Then and Now

"Having been written at long intervals during the past seven years, this story is more faulty than any of its very imperfect predecessors; but the desire to atone for an unavoidable disappointment, and to please my patient little friends, has urged me to let it go without further delay."

Now that's how you write a preface. It's the introduction to Jo's Boys, the final novel in Louisa May Alcott's series kicked off by Little Women. When I finish a book and move on to the next one, I try to jump around in time or genre or tone. So partly by design and partly by happenstance, the last two books I read couldn't be much more different, even if they're both American fiction. They're separated by more than a century. One was written by a man, and one by a woman. One is the last novel in a four-book series, and one is a collection of short stories. And I'm really glad I read both of them, but for different reasons.

I own a well-thumbed copy of Little Men, and after reading it for the hundredth time, I found myself curious to explore more of the series, and in particular those characters, so I picked up a copy of Jo's Boys (1886) from the library. Louisa May Alcott would die just two years after its publication, so it's fortunate she chose to wrap up the series when she did. Unfortunately, the long writing process and her apparent disinterest in continuing the saga of the March family plainly shows through. It begins ten years after the events of Little Men, and pretty much nothing has remained constant from those days. The boys have dispersed, Plumfield has changed from a boys' home to a college, and Jo is now an acclaimed author, with fans beating down her door daily. The chapter dealing with Jo's disenchantment with her newfound celebrity was rather galling. Subtlety was apparently not a concern in 1886, and Alcott shows almost naked contempt for the readers who loved her work and wanted to pay homage. Other chapters had issues, too. Some of the characters still show the characteristics they displayed in Little Men, but several, from Nan to Demi to Daisy, have been drained of any personality whatsoever. Overall, it was a disappointing read, but I'm still glad I checked it out. It helps solidify Little Women and Little Men as the true classics (I haven't read Good Wives yet, but I intend to at some point).

The other book I finished recently was just published a few months ago. After loving Beautiful Ruins so much, I wanted to read more of Jess Walter's work, so I got my hands on We Live in Water (2013), his short story collection. The stories range from humorous to ponderous, but all of them were extremely interesting. Standouts include "Virgo", in which a jilted man who works for the newspaper wreaks his juvenile revenge through the horoscope column, and "Thief", in which a father wages a sneaky campaign to uncover which member of the family is stealing change from the family vacation fund jar.

Walter's writing style is as refreshing and engaging as ever, and far from setting Beautiful Ruins apart as a one-hit wonder, We Live in Water just reinforced the idea that I need to read more of his work. Of course, it may take a while to get to either Good Wives or another Jess Walter book. After all, my method must be honored; time to do some genre jumping.

Jo's Boys: C
We Live in Water: B+


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