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

Friday, February 26, 2010

February's Nominees for ML Literary Dirtbag Award

Yes, folks, it's about that time. And for the first time since I began Journeys, I am actually having to 'reach' a bit to come up with someone truly deserving of this award this month, which is a nice and welcome change after months of enduring obvious, over-the-top scumbags like Sebastian Dangerfield and Gerald Scales.

Here is what I have so far. Feel free to vote in the poll on the sidebar, or you can email me your candidates too:

1)Anna Quayne from The Death of the Heart: the prim-and-proper, cold-as-ice, sneaky diary-reading guardian of poor Portia Quayne. She probably also had something going on with Eddie. What a great role model.

2)Yvette from A Bend in the River: it sounds like she slept with anyone with a pulse. What a 'ho.

3)Augusta Hudson from Angle of Repose: the supposed best friend of Susan Ward, she is rich, uber-possessive, marries the man Susan loves, and then proceeds to hate the man Susan ultimately marries, leaving Susan constantly torn between her best friend and husband. Way to be supportive, Augusta!!! She grates on my last nerve.

Coming to Theaters....

I was shocked this morning when I went to and discovered that no one has ever made Angle of Repose into a movie. From what I've read (and I'm about 2/3 through the book), this is a story just BEGGING to be taken to the big screen. The scenery alone from A of R would be phenomenal.

Well I did a little more digging and it turns out Angle of Repose is in development as we speak, with Castle Rock Entertainment. Whoooo hooooo!!! No cast list or anything yet, so I was wondering from those of you who've read the book, who your ideal cast list for this one would be.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


You know you've been watching the Olympics for too long when curling starts to look like fun.

Angle of Repose is great so far. It's a very easy read. It became even more interesting to me when I discovered today that it is based on the life of a real woman, Mary Hallock Foote, who was a writer and illustrator like Stegner's fictional Susan Burling Ward. Like Susan, Mary was also Eastern born, well bred and very literary, who married a miner and followed him to the wilds of California and Idaho. Her articles and illustrations of her experiences were published in magazines back East; they helped people visualize the unsettled and 'uncivilized' parts of the American West.

Here is a great link to learn more about Mary Hallock Foote, her husband Arthur and their Western life, and see some of her awesome illustrations.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Libris Interruptus...Book Returners Anonymous

Have any of you out there ever returned a book to a bookstore for any reason...and what was the excuse you gave the clerk when you returned it? I was unemployed in the Winter of 2008-09 and I read Bernhard Schlink's The Reader in, I kid you not, about 6 hours (a really good book if you haven't read it yet). I returned it to Target because 1) I knew I wouldn't read it again because it was super-sad, and 2) it was still in beautiful condition. They asked no questions. I returned Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth to Barnes and Noble last year after reading a grand total of 50 pages and deciding it was the most boring book I had ever read....and I was honest with the lady at the counter. And I know most people love that book with a devotion that borders on papal reverence, so I was super disappointed.

What about you guys?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

#83....A Bend In the River

“People lived as they had always done; there was no break between past and present. All that had happened in the past was washed away; there was always only the present. It was as though, as a result of some disturbance in the heavens, the early morning light was always receding into the darkness and men lived in a perpetual dawn.”

A Bend in the River follows the story of Salim, who retreats from his ancestral home on the western coast of Africa and takes over a small trading goods store deep in the wilds of central Africa, at a bend in the river where civilization and the lack thereof intersect. Salim takes this job for several reasons: uprisings in his hometown, escaping from an unwanted engagement, and wanting to make something of himself. He is warned by the previous owner of the store, Nazruddin, to know ‘when to get out’. Salim arrives to see he will be living on the fringes of existence, in a town that has gone back to bush and rubble after colonial rule. He befriends other ‘foreigners’ who live in the town, and when a slave boy, Metty, is sent to him from his parents, he employs Metty in the shop.

Salim is also responsible for Ferdinand, a boy from the jungles who will be attending school in the town. Salim jealously watches while Ferdinand gets the schooling, education and opportunities that are closed to him. When the country is taken over by an anonymous President, new things begin to happen in the town. Modernization arrives in the form of the “Domain”, a series of modern buildings and a ‘polytechnic’, where Ferdinand gets to attend more school and Salim’s friend Indar, also from the upper-class coast, arrives as a speaker. Unlike Ferdinand, who blindly spouts the dogma he is taught at school, Indar has concerns about the direction of the country, as Salim has had all along. Through Indar, Salim meets Yvette, the young wife of Raymond, a man whom the President favors. Salim begins a passionate affair with Yvette, but when Raymond’s favor drops with the President, things go sour for Salim and Yvette. At the same time, things also start to go sour for the town. There are tribal uprisings and attacks against the President and his minions. Shop owners who have been there forever sell out and leave. Salim begins to feel the nervousness of being trapped, and decides to visit Nazruddin in London, where he becomes engaged to his daughter Kareisha. Upon returning to settle accounts in the town, he finds that the President has sold his shop to someone else, and he is under suspicion from the police. When he is imprisoned, Ferdinand, who has risen to the post of commissioner, bails him out of jail and puts him on the first steamer out of town before the arrival of the President, who is coming to execute everyone of prominence in the town.

One of the main themes of the book is a Latin saying inscribed on the town lycee building, Semper Aliquid Novi (‘always something new’). It is so appropriate to the seeming impermanence of settlements in Africa. The ruins of colonial buildings are still visible in the town, which begins to grow anew after independence and again under the Presidential rule, and Salim realizes that the current civilization he is living in could just as easily be reduced to rubble:

“The ruins, spread over so many acres, seemed to speak of a final catastrophe. But the civilization wasn’t dead. It was the civilization I existed in and in fact was still working towards. And that could make for an odd feeling: to be among the ruins was to have your time-sense unsettled. You felt like a ghost not from the past, but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life. You were in a place where the future had come and gone.”

Nothing seems to stay the same in Africa. Even the rise and fall of people in the President’s favor, such as Raymond’s rise and fall from grace, and the improbable rise of Ferdinand, an African raised in the jungle, show that importance as a human being can also be changed at a moment’s notice, and someone with the President’s ear one day can be ignored and forgotten the next.

Another element of the story I found fascinating was Naipaul’s treatment of African history. Salim says that, as Africans, “we never asked why; we never recorded”, since natives were unable to read and write. They relied on the oral tradition of passing stories down among family members. Salim, in talking about a story he heard from his grandfather, notes that “without my own memory of the old man’s story I suppose that would have been a piece of history lost forever.” Africa has to rely on educated Europeans, like Raymond, to record their history for posterity. However, absent from these dry European histories, which rely primarily on documentation, are the true experiences of the African natives and their traditions and beliefs. Salim becomes very angry reading over Raymond's journal articles, saying:
"[Raymond] gave no reasons and looked for none; he just quoted from the missionary reports. He didn't seem to have gone to any of the places he wrote about; he hadn't tried to talk to anybody....He knew so much, had researched so much. He must have spent weeks on each article. But he had less true knowledge of Africa, less feel for it, than Indar or Nazruddin or even Mahesh....Yet he had made Africa his subject."

A lot of noise has been made in other reviews about Naipaul’s treatment of women in this novel. Women seemed to fall into one of two categories: modern working woman, and object of obsession. Ferdinand’s mother, Zabeth, is a single mom who runs her own business in the bush, and Salim’s fiancĂ©e, Kareisha, is still single at 30 and becomes a pharmacist. Shoba, who is idolized by her husband Mahesh, and Yvette, who really seems to get around, aren’t portrayed as particularly ambitious women, who rely on the men around them to bring them their security. I did not enjoy the scene where Salim loses it and beats up Yvette, but I don’t think it says anything overarchingly negative about all women everywhere.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. And my enjoyment was unexpected, and definitely wasn’t enjoyment in the traditional sense. The story was dark, foreboding, and at times apocalyptic in its story of the rise, fall and disappearance of civilizations and rule in the wilds of Africa. Not usually my thing at all, but I have to admit I was sucked into the story, and was actually begging Salim to do as Nazruddin told him and “get out” when things started to go badly in town. The ending was a bit ambiguous for my taste, but that's probably the way Naipaul wanted it to go down. This book should remind all of us how lucky we are as Americans to have stability, democracy and education in our country.
Grade: B+

Saturday, February 13, 2010


YES! I really am still reading "A Bend in the River", even with so many exciting things going on right now that are distracting me from reading, such as:

1)The Olympics
2)NBA All-Star Weekend
3)The Daytona 500
4)"Holmes on Homes", and
6)the catbox

We did actually get up off the couch at some point today, believe it or not!

I've posted some Twitter updates on random thoughts on ABITR. The story might be a bit slow, but there are some profundities that have jumped out at me from Naipaul's writing. Hang with me...I will be finishing this one up in the next couple of days, in between snowboarding and figure skating. :)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Libris Interruptus...Worst ML Book of All Time?

So I was reading Kris' blog at, and she threw out the question to her readers of what they considered the worst book of all time. I've read about and heard from tons of people how awful the obvious books like Ulysses, Augie March, Finnegans Wake, etc are. What I'm wondering from you guys is, besides those books, are there any others on the list you feel have no business being there??

Monday, February 8, 2010


Hey gang...

A big 'welcome' shout-out to those of you who have joined my blog over the last month. Glad to see you here! Those who have been around a while, thanks for hanging around.

You may have noticed the dearth of postings over the last week or so. Or not! Thinking things over, I realized that chapter-by-chapter play calls on all the books I'm reading is probably not encouraging anyone to read the books on the list (in fact, it may be discouraging some of you from reading them altogether...which with some of the books would not be a bad thing...TRUST ME :) . So I've re-written my reviews on Books 100-84, and will be waiting until I finish future books before giving you the lowdown. So there'll be fewer blog posts...but don't worry! The Literary Dirtbag Awards will continue! And I'll be Twittering about the books daily, so you can check in with me there to see how the books are going and/or offer moral support.

I guess the other, more obvious excuse I should give is that A Bend in the River is not wow-ing me with its literary merit. Or much else, for that matter. But that's never stopped us here at Journeys!

Read on! And keep those comments comin'!


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Battle of the Prizes, American Version Challenge!

I've decided to take this one on, as I have two books upcoming that apply to this challenge. The Battle of the Prizes requires you to read three books: a Pulitzer Prize novel, a National Book Award novel, and then a novel that won both. I'm choosing Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (#82 on the list) for my Pulitzer book, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (#81 on the list) for my National Book Award book, and I'm not quite sure yet what I'll do for my "double dipper". Maybe E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. Wish me luck!

Monday, February 1, 2010

#84...The Death of the Heart

"Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it."

Elizabeth Bowen, author of The Death of the Heart, was “greatly interested in "life with the lid on and what happens when the lid comes off.” To make a long story short, Bowen liked to write about what would happen if people didn’t apply filters before acting or speaking, and ended up doing or saying socially unacceptable things. Throw that situation into emotionally repressed 1930’s Inter-War England, and already we have the makings of a fascinating and potentially explosive plot line before even opening the book.

In The Death of the Heart, we are introduced to the Quayne family: Anna and Thomas, who have taken in Thomas' half-sister Portia after the death of Portia's mother, Irene. Portia and Thomas have the same father; their father had an affair with Irene, and Thomas' mother forced her husband to divorce her, marry Irene and have Portia in order to punish him. Mr Quayne eventually dies, and after Irene dies, the dreamy, lonely Portia is sent to live with Thomas and Anna for a year per Mr Quayne's dying wish. The emotionally stifled Anna is less than thrilled with the arrangement; the book begins with her whining to her friend St Quentin about Portia's messy room and admitting that she's read Portia's diary, which included some unflattering remarks about all of them. Portia also has the misfortune to fall in love with Eddie, a shiftless, irresponsible jerk, who leads Portia on yet keeps her at arm’s length. Portia’s diary and her desperate need to be loved in an emotionally sterile household bring events to a head in the Quayne household.

Anyone who has ever felt different, misunderstood or alone will immediately sympathize with Portia’s plight. A child who was born under socially questionable circumstances, who lived a rather free and unconventional life abroad with her mother prior to moving to England, is then thrown into a situation where the pressure is on to conform and repress how they really feel. How awful that would be. It's no wonder that Portia befriends Major Brutt, an awkward, unemployed gentleman who sends her puzzles, and falls for Eddie, a morally bankrupt social pariah, because they are 'different' like she is, and because she is so desperate to feel understood. Portia’s diary throws the Quayne household into disarray because Portia does not hold back in her writing about how the people around her behave, and what her true thoughts are about them. Rather than understanding that Portia should be allowed to have a private place where she can unburden her thoughts and feelings, and minding their own business, the Quaynes whine about feeling unnatural and spied on. When Anna reads Portia’s diary, she is shown a side of herself that contradicts her own view of herself, which makes her uncomfortable.

The real beauty about the ending of Heart is that Portia’s discovery that Anna has read her diary, and the other characters’ discovery of this as well, forces people to admit things or discuss things that would never have come to the surface. You are left wondering if people will change once these revelations are made, but not with much hope.

Anyone who loves a good comedy of manners will be all about this book. A great read.

Grade: A-