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

Friday, July 30, 2010

Welcome All Hoppers!

For those of you stopping by from the Crazy For Books blog hop, welcome! We're about 1/3 of the way through the Modern Library's 100 Best Books from the last century. To get you up to speed on what we're all about, the book reviews for books 100-70 are on the bottom left. We read 'em, review 'em, and move on, and we're not stopping til we get to #1!

This week's Blogtastic question from Crazy For Books is, who is your new favorite author? I have to say that since I began the Modern Library's list, I have really begun to like V.S. Naipaul, who happily has written about a zillion other books besides the ones I have already read. I can't wait to get the ML list done so I can check out the rest of his work. His books always take place in really cool places I would be too chicken to get on a plane and visit...but luckily they are so descriptive it feels like you're there!

Thanks for stopping by!

Libris Interruptus....Books as Inspiration

Books not only entertain us, but sometimes can inspire us to try something we never would have before, or learn something new. What is the craziest/most interesting thing a book has ever inspired you to do, and which book was it? I can't wait to hear your answers!!!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

#70....The Alexandria Quartet....Balthazar

"'We live', writes Pursewarden somewhere, 'lives based on selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time--not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.'"

Just when you thought you got the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Justine and her wacky crew of friends and ex-lovers in Justine, Durrell turns everything upside down in Balthazar, the second installment of his Alexandria Quartet. Just to see if you were paying attention.

Our depressed hermit friend Darley sends his copy of his memoirs of his days in Alexandria and his love affair with Justine (basically the manuscript of Justine) to his buddy Balthazar back in Alexandria. Balthazar shows up on the island not only with the manuscript full of commentary, but corrections. Apparently, boy did Darley have a whole bunch of things wrong. "A diary is the last place to go if you wish to seek the truth about a person. Nobody dares to make the final confession to themselves on paper: or at least, not about love," Balthazar states. So everything Darley wrote about his memories of Justine are either wrong, skewed, or incomplete. By the end of Balthazar, even Darley is doubting his reliability as a narrator. And so was I, big time.

The magic of Balthazar is that Durrell makes discovering these inconsistencies and gaps in Darley's story interesting. It's like seeing a house painted a cool color, and then finding out the owners had to mix four different paints to get it. It adds dimension and layers to the essentially one-sided story we're presented with in Justine. We learn, for example, that the secret agent Scobie is a cross dresser. We learn about Nessim's reclusive family, and how Nessim got Justine to agree to marry him in the first place. We learn why Justine ever got started with Darley in the first place....and boy, does THAT revelation hit Darley hard.

There are always two sides to every story...all of us know that. Durrell touches on this several times during Justine. But what really captivated me about Balthazar is how futile, how subversive a search for truth can be. Do any of us ever have a chance of finding out what's really true about anything? As humans, we cling to certain memories, block other things out, and color the way we remember things all the time. If you told the story of how you met your significant other to someone, and then had your significant other tell their side of the story, certain facts would be the same....but you'd have a whole other dimension to the story you were lacking before. Which one is true? Aren't both true, even though both stories have different information? You can start to see how the search for pure truth has captivated generations of philosophers.

This was the point that blew me away about Balthazar. We're tempted as readers to throw Justine in the trash and take Balthazar's account as the 'real' story...but knowing what we now know about individual truth, can we do this? Durrell masterfully not only discredits Darley as a narrator...but at the same time discredits everyone else. We learn that we cannot rely on anyone's individual chronicle as pure truth. Their stories fit together like pieces in a puzzle, but as stand-alone stories do not represent the whole truth.

As a disgusting side note, I got to experience the icky moment of seeing whoever owned this book before me writing the word "ME!" next to the sections where Pursewarden is described as picking his nose and taking his shoes off under the table in restaurant. Awesome. Excuse me while I go look for the Clorox wipes now.

Anyone looking for deep thoughts should check this one out. You really do have to read Justine first, though. Sorry.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

#70...The Alexandria Quartet...Justine

"Far off events, transformed by memory, acquire a burnished brilliance because they are seen in isolation, divorced from the details of before and after, the fibres and wrappings of time. The actors, too, suffer a transformation; they sink slowly deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory like weighted bodies, finding at every level a new assessment, a new evaluation in the human heart."

How much can we rely on memory as truth, and how well can we really ever know another person? Lawrence Durrell tackles these questions in Justine, the first installment of his four-part Alexandria Quartet. Set in the ancient city of Alexandria, Justine is primarily the memoir of an unnamed man and his affair with a beautiful married Jewish socialite. Because of a horrifying incident in her past, Justine finds herself unable (or unwilling?) to be monogamous and so flits from affair to affair. Although her husband Nessim is presented with strong evidence of her affairs over the years, he is unable (or unwilling?) to believe it, until Melissa, the girlfriend of the narrator, comes to Nessim with her knowledge of the affair. Thinking two wrongs make a right, Melissa and Nessim begin an affair, which results in a child. When Nessim finally takes his revenge on the man who hurt Justine, Melissa dies, and Justine inexplicably flees her life in Alexandria for a Jewish kibbutz in Palestine, the narrator adopts the child and retires to a remote island to write about his memories of Justine.

Durrell uses two very unreliable sources of information to define Justine: memory, and the stories of her discarded lovers. Before we judge her as readers, we have to take this into account. As anyone knows, the further away in time an experience is, and the more wrapped in feeling it is, the more likely our memories of the experience will be skewed. Justine's previous husband wrote a book about her, but admits that his memories of their time together may not have been completely accurate: "Did this sort of thing happen so often or is it that my memory has multiplied it? Perhaps it was only once, and the echoes have misled me." The quote from the beginning of the post also emphasizes the deceptive truth of memory. We also have to account for the bias that results from the memories of past lovers. I would never want one of my ex-boyfriends to write a book about me and have people accept that as how I am. The narrator says it best: "How much of him can I claim to know? I realize that each person can only claim one aspect of our character as part of his knowledge. To every one we turn a different face of the prism." I think most of us agree that the part of the prism that would be reflected by an ex-lover might not be the most flattering picture in the world.

Durrell also challenges us to define love. Can you love someone when being unfaithful to them? Can you love someone through an intellectual avenue rather than just purely sexually? Can you really love something without a desire to possess it? My definition of a love relationship would be monogamy and commitment, which is the more conventionally accepted format...and clearly, Justine's definition is 180 degrees different from that.

I ended the book wondering why Durrell would want us to feel so negatively about Justine. Maybe it is my personal experiences and values that turned me against her.

I liked this book. It started a bit slow but grew on me. Happily I am not as turned off about reading the next three books as I was during the first few pages of Justine.

Grade: B+

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Blog Shoppin'

I "heart" used bookstores, especially since I started this blog. I have to give a shout-out to Half-Price Books for their great selection (even if I have to drive 20 minutes one way to get there) and to my husband, who unquestioningly indulges my book-buying sprees. :)

Here are today's finds, all upcoming for Journeys....

Light in August, William Faulkner
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin
The Rainbow, DH Lawrence
The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
Deliverance, James Dickey
Women In Love, DH Lawrence
The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

And here's the fun part...I got all of these books, in really good condition, for $38. Which averages out to $3.80 a book. Beat THAT, Barnes and Noble!!!!

Friday, July 9, 2010

#71....A High Wind in Jamaica

"Grownups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail. But not so children. A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection. Parents, finding that they see through their child in so many places the child does not know of, seldom realize that, if there is some point the child really gives his mind to hiding, their chances are nil."

There were several take-home messages Richard Hughes passes along to us in his 1929 novel, A High Wind in Jamaica. We'll kick off this review with them right now.

1)Children can be more devious than adults.
2)Not all pirates are bad guys (something Disney took to the bank with their Pirates of the Caribbean movies).
3)Parents and other adults are clueless about the true nature of children.

The five Bas-Thornton children (ranging from ages 3 to 12) aren't like normal kids. They live in the ruins of an old sugar plantation in Jamaica, and are basically running wild. They spend their time hunting, climbing trees, playing with sticks and old bottles for toys, and torturing animals, until one day a freak hurricane blows away their house. Their parents decide to send the kids back to England since Jamaica has proven unsafe, but en route, their ship is boarded by pirates. These pirates are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. They take all five children onto their own boat as a way of inducing the captain of their ship to produce money. The captain mistakenly sees the pirates throw things overboard, and assumes he has drowned the children, so they quickly leave the scene. The pirate captain is now stuck with the children, whom he never intended keeping.

The kids adjust quickly to life aboard the pirate ship, and Stockholm syndrome kicks in. The pirates are never overtly cruel to the children and pretty much allow them to do whatever they want, and a quasi-attachment is created between the kids and several members of the crew. When the kids are taken to an entertainment while on land, the oldest boy falls and breaks his neck...but astonishingly, the children don't seem to be very upset about this development and don't show much interest in his fate. The pirates board another ship, and take the captain hostage. The oldest girl, Emily, is stuck in the cabin with the bound captain, and when he makes a move to try to escape, she stabs him repeatedly, and he later dies of his injuries. Again, very little remorse is shown on Emily's part. In fact, another girl, Margaret, is blamed for the incident, but is thrown overboard. Luckily she is rescued.

The novelty of having kids swarming all over the pirate ship wears off, and the captain, Jonsen, finds another ship and makes up a story about rescuing the kids. The kids are taken onto the new ship, but Emily tells the people on the ship what really happened. The pirates are hunted down and charged with murder of the missing captain and the older Bas-Thornton boy; however, without actual bodies, the eyewitness accounts of the children will be necessary to convict them. The kids are reunited with their parents, who also left Jamaica, and a lawyer tries to get the true story of what happened with the dead captain out of Emily, who won't talk. The other kids hardly remember what happened. When Emily is put on the stand at the trial, she tells of seeing the dead captain, but not why he died. Everyone assumes since pirates are bad that the pirates killed him, and they are all hanged. Emily goes back to her regular life, seemingly unaffected by everything that has happened.

I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, it was very interesting to read an adult's account of the thought processes of children. It was interesting to see what Hughes felt would hit the radar of a child. For example, at the beginning of the book, two incidents occur that Emily, the oldest girl, ruminates about for much of the book: an earthquake and the violent death of their pet cat during the hurricane. These seem to be logical, traumatizing events that might upset most kids. However, what was disturbing to me is what DOESN'T seem to upset them. The children don't seem to be very fazed by the terrible storm during the hurricane and the subsequent loss of their house and most of their belongings. They don't seem upset to be set adrift on a boat without their parents, aren't upset about being shot at and taken onto a pirate ship, and don't seem to miss their brother when he dies. Whether this is a commentary on the adaptability of children, or their inherent selfishness and lack of attention, I'm not sure. Maybe a little of both.

Something else I found interesting was the unreliability of children as witnesses during a trial. Hughes notes that "the children listened to all they were told, and according to their ages, believed it....Who were they, children, to know better what had happened to them than grownups?" Basically, the difficulty of getting children to tell the truth, when they are heavily influenced by grownups, makes them difficult witnesses. The lawyer has Emily memorize answers to questions he'll ask her, which she does with no trouble...but never does she seem to question their truth or validity. After the lawyer interviews all the children (which is basically a joke, as the kids can't stay on the subject and are making stuff up), the lawyer admits to their father that "I would rather have to extract information from the devil himself than from a child". Emily's testimony, while accurate, describes the death of the captain, but does not tell the whole truth. This is enough to convict the captain and crew.

Overall, it was not my favorite book, due to its dark, foreboding feel, but the ending was good and there was suspense and momentum to the plot.

Grade: B

Doin' the Hop

For those of you stopping by from the Book Blogger Hop at Crazy for Books, welcome! We're a little over 1/4 completed on our journey through the Modern Library's Board's List of the Top 100 Novels from the last century. New to the area? No problem.... we'll get you caught up in no time. Reviews on all the books we've read are on the left. And there are lots more to come!

The Crazy for Books crew have asked us to name our favorite 5 books, as a way of getting your attention as to what we're all about here at Journeys. Although I have TONS of favorite books, I will list the top 5 books I've read on my quest so far...just so you can see what you've been missing.

1)A House for Mr Biswas, VS Naipaul. Don't let the boring title fool you. The Nobel Prize people sure didn't when they handed Sir Naipaul the award in 2001. An epic novel spanning the life of a man whose quest for independence, respect and autonomy will captivate you.

2)Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner. Another wonderful family epic that takes you through the rocky marriage of a miner and an artist. Very moving and beautifully written.

3)Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie. Don't worry, the Ayatollah won't put a fatwa out on you for reading this. It would be worth it even if he did. A compelling epic set during the birth of Indian democracy, dream-like and hilarious.

4)Sophie's Choice, William Styron. Clearly there's no happy ending to this book. But it is emotional, moving and heartrending...and worth every tear you will shed.

5)The Old Wives' Tale, Arnold Bennett. Another gem of a book unfortunately trapped beneath a mundane title, it is the story of two sisters and their parallel lives during the early 1900's.

Lots of other treasures too on the list, but I only got to name 5. Hopefully that gives you some idea of what goes on here! Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

June '10's ML Literary Dirtbag

Clearly, between Soccer Madness 2010 and the holiday weekend, I dropped the ball on nominating last month's Literary Dirtbag award. As tempting as it was to give the award to the entire cast of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, I managed to narrow it down to one: Tod Hackett, the daydreaming rapist. Here's a quote, if you're unconvinced:

"If only he had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her."

Congratulations Tod! I'm glad Faye gave you the Heisman.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

#72...A House for Mr Biswas

"Then one evening a great calm settled on him, and he made a decision. He had for too long regarded situations as temporary; henceforth he would look upon every stretch of time, however short, as precious. Time would never be dismissed again. No action would merely lead to another; every action was a part of his life which could not be recalled."

VS Naipaul's wonderful epic novel, A House for Mr Biswas, chronicles the life of Mohun Biswas and his quest to have a house of his own. Born inauspiciously to lower-class parents in Trinidad, Mr Biswas' life seems to be one catastrophe after another. Thinking Mr Biswas has drowned, his father searches a lake for his body, only to drown himself. When his family relocates, Mr Biswas is taken into training as a pundit, and when one day he steals a couple of bananas from the pundit, is forced to eat the rest of the bunch, which results in Mr Biswas' ongoing stomach problems throughout his life. His sign-painting business results tangentially in meeting his wife Shama, and her crazy family, the Tulsis. A love note sent to Shama is discovered by Mrs Tulsi, her mother, and he is then recruited by her family to marry her. Upon his marriage to Shama, Mr Biswas discovers that he is expected to assimilate, uncomplainingly, into her family. This includes living in a huge house teeming with children and all the other members of the Tulsi family, and submitting to their rules and expectations. Mr Biswas' independent streak collides with the communist society of the Tulsis, where no one is allowed to do anything differently or have anything better than anyone else. Children inevitably are born, and when Mr Biswas tries to build a house of his own, it is destroyed in a storm. His subsequent mini-nervous breakdown puts him on the road to Port of Spain to find a new job. He lands a job with the Sentinel, a newspaper there, and he moves his family there to get his children better schooling.

Things finally seem to get better for the unlucky Mr Biswas in Port of Spain. His newspaper job requires him to visit the poorest people there, to see who qualifies for a monetary prize as "deserving destitutes". His son Anand does well in school and gets private tutoring for his writing ability. When the Tulsi clan relocates to an estate in the middle of nowhere, the Biswases go with them, only to regret their decision and move back to Port of Spain. Unfortunately, the Tulsi widows send their children to the Port of Spain house too, to get better schooling, and the previous quiet and peace of the house is destroyed, as the house is overtaken by children. Anand wins a scholarship to college, and Mr Biswas is offered a job with the government, which allows him to begin saving money for his house. An opportunity drops into his lap at the end of the book, and Mr Biswas finally gets his house....but circumstances intervene to prevent him from enjoying it.

I loved every page of this book. Mr Biswas is an independent, comical character who refuses to submit to the expectations of the Tulsi clan. After all of the bad luck that comes to Mr Biswas, you want things to work out for him in the end. His ironical humor lights up the book and there were sections where I laughed out loud. His fears of having the Tulsi pundit, Hari, come to bless any special occasion in their family was hilarious, as were his descriptions of the 'readers and learners' in the Port of Spain house and the familial practices of the Tulsis. I respected him because unlike the rest of the Tulsi sons-in-law, he resists the inertia of mooching off the family and doing nothing. He goes out and finds a lucrative job, and despite the free room and board, works hard to save money to get his family a place of their own.

It was a bit startling to read about the social and economic differences between what we have here in the US and what Mr Biswas accepted as normal in Trinidad. Wives and children were beaten regularly, and these 'floggings' were actually sources of pride to them, and were treated humorously by Naipaul. By the middle of the book, I found them slightly amusing, since no one seemed to mind them and it happened so much. Mr Biswas was a bit different from the rest of the Tulsis, as he did not seem to beat either Shama or his kids with any regularity. The houses that they lived in sounded like little better than shacks or huts. Tree branches provided rafters, and corrugated iron provided roofs. I could completely understand why he wanted a good quality house, and I really appreciated mine after reading about how they lived.

This book is yet another reason I am glad I began reading the Modern Library's list. I would never have picked this book up had it not been on this list, and it makes me sad to think I might have missed it. I was very sorry it ended, as I wanted to know what happened to Mr Biswas' kids when they grew up. A big, chunky read at 564 pages, but one I enjoyed immensely.

This book is my third book for the Chunkster Challenge 2010.

Grade: A+