Friday, July 30, 2010

The Killer Angels - Winner, 1975

Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, on which the 1993 movie Gettysburg was based, is a historical novel that gives the story of the Battle of Gettysburg through the perspectives of several different individuals on both sides of the war. I was afraid that I would have trouble following the story as I have trouble envisioning war maneuvers in my mind and keeping track of who is fighting for which side. I was listening to the audio version of the book, so when, in the beginning, the key players for each side were listed, I wrote them down so I could keep track. This helped me immensely. I found that even though I did not always follow exactly what was happening in a battle, Shaara's writing made clear which events were good and bad for each side.

The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the detail provided about the lives of each of the individuals whose perspectives Shaara used to tell the story. He showed their human sides and truly made me care about people on both sides of the battle. I especially enjoyed the depiction of Lee, which I felt fit perfectly with the description I am reading in Freeman's biography from 1934. The Killer Angels is a useful read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of the Civil War as many of these men had fought together in the United States military before the war and cared about each other.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Early Autumn, 1927

Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield tells the story of the Pentlands, a staid New England family. By extension, Bromfield offers an indictment on the "Pentlands" of high society in the early 1900s. They represent old money, Puritan values, and respectability. The story reads like a melodrama with secrets galore, family jealousies, poor marriages, and, in the end, the obligatory "all is not as it seems" twist. It would make a great soap opera. The story centers about Olivia, a wife of a "Pentland" who is nonetheless the most trusted person by the family patriarch. She is visited by an old friend with scores to settle, Sabine. Throughout the story we find out more and more about the family history complete with illegitimacies, pettiness, and forbidden love.

Bromfield so wants to write like Wharton. He even mentions her! His humor is blunt where Wharton's is subtle and witty. His characterization is obvious where Wharton lets her characters unfold gracefully. Finally, his word choice is stale. Thanks to the author, I now hate the word "indolent." The adjective is appropriately applied to Bromfield’s writing. Bromfield wrote approximately thirty books. I'm surprised he didn't run out of words at two. His vocabulary was made for non-fiction.

So, I can't recommend this one. It's unremarkable. If I was prone to suspicion, I'd suggest that the 1927 Pulitzer award was reserved for a Columbia University alum. I'm sure that can't be. Interestingly, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises was also published in 1926.

Wish I could ask Sinclair Lewis his opinion about the criteria for the award. A future topic!

I recommend reading this book with a tall glass and Maker's Mark. It's fitting that the bottle is dipped in wax.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Arrowsmith, 1926 Winner

Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith is the tale of one of the easiest characters to dislike that you will read.  This winner of the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for the novel is a great book but most of what I read in blurbs and reviews about the main character being a devoted scientist did not ring true for me.  Rather, Martin Arrowsmith starts out as a child and, 450 pages later, remains so. The story revolves (in his mind so does the universe) around a man who is torn between practicing medicine and investigating the causes of diseases as a research scientist.  The story is somewhat of an homage to Lewis' father and brother and their dedication to the medical profession as well as a satire on the practice of medicine in the late 1800s and early 1900s (I've yet to fully get the "turn of the 20th century" usage straight in my mind).  It is purported to be the first novel that takes up "Science" (that's right, capital "S" Science") and Lewis is masterful.  Along the way, Arrowsmith agonizes over what to study in medical school, he agonizes over which of his fiancees to marry (really), he agonizes over the absence of his wife while she is away at home (but seduces a teenager as a balm for his lonely heart), he agonizes over his practice in rural North Dakota (ok, that's redundant), he agonizes over his research in the big city, he agonizes... you get the picture.  He should become an artist he has so much angst.  He's tiring!

Along the way he is supported unconditionally by his wife Leora.  Leora is considered by those in literature circles ( I assume they gather in circles) as a model of character development.  She is also the focus of feminist critiques, and rightly so.  She is everything Arrowsmith could ask for, given his character, yet he is never satisfied.  He's a child. Does Leora represent his mother, never mentioned in the story, as the taken for granted female figure?  Perhaps, if you want to be kind to Lewis.

Arrowsmith is not a good doctor.  Nor is he really a gifted scientist.  He manages to stumble on discoveries but not due to talent;  He spends time doubting himself than he does thinking and puzzling through scientific problems.  When he chooses to be, he is sedulous.  He perseveres.  That is his sole redeeming quality but one he practices only intermittently.  Or maybe he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  When confronted with his deficiencies as a scientist, he mopes, then quits, then drinks, then mopes again, then returns.  He is a practitioner of what Thomas Kuhn would call "normal science."  Most scientists are.  He is portrayed as much more.  He is not.

One could imagine a discussion of Arrowsmith as representing all of us.  He is a flawed character, no hero, as Lewis writes.  But he is more than flawed.  We are all flawed but we learn from our mistakes, we grow up.  Martin Arrowsmith doesn't learn.  He marries a woman yet devotes none of himself to her once married.  He marries again and does the same.  Why does he continue to want a female companion?  At least his colleagues who marry are honest about their need for a woman to assist them in their professional and social climbing activities.  Abhorrent yes, but honest.  Martin has no such integrity (I know it sounds strange to call the use of women by men in that fashion as integrous but the women are portrayed as opportunist as well. Hmmm, sounds like another topic of a feminist critique--does mutual lack of hypocrisy mitigate otherwise cadish behavior?).  In this regard, the story is much more simplistic. Had Lewis wanted to write about science and medicine, he could have done so without the whiney Arrowsmith as the protagonist.  Had he wanted to write about a whiney man, he could have done so without the gratuitous Latin terms to define bacteria.  Martin Arrowsmith is, as the boys in the film Swingers say about Wayne Gretzky, a whiney bitch. (Great scene of guys playing and old NHL video game.)  Most of us are not.

In the end, most people will enjoy the book because it is written masterfully.  It is a complete book.  A glass of Jim Beam Rye whiskey will aid in the digestion of this book.  Along the way Martin Arrowsmith will join you.

There was a film (awful) of the same name made from the book starring Ronald Coleman and Helen Hayes. It was directed by John Ford--say it an't so!-- but it doesn't resemble the book.  I consider it unremarkable but only because I respect Ford.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beloved - Winner, 1988

By: Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf, 1987

Toni Morrison is a name that is often thrown around in literary circles, and, as I had never read anything of hers prior to this, I looked forward to reading (or listening to, which I ended up doing) Beloved to see what the talk was about. The story of Beloved focuses mainly on a runaway slave, Sethe, and her daughter, Denver, as they try to make a life for themselves in Ohio in the years following the Civil War. Though Denver was not born until after her mother's escape, they both spend their lives dealing with the physical and psychological effects of slavery.

Many images brought forth in Morrison's novel are painful to read about, but it is important that we understand, to the extent possible, the horrors and human toll of slavery. Morrison's writing is poetic and full of imagery that is beautiful but hard to understand at times. Because I was listening, there were times that I found myself completely lost. I thought I had missed something and went to Spark Notes online to make sure I knew what was going on. Towards the end of the book, Morrison begins shifting more and more between different perspectives. I think that if I had been reading the book this would have been clearer. What I did love about listening to Beloved is that it was read by Toni Morrison herself. I believe that there are emotions that only an author can put into the reading of his or her own text, and this recording was no exception. I would definitely recommend this book for more mature readers. There are books that have been written throughout history that might not be the most enjoyable to read but are vitally important. Beloved is not my favorite book, but I do believe that, for the sake of understanding our past, it is important.

Monday, July 19, 2010

So Big

I finished reading So Big by Edna Ferber and I was pleasantly surprised.  I didn't know much about Edna Ferber other than her name until picking up this book.  I am embarrassingly impressed.  She is responsible for such works as Showboat and Giant.  (For a sideways look at the making of Giant, seeWelcome to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.  You won't be disappointed.)  She regarded herself as, foremost, a playwright.  She was also was an incredibly strong woman at a time women were continuing (have they stopped?) to struggle for recognition and equality.  Her persona is evident in her highly regarded, So Big.

The story centers around a woman, Selina DeJong, and her son, "So Big" Dirk.  If you read the book, you'll quickly know the reason for the nickname and, in the end, you 'll understand the metaphor.  Selina is a strong woman faced with a difficult and unimagined life living on a "truck farm" populated by Dutch immigrants on the outskirts of Chicago at the turn of the 20 century (that's 1800's to 1900s right?).  She starts out as a school teacher whose first impression of the fruits of the farmers' labor (cabbage) as a thing of beauty.  So she is very different from the parents of the children she will be educating.  She becomes a widow and rears her son in a way that she hopes will steer him to the beauty in life, whatever he determines that to be.  That's as much plot as I'll disclose because I highly recommend this book and hope you'll give it a chance.  For those of you from the Prairie State, you'll appreciate the references to Chicago.

I took many things away from this book.  For those who are about to enter a career path (e.g., high schoolers, college students) this book offers a message that you will no doubt hear at your commencement ceremonies. (And if you don't you should!)  When choosing your life path, choose the path that fulfills your spirit.  Life is hard enough you will work hard enough to not pursue a life that will do more than put vegetables on your table, buy you the next new thing, keep you dapper and stylish, and ensure your place as the one with the largest toy box.  It is perhaps easier to do that than to seek out and create beauty.  (As Everett Sloan playing the part of Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kaneputs it, "It's easy to make a lot of money.  If all you want is to make a lot of money.")

For those already well down our paths, it is never too late to be part of the creation of beauty.  Hard work is it's own reward, true.  But hard work towards a larger and deeper purpose is redemptive.
 Patience with life is portrayed as so much more than a virtue in this book.  Here, patience is directed to oneself, rather than others.  We might try being patient with ourselves and our toils since they are directed to a full life.  Many of our life's loves are not found in the short term.  In a society that rewards quick results and virtue in making one's first million before 30,  Ferber reminds us that virtuosity is not a goal but a life's journey.  Surely a reminder for all ages.

This is an excellent book.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: The Road

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Published: 2006, Vintage International
Genre: Science Fiction
Accolades: 2007 Pulitzer Award for Fiction, 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction Shortlist, 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, and on and on and on...

I picked up a copy of The Road in the Detroit airport after my plane had been delayed (again) and I needed something to read. Once I started reading it I couldn't put it down (I almost didn't mind the delay - almost). The Road is a frightening postapocalyptic novel about a nameless father and son who are traveling south to escape another brutal winter in the mountains. It is a story of grief and lose and struggles with the question- what keeps one going when all hope is gone and death is not the enemy?

I really enjoyed this riveting book. The writing style was unique, almost sparse, capturing the the feel of the countryside and a world without hope.

"It took two days to cross that ashen scabland. The road beyond ran along the crest of a ridge where the barren woodland fell away on every side. It's snowing, the boy said. He looked at the sky. A single grey flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last hope of christendom." (page 16, The Road)

The most moving part of the story is the relationship between the father and son. The father does everything he can to provide hope to his son by telling him that they have to continue on "to carry the fire" in a hopeless world even though the father has long ago stopped believing.

This is science fiction at it's best. A story that kept me engrossed while I read it and thinking about it hours after I had finished reading it.
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Laura's Review - Tinkers

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he  could not control.  (p. 18)

Tinkers is about George Crosby's final days.  Lying in bed in the front room of his house, surrounded by family, he takes a mental journey through his life, as well as his father's.  His thoughts meander in a mostly slow and meditative way.  The prose is richly descriptive and even dreamlike in places:
The afternoon became warm, and with the warmth the first bees appeared, and each little bee settled in a yellow cup and took suck like  newborn. Howard stopped Prince Edward, even though he was behind in his rounds, and gave the mule a carrot and stepped into the field full of flowers and bees, who seemed not to mind his presence in the least, who seemed, in fact, in their spring thrall, to be unaware of his presence at all.  Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green.  Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green.  (p. 60)

Throughout his adult life, George carefully concealed the scars left by his father's abandonment.  On his deathbed it all comes back to him, but he also begins to see that paternal abandonment, while manifested in different forms, goes back at least two generations.  At 80, George has broken the cycle.  And he has inherited a more positive, useful quality:  that of a "tinker."  George's father sold goods to country folk and handled all manner of small repairs along the way.  George repairs clocks, and his memories are interrupted by excerpts from an 1870s clock repair manual.

I first heard about Tinkers when it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize  for Fiction, and I couldn't wait to read it.  This type of book is typically right up my street.  Unfortunately, I was  disappointed.  I just couldn't get into  the rhythm.  Maybe it was my mood.  Or perhaps it was because I kept comparing it to two other  books I loved, which explore similar themes: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home.  Whatever the reason, and despite the beautiful writing, something about Tinkers fell short for me.

 My original review can be found here.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Review: Tinkers

Title: Tinkers
Author: Paul Harding
Published: 2009, Bellevue Literary Press
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Accolades: 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Spoiler Alert

George is dying. He has lived a long and fruitful life, but he has one regret - he has lost contact with his father who left George's family when George was a boy. As his body slowly shuts down his mind loses it's concept of time and his thoughts begin to wander from past to present as he recounts the moments and people who have shaped him.

In his first novel Paul Harding has written an original story about family and lose. The story is free flowing because it is the random thoughts of a man who is lying in his hospital bed dying. The story line changes back and forth between past and present as George thinks about his life and his hobby "tinkering" with old clocks and George's father Howard who was a "tinker" who traveled throughout northern Maine and Canada. Once you understand the pattern of this patternless book the imagery and the ethereal style of Harding's writing is almost magical. When trying to understanding the coldness of George's mother Harding lets you into her deepest thoughts - the thoughts one even hides from oneself:

" It is winter, and the tree has been stripped of its bright mantle of leaves. It is winter because she lies awake with a bare heart, trying to remember a full season. She thinks, I must have been a young woman once." (page 88, Tinkers)

When Harding explains why Howard left his family and never came back, he does it by comparing Howard's new wife and the wife he left in one powerfully written sentence:

"Howard brought her flowers every day, and oranges... He lifted his nose from a crate of limes, refreshed and eager to get home to a wife who spoke words out loud as she thought them up and held nothing to whirl and eddy to collect in brackish silences, silences that broke like thin ice beneath you to announce your drowning." (page 174, Tinkers)

I really enjoyed reading this book. It is a book of many layers that left me thinking about it days after I read it. I don't keep many books that I read, but I will keep this one to reread when I want delve into another layer of this powerful book.

My Rating: 5 out of 5