Saturday, September 29, 2007

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

By Jeffrey Eugenides
Completed September 29, 2007

I know I am in the minority here, but Middlesex was a huge disappointment for me. We all know the plot - that it's a story about a Greek girl who later discovers that she's actually a boy. The premise is excellent, but the book falls short in so many ways.

Eugenides is a wonderful writer, and he does an excellent job telling a story - too bad it's not the story of Callie but of her grandparents and parents too. You reach the middle of this 500+ page book before Callie is even conceived. However, Callie narrates the whole thing. How would she know such details about her grandparents and parents? She can't - and I think it's a major flaw in the book (not to mention that you have to wait until the middle of the book for Callie to be introduced as a character. Oh sorry, did I say that already? Well, it's worth repeating because it's a major flaw too).

Because half of the book is dedicated to Callie's lineage, I feel his/her character lacks development, which is a huge shame. For me, Callie had the potential to be one of the most interesting characters in modern American literature. Instead, the character falls flat - just like the entire novel.

Middlesex is a Pulitzer prize winner and a recent selection for the Oprah Book Club. Obviously, many people enjoyed this novel. I am sorry that I am not one of them. However, I am more sorry that I wasted a week of my life finishing a book that I now call Middlesucks. ( )

(Cross-posted from my blog)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

1975:Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Killer Angels
Michael Shaara

Finished (reread) 9/25/2007

Winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Killer Angels is a remarkable work. Within the pages of one book, it manages to recount an excellent history of the Battle of Gettysburg with fictional 'insights' into the minds, thoughts, and actions of several of the major players on both sides.

To deal with the historical aspect: Shaara's account is mostly accurate; those inaccuracies present are unintentional and minor. One inaccuracy that probably has become fixed in the public mind as history is the charge of the 20th Maine down the slopes of Little Round Top, routing the Alabamans and Texans of the last Confederate assault and taking over 400 prisoners. Until Shaara, very little attention was given to Chamberlain and the 20th Maine--just as a part of the desperate struggle for Little Round Top, while acknowledging the incredible bayonet charge that ended the fighting for the left flank of the Union army. In his superb 3 volume narrative history of the Civil War, in the outstanding chapter on Gettysburg (published in 1963), Shelby Foote gives one paragraph to Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, and equal or slightly more space to his counterpart, Col. William Oates of the 15th Alabama. Chamberlain was highly articulate and wrote extensively after the war. From his writings, it is clear that in actuality, Chamberlain was probably the happiest and most "alive" in his life when he was in the thick of fighting. He wrote quite a bit about Little Round Top; as the years went by, his story changed; the movie account is taken from his last reminiscences. No one surviving the war from the 20th Maine, including the then-Captain Spears, recalls Chamberlain ordering the right wheel charge or, for that matter, ordering the charge, period. Chamberlain had ordered the men to fix their bayonets, after which the charge just more or less happened. Chamberlain was not the first to remember things differently as time went by nor would he be the last. However, the excellent movie made from the book has as one of its high points the battle for Little Round Top, and the charge of the 20th Maine as described in the book, not as it really happened, was portrayed brilliantly. It really doesn't matter; the 20th Maine deserved all the glory it received and Chamberlain, who received the Medal of Honor (30 years later!) for his part in the defense of Little Round Top deserved the recognition.

But except for this and a few other details, the history is excellent. Even the maps are among the best I've seen for the summaries of the positions of the armies during the fighting.

So much for the history. What about the characterizations, particularly of Lee, Longstreet and Chamberlain?

Clearly, Shaara depended heavily on the writings of the participants themselves for material for his fictional account of their thoughts and feelings. Lee is a problem; he never wrote anything after the war in terms of memoirs. There are letters, and there are the memories of those who fought under him, and that's it.

Longstreet wrote his memoirs and other articles as well. As part of the losing team, Longstreet wasn't entirely objective about his role, particularly at Gettysburg; there were high-ranking Confederate officers who, after the war, accused Longstreet of losing the battle and thus the war. Longstreet did not help his own cause by joining the Republican Party after the war (Grant was a personal friend), and much, much worse, criticizing Lee. Longsteet's reputation fell into disrepute; Shaara's novel helped resurrect Longstreet into respectablity.

As mentioned above, Chamberlain wrote extensively and articulately. It does appear that Gettysburg in many respects was the emotional high point of his life. He attended every single reunion until the year of his death.

As for the supporting cast, Buford is problematical. A taciturn man, he wrote little. His most recent biographer admitted the difficulty in putting together such a work since Buford left almost no letters; everything has to be based on memories of friends and colleagues. The same is true for Armistead.

Given those restraints, Shaara did an incredible job of "narrating" from the different points of view of, in particular, Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain. No one knows what truly goes on in the minds and hearts of another person. Few people are so honest even in their letters and conversations, except under unusual circumstances, to let others into those particular recesses. Thus, whatever is written from a 'point of view' has to be nearly sheer speculation. This is particularly true of such public persons such as Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlain. Lee wrapped himself in his reserve and retreated into being a Marble Man of history. Longstreet had axes to grind, and Chamberlain clearly was wistful about the war.

Thus Shaara's is a remarkable achievement in making these figures of over 100 years ago come alive and in a thoroughly believable way. You feel Lee's fatigue, his profound belief in God--you're with him as he decides how to handle his subordinates, particularly Stuart-- as he makes the decision for what will be known in history as Pickett's Charge. You're right there with Dutch Longstreet, one of the two modern generals in that war (the other was Sherman) as he agonizes over being asked to throw away his men in impossible attacks when winning alternatives were available. You fight right along with Chamberlain as he assesses his position, thinks about his orders to defend to the last (a question of rhetoric--last man? last bullet? last Reb?), feel his horror when he realizes he has used his younger brother Tom to "plug" a hole in the 20th Maine lines on Little Round Top. These people are no longer just names in a history book but living human beings participating in the bloodiest struggle in American history.

Shaara takes both these aspects--the historical and the personal--and weaves them into a story that is written vividly in a totally compelling manner and that never stops, never even pauses, but keeps on driving to the bitter climax of Pickett's Charge and the brief aftermath.

As a result, he has made the Civil War, once just the province of buffs and re-enactors, easily accessible to everyone. All history should be as well presented as this novel presents the Battle of Gettysburg, a crucial turning point in the climactic power struggle between North and South known as the Civil War.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

First Five Down

My goal in reading all of the Pulitzer prizewinners for Fiction and the Novel was mostly to introduce myself to new writers and works. I like lists but I don't subscribe to the idea that certain lists and prizes mean that those books are the best of the best and all others should be overlooked. Duh. What hardcore reader would think that anyway? That's what annoys me when people say they hate book lists and book prizes. I mean I understand that lists and prizes bring certain books to the forefront and leave others out and then people who want easy suggestions turn to the lists and a lot of good books go unread. So yeah, that argument makes sense. But that doesn't mean that people should go opposite and entirely ignore lists and prizewinners, right? I feel like good readers will search out obscure books and also read popular or classic "canon" works, as desired.

But you know anyway? Some of the early Pulitzers are most certainly obscure. Of the first five, only two were readily available in Borders or Barnes & Noble: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. The first one, His Family by Ernest Poole, I had to order from Dodo Press, a press that reprints out of print works. The fourth and fifth, Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington and One of Ours by Willa Cather, were in the library, and didn't seem like they had much circulation.

Anyway, One of Ours by Willa Cather has made my venture worthwhile. If I stop right now and don't read past the first five books, I'll have reached my goal. I LOVED that book. It was one of those books in which you get so deep into it, you live it. You know the characters so well and then, THEN, the setting entirely changes and you see how the characters interact in situations and locations totally different from where they started out. Sister Carrie is another example like that. This was the only one I've cried over so far, twice. I was sobbing at the end. And now I have a new spark of interest in World War I. Who knew? I have this out from Netflix now.

I read Death Comes for the Archbishop and My Antonia in high school and hated them both, and therefore never cared for Willa Cather. Now, 15 years later, I see her in a whole new light. I can't wait to read The Song of the Lark.

I'm taking a break now, after the first five. I'm reading The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron as the most recent Newbery winner. I might try to read all those in reverse order, most recent to oldest. We'll see.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

By Marilynne Robinson
Completed September 21, 2007

Gilead is a lyrical ode to fathers and sons. Written as a long letter to his seven-year-old son, the story centers on a dying preacher, John Ames, and his views on religion, small-town life, his ancestors and forgiveness. You could almost feel the urgency in his pen as he writes passages about his life - a way to leave behind something for his young son who would never get to know his father.

Reverend Ames recounts nostalgic stories about the town of Gilead, which formed to assist runaway slaves and later became a hideaway for abolitionist John Brown. He shifts into stories about his grandfather, father and brother - who all shared different religious views. He also recollects childhood stories about his friend Boughton, who was also a preacher in Gilead.

Then, the story explores father-son relationships further by introducing one of Boughton's sons, and Reverend Ames's namesake, John Ames Boughton. Jack, as he was called, had a lifetime of trouble in his back pocket, and he was a constant source of worry for Reverend Ames and his friend. There was a certain event in Jack's past that was particularly bothersome for Reverend Ames, and he could never forgive him. As the reverend reaches his last days, Jack returns to town ,and Reverend Ames begins to worry about the influence his namesake will have on his young son.

Gilead has many touching moments, but I found the story to be burdened by the religious discourses that Reverend Ames follows. I am not a student of religious philosophy, so the philosophers mentioned only confused me. However, in a style I favor for my sermons, Gilead is short, poignant and allegorical, reminding us that to love and forgive are what life is all about.

(cross-posted on my blog)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

1947: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, Sherry's Review

Once upon a time, about twenty-five years ago, I read a biography of Huey "Kingfish" Long, and I only remember the highlights: Huey ran Louisiana in the 1930's, was a populist to end all populists, had a proposed program called "Share the Wealth," and was assassinated by some guy who was in turn shot by Long's bodyguard(s). Robert Penn Warren's 1947 Pulitzer prize winning fictional account of the life and times of Willie Stark, popular governor of an unnamed Southern state, pretty much follows the general outline of what I remember of Long's career. However, it's been a long time, so I can't vouch for the details.

The book is much more than Huey Long renamed and fictionalized, however. It's an exploration of how power corrupts, of how we're all, as Willie says, "conceived in sin and born in corruption." The novel is misnamed. It's either about Willie and one of his men, the narrator, Jack Burden. Or it's about all the King's women ---his long-suffering wife, Lucy, his mistress, Sadie, and his upper class lover, Anne. For a Southern novel it's strangely silent on the subject of race and race relations. It seems that in the Louisiana of Willie Stark, black people are to be seldom seen and definitely not heard. It's the white voters who count, and Willie has a gift for making the poor white hicks of rural Louisiana feel as if they're an important part of the power structure. He's one of them, he says, a hick, too, raised up by God to lead them on to good roads, decent sanitation, free education, and universal health care. And he'll pay for it all by taxing the rich. Gee, haven't we all heard that speech before? Maybe old Huey/Willie has been reincarnated several times since the 1930's.

"For what reason, barring Original Sin, is a man most likely to step over the line?
Ambition, love, fear, money."

All the King's Men explores all of these motivations for sin and corruption. The novel's characters display the consequences of action and of inaction in a world in which the choices are between using evil means to create some possible (corrupt) good or remaining pure by not participating in the world, particularly the world of politics, at all. I think there is a Third Way, as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would have said, but perhaps I am mistaken. Or perhaps in Louisiana there are only two possibilities: become corrupted by the process or stand back and let the corrupt men rule the state.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings

(Cross-posted from my blog)

The winner of the 1939 Pulitzer Prize, The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings is a quaint story of a boy, Jody, his life on a Florida farm during the late 1800's, and ultimately, the adoption of his fawn, Flag. Descriptive and enchanting, Rawlings paints a realistic picture of early Florida life and the love humans feel for their pets.

Jody lives on a small farm in the present-day Ocala National Forest with his father and mother. Times are tough. Crops don't grow, bears and wolves prey on their livestock, relationships with neighbors are strained, and the weather is relentlessly hot and rainy. Jody's farm struggles every day to exist in these meager conditions. Jody also combats loneliness with no siblings or friends with whom to pass the time. He yearns for a pet to call his own, and he finally gets his way when he befriends an orphaned fawn. However, as Flag becomes a yearling, the deer exacerbates the family's struggle by eating their crops. Jody is ordered to shoot his pet - and he is torn between doing the right thing for his family and killing the thing he loves the most.

This story is rich with history. You really capture a sense of what it was like to live in Florida during this time period. Many think of Florida as a tourist haven, which it is in parts, but most of Florida is rich with vegetation and animals. Even today, I live among Florida's wildlife, from snakes in my pool to alligators on the golf course. While these animals are really just "pests" in my life, they could make or break a family like Jody's. I gained a new appreciation for what life was like for the pioneers who tried to carve a life in Florida's unforgiving land.

My only complaint about The Yearling is that it is very descriptive - perhaps to a fault. You must really like to read about nature to enjoy this story. If you do, I would highly recommend Marjorie Rawlings's inspirational and historical tale.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Book: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
Pages: 569
My Rating: A
Year of Pulitzer: 1972
I've had this book on my shelf for quite awhile now and it feels good to have finally read it! I must say, I really enjoyed it a lot! This story about a handicapped man writing his grandmother's history kept me totally interested all the way through. It's mostly about the grandma and her life in the late 1800's trying to make it in the wild west with a man who has big dreams that never seem to quite get fulfilled. I thought her husband was great! But he did drive her crazy and in the end some not-too-good things happened.

Then, the story would flip to the current time (1970) and we'd learn more about the guy writing about his grandma and the struggles and problems he is facing.

I've read one other Wallace Stegner (Crossing to Safety) and totally enjoyed that too. I'll have to continue to add his books to my list!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Hours - Michael Cunningham

Title: The Hours
Author: Michael Cunningham
Country: America
Year: 1998
Rating: B-
Pages: 230 pgs.

First sentence: She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather.

Passionate, profound, and deeply moving. That is the description found on the back cover of my copy of The Hours. That statement places a large expectation in the mind of the reader. Does the novel live up to it? In some ways, yes. In others, no.

Michael Cunningham pays homage to Virginia Woolf in this novel about three women (including Virginia Woolf herself) from three different generations who are tied together by Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway. Writing in a style reminiscent, but not quite as good, as Woolf herself, Cunningham takes you on a day's journey in the lives of these three women, as we see how their stories intertwine.

I felt the largest weakness of the novel was the one-dimensional aspect of the women, particularly Laura Brown and Clarissa. I was particularly disappointed with the imitative style of Clarissa's storyline. I was expecting something more out of a Pulitzer winning book.

Would I recommend The Hours to others? Maybe. I don't feel as if I wasted my time reading it. The quality of writing is superb, and for that alone, I feel it was worth the read. And I really enjoyed the symbolism he incorporates, particularly with roses. But it might not stick around on my bookshelf that much longer (keep an eye on my PBS account if you would like the book--it will probably end up there soon).

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Tiv (The Individual Voice) Introduction

Hi! I'm a psychotherapist and writer eager to offer my two cents on the books and/or authors I choose to read from this long list of uneven quality. It may take the rest of my life, though.

I've already read The Interpreter of Maladies, as I adore short story collections more than novels, even. And I was forced to read Arrowsmith in high school way back in the l960's and all I remember about it is that everyone in the class hated it almost as much as Ethan Frome. The Bridge of San Luis Rey was in the running for the top boredom award as well, though it was high school and we had juvenile taste back then. I did voluntarily read Gone with the Wind at least five times in high school and The Fixer once. Loved both at the time. Voluntary versus forced back then did cast a pall on certain books, however.

I read The Color Purple and Beloved in my early feminist days. Had been a devoted Toni Morrison fan. Loved her visual imagery.

I read The Hours along with The Mrs. Dalloway Reader edited by Francine Prose last year which is the only way either book becomes comprehensible. Reading The Hours alone is meaningless, since it is essentially a jazz riff on Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, so I strongly recommend pairing the reading. I could do a review of this pairing if readers are interested, or you can just discover the connections yourselves.

Looking forward to this reading adventure. I will likely post my reviews on my blog.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Road - Laura's Review

The Road
Cormac MacCarthy
241 pages

First sentence: When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

Reflections: A man and his son set out on a journey across a country which has been destroyed in some kind of apocalyptic event. This event apparently took place several years ago, but everything is still covered in ash. No life remains in the towns, and there are usually signs of a hasty departure, of townspeople fleeing to safety. Very few were spared; bodies appear in buidings, and even in the middle of the road. It is not clear how or why the man and boy survived up to this point. Now they are on their way south, hopeful of finding a better place.

Survival skills are paramount. Bands of robbers roam the land, looting and killing. Survivors often resort to cannibalism. The contents of homes and stores have usually been ransacked by travellers and bandits. Yet the man and boy explore every building they come across. Occasionally they find something: blankets, clothes, or food. At the same time, MacCarthy's describes in great detail these once-fashionable houses, in a way that made me question why we place so much importance on our homes and other material possessions.

The man's deep love for the boy permeates every sentence in this book. The emotional intensity is evident both in their will to live and in the ways they care for one another. MacCarthy manages to convey this deep feeling through the most basic dialogue, as in this example when they have just come across a bountiful store of food:

Go ahead, he said. Don't let it get cold.
What do I eat first?
Whatever you like.
Is this coffee?
Yes. Here. You put the butter on your biscuits. Like this.
Do you think we should thank the people?
The people?
The people who gave us all this.
Well. Yes, I guess we could do that.

The most haunting aspect of this book was the boy's mother's death. She apparently committed suicide when it became evident the world as she knew it would be destroyed. She preferred to end her life; the man chose to remain with his son and try to survive. When considering what path I would choose, I realized how difficult this decision could be. There really is no correct answer.

This is a beautifully-written book that will remain with me for a very long time. ( )
Original review can be found here.