Wednesday, April 1, 2015

11 Books for the Willa Cather Fan

Willa Cather is another of those authors whose entire oeuvre is easily devoured. Cather published twelve novels, a volume of poetry, several volumes of short stories (Vintage has published a collected edition that combines all the stories into one book), and three works of non fiction. Though hardly a small number, it is an exhaustible one. Thus, here are 11 books that the devoted reader of Willa Cather will enjoy:

Jo's Boys - Louisa May Alcott
Jo's Boys is the final book in the loose trilogy that follows Jo March from adolescence to late middle age, but it's an unusual departure from Alcott's typical themes. The novel is quite broad in scope, exploring the burgeoning economy of the United States after the Civil War, including development in the West, a subject she otherwise never wrote about it in her fiction. Jo follows the fates of her students through correspondence - Nan devotes herself to a medical career (she's one of the most boldly feminist characters in Alcott's young adult fiction), Nat goes to Europe to pursue music and falls prey to its temptations, Dan goes West to seek his fortune and commits a grave sin, and Emil goes to sea and is shipwrecked.

The Bent Twig - Dorothy Canfield
What Cather did for Nebraska and Arizona, Canfield did for Vermont - both writers preserved in their work the natural beauty and distinctive culture of their native states. The Bent Twig follows Sylvia Marshall, the daughter of a university professor, being raised with the Montessori model of education. The conflict between provincial America and the cosmopolitan luxuries of Europe is central to the novel, but Canfield, always deeply socially engaged, also reflects upon gender and sexism, racial tension and prejudice, early environmentalism, and child welfare.

Reeds in the Wind - Grazia Deledda
Pulitzer-prize winner Deledda is one of the greatest Italian novelists of all time and, sadly, she remains quite obscure in English-speaking countries. Reeds in the Wind, her most famous novel, is about the aging Pintor sisters, living in their increasingly decrepit house and served by their guilt-ridden servant, Efix. Their world is thrown into chaos when their handsome nephew Giacinto comes to visit, hoping to sniff out a fortune. Like Cather, Deledda was very much a regional author; her work is generally set in her native Sardinia.

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
One of the superlatively great novels of world literature, Flaubert's masterpiece about a discontented bourgeois adulteress laid the foundation for all realist literature to come and is so universally influential that it seems almost silly to bother speaking about influences. Cather's A Lost Lady can be thought of as an American reimagining of Madame Bovary; the underlying themes - the fascination of the female, sexual double standards both in the context of gender and class, the tensions between love and sex in a bourgeois marriage, infatuation - are profoundly examined in both works.

The Bostonians - Henry James
Though The Bostonians has been generally disliked by both critics and the reading public, I have a soft spot for this acerbically comic story of a feminist spinster, a Southern misogynist, and the pretty young woman they both fall for. One of the earliest American novels to, at least obliquely, describe a lesbian relationship, the book can be quite thorny, and, like any novel by James, is fiendishly complex both in terms of characterization and ideology. It's also rare for its depiction of feminism in the nineteenth century and feminists of today would do well to familiarize themselves with the history of the movement.

The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Mansfield's prose fairly dazzles and unlike so many of her polarizing modernist contemporaries she inspires nearly every reader with adoration for her work. Her life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis and thus it is sadly possible for all of her writing, including a frustrating number of unfinished stories, to be collected in one volume. Usually brief and firmly set in a domestic reality, whether in her native New Zealand or in Europe, the stories are crystallized moments of revelatory time wrapped in the seemingly mundane details of daily life.

A Tangled Web - L. M. Montgomery
Regular readers of this blog know that Montgomery is one of my very favorite writers. A Tangled Web is one of only two novels that she wrote for adults and it's about the conflicts that arise when the will of the matriarch of the Penhallow and Dark families reveals that the fate of a precious family heirloom, an antique jug, will only be announced after a year has elapsed. Believing that the jug can be earned by whoever lives up to the old lady's expectations, the family attempts to arrange their lives as the crotchety matriarch wanted. A Tangled Web is often uproariously funny and always a delight. 

Anna Karenina - Lev Tolstoy
Another superlatively great and extremely influential novel, Anna Karenina, perhaps because of its title, is usually described as the story of an unhappily married woman who loses everything when she throws herself into a passionate affair, but that's only half of the novel. The other half follows Levin, a man who, like Anna, feels trapped within himself and struggles to devote himself to something greater than his own self-interest. While Anna flings herself into a self-destructive love, Levin idealistically attempts to enact his philosophies through his estate management. This is one of the few perfect novels.

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
My favorite of Wharton's many great novels, The House of Mirth is about Lily Bart, a mercenary social climber intent on catching the wealthiest and most influential husband possible. Her inevitable decline is rendered in heart-stopping if sometimes downright sordid detail, as her dreams slowly collapse and her ambitions become meaner. Lily is nevertheless a tragic heroine, one constrained to a pathetic end less by her own moral choices than by the straitjacket-like restrictions on women in both the marriage and the labor market. The book makes an interesting counterpoint to Cather's Lucy Gayheart.

Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf 
I simply couldn't choose between these two masterpieces of modernism and so included them both. Kaleidoscopic in scope, these novels' glittering prose travels effortlessly through the psyches of the characters, painting a stunningly beautiful and intellectually acute portrait of the English middle class before and in the wake of World War I. In Mrs. Dalloway, the preparations for a party are darkly mirrored by repressed memories of youth and idealistic dreams, while in To the Lighthouse, a holiday on the Isle of Skye becomes a hothouse of remembrance and longing, interrupted by the war that will render all attempts to return to the past futile. 

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