Category Archives: Pulitzer Prize Winners

I have not read many of these yet, but I have read a few. Find my thoughts on them here.


I had heard of Maus before I ran across copies laying on a banned book table, so of course I had to pick them up. There are two. [Part] I: My father bleeds history, and [Part] II: And here my troubles began. They are both written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman. The first installment was first published in 1973 and the next in 1986. In 1992, Maus won a Pulitzer Prize.

If you’ve not heard of Maus, the cover art may seem a bit daunting. Prominently on the front of both novels is a swastika upon which an icon of a cat is overlaid. Herein lies the metaphor that I liked best – each nationality of people is represented by a different animal. In the case of Maus, the mice are Jews and the cats are Nazis. To elaborate beyond that, the Polish characters are pigs, Americans are dogs, the Swedish are horned deer, the French are frogs, and there’s even a Gypsy butterfly. Ingeniously, when a character is proposing to be “in hiding” they are wearing a mask of whatever nationality they are pretending to be.

I thought it was pretty cheeky to see a mouse, representing a man, wearing a pigs’ mask with little string ties to secure the disguise – though in an insidious way. Anyone whose ever actually worn one of those type of masks knows that they are notorious from working themselves loose and falling aside at the most inconvenient times. The frailty and vulnerability implied by this element of the story I thought was incredibly meaningful.

I felt that as a story about the holocaust, following the plot via cartoon animals was an easier way to absorb the darker elements of the story. Aside from the cover, the entirety of Maus is in black and white. This isn’t a bloody romp through a grotesque period of history made to be vile and shocking. It’s informational. Educational. Spiegelman presents facts of what his father experienced as a Jew surviving Hitler’s reign, as his father presented them, while performing supportive research along the way. Maus I is 159 pages of illustrations. Maus II is 135. I feel that I understand more about the holocaust and it’s impact upon several nations of peoples after having read these two graphic novels than I ever did looking at pictures of bombed buildings and photos of the dead in school.

Why? I suppose it is because those images lacked the right context. In Maus, Spiegelmans’ father Vladek spends the majority of his life during the war apart from his beloved Anja. A cast of characters involving their families and the friendships made and lost along the way made much more sense when told as a story. And, for as many books as there are out there regarding the mass murder of so many individuals, I can’t say that I ever wanted to search them out and read them. Plots regarding the murder of innocents isn’t what I would call reading for pleasure. Admittedly, I even gave pause to reading Maus when Vladek landed in Auschwitz.

It is interesting though as Art Spiegelman characterizes his father in later, ailing but free, years. At one point in the second novel, Vladek’s second wife has moved out, which results in a smattering of food in his kitchen that he can’t eat. He decides to seal the boxes back up and return them to the grocery store. Out of context, we may think that he is miserly and absurd. After reading about how even the smallest portions of bread or drops of soup were monetized and could settle the difference between life and death, one nevertheless has sympathy for the man. I didn’t feel bad that he was trying to get reimbursed for his expenses, but for the realization that even though Vladek is now free, he may never escape the imprisonment of his trauma.

I felt Maus was a well-told story on an important subject. It felt largely unbiased and fair in perspective. (Dear Art apparently suffered a fair deal from his fathers’ stubbornness and quirks, which is also freely admitted throughout the story.) Maus is thoughtfully written, considerately illustrated, and well-worth a few hours to read through. It’s quite an orchestra of characters and perspectives. I’m writing about it (even though I was thinking of ending my blog), because if even one more person picks it up to wonder why such a story would be banned, the time it takes me to write this is well worth it. I love stories that explain why people are the way they are, and how things happened the way they did. Maus is one.

American Pastoral

Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with American Pastoral in 1998. Finalists for that year were Underworld by Don Delillo and Bear and His Daughter: Stories by Robert Stone. This novel is part of what is considered The American Trilogy, a collection of books by the same author that includes I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. I started here with the intention to skip over to The Human Stain once I revisit Roth. It does not seem to matter if you read them in order or not.

The main character was based on a real person, Seymour “Swede” Masin, a Jewish athlete of admired repute. I’m not a sports person and had no previous knowledge of Masin, though I feel I’ve met him (in a way) after having spent 432 pages getting to know “Swede” Levov, protagonist. Imagine a good Jewish boy that grew up to be a stand-up, attractive adult. Everyone likes him. He marries a former beauty queen and they have a beautiful baby girl. It all starts out to be a picturesque vision of the quintessential American dream, set in New Jersey.

This novel is on the Goodreads most difficult novels list, and here’s why I think that is: Everything goes horrendously wrong. This good guy, who never hurt anyone in his life and wouldn’t bear to even risk insulting anyone has his internal fortitude dashed to pieces in a hail of discontent. His daughter, Merry, becomes a radical political activist adept at setting off bombs. There is intentional death that occurs by her hand and no substantial explanation for what caused her to tip. I finished my first reading thinking there was an unnamed disease present whose side-effects were anger, confusion, and despair. (Fittingly, the protagonist dies of prostate cancer, so lets enjoy the social commentary there. Did he die of cancer, or was he susceptible to cancer because he was already so weakened by what his life had become?)

The fiction in this novel didn’t seem like fiction, leaving me with a sense that the possibility of a perfect life is remote. If this guy can have his world pulled out from under him, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

Most of American Pastoral is the inner dialogue of the Swede, though there is a definite plot which drives this character along to his ultimate demise. The novel touches on the intricacies of the Levov’s relationship with his daughter, his wife, his brother, his community, and himself. If you like to listen, the audio version narrated by Ron Silver is absolutely exceptional. Silver won an Audie Award for Best Solo by a Male for his work in the 1998 release.

American Pastoral is on my favorite novels list. I liked that despite the seeming flawlessness of the characters’ younger lives, the author shows us how the white on their proverbial picket fence is simply an outer shell of paint. Beneath the veneer of whom they seem to be are real problems, motives, challenges, and depth. Perhaps I side with Merry insofar as I felt gratified by all the knots and dings these people carried under the surface.

I enjoyed the complexity of this novel. Even if you remove the trigger to the Swede’s downfall and omit the part of the story which is Merry’s terrorist acts, there still remains a realistic characterization of how we deal with the other people in our lives. What is it to be a parent? A husband? (And for some of us, a Jew?) How far can we expect our individual influence to reach as members of a family or community? Can we prevent chaos from seeping into our lives, or is entropy unavoidable?

If you have a penchant for unanswerable questions and family dysfunction with a touch of nihilism, then this book might interest you as well. Those triggered by intense family trauma should probably avoid it. Nevertheless I thought it was an excellent book that set a new bar on what I like to see in well developed characters struggling through an impossible situation.