Showing posts with label pulitzer prize reading list. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pulitzer prize reading list. Show all posts

PPRL: A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler (winner, 1993)

The minute I finished A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, I looked to see if Robert Olen Butler's email address is listed online. It is. I haven't written to him yet, but when I do, it will be to tell him which of his stories made me cry, and why. Not because they are sad, I'll say, but because they feature endings so cutting, so poignant and powerful I am left in awe and gratitude for the experience of reading them. So thank you. 

Or maybe I'll chicken out and just hope he stumbles across this.

A Good Scent is a collection of stories about Vietnamese immigrants who've resettled in Louisiana after the end of the Vietnam War (a location chosen for its similar climate). Cultural assimilation is of course a central theme of the collection but Butler delves much deeper, digging into the ways the social and cultural roots of America and Vietnam cross, and become entwined--or remain at odds. Loneliness. Nostalgia. Tribalism. Legacy. Huge concepts Butler injects effortlessly into short stories, peopled by the seemingly common. Only they're not that common. Not at all. They have outsized hearts, curious minds, and sorrowful souls. And you will love them. I definitely recommend this one.

And if I were to write a long-form analysis of something from A Good Scent, the natural choice would be "The American Couple", which is a colorful and wholly absorbing portrait of middle-age marriage. Two marriages, actually, brought under examination when a pair of game show-winning wives bring their husbands on the prize trip to Puerto Vallarta. One couple is Vietnamese; the other, American. Both husbands served in the Vietnam War.

Loads to dissect there, and I only wish I had a captive audience of high schoolers I could point at papers launched from the following line:

This is what's good about America. There is always some improvisation, something new, and when things get strained, you don't fall back on tradition but you make up something new.

PPRL: Alice Adams, by Booth Tarkington (winner, 1922)

DISCLAIMER: Posting this abridged review (minus discussion questions) through the fog of a cold. Not the best place from which to think or write, but there are only so many podcasts I can listen to, comatose on the bed, before my brain turns to jelly. Worst part of being sick isn't the cough, the aches, or the chills, it's watching life steamroll past as usual while you fall behind. 

What I found wonderful about Alice Adams is how at home its protagonist--the frivolous, self-absorbed, but mostly well-meaning Alice--would be in today's society. But that's also what made me most uncomfortable. I related a little too well to Alice, some ninety-odd years after she was conceived. Twenty-two, shiftless, vain, and entirely too dependent on others, Alice is a cautionary tale, albeit one with a happy ending. Her warning: don't wait for life to happen to you. Make it happen for yourself. Have a plan. Have a back up plan. (Hint: neither should require the participation and/or goodwill of men.)

It's a compact story, almost parable-esque, outfitted with the requisite rise and fall of a heroine you'll love to hate, but ultimately will have to love. When Alice, having finally grasped that gumption and self-reliance will take her further than good looks, dusts herself off and steps bravely into a future of her own design, you'll want to cheer. That is, if you're not too busy trying to do the same thing yourself.

A taste of Tarkington:

He was conscious of the city as of some great creature resting fitfully in the dark outside his windows. It lay all round about, in the damp cover of its night cloud of smoke, and tried to keep quiet for a few hours after midnight, but was too powerful a growing thing ever to lie altogether still. Even while it strove to sleep it muttered with digestions of the day before, and these already merged with rumblings of the morrow.

She was a large, fair girl, with a kindness of eye somewhat withheld by an expression of fastidiousness; at first sight of her it was clear that she would never in her life do anything "incorrect," or wear anything "incorrect." But her correctness was of the finer sort, and had no air of being studied or achieved; conduct would never offer her a problem to be settled from a book of rules, for the rules were so deep within her that she was unconscious of them.

PPRL: Independence Day, by Richard Ford (winner, 1996)

I'm about a third of the way through the Pulitzer novels (most of which I've written about here, though a few I'd read several years ago). And far and away my favorite remains Rabbit is Rich, followed closely by Rabbit At Rest. I've just not encountered anything as darkly funny, as rich in character, or as artistically taut as Updike.

Richard Ford, however, comes close. Very close. I got the buzzy, butterfly feeling I get when I read really, really good writing early on Independence Day. The novel is considered part of the "dirty realism" genre, which I explained to a friend--at least in this instance--as "difficult people in difficult relationships, sometimes doing shitty things to one another. Usually in the suburbs." In other words, very Updike-esque. (It's also hard to not suspect that certain elements of Independence Day aren't a nod to Updike--specifically basketball and the parade at the end--though here's Ford responding to that charge in a New Yorker interview.)

Ford has an unbelievably keen eye for what makes people memorable, for the details that bring an environment to life. It's the kind of book I think would-be writers should read, slowly, taking lots of notes. Some passages and snippets I marked:

A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you'll never adapt to coming toward you on the horizon. You see them as the problems they are, you worry like hell about them, you make provisions, take precautions, fashion adjustments; you tell yourself you have to change your way of doing things. Only you don't. You can't. Somehow it's already too late. And maybe it's even worse than that: maybe the thing you see coming from far away is not the real thing, the thing that scares you, but its aftermath. And what you've feared will happen has already taken place. This is similar in spirit to the realization that all new great advances of medical science will have no benefit for us at all, though we cheer them on, hope a vaccine might be ready in time, think things could get better. Only it's too late there too. And in that very way our life gets over before we know it. We miss it. And like the poet said: "The way we miss our lives are life.

The pistol was big and black, looked well oiled and completely bursting with bullets

For some reason she puts her palm flat on top of her bobbed red hair and blinks, as though she were holding something down inside her skull.

Every age of life has its own little pennant to fly.

Karl gives the Times a good snapping as though to get the words lined up straighter.


What makes (to me, anyway) Independence Day Pulitzer-caliber is how Ford takes the simple theme of independence (emotional, romantic, financial...) and makes a kind of vehicle out of it, in which the protagonist travels over the course of his holiday weekend. Each encounter he has, each experience he moves through brings him closer to understanding himself--and precisely how independent he really is (often to his surprise or disappointment). At moments Frank's self-absorption becomes tiresome, but one can never fault him for not seeking self-awareness.

Again this time around I neglected to jot down specific discussion questions/paper topics, but here are two quotes I think would make great jumping-off points:

Today, after all, is not only the fourth, but the Fourth. And as with the stolid, unpromising, unlikable Markhams, real independence must sometimes be shoved down your throat.

Independence Day, at least for the daylight hours, confers upon us the opportunity to act as independently as we know how.

PPRL: The Optimist's Daughter, by Eudora Welty (winner, 1973)

The Optimist's Daughter is about, among other things, the ghosts that rise up when someone dies. (Hint: there's more than one.) It's about the reverence we hold for the dead, especially when we share their blood, and to what degree that reverence is justified. And it's about what loss can teach us about our ourselves.

Laurel, the novel's protagonist, has lost both of her parents and a husband, and has come to rely on her friends--and herself--for validation and emotional support. (I'm just having a really hard time finding books that speak to me these days...) And while she's certainly admirable for being the very picture of forbearance, at times I couldn't help finding her frustratingly spineless.

The plot I think is better suited to a short story than a novel (which, at 140 pages, it essentially is), and the final chapters feel like a sudden storm of nostalgia and melancholy disrupting an otherwise placid day. There was just something incongruent to me about it. All the same, the writing is of course fantastic and Welty's talent for character development is remarkable. Some loathsome personalities in this one for sure.

A resonant passage:

A flood of feeling descended on Laurel. She let the papers slide from her hand and the books from her knees, and put her head down on the open lid of the desk and wept in grief for love and for the dead. She lay there with all that was adamant in her yielding to this night, yielding at last. Now all she had found had found her. The deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself, and it began to flow again.

Were I to do any long form writing on The Optimist's Daughter it would be on the theme of grief as crucible. Groundbreaking, I know.

PPRL: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder (winner, 1928)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a blazingly smart and utterly absorbing little book; I only put it down once. Reading it is like descending an ornate spiral staircase, alongside which runs a wall filled with alcoves containing tiny, curious treasures. These artifacts call to you, so you pick them up and turn them over in your hands for a moment - but the lure of what lays at the bottom of the stairs is too great, so you keep going down, down, down. And when you reach the cellar you find yourself in a place that's at once totally strange but somehow comforting. You don't want to leave. You know you could learn a lot here.

It's just delightful. Wise, colorful, simple in scope but grand in effect, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a goldmine for existentialist inquiry but never mind that - it's also just a really fun ride. No discussion questions this time, just a handful of annotated quotes:

"...authors always live in the noble weather of their own minds and those productions which seem remarkable to us are little better than a day's routine to them." (Oh to be such, to live and write as such.)

"She saw that the people of this world moved about in an armor of egotism, drunk with self-gazing, athirst for compliments, hearing little of what was said to them, unmoved by the accidents that befell their closest friends, in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires." (This was written in 1927. Nineteen twenty-seven. Prescient much, Thornton? #socialmedia)

"The glazed eyes moved to the girl's face. Pepita shook her gently. With great effort Dona Maria tried to fix her mind on what was being said to her. Twice she lay back, refusing to seize the meaning, but at last, like a general calling together in a rain and by night the dispersed division of his army she assembled memory and attention and a few other faculties and painfully pressing her hand to her forehead she asked for a bowl of snow." (Best description of a hangover ever.)

"Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but may never be two that love one another equally well." (Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Wilder, New Era romance columnist)

"He possessed the six attributes of the adventurer--a memory for names and faces, with the aptitude for altering his own; the gift of tongues; inexhaustible invention; secrecy; the talent for falling into conversation with strangers; and that freedom from conscience that springs from a contempt for the dozing rich he preyed upon."

"He respected the slight nervous shadow that crossed her face when he came too near her. But there arose out of this denial itself the perfume of a tenderness, that ghost of passion which, in the most unexpected relationship, can make even a whole lifetime devoted to irksome duty pass like a gracious dream." (Nuanced, true, relatable, perfect.)

"He regarded love as a sort of cruel malady through which the elect are required to pass in their late youth and from which they emerge, pale and wrung, but ready for the business of living."

"Like all solitary persons he had invested friendship with a divine glamour; he imagined that the people he passed on the street, laughing together and embracing when they parted, the people who dined together with so many smiles--you will scarcely believe me, but he imagined that they were extracting from all that congeniality great store of satisfaction."

"She had accepted the fact that it was of no importance whether her work went on or not; it was enough to work. She was the nurse who tends the sick who never recover; she was the priest who perpetually renews the office before an altar to which no worshippers come." (She was the blogger who continued to publish even in the face of an ever more dismal Alexa-ranking...)

"But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." (I told you - wise and delightful, and you won't want to leave.)

PPRL: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham (winner, 1999)

The Hours is a novel about women who spend too much time thinking about themselves, and are arguably the worse for it. I couldn't relate to it at all.


But they are also women who closely consider the lives of others: their needs, fears, probable desires... As such, The Hours hums with emotion - relentless, sometimes thrilling, but often exhausting emotion. Cunningham weaves elements through all three narratives (writer, socialite, wife) in a way that builds momentum while it unravels the mystery of who these women really are. Physical objects, motifs, thoughts, impressions, behaviors - all are used as common reference points over and again in The Hours, until the reader begins to understand that the most complicated relationship each of the women has is, in fact, with herself.

I was awed by the entire, masterful novel, but here are a few passages I found particularly striking:

There she is, thinks Willie Bass, who passes her some mornings just about here. The old beauty, the old hippie, hair still long and defiantly gray, out on her morning rounds in jeans and a man's cotton shirt, some sort of ethnic slippers (India? Central America?) on her feet. She still has a certain sexiness; a certain bohemian, good-witch sort of charm; and yet this morning she makes a tragic sight, standing so straight in her big shirt and exotic shoes, resisting the pull of gravity, a female mammoth already up to its knees in the tar, taking a rest between efforts, standing bulky and proud, almost nonchalant, pretending to contemplate the tender grasses waiting on the far bank when it is beginning to know for certain that it will remain here, trapped and alone, after dark, when the jackals come out. 

You respect Mary Krull, she really gives you no choice, living as she does on the verge of poverty, going to jail for her various causes, lecturing passionately at NYU about the sorry masquerade known as gender. You want to like her, you struggle to, but she is finally too despotic in her intellectual and moral intensity, her endless demonstration of cutting-edge, leather-jacketed righteousness. You know she mocks, you, privately, for your comforts and your quaint (she must consider them quaint) notions about lesbian identity. You grow weary of being treated as the enemy simply because you are not young anymore; because you dress unexceptionally. You want to scream at Mary Krull that it doesn't make that much difference; you want her to come inside your head for a few days and feel the worries and sorrows, the nameless fear. 

...brilliant and indefatigable Leonard, who refuses to distinguish between setback and catastrophe; who worships accomplishment above all else and makes himself unbearable to others because he genuinely believes he can root out and reform every incidence of human fecklessness and mediocrity. 

Study / discussion points:

  • Discuss the overlap of character experiences or behaviors (such as avoidance of mirrors, hearing of voices, etc), and how it compels the action forward.  
  • How does illness break down the boundaries between characters? (Consider Laura and Kitty, Richard and Clarissa, Virginia and Vanessa...) How does it loosen underlying issues and allow them to surface? How does their mortality permit characters to more clearly see the whole of their lives, their place in the world?
  • Laura's cake (and cake-making) as a metaphor for her life itself. Discuss.
  • Explore the idea of "crossing over" in The Hours (consider literal moments such as the multiple street-crossing scenes, and figurative ones such as suicidal ideation or even the anticipation of a natural death).
  • Suicide is a recurring theme in the novel, both as an abstract thought and as an actual plan of action. Compare and contrast two character's perceptions/experiences of it. 
  • Consider how a brush with death (or even the thought of it) affects character motivation and relationships. (Is it invigorating? Relieving? Terrifying? Clarifying? All of the above?)

PPRL: The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx (winner, 1994)

It took a while for The Shipping News to get its hooks in me. I was thrown off by Proulx's linguistic style, choppy and fragmented (and wonderful, once I got used to it); her powerful but challenging vocabulary choices (Petal Bear was crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle). But then the story took off, darkly comic, shocking but somehow charming, and I was happily sucked into the frigid Newfoundland landscape.

Give me an underdog any day. Give me someone lost and unsure and stumbling through life. The older the better. Give me the Quoyles of the world, trampled by the cruelty of others, sabotaged by their own poor choices. Give me quirky townspeople, big hearts who've bloomed to fullness in small places. Give me late-in-life, last-chance love. I'll take all of them in real life, any day, and sure enough in my novels. I absolutely loved The Shipping News, for all its forgivably flawed humanness. Proulx's use of metaphor on a grand scheme is absolutely stunning; volumes could be written about her iceberg-ridden, treacherous northern seascape. It's a book to curl up with right now, in the dead of winter, and be comforted by characters who've been to hell and back and are stronger for it.

A handful of topics for consideration:

the role of misfits (social, romantic, professional...)
stagnancy vs. movement
sons and fathers; the rejection of one's ancestry and/or the upholding of legacy
water - as escape, as home, as grave, as passageway...
the threat of the sea vs. its allure
the hardships of orphaned children
the role of wives tales and superstition
an unstable home (literally and figuratively)
life as a series of headlines

PPRL: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (winner, 2005)

I wasn't thrilled by Gilead, or even greatly entertained - but I was moved by it, in a way. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking novel, full of gentle humor and graceful characterization. It made me miss my friend Bill, written as it is from the perspective of an elderly man reflecting on the life lessons he's accumulated over his many years. Bill is as wise as Gilead's protagonist, as patient and generous of spirit. Many of the book's best lines reminded me of things I've heard him say. Even Bill's conversational tic of ending with Well, anyway... came to mind as I read; the narrator has a similar style of punctuating his thoughts with the same sort of humble, verbal shrug.

Some excerpts I found particularly poignant, beautiful, or relatable:

A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.

You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension. 

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible. life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it. 

A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation.

Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. 

Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay. 

It was as though there were a hoard of quiet in that room, as if any silence that ever entered that room stayed in it. 

It is one of the best traits of good people that they love where they pity.

...we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations...

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

Ideas for discussion:

Compare the Christ-like qualities of the narrator with those of his grandfather.

How are the narrator's efforts to be closer to God manifested in his words and his choices?

How is this a book about finding one's father - literally, figuratively, and spiritually? (think fathers as gods, fathers as teachers, fathers as equals...)

The narrator is particularly preoccupied with his volumes of written sermons. At times he seems proud of them; at others, humility trumps and he considers o having them burned. Other material items from the church - as well as the church's structure itself - seem to concern him, too. What makes a thing holy, in his eyes? Mere ownership, or something more? What is the role of pride in all of this? Of ego?

Explore how Gilead is a meditation on the difference between the way things look and how they really are.

Discuss how the novel expresses that sometimes it is the things we've lost that actually stay closest to us.

Paper topic: water as metaphor (baptism, rain, the thunderstorm that shut down the baseball game, sprinklers, etc).

In what sense is Gliead itself a sermon? What could be considered its central message?

Much of the book's action takes place in another time, and is only relayed through remembrance and flashback. How does this structuring affect the mood and tone? How does it limit or enhance what Robinson seems to want to convey?

PPRL: The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (winner, 1939)

Chaucer and I have been reading The Yearling.

I started it before going to Lake Burton, but Jody hadn't yet found the fawn, so neither Chaucer nor I were hooked yet. But I picked it back up when I got home, and Flag made his appearance soon afterward. It was a cold, bright night, perfect for nestling down under a fleece throw with a good book. Chaucer was stretched out along the end of the bed, warming my feet and keeping me company. When I finished the chapter, I closed my iPad and lay beside him. I stroked his ears and the crown of his head, and told him about the baby deer. He's the same color as you, and just as soft. I understood the boy's delight completely. Any animal lover would. Chaucer could live a hundred years and I'd never get over my joy and wonder at getting to care for him, hold him, play with him. I've been Jody in a million other lifetimes. And in this lifetime, Chaucer is my Flag.

Later, I told Chaucer about the hunts. About Ol' Slewfoot, and the bravery of Julia and Rip, the dogs who would eventually bring him down. He especially liked the parts about the hounds scenting their prey, and Penny's skill at tracking game through the wilderness. I told him about all the animals on Baxter's Island - the varmints and "creeturs", big and small. He blinked at me and I pictured him in another world completely: the scrublands of northern Florida, trusty guard dog of humble country folk some three-quarters of a century ago. Would he love that life more than the one I've given him? Maybe. Would he have been loved more? Impossible.

Tonight Terence and I walked him to Grand Park, which a pretty good trek for him these days. He started to lose steam about where he always does, hanging his head and panting hard. We saw a small black cat on the walk ahead of us, poised to dash off into the bushes. Knowing she'd easily get away, knowing Chaucer can barely catch his own shadow, I unclipped his leash. He tensed up, understanding, waiting for my direction. I knelt down beside him and pointed. "Kitty, Chauc!" I whispered, and he was off like a shot.

The cat was gone in an instant, and Chaucer, as usual, stood helplessly at the edge of the brush she'd disappeared into. Normally at this point he walks back to me, sheepishly defeated, to be clipped back into his leash. But tonight when he heard my laughing "Good boy!" he did something neither Terence nor I expected, nor could believe afterward. He clambered onward, into brambling bushes that came up to his shoulder. Bushes even a true hound dog would have trouble navigating. He scrambled for footing, peering over the top of the greenery as he tried to find the cat. Alarmed he might trip and hurt himself, we quickly called him back.

Terence and I frowned at one another, amazed. So, so unlike him to do that. "He's trying to impress me," I joked. "He knows I'm reading The Yearling with all these hunting dog scenes, and he's trying to prove he's a good hunter, too."

Not five minutes later we were further up in the park, in a wide, grassy area divided by landscaped cement partitions. Terence spotted a small dark shape silhouetted one on of the partitions. At first we thought it was a cat, but it was slinky and crouched-down, and I gaped in horror at what I assumed was a massive rat. "It's a possum!" said Terence, who with better eyes could make it out clearly. Scared Chaucer would give chase and get himself god knows what disease, I handed off the leash so I could inch closer alone. I'd never seen a possum in the wild.

Again, it was like something from The Yearling. Chaucer caught the animal's scent and pulled forward. He sensed my excitement and strained at his leash to see. The possum had crawled along the low wall and frozen. He was playing dead. We snapped a quick, blurry photo more to briefly illuminate it than anything and then moved on, happy that Chaucer got to smell something new and exotic.

About an hour ago, Chaucer long since having ditched me in the chilly living room for the warmth of his bed, I finished the novel. The final twenty pages devastated me; I cried three times. Just as surely as I know some of Updike's passages are the best fiction I've ever read, the final paragraph of The Yearling is the best ending I have ever read. It took my breath away and I had to clasp my hand over my mouth, to stifle the sobs. It's a paragraph to launch the writing careers of a thousand would-be novelists. Raw and unforgettable and perfect.

I don't have any discussion questions this time around. I have only awe. And my Flag to go cuddle.

PPRL: Beloved, by Toni Morrison (winner, 1988)

Hoo boy, did it take me a while to get through the ghost slave baby book. And that is an abridgment I bestow with respect, not derision, because I can't imagine many writers having the literary prowess to pull off a novel about a slain infant coming back to life to haunt her murderous mother. Far-fetched, phantasmal, gruesome, and incredibly poetic, Beloved visits the horrors of slavery only in flashbacks and memories. But these scenes taking the reader back to "Sweet Home" plantation (and its related locations) are so nightmarish, they overshadow the baby-haunting plot line for sheer horror. I didn't love this book; I was too disturbed by it to love it. But that's probably the point, and if so, kudos to Morrison for driving that point unflinchingly, unforgivingly home. So perhaps unsurprisingly, the passage I liked best comes from the final pages, when the heartbreaking story is all but finished. Paul D and Sethe, two former slaves who've bonded through the brutality of their shared background, are feeling their way through a rekindled relationship. Sethe has once again lost her daughter (an unsettled ghost who'd returned for a while, in human form, to visit the mother who'd killed her); Paul D is coming to terms with his role in Sethe's life, and his mixed emotions about her.

     "Paul D?"
     “What, baby?”
     “She left me.”
     “Aw, girl. Don’t cry.”
     “She was my best thing.”
     Paul D sits down in the rocking chair and examines the quilt patched in carnival colors. His hands are limp between his knees. There are too many things to feel about this woman. His head hurts. Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
     He is staring at the quilt but he is thinking about her wrought-iron back; the delicious mouth still puffy at the corner from Ella’s fist. The mean black eyes. The wet dress steaming before the fire. Her tenderness about his neck jewelry—its three wands, like attentive baby rattlers, curving two feet into the air. How she never mentioned or looked at it, so he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast. Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that. He wants to put his story next to hers.
     “Sethe,” he says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
     He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.”

discussion/paper topics:

  • What is the significance of water in Beloved's story? Consider her rebirth from the pond (and her thirst afterward), how Sethe's "water broke" that day, the afternoon ice-skating, etc.
  • Explore some possible reasons for Baby Sugg's fascination with color. 
  • Each of Beloved's characters experiences some shift of perspective over the course of the novel. Choose one to discuss. Was the shift caused by the passage of time alone, or was there some notable event/watershed moment that lent to it?
  • Discuss the nature of Beloved and Sethe's relationship. Is it symbiotic? Parasitic? Healing or toxic - or both?
  • Beloved is a deeply mythological novel. What are these mythical elements and how do they serve to anchor the real-life narrative? (Think superstition, archetype, etc.)
  • Discuss the theme of justice in Beloved, and the many forms it takes (retribution, karmic balance...).

PPRL: The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (winner, 2004)

Well, what started out as an accidental journey through all of the Civil War-era themed Pulitzer Prize-winning novels is officially no longer accidental. Cool way to move through the list, and now I've got a much better understanding of antebellum plantation life (for better or for worse). Terence even promised he'd take me to the Civil War exhibition at The Autry Museum, and the fact that I'm excited about that is quite a compliment to these writers. History and I have not, historically speaking, been fast friends.

So, more slavery. But this time - black slave masters. Racism, violence, heartbreak, all the horrors of trafficking in human beings - but some breathtakingly beautiful scenes, as well. One of my favorites takes place between Celeste and Elias, two slaves belonging to Henry Townsend of Manchester, Virginia (himself a freed former slave). Celeste has a bad leg and suffers from a limp; she's self-conscious and defensive about her affliction. Elias has recently had part of his ear cut off for attempting to run away. Though at first the two didn't like one another, they've come together to care for Luke, an orphaned slave child.

A week later he was at her door again and she was in the doorway and he opened a little piece of a rag and presented a comb he had carved out of a piece of wood. The comb was rough, certainly one of the crudest and ugliest instruments in the history of the world. Not one tooth looked like another; some of the teeth were far too thick, but most of them were very thin, the result of his whittling away with the hope that he was approaching some kind of perfection. “Oh,” Celeste said. “Oh, my.” She took it and smiled. “My goodness gracious.”
     ”It ain’t much.”
     “It be the whole world. You givin it to me?”
     “I am.”
     “Well, my goodness gracious.” She tried to run the comb through her hair but the comb failed in its duty. “Oh, my,” Celeste said as she struggled with it. Several teeth broke off. “Oh, my.”
     He reached up and taking her hand with the comb, they extricated it from her hair. “I done broke it,” she said when they had pulled it away. “Dear Lord, I done broke it.”
     “Pay it no mind,” Elias said.
     “But you gave it to me, Elias." Aside from the food in her stomach and the clothes on her back and a little of nothing in a corner of her cabin, the comb was all she had. A child of three could have toted around all she owned all day long and not gotten tired.
     “We can do another one.” He reached up and picked out the comb’s teeth that had broken off in her hair.
     “But . . .”
     “I’ll make you a comb for every hair on your head.”
     She began to cry. “Thas easy to say today cause the sun be shinin. Tomorrow, maybe next week, there won’t be no sun, and you won’t be studyin no comb.”
     He said again, “I’ll make you a comb for every hair on your head.” He dropped the broken teeth onto the ground and she closed her hand tight over what was left of the comb.
     She put her face into her other hand and cried. There had been a slave on the plantation she had come from who had come upon her in a field of corn and told her that a woman like her should be shot, like a horse with a broken leg. And she had cried then as well.
     Elias put his arms around her, tentative, for this was the first time. He trembled and the trembling increased the closer she got to his body. He kissed the side of her head, near the hairline, and his legs met not only her skin and hair but a tooth from the comb that he had somehow missed. 

Something else, right?

At times The Known World can be feel a little meandering, but that's only because it's so ambitious, encompassing the intertwined lives of several generations of blacks and whites connected through experience, blood, money. But there are plenty of passages like the above to keep you turning pages, no worries there.

Things to think about:

  • unrequited love; satisfactions denied (Robbin's wife being passed over for a lover, Henry rejecting his parents in favor of Robbins, Fern Elston pointlessly being a "dutiful wife"...)
  • human beings as commodities, as disposable chattel and marks in a tally book, reduced to their utilitarian value
  • complicated relationships and how the ties that bind aren't always made of blood
  • the significance of dreams, superstition, and spells (Robbins' "storms", root work, Alice...)
  • the idea of duty; what does dutifulness require? what are its boundaries and exceptions?
  • the whims and capriciousness of fate; how everything can change in an instant since the slaves have no control over their lives
  • the ways in which a sort of roundabout justice is served to various characters throughout the novel; karma and come-uppance (Broussard losing his wife, Robbins' suffering of headaches, etc)
  • the role of longing, of imagined paradises (Richmond for Philomene, Philadelphia for Gwendolyn, NY for Calvin, etc)
  • the role of hospitality; the significance of host vs. master (invited, free guests vs. those in chains) - what are the responsibilities and consider the dark ironies behind them?

PPRL: March, by Geraldine Brooks (winner, 2006)

I didn't set out to have a Southern-themed summer of reading to coincide with my recent traveling. It just sorta happened that way. The Road takes place partly in the very area I was in (there's even a reference to a 'See Rock City' sign!), and from one Civil War-era novel (The Killer Angels) I've gone on to another with March.

March is the retelling of The Little Women family's story, but from the perspective of the father. Not quite as feel-good as its inspiration though:

From a burlap sack the man drew out a braided leather whip almost as tall as he was. Then, moving to a spot about six feet from where Grace lay, he made a swift, running skip, raising the lash and bringing it down with a crack. The stroke peeled away a narrow strip of skin, which lifted on the whip, dangled for a moment, and then fell to the leaf-littered floor. A bright band of blood sprang up in its place. Her whole body quivered. 


I'd be doing an injustice to Brooks though, if I were to scare anyone away based on that passage alone. It's a fantastic book. There's a beautiful rhythm to the writing and the novel is peopled by flawed, complex characters whose struggles are nuanced and often surprising. Racism and slavery are vividly portrayed and the battle scenes are described in unflinchingly graphic terms. And it all makes for a chilling and utterly absorbing read. Also: Little Women references!

So, who wants some discussion questions?! No one? Okay, here you go!

  • How is March's religiousness affected by his time in the war? How do the atrocities he faces challenge his belief in God?
  • Paper idea! Discuss the moral motive of March's vegetarianism. Compare his distaste for the eating of meat (flesh) with his horror at the selling of it (slavery). (Consider his disgust for the rough appraisal and use of both; slaughterhouses v. slave auction blocks, etc.)
  • Comment on the nature of self-deception in the novel. What are the lies the characters tell themselves to be able to "march" on?
  • Indeed, consider the various "marches" the protagonist undertakes, as peddler, chaplain, teacher, husband, lover, and so on. How is he "marching" under the orders or according to the (moral or literal) dictates of others? What is the bigger picture of his path through life? Where does it take him geographically, emotionally, morally...?

PPRL: The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara (winner, 1975)

I had to read The Killer Angels with my phone on hand, as I constantly needed to look things up I hadn't thought about since grade school. It's historical fiction, an account of the Battle of Gettysburg. So, actual people, factual dates and events, plus lots of dialogue lifted straight from documents written at the time - but much of the characterization and interaction comes from Shaara's imagination.

My Civil War history game was pretty weak before this book. Still is. But every night I'd share something I'd re-learned with Terence, and by the end he decided I was ready to film an episode of Drunk History. Not so sure about that, but at least I've been refreshed on Dred Scott. And I have to say that while history is not typically my jam, I was wholly sucked in, even emotionally invested, by the time the battle actually started.

Questions for consideration:
  • Discuss the commentary on the evolving nature of war. What kind of war is "better", if any?
  • What does war do for the character of men who fight it? (Improve it? Reveal it? Worsen it?)
  • How does a sense of exceptionalism fortify Lee for the barbarism of war? How does he see himself as a god-like figure?
  • Consider the politics and morality behind the choice to invade or only fight defensively.
  • How much does Shaara romanticize war in general? How much is the past used to calibrate expectations for the future?
  • Discuss the personal "wars" that run parallel to the actual battle (inner and interpersonal conflicts, etc).
  • What role does divine providence play?
  • What is the significance of Fremont? Why the frivolity and shortsightedness? Comment on the larger relationship between southerners and the English.
  • How prescient is Longstreet's discussion of modern warfare?
  • Compare Lee's faith in god to his faith in the army. 
  • Comment on the role of morale, and the momentum of previous battle wins. How much do these factor into Gettysburg's outcome?

PPRL: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (winner, 2007)

I tore through The Road in two nights. It's less than two hundred pages, plus there's a swiftness to the story, a feeling of momentum that is surprising considering how ploddingly the characters actually move along. The writing is stunning, pure poetry:

The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond. 

Despite passages like the above, the novel has an economy of language - seen particularly in the dialogue - that perfectly reflects the austerity of its post-apocalyptic world. There's little to spare, even in conversation. McCarthy accomplishes some other interesting things, like finding ways to keep an otherwise unchanging, monotonous landscape from feeling boring. The word "grey" must appear over a hundred times in the novel, along with "ash" and "dark" - but the reader isn't aware of the repetition. He does this in part by coining new words, usually involving descriptive geological elements. These become a helpful vernacular for characterizing The Road's otherwise unimaginably decayed world.*

Subjects for consideration:
  • the legacy of self-sustainment, as passed from father to son
  • the significance of dreams, and the ghosts that inhabit them (the ghost of love, for the man, and the ghost of childhood for the boy)
  • the metaphor of the shopping cart; the irony that something once symbolizing homelessness and destitution now represents wealth and plenitude 
  • the role of god, and the question of whether god is friend or foe; is god loved? feared? hated? is he a "good guy" or a "bad guy"
  • the way in which father and son merge; how they become, in a sense, a single being; the complicity of their choices, and how that has enabled them to survive
  • the meaning of being saved, one last time, by a shipwreck
  • the tenderness of the love between the man and the boy, despite (because of?) such horrifying circumstances 

* Gah, when I went back through trying to find an example of this I couldn't, but it would be something like combining "river" with "dregs" to form "riverdregs", something unique to and intensely illustrative of a post-cataclysmic environment. 

    PPRL: Rabbit at Rest, by John Updike (winner, 1991)

    I actually finished this one back in April, but then it was Coachella this and mind-altering drugs that, and really, I can't be expected to pursue goals on odd-numbered years as well as even ones.

    Anyway, it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to Rabbit. As I so rabidly frothed once before, with this series John Updike coasted to the top of my favorite authors list. This last installment secured his place there, I expect, quite permanently.

    There is one particularly unforgettable moment in Rabbit at Rest I'm going to share in hopes of backing up my Updike idolatry. There's tons more context and background than I can condense quickly but I'll do my best.

    Picture a middle aged man, a former basketball star whose teenage athleticism remains for him his greatest source of pride. But now he's packing on the pounds, an incessant snacker whose lack of self-control causes him shame and frustration. He's losing his sex appeal, and that stings, too. Harry greatly relies on the respect of others - his friends, his wife, even his young grandchildren - to help keep his ego healthy. But he's losing steam, and his lust for life. Today he's at Jungle Gardens animal park with his wife Janice and their grandkids Roy and Judy.

    After the flamingos, the path takes them to a snack bar in a pavilion, and a shell-and-butterfly exhibit, and a goldfish pond, and a cage of black leopards just as Harry had promised Roy. The black-eyed child stares at the animals’ noiseless pacing as if into the heart of a whirlpool that might suck him down. A small machine such as those that in Harry’s youth supplied a handful of peanuts or pistachio nuts in almost every gas station and grocery store is fixed to a pavilion post near an area where peacocks restlessly drag their extravagant feathers across the dust. Here he makes his historic blunder. As his three kin move ahead he fishes in his pocket for a dime, inserts it, receives a handful of brown dry objects, and begins to eat them. They are not exactly peanuts, but perhaps some Florida delicacy, and taste so dry and stale as to be bitter; but who knows how long these machines wait for customers? When he offers some to Judy, though, she looks at them, smells them, and stares up into his face with pure wonderment. “Grandpa!” she cries. “That’s to feed the birds! Grandma! He’s been eating birdfood! Little brown things like rabbit turds!” 
    Janice and Roy gather around to see, and Harry holds open his hand to display the shaming evidence. “I didn’t know,” he weakly says. “There’s no sign or anything.” He is suffused with a curious sensation; he feels faintly numb and sick but beyond that, beyond the warm volume enclosed by his skin, the air is swept by a universal devaluation; for one flash he sees his life as a silly thing it will be a relief to discard.

    I know. You probably have to be there, at that instant when everything has led to Harry's existential crisis - but I had to try.

    And now for today's round of No One Asked For 'Em, and No One Needs 'Em discussion questions!

    1. How are birds totemic in the novel? Sparrows, starlings, hawks, buzzards, flamingos...what do they represent, in the story and to Harry personally?

    2. Discuss the significance of old cars vs. the new, modern models. What's being sacrificed and what's being gained? Widen this view to the relationship between Harry and his son, old guard vs. new etc.

    3. Consider Harry's (blatant? latent?) racism. How does it serve him? What does it protect him from?

    4. How does the state Florida become a character of the story? How does it comfort him? How does it antagonize him?

    5. SUPER BIG THESIS MATERIAL - compare the interplay of sex and money in Rabbit is Rich with the interplay of sex and death in Rabbit at Rest.

    6. Unpack the parade scene. How is the parade a representation of Harry's own life? (hint: short, ridiculous, desperately trying to own a character he's deemed important...)

    PPRL: Rabbit Is Rich, by John Updike (winner, 1981)

    The good thing about Rabbit Is Rich is that it excited the writerly part of my brain in a way it's never been excited before. There's a forty page section in the middle of the book that I feel confident in declaring the best forty pages of fiction I have ever read. That's not hyperbole. Writing so taut, so seamless that it's like a wall where every brick was meticulously chosen and sealed with the exact right amount of mortar. A talent clearly at the very top of his game. Laugh at me: I actually cried when I was telling Terence about a few of my favorite passages. Granted I was a bit hormonal that day, but for real, the sheer craftmanship of this book moved me like nothing I've ever experienced in literature. I want to find a list of Updike's favorite authors (poets in particular) because I need to know how he learned to think like he did.

    The bad thing about Rabbit Is Rich is that I'm scared I never will. Think like he did, I mean. It's given me a wretched case of What's the fucking point?? writer's block. I'm throttled by my own sense of inspiration and wonder. For fuck's sake, there is anal sex in this book. And it still won the Pulitzer Prize. That's how magnificent the writing is. 

    Ugh, anyway, we soldier on in our mediocrity, amiright? (Speak for yourself, Ellie, wtf?) I would barely know where to start with this novel had I an actual classroom to torture with my fangirling, but I think the most interesting discussions fall under one of three main headings (though with plenty of overlap): Harry + Money, Harry + Women, and Harry + Harry.

    Harry + Money

    Forget country club memberships, gold and silver coins, and trips to the Caribbean; Harry's wealth affords him non-tangibles that are more integral to his sense of self than anything he can buy. Arrogance, hubris, cynicism, (male, white) privilege... How is Harry's perception of his personal power accurate, and how it is flawed?

    Discuss Harry's enthusiasm for Consumer Reports. Does Harry feel empowered by it? Unnerved? How do his fears about the economy, about material wealth and financial solvency factor in?

    Harry + Women

    Harry is spectacularly sexist, jawdroppingly patronizing, disturbingly predatory, and intolerably condescending towards women. And yet it's impossible to hate him. How does Updike accomplish this?

    Explore the subtext and metaphor of the (simultaneously triumphant and pathetic) Kruggerand sex scene between Harry and Janice. In what ways is his wife an extension of Harry's wealth?

    The other women in the novel (Ruth, Cindy, Thelma, Melanie, Pru, etc) also manifest as a kind of currency in Harry's life. In what ways do they compliment or challenge his ego?

    Harry + Harry

    Harry is preoccupied with death, and the dead as a whole in particular. Some quotes:

    He is treading on [the dead], they are resilient, they are cheering him on, his lungs are burning, his heart hurts, he is a membrane removed from the hosts below, their filaments caress his ankles, he loves the earth, he will never make their mistake and die.

    Now the dead are so many he feels for the living around him the camaraderie of survivors.

    Why does he feel compelled to "keep track" of the dead, of who's joining their ranks and why? How do the dead serve him? How do they threaten him?

    Compare Harry's treatment of his progeny - the rejection of his son vs. the obsession with his possible daughter. How does the legacy of family relate to Harry's beliefs about himself?  

    PPRL: In This Our Life, by Ellen Glasgow (winner, 1942)

    In This Our Life veers back and forth between soap opera-worthy drama and stultifying existential meditation. The drama is compelling, and the reason I blasted through the second half of the novel in a day or two. The existential meditation - on the nature of happiness, on what it means to grow old and out of touch, on beauty vs. character - well, it's stultifying. There's an intriguing, depressingly timely secondary plot about racism which I think could have elevated the story immensely had it been further fleshed out. But (perhaps due to the book predating the Civil Rights Movement) the subject was only marginally, if poignantly, explored.

    The novel was adapted into a film starring Bette Davis as the shallow, spoiled, selfish, husband-stealing Stanley* (odd choice of names, right? her sister is named Roy and I could find no explanation either in the book or online as to why the girls have traditionally male names). But other than the Davis connection it doesn't seem like In This Our Life is particularly well-known or popular. HOWEVER I'm still going to throw down some super basic questions for discussion/papers because those who can't teach, blog. Or something. (Shut up okay it's just fun for me.)

    Again and again Glasgow stresses the dichotomy of young vs. old, old-fashioned vs. modern. How does this polarity manifest in the novel's characters? (Consider the handwringing and hindsight of the "old guard" vs. the naiveté and caprice of youth.) Conversely, what challenges are shared by both young and old alike? 

    There are four major parent-child relationships in the novel (Asa-Stanley, Asa-Roy, Lavinia-Stanley, Lavinia-Roy). Choose two to compare and contrast. 

    Explore the upstairs/downstairs (family/servants) element of the story. What do we learn about the characters from how one set perceives the other? What do their respective prejudices and notions say about themselves?

    Discuss the theme of "do overs" in the novel (i.e., second chances, vicarious pleasures and living through one's children, etc). Compare it to the theme of regret / roads not taken.

    Birds are a recurring visual motif in the novel. What do they represent? Freedom, obviously, but what about beyond that? Think migration (Stanley), nesting behavior (Lavinia), a sparing quality of consumption (Asa)...


    *Fun fact: apparently Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro, was named after Davis's character (source).

    PPRL: The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud (winner, 1967)

    Remember the over the top satirical anti-Semitism in Borat? Jews as egg-laying, shapeshifting cockroaches? It's brilliant and satisfying to watch, because it so ruthlessly skewers the grossly bigoted, the xenophobic and the racist. But what it's easy to forget when the film ends and the lights come back on is the fact that such notions (Jews are evil, Jews are monsters, Jews are inferior) are deeply rooted in terrifying pockets of actual, living history.

    The Fixer gives a glimpse of one such pocket. So if you're shopping for a good tsarist Russia-era novel about the horrors of early twentieth century anti-Semitism, pick it up!

    ** end general interest portion of post **

    Some Quotes As Jumping-Off Points for Discussion, Paper-Writing, and General Consideration

    "She had stopped before a huge wooden crucifix at the side of the road, crossed herself, and then slowly sinking to her knees, began to hit her head against the dark ground."

    - Discuss the intersection of superstition and religion in the novel. Consider the racist mythologies invented and disseminated by anti-Semitic, Christian Russians. How do they reflect on their perpetuators and what are the consequences of those wives tales?

    "Yakov considered dismounting, knocking on a strange door and begging for a night's lodging."

    - In what ways does The Fixer resemble a fable or folkloric tale? Consider stock characters and tropes such as old men/women, the stubborn horse, the ferryman, the ghosts who visit Yakov in his dreams, never-ending misfortune and the miscarriage of justice, etc. 

    "Nobody can burn an idea even if they burn the man." 

    - How does self-education and reflection help Yakov transcend limitations (of the shtetl, of his socioeconomic class, and later, in prison, of his anguished mental state)? How much can knowledge be his salvation and how much does it curse him?

    "Something that unexpectedly bothered him was that he was no longer using his tools." 

    - Consider the concept of tools in the story, both as literal devices and metaphorical representations. How do they reflect Yakov's very strong value of self-reliance? How have they helped him build his life and how have they constrained him?

    "Being born a Jew meant being vulnerable to history, including its worst errors."

    - How does the idea of fate play into Yakov's story? What about free will? Consider this quote: "We're all in history, that's sure, but some are more than others. Jews more than some." How does history inform the future, and shape it? At what point is a man's destiny out of his hands thanks to the actions of other men who've gone before him?

    "Those who persecute the innocent were themselves never free."

    "Well good luck and no hard feelings, Berezhinsky said uneasily. 'Duty is duty. The prisoner's the prisoner and the guard's the guard.'"

    - Explain how the antagonists of The Fixer aren't any more free than Yakov. Consider the very limiting hierarchal structures of both his country and the jail he languishes in. How is the macrocosm of Russia's class system mirrored by the microcosm of the prison?

    "What it amounts to, Little Father, is that whether you wanted it or not you had your chance; in fact many chances, but the best you could give us with all good intentions is the poorest and most reactionary state in Europe."

    - What is the significance of the ending scene between Yakov and Nicholas the Second? What is the subtext of their discussion, and of their relationship? (Man to man? ruler to subject? Christian to Jew? Christian to freethinker?)

    "Your poor boy is a hemophiliac, something missing in the blood."

    - Malamud deliberately includes this bit of history in the scene between Yakov and the tsar. Unpack the declaration, considering what implications Yakov could be making about Nicholas's politics, his character, his religion, etc.

    PPRL: The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields (winner, 1995)

    I consider myself a decent enough writer, but man do I ever freeze up in the face of a book review. I just cannot distill several plot points down into a few paragraphs that also summarize a novel's writing style, narrative structure, etc. Doing so bores me to tears, and I'm sure it bores everyone else, too. I know I'm not saying anything different than anyone else has on, say, Goodreads.

    What I can do is identify themes, big juicy themes best suited to deeper academic exploration essays - that's still a lot of fun for me. Vive la English major I guess. So in the interest of better enjoying my Pulitzer Prize Reading List Challenge (and no longer having to dread writing the concomitant reviews), I'm changing things up! From now on my responses to the novels will just be a few writing prompts - whatever jumped out at me during my reading, as subjects that might be interesting to write about, longform. And now without further ado, I present

    Ellie's Suggested Discussion Topics For The Stone Diaries, Gladly Offered To Anyone For Whom They May Be of Use

    1. Explore the role of the natural world in the novel. Discuss the interplay of stone vs. flower, and what each represents (hard vs. soft? dead vs. living? masculine vs. feminine?). Compare and contrast the qualities of resiliency/permanency (such as with Cuyler's stone, his quarrying and carving) and transience/renewal (such as with Daisy's garden and flowering perennials). What are the implications of mining vs. planting, both literally and figuratively? Consider the "planting" of family roots, and the "mining" of genealogical history, such as when Daisy and Victoria visit the Orkney Islands. How do their respective desires to "dig up" bones (actual fossils, in Victoria's case, and to find the grave of Magnus Flett, in Daisy's case) reflect the novel's theme of growth vs. decay?

    2. Discuss the theme of sexuality in The Stone Diaries. What are some of the ways it is expressed (or repressed) by the novel's characters? Consider Barker's brief flash of pedophiliac attraction to young Daisy (note the Lolita allusion re: using the tip of the tongue to remove something from her eye), or the sensual attraction Clarentine Flett feels towards Mercy Goodwill, or even Daisy's limited, Ladies Home Journal-guided experience of sex (and what her incuriosity/apathy means). How do the images of stone and flower play into the theme of sexuality? (Consider for example Cuyler's marital ardor, and the tower he later constructs as a dedication to his dead wife. What are the implications of redirecting that sexual energy into a phallic but coldly impotent structure?)

    PPRL: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (winner, 2014)

    (Simplifying my approach to PPRL reviews. Just gonna write up my thoughts. No more synopses, excerpts, or vocab. Those bits felt too much like homework.)


    I didn't know what I was getting myself into with The Goldfinch. Mason recommended it to me (well, "I'd be curious what you think of it" was what he actually said), and I plowed through the unrelentingly graphic opening scene without putting the iPad down once. Ah, I thought. So that's a taste of what that might be like. Horrific to know. But I wasn't actually hooked - like, claws-deep hooked - until Theo got to Vegas and I met Boris. By the end I found myself almost wishing Boris had been the protagonist.

    The Goldfinch is an imperfect book, as I'm the last and least important to point out. I don't know if editing styles have changed dramatically unbeknownst to me, but repetition of an unusual, five-dollar word twice in one paragraph seems like something that shouldn't occur in Pulitzer-winning novels. And I agree with the bit of criticism quoted in the Vanity Fair article about some of the characters being rather stock, rather predictable and cliche. However, some are characters whose company I really didn't want to quit. I could have handled much, much more of Hobie and Pippa - and much less of Xandra and Kitsey.

    Worst of all though, I loathed Theo by the end of the story. He was an inept, foolish, self-pitying, selfish mess whose failed attempt at suicide left me feeling nothing. As did the entire ending, which droned on and on and on to a miserable conclusion.

    However, wow can Tartt tease out a theme* and keep a story moving. Lots of dialogue and fast-paced action kept me utterly intrigued (and Terence, too; he'd ask for plot updates every night) up until she lost me on the confusing, belabored, and unnecessarily complicated backstory about Horst et al. (Didn't follow. Didn't care.) Shortcomings aside, I really did find the writing strikingly beautiful at times. I highlighted many passages to revisit, per Steven Pinker's excellent advice. I do wish the novel finished more strongly - or at least on a more positive note - but I can't resent the place Tartt arrived at too badly, since I quite enjoyed the majority of the ride.



    Are you a college student who's been assigned a term paper on The Goldfinch? Did you not pay attention during class discussions, and are you now stuck for a topic? Perhaps you were fucking around on social media instead, because you are young and immature and careless with other people's money.

    Well hey slacker, it's your lucky day. Below are some of my disjointed, undeveloped thoughts on the theme of provenance in The Goldfinch. Obviously I'm biased towards my own genius, but I think correctly nurtured they could make for a pretty decent essay. So feel free. I originally wrote them for my readers, but since it occurs to me that I can't stop them from being used elsehow, you have my blessing - provided you use these ideas as a starting point only. Don't copy, don't even paraphrase. (You do NOT want plagiarism on your school record, really takes the shine off an already useless English degree.)

    In fact, don't actually read what I wrote below. Just give yourself the prompt: What role does provenance play in The Goldfinch? Could the concept be applied to people, too? 

    Seriously, stop reading now and go back to Snapchatting or whatever your kind does these days. Godspeed, net-sourcing coed!


    One of the foremost considerations in the acquisition and sale of art and antiques is provenance, i.e. where, and in whose hands, something has been. Determining provenance is part of the authentication process; in order to establish that, say, a painting legitimately hails from the 17th century, it helps to know who's been looking after it. Great pain is taken to track these records of ownership for the same reason great pain is taken in the care of their subjects - fine art and genuine antiques are precious. Case in point: virtually every character in the novel down to the Eurotrash thugs knows how valuable The Goldfinch is, and spares nothing to keep it safe and sound.

    Now, contrast this with Theo's "provenance". Where he's been, where he goes, where he ends up. The degree to which his would-be caretakers go to avoid "acquiring" him. His grandparents want nothing to do with him, and his father is at best reluctant to accept the role himself. In what ways does Theo's journey from home to home and place to place mirror that of the painting? How is it different?

    To extend the metaphor, what constitutes Theo's "verso"? What are the emotional markings he collects over the years? His mother's love? His father's indifference? Hobie's influence and friendship? Compare the nicks and imperfections of The Goldfinch with Theo's psychological scars and wounds.