Category: Read Across America

One of Ours by Willa Cather (The Nebraska sections)

One of Ours by Willa Cather (The Nebraska sections)One of Ours (the Nebraska section) by Willa Cather
on 1923
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 371
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

Willa Cather's 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative of the making of a young American soldier

Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.

In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a young Nebraskan whose yearnings impel him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic.

I love Willa Cather – I was born in Nebraska, and her books really resonate with me.

I don’t think that One of Ours will end up a Cather favorite, but I am really enjoying it. I’ve read a fair amount of reviews that say that the section set in Nebraska that describes the experience of an American farmer viewing the war from a distance is the best part of the book, and so far, I would certainly agree that it is outstanding. She describes the early 20th century farm experience masterfully, and, as reader, I really admired the way that she brought the news of the war into the story as something that emotionally impacted the characters without affecting them in any substantive way.

Claude Wheeler, the main character, is based on her cousin, G.P. Cather, who died in 1918 in Cantigny France. This is a 1916 photograph of a group of young Nebraskan men who fought. Cather is the young man behind the sign that says 1916.

nebraska 1916

One afternoon in the first week of September Mrs. Wheeler was in the kitchen making cucumber pickles, when she heard Claude’s car coming back from Frankfort. In a moment he entered, letting the screen door slam behind him, and threw a bundle of mail on the table. “What do you, think, Mother? The French have moved the seat of government to Bordeaux!

I really love the juxtaposition here of Mrs. Wheeler making cucumber pickles with the news about the war. It is so remote, and homely, and illustrates how life goes on, even in wartime, in the places that are distant from the war. All during WWI, women must have made pickles, which seems sort of crazy from where I sit, looking backwards, like the entire world should have stopped for that four years, and just watched, holding their breath, what was happening in France and the other war fronts.

Claude joins the military in order to escape from Nebraska, and from a terribly failed marriage. He is a young man who spends most of the beginning sections of the book in the midst of a great existential crisis. He doesn’t fit in with the people around him. He has doubts about Christianity, he is an intellectual who doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to participate in intellectual life or debate. Briefly, while he is in college in Lincoln, he begins to blossom into someone with greater self-confidence and becomes more comfortable with who he is and the doubts that he has.

Now he dismissed all Christian theology as something too full of evasions and sophistries to be reasoned about. The men who made it, he felt sure, were like the men who taught it. The noblest could be damned, according to their theory, while almost any mean-spirited parasite could be saved by faith.

Perhaps I identified with this aspect of Claude’s personality because THIS is the very struggle that I experience when I think about Christianity.

Returning home to the farm, Claude falls in love with Enid, a childhood friend and girl from a neighboring farm, and persuades her to marry him although she is deeply religious and wants to go to China as a missionary. In another time, Enid probably would not have married. In this time, she appears to have married him not because she loves him and wants to build a life with him but because he is her mission – she is to bring him back to God. It’s the worst sort of self-abnegation on her part because she is going to fail, and they are both going to be miserable.

In the depths of this lassitude the thought of Enid would start up like a sweet, burning pain, and he would drift out into the darkness upon sensations he could neither prevent nor control. So long as he could plough, pitch hay, or break his back in the wheatfield, he had been master; but now he was overtaken by himself. Enid was meant for him and she had come for him; he would never let her go. She should never know how much he longed for her. She would be slow to feel even a little of what he was feeling; he knew that. It would take a long while. But he would be infinitely patient, infinitely tender of her. It should be he who suffered, not she. Even in his dreams he never wakened her, but loved her while she was still and unconscious like a statue. He would shed love upon her until she warmed and changed without knowing why.

This section is beautiful and heart-breaking because we know that Claude is going to be disappointed, and that Enid isn’t going to be much of a participant in the marriage. Even her father knows that this decision is going to be bad, that the marriage will be a failure. “What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.”

Cather is at her best when she is writing about her characters, picking out tiny moments and events and thoughts and using the most emphermeal minutia to illuminate them, bathe them in light, as an artist adds light to a painting to highlight something she wants the viewer to see, to notice. Cather is respectful of her characters, even when they are foolish or self-centered or misguided.

When Claude joins the military, Cather writes:

He believed that he was going abroad with an expeditionary force that would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry.

According to wikipedia, Cather learned of G.P.’s death reading a newspaper in a hair salon. She said this about it:

From that on, he was in my mind. The too-personal-ness, the embarrassment of kinship, was gone. But he was in my mind so much that I couldn’t get through him to other things … some of me was buried with him in France, and some of him was left alive in me.

I haven’t gotten to the sections about WWI – those are coming, and it feels a bit like impending doom.

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane NickersonThe Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson
Published by Knopf on March 11, 2014
Genres: YA
Pages: 384
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
two-half-stars

Seventeen-year-old Violet Dancey has been left at home in Mississippi with a laudanum-addicted stepmother and love-crazed stepsister while her father fights in the war—a war that has already claimed her twin brother.

When she comes across a severely injured Union soldier lying in an abandoned lodge deep in the woods, things begin to change. Thomas is the enemy—one of the men who might have killed her own brother—and yet she's drawn to him. But Violet isn't Thomas's only visitor; someone has been tending to his wounds—keeping him alive—and it becomes chillingly clear that this care hasn't been out of compassion.

Against the dangers of war and ominous powers of voodoo, Violet must fight to protect her home and the people she loves.

From the author of Strands of Bronze and Gold comes a haunting love story and suspenseful thriller based on the ancient fairy tale of “Tam Lin.”

This is a retelling of Tam Lin, a Scottish ballad with which I was unfamiliar until I read this book. I am very familiar with the Grimm tales, but this one was new to me, and that might have prevented me from enjoying the book as much as I had hoped I would.

Information about Tam Lin (from Wikipedia):

Most variants begin with the warning that Tam Lin collects either a possession or the virginity of any maiden who passes through the forest of Carterhaugh. When a young girl, usually called Janet or Margaret, goes to Carterhaugh and plucks a double rose, Tam appears and asks why she has come without his leave and taken what is his. She states that she owns Carterhaugh, because her father has given it to her.

In most variants, Janet then goes home and discovers that she is pregnant; some variants pick up the story at this point. When taxed about her condition, she declares that her baby’s father is an elf whom she will not forsake. In some variants, she is informed of a herb that will induce abortion; in all the variants, when she returns to Carterhaugh and picks a plant, either the same roses as on her earlier visit or the herb, Tam reappears and challenges her action.

She asks him whether he was ever human, either after that reappearance, or in some variants, immediately after their first meeting resulted in her pregnancy. He reveals that he was a mortal man, who, after falling from his horse, was rescued and captured by the Queen of Fairies. Every seven years, the fairies give one of their people as a teind (tithe) to Hell and Tam fears he will become the tithe that night, which is Hallowe’en. He is to ride as part of a company of knights, and Janet will recognise him by the white horse upon which he rides and by other signs. He warns her that the fairies will attempt to make her drop him by turning him into all manner of beasts (seeProteus), but that he will do her no harm. When he is finally turned into a burning coal, she is to throw him into a well, whereupon he will reappear as a naked man and she must hide him. Janet does as she is asked and wins her knight. The Queen of Fairies is angry but acknowledges defeat.

I really wanted to love this book. It is well-written enough, and set in Civil War, Mississippi. It felt, though, like the author really couldn’t make up her mind between writing a straight YA historical fiction romance (like The Caged Graves, which I adored) and an eerie retelling of a fairy tale using the Civil War as a setting and device to tell the tale. This was a rather uneasy blend of both. Of the two, I much preferred the straight historical fiction aspects of the book. I didn’t feel that the VanZandts and the part of the book that was paranormal worked particularly well, and would have been happier without those parts of the story, actually.

mississippi

I haven’t read anything else by this author, although I do have Strands of Bronze and Gold in my kindle library. I liked her writing style, I enjoyed the characters and the dreamy, slightly otherworldly Mississippi setting, so I’m definitely going to give her another try. This book just didn’t quite work for me. I’m not sure if this is because I didn’t really get the Tam-Lin references, or if it was because she didn’t execute it very well.

The Mirk and Midnight Hour qualifies as Mississippi for my USA by the Book challenge.

two-half-stars

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars by E. LockhartWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Published by Delacorte Press on May 13, 2014
Genres: YA
Pages: 240
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
four-half-stars

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

This was one of my most anticipated releases of this spring, and it did not disappoint. It took me about 3 hours to devour it, spread over two days.

A brief note – the book is being really pushed as a must read of the summer with a major twist at the end. And it really does achieve this – I figured out the twist at about 60%, but mostly because I was looking for it.

Which leads me to a bit of a complaint. Being told that the book has a twist makes the reader suspicious, which, to some degree, detracts from the twistiness of the twist. If we know that things are probably not as they seem, as readers, do we hold ourselves back from suspending our disbelief because we’re waiting for the author to smack us for being gullible? I think I do. I loved this book. But I would have loved it more if I had been actually blindsided. When publishers market books in the way this one is marketed, or Gone Girl, I think it really does interfere with the reader experience.

we made it happen

I am only going to say a few more things about We Were Liars.

Set on a private island, among a vaguely Kennedy’esque family, the Sinclairs, We Were Liars has a dreamy quality to it. The four main characters, Cady (Cadence), Johnny, Mirren, and Gatwick, are the three eldest Sinclair children by the three daughters of the patriarch. Gatwick is the fourth wheel, unconnected by blood, the nephew of Ed, who is involved with, although not married to, Carrie, the mother of Johnny. These four spend summers together, rarely communicating when they are not on the island. Their relationships are both intimate and distant. The book is told in a first person narrative, by Cadence Sinclair.

wewereliars2

My family is, thankfully, nothing like the Sinclairs. They are wealthy, the three daughters are living off of their rapidly diminishing trust funds, and the family patriarch is gaining altogether too much enjoyment from making the girls perform for him like trained seals in an effort to gain the upperhand in the race to the inheritance. The family is, in a word, appalling. Shallow, materialistic, self-absorbed, entitled.

My mother and her sisters were dependent on Granddad and his money. They had the best educations, a thousand chances, a thousand connections, and still they’d ended up unable to support themselves. None of them did anything useful in the world. Nothing necessary. Nothing brave. They were still little girls, trying to get in good with Daddy. He was their bread and butter, their cream and honey, too.

wewereliars3

The young people are more appealing. Less corrupted. We have Mirren, who is “sugar, curiosity and rain.” Johnny, who is “bounce, effort and snark.” Gat was “contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee.”

And we have Cady, who is broken.

wewereliars1

There are people who will love the way this book was written, with gorgeous language and metaphors, carefully constructed, the underpinnings easily viewed from the end, like a piece of architecture that is designed with glass and beam, to enable people to see the elegance of the physics holding it up. There are people who will find it contrived and annoying, a gimmick in search of a story.

I am the former. I loved it.

As for the ending, I’ll never tell. Read it for yourself.

*****

All images borrowed courtesy of E. Lockhart’s tumblr, which can be found here

*****

This book qualifies as Massachusetts for my USA by the book challenge.

four-half-stars

Read Across America: Arizona

Read Across America: ArizonaThe Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
on 1970
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 320
Goodreads
two-half-stars

When Lt. Joe Leaphorn of The Navajo Tribal Police discovers a corpse with a mouth full of sand at a crime scene seemingly without tracks or clues, he is ready to suspect a supernatural killer. Blood on the rocks...A body on the high mesa...Leaphorn must stalk the Wolf-Witch along a chilling trail between mysticism and murder.

This is the first in Hillerman’s long-running (as in 19 books & counting) series set in the four corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado & Utah.

Overall, I found the book a little bit disappointing. I’ve never read Hillerman before, although he’s been on my tbr for a long time. I’ve read a number of reviews of this book that seem to suggest that the series improved a few books in.

In any event, I’d definitely read another in this series, and I would even buy another, except I feel like the kindle books are overpriced, since they average $7.00 for books that have been out for decades. I’m guessing that the UBS would be the place to pick these up. Or, maybe at some point they’ll go on sale for $.99 or $1.99. I’d buy the whole caboodle at that price. Mostly because I have a problem.

What I liked about the book, though:

I really did enjoy the setting. Joe Leaphorn lives in Window Rock, Arizona, so named because of this rock formation:

window-rock03

This is high desert area, with an interesting Native American cultural history. Even though I felt that the mystery was weak, I liked the characters, and I liked the Native American influence, including the mysticism that Hillerman used to excellent effect.

So, even though I didn’t love this book, it was a great choice for Arizona in my 50 book summer project!

two-half-stars

Read Across America: California

Read Across America: CaliforniaCannery Row by John Steinbeck
Published by Penguin Classics on 1945
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 185
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads
five-stars

Published in 1945, Cannery Row focuses on the acceptance of life as it is: both the exuberance of community and the loneliness of the individual. Drawing on his memories of the real inhabitants of Monterey, California, including longtime friend Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck interweaves the stories of Doc, Dora, Mack and his boys, Lee Chong, and the other characters in this world where only the fittest survive, to create a novel that is at once one of his most humorous and poignant works. In her introduction, Susan Shillinglaw shows how the novel expresses, both in style and theme, much that is essentially Steinbeck: “scientific detachment, empathy toward the lonely and depressed…and, at the darkest level…the terror of isolation and nothingness.”

You can find more information about my Read Across America project here. This book is extremely difficult to review. I’m going to talk for a minute, then I’m going to post a couple of pictures, and then I’m going to add a few quotes.

Let me begin by saying that this book is almost entirely plot-less. It is a series of vignettes set on the hardscrabble California coast during the Great Depression. This is not the glittery California of Hollywood, or the botoxed and self-absorbed California of modern Orange County. This is Steinbeck’s California, which isn’t a whole lot different from Jack London’s California, although their existences barely overlapped on this green Earth.

Cannery Row was nostalgic when Steinbeck wrote it, and it remains oddly nostalgic today. Anyone who has studied America during the Great Depression has a Steinbeckian sensitivity from reading The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men. In Cannery Row, Steinbeck demonstrates this same ability to evoke time and place and he writes characters that are so convincing they feel like memoir or history on the page.

The main characters of Cannery Row are Lee Chong, the owner of the general store, who extends credit to his customers because they will eventually repay him rather than make the long trip over to his competitor’s store in Monterey, and Mack, the layabout leader of the other layabouts who have taken over the building they call “Palace Flophouse” and Doc, the marine biologist who studies and collects sea creatures from up and down the California coast, which he provides to universities and museums around the U.S.*

Doc is based upon a real person, and friend of Steinbeck’s, Ed Ricketts, to whom he dedicated Cannery Row.

“Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and turn it into wisdom. His mind had no horizon – and his sympathy had no warp. He could talk to children, telling them very profound things so that they understood. He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, ‘I really must do something nice for Doc.”

Mack tries to do something nice for Doc, by throwing him a party, which goes badly awry. In an effort to make amends, he plans to throw another, hopefully more successful, party. That is really the extent of the story.

So, a couple of pictures of the “real” Cannery Row.

j12EH-735A

canneries-1

One of my favorite parts of Cannery Row were Steinbeck’s descriptions of the California coast. He begins the book with these words:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”

and describes the receding of the tide:

“The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.”

I read this book to represent California in my Read Across America project. It was a fantastic selection – it represents a California that no longer exists, but that everyone remembers. Highly recommended.
_________
*By the way, I have not yet written up a review for The Girl of the Limberlost, which I also read in April, but I found it interesting that both Cannery Row and Limberlost feature main characters who make their livings collecting flora and fauna (sea creatures in Doc’s case, and moths from Limberlost swamp in Elnora’s case).

five-stars

Holiday sale book buys!

It almost seems that amazon has secretly read my 100 books of the 20th century list! On cyber-Monday, I was able to pick up:

Armageddon, by Leon Uris
The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
North and South, by John Jakes

All for $2.02 a book! Four books for $8.08, which is less than a grocery store paperback.

And then, just yesterday, Lucky Jim, by Kinglsey Amis, went on sale for $2.02.

I also picked up the four Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane books by Dorothy Sayers for a mere $2.99 each: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and The Busman’s Honeymoon. All of Sayer’s books were on sale for $2.99. I wish I’d had enough money laying around to get them all, since Peter Wimsey and Dorothy Sayers are totally awesome.

This time of year, keeping track of the books that Amazon is putting on sale is a little bit of effort that generally pays off pretty big in inexpensive, well-written, traditionally published fiction.

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