Saturday, March 31, 2012

Zuleika Dobson



Zuleika Dobson
by Sir Max Beerbohm
read: 2012
Modern Library #59, Guardian 1000 Novels

A synopsis in song (spoiler alert):

I liked this book; the humor holds up fairly well for being 101 years old.

There's an interesting diversion about halfway through where the narrator explains why he is able to render the story in third-person omniscient.  Short version: the Clio, the Greek Muse of history, becomes jealous of the fiction writers and their ability to relate stories with detail and the internal thoughts and feelings of characters.  Zeus, who has apparently had a thing for Clio for a while, grants her the ability to designate one historian to tell one story one time.  She chooses Beerbohm, and Zuleika Dobson is the result.  You gotta admit, it's pretty creative.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Gravity's Rainbow



Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon
read: 2010
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 NovelsNational Book Award

I guess I don't get it.  Gravity's Rainbow has some great parts - I love the argument Roger Mexico has about  the correlation between Slothrop's sexual conquests and locations of V-2 rocket attack sites and how it it is just a statistical oddity and has no predictive value - but man, it is disjointed.  I think that's probably part of the point, but I'm not a big "the novel as craft" guy.  The Wikipedia page on Gravity's Rainbow states that "The number of episodes in each part carries with it a numerological significance which is in keeping with the use of numerology and Tarot symbolism throughout the novel."  But really, who gives a shit?

I do think I would gain something by re-reading the book, and I enjoy Pynchon's writing style.  I'll save that project for my forties though, maybe.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Secret Agent



The Secret Agent
by Joseph Conrad
read: 2011
Modern Library #46, Guardian 1000 Novels

I read The Secret Agent around Christmas last year, a bit more recently than Heart of Darkness.  I want to like Conrad more than I do; he plays in the realms of moral ambiguity, which I've been known to appreciate.  The protagonist Verloc exploits his mentally challenged brother-in-law Stevie to commit a terrorist act, but he is caught between forces outside of his control.  The exploitation is odious but stems partially from a moral inability to commit such a horrific act personally.  Ultimately Verloc only wants to run his modest shop and live out a quiet life with his wife.  Conrad portrays the tension between Verloc and his wife less as a result of a failure on the part and either of them and more as a tragic misunderstanding that exists between all people.  There are great themes in the story, complex and universal.

Despite that, The Secret Agent left me a little bit cold.  The characters feel empty.  Part of that is no doubt deliberate on Conrad's part, as he portrays the aloofness that exists even between man and wife, but it makes the moral dilemmas and serious choices the characters have to make less compelling.  Ambiguity is great, but too often when reading The Secret Agent my feelings strayed more to indifference.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Heart of Darkness



Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad
read: circa 1997
Modern Library #67, Guardian 1000 Novels

I rarely enjoy movies more than the books on which they are based.  One exception is Apocalypse Now, which is loosely based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  Francis Ford Coppola moved Kurtz from colonial Africa to the jungles of Vietnam and turned it into an absurdist statement on the Vietnam War.  I remember really liking the last 20% of this book and have forgotten almost all of the first 80%.  But how can you forget surfing amidst falling shells or "I love the smell of napalm in the morning?"

Monday, March 26, 2012

Slaughterhouse Five



Slaughterhouse Five
by Kurt Vonnegut
read: approximately 1997
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #18, Guardian 1000 Novels

I read this about the same time as Catch-22; I can't remember which of these anti-war, part-comedy, part-serious, ultimately horrifying, terrific books I read first.  When I went to college, I listed Slaughterhouse Five as one of my favorite books; I was paired with a roommate who had listed Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.

Vonnegut is kind of a gateway high literary author for dorks like me who read a lot of science fiction.  I read this junior or senior year of high school and really enjoyed it at a time when I was reading mostly Star Wars novels.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Catch-22



Catch-22
by Joseph Heller
read: circa 1997
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #7, Guardian 1000 Novels

I don't have a hard list of my favorite books, but if I did it's safe to say Catch-22 would be on it, and would have been on it ever since I read it.  I think it's the first book I read that blended being hilariously funny and entertaining with having a real message and emotional impact.  To me, that's how life is, neither universally serious or funny, neither universally happy or sad, and I really respond to art and literature presented in this way.  This style really works with the themes in Catch-22; Heller makes the point that war is not only horrible  for its death and violence but also absurd for the bureaucracy, corruption, and madness of armies and men fighting in war.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Things Fall Apart



Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe
part of The African Trilogy
read: circa 1998
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 Novels

I had to read this senior year of high school.  That was the world literature year.  I remember the Yeats poem; I don't remember this book.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Falconer



Falconer
by John Cheever
read: 2012
Time 100 Novels

Falconer is the kind of book that prompted me to start this blog.  It's more of a novella than a novel, and reading it shortly after Infinite Jest and The Executioner's Song, it would be easy for it to be shuffled aside in the old memory bank.  It has elements of those books.  Like Infinite Jest, Falconer has a theme of finding peace and freedom from drug addiction) in the daily structure of a regimented environment - in this case, prison.  Like Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song, Ezekiel Farragut is a troubled man who finds his best self after committing murder and being punished by the justice system.

The element that struck me most about Falconer was its subtlety.  Very little is spelled out, and while we spent a lot of time with Farragut we rarely get in his head.  Was he in love with the prisoner he had the homosexual relationship with?  Did he still love his wife?  Does he want to try to get together with either of them when he gets out, or start a new life entirely?  Does he repent of murdering his brother?  Why do the other inmates (like The Cuckold and Chicken Man 2) confide in Farragut?  Is he glad when he's able to overcome his drug addiction?  Why does he want to escape, and what he is escaping from, and what is he escaping to?  Farragut himself seems to be either ignorant of or perhaps afraid of the answers to these questions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

An American Tragedy



An American Tragedy
by Theodore Dreiser
read: 2010
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #16, Guardian 1000 Novels

Reading The Executioner's Song, it was hard not to think back to reading An American Tragedy.  Both books feature central characters who are shaped by society and their own personal flaws and end up committing crimes, are tried and sentenced to death, and show their greatest strength of character while sitting on death row.  An American Tragedy is fiction, though it is partially based on a real-life 1906 murder.  Dreiser pulls more punches than Mailer, but it's still a gripping story, and when Clyde Griffiths begins having evil thoughts it's pretty shocking.

I had never even heard of Theodore Dreiser until going off to college.  At the time he was considered one of the giants of the era, but he was just a midwestern dude writing novels, which isn't as sexy as imagining Fitzgerald and Hemingway gallivanting around Europe with all the other writers and artists.  His prose style is a bit dated, but he gets to the core of some complex feelings in An American Tragedy.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Executioner's Song



The Executioner's Song
by Norman Mailer
read: 2012
Pulitzer Prize

Just a few weeks after tackling David Foster Wallace's magnum opus Infinite Jest, I decided to have a go at Mailer's 1000-pager The Executioner's Song.  I had read an article over at N+1 about crime and decided reading The Executioner's Song would help me understand more about the criminal justice system.  I don't know if it did that, but it was a terrific, gripping read.

The element I appreciated most was the moral ambiguity.  Gary Gilmore (the central figure, who committed two murders and was sentenced to death in Utah in the late 1976) has qualities we can sympathize with: he's thoughtful, intelligent, spiritual, can be sweet, and ultimately just wants to be loved.  We don't fully know what happened to him in the 14 years he spent mostly in prison early in his adult life, and we don't fully understand how his early childhood or stay in reform school shaped his later behavior, but there's a sense that things might have been different.  At the same time, Mailer in no way absolves Gilmore for his crimes, nor does he excuse them as a one-time lapse.  Gilmore is a disturbed, violent person with definite sociopathic tendencies.  He has a real and terrible impact on everyone whose life he touches.  But no human is one thing, even a man who murders two innocent people in cold blood, and we are left to confront the idea that there is something of Gary Gilmore in all of us.

The book is presented as non-fiction, though it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980.  It is written as a novel, including with specific scenes of dialogue.  It is impossible to tell what Mailer knows for sure, where he is repeating verbatim from interviews, where he is assembling scenes from various, possibly conflicting accounts, and where he is filling in gaps with fiction.  Certain scenes stand out in my mind - like what Gilmore said before killing his first victim - as fabrications where Mailer couldn't possibly know the truth.  It's not unethical, but it's not entirely journalistic at the same time.  Looking past that, I thought The Executioner's Song was excellent and thought-provoking.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pulitzer Prize for Novel / Fiction

http://www.pulitzer.org/bycat/Novel
http://www.pulitzer.org/bycat/Fiction

1918 - His Family, Ernest Poole
1919 - The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington
1921 - The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
1922 - Alice Adams, Booth Tarkington
1923 - One of Ours, Willa Cather
1924 - The Able McLaughlins, Margaret Wilson
1925 - So Big, Edna Ferber
1926 - Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis
1927 - Early Autumn, Louis Bromfield
1928 - The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder
1929 - Scarlet Sister Mary, Julia Peterkin
1930 - Laughing Boy, Oliver Lafarge
1931 - Years of Grace, Margaret Ayer Barnes
1932 - The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
1933 - The Store, T.S. Stribling
1934 - Lamb in His Bosom, Caroline Miller
1935 - Now in November, Josephine Winslow Johnson
1936 - Honey in the Horn, Harold L. Davis
1937 - Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
1938 - The Late George Apley, Josh Phillips Marquand
1939 - The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
1940 - The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
1942 - In This Our Life, Ellen Glasgow
1943 - Dragon's Teeth, Upton Sinclair
1944 - Journey in the Dark, Martin Flavin
1945 - A Bell for Adano, John Hersey
1947 - All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
1948 - Tales of the South Pacific, James A. Michener
1949 - Guard of Honor, James Gould Cozzens
1950 - The Way West, A.B. Guthrie
1951 - The Town, Conrad Richter
1952 - The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk
1953 - The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
1955 - A Fable, William Faulkner
1956 - Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor
1958 - A Death in the Family, James Agee
1959 - The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Robert Lewis Taylor
1960 - Advise and Consent, Allen Drury
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
1962 - The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O'Connor
1963 - The Reivers, William Faulkner
1965 - The Keepers of the House, Shirly Ann Grau
1966 - Collected Stories, Katherine Anne Porter
1967 - The Fixer, Bernard Malamud
1968 - The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron
1969 - House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday
1970 - Collected Stories, Jean Stafford
1972 - Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
1973 - The Optimist's Daughter, Eudora Welty
1975 - The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
1976 - Humboldt's Gift, Saul Bellow
1978 - Elbow Room, James Alan McPherson
1979 - The Stories of John Cheever
1980 - The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer
1981 - A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
1982 - Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike
1983 - The Color Purple, Alice Walker
1984 - Ironweed, William Kennedy
1985 - Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie
1986 - Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
1987 - A Summons to Memphis, Peter Taylor
1988 - Beloved, Toni Morrison
1989 - Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler
1990 - The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Oscar Hijuelos
1991 - Rabbit at Rest, John Updike
1992 - A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
1993 - A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler
1994 - The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
1995 - The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
1996 - Independence Day, Richard Ford
1997 - Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, Steven Millhauser
1998 - American Pastoral, Philip Roth
1999 - The Hours, Michael Cunningham
2000 - Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
2001 - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
2002 - Empire Falls, Richard Russo
2003 - Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
2004 - The Known World, Edward P. Jones
2005 - Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
2006 - March, Geraldine Brooks
2007 - The Road, Cormac McCarthy
2008 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
2009 - Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
2010 - Tinkers, Paul Harding
2011 - A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
2013 - The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson
2014 - The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Infinite Jest



Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace
read: 2012
Time 100 Novels, Guardian 1000 Novels

Where do I start with Infinite Jest?  I'll always remember how I read it.  I had just started the book when the Patriots won the AFC Championship game against Baltimore.  In an effort to avoid compulsively checking the Internet every 15 minutes for football news, I decided to give myself the goal of completing this mammoth (nearly 1000 pages plus another 100+ pages of footnotes) tome before the Super Bowl.  I did not quite succeed - I ended up finishing Infinite Jest the day after - but the effort shaped my reading of the novel.

Reading the book as an act of will was appropriate because, in a lot of ways, Infinite Jest is a book about will.  Many of the major characters are recovering drug addicts struggling through Narcotics Anonymous and similar programs.  They cannot take drugs or alcohol without sliding back into addiction, but by deciding each day not to take drugs, to work their menial jobs, to attend their NA meetings, they can carve out a life.  I almost wrote "find salvation," but Infinite Jest does not promise (nor presumably do drug / alcohol recovery organizations) anything so lofty.

We see this abdication of free well in favor of a regimented life in the day-to-day lives of the student-athletes at the Enfield Tennis Academy.  Protagonists Hal Incandenza and his classmates don't live the lives of normal 17-year-olds; they wake up before dawn to work out, have matches, go to academically rigorous classes, drill, and play more matches.  It is not a normal life for a teenager, but if the students want to make The Show (professional tennis), it is the only path.  Hal rebels against the system through covert drug use (where the thrill is as much the secrecy as the effects of the chemicals themselves), and when he quits smoking pot his life begins to unravel.  It is left ambiguous whether he "needs" marijuana to reach his highest potential, and whether or not reaching this potential is truly of value.  There are sad parallels between Hal and Wallace, himself a serious amateur tennis player.  Wallace struggled with depression much of his life but quit taking medication because he felt it interfered with his writing.  This contributed to his 2008 suicide.

Will also shows up in the video which gives the book its title.  "Infinite Jest" is a short film created by Hal's late father James to be the ultimate Entertainment, manipulating the emotions of the viewer to such an extent that after one watches it, one loses all desire to do anything but watch the video.  Catching just a glimpse of Infinite Jest ultimately results in death, as the viewer no longer has any interesting in eating or sleeping and only desires to watch the film on an infinite loop.  Obviously this is taken to a silly extreme, but Wallace's point is that to some extent any art we read, watch, hear, or see is a partial abdication of free will; we are voluntarily taking in stimulus that is designed to manipulate the emotions we would otherwise feel.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Darkness at Noon



Darkness at Noon
by Arthur Koestler
read: approximately 2004
Modern Library #8, Guardian 1000 Novels

Darkness at Noon is a thematic sister to Animal Farm, showing the horrors of Stalinist Russia through the eyes of a political prisoner awaiting interrogation and ultimately (he assumes) execution.  Rubashov, the protagonist, formerly was a key member of the Party but has become increasingly uncomfortable over time as he sees it compromise each of its values in turn in the interest of power acquisition and self-preservation.  Over the past few years, I've come to the realization that institutions of sufficient size are always mostly concerned with self-preservation.

Darkness at Noon is a tight, contained story that never really introduces the possibility of hope, but tests the limits of human will and endurance.  The dramatic tension is not in whether Rubashov will escape or even avoid execution, but whether he gives us in when faced with various interrogative techniques.

Friday, March 16, 2012

On finishing books

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/mar/13/why-finish-books/

"Are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it?"

Homage to Catalonia



Homage to Catalonia
by George Orwell
read: 2012

Hey, an Orwell book I read recently!  I visited Barcelona in the spring of 2010, and some of the things I saw there made me interested in the Spanish Civil War.  Orwell fought in it and wrote Homage to Catalonia as an account of his experience.  He alternates between telling what he saw first-hand and giving an overview of the politics that led to the war and shaped the outcome.  His personal story is jarring for the extent to which it shows how the world has changed - few people I know would sacrifice life and limb to fight for ideology in a foreign country, and they certainly wouldn't complain that there was too little shooting if they did.  The political chapters are confusing with the acronyms of the various political parties involved, but Orwell effectively conveys how that divisiveness and confusion contributed to the downfall of the left and Franco's rise to power.  Probably more than anything, the book is remarkable for de-romanticizing military service; war is not just courage in the face of death but also resilience in the face of boredom, dwindling supplies of cigarettes and candle wax, and pubic lice.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

All the King's Men



All the King's Men
by Robert Penn Warren
read: 2012
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #36, Pulitzer Prize

I'm impressed by tightly-constructed novels like a puzzles where all the pieces fit together in the end.  But I find that many of the books that stick with me over time are ones where not all the pieces fit; there's a chapter that doesn't make sense, or a decision I can't quite understand, or a line that conveys meaning that isn't apparent.  The apparent incompleteness causes me to ruminate on what it is that I'm missing.  I just finished All the King's Men, and largely it ties up the loose ends; Warren does a terrific job bringing the plot together while keeping things thematically linked.  There are a couple questions I still have after reading the book.

Why is Stark so insistent that they not cut any corners while building the hospital?  Stark is not only unprincipled, he is principled in his unprincipledness; he believes you really can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.  He says at one point that "You've got to make it [goodness], Doc.  If you want it.  And you've got to make it out of badness.  Badness.  And you know why, Doc? ... Because there isn't anything else to make it out of."  With such a cynical viewpoint, which is he so committed to avoiding the badness when constructing the hospital?

I guess on some level, the answer is obvious: he wants the hospital to be an emblem of goodness.  The interesting questions is the philosophical one: does he want it to be an emblem of goodness because of his philosophy on goodness (i.e., to prove that the purest goodness can come out of badness) or despite that philosophy (i.e., to show that this one time he can make something good without all the ugliness that normally attends his accomplishments)?

What is the Cass Mastern chapter all about?  Sometimes I go to a really nice restaurant, and there's something on the menu that doesn't make any sense.  Why are there nachos on the menu at this four-star restaurant?  Well, you got them, and they're ridiculous good, with some sort of inventive twist that only this celebrity chef could think of.  Art is similar; the one element that doesn't seem to fit in often ends up being the emotional touchstone of the whole work.  In the case of All the King's Men, the incongruent piece is the chapter on Cass Mastern, narrator Jack Burden's relative, that forms the subject of his (uncompleted) history thesis.  It's the only story that doesn't involve Jack, Willie Stark, and the Stanton's.

The story revolves around Cass, an ancestor of Jack's, having an affair with Annabelle Trice, the wife of a friend, who finds out and kills himself.  The slave Phebe knows the reason for the suicide, so Annabelle sells her.  Cass is distraught and attempts to track down Phebe, only to find she has been sold into a life of sexual abuse.  Jack tells the story in third-person as a flashback; while studying history he decided to write about Cass's letters.  But ultimately he is unable to, "perhaps ... not because he could not understand, but because he was afraid to understand for what might be understood there was a reproach to him."

Warren wraps this up later by suggesting that once Jack can confront the past he can finally move forward.  "The past" has three levels here: Jack's individual failures (in his personal relationships and in his career ambitions), the inherited family sin (because Cass is Jack's relative), and the sin of slavery that hangs like a cloud over the whole South.  Maybe I'm reading a bit too much into that - Warren doesn't delve too much into the plights on blacks otherwise - but there's no sin without Original Sin and in the South that's slavery.

The other element of Cass' journey that's significant is his fatalism.  He doesn't plan for affair to happen; it just does.  He doesn't intend for Phebe to be sold into a life of rape (in fact, he has strong abolitionist tendences), but she is.  Similarly, Jack finds the pattern of his life directed by others: the disintegration of his relationship with Anne, his marriage and divorce, and his coming to work for Willie Stark all are told as events that happen to him.  His lack of control manifests itself physically in the Big Sleep he suffers when going through difficult times and in the God-given Twitch he sees in the hitchhiker he picks up.  Only when he is ultimately able to see himself as a moral agent is he able to break free from the pattern Cass has set for him.  There he finds that neither Stark's Machiavellianism nor Adam Stanton's uncompromising idealism are satisfactory; we all have to make decisions as best we can and live with the results.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Animal Farm



Animal Farm
by George Orwell
read: approximately 1997
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #31, Guardian 1000 NovelsHugo Award (Retroactive)

Another book I read a long time ago and remember little of.  You've got to give Orwell a ton of credit for writing a history of Stalinist Russia that high school students can relate to.  Were the animals just to make the story more understandable, or was there symbolism in the allegory?  I'd have to re-read to have an opinion on it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold



The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
by John le Carre
A George Smiley novel
read: 2012
Time 100 Novels, Guardian 1000 Novels, Gold Dagger Award

Like 1984, this is a story I probably would have appreciated more if I'd been older during the Cold War.  Don't get me wrong: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a great read.  It manages to be fast-paced and crisp without having much actual action.  Le Carre leaves the reader in the right amount of suspense; you never have quite enough information to know everything that's going on, but there are sufficient clues to guess.  The plot twists are convincing, and it's a tight story.

The element that elevates Spy to the pantheon of spy novels is its moral ambiguity.  At the height of the Cold War there were the Good Guys and the Bad Guys.  And the Good Guys did good things and stood for good stings and the Bad Guys did the opposite.  Spy turned that on its head by having Good Guys who did some bad things, and Bad Guys for whom we can have some sympathy.  The conversation where this is spelled out was a bit didactic and preachy, but the notion does provoke thought, even if it's lost a bit of the impact it had in 1964 when the book was published.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

1984



1984
by George Orwell
read: approximately 1996
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #13, Guardian 1000 Novels

Several years after Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, he wrote Brave New World Revisited.  It sounds like a sequel, but it's really a non-fiction follow-up, where he discusses the ways in the which the world is moving towards the world he outlined in Brave New World and how his book predicts some technological and societal changes.  He also spends a good number of pages comparing and contrasting Brave New World and 1984.  So it was probably unfortunate that I read both Brave New World and Brave New World Revsited before 1984; I was pre-disposed to think, "Sure, that's great, but it's no Brave New World."

I did like 1984, though I read it so long ago that many of the specifics are lost to me.  I think the post-World War II fear of Stalinist Russia is hard for me to understand.  The madmen of today are local in scope; Robert Mugabe or Kim Jong-Il might torture or murder their own populace, but there's no serious danger that their monstrosity will spread across the globe.  But in 1948, just a couple years after Hitler was defeated, it probably seemed inevitable that Stalin would make his own effort to take over the world.  Now the idea seems fanciful, like something out of a James Bond movie.  To 16-year-old me, 1984 was a great work of fiction, but its political impact was a bit lost on me.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Brave New World



Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
read: approximately 1996
Modern Library #5, Guardian 1000 Novels

Brave New World is one of the first pieces of literature I understood and loved.  I read it in high school and I think the theme is one that appeals to a high school student, particularly one who is not necessarily the most popular kid in the class: the value of individuality in a world dominated by conformity.  Huxley set up the novel so the reader identifies with John the Savage and his anger, his faults, his desires, and his Genuine Human Emotion.

At the time I accepted the innate nobility of that stance, but as I get older it seems a bit more hollow.  People should have freedom to do what they want, but freedom includes the choice to just be conformist and be happy.  The uniqueness of humanity is found not in our emotions (which can be animalistic and base) nor in our intellect (which can be robotic and cold) but in the balance between them.  I can't help but feel that Huxley sets up a bit of a false dichotomy in Brave New World; the answer is not found in the regimented society nor in the free, chaotic wilderness but somewhere in between.

I do think the book is brilliant for laying out a plausible dystopia, one where humanity is not cowed by might and fair but one where individual people are presented with increasingly appealing options and largely through choice create an anodyne society.  The idea is frightening not in a direct, paranoid way but in a subtle, more subversive way.  It's not "will they kill me?", it's "have I already lost my humanity?", or worse, being unable to ask the question at all.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Time Magazine 100 Novels

http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/

1924 - A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
1925 - An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
1925 - The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
1925 - Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
1926 - The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
1927 - Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
1927 - The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder
1927 - To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
1929 - Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
1929 - The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
1932 - Light in August, William Faulkner
1934 - I, Claudius, Robert Graves
1934 - Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
1934 - Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara
1934 - A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh
1935 - Call It Sleep, Henry Roth
1936 - Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
1937 - Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
1938 - At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien
1939 - The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
1939 - The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
1939 - The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck
1939 - The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West
1940 - The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
1940 - The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead
1940 - Native Son, Richard Wright
1945 - Loving, Henry Green
1946 - The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood
1946 - Animal Farm, George Orwell
1946 - All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
1946 - Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
1947 - Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
1948 - The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
1948 - 1984, George Orwell
1949 - The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
1950 - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
1951 - A Dance to the Music of Time (series), Anthony Powell
1951 - The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
1952 - Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
1953 - Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
1953 - The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
1954 - Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
1954 - Under the Net, Iris Murdoch
1954 - The Lord of the Rings (series), J.R.R. Tolkien
1955 - The Recognitions, William Gaddis
1955 - Lord of the Flies, William Golding
1955 - Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
1957 - On the Road, Jack Kerouac
1957 - The Assistant, Bernard Malamud
1958 - A Death in the Family, James Agee
1958 - The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
1959 - Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
1959 - Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
1960 - The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth
1960 - To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
1960 - Rabbit, Run, John Updike
1961 - Catch-22, Joseph Heller
1961 - The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
1961 - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
1961 - Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
1962 - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
1962 - The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
1962 - Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
1962 - A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul
1963 - A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
1964 - Herzog, Saul Bellow
1964 - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carre
1965 - The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski
1966 - The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
1966 - Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
1967 - The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron
1969 - Ubik, Philip K. Dick
1969 - The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles
1969 - Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
1969 - Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
1970 - Are You There, God?  It's Me, Margaret, Judy Blume
1970 - Deliverance, James Dickey
1970 - Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion
1973 - Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
1974 - Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone
1975 - Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow
1977 - Falconer, John Cheever
1981 - Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
1981 - Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
1984 - Money, Martin Amis
1984 - Neuromancer, William Gibson
1985 - White Noise, Dom DiLillo
1986 - The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
1986 - Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
1986 - Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
1987 - Beloved, Toni Morrison
1990 - Possession, A.S. Byatt
1992 - Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
1996 - Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
1997 - American Pastoral, Philip Roth
2000 - The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
2000 - White Teeth, Zadie Smith
2001 - The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
2002 - Atonement, Ian McEwan
2005 - Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Modern Library Top 100

http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/

#1 Ulysses, James Joyce
#2 The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
#3 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
#4 Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
#5 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
#6 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
#7 Catch-22, Joseph Heller
#8 Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler
#9 Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence
#10 The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
#11 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
#12 The Way of all Flesh, Samuel Butler
#13 1984, George Orwell
#14 I, Claudius, Robert Graves
#15 To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
#16 An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
#17 The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
#18 Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
#19 Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
#20 Native Son, Richard Wright
#21 Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow
#22 Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara
#23 U.S.A. (series), John Dos Passos
#24 Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
#25 A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
#26 The Wings of the Dove, Henry James
#27 The Ambassadors, Henry James
#28 Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
#29 The Studs Lonigan Trilogy, James. T. Farrell
#30 The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
#31 Animal Farm, George Orwell
#32 The Golden Bowl, Henry James
#33 Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser
#34 A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh
#35 As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
#36 All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
#37 The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder
#38 Howards End, E.M. Forster
#39 Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
#40 The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
#41 Lord of the Flies, William Golding
#42 Deliverance, James Dickey
#43 A Dance to the Music of Time (series), Anthony Powell
#44 Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley
#45 The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
#46 The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
#47 Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
#48 The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence
#49 Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence
#50 Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
#51 The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer
#52 Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
#53 Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
#54 Light in August, William Faulkner
#55 On the Road, Jack Kerouac
#56 The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
#57 Parade's End, Ford Madox Ford
#58 The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
#59 Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm
#60 The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
#61 Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
#62 From Here to Eternity, James Jones
#63 The Wapshot Chronicles, John Cheever
#64 The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
#65 A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
#66 Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham
#67 Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
#68 Main Street, Sinclair Lewis
#69 House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
#70 The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durell
#71 A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes
#72 A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul
#73 The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West
#74 A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
#75 Scoop, Evelyn Waugh
#76 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
#77 Finnegan's Wake, James Joyce
#78 Kim, Rudyard Kipling
#79 A Room with a View, E.M. Forster
#80 Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
#81 The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
#82 Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
#83 A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul
#84 The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
#85 Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
#86 Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow
#87 The Old Wives' Tale, Arnold Bennett
#88 The Call of the Wild, Jack London
#89 Loving, Henry Green
#90 Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
#91 Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell
#92 Ironweed, William Kennedy
#93 The Magus, John Fowles
#94 Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
#95 Under the Net, Iris Murdoch
#96 Sophie's Choice, William Styron
#97 The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
#98 The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
#99 The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy
#100 The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington

Winesburg, Ohio



Winesburg, Ohio
by Sherwood Anderson
read: 2012
Modern Library #24

"Clyde was born in an unincorporated town in Northeast Ohio to a woman who spent her childhood dreaming of marriage only to find the reality was a constraining sadness lurking beneath the surface, and to a man whose dreams of moving to a big East coast city were dashed by Clyde's birth.  The family moved to Winesburg when Clyde was eight, and he became fast friends with Nell, the girl next door, who had been rendered mute by an illness she contracted in infancy.  As they got older, she leaned on him to help her communicate, as they spent so much time together that he could tell what she was thinking by a facial expression, a posture, a tilt of her head, even a breath.

"When Clyde got older he received a letter from a estranged uncle who had a business in New York City, inviting Clyde to apprentice at his shop.  He told Nell excitedly of his opportunity, and the look she gave him was not one he recognized.  He did not yet realize the underlying emotion or that he felt the same way.

"After several months in New York, during which the frequency of their letters diminished, Clyde had occasion to return to Winesburg.  He got off the train in the town depot, wearing a hat and shoes he had acquired with his first paycheck.  They did not quite fit.  He stopped by Nell's home and was about to knock when he saw her through the window.  She was sitting in a rocking chair, knitting.  She looked the same as when he had last seen her except for a new weariness around the eyes.  She sighed, and Clyde saw the rising and falling of her chest and suddenly understood the look she had given him before he left.  A lump formed in his throat.  Clyde did not knock; he walked on and left her there, knitting and saying nothing to herself or anyone.  He never saw Nell again."

Sherwood Anderson didn't write the above; I did.  But if you like that story and you want to read like 22 more versions of it, you should read Winesburg, Ohio.

The Call of the Wild



The Call of the Wild
by Jack London
read: approximately 1996
Modern Library #88, Guardian 1000 Novels

Read for school (not required, but we had a choice of authors for summer reading and I chose this).  I only remember two things about this book: 1) Ethan Hawke yelling at the dog to leave him and throwing sticks to get him to run away and 2) oh yeah, that was White Fang, not The Call of the Wild.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen




The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen
by Rudolf Erich Raspe
read: 2012
Guardian 1000 Novels

I'm a bit tired of writing "I don't remember much about this book," so let's come at this from both ends.   The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the most recent book I've finished.

I wonder sometimes about my affinity for the novel as an art form.  It's easy to say, "it's timeless," but the truth is that the novel is only about 400-500 years old.  It really wasn't a viable medium before the invention and adoption of the printing press in the fifteenth century.  Movies, of course, have only been viable technologically for 100 years.  I'm accustomed to thinking of the novel as a "more legitimate" art form, but part of that is its failure as an entertainment medium.  TV is more entertaining than books, so books must be art, right?  Of course that's a silly simplification.  I do wonder at times if the novel (and perhaps, the written word in general) is something of an anachronism.  Why would a modern writer choose to work in this art form rather than telling his story through a more accessible medium like TV?

For me, I find the written word more thought-provoking.  A moment is a moment on film, but a moment can be a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter in a novel.  Filmmakers can choose different camera angles, but an author can break down the sight, smell, or touch of the scene.  He can even choose to ignore external stimulus and bring the reader into the hidden world of a character's thoughts.  The novel is a more open format, because it isn't confined by communicating only what can be seen or heard.  Master filmmakers can fill in these gaps as ably as the best writers, and the written word isn't without its limitations as a medium, but the idea that writing can take us to a more personal, hidden place carries water.

Why this long-winded introduction?  Just to say that, while I prefer the novel to the moving picture, there are certain genres that work for me better in film.  The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a collection of outrageous tall tales of the Baron's heroic journeys across the world (and even to the moon), is one.  The Terry Gilliam film (a loose adaptation) is terrific, funny, full of great visual imagery, and titillating to the imagination.  Reading similar material in book format just feels flat and monochrome and lifeless.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath



The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
read: circa 1996
Time 100 Novels, Modern Library #10, Guardian 1000 Novels, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award

Another required book for school, read during my sophomore year of high school.  We had been required to read East Of Eden the summer leading up to that school year, and while I liked both books, 1500+ pages of Steinbeck was a bit much (especially since we ended up giving short shrift to Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and pretty much everyone post-1950).  I also thought East Of Eden was a better book.  I understand why Grapes of Wrath is more important historically: it captures the dust bowl, the migration to California,  and the misery of impoverished rural folks of that time period.  I just found the more personal story of sibling rivalry in East Of Eden to be more affecting.

I have Woody Guthrie's album Dust Bowl Ballads, so whenever "The Ballad of Tom Joad" comes on in shuffle I get a little plot refresher.  I remember that Tom Joad is the main character for most of the book only to disappear towards the end.  This led to a debate in English class as to who the main character was, with the class coming to the inarguable conclusion that the family was in fact the lead character.  I still find this pretty unsatisfying.

The French Lieutenant's Woman



The French Lieutenant's Woman
by John Fowles
read: approximately 1996
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 Novels

I read surprisingly few of the Time 100 novels in school.  The French Lieutenant's Woman was required reading one summer, maybe before Junior year.  I remember quite a few things about it for how long ago that was.  I was sixteen or seventeen when I read it, so obviously the pretty graphic sex scene left a lasting impression.  It still seems kind weird that they had us read that for school.

The novel is also notable for the interjection of the narrator as a physical character fairly far into the book, and his role in sorting out multiple endings.  The book has kind of a "Schrodinger's Cat" ending to it, where Fowles writes two endings, leaving it up to a coin flip which one is actually last.  It sounds weird; it kind of is.  At the time I didn't ask questions like "Why did he decide to do that?  Was it a statement about the arbitrariness of fate and the role of chance in our lives?  Or was it a statement rebelling against the expectations that novel readers have that a book has an ending at all?"  At the time, it seemed like cleverness for its own sake.  I'm not sure I can rule that out fifteen years later, but I did like the book, and the fact that I remember this stuff at all speaks well of it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe



The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
by C.S. Lewis
part of the Chronicles of Narnia series
read: approximately 1988
Time 100 Novels, Guardian 1000 Novels

This was certainly the first book on the Time list I read.  I don't remember exactly when I read it, or when I got my complete set of the Chronices of Narnia series, but I know I read them all in elementary school.  Something about a lion, something about kids going to another dimension, I think there was a goat guy of some kind ... man, I should go back and read these again.  I suspect one of the plusses of having a kid will be getting to re-read all the great children's books I haven't thought about in 20 years.

Introduction to my reading journal

I've been reading a ton over the past ~15 months, coinciding with my Christmas gift of a Kindle and dating back to earlier in 2010, when I decided to read Time Magazine's List of 100 Best Novels (written in English, 1923 - 2005).  My pace of reading is such that it's hard to remember everything I've been reading, so for my own sanity more than anything I'm keeping this record of what I've read and some of my reactions.  Many of the first entries will be cleanup, going back to books I've already read and making some notes.