Sept 2016 TBRTwo books today that are set in the American West, partly or fully (Colorado and California) and involve the effect of those places on the artistic careers of the main characters, a fictitious opera singer based on a real one and a writer who was in the middle of changing his name. I’m enjoying alternating those substantial Viragoes with other books and it’s certainly bringing up some interesting contrasts and links!

Willa Cather – “The Song of the Lark”

(23 October 2015, from Verity)

A wonderful and readable chunkster (like Edith Wharton, I find Cather extremely readable) detailing the life and creative development of Thea Kronberg, of Swedish extraction and born in Colorado. Although the author apparently came to dislike the way this book “tells all”, I really liked this detailed aspect showing exactly how she kept her talent safe and growing and exactly how she learned her craft – the book is based partly on interviews with a Swedish singer and that level of research shows in the detail but is cleverly woven in and doesn’t make it any less delightful to read. I loved the descriptions of her different teachers and what they bring to her, and how she’s always really yearning for the old days and the friends of her youth.

As with Wharton, Cather has her heroine defy convention, but in Thea we see a woman whose character develops unevenly, leaving her mature in some aspects but almost childlike in others. However, she loses her family and any sentimental connections in her single-minded pursuit of her dreams – but then again, how many other women written about at this time (the book was published in 1915 but set 20 and more years earlier) were able to do that to the detriment of a “normal” life?

The secondary characters are lovely and beautifully if a little sentimentally drawn, and Thea’s complicated relationships with them are laid out for us to see. The whole is nicely tied up in the closing scenes and epilogue. Don’t let the size of this book put you off: it’s a great read!

James Fletcher (ed.) – “Mark Twain’s 88 Days in the Mother Lode”

(25 December 2015 – from Tedd)

This was a Not So Secret Santa gift from someone in my Photo A Day Facebook group – I always say I’m happy to receive books set in or about or by a writer from the person’s home town, and this one ticked all those boxes, even coming from and containing the bookmark of a new and used bookstore in Sacramento, California, which was lovely.

It’s a very carefully researched and put together account of Samuel Clemens’ / Mark Twain’s (he was just starting to use the nom de plume) time hiding out in a California cabin with three brothers, gathering stories of the gold rush that would kick-start his rise to national and international fame. His career before (especially on the river boats) and after are filled in and the information and reminiscences are drawn together from various contemporary sources. Some of Twain’s own pieces are included, especially a famous jumping frog story (poor frog) that brought him his initial fame. A couple of hours of interesting reading with some good photographs.

I’m currently reading “Belinda” by Rhoda Broughton which is an intriguing 1885 Virago with a shy heroine who everyone sees as cold and horrible, quite a modern view really and a good read.