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 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
" 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.

How to Save a Life, One Day at a Time

photo by Amy Brandon   "Little things heal our hurts. Sounds, scents, the spoken word, and music that may mean nothing to someon...