Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Happy birthday to me!

Current book: None
Pages read: None

I know I was all promises and guarantees yesterday, but it's my birthday and I don't feel like posting. So there.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cherish them!

Current book: None
Pages read: None

In case you're waiting with bated breath, the library tells me that my book is in transit at the moment. It got returned, at least, but my guess is that I won't have it and also time to read it until Monday.

Instead, I can tell you what else I've read in the last week or so. I just finished a book called Somebody's Daughter, which was about a Korean adoptee from Minnesota returning to Korea to go to a language school there. She flunked out of college at the U of M in Duluth, and was, in general, a rather unsympathetic narrator. She came across as whiny and snotty, unfortunately, as well as generally standoffish about Korean culture and food, so I wasn't that invested in her discovery of her birth mother. The parts about Korean culture and food turned out to be far more entertaining than the actual narrative. Also, the author was one of those writers who thinks that describing gross stuff makes her gritty and realistic. Using the word shit doesn't make you gritty and realistic; it makes you obnoxious. Pearls of wisdom here, readers, from me to you.

More of other stuff I've been reading tomorrow.

Monday, June 28, 2010

For the civic good

Current book: None
Pages read: None

I'm between list books at the moment, seeing as I strongly prefer not to buy A Clockwork Orange, and whoever has checked it out has not yet returned it to the library. It's due today, so cough it up, anonymous library patron. Anyway, it'll probably take a couple of days to get to me once it's returned, so it could be a bit before there's a substantive new post. (Don't worry, I'll still come and blather about nothing for you, so you can keep checking in.) Sorry, poor planning on my part, I realize, but I get tired of buying books, and I've had to buy two of the last three. I was ok with getting copies of My Antonia and Howards End, but I just have no desire to own the Burgess.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Eat paradox, you Frenchy!

Current book: The Awakening
Pages read: Guest post - chapters 24 - end

Guest post from Fish

I'm not sure I have anything to add to Claire's analysis. It's a problem.

First, the prose. Loved it. It moves between scenes and topics strongly, with clarity and purpose, and Edna is so deep and complicated and real. Her plights and reactions thereto are absolutely genuine and believable.

I think we can peel back some layers on the practicality of her exerting her agency in a non-dying way, such as her ability to sell paintings and live thereby (that level of financial solvency is a marvel in her day), but I agree that she is the sort that needs structure around her, and she'd have to destroy all her recent gains and try reattain them later when she got situated (I'm not real hopeful about that possibility).

It's so interesting that she said she'd never give up her self for her children that early in the novel, when she'd really never known what that was. In the end, she kills herself to save herself, which is one of the most nuanced and complicated accounts of suicide I've ever read.

Soon after writing my previous post, I began to forgive her for not being the self-aware person I was expecting; I exert a great deal of will over my emotions and I almost began to envy her, as she allows herself just to feel and act. I am also very interested how the representations of the character of internal consciousness change over time in literature, and I wonder if I am asserting anachronistic expectations. I've been reading a lot of philosophy of mind, so I am hypersensitive to gradients in representations of consciousness. (If you are too, and like to be made crazy, try Julian Jayne's 1976 psycho-philosophical cult classic "On the Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.")

It's interesting (for me) to think of the issue of Edna's agency in a simplified Sartre-vs.-Spinoza dichotomy. According to Sartre we are radically free, and so Edna could have gone off and been an artist, and damn the consequences. But as you point out, that's not satisfactory: it would have been untrue to herself, and in all possibility destroyed her. (Are we radically free to do that, Sartre? Eat paradox, you Frenchy!) In Spinoza's view, free will is doing what you're made for (I am putting a modern twist on it, a bit), but the conditions and circumstances for Edna to be herself do not obtain. She's caught between her nature and her constraints. It raises the question of whether swimming out to sea was really the only self-willed and true thing she could have done, perhaps the only thing she should have done.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Who would bear the whips and scorns of time?

Current book: The Awakening
Pages read: 137 - 176 (end)

Well, in the end, Robert comes back, if only briefly. Alcée Arobin has, in the meantime, managed to kiss Edna. She is dismayed to find her physical passion kindled at the kiss, regardless of the fact that no love lies behind it. (She is so ready, in other words, to have her world opened and made exciting and different and new that she doesn't need the purity of love or real emotion to do it. The simple physical novelty of arousal is enough. (Ten bucks says the critics of the period were pretty ticked off about that little notion.)) Nothing more comes of it.

Upon his first returning, Robert avoids Edna, but eventually they meet several times by accident, and she discovers that he left, as suspected, because he was in love with her. They end up at her house, smitten with each other and professing their mutual love, but she has to leave for the evening to attend to a dying friend. She exhorts him to wait for her, and he agrees. When she finally comes back, in the small hours of the morning, Edna finds Robert gone. He has left only a note that reads "I love you. Goodby - because I love you." The next day, Edna takes the boat back to Grand Isle, where she drowns herself in the ocean.

So, the real question is, does Edna have any real agency? If you're not an English major, let me explain the literary concept of agency. Basically, it is a character's will and ability to change his or her life - to make choices and follow them through with specific intent. When you ask if a character has agency, you're asking whether he or she is moved by circumstance, or if he or she moves him or herself. It's easy to write Edna off and say that she killed herself because Robert would not love her, but it's simply not true. Chopin makes a point of having Edna realize that though she feels that Robert is the only one in the world worth living for, the only one who can understand her need to be herself, she will eventually tire of him. He is not, then, the reason that she kills herself.

What is? Again, it'd be easy to write it off as simple depression - to call Edna unbalanced and leave it at that. But she's struggling with trying to be the real person that she is, and she realizes, in the end, that it is impossible to do so in her position in the world. So here's where the question of agency comes in. Does she have agency because she takes matters into her own hands, and, knowing that she can never be herself, ends the agony of a false existence? Does she have agency because she throws off the needs of her husbands and, especially, children and kills herself despite them? (Edna maintains, to a friend, that she would die for her children, but she will not lose her sense of self for them. It's rather an excellent point, actually, and one that some modern mothers could stand to take into account.) Or is she robbed of agency by the society that has forced her hand, made her kill herself because there is no other option? Is she robbed of agency, in other words, because there is no way out of her situation, and she has had to choose what she considers the best of bad options? I suppose my answer is that it's a matter of degrees. Does she have more agency than the women who accept their lot and bow to the confines of society? Certainly. Would she have had more agency if she had simply gone out on her own, like Nora Helmer? Indeed. But then again, is it realistic that she would have been able to function on her own, with little money? She might have, but she's not independent enough a character for that. She is, after all, still the flawed and histrionic woman she has always been; she needs, in a way, to be taken care of. It's simply that she also deserves a chance to realize who she really is.

There is a moment, just before her suicide, when she stands naked on the beach. Chopin makes a point of the fact that it is the first time she has ever been outside and naked. That thought alone was enough to sway my sympathies completely to Edna's side. To stand naked and feel the sun and wind on your skin and know that you can never have it again, if you go back to the life you are considering leaving behind? It's reason enough to walk into the ocean.

Superbly worthy of the list, in my opinion. This book raises a thousand questions and provides few, if any, comfortable answers.

Also, guest post time again!

Guest post from Fish
Chapters 1 - 23

I read The Awakening in High School at some point, and resented having to do so. I think I knew, deep down, I was too young and untrammeled to understand much of what was going on in Edna Pontellier, and it irritated me. With the impatience of youth I dismissed it wholecloth, and I remember how utterly I had failed to predict the ending, which added to my impatience. It seemed to come out of nowhere and for no reason.

Now, married, more educated, unemployed and having had to compromise my share of dreams, Edna is a much more sympathetic character for me, and now the end seems not just persistently foretold in the prose, but inevitable. What I do not identify with in Edna is her inability to self-analyze, but I have that philosophers' sickness and have spent perhaps too much of my life under my own microscope and could benefit from a little personal blindness sometimes.

Though, I am still of one mind with Edna and my teenaged self - I am not the mothering kind, and surely I felt the horror Chopin meant to evoke in this passage, though in her own life it was surely taken as shots over the bow:
The motherwomen seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.
I also adored the deliberate callousness of not disclosing the names of the Pontellier children until chapter 14.

Kate Chopin's prose is frequently spare, almost brusque at times. I found it brisk and refreshing, like quick moving stream (a freshet, if you ask Cather), and whatever brief unpleasantness encountered or experienced by Edna is soon whisked away. Her growing infatuation with Robert Lebrun is almost titillating in its tameness; I often reread flirtatious passages just to savor their understatement.

I cheated and read Claire's post, even though I told myself I wouldn't. I agree that Edna is meant to have ambiguity, but I also think to a certain extent she is trying to become nothing more than an instrument of feeling. I'm frustrated that her unrest with herself doesn't lead to any internal reflection. While I have to allow that she's had little opportunity to practice self-actualization, I think we have a responsibility to know ourselves as well as we can and do something about it, not float through life like a luxuriant jellyfish.

It helps if I think of Edna as a teenager herself, working through the mental fog and uphill battles of late adolescence, learning to be who she is. It's chilling to think that experience rare among women of her time. The whole story then becomes a tragic account of women as persons who are never allowed to have or invent the instruments of becoming whole.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cleanup on aisle five.

Current book: The Awakening
Pages read: 93 - 137

Well, Robert Lebrun doesn't return to Grand Isle during the remainder of the summer, In September, the Pontelliers (and all the other families) go back to New Orleans to their normal lives. Edna, however, finds herself unable to conduct herself according to the needs and desires of her husband and his society. She stops having a day for calls and visiting, becomes distant from the children and her husband, and wanders around the city on the streetcars all day, neglecting her household so much that Léonce has to step in and discipline the servants. (Oh, the horror.)

During this period, Edna goes to visit a pianist she met on Grand Isle several times, and the old woman, who is something of an eccentric, plays for her and shows her the letters that Robert has sent. These letters are full of questions about Edna, and it becomes clear that Robert went away to Mexico not because he did not care about Edna, but rather because he cared too much. One day, one of the letters indicates that Robert will be returning soon.

In the meantime, Léonce goes to New York on business and his mother comes to take the children to spend time in the country, leaving Edna alone in the house. Though she is initially sorry to see Léonce go, she soon revels in her freedom. She decides, in fact, that the house is too large for her and that she must move to a small cottage nearby, which she'll rent with her own money, a small dowry from her mother that she brought with her to the marriage. During this time, she also meets Alcée Arobin, a young man of no good reputation who is immediately infatuated with her and begins to pester her with unwelcome advances.

Though some of Edna's actions are histrionic and even, possibly, indicative of depression, I can't help but feel as though I'm rooting for her to develop her sense of self. She takes her hatred of marriage a little too far, as when she visits a couple of friends, happily married, and feels only pity for their boring, normal lives. And yet, it is far from incomprehensible that she, feeling stifled and unhappy as she does, would find any domestic relationship abhorrent. As for the situation with Robert, I don't want to think that it is only his appearance in her life that led her to understand herself as an individual and begin to break out of the confines of her society, but her affection for him is the most tangible transgression against these strictures that she has ever felt. Because it represents such a strong departure from what she is used to, it also leads her into realizing that it is not the only such departure she can experience.

The experience attached to disregarding the rules of society is difficult to describe. It's like running through the grocery store. Have you ever run through the grocery store? The looks people give you span a range of emotions that includes confusion, fear, anger, and disbelief. It is a tiny, tiny thing, to run in the grocery store, and yet, it puts you completely outside the bounds of society for a brief moment. It's irresponsible and silly and possibly dangerous. And it makes you feel free.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Room of One's Own

Current book: The Awakening
Pages read: 43 - 93

Before I even start, I have to take a moment to mark an occasion: I'm halfway through the list! Finishing My Antonia means that I'm done with 50 books and have another 50 to go. It took a year and a half, but there was a four-month break in there when I was teaching school, so I guess I've got a year and a bit to go. Woo?

The Awakening is the story of 28-year-old Louisiana native Edna Pontellier. She's married to Léonce Pontellier, a successful businessman, and they have two children. They are vacationing at Grand Isle, off the coast of Louisiana, for the summer. Edna and the children stay at Grand Isle all the time, and Léonce comes out on the weekends, in the fine summer tradition of people with too much money. Edna spends much of her time with Robert Lebrun, a young man who has summered at Grand Isle for years, and, each year, takes a Platonic, but courtly-love-esque interest in one of the women there. His interest is tolerated because no one takes it seriously, and he often pays this attention of his to a married woman. This summer, that woman is Edna. She is sensitive, however, and has the capacity to take his interest the wrong way. One day, in mid-August, he takes her to another island for the day, and they have a beautiful idyll, away from all the cares of society. (And no, nothing untoward happens. Don't pretend you weren't thinking it.) The next day, he leaves for business in Mexico, and Edna is bereft, though she tries hard not to show it.

Plot-wise, there's not a lot going on, but there are immense and important things happening with Edna's character. She is a woman of great depth and an ambiguity that speaks, to me, very highly of Chopin's ability to create realistic characters. Edna has convinced herself that she's happily married, since Léonce is a good man and an attentive husband, but she does not love him or feel any passion for him. She has convinced herself that she loves her children, but finds their presence stressful, and does not show them affection except when it suits her. (Léonce does not think she is a good mother, and compares her unfavorably to the women he sees around him who dote upon their offspring. His description of the children, however, makes Edna's method of parenting seem the successful one, since he points out to himself that the Pontellier children, when they take a fall, simply get up and brush themselves off, rather than bursting into tears and running for their mother. I can get behind that, Léonce. You should, too.) She has also convinced herself that she fits into her society and functions within it. On the surface, this is true. On a deeper level, however, she finds herself longing for solitude, taking herself apart from the others and engaging in contemplation of things in which they evince no interest. She stays out all night one night, looking at the moon and stars. She revels at the feel of the ocean's water on her skin in the dark, and the feeling of the waves pulling at her when she swims. If anyone shares these feelings, it seems only to be Robert. Léonce will have none of it.

Edna has ambiguity mostly in her relationship with her children. There is an implication that she is somewhat self-absorbed, and it's possible that her tendency to ignore her children when it suits her is damaging to her relationship with them. At the same time, though, she shows an interest in herself and her own life that is nothing short of admirable in comparison to the other women at Grand Isle who are obsessed with nothing so much as their own offspring, and seem to define themselves only by their roles as mothers and wives. There's also some ambiguity in Edna's dramatic need for solitude. Sometimes it seems just that - dramatic, and therefore, again, self-indulgent. But mostly it is as though her real soul, her true nature, is screaming to get out, to leap from within the boundaries that have been placed on it by society and let her be who she really is.

Things will happen because of the fact that society cannot allow this to occur. They will not be good.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hurrah! The murder!

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: Guest post - chapters 19 - end

Guest Post 2 - From Fish

I never mentioned Otto and Jake, the farmhands who were as older brothers to Jimmy, even though they were interesting. Jake got into a fight with Ambrosch but was the better man about it and Otto had all the marks of a former outlaw, I should think. Perhaps they are most important for the reminder that in those days, people would just go out of your lives forever, like a light going out. The Burdens received one letter from them and then nothing ever again.

I confess I read through the rest in a rush. Jimmy, bored with sleepy small-town life, gets a bad reputation from associating with the telegraphers and the railroad men and sneaking out after his grandparents went to sleep to go to dances on Saturday nights. After seeing his grandmother crying at his deception, he cleans up his act, but is still as bored as ever. He redirects much of this into his studies, Latin especially.

There's opportunity to draw interesting conclusions about the rural lives of immigrants in the period, at least insofar as pertains to Antonia's station. She and the other oldest girls of immigrants are hired help around town. Three of them are most prominent in the story, Antonia, Lena and Tiny, with Norwegian Anna sometimes rounding out the foursome, and then the four Dutch washing girls and the three Bohemian Marys. Each of them is much admired for their spirit and beauty, but all are scorned socially. Not the marrying kind.

I had a scare when a group of men demanded that they dance with them when a blind pianist was in town, and again when a town boy stole a deep kiss from Antonia three days before his wedding. We all know what kind of ugliness might have occurred. Black Hawk, NE produced a frightening frequency of despoiled hired girls, including the Bohemian Marys, and nearly Antonia herself. (A technicality: her despoilment happens elsewhere.)

After the kissing incident, Mr. Harling tells Antonia she has to stop going around to dances or stop working for him. Antonia, knowing full well she'll have few enough chances for that kind of fun in her life, holds on to them with fierce determination, and leaves Mrs. Harling and her children, who she loves very much, and goes to work for the town loan-shark and girl-despoiler, Wick Cutter. (Does that sound like a sick turn on a biblical passage to other people?)

She becomes a bit of the town tragedy, since everyone was so fond of her, but she had burned her bridges with the Harlings, and seems also heedless of her virtue. At length, the Cutters go out of town and Wick undertakes a great deal of manipulation to ensure that Antonia will be in his house, alone, when he comes back in the night unexpectedly. Antonia is spooked by his strange requests in his absence and goes to Jimmy's grandparents, who has Jimmy stay the night instead of she. Well, Cutter comes home to ravish Antonia, and there's a pretty severe scuffle between Wick and Jimmy, who goes out through a window face first.

Seeing how obvious it was that Cutter's only motive was to have Antonia's virtue, I was really aggravated that neither Jimmy nor Antonia nor the Burdens made any move against him. It goes to show how little an immigrant girl's modesty meant to the rest of the town, which is scary as hell. Well, that and we find out later that Cutter was stupid rich and it would have been a nightmare if they'd gone after him.

Jimmy goes off to school, reads Virgil and Dante, learns that he doesn't have the stuff to be a scholar, and finds the more he learns about the wide, wide world, the more it seems to be populated by the things he knew back home. Lena moves to Lincoln where he's going to school, and they start going out, sort of, and his studies get shot to hell. Eventually, Lena tells him she never wants to be married and Jim goes to Harvard to be a lawyer.

Back in Black Hawk, Antonia falls in love with a lying rapscallion train-ticket-taker person who she goes to Denver to marry, and he loses his job, leeches off her traveling funds, lies to her about everything, gets her pregnant and disappears to Old Mexico to scalp the rail company and the customers and get rich off both. In other words, a real winner. Antonia goes back to Ambrosch's clutches, has the baby with little fanfare, and is generally ruined.

Time passes. Jim travels. Antonia marries a nice Bohemian man and they have a jillion children, who Jim meets when he goes to visit her finally, 20 years later. Antonia is still full of love and life and her children are loving and good, and her husband is a decent, earnest fellow who loves Antonia more than farming but misses city life. Her kids are a sort of reprise of the people we met in the first half of the story, representing, I guess, the good Antonia brings out in people as well as the circle of life, ahem, as it were.

Lena is interesting, as a foil to the people around her, and I feel bad for her because that's all Cather does with her. Well, she does become the premiere dressmaker in Lincoln, so that's something. Tiny makes it up to Alaska during the gold rush, gets rich, loses some toes and moves to San Fransisco and eventually gets Lena to move out with her. Neither of them ever marries, and Tiny makes sure Lena's accounts stay black, and Lena makes sure Tiny never looks too shabby. I thought this was a pretty adorable touch.

Wick Cutter commits a very determinedly orchestrated murder-suicide so that his wife who he basically hates can't get any of his estate when he dies. Antonia's oldest son recounts the story to Jim and as he begins the children exclaim: 'Hurrah! The murder!' Which was awesome, but I'm not sure what it did, literarily.

That is really how I felt the whole time: what is going on here that is literarily important? It was kind of a novel version of those lazy river rides at water parks. Even Antonia's despoilment is told from afar and without much emotion.

It's got some uncomplicated presentations of class-race interactions, but without any directed analysis or commentary. It's got some literature and theatre, but neither Jim nor Lena are equipped to understand the real significance, and so really nothing comes through them to us. Jim repeats a Latin phrase to us, 'Optima dies... prima fugit.' which is translated to mean "in the lives of mortals the best days are the first to flee." I should hope that it is meant to tie into Antonia some way, but she is just as happy and alive as she was when we first met her. And I think Jim is also satisfied with his life. Sure, he misses their youth together, adventuring on the plains, but they've both had good lives, his perhaps more adventurous than hers, but she had wanted to have a farm and a big family, so I won't hear of his judging her life to have been misspent.

The wisest thing Jim ever recounts is when he explains to his schoolmates that the immigrants around town weren't ignorant and stupid just because they spoke English poorly - some of them had been musicians or magistrates or clergy, but the townspeople don't ever care. Oh, small-town America, how little you've changed.

It was an easy, fun read. It was written from two disadvantaged literary camps, American writers and women writers, and it won hearts and minds for both. It talks much more about the roles of pioneer women than anyone had seen at the time, which I suppose I take for granted now.

It's a conundrum - someone publishes something seminal and profound that changes its section of the world, but as the years go by, the effect and strength is diminished until one wonders why we keep it around anymore. How do we balance original impact with staying power? I'm a philosopher, and I grapple with this when I read primary texts. The ancient Greeks seem banal and out of touch now, but they lit a light in the world. Willa Cather's novel did the same, but what a subtle light, and what a gentle lesson.

Many a rose-lipt maiden

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: 137 - 222 (end)

Shockingly, nothing too terrible comes of Antonia's working at the Cutters. Jim's grandmother finds out about his reputation for being something of a bad boy, and, as a result, he promises not to go to any more dances. Instead, he devotes himself to his studies, and, in the fall, heads off to college in Lincoln. He works hard for a year or so, but in the fall, Lena Lingard, one of the farm girls who's become a successful dressmaker in Lincoln, comes to see him. For the next two terms, he is distracted by Lena and her charms, though they never actually have a romantic relationship. In the end, after Jim learns that Lena never intends to get married, he follows one of his professors to Harvard and gets his degree there, away from Lincoln's distractions. Returning to Nebraska before law school, Jim learns that Antonia has had a child out of wedlock and is slaving away on Ambrosch's farm, though she clearly loves the baby and is, therefore, not entirely unhappy. Moving things right along, we jump forward twenty years, and Jim returns once again to find Antonia married, with at least ten children. Her husband is nice enough, though nothing special, and she seems happy with her farm and her family.

And that's all. It's hard to tell what the message here is. The last chapter hits us hard with a sense of destiny and, perhaps, fatalism, as it says that both Jim's and Antonia's futures were laid out for them, unchangeable, by their coming to Nebraska. What does that mean, then? Is it because Antonia is a woman and Jim is a man that he was able to become educated and successful? It can't be, because Lena Lingard stands in stark contrast to Antonia, as a successful and independent businesswoman. Is it because she is Bohemian? Is it because she has a wild spirit that won't bow to the strictures of everyday life? I have no good answers to these questions. I dislike the idea of fatalism, and I don't think it would have been impossible for Antonia to change her fate if she'd so desired. But, unlike Lena, Antonia never really wanted to be independent and rich; she wanted to work outside, on a farm, and have a family whom she could love.

It's tempting to read the story of Antonia as one of tragedy, of a life wasted, but I don't think that's the point. It's told, as is Cather's wont, to show us the story of a life, without judgment on its merits and flaws, but simply as picture of something that's complete. What does Cather want us to take away? It's hard to say. She is a realist in the absolute sense of the word. There is no intended lesson; there is only that which you make of it. It's very rare to find literature that is so completely non-didactic. I think it's worthy of the list for that reason, if nothing else, but I also found the characters compelling. It's hard to say why, but, as I mentioned before, the land of Nebraska itself seemed almost like a character, and that's a unique experience in literature, and worthy of remarking upon. I also think it's better than Death Comes for the Archbishop, for the record, which lacked plot elements enough to keep it moving.

More American women tomorrow, with Kate Chopin! That one I've read before, and I'm looking forward to reading it again and reflecting on it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

All I ever wanted

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: None

My husband and are going on a weekend trip, so I will not be posting. I will be doing things that are fun! Not that this isn't fun. Um. I'm gonna go.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bow to your partner

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: 66 - 136

The Shimerdas manage to get back on their feet with the help of another Czech immigrant and the charity of Jimmy's grandparents, and soon they have a log house, a cow, some hens, and a corn crop that summer. Ambrosch, the eldest son, is in charge of the farm, and is both a bully and a slave driver. Antonia works difficult jobs that are, in the view of the time, unsuited to a woman, though she claims to enjoy them. The Shimerdas treat the Burdens (Jimmy's family) rather abominably, taking advantage of their loans of money and equipment shamelessly, and, on top of that, accusing them of cheating and greed. It's astonishing to me that the Burdens maintain their patience, but they do.

Eventually, the Burdens give their farm into the keeping of caretakers and move to town, both because they are aging and so that Jimmy can attend school. Several months later, Antonia gets a job working as a hired girl for the Harlings, a generous and kind family in town. She and Jimmy become friends again. We watch for several years as they both grow up and start to experience the beginnings of adulthood. They attend dances and flirt and generally enjoy themselves. Jimmy's allowed to get away with this, being a boy, whereas, in the end, Mr. Harling forbids Antonia from attending dances while she lives under his roof. (I imagine Margaret Schlegel might have something to say about that.) Antonia refuses to abide by this rule, and leaves the Harlings to go to work for the Cutters, a couple with a terrible reputation for cruelty and low-mindedness.

As I said yesterday but didn't explain, it's extremely evocative. Somehow, the simplicity of Cather's prose seems to capture the moments of the lives she describes very well. The seasons and the landscape themselves seem part of the narrative, characters that interact with the living and change their patterns and experiences.

There are only a couple of things with which I find fault. First, and most superficial, Cather fails to describe the food in any great detail. She's always discussing the food that the Burdens and Antonia make, and yet, she doesn't make the experience of eating evocative. I like good food in a book, and I think it's a powerful tool for communicating shared experience. Cather could take advantage of that, and doesn't. Second, there's an odd thread of racism that runs through the book, especially when the Shimerdas are treating the Burdens so poorly. The Austrian hired man, Otto, has spoken ills of the Czechs, and the Shimerdas' behavior only confirms his slurs about them. There's never any resolution of the problem; Jimmy decides that Otto's right about the Czechs being lazy and uncouth, and that's all. I don't know that the point is, other than the confirmation of stereotype, but the fact that Jimmy still likes Antonia seems like a contradiction and a failure of resolution. You might argue that it's just that he got over it, and that's possible, but I think the point bears more examination than it's given.

I'm all whininess here, but I'm actually quite enjoying it. It does make one want to go to an old-fashioned dance, though. I long for the days when everyone knew a certain set of dances and one could count on night of live music and dancing in a traditional style for a good time.

Also, I must say that I agree with Fish. I don't believe that things are going to go well for Antonia, and I'm sad for it. She is, as Fish mentioned, something of a wild spirit, and not always likable, but, in the end, she does what makes her happy. I'm afraid that she'll be trapped by that rash servitude to her own happiness into a world that is nothing but misery. How? I don't know. But it seems to be a looming eventuality.

Won't you come in?

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: Guest post - chapters 1-19

Hey! I must be a real blogger now, because I have a guest post! Which, frankly, is saving my ass a little right now, since I did a terrible job yesterday.

Guest Post from Fish

It's hard not to think of My Antonia as inhabiting the same literary country as the latter three-quarters of Wilder's Little House books, with frontier farming, cultural clashes, and childhood narration. The story is easygoing and turns the images and ideas over like a plough, digging deeply enough to keep your attention but not so deep as to drag the whole story under.

I wondered, while reading, what makes a person want to write such a story. The framing narration seems to be from Cather's point of view, but the story itself is told by a male friend who knew Antonia (of the title) longer and better. It is such a gentle, refreshing thing to imagine an author setting down to write a story about the settling of the plains states, immigrants and religion, the nature of neighbors. Such things rarely make great literature, so I am expecting more than what is, so far, sort of an uncomplicated story.

The narrator, Jimmy, is pretty interesting, and recounts the story with the benefit of wisdom and hindsight. He describes a situation where Antonia, being older, is bossy and dismissive of him, until he kills a rattlesnake with a spade. It had been a fat, old thing living a life of reptile ease in a prairie dog town, and I was so charmed by Jimmy's frank admission that, though he thought of it as a grand accomplishment at the time, it was not much of a dragon and he not much of a dragonslayer.

Antonia herself is problematic. Smart and outgoing, but wild and proud, she rubs Jimmy the wrong way with her coarseness, and her good Lutheran neighbors with the largely incommunicable social needs of her family (of whom only she speaks English with any fluency). Jimmy's grandmother seems to be genuinely fond of her, but Cather has set up this inscrutable wisdom thing for both of Jimmy's grandparents (which I frankly find annoying but I'll get over it. Grandfather as a stand-in for God, all beard, wisdom and rare, pithy locutions? I must say, I've seen it before). Basically nobody but Jimmy and his grandparents has any fondness for the Shimerdas, and they don't really help their own reputations. Antonia's mother and brother are proud as well, and poverty has introduced to them a meanness of spirit that one charitably hopes isn't their natural state.

I will say that I'm watching Antonia with a sort of checked dread. She is so built up in the framing narration that surely something terrible and transformative is coming. After the death of her father, whose general benevolence granted her much personal leeway, and the subsequent eminence of her furtive, manipulative relatives, I am assuming it will come from that quarter, but who can say? I've read frontier narratives and I know a pretty good set of what can really go wrong. A string of dead livestock, a murder, or even a broken limb could do the job just as easily.

The first 19 chapters close with she and Jimmy laying on the chicken house and watching an electrical storm roll in. I suppose that's what it's all about. I fear for her.

A post-script: My bloodline passed through Bohemia, and I too am smart, proud and wild, and have tried to be as strong as the men around me, and so see much of myself in Antonia. Much of my fear for her is fear also for my hypothetical frontier self. I predict her spirit will be much abused in the coming chapters, and I know I will take it as a personal hurt.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Bohemian lifestyle

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: 4 - 65

10-year-old Jimmy moves to Nebraska to live with his grandparents, where he meets the neighboring family, the Shimerdas, and their 14-year-old daughter, Antonia. The family is from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) and very poor. They live in poor conditions in a dugout house, and nearly starve to death their first winter. Jimmy teaches Antonia English and they become friends. At the end of the first winter that Jimmy and the Shimerdas are in Nebraska, Mr. Shimerda kills himself with a shotgun. The Shimerdas, who have always looked to Jimmy's grandparents for help, ask for their aid in surviving the winter and dealing with the funeral.

That's where we are. It's evocative and interesting, and I have some things to say about Cather's prose, but I am tired right now and won't do it justice. I promise more analysis tomorrow when I will, I hope, have it in me. This is kind of a pathetic post. The end.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Frankly, my dear...

Current book: Howards End
Pages read: 239 - 319 (end)

So it turns out that the reason Helen disappeared to Europe is that she was pregnant! And it was Mr. Bast's! Apparently, the night of the disastrous wedding, Helen allowed Mr. Bast to take comfort in her arms, and has been hiding on the Continent ever since. Margaret finds out when she finally ambushes Helen at Howards End, having convinced her she needed to come and get the old books that the sisters had stored there. Henry is with Margaret, and duly scandalized, but Margaret reconciles with Helen. The two plan to spend one last night together at Howards End before Helen goes back to Italy and disappears from English society forever. Henry, like an idiot, refuses to let Helen stay at Howards End, and, in an impassioned speech, Margaret defies him and all mankind! It's totally awesome!
"You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress - I forgave you. My sister has a lover - you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel - oh, contemptible! - a man who insults his wife when she's alive and cants with her memory when she's dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These, man, are you. You can't recognize them, because you cannot connect. I've had enough of your unweeded kindness. I've spoilt you long enough...You have betrayed Mrs. Wilcox, Helen only herself. You remain in society, Helen can't. You have had only pleasure, she may die." (286-287)
See how awesome?

Anyway, so she and Helen spend the night at Howards End, and in the morning, Charlie, the complete idiot, comes to demand their exit. Meanwhile, though, Mr. Bast has been making his way to the house to apologize to Helen, and, of course, he and Charlie meet. Charlie has been informed that the situation is Mr. Bast's responsibility, and he overreacts and smacks Mr. Bast on the shoulder with the flat of an antique sword that's kept at the house. (Like you do.) Mr. Bast, victim of congenital heart disease, drops dead. (Man, it's like I'm making this stuff up, it's so great. I'm not, though. You can look it up.) Charlie ends up getting brought before the magistrate for manslaughter, and, as a result, Henry has an emotional collapse. He apologizes to Margaret, who tells him she intends to go live with Helen in Europe, but he begs her to stay. She takes pity on him, and ever after rules the marriage. She and Helen and Henry live at Howards End with Helen's son, and Henry wills the house to her. Charlie gets let off, though his reputation is ruined. The end!

Man, I really liked it, actually. I'm impressed with Forster for doing the completely unexpected with Margaret's character, even though there were ridiculous plot twists all around. It was an excellent examination of the pressures of class and what happens when those on their margins try to break free from their strictures. And yay for Margaret!

Worthy of the list.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Is that a femur in your walk-in?

Current book: Howards End
Pages read: 164 - 238

So, Mr. Wilcox (whom we now refer to as Henry) and Margaret get engaged. Tibby and Helen are displeased, as are Evie and Charlie (the Wilcox children), but everyone seems to tolerate it. Margaret finds herself, unsurprisingly, bowing to Henry's wishes when conflicts arise, but she professes to love him, so things go along without conflict. Henry and Margaret go to visit Howards End, and she falls in love with the place, but the foreshadowing indicates that she'll never get to live there.

In August, Evie gets married, and Margaret is introduced to the Wilcox society, where she tries not to do shocking things (Like checking on the condition of a cat that Charlie hits with the car. That sort of concern for the pets of the lower class is simply scandalous), and mostly succeeds. After the wedding is over, though, in the evening, Helen shows up from London with the Basts in tow, and announces that Mr. Bast took their advice about his company after all, quit, took another job from which he was laid off, and is now penniless. With Mr. and Mrs. Bast eating leftover wedding cake, Margaret, embarrassed for herself and her sister, asks Henry to find Mr. Bast a place, a request to which he agrees. However, while Henry's walking back through the garden, he meets Mrs. Bast, who greets him by name and term of endearment, making it clear that she was once his mistress.

Oh, the scandal! Henry immediately tells Margaret that she's no longer bound by the engagement, and runs away to hide in his study, while Margaret packs off Helen and the Basts and sits up all night thinking about it. She ends up forgiving Henry, and they reconcile, but Helen is quite upset with the situation and heads off to recuperate in Germany. She tries to give the Basts 5,000 pounds as remuneration for having lost Mr. Bast his job, but they refuse the money.

The best part so far is the characterization of Margaret as she prepares to wed Henry. She's losing herself to his whims and the needs of his classism, and it's impressive how Forster manages to create tension and suspense during the process. Will she allow Henry's wishes and needs to run her life? Will she bow at every turn to that which she thinks is love, when really it's a need to conform to society? Will she assert herself and create a home for them against the wishes of both of their families? Tune in next week to Howards End!

Speaking of classism, also, it's pretty clear that Forster has very little respect for class division. The fact that Henry has had a tryst with the coarse and ignorant Mrs. Bast (who, seriously, is pretty horrible) is as demeaning to her as it is to him because of the crossing of class lines. (It's implied, I should say, not stated, but it's pretty clear that she would have been much better off if she hadn't fallen into the relationship with him, but rather had married within her class.)

Tomorrow, the thrilling conclusion!

Friday, June 11, 2010

12 BR, 6 BATH, Lovely Views!

Current book: Howards End
Pages read: 83 - 163 (same as yesterday)

So, Mrs. Wilcox dies and leaves her beloved house, Howards End, to Margaret instead of to her own relatives. Said relatives, however, especially her eldest son, Charles, don't tell Margaret this vital information, which only exists in a handwritten note. They keep the house, obviously, but choose to rent it out rather than live in it, a violation of tradition which would have upset Mrs. Wilcox deeply, which is why she left it to Margaret in the first place.

Several months later, we find that Margaret and Helen and Tibby have run out of lease on their own house and are trying desperately to find another, though unsuccessfully. They have the money; they just can't find anything appropriate. By chance, Margaret has grown friendly with Mr. Wilcox, the late Mrs. Wilcox's widower, and, also by chance, the house he was using in London is just now coming up for rent. He invites her to come to look at it, which she does, and while she's visitng, proposes to her. (Isn't he twenty years older than her at least, you ask? Why yes. Yes, he is.) Inexplicably, she actually find herself in love with him, and asks for time to consider the idea. She hasn't said yes yet, but clearly intends to. Helen and Tibby are scandalized, but Margaret doesn't seem to care. (She clearly has her own ideas about marriage, since she's twenty-nine and remains unmarried despite several proposals.)

During this period, we also meet Mr. Bast, a member of the lower class who accidentally comes to visit the Schlegels on a couple of occasions. The first time it's because Helen inadvertently took his umbrella home from the symphony. The second time it's because his wife found the visiting card from the first time and went to the house looking for him, and he feels the need to come and apologize for her intrusion. He was, he explains, out for a walk, and got lost all night. The women, hearing this story, immediately recognize a kindred spirit in this person who appreciates the beauty of the world enough to take a solitary nighttime walk. They propose friendship, but he denies them, saying things will never be this pleasant again. (Because, he implies, they never are upon a second meeting. Balderdash, I say. Sometimes they aren't, it's true, but you'll never find the people with whom they will if you don't give them a chance.) They hear, a few days later, that the insurance firm for which he is a clerk is about to be ruined. They invite him again to warn him about it, but he accuses them of trying to engage in some kind of insider trading scheme and storms out.

Clearly Forster is saying something about class, but I'm not sure what it is yet. The Wilcoxes are upper-class, the Schlegels middle-class, and the Basts lower-class, but it's hard to tell what we're supposed to know about them because of that. Mr. Bast is a bit reactionary but actually visionary and intelligent. The Wilcoxes are sensitive and, in the end, rather crass, and the Schlegels are a mix of rational, socially critical, and impractical in the extreme. They don't fit their class stereotypes, but that's not much of a message. I need to know more before I draw conclusions. (Which is rather a good sign, when you think about it.)

Also, Forster gave me an excellent quote about moving. He's obviously been through the process a few times.
"When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous..." (139)
Amen, Forster. Amen.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Never ever jam today

Current book: Howards End
Pages read: 83 - 163

I'll tell you - I am a failure this week. I read, but again have no time to write a post. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I promise.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A very short engagement

Current book: Howards End
Pages read: 3 - 83 (same as yesterday)

So far we've met Helen and Margaret Schlegel, who are the daughters of a German father and English mother, both dead. They're cared for by their aunt in lieu of their parents. (Well, cared for is a strong term, since both sisters are in their 20s and don't really need looking after.) They also have a younger brother, Tibby, who hasn't yet come of age.

Helen goes to visit some friends, the Wilcoxes, that she met on a vacation, and falls in love with the youngest son, Paul, which causes scandal all around. They break it off, and everyone's satisfied (except the reader, who's going, "Wait, what?" because it happens in the space of 24 hours). Several months later, by chance, the Wilcoxes rent a flat across the street from the Schlegels' house in London, and though Paul and Helen don't see each other again, Magaret and Mrs. Wilcox, Paul's mother, become good friends.

And that's what's happened in 80 pages. I'm a little mystified as to why both the Schelgels and the Wilcoxes were so upset about the engagement in the beginning, but I'm going to with the explanation that the Wilcoxes are rich and the Schlegels are intellectuals, and therefore neither thinks anyone but themselves are worth the time of day.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Staff meeting until 9:45.

Current book: Howards End
Pages read: 3 - 83

Read, but no time to update. I just got home from work. Ew. Tomorrow, more.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Library of Congress would not approve

Current book: In Cold Blood
Pages read: 302 - 343 (end)

You can blame the late update today on Blogger, which was not working for a long time.

Guess what happens? They get convicted and executed! The end!

I don't care. It wasn't even literature. Learn to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction, Radcliffe list!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Let me count the ways

Current book: In Cold Blood
Pages read: None

The reasons you don't get an update are so numerous as to be absurd. I will elucidate them at a time when they cease to prevent me from doing so.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Permission to treat the witness as hostile?

Current book: In Cold Blood
Pages read: 217 - 302

They both get arrested. Perry rats Dick out. They both confess. They're currently on trial. Can you tell I don't care?

I don't know; it's not like there's that much to say. They give an account of the crime that pretty much amounts to trying to find the nonexistent safe and then killing everybody because they'd only get into more trouble if they left the family alive. Perry did all the shooting, and is clearly disturbed, whereas Dick was inclined to leave without killing anybody, and is merely a terrible person. Dick, in jail, has tamed a squirrel and gotten in touch with an old friend from the the army. (Squirrel-taming? Really? Those suckers are feral. Just saying.) Clearly, Capote has some sympathy for him, or he wouldn't be telling us stuff like that. Perry, though, honestly seems to have some kind of detachment disorder and is arguably insane enough to plead it as a defense. We don't know the trial's outcome yet, but the State is seeking the death penalty, and seeing as Dick and Perry's rather apathetic lawyer didn't get a change of venue, things are looking pretty bleak for the defendants.

I don't have huge exciting cooking plans for the weekend, though I made a simple version of Chicken Marsala last night that took all of 20 minutes and tasted amazing. So that was nice. I made brownies today, too, but I used a box. Oh, whatever. I hear you judging, but frankly, scratch brownies usually aren't as good. (Plus, I employ the vital secret of adding instant coffee powder and double-strength vanilla to the box mix. Now you too can employ that vital secret.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Dark and stormy

Current book: In Cold Blood
Pages read: 78 - 217

No update yesterday because I was just crazy busy, and then tired. Also, there really wasn't anything to say. And there's still barely anything to say.

Perry and Dick go to Mexico after bouncing a bunch of checks, stay there for while, and then hitchhike around the countryside of the central U.S. for about a month. Just before Christmas, Dewey, the main detective in the case back in Kansas, gets a lead on them from a former cellmate of Dick's, who heard him plan the killing when they were locked up together. This cellmate, who'd been a hired hand on the Clutter farm, apparently told Dick that Herb Clutter kept a safe in the house, which, on any given day, would have had ten grand in it. Untrue, but Dick reacted to the information by forming a plan to murder the family and abscond with the safe. When the cops hear the cellmate's tale, they track Dick and Perry to a cheap motel in Las Vegas, via pawnshop receipts, and lie in wait. They arrest Dick when he returns to the place, but have not yet found Perry.

It's still true crime and therefore uninteresting. Capote manages to take the mystery out of every event by relating it retrospectively, so you know what's going to happen before it even gets started. It'd be hard not to do that with the crime itself, but he does it about everything, and it's obnoxious.

The book shouldn't have been considered for the list. It's not fiction and certainly not literature. Can anyone who reads true crime explain the appeal? Why is it fun to read about actual deranged murders? I don't read thrillers or mystery novels, either, for the same reason, I suppose, and also because they're maddeningly predictable. I'm pretty much at a total loss about how they hold their audience's attention. (Do I sound peevish? That's because I am.)

I developed a rule for myself when I was an adolescent that if I picked up a book and it started with the main character's full name, I would put it right back on the shelf. For example, "Rex Clarke sat at the bar, clutching his glass of whiskey and thinking about how things had gone wrong." Clearly, no good will come of a book that starts that way. Nine times out of ten, it's a sign of impending drivel. Mystery novels. Blech.


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