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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Margaret Wilson - The Able McLaughlins

To start out saying, simply, I loved this book. I know I have said that about a lot of these books, but I truly enjoyed this book. To come back from that statement a little, this book didn't make it into any favorite books of all time category for me, but it was definitely a worth-while read. I think that this to date wraps up most about what I find intriguing and at the same time frustrating about this project though. I am not sure if I would read any more of Wilson. She is a fantastic story teller of the most minimal sense which is refreshing and more modern than most American writers of the time. But what I find intriguing is that this novel was a period piece, written about pioneer Scotch in Iowa before the railroad got to them. By the time this novel is written, cars were plentiful and the roaring 20's were in full swing. So this simple pioneer novel would have been passe by this time I think. To think of the great New York crowd reading this novel driving in their automobiles and going to talkies and speak-easies. What a weird book to win. So I want more context for this work, more debate, more reaction. Some New York Times reviews or something, and much of that is not available about this early works. The other thing I constantly come back to is that this is the 1920's America, voted the best novel of that given year. Hemingway is writing during this time, Fitzgerald is writing during this time. We have so much information about these men it is staggering, this isn't Paleolithic times, ok this was less than 100 years ago in our country during the time of the printing press and widespread journalism, and yet we know nothing about these authors or their works.

Anyways, as an aside I guess to some of the things that have confounded me during this project. Wilson's book is a grand relief for me as I do not like American pseudo-Victorian-ism, like Poole's book is shaping up to me, Bromfield's work, Wharton's book (which I ended up adoring - but for the majority of it I loathed intensely). Wilson writes a humble story about not-well off Scotch from Glasgow and Ayrshire. I loved the characters and their intensely personal characteristics. I loved the minimalist symbolism sprinkled through. I loved the themes of mistaken identity, secrets and the lies that go into protecting them, how secrets can steal your soul. I loved a lot about this book. I loved the pacing as we would jump forward long stretches of time, and then calm down for the 10 day search party for Peter. I loved that Wully was put through the ringer in this book, over and over again. I secretly love when an author has it out to put their man character through hell. Wilson is a fine writer. I think there were opportunities she missed, and somethings she could have left out, but Wilson cultivated this novel's ending slowly and painfully and made you earn it, which I liked intensely. First class work definitely, and if anyone could ever get there hands on this book, I would recommend it to the novice and experience reader alike which isn't something you can often say of great works.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pulitzer Update #something

In a recent turn of events, well, I use the term recent loosely here, but I have come to understand that I have a terribly ironic disposition. I am, I regret to inform you all, allergic to book dust. I wait here for the laughter to die down. During this project I was put into places, on hands and knees, scouring the floors of silent seas like a pair of ragged claws the annuls of used bookstores across the midwest. I would leave some of these place depending on how long I was there, if I had to go in any basements which was more frequent that you would think, and if the books were being stored in damp or unventilated spaces. This was of course the normal for old crusty bookstores everywhere that would house the strange and long forgotten award-winning books Drew and I were feverishly searching for. A point about this trip that we have left a little underaddressed by both of us. I mean come on people, for a given year, these books one the highest award an American Novel can achieve, The stinkin' Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and I have to search for 12 whole months to find all of them, I mean come on people. Anyways, so during this search probably, because I am terribly unaware of my health, I noticed that I got itchy eyes and throat closing symptoms after these long excursions into the used bookstore underbelly, and after some time removed from these locales I would be fine. The point that really hit home was when I was reading Louis Bromfield's Early Autumn which I found in a salvation army in Kankakee, IL coincidently where I live know but for me at the time it was a little bit of an adventure as this location is not in the terribly best area of Kankakee county and I was rummaging through books that had probably not moved in years. It was after this amazing encounter, buying this book for $.10 that Drew and I began to see this book everywhere, but nevertheless, it was quite a find. So a few weeks later, I began to read this volume, and low and behold after only an hour or two of reading it did I discover that this book was in fact trying to kill me. I pressed on eyes blazing, throat closing, nose running like a faucet that I gave in and took some anti-allergy medicine. And I finally realized that I was ironically painfully allergic to book dust.

This only comes to ahead today, and I felt like making mention of it here that remarkably enough only a handful of the books I have purchased this past year seem to have given me fits while reading, and today in order to interrupt these volumes negative effects on my health and well-being did I decide to order online reading copies of certain books. This I tell you was the least gratifying thing I have ever done, and part of this post is a simple confession. After an entire year of searching high and low, and I mean terribly low for these books did I simply go to my used bookstore providing website of choice and buy three of these books. Simply, I felt ashamed. I will receive these books in the mail, and I will hide them. I will read them quickly and silently and I will put them away for fear of being found out that I have two copies of these books and one was procured in less than honorable way. (Books afore mentioned purchased today were Herman Wouk, Katherine Anne Porter, and Paul Harding)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Oliver Lafarge - Laughing Boy

Coming on the heels of finishing Taylor's Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Lafarge delivers up for me a genuine love story as has never been as uniquely told in American literature to date. McPheeters is a love story late coming in his work, and Taylor weaves together many different plots that deliver a wonderful array of the American experience. Lafarge's tale is uniquely Native-American and wonderfully so. I loved this book. I have said that about several other of the Pulitzers, and I am not ashamed to say it about this one. I would stack this work right up there with some of the best of the reading so far, and for the ones to come. I have truly enjoyed this project and it has expanded my appreciation of all things fiction, all things novel, and has thoroughly revived my love of reading. A task such as the one set before Drew and I on this journey I had feared would crush my love of reading under the strain of such a project, but if anything it has emboldened me to further heights I think.

I am only slightly opposed to giving a recap of the novel, and I stick to only either praise or criticism of the works we finish, but for this one I think I will retell the story briefly in order to highlight all that I loved about this book. Lafarge tells a stirringly simple story of Laughing Boy, a Navajo teen, coming of age during the Americanization of the West and of Indian culture. Lafarge brushes up against all of the evils that stem from the American involvement in Native-American life and uses much of this darkness to color our female protagonist Slim Girl, Came With War. Laughing Boy falls in love with a forbidden love, Slim Girl, who his family suspects of being an Americanized Navajo. Slim Girl was taken to American school and was changed there into a Christian. She returns to her homeland through some convoluted means and sweeps Laughing Boy away. They go away to her American village where they have an enchanting romance. Things cannot hold all of the tensions that are pulling at them through custom and culture and things get out of control. Lafarge lets us stay with them and pulls to keep this enchanting time together as long as it can hold, and its steady decline peaks very near the end of this beautiful work and his pacing is mesmerizing. Lafarge sweeps you all the way through the end of the novel, and leaves you breathless. This is a love story that rivals some of the greatest ever told, and what is remarkable is its transcendence as well as it's very uniquely Navajo intricacies. I stand amazed at this strange and lovely little book. It is a short work, my copy only 192 pages, and its pacing early on is very meandering and soft. When it picks up near the end, you would think it would have to be jerky and swell with a fever pitch, but instead it crests more like a wave and crashed upon my heart voraciously and I struggled to keep my heart and head about myself as it rose above me. I loved it and cried when it ended as only it could. I cannot tell you how it ends, and leave out a lot of details because I want you to read it. Even if it doesn't resolutely place itself amongst your favorite novels of all time, it will be worth the ride and will carve out a place for itself in your heart. Laughing Boy and Slim Girl are a pair that come up to Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Robert Lewis Taylor - The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters

Before I begin my post on this book, I want to lay the ground work for a future post that will be larger in its scope than this one that deals solely as many other posts do with it's main thrust only one work, that will chronicle a large swath of the final days of Drew and I's book hunt which lead us to some of the greatest lengths our book trips have taken us, and the finalization and realization of a year's worth of questing. But alas, this entry is not that.

First off, I would like to introduce the reading public to a challenge that Drew and I staked together in the reading of this work. Drew and I have decided on a challenge situation that will fuel our desires to read some of the lengthier and less appealing works the list has bestowed upon as such as: Gone with the Wind, Lonesome Dove, and Executioner's Song. The way we orchestrated this challenge was simple enough, to put the ten least attractive works in our estimation into a hat (Boston Red Sox hat to be precise) and pull at random one of the names and that would have us pitted against each other the task of finishing that book first and the winner go the spoils which at this venture is a Steak Dinner! So we set about picking the book out of a hat, and I had both my brother and sister in law pick out of the same hat, replacing the first drawn name to see if we got the same name picked and the winner of this drawing was in fact, Robert Lewis Taylor's Travels of Jaimie McPheeters. As fortune would have it, both Meghan and Aaron both drew the same title so it seemed apt to us at the time to say the consensus was selected. The reason McPheeters was entered was partly due to its length and Drew and I's aversion to Pioneer novels having both a great distaste for Cather's My Antonia. This is purely a personal preference on both Drew and my part, and wouldn't like to offend anyone, but it is what it is as they say. So the terms were that we drew the name out before the start of the new year and we were to begin this work on the first of the year. Hoping of course to finish the book at the very latest in a month, the first one completed would win a prize to be determined later, which we decided for better or worse, a steak dinner as many of our respondents said would be apt to apply a pun and say the stakes we were playing for would be steak. So, without further ado, I would like to congratulate Drew Moody on beating me to the finish line in this first of a series of ten challenges that will take place over the course of this year. He finished first with me coming up short only by 10 pages. Over the last two days to keep pace and try to overtake Drew, I read 160 pages a day which is a lot of me, as I worked today from 8 to 3 pm at my newly acquired teaching position.

So to start my reflection on this work. I loved this book. Not from the start, and at times I felt that my attention waned considerably. My life as it was in the beginning of the year and much of last year was in complete upheaval and a great portion of my financial future seemed in dire straits. All of this combined for an amazing year of uncertainty and confusion with adventures aplenty sprinkled throughout. And somewhat this novel reflected all of those times for me over the course of last year. Adrift and untethered would be an accurate description of much of my sentiments throughout the first leg of this journey, and I have joy & woe to reflect upon that has led me to a place of seemingly solid foundations now. I can't help but feel in a profound way connected this character at a very core level and I am deeply grateful for having been forced to tough through this book. If I weren't reading this book at a hyper pace and compelled to finish it quickly this is one that I would have definitely walked away from for a time. Not to say that it wasn't engaging at times, and I was definitely lost in the story a great deal and didn't want to leave it's characters for a second. Not often do you as a reader become emotionally invested in a set of characters outcomes. I can say that it is rare having read basically nothing but fiction this entire past year, claiming to be crowning achievements in American fiction in a given year, and not often due you get so attached to a set of characters or circumstances that you literally cannot walk away from a passage, paragraph or chapter to see how at least this minor conflict gets resolved in some satisfactory way.

I will say that in this case, I didn't want to trust my heart to this author, knowing the novel's genesis as based in history and real diary entries of the McPheeters clan and knowing the general dismal condition of many of the stories told of this time. But Taylor proves a story teller worth the merit awarded him here. He delivers on his promise, that if you trust him he will lead you to a great place. Though trial and travails abound around every bend of this trail, he brings you forward with clarity of purpose, concise language, and engaging drama that keep you reading possibly skipping a couple of sentence in the hope to reveal Coulter coming over the hills, Jaimie making it back alive, and many other hopes achieved throughout. A glorious read and a treasure of American fiction that illuminate a fascinating time in the American tapestry.