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

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Moment of Truth.....Dec 2009

Okay, people. I have a confession to make.

Having taken the Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Xmas (my folks, in-laws and husband being proud financial contributors to the blog) out to pick up my copy of Ragtime this past weekend, I got a big reality check when I 'peeked' and saw the size of two upcoming books, Finnegans Wake by James Joyce and The Education of Augie March by Saul Bellow. It was at that moment that I realized that the challenge I have set for myself of reading 100 books in a 100 week time span is not only an impossible task, but is also an undesirable one.

When I began this blog, 100 weeks felt like an eternity. I felt sure I could get each book on the list read in a week's time. What I didn't realize was that some of the books would be 600+ pages, some of the shorter books would actually take longer to read than the bigger books, and that some of the books would be so engrossing that I would unsconsciously slow down and savor them like fine wine. Silly me....I also forgot to factor in time for having a full-time job, being a mom, sleeping, etc.... not to mention the craziness of the holidays! Suddenly books that should have taken a week were taking two or three....and the clock was ticking!!!

As the weeks flew by on my countdown, and I fell further and further behind, the relaxation I've always enjoyed from reading disappeared. I felt like I 'had' to read, just to keep up; like I was going through the motions to get the book done, not to take it all in. It wasn't right!!

Therefore, after much reflection, I've decided to change my blog title to 100 Books. 100 Journeys, because each book is a unique and interesting journey, with characters taking me to different places and times, dealing with unique situations. I will still be blogging as regularly as before, the main difference being I won't be stressing myself out with a deadline, and I will be able to enjoy (or not enjoy, as the case may be) each book MORE. I hope you'll stay with me! It will still be a challenge just to get through these 100 tomes of literature, believe me!! And soccer season is just around the corner!

Happy New Year to all, and Happy Reading!!!

Pam (SocrMom78)

Friday, December 18, 2009

#88...The Call of the Wild

"Thornton knelt down by Buck's side. He took his head in his two hands and rested cheek on cheek. He did not playfully shake him, as was his wont, or murmur soft love curses, but he whispered in his ear, "As you love me, Buck. As you love me," was what he whispered."

I do not love animal stories, especially ones where animals get hurt or die. Old Yeller traumatized me for life, as did Turner and Hooch. Yes, I know animal death is all part of the great Circle of Life and everything (yes, I bawled through The Lion King as well) but when you get right down to it, animal stories are just something I avoid like the plague. Period. Marley and Me will never, ever be on my TBR list.

So as you might guess I was jumping for joy to read Jack London's mini-epic The Call of the Wild. I spent most of the first 40 pages fighting back tears for Buck, a dog who is suddenly uprooted from a loving and happy home to hauling heavy sleds, barely getting enough food to make it through a day, sleeping wet and cold in the snow every night, and not to mention occasionally being attacked by humans or other dogs. Buck is able to dig deep to find the will to not only survive, but thrive in his new environment, and along the way does meet up with some very ethical and loving humans. Thank God.

Despite the animal angle, I found Call to be very well written. London is good at expressing the shock and denial any of us humans would experience in such a dramatic change in living conditions. Watching Survivor or Lost, you see people doing essentially the same thing Buck does…getting past social niceties and doing what they have to do to survive, no matter what else happens.

If animal stories are your thing (and I won't tell you if Buck makes it or not) pick up The Call of the Wild.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Commenting on TIME Magazine's Top 100 Books....

I printed out TIME Magazine's Top 100 books of the 20th century (from 1923-2000), just to compare with the Modern Library's list, and of the last 11 books I have read, only four are on the TIME list...Midnight's Children, Wide Sargasso Sea, The Sheltering Sky, and Under the Net. You'll have to excuse my complete stupefaction as to how a book like Under the Net made it and Sophie's Choice DIDN'T make it. Glad I'm not reading THAT list!!!

At least they excluded The Magus. :)

We'll check in more with TIME's list later as we roll further through the ML list; in the meantime, I've added the link to the "100 Books Extras" on the sidebar.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

#90....Midnight's Children

"To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world."

I have to admit I had my apprehensions about reading anything by Salman Rushdie. All his name brought to mind was what happened when I was a teenager with his book The Satanic Verses, which already sounded sacrilegious to my Catholic-raised mind. Turns out the Ayatollah Khomeini agreed with me; the book contained what he perceived as a blasphemous reference to the prophet Mohammad. Khomeini issued a fatwa (basically a death sentence) for the British-born Rushdie. He was forced to live in hiding for years, and Iran and the UK actually broke diplomatic relations in 1989, thanks to his book. Those out there who don’t think writing a book can change your life, think again!

In Rushdie’s 2nd novel, Midnight’s Children, our narrator, Saleem Sinai, is born exactly at midnight on August 15, 1947…the very day India becomes independent from Britain. But Saleem’s time seems to be running out, as he is mysteriously beginning to disintegrate into millions of pieces, so he begins to tell the story of his extraordinary family. He begins with his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, a foreign university trained physician who falls in love with his wife piece-by-piece as it is shown through a hole in a sheet, so he falls in love with her before he even sees her face. Their daughter Mumtaz steals her older sister’s boyfriend Ahmed away from her, but upon marrying him, she realizes she does not love her husband. She resolves to fall in love with her husband piece by piece, much like Aadam did with Naseem. She saves the life of a Hindi entertainer from a Muslim mob, and he reads her palm and predicts she will have an extraordinary son. In Bombay, where they rent a mansion from a Britisher, William Methwold, Amina and another poorer woman become pregnant at the same time, and both deliver right at midnight. The babies are switched by ayah Mary Pereira, so that the rich baby will be poor and the poor baby will be rich. Saleem is actually the baby of the British Methwold and the poor woman, who dies after giving birth, but he is unknowingly raised as the son of the Sinais.

Saleem is not a beautiful baby. He has patchy colored skin, very light blue eyes, is unable to blink, and has a huge nose. Soon afterwards, his sassy sister Jamila, also known as the Brass Monkey, is born, who grows up as a tomboy-ish attention seeker, setting fire to people's shoes and breaking stuff. Saleem gets all kinds of special gifts during the novel, such as reading people's minds, killing people in his sleep, an extraordinary sense of smell, and the ability to communicate with people who are far away in his head. Saleem finds out that the living 581 ‘midnight’s children’ are from all over India, and have special gifts that are more extraordinary the closer they are born to midnight. He creates the Midnight Children’s Conference (MCC), where all of them can meet, in his head, between midnight and 1am every night, to talk about their gifts and what to do with them. Here Saleem meets Shiva, the baby he was swapped with on his birthday and the true son of the Sinais. Shiva has huge knees with which he can crush people, and he is a member of a rough gang. Saleem’s parentage is discovered when Saleem needs a blood transfusion and the doctor realizes that Saleem’s unique blood type could not have come from either Amina or Ahmed. The Brass Monkey has now become the favored child and his father barely acknowledges his existence, and she becomes a famous singer. As Saleem grows, the children of the MCC grow as well, and begin to take on the beliefs and prejudices of their parents, so that no one gets along. He meets up with one of the other Midnight’s Children, Parvati, who has gotten pregnant by Shiva, and they get married and she has her son Aadam on the night of India's Emergency. He has huge ears and doesn't make sounds. The Widow, the leader of India, has found out about the MCC through Shiva, and goes about rounding up all of them when she begins leveling the slums as part of a 'beautification' project. All except those who are dead (Parvati dies) are taken into custody and all have hysterectomies and testectomies to prevent their magical skills from living on. What she does not realize is that Shiva got a bunch of other women pregnant, so the legacy of the MCC will live on.

There was really no way to quickly summarize Midnight’s Children, so I didn’t try; nor did I want to. To do so would not have done justice to the richness of the story and even with my long summary, there are still important plot aspects and symbolism I didn’t get to…but I have to leave you something to discover for yourself. The third section of the book was a little harder to get into with all of the war stuff, and I had to reread that section twice because I felt like I was missing things. There were also many historical personages from the Indo-Pakistan conflict with very similar sounding names so that made it sort of confusing as well. I had to go to Wikipedia a few times while reading to learn about Indira Gandhi (who was apparently the inspiration for 'The Widow’), the Indian Emergency and Partition, and this really helped me understand what was going on in the story.

East vs West, poor vs rich, modern vs traditional….all are struggles that the heterogenous country of India went through to become the democracy that it is today. Saleem tells us on the first page of the book that ‘his destiny is insolubly chained to that of his country'. He is born on the day of India’s independence, of poor Indian and wealthy English parents, with both bloodlines visible in his physical features, and throughout the book, he shares his fear of crumbling into 600 million pieces (at that time the population of India). The struggle between the traditional and the modern is also highlighted in the battle of wills between Naseem and Aadam, as they definitely don’t see eye to eye on the role of women and raising children.

After I read this book, I was mad at myself for waiting so long to pick up a Rushdie novel. I am sure I will again in the future.

Grade: A

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ranking the 1st 10 Books...

Ten books in, I'm not quite sure I knew what I was signing up for when I started this blog. I know for certain that I would never have bought any of these books, or read them, had I not seen the Modern Library list and decided to do this, so for sure this challenge has opened my eyes to new literary vistas.

I think I also had very high expectations for this list....maybe too high. Several times I've begun a book on this list, expecting (hoping?) it will be this unbelievable tome of classic literature that will change my life forever, and then I've ended up disappointed and disillusioned by the end of it, always asking the same question: How the he** did this book get on a list like this? There have GOT to be better books out there from the last century than Under the Net!!!

What's been interesting is going to other sites like and and reading other people's reviews of the books after I've read them. It's so crazy how the same book can evoke such different responses in people. Here's a quote from a reader reviewing The Magus on "It changed my life in so many ways and without my realising, pushed me into the career that I'm in. I've visited it again and again so many times." Not only do I shiver to think about what career path The Magus would inspire someone to start (cult member? porn star? flight attendant?), but I know for sure the only way I would ever visit The Magus again and again would be to use it as a doorstop. :)

Here's my ranking of the first ten books, from best (1) to worst (10).

1 Tobacco Road
2 Ironweed
3 Sophie's Choice
4 The Magnificent Ambersons
5 The Postman Always Rings Twice
6 Wide Sargasso Sea
7 The Sheltering Sky
8 The Magus
9 Under the Net
10 The Ginger Man

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

#91....Tobacco Road

As a book blogger, I try to read lots of reviews of the books that I’m reading or have read, just to see if I'm way off base with what I'm thinking about a book. Every once in a while, I’ll see a review where book editors and professional bloggers way smarter than me have all raved about a book and how profound/hilarious/interesting/etc it was (i.e. The Ginger Man). It is then I have to step back from the computer, and ask myself, What did they see about this book that I didn’t?? Am I really that dense?

A good example of this is Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. From what I read, this book most likely was not supposed to be funny. In his review of Tobacco Road on his website, Doug Shaw commented that “a less perfect writer would have made you laugh with the events of this story”, and many of the reviews I read on didn’t think it was funny at all, or categorized the book as “dark comedy”. Well, I gotta tell ya. For all the laughing I didn’t do with The Ginger Man, I more than made up for it with Tobacco Road. I laughed like a hyena throughout this book, to the point where I was forced to read excerpts like the following to my husband and daughter because they couldn’t understand why I had tears rolling down my face:

“Now Lord, I’ve got something special to pray about. I don’t ask favors unless they is things I want pretty bad, so this time I’m asking a favor for Pearl. I want You to make her stop sleeping on a pallet on the floor while Brother Lov has to sleep by himself in the bed. Make Pearl get in the bed, Lord, and make her stay there where she belongs. She ain’t got no right to sleep on a pallet on the floor when Lov’s got a bed for her. Now, You make her stop acting like she’s been, and put her in the bed when night comes. I was a good wife to my former husband. I never slept on no pallet on the floor…. And when I marry another man, I ain’t going to do that neither. ….So You tell Pearl to quit that.”

Hilarious, right? Well, maybe you had to be there.

The lowest rung of Southern society is brought to life with the Lester family in Tobacco Road. If you’ve read Gone with the Wind, think the Slattery family, the “poor whites” who barely existed except off the charity of their rich planter neighbors. The patriarch of the family, Jeeter Lester, loves farming more than anything else in the world, although he’s so broke that he hasn’t been able to buy any fertilizer or seeds to actually farm, and his family of five is slowly starving to death in what could euphemistically be called a shack in rural Georgia. The Lesters used to own all the land around them, but they became so poor that they mortgaged it all away, and what credit they had was cut off when their lone planter neighbor moved away. Most of the other Lester children have gone off to work in the cotton mills, but Jeeter loves to farm too much to do that. Since he clearly can’t farm, his career consists of begging, starving and whining, not necessarily in that order.

The majority of the book had me in stunned disbelief, as I watched this family get chance after chance to improve their standing in life, and then watched them blow the chance in the worst possible way, or watched them resist making any changes whatsoever. Were they so ignorant that they couldn’t see opportunities to take advantage of, or just so lazy that they couldn’t be bothered, or just unable to adapt to change? A tough call there. Jobs at the mill, where money could be made, were there for the taking; yet no one in the Lester household even talked about a steady job. Money that could have been spent on seeds or food was spent on stupid stuff like snuff. The amount of time Jeeter spent begging from neighbors and relatives could have been well used for more profitable endeavors. Yet he clings to his love for the land and farming, when it’s pretty clear to everyone that he can’t do it.

To me, this family illustrated Darwin’s notion of "survival of the fittest" to a T. People who don’t capitalize on their environments and/or aren’t motivated enough to do even the most basic things to maintain existence get winnowed out. I think I would have felt more pity for them had they actually tried to save themselves and failed. It’s hard to feel sorry for people who don’t help themselves out. Therefore, my alternative was to laugh at their stupid choices and tragic-comedic fates. So I did.

I enjoyed this book very much. Definitely a sleeper at #91 on the ML list.

Grade: A-