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

Saturday, November 28, 2009


"A man ain't afraid of goin' back."

"Technically a weed is any plant that is unwanted or a nuisance", explains The Suburbian Agrarian on his website, Places like Home Depot and fertilizer companies make a killing (pun intended) on trying to help homeowners control weeds. Weeds like ironweed (called so because of its tough stem) generally have very brief, unremarkable lives, aren’t highly valued by people because of their less than aesthetic appearance, and as anyone knows that's ever tried to get rid of dandelions, weeds have a way of coming back, again and again and again.

I'm sure William Kennedy had the image of ironweed in mind when he wrote about Francis Phelan, the main character of his book, Ironweed. This book is the third of a series of seven books that Kennedy wrote about goings-on in his hometown of Albany NY. Francis is a homeless drifter/one-time baseball player/recovering alcoholic and his drifter friends as they try to make ends meet in the streets of Albany. In the present, Francis is trying to pull his life together; he's got a homeless semi-girlfriend Helen, also once-upon-a-time famous as a singer, and a drifter friend named Rudy. But Francis’ checkered past is just as present. Ghosts from Francis’ past, some of whom he killed, converse with Francis and even follow him around. He is haunted by his role in the death of his infant son, which drove him to abandon his family and turn his back on everything he knew.

I loved this book. It had such a fantastic message. Even though Francis had his fifteen minutes of fame and lost it, which would have embittered anyone, and even though he has committed cold-blooded murder several times, Francis is a resilient, compassionate character who survives (like the plant ironweed), commands your sympathy, and does not let his situation get him down. He survives hunger, cold, homelessness. He proves his humanity as he collapses at the grave of his baby son, and reaches out to those around him to help them, like taking care of Helen and giving his dinner to Sandra before she dies. Even the murders Francis committed are revealed as self-defense. When the chance comes for Francis to reunite with his family, forgive himself, and leave his past behind, you are truly rooting for him to return to them and forgive himself.

I am sure William Kennedy didn’t live on the streets like Francis Phelan did, but he sure writes like someone who knew what it was like to have nothing, and appreciate everything, like Francis did. Totally recommended.

Grade: A-

Monday, November 23, 2009

#93.....The Magus

My husband loves psychological thrillers. One of his repeat Christmas gift requests is the Saw box set. The Saw movies come from the Silence of the Lambs genre, and usually depict people that are given a choice between a gruesome, horrible death, and….well….an alternative gruesome, horrible death. “I love that they mess with my head,” he said, when I asked him what the appeal of watching people dig through boxes of razor blades with bare hands was. Suffice it to say the appeal of these movies is completely lost on me, which is why we do not currently own any of them.

Subsequently, the appeal of John Fowles’ 656 page epic The Magus, was also lost on me. Mind games abound in the story of Nicholas Urfe, a middle-class Englishman who ditches his non-committal girlfriend Alison and signs on to teach school on the remote Greek island of Phraxos. That’s apparently not all he’s signed up for. Nosing around on the island, he has the misfortune to meet Conchis, a rich and psychic recluse. Strange things happen whenever Nicholas spends the weekend at Conchis’ house. Conchis tells stories that are ostensibly about his own life, and then portions of the stories are brought to life by the people that live and work for him. Unlike the rest of us, who would run like hell if we saw someone walking around wearing a jackal head, something keeps pulling Nicholas back to Conchis’ house. One of those somethings is the elusive and beautiful Julie, one of Conchis’ friends and the biggest tease of them all. As the story progresses, the lines between fact and fiction become blurrier and blurrier, and Nicholas becomes lost in the bizarre world Conchis has created for him. Does he ever escape? How will this experience change his life?

Honestly? I was pretty much done by page fifty. I sat through Conchis' meandering 20-page stories, only to find out five pages later that they're all lies, and then five more pages later, find out that even the lies are lies. Ad nauseum. By the end of the book I no longer knew who the bad guys were, or who the good guys were, or if there were any good guys, for that matter. Who do you root for when everyone is screwed up? It turns out by the end of the book that Conchis has woven this surrealistic world specifically for Nicholas to teach him a lesson about the kind of person he is, and everyone in Nicholas’ life has been in on the game BUT Nicholas. I couldn’t help feeling a certain kind of pity for him by the end…but then again, he was kind of a dirtbag. I know a couple of guys from my high school days who would be GREAT candidates to go through this, if Conchis is still out there and needs new people :)

So in the end? Not my thing. Kind of like the Saw movies, but without the razor blades. It didn't work well for me as a novel, but it works awesome as a doorstop in the house on a windy day.

Grade: D-