Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #65

Title: A Clockwork Orange
Author: Anthony Burgess
Judgin' the Book By Its Cover: Does this cover depict a hellish world of pain and suffering? Check. Well, that's all you really need to know about the book.

Thoughts: Longsuffering friends, I feel I owe you a bit of a disclaimer here: I'm not sure adequate time has elapsed to for me to properly discuss this book. But I'm also not sure that enough time could EVER elapse for me to feel like I've got a handle on this thing. My first impression was that the book was, to quote page 14, "a bucket-load of beer-vomit". Maybe it happens, but I try to avoid it and pretend like it doesn't.

But let's dig in. The novel, like oh so many books, is set in a dystopian future. This particularly dark and terrifying London is terrorized by drug-using, violent teenagers (OK-- they're using weirder drugs and are WAY more violent than your run-of-the-mill Brit punks). Alex, our narrator, tells us firsthand in a strange quasi-Russian slang about his evil exploits. His tone is chatty, familial, and nonchalant as he describes the most awful crimes imaginable. Eventually, however, he is imprisoned and enrolled in a program that uses conditioned response to hyperviolent imagery to render him physically incapable of committing violence. From there the novel explores what happens when Alex can no longer choose his own actions.

Burgess' prose owes a formidable debt to James Joyce. Alex's punny, multilingual pseudo-slang rings with echos of Finnegans Wake, although Joyce never approached the visceral brutality of A Clockwork Orange. The first-person narration slowly becomes more accessible to the reader and opens up the world of the book in very realistic ways. On the other hand, the firsthand accounts of casual violence in this book were very hard to stomach, and is nearly impossible to set them aside when I try to review it if not objectively, then less subjectively. Granted, the book and the Kubrick adaptation certainly carry a lot of baggage with them, including the original exclusion of the last chapter in American copies of the book and the wave of copycat crimes that followed the release of the film in Britain. So questions of authorial responsibility and intent certainly apply to a book that has stirred up more controversy than perhaps any other in recent decades. The second half of the book is far more engaging than the first-- weighing the benefits of crime prevention against the dehumanization of indibiduals is much more interesting than simply peeping over Alex's shoulder as he murders an innocent victim.

When all is told, life is too short (and I have way, way, WAY too many unread books stacked all over my apartment) to spend time doing the literary equivalent of trudging through puddles of "beer-vomit" to get to any meaning. Although the book is certainly thought-provoking, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it. But I'm curious to hear others' reactions to the book. Anyone out there have an opinion?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #66

Title: Of Human Bondage
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Judgin' the Book by its Cover: The painting on the cover is sort of a funny choice-- the young artists in this novel reject impressionism in favor of the emerging modernist movement.

Thoughts: This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Philip Carey, a young Englishman whose experiences in many ways mimic Maugham's own. The story begins with the death of Philip's beloved mother, after which he is sent to live with his uncle, a childless and cold clergyman. When Philip heads off to school, his clubfoot and lack of confidence immediately mark him as a misfit, and he becomes increasingly more introspective and self-aware as the years pass by. Philip adopts and abandons belief systems, careers, and circles of friends on his path to maturity, and he navigates all these changes with ease until... Mildred.

Seldom in my reading career have I come across a character as easy to revile as Mildred. Shallow, rude, uncaring, hard, artificial, and spiteful, her appearance in the novel marks a pretty serious turning point. Philip's unfortunate obsession with her is so frustrating because he continually sacrifices his own well-being and future for a love that he knows is foolish. Maugham does a singular job of summoning up the torture of unrequited love, and watching Philip struggle through it is agonizing for the reader.

The characters are well-drawn and believable, and I really cared about Philip by the time the novel drew to a close. He's a sensitive and unusual character, but he's not a genius or otherwise exceptional protagonist. It's a truly interesting roman a clef, and provides a much more moving and compelling "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". Recommended!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #68

Title: Main Street
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Judgin' the Book by its Cover: Remember the old Dover Thrift Editions we had to read in high school with the weird paisley-ish prints on their covers? Those were weird. This must be a classy Dover Thrift Edition...

Thoughts: Main Street is the story of Carol Kennicott, a St. Paul librarian who trades in her big city aspirations for small town life when she falls in love with a country doctor. Carol moves to fictional Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, an Anytown, USA, and soon finds herself suffocating beneath the scrutiny and small-mindedness of the townsfolk. The story follows her attempts to buck the system and bring ambitious reform to the town.

Lewis writes as someone who is intimately familiar with the workings of American small towns. Even though the book was originally published in 1920, much of what Lewis describes still rings true today: the doting mother of the town bad boy who can't see her son for who he truly is, the ostracization of the artistic young man, the town's labeling of anything they dislike as "pro-German" during the war years (remember the accusations of things being "terrorist"?).

This book was really sad at times, but eventually left me feeling a bit hopeful. I could relate to Carol's feelings of slowly being sucked into home life and losing her dreams, although my Man Friend certainly doesn't misunderstand me the way that her husband does. But Carol eventually finds a balance, and her story is the story of another America (an off-Main Street America, perhaps), one in which we live day to day in the "humdrum inevitable tragedy of struggle against inertia", as Lewis terms it. Definitely a worthwhile read.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #70

Title: The Alexandria Quartet
Author: Lawrence Durrell
Judgin' the Book by its Cover: The photograph on this cover is strangely appropriate, although it depicts nothing from the novel. The image of the European women as tourists in a foreign land is a pretty apt depiction of the characters' relationship to their environment.

Thoughts: Whew. I feel like I need to chug some Gatorade and do some serious stretching after this marathon. (Incidentally, today is the New York marathon... but hey, any old jerk can run 26.2 miles. It takes a serious person to read an 887-page book). First of all, the Modern Library folks pulled a fast one! The Alexandria Quartet is actually four novels bundled together, so even though the characters overlap and the setting remains the same through most of the work, it's technically not a novel, in my book. Hrmph.

Annnnyyyyhoozle... the book is, like I said, four separate novels published in one volume. The first story, Justine, is written from the perspective of one L.G. Darley, a British writer who is swept into an affair with a married Alexandrian socialite. Darley, a pretty obvious stand-in for Durrell himself, does a rigorous postmortem on the complicated and stormy relationship with Justine, a calculating nymphomaniac married to Nessim, one of the city's prominent bankers. I really struggled with this storyline. The prose consisted mainly of dated psychosexual analysis and broad observations about groups of people. However, the second book, Balthazar, provided a new (and far more interesting) perspective on the events of the first. In this novel, Darley, now living on a Greek island, receives a letter from Balthazar, a scholar of the Kabbalah and a doctor, that pulls the rug out from under Darley's understanding of the affair. The third volume, Mountolive, pulls back and offers a history of Nessim's family that lays the foundation for understanding the social and political climate in Alexandria. Finally, Clea, the fourth, brings a wiser, more mature Darley back to the city as the second world war tightens its grip on the Mediterranean.

The strength of the quartet is its wealth of characters. Durrell manages to create a world in which all the characters are multidimensional and undergo personal transformations throughout the course of the work. The weakness of the quartet, on the other hand, is its failure to create a real world for the characters to live in. Alexandria is seen only through the eyes of the British colonial worldview, and while the descriptions of the geography are quite beautiful at times, the residents of the city are described only as dark and animal-like others. I've been constantly struck throughout this project by the off-putting racism of many of these authors, and this is one of the worst examples. Nearly every description of a native Alexandrian includes a reference to the blackness or darkness of their skin, and they are not given the importance or roundness of the main characters. It's as though the entirety of Alexandria is a playground for the Europeans or the Coptic and Jewish minorities, and everyone else outside of these groups is a part of the scenery that isn't worth investigation. In this respect, I didn't find that Durrell brought Alexandria to life, which is too bad. Moreover, the squishy philosophizing in the book was nearly unbearable to read, and for me it was at its most interesting when it stayed away from that. Overall I enjoyed the book, but given the immense chunk of time I invested in it trying to get interested, I'm not sure I would do it again.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Half-Way Point!!

50 down, 50 to go! Unfortunately, 22 of those are books that I'd read previously, and since last month marked the two-year anniversary of this project, it could take me as long as four more years to finish this!! Better get my butt in gear and pick up the pace!

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #71

Title: A High Wind in Jamaica
Author: Richard Hughes
Judgin' the Book By Its Cover: What an evocative cover! The contrast between the roiling black skies and the bright, oversized fruit and flowers illustrates the darkness about to overtake the dreamscape of Jamaica. Even the poppies in the foreground suggest an unpleasant, opiatic vision.

Thoughts: This novel, originally published in 1929, tells the story of the sea voyage of seven children from Jamaica to England. After a hurricane levels the family homestead, the Bas-Thorntons send their five children unaccompanied back to the motherland to be nurtured by civilization. Two neighbor children join them on the journey. But the hurricane was only the beginning of the nightmare for the children; not long after departing from Montego Bay, the boat is taken over by pirates, and the children are haphazardly abducted. During the resulting time, the pirates try to adhere to a strict moral code when dealing with the children, but the children themselves soon devolve into amorality.

Hughes' interest in the psychology of children is evident, and he is particularly interested in the opposing ways that adults and children view each other. He certainly punctures the myth of the innocence of childhood, and maintains that within the most angelic naif there lies calculated deception. Hughes' prose is very detached, withholding judgment and refusing to show emotion in the face of extreme events. Similarly, the children react to tragedy with a cool indifference, almost immediately forgetting about the death of a family member. Instead, they fixate on details that could only be of importance to a small child ("There was a monkey!"), and they place a much higher premium on propriety than on actions or motive.

The book has rightly been described as nightmarish, and has also been likened to The Lord of the Flies. In my mind, at least the beginning of it bore a greater similarity to the beginning of Wide Sargasso Sea-- the images of a ruined landscape and collapsed slave economy induce an instant feeling of dread. By the end of the novel, the weaknesses of every character lie in plain sight for all to see. So perhaps this story is simply a post-colonial metaphor, an elucidation of the evil that lurks just under the polite, well-mannered surface of the colonizing British.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #72

Title: A House for Mr. Biswas
Author: V.S. Naipaul (Sound familiar? He should, if you're a faithful reader... and if you're not, get out of here! I don't need any fair-weather fans!!)
Judgin' the Book By Its Cover: I love this bright, splashy cover! It captures the essence of the vibrant island of Trinidad far more than the book does, which seemed like it could have been set almost anywhere (my book cover, courtesy of NYPL, was a plain, red, cloth cover... not too exciting). I got a much stronger sense of place about Trinidad from a few short pages in Netherland.

Thoughts: A House for Mr. Biswas narrates the struggles of an Indo-Trinidadian man to gain independence through home ownership.
Mohun Biswas, a character reportedly based on Naipaul's father, is born unlucky and, after his father's untimely death, is plagued by bad decisions, poverty, overbearing in-laws, and unsatisfactory employment. In this regard, he is something of an everyman; there is a universal element to the trials and tribulations that he faces. It was often very frustrating to read about Mohun's exploits; like a lovable loser uncle, nothing he does seems to turn out right and he's a magnet for scam artists. However, he's also an incorrigible troublemaker, and his insistence on standing up to pushy family members was at times the only thing that kept me reading.

Naipaul presents a thoroughly descriptive portrait of Mohun Biswas, and I really felt like I knew him through and through, especially since the book covers his entire life, from cradle to grave. It was a masterfully written story, but its bleakness and pessimism were sometimes hard to swallow. Naipaul presents in this story the tragedy of human existence, the oftentimes fruitless struggle to leave your mark on the earth and to overcome miscalculations and blunders. As a result, it wasn't the most enjoyable read, but it was truthful and timeless.