Pulitzer Pries: An Introduction

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“For distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

A simple directive, but one that has inspired hundreds of writers and has changed the course of literature itself. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which began in 1918 (as a prize for the novel) and continues to this day, is considered one of the most prestigious awards in American literature. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the National Book Award and often serves as a precursor for American Nobel Laureates. Many of the winners are indelible members of the literary canon.

And many others are forgotten.

As a lifelong reader and writer, I’ve been fascinated by the Pulitzer Prize for a number of years. Its origins, the twists and turns in its history, authors who won and haven’t won. The fact that 89 works of fiction have won the award, and I’ve only heard of roughly half. Read far fewer. And I consider myself reasonably well-read.

What makes certain books remembered and others forgotten? Are there hidden gems waiting to be rediscovered in this lengthy list of winners? Are there bloated, overrated works lurking here as well? These questions motivate me to start this project. A quest to read and review all 89 prize winners, with more to come as the years go by.

I have no formal qualifications. I majored in English in college, I write as a hobby, but in reality I just love books and love delving deeper into text. I see this project as a way to wade through American history and discover new and forgotten reads.

I hope to continue reviewing other books here as well, more current releases, but I hope you enjoy this project along the way. This is Pulitzer Pries.

 

PULITZER PRIES: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (1919)

“Major Amberson had ‘made a fortune’ in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then”.

In the one hundred year history of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, there have been only three writers that have won multiple times. Two are familiar names. William Faulkner for his WWI novel A Fable and a posthumous work entitled The Reivers. John Updike for two books in his renowned Rabbit tetralogy, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. The third name is Booth Tarkington, and you may have never heard of him. It’s amazing to think that in his lifetime, he was considered one of the preeminent American writers. He’s largely faded from view now, with his two Pulitzer wins in 1919 and 1922 a large part of his remaining legacy. Why have we forgotten him? Can we figure this out through a reading of his first prize-winning book?

The Magnificent Ambersons is one of Tarkington’s many novels about the American midwest, the region he hailed from and represented over and over in his writing. In the first few pages he introduces a city resembling Indianapolis, and goes into great detail regarding people, architecture, fashions, and social life. While this reads like a history textbook, the novel soon shifts to our central characters, the Amberson Family. George Amberson, the spoiled, wealthy heir, is our protagonist, whether we want him to be or not. He is perhaps one of the most unlikeable protagonists in literature, and for much of the early chapters one wonders if the novel will shift focus and pit Georgie against a more understandable figure. And eventually, this happens. Georgie and his old-money ways are contrasted by car manufacturer Eugene Morgan, a self-made man of humble origins with a vested interest in Georgie’s mother. So begins a push-pull of old and new. The book echoes Tarkington’s own societal context, transitioning from horse drawn carriages to motor cars, craftsmen to industry, houses to apartments, and many other changes. Time marches on, and if you drag your feet you’re left behind.

Tarkington spends more time developing the family relationships, the romances, humor, and a lot less time on his social commentary. We’re introduced to the ridiculous Aunt Fanny, the witty Lucy, and a host of other characters that complicate and enhance Georgie’s life. He falls in love despite his own haughtiness and pride, and this courtship is endearing even to the modern reader. The social commentary reads as more of an afterthought, bookending the novel and forgotten for large portions in the middle.

While this novel has its charming moments and presents a nuanced picture of several characters, it has its obvious shortcomings. Georgie himself, no matter how much time and attention he gets, is impossible to like. He gets his comeuppance and it’s humbling, but far too rushed to elicit any real reaction in the reader. We’re blinded by his disregard for everyone’s happiness, including that of his own mother. All in the name of old-world propriety and morals.

Which brings me to Tarkington himself. In his lifetime he was both a commercial and critical darling, regarded as one of the best Midwestern writers to have ever lived. Now he’s been largely forgotten. In my opinion, it comes down to politics.

As you might have noticed, this novel tackles themes similar to those of His Family by Ernest Poole, our first review. But while Poole’s liberal ideals were evident in his embracing of change and progress, Tarkington is staunchly conservative and it shows. He even served in the Indiana House of Representatives as a conservative, and wrote diatribes on his dislike of automobiles and city development. This even comes up in the novel itself:

“I’m not sure he’s wrong about automobiles,” he said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization — that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls.”

Long story short, Tarkington takes the side of old money, even in creating a character like Georgie. He aims for Georgie’s redemption and misses the mark, with a rushed ending and not enough character development for us to believe his change of heart. His ideals read as dated now, stodgy and hard to relate to. And honestly, I can’t imagine that his 1922 prize winner, Alice Adams, will read quite differently. We’ll have to wait and see.

PULITZER PRIES: His Family by Ernest Poole (1918)

“He was thinking of the town he had known.”

As many know, the Pulitzer Prize began as a journalism prize, named for the media stalwart Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant to the United States, was known for investigative reporting, a political career, and eventually for sensationalist media known as ‘yellow journalism’. He left endowments to Columbia University upon his death, and the Pulitzer Prizes began from there.

How fitting, in my opinion, that the first-ever prize for fiction would go to a writer with similar inclinations.

His Family is not a known novel, and its author, Ernest Poole, is far from a household name. Poole was a Chicago-bred writer and journalist who did much of his work in New York. He was an avowed Progressive, a group who in the 1910s devoted their time to muckraking, trust-busting, ending child labor, and preventing the spread of communicable illnesses. I admit to being rusty on my AP U.S. History. Poole was also a socialist, and the principles of that movement feature prominently in his first major novel, The Harbor. It details the plight of waterfront workers and their efforts to unionize against an oppressive upper class. Heavy, powerful stuff. I didn’t read it.

Perhaps I should have, because when the Pulitzer Prize for fiction became a reality and was given to His Family, many believe it was a belated prize for The Harbor. We see it now with Oscar winners, a late career award given for a lifetime of work (Leonardo DiCaprio, anyone)? Nevertheless, His Family was a decidedly milder work, still keeping with major progressive themes. The novel focuses on Roger Gale, an aging widower with three grown daughters. And at its surface, it’s quite a simple story- a father trying to get to know the women his daughters have become, trying to get closer to them. The novel spans a few years and features a number of life changes. Births and deaths, economic booms and downturns, the constant flux of morality and changing opinions of what it means to be a woman. You’d think a book like this, written over a hundred years ago, wouldn’t be all that useful now except as a charming portrait of lost time. But actually, His Family is surprisingly relevant. Let’s figure out why.

So, we have Roger Gale. He’s a businessman in New York City, and he’s introduced to us as a bit of a curmudgeonly older guy yearning for the New York of his youth.

“A city where American faces were still to be seen upon all its streets, a cleaner and a kindlier town, with more courtesy in its life, less of the vulgar scramble.”

Yes, this novel this book takes place amidst the tenement boom, where huge influxes of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy were just pouring into New York City. Everyone trying to make a life for him or herself. And the old timers don’t like it. But we get to know Roger a bit more. We find out he’s a widower, his wife having passed away several years ago. We know she was the one holding the family together, and we see him trying to connect with his three daughters: Edith, Deborah, and Laura.

To talk about the plot of this book is to talk about the daughters. For a while you actually wonder what Roger’s role in this is at all, other than representing an observer’s perspective. He comes into his own eventually, but much of this book is all about the Gale girls. Edith, a devoted old-world mother of five. Deborah, career oriented yet soft and motherly. And Laura, a bit airheaded but a force of personality, outspoken and sexually liberated. Their choices throughout the book represent the populations they represent. Edith digs in her heels when faced with change. Deborah delves further and further into things she can control, and runs from things she can’t. Laura seeks pleasure and happiness in all she does, often poo-pooing the thoughts and feelings of others. She’s the fun one.

Much of the novel focuses on Deborah, conflicted and career-driven. Her role in the book ties into Poole’s own social views, she runs a school for tenement children and frequently sacrifices her own health and happiness for the kids and their families, for the uplifting of a young new society. It’s even shown that Roger changes and embraces progressivism, after seeing the students and the work she does.

But when the family falls upon hard times, Edith argues that Deborah needs to take care of her own first. When Deborah puts off marriage longer and longer, the fearless Laura insists that Deborah is too frightened for real intimacy. And it’s true, both these things. They learn from each other, these three daughters. Each with their own idea of what it means to be a woman. Poole may prefer the progressive Deborah, but she’s not always in the right.

It’s also amazing that this book tackles the idea of a woman ‘having it all’, meaning a career and a family life. It’s a conflict that still exists today, various people hemming and hawing on one side or the other. Poole is definitive. A woman can have it all, if that’s what she wants, and if she has the support of others when needed. Family, a supportive partner, financial means. All easier said than done, of course. But maybe that’s a dilemma for another time.

While the content of this book and its morals ring surprisingly true in modern times, this can’t exactly be said for the prose and construction. When exploring family dynamics and the interiority of characters, Poole is rather plainspoken and easy to read. His dialogue flows naturally from person to person. They really do feel like people, like actual daughters bickering with their father and each other.

When it comes to describing society, Poole does descend into purple prose. You can see that he’s an activist first and writer second. It’s admirable how much he cares, but the eyes do tend to glaze over the melodrama. When most of the novel is so matter-of-fact, these passages can be a bit jarring and disrupt the flow of the narrative overall. It reads dated.

What also reads as dated is the thematic emphasis. Much of the book revolves around a single statement, spoken to Roger by his wife on her deathbed.

“You will live on in our children’s lives.” 

It’s very relevant. Roger first interprets it literally, he’ll live on in his three daughters and his grandchildren. But as he becomes more involved in the changing New York City, employing the disadvantaged and spending time in Deborah’s school, he sees himself in all the children of New York, rich and poor, immigrant and native-born. He’ll live on in all of them, and progress marches on. A noble statement and an effective theme for a book like this. Problem is…Poole repeats this exact sentence 9 times, and it feels like more. We’re beaten over the head with this theme, if it isn’t written verbatim in every chapter, the theme is there. This emphasis shows that Poole’s novel reads more political statement rather than subtle exploration of family dynamics. It does both, but you do end up thinking hard about authorial intent. And perhaps why this book has faded from view over time.

As an inaugural winner, His Family was a pleasant surprise. A well-written, socially progressive work that draws upon older motifs like scandal and legacy, placing them in a more modern context. I felt invested in the characters, particularly the daughters. Their flaws and goals felt realistic and understandable. Even characters that weren’t as likeable, such as stodgy Edith, were compelling. She wants what’s best for her children. Their health, safety, and well-being. She takes control of her family, and even though she holds fast to old ways, she too learns to adapt in small ways over time. Deborah felt like a character from a much more recent novel, and her battles to have it all in life are all too relatable to the modern woman. And Laura? She likes sex. They didn’t like women liking sex in the 1910s. Cut her some slack.

Born a Crime–Stories from a South African Childhood: Trevor Noah

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus when it comes to posting on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. Rather, I’ve noticed an interesting shift in my reading habits in the past few weeks. I’ve had a lifelong love for fiction, particularly literary fiction, and I found myself gravitating more towards memoir and other nonfiction. It began with Born a Crime.

I’ve been a fan of the Daily Show for years, and while Trevor Noah is no Jon Stewart, I always enjoyed his commentary and unique perspective on America as a native South African. Trevor Noah is biracial, born in the waning years of apartheid, and was therefore ‘born a crime’. I knew nothing of apartheid except Nelson Mandela, and was excited to delve into the past and present of this smart, successful public figure. How racism played a role in who he was today.

I was not prepared for this.

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Audible free trials are great

Firstly, I highly recommend the audiobook for this, and for memoirs in general. I’m fairly new to audiobooks, but sometimes I find it nice just to listen while keeping my hands busy with a knitted scarf. A memoir on audiobook evokes the magical feeling of being told a bedtime story as a child. My father was a storyteller. And like Trevor Noah, he loved telling stories of his childhood and adolescence in a foreign land, drawing parallels to the comparatively cushy life I live today. Even in the darkest moments of the book, I felt a certain comfort in hearing Trevor’s voice, his emphases and pauses.

And of course, the accent. There’s no way I could’ve pronounced those native Zulu and Xhosa words correctly in my head. I needed Trevor, a polyglot, to guide me. Not to mention his voice is pretty easy on the ears.

If anything, he made me want to learn my own mother tongue, long forgotten in years of English immersion.

Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.

What Trevor brings to the table in Born a Crime is authenticity. It’s one of the very qualities of memoir I love the most. There’s always a certain amount of subjectivity, narrow focus, details missed, when you listen to someone tell a story from thirty years ago. But it’s their truth, and it’s magnificent. It makes you consider all the mundane details of your life, gather them together, and wonder if there’s a serviceable story if you glue all those pieces together. In Trevor’s case, there was. Growing up poor, ostracized from every predetermined group of people, making sense of fractured culture, Western educaton, and patriarchy. And Trevor doesn’t come out of this unscathed. At points he’s undeniably the bad guy. He treats his long-suffering mother rather poorly at points. He treats women as objects. He hustles dozens of people out of money instead of cobbling together an honest living. But he owns up, self-reflects, and moves forward. You don’t have to be perfect to write a book like this. Far from it.

I learned so much about apartheid too. I assumed it was simple segregation, not unlike the Jim Crow Era of the United States. Instead, it was written, systemic oppression with clear lines, palpable hatred, and purely malicious intent. It was designed based on the precedents of Nazi Germany and it shows. Apartheid isn’t taught properly in American schools. And if anything, it should be. It casts a very bright spotlight on ourselves, especially in the current political climate.

If there are any drawbacks to this book, it’s how Trevor attempts to shoehorn in references to American politics. They’re easily extrapolated, and sometimes feel out of place when Trevor mentions them. They sometimes feel like little nagging reminders of his job as host of a political comedy program. But this is small, barely an annoyance. It hardly detracts from the power of the narrative.

Born a Crime inspired me to read more memoirs. I finished Alana Okun’s The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater. I’m in the middle of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire. I might write reviews on some of them too.

BookCon Freebies!

This past June I had the chance to go to BookCon, an annual convention for writers, publishers, and book lovers all over the country. Now that I live in New York it feels there are events like this everywhere, and while ComicCon skews a little too nerdy for me, BookCon seemed right up my alley. My very patient fiance agreed to come along, and we spent the afternoon at booths, walking the floors, in lines.

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Oh Lord, the lines. The misconception with BookCon is that there are free books everywhere, when in reality there are a scattering of them and each line takes an hour to wade through. Somehow in my trip to BookCon, we managed to pick up a few free books: four to be exact. I decided to read them all and review them briefly. Were they worth the price? Let’s see.

 

1. Confusion is Nothing New: Paul Acampora

This one was a light middle-grade read, it took about an hour and I clearly wasn’t the audience for it. It’s a pleasant enough story about a girl trying to learn about her deceased mother, a backdrop of 80s music all around. The characters were mildly quirky and entertaining, but I find that this genre isn’t nearly as bright as insightful as it used to feel to me. I could blame it on the book, but it’s likely because I got older. Anyway, as far as middle grade reads, this one devotes a lot of its time to chit-chat and meandering, detracting from what little plot there is. Inoffensive overall, but hardly memorable.

2. Cold Hard Truth: Anne Greenwood Brown

This was one of two books here that I actually had signed by the author. Ms. Brown herself is lovely, and offered me encouragement as an aspiring writer myself. Her book was a healthy slice of young adult chick-lit, with darker moments scattered in. The protagonist is a young girl caught up in an abusive relationship and the world of drugs, trying to rebuild her life while on probation of sorts. She meets a young man with an anger problem…and immediately when I learned of this character trait I was annoyed. If anyone’s seen The Kissing Booth, that godawful Netflix movie people are talking about, it’s reminiscent of that. But what redeems Cold Hard Truth compared to that movie is justification. Max, the novel’s ‘hot angry guy’, is given reasons for his actions but not as many excuses. He is still held accountable by those around him, although this does start to fall apart by the ending, and damsel-in-distress tropes return. Nevertheless, the book is harmless enough and had some decent suspense and character development.

3. The City of Brass: S.A. Chakraborty

So, I’m not a fantasy reader, especially not immersive, high fantasy like this one. I usually find the genre’s callback to dirty, dull medieval Europe quite tiresome, and I get bogged down by endless languages, clan systems, and other aspects of the intense worldbuilding that often comes with the genre. Simply put, I usually don’t have the patience. But…I make exceptions. I took all 550 pages of City of Brass on a trip to Maine and finished it in three days. I was immediately drawn in by the new mythologies of the Middle East, lush imagery, tangible character motivations, and political intrigue. There were quite a few languages and types of people to distinguish, as to be expected, but I felt personally invested in each conflict and in the tenuous relationships of Daevabad as a whole. I do believe that the climax and falling action were incredibly rushed, too drastic of a pace change for a slow burning novel like this one.

The only other downside is, well, I have to wait until 2019 for the next book in the trilogy. I never thought I’d be so invested in a series since Harry Potter, but here I am.

4. We Sold Our Souls: Grady Hendrix

This was the second book I had signed at BookCon. Mr. Hendrix was a bright, bubbly personality that took the time to sign each book personally, even if that meant his line took twice as long as the others. I didn’t know what to expect from We Sold Our Souls, but from the cover art subject matter I assumed it was the tale of teenagers starting a band.

Not quite. Instead, we follow aging metal musicians in a moral wasteland, rife with gore, deceit, murder, and all the seediest parts of society. Juxtaposed with this dark subject matter are metal lyrics, all of which are so difficult to take seriously. In fact, the mythos that Hendrix builds up, with Black Iron Mountain, the Blue Door, the Faustian environment, it all feels so cobbled together and poorly thought out. Everything reads juvenile, which is especially jarring when told by a 50 year old protagonist. I didn’t buy any of it, apart from a few scenes written so bluntly and effectively that I visibly cringed. That takes talent, which I respect, but this story was not crafted well at all and makes no discernible impact at novel’s end. Additionally, I’m not a metal fan, so a lot of the references fall flat and don’t have the resonating nostalgia that the book is aiming for. Again, I’m not the right audience.

You know, maybe I just don’t care for books about rock stars. I haven’t really had a great track record with them lately.

* * *

Overall, these were definitely a mixed bag, but definitely a worthy project. I find that I really enjoy discovering new, lesser-known writers and learning more about myself as a reader. I’m not sure if I’ll make it to BookCon again, but if I do, I’ll be back in those freebie lines hunting for more.

A Visit from the Goon Squad: Jennifer Egan

I was drawn in by the hype for this one. A Pulitzer Prize winning novel with the mass appeal of rock stars, drugs, warfare, and celebrity culture? How couldn’t I like this one? Multiple friends recommended it as well, and I found this copy for less than four dollars. There was no reason not to read it, and sometimes that’s all you really need for a book.

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I suppose you could say that this salad and book…peared well?

In my case, the hype wasn’t real.

I actually started this book in May, and only finished it some days ago. It’s not a particularly long read, but an easy one to ignore. For at least a month it sat untouched on my bookshelf in favor of other books, other hobbies, even household chores.

This isn’t to say that A Visit from the Goon Squad was a terrible book. The writing quality is there, and Jennifer Egan has a knack for rendering individual voices. In a book with multiple perspectives, this is absolutely essential. From the painful hope of Scotty Hausmann to Sasha’s paranoia, it’s clear that Egan tries hard to make her characters memorable. Her attention to detail is paramount as well, especially when describing the seedy and grotesque.

She gaped in frozen disbelief as her guests shrieked and staggered and covered their heads, tore hot, soaked garments from their flesh and crawled over the floor like people in medieval altar paintings whose earthly luxuries have consigned them to hell.

Additionally, I have to give credit where credit is due for the famous PowerPoint chapter. It comes towards the end of the book and motivated me to finish. I’m curious to know how this style would have read as a longer piece, and it was one of the only examples of quirkiness I felt paid off.

Because, by God, this book is irredeemably quirky. Each character is ‘zany’ or ‘wacky’ in some way, or their situations are so over the top that it reads farcical at times. This juxtaposed with a relatively plaintive writing style, especially when Egan writes in third person, felt dull and tiresome. There’s an entire chapter written with heavy annotated footnotes, which just gave me flashbacks to my failed reading of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Characters with little to do and far less to say, such as Sasha’s uncle Ted, are given quite a bit of breathing room to expand upon their vague, middle-class gripes. This isn’t to say that such material can’t be interesting, but the constant shifting focus from one character to another gives the narrative little weight.

In fact, this is probably my greatest gripe with the novel overall. To what do these snippets and voices add up? The ending attempts to bring the novel together, bringing characters back from the beginning, but so much time has passed and so many other voices have been heard, that there is no payoff to an ending like this. The themes of the book feel just as scattered, and what results is a damp, middling collection of related short stories, rather than any cohesive novel.

This was not for me. I find it hard to imagine what the Pulitzer committee saw in this novel, because even the frankness of Egan’s writing did not feel particularly memorable. In fact, I may read the runners-up for the Pulitzer from that year just to compare. They can’t have been all bad, right?

The Buddha of Suburbia: Hanif Kureishi

A few weeks ago I joined a book discussion group on Discord, in hopes of hearing from fellow readers about books I normally wouldn’t have picked up. The first suggestion was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I had already read some years ago. The second was this, The Buddha of Suburbia, the debut novel by Pakistani-English writer Hanif Kureishi.

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Avocado toast on homemade bread, a good breakfast for a good read

It’s interesting how reading a new book can influence your opinions of other works. The Buddha of Suburbia takes on themes of assimilation and alienation for an immigrant to a new world, much like Londonstani and A Bend in the River, which I’ve reviewed before. Reading another take on these themes made me appreciate the subtleties in A Bend in the River much more, and made me read the twist ending of Londonstani as a bit more gimmicky and shoehorned than I originally saw. But enough on old books, let’s get to the new.

The Buddha of Suburbia concerns Karim Amir, a half English, half Indian young man navigating his existence and contemplating what he wants for the future. His father, Haroon, abandons his wife and family for an aspiring socialite and spreading Eastern philosophy as the so-called ‘Buddha of Suburbia’. Karim often finds himself caught in the middle, and bounces from friend to friend in an effort to find his own purpose. This takes him to London and America, in a world of drugs, intellectualism, and erotic excess. All the while, there are undercurrents of class warfare through punk music and socialism. Some characters are shameless social climbers, and others embrace the counterculture with open arms. Even more interesting is the question of race in such a movement. Kureishi is critical of such movements at times, showing that there’s little room for minorities in a ‘white struggle’. The concept of intersectionality is commonplace today, but considering this book was written in 1990 about the events of the 1970s, it’s really quite remarkable how relatable it all feels.

And we pursued English roses as we pursued England; by possessing these prizes, this kindness and beauty, we stared defiantly into the eye of the Empire and all its self-regard–into the eye of Hairy Back, into the eye of the Great Fucking Dane. We became part of England and yet proudly stood outside it. But to be truly free we had to free ourselves of all bitterness and resentment, too. How was this possible when bitterness and resentment were generated afresh every day?

A highlight of Kureishi’s work is his characterization. This book has an ensemble cast and a variety of subplots and character arcs, and each one was compelling. None of these characters are perfect, far from it. At points it’s hard to find someone to root for. Haroon is absent-minded, Karim is flippant and self-absorbed, Charlie is fame-obsessed, and even Jamilla, who I probably liked most, is cold and haughty. In a way, these flawed figures is what made the book stand out. While some parts meander along, hoping for greater significance, the dynamic characterization made me devour this book in a matter of days. I hoped for some sort of resolution and a few tied-up ends.

That didn’t happen.

Like a lot of the books I’ve reviewed, this book sputters to a weak ending that ignores several of the thematic elements brought up earlier on. Characters are left in conflict, and even Karim is left to reflect on this state of uncertainty. As a snapshot of his life, it makes sense, but as a novel it provides no payoff to the reader. I’m not even asking for a happy ending, but more for some sort of settlement. Perhaps this just speaks to me as a lover of conventional story arcs. I could’ve done with a few more chapters to close what otherwise would’ve been an insightful, entertaining book.

You Are A Badass: Jen Sincero

I’m new to reviewing nonfiction, partially because I’m fairly new at reading it. Self-help books especially aren’t my forte, as I usually turn to blog posts and Dear Abby columns when I’m in need of advice. But I read this book, cover to cover, since it had been recommended and I received a copy for free. Yes, free! Thank you, BookCon!

The premise of You are a Badass is summed up in the subtitle: how to stop doubting your greatness and start living an awesome life. Jen Sincero, the author and professional life coach, is vigorous and matter of fact. This is the book equivalent of a foghorn alarm clock, when other advice can feel like birds twittering. In some ways it’s quite refreshing. Sincero doesn’t shy away from blunt truths, swearing, personal disclosure. Even the bright yellow cover is bold and unassuming.

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The view from my apartment on a bright, sunny day

In terms of content, the advice is actually quite simple. Love yourself, because you only have one life to live and there’s no point in wasting time on misery. Love yourself, because you are unique and special with your own thoughts and perspectives. Love yourself, because it’s the only way to happiness. She reiterates this many different times in many different ways, which can feel repetitive after a while and start to lose its meaning. However, there were genuine poignant moments, and what those were for me may not be the same for you.

To elaborate, I personally struggle with self-discipline and working towards long-term goals. It’s June and the novel draft I told myself I’d finish by New Years is barely 40 pages. I’ve been carrying the same extra twenty pounds since high school. You get the idea. Sincero encouraged me to look at the benefits of my inaction, to see what I’m gaining by not writing, not exercising. Comfort, mainly. No risk of failure. These are things I knew before, but phrased in an illuminating way.

You have to change your thinking first, and then the evidence appears. Our big mistake is that we do it the other way around. We demand to see the evidence before we believe it to be true.

Where this book falls short is in Sincero herself. While I appreciate her straightforwardness, I find it hard to relate to her. She peppers the book full of anecdotes, but not one ends in failure. The woman works as a nomadic life coach, with no ties to places or people. While she tries to make her message universal, there is an element of condescension about it all. She recalls a story of buying an Audi with money she doesn’t have, and coming up with the cash somehow because she really wants to afford it, and the statement reeks with privilege. Her monetary advice in general was eyebrow-raising, which is interesting since she has an entire follow-up book based solely on money.

Additionally, the book rambles on far too long at points, and doesn’t get into actionable items until well past the halfway point. As someone who loves goals and strategies, this was immensely frustrating.

Nevertheless, her intentions are good and there are gems mixed in with the topsoil. I’d recommend this book, lightly perhaps, but a recommendation all the same.

 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Jonathan Safran Foer

This one was another recommendation from my fiance, who read this book for a high school English class and remembers it fondly to this day. Yes, I realize there’s a movie as well. No, I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard it’s treacly bloated award bait, though it does have Tom Hanks, which is always a redeeming factor.

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Enjoyed some homemade s’more brownies with my book

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of Oskar Schell, a curious 9 year old boy, and his struggle to process the loss of his father, who passed away on September 11, 2001. The stated plot is Oskar trying to find the owner of a mysterious key in his father’s closet. The key is nondescript and labeled ‘Black’. He traipses about New York City, with a phone book as a guide, looking for everyone with the surname Black that he can possibly meet. Oskar meets an assortment of people, each with trauma and history, and learns the beginnings of what it means to move on.

Oskar struggles to relate to his mother, his grandmother, and those around him. They appear to be healing faster, moving on too quickly. The pain he feels is palpable, and it’s this genuine pain and outward grief that propels the novel forward and makes the narrative interesting.

In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.

However, my compliments end here.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the few novels I’ve read that buries a solid concept and theme under layers of artifice and pretentiousness. Foer wastes entire pages on single lines, which might just be a personal pet peeve, but it annoyed me to no end. The black and white photographs were interesting, but I didn’t feel that they added to the narrative in any way. Oskar’s story itself is so compelling, a child’s perspective on loss juxtaposed with a national tragedy, but Foer can’t let the story speak for itself.

This is exemplified by Oskar himself. I enjoyed his precociousness, but at times it felt like the author lost perspective. No matter how mature and intelligent, Oskar is a child. I’ve heard the movie tries to excuse his perspective with Asperger’s syndrome, but this is hardly a competent reason why.

Additionally, I found that the subplot concerning Oskar’s grandparents, complete with letters and chapters written in their own shattered stream of consciousness, didn’t contribute to a cohesive work at all. It felt as if Foer had two distinct stories to tell, and just cobbled them together with pieces of tape. The melodrama of their lives had its fair share of interest, but proved exhausting in the context of this novel. Perhaps he should have written a self contained piece, of the Dresden attacks and growing old.

I could go on about this one, I honestly could. My overall impression was enjoyment, but this is nothing if not a flawed novel, inflated by ego. I’ll take what I enjoyed from the book and leave behind the rest.

The Trumpet of the Swan: E.B. White (Childhood Favorites)

Like a lot of people, I read voraciously in childhood. My mom likes to say that I would read any cereal box in front of me, any newspaper ad. Still, there were some standout books from my early years that I cherish to this day. I thought I’d devote a handful of reviews to some of those books.

The Trumpet of the Swan is an old classic, written by the legendary essayist E.B. White. White is mostly known these days for his contributions to The Elements of Style and for his children’s books. The Trumpet of the Swan tends to be overlooked next to his more popular books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. However, neither of them has stuck with me quite like the tale of Louis the swan.

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My copy is nothing fancy, but just look at that artwork!

The premise of The Trumpet of the Swan is simple. You might know the story yourself, the book has been around for nearly fifty years. Louis is a young trumpeter swan that was born mute, and struggles to communicate with his family and friends. With the help of a sympathetic human, Sam, Louis learns to play the trumpet, write, and accumulates some notoriety along the way. Louis eventually finds love and tranquility in serene Canadian campgrounds. It’s a heartwarming story to say the least.

The Trumpet of the Swan skews a little older than E.B. White’s other children’s books. It never quite stood the test of time either. Its film adaptation (which I didn’t even know existed until now) was panned critically, and the story as a whole has mostly faded from public eye. True, it’s not flashy, especially compared to the bizarreness of Stuart Little and the pure imagination of Charlotte’s Web. But Louis himself is a captivating character with bold statements of his own.

‘The sky,’ he wrote on his slate, ‘is my living room. The woods are my parlor. The lonely lake is my bath. I can’t remain behind a fence all my life.’

More than anything, it’s White that sells the story. His writing style is reminiscent of A.A. Milne, matter-of-fact and adult, yet unafraid of whimsy. There’s an especially fun scene of Louis exploring a hotel room, ordering room service, and discovering that he doesn’t care for mayonnaise. It’s a simple anecdote but so detailed and captivating that I haven’t forgotten it, all these years later.

If you haven’t read The Trumpet of the Swan, or you’ve forgotten it with time, I urge you to pick it up and delve a little into tranquil nostalgia. Read it to your children, if you have them. Quiet moments are so hard to come by these days, and this book is nothing if not a quiet moment in the midst of a hectic, busy life.