Review: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

This is one of those books I suspect “everybody” has read by now, as it won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was made into a popular movie in 2002.  Well, I hadn’t read it yet, despite running into it nearly every time I entered a used bookshop.  Now that situation has been remedied, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed the experience.

The Hours uses Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway as a jumping-off point, and chronicles a single day in the life of three women:  Woolf, during the period in which she wrote the novel, Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife smitten with the novel, and Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed “Mrs Dalloway,” who is preparing to host a party for a dear friend on a summer day in the late 1990s.

I read Mrs Dalloway several years ago, and recall being underwhelmed.  It was my introduction to Woolf and her writing requires special attention.  I’ve since come to appreciate her work; and found myself nodding in agreement as Laura Brown experiences the novel for the first time:

How, Laura wonders, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that — who was able to feel everything contained in a sentence like that — come to kill herself? What in the world is wrong with people? Summoning resolve, as if she were about to dive into cold water, Laura closes the book and lays it on the nightstand. … At least, she thinks, she does not read mysteries or romances. (p. 41)

The day unfolds through chapters about the three women in turn.  Clarissa goes out to buy flowers for the party (much as Clarissa did in the novel), Laura makes a birthday cake for her husband, Virginia struggles to get a few sentences down on paper while staring down her depression.  Cunningham writes delightful prose, making even the most ordinary activities exquisite and sensual:

Guiding Richie’s hands with her own, she helps him dip the cup into the flour. The cup goes in easily, and through its thin wall he can feel the silkiness and slight grit of the sifted flour. a tiny cloud rises in the cup’s wake. Mother and son bring it up again, heaped with flour. Flour cascades down the silver sides. Laura tells the boy to hold the cup steady, which he nervously manages to do, and with one quick gesture she dismisses the grainy little heap on top and creates a flawless white surface exactly level with the lip of the cup. He continues holding the cup with both hands.  (p. 77)

As the day proceeds, we come to know each woman better.  Laura feels confined by her lifestyle, but guilty because she “should” love being a good wife and mother.  Clarissa is a perfectionist about the party, but also tremendously insecure about her life and relationships.  As for Virginia, Cunningham shows us signs of the mental illness that eventually leads to her suicide.  Knowing what’s in store for her makes her sections of the novel all the more poignant.

The lives of these three women become intertwined in a surprising way, which actually made me gasp.  And now, after reading The Hours I want to re-read Mrs Dalloway.  If you haven’t read either book yet, I recommend reading them concurrently; each would enrich the other.

Review: Tinkers, by Paul Harding

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. (p. 18)

Tinkers is about George Crosby’s final days.  Lying in bed in the front room of his house, surrounded by family, he takes a mental journey through his life, as well as his father’s.  His thoughts meander in a mostly slow and meditative way.  The prose is richly descriptive and even dreamlike in places:

The afternoon became warm, and with the warmth the first bees appeared, and each little bee settled in a yellow cup and took suck like  newborn. Howard stopped Prince Edward, even though he was behind in his rounds, and gave the mule a carrot and stepped into the field full of flowers and bees, who seemed not to mind his presence in the least, who seemed, in fact, in their spring thrall, to be unaware of his presence at all.  Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green.  Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green.  (p. 60)

Throughout his adult life, George carefully concealed the scars left by his father’s abandonment.  On his deathbed it all comes back to him, but he also begins to see that paternal abandonment, while manifested in different forms, goes back at least two generations.  At 80, George has broken the cycle.  And he has inherited a more positive, useful quality:  that of a “tinker.”  George’s father sold goods to country folk and handled all manner of small repairs along the way.  George repairs clocks, and his memories are interrupted by excerpts from an 1870s clock repair manual.

I first heard about Tinkers when it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and I couldn’t wait to read it.  This type of book is typically right up my street.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed.  I just couldn’t get into the rhythm.  Maybe it was my mood.  Or perhaps it was because I kept comparing it to two other books I loved, which explore similar themes: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home.  Whatever the reason, and despite the beautiful writing, something about Tinkers fell short for me.

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Review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you. (p. 52)

John Ames is a Congregationalist minister living in Gilead, a small Iowa town.  Late in life, he was blessed with a wife and son.  Now, aware that his heart is failing, he begins writing a long letter to his son, to be read when the son comes of age.  Gilead is that letter.  In it Ames tells his life story, shares hopes and dreams for his wife and son, and explores matters of faith.

Ames was himself the son of a preacher.  Through his writings he tries to come to terms with his strained relationship with his father, now long dead.  He mourns his first wife and child, both of whom died too soon, and he rejoices in having found love at an advanced age.  But there is one matter that weighs heavily on Ames, and his letter serves as a sort of catharsis.

Ames’ best friend is a Presbyterian minister, Robert Boughton.  The two have spent years leading Gilead’s faithful, and  developed a deep and lasting friendship.  Boughton had several children; Jack, the black sheep of the family, was named after Ames.  When Jack Boughton returns to Gilead after a long absence, Ames must face long-suppressed emotion and conflict, and accept his inability to control events after he has passed on.

This is a magnificent novel.  The pace is leisurely and conversational, initially masquerading as an amusing portrait of small-town religious life, full of little details like the bizarre Jello salad concoctions served at church suppers.  But Gilead is so much more: it is a celebration of life, love, friendship, fathers, sons, and forgiveness.

Marilynne Robinson followed Gilead with Home, which presents the same story from the Boughton family’s perspective.  Each book stands on its own, and is beautiful and moving.  But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The richness and depth of this story become apparent on reading both books.  These are not to be missed.


Read my review of Home
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The Pulitzer Project: 2010 Goals and Progress

I’ve been working on this perpetual challenge since 2007.  In 2009, my goals was to read 6 Pulitzer winners, and I achieved that goal.  I’ve now read more than 25 of the 80+ winners, and I’ve decided I’m not really trying to complete the list; however, there is some good literature to be found here!  My 2010 goal is to read another 6, including the 2010 winner.

Pulitzer Prize Winners Read in 2010 (will post as completed)
2005 – Gilead (Robinson) – review
2010 – Tinkers (Harding) – review

Complete List of Pulitzer Prize Winners Read (with links to reviews where available):
2010 – Tinkers (Harding)
2009 – Olive Kitteridge (Strout)
2008 – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Díaz)
2007 – The Road(MacCarthy)
2006 – March (Brooks)
2005 – Gilead (Robinson)
2004 – The Known World (Jones)
2003 – Middlesex (Eugenides)
2002 – Empire Falls (Russo)
2001 – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Chabon)
2000 – Interpreter of Maladies (Lahiri)
1995 – The Stone Diaries (Shields)
1994 – The Shipping News (Proulx)
1992 – A Thousand Acres (Smiley)
1988 – Beloved (Morrison)
1973 – The Optimist’s Daughter (Welty)
1972 – Angle of Repose (Stegner)
1961 – To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
1958 – A Death in the Family(Agee)
1953 – The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
1940 – The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
1939 – The Yearling(Rawlings)
1937 – Gone with the Wind (Mitchell)
1932 – The Good Earth (Buck)
1930 – Laughing Boy (LaFarge)
1925 – So Big (Ferber)
1923 – One of Ours (Cather)
1921 – The Age of Innocence (Wharton)