Thursday, December 30, 2010

1929 - Scarlet Sister Mary

Scarlet Sister Mary won the Pulitzer as a weird switch. The Pulitzer committee wanted to change the scope of the Pulitzer from "a novel which presented the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standards of American manners and manhood" to become "a novel which preferably shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life".

And, yet, even in this, Scarlet Sister Mary fails. Peterkin's depiction of uneducated blacks living in the low country of South Carolina in the early part of the 20th century is hardly believable, given today's understanding. They are the progeny of slaves who stayed where they had lived because they had no choice to go anywhere else. What could they possibly do? They continued living largely as their ancestors had.

Whites are not a factor in the book except as occasional mention that they do exist. This is not a criticism, just an observation. Peterkin's description of the life of these people, particularly that of Sister Mary, really is fiction. She suggests picking cotton is easy, more like a party, and everyone enjoys doing it. The life of Mary, a mother of 10 children with no father in the home, seems almost easy. More like a teenager bouncing through life. Some deep heartache, but even that passes.

There is a reason that Scarlet Sister Mary does not appear on any "best works" lists. An easy read, though.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

1933 The Store

Set 20 years after the Civil War which freed the slaves of the plantations around Florence, Alabama, those living there are still trying to sort out the relationships and rights of both white and black residents. The Store explores love and loss, trust and betrayal, and the vagaries of reputation and fortunes of the Vaiden family, both the whites and the blacks of that name. The store itself is a dream of Colonel Miltiades Vaiden which, once achieved, is rarely again mentioned and unimportant in the story.
Vaiden, a former Colonel in the Confederate Army, had his money stolen shortly after the end of the War by J. Handback when Vaiden's cotton was put in trust to Handback and then Handback was able to declare bankruptcy and deny the proceeds of the sale of the cotton to Vaiden. This created a resentment on Vaiden's part which festered for the many years since. Handback, believing the Colonel holds no resentments, hires him to work in the Handback store. Since the Colonel gives the same service to the blacks as to the whites of the community, this frustrates Handback. "A nigger pound is not the same measure as a white pound." He removes Vaiden, setting him up to oversee Handback's cotton plantings and his colored tennants thereby setting up the environment which allows Vaiden to get even with Handback. This allows the Colonel to buy his long-dreamed of store beginning a series of repercussions throughout the full community, affecting both whites and blacks, Southerners and Yankees. An intriguing read, with a bit of a ghost story included for good measure.

Until I read the other review, I was not aware the story was part of a trilogy.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mambo Kings Review

I chose to not finish this book. While it is well written and captures its subject well, part of that subject -- sexual encounters -- is something I prefer not to read. At least not with the frequency that it happens in this book. That said, this book would not be qualified even as soft porn. There were, for my tastes, just too many encounters described at more detail than I preferred to experience.

As I read the portion of the book that I did read, maybe a little more than 1/2 of it, I enjoyed the pictures it paints of its main characters, their dreams and their daily lives as they struggle to fulfill those dreams. Set in the US at the time when Latin music was in its hey day, the Mambo Kings participate in that scene, even to the point of having an opportunity to meet the great Desi Arnaz. Did this book deserve the Pulitzer Prize? The writing is enchanting and does pull one into the story. But for those who, like me, prefer to avoid that which impelled me to put the book down without finishing it with no pan to try again, I offer this brief review.