Monday, December 31, 2012

American Revolution: Sign-up Post for War Through the Generations 2013

This is the second year I'll be joining War Through The Generation's reading challenge. The focus of 2013 is The American Revolutionary War. I'm signing up at the Dip Level: "Read 1-3 books in any genre with the American Revolution as a primary or secondary theme."

I haven't read much about the American Revolution, but reading Ron Chernow's biography of Washington got me a bit more curious about it, particularly about what it was like to live through it (rather than the causes, strategies, etc.).

The only book I already know I'll read for the challenge is Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier: The Narrative of Joseph Plumb Martin (1830).  I picked it up a few years ago because I thought it would be interesting to read an account of what the war was like through the eyes of a foot soldier.

If you're like me and haven't read much about the American Revolution, here's a list of recommended reading and then here's a link to the sign-up page.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Wrap-up Post for The Australian Woman Writers Challenge 2012

It was really great to participate in the inaugural year of the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2012!

I had signed up at the Stella (read 3 books and review at least two) and Dabbler (read more than one genre) levels. I read and reviewed three novels during the year. All were historical fiction and one was a young adult novel.

Here are the novels that I read & why I chose them:
  1. All That I Am (2012) by Anna Funder (review here). This was one of my favorite novels read in 2012 and among the top three books overall. It's coming out in paperback in 2013 and I hope it finds a wide readership. I chose the book because of the Germany-Australia connection. My Mom's side of the family is originally from Dresden and after the war some of the family stayed put, some made it to West Germany, and one branch went to Australia. We reconnected with our Australian relatives about 12 years ago. They've visited here (the U.S) a few times and we've met for a family reunion in Germany, but I've yet to make it to Australia. I'm saving my pennies for a trip, but, in the mean time, if anyone wants to send an American blogger on an all expense paid assignment to cover bookish things in Australia, I'm game!
  2. The Thorn Birds (1977) by Colleen McCullough (review here). After having lived through the craze over this novel and the mini-series in my childhood, it was exciting to finally read it. I can't imagine not having read this one for AAW2012.
  3. A Rose for the ANZAC Boys (2008) by Jackie French (review here). I read this one to go along with the World War I reading challenge that I also participated in this year. Although I've read a decent bit of fiction and non-fiction about World War I, it has always been about the American, German or English experience. I was intrigued to read one from an Australian/New Zealand perspective. I learned not only about the ANZAC soldier's experience through this novel, but also much about the experience of women who volunteered. This is a young adult novel, but I think it's a fantastic read for adults as well.
Overall, this challenge has whetted my appetite to read more books by Australian women writers, so I plan on participating again in 2013. By the time I do make it to Australia, perhaps I won't seem completely wet behind the ears to the locals.

Sign-up Post for Australian Women Writers 2013

For 2013 I plan on keeping this challenge light and manageable because I'd like to keep on doing it through the years.

The challenge levels have changed a bit for 2013 and there's now an option to read and not review.

I'll be taking on the Stella level – read 4 – review at least 3.

While I'm not committing to any particular books for the challenge, I do want to read Anna Funder's Stasiland and the following novels are strong contenders as I already own them:
  • People of the Book and March by Geraldine Brooks
  • The Distant Hours and The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
  • Thicker Than Water by Lindy Cameron
Check out the Australian Women Writers Challenge website here and why not sign yourself up for 2013?

Wrap Up Post, War Through The Generations WWI Challenge

Each year Anna and Serena of War Through The Generations host a reading challenged focused on a particular war. In 2012 the focus was World War I, which has been of great interest to me over the last few years. I had signed up at the Wade Level, which was to read 4-10 books. I ended up reading 4.

Although I technically completed this reading challenge, I feel like I failed it in spirit. I'd wanted to read closer to ten books rather than four. I had visions of finally reading Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and then during the year I won Charles Todd's Bess Crawford series from Criminal Element which I thought was a no-brainer of a sign that I was meant to read this series for the challenge, but, alas, I didn't read a book from either author during 2012.

But the four WWI books I did read were all excellent. They are:
  1. One Man's Initiation (1920) by John Dos Passos (review)
  2. One of Ours by Willa Cather (1922) (here and here)
  3. A Rose for the ANZAC Boys (2008) by Jackie French (review)
  4. The Absolutist by John Boyne (2011) (review)
To see a complete list of books read by all the participants of this challenge, click here.

The American Revolutionary War is the theme for 2013. Click here for information and to sign up!

    A Rose for the ANZAC Boys by Jackie French

    This is one of those books that probably wouldn't have crossed my path had I not participated in a reading challenge. Two challenges, actually: the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 and the World War I reading challenge hosted by War Through the Generations. I needed--and of course wanted---to read one more book for each category so looked around for a WWI themed book written by an Australian women writer. What what an unexpectedly brilliant read this was.

    ANZAC is an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

    A Rose for the ANZAC Boys is the story of Midge Macpherson, a teen from New Zealand stuck in a finishing school for young ladies in England during World War I. Her parents are both dead and her old brother has gone off to fight in the war. Her twin brother lied about his age to get accepted into the army. Midge feels like a useless burden that's been sent off to be out of the way. She and her group of friends are chomping at the bit to help the war effort in a more direct, hands-on way. Using family resources and donations, they set up a canteen for injured soldiers in France. They work grueling hours with rarely a day off. Growing up on a huge sheep farm in New Zealand, Midge knows how to drive and for a while serves as an ambulance driver when one of the driver's hands become so infected that she needs treatment. When that driver is ready to return, Midge then works as an aid in a field hospital where her aunt, a VAD nurse, is stationed. Midge sees the worst of what war does to men's bodies and minds.

    There is a love story component but it--refreshingly--takes a back seat to Midge's work and person-hood. So often, at least in American YA novels (and I'm no expert), it seems like the romance gets the biggest focus and often at the expense of the girl's self-identity (i.e., she has none without a boyfriend). Midge is not a caricature of a ball-buster, but she is someone who has a strong sense of self and takes charge of her own life, even in the end when she does come upon love.

    Jackie French obviously did meticulous research for this novel and yet the story does not get bogged down with details. The research is smoothly incorporated into the storyline such as when that ambulance driver's hands become so infected that she can no longer work and leaves for treatment. She later returns to her duty with hands that are healing but that will be permanently scarred. There are some chapters of factual notes at the end of the novel that explain in general terms the extent of the work women did during the Great War and that also expands on such details as infected and scarred hands. French writes, "Most women suffered severe infections, especially to their hands, from the suppurating wounds they tended, and in later years would recognize a fellow war volunteer by the scars on their hands, red and shiny and so thick it was difficult to sew or knit or even hold a teacup without dropping it."

    If that quote made you queasy, you should note that the novel is also brutally realistic with horrific scenes from the trenches and at the treatment facilities. French doesn't shy away from the horrors of war and the horrors specific to WWI, but she doesn't linger on them either.

    This novel and French's factual notes are a tribute to the thousands if not millions of women who volunteered for service during WWI. French also includes details about the men of Australian and New Zealand who fought, such as how they were often considered cannon fodder by their British officers. I didn't know that, per capita, Australia and New Zealand suffered the highest casualty and death rates of any country involved in WWI.

    I think it's important to read about past wars in part to understand not only what people endured, but why (usually never a good enough reason) and to help understand the present, as well. The best fiction and non-fiction does this, but as French writes,"War is perhaps humanity's craziest invention. But it is also in war--in any adversity--that humans sometimes show their greatest courage, loyalty and love. It is important, I think, to understand the difference between glorifying war and celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit amid the battles."

    French does as good a job as possible in not glorifying the war and seems to try more on celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit. She shows that there are many different sorts of battles that people may endure.

    I highly recommend this historical novel to young adults as well as adults. Have you read this or other novels by Jackie French? Her historical novel Hitler's Daughter looks really good, too.

    A Rose for the ANZAC Boys
    By Jackie French
    First published in 2008 by Angus & Robertson Publishers
    Edition I read: ebook by HarperCollinsPublishers Australia, 2010

    Saturday, December 29, 2012

    Audiobook: DRIFT by Rachel Maddow

    I've been impressed by (and envious of) the number of audiobooks that Cass at Bonjour, Cass! listens to each month. Her most recent list of books motivated me to get back on the audiobook wagon that I'd fallen off a couple years ago after my commute time went down to a mere 10-15 minutes.

    However, I recently started a new job at a library that's about 30 minutes from my house and--how's this for synchronicity--one of my duties is to process new audiobooks. Perfect! Now I'll have a decent commute time during which to listen to put a dent into an audiobooks and I'll also be up on new titles coming in.

    The first book I listened to was Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. Drift has been on my radar since it came out and I recently started listening to the podcast of Maddow's show, so I figured it would be a good choice with which to start my new audiobook habit.
    From the publisher: "One of my favorite ideas is, never to keep an unnecessary soldier," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1792. Neither Jefferson nor the other Found­ers could ever have envisioned the modern national security state, with its tens of thousands of "privateers"; its bloated Department of Homeland Security; its rust­ing nuclear weapons, ill-maintained and difficult to dismantle; and its strange fascination with an unproven counterinsurgency doctrine. Written with bracing wit and intelligence, Rachel Maddow's Drift argues that we've drifted away from America's original ideals and become a nation weirdly at peace with perpetual war, with all the financial and human costs that entails. To understand how we've arrived at such a dangerous place, Maddow takes us from the Vietnam War to today's war in Afghanistan, along the way exploring the disturbing rise of executive authority, the gradual outsourcing of our war-making capabilities to private companies, the plummeting percentage of American families whose children fight our constant wars for us, and even the changing fortunes of G.I. Joe. She offers up a fresh, unsparing appraisal of Reagan's radical presidency. Ultimately, she shows us just how much we stand to lose by allowing the priorities of the national security state to overpower our political discourse. Sensible yet provocative, dead serious yet seri­ously funny, Drift will reinvigorate a "loud and jangly" political debate about how, when, and where to apply America's strength and power--and who gets to make those decisions.
    From past experience I know it's not always a good thing when authors read their own work, but as anyone whose ever watched Maddow's show knows, the woman does not mince words. She speaks quickly, but clearly and has great inflection. And, of course, she's intelligent and entertaining which makes this a pleasure to listen to. Did you know she has a Ph.D. in politics from Oxford?

    And what she has to say in Drift is great as well. Scary, but great. I was especially worried by the sections covering our aging nuclear weapon program--how lackadaisical the attitudes of some of those who guard, maintain, and transport these weapons have become, as well has how much money is still sunk into the program. And would you believe that back when these weapons were developed no one wrote down instructions on how to create some of the components and our current engineers and scientists can't replicate some of the technology? Doesn't that blow your mind? We don't even know how these weapons will age: its still a big chemistry experiment.

    But the main idea of the book is how the powers of war making have gradually been shifted from the congress to the president and lack of accountability this has created. The Founding Fathers intended for it to be hard to wage war and they certainly understood the risks inherent in allowing one man to have the power to initiate and execute his own war, but this is exactly what's happened. Instead of there being public debates and debates in congress, we now have an America public who generally feels no pain during war time and a congress that isn't doing its job. There's no real debate about the current or recent wars, a huge & secret anti-terrorist industry has sprouted, and oversight of private contractors is sketchy.

    Administrations from Johnson to Obama are covered, with the most time given to Regan and his military actions against communist states. It's amazing that he wasn't impeached. It's also surprising how much Clinton and Obama have contributed to the problems Maddow explores. The only president who gets a thumbs up for working with congress is George W.H. Bush.

    Maddow offers an outline of some solutions and one of them is to bring back the draft which would re-engage the American public and force the congress to debate war and military action as well as relieve the burden of the too small number of troops that have faced non-stop war for over 10 years. I agree with her on this. If a war is worth fighting it needs to be debated by the public and the congress. If there were a regular draft again, wars would not be so easily started nor (I think) would they last as long.

    In a nutshell, war has become too easy for the president to wage and the monetary cost has drained our country as well as caused us to neglect just about everything else we should be concerned about like our economy, infrastructure, and education to name a few of the biggies.

    In short, war needs to be hard. Hard to start, hard to maintain, but easy to stop. At this time, we've got it all backwards: easy to start, easy to maintain, but hard to stop. This is an important book and one I hope many Americans will read (or listen to) because this is stuff we should all be learning, thinking, and talking about.

    Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power
    By Rachel Maddow
    Read by the author
    Random House Audio, March 27, 2012
    Source: library copy

    Thursday, December 27, 2012

    2013 TBR Pile Challenge Sign Up Post

    Max Perkins: Editor of Genius
    As a former bookseller who regularly took advantage of the employee discount, I have a ton of books sitting on my shelves that were purchased with enthusiasm but left to languish after shinier books distracted me. I've decided that the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader is just what I need to help me get the ball rolling on some of these titles.

    The challenge details are straightforward: choose 12 books to read that have been on your shelves or TBR list for longer than a year. Here are my 12 that I'm committed to reading in 2013 and brief note about why I'm reading it:

    1. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (2005) by Megan Marshall.
    Why? I read and still own The Peabody Sisters of Salem (1950) by Louise Hall Sharp and was thrilled when Marshall's book came out because the Peabody sister's story was in need of update.
    2. The Root: The Marines in Beirut August 1982-February 1984 (1985) by Eric Hammel.
    Why? I signed-up to join the Marines on October 14, 1983 and nine days later the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon was bombed. I was watching TV when the news broke in with a special announcement and felt like I was punched in the gut. In that attack 299 people died, of which 220 were Marines. This incident changed the tone of my enlistment. I bought a copy of The Root when it first came out, but gave it away to a newly minted grunt as a welcome to the Corp gift. I picked up a used copy earlier this year because I've always wanted to learn more about the events leading up to and after the attack beyond the magazine articles I'd read.

    3. Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi (2009) by Neal Bascomb.
    Why? I've been curious about how Nazis were hunted down and brought to trial, but have never read about the efforts. I bought this book at a steep discount in the final days of Borders.

    4. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) by A. Scott Berg. READ! Click here for review.
    Why? I came across a 1979 mass market edition this book years ago in a thrift store and thought it would be interesting to read about an editor who helped shape the careers of so many "important" writers. And now that there's a movie in the works about Perkins that's based on this book, I'm dusting it off.

    5. My Life in France (2006) by Julia Child. READ! Click here for review.
    Why? I grew up watching Julia Child or, to be honest, at least pausing on her show as I flipped the knob on the TV...I must admit, I've never been a foodie, but I did love the movie Julie and Julia. I'm fascinated that Child was a late bloomer who found what she wanted to do with her life in middle age.

    6. Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde (2008) by Thomas Wright.
    Why? Why not? I bought this book from the bargain section at the Unabridged Bookstore earlier this year because it seemed to be a unique and fascinating way to look at someone's life.

    7. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend (2011) by Susan Orlean.
    Why? My Mom got me this book for Christmas last year. I loved Rin Tin Tin growing up and thought Lassie was rather lame in comparison. One of my uncles had a German Shepard that I was in awe of and so having that real-life dog probably made me prefer him over the Collie. Also, Willa Cather once met Rin Tin Tin on a train and mentioned going to see one of his movies in a letter to a friend, so there's that, too.

    8. The Swarm (2004) by Frank Schatzing.
    Why? Until recently every summer my family spent a week on the Outer Banks of NC and I usually tried to take along at least one book that took place in/around the world's oceans. (Note: the best place to read The Shadow Divers is on the beach...or perhaps in a boat.) I bought this one for that purpose, but then decided reading about something infecting the ocean probably wasn't a great idea unless I wanted to skip swimming and boogie-boarding, both of which I wasn't not willing to sacrifice, even for a good book.

    9. The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. READ! Click her for review.
    Why? Because my feminist and serious reader cards will be taken away if I don't read this book. Soon. I'm embarrassed to say I've yet to read anything by Atwood. Some people react with horror, some with disgust, when I reveal this dirty little secret of mine. I've loved reading interviews with Atwood, follow her on Twitter, and feel warm and fuzzy about her, so you'd think I'd have read her books, but, alas, this will be the first one. I did start reading it once but couldn't get into it. In the past I've probably lied about reading this one or at least nodded knowingly when its been mentioned. Please forgive me.

    10. The Last Dickens (2009) by Matthew Pearl.
    Why? I met Pearl when his first novel was just out and was charmed by the talk he gave at Printer's Row that year. I loved his first two novels (The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow) and can't believe I haven't read this one yet. I want to read his newer novel, The Technologists, but won't allow myself to read that one until I read this one. It's not that I don't like Dickens...I think at one point I actually thought I needed to read more Dickens before reading this novel. Silly reader's thoughts.

    11. The Watchmen (1987) by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.
    Why? Because I want to read more graphic novels and this is considered one of the best in the genre. I've had this copy on my shelves for years now, even took it on vacation once, but have yet to read it. 

    12. Fun Home (2006) by Alison Bechdel.
    Why? I adore Bechdel's comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. And I know I often say "I can't believe I haven't read X yet!", but in this case, I really can't believe I haven't read this one yet. 

    My two alternates are:
    1. Homecoming (2006) by Bernhard Schlink. Why? I love his novel The Reader and I wanted to explore more Schlink.
    2. The Night Train To Lisbon (2004) by Pascal Mercier. Bought this at the airport several years ago and just haven't gotten around to it. Friends tell me to get on it already.

    If you just read or skimmed this post, chances are that you, too, have at least 12 books waiting to be read. Why not join the fun? Visit Roof Beam Reader and sign-up!

    Sunday, December 23, 2012

    The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

    I did it! I finally read The Thorn Birds! Although I can't say this book has been on my TBR list for a long time, I've often wondered about this story for decades.

    When the book and TV mini-series were smash hits in the US I was about eleven or twelve. All I knew was that it was a love story between a priest and a women. I was raised Lutheran but the entire family beyond my Mom, sister, and me were Catholic, so I understood the appeal of the forbidden nature of the story, but as a tomboy I had zero interest in romance.

    The copy I read belongs to my Mom's friend Marge's sister Pat who inscribed the date "4/78" under her name on the inside page. I have no idea how the book came to be on my shelves. Pat and I now live in different parts of the country but I think it's high time I get Pat's book back to her. (Speaking of Pat, I distinctly remember it was her copy of Stephen King's The Stand that I read way back when.)

    Does The Thorn Birds need much of an introduction? In addition to being a story of forbidden love, it is also a sweeping chronicle of three generations of the Cleary family's trials and tribulations and the changes Australia went through from approximately 1915-1969. If you like historical sweeping family sagas you'll want to read it.

    As you can see in the picture to the right, I flagged a lot of passages. Some of the flagged passages have to do with Father Ralph's beauty and sexuality (or speculation about it). For example, in an early scene Mary Carson, the first matriarch of Drogheda, ponders, "Curious, how many priests were handsome as Adonis, had the sexual magnetism of Don Juan. Did they espouse celibacy as a refuge from the consequences?" (57). In another scene Ralph asks Mary Carson why she doesn't like Meggie, her young niece whose come to live at the station (ranch). His reply to her response dates the novel a bit: "Do you think I tamper with children? I am, after all, a priest!" (115). He says this without a trace of irony or sarcasm, which wouldn't pass muster if written today.

    Another topic I flagged was the mention of books and reading. The Cleary family are big readers and made a weekly trip to the library when they still lived in New Zealand. Reading is referred to or depicted throughout the novel although a bit less towards the end. One such passage I flagged was about Jims and Patsy at boarding school, "Sharing the family passion for reading didn't endear Riverview to them at all; a book could be carried in a saddlebag or a jacket pocket and read with far more pleasure in the noonday shade of a wilga than in a Jesuit classroom" (232). Young Meggie goes through hell at the hands of a vicious nun at her Catholic school in New Zealand at the beginning of the story, so Catholic education does not get a positive spin in this story. And I was surprised by the Jesuits being presented as down on reading. I went to a Jesuit University and encountered only a wide open love for seeking knowledge through books, but perhaps its the age of the kids that's a factor here. Or novels for pleasure. Or is it a national thing? Was Catholic education even more brutal in Australia and New Zealand than the stories I hear from friends and family that experienced it in the US?

    Read for AWW12
    And then I also flagged cultural things, stuff that seems like it must be based on a true story that the author picked up somewhere, like the girl whose father "locked her in the shearer's barracks for a week with a fly-blown carcass" to break her into marrying the man of his choosing (249). That sounds like it could come right out of a nineteenth century memoir set in Nebraska. Or details about how when the Cleary boys are building a new stock man's house they put a tin plate with the edges folded down at the top of each pile to keep termites from the house proper. The termites would eat the poles, but the house would be saved. It's easier to occasionally replace the piles on which the house rested than an entire home (263). I also liked historical tid-bits like how when the eldest son Frank wants to join the army to fight in WWI his father asks if he's not heard the Boer War chaps talking about their awful experience. Then after WW2, "the men who had actually been in the thick of battle never opened their mouths about it, refused to join the ex-soldiers' clubs and leagues, wanted nothing to do with institutions perpetuating the memory of war" (373).

    Some of the flags are for less flattering but presumably accurate representations of social attitudes towards minorites such as when a guy tells Jims and Patsy they look like "poofters" for lying against one another at their fighting post in North Africa during WW2, or how the Japanese are described as "Pint-sized yellow men who all seemed to wear glasses and have buck teeth" (385). As a sign of the changing times in the 1960s, lesbians are living openly in Sydney and mentioned in the space of one whole paragraph. In that short space they are portrayed as unstable, uncommitted partners, who pop pills and are suicidal drama queens. Justine's final pronouncement is that, "Men were bad enough, but at least they had the spice of intrinsic difference" (435). Later, when a friend asks Justine if Dane is a poof she says "the day he looks at Sweet William, our screaming juvenile, I'll cut his throat and Sweet William's, too" (454). Unless I missed something, Aborigines are mentioned only once and painted in an unflattering light: "Only the handful of half-caste aborigines who lived in Gilly's shanty section aped the cowboys of the American West, in high-heeled fancy boots and ten-gallon Stetsons. To a black-soil plainsman such gear was a useless affectation, a part of a different culture. A man couldn't walk through the scrub in high-heeled boots, and a man often had to walk through the scrub. And a ten-gallon Stetson was far too hot and heavy" (349). The implication is that the half-breeds don't work very hard and don't even dress the part appropriately.

    Read for The Classics Club
    I didn't particularly like Justine. In addition to her homophobia she's also described as having "dark white," "inhuman" eyes, no conscience, and didn't laugh as a young child, all of which sounds like she could morph into a serial killer. However, I did appreciate that she writes in a letter to Rainer that she thought Ralph was "too smarmy for words" (533). I nodded my head in agreement with her on that one.

    And speaking of Rainer, the frightened young German soldier Ralph finds praying in the Vatican in 1943, the only qualm I had with the historical accuracy of the book is when McCullough writes that at the age of sixteen Rainer was, "too young to have been indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth in its leisurely prewar days" (474). On the contrary, he was absolutely the right age to have been indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth. That's not to say he would have swallowed the propaganda, but Rainer grew up while the Hitler Youth was at its height. And "leisurely prewar days" made me snort with derision. I was believing everything in the story hook, line, and sinker until I read that sentence about Rainer. But I imagine within the context of the story that McCullough wanted to ensure that readers would think Rainer was a "good German."

    Overall, I enjoyed The Thorn Birds and am happy to have read it. The last two hundred pages or so were a bit of a slog to get through mainly because the last third of the book is about Justine and Dane, characters I didn't care about as much as I had for Meggie and Ralph or Fee before them. But looking back I have to say I like thinking about that part of the book. Weird how that happens.

    Now, I'm off to watch the TV mini-series. Will also check this book off my TBR lists for the Australian Women Writers Challenge and The Classics Club.

    What's your experience with The Thorn Birds? Have you read the book? Seen the TV series? Remember the adults going crazy about it?

    Monday, December 17, 2012

    Sapphira and the Slave Girl: Thoughts & Comments

    I can't believe we're here at the last novel of the Willa Cather Novel Writing Challenge 2012!

    My Thoughts
    This was my second reading of Cather's last novel and I'm still stunned by Sapphira's viciousness. I'm no stranger to stories of American slavery, but this one about a white woman slave owner planning over months to have her nephew rape the pretty young slave that she suspects is sleeping with her husband is one of the most twisted stories that I've read (outside of horror or crime novels, anyway).

    Under pinning all relationships, be they controlled by slavery, marriage, or genes, is Cather's theme that people thrive or at least find some sense of comfort when they have others in their life who share a common sensibility. Henry has more connection with Nancy and Sapphira with Till than either has with their biological daughter, Rachel. Indeed, Rachel doesn't seem to belong in the family or the neighborhood. She "escaped" her family for a while, but after her husband dies she's brought back to the fold.

    Nancy, on the other hand, escapes for good and comes back on her own accord. Reflecting on Casper's situation, Rachel reflects, “A man's got to be stronger'n a bull to get out of the place he was born in” (130).  Ironically, it's Nancy who ends up being that strong but only through the plan laid out and executed by Rachel.

    Cather's childhood home, 3rd story bedroom in the novel.
    Nancy is shown to be more of the “true” daughter to Henry than is Rachel. In the beginning of the book Henry's speech pattern, formed among English settlers and influenced by a grandfather who came over from Flanders, is said to be a "not friendly" manner of speech in Back Creek (5). The same is said of Nancy's speech upon her visit from Canada: "Nancy put into many words syllables I had never heard sounded in them before That repelled me. It didn't seem a friendly way to talk" (284). She doesn't say "hist'ry," but "his-to-ry." Rachel, on the other hand, pronounces it "hist'ry."

    And there's Till, the "daughter" who is more temperamentally in sync with Sapphira because she has to be under the system of slavery. She rejects her own daughter for her mistresses, yet as the mother of Nancy she ends up becoming the holder of family keepsakes such as the brooch that that holds a lock of Henry and Sapphira's hair from their wedding day. Henry gave it to her presumably after Sapphira's death and perhaps in the hope it would one day end up in Nancy's possession. This is something the "true" daughter would have.

    Rachel may be Henry and Sapphira's  biological daughter, but is not their daughter in feeling or sentiment. Rachel had long had a feeling that something was wrong and then one day while eavesdropping on Mrs. Bywaters and Mr. Cartmell,
    A feeling long smothered had blazed up in her—had become a conviction. She had never heard the thing said before, never put it into words. It was the owning that was wrong, the relation itself, no matter how convenient or agreeable it might be for master or servant. She had always know it was wrong. It was the thing that made her her unhappy at home, and came between her and her mother (137).
    Slavery is what eventually poisons Sapphira's relationship with Henry as well. It's made clear that their marriage was never one of passion, but one that started as more of a business arrangement and then grew into a type of love.

    At the opening of the novel, Sapphira never questioned her husband's whereabouts. But as the story unfolds we see this formerly active woman who no longer has the full use of her legs and nothing but time on her hands start to believe the gossip that maybe Nancy is making Mr. Henry's bedroom chamber comfortable in ways beyond cleanliness and good order. It's the old story of a woman made bitter and paranoid by aging and infirmity.

    Sapphira becomes suspicious and very much focused on her husband and Nancy's whereabouts. One of my favorite scenes in this novel is when Sapphira is looking down on the mill and wondering if her husband is there with Nancy when in actuality he's alone, reading passages that he's marked in his Bible concerned with slavery and frustrated that he can find no clear condemnation of slavery in this book that's his guide for living. Earlier that day Nancy had unburdened herself to Mr. Henry and we can assume he was turning to his Bible for comfort or to make the case to his wife to set Nancy free. Rather than openly interfering with her “property,” he provides the funds for his daughter Rachel's plan to get Nancy to Canada.

    I should stop there, but also want to say that I appreciate the smaller ironic moments such as when Sapphira is supported on either side by her slaves Jefferson and Washington. Slaves were often named after or took the names of presidents, but to have a scene where America's two great founding fathers are upholding the slave master is a rather cutting moment. And, of course, there's the twist of the slave owner being a woman. 

    Things I've Been Pondering
    In the introductory post for this book I had shared Edith Lewis's opinion that, as time goes by this novel, "will take a higher and higher place in any estimate of Willa Cather's work." I had this on my mind as I read the novel. Now that we've read or re-read all of Cather's novels in the space of twelve months, what do you think about Lewis's opinion of this novel?

    Cather certainly creates a complex and realistic villain with Sapphira. This is historical fiction at its finest as she doesn't sugar coat the language and attitudes of the time period that she's portraying. But in an age where teachers are shying away from teaching such long established classics like Huckleberry Finn or using editions of it that strip its original language and therefore change its meaning, do you think there's much hope of Sapphira and the Slave Girl ever making it onto high school or college English reading lists, or into the hands of adult readers who are not already Cather fans?

    Share Your Thoughts!
    What do you think of Sapphira and the Slave Girl? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book, even if it's just a sentence. 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.

    Stay tuned later this month for wrap up post!

    Wednesday, December 12, 2012

    Deliverance by James Dickey

    Dell cover, 1978
    Deliverance is the first book I read for The Classics Club. It was first published in 1970 and I was happy to find a 1978 movie cover copy by Dell. According to the publication information in this edition, between April 1971 and February 1978 Dell went through nineteen print runs of the novel. That's a lot of books.

    Although I first saw the 1972 movie adaptation a few, um, decades ago, I didn't have much interest in reading this novel until Pat Conroy talked up James Dickey in his book of essays My Reading Life (2010). Conroy had this to say about Deliverance:
    I found it to be 278 pages that approached perfection. Every sentence sounded marvelous, distinct, and original, and it flowed as quickly as the river it celebrated. Its tightness of construction and assuredness of style reminded me of The Great Gatbsy. Like his poetry, no line went in for showiness, no hint of laziness or inattention or loss of control. For me, Dickey had forged a palace of light for a white-water river of words (198).
    Deliverance is a beautifully written book. The writing is clean and crisp. The themes are woven through the story like the river the men paddle down, sometime calm and straightforward and other times wild and curvacious. There were a few times when I felt like the book dragged on, but overall I'm happy to have read it. You could have a lot of fun deconstructing this novel. There are many themes in the novel--the destruction of nature for the sake of "progress," city/suburban vs. country/wilds, the threat of machines and bodies failing, the living death of a safe, unchallenged suburban existence, what it means to be a man, particularly in relation to other men, and male desire (and by this I'm not referring to the rape scene but a more subtle desire of men for other men).

    If you're not familiar with this story or to refresh your memory:
    The story is about four early middle-aged guys--Ed, Lewis, Drew, and Bobby--who take a canoe trip down a wild river in Georgia that is soon to be damned up to create a lake around which a posh housing development will be built. Its supposed to be a nostalgic, leisurely trip, but by day two it turns into a fight for survival.

    Bloomsbury Film Classics Cover, 2005
    The two primary characters are Ed Gentry, the narrator, (played by Jon Voight in the movie) and Lewis Medlock (played by Burt Reynolds). Lewis Medlock is a manly man, the guy who is in a continual battle with his body to make it the fittest it can be. He's always challenging himself with physical feats and honing his skills as a survivalist. Ed Gentry, on the other hand, is easy going, soft around the middle, an executive who never seems to push himself very much.

    Ed and the other two men rely on Lewis to take care of them. He's clearly setup as the Alpha. When the two mountain men capture Ed and Bobby they wait and wait for Lewis to come save them. They can't defend themselves: Bobby is sodomized and Ed is about to be forced to perform oral sex on the other mountain man. Lewis saves Ed from being molested by killing one of the mountain men with an arrow through the back. The second mountain man runs away. They argue over what to do with the body. After they encounter some bad rapids that take Lewis out of commission with a compound fracture to the thigh and where Drew is presumably drowned, Ed is forced to man-up and take care of business. Bobby is pretty useless (he was presented as such prior to the rape as well and the implication is there that it's why he's raped). Taking care of business means Ed must kill the mountain man who ran away before he can either kill them or tell on them. Once the survivors make it back to civilization, the game of survival continues in a different mode.

    Click here to join the club!
    Overall, this is a powerful book and it would be an interesting one to explore in detail. Because it's not a book that I've ever heard anyone talk about having read or saw it mentioned in general American literary criticism (other than by Conroy) I was surprised to find it listed on the Modern Library's list of 100 Best Novels.

    I saw the edited TV version of the movie when I was a kid. After reading the book I watched the unedited version of the movie on Netflix. It is full of bad 1970s over-acting, but I think it's still a decent movie (and I can now understand why people poked fun at my childhood crush on Burt Reynolds.)  If you're interested in watching/rewatching the movie, note that James Dickey plays the sheriff.

    Have you read the book? Seen the movie?

    Monday, December 10, 2012

    The Auschwitz Volunteer by Witold Pilecki

    It seems everyone online is writing their best books of 2012 list and I hope that electronic babel of voices won't water down my saying that The Auschwitz Volunteer is the best book I read in 2012. 

    If you're a reader of history, WWII, Poland, the Holocaust, or spy novels go & buy this book or buy it for someone you know who is into these subjects. You won't regret it.

    Pilecki's story is astonishing. He was a military man and member of the Polish resistance who volunteered to be taken in a round-up to the new Nazi concentration camp: Auschwitz. The camp was established in May 1940. On the 19th of September 1940 at 6 am, Pilecki stepped into what would be the second group of inmates taken from Warsaw to the camp. If you're jaded, you might think, "Oh, well, they didn't really know what to expect, so maybe it was just like any volunteer assignment during wartime." Well, you could think that, but then consider the fact that Pilecki stayed in the camp for almost three years (he estimated 947 days). THREE YEARS he voluntarily stayed in Auschwitz to continue his mission which was to gather intelligence and set up a network of resistance within the camp. "Beyond Bravery," indeed.

    I'm sure no one would have condemned him had he chosen to escape sooner, but Pilecki was a man who took his duty to his country seriously. He was also motivated by his Catholic faith and so saw both the Nazis and the Communists as threats not only to his country, but to his spiritual life as well.

    Witold Pilecki in 1930s
    Pilecki's account is a bare bones military report, but it reads beautifully, if I may use such a descriptor for this horrific subject. His story has such a big impact perhaps precisely because he doesn't go into great detail. Like a good Cather or Hemingway novel, we're left to fill in our own details which makes "the story" that much more powerful. Much credit, of course, goes to the translator, Jarek Garlinski. There is also the fact that in 2012 we might not need much detail to round things out for ourselves after having seen movies and read other books about Nazi concentration camps.

    But even if you've read many accounts of the concentration camps, I doubt you've ever read anything like this. Because Pilecki is reporting, because he's there with a mission, he sees things and talks about seemingly familiar behavior and situations in a way that makes them seem new--you see how shocking the behavior of the guards is and how tactics change as the mission of the camp itself changes. You see the development and evolution of Auschwitz as it unfolds. This is a strictly chronological report so you're taken from the early days of the camp when extreme violence and cruelty were the norm to the more "mature" camp of the final solution's extreme dehumanizing systematization. Along the way is a lot of fascinating information about how the inmates ran the camp.

    As a kid I would have liked to have known the story of Witold Pilecki and I hope someone writes a book for kids based on his experience (this book is intended, of course, for mature audiences). My Dad was Polish and I grew up in a predominantly Polish neighborhood in Cicero, IL which butts up to the west side of Chicago. On the other hand, my Mom is from Germany. (My parents met in Germany in the late 1950s when my dad was stationed there.) It wasn't until I was in high school and became a student of history that I realized why people sometimes said my parents were an interesting combination.

    The version of history I learned in school was that Nazi Germany rolled over Poland and there was no resistance. And the version of concentration camps that I learned is that they were set up to eradicate Jews and that the world didn't know about them prior to 1945. Pilecki's story offers a new narrative to counter these old simplified stories as well as bringing to light the horrors that Poles faced after the war (stories that were not necessarily intentionally "wrong," but that didn't have a multitude of contributing voices, the benefit of decades of research, or new information coming out of the former Soviet Union).

    One of the reasons we in the West haven't heard of Pilecki's bravery is what happened to him after Word War II ended:
    After Pilecki's escape from Auschwitz he continued to work in the Polish resistance. At war's end he worked against the communist regime in Poland. He was captured and tortured by the Polish secret police and tried by a military court that found him guilty of "spying and preparing armed attacks on members of the Polish secret police," charges he denied. Pilecki was executed by the Polish communist government on May 25, 1948.

    Pilecki was fully exonerated in the 1990s and is now considered a hero in modern Poland.  The publication of The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery is the first time his story is being shared with the English speaking world and I hope it finds a wide audience.

    As Norman Davies writes in the introduction to The Auschwitz Volunteer, "If ever there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers" (xiii). 

    Click here to watch the book trailer (note: for mature audience).

    The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery
    Captain Witold Pilecki
    Translated by Jarek Garlinski
    Aquila Polonica, 2012
    ISBN: 978-1607720102 
    Source: review copy (I follow a couple Polish heritage/cultural sites and this summer saw the book advertised on one of them and immediately requested a copy from the publisher, which they graciously sent me and for which I thank them.)

    Sunday, December 2, 2012

    More Willa Cather Book News: ON THE ROCKS

    There really is a Willa Cather renaissance underway. Now entering the field is the very first mystery novel featuring Willa Cather and her partner Edith Lewis as sleuths.

    I must admit that I've had a few mystery plots featuring Cather bouncing around inside my brain-housing-group, but Sue Hallgarth beat me to it.

    Hallgarth's first Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery, On The Rocks, is set to be released on January 15, 2013.
    On the Rocks is the first title of a smart new literary mystery series by Corrales, New Mexico author Sue Hallgarth. The year is 1929 and Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Willa Cather and her partner Edith Lewis are summering on Grand Manan, an island in the Bay of Fundy. In their cottage’s sparsely-furnished attic room, Cather is at work writing Shadows on the Rock, her tenth novel. Edith is painting watercolors from the cliffs two hundred feet above the rising tides of Whale Cove. Out of the corner of her eye, Edith sees a body plunge from the edge of a cliff to the rocks below…. Solving the mystery, first-time novelist Sue Hallgarth’s intimate view of village politics and the goings-on of two women’s communities long lost to history is also a suspenseful and surprising crime novel. Hallgarth draws the reader into a unique retreat and an inside glimpse of the lives of a great American novelist and her talented life partner.
    I found out about the book through a review from Publisher's Weekly. The bad news is PW's review isn't very glowing, but the good news I've not always agreed with their assessment of a novel. And the best news is that On The Rocks might help curb the post-Willa-Cather-Novel-Reading-Challenge-blues that some of us are bound to feel come January. Then in April we'll have The Selected Letters of Willa Cather to look forward to. Of course, Cather also wrote a bunch of short stories....

    For now, visit the publisher's website to read an excerpt from On The Rocks. There's also a blurb up about book two in the series, Death Comes.

    On The Rocks
    Sue Hallgarth
    Arbor Farm
    $15.95 trade paper (262p)
    ISBN 978-0-9855200-0-7
    Release date on author's website is January 15, 2013

    Saturday, December 1, 2012

    Sapphira and the Slave Girl: Book #12 Intro

    Vintage Classics Edition
    Read all 12 of Willa Cather's novels in chronological order of publication, one each month, throughout 2012. For details about the challenge click here.


    Our twelfth and last novel of the challenge is Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Read it sometime over the next three weeks and we'll start our conversation about it on Monday, December 17.

    About Sapphira and the Slave Girl:

    • Cather started writing the novel in the fall of 1937.
    • The story is set in Virginia, where Cather was born and spent the first nine years of her life, and is based in part on Cather's grandmother who helped a slave escape in 1856.
    • It was published on December 7, 1940, which was Cather's 67th birthday. (Speaking of which, The Willa Cather Foundation is throwing a Virtual Birthday Party for her December, 7-9).
    • Critical reception was initially good, but has been rocky over the decades.
    • 50,000 first printing, sold for $2.50. 65,000 copies sold by the following March and an additional 220,000 copies distributed via The-Book-of-the-Month-Club.
     Description from the Vintage Classic Paperback:
    In her final novel, Willa Cather departed from her usual Great Plains settings to plumb the turbulent relationships between slaves and their owners in the antebellum South. Sapphira and the Slave Girl is set in Virginia just before the Civil War. Sapphira is a slave owner who feels she has come down in the world and channels her resentments into jealousy of her beautiful mulatto slave, Nancy. Sapphira's daughter Rachel, and abolitionist, opposes her mother's increasingly shocking attempts to persecute Nancy. The struggles of these three strong-willed women provided rich material for Cather's narrative art and psychological insight.

    • Not often carried by new bookstores. Many used bookstores might have a copy. Almost always available at your local library.
    • Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here.
    Willow Shade, Cather's Virginia Childhood Home.
    Highway marker for Willow Shade
    Earlier this year I read Edith Lewis's memoir, Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record (1953). I was struck by what Lewis wrote about Sapphira and the Slave Girl:
    Once in a while, I think, a writer does a novel that is "uncharacteristic," in the sense that one does not find in it the qualities one most looks to find; the qualities that most predominate in the writer's other work. But this, perhaps, sometimes comes not so much from a lack, as from an emergence, a substitution of other latent traits in the writer's development. I believe that Sapphira has very strongly the quality of permanence, of survival; and that as time goes on, it will take a higher and higher place in any estimate of Willa Cather's work. It is written austerely, with very little of that warmth and generous expansion of feeling so many of her readers delight in. It is a novel without a heroine--the central figure is a cold and rather repellant character. Nothing is stressed--incidents, scenes are touched on so lightly, one is hardly aware of their having more than a surface significance. Yet one finds--I find, at least--that they have a curiously imperishable quality. The story as a whole seems to me to be the brief chronicle of a time that will never again be recaptured with the same truth and crystalline vision, the same supreme art (184-85).
    This is high praise, indeed, especially coming from someone who knew Cather's work and mind perhaps better than anyone else. What do you think of Lewis's assessment? Why do you think this novel isn't read more widely today? How does Sapphira compare to other novels you've read about slavery in the United States?

    I'll share my thoughts on reading Sapphira and the Slave Girl in a new post on Monday, December 17th. At that time let's start our conversation--simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone's thoughts in once place.

    Happy Reading!
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