It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the ever-growing canon of literature. Like many readers, I whittle away at the “classics”, and I am (very) slowly making progress (see my review of Don Quixote), but I also want to keep up with more recent publications. To familiarize myself with “good” American writing, I opted to explore prose which has garnered a Pulitzer Prize, even though several alternative book honors might be substituted as guides to excellence.
Joseph Pulitzer immigrated to the United States from Hungary in the 19th century and became a journalist and newspaper publisher. The eponymous prizes are funded from his bequest to Columbia University in New York. The Pulitzer for the Novel was established in 1917, but was first granted in 1918, and was later renamed Pulitzer for Fiction. Because it was skipped in some years, as of the beginning of 2017, there have been 89 recipients, with the 90th expected to be announced in May. My journey through the Pulitzer realm has been haphazard, as I don’t follow a thematic or chronologic order. So far I have been guided by tomes already in my library. In 2016, I enjoyed the following three titles.
After my acquaintance with A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay about the challenges facing women writers, and her influential Mrs. Dalloway, I felt prepared to immerse myself in Michael Cunningham’s 1999 winner, The Hours. A modern-day re-interpretation of Mrs. Dalloway which bears the title originally intended for it, it is similarly intriguing and disturbing as the original, stream-of-consciousness narrative. The parallel and intertwined stories afford glimpses into the lives of Virginia Woolf, her novel’s protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, transported into contemporary times, and a woman in the 1950s whose perusal of Mrs. Dalloway alters her reality. If you enjoy unforeseen surprises and plot twists, you are in for a treat. I am aware of the 2002 Oscar-garnering movie version starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, but despite this cast, I have resisted the temptation to view it. In the vast majority of cases, I am disappointed by film versions of literary works, and the images on the screen have a tendency to overshadow those that arose in my own imagination.
The 2015 recipient, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, sat on my shelf for nearly two years, but once I flipped over the first few pages of this story set in occupied France during World War II, there was no putting it back until I had suffered and cried with its main actors, even with some of the bad guys. It revolves around a French blind girl and a German orphan turned radio engineer. Their paths are swept up by the maelstrom of the war, and even though they only meet briefly toward the end, their lives have been interconnected much longer, without their knowing. This book illuminates the importance of characters who are complete human beings with motivations the reader can relate to, even if they prove to be monsters in some regard. As devastating as it might be, it at least left me with a sense of closure and a glimmer of hope.
Pearl S. Buck who grew up in China thanks to her missionary parents and who went on to become a Nobel Laureate, received the Pulitzer in 1932 for The Good Earth. When I chose it from my collection, I was skeptical about the relevance of a farmer’s fate in pre-revolutionary China, but once I allowed the slightly archaic yet very lyrical language to wash over me, like a good summer’s rain, the leisurely action kept me absorbed. To illustrate humanity’s strength and weaknesses in the destiny of one person is remarkable, as is the protagonist’s insight that, despite wealth and progress, his existence is only worthwhile when lived in closeness with nature, the soil, the good earth, upon which our well-being depends. A timeless truth, and more relevant today than possibly ever. As I have since found out, this opus is the first part of a trilogy, though I have not tackled the sequels.
Each of these gems is worthwhile to study again, but with only 11 down, and 78 (soon 79) to go, I am open to suggestions for my next read. Also, if you are familiar with any of the works mentioned above, I would love to hear your impressions.
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