Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Confessions of a bad blogger...

I have been away for a little while and noticed some increased activity on the blog, so I wanted to just post a little note to say that I have not gone away!  Those who have followed my blog for a little bit have heard this before, but I am having another one of those semesters.  I'm taking an amazing class that requires me to read a novel from a different genre of fiction each week.  I hoped to be able to fit some Pulitzer winners in there, but there are other criteria that have stopped me.  I finish my masters in December, so I will be back on track then.  In the meantime, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

R.E. Lee: A Biography - Winner, Biography, 1935

R.E. Lee: A Biography
By: Douglas Southall Freeman
Charles Scibner's Sons, 1934

I will not deny that I was dreading this read, but I am happy to say that Freeman's biography of Robert E. Lee was one of the most enjoyable early-Pulitzer biographies that I have read.  I had to get the 4-volume set through interlibrary loan and, so, had only a very limited time with it.  I managed to get through 2 of the volumes before the due date and was truly sad that I had to turn it in before I could finish the other two.

R.E. Lee, FOUR VOLUME SETThe life of Robert E. Lee was fascinating to read about. I had always known that he was a great man and a great general that the North really could have benefited from having. I also knew that one of the most devastating things about the Civil War was that the people fighting against each other knew and loved people on the other side. As Lee made a career the in the United States army prior to the war, it was interesting to see the Northern and Southern men he fought beside before the country divided.

In the introduction to the biography, Freeman notes that he tried to write this biography of Lee focusing only on the things that Lee would have been aware of at the time.  Many books on the Civil War try to cover what was going on on both sides at the same time, and I am left endlessly confused (I ran into this problem with Battle Cry of Freedom, my next review).  By focusing on Lee's view of the war, I found it much easier to follow what was going on.  I like following one side at a time so that I can really get to know the characters involved.  Another thing that helped me follow the battles was the fact that almost all of the ones described in the first two volumes took place in Virginia, where I currently live. I have been many of the areas where Lee fought, and that helped me visualize what was going on.  I would be curious to see how the focus on Virginia would read to someone unfamiliar with the state.

As I read, I began to get the feeling that Freeman might be from the South.  It is well known that Lee is idolized by many in the Southern states, even today.  So, I was not surprise when, after reading the book, I looked and found that not only was Freeman a Virginian, but he was also the son of a Confederate soldier.  The Wikipedia entry on Freeman states, "Freeman's treatments of the American Civil War are often cited as examples of the Lost Cause movement, emphasizing the glory and nobility of the Southern generals and the futility of their fight against the power of the North. While Freeman certainly does emphasize the nobility of Lee's character, he does not say that Lee made no mistakes, nor does he say that the North only won because of superior numbers."  I must say that I agree with this.  The writing is enjoyable and very informative.  I also found that many things he stated fit with other books I have read on the Civil War from later years.  But his background does mean that we should remember that the lenses through which he looks might be a bit rose-colored. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Killer Angels - Winner, Novel, 1975

The Killer Angels
By: Michael Shaara
McKay, 1974

I'm not sure if I have mentioned that I decided to start reading the Pulitzer winners by subject instead of in order by year.  I found that I was reading on all these random subjects and not being able to tie things together.  So, the subject of the moment is the Civil War.  I recently finished Toni Morrison's Beloved (winner, 1988) and Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels (winner, 1974) and am currently in the middle of a massive, 4-volume biography of Robert E. Lee by Douglas Freeman (winner, 1935).  I think this will help me as I read through the Pulitzer winners to also gain a comprehensive knowledge about certain subjects.

The Killer AngelsMichael Shaara's The Killer Angels, on which the 1993 movie Gettysburg was based, is a historical novel that gives the story of the Battle of Gettysburg through the perspectives of several different individuals on both sides of the war.  I was afraid that I would have trouble following the story as I have trouble envisioning war maneuvers in my mind and keeping track of who is fighting for which side.  I was listening to the audio version of the book, so when, in the beginning, the key players for each side were listed, I wrote them down so I could keep track.  This helped me immensely.  I found that even though I did not always follow exactly what was happening in a battle, Shaara's writing made clear which events were good and bad for each side. 

The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the detail provided about the lives of each of the individuals whose perspectives Shaara used to tell the story.  He showed their human sides and truly made me care about people on both sides of the battle.  I especially enjoyed the depiction of Lee, which I felt fit perfectly with the description I am reading in Freeman's biography from 1934.  The Killer Angels is a useful read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of the Civil War as many of these men had fought together in the United States military before the war and cared about each other. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beloved - Winner, Fiction, 1988

By: Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf, 1987

Toni Morrison is a name that is often thrown around in literary circles, and, as I had never read anything of hers prior to this, I looked forward to reading (or listening to, which I ended up doing) Beloved to see what the talk was about.  The story of Beloved focuses mainly on a runaway slave, Sethe, and her daughter, Denver, as they try to make a life for themselves in Ohio in the years following the Civil War.  Though Denver was not born until after her mother's escape, they both spend their lives dealing with the physical and psychological effects of slavery.

Many images brought forth in Morrison's novel are painful to read about, but it is important that we understand, to the extent possible, the horrors and human toll of slavery.  Morrison's writing is poetic and full of imagery that is beautiful but hard to understand at times.  Because I was listening, there were times that I found myself completely lost.  I thought I had missed something and went to Spark Notes online to make sure I knew what was going on.  Towards the end of the book, Morrison begins shifting more and more between different perspectives.  I think that if I had been reading the book this would have been clearer.  What I did love about listening to Beloved is that it was read by Toni Morrison herself.  I believe that there are emotions that only an author can put into the reading of his or her own text, and this recording was no exception.  I would definitely recommend this book for more mature readers.   There are books that have been written throughout history that might not be the most enjoyable to read but are vitally important.  Beloved is not my favorite book, but I do believe that, for the sake of understanding our past, it is important.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Still Reading!

For the family members and a few friends that constitute my readership - I promise I'm still reading.  I just finished an insane class, so I now have time to devote to fun reading before the fall semester starts.  Right now I am listening to:

Beloved (Paperback)
By:  Toni Morrison

I am reading:

R.E. Lee: A Biography
By: Douglas Southall Freeman

I would like to make it through all 4 600-page volumes, but we'll see about that...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family - Winner, History, 2009

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American FamilyThe Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
By: Annette Gordon-Reed
W.W. Norton & Co, 2008

The controversy surrounding the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings, had its beginnings while Jefferson was still alive, but has to the forefront of Jefferson scholarship in recent years with the development of DNA technology that could potentially support or disprove (or muddle!) the controversy.  Annette Gordon-Reed's book, The Hemingses of Monticello, is her second on the subject - the first being Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).  Her first discussed the specific relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.  The Hemingses of Monticello examines the vast interconnectedness between the two families leading up to Jefferson and Hemings and on a little further into the decendents, especially of Hemings. 

There are a LOT of names, places, and dates in this book.  Gordon-Reed clearly did a great deal of research into the papers of Thomas Jefferson and those around him.  She places a heavy emphasis on the need to recognize slaves as people with real feelings and reactions during this time period, which I found to be very interesting.  I do think it is important to always remember that, but I also think that in her attempt she also dismisses the historical fact of the law and slavery as not necessarily accurate depictions of how life really was.  In do this, she often seems to place the social values of today on characters living in a different time and social context.  While slaves were human and had true human emotions, white society treated them as if they were less than human (often regardless of personal beliefs).  White men felt that they could take advantage of slave women because slave women were not as human as they were (in their own eyes).  This is what truly made slavery such an abomination.  Gordon-Reed, though, tries desperately to prove, using the social logic of today, that Jefferson must have loved Hemings. 

When I was in college I wrote one of my major papers on this subject and use Gordon-Reed's first book as one of my sources.  Because of that, I was very interested to see what more she had to say.  While the stories of the two families and how they come in and out of each others' lives is very interesting, she can be repetitive and a bit tedious.  Gordon-Reed makes many assumptions along the way based on deduction but not necessarily fact, which continually reminded me that, as unsatisfying as it is, we will probably never really know what happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

2010 Pulitzer Winners...

...or four more books behind...

But that's OK!  I'm in the middle of listening to the The Hemingses of Monticello, but, in the meantime, the 2010 winners that I will be adding to my list are:

Fiction: Tinkers by Paul Harding


History: Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed
Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World

Biography: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Vintage)

General Nonfiction: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy

Anybody excited about any of these?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Olive Kitteridge - Winner, Fiction, 2009

Olive Kitteridge
Olive Kitteridge (Later Printing Edition)By: Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 2008

Olive Kitteridge is a story about life.  Strout used a collection of thirteen short stories about the people of coastal Crosby, Maine with one connecting character, Olive Kitteridge, to tie them all together.  Sometimes Olive is the main character and sometime she is only mentioned, but in the end the story of her life has been told.  I laughed, I cried, I felt annoyed, I felt empathy.  It is raw and beautiful.  

Because Strout's novel is a compilation of short stories, there is not a true climax of the story, but that fits well.  The reader really gets the sense that they are just following through life with these people.  Their experiences are mundane, which is okay because there is something in Olive Kitteridge that most people of all ages can relate to.  She explores what it is like to be young and what it is like to be old. I will warn that there are parts of this book that deal with situations and contain language that might not be suitable for all ages.  That aside, I enjoyed Olive Kitteridge and would be interested to if others felt the same way.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Taking a Break...Again

I promise I haven't quit! I'm just trying to my masters finished up and it is taking up all of my recreational reading time. I should be able to pick up reading again in May. Until then, happy reading!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lamb in His Bosom - Winner, Novel, 1934

Lamb in His Bosom
By: Caroline Miller
Harper & Brothers, 1933

In her book, Lamb in His Bosom, Caroline Miller portrays the lives of an extended family living in backwoods Georgia in the years leading up to and during the Civil War. It follows each member of the family through the years, focusing especially on the daughter, Cean Smith (nee Carver) who is recently married at the beginning of the book. Miller provides a beautiful description of the trials and joys of life and dependence on God in the rural South and I found myself truly drawn into the lives of these characters.

What truly interested me most about this book was the fact that I had also recently finished Gone With the Wind (Pulitzer winner, 1937). Both stories took place in Georgia in overlapping time periods but from opposite viewpoints. I believe that if Scarlett O'Hara lived near the Smiths and Carvers she would have dismissed them - using her term "white trash" - but these families were so much more. We see that, while they don't own plantations or slaves, they work hard and make a good living - even affording small luxuries at times. They know no other way of life and, so, have no other expectations than what comes. It was fascinating to compare the two stories of different classes of Georgians from the same period.

My favorite things to read about, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, are the ways that people live their lives everyday. Lamb in His Bosom provided me with a vivid picture of rural life unlike any I had read before. I wholeheartedly recommend it to all!

The image above is the original artwork from the first edition published by Harper & Brothers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

House Made of Dawn - Winner, Novel, 1969

House Made of Dawn
By: N. Scott Momaday
Harper & Row, 1968

N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn provides an interesting look into the struggles Native Americans who come from reservations to find identity. He follows the life of a young man named Abel who has returned to his reservation in New Mexico after fighting in World War II. He has been deeply affected by the war and struggles to hold a job and maintain relationships. Abel moves to California to try to find himself but eventually realizes that he will only find himself back home on the reservation.

Momaday based his story on his life experiences as a Native American and on the real experiences of other Native Americans. I found the book a bit difficult to follow and was not surprised to discover after reading that it was originally intended to be a collection of poems. There were times that the story felt a bit disjointed for me. I do think that he provides an interesting perspective on real issues for the Native American community and would be interested to hear how Native Americans read it today.

The image above is the first edition cover published by Harper & Row.