Saturday, May 23, 2015

CCQ II -- O Pioneers!


photo by Anna Reavis

"He felt as if a clear light broke upon his mind, and with it a conviction that good was, after all, stronger than evil, and that good was possible to men." from O Pioneers! by Willa Cather


I've finished the second Willa Cather novel in my Comprehensive Cather Quest, and I think I'm in love again.  O Pioneers! made me feel like I remember feeling after stumbling onto My Antonia purely by accident on a trip to Alaska, of all places.   Since that serendipitous discovery in Anchorage in 2000, My Antonia has remained in my memory as one of my favorite books.  

Thursday afternoon, as I was finishing the novel, I began to sense reflections and hear echoes of words, ideas, and thoughts I had read earlier in the day as I read in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.  So I opened both books and started to compare.  If you ever look for similarities, allusions, common thought processes, they seem to be everywhere.  As I read back and forth between the two books, inevitably, it seems, I began to hear whispers of other, earlier thinkers.  Was Whitman the father and Thoreau the grandfather of these revelations?  Eventually I discovered that O Pioneers! is named after a Whitman poem, but I didn't know that at the time.  It's amazing, really, when you begin to follow the logical progression of ideas down its time-defying rabbit hole.  There have been so few truly enlightened thinkers in our recorded history, and so many of their revelations tend toward the same end:  that grace, beauty, hope, and redemption are what matter, that the world is full of light if we will just see it, that nirvana, salvation, enlightenment is reached in exactly the opposite way we think...by letting go and letting life unfold as it will.

O Pioneers!, the first novel in Cather's Prairie Trilogy, is the story of the unfolding of life for strong, independent Alexandra Bergson, who, as a teen, takes control of her family's struggling farm and builds it into a sprawling, thriving estate.  As the novel opens, John Bergson lays dying.  One of the few things we learn about him is that he only trusts his adolescent daughter, Alexandra, to run his fledgling farm.  Although he has two sons near her age, he knows only she has the foresight and feeling for the land necessary for success and survival for his recently arrived immigrant family.

Alexandra devotes her life to the family and farm, sacrificing her chance to have a family of her own in order for the land to flourish and for her youngest brother, Emil, to have what she considers a chance at the proper kind of life.  Emil does go to college and has plans to become a lawyer.  Having reached the age where I no longer judge success by ascendancy, I see quite a bit of irony in Alexandra's inability to judge herself a success.  I find her to be one of the most successful, courageous women in literature.  She has both big courage and little courage, which I find the hardest kind.  The big, grasping courage life sometimes requires isn't the difficult kind of courage.  When life sweeps you away and requires that kind of courage, you push ahead and are carried along by adrenaline and momentum.  Obviously, Alexandra has this kind of courage.  She takes over the family farm in her teens after her father's death.  The difficult kind of courage is the small, everyday kind, the kind required to live in ennui, routine, and loneliness.  That, I think, is the courage that allows Alexandra to succeed.  I just wish I had that kind of courage.

I love the people and the places of this story.  This book met so many of my requirements:  likable characters, lovely setting, strong woman lead, thought-provoking ideas, and finally, redemption and hope at the end.  Just reading the words calmed and centered me.  The novel is luminous; the story, the words, they are luminous.  Cather's writing feels like an Aaron Copeland song:  open, expansive, and full of hope and promise.








Friday, May 8, 2015

Comprehensive Cather Quest




"Under the moon, under the cold, splendid stars, there were only those two things awake and sleepless; death and love, the rushing river and his burning heart."

Finally, I've begun my Comprehensive Cather Quest, and what a lovely little first book for its beginning was Alexander's Bridge.  I'm not entirely sure why this novel appealed to me as it decidedly does not meet my normal criterion of happy or uplifting, but at this particular moment in time, it is striking me as one of my favorite of her novels.  The characterizations are wonderful, and the plot of this short, moral tale is quick and tight.

Alexander's Bridge ostensibly is about one man's mid-life crisis and the extra-marital affair resulting from his attempt to re-capture his youth.  Like every other Cather novel I've ever read, however, the plot only scratches the surface of the novel's substance.  At novel's beginning, Bartley Alexander is just becoming aware of the depth of his quotidian disquiet. On a trip to London, upon reflecting on his life, "He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape." When he soon crosses paths with the love of his youth, his life veers in a direction he didn't anticipate but probably should have. That's what lack of self-awareness gets us, I think.  We don't know ourselves well enough to realize we're miserable until we do something drastic, like stray from a marriage.

Given the author's age at the time of her writing this novel, I wonder if she were beginning herself to feel the "dulling weariness of on-coming middle age."  Maybe the approach of the "dead calm of middle life" is what prompted her after the publication of Alexander's Bridge to embrace herself as a novelist and shrug off the interference of the daily grind.  I do think we all come to a time in our lives when we have to start living our true selves, letting go of social expectations, and accepting that our own path very well may not follow the "accepted" way.  Thank goodness for the bravery Willa Cather found to follow her path, which allows us today the gift of passages like this one:

"After all, life doesn't offer a man much.  You work like the devil and think you're getting on, and suddenly you discover that you've only been getting yourself tied up.  A million details drink you dry.  Your life keeps going for things you don't want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don't care a rap about.  I sometimes wonder what sort of chap I'd have been if I hadn't been this sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too."

As I learn about Cather's life, I begin to suspect that the variance in her work is a reflection of her complex, complicated personality.  In the prologue she wrote to Alexander's Bridge, she seems to be apologizing for its not being like her later work.  I love My Antonia; it's one of my favorite novels, but some of her other work...not so much.  While Alexander's Bridge isn't in the same vein nor of the same caliber as My Antonia, I found it to be much more enjoyable than some of her other work (The Professor's House, for one).  Maybe a re-read of those novels will help me understand what I missed the first time.  I wonder if I was just disappointed in them because they weren't My Antonia, and then I went into Alexander's Bridge expecting to be disappointed and was thus pleasantly surprised.  I'm a perverse person that way.  Don't tell me I'm going to like something, or I won't, and vice versa.  I'm going stop trying to analyze it and just be thankful for a such a good experience to kick off my quest to know Cather more fully.  Next up are her first three short stories and then on to O Pioneers!  Read along if you'd like!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!

 




I won an Anthony Trollope novel from
 
 
Yay for generous book bloggers...
 
Now for more reading time!
 
Thanks, Karen!

Monday, May 4, 2015

I Can't Even...

 
Crazy David Copperfield Notes
"Never...be mean in anything, never be false; never be cruel.  Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you."  Aunt Betsey to David Copperfield

Because I'm nothing if not scattered these days,  I've picked up and put down more books than I've read this year.  SO annoying!  In addition to being book fickle, I've also been blog paralyzed on trying to write about David Copperfield.  I'm over-thinking, over-planning, over-analyzing, and just plain talking myself down about what I could possibly have to say about such a classic.  My reaction to the book felt a bit under-whelming, probably because I had expected to adore it, and I didn't.   I liked it, but I've enjoyed other Dickens works more. The scope of the novel was sometimes so overwhelming that I feel sure I missed a lot.  Even with all the note-taking, I don't know that I followed all of the character and plot developments.

I can't even process it all, much less blog about it, so all I'm gonna say is this:  the characters, places, and time of the story felt so very real to me that I began to feel like the events and people were actual memories rather than just something I had read. Maybe that's what makes a novel a Classic.  That we, the children of the 20th century living in a seemingly disposable world of such rapid change, can pick up a novel set in a distant place and time and suddenly become part of that time and place and have it become so much a part of us that sometimes even a single sentence can alter the course of our lives.  How lucky we are to have access to such an accumulated wealth of wisdom.  Maybe instead of requiring make-overs and sound bites from our politicians, we should just require that they read...broadly and often.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Readathon Ramblings

Roscoe, Les Miserable


"Every bird that flies carries a shred of the infinite in its claws."  Victor Hugo
 
 
I wasn't a legitimate Readathon participant in Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon, as I can't do anything for 24 hours straight, and I also can't skip sleep, but I did read and drop in and out on Twitter as much as possible yesterday.  I decided to use the day to survey some of the books I've had on my shelves forever and have never gotten around to reading.
 
In Hour One, I dipped into Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel.  I read these books as a teenager and enjoyed them.  The first few chapters grabbed my attention, but when I tried to go back to it in Hour Fifteen, I became impatient with the odd "dialogue" between Creb and Iza.  Just fatigue?  I'm not sure.
 
In Hour Two, after some homemade biscuits and jam and a bit of yoga to stretch, I read the prologue of Spiral by Koji Suzuki.  I've had three of his books on my shelf for years and don't know anything about either him or the books.  I can't even remember how I came to have them.  I do think, however, after that quick look, that I will go back to this one.
 
The beginning of Hour Three was interrupted by these visitors:
 
 
Anna was supposed to be with her dad today, but as she was dog-sitting for a friend, she thought I might like some puppy time.  Roscoe is a Boxer/Catahoula mix and is briefly delightful.  I'm too old for puppies long-term.
 
After settling down a bit, I used Hour Three to read a few chapters of Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather.  Last year, I decided that I wanted to try to read all of Cather's novels in order, so this is what I hope will be the beginning of that project.
 
In Hour Four, after more yoga, more Roscoe, and pizza for lunch, I dipped briefly into The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.  I really want to read this one, but I'm afraid it may send me into despair.  I already spend too much time worrying about our impact on the planet.
 
The bubble bath, candles, and Anthony Trollope novel I chose for Hour Five led to a major nap in Hours Six and Seven.  This combination was not a good choice for a Readathon.
 
Hour Eight was my hour to read in Les Miserable.  I have been working my way through this one for years.  Luckily, I was at an interesting part.  If you haven't read the description of the garden at the house Jean Valjean rents upon leaving the convent, find it and read it! Truly fabulous stuff! I'm going to keep plugging away at this one I'm sure for many more months.
 
Hours 9-11 were given over to life and a lovely steak dinner.
 
Hour 12 was Ken's and my hour to read aloud from To Kill A Mockinbird by Harper Lee.  I love this book every time I read it, and it's so much fun to read and share aloud. 
 
Hours 13 and 14 belonged to Ken.
 
Hour 15 I went back to Alexander's Bridge.  I think I'm going to like this one!
 
And that was it for me.  Hours 16-24 + belonged to The Sandman.  I require a lot of sleep.  I loved being able to give myself an excuse to read all day!  I do this a lot anyway, but yesterday, I had a reason for it.  No guilt! Yay!  Definitely something I'll dip into again in the future!
 
 


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Wherein Russian Names Almost Defeat Us


Nellie Olsen Again Unimpressed With Weighty Books

 
Ken and I finally finished Doctor Zhivago last night.  It definitely is not a book to read aloud.  Let me repeat that:  DO NOT attempt to read this book aloud.  It should come with a warning label to that effect.   I am thoroughly confused about what happened and to whom it happened, when, where, and how.  So many different characters with so many different, unrecognizable names and different permutations of those names.  Lest you are tempted to adopt haughty airs, as did I, and think, "Oh, I can handle that one;  I know all about the movie," let me just say that the movie only tells about half the story, with fewer characters who all consistently use the same names.  And in the movie, someone else is pronouncing things for you and, I repeat, consistently using THE SAME DAMN NAMES.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to pick a name and stick with it, especially if it is a long-ass Russian name made up of multiple consonants in a row.  I took Russian in college, and those names still defeated me.  Of course, I only remember how to say Hello, Good Day, How are You, and Where's the Vodka...so there's that.

We've been struggling to finish this one for months.   Listening to us trying to pronounce these names for each other became almost farcical and was a better exercise in patience and understanding than any couples counseling session could ever be.   It was my choice for an oral co-read.  Ken's staying with me through it I think says something about his commitment to me.  Either that or he's too confused to leave now.  He's chosen To Kill A Mockingbird for our next co-read.  I'm pretty sure we'll be able to pronounce those names. 
And now, perversely, after I've said all that, let me admit that I am seriously considering starting the novel over on my own, because I feel like I missed too much that I should have caught and considered.  Don't analyze me; it won't get you anywhere.  Talk about down a rabbit hole, sheesh.
 
 
 
 
 

Monday, April 20, 2015

A New Discovery

 

It's been a rainy, Rumer Godden week-end for me.  Last week, while I was waiting for my other books by Chimamanda Adichie to come in, I was trolling blogs looking for some reading ideas when I came across a review by Kate at Nose in a Book about Rumer Godden.  For some reason, the name seemed familiar to me, although I know I've never read her work, nor did I know anything about her.  On a whim, I decided to see if my library happened to have any of her books.  Often my small, underfunded library doesn't have what I'm looking for, but lo and behold, they had several of her books on the shelf.  It seemed like they had more Juvenile Fiction than Adult Fiction by her, but they did have a few novels shelved, as well as a book by her sister, Jon Godden.

My first choice, The Kitchen Madonna, was shelved as an adult novel, but I think should have been in Juvenile Fiction.  This is a lovely little book about a reserved, unusual young boy who finally bonds with one of his sitters, an older Ukrainian woman named Marta.  When Marta tells Gregory that she is unhappy with the lack of a small holy place for a Madonna in his family kitchen, Gregory sets out on a journey to find Marta a Madonna.  Throughout the course of his project to provide Marta with a "Kitchen Maddona," Gregory begins to open up to the scope and power of loving other people.

My second choice, Pippa Passes, was odd.  I enjoyed reading it, but it was decidedly odd.  Parts of the plot felt random and forced and not particularly believable, and a few times I felt like Godden was proselytizing for the Catholic church, but the writing was solid, and the setting was Venice.  I love reading about Venice, because I love Venice.  At the end of the book, I decided it was probably just not one of her strongest works, even so, I was engaged and interested by it, so I went back to the library this morning to pick up her other books.

I think Rumer Godden is going to be a great author for me to pick up when I'm between denser reads looking for an entertaining break.  I have a hard time finding authors to fill this need for me because I have neither the patience nor the time for poor writing.  What a wonderfully diverting discovery!  Thanks Kate http://www.noseinabook.co.uk !