Sunday, May 29, 2005

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady was first published in 1923. Cather describes the bustling, young city of Sweet Water, Nebraska and the subsequent decline of the booming frontier town. It's the story of Marian Forrester and her husband Captain Daniel Forrester, the town's leading citizens.

Young Niel Herbert is captivated by Marian Forrester. She is a gracious, charming, well-loved hostess, who is a generation younger than her husband. Niel seems to be in love with Marian, or he considers her his ideal woman. While revealing little of himself, Niel shares his observations of Marian with the reader, and the reader learns parts of Marian's story through his filtered viewpoint.

Marian respect and loves her husband, Captain Forrester, who is an honest and successful railroad builder. They have a happy marriage, but it is difficult to pinpoint her exact feelings towards him and his towards her. The narrator says that the Captain, “knew his wife better even than she knew herself.” The reader learns that Marian is having an affair with Frank Ellinger, a man from Colorado Spring, but Niel is unaware of this. Later, Niels is stunned to discover Marian in her bedroom with Ellinger, and his long-held admiration for her turns into contempt.

Meanwhile, the Captain’s strong conscience in business causes him to lose money. The Captain then becomes ill, and Marian is lost without him as her anchor. Coping with her sick husband, Marian is shocked to read that Ellinger has married another woman. Marian tries to call him, but she is saved from gossip when Niel cuts her phone line.

The Captain’s dies, and Niel describes the effect on Marian, saying, "since her husband's death she seemed to have become another woman...without him, she was like a ship without ballast, driven hither and thither by every wind.” The novel’s title may refer to Marian being lost without her husband, and it may also refer to Niel’s altered perception of Marian because he considers her to be morally lost.

Later on, Marian gives a slimy lawyer named Ivy Peters power over her finances. Ivy is a young man and the same age as Niel. Marian hopes Ivy will make her rich again. Near the novel’s conclusion, Niel sees that Marian is romantically involved with Ivy, and he never makes an attempt to meet her again.

Marian’s later history is described in the novel’s final pages. Marian left Sweet Water, and was seen in Buenos Aires, where she had married a rich, English rancher. Ultimately, Marian is resourceful and continued to live and change, while others around her did not. Was Marian lost, or not? Cather leaves it up to the reader to decide.

Related Reviews:
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

External Link:
Essay on A Lost Lady by James Woodress

Purchase and read books by Willa Cather:

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather O Pioneers! by Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather


Sunday, May 15, 2005

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) is a book by Azar Nafisi that mixes fiction and reality and combines autobiography and literary criticism. Set in Tehran, Iran in 1995–1997, it tells the story of Nafisi, who is a teacher, and a group of her seven best students. They meet to discuss literature at Nafisi’s home. The women’s inner lives and identities are hidden and suppressed in public, but their minds are free and active. Woven throughout the book are analyses of famous works of literature, which are given new breath in the context of Nafisi’s literature group.

Azar Nafisi has a different and beautiful way of writing. I wish I could read, quote, and retain what I read the way Nafisi does. I enjoyed the way her love of books permeates her thoughts and how she gives so much care to her words. Maybe I'll be like that one day.

Throughout the story, Nafisi brings you in close and then holds you off at just the right moments to make you miss a full understanding. In reading this book, you can feel that strange way that humans interact. We want people to know us and have intimacy, and at the same time, we hold back, not wanting people to know certain things. I don't think I've read a book where that strange sensation is depicted better. At the same time, because the author uses this method, the story often felt cold to me. If you are not close to any of the characters and are held off purposefully from understanding them, then your connection to the story is minimal.

To me, the best parts of the novel involve the seven students and their life stories and goals, but unfortunately, there is minimal information provided to differentiate the women. They are forgotten for much of the story. Their identities are guarded, and it is unclear how much of their stories are even true. This obscurity results in a lack of characterization and is a major downfall of the book.

I especially liked Nafisi’s magician, how he was guarded, and how they both loved and hurt one another. They must have had a great relationship, but I wish we could have learned more. However, if we did, perhaps the relationship would not have seemed so charming and mysterious. We learn little of the magician, and we learn even less about Nafisi’s own family. The purposeful emotional obscurity makes me wonder why the book is titled “memoir,” when the author conveys herself in such an impersonal manner.

Overall, this book was thoughtful, different, and interesting. It allows the reader to think about many topics: literature, history, feminism, censorship, the role of teachers, and politics. It is definitely worth reading.

Purchase and read books by Azar Nafisi:

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times  by Azar Nafisi


Friday, May 6, 2005

Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton

Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton Book Cover

Published in 1927, Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton provides a satirical and scathing look at the Jazz Age. It explores the lives of members of a family in New York City in the 1920s and the characters relationships with one another.

Pauline Manford is a bustling mother whose schedule is packed with cure-alls, fads, religious experiences, and exercise regimens. Beyond all that, she’s occupied by her two children, husband, ex-husband, speeches, parties, and dinners. The novel opens with a look at Pauline’s schedule for the morning: "7.30 Mental uplift. 7.45 Breakfast. 8. Psycho-analysis. 8.15 See cook. 8.30 Silent Meditation. 8.45 Facial massage. 9. Man with Persian miniatures. 9.15 Correspondence. 9.30 Manicure. 9.45 Eurythmic exercises. 10. Hair waved. 10.15 Sit for bust. 10.30 Receive Mothers' Day deputation. 11. Dancing lesson. 11.30 Birth Control committee at Mrs.--." Pauline’s daily flurry of activity distracts her from her crumbling family.

Pauline is married to Dexter, but has no idea what really makes him happy. She visits her ex-husband, Arthur Wyant, just to look upon him with pity. Her son from her first marriage, Jim Wyant, is married to an irresponsible flapper named Lita. Lita is bored of everything, including her husband. Pauline's daughter, Nona Dexter, is perceptive and very different from her mother. Nona tries to support her family and protects her parents while they neglect to protect her. Meanwhile, she's in love with a married man.

The world in Twilight Sleep is filled with social trade-offs, underhanded plans, masquerades, and deception. Pauline struggles to hide the inappropriate activities of her spiritual advisor because his exercise recommendations took inches off her frame. Meanwhile, the rest of the family pulls strings to keep Jim and Lita's marriage afloat, but when Dexter begins to fall for Lita, can appearances hold up or will the careful order crash down?

The title of the novel refers to a medically-induced state called "twilight sleep" created during childbirth due to the use of the drugs morphine and scopolamine. Combination of these drugs caused a loss of pain (analgesia) and a loss of memory (amnesia). This procedure was popular in New York City in the early 1900s because it caused women to have less pain and little to no memory of giving birth. In Twilight Sleep, the characters rush through life trying to avoid pain, lacking understanding, and missing meanings until they are shaken into awareness.

Edited portrait of Edith Wharton, 1889, Roseti, 297 Fifth Avenue, New York. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Favorite Quote:
“Nona glanced down absently at her slim young hands—so helpless and inexperienced looking. All these tangled cross-threads of life, inextricably and fatally interwoven; how were a girl's hands to unravel them?”

Related Reviews:
The Reef by Edith Wharton
Summer by Edith Wharton

Purchase and read books by Edith Wharton:

Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton Ghost Stories by Edith Wharton