I’ve fallen far behind on these reviews, but here’s the beginning of my effort to catch up. This also mark the beginning of a blog, which probably I should have started when I started doing these reviews.
2010: Tinkers by Paul Harding. As an old man lies dying, he reflects on his childhood and his own father’s demise from epilepsy. If this reads on first glance like literary-fiction boilerplate – As I Lay Dying, anyone? – believe me, it’s even worse than it sounds. Among other conceits, the protagonist of this graduate-school-writing-program thesis repairs clocks, which allows the author to include periodic asides from a presumably fictional horological text. Well, Harding may congratulate himself on writing a book that reads like clockwork: meticulously crafted, precise in its inner workings, and utterly mechanical.
1951: The Town by Conrad Richter. Some genuinely witty anecdotes arise in this story of an early Ohio settlement in the midst of its growth into a proper town. I liked it, for the most part, although I found the actions of its characters unbelievable at several points.
1950: The Way West by A.B. Guthrie. Guthrie’s adventure story of settlers heading across the Great Plains reminded me a great deal of another, later winner, The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, albeit with fewer literary pretensions. While wholly readable, it also was rather forgettable, due, I think, to a plain prose style, simple characters, and a straightforward plot. If you’re curious to see how the Oregon Trail video game would read as a novel, here it is. Just try not to die of cholera.
1949: Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens makes for an interesting contrast with The Way West because Cozzens has precisely the eye for for verisimilitude that Guthrie lacks. It’s always apparent when you’re reading the work of a master writer, and Cozzens displays his skill from the first page as he describes the Florida landscape from a bird’s eye vantage. The novel also shows a nuanced understanding of the relationships between different troops and their commanders on an Air Force Base in wartime, and his expansive cast includes many remarkable portraits. I can’t say that it changed my life, but I’d be willing to give another of Cozzens’ books a try.
1948: Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener. It’s obvious Michener meant well by this book. He clearly loves the South Pacific, and is at his best when relating light anecdotes of his wartime experiences there, as with a particularly amusing story about a black-toothed Chinese matron nicknamed Bloody Mary, who sells souvenirs to soldiers and encourages one particular soldier in a liaison with her daughter. Bright spots notwithstanding, Michener’s book has aged poorly, and is marred throughout by blind nationalistic jingoism and by persistent racial stereotyping that periodically flares into flat-out racism.
1947: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren tells the story of Willie Stark, who begins as an earnest young lawyer in the South and ends as the most cynical of governors. Along the way, he destroys any number of people’s lives, his own included. Warren fills his book with memorable characters and memorable scenes – one of Stark’s early speeches especially stands out – and America’s limitless capacity for corruption makes its message as timely as ever.