Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Bridge Is Love

Thornton Wilder's acclaimed novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the tenth book on our list, the tenth book to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It is a book that asks a very difficult question - a question that many human beings asked before he wrote the book, and one that they will continue to ask for years to come.

Why do we die?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book #10: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is one of those "Pulp Fiction" or "Snatch" type of stories where a seemingly unrelated cast of characters with their own random plot lines are all magically connected by one incident. In this case, the incident is the collapse of a bridge in Peru which kills a handful of the area's residents. Author Thornton Wilder careful details out the lives of each victim leading up to the moment of their death. It sounds like an interesting enough premise but it only kinda sorta works.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Book #9: "Early Autumn" aka The House of No Sex

 I can't imagine living in a world where every single one of your life's decision is dictated by the people around you. How you dress, what you eat, how you dance, when you dance, where you dance, with whom you dance, whom you marry, and so on. Each character in this book (and every other Victorian-era novel) seems helplessly bound to societal standards and will sacrifice any hope of happiness or pleasure in an attempt to conform.

Do we live under such standards today in 2012 and we just don't realize it? I would love to say I am a genuine free spirit who is exempt from the expectations of my middle class upbringing but I'm not sure if that would be true.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Early Autumn

I’m starting to wonder if one of the requirements to win the Pulitzer is that the story be unbearably depressing. I finished the ninth winning novel, Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn, over a week ago and I needed to let it sit for a little while before writing about it. It’s about a bunch of unhappy people. It had an unhappy ending. Mostly, it was a huge bummer. At its center is Olivia Pentland, a beautiful, intelligent, sensitive woman who is married to an insufferable bore of a man. Early Autumn is mostly her story, although it’s also the story of the family she married into.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

He Blinded Me With Science

It took me F O R E V E R to finish Sinclair Lewis' novel Arrowsmith. And it was SO not worth the time I spent reading it. I started it while I was still pretty sick with pertussis and I was constantly falling asleep while reading but I just chalked it up to being sick. But then I got (mostly) better and continued to fall asleep and pretty soon I realized that this book is just boring and pretentious. Seriously, 1926 Pulitzer judges, this was the best you had? Don't read it. Don't let anyone you know read it. FRIENDS DON'T LET FRIENDS READ SINCLAIR LEWIS.

Book #8: Arrowsmith

I wanted to let this book marinate in my brain a bit before trying to write about it. You see, this book annoyed the living hell out of me. I don't mean that in a "wow these characters are so annoying that they frustrated me" kind of way. I mean in the "ISN'T THIS STUPID BOOK OVER ALREADY? WHY DID I SIGN UP FOR THIS &@$%*! CHALLENGE IN THE FIRST PLACE!???" sense. But  with a few days between me and the 400+ pages of pain it took to get through it, I think I understand Sinclair Lewis' aim a bit better.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Book #7: So Big by Edna Ferber

Note: We are lagging behind on this challenge right now but we have awesome excuses. Maria caught the plague (or consumption or scarlet fever or something else equally nostalgic) and I gave birth to a human. Both have put us more than a bit out of sorts for the moment!!! But, we are back and will finish this challenge even if it kills us (and it just might...). 

As an entrepreneur, this book can best be described as "triggering." While some may prefer words like "inspirational" or "motivational" to define a book that compels them to action, I don't think those are aggressive enough to describe So Big. On the surface this book is about "The American Dream," but it is also about the root of that dream. Many people look at American industriousness and see only the entrepreneur's desire for great wealth. However, there is also the pure and simple drive to do something the right way. Until someone understands that, they will never successfully run a business on their own. It is very easy to become lackluster and complacent and lose grip of your success if the fear of failure isn't eating at you somewhere beneath the surface. The insanely strong female character in this book, Selina, was driven by that exact force.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Unlucky Number Seven

I admit I expected to hit a wall at some point during this challenge, but I did not anticipate that it would come as early on as book #7. I've come down with pertussis (AKA whooping cough), and I'm going to take the low road and use it as an excuse for the delay. It's hard to read 100 pages a day when your body is so tired that you fall asleep ten pages in. But I'm going to look on the bright side; rather than focus on the debilitating cough that leaves me gasping for air every time it strikes, I'm going to use this experience as a way to better understand the world in which many of the characters from these early Pulitzer books lived. After all, the first widely tested vaccine for pertussis was released in 1925, the very same year that Edna Ferber's So Big won the big prize.

Monday, July 2, 2012

What We've Got Here Is A Failure to Communicate

When I was a little girl I loved the Little House on the Prairie books. And I mean, I loved them a lot. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. One summer I dressed up practically every day in a long skirt that belonged to my mom and wore the bonnet that I got when my third grade class visited the one room schoolhouse at Greenfield Village and I just pretended, all day long, that I lived in Laura's world. I must have read each of the seven Little House books three or four times apiece. So it's not surprising that now, twenty years on from my days of prairie pretending, I find myself enjoying grown up stories of American prairie life.

Our sixth Pulitzer winner is The Able McLaughlins, by Margaret Wilson, and it is essentially a love story about Wully (short for William) McLaughlin and Chirstie McNair, who live with their respective Scottish-American families on the prairie in the "middle west" in the 1860s. Where exactly the "middle west" is located I'm not sure; at times I thought maybe Iowa, but at one point a character 'goes west' and then there is talk about him being in Chicago. So maybe it's Ohio? Somewhere with big wide open spaces. But I digress. Wully returns home injured from fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War and falls immediately (and I literally mean immediately) for Chirstie. He has to return to the service of the military to fulfill his commitment though, and when he comes home for good he finds Christie's behavior toward him greatly changed.

Book #6: The Able McLaughlins aka Kissing Cousins

I was dreading reading this book at first because I thought it was going to be another plodding story about an infuriatingly silly American family. Clearly, I was prejudging based on the title which reminded me way too much of The Magnificent Amberson. I was dreading this book so much that I was trying to find excuses to skip it or even abandon the project entirely! Ha! However, Maria texted me a picture of the back cover of her copy and my interest was peaked. The exact content of my reply was: "Blah blah blah, farm, blah blah blah frontier, blah blah blah oh! Conflict of old world customs. Okay that part sounds promising."

Sadly, there wasn't much in the way of "conflict of old world customs" but that in no way meant the book didn't have plenty to offer in other ways.

Book #5: One of Ours

This book was really two very distinct but related stories. In hindsight, I guess they did need to be told as one. To start you have a young man who is struggling to find himself within his life as the son of a well to do farmer in America's heartland. He craves a life full of academics and adventure but allows himself to be forced into a mundane existence to suit his family's needs. The entire first half of this book is extremely tragic. I wanted to scream and beat this dutiful son with a brick as he made bad decision after bad decision, simply because he refused to stand up for himself and make decisions that suited HIM.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Place to Belong

I've finished the fifth Pulitzer-winning book, One of Ours, by Willa Cather. It's excellent. In college I read two of Cather's other novels, My Ántonia and O Pioneers!, and I don't have fond memories of either one. In fact, I don't really have any memories of either one because I'm not sure I finished reading them. When this challenge is complete I plan to revisit those novels. Sometimes with books, as it can be with people, the timing is just not right.

The hero of One of Ours is a young Nebraskan farmer boy named Claude Wheeler. Claude is intelligent, sensitive and passionate. He's also a little bit sad most of the time. From the time he is a young man he knows he doesn't exactly fit in with the farmer's life that he was born into; yet no matter where he looks for a place to belong he can't seem to find one. First he tries college, but he dislikes the religious school his family has sent him to. He tries to convince his parents to allow him to transfer to the state school, but to no avail. Before he is able to finish college his father impels him to take on managing the family farm so that he can invest in a ranch in Colorado. Claude manages the farm ably, but he gets no joy from it and his restlessness only deepens.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book #4: Alice Adams

I don't get it. Was this a cautionary tale? Was this supposed to be  tragedy? Who were we supposed to be rooting for in this book? The author doesn't really make it very clear. I'm not even certain whether or not the ending was supposed to be happy or sad. I guess I should explain myself..

A Perilous (Social) Climb

If I could somehow reach into the fictional world of Alice Adams, I'd give her two things: a copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, and a copy of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, published in 1847. Also, I'd slap her mother.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Age of Innocence, or: Maria Cries Her Eyes Out

I finished reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence while on my lunch break. I sat at the counter of a coney island restaurant in downtown Detroit (quite possibly the least romantic place on the planet to read such a romantic story), and I cried into my plate of uneaten fries, wondering how a novel to which I already knew the ending could evoke such an emotional reaction, and thinking, “Now this – THIS is a prize worthy book.” I’m pretty sure the waitresses thought I was crazy, but because they are sweeties and I eat there often they just brought me some extra napkins and pretended not to notice my blubbering. I left a particularly good tip.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book #3: Age of Innocence

I think I have a new bff and her name is Edith Wharton. Yes she is all dead and stuff but she wrote this amazing book that made me all gasp out loud and that means I adore her.

I am pretty sure that a 30-year-old woman reading Age of Innocence for the first time must be similar to how a 14-year-old girl feels reading something like Twilight for the first time. Teens enjoy being sucked into romantic irrationality and adults love being sucked into romantic rationality. I suppose that is because teens are self-centered and adults are gluttons for punishment? This book was definitely full of punishment, imprisonment, and injustice all set against the insanely addictive (and rigid) atmosphere of upper-class late 1800s Manhattan.

I don't want to dish out a ton of spoilers because I really do think that all of you should take out a weekend and read this book. 

Besides the tense and intricate plot, my favorite part about this book were the characters. So far we are have read two other books about Victorian-era America (or relics of that era living in the 20th century) but this is the first time we get a truly deep look into the Victorian mindset. It is easy to criticize an entire culture of people who seem to do nothing except sit around gossiping about one another, until you realize that their entire existence truly depends on what they think of one another and the preservation of their society's strict standards. Author Edith Wharton does a great job of allowing us to feel annoyed at the fussiness of their world while still fully understanding the characters' panicky attempts to stay fully engrossed in "proper society." Every time I wanted to smack or shake a character for a seemingly ridicu-stupid-ilious decision, the next paragraph made me totally grasp their point of view. I never agreed, but I understood. Even the most hard headed character is just a genuinely well intentioned victim of circumstance.

The feminist stance of the book's main character, Archer, is admirable but definitely to be attributed to the female author. He wasn't a fake feminist like you get in some other books. He really and truly did believe in the equal value of women's opinions, right to freedom, capacity for intelligence, and so much more. My only real criticism of this poor old sap is that he is just a really emotional soul who is easily frustrated and way too easily offended which leaves him prone to goofy outbursts and massive conclusion jumping. As proof of his feminism, he loses his patience and wigs out on men and women equally.

I don't have much else to say about this book. I'm not feeling super retrospective at the moment. From start to finish this was a very solid novel so maybe I'm just better at insults than I am at compliments.

Oh, one particularly funny little plot device was the xenophobia of Americans. This stood out because, once again, a Pulitzer author was going out of their way to truly embrace the Americanism of its characters. No longer immigrants or even the grandchildren of immigrants, these Pulitzer novels are about Americans who are not just proud of their nationality, but feel that it is deep rooted. Comments like "Why would anyone want a French tutor?" and the observation that when an American tourist goes abroad, he just should go above and beyond to make sure he doesn't interact with any locals really made me giggle. Not much has changed in that regard! The annoying and bullish American tourist is as old as the telegraph and the steam-powered yacht. Distrust of foreigners and their odd ways is very central to the entire story.

One last note: Read this book. If you don't like it, feel free to come back to this post and tell me why. We don't need to agree but I would love to hear from someone who was less than impressed with this novel.

Quick note on "The Magnificent Ambersons"

I didn't realize that The Magnificent Ambersons is not only book 2 on our reading list, it is also book 2 of a trilogy! Once this challenge is over, I just might go back and read the first and last of the trilogy to see if it in any way changes my opinion of the second book. I don't really want to, but I feel like that would be the fair thing to do. Maria?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The "Magnificent" Ambersons

Warning: spoilers ahead. (Not that I'm recommending that you should ever waste your time reading this book, but if you somehow really had your heart set on it, skip this blog because it will ruin the ending for you. Inasmuch as a crappy book can be ruined, that is.)

Over the course of The Magnificent Ambersons, young George Amberson Minafer, or Georgie, has the following bad things happen to him:
  • His father dies.
  • Things don't work out with a girl he sort-of loves.
  • His mother dies.
  • His grandfather dies.
  • He loses absolutely all of his money (which wasn't really his anyway) and his personal belongings.
  • And he gets unceremoniously run over by a car, crushing both of his legs and maybe also some internal organs. At the close of the novel it is unclear whether or not he will ever recover from this accident, but the prognosis is not great.
What does it say about young G. A. Minafer, who has so many tragic things happen to him, that when that car hit him I was like, "WHOO YEAH! Get that little jerk!" I admit I was disappointed that he survived, and that the accident wasn't even more horrible. I wanted gore! Fantastic, elaborate, magnificent gore! There was, after all, a LOT of potential with a nitro-glycerin factory that proved to be all misdirection. Oh, well.

Spare the Rod, Raise an Asshole

I just finished The Magnificent Ambersons and really feel like I could have gone my entire life without having ever become acquainted with (even just in the literary sense) this family full of assholes.

I would say pardon the cursing but, I really don't care because there is no other way to describe  the Ambersons except to say that they are a family full of ridiculously pompous and silly assholes. I would like to believe that Booth Tarkington, the author, grew up knowing a similar family. Perhaps he needed to write this book in order to forever purge them from his memory. I totally understand therapeutic pursuits and can totally respect Mr. Tarkington if that was his goal here. What I don't understand is why he had to PUBLISH the damned thing and make the rest of us have to endure this awful family of, yes, assholes.

I know in my last post I said that a sign of great writing is if your characters can bring your readers to anger. I still stand by that but I no longer will be giving that out as a compliment. Not unless you make every single of one of those hair-ripping-out-worthy characters die some terrible and awful death. Had this entire book ended in a zombie apocalypse with the insufferable Georgie Amberson Milner being eaten very slowly in an elaborate buffet scene, that still would have been too gentle of a demise for this ASSHOLE.

Okay, so why did I hate little Georgie so much?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Thank You, Betty Friedan

Once upon a time ago my friend Sara sent me an email that went something like this: 

So I checked out the first season of Mad Men from the library and watched it last week. All I have to say about that is, "Thank you, Betty Friedan!"

That is precisely how I feel about the first-ever Pulitzer winner for fiction, His Family, by Ernest Poole.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Book #1: His Family by Ernest Poole

Aren't I an eager thing? Day 1 has come to a close and I have already knocked out the first book on our list, His Family by Ernest Poole.

Prior to this challenge, I had never heard of this book. It takes place in pre-war New York City and revolves around, well, a family. It really is as simple and complicated as just that: a story about a family. But of course because this book was published in 1917 and takes place in 1914, it is really a story about an old man who is watching the world around him change from the elegant and refined Victorian era of his youth into the wild and lusty Jazz age that is soon to come. What makes this book an especially interesting ride is that the author, due to his lack of possession of a time machine, has no clue what Jazz or Flappers or The Roaring 20s are. From his frozen moment in history, he can only share with the readers all of the symptoms of this era that we know is soon to come. As a bonus, we get introduced to America's first "Helicopter Mom" who is dedicated to hovering over her oversocialized and painfully commercialized children. We also get to read about changes in attitudes about education of children, the modern woman, women's suffrage, the NYC skyline, the NYC subway system, and the main character's horror at the increasing diversity of NYC.

Actually, to call his reaction "horror" is a pretty poor way to put it. Roger Gale, the patriarch of the family and the main character, behaves a bit like a nervous small dog throughout most of the book.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

What have I gotten myself into?

In less than 2 hours, our Pulitzer challenge will officially begin. What started as an enthusiastic (and perhaps poorly thought out) reply to Maria's Facebook status has turned into a 12 month long commitment.  How do I get myself into these things??? Who knows. But a more productive question would be, what do I plan to get out of this thing?

I think I will come out of this one a much better person with a well rounded understanding of the progression of 20th century literature. What was considered ground breaking in 1918? 1919? How did tastes and standards shift as wars and technology changed the face of our world's nations? Are any plot lines considered timeless? Will I be able to pick up on jokes that would have been considered obvious at the time they were written? Will all of these books be horrifically boring and dated as a result of not having proven themselves classics for more than one flash in the pan moment the year they were published? (I really hope not...)

So many questions! And lucky for me, I have a whole year to figure them out. And so it begins!

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Challenge

Sometimes when I'm in a bookstore or library and have no idea what to choose from the shelves, I wander into the literature section, pull out my handy dandy smart phone, Google, "Pulitzer winners fiction," and spend a few minutes poring over one of the most elite lists in American fiction. This is how I found The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I loved, and this is also how I found Tinkers, which I did not love. It's how I learned that Gone with the Wind won the prize in 1937 (who knew?), and how I learned that sometimes collections of short stories win.

Being a nerd who has always taken pride in a self-proclaimed broad(ish) range of knowledge, a thought occurred to me among the shelves one day, "Wouldn't it be cool to read them ALL?" That thought was followed closely by this one, "Oh right! Who has the time?" I mean, let's get serious, that's a LOT of books. (85, to be exact.) Some of them are quite intimidating. (I'm looking at you, Norman Mailer.) And you know, I have a life. School, work, family, friends, boyfriend, yoga, cooking, napping, you name it! And although I put the thought aside at the time, it was always there in the back of my mind. Lurking. Waiting for just the right moment.

A few weeks ago I found myself in a familiar spot: the literature section of a local bookstore. I turned to my trusty smart phone to see who won the 2012 fiction category and was surprised to find that no award had been granted. Incredulous, I thought, "Can they even do that?" Well yes, as it turns out, they can. They have done it quite a bit actually. Eleven times in all, including this year. I figured that out because I ended up entering all of the prizewinning works into an ultra-nerdy Excel spreadsheet with other details about each book. Like the number of pages (nerd alert! I had to manually look those up), if I'd ever read it before, and if the author was a man or a woman. I learned some interesting things:
  1. Of the 85 winners, I've already read eleven (I am a literary genius!): Gone With the Wind, The Old Man and the Sea, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lonesome Dove, The Hours, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Middlesex, The Road, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Tinkers, and A Visit from the Goon Squad.
  2. An approximate total page count for all 85 works is just over 34,000. I had to guess at a couple that are out of print. To read them all in a year's time, you have to average 94 pages per day.
  3. The Pulitzer for fiction has only been awarded to women on 29 occasions, and no woman has ever won more than once - unlike Messrs. Tarkington, Faulkner and Updike, who've each won it twice.
Because I'm a social media over-sharer, I posted this to my Facebook page, "Since 1917, 85 novels have won the Pulitzer prize for fiction. If I told you I was going to read them all in one year (which averages out to 94 pages per day), do you think I could do it?" I got 30-odd comments with some major encouragement. And a volunteer partner who you'll hear more from very soon. (And thank God someone is going to do this with me, because frankly A Confederacy of Dunces has me shaking in my boots!)

The rules are simple: We will each read every book in chronological order and blog along the way. We start June 1, 2012 and have until May 31, 2013 to get through 34,000 pages of award-winning American literature. Please read along with us, share your thoughts on the books, and send words of encouragement. Or, you know, laugh at what could easily turn into a hair-ripping-out experience of unprecedented magnitude.