Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dogs Don't Lie by Clea Simon

Dogs Don't Lie
by Clea Simon
3 stars - worth reading

I'm a sucker for animal mysteries. Sometimes they turn out to be good and sometimes, well...

This one is definitely worth reading for animal lovers and those among you that are fond of what are known as "cozy mysteries." Cozy meaning that the main character is usually a woman, the book is full of quirky characters, and there are no particularly violent scenes. Just something nice to hunker down with on a rainy day.

Pru Marlowe, the main character, is an animal communicator. Yes, she can hear the thoughts of animals. I've seen that trick before in other books and was a bit put off, but in this book, the gimmick works.

The big mystery is that one of her training clients has been murdered and it sure looks like the dog did it.  But Pru knows otherwise. The dog, Lily, is a rescued bit bull. Pru arrives on the scene of the crime and can tell that Lily's bloody muzzle is from trying to revive her master and her apparent aggressive behavior is really only her trying to get away from Pru and back to her master's side.

And we are underway. As in all mysteries of this ilk, Pru is flawed enough so as not to be an intimidating female presence, and attractive enough to provide for flirtations from the local males. 

The author does a good job of throwing out lots of clues and false starts and the ending is not only plausible, but satisfying.

Yes, her communication with her cat, Wallis, is a bit over the top, but I loved the snippets of thoughts sent to her by other animals like Frank the ferret and Bitsy the Bichon. Fun stuff. I enjoyed it enough that I would read another Pru Marlowe mystery. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Creepy Houses Double Header

Today I have a double header. Two books where crumbling estates play a major role.

The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters
3 stars - worth reading

This book was recommended to me by a friend and when I read the dustcover I was reminded that I had read (and I believe enjoyed) two previous works by the same author; Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.

The setting is post World War II England in a once magnificent estate that has fallen on to hard times. The remaining family members (mother, son, and daughter) are barely holding the old place together. The narrator is a local doctor whose mother was a house servant at that very mansion when it was prosperous. He is called to the house to attend to the family's current cook / maid and subsequently begins a relationship with the family that is the basis of the story.

Now, here's the thing of it. I cannot fault Ms. Water's writing. Her descriptions of the house gave me a vivid picture of every small detail of rot and sorrow. Her characters are well rounded and their thoughts and actions are understandable and very human (meaning that not everybody behaves with grace at all times). However...

About halfway through, she lost me. The book became uneven. Was it a ghost story? Was it a study of human nature? The action would ratchet up as the ghost (as I believe that is what it was) would make appearances and then slow down to a grinding halt all too soon. As Ms. Waters exposed more of the occurrences in the house, they started to seem to me almost as if they were plucked from a different story. And while I would have expected the pace to quicken as things reached a climax within the household, it never did.

Don't get me wrong, there were some truly horrifying moments for me in the book, but not where I would have expected them. The leaking roof and subsequent damage to the house and the painful emotional turmoil of the hapless doctor were when I felt most frightened and mesmerized. 

Nearing the end of the book, I imagined all sorts of conclusions. I won't give the ending away, but I much prefer my outcomes to the hollow ending that I was faced with after sticking with it for 450 pages. That said, I can certainly recommend this as a pleasant diversion on a Saturday afternoon.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson
5 stars - have read many times, will likely read again

After I finished The Little Stranger, I had the desire to pick up We Have Always Lived in the Castle again. I read this creepy little novel for the first time as a youngster and several times more over the ensuing years.

The edition sent to me by the library was perfect! Check out the pocket for the return card.

It seemed appropriate that a story about a crumbling old house with odd inhabitants should be so well worn. Library junkies will appreciate that this volume was as much a sensory pleasure as an intellectual endeavor. The pages were thick and heavy from being touched by hundreds of hands. Odd stains appeared frequently. The binding opened obligingly, willingly, and oh the smell!

But I digress. Why do I like this book so much? It is certainly not as beautifully written as The Little Stranger, but it is compelling in its simplicity. The book is narrated by 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwell who resides in the old Blackwell mansion with her dying uncle and older sister. They are locked up and isolated due to a pall that was cast when all the other family members were poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl at one fateful meal.

The seductive thing about this is how matter of fact the writing is. Through the eyes of Mary Katherine, there is nothing unusual about their lifestyle. The outside world is ugly and dangerous and the decision of the surviving family to cut themselves off is shown to be painfully well founded when a fire at the estate brings the village crashing in. 

I've always been drawn to Mary Katherine. I find her rituals comforting. I understand. I even envy her ability to go about her life in a practical way regardless of what is actually happening around her. Shirley Jackson is at her best when she is showing how easily people can be disenfranchised. Sadly, this was her final novel as she died just a few years after its publication.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

MaxDog by Caryl Moll

Note - This review originally appeared on my dogs' blog. Here's a link to that blog. 
DWB stands for Dogs With Blogs (yes there is a whole world out there of dogs that blog).

MaxDog by Caryl Moll
5 stars
would read it again!

Mango Momma review (short version)

Loved it! Buy it!

Go to Maxmom's blog here and look for the image of the book in the sidebar for instructions on how to buy it.

Mango Momma Review (long version)

I delayed buying this book. Why? Because I have come to know Maxmom through DWB and I was worried that I wouldn't like it. Then what? But I did finally send her an email, made my payment via PayPal and about a week later, my autographed copy arrived.

I'm not too proud to admit that I read the chapter entitled "Mango, Muiris and Maxdog" first. In fact I read it twice. And after I read the forward, I went back and read chapter 22 again. With that out of my system, back I went to chapter one.

I was worried during the first few chapters. "Oh no! Maxmom isn't like me at all!" Right up front she was bemoaning the idea of getting a "big" dog (Golden Retriever) and I was writhing with envy over the way her entire family participated in training and the fact that she was able to spend so much time with Max.

That didn't last long. As the story progressed, I related more and more with Maxmom and her journey getting to know Max. Maxmom is honest about her personal struggle with depression and loneliness. I doubt I am the only DWB mom who can identify with that.

I don't want to spoil the story. Let's just say that "life happened" to Maxmom, as it does to all of us, and sometimes she didn't handle it well. Sometimes my heart ached over her struggles and I wanted to make the story stop.

When Maxmom discovers the Internet, and DWBs in particular, I was totally there! She was telling my story! Her journey into blog land, finding all the other crazy DWB people, feeling part of something... "hey! that's me!"

I confess that when Max was sick, I found continued reading of the blog almost unbearable. I even stopped commenting. "How many times can I say 'I'm thinking of you?' " I regret that now. I didn't really understand the power of the DWB community and how important each and every comment is when our beloved pets are ill. Not two months after Max made his final journey, Mango had his first seizure and I learned for myself how much comfort there is in even the briefest comment.

At the end of the day, I think that is what this book is about. It's about how life can really be difficult for all of us and how the Internet has allowed us to connect with each other from around the world to share the good times and the bad with like minded people.

Some readers will recall Mango's big adventure in South Africa (see below). When I contacted Maxmom to ask if Mango and his pals could go and visit Maxdog the only thing I was thinking was "Hey, Maxdog looks pretty cool and wouldn't it be fun to do an adventure with Mango and his pals in an exotic location like South Africa?"

It wasn't until Maxmom sent me a copy of chapter 22 to proof read that it dawned on me that she had been worried about how I might depict her country (which has certainly had its share of turmoil and controversy). But that's emblematic of the DWB circle for me. I know that I don't share political or religious views with lots of my Internet friends. I know that I have different values and ethics than some of them. But we share a love and devotion to our pets that overrides those differences.

If you are interested in Mango's big adventure in South Africa, here are links to each installment:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hooked on House

I admit it. I am totally hooked on House. Every year, I await the DVD release of the latest season so that I can greedily devour episode after episode like a pig at the trough.

What makes this series so addictive (in spite of the often sometimes unbelievable medical twists in the stories)?

Well, mainly, Hugh Laurie himself. I was introduced to Hugh Laurie when I watched his delightful Jeeves and Wooster series (with Hugh Laurie as the bumbling Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves).

But this series is so much more. The character development is irresistible and the rotating cast of side kicks from season to season keeps things fresh. I find myself discussing the characters and what they did after each episode concludes. Now THAT is the hallmark of great writing.

And who hasn't wished there was a House in the house during a medical confinement in the hospital? Four or five doctors focused on your treatment and running in and out of your room throughout the day? Oh yeah, that's what I'm talking about.

Of course each season seems to have a medical theme. For the first two years, everybody was getting lumbar punctures and season 8 is marked by patients who vomit blood. Yup, not one episode is complete until we see the old blood on the hospital gown "Doctor! What's WRONG with me?"

Let's not forget the breaking and entering that House's staff engages in on a routine basis. Yikes!

By the way, in season 8, they've ditched Dr. Cuddy. For 7 seasons, I watched Lisa Edelstein's costumes get tighter and tighter. I suspect the cumulative strain of squeezing into those impossibly tight skirts finally caused her head to explode.  I'm not sorry to see her go (but my husband is). I am totally liking Dr. Park.

I've heard Hugh Laurie interviewed on the radio. He sounds like a cool guy. Certainly somebody I would invite over for dinner. I even bought one of his CD's. Not bad.

So take a break (in convenient 43 minute segments) and enjoy.

The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson

The Able McLaughlins
by Margaret Wilson
1924 Pulitzer Prize
3 stars - worth reading

What an odd little book. I'm not sure whether to recommend this or not. I'll give it 3 stars with mixed feelings. Read on.

The pivotal moment of the story takes place so early in the book that I am loath to reveal more than the fact that the story is set in the mid-west in the 1860's and the main character is a young man who immigrated with his family from Scotland to setup farming.

The writing style is straightforward without detours into long descriptions of either setting or character. In fact the book only sketches even its principal character. And yet, I was drawn in. So much so that I swallowed the book in just a few days.

What recommends this book for me is that it made me think. It made me think, "what would I do?" "what should he do?" There is the added bonus that the ending was unexpected, yet very satisfying.

The dustcover is so discreet as to reveal next to nothing of the plot, so I am not alone in having difficulties in my attempts to describe the story. It is what it is. If you are keen to try something new, have at it. It won't take you long to read and it might give you pause to consider your own life, your own resentments, and how you choose to live in your heart. There, I've said enough.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Dog Who Came in From the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith

The Dog Who Came in From the Cold
by Alexander McCall Smith
* - 1 star
could not finish 

Oh how I wanted to like this book. A dog mystery, my favorite combination. Sadly, it was not meant to be.

I'll say right up front that if you want to get the attention of a dog / mystery lover, yes, put a dog on the cover and and write an intriguing dust jacket about how the dog's owner is lured into lending the little chap into service for MI6. Sounds great.

The book got off to a good enough start with a humorous writing style somewhat reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse. I learned lots of new words and some Latin right off the bat.

Stylistically, the story jumped from one plot line to the next, following a handful of unrelated adventures with the obvious promise of bringing things together in the end.

Halfway through, my frustration was mounting. The chapters with Freddie de la Hay (the dog on the cover) were few and far between. The unconnected stories were growing tiresome as they showed no sign of coming together. I began contriving different ways to bring things to a conclusion in my head. 

With only a hundred pages to go, my annoyance was growing. No sign of the stories merging and where, oh where was Freddie? I tried to bully my way through by skimming and looking for the pivotal twists in the narration, but with a mere 45 pages remaining I could no longer take it.

Book closed, didn't care what happened, no longer amused. In fact I feel like putting a warning in the front cover since this was on the "two weeks only and no renewals because it is very popular" shelf in the library. 

Something along the lines of "if you are looking for a dog mystery or a book with characters that one cares about, move along, nothing to see here."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

One of Ours by Willa Cather

3 stars - worth reading
1923 Pulitzer Prize

I'm not sure whether I liked this book or not. 

Since I knew I was going to read it as part of my Pulitzer Prize journey, I dove in without subjecting myself to any hint as to its contents.

After recently reading several books set in New York City, I was pleased that the action in this novel takes place (at least in the first half) on a farm in Nebraska. The entire book focuses on just a few years immediately before and during World War I.

The main character is Claude Wheeler, a young man in his early 20's (a time of life that seems to be the focus of most of the early Pulitzer winners). 

One of the distracting things about the writing is that even though the majority of the action is centered around Claude, I never felt that I had a real connection to what he was thinking and how he was motivated. The writing was in the third person which allowed the author to have a few brief scenes without the main character, but I found these odd and frustrating as they were not used to develop any of the minor players beyond stiff cut-outs. Perhaps that was by design as young adulthood is certainly a self absorbed age. 

For the first half of the book, one observes Claude as his world folds in around him and he reluctantly picks up the lifestyle of farming which seems his destiny. 

Then World War I happens. Claude sees a means of escape from the shackles of farming and an unfortunate marriage and enlists. 

Now things get very odd. Because as much as I drifted around the perimeter of true engagement with the book during the first half, I found myself flung almost completely out of it during the second half. I was thinking, "Well, what the heck is going on here?"

No, it wasn't that the writing style was jumbled and the descriptions of scenes remained sound, but I was all at sixes and sevens trying to latch back on to the story. Maybe that was the intent of the author. Who knows? 

As a side note, the edition I obtained from the library was a pristine paperback. Nary a coffee stain, bent page, or crack in the spine. In fact the library stamp indicated that it had been purchased by the library friends in February of this year. I assume from all of those clues that it was on some reading list someplace and library was stocking up because all of the prior Pulitzers I have read have arrived with the wonderful worn smell and softened pages of books that have journeyed through many hands.

At least the next borrower will know that somebody read the book. I am returning it with some chicken parmesan stains on page 214, a dented spine, and stray dog hairs nestled in the binding.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington (movie too)

3 stars - very good, recommend
1922 Pulitzer Prize

Yes, I am working my way through the list of Pulitzer Prize winning novels. Why not? 

Having recently finished The Mighty Ambersons (also by Booth Tarkington) I was a bit hesitant about picking Alice Adams up. As much as I enjoyed the rich style of his 1919 prize winner, a little Booth Tarkington goes a long way, or so I thought.

Alice Adams is a young woman (early 20's) in what I presume would be considered a decidedly middle class family in early 20th century New York. Mr. Tarkington had me from the start. Here was a woman so flummoxed by her inability to fit in with society that she made every effort to appear as something other than she was. 

Yeah, I remember doing similar charades and forced conversations as a youngster in the hopes of gaining some positive attention from my peers. As an adult, I can see how transparent all those efforts are. People can tell, even when they can't put a name to it. Poor Alice. The more she tried, the deeper a hole she dug. 

On top of that, you have her father, who feels happy and content to have established himself at a corporation as a middle income chap. An income which enables him to provide a modest home and some perks to his family.

Not good enough! Mrs. Adams could have been one of those hungry baby bird people I run into so often crying "Me, me, me, I, I, I" with a twisted entitlement mentality. Coward that she is, she hides behind her daughter in pressing her husband to take a huge risk with the hopes of a lavish income. 

Uh oh. 

Thus we learn the lesson, not just from Alice, but also from her father that it just doesn't pay to step too far away from your intrinsic nature. 

Train wreck! Again. Kind of Pulitzer theme, isn't it?

4 stars (but for old movie fans only)

I heartily recommend this movie but with the caution that some people will just find the black and white video, goofy glamour close-ups and weird sound quality too old fashioned to enjoy.

Not me! Come on, a 28 year old Katherine Hepburn and 29 year old Fred MacMurray? Delicious.

The movie is very true to the book (except for an unfortunate Hollywood treatment of the final scenes). Hattie McDaniel steals the show with a cameo as the inept maid during a painfully awkward dinner party. 

From the opening scene, Katherine Hepburn beautifully captures the excruciating awkwardness of a young girl trying desperately to appear as something other than who she really is (and I was mesmerized by her eerily small waist - sans corsets of any kind I am sure). Ms. Hepburn received an Oscar nomination for her performance, but lost out to Bette Davis. Rumor is that the only reason to pass over Ms. Hepburn was the notion that nobody should win two academy awards (a notion that has since been tossed aside and Ms. Hepburn went on to win 3 more Oscars in addition to her 1934 best actress award).

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

2 stars - I read all three volumes but in retrospect could have better spent my time cleaning the bathroom or staring at the wall

What? You think I just read great literature? Hey! At least I didn't waste my money on these books as they were lent to me by my mother. So there.

Before I even begin, let me save you some time. If you are keen about a love story that involves a sadomasochistic relationship, then just rent Secretary staring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It is a wonderful story of two people made for each other who fit together perfectly, just the way they are.

Still here? OK, here goes. I warn you that this review is fraught with spoilers. No worries, I have been assured via an in depth report on NPR that spoilers actually enhance reading pleasure. So it must be true, right?

  • Psycho stalker obsessive emotionally dead extremely wealthy erotically sadistic boy meets virginal naive well educated girl.
  • Psycho stalker dude does what he does best... stalks.
  • Boy has sex with virgin girl.
  • Girl is smitten.
  • Boy reveals that the only sort of relationship he can have is master / slave and shows girl his play room.
  • Girl agrees to a spanking. Admits it wasn't so bad.
  • Boy impresses girl with his desire to beat her.
  • Girl lets boy beat her because she loves him.
  • Boy beats girl. It hurts. Girl runs away.
  • Boy stalks girl. Boy is charming and boy and girl's families think he is wonderful.
  • Boy interferes with every part of girl's life like the total possessive megalomaniac stalker that he is.
  • Girl succumbs.
  • Bad guy wants to kill boy and girl.
  • Somebody gets kidnapped.
  • Boy "tortures" girl by not letting her climax during sex.
  • Bad guy gets disposed of.
  • Boy reveals troubled past.
  • Girl gets pregnant (idiot).
  • Boy marries girl, becomes model father.
  • Boy is cured of all the bad parts of his nature thanks to true love.
  • Girl decides she likes being tied up, blindfolded, and lightly beaten.
  • Everybody lives happily ever after.

That pretty much sums it up. Even though the first volume was, at times, titillating and fun to read, the ensuing sex scenes and dialog in volumes two and three are so repetitive, so agonizingly predictable that one can only imagine that the author and editor went mad with cutting and pasting.

Editor: "Shall we insert another sex scene here?"
Author: "Oh do, let's. We haven't used the one from page 52 in a while."

Well, that's good news for the reader as many pages can be skipped and reading volumes two and three really only involves touching down for a few key paragraphs here and there.

I can't even give this one a good rating for a romance novel (and believe me, at the end of the day, this is no more, no less than formulaic romance writing). In the few romance novels I have read which I enjoyed, the main characters didn't have to change their fundamental nature to be together and each grew as an individual from being with the other. Those alarm bells that went off in Anna's head when she first met Christian were spot on. "Run away!"

On a more serious note, my next door neighbor is wondering whether he should let his 20 year old daughter read the book. First of all, you don't "let" your 20 year old read anything. She can read whatever she wants.

But I do worry about the moral of this story which appears to be "stick by your man no matter how f*&k'd up he is because true love will turn him around." Sadly, that is the prescription for far too many relationships that start out lovely and turn into abusive situations. 

Now then, if anybody has a female black lab who is interested in exploring new territory, I happen to have a male lab who is willing.

Fifty Shades of Black

Honorary Dog by Dora Wright

5 stars - loved it, will certainly read it again

Unless you can find this in your local library, you'll have to buy it used because, for reasons that are beyond me, it appears to be out of print (and no way I am lending you my copy, thank you very much).

I will relegate this one to crazy dog people and, especially, crazy dog people who are crazy about Airedales. If you fit those categories, I think you'll enjoy Honorary Dog.... a lot.

Dora Wright is quite a character. She is totally enamored with Airedales and raising them is her life's mission. So much so, that the other aspects of her life (which are significant, like marriage, child birth, divorce and war) get barely a mention as she draws the reader through her journey with her dogs.

Her writing style is delightful. The book contains lots of interesting stories about managing dogs of varying temperaments. She doesn't have a lot of material things. Folks who "make do" either through choice or circumstances will be intrigued with how she solves various issues, mostly to do with her crumbling cottage. 

If you are or have been a professional dog groomer, you'll enjoy the trials Ms. Wright undergoes with her various clients. No surprises, it usually isn't the dog who is the issue, it's the owner. Arg!

I admired her no-nonsense attitude about life and her ability to absorb grievous shocks and move on. Sadly, Ms. Wright passed away recently. A loss to both the dog community and her readers.

Still not convinced? Open the book at random and there is an interesting snippet on nearly every page. Here is one just to tease you (about one of Ms. Wright's client dogs):

"Pepe was another fifteen-year-old poodle who would eat nothing but fried lamb's liver. He was so fond of this that as soon as his mistress came in from the butcher's he would jump eagerly around her as she unpacked her basket. While she fried it he would sit drooling beside the cooker and could hardly wait for it to cool and be put down for him."

Then the owner decides to economize by switching lamb's liver for the cheaper ox liver.

"... he'd never know the difference. Oh no? No Pepe came to meet her when she came in. In spite of her cheerful calls and inviting chirrupings of 'dinner, boy' he remained obstinately in his basket while the ritual frying took place. She cut it up and put it down, but she had to collect him bodily and place him nose to dish. He turned away in disgust."

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (with movie review)

5 stars - loved it, have read it many times
1952 Pulitzer Prize

Thank you, Mom and Dad for exposing me to such a vast library of books, both good and bad, without any censorship. I first selected The Caine Mutiny from the bookshelf of their extensive library when I was a teenager. I was skeptical at first, not given to reading war books. I soon changed my mind (and have since enjoyed this book several times over).

What is the book about? Well, here's the synopsis:

"The novel grew out of Wouk's personal experiences aboard a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific in World War II and deals with, among other things, the moral and ethical decisions made at sea by captains of ships."

As I continued to watch the acts of aggression our troops are involved in around the world, I was reminded of how the folks at home have no business second guessing what is done in the heat of battle or under extreme circumstances.

Not only a well written story, The Caine Mutiny is a signficant reminder that serving in the military is not an experience that can ever be truly understood by those of us sitting back home in our comfy chairs watching the news.

Once again, I am wishing that this were on the reading list for high school students. The writing style is not too difficult for a reasonably literate individual and the moral issues raised are especially relevant during these times when so many young people are fighting battles overseas.

The book also touches on how maleable one can be when one's education has been neglected. Pity the hapless Lt. Maryk, who, lacking an education himself, is seduced by the dangerous pontification of his college graduate peers. Even without the benefit of college, it is certainly incumbant on individuals to be as informed as possible and to consider opinions which contradict their own and not hold any other person (regardless of their position or eductation) as all knowing.

How did I get off on that tangent? Just read the book.

Can't bring yourself to read the book? The movie is worth a watch. Yeah, it suffers from the bouncy and omnipresent musical accompniament so popular in older movies, but try to get past that. Like the book, it gets off to a rather slow start, but the action quickly picks up.

Humphrey Bogart. Oh my. Watching him crumble under pressure, watching him testify during the trial, totally worth it. And how about Fred MacMurray as the deliciously duplicitous and creepy Lt. Keefer? 

The movie is quite true to the book as well. Get over the sugar coating of Willie's attitude towards May (in the book he decides she is a tramp after she agreed to have sex with him) and just enjoy watching things on board the Caine. 

As in the book, the movie captures painfully well how situations, described at a distance, can lose their venom and urgency.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (movie too)

5 stars - loved it, have read it 4 times (so far)
1937 Pulitzer Prize

Wowee! One of my favorite books of all time. I read it as a teenager, as a young adult, as a less young adult, and once again as a middle aged adult. Amazing story, every single time. Now THIS would be a great book to foist on high school kids (if, I suppose, one could get them to actually read it).

For those few readers who might not have heard of it, the story centers around Scarlett O-Hara, daughter of a wealthy cotton plantation owner and is set before, during, and after the Civil War. I'm no fan of reading history, but I sure got plenty of it reading this book. Ms. Mitchell intertwines the details of the Civil War with several compelling character studies.

I admit to wanting to be like Scarlett O'Hara when I was growing up. Who wouldn't? She knew what she wanted and she got it! Kind of a ruthless bitch, but, oh well. But she isn't the only character in this book and Ms. Mitchell paints an in depth picture of the principals as well as some of the minors in the story. There is a character for every taste. You want noble and honorable? Ashley Wilkes. You want dutiful and strong? Melanie Wilkes. How about rough and conniving? Stick with Rhett Butler. Heck, even Mammy and Prissy and silly old Aunt Pittypat have enough written about them so that one gets the feel for why they do what they do.

That, friends, is what makes a great story for me. A story where the spectrum of human character and emotion is laid out for the reader to ponder. A story where Stuart (George Reeves of Superman fame) and Brent Tarleton are more than stick figures.

As a New Englander, I am always moved by reading a southern view of the Civil War. A pointless battle which was, as most wars are I fear, about little more than money and power.

If you have only seen the movie, there is a lot more to savor in the book. But now that I have mentioned the movie...

Gone With the Wind played several times each year at a movie revival theater in Boston and during the seventies I went in to watch every opportunity I had. So when I rented it, I was kind of juiced about enjoying it all over again. Sadly, I did not.

I am sorry to say that Gone With the Wind, the movie, just hasn't stood up well over time. It falls victim to the movie making style of 1939. The primary distraction for me was the incessant sound track of swelling violins and dramatic music which overpowered the action. I can't blame the film makers. Sound was still a relatively new thing in 1939 and to be able to supplement their scenes with beautifully scored music was no small part of what made the movie attractive to film goers. But it was too much.

The beauty of the cinematography is still there, as is the delightful casting of all the major roles. Come on, Clark Cable? Vivian Leigh? Their performances are still great. And, yes, the burning of Atlanta was cool to watch because I know that it was a real set tumbling down. The sets, the on sight panoramas, yup, all superb, but even with all that, I didn't make it much past intermission. 

My advice? Stick with the book. You won't be disappointed.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

2 stars - finished it, but would have rather done something else
1921 Pulitzer Prize

OK, OK, I know what you're thinking "2 stars! How could you? This is a classic!" 

To which I reply, phffft, not for me, thank you very much. What a train wreck. I was unable to develop any sympathy for either of the main characters, Newland Archer or Ellen Olenski. Ah yes, love unfulfilled. Sad. So much lost time, so much wasted energy, but get over it already. Sheesh.

As a lesson in the morals and manners of upper crust society in the late 19th century, yes, good book, but now that I have finally read it, surely there are better novels to foist on hapless teenagers during high school English. 

The only character for which I felt compassion was May Archer, who managed to maintain a stiff upper lip despite her husband's roving eyes. I wish that Ms. Wharton had developed that character more because despite her outward appearances of being a naively faithful spouse, I am sure there was a strong woman. 

Even the writing style didn't sustain me.

I had originally considered supplementing this with a quick watch of the movie version, but after reading this review on Netflix "Pretty to look at, and just as distracting, but so is a screensaver. Notable for Winona Ryder opening her eyes wider than a giant squid for two hours and getting an Oscar nod for it" well.... I saw the writing on the wall for that one.

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

3 stars - worth reading
1919 Pulitzer Prize

Library junkies, like me, will appreciate that the version I obtained from my local library was not the pristine edition shown above, but this well worn volume, donated to the library in 1980, no doubt during somebody's housecleaning activities. Ah, the smell of a well worn book. 

And what of the book itself? First of all, the writing is absolutely delicious. Almost every page contains a treasure. Here is one of my favorites:

"Mrs. Johnson came in, breathing noticeably: and her round head, smoothly but economically decorated with the hair of an honest woman, seemed to be lingering far in the background of the Alpine Bosom which took precedence of the rest of her everywhere."

Love it! The book takes place in the early 20th century, a time not unlike the times we live in today with technology expanding at an alarming rate and personal fortunes that seemed so secure at one moment gone in the next.

The central character, George Amberson, demonstrates that the trials of youth have changed little over the decades. He suffers from an inflated idea of the world revolving around him... with tragic consequences.

Another example of the writing is taken here from a letter posted to George's mother after a young George assaulted another boy (for yelling slights about George's mother).

"I trust such a state of undisciplined behaviour may be remedied for the sake of the reputation for propriety, if nothing higher, of the family to which this unruly child belongs."

Ah, my middle aged brain mourns the loss of the full use of the English language in everyday speech as well as a time when people could resolve their issues without resorting to a punch in the face or some sort of slander on the Internet.

Orson Welles made a movie out of the book in 1942. I was kind of glad that the DVD version wasn't available as I have never been a fan of Orson Welles (and this book certainly has a "Rosebud" ending) but as part of my Pulitzer journey, I am going to try and watch movie versions after reading the books.

His Family by Ernest Poole

4 stars - recommend
1918 Pulitzer Prize

His Family by Ernest Poole won the first Pulitzer Prize for a novel. 

The main character,  Walter Gale, a middle-aged widower, opens the book reflecting on his life past and his life to come as he settles into the prelude of retirement. The action takes place in New York City in the 1910's.

As a middle aged person myself, I immediately related to Walter. He felt that his life was just beginning and, sadly, realized that is the feeling one has just about for one's entire life. Things aren't too bad for old Walter.... until they are.

His three daughters don't follow a nicely prescribed course in their lives, and then of course there is the outbreak of World War I. Fortunes made, fortunes lost. What was most striking about this book was how resonant the struggles of the entire family were to me, living almost a century later.

Not much has changed in the human condition. His daughter, Deborah, was particularly interesting as she fought to live a life that was not really proper for a woman and developed a passion for helping inner city immigrants get a foothold in American society.

The writing style is quite accessible to the modern reader and I swallowed this one whole in the course of a few days.