Saturday, June 28, 2008

Beloved review - Athena

This Pulitzer Prize winning and critically acclaimed novel is very sad and includes many stories of horror and trauma. The persistence of memory and the past is part of the novel from a mother's obsessive overprotection to the reconciliation of people's past personal and with slavery as a whole: "To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay. The 'better life' she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one."

The narrative shifts with a stream of consciousness writing towards the end of the book. It also reminded me of an even more twisted version of Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray by that time.

It's a complex novel, but very beautifully written. I love the prose. It is difficult to read due to the story and plot, but the literary prose is wonderful. Morrison is also very adept at characterization. I get a total sense of these characters whether or not I agree or actually sympathise with them. She presents them so clearly and honestly. It is not a pleasurable read, and like many books literary books, it is not for everyone. It's difficult, but honest and well written.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Just A (Reading) Fool's Progress

Books already read:

1992 - A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
1981 - A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
1975 - The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1953 - The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
1947 - All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
1945 - Bell for Adano by John Hersey
1940 - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Ones I'd like to read by year's end:

2007 - The Road by Cormac McCarthy
2004 - The Known World by Edward P. Jones
2001 - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
2000 - Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
1991 - Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
1982 - Rabbit is Rich by John Updike
1972 - Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
1958 - A Death in the Family by James Agee
1955 - A Fable by William Faulkner
1937 - Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1932 - The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
1926 - Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

These are books of which either I have a copy or I easily can get a copy.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Now in November by Josephine Johnson, 1935

This story reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It is a very bleak story of burden, desperation and tragedy, woven with a thread of hope, of a farming family in the dustbowl days of the Great Depression. Marget tells the story of her two sisters, Kerrin and Merle, and her parents, and the farm-hand, Grant in a ten-year span starting in her early teen years. Battling debts, drought, unrequited love among other challenges over this time period, the characters never prevail but never completely lose their sense of hope. A raw and gritty novel that deserves a read.

2004 - The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Set in the 1840’s in the fictional Manchester County, Virginia, The Known World is the story of Henry Towsend, a former slave who became a farmer and a slave-owner himself. The story is told in a non-linear way, with several flashbacks and flash-forwards. The main focus of the book are the events leading up to and following Henry’s death, but there are also episodes that take place several years before (concerning Henry’s life as a slave, for example, and how his parents saved money for years to buy his freedom) or after, and episodes that deal with many other characters – the other inhabitants of Manchester County, slaves and freemen alike. After Henry’s death, his widow Caldonia, an educated free woman of colour, is left in charge of the plantation, but very soon things begin to fall apart.

The Known World is a stunning book. It’s beautifully written, it’s subtle, it’s very moving, and it’s complex. It’s a book in which several tragic things happen, but it moves beyond being a parade of tragedies. It deals with race and gender, but it also goes beyond that. I’d say it’s the best book about slavery I’ve read so far, except it’s not so much a book about slavery as it is a book about several people caught up in a system whose full consequences are not easy to grasp.

It’s not easy to capture all the emotional complexities that slavery must have involved, but Edward P. Jones seems to have done just that. And I say “seems” because I’m still not sure that any of us can really grasp all that must have been involved. Looking back now, from the safety of historical distance, it’s easy to forget that these were people doing such things to one another, and so of course that all kinds of feelings would have been involved. Feelings that weren’t easy to label, feelings that weren’t always what they were supposed to be. From the part of masters and slaves alike.

Then there’s of course the question, how could an ex-slave ever become a slave owner? This book doesn’t really answer it (is there an answer?) but it deals with it in a manner that never becomes simplistic:
"Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known. He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master."
The week before I started The Known World I had to read a few chapters from James Walvin’s Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery for a project, and then I ended up reading the whole thing because the book was too good, too well-written and too informative, for me to put it down. I found that reading The Known World and Black Ivory side by side increased my understanding and appreciation of both books. While one gave me the facts, the other gave me the human realities behind them. The actual human lives. I want to share with you a passage from Black Ivory that perfectly describes what we see in The Known World:
"Overseers and drivers in the Southern cotton fields were presumable no more or less inhuman, kind, sadistic or tolerant than their counterparts in the previous century in the Caribbean. It was the system which debased and corrupted. Doubtless it attracted its fair share of low life; of men, like men on the slave ships, not noted by their humanity or feelings. But even the most considerate of men generally found themselves debased by slavery. In so tainted a system, it was difficult for anyone in a position of authority not to be dragged down into slavery's corrosive mire. Whatever the management's ideal (and there were plenty of whites who sought to pursue it), the reality was much coarser, much cruder, less human."
The Known World is an honest, haunting and thought-provoking look at slavery and all that it involves. Edward P. Jones created a world in which everything has multiple shades of grey. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time, the kind of book that the more I think about, the more I like. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tammy's progress

Hi everyone! I'm Tammy from Tammy's Book Nook. I'm excited to jump into this challenge, and hope that I can make some real progress -- I've been wanting to read a number of these books for a long time.

Books I've read so far:

1919 - The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
1921 - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1932 - The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
1937 - Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1981 - A Confederacy of Dunces by Robert Kennedy Toole
1988 - Beloved by Toni Morrison
1995 - The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
2002 - Empire Falls by Richard Russo

On the shelf to be read in 2008:

1940 - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
1948 - Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener
1955 - A Fable by William Faulkner
1990 - The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

I'm afraid I'm not much of a reviewer, but I'm going to try to get better. I'm looking forward to reading everyone else's reviews.

The Known World (Jill)

The Known World
By Edward P. Jones

Those of you who visit my blog regularly know it's rare when I don't finish a book. What's even more unusual is when I don't love a book set in the antebellum South. Unfortunately, with The Known World, this is the case. I gave up on this book when I reached page 60.

The storyline was difficult for me to follow. It meandered aimlessly, and I felt no attachment to the characters. After hearing several other reviewers (with similar tastes as me) express their frustration with this Pulitzer Prize winner, I decided it was a sign that this was not a book for me.

It's unfortunate because I usually love books set in this time period. I am very disappointed that I could not finish The Known World. Perhaps I will pick up again another day. (no rating)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gilead review by Athena

This Pulitizer prize winning book by Marilynne Robinson is the definition of modern literary novels. The novel does not have much in the way of plot. It is an epistolary novel of an old man writing for his very young son about his life. It is extremely introspective and beautifully written. I do not think it is for everyone, but I could relate to it because I am like the character and the style. It is not to say that I think as the character does all the time, but I certainly do understand why they mean with lines such as this:
I don't know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days, (p 18-9 hardcover)

It is the kind of book I can see myself rereading because it reminds me of so many things of myself and my inner world. It is introspective and reflective, spiritual and pensive:
Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can't believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great substance of human life. (104)

Such passages like this are why I would not recommend it to everyone. It took me awhile to read this book because I knew how reflective of myself it was, and how moody I was to avoid such deep thoughts. Many people, even bibliophiles would not necessarily enjoy this book. It is not everyone's cup of tea especially since it does talk of faith and God, but not necessarily in an obtrusive way. I think it would vary for each individual's faith. Here a particularly spiritual passage:
Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? I suppose Calvin's God was a Frenchman, just as mine is a Middle Westerner of New England extraction. Well we all bring such light to bear these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin's image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God's enjoyment, no in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart. (124-5)

I have quoted from the book so much in this review because I really love and can relate to the words, prose, and style so much. The tone is like my own when I write in my journal, but obviously not as well written. I think there a few people who can appreciate such a work, but they truly will if they read it. It's not for everyone, and I am one of those reviewers who ultimately review for myself so I would not recommend it at all if you do not think you can enjoy an introvert's novel. I do want to reread this again which says enough about how much I like this book.

Here are some more exerpts:
When I'm up here in my study with the radio on and some old book in my hands and it's nighttime and the wind blows and the house creaks, I forget where I am, and it's as thought I'm back in the hard times for a minute or two, and there's a sweetness in the experience I don't understand. But that only enhances the value of it. My point here is that you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. (95)

Remembering when they said what they did about looking in windows and wondering about other people's lives made me feel companionable with them. I could have said that's three of us, because as the Lord knows, for many years I did exactly the same thing. (202)

Oh!, I will miss the world! (115)

Crossposted from Aquatique,net

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Stories of John Cheever -- 1979

The Stories of John Cheever, which won the National Book Critics Circle award in 1978 and the Pulitzer in 1979, is a chronological collection that spans Cheever’s short story career, from pre-WWII up to 1973. To read this collection – just shy of 700 pages – is to live in Cheever’s head, tracking his artistic and personal development in a way that a single novel or volume of stories doesn’t allow.

These are not happy stories. The earlier pieces are particularly bleak and raw. While the later stories are deeper and more nuanced, they are still pretty dark. Precious few have cheerful resolutions. The best Cheever’s characters seem to achieve is contentment despite imperfect circumstances.

Cheever’s is a world of commuter trains and cocktail parties, where everyone wears hats, has a cook, drinks martinis at lunch, summers, sails, and commits adultery. Not everyone is rich; in fact, money problems are a continuing theme. But the trappings, however tarnished, of a mid-century, Northeast corridor, upper crust way of life hang on all the stories. And that is Cheever at his best. He can bring us so deep into that world that it feels like living it.

First posted on Rose City Reader.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, 1931

This is a beautiful, charming novel well-deserving of its Pulitzer award for 1931.

Jane Ward is a young girl at the turn of the 20th century in upper class Chicago. She falls in love at the tender age of 19 with Andre, the artist, marries Stephen, the sensible provider, and later contemplates a life with Jimmy, the musician, but stays with her husband, Stephen. Jane's journey through life is a story about the path not taken. Her children, in contrast, take those paths not taken much to her surprise and disappointment. At times, the story plods a bit, but it's in step with Jane's life which she sees as dull a times, but this only further illustrating the novel's themes which were heavily influenced by the demise of the Victorian era.

If you can find this book, read it!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Age of Innocence by Edith Warton 1921

Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence, carefully illustrates the social stigmas prevalent in 1870s New York. I loved Wharton’s ability to draw me in to the internal battles the main characters faced, and I empathized with their desires to find belonging. While today’s social stigmas differ, the emotions remain the same.

In the beginning of the novel, Newland Archer ponders his upcoming engagement to May Welland, idealistic about his ability to influence her life and help her become a “free” woman, simply by being an engaging and caring husband.

Newland Archer’s idealistic world is shaken, however, first when May’s cousin and his old beau (Ellen Mingott Olenska) returns to New York, shamed and disgraced after leaving her cruel and abusive husband. Newland must reconsider his notions of women’s social position. When Madame Olenska begins to seek a divorce, the New York society is shocked. Such a situation would bring shame to all of Ellen’s family, including Newland’s wife-to-be. Newland must determine if his own exclamation “women should be free—as free as we are”(Vol. 1, Chap. 6) is realistic for “poor Ellen Olenska.”

In the process, Newland Archer realizes that he is not as free in his relationships as he had imagined. His developing relationship with Madame Olenska complicates the matter, and he realizes that his marriage will not be as he had envisioned.
Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. … There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…. (Vol. 2, Chap. 2)
Ultimately, The Age of Innocence is the story of a man coming to terms with the 1870s social constraints on the most intimate of relationships, love and marriage. Newland Archer finds that the social stigmas prevalent in society distance people: “There they were, close together and safe and shut in; yet so chained to their separate destinies that they might as well have been half the world apart” (Vol. 2, Chap. 6). In the end, he must decide whether or not he will live within the socially unacceptable dreams he has or if he will look “not at visions, but at realities” (Volume 2, Chapter 11).

I highly recommend this novel.

Originally posted here.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx 1994 - BooksPlease Review

I struggled with The Shipping News for a while, and then found I just had to read it, despite disliking the writing style. So disjointed in parts it irritated me and yet I enjoyed the visual images it invoked. There are no spoilers in this post as the back cover gives as much detail of the plot of the book as I’ve written here.

Quoyle, the main character is no oil painting:

A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a Crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed finger tips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.

He’s a loner, socially awkward and self-conscious, easily manipulated by others, his work as a journalist resulted in him seeing the everyday events in his life as newspaper headlines. His marriage to Petal brought him a month of happiness, two daughters and then six years of suffering. Suffering seems to be his lot in life; both parents commit suicide and then his wife is killed in a car accident. These events propel him into a life change as he, his aunt and daughters move to Newfoundland, the home of his forbears.

To some extent I think this is a book of set pieces, loosely linked together. Really not much happens, although there are tantalising hints that dramas lie around the corner just enough to keep me turning the pages to find out what happens next. The writing style, although annoying has left vivid pictures in my mind and I can still see the landscape of Newfoundland in its frozen, storm-ridden isolation, surrounded by icebergs “like white prisons” and the old, dilapidated Quoyle family house on Quoyle’s Point that had stood empty for forty-four years, a “gaunt building … lashed with cable to iron rings set in the rock”. I also know a lot more now than I did before about knots, boats and boat building.

Quoyle’s job on the local Newfoundland weekly paper the Gammy Bird is to report on the shipping news, the boats coming in and out of the port and to cover the local car wrecks. The names of the characters are so distinctive that there’s no danger of forgetting who they are, from Quoyle (a flat coil of rope that you walk over) to his daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, the newspapermen, Jack Buggit, Billy Pretty, Tert Card and the eccentric Englishman B Beaufield Nutbeem, Quoyle’s aunt Agnis Hamm (reminiscent of Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame who won’t accept the end?), the harbormaster Diddy Shovel and the tall and quiet woman Wavey Prowse.

The main themes of the book that stood out for me are the relationship between the individual and the family, the importance of being part of a community, death, and love.

The title, “the shipping news” brought to my mind memories of hearing the shipping forecast as a child. Even though we lived nowhere near the coast we always listened to it and I can still hear it like a poem:

Viking North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties Cromarty Forth, Tyne Dogger, Fisher German Bight,
Humber Thames Dover Wight, Portland Plymouth Biscay, South Fitzroy, North Fitzroy Sole, Lundy Fastnet Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides Bailey Fair Isle, Faeroes Southeast Iceland, with all the variables, moderates or good thrown in, in between.

Nothing like the shipping news in this book, of course. It’s still there running through my mind.

On the front cover of my copy of the book shows the actors from the film of the book. I haven’t seen the film. I had to keep averting my eyes from the cover, but inevitably I couldn’t help but see the faces of Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey. I’ve written endlessly it seems before about my views on books versus movies, but I can’t resist adding this. Kevin Spacey could never be anything like my vision of Quoyle, unless he’s the best actor that has ever lived. So, I will not watch the film. Despite not liking how much of it is written this book has captivated me. I think if I can find a copy that doesn’t show scenes from the film I may buy it and read it again.

Cross posted from my blog.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson, 1924

The McLaughlins are a large, Scottish immigrant farming family in Iowa. Wully, recently home from the Civil War, falls in love with Chirstie who is pregnant with another man's child. The "scandalous" plot is not particularly compelling and there is an anti-climactic portion that drags without satisfactory resolution which may explain why no movie came from it. An easy read but one of the more forgettable Pulitzers, sorry to say.