I’ve been working my way through my Pulitzer Project for almost ten years now. I break it down into manageable goals — this year I’m focusing on the winners for the years ending in 9 — which also forces me to at least acknowledge the existence of some of my ugh titles (although it might take me another few decades to crack open the damn remaining Updike title).
The Yearling was one of those books I was dreading. Not because I considered it to be in the same gross misogynist category as Updike, but because from the title alone I already knew how the book was going to play out and I was not down. It’s a book that seems to have always had, through its numerous printings, a tragically dated book cover (for real: do a Google image search) that screams “sad coming-of-age story.”
And it is a sad coming-of-age story, one that I knew I’d probably like but had to work myself up to á la Call of the Wild. Because animals.
The book takes place in Florida shortly after the Civil War. Jody Baxter lives with his parents on Baxter Island, not the name of an actual island but a homesteaded scrap of backwoods that the family has claimed for themselves. Jody is a much-loved only child; all of the other Baxter children died young. His only real friend is Fodder-wing Forrester, a disabled boy roughly the same age who lives miles away; his parents allow him to keep a collection of animals as pets. The Forresters are a rough and tumble, quick-tempered bunch. They, along with the Baxters, survive off farming and hunting. All are at the mercy of the elements.
I happened upon this article from December 5, 1980 while I was doing genealogy research. It’s a little better, but the same visibility/availability arguments are still happening today.
Jack London’s The Call of the Wild has been on my radar for as long as I can remember, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been hesitant to read it because of the whole animal cruelty thing. But I’ve been quilting up a storm over the summer while listening to audiobooks, and I discovered that Jeff Daniels narrated one of the many versions of this novel that exist, so I finally dove in.
The book is told from the perspective of Buck, a loyal dog in a wealthy Santa Clara family. He’s obedient in his role as the family’s protector, and he has never known cruelty. But it’s the turn of the century and the gold rush is exploding in Alaska. Large dog breeds are in high demand and Buck is kidnapped and sold up north as a sled dog. There, he faces the brutality of being broken in and learning his place within his new pack.
Quoyle — pathetic, depressed, and loyal to a fault — lives in the United States and quietly suffers the indignities of being married to Petal, an openly promiscuous woman with no regard for anyone but herself. He is basically a single father, caring for their two bratty daughters whenever Petal goes gallivanting off with her latest lover.
The book has its share of over-the-top episodes, and Petal meets an untimely death early on that serves as the catalyst for the rest of the book. He loses his job at the newspaper and his father also dies around this time; with nothing left to hold on to, Quoyle is left floundering in his grief. Along comes Aunt Agnis, his father’s sister, and convinces him to move with her to their ancestral home in Newfoundland.
The house hasn’t been lived in for ages and is crumbling from disuse. Quoyle has a job at The Gammy Bird, the local paper, but has no easy way of getting to work without a boat. Even if he does get a boat, he can’t swim. It’s freezing. It’s windy. It will be a while before their house is livable. Have they made a huge mistake?
Where the Light Gets In by Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Publisher/Year: Blackstone Audio, 2016
Narrator: Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Length: 5 hours, 26 minutes
Source: Personal copy
What it is: A memoir about Kimberly Williams-Paisley’s complicated relationship with her mother, Linda, who was diagnosed with an early-onset rare form of dementia called Primary Progressive Aphasia in 2014.
Why I read it: I know Williams-Paisley as an actress, but I also follow her on Instagram just to see what she’s reading — it turns out we have very similar tastes in literary fiction! I love memoirs and this one seemed interesting. I was curious to see what kind of book she’d write (also: she strikes me as the type of celebrity who could believably write their own book rather than have it ghostwritten).
What I thought: This is a sad and illuminating memoir. In a relatively short period of time, Linda went from securing million-dollar donations for large foundations to being unable to speak and needing full-time care. Self-conscious at first, the family finally (and with Linda’s consent) decided to be honest with people about what was happening. Williams-Paisley is blunt about her anger and grief over seeing her mother’s decline, though she’s also honest about how she’s somewhat removed from the situation, living out of state with her own family. Much of the day-to-day caregiving fell to her father, who took on the role to the point of burnout in order to keep Linda at home — rather than an assisted living facility — for as long as possible. The book ends with the family in kind of a weird limbo: Linda’s dementia is progressive, but she’s also gone past all of the markers for life-expectancy with this disease. It’s uncharted territory for them.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
Publisher/Year: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Source: Personal copy
What it is: Told from five different perspectives in two different timelines, the book is a modern-day dystopia in which abortion and IVF treatments have been outlawed in the United States and a personhood amendment has been passed, granting more rights to embryos than the people carrying them. Single would-be parents hoping to adopt are also out of luck, as only married couples are now allowed to apply.
Why I read it: Reproductive rights + feminist dystopia = my name written all over it. I also loooooove the cover.
What I thought: I’ve seen a lot of references to The Handmaid’s Tale regarding this book, but though it has similar themes regarding reproductive rights, it’s not quite an accurate comparison. The concept of this book is, in many ways, more terrifying because it’s the current political climate taken to its natural conclusion (ex: some states really do keep trying to pass personhood amendments). But while I wanted to love the book, I’m really sad to say that I did not. I’ve read countless books with rotating narrators and shifting chronologies, but the timelines and perspectives in this book were confusing. It took me about half the book to really figure out what was going on. Save for a handful of truly stellar sections, the story took too long to coalesce into something meaningful. I can appreciate the experimental structure, but I don’t think the payoff was worth the effort, especially in the first half.