Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Alexander's Bridge - Willa Cather

Back in 2009 I read the classic by this author, My Antonia, a wonderful story of pioneers in America.  This book is her first story, written in 1912.  It's a beautiful hardback book, with several black and white photos of the times, helping to set the stage for the story.  It tells the tale of Alexander, a bridge builder, as his life unwinds when he reignites an affair of his youth.   At one point he reflects:
"After all, life doesn't offer a man much.  You work like the devil and think you're getting on, and suddenly you discover that you've only been getting yourself tied. up. A million details drink you dry.  Your life keeps going for things you don't want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don't care a rap about."
The story is not the same caliber as her later works yet it paints a picture of the upper class in Boston at the turn of the century and their struggles with life that are not that different from today.  

I found this book an one of my estate sales in a library that was obviously well loved and carefully cataloged. I'm glad it was saved for this reader.

Publication: 1997 compilation version (written 1912)  Read: July 2013  Genre: Fiction  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating - Elisabeth Tova Bailey

This is my favorite book so far this year.  It is the story of a snail in a terrarium beside the author's bed.  Doesn't sound too interesting, right?  It's a gem.

The author has a seriously debilitating condition and spends most of her time in bed, unable to be up for more than a few minutes at a time.  A friend brings a snail from the woods and she observes its daily habits, eventually seeking out its history and finding great comfort in its presence.  The book explores the biology of gastropods while in the background sharing the mental journey of a serious chronic illness.

I found out about the book from the blog of Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and one of my favorite authors.  It has an endorsement from Edward O. Wilson, another author and scientist that I highly respect.

Some quotes I marked:

p.13 "One has to respect the preferences of another creature, no matter its size...."

p. 38 "We are all hostages of time.  We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn't feel equally doled out.  My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had.  It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose".

p. 40 "Those of us with illnesses are the holders of the silent fears of those with good health."

p. 131 "There is a certain depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation; the only rule of existence is uncertainty, and the only movement is the passage of time."

This is a book I will read again.

Published:  2010  Read:  July 2013  Genre: Non-fiction, memoir

Monday, July 22, 2013

Buddha in the Attic - Julie Otsuka

This is a quiet, short novel that builds in intensity.  I began reading it without much inkling of its content and it took a few pages to comprehend the way the story was being told.  The author uses the real stories of multiple Japanese women who were brought to America as mail order brides in the 1920's and 30's.  The writing tells each person's story in a single sentence, one after the other, so the reader is given a perspective on their shared experiences of being on a ship to America, meeting their new husbands, raising their families, and working and living in the U.S.  One reviewer calls it "a chorus of voices".  I felt I learned more about the Japanese temperament and culture while reading the book.  The story builds to the internmentent of the Japanese during WWII.

There is a memorial outside of Phoenix to the Japanese that were interred near Casa Grande.  After reading this story, I plan to visit and learn more about this sad part of our history.  I also plan to watch the documentary Children of the Camps.

Published:  2011  Read:  July 2013  Genre: historical fiction

Peder Victorious - O.E. Rolvaag

This book is the sequel to Giants in the Earth, the classic tale of Norwegian immigrants to the Dakota's in the 1800's.  In this volume, Peder, son of Beret and Per Hansa, is coming of age as a first generation American.  His struggles with his mother to identify himself as American first, Norwegian second form the core of the story.  Beret is again very prominent, her fear of the American ways and losing her children an ever present challenge.

I've read stories of first generation Chinese, Japanese and others to America.  This one, written while many of their parents were still living, is authentic and heartbreaking.  The author continues to describe the great prairie scenery that paint a vivid picture of the great expanses of grassland and sky.  The importance of the religious community to early settlers is brought out in this story as well.

I would highly recommend the first volume for anyone interested in the history and people of this time.

Published:  1929  Read: July 2013   Genre: historical fiction

Friday, July 19, 2013

Incantation - Alice Hoffman

I picked this up in trade while on vacation because I've read other books by the author and it was a short book, easy to read while traveling.  The story is set in Spain during the 1500's.after the expulsion of the Jews.  Those remaining were forced to convert to Christianity or pretended to do so.  Estrella, the young girl telling the story, finds out her true identity and the meaning of friendship and trust with tragic consequences.

It was told in a dreamy, child's voice, moving from carefree innocence to awareness of the situation in her village and family.  As so often when snippets of history are used as the setting for a story, I found myself exploring the setting and the record of this dark time in Spain's past.

Published: 2006  Read: July 2013  Genre: Fiction

Little Bee - Chris Cleave

This is a much celebrated story of a Nigerian teen and an English woman's intertwined lives.  It's told in two voices, switching back and forth, slowly revealing their relationship.  It was a times horrific and sad and the humor I felt was overshadowed by the painful experiences shared.  I came to dislike the English woman because she was unable to step out of her life and really understand the girl's predicament. As other reader's noted, she and her husband were "morally flawed".

I finished this book while driving across county on vacation so I didn't mark any passages to share.  Little Bee (the girl) struck me in one passage where she noted that in our world we watch horror movies to be scared because we feel relatively safe while in hers their real life was horrible and frightening.

It is a powerful story and I would even consider reading it again as it is well written and moving.

Published:  2008  Read: July 2013  Genre: Fiction

Giants in the Earth - O. E. Rolvaag

I love going to estate sales.  I always peruse the books and found this gem and its sequel at a recent sale.
It is the story of Norwegians coming to America in the late 1800's and homesteading in the Dakota Territory.
The main character is Beret, a religious, guilt-laden, depressed woman who despairs at building a life in the prairies.  Her husband, Per Hansa, is the opposite, optimistic and enthusiastic about pioneering in the new world.  The hardships and wonders in early America are vividly painted.  The struggles to make a living and establish supportive communities, start churches and resolve differences in culture and beliefs are woven through the story of their lives.

The author was from Norway and wrote the original story in Norwegian and the English translation was made available in 1927.  It is considered a classic telling of the immigrants that built America.

And it's the story of  relationships between a husband and wife, friends, brothers and neighbors.  I enjoyed reading something written so long ago and finding it relevant and inspiring today.

Published: 1924 (in Norwegian)  Read: July 2013   Genre: Historical fiction