Monday, April 13, 2015

Augustus by John WIlliams (1972)

This was not particularly interesting.  It seemed to be a rehash of other works - of course I, Claudius, but also Thornton Wilder had a similar book that I glanced at once, The Ides of March.  Steven Saylor writes far more arrestingly, about a similar time period.  Even though Saylor writes genre fiction, his prose is sharper and more emotional gut wrenching than much of this

What I didn't understand about this book, what annoyed me, was the storyline.  I felt like the whole book could have been about Octavian's relationship with his daughter, but that was only the second half of the book.  Quite frankly, that was the most interesting part, and John Williams didn't even make it that interesting.

I think the composer John Williams might have written a more interesting book.

This was a winner of the National Book Award in 1973, a prize it shared with John Barth's Chimera. There was an interesting blog post here: about the the panel that year torn between traditionalists and post-modernists, with both sides eventually winning out.

AugustusAugustus by John Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Not very engaging; and the storyline bugged me.  It seemed to be about too much, if that makes sense; the last fourth of the book about Octavian and his relationship with his daughter was by far the most interesting, and could have been flushed out into the entire book.  I don't know - I think the composer John Williams could have written a more interesting book.  I'd say if you're wanting something about ancient Rome, try Steven Saylor.  His genre fiction is more engaging, with sharp prose and moving plots.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography by Laura Ingalls Wilder; Pamela Smith Hill, editor (2014)

When I first read about Pioneer Girl, I was ecstatic.  I love the Little House series.  I liked them as a kid, but in re-reading them as an adult I found that I liked them anymore. The Library of America published all of the books in a two volume boxed set - without illustrations and described them as "a triumph of American plain style writing."  I had never heard of "plain style" before - and I'm still not exactly sure what it constitutes.  What I do know is that Pioneer Girl is as good as I wanted it to be.  Maybe even better than I wanted it to be.  I'm the only adult male fanboy of Little House that I even know.  I don't know anyone else who even likes the Little House series.  Little House is in my blood; every time I read about Laura and Manly, Carrie and Mary, Ma and Pa - and Nellie, always, always Nellie - my love for the series bubbles up again.

I always think that Little House as my story, or at the very least the story of my people. My Great Grandmother, Viola Jane Hall McGee, was just two years older than Rose Wilder Lane.  My people,  the McGees, were pioneer emigrants as well, making their way westward through the upper part of the country (the Thrashers, however, were pure southerners).  

Pioneer Girl contains the seeds of Little House, but also the grit and grime that was (mostly) wiped out of the books as well.  Divorce, adultery, drunkenness.  Laura Ingalls in Pioneer Girl isn't exactly the same as Laura Ingalls from Little House; the entire point of the annotations of this book may be to illustrate how Laura Ingalls Wilder (successfully) fictionalized her life in so many ways.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated AutobiographyPioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always think of the Little House series as my story, or the story of my people, the Great Plains version of the Icelandic Edda.  My Great Grandmothers were about the same age as Rose Wilder Lane, all born in the mid to late 1880s.  My paternal grandmother's family, like the Ingalls, kept emigrating westward through the upper part of the country; I suppose my McGee ancestors lived in some version of the Big Woods, and made their way in covered wagons south to Kansas just like the Ingalls, at approximately the same time.   So I came to Pioneer Girl with a sense of excitement, honor, and reverence. I came away from the book very impressed.  Fans of Little House should most definitely read this book; it contains all the seeds that grew into the beloved stories and characters of Laura and Manly, Pa and Ma, Mary and Carrie (and of course, always Nellie Olesen, one of those great characters in literature that you love to hate). Pioneer Girl, though, contains much more.  This is a rougher than rough cut of Little House with the grit and grime, and gossip, added back in.  And the annotations are fascinating.  Lovers of Little House know that the books are fictionalized versions of Wilder's life; Pamela Smith Hill goes to great care in letting us know what is real, what is story, what is false memory, what really happened, and how all of this connects back to the book.  This book made me love Little House and Laura all the more.

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