Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #75

Title: Scoop
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Judgin' the Book By Its Cover: The whimsical illustration and cover design perfectly suit the tone of the book. Nice work, guys!!

Thoughts: An identity mix-up sends bashful nature columnist William Boot to the front lines of a revolution in the African country of Ishmaelia, where he rises to the occasion and becomes a war reporter. This light but satirical farce details the ridiculous nature of competition between newspapers, media's descent on foreign soil, and political coups. No one is left unskewered in this book-- country estate-dwellers, urbane novelists, high society debutantes, media magnates, newspapermen, foreign dignitaries, and the list goes on. Scoop reveals a different side on Waugh, one that is only hinted at in Brideshead Revisited, that of the quick-witted and unrepentant satirist. I really liked this book, although it didn't have the depth or emotional charge of Brideshead. Worth a read.

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #76

Title: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Author: Muriel Spark
Judgin' the Book By Its Cover: That's a pretty glamorous photo! But what's going on with the weird fighting cherubs on the left?

Thoughts: This story is about a non-traditional teacher at a traditional school for girls in Scotland, sort of a Dead Poets' Society in which the tale is narrated by a former student who has an ambivalent view of her teacher. Miss Brodie refuses to stick to the prescribed curriculum and instead selects a group of particularly malleable students ("the Brodie set") to take under her wing and instruct about the importance of art, fascism, and her own love life. The deceptively simple story is woven between the past and the present as the narrator slips in clues about the fate of Miss Brodie and her ultimate betrayal at the hands of one of the Brodie set.

I liked the way that Spark dug into the hazards of molding children like putty, and her observations of how aware school kids really are of what is happening around them. I also liked the narrator's bittersweet tone as she looks back on the girls from her past and, knowing what she now knows about their lives and fates, wistfully wishes to undo past actions. But I'm not sure that this is a top-100 kind of novel-- I didn't feel moved or changed by it, and I'm not sure that I would heartily recommend it to someone else.

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #77

Title: Finnegans Wake
Author: James Joyce
Judgin' the Book By Its Cover: This may be the blandest cover so far...

Thoughts: This is the book that nearly did me in. I spent four months reading it, probably the longest time I've ever spent on a single book, four months of pain and suffering. When I finally finished it in February, all desire to blog (and every last shred of discipline I ever possessed) had been sucked out of me by the whirling abyss that is Finnegans Wake. I started reading with hope and optimism, which was quickly replaced by nagging worry (which was inevitably followed by intense frustration). I expected the book to be something like, oh, maybe Trainspotting-- written in a difficult vernacular that would suddenly open up and make sense after a chapter or two. Not so with FW. The plot (I use this term loosely) centers around a father and son, stand-ins for periods of Irish history. After that things get really convoluted, particularly since Joyce is interested in the way that stories get distorted with time and likes to spin and re-spin the episodes in the novel. I purchased the Joseph Campbell skeleton key and read it simultaneously, and with Campbell's aid, I sometimes could pick out themes in the text, but I never felt like I truly understood what was going on. Joyce is clearly a talented wordsmith (as evidenced by the abundance of puns in the book, many of which made me chuckle), but I just couldn't wrap my brain around this one, no matter how hard I tried.