Thursday, November 29, 2012

OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder ✰✰✰✰

Certain works of literature really need to be pulled out over and over again as we go through our lives, because as we mature and experience difference things we read the piece through different eyes.  I first read Our Town, like most people, when I was in high school, and at that point I didn’t particularly care for it.  This time around I found it poignant and startling.
A play in three acts, Our Town follows the citizens of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire as they pass through three periods of life: youth, marriage, and death.  Along the way they pass along universal pearls of wisdom that sound as if they could have sprung from your most beloved grandma or a wise philosopher.  I read the print version of the play, but you can tell from the stage directions that unlike most plays, when performed the staging is kept very minimal, forcing the audience to focus on the message the actors are conveying.

What makes the play so wonderful is that everyone can relate to its simple, everyday themes.  It makes no difference at all that the play was written in 1938.  The issues that are lived within its 112 pages are exactly the same issues that we live 74 years later-we come of age, fall in love, marry, and die.  We “...celebrate...a friend who tells me all the things that ought to be told me.”  Like those of Grover’s Corners, we look back on our own wedding day with fond chagrin and struggle letting our children go when they marry.  When it comes to dying, no one, I think, writes a scene as compelling as the third act of Wilder’s play.  I would love to copy out some of the powerful lines, the haunting ones that I put in my journal, but in doing so I would give away the character’s names, and that would give away the ending of the play.  It is simply 112 pages that you must read for yourself.

There is a reason that Our Town won the Pulitzer and continues to be so well-regarded.  It is a classic in the truest sense of the word-it is utterly timeless in its ability to speak to the heart of what makes us human.  I would certainly say that it was a beautiful way to spend a couple of hours. 


What a disappointment!  While I didn’t expect this sound-bite version of women in the history of the Americas, Australia, and the South Seas to be thorough and scholarly, I at least thought that Vicki Leon was known for good research.
In that I was wrong.  Many of the subjects were completely unknown to me, and so I cannot speak to their veracity, but on several of the topics in which I am well-versed there were glaring errors, which leads me to think that there were errors in others as well.  That was irritating to me; I wanted to believe these wonderful stories about these women, some heroes, some ordinary women, and some bad girls of history, but I found myself in doubt of the accuracy of the details, and so it made reading their stories almost irrelevant. 

I knew when I picked up the book that the tone was going to be tongue-in-cheek, which was fine-so many people hate history because they had boring teachers in high school who left them snoozing.  What they don’t need however is the opposite extreme.  Ms. Leon simply tries too hard to be captivating, and as a result she is biased in the extreme: against men, organized religion, and marriage, to name a few items that come to mind.

When I began the book, I had thought to pass it along to my nine-year-old daughter, a lover of history who is also quite an advanced reader and who would love the quirky sense of humor.  There is no way I would give her this book.  Chief among my reasons are the historical inaccuracies the book contains, but I also do not want her young mind, not yet able to discern between various biases, absorbing what I can only describe as a “rant”.

I didn’t hate this book; while reading I did get a list of fascinating women whom I intend to look up on my favorite research websites for more reputable, accurate information.  That made it worth my time and bumped it up from a one star read.  If you are interested in going to that extra effort then I recommend reading this one for the exposure it gives you to some interesting women that you might not meet otherwise.  However, if you want a book that you can take at face value, you might want to find a writer who does better research. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

GAMES WITHOUT RULES by Tamim Ansary ✰✰✰✰✰ and a ♥

Of all the histories I have read on Afghanistan, and I have read more than a few, Tamim Ansary’s is absolutely the best.  Whether your knowledge is a clean slate and you are looking for one book that will explain this complex nation, or you are fairly conversant in the country, but want a brief refresher, Mr. Ansary will lay out everything you need to know in his latest offering.  Games without Rules begins with the rise of the Durrani line and brings the reader up through the present, with reporting through May of 2012.

Tamim Ansary does a number of things in his book that make it especially accessible for readers, but chief among them is linking events in Afghanistan to events with which his readers might be more familiar, such as the fact that the opening of his work, the dawning of the Durrani Empire, with its founder Ahmad Shah Baba, known as Afghanistan’s Founding Father, happened in 1747, roughly the same time as the founding of the United States of America.  Over the course of reading the book the reader will also learn a great deal about the histories of India, Pakistan, and the neighboring central Asian republics, as the destinies of these nations and that of Afghanistan are all inter-linked.  Another fact about Mr. Ansary’s writing that becomes quickly apparent is that this is not the writing of a dry, boring scholar of a historian.  While never stooping to comedy or disdain, he manages to always keep a storyteller’s mien, full of adventure and humor and at times even anger and despair.

In addition to being written in an easily accessible style, this history is very well organized, carrying the reader seamlessly from one era into the next, clearly illustrating how each event, and not always those occurring solely within Afghanistan’s borders, caused the next to proceed.  Perhaps most valuable is Mr. Ansary’s explanation of Afghanistan’s placement upon the world stage-the role that it has played over the last two hundred years, so often caught up geographically in the maelstrom between world powers, for instance, between Russia and British India.

As he takes his reader along on a journey through the various powers, foreign and domestic, who have vied for power over her people, Tamim Ansary, in a marvelously conversant manner, gives a cultural education that is unparalleled.  From the cities to the furthest reaches of the valleys, the governance and social customs of the country are explained, and he uses this information to break down for the reader exactly why he feels that attempts by various foreign powers over the centuries to govern the Afghani people have not succeeded.  His analysis is insightful and well-laid-out, and for those not well-versed in the subject, this book will prove especially useful in helping you to understand exactly why the political and social situation there is so complex.

My one very slight reservation for my conservative readership is that Mr. Ansary is very clearly a liberal, and that does bleed through, especially with regards to our current president.  He is quite a fan of the president’s policies with regards to Afghanistan, something with which most conservatives do not agree.  To give credit where credit is due, he also admits that Clinton made errors while in office.  However, for the most part he does strive for partiality and is generally successful.  No matter how conservative your leanings, you would be doing yourself a disservice not to read this book-Mr. Ansary’s political views only come into play in the very last section and are toned down enough that even this conservative reviewer did not find them obtrusive enough to overwhelm all the excellent material contained within the rest of the book.  And I personally found his views even here to be insightful and interesting, even if I might not agree with them.

In four hundred pages of reading  a person’s time will be well vested here.  I give Tamim Ansary’s newest history my highest endorsement, not only for the knowledge it imparts, but for its readability.  If you read one book on the modern history of Afghanistan, her culture, her politics, and her role in our global peace (or otherwise), this should be the one you reach for.

(Perseus Books Group kindly gave me a pre-publication galley of this book, but it will be available to the general public on 27 November 2012.)

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Pulitzer Pickle of 2012

This year, for the first time since 1977, the twenty member Pulitzer Prize Board failed to award a prize for a novel.  It is not wholly unprecedented-this is actually the eleventh time in the award's history that the Fiction Prize has not been awarded.  In order for a prize to be awarded, one of the three books, which are initially selected for the Board by a three member panel who have in their turn read hundreds of novels published in the preceding year, must receive a majority of the votes from the twenty members of the Board.  This year that failed to happen, and so, no Fiction Prize was awarded.

Due to the three books offered up as selections, many critics suspected that the Board simply decided the books were unworthy of the prize and so declined to award one.  David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, the author's final work, was unfinished at the time of his death, and as he did not even leave an outline behind specifying the order in which the various sections should be published, his agent was cobbling together bits and pieces of what many feel is approximately half of what the finished book would have been, and the plot is anyone's guess.  Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, a novella, not even a full-fledged work of fiction, caused some critics to question its place on the final list.  The final slot went to Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, who's themes some found gimmicky and thus felt did not merit consideration as serious literature.

And so controversy ignited.  When three books are put forth for consideration that might not be worthy of the Prize what should the Board do?  The Board insists that there is no conspiracy going on to avoid awarding a Prize, that there is simply complete division and no clear winner means no Prize.  But many book critics feel that this year is a good year to discuss the point-what if none of the books in a given year really deserve a Pulitzer?  Some years are like that.  It happens.  Why should the committee feel obligated to award a prize if they truly do not feel one is merited?

In response, and out of curiosity, a group of online reviewers decided to join together to see if we could do what the Pulitzer Board could not.  Since April we have all been independently reading the three titles, and we have all agreed not to post any reviews, ratings or comments anywhere online or in print until after our group coordinator tallies our results.  This post is to announce our group award winner and also to post all of my reviews for the three Pulitzer novels-and tell you which one I selected as my winner.

As a group of reviewers, we collectively chose Train Dreams as our winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  However, the group coordinator abstained from voting, a choice that was offered if a reviewer felt that none of the books deserved the prize.  She admitted to the group that Train Dreams won by only one vote, and she had seriously considered casting her vote for Swamplandia!, which would have resulted in a tie.  Her admonition helped us all see exactly the dilemma that the Pulitzer Board might have found themselves in.

Not a single one of these books was on my To Be Read list prior to agreeing to join in this endeavor, but I am glad that I took the time to do this.  In the end, Swamplandia! wins my Pulitzer Prize for 2012, but with a caveat.  Had David Foster Wallace lived to finish The Pale King, I do believe that that book would have stolen the prize.  However, I could not give the prize to a book, no matter how breathtakingly outstanding the writing, that was unfinished; the book had absolutely no discernible plot as yet, and the editor admitted that he is not even sure that the sections were in the order that the author would have wanted. 

Enjoy my thoughts on these 2012 Pulitzer Nominations:

This novel was nowhere near my towering “To Be Read” mountain when I agreed to take part in an online challenge to do what the Pulitzer committee failed to do and choose a novel prize winner for 2012.  It was the last of the three books that I needed to read and it sat on my shelf reproaching me every time my gaze fell on it until at last I reluctantly allowed it onto my nightstand one evening.  And then into my cozy snuggle as I curled up and read.  What a bedtime story...

The plot is what initially put me off.  Set in the Florida Everglades, the novel follows the fate of the Bigtree family: a father, his teenage son, and two daughters, after the mother dies of cancer.  Sounds fairly pedestrian right?  Until I tell you that the mother was an alligator wrestler of some repute and the family owns a theme park of which she was the star attraction.  The trouble begins as the survivors attempt to keep the park operating without their biggest draw, fighting competition from a new water park, and debt starts to overwhelm them faster than their grief.  I was absolutely amazed how swept up in the lives of the characters I became!

Perhaps the element that impressed me the most about the writing of the characters was how well Karen Russell wrote them within their ages.  Ava, the youngest sibling, was thirteen, but struggling to pull her family together, and I felt that Ms. Russell did a good job writing her into that voice.  Likewise with the two older, teenaged siblings.  Osceola was a dreamy, spiritual character, and was well represented as such.  Kiwi, the brother, was seventeen, and clearly felt an older brother’s sense of responsibility for taking care of the family.  The Chief, the father, came across as care-worn and a character the reader might or might not empathize with.
There were a couple of slow points in the plot, but for the most part, I felt that the book was very well plotted, and the climax of the book left me feeling very, very sad.  I loved the way that legends and history of the Everglades were woven into the story; they lent mystery and depth to the tale and gave an element of credibility to the spiritualist side of Osceola’s character that would have been missing otherwise. 
On a completely different note, I felt that in juxtaposing the Bigtree’s alligator park up against the big business water park, Ms. Russell made a statement about not just those oft-times mawkish American roadside attractions-she made a statement about many small-town businesses that struggle in the face of competition from chain retailers. I felt that this was a particularly timely message, when the entrepreneurial spirit that built our nation’s economy into one of the strongest in the world is being crushed by conglomerates.  Whether or not this was a message the author intended, I do not know, but it struck me none-the-less. 
If you, like me, shied away from this novel because the spiritualist elements seemed overwrought, or the family-owned roadside attraction sounded hackneyed, I encourage you to think again.  These elements are so finely worked into an adroitly told story of a family in crisis that they add to, and even seem necessary to, the nuances of their slow disintegration.  To the surprise of no one more than myself, I highly recommend this novel and award it my Pulitzer Prize for 2012.

The Pale King is unique in many ways, not the least of which is that it went to publication unfinished.  David Foster Wallace worked on the novel for a decade before he committed suicide in 2008, at which time his wife and his agent decided to turn the manuscript and all his notes over to his editor.  The novel consists of segments, many of which cycle back characters the reader has been previously introduced to, but several of which contain characters the reader will never meet again; most likely Wallace would have written further segments linking those characters in with the rest of the novel.  The editor took these segments and chose an arrangement for them (David Foster Wallace left no outline), and this became the published format.

As a warning to those readers who must have a plot that goes somewhere and wraps up nicely-you certainly will not get that here.  There is no plot, and the ending is very abrupt.  It is clear that the novel is set in an Internal Revenue Service facility in Peoria, Illinois, and that the characters are employees of the IRS.  There is a faint glimmering of where Wallace might have been going; perhaps he was building toward the idea of juxtaposing the question that was arising in the IRS during the 1980s as to whether or not computers could generate more revenue through discovering more errors in tax returns than could human IRS employees.  He seems, in many segments, to be building characters on both sides of the argument.

Segments are written in different styles and from different viewpoints; some seem to be interviews, essays, first person narratives, etc.  In typical quirky fashion, the author names one of the characters after himself and writes segments in the first person as if he really worked for the IRS (he didn’t), footnotes and all-these are very fun segments.  When the literary world lost David Foster Wallace, it lost perhaps one of its most perceptive voices.  Characters are so thoroughly described, with every individual tick and quirk outlined for the reader, but in such a way that one feels enlightened rather than inundated.  And when the physical attributes have been exhausted, or if the physical is not the point with this given character, Wallace turns the reader’s gaze inward, into the character’s persona, or outward, to the culture which is shaping the events that are building the character.  I simply can not express enough my admiration for what a special talent David Foster Wallace was-he truly saw and understood people, their psyches, and cultures.

This has to be one of the oddest books I have ever read.  There are parts of it where the writing is so outstanding that it is absolutely clear why the book was nominated for a Pulitzer, yet in other parts, the narrative lags so appallingly it is a trial simply to make it to the bottom of the page.  Let’s face it, tax jargon does not make for scintillating reading.  Wallace did say that one of the reasons that he wrote the book was that it was to be an exploration of boredom and character studies of the kind of people who can tolerate that kind of work.  

Yet I loved the fact that the editor decided to publish this book because you could see the writer’s process at work.  Parts of the book were absolutely publication ready; I imagine David Foster Wallace himself had set them aside with satisfaction and considered them done.  Others were clearly a work in progress, and you had the feeling that they were almost a first draft, the thoughts as they flowed from consciousness to keyboard, redundant verbiage still intact.

One section of this book will forever stand out in my mind as absolutely one of the best examples of short fiction I have ever read, and I will use it in my homeschool classroom.  The section involves a young couple who find themselves in a predicament.  Nowhere are the words “pregnant” or “abortion” used, and yet the reader absolutely knows the decision they are wrestling with.  Not only is this segment an outstanding example of “show don’t tell”, it is some of the most emotionally intense writing I have ever read-absolutely beautiful.  No question this was a section David Foster Wallace was satisfied with.

Clearly there were parts of this book that I loved, but there were also many, many parts that were very rough and obviously in need of further work.  Had David Foster Wallace lived to finish this work, despite its less than exciting topic, I most likely would have given it five stars, based on the mastery of his writing.  And, in all fairness to his topic, I learned a tremendous amount about the workings of the IRS and that did make for fascinating reading at times.  As is, I think four stars is a fair rating for the work, and readers can balance things as they may.

This book seriously underwhelmed me-to the point that I think that I must have missed something, given the amount of attention the book has been getting.  I enjoyed the story of Robert, the hardworking woodsman, who finds work on the railroad, marries, and settles on a small piece of land.  However, despite the tragedy that marks Robert’s life, I did not find anything particularly extraordinary about the way the characters were sketched-they lacked depth to me-or the prose to merit all the Pulitzer (for which it was nominated) and National Book Award (which it won) fuss that the book has garnered.

After reading the print version of the story, and feeling at best luke-warm, I heard many good things about the audio, and given its brevity and availability at my library, I decided to give it a listen and see if a second run through in a different format changed my viewpoint at all.  Narrator Will Patton was the perfect choice for the somber tone of this novel, and his delivery was rich and redolent of the misery of every man who suffered through a life such as Robert’s.  

However, despite my love of the audio, the book was still a long way from deserving all the attention that it has been receiving.  The writing on its own did not move me and even hearing it spoken did not enhance the phrases to the point of elevating them into the realm of great prose.  Ultimately, I felt like I was reading a folk tale about a man going through a difficult time in his life during a difficult time in American history, written by an author who failed to go beyond a recitation of events.  Robert seemed emotionally dead, going through the motions, for much of the book.

Reading this work introduced me to the excellent narration work of Will Patton, but other than that, I could have missed this novel without any regrets.  As a testament to how little impression the story made on me, despite reading it twice, once in print, and once in audio format-as I write the ending of this review only three months have passed since those readings, and I am finding that I cannot even remember the basic rudiments of the story.  That is pretty sad for a novel that was found worthy of a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Nomination.