Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Entry 3.1: "The Optimist's Daughter," by Eudora Welty (1973)

I'm not sure why I was compelled to read Eudora Welty's 1973 Pulitzer novel, The Optimist's Daughter. Perhaps The Fixer was such a brutal novel to get through, my subconscious knew I needed something about more "optimistic."

I don't know anything about Eudora Welty, other than that my dear friend, Mary Hughes, would probably like her since they hail from the same city (Jackson, MS). I've never read of any of her other novels—indeed, I've never even heard of any of her other novels—and, to be honest, before reading the "About the Author" section in this book, I had never even heard of her!

However, when I finished The Fixer and saw this one in my stack of Pulitzer novels, in the corner of my room, my curiosity was piqued. My edition of the book (which you can view on my Shelfari virtual bookshelf) is only 180 or so pages long and, based one what I've read so far, reads very quickly and smoothly. I imagine I'll probably finish it by tomorrow night (if not by the time I fall asleep tonight).

Here's a quick description of the book:
The Optimist's Daughter is the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, a young woman who has left the South and returns, years later, to New Orleans, where her father is dying. After his death, she and her silly young stepmother go back still farther, to the small Mississippi town where she grew up. Alone in the old house, Laurel finally comes to an understanding of the past, herself, and her parents.
Ahh. The story of a young woman's self-discovery. Remind me not to read The Hours after this.

Entry 2.3: The Albums I Listened to While Reading "The Fixer," by Bernard Malamud

The Fixer is a dark story, full of isolation, suspense and despair. The music I chose to listen to while reading, I felt, had to be of the same atmosphere. Here are the albums I listened to during the reading of Bernard Malamud's The Fixer:

Monday, February 22, 2010

Entry 2.2: "The Fixer," by Bernard Malamud (1967)

I finally finished Bernard Malamud's The Fixer (Pulitzer, 1967) around two this morning. I retired to my bedroom, lit the lamp on my nightstand, turned off my cell phone, played my iPod and forced myself to finish the last half of the book in one sitting (or "laying," more accurately). As it turned out, I had to finish the book in one swoop, not because of the stringent time constraints I've imposed on myself, but because I couldn't hardly put the book down. The intensity of Malamud's descriptions of Yakov Bok's imprisonment were so haunting, so horrifying, so revolting that, though I really wanted to close my eyes and think about something more pleasant, I couldn't turn them away from the pages. And as I laid there, feigning off sleep and turning page after page, I very consciously made every effort not to let myself get pulled too much into the story; I really didn't want to spend the remainder of my time awake in solitary confinement with Yakov Bok, but Malamud made me. He made me share Bok's cell, his anger, his frustration, his sorrow, his paranoia. And when I read the last several pages, hoping, along with Bok, that the injustice would soon be over, that I, with Bok, would revel in our freedom, I was crushed when I finished the last paragraph and turned down the page only to find three more pages that were completely blank. I couldn't hardly believe the ending, so I read it another two or three times, just to make sure I was comprehending what I was reading. I closed the book, set it down on the nightstand beside me, turned off the light and laid there, in the darkness, staring straight up at the ceiling for about 20 minutes, trying to wrap my mind around its conclusion and weeping.

But before I get into my reactions to the book, maybe I should try to summarize it, as best as I can, so as to not leave my readers in the dark.
The Fixer is the story of Yakov Bok, a Jew living in a shtetl in anti-Semitic, turn-of-the-20th-century Russia. He's a handyman by trade (hence, his nickname - "the fixer") and living in poverty, though he is doing his best to keep his head above water. His wife cheated on him and left him, he lost nearly everything he ever owned and had little to no money, often accepting soup as reward for the work he performed for neighbors and friends. Bok dreams of running away from his misery, to Europe, to America, anywhere that isn't the shtetl, and living a fuller, happier life.

So, one day, he sets out and, along the way to wherever the road took him, he helps a Russian family in Kiev and accepts a job in their family-owned brickyard. When it is discovered that he is a Jew, and when a Christian boy is murdered not far from his dwelling, he is arrested under false accusations, imprisoned and tortured. The last 3/4ths of the book—give or take—are pages filled with his tortures, his pain and suffering, his misery, all while he waits for his indictment (let alone a trial).

That's, essentially, all that really happens. There are a lot of interesting subplots and a lot of interesting commentary on human relations by Malamud, but what I just described is basically the high points of the action in the book
As I approached the end of the book, I began to see Bok as a sort of Christ character—the parallels were uncanny: a Jewish handyman (or carpenter) by trade, 30 years old, wrongfully accused, imprisoned, tortured and, eventually, becoming the hope of the multitudes. There are some obvious differences between Jesus and Yakov (Bok, for instance, rejects religion and labels himself a "freethinker;" Bok is married; Bok is an unpolitical man who refuses to share his beliefs with those who ask; and, of course, the biggest difference is that Bok is a sort reluctant savior), but, for the most part, I had a difficult time separating the two characters.

This became even more apparent at the conclusion of the story, when Bok is being transferred from the prison to the court for his trial and an explosion rocks his carriage and creates mayhem in the streets. We are to assume that the blast was created by Jews in an effort to free Bok, but he remains in the carriage in spite of his opportunity to run, because he knows what his trial will mean to his fellow Jews. It would be easy for him to run away and not confront the powers that be; it would be easy for him to ignore the cries of his peers and pursue a life of his own making. He stayed in that carriage because he knew that if he were found innocent at his trial, it would be a "mitzvah" for his people, and if he were found guilty, it would be the spark that ignited the powder keg of a Jewish revolution in Russia. In either circumstance, his life hung in the balance of glory and defeat. Thus, "the fixer" becomes the reluctant messiah to his people.

In the final scene of the novel, Bok, while still in the carriage, daydreams about sitting down to tea with the Tsar—the Tsar who had done the most to suppress Jews ("to maintain order")—and having a conversation. In this conversation, the fixer makes a case for his people and then goes on to berate the Tsar for his misguided rule. He states:
...one must also think how oppressed, ignorant and miserable most of us are in this country, gentiles as well as Jews, under your government and ministers. What it amounts to, Little Father, is that whether you wanted [the crown] or not you had your chance; in fact many chances, but the best you could give us with all good intentions is the poorest and most reactionary state in Europe. In other words, you've made out of this country a valley of bones. You had your chances and pissed them away. There's no argument against that. It's not easy to twist events by the tail but you might have done something for a better life for us all—for the future of Russia, one might say, but you didn't.
This scene, of course, seems to be a retelling of the Passion when Jesus and Herod have a discussion about why Jesus should be freed. The two tales end dramatically different (Jesus didn't shoot Herod, obviously), but the tone is the same.

The Tsar presents his argument by replying, "I'm only one man though ruler and yet you blame me for our whole history." The fixer, completely unphased by the Tsar's words, loads a single bullet into a gun that appears on the table before him and shoots directly into the Tsar's heart. Malamud ends the scene, and the novel:
As for history, Yakov thought, there are ways to reverse it. What the Tsar deserves is a bullet in the gut. Better him than us...One thing I've learned, he thought, there's no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can't be one without the other, that's clear enough. You can't sit still and see yourself destroyed.
Afterwards, he thought, Where there's no fight for it there's no freedom. What is it Spinoza says? If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature it's the lesser evil to destroy it. Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!
The crowds lining both sides of the streets were dense again, packed tight between curb and housefront. There were faces at every window and people standing on rooftops along the way. Among those in the street were Jews of the Plossky District. Some, as the carriage clattered by and they glimpsed the fixer, were openly weeping, wringing their hands. One thinly bearded man clawed his face. One or two waved at Yakov. Some shouted his name.
I imagined Jesus, carrying his cross and being mocked, ridiculed and spat at, making his way through the streets of Jerusalem and up the hill of Calvary, facing his death for my sake—indeed, a revolutionary's death—and I wept bitterly at the thought of it. Perhaps I was reading the novel with a spiritual filter because I am actively participating in Lent this year (a time to focus, with prayer and fasting, on the days leading up to Christ's crucifixion and ultimate resurrection), but this novel seemed like an appropriate one to read given the current liturgical season.
I recently read Donald Miller's new book, A Million Miles In a Thousand Years, and I was depressed throughout the entire book. His thesis, if you will, is basically "To live a meaningful life, you have to have goals and you have to work your way toward accomplishing them." Then, he breaks that down even further by explaining that some goals are better than others (for instance, wanting to ride your bicycle across the country is a noble goal; wanting to buy a car is not).

While reading, I found it very hard not to be embittered by his ideas and the stories he put himself in the middle of to test his theories about storytelling. "Of course he rode his bike across America," I thought. "He's a writer of a New York Times bestseller—he has ample money to pay his bills and all the time in the world to undertake something like that. I would love to do something of that nature, I would love to be able to afford to do ANYTHING—I have dreams and goals too, but in this world, everything costs money that I don't have. I have neither the opportunity nor the funds to accomplish 90% of what I'd like to do"

Then I became very sad about my life. I kept thinking "According to Donald Miller's book, my life isn't a great story because I'm not as able as others to accomplish my goals. All I do is live day to day, trying my best just to get by." Miller had me convinced that my life wasn't worth much of anything because of my financial and social status (which I know was not his intention with his book at all).

Malamud, with The Fixer, makes me wonder if Miller really knows what he's talking about. While I agree that a good story has a character who possesses goals and overcomes conflicts to get them, I'm not so sure that the character necessarily has to reach his goals for the story to be a good one. Take this story, for example: Bok had goals to be a father, to see the world, to be financially stable—while his story is a fantastic one and very well told, Bok never accomplished any of those goals. He was met with an obstacle to overcome to reach his goals, but he didn't even overcome that, necessarily—he survived it, he endured it, but I wouldn't say he overcame it.

Though Bok's situation is entirely unlike mine, The Fixer gave me a little bit of hope. Maybe I don't necessarily have to go to Ireland to consider my life a great story, maybe I don't have to become the editor in chief of a major publishing corporation to consider my life a great story—maybe all I have to do is to keep plugging away to reach those goals and hope I eventually conquer them. But if I don't, maybe my life won't be as much of a failure as I imagine it to be now.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Yet another day without making any progress at all in The Fixer. I can't believe I'm only one book into my journey and I'm already falling behind schedule -- I have 51 weeks to finish 81 books. It's so easy to get caught up and lose time and, indeed, oneself in the bugaboo of everyday existence and, yet, so difficult to find the motivation or wherewithal to accomplish the things one really wants to do. I imagine this reality will only become more and more apparent the older I get.

What's most discouraging is that I didn't really do anything today, either. I woke up fairly early and just sat around for most of the morning, sending out emails, listing a few things on eBay and organizing my iTunes library -- again. Around noon, I decided to take a drive out to a Goodwill store that I saw on Route 64 a few weeks ago so as to try finding some more Pulitzer novels, and was surprised when the drive took me all the way out to Carol Stream; I could have sworn the store was much closer to my house. Nearly two hours later (45 minutes of driving and one hour of shopping), and much to my dismay, I had none the more Pulitzer novels as I did when I set out. There were some near misses though, I will say -- they had three copies of The Color Purple, a couple of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lonesome Dove and The Caine Mutiny (all of which I already have) and several books by Pulitzer-winning authors, like James Michener, Oscar Hijuelos and Larry McMurtry, but none of their Pulitzer-winning novels. Alas. I did, however, find some good titles -- Love In the Time of Cholera, a collection of poems Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while imprisoned, Focault's Pendulum, Things Fall Apart, Watership Down and a few others. I suppose everything's not lost.

Once again, I find myself becoming increasingly listless. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I'm working a dead-end job in the fast-food industry, I have no prospects, I'm currently living as a house guest with my friends, the Nashes, I'm unsatisfied with my personal life and, in all reality, I'm having a difficult time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I had a conversation with Joshua a couple weeks ago and we discussed how much we both can't stand living in Illinois anymore. Very straight faced, Joshua looked at me and commented, "I don't know if you've come to realize this yet, or not, but Illinois is a really stupid place to live." And, as we stood in his driveway at three in the morning, shivering in the ten degree wind and driving snow, smoking cigarettes and trying to keep our eyelids from freezing, I realized he was right. The couple of days before that snowstorm it had been in the 40's, approaching the 50's -- I really thought Spring was coming back, but was instead reminded of the cruelty of Chicago weather. I began to pine, not for Ireland, as I usually do, but for the American coasts -- I daydreamed about soaking up California sun, or drinking beers and smoking cigarettes until the wee early hours of the morning on my back porch overlooking the Carolina coastline.

That's around the time that two different friends, from two different parts of the country, emailed me and informed that, if I really, really wanted to, they would work with me to make arrangements for temporary housing with them. One friend lives in San Francisco, the other in Tallahassee. Ever since, I've spent the majority of my days daydreaming about living in either place, trying to figure the logistics of either move in my head.

Much like Yakov Bok (or, as he is also known, The Fixer), I'm not entirely sure there's anything left for me in my home anymore. I, however, don't want to be like Yakov -- I don't want to run away from the mundaneness of my everyday life only to find, if I may abuse an old cliche, that the grass isn't always greener on the other side.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Entry 2.1: "The Fixer," by Bernard Malamud (1967)

The second novel I've decided to tackle in this project is The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967.

I have little to no idea what this book is about and, thus, no real reason for wanting to read it so badly. In all honesty, I think one of the reasons I wanted to finish The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love as quickly as possible wasn't because I couldn't put it down, but because I was so looking forward to starting The Fixer. Maybe it's because I snatched a first edition of it away from Josh when we were at Frugal Muse. First editions have a way of making me feel even more connected to the time that it was written in -- it's as though I'm living in 1966, seeing this book on the shelf and racing it to the cashier so that I can crack its binding and spend my free time with it, just like the person who owned it before me did (one F.W. Pfohl, who resided a 54 West End Avenue in Westmont, IL, according to the nameplate on the inside cover), 44 years ago.

Here's a short description of the book, as found on the dust jacket's inside flap:
We believe The Fixer to be a great novel. Bernard Malamud has put a lifetime of working at his craft into this extraordinary book. What makes the difference here is that the author's consummate skill has been applied to a great theme -- injustice -- and embodied in a great story.
The Fixer is the story of a little man, a handy-man, who becomes a hero before our eyes. Yakov Bok is the last man in the world who wants to be a hero; it's an honor he feels he could do without. But fate and history and the times in which one lives follow their inexorable laws. Yakov lives in Tsarist Russia in Kiev during a virulent period of anti-Semitism, and when the body of a dead boy is found in a cave, the local Black Hundreds group accuses the Jews of his murder. From the Jews to a Jew is only a short step: Yakov is arrested for a crime he did not commit. In the long suffering that follows his refusal to "confess," Yakov is transformed from a little man into a big one.
Though Mr. Malamud's novel deals with a particular form of injustice, his theme is universal. Any innocent victim of a miscarriage of injustice, whether his name is Vanzetti or Dreyfus or Timothy Evans, would illustrate the theme equally well. In the case of The Fixer, the victim is a very minor member of society. If he were any further down on the social scale, he would be over the abyss. Yet this is a man you will never forget because his story, as Bernard Malamud tells it in The Fixer, will last as long as books are read.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Entry 1.3: The Albums I Listened to While Reading "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," by Oscar Hijuelos

I'm one of those rare types that likes to listen to music while reading -- many find listening to music while reading or writing distracting, but I constantly have to have music on, no matter what I'm doing. I read with it on, I work with it on, I drive with it on, I sleep with it on... Everything I do has a soundtrack.

It is with that in mind that I'm going to make these sorts of entries. After every book I finish, I think I'm going to share with you the albums I listened to that made the novel more enjoyable. Here are the albums I listened to during the reading of Oscar Hijuelos' The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Entry 1.2: "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" by Oscar Hijuelos (1990)

When I finished Hijuelos's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1990), The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, I was really expecting a different emotional reaction than the one I actually had. For 400 pages, the reader wrestles through some really gut-wrenching, emotional situations -- I became attached to one of the characters, Nestor, only to have him taken away from me in a lackluster way; I empathized with his struggles, his thoughts and feelings about romance, relationships and the world around him; I grimaced and wagged my finger at his brother, Cesar, as he lived a life of incontinence and debauchery. As I approached the last sections of the novel, I was really hoping for a redemption story -- some kind of conclusion that would relieve me of the anxiety and anger I was feeling. Instead, as I read the last few paragraphs, closed the book and laid it on the nightstand next to my bed, I was overwhelmed by a wave of sorrow.

There were a lot of elements in this book that I would love to critique and really delve into, but there are a few key details that I want to focus on, as to keep with the theme of my project (reading novels and finding myself in them): the idea of machismo and memory and the power of music.

The most interesting aspect of The Mambo Kings was the distorted and perverted ideals of manliness each man in the book possesses. Nearly every male character in the book emoted certain depraved traits that defined their manhood; in fact, the only "decent" man in the book (cousin Pablo, a family man) was a minor character who was given very few lines. Cesar was a violent, erratic, bawdy, womanizing drunkard whose chief end was to have a great time; Nestor was a quiet, introspective romantic trying to find his place and meaning in the world; their father was abusive; Eugenio, Nestor's son, was a lot like his father, but with his uncle's anger and bitterness; the rest of the characters are a blur of rapists, pimps, gang lords, down and outers and pushovers. But the one personality trait that acts as a link between these very different men is their machismo.

The dictionary defines machismo as "a strong or exaggerated sense of manliness; an assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength, and entitlement to dominate are attributes or concomitants of masculinity." The men in the book show off their machismo, sometimes dripping with it, toward the women in their lives, their children and each other.

Cesar, in particular, demonstrates his ideas of what a man should be most overtly, practicing domination and control over women by playing mind games, threatening them and leaving them without so much as moment's notice. He is completely full of himself, fully aware of his good looks and sexual talents -- on page 39, he even exclaims, "A thousand women have I continually satisfied, because I am an amorous man!" The narrative of his life that Hijuelos describes is a blur of women's names and faces that he either can't remember or can't forget, addictions and incurable sadness. He breaks hearts left and right -- "loves 'em and leaves 'em," as they say.

Nestor, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of his brother -- quiet, introspective, shy, mysterious, tormented even. "The quiet poet," pining away for lost love. The most tragic part of his story, however, isn't his untimely death -- it's that his greatest mistake (pushing away his one true love, Maria) was brought on at the behest of his brother, Cesar. Nestor and Maria were hopelessly in love, Nestor always portraying the last true romantic, when Cesar advised him that it's no good for a man to show weakness, even in love, to a woman; that he must show her who's really wearing the pants in the relationship. So, at his brother's advice, -- a man whom he greatly looked up to and admired -- Nestor began bossing Maria around, putting her down verbally, ignoring her; acting like what he was advised a man should be. Of course, Maria left him for another man and, from then on, Nestor was haunted by the memories of her and the thoughts of what might've been. Even during his marriage to another woman, Nestor pined for Maria and was still madly in love with her ghost. It was for her, of course, that he wrote the bolero, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," The Mambo Kings greatest musical success.

Now, when Hijuelos describes Cesar and Nestor's father, their personalities suddenly make a bit more sense. Their father, Pedro, is, for all intents and purposes, an absentee father. Despite his physical presence in their childhood lives, he was never for them emotionally -- he didn't teach them the ways of manhood, he didn't disciple them. Instead, he squelched them out, abused them and beat them into hatred for the man. At one point in the novel, when Cesar meets a bandleader who takes him under his wing, Hijuelos writes, "Cesar would have thought of Julian as a 'second father' if the word 'father' did not make him want to punch a wall." Later in the book, several specific instances of his father's abuse are described -- the most horrifying of these is a scene in which Pedro is chasing Cesar through some fields when he steps on a stake that penetrates straight through his foot; Cesar, of course, helps his father home and nurses him. Just when the reader starts to believe that maybe this moment is one of reconciliation, Pedro reaches out and slaps his son across the face.

Clearly, with a father like that, Cesar and Nestor were doomed to become men with severe developmental flaws. They essentially had to teach themselves the ways of manhood.
In the opening section of the book, before we are even properly introduced to the main characters, Hijuelos describes Cesar and Nestor's appearance on I Love Lucy, singing their hit song, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul." (the clip below is from the movie The Mambo Kings, based on the book)

This moment, their appearance on I Love Lucy, proved to be the very pinnacle of their success and the apex of their lives. It was their defining work -- the piece they would forever be most remembered for. Now, even though this song was Nestor's baby, it would prove itself to be a healing balm for both brothers throughout the remainder of their lives. The song was their escape from the cares of their lives and, ultimately, Cesar's escape from life altogether, as it played out his remaining breaths in the Hotel Splendour.

I was reminded of a guitar teacher I had once -- Gustavo ("Gus") Gutierrez, a Mexican guy who was approaching his 70's. Every Tuesday night, he'd show up ten minutes late, wearing a white, V-neck undershirt, black slacks and sandals, his belly bulging over his waistband and his breath smelling of booze. He'd sit down in his chair, pull out his beautiful hollow-body guitar, close his eyes and effortlessly run a few jazz scales. And every week, he'd forget what we were practicing the week before. So, because I had a more enjoyable time just listening to him play, I would lie to him: "Well, last week we finished this song, and you said you were going to play this song for me this week" and I'd pull a song out of his file cabinet. In the 50's and 60's, he was a rhythm guitarist for a jazz combo in Chicago and they'd play songs like "Unforgettable," "San Antonio Rose" and "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Loves You)." So every week, he'd introduce a new song to me by explaining the first time he'd heard it, the first time he'd played it and the audience's reaction. It was almost magical to watch his old fingers weaving mellow tones into the air between us, seeing him lose himself in the music of his yesterdays.

One week, he just stopped showing up for lessons and I had to start taking lessons from another teacher who wasn't nearly as talented and wasn't nearly as passionate about music as Gus was. I saw him almost two years later, in a grocery store, wearing the same V-neck undershirt, with sweat and food stains all over it, his hair was greasy and completely disheveled. Instead of his characteristic black slacks and sandals, he was walking around in boxers and slippers, buying cheap frozen pizzas and Ramen noodles.

I'm not sure what ever happened to Gus, but I can only imagine that his alcoholism got the best of him. For his sake, I hope he was still losing himself in the jazz of his youth.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"The Mambo Kings" review

I was really hoping to write a full blog tonight, after getting home from work, but I'm really not feeling up to it. It's already 11:30 and I have to wake up early for work in the morning.

Please forgive me.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Pulitzer Project

I sent a text message to my literary compatriot last night, informing him that the new and improved Pulitzer Blog was up and running and ready for use. In his haste to see the new blog, he neglected to jot down the URL and, thus, couldn't remember where to look for it. So after entering "Pulitzer project blog" into Google, thinking it would return with my blog, he was shocked to find something radically different than what I was referring to, but something incredibly similar to the project we are pursuing.

He called me and said, "Drew, I have a problem with your blog."

"Yeah?" I asked. "You don't like it?"

"Well it has to do with The Project..."

"Uh huh...?"

"Think of the worst-case scenario for this project."

"Um. I don't know, we don't finish within 52 weeks?"

"Worse than that."

"We don't finish at all...?"

"What if someone already did what we're doing?"

I chuckled at the thought of it. What other sane person would read 82 books in one year, just as a social experiment? I replied, "You know, Josh -- I really don't think we have anything to worry about."

He returned with, "Well, that might be true. But what if I TOLD you someone already did what we're doing...


"...And what if I TOLD you that I was looking at THEIR blog right now?"

"Wait, what!?"

He told me the URL of the blog that he haphazardly stumbled across and I raced over to my laptop to see this thing. Apparently, for the past couple of years, people out in the blogosphere have been reading Pulitzer Prize-winning novels and writing reviews about them. And, by the looks of it, this seems to be a whole online community -- scores of bloggers, committing to a common goal and gathering together at this particular URL and sharing their stories and reviews of their reading progress, keeping each other accountable to their goals.

While still on the phone with Josh, we sat in silence for a few moments, gazing at our separate laptops, trying to take this discovery in stride. He interrupted the silence and asked, "So, what now?" Needless to say, the wind had been taken from our sails; when I had this idea, to read all of the fiction Pulitzers in one year and write a memoir about it, I thought it was one of the most original ideas I'd ever had.

To be candid, I suspected that other people had, at one time or another, challenged themselves to read as many of these books as they possibly could; I suspected, even, that perhaps someone had started a reading club and discussed these books together, like Dead Poets Society or The Jane Austen Book Club. But I never would have imagined that people had gone to this extent with their reading; I honestly didn't think other people had committed to reading all 82 of them.

So, here we were -- Josh and I, wide-eyed and eager, just setting off on this journey, and we had already encountered our first conflict. We talked for twenty or so minutes, reasoning with each other. Both of us, upon learning that my idea had turned out to be unoriginal, were ready to throw in the towel, give up. I found it ironic that both of us were so willing to tackle this project, reading through 82 novels, fighting and struggling alongside each character as they battle through their inner and outer conflicts, developing emotional attachments to these characters in spite of their fictitious natures, forging through the malaise and weariness from reading so much. We were so willing to become characters, ourselves, in the narrative of our journey and when posed with our first conflict, we, like so many of the characters in the hundreds of books both of us have read, were ready to give up.

But what kind of story would that have been?
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived two young paupers who yearned to become princes of the Land of Reading. A path, leading to the Land of Reading, originated in their homeland and stretched out before them, winding through dark, mysterious woods, wide, open plains, treacherous mountain ranges. If they were to travel this path, they would face many dangers -- many conflicts, toils and snares. They would be attacked by their friends and family, they would be attacked by their enemies and their critics, they would see others walking similar paths that were much easier to traverse and long to be on those paths, they would constantly be tempted to surrender and turn back, giving up on their dreams and remaining paupers for the rest of their lives. When faced with that reality, they decided it wasn't worth the effort. The end.
I did some more reading on The Pulitzer Project's blog and was relieved when I concluded that their project, although very similar to mine, isn't perfectly identical. Sure, they're reading Pulitzer-winning novels and writing about them; sure, they've got a whole community of bloggers discussing these books and keeping each other accountable; but they're not reading every single novel in one year. Furthermore, they're not writing a memoir about their experience and, most importantly, their only goal is to read these novels for kitsch value. These are people who recognize the importance these 82 novels had throughout the 20th century and want to expand their learning by reading them; not because they want the novels to transform them as people, not because they wanted to fill their lives with a great adventure, but because they felt like they should -- because these novels are classics and have been woven into the fabric of American literature.

And, allow me to be candid, there's nothing wrong with that. Acknowledging the significance of authors and/or their works and participating in maintaining their legacy, learning from them to come to a fuller knowledge of cultures and eras are great and important things. The Pulitzer Project is doing a wonderful thing. But what they're doing is only a small part of what Josh and I are doing (though, I will admit, we need a better name for our journey -- The Pulitzer Project is pretty damn catchy). Our little project isn't for kitsch value, or ego value, or even educational value (well, maybe it is in some ways, it is) -- but we're trying to go a littler deeper than that. We're keeping a record of our lives and a record of our journey and gauging whether or not these novels had any life-transforming power over us. We are going to determine if these novels gave us a new filter through which to view the world around us.

And so, upon encountering our first inner conflict, -- the struggle to find the wherewithal to continue forward -- we have decided to persevere, despite the odds, laughing in the face of danger, with wild, reckless abandon. Tally-ho!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Entry 1.1: "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" by Oscar Hijuelos (1990)

The first book I'm going to tackle along my journey is The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos. It won the Prize in 1990 and was later adapted into a movie and Broadway play, called The Mambo Kings.

I can't really point to any particular reason I've decided to start with this novel, other than my fascination with 1950's culture. We all point to this era and say, "Oh, simpler times..." But, in reality, the 50's and 60's weren't entirely different from the fear-driven culture we currently live in. Just as we fear terrorists and nuclear annihilation, people from just a few generations before us were fearing Communists and nuclear annihilation. We like to think that, with programming like Leave It to Beaver and The Howdy Doody Show, that the 50's were a purer time, with less filth and perversion than we find in modern culture, but I'm not sure that's entirely true.

Here's a quick description of the book, as found an Amazon.com:
Inspired by their heroes Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz, brothers Cesar and Nestor Castillo come to New York City from Cuba in 1949 with designs on becoming mambo stars. Eventually they do--performing with Arnaz on "I Love Lucy" in 1955 and recording 78s with their own band, the Mambo Kings. In his second novel, Hijuelos traces the lives of the flashy, guitar-strumming Cesar and the timid, lovelorn Nestor as they cruise the East Coast club circuit in a flamingo-pink bus. Enriching the story are the brothers' friends and family members--all driven by their own private dreams.

My Pulitzer Prize Idea

A few months ago, I'd estimate around October or November, I started noticing that my personal library was taking on a new form -- it seems that, over time, I have veered away from simply purchasing books that I want to read, and instead started purchasing books that have some sort of intrinsic value. For instance, I owned The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, so I purchased the rest of his collection: his short stories, lesser-known works from the early 60's and any other writing of his I could get my hands on. I did the same for James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

My collection no longer was based on the presupposition that there were books that I wanted to read or were very interested in, it became an obsession to simply collect books. Over the course of a couple years, my collection, which started off with 50 books, at the most, swelled to its current number, 542.

One of the themes that I noticed developing was a miniature collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning novels; in my endeavor to collect "classics," I had haphazardly developed a collection of these books. So, I decided, since I already had a jumpstart on this particular collection, why not attempt to complete the collection? And, if that weren't enough, I thought "I don't want to just collect these books, I want to actually read them all." And then I thought "If I read all these books, I want everybody to know I read all these books. So, maybe I'll collect them all, read them all in one year and then write a memoir about the experience!" because I really am that pretentious.

But then something else occurred to me.

This endeavor, which is a huge undertaking, might not actually be as self-involved as I originally thought. See, I knew that if I told people, "Yeah, I read every single Pulitzer Prize winning novel in one year," that people would either be impressed, conclude that I way too much time on my hands or be impressed at the massive amount of time on my hands. I also knew that nobody would ask me, "So what did you learn about yourself and the world around you through this experience?"

Maya Angelou once said, "When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young."

And it is with that in mind that I am going to embark on this journey. I'm not going to do this thing to impress anyone, to prove how much of a connoisseur of literature I am or even to simply say that I did it. I'm going to tap into the mind-expanding power of literature and let it consume me. Without any presuppositions of truth or love or beauty, without any definition and without any clarity, I am going to allow these authors, and their words, to change me.

This is the first of many, many posts to come, however you will not find any Pulitzer-related entries on this site. To follow me on my journey, click your way over to another website, which will be registered later tonight.

- the drew