Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yonnondio - Tillie Olsen
A very effective proletarian protest novel. Olsen creates people we care about, then she shows them gripped in the maw of poverty. She makes us feel the destruction going on in the bodies and, worse, in the minds and spirits of her characters. The Holbrooks could have been happy, could have had fulfilling lives. They have tremendous potential, yet it’s wasted in the all-consuming struggle for survival. Olsen was a smart enough author (even at nineteen) to show the faults of her characters; Anna and Jim and their children are all distorted and brutalized by the daily obstacles they face. Much of the novel is told through the eyes of Mazie, and since she’s a dreamy, impressionable child (her form of escape), the prose in her sections is dreamy, impressionistic. Other parts of the novel are gritty and realistic. These different styles mesh because they reflect two realities, two sensibilities. Yonnondio is more than a lament – it’s an indictment of the greed that fosters inhumanity (the description of work in the slaughterhouse is appalling; one shrinks from the suffering of man and beast). This is one of those books that should be read. *

Elbow Room - James Alan McPherson
Four stories were entertaining, written with fluency, but none added up to a satisfying whole. So I jumped to the title story, hoping to find one where everything worked. But it was such a bloated mess that I abandoned this Pulitzer Prize winning collection.

The Late George Apley - John P. Marquand
This novel takes the form of a biography written by a friend of the recently-deceased George Apley (a very proper Bostonian blue blood). It’s made up mainly of letters from and to George. Marquand uses his faulty narrators exceedingly well; we read between the lines and we judge from omissions. Remarkably, a true portrait emerges, though the subject of the portrait seems to stand off to the side. Which is true to the man – at the end of his life George Apley was aware of not having been capable of fully experiencing life. Though there’s an elegiac aspect, the book is quite humorous in a quiet, understated way. The muted quality that Marquand sustains throughout is unique. He also gives us a look at a time and a set of values that was in the process of passing away. *

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