Posts Tagged ‘Pulitzer Prize’

I discovered ‘Tinkers’ by Paul Harding, during one of my random browsings in the bookstore last month. It was a slim volume, had big font with wide spacing, had blurbs which raved about the book and the cover said that it had won the Pulitzer prize this year. I am not a big reader of award-winning books, but the above combination made me get the book. I finished reading it yesterday and here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story from the back cover of the book.

An old man is dying. Confined to bed in his living room, he sees the walls around him begin to collapse, the windows come loose from their sashes, and the ceiling plaster fall off in great chunks, showering him with a lifetime of debris : newspaper clippings, old photographs, wool jackets, rusty tools, and the mangled brass works of antique clocks. Soon, the clouds from the sky above plummet down on top of him, followed by the stars, till the black night covers him like a shroud. He is hallucinating, in death throes from cancer and kidney failure.

A methodical repairer of clocks, he is now finally released from the usual constraints of time and memory to rejoin his father, an epileptic, itinerant peddler, whom he had lost seven decades before. In his return to the wonder and pain of his impoverished childhood in the backwoods of Maine, he recovers a natural world that is at once indifferent to man and inseparable from him, menacing and awe inspiring.

Heartbreaking and life-affirming, Tinkers is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature.

What I think

I found ‘Tinkers’ to be an interesting book. As the back cover said it is about George Crosby who is on his death bed and has started hallucinating and thinking about the past. The author also takes us into the past of George’s life and introduces his father Howard and his way of life. Howard has a wagon and sells small household things to people nearby and he also repairs things like vessels. As one of the descriptions in the book says – “Besides fixing pots and selling soap, these are some of the things that Howard did at one time or another on his rounds, sometimes to earn extra money, mostly not : shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair, sell five gallons of homemade whiskey for a backwoods bootlegger named Potts, fish a drowned child from a creek.” The tinkers of the title are Howard – who is a tinker by profession – and George who tinkers with clocks for a living after retiring from his regular job. The book tracks the lives of George and Howard, sometimes separately, sometimes together and how the two strands are woven together forms the rest of the book. But the book is less of a story but more of a description of images. As one review put it, the book is “a new way of seeing, in a story told as a series of ruminative images, liked a fanned card deck.” So, it is really not about the plot J However, there is a surprise in the end which is bittersweet and interesting.

The descriptions of nature and people and things in the book are very beautiful. One of the reviews said this : “Every so often a writer describes something so well – snow, oranges, dirt – that you can smell it or feel it or sense it in the room. The writing does what all those other art forms do – evoke the essence of the thing.” That is a very true observation of the descriptions contained in the book. The book beautifully evokes images of an America of a different era.

I liked the character of Howard more than George, because the places where Howard comes have the more beautiful descriptive passages 🙂

It was also interesting for me to know that this book was rejected by many of the mainstream publishers – because they felt that it was slow and contemplative – and was published by an independent publisher and promoted by indie bookstores. It is nice that it has won critical acclaim now. It was also interesting to know that as soon as the Pulitzer prize was announced, Random House gave a press statement that they have signed a two-book contract with Paul Harding. It is difficult for a writer to resist this and Paul Harding probably deserves this and more – writers have always struggled to make money across the ages and so they should take whatever comes their way – but I was also a bit annoyed that when a writer is trying to get published, publishers give all kinds of reasons for rejecting his / her work, but when the writer wins literary acclaim and a literary prize, immediately they want him / her in their fold. It is sad. I remember once attending a talk by Amy Tan, when she said that during her student days she applied to Stanford University and they rejected her application. When she had become famous as a writer, Stanford University invited her to come and teach creative writing there. Amy Tan said that because they rejected her earlier, she rejected them now 🙂 I would love to see the day when a writer thumbs his / her nose at the big publishing houses and does this.

I also read in an interview by Paul Harding that this story is inspired by the story of his great-grandfather who lived the life of a tinker similar to that of the character Howard, in this book. It is interesting how family stories are inspiring material for books. It made me remember Jeanette Walls’ memoir ‘The Glass Castle’ and her second book ‘Half Broke Horses’ which is about her inspiring grandmother and Natasha Solomons’ ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’ which is inspired by the true story of her grandparents.


I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

Smoking in silence

Howard took a tin of tobacco from the bundle of supplies he had brought for Gilbert and handed it to the hermit. Gilbert held the open tin to his nose and inhaled slowly, savoring the rich, sweet near dampness of the new tobacco; by the time he met Howard each year, he was down to the last flakes of his supply. Howard imagined that the fragrance of new tobacco was a sort of confirmation to Gilbert that he had indeed lived another year, endured another winter in the woods. After smelling the tobacco and looking out at the river for a moment, Gilbert held out his hand to Howard. Howard took a pipe from one of his jacket pockets and gave it to the hermit. Howard did not otherwise smoke and kept the pipe for this one bowlful a year. Gilbert packed Howard’s pipe and then his own (which was beautiful – carved from a burl of dark red wood and which Howard imagined belonging once, long ago, in a brass stand on a dean’s desk) and the two men smoked together in silence and watched the waters rush. While he smoked, Gilbert’s flock of flies temporarily dispersed, but seemingly without rancor or resentment. When the pipes were spent, each man tapped the ashes out against his rock and put his pipe away.

Lightning and unselfness

The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightning – it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself. The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after, no cause A that led to effect B, but instead simply A, simply B, with no then in between, and Howard became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction : Instead of being emptied or extinguished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.

Daffodils, snow, bees and fragrance

A late-spring storm capped the last daffodils and the first tulips with dollops of snow, which melted when the sun came back out. The snow seemed to have a bracing effect on the flowers; their roots drank the cold melt, their stalks straightened from the chilly drink; their petals, supple and hale, were spared the brittle coating of a true freeze. The afternoon became warm, and with the warmth the first bees appeared, and each little bee settled n a yellow cup and took suck like a newborn. Howard stopped Prince Edward, even though he was behind in his rounds, and gave the mule a carrot and stepped into the field full of flowers and bees, who seemed not to mind his presence in the least, who seemed, in fact, in their spring thrall, to be unaware of his presence at all. Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green. Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green. He crouched to look at a daffodil. Its six-petaled corona was fully unfurled, like a bright miniature sun. A bee crawled in its cup, massaging stigma and anther and style. Howard leaned as closely as he dared and inhaled again. There was a faint sweetness mingled with the sharp mineral cold, which faded from detection when he inhaled more deeply in order to smell it better.

“The ache in your heart”

Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it?

And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember : You will be dead and buried soon enough.

On Running away

He was suddenly aware that if he was running away, this was not the place to go. To run away meant away. He had never been away. Away was the French Revolution or Fort Sumter or the Roman Empire. Maybe, Boston, three hundred miles south. He had no idea what was in the three hundred miles between here and Boston.

The Blue and the Gold

Howard leaned against one of the wagon’s rear wheels and stared at the candled sky and looked back at the candle he had lit and wished it would turn blue with the light of the stars and that the stars would turn gold like burning wicks.

How to build a nest

Keep in mind, though, that the materials for the nest must be collected and woven strand by strand. Birds do not gather their lumber, so to speak, all at once, but, rather, search out each plank and shingle one at a time. Such a birdy method may at first seem absurd to the forward-thinking nest maker, but soon it will be found that the pleasures of the project are not derived from efficiency.

The Clock’s Purpose

Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock’s purpose is to return the hands back to that time, a time which, from the moment chosen, the hands leave and skate across the rest of the clock’s painted signs and calibrations and numbers. These other markings on the face become irrelevant in themselves; they are now simply clues pointing in the direction of the chosen time. It is then possible, too, to conceive of the clock’s gears and springs as each having its own intrinsic function, but within a whole mechanism, the larger purpose of which is to return to the chosen time. In this manner, the clock resembles the universe.

On Understanding

Everything was almost always obscure. Understanding shone when it did, for no discernable reason, and we were content.

Spring Rain

Spring rain made temporary ponds of the deep ruts along the abandoned tote roads. The water was shin-deep and the color of iron cream. Howard had to walk through one sometimes because it extended across the width of the entire road and into the woods. As he waded through, his feet pushed up milky, rust-colored clouds of mud from the bottom, out of which spurted schools of bright green tadpoles disturbed in their rapid and fragile evolutions. The tom-tom tap of a pileated woodpecker sounded from somewhere in the woods, to Howard’s left. He thought of leaving the road to find it but decided not to. Grass covered the raised spine of the road where it was not submerged in the metallic water.

The Pond

Howard eventually comes to the outlet at Tagg Pond. The day is unusually warm. He stoops to examine how the water has arranged silt and leaves around the stones in the pools beyond the first reaches of the outlet. The silt and water combine in an element that is half earth and half-liquid. The appearance is that of a solid streambed. Howard takes off his father’s boots and the three pairs of socks he is wearing and rolls up the legs of his pants. When he steps into the water, the mud yields, a phantom floor that gives way to the true ground with little more resistance than the water flowing over it. Howard’s legs stir the silt into clouds, so he stands still for a time, watching a pair of cedar waxwings catch insects over the water and return to the same branch on a juniper bush growing on a hump of grass in the middle of the pool. The clouds of silt unfurl and the current carries them away. Then the water in which he stands is clear again and his leg look as if they end at the knees. The sunken halves of his legs stand buried in the silt among hidden branches and stones, which, because they are invisible, feel somehow like bones. After a time, small brook trout return to where he stands near the high grass and bushes of the bank. Clusters of frog eggs float past him, some close enough to see the embryos inside. Howard traces the riverbed with his feet and finds a flat stone broad enough to sit on. He finds another stone to place in his lap, so that the water will not lift him. He sinks down into the silt and sits on the flat stone. The silt is so deep where the stone is that only his head rises above the water and only his neck rises above the silt. He watches the silt billow away from his neck, as if his severed head had been tossed on the water and, rather than blood, bleeds clouds of soil.

Interesting reading

I thought you might like reading these pieces on Paul Harding’s book.

About Paul Harding and his book

                       – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/19/books/19harding.html

Interview with Paul Harding

                        – http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~hbr/main/current-issue/julian-arni-an-interview-with-paul-harding

Final Thoughts

I found ‘Tinkers’ interesting. I wouldn’t call it one of my favourite books of the year, but I loved reading the beautiful descriptions and the contemplative passages in the book. If you are one of those readers, who can do without a plot and enjoy books which have a contemplative and a meditative tone, you will enjoy reading this book.

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