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.