Retro Review: My Ántonia by Willa Cather

my-antonia1Willa Cather has written several novels, My Ántonia being one of her most famous. My Ántonia is written from the point of view of Jim Burden to a friend of his. Jim Burden is a successful attorney living in New York City. But in his youth, he lived in Nebraska where he lived with his grandparents after the death of his parents. Both he and his acquaintance are friends with Ántonia Shimerda, who was an immigrant from Bohemia, and whose family were trying to make a new life in a new country so different from where they came from. Ántonia Shimerda is the main focus of Burden’s memories of his Nebraskan youth.

Burden first meets the Shimerdas while traveling from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. The Shimerdas become neighbors of Burden’s grandparents when they take up residence at a neighboring farm. Burden becomes friendly with the entire family, but he becomes closest to Ántonia for the simple fact they are quite close in age and they decide to explore their new homes in Nebraska. Burden also agrees to teach Ántonia the English language so she can become more familiar and comfortable in her new homeland.

Early one winter, Ántonia’s father takes his own life. Ántonia and her family are left devastated. Jim and his grandparents do their best to comfort the Shimerda family. But sadly, their grief is almost too much to bear, and Burden and Ántonia’s friendship is seriously tested.

Years go by, and Burden and Ántonia become reacquainted when they find themselves both in the same city. Several years older, Ántonia is working as a housekeeper for the Harling family. Burden and Ántonia rekindle their friendship. At this point in the novel, Burden recalls Ántonia spending her off hours at various dances and other fun social events.

Burden soon graduates from high school and is about to embark on his college studies. But before he leaves, he and Ántonia decide to travel to the country with their friends where they reminisce about their younger years.

While in college, Burden becomes very close to a young lady named Lena Lingard, who is also a friend of Ántonia’s. But his future beckons him, so he moves back east, arriving at Harvard to finish up his education.

Meanwhile, Ántonia faces another cruel obstacle when the boy she was supposed to marry leaves days before the wedding. Ántonia is also pregnant and after giving birth, struggles to raise her child as a single mother. Horrified by Ántonia’s lot in life, Burden comes back to Nebraska to help Ántonia any way he can.

However, Burden has his own life to live. He moves back east soon after, becomes a successful attorney. Ántonia marries and has more children. She is happy and Burden is happy for her. With his money, he is able to help Ántonia and her family. At the end of My Ántonia Burden reminisces how this woman, from the time they were both children, shaped his life, both the good and the bad.

My Ántonia is not just the story of two people. It is the story of our American ancestors who tried to make a life of the rough terrain of the frontier, some who were recent immigrants, and others whose family had been living in America for generations. My Ántonia tells of embracing both family and community. It’s a story of challenges and successes, trials and triumphs.

What I love about My Ántonia is how Cather captures me with her descriptions of a girl I feel I know and all through the lens of man, Jim Burden. Often, when women’s lives are told through the memories of men they are so one-dimensional and fulfill limited themes-the silly little girl, the sainted wife and mother, the lonely spinster, the “good time girl” and so on. But Ántonia is so vivid and real as is the landscape of America in her younger years. Published in 1918, My Ántonia remains a classic, one that should be read and treasured for years to come.

 

Book Review: Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown

modern girlsIt is New York City in 1935. On the lower east side lives Rose and her daughter, Dottie, two Jewish women living what appear to be two very different lives. Rose is an immigrant, married with four children, Dottie being the eldest. Dottie is a career woman (as much as a young lady could be a career woman in 1935). She works as a book keeper for an insurance company and is about to be promoted to the head of her department and looks forward to attending college. She’s also being romanced by a nice young man named Abe.

As different as their lives seem, Rose and Dottie share a secret. They are both pregnant. And they aren’t exactly thrilled about the news. Now that she’s older and her children are nearly grown, Rose has a huge desire to get back into the activism that captivated her in her youth. Plus, her family is challenged enough with four children. Her childbearing days should be over.

As for Dottie? Well, for one thing, she is unmarried and Abe hasn’t put a “ring on it.” Oh, and there is the pesky fact that Abe is not the father. Dottie has been impregnated by a dastardly rake named Willie Klein, a fledgling journalist who wants to write stories about the turmoil that is taking over Europe, not settling down with a wife and a young mouth to feed.

Each chapter Dottie and Rose trade off, telling their stories in first person. We get their perspectives on their lives, their predicaments they face and the journeys they go through before they reach the final decisions that will shape their futures.

Dottie tries to find a reasonable solution to her unexpected pregnancy. She can’t tell Willie. He’d probably just run off, and besides, they’re not betrothed to each other. It was just one night…a night Dottie remembers was one of deep passion, which aroused an erotic awakening in her that she wonders if sweet Abe could ever muster if he could get past a few virtuous kisses and some chaste hugs.

Knowing she can’t keep her little secret a secret as her body blossoms with pregnancy, Dottie conjures up a plan to seduce Abe when they go on a week-end get away to a place called Camp Eden, a week-end that will rely on a bit of alcohol and a lot of seduction on Dottie’s part. She can’t face the idea of being a single mother to a bastard child. It would be a shandeh (Yiddish for shame or embarrassment to my fellow gentiles). As for abortion or adoption? Dottie also thinks of these two options, but they leave her feeling just as confused.

And then there are Dottie’s dreams for the future. Being a whiz at math, Dottie loves her job as a bookkeeper (despite a few sketchy co-workers) and desires a college education when often women didn’t even make it to high school (my maternal grandmother never did). But thanks to Rose, a college education might be a real option for Dottie…if only she wasn’t facing an unplanned pregnancy.

As for Rose, as much as she loves her family and arises to the challenges of making her small tenement apartment a home, which includes making the Friday evening meal, the shabbes, she knows there is so much out there. She hungers for the life she had when she was younger, the life that included embracing activism and social justice, especially when it comes to her fellow Jewish immigrants. But how can she embrace the passions of her youth if she has another child to take care of? What will she do?

Though Modern Girls starts a bit slow but once it gets going it is truly a compelling read. Dottie and Rose are two very engrossing characters facing huge choices at a time when women’s lives were so much more constricted than they are now. And yet at the same time, I found their options, dreams, fears, ideas and desires to very timely. Women, whether they be traditional “Roses” or contemporary “Dotties” face these enduring issues in 2016 (I’d like to know what they would think of the possibility of female president, which we might just get if Hillary Clinton gets elected and let’s not forget, Bernie Sanders, a Jewish man, also ran for president).

In the end, both Rose and Dottie make two very distinct decisions that are the best for the time and the predicaments they face. And instead of everything being wrapped up in a neat little bow, the reader is left hanging. How will Rose and Dottie’s lives turn out?

But Brown leaves us guessing, and that’s one of the reasons why I liked Modern Girls so much. It left the futures of both Dottie and Rose up to me, and I wished them nothing but happiness, but I also want a sequel to Modern Girls. Brown is a very talented writer, with a wonderful way of using both English and Yiddish, showing not telling the worlds Dottie and Rose exist, and making Dottie and Rose such multi-dimensional and captivating characters. It’s a great read and one that will inspire much conversation, and ideal pick if you belong to a book discussion group

 

Book Marks

bookmarkJust what are the critics saying about the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? Here are some reviews.

Do you sometimes read the last line or the last chapter of a book first? You’re not the only one.

Do you know some kids who want to change the world? Have them read poetry.

Here are some of Dr. Seuss’s secret paintings and drawings.

Sadly, there are places where books are almost non-existent.

The late Muhammad Ali, now in a graphic novel.

What is the future of libraries? Let’s find out.

Ten questions you should ask yourself if you want to write under a pseudonym.

Twenty-five songs that reference books.

Book Forum talks to The Girls author Emma Cline.

 

 

 

 

 

Taking One For The Team: Live Original-How the Duck Commander Teen Keeps It Real and Stays True to Her Values by Sadie Robertson with Beth Clark

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Of the Duck Dynasty clan, young Sadie Robertson is probably seen as the least offensive member. Nobody could ever be more offensive than that racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and all-around bigot, the Robertson family patriarch Phil Robertson, right?

Well, in her book, Live Original-How the Duck Commander Teen Keeps It Real and Stays True to Her Values doesn’t exactly come across as a bigoted belle of the ball. If she shares any of her grandpappy’s detestable views, she keeps them pretty hidden within the confines of Live Original…

But, read between the lines, use some critical thinking skills, and Miss Robinson does come across as rather pleased with herself, very preachy and totally lacking any open-mindedness and empathy towards others.

On the surface, Robertson comes across as well-adjusted and sincere. She’s that sweet girl next door, the type you wouldn’t mind your own daughter emulating or your son dating. But after a while a certain thinly-veiled “mean girl” vibe comes out, one that left me feeling for impressionable young people, especially young girls, who see Robertson as a role model.

Sadie Robertson explains she is fully committed to her faith and in her love of God. For the most part, I am fine with this. I am fully committed in my Unitarian Universalist faith, which for the most part of does affect certain choices I make in my life and affirms my commitment to my community.

But enough with my faith…

Live Original is divided into various Christian-inspired chapters focused on “self-helpy” and inspirational memes like “Think Happy, Be Happy,” “Dream Big,” “Never Give Up,” “Respect Relationships,” Stress Causes Mess,” and “Do Something.” Nothing wrong with these greeting card phrases. When taken at face value they are hardly controversial. Oprah has been saying this in a more secular manner for thirty years now. But after reading Live Original, many of these Hallmark card platitudes just ring a bit false and not exactly understanding coming from a girl from a very privileged family who hasn’t really faced any of the challenges a lot of teenagers (and yes adults) face in the 21st century.

For goodness sake take the first meme “Think Happy, Be Happy.” I’ve suffered from depression for years, most of my depression starting when I was a girl. Believe me, I tried my hardest to overcome my depression by thinking only happy thoughts and rarely did it work. I often felt even more depressed! I just wonder how a young girl, not realizing she is suffering from depression, might feel after reading this chapter. Would she just try thinking happy thoughts and not get the help she needs, perhaps only a therapist and a support system can provide? I hate to think of the repercussions Miss Robertson’ empty headed advice might affect an impressionable young reader who is gripped by depression.

As for Never Give Up? Sure, this is fine in theory, but there are times when you do have to give up. Giving up doesn’t make one a failure; sometimes giving up can lead to better things and open up a path to something more positive in the long haul. I thought my life was over when I lost two mainstream writing gigs. I thought I wouldn’t write again. But then I told myself, “Perhaps, you’re not meant for more mainstream media,” which inspired me to use the alternative media of my own choosing and write book reviews this very blog.

I also have to throw some shade at the chapter Respect Relationships. In this chapter, Robertson claims she demands respect from the guys she dates and everything is hunky-dory. Well, yes, but I couldn’t help but wonder about young girls who also ask for respect from their boyfriends but aren’t receiving it. Maybe the boys in question cheat on them, or make cutting comments or even worse sexually assault or abuse these girls? Did these girls not ask for respect in the correct way? Did they do something to deserve their boyfriend’s horrible behavior? In this chapter, Robertson lays all the responsibility on the girl and very little on the boy. I found this maddening.

Most of the chapters are like the kinds of described and the content is fueled by various Biblical quotes. Furthermore, Robertson can’t help but boast of her family’s privilege and wealth (which is multi-generational), her amazing accomplishments (most of it due to her family privilege) and her all-around self-absorption where she seems to think she’s the only teenager who is concerned about others, does good things and pretty much excels in everything she tries whether it’s on Dancing With the Stars, strutting the catwalk in her “Daddy-Approved” formal wear line with Sherri Hill or her mission work in foreign countries.

And throughout Live Original, Robertson proves to be quite snippy towards other people she feels better than like the models she meets during New York’s fashion week, people who don’t share her faith, her high school classmates (those jealous haters), and even her brother John Luke who sadly, doesn’t share her athletic prowess.

Now I know Live Original is hardly aimed at a liberal, feminist and older woman like myself. But I can’t help but feel for those impressionable young fans of Sadie Robertson who aren’t born into privilege, may have family issues faith and thinking positive thoughts can’t help and are facing huge obstacles whether they are being bullied in school, the victim of date rape, facing the illness of a parent or are being plagued by poverty. I think Live Original might make these young women feeling even worse, and I hope they seek out alternative literature that will help them no matter their situation.

Part brag book and part slam book, Live Original is best to be ignored. And hopefully Sadie Robertson and the entire Duck Dynasty klan will become a mere footnote in television history.

Book Review: #Newsfail- Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will by Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny

NewsfailWhenever people describe the mainstream media as being liberal I just want to scratch my eyes out. How can our mainstream media, whether it’s Fox News, CNN, our morning news shows on network television, AM radio and the Sunday morning political chat shows be considered liberal when six corporations own them? Corporations are hardly liberal (and they’re not people either). Heck, even PBS gets funding from big business corporate juggernaut Wal-Mart and the extremely right wing Koch Brothers.

So thank the gods and goddesses above for Citizen Radio, one of the few media outlets fully-funded by individuals, not corporations, and because of this Citizen Radio is truly free to “tell it like it is.”

Citizen Radio is helmed by husband and wife team Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny. I first learned of Citizen Radio when Bitch Magazine had the good sense to interview Allison Kilkenny about Citizen Radio (and the sorry state of modern media and journalism) instead of wasting its precious pages on the likes of one of the Kardashians where they talk about selfies and “stuff.”

Kilkenny’s take on modern day journalism and media mirrors my own disgust so I decided to check out Citizen Radio and listen to Kilstein and Kilkenny’s well-informed, thought-provoking and yes, funny (Kilstein is also a stand-up comic) whenever possible. So when I came across #Newfail: Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will I just knew I had to add this wonderful tome to my reading list.

Kilstein and Kilkenny’s are true progressive liberals and don’t try to hide it. They met while working at a book store and bonded over the Superman t-shirts they both sported on a particular day. Realizing they both had a nose for news (and both despising current day journalism) and wanting a media outlet that was a little more forthcoming with the truth and was more progressive, they both decided to go all Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland “let’s put on a show, kids!” Thus, Citizen Radio was born.

Now Kilstein and Kilkenny are hardly trust fund hipsters being set up by mommy and daddy and working with a huge budget. To say they were working with a shoestring budget would be a lie. Kilstein and Kilkenny barely had shoes, let alone shoestrings. Can you imagine Matt Lauer or George Stephanopoulos interviewing Ralph Nader from a bathtub? Well, me neither. I can’t imagine either Lauer or Stephanopoulos interviewing anyone from anywhere but a nice, shiny soundstage. I can’t even imagine them interviewing Ralph Nader! During Citizen Radios (vegan) salad days, Kilstein and Kilkenny did just that and from those humble beginnings Citizen Radio continues to grow and reach like-minded people fed-up with corporate-owned media.

#Newsfail is divided into several informative, concise and funny chapters focusing on various topics, including our class war and the mocking of the Occupy movement, climate change (focusing a lot on having a mostly plant-based diet), being pro-choice, the gay agenda, gun control and the NRA, the bogus War on Drugs, the USA’s involvement in foreign countries and finally the importance of truly independent media.

For the most part #Newsfail showcases the status of stories that our mainstream media simply ignores or fails to recognize. In fact, today most mainstream media seems to be more PR and marketing than actual solid journalism these days.

#Newsfail isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers and sacrifice a few cows in a manner of speaking. Kilstein and Kilkenny are pretty bad ass in speaking of both Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show,” both beloved by most liberals (including this one). Though Kilstein and Kilkenny for the most part, have a fondness for both Stewart and his former Comedy Central gig, they aren’t afraid to expose both them for their less than stellar moments. I must admit, I often cringed while reading this chapter, but I found #Newsfail’s criticism to be fair and constructive. Kilstein and Kilkenny weren’t just being contrary to be jerks.

Undoubtedly, the chapter that might make the reading audience the most uncomfortable is “Al Gore is Fat and we’re All Going to Die: Or, You Can’t Blame Climate Change on Vegans.” Both Kilstein and Kilkenny are truly committed to a vegan lifestyle. Not all liberals are vegans, plenty of them love their burgers and bacon, and this particular liberal loves her butter and cheese (I am from America’s Dairyland after all). In this chapter, Kilstein and Kilkenny do come across a bit preachy and I often squirmed in my seat while reading their arguments. Still, they bring up how eating a more plant-based diet makes for a healthier planet and healthier life. Plus, this chapter even has a recipe for “Jamie’s Vegan Better-Than-Stupid-Pad-Thai Pad Thai.*

Other chapters tell dudes just because you are pro-choice that doesn’t give you an excuse to be a douchebag, the War on Drugs is a massive failure and has destroyed people and communities, how the NRA is a big pile of crap and the need to focus on both gun control and mental health issues (something that seems the mainstream media is finally focusing on a little bit), the “Gay Agenda,” which for some stupid reason is making those on the extreme right think same sex marriage will destroy opposite sex marriage, and the massive failure of our foreign policy in the Middle East.

Finally Kilstein and Kilkenny prove the importance of autonomous journalism in #Newsfail’s epilogue, “Save the Tote Bags!: Why Independent Media is Essential to Saving Democracy and the World.” If it was up to me, this epilogue should be read by every journalism student, everyone involved in media whether mainstream or alternative, and everyone concerned with today’s sorry state of journalism, whether delivered via television, printed publications or digitally via the Internet. Like Kilstein and Kilkenny, our society, our country and our sense of democracy needs this.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how #Newsfail made me proud of my own wee corner of the Internet. As a huge reader and a writer, I’m always on the hunt for good reads, whether fiction or non-fiction, and it is truly a blessing when I find a book that the mainstream media ignores focusing more on a book written by a Real Housewife, a Kardashian, or some other D-list celebrity, reality show cretin or detestable pundit (oh hi there, Ann Coulter). #Newsfail made me think, but it also made me proud. Thank you Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny.

*Speaking of veganism, here is a great vegan dish courtesy of Lisa Jervis’ book Cook Food. FYI, I usually buy my corn and tomatoes from my local farmer’s market and I grow basil at home.

Corn, Tomato and Basil Salad

Ingredients:

3 ears of corn

1 large tomato or two medium, three small, or one basket of cherry tomatoes

1 small handful of torn or chopped basil

1 lemon for both zest and juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Husk the corn. Steam the corn for five minutes in an inch or two of boiling water. Turn once or twice. You can also fully boil the ears of corn. Both methods work.

Place the cobs of corn in the fridge until cool. Cut the kernels off the cobs.

Cut the tomatoes into bite-sized chunks and place in a bowl with the kernels and the basil.

Zest half of the lemon into the bowl. Then juice the lemon into the bowl.

Add the olive oil and toss. Adjust the lemon zest and juice if needed. Add salt and pepper to taste.

There are a lot of variations to this salad. If you’re not a basil fan, you can always another herb. Mint and cilantro are good. You can also add other veggies. I’ve made this salad with cut-up cucumbers and red onions. Though this is considered a side dish, I’ve often made this salad into a meal with toasted pita bread and hummus.

Book Review: Evicted- Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

EvictedI keep telling myself, “Bookish, you need to lighten up. You need to read more fun and frolic silly chick lit that doesn’t tax your brain or make you feel.” Then you receive a copy of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and you just have to read it.

Desmond is a sociologist and professor at Harvard, much like Barbara Ehrenreich tried to live life as a member of the working poor in her classic Nickel and Dimed, Desmond learned about both the lives and struggles of both the poor and the landlords that rent to them by taking up residence in Milwaukee, and letting both sides tell their stories about their struggles and challenges. He focused on two Milwaukee communities, the northwest side, which is prominently black, and a trailer park on the south side where many of the residents are white. Many have made bad choices; they fail to get an education, get hooked on drugs, have children they can’t afford, they party too hard, they blow their allotment of food stamps on expensive food, etc. Needless to say, this often doesn’t leave a whole lot of money to pay the rent, and the landlords had no choice but remit eviction notices. Desmond, for the most part, doesn’t condemn or condone these actions, but makes us question, “Do bad choices lead to poverty or does poverty lead to bad choices?”

And one wonders if these bad choices would lead to so much struggle if they weren’t also poor at this point in their lives. Remember, there are plenty of rich people who make bad choices and their lives are never affected too greatly (or at all). And they certainly don’t face becoming homeless.

But at the same time, many of the residents dealt with issues outside of their control, a loss of a job, stagnating wages, certain benefits not coming through, a serious illness, a death in the family, a car accident or just a really awful winter, which made their heating/electric bills sky rocket. Some of these residents tried to help their lot in life by looking for a second job, selling their belongings (sometimes their plasma); many of them get roommates or bring in extra family members to help pay the rent.

The actual eviction descriptions are exceptionally difficult to read, and often left me queasy. Desmond writes of these passages with the clarity and detail of a film maker, which made me truly see them in my mind’s eye. I kept shaking my head, wanting to get them out of my brain, but to this day, I just can’t let go of the “scenes” of people being thrown from their homes during moments of both fun and frolic and at moments of utter despair and desperation. Where do they go? What do they do? And I can’t fathom how this devastates the children involved, many who via eviction go from home to home, family member to family member, school to school, and shelter to shelter, not knowing any sense of security or stability. If this is difficult for an adult, I can’t even imagine how eviction damages a young child.

Still, I had to keep in mind the landlords are business people, and renting out property is their business they can’t rent out to people who can’t pay up. And though there were times I found the landlords lacking in empathy and some of them verged on being slumlords, I also understand they need to be paid.

What surprised me while reading Evicted is how expensive these places were despite their less than glamorous zip codes and truly detestable conditions, one being a place inhabited by maggots, yes maggots. Many of these places weren’t much cheaper than places found in “better” neighborhoods like Milwaukee’s east side, or places like Bayview. Yes, the rent is “too damn high!”

The best thing about Evicted is how Desmond just lets both the tenants and the landlords speak their truth; like a true reporter, he doesn’t preach or take sides. He lets the reader takes sides…or in this case of this reader, don’t take sides. Evicted is not an easy read, but I can’t recommend it enough.