Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In This Our Life

By Ellen Glasgow

This novel was published in 1941 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.
It is the story of a few crucial years in the life of the Timberlake family. The story starts with the week before the wedding of one of the daughters, Stanley. (One odd thing about this story, both the daughters have what are usually considered men's names, Stanley & Roy.) The first hint of trouble comes when the father, Asa, sees Stanley riding in a car with Roy's husband, Peter. Then Stanley & Peter are seen sharing an intimate glance.
Roy senses that Peter is troubled and she tries to mend it but Peter brushes her off and claims he has been called out of town on an emergency. (He's a surgeon.) He packs a few things and hurries away. Then Stanley shortly disappears. Pretty soon everyone realizes that the two have run off together. Naturally, Roy and Stanley's fiancee, Craig, are devastated.
Roy feels like she has been cut off at the knees. She feels like she has been betrayed not only by her husband but by love itself. But she puts on a brave face and immediately goes out and buys herself a new, red hat.
Asa, the dad, loves Roy best. His heart bleeds for his wounded daughter, but Roy is not the kind of person you can cuddle and comfort. She rejects all his sympathy and tries to resume her normal life. She goes to work and does her job and goes through the motions, but she often cries herself to sleep at night.
The other sister, Stanley, is the pretty, spoiled one, the favorite of her mother and of the rich uncle who plies her with gifts, including a fancy roadster. The uncle is angry at what Stanley has done, but not so angry that he refuses to have the roadster sent to where she is living with Peter.
Things begin to look up for Roy when she and Craig turn to each other for comfort and find that they are falling in love. Although it is not the grand passion Roy felt for Peter, she is perfectly happy to move on to a more mature and considered love affair.
Peter discovers that life with Stanley is not quite what he expected. Stanley wants to be supported in a style beyond his means, and she doesn't care that they are getting deep into debt. Peter can't deal with the impending financial crisis they are headed for nor can he deal with his new wife's consummate selfishness and shallowness. He ends up blowing his head off and Stanley hurries home to the comfort and indulgence of her family.
Roy accepts Stanley's homecoming with grace and forgiveness. But Stanley finds life at home after marriage boring and flat. She starts spending a lot of time out driving around in her roadster. Stanley is headed for trouble but her family is so indulgent that they seem powerless to stop her.
Sure enough, Stanley finds herself in serious trouble and Roy finds out that her new love isn't all she thought it was. The family rallies around Stanley, all except for Asa, and poor Roy is left on the outside trying to make sense of the tatters of her life.

This novel is like reading a soap opera. Maybe because soap operas are such familiar fare that it is easy to see where the story of Stanley and Roy is headed. There is a lot of talk in the novel about the differences between the old and the new generation, what used to be called the generation gap. Stanley and Roy were born about the same time as my grandmother. It is funny to think of Granny as part of a rebellious generation. Hey, I guess nothing ever changes. Every generation thinks the succeeding generation has no respect for tradition and no respect for the ways of their elders.
All in all, though it covers familiar ground, this is an enjoyable and engrossing story, and for its day, surprisingly liberal in attitude. One of the characters even has a sort of a one night stand. I found it fun to read about the naughty doings of my grandmother's generation.

This novel was made into a movie in 1942, starring Bette Davis as Stanley and Olivia de Havilland as Roy. However, the movie changed the ending and portrayed the Stanley character as much more evil than she was in the novel. In the novel, Stanley is mainly just stupid, spoiled and careless.

Kiss Me Like a Stranger

By Gene Wilder

I enjoyed a lot of Gene Wilder's movies so I thought I might find this book interesting, which I did. I am sorry to say that it lowered my opinion of him though.
I was enjoying it a lot and it was a fast & engaging read, until the section where he talks about Gilda Radner. He has some rather harsh things to say about his dead wife, claiming she was babyish and demanding. But that is not what bothered me. Certainly Gilda had flaws, most show biz people are huge balls of ego, so the idea that she was babyish and demanding is no surprise. What bothered me was this: Gilda is bedridden, suffering from the horrific effects of strong chemotherapy. Her little dog is in the bedroom with her, trying to get her attention. Finally, Gilda can't stand it any longer and screams at the dog, "Stop it, stop it, stop it!" Wilder, instead of sympathizing with her struggle, remarks that her temper tantrums scared both him and the dog. I thought to myself, "You insensitive ass, why don't you keep the damn dog away from her when she is feeling so ill?" I know I have yelled at my dog when I am fed up with her pestering me and I am not suffering from a deadly
disease.
Further, Wilder admits that he is estranged from his "adopted" daughter, Kate. (I use quote marks because I can't recall him saying that he ever formally adopted her.) He says he doesn't understand what went wrong and blames it on Kate's anger at her biological father.
Wilder comes off as self-absorbed and clueless. The book is an interesting read but I wish he was a little less complacent about his own flaws, of which he seems unaware.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Grapes of Wrath

By John Steinbeck

This novel, published in 1939, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize.
This is the story of the Joads, a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers, who are driven off their land by the prolonged drought of the dustbowl and by the change in agriculture from animal powered labor to the tractor. The small sharecrop sections were done away with as it was more efficient for a landowner to farm with a tractor and 1000 acres than to split it up into many small sections farmed by families and a team of mules or whatever.
The Joads have suffered through years of drought and crop failures, like many of their contemporaries. What little savings they may have are vanished and many are in debt trying to keep their families fed. When the landowner evicts them from their little section, these people have no money, no jobs and no prospects. Word gets around that there are lots of jobs in California, picking crops and fruit. So thousands of families packed up what they could on whatever vehicle they could acquire and headed west to the land of milk and honey, not realizing that everybody else was doing the same thing and they were all going to be competing for a limited number of jobs.
This story is about the Joad's trip out west and of the hardships they endure to get there and of the hardships they face once they make it to California. Because even though it is a land of great opportunity, there just aren't enough jobs to go around and because of the glut of laborers, the wages hit rock bottom and people are not able to earn enough money to feed their families.
This book has a very strong socialist slant and the socialist spiel is pretty tedious. But the story of the Joads is compelling and fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about their struggle. It is an amazing picture of an desperate era in American history.

Brother Odd

By Dean Koontz

I was not familiar with Koontz's novels before I read this one. I thought it looked interesting & so I gave it a try.
It's about a young man named Odd Thomas. He ended up with the name Odd because of a typo on his birth certificate; he was supposed to be named Todd. But the name Odd fits him better because, to paraphrase the movie, he sees dead people.
Ghosts appear to Odd when they need his help dealing with the baggage from their lives that is preventing them from crossing over and entering eternity. The ghosts can't speak, but Odd is very intuitive and is able to figure out what they need from him.
In this story, Odd is at a monastery high in the mountains. He is there not only to deal with a wayward spirit but also to deal with the tragic loss of the woman he loved. But Odd soon discovers that something very sinister is happening when malign spirits that feed on human suffering begin flocking to the school for disabled children that is associated with the monastery.
I liked the premise of a man that helps ghosts. Unfortunately, this book is really just a horror or monster story that reminded me a lot of Stephen King's stuff. It's a kind of story that I am not really a fan of. I guess it was OK if you like that sort of thing. I don't plan on reading any more Koontz though.

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

By Jane Smiley

The title of this book is more exciting than the actual book. The premise is terrific: independent young woman heads west to find her place in life. The reality is the book is about the ten years before the Civil War and parts of it are pretty boring, unless you find the subject of the abolitionists entertaining.
The book starts out with Lidie at loose ends after her father has died. She describes herself as a tall, plain woman with no domestic accomplishments. She hates cooking, cleaning, sewing and she has no prospects of marriage. Her sisters don't know what will become of her. Fortunately, an abolitionist passes through town on his way out to the Kansas Territory and he is struck by Lidie's seeming air of independence and they end up married and off to prove up their claim in the territory.
Many abolitionists are settling in Kansas in an attempt to keep the territory away from the influence of the slave states. They are the Free State faction. They face lots of opposition, mostly from the neighboring state of Missouri. Pro-slavery forces from Missouri try to intimidate and drive off the Free Staters. A lot of the book is about the conflicts between the two groups. Parts of it are more like reading a history book than a novel.
So after all her trials and tribulations out west, Lidie ends up right back where she started and manages to accomplish nothing at all for all her endeavors. Which was a pretty disappointing ending.