Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Fathers and Sons
'My father was a man who acted from principle, as he said himself. He acted from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it. But something in the way he went about it made him disappointing from time to time, and not just to me. I say this despite all the attention he gave to me bringing me up, for which I am profoundly in his debt, though he himself might dispute that. God rest his soul, I know for a fact I disappointed him. It is a remarkable thing to consider. We meant well by each other, too."
Heaven, Hell and Eternity
"If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don't hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul."
"I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence,the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets."
On Predestination and the Possibility that People Can Change
" . . . there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate."
"Your mother said, 'A person can change. Everything can change.' "
Faith and Doubt
"I'm not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I'm saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the moustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment."
I liked the quotations. Rev. Ames has a voice that reminds me of my father-in-law, a Southern Baptist country preacher who lived in our home before he died several years ago. (Interesting aside: I never figured out what denomination Rev. Ames belonged to, just that he was not Baptist, not Presbyterian, not Lutheran, not Quaker, and not Methodist. He believed ininfant baptism, though.)
However, the story itself was what kept me turning the pages of this memoir/novel. I wanted to know the "back story." How did Rev. Ames come to marry a woman more than thirty years younger than he was? What happened to his grandfather, an abolitionist who knew John Brown and who lost one eye in the Civil War? Why did his brother Edward go to Europe to study and come back an atheist? Can the characters in the book forgive those who disappoint them, especially can Rev. Ames forgive and extend grace to an old friend who may or may not be a repentant sinner? And how did John Ames retain his faith in God and in life itself?
Gilead has lots and lots of questions and even a few answers. I'm planning to read Ms. Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, published back in 1981, as soon as I can find it, and I'll read anything else she writes. This book was one of the best I've read in a very long time.
Cross-posted form Semicolon.
Monday, August 27, 2007
Title: Death of a Salesman
Author: Arthur Miller
Publisher: Penguin classics/May 1998
Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," is an overwhelmingly crafted play that takes drama to the next level. It asks the big question: When it comes time to take our own life's account, as Willy has, will we look back with pride and a sense of accomplishment? Alternatively, will we find ourselves sidestepped and alone, lost in despair? Arthur Miller asks some of life's crucial questions in this powerful play. This won the Pulitzer Award in 1949.
The story is about a broken-hearted sales man, Willy Loman. He is a man who is no longer living in the real world but trapped in his own delusional world. He cannot let go of the past no matter how hard he tries, and it is eating him up inside......
Read the rest of it here on My Own Little Reading Room.
1932 - The Good Earth (Buck)
1937 - Gone with the Wind (Mitchell)
1940 - The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
1947 - All the King’s Men (Warren)
1953 - The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
2000 - Interpreter of Maladies (Lahiri)
I will post reviews of these books too, on my blog.
1921 The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: Loved it!
1922 Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington: Liked it pretty good.
1932 The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck: One of my all favorite books!
1937 Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell: Loved it. Read it YEARS ago.
1940 The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: Another all time favorite book!
1961 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Wow, this one needs a re-read big time!
1975 The Killer Angels Michael Shaara: Liked it a lot.
1986 Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: Another liked it a lot book.
1988 Beloved by Toni Morrison: Hmmm... interesting book.
1992 A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley: Did NOT like it.
1999 The Hours by Michael Cunningham: This one is okay... a little weird.
2002 The Empire Falls by Richard Russo: Liked parts, didn’t like other parts.
2005 Gilead by Marianne Robinson: Liked it a lot.
In the line up to read this next year:
1972 Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (currently reading)
1994 The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
2001 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Books already read are:
The Known World-2004
To Kill a Mockingbird-1961
Gone With The Wind-1937
The Good Earth-1932
What a great challenge!
Saturday, August 25, 2007
I was surprised to learn that I already have a decent head start on this challenge. I have linked my only review that I have completed for these books:
Pulitzers Already Read
The Road (Cormac McCarthy) - 2007
Breathing Lessons (Anne Tyler) - 1989
The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara) - 1975
To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee) - 1961
Tales of the South Pacific (James Michener) - 1948
Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell) - 1937
Pulitzers Soon To Be Read
March (Geraldine Brooks) - 2006
Gilead (Marilynne Robinson) - 2005
The Yearling (Marjorie Rawlings) - 1939
Saturday, August 18, 2007
I have to warn everyone: this review drew the only rude comment I've ever received on my blog. The commenter perceived the review as totally negative, which surprised me, because in spite of the fact that I had some criticism, I did enjoy this book. I even plan to read it again.
If I were Cormac McCarthy's editor, here is what I would have said: I realize that your stylistic choices in this book are meant to reflect a world so barren that it doesn't have the luxury of such frills as apostrophes, commas and complete sentences. But your post-apocalyptic setting is stark enough, your characters are traumatized enough, your spare prose is Hemingwayesque enough that you don't need to resort to twee gimmicks to get your point across. Stop that.
Well. I feel better now! On to the review.
It took me a long time to warm up to The Road. I could not become immersed in the story because I was too busy working out why some contractions deserve the dignity of apostrophes and some don't. I mean dont. Because it's only the negatives who are forced to walk around naked without their punctuation. Even my favorite sentence of the book, a thought the man has while watching his sleeping son, was ruined for me by McCarthy's aversion to commas: If he is not the word of God God never spoke. God God sounds like something God's mom called him when he was a toddler. When I'm being moved by a father's love for his son and a pretty metaphor, I don't want to be distracted by the idea of God as a toddler with a mom, you know?
If you stripped this novel of all the tedious ash ash ash, walk walk walk, forage forage forage, rain rain rain details, it would be a good short story.
But I did say I eventually warmed up to the book. At about the middle of the novel, the man and the boy find a hatch in the ground, fully equipped and left behind by someone with forethought, but without the luck to have survived long enough to use it. After the man had rested and eaten well, suddenly he thought in paragraphs! He had complex ideas! Now this was some damn good writing, but I stopped and had a WTF? moment while I tried to figure out why the style had changed so drastically.
And then I got it. The man and the boy, on the road, are far too exhausted and hungry to say more than "Okay" and "I don't know." Their thoughts are simple despite their obvious intelligence because their more basic needs are unmet. Their world is nothing but ash ash ash, walk walk walk, forage forage forage, rain rain rain. When their basic needs for cleanliness and sleep and food are met, they become more than just nomadic animals with minimal communication skills. Brilliant! I decided I loved this particular technique.
Is it cold?
Yes, it's freezing.
Do you want to go in?
I don't know.
Sure you do.
Is it okay?
He turned and looked at the boy. Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he. He tried to remember the dream but he could not. All that was left was the feeling of it. He thought perhaps they'd come to warm him. Of what? That he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished they'd never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over.
Still spare, still treating commas like McCarthy is a black coffee fan and commas are the whipped cream on some frou-frou Starbucks beverage -- and what more can you expect from a writer who calls semi-colons "idiocy?" But the man is desperate, even suicidal, so I can accept spareness. At least it no longer reads like first grade primer.
Through the entire first half of the novel, the starkness was distracting and irritating, and I found myself reading just to finish the book. After the respite in the underground shelter, when the point of the style clicked for me, I was more ready to accept devices like the tediously simplistic dialogue, though I still felt irritated by the crazy punctuation.
In spite of all this distraction from the actual story, I found myself frequently thinking about the characters when I was away from the book. I absolutely love the relationship between the father and the son. I love the son's intrinsic ethics, which the father doesn't want to squelch, and in another time wouldn't have to, but which he fears are dangerous on the road. And I love that McCarthy got so many of the emotions of parenting just right.
There were three big questions hanging over my head throughout the book.
1. How old is this boy?
2. What the hell happened to the world to make it this way?
3. How did these two survive when most people are dead?
These questions went without any definitive answers, but I found myself absorbed in watching for clues of the boy's age. I settled on seven. He can read in spite of a life without books, but he's still very vulnerably young. I have no idea why I fixated on figuring out the boy's age. He was my favorite character (not that there was much competition) and I think I was given so little information about him that I needed to ferret out more to make him feel more real.
There were more clues to the answer to my second question. The setting seemed to be the southeastern U.S. suffering from the effects of nuclear winter. They couldn't see the sun, it was cold, and there was ash everywhere. So I'm assuming there was a nuclear war, though it could have been some enormous natural disaster, maybe caused by global warming.
Not answering the third question seemed to me a flaw in the narrative. I really want to know what allowed them to survive. Had they found safe shelter? Were they just lucky? It seems essential, because if they survived due to their own cunning, that allows the reader to accept that they could keep surviving on the road.
Before even starting the book, I ran into a spoiler that revealed to me just how it ends. Knowing that ahead of time, combined with the unwavering hopelessness throughout the novel, prepared me for the unbearably sad ending. In fact, the book was so depressing in general that I found myself despairing over the pointlessness of life. Fortunately, I prescribed myself some chocolate chocolate chip Haagen-Dasz and an episode of Family Guy, and I was cured and ready to face life again.
I want to avoid spoilers, but I have to say that in I was even more disappointed by the deus ex machina ending after the sad part than I was by the stylistic oddness. I haven't seen anyone else mention this, either in blog reviews or print reviews, and I'm not sure if that's in an attempt to avoid spoilers or if people just didn't mind it.
Here is an amusing account of Oprah's interview with McCarthy.
Written Sunday, May 28th, 2006 9:50am
Title and author of book? March by Geraldine Brooks
Fiction or non-fiction? Genre? Historical fiction, imitative fiction, parallel fiction.
What led you to pick up this book? I read Year of Wonders and loved it, so I was keeping an eye out for this writer to publish a new book.
Summarize the plot, but don't give away the ending! In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Mr March is absent; he's serving in Civil War as an army chaplain. Little Women is narrated by his daughter, Jo. This is Mr March's story, taking place in the same time that Little Women unfolds up north.
He starts off as an army chaplain, but then he's sent to teach freed slaves to read. About 2/3 of the way through the book, at the point in Little Women when Marmee is summoned because Mr March is in the hospital, the point of view changes from first person (Mr March) to first person (Marmee). Once he's better, the point of view reverts back to Mr March.
The story of Mr. March's earlier life is told in flashbacks, while he's at war.
What did you like most about the book? This is probably my favorite book of the past five years, so I loved nearly everything. I loved the writing style, the characters, and the way it tied in so well with Bronson Alcott's life and Louisa May Alcott's novel. I loved how absolutely nothing was black-and-white, cut-and-dried. Everything was filled with ambiguity.
Have you read any other books by this author? What did you think of those books? Year of Wonders was incredibly good. I haven't read anything else by Brooks, but I've put all her other books in my wishlist.
What did you think of the main character? The main character was done really well. Brooks clearly researched Bronson Alcott's life thoroughly. In the middle of reading, I started to suspect she'd based Mr March on Alcott, since Jo was based on Louisa May Alcott, so I read up on him, and it was obvious that he's the inspiration for Mr March. Then I read an interview with her which verified my assumptions. She'd even used his exact words in some of his letters, and used Thoreau's and Emerson's exact words, but taking them out of context. For example, she takes the passage about Flint's pond from Walden and has Thoreau say that to Mr March.
Any other particularly interesting characters? Marmee! She's fleshed out into a real person in this book, whereas she played a rather peripheral role in Little Women. First you learn about her from Mr March's point of view, and then, later, when she has her say, it's hilarious the way her perceptions of events are completely different from her husband's.
Share a quote from the book: "If there is one class of person I have never quite trusted, it is a man who knows no doubt."
Share a favorite scene from the book. In Little Women it's hinted that the Marches used to be wealthy, but now they're poor. And the only indication of how they lost their money was that they lent money to an untrustworthy friend and never got it back.
In this book, that story is fleshed out, using what the author knew of the Alcott family. We learn that the Marches financially backed John Brown and lost everything.
One of the best parts of that subplot is that March offers financial assistance to Brown because he thinks Marmee admires Brown, and he wants Marmee to admire him that much. But in reality, Marmee thinks he's an idiot for backing Brown (at least to the extent of losing all their money).
What about the ending? I loved the ending. March is back home (in Little Women he comes home at Christmas) but he's wracked with guilt over his experiences in the Civil War, and he's not sure how he's going to live with himself. He decides he'll just have to live with himself day by day, trying to come to terms with his guilt while at the same time trying to be a role model for his girls. I love that there wasn't some pat "The love of family will fix everything" ending, but at the same time, there was hope.
Everyone should read Robert Heinlein's classic Stranger in a Strange Land. I also highly recommend The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. My vote for best post-apocalyptic fiction has long been A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.; however, I am reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy and may have to revise my choice.But no, it turns out I don't need to revise my vote after all because I still think A Canticle for Leibowitz is the best. As far as I know Miller's book never won any awards, much less the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
by Cormac McCarthy, 2006
Now, my review of The Road. It starts off with a sentence, followed by a sentence fragment and another sentence fragment. Do you know what I mean by a fragment? I could call it a "stump" of a sentence. A sentence fragment leaves out some major part of a sentence, like a subject or a verb. Some of McCarthy's "sentences" are prepositional phrases. Two readers shared their opinions with the Book Buddies book club, one saying, "Good writing style," and the other, "I am also enjoying the writing style." Not me! Occasional sentence fragments (like "Not me!") are okay, but an entire book written that way drove me to distraction. Okay, I admit my aversion to constant sentence fragments may relate to my (former) life as an editor, but still...
One good thing I can say about this style of writing is that it did convey the fragmented life experienced by all of the characters. This book seems to validate T. S. Eliot's 1925 poem "The Hollow Men" which ends like this:
This is the way the world ends(*** SPOILER *** stop reading here, if you haven't finished the book.) I got that point early in the book, which went on and on with few full thoughts. I should say that THAT appears to be the whole point. Everything in the book is designed to show that the main characters (well, all of the characters, actually) are living from one minute to the next. Not each day, not each hour, but minute to minute not knowing whether they will find food or survive until tomorrow. No sun ever penetrates the hazy sky; the survivors -- of what? a nuclear holocaust? -- wheeze trying to breathe the leaden air; night is as dark as a cave when your torch goes out. (End of SPOILER.)
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
This is a bleak, gray novel. And that is the point. This quote says it all for me:
"At night when he woke coughing he'd sit up with his hand pushed over his head against the blackness. Like a man waking in a grave" (p. 180).Everyone in the story seems set against everyone else ... until the end, which seems to me to validate the point the boy has been trying to make all along. Rated 8/10, very good.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Walter M. Miller Jr., 1959
This is a very different kind of post-apocalyptic story. It is many, many years after nuclear war has destroyed our world, and people are resuming life ... but not as we know it. Ashing has become a god, and the people are in awe of the sacred shopping list of Leibowitz, one of the few pieces of paper from "before." Ashing, have you heard of him? A chipped and broken statue calls w-ASHING-ton "the father." Aha! It's a "statue fragment" which leaves us with a "stump" of a name! Anyway, more centuries pass, and there's another civilization, a different one. And again, many more years pass and we see a third post-war civilization. One man appears to be in the stories of all these civilizations. Is he really the same person? Or is it a coincidence these men (plural) seem to be one and the same?
The Road makes a point, but in my opinion A Canticle for Leibowitz is more enjoyable and intriguing to read. Rated 9/10, excellent!
My original review was posted here.
2007 - The Road (McCarthy)
2006 - March (Brooks)
2005 - Gilead (Robinson)
1994 - The Shipping News (Proulx)
1992 - A Thousand Acres (Smiley)
1989 - Breathing Lessons (Tyler)
1987 - A Summons to Memphis (Taylor)
1983 - The Color Purple (Walker)
1972 - Angle of Repose (Stegner)
1969 - House Made of Dawn (Momaday)
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
1958 - A Death in the Family (Agee)
1956 - Andersonville (Kantor)
1953 - The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
1952 - The Caine Mutiny (Wouk)
1945 - Bell for Adano (Hersey)
1940 - The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
1939 - The Yearling (Rawlings)
1937 - Gone with the Wind (Mitchell)
1932 - The Good Earth (Buck)
1928 - The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Wilder)
1925 - So Big (Ferber)
I have a question. Will we add books each year the Pulitzer is awarded for fiction? That's my plan, anyway.
Friday, August 17, 2007
1957, 310 pp.
Jay Follett, a dutiful husband and father, travels to his parents' home because his father is dying. On his way back to his wife and children, he is killed in a car accident. The reaction to this tragedy by his family is told with heartbreaking prose. I was especially moved by the thoughts, feelings, and actions of his son, Rufus. This novel was largely autobiographical for Agee as his father died in a car accident when he was six years old. Sadly, Agee himself died of a heart attack at the age of 45, leaving behind young children of his own.
This novel profoundly touched me as my own father died of heart complications at the age of 44. The death of someone so young affects a family very deeply for many years. It is a tragedy I hope few people have to experience.
I've already read the following 7 books:
- 2003 - Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides. I read this in 2003, and it became my all-time favourite book.
- 2001 - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon Reviewed here.
- 1999 - The Hours by Michael Cunningham Read in 2002.
- 1988 - Beloved by Toni Morrisson Reviewed here.
- 1983 - The Color Purple by Alice Walker Reviewed here.
- 1981 - A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole Read in 2003. This remarkable, hilarious and bittersweet novel is another one of my favourites.
- 1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Reviewed here.
- 2007 - The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- 2004 - The Known World by Edward P. Jones
- 1979 - The Stories of John Cheever
- 1966 - Collected Stories by Katherine Anne Porter
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Of the 81 books, I've read the following:
2007 - The Road - Cormac McCarthy
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
1937 - Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell
1932 - The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
Currently, I'm reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003) and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1928).
The links above will take you to my reviews on my reading blog. I'm looking forward to sharing this adventure with all of you.
1986 - Lonesome Dove (McMurtry) Well, sort of, at least I tried. Unappreciative Semicolon review of the part I finished.
1975 - The Killer Angels (Shaara) One of my Best Books Ever.
1967 - The Fixer (Malamud) I read this one a long time ago when my mom was taking a course in Jewish American literature.
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee) One of my Best Books Ever.
1953 - The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
1952 - The Caine Mutiny (Wouk)
1947 - All the King’s Men (Warren) Semicolon review here.
1937 - Gone with the Wind (Mitchell)
1928 - The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Wilder) This book made quite an impression when I read it about 30 years ago. I'm looking forward to re-reading it this fall.
1925 - So Big (Ferber)
1921 - The Age of Innocence (Wharton) One of my Best Books Ever.
1919 - The Magnificent Ambersons (Tarkington) Semicolon review here.
As for plans, I'm reading A Confederacy of Dunces (1981) right now, and I'd like to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2001) because my son likes it and I want to know why. I'll choose more if and when I finish those two. Since my daughter and, by extension, I are studying twentieth century history this school year, I might like to start at the bottom of the list and work up, reading along with the history wer're doing. I've never heard of His Family by Poole, the first book on the list.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
(Those with links have been reviewed on my blog)
1995: The Stone Diaries (Shields) - read in 2004
1994: The Shipping News (Proulx) - read in 2006
1988: Beloved (Morrison) - read in the 1990's
1983: The Color Purple (Walker) - read in the 1990's
1973: The Optimist's Daughter (Welty) - read in 2007
1961: To Kill A Mockingbird (Lee) - read in 2007
1953: The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway) - read in 2000
1940: The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck) - read in 1994 and 2007
1937: Gone With the Wind (Mitchell) - read in the 1990's
2007: The Road (McCarthy)
2006: March (Brooks)
1999: The Hours (Cunningham)
First sentence: A nurse held the door open for them.
Reflections: The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and is a short but stunning work. Set primarily in Mississippi, it's the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, currently living in Chicago, visiting the South where her father is failing. Judge McKelva was a pillar of his community. After the death of his first wife (Laurel's mother), he remarried a woman younger than Laurel herself. Welty, through small but significant descriptions of second wife Fay, makes the reader despise her in the first few pages. She is introduced on page 1 when Fay, Laurel, and the Judge are meeting with a doctor about the Judge's condition: "Fay, small and pale in her dress with the gold buttons, was tapping her sandaled foot." And two pages later, as the Judge is describing his medical problem: "Fay laughed -- a single, high note, as derisive as a jay's."
Laurel and Fay are forced together as the Judge's condition deteriorates, and he subsequently passes away. Fay is tremendously put out by his death, since it happens on her birthday. After the funeral she leaves town to be with her family. Laurel remains to sort through some of her father's effects and, since Fay has inherited the house, to remove memories of her mother, which she knows Fay will not respect. Welty's writing is beautiful throughout, evoking a strong "sense of place". Here are just a few examples:
"The ancient porter was already rolling his iron-wheeled wagon to meet the baggage car, before the train halted. All six of Laurel's bridesmaids, as they still called themselves, were waiting on the station platform."
I was fully immersed in this book; wrapped in a blanket of beautiful prose. I will likely read more of Welty's work.
Original review can be found here.
First sentence: When he was thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm broken badly at the elbow.
Reflections: Harper Lee's Pulitzer prizewinner is such a classic; the plot is well-known and there's probably not a person who will read this review that hasn't already read this book. I read it as a teenager, but I did so on my own and didn't have the benefit of group discussion to enhance my understanding of the themes and issues explored in this work. Dana over at So many books, so little time re-reads TKAM every year and that got me thinking. Along comes Maggie Reads' Southern Reading Challenge, and I had an excuse to bring this one out from the dusty shelves.
Je ne regrette rien. What a powerful book. I immediately became absorbed in the main characters -- Jem, Scout, Atticus, and Calpurnia -- as well as some of the townspeople and neighbors. I fell easily into the tales of carefree childhood summers, pretend play, and "spooky" reclusive neighbors. I could feel the warm summer evenings and the year-round temperate Alabama climate. But then, wham!, I was hit with the small-mindedness, hatred, and racism:
"Cry about the simple hell people give other people--without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they're people, too." (p. 229)
Through brilliant prose, Harper Lee vividly tells the story of a black man on trial for raping a white woman, Atticus' inner strength and determination, the injustice done to the defendant, the varying reactions of the townspeople, and the subsequent events in which justice is finally served. I'd forgotten how the book got its title, and when I read this part of the book, I found it so apt:
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy ... they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." (p. 103)
If you haven't read this book, you should. And if you have, you should re-read it -- you'll learn something new every time.
Original review can be found here.
First sentence: To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.
Reflections: What a fantastic way to begin the year's reading. I know this is a classic, and there would be little debate about its place in American literature. I probably don't have any unique commentary on this work. But I was surprised at how much I was "sucked in" to this book, and how much it stayed with me during the times I was not reading.
The powerful themes in this book, for me, were 1) the desperation of the migrant families, and 2) the intense drive to keep families together. Steinbeck is able to convey the sense of desperation so vividly, both through the Joad's experiences and through the chapters describing the world around them: the car salesmen, the people who buy off farmers' assets, the growers/canners in California, the effect of the heavy rain. And then Ma Joad's intensity around keeping the family intact throughout, and her ultimate failure to do so, is just heartbreaking. I can't imagine what it felt like, in an age without email and mobile telephones, to have one of your children go off in search of a better life on their own.
I know the ending is meant to cast a ray of hope, but I was left wondering what would happen next to these poor people, stranded in a barn in a flood with no money, no food, and no hopes.Another thread running through my mind as I read was about society's apparent need to find a lower class who can be mistreated. In this book, and in that time period, it was the migrant workers. Today, we have found immigrants to do similar labor and their living conditions in many cases are not much better than the Joad's. There are many other groups who are also marginalized. Why is this? And why is it so difficult to eradicate this pattern of hate and discrimination?
Original review can be found here.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
- The Road-(read earlier this year and reviewed at my blog.)
- The Killer Angels (read approximately 2004 or 2005 and not reviewed.)
That leaves me with a grand total of 79 books to read. Glad it is an open-ended challenge.
Monday, August 13, 2007
1961 To Kill a Mockingbird read in the 1990s
1981 A Confederacy of Dunces reviewed here
1983 The Color Purple read in the 1990s
1988 Beloved (I'm 90% sure I read this; also 90% sure I didn't get it. At all) read in the 1990s
1994 The Shipping News read in the 1990s
2003 Middlesex read in 2005
So, obviously I have quite a way to go, only 75 more. Unfortunately, there are several that I had no intention of reading; I'll save them for the end.
Soon up in the queue, or a few that look really interesting:
2007 The Road finished October 20, 2007
1999 The Hours finished November 25, 2007
1995 The Stone Diaries finished August 13, 2008
1958 A Death in the Family
1932 The Good Earth
In John Steinbeck's most renown novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad gets released from prison and returns to a home decimated by technology:
Thus, this sweeping novel takes us on a journey with the Joad family as they join thousands of migrant workers seeking a better life in the West. Steinbeck fills his novel with homespun characters and the bitter reality of life in the 1930s during the Great Dust Bowl migration.
This novel has been banned, burned and challenged since its publication in 1939 for reasons such as "vulgar language" and "sexual references." In addition, Steinbeck angered many for his honest depiction of the political and economic landscape in the 1930s, where large landowners artificially inflated the cost of goods by destroying surpluses and drove down wages by luring thousands of workers to a California that could not support their numbers.
Steinbeck is a genius at characterization and using symbolism to draw images for the reader. Tom Joad represents all the survivors who joined together and found strength in numbers; who fought back when the future looked the bleakest; who rose up to fight for their families; and who refused to lose dignity even while camping in Hoovervilles.
The women who people this novel are wonderful - strong, authentic, the glue that holds the family together. Ma Joad's tough, realistic character drives the novel and tugs at the reader's heartstrings:
Beautiful descriptions of a desolate country; use of symbolism; amazing characterization; compelling dialogue; a vivid and honest portrayal of the family; and an ending which will shock…are all reasons why Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is one of the few great American novels. A must read. The Joad family will stick with the reader long after the final page has been turned.
Highly recommended. Rated 5/5. To read my original review, go here.
Following are some of my favorite passages from the novel.
About the countryside:
What can I say about To Kill A Mockingbird that hasn't already been said a million times? Harper Lee's beautiful novel set in the sleepy county of Macomb, Alabama in the 1930s defines the adage 'still waters run deep.' Scout Finch, a vibrant, curious tomboy narrates the story which spans a period of nearly three years beginning when she is six years old. The cast of characters is vast and enjoyable. From Atticus Finch (Scout's father who is a man of decency and honesty), to Jem Fitch (Scout's brother, striving to follow his father's example), to Dill (Jem and Scout's summertime companion who embodies a sense of adventure and mischief), to Tom Robinson (the black man falsely accused of rape), to Miss Maudie (Scout's next door neighbor with a heart of gold and the best cake in the country), and finally to Boo Radley (the mysterious next door neighbor who hasn't been seen in twenty-five years), Lee weaves a tale that latches onto the reader and never lets go.
Lee doesn't restrict herself to merely telling a story. She includes astounding insight into the roots of racism and the idea that one man's courage to stand up against inequality may be all that's needed to begin to shatter the beliefs that sustain hatred.
Perhaps what is so inviting about this novel is that its narrator is only a child. Scout Finch brings to the book an innocence and perception which only children share. Her reflections, void of the internal restraints that inhibit adults, bring a truthfulness to the novel that resonates with the reader.
This is a book I will read again…and again. It is a timeless classic, beautifully written and one I highly recommend. Rated 5/5. To read my original review, go here.
About Courage: I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. - From To Kill A Mockingbird, page 128 -
About The Love of Reading: Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing. -From To Kill A Mockingbird, page 20-
About Racism: If there's just one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other? If they're all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? -From To Kill A Mockingbird, page 259-
So begins The Color Purple, a novel set in the deep south and told in the voice of a young black girl named Celie. Alice Walker brings Celie to life through her letters to God. Celie's words tell of unspeakable horrors - her rape at the hands of her stepfather, her marriage to an older man who beats her, the loss of almost everyone dear to her. But, then her husband's lover arrives and teaches Celie what it means to be courageous in the face of pain, and most importantly what it means to love and be loved.
The Color Purple is a splendid novel full of pain and joy, tears and laughter, love and hate. It is an American Classic that should be mandatory reading for all of us.
Highly recommended; rated 4.75/5
To read my original review, go here.
In Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women, one character - Mr. March - is absent and only exists in the reader's imagination. Geraldine Brooks re-imagines this character within the pages of March. Part history and part love story, this novel is a carefully wrought tale of one man's journey through America's most devastating war.
The novel is told primarily through the voice of Mr. March, sometimes through his letters home to his wife and daughters, sometimes through flashbacks. But the most powerful sections of the story are the portrayals of violence and loss.
The narrative tension and fine story development of March sticks with the reader long after the final page has been turned.
Recommended; rated 4/5
To read my original review, go here.
He woke before dawn and watched the gray day break. Slow and half opaque. He rose while the boy slept and pulled on his shoes and wrapped in his blanket he walked out through the trees. He descended into a gryke in the stone and there he crouched coughing and he coughed for a long time. Then he just knelt in the ashes. he raisedhis face to the paling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God. -From The Road, page 10-
Cormac McCarthy just won The Pulitzer Prize for The Road, a novel of profound bleakness and beauty which almost defies definition. I was worried about reading this book, which has garnered praise but has also been described as dark and depressing. It is dystopian literature which I usually avoid because the genre always struck me as so pessimistic. That being said, The Road blew me away and will make my list for one of the best books I've read in 2007.
The story appears to be a simple one: a father and his young son are traveling along a road somewhere in America after a devastating event which has killed almost every living thing and left the world in a gray haze of floating ash and weird weather. There are "bad guys" and there are horrors; there are moments of sheer terror which seem to be nightmares instead of actual life. Layered beneath this story is a larger story - one about a boy and his father and the love they share, one about faith and hope and the will to survive. It is heartbreaking and beautiful and written in an unembellished language which somehow makes it that much more powerful.
I found myself compulsively turning the pages, unable to stop reading the story. I would lay the book down, and then pick it up only moment later. Just a few more pages. McCarthy carries the reader along on this journey, looking for the hope around every curve in the road, holding their breath, wondering if God has survived the devastation after all.
McCarthy uses metaphor and symbolism throughout the novel - the fire which the boy carries inside him (is this spiritualism? hope? humanity?), and the road itself - to just name two. This is a deep book, one that deserves to be discussed and thought about. It is certainly worthy of the Pulitzer.
Highly recommended. Rated 5/5
To read my original review go here.
Sunday, August 12, 2007
August 2007--The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Pulitzer Group)
October 2007--Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer Group)
November 2007--The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (Pulitzer Group)
January 2008--The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (Pulitzer Group)
February 2008--The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (Pulitzer Group)
March 2008--So Big by Edna Ferber (Pulitzer Group)
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
1982, 289 pp.
1983 Pulitzer Prize/1983 NBA
I read this for the Banned Book Challenge, and I can definitely see why people would be against it. Some of the themes include incest, rape, lesbianism, language, and drug and alcohol use. I'm not saying it should be banned--just that if I had a teenage daughter, for instance, I would want to read and discuss it with her.
All of the above (and more) happen to Celie, the main character in the book. By contrast, Celie tries to protect her sister Nettie, and Nettie ends up going with a missionary family to Africa. We see Celie and Nettie both grow in different ways through what happens to them. They are separated for 30 years but do keep in contact through letters. It is appalling, really, what men can do to women. This type of novel is always hard for me to read, but sometimes I do think it is necessary for me to venture out of my protected little world into the very unprotected world of other women. If only to appreciate and thank God for what I do have and to pray for and help other women whenever I can.
1993, 361 pp.
1995 Pulitzer/1994 NBCC Award
I loved this book. I loved the writing. It isn't a heartwarming book, but it is a thoughtful one. These "diaries" chronicle Daisy Goodwill's life from her birth in 1905 to her death in 199? (we aren't told the exact year). Each chapter of her life is told from her point of view, although in the book (and sometimes even in a single sentence) she switches back and forth between 1st and 3rd person. We learn of her childhood, her marriages and children, loves and losses, work and leisure, and finally her old age and death. The "chapters" made me think of my own life stages so far and the ones that are to come. All of us have a similar beginning and ending, but it's the middle that makes life interesting.
There were many, many beautiful passages in this book. I'll leave you with one as an example of the excellence of Shields' writing:
Something has occurred to her--something transparently simple, something she's always known, it seems, but never articulated. Which is that the moment of death occurs while we're still alive. Life marches right up to the wall of that final darkness, one extreme state of being butting against the other. Not even a breath separates them. Not even a blink of the eye. A person can go on and on tuned in to the daily music of food and work and weather and speech right up to the last minute, so that not a single thing gets lost.
Carol Shields died of cancer in 2003. She was a gifted writer, and I definitely plan on reading more of her works.
by Geraldine Brooks
2005, 273 pp.
2006 Pulitzer Prize
I really wanted to love this book, but I ended up only liking most of it and despising parts of it.
March tells the story of Mr. March. You know, the father in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. We didn't know much about him from Little Women, and really, maybe we were better off that way than reading Brooks' reimagined version. I did not like her "version" of Marmee, either.
Some of this book is extremely well done. The civil war scenes and the descriptions of the plight of the slaves were excellent. The characters of Mr. and Mrs. March were not. Although they both do have their admirable moments, their "reputation" is severely tarnished in this book and neither is very likable at all. Their "conflicts" felt like they were from a soap opera. I am not one who cares for soap operas and certainly do not wish to feel like I'm "reading" one in a Pulitzer Prize winning book.
I recommend it solely to those who like to read "prize winners" or to those who are Little Women enthusiasts. But be warned: you may wish you did not have these new visions of the Marches competing with the original.
Scout and her family live in Maycomb, Alabama. In the beginning of the book, Scout is going into the 1st grade and her brother Jem is going into 5th. Her father is an attorney, her mother died when she was 2, and her caregiver is a sweet, smart black woman named Calpurnia. The family relationship among all members is strong--very strong. Scout and Jem play together at home (but not in school--Jem insists). Scout and her father always read together in the evenings. This is a point of contention with Scout's teacher Miss Caroline. Some of my favorite passages come from this section and they are hilarious to me as a former teacher who now homeschools.
The teacher asks if anyone knows what the alphabet is, and then. . .
...as I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from the Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading. [...] "Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try to undo the damage--"
The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed "the," "cat," "rat," "man," and "you." No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. "Besides, she said. "We don't write in the first grade, we print. You won't learn to write until you're in the third grade."
...as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.
I don't want to give away too much of the story, so from here I'll be brief. Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill (said to have been inspired by Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote) spend a lot of time together in the summer trying to see Boo Radley, a neighbor who is a recluse. In fact, they are obsessed with this endeavor. Atticus Finch, Scout's father, takes on the r*pe case. The fallout from the case is felt by the Finches from the community as well as from their extended family. The book ends well, though, with a very satisfying conclusion.
To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Gregory Peck. It is the only novel Harper Lee ever published.
I listened to parts of this book on Audio CD read by Sissy Spacek. Highly recommended.
Caution: There are a few curse words and adult themes in the book. I would recommend this book for high school level and up.
1960, 281 pp.
Pulitzer Prize 1961
I enjoyed Stegner's writing very much. I thought his portrayal of Susan was very convincing. I enjoyed his grandparents' story a little more than his own just because there was some s*xual dialogue used that I don't care for. These were few and far between though, and I do plan on reading more from this author.
1971, 569 pp.
Pulitzer - 1972