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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

#94....Wide Sargasso Sea

"Coming from the Antilles’, he declared, ‘with a terrifying insight and … passion for stating the case of the underdog, she has let her pen loose on the Left Banks of the Old World”. Ford Madox Ford, describing the writing of Jean Rhys.

Jean Rhys certainly knew her subject when she wrote about Bertha Mason, the tormented ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Bronte’s Jane Eyre in her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Born on the island of Dominica, daughter of an English doctor and a Dominican mother, Rhys was also a child of mixed blood who was treated as an outsider in England, where she went to live with her aunt, because of her accent and mannerisms. Bertha Mason, introduced to us as Antoinette, is also a child of mixed blood who is treated as an outsider on the island of Jamaica, where she lives. Mixed blood is considered to be of lower status than black or white in the island’s society. Her mother Annette marries a wealthy Englishman but goes crazy when her house is burned to the ground and one of her children dies. After Annette’s death, Mr Mason takes care of Antoinette, sending her to school and to live with her Aunt Cora. Antoinette’s marriage is arranged to a man who is never named, but is assumed to be Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre. Her checkered past follows her to the island of Dominica, where a distant relative begins to fill Mr Rochester’s head with poisonous thoughts about his new wife and her family, intimating Antoinette could go the same way as her mother. Because Mr Rochester cannot be persuaded to think otherwise, the self-fulfilling prophecy becomes true.

Like any underdog story, the story of Antoinette’s turbulent childhood and the self-fulfilling prophecy of her madness is compelling and tragic. Rhys portrays the racial discrimination and isolation Antoinette experiences with great poignancy, having endured it herself to some degree in her own childhood. The stubborn blindness of Mr Rochester, who married for money and not love and who crushes his wife’s spirit by changing her name into something as ugly as Bertha, is infuriating. You will want to crawl into the pages of this book and beat him.

I haven't read Jane Eyre (believe it or not) and so I came to the end of this book wondering if I missed some subtle nuances in this story because of that; but as a stand-alone story I thought it was very well-written. You would have to have a heart of stone not to root for and sympathize with Annette’s plight.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 26, 2009

#95....Under the Net

"Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute. What is urgent is not urgent for ever but only ephemerally. All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, like itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing."

Iris Murdoch’s 1954 novel, Under the Net, has been described as an example of the ‘picaresque’ novel, which Wikipedia terms as “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road”. There is no better one-sentence summary of Under the Net and its roguish ‘anti-hero’, Jake Donaghue, out there. Jake, a thirty-something, self-obsessed, angst-ridden slacker who spends his time translating cheesy French novels and mooching off his friends, is kicked out of his house by his ex-girlfriend. Having no real source of income and lots of free time, Jake decides to hunt down another ex-girlfriend for a place to stay, and it is there that the long-winded and pointless escapades of an uninteresting, unemployed single guy begin. Fiances of old girlfriends, horse racing, dog-stealing, binge drinking and skinny dipping abound in spades, as Jake flounders around London trying to find himself, or a place to stay, whichever comes first.

One thing I noticed (and disliked) about this novel was the amount of time Murdoch spent in Jake’s head. The book was essentially written like one long stream-of-consciousness, like Jake’s brain with closed-captioning. In keeping with the Existentialist tradition, of which Murdoch was a proponent, she gets into the minutiae of Jake's life in order to more clearly define him....what he thinks about people, what he thinks they think about him, why he's going to do something, what might happen if he does it, what he thinks people will do when he does nauseum. It was ‘too much information’ for me, personally. I wasn’t sure if I didn’t like Jake’s character because I knew everything he was thinking, or if he just wasn’t all that interesting. Probably a bit of both. Hugo, the one character I would have liked to know more about, and someone Jake found so interesting that he wrote an entire book on his philosophy of life, would have made a much more fascinating main character, but alas, Murdoch chose to go with Everyman instead. Lucky us.

I’ve read several other reviews from people who loved this book and its irreverant style. I hate coming to the end of books feeling like I missed something, but I just didn’t find it with this one, and I blame myself.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

#96...Sophie's Choice

"Is it best to know about a child's death, even one so horrible, or to know that the child lives but that you will never, never see him again? I don't know either for sure. Suppose I had chosen Jan to go to the left instead of Eva. Would that have changed anything?" She paused to look out through the night at the dark shores of the Virginia of our destination, removed by staggering dimensions of time and space from her own benighted, cursed and--to me even at that moment--all but incomprehensible history. "Nothing would have changed anything," she said."

For two weeks after the attacks on September 11, 2001, I was unable to sleep with the lights off. I lay curled in my bed every night, with the horrifying and grotesque images we were constantly being shown on TV scrolling through my head like the CNN crawl. I was firmly, irrationally convinced that the terrorists would show up any minute in my tiny little town of Chico, California, and take over. Watching the unimaginable happen that week--airplanes slamming into buildings, buildings I had visited as a child collapsing--anything seemed possible. The terrorists had not only invaded New York, they had invaded my head.

When people talk about the Holocaust, most people point to the horrifying number of people killed in the concentration camps over a 5-6 year period. What many people don't focus on is how many walked away from that. Barrington James estimates that 6.5 million Jews survived the Holocaust. Imagine what the survivors of the most atrocious violation of human rights ever in our history must have witnessed while in captivity...and then imagine not only trying to live with those images in your head night after night, but also trying to live with the guilt of being one of the 'lucky ones' when so many others died. It makes my television experience of 9/11 look painless by comparison.

William Styron’s fifth novel, Sophie’s Choice, published in 1979, is a very deep and intense story that takes readers into the heart of the Holocaust, told from the viewpoint of one who endured and escaped its persecutions, and her attempts to live with what she experienced. Stingo, the book's main character, is a dislocated Southerner and embittered wanna-be author, who befriends Sophie, a Polish emigrant, and her paranoid schizophrenic Jewish boyfriend Nathan, in a Brooklyn boardinghouse. Sophie and Nathan’s relationship is tormented and passionate, and it is in between their arguments that Sophie opens up to Stingo about her experiences of the Holocaust from her life in Poland, leading up to the terrible choice she is forced to make on the platform at Auschwitz. The struggle of Sophie and Nathan to deal with their pasts and their own personal demons is heart-rending and uncomfortably fascinating. Kind of like a car crash; you don’t want to see it, but you can’t look away.

It is Styron’s treatment of memory and how the characters chose to remember events that happened in their lives that touched me the most during the course of the novel. When Sophie would tell a story to Stingo, she would begin with the glossed-over, more palatable version, but then later would tell the true, much more painful version. The lies the characters were telling to themselves to escape the guilt and sadness they had experienced, while understandable, were heartbreaking. I was not sure at times that Sophie was lucky to have escaped with her life. Is it harder to live with the memories of something awful, or to be dead? That is the question Styron asks.

In the end, Styron shows us that the dead of the concentration camps were not the only victims of the Holocaust. Those who lived through its horrors like Sophie, and those who stood passively by, like Nathan, were just as deeply affected. The true horror of the Holocaust is and always will be that it was allowed to happen at all. Thanks to the experiences and images of the Holocaust, horrible events in our modern times like the genocide in Bosnia and 9/11 no longer go unchecked and ignored. Sophie’s Choice is a fantastically deep and moving novel I hope you will enjoy as much as I did.

Grade: A