Thursday, January 17, 2019

Book #68 - Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)

I'm a bourbon man from way back.  Back in the days when you could find Van Winkle Bourbon on most liquor store shelves for around $35-50.  Van Winkle is a classic smooth and so delicious, and made in small batches with great care.  It's so good that it became tremendously sought after, so that nowadays you can't find it at all, and if you do it can be over $1000 a bottle.  Ah, the times they have changed, and not for the better.  I still have some Van Winkle stored away, but tonight I'm drinking New Riff Straight Bourbon Whiskey on the rocks.  And it's good....damn good.  New Riff is a new microdistillery based in Newport, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Microdistilleries, like microbreweries, are all the rage these days.  But in my experience microdistilleries that make bourbon for the most part just don't make stuff comparable to the bigger distilleries.  And I think the problem is age.  Bourbon whiskey must be aged in oak barrels...four years is usually the minimum, and even longer is better (well, up to a point), and a new microdistillery usually can't wait that long to sell their products because they need to make a the result is often an underaged, harsh whiskey.  But this New Riff stuff has been aged four years, and in my opinion is quite tasty.  Unlike Van Winkle bourbons it has a high rye content (Van Winkle, like the more famous Maker's Mark, is high in wheat, not rye), which makes it rather spicy.  Good going New Riff!  The classics are nice, but new stuff that upholds the standards of the classics while taking a new riff on things (the pun is theirs) is also nice.  There is pleasure in both the old fashioned and the newfangled.

And speaking of old fashioned, I just finished reading Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women".  This is a book I thought I might have read in my childhood, but clearly I didn't, or perhaps early onset Alzheimer's has erased the memory of it from my rapidly aging brain.  What struck me about the book is how old fashioned it is. The book was published in 1869 and takes place during the Civil War. It follows the story of the four March sisters - Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy - as they grow from childhood to adulthood.  Reading this book makes me think about how much times have changed.  It's a very American book, but the attitudes and mores of the March family are quite different from today.  It's been called a feminist book, but I'm not convinced it really is any more.  I think it was at one time, but I think women have moved beyond that now.  The sisters all end up married (except for the one that dies) and living a more or less settled life with their husbands.  Par for the course for the 1800s, I guess.

The novel is considered loosely autobiographical, with Jo March being the Louisa May Alcott character.  The four sisters all have very different personalities.  Meg, the oldest, is the most traditional.  She gets married, has twins, and runs her household like a good 19th century wife should. Jo is a writer, who starts out making money by writing some sort of lurid fiction (one can only imagine).  This sounds really cool, like she's a rebel and proto-feminist, but then she marries an older professor and with him starts a school for boys.  She says she's always wanted to do this, but it seems weird because she's always wanted to write, and why is she suddenly so gung-ho about a school for boys?  Seems like she gave up something to accommodate her husband.  She continues to write, but it's now wholesome, rather than sordid fiction.  Then there's Beth, a gentle soul who likes to play the piano and have a hospital for her injured dolls, and who (spoiler alert) is not long for this world (today we forget what it was like before antibiotics and vaccines...and don't get me started on those fucking anti-vaxxers).  Finally Amy, the youngest sister, is kind of a spoiled bitch, but is also a very talented artist, who eventually marries Laurie, the boy next door, after Jo spurns him.  She keeps doing her art, and along the way (before she marries him) tells Laurie he's wasting his life away (which he is).  Kudos to her.  And kudos to Laurie because he seem to take this message to heart.

I dunno, this was an easy entertaining read, but I was ultimately disappointed in how it turns out.  And that may be totally due to my 21st century mind.  You want these girls to say "Fuck you, grrrl power!" but they don't, because this book was published in 1869. There are stirrings of modern, liberated women there, but they get subsumed in 19th century morals and ways.  It's a good look at 19th century lives, and these women, especially Jo and Amy, are probably more independent and artistically creative than most 19th century American women, but the book ended up for me to feel a little unsatisfying due to the change in expectations of the possibilities women have these days, compared to 150 years ago.  That's no fault of the author (how could she know what the future held?) but it's a mark of the changing times.

I will conclude with one final anecdote. When I was in college, back in the early 1980's, I worked as an orderly in a hospital. I cleaned equipment, wheeled patients around in wheelchairs, helped make beds, helped lift patients, etc. One day I was wheeling an elderly woman down to get some x-rays, and we struck up a conversation.  I told her I was in college, studying biochemistry, and she said that she had been really interested in astronomy, and majored in physics in college, but that back in her day women just didn't become astronomers, or physicists, and so she gave up science, and got married and raised a family. You could hear the sadness in her demeanor as she told this story. I've always carried this with depressing it made me feel that a fellow scientist couldn't pursue her passion because "it just wasn't done".  We are all trapped in our society and in our times, and this is what comes across to me when reading "Little Women". If only we all had total access to all suitable possibilities!  Or at least easy access to Van Winkle bourbon.