Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington 1919

In 1919, the Pulitzer Prize for literature was awarded to Booth Tarkington for The Magnificent Ambersons.  The Magnificent Ambersons is set in an unnamed town in Indiana, where the Ambersons are the most prominent citizens, and is the story of the young scion of the family, George Amberson Minifer.  George is the handsome, much indulged, grandson and heir of the Amberson patriarch.  George's mother, the lovely Isabel, made two mistakes in her life: she refused to marry the love of her life after he made himself look ridiculous one night, and she saw her son as a little angel instead of the holy terror he actually was.  He repays her love with a love of his own so selfish that he prevents her from reuniting as a widow with her first love.  Sadly, the early comparison that came to my mind and took up permanent residence was that George reminded me of Donald Trump, though George remained a gentleman throughout.  Having such an unpleasant protagonist nearly spoiled the book for me.

The Magnificent Ambersons is another book of its era.  Changing times and changing fortunes were key themes in the novel.  In fact, the entire town (and me) were waiting for the comeuppance of our anti-hero.  When financial disaster does finally strike on the heels of his mother's death, George withdraws from society and takes on the very dangerous trade of making and hauling explosives, since "My nerves are good; I'm muscular, and I've got a steady hand."  Surprisingly, he does very well at the work, and is able to take care of his maiden aunt with a gentlemanly politeness he had never previously shown to her.  His downfall is entrenched by his Sunday walks, when he sees the old emblems of his youthful Amberson pride being destroyed in the quest to modernize the city.

I would have been happy for the book to end there, but Tarkington did not agree.  So after being badly injured, not at work, but during his pedestrian wanderings, George is reunited with Lucy, his only love.  Fittingly enough, he was injured by the most signal harbinger of change of the era, a car.  Naturally, Lucy is the rich daughter of his mother's first flame (it's a small town).  She had dumped him before his fall because he had been planning to become a dilettante; and, most especially, because he was so rotten to her dear Papa.  When reunited after his accident, George takes the opportunity to apologize to her father for his baseless interference, making his redemption as complete as it can be for someone who is still basically a snob.

Tarkington's writing is very easy to read and his words bring alive a time now long gone.  His characterizations are excellent. When I wasn't making comparisons to Donald Trump, George reminded me unpleasantly of all the nasty rich kid antagonists that never came to a good end in the works of Horatio Alger.  Much like in His Family, each member of the Ambersons is fully drawn, flaws and all.  Again, character development took pride of place over plot.  It would seem that the same standards were applied for the awarding of the first two Pulitzer prizes: good, solid writing, vivid imagery, and telling a universal story.

So, how does The Magnificent Ambersons stack up against His Family?

Most Enjoyable
His Family - Ernest Poole
The Magnificent Ambersons - Booth Tarkington

Easy to Read
The Magnificent Ambersons - Booth Tarkington
His Family - Ernest Poole

Best Characters
His Family - Ernest Poole
The Magnificent Ambersons - Booth Tarkington

Best Plot
His Family - Ernest Poole
The Magnificent Ambersons - Booth Tarkington

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

His Family by Ernest Poole - 1918

The first Pulitzer prize for literature was awarded to Ernest Poole for His Family in 1918.  His Family is set in New York, and is the story of elderly Roger Gale and his three daughters:  Edith, the devoted mother of 5, Deborah, the spinster with a zeal for social work rivaling that of Jane Addams, and the youngest, Laura, a frivolous socialite.  From a modern perspective, it seems clear that each daughter's persona is a reaction to the early loss of their mother, each in her own individual way.  Edith wants to be just like her mother, Deborah wants to fill the mother-gap in her life with purpose and meaning, and Laura wants to make up for everything she missed by not having a mother. Their father's grief for their mother, and his desire to fulfill her dying wishes, is a recurring theme; however, I am not sure it occurred to people in the early years of the 20th Century to look for any sort of psychological cause and effect.

His Family is very much a book for its era.  It begins shortly before the onset of World War I; a time of relentless upheaval, when massive amounts of immigration was changing the very fabric of New York.  This change both troubles Roger Gale, and makes him feel more alive.  He finds his eldest daughter somewhat irritating, with her constant, "It's what Mother would have wished."  His youngest is almost beyond his comprehension. (How can she not want to have children!?)  But Deborah draws him into her world, the teeming city where so much work remains to be done.  He practically adopts a young disabled man, who could have stepped out of the pages of a Horatio Alger novel, especially when the young man's hard work and pluck ends up rescuing Roger Gale's livelihood from almost certain disaster.

There is a clarity and vividness to Poole's writing that reminds me of his contemporary, Willa Cather.  Their words bring alive a time now long gone, and show us what a vibrant age it really was.  Poole's characterization is excellent.  Each member of the family is fully drawn, flaws and all.  There was more character development than plot, since it was nothing more than the story of the final years of one man's life.  One of the things I am looking for in this survey of the Pulitzers is how the winners have changed over time.  Clearly, in the World War I era, good solid writing, telling a universal story with vivid imagery, was highly prized.

Well, I have to start the rankings somewhere, but I highly doubt His Family, good as it is, will hang onto its top spot in every category for long.

Most Enjoyable
His Family - Ernest Poole

Easy to Read
His Family - Ernest Poole

Best Characters
His Family - Ernest Poole

Best Plot
His Family - Ernest Poole


Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Pulitzer Challenge

I'm retiring after 30 years on the job this week and I decided I need an intellectual challenge to defrag my brain.  The past few years I have read regency fan-fiction of the Darcy and Elizabeth variety almost exclusively.  Now that I will have some extra time on my hands, I declare my days of purely escapist literature are hereby over.

I think if I were to jump straight into Plato, my big plans would curl up and die in short order.  I need to build up my attention span, and what better place to start then the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction?  There are 90 winners to date, and we own well over half of the titles already.  I have read about 16 of them in the past, and they were all solid reads.  (In comparison, I have read a number of the Mann Booker prize winners, and a few were really out there!)  I am planning to read the Pulitzer's in order by prize year, re-reading the ones I have read previously.

I will be ranking the winners in various, still to be determined, categories like most enjoyable, easy to read, best characterization, best plot, etc.  I am also planning to write a short review of each book as I finish reading it.  I have already finished the first winner, His Family by Ernest Poole, which won the prize in 1918, and I will post a review on it this week.

I am looking forward to getting deeper into this challenge, and welcome anyone who wants to join me on my journey.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Spin List for March

I didn't post this in time for the spin, but I already had the list ready to go.  I haven't checked to see what #8 is in my list yet... Here goes:
  1. How German is It Abish
  2. A Death in the Family Agee
  3. Humboldt's Gift Bellow
  4. G Berger
  5. The Chaneysville Incident Bradley
  6. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain  Butler
  7. The Green Lantern Charyn
  8. The Woman in White Collins
  9. The Inheritance of Loss Desai
  10. The Reivers Faulkner
  11. The Keepers of the House Grau
  12. Snow Falling on Cedars Guterson
  13. The Way West  Guthrie
  14. Mrs. Kimball Haigh
  15. The Bone People Hulme
  16. Brave New World Huxley
  17. The Executioner's Song Mailer
  18. Lonesome Dove McMurtry
  19. Tales of the South Pacific Michener
  20. Lolita Nabakov
And the winner is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  Good gracious it's huge!  After reading the back cover, I guess it is not about a nurse.  lol

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Plato's Republic

The Republic was the most difficult book I have ever read.  It took me two months of concerted effort to complete, and I feel as if new grooves had to be dug into my brain to get the job done.  Mostly I learned that my brain wants to vociferously resist any kind of improvement of this sort.  My eyes will water and my mouth will hinge into gaping yawns after two pages.  I had to read, and re-read, then re-read again, most of the entire book.  I apparently have the attention span of a gnat.  But the more I read, the more I was drawn in.  It is not a book one just reads; it must be studied and puzzled over, discussed and studied again.  It was a transformative experience.  Mediocre reads I had previously enjoyed seem exceptionally lame now, like I have been spoiled for them.
 
The Republic surprised me on many levels.  Many concepts that I thought came straight out of Catholicism actually had their basis in the philosophy of Socrates.  The cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and the underpinnings of Catholic social justice teaching, were directly codified by Plato.  Who knew?  And though Socrates gave lip service to “the gods,” at times, he often seemed to unify them into just one.  Also, the story of “Er” while fully supporting reincarnation, definitely gives credence to an early form of Purgatory as well.  And this is all 400 years before the birth of Christ.

I found the portion discussing the various political states very illuminating.  Socrates’ explanation of why a meritocracy will devolve into an oligarchy, which will then devolve into democracy and finally into tyranny is almost chillingly prescient.  It was very odd to see any other form of government held up as being superior to democracy, but his reasoning, of course, is very sound, since he considers democracy a sort of mob-rule.  Surprisingly, Socrates also appears to have believed somewhat in the equality of the sexes, or at least, that exceptional woman could compete on a male playing field.


The Republic is worth all the effort it took to absorb.  I understand now why it is considered a foundational work in the western literary cannon.  It is amazing that so much well-reasoned thought came from a single source.  We are lucky that it has survived, when so many other works perished.  The world would be a completely different place if everyone read Plato; it certainly deserves a place on every classicist’s short list.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Spin Review of The Known World

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 2004, set in the years prior to the Civil War in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, describes the rich tapestry of characters and events that take place after the death of black slave owner, Henry Townsend.  Purchased out of slavery during his youth by his parents, Townsend goes on to later purchase land near his former master, with whom he retains ties of esteem throughout his entire brief life.  Educated by a local freed-woman teacher so light-skinned she could go north to “pass,” Townsend does not follow the path of his free father, but rather purchases slaves to become a master himself.


Throughout the novel, Jones unflinchingly reveals the little known history of black on black slave ownership, as well as the subtle racism of lighter skinned versus darker skinned blacks.  Townsend’s widow, Caldonia, is beset by the pressures of running a plantation in the antebellum south, without the full backing of the law, which only supports freed blacks when it is convenient to do so.  Jones’ depiction of the lives of the Townsend slaves, as well as those of the local sheriff and slave catchers, creates a compelling tale that masterfully weaves in and out of time and place with touches of the surreal.  Things do not always develop as one might expect in Manchester County, some people are better than you would think, and others behave very badly indeed, and sometimes the crazy are proved to understand it best of all.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Spin #19 - The Known World

Oh no, I tried reading that one before and gave up!  I'll have to try much harder this time.

The Known World is by Edward P. Jones, and won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner.  It is my lucky #19, which I will endeavor to read before February 1, 2016.  Wish me luck.

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington 1919

In 1919, the Pulitzer Prize for literature was awarded to Booth Tarkington for The Magnificent Ambersons .   The Magnificent Ambersons  is s...