Thursday, January 31, 2008
I now know why I never encountered Jean Stafford's short stories in high school and college - they are not compelling, interesting or memorable, and they conclude abruptly leaving me wondering what the point of the story was. They are dark stories, thick with words requiring a dictionary and no dialog. She seems stuck on tuberculosis - characters either have it, act like they have it, look like they have it or know someone who has it. I wish I could be more positive, but this was a long slog of a read - I finished all of the stories only because I hoped the next one would be better.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
It is a story, if we can call it that, about a father and a son who remain nameless throughout the narration. Both are walking through America, which has been ravaged by fire. They are walking towards south to the coasts. On their way to it, there is nothing but ashes, burnt trees, and soulless houses. They have each other and a pistol for a company. They pass through dead towns, looted houses, finding corpses on their way. They are afraid to meet other fellow human beings. Men who kill for food, for any kind of food.
The Man all the while tries to save the boy. Love and despair go hand in hand. Without the boy, he would have been dead long ago. Survival is the key. He does all he can to save himself and his son. However, he also prepares the boy to survive in case he is no longer there. The interactions between the father and the son is very interesting. We do not see dialogues, only narration. The Man instils moral values in the boy even in great adversity. At certain places, we see that he is not disappointed. His son has risen above the father.
The sparseness of languages enhances the harshness of the situation. This is what makes it chilling, scary and very gripping. If we do not take care of our Earth, this might become a reality. A forest burning is not a new phenomenon. The same reaching out cities and destroying can become a fact. What is shocking is that it can become a reality. The nameless people could be us…
Language used can be called poetry in prose. One pauses at certain places to enjoy the sheer beauty of words. One feels sad. However, there is hope too at the end, a salvation of some kind. This book should be read by all. Those who do not care for the Earth and those who truly love it.
Friday, January 25, 2008
Traumatized by the experience and baffled by her family’s indifference to it, Ellen seeks some frank advice from Newland and as he is also lonely among the smiling facades, is drawn to her openness and falls in love. Because scandal of any sort is to be avoided at any cost, Newland went ahead and married May while still pining for Ellen. Having been persuaded to not divorce, Ellen finds she has been sacrificed to the god of respectability and her place in society grows dubious as remarriage is impossible.
It is easy in this day and age to misunderstand this superb novel and cast it aside as a simple satire on Victorian manners and repression. It is so much more. We all know about sexual repression of that time but that was only part of the severe restrictions placed on every aspect of what are considered normal relationships. A husband and wife could go through their lives wearing masks of pleasant affability and never show true feelings and express honest opinions.
Think about it. With her attorneys in particular, most everyone understood why the Countess Olenska left her depraved husband but a divorce was still unthinkable. The women who were shocked had no inkling of what she had been through and were kept carefully in the dark as if the knowledge itself would somehow taint them. No one could talk openly to anyone, not even to one’s own husband or wife. Not ever. With full knowledge and a heart full of pain May went to her grave without sharing with Newland his feelings about Ellen and how it affected her as a result. She hinted on her deathbed to her son but still disclosed no details. Hooray for the cult of the family.
Edith Wharton is very candid with Victorian domestic problems and tackles an entire social structure based on appearances. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and I feel it is well earned.
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Rating: 5 of 5
First sentence: This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky.
I always hesitate to pick up books that are based on characters from classics, especially a classic as beloved as Lousia May Alcott's Little Women. March, by Geraldine Brooks, tells the previously untold story of the absent father. Fortunately for readers, it does not disappoint.
In this beautifully written novel, we get to experience life from Mr. March's perspective. Told largely through a series of flashbacks after he enlists as a Chaplain for the Union Army, we hear about March's childhood, his life as a young peddler in the pre-Civil War South, how he makes his fortune, and how he loses it. We learn about his dreams, hopes, failures, hopeless idealism, and indiscretions. The writing is exquisite, and sounds like an authentic voice from the past.
Brooks' detailed research of the Civil War era is evident, and I learned about aspects of the war that I had not previously known about, such as what happened to runaway slaves that crossed the federal lines during the war. Referred to as contraband, they worked on plantations taken over by Northerners for a small wage.
Like Alcott, Geraldine Brooks draws largely from Bronson Alcott's life for inspiration. Yet, this is a novel that easily stands on its own. Lovers of Little Women may not like the freedom that Brooks took with the characters, which were portrayed as an ideal family. Through this novel, they are a bit more realistic, and seen in a different light. It is a book about the harsh realities of life; she does not cast Mr. March in the role of a hero.
I promised her that I would write something every day, and I find myself turning to this obligation when my mind is most troubled. For it is as if she were here with me for a moment, her calming hand resting lightly upon my shoulder. Yet I am thankful she is not here, to see what I must see, to know what I am come to know. And with this thought I exculpate my censorship: I never promised I would write the truth. (p.4)
Thursday, January 24, 2008
This, then, is one of the protagonists of The Shipping News.
At 36, after his philandering wife Ruby has died in an automobile accident with her current lover, Quoyle’s aunt persuades him to take his two young daughters sunshine and Bunny and move with her back to the family’s origin, Newfoundland, Canada. After an epic journey in survival, Quoyle and his family arrive in Killick-Claw at the family home—a broken-down wreck of a house that will shelter them but just barely; it needs massive repairs. Quoyle snags a job as a newspaper reporter for the local weekly, The Gammy Bird. He has two main responsibilities: dredging up stories and photos of bloody auto wrecks for the front page, and getting the list of ships in port from the harbormaster—in other words, reporting the shipping news.
An odd duck himself, Quoyle fits surprisingly well into what is a non-conformist community. His seemingly boring job at The Gammy Bird presents him with an unanticipated opportunity for real creative journalism, which he eagerly pursues. He strikes up unlikely friendships with his coworkers and neighbors. An attractive but reserved widow confuses Quoyle who does not understand, given his single experience, that love is not synonymous with pain. These, then, are the elements of the novel which does not “go” anywhere, really, once Quoyle, his closeted lesbian aunt (whose name we never find out), and his two daughters reach Newfoundland.
From this beginning, Proulx has crafted an unusual novel in which the second protagonist is Newfoundland itself—or rather, its way of life as evidenced through the beliefs, speech, actions, and cuisine of as iconoclastic a bunch of characters as you are likely to meet. Proulx uses language to terrific effect, incorporating idiomatic words and phrases that are usually—but definitely not always—revealed in meaning through the context (sooner or later). Clearly she found the cuisine of Newfoundland fascinating if weird and maybe even slightly repellent, just by the way she inserts local dishes into scenes. For example, breakfast “oatmeal with a side dish of bologna” in the Bawks Nest (and what is a bawk?—we never find out).
“Now who’s having the scallops,” said the waitress holding a white plate heaped with pallid clumps, a mound of rice, a slice of bleached bead.
“That was my idea,’ said the aunt, frowning at her pale food, whispering to Quoyle. “Should have gone to Skipper Will’s for squidburgers.”
This is not the stuff of which tourist guides are made. While there are other examples, my favorite revolting meal remains the oatmeal with a side of bologna. Or maybe fried eggs being smashed into fish hash. Hard to pick my favorite virtual nausea.
One of the wilder aspects of The Shipping News in the reporting done in the Gammy Bird. Its readers evidently are riveted by the weekly accounts of rape, child molestation, and other sexual exploits. There are so many—7-10 per week—that at times it seems as if 50% of the male population of that part of Newfoundland is actively engaged in sexual deviancy for the delight and delectation of the other 50% and the entire female population.
Another way in which Proulx uses language is in short, choppy sentences with oddly jarring juxtaposition of adjectives and nouns. It is extremely effective descriptively, giving startling images, at times, of the harsh landscape. Her use of language takes some adjustment on the part of the reader, but once you become accustomed to the rhythm or lack of it and the unusual thrown-together sentences, it becomes addictive.
Even the names have this jarring quality: Al Catalog, Ed Punch, Billy Pretty, Jack Buggit, Tert Card, Nutbeen and Quoyle himself. They stop you as you read, hold you up, startle you at first, until like the prose itself, they become part of the odd, jarring, harsh landscape of Newfoundland.
Adding to the pleasure of the book are the chapter headings, almost all of which are taken from the Ashley Book of Knots, published in 1944. The diagrams are clever, and you practically itch to get a piece of rope in your hands and try the mesh knot, the mooring hitch, and others. I’m proud to say that I now know the difference between the clove hitch ands two half hitches, and what a bight is.
Quoyle and the unfolding of his personality is a marvelously touching story that is told without a whiff of sentiment. In fact, that can be said of the whole book, which I think is Proulx’s view of Newfoundland and everyone in it, and is a large part of the genius of the book. Because make no mistake, this is a modern American masterpiece.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
"Then what, pray, is the point?" His voice was a dry, soft rattle, like a breeze through a bough of dead leaves.
"The point is the effort. That you, believing what you believed -- what you sincerely believed, including the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' -- acted upon it. To believe, to act, and to have events confound you--I grant you, that is hard to bear. But to believe, and not to act ... That is what would have been reprehensible." (p. 258)
Louisa May Alcott's classic, Little Women, describes a year in the life of a mother and her daughters, while her husband is away serving in the Union Army. The father is absent for most of the book. In March, Geraldine Brooks brings the father's character to life and tells the story of that year from his point of view. Mr. March is a clergyman, so while he does not experience combat directly, he ministers to the wounded and dying. Initially, after a harrowing battle scene, he finds himself on a plantation that he had first encountered as a young itinerant peddler. Old relationships are rekindled, and he is reassigned to another regiment, and transported to a Southern estate under Union occupation. The slaves on this estate were under Union protection, and Mr. March was to provide them with the basics of an education. The novel's pace picks up at this point, and becomes considerably more violent as the horrors of war are revealed. March eventually lands in hospital, is visited by his wife Marmee, and returns home for Christmas just as he does in Little Women. In March we gain much more intimate knowledge of how the war scarred him, both physically and mentally, and how it affected his relationship with Marmee.I was hooked on this story from page 1. Scenes from the American Civil War were interspersed with narrative describing how Mr. March came to be married to Marmee, their participation in the Underground Railroad, and his motivation for joining the Union army. He wrote letters from the front but, reluctant to burden his family with his daily horrors, he masked the truth. Marmee, on the other hand. felt lonely and resentful: "I am not alone in this. I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces." (p. 211) Their reunion was touched with both sadness and hope.
In letting her imagination run around the edges of Little Women, Brooks has written a memorable novel. Highly recommended. ( )
My original review can be found here.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Edna Ferber's Pulitzer Prize winning novel - So Big - is a superbly crafted novel and one I could not put down for long.
When Selina Peake's father is murdered, the teenager is faced with fleeing from the bustling streets of Chicago to Vermont to live with her stuffy aunts; or to strike out on her own to seek a life of adventure. She chooses a life of her own which takes her into the insulated farm country south of Chicago to live with Dutch farmer, his wife and three children. There she discovers the simplicity of farm life while teaching the young children of the community. Selina is brilliantly portrayed - a delicately boned, strong willed woman with sparkling eyes who sees beauty in everything - including the purple and green cabbages which provide sustenance for the hard-working farmers and their families. Even after marrying the solid and reliable Pervus DeLong and finding herself working long and difficult days as a farmer's wife, Selina never loses her vision of beauty.
Ferber's novel is not just about Selina's voyage through life - her struggles and dreams, challenges and triumphs - but it encompasses a larger theme...namely that of living a life of beauty and joy vs. a life of material success. Selina's enduring spirit and vision of life never fails her throughout the story. One of the most memorable scenes for me was when Selina is widowed and facing the failure of her farm. She does what a woman of her community had never done - she drives a team of horses to market on the streets of Chicago.
Selina's son, Dirk (aka: Sobig) represents the flip side to the life she has chosen. By all definitions, he becomes successful - holding down a high paying job and living among the wealthy. But, Ferber carefully and succinctly shows the reader why this kind of success does not necessarily lead to happiness.
Ferber's novel has rich characterizations and a strong sense of place. Exquisitely crafted and lovingly plotted, it is story that is worthy of the Pulitzer. I will be reading more of this amazing author's work in the future.
Highly recommended; rated 5/5.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He "preached men into the Civil War," then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father--an ardent pacifist--and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision--not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.
Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, this book is not a book that you read if you want fast moving action. Ostensibly a letter to his young son, it is also a study of the faith of John Ames, particularly in the context of the relationships he had with his family, his parishioners, his best friend, and his namesake who is the rebellious younger son of his friend.
I particularly enjoyed reading of the struggles as John Ames tried to learn how to communicate with his namesake Jack Boughton. Jack is a man who never fitted in anywhere, even in his own family, and the persistence between the two to try and get to understand each other.
The writing is beautiful, and I am sure will touch many people, but for me, I think that this was not the kind of book that I needed to read at this particular moment. It was just too introspective I guess. There were magical moments scattered throughout though. An incident that happened in the late 1800's involving a horse getting stuck in a collapsing tunnel had me laughing out loud on the train, and the ending had me tearing up, once again on the train!
The reason why I read this book now is because it is this month's book in a group I read in. It's interesting looking at the dynamics of the group and seeing who enjoyed it compared to those who didn't. The discussion with this particular book tends to make the reading experience for me! So the rating below reflects my own personal reaction - I might review it later once others add their interpretation and I get extra insights!!
A searing, post apocalyptic novel destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.
The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.
I'm pretty sure that I have mentioned here before that I used to be a regular over in the Oprah book clubs, and I know several people who are now bloggers from those groups. Reading with those groups gave me a much greater understanding of books like One Hundred Years of Solitude. Now when a new Oprah book is announced I add it to my TBR list, with the intention of joining in on the discussions on the boards. With the announcement of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I did get around to reading it, but I never did really get around to discussing on the boards.
Reading this book wasn't easy. Given the whole post apocalyptic setting, the environment is bleak, the story itself is bleak, the language is sparse. Despite the fact that it is never clear what happened to the world, it is clear that it was an event that affected both men and the natural world.
A man and his young son are travelling the road, trying to walk to the coast where they hope to find something different. There is very little interaction between the pair and other humans, mainly because it is difficult to trust anyone. There are gangs of armed people who will pretty much kill anyone they find...in some cases as a way to provide food. The man is always very wary whenever there are signs of humans, even if the person is travelling by themselves, always teaching his young son that you have to be careful who you trust.
The man tells the boy that he is carrying the light and that they are the good guys, and the young boy struggles to understand how they can be carrying the light when they are guilty of many of the things that the father says the bad people do.
As they travel along the road, close to suffering starvation, the father despairs of how to provide for his son, especially as they both suffer illness. Each time they come to a town or isolated home, a search is done through the houses and shops to see what others who have been there before them may have left behind, luckily stumbling on a couple of caches of food that help sustain them.
Upon reaching the coast though...they basically find nothing, and they will have to keep travelling.
It is a bleak story, full of griminess and at times hopelessness, but it is definitely well written, and I can definitely see why the book won the Pulitzer. The relationship between the father and the son is complex, but also compelling in its depth and closeness.
I am not sure that reading this book has inspired me to go and read more by McCarthy, although I am sure I will get to him again eventually!
This review was originally posted on my blog in May 2007.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Here's what I can tell you so far: Out of the first eight books, six of them take place in the midwest. Two in New York. Interesting, I think. And it looks like the ninth, Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield might, too. And almost all deal with the characters coming to grips with the social, geographic, economic, civic changes of the late 19th century. This is understandable. They went from horses to cars in a matter of a few years, city and town layouts changed, the way people lived and worked and where they lived changed, etc. But why such a focus on the midwest?
First of all, most of the authors are from that part of the country:
1918 His Family by Ernest Poole: from Chicago but this book takes place and is all about a changing turn-of-the-century New York
1919 The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington: from Indianapolis; Indiana is important in much of his work--This book takes place in Indianapolis though not named
1920 (No Award)
1921 The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: New Yorker, born and bred
1922 Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington: takes place in midwest: see above
1923 One of Ours by Willa Cather: born in Virginia but moved with her family to Nebraska as a child; well-known for Nebraska works such as My Antonia--This book takes place in Nebraska
1924 The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson born in Iowa--book takes place in Iowa
1925 So Big by Edna Ferber born in Michigan, lived in Wisconsin--book takes place in and around Chicago
1926 Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis born in Minnesota--book takes place in a fictional place called Zenith, Winnemac, near Illinois.
1927 Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield from Ohio, defined as a Midwestern-American writer--not sure where book takes place as I haven't gotten there yet, but I'm thinking midwest.
Just an observation so far. Reading chronologically gets you looking for patterns, I guess.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
I first put my post to join this challenge in draft on my blog a good three months ago, but finally today actually posted it and signed up to join in. Of the list I have read the following:
2007 - The Road by Cormac McCarthy
2006 - March by Geraldine Brooks
2005 - Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2003 - Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
1992 - A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
1986 - Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1937 - Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1932 - The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
1921 - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
In the next few months I am hoping to read (or reread as the case may be):
2006 - March by Geraldine Brooks
2004 - The Known World by Edward P Jones
2002 - Empire Falls by Richard Russo
I look forward to participating with you all.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
First, and most obvious, it's a rags to riches story about a nondescript young man whose hard work, despite lack of education, vision and willingness to take a risk results in magnificent architectural feats - the American Dream, so to speak. The operative word, however, is Dream. Those readers caught up in the economics story will find the ending unsatisfying because Martin is a dreamer, not necessarily a Rockefeller, Carnegie or Gates.
The story as a dream is also effective - there is symbolism, interpretation, wild ideas that don't always make sense (including the sleepy wife Caroline).
In a minor way, it's also a walk through historic, pre-subway New York, and the descriptions of the city as it would have been at that time are fun to imagine.
It's an unusual, unique story that doesn't necessarily fit the classic novel style. Read it with no preconceived notions.
Friday, January 4, 2008
But coming along to upset almost everyone’s ideas of society and progress is the automobile, its disruptive force personified of one of its (fictional) pioneers, Eugene Morgan. A former resident of the town as well as a former suitor of George’s mother, Isabel, Morgan invokes uneasiness in George, who proceeds to fall in love with Morgan’s daughter, Lucy.. That uneasiness turns to hatred when George’s is unaccustomedly denied something he wants and has his superficial values of life rejected. The result is tragic.
The automobile, however, is more than just an irritant for George, an unacceptable way for Morgan to make a living. It represents enormous economic and social upheaval, as wealth shifts from the American equivalent of the landed gentry to the new industrialists and speculators. The mobility provided by the automobile drastically alters the landscapes of urban areas; the Midland town—a mall puddle in which the Ambersons are large frogs—becomes a large city, whose growth in unchecked, leaving the Ambersons and their old-fashioned ideas of society behind; the Ambersons literally vanish in the sprawl of a large industrialized city.
In 1919, when Tarkington wrote the book, there was nothing remotely approaching an “environmental movement”. Yet Tarkington, in vivid prose, describes the price of the automobile and the resulting unrestricted growth, both in cities and in industry: soot-filled air from soft coal-fired furnaces of factories; disappearance of farm land as the city “upheaves” and moves its boundaries further and further out; the disintegration of the old pioneer values that had held sway for nearly 100 years only to be replaced by those of untrammeled greed; the destruction of neighborhoods as families are displaced by apartment dwellers and those living next to one another hardly ever meet. The Magnificent Ambersons is prophetic.
These forces destroy George’s world, so affectionately described at the opening of the book. But Tarkington doesn’t lay the blame solely on outside forces; instead, he makes very clear the negative impact of a doting mother and grandfather, who give George everything he wants and treat him like a god, an indifferent father who cares only for his business, and a group of fawning companions and similarly afflicted spoiled colleagues at university. George is not a bad person, but his self-absorption, his mania about preserving the “family name” as a reflection off his own self-important social status, is a recipe for disaster for those closest to him. The language may seem stilted, more suited to the post-Victorian era which it portrays (the story ends before the start of World War I), but the story is immortal; it can be seen played out in today’s media by the society celebrities of this age.
The Magnificent Ambersons is a morality tale with obvious lessons. George, a sinner, is suitably punished but earns redemption. While the language of the Victorian Age may present a bit of a problem and personal behavior may stretch the credulity of an early 21st century reader, the story is told poignantly, with great clarity, and to enormous effect.