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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Books to Movies..."Brideshead Revisited"

BR was the first movie I have watched that was based on one of the ML books I've read. Before watching the movie, I read several reviews of the movie online, and most people were lukewarm about it, saying that it didn't follow the book, etc. Most of the actors in the movie, excepting Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain and the guy from the Harry Potter movies who plays Professor Dumbledore as Lord Marchmain, I had never seen before. Plus I didn't really love the book. So my expectations weren't incredibly high...thus I was pleasantly surprised by the movie.

I'll start with the positive. For the most part, the movie followed the book. The scenery was beautiful. The house they picked to act as Brideshead was gorgeous and almost exactly as I had pictured it myself. My daughter, who for some inexplicable reason watched the movie with me, pointed out that this same house was used in Garfield 2: A Tale of Two Kitties. I'll have to check that out. :) The acting, I thought, was very good. The girl they picked to play Julia was gorgeous. Rex Mottram was just as smarmy as I had pictured him in the book, and they even had the tortoise, although Julia's initials weren't in the shell. Emma Thompson was perfect as the cold, calculating Lady Marchmain (but when isn't she wonderful?). Overall, it was nice to see what I'd read brought to life.

The negative. The movie, as movies often do, took some liberties with the book, but I'm not sure that the liberties really detracted from the overall story. The movie developed the love story between Charles and Julia much earlier than the book did, having them fall in love in Venice during the visit to see Lord Marchmain (Julia didn't even go with them to Venice in the book). Sebastian sees Charles kissing Julia and that moment is used as the reason for Sebastian's downward spiral and distancing from Charles. Sebastian's character was way more flamboyant and overtly homosexual than his character in the book...which I actually didn't enjoy. I guess I preferred the book's more 'under the table' treatment of Sebastian's persuasion than I did seeing it outright. I felt that Waugh left it up to the reader to decide whether or not that dimension to Charles' and Sebastian's friendship existed. A scene from Julia's debutante ball in the movie didn't exist in the book. Her engagement to Rex is announced there and Sebastian accuses Charles in front of everyone of 'wanting to sleep with his sister'. There is also a scene in the movie between Charles and Rex where Charles asks Rex to divorce Julia, and Rex agrees to, on the condition that Charles give Rex two of his "jungle pics" as payment. This didn't happen in the book either.

Overall, I'm not sorry I watched it. Sadly I think I had a better feeling about the movie than I did the book. My daughter has encouraged me to track down more of the movies from the books I've read, as every book I've read has become almost a household name for us. :)

Grade: B

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March '10's Literary Dirtbag Nominees

Am having a dilemma as to who to pick for March's MLLD. Front runners are the following:

1)Rex Mottram from Brideshead Revisited: Total dirtbag and probably the guy I will end up picking. Slimy politician who 'converts' to Catholicism in order to marry Julia (and I say 'converts' lightly, because he basically told the priest he'd agree with anything he said). He also gets Julia the tortoise with her initials in diamonds imbedded in the shell, which I thought was BEYOND HORRIBLE. He also has affairs with other women....but so did most of the other people in BR.

2)Simon March from The Adventures of Augie March. He started out okay as the studious bookworm, but ends up being this super-angry guy who is successful in business but a real jerk. He yells at everyone, makes fun of his mother-in-law for the way she dresses (actually rips her shirt off in one scene), and is mean to his wife Charlotte. Plus then he has the affair with Renee, thinks she got pregnant and doesn't want the kid. What a lowlife.

Monday, March 29, 2010

#80...."Brideshead Revisited"

"I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember."

Brideshead Revisited is the reminiscence of Charles Ryder, a British military captain stationed in England during World War II. As his platoon is moved through the British countryside, they end up at Brideshead, a mansion no one is familiar with except Charles, who makes up for all of them by not only knowing of Brideshead intimately, but also knowing the family who used to live there. Arriving at Brideshead brings up Charles' memories of the past and the Marchmain family.

Charles meets Lord Sebastian Flyte, the son of Lord Brideshead, at Oxford, where Charles is studying to be a painter. Sebastian is wealthy, happy-go-lucky and irreverant, and introduces him to the 'wrong' group at Oxford, which includes Anthony Blanche, an all-out homosexual, and Boy Mulcaster, who will be his future brother-in-law. Sebastian becomes a very different person though, when he brings Charles home with him to stay at Brideshead. He is very close-lipped about his family, drinks a lot, and is also resistant to his family's Catholicism. The Marchmain family, consisting of the separated Lady Marchmain, his two sisters Julia and Cordelia, and his older brother 'Bridey', welcome Charles into the family, and Lady Brideshead tries to enlist Charles' help with Sebastian's alcoholism. Charles refuses, and continues giving Sebastian money to drink, although Sebastian is convinced that his family is turning Charles into a spy. Sebastian is eventually pulled out of Oxford, and Charles quits Oxford as well to attend art school, where he becomes an architectural painter and makes his living on the decay of the British aristocracy by painting all of the grand old homes before they are sold or torn down.

Fast forward several years. Charles' painting career is on the rise and he is married to Celia, Boy Mulcaster's sister. They have two children and Charles knows that Celia has already had indiscretions with other men. When he arrives back in New York after painting jungle ruins, he and his wife board a ship to take them back to England. On board is none other than Julia, Sebastian's beautiful sister, who is also struggling to escape a loveless marriage to an unpopular politician. Charles and Julia begin an affair, which is soon known by all but is not looked on favorably by Julia's Catholic family. Charles and Julia plan to divorce their respective spouses to marry each other. This plan proceeds until the elderly, ailing Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die. Religion having always been a sticking point between the Catholic Julia and the agnostic Charles, Lord Marchmain's death returns Julia to her religion, and she gives up Charles so that she will no longer live in sin. In the end, when Charles re-visits the chapel at Brideshead during his military stay, there is some intimation that Charles may have taken on Catholicism too.

I have to say that I was very disappointed in this book. Those of you who loved it, go ahead and blame it on the circumstances of my cat Frank's unhappy passing last week and the ensuing depression that followed. Besides wondering why there are so many drunks named Sebastian in 20th Century literature, I kept waiting for the story to take off, and to me it never really did. The most interesting characters, Sebastian and Anthony Blanche, almost completely drop out of the story by the middle of the book, and even Lady Marchmain dies pretty early on. Call me a purist, but I can never really root for characters who cheat on their spouses, so Charles and Julia lost my sympathy too.

On the Catholic angle. I read that Evelyn Waugh was a Catholic convert, and his conversion obviously meant a great deal to him. It was interesting to me that Waugh has several of his main characters converting to Catholicism by the end of the book. These conversions all seem to happen as a result of a major life change. Sebastian goes to live with monks abroad when no one else will take him in, and Julia is reconciled with the Church when her father dies. Lord Marchmain is converted on his deathbed when he receives the Last Rites. Charles himself even comes around to the Catholic faith at the end, most likely because of losing Julia, when he kneels in the Brideshead chapel and prays.

Interestingly enough, I am also in the middle of watching the movie version of Brideshead, with Emma Thompson playing Lady Marchmain. So far, excepting a couple of scenes, the story has been fairly true to the book. The movie is playing up the possibly homosexual angle on Sebastian (which I guess never really occured to me when I was reading the book, but may have explained why he got depressed when Anthony Blanche left Oxford and why he stayed with the cripple Kurt) quite a bit. Sebastian is positively flamboyant in the movie. Julia also seems to be playing a more central role in the movie than she did in the book. She accompanies them to Venice to visit Lord Marchmain, which didn't happen in the book.

Overall, just okay for me. And this book didn't have a tough act to follow after Augie March.

Grade: B-

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Libris Interruptus...Requiem for a Feline Friend

In September of 1995, I drove to the Chapel Hill Animal Shelter in search of a friend. Most of my college friends had already graduated, and I had half a semester to go. I went in that day, and knew at first sight the kitten that would be going home with me. He was a long-haired, orange cat with black freckles on his lips and paw pads. When I took him out of the cage, he crawled up onto my shoulders and laid down there, purring away. I named him Frank, after Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, and after Frank Sinatra, who had made a comeback with the whole 'swing dancing' thing that was at that time sweeping the nation.

Over the last fifteen years, Frank and I have traveled all over the country together. He's lived with me in five states: North Carolina, Maryland, Utah, California, and here in Minnesota. He was there when I had my daughter in 1998 as a scared single mother, and was there when I got both my bachelor's degree in 1995 and my master's degree in 2001. He was there when I got married in 2007 and in fact did his damndest to win over my non-cat-loving husband. He managed to tolerate his cat sister Fiona, even when she bit his ears and ate his food, and loved nothing more than laying in a warm, sunny spot and having his chin rubbed. No one could ask for a better friend than Frank was to me all those years.

Frank and I took our last trip together three days ago. I came home from dinner to see him dragging his rear left leg behind him and meowing piteously. He hadn't been eating hardly at all as of late, and was spending most of his time sleeping, as old cats do. I knew something was wrong. I took him to the emergency vet, and the unfortunate news came out that he had a blood clot that had paralyzed his back leg. The vet gave him very little time, if any, and told me that his quality of life would be beyond awful if I allowed him to live. The decision was made that my boy needed to be free of pain and be in a better place. I was there when it happened and it was very peaceful.

Those of you who bore with me when I bawled my way through The Call of the Wild (and Buck lived!!!) can imagine what condition I was in Thursday night. It was, to date, one of the hardest hours of my life. I feel sorry for Evelyn Waugh, because even if Brideshead Revisited is a fabulous book, it's not touching me at all. Every day gets a bit easier, but reminders abound everywhere. My orange boy will always be here with me and for me, in spirit.

Those of you who have pets, love your animal family members for all the time you have with them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ranking the 2nd 10 Books....

If I can say one thing about the 2nd ten books I've made it through on the list, it's this: The quality of writing got WAAAAAAYYY better. I had a much harder time ranking the books this go-round because I liked so many of them. Unlike the last ten books, where there are at least five I am all for throwing in the fire pit this upcoming summer, I can say I honestly enjoyed 7 of the 10 of this group. Even the bottom 3 weren't anywhere near as bad as The Magus. It gives me hope that things can only get better, which is why I started reading the list at #100 and working upwards. Hopefully that trend continues!

Unfortunately in the upcoming group of ten, we have the dreaded Finnegans' Wake, plus a Hemingway book (NEWS FLASH: I am not a fan of Hemingway). There are also two Evelyn Waugh books so if I don't love Brideshead Revisited I'm in trouble. So it should be an interesting couple of months.

Here's my ranking, 1 (best) to 10 (worst):

1 Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
2 The Old Wives' Tale, Arnold Bennett
3 Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
4 The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
5 Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow
6 The Call of the Wild, Jack London
7 A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul
8 The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
9 Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
10 Loving, Henry Green

#81..."The Adventures of Augie March"

"Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can’t use he often can’t see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn’t correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn’t try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know it so little, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than what we invent.”

Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is a tour-de-force through the American life of its picaresque hero, Augie March. Augie is the middle child of a lower class family, living with his ambitious older brother Simon, mentally challenged brother George, and his mother, who was deserted by Augie’s father. The majority of the novel chronicles Augie’s journey to find himself and his purpose in life, which seems to be neverending, as Augie has absolutely zero attention span and can’t seem to commit to anyone or anything. At different points in the novel, he is an eagle-trainer, Merchant marine sailor, book-stealer, secretary to a millionaire, shoe salesman, law student, personal assistant, socialite, and strike organizer, and he lurches between love affairs in much the same way. He is a “born recruit”, due to his compassionate nature and gullibility, and because of this, finds himself unknowingly sucked into bad or difficult situations throughout the book. Augie manages to make it through these rough situations with the help of his friends and family, who disappear and resurface throughout the story constantly. He at last finds the stability and the love he has been seeking…but you get the feeling that the quest isn’t over yet, even at the end of the book.

I didn’t have a problem so much with the plot of the book, which definitely kept things interesting. You never knew what Augie would end up doing from page to page. I think my major hurdle with this book was Saul Bellow, not so much Augie. I would say it took me the first quarter of the book to get a handle on Bellow’s writing style, which consists of about three sentences per page (periods were definitely at a premium) and descriptive prose aplenty, which doesn’t always make for interesting reading. I tend to prefer plot over descriptions, so it was no wonder that Chapter 5 alone took me three days. The style of this book reminded me strongly of Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, which if you’ve read my review (here) was not a fave. Both characters were on quests of self-discovery, both waxed prolific about their philosophies of life, and both relied on friends to help them out of their various scrapes. I tend to prefer Augie over Under the Net’s Jake Donaghue, since Augie was very compassionate and went out of his way to help people. I’m still not sure what the he** Jake was supposed to be doing. :)

Anyway, 586 pages later, I know everything there is to know about Augie March, and I am reasonably sure my life has not changed substantially because of this book. A book like this naturally begs the question of why finish books you don't like, when there are so many others out there to enjoy. And my answer is this: When you're on a quest to complete any project out there, there are always going to be enjoyable parts, and then not-so-enjoyable parts. Reading through this list, 20 books in, I have found some real treasures, and some real junkers. Finding the treasures make getting through the junkers worthwhile. :)

This book fulfills the second book needed for the Battle of the Prizes, American Version (National Book Award winner in 1954) and is another book down for the Chunkster Challenge, at a hefty 586 pages.

Grade: C+

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Books to Movies

Holy cow! I have twenty pages to go of Augie. Whooo Hooooo!!!

Family and I went from beautiful 60 degree weather here in the Cities last week to mid-thirties this weekend. Talk about depressing. The original forecast for today was actually for snow, which we didn't get, so by no means am I complaining. :)

As we wait for the spring thaw to arrive, I hit Blockbuster on Friday afternoon and picked up a couple of movies to watch this weekend. We've blown through four of them, two of which are books I have read (not for the Journeys list, though). The first was Angels and Demons. Truth be told, I was so grossed out by Brown's very graphic descriptions of the priests' murders that I skipped large portions of the book. I was surprisingly pleased by the movie, which did not show the actual murders but just the bodies afterwards (which was okay). Tom Hanks was great again as the stoic academic Robert Langdon, and Ewan McGregor completely satisfying as the seemingly pious, double dealing Camerlengo.

The second movie my daughter talked me into was Twilight. Many readers on Kris's site One Hundred Books have bashed this book into oblivion, and I have to admit I was a bit bewildered at all of the hullabaloo around this book when it first came out. I was probably the only 30-something woman here in town two years ago NOT walking around with a copy of this book. Everyone assured me I HAD to read it immediately, manically pressing their own dog-eared copies into my hands, like missionaries with Bibles, to take with me. I finally broke down and read Twilight about a year ago, and I don't even think I finished it. Too teeny-bopper for my taste, and the whole vampire thing didn't hit my radar. I watched the Twilight movie today with my obsessed 12 year-old daughter, and while the movie was marginally better than the book (and the mean vampire James was somewhat hot), it was still not (in my mind) worthy of all of the mania that is currently sweeping the nation.

Hopefully I will wrap up Augie and friends tonight or tomorrow and review.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Update from the Halfway Point..."The Adventures of Augie March"

A big 'thank you' shout-out to those of you who confirmed my initial suspicions that Adventures would be slow going. Getting through Chapter 5 alone took me three days. Bellow has a way of hyper-describing every feature of every character and forgetting to throw in a period every now and then to break things up. It made for some long going there.

Once I got past Chapter 5, though, an amazing thing happened. The book got better. A lot better. Bellow's still not using many periods, but at least he's throwing some actual adventures into the plot rather than just serial descriptions of everyone Augie's ever met. I've actually looked forward to picking the book up the last few days, and am beginning to feel some hope that I might actually finish it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Update...and A Cry for Help

The Adventures of Augie March is so far making me feel like I have the world's worst case of ADHD. I am completely unable to concentrate on this book--the deep, dark, non-distracting hole I needed for Lord Jim wouldn't even help me out with this one. The worst part? Saul Bellow also seems to have ADHD, because Augie March is all over the place plot-wise. Bellow will describe one character for like four pages and then that character completely disappears into the story, never to be mentioned again. Augie runs from job to job, house to house, person to person, and I can't keep anyone straight. The character names of Friedl and Kreindl alone are enough to confuse anyone!!!

Anyone who's made it through this book and has found something redeeming about it...please throw me a life preserver here!!!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

#82....Angle of Repose

"There must be some other possibility than death or lifelong penance, said the Ellen Ward of my dream, that woman I hate and fear. I am sure she meant some meeting, some intersection of lines; and some cowardly, hopeful geometer in my brain tells me it is the angle at which two lines prop each other up, the leaning-together from the vertical which produces the false arch. For lack of a keystone, the false arch may be as much as one can expect in this life. Only the very lucky discover the keystone."

Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose is a beautiful, triumphant, bittersweet epic that brings together the lives of his main character, Lyman Ward, and his grandparents. Lyman is a historian, confined to a wheelchair by a bone disease and an amputated leg, living in California in the house his grandparents built. His wife has recently left him for someone else, and rather than looking towards a bleak future, or living in the painful present, Lyman chooses to delve into the past by writing a book about his famous grandmother, Susan Burling Ward. Enlisting the help of his caretaker's free-spirited daughter Shelly, he begins to go through the papers and letters his grandmother left behind to piece together her life story and the unusual relationship she had with her husband, Oliver.
Susan Burling is an Easterner, living among the wealthy literati, attending art school. Her life changes on the night she meets Oliver Ward, a quiet, gentle miner from the West. When Susan's love interest, the wealthy Thomas Hudson, marries her best friend Augusta, Susan decides to marry Oliver and move West, having little or no idea of the trials and hardships that will accompany the life of a cultured woman in the uncivilized wilds of California and Idaho. As the trusting Oliver is screwed in business again and again by unscrupulous opportunists, Susan becomes dissatisfied with her life and disappointed in her husband, and turns to her writing and drawing to support her growing family. While pining away for her past life back East, she misses out on the present and pushes those who love her away, until the one day she makes a fatal mistake and causes a tragedy that permanently damages her marriage. As he goes through Susan's papers, Lyman begins to see the parallels between the mistakes his grandparents made and his own life, and in the end, "wonders if I am man enough to be a bigger man than my grandfather."
I cannot say enough good things about this book. Having lived in the San Francisco Bay area for a few years, Stegner's descriptions of the ruggedness of the California, Colorado and Idaho landscapes are dead-on and beautiful. His depictions of marriage as either an intersection of two lives, or two lives that lean against each other but never connect, is profound. The message of forgiveness for past wrongs, never taking anything for granted, and living each day firmly in the present is one that will stay with me for a long time. I was completely brought into the story, hoping against hope that Oliver would find the security and opportunity he was repeatedly denied, and that Susan would learn to accept her situation rather than continue to resist it. Alas, I was disappointed on both fronts.
This was a beautiful story depicting the culture clash between the civilized East and the uncivilized West. Finding out that it was based on the life of a real woman, Mary Hallock Foote, made the story even more compelling. Everyone should read it.

This book also counts towards both of the reading challenges I have set for myself this year...The Chunkster Challenge and the Battle of the Prizes, American Version. Those are on the sidebar if you want to join up too.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

February's ML Literary Dirtbag

After much debate (and about 100 more pages of Angle of Repose) I've chosen Anna Quayne as this month's MLLD. The Death of the Heart kicks off with her whining to her friend about Portia's messy room (hello? Has she ever met any teenagers EVER?), and admitting she's read Portia's diary on the sly and doesn't like what she sees. She kind of has a thing going with Eddie, whether it's against her will or not, because she encourages her husband to hire him at his business to get him out of her hair, and at the end begs her husband NOT to fire Eddie even though he deserves it. She knows exactly the kind of guy Eddie is, yet she lets Portia hang out with him. It made me really glad that she doesn't have kids of her own, and made me hope beyond hope that Portia got the hell out of Dodge after the year was up.

I have about 25 pages left of Angle of Repose, so a review should be forthcoming. :)