Friday, August 28, 2015

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Alexandra Bergson, the protagonist of O Pioneers! is an intelligent and resilient young woman. Her father, who is dying as the book opens, recognizes these characteristics and informs her brothers that, while all the siblings will share the family's Nebraska farm upon his death, Alexandra will be in charge. Her brothers acquiesce although, when things go badly and many of their neighbors are leaving for jobs back in Chicago or St. Louis, they are unhappy with her plan to mortgage the farm to buy more land.

Flash forward sixteen years, and Alexandra has been proved right. Her brothers now have their own farms and all are doing well. Then her youngest brother Emil returns from college in Lincoln and Alexandra's childhood friend Carl passes through their town on his way to Alaska to look for gold. Romance abounds, but not entirely happily. Carl ends up staying longer than planned and Alexandra and Carl's relationship deepens, but her older brothers fear Carl is only interested in stealing their family's land. Emil meanwhile starts a flirtation with a married neighbor, Marie Shabata. Eventually, Emil leaves for a job in Mexico and Carl heads for Alaska, promising to come back when he is established enough not to look like a fortune-hunter. Alexandra spends a lonely winter alone on the farm.

The next spring, Emil comes back home and once again spends more time than is wise with Marie, whose husband Frank is a hothead. When the worst happens, Carl hastens back to comfort Alexandra.

When you summarize O Pioneers! like that, it sounds like a melodrama and, to some extent, it is. But Cather's amazing sense of place and her respect and empathy for the women who scratched out a living on the Great Plains at the turn of the 20th century elevate the book. As with My Antonia, I did not love this book but I think it is well worth reading.

Favorite passages:
Isn't it queer: 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 for thousands of years.

She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.

Freedom so often means that one is needed anywhere.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Elizabeth Is Missing, by Emma Healey

Elizabeth Is Missing is a terrifying book--not because it has to do with the disappearance of two women 70 years apart but because it is told from the perspective of an 80-ish woman named Maud, who is suffering from dementia that is gradually worsening. Maud is convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing--after all, she doesn't answer the door or pick up phone calls. But no one will listen to Maud because her grip on reality is becoming less and less reliable and her behavior more and more erratic. Her inability to figure out what has happened to Elizabeth becomes entwined in her mind with the disappearance of her sister Sukey in the 1940s, a mystery unsolved for 70 years.

At the beginning of the book, Maud is frustrated by both her faltering memory and the fact that no one takes her seriously. She tries to use such coping strategies as writing herself notes--but the notes are easily jumbled as well, with notes from weeks ago and just minutes ago stuck in the same pocket. As her mental condition deteriorates, she becomes terrified of what is happening and her frustration occasionally turns to rage.

While we do learn what happened to both Elizabeth and Sukey, it is what happens to Maud that really matters. Of course, it's impossible to say what it is like to be in the head of someone with dementia, but Healey's depiction seems all too real. For those of us old enough to be worrying about dementia, Elizabeth Is Missing may be too scary to contemplate. For someone dealing with a loved one with dementia, however, the book might be an excellent (and entertaining) way to gain some insight into what that might be like.

Favorite passage:

I forget things--I know that--but I'm not mad. Not yet. And I'm sick of being treated as if I am. I'm tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I'm bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen [her daughter] rather than listening to what I have to say.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness, by Sasha Martin

I LOVED Julie and Julia, which started me reading books based on cooking blogs. Sadly, as yet none have had the entertainment value of Julie Powell's very funny book. Life from Scratch is anything but funny. Although the author had a culinary goal not unlike Powell--she decided to cook and blog about food from a different country every week until she had made her way through all 195 countries on earth--her book is more similar to The Glass Castle than to Julie and Julia.

Sasha Martin had a very difficult childhood; she was let down by her parents, the social welfare system, and the surrogate parents with whom she went to live at the age of 10. One of her siblings died in tragic circumstances. She got into some trouble in her teenage years, but it is somewhat miraculous, given all she went through, that she pulled herself together, graduated from a top college, and built a meaningful life for herself--despite her ongoing struggle to find where she belongs in the world. It is perhaps helpful to others who have suffered through terrible years as children to read about another's struggle and eventual triumph. It is probably helpful for Martin to share her story and be heard. I'm sure I sound cold and heartless, but I feel like I have read this story too many times.

Sounding cold, heartless, and shallow, I did enjoy the book more when she began to write about her Global Table Adventure and her effort to use food as a way to create peace, within herself, her home, and beyond. The ways in which her research, cooking, eating, and sharing affected her are, for me, the most interesting part of the book. I doubt I will try any of her recipes, but I enjoyed reading about her preparation of them.

Favorite passage:

For dessert, we head to the kitchen to make koko Samoa--Samoan rice pudding. First, I steam the rice. In another pot, I plunk a few chocolate squares into coconut milk. As the two slump together, I zest in a heavy orange. The citrus oil mists my hand and glistens on the brown surface before my spoon folds it deeper into the pot. I draw a breath. Bitter zest might not sweeten the mix, but it does deliver a gust from the rambling orchard in which it once grew.

METAtropolis, edited by John Scalzi

METAtropolis is a collection of five speculative fiction novellas, each written by a different author (Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake, Karl Schroeder, and the editor John Scalzi) but taking a common vision of the evolution of cities as their focus. The first story ("In the Forests of the Night," by Jay Lake) is the weakest and almost prevented me from listening to the rest of the book. It features a charismatic man, Tyger Tyger, who enters Cascadiopolis (the cities of the Pacific Northwest) with the intention of taking over the city; at the same time, several other characters have plots of their own. Yet none of it really comes together.

The next two stories--"Stochasti-City" by Tobias Bickelle and "The Red in the Sky Is Our Blood" by Elizabeth Bear--are both set in Detroit and feature loner characters, a man in the former, a woman in the latter. Both characters are interesting and their eventual joining of groups that are working outside the established system to set up alternative societies allow the reader to consider ideas about how human interactions might occur in this dystopic world.

Editor Scalzi's story, "Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis" takes a different approach--looking at the options for a slacker living within the established system of New St. Louis. Benjy ends up working in a high rise pig farm--not the kind of job anyone grows up dreaming of. A friend who is living in the lawless suburbs tries to draw Benjy into a rebellion, and the results are entertaining.

The final story, "To Hie from Far Cilenia" by Karl Schroeder, imagines worlds within worlds--virtual realities where many people choose to live (or cannot figure out how to escape). A policeman is haunting the worlds searching for people who have stolen plutonium, accompanied by a woman who is looking for her son. The idea is interesting but perhaps a bit farther out than my limited imagination can go.

I would never have picked up METAtropolis if I hadn't had a $10 coupon on Audible (sometimes you have to go outside your comfort zone to find something for less than $10), but I thought the concept was intriguing and found several of the stories engaging and thought-provoking. They deal with a variety of issues, most notably environmental protection (in "Stochasti-City" a group is trying to turn Detroit into a car-free city), but also technology transfer, conflict between haves and have-nots, domestic violence, collective child-rearing, and alternative economic systems. Perusing the reviews on Amazon, I note that some reviewers find the liberal slant irritating; as a liberal, I found it wise!

Favorite passage:

Hope was not dead, but it lived in strange isolated colonies on the warm corpse of the United States.

Friday, August 21, 2015

One Hundred Names, by Cecelia Ahern

This book has an interesting premise: a respected magazine editor dies, leaving her protege, the recently disgraced Kitty Logan, her last story idea to complete. Unfortunately for Kitty, the idea is a list of 100 names with no explanation of how they are related. Unfortunately for the reader, Kitty is an unlikeable character, her redemption is unbelievable, and Ahern's "message" is mundane (everyone has a story worth hearing). Not recommended.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Hard Choices, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I decided to read Hard Choices in the hopes that it would make me like Hillary Clinton more than I previously did. Her account of her years as the Secretary of State certainly affirms her sharp intelligence, her command of a wide range of issues, and her unflagging energy (just reading about her schedule made me tired). It convinced me that she loves her daughter fiercely, truly believes in the ethic of public service, and is loyal--to her staff and, despite everything, to Bill. She also cares about many of the same issues I care about. These are all positive things.

I also inferred that she doesn't have much of a sense of humor (she occasionally tries to crack a joke, but I don't remember laughing at any point in the 500+ pages of the book). She's quicker to consider military intervention than I would like the President to be and has more of an exceptionalist view of the United States (though she doesn't use that term) than I expected. She has an annoying habit of quoting her own speeches and telling the reader how long she's been friends with this or that eminent person. Too often (and this may reflect my own ignorance more than anything about the author), I felt diplomacy as she described it was modestly disguised bullying.

Would I recommend the book? Only to foreign policy devotees. I think the average reader would find it pretty dull. Do I like her better? Welllllll, not really--though I don't like her any less either.

Favorite passage:
Our choices and how we handle them shape the people we become. For leaders and nations, they can mean the difference between war and peace, poverty and prosperity.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Light of the World: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Alexander

It's ironic that I, who have been unhusbanded for more than half of my adult life, seem to have a thing for widow's memoirs, this being the fifth I have read in the past few years. But Elizabeth Alexander is a different writer than Didion, Braestrup, Oates, and Jamison because she is a poet and her memoir, while mostly written in what appears to be prose, feels like an extended poem. The poetic language made me care little about the order in which she took on events and emotions surrounding the death of her husband Ficre, an Ethiopian-born artist and chef, shortly after his 50th birthday. Indeed, she plays with time from the very first chapter of her book, starting it "The story seems to begin . . ."; several other chapters in the book's first section start similarly, with "The story begins." The multiple starting points allow Alexander to weave together the stories of their mothers' coterminus pregnancies, their childhoods, their meeting, and their life with their two sons, leading up to Ficre's sudden death.

After his death, Alexander's story is not notably different from that of other women who have lost their life partners--deep grief, dislocation and confusion, and pain, so much pain. She often dreams of her husband and believes she sees him in their yard or house; she hopes he might return; but she knows he will not. The short chapters and powerful language make the reader feel not just the loss but the unmooring she experiences. Yet, joy flows through the book as well, memories of the joy she and Ficre shared, sustaining joy within the circle of her family and friends.

If you, too, are drawn to this type of memoir, whether husbanded or not, I recommend The Light of the World.

Favorite passages:
Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy, he [Frederick Douglass] famously wrote. Song raises and bubbles up as the only apt expression of this sorrow, the only possible bulwark against eclipsing grief.

What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? . . . I am not a black Baptist who will fall out in her grief and be lifted by the hands of her fellow parishioners. I am not an Eritrean woman who goes through the house keening, Ficre hawe, Ficre hawe, which means, Ficre, where are you? But I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.

How much space for remembering is there in a day? How much should there be? I think about this in my poetry. I don't want to be a nostalgist. Yet I feed on memory, need it to make poems, the art that is made of the stuff I have: my life and the world around me.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Native Son, by Richard Wright

I read Native Son in college and remember being blown away by Wright's work. Some years later, my son read it and was somewhat less impressed than I had been (as a literary scholar, he tends to approach literature from a different perspective than I). I recently reread the book and find myself landing somewhere between my earlier enthusiasm and my son's critical perspective.

For those who have not read Native Son (or have forgotten the details), it is the story of Bigger Thomas, a 19-year-old African American living on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. He, his mother, sister, and brother live in one rat-infested room. He spends his days hanging out with friends, drinking, masturbating in movie theaters, fighting, and plotting petty crimes. But a relief agency has arranged a job for him working for the wealthy white Dalton family that fancies itself a benefactor to black people.

He reluctantly goes to the job interview and is hired as a chauffeur. His very first night on the job, he is to drive Mary, the daughter of the family, to a lecture; instead, they pick up her Communist boyfriend Jan, who pressures Bigger to take them to a diner in his neighborhood and to eat at the table with him. Later, they share a bottle of rum with him and all three get somewhat drunk. Bigger finds their friendliness both frightening and infuriating. Upon returning to the family home, he has to help Mary to her room, where he sneaks a kiss from the essentially unconscious Mary. Then her mother (who is blind) enters her room, and Bigger panics, afraid Mary will say something to tell Mrs. Dalton that he is in the room. He puts a pillow over Mary's face to keep her quiet and the inevitable happens.

He disposes of Mary's body and tries to cast suspicion on Jan. Then he gets the idea to ask for ransom and involves his girlfriend in a ransom scheme. He makes a series of ridiculously bad decisions, and his crime is eventually uncovered. He is arrested and held for trial.

The last section of the book covers his time in jail and his trial; through conversations between Bigger and his Communist attorney Max (arranged by Jan) and through Jan's arguments, Wright presents his analysis of the problems of race and class in the United States, describing Bigger's crimes as his desperate attempt to have a meaningful life, a life denied him by the racism, hatred, and discrimination leveled against the working class generally and black Americans in particular. Max provides a stinging critique of white liberals and of America's tolerance for mob violence.

A young James Baldwin wrote disparagingly about Native Son, describing it as reinforcing stereotypes of African Americans, peopled with caricatures rather than characters, and a protest pamphlet masquerading as a novel. To some extent, I agree with these critiques upon my second reading of the novel. The characters are two-dimensional at best, Bigger is a character that few would want to represent their race (or species for that matter), and the last section of the book is essentially a polemic. And yet, I am reminded of my 20-year-old self, who found the book so insightful (okay, I was a bit of a naif, given that it was around 1970 when I read it) and can't help but hope that Native Son might continue to wake up young people to the injustice in our class system and race relations.

Favorite passages:

The white folks like for us to be religious, then they can do what they want to with us.

I beg you to recognize human life draped in a form and guise alien to ours, but springing from a soil plowed and sown by our own hands. I ask you to recognize laws and processes flowing from such a condition, understand them, seek to change them.

My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead

English-born, New York-based journalist Rebecca Mead read Middlemarch for the first time as a teenager. Since then, she has reread it approximately every five years--safe to say, it is an important book to her. As she entered mid-life, she decided to write a book about the book and her relationship to it. She researched George Eliot's life, reading her diaries and correspondence, visiting places she had lived, and studying what critics and biographers had to say about her life and work. The resulting book is a blend of biography, critical reading of Middlemarch, and memoir.

From the reviews I had read, I expected My Life in Middlemarch to be primarily memoir, but in fact Mead's own life intrudes only occasionally and never for long. I enjoyed learning more about Eliot's unconventional life and the events that, in Mead's view, shaped her fiction. Her analysis of Middlemarch was more affirming than challenging--I wasn't surprised by any particularly wise reading of the book, but I was prompted to think more about some of the ideas embedded in Eliot's work. And I do feel motivated to read some of her other works, which Mead also touches upon.

I read somewhere that Mead hoped her book would be interesting to people who haven't read Middlemarch. I find that somewhat unlikely, although perhaps if they had read other Eliot works, Mead might provide the motivation they need to tackle Middlemarch. Those who have read that tome will, I think, find My Life in Middlemarch a good read.

Favorite passage:
Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What is Novel Conversations reading?

Here's our slate of books for the upcoming months:

August--China Dolls, by Lisa See
September--Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
October--One Book One Broomfield selection
November--One Thousand White Women, by Jim Ferguson
December--sharing favorite books from childhood and/or best book of the year
January--The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

I find it hard to stop reading authors when I have "been with them" throughout their careers, even when their work has become tired/repetitive/etc. (I can do it, but it's a struggle.) Thus, I spent a good bit of yesterday reading this Jodi Picoult novel, which has many of the features of a standard Picoult novel: multiple narrators, a troubled family, and a current issue. The current issue in this case is the protection of elephants--from poachers in Africa and from zoos and circuses in the United States. The information about elephants is fascinating, especially the descriptions of their grieving, which happens to be the research focus of Alice Metcalf, the mother in the troubled family at the center of the story.

Alice disappeared 10 years ago, at the same time that another keeper at the family's private elephant refuge was killed; her husband has been in a mental hospital since. Their daughter Jenna, now 13, has decided to find her mother--or at least find out what happened to her. She enlists the help of a down-on-her-luck psychic and an alcoholic private investigator who had been a cop on her mother's case. The family story is fairly predictable until Picoult throws in a surprise near the end; normally, I like surprises, but because this one had to do with the woo-woo aspects of the story--in general, not my thing--I was quite unhappy. Once the secret was revealed, I could not help comparing the book to a popular movie of which it is quite derivative (I'm not naming the movie to avoid spoiling the book for others, although you might be able to guess--if so, sorry).

So did I like enough things about this book to say I'll read another Jodi Picoult? Perhaps--as long as it doesn't have a paranormal aspect!

Favorite passage:
In the wild we hear the pulsing, guttural musth rumbles of males--deep and low, puttering, what you might imagine if you drew a bow made of hormones against an instrument of anger.