My Ántonia

My Ántonia is the unforgettable story of Ántonia Shimerda. The novel fictionalizes Willa Cather's (the author's) youth in rural Nebraska. The book begins with the epigraph, "Optima dies...prima fugit" - Virgil. Translated from Latin, this means "the best days are the first to flee." This sets the tone for the novel; the memoir of Jim Burden's childhood with Ántonia and growing up with memories of her. This epigraph makes an appearance in the book; when Jim is away at college, studying Latin, he comes across this quote.
As I sat down to my book at last, my old dream about Lena coming across the harvest-field in her short skirt seemed to me like the memory of an actual experience. If floated before me on the page like a picture, and underneath it stood the mournful line: "Optima dies...prima fugit."
-Page 174, My Ántonia
It reminds him of his childhood; the best days of his life so far. The entire novel is nostalgic for his past; Ántonia and growing up on the prairie. As he grows up, and moves away, his life changes drastically from his childhood. And his memories are all that remain. While this is true for many people, some, like Ántonia, remain where they grow up; their memories and present day in the same place. I have never been out west, or on a farm, yet as I was reading, I was immersed in visions of the prairie  Cather's beautiful prose evokes the Nebraska landscape. Exemplifying this is a passage where Jim and Ántonia are watching the sunset.
"On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun." -Page 156, My Ántonia 
While this is not on the Board of Modern Library's Choices list, is is on the Reader's list, cementing its status as a cornerstone of American literature. I highly recommend you to read it as soon as you get the chance. Rating: ★★★★★


The Last Life

The Last Life is the story of Sagesse LaBasse, and her French-Algerian family, which left Algiers during the political upheavals of the 1950s to settle in the south of France. I thought The Last Life was a memoir, until about a quarter of the way through I looked up the author, Claire Messud, and read her brief bio on Wikipedia. I found out Messud was born in Greenwich, Connecticut and grew up in the United States, Australia, and Canada. Messud's mother is Canadian, and her father is Algerian. So while her book is not a memoir, as a reader, I feel as if many of the underlying themes are true to Messud's family (but I am just making assumptions here; I do not know). Sagesse's family, French colonists who fled Algeria, are pieds-noirs, "torn between their country of origin and their national identity, doomed to be refugees in what ought to be their home." (source) Writing in first person perspective, Sagesse tells the story from two perspectives, recreating her 14- and 15-year-old self while at the same time looking back on her choices with an older self's retrospective wisdom. As a result, the reader gets a layered view of the LaBasse family. Behind the family drama lays a mythologized Algiers, a lost paradise; a vision of "sparkling white buildings climbing the hillside behind the port, the azure glitter of the bay, the alleys of steps winding towards the sky..." The story itself was interesting enough to keep you reading, but I don't think I would recommend it to you unless you really have nothing else to read at the moment. Rating: ★★★


The Cellist of Sarajevo

Before I go into my review of the book, a brief history lesson. We never learned about Bosnia in history class, because its too recent to be deemed history but its too far away to be current. So it is just skipped. During the Bosnian War, Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina) was besieged by Serbian forces for 44 months beginning on May 2nd 1992. The Bosnian government defence forces inside the besieged city were poorly equipped and unable to break the siege. During the siege, 11,541 people lost their lives and 56,000 people were wounded (UN report on the Battle & Siege of Sarajevo). The siege was finally lifted due to the Dayton Agreement and the civilian casualties. During one event, a motar attack while people were lining up for bread, 22 people died. A musician, Vedran Smailović, decided to play his cello at the site of the attack for 22 days to honor the victims. And so he becomes the center of the story, and with him, three strangers (fictional): a sniper, a baker, and a father. I'm torn about liking this book. On one hand, it was a really interesting story about Sarajevo during the siege, and the lives of three characters as they try to cope with life during wartime. And the novel does show, remarkably well, their resilience. But, Galloway (the book's author) fictionalized the main plot point in the story: that of the cellist. Smailović publicly expressed outrage over the book's publication. He believes Galloway stole his name and identity to write his novel. One reviewer asks,"Does an author of fiction owe a duty to the reader to present history accurately, or does the fact that he claims this is fiction absolve him from that moral responsibility?" (source) I think that this would have been a fantastic novel if Galloway had received Smailović's permission to write his story and if it had erred on the side of historical accuracy, not creative license. However, it did prompt me to learn more about the Bosnian War, and for that, I encourage you to read it. And on a side note, in April of this year, Smailović returned to Sarajevo (after he fled in 1993) to play his cello on the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo (read more here). Rating: ★★★★