On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Publisher/Year: HarperAudio, 2019
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Length: 11 hours, 43 minutes
What it is: A young adult novel about a 16-year-old girl named Bri who wants to become the next great rapper. Her father was a rapper who died before his time, but she doesn’t want to be a mini version of him, the way everyone thinks she’ll be; Bri is her own person with her own style. She’s feeling the pressure to succeed: her mother has lost her job and her neighborhood is ruled by gangs. If she can make it big, she can help her family.
Why I read it: Angie Thomas is a great writer.
What I thought: I read Thomas’s debut, The Hate U Give, and while I wasn’t as blown away by it as so many others were, I could appreciate the book; it just felt like Thomas was throwing too much in at once. I didn’t feel like that about On the Come Up; in fact, I liked it more than The Hate U Give. Here, all of the plot points — even the over-the-top ones — felt appropriate; Bri is trying to make it big as a rapper, after all. Thomas beautifully balances bigger social and political issues with the important, personal questions that teens face as they come of age.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2019
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Length: 12 hours, 2 minutes
Source: Personal copy
What it is: A novel written as a collection of stories that are all somehow linked Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher in a sleepy Maine town. Some of the stories center around major moments in her life, while others only mention her in passing and instead focus on people who exist in her periphery.
Why I read it: I bought this book a good decade ago because of the buzz, and then it went on to win the 2009 Pulitzer. But it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since! Truth be told, it’s still sitting on my shelf; I ended up buying it on audiobook earlier this year and finally listened to it during my work commute.
What I thought: I know it’s a novel, but since each chapter is more like a short story, the book is much like any other short story collection: some are stronger than others. But since the book is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, the reader definitely gets a feel for the characters from different angles. As the title character, Olive naturally gets featured the most. She is a stubborn woman who had gone through some hardships and mostly sees herself living out her retirement years in peace. But her personality is sometimes too much for people, including her own son, and she can’t seem to understand how she pushes people away. It’s a beautiful book that excels at exploring its characters’ inner worlds.
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.
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?
Ever since 2010, I’ve been working my way through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction. To make it more manageable, I set a goal to read all the winners for the years ending in the current year’s number (so in 2016, I focused on the winners for the years ending in 6). I’ve yet to actually complete those mini-tasks, but they serve as good reminders to not just focus on recent contemporary winners. They also not-so-gently nudge me into reading the books I know I’ll probably hate, just to get them over and done with. *cough* Updike *cough*
Which brings me to Lonesome Dove, a cowboy Western that’s 850+ pages long. I don’t really do cowboy Westerns, and the thought of one that’s the size of 2-3 average books put together was just not my idea of a good time. But there it was, sitting on my Pulitzer TBR list for this year. What finally pushed me towards it? On Goodreads, several people whose reading tastes I trust had all reviewed the book with variations of, “Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.”
Y’ALL. Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.