I felt that Matt Reeve’s The Batman was a great superhero flick. Comparing it to the MCU, it is slower-paced, features better photography, and my ears weren’t ringing at the end because the score and sound effects were perfect. Comparing it to other DC films, it continues the more weighty emotional trend of those films, but with darker sets and a grittier lens.
I must also compare it to the previous Batman franchise films. I think the only actor that comes close to Pattison’s superb performance was Christian Bale, but I have to say that Pattison shows even more depth and had a more interesting emotional core. His relationship with Selena is far better portrayed than the more platonic and less believable one of Bale’s Wayne with Rachel Dawes. There is really no comparison: the Batman/Selena combo is truly magical and profound.
As for the bad guys, as good as Paul Dano’s Riddler was, Heath Ledger’s Joker is still far and beyond a more terrifying and screen-enveloping character. That being said, Colin Farrell’s Penguin and John Turturro’s Falcone were the best portrayals yet of those two Gotham staples.
What sets this film apart, I think, is the Gotham in which we are immersed and never leave (no fighting in Hong Kong this time!) It is gritty and seething and utterly corrupt – more so than Nolan’s version. And I really liked the idea of reaching back to the origins of Batman in Detective Comics because we have a real mystery to work out, a crime (many crimes) to solve and Vengeance is on the trail.
Andy Sarkis’ Alfred wasn’t quite as endearing as Michael Caine’s, but the Batcave was still cool and his gear, less fancy but cool nonetheless. I do miss Nolan’s Batmobile with the Big Wheel tires, but the Mustang-inspired one here was still badass.
The soundtrack featuring a cover of Something in the Way by Nirvana is truly excellent. I will have to see it again to search for more Easter eggs of the same sort, but the camera shot towards the end which was very obviously inspired by Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks painting was gorgeous. I have to say it again, this has to be the best cinematography ever in either the DC catalog or the MCU.
I have been on a project to read all the Pulitzer winners (and some of the runner’s ups). It has been a wonderful adventure during which I have discovered authors that I would have otherwise missed, but also with some deceptions where I disagreed more or less strongly with the decision of the Pulitzer committee.
Some of the authors I most enjoyed discovering included Annie Proulx, Donna Tartt, Richard Russo, John Updike, Richard Ford, and Marilynne Robinson. There were authors that disappointed me such as Colston Whitehead and some I detested like Anthony Doerr. Nonetheless, it was worth going through the books to see how American literature has evolved over the last 50 years.
The Pulitzer was given 47 times over the last 51 years, whereas in the years of 1971, 1974, 1977, and 2012 there was no winner. In 1971 and 2012, they apparently did not think that there was a book that stood above the others; however, I would have thought Toni Morrison’s fantastic debut, The Bluest Eye could have been an appropriate choice for 1971. In 1974 and 1977 respectively, Thomas Pynchon’s magnificent Gravity’s Rainbow and Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It were selected by the fiction jury but then rejected by the Pulitzer board who has a final decision. In 1977, they did give a special Pulitzer to Roots by Alex Haley.
Of the 47 prizes that were awarded, 30 went to men. This was a surprise as I usually thought of these prizes as being awarded primarily to men, but it was enlightening to see that a third of the prizes went to deserving women writers.
As for locations, the prize went 14 times to books that are based in New York, 7 took place in the South, 6 were collections of short stories, and 6 took place in New England, and 5 in the West. Europe and Asia were locations for 3 books each and Canada twice. I guess that if you want to win the Pulitzer, it might be a good bet to keep New York in the story somehow or at least focus on New England.
As for the time period, 24 times the period was contemporary to the author, 48 took place in the 20th/21st century, and 7 in the 19th century. Four of the books revolved around the Civil War and 3 had slavery as a theme. WWII was the background for 3 books and the Vietnam War was the background for 2 books. And there was only one novel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy was in an imaginary dystopian future.
Of the many protagonists, the ones that made the biggest impression on me were Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit At Rest, Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, Theodore Decker in The Goldfinch, Seymore “Swede” Levov in American Pastoral, Joshua Chamberlain in The Killer Angels, Sethe in Beloved, Celie in The Color Purple, Quoyle in The Shipping News, and Gus and Woodrow from The Lonesome Dove. On the other hand, the protagonists I couldn’t stand included Olive Kitteridge (eponymous), Bennie Salazar in The Good Squad, Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings, Marie-Laure and Werner in All The Light We Cannot See, Elwood Curtis in The Nickel Boys, and Henry Townsend in The Known World.
Looking back, it seems to me that the choices have become more politically correct as far more “minority” writers were chosen since 2000 (Lahiri, Díaz, Nguyen) as well as the first black male author to get two prizes (Whitehead). I thought that the tone moved from something a bit more heavy in some of the choices (Jean Stanford, John Cheever, Eudora Welty) in the 70s to some choices of books far more lighter in topic: Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie in 1985 and Less by Andrew Sean Greer in 2018 stood out as somewhat frivolous choices to me.) There were several times where I felt that the runner-up was superior to the winner (2000, 2015, 2020), but more on my disagreements below.
As for agreeing with the committee, I agreed about half the time as you see in the above graph. There were 9 books where I strongly disagreed and 13 where I was hesitant with respect to their choice. I find it interesting and am curious as to how others experienced perceive the quality of the selection. In the 70s, I think they passed over good books 3 times and gave out prize to weak novels like Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson and The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. In the 80s, I liked most of the choices (or understood them even if I didn’t like the book as was the case for Norman Mailer’s epic (but unpleasant-to-read) Executioner’s Song). In the 90s, I didn’t like Mambo Kings by Oscar Hijuelos nor did I think that The Hours by Michael Cunningham was very good but liked their other choices for the most part. In the 00s, I had a real problem with the choice of Jhumpa Lahiri’s mediocre Interpreter of Maladies over the excellent Close Range by Annie Proulx (it would have been nice to see her win a second prize), with The Known World (although I don’t have an alternative to propose other than maybe Paul Auster’s Oracle Night (not read), but I will admit with atrocities like Cosmopolis by Delillo and the abysmal excuse for literature DaVinci Code coming out in 2003, they may have had a difficult time finding something!). Lastly, for the 10s, I had the most disagreements because I found that the winners in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2018 and 2020 were weak entries in terms of character development and general quality of writing. Just looking at the most recent award in 2020, there were far stronger books considered like runner-up The Dutch House by Ann Patchett but also the sorely overlooked but excellent Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips. I wish I had an extra life to read all the runner’s up each year, but I need to go back and do all the prizes from 1918 now, so may be after that.
Here are my overall rankings. My apologies, but since I strongly feel that Gravity’s Rainbow was robbed in 1974 and that it was the best book written in the past 50 years, it gets a controversial #1 ranking in my table.
Several years ago, I purchased the Oxford Complete Shakespeare and placed it on my shelf. It stared at me more and more intensely, particularly during the confinement period in the spring of 2020. In a moment of existential angst, I finally gave in to its guilty looks and began reading each of the plays as well as a wealth of criticism and commentary on Shakespeare and was more than healthily rewarded for the effort.
One of the first barriers to entry for someone reading Shakespeare is the archaic language he uses. Most modern versions use emendated texts with modern spelling, but in order to preserve the iambic meter (da-Da-da-Da-da-Da-da-Da-da-Da) in most of the lines of blank verse, some conventions that the Bard used such as the “èd” at the end of verbs is kept. Admittedly, it gets some getting used to the syntax as well, but I found that after struggling through the first few plays, I found my reading rhythm and was less disturbed by the difficult grammar.
You may be surprised to learn that there are many English words that were used in print for the first time by Shakespeare, 1700 to be exact. There is an excellent article here: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/shakespeares-words/ about his inventive vocabulary. And when you realize that there was no wide circulation of printed versions of the plays until well after his death, it is fascinating to think about how talented a writer he was to be creating literary, spoken, and stage language all at the same time.
When reading Shakespeare, given the wide variety of genres and themes that he deals with, it is difficult to know where to start. I decided to begin with a chronological approach, but when I hit the 8-play history series (well, nine plays if you count the recently attributed and enjoyable Edward III) that covers Hundred Year’s War and the War of the Roses, I decided to read them in historical order and supplement this reading with Shakespeare’s Kings by John Julius Norwich. It was a good plan and a lot of fun. I would also highly recommend watching The Hollow Crown, a BBC adaptation in two series from 2012 and 2016 which covers these plays nearly line-by-line. Also, the classic Laurence Olivier versions of Richard III and Henry V as well as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Richard Loncraine’s Richard III starring Ian McKellan as a particularly terrifying Richard III.
There are so many layers to Shakespeare, that it is hard as a writer to set it all down on paper. There is the action as it appears to the characters in the play whether it be a comedy, a tragedy, a romance, or an adaptation of history. Then, there is what the play was saying to Elizabethan (before Elizabeth I’s death in 1603) and Jacobean audiences (under James I until Shakespeare’s sudden retirement in 1613 and his death in 1616) because there was always a contemporary message more or less evident in the texts. Lastly, there is what the plays say to us today about ourselves, about human excellence and depravity, about good and evil. When reading Shakespeare, it is helpful to have a few guides to help one along the journey to see the clues to these various strata in the Bard’s works.
For a biographical sketch of Shakespeare, I read the introductions in the Oxford Complete as well as the various Signet Classics, Folger Library, and other editions of Shakespeare plays that I used. Additionally, I enjoyed James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare which was entertaining and educational. This particular year was eventful historically as well as a century marker, but in Shakespeare, it separates the period of his earlier works from his later classics – the line being typically drawn between Julius Caesar and Hamlet.
In terms of critics, I limited myself primarily to 20th and 21st century writing about Shakespeare. I, unfortunately, did not major in English, but I induce from my reading that the views on Shakespeare radically changed in the last century as a result of the sea changes that society was undergoing: the industrial revolution, social revolutions, more European wars, and the advent of psychoanalysis. My understanding is that Oxford Laureat A.C. Bradley in his Shakespearean Tragedy from 1904 changed literary criticism by using a more intertextual analysis of the four major tragedies to derive insights into the deeper psychology of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Delivered in a series of lectures, it is an incredibly exciting and insightful read.
G. Wilson Knight wrote a series of books including the famous Wheel of Fire (1931) of “interpretive criticism” (his term) in which, admitting his debt to Bradley, he explored the mythology of Shakespeare and is equally fascinating in his insights, particularly his reading of lesser known plays such as Timon of Athens. He does an excellent job of comparing the plays by plumbing their deeper meanings through character analysis and the common themes and symbols used in the plays (storms, animals, death, hate, etc).
M.W. MacCallum’s book Shakespeare’s Roman Plays was incredibly helpful for Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus to understand how Shakespeare got these stories as they had just recently been translated from Plutarch’s Lives. Actually, Shakespeare also used Plutarch for Timon of Athens as well, but this is not covered by MacCallum. Instead, he dives deep into the three plays I mentioned to show how Shakespeare built his epic characters Brutus, Cassius, Marc Anthony, Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. It is a very good introduction to this often overlooked aspect of Shakespeare.
For the comedies, I read the rather academic R.P. Draper’s Shakespeare: The Comedies and found it interesting, but perhaps a bit too abstract. On the contrary, Hugh Richmond’s Shakespeare’s Sexual Comedy: A Mirror For Lovers was excellent and extremely insightful and a delightful read.
For the later romances, Northrop Frye’s A Natural Perspective is a classic and a must read. It looks at Pericles, Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest showing how Shakespeare’s vision had matured at this point and how central a role nature plays in these late works.
Besides Norwich’s Shakespeare’s Kings and MacCallum’s Shakespeare’s Roman Plays, I also read the recent Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt. It was a vitriolic study of the various tyrants in the history plays and tragedies with a not so subtle warning about current politics and the virage in today’s world towards authoritarianism. It serves as further proof as to what I said earlier about Shakespeare’s relevance regardless of which time period he is read.
As for the plays themselves, I reviewed most of them on Goodreads and will add a list here connecting to those reviews. In the meantime, my favorites in order:
I am still reading lots of books trying to guess who might win this year’s Pulitzer. My list so far:
1. The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade – The Pulitzer has never gone to a Latina, will this be the year? In fact, only Latinos that ever won here Oscar Hijuelos in 1990 for Mambo Kings and Junot Diaz for Oscar Wao, so perhaps a Mexican-American debut novel would be a fantastic choice?
2. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – This is an excellent book, but honestly I preferred A Gentleman in Moscow which I think got ripped off in 2017 when an inferior Underground Railroad won instead. This one is great regardless.
3. Zorrie by Laird Hunt – this was a poetic life story about the Great Depression in the midwest seen through the eyes of a woman in Indiana who goes through a Willa Cather-style set of challenges and growth spurts. The prose is beautiful and measured without being overbearing or overly sentimental. It is a book which you will not soon forget.
4. Hell of a Book by Jason Mott – Funny, thought-provoking and powerful, this book surprised me and underlined many of the reasons why I respect Enimem’s kneel at the halftime show. ‘Nuf said. It was indeed a helluva book!
5. My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson – a great little collection of short stories, the best of which is the eponymous final one about a speculative ending to the Charlottesville violence during the first year of TFG.
6. My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee – while this is not as strong a book as The Surrendered, it is better than On Such a Full Sea or Native Speaker. One thing for sure, Chang-rae Lee does NOT stick to any one genre for very long. This book reminded me of the best parts of The Goldfinch. Probably not a Pulitzer winner, but a fun and interesting read.
7. Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour – this book’s tone and sense of biting irony reminded me a lot of Paul Beatty’s excellent (and alas un-Pulitzered) The Sellout. It talks about racism and counter-racism in terms of the vicious world of sales. Very, very entertaining.
8. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers – this is a coming of age book which also explores the issue of skin tone and racism in academia so in a sense it reminded me of the poetry of Tar Baby by Toni Morrison and The Human Stain by Philip Roth. It is a long, but beautiful read.
9. The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen – the sequel to 2016 winning The Sympathizer is another fun first-person ride into the Vietnamese psyche with all its complexities and contradictions but taking place in my own Paris of the 70s. A great read, but probably not worthy of a second PP.
10. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. – this was an interesting book about slavery with a gay slave couple. Well-written, but not nearly as powerful as, say, Beloved by Toni Morrison (Pulitzer 1987, Nobel Prize 1993) or as detailed as Roots by Alex Haley. A gripping tale, but not a perfect one.
11. Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenridge – an interesting tale taking place in New Jersey post-Civil War and later in Haïti, it tells the fictionalized story of the first black female surgeon in the states, but takes a few twists and turns and maybe loses some readers along the way.
12. Foregone by Russell Banks – I haven’t read his Pulitzer-runnerup Cloudsplitter yet, but this one did not blow me away. The deathbed confessions of this documentary filmmaker intended to come clean to his soon-to-be widow reads as overwritten (using a $5 word when a nickel word would do) and just isn’t that entertaining.
13. Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout – this could arguably be higher up in the list because I actually enjoyed it more than her Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge (2009), but I am just not a huge fan of Strout’s writing. We get the love story of a widow and her ex-husband and it has its moments, but maybe I need to read this again when I reread Rabbit at Rest or another geriatric novel of this sort.
14. Bewilderment by Richard Powers – the followup to his excellent Pulitzer winner The Overstory (2019), this is another ecological fairy tale, but less violent. Similar to The Bear by Andrew Krivak, it is a father-son post-apocalypse story with some beauty, but it nonetheless left me wanting.
15. Infinite Country by Patricia Engel – this is a well-written but very, very depressing book about Columbian refugees which reminded me somewhat of The Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos (Pulitzer 1990), because of the undeserved sympathy the author tries to make us feel for an undeserving male protagonist. I think that the work of Edwige Dandicott and Valerie Luiselli to which this is often compared is superior. There is possibly also a comparison that could be made to the über-popular American Dirt by Jeannine Cummins, but personally, I was as disappointed by that one as by this one.
16. The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish – I really did not like this coming-of-age book with characters that were each creepier and less likable than the others. I never built any sympathy for the protagonist or his awful mom or terrifying stepdad and I felt the novel left way too many questions unanswered. It was a stultifyingly frustrating book.
17. The Archivist by Rex Pickett – I really loved the movie Sideways and assumed it was based on a great book, so I thought I’d give this one a shot by its author. Pretentious, overbearing, and hopelessly ignorant of computers, it tries to build suspense on some rather flimsy intrigue and uses some lame sex scenes to cobble together a sensual aspect to the plot. Not great.
18. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead – it probably is not fair to this ok book by double whammy Pulitzer winner (Underground Railroad 2017 and The Nickel Boys 2020), but the story just wasn’t tall that well put together. There is an interesting but not passionate depiction of Harlem and New York in the late 50s early 60s, but the characters just were not all that interesting and I felt that there were some things that were just off in the book. Probably not a triple crown winner.
19. Abundance by Jakob Guanzon – depression central, this book has an original structure naming chapters by the net worth of its loser protagonist, but it loses the reader with all the time shifts and the extremely unlikable characters throughout. It was like watching a cheapo paperback about Badger and Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad who had an unfortunate kid they drug around. Just, too depressing and not that well written.
20. Harrow by Joy Williams – and very last, this awful little apocalyptic mess. No plot, no characters, no sense in this weird, colorless world. I could not wait to get this one out of my head because I felt it was just awful and poorly written.
Still on my Pulitzer 2022 TBR in order of likelihood to read:
– Late City by Pulitzer Laureate (1993) Robert Olen Butler – The Book of Emptiness Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen – The Sentence by Pulitzer Laureate (2020) Louise Erdrich – Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby – Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart – Clock Cuckoo Land by Pulitzer Laureate (2015) Anthony Doerr – Appleseed by Matt Bell – Matrix by Lauren Goff – Rovers by Richard Lange – Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – A Calling for Charlies Barnes by Joshua Ferris – Whereabouts by Pulitzer Laureate (2000) Jhumpa Lahiri – Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh – The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – Fugitives of the Heart (posthumous) by William Gay – Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin – The Mysteries by Marisa Solver – The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin – Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber – Intimacies by Katie Kitamura – How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue – No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood – Wayward by Dana Spiotta – The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon – Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King
I found that the Pulitzer committee often overlooked excellent books and awarded lacklustre ones. Here is my Top 10 list of books which I felt were absolutely not Pulitzer-worthy.
Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin (1929) was just a disaster cover to cover. Why the committee would award this book of racist stereotypes about black women by a white woman just boggles my mind. Granted, 1928 was rather weak in terms of novels with no output from Hemingway, Cather, Faulkner, or Fitzgerald, there was not another clear choice. But there was a precedent for no prize being given (1920), so why award something so derivative and corny? I truly did not understand this one.
Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge (1930) was just as bad in terms of stereotypical depiction of sensual, unintelligent American Indians and its choice baffles me. Particularly in light of the fact that the monumental The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner was published the same year and was an astounding work of art. Why Faulkner had to wait until 1955 (!) for a relatively inferior novel (A Fable) and after already having won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, well, it is just hard to comprehend in retrospect.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2015) absolutely underwhelmed me. I felt that the tropes (blind French girl meets “nice” German soldier malgré-lui) were overwrought and annoying. The characters did nothing to really draw me into the narrative which I found stiff and predictable. Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel, and Euphoria by Lily King were all better and more original books. This one just seemed begging Spielberg to turn his post-Schindler’s list scriptwriters over to Doerr for a new film.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2020) was also a disappointing choice. I enjoyed Whitehead’s earlier fiction (especially The Colossus of New York), and only mildly liked his 2017 Pulitzer winning The Underground Railroad. I can see that in light of the US political situation, the topic of black men mistreated in Florida prisons and reform schools was very topical, but did Whitehead truly deserve to be on the tiny list of two-time Pulitzer winners with Updike, Tarkington (ok maybe him), and Faulkner (albeit as already mentioned, Faulkner should have been compensated decades before he was) when authors like Philip Roth should have been there, Toni Morrison easily deserved a second one, etc. There were other excellent books printed that year: The Dutch House by Ann Pratchett and Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips (an excellent debut novel!) both being excellent.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer (2018) also disappointed me. I suppose that it was the first book by an openly gay man (unless we count Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides although I don’t think Eugenides has come out as either gay or trans) was overdue, but this book is just a comedic travelogue and not really that spectacular from a literary point of view. 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster was absolutely incredible and a far more American novel than Less (and considerably better than the two runner-ups, The Idiot by Elif Bautman and In the Distance by Herman Diaz.)
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (1980) was just long and, if we believe his protagonist’s brother in his autobiography, largely plagiarised from his colleagues. It is billed as the first “non-fiction novel” but really, wasn’t In Cold Blood by Truman Capote already a masterpiece in that category? The book just drags on for over 1000 pages (making it the longest Pulitzer winner on record) and spends too much time on trying to build sympathy for the murderer at the heard of the story. Roth’s Ghost Writer was a better book, but only got a runner-up that year. Just Above My Head by James Baldwin would also have been a better choice, but perhaps they thought that the lacklustre award to McPherson in 1978 for Elbow Room fulfilled their African-American quota. As for Jewish writers, I find that fellow Jewish laureats Bellow, Roth, Chabon, and even Malamud were all far superior to Mailer, but anyway…
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos (1990) is the ONLY Pulitzer winner of Spanish-American origin besides Junot Diaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008)) which is probably surprising given that the prevalence of immigrants from South and Central America in the latter half of the 20th century. I felt that the sob story of two brothers from Cuba trying to make it in New York in the 50s was just too sexist and too boisterous to be fun or even interesting reading. There is some horrific (if somewhat gratuitous) violence against women and once again, I felt no sympathy for the protagonists. Maybe Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow or The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan would have been better choices but as yet, I haven’t read them. I just did not like Mambo Kings.
Tinkers by Paul Harding (2010) was so underwhelming and so tiny that I almost forgot it as I was reading it. OK, so there are clocks and stuff. And? I just did not see how this book gets the same honors as something as consequent as another tiny book but absolute masterpiece, The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway (1953). I mean why not just go to Thomas Harris for Hannibal for that matter? At least the latter provoked some strong emotions (fear, terror) rather than the indifference engendered by Hardings short forgettable book.
The Reivers by William Faulkner (1963) will shock those that know me. How could I possibly list a Faulkner in my “worst” list? Well, I would say that (1) this is one of his weakest books and only published (and awarded) posthumously as an afterthought (2) he should have won it (as already pointed out in #2 above) for The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying…and so why just try to “ratrapper le coup”? (3) there was a far better book that was more original, more revolutionary, more mind-bending that was published the same year: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. A thrilling story made into one of the monuments of American cinema, it was shameful that the negligence of the Pulitzer committee over the 25 years of production of Faulkner before the 50s had to be paid at the expense of Kesey’s masterpiece.
No award given – 1941: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, 1946: Black Boy by Richard Wright, 1954: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, and 1974: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. In each of these cases, the Pulitzer passed on committee recommendations and refused to grant a reward. (I’d probably add 1957 : The Voice at the Back Door by Elizabeth Spencer as well, but I haven’t read it yet). There were a few other years when no novel stuck out, but I feel that these particular novels were totally ripped off for spurious reasons. In the case of Wright, they said it was a memoir and so disqualified (but then they gave a non-fiction book the award in 1980 (see #6 above). For Hemingway and Pynchon, they claimed the books were too vulgar which just drives me crazy because the former is not vulgar at all and the second’s vulgarity concerns Nazi perverts and so seemed absolutely justifiable to me. Of all of these, I think the worst omissions were those of Augie March which is my favorite Bellow of all (and Roth’s inspiration as well) and Gravity’s Rainbow which is one of the most difficult but rewarding books I have ever read.
I recently finished all of the Pulitzers and will write a few posts about some of my favorites, my least favorites, and other lists and whatnot. Being that the Pulitzer was originally intended to be about the American way of life, nothing is more American than the Western literary genre. For my first list, how about a Top 10 of Westerns in the Pulitzer winners column:
1. Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry (1986) An absolute masterpiece with wonderful protagonists Gus and Call, a Homeric quest across the West from Texas to Montana, encounters with Indians…just all around one of the greatest westerns I have ever read. Gus and Call are two of the most unforgettable best friends in US literature. Of course, it would not pass muster in terms of woke or political correctness, but then what western would? Pro Tip: Check out the TV miniseries with Robert Duvall as the lovable Gus and Tommy Lee Jones as the unperturbable Call. Fantastic!
2. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck (1940) This Dust Bowl classic takes the Joad family away from the nightmarish grey Oklahoma plains to the fabled California Dream which turns out to be anything but hopeful. Various voices are used to describe the journey (in the vein of John Dos Passos USA trilogy) and there are also the many wonderful speeches of Tom Joad and his special brand of deism. A truly magnificent read. Pro Tip: The John Ford film with Henri Fonda as Tom Joad is one of Hollywood’s finest moments. Pro Tip 2: Sometimes you get unlucky: Sanora Babb wrote her Dust Bowl epic Whose Names are Unknown at the same time as Steinbeck – the two most likely crossed paths and shared some notes during their research of the period – but Steinbeck beat her to the press. The publishers on Madison Ave decided that the public could only deal with one Dust Bowl story at a time and that sales of Grapes of Wrath would be hurt by another book on the same subject, so, sadly, Babb’s book was shelved. Babb got blacklisted in the 50s in the early days of the McCarthy witchhunts and the book did not get published until 2004, a year before she died in 2005. It is less visceral than Grapes, but takes a longer time than Grapes to tell the story of how things fell apart in Oklahoma – something Babb herself lived through. Worth seeking out on the Kindle.
3. The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters – Robert Lewis Taylor (1959)Sort of a far more visceral Huck Finn approach to a western, we follow our young protagonist along the Oregon Trail to the gold mines of California. A real delight but hard to find. Pro Tip: I used archive.org for the out-of-print books on the list.
4. Now in November – Josephine Winslow Johnson (1935) This forgotten book was a debut novel for Johnson and a beautiful invocation of life in Oregon during the famines of the 1930s. Beautifully written, it describes the difficult life of four daughters. Pro Tip: After writing Now in November, Johnson wrote primarily poetry and short stories, for the latter of which she won O’Henry Prize 5 times. Pro Top 2: This was the 3rd debut novel to win the Pulitzer after The Able McLaughlins (1924) – more on that one in a minute – and Years of Grace (1931) by Margaret Ayer Barnes.
5. One of Ours – Willa Cather (1923) Cather is always a fun read. Her books bathe in a cultural smorgasbord on the midwestern frontier near Nebraska for the most part people with first-generation Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes – the environment in which Willa herself grew up. During this book, we spend half of the time with Claude in his frustrating marriage on the farm in Nebraska and then follow him to the brutal battlefields of France in 1918. In act, the structure kind of reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s story structure in “Full Metal Jacket”. Pro Tip: If you like this one, check out some of her other amazing books such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and (admittedly still on my TBR) Death Comes for the Archbishop. Note to self: maybe do a post about Catholic books on the Pulitzer list – there were loads actually!
6. The Town – Conrad Richter (1951) Conrad Richter wrote The Awakening Land trilogy starting with The Trees in 1940 and The Fields in 1946 (I read the former, skipped the latter), and finished it with this award-winner. It covers the life of his protagonist Sayward Wheeler and her family on the Ohio Valley frontier from the 1820s to the 1860s. It was a tough life and well-described here by Richter. It was particularly interesting to see the world transform from its “pioneer” state to a more modern civilized state with the removal of the forest and the arrival of the telegraph and the train. Pro Tip: Actually, he nearly won the Prize for the first book in the trilogy which I actually enjoyed more than this one.
7. The Way West – A.B. Guthrie (1950) This is also part of a series of books, The Big Sky which consists of a total of 6 books. I read the first volume – the eponymous Big Sky – and this award winner. In this book, we have another wagon train along the Oregon Trail with a crazy host of characters. It was interesting to compare the experiences in this book to those of Jaimie McPheeters. Pro Tip: I preferred the first novel due to the epic protagonists, only one of which is present in The Way West. Pro Tip 2: This book is one of the least politically correct on this list so caveat emptor.
8. Honey in the Horn – Harold L. Davis (1936) The third book on this list that deals with Oregon, this one takes place between the Oregon Trail and the Dustbowl from 1906-1908. This one takes place in the wild coastal regions with a strange love triangle and some less than amazing adventures. Pro Tip: I wasn’t sold on this one and feel that Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here was a more worthy book – certainly it had a longer shelflife!
9. The Able McLaughlins – Margaret Wilson (1924)I wasn’t enamored with this book about Iowa during the Civil War. There was another love triangle here like in the previous book, and it just withered on the vine for me. Pro Tip: This was the first debut novel to win the Pulitzer and the represents with the following year, the only moment when there was the same number (3 in 1924) or more (4 in 1925) women laureates than men.
10. Laughing Boy – Olivier La Farge (1930) This one comes dead last for me (and very low on the over the list of 101 books that won the PP) because it felt so condescending towards Amerindians. In 1915, cars arrive in the Navajo nation and change will not be happy. Yes, there is some valuable description of the lives of the Navajo, but the protagonists all never evolve intellectually beyond adolescence. They never become fully well-rounded. Pro Tip: There is one saving grace which is that La Farge does point out the damage wrought on the Native communities by government schools. A topic that Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie talk about in their more contemporary books.
I have been working my way backward through winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and have read back to 1980 (Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer). For 202o, I have read the 15 books that pprize.com predicted would be considered for the prize and runner-ups on 4 May 2020. Below is my analysis of this year’s candidates and my own predictions as to who will win and be shortlisted.
The list at pprize.com was as follows:
1. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
2. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
3. Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
4. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
5. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
6. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
7. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
8. Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
9. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
10. My Life as a Rat by Joyce Carol Oates
11. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
13. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
14. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
The Need by Helen Phillips
The list is predominantly feminine (10/15) and quite diverse (two African-American males, one male of Vietnamese origin, one Haïtian woman, two Latinas, two Jewish writers, two Chinese-American writers). There are three short stories collections (Everything Inside, Sabrina & Corina and Exhalation), two science fiction books (Exhalation and The Need), one magical realism book (The Water Dancer). Two books talk about slavery and racism (Nickel Boys and The Water Dancer). There is one former Pulitzer winner (Colson Whitehead) and one finalist (Joyce Carol Oates). Arguably, The Other Americans by Laila Lalami should be here as well as it was a finalist for the National Book Award, but not having liked The Moor’s Account (runner-up 2015), I didn’t read that one.
The books I enjoyed least on this list are, unfortunately, the first two, the fourth, the ninth, and the last one. The Nickel Boys and Topeka School didn’t work for me as I felt no connection to the protagonists and felt the writing was, frankly, not that great. I haven’t really enjoyed Colson’s work since his debut with Colossus and Ben Lerner, well I haven’t read his other novels, but I felt that Topeka School was overwrought and convoluted. As for Trust Exercise, I felt it had some fundamental contradictions, washed over pedophilia between the male teacher and the “Hispanic” student, and just didn’t like the writing so much and really disliked the conclusion. The stories in Exhalation I felt were not nearly as good as his previous collection, The Story of Your Life from which the movie Arrival was based, and not even close to the quality of the short stories of Ken Liu, for example. Perhaps I just am not a fan, but I found that My Life As A Rat was entirely predictable and again, I felt no sympathy for the narrator. The Water Dancer left me wanting due to the mysticism of the Convection which was too much like the physical train in Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning Underground Railroad which I didn’t like either. As for The Need, it was implausible and the writing was mediocre at best – more of pulp fiction than literature in my opinion.
As for the books I liked, I enjoyed Sabrina & Corina, a collection of beautifully written stories that paint a grim but moving picture of the difficulties of being a Mexican woman in Colorado. Dominicana was reminded me of The Mambo Kings Sing The Songs Of Love, but was better written than that 1990 winner by Oscar Hijuelos. Despite being a rich people’s problem story, Fleishman Is In Trouble was very funny and I felt that the storytelling was well-constructed and the characters fully fleshed out. The exposition format of Feast Your Eyes truly pleased me as original and moving as well. Lastly, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous was a poetic paean to the difficulties of immigration for the Vietnamese fleeing the chaos after the end of the Vietnamese War with great literary and pop culture references.
For my runner-ups, I would choose The Dutch House by Ann Patchett due to its wonderful storytelling and engaging characters – it was so well-written and the plot moved along at a relatively comfortable and fast pace. My other runnerup choice would be the painfully beautiful Everything Inside by Edwige Danticat, eight heart-breaking stories of Haïtian refugees before and after the brutal Duvalier regimes – they truly brought me back to by trip there in 1986 and made me feel so close to the various protagonists.
My favorite for the 2020 Pulitzer is the masterful Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. I loved the calendar format, the kidnapping mystery trope, the kaleidoscope of fascinating characters, the beautiful descriptions of this relatively poorly-known land of Kamchatka, and the consistent quality of writing throughout. Of the 15 books I read on the list, this was truly my favorite in terms of writing quality, originality of plot structure, character development and descriptive language. I hope she gets her first Pulitzer although it appears that she is a longshot at best.
So, here is my list:
1. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
2. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
3. Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
4. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
5. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
6. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
7. Dominicana by Angie Cruz
8. Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
9. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
10. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
11. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
12. My Life as a Rat by Joyce Carol Oates
13. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
14. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
15. The Need by Helen Phillips
The theme of the Madonna in art history spans the post-Carolingien times to the 19th century. Nearly any artist associated with the Roman Catholic church in one way or another created images of the Madonna and child for adoration in churches or the private sphere. The Sienese school in the 12th to 13th centuries saw an explosion of representations as the models shifted from a heavily Byzantine form to the definitive Italian form. The flat schematic and expressionless face of the Virgin transformed into the more natural shape with depth and expressions of tenderness between the mother and child. In the majestic Maestà of Duccio di Buoninsegna, one of the first great masters born about 10 years before Giotto, the Virgin sits on a white throne inlaid with polychrome marble in eight registers of varying height in addition to being intricately carved and covered with a sumptuous golden cloth. The throne is surrounded by adoring angels each wearing a jeweled diadem and who rest their chins on their arms as they gaze, spellbound, at her beauty and that of the child. Her hand gently caresses the child’s chest, preventing him from falling off of her lap, her other hand caressing his knee. This is a very precocious representation of depth and rendered in a supremely subtle manner. Her eyes look at us but hide a small melancholy which we perceive in her closed but unsmiling lips. There is still a simplification of her eyebrows coming together to form the bridge of her nose in a “T” which captures the light coming in from the viewer’s left also illuminating her slightly blushed cheek as well as the fabric of her tunic resting on her knee. As the lowest figures placed next to the throne, are two angels, one of which looks at the light source and then Saint John the Evangelist while John the Baptist looks directly at us, imploring us to join him in worshiping this image. The Virgin is wearing a blue cape with golden hems and over a red gown and a white scarf on her white skin. The inside of her cape is scarlet red and is folded over underneath the seated infant creating a diagonal movement back to the two central figures. Christ is portrayed in a pink blanket over a transparent body cloth, this outer layer has golden crosses woven into it, prefiguring the sacrifice to come decades later. The child looks at us directly, his beautiful golden hair full of life in its curls and yet, like his mother, his look is one of maturity and foreboding, his right hand clutches his blanket to his chest while his left hand chastely holds the fabric to his waist. Despite the realism displayed in the representation of the Virgin and child, there is a strange morphing of the child’s blanket which becomes the Virgin’s outer garment on the extreme right side of the painting. The green tone in the halos is the underpainting and gesso where the gold flake has worn off after the years. Along the bottom of the diais on which the throne is raised runs an inscription in Latin that means, “Holy Mother of God, be thou the cause of peace for Siena and life to Duccio because he painted thee thus”
This central scene is surrounded on the left and right by more saints and prophets and the rear of this massive piece featured 43 scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ. Under the central scene is the pradella with scenes from the childhood of Christ and prophets (always identifiable as they are carrying scrolls with prophecies on them)
Two lackeys crossing the Bridge of Japan (Nihon-bashi) are just coming over the hump in lockstep. Their backs are bent over by the weight of the red bundles pulled over their shoulders. One of them smiles, perhaps thinking of his mistress during the previous night. The one on the right scowls but keeps his head down, maybe annoyed by his neighbor’s good mood. Directly behind them, come two more tonsured monks, carrying tall poles for their daimyo. There is a striking contrast between the monk on the left who is scowling and scrunching his eyes and the monk on the right who grimaces but looks straight ahead – the mirth being on the right instead of the left this time. Behind them a procession of green-robed, white-hatted samurai marching in rank can be seen until the view is cut off by the trestles of the footbridge and the wall of rooftops of crowded Edo under the shogunate. It must be summertime based on the way the folks are dressed in light kimonos and bare legs. Fluttering in the wind above their heads are the two white puffs (and a smaller one carried further back in the procession) against a dark blue sky at sunrise. On the right in front of the bridge, a white dog turns his head back towards a cat who smells the fish and hopes, smiling, for a free meal. On the left, fishmongers carry their catch from the night in baskets slung over their shoulders. One in a green smock carries his fish in a basket on his head with his eyes closed, perhaps tired after fishing all night. In front of him, to his left, another peasant seems aloof in a blue coat walking behind an older gentleman with a blue bandanna and two baskets of fish as well. Ahead of the man in the green smock is another man, this time in red, who seems to be asleep on his feet. And leading this tired procession to the city-wide Nihon-bashi fish market is a man in a checkered blue smock who is turning towards the market entrance back towards the Kamo River, but whose bounty seems to exceed that of the others. This circular movement of the fisherman coming over the bridge and turning back towards the river mimics the dog on the right who turns to look at the passing cat. We cannot see the boats nor the sea, this is implied by the bridge and the fish. Written signs, most likely with regulations governing the market, line most of the left side of the building leading back to the river. The workers seem bound to this cycle whereas the nobles and monks despite being bound by fealty to their daimyo seem free to leave Edo through the open city gates. The fact that the latter are higher up in the picture frame probably also mirrors their higher social status from the workers who are on the same register as the two animals. Perhaps the ladders are suggestive of masts despite clearly representing scaffolding. On the one near the center of the image is a cast bell, perhaps tolling for prayer as these men start their day. Depth is suggested by the wooden paneling that frames the scene in the front hiding all but the foot, nose and right arm of a fisherman arriving from the left. The night sky recedes towards the top of the sheet as the sun’s rays invade the horizon hidden by the rooftops that dominate the rear of the print. There is a strict verticality enforced by the two poles in the center and symmetrically mirrored by the two gateposts which end in an abstract manner towards the bottom of the page as almost an optical illusion perhaps suggesting that the black paint is still wet or just damp from the morning dew as the light reflects differently both on the right and left on the bottom portion of the open gates. The horizonal lines of men in the procession are mirrored by the horizonal lines of the bridge footpath but the image is not monotonous owing to the slightly off-center viewpoint and the activity to either side. By placing like colors in various contexts, the peach shade can be either skin, a sunrise, the fur of a dog or cat, the painted background of a sign. One can feel a slight breeze coming off the sea from the right of the image. The smell of the fish is probably strong, perhaps this is why the priests are wearing frowns. Or it is merely because of the early hour and the menial nature of their tasks?
They are crossing the Nihonbashi bridge preparing to enter the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road) on the long road to the imperial capital of Kyoto. Hiroshige himself accompanied the annual procession with a divine gift of horses from the shogun in Tokyo to the imperial court in 1832 documenting the trip in the book, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (東海道五十三次 Tōkaidō Gojūsan-tsugi) in 1833-1834.
What lives did these men lead in Edo before setting off on the road to Kyoto? Did they make this journey often or occasionally or was this a unique experience for them? What do the men in the procession think about the fishermen they pass as they come across the bridge? Do they see them as inferiors, or, perhaps they are friends with some of them and go carousing and drinking on their off hours? Did they even have off-hours?
Edo at this time was the largest city in Japan under the military system of the Tokugawa shogunate because of its good harbors and wealthy businessmen. The latter were excluded from government office which led to the development of extensive entertainment and the fabled pleasure district which is just another bridge away over the Sumida River from whence the procession might be coming after a long night waiting for their master as he enjoyed the local geishas in the pleasure quarter. The reigning shogun was the legendary Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841), a man of enormous appetite who kept a harem of 900 women and fathered over 75 children who were adopted into various daimyo houses throughout Japan including perhaps the daimyo depicted here. The emperor during the Tenpō epoque was Ninko-tennō, but as was the case during the military dictatorship, or bakufu or bakumatsu, he played little or no role in public life other than as a religious and political symbol.
In 1833, when Hiroshige is publishing this book, Japan is just at the beginning of the great Tenpō famine (1832-1837) in which thousands upon thousands perished. The violence of daily life (and the unique level of corruption and excess at the end of Ienari’s reign) is notably absent from most of the 53 Stations of Tōkaidō. The resulting instability from this period spelled the beginning of the end for the bakufu.
In this alternative cover for the 53 Stations, we see the same daimyo procession coming over the bridge, but a far more animated crowd of porters, peasants, merchants and even a group of geishas and maikos in their high-heeled geta sandals. There is a short porter in the foreground addressing a warning to a cat which as well as a group of white-robed monks on the left with a beautiful parasol.