Stacy Schiff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography has been sitting on my shelves for the better part of a decade now. I picked up a battered used copy ages ago, dipped into a few pages, loved it…and then put it aside because life. Now, having finally returned to it, it’s been one of the bookish highlights of my summer.
Véra and Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship is legendary. Though Vladimir had dalliances with other women and was undoubtedly a difficult person to live with, the two seemed destined to be together: both were intellectual giants — Véra supposedly read War and Peace at age 3; Vladimir at age 6 — were multilingual and worldly, and were even born with the same neurological phenomenon of synesthesia. Vladimir was poised for greatness early on, and Véra understood and accepted that her role was to do everything to make that happen.
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.
Vinnie Miner is an American professor living in London for six months to work on her new book of children’s rhymes. She was never considered attractive when she was growing up, a fact that she made her peace with over the years. Instead, she focused on cultivating her career and her image as a refined anglophile; she actually disdains her fellow Americans. Now that she’s in her mid-fifties, she’s secretly pleased to see that she’s aged better than her peers. While still no great beauty, she has her own modest place among London’s intelligentsia and theatre community. She has a feeling that others might consider her prim and sexless — not true; she’s had her share of lovers! — but it’s a thought that she prefers not to dwell on.
On her flight to London, Vinnie finds herself sitting next to a talkative man from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Chuck Mumpson. He’s the epitome of everything she detests about Americans: he may be well-off, but he’s loud, brash, and uncultured. He didn’t even bring a book to read on the overseas flight! Desperate to shut him up, she offers one of her books to him and settles in for the flight.
Towards the middle of my trip, when I got to the section that involved long train/bus rides, I decided to dip into this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I had preordered it back in the week’s before its release, slightly before the book’s buzz had reached epic proportions. Then the buzz continued, and I had a feeling it would win the Pulitzer even though I still hadn’t read it. And then the backlash started: Real™ critics found the book clichéd, and many disdainfully referred to it as a children’s book. Tartt’s treatment of people of color was all wrong. Readers came out of the woodwork to speak up with relief to discover they weren’t the only ones who hated the book. I tentatively skimmed over all of this — the positive buzz, the negative buzz, even descriptions of the book itself — so that I could eventually read the book with fresh eyes, but so much of it was hard to ignore.
The Goldfinch is about thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and a split decision he makes that will shape his future. On one fateful morning, he and his mother pop into The Met to look at a new exhibit, but a bomb goes off and his mother dies in the terrorist attack. By some miracle Theo survives, and in the gory confusion that ensues, he rescues a painting from the ashes — Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” which his mother adored — and stumbles back home (in shock and concussed) to wait for her. She never arrives, and when child services discovers that Theo is on his own without any other family to take him in, he’s temporarily placed with the Barbours, a wealthy couple on Park Avenue whose son Theo once went to school with. Because of something that happened in the moments following the explosion, he also comes to know a kindly and distinguished antique furniture restorer. Neither of them know it at the time, but the man will come to play a huge role in Theo’s future.
I spent part of the summer of 2012 reading — and falling deeply in love with — Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Talk about perfect timing: soon after I finished reading that book, The Black Count was released to great critical acclaim and went on to win the 2013 Pulitzer in the Biography or Autobiography category. Tom Reiss dug into a historical figure who’s been largely forgotten: Dumas’s father, General Alex Dumas.
Although Alexandre Dumas (the author) would grow up experiencing poverty and racism, his father’s rise through the ranks during the French Revolution are almost inconceivable. General Dumas was born in Saint-Domingue (what is now Haiti), the son of a slave and a plantation owner. His father doted on him and took him to live in France, and though General Dumas would eventually renounce his father, he came of age during an idealistic period in France where he was afforded opportunities that were unheard of for people of mixed-blood everywhere else in the world. An intelligent and skilled fighter, he rose up from his station as a lowly officer to become a general in the French Revolution fighting alongside Napoleon. And though Dumas proved himself time and again as a leader on the battlefield, it was ultimately Napoleon who would be his undoing (in fact, it was also Napoleon who helped dismantle all of the laws that had helped people of color).