So far, so good with my summer reading goal. I soldiered by way through all 850 pages of An American Tragedy and got a few other books read as well. I expect July to be a bit easier as I’ll be reading something more contemporary, but I suppose we’ll see.
1. Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey (5/5) – A very short (50 pages) collection of poetry that won the Pulitzer a few years back. I found it entrancing. I haven’t read much modern poetry since I was an undergraduate, and I’m trying to rectify that. This was a lovely set of poems for that project. The poems are all very pretty while still keeping a foothold in the real. I’ll probably get better at talking about poetry as I read more of it, but for now, I’ll end by saying I haven’t enjoyed poems more than these in a long time.
2. The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (2.5/5) – Another Pultizer winner (for drama), but I’m not as enthusiastic about it. The play and I differ philosophically, and that certainly affects my assessment of it, but beyond that, I didn’t really find any of the characters interesting or engaging. It was fine, but I didn’t relate to a thing about it.
3. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (5/5) – This was the big project of the month and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a slog in spots. If this book were written today, it might lose half its length. That said, it’s still a masterpiece. There’s a lot to be said for Dreiser’s persistent realism and unwillingness to use summary. You get five or six years of the main character’s life given to you with an enormous amount of detail. So much so, that it ends up being possible to sympathize with a very unsympathetic character, which is, I think, the masterstroke of this work. It is an AMERICAN tragedy. Dreiser means to indite not the individual, but the society who produced him, and he does a wonderful job of it. Given some of the recent movements in American society, the subject matter feels more contemporary than it should (it was published 86 years ago). The thesis is that a society that values wealth above all else will become more and more self-destructive as time passes and the majority of the populace is left behind. I can’t argue with that point, and I think there are a few politicians who could stand to read this. Sadly, it would probably go over their heads.
4. The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl (4.5/5) – This was an incredibly odd play about five people, three of whom are in a love triangle. The oddness did not keep it from being very engaging. Ruhl’s characters are vapid and grotesque, but they are also dealing with very difficult issues. Watching the struggle goes beyond what I would call entertaining. I will have to read more of her.
5. The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett (5/5) – This book very quietly blew me away. I have read two of her novels now and don’t understand why I don’t hear Patchett more frequently mentioned as one of the great writers of our time. The structure of this book is not unlike something Cormac McCarthy would write. The primary difference is that McCarthy’s books are often about Men being Men in the Wild and this is a book about women trying to survive in society. The pacing and flow of the language are very similar though, and Patchett tells an amazing amount of the story via dialogue that always sounds fresh and believable. This book is a wonderful work of literature.
6. Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood (4.5/5) – This was the first of Atwood’s poetry that I’d read. It is divided neatly into five sections. I found the third solid, but unfocused. The rest, however, was masterful. The poems about the death of her father are especially moving, thought-provoking, and evocative. There is room to breath in these poems that I have not seen in her fiction, and it was interesting to see this different, but equally impressive side of her. I often find it difficult to believe a writer can be as talented as Margaret Atwood, yet she persists in existing.
Summer Book Queue Update:
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
- The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell