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.