on the dangers of reading too often

February 3, 2014

Grad school is a period of extended adolescence. One’s future is up in the air, and one is largely dependent on others, especially creditors. Unlike adolescents, however, grad students often lead very sedentary lives. farmerThey burrow into libraries amongst musty aisles of books. And they stoop over their reading and stuff their faces with flaky croissants and stain pages of books with inkblots of coffee. Sure, the cloistered life of learning has its advantages, but physical activity isn’t one of them. In One of Ours, many contrasts are in play: urban/rural, individual/group, and reason/faith, among others. But my favorite contrast hands down, and the one that makes me chuckle at all hours of the day, whenever I think of it, is the contrast between the life of the body, say, farming, and the life of the mind. Of a young man who intends to be a professor, Claude’s muscular and sun-burned neighbor drily asks, “What’s the matter with him? Does he have poor health?”

Postscript. In related Bay Area news, here’s a tribute to a “crusty old farmer who had a dream.” I have something approaching love for him.

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Ghost in Search of a Machine

February 1, 2014

One of Ours is a 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Willa Cather. Like a Quentin Tarantino Film, the story starts in one genre but ends in another. No, I was never a big fan of From Dusk Till Dawn. So it’s no surprise that One of Ours leaves me dissatisfied.

Books I through III are set on the prairie of Nebraska. We follow the growth and development of Claude, who searches for something fine and splendid in life, as he navigates the crass materialism of his dad and the foolish piousness of his mom. The prairie sections of the novel are quite lovely. Even the creek bears witness to it.

“The sun popped up over the edge of the prairie like a broad, smiling face; the light poured across the close-cropped August pastures and the hilly, timbered windings of Lovely Creek…”

But when Claude journeys to France to fight in World War I, Cather’s bildungsroman morphs into an uninspired war novel. It’s as though the narrator, at first totally enthralled by Claude and the comforts and pleasures (and difficulties) of country boyhood, abruptly loses interest in her host and breaks free from the skull of Claude’s experience. In books IV and V, a homunculus is on the loose, one that’s gallivanting about, fascinated by cheese and architecture, and by the abstract joys of military life, of marching together, of living and dying together.

Problem is, an Odysseus who leaves home in search of an ideal is only as interesting as the inner experience that propels him. And this experience is largely ignored once Cather’s narrative gaze looks beyond the green alfalfa and “shattered grain” of Nebraska.

No wonder I’m homesick for the Midwest.


Literary Cage Fight

January 27, 2014

I marvel over literary descriptions of commonplace things. If only there were a reality TV show pitting two writers against each other. At the sound of a bell and the pointing of a finger, they would be told to “Describe this!”—say, a scene of the sun and sunmoonmoon each on a horizon’s edge. Well, I’m delighted to report that two literary heavyweights are game and the contest is on.

Enter Willa Cather, from One of Ours:

“The sun was already low. It hung above the stubble, all milky and rosy with the heat, like the image of a sun reflected in grey water. In the east the full moon had just risen, and its thin silver surface was flushed with pink until it looked exactly like the setting sun. Except for the place each occupied in the heavens, Claude could not have told which was which. They rested upon opposite rims of the world, two bright shields, and regarded each other, —as if they, too, had met by appointment.”

And Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead:

“At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.”

Is there a winner of this literary cage fight?

Can there be a winner?


life isn’t measured in years

October 15, 2013

“The city of feeling rose out of the city of fact like a definite composition.”
—Willa Cather, Lucy Gayheart

“The calendar of facts doesn’t correspond to the calendar of feelings.”
—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Outside of Chico, CA, there’s a town called Paradise. It’s a perfectly delightful name, to be sure, but the town itself is nothing, really, apart from some beautiful trees and some impressive valleys and gorges that have been shaped by the Feather River. featherAt the end of a steep and unimproved dirt road, there’s a flume that hugs the side of a mountain, and even passes through the mountain by way of a narrow dark tunnel, reappearing a quarter of a mile later in the sun. In the summer, the path along the flume is bursting with vegetation, with splashes of green and yellow and purple. The names of things don’t matter, because the place is filled with echoes of the past, and the past, even if it’s 20 or 30 years ago, suddenly feels like the present. The same sense of overpowering joy that was felt years ago is felt now once again, as though not a minute has passed. The greens and the yellows and the purples swirl and there’s a flash of recognition and something like timelessness is touched. If only there were Feather Rivers everywhere, pleasant reminders at every turn that life isn’t always measured in years.


wherein life trembles like a tuning fork

October 8, 2013

Of time and the river, not the novel by Thomas Wolfe, rather the image and symbol in Lucy Gayheart. I’ve returned to Cather again, always Cather. Of time and the river in Gayheart, we can say this. It cuts a path in the earth. Youth finds itself on one bank, and the aging find themselves on the other. As water surges and passes, so all things, too, pass—strength, ardor, hope. Because youth is innocent of the river’s shifting currents and ice holethe ocean into which it eventually feeds, life “trembles like a tuning fork with unimaginable possibilities.” In the opening scenes of Gayheart, Lucy is skating on a frozen river as though she’s preparing for flight into the adventuresome unknown. Note her slender crimson wings; note them well, for they’ll return by story’s end. Lucy does indeed take off from that frozen tarmac in Nebraska. She leaves Haverford, the parochial town of her youth, and lands in Chicago to study music where she falls in love, of the youthful passionate variety, with an older man, a good and decent man, and a famous classical vocalist, too. Sebastian shares the same passion for art and music. Lucy is on one side of the river and Sebastian is on the other. Very briefly they bridge the gap, but it doesn’t last long. The famous vocalist leaves for Europe where he’s in high demand for a lengthy tour. Lucy returns to Haverford, depressed, alone, and misunderstood. Gossip swirls around her dubious tryst in Chicago. In a bout anger and frustration, she sets off for the Platte River with her ice skates, not knowing the river had changed its bed the prior spring and is no longer safe. She laces up and sets out on the river, and then it happens, the ice cracks, Lucy slips into the water up to her waist. The cracked sheet of ice she’s holding on to tips gently and lowers her into the river. Worried, her dad sets off with a neighbor for the Platte, and from the bank of the river, in the gathering darkness, they spy a red scarf on rotten broken ice, Lucy’s crumpled wings. She is drowned.