Book Reviews

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913)

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather is one of this esteemed American author’s most iconic novels. One of her earliest full-length works, it was published in 1913. Written in the kind of  spare, lyric prose that would become her trademark, the story explores themes of destiny, chance, love, and perseverance. It honors the ideas of community, family ties, and the dignity of work. Never sentimental or verbose, Cather delivers her plots with gentle forward motion. Her characters may be flawed, but they’re rarely weak. 

The novel’s central character, Alexandra Bergson, is her parents’ only daughter and oldest child. The Bergsons are Swedish immigrants working the Nebraska prairie land. The Bergsons encounter hardship, naturally. The unforgiving land is difficult to farm, the climate is harsh, and their neighbors, an amalgam of European immigrants, don’t always live harmoniously.  Read More→

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All My Pretty Ones by Anne Sexton (1962)

Anne Sexton (1928 – 1974) was an American poet considered one of the pioneers of modern confessional poetry, though her artistry reached far beyond that genre. Her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published in 1960 to critical and public praise. It was followed by All My Pretty Ones in 1962.

During this period, Anne was receiving not only critical praise but prestigious awards as well. These included the Frost Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Prize, a Ford Foundation grant, and many others. Sexton struggled mightily with mental illness during this fertile time in her creative life.

By the time she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1966, she had been hospitalized and attempted suicide several times. Her poetry resonated as much with readers as it did with critics. Following is a review of All My Pretty Ones from its time of publication: Read More→

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Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein: Experiment in Cubist Poetry, or Literary Prank?

Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946) is this gloriously perplexing author’s absurdist collection of prose-poems — if you want to call them that. Critics have long been divided as to whether this 1914 book is a brilliant compilation of cubist literature or Stein’s intentional prank on the reading public.

One of Stein’s earliest published works, Tender Buttons is an experiment in language, her attempt to “create a word relationship between the word and the things seen.” Since Stein was so much the self-proclaimed genius, it’s doubtful she would have created this slim volume purely as a joke. Read More→

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is surely the most iconic of the British author’s novels. During the British author’s lifetime, critics frequently dismissed her work because it was popular with the public, readable, and riveting. That view has since been revised.

As Rebecca celebrates the eightieth anniversary of its publication in 2018, it has never gone out of print. It was an immediate bestseller, selling more than a million copies in hardcover in a short time. It has been reprinted countless times, and translated into a number of languages.

In 1940, just two years after its publication, it was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Appropriately creepy and intense, yet oddly romantic, the screen version starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier captured the emotional tenor of the book. But it left out one key detail (which we won’t go into here), which makes the book a must-read before you even consider seeing the film. At least two fine mini-series have been made from the novel since — but the novel is still best! Read More→

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We the Living by Ayn Rand (1936)

We the Living (1936) was the first published novel by Ayn Rand, the ever-controversial Russian-American novelist. Set in post-revolutionary Russia, it reflected Rand’s opposition to communism and totalitarianism. It was, in her own estimation, her most semi-autobiographical. Though the reviews the book received upon its initial publication were mixed, it became a bestseller. This set the stage for the popularity of her subsequent novels, especially The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which sold like gangbusters — even though critics were even less kind to them.

Many reviews of We the Living appreciated the direct look at the effects of Soviet policies on society, but felt the writing was heavy-handed. As the New York Times put it, the book seemed “slavishly warped to the dictates of propaganda.” Read More→

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