Grounded in outmoded attitudes about class and distractingly highlighted by outmoded attitudes about race, Alice Adams has not aged well. In his 1922 Pulitzer winner, Booth Tarkington presents a heroine striving to climb the short social ladder of her Midwestern city using only her charms and well-rehearsed mannerisms.
Watching Alice struggle is painful. She has self-awareness sufficient to know she is doing things wrong, but lacks the tools to do them right. And it never seems that the game is worth the candle.
Finally, after watching Alice dither for most of the book, circumstances force her to face reality and make some difficult but intelligent decisions. The book ends on a gloriously hopeful note, which is the most redeeming feature of the story.
Also posted on Rose City Reader.
Based on a true story, The Fixer is the story of a Russian Jew who, in the early 1900s, is unjustly accused of murdering a Christian boy. Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Yakov Bok has a hard luck life as a handyman, or fixer, in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. Although political reforms following the 1905 revolution gave Jews new freedoms and political clout, life in the Pale had not improved. After his childless wife abandons him for a goy, Yakov leaves the shtetl for Kiev, where he ends up working in, and living above, a Christian-owned brick factory. With an assumed name, no papers to allow him to live in that part of the city, and anti-Jewish sentiments on the rise, Yakov is headed for trouble. . . .
(Read the rest of this review on Rose City Reader.)
Advise and Consent, Allen Drury’s 1959 Pulitzer winner, thoroughly covers the machinations of the Senate confirmation process as that august body deliberates the nomination of a controversial figure for the post of Secretary of State. Although long and sometimes exhausting, Drury’s landmark novel is a rewarding book for the patient reader.
At over 600 dense pages, this is not a quick read. The first 100 pages seem especially slow as the characters are introduced and the stage set. This behind-the-scenes look at the Senate may have been more interesting before 50 years of televised politics in general and C-SPAN in particular leached any tantalizing mystery out of Senate subcommittee hearings.
Once the story builds up steam, however, it powers right along. The candidate under consideration, peacenik Bob Leffingwell, has his avid supporters, including the somewhat Machiavellian President who nominated him. But he faces stiff opposition from those who think he will be unable to protect America on the brink of a nuclearized Cold War with an increasingly belligerent Soviet Union determined to send men to the moon to claim it as Soviet territory. While the details of the controversy seem anachronistic now, the underlying issue of diplomacy versus military might is as pertinent today as it was 50 years ago.
The rest of the review is posted on Rose City Reader.
It has been a while since I read any Pulitzer winners. To get me motivated, I even started a Battle of the Prizes challenge on my Rose City Reader blog. Since then, I am two-thirds of the way through Advise and Consent, and just finished March.
The trouble with novels about the Civil War is that they are bound to follow a requisite formula, and Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer-winning March is no exception. All the familiar scenes, themes, and elements are there: lonely letters home, the smoke-filled chaos of battle, stealing a dead person’s boots, whipping a slave, selling a slave’s family members, a slave revolt, Southern gentility, Northern rough manners, soldiers trashing the plantation, buildings burning, having no food but root vegetables, and the mandatory amputation of limbs with hand tools.
Civil War novels only distinguish themselves with what gets used to string together these common essentials. Brooks differentiates her book by . . .
(See the full review on Rose City Reader.)
The Stories of John Cheever, which won the National Book Critics Circle award in 1978 and the Pulitzer in 1979, is a chronological collection that spans Cheever’s short story career, from pre-WWII up to 1973. To read this collection – just shy of 700 pages – is to live in Cheever’s head, tracking his artistic and personal development in a way that a single novel or volume of stories doesn’t allow.
These are not happy stories. The earlier pieces are particularly bleak and raw. While the later stories are deeper and more nuanced, they are still pretty dark. Precious few have cheerful resolutions. The best Cheever’s characters seem to achieve is contentment despite imperfect circumstances.
Cheever’s is a world of commuter trains and cocktail parties, where everyone wears hats, has a cook, drinks martinis at lunch, summers, sails, and commits adultery. Not everyone is rich; in fact, money problems are a continuing theme. But the trappings, however tarnished, of a mid-century, Northeast corridor, upper crust way of life hang on all the stories. And that is Cheever at his best. He can bring us so deep into that world that it feels like living it.
This Pulitzer winner is the story of the Roby family of Empire Falls, Maine, primarily from the point of view of the recently-divorced Miles Roby. Miles struggles to make a go of the Empire Grill, get out from under the thumb of the town doyenne, maintain his relationship with his teen age daughter, settle a feud with a local cop, understand his parents, and overcome his fear of heights so he can paint the church steeple.
It is an engrossing, meaty read. It is a great, old-fashioned yarn, by which I mean it has a strong, coherent plot; fully-developed characters; drama; a reasonable tempo; and more than a few thought-provoking ideas. Thoroughly entertaining.
The Magnificent Ambersons is one of those books that I enjoyed more than I thought I would. I was afraid it was going to be heavy and dull, and it certainly wasn’t. Still, it was not a favorite of mine.
It moved right along through the story of the demise of the once-prominent Amberson family and the growth of their Midwestern town into an industrial city. However, it moved along at such a clip, and with so little thematic subtlety, that it seemed like a book for young adults. I’m not saying that Tarkington should have handled his themes with the heavy hand of Henry James, but a little of Edith Wharton’s nuance or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s precision would have added depth to the tale.
I haven’t been reading Pulitzer winners lately because I am trying very hard to finish the Modern Library’s Top 100 list. But the next one on that list is The Magnificent Ambersons, which also won a Pulitzer, so I’ll kill two books with one stone.
What a wonderful, great, big, shaggy dog of a novel! While litigating with his ex-wife, being bullied by a B-team mobster, and fending off the marriage plans of his young “palooka” girlfriend, narrator Charlie Citrine contemplates the life of his recently deceased best friend and meditates on big questions such as the nature of death, man’s role in the cosmos, and theories of boredom. With dozens of remarkable supporting characters and side stories, this long book is entertaining throughout. It is not a quick read, but it is worth the time.
Set in mid-Twentieth Century Tennessee, A Summons to Memphis is a delightful novel of manners that teaches the importance of going beyond forgetting, beyond even forgiving, and trying to actually understand our parents. Wonderful.