Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Book Riot's 2018 Read Harder Challenge

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It's a new year and time to start a new reading challenge! (Remember when I started the 2017 Read Diverse Challenge? Yeah, that one failed; I guess I needed the extra structure.)

Back at the start of 2015, I stumbled upon and began Book Riot's annual reading challenge. Though it ended up taking me more than a year to complete (errr...try two whole years...), I absolutely loved hunting down purposeful titles for each category that often took my outside my reading comfort zone. In fact, I've designed my staple school library reading program around the same categorical reading challenge, which gives students the choice to pick the titles they want.

Categories for the Book Riot 2018 Read Harder Challenge:

  1. A book published posthumously
  2. A book of true crime
  3. A classic of genre fiction
  4. A comic written and illustrated by the same person
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa)
  6. A book about nature
  7. A western
  8. A comic written or illustrated by a person of color
  9. A book of colonial or postcolonial literature
  10. A romance novel by or about a person of color
  11. A children's classic published before 1980
  12. A celebrity memoir
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection
  14. A book of social science
  15. A one-sitting book
  16. The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series
  17. A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author
  18. A comic that isn't published by Marvel, DC, or Image
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation
  20. A book with a cover you hate
  21. A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author
  22. An essay anthology
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60
  24. An assigned book you hated (or never finished)

This time, my goal is to actually finish it within the year!

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017: Year in Review

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2017 has been a year in flux! The 2016-2017 school year was pretty crappy, so January to May were spent surviving more than anything else. In March, I found out I was pregnant, so add 1st-trimester severe exhaustion to the end of that less-than-stellar school year. Summer vacation took us to Japan for our last big travel venture pre-baby; a new school year started in August, and my attention span began decreasing at a rapid rate with little one's impending arrival. We welcomed our little Luna into the world just a month ago, and the biggest surprise is how much I just want to stare at her! Everything I usually do to unwind—reading, writing, Netflix-watching—has become exponentially harder with this cute little bug around!

Somehow, I've still managed to turn some pages, though with a few changes. One, print books have taken a backseat, for the first time ever, to my Kindle. My main reading time is while nursing Luna, and I quickly discovered it's super difficult to keep a book open and turn pages with limited hand use. My Kindle's back-light is also proving invaluable during those late night sessions! Secondly, I'm suddenly okay with reading multiple books at once! I've gone through short story collections, memoirs, easier pleasure reading, and in-depth novels. You'd think my brain would have less mental capacity to keep multiple stories straight, but I think maybe it actually needs the variety!

Anyway, since I have so rarely used this space to record my reading encounters [I have, however, taken to posting shorter thoughts and summaries in Goodreads], I thought I'd do my year-end summary with a write-up on some of my more memorable reading experiences of the year.


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr  ||  I read this in April for the library book club that I (regrettably) have not attended since the summer. It's the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths eventually cross during the chaos and destruction of World War II. For a book that was initially incredibly daunting to me (520+ pages, oof; WW II history, yawn), I ended up breezing through it, fully engrossed. I believe that's thanks to its multiple storylines and especially its quick chapters of alternating stories; we are able to follow each's story of survival in great detail. If the author had told this story chronologically, or shared only one piece or perspective, it would have made for a very monotonous novel. Instead, we are graced with a beautifully detailed piece on humanity that is never bogged down by either detail or gravitas. What the author does, HOW he tells this story, is actually a bit magical when you consider how terribly wrong it could have been done. The characters are all full, all entirely human, all just small pieces to this big puzzle of the war. Very, very well done.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky  ||  This is not the first time I've read this novel; I read it twice back in high school/college and, like most emo teens, I adored it. This was my first time reading it, though, as a bona fide a d u l t. It was also my first time reading it with a group of middle schoolers, and that experience is the reason it's on my most memorable list! For some backstory: I've had a group of now-8th graders that joined my library-sponsored book club when they were 6th graders and enjoyed it so much they began planning their own books for us to read as a group. Twice they've selected a book, and my job has been to hunt down enough copies for all and help them with discussion. In the spring (when they were 7th graders), the group of about six girls voiced a desire to read Perks, so I gathered the copies and started re-reading with them. WELL. This book was MUCH heavier than I remember! I've seen the movie version a zillion times (maaaaybe one of my two cases where I like the movie better than the book), and it's entirely PG-13. The book, however, is a lot darker with a lot more mature subject matter—alcohol, drugs, abortion, date rape, molestation. After some serious panic on my part, at our first group discussion I quickly established our meetings as a safe space to ask questions and talk about these issues, if they so desired. What began as a concern (is this appropriate for 13-year-olds??) ended up being a wonderful forum for these kids (I think, I hope) and one of my proudest moments as an educator. We discussed issues with privacy and full confidence; I spoke to parents when I was concerned about exposure of certain topics; and I discovered the wide range of how much kids at this age know—some seem to know it all, some still very naive. In the end, I think it established a great deal of trust amongst our group and, with these students heading to high school at the end of this school year, I am going to seriously miss them. Also, perhaps Perks should wait until at least 8th grade!

Velvet Underground by Teri Brown  ||  A random eBook check-out during my summer travels...For a YA book, this story had an uncommon setting (Europe during WWI) and uncommon plot (espionage) which made it a delightful surprise. The main character, Samantha, is a smart, cunning British seventeen-year-old who is recruited for a spy network and sent to "save" a troubled agent in Germany. With little information to go on, she must put the pieces together herself and determine what's truth and what's a lie. The end reveal was a bit Scooby Doo-esque (obvious in that "And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!" way), with the villain's motive slightly TOO explained. As you know, I love the pure entertainment of middle grade/YA, but I liked this so much because it was unexpectedly different in its premise—not romancey, not friend drama, not fantasy, not school-based conflict or hijinx. Overall, a very fun adventure.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman  ||  I was invited to join a librarian friend's book club (an offer at which I enthusiastically jumped!), and this was the selection for my first meeting which was scheduled about three days after I received the invite. I binged it mostly over the course of a weekend and...errr, wow. I'd heard of this story, but had no idea what it was about. It's weird. And genre-defying. It's got fantasy, mythology, horror. magical realism. It's got an engrossing plot, though I was never quite confident in the story I was following. It's an allegory on the old versus the new, diversity versus homogeneity. The more commentary I read, the more I've thought about it over the course of the past several months, I wonder if my easy response of "I just didn't get it" is actually discrediting to myself. I think perhaps I did "get" it; it just wasn't particularly impactful to me. It brings up more questions than it answers, is open to much too much interpretation. I think, perhaps, it was just not for me.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult  ||  Another book club selection, one that I was NOT initially enthused to read. [I have refused to read Picoult since I read My Sister's Keeper and threw the book across the room upon completion.] The story of a newborn, child of white supremacists, who dies while under the care of an African-American nurse who was instructed to not touch the child. Could she have saved him? Is she at fault? It's formulaic like all Picoult novels—well-researched, thoroughly-written, exploring the gray area of conflicted situations. It has its weaknesses (pulling out EVERY trope of racial microaggressions), to which I absolutely rolled my eyes at in the beginning. Who is Picoult, this privileged white woman, to write with this voice? But then I thought about it. And I read some reactions. And I read Picoult's author's note at the end. And, most importantly, I considered this story within its literary context. See here: I am what I am. I am an affluent white woman. I try to be pretty "woke" about it—aware of my privilege, my perception, and cognizant of the experiences of people in my community that are different than myself. Therefore, as a "woke" liberal, I was aware of Picoult's examples of modern racism, considering them too easy of examples, too stereotypical. Of course, that's insulting; of course, that's racism. Delve into the complexitiesthat's what needs to be explored and addressed! The thing is, not everyone is me. Picoult's primary audience is not me. To them, maybe these instances aren't so obvious; maybe they need pointing out, as basic as they seem. That's what changed my opinion—considering the message of this book and its intended audience. And if this book serves that role, if it causes some middle-American suburban book club-goer to question interactions, to think deeper about these things, to "wake up" to a reality they've rarely considered, then I applaud its intent.

And lastly...

THE 2017 RUNDOWN
  • 70 total books
  • 41 children's/YA titles
  • 5 nonfiction (yikes, I didn't realize—how dismal!)\
  • 7 chunksters (hefty page count and/or daunting complexity, subject, language, etc.)
  • 6 graphic novels
  • 2 re-reads

Most engrossing: The Diviners by Libba Bray, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Most boring: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Most memorable: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa

Most forgettable: A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

Most enjoyable: Great With Child by Beth Ann Fennelly, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Most gratifying: Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

Most disappointing: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Fiction | A Villain's Side to History

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Consider this the year of checking titles off my circa-2002 Gilmore Girls reading list. First, I conquered Proust, and now I can check off Gore Vidal, as well. Something about this year has inspired me to read more in-depth—partly, I think, because I enjoyed reading David Copperfield so much last Thanksgiving. It's one of those instances of reading the right book at the right time, being in the right mindset and such. (Plus, I've probably gotten much more out of them now than I would have in high school, anyway.) As such, these chunksters have brought me some perfectly lovely and gratifying reading experiences lately—ironically, a welcome respite from the almost-mindlessness of breezing through middle grade titles for work.

When I decided to pick up a Gore Vidal novel, I had two options from my own bookcases—Empire and Hollywood. Upon further research, however, I discovered these were just two titles in his "Narratives of Empire" series, a saga of American history spanning post-Revolution to mid-twentieth century. Obviously it wouldn't do to start in the middle, where either of these titles begins, so I decided to jump back to the first in the series, chronologically. [They can be read in either chronological or publication order.]

That brought me to the premier novel of Vidal's series, Burr, a narrative that challenges the myth of many of America's founding fathers, taking place in the early 1800s.

The premise of Burr centers around one such man with historical renown of nearly-mythological proportion, the villainous Aaron Burr—traitor, murderer of Alexander Hamilton, anti-hero of early American history. The story is narrated by the fictional Charles Schuyler, a young law clerk in Burr's law firm who has no political interest, nor connections, but dreams of becoming a writer and is hired to collect Burr's memoirs as his foray into journalism. While the present-day narrative spans just a few years in the early 1830s, time frequently jumps to Burr's past, 30-50 years prior, as the titular character recounts monumental episodes and pivotal moments in his life and that of his country.

Per the author's afterword, this story told is "history and not invention." In detailing so many conversations and interactions between these figures of American lore, Vidal says, "...the characters are in the right places, on the right dates, doing what they actually did. Obviously I have made up conversation, but whenever possible I have used actual phrases of the speaker." I find this enlightening, because to Vidal, in writing this book, there is not much difference between this, a "historical novel," and history itself. And that matters because Burr shares the conflict of character, the dark side of personalities and relationships, the nuance of politics—pieces of history that have been lost or overshadowed by their myth and legend, the story that has become unquestioned truth over the course of the past 250 years.

So in Burr we are given a front row seat to such historical events as the infamous 1804 duel with Hamilton and his trial for treason, ordered by Thomas Jefferson, involving the conquering (or liberation, depending on whose side you're on) of Mexico, as well as insight into relationships with such figures as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, and Van Buren.

My knowledge of such figures and events doesn't span far outside what an AP US History textbook may tell me. I've never delved into biographies that share the more personal side to these people; I don't know their backgrounds, their motivations, their conflicts. And because of this, Burr read to me like a television drama in which each person has their own reasons for being and doing—again, an angle and consideration that has disappeared from the story told in textbooks. Whether entirely accurate or not, Vidal presents a much more realistic, human side to a mythic story—one in which (by using Burr's perspective for storytelling) Washington is regarded as an inept military leader; Jefferson is hypocritical and conniving, bribing his way into political power; and Hamilton is an opportunist, using others to gain power and scheming a back-stabbing case against Burr as a last plot of vengeful competition. These are figures presented with their flaws in tact, not erased by a revisionist history that remembers them only as America's greatest heroes.

Another realization I had while reading Burr is how much detail to a story is lost over the years, how history is simplified over time and there are so many pieces that, once so important, may be forgotten entirely. The political climate of Burr's years as Jefferson's Vice-President (beginning 1801) were still rife with lingering Revolutionary conflict. The Federalist Party clashed with the Democratic-Republicans, who believed Federalists too nationalistic and too sympathetic to ties with Britain. And news (though not surprising) to me, these party lines were mostly drawn between New England and the lower states, between the old guard of British-born politicians and populist figures of the new America. Did you know there was an early suggestion the newly-born US be split into two countries, with a dividing line of...the Hudson River?? Or that states maintain a Constitutional right to secede from the union as they wish? Though most likely these were huge conflicts at their time, they are details that have been lost to historical summation.

In a sense, it makes me feel better about politics today. It's not necessarily that things have gotten so utterly complex, such a multi-faceted mess, just now; there have always been fighting factions and too many sides and issues to keep straight, much less figure out how to solve. It's just that we remember history by its headlines and trends—a linear plot that we can easily follow how A led to B and to C. When you're looking back on the big picture of change, it's the cause and effect that seems to matter, not all the details of how we got there. Vidal may present a more cynical history than some care to read, but it's fascinating and enjoyable to experience such a side of the story.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On Interconnectedness

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This was the moment when I began to understand how unaware I'd been - not only in planning to run away, but in everything. I'd never understood how closely things are connected to one another. ... We human beings are only a part of something very much larger. When we walk along, we may crush a beetle or simply cause a change in the air so that a fly ends up where it might never have gone otherwise. And if we think of the same example but with ourselves in the roll of the insect, and the larger universe in the role we've just played, it's perfectly clear that we're affected every day by forces over which we have no more control than the poor beetle has over our gigantic foot as it descends upon it. What are we to do? We must use whatever methods we can to understand the movement of the universe around us and time our actions so that we are not fighting the currents, but moving with them.

—From Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden, p. 127

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part III

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In the final section of Swann's Way, titled "Place Names: The Name," we're thrust back into our original narrator's voice as he ruminates on the power of names, particularly their ability to trigger a memory or emotional episode from one's past. After a fair amount of lengthy prose on this phenomenon itself, he finally gets to the main point: the narrator's relationship with Swann's daughter Gilberte, of which he had spoken more briefly towards the end of Part I.

In some sense, this is where the prior two seemingly disconnected parts to the novel finally do connect. The narrator is in Paris as a child/youth [I'm a little unclear about the exact age] and while out in the Champs-Elysees he hears the name 'Gilberte,' bringing to mind the girl he met back at Combray who made an "indecent gesture" towards him. [One: I don't know what that gesture actually was. Two: See how he connects the name recollection to memory here with this personal experience; point taken.] The girl connected to the name here in Paris is, in fact, the same Gilberte, and the narrator's intrigue is quickly rekindled and strengthened, especially as he becomes a frequent playmate of Gilberte.

The intrigue quickly turns to infatuation with habits and behaviors mimicking the ones we just read about Swann; the narrator finds that Gilberte occupies his thoughts, even outside of their time together and the experiences they share. He begins to judge his own life through a lens that she colors. His governess suddenly seems less sophisticated than Gilberte's; strangers with whom she interacts suddenly have more appeal, strictly by the fact that they earned Gilberte's attention. Further, M. Swann has lost all identity to the narrator as his parents' friend, the man who came to dinner at Combray and prevented his mother from kissing him goodnight. Now, he is "Gilberte's father," and an individual whose attention the narrator desperately seeks for validation, gaining pleasure at the idea that he may occupy any place in the Swanns' thoughts.

This infatuation is called love by the narrator, juxtaposed alongside Swann's own experiences chronicled in Part II, though identified as mere innocence since he, the narrator, was only a child. It becomes clear as I read this section that Proust always intended to carry the story further, using frequent parenthetical side comments to indicate something that will be noted or seen in the future. In a way, this consideration helps make sense of the novel's disjointedness; presumably this story was always meant to be an anthology, stretched out into segments that hop back and forth in time, with a mere single volume entirely unable to tell the full story. This becomes even more apparent with the story's big twist that **SPOILER ALERT** despite Swann's insistence at the end of Part II that he is, in fact, out of love with Odette, it is she who is Gilberte's mother and Swann's wife! And more interestingly, it is simply stated as fact, without any clue as to what led here. I have to say "well done" to Proust for burying the lead; I'm only discouraged that there are six more volumes to read that may or may not, at some point, finally reveal the full story!

After dropping that bomb, Proust concludes Swann's Way with present-day reflection by the narrator as he observes the Paris of the present, finding it void of the elegance he remembers from his past. But ultimately, how accurate are these memories and recollections?

"The reality I had known no longer existed.... The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment [emphasis mine]; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years."

Concluding with the idea that reminisces are not realities, that we hold our memories to a higher esteem where they take on a revered status, Proust reflects that perhaps it was never the "thing" in the first place; there's no sanctity in the objects or experiences to which we attribute such strong emotional connection, but rather it's us - our own personal moment of development, realization, experience, etc. - that creates the moment of inspiration and allows these outside "things" to hold such magic.

"But when a belief disappears, there survives it - more and more vigorous so as to mask the absence of the power we have lost to give reality to new things - a fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief once animated, as if it were in them and not in us that the divine resided and as if our present lack of belief had a contingent cause, the death of the Gods."

And that, my friends, is my completion of Swann's Way. And having finally checked off such a daunting title that has been on my list for fifteen whole years - more of a project, really - I can say with complete confidence and acceptance that I will most likely not be reading on further into In Search of Lost Time. Sorry, Proust.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part II

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Part 2 of Swann's Way is a lengthy, 200-page section titled "Swann in Love," and it's drastically different than the book's first part. It chronicles a period of Swann's history when he was (yep, you guessed it) in love, which was a narrative briefly alluded to by our narrator in Part 1 (so brief, in fact, that I had not even remembered it). The object of Swann's affections is a woman named Odette who is described as rather unremarkable, not the most intelligent, and not at all Swann's usual type. Basically, she's a 19th-century basic bitch.

Swann meets Odette through this social circle led by M. and Mme. Verdurin. Basically, they seem to be a group of semi-social outcasts that have created their own circle of friends just to judge those that have judged them. It's an eclectic set of personalities with the most comedic member, I think, being Dr. Cottard, a man who so humorously lacks social awareness that he never forms a true opinion and always responds with an ironic smile as his safety net - if his attitude doesn't match the socially accepted one, well of course, he knew that all along and now he's simply making a joke about it! Socially, Swann is above all of these people and thus considered a catch for their little social set. Yes, he has managed to create a better social persona than they have, but he's just as shallow and eager to please the public as they are. He only sticks around so long because he falls for Odette, and the Verdurins are his gateway to her.

So about this relationship with Odette. It's funny because in the beginning Swann is described as quite the ladies' man. Upon meeting her at the Verdurins, he gets the impression that she is trying to woo him, though he doesn't find her particularly appealing; the only real attraction comes from the fact that he knows she likes him so much. In fact, he's often with other women right up until he meets her and the Verdurins! As time passes, though, that attraction he feels from her causes his own attraction towards her to grow, creating an interesting type of love affair. How genuine can it be considered if you only fall for the person because you know they have fallen for you? (A modern day quandary as well, I'm sure.)

As time passes, Swann's intrigue turns to infatuation, which turns to full-out obsession. We rarely hear Odette's side, just Swann's as he struggles with the passion, thrills, and insecurities of this relationship. They're definitely lovers by its most basic definition; they meet up regularly, sleep together, and carry on some sort of passionate relationship. Swann is left enamoured, holding on to tiny moments, actions, or words during the time they are not together. (That's the novel's theme playing out: the staying power of insignificant memories.)

After introducing this part's main players and building relationships with descriptive interactions, the relationship begins to fall apart as Swann continues to hear rumors of Odette's amorous past, feeding into a deep, unsettled insecurity. He begins to question everything she says and does, convincing himself that the times she is not with him are filled with deception. Both Odette and the Verdurins lose interest in Swann, most likely due a great amount to his obsessive behavior. Proust then uses pages and pages to convey Swann's internal self-deprecation. He's experiencing an obsession to the point where he doesn't know how to not think about it, creating stories and convincing himself of drama that may or may not exist, because it's easier than letting it all go - you're so used to the anguish that you don't know what to do without it.

As a reader, I'm thinking, "Ohmygod please don't let this go on forever," because it's exhausting and also pretty monotonous. And Proust, then, most likely agrees and brings Swann back into the society he has for so long neglected where it becomes clear how much he has detached himself because of Odette. This, I think, is one of the more realistic and universal points in this whole affair of Swann's. He has sacrificed all other aspects of his life for this tumultuous, insecure affair, and it's this break from Odette, as he is trying to "wean himself" from her, that illuminates that sacrifice. When he once again hears the phrase from the piano sonata that came to define his early passion for Odette, he realizes that passion no longer exists; it's maintained only by his memory.

So like the dunking of the madeleine and the view of the church steeples in Part 1, this musical phrase conjures more than just reminisces; it invokes overwhelming feeling linked to a particular time and place. And in this instance, it's the realization that this emotion no longer exists that helps Swann break with Odette for good.

And before Swann had time to understand, and say to himself: "It's the litte phrase from the sonata by Vinteuil; don't listen!" all his memories of the time when Odette was in love with him, which he had managed until now to keep out of sight in the deepest part of himself, deceived by this sudden beam of light from the time of love which they believed had returned, had awoken and flown swiftly back up to sing madly to him, with no pity for his present misfortune, the forgotten refrains of happiness.

The drastic difference of this section from the previous one comes from the narration. It's told in such a third-person omniscient voice that we totally forget that it's actually the voice of "Marcel," our Part 1 narrator. In fact, I don't think he uses the word 'I' until over 100 pages into this section! We very quickly forget that this whole story about Swann and Odette is, in fact, just a retelling. We're reminded that everything we're reading took place in the past, before the narrator's time, and it must have just been retold to him, perhaps by his grandfather who has been mentioned as a friend of Swann's. I was happy to see, as I predicted, that the story would end up focusing more on Swann (since his name is in the book's title and all), but this total disconnect of narrative voice has left me wondering how it all connects. What's the point in sharing this tumultuous romance of Swann's past and nearly losing track of our narrator? Perhaps Part 3 will tell...

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Fiction | Taming the Wild

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...Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

My library book club just finished Willa Cather's O Pioneers!, a selection I gladly picked up since this is my summer of reading classics and heftier titles. Despite its short length, I had zero idea what this 1913 staple of American literature was actually about, beyond what you could garner from the title.

The story centers around Alexandra Bergson and family, pioneers on the Nebraska prairie in the late 1800s. John Bergson, the patriarch passes away early on, leaving the farm in the hands of his daughter Alexandra in what would have been a hugely uncommon move at the time. (A woman in charge? Heavens!) Alexandra is the eldest of four. The two middle brothers, Lou and Oscar, work the farm but are generally more lazy, self-serving, and looking for a quick buck. They lack Alexandra's deep connection with the land itself, which is most likely why John didn't leave them in charge. They are also constantly concerned with how they appear to others and frequently question Alexandra's progressive decisions; they prefer to fall in line rather than stand out. The youngest Bergson, a son named Emil, is only five when the story begins and develops into a more sensitive, adventurous young man. He's somewhat pampered by Alexandra, because she sees how different his nature is from his older brothers, and he's the only one in the family who attends university. As a result, he's not always held in the highest regard by Lou and Oscar who are probably just jealous. Strangely, the family's actual (unnamed) matriarch is the least present character in the novel. She's described as a good housewife but misses life in the old country, and her life seems one of stoic adaptation.

The communities are small and fairly new, land that has yet to be tamed by its human settlers. The Bergsons represent the thousands of families that packed up and headed west because of the free land promised through the Homestead Act, the act of government that officially opened up the western frontier (reminder: lands taken from the American Indians) to settlers. These are people that are at the beck and call of nature; success or failure is almost entirely out of their hands as an unforeseen drought or late freeze can be your downfall. Cather reminds of us of this power of nature constantly:

"The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings." 
"But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. ...he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness."

There are neighbors and characters that humanize the story - Crazy Ivar, an elderly eccentric; Carl Linstrum, a neighboring young man about Alexandra's age who leaves the prairie and later returns; Marie Shabata, a vivacious young woman, the town beauty; Frank Shabata, Marie's husband, a bitter man unhappy with how his life has settled into one requiring constant hard work. These people, alongside the Bergson family, create the novel's page-to-page stories and conflicts. And those stories are nothing new. Obligation, love, jealousy, sacrifice - these are themes that fill the pages of book after book, and feel all the more powerful when set in such a stark environment such as this one.

What makes Cather's story unique, though, is that despite filling her pages with personal and family dramas, it's never a story strictly about the human condition. Alexandra is a strong, independent woman, yes, but she is so focused on the land that she sacrifices the more personal aspects of her life. She's deeply oblivious to the human passions that are playing out right in front of her because she is so self-sacrificing. Great melodramas of the 19th century - Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Wharton and Austen - speak volumes on the universality of human nature, but I believe these are never Cather's interest nor focus. Relationships and behaviors fill the pages, but Cather's main focus is always the land.

"Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."

I think O Pioneers! is very nearly a perfectly executed novel. Cather manages to convey complex conflicts and ideas through a simple, succinct story. It's one that is unique to her characters but potentially universal, representative of a specific time, place, or situation. Despite this praise, I have great dissatisfaction with the ending. In a nutshell, without sharing spoilers, I felt betrayed by the author who painted a final portrait of an Alexandra that felt very much opposite the one we had gotten to know for the previous 4/5ths of the book. It felt like the author asserting some moral or standard of the era rather than remaining true to the character she had created; it reeked of too much author voice instead of the character's (and story's) natural denouement. The ending notwithstanding, I found this a surprisingly deep and satisfying read.