Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever, 1979

This book is a must-have for the short-story aficionado's' library. The majority of stories are well-written with great humor, imagery, irony, tragedy - you name it. Some knowledge of Cheever's background and life gives perspective to his flavor of Americana depicted in these vignettes.

I recommend reading this book at leisurely pace or considering reading a novel simultaneously. It contains over 60 stories in 700 pages, and to read them in rapid succession can be tedious.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

2000: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of nine short stories that all involve Indians – some immigrants in America, some in their homeland. A lot of these stories deal with displacement and isolation, but, needless to say, you don’t need to be Indian, or to be an immigrant, to be able to relate to the emotions they convey. All you need is to have experienced loneliness, loss, longing, intimacy, sorrow or joy in the many ways in which they come – in short, all you need is to be human.

Using a language that is subtle, precise, and disarming in its simplicity, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about unhappy couples, happy ones, affairs, a child’s perception of war, youth and old age, emptiness, satisfaction, frustration, dreams both lost and come true.

Most of these stories really touched me. The first, “A Temporary Matter”, is about a couple whose baby was born dead, and who now have to deal with their grief and with the increasing distance that separates them. When they get a letter warning them that the power will be cut between 8 and 9pm for a week due to some repair work, they begin to use that hour of darkness to tell each other things they had been holding back, and thus to regain some of their lost intimacy. The story ends with revelations that change things forever, and it made me feel such loss on behalf of the characters. It did what the best fiction does – it put me temporarily in the skin of another.

In “Sexy”, a young American woman named Miranda is having an affair with a married Indian man named Dev. We experience all the longing, bittersweetness and ambiguity of her situation along with her, until, when babysitting a young Indian boy, she is told what the word “sexy” means to a child, and consequentially begins to see her relationship in a different light.

“Mrs. Sen's” is a story about homesickness and displacement. Through the perspective of an eleven-year-old boy named Eliot, we witness Mrs Sen’s struggle to adjust to a way of life that is different from everything she has ever known.

The last story, “The Third and Final Continent”, is about growing intimacy and finding a place to call home. The protagonist leaves India for England and then for America. Before going to America, he gets married. The marriage is arranged by his and his bride’s families, and his wife is to join him in American when her papers are ready. In the meantime, he rents a room at Mrs. Croft’s house, and is very surprised to learn that his landlady is 103 years old. It is in the presence of his elderly lady that he and his wife begin to overcome the awkwardness of being two strangers married to each other, and to truly become a couple.

Jhumpa Lahiri is clearly a writer of great perception, and of equally great precision. Nothing in her stories is overstated, and her wording is always exactly right. What really won me over, though, was how superb her characterization is. All her characters are painfully human. Interpreter of Maladies is well worth reading.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Intro: Pulitzer Winners I've Read So Far...

So far, Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, is my favorite read of all time.

It's great to find fellow Pulitzer Prize groupies - these are the Fiction winners I have read so far:

  1. 1925 - So Big (Ferber)
  2. 1939 - The Yearling (Rawlings)
  3. 1940 - The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
  4. 1947 - All the King’s Men (Warren)
  5. 1958 - A Death in the Family (Agee)
  6. 1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
  7. 1972 - Angle of Repose (Stegner)
  8. 1980 - The Executioner’s Song (Mailer)
  9. 1981 - A Confederacy of Dunces (Toole)
  10. 1982 - Rabbit is Rich (Updike)
  11. 1983 - The Color Purple (Walker)
  12. 1984 - Ironweed (Kennedy)
  13. 1988 - Beloved (Morrison)
  14. 1989 - Breathing Lessons (Tyler)
  15. 1991 - Rabbit at Rest (Updike)
  16. 1994 - The Shipping News (Proulx)
  17. 1995 - The Stone Diaries (Shields)
  18. 1999 - The Hours (Cunningham)
  19. 2002 - Empire Falls (Russo)
  20. 2003 - Middlesex (Eugenides)
  21. 2005 - Gilead (Robinson)
I'll post my reviews gradually - I'm looking forward to reading the reviews from other readers...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Margaret's Introduction & 1972 Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

I’m Margaret from BooksPlease blog. I’ve only read a few of the Pulitzer Prize winners, so this is a good opportunity to read some more, without any pressure or deadlines. The prize-winning books I’ve read so far are:

1940 - The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
1972 - Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
1988 – Beloved, Toni Morrison
1995 - The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
1999 - The Hours, Michael Cunningham
2006 – March, Geraldine Brooks

Apart from Angle of Repose I read these books before I started writing my blog. This is what I wrote about Angle of Repose, which Stegner based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote.

"This book won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. It is the story of Lyman Ward, a wheelchair bound retired historian who is writing his grandparents' life history and also gradually reveals his own story. I now know much more about the early days of the opening up of America's western frontier than I learnt from TV cowbow series and films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid etc. The story is of Oliver Ward's struggles with various mining and engineering construction jobs, contrasted with Susan Ward's efforts to support him against great difficulties. This is made more difficult when she compares her life with that of her New York society friend, Augusta.

It's a long book, but completely enthralling. There are long letters from Susan to her friends which I think are taken directly from Mary Foote's own letters and these are such descriptive letters that I could imagine what life was really like at that time and place. My only criticism is that I felt the ending came too quickly and was too compacted. I wanted to know more about Susan and Oliver. It was as though Lyman became too disappointed with how their life turned out, or maybe it was because he was too engrossed in his own problems, his illness and difficulties in his personal life.”

The only other book by Stegner that I’ve read is Crossing To Safety, which is a great book. I wrote about it here.

I read the Grapes of Wrath whilst at school, so I may have to re-read this sometime. The rest I’ve read over the last two years apart from Beloved (which I loved), which I read about 10 years ago. I have a copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker, so I think I’ll read that first. Depending on which books I can find (borrow) I’d also like to read at least:

1953 The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1994 - The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Bethany's Intro and Progress

I am bethany from B&b ex libris, and am very excited to be joining you all in this project. I am not sure that I will be very fast at this, but that is not the point, is it now? So, I will post below my progress and my goals!

Pulitzer's that I have read already:
2006 - March (Brooks) (finished OCT 2007)
2000 - Interpreter of Maladies (Lahiri) (finished Sept. 2004)
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee) (Finished Dec, 1996)
1939 - The Yearling (Rawlings) (?)

Pulitzer's that I own and will be on my reading list:
2005 - Gilead (Robinson)
2001 - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Chabon)
1999 - The Hours (Cunningham)
1988 - Beloved (Morrison)
1975 - The Killer Angels (Shaara)

1923: One of Ours by Willa Cather

I’ve lived in Nebraska and know well the rolling landscape, the hard-working but easy-going people who farm and ranch the land there. Willa Cather’s prose, as far as I’m concerned, reflects perfectly their characters. That is the first impression that a reader takes away from One of Ours. And its protagonist, Claude Wheeler, reminds me of young people I’ve met there, who love their state and their families, but somehow don’t quite fit in. While Cather was writing about the turn of the 20th century, the story could indeed have taken place over 50 years later.

Claude’s pragmatic father doesn’t see the necessity, for a farmer, of too much education. Thus, Claude has to forego completing his college degree, and forsaking he friends, much different from those at home, he’s made in Lincoln. His mother, a more or less fundamentalist Christian (although the movement itself within Christianity hadn’t yet begun), is quite sensitive to Claude’s moods and aspirations; her emotional pain on behalf of her son is almost physical. Claude, as would be expected of a young man his age, marries—only to have his wife go to China to help her sister. His emotional desolation is nearly complete; he wonders if that’s all there is to life—getting up in the morning, working, going to bed at night. It may satisfy friends his age who ask nothing better than to farm their own land, but Claude longs for something more—what, he’s not sure but something.

Then World War I erupts in Europe. Claude and his mother follow the war through the newspapers and maps they pore over together. When the United States enters the war, Claude enlists—and finds his place in the world.

Cather describes the effect of the war on France and its people. She also writes about little-known facts, such as the toll sickness took of the soldiers on the way over, many dying from pneumonia. She has interesting details about what it was like for the soldiers to live under wartime conditions—bathing in polluted water in shell holes was a nice touch. There is some description—not much—of the fighting but it fits in with her story. Clearly she was more interested in what happened to the people, both French and the Allied soldiers, than she was in the details of the fighting itself.

The last pages break your heart. I think you have to be a stone to be unmoved.

For a relatively short book—371 pages in my edition, One of Ours is beautifully evocative of a time, a place, and a young man’s successful search for himself. One of the best of the early Pulitzer winners.

Friday, March 7, 2008

1922: Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington

Alice Adams is a morality tale about a socially ambitious young woman and her family in a Midwestern city. The family is middle-class, and sliding down in the economic scale. The father has worked in the same job for 20 years and is content. The mother, ambitious for her children, bitterly blames the father for not having made more of himself, for not thinking of his children’s social futures and therefore not having any gumption to do better. Her entire life is focused on her children, especially Alice, being part of upper-class society. The mother is convinced that money and money alone will make the difference and constantly badgers the father to do better.

Alice pours nearly all her energy into making a good “catch”. Quite popular a few years ago, the gentleman callers have vanished. Still, she practices gestures and facial expressions in front of the mirror, works hard at making over clothes (actually, dictating directions to her mother) to keep fashionable, spending all she can on accessories and clothes. She visits a well-to-do friend and basically worms her way into receiving invitations to society events.

Her brother Walter is a bitter young man who hates the situation in which he finds himself, loathes the ‘swells’ that Alice courts so assiduously, and hangs around with a crowd that his mother in particular finds appalling.

A new young man comes to town and is attracted to Alice, who goes all out to land him. But as we see increasingly in her dialogue with him, she misrepresents herself and her family and is terrified of what he will find out from his well-connected society relations.

Meanwhile, her father, goaded beyond endurance by the nagging mother, decides to leave the firm for which he has worked and start a glue factory, using a formula that can be rightly said to belong to his former employer.

The book has a double climax: a dinner party given by the mother for Alice’s young man and the outcome of the father’s business enterprise.

There are no surprises here—in a morality tale, the outcomes are guaranteed. That wouldn’t be a problem if the book were as well written as The Magnificent Ambersons, but in my opinion, it isn’t. The Magnificent Ambersons was a complex story, enriched by Tarkington’s observations on the transformation of a small Midwestern town into and industrialized city and the social changes that accompanied the growth. Alice Adams has a much narrower focus, and while the writing at times is excellent—the description of the dinner party is superb—there is no tension to the story because the reader knows perfectly well how it has to end. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for 1922, it really suffers by comparison, both in plot, style, and excellence in writing by the previous winner, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. It’s a good read if your goal is to read the Pulitzer winners. Otherwise, I feel it’s not worth the effort.