Advise and Consent is a Pulitzer Prize winner that’s sat on my shelf for many years. It’s always seemed interesting, but 760 (long) pages is always da...moreAdvise and Consent is a Pulitzer Prize winner that’s sat on my shelf for many years. It’s always seemed interesting, but 760 (long) pages is always daunting to me. I think that the current election season, though, got me in the mood to tackle it, and I’m glad that it did. It’s been one of the best reads of the summer.
Advise and Consent is a big soap opera (which is not a bad thing, in this instance) that’s very loosely based on some pretty scandalous events that took place in the Senate during the McCarthy Era (look up Sens. Lester Hunt, Styles Bridges, and Herman Welker when you’re finished reading the novel). Events are set into motion when, at a precarious point in the Cold War, the President nominates a controversial diplomat, Robert Leffingwell, to be his new Secretary of State.
The appointment shocks everyone on both sides of the aisle. The Majority Leader, Bob Munson, starts working to set people in line to assure Leffingwell’s passage, while his opposition, a wily Southern Senator named Seab Cooley, begins conniving to topple the slick nominee’s chances. For the first almost-third of the book, that’s about all that happens. It’s pleasant enough, with a 1950’s sense of humor and some decently drawn (though occasionally stereotypical) characters, but to be honest, the book felt for a while like it might just be a civics lesson masquerading as a novel. I was wrong.
Sen. Brigham Anderson is appointed to head a subcommittee to investigate and question the nominee, and all hell breaks loose. I won’t say what all happens, but the political and personal stakes end up being much higher than anyone expected when Leffingwell was nominated. And several of the characters have skeletons hidden in their closets, while others lack the scruples to avoid bringing them out.
All-in-all, I found it to be a satisfying page-turner, a surprisingly progressive novel, and a sadly forgotten one. Several other novels from 1959 (i.e. Henderson the Rain King, A Separate Peace) are much more prominent now, but I’m not sure that Advise and Consent isn’t the best of them. (less)
I was really excited to read March by Geraldine Brooks because I loved her novel People of the Book, because I’m always a fan of Civil War literature,...moreI was really excited to read March by Geraldine Brooks because I loved her novel People of the Book, because I’m always a fan of Civil War literature, and because I’ve recently read and enjoyed Little Women. On the whole, I enjoyed March (though it’s, frankly, not in the same class as People of the Book), but at the same time, several things really bothered me about the novel.
First, I did enjoy several things about the book. Brooks is a good writer, and I really do appreciate the thoroughness with which she studies the language and cultures which her characters inhabit. I’ve read a fair amount of writings by the transcendentalists, including Branson Alcott (on whom Robert March from this novel is based), and I thought that she well-captured the speech and attitudes of that generation. I also appreciate the just get-wrenching scenes that Brooks has created in March. A lot of the novel seems intended to capture the gritty realities of war and slavery that are glossed over by Little Women, and in this respect, Brooks certainly succeeds. I thought that March was just about as difficult to read as McCarthy’s The Road, and a writer who can do that no doubt possesses copious amounts of imagination and writerly skill.
Those things said, several things kept me from wholly embracing March. I, first, did find that some plot points stretched credulity (such as repeatedly encountering Grace throughout March’s life). Mainly, though, I thought that Brooks strayed too far from the novel’s inspiration in Little Women. Whenever an author is writing in response to a previous work of literature, I think they have some responsibility to keep the characters consistent with the original author’s conception. In this case, I think that Brooks attempts to stay true to the Marches from Little Women. Brooks seems to want to demonstrate that Mr. and Mrs. March present brave and cheery fronts in Little Women but that beneath those facades lay concealed depths of trauma, misunderstanding, guilt, and disappointment. That’s certainly an intriguing thing to try to accomplish in an historical novel, but I felt that Brooks went a little too far as she did so, compromising the Marches’ better qualities from Little Women to such a point that the characters are unrecognizable. To add to that, Brooks has made the Marches into acquaintances of Emerson, Thoreau, and John Brown, and she has involved the family deeply in the abolitionist movement. While the Marches of Little Women obviously have some abolitionist sympathies, they certainly lack them to the extent as they appear in March, and they lack the transcendentalist connections altogether. I kept finding myself thinking that March would have been a significantly better novel had it been about another family from the time period in New England and lacked the Little Women connection.
So, March is a novel that puts on display Brooks’s ample skill as a writer. I did not love what Brooks has done with the source material here, however, and definitely think that she has written stronger works. (less)
I read House Made of Dawn as a part of my neverending quest to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels. I’ve tried to read the book a few times,...moreI read House Made of Dawn as a part of my neverending quest to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels. I’ve tried to read the book a few times, and I think I finally got up the momentum to get through it because I’ve been reading a good bit of much Native American literature (especially Sherman Alexie) recently.
Unfortunately, there is a reason that I’ve had such trouble completing this slim, 190-page book--it is pretty boring. My beloved high school English teacher, Mrs. Jackson (who LOVED Native American literature), once told me a story of going to a conference about teaching Native American novels. Before attending the event, all of the teachers had to read a set reading list--Fool’s Crow, Ceremony, Laughing Boy, House Made of Dawn (and I’m not sure what else). Everyone at the conference loved them all, she said, with the exception of House Made of Dawn. That one, the conference members decided, should have been called House Made of Yawn.
I’m not sure that I’d be that harsh toward the novel. I can see some value in it--in the depictions of Abel’s psychological anguish as he struggles to assimilate into the modern world, in the dreamlike meditations on the landscape, in the hope opened up by the ending. But, try as I might, there was just too much of the novel that I couldn't access. This is that type of novel that, while technically being a novel, has just a modicum of the features of traditional storytelling (i.e. plot, dialogue). There is just enough of a storytelling outline here to be a frame for the language and descriptions. That will do it for some readers, I know. But not for most and, unfortunately, not for me.(less)