Saturday, April 21, 2012

Not that Garfield

now finished: Garfield by Allan Peskin

Not bad, Allan Peskin, not bad.  This President James A. Garfield of ours was an interesting character. While he did not catapult himself into the ranks of my favorites (20 presidents into my project, my top four are James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and Rutherford B. Hayes), Garfield did manage to remind me a lot of - myself. Not necessarily in a good way.

Some of it was just factual...he felt out of place as a youngster at times, and his literary aspirations occasionally seemed mismatched with his political aspirations, and he went to a religious academy to get out and do SOMEthing SOMEwhere in the world as a teenager...but Garfield held onto his religious devotion much longer than I held onto mine (i.e., his life). Also, he put work off until the last minute and thrived under deadline pressure, and sometimes he was kind of a jerk to people. But he meant well.

As for differences between us, he actually was  a wonderful orator, but labored over writing, so we're opposites there. And he really enjoyed being a soldier. I for one am really looking forward to getting out of this stretch of presidents who fought in the Civil War because each prez bio is taking me through the same battles, over and over and over, as I see the war through yet another prism. A Civil War buff I ain't.

The bio was well written for the most part, although this one had some weird editorial and grammatical things that seemed slightly off at a few points, like a date or sentence had been inserted from some other thought process that contradicted the page before. Mostly, though, it presented the mass of information very well, and it once again had really interesting discoveries lurking in the endnotes, such as the fact that in a speech called "The Currency" (Garfield was a freak about greenbacks and being anti-inflation), he used the term "industrial revolution," apparently 13 years before it was supposedly coined, according to the author of this bio.

Garfield was often disgusted by people who took power in the Republican party. (Another similarity between us!)  He said: "The war has brought to the surface of National politics many men who are neither fitted in character, nor ability, to be leaders of public thought or representative of the true men of the country."  (pp. 329-330)  Although he didn't hate Ulysses Grant, he did think Grant's presidency failed and really had negative effects on the Republican party. Then again, Garfield was totally wrapped up in the politics and ideas of James G. Blaine, whereas other people were on Roscoe Conkling's side (such as Garfield's VP, Chester A. Arthur), and Conkling was crazy, but Blaine was a little crazy, too, and it's hard to say if anyone was actually justified in his actions.

The most interesting parts of this book, hands down, were the 1880 Republican convention in Chicago where Garfield surprisingly got the nomination -- a drunken fest of backroom shenanigans! -- and the story of Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau. (I feel sorry for the guy -- his messy, deranged upbringing is clearly what made him a pitiful crazy man capable of taking out a president "for the good of the country.")  Anyway, so after being shot Garfield suffered for quite a while and died, as all my presidents do at the end of the prez bios. If I continue along this project at a good clip, I just might get to Carter,Bush, Clinton and Obama before they go. (I still haven't decided if the Usurping Decider gets to participate in my project, or if I should stick to just presidents.) 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

And the Pulitzer goes to ... nobody!

As I'm sure we all know, the Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. Wait, you mean everyone else didn't have the announcement in their Google Calendar for months? OK, fine, I may be slightly  more interested in the Pulitzers than some most other people, but yesterday there really was something interesting for those of us who like to read a good ol' Pulitzer-winning novel now and again: no Fiction award this year!

The last time this happened for the Fiction category was 1977. In fact, it happened for Fiction three times during the 70s!  It happens from time to time in most categories. I was intrigued to note that there has been No Award only once each for Poetry and Biography as opposed to the multiple No Award years for other Letters and Drama categories. Anyway, since I have known and loved many a Pulitzer-winning novel, I thought I would offer my totally unsolicited recommendations to those of you who were ready to rush out to your local bookstore/library to pick up a copy of this year's winner, only to find there was no winner. Here are...

Linda's 10 Pulitzer Fiction Books To Read Instead of This Year's Non-Existent Winner (Pulitzer award year is in parentheses)
  1. His Family by Ernest Poole (1918)
    This was the first one, awarded in 1918 (note: there was no Fiction award in 1917, the first year of the Pulitzer Prizes!) His Family went out of print and few people remember Ernest, who wrote some other acclaimed novels as well. I consider this a little-known gem, especially for people who like or have lived in New York City and want a taste of its old days -- the city has always been filled with immigrants, financiers, do-gooders, and bright-yet-obnoxious young people (even if they weren't called hipsters yet). This book also speaks to a changing nation faced with war and a new generation that will surely do things better than the old generation did -- right?
  2. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (1919)
    Another early winner, awarded in 1919, that looks at the progress of a nation's people and their shifting political and financial fates, this time in the Midwest. The younger Amberson with his sense of entitlement from his "great" family kind of reminds me of Dubya.
  3. So Big by Edna Ferber (1925)
    Edna Ferber is a truly underrated writer. She's vaguely "famous" but really not pushed on anyone in the academic canon, and most young people probably just tune out at the name Edna. Big mistake. (Your great-grandchildren will do the same thing with "Britney" and "Jaden," you know.) Any book of Edna's you pick up is a good choice (Giant, Cimarron, and Showboat, to name a few) but why not start with So Big, which won the Pulitzer and may be of particular interest to my readers in Chicago, Iowa, Michigan and environs?
  4. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (1926)
    Our hero has some flaws in this one, but his journey is interesting, and the ending made me cheer - out loud and everything! Awarded in 1926, this is one of those books that makes you realize people have always just been people and we have hopes and dreams and fears in common with our peeps of previous generations.
  5. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (1947)
    Dude, you think politicians are messed up now? Well, I mean, they are. But they were messed up in 1947, too, when this book won the Pulitzer, as they were in the 1930s when the events in Louisiana that may (or may not) have inspired this novel transpired. Very well written!
  6. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1953)
    For those of you who want to check a winner off your to-do list quickly, head for this novel. I think it goes by pretty fast, unlike some other Hemingway works I could mention *cough* set in the Spanish Civil War *cough* and plus it's got the Cuba connection! And it's the eternal struggle of man versus nature! And yet it's so much more! And so on.
  7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee  (1961)
    Because seriously, if you haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird by now, you are just not caught up on one of the best, most essential works of the 20th century.
  8. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1986)
    This is one of my favorite books ever. It's a big one, but well worth it. It immerses you in a world with wonderful characters and unparalleled achievement in storytelling, plus snakebites and campfires and prostitutes and sweeping vistas that are evoked by the stellar writing. I know that a lot of people think, "Lonesome Dove?" as they wrinkle their noses and recall fleeting images of the 80s mini-series and Robert Duvall in a cowboy hat. The answer is: yes. Lonesome-freakin'-Dove. AMAZING.
  9. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (1994)
    I think people are divided on this one, but I love it. It's all so gray and cold and psychologically dark, up there in the northeast U.S. and Newfoundland, and there is so much that haunts the characters and, naturally, the reader. Bonus points: the protagonist is named Quoyle. Cool name.
  10. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2007)
    I'm totally with Oprah here. Yeah, it's got the whole depressing apocalypse thing going on, but it's a fantastic choice for everyone because although it's grisly at times, it's the story of a father and son and the choices of humanity. The writing style is such that it moves quickly, but that's only one reason I couldn't put it down. And yes, you just might cry at the end, if you (and humanity) have a soul.
There now. Just because the Fiction jury consisting of Maureen Corrigan (whom I love listening to on Fresh Air) and Michael Cunningham (whom I love reading and even meeting in real life) and Susan Larson (whoever that is) didn't find any Pulitzer-worthy fiction that was published in 2011, you still have choices.

And may I suggest that to obtain these books you either a.)get a library card  or b.)visit an independently owned bookstore?  Happy reading!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

We Need Another Rutherford

now finished: Rutherford B. Hayes, Warrior and President by Ari Hoogenboom
now reading: Garfield by Allan Peskin

Rutherford B. Hayes has long been my favorite obscure president. His name is great for starters; I think that's what sucked me in years ago.  As I have gone through my Reading A Biography of Every President In Order, To See Where We Went Wrong, a project  obviously begun under the Dubya administration, I have discovered some other favorite presidents, including the also obscure Millard Fillmore and the not-at-all-obscure James Madison, as well as my soulmate John Quincy Adams, who falls somewhere in between (famous, but not well known). So when I got to #19, Rutherford, I wondered if he would regain his title as my favorite obscure president, now that I am all up on #13 Millard Fillmore's awesomeness.

I will say this: Rutherford is the man. He had integrity. I do so love the presidents with integrity. (For example: not Van Buren, and Polk.)  And like some of my other favorites, he served the public well, did his life work well, fought against corruption, kept religious hooey from being dragged into government, and a whoooole bunch of other stuff. And, he kept a diary, so Hoogenboom's account is filled with lots of straight-from-the-horse's-mouth stuff, and I really feel like I know Rud very well. (That's the nickname, Rud, in case you were wondering or planning on naming your baby/pet Rutherford or anything.)

Rutherford was a Buckeye through and through, a man of Ohio, who was totally into his Ohioness, even though he was also a well traveled president. In fact, he was the first president to visit California while in office, and he even visited my alma mater USC on that trip!  Awesomeness!  Rutherford has me intrigued about Ohio things in a way few people have been able to do.  He was a good lawyer, he did good things for people, and no, lest you think I am swooning, he was not perfect, and I don't agree with him on every single thing. But I like him, and I think he did a great job.

The Hoogenboom bio is thoroughly researched and well written, and all in all it is one of the high points of my prez bios project.

Now, I have moved onto James A. Garfield, another Ohio man, and yes, they did know each other although they were not BFFs or anything. Garfield is not striking me as quite as spectacular philosophically, although he means well most of the time. In my Garfield bio, I am currently in the 1870s, when corporations and railroads and corruption are doing their thing in business-government.  Garfield is finally getting along with his family, after kind of being a jerky absent father/husband for the first few years of his marriage to the loooong-suffering Lucretia. What took me the longest to wade through in this book was the Civil War. For the last six or so presidents I've been reading about the Civil War politics, of course, but with Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, and now Garfield I have had to go through the entire Civil War, battle by battle, general by general, political ideology by political ideology, party split by party split, and did I mention battle by battle?

It could be interesting, I suppose. You know, to, like, a Civil War buff.  A Civil War buff I am not. I am a person interested in history, so it's great to learn things, and as a bio reader it is interesting to see which battles are brought to the fore in each president's life story, but seriously -- I'm mostly just over it. OK, Bull Run...McClellan we are in Tennessee...there goes Grant to Vicksburg...who's Sherman to Atlanta yet?...are we in Virginia...? And so on.  It's kind of like I'm in Groundhog Day, experiencing the same thing over and over again, with just a little difference of perspective.

A lot of times when I read my prez bios I wouldn't necessarily recommend the books for the casual reader, but I think I would in fact recomend Hoogenboom's Rutherford B. Hayes. I mean, you have to want to read a big bio, but it's an enlightening look at a period in history and a president about whom I'm willing to bet you know next to nothing. And yet he was so progressive and did so much! 

And you won't even have to experience the battles over and over if you are just reading Rutherford and not the surrounding presidents.