“Double Birthday” by Willa Cather

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(Willa Cather)

Now that I’ve been blogging for a few years, there is a growing list of authors that I hadn’t read (or even heard of, in some cases) before I started blogging that are now among my favorites. Haruki Murakami, William Trevor, John Green and Margaret Atwood are a few examples. Also near the top of the list of these would have to be Willa Cather. Her short story, “The Old Beauty” was my ’gateway drug’ in 2012, and I haven’t looked back. Her novel, “The Professor’s House” which encompasses within its pages the wonderful “Tom Outland’s Story” will, I’m sure, be a lifelong favorite, as will the short story, “The Enchanted Bluff” which was, well, enchanting. Next up will be her novel, “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”

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But first, I was happily reminded that I had included a story of hers in my 2013 Short Story reading project, “Deal Me In,”  where I prepare for the year by picking fifty-two stories and assigning each to a card in a standard deck of playing cards. I read one a week, and the order is determined by drawing a card from the deck. Generally, each suit has a theme, and hearts was my suit for stories by female authors. This week I drew the ace of hearts and was led to Cather’s story, “Double Birthday.” It’s now one of my favorites for the year thus far.

“Even in American cities, which seem so much alike, where people seem all to be living the same lives, striving for the same things, thinking the same thoughts, there are still individuals a little out of tune with the times – there are still survivals of a past more loosely woven, there are disconcerting beginnings of a future yet unseen.”

With a great introductory paragraph like that, one should not be surprised that this short story – about the Englehardts, an uncle and nephew, both named Albert, separated by a generation, yet sharing the same birthday – would not disappoint. The Englehardt family has effectively squandered its once mighty fortune, making them pitiable to many others, but not themselves. Another character, the upstanding Judge Hammersly, doesn’t see how Albert “can hold his head up” in the face of his changed fortunes.

It’s a story that subtly condemns those who look down upon others who happen to reside in a different class, and yet there is some irony too in that the elder Englehardt, a doctor by trade, also himself unfairly judges a girl – a talented singer who he has “discovered” and clearly loves – for failing to pursue and nurture her talent to the extent he feels that she should. The Englehardts are just the type of people that Cather describes in her opening paragraph.

The Younger Albert is quite aware oh his “fallen” condition and how he is viewed by member of the upper class to which he once belonged, but…

“He believed he had had a more interesting life than most of his friends who owned real estate. He could still amuse himself, and he had lived to the full all the revolutions in art and music that his period covered. He wouldn’t at this moment exchange his life and his memories… for any one of these massive houses and the life of the man who paid the upkeep. If Mephistopheles were to emerge from the rhododendrons and stand behind his shoulder with such an offer, he wouldn’t hesitate. Money? Oh, yes, he would like to have some, but not what went with it.”

Near the end of the 22-page story, the Englehardts enjoy a birthday dinner with the daughter of Judge Hammersly after which the elder tells the younger: “Albert, good wine, good music, beautiful women; that is all there is worth turning the hand over for.”

I liked the story a lot and will admit I have frequently thought as the younger Albert does when contemplating changing places with some of his friends who are better off. Fortunately, our world has produced wonderful writers such as Cather who can so eloquently put these feelings into words for me.

I couldn’t find the text of this story online, but many of Cather’s works (especially e-books) can be purchased relatively cheaply. I own the story as part of a treasured anthology, “The Best American Short Stories of the Century.” Another fans of Willa Cather out there? What are your favorites among her novels and stories?

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top of The Summer To Be Read List

Each Tuesday, the book blog “The Broke and the Bookish” hosts a “Top Ten Tuesday” meme. Hundreds of fellow book bloggers participate. It’s a great way to discover and connect with new blogs and bloggers. This week’s topic: “Top Ten Books at the Top of My Summer To Be Read List.” Here are mine, not in any particular order:

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1. The Windup Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I count Murakami as one of the great “discoveries” resulting from my joining the book blogging community over three years ago. I’ve wholly enjoyed everything I’ve read by him thus far. This is one of his most acclaimed books. I just bought it and can’t wait to get started.

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2. St. Patrick’s Batallion by James Alexander Thom

This will be my second Thom read of the year, after finishing the wonderful “Panther in the Sky” (fictional biography of Tecumseh) in January. I was already aware of this title (published in 2006) but became further intrigued a couple Fridays ago when the author was at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, which had a “birthday party” for him and his wife Dark Rain Thom. The book covers a little known story from the Mexican American War.

3. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Recommended by many, set in the American Southwest, and by another new favorite author. How could I go wrong with this one?

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4. Driving Alone: A Love Story by Kevin Lynn Helmick

Not generally well-known, but I read about this one in the New York times book pages. Sounded really good. More of a novella at just over 100 pages, it only has 12 reviews so far on Goodreads…

5. The Daylight War by Peter Brett

I wrote about Peter Brett’s “Demon Cycle” books quite awhile back.  Not my normal genre, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first two, as have many of my reading friends. Shout out to the Borough of Books blog too, where I first learned of them.

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6. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Long on my list, I finally obtained a copy this year. Tonight at the last meeting of the season of my Great Books Foundation reading group, I’ll propose this as a candidate for our summer novel to read before the next meeting in September. I’ll still read it either way…

7. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Heard of this book through a coworker, Jeri, and have since seen it mentioned on many other book blogs. An intriguing premise with the 2011 Tsunami as a backdrop, it sounds irresistible.

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8. Who Owns the Future? by John Lanier

This non-fiction book will likely be one that causes me to lose some sleep. About the digital revolution and its consequences, it’s another one I first heard about via The New York Times.

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9. The Brotherhood of the Grape by John Fante

A friend has been nudging at me to read this for awhile now, even gifting me his second-hand copy. This summer will be the time I get it read.

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10. In The Devil’s Territory by Kyle Minor

This one will satisfy my short story sweet tooth. Highly acclaimed, I’m really looking forward to reading these. I learned of this book through the blog of The Missouri Review

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11. The Shift Omnibus – Hugh Howey

Prequel to the self-published e-book blockbuster, “Wool” (which I read and thoroughly enjoyed earlier this year), this may be the one I’m most looking forward to. You better not disappoint me, Mr. Howey… 🙂

Sorry, I guess that’s eleven. I must have mis-counted in my prep work. I don’t want to bump any of these, though. 🙂  Is it too nerdy to say that just coming up with this list makes me want to take the day off and start reading NOW?  I hope not.  I can’t do that anyway… <sigh>

What about YOU? What’s on your list? Will we be reading any of the same books this summer? Tell me all about it. 🙂

“The Professor’s House” by Willa Cather

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I first discovered Willa Cather last year during my annual short story reading project. Her short story “The Old Beauty” was probably in my top ten favorite short stories of 2012 (and the competition was tough, let me tell you!). Last month, when I found out that a local library branch was reading one of her novels for its February discussion, I thought that a good enough excuse to read it myself. (The discussion isn’t until Monday, but I’m hoping to make it)

The Professor’s House is a different kind of novel than those I’m used to. About two-thirds of the way through, it fractures into an elaborate first-person narrative of the backstory revolving around the character Tom Outland. Up until that part of the book, we are familiar with Tom only through his former interaction with the title character and his family. One of Professor Godfrey St. James’ daughters was even formerly engaged to Tom, who had died tragically in The Great War (that’s World War I for those unfortunate enough to be born later and to know there was more than one “world” war).

Tom was also the inventor of a machine, the patent for which brings in a considerable amount of income, which he willed to the professor’s daughter (since married to another man). We also learn that, in all his years of teaching, Tom was the one student who truly stirred the Professor’s intellect.

But what does all this have to do with a Professor facing a middle age crisis? This is, after all, what the novel is ostensibly about: at about age fifty, the professor and his wife are finally moving to a nicer house. Problem is, he doesn’t want to leave the old house, which includes an “attic” workspace, cold and drafty and dangerously heated by an unreliable gas stove – not to mention the room is shared with the family’s part-time seamstress and her dressing forms. It is in this attic that the professor has pursued his true passion – writing a multi-volume book, “Spanish Adventures in North America.” He eventually, against the advice of others, decides to continue renting this old house so that he will not lose the use of this cherished “office.”

When he declines to go on a European trip with his wife, daughter and son-in-law so that he may continue his work, he decides to work on the “diary” of Tom Outland. Outland, while working in New Mexico on a ranch, was actually a co-discoverer of some old native american ruins in the cliffs of the remote “Blue Mesa.”  The diary is more of a journal of Tom and a partner’s discoveries there, but it is at this point the novel switches gears and launches into “Tom Outland’s story.”  (I have since heard that this story was originally an independent work of Cather’s and that “The Professor’s” parts were later added as a framing story) Outland’s story was easily my favorite part of the book, with its magical descriptions of the southwest (a favorite region where I have often traveled and vacationed) and of the discovery of the ruins.

I’ll admit to being somewhat confused initially about how everything ties together with these two stories, or rather story within a story, but I think I’ve found a passage where Cather comes close to explaining it:

 “He (The Professor) had had two romances: one of the heart, which had filled his life for many years, and a second of the mind – of the imagination. Just when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off for him, along came Outland and brought him a kind of second youth.”

So, for me, not too different in age from the Professor, this book is about the possibility of awakening a second childhood in oneself, and immersing oneself in its enjoyment.  And I love that phrase “when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off”…

(Below: Ruins of cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in New Mexico.  I’ve actually been up there! Canyon de Chelly was also used as a backdrop for a somewhat cheesy western movie, “McKenna’s Gold,” starring Gregory Peck and …Omar Sharif(!) – have you seen it?)

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Have you read any of Will Cather’s novels or stories?  Which are your favorites?  Which would you recommend I try?

Below: Willa Cather (one of the few pictures I could find of her smiling!)

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February Reading – The Month Ahead

I haven’t done one of these posts in awhile, but I thought I’d share what’s in store for me, reading-wise, in the month ahead…

Starting with my “required reading,” I have two books and one short story I’ll be reading for book clubs or discussion groups.

First, for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club, we’re reading “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.” This will be a re-read for me, as I read it last year “immediately” upon discovering it was the only one of Vonnegut’s novels that I hadn’t read. I look forward to giving it a deeper reading this time, though, in hopes of being better prepared to “discuss it intelligently” with the largely erudite membership of that group…

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I’ve also just started today in reading Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House,” which is the February selection of a discussion group at a local library whose last meeting I crashed when I learned they’d be discussing Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.” I became hungry for more Willa Cather after reading her wonderful short story, “The Old Beauty,” as part of my annual short story reading project last year.

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Speaking of short stories, I’ll be re-reading Isaac Beshevis Singer’s classic tale, “Gimpel the Fool,” for a local discussion group/chapter of the Great Books Foundation. It’s been so long ago that I read this one the first time, though, that it will be practically the same for me as reading it for the first time. (Memory problems…)

(below: Isaac Beshevis Singer)

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Other, non-required reading includes Lloyd Alexander’s “The Prydain Chronicles” of which I began a “nostalgic re-read” of last month. I first read these books when I was but ten or eleven years old. The fact that they were written for younger readers has not diminished my enjoyment of them this time, though. I’m already on the third book (of five), and they’re quick reads so I also am padding my book total for 2013 (heh, heh).

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I’ll also have four short stories for my 2013 short story reading project that I’ll Knock off this month. In fact, I finished the first one yesterday (Poe’s “The Devil in the Belfry,” which I had never even heard of before today.) but there will be three more, decided – as always – by the turn of (hopefully) a friendly card.

What else? Oh, I’m considering reading Anna Karenina for a discussion at a bookstore in March, and it’s so long I’d better get started on it in February if I’m to have a chance at finishing it in time. Dale at Mirror With Clouds has said he’ll consider reading it along with me too – any other takers?

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One other book I’m intrigued with is “Generations of Winter” by Vassily Aksyonov, a novel that I first learned about via Ana’s review at Ana the Imp. I’m a long-time pushover for “anything Russian” (perhaps a relic from all those years playing chess, that favorite of Russian pastimes…) so this would be a natural choice for me too.

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That’s about it for me, although I’m sure I’ll read some other random short stories as well. But what about YOU? What books and stories are in your reading plans for February 2013?

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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