Fabulous Fiction Firsts #204

This spring, a pair of debut novelists from the Midwest offer fictional biographies of two beloved 19th century literary figures, and breathe romance into their lonely lives.

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O'Connor McNees draws on biographical information to imagine a young Louisa at Walpole N.H. in the summer of 1855, where she finds that her growing affection (which she tried to deny) for charming (and wealthy) Joseph Singer is eagerly returned. Their romance is cut short by the announcement of Joseph’s engagement to an heiress. Family tragedies, disappointment and a desire for independence take Louisa back to Boston where eventually her literary career blossoms.

Kelly O’Connor McNees is born and raised in Michigan. She now calls Chicago home. A most apropos quote from her website beautifully evokes her heroine's lament:

“Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns.”
~ Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael captures the emotional life of Charlotte Bronte during the last decade of her life, and shortly after the publication of Jane Eyre. Remaining lonely in spite of her literary celebrity, Charlotte Bronte endures unrequited love, first for her French professor and later for her publisher, while caring for her aging father. When his brash curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, reveals his long-time secret love for her, Charlotte must decide between a marriage lacking the passion displayed in her novels or a single life.

“Gael makes a valiant attempt to blend fact with fiction as she transports readers to 19th-century England”, capturing the passions, hopes, dreams, and sorrows of literature’s most famous sisters. The author was raised in the Midwest. She has lived abroad for more than fifteen years, primarily in Paris, where she worked as a screenwriter. She now makes her home in Florence, Italy.

For further reading, may we suggest:

Louisa May Alcott : the woman behind Little Women by journalist Harriet Reisen - an account of the life of LMA in context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. (Reisen also wrote the script for the PBS documentary on Alcott).

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler, - a beautifully imagined tale of the Bronte sisters and the writing of Jane Eyre.

Happy Birthday Sarah Vaughan!

"Possessor of one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century, Sarah Vaughan ranked with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday in the very top echelon of female jazz singers." Born March 27, 1924, in New Jersey, Sarah Vaughan had an incredibly prolific career in American jazz from the 1940s up until her death in 1990. Celebrate her birthday by checking out some of her cds from the AADL. Try The Roulette Years. Vols. 1 & 2, Sarah Vaughan Favorites, After Hours, or Ultimate Sarah Vaughan. For more information about the woman behind the amazing voice, check out the biography Sassy : The Life of Sarah Vaughan or the PBS dvd Jazz. Episode nine, The adventure.

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The Middle Place

The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan, is both a coming of age and a cancer-survival memoir. The title refers to the balance between being a daughter and being a wife and mother, a transition which Kelly explores through poignant episodes and a father-daughter battle against cancer. Cancer may have been the impetus for the memoir, but this book is really about familial love. I couldn't help but adore Kelly's quirky, full-of-life father and quickly understand just why he is so special to her. This book is recommended for all daughters who think their dads are the greatest. Come to think of it, those fathers would probably enjoy it as well.

The Life of Jane Austen


The world has long followed the exploits of the Dashwood sisters, the Bennet sisters, the Elliot sisters and the character, who her creator referred to as, “my Emma”. But what of the authoress, Jane Austen, herself? Recently there has been a spike of interest in Austen’s own story – are there parallels running between her beloved characters and their romantic ups and downs and her own life, we wonder?

Becoming Jane is Hollywood’s answer to providing a glimpse of Jane’s early romantic life and is mostly a fairly accurate retelling of her star-crossed love for a dashing Irishman. The film I liked better is Miss Austen Regrets (hidden as a special feature with the 2008 BBC version of Sense and Sensibility). It picks up near the end of Jane’s short life, when she is still wrestling with the consequences of turning down the financial security of what would have been a comfortable, but loveless, marriage in her twenties. In making that choice, she provided herself the freedom to continue writing, building a home instead with her beloved older sister, Cassandra, but never achieving independence from her parents.

Many biographies of Jane have been written and we have two of the best in our collection: the short, impressionistic, Jane Austen by Carol Shields, who brings the perspective of being an award-winning novelist herself to the story; and, for a detailed, well-researched account of Jane’s life, try Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomlin. It is a good story, really, written with intelligence, perception and wit - I think even Jane would find much to recommend it!

In Tomlin's fine book, we learn how the young Jane’s genius was nurtured within the embrace of a large, loving, literate family – participating in full-scale theatricals with her brothers (think Mansfield Park) and reading aloud on winter evenings, first from the works of contemporary novelists and then from her own budding short stories and early novels. We can be grateful that she had the support and freedom to develop her prodigious talent.

Stories of Christopher Isherwood

I had never heard of English-American author Christopher Isherwood until the opening of the recent film A Single Man, adapted from Isherwood’s novel. Christopher Isherwood tended to write stories that were at least partially autobiographical. For example, he and George, the main character of A Single Man (played by Colin Firth in an Oscar-worthy performance), were both Englishmen who emigrated to southern California and taught English literature at a large university. George also reflects Isherwood in terms of his mate. Each of them had a long-term relationship with a much younger man. Isherwood’s novel The Memorial was influenced by his own family history, specifically with his mother. His young life in Berlin was mirrored in The Berlin Stories, a pair of novels which became the basis for the film and musical Cabaret.

If you’re interested in a 100% pure biography, check out Chris and Don: A Love Story. This documentary tells the story of Christopher Isherwood and his longtime partner, Don Bachardy. Despite their large age difference, they lived together for more than 30 years.

A Single Man opens at the Michigan Theater this Friday.

Another awesome Authors Forum event

"I came of age before ethnic was cool," Bich Minh Nguyen writes in her memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner. On Feb. 10 from 5:30-6 p.m., U-M English Professor Peter Ho Davies will be in U-M Hatcher Graduate Library talking with Nguyen in a live two-way webcast from West Lafayette, Indiana, discussing writing, family, and American junk food. Davies will draw on his own background (he was born in England to Welsh and Chinese parents). Nguyen's memoir -- the 2009-2010 Michigan Humanities Council Great Michigan Read Book -- chronicles her migration from Vietnam in 1975 and her coming of age in Grand Rapids in the '80s. This discussion is sponsored by the Author's Forum, a collaboration between University Library, U-M Institute for the Humanities, Great Lakes Literary Arts Center, and the Ann Arbor Book Festival.

Just Kids

Being a Patti Smith fan, you might imagine my delight when I discovered she had written a new memoir about her early life in New York City. The book, Just Kids, centers on her relationship that took place in the late 60s/early 70s with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe, who took the iconic cover photograph for the Patti Smith Group’s Horses album, met Smith in 1967 when she was working at the now-defunct Scribner's bookstore on Fifth Avenue. Later, they lived in and around the historic Hotel Chelsea and became each others muses – developing a relationship that would last for years to come, always focusing on their artistic endeavors. Although Smith would have later relationships with other men, such as her marriage to the late Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, her time with Mapplethorpe was always dear to her, and they remained friends through his coming into his own as a gay man, and up until his death from AIDS in 1989.

Patti Smith talked about her new book on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, you can listen to the interview or read a transcript here.

Italian Holiday?

Ever dream of going to Italy? Can't afford it? Using the library is a great alternative!

First, you can experience the sights through art books in our collection. The works of greats such as Botticelli, Bernini, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio will transport you into the culture of Italy. However, if you wanted something a little closer to the real experience, you could try this book of paintings within the Uffizi. It's basically a tour in itself!

If you want to feel like you're actually walking the streets of Italy, try a book on the architecture of Brunelleschi, the famous creator of Florence's Il Duomo, or maybe something a little broader.

Perhaps you're anxious to taste some real Italian food? Unfortunately, you'll have to cook it yourself. But books on Italian Cooking will be able to make that a bit easier for you.

In order to hear Italy, you can try your hand at speaking it yourself. With our fantastic Italian language-learning collection, you'll be able to go from a beginner's lesson, to something more advanced. Although, if you tired yourself out with all that cooking, you might just like to listen to some opera.

If you're really into this whole plan, maybe you want to get some more background? There are tons of Italian history books. There are also biographies on key figures, such as Caesar, Lucrezia Borgia, Savonarola, Garibaldi, Mussolini, and the well-known Medici family.

Maybe all of these books are too much for you, and you really need a break? Well, luckily, AADL also carries movies. Something lighthearted, like Roman Holiday might help you through your journey. Or, if you'd like something a little more thrilling, perhaps The Talented Mr. Ripley? We even have films in Italian, like La Dolce Vita!

It may not be exactly the same as climbing the Spanish Steps, but it's as close as you can get without actually going! But, if you ever decide to go, don't forget your travel book.

It's good to be short

While perusing the blog of a Harper Collins marketing coordinator (read about it on muffy’s post), I saw that she invited readers to create six-word memoirs, inspired by the book It All Changed In An Instant : More Six-Word Memoirs By Writers Famous & Obscure. This got me thinking about how the new kind of mass communication (that is, personal broadcasting) is all about brevity. 140 characters in Twitter and texting, four-word film reviews, six-word memoirs, or 55 fiction, the personal tale is trending to shortness.

The cynic in me might attribute this to what seems to be an increasingly shorter attention span in the human animal, but the English major in me knows there’s more to the (short) story: rigid structure and restraint often help us process and speak about things in a more poignant way. Perhaps one of the most moving examples of this phenomenon is W.S. Merwin’s “Elegy,” which can be found in The Carrier of Ladders or The Second Four Books of Poems. Another amazing example of hard-hitting, extremely short poetry is The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons.

Other short things I can suggest? The song “Minimum Wage” on the classic They Might Be Giants album Flood is 46 seconds long and contains two (maybe three) words. Kristin Chenoweth is reportedly 4’11,” and has done quite a bit of fun work in music, television, theater and film. Find her song “Taylor the Latte Boy” on your online vendor of choice or check out Pushing Daisies. The Ann Arbor District Library conducts its own short story contest, and the winning stories are a part of the circulating collection. I haven’t gotten around to watching the Pixar Short Films Collection (v.1), but if the shorts you always get to see at the theater before one of their features are evidence of anything, it’s the beauty of simplicity and diminutiveness.

Girls Interrupted

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by author Joanne Greenberg is a now-classic semi-autobiographical account of a sixteen-year old girl’s struggle with schizophrenia. Following traumatic events that occurred during childhood, Deborah withdraws further into herself, living in a fantasy universe called Yr (pronounced “eer”), and drifts in and out of reality. After a suicide attempt, Deborah’s parents seek treatment for her in an institution.

The story is reminiscent of Susannah Kaysen’s 1993 memoir, Girl, Interrupted. Kaysen was institutionalized in the 1960s after a suicide attempt and diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. However, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden was published many years earlier (1964) under the pseudonym Hannah Green, and of course, deals with a very different kind of mental illness. Still, a major theme in both of the books is that both of the young women feel "safe" being on the "inside", and feel liberated from social stigma and responsibility. But they both eventually realize that unless they take steps toward their recovery - frightening as the "outside" world may be - they will remain hospitalized, and never actually, truly, be free.

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