Life after Work

One of Ours by Willa Cather – Pulitzer Winner of 1923

One of Ours was an interesting step into the mind of a Nebraska country boy. Claude Wheeler grows up on a successful farm near Frankfort in the beginning of the 20th century and attends college in a larger town. Claude likes working on the farm but does not see himself as belonging there for the rest of his life. His father however is oblivious to his son’s thoughts and orders him to quit school to work the farm full-time. Claude concedes, unhappily, but decides to make the best of it. He falls in love with a childhood friend Enid and proposes, in spite of her lack of enthusiasm. Again Claude finds himself utterly defeated. All his expectations of a loving home are disappointed and he falls into depression.

Meanwhile, World War I has broken out in Europe and as the United States enter the fighting, Claude volunteers. In the beginning of the second half of the story we find him on a troop transport ship en route to France as an influenza epidemic breaks out. The weeks at sea turn gruesome while soldier after soldier succumbs. Claude arrives unharmed and we follow him around France while he realizes that in spite of the horrible circumstances, he is finally content with his life.

I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second, and not necessarily because the latter revolved around war and tragedy. The descriptions of Claude’s environments and thoughts were so vivid and I could relate to his loneliness and frustrations. Between his decision to join the service and the continuation of the story on the ship there seems to be a big gap though. It felt as if the second part of the book was written by someone else. The time on the ship was still good, but once Claude arrives in France the story lost focus. He keeps meeting new people, gets moved here and there, has some battle experience, but as reader I no longer felt like I had insight into his mind. The book moved to its inevitable conclusion, but I no longer cared. Too bad.

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The Age of Innocence – Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1921

Of the Pulitzers of the 1920s, Edith Warton’s “The Age of Innocence” is probably the best known, because of Martin Scorsese’s film with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. Also notable is that this was the first time the prize was awarded to a woman.

The story takes place in New York’s high society of the late 19th century. At the beginning, Newland Archer is set to marry May, a young girl of a good family. However, fate throws him a major curveball in the shape of May’s exotic cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, who returns to New York to escape her unhappy marriage with an abusive Polish count. She is a woman of the world and very independent, as opposed to May who is – as is expected – an innocent virgin. Ellen gets in trouble for wanting a divorce from her husband (the scandal!), but Newland, as a lawyer is tasked by the family to talk her out of it and manages to persuade her not to, saving the family’s reputation. Over several conversations, Newland realizes how much more interesting Ellen is compared to the pretty but bland May and falls in love with the countess (and she with him), but the wedding plans with May are already underway… what to do?

The entanglement between a heart’s desire and duty is the subject of many classic novels and they usually don’t have happy endings. Not that I would want a happy ending, but there’s also no surprise here, really. My modern self got annoyed with Newland several times because he could not make a clear break with Ellen or May. He was so torn between ideals and self-fulfillment but, of course, in the end chose to do what was expected after all. What I enjoyed much more than the back-and-forth of Newland’s heart were the rich (no pun intended) descriptions of opulent New York’s wheelings and dealings in the Gilded Age. Wharton really has a gift of language; there is a lot of sumptous detail about society rules, living spaces, manners, dress and the sardonic tone is so much fun. I consumed “The Age of Innocence” as an audio book and I only regret that this did not allow me to copy some passages as examples.

In other words, I enjoyed this book very much, but the love story part was not as interesting to me as hearing about the surroundings. I can’t say I would read (or listen to) it again.

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Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington – Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1922

I got to skip 1920 because there was no winner chosen that year. 1921’s winner was Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” which I borrowed as audio book, but I am not done with it yet. I did finish “Alice Adams” though, which I managed to snag as a free Kindle download from It was another story that takes a critical look at American society. This time the reader gets to meet Alice Adams, a young woman of a lower middle class background in a small midwestern town. Her family is trying to “keep up with the Joneses” but it doesn’t quite work out that way. Alice’s dad Virgil just does not make enough money working for J.A. Lamb’s large company as some sort of clerk.

When Alice is invited to another girl’s ball, Mrs. Adams and Alice have to fix up an old dress as much as they can and Alice has to pick her own flowers in the heat (oh my!) because they can’t afford to buy any. Alice does not seem to mind too much, but her mother is besides herself. She insists they could be doing so much better if her husband would quit his desk job and go into business for himself. At the ball it is clear that Alice is not popular with the other girls, they look down on her. I should mention that Alice never complains; she tries to make the best of things, but at times she sounded so naive and positive about the girls’ arrogant behavior that I was wondering if she was putting on a brave face or was just clueless.

The ball is pretty bleak for Alice although she gets to dance with a popular young man who is new in town and not aware of Alice’s pariah status. They meet again later and he tries to pursue her in spite of her polite dismissiveness (she knows there’s no real chance of her marrying him). Meanwhile, Alice’s parents attempt in various scheming ways to improve the family’s status in the hopes of raising her odds.

They do this in such clumsy ways that it was clear to me there was going to be no happy couple at the end. Instead, Alice opts for a new path in life – job training for a career as an office worker. Apparently an option that was not readily accepted at the time, or at least not by Alice’s family because earlier in the book she herself had been judgmental about girls in that line of work.

It really was odd; while her social climber mother was obsessing about getting her daughter married off to a wealthy guy, Alice herself seemed strangely oblivious, as if she did not really care what was going to happen to her. (Come to think of it, so was her father, until pressured into action by his wife’s rants.) The options for a woman to take care of herself without getting married, such as governess or teacher (or secretary), were apparently deemed as “too low”, but Alice was not upset either way – no complaints, no fretting about her future as if there was no worry. I really did get the idea sometimes she was a bit dense.

In the end, Alice’s family felt like a bunch of cardboard cutouts. Maybe that was on purpose, as comic relief? Sadly, it didn’t work for me. This book is what I would call a “fluff read,” very quick, and not all that great in my eyes. I liked that Alice in the end “emancipates” herself from her family’s old-fashioned ideals but that was too little too late.

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His Family by Ernest Poole – Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1918

Ernest Poole’s “His Family” was the very first book to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Best Novel (it wasn’t called “Fiction” then). It is available free of charge for the Kindle on Amazon. Similar to the “Magnificent Ambersons” this is a story about change at the beginning of the 20th centry, but handled from a different perspective. It is told from the point of view of a wealthy widower, Roger Gale, who lives in New York and who has three adult daughters: Edith, the oldest, only lives for her husband and children, Deborah, the middle daughter, runs a school in a poor neighborhood and that’s all she cares about. Although she is in love with someone who loves her, she keeps postponing marriage because of her work. Laura, the youngest, only cares about her own happiness.

The book begins shortly before World War One and we get many glimpses into life in New York City both for the upper classes and poor at that time. Roger, prompted by Deborah, visits her school and the crowded tenements in immigrant neighborhoods. A gentle soul, he wants to help his own family as well as “her family”, the impoverished children, but then tragedy strikes and war breaks out.

That said, it might sound strange, but there isn’t a lot of drama in this book. It is a really quick read – it took me less than a week and I don’t get much time in for reading. Whenever some conflict is brewing (especially between the daughters, they don’t see eye-to-eye on many things) it is soon resolved, and while things become dire and money is tight, it doesn’t take too long before the economy is improving again. I did like the flow of the narration which has a nostalgic and sometimes wistful tone to it. And the descriptions of those noisy and lively neighborhoods were very interesting.

This concludes the 1910s for fiction! On to the 1920s with “Alice Adams” by Booth Tarkington.

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The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington – Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1919

A tough book for me to get through, even as an audio book (Blackstone Audio, wonderfully read by Geoffrey Blaisdell, courtesy of Overdrive Digital Library). This book won the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 1919, the second one ever awarded. It describes the fall of what might be described as an aristocratic family in a fictitious town in Indiana. The main character, George “Georgie” Amberson Minafer is an intolerably pompous ass for most of the story. His mother in particular, but the rest of the family as well, indulge and spoil him right into college age  while the townspeople can’t wait for him to get his “comeuppance”. I knew we were getting prepared for the inevitable downfall. On top of all that George is so obtuse that he kept drawing the wrong (selfish) conclusion to nearly all challenges he was confronted with, it was almost comical. Unfortunately this made George so unlikeable that I was beginning to lose interest in the book altogether. Being able to spin yarn for John’s gloves helped me stick with it.

And to my surprise, I ended up enjoying the Magnificent Ambersons after all. Yes, George messes up to the highest degree, ruining several people’s chance at happiness, and tragedy strikes the whole family. Then, after losing everything he has an epiphany, George finally gains maturity (almost a little to quickly) and gets to redeem himself to an extent. But what will stay in my mind about this book is how Tarkington describes the end of an era that predates “modern times”. We see the introduction of the automobile into rural society, how the “old guard” stubbornly sticks to the horse drawn carriage and all the other trappings of the good old days, how the cities change from big mansions to apartment buildings and tenement housing, the beginnings of suburban sprawl, pollution and so on. Far from succumbing to nostalgia though, Tarkington manages to describe this process in a way that is neutral – while some parties (such as the Ambersons) lose, some win, riches are made, new technologies make life easier and more affordable for many. Considering the book was written in 1918 this changeover had happened relatively recently!

I also enjoyed the style of the book, there is a lot of sardonic wit. Here is an sample quote that I found in an Amazon review that perfectly illustrates Tarkington’s literary style:

Mrs. Johnson came in, breathing noticeably: and her round head, smoothly but economically decorated with the hair of an honest woman, seemed to be lingering far in the background of the Alpine Bosom which took precedence of the rest of her everywhere.

Warning: There is some racist language in this book when referring to servants. It made me cringe but does not take away from the main themes of the book.

I’m looking forward to reading another Tarkington novel as part of my Pulitzer project – Alice Adams, winner of 1922’s award, but I could also see myself returning to the Ambersons, since the Magnificent Ambersons is the middle book of the Growth trilogy. The first part, The Turmoil, was published in 1915, and the last part part National Avenue was published in 1927. However, for now I’m moving on to His Family by Ernest Poole, which I found on Amazon as a free Kindle book. It was the Pulitzer Prize winner of 1918 and with that I will have the 1910s complete (only 1918 and 1919 were award years).

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Pulitzer Reading

Some people might be wondering what I’ve been up to. Well, I’ve been working and crafting and just rarely take the time to document what I work on. It seems like I’m always in the middle of a project and not ready to show anything, then I’m done and moving on to the next thing. I’ll try to fill in a couple of things here or there.

Something else is on my mind though. I’ve been downloading audio books from the Digital Library to listen to on my iPod while spinning/weaving/knitting and I love it. I rarely get to read “real” books these days, so audio books are providing my “reading fix.” I started a list of books I have consumed, both audio and conventional, earlier this year so I don’t lose track of what I’ve gone through. The books that are available at the Digital Library are kind of random, the inventory is by no means as full as the one from the “regular” library, but there’s plenty of interesting “listens.”

The latest book I finished is “The Good Earth” from Pearl S. Buck, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. This gave me an idea. Most of my interest lies in the non-fiction realm, history, biography, and so on. I do enjoy detective and mystery novels as “easy listening”, but I have this vague notion that I should read “the classics” as well. But where to start? So, when I was half-way through “The Good Earth” I thought, why not try other Pulitzer Prize winners? They are bound to be good. So I pulled up the Wikipedia list of winners and was intimidated. I didn’t realize how long this prize has been awarded! And there are history and other non-fiction winners as well! I compared the fiction winners with the local library and am going to tackle the ones that are available as audio books first (not too many of them are). Then I’ll try the ebooks and after that, paper. I wonder if this is going to be a lifetime challenge. I’m curious.

Oh, the following books I’ve already read/listened to:

1921: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (thought it was kinda boring)
1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (more on that below)
1937: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (loved it – a guilty pleasure)
1953: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (doesn’t really count – I read it in German and was way too young to understand what was going on)
1972: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (an interesting read – although I really liked the contemporary story more than the historic parts)
1980: The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (read it long time ago when I was into “true crime” stories)
1983: The Color Purple by Alice Walker (read it in German, probably should re-read in English)
1988: Beloved by Toni Morrison (The writing style didn’t do it for me – I probably should re-read or maybe try an audio book version now that my English is better)
2007: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (I liked the idea, but it wasn’t a good read for me)

So “The Good Earth” was the book I finished just a few days ago and strangely enough, although it started out bleak and depressing and in a way also ended bleak and depressing I ended up liking it a lot. The book is about the life of Wang Lung, a poor Chinese farmer. Wang Lung is simple, but not dumb, he has good and bad sides, which keeps things interesting. The writing sounds old-fashioned which fits the time and place (rural China in the beginning of the 20th century?). It really has an authentic feel, hard to believe that it wasn’t written by a Chinese author. Pearl S. Buck spent many years in China as the child of missionaries, so she did witnessed characters like these first-hand, but the amazing thing is that she manages to write about them without being overly judgmental.

Coming up next: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington – so far it is a bit of a chore to listen to. I hope it will pick up soon.

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Gamelan at the MIM

John already wrote about how much we love the newest museum in town, the Musical Instrument Museum, on his blog. Not only does this place feature great exhibits about instruments from all over the world, they also host concerts with live music from some very exotic places. Last night we went to see Gamelan Cudamani, a Balinese gamelan ensemble and enjoyed the music and dance performances so much that we bought tickets for tonight’s performance as well. The 20+ musicians are playing drums, gongs, and other percussion instruments in what on first listen may seem to some to be random tones but which come together to form intricate harmonies. Add to that dancers in rich costumes who displayed such grace and control they left us spellbound. We can only hope that the MIM will continue to bring such amazing performers to our (cultural) desert.

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Kneesocks are done!

FO: KneesocksI am really happy about how they turned out although I knitted, frogged, and re-knitted both socks several times over until I got it right. One bummer is that this yarn is scratchy on my calves. Hopefully I’ll get used to it.

In regards to instructions, I used the magic cast-on for the toe and just kept going until I had the right width (it took about 4 tries to get the toe right), then I knitted up to the heel and did a short-row heel. From then on I tried to follow instructions from several patterns but none of them really fit me so I just kept redoing the calf  until it fit. Oh, and then on the second sock I went down a needle size because all of a sudden it was turning out much bigger than the first one.

Regarding the stripes, I used 6 rows per stripe and I didn’t go through much lengths to get “jogless” stripes, I just knit the first stitch of a round with both colors. I kept the color switches in the insides of my leg/feet, hopefully they are not that noticeable.

Kneesocks - humble beginningsRegarding the color changes – I used two skeins of Noro Kureyon Sock in the same colorway which has a really long stretch of tan/beige and green/turquoise and although the two skeins had differing starting points at some point the color on the two strands would converge and end up being the same color. See the bottom photo – I loved how the pink and the turquoise looked together but inevitably both strands would end up brown. I experimented with shifting the starting point of the second skein a while until it looked like there would always be at least a little bit of a contrast. By the way, I had no idea that at the end of the first sock I would come up at almost exactly the same starting point in the color changes so that the second sock is almost identical to the first one. Finally, halfway up the calf of the second sock one of the yarns cheated, there was a knot and the color changed abruptly but luckily I was able to cut out a long piece so that one can’t tell.

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Horseshoe Canyon Hike

Barrier Canyon Style pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah 

We drove to Mexican Hat, UT, yesterday and made our way to the Horseshoe Canyon section of Canyonlands National Park this morning. This canyon features worldfamous Barrier Canyon Style rock art dating from 1500 – 4000 years ago. The hike is 7 miles round trip, starts at the top of the canyon and the trail gets a little steep in places when you descent into the canyon (and of course that’s the way you return as well). That part wasn’t so bad though, what made this hike tough on me was the sandy river bed at the bottom of the canyon we were walking in. Nonetheless, the canyon is gorgeous, there is plenty of shade to rest in and the rock art is simply amazing. It can be seen at several spots along the canyon trail, the High Gallery, Horseshoe Shelter, and the Alcove. As we reached the last one, the Great Gallery – which was also our turnaround point – we caught up with two Park Rangers who had kindly brought my Junior Ranger kit with them (since this part of Canyonlands National Park is so remote, there is no visitor center and John had called ahead of time to request the kit). I rushed through the booklet and filled out the puzzles, answered the questions and attended the ranger-led ledge tour to get a closer look at the large, stylized human figures hovering above us on the canyon wall. They are practically life size (the tallest one is 8-9 feet tall) and some are very complex with decorative detail. Finally I collected my badge from Ranger Nate and after a last sip of water we tore ourselves away from the pictographs and headed back on the trail. The way up to the canyon top wasn’t bad at all (as so often we made much better time on our way back) and we hopped into the car for the drive to Moab, dinner, and our hotel bed.

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Alpine Knit Scarf
While John spent the day at Little Rangoon helping out, I got some stuff done. I did some handwash and blocked my blue lace shawl (Alpine Knit Scarf by Jane Sowerby) which took just about forever. Then I finished updating and uploading the Fibers Through Time Photos. I also continued on with the core form for my pine needle bracelet. It is basically a piece of stemwire bent into a long oval that has to be covered by loops of a thread that looks and feels like dental floss but is called “artificial sinew”.

And I also picked up another one of my ancient projects, the celtic tote bag and started the embroidery stich around the cable pattern. I don’t know if I like how this thing is turning out. My handspun was pretty uneven, but I might as well finish it.

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