Thursday, April 28, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion

Hey there, fellow readers—I just wanted to take this opportunity to shamelessly self promote my new blog "A Table In the Corner of the Cafe." Feel free to pull up a chair and join me at the table by clicking on the picture below. If you're a coffee lover like I am, you should subscribe and tell your friends!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Entry 40: "Lamb In His Bosom" by Caroline Miller (1934)

Now that I've read it, I really wish I would've put a little more effort into reading Caroline Miller's 1934 Pulitzer-winning novel, Lamb In His Bosom, during National Women's History Month, in March. I especially wish I would have read it immediately proceeding Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1937).

I shall forever rue my lack of ambition that month.

Despite the fact that these two novels won the Prize a mere three years apart from each other and Joshua and I are trying as best as we can to read novels that are spaced out a little more than that, these two novels would have gone together as a companion piece perfectly. Both of them were written by women, both of them take place in Georgia before and after the Civil War, both of them feature strong-willed, independent women and their equally strong-willed, independent men as their protagonists, both of them have a strong Irish influence... It's almost as though the two novels were meant to be paired together.

And perhaps that's a reason the Pulitzer committee selected the two of them to win the Prize.

Lamb In His Bosom is a beautifully written account of a handful of families and their experiences in rural, pre-Civil War Georgia. Caroline Miller's writing is genuine and poetic; whether describing the landscape, or narrating any particular scene, or developing her characters—giving them their personalities, their quirks, their charms, their appearances—, she does so with a keen perception of the significance of her own words. What I mean is, not a single word she uses is taken for granted. Each is perfectly and, I'm sure, painstakingly placed by Miller to such a degree that the novel seems much more important and significant than the story of it actually is.

And herein lays my complaint.

While I very much appreciated Miller's obvious talent for the written word, I'm not sure how much less I could have cared for the story. Don't get me wrong—it wasn't that it's a poorly written story, or even a bad story by any means; it just wasn't really my cup of tea. The simplest way to describe the plot of this novel is to say that it's more of a character study than it is The Great American Novel. There wasn't a whole lot of action, there wasn't a whole lot of plot. But there sure was an awful lot of character development.

The best way to tell what happens in this novel would be to write a stem and flow chart—BOX: we meet Cean; stem; BOX: then this happens; stem; BOX: then that happened, etc. Unfortunately, I'll just have to use prose: we meet Cean and Lonzo; they have a baby; we meet Lias and Margot; they have a baby; then Cean has another couple babies; then Margot has a baby; then Cean has another baby; then Lonzo dies; then Margot marries again; then Cean meets Dermid; then Cean has another baby; then Dermid goes off to War; then Dermid comes back; the end.

Every couple of chapters, one of the female characters was having a baby. And, honestly, after a while, I just gave up caring about the book all together. I was so bored by the lack of action, the lack of really intense drama, the overabundance of narration. I was so bored, in fact, that I started spending most of my time reading pondering who the "lamb" was and whose "bosom" that lamb was in!

However, in the last couple chapters of the novel, there is a scene that was so powerful it almost moved me to tears; and not only did this scene provide me the answer to my ponderings, it also gave me a fresh appreciation for the novel: Lonzo has died, and Cean is grieving his death and her life; she can't get used to life on her own, raising four or five children (I lost count by this point) with a minimal amount of help, and no support. She feels the pressures of her life closing in on her and she confesses to Dermid O'Connor (the Irish priest she later falls in love with):
'God's forgot that I ever lived... He's forgot... and He never cared, nohow.'
          He smoothed her brown, rough-palmed hand; he held her hands to keep her from jerking herself away from his admonishing:
          'Oh, 'tis not true, the words yere a-sayin', Cean Smith; and well ye know it. Never does He forget a child o' His'n. 'Tis His children that forget that He is rememberin'. Get on yere knees and climn on them up to the shelter o' His arms. Knock on His ears with yere prayers. Creep into His arms, Cean Smith, and lay yere head on His bosom, and He'll hold ye closer than inny man ye ever love can ever hold ye. He'll lay His hand on yere head and ye'll stop yere restless fightin' against His will. He'll shut yere pitiful little mouth from complainin' against Him. Ye'll hush and be comforted....'
That scene was so powerful, so moving, so authentic. And it was after that scene that I realized that the novel actually had very little to do with plot, and rising action, and climax, and resolution; this story was really meant to be a study of everyday life—life in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

This novel was written during the Great Depression—a time when not a single person in America wasn't touched by misfortune, a time of overwhelming circumstances. It could very well be that Miller wasn't as concerned with writing a best-seller, or even an attention gripping page turner. Rather, she wrote a reminder to her fellow Americans that, despite the incredible amount of odds against them, there is hope. Because after that powerful scene with the Irish priest, God suddenly becomes a major part of Miller's writing, whereas throughout the course of the novel leading up to that scene, He wasn't. And this scene was really the turning point—everything proceeding it is a walk among the roses compared to everything preceding it.

And that message, nearly 70 years later, still rings true for Miller's audience. I can't tell you the number of times I have uttered those words: "God forgot about me, and He never cared anyway."

When will I ever learn? When will I learn to trust Him as the Shepherd, and learn to accept my role as a terrified lamb that needs to climb into His arms when the wolves bare their teeth at me?

Entry 39: "Tinkers" by Paul Harding (2010)

To celebrate Monday's Pulitzer-recipient announcement (congratulations, again, to Jennifer Egan for her prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad), Joshua and I agreed to win last year's surprise winner, Tinkers, by Paul Harding.

Last year, I posted an article to this blog detailing why this novel's winning the Pulitzer was such a big deal at the time, so I'm going to post it again now:
Tinkers, a debut novel by Paul Harding, a former drummer for the rock group Cold Water Flat, was the surprise winner Monday of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A lyrical, 191-page account of a man's dying days and his relationship with his father, Tinkers got great reviews but is published by Bellevue Literary Press, a small, 3-year-old, non-profit publisher affiliated with New York University's School of Medicine.

Editorial director Erika Goldman says Tinkers has sold 15,000 copies since its publication in January 2009. That's a hit for a small press but nothing by commercial standards. Bellevue plans to reprint more copies but hasn't decided how many.

The last time a small publisher won the fiction Pulitzer was in 1981, for John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, released by Louisiana University Press.

Harding, 42, says he's "stunned. It was a little book from a little publisher that was hand-sold from start to finish." The Pulitzer's "imprimatur," he says, adds "a sense of freedom. I can afford to continue doing what I love to do."
Of all 85 novels on our list, I've been looking forward to reading this book most of all for the past year—a full 365 days. It was worth the wait.

There have been very few books along this journey that were written so exquisitely that they took my breath away. There have been some, though; Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren, Now In November, by Josephine Johnson, and Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, come to mind. And, now, I can very confidently add Paul Harding's Tinkers to this list.

Harding's writing, on several occasions, is so sweepingly grand and majestic—in one paragraph, the reader sails on its wings, up, up, up above the clouds, through the cosmos, and follows the tails of comets before crashlanding back on Earth at the onset of the next paragraph. The words he strings togethers, the phrases he conjures up, the story he tells, are so dizzying and euphoric that as a reader, you can't help but be in awe of their affect upon you. At least a few times, I was sitting on the couch with Ashley and I'd read a section that was so other-worldly that I let out a great sigh and exclaimed, "What was that!?" Then I'd read the section again, again, again, sometimes out loud to her and revel in its beauty. The sections where Harding compares the inner workings of clocks to the inner workings of the entire universe, another labeled "Cometa Borealis," and the final couple paragraphs when George's father comes to his house immediately come to mind.

There was something ironic about his writing, though—it inspired me to write. Typically, when I come across amazing writing, I think to myself "You know... I don't even like writing that much. I think I'll just give it up—I'll let Robert Penn Warren say it all." The same goes for whenever I hear great songwriting: "Glen Hansard seems to have it covered... I'll let him write the songs." Tinkers, on the other hand—I don't know quite how to describe it. For as epic, and grandiose, and important as Harding's writing was, there was something accessible about it. It wasn't so soaring that I couldn't reach up and grab onto its tail as it flew overhead. This was the first novel I've read since Gilead, a couple years ago, that really inspired me.

And, honestly, Tinkers is a truly inspiring novel. I really connected with it on a profoundly spiritual level. Harding takes four worlds, three planes of existance, into his scope and does a really tremendous job writing about each: the metaphysical world, Nature, mechacnics, and humanity, and the dynamics of each—how they function on their own, how they interact with each other.

His descriptions of walks in the woods (the flowers, the trees, the way the sun shines, the way water ripples, the way the earth sounds after each footstep), time and space (look no further than the aforementioned section, "Cometa Borealis"), the inner workings of a clock, the relationship between a husband and wife, or father and son, and the ways all four of these worlds aren't separate from each other, but are rather interlocked... His writing is so moving and emotional and, yes, spiritual, that, at times, it forces the reader to tears.

For a 42 year old rock drummer, Paul Harding writes with the wisdom of a much older man—his perceptions of the way the universe operates is so far beyond his years. Somehow, in a scant 191 pages, Paul Harding manages to tackle some of the most complex issues philosophers have ever grappled with and turn them into a lovely little novel that is not only a fantastic read, but, I feel, one of the most important reads of your life! Tinkers isn't just a moving story about a dying man who is recollecting his life, it is almost a manual for how to live.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Goon Squad" Ushers In An Era Of New Perspectives, by Jonathan Bastian

This is a very interesting article I found on NPR about this year's Pulitzer-winner, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.

When Jennifer Egan decided to write A Visit From the Goon Squad, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, she made rules for herself.

But these weren't the kind of rules you would imagine a writer creating, like trying to write a certain number of pages per day or attempting to stick to a deadline.

Instead, Egan promised to write a novel in which every single chapter explored completely different characters, viewpoints and styles. In other words, nothing could be the same.

The result is a boisterous and diverse gathering of voices, ranging from a washed-up music producer who picks up teenagers to a young girl attempting to tell stories through PowerPoint presentations.

By creating this collage of a novel, with constantly shifting narrators and varied styles of writing, Egan is the one of the most recent and successful examples of a trend that has been steadily seeping into the world of contemporary literature.

Think of Colum McCann's novel Let The Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award in 2009. In many ways, it's the same idea. The narrators and characters that McCann creates couldn't be more different. In one chapter, we see the world from the perspective of a prostitute in the Bronx. In another, we're gazing through the eyes of a rich housewife living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

But the list doesn't end there. There's also David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is told from the perspective of multiple characters living in different centuries. Not to mention the novels by Nicole Krauss, such as Great House, or Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies.

In each of these books, we're steadily saying goodbye to the bulk of traditional novels, in which a story has one narrator, and the reader learns about one relatively confined world. Instead we're now experiencing the collision of multiple different worlds from unusual vantage points, much like the film Crash, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2005.

Of course, there are pitfalls to this fragmented technique. The reader is forced to live in a discombobulated world and can many times feel lost in a sea of disconnected voices.

But when done at its best, like the case of Egan's Goon Squad, the reader becomes enwrapped in the various textures of life and begins to feel the commonalities that we all share.

And perhaps this is the reason that writers have migrated toward this style of writing: because more and more, we live in a world that echoes with a profound plurality of voices.

We're no longer confined to the same three channels on television, or the same few printed newspapers. The Internet and technology have torn open the world to create a new global forum, welcoming a wide range of voices.

And literature, as well as any other art, is keeping pace with these shifting times. Writers are not just inviting new characters to the table, but they're letting them tell their stories together, in the same book.

So in this way, there should be no surprise that Egan's book has taken home the grand prize. The style of writing that she has mastered represents not just where we are at this moment in time — but who we are.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was just announced a couple hours ago and The Pulitzer Blog extends its congratulations to Jennifer Egan, who won for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (Alfred A. Knopf). To commemorate the occasion, Joshua and I have agreed to read last year's surprise winner, Tinkers, by Paul Harding.

I have to admit, I'm a little skeptical about this choice, even though I've yet to read it. Based on the reviews and the novel description alone, it just doesn't seem like the type of book that would ordinarily win. Then again, if we had been doing this project then, I probably would have the said the same of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.

That Pulitzer committe is just full of surprises.

Check out what they had to say about the novel: "Awarded to A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed."

Here's a brief description of A Visit from the Goon Squad, from
Readers will be pleased to discover that the star-crossed marriage of lucid prose and expertly deployed postmodern switcheroos that helped shoot Egan to the top of the genre-bending new school is alive in well in this graceful yet wild novel. We begin in contemporaryish New York with kleptomaniac Sasha and her boss, rising music producer Bennie Salazar, before flashing back, with Bennie, to the glory days of Bay Area punk rock, and eventually forward, with Sasha, to a settled life. By then, Egan has accrued tertiary characters, like Scotty Hausmann, Bennie's one-time bandmate who all but dropped out of society, and Alex, who goes on a date with Sasha and later witnesses the future of the music industry. Egan's overarching concerns are about how rebellion ages, influence corrupts, habits turn to addictions, and lifelong friendships fluctuate and turn. Or as one character asks, How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Egan answers the question elegantly, though not straight on, as this powerful novel chronicles how and why we change, even as the song stays the same. Critics loved Egan's newest novel, describing it as "audacious" and "extraordinary" (Philadelphia Inquirer). In the hands of a less-gifted writer, Egans's time-hopping narrative, unorthodox format, and motley cast of characters might have failed spectacularly. But it works here, primarily because each person shines within his or her individual chapter that offers a distinct voice and a fascinating backstory. A few reviewers mentioned the uneven nature of the chapters and the different stylistic experiments within them. Yet, hailed as "a frequently dazzling piece of layer-cake metafiction" (Entertainment Weekly), A Visit from the Goon Squad is a gutsy novel that succeeds on all levels.
I had originally predicted Jonathan Franzen's Freedom to be this year's big winner, but I stand corrected. It wasn't even a finalist.

"Nominated as finalists in this category were: “The Privileges,” by Jonathan Dee (Random House), a contemporary, wide ranging tale about an elite Manhattan family, moral bankruptcy and the long reach of wealth; and “The Surrendered,” by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books), a haunting and often heartbreaking epic whose characters explore the deep reverberations of love, devotion and war("

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Entry 38: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy (2007)

The Pulitzer Project—until Monday, anyway—is officially halfway over. 

Since 1918, 84 novels have won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and, after reading Cormac McCarthy's brilliant 2007 prize-winning masterpiece, The Road, I have read 42 of them. Joshua took March off to focus on the goings-on of his personal life and I slowed my reading pace down a bit to focus on my new job, my new relationship, my new life.
To get himself back into the swing of this project, he decided to read The Road; he had kept that one as his “ace up the sleeve,” so to speak—in the event that he needed to regain some momentum along this intense reading journey, he wanted to have The Road to be the novel that served as the catalyst to his inspiration refill. In my case, I wanted to read a novel that was celebratory of the official half-point milestone. A novel that chronicled a long, hard journey shared by two people seemed most befitting. It also helped Joshua and I to share a novel that we could discuss upon completion. So, The Road, all around, was the best choice.
It was also coincidental that I read most of The Road while sitting in traffic jams on I-90 West, on my ways to and from work.

Since we started this project, Joshua and I have been eagerly looking forward to reading The Road. We had both read and heard so many rave reviews of it and nearly every reputable source considers The Road to be Cormac McCarthy's magnum opus. One of my friends, Jeremy—even when I had first started this project back in February—kept urging me to read it because he wanted to talk about it with me.

As it turned out, everyone was right—The Road is one of the most amazing novels I have ever read.

For those of you who haven't heard about the novel or seen the movie, the basic premise is that a father and his son are walking a road to the Eastern seaboard in post-apocalyptic America. The landscape is barren, desolate, ashen. McCarthy never reveals what happened to create the apocalypse (which frustrated me throughout my reading), but that only adds to the suspense that he so masterfully weaves page after page.
Over the course of their journey, the father and son (whose names are also never revealed) encounter hardships, toils, and snares that bring them all the way to the brink of the most hellish existence. Among their obstacles are starvation, thieves, desperadoes, murderers, sickness, and even cannibals. Yes—cannibals.

These deterrents, though, weren't the main focus of this novel. McCarthy wasn't writing a Sci-Fi or horror novel; he didn't intend for it to be an edge-of-your-seat, action packed page-turner as a means of pure entertainment. No, the focus of this novel was the relationship between a father and his son and the life-saving power of that bond. Their relationship was built on trust—it depended on trust. There were several scenes where the father told his son “stay here,” then explore an abandoned grocery store, or shipwreck, or house, to find supplies or food for survival. The boy had to trust that his father would return to keep him safe, and the father had to trust his son to stay put. And that trust is what kept them alive.

And so, despite the fact that McCarthy never divulges how the apocalypse began, the reader doesn't really miss out on anything. Because the apocalypse wasn't the point—the apocalypse was just the writer's foil to keep the story moving along; as were the thieves, the starvation, the sicknesses, and the cannibals. The messages of love and trust and redemption were the points of the novel. Those were the messages McCarthy conveyed to the reader.

I do have but one small complaint, however. And, honestly, my complaint isn't even that big of a deal.
Let me say this first: Cormac McCarthy is one of the best writers Joshua and I have encountered along this Pulitzer journey. His ability to tell a story, to write a sentence, to choose words to fit into a phrase is so phenomenal; his writing is truly breathtaking.

That being said, however, there are times when his writing is a little over the top. A little melodramatic. There were times (not many times—but, times) when I'd actually pull the book away after a paragraph of grandiose prose and sigh because it was all just a little too much. Like, “the silent sun circled the ashen earth like a mourning mother with a lamp” or “they huddled together on street curbs like failed sectarian suicides” (those aren't the exact phrases, but it's a lot like that). It reminded me of that movie, Bram Stoker's Dracula—there's a line in that movie where Count Dracula literally says, “I have crossed oceans of time to be with you.” There are just some times when a metaphor or a simile is so over the top that it's almost comical. And, despite his prowess as a wonderful wordsmith, there are certainly brief occasions when even the great Cormac McCarthy falls victim to over-sentimentalism.

The Road was an absolutely amazing novel—certainly Top 5 Pulitzer-Winning Novels material. It is the sort of novel that (speaking of over-sentimentalism) makes you believe in the magic of storytelling. McCarthy is a master storyteller—he keeps you on the edge of your seat, keeps you turning the pages, keeps your interest and holds it captive for the duration of the novel. Page after page of heartbreak and turmoil and anguish and even still, McCarthy does not let you—not even for a moment—put the book down to breathe.

And this novel, at this time, has propelled Joshua and I to officially start “finishing up” this project. We're halfway there, the end is in sight. We still have a long way to journey, but Cormac McCarthy has just given us a second wind to continue down “the road.”

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Entry 37: "Foreign Affairs" by Alison Lurie (1985)

Going against my original plan, I decided to wrap up March with a novel that wasn't The Color Purple or Lamb In His Bosom. Why? Well, on March 21, I celebrated my 26th birthday. So, as a means to make my reading journey as thematic as possible, I decided to go with a novel that not only was written by a woman (in keeping with National Women's History Month), but the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize a few short weeks after I was born in 1985.

The only novel that fit the bill on both accounts was Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs.

When Joshua and I first set out on this journey and were collecting the winning books, we both assumed that this particular book was a romance novel. We didn't have much evidence to make that claim other than the facts that the word "affairs" appears in the title and there's a broken heart on the cover. I was more than pleasantly surprised to discover that we were both wrong.

While Foreign Affairs does deal with love and romance, it doesn't specifically revolve around romantic relationships; rather, it broadens its scope to encompass human relationships at their most basic level—a common association shared between two or more people. In this novel the dynamics of acquaintances, friendships, lovers, marriages, families, enemies, and professional relationships are all explored at least briefly.

And over the course of its pages, Foreign Affairs simultaneously warms and breaks our hearts with its all-too-real portrayal of relationships.

Foreign Affairs simultaneously follows the sordid lives of two American professors on sabbatical in England: Vinne Miner, a middle-aged woman who is researching children's folklore, and Fred Turner, a twentysomething man who is writing a book about the poet John Gay. Lurie alternatively tells their stories in each story, sometimes making their paths cross in unusual circumstances, sometimes in hokey and trite circumstances (I'll explain this a bit more later).

Vinnie is a recent divorcee who has never cared much for love and love has never much cared for her. She is jaded and cynical and, as a result of past casual romances, has decided to live the life of, more or less, a hermit. She travels to England to do her work, and that is all—she's not there to take in the sights, to make friends, to mingle. No. She's strictly business. But her world is turned upside down by a dapper, albeit awkward and clumsy, Southern gentleman named Chuck Mumpson—a true blue all-American good ol' boy who is on holiday to research his genealogy. Though she does her best to avoid him at the onset of their relationship, she eventually gives into his charm and genteelness and comes to find that she actually has affections for him. Unfortunately, their romance is cut short when he suffers a major heart attack and passes away, leaving Vinnie, once again, alone and cynical.

Then, there's Fred.

Fred is a married man whose marriage is falling apart because of jealousy, suspicion, and resentment and is finding England to be a safe place away from the wreckage of his home in America. That is, until he gets swept up in a whirlwind romance with an English television actress who is every bit as eccentric as his current wife. Over the course of their relationship, she puts him through every wringer that his wife does and makes him emotionally crazy by the end of their foray. That is, of course, until his wife apologizes for their misunderstanding and informs him that she wants to keep trying to make their marriage work.

In the end though, despite what should have been life-altering experiences, both characters end up the same way they began.  And as much as that bothered me when I finished reading the novel, upon further reflection, I think I've actually come to appreciate the ending more.

Because more often than not, especially when it comes to relationships, we don't learn from our mistakes. We keep repeating and repeating them, forever in a cycle of hurt. We get out of a really bad relationship and immediately jump into a similar one, or go back to the original to try again. Sometimes it works out for the better, but not as often as the reversal. On a personal note, I know from experience: most of the time it's best to just move on. Otherwise you will be forever entangled in a web of bad relationships and history will just keep repeating itself over and over.

And I think that's the point Lurie makes.

Okay, very quickly: some brief criticisms and praises of Foreign Affairs.

Despite the book's central theme revolving around relational dynamics, I feel like Lurie, at times, depended a little too much on them and forced them to become kind of a crutch. If you've followed my blog closely, you'll know that I am very critical of what I call the Magnolia Effect—the Magnolia Effect takes its names from the film Magnolia, where an ensemble cast of several characters have very different storylines that all intertwine by the story's end. While it is a nifty little literary device, it can all too often be abused, overused, or misused. Unfortunately, Lurie fell victim to its whims. There were a couple parts where characters from very different backgrounds, who have very different lives and very different stories came together in an all together miraculous and truly hokey fashion. It felt forced, contrived, and trite.

Now, for a praise: the thing I found most interesting about the book was Lurie's intermingling of literary devices in a literary fashion. Let me explain—as literary critics, we are taught to look for symbolism, foreshadowing, metaphors, et al. Not only does Lurie provide a literary critic's watchful eye with plenty of these things to keep us satisfied, she also uses these devices to tell her story (i.e., when Fred breaks up with Rosemary, his English actress girlfriend, Lurie likens it to the Revolutionary War—America quarreling with England). However, Lurie doesn't do this in a fashion that makes the reader feel stupid for not picking up on it, and she doesn't make the reader feel like we think she thinks we're stupid; rather, she uses these devices almost as if they were the professors' inner thoughts, as if they were the narrators and they were explaining their lives the way they would read their own stories.

It's actually quite clever.

Relationships are difficult. It's cliche to say, but nobody knows that better than me. I've had my fair share of relationships—romantic or otherwise—go sour. Even as I am currently venturing into a new romantic relationship and am filled to the brim with all of the excitement new romances bring, there will always be a part of me that is forever looking back at old loves and wondering what might have been had things been even remotely different. I've been hurt by a lot of people, and I've done my share of hurting others. And every time I enter into another romance, I bring along my bag of burdens, my scars, my catalog of regrets...

That's the way it is for everyone, though. No matter the circumstances, we're always looking for that special someone to help us hobble through life and, if at all possible, lick our wounds for us. And that's why Foreign Affairs is such a universal novel—we all intimately know the pains, the hurts, the joys, the elation that Alison Lurie so powerfully and effectively demonstrates page after page.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Entry 36: "Beloved" by Toni Morrison (1988)

Toni Morrison—one of America's most beloved (no pun intended) and celebrated female authors; winner of the Novel Peace Prize; winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her incredible novel, Beloved. Being that March is National Women's History Month, I decided that Toni Morrison's instant classic was the book for me.

And, now, a new novel has entered my all-time top ten.

Going into this one, I was expecting another slavery novel along the lines of March, another Pulitzer-winner by Geraldine Brooks. Instead, I got what I referred to as a "ghost-baby story." Beloved, by far, is one of the strangest, weirdest, most gruesome, most graphic, and, yet, most eloquently and beautifully told stories I have ever read in my life. Everything in it caught me totally by surprise.

Explaining this novel is a little difficult without making it sound completely crazy. On the other hand, I have to admit, this novel is completely crazy. Here's the basic premise: a former slave woman named Sethe and her family are haunted by the ghost of her baby who she brutally killed in the days before the Civil War, and are then visited by the flesh-incarnate manifestation of that baby—a girl named Beloved.

Murder, beatings, hauntings, exorcisms, rapes—it's all here.

Of course, this is just what's visible to the naked eye. A writer as prolific as Toni Morrison wouldn't tell a mere ghost story without making a grand metaphor of it. What the family in this novel is dealing with (and what African-Americans were and are still dealing with) is their reconciliation with slavery.

The ghost baby that haunts Sethe and her daughted, Denver, in the beginning of the novel is representative of Sethe's refusal to move forward with life; when Paul D. comes back into Sethe's life, he performs a makeshift exorcism in her room and gets rid of the ghost, which is symbolic of the family attempting to move forward; the ghost baby puts on flesh and returns to 124 (Sethe's home) to make a residence for herself and the family takes her in, nurtures her, embraces her—this is symbolic of the family coming to terms with their past; in the end, Beloved leaves 124 and Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. begin to embrace the evolving American societal landscape—symbolizing their eventual reconciliation with their pasts.

What surprised me more than the storyline was Toni Morrison's exquisite prose. I confess, I've never read anything by her before and after having read Beloved, I'm only disappointed with myself. She is such a wonderful and gifted author—the writing in this novel was on the same level as Virginia Woolf, or Oscar Wilde as she weaved an incredibly complex stream of consciousness narrative akin to To the Lighthouse, and a story even more demented than The Portrait of Dorian Grey (respectively).

With this novel, Morrison not only tells the story of a generation, but the story of an entire people. With this novel, it seems as though Toni Morrison (a social activist) was attempting to speak to the African-American community she is a part of words of reconciliation with their pasts.

It is no secret that American slavery was an atrocity, and the black community has certainly (and rightfully so) had a very rough time letting go of that burden, that grudge against whites. Morrison, on the other hand—a pacifist—, with this novel, urges her brothers and sisters to move on! Not to forget the past, not to ignore the past; but to embrace it, nurture it, learn to forgive, and move on with their lives. Beloved is not meant to be a novel written by a black woman to make white people feel bad about themselves—it's a novel for everyone who has a secret, or a burden, or a hurt, and wants to move on.

This novel is not meant to divide, but to unite. To to speak anger, but to speak love. Not to wound, but to heal.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Entry 35.2: "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell (1937)

There's really nothing I can say that hasn't already been said about Margaret Mitchell's 1937 Pulitzer-winning novel, Gone with the Wind. It is a fantastic work of fiction—a soaring and mesmerizing novel with bigger than life characters that are so unbelievably believable human beings.

I have to be honest—I honestly didn't think I was going to enjoy Gone with the Wind. I really didn't. In fact, I was actually kind of dreading it (which, besides its length, is one of the reasons Joshua and I chose it to be a monthly reading challenge book). A soap opera set in the South against the backdrop of the Civil War—? Please. Spare me.

However, St. Joseph Pulitzer—once again—proved me wrong; I really enjoyed this one.

That being said, I must say, I wasn't a big fan of the storyline. That is my one complaint of the novel. It's not that the story isn't engaging, or not well told, or not well written, or boring, or anything like that—it is all of those things. It just wasn't my cup of tea, that's all.

And if my one complaint of a 1000+ page novel is that the genre isn't my favorite, that's really not much of a complaint. So, on with the praises!

With this novel, Margaret Mitchell has two things really going for her: 1) her writing style, and 2) her characters. Mitchell is an absolutely wonderful novelist who really knows her way around great long form literary construction. As I said, this story wasn't really up my alley—it's, in essence, a soap opera. It's a romance novel, but with a lot more intrigue and conflict going on. That conflict, namely, is the American Civil War.

Mitchell did a really good job of walking the delicate line between romance novel and war novel for the better half of Gone with the Wind. In the hands of a lesser writer, the story would have been unbalanced—but Mitchell is an expert literary craftswoman. She was able to write her love story long enough to keep the romantics interested, and, at the same time, writes about the Civil War in extremely factual detail long enough to keep history buffs interested. I was very engaged with the novel until the war ended, actually. Once the North won, and life returned to "normal" at Tara, I became a little disinterested. I was even more bored once Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler get married, but Mitchell brings it all the excitement back at the novel's conclusion with an intense encounter between Scarlett and Rhett.

Which brings me to my next point—the characters in this novel are among the most interesting I have ever encountered. And the most realistic, or true to life. There are so many novels that have characters that just seem to be caricatures of real people—somewhat believable people that have one dominating personality trait that puts them a little over the edge of realism. Then, of course, there are characters that are entirely unbelievable (i.e., almost everyone in Lonesome Dove). In Gone with the Wind, however, the characters are developed so well that you almost forget you're reading a fictional work.

This was particularly true of Scarlett and Rhett.

Rhett is the archetype of a Southerner, in my opinion. He's smooth, genteel, debonair, charming, handsome, and a little bit narcissistic. But for all the good-boy qualities he possesses, there's that bit of daring-do and mischief in him that makes you wonder if you could ever really trust him. He's the man every girl wants to bring home to their parents, and the man that inspires every parent to lock their daughters up. But, really, for all his mischief and (literal) rebel-rousing, deep down, he just wants the love and affection of Scarlett. And when he finally obtains it, and when Scarlett beats his character to a pulp, he becomes an empty shell of a man. He loses his personality, his renegade good looks, his boyish charm.

And Scarlett... Scarlett is the fictional embodiment of my own mother. This is the only thing that made the book difficult to get through—I could not, for the life of me, separate Scarlett from my mother; fiction from reality. When I read Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge (2009), I thought that Olive was the most original character I had ever read. Now, after reading Gone with the Wind, I have to give that award to Scarlett O'Hara. She is at once the most good-natured and the most ill-intending; the most well-meaning and the most malevolent; the most beautiful and the ugliest; the strongest and the fragilest; brutally honest and hideously manipulative. In her times, Scarlett was the most revolutionary of women—she was strong, courageous, bold, and fiercely independent. She knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it (namely, wealth and men, respectively). She was a capitalist entrepreneur in a time when women were just above slaves in social ranking. These traits made her wildly different from her female counterparts. However, at the same time, she was weak, lonely, fragile. She acted like a big strong woman, but really she was just a scared little girl putting on a facade to protect herself.

And, at the end of the novel, we find that these two characters—after getting everything they wanted (Scarlett, for Rhett; power, for Scarlett) and after going through life together—we find that these two never really changed. In the end, Rhett gives up on Scarlett and Scarlett, after spurning his love, begins plotting a plan to win him back.

As a side note, I must say, the conclusion of this novel perfectly summarizes Scarlett O'Hara—she finally realizes how awful she's been to Rhett and all but throws herself at him to convince him that she really does love him, and when he turns her back on her and calls for a divorce, she immediately begins devising a plan to win him back. In one swift motion, Mitchell shows the reader Scarlett as the scared little girl who is terrified of being alone and the manipulative femme fatale who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Gone with the Wind is an incredible novel that I will recommend to anybody. It doesn't matter if you're a woman or a man, a hopeless romantic or a cynical pessimist, etc., etc., etc.—you will love this book. Like I said before, it has a little bit of something for everyone and Mitchell writes it in a fashion that will keep you turning the pages. Despite its 1000+ page heft, I managed to finish the book in about a week because it really is engaging.

As far as its relevance to National Women's History Month goes, Margaret Mitchell was a top-notch female author that truly deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. And Scarlett O'Hara, whether you love her or hate her, is every woman you've ever known and truly original.

Gone with the Wind is one of the defining moments in women's literature.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

National Women's History Month

March is National Women's History Month. And to celebrate, I am going to be nothing but female Pulitzer-winners.

Currently, I'm making my through Margaret Mitchell's 1937 Pulitzer-winning novel, Gone with the Wind, and really enjoying it. Next, I'll be tackling Toni Morrison's 1988 Pulitzer winner Beloved, followed by Willa Cather's 1923 winner, One of Ours.

The goal is to at least finish these three novels. If I finish them with some of March left over, I'll also be reading Caroline Miller's 1934 winner, Lamb In His Bosom.

Interesting side note: of the 84 Pulitzer-winning novels, only 27 of them were written by women.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Entry 35.1: March Reading Challenge: "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell (1937)

February has passed and March is now upon us. That can only mean one thing for Joshua and me: the March Reading Challenge is officially here.

So far, these reading challenges haven't fared so well for Joshua as he lost in January, when we read The Travels of Jamie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor, and in February, when we read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. He's already made good on his first defeat by making me a steak dinner, and once this Project is finished, he'll be reading Larry McMurtry's timeless classic, Terms of Endearment.

Now that it is March, Joshua and I will be racing each other to the last page of Margaret Mitchell's 1937 Pulitzer-winning novel, Gone with the Wind.

Here's the deal for this month: the loser of this month's challenge has to read the sequel to Gone with the Wind, Scarlett, written by Alexandra Ripley in 1991, and post a review of it on his blog. I found a summary of the novel:
The timeless tale continues... The most popular and beloved American historical novel ever written, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind is unparalleled in its portrayal of men and women at once larger than life but as real as ourselves. Now bestselling writer Alexandra Ripley brings us back to Tara and reintroduces us to the characters we remember so well: Rhett, Ashley, Mammy, Suellen, Aunt Pittypat, and, of course, Scarlett. As the classic story, first told over half a century ago, moves forward, the greatest love affair in all fiction is reignited; amidst heartbreak and joy, the endless, consuming passion between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler reaches its startling culmination. Rich with surprises at every turn and new emotional, breathtaking adventures, Scarlett satisfies our longing to reenter the world of Gone With the Wind, and like its predecessor, Scarlett will find an eternal place in our hearts.
Let the Pulitzer Project March Reading Challenge commence! Good luck, Mr. Riley—you're going to need it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Entry 34: "The Stories of John Cheever" (1979)

The Stories of John Cheever—I've been working on finishing this book for the past five or so months, trudging my way through the 60 plus stories that comprise it. And I've got to be honest, here: I couldn't stand it. I almost hated it. Story after story left me beyond frustrated with Cheever.

But, last night, after months of struggling to maintain interest, struggling to make time to squeeze a story or even two into my days, struggling to figure out why I should care about any of these stories, I finally finished it.

Then, today at work, while I served gourmet coffee to incredibly rich, incredibly obnoxious, incredibly white people—the self-righteous, over-privileged upper crust of middle class Suburbia—for twelve hours, I suddenly got it: these are the people Cheever was railing against.

And that's about the time I gained a sense of respect for John Cheever.

Let's get something straight—I was not born into privilege. I didn't come into this world with a silver spoon in my mouth. Nobody in my family is wealthy; in fact, we're all fairly poor. As if that wasn't hard enough to believe, I'm not middle-aged, I'm not upper-middle-class, and, for the most part, my life isn't falling to pieces. Here are some other things that set me apart from the characters in John Cheever's stories—I've never murdered my brother; I've never hired a personal assistant, had sex with her, then immediately fired her; I've never accidentally killed my husband; I've never cheated on my wife; I've never cheated on my wife who was cheating on me at the same time; and I've never gotten drunk and gone swimming in every swimming pool at every party I've gone to, only to return home to find that my entire family had abandoned me.

So, needless to say, I didn't really connect with anything he had to say while I was reading through his stories. I didn't identify with them.

Another reason I couldn't identify with these stories was because of how depressing they all were. How insanely, incredibly, indescribably depressing they all were. Cheever, in every single story, does not convey any glimmer of hope, any note of positivity—instead, Cheever paints a portrait of "family values" coming apart at the seams. And, in the process, he paints a portrait of the American family as it really is—bewildered, dysfunctional, and, when it comes right down to it, corrupt.

There are a couple of things that need to be understood first to understand why The Stories of John Cheever was such a great success (it won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, the only book in history to do so): first of all, John Cheever was a very active closet homosexual who was battling alcoholism and depression. He felt trapped by a world he didn't feel a part of:
I think of the enormous contribution Verdi made to the life of the planet and the enormous cooperation he was given by orchestras and singers... And I think of what an enormous opportunity is to be a live on this planet. having myself been cold and hungry and terribly alone I think I still feel the excitement of that opportunity. The sense of being with some sleeping person—one's child or one's lover—and seeming to taste the privilege of living, of being alive. Since I know so much about incarceration and addiction why can't I write about it? All I seem to be able to do is howl; let out... I am both a prisoner and an addict. - from The Journals of John Cheever
His stories, it is plain to tell, are merely an extension of his personal life. The reason his writing is so irrevocably depressing is because it's so real—these weren't purely fictional stories, they were pages from his real life.

The second important thing that needs to be understood to understand the reason The Stories of John Cheever was so influential is the time during which these stories were written: from the 1950's to the 1970's. Nowadays, we look back on the 1950's as the time of pink sweaters and poodle skirts, Leave It to Beaver and Andy Griffith, and mothers railing against Elvis Presley and his gyrating hips. This post-war society brought family values to the forefront, but as we now know, this was mostly a facade to hide the fear and paranoia brought on by the Cold War. The American glory days that were the 1950's were nothing more than an elaborate show that masked society.

Cheever, on the other hand, was unmasking that society and exposing it for what it really was. Besides J.D. Salinger, nobody else was doing this at the time. Furthermore, Cheever was in a class all his own, because even though Salinger had written The Catcher In the Rye, he didn't achieve nearly the success with it that Cheever was having with his short stories that were being published on a very regular basis in The New Yorker. Not only was Cheever running an exposé of real life American culture—which must have been a complete shock to his readership (come on—you can't tell me that a generation of parents who were freaking out over Elvis Presley's hips on The Ed Sullivan Show weren't being completely shell-shocked by stories of  murder, rape, alcoholism, and infidelity)—but he was even having success doing it!

This, of course, is a testament to John Cheever's unique ability as a writer—he slapped you in the face, but he did so in a way that made you respect him as an artist.

Now, as much as I have to say about this collection of short stories, I really don't feel like anything I could say could really equate with this review by Jason Pettus that I found on the website for the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Pettus also tweeted his progress through The Stories at with mini-reviews that I found enlightening.

So, instead, to close out, I'm going to simply list the stories that I enjoyed the most:
  • "Goodbye, My Brother"
  • "The Enormous Radio"
  • "Clancy In the Tower of Babel"
  • "Another Story"
  • "The Death of Justina"
  • "Artemis, the Honest Well Digger"

One final word on this collection—be sure to spread the stories apart while reading them. As I've made clear, they are incredibly depressing, but Cheever's writing is also very dense. It is really easy to feel overwhelmed by both of these factors and give up on the collection all together. But don't let the girth of this book deter you—you may resent the journey of reading every story, but you'll be thankful for the accomplishment of having reached your destination.

Pie Chart Progress

We have come to the end of February and, with my five finished books this month, I decided to take a look at my overall progress via a pie chart. Here's what I've done and what I still have left to do.

Almost to the halfway point!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Entry 33: "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham (1999)

I had today off of work, and not much to do to fill all 24 hours it offered me. I woke up at 8:30, finished up Ernest Poole's His Family until almost noon, ate some lunch, fixed my futon, watched some television, wrote a blog, played a game, caught up with some friends and family, took two showers, listened to a lot of music, and, in the midst of all this activity, I decided that I wanted to read a whole book in one day. So, once again, I consulted the literary oracle that is Joshua Riley and requested a suggestion.

At his behest, I took Michael Cunningham's 1999 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Hours, off the shelf. He had just finished it, had really enjoyed it, and told me that, at a scant 226 pages, I could very well finish it in one day.

And, you know something? I did finish it one day. In fact, I finished it in a couple of hours. And, after I finished it, I actually wanted to read it again.

It was simply a marvelous novel.

Let me first say this—Michael Cunningham is a great writer. Now, let me say this—Michael Cunningham knows that Michael Cunningham is a great writer. Despite the fact that The Hours is a fantastically written novel, it is, overall, an overwritten novel; and, unfortunately, this does more to distract the reader than engage the reader.

The novel follows three separate stories—the lives of Clarissa, Laura, and Virginia; Virginia Woolf, that is. And these three separate stories all merge in communality between the three women at the end of the novel. Scattered throughout are themes and nuances and symbolism that hint at the outcome of the novel. And, I have to be honest here, I found this literary approach incredibly trite and entirely too predictable. In fact, at one point very early in the novel, I even sent Joshua a text message that said, "So are Laura's 'Richie' and Clarissa's 'Richard' the same person?"

They were.

However, there were so many little subtleties in this novel that Cunningham must have poured so much effort into so painstakingly crafting. There are themes and symbolism that are almost completely obscure to even the most well-trained literary eye. Cunningham, I'm sure, really wanted The Hours to be a completely perfect novel. And, even though it isn't a completely perfect novel, it's a good novel.

A damn good novel.

I was a really big fan of the drama Cunningham so effortlessly creates in each storyline. In fact, the conflicts of the novel are so subtly written, that I hardly even noticed them—even as they were occurring. Even though there was very little "going on," very little "action," there's a certain amount of tension around these frivolous goings on that compelled me to continue reading, just to figure out what was going to happen next.

But I was more impressed with the background story that he wrote for Virginia Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Even if the story was entirely contrived, it offered a really great glimpse of Michael Cunningham's feminist critique of the book. I was actually more interested in the biographical aspect than I was in the rest of the story. In fact, even though I really don't like Virginia Woolf as an author, I was so intrigued by Cunningham's background that I'd really like to investigate her life a bit more.

Entry 32: "His Family" by Ernest Poole (1918)

Joshua made a random decision to read the very first novel to win a Pulitzer Prize—Ernest Poole's His Family (1918)—and he was so impressed by it, and was speaking so highly of it that I decided that I'd read it too. My original intention was to save this one until the end of the Pulitzer Project and read it alongside whatever the most winner would be—until 2011 came, the most recent winner would have been Paul Harding's Tinkers. However, I don't think I'm going to be able to read the next 46 Pulitzer novels by the time the next winner is announced in April.

But since Joshua was praising it so, how could I in good conscience pass it up? Particularly in light of one of the novels I had just finished (McMurtry's Lonesome Dove) and a collection of short stories that I am still tiredly plowing my way through (The Stories of John Cheever). I had just gotten done reading Jhumpa Lahiri's fabulous Interpreter of Maladies and, after getting the taste of great writing back in my mouth, I wanted more.

I wasn't disappointed.

I have to be honest—I really wasn't as excited at the prospect of reading His Family, but much like Josephine Johnson's Now In November, I was exceptionally surprised at how much I loved it. From every description I had heard of the book, I was expecting yet another early Pulitzer-winning pseudo-Victorian work of rubbish. Of all the early winners I've read so far (like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Age of Innocence (even while The Age of Innocence's conclusion was wonderful, the rest of the novel was entirely unbearable), Alice Adams, and Early Autumn), I have not been impressed at all. His Family just seemed to be another novel set in Old New York and it seemed to be about an aging man's struggle to maintain his family's Victorian dignity in the face of the changing times. I was surprised, and pleased, to find that this novel had very little to do with that. Rather, the focus was an aging man's struggle to keep his family knit together.

Even more impressive than the story was Poole's writing. I'd like to compose a list of writing styles that I've been most impressed with along this journey—certainly Robert Penn Warren, Jhumpa Lahiri, Josephine Johnson, Elizabeth Strout, and Marilynne Robinson come to mind—, for Ernest Poole will quickly make his way into that list. His writing is so fluid, so poetic, so image-driven, so heartbreaking, so positive, so hopeful—much like Robert Penn Warren's. There were paragraphs that I actually had to re-read just because I was enamored with them.

What I'd really like to know about this novel, though, is why it won the Pulitzer Prize. Don't get me wrong—it absolutely deserved the Prize; it's an incredible novel. But there are so many things working against it. For one thing, it's not at all pseudo-Victorian like the rest of the early winners. In fact, it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the early winners. Secondly, Ernest Poole was a Socialist and His Family is especially pro-socialism (and, from what I've read, this is even more true of another novel of his, The Harbor). During a time when Americans feared socialism (who am I kidding—if there's one thing we've learned from Obama's presidency, Americans still aren't over that fear), a socialist-sympathizing Ernest Poole wrote a pro-socialism novel that won the Pulitzer Prize!

I'd really like to look more into Poole once this project is over. I want to learn more about this Chicago-born socialist that won America's highest literature accolade, the Pulitzer Prize (and, moreover, the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Look!

There's a new look here at The Pulitzer Blog. Much more functional, much more aesthetically pleasing.

Entry 31: "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000)

After the monumental headache that was Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, I needed the taste of really great writing in my mouth again. So, after much coaxing from Joshua—who said this book would "change my life," "break my heart," and "make [me] believe in the magic of storytelling"—I went to the bookshelf and picked up Jhumpa Lahiri's 2000 Pulitzer-winner, Interpreter of Maladies.

And, after sobbing at the conclusion of the very first story in the collection, I knew then that Joshua was probably right—this was going to be the greatest collection of stories I have ever read.

It was.

For the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize in the millennium, the Pulitzer committee made an interesting decision—they awarded it to a London-born Indian Hindu woman who was raised in the United States; they awarded it to a collection of short stories that all revolve around a theme of international, relational, and romantic transplantation. I have to believe that the Pulitzer committee had a double-intention when they awarded Interpreter of Maladies the Prize. For one thing, obviously, this book deserved to win—it is an amazing, awe-inspiring, incredibly eloquent book. Lahiri, even though she was only 33 when her collection of stories was published, writes with a wisdom and an understanding of human relationship dynamics and of the world around her that a much older woman would possess. I was actually very surprised when I learned that she was so young when these stories were written. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly in the selection process, Jhumpa Lahiri and her collection of stories embody the shift the literary world made from postmodernism to post-postmodernism.

Although it is this writer's opinion that post-postmodernism wasn't truly born until the second World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, 2001, the late 1990's started signaling shifts in thinking and the way artists were interpreting and understanding the world around them. I think that the advent of the Internet and the introduction of the idea of the entire world being webbed together started deteriorating postmodernism, and 9/11 delivered its death blow. And from the rubble of the World Trade Centers, when every person in America—every person in the world—suddenly became a New Yorker, arose the Global Village.

It is this Global Village that Lahiri so eloquently describes in each story of Interpreter of Maladies.

Whether writing about the distance between two lovers and how truly the same that man and woman are ("A Temporary Matter"); two nationalities that become the same heritage under the distress of uncertainty ("When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine"); two religions that become intertwined and intermixed ("This Blessed House"); or overcoming the walls of nationality, gender, and generation ("The Third and Final Continent"), Lahiri's stories transcend barriers by writing beyond our conceptions of those barriers.

(just as a note, now that I have some examples to work with, here's the difference between postmodern and post-postmodern: if "A Temporary Matter" had been written in the 1960's, the author would have focused more on the distance of the man and the woman—their differences, but how their differences made them both totally unique, but both totally right in their own way; instead, under post-postmodernism, the author acknowledges the distance between the man and the woman, but instead focuses on the ties that draw and bind them together, instead of the differences that force them apart)

I really love the way this collection is described on the back of the book, and I don't think anything I could ever write could sum Interpreter of Maladies up as well as this does:
...this stunning debut collection unerringly charts the emotional journeys of characters seeking love beyond the barriers of nations and generations. "A writer of uncommon sensitivity and restraint...Ms. Lahiri expertly captures the out-of-context lives of immigrants, expatriates, and first-generation Americans" (Wall Street Journal). In stories that travel from India to America and back again, Lahiri speaks with universal eloquence to everyone who has ever felt like a foreigner.
I'm going to make a bold claim, here—it is with Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies that post-postmodernism was conceived. It hadn't been born yet—that would come later; but I really do believe that with this book, published in 1999, the seed had been planted. If literary critics and historians prove me right, that will make Interpreter of Maladies one of the most epochal books ever written, putting it in the company of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and James Joyce's Ulyssess.

But, of course, even if my claim doesn't ring true, and Interpreter of Maladies doesn't become the epochal novel that I'm describing it, one thing will always remain true of it—this is a fantastic collection of short stories that everybody needs to read.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Entry 30.3: February Challenge Results

Well, it seems as though I have won the second monthly reading challenge by completing Larry McMurtry's grueling Lonesome Dove much earlier than both Joshua and I expected either of us would. As mentioned in Entry 30.1, whoever won this challenge got to pick another Larry McMurtry novel for the loser to read once the Pulitzer Project is over.

For my beleaguered friend, Joshua, I have chosen McMurtry's 1983 classic, Terms of Endearment.

Here's a brief synopsis of the novel, from
In this acclaimed novel that inspired the Academy Award-winning motion picture, Larry McMurtry created two unforgettable characters who won the hearts of readers and moviegoers everywhere: Aurora Greenway and her daughter Emma. Aurora is the kind of woman who makes the whole world orbit around her, including a string of devoted suitors. Widowed and overprotective of her daughter, Aurora adapts at her own pace until life sends two enormous challenges her way: Emma's hasty marriage and subsequent battle with cancer. Terms of Endearment is the Oscar-winning story of a memorable mother and her feisty daughter and their struggle to find the courage and humor to live through life's hazards -- and to love each other as never before.
Joshua and I have both agreed to take the month of March off from reading challenges so that we both may focus on the rest of these Pulitzers, but we'll return again in April to once again race for the prize!

Entry 30.2: "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry (1986)

Almost two full weeks into the month, the February reading challenge is finally over. It took everything in me to get through this book (and once he finishes, Joshua will tell you the same), but I finished Larry McMurtry's 1986 Pulitzer-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, at 11pm on Friday, February 11.

My edition of this novel was a long, grueling 821 pages that sprawled the distance from Southern Texas to Northern Montana and back again. And when I finished reading the last word, closed the book, and dropped it to the floor next to the couch I was laying on, I truly felt like I was the one who had made the treacherous journey there and back.

This book did nothing but exhaust me. All the way through, from beginning to end, I felt like a marathon runner that was perpetually hitting the proverbial wall—paragraph after paragraph, page after page. McMurtry annoyed me, angered me, infuriated me even. I cannot tell you how many times I called Joshua after finishing a chapter or two just to say, "Joshua. This is the dumbest book I have ever read." And, every single time, all he could do was agree.

I've got to be honest—I have no idea where to start with my criticisms of this novel. So, maybe I should start off this review with the things I enjoyed about the book.

So, let's see. Um.... Well. Ummmm.... This is even harder than figuring out where to start my criticisms.

Oh! I've got it.

The book didn't bore me to tears. Despite its heft, despite its length, despite the overwhelming "lull to action" ratio, and even despite McMurtry's absolutely horrendous writing, Lonesome Dove, at the very least, kept my interest. There were several points during it where I would've much rather been reading something else, but at least I wasn't bored to the point of putting the book away and accepting defeat.

Another thing I'll give Lonesome Dove is that it was a good story with really well-developed characters. In fact, the characters might have been a little too well-developed.

(Segues into criticisms)

McMurtry spent way too much time and invested way too many words into developing the story instead of telling the story. This novel was 821 pages, but could have easily been truncated into half that and the story wouldn't have suffered a great loss. In fact, the story probably would have been much more engaging that way. The story of this novel was basically this: a bunch of cowboys (led by Gus and Captain Call) decided to head from Lonesome Dove, Texas up to Montana to start up a cattle ranch, then headed there and encountered a bunch of trials and tribulations along the way, then Gus dies and wishes to be buried back in Lonesome Dove, so Call takes his dead body all the way back to honor his wishes.

In a nutshell, that's the story. Granted, there were a lot of sidebars to the story—a lot of love interests, and relationships gone awry. Be that as it may, it took me all of one sentence to recap the gist of the story.

In McMurtry's rendering, however, it takes 821 pages. In fact, it took McMurtry a whopping TWENTY SEVEN CHAPTERS to narrate the time it takes for the cowboys to decide to move to Montana to the time that they actually leave Lonesome Dove. TWENTY SEVEN CHAPTERS dedicated to nearly pointless dialogue, lengthy expository, character development, and back story. Now, I realize it takes time to fully develop a cast as numerous as this ensemble, but 27 chapters? Seriously? It was like reading Ayn Rand's classic example of all character development and no story, Atlas Shrugged, all over again. "All sizzle and no steak," as they say.

To make matters worse, some of the most important, action-packed scenes in the novel—like violent encounters with murderous Indians, barroom brawls, gunfights in the streets, and other disputes—are merely glossed over by McMurtry. There were times when I read a scene and had to go back and re-read it because I thought I had missed something; after 20 pages or so of describing how the landscape looked, or how the characters were feeling, McMurtry would detail a really tense run-in with Indians in a couple paragraphs, then go right back to focusing on the landscape for another ten pages. In the midst of a couple dozen pages, one of the main characters would wind up dead and I was so horribly fatigued by McMurtry's over-narration that I wouldn't even realize what had happened!

And maybe I'd feel differently about McMurtry's narrative if it were actually written well. Unfortunately (at least this is the case with this particular novel), McMurtry is absolute shite at writing prose. There were so many occasions where he was clearly attempting to be clever and poetic whilst describing the landscape or the look on a character's face, but every single time he fell flat on his face.

Don't even get me started on the dew...

Then, if that weren't bad enough, his voice would change throughout the novel! So the reader would be stuck with half-baked poetic prose, then a gem of a sentence like this one: "Roscoe was half asleep in his saddle when a bad thing happened." His prose didn't improve any with this little ditty: "She was sad."

Again, this is the only thing by McMurtry I've ever read (and the only thing by him I intend to ever read), so I can't let Lonesome Dove define my opinion of his overall writing abilities, but I can sure as hell tell you that this novel was one of the worst written books I've ever read.

It's almost as if McMurtry were participating in NaNoWriMo and, in a race against the calendar, was just writing for the sake of writing.

Another note on time-management—it is nearly impossible to figure out McMurtry's estimation of how much time it takes to do certain tasks (like a 27 chapter decision to move to Montana, or an 80-chapter trek across the country, or a 2-chapter trek back across the country). There were countless occasions where I had been reading and reading and reading for hours and the wagon train was still in the same damn place they were when I first started reading and I would literally cry out, "Seriously!? How long is this going to take??" Then, before I knew it, the wagon train was 500 more miles into their journey! Both McMurtry's time lapse and geographical locations made absolutely no sense.

Speaking of things not making sense, there was McMurtry's insistence on character overlapping. Somehow, every character in this book by the end of the novel knew each other, regardless of where they were from. This feature of the book is a bit hard to explain without giving away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that the film Magnolia has absolutely nothing on this novel's "character interconnectedness."

Here's a magnificent example: Blue Duck, the villain, kidnaps Lorie, the "damsel in distress." Gus sets out to rescue her and in the middle of the wide-open Midwestern plains, he runs into July Johnson, a sheriff from Arkansas. Now, Johnson left Arkansas to track down Jake Spoon, a cowboy guilty of killing Johnson's brother in law, but he gave up on that chase when he learned that his wife had run away from home right after he left, so he decided to head to Nebraska to track her down instead. So, on his way to Nebraska, he suddenly, and for no reason, pops up in the middle of the Plains and runs into Gus and they fight Blue Duck's posse together. Now, here's the impossible part: if McMurtry was telling the story with any sort of consistency, Johnson had somehow backtracked some almost 500 miles to have this chance run-in with Gus in the middle of nowhere! Then, just as inexplicably as their chance encounter was, they parted ways only to have another couple run-ins with each other over the course of the next 60 chapters.

McMurtry does the impossible in this book and just strings the reader along, assuring us, "Trust me on this one. Just follow me and trust me." But, by that point (which is a little less than halfway through the novel, mind you), you are so completely disenfranchised with the story that you don't even care anymore. The only reason you're still reading is because you've already read 400 pages and you can't bring yourself to completely give up on that sort of time investment.

Obviously, I don't recommend this book to anyone. Unless you have a death wish. Then, by all means—go for it. But I cannot in good conscience ever recommend this book.

I have absolutely no idea how this novel managed to win a Pulitzer Prize. Seriously, my only guess is that politics were heavily involved. As Joshua and I are coming to find, the Pulitzer Prize is one of the most biased and political prizes in the arts and always has been (something that we will document when this project is finished) and I'm guessing that McMurtry was the benefactor of this. 

The only other possibility that I can come up with is that it was merely awarded the Pulitzer Prize because it was the last Western novel that they were going to award the Prize to. Now, there may actually be something to this theory... Before its big win, a handful of Western novels won the Prize; since its win, none have. Furthermore, it was the last genre book to win the Pulitzer Prize—before it, most of the winners were either period pieces, war novels, Westerns, pioneer novels, political novels, or even romance; since its win, all of the winners have been genuine literary fiction. It is this reader's opinion that perhaps the Pulitzer committee figured that there would never be a Western novel as epic as Lonesome Dove, so they decided to award it the Prize as a last huzzah for Western novels. I only have two pieces of evidence for this suspicion: the first, of course, is that no Western has won since; the second is that none of Cormac McCarthy's incredible Border Trilogy (which consists of The Crossing, All the Pretty Horses, and No Country for Old Men) won the Prize.

Then again, there may be nothing to these claims at all.

It's funny—after reading it, I didn't think anything else in this Pulitzer Project would even compare in awfulness to Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. But, now, I'm not so sure. It and Lonesome Dove are definitely duking it out for that top (or, bottom) spot. The Magnificent Ambersons does have one thing going for it—it's a respectable amount of pages for a crappy book. At least Tarkington doesn't force you to endure an awfully written novel for 821 pages. Lonesome Dove, on the other hand, is the length of five novels put together! For no apparent reason, to boot!

I have to admit that I almost feel bad tearing down Lonesome Dove as much as I have been, because I legitimately enjoyed the story. You know—once I managed to wade knee-deep through all of McMurtry's severely overwritten bullshit prose. If you can figure out a method to overlook that, Lonesome Dove will at least provide you a good story with a lot of human drama.