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

Sunday, January 31, 2010

January '10's Modern Library Literary Dirtbag Award Winner

I had to go with fire chief Willie Conklin from Ragtime. Reading that section where he harrassed Coalhouse Walker just made my blood boil. I am always embarrassed to remember that there was an unfortunate time in this country's history where that sort of treatment of African Americans was acceptable, and that scene in Ragtime was no exception. I was pissed off when I read that. Willie Conklin was not only a racist scuzzbucket but was also a giant coward, because he went and hid under a rock when Coalhouse was looking for him. I think he got off easy when all he had to do was restore Coalhouse's car.

Friday, January 29, 2010

RIP J.D. Salinger....Jan 1, 1919-Jan 27, 2010

I was very sad to hear last night of the death of J.D. Salinger, author of #64, The Catcher in the Rye, at 91 years old. I remember reading this book both in college and in high school and loving it; who didn't think at that age all adults were 'phony'? :) I already have it on my shelf and am looking forward to reading it as a grown-up.

It's been amazing to me, reading through this list, how many of the authors have already passed away, which I guess is what happens when you're reading a list of books from the last century. I think the only other authors I've read on the list that are still alive are Salman Rushdie and E.L. Doctorow. Having success as a writer and ending up on a list like this is its own immortality, though, isn't it?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

#85....Lord Jim

"It is impossible to say how much he lied to Jim then, how much he lied to me now--and to himself always. Vanity plays lurid tricks with our memory, and the truth of every passion wants some pretence to make it live."

Pete Rose is arguably one of the most famous baseball players of our time. Here in Minnesota, we're all about Joe Mauer and his batting titles, but Rose in his heyday made Mauer look like a minor leaguer. According to Wikipedia, Rose is the MLB leader in "hits (4,256), games played (3,562), at-bats (14,053), and outs (10,328), with three World Series wins, three batting titles, one MVP Award, two Gold Gloves, the Rookie of the Year Award, and 17 All-Star appearances at an unequaled five different positions (2B, LF, RF, 3B & 1B)".

However, none of that mattered in 1989. Rose had retired from baseball in 1986, but unfortunately, it came to light that during his years as a player and manager for the Cincinnati Reds, Rose had placed bets on his team as high as $10,000, always picking the Reds to win. It was felt that a player betting on baseball, even in favor of his own team,"jeopardized the integrity of the game". Rose was banned from baseball and put on the "permanently ineligible" list. He did not openly admit to the allegations until 2004. A career that should have been enshrined long ago in Cooperstown was permanently disgraced.

Joseph Conrad wasn't around to see what happened with Pete Rose, but the main character of his 1900 novel, Lord Jim, would have completely understood the pain associated with making a major mistake in your professional career that would taint the rest of your life. Jim is a regular guy who turns to a life on the sea as his trade. Jim is loving life as the chief officer of a boat called the Patna until one night when things go terribly, horribly wrong. The boat hits an underwater wreck and begins to fill with water. Jim prematurely panicks and jumps ship along with the other crew members, arriving back on land only to find the ship didn't actually sink and he is now under investigation for deserting his post. He is prohibited from ever being a ship captain again. Utterly humiliated, Jim hops from one menial job to the next, always skipping town whenever the Patna comes up in conversation. He is finally given an opportunity to start completely over in a small tribal community, where he is revered by the locals with the title of "Lord" Jim, until the day when trashy white sailors arrive on the island and threaten everything Jim has tried to escape. He is given a chance to redeem himself for his past and prove that he is not the coward he has been branded as.

I have found over a lifetime of reading that there are some books out there that you can coast through without having to read every word deliberately, yet still be able to follow the the story. And then there are books so wordy and dense that you feel like you have to crawl into a deep, dark, non-distracting hole for about a month in order to even find the story. Unfortunately, Lord Jim was one of the latter books for me. Conrad takes basic sentences like "the sky is blue" and turns them into a page-long paragraph, semi-colons, run-ons, and adjectives aplenty. I found myself re-reading sentences just to make sure I got every word, and then going, "Geez, was THAT all he was trying to say??" Someone should have let Conrad know that he could have bored a hole in himself any time and let the adverbs out.

The disappointment for me with Lord Jim was not that the story was bad. In fact, the last 1/3 and the ending were really good. The disappointment for me was how hard it was to slog through the first 2/3 of the book. It was like walking through two-foot deep snow, something we know all about up here in the Great White North.

The take home message? If you love what you do for a career, don't make the one major mistake that will screw it up forever. And if you decide to pick up Lord Jim, find your deep, dark, non-distracting hole in advance.

Grade: C

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Book Challenge I Can Sink My Teeth Into!

Since I am reading all of these hefty books, why not get some credit for it? :) I've signed on to do the "Mor-book-ly Obese" challenge for 2010, meaning that I've got to read 6 books or more of 450+ pages. If you haven't signed on for this one, do it!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


The 2005 movie Crash, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, revolved around everyday, multi-ethnic people who collide with each other in Los Angeles amid racial and social tensions. Along these same lines is E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, which focuses on a Jewish family, an African-American family, and a Caucasian family that all come together over a period of years in New York and change each other's lives.

Just like the plot of Crash, several stories occur simultaneously in Ragtime. The book opens in turn-of-the-century America with a traditional upper class Caucasian family living in New York. One day the mother discovers a live African-American baby buried in their backyard; she finds the mother of the baby and both the mother, named Sarah, and her baby move into the house. At the same time, a family of Jewish immigrants arrives from overseas, and are so financially strapped that both parents and the young daughter work in the mills, until the father hits it big with his 'moving pictures'. The father of Sarah's baby, a decent and successful musician named Coalhouse, is harrassed by several white firemen because of his color, and his car is vandalized and Coalhouse is sent to prison when he tries to protest. Sarah dies while trying to secure Coalhouse's release, and Coalhouse goes on a rampage to get revenge, killing firemen and blowing up firehouses. How it all ends up, you'll have to find out for yourself.

There are lots of little substories involving famous people like Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, JP Morgan, and Henry Ford, who also mingle with varying ways into the lives of the three families. Their stories, however, are nowhere near as fascinating as those of the fictional characters, and almost seem like afterthoughts dropped into the story. I'm not sure if Doctorow felt his story would be more interesting with real-life personages, or if he wanted to use the real-life personages to give the story a historical perspective. I think the story would have been just fine without them, personally.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Once I got used to the back and forth style of writing Doctorow uses while switching in between all of his characters, it was easier. He used short, concise sentences, which surprisingly didn't detract from the detailed picture he was trying to create. The narrative definitely sucked you in and had you caring about the characters and wondering how everything would turn out for everyone. I was so PO'd reading the section about Coalhouse's harassment. It is unfathomable to me that there was a period in this country where it was acceptable for anyone to be treated that way.

The front cover of Ragtime calls it "the astonishing bestseller about America", and while it only spanned maybe 15 years of American history, it displays our country at a time of innocence that would never happen again, before World War I, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement and before terrorism and Communism really got going. It was strange to see famous people walking around in the book without paparazzi trailing their every move or without a posse of bodyguards. Those were really the days! Now movie stars can't even go to Starbucks without escorts.

An enjoyable read you won't be sorry you picked up.

Grade: B-

Friday, January 8, 2010


I was super-psyched to read Henry Green's Loving. Having loved Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of The Day, I was ready for another book exposing what really goes on in the servants' quarters of manorial England. All of the basic plot elements for a great story were there: naughty children, rich widows, cranky housemaids, adultery, embezzlement, blackmail, and backstabbing, all crammed into 200 pages. Unfortunately, Green never found a way to weave these great elements together in a cohesive and interesting way.

On the positive side.... no one ever got more accomplished around the house than I did this week, instead of staying on track and reading this book. Catbox? Unbelievably clean. Basement? Completely reorganized. 1000-piece Twilight puzzle with 90% black pieces? I was on it! My husband is campaigning to have me read nothing but Loving for the remainder of my life.

Ok, so back to the book. The first 100 or so pages were unreadable. Couldn't get into it at all. I actually had to start the book over three times before I could catch on to what was happening. Here's an attempt to sum up the plot, just for the sake of being thorough: a manor house in Ireland during WWII is the setting of Loving, where a rich old widow lives with her daughter-in-law while her son is off fighting in the war. That's about all we learn about the 'masters'. The rest of the time is spent on a rather motley and clueless collection of 'servants', most of whom don't seem to work very hard and elicited no emotions from me other than irritation.

If Green wants readers to feel the boredom, isolation and paranoia his characters experienced by living in a huge castle out in the middle of nowhere during a war, he succeeded with me. I almost wished the castle was in London so the Blitz could happen, just to give the characters something of substance to do and worry about. I also wondered if Green wanted to show us that servants have very superficial, boring lives and that nothing of consequence ever happens to them. Because that was another take-home message for me. 99.9% of this story revolved around "nice cups of tea", idle chitter-chatter, and people freaking out about lost gardening gloves for like fifteen pages.

I’ve read other books on the Modern Library's list, like Tobacco Road, for instance, that didn’t have huge and involved plots but somehow managed to be 200 times more captivating than this book was. I was extremely disappointed in the ending. Green just sort of lopped it off like a dead branch, and it doesn't go with the rest of the story at all. Maybe he got tired of the story himself and just decided to end it. I can’t say I blame him. This book was beginning to have an Under the Net stream of consciousness feel to it, like it would never end, so I am glad he figured something out.

The bottom line on this one? If you're really into the servant/master thing, check out The Remains of the Day. I promise you won't be sorry. But if you really need motivation to get some household chores done, pick up Loving. Your husband will thank you.

Grade: D

Monday, January 4, 2010

"You would think that I could adequately summarize a quick-reading 150 page book; but I can't even begin to describe what it is like. I'm starting to think that I've found an indicator of "Best Novels of All Time" - that property that you can't sit down and convey the experience of reading them to someone else, and when you try, you feel like you are a high-school student writing a book report."

I read this comment on Doug Shaw's Modern Library Top 100 review blog at (excellent, by the way) and I cracked up laughing. He is so right on. I remember trying to explain to my husband the plots of books like The Magus and Tobacco Road, and feeling like an idiot. "Well, there's this guy, and he goes to this house, and all these people dress up and do weird plays and stuff, but he keeps wanting to go back there anyway...." I mean, really! If your spouse was spending all this time reading books, and you asked what one was about, and you got this as an answer, how cracked up would you think your spouse was for reading more than one page, much less finishing the entire book?? I credit my husband for not throwing me and my 13 finished books out into the snow.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

#87....The Old Wives' Tale

"These visions of herself seemed beautiful to her, her childish existence seemed beautiful; the storms and tempests of her girlhood seemed beautiful; even the great sterile expanse of tedium when, after giving up a scholastic career, she had served for two years in the shop--even this had a strange charm in her memory.

And she thought that not for millions of pounds would she live her life over again."

I’ll start out by saying this about Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale: if you have ever been a wife, a parent of a ungrateful teenager, or you just love family sagas, you will love this book with a capital L. This was exactly the type of book I hoped to encounter by reading the Modern Library’s list: a book I had never heard of, would never have picked up by chance, and an engrossing story. It makes wading through all the Maguses and Ginger Men worthwhile.

In The Old Wives’ Tale, we are introduced to the well-to-do Baines family, who live in a small town in England and run a successful drapery shop there. Mr Baines, the head of the family, suffered a stroke when his daughters were small that paralyzed the left half of his body. He spends the day in bed being tended to by various members of his family. His wife runs the shop and manages the family. The Baines daughters, Constance and Sophia, couldn’t be any different. Constance is a people-pleasing, non-ambitious model daughter who enjoys working in the shop, but her sassy younger sister Sophia is busting at the seams to get out of the drapery business.

Sophia wants to be a teacher, but changes her mind when she meets Gerald Scales, the Dirtbag of all Dirtbags, and elopes with him to Paris to spend his inheritance. They go through the money in about three months, and then Gerald deserts Sophia. She rises to the occasion though, becoming a successful pension owner in Paris during the war. Dependable Constance stays in town to inherit the drapery store, marry its chief assistant, Samuel Povey, and raise the most self-centered, unappreciative son in the universe, Cyril. Both women outlive their husbands and meet again in their old age to live out the remainder of their lives together.

I loved, loved, loved this book, start to finish. There were enough twists and turns that you never knew what would happen next, or like me, you tried to predict it and ended up wrong. Both women were likeable, strong, sympathetic characters, neither of whom had remarkable lives, but Bennett makes their stories compelling nonetheless. Sophia’s character was fascinating to me. She made the stupid mistake of picking the wrong man, but found the inner strength to make lemonade out of lemons without sacrificing her pride and running back to her family. For the time period this book took place in, she was a thoroughly modern woman. Constance’s life was more run-of-the-mill; I would have loved to send Super Nanny to her house to help her put the smack-down on Cyril.

Enjoy this one. It’s my favorite so far.

Grade: A+