Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book Forty-Three: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather and (43B-Food Rules by Michael Pollan) and (43C--Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar)

Yes, I have three books to report on this week, but do not be too impressed. Cather's novel is short, although I'll admit to reading her prose slowly because it is worth the time. Pollan's book is very short and intended to be a quick read. The fairies book has been my bedtime book the last few weeks, although I plowed through it this week just to get it over with (guess what my thoughts are on this one).

A Lost Lady
Willa Cather's work always fascinates me thanks to Mrs. Pepoy's introduction of her to my first-year college writing class through the classic O Pioneers! Both her novels and short stories are strong, but the short novel, A Lost Lady, had sat on my bookshelf too long.

It is a novel which brings in the familiar Cather themes of old vs. new, stagnation vs. growth, and to stretch the idea a bit, love vs. loyalty. Cather published the work in 1923 and in it we see a move away from the pioneers of My Antonia and O Pioneers! as the modern world makes itself felt on the Western expansion. As a result, the idyllic but harsh pioneer life Cather lived and captured are falling away.

The novel centers around Niel Pommeroy, a young boy living with his lawyer uncle in a small railroading town. The object of much of his attention is Mrs. Forrester, the young wife of a older man who has made a comfortable living based on his railroad work. As a growing boy Niel admires the Mrs. Forrester for her elegance, her ease with people, and her promise of something greater than the town. But like most railroad towns, the modern world begins to leave it behind and their social decline is mirrored with Mr. Forrester's financial decline. Niel is close to the childless couple and even takes a year off of college to help care for the ailing husband. The grim future is represented by Ivy Peters, a cruel kid who becomes (you guessed it) a cheating lawyer. He eventually buys up parts of the town including parts of the Forrester estate, and after the death of Mr. Forrester he takes a least temporary possession of Mrs. Forrester.

Niel's dedication to Mrs. Forrester is often described as a love interest by many critics, but I think that misses the point. He loves her, but not as a woman so much as an idea. She represents for Niel possibilities: passion for life, a wider world of experience, self confidence, and elegance not seen in a rural town. Even when he discovers she is having an affair he manages to overlook the reality which denies the possibilities. Only when he sees Ivy groping her in the kitchen does his idealism disappear, although his fondness for her does not since he is still in love with possibilities. What is interesting is that Mrs. Forrester never loses the appearance of these possibilities. She moves beyond Ivy Peters to settle comfortably in Buenos Aires as the wife of a rich Englishman. What Cather shows in that quick end stroke is the facade such possibilities often exist upon. Her life in rural Nebraska and her own struggles with her sexuality doubtless left her with little patience for anything less than reality.

Food Rules
Michael Pollan is a leading voice in making us think about what we eat, how we eat, and how our food is created/produced.  His books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, (both on my short list) have become the bibles for people concerned about our food. Food Rules is like a "Dummy's Guide" to how to eat for the rest of us. The book contains 64 rules, most no more than a short page long, which are split into three categories: What Should I Eat, What Kind of Food Should I Eat, and How Should I Eat.

Pollan clearly expects you to take to some rules more than others, and he is quick to point out that much of what he says is common wisdom. Given our current state of food production and our health issues, I'm not sure the wisdom is too common anymore. The first two parts are what you would expect -- eat real (not processed food), eat more greens, eat meat less often and make sure it is healthy, and don't buy anything your grandmother would not recognize as food. It was the third section which interested me the most. He emphasizes the communal nature of food and notes that when we eat together, we tend to eat better. The French get extra attention because they do not eat the healthiest food, but are in better health than most. He notes they eat less, take longer at meals, and drink wine -- all good things. "Stop Eating Before You Are Full," is one that hits home as I just passed losing 30 pounds in the past three months. Just the other day I ate too much and felt "full," which made me realize how good it is to not fill stuffed. But my favorite rule in the book: "Don't Get Your Fuel From the Same Place Your Car Does." No more six packs of powdered doughnuts for me!  

The Good Fairies of New York
This was a stretch book for me since fantasy does not get much of my attention. Some other bloggers highly recommended this book and since even Neil Gaiman loves it, I thought it would be worth the effort. Afraid I was wrong. While the premise is interesting, the writing is not. The narrative is disjointed and poorly organized, the story line longer than needed, and it even includes those elements which kill fantasy books for most (such as the approval of incest -- and I don't care if they are fairies). 

The back cover promises:
When a pair of fugitive Scottish thistle fairies end up transplanted to Manhattan by mistake, both the Big Apple and the Little People have a lot of adjusting to do. Heather and Morag just want to start the first radical fairy punk rock band, but first theyll have make a match between two highly unlikely sweethearts, start a street brawl between rival gangs of Italian, Chinese, and African fairies, help the ghost of a dead rocker track down his lost guitar, reclaim a rare triple-bloomed Welsh poppy from a bag lady with delusions of grandeur, disrupt a local community performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream, and somehow manage to stay sober enough to save all of New York from an invasion of evil Cornish fairies.

All true, but Heather and Morag are just tiring, whining fairies. Heather helps Dinnie transform from an overweight, obscene, cruel, and untalented person into an object of desire in just a short time, and since it is mainly without magic we know why this is fantasy.  There are about 15 plot lines in here and Millar simply puts an extra space between paragraphs to indicate we are jumping to something else completely. Some plots are built up only to fizzle out, others go on and on (fix the fiddle already! find the guitar! grow a new flower!), and some just push other plots forward. Perhaps I'm just not enough of a fantasy fan to comment more, so I'll hold my tongue. I'm also in the minority on this one since most reviews are glowing, so do not write this off just on my opinion.

Up Next
Every year I co-chair a critical issues symposium at my college and for 2010 our topic is food. Thus the Pollan interest. This week I'm reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.

1 comment:

  1. ohh shame you didn't like the good fairies, but as they say we all have our own tastes (i thought it was hysterical). looking forward to reading your review of fast food nation!