Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

I was sure I was going to like Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (published 2017).  Prairie Fires has received widespread critical acclaim and has been awarded this year's Pulitzer Prize for Biography.  It can be daunting to give one's views on such a book but I have to be honest and say I struggled to get through Prairie Fires and the question is why?

I'm a fan of the Little House TV series so you would think I would be an ideal candidate for this biography.  But though I am a fan of the TV show, I have never gotten around to reading any of Ms. Wilder's classic Little House children's novels.  I think that matters.  It would be like reading a biography of Charlotte Bronte without having read Jane Eyre.  You should always read the author's work before tackling a biography about the author.

That said, for me the most interesting part of Prairie Fires takes place in the first third of the book as Charles, Caroline and their children try to make a living on the Great Plains during the 1870's.   The second and third parts of Prairie Fires  revolve around Laura and her husband Almanzo Wilder's life in Mansfield Missouri.   We don't hear much about Laura's parents and sisters again.  Instead the story shifts to Mansfield, MO where Laura and Almanzo who arrived there as newlyweds would spend the rest of their lives.

Almanzo Wilder was a private man and Laura though more outgoing was also rather private.  She became an important member of her small town community in Mansfield, writing a column for the local newspaper, and she had a job for many years processing loan applications for her neighbors.  Laura was an active member of social get togethers in her town but until she started jotting her childhood memories down in her later years her life was not the stuff of biography.   Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane is another story however and the deeper one gets into Prairie Fires the more Rose's life begins to take over the book.  Caroline Fraser to put it bluntly cannot stand Rose and though Rose was a hard person to like I couldn't help wonder are we getting the full story when you factor in Ms. Fraser's distaste.

One may also ask in a biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder why is Rose taking up so much space?  But then again, how could it be otherwise?  Laura and Rose as the author tells us had a loving but complex relationship.  Rose Wilder Lane was a talented writer and journalist who during her life had articles and short stories regularly published in the newspapers and major magazines of the day.  A few of her short stories were nominated for O'Henry awards.  Rose would return to her mother's home in Mansfield MO during the Great Depression and begin helping her mother turn the drafts of her Little House books into publishable products.  But the question will always remain did the substantial editing Rose did on the Little House books cross the line into rewriting?  Prairie Fires makes the case that it may have and if so co-authorship for Rose Wilder Lane on the Little House books was warranted even though Rose never requested it.

So, should you read Prairie Fires?  I think if you have read and loved the Little House books you should. There will be much to suprise as Caroline Fraser separates fact from fiction regarding what life was really like on the prairie of the 1870's.  The real Ingalls family as opposed to their fictional counterparts had a much tougher road filled with hardship and peril that the books and the TV series have tended to gloss over.  But fans will be pleased to know that the books, the TV series and the biography are all in agreement on one thing, Charles and Caroline Ingalls were remarkable people who struggled to keep food on the table for their children against all odds while providing fun times as well.  All her life, Laura Ingalls Wilder loved and idolized her parents and she was right to do so.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ten Nights in A Bar Room And What I Saw There by Timothy Shay Arthur

"He loved his mother, and was deeply afflicted by the calamity; but it seemed as if he could not stop.  Some terrible necessity appeared to be impelling him onward.  If he formed good resolutions  - and I doubt not that he did - they were blown away like threads of gossamer, the moment he came within the sphere of old associations.  His way to the mill was by the Sickle and Sheaf, and it was not easy for him to pass there without being drawn into the bar, either by his own desire for drink, or through the invitation of some pleasant companion, who was lounging in front of the Tavern". - Ten Nights In A Bar Room by Timothy Shay Arthur.

Ten Nights In A Bar Room by Timothy Shay Arthur was published in 1854 and it was a very popular novel in its day dealing with the subject of temperance.  Only Uncle Tom's Cabin did better in book sales during the 1850's.  Yet today Ten Nights in A Bar Room has fallen into obscurity.  That fascinates me, once popular books that are no longer read or remembered  I have a number of such novels in my kindle and are they worth reading?  Do they have lessons for modern times?

And so when Ten Nights In A Bar Room begins it is the mid 19th century in the fictional town of Cedarville.  The novel is narrated by a business man whose name we never learn.  His work keeps bringing him back to Cedarville over a ten year period.  Each time the narrator returns he rents a room for the night at the Sickle and Sheaf, the local saloon.  The Sickle and Sheaf starts out as a promising enterprise for the town and its owner Simon Slade.  However as the years go by the Sickle and Sheaf detiorates into a den of vice and corruption which eventually destroys the lives of the owner, his family, the young men who frequent the tavern, their long suffering mothers and wives and pretty much anyone who walks through its doors. 

As the novel progresses a young girl is killed by a flying bottle when she comes to the bar pleading for her father to come home.  Willie Hammond, the son of Judge Hammond,  who is the light of his parent's lives and who is one of the nicest young men around who tne town has high hopes for, develops a drinking and gambling problem.  Simon Slade the owner of the bar gets seriously injured in a bar fight.  His wife loses her wits seeing what has happened to her family.  Their son, sixteen year old Frank Slade, starts out helping his father run the bar and takes up with a bad crowd.   At various points in the novel the subject of temperance is discussed and despite the damage that the saloon is doing to Cedarville, many of the bar patrons are not willing to go there.  As Judge Lynan states:

"The next thing we will have will be laws to fine any man who takes a chew of tobacco or lights a cigar.  Touch the liberties of the people in the smallest particular, and all guarantees are gone.  The Stamp Act, against which our noble forefathers rebelled, was a light measure of oppression to that contemplated by these worse than fanatics".  

Ten Nights In A Bar Room is not shy about conveying its message with regard to the evils of alcohol.  It can be overwrought, particularly as we get near to the end of the book.  On the whole though its decently written and it did cause me to think.  Nowadays the temperance movement looks foolish and fanatical but if you look at the situation from a 19th century perspective saloons opening up in small towns across the country could cause real problems.  When Ten Nights was written for example what could a young man (women weren't allowed in bars back then) do for fun?  This was before television the movies, radio, the telephone, automobiles.  It could get boring and lonely in small towns and saloons were a place of commraderie.  But the book points out that in many of these saloons gamblers would arrive.taking advantage of customers too inebriated to know what they were doing.  Women were hit hard by the saloon culture as well.  If a woman was married to a man who drank what recourse did she have?  Divorce was not an option back then and there were no jobs for women to help feed their families.

So I am glad I read Ten Nights In A Bar Room.  I think its worth reading for its historical value, a window into a different time and why temperance became such a big issue in the 19th century.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin is a contemporary Russian writer who currently lives in Moscow and is best known for his Erast Petrovich Fandorin mystery series.  These novels are hugely popular in Russia and internationally Boris Akunin's books have received  acclaim as well.

The Winter Queen published in 1998 is the first novel in the Pandorin series and when the novel begins it is 1876 and Erast Pandorin's supersvisor at the police department, Xavier Grushin, is looking through that day's edition of the Moscow Gazette.  He comes upon a shocking story that reads as follows :

"Yesterday the Alexander Gardens were the scene of a sad incident only too distinctly typical of the cynical outlook and manners of modern youth when Mr N., a handsome young fellow of twenty-three, a student at Moscow University, and the sole heir to a fortune of millions, shot himself dead in full view of the promenading public ... It would appear tnat the fashionable epidemic of pointless suicides, which had thus far remained the scourge of Petropolis, has finally spread to the walls of Old Mother Moscow ... O tempora, o mores!  To what depths of unbelief and nihilism have our guilded youth descended if they would make a vulgar spectacle even of their own deaths?  If our home grown Brutuses adopt such an attitude to their own lives, then how can we be suprised if they care not a  brass kopeck for the lives of other, incomparably more worthy individuals?"

The suicide is particularly disturbing since the young man, Mr N, who shot himself  did so in front of a young woman and her governess sitting on a park bench. He did not know these two women.  Why would he do such a thing?  It also seems like a closed case.  But Grushin is bothered by this story and asks young Erast Pandorin to investigate.  Earst who is twenty and has had only clerical duties to perform is very eager to take on a real case   As the book progresses and Erast Pandorin digs deeper we will see that what started out as a sensless suicide in Alexander Gardens is in reality a much wider conspiracy with international implications.  Our young detective matures a great deal throughout the book as he uncovers plot twist after plot twist and by the time the novel ends Erast Fandorin is not the same naive twenty year old who we began the book with,

I was impessed with the Winter Queen.  Over the years I have read a number of 19th century Russian novels and though the Winter Queen was published in 1998,  Boris Akunin's depiction of 19th century Russia is very well done.  The dialogue, the characters, the whole ambiance rings true.  You feel you are in Moscow in the late 19th century and that is a credit to the author's talent.

I do have criticisms though.  First, Erast Pandorin, our young hero, survives multiple attempts on his life throughout the novel and I began to find it implausible that he could escape both physically and emotionally so many close calls.  I also felt by the time I got to the end of the novel that we were far afield from the suicide that began the book.  For me there were too many plot twists along the way and a resolution of the mystery that I can't see happening in reality.

But I closed the Winter Queen deciding that I would like to give the Erast Fandorin series another try.  Maybe skip to book five or six when our young detective  is older, has more of a personal life and the crimes he is asked to solve a little more straightforward.   One thing is for sure, the author doesn't need gimmicks, international conspiracies and plot twists to move his books along. He is a very fine writer and that alone kept me turning the pages.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (published 1937) is book two in my 2018 Back To the Classics Challenge - Choose A Classic From the 20th Century. It's a moving, beautifully written story centering on Janie Crawford, an African American woman in her early forties living in Florida during the early 1900's.  I wanted to quote so many passages in this book.  Hopefully the one's I have chosen will give people a sense of why the praise for this novel is so well deserved and thank you Brianna for lending me your copy.

When Their Eyes Were Watching God begins Janie Crawford is returning to her hometown in Eatonville.  Janie left Eatonville, FL about a year prior to join her lover Tea Cake in the Everglades.  The neighbors in Eatonville were shocked.  Janie running off with a younger man so soon after her husband died?  As Janie walks by, worn out, but with her head held high, the neighbors speculate about why Janie is back and what happened to Tea Cake.  Why isn't he with Janie.  Did he take her money and  run?  One of Janie's neighbors, her good friend Phoeby Watkins, confronts the gossipers:

"You mean you mad 'cause she didn't stop and tell us all her business.  Anyhow, what you ever know her to do so bad as y'all make out?  The worst thing Ah ever knowed her to do was taking a few years off a her age and dat ain't never harmed nobody.  Y'all makes me tired.  De way you talkin' you'd think de folks in dis town didn't do nothin' in de bed 'cept praise de Lawd.  You have to 'scuse me, 'cause Ah'm bound to go take her some supper".  

The rest of Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie telling her friend Phoeby her story not only what happened to Tea Cake but her entire life story.  Being raised by her grandmother in West Florida.  Janie having an epiphany at sixteen about how for her, the only marriage worth having is a marriage of love, a marriage of soulmates.  But Janie's grandmother who grew up in slavery and faced hard times steers Janie at age sixteen into a marriage with a well off, much older man so Janie can have security.  It doesn't work out and a few years later Janie meets Joe Starks, a handsome go getter who has great plans for the future.  Janie runs off with Joe who will become her second husband.

Joe and Janie move to Eatonville where Joe becomes Mayor.  At first everything is fine but Joe Starks reveals himself to be controlling and jealous.  Janie is faithful to Joe for the 20 years they are together but it becomes a loveless marriage, two strangers living in the same house, barely speaking.  When Joe dies, Janie finally feels free to do whatever she likes and then she meets Tea Cake.

Tea Cake is charming and he makes Janie laugh.  He's ten years younger than Janie but they have a true bond.  There is a touching vulnerability about Tea Cake and though he is certainly not perfect, the author, Zora Neale Hurston, does an excellent job in letting us see why Janie would love Tea Cake so much.  But tragedy looms for Janie and Tea Cake and in the midst of her sadness and fear, Janie thinks about God:

She looked hard at the sky for a long time.  Somewhere up there beyond blue ether's bosom sat He.  Was He noticing what was going on around here?  He must be because He knew everything.   Did He mean to do this thing to Tea Cake and her?  ... Maybe it was some big tease and when He saw it had gone far enough He'd give her a sign.  She looked hard for something up there to move for a sign.  A star in tne daytime, maybe, or the sun to shout, or even a mutter of thunder.  Her arms went up a desparate supplication for a minute.  It wasn't exactly pleading, it was asking questions.  The sky stayed hard looking and quiet so she went inside the house".  

At the end of the novel Janie tells Phoeby that if she wishes she can tell Janie's story to the curious neighbors but Janie doubts they'll understand about her and Tea Cake and the love they had for each other:

"Ah know all dem sitters-and-talkers gointuh worry they guts into fiddle strings till dey find out whut we been talkin' 'bout.  Dat's all right, Phoeby, tell 'em.  Dey gointuh make 'miration cause mah love didn't work lak they love.  If tney ever had any.  Then you must tell 'em that love ain't somethin lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch.  Love is lak de sea.  It's a movin' thing, but still and all, it takes it's shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore".  

Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a very long book.  Some have said they found the dialect a little hard to follow but I had no problem.  And as I hope the above passages I've quoted prove, this is a novel packed with beautiful poetic imagery and profound things to say about love, God, relations between men and women, black people and white people and the meaning of life in general.  It's therefore shocking that this novel was out of print for decades and the author Zora Neale Hurston having died in 1960, buried in an unmarked grave.  Thanks to the writer Alice Walker in the 1970's Their Eyes Were Watching God was rescued from obsurity and today it is available everywhere, taught in high school and colleges and internationally acknowledged as a classic of 20th century literature.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

The accomplished journalist and bestselling author Walter Isaacson has a fascination with genius.  How do the brilliant minds throughout history differ from the rest of us?  What might they have in common with each other?  Walter Isaacson has written biographies of Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs partly to address these questions.  The subject of his latest biography is Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo daVinci (1452 - 1519) was the ultimate Rennaissance man not only because he lived during the Italian Rennassance era but because his interests crossed all boundaries. da Vinci is most famous for painting two of the greatest masterpieces in history, the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper but Leonardo, as Isaacson tells us, was also fascinated by science and engineering:

"With a passion that was both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology water flows and weaponry ... His scientific explorations informed his art.  As he aged, he pursued his scientific inquiries not just to serve his art but out of a joyful instinct to fathom the profound beauties of creation".

Walter Isaacson has done an excellent job researching and writing about da Vinci's life and work.  A good portion of the book provides us with an analysis of da Vinci's paintings and his science and engineering experiments.  da Vinci spent years for example studying birds and sketching out plans in his notebooks for flying machines.  He had plans for diverting rivers, building cities, creating musical instruments, ideas for pagents and plays.  He participated in dissections in hospitals which enhanced the real life quality of his paintings.  Also because of da Vinci's dissections he is credited with a major scientific breakthrough, how the aortic valve of the heart works, a discovery that scientists today still marvel at.  We also have Leonardo da Vinci's legendary notebooks, 7,200 pages of which still survive.  He took his notebooks wherever he went, jotting down and drawing ideas, observations, everything he was curious about.

Walter Isaacson tells us about Leonardo's personal life, He was born out of wedlock which is important because had da Vinci's parents married he would have been expected to go into the notary business like generations of da Vinci men before him.  But because of his out of wedlock status he was barred from the notary profession and free to pursue whatever career he liked.  At age fourteen DaVinci secured an apprenticeship and began working for Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist and engineer, who ran an excellent art school in Florence.  Leonardo da Vinci was gay and at age 38 he met his lifelong companion Salai who he loved but their relationship could be stormy.   da Vinci was good natured, generous with his friends and he was well liked by many but he could also exasperate his patrons because he had trouble finishing paintings.  As to da Vinci's spititual side he had a belief in the beauty and oneness of nature and was a  lifelong vegetarian because he didn't think animals should be killed for food.

His great painting of course is the Mona Lisa.  Who was the Mona Lisa?  Her name was Lisa del Giocondo, the 24 year old wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant who commissioned Leonardo early in his career to paint a portrait of his wife Lisa.  Leonardo sensed something in the painting because he never gave it to Frances del Giocondo and instead kept it for himself and continued to work on it throughout his life.

I am glad I read Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and I would heartily recommend this book to those interested in art history, science, innovation, the Italian Rennassance or anyone wanting to know more about one of the greatest minds that ever lived.  The illustrations of Leonardo's paintings and sketches throughout this biography are wonderful to look at as well and though none of us can hope to equal da Vinci's genius, it wouldn't hurt to carry around our own notebooks in our travels and write down all the interesting things we observe.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

A Question of Belief (published 2010) is book nineteen in Donna Leon's acclaimed Commissario Brunetti mystery series.   Death At LaFenice, the first book in the series, remains my favorite.  However, A Question of Belief (starred review from Publisher's Weekly) is very good as well.  In fact what's remarkable is the high quality Ms. Leon has maintained certainly in the three Brunetti mysteries that I have read so far.

She created in Guido Brunetti a decent, thoughtful, very smart detective who is happily married, enjoys good food and wines reads The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in the evening for pleasure.  He is cynical about government bureaucracy but he is committed to solving crimes and when A Question of Belief begins it is August in Venice and it is hot.  Comissario Brunetti speculates on what the criminal population is doing:

"Could they be induced to leave people alone until the end of this heat spell?  That presupposed some sort of central organization, but Brunetti knew that crime had become too diversified and too international for any reliable agreement to be possible ... His thoughts drifted to the promises he had made to Paola that tonight they would discuss their own vacation.  He, a Venetian, was going to turn himself and his family into tourists, but tourists going in the other direction, away from Venice, leaving room for the millions who were expected this year.  Last year twenty millon.  God have mercy on us all".

Unfortunately, Commissario Brunetti does not get to join his family in the mountains for vacation.  He is stuck in sweltering Venice working two separate cases. The first involves a psychic healer who is depriving vulnerable people of their money.  The second case involves a murder of a civil servant at the courthouse and could his death be linked to the fact that he was helping a judge delay court cases in exchange for pay offs?

I enjoyed A Question of Belief.  Many of Donna Leon's book are topical dealing with issues of the day and a running theme throughout her novels is the cynicism the people of Venice, including Brunetti and his wife Paola, feel towards their government, the media, the church.  I am reminded of a passage in Death at LaFenice, for example, in which Paola is sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper.  She explains to Brunetti that she reads a different paper each day, going from left to right politically because "I want to see how many different ways the same lies can be told".  

Donna Leon's novels tell us that the Venetians have made a certain peace with their "it's all corrupt" mindset.  They go about their lives in spite of it and I felt a little envious.  Here in the US where there used to be accountability, Trump has completely changed that.  He is awash in corruption and he has a Congress who rubber stamps whatever he wants.  I wish like the Venetians I could ignore him and go about my life but Trump makes it impossible.  Anyway, I recommend A Question of Belief.  Is a nice escape from what is going on now.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Small Room by May Sarton

I read The Small Room by May Sarton (published 1961) decades ago and the beginning of the novel has always stayed with me, a young woman, Lucy Winter, is heading to her new teaching job at a small prestigious women's college in New England.  It's quite an accomplishment for someone only 27 to be a professor but Lucy is feeling melancholy.  Her plan was to be married but that fell through and now Lucy is beginning a teaching career she didn't want and she is also plagued by fears that she is not prepared.  She wonders what does she really know about teaching?  What does it take to inspire one's students and get them to be  passionate about the subject one is teaching?

Later, after settling in at Appleton College, Lucy will face deeper questions about the dangers of getting too close to a student or remaining too detatched when a student needs your help.  The crisis that will bring these questions about happens shortly after Lucy arrives at Appleton.  One of the most brilliant students on campus, Jane Seaman, is caught plagerising an article she wrote for the school newspaper.   It is Lucy who discovers this plagerism and she brings it to the attention of the administration.  Plagerism means expulsion from Appleton College but the school is conflicted.  A plagerism expulsion would follow Jane Seaman throughout her life and so it's a harsh punishment.  Also Jane is the protege of a famous professor at the school, Professor Carryl Cope, one of the top Medieval History scholars in the country.  Professor Cope wants to protect Jane and sees herself when she was young in Jane  and feels guilt about putting too much pressure on the young woman to excel.  The student body gets wind of what is happening and they are angry knowing that had they done what Jane Seaman did they wouldn't be let off so lightly.

Battle lines are drawn and the question of what to do is debated over a number of faculty dinner parties as we are introduced to Lucy's colleagues, their lives off campus, their views about teaching, their different opinions about the best way to deal with Jane's plagerism.  Lucy because she is young and new to the academic politics at Appleton College becomes the sounding board for her colleagues as they confide to her about the school, what they think about teaching and what they think of each other.  Appleton, Lucy comes to see, is an insular community where the professors live too near to each other and to the campus.  They are lonely, argue, drink too much and they know each other too well but they are also brilliant teachers.

A little bit about the author May Sarton (1912 - 1995).  She was a talented poet and novelist who had a rebirth as a writer in the 1970's.  Ms Sarton was a pioneer in feminist and gay and lesbian literature.  She wrote openly about being a lesbian woman back in 1965 when she published Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, possibly her most well known novel.   In her later years May Sarton who had moved to York, Maine began publishing her journals: Journal of Solitude (about turning sixty), House by the Sea, Recovering, After the Stroke, At Seventy, At Eighty-Two.  Her journals are about solitude, nature, women, friendship, love, writing, illness, books, life, etc.  I enjoyed rereading The Small Room and the novel left me eager to begin May Sarton's journals which continue to have a wide readership.  I'll be turning sixty myself this year so maybe Journal of Solitude is the place to begin.