Wednesday, September 13, 2017

My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia by Willa Cather published in 1918 is a classic of American literature and with Willa Cather you have a number of great novels to choose from (O Pioneer, Death Comes for the Archbishop, One of Ours, The Lost Lady) but in the end I went with My Antonia probably Ms Cather's most famous work and some say most autobiographical.

My Antonia begins with Jim Burden, a successful attorney living in New York. The year is about 1915 and on a train travelling through Iowa Jim runs into a childhood friend. They get to talking about Black Hawk, Nebraska where they grew up and about a young immigrant farm girl, Antonia Shimerda who they knew and greatly admired.  The friend suggests that since Jim knew Antonia better he jot down a few things he remembers.  The next time Jim sees his friend he presents the manuscript he's written about Antonia but also about what it was like living in Black Hawk in the late 19th century.

We learn through reading Jim's manuscript/memoir that Jim first came to Black Hawk Nebraska age 10, an orphan, to live with his grandparents. On that same train are the Shimerdas, a Bohemian immigrant family and their thirteen year old daughter Antonia.  They are also moving to Black Hawk to start their own farm. Tragedy will strike when farming proves too much for Antonia's father.  But Mrs Shimerda and her children, especially Antonia, are strong and resourceful and with the help of Jim and his grandparents they are able to finally make a go of it. Jim and Antonia form a lifelong friendship but they are different.

Antonia cannot imagine any other life but staying on the prairie, marrying, raising a large family and having a farm of her own.  It's her dream.  In this way she differs from Lena Lingard, also a major character in the book, a Danish immigrant girl, who has had enough of plowing the fields to last a lifetime.  Jim sits at the crossroads between these two strong young women.  Like Antonia the prairie has gotten into his blood but like Lena he can't stay.  As Jim tells us:

"One could hang about the drugstore; and listen to the old men who sat there every evening talking politics and telling raw stories.  One could go to the cigar factory and chat with the old German who raised canaries for sale, and look at his stuffed birds. But whatever you began with him, the talk went back to taxidermy.  There was the depot, of course; I often went down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha or Denver, 'where there was some life' ...On Tuesday nights the Owl club danced; then there was a little stir in the streets, and here and there one could see a lighted window until midnight.  But the next night all was dark again"

My Antonia is a novel that builds in power, certain scenes you will remember always (particularly one horrifying story about Peter and Pavel, two Russian immigrants who are hiding a dark secret about why they had to leave Russia). Many characters populate this book and they are not all saints let me tell you.  But for Jim, Antonia remains the ideal. She represents possibly Nebraska itself and the immigrant families who settled on the Great Plains, particularly the daughters of these immigrant familes for whom Jim has so much admiration.  He writes:

"These girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had gotten little schooling themselves.  But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had 'advantages' never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated.  The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new".

Jim Burden is a thoughtful and engaging narrator. The book is his coming of age story and probably Willa Cather's story too. Like Jim she moved from Virginia to Nebraska when she was a child. The beauty and danger of life on the prairie would be the subject of many of her novels. But like Jim she couldn't stay.  Willa Cather would attend the University of Nebraska and eventually move to New York as Jim does.  But she never forgot life on the prairie and the result is My Antonia now considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.  I highly recommend.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is a historical novel set in the Dominican Republic during the time of Rafael Trjillo's dictatorship (1930 to 1961). The focus of Ms Alvarez's novel is the martyred Mirabal sisters.  Three real life sisters (Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal) who were part of an underground movement in the Dominican Republic to overthrow Trjillo's regime and bring free elections to their country.  All three sisters were assassinated in 1960 on the way to visiting their imprisoned husbands.  After their deaths the Dominican people had had enough and Trjillo was gone in less than a year.  This history was totally new to me and that's what can be so great about historical novels.  These books introduce us to events, eras and fascinating people we would otherwise never have known about and In the Time of the Butterflies is a beautifully written novel as well.

Julia Alvarez, the author, is a bestselling novelist, poet and essayist.  She was born in the Dominican Republic. Her family left for the US in 1960 when she was ten.  Ms Alvarez writes that as a young girl she could not get the Mirabal sisters out of her head.  She wondered what gave these young women such courage when most of the Dominican Republic understandably was afraid to speak out?  How did the sisters differ in terms of their personalties and outlook on life?  What was the deciding factor that caused each of the sisters to rebel?

Each chapter of In The Time of the Butterflies alternates as a different sister tells her story.  The novel begins in 1938 when they were children.  We follow the sisters through childhood, Catholic schools, courtship, marriages, prison and activism.  Also we hear from the fourth sister Dede who stayed home that day and survived.  When a writer is dealing with four characters it can be hard to keep their voices distinct but Alvarez does a masterful job in letting us see how different and unique each sister was.   As Dede says to an interviewer years later:

"Yes so different.  Minerva was always into her wrongs and rights".  Dede realizes she is speaking to the picture of Minerva as if she were assigning her a part, pinning her down with a handful of adjectives, the beautiful intelligent high minded Minerva. "And Maria Teresa, ay, Dios".  Dede sighs, emotion in her voice in spite of herself.  "Still a girl when she died, probrecita, just turned twenty-five".  Dede moves on to the last picture and rights the frame.  Sweet Patria, always her religion was so important  ...well almost always". 

Julia Alvarez never met the Mirabal sisters and makes it clear in the postscript to the novel that In the Time of The Butterflies is a work of imagination which she hopes is true to the spirit of these brave young women.  She succeeds very well.  I finished the book really moved and if you read this book I know you will be too.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

In 1993 bestselling author and adventure writer Jon Krakauer wrote an article for Outside Magazine about a young hiker who in April 1992 walked into the wilds of Alaska.  He carried with him a hunting rifle, a ten pound bag of rice, a few books and very little else. His name was Christopher McCandless and his plan was to live in solitude, hunting his own food and communing with nature.  Four months later McCandless' body was found by a group of hunters who had stumbled upon the abandoned bus he had been living in.  Chris McCandless had starved to death.  The Alaskan river he had crossed to make his way into the wilderness was passible in April when he arrived but when the summer came and the ice melted the river swelled making it impossible for Chris to cross back into civilization effectively trapping him where he was.  He was only 24.  Jon Krakauer wrote the article for Outside Magazine but could not let go of the story.  He decided his article needed to be a book. The result is Into The Wild (published 1997), an engrossing and thought provoking read.

Who was Chris McCandless and why two decades on are many still fascinated with his story?  Most of us do what's expected in life.  And when we are young and finished with school the next step is the job market.  Sure we would like to live a carefree existance doing whatever our heart desires but there are consequences to that kind of life and so we  conform.  Chris McCandless was different.  After graduating with honors from Emory University he decided that he would not do what was expected.  He took the $24,000 his parents had given him for Law School and donated it to charity.  He then set out on a two year penniless hitchiking journey throughout the American West which would eventually lead him to Alaska.

Jon Krakauer went back and interviewed the people Chris met during his two year odyssey and they are interesting. Many parts of the American west are filled with people who have fallen off the grid so to speak, hippies, seekers, drifters, eccentrics. But even though many of the people Chris met were living on the margins they were worried when Chris shared his Alaska plans. Some tried to talk him out of it.  Others tried to get him to let his parents know where he was since he had not written or called them in two years. But Chris would not listen. There had been a falling out between Chris and his parents over a secret his father had been keeping. Chris in addition to being very bright could be a very judgemental young man.

I heartily recommend Into The Wild.  Jon Krakauer is a fine writer and he not only writes about Chris but he tells us about other explorers and adventurers from the 19th and 20th century, young men who also set out on journeys they did not adequately prepare for.  Krakauer quotes from Chris' journals and letters which gives you an indication of why he chose to live the way he did.  Jon Krakauer doesn't shy away from how badly Chris hurt his parents and sister.  The people Chris met on the road were also shaken by what happened to him.  It's probably the main reason people don't skip town, change their names and set out on risky adventures, our obligation to others.  Chris might have eventually learned this lesson but we will never know.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

I didn't like Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance (published 2016).  I'm somewhat alone on this in that the book has received very good reviews.  It has been described as the book to be reading if you want to understand the white working class in rural and rust belt America and so I was curious. But Hillbilly Elegy left me annoyed and somewhat depressed and I have been trying to figure out why.

On the plus side, J. D. Vance has an inspiring story to tell.   He is a former Marine, served in Iraq, graduated from Yale Law School.  But what makes his story particularly remarkable is the childhood he came from. Absent father, drug addicted emotionally volatile mother, new husbands and boyfriends moving into the home. Eventually it was decided that young Vance would live with his grandparents who he rightly credits with providing stability and saving his life

It's an important story about a wildly screwed up family and the havock they can wreak through several generations. And if that was the tale the author told and if he had been more specific about how he dug himself out of such a tough start his memoir might have been more affecting and more true.  But I wasn't moved by Hillbilly Elegy and the reason is that maybe as a way to protect his grandparents and great uncles  the author romanticizes who they were.  Granted Vance has criticisms to make but too often he sees their considerable flaws as strengths rooted in Hillbilly culture:

"I believe we hillbillies are the toughest (expletive) people on this earth We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother.  We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister's honor ... but are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? ... Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

The above men were the author's great uncles, Uncle Pet who took a saw to a man who cursed at him and Uncle Teaberry who forced a man at knifepoint who had insulted his sister to eat her undergarments.  This was not the 1800's but the mid 20th century.  And then we have Vance's grandparents.  As to who they were it wasn't pretty but they cleaned up their act a year or two before the author ws born and were able to provide a safe environment for young Vance that they did not give their daughter, the author's mother, when she was growing up.

The author's family story is too extreme in my opinion to be representative of any one part of the country unless their is an epidemic of wives setting fire to husbands who come home drunk (his grandparents in their younger days) and their young daughter rushing in to put out the flames.  Seeing his story as his hillbilly legacy romanticizes a sad situation which is going on in many parts of the country and not specific to geography.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Blood From A Stone by Donna Leon

A year ago my friend Iris recommended Death at La Fenice (which I reviewed on April 14, 2016).  It's the first novel in Donna Leon's internationally acclaimed Commissario Brunetti mystery series.  I began the book not knowing what to expect and by the time I arrived at the last page I was hooked.

Blood From A Stone (published 2004) is book fourteen in the series and it's another remarkable read. Blood From a Stone is set in Venice (all the Brunetti mysteries are) and tbe novel begins with the murder of a young street vendor from Senegal, West Africa.  A week before Christmas he is at Campo Santo Stefano, a city street in Venice, along with a few of his friends selling counterfeit handbags.  Two men in overcoats and hats walk up to the young man and shoot him. They leave the other vendors alone. Commissario Brunetti arrives at the scene and begins interviewing the tourists. He doesn't get much information because the killers dissappeared before the tourists could describe them in detail.

Brunetti has no idea who the young man is or why anyone would want to kill him. He also realizes that like many in Venice he knows very little about the African immigrant vendors who sell their goods at the market.  It's a closed community and Brunetti is finding it impossible to get anyone to talk. The mystery takes a dramatic turn when Brunetti locates the room the dead man was renting and finds a fortune in diamonds. The rest of the mystery tells us about the diamond trade and how its being used to support civil wars in Africa and how governments are turning a blind eye.  Many of Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti novels are topical with regard to what is happening in the news, so reading her can be an educational experience.  Ms Leon conveys the city of Venice wonderfully, the people, the culture, the food, the history. She knows Venice and has lived there for decades.

But we Donna Leon fans keep returning to the Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries for Brunetti himself. It's hard to explain what makes him so interesting. In many respects he's not out of the ordinary.  Happilly married to his wife Paola, a University Professor. They have two teenagers.  Brunetti is an intelligent, thoughtful principled man. He's cultured, enjoys the opera, books, good food and wines. He drinks a great deal of coffee (which tempted me while reading the book to take up the habit myself).  Brunetti is a very good detective, dogged in solving the case despite what the higher ups might say.  But I think what it really boils down to is that Brunetti is a great character because Donna Leon is a great writer. Start with the first book in the series Death at La Fenice and I think you will agree.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Searchers by Alan LeMay

Before it was a classic Western film starring John Wayne, The Searchers was a novel written by Alan LeMay (published 1954) and now having read The Searchers I can say the book is every bit the movie's equal.  Here for example is a passage from chapter one of The Searchers.  To set the scene it's a few years after the Civil War and the Edwards family is living in a remote part of Texas, near Comanche territory. As night aprroaches Henry Edwards is standing guard on his porch looking out at the vast land in front of him.  He is worried and reflects on his decision to keep his family here all these years:

"Once they could have quit and found safety in a milder land. They couldn't quit now, with fortune beyond belief coming into their hands.  They were as good as rich - and living in the deadliest danger that had overhung them yet...But you get used to unresting vigilance, and a perpetual danger becomes part of the everyday things around you.  After a long time you probably wouldn't know how to digest right, anymore, if it altogether went away. All that was behind could not explain, exactly, the way Henry felt tonight".

We are not shown tbe massacre.  Instead, the next day racing to the burning Edwards ranch, Amos Edwards (Henry Edwards' brother) and Martin Pauley (who the Edwards adopted as a young boy after his own family was killed by Comanches) come upon the mutilated body of Henry Edwards, his wife Martha and their two sons. The Edwards daughters, Lucy and young Debbie have been taken captive. Amos, Martin and a few other men from the area begin the search to rescue Lucy and Debbie.  A few days later, Amos finds Lucy's body. That leaves Debbie still out there and the thinking is that since she was young, the Comanches may have spared her and are raising Debbie as their own..

After a week, the neighborhood men go back to their lives.  But Martin and Amos continue to look for Debbie, a search all over the Southwest which will take years. That's the heart of this book, the epic journey that Amos and Martin go on and how it changes Martin Pauley in particular.  Martin soon realizes that Amos is more set on revenge against the Comanches which will risk Debbie's life in the process.  Martin is determined not to let that happen.

Amos though gruff and out for vengence cares about Martin. Amos is a man in his early forties who has been fighting in wars and living out on the range for years.  He warns Martin not to follow his example and to go home and start a life.  An old Buffalo hunter reinforces this when he relates his dream to Martin about how all he wants as he comes to the end of his life is "a bunk, a little grub and a chair by the stove".  Martin thinks, "there you had it - the end a prairie man could  look forward to". But Martin is as stubborn as Amos and so the search continues.

Even if Westerns are not your genre, I would recommend The Searchers by Alan LeMay.  The first chapter alone in which Henry Edwards stands on his porch realizing that his family's luck has run out is a powerful and haunting dissertation about the dangers we get into when we live in denial.  And the remainder of this very well written book lives up to the first chapter as we learn about life on the plains, the lives of Cowboys, the lives of Indians and above all Martin Pauley who starts his search for Debbie when he is eighteen, grows to adulthood during his six year odyssey and ends up at the end a very admirable and interesting young man.  He is no two-dimensional cowboy and you will enjoy meeting him.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

One of the great things about keeping a book review blog is that it pushes you to read books that would otherwise have remained on your to do list.  Such a book is Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (published 1862).  I'm a big fan of Russian literature and so I wondered would Fathers and Sons be as good as I hoped?  The answer is yes.  It's very good and I would also add a wonderful introduction to the 19th century Russian novel.

Fathers and Sons is set in Russia's rural countryside and the year is 1859. Russia has recently lost the Crimean war.  Alexander II has suceeded his father as Emperor of Russia and has ushured in a new age of reform.  The question of the Russian serfs (who will be emancipated in 1861)  is on everyone's mind.  It is a time of  turmoil in Russia.  Things are in flux and this is particularly true in the divide between the older and younger generations.

And so when the novel begins, Nikolai Kirsanov, a landowner, is waiting for his son Arkady Kirsanov.  Arkady has been away at the University of St Petersburg, and he has brought home with him a medical student friend, Yergeny Bazarov.   Nikolai is thrilled to have his son home from college and is very welcoming to Bazarov. Arkady's uncle, Pavel Kirsanov, looks at Bazarov, his long hair and arrogant manner and takes an immediate dislike to the young doctor. Arkady announces to his father that he and Bazarov are nihilists.  They reject authority and question everything. Bazarov explains the disillusionment he and his fellow nihilists feel with society as follows:

"We saw that even the clever ones amongst us, the so-called leading figures in society and the social critics as they're called, were no bloody good and we were busy talking alot of nonsense, fussing about with this and that kind of art and unconscious creativity and parliamentarianism and a legal profession and devil knows what, when the real business of life was about one's daily bread, when the grossest superstition was stifling us, when all our joint-stock companies were collapsing simply because there weren't enough honest people, when even the liberation  of the serfs which the government's been so busy with, will scarcely do us any good because our peasants will be glad to steal from each other simply in order to drink themselves silly down the local pub". 

Fathers and Sons has a number of sub plots involving other characters but primarily this is Bazarov's story.  Bazarov is a fascinating character who has an effect on everyone he meets.  His friend Arkady idolizes him, Arkady's uncle despises him. Arkady's father is just trying to keep the peace.  The beautful young widow Anna Odintsova, who is every bit Bazarov's equal intellectually, is intrigued by him. Bazarov's parents feel their son walks on water and when Bazarov comes home troubled about something he asks for privacy and his father tells his wife:

"You and I, my old dear, wore out our Evgeny a wee bit on his first visit.  Now we've got to be more sensible." Arina Vlasevma agreed to what her husband said but gained little from it because she only saw her son at meal-times and finally became frightened to talk to him at all ... and then she'd go off to Vasily Ivanovich and ask him, leaning her cheek on her hand: 'How can I find out, my dear, what darling Enyushka'd likes for dinner, cabbage soup or borsch? 'Why haven't you asked him yourself?'  'But I'd bore him!'

What troubles Yevgeny Bazarov is that he has fallen in love with Anna Odintsova and he is not so much heartbroken that she does not feel the same (though she does care about him) as he is angry that he let his guard down.  As Bazarov told his friend Arkady earlier in the book:

"And what's all this about the mysterious relationships between a man and a woman? We physiologists know all about these relationships.  Just you study the anatomy of the eye - where's all this enigmatic look, as you call it, comes from?  It's all romanticism, nonsense, rubbish artiness". 

Bazarov returns home and decides to join his father, also a doctor, and take care of the patients in their rural community.  The father is thrilled and boasts to all his friends that his son knows all the new medical treatments.  But there is tragedy looming at the end of this novel which I won't recount here in order to preserve some suspense.

Fathers and Sons when it was published back in 1861 was controversial.  The older generation felt Turgenev was glorifying nihilism.  The younger generation felt that Turgenev had turned Bazarov into a caricature of a young radical.  But today Fathers and Sons is recognized as one of the great novels of world literature where it is often included in 100 best novels of all time lists.  I really enjoyed Fathers and Sons.  One of the best books I've read since starting my book blog back in 2015.  It's not a very long novel, 200 pages, and since translation is key I would advise reading the Oxford World Classics edition, translated wonderfully by Richard Freeborn.  You won't be disappointed.