Toni Morrison's most recent and much abbreviated novel is definitely worth a read (as all of her books are), but this one certainly let me wanting morToni Morrison's most recent and much abbreviated novel is definitely worth a read (as all of her books are), but this one certainly let me wanting more. The story follows an Odyssey of sorts as Korean War veteran Frank Money rushes home to save his ailing sister Cee in rural Georgia. Both are dealing with their own demons growing up in the mid-twentieth century American south, and Morrison's telescopic narrative style--something that reminded me of The Bluest Eye--provided some great insight into these complicated characters. Even still, at only 147 pages, the story and characterization merely whetted my appetite. I wanted more and was disappointed when she didn't give it to me....more
This quiet meditation focuses on Robert Grainer, an orphan of the newly expanded western United States in the late nineteenth century. His life is a sThis quiet meditation focuses on Robert Grainer, an orphan of the newly expanded western United States in the late nineteenth century. His life is a series of tragedies that propel him further towards the western coast, building up the nation's northwestern railroads. It's a fine portrait of what this life must have been like for thousands of men who served as components of expansionism, but my attention certainly wavered often in Johnson's muted narration of this solitary life. The tale of Grainer's short marriage and stint as a father were the most compelling portions of the short novel and salvaged the overall experience for me....more
I just read the superb When the Emperor Was Divine a few months ago, and I was excited about this latest book by Otsuka because of its predecessor andI just read the superb When the Emperor Was Divine a few months ago, and I was excited about this latest book by Otsuka because of its predecessor and the tremendous amount of fabulous press it was getting. With all the build up, my expectations were a bit high; the book on its own certainly is a great read, but it's so different in form and structure from When the Emperor Was Divine that I found it a bit jarring. (That is admittedly simply a problem with my own reading aesthetic!)
There is a lot of pretentious talk in literary circles about prose poetry, but this is poetry prose if ever there was such a thing. The short book loosely follows a group of Japanese mail-order brides traveling to America by boat several years before the World War II and concludes several years after the war. The narrative voice is a rarely used collective first person: the opening lines read, "On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall" (3). This format rarely changes, and while it creates a beautiful, lyrical quality to the book, it also stands as a barrier between the reader and the characters. We never learn these characters names and we never distinguish one from another. Granted, Otsuka uses unnamed characters while quite effectively creates a bond between them and the reader in When the Emperor Was Divine, but there the characters are quite individualized whereas here they are deliberately intermingled with one another.
As expected of Otsuka, there is astute commentary here. Early on in detailing a list of the items the girls have brought with them on the boat, she includes, "silver mirrors given to us by our mothers, whose last words still rang in our ears. You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong" (9). And the first chapter closes with a heart-breaking truth: "This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong" (18). In spite of feeling segregated from the characters myself, I definitely was moved at times.
What works here in isolation is that poetry of the language. Otsuka uses repetition effectively to convey that collective protagonist. In almost every part of the book, she begins each sentence with the same phrasing, only then to allow her characters to contradict themselves in order to show the many facets of life these women faced. For example, at one point when the Japanese interment has begun on American soil, she writes, "Our adult children would be allowed to remain behind to oversee our business and farms. Our business and farms would be confiscated and put up for auction" (94). These juxtaposed oppositions exist throughout the book, and they have their desired shocking effect on the reader. However after dozens of pages using this construction, the effectively is somewhat diluted.
Definitely not my style of novel, The Age of Innocence only mildly held my attention with its themes of societal hypocrisy in the upper class, a commeDefinitely not my style of novel, The Age of Innocence only mildly held my attention with its themes of societal hypocrisy in the upper class, a commentary that may have been intriguing in the 1920s but seems tired in the twenty-first century. Archer Newland and Ellen Olenska are slaves to their positions in New York's elite stratosphere, yet their paralysis to act on their passions, especially when the option to do so without hurting anyone avails itself to them, inspired lots of eye-rolling on my part. While the Puritanical values of America still deaden us in many ways, the style of Wharton's writing isn't as engaging as postmodern texts on the same themes. (However, I am incredibly happy to check off Pulitzer winner number three off my list and move on to Alice Adams!)...more
I have conquered book #2 on the list of Pulitzer Fiction (Novel) winners! Woo-hoo! And this one wasn't such a pleasant experience. While The MagnificeI have conquered book #2 on the list of Pulitzer Fiction (Novel) winners! Woo-hoo! And this one wasn't such a pleasant experience. While The Magnificent Ambersons covers many of the same themes as its predecessor on the Pulitzer list, Ernest Poole's His Family--those of the shifting moral centers, the transition from small towns to urban centers, and the spreading of American wealth--Tarkington's novel focuses on a rather unsavory protagonist in George Minafer, a spoiled Midwestern brat whose doting mother of their hometown's historic Amberson clan succeeds at nothing more than creating a monster of an adult whose eyes are closed both to source of true happiness and the changing American economic landscape of the early twentieth century. When the family inevitably loses its financial holding and exposes the irony in the novel's title, the dynamic elements of George's character come too late establish redemption. The last 10% of this book was engaging, but not enough for me to give it more than three stars. I'm not looking forward to reading Tarkington's Alice Adams when I get to Pulitzer #4!...more
I've almost always loved the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction, yet I've only read the most recent fifteen or so winners. Reading His Family began myI've almost always loved the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction, yet I've only read the most recent fifteen or so winners. Reading His Family began my quest to start at the very beginning and read through all of the titles I've missed. Back in 1918, this was the very first winner for the "Novel" category (one that was replaced by "Fiction" in 1948). Because this isn't necessarily one of those classic texts, I expected the book to be dated and stale, but I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong!
The book follows Roger Gale's later years with "his family": wife Judith has long since passed away; eldest daughter Edith lives a very traditional early twentieth century life with a workaholic but caring husband who provides for their large brood of children; middle daughter Deborah toils endlessly working her way up to celebrity as an educator revolutionizes schools for underprivileged children; and youngest daughter Laura is the social butterfly, much more concerned with parties and men than maintaining tight family bonds.
The setting is the 1910s in Manhattan, just prior and during World War I, and the island itself becomes a symbol for all the shifting values that Roger witnesses in the growth of his family over the course of a decade or so. At several points in the book, Roger looks out the window of his lower Manhattan house and sees "the cliff-like wall of the new apartment building, with tier upon tier of windows from which murmurous voices dropped out of the dark: now soft, now suddenly angry, loud; now droning, sullen, bitter, hard; now gay with little screams of mirth; now low and amorous, drowsy sounds. Tier upon tier of modern homes, all overhanging Roger's house as though presently to crush it down." As Roger feels the overbearing presence of the modern architecture rising around him, his house stands firm in its traditional structure, just as he himself stays true to his moralistic and virtuous ideals in the face of daughters' changing views of their role in society. And this generational gap, at times both heartbreaking and revelatory, is at the heart of the novel's meaning.
Early in the text, Roger remembers his wife long ago opining, "I wonder if it won't be the same with the children as it has been with us. No matter how long each one of them lives, won't their lives feel to them unfinished like ours, only just beginning? I wonder how far they will go. And then their children will grow up and it will be the same with them. Unfinished lives. Oh, dearie, what children all of us are." Such prophetic lines create a true sense of timelessness in the novel; the shifting points of view that age forces upon us are at the center of the novel. He later remembers Judith suggesting that he "will live on in [their] children's lives," and he begins "to get glimmerings of a new immortality, made up of generations, an endless succession of other lives extending into the future.
The book not only focuses on generational relationships, but also comments effectively on spousal ones. Each of the daughters is married during the course of the novel: one twice, one widowed, and one delayed. On the eve of one marriage, Poole personifies the Gale homestead, suggesting that it draws the daughters "together closer than they had been in many years. But only because they felt themselves on the even of a still deeper and more lasting separation as the family of Roger Gale divided and went different ways." As the family connections expand and new male adults are brought into the fold (and later children), the language surrounding these changes is beautiful and timeless.
Obviously there are many levels of complexity to the central themes of the story, and most of them are intriguing and engaging to read. The only portions that dragged for me were those focused on the beginnings of the war. While I wholly understand Poole's intention in employing these points (a text set in New York at this time would be inauthentic to not include reactions to the Great War), the elements that the war brought into the story don't gel as well with the other layers of themes of here.
I do truly wonder why this book isn't more widely read. It's certainly just as good as some of our more canonical texts!...more
This expansive novel has been heralded by many reviewers as the quintessential contemporary American novel, and I can't disagree. Franzen's focus on tThis expansive novel has been heralded by many reviewers as the quintessential contemporary American novel, and I can't disagree. Franzen's focus on the complex web of hypocrisies, idiosyncrasies, and insecurities that besiege the American middle class creates a vast narrative with characters that are simultaneously revolting and attractive. At the heart of the novel is Patty Berglund, a former star college athlete who has chosen to pursue the vocation of Midwestern homemaker mainly to spite her overachieving parents of Westchester County. What unfolds over the course of nearly 600 pages is an insightful commentary on the ways in which we inadvertently mimic our parents' best of intentions only to destroy our own kids in the process, all mixed with some good old fashioned politics. What could be more American that?...more
I picked this up after a friend recommended it as one of his all-time favorite novels. I had just seen the film version; the movie was good, but not gI picked this up after a friend recommended it as one of his all-time favorite novels. I had just seen the film version; the movie was good, but not great, so I felt reading it immediately following would be okay. The result was totally rewarding!
The novel's narrative voice is absolutely brilliant, something that's virtually lost on screen. The internal conflict of every character is vivid and enticing, and while the wife character April is still by far the most sympathetic, Yates doesn't truly vilify anyone--yet at the same time he paints these horrendous portraits of suburban stagnation, hypocrisy, and misguided egotism.
I find books like this so amazing: written just after--and set in--the height of our American identity's decade of nostalgia (the 1950s), this book exposes the fallacy of that period in history, suggesting that the only person who was truly happy was the ignorantly blissful American white male, the one who refuses self-reflection and believes in his own feigned greatness....more
I just read this for the first time since sophomore year of high school...although come to think of it I may not have actually read it then. I just stI just read this for the first time since sophomore year of high school...although come to think of it I may not have actually read it then. I just started teaching it to my own sophomores, and in rereading it I'm struck by how subtle so much of the meaning is here. I know my students are going to struggle with that. But it's a great read, and I need to do some serious considering of how I'm going to access so many of the mature nuances for my students so that they both enjoy it and think critically about it. (Not much of a review, but such are my thoughts at 11:00 on a school night...)...more
This is such a great play. From the minute I started re-reading it, I was struck by how carefully crafted it is. The layers build upon one another inThis is such a great play. From the minute I started re-reading it, I was struck by how carefully crafted it is. The layers build upon one another in such a fantastic way until the destructive ending. I haven't read it since the summer before starting graduate school, and it's funny how my perceptions of the play have changed. When I read it back then (almost ten years ago now), I felt that the play was all about Biff, the older son. Now as a parent reading the play, my focus shifted more towards the entire family as a whole rather than any one character. I think in working so hard to be a good parent and thus promote good character and morality in my daughter, I am more focused on the macro-picture than than the micro.
As a side note, can anyone explain to me what's going on with the heater hose in the basement? I've always understood that Willy is trying to kill himself by inhaling the gases or whatever, but is this supposed to be a representation of him totally giving up hope? The car "accidents" are all supposed to appear as such even though they are failed suicide attempts, but if he sucks on this hose and dies next to the heater, it won't really look like an accident. So am I misinterpreting this or something? Please explain!...more