Friday, February 27, 2015

Pioneer Girl, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated AutobiographyPioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's not possible for me to review this book without the caveat that I have a deep, emotional, historical, personal connection to the writer and her body of work. The very first "chapter book" I ever read is upstairs in my daughter's room: Little House on the Prairie, which I read cover-to-cover as a five-year old. "You read that at age five? No!" you might respond, to which I would clarify that at age five, I had a profound hearing impairment that made it tiresome to communicate with people verbally. Instead, I spent the quiet years between two and seven reading, early and a lot, and I credit that disability to a lifelong love of reading.

So now that that's out of the way, I was jumping-up excited when I learned that this primary source of material for the Little House series was finally being published. This is Laura's own true story, written (and misspelled) in her own words, without the literary and fictitious flourishes that were woven through the series of books based on her family's life. In the series, she added events that happened to other families for some drama, and left out parts that were too painful or too adult for young readers. It's all in Pioneer Girl, however, along with a lot of clarification on what really happened.

Scholars now agree that her daughter, then-famed Rose Wilder Lane, had more than a minor role in the writing and editing of the Little House series. As a seasoned writer of fiction, Rose advised her mother to add more, take scenes away, embellish, and change facts when they were inconvenient, so that the series is more a work of dramatic fiction than a true autobiography. Wilder historians who have been able to track the family's moves, Pa's jobs, tax records, and the like, have confirmed that there is more fiction than historical fact in the series.

That is what makes Pioneer Girl worthwhile: if you have more than a passing interest in the Wilder family, you will learn so much about their lives, their neighbors, the history of the Dakota expansion, and far more episodes in their story than ever made it into the books. The running sidenotes from editor Pamela Smith Hill have pictures of many of her friends, so you'll see what Mary Power, Ida Wright, and the real Nellie Oleson looked like, as well as what happened to them.

At almost 400 pages, this is a wealth of information and a treasure for fans of the Little House series, even if you haven't read it in decades. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder writes for an adult audience, which includes recollections of some of the grittier, scarier aspects of frontier living that would certainly be out of place in the children's series. Learning more about the family's true story will not spoil the books for you-- they will make you appreciate Wilder's work far more.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadLean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A flawed but still thought-provoking short read that belongs on the shelf with other women's history titles.

Sandberg's message to women, especially those starting their careers, is to "lean in," meaning to put energy, time, and effort into building themselves up into powerful commodities quickly so that their careers have momentum. She posits that a job you love and do well is more likely to beckon you back during the years with young children, and she is correct on that account.

Where this book falls down is probably no fault of Sandberg's -- she's in what's been called the "1%," that is, income earners that fall within the top 1% of American salaries. Her perspective is one of great privilege, and though she acknowledges that her situation is very different to most women, her position of great wealth colors her outlook. This book is aimed squarely at well-educated women whose degrees set them up for great income potential. Women who have chosen less remunerative careers or who have to work lower-income jobs out of necessity will find little to encourage them in these pages: it's a little hard to tell someone working three jobs to make ends meet that they're not "leaning in" far enough. It could also be very guilt-inducing to a woman who is home with children because child care would cost in excess of what her salary would bring in-- yet that is the case in the United States for many highly-qualified, well-educated women who "off-ramp," as Sandberg puts it; it's not necessarily a philosophical as much as a financial choice for many families.

If one can read this book with a bit of detachment and remember that it's from the point of view of a very highly privileged woman who has indeed worked hard to achieve much of her status, she makes some good points and makes a decent argument for why women should do all they can to stay in the workforce, even if it's difficult, even if it inconveniences a partner or costs money to outsource child care. She challenges women to make this decision, if they are in a position to have it be a decision, with great care and with a global view, and that's important advice.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up Marie Kondo; The Life Changing Magic of Tidying UpThe Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up Marie Kondo; The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What an odd little book. It kept popping up as a recommendation on many disparate websites, so I put it on hold at the library and my turn finally came up this week, along with a snowstorm, giving me time to read it.

I didn't need much-- it's very short; without the anecdotes, it could be a short blog series, and probably should have been. The author has the key ingredient of greatness: obsession with her target skill; in this case, organizing. The translation selected for the English process of "sorting, decluttering, and organizing" is "tidying" here, and that is what she describes.

She rigidly prescribes that we tackle our objects in the order of clothes, books, paperwork, miscellany, and mementoes, so as not to get bogged down in sentimentality and slow the process. She promises that once sorted, we will be effortlessly tidy for the rest of our lives. She's very young and single, too.

For someone drowning in a surfeit of possessions, this book might help start the process of decluttering, but it's written for a Japanese audience. In urban Japan, people live in small apartments, and by necessity, cannot own more than a certain amount of the above categories of items. In the larger housing across much of the US, bringing all of one's objects to a central space to touch and emote with them may simply not be physically possible.

As a cultural offering, the anthropomorphizing of objects is charming, but the practicality may not translate as well as the passionate obsession Kondo has for minimalism and organization. As someone who has made a lifelong practice of traveling through life rather lightly, I'm not sure there's much advice for me here-- but it passed a few amusing hours during a snowstorm.

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