Monday, February 20, 2012

O Pioneers!: Thoughts & Comments

I hope you've all enjoyed reading O Pioneers!, book two of the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge.

My Thoughts
O Pioneers! is the novel that sparked my love affair with Cather. I've read it a half dozen times, first in graduate school in my 20s and then for pleasure in my 30s. With each reading I was struck by different characters and scenes. One of the pleasures of re-reading a book is seeing how it can speak to us differently as we change over the years. Reading O Pioneers! now in my mid-40s made it seem like a brand new novel.

In the past I considered the novel a bit disjointed between the stories of Alexander/Carl and Marie/Emil, but with this reading the two stories seemed to smoothly mesh together. From the very first chapter Marie is presented as an object of desire and competition for the men around her. Alexandra is a tall and strong girl who exhibits "Amazonian fierceness," whereas Carl is presented as a lonely & sensitive young man. Emil sits crying hopeless over the kitty that he can't reach and Marie already wants to share her candy with him. It's all right there and then weaves throughout the rest of the novel.

Alexandra and Crazy Ivar remain my favorite characters. It still really pisses me off when Alexandra's thick-headed brothers try to bully her into not marrying Carl, saying that "she liked to run things, and we humored her." They forget that they were ready to walk away from the land and that they don't have an innovative or forward-thinking bone between them. This time around, however, the character who most captured my imagination is Frank Shabata.

In prior readings I had always despised Frank's egocentric anger, jealousy, and abusive behavior. He seemed like a big, miserable baby, another angry man who made life hell for those closest to him. This time I had much more understanding and compassion for him. Not that I condone his behavior, but he's a capital V, Victim. He's victim to his temperament and circumstances. Frank doesn't do anything to help himself, but keeps himself whipped up in a frenzy, stoking his frustration with stories from the newspaper and imaging Marie having feelings for his hired hands.

I felt more compassion for him now because I can see/admit that I've acted like a victim at points in my life and I've watched loved ones struggle as well. The tragedy of Frank's life is that there’s no one in his life to tell him to knock it off already, to pull up his big boy pants and get on with life. Nor does he have the emotional intelligence to try to understand himself and make some changes in his life: “It had never more than dimly occurred to Frank that he made his own unhappiness.”

Is temperament changeable? Cather implies it is not:
“Frank’s case was all the more painful because he had no one in particular to fix his jealousy upon. . . . At the bottom of his heart Frank knew well enough that if he could once give up his grudge, his wife would come back to him. But he could never in the world do that. The grudge was fundamental. Perhaps he could not have given it up if he had tried" (italics added).
If his condition is fundamental, that means he couldn't have changed it, but perhaps he could have worked to soften the hard edges? Carl seems to be Frank's opposite in this way--he works to sharpen his soft edges, to 'man-up' a bit more for Alexandra. Even if she insists Carl is fine just the way he is, he believes that since they will be living among her people, he wants to fit in as much as possible. Alexandra doesn't agree, but she knows it's what he has to do for himself.

The issue of place has much to do with temperament. As Marie says of her husband, "Frank would be alright in the right place." If Carl and Alexandra lived in a city, Carl would be alright, too. Cather seems to be saying that we need to find the right place and the right people for our temperaments, yet not to take this to the extreme because, "It's bad if all the member of a family think alike. They never get anywhere."

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie
Much is said about marriage in this novel. Scholars are fond of pointing out Cather's view, as espoused in this novel, that marriage is most satisfying when it's between friends as opposed to having its origins in the violent feelings of youthful passion. Alexandra says that most of her Swedish girls have “married men they were afraid of," which, in the context of the novel seems to be a cultural and economic issue as well. Frank and Marie were certainly not a good match. Marie knows that he was a poor choice of a husband, and provides the main reason why marrying young can be a problem: “Frank is just the same now as he was then, only then I would see him as I wanted him to be. I would have my own way. And now I pay for it." When we're younger most of us see what we want to see, but when we're older (and, if lucky, wiser) we see people for who they are, not for what we want them to be. When we can see people more clearly and if we understand ourselves, then we can make a more compatible match.

Would Emil and Marie make a good match? Their adulterous passion seems to be one of the most "natural" passions in the novel. Most readers want them to get together, forgetting at times that they're cheering for people to commit adultery. What's good, what's bad, who says? This is why I love Cather's novels--they seem so simple on the surface, but make a small scratch and soon you're digging into the depths of a complex world of ideas and images.

I never liked and still don't agree with Alexandra’s efforts to get Frank pardoned. After all, he did kill two people that she loved. She understands people's temperaments and obviously works with them, but in the end where does it get her? One of the saddest lines in the book is about Frank: "Perhaps he got more satisfaction out of feeling himself abused than he would have got out of being loved." Is Alexandra in the same situation with loneliness?

Questions to Ponder
  • Is Carl worthy of Alexandra's love? Does he show strength or weakness of character by not accepting her proposal and going off to make "the usual effort"?
  • Are Marie and Emil more responsible for their own deaths than is Frank?
  • Does the novel read smoothly to you or do the two main storylines not mesh well in your opinion?
  • Do you think that O Pioneers! is all that radically different than Alexander's Bridge? What are some similarities and differences between the two novels?
  • Do you think Alexandra and Carl will live happily ever after?

Share Your Thoughts!
Whether this was your first reading or your twentieth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on O Pioneers!

Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rare Cather Edition Triples in Price

What collectors are willing to pay for a rare edition says a lot not only about the condition of the book, but about an author's status. Looks like Cather's star is still on the rise. 
The rarest edition of Willa Cather's masterpiece Death Comes for the Archbishop, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927, number 40 of 50 specially-bound copies printed on Japan vellum and signed by Cather on the limitation page, brought a world record price for the title when it went to an advanced collection for a $16,250 final price realized.

"This is a beautiful copy of one of the rarest finds in the Cather canon," said Gannon, "and this price was at least three times as much as any edition of this same book had ever brought at auction." 
Quote taken from the article Inscribed copy of Hemingway's first book brings $68,000+ in Heritage Auctions' Rare Books Event

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Report for Murder by Val McDermid

US Cover
Val McDermid's Trick of the Dark was one of the last books I purchased in 2011. I haven't read it yet, but found myself wondering what Val's earlier books were like. Is she one of those mystery writers that started with a bang and went down hill or has her writing grown richer and deeper? Based on her stellar reputation I'd say it's the later, but then look at Patricia Cornwell--she's still one of best-selling crime writers in the world, but lots of readers out there have given up on her Kay Scarpetta series.

I decided to see for myself and get my hands on McDermid's fist novel, Report for Murder, published in 1987 by The Women's Press in the UK. Thanks to my local library and an inter-library loan system that now covers practically all of Illinois, I got it. I read a US edition published in 1998 by Spinster Ink.

For a mystery that's 25 years old, I thought Report for Murder held up very well. I'm not a regular reader of traditional who-dun-its (I'm the sort that prefers to be hit over the head with a suspense thriller), but Report For Murder kept my interest. It's the first book in what became the Lindsay Gordon series. Lindsay is a "self-proclaimed cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist." What's not to love?

Lindsay is a freelance journalist in need of money and takes a job covering a weekend fundraiser for her old friend's all-girls school that's trying to save its playing fields from development. The friend, Paddy, had a rather affluent upbringing, and teaches at the school. Lindsay is not thrilled about having to spend the weekend at an affluent school for girls, but things start to look a bit brighter when Paddy's friend and fellow alum, Cordelia, a novelist, arrives. There's an immediate attraction between Lindsay and Cordelia. From the get-go Lindsay finds that tensions are running high at the school.

UK original cover
As the alumna begin their decent Lindsay finds that all are not that chummy. Lorna Smith-Couper, now a renowned cellist, is, to put it bluntly, a bitch. She's found murdered minutes before she is to perform a benefit concert. Head mistress Pamela Overton assigns Lindsay the task of being the school's press rep while the police investigate. Paddy is arrested and those at the school think the police are just trying to make a quick wrap-up of the case. The head mistress then asks Cordelia if she and Lindsay will investigate: "With Miss Gordon's talent for investigative journalism and your novelist's understanding of human psychology, you might be able to ensure there is no miscarriage of justice" (88).

Class issues add extra challenges to the investigation. There's only one extended class/economic discussion and that comes early in the book, to introduce the reader to Lindsay's way of thinking. Paddy is lamenting how the school, Derbyshire House, could lose its playing grounds (sports fields) if the money isn't raised. Lindsay counters her friend's concern by saying, "It seems somewhat unreal to be worrying about playing fields when a lot of state schools can't even afford enough books to go round." Paddy ramps up the stakes by talking about the school possibly closing and says that if that happens people will loose job and the girls from broken homes will loose the only stable thing in their lives.

Lindsay then rips into her, saying--
What about all the kids in exactly the same boat who don't have the benefit of Mummies and Daddies with enough cash to use Derbyshire House as a social services department? Maybe their lives would be a little bit better if the middle classes had to opt back into real life and use their influence to improve things. I can't be anything but totally opposed to this system you cheerfully shore up. And don't give me those spurious arguments about equal opportunities. In the context of this society, what you're talking about isn't an extension of equality; it's an extension of inequality. Don't try to quiet my conscience like that" (10).

As a socialist, Lindsay is hyper-aware of money and class issues. Other instances of her beliefs coming to the fore are not as lengthy, so if you don't like much of that in your novel reading there are no worries. Her beliefs and political leanings help her see suspects a bit more clearly, or perhaps just differently, than others and they also cause her to have some suspicions, specifically of Cordelia. Money issues cause at least one blow up between the new lovers.

Homophobia is another issue that adds challenges to the investigation. One teacher they question was Lorna Smith-Couper's lover in the past, but as someone who came of age probably in the 50s and 60s, the woman is deeply in the closest. She says,
I had never acted on my desires in any way before Lorna--it was a different world when I was young. It wouldn't have been possible to have fulfilled my dreams and still have done the things I wanted to in my career. It would have set me too far apart, and I'd never have got a teaching job. I was never attracted to the idea of living a secret life, I never had that kind of nerve (118).
Unfortunately, twenty-five years later, this conflict is still reality for many gays and lesbians, to varying degrees and depending upon their profession.

Money and passion are often the cause of murder and Lindsay has a good nose for sniffing out both.

Here's the Lindsay Gordon series in chronological order:
  • Report for Murder (1987)
  • Common Murder (1989)
  • Final Edition (1991) US Titles: Open and Shut, Deadline for Murder
  • Union Jack (1993), US Title: Conferences are Murder
  • Booked for Murder (1996)
  • Hostage to Murder (2003)
Having zero experience with private girls schools, it was fun to get a little peek into that world and into Gordon's life as a freelance reporter. I'll definitely put book #2 on my TBR list. One last comment is that I was struck by the amount of alcohol consumed throughout the weekend. Did people did drink more in the 80s or does it just seem that way? Granted, those were my wild days back then.

And back to my opening question: Val McDermid was obviously good from the get-go and hasn't lost a thing. From reading some of her more recent novels, I'd say she's grown into a deeper and more nuanced writer.

Author: Val McDermid
Publisher: The Woman's Press, 1987
Recommend to: people who like traditional mysteries (rather than thrillers), LGBT characters, social/economic issues.
Source: library copy

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

This year I'm challenging myself to read more broadly--different genres, different formats, authors from more countries, etc. A classic western fit the bill. I chose Riders of the Purple Sage because Zane Grey was my paternal grandfather's favorite writer. My Dad mentioned that to me about twenty years ago when we were browsing in a used bookstore. My grandfather passed away before I was born and I thought that reading a book he loved would give me a little connection to him.

I didn't know anything about this novel before picking it up other than that it was the western that established many of the tropes used in subsequent western novels and movies. I didn't want to know too much about it, but preferred to come to it with as much of a clean slate as possible. Not that I'm going to give away any plot spoilers, but if you also want to open the book with few preconceived notions, stop reading this post now.

One of the biggest surprises about the book for me is that Mormon men are the bad guys, specifically the Mormon elders. As a history buff, I know about the formation of the LDS Church and the popular and legal attitudes toward Mormons over the years. I lived in Nevada and met a lot of Mormon women there and heard their stories of growing up LDS (which really confused me at first because LDS when I was a kid in school stood for Learning Disabled Student). I just didn't expect a popular novel from 1912 to revolve around abusive, power-hungry Mormon men, but it actually makes perfect sense when you stop and think about how the polygamy issue was so hotly contested in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Six Riders of the Purple Sage by Edward Borein
Anyway, back to the book: Mormon elders are the bad guys. Mormon women are long suffering and the spirited ones are eventually "broken." Good men are the ones who treat animals, women, and children with kindness and respect. There are some beautiful scenes, some hokey scenes, and lots of problems that could have been avoided had people spoken up sooner, but, overall, I think it's an entertaining adventure story that explores the abuse of power within religion. However, I don't know if many modern readers would have the patience to read it through unless they're interested in western literature.

Here's the gist of the story: Jane Withersteen is a 28-year-old single Mormon women. She inherited her father's huge cattle spread which, most importantly, contains the water source for the local community. She refuses to marry Elder Tull, even though Bishop Dyer orders her to. Bishop Dyer was Jane's father's good friend and he's like a second father to her. Jane even has the gall to befriend Gentiles (non-Mormon folk) and offers financial and moral support to those in need. And all the Gentiles in town are in need. Only the Mormons prosper. It's a huge thorn in the sides of the Elders that Jane refuses to fall under their yoke. Things escalate.

In the opening scene, Bern Venters, Jane's young Gentile friend and her best rider, is about to be whipped by Elder Thull. In rides Lassiter, the lean, tall rider who wears all black and packs big six irons on each hip. His name alone throws terror into the hearts of Thull and his henchmen. They take off and it turns out Lassiter showed up because he's searching for the grave of Milly Erne, which happens to be on Jane's land.

Lassiter is known as a Mormon killer and Jane sets out to insure he doesn't kill anymore Mormons. He maybe a man-killer, but he's gentle with children and rides a blind horse. The horse was cruelly and intentionally blinded by Mormon men. Later you find out what Mormon men did to Lassiter's sister. Like Venters, Lassister doesn't sleep under a roof, but out in the open sage. The two men quickly be-friend one another. Lassiter is from Texas. He's 38. Venters is from Illinois and probably in his early 20s. They've got Jane's back.

An idea of the landscape in southwest Utah
Venters takes off with his two trusty dogs to track the big herd of Jane's that has recently been rustled away, presumably by local bad guy Oldring and his gang. Turns out the Mormon Elders have enlisted Oldring in their plan to slowly break Jane's will by steadily stripping away her human support and financial resources. Jane doesn't see it at first, but eventually it becomes so blatant that she can no longer deny it. Venters has a big surprise when he finds out the identity of Oldring's famous masked rider. But he doesn't find out everything right away.

Here the story splits off into two story-lines: Venters and the Oldring's masked rider in one and Jane and Lassiter in the other. The stories run parallel and intertwine here and there. It's actually a pretty complicated plot in some ways, more complicated than the Edge western series that I loved & devoured in high school, anyway.

There's killing, stampedes, kidnapping of women and little girls, and some intense horse chases. One of my favorite scenes is the description of a thunderstorm rolling through a canon. The action takes place in southwest Utah in 1871. The number of men carrying guns and their inclination towards violence is attributed to men heading west after the Civil War.

Riders of the Purple Sage was published in 1912. It was Grey's most popular novel and a sequel, The Rainbow Trail, was published in 1915. Six movie versions have been made over the years, in 1918, 1925, 1931, 1941, and 1996. It might be fun to watch them in chronological order--especially to see how the representation of women and Mormons changes over time (if it does).

Author: Zane Grey
Publisher: Harper, 1912
Free ebook available from Project Gutenberg here.
My Goodreads rating: 4/5
Recommend to: people who want to try a western or those who already love them...although I suspect those who love westerns have already read this one!
Source: library copy

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

O Pioneers! Book #2 of the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge 2012

Alexandra, from the first edition [source]
To read all 12 of Willa Cather's novels in chronological order, one each month, throughout 2012. For full details about the challenge click here.

Our second novel of the challenge is O Pioneers!  Read it sometime over the next three weeks and we'll start our conversation about it on Monday, February 20th.

About O Pioneers!
  • Cather started writing elements of the novel in 1911 and finished it in December 1912.
  • It was published on June 28, 1913 to both critical acclaim and popular success.
  • The novel is dedicated to the writer Sarah Orne Jewett whom Cather befriended in February 1908. Jewett died in June 1909, but their friendship had a big impact on Cather as a writer. Jewett had told Cather that it is the things "which haunt the mind for years" that are the proper material for serious literature. "Write the truth," she instructed, "and let them take it or leave it."
  • The title was inspired by Walt Whitman's 1865 poem "Pioneers! O Pioneers!"
  • The epigraph is taken from Adam Mickiewicz's epic poem "Pan Tadeusz."
 Here's a description of the novel from the Vintage Classic Paperback edition:
O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather's first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier-and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather's heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra's devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels, O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

  • O Pioneers! is almost always stocked in general bookstores and most libraries have it in their collections.
  • A free, annotated copy is available to read online via the Cather Archive here.
  • You can download a free digital edition from Project Gutenberg here.
  • Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here.

First edition
Many consider O Pioneers! to be Cather's masterpiece. Scholars have shown that it was based on two short stories. One was a story titled "Alexandra," which Cather started writing in 1911 and the other was "The White Mulberry Tree," which she started in August of 1912. Cather was inspired to write "The White Mulberry Tree" in the summer of 1912 after a visit to Arizona and New Mexico, and while spending the month of June in her home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska where she watched the wheat harvest for the first time in years. Later, while writing "The White Mulberry Tree" Cather was struck with the idea that this new story belonged with her earlier story "Alexandra." She described the experience as a "sudden inner explosion and enlightenment." What do you think of these two stories? Do you think they mesh well together? Do they together enhance other themes in the novel?

I'll post my thoughts on reading O Pioneers! in a new post by noon on Monday, February 20. At that time the conversation will begin--simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone's thoughts in once place. Please hold off on sharing your thoughts about O Pioneers! until the 20th so everyone has the time to read it.

Happy Reading!
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