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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Robert Olen Butler - A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

I adored this books for the first few stories. It is a collection of short stories that you can tell going into it that they are related only by theme and setting. I have never read anything by Butler before reading this book. i had never heard of Butler before this project, and I have also never read anything about Vietnam except for Nick Flynn's newest book The Ticking is the Bomb which he mentions an old boyfriend's of his mother and the lasting effect the war had made on him. I would say Vietnam is a minor subplot in Flynn's work, other than that I have never read anything about such a mixed up war. So for me this was a new experience and one that I thoroughly enjoyed the first couple of stories, but let me tell you something about Butler's writing. It is wonderful and enchanting, it invites you in very very easily into it's inner secret and lulls you to sleep and erases all since of tension or suspense and then there is a sudden twist right at the end of the story, usually in the last word, last sentence, last paragraph. There are fifteen stories in this collection, and every single of one of them come down like this. I love a twist ending. I love suspense. I also love a happy ending. But Butler's complete overuse of it was sort of unnerving for me.

So I really wanted to finish this novel and start in on Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and I am reading it last night at my mom's house when I am supposed to be watching Monday Night Football with my step-dad, and I am in the middle of the last story in the collection The American Couple. This story is basically a novella that is just jammed into this collection for some reason. So its about 80 pages where as the rest of the stories are about 10 a piece pretty consistently which also lends itself to a little repetitive tone. But anyways so I am half way through and I have a strong desire to finish tonight, and I cannot for the life of me concentrated on the words on the page, the two husbands are stalking each other or something. I couldn't follow, and Butler really wanted you to sit in the suspense. He starts describing things for the third or fourth time, and you are in the thick of it, right smack dab in the middle, and he wants you to feel the tension, 'whats gonna happen?' 'is someone going to die?' I don't know, but the whole time I didn't care what happen, after 70 pages I just wanted the story to end so I could read the last story which is the title story. It was painful. And it doesn't have that great an ending worth the suspense which is also frustrating. Some of the stories are gems, A Ghost Story I loved, The Trip Back, Snow!, and a few others were beautiful. I loved them. I didn't want them to end. They could have been novels and I would have read an 800 page book if they would have just keep going, but they ended and you had to go on to something else, and usually I liked it next one as much as the one before. There were a couple in there that just seemed like a flat but otherwise not distracting.

Overall, this was a great read. Other than Butler gets a little predictable in his ending, and The American Couple story sort of drags near the end, this was well worth the read and I am glad that it one the award so that I would be forced to read it. I am not sure if it makes me want to read more Butler, but I might at least look at some. I am telling you it was just that second to last story that really left a bad taste in my mouth. If you could find a way to ignore the ending of that story, then I would have walked away head over heels about this book. 90% of it is truly magical, surreal, dream-like and lyrical all in one gentle, evocative collection of some fantastic writing. I think this is one on the list that is really close to a must read.

Friday, November 26, 2010


I still can't believe it, but I didn't think I could ever see any of this happening. Drew and I through some strange circumstances found all of the most impossible books on this list. Today I found Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair. A book that has put Drew and I through the ringer tens of times throughout this search finding near miss after near miss. Making us almost give up on this search so many times it's not easy to recount here the frustration and the instant of momentary elation to find out that our sought after treasure was a mere misunderstanding, possibly Dragon's Harvest by Upton Sinclair, or maybe Dragon's Seed by Pearl S. Buck another Pulitzer winner written in the same era. But Today, TODAY, I found it in Mishawaka, IN at Better World Books,, and not only did I find it once, I FOUND IT TWICE! They had two copies. After some finagling I bought both copies and Drew owes me big time. I also find the actual white whale, Ernest Poole's His Family. That leaves Drew and I searching for our final books. And it is a race! We don't know what's on the line yet, but we in hot pursuit. I am looking for Harold L. Davis's Honey in the Horn, and Drew is looking for Margaret Wilson's The Able McLaughlins. Today was an amazing day for this journey, and a day that neither one of us will forget.

Drew just posted on this a moment ago, but I thought I would riff on him a little.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The real Adano

Just a quick link as I was wandering around the internet. I was purusing around Wikipedia today doing some quick research on A Bell for Adano, and I wanted to see if Hersey's town had anything to do with reality. I did a Wikipedia search of Adano, Italy. I even went to Google Maps, and looked up Adano, Italy. Nothing was going, so I went back to Wikipedia and followed some links around and found out that Hersey based his fictional town Adano on a realy Sicilian city Litica. A link brought me to the real page of a real Italian city in Sicily. And on the wiki-page, there was a picture of the 'real' bell tower. I thought I would post it here just for some point of interest.

John Hersey - A Bell for Adano

I chose this book because I have been keeping track of which years I have read books from and there was a long drought in between the recently finished Now in November, which I still have words for in my chest, and the next one I read which I count as having read before we started this project, Ernest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. A slight caveat about that, Drew and I both had read five or six I can remember pulitzer books before we started this project. I think we had the idea because we had read a few of them and they were all fantastic reads, so there was the genesis probably. But anyways, we had read the same number of them going into this project and that led us on to want to read more. We decided because we had read the same amount of books on the list that we wouldn't have to go back and reread them. A few of mine were Chabon's Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Lahiri's Interpret of Maladies, Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, Agee's A Death in the Family, and a few others, but Drew had read a few others, so we decided to skip them and go onto the rest, so all that being said, I found a large gap in between 1935 and 1953, and so I chose to shorten that gap by reading something in the middle to cut the drought in half. I chose John Hersey's A Bell for Adano. Drew has read it recently, and really enjoyed it so it made it a little easier to pick it up.

That is a part of the struggle of this project is that, for me, reading a book I have no interest in is very difficult. I read incredibly slowly, at about 20 pages a minute. I don't know why this is, I may be slightly dyslexic, I am not sure, but anyways, I read very slowly, which led me in some way to want to take up a project like this. I love reading. And I feel like I am most using my time wisely when I am reading just about anything. When I first started reading, I found out that not all books are created equal. Some books are an enormous waste of time. So I decided when I was younger that in order for me not to waste my time because I am such a slow reader, that I would only read books that lots of other people found to be very vaulable. The easiest thing for me to do was to start with the classics. So literally what I did was I looked up on the internet classic book lists, lists of 100 greatest novels, and other such silly things. So as I did that I found a lot of similarities between these lists and read those books. Somewhere along the way, I think I crippled my reading speed because I try to take every word from a Dostoyevski approach and apply that to a John Hersey novel which might not be as important to scrutinize every word or paragraph, I don't know, but anyways, that is where I come from in my reading life. So this book is a list of books that a lot of other people say are good and therefore I should read them. Along the way, Drew and I have found some rotten apples in the apple basket, but nevertheless, we press on. The reason I get into this whole long tirade is because it is difficult to pick a book from the list and wonder through the first 100 pages or so, and figure out you're not that into this author. So I have sort of instituted a way to make myself read certain titles. This way of finding which eras I haven't read a lot and choosing one from there is a good way to get myself to read something.

A Bell for Adano is one such book. I finished it in a couple of days. It was a brief little edition, only 240 pages, and I zipped right through it even being sick as a dog lately. I loved reading this book because it was fun. I am not totally sold on Hersey as a writer, but he was hell of a story teller. He told some of the most interesting and engrossing stories I have ever read, and that isn't a lie. There are 37 chapters in this book, and each chapter is a story that is sort of related to all the other stories in the book, but they could be short stories in their own right. If you just like a good story, there are plenty in here that I feel like I will remember them as if I were told them by someone I really respect, like they will fuse with my memories some day and I will tell updated versions of them as if I were there, and they actually happened. I loved this book by itself, with no consideration given to any sort of style, artful purpose, or literary merit. So I will chose to turn off my literary brain for this one brief moment, and turn away the hot gaze of my ever scrutinizing eye and richly endorse this book to all book-lovers both near and far. Dig in.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Josephine Johnson - Now in November

Marget stands on the hill between the great rift between moderns and post-moderns, and suffers silently for all of the optimists of the ages crushed beneath the strain of duty and fire that burns for a desire outside ourselves and roles rigidly constructed for us by our culture. Johnson is saying a lot of things about life and the world and time with this novel. Johnson's first novel is a foray into a wide arena of literature. This novel is stunning. I was completely blind-sided by this novel, which is everything that I had hoped this journey would be bring out - diamonds in the rough. I discovered one a long time ago reading James Agee - A Death in the Family. i can't remember what prompted me to read Agee, but whatever got me involved with his mysterious novel, I am deeply indebted to that source of inspiration. Agee is a mystical writer whose story is hard to get to the bottom of, and because of his impossible story and is painfully beautiful writing, I have become completely enamored with everything he has ever written. I hope that Johnson will be a similar literary character for me. The journey is worth the discovery, and relationship forged is everything a reader wishes for a devotion to a writer. Johnson's wikipedia page is tiny, and the Now in November page is even slimmer. All of this leads to a great find for us pulitzer readers, Johnson's novel stands outside of time and context. It is a piercingly simple novel written with a sly eloquence that is understated with a slight decadence. There are handcuffs, walls, or boundaries that all serious fiction rubs its back against and no one wants to cross: the very, very thin line between dramatic and melodramatic. Where tension becomes a parody of itself. Johnson stradles that line with her first novel which her wiki page says she wrote when she was 24 which is a startling achievement.

For all of you who haven't read this novel, there are only a few of these pulitzers that I will give this unanymous endorsement for - read this novel. Without any condition, without any preparation, without any introduction - read this novel. You will love it. Johnson wrote this novel in the heart of the depression about a Midwestern farm that suffers with the audience Johnson was writing to. A novel doesn't do this. A novel never comes at the time this novel must have come. This came out, this is almost prophetic to what was to come to those reading it. It is incredible. There are scenes in this novel, images that will stay with you a life time. The fire, the drouth, the mules, so many things that I wish I could see outside of my mind's eye. This was almost a perfect novel. I don't say that often, but I loved this book, and it leaps into my top ten all time in a hurry.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Willa Cather - One of Ours

Now I will be the first to say that I do not like Willa Cather. When I was in high school we were forced to read My Antonia. I did not like My Antonia. The pioneer story is not that enchanting to me, especially not ones of people who stopped in Kansas of all places. Then that engendered in me a dislike of all things Kansas if you can believe that until I met the pastor of my church who is from Kansas, then I thought, I should give this state and its people a fair shake. Disliking a state and its people based on a historical novel set there doesn't seem that reasonable after consideration. All that being said, I wanted to set the stage for the up hill battle this book would have to fight in order for me to respect it, let alone me to enjoy this novel.

I can stand before you now, well, I'm sitting and typing, but I can sit before you now, and type these words and don't necessarily feeling any less a man and say that I actually enjoyed this book. I really enjoyed this book. I actually adore this book. Cather really beats around the bush in this book, and really sets a story that doesn't need to be set at all, but its worth the ride. I really had no idea where she was going with this story at all, most of the novel really. After awhile, it starts to firm up a bit, but you are constantly asking yourself why did she write this book? The last chapter sort of sums it all up for you, but not in a final action way, but it a sort of narration way, Cather seems to need for you to know why she wrote the book, and basically tells you in the last chapter through the mouth of the internal thoughts of Mrs. Wheeler. I really liked it. I would recommend anyone who likes World War 1 things to read this book, maybe anyone who likes war books to read this, but other than that, it is a good read, if you have nothing better to do, pick it up you won't be disappointed.