Tuesday, October 15, 2019

As I Lay Dying – #1930Club

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been trying to read all 100 books listed on the 100 Best Novels which is a list of English-language novels published in the 20th century.  I do understand that this 100 Best Novels list was a marketing ploy on the part of the Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, which – SURPRISE- publishes all 100 titles.  I also understand that any list of "best" books is incomplete and subjective.  But for me it has been an interesting challenge to try and tick off every title and while there have been a few stinkers, there have been wonderful discoveries too.  

When the 1930 Club (hosted by Simon, who blogs at  Stuck in a Book and Karen, who blogs at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings) was announced for November, I saw that As I Lay Dying, which is on the 100 Best Novels list, was published that year. My choice was made! I worried at first that I wouldn’t finish it in time for the 1930 Club, but it is pretty short (my edition had 244 pages) and aside from some of the stream of consciousness bits, not too difficult to digest.   

As with some high falutin’ modern classics, the story is simple: Aggie Bundren is dying. Her feckless husband has promised her that she will be buried in Jackson where her “people” are from, which is 40 miles away from their farm. She dies and the journey with her corpse is bedeviled by bad luck and ignorance on the part of the Bundren family.   A journey that should take a couple of days ends up taking over a week and meanwhile, the body starts to decompose in the summer heat.

This is the second novel I’ve read from Faulkner and I am confident he will never become a favorite of mine. Despite the book's brevity, it still behooves the reader to read it fairly slowly. I did think the sections that were straight dialogue were great. I looked up a few samples of Mississippi accent on YouTube so I could get the right voice in my head. U.S. Southern dialects and accents are all really different from another and I needed some verisimilitude. 

In Faulkner's depiction of the various character’s innermost thoughts, he often uses references and vocabulary that wouldn’t be known to persons of the Bundren’s socio-economic class.  It is here where the book didn't work for me. I get that there is a line between what one states and what one thinks and we don’t think in words but it was jarring nonetheless.  Especially when the speaker/thinker is supposed to be a child. The characters also drove me insane! I realize it was purposeful, but they all make the worst choices, whether out of ignorance or spite or selfishness. I think what makes the book and the characters so frustrating is that, while the book doesn't come right out and say it, in death they are honoring their mother in a way they neglected to when she was alive. But this is foolish. She is dead and there is no point to this ritual. It only damages and impoverishes them further. The devotion should have been shown when she was alive and could have had some benefit from it. But this is often the way of human motivation I think. 

In some ways As I Lay Dying reminded me of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road which also features poor, rural whites in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. But Caldwell went more for comedy - dark comedy, but still comedy. I guess some readers might find humor in the various setbacks that plague the Bundren family as they journey (or maybe in the youngest child Vardemann's confused thoughts, "My mother is a fish") but I found As I Lay Dying pretty bleak. 

I am glad to have read it however. I am glad that Faulkner’s works exist. He had an significant influence on other writers;  Cormac McCarthy for one, whom I’ve never read and Toni Morrison for another, whom I revere. I can see the through line to Morrison, although I find her books and her style to be much more compelling. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: The Wings of the Dove

Milly was indeed a dove; this was the figure, though it most applied to her spirit. Yet he knew in a moment that Kate was just now, for reasons hidden from him, exceptionally under the impression of that element of wealth in her which was a power, which was a great power, and which was dove-like only so far as one remembered that doves have wings and wondrous flights, have them as well as tender tints and soft sound. It even came to him dimly that such wings would in a given case – had, truly, in the case with which he was concerned –spread themselves for protection. Hadn’t they, for that matter, lately taken an inordinate reach, and weren’t Kate and Mrs. Lowder, weren’t Susan Shepheard and he, wasn’t he in particular, nestling under them to a great increase of immediate need?”

No lie: it took me over two months to read The Wings of the Dove. The edition I read had over 500 pages, but it wasn’t the length of the book that slowed me down, it was Henry James and his MANY, MANY, carefully chosen words.  I read pretty much every line twice if not three or four times and even then, I often wasn’t sure if I understood the sentence.  It’s a good thing that one of the main characters is also a little dense. When things had to be spelled out to him, it was to my advantage as a reader too. Also, I had seen the film waaay back in 1998 or so and was familiar with the plot.  But this is a psychological novel; the plot is barely there.  James takes paragraphs and sometimes pages to explain one thought or perception.  I realize that it might have been better for me had I a solid base in James and worked my way up to his later, more complex works.  I read his first novel, Daisy Miller, earlier this year and found it both delightful and not difficult in the least. My reason for reading the Wings of the Dove now instead of later were fueled by the fact that (a) I owned a copy of this book already and (b) it is on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list of the best English-language novels published in the 20th century from which I intend to someday read every title.  So I persevered. 

As I stated above, there is not much of a plot. The story is simple:  young Morton Densher and Kate Croy are Londoners who want to marry but feel they cannot due to certain social constraints that would be smoothed away if only either of them had any money. Along comes dove-like Milly Theale, a very rich but naïve (or is she?) American who has a crush on Morton and not too much longer to live. Will Morton marry Milly for her money as Kate hopes? Is Kate really doing Milly a favor as she would like to believe? Can Kate and Morton’s relationship survive this, whatever the outcome? 

While this book was a lot of work for me, it didn’t put me off Henry James. I am not much of an athlete and the analogy may be poor, but runners don't avoid running a marathon because it is too challenging, right?  I have at least two more "difficult" James’ titles that I HAVE to read due to my personal goal of reading all the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels and I would certainly be interested in reading some of his more accessible novels like Portrait of a Lady or Washington Square.  

I read this for the category Classic Tragic Novel for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: My Brilliant Career and Green Dolphin Street

I was torn about my options for the category of a Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. While I was very tempted to buy a copy of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o s A Grain of Wheat, I decited to be “good” and limited my choice to only books available from the library. Reviewing my library options, I couldn’t decide if I should read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin or Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge, so I read them both!

The library edition of Green Dolphin Street that I read was published as part of a reprint series titled “The Best Seller Library” which had to have been issued at least in the 1970s or beyond since The Godfather was part of the series. Also included were (all 12 titles were listed on the back) were Gone with the Wind and Dr. Zhivago so you have an idea of what kind of book Green Dolphin Street is... EPIC.

First published in 1945, it is a historical novel that begins on one of the UK Channel Islands in the 1840s when 
Marianne and Marguerite Le Patourel are still children.  Marianne and Marguerite are sisters. They are six years apart in age and could not be more different in both looks and temperament. Marianne, the eldest, is small and dark while Marguerite is tall and fair. They are also quite different in personality. Marianne is driven and ambitious; a perfectionist. Marguerite on the other hand is far more carefree and openly affectionate. Unfortunately they both fall for the same boy, William Ozanne. This love triangle is the driving force of the novel. Eventually William ends up in New Zealand (which is how this book qualifies as set in Oceania) and he writes the Le Patourel family that one of the daughters should make her way to him and become his wife. But which one does he choose?

I have read a few of this type of historical saga throughout my reading life. They require a certain commitment since they tend to be long and detail-laden. The edition I read was 500 pages long with small font. I’ll be honest, at about the halfway mark, I began to flag. I rallied and finished the book, but it really wasn’t my cup of tea. I might have enjoyed it more had I read it younger, because it wasn't the length so much as the drama that wore me out. I much preferred Goudge’s contemporary novel The Rosemary Tree, which is a more intimate story on a smaller scale. What both books did have in common, however, is an infusion of Christian mysticism which I appreciated and I understand is typical of Goudge's writing. Some attitudes towards non-whites and the lower classes in Green Dolphin Street are dated, though on the whole, I felt the author was at least trying to be sympathetic to the Maori.

My Brilliant Career is an entirely different kettle of fish! It comes across as far more authentic. I don’t believe that it is entirely autobiographical, but Franklin published it in 1901 when she was only 21 and the teenage emotions in the book (which sometimes run VERY high) seemed very realistic to me. It is also much shorter than the Goudge novel which was the reason why I decided to read both.

One thing both books have is a very headstrong main character. Sybylla from My Brilliant Career grows up as a tomboy in relative comfort on a ranch in the outback somewhere. When she is about eight years old, her family move to Possum Gully to farm cattle which turns out to be a disastrous move. Within a few years, drought and alcoholism have impoverished the family. Sybylla is the oldest and she has never gotten along with her mother, who grew up in a more refined household and who struggles to maintain both her pride and her gentility against the odds. 

Eventually Sybylla is allowed to stay with her wealthy maternal relatives. Here Sybylla is pampered and spared the backbreaking work of Possum Gully. She can indulge in her love of music and literature. Sybylla has a secret wish to someday become a writer. While staying with her grandmother, Sybylla also meets a number of eligible men, from ranch hand jackaroos to the rich and handsome neighbor, Harold Beechman. But is Sybylla willing to give up her independence and the possibility of a brilliant career to marry?

I won’t give the ending away, but I can tell you that as a reader, Sybylla is very frustrating and the author defies a conventional narrative. As I wrote, the book was written by a very young woman and Sybylla displays all the contradictions and insecurities of a teenager. I remember, I was one too.

Friday, September 6, 2019


I'm a little late but still keen to participate in RIP XIV.  I was a total loser last year and read NOTHING.  Officially I will try for Peril the Third which is read one book between September 1 and October 31 that fits thematically in to the RIP categories:

Mystery * Suspense * Thriller * Dark Fantasy * Gothic * Horror *Supernatural

What could be easier, right?  My four possible picks are:

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson: I've read her better known novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. I am super curious about her other four. Why are they not as popular? 

Slade House by David Mitchell: I have been meaning to read for the past three years... Will 2019 be the charm? This is the one book that might actually be classified as Horror...

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie: I've seen the televised version of this with David Suchet but I don't remember who the murderer was luckily! I will probably re-watch the adaptation for fun after I read it.

Snake Ropes by Jess Richards: I honestly don't really know if this book fits any of the prompts.  I have an idea it might be "gothic". I bought it for a read-along hosted by a now defunct podcast a few years ago.  

I'll come back in November and wrap it up if I manage to read any of the planned titles. RIP is a fun exercise to read seasonally which I appreciate and I love seeing what other bloggers list and read as well. 

Happy Reading!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Robertson Davies Reading Week - August 25 to 31- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

"Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business."

That above definition of Fifth Business (which I think Davies must have invented…I didn’t find any other reference to it when doing a google-search) comes at least half way through the book.  But it works and if you think about it, there are plenty of literary figures who fit that bill; characters who act as catalysts and observers of the main event while not being main players themselves.

In this book, it refers to the protagonist, Dunstable (aka Dunston, aka Dunny) Ramsay who narrates the book in the form of a letter to his former boss, the headmaster of a private boy’s preparatory school in Canada.  Ramsay has just retired from 40+ years teaching, and he is expressing his dissatisfaction with the reductive, anodyne farewell article in the school paper, written by a college who barely knew him.

It is a little difficult to write what this book is about because the narrative itself dodges and weaves.  The reader fairly quickly forgets the epistolary setting, though Ramsay will remind the reader of the format from time to time. At first it feels like a cradle to grave autobiography as Ramsay recounts his upbringing by stolid, Scotch stock Canadians in a small village in the early part of the 20th century.  But then there is an event that will change young Dunny’s life forever.  While walking home at age 10, he ducks to avoid being hit by a snowball thrown by his friend/nemesis Percy Boyd (aka Boy) Staunton. The  snowball instead hits young, pregnant Mrs. Dempster, the wife of the local Baptist minister, causing her to go into labor prematurely.  That event and its repercussions will reverberate all through the book right up to the last line…but as I stated above, the narration dodges and weaves so when it does pop up for the final time, it is a bit of a gut punch.

I have to wonder if John Irving read Fifth Business and was in any way inspired to write A Prayer for Owen Meany with its stray baseball which has consequences further on in THAT novel.  In fact, I was reminded more than one of Irving while reading Fifth Business, in particular in its themes of guilt/redemption and coincidence/destiny, and yet they could not be further apart in many other ways, not the least of which is length.  Fifth Business came in at a concise 252 pages which is a fraction of Irving’s typical tome pages. 

There is a lot to chew on here in terms of themes on faith, obligation, guilt, self-invention and self realization... Presbyterian Dunny has a religious experience during WWI that sets him off on a quest to research and write about the lives Catholic Saints.  He also never forgets his debt to Mrs. Dempster or her premature child. Boy Staunton becomes filthy rich and politically powerful, a nice counterpoint to what Dunny is not or does not want to become, but is Dunny using Boy or is Boy using Dunny?  And I haven’t even gotten the characters of Liesl and Magnus Eisengrim and how they will figure in Ramsey’s life. 

I read Fifth Business for the Robertson Davies reading week August 25 to 31 hosted by Lory at the blog The Emerald City Book Review . This was my first experience of Robertson Davies’ works and it is probably his most famous.  I feel like Davies is building towards something here, even though Fifth Business totally stands on its own. Therefore, I will very likely read the other two books in this trilogy: The Manticore and  World of Wonders. But I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good read that might make you ponder about deeper subjects. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. “ This from One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most famous opening lines in literature. I mean, how can you not want to read on?

I opted to read this book for the category “Classic from the Americas or Caribbean” for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.  As an American, I really felt I needed to NOT read a U.S. author in this case and I had a copy of this one already, so it fit the bill.  Another reason I picked  this classic over any other North American, South American or Caribbean classic is because it is just so damn famous. I do read for pleasure of course. But I also read for enlightenment and out of curiosity which means I sometimes read books that I appreciate more than I adore and this was one of those.  I'm glad to have read it; I feel like the experience makes me a better reader over all, but I can't say I'll be seeking out more from any Garcia Marquez soon. Lo siento Gabriel.

So what is the book about? It is about the Buendia family that establishes the village of Macondo in the jungle of Columbia at some point prior to independence from Spain. The patriarch, José Arcadio Buendia, is looking for a paradise near the ocean but ends up settling near a swamp instead. If I understood the book correctly, José Arcadio is a descendant of the indigenous inhabitants of Columbia whereas his wife, Ursula, descends from Spanish colonialists. Their families have, however, been intermarrying for generations and the two are actually cousins.  Macando remains isolated for many years with little outside contact except from traveling gypsies. José Arcadio and Ursula have two sons: the eldest named for his father and  the younger named Aureliano and a daughter, Amaranta.  

The names Arcadio  and Aureliano will repeat through seven generations of the family as Macando becomes a town and then a city with contact via railway to the rest of the country and eventually the establishment of an American owned and operation banana plantation nearby. Some Buendias do leave Macando for other places, but they almost always come back until the last generation dies out and with it the town. The family is somehow, without realizing it,  trapped in this place where history seems to repeat every generation and the house originally built by José Arcadio Senior is built up and allowed to fall in to ruin over and over again. The theme of incest, starting with the two cousins marrying, also is repeated throughout the book.  And of course, there is the magic realism where people float up to heaven, live for 150 years or are born with pig tails and no character in the book is startled by it. As a reader, one isn't really startled either because the narration has the same tone through out. 

I know I am not doing the book justice here. And frankly there are hundreds of better sources than I to expound upon what the book "really means" and the use of magic realism in the text. I think the more familiar one is with Colombian and Central American history, the more one will get out of the book. I think I got some of it, like the cyclical trajectory of successes and failures of the Buendia family work as an allegory of the imposition of Spanish colonialism and subsequent American imperialism in Central America. However, for me personally, I suspect I need to have a better grasp on the historical background to best appreciate this kind of book and I just don't know enough in this case.   

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: The Loved One

When I first posted my potential list of 12 books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate, Joseph from the blog The Once Lost Wander suggested I read Three Men in a Boat after Native Son to cheer me up a bit…   Oops! I actually read Three Men in a Boat a couple of months ago. BUT it turns out The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, which I read for the category Classic Novella, is actually a comedy as well,  albeit a dark one since it pokes fun at the funeral industry.

I had only read Brideshead Revisited from Waugh before and I didn’t know he could be funny or quite so mean.  The Loved One is a satire on British expats in Hollywood and that particular American funeral institution, Forest Lawn, called Whispering Glades in the book.  Seriously, google the original Forest Lawn in Glendale, California. You will see that Waugh did not have to add too many fictional touches to make his version of the cemetery and mortuary over-the-top and tacky.

No one comes off well in The Loved One.  It is about a washed-up expat Englishman, Dennis Barlow, who used to write for Hollywood but now works at a funeral home for pets called The Happier Hunting Ground.  Through circumstances Dennis meets Aimée Thanatogenos (very Dickensien, that name!), who works as a cosmetologist at Whispering Glades. Aimee began as a beautician for living people but has found her métier in the mortuary field.  The beautiful Aimee is pursued by Dennis, who plagiarizes classic poets to woo her, as well as by Mr. Lovejoy, the head embalmer at Whispering Glades, who makes the corpses she works on smile in a special way, just for her. Icky, right?  

If you like your humor dark, dry and a little morbid, The Loved One might be for you. I laughed out loud many times. And certainly it is miles apart from the much longer and more serious Brideshead Revisited. I still have to read A Handful of Dust and Scoop from Evelyn Waugh and now I really don’t know what to expect but am looking forward to them for that very reason!