April 9, 2012

Before I began my quest to read all Pulitzer Prize winning works of fiction, I had read 14 of the wiinners. At that time there were 83, leaving 69 to read. In the past four years I have read the remaining now 73 (along with 13 other assorted books) so my quest is complete… for one week until the next winner is announced!!

Hoping to finish Steve Jobs bio before the new winner is made public.

Latest Update

March 6, 2010

I recently finished The Town by Conrad Richter. It was 4.8 or 4.9 great. A full discussion will be forthcoming shortly!

Little That’s Sublime, Much That’s Ridiculous… Last Night in Twisted River – John Irving

February 11, 2010

I’ve been a John Irving fan since Garp, after which I read his previous five novels: Setting Free the Bears, The 158 Lb. Marriage, etc. I enjoyed them all, but post-Garp I began to have some trouble with his books. Hotel New Hampshire and A Prayer for Owen Meany’s situations were so ridiculous, they made me crazy. Later, A Widow for One Year, caught my attention and I thought it was an excellent book and a major return to form.

As mentioned above, what sent me over the edge about some of Irving’s work was that the situations and scenarios were patently ridiculous and major plot points were built around pointless happenings. Farting dogs come quickly, and unfortunately, to mind. Last Night in Twisted River waits 50 or 60 pages before beginning to get ridiculous, it then, however, dives in with both feet. SPOILER ALERT: Danny kills Injun Jane with a skillet, when he’s eight years old?? The Cowboy believes that he must have killed her because he can’t remember that he didn’t??

The idea that the lowlife sheriff (the Cowboy, mentioned earlier) would track Dominic Baciagalupa, AKA the cook and the nominal main character, and his son Danny through their whole lives to try to kill them, not because Danny had killed Injun Jane, the Cowboy’s girlfriend, (which the Cowboy didn’t know at the time, but later found out), but because Dominic was sleeping with her, is ridiculous. The idea that Danny thought his father was being mauled by a bear when he was having sex with Injun Jane is ridiculous. The thought that Pam, AKA Lady Sky, would skydive naked into a pig slop is ridiculous. The entire Ketchum character is ridiculous. To think that he would spend his whole life trying to protect Dominic and Danny, Ketchum’s former romantic rival and that rival’s son respectively, makes one’s eyes roll.

The dead bear smell, the incessant faxing, the FARTING DOG, the touching only with the right hand, the cutting off of the left hand… all crazy. Yet, in this case, I bought every bit of it. LNITR was such an entertaining, enjoyable, funny, crazy ride that I went with it. Even if the plot telegraphed itself hundreds of pages in advance, I didn’t care. We know Cowboy will kill Dominic, we know Joe will die in an accident, we know Ketchum will kill himself, and we know that Lady Sky will reappear, each one long before we have any right to. Yet, when it all happens in doesn’t seem predictable, it seems predestined.

The passage where Dot and May show up at Dominic’s workplace, which puts him on the run from the Cowboy again, is ridiculously coincidental and not at all believable… and yet, it works. The book is not overtly Carl Hiassen crazy, laugh out loud weird. Dare I say, it is slightly more subtle than that. And, undeniably the details about cooking and logging are fascinating, as are the vignettes of rural life in the Northern climes.

I would definitely recommend this book for its well-drawn, (if sometimes ridiculous) characters, the quality of the writing, the cleverness of the plotting (even when it was telegraphing itself, this reader was thinking, “that’s darn clever!”) the quality of the (cooking and logging) research and the entertainment factor. This book straddles the line between popular fiction and literature, and rarely is literature this much fun. Read it if you like Irving, read it if you like some of Irving, or read it if you are looking for a good time from a generally seriously intentioned work.

Unofficial (Since this isn’t a Pulitzer Prize winner) RogerRater Score (1-5): 4.1

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Wait, Wasn’t There a War Going On? Guard of Honor – James Gould Cozzens

January 28, 2010

 Check that memo, answer the phone, go flying, drink, smoke, talk, cover for the General, worry about the Negro officers… but wait, isn’t this is a war novel – a World War II, A.K.A. The Big One – war novel? Where’s the war? We never get to experience a battle, a skirmish, a bombing, a dogfight, a raid, a shooting, a sinking, a… nothing. We do get to experience ADMINISTRATION.

Like Andersonville, Guard of Honor is long, but unlike Andersonville which pulled me through its length on sheer dazzling beauty and excitement, Cozzens’ novel drags. We meet most of the main characters on a plane piloted by the Commander of their base, AFORAD in central Florida, in the first few pages. As they are landing, a bomber lands in front of them and nearly causes them to crash. Once landed, a hothead on the endangered plane punches the pilot of the bomber in the nose. That pilot is black and there ensues some racial hand wringing, some exploration of southern racial prejudices, and a demonstration by the black pilots who are kept out of the base’s Officers’ Club.

A large cast of characters populates this novel, yet none really generates any interest. Captain Duchemin is the standard issue slimy ladies’ man. Colonel Ross is the “What am I doing here?” judge, who has allowed his underage son to join the military against his wife’s wishes. (A storyline which, while intriguing, goes nowhere.) Captain Hicks is a journalist who is potentially going to write a PR piece for the base. General Beal is a standard issue loner cowboy pilot and Lieutenant Colonel Carricker is the aforementioned hot head.

The greatest conflict in the novel revolves around whether Hicks will get to write his piece or not, and sleep with lieutenant Turck (a WAC) or not. Beyond that, the racial tension disappears, and we spend hundreds of pages reading about how these various functionaries do their jobs. Literally. How they file, how they talk on the two phones at once, how they sometimes work long hours. All while real battles are being fought in other locales, and thankfully, in other novels.

The blurbs on the cover of this book would have us believe that it is the Great American Novel. In fact, one blurb writer was of the opinion that there was material for “several hundred movies” in this book. Perhaps, but what boring movies they would be. They might, in the hands of a creative screenwriter, however, be less boring than this long novel about the least interesting periphery of the war effort.

If you have a hankering for a World War II novel, look elsewhere for a book that may actually be about the war.

RogerRater Score (1-5): 2.5

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10000 Maniacs! The latest milestone…

January 14, 2010

I just checked my stats and this little blog has over 10,000 hits, hence the name of the post. I am shocked and stunned, as the Rutles might say. The Holidays were a major distraction from writing, but I will have a book discussion on One of Ours by Willa Cather up here by mid next week and one on Guard of Honor (I am finally almost finished. Good book, but LONG!) shortly after that.

If anyone cares, sorry for not writing for a while.

Happy not-so-new year and I’ll write soon.

A RogerRater Tabulation

December 18, 2009

I have written 17 book discussions (man, do I have a long way to go!) and rated each book on a scale of 1 to 5. I took a look at those ratings and noticed a few things: the ratings range from 1.0 (House Made of Dawn) to 5.0 (All the King’s Men and Angle of Repose) with several 4.9s thrown in for good measure (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Road, The Fixer). Of course, that range makes sense since I set the scale at 1 to 5! I admit, however, that I did not expect to come across a book that I would deem a 1. Thank you, N. Scott Nomaday.

The average rating of all the books I’ve written about has been 3.95, which reflects the obvious high quality of these works. I began this journey looking for a way to be sure that the books I was reading were worthwhile. Clearly, I have found that. I am nearly finished with One of Ours by Willa Cather (boring – in the 3.2 range) and am looking forward to embarking on Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens.

If I were to guess the average rating for all the Pulitzer Prize winners I’ve read, including those not written about or rated yet (another 36 or so!), I would place it at slight over 4.0. It is hard to go wrong with these gems.

More as it occurs to me, and thanks for visiting.

Truth in Packaging: A Death in the Family, James Agee

December 9, 2009

 You might suppose that a novel titled “A Death in the Family” might involve – oh say – a death – in a family. If that is your supposition, you are dead right. Not dead in the sense that  Jay, in the novel, is dead, or dead in the sense that James Agee, the author, is dead, but simply dead right. Agee actually died before this book was published. He died, more important, before the book was finished.

Its editors have made certain decisions about where passages should appear in the book, and those passages are set in italics. The tone of those chapters is completely different from the rest of the book, and although they are very compelling, they frequently seem out of place. Most involve the thought process of the six year old boy at the center of the novel, Rufus Follett, Jay’s son. Agee lost his father at age six as well, and we may be reading the very thoughts and fears that Agee himself had at the time.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the pride that Rufus feels at being the only boy in the neighborhood with a dead father, and how important that fact makes him, and how much attention it will bring him. His excitement at being the biggest news in town overwhelms whatever sadness he is feeling. Rufus loves recounting, to the best of his ability, the circumstances surrounding his father’s auto accident, which occurred on his way home from visiting his own ill father. Jay loses control of his car and simply hit his chin on the steering wheel and suffers a “concussion of the brain,” as we are informed repeatedly.

The non-italicized portion of the narrative describes the grinding, panicky worry when someone is late and doesn’t call, the waiting for the phone to ring, the inevitable delivery of the terrible news, the shock, the grief and the terrible process of  living moment after moment, each of which can seem like a day, with too much family around and yet not enough family around. All of these conflicting emotions are embodied in Mary, Jay’s recently widowed wife.

Having lost a grandparent when I was fairly young, I remember the scene in my home being virtually identical to that so clearly and beautifully described in this novel. One moment people are crying pitiably, the next they maybe laughing hysterically at something that isn’t particularly funny, thereby offending the more somber relations. One minute, the bereaved may want a crowd  around to help with anything and everything, the next, he or she may want to be alone – sometimes to be quiet, sometimes to sob uncontrollably.

Agee illuminates these contradictions and explores these feelings exceptionally well. But the novel is almost too literal in describing the topic set out in the title. The book’s scope is small, and its timeframe is short. The characters are a bit underdeveloped, perhaps with the exception of Jay. By the time of his death, we have grown to care greatly about him. Jay is, or has recently become, a good husband, a good father, a hard worker and a likeable, neighborly man. Tens of pages before the event, I could see the Grim Reaper heading Jay’s way and I kept rooting and hoping that Agee would fool me and kill someone else. But alas… 

Agee does give us hints of prior marital discord, hints at alcoholism in Jay’s past, hints that Mary’s parents didn’t approve of the marriage or like Jay much, but by the time of the novel – 1915 – all negativity is in the past and all seems well. Veiled references to the fact that contention over religion may, at one point, have split Mary’s family also surface, but that rift appears to have healed as well.

In the most moving scene in the  book, Mary’s non-religious brother is expressing his distaste for the preacher who officiated at Jay’s funeral to Rufus, (actually he is venting for the most part, but Rufus is walking with him) and he says that the thing that made him feel most religious at the funeral, or made him feel that God might actually exist, was the beauty of a butterfly which lowered itself into Jay’s grave and lighted above his heart. It then flew away, glinting in the sun, as the earth began closing around the casket. The butterfly is a beautiful symbol of Jay’s soul ascending to heaven, but Agee’s butterfly may also symbolize fragility and vulnerability, since Agee made much of how little it took to kill Jay, and by extension how little it would take to kill any of us. Agee also apparently wants us to see the fragility of that which we call a family. While Jay’s “family” may survive, it’s structure and definition have changed, much as Agee’s own family changed after the death of his father.

It is also ironic  that Agee died in his late 40s, leaving his wife and children with little money, and putting them, unintentionally, through the same scenes and vignettes described so poignantly in the novel. Agee, who was also a screenwriter, in a sense, scripted his own mourning period.

A Death in the Family is a beautifully written and worthwhile novel. It does not achieve the highest reaches of literary greatness, in my opinion however, because of its extremely small scope and its unwillingness to explore the grander issues – those which are only hinted at in the narrative. It is certainly worth reading, however, particularly for those who have experienced – a death in the family.

RogerRater Score (1-5): 4.2

Vinnie Miner’s Lonely Heart’s Club Bland: Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie

December 3, 2009

   Girl meets boy (reluctantly), boy meets girl (willingly), first boy dies, second girl goes crazy (unrelated to first boy dying), and party of the first part and party of the second part fly back to America.

Let’s use our decoder rings, shall we? The first girl, (actually woman) is Vinnie Miner, a middle-aged professor of Children’s Literature who is flying to her beloved London to spend many months researching nursery rhymes through first hand observation. On the plane, she meets Chuck Mumpson, an apparent rube from Oklahoma. Vinnie dislikes Chuck and determines that he is not the sort of American she’d have anything to do with.

Fred Turner is a colleague of Vinnie’s who is also in London working on an academic project and trying to forget his wife, from whom he has recently split. Vinnie is also in a bit of a tailspin because her work has been criticized as inconsequential in Atlantic Monthly, by a professor who turns out to be Fred’s wife’s father! Coincidental, a bit, but no more so than Vinnie running into Chuck several times in London, until she decides that he really is an OK sort, (pun and double meaning intended). Although Vinnie begins to appreciate Chuck’s directness and inquisitiveness, she remains mildly embarrassed by him, even as she falls in love with him.

Fred, moving in the same social circles as Vinnie, meets a famous English actress several years his senior and begins a high-intensity affair with her. The friends, the social engagements, and the parties are amusing (for the participants and the reader) and Rosemary and Fred, in parallel with Vinnie and Chuck, seem to be falling in love. When Fred asserts that he can not stay in London beyond his intended return date, so he can teach summer school, Rosemary becomes incensed and behaves strangely to say the least. In fact, the double identity, crazy as a loon, desperation scene, strains the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. Fred is bereft at his loss, but is shed of his enjoyable but inconvenient entanglement. He really wants to teach summer school!

Meanwhile, Vinnie, who is described as small (Miner, minor, children’s lit, get it?) and not attractive, begins to fret that she has not heard from Chuck, who went south to dig into his ancestry, having extended his trip to England to do so and to be with Vinnie, knowing that his wife won’t miss him. Vinnie’s insecurities surface and she fears that Chuck no longer cares, or never truly did. When she finds out that Chuck has actually died climbing  a flight of stairs in a home his ancestor once lived in, she is devastated and relieved at once. The scene in which she meets Chuck’s daughter, who is none too bright and who is in London to make arrangements, is one of the better moments in the novel.

Finally, Vinnie, having changed from the closed, self-contained, almost selfish person she is painted as earlier, takes on a final assignment in London. Through yet another convenient coincidence, Fred’s wife reaches Vinnie by phone, professes her love for Fred, and asks Vinnie to find him, deliver her message and facilitate their reconciliation. While Vinnie contemplates not complying as a way to indirectly strike at her literary tormentor, Fred’s father-in-law, the new and improved Vinnie thinks better of it and wanders out in the night to Hampstead Heath where Fred is attending a Druid walk with friends on his last night in London. Vinnie finds Fred, after much wandering, delivers his wife’s message, and Fred and Vinnie head home – Fred to his wife and presumably happier times and Vinnie to an uncertain, but almost certainly brighter future, having seen and felt the good in herself and in Chuck.

Foreign Affairs is diverting and amusing, satirizing academia, movie stars, snobbery, extra-marital affairs and more. But there is no true emotional connection with these characters. Vinnie is not an especially appealing character around which to build a novel. Her strengths are not potent enough and her faults are not grand enough. We care a little, but not a lot, about Vinnie and the rest of the characters and  finally we don’t care much about the book. Read Foreign Affairs if you ever find yourself on a long flight to London, otherwise leave Vinnie and Fred to their own devices.

RogerRater Score: (1-5) 3.8

The Fixer and The Road: A Few Thoughts

December 1, 2009

It’s been busy and I haven’t written much lately. Boo. I’ve been reading a lot though, as you can see from the Reading List page. A friend has been reading The Fixer and we’ve been discussing it and I came to the realization that it had a lot in common with The Road. Both are about people in seemingly hopeless situations, through no fault of their own.

Each, in his own way, manages to cling to hope, but more important, each holds on to his humanity in the face of his dilemma. At that point, I realized that The Road, in particular, is a parable about just that – maintaining one’s humanity no matter what the world throws at you. The Father continues to care for his son, he refuses to become a cannibal, and he lives, to the best of his ability within the framework of his values.

Perhaps there is a parallel in today’s society. Maybe the message we can take from The Road is that in the face of the current economic crisis – our little apocalypse – we can continue to live our values, help others, and not lose our humanity. Healthcare reform anyone?

Of course, those who never had any humanity to begin with, Dick Cheney, for example, are excused from today’s lesson.

A Vote of Confidence

November 10, 2009

My younger son saw me at the computer the other day and asked what I was doing. I told him I was updating my reading list. He asked about my progress and calculated that in a little more than a year I would be finished with all 83 books. He asked, “So when you are done, you will have read every Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction?”

I nodded, at which point he said, “That’s weird.”