Back to the books...
My first encounter with Willa Cather was in a Modernism class in graduate school. We read The Professor's House, one of her less revered novels, although a "less revered" Cather is far more respected than most authors ever hope to be. I bought O Pioneers! on a lark one day at Books-a-Million when I found an attractive, cheap copy.
What I love most about Cather's writing is the accessibility. It's very reader-friendly in much the same way as Hemingway. That is, while the writing is simple and straightforward, there is a ton going on under the surface.
O Pioneers! is the story of Alexandra Bergson and her immigrant family. The book opens when Alexandra is an adolescent and her father is a failing farmer. Alexandra grows and learns increasingly more about methods of farming and begins to take chances on the land. When her brothers wish to sell off the farm after their father's death, Alexandra urges them to hold onto the investment and weather the hard times. Eventually Alexandra triumphs and the farm becomes a booming success. However, Alexandra also finds that she's lost along the way...lost the opportunity to marry her friend and confidante, Carl Lunstrom.
Cather's masterpiece is split into five episodes, each detailing a different point in the Bergson's life. Aside from Alexandra's endeavors, Cather details the loves and losses of her younger brother, Emil, whose university education and interests set him apart from the majority of boys on the prairie.
My first reaction to this book was one of wonder. It sort of reminded me of the 6th grade when I read my first Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, Little House in the Big Woods. I remember marveling at Wilder's descriptions of frontier life. The preparation of food, crops and animals and other daily how-tos. Cather includes many related details, but her writing is by no means overdone or loaded down with extraneous detail.
Beyond the wonderful descriptions of frontier life, Cather paints a wonderfully strong, forthright, admirable character in Alexandra Bergson. Cather elevates her protagonist to epic proportions in her efforts to tame the land. It's rare, especially in this time period in literature, to run across so significant a female character.
As usual, Cather does not disappoint, and this one garnered a 10/10. Another favorite of the year, perhaps!
On the other side of things--the not so positive side--I read Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories, by Chuck Palahniuk. Admittedly, I'm not an avid Palahniuk follower. I read an enjoyed one of his books--Lullaby--and I'm continually amused by the premises of his books. However, I haven't tripped over myself to get caught up on his work thus far. When I visited Pomegranate Books, my very favorite independent book store a few months ago, I was on an essay kick. I picked up Palahniuk's collection just for the fact that the essays would likely be off the wall and exceedingly interesting.
I was partially right.
The book is split into three parts...general essays he's written for magazines, portraits of celebrities, authors, etc., and finally a section of personal essays. The general essay section chronicled the wild and weird from the near-obscene Testical Festival near Missoula, Montana, to three ordinary men who repeatedly spend their time and money constructing bigger, stronger, grander residential castles across the U.S. While these essays were interesting in their own right, I found it much more worthwhile to take a stroll through Palahniuk's psyche. He related a number of anecdotes that led to his writing Fight Club, shared some tragic tidbits about his childhood, and ruminated on his friends, the ups and downs of writing celebrity, and various cultural assumptions.
Overall, I have to say the book was just "meh." I enjoyed parts of it very much, and others pushed me to skim. At the end of the day, a 6/10. But I read it in a day's time, and it wasn't a total waste of time. Devoted Palahniuk fans might enjoy it more than I did.