Thursday, April 24, 2008

1987: A Summons To Memphis - Peter Taylor

This quiet tale of a southern family is largely a psychological novel. The actual and infrequent interactions between characters seem curiously muted and curtailed. Half of this short novel involves Philip's endless ruminating about two alarmed phone calls received in short succession by his two older spinster sisters concerning their elderly father's possible impending marriage.

Taylor's writing is beautiful -- clear and lucid, but he's repeating phrases and ideas, and the ending seems to strike a slightly false note, as if he became unsure of how to finish, or just grew weary. A Summons To Memphis seems so constricted with its own ponderous dignity that it makes Gilead, a Pulitzer winner that many complained was slow-moving, look like an action-thriller by comparison. As a novel, A Summons To Memphis seems to be straining to fit its form. It would've been better as a longish short story.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Town

The final novel in The Awakening Land Trilogy concludes the life story of Sayward (pronounced Saerd) Luckett Wheeler and the bustling town she helped create out of the wilderness at the close of the eighteenth century. Now a middle aged and older woman, she finishes raising her family and enjoys the fruits of her years of hard, unrelenting labor. But there is regret too as the town becomes bigger than she ever imagined it and her children make bad choices. The illegitimate daughter of her husband Portius brings addition heartache and the fate of her younger sister Sulie is finally disclosed. But as always, Sayward adapts to her surroundings and finishes off her life as an influential member of the community.
I strongly recommend reading the first two books in the trilogy before tackling this one. Otherwise the extent of that area's transformation amid the struggles to survive will have little meaning.

The Trees begins the saga of the Luckett family and fifteen-year-old Sayward, a calm, stoic, and the oldest of five children as they settle in the great forests of the Alleghenies. The trees are so thick, a person could walk for weeks and not see the sun. When her mother dies and father abandons the family, it is Sayward's job to raise her family and somehow build a life for them.

The Fields shows the beginnings of a community as Sayward and her neighbors tackle the trees to make clearings for crops. As she deals with babies, starvation, and tragedy a church is built and neighbors leave their isolation to help each other and make decisions as a group.
Most stories contained in these books are based on actual tales and personal accounts Conrad Richter heard as a boy from pioneer family and friends. The introduction tells how he feels an obligation to those resourceful people who's names never appeared in history books, but had a direct influence in building our country.

Anyone looking for good female role models or literary figures need go no further. Sayward's strength, dignity, and grace make her one of the most powerful women in American literature and enhances the honesty of this stunning work.

I am mystified why this is not required reading in school and cannot recommend this series highly enough. Retire your Little House on the Prairie and experience these instead. This is as real as it gets. Five Stars

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Laura's Review - The Known World

The Known World
Edward P. Jones
388 pages

"I had almost forgotten where I was," Winifred said, meaning the South, meaning the world of human property. (p. 34)

Set in a fictitious Virginia county around 1840, Edward Jones' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a story of slavery; specifically, the rare occurrence of slaves owned by free black people. The plot revolves around landowner Henry Townsend, his wife Caldonia, and the events following Henry's untimely death. The novel explores themes of prejudice, the ignorance and brutality of white men, and the potential for every slave to make their own way once free.

Jones' narrative style is non-linear, branching off from events of 1840 to those in the distant past or future. Foreshadowing is frequently used to predict a character's success or failure, or the state of relationships: "Neither Robbins nor Colfax would know it for a very long time but that day was the high point of their friendship." (p. 39) This is used effectively, for example, to show how a child slave becomes a free and independent adult, while keeping the novel firmly set in a period of just a few years' time. And, while many of the characters lack depth, the women in this novel are amazingly strong, singlehandedly holding the community together.

I found Jones' literary techniques interesting, and he successfully held my interest. However, I found myself unable to get inside the characters and this detracted from my enjoyment of this book. Not a bad read, but not the great read I'd expect from a Pulitzer winner. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Angle of Repose - Wendy's Book Review

What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any. -From Angle of Repose, page 199-

Lyman Ward, a retired history professor and writer, returns to his grandparent’s home in Grass Valley, California - wheelchair bound and facing a progressive, crippling bone disease. His intent is to research his grandmother’s life through the news clippings and letters of her past. To write her story, Ward must fill in gaps, imagine conversations, and uncover the truths which lie hidden in Susan Burling Ward’s history. During this one hot, dry summer in a quest to know his grandmother, he will discover the meaning beneath the shadows of his own life.

Wallace Stegner penned Angle of Repose in 1971 for which he won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. The novel - said to be his masterpiece - connects two points in American history…that of the late nineteenth century West with that of the turbulent, sometimes self-indulgent Vietnam era. Stegner creates complex and intriguing characters. Susan Burling (based on the historical figure of Mary Hallock Foote - a nineteenth century writer and illustrator) becomes an unlikely pioneer when she marries the quiet and ambitious dreamer Oliver Ward. Their adventures in mining camps and the vast wilderness of Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and California create a backdrop of unbelievable beauty and isolation from which their lives unfold.

She guided her horse through willows and alders and runted birches, leaned and weaved until the brush ended and she broke into the open. She was at the edge of a meadow miles long, not a tree in it except for the wriggling line that marked the course of the Lake Fork. Stirrup-high grass flowed and flawed in the wind, and its motion revealed and hid and revealed again streaks and splashes of flowers-rust of paintbrush, blue of pentstemon, yellow of buttercups, scarlet of gilia, blue-tinged white of columbines. All around, rimming the valley, bare peaks patched with snow looked down from above the scalloped curve of timberline. -From Angle of Repose, page 237-

Angle of Repose is not simply an historical novel. It explores the idea of identity and how the past often intersects the present. When Lyman Ward explores his grandmother’s story, he is really seeking to find understanding in his own life.

Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t completely comprehend. - From Angle of Repose, page 5-

Stegner’s prose is alluring, filled with gorgeous descriptions which engage the reader’s senses. His characters are bigger than life, but carry real flaws which allow the reader to identify with them; to nod in understanding; to empathize with their torments and cheer for their successes. I can understand why Angle of Repose is lauded, why it captured the Pulitzer and why readers are quick to recommend it. I found myself completely immersed in the lives of Susan, Oliver and Lyman Ward and I was sad to turn the last page of this sprawling and satisfying novel.

Highly recommended; a must read; rated 5/5.

Monday, April 14, 2008

1924: The Able Mclaughlins by Margaret Wilson

The story of a Scottish community in Ohio, it is mainly the story of Wullie and Chirstie, two young people who fall in love and get married—but not before Chirstie suffers a scarring experience that affects her marriage.

It’s a simple story and it’s told in simple prose. I’ve read reviews that compare Wilson to Cather, but as far as I am concerned, Cather’s prose is far more sophisticated and flows more easily. Still, Wilson tells her story of the Scottish community with great effect. Her dialogue feels authentic and the characters, while uncomplicated, are warmly drawn.

While the story is ostensibly about Wullie and Chirstie, Wullie’s mother Isobel is a powerful figure—a tower of strength with a vast capacity for compassion.

The resolution of the story is the weakest part, but it still leaves the reader more or less satisfied with its resonance to Wullie’s experiences during the Civil War.

A good book that illuminates the lives of hard-working Scots immigrant farmers in the 19th century.

Friday, April 11, 2008

2006: March by Geraldine Brooks

By Geraldine Brooks
Completed April 11, 2008

What happens to a family when a husband and father goes to war? Many books explore this question, and one of the most famous is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. But what about the husband and father - how is he impacted by the war during and after the battles are fought? For these questions, we can rely on the fantastic storytelling of Geraldine Brooks and her Pulitzer-winning March.

In this novel, we learn about Mr. March who was away during Little Women, which offered a creative canvas for Brooks’ story. March, an active abolitionist, enlisted as an army chaplain at the beginning of the Civil War. His service took many twists and turns before he ended up on a Yankee-controlled plantation, where he taught former slaves how to read, write and do math. While there, he fell victim to “the fever” and later a bullet, which forced him to a hospital in Washington, D.C.

Readers of the original Little Women may envision Jo’s father to be a docile, patient, kind-hearted man who made more good decisions than bad. Furthermore, one might expect Marmee March to be the typical antebellum wife and mother – silent, obedient and sinless. Brooks took a different path with these characterizations, however, in March. March was, in fact, very fallible whose idealism cost him (and his family) their fortune and almost March’s life. Marmee March was an impulsive hot head, constrained by the societal and marital norms of her time. Together, their marriage had secrets and miscommunications, which sounded very “normal” to me. Other readers may prefer Alcott’s original depictions, and if you’re one, I recommend skipping March because you will feel frustrated by the Marches.

While this story explored slave conditions and the horrors of the Civil War, the war’s toll on March left the biggest impression. He emerged hopeless and depressed. I think of war veterans now and realize that nothing has changed. We need to do a better job in helping our service men and women when they return to civilian life – whether we agree with the war or not. To me, that’s the biggest lesson I learned from March. The affects of war are timeless, and if you are interested in the social and psychological impacts of war on men, women and children, I would recommend March to you. ( )

(cross-posted from my blog)

1979: The Stories of John Cheever

"These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner of the stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like "the Cleveland Chicken," sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are."
From the Preface
This almost 900 pages long tome contains over sixty stories, originally published between 1947 and 1978. Most of the stories are about upper middle-class suburban families, and are told from a male perspective. Don’t be fooled, though. There is much more here than stories about rich people drinking martinis. These are subtle stories, stories that show us the hidden corners of our lives. When the narrator of “The Worm in the Apple” asks, What was at the bottom of this appearance of happiness? he is asking the question with which a great deal of these stories deal.

Cheever’s stories are stories that make us ask ourselves how happy we are. They are stories that make us confront our demons, our hushed fears, our secret shames. They are stories (like "The Cure” and “Seaside Houses”) full of quiet despair. They are stories that catch us unaware, stories that change us.

When reading Cheever, sometimes a word might strike you as odd, and it is only later that you realize that it hints at something whose whole significance is later revealed. The pace, the cadence, the phrasing – in his stories, all is deliberate and precise. His command of language is masterful. His irony is wonderful, and he is exquisite at making humour and tragedy go hand in hand. Often he will deliberately misdirect your attention at the beginning, so that the story’s real aim may sneak at you and catch you fully disarmed. Reading this collection made me gain a new appreciation for short stories. Cheever is one of the masters of the form.

John Cheever is supposedly a realistic writer, and yet often in his stories bizarre things take place – bizarre things that remain unexplained. “The Lowboy” begins as a story about sibling rivalry and turns into a ghost story; in “The Enormous Radio”, a woman gets a radio that can be used to eavesdrop on hers neighbour’s conversations; “The Music Teacher” gives you a glimpse of the mysterious, the horrific, through what may or may not be the use of black magic by a husband who wishes to subdue his wife. And even when nothing that could be called supernatural is happening, Cheever’s stories are often unusual because they show people at their most bizarre.

In some stories, like “The Country Husband” and “The Season of Divorce”, there is no big transformation at the end. Things resume normality, and yet you get a glimpse of the turmoil hiding just below the surface. The interesting thing is that rather than being unsatisfying, this only makes the stories more powerful, more unsettling.

As in all collections – especially ones this long – some stories are better than others. I wasn’t as fond of the last third of the book as I was of the first two. At some point Cheever developed a slight obsession with Italy, and his Italian stories didn’t do much for me (not because of the setting, of course, but simply because I didn’t find them as good). Then again, some of the best stories, like “The Swimmer” or “The Geometry of Love”, are to be found in the last third of the book.

I know that the sheer size of this book is intimidating. But if you find yourself at a library with some time in your hands, pick it up, sit down, and read a story. It probably won’t take you too long – the stories average ten pages. Then put it back on the shelf and do the same another day. Perhaps you will, like me, find yourself irresistibly drawn to Cheever’s world – a world in which there’s more to things and people than meets the eye.

Click here to read a short essay by Michael Chabon about the story “The Swimmer”.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Intro: My Life & The Pulitzer Fiction Winners & What I Wore

Just kidding about that last one.

It just recently occurred to me that the Pulitzer Fiction winners have been a big part of my reading landscape. The first "grownup" novel I ever bought was Gone With The Wind back in 1973 when I was almost 12. I got $2.00 a week for allowance. This novel cost $1.75, chiefly due to its size. It took me nearly all of 7th grade to finish it. I carried it everywhere, even to the dinner table. My brother finally got so irritated always seeing it in my hands that he grabbed it away and pitched it out of the dining room window one day. We lived on the third floor. I howled like he'd killed it. Trying to keep a straight face, my mother sent him downstairs to fetch it.

I'm on my 32nd fiction winner now, The Known World. I carried it around all afternoon in my purse in case I was stuck somewhere that I'd have some wait time. Some things don't change. On the other hand, my brother is in Virginia and I'm in Korea, and he's grown up to be such a goody-goody that if his son dared to snatch anyone's book, he'd be lectured soundly until his ears went numb.

I've always been interested in this list of winners. Anything with Gone With The Wind on it couldn't be half-bad, I reasoned back in those early years.

Here's what I've read so far:

1925: So Big - Ferber.

1926: Arrowsmith - Sinclair Lewis.

1930: Laughing Boy - LaFarge.

1932: The Good Earth - Pearl Buck.

1934: Lamb In His Bosom - Miller.

1937: Gone With The Wind - Mitchell.

1939: The Yearling - Rawlings.

1940: The Grapes Of Wrath - Steinbeck.

1951: The Town - Richter. [This is the last book in Richter's excellent "Awakening Land" trilogy of books about Sayward Luckett Wheeler, a pioneer woman. All three --The Trees and The Fields are the other two -- should be read to get the full effect.]

1953: The Old Man And The Sea - Hemingway.

1956: Andersonville - Kantor.

1958: A Death In The Family - Agee. [Sad novel about a family that loses their husband and father in an automobile crash. I'm eager to read the revised version of this novel.]

1961: To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee. [Would it be a stretch to say that if there is a "perfect" book on this list, TKAM is that book?]

1966: Collected Stories By Katherine Anne Porter - Porter.

1975: The Killer Angels - Shaara. [A novel about the days leading up and the actual Battle Of Gettysburg, as viewed by both the northern and southern commanders. Probably the best novel about the American Civil War.]

1982: Rabbit Is Rich - John Updike. [Updike was being recognized for his trilogy of "Rabbit" books that not only tell the story of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, who never quite got over the fact that his high school basketball career was the high point in his life, but also provide a time capsule-like look at how society changed during these years.]

1983: The Color Purple - Alice Walker.

1984: Ironweed - William Kennedy.

1985: Foreign Affairs - Alison Lurie.

1986: Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry.

1989: Breathing Lessons - Anne Tyler. [Although this novel is terrific, I think she was really being recognized for her excellent novels Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist.]

1991: Rabbit At Rest - [Even after all these years, I still can't believe Updike brought an end to Rabbit's story.]

1992: A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley.

1994: The Shipping News - E. Annie Proulx. [For years after reading this novel, I wanted to move to Newfoundland.]

1995: The Stone Diaries - Carol Shields.

1996: Independence Day - Richard Ford. [I remember being so happy to read the news that Ford's book had won the Pulitzer. I really enjoyed his short story collection Rock Springs.]

1999: The Hours - Michael Cunningham.

2001: The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay - Michael Chabon. [I wouldn't be surprised if Chabon was a repeat winner one of these years.]

2002: Empire Falls - Richard Russo. [I really like Russo. He reminds me of Anne Tyler, except male.]

2005: Gilead - Marilynne Robinson. [There's a part in this book where the aged minister says of his young wife that she "just melted" into a book. That describes how I experienced this luminous novel.]

2006: March - Brooks. [I'm a huge fan of Little Women, and except for a few nit picky things, I think Brooks did an excellent job of telling Mr. March's story.]

1992: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991)
Fiction, 384 pages
First Anchor Books Edition (2003)
A division of Random House, Inc.
1992 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Cross posted here

A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare' s King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity. - Copy from back flap

Jane Smiley writes a contemporary novel with many similarities to Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear. Not only will the plot details be familiar, but also the major themes as well as the main characters. What makes this story contemporary, is that it is told through the eyes of Ginny (Goneril). Considering the strong patriarchal theme of the play, this retelling from a female point of view offers to challenge those familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedy. It is almost as if you are getting to hear the other side of the story; one that would seemingly change the dynamics completely.

However, when reading this book, I became aware that when it comes to power, manipulation, generational conflict, obsession, and madness, gender really is not the determining factor nor are the ramifications significantly different than if this were as male dominated as the play.

Conflict in any style, by any means, has its own ‘life’. It feeds upon hate, and thrives by the inability of those involved to forgive. As noted by Ginny:
We’ve always known families…that live together for years without speaking, for whom a historic dispute over land or money burns so hot that it engulfs every other subject, every other point of relationship or affection.
An aging father’s decision sets into motion a series of events that ultimately cost lives and destroys relationships. This is the similarity the novel has with the play. What differs is how it is told, and who dies, although I would mention that there are different types of death; spiritual and physical. Thus the correlation between the two becomes even more apparent.

I must admit I did not read every page of this book. However, I have never really gotten through all of King Lear either. The subject matter is dark, depressing, and at times frustrating. Smiley does well in updating and expounding upon Shakespeare’s tragedy. This was not an easy book to read, and I could not do it in one sitting as I have with others. In addition, I am guilty of ‘flipping’ through and speed-reading many passages.

Although deserving of a Pulitzer, I am only going to give it a 3 Star rating (out of 5) as I did put it down and often. But I always returned and did my best to muddle through. Any difficulty I had in dealing with the subject matter was my own, and in no way reflects upon Smiley's skill as an author.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

This is one of those books that I love so much that I am hesitant about trying to write about it for fear of trivializing it in some way. I reread this book in February, but was unable to even approach writing about it until I decided to just do one of these questionnaires so that I can be walked through the process.

Title and author of book? The Color Purple by Alice Walker

What led you to pick up this book? I've read it before, probably twice, maybe three times. This year, I saw the movie for the first time, which made me want to reread the novel.

Give a brief summary of the plot: The main character, Celie, grows up poor in an abusive household. In fact, it seems like everyone she knows is abusive or abused, so it seems normal to her -- this is probably a result of the crushing despair of poverty. She's married off young to a man who continues the pattern of abuse. He's also in love with another woman, a woman who becomes Celie's friend.

What did you like most about the book? For me, the most moving part of the story is Celie's separation from her sister; my favorite part of the book has something to do with this separation, but to talk about that would be a huge spoiler. I also really like the letter structure of the novel, and I like the use of dialect in this book, even though dialect is usually distracting for me. And I really love the way Celie grows into a level of strength that allows her to start standing up for herself somewhat.

What did you like least?There isn't anything I could really say I dislike about this book, but some scenes are disturbing. For me, the most difficult scene is the one in which a friend of Celie's is beaten and imprisoned for trying to stand up for herself.

What did you think of the writing style? The writing is amazing. As I said above, it's epistolary and uses dialect. Some parts are written in standard English, and those beautiful passages only serve to highlight the simplicity of Celie's uneducated writing and speech. But don't get me wrong; Celie's words are also beautiful. It's amazing to me how Walker manages to write in these two different styles, and make both of them so full of insight.

What did you think of the main character?: I can remember that upon my first reading of this book, I felt frustrated with Celie. She tolerated such terrible treatment, and I was angry with her. I think I have a better understanding of human nature now, so I realize that Celie is a person who has spent her entire life so beaten down -- and not just by individuals, but by society as a whole -- that it's impossible that she could have lived her early years of adulthood in any other way. During this reading of the novel, I was able to notice Celie's gradual strengthening, and rather than resenting Shug's presence in Celie's life at all, I was able to see how she helped Celie grow. I was also able, this time, to appreciate the way women in the book support each other and give each other a sense of community in a world that completely marginalized women of their era, race, and socioeconomic class. Not that the men of their era, race and socioeconomic class fared much better.

Any other particularly interesting characters?Most of the words of wisdom are given to Shug and to Nettie. I think that Walker gave her own voice to those characters at times. They are both amazingly strong and they both overcome terrible circumstances through a combination of luck, talent and introspection.

If this book has been made into a movie, and if you’ve seen the movie, compare the book to the movie. If you've only seen the movie, if you liked it, you should really treat yourself to the book. The movie leaves out so much.

Share a quote from the book: I'll share two, so that you can see the contrasts mentioned above.
The years have come and gone without a single word from you. Only the sky above us do we hold in common. I look at it often, as if, somehow, reflected from its immensities, I will one day find myself gazing into your eyes. Your dear, large, clean and beautiful eyes.

And this is Celie, speaking of her stepson (Harpo) and her husband (Harpo's daddy).

Harpo no better at fighting his daddy back than me. Every day his daddy get up, sit on the porch, look out at nothing. Sometime look at the trees out front the house. Look at a butterfly if it light on the rail. Drink a little water in the day. A little wine in the evening. But mostly never move.

Harpo complain bout all the plowing we have to do.

His daddy say, You gonna do it.

Harpo nearly as big as his daddy. He strong in body but weak in will. He scared.

Me and him out in the field all day. Us sweat, chopping and plowing. I'm roasted coffee bean color now. He black as the inside of a chimney. His eyes be sad and thoughtful. His face begin to look like a woman's face.

Cross-posted in my blog.