Review of Miss Alcott’s E-mail, by Kit Bakke


Miss Alcott’s E-mail

Yours for Reforms of All Kinds

by Kit Bakke

David R. Godine, 2006.  255 pages.

Kit Bakke begins, “I was home alone, that rare treat for the working mother, when it occurred to me to write to her.  To Louisa May Alcott.  Why not?” 

She goes on to explain why writing to Louisa resonated with her life.  And apparently she pulled it off!

“I wish I could explain more about the mechanics of our correspondence, but I can’t, because, other than frying six surge protectors, I don’t know how it worked.  I sent my letters and chapter drafts to Louisa by e-mail from my Seattle living room, and she received them as handwritten ink on paper in her roms in Dr. Lawrence’s house in Roxbury, Massachusetts.  She once told me my handwriting was neat and extremely legible, so there was definitely something odd going on.  She wrote to me, using well-worn ink pens and paper, and they showed up in Times New Roman in my Outlook inbox.  I was grateful for the technology transfer, as her own handwriting was also less than copperplate.

“It’s one of those Internet Effects, I guess.  Or a Heisenberg thing, or Brownian motion gone amok.  I didn’t want to inquire too closely for fear the magic might vanish.”

What follows is a series of essays about Louisa May Alcott’s life and the parallels with Kit Bakke’s life in modern America, framed by letters (no, e-mails) purporting to be from Louisa herself.

I loved the idea of this book, because when I was a girl in 6th or 7th grade, I actually spent quite a bit of time daydreaming about bringing Louisa May Alcott into the present to show her all the advances women have made.  I don’t think any other author ever prompted such a reaction, but I distinctly remember thinking out what I would say to Louisa May Alcott if I could pull this off and meet her.  So imagine my delight, more than thirty years later, to learn that Kit Bakke in some sense managed to do what I daydreamed about as a child.

I think it was Louisa’s zeal for “reforms of all kinds” that prompts this sort of reaction from her readers.  We want her to know about the progress that was made, and about the good that came from her own efforts.  Kit Bakke did some work at reforms of her own in the sixties, so she tied those stories in with her thoughts about Louisa’s life.

This book is a fascinating blend of musings on life in modern America combined with historical information about Louisa May Alcott and her times, as well as the personal touch from imagining Louisa’s reactions.

This book will be most enjoyed by people who have read and loved Louisa May Alcott’s books, but there are millions such people out there.  For myself, I want to find a copy of some of her less-known books for adults mentioned, such as Work.  I will be able to read it with new appreciation into the background and what it meant in Louisa’s life and times.  Reading Miss Alcott’s E-mail reminded me of an author I loved in my childhood, and told me more about her work for adults, which I have yet to discover.

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Review of Crazy for God, by Frank Schaeffer


Crazy for God

How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back

by Frank Schaeffer

Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2007.  417 pages.

Starred review.

Frank Schaeffer is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of L’Abri and famous Christian writers.  In college, I read Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri, What Is a Family?, The Tapestry, Affliction, and Common Sense Christian Living.  I bought a set of The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, but still haven’t read any of it!

My father was a fan of Francis Schaeffer’s writings, and my mother a huge fan of Edith Schaeffer’s.  After reading Edith’s books, I dreamed of living that sort of life myself — living as a family in Europe, reaching searching souls for God!  It sounded like a dream existence.

Frank Schaeffer (known as Franky then) did come and speak at my college, Biola University, when I was a student.  I think he was promoting A Time for Anger, and he came across as very angry indeed.  I pretty much dismissed what he had to say, and figured he must be a typical rebellious preacher’s kid, though I was still enthralled by his parents’ works.  His mother spoke at a Ladies’ Tea at Biola, promoting her book Common Sense Christian Living, and I was further enraptured.

I should add that I still think of her way of looking at suffering, as presented in Affliction, as a wonderful paradigm for dealing with why God allows suffering.

In Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer outlines his life growing up in Switzerland, his later involvement in the founding of the religious right political movement in America, and his search for some kind of peace.

In a lot of ways, I found his quest mirroring my own.  I too grew up in a rather unusual Christian community — a family of thirteen children.  I too ended up with liberal political views.  Although I still attend an evangelical church, it is a church about community and much less hung up on exact statements of faith.  It sounds very similar in attitude to the Greek Orthodox church where Frank Schaeffer has found a home.  Like him, I find myself thinking of Christianity as a “journey to God, wherein no one is altogether instantly ‘saved’ or ‘lost’ and nothing is completely resolved in this life (and perhaps not in the next).”  My belief that all will be saved eventually puts me at odds with the standard evangelical community he was once so much a part of and that I was once so much a part of.  So I found his journey fascinating.

That perfect family life at L’Abri was not so perfect after all.  Those family reunions that Edith Schaeffer wrote about as so idyllic were filled with angry fighting.  Francis was an abusive husband, and Edith was not a tremendously respectful wife.  Both were rather neglectful parents, sacrificing family life for “the work” and letting their son run wild.  (Not that he didn’t enjoy that!)

He also points out that Francis and Edith were very open and accepting — at least for most of their lives.  But they closed down that openness when they were catering to the American evangelical political movement.  He has some scathing words about many American evangelical leaders, and points out some things about them that were downright strange.

He grew up in Europe, and when he got involved in American politics, he didn’t even really know America.  His parents enjoyed European culture, and thought themselves a bit above your run-of-the-mill Americans.  Francis Schaeffer’s book, How Shall We Then Live? was based on his wide knowledge of Western art and history.  Having lived for ten years in Europe myself, I have some sneaking sympathies with him on these points. 

I’m sure many hero-worshipers will be bitterly angry that Frank Schaeffer would say anything negative about his parents.  He also says many positive things, but is trying to write about his own strange childhood.  He makes the point that we are all human, that the perfect “common sense Christian living” may have its own flaws, under the surface, if you look more closely. 

This book was fascinating and eye-opening.  I appreciate the look at someone else’s thoughts about what it really means to live for God, and making sense of his own life’s path and life’s work.  In many ways, with the collapse of my marriage, I am looking at some of the same issues.  So I appreciated this chance to get someone else’s perspective, as well as to learn that what I thought of as idealistic perfection in my youth didn’t actually match that in reality.

I’m coming to think that a lot of what God wants from us is to live life as the person he made us to be:  Enjoying his blessings and doing the work He made us best suited for, whether it has anything to do with “leading others to Christ” or not.  I doubt that Frank Schaeffer would word it exactly that way, but I felt that much of his spiritual journeying mirrors my own, and I appreciate the insights from a fellow traveler.

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Review of Knucklehead, by Jon Scieszka



Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka

by Jon Scieszka

Viking, 2008.  106 pages.

Starred Review

Now we know how Jon Scieszka got so funny!  He grew up with five brothers.

I got to hear the author read from this book at the National Book Festival in September, so I knew I simply had to read the book myself.  It turned out that the parts he read were by no means the only hilarious parts.

The cover is like a comic book.  The chapters are short.  And funny.  The whole thing is beautifully designed to draw kids in and not let them go.

Now, I have seven brothers myself (but six sisters — which makes a big difference!), so he couldn’t really surprise me with his stories.  His take on the mayhem and the bright ideas six boys can come up with are invariably hilarious.  Several chapters end with a “Knucklehead Warning:  Do not try this at home . . . or anywhere else.”  (But he makes them sound so much fun!)

I love the babysitting chapter.  Why didn’t we think of this?

“We didn’t get paid for babysitting.  Until one day Jim and I figured out a great way to make a little money on the job.

“We were watching Jeff.  He had rolled under a chair and got stuck.  We dragged him out and stood him up holding on to the coffee table.  And that’s when Jeff spotted the ashtray.

“We watched Jeff grab a cigarette butt.

“We watched Jeff put it in his mouth.

“We watched Jeff chew the butt, make a crazy face, then spit it out.

“Jim and I cracked up laughing.

“Then we gave Jeff another butt and watched him do it all over again.

“It was such a great trick that we charged all of our friends ten cents to watch.”

I also love his chapter about learning to read.  He talks about the very strange family he read about in school.

“The alien kids were named Dick and Jane.  Strangest kids I ever heard of. . . .

“When I read the Dick and Jane stories, I thought they were afraid they might forget each other’s names.  Because they always said each other’s names.  A lot.

“So if Jane didn’t see the dog, Dick would say, ‘Look Jane.  Look.  There is the dog next to Sally, Jane.  The dog is also next to Mother, Jane.  The dog is next to Father, Jane.  Ha, ha, ha.  That is funny, Jane.’

“Did I mention that Dick and Jane also had a terrible sense of humor?

“At home my mom read me real stories.  These were stories that sounded like my life.  These were stories that made sense.  She read me a story about a guy named Sam.  Sam-I-am.  He was a fan of green eggs and ham.

“And then there was the story about the dogs.  Blue dogs.  Yellow dogs.  Dogs that were up.  Dogs that were down.  Dogs that drove around in cars and met each other at the end of the book for a giant party in a tree.  I cheered them on.  Go, dogs.  Go!  I read about them all by myself because I wanted to.  Go, dogs.  Go!

“So I guess I didn’t really learn to read by reading about those weirdos Dick and Jane.  I learned to read because I wanted to find out more about real things like dogs in cars and cats in hats.”

This book is tremendous fun.  Jon Scieszka is the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, with a special mission to Reach the Reluctant Reader.  This book will do that beautifully.  What kid (or adult) could resist?

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Review of Free for All, by Don Borchert


Free for All

Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library

by Don Borchert

Virgin Books, 2007.  223 pages.

Starred Review

I loved this book.  Why should I need to read a book about working in a library?  Haven’t I seen it all myself?  Reading these pages filled me with the delighted recognition that our customers at Herndon Fortnightly Library are not the only eccentrics out there.  Besides, Don Borchert showed me the funny side of the quirky situations that face library employees every day.  He gave me permission to laugh about them.

For example, one afternoon I read this passage:

“Legally, they aren’t required to give us a great deal of information:  a home address, a phone number, a driver’s license if they’d like to show it to us.  But some people are screwed up.  They will make up addresses; they will say they have no phone, no driver’s license.  The less information you have on them, the less able you are to get a hold of them when the books drift overdue and cruise into lost territory.

“Some patrons put down post office boxes as their home address.  This is not a happy thing, because when the patron has $750 worth of missing books it is impossible to knock on their post office box and ask them politely where the books are.  At this point, they are gone.  But if the DMV puts the post office box on their driver’s license, it’s good enough for us.  If it is not on their driver’s license we are dubious.

” ‘I can’t get mail where I live.’

“This statement, too, makes us suspect, because as far as we know the mail goes everywhere.  When we are lied to in the first tentative moments of the relationship, we know it will end in tears, accusations, and large fines.”

In the very next week, we had a potential new customer come in who gave a post office box as his address and wanted a card given to him on the spot.  (Our policy is that we will mail it.)  Two people discussed our policy with him for a half hour before the employees decided to walk away!

I thought it was funny — I just read about that in Free for All!  Of course, I might not have found it so amusing if I had been one of the ones trying to explain our policy.  The customer seemed to think that repeating his excuses for not having a street address over and over again would make us change our policy.

Perhaps I found this book so much fun because working in the generic American public library is still fairly new to me.  I got my start with eight years working in a library on an American military base in Germany, which has very different clientele.  Now for a year and a half, I’ve worked at two public libraries in Virginia, and the situations I have encountered seem to precisely match those described by Don Borchert in a small branch library in Southern California.

In fact, that may be half the fun.  The library where the author works could almost be the exact library that my parents took me to when I was a young child, in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.  Almost forty years later, it’s amusing to realize that library was so much like the one where I work now (though of course without the Internet, or even computerized checkout back in those dark ages).

He did give me a new appreciation for why so many kids hang out at the library after school:

“Four hours a day is too much for a child, too much for most adults.  Even if doing a thing is fun, do you want to keep at it for four hours a day, twenty hours a week?  We are adults.  We are paid to be here.  It is a job — one of those real jobs I had successfully avoided for years.  Four hours a day for a child in the library is close to four hours of minimally supervised hell.

“When a child is dropped off for that many hours, it’s free day care, pure and simple.  The library is heated in the winter, air-conditioned in the summer, there are adults in charge, and there are clean restrooms.  By not thinking about it too closely, or too clearly, parents think they are doing a good turn for their children.  The kids get to catch up with their friends, get a leg up on their homework, and relax after a hard day of schoolwork.  And that is the flawed yet attractive theory they are going with. . . .

“But plenty does happen at the library, especially when you’re given four hours a day to think about it.  You’d think a kid doing homework from 3:30 to 6:30 every day would be cutting a dazzling, high-profile swath through school, but there’s a wrinkle.  We don’t make them do homework.  We are not their parents.  We don’t have a vested interest in their success.  Not surprisingly, a lot of the kids dumped off at the library for three and four hours a day are the same kids who wind up taking summer school because they failed their subjects the first time around.

“Maybe, their disgruntled parents think, if you have to do four hours of homework a day and still don’t understand it, it’s too hard.”

If you work in a library, you need to read this book for the laughs of recognition.  If you don’t work in a library, your eyes will be opened to see that it’s much more than the ultimate quiet job.  Libraries do provide an interesting perspective on human nature.

I love the description of libraries Don Borchert gives to open his book:

“A library is an idea more than anything else, and it is an idea that is impossible to swallow in one or two big bites.  The library is patrician, elitist, and democratic, stocking biographies of NASCAR drivers, pornography, antidemocratic literature, comic books, and the works of the great thinkers from the past two thousand years.  Once a book hits the shelf, the library is loath to get rid of it no matter what outrage it causes.  The only way a library will discard a book is if it is ignored.  The scandalous ones do not get ignored until they are passe. 

“The library offers books on every subject imaginable, in a variety of languages, and offers state-of-the-art computers with free word processing and Internet services.  A mecca for scholars and students of all ages, the library is the dullest place in the world — 91 percent of the time.  It also attracts the homeless, the mentally ill, occasional pedophiles, Internet junkies, unattended children down to the age of two, con artists, thieves, beggars, cultish homeschoolers, and people who are in general angry with every level of state and federal government.  Most of these people decide to fill out an application and get a library card.

“This makes librarians inordinately happy.  We love seeing new patrons wandering around, browsing, looking at what’s on the shelves.


“Because there is a belief that once you begin to open books, you will become a better person.  It is Pandora’s box, but in a good way.  You are inching toward the promised land, page by page.  And it doesn’t matter if you subscribe to this theory or not.  The subscription has already been bought and paid for.

“We are all misfits, poseurs, and clowns.  We are heartbroken and lonely, failures in life, criminals and frauds.  Most of our successes are pleasant illusions.  Through the books on the shelves, the library becomes a support group and lets us know that we are not alone.  Once we realize we are not alone, we can relax, set our burdens down, and move on.”

Truly, this book shows us that as library workers, we are not alone.

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Review of The Trouble Begins at 8, by Sid Fleischman


The Trouble Begins at 8

A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West

by Sid Fleischman

Greenwillow Books, 2008.  224 pages.

Sid Fleischman here pulls off an entertaining, interesting biography, in the spirit of Mark Twain himself.

He begins:

“Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth.

“The even took place, as far as is known, in a San Francisco hotel room sometime in the fall of 1865.  The only person attending was a young newspaperman and frontier jester named Samuel Langhorne Clemens.”

It turns out that Mark Twain told different versions of his life story at different times.  I like the way Sid Fleischman sorts through these to the likely truth, but makes it clear that this may be embellished.

The book is peppered with photographs and illustrations from the time period, making it even more interesting.  Mark Twain lived an exciting and colorful life, and this biography is anything but dull reading.

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Review of The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama


The Audacity of Hope

Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,

by Barack Obama

read by the author

Books on Tape (Random House Audio Publishing Group), 2006.  Abridged.  6 hours, 8 minutes, 5 compact discs.

I’ve been meaning to getting around to reading Obama’s second book ever since I read Dreams from my Father.  Finally, I decided to listen to it, even though our library only has the abridged version in audiobook form.  Read by the author, it occurred to me that he is the first presidential candidate in a long time whose voice I can actually enjoy listening to for several hours!

This book is still autobiographical, about Obama’s life when entering politics.  Along the way, he talks about all kinds of issues that face politicians in America today.

My reaction?  Wow!  I am abundantly impressed with this man.  I am impressed with his thinking about what politics should be and how politicians should serve the people of America.

When Obama was running for state legislature, he talked to people from all over the state, in all walks of life.  I feel like he gets it, he understands what people want, what people are concerned about, what they want government to do for them.

I like the way he talks about the values that Americans share.  Here’s someone who can actually see the good in people who disagree with him.

I liked the discussion of the Constitution.  He has actually taught constitutional law.  As President, he would not usurp the powers of the executive branch.  He has respect for the Constitution that is refreshing to hear.

But don’t take my word for it.  I highly recommend this book.  If you want to know who is the real Barack Obama, I think you can learn much about him from hearing his thoughts on beginning a life in politics.  Here is someone who truly seems to have entered politics in order to serve.

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