Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Way West and catching up on the others - 100in1001

*** Edit: see the section where I discuss Andersonville

Before getting to The Way West I want to go over the other books I've read from the Pulitzer list so far just because they haven't received much, or in some cases any, mention here.

The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway was not the first one I attempted but it stands out for reasons to be explained in a minute. It was an easy read and was very approachable. The tale is engaging and, in a rare combination, there's plenty of depth if you're the type to analyze the books you read. I feel like this is something I should have read in high school or thereabouts for the lessons on life that can be extracted. I am going to try to watch the movie based on the book simply because I don't think the story as told by the book is very film-able, there just isn't much to engage a reader: it's mostly a guy on a boat trying to tire a fish out. If it were filmed today I'm sure the fish would be of River Monsters caliber and would have killed many people in the village already, including some sort of teenagers having fun in the opening scene and the old man wouldn't be so much tiring the fish as wrestling it in a mano-a-fisho 30-minute action sequence. But that's off topic. Overall the book is a good read for just about anyone.

Next up are the rest in reverse chronological order: Andersonville by Kantor, Guard of Honor by Cozznes, and Tales of the South Pacific by Michener. The reason I feel they, along with The Way West, can be grouped together is because they are all centered about defining moments in American history. GoH and TotSP both center around WWII with the former concentrating on the home front in Florida and the latter on the (duh) Pacific theater, with little (TotSP) to no combat (GoH) involved. Andersonville meanwhile centers on the Civil War-era prisoner camp of the same name run by the Confederates (word of the day: eponymous) and The Way West on the settling of the west, specifically Oregon.

Excluding The Way West, I found these books a bit hard to read. TotSP is a bunch of loosely connected narratives, so you get some recurring characters but sometimes by the time they came back around in later tales I had forgotten what their contribution was earlier in the story. There was one bit in the book where a dogfight between some planes is described that actually had me laughing out loud, an unexpected treat. I'm not sure every version has them, but it had wonderful illustrations throughout. There are good characters and stories here, though because of the "tales" nature there isn't the amount of development that you find in a regular novel. I did appreciate the picture of the hidden war away from the frontlines.

I didn't get much joy of of GoH really and that may have been because I found its characters even harder to follow. The characters don't come in and out like in TotSP but the author more strictly sticks to the military titles, so it's easy to get lost in the flood of Generals, Majors, etc. Worse, sometimes he does refer to them by first name so it takes a while to connect "Major Doe" with "John." Like TotSP it gives an interesting perspective on the war, this time how the military at home were doing about business, but I didn't find the characters all that interesting and there's not much plot at all to speak of. By the end I appreciated TotSP, but not GoH. I'm sad to say that many times it felt like a chore to sit down and read GoH.

Andersonville is almost half short stories and half novel. Early on the book introduces you to some civilians living around the prison camp and then the military as the camp site is chosen and built. After this there is a lot of concentration on the lives of the prisoners, and this is where the tales-style storytelling comes in. Many chapters focus on an individual or a group doing something, like digging an escape tunnel, and they are genuinely good reads, but then they are often left out from the rest of the novel or die at the end of the chapter. There are characters that span most or all of the camp part of the tale though, so there is some sense of continuance and you do get one long narrative strain, that of order vs evil/chaos. The end of the book is really excellent; the story of the cripple, no-long-soldier Confederate helping an escaped Union cripple and the conclusion of the civilian arc were great and I had genuine interest in these characters. Kantor did an extremely thorough job researching and referencing works about the prison. Some of the military characters are actual people, one of them being the gruff Wirz, who was one of my favorite characters, and Kantor apparently spent 25 years making the book! Really a must read for anyone interested in the Civil War. The narrative threads and characters, especially the fictional civilians, are solid as long as you can get over some dying or being written off just as you are getting interested in their tale. I think it is a worthwhile read, again, to get the perspective on an important time in American history. *** EDIT *** One thing I forgot to mention here is that this book does not use quotes for dialog. If you think it sounds bad try reading it, very easy to get lost in whether something is dialog or narration, especially when a new paragraph begins. Is the same speaker still going or or did someone new just start or is no one now talking? Ack!

Now, finally, The Way West by Guthrie. I have to get this out of the way first: I lived a deprived childhood and DID NOT play Oregon Trail; I will say that no one dies of dysentery in the book. In contrast to the other American history books discussed above, this is an actual novel that follows key characters as they form a company and then drive their wagon train to Oregon. The characters are well developed, though only a couple are that memorable, and the train driving along kept me driving through the book. There are moments of action, but the reason to read this is to get insight into what a great feat settling the west was for early Americans. It is also interesting to see the general disdain for the "Injuns" for their "uncivilized" ways and British for their interests in settling Oregon and the west to claim it for themselves. Indeed, one character's motivation to go to Oregon is to help the US populate it so the British can't take it. Overall a good, but not great read, that is worth it yet again for the perspective on history.

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