A Short Story Steeped in Nostalgia – Willa Cather’s “The Old Beauty”

I’m so far behind in posting about my recent reading. Since reading is generally easier for me than writing, I’ll attribute this to a general laziness on my part. I’ll try to catch up with a few posts this weekend…

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Saturday I read the 46th Short Story of my 2012 reading project. Willa Cather’s “The Old Beauty” seemed to match my ’mood of the day’ quite well. Poignant and nostalgic, I found it to be a great introduction to an author I’d never read before. Sure, I’d heard of Cather from the acclaim of her books “My Antonia” and “O Pioneers!” and the latter of these was even Indianapolis’s “One City, One Book” selection several years ago but, alas, I did not participate.

(Below: Willa Cather immortalized on a postage stamp)

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I enjoyed  the chronological structure of this story, which had the effect of allowing a delicate, deferent approach to the title character of the story, Madame de Courcy. I found this quite appropriate since the character herself was somewhat distant and unapproachable.

The protagonist of story is really Mr. Henry Seabury. After a successful business career in the Orient, he has returned to Europe a few years after World War I to find it a very different place. He selects – as his place to “settle back in” – Aix-les-Bains in Eastern France because he thought it was “a spot that was still more or less as it used to be.” When the story begins, the title character is “in the news” and intrusive reporters are troubling Seabury for comment. The story then steps back a couple months to when he first arrived in Aix-les-Bains. In this episode, he meets some tourists from Devonshire, and, while dining with them, espies “the Old Beauty” Madame de Courcy, who he knew many years before as Gabrielle Longstreet, originally from the island of Martinique. She was “discovered” there by a yachting English nobleman, and carried off to London where she made quite an impact:

“Gabrielle was not socially ambitious, made no effort to please. She was not witty or especially clever, had no accomplishments beyond speaking French as naturally as English. She said nothing memorable in either language. She was beautiful, that was all. And she was fresh. She came into that society of old London like a quiet country dawn.”

Seabury, in yet another leap back in time, then recalls her history and their meeting so many years ago. It is only after this that we return – almost – to the present, and he renews his acquaintance with her.

She is painted as a tragic figure – she had eventually parted from Longstreet and remarried the frenchman, de Courcy, who is later killed in the war. The war has further disturbed her equilibrium as it has left the world she knew greatly changed. Her traveling companion explains to Seabury at one point, “You see she thought, once the war was over, the world would be just as it used to be. Of course it isn’t.”

Just as the world has changed, so has she. She is no longer the young, beautiful exotic she once was. This is another adjustment she found difficult. Cather treats the reader to a couple great quotations. She says of Seabury:

“Plain women, he reflected, when they grow old are – simply plain women. Often they improve. But a beautiful woman may become a ruin.”

Then also notes- on Gabrielle’s not wearing make-up of any kind:

“Cheap counterfeits meant nothing to a woman who had had the real thing for so long.”

I’ll not reveal any “major” spoilers regarding the eventual fate of The Old Beauty and her reunion with her friend. I will say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and that it was a great vehicle by which to contemplate the transience of not just “beauty” but also the world that one grows comfortable in. One final quote below, which I think is representative of the mood and tone of this story:

“Perhaps the few very beautiful women he remembered in the past had been illusions, had benefited by a romantic tradition which played upon them like a kindly light… and by an attitude in men which no longer existed.”

Have you read this story by Willa Cather? What else of hers have you read? Where should I turn next among her works…?

(Below: The beautiful Aix-les-Bains on lake Bourget <picture from Wikipedia>)

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A Unique Author Visit – Mike Mullin at Bookmama’s Bookstore in Irvington

I had the pleasure of visiting Bookmama’s Bookstore in Indianapolis this past thursday after work, where author Mike Mullin (“Ashfall” and the recently published “Ashen Winter”) was a guest speaker. I posted awhile back about the first book and in that post mentioned how Mr. Mullin was a black belt in Taekwando and how coincidental it was that the main character of Ashfall (Alex) inherited that skill. Well, Thursday – as Paul Harvey used to say – I learned “the rest… of the story.”

(below: Bookmama’s bookstore in Irvington)

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Mr. Mullin first spoke a little about vulcanology (for those that don’t know or haven’t guessed, “Ashfall” is a post-apocalyptic novel that imagines the aftermath of an eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano). He mentioned, if I recall correctly, that the idea for the book came to him at the Indianapolis Central Library, when he viewed some material on that subject. Although I have two geologists in my family, I don’t know very much about the subject of volcanoes and was happy to learn more.

He related how, at the time of the great Krakatoa
Eruption in 1883, European colonists two-hundred miles away, hearing the explosions, thought they were under some kind of artillery attack. Pausing for dramatic effect (there were several wide-eyed kids in the small audience) he then said that the last eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano was hundreds of times more powerful… Our scientific education continued when Mullin described how first the use of tree-ring dating and, later, examinations of ice cores have allowed vulcanologists to see further and further back into the geologic history of our planet. Fascinating stuff.

He also performed a dramatic reading of the passage near the beginning of the book where catastrophe strikes (quite literally) Alex’s house. Technically, maybe this couldn’t be called a “reading” since he didn’t have to look at his book once, so either he’s done it often enough to learn it by heart or is gifted with an impressive memory.

He then fielded fielded questions from the audience. Some were the standard variety – How long did it take you to write it? When did you start writing? Etc. (I think he said four years to the former, with over three years spent on the revision and editing process, and the sixth grade for the latter). The second book was much quicker. Why? He “already had the characters.” I asked him about the reaction of scientists and geologists with whom he consulted when they learned the premise of his book and was happy to hear that the feedback was positive and that many thought it was “cool.”

I was surprised to learn, though, that he began to study Taekwando only AFTER he had written it into the book. He said that, due to his limited schedule, it had taken a little longer than usual for him to make the progression to black belt and that, for awhile, there was some doubt as to whether or not the blurb on the back cover (already touting him as a black belt) would be truthful. Rest assured it was, as the master of his do-jang was able to help fit the final testing into his schedule in time.

He concluded his talk with a Taekwando demonstration, breaking a brick and signing the pieces for two of the younger members of the audience.

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I got a hardcover copy of “Ashen Winter” signed for me and my friend, Ann Marie, got him to sign a copy of Ashfall for her daughter as a Christmas present. I asked him what HE was reading now, and he recommended two books: “Wonder” by R. J. Palacio and “Velveteen” by Daniel Marks. Subsequently looking them up, I doubt “Velveteen” would be my cup of tea, but the former sounds very good. Overall a fun time. I am always thankful when I see authors who are willing to visit smaller locations like this one and am particularly impressed when they are as gracious as Mr. Mullin was. Well, that’s about it. I’m off to start reading “Ashen Winter” now… 🙂

(below: Mr. Mullin’s “break-through performance”)

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I’m Insulted!

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I was minding own business watching tv last night (I don’t remember the show or the network, but it was likely a syndicated episode Seinfeld or Big Bang Theory) when this commercial for Velveeta cheese comes on. My brain usually tunes out the commercials, but my ears perked up when I hear some guy say “I host a book club…” and then a girl (his wife, presumably?) coos “soooo sexy!” The scene cuts to a man reading from a book. He is made up to look like like the author pictured on the over, complete with a fake mustache. I thought he vaguely resembled Thomas Hardy, but I couldn’t zoom in and clearly read the book title. “Vega had no tolerance for such dastardly deeds,” he intones in an affected British/Academician voice. His two suffering guests listen obediently on the couch but would clearly rather be somewhere else. What could possibly save them from such a miserable situation? Why, the wife arriving in a tight dress with a tray of Velveeta cheese queso with Rotel diced tomatoes and green chilis, of course!

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The announcer pipes in that “some parties need a bowl of queso…”

Of course, a book club meeting cannot stand on its own as entertainment and therefore would be one of those parties.

So, there’s a lot wrong and inaccurate about this 15-second advertisement. First, I know of NO book clubs that contain just men. In fact, most of the book clubs I’ve been part of were mostly women. Second, I don’t know of any book clubs where the members read from the book in an affected, snobbish-toned voice. Third, although I’m still young (well, sort of) I’ve yet to hear a woman sigh and say “ooh… sexy” when I refer to my book club. They are often too busy running in the opposite direction to say anything. Fourth, we never have a stack of extra copies the books sitting on the coffee table (were they expecting others to arrive? If so, she’s going to need more Velveeta!) And fifth, we do not use our BOOKS as napkins as the guy on the right on the couch does. If you look closely, you can see he has even dripped some queso on the book already! Sacrilege!!

Plead join me in urging Kraft Foods to pull this offensive commercial from their lineup (OK, I’m only joking about this part) and let them know book clubs and readers are not to be made fun of or taken lightly!

If anyone wants to see it, one place I found the clip on-line is here: http://theadlist.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/velveeta-rotel-commercial/

(Note: as of 8/2013 this video is no longer available. I looked elsewhere but couldn’t find it. “Obviously,” my campaign to end BookClub discrimination was a success!)

 

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