Friday, February 15, 2008

The Town (as part of The Awakening Land trilogy) by Conrad Richter, 1951

Originally, I intended to read only "The Town" because it was the Pulitzer Fiction winner for 1951, but I discovered it was the third installment of a trilogy, so I decided to read the "set," and I am glad I did. Another reviewer compared The Awakening Land to Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series, and in a very simple way, it is similar primarily for the "cabin in the woods" setting, particularly in Volume I "The Trees." However, Richter's works go beyond the pioneer spirit which is the central theme of Sayward "Saird" Luckett Wheeler the main character of the three novels. The plot is an engaging weave of history, the "simple life of yesteryear" and the generational changes in family and societal attitudes. In this piece of fiction, as I have found in other Pulitzer fiction winners, although the subject matter and writing style may be quaint (or antiquated) basic human (American) attitudes and challenges haven't changed and the lessons to be learned remain the same.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

1921: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The early Pulitzer Prize winners were concerned with documenting and commenting on the effects that rapid social and technological changes had on “society”, whether that of a Midwestern town evolving into a large industrial city or of “old” New York. The most sharply observant, critical, and personal is The Age of Innocence, in which Wharton describes a set of mores governing behavior for the wealthiest families so stultifying that even reading it 85 years later produces claustrophobia and a sense of being unable to breathe.

The protagonist of the book, Newland Archer, is one of the more conscious of his set. At the beginning of the book, as a young man in the early 1870’s, Archer is quite taken up with his own class and wholeheartedly subscribes to “form”, that unwritten code of what is allowed and far more important, NOT allowed in Old New York society. He realizes that these constitute constraints on his actions but accepts them as de rigueur and necessary to the survival of his way of life.

However, he meets an alien who has suddenly appeared in the midst of this hierarchical, rigid society—the beautiful Countess Olenska, a member of one of the most prominent families whom Archer knew as a child, who married a Polish count, and moved to Europe. After an unspecified number of years, she has left her husband and moved back to New York under mysterious and even scandalous circumstances. Being a member of a distinguished family and somehow “foreign”, the Countess Olenska’s behavior baffles society; they alternately rally around and shy away from her depending on which by-law of the social code she has most recently “transgressed”—usually unwittingly.

Archer, engaged and then married to May Welland, one of the most beautiful as well as most unimaginative and uncreative daughters of an Old New York family, falls under the Countess’ spell. She evokes within him a vaguely intuited, dormant but not yet fully suppressed streak of independence and rebellion, a dread of living out the rest of his life in the sterile, iron-clad environment of High Society.

The story centers around Archer’s feeble and ineffectual attempts to transcend the rules and mores of his class and strike out for a life in which he can grow. In one of the more telling quotes:

His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever going to happen.

At each critical moment, in which he seems poised to break out, Fate, in the person of May, presents him with a choice between personal freedom and a shot at happiness and duty. Duty, in the form of his refusal to grasp at his own happiness at the expense of others’ pain—and May—win each time. Archer spends the rest of his life conforming to the code of behavior expected of a man of his class; the Countess Olenska moves to Paris. The scenes are underwritten, but in the most chilling prose.

The end of the book is poignant, even heart-rending.

The prose style is quite sharp, even unforgiving, as Wharton, at times in great detail, presents a way of life that worships Form and correct behavior; it is clear that she despises this life. It is a life that is inconceivable to us today, but through near-perfect writing, she makes it real for us, a staggering achievement.

Highly recommended.

1918: His Family

Early 20th century New York City is the setting for His Family. Roger Gale is the head of a well-to-do family of three daughters; all four are very different not only in character but also in the way each embraces or rejects the changes that are occurring so rapidly, particularly as a result of the waves of immigration that crowd the city and change its physical, moral, and social landscape.

Roger, now in his late 50s, is a New Englander who moved to the city as a young man and threw himself into its life. He owns a successful small business. A widower, his life revolves around his three daughters; he views himself as something of their protector and patriarch, even though all three are all of age. He is uncertain about the changes that he sees in New York, a city he loves. He raised his family in a traditional fashion, in a large home he owns. Now, all around him he feels pressed in by the apartment buildings that not only tower over his home but also seem to be populated with hundreds if not thousands of pairs of eyes of stranger, people whom he does not know—not really neighbors in the sense to which he is accustomed.

Edith, his oldest daughter, is married and the mother of 4, expecting a 5th child. She represents in the novel the traditional ways of ‘old’ New York—the pre-immigrant, slower way of life where the wife stayed at home, raised the children, and provided a comfortable, smooth-running home for her husband. Raised in privilege, used to servants, she views the newcomers with disdain, considering them undesirable. At one point in the book, she dismisses the idea of sending them to anything other than private schools for fear that her children will be forced to associate with “them”. She stands for tradition, for what is known and cherished, and all the values, both good and bad, that are associated with a woman’s traditional role in a family.

Deborah, the middle daughter, is of a totally different cut of cloth. A career woman and idealistic reformer, she heads a radically modern (for that day) school, coming into daily and intimate contact with immigrant children and their families. She sees at first hand their struggles and identifies strongly with them. She gives herself tirelessly to her work which is her life. Terrified of marriage and motherhood for fear that she will be then trapped and unable to continue her life’s work, she continually puts off marriage to Allan, a young doctor equally as idealistic as Deborah.

The third daughter, Laura, might as well have arrived from a different galaxy. She is the party girl, the forerunner of the flapper, whose gaiety fills the house and charms each of her family. Suddenly engaged and then married to an up-and-coming wealthy young businessman, Laura is the frivolous one, the grasshopper to Deborah’s and Edith’s hard-working ants.

World War I disrupts this family as it did so many others. Roger’s business falls on hard times, and the family is forced to cope in ways it has never imagined. The changes occurring in the city at large impose themselves on the family in an intimate way. Life changes irrevocably; each of the Gales adapts and grows in accordance with their characters.

This is another novel that really has no plot to speak of, but rather in its own way is a documentary of a white, upper middle-class family caught in overwhelming changes they can neither foresee nor prevent from impacting their lives no matter what their outlook. The story is told from Roger’s point of view, as he observes and reflects on the actions of his family and tries to reconcile it all. It is his book.

Of all the early Pulitzer Prize winners, I found Poole’s writing style the most dated. That doesn’t mean that the book was difficult, but it was slow-going in a way that, for example, The Magnificent Ambersons, published two years later, was not. Still, I found the story interesting, if not absorbing, from a historical perspective, since it documents in such detail the type of changes that were taking place and what was probably a common reaction to them among the more privileged classes. The daughters, although stereotypes, are still interesting figures, because Poole neither judges them nor paints them as all good or all bad; each of their viewpoints has merit. Clearly, though, Poole has the most affinity for Roger, a good man who did his best to raise and nurture his family.

Highly recommended.

1947: All The King's Men

All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

All the King’s Men has been touted as the best book written on American politics because of the portrayal of Willie Stark, the politician whose life and career resemble that of Huey Long of Louisiana. But after reading the book, it seems to me that it is much more the story of the personal journey of Jack Burden, one-time reporter and long-time aide to Willie, told by Jack himself as he records the different stages of his personal pain as his relationship with Willie unfolds. There is no question that Willie’s career and evolution from populist to corrupt politician is a vital apart of the book, but more as a subplot and background to what Jack experiences because of his involvement.

What gives power and poignancy to the story is Jack, his family, and his childhood companions: Judge Irwin, Adam and Ann Stanton, his father who abandons the family, and others. In particular, his relationship with Adam and Ann Stanton, which is almost an incestuous triangle, constitutes an insistent background, like a basso continuo, to the public, political events surrounding Willie Stark, elbowing its way into the foreground as the story progresses relentlessly to the powerful and what seems like unavoidable climax. It’s as if a Greek tragedy were taking place in the back country of Louisiana, with the “wooly hats”, the poor country folk on whom Willie built his political empire, serving as the chorus. Jack, as narrator, is able to evaluate Willie’s actions from the point of view of an insider, even though he himself is helpless to influence any of the events.

Warrren’s prose style reflects the fact that he was also a poet. The sentences can be dense and convoluted, making effective use of repetition to convey an image:

Close to the road, a cow would stand knee-deep in the mist, with horns damp enough to have a pearly shine in the starlight, and would look at the black blur we were as we went whirling into the blazing corridor of light which we would never quite get into for it would be always splitting the dark just in front of us. The cow would stand there knee-deep in the mist and look at the black blur and the blaze and then, not turning is head, at the place where the black blur and blaze had been, with the remote, massive, unvindictive indifference of God-Almighty or Fate or me, if I were standing there knee-deep in mist, and the blur and the blaze whizzed past and withered on off between the fields and the patches of woods.

Prose poetry, and much of the book is written in this fashion. At times, however, it seems to me that Warren, perhaps in an attempt to establish local color, becomes a little “cute” in his writing, particularly in the early part of the book’s dialogue. The few times that he does so wring false; he doesn’t need cuteness to convey authenticity. However, this is a minor quibble, and Warren, after the story becomes more developed, never makes the mistake again.

A powerful, absorbing story. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Country: USA
Year: 2006
Rating: 4 out of 5
Pages: 287

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.

I meant to read this book for the NYT Notable Challenge last year. I was even fortunate enough to win a copy in the October giveaway at Estella's Revenge. Yet I never got around to it, partially because of the bleak subject matter, and in part because of its selection as an Oprah book. I picked it up on a whim last week, and plunged right in.

The Road is a bleak, dismal novel. A father and son are travelling south on a road in a world utterly destroyed by a cataclysmic event that occurred years prior to the novel's setting, possibly caused by nuclear warfare. The plot consists of a few basic activities: walk, forage, starve, rain, sleep, starve, and walk some more. The whole world has been reduced to ash and gray snow; the only sustenance that remains are canned goods hidden away in long-abandoned homes. The narrative is simple; it is as if the father and son do not have enough energy to utter more words than the practical and essential.

They looked at each other.
One more.
I dont want you to get sick.
I wont get sick.
You havent eaten in a long time.
I know.
Okay. (p.141)

In this world, negative contractions are laid bare without their apostrophe's, and quotation marks are extinct. I wonder if the apocalypse burned all of the punctuation, or if this style is consistent in McCarthy's novels? 

One theme that particularly stood out was the reference to the father and son "carrying the fire".

We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We're starving now.
You said we werent.
I said we werent dying. I didnt say we werent starving.
But we wouldnt.
No. We wouldnt.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we're the good guys.
And we're carrying the fire.
And we're carrying the fire, yes.


You cant. You have to carry the fire.
I dont know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I dont know where it is.
Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

What is McCarthy's meaning? At first, I thought it meant that the young boy was a symbol of the continuation of the human race. After finishing the whole novel, I'm more inclined to think that "carrying the fire" refers to never losing hope. If you always carry hope, you will survive. I like this interpretation, it creates a positive note in one very depressing book.
The Road also introduced some vocabulary unfamiliar to me. McCarthy must be a walking dictionary. Here are a few examples:
Gryke (p.11) - a deep cleft in a bare limestone rock surface.
Gambreled (p.17) - A grambrel is a two-sided roof, usually symmetric, with two slopes on each side.
Laved (p.38) - to wash or flow against.
Soffits (p.106) - the exposed undersides of any overhead component of a building.
Gelid (p.136) - Very cold; icy.
Bivouack[ed] (p. 168) - temporary encampment under little or no shelter

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
Fiction, 361 Pages, Penguin Books
1995 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Cross posted here

And the question arises: what is the story of a life? A chronicle of fact or a skillfully wrought impression?
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields tells of the life of Daisy Goodwill. It is a fictional autobiography, which at times, seems more like a biography. This is due to the fact that the narration shifts continually from one point of view to another. At first, I found this confusing. But I gained a better understanding when reading an interview with the author. As she explains:
“I wanted to have a lot of other voices filtering in and out, representing Daisy’s fantasies of what other people imagined about her. We all wonder how other people see us, and Daisy is no exception.”
When we attempt to describe, or more to the point, define ourselves, how is it that this is accomplished? Is it easier for us to do it in the first person, or try to be objective and write it as if we were simply an observer?

The author has chosen to use both methods. For example, here is Daisy writing about “Daisy”:
The acts of her life form a sequence of definitions, that’s what she tells herself…Sometimes she looks at things close up and sometimes from a distance…Still, hers is the only account there is, written on air, written with imagination’s invisible ink.
This is what makes the narrative so intriguing. It is not simply Daisy’s life we learn about; it is her mind, her thoughts, as they drift through her memories picking out the good and the bad, relating them as one women’s story; her journey towards self-discovery. I was particularly struck by the following passage:
She enlarges on the available material, extends, shrinks, reshapes what’s offered; this mixed potion is her life. She swirls it one way or the other, depending on…the fulcrum of desire, or of necessity.
I cannot say whether or not Daisy Goodwill ever found what she was looking for. Carol Shields creates a story that is very realistic in its intent, but she did not develop a character I could grow close to and learn to understand. However, as Daisy never truly knew herself, it would be presumptuous of me to think that I could do any better.

For me, this is a book about exploring one’s life, and self, in order to determine the meaning behind both. And even though I could not connect with the person of Daisy Goodwill - her story and the way in which it is written, challenges me to think of my own life, and more importantly my place in it.