Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Entry 13: "March" by Geraldine Brooks (2006)

Wow. Has it really been so long that I haven't posted anything new on The Pulitzer Blog? Please forgive me, fellow readers; I know my curious absence must have sent you to fits of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance. However, grieve no more—I'm back with a plethora of interesting topics to blog about over the next couple weeks.
May has been such an exceptionally bizarre and stressful month. There will be more details on the reasons why to come in future blogs, but I have been dealing with the prospects of moving to another town, trying to find a job in that town, coming to the end of my allotted time with my current roommates, wondering where I'm going, facing homelessness, etc., etc. These concerns have been bogging me down, weighing heavily on my shoulders. We're only a little more than halfway through May and, already, I'm feeling the strain of the pressures this month has brought me wearing me out; I'm constantly fatigued, sore, and increasingly agitated. I'm being spread very thin by the cares and concerns of my everyday existence.

At the end of everyday, now, I have to remind myself, "Only three weeks to go... Only two weeks to go... Only one week to go..."

Needless to say, because of all of this undue stress, I have neither found the time to read, nor cared to find the time to read. That is my explanation as to why it took me two full weeks to complete Geraldine Brooks' March—a book that, at a scant 278 pages, would typically only take me a day or two to finish.

Furthermore, I regret to say, I probably won't be reading anymore novels for the remainder of this month either, as all of my books are currently in boxes, sitting in Joshua's garage, 30 minutes away from me. I miss them, but at least I'll have The Stories of John Cheever to keep me company.
Here's an idea that's come about in the 20th and 21st centuries that I've never really taken to: authors writing prequels, sequels, and other literary appendages and attaching them to classic works by other authors. There's something about this craze that seems to me, oh, I don't know—disingenuous? Unoriginal? Oblique? Perhaps, even blasphemous? Of course, this way of writing has probably been around for centuries, but it really seems as though it has really taken off in the past hundred or so years.

For instance, in 1813 Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, the story of a young girl named Elizabeth, who learns to deal with issues such as manners, upbringing, moral rightness, and relationships in an aristocratic society. In the novel, she falls madly in love with Mr. Darcy and blah, blah, blah. Some one hundred and ninety or so years later, in 2003, Elizabeth Aston continues the story of Elizabeth and Darcy in the sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy's Daughters.

Another example: in 1847, Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre, the story of a young girl who falls in love with a well-to-do man named Rochester. The only snafu in this love story is that Rochester is married! Woops! To make things even more complicated, Rochester's wife, Bertha, is a crazed lunatic that he locks in his attic! And, of course, though her readers were dying to know more about the nutjob in the attic, Brontë never really explains anything. So, 1966, Jean Rhys decided to write a prequel to the book called Wide Sargasso Sea, in which Bertha and Rochester's entire bizarre marriage is explained from its beginning to its end.

Geraldine Brooks' March is yet another example of this type of writing, though it is neither sequel nor prequel. Her novel is an appendage to Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's classic Civil War novel from 1868. Little Women is the story of Margaret March and her four daughters, Jo, Amy, Meg, and Elizabeth; it is her daughters' transformation from girls into "little women" during the one year of the Civil War in which their father, Robin, is absent. All Alcott says about his absence is that he was a chaplain in the Union army and he had been sent to minister to the troops. He is there in the beginning of the novel, and he is there at the end of the novel. So, in 2006, Geraldine Brooks decided to write March and thereby offer another part of Alcott's story: the story of Robin March.
Let me first say this: Geraldine Brooks is an amazing writer. On the front cover of the edition I have, Karen Joy Fowler, of The Washington Post, praises Brooks' writing by labeling it "harrowing and moving"—I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. Brooks has a very firm grasp on the English language and her writing style—whether she is depicting hospital rooms, battlefields, violence, racism, family dinners, or marital conflicts—is some of the most eloquent I have ever come across.

With that being said, however, I'm not really sure her writing style lends itself to her storytelling. Although she is unarguably a wonderful, gifted writer, I really had a hard time with her lack of story in this particular book.

So she sets out to explain the entire year that Robin March was absent from his home—okay, that's great; what happened in that one year? Well, according to Brooks, not a whole lot. He went to war as a chaplain to minister to the Union troops, he saw some stuff,—some of it was nice, some of it wasn't so nice—he wrote letters home, he got sick, he attempted to help slaves, he got hurt in a skirmish, he was laid up in a hospital, then he went home. Now, these details that I've explained here seem like a very basic overview of a long narrative; however, they aren't. That's what happens, but with more flowery, eloquent language.

This book is in no way a narrative of a story; rather, it reads more like a fictional memoir. Brooks, rather than telling the story of his absence from beginning to end, the way one might expect her to, she instead relates random memories from his year at war—and from his years of adolescence—and trusts the reader to deduce the full story from these tidbits. Worst of all, these memories aren't really that interconnected, so much as they are interrelated (and even that's a stretch; by "interrelated," I mean that he sees a slave and is reminded of another time he saw a slave).

Furthermore, March seems to be less a story about Robin March and more about slavery. March is a chaplain and, throughout the novel, that fact is beaten into the reader's head—they mention it every couple or so pages. However, despite its overwhelming importance to the book, Brooks never expounds on it. Once or twice, Brooks briefly mentions that March prayed with Union soldiers, and we are given a glimpse of him preaching a sermon, but that is it, really. With as much as she mentions his position in the army, I assumed that she would have spent more time discussing his prayers, his sermons, his duties as a chaplain. In Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a novel about a pastor, the reader gets to hear entire prayers, entire sermons, to read sermon notes—not so with this Union chaplain. The most intimately acquainted we are allowed to become with March is when Brooks shares with the reader his thoughts, emotions, and actions.

Curiously, however, despite his role as a chaplain in the Union army, Brooks glosses over the time that he spends with soldiers—again, I would assume that since he is a chaplain in the Union army and the entire novel was written to detail the events of the year that he spent in that role, Brooks would spend a good amount of time discussing the war. Not so. Rather, she focuses most of her attention on his relationships with the slaves he comes in contact with on two different plantations. Furthermore, while he is there, she spends more time describing their lives than his! Every now and then, I'd have to turn the book over in my hands and remind myself of the title on the front cover: "Yep—it says March still; not The Evils of Slavery and March's Recollections Thereof."

And, because of her focus on slavery rather than March,—the book's titled-character—it was very easy for me to become disconnected from the book. Sure, Brooks made me feel bad about slavery, and she made me feel uneasy while discussing what went on on the plantations, but because her focus was to explain how the one year of war changed Robin March, I didn't really connect with the slaves she discussed; not as much as she probably wanted me to, anyway. Instead (and I almost feel bad admitting this), but I really wanted to just get past the parts that dealt with the atrocities that befell the slaves because I was more interested in Robin March's story—not theirs.

What is most interesting about Brooks' focus and ardent desire to shed a light on the many evils of American slavery, is that 1) she's white, and 2) she's Australian! This woman immigrated to the United States in the 90's, became an official citizen in 2002, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for a novel that chronicles American slavery. Furthermore (this is where her story gets even more bizarre), she has also developed (invented, is more like it) tangible, deep connections to another oppressed people group: the Jews!

See, in 1984, Geraldine Brooks converted to Judaism. In 2008, she decided that her 24 years of being Jewish (or a facsimile, thereof) had given her enough experience to draw on 5,000 years of oppression against her adopted people group and wrote a novel about the struggles of the Jewish people called People of the Book.

This reminds me of the Anti-Dentite episode of Seinfeld, where Jerry suspects his dentist, Dr. Watley, of converting to Judaism simply for the Jewish jokes. Is it possible that Brooks converted to Judaism simply so she could identify with oppressed people groups, then write books that convey their struggles?

Hmmm... I guess we'll find out the answer to that question if her next novel is about the Irish during the Potato Famine, or the Japanese-Americans during World War II, or about the Russians during Stalin's reign.
And, so, here is my conclusion about March, by Geraldine Brooks: while this is a wonderfully, beautifully written book, I really don't feel as though Brooks really achieved her goals—she didn't do a very good job of explaining Robin March's one year of transformation while at war and she didn't do a very good job of chronicling the struggles of being an African-American during the years of American slavery. In both arguments, I believe it really comes down to this: Brooks is completely and totally disingenuous.

She's an Australian writing about the American Civil War; she's a wealthy white woman attempting to identify with the plights of impoverished black slaves; she's a Gentile calling herself a Jew and attempting to identify with 5,000 years of oppression; she's a woman attempting to tell the story of a man; and, worst of all, she's not Louisa May Alcott and she did not write Little Women, however she still attempts to write a companion piece to Alcott's Little Women.

March is a good book; not a great book, but a good book.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Entry 12: "The Late George Apley: A Novel In the Form of a Memoir" by John P. Marquand (1938)

It must be tough being incredibly wealthy and well-off. At least that seems to be the common sentiment of these early Pulitzer-winning novels that focus on High Society. John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley, which won the Pulitzer in 1938, is no exception to the rule.

The only difference, however, is that I actually kind of enjoyed this author's view of High Society. Kind of.

This novel, much like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and the like, is written in the form of a collection of notes, letters, and journal entries from and to George Apley, the protagonist of the novel. Marquand then intersperses tidbits amongst these entries that inform the reader of the setting, the time, and other unique indicators of what was going on in the lives of Apley's friends and family from a third person perspective, to make the reader a bit more informed and to paint a fuller picture of the story. The third person in this novel, the narrator, however, is not Marquand—rather it is a college classmate of Apley's, named Mr. Willing. To once again draw reference from another book, Willing is a lot like Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth's American Pastoral; Willing is approached by George Apley's son to write a biography, a tribute, to his late father, mostly for the intention of distributing it amongst family members.

He does so by drawing on a collection of the aforementioned letters et al and organizing them in such a way that Apley's biography is more like a memoir; The Late George Apley is the result of his work. So, in essence, the reader is reading a work about his work, much like watching a movie about making a movie.

As a result, his book alone is contributing greatly to my existential crisis.
First of all, this book is a satire of High Society. I found it interesting how Marquand, throughout the novel, seems to be praising High Society, all the while actually poking fun at it. While I legitimately believe that Booth Tarkington really, really wanted me to sympathize with the plights of High Society in The Magnificent Ambersons (which I didn't), and while I legitimately believe that Louis Bromfield wanted me to take the worries and cares of High Society seriously in Early Autumn (which I really didn't), it is my belief that Marquand wanted me to view these very same elements which plague George Apley hypercritically. It really didn't seem to me that Marquand was sympathetic in his treatment of Apley, and it really didn't seem like he wanted me to be either. In fact, it's almost as if Marquand wanted me to pity the man simply for the mere sake of his being Apley, not for the overwhelming obstacles he is presented with and is forced to overcome.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.
Just as it was with Georgie in The Magnificent Ambersons, or Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, here is the essential premise of The Late George Apley: George Apley is born into wealth and privilege and spends his life ensconced within that world, struggling to defend it. The trajectory of his life almost seems predetermined: born into wealth, a "proper" upbringing, degrees from Harvard University, travels to Europe, forays into business, philanthropy, and heavy involvement in various social clubs. He despises the changes he sees taking over society and refuses to take part in them, even going so far as to lash out against them (in the form of letters, obviously—a proper gentleman wouldn't dare challenge the world to a match of fisticuffs). But he is madly in love with the world that he grew up in, he is madly infatuated with High Society and it grieves him so to see it go; in one letter, he writes, "I am quite convinced that we are coming to the end of an era. I don't know quite what will happen to us, but I have faith in our common sense, just as I have faith in our inheritance."

He leads such a posh life, that his greatest troubles and worries are, to the reader, far and beyond laughable. You know—here in the real world, we have to worry about really troubling things: losing our jobs, losing our homes, not being able to pay bills, not being able to feed ourselves or our families. Only in Apley's world, the world of High Society, is the potential removal of some rosebushes enough to prompt an entire series of letters, or the unintentional burial of a distant aunt in the wrong portion of the family plot sufficient to spark a deep and abiding family feud.

These troubles, of course, are utterly alien to a commoner such as I.
Here's the kicker, though.

As much of a defender of this world and this life Apley is, it's ironic that he's not entirely comfortable with it. Albeit true that he was born into that life, and that it was his choice to maintain that life, there were moments when he really questioned whether or not it was the life for him—most notably during his one attempt at rebellion: a very brief and short-lived love with a middle-class Irishwoman named Mary Monahan. Of course, this affair was intensely frowned upon by his parents, family, and peers; even in today's culture, with much thanks to movies like The Boondock Saints and The Departed, we are all too familiar with the way Boston's Irish working-class is viewed; one can only imagine how unfavorably they were viewed by High Society at the turn of the century.

However, as comfortable as his life is, and as much respect/reverence he is shown as a result of that life, it is ultimately a lonely life, completely devoid of happiness and personal pleasure. He is all too aware of this unhappiness, but he is also all too aware of his assumed responsibility to carry on his family's High Society mantle. This, I feel, is the central conflict of the novel—the tearing of the soul between duty to self and duty to tradition. As George himself reminisced late in his life:
I have always told the truth. I have never shirked standing for my convictions. I have tried to realize that my position demanded and still demands the giving of help to others. I have tried in my poor way to behave toward all men in a manner which might not disgrace that position.
I have not had a very good time doing it. There is a great deal of talk in these days about happiness.
...Perhaps it would be better if people realized that happiness comes by indirection, that it can never exist by any conscious effort of the will.
The world I have lived in may be in a certain sense restricted but it has been a good world and a just world.
Why, all of a sudden, am I hearing the tune of Simon and Garfunkel's Richard Cory playing faintly in my mind, and growing ever louder?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Entry 11.1: "A Bell for Adano," by John Hersey (1945)

After the onslaught of so-called American values Philip Roth conjured up in American Pastoral, reading John Hersey's A Bell for Adano was almost jarring. Everything that Roth disavowed in his novel, Hersey makes an overwhelming case for in his; everything that Roth showed to be a facade in his novel, Hersey attempted to make genuine in his. One of these two authors is clearly propagating me.

I have a feeling it's Hersey.
A Bell for Adano is the story of Major Victor Joppolo, an American officer stationed in the town of Adano in 1943 Italy, during World War II. During his tenure of overseeing the daily activities of the town and its people, he comes to be incredibly well-liked by everyone there—not so much because of his personality, but because of how truly American he is. To the townspeople, he represents the America that drove out the evils of Fascism and replaced them with freedom and democracy; he represents the America that is fair and just, the America that guarantees equality.

There are a few troubling about this character, however: he consciously made every effort to ensure that he was well-liked by the townspeople. If he felt that he was losing popularity, he did whatever it took to gain it back. So, although Hersey wants the reader to believe that Joppolo's main concern was the well-being of the town, and I do believe that was a great concern for him, I really think that he was more interested in keeping up appearances; in making sure that he presented himself in such a way that would make the townspeople believe that he was some sort of American Messiah, sent to cleanse the town of Fascism and provide salvation for those who believe.

Knowing that Hersey was a war correspondent in Italy during this time, and presuming that he wrote this book partly based on his experiences, seems to suggest he had bought into the notion of the cleansing powers of American democracy just as much as his Joppolo.

Joppolo was an extension of Hersey?
This book couldn't have been more timely on Hersey's part either—it was written and published in 1944 and won the Pulitzer in 1945, during the last two years of World War II, when the Allies had finally regained momentum and, ultimately, defeated the Axis Powers. This was a time when Americans were questioning their country's involvement in "Europe's war" and were anxious to believe that going to war was the right thing to do. With this novel, it seems as though Hersey's intent was to restore a sense of nationalism amongst his fellow countrymen.

The only thing that offsets this theory is that Joppolo isn't the only American character in this book—he is, however, the only American that is portrayed in a positive light. Surrounding him are Sergeant Borth, a total meathead/complete nincompoop; Captain Purvis, a nervous do-gooder; Lieutenant Livingston, a pushover; and General Mavis, a despicable ass.

Furthermore, the conclusion of the book is one of the most puzzling endings I've come across yet: Joppolo countermands a direct order from General Mavis, Mavis finds out about it, comes down on him hard, and has him reassigned to Algiers. So after all the good that Joppolo did for Adano and its people, he is relieved of his duties and banished away. Furthermore, according to the conversations in the book, Mavis replaced him with a different Major that was utterly disinterested in everything.

So, if Hersey was trying to get across a pro-American message, why the confounding ending? The only thing that comes to mind is that Hersey really wanted Joppolo to portray, like I said before, "the American Messiah." In order to most accurately paint him as a savior, Hersey would have had to have Joppolo martyred somehow—maybe fearing that execution or casualty would have been a little too obvious, he chose to simply have him banished. I really don't know; this is the best I could come up with to justify the ending.

Two New Additions to My Collection and Some Charts

The other day, I was showing a friend of mine, Noa, the greatest city in the world—Chicago. Obviously, I had to show her the greatest bookstore in the world—Myopic—since we were there. What a great honor it must have been for Noa to help take part in my Pulitzer search! She even had the distinct privilege of crossing the two books that I found off my list: Caroline Miller's Lamb In His Bosom (1934) and Martin Flavin's Journey In the Dark (1944).

With the addition of these two books, I am now only nine away from completing my collection:
  • Tinkers, by Paul Harding (2010)
  • Guard of Honor, by James Cozzens (1949)
  • Dragon's Teeth, by Upton Sinclair (1943)
  • In This Our Life, by Ellen Glasgow (1942)
  • Honey In the Horn, by Harold Davis (1936)
  • The Store, by T.S. Stribling (1933)
  • Years of Grace, by Margaret Barnes (1931)
  • The Able McLaughlins, by Margaret Wilson (1924)
  • His Family, by Ernest Poole (1918)
Almost there. Also, just to see how much further I have to go, I decided to take a look at how many books I've read and compare it to how many weeks I have left.

It has been 11 weeks since I started this journey (on February 13, 2010 and today is May 2). That means I still have 285 days (or, roughly, 41 weeks) to finish up this project. Of the 83 books (including this year's winner), I have read 14—I'm reading 1.3 books per week. In order to finish this project on time, I have to read 1.7 books per week.

I have created a pie chart below to make all of this seem more professional:

As you can see, I am nearly 17% done with this journey. However, my reading year is nearly 21% complete. This does not bode well for me. It's time to pick up the pace!

Here's what I've done so far:

In order to finish this project on time, my pace will have to look similar to this:

And, of course, in the time I spent making these charts and graphs, I probably could've finished 20 or so pages of The Late George Apley.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Elusive Ernest Poole

Around a year ago, now, I was perusing an antique shop in a podunk little town here in Illinois called Sandwich. While scouring their massive collection of antique books, I stumbled across a really old copy of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc—I didn't know the book, but I had just started a miniature collection of Twain novels, so I bought it for $25. When I brought it home, I researched the title a little bit more and, in particular, my copy of it.

As it turns out, the book was published in 1896 and was Twain's last published novel. Here's a bit of the entry on its Wikipedia page:
Twain had a personal fascination with Joan, and initially penned this novel under a pseudonym. It has a very different feel and flow from Twain's other works. There is a distinct lack of humor so prevalent in his other works. This is a mature Twain writing about a subject of his own personal interest.

Twain considered this, his last finished novel, to be his best and most important work, a view not shared by critics then or since. Iconoclastic author George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play Saint Joan, accuses Twain of being "infatuated" with Joan of Arc. Shaw says that Twain "romanticizes" the story of Joan, reproducing the legend that the English conducted a trial deliberately rigged to find Joan guilty of witchcraft and heresy. Recent scholarship of the trial transcripts has suggested that Twain's belief may have been closer to the truth than Shaw was willing to accept.
Mark Twain, himself, commented, "I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others need no preparation and got none."

So one can only imagine my excitement when I, during my research, discovered that the $25 copy of the book I found at the antique shop in Sandwich, IL is the first edition.
"We are never going to find this book."

At least this is the common sentiment Joshua and I have shared regarding the very first Pulitzer-winning novel, Ernest Poole's His Family (1918). Of course, this is the way we both feel about a couple other books too (namely, Upton Sinclair's Dragon's Teeth and Harold Davis' Honey In the Horn), but we both instinctively knew that this Ernest Poole novel was going to be the most elusive of all during this search. Sure enough, it has been. We have been to used-book stores all over northern Illinois, Chicago, and even parts of Iowa and neither of us have been able to find anything by Ernest Poole, let alone His Family.

Finally, three weeks ago, during a tour of Chicago's used-book stores (Powell's, Myopic, et al), I decided to show Joshua the most amazing store I have ever been to in my life—Printer's Row Fine and Rare Books. This store has one of the most expansive collections of rare books and first editions that I have ever had the good pleasure of seeing. They have incredibly pricey first editions of almost any author you can think of there—James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, John Steinbeck, Thomas Merton, James A. Michener, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner; you name it, they probably have it. And, of course, these books are pristine condition and typically cost around $2,000.

While perusing their shelves, I happened to stumble across an elegantly-bound edition of His Family. "Obviously they have this book here" I thought. Here's the ironic part, though: finding the book wasn't nearly as cataclysmic as I imagined it would be. I had imagined that when I found the book, it would be because I was on my hands and knees, scouring shelves upon shelves of books, digging through piles upon piles of books, trying to find it. It would be my diamond in the rough. It would be my treasure in the field I exhausted all my resources to obtain.

Instead, I just happened to be browsing around a store, saw it sitting on a shelf, and said, "Hey Josh—there it is." Not very romantic.

Surprisingly, the store was only asking for $40 for the book; this incredibly low, low price, however, is still just a wee bit out of my price range. But that's when I remembered that I owned something the store's proprietor would probably be interested in—a first edition of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I told his assistant (the owner was out this particular day) about my book and that I was interested in selling it to the store, and he told me to come back when the owner was back. So, a couple days ago, I did just that.

Very proudly, I walked through the doors, approached the podium the proprietor stands behind when examining a book, handed him my Twain book, and proclaimed, "Boy, do I have a treasure for you!" He replied, "Yeah? Let's take a look here." He turned the book over in his hands a couple times, commented on the book's great outward condition, opened it to the title page, closed the book, handed it back to me, and retorted, "Your treasure is worthless."

That's about the time my heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach.

Now, I knew the book wasn't in perfect condition, but I was willing to accept a payment smaller than $1000 for it, if I had to. I was even willing to go so low as to propose an even trade—my Mark Twain for his Ernest Poole; that's how desperate I've become to somehow obtain this book! I was not, however, expecting this man to tell me that my book, my first edition of Mark Twain's last published novel, was completely and totally worthless.

I asked, "What in the hell do you mean, 'worthless'?"

He took the book back, opened it and, very curtly, replied, "It's been cannibalized. No title page, no copyright page, no bastard page... Somebody ripped it all out, and those are the three most important aspects of a first edition. That person made this book worthless. And it's a shame, honestly. Whoever owned this book before you should be shot. I probably would've given you a thousand for it." That's about the time my heart sank even further—from the deepest pits of my stomach, all the way down to the soles of my shoes, and I felt sick.

A thousand dollars... For a book.
I proposed an even trade, obviously, but he wasn't going for it. He told me that my Twain book would compromise the integrity of his collection. "After all, all of the other first editions here are in pristine condition. Why should I make an exception?" I suppose he has a point. He asked me if I had anything else to give him, perhaps, and I do—I recently found a first edition of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood with the original dust jacket, coincidentally from the same antique shop in Sandwich. I'm not sure I'm ready to part with it, but I just may have to. He also proposed trading him a bicycle (he asked, "What do you have? Is it new? How much did you pay for it?" I answered, "It's a Globe Vienna 2, brand new, and I paid $400 for it." "Hm. Well that wouldn't be a very good deal for you, then..."). As I was walking out the door, he patted me on the shoulder and said, "Keep trying, friend."

I could only smirk and walk away, shaking my head and cursing that damned elusive Ernest Poole.