Monday, September 3, 2012

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather



I've been in a bit of a blogging slump lately -- all has been resolved with Blogger and the hijacker, and many thanks to everyone for the encouraging words -- and to the good folks at Blogger for taking care of it so promptly.  And hopefully I'll never have to think about again.

Anyhow. . . . I've been reading a lot but not terribly inspired to blog much lately.  But I did manage to finish another of the books from my TBR Challenge list, which pleases me greatly.  This one is The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, one of five Cathers on my Classics Club list, and my fifth book by Cather overall.

The Song of the Lark was published in 1915 and is the story of Thea Kronberg, a girl growing up in a very small town in Colorado.  Thea is one of about seven children, the daughter of the local minister.  Since she was a small child, she's been mentored by the town doctor and everyone has recognized her musical talent.  The reader follows her development, growing up in a rural community and finally going away to study music in Chicago, where her piano teacher realizes her true talent lies in her singing.  It's about her struggle to rise from her humble beginnings and become a great artist.

This book is divided into various sections, based on times in Thea's life.  By far my favorite sections were set in Colorado, during her childhood.  There are a lot of short chapters with vignettes from her life, almost like interrelated short stories about the people that shape her character and her life, from the beloved town doctor to her rivals at the annual music festival, and the railwayman who hopes to marry her when she's old enough.  I loved Cather's descriptions of the town, its inhabitants, and its surroundings.  I've never been to Colorado though I've seen the Rocky Mountains in Montana as a child, so I can only imagine it.  Detailed descriptions of settings sometimes bore me, but Cather does it really well.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book.  The beginning really reminded me of two of my previous Cather reads, O Pioneers! and My Antonia, because they're about living in small Western towns.  It also had little elements that I remembered from The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes From the Archbishop (1927)   Thea takes a break from her singing studies and travels to the canyons of New Mexico, and Cather's love of the southwest really emerges in this book.   For me, this is a sort of transitional book between her Midwestern and Southwestern books.

About halfway through the book, Thea goes to Chicago to study music, and I loved that part too, partly because I spent ten years of my life in the Evanston/Chicago area, and for four years I lived very close to where Thea lives, in a Swedish neighborhood called Andersonville which is still there (and where you can get the best cinnamon rolls I've ever had).  She also goes to the Symphony and the Art Institute, which is one of my favorite places in the world.

However, the last quarter or so of the book kind of went downhill for me.  Thea becomes a very successful singer and, honestly, kind of a diva.  The focus changes from mostly her point of view to that of Dr. Archie and of Frederick Ottenburg, the man who falls in love with her.  There's a lot of talk about The Artist and what makes her so, blah blah.  I admit it, I am not an opera fan so I didn't get a lot of it (and I'm looking over my shoulder for lightning as I write this, since I have a sister and brother-in-law who are classically trained singers).   I just found Thea to be really self-centered and unlikeable at this point.  Having grown up with a sister who's a performer, I know creative people have to believe in themselves and their talent to survive all that criticism, but I just didn't like Thea anymore.

I have heard that this is one of the more autobiographical of Cather's works.  I'm sure she's making a point about how hard it is to be An Artist, but I just didn't get it.  However, I am going to send this to my sister, the professional singer, and hopefully she'll like it and maybe she'll get more out of it that I did.  I do have several more by Cather on the TBR shelf, including a 1931 edition of Shadows on the Rock, a historical novel set in 17th century Quebec.

I've now finished nine of the twelve reads on my TBR Challenge list, so I'm averaging one a month and I'm on track to finish by the end of the year.  I'm getting really gung-ho about reading books off my own shelves -- my goal this year is choose 50% of my reading material from my own shelves, and I'm pretty close.  The shelves still seem to be just as full but I am making progress, however slow.

How are you doing with your Classics Club challenges, bloggers?  And how about that TBR Challenge?  Anyone finish it yet?  And what other books do you recommend by Willa Cather?

10 comments:

  1. I've read My Antonia and liked it and have plans to read O Pioneers. I'm definitely interested in reading more Cather but I don't think this would be one for me.

    As for the classics club, I started a month ago and have read 2/72 books, working on the third at the moment. I'm aiming for a slow but steady pace of 1-2 a month :)

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    1. I'm really enjoying all the Classics Club posts. I really liked O Pioneers though it didn't turn out the way I expected at all! It's very good though (and short, which is always a plus, I have so many big fat books on my classics list. I'm off to look at your list!

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  2. I have to take a bit of umbrage with one point: having been in the opera business for most of my life, I can say that the most talented singers are not at all self-centered. In fact, some of the kindest, most generous, and most genuine people I've had the privilege to know are counted among the greatest opera singers in the world. Rather, the self-centered ones usually are not greatly talented and, out of deep-rooted insecurity, feel they have to compensate.

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    1. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said self-centered. I only meant that as a performer and artist, you have to believe in yourself and your talent, because you're constantly being criticized -- and I'm sure it's even worse nowadays with the media. I should have said you need to have a healthy ego. I will update this.

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  3. I've read this one before, and I enjoyed it at the time, but I must say it didn't stick with me in the way her other books have. Shadows on the Rock is wonderful--reminded me a bit of a wonderful book I might have pulled from the juvenile section when I was a kid, but probably more adult than that if I thought more about it.

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    1. I think I bought Shadows on the Rock after you reviewed it! I haven't read any of Cather's historical fiction, so I'm looking forward to that.

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  4. My sentiments exactly. I loved, absolutely loved reading about Thea's childhood in Colorado and the scenes in the Southwest. I didn't care for the book after Thea becomes well-known. I just was so disappointed that she became such a difficult and demanding person.
    I can't wait to read O Pioneers! and I also have Alexander's Bridge on my shelves.
    I have read 6 books for the Classics Challenge and need to work on reading a few more.

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    1. I loved O Pioneers! -- my only complaint was that it was too short! I wanted more of it, must read it again soon. I do have Alexander's Bridge on my shelves as well.

      Good for you with the Classics Challenge! Keep at it!

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  5. I personally loved My Antonia and am looking forward to O Pioneers! and One of Ours on my list... I do love the way she describes the scenery, and everything really. I just finished my 8th Club book today actually! -Sarah

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    1. First of all, I LOVE your screen name.

      Secondly, I have One of Ours on my Club list as well. Every commenter mentions a different Cather and I want to read all of them!

      And good for you about your eighth book! I'll have to read your blog too.

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