The Pulitzer Project

I’™ve decided to join the The Pulitzer Project. The beauty of this is that it’™s a project not a challenge and I expect that it will take me a long time. The Pulitzer Prizes are awarded in 21 categories, but this project only relates to the Fiction Prize, which is awarded for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. It has been awarded since 1948 replacing the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, which was awarded between 1918 and 1947. The 2008 Prizes will be announced on 7 April. Some years no awards were made but this is still a long list of books. So far I have only read:

1940 – The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
1972 – Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
1988 ‘“ Beloved, Toni Morrison
1995 – The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
1999 – The Hours, Michael Cunningham
2006 ‘“ March, Geraldine Brooks

Apart from Angle of Repose I read these books before I started writing my blog. I wrote about Angle of Repose here. I read The Grapes of Wrath whilst at school, so I may have to re-read this sometime. The rest I’™ve read over the last two years apart from Beloved (which I loved), which I read about 10 years ago. I have a copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker, so I think I’™ll read that first and it will fit into the What’™s In a Name? Challenge as a book with a colour in its title. I’™m already reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, so that will be two books in that category.

Two Caravans

Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka, published in hardback by Fig Tree Penguin Books in 2007, 310 pages (paperback published by Penguin 6 March 2008)

I read and enjoyed A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian in February 2007. When Two Caravans was first published I read somewhere that it wasn’™t as good as her first book, which made me pause before reading it. It’™s just as well I took no notice because I think it’™s better and shows that you should make your own mind up about a book.

The book begins by describing a beautiful setting in the English countryside:

‘œ There is a field ‘“ a broad south-sloping field sitting astride a long hill that curves away into a secret leafy valley. It is sheltered by dense hedges of hawthorn and hazel threaded through with wild roses and evening-scented honeysuckle. In the mornings, a light breeze carries up over the Downs, just enough to kiss the air with the fresh salty tang of the English Channel. In fact so delightful; is the air that, sitting up here, you might think you were in paradise.’

From that delightful scene the book soon descends into the depths of hell, as the shocking conditions experienced by the migrant workers are revealed. The group of strawberry pickers – the Ukrainian miner’™s son, Andriy, the Poles – voluptuous Yola and her religious niece, Marta, and guitar playing Tomasz; two Chinese girls, Emmanuel an orphan from Malawi looking for his sister and Vitaly from somewhere in Eastern Europe ‘“ are joined by Irina from Kiev. They’™re all hoping to make some money and enjoy a better way of life than in their home countries and are doomed to disappointment, disillusion and danger. Not only are they exploited by their employers but also threatened by gangsters with guns.

The narrative moves between the characters and at first I had to concentrate on who was who, but I soon worked it out as each character has their own individual style. Accompanied by Dog, a stray who adopts them, they move from strawberry picking to catching fish, to waiting on tables, to the horrors of the chicken farm and slaughterhouse where the chickens are processed and packed for the supermarkets. The Chinese girls are packed off to Amsterdam and are not heard from again ‘“ their nightmare fate can only be a guess! Dog is a unique character, whose innermost thoughts/instincts are given throughout the book in capital letters ‘“ I AM DOG I RUN I RUN I SMELL EARTH AND WATER ‘¦’ I suppose this could be considered irritating, but Dog soon came to life for me through such simple characterisation as he sees off danger and sniffs out food for himself and the humans.

I don’™t know if I shall ever be able to look at a punnet of strawberries again without picturing how they were picked and remembering the pittance that the workers are paid. Nor can I possibly eat supermarket chicken again. The vision conjured up by this description of the supervisor in charge of packaging the chicken portions is just too much:

‘œShe had a distasteful habit of spitting on her fingers as she reached for the chicken pieces coming down the line ‘¦’

Add to this the nightmare of catching and loading the chickens to take to the slaughterhouse, the brutal scenes in the slaughterhouse and the appalling working and living conditions of the migrant workers and I’™m seriously thinking of never eating chicken again.

This book is not all doom and gloom, however, as there is a joy in how the characters manage to maintain their dignity, despite the dodgy dealings, abuse and hardships. And there is a love story as well. I also liked the brief cameo appearance at the care home of Nikolai, the author of the tractor history in Lewycka’™s first book. He is still looking for a wife and proposing marriage to both the old ladies in the home and to Irina.

I can’™t say that I found Two Caravans to be a funny or a comic book, although at times the scenes are reminiscent of slapstick and farce. But then I don’™t find slapstick and farce funny either. Although the situations are dramatic and outside my sphere of knowledge and experience I found the story and the characters to be real and believable. It’™s a touching, thought-provoking and moving book about topical issues. I’™m really glad I read it.

Pets Please – Post No. 200

I thought I’™d write something different for this, my 200th post. I’™ve been looking through some photos for pictures of our pets. These are just a few I found, bringing back lots of memories.

Suki was the first cat D and I had. D took this photo in the garden of our first house. We had another cat, Candy, soon after but at the moment I can’™t find a photo of her, although I know there are some.

We had a series of cats later on and eventually we got a dog. This was a big thing for me as I had always been frightened of dogs as a child and was still very unsure about them. We got Zoe, a beautiful golden retriever, the softest dog you could ever imagine.

Then we got another dog, Ben a border collie/labrador cross. He was so small when we got him that he could run underneath Zoe’s legs. Here he is fully grown, still a small dog. He had lots of health problems and died of diabetes. I had to give him an insulin injection every morning. Another amazing thing I never thought I’d do. He never complained.

Here they both are chasing a stick. They loved running.

After the dogs died we weren’t going to have any more pets, but we soon decided we couldn’t live without an animal in the house. So we got Lucy. Here she is as a kitten.

Stretching in the garden.

Then we added George, who had been D’s dad’s cat.

Finally, here is Lucy in the garden. She’s 14 this month and still behaves like a kitten most of the time.

Reading Deadlines

I’™m now reading against deadlines. Something I don’™t like doing at all and try to avoid. After all, I’™m reading for pleasure, not to meet any targets. I thought I’™d left that all behind when I left work, where everything had to be planned, approved, reviewed and justified. So why do I find myself this weekend with two books that have to be read by Wednesday and one by next Saturday? Of course in reality I don’™t have to read any of them at all.

If I don’™t though, one has to be returned to the library unread or pay a fine and think of the poor person who has reserved it waiting patiently (or not) to get the book. This is Marina Lewycka’™s Two Caravans and I’™ve had it checked out for a long time. My husband has read it and it made such an impression on him that I feel I have to read it. I’™m part way through the book and this morning I have been reading about work at the chicken farm. The book is about the lives of immigrant workers, first of all picking strawberries and then working at a chicken farm supplying supermarkets. The blurb on the back of the book indicates it’™s an outstandingly funny book and also that it’™s ‘œextremely dark’. Dark it certainly is!

For a long while we have known of the terrible conditions of battery hens and have only been buying free-range eggs, but every now and then we have bought supermarket chickens when we couldn’™t get free range. A few years ago we saw a TV programme showing the awful state of these chickens and realised that the brown marks on their legs means they have been sitting in their own urine and we have not bought any since that time. Then we noticed that the ends of the legs are now cut off, so you can’™t tell if they’™re stained. So, it’™s only free-range or no chicken for us, despite the extra cost. It’s not just the conditions of the chickens, but also the appalling living and working conditions of the workers; there’s an awful lot to think about in this book. I have to finish it this weekend.

The second book I must read is Daniel isn’™t Talking by Marti Leimbach. My deadline is Wednesday evening when I’™ll be going to the book group to discuss this book. So no let up with this book either or there’™s not much point in going along and I want to go. I have started to read it and it’™s also a book that tugs at your heartstrings. Melanie has two children. Emily is a beautiful little girl; bright, happy and active who loves playing with her toys, painting and all the other things young children enjoy. Daniel, however, is different; he is autistic. The story relates how Daniel is diagnosed, the reactions of his mother and father and the effect it has on their marriage. It’™s not an easy read from an emotional viewpoint.

The third book is The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and I’™m reading this to join in the discussion on Saturday with Cornflower’™s Book Group. I’™ve borrowed this from the library and only collected it on Thursday. I have started it ‘“ well I’™m up to page 18! It promises to be very interesting. From the back of the book I read:

‘œFirst published in 1905 The House of Mirth shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social and economic constraints on a spirited woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities.’

There is an introduction by Nina Bawden, which I have managed not to read ‘“ I don’™t want to have any more pre-conceived ideas about the book than I’™ve already picked up from the back cover.

I’™d better stop writing and get reading.

Dante’s Florence Week 4


Florence was a city of innovations. The Florin was first minted in 1252 and became a kind of medieval Euro. It was stamped with the symbols of the city ‘“ the lily, the secular symbol on one side with St John, the patron saint on the other side. Bills of Credit and the double entry system of book keeping were invented in Florence. The Bardi and Peruzzi families were the main banking families with agents right across Europe. Their money came from the textile industry ‘“ wool from as far away as the Cotswolds in England was imported and processed by the thousands of people employed by the Humiliati Order of monks. The Wool Guild was in the heart of the city with barn sheds for drying the wool, with loggia below so that the air could circulate. There was even a fortified wool factory further up the Arno.

The Guilds ‘“ Patrons of Art

The Bankers Guild was established in 1206, St Matthew being the Patron Saint of Bankers. Membership of a guild was a necessary qualification to take part in the government of the city and Dante was enrolled in the Guild of Apothecaries, which included artists, doctors, musicians and writers. He entered politics in 1295 and became the Superintendant of Roads and Planning. The Bargello housed the civic government and the head of police. It was built in 1255 before Dante was born, was the place of execution and is now the National Museum.

References in The Divine Comedy to finance and commerce

Dante’™s audience had a mercantile background and his father was said to have been a notary/money lender. The question of trading for profit was a difficult issue as usury was considered to be a sin. Dante describes Hell in The Divine Comedy as being full of people who had profited from the corruption and abuses of the use of money. To avoid this wealthy families donated money to found chapels as a means of expiating their sins.

Art of the Period

There were also great innovations in art during this period, with a move away from the rigid hieratical Byzantine style to a more natural, expressive style – for example Cimabue’™s Madonna is a huge work, showing angels at the sides of the throne still in the Byzantine style but showing the move away to more naturalism. Giotto’™s Ognissanti Madonna of 1310 shows a more natural portrayal of the mother and child and there is a greater sense of mass and solidity with greater depth and perspective. The angels look as though they really are looking up at the Madonna and child

In The Divine Comedy Dante refers to artistic arrogance in his conversation in Purgatory with Oderiso, an illuminator from Gubbio. He talks of the transient nature of fame and the penalty of pride. Oderiso was supposedly friendly with Giotto and at that time Giotto was greatly praised and had taken precedence over Cimabue:

‘Brother’ he said, the sheets coloured by Franco
The Bolognese, are more brilliant than mine:
The honour is now all his, and mine is less.

Certainly I should not have been so polite
When I was alive, because of my great desire
To excel in this, my heart was engrossed with it.

The penalty of such pride is paid here;
And I should not be here yet, if it were not
That, while I could still sin, I turned to God.

O empty glory of human endeavour!
How little time the green remains on top,
Unless the age that follows is a dull one!

Cimabue thought he held the field
In painting, and now the cry is for Giotto,
So that the other’s fame is now obscured.”
Purgatorio XI 82-96

The Death of St Francis by Giotto in the Bardi Chapel, in the church of Sante Croce shows the move towards much greater realism in painting such as in the range of emotions shown on the monks’™ faces as they surround St Francis on his bier.

Development of the city
Arnolfo Di Cambio(born 1240 ‘“1250 died early 1300s)

Di Cambio was an architect, sculptor and painter. He trained in Sienna under Nicolo Pisano and worked on the marble pulpit in the Sienna Duomo. In 1284 he was called to Florence by the city officials to design the new city walls. The walls made from used materials from the old walls and the lopped towers (as a result of the height restrictions on the towers). When completed the walls were 5 ½ miles long, 7 feet thick and 47 feet high, with massive iron- studded gates (a few of these remain). The gates were closed every evening. The walls were of course for defence, but they also gave the city shape and a sense of belonging to the citizens; were a way of regulating taxes and tolls and were a symbol of the strength, power and prestige of Florence.

He brought both classical and gothic styles of architecture to Florence. He designed the loggia of Orsanmichele, then a corn-market; was involved in work on the Badia, and the design of the façade of Santa Croce is attributed to him.

More about Di Cambio, art, and Dante’s exile in week 5.

Hero – Booking Through Thursday

You should have seen this one coming ‘¦ Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?

Last week I opted for Elizabeth Bennet as one of my favourite female lead characters, so it’™s no surprise that this week that one of my favourite male characters is Mr Darcy? Why? Because he is such a good match for Elizabeth and he is full of both pride and prejudice, but is capable of overcoming both in realising his love for her.

Other heroes are the fabulous Scarlet Pimpernel, because he is such a dashing hero, rescuing French aristos from the guillotine and always incognito.

Also Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities, seen to be a drunkard and useless but because of his unrequited love of Lucie he goes to the guillotine in place of her lover Charles Darnay. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known”.

Not such a nice, unselfish man as the others and I can’™t explain why but I also like the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses ‘“ such a bad man! I loved the film Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovitch.

A more modern hero, although one from Tudor England is Matthew Shardlake in C J Sansom’™s books, Dissolution, Dark Fire and Sovereign. Shardlake is a hunchback lawyer who solves a series of murders ‘“ such a clever, resourceful man.

Reading in March

This month I’™ll be reading a selection of Robert Frost’™s poems. I don’™t read a lot of poetry but Frost is one of my favourite poets. I think that poetry is really better if you listen, rather than read it, or recite it out loud. Most memorably, some years ago I went to a poetry reading by Seamus Heaney who not only read his own poems but also some of Frost’™s. I know some of the poems in this selection but would like to memorise some more as part of the Celebrate the Author Challenge, Frost’™s birthday was 26 March.

I’™m part way into Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie, set in Nigeria in the 1960s and have just started to read Dante’™s Divine Comedy. I would also like to read The Innocent Man by John Grisham. This is a move away from Grisham’™s usual fiction into non-fiction about the wrongful conviction of Ron Williamson. I really should have started to read Daniel Isn’™t Talking by Marti Leimbach, as it’™s the next book up for discussion at my local reading group (next Wednesday). This is a novel about an autistic child based on the author’™s experiences with her son. I think it may be a bit challenging, I know very little about autism.

Ambitiously, I’™d also like to start reading these books – Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, D H Lawrence’s Selected Stories and Barbara Euphan Todd’s Miss Ranskill Comes Home. They’™re all library books. I just hope I’™ll be able to renew them! It would be good to have an extra brain and another pair of eyes, or only need to sleep every other night and then I’™d stand more chance of reading all the books I’™d love to read.