s looking for Meg’s glove, which means it wasn’t a winter glove at all, if she needs it to wear to a fancy ball. It will remain a mystery how Mr. Brooke obtained it.

We get a proper introduction to Aunt March in this scene, where she is the equivalent of a disapproving mother-in-law to Mrs. March (Marmee). Before we had only seen her asleep while Jo read to her.

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What I like about this scene is when Aunt March says that Meg cannot go without gloves because “the Moffats are society,” and Marmee says “You’re absolutely correct. Meg may borrow mine.” Even though Marmee is not interested in raising girls in strict compliance with society’s expectations, she picks her battles – especially where Meg is concerned. She must know that doing things properly is important to Meg, so it’s important to Marmee too.

They do a nice job setting up the fanciness of this ball, with an overhead shot of a maid carrying Meg’s dress up a staircase and cutting to Sally Moffat eating a delectable pastry off of a tray of them.

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Here we are introduced to an unnamed queen bee character, who backhandedly compliments Meg’s dress. This leads into a discussion of the March family’s abolitionist and anti-child labor views. Got to love the random girl who says nothing but “This isn’t China silk?”

The queen bee character says “The poor are always with us.” I was once in a Bible study years ago where there was a verse with a similar phrase, and I said, “oh this is like when people say “the poor are always with us.” And then I had to admit, “actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say that before. I think just in that one scene in Little Women.” And there was a girl in the study who knew exactly what I was talking about.

“You have no corset” the French maid tells Meg, to the titters of the other girls in the room. For some reason, this reminds me of how middle grade girls seemed to monitor the bra status of other girls when I was growing up. Fun times.

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How did no one notice these children throwing things down from the balconies to the guests below? I thought this was supposed to be a fancy ball? But I guess it’s to underscore that we’ve entered a world of indulged, spoiled children.

Ugh, Laurie is so annoying in this scene when he takes Meg’s drink out of her hand and says, “I thought your family were temperance people.” No need to say that in front of other people and embarrass her. And then, when she self-consciously puts her hand to her neckline, he says something about he’s one of the few men who haven’t seen all her charms, referring to her corset-enhanced cleavage. He does apologize for it a little later, so at least it’s acknowledged that he’s behaving badly here.

Laurie and Meg have a quick heart-to-heart in private, and she confesses she just wanted to play a part. This is one of my favorite Meg scenes. She tried playing by different rules, and though it didn’t suit her, I rather like her for trying it out.

“And nothing inspires speculation more than the sight of a woman enjoying herself”. This statement from Marmee is excellent. Meanwhile, Jo is holding onto the bedpost with her hands and bare feet while her mother braids her hair. The cozy staging for these family conversations is on point.

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Dang, I near about cried at this affirming talk that Marmee has with Meg. Meg seems a little afraid of criticism when she admits that it was nice to be praised and admired. But Marmee doesn’t judge her for this and then tells her “Your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage – these are the things I cherish so in you.”

“I so wish I could give my girls a more just world, but I know you will make it a better place.” *sniff* No surprise, Jo is hit by an inspiration to write after listening to these words from her mother.

“Meg, John Brooke stole your glove…don’t you think he should give it back?” Hannah the housekeeper slyly says, “T’isn’t what I think that matters.” Jo fails to see the romance in all of this.

The film reminds us that it’s still Civil War times – Marmee must travel to attend to their father who has been wounded and is at a hospital in D.C.

Okay there are so many things to say about this scene where Jo reveals she sold her hair to get money for the railway ticket:

  1. She’d rather cut off her hair than try to ask an unpleasant relative for money and I find this completely understandable. Most people, including myself, hate to ask for money.
  2. Amy’s comment “Jo, how could you?! Your one beauty!” might be the most hilarious line in the movie, followed by the next scene’s exchange – Beth, asking a sobbing Jo: “Are you thinking about father?” Jo, in a little wail: “My hair!”
  3. Due to repeated watchings, we noticed that there’s a moment in the hair reveal scene where Laurie muffles laughter in the background, behind Jo.
  4. This is where we hear the movie/book title when Marmee says, “oh how I will miss my little women.”

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There’s a small interstitial scene here, where a pumpkin-head effigy in a suit is being dragged behind a wagon, along with tin cans, while children throw rocks at it. I don’t know if this is supposed to be referencing a particular tradition. Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night appears to have been a colonial relic so it wouldn’t have been observed in the US in the 1860s. In any case, the scene is marking that it is autumn.

Jo: “I hate money!” My family always looks at my older sister here when rewatching – as I mentioned in Part One, this is something she was known for saying in her teen years.

Beth has generally been in the background of the movie until now, when she finally gets the spotlight as she helps the poor Hummel family. She looks so overwhelmed and young as Mrs. Hummel hands over a screaming, feverish baby and speaks to her in German, asking for Beth’s mother and for medicine.

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In the next scene, Jo crams in a little exposition about Laurie – that he spends money on billiards and in general seems to be wasting his time in college, which must seem a slap in the face to Jo, who would love to go to college.

Hannah is a real MVP here, by quickly diagnosing Beth with scarlet fever, and instructing Amy to be sent away since she’s never had it.

There is so much groundwork laid out in this conversation between Amy and Laurie. We learn she is going to Aunt March’s, a relationship that bears fruit later. When Laurie offers to take Amy away if Aunt March is unkind, Amy asks where they would go, and he says lightly, “Paris?” which makes her smile. They will in fact both see each other in France later in the film. And finally, Amy says she would not like to die before being kissed and Laurie promises to kiss her before she dies and they both laugh. This is referenced later too.

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Aunt March is kind to Amy, and seems perceptive to Amy’s unspoken distress about Beth. And apparently it’s time for all the old curmudgeons to reveal their softer sides, as Mr. Lawrence, their rigid neighbor, brings in his personal physician to attend to Beth.

In this scene where Laurie says he’s sent for Mrs. March, I realized for the first time that Hannah, who is Irish, is uttering a “Hail Mary” in the background.

Marmee takes charge of the situation immediately. I always love that point in stories where the “adult that knows what to do” arrives on the scene, to everyone’s relief. Not to mention the particular solace of your parent taking care of you when you’re sick.

Cue waterworks here, when Jo comes down and sees Hannah crying and the bed cleared away, and fears the worst, but then sees Marmee and Meg sitting beside Beth and feeding her soup. Jo lays her head in Beth’s lap, and there’s something about the gesture that demonstrates how deeply Jo needs Beth.

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Christmas again! And a bigger circle of celebrants – Mr. Lawrence, Aunt March, Laurie and two college friends that he introduces to shy, frail Beth when he sees her hesitate at the door due to the strangers.

The old curmudgeons continue to show they are secretly soft, as Mr. Lawrence wipes away a tear as Beth plays the new piano, and Aunt March boisterously leads the group in a second verse of Deck the Halls. You can see and hear Jo’s surprised delight as she looks at Aunt March and sings “follow me in merry measure!”

Meg: “So you don’t mind that John is poor?” Marmee: “No…I’d rather he have a house!” Yeah, that’s not a rule that would work in the 21st century for marrying, haha.

Okay, this is rude of Jo, but her face when she starts reading Meg’s love letter from Mr. Brook is hilarious.

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The long-absent Mr. March finally appears! His presence will mean almost nothing in the rest of the film!

Whew! Meg and Mr. Brooke are having a proper snog in the back doorway, beautifully framed by falling snow behind them.

I always admired this scene transition where the staircase railings fade into fence railings next to Union soldiers returning at war’s end.

Meg and John Brooke get married! The wedding party sings “For the Beauty of the Earth” while they hold hands and move in a circle around the married couple. I don’t know if this a specific tradition referenced or chosen because it is very pretty.

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Here too we are introduced to adult Amy, played by Samantha Mathis. This casting is probably the movie’s weakest point. Mathis does not perform the character with the same liveliness as Kirsten Dunst. While you can expect that Amy’s maturity means some shifts in personality, Mathis comes off as a bit too chilly of a snob. Some oomph is taken out of the movie with the departure of Dunst.

Uh oh, here’s the scene where Laurie proposes to Jo. My younger sister’s childhood friend Kara would watch Little Women with us, and say how much she hated Christian Bale’s deep whisper voice during this proposal. It’s not Bale’s Batman voice, but apparently it has similar polarizing effect on the audience.

Growing up, I was completely convinced by Jo’s argument about why they shouldn’t be married. It wasn’t until I watched this with college friends that I was even aware that people would be upset that these two don’t end up together. And it was even later, when I learned that Alcott’s original readers also raised an outcry that Jo and Laurie don’t end up together.

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Amy comes in to the room where Beth is comforting Jo and accidentally makes Jo feel even worse by announcing that Aunt March has asked Amy to accompany her to France, a trip that Jo had long anticipated. This scene frustrated me. I remember wondering why Amy brought up Europe in the first place, especially as it takes her forever to explain that she was suggesting Aunt March’s home as a place for Jo to escape to. Having it be adult Amy’s first speaking scene doesn’t help either – we have been so accustomed to Kirsten Dunst in the role.

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Marmee shows her parent superpowers again by finding Jo a place to stay in New York City. Honestly, this rewatch, it’s Marmee that is coming into focus the most.

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Jo’s arrival in New York City seems an appropriate place to pause. I expect Part Three to be the final installment of this deep dive, but we’ll see – I may have to stretch to four parts.

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Little Women (1994) Deep Dive: Part One

One of my favorite podcast genres are those which do a deep dive into a movie or book for the entire episode (How Did This Get Made/I Hate It But I Love It/Heaving Bosoms, This Had Oscar Buzz, etc). I realized that if I love listening to deep dives that I might enjoy creating a deep dive. I’m not prepared to produce a podcast, but I can use this blogging platform. Years ago, I once ran across a blogger who went detail by detail through the Sandra Bullock / Bill Pullman rom-com While You Were Sleeping. It was the most amazing thing and I hope to do something like that.

I can think of no better film to be my first deep dive than 1994’s Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong, and starring Winona Ryder as Jo, Claire Danes as Beth, Kirsten Dunst as young Amy, Christian Bale as Laurie, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, and an actress I never saw again as Meg (sorry Trini Alvarado!). The movie means a lot to me personally, and also with a new adaptation coming out in December, it seems fitting to spend time with the 1994 version.

I saw Little Women with my family at my small town’s second-run theater when I was 12 years old. I had two sisters and we were/are very close to each other, so the prominence of sisters in the story appealed to us. Our family loved this movie so much, it became almost an annual tradition to watch it around Christmastime.

I’m not sure if my sisters ever read Louisa May Alcott’s book, but the closest I ever got was trying to read a copy of Good Wives as a teenager and then abandoning it. (Good Wives being the second volume of Little Women). So I’m afraid you will be reading the thoughts of someone for whom the 1994 movie, not the book, is first in her heart.

Now that I have set some personal background to the movie, let’s dive in:

We open on a wintry landscape. I grew up in Maine and my mother’s family lived in Vermont, so the story’s setting was also a point of connection. The filming locations include Deerfield, Massachusetts and it really does look and feel like New England in these establishing shots.

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Winona Ryder begins her voice-over narration, with this very precise pronunciation, befitting her character’s writer aspirations.

Jo mentions that they are impoverished – I guess in a house-poor sort of way. Their home Orchard House is good-sized and never seems in disrepair throughout the film.

Aw, everyone is so cuddly together from the beginning, as they read their father’s letter from where he is stationed near the Potomac.

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There’s a reason my family often rewatched this on Christmas Eve – it starts out very Christmasy, with all the March girls singing Christmas carols right from the beginning. Love it.

Marmee seems to have very specific relationships with each of her daughters, which is lovely. Each good night and Merry Christmas is a little tailored to each girl’s personality.

That Christmas breakfast looks so delicious. Jo’s impatience to eat the sausage is relatable. Except for me it would be bacon.

When the girls are giving up their breakfast for the even poorer Hummel family, I have to note that the bread is shaped so that it has a divot in the center, which is just a perfect resting place for Amy’s reluctantly donated orange.

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Ah – one of my favorite scenes – with Jo, saying “Don’t you wish you could roll about in it like dogs?” (referring to the snow) and the disapproving neighbor Mr. Lawrence saying to Laurie: “Once one of our finest families.” Followed by the sisters robustly singing “Here we come a wassailing”. I am now incapable of singing that carol without adding the saucy little emphasis to “happy new Year” like Jo does while saluting Laurie with the teapot.

Young Amy’s malapropisms are a recurring joke – in this Pickwick Papers’ scene it’s “abscondated” instead of “absconded” but she has even better mangled words later in the movie.

I don’t know why Amy gives Beth a hard time for putting a recipe (“History of the Squash”) in their home-made newsletter instead of a story. Wasn’t Amy’s contribution just an advertisement?

It’s lucky that when Jo looks out at the window at Laurie that he’s no longer staring at their window from his doorstep like he was five minutes earlier.

I enjoy the sisters’ open speculation about their new cute neighbor Laurie. Jo – “does he have a noble brow?” It’s the equivalent to wondering if a real-life person has a rakish grin or a glint in his eye. Do descriptions from novels apply to real people?

Meg – “They said he grew up amongst artists and vagrants.” She says it slightly disapproving, but it does make him sound pretty cool.

Dammit, Beth. Showing up all her sisters’ personal wishes, with her wish that the war would end and father would come home. I think Jo is not annoyed, but “Oh sweet Beth, we all want that” means that maybe the next time they play “Christmas wishes”, they’re going to lay down some ground rules, so that Beth can’t make them all feel bad by being completely selfless and giving the “world peace” Miss America answer.

Credit to Beth – she doesn’t want to be a complete downer so she follows up by admiring the neighbors’ superior piano.

I will always love how Kirsten Dunst gleefully plops that sugar cube into her teacup to punctuate her line: “when I grow up I’m going to be disgustingly rich.”

Meg pulls older sister rank on this discussion: “I dislike all this money talk – it isn’t refined.” A bit more sophisticated version of when my older sister said “I hate money!” as a teenager.

For all that Jo and Amy are the most fractious sisterly pairing, Jo does give credit to Amy’s scene-ending profundity by looking over the teacup at Meg with a smile that basically says “little Amy’s got you there.”

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Malpropism from Amy: “You have to tell me exquisitely everything about Belle Gardner”.

What is on Beth’s hand in this scene. Is it pie dough?

I love how almost everything in this scene gets a callback later – Jo’s dress with the scorched backside, Meg’s instruction not to shake hands, Meg’s scavenged heels.

Yay! It’s the moment where Jo accidentally burns off Meg’s hair! I love all the comic beats here: everyone slowly registering the “burnt feathers” smell, and then all around screaming.

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Classic sisterly move to say something like: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! You shouldn’t have had me do it!”

The elderly housekeeper Hanna’s interjection of “Listen to the child” after Amy’s line about suitors was weirdly a favorite of my family’s to repeat to each other. “Listen to the child,” we’d say in creaky voices.

Winona Ryder as Jo is so charming in these scenes at the dance. Stealing the feather off that woman’s boa and then the side shuffle to get away from the notoriously bad dancer. I love when she accidentally rocks that lady’s hoop skirt when she’s scooting behind the rows of onlookers.

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Aw! Jo and Laurie’s friendship is born! They’re so adorably awkward here, trying to remember what everyone has told them is the proper thing to do and finding it completely unnatural.

Sister betrayal! Bad Jo! “She’s completely bald in front!”

Laurie is just completely smitten from the get-go, and who could blame him. Jo says “I do all the voices” while describing reading to her Aunt March, and Laurie softly says “I’ll bet you do.” Jo just seems excited to finally get some answers about the mysterious boy next door. She envies his romantic background, his access to college, and enjoys talking to someone about life beyond their Concord circle.

The other exchange in this initial conversation that I particularly enjoy, is when Jo, ambitious but sheltered, declares that she wants to “pursue the stage” and asks Laurie: “are you shocked?” Laurie responds simply “Very” but Christian Bale manages to infuse the brief line with amused admiration.

Oh no, Meg is stuck with the bad dancer now! But yay, Laurie and Jo galumphing around in the back rooms. Favorite bit of dialogue here: “I’m sorry, Meg always makes me take the gentleman’s part…It’s a shame you don’t know the ladies’ part!”

Laurie spends a little too long looking at the back of Jo’s dress, ostensibly for purposes of assessing how badly it was scorched, but ahem, young man.

I like how it takes a second for Laurie to realize Jo referred to him as “the captive” to Meg, and then he just looks at her like, “wait, what?”

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Laurie blames the sprained ankle on Meg’s poor-quality heels. It feels a little sad that he called them out, when Amy had earlier reassured Meg that no one would notice.

In this moment, Jo and Laurie are having to navigate Meg’s narrow views of propriety. So we can’t tell Mrs. Gardner, and Laurie can’t take you home, so what exactly are you planning to do? I assume they got there by walking, which is obviously out of the question for Meg to do with a sprained ankle. Jo saves Meg from that little trap of manners, like a good impertinent sister.

When I first saw this scene of them returning from the dance, I thought Amy had the clothespin on her nose because the house still smelled like Meg’s burnt hair. But it’s actually Amy trying to do a 19th century DIY nose job.

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Dang, Marmee maligns Meg’s heels as well as they come into Orchard House. Poor Meg was just trying to scrape up some fashion during wartime poor time!

Another favorite comic line delivery from Kirsten Dunst: “He put snow on your ankle?!!” “To bed, Miss Amy.” “With his own hands?!!”

Perfect transition from Jo telling Amy “He isn’t a boy – he’s Laurie!” to Laurie happily trudging on all fours while pulling Jo and Beth on a toboggan across the lawn.

Consumers of Little Women in all its forms often play a game of which sister are you. Marmee’s little speech about women’s need for exercise to Mr. Brooke actually makes me think I might be a Marmee. I have definitely let loose a forceful opinion about society into a casual conversation and been met by awkward silence.

I like how Marmee realizes Meg is embarrassed and adjusts her conversational style, but with a subtle air of graciously accommodating her two more rules-bound listeners. Mr. Brooke and Meg are so prissy, haha. I can’t hate on them though, because there’s a little bit of me in there too.

Oh, I just noticed that Meg is using a cane in this scene (due to the sprained ankle). I’m sure the continuity isn’t perfect in this film, but I more often notice the little ways it succeeds.

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Kudos also to the subtle nods to the ongoing war. Jo adds a coin to a wounded veteran’s tin cup on the sisters’ way to work/school.

I like how Jo corrects Amy’s assertion that Beth “gets to stay at home and do pleasant things”, and Jo says, hm if you call “laundry and housework” pleasant. 19th century housekeeping is no joke. I’ve read my great-great-grandmother’s journal from the late 19th century and it’s a lot!

For the longest time, I thought that Amy’s slate getting wet in a puddle was connected to her sudden begging for money to buy “limes.” I imaged the slate contained her intricate scoresheet of how many limes she owed her schoolmates. But now I think they are not related. I also thought for years that “limes” referred to the fruit, but they are actually a type of candy. And finally, malapropism alert – Amy tells Meg that she’s so “degraditated”.

I love Jo’s indignation about Amy’s corporal punishment and even more when Amy tells everyone that her teacher said it was good to educate a woman as it was to educate a female cat. My sisters are the best validators of my emotions.

Meg and Marmee are a little upset at Amy for her vanities and deception, but at the same time her family is hovering over her in the best way, tending to her hand and feeding her cookies.

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The way that Marmee says “Jo will now supervise your education” is like she’s punishing Jo for something? Because Jo was talking about strangling the teacher or because Jo scoffed at Marmee’s response of writing a letter? I’m not sure of Marmee’s motivations here. Clearly neither Jo or Amy think this is a great arrangement though, which sets up a new sister dynamic going forward.

This ensuing scene of Jo writing later that night establishes a couple things – one is that Jo is moved to write when her mom has been particularly wise, and two that Jo and Beth have a special closeness.

I like how Mr. Brooke admonishes Laurie for shouting out a window at Meg and Jo, but then is able to get in a little wordless exchange with Meg as a result. I think that’s them flirting the best way they can, the poor things. Also, there are kittens in the scene! They show up again later.

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This “line of wisdom” from proper Mr. Brooke always drew a laugh from my family – “Over the mysteries of female life, there is drawn a veil, best left undisturbed.” And then he leaves the room humming because he just got a little smile from Meg.

Cut to that mysterious female life: the sisters are acting out Jo’s play in the attic with a very patient cat wearing a bonnet. (Amy’s bratty malapropism: “I’m exhaustified with playing the boy.”)

For whatever reason, Jo decides that Amy’s tantrum is the perfect segue into introducing Laurie. It wasn’t very nice to Meg and Amy that he eavesdropped without their knowing (Beth hadn’t said much), but he turns what he overheard into reassurance. He seems to grasp better than Jo that her less confident sisters need this reassurance, whereas Jo would have just bulldozed over them.

Cut to Amy being bratty again as Meg and Jo rush around getting ready to go to the theater with Laurie and Mr. Brooke. There’s a familiarity in the rushing around. My sisters and I would forever be rushing around on school mornings. From our house, we had a clear sight-line to a street that the school bus would go down first before it came to us. If one sister was ready, she would be posted to watch that street and call out status reports to the other two.

Amy’s “You’ll be sorry for this Jo March!” is so dramatic. Ugh, no one likes you right now Amy. I know you’re the youngest and that’s why you’re understandably immature, but you end up with Laurie, so you need people to like you!

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Post-theater scene: I’m trying to root for Meg and Mr. Brooke here but his pontifications are so dull!

Ooh, this moment is great when Jo stops treating Meg and Mr. Brooke like it’s a funny joke, and suddenly realizes that there is serious intention there. Then she’s just nope, nope, noping her way up there to separate them.

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And I’m watching this scene carefully to see how Mr. Brooke acquires Meg’s glove. He is kind of playing with Meg’s gloved hand as they stand at the front door. But it looks like she has both gloves on when she gets into the house. Maybe they have two layers of gloves?

“You look flushed Meg, dear. Was the theater overcrowded?” – ooh, it’s always rough when people are too perceptive, especially when it’s your mom.

All right, Jo is being a little insufferable while on her post-theater high. First she poked at Meg, and now she jabs at Amy, “still sulking?” But Amy has already acted rashly, presumably when she heard her sisters come in the door and was hit afresh with jealousy. Amy lets out a breath as Jo walks away, and you start to know something is up.

Jo attacks Amy over the burnt manuscript and we see Meg and Marmee hear the commotion downstairs. I have a fondness for scenes of people overhearing tumult in another part of the house and reacting/running to aid. I rewatched Gosford Park recently (another movie I could deep dive), and when the murder victim is discovered, the screams interrupt the music and cards in the other rooms to satisfactory effect.

We always laughed at Amy wildly screaming and flailing as Marmee and Meg enter the room. It’s a nice bit of physical humor there.

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This part of the movie rather settled into my mind that if you were to divide the sisters into pairs, it would be Meg/Amy and Jo/Beth. There were earlier hints to support this, with Meg giving Amy her rag money, etc. But when ManuscriptGate happens, Meg’s comforting of Amy seems instinctual and not just because she was in the room. Considering that Jo seems to spar most often with Meg and Amy, it makes sense that Beth would be Jo’s main confidant, because Beth can’t be jabbed at. My younger sister is a little like Beth in that way. My older sister and I would get on each other’s nerves, but my younger sister seemed impervious to that kind of thing.

Skating scene: this is probably the most action-scene that Little Women gets, when Amy falls through the ice. I didn’t really ice skate growing up, even though I was a Mainer. But we would snowmobile with my cousins, and sometimes we would go across frozen lakes in the snowmobiles and don’t think it didn’t cross my mind about breaking through the ice like Amy.

I like how Jo and Laurie hear the breaking ice and the scream but when they look at the other end of the pond, they at first – ominously – see nothing, before Amy resurfaces. It just gets across how Jo’s heart must have stopped in that moment.

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Just as with Meg’s sprained ankle, Laurie is quick-thinking during the rescue, directing Jo to grab a rail. There is steam coming up from the water around Amy, so at least they weren’t freezing Kirsten Dunst.

“Josephine March, you walked all the way from Walden Pond in only these bloomers?” I wanted to joke that they said hi to Thoreau on the way, but he published Walden in the 1850s and he died in 1862, so they could not have. The fictional March family certainly would have known him when he was alive though, as Jo explains in a later scene that her family is part of the transcendental movement in Concord.

“I could never love anyone as I love my sisters.” Winona Ryder’s line reading here reminds me so much of a certain tone my family gets when we’re getting a little soppy to each other. I assume other families get the same way. Also, I told you the kittens would be back, and they serve here to gently close out this scene of sisterly reconciliation.

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And this is a good stopping point, and I’ll pick back up again soon with a Part Two.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Best of 2018 reading

My top fiction and my top nonfiction reads from 2018 (roughly ranked):

Fiction

  1. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – the combination of historical fiction and fantasy in this novel is exquisite. Special shout-out to the character of Maryam Faddoul, who I loved.
  2. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – The friendship of the two sisters-in-law is the heart of this multi-generational story about a Korean family living as second-class citizens in Japan.
  3. Uprooted by Naomi Novik – fantasy storytelling at its finest.
  4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – loved it all, but the account of the people stranded at the airport while the world ends really pushes this novel to the next level for me. That and I adored the character of Miranda.
  5. Marking Time / Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard – books 2 and 3 of Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles series. Howard’s character writing is just superb, and I do love stories featuring extended families under one roof. (In this case, due to World War II).
  6. Persuasion by Jane Austen – a re-read. I have been told that Persuasion is a book that’s even better the second time around. I don’t remember disliking it the first time around (there’s only two Austens I’m lukewarm about), but reading Persuasion in my late 30’s did enhance Persuasion quite a bit for me.
  7. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters – good creepy bits, and some nice thematic stuff to dig into (texted a lot with Teresa of Shelf Love afterward).
  8.  Making Up by Lucy Parker – Lucy Parker’s romances delight me. This one involves a make-up artist and an aerialist. Earned angst, humor, and a just the right amount of hedgehog appearances. 🙂
  9. Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer – epistolary novel that engrossed me more than I expected it would. I particularly loved the character of Frances.
  10. The Bear and the Nightingale / Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden – First two books in a trilogy (third book just came out) and it’s a dark fantasy set in 14th century Russia. The “dark” aspect is mainly due to the oppression of women in that era, and which the main character battles against just as much as the supernatural elements. I zipped right through these.
  11. Take the Lead by Alexis Daria – own-voices romance inspired by Dancing with the Stars. I’ve seen several seasons of DWTS, and when I watch reality shows, I like to think about the mechanics that go into the show, so this scratched an itch.

Nonfiction

  1. The U.S. Immigration Crisis: Towards an Ethics of Place by Miguel A. La Torre – I read this at the beginning of 2018 and still think of it often, especially as immigration issues dominate the news. It’s a short book where the theory-laden introduction gives way to amazing insights informed by real life stories and places. It’s really influenced how I think about immigration issues. A sample damning quote: “we as a society do not seek justice, rather we follow laws.
  2. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt – A chunkster history that I’ve been off-and-on reading for over a year. Judt does a good job of conveying geopolitical and cultural trends without over-simplifying. I learned so much.
  3. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić – Drakulić is a Croatian writer and these essays are reflections of her and others’ experiences of living “behind the Iron Curtain”, specifically Yugoslavia.
  4. No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of Medicine by Rachel Pearson – I really enjoy reading work memoirs like this. Pearson tells stories from her time as a medical student, based mainly out of Galveston, Texas. She examines her own mistakes and also the failings of the U.S. healthcare system, based on her first-hand observations.

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September/October Reading

I don’t have much to say about my reading in September, as any reading time I spent was devoted to making progress with Tony Judt’s Postwar. After the month ended, I decided to take another break from it.

A brief vacation to New England in mid-October set off a wonderful reading streak. I wrapped up Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus (I found it just okay) and dove into some wonderful reads.

First up, was Carlene Bauer’s epistolary novel Frances and Bernard, which is apparently inspired by the lives of writers Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. Though I read a good bit of O’Connor in college, I couldn’t speak to how Bauer’s characters compare to its real-life counterparts. Bauer’s novel takes place in the mid-20th century. Frances and Bernard are two writers who start exchanging letters after meeting at a writer’s colony. Frances is an Irish Catholic from Philadelphia and Bernard is from New England and a recent convert to Catholicism. They talk about faith – some of which I found relatable and some if it a little too intellectualized. I really liked the character of Frances quite a lot. For me, the novel really took off after Bernard visits Frances in New York. There are some things revealed about his character that complicates their friendship in interesting ways. From there, I found the novel very engrossing, and in the end, a little bit of an emotional wringer.

I was in danger of a reading hangover at that point, so I picked the most promising book on my Kindle: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Set mostly in turn-of-the-century New York City, Wecker’s book is a lovely blending of immigrant tale and fantasy. The Golem and the Jinni are embodiments of the Old World, the mother countries, without being reduced to mere symbolic characters. Wecker’s world-building is superb. She has effortlessly worked in her research of mythologies and New York City into a compelling narrative. After describing the premise to my parents, they borrowed it from the library and read it as well. My younger sister also picked up the book. She is particularly enjoying all the references to Bedouin culture, as she has many close friends who are Bedu.

On the plane ride back home, I decided to stick to fantasy, and started reading Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, which combines Russian folktale and medieval Russian history to tell the story of the brave Vasilisa. The world-building is rich, and I loved how the novel is about Vasilisa’s whole family, though she is clearly the protagonist. But because it is partly a family story, sibling relationships are important to the narrative and I love a good tale about siblings.

After finishing The Bear and the Nightingale, I immediately read the second book in the trilogy, The Girl in the Tower. In the second book, the oppressiveness of Russian medieval times for women becomes even more apparent. Vasilisa is dressed as a boy throughout most of the book, and it made for very stressful reading for me, as I feared for what would happen to her if she was found out. The stakes felt very high. I believe the third book doesn’t come out until January. I’m hoping for a full family reunion, since a couple of the siblings were largely out of the action in the second book.

Currently, I’m reading straight-up historical fiction: Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It’s the second in her Cazalet Chronicles series, and England is now entered into World War II. The books follow an extended family. Similar to my joy at Katherine Arden’s focus on siblings, I love books that include cousin relationships and the interactions with uncles and aunts and grandparents. As with her first, I am impressed by her well-drawn characters, especially the children and young adults. Her depiction of the situational aspects that influence how we behave strikes very true.

I’m also participating in Nonfiction November, hosted by a range of bloggers. My participation is mainly going to be on Instagram. My handle there is christythelibrarian in case you want to follow, or you can follow the Instagram hashtag #nonficnov to see the posts by all participants.

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Summer reading

Hello hello! At this point, I must concede that summer is over. Here in the D.C. area, it’s still humid but there have been a couple of mornings this month that were a touch autumnal. I had quite a nice summer. My younger sister, who lives overseas, was back in the States and so I got to hang out with her a few times. In June, I went up to Maine with my family. My parents still live there. We went on a puffin cruise, visited Acadia, and kayaked on the Kennebec river. One of my cousins joked that my vacation pictures were like an LLBean ad. In late July, my sisters and I had a weekend together in Duluth, Minnesota and along the shore of Lake Superior. It’s a really lovely part of the country up there. I visited a fantastic bookstore in Duluth called Zenith books that I highly recommend. In addition to picking up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, I also picked out two books by authors with Minnesota/local connections. The first was The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich and the second was Onigamiinsing: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year by Linda LeGarde Grover. Onigamiinsing is the Ojibwe name for Duluth.

And with that, I’ll just pivot completely over to books!

My tiny book club (which sadly became smaller when Leslie moved out of the area in August) had met in May, where we decided our next reading project would be re-reading books we had enjoyed as adolescents. I chose to re-read two books that I had first found on my aunt’s bookshelf when I lived with her for a summer, when I was seventeen. The books were Moonraker’s Bride and Tregaron’s Daughter. Both are authored in the early 1970s by Madeleine Brent, a pen name for Peter O’Donnell. Both are gothic romance novels that feature poor and plucky girls that each wind up living in a wealthy family’s home. Moonraker’s Bride is set in China and England, around the time of the Boxer Rebellion. The heroine of Tregaron’s Daughter is Cornish with Italian ancestry that ties her to a mystery in Venice. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the books definitely held up, despite some dated aspects. And I read the novels long enough ago to experience it quite freshly in my re-read. I was reluctant to put them down, and stayed up a little too late with them – which is certainly reminiscent of my teenage years.

Other delights from the summer included reading Naomi Novik’s fantasy Uprooted, which I adored. The storytelling is so good and it’s one of the best depictions of the learning and use of magic that I’ve read in a while. I also read my first Sarah Waters novel: The Little Stranger. My friend Teresa and I had gone to see Blackkklansmen one Friday and the trailer for Little Stranger was in the previews. I’d heard of the novel, but Teresa spoke of it so enthusiastically, that I went home that night and bought it. And then I read it completely over the weekend. I loved it. Teresa and I had a really great text conversation about its mystery and its narrator. And rounding out my discussion of delights is Lucy Parker’s Making Up, which continues her stellar London Celebrities romance series. Though her characters all work in the entertainment industry (in this case an aerialist and a make-up artist), Parker makes them all very grounded in real-world problems and relationships and the obstacles to romance never feel contrived.

On the nonfiction front, I read Robyn Davidson’s travel memoir Tracks: One Woman’s Journey Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback. I quite liked it – she’s very insightful about herself and the impact of this journey on her. And it’s quite an unusual journey – setting across with mainly her camels and her dog, with a few human companions for small intervals.

I also finished Beyond the Map by Alastair Bonnett (a book I requested from Netgalley), which is a collection of micro-essays about geographical oddities and unique places. A few standout essays that I found myself sharing with others: Rio de Janeiro as the “City of Helicopters”; Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India; and the essay on Tsunami Stones and Nuclear Markers. Bonnett’s essays are about points around the globe, but it was his essays set closer to home that I most enjoyed. He has an essay about his city’s abandoned skywalks, remnants of an urban planning fad that never was fully realized. In another essay, he muses on traffic islands. It just shows that exploring can happen anywhere.

I read Charles B. Dew’s short nonfiction book The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History and the Slave Trade. It’s book with two distinct parts. In the first part, he tells about the ways he was steeped in racist narratives as a boy, through jokes, children’s books, and particularly his father’s example. He then talks about how he came to recognize his own racism and alter his worldview. The second part is Dew’s analysis of primary texts associated with the internal slave trade of the South. Dew does explain the connection between the two parts in the introduction and in the transition to the second part, but I’m not sure I can recall it clearly. I liked the first part of the book, but the second part was so dry in comparison that it was hard to finish the book. I appreciate that his profession is as a historian and thus that engagement with primary texts is his life’s story. Still, as a reader, hitting this second part was like hitting the brakes and it really slowed the momentum of the reading experience. All that said, what I love about nonfiction is that I still came away with knowledge I did not have before about the internal slave trade in the United States.

I made some more headway with the chunkster history Postwar, by Tony Judt – the sweeping history of Europe after World War II.  I’m really finding my groove with this macro-history, and how Judt manages to paint a picture of trends and movements without being overly simplistic. There was a section on brutalist-type architecture of the 1960s that I found so fascinating – how these big impersonal housing blocks fed into the alienation of the people who lived there. Judt also gets into decolonization, cultural changes, the fatal puncture of Communist ideology in 1968 Prague, the huge demographic shifts as masses of people left agricultural work for service industries.

I’m belatedly and happily acquiring historical context for all the midcentury European films I consumed as a cinephile in my late 20s. Ah yes, the soldier in French director Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 is headed off to Algiers, and now I know even more details about that conflict. I retrospectively marvel at the clear indictment of anti-Semitism in the 1965 Slovak film The Shop on Main Street, when I realize now that most of Europe refused to acknowledge their culpability in the Holocaust for many years after World War II.

I’m now getting into Europe in the 1970s – depressed economies and all. I find myself excited as the book creeps closer to my own lifetime, when I’ll start connecting it with my own memories of the time.

In addition to Postwar, I have the following books in current rotation:

a book of daily meditations taken from homilies by Archbishop Oscar Romero

Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out by Walter Brueggemann, which is a read-together book for my church

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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My May reading

In May, I finished reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power. In case you haven’t heard of it, in this novel, the women of the world acquire the ability to channel electrical power through their bodies. This development flips the world’s gender dynamics. The book follows four characters (three women, one man) through this new world.

I enjoyed most of The Power. In a way, it reminded me of alternate histories like the film Inglorious Basterds, where oppressors are vanquished by people they had underestimated. I read the first half of the book during sessions on an exercise bike and the combination of increased heart rate and the story had me walking away from the gym feeling like I was *thisclose* to shooting electrical power out of my hands.

I must admit I found the last third or so to be disappointing. I’m not sure if it’s simply that things happened in the story that I didn’t want to happen? I think it was also that what I most enjoyed were the smaller-scale aspects – the dynamics between runaway girls taken in by nuns, a mother’s relationship with her teenage daughter. There’s this through-line involving television news anchors that I found quite funny, and a chapter containing some believable subreddit discussions. But the end is mostly about war, and it’s deflating. This effect is probably deliberate, and I may come to appreciate it more in time, but not at present.

I also finished Nicole J. Georges’ book Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home. The specificity of this graphic novel memoir pulled me in. Georges’ alternates the story of her dog with stories from her childhood with a neglectful mother. After high school, Georges goes to live in Portland, Oregon, and her memoir also captures that specific scene and all the living situations she had.

For my book club, I read Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero which is a YA novel about a Latina teen, written in the style of a diary. It did remind me of my own teenage diaries at times, so kudos for the verisimilitude. Even so, I had a hard time getting into this one. There is a lot of drama in Gabi’s life and it can seem like too much, but I had to reflect that there are teens that do have a lot of disruptions in their lives. I thought Gabi’s creative writing pieces were great, especially the one that the book’s cover references.

I have two books I requested from Netgalley and I finished one of them in May: Vanessa Riley’s historical romance The Bashful Bride. I liked the premise of the story – Ester, a young sheltered “Blackamoor” woman (as the term was at the time) decides to elope with Bex, an actor she admires, who is also an abolitionist. I really dig the British abolitionists, ever since reading Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains. But in the end, though I enjoyed the historical context, I couldn’t really buy the romance, due to getting annoyed at both characters. One keeps a secret for far too long and the other is uncompromising in a grating way.

My favorite book that I completed in May was Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. It’s about a young woman, Nayeli, who lives in a small village in Sinaloa, Mexico. The majority of the men from her village – including her father – have gone to the United States for work. This leaves their village vulnerable to bandidos. Inspired by the film The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli and three of her friends leave on a quest to bring back men from the north to protect their town. Urrea is a great storyteller and Nayeli is a great heroine, so I had a good time with this novel. It’s a relatively light and fun book considering the fraught nature of the issue. It is not without pointedness, suspense and small tragedies, but I found myself looking forward to rejoining Nayeli and her crew on their adventures.

The number of books I’ve started but not kept up with in May was a little ridiculous, but it seemed that there were so many books calling my name that I had a hard time choosing a reasonable amount of books to juggle at once.

The books I’m working on for real at the moment are:

A Local Habitation (October Daye #2) by Seanan McGuire

Beyond the Map by Alistair Bonnet (this book is made up of super-short essays on geographical oddities, and I’m taking my time with it.)

I’m also on my church’s library committee now, so I’m looking through a couple of donated books to see if they will be a good addition to our collection.

For my summer reading plans, I was thinking about really leaning into book series. I think one of the series I’ll work through is the October Daye series.

Additional series I could choose from:

The Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale (I’ve read the first three, but would probably need to re-read them at this point.)

The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner (I’ve read the first two)

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (I’ve read the first)

Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mysteries (I’ve read #2 and #3)

Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire (I’ve only two more to go).

Julie Mulhern’s The Country Club Murders (I’ve read the first.)

P. T. Deutermann’s Cam Richter series (it’s been a while since I’ve read these, but I think there’s one more left in the series I never got around to)

Re-reading the early books of Laurie King’s Mary Russell series and deciding whether to continue on to the later books I haven’t read.

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My April reading

April felt like a long month. It was the last month in an online certificate program I had been taking since last September. It was a good three-course program and I enjoyed the content, but I’m also glad it’s now done! More time to read I hope!

One surprise of the month is that I picked back up a long dormant in-progress book – Tony Judt’s Postwar, which is about Europe after World War II. Postwar is definitely macro-history, focusing on large-scale trends of political and cultural change and tracking the different countries’ variations on those trends. And I’m not used to reading history of that kind. I think my recent reading of Slavenka Drakulic’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed helped me find my way back into Judt’s book. I’m able to connect Postwar to other books and films that I know – a lightbulb comes on, things click into place as I get this greater context. Though there are limits to the metaphor, at times framing post-war Europe as a family epic in my mind has also helped me engage with the book. I am not faulting Judt’s writing – I’m just not used to reading history this broad in scope. Here’s hoping I can keep some steady momentum on this book (it’s 933 pages).

I finished Seanan McGuire’s first October Daye novel, Rosemary and Rue. It’s been a while since I’ve dug into an urban fantasy series and I liked this one. I’ve already picked up the second book from my public library.

Some discussions on Twitter made me more aware of the inequality facing romance authors who are women of color. Over the years, several members of the book blogging community have impressed upon me the importance of intentionally seeking out a diverse range of authors. As a result of the Twitter discussion, I discovered several new-to-me authors that I will try. One was Synithia Williams and I picked up her contemporary romance, Full Court Seduction. Though sports romances are not typically my catnip (one character, Jacobe, is a professional basketball player), I was thrilled that the main character Danielle was an environmental activist and worked for a conservation non-profit. I was delighted in all the details about Danielle’s work and would even get annoyed if I thought that Jacobe was being a distraction to Danielle’s professional life. I think I liked her job stuff more than the romance itself, lol, though the romance was fine. I liked the book’s Floridian setting as well.

The other romance novel I read in April was Talia Hibbert’s A Girl Like Her, spurred by some comments I saw on Reading the End’s blog post on romance in April. I found the dynamic between her two main characters, Evan and Ruth, to be refreshingly different from other romances I’ve read. Evan is kind and Ruth is prickly and it makes wonderful sparks. Ruth is on the autism spectrum and it is not treated as an “issue” but rather just as another way to be in the world. There was some good angst there, all earned, and I just really enjoyed seeing the way the two of them got to know and fall for each other. It’s a “new neighbor” plot, which I think I also have a fondness for. I look forward to the next book in the series, which I believe will be about Ruth’s sister.

I finished Rachel Pearson’s excellent book No Apparent Distress, her memoir about being a medical student. I had heard about this book from Library Journal’s Best Book round-up from last year. A Texas native, Pearson went to medical school at University of Texas’ Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston and worked at St. Vincent’s student-run free clinic whose patients were often impoverished. She shares many stories from that experience, and from her other experiences – medical care for prisoners, in a remote border town, in an abortion clinic, in a plastic surgery clinic, and her own family’s medical stories. She writes well about the complex ethical aspects of her profession, as seen from her student’s point of view.

Near the start of the book, Pearson describes how, after Hurricane Ike in 2008, UTMB cut off its charity care to cancer patients without notifying the physician in charge of their care. That doctor learned of the cuts from her bewildered patients. The doctor did her best to track down all her patients who had been scattered by the hurricane but without that funding and without other options, this doctor knew most of these patients were now facing death. As I read this book, and this chapter, in particular, I kept hearing Idaho Congressional Representative Raul Labrador’s ludicrous statement to upset constituents at a televised town hall last year: “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” Pearson’s book has so many stories of people in peril due to lack of health care access.

Besides Postwar, my other in-progress books are:

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – for book club

The Power by Naomi Alderman – so far, really liking it. Finding it almost cathartic to read.

Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges – this graphic novel/memoir was a random pick from my library’s new books area and it’s been an unexpected pleasure

I have so many options for other books to pick up that I don’t know for sure what’s next after these – though I know that Robyn Davidson’s Tracks will be a near future read, as it’s something my cousin Phil and I chose to read and discuss together later.

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