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

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+