#48. Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie (1985): You Never Know What’s Going to Happen – Notes from My 7-Year-Old

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.”

-Victor Hugo

“The face you have at age twenty-five is the face God gave you, but the face you have after fifty is the face you earned.”

-Cindy Crawford

Sometimes I find it tough to read my 7-year-old daughter Macy. She’s mostly happy to see me and I know she loves me, but as I often tell people when describing her, she skews happy. She loves everything. For example, she recently found a note pad where you could list five things that you love. Macy’s list, in order (and spell corrected):

  1. Hugs!
  2. Kisses!
  3. Soccer!
  4. Musicals!
  5. Dinner!
Note - List of Loves
Macy’s list of things she loves. “Dad” did not make the cut.

It is interesting to note that like us here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, Macy is a big fan of the exclamation point. And it is also interesting, maybe more so, to note that although “Dinner!” made the list, “Dad!” did not.

So I was very excited Sunday morning when Macy, after working very diligently on a drawing at the dining room table while I read the paper, handed said drawing to me and said, “I made you a card.” I was even more excited when I read it because it said: “Thank you for being a rock ★ parent! I’m going to miss you so so so so so so so so so much. Love Macy.”

Pride in my own parenting skills swelled within me. I looked at my youngest lovingly and we had the following interaction:

Me: That is so nice Macy. Thank you. (Quick hug ensued leading to more pride swelling). But why are you going to miss me?

Macy: What?

Me: (Showing her the note) You said you were going to miss me so so so so so much, but I’m not going anywhere.

Macy: (Taking a closer look at the card.) Oh, I forgot something.

At this point, Macy took the note back, grabbed a pen, and quickly started writing. It took only a few seconds before she handed me the now augmented note that read as follows: “Thank you for being a rock ★ parent! I’m going to miss you so so so so so so so so so much … when you die! Love Macy.”


Although I was still happy that she was going to miss me, I was understandably a tiny bit conflicted about the prerequisite. It was a little morbid. But in her defense, Macy has been a little preoccupied with death these last few months and I think I know why. First, she recently asked if she could have a fish tank. So, over my objections, we took her to a fish store and brought home a five-gallon fish tank, a miniature castle, some foliage, and three little guppies – Fire, Joey and Sparkle.

All was good with the world for about 16 hours until she woke up the next morning and found Joey lying dead behind the castle. Tears flew from her eyes immediately and she decided that Fire had killed him. I’m not totally sure what Sparkle’s alibi was, but Macy was convinced that Fire was a bad apple. She was inconsolable.

Actually, I take that back. She was somewhat consolable and started to pull it together until I retrieved Joey from the tank and headed to the bathroom to flush him down the toilet at which point we had the following interaction:

Macy: What are you doing with Joey?

Me: I’m going to flush him down the toilet.

Macy: NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!! (Tears flying out of eyes once again. Now actually inconsolable.)

Me: What would you like to do with Joey?

Macy: BURY HIM!!!!!!

So shortly thereafter, Macy and I were standing outside in the yard holding a fish funeral for Joey. We buried Joey in a small Kleenex box, his little guppy body laying on a bed of tissues. We said a few words, which was hard given the limited time we knew each other, but it was sweet. And as the last spoonful of dirt covered Joey’s casket, Macy said: “Can we get another fish?”

The second reason Macy has been fascinated with death recently is that I turned 50 this summer. I can barely believe I’m that old, but to my seven-year-old, it is inconceivable. (And you just thought of The Princess Bride). She’s just learning to count that high. In her mind, the difference between 50 and the age of the universe is not that much. Like 20 years.

So because we had many celebrations around my birthday, she was acutely aware that I’m the oldest one in the family that means, of course, that I am going to be the first one to die. And my death will be followed by, in order, Gigi, Sam and Lily thereby leaving Macy the last one standing. The first time she told me this, I was trying to get a sense of whether this chain of events bothered her or comforted her. I’m still not totally sure. But what I was sure of was that I didn’t want her to think that was necessarily how things were going to turn out, so I said something to the effect of, “you never know what’s going to happen.”

I’ll get back to that story in a minute, but first we must detour to Foreign Affairs by Allison Lurie, the 1985 Pulitzer winner that comes in at #48 on our countdown. Foreign Affairs tells the story of Virginia Miner (Vinnie), a fifty-four-year-old spinsterish professor at Corinth University who specializes in children’s literature. She loves travel and is off to London (which she also loves) for a six-month research trip with plans to write a book about playground rhymes. Her mood, however, is a little soured because a critic named L. D. Zimmern recently trashed her work in a nationally circulated magazine.

Also bringing her down is Chuck Mumpson, a sanitary engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma and her seatmate on what would otherwise be a pleasant flight, who proceeds to accost her conversationally. Although currently unmarried, Vinnie couldn’t be less interested. She’s had her share of affairs and even a brief marriage, but at this point in her life, Vinnie has stopped believing that falling or being in love is a good thing. So to silence Chuck, she gives him a copy of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Unfortunately, this plan ultimately backfires when the smoking, drinking and generally loudly American Chuck contacts her in London. It turns out he has been inspired by Little Lord Fauntleroy to want to trace his own family history. Vinnie slowly becomes involved with his project, and then with him.

Meanwhile, in a parallel story, one of Vinnie’s young colleagues, Fred Turner, has left his wife, Roo, at home for his own sabbatical in London, where he is researching John Gay. In chapters that alternate with those recounting Vinnie’s triumphs and tribulations, we learn that Fred and Roo have quarreled and he fears the marriage is over. He consoles himself with the affections of a beautiful and aristocratic television actress, Lady Rosemary Radley, who gives him the entree into London high life. The exquisite but not so young Rosemary has never managed to have a really successful love relationship—though she is not resigned to this, as Vinnie is. Ultimately, these two stories come together when, quite by accident and with the encouragement of Chuck, Vinnie becomes an emissary for Fred’s estranged wife. What makes this favor more challenging for Vinnie is that Roo’s father is none other than the nefarious critic L. D. Zimmern.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Vinnie’s relationship with Chuck opens her eyes to the fact that she has many years to live and a lot to experience, including love. Literate by nature, Vinnie comes to the realization that literature may have unintentionally betrayed her. “In the world of classic British fiction,” she reflects, ”almost the entire population is under fifty, or even under forty – as was true of the real world when the novel was invented.” Even today, in most novels ”it is taken for granted that people over fifty are as set in their ways as elderly apple trees, and as permanently shaped and scarred by the years they have weathered. The literary convention is that nothing major can happen to them except through subtraction.”

But in real life – or the “real” life of Vinnie – she has many years to live and much to experience. Why, therefore, she concludes, should she ”become a minor character in her own life? Why shouldn’t she imagine herself as an explorer standing on the edge of some landscape as yet unmapped by literature: interested, even excited – ready to be surprised?”

As one who is now near Vinnie’s age in the novel, I absolutely love this and appreciate what Alison Lurie as to say about getting older. Foreign Affairs offers a wry commentary on who we perceive ourselves as being and the sometimes jarring reality of who we are and how much we are constructed by other people’s perceptions of us. The book is witty, truthful (sometimes painfully so), intelligent, warm, humorous, and ultimately inspiring. Fast forward 30 years and I’ll probably suggest Macy read it.

However, it is currently above her reading level, so when Macy handed me back the updated note she had written, I did my best to translate the message. I told her that 50 isn’t that old and (fingers crossed) I have many years of life and living left to do. She didn’t need to miss me quite yet.

As an aside, what I really wanted to do but can’t because she is only seven, was go one level deeper and add that she shouldn’t be anti-death (although again I’m not sure she is). Death is in some ways in underrated. To be clear, I’m not talking about senseless death, or early death, or painful death; not the death of war, terror, cruelty, poverty, abuse, neglect, suicide, disease. But normal death is our admission fee for the privilege of life. It gives life urgency. It makes life worth living. And yes, graying hair and creaky joints are part of that fee. Our lives are finite — so, as we’ve discussed many times here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, we should live them with gusto.

But in the end that conversation didn’t happen and Macy’s takeaway focused on the uncertainly because “you never know what’s going to happen.” So I shouldn’t have been that surprised to find the following message scribbled a few days later on a pineapple note pad:

Note - Pineapple
“Can we please get another dog. We only have two fish and who knows if there gonna die? Love Macy

#49. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2009) – Make America Hate Again: Why I Wish There Was A Little More Olive Kitteridge in Donald Trump


[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

So my very public promise to write more frequently was a total fail. But, in all honesty, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I’ve just been having the hardest time with this post. Here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, my usual formula is to tell a personal story and then connect it (albeit very tenuously) to the book I’m reviewing. And if you know me, you also probably know that telling stories about myself is generally not an issue. Most of the time, writing about the book is the hardest part for me. Not so this time.

So we’re going to flip things around and start with the book: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner. Set in a small community on the coast of Maine, Olive Kitteridge is a “novel-in-stories,” a book-length collection of short stories that are interconnected. Think The Canterbury Tales, or, if you’re looking for more Pulitzer themed examples, Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Winner A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Junot Diaz’ non-Pulitzer winner but still popular This is Where You Lose Her (he did win the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008)).

If the author can pull it off, I’m a fan of the novel-in-stories format. (Actually, I like the format in other mediums as well. For example, some of my favorite movies are very Olive Kitteridge-esque. The Player, Magnolia, Go, and of course the (relatively) new Christmas classic Love, Actually all follow the same formula.) Some complain that telling stories in this manner doesn’t leave room for nuanced character development. That may be true, but telling a story or stories in this manner has a ton of benefits as well.

Specifically, I like the idea that our stories don’t exist in a vacuum but instead are messily enmeshed. In real life, I like the idea of six degrees of separation and discovering random connections with strangers I meet. In fiction, I like the fact that these stories remind me that things aren’t always about me; a reminder I need surprisingly often. We’re all living in our little worlds but we’re doing it all together, and sometimes paths cross with less than optimal outcomes. But often those outcomes have less to do with the parties involved than with all the backstory – often unknown to the other party – that comes with them.

Turning specifically to Olive Kitteridge, Strout weaves together 13 different stories that encompass a wide range of experience. One story takes place at the funeral of a man whose wife has just learned he cheated on her. Another features a hostage-taking in a hospital. Elsewhere, an old lover surprises a lounge pianist, sending her reeling back into painful memories, and in another, an overbearing mother visits her wary son and his boisterous, pregnant wife. Most stories center on some kind of betrayal, and a few document delicate and unlikely romances.

And linking these stories together is the novel’s namesake, Olive Kitteridge, a seventh-grade math teacher and the wife of a pharmacist. Olive’s presence in each of the stories varies. In some she’s at the center, but in others she remains only on the fringe. (And for the record, the stories in which she appears the least are also often the least interesting). Through these interactions, we learn not only about Olive herself, but we also see the effect that she has on those around her.

Truth be told, I had a great story lined up to accompany this novel that involved me delivering Christmas trees. How I ended up in the situation is unimportant, but suffice it to say one rainy night a few weeks before Christmas I found myself driving a Ford F150 around the East Bay with three trees in the back and stranger by my side. As the night wore on, each delivery became a story unto itself. There were highs and there were lows. And with each stop I was getting a short but rather intimate look into strangers’ lives. It was an Olive Kitteridge experience. It was a cute story (at least in my head).

But despite knowing for over a month now that was my story, I just couldn’t pull it together. Given the current political environment, it seemed too light. I thought I could cure it by weaving in some humorous jabs at Donald Trump, but poking fun of him – although there really is so so much to poke fun at – came across as simultaneously petty, ineffective and unsatisfying. There are plenty of people far funnier than I am making fun of him all day long. I got so fed up I finally scrapped the whole idea and hoped I could find another connection to Olive Kitteridge. If our paths cross, I’d be happy to tell you of my Christmas tree adventures.

“Luckily,” it only took one week of Trump being President to figure out a new connection. You see, Olive, like Trump, comes across as an asshole. She is neither nice nor sympathetic. As one of the town’s older women notes, “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” That’s putting it nicely. Her son, in contrast, told her more bluntly, “You can make people feel terrible.” She dismisses people with words like “hellion” and “moron” and “flub-dub.” Sound familiar?

But as is true of most people, Olive is more complicated than she seems on the surface. She may hurl insults at her son, but she also loves him a lot. The same goes for her her husband who she also loves, although she has trouble expressing it. She’s definitely has her moods, but she also laughs spontaneously, and most importantly, she harbors a sense of compassion, even for strangers. In one story, for example, Olive bursts into tears when she meets an anorexic young woman. When Olive tells the girl that “I’m starving, too,” the girl takes one look at this large woman and says, “You’re not starving.” “Sure I am,” Olive says. “We all are.”

Olive may seem like an asshole, but through these stories, we learn that she also has a remarkable capacity for empathy, and it’s an empathy without sentimentality. She gets that life is lonely and unfair, and that it takes a lot of luck to experience blessings like a long marriage and a quick death. She knows she can be a shit; she has regrets. And because she has that self-awareness, she understands people’s failings — and, ultimately, their frail hopes. By the end of the novel, you may hate her brusqueness, her self-centeredness, and her difficulty accepting changes, but you admire her quiet strength, her forthrightness, her realistic views of life, and the fact that she controls her emotions.

And Kudos to Ms. Strout, because the novel-in-stories format is a perfect medium for capturing this complexity. Each story is presented from different viewpoints and shows Olive’s many sides as she interacts with family, neighbors and friends, as she experiences age, loneliness, grief and love. It’s through these stories that we discover a character infinitely richer than originally assumed.

You’ve probably figured out where I’m going with this. When Trump incomprehensively garnered enough electoral votes to secure the Presidency (I can’t bring myself to say “won”), I consoled myself in the weeks that followed by hoping that he had a little Olive Kitteridge in him. I told myself that once he was President, the importance of the office would temper his campaign promises. I wanted to believe the Republicans – who only weeks before refused to support him – when they suggested that we should give him a chance.

For example, Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, was asked before the election what he thought about Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim entry into the United States. Although Thiel initially expressed misgivings about Trump’s language, he ultimately came to his defense by arguing that we – and specifically the media – shouldn’t take him literally. “[T]he media always has taken Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally.” In other words, Trump didn’t mean he wanted an actual ban. “I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’”

Although his literally/seriously argument seemed far-fetched when applied to a man hoping to run the most powerful country on Earth, I hoped Thiel was right. Sadly, it took only all of one week of the Trump presidency to realize that he wasn’t, and that what Trump said on the campaign trail was exactly what he meant. He really does want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and take insurance coverage from 30 million people. He really does want to build a wall despite the fact that anything that impedes the inflow of tequila seems like a horrible idea to me. He really does hang out with and trust neo-nazis like Steve Bannon and thinks it is a good idea to add him to the National Security Council. And he really really doesn’t like Muslims.

As we all know by now (hopefully), last week he signed an Executive Order that halted refugee entry into the US for 120 days, and barred all citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – from entering the US for three months. Although supposedly done to protect Americans, this is pure security theater. How do I know? Well, I know it because of the number of people killed in the US by refugee terror attacks. Zero. I know this because “nobody in the counterterrorism community pushed for this.”

I know this because it doesn’t even target places that pose the largest threat. Not a single American was killed on U.S. soil by citizens of any of those countries between 1975 and 2015. Interestingly, nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by citizens from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirites and Egypt in the same time period, with the bulk of those being victims of the 9/11 attacks. Yet in those three countries, Trump has significant business interests. Hmmmm.


I know this because even putting aside refugee v. non-refugee or even the specific countries, enacting this Executive Order in the name of American safety is pure farce. Sadly, I stole the following chart from Kim Kardashian West, but I’m sure its directionally correct and more importantly it proves a (my) point.


If Trump were really concerned about the safety of American citizens, he should start with tackling our gun laws since guns are about 5,868 times more likely to kill you than an Islamic jihadist immigrant. Then, in order of operation, we should make everyone install bed rails, bolster bus and lawnmower regulation, wear rubber shoes and, of course, get some control over those pesky toddlers. But we won’t.

We won’t because this isn’t about protecting the American people. This is about divisiveness and hate. Which honestly doesn’t make that much sense as a strategy until you realize he’s doing this because he knows that he will never be able to tell his voters, “Your lives are better now.” He has no plan, so he’ll have to keep them scared, angry or both. For four years. This is literally his only play.

And again, there are people that are a lot smarter than me that are writing far better articles about the situation we find ourselves in at the moment. You should read them. But I will say that on a personal level, of my eight great-grandparents, four came to this country from somewhere else. One from China, one from Denmark, one from Ireland and one from Mexico. And my immigrant great-grandparent tally may even be higher than that if I actually had a good handle on certain branches of my family tree (which is another story I’d be happy to share if our paths cross). America isn’t great despite immigrants. America is great because of immigrants.

Thankfully, the response to Trump’s Executive Order gives me hope. Over one weekend, the ACLU received $24 million in online donations, six times the amount is usually receives in a year. Starbucks announced plans to hire 10,000 refugees over 5 years in 75 countries. There are Google docs going around with every Senator’s stance on the Muslim Ban with telephone numbers. The Pope chimed in and said you can’t reject refugees and call yourself a Christian. Pretty sure he was talking about Paul Ryan. Even the acting US Attorney General told her staff that the Order was illegal and to not enforce it (at which point she was summarily canned).

But most importantly, people – normal people – have rallied. They showed up last week at the Women’s Marches and they showed up this week at airports. The bar for being a superhero is so low right now. You don’t need capes or karate. You just have to show compassion and empathy. You just need to funnel your inner Olive Kitteridge.

There is a quote I love from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, about an Irish immigrant family at the turn of the century: “There are very few bad people. There are just a lot of people that are unlucky.” This is true of Olive. By the end of the novel, we recognize not only Olive’s glaring flaws, but also her inherent nobility, and she reminds us that we are complicated and imperfect creatures. And reading a book like Olive Kitteridge reminds us that we need to try and understand people, even if we can’t stand them.

But we must also remember that although the number may be very few, there are actually bad people in this world. Sadly, it appears that one of those people is now the most powerful man on the planet. I wanted to believe that there was something deeper behind his angry rants. But as I’ve said before, we have to embrace the world that is, not the world we wished it were, or the world we thought it was. And in this world, Trump is seriously, literally, an asshole.

#50 How My Dad’s Mattress Ended Up on Our Front Lawn: Lessons Learned from A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (1987)

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

We’re about a month removed from the closing ceremonies and I’m sad the Olympics are over, but not necessarily because I want to watch more events. Honestly, it was killing my productivity. And my ability to catch up on other television shows. Or both. Hello Mr. Robot my old friend.

No, the reason I’m sad is that these Olympics will hold a special place in my heart because it was really the first Olympics that we shared with Sam and Lily. They must have watched the 2012 games in London, but at that point Sam was 11 and Lily had just turned 10 and they were still going to bed early enough that they wouldn’t have seen NBC’s ridiculously late night coverage (a topic for another day). But now they’re four years older. Sam is learning to drive, Lily is in high school and they now stay up ridiculously late which is super handy if you want to watch the Olympics.

So this year we spent a lot of time between 8 p.m. and midnight sitting around our bedroom watching Simone Biles, Kerri Walsh Jennings, and Usain Bolt. We discussed green pools, the Zika virus, and the sexism imbedded in this headline.


We lamented the US Women’s Nation Soccer team losing way too early. We laughed at Michael Phelps giving Chad le Clos a pre-race death stare, the diving scores that covered the athlete’s groins so it made them look like porn stars, and Ryan Lochte dying his hair brown again after saying “my bad” for lying about being held up at gunpoint. (That helped for one second.) And we marveled at the athleticism and sportsmanship on display such as Katie Ledeky beating the the silver medalist by nearly 12 seconds in the 800m final, and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino of the USA helping each other out after colliding in their heat of the women’s 5000m. In hindsight, it was two weeks of together time that was wonderful.

And although I love that I have my nights back, I’m a little melancholy due to the fact that the Olympics only happen every four years, and that time we just spent together may not be replicated with the older two kids (Macy, I realize, is another story). When the Olympics descend on Tokyo in 2020, Sam will be nearly 20 years old and in college (hopefully). Lily will have just turned 18 and be a full-fledged adult and getting ready to go off to college (again, hopefully). Who knows if either will be in the house and even if they are, will we all sit around our bedroom for four hours every night watching synchronized diving? Doubtful.

Am I being overly pessimistic? I don’t think so. I’m dating myself, but the first Olympics I clearly remember were the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. It was the Olympics of Nadia Comaneci and the first perfect 10. It was Sugar Ray Leonard and Spinks brothers, Michael and Leon, taking gold medals when boxing still mattered. It was the US men’s basketball team winning after the controversial loss four years earlier. It was Caitlin Jenner, then known as Bruce, winning the decathlon, soon to have (at that time) his face all over boxes of Wheaties. Germany was still divided between East and West and everyone thought the East German women’s swim team was doping when they nearly swept all the swimming events. Probably because they were.

And even now, I remember watching with my parents and loving it and being so excited for it to happen again. Except it didn’t. In 1980, the US boycotted the Moscow games for reasons I don’t recall. By the time the 1984 Olympics rolled around in LA, the Russians and most of the Eastern Bloc boycotted in retaliation for the US boycott, and I was entering my senior year of high school. As such, neither the USSR nor I participated. And then I was gone.

But, and this is a big but, having that one Olympics with my parents made a difference. Not only do I still remember much of it to this day, but it also led to one of my top five favorite Dad stories. I was so obsessed with the Olympics that when my birthday came around I wanted to have an Olympics themed party. Most of the events were fairly straightforward. Lots of races (both running and swimming), we had a roughly round-shaped rock that we used as a shot put. There was a diving (read: cannonball) competition. But my favorite event was high jump, but not because I love that event or because I did especially well. No. That event was my favorite because my Dad dragged his mattress from his master bedroom on to our front lawn so that we would have padding when we landed. And he told me not to tell my Mom.

I remember thinking it was so out of character. The whole thing. I’ve spoken at length about my Dad and he had many, many fabulous qualities, but a secretive rule breaker he wasn’t. He was very practical and honest and had I been a betting man at that tender age, I would have said there is a snowball’s chance in hell that he’d drag a mattress – his own mattress – on to our front yard in support of fake Olympic glory. And then I would have double-downed that he would have run this plan by Mom first. Being wrong about your parents, however, is just part of growing up.

And I’m 99% sure that if I could tell him that story today, he would have no recollection of ever doing that and certainly wouldn’t think that it had any impression on me. In fact, there were all sorts of other “lessons” I inadvertently learned from my Dad that I’m sure he never intended. For example, to teach my new puppy, Toby, how to swim, he threw him in the pool. Lesson learned: sink or swim. Literally. When we came across a gruesome car crash in Mexico with a bloody dead guy impaled on the steering wheel, I looked at him and he didn’t flinch. Lesson learned: don’t freak out. When my grades dipped during my sophomore year of high school, he told me not to show him my report card. Lesson learned: when the lesson is learned, the lesson is learned. (Alternate lesson: give ‘em enough rope).

Lessons learned, or scar tissue developed, during childhood is a great intro to Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner. Summons tells the story of Phillip, a New York City book editor and the 49-year-old son of imposing Memphis lawyer George Carver. Phillip, who is unmarried, returns home when George, an octogenarian, decides to remarry, a development that Phillip’s two older and also unmarried sisters, Betsy and Josephine, intend to prevent. With gusto.

But it turns out that the crux of the story isn’t the kids’ obsession with thwarting their father’s new love. Instead, it is the family’s history and the kids’ belief that their father totally ruined their lives. Unlike the father in A Thousand Acres, however, whose transgressions were objectively unforgivable, George is guilty of the much more pardonable sin of moving the family from Nashville to Memphis. In their minds, that decision 40 years earlier blighted all of their lives. Seriously, it can’t be fixed.

A little background is in order. Other than George who was born in rural Tennessee, the Carvers are natives of Nashville. And George, despite his upbringings, pulled himself up by his proverbial bootstraps, attended the prestigious Vanderbilt University and became a respected Nashville lawyer. In Nashville, the family leads an ideal life blessed with meaning until George is compelled to uproot the family and move to Memphis in order to protect his reputation due to his association with a former friend, the unsavory Mr. Lewis Shakleford. Tragedy ensues.

One sister had to give up an engagement; Philip was forever torn from an adolescent love; and the children’s mother, who has been dead for a few years before the book begins, had to leave all that she knew behind and start anew. And in Memphis the hardships continue. The teenage daughters are not allowed to be presented in Memphis and are thus denied the opportunity to find acceptable suitors; the other brother Georgie eventually runs off to fight in the war; the mother declines physically and mentally; and Philip moves to New York City to get away from it all. On the surface that is pretty much it to the story (I’ll leave you in suspense as to the success or failure of their thwarting attempts).

But really, A Summons to Memphis is about whether we ever get over the pain and betrayals – or what we remember as the pain and betrayals – from childhood. Granted, it is hard to get too worked up over the kids’ pain and betrayals in this story. It seems silly to blame a move of 200 miles as the determining factor for the rest of your life. But in retrospect, maybe the seeming triviality of the father’s actions in this book force us to take a closer look at the question. In other words, some people experience such horrible childhoods that the fact those experiences affect them throughout life seems a foregone conclusion. For most, however, those supposed wrongs might appear innocuous when viewed through the eyes of an objective outsider. In any case, A Summons to Memphis is a fine reminder that forgetting the injustices and seeming injustices which one suffered from one’s parents during childhood and youth must be the major part of any maturing process. The Carver children haven’t done so well on that front.

Bottom line, A Summons to Memphis is a finely written novel — as most of the books on the countdown from here on out will be — that tells a semi-interesting story. And for parents such as myself, it is a somewhat troubling reminder that all of your actions, intentional or not, will make an impression on your children, but a select few will change who they are as adults. And the kicker is you won’t know which actions those are until it is too late. (So maybe the really important lesson that we should teach our kids is that if you’re dropped into a swimming pool, you should swim.) All you can do is try your best, and drag your own mattress onto the front lawn once in a while. And by all means, spend time with your kids, even if it means nobody goes to bed before midnight. It might just be the thing they remember decades later. Lesson learned.

#51 Beloved by Toni Morrison (1988): As Yoda Would Say, Love or Hate. There is No Like. Hmm. (alternate title: I Did Not Love It. Controversy?)

The cast of Hamilton

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

There was a busy and sad news week in April – led by the death of Prince – where you might have missed the fact that the US Treasury Department decided your wallet has too much testosterone so they’re booting Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replacing him with Harriet Tubman. If your third grade history class is a little fuzzy, Tubman was one of the most important figures in the movement to end slavery. Now, not only is she the first woman to appear on US currency in more than a century, but she is also the first African-American ever to appear. And Andrew Jackson, the man she is replacing, owned slaves. Karma’s a bitch.

What you might have also missed if you were endlessly looping every Prince album from 1980’s Dirty Mind through 1987’s Sign o’ the Times (which, if you haven’t done, then you should right now), was that the original plan wasn’t to replace Jackson, but rather to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. That’s not happening anymore because, well, Hamilton. Controversy? Not really.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Hamilton is the Lin-Manuel Miranda written Broadway phenomenon; an unlikely sounding hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of the lesser-known founding fathers of America. The numbers are staggering. After a successful off-Broadway run, it took in over $60 million before it opened on Broadway in August 2015; it’s sold out through January 2017; the album, which reached number three in the rap charts, is the highest selling cast recording for 50 years; tickets for even Monday evening shows can fetch up to $2000 for the best seats; and it just collected a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations.

But Hamilton is more than just numbers. It has been called historic and game-changing and, honestly, everyone seems to agree. Hollywood stars, hip-hop royalty and politicians of every persuasion have turned out in droves to see it. President Obama took his daughters, Bill Clinton has seen it, as has Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Madonna (though she, according to cast members, spent most of her time glued to her phone). Jay-Z and Beyoncé posed with the cast after the show. One night JJ Abrams, the director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, came and asked Manuel to write music for a scene in the film.

But its not just famous people that love Hamilton. Little kids love Hamilton and make cute little kid YouTube videos. Finicky critics love Hamilton. Ben Brantley, the New York Times critic, wrote, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit musical. But Hamilton… might just be about worth it.” And even more finicky (finickier?) and sometimes hard to please teens love the show. How do I know? Because I’ve got one.

My daughter Lily started listening to the Hamilton soundtrack right before Christmas. I’m not entirely sure what the impetus was to make her queue it up on Spotify, but I am sure that once she started listening to it she couldn’t stop. Within a fairly short period of time, she knew every word to every song. She knew every cast member, including ensemble cast members and backups. She even enlisted her little sister to accompany her in a cute little video.

Which brings me to Beloved from Toni Morrison, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner and probably the most controversial novel on the countdown. Just as Frank Bascombe from Independence Day was the anti-Lemmy KilmisterBeloved is the anti-Hamilton. People love or hate this book in equal numbers.

Set in Ohio in 1873 after the end of the Civil War, Beloved tells a lot of stories with a lot of voices, but the central one belongs to Sethe who is living in a farmhouse with her youngest daughter Denver, and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs. There is almost no way to explain this book without giving away the plot (ergo, SPOILER ALERT), but their house is also home to a sad but very angry ghost, who everyone believes is the spirit of Sethe’s baby daughter, who, at the age of 2, had her throat cut under appalling circumstances. We never know this child’s full name, but we – and Sethe – think of her as Beloved, because that is what is on her tombstone. Sethe wanted ”Dearly Beloved,” from the funeral service, but had only enough strength to pay for one word. Payment was 10 minutes of sex with the tombstone engraver.

Not surprisingly, a haunted house doesn’t make for the greatest home environment. Sethe’s two young sons have run away from home by the age of 13, and Denver, the only child remaining, is shy, friendless, and housebound. To add insult to injury, not long into the book and with the ghost in full possession of the house, Baby Suggs dies in her bed. Insert sad emoji.

But characters – and stories – such as these don’t exist without some significant trauma in their past, and Sethe’s past comes front and center when Paul D – one of the slaves from Sweet Home, the Kentucky plantation where Baby Suggs, Sethe, Halle (Sethe’s ex), and several other slaves once worked – arrives at their home. They fled Sweet Home 18 years before the novel opens, and when we begin the flashbacks, we see why. If there is such a thing as a good slave owner, then Mr. Garner, the original owner of Sweet Home, might qualify. He treated the slaves well, allowed them some say in running the plantation, and called them ”men” in defiance of the neighbors, who want all male blacks to be called ”boys.” But when he dies, his wife brings in her handiest male relative, who is known as ”the schoolteacher,” and, as is often the case with people whose nickname is “the schoolteacher,” he is a total asshole.

Throw in the schoolteacher’s two sadistic and repulsive nephews, and from there it’s all downhill at Sweet Home as the slaves try to escape, go crazy or are murdered. Sethe, in a trek that makes the Snake’s journey in Escape from New York look like a stroll around the block, gets out, just barely; her husband, Halle, doesn’t. Paul D. does, but has some very unpleasant adventures along the way, including a literally nauseating sojourn in a 19th-century Georgia chain gang.

So Paul D. and a shit ton of baggage arrive at Sethe’s home, and surprisingly, he appears to make things a little better. He forces out the ghost, and even gets Denver out of the house for the first time in years. But never forget, this is a Pulitzer winner which means that, chances are, this isn’t a story where things are going to work out for everyone in the end. And sure enough, on the way back home with Denver, they come across a young woman sitting in front of the house, calling herself, of all things, Beloved. Paul D is suspicious (duh) and warns Sethe, but she is charmed by the young woman and ignores him.

Not surprisingly, inviting a random 20 year-old who shows up out of nowhere calling herself the same name as your baby daughter who died tragically turns out to be a poor decision. Beloved gets in everyone’s head and sooner or later has sex with Paul D in a shed. He feels horrible and is racked with guilt, but when he tries to tell Sethe about it he instead tells her that he wants her pregnant. Lesson: just no.

Albeit, Sethe is initially elated so, to be fair, Paul D’s ad lib does put the breakup playlist on hold for a few. But when Paul D tells his friends at work about his plan to start a new family, they tell him the real story of how Sethe’s two year old died. I’ve given away too much already (and honestly would rather not discuss it), but suffice it to say that the news is too much for Paul D and he leaves. Without him around, Beloved consumes more and more of Sethe’s life until it reaches the point where it is clear that both cannot survive.

As I mentioned at the outset, people’s opinions on this novel vary widely. But regardless of where you think this book should sit in our literary countdown, there is little disputing that both the story and the writing are somewhat painful to get through, although I have a much harder time with the latter than the former.

Stories about slavery, especially good stories, are hard to read. On purpose. It was a brutal and lamentable part of our nation’s history, when very specific (and horrific) things happened to actual human beings. And being a book about that period, Beloved describes all of the beatings, whippings, rapes, killings, all of the families torn apart, individuals humiliated and lives wasted. As it should. And that may make the novel hard to read for some, but that isn’t a valid critique of the book.

For me, what made this book difficult to read wasn’t the story, it was the presentation. I’ll give you one example:

“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.”

Look, Toni Morrison is a much much much (I could go on for a while) more talented writer than I am, so I’m sure many people will completely disagree with me, but I find passages like the above hard to read. And not in a good way. It is a little over the top. A little Faulkner-esqe (and we see where that got him on the countdown). A little too, well, much. As I read this book, I kept feeling that she was trying too hard to impress and that the story therefore suffered a teeny bit because of it (IMHO).

But regardless of the prose, I admire Beloved for what it aims to achieve: to make us remember a terrible part of American history. And by remember, I don’t mean in a generic “there was slavery in the United States” way, but instead that there were very specific (and horrific) things that happened to actual people. With many wide scale events such as war, racism, or the holocaust, it is easy to get lost in the numbers, to forget that individual people were affected or perished.  Beloved personalizes slavery, which makes it easier for people-in-general to identify with the subject. It elevates a terrible part of history beyond mere statistics.

And maybe that’s where Beloved and Hamilton share a common bond. We all learn about the War for Independence in school but in our heart of hearts, we don’t care. We aren’t really moved by it. Hamilton changes that because it shows us a period in history through the story of a single, albeit sometimes unsympathetic, man. Just as we really feel the horrors of slavery because of how we see it affected Sethe, we understand the sacrifices people made when establishing this country.

But, and this is a big but, delivery matters. Beloved will never be universally beloved because Morrison loses the reader (or at least some readers) with her challenging writing. There are no little kids making videos recreating scenes from Beloved. Miranda, in contrast, engages a whole new generation of people with his never-before-heard all-rap Broadway musical. Its accessibility enables the story. Hence that’s why Alexander Hamilton will remain on the ten-dollar bill while slave owner Andrew Jackson gets the boot.

Oddly enough, the very same week that equally universally beloved Prince died, I found myself at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York with Lily watching Lin-Manuel Miranda do his stuff. To tell the truth, I was a little concerned that there was no way the play could live up to the hype. I shouldn’t have been. I loved it. No controversy there.

Lily and Daveed
Lily’s selfie with Lafayette/Jefferson actor Daveed Diggs after the show.

#52 Independence Day by Richard Ford (1996): Mid-life, Motorcycles & Motorhead (but no aliens)

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

You know I’m born to lose and gambling’s for fools
But that’s the way I like it, baby
I don’t wanna live forever
And don’t forget the joker

– “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead

I know, I know. It’s been months since my last Pulitzer Schmultizer! column. I feel bad about that. And, honestly, I have no excuses. In fact, I have less than no excuses because I actually left my last job in October and didn’t start my new one until January. I had grand visions of knocking out a bunch of Pulitzer reviews during my break. I was going to knock out so many that I’d have them backed up just waiting for the perfect time to post them. But alas, I filled up my time with other activities and before you know it three months passed and I’m already in a new year. Viva la 2016.

But although unintentional, regret over things unfinished is a very apropos theme given the story I’m about to tell that I started to write back in the fall. You see, there was a Saturday in October when I found myself in a deserted parking lot, slightly hung over at 6:30am, next to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet with 20 total strangers. And again, although I have no excuses, I do slightly blame Lemmy Kilmister.

There is a good chance you don’t know Lemmy. He was the front man for Motörhead, a metal band that played music most people don’t listen to, and played it long enough ago that many more people have either forgotten or are too young to remember. But when I was 12, my friend Drew went to London with his parents on vacation and came back with Motörhead’s Ace of Spades album. When he put in on, I stared at the album cover, half of me wanting to be in the band and the other half wanting to get into a fetal position and hug my Snoopy doll.

On stage, Lemmy was all bronchial rasp, singing into a microphone stand that towered above him, tilting down to his weather beaten face with his mutton chops and oh so present warts. And off stage, he was exactly the same. Lemmy didn’t have a stage persona. As Dave Grohl once said: “Fuck Elvis and Keith Richards, Lemmy’s the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Lemmy’s a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend.” And like with many things in life, Dave was right. A kid once asked him if he got hangovers, to which he answered: “To get hangovers you have to stop drinking.”

It seems silly now, but to a 12 year-old in suburban Phoenix, Lemmy was the coolest guy that ever lived. Lemmy drank a bottle of Jack Daniels per day and slept with 2,000 women. And I was convinced – even though now I’m not sure where I got the idea – that Lemmy rode a motorcycle. Hence, someday I would ride a motorcycle. Key word: “someday.”

But life is life and a thousand other things happened. I grew up, went to college and then law school, got a job, fell in love, got married, went to more school, had two kids and adopted a third, and got five more jobs (not necessarily in that order). And that’s just the big stuff. I also (not necessarily in this order) visited 23 countries, bungee jumped, scuba dived, took salsa, guitar and swing dance lessons (twice), got stranded in Tijuana (once), lived with at least 7 pets (not including fish), climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, ate rotting shark in Iceland, did a triathlon, threw up in at least three public restrooms (and at least one of which was a women’s room), earned a brown belt in a Vietnamese martial art called Cuong Nhu, and was nearly arrested at least 5 times. To be clear, I was innocent in each instance. In my free time, I also read every single Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. And that still isn’t even scratching the surface. The good news is that I didn’t drink a bottle of Jack Daniels per day OR sleep with 2,000 women. The bad news is that is also never learned to ride a motorcycle. And then, snap, I was middle-aged.

A few posts ago I discussed my mid-life crisis and how it has spurred me to try new things. Turns out, it also spurs you to try old things. Go figure.

I guess that isn’t that surprising, as mid-life brings about the discomfiting realization that your remaining time on earth is less than what you’ve already lived. Sounds a little morbid, but you realize that death is now clearly on this side of one’s narrative rather than some faraway, remote, abstract endpoint. And so it makes perfect sense that it is during this time that people pause and reflect on where they have been and where they are going. Or, put another way, it triggers two related but distinct realizations: “I’m not young anymore” and “I won’t live forever.”

For the most part, “I won’t live forever” is motivating. Granted, it is motivation by the fear you aren’t going to live forever, but taking stock of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’d like to go is helpful in making thoughtful decisions about your future. This thinking, as I’ve mentioned, leads to saying “yes” more often, as well as some unfortunate yet inspirational coffee mugs and posters of soaring seagulls that say things like “this is the first day of the rest of your life.” That’s growth. Sort of.

The “I’m not young anymore” can be a little trickier. Despite all of the things that you absolutely can do when you hit mid-life, you realize there are absolutely things that would aren’t going to do. Like win Wimbledon, fly a fighter plane, or be President. When you focus on what you haven’t done, you tend to make impulsive decisions designed to make one last mad dash to recapture youth. Like learning to ride a motorcycle.

So somewhere in my middle-aged brain remained the acorn of an idea planted all those years ago while listening to Motörhead and looking at a picture of Lemmy: I needed to know how to ride a motorcycle. I’m the first to admit, it makes little sense for a middle-aged man with three kids. Regardless, the desire was there and it continued to gnaw at me until I found myself, hungover, in the deserted parking lot at 6:30 am next to an aircraft carrier with 20 total strangers (the hangover part was pure coincidence). Believe me, people have had worse ideas in their mid-life crises.

Which leads us to Independence Day by Richard Ford, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, and a tale of mid-life crisis poster child Frank Bascombe. Sadly, this is not the book the movie Independence Day was based on. If you’re expecting aliens, explosions and rousing speeches, you won’t get them here. Instead, you get Frank. Like John Updike’s Rabbit, this is not Frank’s first appearance in print as he debuted as the angst-ridden antihero of Ford’s highly praised 1986 novel, “The Sportswriter.” Frank, who was 38 when we first met him, is now 44 years old and has abandoned sports-writing and returned to conservative Haddam, New Jersey, to live in the home of his ex-wife, Ann, and work as a realtor.

Frank is not in a good space and is exhibiting some textbook mid-life crisis thinking: he believes that life’s choices are limited, that getting old is humiliating, and that the nearness of death is downright terrifying. He has entered what he calls his “Existence Period,” “the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blowup,” a sort of holding pattern characterized by “the condition of honest independence.” He’s drifting through his forties, and throw in a few non-trivial bumps in the road — a deceased child, the divorce he hasn’t been able to recover from, and a brutally murdered ex-girlfriend – and Frank is the definition of a hot mess.

But despite his hot-messness, Frank has some goals. First off, he’d like his son Paul to come live with him so he can straighten some things out. Much, much easier said than done. To say Paul’s got some issues is an insult to issues. Paul has never recovered from the death of his brother; occasionally barks like a dog; and has been labeled by a team of therapists as intellectually beyond his years yet emotionally underdeveloped. He has recently been arrested for shoplifting three boxes of Magnum XL condoms (so he’s also either set in that department or delusional) and is being taken to court by the female security guard who captured him, who is accusing him of assault and battery.

His two other goals seem somewhat mutually exclusive. On one hand, he wants a second chance with his ex-wife Ann, which seems highly unlikely since she feels that he “may be the most cynical man in the world.” And there’s also the small matter of her remarriage. On the other hand, Frank also wants to form a “more serious attachment” to his girlfriend, Sally, but here too there are problems as evidenced by Sally’s confession: “Something’s crying out to be noticed, I just don’t know what it is. But it must have to do with you and I. Don’t you agree?”

Amidst all this, Frank is also tackling two more minor problems. First, he’s trying to collect rent from Larry McLeod, a black former Green Beret, and his white wife, Betty, who live in one of two houses Frank owns in Haddam’s solitary black neighborhood. At the same time, he’s been shepherding two “donkeyish clients,” Joe and Phyllis Markham, through 45 houses and is urging them to close on a place located next to a minimum-security prison. These story lines are so boring I almost fell asleep writing the summary.

So with all this going on, you would expect more to be going on. But there is only the thinnest of story lines in the 451 pages of Independence Day. As we’ve seen with some of the other Pulitzer winners toward the bottom of the countdown, the novel often bogs down in the repetitive description of place and setting. The majority of the book is Frank driving around the Northeast in his Crown Vic and having conversations with various characters, with whom he generally tries to share moments of meaningful human connection, with varying degrees of failure. Some events, such as Frank’s effort to collect rent from the McLeods, or the mysterious murder of his realtor/girlfriend, lead oddly nowhere. Others, such as Frank’s meeting with Sally, are at best inconclusive (Sally hopes someday he’ll “get around to doing something memorable”), or at worst, depressing in their inconclusiveness (the Markhams lose the house they were looking at to a Korean family and Frank’s effort to help his troubled son veers toward tragedy and irreparable loss).

But maybe that’s the point. A good plot as we traditionally think of it will take us for a ride through a series of events. But this would violate Frank’s basic belief that “you can rave, break furniture, get drunk, crack up your Nova and beat your knuckles bloody on the glass bricks of the exterior wall of whatever dismal room you’re temporarily housed in, but in the end you won’t have changed the basic situation and you’ll still have to make the decision you didn’t want to make before, and probably you’ll make it in the very way you’d resented and that brought on all the raving and psychic fireworks.”

This isn’t a novel about conflict or rupture or surprising and unexpected turns of events. It’s certainly not about the invasion of aliens on the 4th of July. It’s really just about living inside someone else’s mind while he goes about a fairly dull weekend, and Ford somehow does a surprisingly entertaining job of capturing the banality and desperation of mid-life suburban self-creation. Moreover, it isn’t entirely depressing. By they novel’s final scenes, Frank has managed to take his first tentative steps from the Existence Period toward a sense of community and the possibilities of the “Permanent Period,” which he defines as “that long, stretching-out time when my dreams would have mystery like any ordinary person’s; when whatever I do or say, who I marry, how my kids turn out, becomes what the world — if it makes note at all — knows of me.”

Frank Bascombe is like the anti-Lemmy Kilmister. Lemmy, for better or for worse, was a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend until the day he died, which anecdotally happened in December, while I was on my work break, not writing my blog posts. Such self-realization is rare, but it is hard to imagine that Lemmy had any self-doubts as he made his way through middle age. In contrast, Frank was full of self-doubt, and spent his days wanting life to mean just a little something more than existence. Maybe he should have tried motorcycle lessons.

Speaking of which, I loved my motorcycle lessons. As the day wore on and my hangover wore off, I couldn’t help but smile as I wove through cones or learned how to shift. It was fun. But maybe more importantly, I put Lemmy’s ghost to rest and realized that I’m not going to buy a motorcycle. I just wanted to know that I could ride one. In case aliens invade us. On Independence Day.

#53 How Shakespeare, Baby Names, and the Tower of Terror Provided Proper Perspective on A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1992)

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

My daughter Lily was almost named Cordelia. Well, “almost” may be an exaggeration, but it was certainly in the consideration set. A little over thirteen years ago we were expecting the birth of our second child and going through typical baby-naming negotiations. We knew we were having a girl, so at least that narrowed the choices down a bit. Some names Gigi liked but I didn’t (Scout) and vice versa (Claire). And some we both liked but were summarily dismissed if it was determined I dated anyone with that name (Iris).

But one of my favorites was Cordelia. Honestly, given the passage of time I’m not entirely sure why I was fixated on Cordelia, but I was, and so it was on the list. To me, she was the youngest daughter – and most favorite daughter – of King Lear. Very much a Cinderella character in contrast to her two older evil sisters. To my wife Gigi, however, Cordelia was a truck stop on the way to Tahoe and there was really no getting around that.

So Lily it was. And Lily, and the whole naming thing, was top of mind recently as I watched my now 13 year-old scale a climbing structure affectionately known as the Tower of Terror. Actually, calling the Tower of Terror a climbing structure is like calling Stalin a bit of a grump. The Tower of Terror is the tallest climbing structure suspended between two trees in the United States. At the top – 100 feet above the ground – is a bench where you can enjoy amazing views, but to get there you need to navigate a series of supremely difficult climbing elements.

How do I know it is difficult? Because I’ve tried it. The Tower of Terror lives at Camp Augusta, a camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where my kids have gone for summer camp for years. And every so often we attend a “family camp” weekend where parents are allowed to join. So over the years I’ve attempted to tackle the Tower of Terror with little success. Some might say no success as I can’t even navigate up the first element called the Giant’s Ladder, which is a series of “rungs” made from logs that get progressively farther and farther apart.

So I was somewhat surprised (but pleasantly surprised to be sure) when my 13-year-old and her 13-year-old friend signed up to try their luck. As with any parent, you want your children to succeed, but the Tower of Terror was so hard that I was proud that they were even going to attempt to climb it. I either significantly underestimated both their ability and resolve or overestimated my own, or both.

I wouldn’t say Lily and her friend Kaelin raced up the Tower of Terror, but I would say that they handled it with relative ease. It is intended to be a team building activity, but the girls ignored that advice and each tackled it on their own, albeit at the same time. Friendship be damned. And although they approached each of the elements in a different way, they both ended their climbs victorious, sitting on the bench at the very top.

Lily and Kaelin attacking the Tower of Terror.
Lily and Kaelin attacking the Tower of Terror.

And as I stood on the ground far below trying to take pictures on my iPhone of Lily so very far away, I had one of those moments where I realized that my kids have and will continue to quickly surpass my skills in many different ways. And I’m not talking about the fact that they’re better than me at Minecraft, aerial silks, SnapChat or other things that they spend an inordinate amount of time on that I don’t. No, I’m talking about things that I can do. Maybe not well, but I can do them. Sam, for example, can beat me at both chess and tennis, and, embarrassingly, taught me how to make pancakes the other day. And now Lily can say without hesitation, that she is a far better climber than I am. Although these moments may bruise the ego a little, they provoke undoubtedly positive feelings of pride and joy.

So its on the back of that parental pride for my nearly King Lear-named daughter that we tackle A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, and a fine example of how things can go incredibly wrong in a family dynamic. A Thousand Acres tells the story of Larry Cook, the aging patriarch of a rich, thriving farm in Iowa, and his three daughters: Ginny, Rose and Caroline. Larry decides, somewhat unexpectedly and hastily, to retire and turn the farm over to his three daughters. For Ginny and Rose, who live on the farm with their husbands, the gift makes sense–a reward for years of hard work, a challenge to make the farm even more successful. But the youngest, Caroline, a Des Moines lawyer, flatly rejects the idea, and in anger her father cuts her out–setting off an explosive series of events that will leave none of them unchanged.

Sound familiar? It should because coincidentally (or not), Smiley uses King Lear as her framework for the novel. We have the ailing patriarch, a kingdom in decline and his three contesting daughters. In fact, as I was reading the novel I was wondering how far Smiley is going to mirror the Shakespeare plot. It turns out, pretty far.

The novel is narrated by Ginny (Goneril in Lear), the eldest of the daughters. On the surface she is self-effacing, obedient, submissive to both her father and husband. She is childless, the victim of several miscarriages and thus jealous of her sister Rose (Regan) who has two girls. She is also jealous of her younger sister Caroline (Cordelia) who has escaped the farm and rural life to become a lawyer in the city.

But here is where the book starts to veer from its inspiration. What Smiley tries to do with A Thousand Acres is to re-tell Lear from the viewpoint of the daughters. In other words, why did Lear’s daughters act the way they acted? Was Lear less of a tragic character than a fallen one? And once armed with the backstory lacking in Lear, Ginny and Rose absolutely become more sympathetic (although you will still roll your eyes at some of their behavior), and Caroline becomes a little less sweet than her Shakespearean counterpart. They all become a little more real.

And like many of Shakespeare’s plays — and unlike many of the other Pulitzer Prize winners — A Thousand Acres has no shortage of plot twists. The story moves at a fairly rapid clip (one exception below) and should hold your interest. I won’t spoil the specifics of them for you here, but rest assured battles are engaged, abuse (both physical and sexual) is done, finances are ruined, plots are hatched (and tilled), backs are stabbed, poison is prepared, estrangements abound, truths are told, cars are crashed and lightening bolts flash. Plowshares are literally beaten into swords, and honestly no character ends up happy (which I guess may be somewhat of a spoiler except that it would be expected knowing that the story is based on Lear).

So why not a higher ranking? First off (and the exception noted above), the book did get a little overly descriptive and tedious at some points. Seriously, it is about a farm in Iowa. There are only so many descriptions of soil that I can handle. But it isn’t just soil. Smiley describes every covered dish at the social, every vegetable in the garden. I appreciate a detailed pot-luck casserole depiction as much as the next guy, but we could have lost a fifth of this book with no harm done.

Second, and more substantively, as Smiley makes the daughters more real by providing motivation, she subtracts from the realism of Larry (Lear) simply by overloading the father with culpability. You can tell fairly quickly that Larry is enough of a douche to engender adequate rage. But instead of leaving well enough alone, Smiley turns him into Satan incarnate by introducing multiple additional motives for the two oldest daughters to hate their father. Not only did this seem unnecessary, but it also actually took away from his daughters’ newfound depth because their behavior seems much less complex given the introduction of the additional bad deeds.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I simply did not feel good after closing the book. Obviously, there is an awful lot of misery in this tale. It was emotionally draining. It was dark. That being said, I’m not usually one to be that bothered by depressing stories. This one may have gotten to me because the bad stuff is never balanced out with any character redemption. Unlike Lear who at least gains a modicum of compassion and humility from his excesses, Larry learns nothing from his actions. Alternatively, and probably, I’m sure my reaction has a lot to do with being a father of three and reading a story that punctuates the power that parents have over their children — a power that can become lethal and suffocating when abused. But the fact that I recognize that rationalization doesn’t make the book any easier to read or take the stress out of parenting.

So how do you cope? Change the perspective. I recently read an article after Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, died over the summer at the age of 46. In 2008, Beau, who was also a politician, had introduced Joe at the Democratic National Convention when Joe agreed to be Obama’s running mate. During his acceptance speech, Joe said: “A father knows he’s a success when he turns and looks at his son or daughter and knows that they turned out better than he did. I’m a success; I’m a hell of a success. Beau, I love you. I’m so proud of you.”

So next time I’m looking up at my kids (literally) as I did with Lily and the Tower of Terror, I’ll try to remember that even if there is a little ego bruising as they continue to surpass me, their successes are really my successes. Because really, it’s all about me.

#55 The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1995): Reality Bites, but that’s Totally OK

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” T. S. Eliot

“Back to life, back to reality.” Soul II Soul

This was my first weekend in a while without Game of Thrones and it was a little rough. I’m slightly obsessed with the show. Ok, strike “slightly.” How obsessed am I? When I watch the show on TV, I will pause it just to see how much time is left. And no matter what the answer is, I’ll feel sad that it’s not enough. I still have the last episode saved on not one, but two televisions in the house in case I want to re-watch any of the super depressing things that happened last week.

In fact, not only am I totally caught up on the show, but I’ve also started to go back and read the books. They are, and this is an understatement, dense. But in a good way. And as with any novel/film comparison, there are a ton of details in a 700-page book that could never be included in a 10-episode television season. For example, Thrones has the most sprawling cast on television and I already struggle to differentiate all the Aryas, Ashas and Oshas, but there are literally thousands of named characters in the book series.

Another thing that gets short shrift in the television series are the references to dozens of songs conveying the oral history of Westeros – one of the lands Thrones inhabits. In Westeros – as in our own actual medieval times – most of the general populace did not have the ability to read or write. As such, ballads are the vehicle through which the people remember the past and express their emotions. Like “Brave Sir Robin.”

In the novels, George R. R. Martin created verses for almost a dozen songs but most haven’t made it into the show. They have names like “The Rains of Castamere,” “The Dance of Dragons,” “A Rose of Gold,” “The Last of the Giants,” “The Bloody Cup,” “The Day They Hanged Black Robin,” and “Lord Renly’s Ride.” They tell the stories of individuals whose brave deeds, loves lost, and revenges taken will live on lost after their fictional demise. And I will somewhat shamefully admit that it makes me a little sad that no one will write a song about me.

But on those occasions in which I’ve drifted toward narcissism (they happen more often than you think; or maybe not), Thrones usually comes through with teaching moment. In this case it came at evil King Joffrey’s wedding as one of the singers serenades the crowd with a song about the bravery of Joffrey and his mother Queen Cersei at the Battle of the Blackwater. Despite the fact that it was Joffrey’s uncle, the dwarf Tyrion, who actually turned the tide of that battle, the singer sings endless verses about Cercei’s and Joffrey’s valor. Sansa, Tyrion’s wife, sits silently for a while, but when she can’t take it anymore, blurts out “She never did that.” In response, Tyrion tells her, “Never believe anything you hear in song, my lady.” Lesson learned.

My takeaway from these wise words is that I shouldn’t be sad because even if someone wrote a song about me, you shouldn’t believe it anyway. A point that was recently emphasized to me in the Audience Award winning talk that author and fellow Piedmonter Kelly Corrigan gave at The Nantucket Project earlier this year.

In her talk titled “The Power of Acceptance,” Corrigan tells us that we’ve been taught that a good story involves likeable characters overcoming obstacles and reaching a neatly wrapped resolution. In her words, we find stories satisfying because they offer us a “catharsis,” followed by “a return to normalcy.”

The problem, however, is that life rarely follows this script. The 1980 US Men’s Olympic Hockey Team, for example, is an exception that proves the rule. We remember them precisely because their feat was remarkable in its rarity. In Westeros there would have been a song written about them. Maybe “The Song of 20” or “Brooks and the Bear.” In contrast, “reality is hard,” Corrigan says. “And so, we leave out the scary, problematic bits.”

According to Corrigan, rather than escaping reality, we need more acceptance – “the Mount Everest of human emotions” – in our lives. Acceptance of our parents, children, spouses, jobs and all the other crazy shit that has and will happen to us. We need more acceptance of ourselves. But in this day and age of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, acceptance has become so difficult because we – and I am absolutely including myself in the royal “we” – have become little PR machines, retelling our stories on social media in a truth-ish sort of way minus the scary, problematic bits.

Part of the solution, Corrigan argues, is to look for stories that embrace life in its full complexity. Like Game of Thrones? Maybe not. But not surprisingly, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, the 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, is a perfect example. The Stone Diaries follows the life of Daisy Goodwill from her birth in her mother’s kitchen in 1905 to her death in the 1990s. At first I thought it was just a simple and interesting (but not spectacular) account of a woman’s life. But as I continued reading, I realized that although on the surface it appears deceptively simple, in reality it is fairly complex and multi-layered. Like reality. Like life.

The book leaps from decade to decade and each chapter of the book is titled for a specific – and for most of us familiar – stage of her life: Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Sorrow, Ease, Illness and Decline, and Death. It begins when her mother, the absurdly fat Mercy Stone, dies bringing her into the world. (But not before, I might add, Ms. Shields provides an unexpected description of the erotic life of Mercy and her husband that involves phrases such as “vast regions of pink flesh,” “trembling generosity of her arms and thighs,” and “exalting abundance”).

And from there, the book never provides a conventional plot to the story. Daisy is simply the consummate Every Woman and her crises are the normal ones. After her mother’s death, Daisy is raised by a neighbor and meets a guardian who, years later, will become her husband. At the age of 11, she is reunited with her father at a time when they are complete strangers to one another. Daisy marries and is widowed. Twice. She has children. She has a career. The novel ends, similar to The Tinkers, with the death of Daisy as images from her long life such as fragments of overheard conversations, lost recipes, shopping lists and book titles, spin through her mind.

In the end, it’s a story about an ordinary woman, living an ordinary life, and dying an ordinary death. She is of “moderate intelligence” and an average-sized ego. She has no claims to distinction except for the fact that during her life, the world changed almost beyond recognition. And while that might not sound like a positive introduction, I can without hesitation say that, for me, although Daisy’s life is ordinary, it is still utterly absorbing. Emphasis on the “for me” part.

I enjoyed this novel predominantly for two reasons. First, I love the way Shields tells the story. Although Daisy’s life is presented mostly through narration, it is buttressed by letters, tombstones, a family tree, photographs (which occasionally contradict the narrative), words etched into a Victorian plate, a luncheon menu, Aunt Daisy’s Lemon Pudding recipe, to-do lists, a list of books read, and a sheet with every address at which Daisy lived. Moreover, though it is written as if it’s an autobiography, the book moves both backward and forward through time, giving perspectives and experiences of many of the supporting characters, including Daisy’s father, the woman who raises her, her husband, and her children. And in one of my favorite parts, a paragraph lists the things Daisy had never done or experienced in her life, including driving a car, skiing, body massage, pierced ears, and cigarettes. This list of exclusions couldn’t have given me a better understanding into the life and times Daisy lived and lived in.

The second reason I love this book, and this you may have already guessed, is that it demonstrates that all of our ordinary lives are actually extraordinary. And for most of us, it won’t be a single person or plot twist or moment that makes it memorable. There will be no Olympic gold or Battle of the Blackwater. Instead, it will be the culmination of lots of smaller moments, including the “problematic, scary bits.” The Stone Diaries may not be hopeful and mushy with a “catharsis” and “return to normalcy” ending; but it is a valiant attempt to capture the complexities of one’s life; one’s family and friends; and one’s place and purpose in this crazy, non-linear world. This book is truly about the journey.

The book also provides a related message that is worth mentioning. Despite the fact that the story is told from the viewpoints of multiple characters, many of whom are very close to Daisy, we never feel that we truly know or comprehend her. Some readers may find that annoying, but this may be a far more accurate assessment of our understanding of the people around us. Because our actual lives are far more complex than the stories we love (even Game of Thrones), we create the stories we want to hear. As Shield’s notes, “our own stories are obscenely distorted.” And this realization hits on another truth, which is that we all make assumptions of what others think about us, but these assumptions spring from our own subjective self-image and, therefore, could never truly be accurate.

So what Game of Thrones, The Stone Diaries and Kelly Corrigan have taught me is that when I begin to obsess that my story isn’t following the preferred plot line, I just need to pause, take a breath, and say to myself, “You know nothing, John Orta.” Or maybe just, “Accept.” Climb the Mount Everest of human emotions and accept things the way they are. Even if chances are that no one will write a song about me, and I won’t say cool things like “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” or “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder,” or even “Make the bad man fly,” it’s ok.

Because you know what else I learned this week? Sometimes life does follow the preferred plot line. Sometimes dreams do come true. We just watched the Warriors complete their fairy tale season that wasn’t supposed to happen. Jump shooting teams aren’t supposed to win championships, right Charles Barkley? Guys who don’t start a single game during the regular season aren’t supposed to win MVP awards, right Andre Igloudala? And certainly if you start Draymond Green at center there’s no chance of victory, right Steve Kerr? In fact, Draymond summed up the whole experience during the post-game celebration when he spied his mom in the crowd and yelled to her over the fans unmistakeable “WARRRRUUUUURRRS” cry, “They told me I can’t play in this league.” (At 0:40s)

We should write a song about them. And I’ll believe every word.

#56 – March by Geraldine Brooks (2006): The Road Yes Travelled

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

Crossing a river in Thorsmark. Seatbelts optional.
Crossing a river in Thorsmark. Seatbelts optional.

In the middle of February, I found myself in a snowstorm in Iceland with my son Sam. We were in a jeep preparing to cross what appeared to me to be a very large and uncrossable river, when we had the following conversation with our guide.

GUIDE: I think this should work.

ME: You think?

GUIDE: (ignoring me) We should take off our seatbelts though.

ME: Why?

GUIDE: In case we need to get out of the car it’s one less thing to worry about.

ME: Just so I’m clear, what we’re going to do is so dangerous that we’re actually better off taking our seatbelts off?

GUIDE: That’s fair. But if we need to get out, don’t panic.

So how did I end up in a jeep in Iceland, in winter, in a snowstorm, agreeing to cross a freezing river without a seatbelt without panicking? A fine question, but maybe we should just start with this.


This doesn’t make me happy. At all. And if you’ve been on the Internet in the past few weeks, you understand why. If you don’t know what those little yellow tags are, let me explain. Microsoft’s newest analysis tool – How-Old.net – has become the latest Internet craze. The tool allows you to upload a photo of yourself and wait for the program to detect your face. It will then guess your gender and age. I couldn’t wait to try it. I look good for my age, right?

Wrong. Whatever algorithm Microsoft is using hates me. And trust me, it wasn’t just the one picture above. As soon as I got one response, I began frantically flipping through my camera roll uploading shots that I assumed made me look if not young, at least younger. Although I succeeded in moving the needle a few years, it never ever said I looked younger than my actual age which, for the record Microsoft, IS NOWHERE NEAR 60! (And also for the record, I am yelling).

I’m sure I’m not alone and How-old.net has undoubtedly led to a spike in eye cream sales, but this is really torture for me. I have an acute sensitivity to the passage of time. Or more specifically, my passage of time. Some call this a mid-life crisis, but “crisis” seems both too short in duration and unnecessarily negative. My mid-life crisis and I have been together for years now, and for the most part, we co-exist rather well.

Sure, I’ve had some clichéd mid-life crisis-like moments – like my nonsensical yet very real desire to buy a motorcycle – but mostly my crisis and I have a very symbiotic relationship. Like a barnacle and a whale. Or the Internet and Kim Kardashian. In its simplest form, my fear of growing old has freed me (or prompted me) to do more stuff. I say “yes” to more things. And at the top of this list of stuff I say yes to is travel.

And in their relatively short lives, I’ve tried to pass this “just say yes, especially to travel” attitude down to Sam and Lily (and even, to a lesser extent due to her lesser years, Macy) and they have already seen a fair share of the world. We’ve been to New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Seoul, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague. We ventured to western Pennsylvania to see Hershey and Gettysburg. We’ve camped in the Grand Canyon and stayed at the Madonna Inn, and traveled by car, plane, train, subway, helicopter, boat and funicular. To continue to promote this attitude and foster a love of travel and exploration as the bigger kids move toward teendom, I’m always asking them where in the world they would most like to go next. They know that, chances are, I will say yes to whatever they come up with. So it wasn’t a total surprise that one day last summer my then 13-year-old Sam said to me while shooting hoops:

SAM: Dad, I’ve got two ideas for where to go.

ME: Excellent. Let’s hear.

SAM: First, I want to go see the Aurora Borealis.

ME: That sounds cool. But where actually do we go to see it?

SAM: You can go pretty much anywhere up by the Arctic Circle, but I think the best place is in Iceland.

Randomly enough, I spent two weeks on a backpacking trip in Iceland right before Sam was born so I’m about to sound knowledgeable and cool.

ME: Iceland is great. And super nice in the summer.

SAM: (looking at me like I’m a moron) “Uh, here’s the deal. You can’t go in the summer BECAUSE THE SUN’S OUT ALL THE TIME.”

He didn’t actually yell but I could tell that he was explaining this to me slowly BECAUSE I’M A MORON.

SAM: You need to go in mid to late winter.

ME: Just so I’ve got this straight, you want to go to Iceland in the middle of winter?

SAM: February would be best.

It sounded cold. And not in the Aspen or Chamonix sense. This was going to require a new wardrobe. But as a parent you need to walk the walk so I aimed to be supportive while also maximizing my optionality. I needed to say “yes.”

ME: Okay, what’s your second idea?

SAM: Have you ever heard of this thing called Burning Man?

ME: (Missing shot wildly). I have. Have you?

SAM: Yeah. I want to do that.

I’m not sure what bucket list he was “researching” on the Internet, but he was fully brushed up on the ins and outs of the Burn.

SAM: This year’s theme is the Silk Road. (They have a theme, I thought to myself.) I read the whole kids guide to Burning Man. You know though, we missed it by a year. Kids under 12 go for free.

My inner voice was saying “that’s because kids under 12 shouldn’t be going to Burning Man!! Kids under 12 should cost like $20,000!!” But all I said was…

ME: I guess we’re going to Iceland.

So that’s how Sam and I ended up visiting the Gullfoss Waterfall, driving a jeep through a river in Thorsmork, taking selfies with Icelandic horses, climbing on a glacier covered volcano, and yes, seeing the Aurora Borealis. And to anyone who asks how the trip was, I tell them Iceland in February isn’t for everyone. You’re not drinking margaritas on the beach or working on your golf game or getting a facial. But it was an adventure, and it was cool (literally and figuratively), and it was an experience we’ll never ever forget. It’s what happens when you say “yes.”

Gullfoss waterfall.
Gullfoss waterfall.

Which leads me (finally) to March by Geraldine Brooks, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. March tells the previously untold story of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. For those of you that haven’t read Little Women (a group to which I belong), the reader only gets to know Peter March through his letters sent home to his family from the Civil War. Brooks uses March to tell not only of Mr. March’s time in the war that changed him both physically and mentally, but also of his early life as a traveling salesman, of his first kiss, of the meeting of his wife, of his connections to Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau (he’s like a Civil War era Forrest Gump), of his strong abolitionist sentiments, and of misunderstandings and wrongs that were never made right in his life.

In many ways, March stands apart from the other books we’ve ranked so far at Pulitzer Schulitzer! in that it is very readable. It isn’t poorly written (Guard of Honor), over-flowery and rambling (A Fable), drug-trippy weird (House Made of Dawn), or boring (Martin Dressler). It’s conceptually interesting, at least for those who read Little Women. Brooks is a fine writer and the story moves forward quickly and easily and I had no trouble finishing it. The two main issues I have with March are (a) it is somewhat clichéd like the middle-aged guy wanting to buy a motorcycle; and (b) I don’t love the protagonist.

Brooks paints Peter March as a vegetarian, Unitarian, abolitionist, transcendentalist, book-lover from the North. In other words, he’s one huge cliché that, frankly, probably did not exist during the Civil War. But clichés by themselves (and in moderation as we’ll see later) are not unlikeable and if that were the only issue I had with Mr. March, I’m sure we’d be ok. The bigger problem with March the character – and hence March the book – is that he isn’t a person who says “yes.”

The glacier at Eyjafjallajokull.
The glacier at Eyjafjallajokull.

He hates war and he hates slavery (not a unique opinion by any means) but his actions in opposition to both are more whiny than productive. March is constantly struggling with an overly simplistic inner battle: “War is bad! But slavery is also bad! So is war to stop slavery good?” I get it. But March makes little effort to affirmatively resolve this turmoil and instead of trying to change the world, lets the world change him. And most of the time, he does this in a negative way to both himself and those around him. March is a “no” guy.

In fact, March is not only a “no” guy, but he also tends to project that trait on others, even those he loves. For example, March is very jealous of his wife’s admiration for John Brown (one more famous person that they happen to know): ”I could see that Brown ignited the very part of my wife’s spirit I wished to quench; the lawless, gypsy elements of her nature.” People looking to quench other people’s spirits in any way make me mad. Like Microsoft.

I fear I’m piling on a little right now, but I’m on a roll. Not only is the book an oversimplification of war in general, but in telling the story it employs every cliché civil war plot twist: (1) interracial romance; (2) old urbane southern woman with power; (3) bloody field hospitals; (4) inverted moral systems; (5) corrupt preachers; (6) the use of the terms “rod” and “score” to measure distance and time; (7) a well-stocked plantation library; (8) gorgeous, educated slave women who turn out to be of mixed blood; (9) the senseless suffering of women and children at the home front; and (10) southern families torn apart by Visigothic Union soldiers who smash grand pianos.

Black sand beach on the south coast.
Black sand beach on the south coast.

Although I’m already feeling a little bad about critiquing this book possibly more harshly than I should, I must add that there are more than a couple cringe inducing sentences. I’ll give two quick examples. First, when March sleeps with Marmee for the first time in the woods with unwitting musical accompaniment from Thoreau: ”We married each other that night, there on a bed of fallen pine needles — even today, the scent of pitch pine stirs me — with Henry’s distant flute for a wedding march and the arching white birch boughs for our basilica.” I have two things to say. One, it sounds uncomfortable. Two, his pine needle fetish is just…ew.

The second example sums up March in a nutshell for me. Throughout the story, March’s path crosses several times with Grace, a beautiful, ”astonishingly eloquent” slave who March (not surprisingly) falls for. Their last meeting occurs in a Washington hospital after March has been sickened with fever and grazed by a rebel bullet, and Grace shows up talking like a double major in civics and psychology: ”He loves, perhaps, an idea of me: Africa, liberated. I represent certain things to him, a past he would reshape if he could, a hope of a future he yearns toward.”

In the end, although I’m harsh, you should take my words with a grain of salt. Others that I know really liked this book, and I was excited to read it as well so there is the possibility that I simply set the bar too high. Or possibly I just wrote this while I’m still pissed off at Microsoft. Maybe trying how-old.net was the one thing I should’ve said no to. But after reading March, I am even more likely to say yes to things. So pass me the eye cream. I’ve got places to go.

Icelandic horse selfies.
Icelandic horse selfies.

#57 – House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1969): When the Moon is in the Seventh House, Sometimes Peace Will Guide the Planets, but Sometimes You Just Need to Tone Down the Drug Use

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

I see a lot of concerts. A lot a lot. Always have. I’ve seen some all time greats like Prince, The Rolling Stones, U2, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, David Bowie, Van Halen, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty, Journey (with Steve Perry), Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters and Neil Young. I’ve seen the current crop of great live acts like Green Day, Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, Kanye West, Kings of the Stone Age, The White Stripes, Bruno Mars, Adele, The National, Tame Impala, Florence and the Machine, My Morning Jacket, and the Black Keys. And because of my 12-year-old daughter Lily (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), I’ve seen Taylor Swift (twice), Katy Perry (twice), Pink, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus (the slutty one, not the Hannah Montana one), Selena Gomez and soon Arianna Grande. I’ve seen some mediocre bands too, like the one-hit wonders who end up playing their one hit more than one time. In the end, I have loved every one of them.

My favorite concert? Hard to say. But my favorite concert moment? No question. In the fall of 1997, Jane’s Addiction, who had been broken up since 1991, reunited for the Relapse Tour with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing bass. The tour was overwhelmingly successful selling out shows from coast to coast, but the band took it up a notch when they came to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco and hosted the neo-pagan extravaganza, the ENIT Festival. With drum-and-bass artist Goldie and DJ collective Funky Tekno Tribe opening up, and Jane’s scheduled to go on at 1 a.m., the show was more rave than concert. Perry Farrell, Jane’s lead singer, called the event “a lavish celebration of the senses.” So given that backdrop, the audience was not surprisingly surprised when, late in the evening (early in the morning?), on the stage appeared, not Jane’s Addiction, but Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Nation (1964), neither a Pulitzer Prize winner, was a pivotal countercultural figure in the 1960s. But really he’s famous for taking a lot of drugs. A lot a lot. In his most well-known act, Kesey, Neal Cassady, and others in a group of friends they called the Merry Pranksters took a cross-country trip in a psychedelic painted school bus nicknamed “Further.” This trip, chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was the group’s attempt to create art out of everyday life, and to experience roadway America while high on LSD. A lot a lot of LSD.

Given that the Merry Pranksters were a generation removed from their heyday, their inclusion at the ENIT Festival seemed ill conceived. And when Kesey and the Pranksters – all dressed in black plastic trash bags — wandered onstage after Goldie and performed an extemporaneous spoken word exposition about JFK’s assassination (it happened to be the anniversary of his death) accompanied by video footage of the tragedy, it was no celebration of the senses. Given the festival atmosphere that preceded this performance, the crowd’s reaction, and my own, was no bueno. It was not making me happy. At all.

But that’s when the magic happened. It turns out that Kesey believed that the Kennedy assassination marked the point there the world turned from black and white to Technicolor. I didn’t know that. All I knew was that one by one the members of the Merry Pranksters started to remove their trash bags revealing fluorescent clown costumes underneath, and when they did, they also transitioned into singing “Let the Sun Shine In” from Hair. The crowd was peaking, singing along with the Pranksters, when at exactly the right moment, the lights dropped, Dave Navarro’s mellow guitar intro to “Ocean Size” filled the arena, and the crowd took a collective breath waiting for Perry Farrell to scream “Three, Four!” before all hell broke loose. I just got chills. And to this day, I believe that moment would have been wonderful on its own, but the inclusion of the Merry Pranksters beforehand made it better.

And lucky for me, and now you, the whole thing was captured on film for a movie called Three Days so that I can relive the moment at my whim. The clip below starts first with a crowd shot to set the stage (44:38), cuts to some dude explaining the Prankster’s bus outside Bill Graham (45:00), moves to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on stage in their trash bags (45:30) and then culminates with Perry, wearing a Mardi Gras-inspired mask, jumping down on to the stage while Dave Navarro (in a black mini-skirt, hose, feather boa and silver cape) and Flea hit the first power chord of Ocean Size. Roughly 2 ½ minutes of bliss to me that I recognize will mean very little to most everyone else.

But my focus here isn’t on Jane’s (chills again) but instead on The Merry Pranksters because they remind me a lot of House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1969). I’ll explain in a moment.

House Made of Dawn tells the story of Abel in four distinct parts. In Part I, we meet Abel, a Native American who returns to his reservation in New Mexico after fighting in World War II. Emotionally, he’s a wreck, and when he arrives he’s so drunk he doesn’t recognize his grandfather Francisco, a man who not only taught him Native American traditions, but also raised Abel after the death of his mother. Although he tries, he never quite fits in and things invariably go off the rails ending with Abel deciding some guy is a witch so he stabs him to death outside a bar. As with many murderers, Abel is sent to jail.

Parts II and III take place in Los Angeles 6 ½ years later, but tell the story from different points of view. In Part II, Abel has been released from prison and has begun hanging out with a local group of Native Americans led by Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah. They aren’t good people. He’s also made a real friend named Ben and starts dating a social worker named Milly, but neither are enough to keep him out of trouble. Abel ends up drunk on the beach with his hands, head, and upper body beaten and broken, but eventually pulls himself together enough to walk to the apartment he shares with Ben.

In Part III, Ben puts Abel on a train back to the reservation and describes what has happened to Abel in Los Angeles. After being ridiculed by Reverend Tosamah during a poker game, Abel is too drunk to fight back, remains drunk for the next two days and, not surprisingly, misses work. When he returns to his job, the boss, not surprisingly, gives him shit and Abel quits. A downward spiral begins (or, depending on your definition of “downward spiral,” continues) and Abel continues to get drunk every day, borrow money from Ben and Milly, and laze around the apartment until Ben finally throws him out of the apartment. Abel then picks a fight with a corrupt cop that leads to him almost being beaten to death.

In the last part, Momaday brings the story full circle as Abel returns to the reservation to take care of his grandfather, who is dying. His grandfather retells him the stories from his youth and stresses the importance of staying connected to his people’s traditions. In the end, Abel participates in a traditional ritual and it feels as if he may be coming back to his people and his place in the world.

So what is the connection between the Merry Pranksters and House Made of Dawn other than they were both created in the 60s and involved a lot of drugs? In both cases the actual work is less important than what the work represented. If I painted a bus today and drove it across the US while simultaneously taking a lot of drugs, people would think it was silly. Maybe fun, but silly. But when the Merry Pranksters did this in 1964, it truly was revolutionary. It was the link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. The act itself doesn’t stand the test of time, but what it represented does.

Just as I feel that Ken Kesey and Merry Pranksters have more social importance than artistic, Momaday’s book has more social and political importance than literary. Specifically, Momaday’s novel is important less because it breaks new ground thematically (it doesn’t, really) and more because of its status as the first novel by a Native American author to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize (and because it is seen as paving the way for the Native American literary boom that would follow) and because of its structural/formal experimentation. And while both are undoubtedly significant, with the benefit of hindsight, the novel itself isn’t as strong as some of the other Pulitzer winners.

Momoday’s writing can be undeniably beautiful at times, but he took a fairly simple story and made it equally undeniably confusing by using a non-linear and stream of consciousness method of story-telling and then on top of that shifting perspectives of the characters without warning. Doing so may be interesting or even, dare we say, revolutionary for the time, but it also demands a lot from the reader. It is a hard book that requires close reading. Or a lot of LSD. A lot a lot.

But, to be clear, “hard books” are not “bad books” and I enjoyed this one. The literary tricks, however, seemed more contrived than necessary and ultimately subtracted from the story itself. The characters get lost in the process. I never gained any real perspective into Abel (or any of the other characters for that matter), which then, unfortunately, makes Abel’s journey–from alienated returning vet to ex-con in the big city and back to the reservation, where he finds a sort of healing and begins to return to his people and their way of life—seem like one seen from a distance, not one I actually cared about.

House Made of Dawn, while admittedly trailblazing in some respects, feels like a premature Pultizer. The Prize committee made this award on what the novel represented rather than the novel itself. Just as I applaud Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters for what they did but it doesn’t mean I thought it was good (other than opening up for Jane’s Addiction in fluorescent clown outfits), I similarly I applaud Momaday for giving us a glimpse into his world even though I though it could have been a lot better.  A lot a lot.

#58 – “Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler (1989): Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, but nothing says the 80s like Journey, Anne Tyler, and bad marriages

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

Nothing’s changed
I still love you, oh, I still love you
Only slightly, only slightly less
Than I used to, my love

-The Smiths, “Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

There was article a few weeks back in the “Modern Love” column of the Sunday New York Times called “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” that seems to have struck a chord with many readers. In the piece, the author talks about going to a bar with a man who would later become her boyfriend and asking each other 36 questions, followed by four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact. According to the Times (and these stats are now a little dated), the article generated more than 5.2 million visits to the website, and over 365,000 shares of Facebook and has even spawned some parodies. Clearly, Tinder hasn’t solved all of our love problems.

The questions, proposed by Dr. Arthur Aron, were originally designed to measure closeness in strangers, but have since been used to try to form romantic bonds between people. They are divided into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one. The theory is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness, and because people have trouble allowing themselves to show vulnerability, this exercise forces the issue.

For example, you start off sharing who you would want as a dinner guest, whether you would like to be famous (and in what way), and when was the last time you sang to yourself or someone else. Then it moves into in more personal territory such as what is you most treasured memory? Your most terrible? It forces you to talk about what roles love and affection play in your life, and your feelings about your relationship with your mother. And woven throughout are maybe the most difficult questions that force you to say things about the other person such as this one: “Tell your partner something that you like about them already.”

What would I have said if I could go back in time and do this with Gigi? I find all 36 questions interesting, and I’m sure I would’ve been fascinated and smitten with Gigi’s childhood memories and simultaneously mortified by her relationship with her mother, but all of that fades away to leave the spotlight on the one question that really matters: What do I like about you? Would I have said I like that she’s obsessed with the Giants or that she can line dance or that she’s really good at word games? And how can I answer that now, knowing that she actually watches or listens to all 162 Giants games every single season, or that she can beat me 47 straight times in Scramble? Maybe we would have connected over music but I would have been disappointed that she hates Tom Waits. How could I have known that despite her hatred, she is open-minded enough to one day add “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” to her not-yet-existing Spotify favorites playlist because she decided that one was pretty good, and that I would love that about her. As we stared into each other’s eyes for four minutes, would I have realized that she would become a successful lawyer, would be an even better mother, or that we’ll argue for years over whether Jimi Hendrix was overrated? I have no idea but I wish I had the chance to find out.

And regardless of whether you think asking each other these 36 questions would actually work, you have to agree with me that it certainly isn’t a horrible idea. What percentage of now-divorced couples would have never made it past question 4 (“What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?”) before realizing their nascent relationship was doomed and went their separate ways? Again, I have no idea but I know the percentage is greater than zero.

Speaking of separate ways, immediately after writing that sentence I looked up the video for Journey’s “Separate Ways” and watched it three consecutive times. How could you not? Take arguably the biggest band of 1983 and throw them in an empty shipyard, have them play invisible instruments and lip sync while a hot girl with bad hair in a leather mini-skirt walks around for no reason whatsoever and what do you have? Pure gold (or Solid Gold for those of us that remember the decade). We just had an 80s party for work and the cover band – albeit awesome – inexplicably failed to play this gem. We should have just looped a video of this song all night long.

So while we’re on the subject of couples who could have benefited from asking each other at least 4 of the 36 questions, and the 1980s, we might as well tackle Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, the 1989 Pulitzer winner. Breathing Lessons tells the story of Maggie and Ira, a middle-aged couple who both believe that their lives have failed to live up to their expectations. Maggie, who gave up going to college because she got pregnant, is someone who now doesn’t hesitate to reach across from the passenger seat and honk while her husband is driving. She’s buggy, for sure, but at least she does shit. Or at least tries to.

Ira is the opposite. Uncommunicative to start with, he has reached the point where Maggie can divine his moods only from the pop songs of the 1950’s that he whistles. Besides whistling, his pleasure is playing solitaire. He had dreamed of working on the frontiers of medicine, but after he graduated from high school his father, complaining of a heart problem, dumped the family business on him, as well as the duty of supporting two unmarriageable, unemployable sisters. As Ms. Tyler writes: ”Ira had been noticing the human race’s wastefulness. People were squandering their lives, it seemed to him. They were splurging their energies on petty jealousies or vain ambitions or long-standing, bitter grudges…He was fifty years old and had never accomplished one single act of consequence.” You totally want to hang with this guy.

Their son, Jesse, is a high school dropout that wants to be a rock star to escape the drudging anonymity he sees as his father’s fate. ”I refuse to believe that I will die unknown,” he tells Ira. But like many budding rock stars Jesse made his fair share of mistakes, including knocking up Fiona, a fellow dropout, when she was 17. Those relationships rarely turn out well, and after the inevitable blow up, Fiona moved away to her mother’s and neither Ira nor Maggie have seen her for 7 years.

In contrast to Jesse, their daughter, Daisy, is actually an overachiever. At 13 months she had undertaken her own toilet training and by first grade was setting her alarm an hour early in order to iron and color-coordinate her outfit for school. At this point, Ira and Maggie can only watch as she grows away from them and heads off for college knowing there is nothing they can do to stop it. Not long ago Daisy had said to Maggie, “Mom? Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?”

The book’s principal event is a 90-mile trip that Maggie and Ira make to attend a funeral for the husband of a high school classmate. Serena, the widow, wants the funeral service to be a reenactment of their wedding, which included Maggie and Ira singing ”Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” For whatever reason, this messed-up situation works Maggie into such a state that she convinces Ira to have sex with her in Serena’s bedroom during the reception, until Serena catches them and kicks them out.

So on the way home, Maggie decides that this would be a good time to go visit Fiona and the granddaughter they haven’t seen in 7 years. Convincing herself that she can get Jesse and Fiona to reconcile, Maggie then persuades Fiona to come back to Baltimore with them. It seems that everyone except Maggie is both indifferent and skeptical about this plan, but, nonetheless, everyone goes along with her suggestions. And, of course, it all goes nowhere.

Ms. Tyler loves writing about marriages and families. But not happy marriages or families or even super unhappy marriages or families. She’s not that interested in divorce or infidelity. Instead, she focuses on people whose dreams and ambitions have vanished to the point where they’ve lost hope but aren’t actually self-aware enough to realize it. Clinging to a low rung of the middle class, these folks have long given up on promotions or success and instead simply try not to slide into bankruptcy, booze or prison. All anyone ever does is react, and then usually wrongly. But mostly they remain totally bewildered by most major ”decisions” in their own lives, particularly by how they came to marry their spouse. They never grasp how a month or two of headlong, blind activity can lead to years and years of inertia. They are desperately in need of the 36 question test.

As a general rule, I like these types of stories and I like Anne Tyler. But Breathing Lessons sits at #55 for two reasons: One, like Fay in The Optimist’s Daughter, Maggie is just not that believable. She’s constantly meddling in everyone else’s problems but is singularly unable to organize her own existence. She’s full of self-justification, but seems to have developed absolutely no powers of self-analysis or reflection. And her horribly inept driving skills border on slapstick.

Two, I liked Breathing Lessons. I just didn’t love it. It’s hard not to like Anne Tyler. Like Journey, she ruled the 80s, with three novels in a row nominated for the Pulitzer Prize: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1983) and The Accidental Tourist (1985) in addition to Breathing Lessons. And If you’ve read any other Anne Tyler books, I can safely say that Breathing Lessons is a super Anne Tyler-ly Anne Tyler book, but not the best one. If I’d never read any of her other works, I might have rated this one higher. But alas, it wasn’t my first and for me, this book had that “been there done that” feel to it. Giving her the Pulitzer for Breathing Lessons was, to me, a little like giving Martin Scorsese the Best Director nod for The Departed after not giving it to him for Raging Bull or Goodfellas. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but although I love Anne Tyler’s works, I love this one only slightly less than her others. We probably would’ve discovered that by question 4.