Sunday, January 26, 2014

Thoughts on Willa Cather

I just finished reading through Willa Cather's best-known novels.

Why, you ask?

I've been trying to read (or re-read) the classics. I've found I missed some of them.

I couldn't decide how to begin. Should I read chronologically (The Odyssey before War and Peace before Things Fall Apart)? Start with favorites and read-alikes? Start with a list of 50 or 100 top novels of all time?

I decided to read like any good librarian. Alphabetically. So, on my dusty bookshelf I started at the beginning. I've read Alcott and Austen and skipped over Caldwell because I found I didn't like her...

And now on to Cather. I started with:

 Then, I read this:
Then, this:

Finally, I started, but didn't finish, this:

This was an interesting reading journey. I'm so glad I started with O Pioneers. I devoured that one, and loved it because it was like a grown-up version of a Little House book. Most importantly, I identified with the main character, Alexandra. I'm not a fan of thinking you have to only read books about people that are like you. In fact, that's one of the best things about reading: learning how other people think and what their lives are like. I have no problem when the main character is male, etc. But, just for once, I did see myself in Alexandra, so I enjoyed it extremely.

 I hurried to pick up Song of the Lark. I was into it for a while. Then I wavered. I didn't like the main character at all. Was this the same author? How many chances should I give this? I bypassed my new rule which is: don't finish something you don't like. I finished it. A strange combination of Swedes, the desert, and opera, with a girl who is stuck on herself. Whatever.

My Antonia was better. I liked Antonia, and I liked Jim. We were back on the Nebraska prairie again and among the farmers. Still, no one was a likable as Alexandra in O Pioneers. And My Antonia seemed to drag on a bit.

I couldn't understand Death Comes for the Archbishop. A story, or a bunch of random stories, about the life of Catholic bishops in New Mexico. Not much but some undramatic, unredeeming, events interspersed with descriptions of the desert towns and houses. Not much interested me except the lives of the Native Americans. I'm not thrilled about the desert landscape of the American Southwest (but write about the green hills of Ireland or the Appalachians, and I'll read for days). But - this was supposed to be one of Willa Cather's best-known, well-loved novels. What was wrong with me? Did I just not "get it"? I read commentaries, I read reviews, some good, some negative. Some people didn't understand the novel either. I was glad that when I saw no plot, others didn't see one either, even if they loved the book. Is it really possible I didn't understand good writing? Oh well.

Well, no one is going to judge me if I don't finish a novel. Even less will they judge me for not liking it. So I didn't finish it. I have a lot of reading years to make up for, not a lot of time really, and the whole alphabet to get through.

The moral of this little story is, just because you like one novel by a certain author, does not mean that you will like everything else by them. Neither does it mean that everything they write will be the same. So give yourself permission to like what you like and move on, without even having to explain. It's kind-of like food. I can't explain why I love fish and dislike raisins. It just is. 

And now, it's on to Chekhov.

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