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Posts Tagged ‘Book Commentary’

John Irving. Avenue of Mysteries. Simon and Schuster. New York. 2015. 460 pp.

So, John Irving has written a new book, Avenue of Mysteries. This was not a book atop my must read list. Truth to tell, I don’t like John Irving’s writing much. As I read in the jacket bio his “all-time best selling novel, in every language” is A Prayer for Owen Meany, a book I found almost distasteful. I had to force myself to finish it. Nothing much in it worked for me.

images-1I brought home Avenue of Mysteries promising myself I could just stop if I wanted to; I wasn’t in school anymore. I am longer compelled to read Irving, just because Time magazine notes “He is as close as one gets to a contemporary Dickens in the scope of his celebrity and the level of his achievement.” Besides, even reviews of Avenue of Mysteries have been less than five-star. Some reader/reviewers had flat out given up, even after mentioning they’ve loved every other of Irving’s books.

Surprise! What I found was a book of rare language, amazingly colorful larger-than-life characters, and some plot premises so absurd I had to fall in love. It didn’t hurt that this book has undercurrents of magical realism casting its spell beginning with a Mexican setting with suitable miracles preformed by various “Our Ladies”. But it is the characters and their development that has such a latin ring. Irving uses magical realism’s method of repetition of the full names of characters with just a handful of substitute descriptors for each (e.g. the main characters,  a limping Juan Diego and his mind-reading younger sister Lupe, are described repeatedly as “the dump kids”). Catholicism plays a pivotal role, as does the circus, characters who don’t appear in photos taken of them, ghostly veterans, transvestites, and dogs, lots of dogs.

At some points I felt I could be reading a novel based on a Fellini movie rather than John Irving, originally from New England, now from Toronto. The book is overdone at times for sure. But the rhythm of dialog, the zany cast and the tragedy cum comedy kept me pushing on to his conclusion: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”

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Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Alfred Knopf. New York. 2015. 179 pp.

Two unexceptional people in Holt, CO (the a small Colorado plains town setting of all Haruf’s books) strike up a highly unusual (and often speculated on by the town’s busybodies) friendship. In the short summer that they are together they act as “parents” to the woman’s grandson, a five year old, hurting from the constant battles between his dad and mom. Perfectly normal events take place: the three go to the rodeo, get a dog, go camping, tend a garden, sip iced tea and eat sandwiches. They put the little boy to sleep and then climb into bed together and talk.

images-1It’s the climbing into bed part that gets her son, his daughter, and the town riled up even though there is nothing “going on.” Just two lonely old people, a widow, a widower, trying to get through the endless nights.

This gem of a novella is perfect in its construction and execution. Haruf tells the story with crystalline and exceedingly simple language. Short chapters run through their days. Haruf has abandoned the use of quotes, even though the majority of the text is dialog. At first it’s somewhat disconcerting, but in a few pages the lack of those annoying punctuation marks becomes another metaphor for the story. It’s plain, unadorned. The dialog needs no more attention drawn to it than any other normal thing that takes place in this uneventful summer.

Still, there is foreboding and ultimately a truly tragic ending. But like the rest of the book the power is derived from the sheer mundaneness in which it evolves and is described. The final line: “Dear, is it cold there tonight?” is at once wrenching and incredibly beautiful.

As I reached the conclusion I wept, for the characters and the story, as well as for the realization that this is final gift that Kent Haruf will give. Sadly, he died shortly before its publication.

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Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig. Riverhead Books. New York. 2015. 453 pp.

51S9z5jS6mL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last Bus to Wisdom is the last novel Ivan Doig completed before he died in April, 2015. Losing him is a great bereavement for any reader who loves the West as much as he did. I count myself a “Doigie”—someone who has always welcomed his latest cast of characters into my life. To know that there will be no more is a great personal loss. Still, there is always the reacquainting that comes with re-reading great writing. There is always something new to discover.

This book is about a red-haired 11 year old, much like Doig himself at 11 must have been. Thrust off his beloved Montana ranch in summer of 1951 Donal is sent to live with an unknown great-aunt in Wisconsin while his grandma/guardian recouperates from an operation for “lady problems”. His adventures begin on the dog bus aka the Greyhound that carries him from Great Falls to Manitowoc. Where the excitement continues and grows once his aunt sets him adrift again a few weeks later when she discovers that, even though Donal has the makings of a card-sharking canasta player, she can’t deal with his, well, boyness. More excitement ensues as Herman the German, his great-aunt’s sort-of husband, decides to join him, lighting out for the territory, as Huck Finn so famously described his heading out with Jim. There are obviously many more similarities between Donal and Huck offered by Doig in this marvelous tale of a boy, whose childhood will soon be behind him.

It is always Ivan Doig’s writing, his understanding of people and dialog, that drive his stories and make his often over-the-top characters perfectly acceptable. To me in this book it seemed that Doig, anticipating that this might be his last, threw in all the nuance and sly observations he’d garnered over the years, yet hadn’t had a chance to use before. So we’ve got canasta, radio soaps, cowboy and hobo lingo, wicker suitcases and sailor’s duffel bags, ties adorned with suggestive mermaids, countries made from toast, autograph books, arrowheads, bronc riders, even Jack Kerouac is featured in a cameo role! It felt like nothing was held back. And that is all to the good. It’s a book that speeds ahead at dog-bus-on-empty-highway speeds but never loses one thread, never misspeaks with accents or syntax. It is a joy to read.

I have seen in more than one place the mention of Doig as the next Wallace Stegner. I don’t know…Stegner always, it seems to me, needs to make a point. Doig is first and foremost there to tell stories of another, quieter time about how normal people make their way. It’s often zany and just a little bit pushing the envelope toward tall-tale-telling, but that’s a great gift he has given over and over.

And I, like millions of others, have always been more than happy to raptly listen.

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My Antonia. Willa Cather. originally published in 1918. This review is based on the Sentry Edition published in 1954 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. With First Edition Illustrations by W.T. Bends. 372 pp.

The third of the Prairie Trilogy, My Antonia, was published in 1918. Willa Cather has been quoted as considering this as her best book. For me, it’s so hard, too hard to choose one among her so many exceptional novels.my-antonia

This is another pioneer story. This time the focus is on a Bohemian immigrant family making their way pioneering on the Great Plains, as told to an “I” character (unnamed) by Jim Burden, mutual friend to “I” and Antonia Shimerda, the oldest girl in the large family, favorite of her sensitive musician father, and Jim’s best friend on the Nebraska prairie.

Original illustration "the Shimerdas" by W.T. Bends

Original illustration
“the Shimerdas”
by W.T. Bends

In the course of the book we meet the rest of the Shimeras, Jim’s grandparents Burden, to whom he has come to live from Virginia after his parents’ deaths, their hired hands Otto and Jake, and other neighbors who live around their homestead outside Black Hawk, the closest “big” town. As time passes, youth grow to maturity, the pioneers go from sod cave houses to two story farmsteads and the land changes from tall red grass prairies to tamed and ploughed fields of corn and wheat.

Time is measured by the seasons and the land and most of the families settle into and come to love their new homelands. But not all. There are hard times, particularly for the Bohemian Shimerdas, but also for others as they learn new ways.

Christmas by W.T. Bends

Christmas
by W.T. Bends

We follow Jim on to University in Lincoln where he loses touch with Antonia—an innocent childhood romance perhaps realized in retrospect as love?—but reconnects with other hometown immigrant friends including Lena Lingard, who twenty years later insists he re-connect with Antonia who has married and has a flock of kids. His story concludes with that visit and the anticipation of more to come, as he returns to New York where he has become a thriving lawyer.

My Antonia is mostly a quiet story and Cather introduces us subtly and gracefully to the many facets of the human character. The writing is crystalline and spare. An immediately engrossing tale pulls the reader in without any of the silly modern “grabber” gimmicks of murder, mayhem or mysterious prologues that elude to the future or the past. But Cather never needs clever devices to immediately capture readers, carrying them along on a seemingly effortless trajectory from beginning to end. Nothing is superfluous, no character unnecessary. Cather’s novel is a magical creation. She provides one of those rare aha! reading experiences that remind us what great writing really is.

“There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but material out of which countries are made….Between that earth and that sky I felt erased. blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: Here, I felt, what would be would be.”

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Early Cover

Early Cover

O Pioneers! Willa Cather. originally published in 1913. For this review I used the Vintage Classic Edition. 1992. Random House. New York. 159 pp.

This is my third reading of O Pioneers! The first was in my hazy teenage years, probably for an English class. I have no particular remembrance of it.

My second reading was in the early 1980s when I enjoyed a re-acquaintance with Willa Cather as I read through all of her books (oddly except for One of Ours, the one for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. It remains unread.) The final tragedy is what I took away from that reading, complete with tears. What I forgot entirely was the redemptive quality of the final sequence.

In this, the third reading, I came away with perhaps my deepest connection to the plot of O Pioneers! as well as an underlining of what makes Willa Cather’s writing so powerful and unique—her acute sensitivity to the land. Her specific connection to it, her ability to carefully select language which describes the land with heart-aching resonance, and its singular importance in the pioneer history of the US.

Some might make the observation that her humans seem somewhat less fully formed that that character which is space in Nebraska she calls the Divide. I don’t agree.

It’s hard to know exactly how American pioneers really acted. The stereotypic stoic hearty plainsmen and women, like those painted in O Pioneers may actually be accurate. Whether or not, the main characters, Alexandra Bergson, Emil Bergson, Marie Swoboda and Carl Lundstom, are sufficiently nuanced to carry the story forward comfortably. The story’s flash of passion, which is more “real” than most love affairs in fiction, makes it that much more moving.

The copy I used was a discard from the local library. The reader, judging by the simplistic notes made in the margins, made me think back to my first reading which was probably as shallow as this teenager’s. Still, she/he did notice the prominence of the land as an essential separate character.

And it was delightful to read where her feminist hackles were raised. “Sexist!!” was often penciled into the margins, especially when Alexandra—actually the brains in the Bergson family—was domineered by her rather mentally plodding brothers. It was a valuable reminder to me that I generally gloss over overt male dominance of women which appears so often in books. I’m certain it wasn’t a topic discussed in my mid-60s’ suburban English classroom. Still, while I now usually think of it as representative of another time, it does make me think about how the acceptability of gender inequality remains deeply imbedded. Like so many other uncomfortable truths our society is being forced to face these days, the dismissal inherent in the term “political correctness” used to describe what is actually gross insensitivity quickly shading into covert inequality allows even our national politicians to duck behind this facade of “mere semantics” to refuse to face and begin to remedy their own prejudices and biases.

Of course the beauty of O Pioneers isn’t overshadowed by the ham-handed Bergson boys or their twenty-first century counterparts. In the end, it is the land and Alexandra and Carl’s embracing of it that gives O Pioneers! its lovely glow.

As Alexandra remarks to Carl in the final scene: “We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while.”

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A combination of health and heat has greatly limited travel opportunities this year. So I’ve chosen to leave the highway to pursue another route—armchair travel, aka traveling at home.

Whenever I let my reading wander I find myself in places I didn’t know existed. A recent trip to the library got me started along the Oregon Trail. First with Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, his twenty-first century re-creation of an 1800s odyssey along the Trail using old style mules pulling a covered wagon. (See 8/30/15 post). Following that, was a review of the original book titled The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman written in 1849. (See 9/6/15 post.)

220px-Willa_Cather_ca._1912_wearing_necklace_from_Sarah_Orne_JewettThese books helped me throw my net a little wider by expanding “the west” that I wander to include the pioneer states of the 1800s, especially Nebraska and Kansas, in their early days as “western” as definitions went. Heck, I may even throw in Missouri, my state of birth, and original jumping off place for those heading out to “see the elephant”, the then unknown American West.

The stories of the prairie, homesteading, success, and failure on the western Great Plains are full of humanity, understatement, and hardship. Who better to take off to “see the elephant” with than one of its earliest champions and one of the very finest of American authors, Willa Cather.

Her gravestone reads:
WILLA CATHER
December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947
THE TRUTH AND CHARITY OF HER GREAT
SPIRIT WILL LIVE ON IN THE WORK
WHICH IS HER ENDURING GIFT TO HER
COUNTRY AND ALL ITS PEOPLE.
“. . . that is happiness; to be dissolved
into something complete and great.”
From My Antonia

Coming next, reviews of her prairie trilogy: O’ Pioneers, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia.

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The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Rinker Buck. Simon and Schuster, New York. 2015. 450 pp.

In the summer of 2007 Rinker Buck, a journalist researching a story in the Black Hills, made a serendipitous detour to visit the Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express station, a way stop on Oregon Trail, now restored and maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society. It was there, reading a 1850 journal entry describing this Ranch by Margaret Frink, pioneer traveller on the Trail, that Buck caught the bug; like Frink, he too decided to travel west on the Oregon Trail. From April to October, 2008 Buck lives his dream, traveling two thousand miles from St. Joe, MO to Baker City OR, in a covered wagon, pulled by a team of three mules.

the-oregon-trail-9781451659160_lgThis book describes that momentous journey, the first of its kind in over one hundred years. Buck spends that winter voraciously reading, purchases a restored wagon and a team of three Amish mules, designs and has a “trail pup” (a two wheeled covered cart which tagged along carrying supplies) constructed. At some point his brother Nicholas (to whom the book is dedicated) invites himself along accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier Olive Oyl. This turns out to be a lucky turn of events; Nick is an expert mule team driver, (true!) who also can swear a blue streak and does, in almost every sentence he utters. He also seems capable of repairing anything, which turns out to be a necessity as along the way axles and wheels break as well as many other parts of their rig. A third “companion”, the ghost of their father who had taken them on another covered wagon expedition as children through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, “joins” them at various locations as the journey unspools.

This book chronicles the Bucks’ adventures and the (mostly) helpful people they meet along the way. It talks about breakdowns, the weather, where they camped, eating at roadside truck stops as well as at town parks, the fine art of mule handling and the daily push to make 25 miles between sunup and sundown. In the dreamy hours spent on the wagon seat, Buck reflects on the beauty of the remaining original Trail, and figures out how to get around places where the Trail has been paved into interstate, Buck also grapples with the role in his psyche his larger-than-life father continues to play.

The Oregon Trail is also an illuminating account of the Trail’s history through the personal histories of some of the people who travelled its length. He considers a kaleidoscope of stories the Trail holds: the Mormons, the broke farmers, the women and children, the wayside ranches, the Indians, even the shysters at the Missouri jumping off points, who are there selling second grade wheels and untrained mules as well as all sorts of goods the pioneers are often forced to abandon along the way.

Part memoir, part rousing history, part how-to drive a covered wagon and mule team, Buck offers a panorama of a part of history which seems to have been mislaid in the telling of the American story. And this may be the most important insight of them all:

“The exodus across the plains in the fifteen years before the Civil War, when more than 400.000 pioneers made the trek between the frontier at the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, is still regarded by scholars as the largest single land migration in history. It virtually defined the American character—our plucky determination in the face of physical adversity, the joining of two coasts into one powerful country, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the endless, fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Post Oregon Trail—with a big assist from the Civil War—America was a continental dynamo connected by railroads and the telegraph from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

“Seeing the elephant” was the phrase often used by pioneers to describe their Trail journeys. Buck’s trip, 127 years later, shows us what that elephant looks like today.

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The Essential West. Elliott West. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman OK. 2012. 328 pp.

In this collection of 14 essays, penned across his career as a western historian, Elliott West (one of those remarkably synchronous names) takes on topics as diverse as epidemics and Lonesome Dove. Divided into three sections—Conquest, Families and Myth—the book takes a tour around the real and mythic geography of this region of the US, starting with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and ending with stories we continue to tell about the area, no matter their accuracy or not.61NYW73gBNL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

Of course a central question any reader might ask is how West defines the West, on the ground and/or in the mind. Geographically West takes his delineation as the 98th meridian, originally posited by Walter Prescott Webb in the early 1930s, the far eastern edge of the Great Plains, the de facto starting line for the western frontier migrations after the Civil War. Wallace Stegner (following John Wesley Powell) later moved the line to the 100th meridian about 100 miles west, where rainfall dropped below 20 inches per year. As the author points out, the West of the Imagination is another place entirely.

There are a multitude of interesting facts and asides throughout this book. The one most startling to me is the observation that really the US was settled from west to east, not our standard approach of east to west. Changing perspective is, I think, one of his major insight into historic re-interpretation.

West gets into some mind-bending shifts between myth and reality, especially when he looks to the cowboy movies, dime novels and other sources of received wisdom as they relate to historic interpretation. In some of the essays, I admit I lost track of the logic. Perhaps though that is exactly the point, illustrating the zen-koan-like paradoxes the West embraces. In the end, West suggests we rely on the variety of stories which taken together can “show the way to that meeting ground where people and their places are in common identity. They give westerners the power to know where they stand.”

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Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. Bryce Andrews. Atria Books, A Division of Simon and Schuster. New York. 2014. 238 pp.

A short, powerful memoir, Badluck Way chronicles a year in the life of a Seattle-born lover of Montana who follows his heart to a huge conservation-oriented cattle ranch in the state’s Madison Valley.617XgEfo2oL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

With an unflinching eye, Andrews recounts his own struggles to harmonize his environmental ethic with the raw demands of protecting huge herds of heifers and steers as they grow on the ranch’s range. Especially difficult is trying to deal with the predations of a resident wolf pack. One the one hand Andrews is awed and humbled when confronted with the wolves’ unabashed wildness in situ while on the other hand, he finds himself growing ever more antagonistic as the wolves begin pick off his charges with apparent impunity.
The explosive crisis which he describes in all its conflicting emotions and necessities becomes a nerve-wracking. soul-searching window into all humanity’s muddied waters of pure vs. situational ethics and what that means for all of us environmentalists as we try to place ourselves in the all too real non-human world.

His descriptions of the Sun Ranch’s lonesome and brutal landscape are often achingly moving. I’m not so sure about his use of the occasional chapter written ostensibly from the wolf’s point-of-view. I see what he wants to do and probably even why: It does a great job of dialing back the emotional level while providing helpful information. But even as he makes the point that wolves don’t see the world as we do, he raises the question “how does he know?” and illustrates some of the pitfalls of trying ever to get into another’s head, and complicated by the fact that it’s a non-human’s psychology he’s exploring.

Overall the book is thought-provoking and extremely well written. And I can only admire his candor about his own conundrums and the impossibility of bringing his conflicting values together into a philosophical whole. Rarely are authors so honest with themselves or their readers.

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All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West by David Gessner. WW. Norton and Co. New York. 2015. 354 pp.

To look at the rise in twentieth century environmentalism in the West, David Gessner chooses two formidable voices: Wallace Stegner, novelist who penned the Pulitzer- winning Angle of Repose, essayist and coiner of that most memorable of descriptorsof the West, the “geography of hope”; and Edward Abbey, the merry prankster author of numerous novels including most famously the Monkey Wrench Gang and the formative memoir Desert Solitaire.9780393089998_300

As Gessner ranges across the West in search of iconic locations these two authors have lived in and written about, he uses excerpts from their writings as well as extensive interviews with experts as well as people who knew one or the other as friends and colleagues. It’s a huge journey, starting at Edward Abbey’s childhood Pennsylvania, then dipping down for a visit to Wendell Berry in Kentucky who knew them both, then on to Saskatchewan where Wallace Stegner spent many of his most important childhood years. Then Gessner takes the reader deeply “Out West”, visiting ecological high spots which were critical to each writer’s world view, from Arches and Glen Canyon to Stanford and the University of New Mexico.

There is certainly a lot of meat to digest in this book. Gessner obviously did his homework and he brings the two characters into sharp relief, both personally and in how they inspired future Western environmentalists. Some may have chosen Abbey’s model of “monkey wrenching”, working outside the box by physically trying to stop odious development (think sugar in gas tanks). Others may be drawn to Stegner’s moderated voice, a call to work within the system by describing in heartfelt but restrained writings about what our country stood to lose by that development.

While Gessner presents the two in a “compare and contrast” mode (Stegner the “sticker”, Abbey the firebrand). It seems to me a slightly wacky stretch that emphasizes their personal temperaments and styles rather than what overarching truths they tell that sets them apart as two of the greatest voices for preservation of western wilds. Of course they are—it’s just that they make such strange bedfellows. The book seems to unnecessarily overreach to point out their differences—I take away “button-downed” Stegner vs. “wildman” Edward Abbey, neither especially enviable characters. I’d rather revere them both for their common passion for the West and their lifelong devotion to its preservation.

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