Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

It's all very well to tell us to forgive our enemies; our enemies can never hurt us very much. But oh, what about forgiving our friends?

At just over 100 pages, this is a slim volume and a quick read, but the contents are real and comparatively heavy for all that.  In some ways this is a brutally honest look at how a single decision—such as marriage—can affect the rest of your hopes and dreams, but it is just as equally an agonizing realization of one's true character.

There's a hidden authorial pain and anguish laced throughout this book and hidden in the character of Myra. Having read through Cather's works chronologically to this point, I sense an underlying conflict and despair that is somewhat obfuscated by the plot in this love/fate/hate story. It is short and succinct like Alexander's Bridge, and it is about a strong woman who forges her own trail like A Lost Lady, but even though it reads simply and holds you at a distance from its characters, this book goes deeper into an internal conflict.

In structure, Cather uses a narrator that is more an observer than anything else, rather like My Antonia.  She also divides the story into chunks of time, (rather than telling the story in one continuous flow,) as she has in many of her other books. The writing style is more crisp, almost harsh at times, reflecting the personality of the main character.  There are all kinds of interesting contrasts happening, and that lovely sense at the end that the author hasn't clued you in to one of life's great answers, but rather one of life's great questions.  That could be irritating, depending on your tastes and mood, or it could be refreshing.  If you aren't in a mood to contemplate life, this story will likely seem impersonal and perhaps even somewhat shallow.  But rest assured there is much more waiting for you to mull over if you are up to it.  This is one that will stick with me for a while.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Classics Club: The First Year in Review (and a new Spin List!)

When I compiled my list last year, I made efforts to keep the number small and attainable.  It has grown since then, so I've been curious to see where I stand.

Here's What I've Read:
  1. My Antonia
  2. Watership Down
  3. The Warden
  4. The  Painted Veil
  5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  6. Frankenstein
  7. Youth and the Bright Medusa
  8. On the Road
  9. How Green Was My Valley
  10. One of Ours
  11. The End of the Affair
  12. Lady Windermere's Fan
  13. A Lost Lady
  14. Fellowship of the Ring
  15. Persuasion
  16. Pygmalion
  17. River of Earth
  18. The Beautiful and Damned
  19. Crime and Punishment
  20. The Professor's House
  21. My Mortal Enemy
  22. The Great Divorce
Doesn't look too shabby to me, especially because I'm currently working on 3 others (Grapes of Wrath, Hound of the Baskervilles, Eugene Onegin) and because they haven't all been a cakewalk (On the Road, Fellowship of the Ring, Crime and Punishment).  I think that it has definitely been beneficial to have them listed in one spot.  And it is certainly fun to be able to cross them off!

In other news, the Classics Club is doing another Spin List selection, and since the first one worked out so well for me (with The Beautiful and Damned) I thought I'd give it another go.  [update: looks like it's #6!]

5 Books I'm Afraid Of (because it weighs more than my cat, because it was written before my country began, because it's probably WAY too melodramatic, etc. etc.)

  1. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  2. The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
  3. The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy
  4. Native Son, Richard Wright
  5. Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe

5 Books I Think I'll Like (but never got around to & am now ambivalent towards)

  6. Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope
  7. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte
  8. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  9. Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell
 10. Cakes and Ale, W.Somerset Maugham

5 Novella Pairings (I need to get those novellas read!)

 11. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Marley & Stempenyu by Sholem Aleichem
 12. The Duel by Anton Chekov and The Duel by Alexander Kuprin
 13. The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo and The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
 14. The Man Who Would be King by Rudyard Kipling and May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald
 15. Le Fanfarlo by Charles Baudelaire and Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

5 Modern[ish] Picks (because most of my classics hail from the 19th century)
 16. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
 17. Things Fall apart, Chinua Achebe
 18. The Bell, Iris Murdoch
 19. Easter Parade, Richard Yates
 20. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Eternal TO READ Stack

I came across this photo today - taken in January 2009.  That's right, over 4 years ago.  The remarkable thing about this photo is not how huge that stack of books is, but rather the fact that I still haven't gotten around to six of those books.  SIX of them, after FOUR YEARS, even though they were on my Read Right Now pile.

Daniel Deronda? I know I started it.

Jubilee Trail? I don't even know when I bought this book.

A Little Princess?  Still haven't re-read it.

Man of the Family? Keep thinking I'll get around to it.

Ruth? Definitely started it...last year?

The Lost Continent? I've read other Bill Bryson books, does that count?

Looking at old stacks of books is always fun, but it can be a bit of a downer too.  Here I was feeling all proud of myself for getting some of those "eternal shelf" books read, and I find I have so much more to do.  Other than that, though, it is fun to look at those covers and remember what you thought about them.  From top to bottom, excluding [obviously] the ones I still haven't read: fabulous, fun, good, biased, okay, dumb, beautiful, very good, a bit boring, even boring-er, and very interesting.

I still want to read those 6 books.  If I didn't, it would definitely be time to let them go.  Too many good books to waste time on ones I'm not interested in.  But if I'm still interested, then they are more than welcome to a spot on my shelf, even if it is the eternal To Read shelf.  Maybe someday they'll make it off.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

How I Finished Reading Crime and Punishment

Well, I managed to finish it.  

That really is the only lasting impression that I've kept regarding Crime and Punishment.  Kind of sad, considering that the book is actually quite well written & Dostoevsky obviously is familiar with mental anguish.  And considering that I adored War & Peace (the other Russian doorstop that it's super cool to brag about having read.)  Actually I love many 19th century Russian authors...Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev...but Dostoevsky?  Not so much.

What is it, then?  I'll tell you this: I have the same experience when I read Dickens.  Eerily similar experiences, actually.  I think it might have something to do with hope.

Tolstoy, for all his disillusionment with social structures and relationships, seeks purpose and meaning.  Pushkin, though his tales often revolve around a disaster, gives you the sense of noble pride - that all the drama is the essence of life!  Turgenev can seem rather disillusioned and fatalistic, but under it all is the feeling that there is a worthwhile purpose somewhere...if he could just find it.

But Dostoevsky?  No.  Face it, baby, life stinks.  Filth, poverty, wretchedness and debase behavior of all sorts, and then you die.  There might be the occasional angelic spectre, but that's not reality! Nobody can really live like that...because for every innocent being there are dozens of miserable ones greedy enough to steal their joy, and the sooner you come to terms with that, the better off you'll be.

So, maybe it has something to do with hope.  Or maybe it's because I'm not a fan of psychological dramas.  In any case, I had a difficult time getting through this one.  I had the suggested translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky (their translation of Anna Karenina was quite enjoyable) but had the hardest time staying focused.

When I reached the 2/3 point of the book and stalled out, I knew I was in trouble.  I gave up reading Dickens' Our Mutual Friend at the 2/3 point, as well as Irving's Owen Meany.  I have built a miniature track record for not finishing books that I've mostly finished.  I needed to come up with a solution, and quick - before my inaction became a default action.

I went to Audible, figuring that if someone was reading aloud AND I was reading along, it would be much more difficult to let myself get distracted.  After one false start (when I accidentally bought this version instead of the one I actually wanted) I was successful.  It worked.  And let me tell you, the story and the writing were actually pretty interesting after all, when translated by Constance Garnett and read aloud to me.  But what work it took to get me there!

Sigh.  And now, having read both The Eternal Husband and Crime and Punishment, I think I may safely say that it will be quite some time before I feel the need to read more Dostoevsky.  It doesn't bode well for Dickens either.  My apologies to all the fans.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

I've seen Van Booy's name around the's an interesting name; it lodges in one's brain.  Every time one of his books popped to the forefront, however, I pushed it away: dismissing it as one in a crowd of inordinately popular pieces of fluff.

Boy was I wrong.

Little did I know when I opened my Indiespensable box and saw the unassuming galley lying there that I was about to be exposed to utter exquisiteness.  The writing, the characters, the story—all were wonderful.  From the first words I was hooked.

I've read books before that create a novel from a mix of seemingly unrelated short stories, but none done as beautifully, delicately, and organically as this.  Each sentence urged me to read the next, as if there were a shimmer of wonder cloaking each thought.

Plus, the title is fabulous.  It really serves as a basis for the over-arching theme of the book.  So many times we read (or hear) stories from different times and different places, and we look at them as isolated, confined experiences, but this book challenges the reader to look beyond, to wonder, to strive to be a part of a bigger story - one in which we are all connected whether we realize it or not.

This title is set to be released in June, and it is worth keeping in mind until then.  I'm going to need to buy a copy to loan out, a copy to keep as back-up, etc. etc.   I'm also going to need to read everything else he's every written.  In fact, I chose a collection of his short stories for my book club to read (The Secret Lives of People in Love) and while it wasn't quite as marvelous as The Illusion of Separateness, I still had that conflicting want-to-read-it-all-right-now/don't-want-it-to-ever-end thing happening.  Have you read anything of his?  What do you think?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

For the Record: April 2013

For the first time in months I feel like I actually got through some books, and it felt GOOD.  I have to credit some of that amazingness to Audible, and the fact that there was a higher dose of current fiction (which, let's face it, is typically quicker and lighter reading material) than usual.

In the non-book-arena, I'm getting really good at making design decisions (a big deal for someone who takes forever to make decisions!)  Our house rebuild is trucking along, and I've spent so much time critically thinking abou the design that I'm pretty certain my brain-usage-percentage has increased.  Although my exhaustion level has also increased...but I'm going to go ahead and pretend that is unrelated.  I'm ready to be done with construction and design and just live in my house already, but we've got another year ahead of us I fear.  And that's why I prefer to talk about books!

11 Books Read in April: (29 year-to-date)

2 Classics:
  - The Professor's House, Willa Cather (4) [Another step through my Willa Cather Challenge, and again she didn't let me down.  Review here.]
  - Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky (3) [I did it!  I finished it!  I'll be talking about how I finished it soon.]

2 for obligations (book club/ARC):
  - The Secret Lives of People in Love, Simon Van Booy (4.5) [I have a post about Van Booy in the works, but basically: if you haven't read him, do.]
  - Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, Jeff Backhaus (3) [Interesting, but didn't feel completely genuine.]

2 from my shelf:  [Review for both books here.]
  - Ireland, Frank Delaney (3) [Somewhat disappointing and boring, but still about Ireland!]
  - Annie Dunne, Sebastian Barry (3.5) [beautiful writing, as to be expected, but its introspective pace wasn't a great fit for this time in my life...took me moonnnths.]

5 others:
  - Benediction, Kent Haruf (4.5) [Purchased from my new local book shop...quick to read and just about perfect. Review here.]
  - Emily's Runaway Imagination, Beverly Cleary (3.5) [Read aloud to my 8yo, Cleary is always fantastic. Though this wasn't her best, the autobiographical element made it better.]
  - The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty (3.5) [Love the era, but would have much happier with this book if it had not told an entire life story & only focused on the "chaperone" period.]
  - Follow the River, James Alexander Thom (3) [Very enjoyable audio book, and pretty solid historical fiction, though it did lack appropriate character development.]
  - The Heretic's Daughter, Kathleen Kent (4) [Historical fiction worth reading.  About the Salem Witch Trials, but from a different perspective that really allows a whole picture to develop.]


2 Current Reads:
  - Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler.  The writing is so "lite" that I'm having a bit of a struggle paying attention, but am enjoying reading about the 20s and the Fitzgeralds.
  - The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle.  Read-along at Unputdownables starts now!


On My Nightstand:
I'm hoping that this weekend will turn into a read-a-thon weekend, though weekends are never long enough in general. Here's what is on my radar: