Monday, November 30, 2009

J.C.'s Progress - Updated

Read and/or Reviewed:
To Be Read (currently on my shelf):
  • 1921 - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • 1923 - One Of Ours by Willa Cather
  • 1928 - The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
  • 1932 - The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  • 1940 - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • 1953 - The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • 1973 - The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
  • 1976 - Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow
  • 1981 - A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  • 1983 - The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • 1985 - Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
  • 1986 - Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  • 1988 - Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • 1991 - Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
  • 1994 - The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx
  • 1996 - Independence Day by Richard Ford
  • 1998 - American Pastoral by Philip Roth
  • 1999 - The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • 2001 - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  • 2002 - Empire Falls by Richard Russo
  • 2004 - The Known World by Edward Jones
  • 2007 - The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • 2008 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Friday, November 20, 2009

Laura's Review - Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose
Wallace Stegner
569 pages

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. (p. 211)

Lyman Ward is writing a family history. More specifically, it's the story of a marriage between his grandmother (Susan Burling Ward) and grandfather (Oliver Ward) who lived in the American West in the late 1800s. Day after day, Lyman pores over family records, news clippings, and letters, and records his thoughts on cassette tapes. Lyman lives alone, is out of touch with his family, and severely disabled due to a bone disease. He gets around in a wheelchair, and uses only a few rooms of his house. Every evening a neighbor woman stops in to check on Lyman and give him his bath, and they have a nightcap together. The story of Susan and Oliver Ward begins around 1870, when Susan was a budding artist in New York. She moves in artsy social circles, and spends nearly every minute with a very dear friend, Augusta. When Augusta decides to marry Susan sees their relationship beginning to change, and she sets her sights on Oliver, a mining engineer. While they agree to marry, the union is put off for several years while Oliver establishes his career and readies a home for himself and Susan.

When frontier historians theorize about the uprooted, the lawless, the purseless, and the socially cut-off who settled the West, they are not talking about people like my grandmother. So much that was cherished and loved, women like her had to give up; and the more they gave it up, the more they carried it helplessly with them. It was a process like ionization: what was subtracted from one pole was added to the other. (p. 277)
In moving west, Susan sacrificed all she knew and held dear. Accustomed to moving in cultured, literate circles, she initially threw herself into mining camp life with gusto. But she brought her art supplies with her, and continued to draw. Augusta's husband Thomas, now a successful magazine editor, commissioned several pieces and relied on Susan for her interesting portraits of life in the far-off west. Susan also enjoyed evenings by the fire with two of Oliver's colleagues, Frank Sargent and Ian Price. In them she found others who loved literature and stimulating conversation; it fed her soul.

I know that Grandfather was trying to do, by personal initiative and with the financial resources of a small and struggling corporation, what only the immense power of the federal government ultimately proved able to do. That does not mean he was foolish or mistaken. He was premature. His clock was set on pioneer time. He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn't yet been built, beside tracks that might never be laid .... Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality. (p. 382)
Oliver was a successful engineer, rewarded for his hard work through promotions and special projects. He was a bit of a dreamer, envisioning possibilities and developing new materials and methods in his own time. He was usually a bit ahead of the curve, with ideas not quite ready for prime time. And while money was often tight, Oliver refused to allow Susan's earnings to be used to support the family. Oliver and Susan had a family, and moved several times for Oliver's work. Their son Ollie (Lyman's father) was often sent to stay with relatives in New York, because the mining camps were deemed unsuitable.

Through his research, Lyman carefully pieces together the story of Oliver and Susan's marriage, reconstructing the series of events which brought their relationship to the "angle of repose" (the angle at which soil settles after being dumped). Susan loved Oliver and had faith in his abilities, but was often disappointed with the actual results. She wanted so badly for her children to grow up refined and "Eastern," and became increasingly frustrated with their living conditions and the people she encountered day-to-day. Susan and Oliver's fortunes, and their hopes for the future, ebb and flow over the years. As Lyman tells Susan and Oliver's story, he tries to come to terms with his own failed marriage and the rapidly changing world around him.

I absolutely loved this book. The prose captured me instantly, and I became completely wrapped up both in Lyman's California of 1970, and the dusty Victorian mining camps. I identified strongly with Susan: her feelings of isolation, her persistence in keeping her artistic talents fresh, her devotion to her family, her longing for intellectual stimulation. And my heart went out to Lyman, with his own isolation and struggles with a failing body. These characters were so real to me; during the week it took me to read this book, I thought about them all the time. Towards the end, I wanted to prolong the relationship -- instead of rushing to finish, I read the last 50 pages very slowly, setting the book aside to make it last. This will undoubtedly make my "Top 10" list for the year. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Alice Adams -- 1922 Winner

Grounded in outmoded attitudes about class and distractingly highlighted by outmoded attitudes about race, Alice Adams has not aged well. In his 1922 Pulitzer winner, Booth Tarkington presents a heroine striving to climb the short social ladder of her Midwestern city using only her charms and well-rehearsed mannerisms.

Watching Alice struggle is painful. She has self-awareness sufficient to know she is doing things wrong, but lacks the tools to do them right. And it never seems that the game is worth the candle.

Finally, after watching Alice dither for most of the book, circumstances force her to face reality and make some difficult but intelligent decisions. The book ends on a gloriously hopeful note, which is the most redeeming feature of the story.

Also posted on Rose City Reader.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

All the King's Men - Winner, 1947

Thanks to the modern miracle of books on CD that can be checked out through my local library, I was able to listen to All the King's Men while working. Warren's book, not to be confused with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's 1974 investigation into Watergate - All the President's Men, is the story of the political rise and fall of the fictional governor Willie Stark, loosely based on Huey Long, former governor and U.S. Senator from Louisiana.

Warren creates an interesting story that definitely brought to mind images of the rampant political corruption in Louisiana in the first half of the 1900s (and arguably even later) that I learned about in history class. He also show, I believe, his incredible literary skills by simply keeping his story straight. Warren makes extensive use of the "flashback" literary tool to the point that the reader tends to lose all sense of past and present. While I'm sure this is effective when reading the actual book, it caused me some problems as I listened. I often had trouble remembering where we were in time, especially after pausing to go home for the night.

For this reason I definitely recommend reading the actual printed book. Something else that helped me to follow along generally was the fact that I had watched the Academy award-winning movie adaptation recently. While the movie leaves out multiple story lines and deviates from the plot of the book, seeing the movie helped me to envision what was going on in the book and anticipate the time-jumping. Warren did claim that he did not intend for this book to be a political story, but I feel that it and the movie are both important commentaries on how power can corrupt. If you have a chance, read the book and/or watch the movie.

The image above is Huey P. Long.