Reading goal: Pulitzer Prize winners for Fiction: Part 1

I have read a few novels which have won the coveted Pulitzer Prize. So far, reading these novels has left me scratching my head as to why they won. Because of this, I have looked up and read several accounts of how these books are chosen. One account was written by one of the jurors on the 2012 jury, which was extremely interesting because the panel decided not to award a prize that year.

The process, as it stands today, is this: 3 fiction jurors are selected. They change yearly, and are tied closely to the world of books. Sometimes they are authors, critics, professors, editors, etc. Over the course of the year, the jurors each receive over 300 books, shipped in increments of about 30. These books are culled from books published that year which meet the criteria of the Pulitzer for Fiction: “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” This criteria has changed over the course of years, and there is a wonderful summary on JW Rosenzweig’s blog found here.

Pulitzer winners I have read:
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 1937
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – 1961
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – 1981
Beloved by Toni Morrison – 1988
Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser – 1997
Empire Falls by Richard Russo – 2002
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – 2005
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – 2009
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – 2011

Of these books, I would recommend all simply based on the fact that they are winners. However, I can only recommend based on my personal feelings only four of them. Four out of the nine that I have read. Not a very good average, I’d say.

More coming on my Pulitzer Progress.

Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser

Summary:

Young Martin Dressler begins his career as an industrious helper in his father’s cigar store. In the course of his restless young manhood, he makes a swift and eventful rise to the top, accompanied by two sisters–one a dreamlike shadow, the other a worldly business partner. As the eponymous Martin’s vision becomes bolder and bolder he walks a haunted line between fantasy and reality, madness and ambition, art and industry, a sense of doom builds piece-by-hypnotic piece until this mesmerizing journey into the heart of an American dreamer reaches its bitter-sweet conclusion.

My take: 2.5 looks
***SPOILERS***

Continuing with my plan to read Pulitzer winners for fiction, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer won the coveted prize in 1997. While easy to read, I found the abundance of description a bit sluggish. Detail upon detail of shops, buildings, furnishings, clothing, weather, etc., to the exclusion of descriptions of the people themselves. Martin’s building plans were clearer to the reader than his feelings.

An odd man, for sure, Dressler was clearly driven to create bigger and better. He constantly desired more, and became bored once his current exercise was successful. As a matter of fact, the more the story progressed, the more maniacal he became. At the end of the book, his temperament is very bipolar: And indeed he was tired, so tired that he could barely lift his head, though at the same time he felt intensely alert (p 288).

I am not at all sure what Millhauser intended to convey with Martin’s relationships. The relationship in the beginning between Martin and his father seems very strong, only to all but disappear, being referred to less and less as Martin having dinner with them over the cigar shop. Once Martin begins to see success, he looks only forward, forgetting those who helped him get to his position, as well as various female relationships.

However, in that vein, The three Vernon women introduced about 1/2 through the book seemed to monopolize and overtake the story. Caroline was odd, manipulative, selfish, and I detected a potential leaning toward lesbianism; Emmeline was intriguing and strong in the beginning, but completely collapses and acquiesces to her sister at the end in a shockingly fast and complete manner; and, Margaret, the mother of these two, was oddly passive-aggressive. The relationships they each formed with Martin were all a bit unusual, but the behavior of Caroline was particularly confusing, bordering on unrealistic. She elicited no sympathy from me, and by the time her antics reached a climax, Martin had rubbed away all of my sympathy, as well. It was almost as if they deserved one another.

The writing toward the end of the book became a bit rushed, and hasty. Once Martin saw success in his cafeteria endeavors, he quickly progressed to hotel magnate, and seemed to burned out quickly from there. The build-up in the beginning, Martin’s success, then his quick descent reminded me very much like a rollercoaster. Where I would have liked more of a bell curve, the wrap up of the story was a bit forced and left me wanting.

Overall, this is yet another Pulitzer Fiction winner which has left me disappointed.

Not recommended.

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Summary:
With Empire Falls Richard Russo cements his reputation as one of America’s most compelling and compassionate storytellers. Miles Roby has been slinging burgers at the Empire Grill for 20 years, a job that cost him his college education and much of his self-respect. What keeps him there? It could be his bright, sensitive daughter Tick, who needs all his help surviving the local high school. Or maybe it’s Janine, Miles’ soon-to-be ex-wife, who’s taken up with a noxiously vain health-club proprietor. Or perhaps it’s the imperious Francine Whiting, who owns everything in town–and seems to believe that “everything” includes Miles himself. In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.

My take: 4 looks

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002, this book got off to a slow start for me. However, as the story continued, I found that I could not put it down.

Set in a depressed area, where textile manufacturing was once king, the town is now a shell of what it used to be, with one matriarch running the show, and not always benevolently. The protagonist, Miles, is a very likable guy, even if he’s a little bit of a milquetoast. His father is hella irritating until the end, his ex-wife is irritating until the end, and the other supporting characters are the same: very real, flawed, and yet exceptional at the same time.

I loved the flow of the story. This is a depiction of real life. Miles’ mother wants so much more for her son, and yet there is something about Empire Falls that draws him back. She herself has suffered a lost love, before she even had it. In turn, he wants so much for his daughter, and yet … will she escape her hometown? Miles, too, suffers from the cruelest kind of love: unrequited. What exactly is the hold old Mrs. Whiting has on everyone? Does she have any other emotion rather than vengeance?

A lovely story of middle-America, with characters who are so real that you can pinpoint them in your own family. A wonderful, wonderful recommendation.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Summary:
In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears.

My take: 4 looks
I removed most of the summary on this one, because I am finding that summaries give too much detail. They make statements on the nuances of the story that the reader should be left to determine. That was the case here.

Gilead was a difficult book for me to get into. I found it slow and sloshy. The lack of chapters was different, and the journal/letter format was off-putting.

However, I found an afternoon that I could sit unencumbered and give to it my full attention. What a beautiful flower this book turned into! The tightest of buds in the beginning, slowly opening its petals to the world, and finally releasing the sweetest of fragrances.

I picked up this book because it won the Pulitzer, and I wanted to find a book that I felt was worthy of this award. After reading several others, and finding them sorely lacking, I have found (along with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind) a true masterpiece strong enough to support the honor.

The premise of the book is an aged father writing to his young son. He wants his son to know him in a way that time will not allow. I am not going to go into much detail about the nature of the entries, but I will tell you that John Ames is a man of love, wonder, faith, and hope. He is beautifully presented, then compared and contrasted with his best friend, his wife, and his namesake.

Here are a few of my favorite passages:

This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it. p28

“The full soul loathes an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.” There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. p39

A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve. p162

Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts. p166

Highly recommended.

March by Geraldine Brooks

Summary:
From Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has animated the character of the absent father, March. Brooks follows March as he leaves behind his family to aid the Union cause in the Civil War. His experiences will utterly change his marriage and challenge his most ardently held beliefs.

My take: 3 looks; no, make that 2 looks
First let me say that I really struggled with giving this one three looks. After all, there are many, many better books, in my opinion, which have also received three looks from me. However, it wasn’t really a stinker, so I didn’t want to give it two looks.

With this review, I am going to go Clint Eastwood on you.

The Good
Brooks’ writing is beautiful. Her way with words, sentence structure and vocabulary is stunning. The flow of the story, details in the action, insight into the characters … it is all very satisfying. Here are two quotes I loved:

“A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world. But the world will not help me put back together what the war has broken apart.”

“How easy it was to give out morsels of wise counsel, and yet how hard to act on them.”

The Bad
This, in my mind, is not great story-telling. The premise of giving us a look at a character on the periphery of one of history’s best-loved books is brilliant. Since the characters in Alcott’s “Little Women” are patterned on real people, it makes sense that Brooks would use the Alcott patriarch as a guide. However, he was so irritating that I could not help but be disappointed. I will get to that in a moment.

I would like to talk about Grace. I appreciate that Grace was taught to read, but I hardly think Brooks’ license to present this house slave as regal and educated was realistic. And not just educated by her mistress; Grace sounded matriculated!  I am sure she could have had some presence, but to say to Mrs. March, “He loves, perhaps, an idea of me: Africa, liberated. I represent certain things to him, a past he would reshape if he could, a hope of a future he yearns toward,” almost made the laugh out loud. It was not in the least credible.

When an author loses credibility in one area, and to this extent, it starts to unravel in other places.

The Ugly
If Brooks’ goal was to have her reader come to despise Mr. March, she was 100% successful with me. A yellow-bellied, loquacious, pretentious, selfish milquetoast is how I saw him. I became so disgusted with his whining about not doing anything important that I almost wished the fever would take him. He went to war on an impulse, the men with whom he served hated him, and he fled almost every time he had the chance. He was so high on his self-righteous horse that he couldn’t see what a hindrance he was to almost everything. The fact that he was able to secure supplies for the “contraband” Negros on the plantation was of little saving grace. Especially when he was instrumental in getting most of them later killed.

His family was destitute because of him, his wife’s heart was broken because of him, Beth probably inherited her weak constitution from him, and on and on.

This is the second Pulitzer Prize winning book that I have read and disliked (see my review of Jennifer Egan’s The Goon Squad). As a matter of fact, the more I ruminate over March, the more apt I am to change my review to 2 looks. Yes, I think I will.

However, I will read others by Geraldine Brooks. Her “People of the Book” alone is reason to read more. And while I can’t recommend “March”, I highly recommend you read her other titles.

Not recommended.

Oliver Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Summary:
At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse. As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

My take: 5 looks
Loved, loved, loved this one. Presented in the form of thirteen short stories, all present a different perspective of the main character, Olive Kitteridge. Written in fluid detail, Olive infuriated, mesmerized, shocked, disappointed, impressed, and touched me. What a beautifully drawn character! To be so multidimensional from the written page puts Elizabeth Strout on my list of favorite authors.

Highly recommended.