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.”