Willa Cather

Paris

Paris

Willa Cather

Behind the arch of glory sets the day;
The river lies in curves of silver light,
The Fields Elysian glitter in a spray
Of golden dust; the gilded dome is bright,
The towers of Notre Dame cut clean and gray
The evening sky, and pale from left to right
A hundred bridges leap from either quay.
Pillared with pride, the city of delight
Sits like an empress by her silver Seine,
Heavy with jewels, all her splendid dower
Flashing upon her, won from shore and main
By shock of combat, sacked from town and tower.
Wherever men have builded hall or fane
Red war hath gleaned for her and men have slain
To deck her loveliness. I feel again
That joy which brings her art to faultless flower,
That passion of her kings, who, reign on reign,
Arrayed her star by star with pride and power.

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Atheism, Biography, Books, Contemporary, Dan Brown, Fiction, Hillary Rodham Clinton, History, LGBT, Lisa Williamson, Literature, Memoir, Peter Ackroyd, Politics, Religion, Science-Fiction, Thriller, Transgender, Willa Cather

5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

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CBAM2017, Willa Cather

September’s Classic: Death Comes for the Archbishop #CBAM2017

cbam2017

August is dust and September is here! Autumn is on the way! And this month, we’ll be reading Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather! I’m a huge fan of Cather, but I haven’t read this one, yet, so I’m really excited.

Don’t forget: We have a Goodreads group! And we’re using #CBAM2017 to chat on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

About the Book:

There is something epic—and almost mythic—about this sparsely beautiful novel by Willa Cather, although the story it tells is that of a single human life, lived simply in the silence of the desert. In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour comes as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico. What he finds is a vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief.

In the almost forty years that follow, Latour spreads his faith in the only way he knows—gently, although he must contend with an unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. One of these events Cather gives us an indelible vision of life unfolding in a place where time itself seems suspended.

Schedule:

  • September 1st: Begin reading.
  • September 15th: Mid-point Check-In
  • September 30th: Final Thoughts

Feel free to read at your own pace, post at your own pace (or not at all), and drop by to comment/chat about the book at any point. The schedule above is just the one I plan to use in order to keep myself organized and to provide some standard points and places for anyone who is reading along to get together and chat.

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Blog Post, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, writing

Writing On Writing

2016 was what I had planned to be, or hoped would be, my “year of writing.” One year to welcome many future years. I think I shouldn’t have included that second verb, hoped, after my original one, planned. This is part of the self-doubt that all “on writing” books seem to mention at some point or another, and most of them repeatedly.

downloadSpeaking of “on writing” texts, I’m currently reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, which is wonderful so far (about 40% into it). And I’ve read three others in the last year. Each has been very different. The first was Stephen King’s On Writing which read more like a memoir highlighting much of the writing aspects of his life. This is perhaps appropriate when considering the rest of the book’s title, A Memoir of the Craft. I found this approach worked well, though. King spoke a lot about writing as it fits into real life, especially early writing in the “younger” life. He got his start much sooner than I, yet I hope I can still consider myself “young enough.” That might be wishful thinking.

48202The second read was Willa Cather’s On Writing, which was something else entirely. The second part of her title is Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. As that full title suggests, Cather’s is a collection of essays rather than a single narrative, as King’s is. Much of the essays are Cather discussing others’ works, though some are her reflections on how or why she wrote particular pieces of her own. Some few, like “On the Art of Fiction,” tackle the idea of “on writing” more directly. I enjoyed this one because it gave insight into how writers respond to other writers; what they look for, where they find strengths, what they consider weaknesses, who and what they admire, and why. It’s valuable information, especially coming from someone as supremely competent, knowledgable, and interesting as Willa Cather.

51JP9AJJVVL._AC_UL320_SR216,320_The third title is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. This one was a perfect middle road between King and Cather. It is a collection of essays, written over a number of years, like Cather’s, but it is much more personal and reflective, and written with a “new writer” audience in mind, like King’s. What I loved about Bradbury’s collection is that it is filled with so much joy, so much passion and support.

What I found interesting, if not surprising, is that despite their differences, each of these (and, now that I think of it, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, too, but it’s been a while since I’ve read that, so I’ll leave it out of discussion for now) shared some few important elements in common. What’s even more serendipitous is that the three things that stuck out to me the most are the very things I’ve struggled with for so long.

I. Be Honest & Trust Your Imagination

This first theme came up frequently, and in various ways, in all three books. I responded to it in two critical ways. In the first case, trust your imagination deals with those moments when you don’t feel like what you have to say is interesting, important, creative, fresh, valid, or whatever. It’s that common self-doubt all writers probably have at some point, and which forces them into writer’s block or exhaustion. I think this is especially important not just in getting started with the process, but in dealing with the many rejections that are certain to reach your inbox. King, Cather, and Bradbury all place importance on honesty, first; if you are telling a story that is true to you, and means something to you, stop thinking about it and let your imagination go…it will get somewhere, and you can deal with it when it’s done. Trust Your Imagination applies to another situation, though, which is within the story world itself. I once gave up on a novel, one that, in retrospect, I think has been my best idea and which continues to call to me every day (it’s the one I plan to return to on Monday, when I begin again). Part of why I gave up is because I felt like I had to know everything – every detail about the location, every detail about history of the region, the country. Every detail about the main character’s particular hobby, which I dove into researching and started making notes about. To some extent, yes, I need to know these things – but just enough of them. I never have to give the reader every single piece of history; if they wanted that, they’d go read a history book, right? This is something King, Cather, and Bradbury wrote about frequently over the course of their books. I’m not writing a manual, I’m writing a piece of fiction. There are some things that must be right (if my book takes place during the time of JFK’s assassination, okay, I’d better get the date right), but otherwise, I need to remind myself that most of the creation and interpretation and information gathering actually takes place in the reader’s mind. It’s that “show don’t tell” mantra all over again. And, wow, it’s such a relief. I feel like an apartment building has been lifted off me and I have begun to breathe and see again for the first time in a long time.

II. Be Honest & Forget About Money or Fame

This seems like it should be another no-brainer. If you love to write and you feel like you have something to say, or maybe might even be a little bit good at writing, then you should just find joy in writing. But who doesn’t think about their audience? I think about it constantly, and it intimidates me; it holds me back. I worry, mostly, about what my friends and family will think about my stories; will I reveal too much about myself in the telling? Do I really want to let them into the deepest, sometimes darkest, realms of my imagination and psyche? Then, I think about the general audiences, critics and consumers. Will anyone in the world be interested in what I write about? Will an agent take a chance? Will a publisher? It seems silly to think about all this before the writing has gotten very far, or even begun at all. Of course, it is silly to think about it then, or at all. But that doesn’t keep it from happening, and I doubt I’m the only one who experiences this. It’s probably my biggest hold up, and this is where King, Cather, and Bradbury all say: STOP IT. Write, just write. Love it. As with the theme above, be honest about it and why you’re doing it, but damn it, don’t do it for the money because that will probably never, ever come. Am I okay with that? Probably much more so now than I ever was before. Is it all entirely out of my head – fear of rejection, desire for fame? No, and maybe it won’t ever be entirely gone, at least not until I’ve found my stride and have begun to write every day, to be confident in it, and to really feel like I can, I must, go on with it. That’s going to be the persistent thought now. Instead of thinking about all these other people and their reactions, I’m going to try to simply be excited about my ideas and where in the world they’re going to take me.

III. Trust Yourself & WRITE!

Write, write, write. Boy, you’d think I was reading books on writing or something. King and Bradbury were especially surprising in their treatment of this topic. For some reason, I remember hearing, for most of my life, that writers should be prepared to write whenever the muse hits, to be prepared with pen and paper wherever they go, but that they should never “force” the writing. King and Bradbury, two of the most commercially successful writers of all-time, say this is hokum! Both of them write in highly regimented ways, working for a certain number of days every week (both of them say 6 days per week, holidays and birthdays included), and for a certain length of time (or word count, in their cases). Cather, too, expressed the necessity of writing all the time. King, Cather, and Bradbury, but especially Bradbury, reinforced the idea that writing, like anything, is a skill (and an art) that can only get better with practice and honesty to one’s self and ideas. This is something I tell my students all the time: you can’t become a better writer if you don’t read and write a lot. The more you do those things, the better you’ll be able to see the strengths and weaknesses, the necessary moves and adjustments to make in your own work. So, there’s a bit of “practice what you preach” for the old English professor! I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, and in many ways I do and have written every day, but the missing piece of the puzzle was also found in King’s, Cather’s, and Bradbury’s examinations: write in the genre you want to be most successful in. My writing has been primarily academic and scholarly, for coursework and such, or blogging, for the general love of talking about literature. In my mind, though, when I think of myself as a writer, that is not the kind of writing I’m thinking about.

While reflecting on these three books and thinking about all of the great advice therein, I began to work on my plan for the coming semester. I originally wanted to schedule out my days and workload for the entire term, September through December, but I decided to begin with the month of August, for two reasons: the first reason is practical; I’m scheduled to teach four courses this semester, beginning on August 22nd, but I only know for sure that two of those courses is going to run; so, if the other two courses do not run, then I’ll be adjusting my entire schedule — why do five months of planning to change it all in two weeks? The other reason is because I need to know that what I propose for August is actually feasible and can be maintained for the entire semester. If it is, I’ll expand – – not a big deal.

What is the plan? Well, I have designated times for working on my dissertation, for teaching, for exercise, for writing articles, and for grading/planning each of my classes week-to-week, as well as for required, reoccurring meetings that come as a result of an existence in academia. There are two benefits to this plan, I think. The first benefit of being so strict with myself is that I can see what needs to be done when, and I can hold myself accountable to everything I need to do without letting it pile up. Old habits of last year left me scrambling at the end of every single week to do much too much work; hence, I didn’t do nearly enough of what I should have. The other benefit is that it doesn’t only show me my “work” time; it also shows me all the time that is my own, to do whatever. There’s not a lot of free time, but there definitely is some every day, and that calms me. Again, last year, I felt like I was always busy, but that’s mostly because I was being stupidly irresponsible with my time.

I might not get my book written this year, because I’m writing a dissertation; but I will get that dissertation written, and I will work on my book, too, and I’ll still be able to do other things.

King, Cather, and Bradbury. Delightful kicks-in-the-pants. Woolf, keep me honest! 

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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.

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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


Plot/Story:

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.


Characterization:
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.      


Prose/Style:
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.” 

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Anita Loos, Book Review, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fantasy, Fiction, Literature, Nathanael West, Rick Riordan, Willa Cather

Reviews: The Earlies, Part 5

Gentelmen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Very funny but also very serious. A lot of social commentary.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This Pulitzer Prize winning book by Edith Wharton is, well, prize-winning. Wharton asserts herself as America’s Jane Austen – witty, intelligent, moving, and principled. The ending, especially, is so personal and touching, it’s difficult to get through. 4 Stars.

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Very interesting early-Hollywood read. Seems to anticipate “The Beat” generation.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This book is breathtaking. I’m not a Fitzgerald fan – I hated The Great Gatsby, but Tender is the Night is quite an achievement. Fitzgerald does an incredible job of demonstrating how a life is touched, changed, and destroyed by involvement with a schizophrenic. Perhaps it is my own personal experience which connected me so well with this novel and with Fitzgerald’s emotion – but, regardless, the imagery is vivid, the scenarios and plot credible, and the entire story absolutely moving and painful, as well as vindicating. I had to put the book down at many points, due to its ability to evoke sad and painful memories, but upon completion, I felt whole again.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Wonderful story. Surprisingly anti-feminist.. but that shouldn’t be shocking, coming from Cather. She loves to push the envelope! This book reminded me why I love Willa Cather. Great read.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

What a great fantasy book! Based in Greek mythological “fact” – and the author obviously did his homework. The characters and the story work well with the mythology and Riordan even adds to it with a modern twist. I can’t say enough about this book and I can’t wait to read the second in the series. I think the book was much more fun to me now than it would have been if I had read it as a kid because having a background in the gods and myths made the story flow more easily and made it genuinely more interesting. However, I’m sure any young fantasy-fan can pick it up and have a great time.

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