My Antonia

A group of sheep resting under a tree

Once more I made the mistake of waiting too long before reviewing and now I find myself with little to say. However, My Antonia is on my Classics Club reading list and thus must be reviewed. Perhaps I can use the classical homework trick of trying to distract you from my shallow writing by showing pictures of cute animals? Just look at those adorable sheep! I’m almost certain that there were some sheep in the novel somewhere…

It is unfortunate that I will have to do such a poor job reviewing this novel as it was one of my favourite reads this summer. The descriptions were beautiful, but without bogging down the text, and the characters felt alive and well worth knowing. I also really liked how the novel focused on the immigrant experience. As Sweden had a very high US emigration per capita I have heard much about the emigration from a Swedish perspective and really enjoyed seeing it from the US side. After having read O Pioneers! last summer and My Antonia this summer, Willa Cather is quickly becoming one of my favourite classical US authors.

 

 

On books and apes

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Most of the year I prefer paper books to ebooks, but for my summer travels I fill my trusted ereader with everything that catches my eye on Project Gutenberg, to ensure that I will always have access to something to read. A title that naturally caught my interest in this process was The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley.

The story itself turned out to be a wildly improbable tale centred around a second-hand bookstore in Brooklyn shortly after the end of the first world war. However, it wasn’t the plot that made it worth reading but the way it was brimming with the love of books and filled by quotations from books and musings on books and bookstores. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to any of the books recommended in it.

However, in addition to all the recommended reading it also repeatedly ranted against bad literature. Shallow but entertaining books that people read instead of the much better books the author believed they ought to read. In the novel the book that more than anyone else symbolized this tendency was Tarzan of the Apes, which I imagine must have been a Da Vinci code of the early 20th century. As I did have access to Tarzan I decided to take the risk, ignore the warnings, and see what it was all about.

Having read it I can certainly see both why it was so popular and why it made more critical readers despair. The plot is of course improbable but fast-paced and reasonably captivating (and not much worse than the plot of The Haunted Bookshop). The writing is nothing special but unobtrusive. The greatest flaw is instead the characters who, all but Tarzan himself, are paper thin tropes. This is most disturbing for the African characters who tend to be based on racist tropes, but the European and American characters are only slightly less cliched, take e.g. the distracted professor who gets lost trying to find a post office in the middle of the jungle… I did like Tarzan though. His transitions from life as an ape and as a man is perhaps not great literature but it is fun and gives him enough internal conflict to make him stand out from the average pulp fiction character of the time.

I count Tarzan of the Apes as my classic from the Americas for my Back to the Classics reading challenge.

Thoughts from a small cabin

Blueberry shrub in autumn coloursEver dreamt of withdrawing to an isolated cabin to get undisturbed reading time? That’s how I spent much of my vacation and fittingly one of the books I read, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, is probably the best known move-into-a-cabin-in-the-woods book there is. In it Thoreau describes his experience of living two years (1845-1847) in a simple cabin he had built himself by Walden Pond.

I happened to read this book in parallel with Sapiens (by Yuval Noah Harari). In Sapiens, Harari discusses (among many other things) the reduction in free-time which followed with the agricultural revolution and the cultural myths that make (most of) us live our lives more or less like our neighbours. It was interesting to see how Thoreau challenged these myths and found a new freedom by scaling down his possessions and reduce his needs. Although it was hardly a very remote wilderness he settled in it was still a pronounced deviation from the normal way of life at the time (or today).

As a nature-lover myself I do believe that we are happier when we are living closer to nature (or at least that I am) and thus found myself favourably inclined to Thoreau’s cabin experiment. I also liked the way that he identified and differentiated between his actual needs, such as food and shelter, and stuff he just wanted. As a well-connected young and healthy man he found that he could quite easily earn enough for his actual needs and choose increased freedom rather than trying to earn more. Even if I have no real plans of moving into the woods (for more than vacations), I believe he has a point with this distinction and that a better awareness of the difference between needs and wants could be helpful also in other instances when we need to decide how to spend our life or money.

One of the real treats in the book is his descriptions of the nature around him which are often evocative and beautiful. Otherwise his prose can be preachy and long-winded. Even when I agreed with his point I frequently found him obnoxious and sometimes condescending. His descriptions of other nationalities and ethnicities, especially Native Americans, are also badly outdated, but as Thoreau was an abolitionist and seems to have been genuinely interested in other cultures I suspect that he was still ahead of his time in this aspect.

This book was on my Classics Club reading list. I also count it as my Classic with a single-word title for the Back to the classics reading challenge.

 

 

 

 

On the dangers of impossible dreams

Extravagant_flowerThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a book I have long felt I know more or less what it is about despite never actually having opened it. In this case the omission was a bit embarrassing as the book in question has been quietly abandoned on my To Be Read shelf for years despite being neither long nor particularly heavy.

However, during a recent travel I decided only to bring books lingering on my TBR shelf and finally got started. (Well, the truth is that I first bought new books by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Anne Fadiman, read those and then, when I was once more out of fresh reading material, started on my TBR books). Having once started on The Great Gatsby I found it a smooth, enjoyable read. I really don’t know why it took me so long.

The image I had of The Great Gatsby included a love story set against a backdrop of extravagant nightly garden parties during the 1920s. I wasn’t exactly wrong but after actually reading it the image I was left with was rather of the loneliness and futility hidden behind Gatsby’s shining dream. Perhaps not a new favourite but nevertheless a beautifully written novel which did not deserve to linger forgotten on my shelf.

The Great Gatsby was one of the novels on my Classics Club reading list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Left Hand of Darkness

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I was a bit unlucky in my first encounter with Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels. I devoured Fantasy novels as a young teenager and when I found her Earthsea novels which were both highly recommended and written by a woman I was eager to try them. Unfortunately I must have been a bit too young because much of it went above my head and I found them rather boring. Since then Le Guin has been on the list of authors I knew deserved another chance but which I kept avoiding. At least until now, tempted by a beautiful cover I finally read The Left Hand of Darkness and can now see for my self why she is such a well-respected author.

The Left Hand of Darkness is both a real SF classic and a feminist classic. It takes place on a planet where the population spend most of their time in an androgynous state. Only a few days a month do they switch into a men/women, male/female state, and not necessarily the same from one month to the next. The novel discuss how the lack of permanent genders influence the society and relations on the planet but the focus is on the outsider on the planet, the Earth man Genly Ai, who has come to planet to open up trade. Although the planet’s inhabitants obviously find their way of living completely normal¬† (and instead find Genly Ai weird) Genly Ai clearly struggles with the¬†androgynous society. Instead of actually seeing the people he meets as individuals he keeps trying to fit them into into the gender roles he knows and keeps getting confused when they won’t fit nicely in them.

The androgynous society and Genly Ai’s struggles to understand it are two of the main themes of the novel but there is much more to it. Indeed the world building is impressive also in other aspects, the characters are interesting and the plot, especially in the later part, thrilling. For me personally the setting, on a planet deep in an ice-age, was also a great bonus but then I do love an Arctic setting.

Too often when I read Fantasy or SF I feel that the author hasn’t used the full power of the genre. There may be a few cool gimmicks but largely the worlds drawn mirror our own. Not so with The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin fully uses the SF genre’s capacity for what if-scenarios. What if the world had no fixed genders? How might the society work? How would such a world appear to us? What does our fixation with genders really say about us? Could things work differently?

A few concepts may be less controversial today, in Swedish the recent introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun would for example have solved at least one of the protagonist’s issues, but it remains a thought-provoking novel also today, almost 50 years after its first publication (in 1969).

A few other discussions of this novel which I found relevant can be found here, here and here.