#CBR4 Cannonball 23: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little WomenLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some people might read Little Women and think to themselves that it’s outdated, old-fashioned, and out of touch. I mean, the book is basically a morality play about how to be a good, little woman and support the men, and learn how to be a real lady with manners and tact.

I enjoyed every word of it.

Maybe that makes me old-fashioned and backwards and an enemy of feminism, but I don’t care. Little Women is a sweet book about growing up and learning the ropes of life and dealing with tragedy and just loving the people around you.

Alcott used her own family as the inspiration for the characters in her books. You can see just how close she was to everyone in her family, but especially to her sisters and mother. Some people today might think that the way Alcott glorifies women in the roles of homemakers and wives and mothers is downright primeval, but I found it sweet. We’ve lost a little something in today’s culture with our constant pursuit of MORE. Look, I’m thankful to have the right to vote and work in corporate America and crack jokes in the presence of men, but I’m also a little sad that there’s so much pressure to do those things to the exclusion of making our homes pleasant and welcoming places and staying home with our kids and enjoying books like Little Women.

louisa may alcott

Louisa May Alcott

I’m not ashamed to say that I found the close relationship between the March sisters profoundly touching (esp. in light of the fact that my sister just got married, and although we both want to stay as close as ever, things are bound to change and will never be the same again). I’m not ashamed to say that I cried many tears through the course of the book (although I am a little embarrassed that most of those tears cropped up at the most inopportune times, like on the elliptical machine at the gym and whilst working the exit door at the Hurley Warehouse sale — *sob* “Thanks for coming.” *sniffle* “Bye, now.” *watery smile* “Come back soon”). I’m not ashamed to say that the romantic bits thrilled my chaste, little heart.

I loved that the March sisters occasionally bicker, but learn to forgive each other quickly. I love the lack of teenage angst. One of the things I dislike most about YA books these days is the heavy cloud of angst that obscures everything. No wonder kids are so sullen these days. Everything they’re reading (or watching on TV) is encouraging them to indulge in their angst, to become brooding and introspective and consumed with thoughts of themselves and their own problems. THOSE ARE ALL FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS, YOU BUNCH OF BABIES.

first world problems

You think the March sisters didn’t have problems? Their dad was risking his life in the Civil War, they were poor and nigh-on starving, and they lived in freezing-cold Massachusetts and had maybe TWO dresses each in their entire wardrobes. But instead of moping about and whining about how their troubles affect THEM, they try to make the best of it, and try to be cheerful for each others’ sakes. And they also find satisfaction in helping others wherever they can. Now, I know that this isn’t an antidote for everything, but it’s still better than whining.

Maybe others think that Little Women is antiquated, but I love it. I love its simple depiction of friendship, love, and family, and of many of the values idealized in it.

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Regular Read: Love and Friendship by Jane Austen

Love and FriendshipLove and Friendship by Jane Austen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This short collection of musings by Jane Austen is kind of jumbled. It’s a mixed bag of short notes dashed off to friends and relatives and ideas for stories being written down and played with. It’s kind of interesting to see her thought process, and you’ll see some familiar names that were later attached to other characters in her finished novels.

She was quite young when she wrote some of these; as young as fifteen, I believe. It’s hard to believe that some of these laughably far-fetched and melodramatic plots were written by a young woman who would go on to write concise, insightful, and subtly barbed books about Regency society.

But, all in all, it’s not really what most people read Austen for. Most of us want to read the author the girl became, not the other way around.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 22: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, And RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, And Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve lived in Long Beach pretty much all my life, and have lots of friends who’ve lived in Torrance. I’ve passed by Zamperini Field numerous times without stopping to wonder who it was named after. Well, now I know.

Louie Zamperini was a world-class runner on the way to breaking the barrier of the four-minute mile when, suddenly, his country needed him. He heeded the call and joined the Army’s Air Corps as a bombardier. I just finished reading Catch-22, and I’m glad that I got to read a little of it before reading Unbroken because it helped me to create a backdrop of absurdity for what I was about to read.

Zamperini crashed in the middle of the ocean, survived on rainwater and fish for over a month, and was then captured and tortured by the Japanese.

My parents are Korean, and many people of their generation dislike the Japanese, a propensity passed down to them by their parents before them. I’d always known it was because of the Japanese occupation of Korea, but I’d never learned about the brutality of that occupation. After reading this book, I can understand a little better why my parents have such an aversion to the sound of the Japanese language. What happened in those death camps was inhuman at the basest level.

It makes me really sad and ashamed to know that POWs in American prisons are treated with similar cruelty and lack of dignity (Abu Ghraib, I’m looking at you). Maybe they’re not being starved, but we do know that they’re being humiliated. I get that some of them might have done awful things, but most of them were just following orders. Nothing gives us the right to torture them, no matter what they’ve done to us. This is the one time I’m going to have to disagree with Jack Bauer.

jack bauer

Anyway, Zamperini’s story is nothing short of amazing. The fact that he was able to survive so many different hardships is boggling. Hillenbrand’s writing is strong, precise, and honest, which I really appreciate. I appreciate that she didn’t try to gloss over his struggle with alcoholism after coming home, as well as his conversion to Christianity later in life. She told the story of the real Louie Zamperini without pulling any punches.

He’s still alive, by the way. He’ll probably outlive us all. Louie Zamperini is a survivor if ever there was one.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 21: George Knightley, Esquire, Book One: Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite

Charity Envieth Not (George Knightley, Esquire; #1)Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: this book was written by a friend of mine. I read it as it was being written and gave feedback. I am thanked on the flyleaf for this service.

But I am doing my best to review it as if I were just reading any old book and had normal expectations of it. In fact, I was so afraid that I would be biased that I originally didn’t write a review at all, and rated the book only four stars, just in case the shine of knowing the author eventually wore off.

I just re-read the book for the first time in years, and I have re-rated it five stars. This book is fantastic, much more than mere fanfic, and a worthy sequel to Jane Austen’s Emma.

Emma is my favorite of Austen’s novels, mostly because the love interest, Mr. Knightley, is my ideal man. Witty, wise, thoughtful, generous, a faithful friend, never afraid to tell the truth for the good of those he loves, even at the risk of hurting them — Mr. Darcy ain’t got nothin’ on him.

George Knightley, Esquire, Book One: Charity Envieth Not is a retelling of Emma from Knightley’s point of view. We get to see what he was thinking throughout the events of Austen’s novel, and also get to take a look into the day-to-day life of a gentleman back in the Regency era.

mr. knightley (jeremy northam)

Jeremy Northam, in my favorite role of his

Cornthwaite’s book is well-written. She is very familiar with Austen’s style, but still gives Knightley a character of his own, without being too derivative of Emma (aside from dialogue written by Austen that had to be fitted into this book). We see Knightley’s thoughts and his interactions with characters that we either didn’t see much of in Emma or weren’t in Emma at all, as Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield would not have had any reason to make acquaintance with tenants of Donwell Abbey.

The book is also very well-researched. It was fascinating to take a deeper look at the responsibilities that the owner of an estate like Donwell would have had. He would have been involved in mediating grievances, making improvements to roads and bridges, in improvements to his own properties, in other matters of importance in Highbury, and would have had a full social calendar as well. Cornthwaite really did her homework, and it makes Charity Envieth Not a good primer on Regency era life as well as of the “he said” counterpart to a classic romance.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s available on Kindle, too. If you love Jane Austen and wish she had written more, this book is the next best thing to Zombie Austen.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 20: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics: The Invisible ArtUnderstanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was never into comics as a kid. Part of that was because I didn’t have any money to spend on them, so I never had access to them. And, as I got older, I dismissed them as the trappings of pre-adolescent boys bound for lives of solitude and obesity.

I’m still not really into traditional comics, but I’ve grown a certain appreciation for graphic novels. When this post was published on Pajiba, it was right after I started using Goodreads, and I promptly added all of Seth Freilich’s recommendations to my reading list. It was a great introduction to the medium, and I’ve been steadily working through the list. I like to alternate between graphic novels and traditional novels, since it does feel a little like cheating, sometimes. It’s never taken me longer than a day to read through any one graphic novel (although I do take volumes a volume at a time).

Now that I have a few graphic novels under my belt, I’m glad that I had a chance to read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. The book is clearly a labor of love, and McCloud uses many clever illustrations (both literally and figuratively) to demonstrate the power of combining images and words into a single art form.

understanding comics

McCloud touches on the history of comics, and then proceeds to explain and demonstrate how the mind interprets images, which makes the comic book an especially powerful medium. Some of his examples really blew me away, and it’s clear that he gave a lot of thought to how to present his material. It’s really inventive throughout, and makes me think that kids would learn a lot more about all kinds of different topics if textbooks were presented as graphic novels. Some people (like me) are just visual learners, and we remember what we see a lot better than what we hear.

This book is a must-read for comic book lovers, and for anyone who thinks comic books are derivative and childish. There are some comics that are derivative and childish, but others are quite creative and moving. Understanding Comics is one of the best ones.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 19: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first heard the name Yossarian on Pajiba. He’s always been one of my favorite commenters; scathing, but fair. And now that I’ve finally read Catch-22, I love him even more.

John Yossarian is a bombardier stationed in Italy during World War II. Once you complete a certain number of missions, you’re supposed to get a ticket home, but his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the number of missions. Desperate to leave before he gets killed, he hopes to be deemed insane in order to be excused from flying any further combat missions. The only problem is Catch-22: You can only be excused from combat missions if you’re insane, but asking to be excused proves that you’re sane.

Heller’s a great writer with a gift for the absurd. Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, and others are frustrating because they’re so convoluted. In between all the absurdity, there are moments where the reader, through Yossarian, is faced with the brutality of war, and of life in general.

It also satirizes bureaucracy. Most of us can identify with this, I think. It’s hard not to imagine that the powers that be are wasting their time on frivolous matters when the wheels of bureaucracy turn so slowly.

The book ends on a bit of a high note (considering the valleys of despair that it dwells in towards the end), but even that high note is couched in absurdity. It makes me wonder whether Heller just wanted to leave his reader smiling, or whether his point was that the only way to escape the absurdity was to embrace the absurdity.

Wait, isn’t that a Catch-22?

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#CBR4 Cannonball 18: Emma by Jane Austen

EmmaEmma by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Likeable people often have the power of making you like the things they like. When they get excited about something, it makes you want to get excited about it, too. One of my pastors is a great example of this. It’s thanks to his enthusiasm that many in our church love the Lakers, Braveheart, “Band of Brothers,” and kettle corn (I am guilty as charged of liking all of these things).

Jane Austen wields a similar power in Emma. She set out to write “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” and made generations of readers fall in love with her.

Emma Woodhouse is “handsome, clever, and rich.” She lives on the estate of Hartfield in the town of Highbury with her aged father. Her mother died when she was young, so there was never anyone to really challenge Emma, and she became used to always getting her own way. The only person that she can’t charm into doing as she pleases is Mr. Knightley, the owner of Donwell Abbey, and brother-in-law to Emma’s sister, Isabella.

The book opens with the wedding of Emma’s former governess, Miss Taylor, who is now Mrs. Weston. Emma takes credit for having made the match and is determined to make a hobby of matchmaking. When she meets the artless and beautiful Harriet Smith, she takes Miss Smith under her wing and sets out to spark a romance for her.

emma and harriet

Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Harriet (Toni Collette, who was brilliant in this role).

These days, a lot of people seem to complain that Emma is spoiled and selfish, and there’s plenty of evidence to that effect in the book. But Emma changes towards the end of the book, and what ultimately makes her a redeemable character is that she learns from her mistakes and, at the heart of it, always had good intentions despite her pride.

Mr. Knightley is also my favorite Austen hero (Mr. Darcy doesn’t even compare). He’s charming, chivalrous, clever, and, most of all, wise. He’s never afraid to tell Emma the truth, even when it hurts. He’s a faithful friend in that regard, and it’s a character trait that far too few people value in a future spouse. He’s insightful enough to see Emma’s flaws, but gracious enough to believe that she can change.

Emma is funny, touching, romantic, and really witty. It’s my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels, and I think Emma’s flaws are what make her relatable in the end.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 17: Fables, Volume 13: The Great Fables Crossover by Bill Willingham

Fables, Vol. 13: The Great Fables CrossoverFables, Vol. 13: The Great Fables Crossover by Bill Willingham
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was the last Fables volume available at my local library, and I wish it had been better.

This volume is a crossover of all three of the Fables comics: Fables (original flavor), Jack of Fables, and The Literals. If you haven’t read any of the Jack of Fables comics, and I didn’t, it’ll be a little jarring to be introduced to so many new characters all at once.

At the Farm, the Fables are trying to regroup and figure out what to do. Mister Dark’s presence in NYC is affecting them, causing people give in to the darker parts of their natures. For Bigby and Beast, this means a knock-down, drag-out brawl. For Rose Red, this means sinking into a deep depression.

When Jack Horner calls, claiming to know how to prevent the end of the Fables, Bigby and Snow take off to see how valid his claims are.

The volume was rather disjointed for me. There’s a lot of meta references, which get to be just a little too twee after a while.

At least the artwork’s back to being good again.

Hopefully, my local library will get Volume 14 in soon. And, hopefully, Volume 14 brings Fables back to its usual levels of ossomness.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 16: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d grown up hearing all about Treasure Island and Robert Louis Stevenson, but never really got around to reading any of his books. They sounded like books for boys to me and, despite being a tomboy, my literary tastes skewed towards the feminine (e.g. Sweet Valley Twins and The Baby-Sitters Club).

Well, I recently began my formal education in books for boys with Treasure Island. It was a fun, swashbuckling adventure, and there were parts that made me make surprised faces in public while I was reading it.

It reads a little Robinson Crusoe-y, mostly because of the language, but it’s still lots of fun.

Jim Hawkins is a young boy whose parents run the Admiral Benbow Inn. When an old seaman of great belligerence and dubious character comes to stay at the Admiral Benbow, Jim’s life is changed forever.

One of the things that surprised me most about the book was the portrayal of pirates as thieves and marauders. You may ask why this surprised me, and I think it’s because pirates are portrayed in today’s media as though they’ve got their own moral code, and are good at heart. They don’t, and they aren’t. This is still true of pirates today. These men (and sometimes women) steal and kill to make a profit, and they don’t care who they hurt as long as they get what they want. They’re ruthless, and Stevenson portrays them as such.

captain jack sparrow

Pirate lite.

We see characters like Captain Jack Sparrow in the movies and think they’re pirates. After reading Treasure Island, I’d say that Captain Jack Sparrow is to pirates what Edward Cullen is to vampires.

Anyway, there’s action aplenty, as well as some survival stuff. I do love a good wilderness survival story.

As children’s books go, this one may be a must-read for boys, but I think it’s fun for girls, too. I may be about twenty-five years behind the curve on this one, but I’m glad I eventually got to it.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 15: Fables, Volume 12: Dark Ages by Bill Willingham

Fables: Dark AgesFables: Dark Ages by Bill Willingham
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dark Ages explored some interesting themes, but some of the artwork was just plain bad, and the skipping from artist to artist hurt my eyes.

This volume is mostly concerned with the aftermath of Fabletown’s war with the Empire. There was a lot of potential here to explore social and political themes, like what happens in a recently-freed land when the oppressor is gone and the people are left to fend for themselves. That was the direction I thought Willingham was going in initially, but, alas, I was mistaken. Instead, Willingham used it as an opportunity to introduce a new villain. I think that’s a missed opportunity, there.

Other than that, the action in this book is a little static. There’s a pretty significant tragedy in the book, but it feels a little bit manipulative and, in my opinion, doesn’t do much to push the book forward. Many of the other events are rather forgettable, although I’m sure Willingham will pick up those threads in the next volume.

It was still a decent read, but certainly my least favorite volume of the series so far.

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