The Quest of An Everyday Soccer Mom to Read the Modern Library's 100 Best Fiction Books of the 20th Century.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Libris Interruptus...Bedside Table Confessional

Taking a break from the lighthearted fiction I've been reading lately :)

I woke up this morning and realized that, in addition to Sophie's Choice, I have three other books stacked up on my nightstand, all of which I am about halfway through reading. Wondering if maybe I should seek some help. :) Here is what I currently have stacked up:
Julia Child, My Life in France
Philippa Gregory, The White Queen
George Washington's Mount Vernon (don't ask! :)
Anyone else out there incapable of reading one book at a time? Share with us what you're in the middle of. We should support each other!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

#97....The Sheltering Sky

“And it occurred to him that a walk through the countryside was a sort of epitome of the passage through life itself. One never took the time to savor the details; one said: another day, but always with the hidden knowledge that each day was unique and final, that there never would be a return, another time.”

The Sheltering Sky was Paul Bowles’ first novel, and his most famous. Seeing as Bowles spent the majority of his life as an American expatriate living in Tangiers, Morocco, there’s no one better equipped to write about the experiences of clueless American tourists in the wilds of Northern Africa. And that is the basic premise of Sky: an American couple, Port and Kit Moresby, and their friend Tunner have decided to do some traveling in and around this area of Africa, despite travel warnings in this area which Port knows about but neglects to mention to his wife or friend. Port is already unfaithful to his wife within the first six chapters, and Kit’s pretended or real nonchalance sets up the dynamic that is to continue between the couple. As the group travels deeper into Africa, they get further from civilization as they know it, and that’s when things get interesting. The experience of what was to be a fun foreign sojourn changes three lives forever.

When Sky was first shown to Doubleday Publishing in 1949, it was rejected because it was not felt that the book was really a novel. It’s not hard to see why Doubleday might have felt this way. It reads somewhat like a travelogue of Northern Africa, and may have been thought to be more autobiographical than fictional. The descriptive language Bowles uses is pure and beautiful. Bowles obviously gives his setting great importance and wants the reader to see where they are. You can feel the flies as Port drives the jeep through the swarm. You can smell the garbage laying around the hotel in Ain Krorfa. Having never been to Africa, I needed Bowles' help to imagine what it would be like, and he definitely came through for me.

Against this rich backdrop are the morally questionable characters of Port, Kit and Tunner. Interestingly, Bowles keeps them at an emotional distance from the reader by pointing out their myriad faults early and often, emphasizing lies, infidelity and insecurity. I never felt truly sympathetic to anyone except maybe Tunner, who is the quintessential third wheel and keeps getting the shaft. What made this book fascinating for me was how each character reacts to the diminishment of civilization in their environment. Tunner freaks out about weevils in their soup, yet Port and Kit unhesitatingly finish their entire bowls of soup despite this. Kit’s desperation and helplessness in the middle of nowhere, far from medical care when Port becomes sick, is palpable. How well would any of us hold up in this same situation? How much does it take for someone to be pushed across the line between sanity and insanity?

The last third of the book was, for me, where the momentum really picked up. Finally, I cared about one of the characters, yet still in a limited way. I wanted to know what would happen to Kit and if she would make it out of the wild. Not all of the book was coherent or readable (the section describing Port’s typhoid delirium is a good example), but the overall message of living every day in the present because there may not be a tomorrow is profound and sobering. It didn’t make me want to go on a trip to Tangiers any time soon, but thanks to Paul Bowles' beautifully descriptive prose, I was able to visit it in my imagination just as if I had been there.

Grade: B-

Sunday, September 13, 2009

#98....The Postman Always Rings Twice

"I'm not what you think I am, Frank. I want to work and be something, that's all. But you can't do it without love. Do you know that, Frank? Anyway, a woman can't. Well, I've made one mistake. And I've got to be a hell cat, just once, to fix it. But I'm not really a hell cat, Frank."

James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, refused to be locked in to his reputation as a member of the “hard boiled school of crime fiction”, commenting "I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise". In fact, Cain had wanted to be an opera singer, but didn’t have the voice for it. As a journalist for the Baltimore Sun and the New York World in the 1920’s, Cain was probably exposed to sensationalist stories similar to the story he tells in Postman, which is reputed to have been based on a real life case. Drifter Frank Chambers is the wrong man in the wrong place, when he walks into a small café in the middle of nowhere and collides with Cora Papadakis, the wife of the café’s owner. Frank takes a job there and sparks fly between them, and Cora decides the only way out of her loveless marriage is for the two of them to kill her husband Nick. Nearly caught on the first attempt, the second attempt is successful, but brings more consequences than either Frank or Cora imagined.

Cain’s main characters were “often self-destructive, or used by stronger women.” Postman is no exception to this. Although Frank has a rough edge to his character, Cora is truly the ‘hell cat’ she describes herself as. Their affair is passionate, anything but tender, and unfortunately Nick’s death does not bring them the happiness they seek. Both toy with the idea of killing each other and Cora even gives Frank a chance to do this. Accountability for crimes is a dish best served hot.

As I’m sure millions of other readers have done, I looked throughout the book for any mention of a postman ringing twice, or even once, and came up with nothing. I found this quote to explain the title’s origin on Wikipedia:

"With the "postman" being God, or Fate, the "delivery" meant for Frank was his own death as just retribution for murdering Nick. Frank had missed the first "ring" when he initially got away with that killing. However, the postman rang again, and this time the ring was heard."

The book was rather short and the story pretty straightforward. Like with any murder mystery, it was very suspenseful and I do believe everyone got what was coming to them in the end. Not high in the profundity department but enjoyable nonetheless. Anyone from the John Grisham school will be happy.


Friday, September 11, 2009

#99...The Ginger Man

"When things are bad you keep telling yourself they can't get worse. Then they get worse. And stay that way until you're so weary and screwed you can't even worry anymore. It gets like that. So damn bad that you have to cheer up or die."

Picture for a moment the most decrepit, angry, shiftless, lascivious, drunken guy out there. Turns out you’ll have barely scratched the surface of Sebastian Dangerfield, JP Donleavy’s protagonist (if that’s even the correct word) in his 1955 first novel, The Ginger Man.

In 1950’s-1960’s Britain, an artistic movement arose, called Kitchen Sink Realism, which, according to Wikipedia, “often depicted the domestic situations of working class Britons living in rented accommodation and spending their off-hours in grimy pubs to explore social issues and political controversies"... “with stress on the banality of life”. There is hardly a better description of the basic plot of The Ginger Man to be found anywhere. Sebastian is supposed to be attending the university and raising a family, but unfortunately he seems to be doing anything but that. The story follows Sebastian’s never-ending trail of self-destruction through the pubs, slums, and beds of Dublin and London. Throw in some wife-battering, debt evasion, and petty theft, and you've got all the elements for a tale that Dorothy Parker of Esquire Magazine called, right on the cover of my book, "Lusty, violent, wildly funny." Drunk people are funny sometimes, right? (Right?). Honestly, I think there was only one part of the book that made me laugh, but it definitely wasn't what I would call 'wildly funny'. Slightly humorous, perhaps. Maybe Parker should have stuck with lusty and violent. Then I would have been more prepared for what was coming.

Reading the above, one would think that Sebastian Dangerfield has no chance of evoking any emotions other than disgust and loathing. However, they would be wrong. He also evokes exasperation and scorn. There was not a hole black enough and deep enough anywhere to throw him into, which was my only regret at the end of the novel, and I ran out of hope that he would help himself out and grow up by about page six. If JP Donleavy’s purpose in writing The Ginger Man was to show the seedy side of life and evoke strong emotions, he definitely succeeds there.


Sunday, September 6, 2009

#100...The Magnificent Ambersons

"In the days before deathly contrivances hustled them through their lives, and when they had no telephones--another ancient vacancy profound responsible for leisure--they had time for everything: time to think, to talk, time to read, time to wait for a lady!"

This quote from the first chapter of Booth Tarkington's 1919 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Magnificent Ambersons, sets us up to enter the changing world of the turn of the century America. Horses and buggies are being swapped for "horseless carriages". Factories are springing up everywhere. And in the midst of a small midwestern town lives the ‘old money’ Amberson family, around whose fortunes the interest of the town revolves. There is only one heir to the Amberson fortune, George Amberson Minafer, and he is spoiled beyond belief and utterly ridiculous. He feels everyone else not an Amberson is "riffraff" and beneath him, and he shows nothing but contempt for the technological marvels that are changing the world around him. Georgie discovers several universal truths about money during the course of Tarkington’s novel: that it doesn’t buy happiness or guarantee forgiveness, doesn’t quell gossiping tongues, and, to misquote Tarkington, it’s “rahthuh bettuh” to ‘do something rather than be something’.

Tarkington’s two most sympathetic characters, Lucy Morgan, Georgie’s love interest, and his father, Wilbur Minafer, are excellent foils for the spoiled, upper class Georgie. Lucy represents the rise of ‘new money’, as her middle-class father becomes successful with his ‘horseless carriage’ and Wilbur, whose marriage to Georgie’s mother Isabel was reputed to be ‘beneath her’ represents the ‘save, don’t spend’ maxim, knowing that wealth is not end-all, be-all. Both are good natured, loving people who are more closely in tune with the world and its changes than Georgie is. You get the feeling after reading Ambersons that Tarkington wanted his readers to feel negatively about the entitled upper class, sitting on its money and contributing nothing to society. It definitely came across loud and clear.

In real life, Tarkington’s family fortunes followed much the same path as the fictional Ambersons, and thanks to that, Georgie’s resistance to the changes that occur both in his surroundings and in his immediate family is real and believable. Like Georgie, Tarkington was not a big believer in higher education, dropping out of both Purdue and Princeton Universities without graduating. Like Georgie, the Tarkingtons were upper class but suffered a decline in their fortunes with the Panic of 1873. Tarkington knew what it was like to go from something to nothing; and at the story’s conclusion, he leaves it up to the reader to decide if Georgie will make it after all.

I enjoyed this book, although I don’t know that it was Top 100 of the Century worthy. The story was well-told and had plenty of plot twists. The momentum of Georgie’s downward spiral kept the story moving, and I really had no idea until the end how it would all end up for him. With today’s societal obsession with the rich and famous, Georgie’s story of riches to rags and quest for redemption in the eyes of those who love him is still as relevant and absorbing today as it was back at the turn of the century.