Monday, February 23, 2009

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Our Bookclub decided to read this classic book (written in 1918), and I'm glad we did, because I really liked it.

This book is about Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to the state of Nebraska in the 1880s. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator, Jim Burden, who relates his own image of Antonia that he recreates from his childhood and youth. Jim and Antonia come from different places in the social heirarchy, she being a poor immigrant girl and Jim becoming a successful, well-traveled, and cultured lawyer. Antonia survives a series of setbacks, from her father's suicide, being abandoned at the altar, and finally giving birth out of wedlock, yet finally achieves fulfillment in her marriage to a Czech farmer, their many children, and thriving farm. And Jim remains romantic, nostalgic, and unfulfilled.

I love the quote that begins the book "optima dies prima fugit", which translates to "In the lives of mortals the best days are the first to flee". The book is written in a quite lovely style. It has been said that Cather's portrait of Antonia is widely acknowledged as one of the most memorable characters in twentieth century literature and that her image of Antonia celebrates the vitality and fruitfulness of the pioneering era as a type of lost paradise. There are many descriptions of the land where it talks about trees being so rare they visited them like people. At one point in the book Cather says "Winter lies too long in country towns, hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men's affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice."

This is a well crafted and sympathetic portrayal of immigrant pioneers written with poetic sensibility, deeply rooted in a sense of place, and at the same time universal in its treatment of theme and character. I highly recommend it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Hannah's Dream by Diane Hammond

This is the sweetest book, and such a gentle read. It is charming, and captivating. A story you will not soon forget.

For 41 years, Samson Brown has been caring for Hannah, the one and only elephant at the Max L. Biedelman Zoo--a zoo that has seen better days. He has vowed not to retire until he can find a devoted caretaker for his Hannah. Sam is overjoyed when he finds Neva Wilson, but despite her care they both realize that Hannah is isolated from other elephants and her feet are bad from standing on hard concrete all day, and they hatch a plot to send Hannah to an elephant sanctuary. The Zoo's unhappy Director is their main adversary though, because she does not want her star attraction and main financial draw to go anywhere else.

This is such a touching and uplifting story written with great poignancy and it proves, as Booklist
says, that love comes in all shapes and sizes.

Here's a couple of quotes to give you just a taste of the wisdom contained in this book. The first is from Maxine L. Biedelman, the colorful woman who started the zoo, who is talking to Samson Brown, Hannah's keeper: "The World is simpler in Africa, Mr. Brown. Not in all ways, of course, but in the important ones. You eat when you're hungry and sleep when you're tired and you know you're nothing more than a gnat, a visitor, forgotten even before you're gone. Africa belongs to the land and the animals. It's no place for the high-strung."

At another point, Maxine Biedelman is looking back on her long life, and says "Do you know what I've been thinking lately? I've been thinking that we're animals, like any others--we senesce, we sink into decrepitude just as they do. But I've wondered if it isn't our special hell that we are able to register the swift passage of time, the lightning speed of it all, and the absoluteness with which it is gone. I feel my age, Mr. Brown, I feel every bit of it, and yet I can recall so very clearly what it was like to be young. It torments me. I should like, just one more time, to feel the winds of Africa, to hear and feel the din and the heat of the Indonesian jungle. The mahouts used to sing as they prepared their supper. They were a joyful people who believed in a joyful world. And indeed, the world is a fine place when one sees it from the back of an elephant."

In the book, when they are looking for something to enrich the environment for Hannah, they try painting. I thought you might enjoy the video below of an elephant painting. It is truly amazing.

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