EMMA by Jane Austen | Review

Last year I saw the movie Clueless, a comedy based on Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma, for the first time. My immediate reaction was: I need to read this book.

Set in Austen’s Victorian England, this novel follows Emma as she attempts to set her new friend Harriet up with a suitable man to marry. Caught up in the strict social conventions of the time, Emma goes through all the hoops necessary in order to make the perfect match… or so she believes. As each potential match flickers out before her eyes, she comes to realize that perhaps she’s been looking the wrong place all along.

It’s clear that Emma has the potential to possess all of the qualities that Austenites admire Jane’s books for having: humor, wit, charm, and a swoon-worthy romance. Unfortunately, I feel as though this novel misses the mark on these characteristics. Had the story been written with a slightly more agreeable protagonist, romantic interest, or ending, it would have made for a much more pleasurable read.

I guess my main problem with this novel is that I just couldn’t get past Emma’s annoying, oblivious, uppity personality. I’m sure this is the point of her character—we’re probably not supposed to like her—but where’s the enjoyment in that? Annoying protagonists are one of my biggest pet peeves, especially when there isn’t much going on besides their inner thoughts. Emma does undergo some character development towards the end of the story and begins to acknowledge that perhaps social classes aren’t as important in marriages as she once believed; however, this slight change was not enough to justify putting the reader through hundreds of pages to get to that point. I know this is a personal preference and is therefore really subjective, but my inability to relate with Emma ended up being a huge reason why this novel didn’t really click with me.

Harriet, on the other hand, was a character I connected with quickly and easily; it’s a shame that she doesn’t play a greater role overall. I’ve also been the girl who looks to others for relationship advice, the girl who feels heartbroken and a bit manipulated by others as they play their own twisted games. I think we can all relate with Harriet in some sense or at the very least feel sympathy for her as she is lead astray by Emma time and time and time again. Poor Harriet!

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about Emma. While I understand the point Austen is trying to make (social classes shouldn’t matter in marriages, the social conventions of the time period were ridiculous, etc.), I couldn’t get past Emma’s irritating, know-it-all personality. There were certainly moments when I laughed and admired Austen’s wit and charm, but it’s safe to say that this definitely isn’t my favorite Austen novel.

What are your thoughts on Emma? Which Jane Austen novel is your favorite? Which one should I read next? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

MATILDA by Roald Dahl | Review

Up until very recently, I have spent the entirety of my twenty-year existence with no knowledge of the wonderful brilliance that is Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Though I had been recommended it countless times by enthusiastic readers and had seen the charming advertisements for the movie adaptation, I had never managed to actually sit down and read the book itself. Last summer I made several valiant efforts to check it out of my local library, but to no avail; other patrons (presumably much younger than I) always beat me to it. Determined to beat the summer reading rushed, I hurried over to the children’s room of the library early on in my summer break this year to finally check it out once and for all.

After literal decades of waiting, I read Matilda in a single sitting.

loved it.

Now I understand why so many people eagerly recommended this lovely little book to me, why it continues to be read by adult readers who have long since outgrown the tiny chairs in the children’s rooms of libraries. Though Matilda has an established position in the genre of children’s literature, it almost seems as if Roald Dahl wrote this book with an adult audience in mind as well. Matilda is so wise beyond her years that it sometimes feels like she is an adult—especially when faced with the temperamental, ignorant, cruel Miss Trunchbull. The four-year-old girl offers helpful advice to Miss Honey, has intellectual capabilities that surpass those of most adults, and possesses enough resilience in the face of adversity to last her a lifetime. Ultimately, this book argues for the idea of immaturity v. maturity rather than the conflict between children v. adults. In other words, Roald Dahl would likely not view the word “childish” as a synonym for being immature. Just because someone is older doesn’t mean they possess a certain degree of maturity, empathy, or common sense (as many recent events in our own world have certainly proven true).

While reading this book I was taken aback by how many references there are to classic literature. I don’t think I’ve ever read a children’s book that talks so much about literature that one would normally read in high school, college, or beyond. Matilda reads Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Kim by Rudyard Kipling, The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells—the list goes on and on! (New goal: read all of the novels mentioned in Matilda.) One of my favorite moments in the book is when it describes little Matilda balancing a huge tome on her lap while reading in the library. I think that image really helps illustrate how brilliant and ahead of her age Matilda is (not to mention the fact that the illustrations in this book are adorable). The numerous references to classic literature in this book also work to break down genre barriers between what is considered literature for children versus that of adults.

Arguably one of the most important, interesting, and exciting aspects of Matilda is the way it emphasizes the importance of reading, learning, and education. Miss Honey is an incredible proponent of education, as shown when she provides Matilda with extra textbooks to read in class so she doesn’t have to sit through learning material she already knows. Matilda and Miss Honey stand up to Matilda’s frustratingly terrible parents who don’t understand why anyone would ever want to read a book when you could just watch the television instead. I really wish I had read this book when I was younger because I think Matilda’s character would have really resonated with me. Younger Holly would have been thrilled to read about a bookworm like myself who triumphed over obstacles against all odds. Matilda is such an important character for children to read about, both as a bookish hero as well as a strong, clever, independent female character.

What can I say? Matilda is wonderful, Roald Dahl is a brilliant writer, and I’m completely in love with this book. If you haven’t read this book yet, please do yourself a favor and check it out—you definitely won’t regret it!

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Absolutely!! I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, no matter your age.

What are your thoughts on Matilda? Do you have a favorite Roald Dahl book? Which Roald Dahl book should I read next? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

HEMMED IN edited by M.R. Nelson | ARC Review

Hemmed In is a collection of six short stories written by women, about women. In the words of editor M.R. Nelson, the stories in this collection are about “women, the restrictions on their lives, and the ways they found to make space for themselves despite those restrictions.” When I was offered an ARC of this collection in exchange for an honest review I immediately knew I had to accept. Not only does Hemmed In include a story by Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, but it also highlights stories and writers that are often forgotten. My favorite aspect of this collection is the common thread that links these stories together: a woman’s role in society, both among men as well as other women. I’ve most often come across short story collections organized by shared time periods or by the same author, but this one struck me as particularly interesting and unique. Since there are only six stories, I’ll share my thoughts on each one:

+ “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell. I was sucked into this story from the moment it began. This murder mystery demonstrates a mutual understanding that can exist among women. It emphasizes the importance of being there for each other, being empathetic, and reaching out before it’s too late to do so. Though we may not always realize it, we share similar experiences that we can all learn and grow from.

+ “A Pair of Silk Stockings” by Kate Chopin. I read dozens of short stories by Chopin for one of my courses last semester and I love the way she manages to captivate the reader in just a few quick pages. This story counters the idea that mothers are supposed to be eternally selfless. How can you take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself, too? By choosing to splurge and spend money on herself rather than her family, the protagonist shows that women are people with needs, desires, dreams, and wills of their own.

+ “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Unlike the other stories in this collection, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is written with a sort of stream of consciousness style as though the protagonist is writing her thoughts in a journal. Though her husband, a physician, repeatedly assures her that time alone will help her “recover,” what she really desires is to play a more active, social role in society. This powerful story of a supposedly “sick” woman illustrates the way women have been trapped physically, mentally, and emotionally. Gilman’s writing is clever, genuine, and really puts the reader in the shoes of the protagonist.

+ “Little Selves” by Mary Lerner. This story is just so, so sweet. Despite the fact that the protagonist is on her deathbed, she nevertheless finds solace in looking back on her happiest memories. Lerner’s optimistic story suggests that women are capable of leading fulfilling lives that they can look back on fondly.

+ “The Leading Lady” by Edna Ferber. I love that the overall message of this story is the importance of camaraderie and friendship among women. It made me want to call up all of my amazing friends who are women and thank them for always being there for me, just as the protagonist finds comfort in speaking with the women she meets in the hotel. This is “girl power” at its finest!

+ “The Bohemian Girl” by Willa Cather. I was thrilled when I discovered that a Willa Cather story is included in this collection. I fell in love with this story from the very beginning, especially because it gives off strong My Antonia vibes. In fact, there are many similarities between this short story and that novel. For instance, there are the familiar conflicts between home and away, rural areas and cities, the past and the present. Both Nils and Jim Burden inevitably return to their pasts on the farm, though with differing outcomes. This is actually the first short story I’ve read by Cather, but it certainly won’t be the last!

Overall, the entire premise behind a “taster flight” of short stories such as Hemmed In is brilliant and incredibly effective at highlighting a specific point or theme. In this case, these stories work to showcase not only the talent of women as writers but also the perseverance of women in spite of the discrimination and subordination we have faced throughout history. As an added bonus, I have now been introduced to several writers whose work I need to read more of!

Would I recommend this to a friend?: Yes!! I would recommend this to anyone interested in feminist writing, any of the particular authors featured in the collection, or simply short stories in general.

What are your thoughts on this collection? Have any related recommendations based on these authors? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

THE ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING by Bill Bryson | Review

One of my goals this summer is to learn as much as possible about British culture as well as specific locations I should make a point to visit while I’m studying abroad in England. My wonderful boss must know how to read minds because on my first day of work she gave me a copy of Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling. In this sequel to his 1995 book Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson travels across England and recounts his adventures and observations in each delightfully British location. As a citizen of both the United States and England, Bryson offers an interesting perspective on the similarities and differences between these two nations.

I admire Bryson’s important overall message that we should strive to preserve and appreciate the little things that make Britain so great (according to Bryson, these details include independent shops, beautiful countryside, updated and educational museums, lively seaside communities, etc.). However, the message could have been delivered in a much more positive way. Instead of complaining about all of the disappointing things he came across, he could have celebrated and highlighted the wonderful aspects of the locations he visited. The majority of the book is written with a negative tone (though thankfully this is not true for the chapter on Oxford!) and after a while I wanted to sit Bryson down and ask: “Don’t you have anything positive to say?” I find it hard to believe that someone could be so cynical about being able to travel to all of those interesting places. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting Bryson’s sense of humor here– or maybe I just don’t find him funny.

Not only did I not love Bryson’s sense of humor, but I found a lot of his observations to be rather redundant. It only takes a few chapters to notice a definite pattern in their structure: each chapter begins with a short anecdote followed by a transition into talking about the location at hand. He then talks about the lack of independent shops there, the expensive prices of food and admission to tourist attractions, and how he always had “one pint of beer too many” before heading off to bed at night, only to repeat the entire process in the next location. Eventually I began to wonder what the point of writing a nearly 400-page long book was if he was simply going to restate the same ideas in different words ad nauseam until the reader started to agree with what he was saying. I feel as though this book probably could have been condensed to half its current size.

Overall, I enjoyed this book for practical purposes but not necessarily for its entertainment value. Not only did I learn a lot about British culture from an American’s perspective, but I also now have a very general understanding of the geography of England. It has helped me create an exciting list of museums, towns, shops, and beautiful countryside that I would love to visit while studying abroad. Unfortunately, Bryson’s sense of humor and writing style did not click with me at all. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I read The Road to Little Dribbling because the background information it provides will undoubtedly be helpful as I learn more about England in the future.

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes, if they were planning to visit England or were very interested in learning more about the nation in general.

What are your thoughts on this book? Are there any books you would recommend for someone studying abroad in England soon? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

ONE MORE THING by B.J. Novak | Review

Two years ago when I first entered college (it’s been that long already?!) I was faced with the dilemma of how to juggle my love of reading for pleasure with all of the work I was assigned for classes. For the most part, the solution I ultimately employed was to put my reading on pause while each semester was in session and resume reading during the liberating free time of summer, winter, and spring breaks. However, I still always kept a single book by my bed just in case I needed to read a few pages to clear my mind before falling asleep at night. Clearly this wasn’t a frequent occurrence because I’ve had the same book on my dorm room nightstand for two years: One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak. I chose this as my nighttime read because it is a collection of short stories, making it the perfect book to dip in and out of without having to worry about picking up where I last left off.

After far too long I have finally managed to finish reading One More Thing and I definitely have more than one thing to say about it!

+ Stories of varying lengths. This might sound a little random, but one of my biggest pet peeves is when all of the stories in a collection are the exact same length (ten or twenty pages is usually the average for most of the collections that I’ve read). Fortunately, Novak does not fall into this trap and instead has written stories that vary considerably in length. You never know how long the next story will be: ten pages? A single page? A single line? Not only does this help make the collection more dynamic and entertaining, but it also allows for the use of many different storytelling styles, techniques, etc.

+ Creatively explaining common occurrences/phrases/etc. My favorite stories were the ones that built off of everyday things that we rarely give much thought to. For instance, one story is about the man who created the infamous math problem involving trains and times of arrival. We’ve probably all been forced to do this kind of math problem in algebra class at some point in our lives, but have we ever stopped to think about who created it? (In Novak’s story, the creator is seriously peeved that he hasn’t received adequate monetary compensation or credit for his word problem.) These kinds of stories are as thought-provoking as they are hilarious because they force you to take a closer look at things that we say and do without questioning them on a regular basis.

+ Novak can write about any and all topics. Another major strength of this short story collection is the diversity in subject matter. From the traditional fable of the tortoise and the hare to idealized award ceremonies and constructive criticism of construction sites from a kid, Novak has seriously covered all of his bases with One More Thing. Though this means that you will not likely connect with every single story, it does mean that at least one is nearly guaranteed to resonate with you.

Overall, One More Thing ended up doing just what the title promises: it made me want to keep reading just one more story until I suddenly found myself at the last page wishing that there was somehow another fifty pages tucked into a secret compartment of my paperback. This book is perfect for when you need a witty chuckle or two.

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Absolutely! Especially for fans of the TV show The Office, for which Novak was a writer.

What are your thoughts on this book? Are there any short story collections that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

JULIUS CAESAR by William Shakespeare | Review

If you’ve stuck around this blog for a while then you may be familiar with the love-hate relationship I share with William Shakespeare. The Bard and I have never really clicked, mostly because a) I’m easily frustrated by his use of tricky English puns and b) I’m easily annoyed by the melodramatic nature of many of his works. (Although I suppose that the melodrama is sort of the point, to a certain extent, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Despite our rocky past, I’ve felt myself sort of coming around to Shakespeare lately.

Case in point: I actually enjoyed Julius Caesar.

*gasp* What?! Did I just admit to actually liking a Shakespeare play?

Yes. And here’s why:

+ The plot is cut and dry. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other plays (I’m looking at you Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet), I was able to grasp the main gist of Julius Caesar pretty quickly and easily. There’s plenty of political intrigue and the events unfold quickly, clearly, and– dare I say– logically?! Usually I find Shakespeare’s plots to be lacking any semblance of logic or reason, but this play was almost realistic in this way. (It’s certainly not hard to imagine in today’s tumultuous, frenzied political climate.)The ending does possess the usual drama that his conclusions tend to exude, though I guess that’s to be expected from a tragedy.

+ Questions about honor, loyalty, and duty. I loved the major themes in this play because I think they’re so relevant to the current state of our world (as shown by this New York Times article about a recent controversial production of Julius Caesar). Should we be loyal to our government or personal relationships with others first and foremost? At what point does duty overrule loyalty or vice versa? Should honor or duty preside over common sense or morality? These are the kinds of questions that fascinate me and that really made this play stand out in particular to me.

+ Historical basis. One can probably guess from the title that this play centers around Julius Caesar, who was an actual Roman emperor. The fact that this play is based on actual historical events (with extra melodrama thrown in for good measure) makes me wonder what people thought about this at the time. Did they appreciate this play for its commentary on history or value it for its ability to entertain and captivate an audience?

+ I finally understand where the title of John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars comes from. At one point I knew that this was the Shakespeare play Green was referencing, but I had since forgotten that tidbit of info until I stumbled across the famous line:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

I love exploring intertextuality and I’m actually sort of tempted to reread The Fault in Our Stars at some point to see if there are any underlying connections between the novel and the play.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Julius Caesar. Of course, I must admit that this measure of enjoyment is relative– that is, I enjoyed it considerably more than other Shakespeare plays I’ve read in the past but considerably less than other texts that are not Shakespeare plays. (I just have this unintentional apathy towards the Bard, okay?)

You win this round, Shakespeare.

Would I recommend it to a friend?: If someone asks me for a Shakespeare recommendation I would probably tell them to read this play; however, if someone asks me for a drama recommendation in general than I would definitely go with something like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

What are your thoughts on Julius Caesar? What Shakespeare play should I read next? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir | Review

Months ago I won a copy of An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir in an online giveaway. After enduring its impatient glare from my bookshelf for as long as I could, I finally picked it up and gave it the attention that all of the buzz surrounding it suggests it deserves. Unfortunately, this fast-paced fantasy novel left me with more conflicted feelings than I had initially anticipated. It wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t live up to the great expectations that had built up around it– a classic case of a hype monster attack.

What Worked for Me:

+ Significance of the title. All this time I’ve been curious as to what the significance of the title is; fortunately, this becomes obviously clear as the story unfolds and the title is mentioned word for word several times in the novel. (If you’re curious like I was, it refers to the fact that both Elias and Laia are like burning embers in cool ashes, meaning that they have the power to stir things up around them). As a sucker for clever metaphors and double meanings like this, I really enjoyed coming across the literal mentions of the title as applied to both of the main characters.

+ Two narrators. I was pleasantly surprised to find that An Ember in the Ashes is written with chapters alternating between the first person perspectives of Elias and Laia, the two main characters. Using alternating narrators can sometimes be risky, depending on how well they’re executed by the author. Fortunately, Tahir manages to carefully balance the two perspectives in a way that makes the novel more suspenseful and adds depth to Elias and Laia’s “worlds.”

+ Fast-paced, suspenseful plot. Despite my lukewarm feelings about the novel as a whole, I nevertheless managed to fly through it in a single weekend.  Coupled with Tahir’s writing style– short, choppy sentences that are easy to read and move quickly– the action-packed plot made this a captivating page-turner. Usually I only fly threw books that I really love, so reading this one so quickly was a strange experience. All I cared about was knowing how it was going to end. (To be honest, part of me also probably just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.)

What Didn’t Work for Me:

– Dual love triangles. One love triangle is usually bad enough– but two? Not only were they completely unnecessary, but they take away from the seriousness of the overall plot. It was jarring to read a passage about Elias struggling with his inner conflict about being a trained killer right next to a passage about his sudden infatuation with Laia. The biggest problem I have with these love triangles is that at some point they almost began to supersede the overarching plot of the novel; in other words, the romance became the driving motivation behind the plot. I was so disappointed when I noticed this was happening because the initial main plot had great potential to be really interesting if it wasn’t being overshadowed and shoved aside in favor of forced romance.

– Insta-love between Elias and Laia. Speaking of forced romance, the insta-love between Elias and Laia is one of the worst I’ve ever read. Their relationship is basically solely founded on his physical attraction to her. The feeling that this relationship is “forced” is further exacerbated by the presence of the two love triangles because the pairings of Elias/Helene and Laia/Keenan make much more sense (especially Elias/Helene because they have such good chemistry, are best friends, have known each other for years, they actually KNOW each other on a personal level, etc.).

– Problematic objectification of female characters. Physical attractiveness seems the most important quality of women in this novel, particularly regarding Laia’s relationship with Elias. Moreover, rape is offhandedly mentioned several times in this novel and it almost seems as though the threat of sexual assault is used as a device to forward the plot. Was Tahir planning on addressing how problematic that is?

Overall, what promised to be a fantastic fantasy story left me with conflicted feelings and the sour taste of disappointment. Though An Ember in the Ashes is certainly a gripping read, its fast pace could not make up for the many problems that plague this text.

Would I recommend it to a friend?: To be honest, probably not. There are so many fantastic books out there that I would not want someone to waste their time on something that is only meh.

What are your thoughts on this novel? Have you read the sequel? How do you deal with conflicted feelings and disappointment about hyped books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

SARTORIS by William Faulkner | Review

It’s difficult to know what direction to turn in when one makes the vague goal of “reading more Faulkner.” Once you’ve read the ones that everyone talks about (The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, in my case) where do you go next? Short stories? Random other novels? In an effort to forge a clearer path I decided to start with what was offered in my local public library. This ultimately led me to choose Faulkner’s Sartoris as my next step. Though I’ve read that this isn’t often considered to be one of Faulkner’s best works, it is nevertheless an important one because it lays the foundation for his later novels and stories. Though the events of this novel take place in the early twentieth century, “the thematic action of Sartoris takes place not over a period of months but in a time span covering four generations, flanked by the Civil and First World Wars and by the two John Sartorises” (Vickery).

What has always stood out to me the most about Faulkner’s novels is how character driven they are in every sense. The plot seems almost secondary, as though all that really matters are the thoughts within and relationships between the characters. (And sometimes this is all we are ever given!) In some ways it feels like more happens in texts that are steered by characters rather than plot because we are always learning more about characters’ changing beliefs, values, and attitudes as the story progresses. It’s also really fascinating to look at what certain characters may represent in the big picture of a text. For instance, one could possibly argue that Old Bayard and Young Bayard are reincarnations of Colonel John Sartoris to a certain extent (at least, that’s what crossed my mind while reading this novel). They both present different sides of their risk-taking, stubborn ancestor yet ultimately end up facing similar ends. Here we see the creation of a sort of myth surrounding the Sartoris family, a dark and twisted tale that casts a shadow over future Johns and Bayards. Put simply, “the Sartorises chose to act in terms of legend instead of history” (Vickery).

Much to my chagrin, Faulkner is rather fond of giving multiple characters the same name. When I first started reading Sartoris I was so confused by the many Johns and Bayards that I actually created a character web or family tree of sorts in an attempt to keep them all straight in my mind. However, I thought this would be a much larger hindrance than it ended up being in the long run because the characters became more defined as I became more invested in the story. In fact, the links between the characters– both linguistically with names and in terms of their relationships and personalities– soon became my favorite aspect of this novel. Faulkner uses the Sartoris family to ask a fascinating question: Are these events caused by the fate of the family or a logical cause-and-effect reaction? In other words, are these people responsible for their actions or have they already been destined (or doomed)?

One of the most surprising aspects of this novel for me is Faulkner’s focus on the female characters. Though the novel mainly focuses on the male line of the Sartoris family as a subject, we often view these men through the eyes of the women in their lives. For instance, we learn a lot about Young Bayard through his interactions with Narcissa Benbow, who reads to him when he is bedridden. Arguably the most prominent character in this novel is Aunt Jenny, the younger sister of Colonel John Sartoris. She is headstrong, opinionated, and bold; one can see how she would have been quite a match with Sartoris when he was alive. These two women act almost as foils to one another, representing two very different generations of women. Perhaps Aunt Jenny’s mental decline towards the end of the novel and Narcissa’s creation of life through her newborn son indicates that the old traditional way of life for Southern women is being replaced by a new one. In some ways, it seems to me as though these women could be considered the true protagonists of the novel.

Overall, Sartoris might possibly be my new favorite Faulkner novel. I’ll stop this review here before I start rambling on and on about how much I loved this novelthere are just so many interesting aspects to discuss! It’s safe to say that I’ll definitely be rereading this at some point in the near future.

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Absolutely! This will surely be near the top of my Faulkner recommendation list from now on.

What are your thoughts on Sartoris? What other works by Faulkner would you recommend? What is your favorite Faulkner novel or short story? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

THE SONG OF THE LARK by Willa Cather | Review

I’m back with a review of yet another novel by Willa Cather, this being the fourth book I’ve read by her. Set primarily in a small Colorado town, The Song of the Lark is the story of a girl’s journey to stardom as she endeavors to leave her local life behind in pursuit of music. Protagonist Thea Kronberg soon finds herself swept up in a life of auditions, travel, and performances. Though she may move far from her Colorado home, the roots of her past remain persistently visible in the present.

I was enthralled by this novel. Everything about it captivated me from the very first sentence to the very last word. In fact, I was enjoying it so much that I marked all of my favorite passages with sticky notes, only to realize halfway through that I would have to take them all out when I was finished (it was a library book). Notable aspects of this novel include:

+ The Bildungsroman quality. One of the things that makes this novel so memorable is that it follows Thea from when she is a young child being treated by Doctor Archie to when she is an independent adult living away from her childhood home. In some ways Thea changes drastically– in her confidence, musical abilities, attitude towards her family, etc.– while in other ways she remains the same. It’s interesting to note how each setting influences Thea, as though the landscape itself asserts itself as a character rather than a backdrop for the story. Thus, the Thea of Colorado is much different from the Theas of Chicago, Panther Cañon, and so on. Here we are presented with many different versions or iterations of Thea, yet the common thread of her past in the small town of Moonstone runs through them all.

+ Character development. The physical and emotional growth of Thea is but one example of the masterfully crafted character development Cather fosters throughout this novel. Each character experiences some sort of change over the course of the story, even ones we meet later on. My favorite character is Doctor Archie for precisely this reason: he matures subtly, almost realistically, as he responds to the many unexpected events that occur around him. Despite the captivating and intriguing plot, I would still consider The Song of a Lark to be a character-driven novel.

+ The similarities with My Ántonia. This novel simply felt more like My Ántonia while I was reading it; however, it wasn’t until I finished that I realized just how many parallels exist between these two novels. For instance, both novels include female characters who move from rural to more populated areas. More importantly, both novels address a confrontation with the past after emotional and physical distance from one’s childhood home. These novels are obviously vastly different from one another in a myriad of ways, which makes the abundance of parallels even more fascinating.

+ The focus on music. Thea’s growing passion for piano and later singing provides an avenue through which Cather delves deep into the life of a burgeoning artist during this time period. We follow alongside the ups and downs of Thea’s tumultuous life with all of its twists and turns. It’s clear that Cather was either musical herself or did a lot of research before writing this novel. She includes many details about musical techniques, pieces, composers, and performers that add depth and a sense of reality to the text.

+ An exploration of different cultures. Another really interesting component of the novel is Cather’s focus on the relationships between people of different backgrounds and cultures. For instance, Thea’s friendship with a man referred to as Spanish Johnny and her Swedish family’s consequential backlash reveals the sort of social hierarchy and tension that existed between various groups of people during this time period.

+ Cather’s writing style. As always with reviews of Cather’s novels, I must t least briefly mention her beautiful, brilliant, lyrical writing style. I believe this is best understood by simply reading the writing itself, so here is only of my favorite passages from the novel:

“It came over him now that the unexpected favors of fortune, no matter how dazzling, do not mean very much to us. They may exercise or divert us for a time, but when we look back, the only things we cherish are those which in some way met our original want; the desire which formed in us in early youth, undirected, and of its own accord.” 

Overall, The Song of the Lark rekindled the same love for Willa Cather’s work that was initially sparked by My Ántonia over a year ago. Though I wouldn’t say this has definitively dethroned My Ántonia as my favorite Cather novel, it has come much closer to doing so than I ever initially expected.

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Absolutely! I even think this would be a great place to start with Willa Cather if you’ve never read any of her work before because the story is incredibly engaging and well-developed.

What are your thoughts on this novel? What other works by Willa Cather would you recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather | Review

Over a full year after reading (and loving) My Ántonia, I have finally picked up another book by Willa Cather. Set in 1851 primarily in New Mexico, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a story of religion, a clash of cultures, the deceiving concept of the American identity, and living in the present by embracing the past. When Father Jean Marie Latour leaves Europe to become the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico, he hardly expects to be swept up in the tangled knot of history between the whites, Mexicans, and Native Americans. As he continues to serve his religious duties in the following decades we see him become more and more a part of the red hills surrounding what is to ultimately be his final resting place.

For me, the experience of reading  Cather novel is like coming home after months of being away: it’s familiar, refreshing, comforting, and sweetly nostalgic. In particular, I greatly enjoyed the following aspects:

+ The focus on identity. The idea of one’s cultural, national, and personal identity seems to be an important common thread running between many of Cather’s works. Here Cather explores the tension between whites, Mexicans, and Native Americans during this time period. She plays with the question of whether or not land defines one’s identity, simultaneously linking back to the landscape’s past and rejecting the notion that living on what is considered to be “American” soil automatically makes one an “American.”

+ An emphasis on living through the past. Cather showcases and embraces the rich history of New Mexico by presenting these people as developed characters rather than one-dimensional representations. In this way she subverts white superiority, acknowledging the political and social power they had at this time while emphasizing the strength, intelligence, and humanity of the Mexicans and Native Americans. Father Latour embraces these people as the complex individuals that they are. At one point, Cather states:

“Observing them thus in repose, in the act of reflection, Father Latour was thinking how each of these men not only had a story, but seemed to have become his story.” 

Through Father Latour’s eyes Cather shows us the importance and value of remembering the past.

+ The use of Spanish. As someone currently studying Spanish in college, I was intrigued by the way Cather incorporates another language into this novel. Did Cather speak Spanish? Why did she decide to use it in the places that she did? This is likely something that I’ll research further in the future because I think it’s fascinating to learn about.

+ The portrayal of the landscape. Cather describes the landscape of New Mexico in a way that seems to take on the culture of the people living there. For instance, when she first describes the red hills of New Mexico, she writes:

“They were so exactly like one another that he seemed to be wandering in some geometrical nightmare; flattened cones, they were, more the shape of Mexican ovens than haycocks– yes, exactly the shape of Mexican ovens, red as brick-dust, and naked of vegetation except for small juniper trees. And the junipers, too, were the shape of Mexican ovens.” 

Is this a suggestion that whites viewed Mexicans as a sort of homogeneous group of people, similar to how Father Latour viewed the red hills as identical copies of one another? Perhaps. It could also be a way for Cather to demonstrate how the landscape can represent and reflect culture, like the way the hills apparently looked similar to Mexican ovens. (This is why Cather’s writing is SO INTERESTING.) Regardless, I want to emphasize that I believe Cather was attempting to expose the unjust treatment and dehumanization of these people, not promote, support, or justify it in any way. 

+ The incredible writing. I couldn’t write a review of this book without praising Cather’s remarkable way with words. I’m a big believer in writing in my books and I cannot even begin to tell you how many passages I underlined, starred, and made notes next to throughout this novel. For now, I’ll simply share with you one of my favorite quotes:

“If hereafter we have stars in our crowns, yours will be a constellation.” 

Overall, reading Death Comes for the Archbishop has reaffirmed Cather as one of my favorite authors. Was this as good as My Ántonia? Yes and no. More importantly, it has inspired me to pick up even more of Cather’s work. Certainly this must be a sure sign of a successful novel!

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Definitely!! Especially if they have an interest in American history, the Spanish language, or Mexican or Native American culture during this time period.

What are your thoughts on this novel? Would you recommend any of Willa Cather’s other works? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY