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Reading

So much of one’s experience with a book depends on context and literary taste that it is hard to put a definitive value on a particular work of fiction. That said, we’ve enjoyed most of the Pulitzer-winning novels we have read – enough so that we decided to try to read all of the Pulitzer fiction winners. Some of these books were immediately engrossing, others required work and commitment, and at least a handful appear to be aimed at an older audience. We cannot recommend all of these, which is to be expected, but if you’re interested in picking up a novel, this list will hopefully offer some food for thought. We’ll update this page periodically, as we work our way through the Pulitzer winners.

Less – Andrew Sean Greer (2018): Witty, irreverent, humorous, this book was thoroughly enjoyable from cover to cover. Several times, D found himself laughing out loud on the metro. Many of the novels on this list are dense and require some work to get through. The effort is usually worth it, but it’s also great to know that the Pulitzer committee recognizes genius in lighter works of fiction. This is not to say that this novel is all fluff; there is a depth of emotion and a good deal of soul-searching too. Highly recommended.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2017): There are a number of books on this list dealing with slavery as well there should be, it being this country’s foundational sin. This is perhaps the more imaginative and well-written one. The novel follows a runaway slave and the people whose lives intersect with hers as she takes a literal underground railroad from state to state, trying to escape the limitless varieties of hell slavery spawned. This book is as profound as it is engrossing, a rare accomplishment in serious fiction.

The Symphathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016): From his short stories (The Refugees) to his op-ed pieces, to his Pulitzer-winning debut novel, Nguyen’s writing is remarkably compelling and engaging. Set partly in Vietnam and partly in the United States, The Sympathizer is historical fiction at its best. Not only does the novel offer an unflinching portrayal of the Vietnam War and its repercussions, but it also wraps some serious meditation on the immigrant experience and the meaning of identity into crisp, gripping prose. Fantastic novel. Pick it up – you won’t be disappointed.

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (2015): In addition to the Pulitzer, this novel also won the Carnegie Medal for Excellence, and both prizes were richly deserved. The novel’s main protagonists are a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy whose paths eventually cross in occupied France toward the end of World War II. Quite simply put, this novel is a page-turner: fast-paced, engrossing, and as intricately constructed as the puzzle boxes crafted by one of the novel’s secondary characters.

The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson (2013): This is hands down the best book either one of us has read in the last year. Given how little verifiable information is publicly available about life in North Korea, where the novel is set, Johnson does a masterful job of incorporating the everyday horrors of life in a totalitarian state into a story that is almost too fantastic to believe and yet so well-crafted that it feels real. In interviews, Johnson has said that he spent more than half a decade researching the novel, and it shows. Even more so than The Sympathizer, this is a book we recommend without hesitation.

(No award given in 2012)

A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (2011): This was a breezy read, but there’s actually quite a bit to chew on under the surface: the interplay of hopelessness and redemption, the ravages of time, the requiem for interpersonal communication and a not-so-subtle critique of the modern technological age. Not sure how it stacks up with the year’s other finalists (The Privileges, The Surrendered) as we haven’t read them yet, but it doesn’t quite rise to the caliber of greatness that the next winner (The Orphan Master’s Son) attained. Still, an enjoyable read, especially for anyone who is passionate about music.

Tinkers – Paul Harding (2010): This novel was a quick read. Unfortunately — despite a promising start — it was also mostly a forgettable one as far as substance is concerned. Sometimes inspiration can be wrought from the mundaneness of a simple life; oftentimes not. The only interesting aspect is the vantage point for Harding’s narrative, which follows the wandering thoughts of a man on his deathbed.

Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout (2009): HBO turned four of the short stories in this book into a mini-series starring Francis McDormand and Richard Jenkins, and featuring Bill Murray: a star-studded cast that reflects the outsize acclaim generated by a book that left D, for one, underwhelmed. Olive Kitteridge is comprised of 13 short stories, written over the course of 15 years, that take place in a small coastal town in Maine and feature the titular character — a harsh retired middle school teacher. Some of the stories zero in on Olive and her family; others barely mention her at all. Some are quite poignant, others considerably less so, though they almost all deal with life’s slings and arrows: death, suicide, adultery, terminal illness, divorce, prostitution, alcoholism, anorexia, murder, mental illness…the list of ills that Olive Kitteridge tries to take on is seemingly endless. Strout is doubtless a talented writer, but this book feels like less than the sum of its parts.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz (2008): Given the hype that accompanied this novel’s release, it was, frankly, a disappointment. The prose is irritating. None of the characters engender the least bit of sympathy. Diaz certainly is not the first writer to translate his immigrant experience into award-winning fiction. In fact, there are several others on this list, of whom Jhumpa Lahiri is perhaps the best example. Whereas her writing speaks to the broader human experience, Diaz fails in this respect entirely.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy (2007): This novel is brutal – in the best way possible, which shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone familiar with McCarthy’s work (Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men, The Counselor). The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The Earth is scorched and covered with ash; survivors form marauding gangs and engage in cannibalism. The book is utterly depressing from start to finish, but there is no denying that it is brilliantly written and contains some vivid, albeit stomach-churning, imagery. It is definitely not for everyone, but if this brief synopsis piqued your interest, you should give it a go.

March – Geraldine Brooks (2006): This novel is superb and packs an amazing amount into its 280 pages. The novel’s central character is Robert March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, who leaves his family behind in Concord, MA to join the Union Army in pursuit of the abolitionist cause. Whereas Little Women largely skirts the horrors of slavery and the Civil War, March plunges right in, depicting the brutality and injustices of the antebellum South. Most of the novel is told from Mr. March’s perspective until he gets injured, at which point the narrative shifts to his wife Marmee’s point of view. The novel has been panned as “fan fiction,” but this criticism misses the point. This book is worth reading on its own terms; that it draws inspiration from another great work of fiction and ties in neatly into Alcott’s classic simply makes it all the more enjoyable.

Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (2005): Given the subject matter — the novel is composed in the form of journal entries written by an aging Congregationalist preacher to his young son — this is not a book that would have been likely to end up on our shelves if not for D’s Pulitzer quest, and we would have been poorer for it. This book is replete with beautiful prose: warm, meditative, poignant, full of love and considered reflection on some of life’s deepest moral quandaries. And beyond the self-reflection, the narrative touches on some of the darkest moments in the battle for our country’s soul. Wonderful work.

The Known World – Edward P. Jones (2004): Another historical novel set in the antebellum South, this book explores slave ownership by free black people – one of the more vexing and oft-overlooked issues in African American history. The story is extraordinary. The only knock against this book is that the narration is a bit meandering and repetitive. In interviews, Jones explains that he structured the novel this way so as to give it a greater sense of verisimilitude, making it read like an oral history told from the perspective of a wide array of characters. Be that as it may, some passages are repeated almost verbatim several times over, which interrupts the narrative flow and makes one wish the book were shorter.

Empire Falls – Richard Russo (2002): Underwhelming might be the best way to describe this novel, set in a fictional, small, blue-collar town in Maine. That it was awarded the Pulitzer over The Corrections is a travesty.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon (2001): By contrast, this novel is as amazing as the title and comic-book inspired cover make it seem. The narrative interweaves the birth of the comic book industry, Nazi occupation of Western Europe, and Jewish mysticism into an adventure love story. Chabon’s prose is beautiful, if at times overly dense. This was the first of his novels for both of us, and it set us to reading most of his other works. Wonder Boys, The Final Solution, Gentlemen Of The Road, and especially The Yiddish Policemen’s Union were all similarly enjoyable. It took Telegraph Avenue, which we both dropped after about 100 pages, for the spell Chabon had cast on us with Kavalier & Clay to break at last.

Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri (2000): Much like her debut novel, The Namesake, this collection of short stories explores the immigrant experience: the struggles of adapting to a new culture, the duality of identity as one is torn between one’s native land and adopted country, the feeling of alienation when one returns “home” only to find that one no longer belongs – all told through simple vignettes of everyday life. As a first-generation immigrant himself, D in particular found this book deeply moving and reflective in many ways of his own experience.

The Hours – Michael Cunningham (1999): This is a book D has mentally marked for a second reading at some point in the future, ideally immediately after reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. There are multiple plot lines that are written in a stream-of-consciousness style and whose reference point is an author and book D had not read before chancing upon this novel in the Peace Corps library. It’s fair to say that D’s surface reading did not do justice to Cunningham’s work.

American Pastoral – Philip Roth (1998): Considering the novel’s themes, which include Roth’s ruminations on the infirmities of old age and the stock-taking that occurs in later life, reading this book shortly before Roth himself died provided a jolting reminder of our own mortality. The portions of the novel dealing with Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the American counterculture were engrossing. Could’ve done without the long Hugoesque descriptions of the glove-making business, though. Would be an interesting novel to re-read in a few decades.

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer – Steven Millhauser (1997): One wonders what Ayn Rand would make of this novel’s protagonist — a self-made industrialist genius in the mold of John Galt whose obsession with pushing the boundaries of progress and innovation in architectural design leads to the construction of an impractical, extravagant monstrosity of a hotel that proves his downfall. Certainly, Howard Roark would not have approved of Dressler’s Grand Cosmo. The first half of this book is wonderfully engrossing, the narrative so crisp and succinct that it make fin de siecle New York City spring to life in the mind’s eye. Toward the end, however, the novel loses its sharpness, giving way to fanciful descriptions of the extravagant Grand Cosmo. And whereas the descriptions of all the turn-of-the-century gadgetry are wonderful, the characters feel mostly two-dimensional. Overall, a quick and mostly enjoyable read.

Independence Day – Richard Ford (1996): “Ford takes a huge gamble – he risks the boredom of ordinary life. The payoff for the reader is enormous,” reads one review on the dust jacket. Another review compares the main character to Harry Angstrom. D thought the comparison apt – clearly Ford was influenced by Updike. The resulting novel, however, was painfully tedious with painfully little wisdom to offer. The payoff the reviewer had in mind for this mostly boring book failed to materialize.

Rabbit At Rest – John Updike (1991): The last installment in Updike’s Rabbit series (see 1982 below) is a bit slow at the outset and its pace is less frenetic than that of the first two books — reflective, perhaps, of the growing age of the main character and necessitated by passing references to crucial events in the previous books. This novel is no less enjoyable than the ones that preceded it, however. If you liked read the previous three Rabbit books and liked them, you’d be a fool to skip the denouement.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love – Oscar Hijuelos (1990): a jumble of raucous music, macho attitudes, booze, greasy food, and sex — lots and lots of sex — this novel also takes on more serious themes, such as the immigrant experience and the cultural shift in Cuba wrought by Castro’s rise to power. Its depictions of the latin music scene in mid-twentieth century New York City are captivating, and the interplay of fiction with the real life stars of that epoch is imaginative, but the lurching pastiche narrative gets a bit tedious as the novel lumbers toward its inevitable end. Overall, though, it was an enjoyable read.

Beloved – Tony Morrison (1988): Another book that merits a second reading, especially since we both read it hurriedly for class. Neither one of us remembers much about it, though we both have hazy recollections of enjoying it.

Rabbit Is Rich – John Updike (1982): This is the third in Updike’s four-part Rabbit series, in which each subsequent novel is written a decade after the previous one. The third and fourth books both won Pulitzers, though arguably the first two installments in the series are edgier and more engrossing – and infinitely more tragic. The novels check in on the life of the titular character: as he attempts to escape a suffocating marriage and the constraints of his meager life in his wild twenties; goes through a bit of a mid-life crisis when his wife temporarily leaves him in his thirties; and settles down into comfortable middle age in this book only to have his son’s own wildness upset his cozy lifestyle. As each chapter in Rabbit’s life unfolds, Updike weaves in major events of the time and witty observations on Middle America, turning the ordinary life of his protagonist into a rich meditation on American identity. The dialogue and Rabbit’s inner monologues overflow with casual racism and sexism – more a reflection on the prejudices of the times Updike describes than his own, but pernicious enough to turn some readers off, which is a shame because Updike writes beautifully and these books are definitely worth a read.

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole (1981): This book was published posthumously, eleven years after the author had committed suicide. D found it borderline unreadable. It had occasional strokes of comic brilliance, but was so disjointed and pointless that D eventually dropped it despite reading almost three-fourths of its 400 pages.

(No award given in 1977)

(No award given in 1974)

(No award given in 1971)

(No award given in 1964)

The Reivers – William Faulkner (1963): Faulkner was dead by the time this, his last novel, was awarded the Pulitzer prize. Truth be told, we have very little love for Faulkner (it’s ok to dislike critically acclaimed writers, right?). His prose is tangled and full of pointless asides and run-on sentences that make it unnecessarily difficult to digest. At its worst, it is downright incomprehensible. This novel has a few vintage Faulknerian passages, but is eminently readable compared to his more well-known works. And the tale, on the whole, is quite amusing.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (1961): This classic needs no introduction. It is one of the most widely-read books dealing with race relations in America. If you haven’t read it yet, you definitely should.

(No award given in 1957)

(No award given in 1954)

The Old Man And The Sea – Ernest Hemingway (1953): Another classic that needs no introduction, this novella was the last of Hemingway’s works of fiction published during his lifetime. D finds Hemingway to be hit-or-miss (loved For Whom The Bell Tolls, hated The Sun Also Rises); this one is a hit.

(No award given in 1946)

(No award given in 1941)

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck (1940): Masterful novel about the economic hardships of the Great Depression. This and Steinbeck’s East of Eden are must reads for anyone who is curious about America in the first third of the twentieth century.

(No award given in 1920)

The Magnificent Ambersons – Booth Tarkington (1919): An enjoyable novel, though a bit dated. The descriptions of late nineteenth century aristocracy and the way the twentieth century and the advent of the automobile irrevocably changed American life are the book’s strongest points. The dialogue and characters are the weakest in that they have not stood the test of time: the characters seem shallow and their motivations are difficult to relate to from a twenty-first century vantage point.

Pulitzer counter: 30/91

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