Pulitzer 1952: The Caine Mutiny

I don’t think of myself as a lover of war stories, but this book was a humdinger. The Caine Mutiny supposedly grew out of Herman Wouk’s personal experiences on a minesweeper during WWII. For sure Wouk never experienced a mutiny (the US Navy has only had one mutiny, the USS Sommers in 1842), but the book has a vividness and feeling of authenticity in the details that I think comes from the characterization of the sailors, Navy life in general, and wartime experiences in particular.

Wouk expertly plots the story of Willie Keith, a shallow, affluent young man who applies for the Navy so he won’t get stuck in the Army. Willie is a mama’s boy, and his mama has money. He’s been working as a two-bit piano player and canoodling with a beautiful and sincere singer, May. Willie’s crazy for her, but at the same time, he’s too aware that she’s not of his same social class and thinks constantly about dumping her.

About a quarter to a third of the novel takes place in New York prior to Willie’s Navy enlistment. It’s crucial, because we the reader get a good grasp of who Willie is before he goes through his transformation aboard the Caine. Willie is spoiled and privileged, but he’s our protagonist and I found myself firmly interested in his well-being.

Once in the Navy, Willie forms some tight, manly friendships at boot camp, and then gets his orders to report to the rather decrepit Caine, a destroyer converted into a minesweeper. Willie’s a spoiled greenhorn who makes several outrageous (by Navy standards) mistakes. Still, his new captain, De Vriess, thinks privately that he’ll become a good officer one day. And he does, but not before Captain Queeg takes over the Caine. Queeg’s competency as a captain is questionable from the very beginning. This and his weird and random disciplinary quirks both confound and worry other officers and sailors. Willie ends up being witness to mutiny to Queeg’s leadership during a typhoon in the western Pacific. The court-martial section of the book which follows the mutiny is gripping.

Heavily plot driven books like this are a huge palate cleanser for me sometimes. There’s not much nuance in this tale–it’s an adventure story and one man’s arc of maturation through the course of these adventures. I can just zip along, following the adventure vicariously, without chewing much over themes or layers of meaning, because that’s not the point of a novel like this. I think it takes enormous skill to keep such a plot moving forward, to know exactly how much of Willie’s background must be constructed, how much sailing around the Pacific must be done,  how much contrast between “regular” Navy and off-beat Navy needed to be shown, how much Willie must mess up before he does right, all in order to drive the story to its climactic mutiny and court-martial. I think Wouk won the Pulitzer for damn good plotting and storytelling. Full stop.

In addition to checking one more book off my Pulitzer project, this also counts toward my 2018 TBR challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader. I signed on to this at the beginning of the year, but am only now reading one from that list. Finally!

5/5
personal copy

Pulitzer 2011: A Visit from the Good Squad

I’m going to find this book tough to review because — dare I confess? — I really couldn’t follow parts of it. It starts off with a great scene — Sasha’s on another bad first date and heads into the women’s room for some recharging. She spies a green wallet sticking out of a bag, while its owner is busy in the stall. Sasha’s a kleptomaniac, and she’s been working with a therapist to understand why stealing gives her such a rush of pleasure. But the opportunity the unattended wallet presents to give her a rush of relief from her boring date is just too perfect a chance to pass by.  So she nabs it. This first chapter nabbed me, too, even if I did have to wonder — who the hell leaves their bag outside the stall while using a public bathroom? Continue reading

Foreign Affairs

foreign-affairsDo certain decades have a unique writing style? Certainly most readers have a sense of writing that feels dated in some way — like the demanding vocabulary (by contemporary standards) and expository narrator you might find a Victorian novel. Or writing that uses language that is highly charged for today’s reader, e.g., use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn or The Big Sky.

Alison Lurie’s writing in Foreign Affairs immediately slipped me into a late-70s, early-80s frame of mind. Her style is smooth and the pages slip by effortlessly. A bit like soft rock, novel-style. Pleasant, with a resonating groove under the surface. Easy, like Sunday morning. Continue reading

Where I’ve been and what I’ve read

No excuses for not posting except — and it’s a big except — I was gutted by the US election result and continue to writhe like an eel on a spike with every tweet, headline, and cabinet pick. When I can’t deal with reality, I escape to other worlds in books. So the good news is that I’ve been reading a lot in November and December. The bad news is that I’ve not been commenting much about those reads.  This doesn’t bode well for my blogging life in 2017 either. People say they are glad to leave 2016 behind, but I’m afraid 2016 was only the beginning of scarier and sadder times ahead. I suppose I’ll get used to it, but I’ll confidently increase my reading goal next year nevertheless.

Still, I started this blog with the intent of keeping track of my reading and impressions. So here is a short list with “lite” (or simply shallow) commentary on what’s been keeping me away from the headlines and semi-sane for the past few weeks. Continue reading

But…Angle of Repose

angle-of-repose

I’m not sure why Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose was never on my radar, particularly considering my interest in recent years with novels of the West. But I had never heard of it until recently, when I read mention on some blog or other (that is the problem with reading so many bookish sites–I lose track of where I hear about things). It was called a classic of Western literature, Stegner’s masterpiece, and so forth. A few days later I happened to spy a copy at the local library book sale, so it seemed fate was telling me to read it.

This is a very, very good book, and perhaps it is Stegner’s masterpiece (it’s another winner of the Pulitzer, 1972), but for various reasons, I am not sure it lives up its laurels. It starts out rather slowly, narrated by Lyman Ward, a retired historian who suffers from an unknown debilitating illness which has left him with an amputated leg and skeletal stiffness. He is confined to a wheelchair and needs help with daily tasks, yet he has retired alone, to his son’s displeasure, in his grandparent’s house in rural Grass Valley, CA. There he has set a task for himself to sort through his grandmother’s letters and to reconstruct the remarkable and historic path his grandparents cut through the mid-1800’s West in the early years of their marriage. His grandparents’ marriage suffered a series of disappointments and great tragedies (no spoilers) that led them to live out their remaining years at an “angle of repose” rather than in a fully engaged and loving relationship. Lyman’s grandfather, whom he adored, was an engineer. The titular phrase refers to the engineering concept of the steepest angle at which loose matter can be piled before it slips down the slope. Lyman’s own marriage has suffered its own disappointments (he is estranged from his wife), and it becomes clear as the novel progresses that he is searching not only to understand how his grandparents arrived at this angle themselves, but also how he might resolve his own emotional conflict about his ex-wife. Continue reading