This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
About a dozen years ago, I was on a plane reading Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead," a quietly masterful novel about John Ames, a 77-year-old Congregationalist minister in a small Iowa town who is writing a memoir of his life to his young son.
I found myself particularly moved by a strand of the story about a prodigal, the difficult son of Ames' best friend, whom the pastor finally comes to embrace. As this man is leaving town, Ames asks the traveler if he wants a blessing.
As a reader, I was surprised to be so moved by that offering. There in my window seat, looking down on a fluffy blanket of clouds, I found myself crying, and I realized I felt lucky to be in a world where such an eloquent scene, and such a book, could exist.
Moved by fiction: That's the kind of Salt Lake Tribune readers we've been talking to, after more than 60 people answered our call to name their favorite Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. This project began with Rachel Piper's story about Richard Isakson, a retired Brigham Young University professor who is finishing a quest to read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. (Here are some ideas about books that might be a good start for your Pulitzer reading quest.)
We invite Tribune readers to celebrate our favorite books and the new Pulitzer literary winners that will be announced Monday, April 18 with a Novel Night party at Weller Book Works on Thursday, April 28. See box for details.
The top pick is, of course, no surprise: Harper Lee's best-selling "To Kill a Mockingbird," which earned the Pulitzer in 1961 and gained attention again last year with the publication of Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" and the author's death in February.
Other readers agreed with me about "Gilead," which reader Phillip Waite, of North Logan, considered a "beautiful rendition of the place and role of faith and ministry in everyday life."
Another takeaway from the novel is that faith isn't synonymous with certainty, and that faith and doubt can cohabitate and each is better for it, Waite says. "I also remember that it was the first novel I ever highlighted and underlined passages in because it was just so beautiful."
Other novels highly regarded by many Tribune readers include hometown boy Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose" (1972) and John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). More favorites: Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" (2007), Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" (1953) and John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces" (1981).
Readers of every stripe answered our query, ranging from Rebecca James, of Millcreek, who says that Pulitzer Prize-winning novels shouldn't be dismissed as "high brow and boring," to Pat Ames, of Taylorsville, who is not afraid to say that she finds many classics to be "deadly dull."
James, who works at Western Governors University and teaches at Salt Lake Community College, says she's passionate about reading stories of everyday life, including understanding more about such flawed and beautifully rounded characters as the matronly mother who is the title character of Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kittredge" (2009).
She recounts a moment in the novel when Kittredge leaves behind doughnuts for her dog before she leaves on a walk, which struck her as "endearingly honest." She hopes a contemporary generation of writers will continue to explore the literary archetype of the crone with more of that kind of honesty.
Ames, who has a doctorate in technology, says at present she mostly reads for escape, but nominated "To Kill a Mockingbird" as her favorite Pulitzer novel, calling herself a fan of the book and the 1962 movie adaptation for its perfect casting of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
Jennifer Palmer, a photographer who lives in Salt Lake City, says she appreciates the story of "Mockingbird" even more now than when she first read it as a 15-year-old in English class. Its themes about challenging racial injustice seem at least as relevant as when the book was published in 1960, says Palmer, who calls herself an "equal-opportunity reader."
"I reread it a year ago, and it blows my mind how literature just captures the cycle of humanity," she says.
Stephanie Lobrot lauds another local favorite, "Angle of Repose," for the weave of its language. "The sentences in and of themselves were a thing of beauty," she says. "Collectively, they became a masterpiece. I loved even more he took a story that could have been more mundane and just made it beautiful. It's not a cliffhanger, and yet I absolutely couldn't put it down."
Fiction writer Suzanne Jeschke, of Salt Lake City, praised Bernard Malamud's "The Fixer" (1967) as one of the most memorable novels she has ever read. She loves its "haunting" portrayal of a character who is highly misunderstood to the outer world, yet readers come to understand him as the story unfolds.
"The way the novel is written is sort of myopic," she says. "You're so in this character's inner world, and you feel like you're in their head, and yet it's a universal story. It feels like a commentary on the Jewish struggle."
What makes a great novel for her is when she still remembers how she felt about the story as she was reading it, even when the details of the plot have faded away.
For Utah Valley University philosophy professor Scott Abbott, the richly developed characters in "The Grapes of Wrath" inspired his own writerly journeys. He and his wife, Lyn Ellen Bennett, are writing an academic book ("Intimate Fences: Constructing the Meaning of Barbed Wire") about the barbed wire. They have published an essay in The Steinbeck Review about the fencing material in "Grapes of Wrath."
Abbott says he is interested in how Steinbeck raises questions about the way religion guides character choices. "I don't think it's an actively anti-religion book, but it put religion in a context that shows where it's not helpful, and other things (like community) that might be helpful."
Abbott's history with the book goes back to the time when his mother, an avid reader, first handed it to him in the late 1960s, telling him, "This is one of the best books ever written," while she apologized for its vulgar language.
For Mark Alvarez, an attorney who occasionally writes opinion columns for The Salt Lake Tribune, reading Robert Penn Warren's great political novel, "All the King's Men" (1947) inspired him to action.
Warren's novel is about Willie Stark, a cynical populist politician who becomes a powerful, perhaps corrupt governor, and Alvarez says he's fascinated by how the novel seems newly relevant with the rise of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. The novel is narrated by a political reporter who leaves behind journalism to work for Stark. One of Stark's pronouncements from the book that has stuck with Alvarez is this: "Somebody told me, but you know how rumor hath a thousand tongues and how the newspaper boys tend to exaggeration, and the truth ain't in 'em."
Alvarez says took notes on the structure of Warren's novel to write his own, yet unpublished novel, "The Race of Kimberly Borges," about a young Latina state Senate candidate in Utah.
Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" (1998) had a different kind of impact on Tom Thompson, of Salt Lake City. Thompson was going through a rocky period in his marriage when he first read the book, and he was compelled by the story of Seymour "Swede" Levov's desire to be a good man.
As a reader, Thompson questioned whether he could measure up to that standard, and that question helped him negotiate his relationship with his wife as they divorced.
He adds: "Reading the book had a great impact on my life."
This story was informed by sources in The Salt Lake Tribune's Public Insight Network. To become a news source for the Tribune, go to sltrib.com/upin.
Pulitzer Party: Novel Night
Join us to celebrate the Pulitzers and the local literary scene. The event will include a panel of readers, as well as book-themed goodies and cake. At the afterparty, literary cocktails will be on sale at the Desert Edge Brewery.
When • Thursday, April 28, 6:30 p.m.
Where • Weller Book Works, 607 Trolley Square, Salt Lake City
More • To read about Richard Isakson's quest to read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, visit http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment/3567421-155/former-byu-professor-nearing-end-of.
Tips • Becky Jo Gesteland, interim dean of English at Weber State University, offers recommendations about starting your own Pulitzer reading quest. Visit http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment/3644768-155/15-ways-to-get-started-reading
Alice Walker at the U.
Author and poet Alice Walker, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983 for "The Color Purple," and acclaimed filmmaker Pratibha Parmar will participate in a series of events as part of the University of Utah's Barbara L. & Norman C. Tanner Center for Nonviolent Human Rights Advocacy's "Artists as Advocates: Women's Rights and Human Rights" series. All events are free and open to the public.
Wednesday, April 20 • Screening of Parmar's "Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth" and discussion with Walker and Parmar, in partnership with the Utah Film Center and KUER's "Through the Lens" programming; 7-9 p.m.; Rose Wagner Performing Arts Theater, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
Thursday, April 21 • Screening of "Warrior Marks" and discussion with Parmar; noon; Law School Moot Courtroom, U. campus
Thursday, April 21 • A reading with Walker and discussion with Walker and Parmar, book signing hosted by King's English of Salt Lake City to follow; 7 p.m., Rice-Eccles Stadium Scholarship Room, U. campus
More information • http://humanrights.utah.edu
The 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction will be announced Monday, April 18, at 1 p.m.. Several readers who told us about their favorite Pulitzer-winning novels also shared what 2015 book (by an American author, preferably dealing with American life) they think should be granted this year's honor:
"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara • "The voice alone in this unflinching novel is enough to render it a classic. This novel captures human suffering and human compassion in a stunningly beautiful story. This one will stay with the reader forever."
"Delicious Foods" by James Hannaham • "A modern spin of the great American novel."
"Purity" by Jonathan Franzen • "Franzen is the epitome of a writer who understands wholly the contemporary life of the modern college grad. 'Purity' explores a college girl and her endeavor to find out who she is and where she comes from. It's an epic potion of avant-garde words that bring to life the pages … you feel you are there, you become another character in the pages of the world that Franzen created. It's beautiful."
"The Sellout" by Paul Beatty • "I adored Beatty's novel 'White Boy Shuffle'; "The Sellout" is even better because it continues to use Beatty's gift of absurdist/tragic humor to critique contemporary American's ongoing struggle with racism, the longterm effects of slavery, and racial/cultural appropriation. (Cheers to Dr. John Goshert at UVU for initially introducing me to Beatty's work.)"