It’s time for another installment of The Beehive Book Club. If you recall, I got a Kindle for Christmas, and I’ve become even more of a reading fiend than before — and I thought it’d be fun to create a sort of virtual book club in which the common denominator isn’t so much the same title but simply a love of text in an image-based world.
So, I want to know: What are you reading?
One of the great things about the Kindle is that you can set it up to read lots of older books for free. So I’ve been diving into more stuff that’s in the public domain. My most recent fave: Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.”
This beautiful, famous, shimmering novel captures not only an iconic strong woman character but the transition of this country from open frontier to “civilized.” The narrator’s recollections of Antonia, a girl with whom he grew up in a small Nebraska farming town, are partly elegiac – a smidge of first crush – and partly matter-of-fact, in the sense that he confronts his own aging process.
Antonia, the daughter of local “Bohemian” immigrants, doesn’t have as rosy a life ahead of her as Jim, who goes to live with his grandparents when his own parents die. In fact, the first winter he knows her, she and her family practically crumble in the cold (and her father ends up committing suicide). But Antonia is strong. As she gets older, she secures a job in town as a domestic. Later, she marries a good, solid man and raises a large family.
There’s another strong woman character as well: Lena, a friend of Antonia, who is sort of a wild teen. But Lena is driven. She goes into the dressmaking business and relishes her independence. It’s interesting that Cather includes both characters – it’s as if they’re two halves of a whole prototype of a liberated woman.
I’ve also recently read:
** “The Moon and Sixpence” by W. Somerset Maugham. A sturdy, fascinating exercise in taking the general outline of a famed artist and fleshing out his story with fictional flair. The artist in question is Gauguin, the French banker turned Tahiti-bound artist. In this book he’s become Charles Strickland, a British stockbroker who one day leaves his wife and conventional life behind and heads for Paris, where he seems to enjoy living in abject poverty and infuriating art purists.
Maugham livens this smooth endeavor with superb musings on human behavior. Example: Early on, at a dinner party, when the narrator relates meeting Strickland at a tedious dinner party, he writes: “When at last we were all assembled, waiting for dinner to be announced, I reflected, while I chatted with the woman I had been asked to “take in,” that civilized man practices a strange ingenuity in wasting on tedious exercises the brief span of life.” . Oh so true – and what freedom it must have been for Strickland to throw off the shackles of conventionality.
Maugham is a master, of course, and while “Moon and Sixpence” isn’t remembered as one of his greats, it’s a charmer. It’s always fun to riff on the eccentricities and excesses of artists.
** “At Fault,” by Kate Chopin. I’ve never read “The Awakening,” Chopin’s best-known work, but it’s on my list. For some reason I wanted to read something else by her beforehand. This odd little novel, set in the swamps and backwater of post-Civil War Louisiana, didn’t receive tremendous acclaim from critics or the public. I can see why. It’s a little brittle. But it’s also loaded with fascinating, daring themes for the times. I find it interesting that a permutation of the title, “At Fault,” has become closely associated with divorce in our present-day society – as in “no fault” divorce. I’m sure it was controversial for Chopin to deal with the theme of divorce in this book.
The plot concerns a recent widow, Therese, who is depicted as the story opens as devastated at her husband’s recent death – but has no qualms about being a strong mistress of her plantation. When an entrepreneur approaches her about building a mill on her property, she agrees – and eventually, the man, named David Hosmer, falls in love with her. Yet he divorced his wife because she was an alcoholic, and Therese, being a good Catholic, can’t abide that. So Therese convinces David to return to his wife, remarry her and bring her back to the plantation. Talk about some underlying tension.
The love triangle is interesting because of the odd social dynamic, but even more fascinating is Chopin’s depiction of the world of the poor. Most of the characters in the book are poor free blacks struggling to make their way in a post Civil War world. Chopin is certainly a writer of the times, using such “shocking” terms today as “darkie,” but she also has a deep empathy for these characters. Though the ending is a little too neat – Therese and David are able to marry when his wife dies in an accident – the novel still captures the tumult of changing social mores. I look forward to “The Awakening.”
** “The Coming of Bill,” by P.G. Wodehouse. Have I mentioned that I’m a Wodehouse fanatic? I bought ALL his novels in one Kindle swoop, and I dive in every now and then for a bit of good cheer.
UP NEXT: I’m going soon to Cartagena, Colombia, for vacation, and I want to read a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the city’s favorite scribe. Should I start with “100 Years of Solitude” or “Love in the Time of Cholera”?