Contemporary American, E.J. Runyon, Ethnic American, Gender Identity, Gender Studies, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Latin American, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Monthly Review, Regionalism, Sexuality, Short Story

Review: Claiming One by E.J. Runyon

14576593Claiming One by R.J. Runyon
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 23

Full Disclosure:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Inspired Quill, with whom I have a working relationship; however, I was not in any way involved in the editing, publishing, marketing, proofing, or submission review process for this book.  In fact, I only received a copy because the editor-in-chief mentioned that this writer comes recommended by Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is a favorite writer of mine, so she thought I might like to take a look.

The collection is made up of seventeen short stories of varying length, some of which deal with the same characters and all of which deal with the same general region (southwestern United States / southern California) and the same type of people (struggling poor/working-class ethnic and sexual minorities).  Most of the stories are incredibly interesting and well-written.  There were a few stories in the bunch which did sometimes feel stressed or project-like, reminding me a bit of a bad hair day (not that the stories were bad, but that one starts with a good head of hair and, no matter how you tease it, yank it, or play with it, it just will not do what you want it to do).  That being said, these few stressed stories were definitely the exception, not the rule.  In fact, I wrote a ranking next to each story in the index (Poor, Good, Very Good, Great) and of the seventeen stories, only two were anything other than Good.

What struck me first about the writing is the narrative voice.  It is distinct, commanding, and engaging.  The first story, “The Giant Rubber Gorilla,” opens the collection with a perfect sense of what is to come. The reader quickly recognizes these people who will be explored, the situations that might be examined, and the tone which can be expected throughout.  Similarly, the collection closes with “Dandruff as Tall as Donald Duck,” which, in conjunction with the lengthier story which immediately preceded it, was a great way of wrapping-up the collection, reminding the reader of its major themes and the general determination of these people to survive, despite the perpetual road blocks placed in their way.

Some of the stories went even beyond good story telling.  “Mother’s Tongue” and “Secrets of the Days and Nights,” for example, were stand-outs in their creative approach and in the slight inkling toward hopefulness they emulated, which is not an overarching theme in this collection.  The stories work together the way a great fashion show should:  The collection has a primary theme, it starts with bang, and then has its lulls and explosions throughout, and finally ends with a reminder of what the collection was all about, leaving the memory of it strong in the mind.  Each story, like each piece in a fashion collection, simultaneously stands on its own and fits into the larger theme of the work.  In this case, the theme is a restless disappointment among a class of people on the margins.  There is a small, flickering light of hope that blinks throughout, meek but ever-present.

My personal favorites were the stories about Duffy and her family.  They were the most powerful and seemed to work almost like the back-bone of the collection. It would be very interesting to see Duffy and the others in her life appearing again in future collections.

With this first collection, Runyon is following in the tradition of the great regional American writers.   Flannery O’Connor, John Fante, Bret Harte, and Sinclair Lewis all wrote stories about a particular group of people in a particular region of the United States, and their stories stayed true to the people and their particular plights and successes.  The triumph of their stories was due in part to the writers’ craftsmanship and vision, but also to the honesty of the narrative which grounded the fictive worlds deeply in reality.

If Runyon continues to write about this world and these people, we might be witnessing the start of a very special body of work.  E.J. Runyon is a new writer to watch, and I applaud Inspired Quill for recognizing this talent and taking a chance on sharing it with the world.

2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Fiction, Realism, Regionalism, Willa Cather

Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

51T04Q139GLO Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 2

What can I say about Willa Cather?  Not enough, certainly.  She is known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, chronicler of American Pioneer life, and for good reason.  O Pioneers! is the first in a trilogy known as the “Prairie Trilogy”; it is followed by Song of the Lark and My Antonia.  I have been, until now, more familiar with Cather’s later works, such as A Lost Lady, and there is a striking difference between her earlier works of Realism and the later move to Modernism.  In A Lost Lady, one can witness that shift in action, but O Pioneers! is all Realism (with a bit of sensational romance thrown in vis-a-vis the likes of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Thomas Hardy). 

Alexandra Bergson is the eldest child and only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bergson, who have emigrated from Sweden to make a home and farm on the Nebraska prairie.  Things do not go as planned.  The land is difficult to farm, the climate is difficult to live in, and the people – a hodgepodge of French, Swedish, and other nationalities are not always on the best of terms.  But when the farm becomes Alexandra’s, she soon proves her prowess at managing a household (or three) and cultivating the land, so much so that she becomes one of the most prosperous landowners in the region.  This success does not come without sacrifice.  She spends her young adulthood and middle years alone and lonely, sacrificing love and courtship to take care of her younger siblings and to honor the dying wishes of her father.  Much of the story seems to be a lament – a commentary on the difficult way of life these early pioneers endured. 

In addition to Alexandra, the minor characters (and all of them, except Alexandra, are minor), are equally well-drawn and independent.  The youngest brother, Emil, is the secondary character and it is his story that the reader believes will be carried on, after Alexandra’s closes – he is to be the “new” that comes from a successful pioneering life.  Emil has left the farm to get a college education, his brothers despise him for it because they can no longer understand him, and they fear and hate their sister for allowing Emil the opportunity and for forcing, as they see it, their family to change.  In this rural community, being different is not encouraged.  The most important character of all, though, is probably the land itself – and everything Cather wants to express through it and about it.

Alexandra and Emil, as well as Emil’s love interest (a married woman) and the loose-living French community are in stark contrast to the rest of the town.  The main point of the story seems to live here, somewhere.  It is extraordinary that this book, written exactly 100 years ago (1913), still speaks to us today.  Anyone who has felt trapped by modern day’s excesses – too much noise, too many things, too many distractions, too many responsibilities, too much commentary… all of this was at issue, for Cather and the problem, having only amplified over time, is certainly valid and meaningful today. 

Told in a beautiful, almost lyric prose that is accessible at all levels, but somehow transcendent, O Pioneers! is a story about chance and about planning; it is a story of leaders and followers, givers and takers; it is about family, community, hard work, education, and pursuing one’s dreams.  Ultimately, it is a story of fate and impulse – a commentary on control and our inability, perhaps, to command even our own destinies, let alone those of others.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: High School+

Interest: Pioneer America, Frontier Days, Rural/Farming Communities, Family, Destiny/Fate, American Realism, American Regionalism, Education

Notable Quotes:

“The little town behind them had vanished as if it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of the prairie, and the stern frozen country received them into its bosom” (11).

“A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves” (37).

“It’s by understanding me . . . that you’ve helped me.  I expect that is the only way one person ever really can help another” (39).

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years” (89).

“I’ve found it sometimes pays to mend other people’s fences” (105).

“It’s queer what things one remembers and what things one forgets” (178).

“Above Marie and Emil, two white butterflies from Frank’s alfalfa field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows; diving and soaring, now close together, now far apart; and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die” (201).

“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it – for a little while” (229). 

 O Pioneers! is Book 1 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge & Book 7 for my Classics Club Challenge.

American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Literature, Realism, Regionalism, Willa Cather

Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Book Review Template

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 36


4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

“If her image flashed into his mind, it came with a brightness of dark eyes, her pale triangular cheeks with long earrings, and her many-coloured laugh.  When he was dull, dull and tired of everything, he used to think that if he could hear that long-lost lady laugh again, he would be gay.”  Thus sums up the sense of loss, nostalgia, longing and romance which characterizes Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady.  The narrator, Niel, is relating the story after thirty years.  He is looking back on his boyhood and young manhood, remembering a certain woman who helped to define and destroy his ideals of chivalry, morality, and responsibility.  When Niel is young, he and the other neighborhood boys adore Mrs. Marian Forrester, the wife of Captain Forrester – they are the Queen and King of little Sweet Water.  With the rise of big industry – Federal banks and stock brokers- comes the fall of small town power and wealth.  Suddenly, the Captain, a once mountainous figure, hero to young Niel, finds himself broken and displaced.  His decline leads to the necessary rise (or adaptation) of his wife, and the subsequent disillusionment of Niel.  Before Niel’s very eyes, the neighborhood bully, Ivy Peters, an ugly, crass, ignorant man, becomes the town’s champion and, suddenly, all Niel holds dear begins to disappear – the “Great West” becomes lost to progress.

3 – Characters well-developed.

Cather’s characters, like her prose, are sparsely and quietly drawn.  They are best examined in relation to one another, rather than on their own individual descriptions or by their particular monologues.  Their growth (or lack thereof) oftentimes must be inferred by decisions they make and by the things they leave unsaid. Still, there are clearly differences in each of the characters and purposes which each of them serve.  Marian, for instance, is the opportunist.  She is perhaps the most capable but vacuous person in Sweet Water.  She takes on the characteristics of the men she is with and it can be reasonably understood that, without a strong man in her life, she would be nothing at all.  Niel is the romantic – he is in awe of Captain Forrester, the great American pioneer, whose strength and composure reminds Niel of a great mountain, immovable and majestic.  As Captain Forrester’s health declines and as Niel learns more about the Captain’s relationship with Marian (including sad notions of honor), Niel becomes jaded and confused, losing grip with his romantic notions.  Ivy Peters is animalistic and amoral.  His purpose is to make money at all costs.  He is the enemy of the aesthete (Captain Forrester) and the champion of capitalism and unchecked wealth and power.  In addition to the main characters are a few minor characters who also serve their purposes – the Forrester’s servants, including “Black Tom,” and the bread boys, German immigrants, who serve to demonstrate the disconnect in classes and the whispered racism of this region.  Also present are the town gossips, the lower-middle class ladies whose primary responsibilities are to nose their way into others’ business and to demonstrate with clarity the fall which the Forresters suffer.      

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Cather wrote this novel in two parts, so that the structure of the novel would be equal to its primary dichotomy (the eradication of regionalism and the rise of nationalism).  In part one, we see the almost idyllic home life of the Forresters.  They are popular, beautiful, wealthy, and well-respected by the entire town (with the exception of Ivy Peters, whose arrogance and jealousy will not allow him to respect anyone who has more than he does).  They represent the top-tier, the upper-echelon of the rural class – a railroad giant and his wife, landowners, who displaced the native population to create their own Eden.  In part two, the Forresters suddenly find that they are the ones who are being displaced.  The railroad fails, the local banks and business fail, and the Captain’s own sense of honor, pride, and moral responsibility to his town and people leave him bankrupt.  Soon, it is the Ivy Peters’ of the world who become dominant – the men who answer only to themselves.  These men feel no sense of responsibility to anyone else and they, like locusts, will consume anything in their paths, without regard for those who might be ruined in the process.  The simple but pointed prose allows for moments of irony and clarity, wherein we witness characters exposed in ways they would not normally allow themselves to be (Marian, alone in the field, a real smile on her face; Captain Forrester, retelling the story of his settlement and being caught by moments of remorse for what he may have done to the native population, etc.).  The language, prose, and structure, though simple and somewhat sad, match the construction of the major themes perfectly.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

In this seminal work, the first of Cather’s to break away from traditional American Romanticism and into the realm of Realism, there is a clear dichotomy of virtue:  Regionalism vs Nationalism; Rural vs. City; Pioneer vs. Industrialist; Tradition vs. Opportunity.  The title would lead one to believe that the story is about Marian Forrester, the woman who Niel idolizes and whose story he narrates for us; however, the terms “Lost” and “Lady” seem to take on many meanings and one begins to realize that the story is not so much about Marian as it is about the loss of Niel’s idealism and naivety.  Marian is the one character who can adapt to any situation and, though this lets Niel down, it is her great strength and it is this inability to accept and grow with change which leaves Niel forever a boy in Marian’s eyes.  Furthermore, Cather employs a common literary theme (common, particularly to the preceding Romantic and Gothic eras) of Money/Wealth & Power/Health.  As Captain Forrester’s money worries increase, as he becomes bankrupt, so does he lose his vitality, suffering from illness and injury until, finally, he succumbs to bankruptcy and to old age. 

There is also much being said about the relationship between men and women, particularly in terms of sexual power and dominance.  Cutting is a persistent theme throughout the book – each of the men, at some point, performing an act of cutting (sexual power) in the presence of Marian Forrester who, though capable, is constantly seeking to be controlled and, in her submissiveness, she adapts to become the woman her man needs her to be.  There is also the theme of “falling,” which both opens and closes the narrative.  Individual people, like Captain Forrester, as well as larger ideas, such as the romantic ideal of the Great American West and the small town bank, will fall from prominence and be replaced by new powers, human and otherwise.  Ultimately, A Lost Lady is an elegy – it is one man’s (Niel’s) act of lamenting the loss of a particular era and predicting the impersonal, power and money-hungry era to come.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Regionalism, Nationalism, Industrial America, Realism, Sexual Dynamics, Power, Money/Wealth & Health.

Notable Quotes:

“I’m just as good as she is.”

“There was something wild and desperate about the way the darkened creature beat tis wings in the branches, whirling in the sunlight and never seeing it, always thrusting its head up and shaking it, as a bird does when its drinking.”

“His clumsy dignity covered a deep nature, and a conscience that had never been juggled with.  His repose was like that of a mountain.”

“My philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak – you will get.”

“As she turned quickly away, the train of her velvet dress caught the leg of his broadcloth trousers and dragged with a friction that crackled and threw sparks.”

“In that instant between stooping to the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life.”

“I feel such a power to live in me.”

“When women began to talk about still feeling young, didn’t it mean that something had broken?”

“She had always the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring.”

“The longer Niel was with Captain Forrester in those peaceful closing days of his life, the more he felt that the Captain knew his wife better even than she knew herself; and that, knowing her, he, -to use one of his own expressions, -valued her.”