FBF: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

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The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust was published in 1939 and is set in Hollywood during the great depression. The Day of the Locust

The Day of the Locust is a novel about Hollywood and its corrupting touch, about the American dream turned into a sun-drenched California nightmare. Nathaniel West’s Hollywood is not the glamorous “home of the stars” but a seedy world of little people, some hopeful, some desparing, all twisted by their by their own desires — from the ironically romantic artist narrator to a macho movie cowboy, a middle-aged innocent from America’s heartland, and the hard-as-nails call girl would-be-star whom they all lust after. An unforgettable portrayal of a world that mocks the real and rewards the sham, turns its back on love to plunge into empty sex, and breeds a savage violence that is its own undoing, this novel stands as a classic indictment of all that is most extravagant and uncontrolled in American life. (GoodReads)

It seems that The Day of the Locust tackles the time shown to us in The Great Gatsby except from the perspective of those who were truly impacted by the economic crisis, the other side of the coin, because although I would think those were times of austerity the characters of The Great Gatsby seemed little affected by it financially.  The Guardian article, The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, glamorously grotesque, talks about how we can draw parallels between today’s situation and that of The Day of the Locust and this quote from it describing the novel shows that not all experienced those times as Gatsby and his hanger-oners did:

“Here is a society that has generated its own grotesqueness, through a twofold process of alienation: the pre-crash boom has made strangers of all who didn’t share in the green glow of dollar bills, while the exclusive hierarchy of Hollywood makes outsiders of the rest.”

The original title for this work was apparently The Cheated and that leads you to wonder why choose The Day of the Locust.  Probably the most famous reference to the locust comes from the bible when a plague of locusts is sent to Egypt and subsequently destroys their entire food supply.  Wikipedia quotes Susan Sanderson’s take on why she thinks the locust is used in the title of this novel:

West’s use of “locust” in his title evokes images of destruction and a land stripped bare of anything green and living. The novel is filled with images of destruction: Tod Hackett’s painting entitled “The Burning of Los Angeles,” his violent fantasies about Faye and the bloody result of the cockfight. A close examination of West’s characters and his selective use of natural images, which include representations of violence and impotence — and which are therefore contrary to popular images linking nature and fertility — reveals that the locust in the title is Tod.

This paints a pretty clear picture of what you can expect from this book.  An interesting detail is that one of the characters in this novel is called Homer Simpson, the lonely businessman exploited by leading lady Faye Greener, and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is said to have stated in a number of interviews that he named his most famous character, Homer Simpson, after West’s character.  I found that interesting.

Robert, from 101 Books who’s reading his way through the list, wrote about his views on the novel  here which I think is well worth reading.  He said:

At least in regards to the other books on the list, The Day of the Locust is unique in its setting—1930s Hollywood. The loose story follows the sad lives of an artist named Tod Hackett, a part-time bit actress, part-time prostitute, an angry dwarf, a Mexican cockfighting ringleader, a sad pathetic sack named Homer Simpson, and several other Hollywood outcasts.

You read that correctly. The story does indeed feature an angry dwarf, a cockfighting ring, and a depressing old pervert named Homer Simpson—yes, Homer Simpson.

Nathanael West drops you into the middle of this mess of characters without much context. You stay with them for a little while, and then the story ends and you’re pulled right out again. The novel moves linearly for the most part, but there’s no tightly wound plot here. The Day of the Locust is more of a character study than anything else.

If you’ve read this book let me know what you thought.

All TIME 100 Novels – The Day of the Locust

FBF: A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

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A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Unlike some of the books on the All TIME 100 list, I had never heard of either A Dance to the Music of Time or Anthony Powell.  After spending a bit of time on the internet I’ve come to realise that although a lot of 1280px-The_dance_to_the_music_of_time_c._1640people have not read this work, it is considered a highly important one for the English language. 

A Dance to the Music of Time takes its name from a painting by Nicolas Poussin of the same name which he painted between 1634 and 1636 as a commission for Giulio Rospigliosi who later became Pope Clement IX.  This painting detail certainly attracted my attention and the wikipedia article on it is worth reading.

“Today it is widely accepted that Dance to the Music of Time was meant to represent the passing of time, and the different stages of life on the rapidly revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labour, wealth, and pleasure.”

The four figures in the painting are said to represent the four seasons and I wonder if this holds any significance for the literary work A Dance to the Music of Time because although this work is made up of 12 volumes, those 12 volumes are published in 4 books.  The four books are entitled A Dance to the Music of Time 1st Movement, 2nd Movement, 3rd Movement, and 4th MovementDance (as it seems to be called) was published between 1951 and 1975 and is set in England over a period of 60 years beginning just after WW1 and ending in the 60s.

A Dance to the Music of Time: 1st MovementA Dance to the Music of Time: 2nd MovementA Dance to the Music of Time: 3rd MovementA Dance to the Music of Time: 4th Movement

GoodReads describes the entire series:

“Anthony Powell’s universally acclaimed epic encompasses a four-volume panorama of twentieth century London. Hailed by Time as “brilliant literary comedy as well as a brilliant sketch of the times,” A Dance to the Music of Time opens just after World War I. Amid the fever of the 1920s and the first chill of the 1930s, Nick Jenkins and his friends confront sex, society, business, and art. In the second volume they move to London in a whirl of marriage and adulteries, fashions and frivolities, personal triumphs and failures. These books “provide an unsurpassed picture, at once gay and melancholy, of social and artistic life in Britain between the wars” (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.). The third volume follows Nick into army life and evokes London during the blitz. In the climactic final volume, England has won the war and must now count the losses.”

Wikipedia describes the series as “[…] an often comic examination of movements and manners, power and passivity in English political, cultural and military life in the mid 20th century.” And the few that I have read who have written about this series have highlighted that it is indeed very funny.  If you are worried, as I was, that this will read like a load of fodder for the literary intelligentsia we are assured by Tariq Ali in his article, Come Dancing, that it is not.  Mr Ali goes on to say that:

“What is on offer in the 12 novels that constitute the Dance […] is not the nuances of class snobbery, but a reflection of the social history of five crucial decades of the last century, beginning with the end of the first world war and ending with the turbulence of the 60s. There is nothing quite like it in English letters.”

What I have picked up on is that in addition to its epic proportions and scale, and its comedic value, it is brimming with wonderful characters that have left many a reader wondering about the inspiration for them.  Another quote from Ali’s great article:

“The sequence is also remarkable for its astonishing characterisations. To Charlus in the Proust epic, and Diotima and Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, must be added Widmerpool and Pamela Flitton from the Dance. The late Lord Longford often claimed that Widmerpool was based on him. And there’s an entry in one of the journals where Powell is at a college reunion at Oxford and runs into Denis Healey. The former Labour deputy leader greets him like a long-lost friend, and inquires: “I’ve always wanted to ask you this: Did you base Widmerpool on Edward Heath?””

My interest has been sufficiently piqued!  I would absolutely love to hear from anyone out there who has read any part of A Dance to the Music of Time!  

All TIME 100 Novels – A Dance to the Music of Time

FBF: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

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The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The Crying of Lot 49 is a novella by Thomas Pynchon first published in 1966.  Some describe this novella as being an ‘exemplary postmodern text’ while others describe it as an ‘outright parody of postmodernism’.  I personally don’t have a cooking clue as to which of those two labels best fits this book but it does seem to have stirred people which is surely a good thing.  It nevertheless seems reviews of The Crying of Lot 49 were polarised and Pynchon in 19862411374 agreed with those who spoke negatively of his book when he was quoted as saying:

“As is clear from the up-and-down shape of my learning curve, however, it was too much to expect that I’d keep on for long in this positive or professional direction. The next story I wrote was The Crying of Lot 49, which was marketed as a ‘novel,’ and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then.”

The blurb on GoodReads describes the novella as:

“Suffused with rich satire, chaotic brilliance, verbal turbulence and wild humor, The Crying of Lot 49 opens as Oedipa Maas discovers that she has been made executrix of a former lover’s estate. The performance of her duties sets her on a strange trail of detection, in which bizarre characters crowd in to help or confuse her. But gradually, death, drugs, madness and marriage combine to leave Oedipa in isolation on the threshold of revelation, awaiting the Crying of Lot 49.”

While reading the Wikipedia article it was mentioned that Pynchon attended Cornell University where he may have at least audited Vladimir Nabokov’s Literature 312 class which I found interesting.  Apparently Nabokov himself didn’t remember Pynchon but Nabokov’s wife, Véra, “recalls grading Pynchon’s examination papers, thanks only to his handwriting, “half printing, half script”. The year before Pynchon graduated Nabokov published his novel Lolita in the U.S.

I find myself quite intrigued by this book and it has been added to my TBR.  I want to read this weird and wonderful book for myself.  What really convinced me were the words of Edward Mendelson in his article Pynchon’s Mrs Dalloway:

“When that book appeared in 1966, most of the reviews dismissed it as trivial and annoying, a judgment that its author seems to share. Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963), moved and awed me when I read it as a teenager, but the reviews discouraged me from reading his second one. Then, one day, I needed a book to get me through a two-hour train trip, so I gave The Crying of Lot 49 a try. Having bought a copy in Penn Station, I read it on the train without stopping, occasionally reminding myself to breathe. That night, on the return trip, I read it again.”

I get the feeling that whether we end up loving it or hating it, it will still leave a mark which I find most interesting.  Have any of you read this novel and want to share your thoughts?  I’d love to hear what more people think of this novella.

All TIME 100 Novels – The Crying of Lot 49

FBF: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Continuing where I left off, this week’s FBF is #23 on the All TIME 100 Best Novels list – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  The Corrections was published in 2001 and was awarded the National Book Award that same year.  It was alsoThe Corrections awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2002.  The novel is highly acclaimed and the vast majority of reviews of this work were very enthusiastic.

The Corrections does seem to be a departure from Franzen’s earlier books which seem to have had large scale exterior drama moving his plots whereas The Corrections seems to be more about internal drama.  I read an very interesting interview with Franzen in Bomb Magazine just before this work was published where he discusses the difference between the drama in his novels.  Here is a particularly interesting excerpt of Franzen’s words:

“We may freak out globally, but we suffer locally. Not that I take any particular credit for this shift of emphasis. Jane Smiley has this theory of an alternation of literary generations. Smiley thinks there are two fundamental possible preoccupations for the novelist. One is a kind of venturing forth to discover the wonders of the world, à la Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. That school of outward-looking fiction reaches its culmination in Candide, in which the world turns out to be full of horrors. Voltaire’s lesson is: Go home, cultivate your garden. And so the adventurous world-seeking novel is succeeded by the great 19th-century domestic novel. Which itself then culminates in Kafka: you can stay home, but home is a horror, too. Within American literature you find the venturing-forthness in Twain and Hemingway, the at-homeness in Wharton and O’Connor. The dichotomy is gender-specified to some extent. But I feel like I’m essentially participating in one of those swings, a swing away from the boys-will-be-boys Huck Finn thing, which is how you can view Pynchon, as adventures for boys out in the world. At a certain point, you get tired of all that. You come home.” (read the Bomb Magazine Interview with Franzen)

So what is Franzen’s The Corrections about?  Here is the blurb from GoodReads:

“After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson’s disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man—or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.”

Various reviewers have written about Franzen’s magnificent ability to take very serious issues and write about them authentically and still interlace them with some humourous stories in this book.  And despite its length at nearly 600 pages it is all compelling and true of family life.  I will admit that when I was a younger reader a tended toward books with big external drama driving the plots but now prefer to delve into these issues we face at home in our lives with others – the more internal issues we face in life.  Not unlike Franzen’s change in focus for this novel.  I am intrigued by The Corrections and have added it to my long TBR list.

“Despite a complex and involved plot, the driving force of the book is that simplest, most intricate of engines, the unhappy family. (…) The Corrections is a wide-open performance showcasing the full range of his skills and his eclectic intelligence.” – Stewart O’Nan, The Atlantic Monthly

You can read more excerpts from the various reviews of The Corrections on the Complete Review.

The Paris Review always has wonderful interviews with authors and they are always a joy to read.  Franzen’s interview is The Art of Fiction no 207 if you’d like to read more about the author and his works.

Has anyone read this novel? what did you think of it?

All TIME 100 Novels – The Corrections

FBF: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

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The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

The Confessions of Nat Turner was published in 1967 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  The novel is viewed as having cemented Styron’s reputation as a highly acclaimed writer.  Confessions is loosely based on the confession document of real historical figure, Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 which resulted in The Confessions of Nat Turner55 white deaths.  Whites responded to the rebellion with 200 Black deaths.  This novel is written with Turner as the first person narrator who makes his ‘confessions’ while in jail awaiting execution to a white lawyer, Thomas Gray.  Just how accurate the novel is in terms of Turner’s character and the contents of the document is debated.

“The novel is based on an extant document, the “confession” of Turner to the white lawyer Thomas Gray. In the historical confessions, Turner claims to have been divinely inspired, charged with a mission from God to lead a slave uprising and destroy the white race.  Styron’s ambitious novel attempts to imagine the character of Nat Turner; it does not purport to describe accurately or authoritatively the events as they occurred. Some historians consider Gray’s account of Turner’s “confessions” to be told with prejudice, and recently one writer has alleged that Gray’s account is itself a fabrication.[3Styron takes liberties with the historical Nat Turner, whose life is otherwise undocumented. The “Confessions” is largely sympathetic to Turner, if not to his thoughts.” (wikipedia)

Despite initial acclaim and acceptance, having won the Pulitzer, receiving great reviews, and appearing on the best sellers list, the novel was condemned by some of the African American audience though not by all.  This also in spite of Styron’s good friend James Baldwin’s praise of the novel.

“But in the broader African-American intellectual world, the novel was widely condemned. “Ten Black Writers Respond” has to be read in light of this history: as a polemic and corrective that introduced a spectrum of opinion mostly ignored in the mainstream press. “For all its prose power and somber earnestness,” Loyle Hairston wrote, “Styron’s novel utterly fails the simple test of honesty.” “This is meditation mired in misinterpretation,” Charles V. Hamilton wrote, “and this is history many . . . black people reject.” John Oliver Killens: “In terms of getting into the slave’s psyche and his idiom, it is a monumental failure.”(Styron’s Choice by Jess Row)

Some found the book to be worthy of the acclaim it received while others didn’t.  Bill Clinton is said to have cited this as one of his favourite books.  It does seem an interesting book and I think it was quite a task to take on to reinterpret those particular historical events.  Without having read this novel I will say that the books that deal with important issues like race and slavery are almost always met with a huge range of feelings.  Good or bad, I’m all for anything that provokes dialogue.  If you’ve read this novel I’d love to hear what you thought about it.

Here is the link to the 1968 NYT review of the novel; The Nat Turner Case by Eugene D Genovese

All TIME 100 Novels – The Confessions of Nat Turner  

FBF: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess was published in 1962 and is one of the most famous dystopian novels.  It is about a future society in which juvenile delinquency has taken over.  This book is high up on my TBR list and I’m sure many of you have read this book.  Richard Lacayo from TIME describes the novel:A Clockwork Orange

Like 1984, this is a book in which an entire social order is implied through language. And what language! To hint at the vile universe of the 15-year-old delinquent Alex and his murderous buddies, Burgess created “nadsat,” a rich futuristic patois. “Sinny” for “cinema.” “Viddy” for “see,” “horrorshow” for “good” — from the Russian, khorosho, which gives you some idea of which political system has prevailed. The words locate him in a world of corrupted values, violence and boundless infantile indulgence. (His drug is “milk plus.”) When Alex is apprehended by the authorities and subjected to psychological conditioning to make him nauseated at any impulse towards violence, Burgess’s book becomes a meditation on whether a world in which evil can be freely chosen might still be preferable to one in which goodness is compelled. Stanley Kubrick’s coldly magnificent “sinny” adaptation has sometimes threatened to overshadow this great novel. Don’t let it happen.

There’s a lot of discussion about the title of the novel and where it comes from.  All I can say for sure is that apparently Burgess overheard the phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange” in a pub in London in 1945.  According to the author’s article A Clockwork Condition in the New Yorker: “It’s an old Cockney slang phrase, implying a queerness or madness so extreme as to subvert nature.” Some, like Kingsley Amis, disagree.

Another interesting detail of this novel is the way it is divided.  The book is split into 3 parts each with 7 chapters which brings the total number of chapters to 21.  This detail was Burgess’ intentional nod to the age of 21 being recognised as a milestone in human maturation. (wikipedia)  Strangely, the final 21st chapter was omitted in American editions of the book as it was deemed unrealistic for the American audience.  I find this a tad strange as the final chapter 21 is the redeeming chapter wherein Alex realises the error of his ways and turns away from violence.

A book fit to sit along side other great dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s A Brave New World.  I’ll leave you with a paragraph I particularly like from the above mentioned article A Clockwork Condition:

“The maintenance of a complex society depends increasingly on routine work, work with no zest or creativity. One of the slogans of George Orwell’s superstate in “1984” is “Freedom is slavery.” This can be taken to mean that the burden of making one’s own choices is, for many people, intolerable. Perhaps there is something to be said for conformity in social life when our working lives have so little room for rugged individualism. But when patterns of conformity are imposed by the state, then one has a right to be frightened. It is significant that the nightmare books of our age have not been about new Draculas and Frankensteins but about what may be termed dystopias—inverted utopias, in which an imagined megalithic government brings human life to an exquisite pitch of misery.”

Share your thoughts with us about this book.

All TIME 100 Novels – A Clockwork Orange

FBF: The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger

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The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and is a well known classic in American literature.  The novel’s opening lines are known even to those that have not read it.The Catcher in the Rye

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

And New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik considers it one of the “three perfect books” in American literature, along with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, and believes that “no book has ever captured a city better than Catcher in the Rye captured New York in the fifties”

The book has been banned and then taught as set work in English classes.  The main character and narrator, Holden Caulfield, is second in literature only to Huck Finn.  Charles McGrath of The New York Times wrote in his article, J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91, that:

“The novel’s allure persists to this day, even if some of Holden’s preoccupations now seem a bit dated, and it continues to sell more than 250,000 copies a year in paperback. Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon in 1980, even said the explanation for his act could be found in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

But more interesting than this is the man himself.  Famous for not wanting to be famous.  J D Salinger continually turned down offers for the movie rights to his novel and spent the last 50 years of his life living in seclusion.  McGrath also wrote a bit about Salinger’s aversion for fame after Catcher became a success:

“But success, once it arrived, paled quickly for him. He told the editors of Saturday Review that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of “The Catcher in the Rye” and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail. In 1953 Mr. Salinger, who had been living on East 57th Street in Manhattan, fled the literary world altogether and moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish. He seemed to be fulfilling Holden’s desire to build himself “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”

I’m sure many of you have read it…I have not.  So share your thoughts with me; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

All TIME 100 Novels – The Catcher in the Rye

FBF: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 was published in 1961 and is regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.  The novel has the most 5 star ratings from readers that I have seen on GoodReads to date which is pretty impressive given that generally readers are at least to some degree divided on all novels – naturally as we all have different tastes.  This novel, though, has commanded the approval of a great deal of readers and upon reading the description by Grossman on TIME it’s not hard to see why the book may have interested so many:Catch-22 (Catch-22, #1)

“Captain John Yossarian is a bomber pilot who’s just trying to make it through WWII alive. But the only excuse the Army will accept for refusing to fly a mission is insanity, and if Yossarian refuses to fly he is, by definition, sane. This is the self-devouring logical worm that lies at the heart of Catch-22, the story of Yossarian, his colleagues—who respond to the horrors of war with a range of seriocomic neuroses and psychoses—and his superiors, who respond to the horrors of war by sending Yossarian on ever more pointless and dangerous missions for the purpose of enhancing their own reputations. Catch-22 is a bitter, anguished joke of a novel that embraces the existential absurdity of war without ever quite succumbing to it.”

The title of the novel is in itself interesting because we are all well aware of catch-22 situations and what could possibly make for better reading.  I have noticed this particular excerpt concerning the title across the web and I have to say it’s got me very interested in reading this novel:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 56, ch. 5)” (wikipedia article)

Definitely on my TBR! I’m sure many of you have read this novel, what did you think?  Is there anyone out there that didn’t enjoy this novel?

All TIME 100 Novels – Catch-22

FBF: Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

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Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Call It Sleep was published in 1934 and was met with critical acclaim.  That it was a great literary work was accepted and he has often been compared to James Joyce.  The problem seemed to be that the public didn’t take to it.  The poor sales of Roth’s only book are largely attributed to the fact that it was published in the lowest of times of the great depression.   In Richard Severo’s article he says: Call it Sleep

“When “Call It Sleep” was first published, Lewis Gannett, writing in The New York Herald Tribune, predicted that because of the stark way the book described life on the Lower East Side, it would not be very popular. But he thought that anyone who read it would “remember it and talk about it and watch excitedly” for the author’s next book.  In fact, the book was much discussed and readers did indeed wonder what Mr. Roth would do next. But for 60 years, he wrote nothing major.”

It wasn’t until 30 years later when Call It Sleep was republished that it sold over a million copies and finally gained the attention it had always deserved.  Severo continues:

“Over the years, the critical acclaim for the book grew. Irving Howe, who reviewed the 1964 edition for The New York Times Book Review, said, “At the end of a novel like ‘Call It Sleep,’ one has lived through a completeness of rendered life, and all one need do is silently acknowledge its truth.”

There seems to be consensus that Roth’s novel was a great one.  And while he gained his glory much later it seems that people have over time really wondered about what Roth got up to in life post Call It Sleep.  Here is a description of the novel by Grossman from TIME:

New York City, 1911. A young, painfully sensitive boy named David is growing up in the grimy Jewish slums of the Lower East Side, with his unemployable, rageoholic father and his angelic, nurturing mother. Call It Sleep has the setting of a gritty, naturalistic political novel—and it works perfectly well as such—but it is at heart a profoundly interior book. Roth tirelessly and unflinchingly records the daily damage that the harshness of slum life inflicts on David’s quiveringly receptive, emotionally defenseless consciousness; as a precise chronicler of minute impressions, and of the growth of an intellectually precocious mind, Roth’s only equal is James Joyce.

Has anyone read this book that would like to share their thoughts?

All TIME 100 Novels – Call It Sleep

FBF: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

The Bridge of San Luis Rey was published in 1927 and Wilder’s 2nd novel.  It won him the 1928 Pulitzer Prize and is highly acclaimed the world over.  Here is the blurb from GoodReads:T100_novels_Bridge of San Luis Rey_copy

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world.  By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death — and to the author’s timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition.”

According to Wikipedia on writing this novel Thornton Wilder said that he was posing a question: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?”  In the same article there’s an impressive list of novels that themselves were influenced by or make reference to this novel:

  • This book was cited by John Hersey as a direct inspiration for his nonfiction work Hiroshima (1946).
  • Qui non riposano, a 1945 novel by Indro Montanelli takes inspiration from the novel.
  • David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas, echoes the story in many ways, most explicitly through the character Luisa Rey.
  • Ayn Rand references the theme in Atlas Shrugged, her epic of a fictional USA’s decline into an impoverished kleptocracy. In the aftermath of a disastrous collision in a railroad tunnel, she highlights train passengers who, in one way or another, promoted the moral climate that made the accident likely.
  • The book is mentioned in passing by a character in The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands, the third book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

Interesting, right?  I’m very intrigued by this book!  The bridge itself  is based on the great Inca road suspension bridge across the Apurímac River, erected around 1350, still in use in 1864, and dilapidated but still hanging in 1890.

Anyone read this book?  Thoughts?

All Time 100 Novels – The Bridge of San Luis Rey

FBF: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

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Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945 and is described as Waugh’s great literary masterpiece who has himself referred to the novel in the past as his magnum opus.  Here is the blurb from GoodReads:Brideshead Revisited

“The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.”

According to Wikipedia, Waugh wrote that the novel “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace’, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.” (Memo dated 18 February 1947 from Evelyn Waugh to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)This is achieved by an examination of the Roman Catholic, aristocratic Marchmain family, as seen by the narrator, Charles Ryder.  However, in 1950 Waugh wrote to Graham Greene saying that he’d reread the novel and was appalled.  In a 1959 preface to the novel the author explained the circumstances of the novel.  He wrote it following a parachute accident stating that: “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.”

Despite Waugh’s own later feelings there are many that don’t agree with his criticism as evidenced by these words from John K Hutchens review in the NY Times entitled Evelyn Waugh’s Finest Novel:

“Brideshead Revisited” has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime, in the full powers of an eager, good mind and a skilled hand, retaining the best of what he has already learned. It tells an absorbing story in imaginative terms. By indirection it summarizes and comments upon a time and a society. It has an almost romantic sense of wonder, together with the provocative, personal point of view of a writer who sees life realistically. It is, in short, a large, inclusive novel with which the 1946 season begins, a novel more fully realized than any of the year now ending, whatever their other virtues.”

Pretty mixed feelings but it seems everyone besides the author agrees it is an all time great novel.  I’ll end with the description of the novel by Lev Grossman (co-compiler of the All Time 100 list) which is sure to twist your arm:

“Though it’s saddled with a faded doily of a title, Brideshead Revisited is actually a wildly entertaining, swooningly funny-sad story about an impressionable young man, Charles Ryder, who goes to Oxford in the 1930′s and falls in love with a family: the wealthy, eccentric, aristocratic Flytes, owners of a grand old country house called Brideshead.”

All TIME 100 Novels – Brideshead Revisited

FBF: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian (or Evening Redness in the West as it is also known) is McCarthy’s 5th novel published in 1985 and is praised as one of the 20th century’s finest novels.  This western novel is loosely based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s and is full of the time’s violence and grit.  According to wikipedia McCarthy did a great deal of researchBlood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West for this novel and even the seemingly unimportant passages rely on historical detail.

The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain‘s account of the group in his memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the later part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850. The novel’s antagonist Judge Holden appeared in Chamberlain’s account, but his true identity remains a mystery. Chamberlain does not openly appear in the novel. Some critics have suggested that “the kid” is a fictional stand-in for Chamberlain.

Lev Grossman describes McCarthy’s novel: ” In the 1840′s a young boy joins a band of cutthroats who hunt Indians on the border between Texas and Mexico, under the leadership of an amoral, albino arch-monster known as the Judge. Rarely has literature presented spectacles of violence more extreme or less gratuitous. Blood Meridian summons up shadows of Dante and Melville, and demands of every reader that they reexamine why and how they cling to morality in a fallen world.”

And if this doesn’t paint a clear enough picture of what you can expect from Blood Meridian then the opening paragraph of Caryn James’ review surely will clear things up for you:

Blood Meridian comes at the reader like a slap in the face, an affront that asks us to endure a vision of the Old West full of charred human skulls, blood-soaked scalps, a tree hung with the bodies of dead infants. But while Cormac McCarthy’s fifth novel is hard to get through, it is harder to ignore. Any page of his work reveals his originality, a passionate voice given equally to ugliness and lyricism.

I have to say that although I’m not really a fan of violence in my reading I am drawn to novels that portray another time (even more so if there is some historical detail to it) and if there is a particular violence that goes along with that story I’m open to reading about it.  Overall I’m very intrigued by the storyline.  I’ve also read that the novel contains unusual and archaic words, has no dialogue quotation marks, and no apostrophes for contractions which makes me think this must be pretty interesting to read because surely McCarthy chose this style for a purpose…McCarthy has also never given interviews concerning this work so it is completely up to the reader to make their own interpretations.

Have you read Blood Meridian?  What were your thoughts?

All TIME 100 Novels – Blood Meridian

FBF: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

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The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood was published in 2000.  It is a highly acclaimed novel that won the Man Booker Prize in 2000, the Hammett Prize in 2001, and was nominated for Governor General’s Award in 2000, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and The Blind Assassinthe International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2002.

The novel is best described by Lev Grossman of TIME: ‘Frosty, reserved Iris and her hot-blooded sister Laura grow up wealthy and privileged in a chilly Canadian town. But when the family fortune falters in the Depression, Iris is married off to a cruel industrialist, and Laura drives her car off a bridge, leaving behind a pulpy science fiction novel (presented in parallel to the primary plot) that seems to contain a coded, masked guide to the secrets that ruled her life and brought about her early death. Told in the brittle, acerbic voice of the elderly Iris, who is left behind to decode Laura’s legacy, The Blind Assassin is a tour-de-force of nested narratives, subtle reveals and buried memories.’

The Blind Assassin is a novel to read and definitely makes my TBR list.  Its plot and characters are twisted and complex.  From what I read about this book it’s difficult to say anything specific about it without revealing something that should be revealed through reading.  The best article I read about this book was Wheels Within Wheels by Thomas Malon and this quote I think probably best encapsulates the driving force behind this novel:

‘Nearly 20 years ago, in speaking of her craft, the novelist Margaret Atwood observed that ”a character in a book who is consistently well behaved probably spells disaster for the book.”’

And this book, according to critics, is far from disastrous.  Have you read this novel?  What did you think of it?

FBF: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep was published in 1939 and is the first novel in a crime series featuring detective Philip Marlowe.  Raymond Chandler needs no introduction really.  We know him as having a huge impact on the crime fiction genre and his Philip Marlowe novels are popular still.  The title, The Big Sleep, is a euphemism for death – an apt title for a crime novel I think.  According to wikipedia a lot of Chandler’s novels were created by cannibalising from his short stories.  The Big Sleep‘s core apparently comes from two short stories entitledThe Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)Killer in the rain (1935) and The Curtain (1936).   This copy pasting of the short stories to create The Big Sleep led to the famous confusion over who killed the chauffeur when the 1946 film was being made.  When asked for clarification of this confusion Chandler said he didn’t know who had killed the chauffeur.  Chandler cared much more about the characters and the descriptions in his novels than the plot.  That isn’t to say that his plots weren’t good or complicated but rather that he wasn’t concerned with tying up every tiny little detail in the end.  The other elements of his novel were of great importance too which in today’s crime genre may be slightly sacrificed.  Chandler was known for his attention to detail and this is what makes him great.  In Sean Clark’s review of The Big Sleep he says:

“This book is short and awesome. If you like mysteries and crime fiction at all–even if all you’ve read is Steig Larsson–and you haven’t already read The Big Sleep, go for it”

Grossman of the TIME summarises all too well what the novel is about and the feel of it:

“I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be.” This sentence, from the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, marks the last time you can be fully confident that you know what’s going on. The first novel by Raymond Chandler, who at the time was a 51-year-old former oil company executive, is a mosaic of shadows, a dark tracery of forking paths. Along them wanders Philip Marlowe, a cynical, perfectly hard-boiled private investigator hired by an old millionaire to find the husband of his beautiful, bitchy wildcat daughter. Marlowe is tough and determined, and he does his best to be a good guy, but there are no true heroes in Chandler’s sun-baked, godforsaken Los Angeles, and every plot turn reveals how truly twisted the human heart is.”

What else is there to say about this famous novel? I’m sure a lot of people have read it.  What did you think of it?

All TIME 100 Novels – The Big Sleep

FBF: The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

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The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

The Berlin Stories, published in 1945, is actually two short novels together.  The first being The Last of Mr. Norris (1935) and the second Goodbye to Berlin (1939).  Inspiration for The Berlin Stories is said to have been drawn from Isherwood’s experience as a British expatriate in Berlin in the 1930’s and is often described as semi-autobiographical.  The main character in Goodbye to Berlin is indeed called Christopher Isherwood and this second story is described as autobiographical in a number of discussions.  The first story’s mainThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr Norris/Goodbye to Berlin character is William Bradshaw, however, both Bradshaw and Isherwood in these stories have the same landlady, Frl. Schroeder.  The same article that points out this detail,  Mimsy Review: The Berlin Stories by Jerry Stratton, talks about how The Berlin Stories was classified as gay fiction.  This label comes from a time when homosexuality was illegal in England and this is important because the novel does deal with homosexuality but in an ambiguous way so he may have wanted to tell his story but without coming right out and saying he was gay for fear of being arrested.  Mr. Norris in The Last of Mr. Norris is said to have been based on Isherwood’s friend Gerald Hamilton who later published his memoir entitled Mr. Norris and I in 1956.  The novel is set in pre-Nazi Germany but the the situation devolves within these stories as a number of Bradshaw/Isherwood’s friends are Jewish and/or Communist.  His Jewish friend and her mother leave for France when it becomes too dangerous for them to stay and this excerpt from the above article together with an excerpt from the novel describes the tension of the novel for communists:

One of the most interesting facets of “The Berlin Stories” is that it takes place, and is written, in Germany and in England before World War II. The Nazis and the Communists are literally fighting in the streets. Many of William/Christopher’s friends are communists; the character Christopher calls himself a communist in “Goodbye to Berlin” and he watches the Communist party (the K.P.D.) descend into irrelevance.

“There were rumours that the K.P.D. would be forbidden; soon, in a few weeks. Otto was scornful. The Government would never dare, he said. The Party would fight. All the members of his cell had revolvers. They hung them, he told me, by strings from the bars of a cellar-grating in their Lokal, so that the police shouldn’t find them. The police were very active these days. Berlin, we heard, was to be cleaned up.”

The Berlin Stories seems to me to be an interesting glimpse into a particularly dangerous time especially for people who held values and lifestyles contrary to the restrictive laws of the time and the developing indoctrination of Nazi Germany.  However, and in spite of the belief that the novel was semi-autobiographical, Isherwood later condemned his story The Last of Mr. Norris saying, “that he had lied about himself through the characterisation of the narrator and that he did not truly understand the suffering of the people he had depicted”.   In an introduction to a version of Hamilton’s Mr. Norris and I Isherwood wrote:

“What repels me now about Mr Norris is its heartlessness. It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation. The “wickedness” of Berlin’s night-life was of the most pitiful kind; the kisses and embraces, as always, had price-tags attached to them, but here the prices were drastically reduced in the cut-throat competition of an over-crowded market. … As for the “monsters”, they were quite ordinary human beings prosiacally engaged in getting their living through illegal methods. The only genuine monster was the young foreigner who passed gaily through these scenes of desolation, misinterpreting them to suit his childish fantasy.”

I am interested in reading this novel made up of two stories purely because of the controversy of the themes in that time.  Whether the novel was autobiographical or not is irrelevant to me, I read to be transported to another time or place, to see through another’s eyes, and I believe this novel will do just that.  Have you read this book?  I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

All TIME 100 Novels – The Berlin Stories

FBF: Beloved by Toni Morrison

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 Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni Morrison, published in 1987, is set after the American Civil War (1861–1865).  The novel is a tribute to all those whose lives were fractured by slavery and the book’s  epigraph reads “Sixty Million and more,” dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.  Beloved won a number of prestigious literary prizes; the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988), the American Book Award (1988), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1988), the National Book Critics Circle Award (1987), and the BelovedFrederic G. Melcher Book Award (1988).

In Morrison’s acceptance speech of the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award she noted:

“There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” honouring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States. “There’s no small bench by the road,” she continued. “And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”

According to wikipedia her remarks inspired the Toni Morrison Society to begin to install benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America. “The New York Times reported July 28, 2008, that the first “bench by the road” was dedicated July 26 on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which served as the place of entry for approximately 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States.”

Beloved is said to have been inspired by the story of African-American slave Margaret Garner who temporarily escaped slavery by fleeing to Ohio in 1856 and who then killed her own daughter to prevent her having to go back into slavery when a group of people came to retrieve her.  This novel’s main character is Sethe who has also fled slavery to Ohio and similarly when people show up to retrieve her she kills her daughter and tries to kill her other three children before being returned to a life a slavery.  The story is about Sethe, her remaining children, and a woman believed to be Beloved, the baby she killed, which haunts them in their home in Cincinnati years later.

“Sethe is an escaped slave in post-Civil War Ohio. Her body is scarred from the atrocities of her white owners, but it’s her memories that really torture her: she killed her 2-year-old daughter, Beloved, so the child would never know the sufferings of a life of servitude. But in Morrison’s novels the present is never safe from the past, and Beloved returns as an angry, hungry ghost. Sethe must come to terms with her, exorcise her, if she ever wants to move forward and find peace. Rich with historical, political and above all personal resonances, written in prose that melts and runs with the heat of the emotion it carries, Beloved is a deeply American, urgently important novel that searches for that final balance between grief, anger and acceptance.” (Grossman from TIME)

You may be wondering how the supernatural element of this novel plays out as I did.  I think the best way to describe it is through the words of Margaret Atwood in her review for the New York Times:

“The supernatural element is treated, not in an ”Amityville Horror,” watch-me-make-your-flesh-creep mode, but with magnificent practicality, like the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw in ”Wuthering Heights.” All the main characters in the book believe in ghosts, so it’s merely natural for this one to be there. As Baby Suggs says, ”Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband’s spirit was to come back in here? or yours? Don’t talk to me. You lucky.” In fact, Sethe would rather have the ghost there than not there. It is, after all, her adored child, and any sign of it is better, for her, than nothing.”

I remember reading Wuthering Heights very well for its haunting tale so I am intrigued to read this novel.  Have you read Beloved? Share your thoughts with us.

All TIME 100 Novels – Beloved 

FBF: Atonement by Ian McEwan

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Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement by Ian McEwan, published in 2001, was shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker prize but went on to win the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (2002), the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize (2002), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (2002), and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in South Asia and Europe (2002).  Atonement, as the title suggests, has to do with the consequences felt by a number of family members as a result of a terrible lie told by 13 year old Briony as well as the guilt that follows.  Atonement

Laura Miller’s article Atonement by Ian McEwan in the Salon describes beautifully the crux of this novel:

“Ian McEwan’s latest novel is a dark, sleek trap of a book. It lures its readers in with the promise of a morality tale set in an English country manor in 1935. There will be a crime, we learn, and so far the novel’s furnishings are at once cozy and exciting; we expect a certain kind of entertainment from this setup, not an Agatha Christie mystery by any means — McEwan is a literary author with a reputation for the macabre — but a story that permits us to observe any wrongdoing from a comfortable distance. Once we’re caught in his snare, though, McEwan takes us deep into far more menacing territory. […] At first McEwan unspools the action languidly, adopting the viewpoint of several different characters as they move through the sultry summer day and toward the fateful, moonless night. There’s fussing about the dinner, the concoction of what sounds like the most disgusting cocktail ever devised, lost socks, a broken vase and, behind all this, large, ominous emotions shifting their way to the surface. The most violent acts of the day happen offstage, so to speak, but the most enduringly destructive one is a lie Briony tells, a lie that will ruin two lives and overshadow her own for decades.”

The story is told through the alternating perspectives of Briony Tallis and Robbie Turner and the New York Times article Books Of The Times; And When She Was Bad She Was… by Michiko Kakutani shows us how, through McEwan’s skill, we will be able to follow a character such as Briony:

“In such earlier novels as ”The Innocent” and ”Amsterdam,” Mr. McEwan has used his gifts as a writer to put across the point of view of decidedly unsavory characters, and in ”Atonement,” he manages to make the state of mind that leads Briony to make her false accusations against Robbie plausible, if not sympathetic. He conveys the ways in which her willful naïveté and self-dramatizing imagination lead her to ignore the truth, the ways in which her ignorance about the grown-up world result in a terrible crime — a crime she will later try to expiate through both rationalization and gestures of atonement.”

Atonement is a very popular novel with readers.  Not only have I noticed it on many peoples’ TBR lists but it is highly acclaimed by those who have read it as evidenced by the ratings and reviews on GoodReads.  Have you read this novel? What did you think of it?

All TIME 100 Novels – Atonement

FBF: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brian

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 At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brian

At Swim-Two-Birds was published in 1939 by Irishman Brian O’Nolan under the pseudonym Flann O’Brian and is his first novel.   O’Nolan is described as one of the most inspired minds of the 20th century and is said to sit “along with Joyce and Beckett, Flann O’Brien constitutes our trinity of great Irish writers”.  At Swim-Two-Birds is “one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction” and has inspired many other authors in their writing careers.  When the novel was published it received most of its support not from the critics but from other writers, according to wikipedia:At-Swim-Two-Birds

Dylan Thomas, in a remark that would be quoted on dust-jackets in later editions of the book, said “This is just the book to give your sister – if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl”. Anthony Burgess considered it one of the ninety-nine greatest novels written between 1939 and 1984. Graham Greene’s enthusiastic reader’s report was instrumental in getting the book published in the first place:

“It is in the line of Tristram Shandy and Ulysses: its amazing spirits do not disguise the seriousness of the attempt to present, simultaneously as it were, all the literary traditions of Ireland. […] We have had books inside books before now, and characters who are given life outside their fiction, but O’Nolan takes Pirandello and Gide a long way further.”

On GoodReads the description of the novel is:

A wildly comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of a young, lazy, and frequently drunk Irish college student who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dublin. When not in bed (where he seems to spend most of his time) or reading he is composing a mischief-filled novel about Dermot Trellis, a second-rate author whose characters ultimately rebel against him and seek vengeance. From drugging him as he sleeps to dropping the ceiling on his head, these figures of Irish myth make Trellis pay dearly for his bad writing.  Hilariously funny and inventive, At Swim-Two-Birds has influenced generations of writers, opening up new possibilities for what can be done in fiction. It is a true masterpiece of Irish literature. (GoodReads)

However there are those that point out that summarising what this novel is really about is not as easy as that.  Here is a good excerpt from an article in The Atlantic by Allen Barra:

Only a fool would attempt to describe the plot of At Swim-Two-Birds. Here I go: The title is a literal translation from the Gaelic of … well, never mind, you wouldn’t make sense of it anyway (I certainly couldn’t), but it’s a ford on the River Shannon said to be visited by the legendary king, Mad Sweeney, who was exiled from his homeland after the Battle of Moira in 637 (see Seamus Heaney’s magnificent 1983 translation, Sweeny Astray) and resurrected by O’Brien as a character in his novel.  Still with me? A narrator, a student of Irish literature unnamed by O’Brien, lives with his uncle and has a dream job for an Irishman: He works in a Guinness brewery. He establishes his creed as a writer at the outset: “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.”  The narrator is a lazy sod who can’t seem to finish his book, control his characters, or tie all the strands of his book together. One of those plot streams involves Dermot Trellis, a writer of pulp westerns. Trellis’s characters rebel against their creator; wanting control over their own lives, they drug him to make him sleep so much he can’t write his book.

Barra goes on to say about the plot that:

“Part of the problem is keeping track of the three major intertwined plot threads; an even larger problem is recovering one’s concentration after laughing out loud at nearly every page.”

At Swim-Two-Birds is a novel that quite intrigues me for its union of comedy and Irish mythology so this one is going on my to-be-read list.  Have you read this novel? What did you think?

All TIME 100 Novels – At Swim-Two-Birds

FBF: The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

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 The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

The Assistant is Malamud’s second novel published in 1957.  From what I’ve read about the novel I get the distinct feeling that it is a dark and depressing read in that some really horrible stuff happens to some very normal people.  The NYT review of The Assistant by William Goyen is entitled A World of Bad Luck and couldn’t be more apt.  Richard Lacayo of TIME describes what the book is about: the assistant

“In this book, his masterpiece, Morris Bober is a woebegone neighborhood grocer whose modest store is failing and whose luck actually takes a turn for the worse when he is held up by masked hoodlums. Or is it worse? When a stranger appears and offers to work without pay, “for the experience”, it doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that the stranger is one of the men who robbed Bober. But just what are his motives in returning? He seems to be seeking to atone, but he soon begins quietly robbing the till, while also falling in love with Bober’s daughter, theft of a different kind.”

And that, according to the wikipedia article on the novel, is not even all the bad that befalls this family.  Don’t read the wikipedia article if you are planning to read the novel because the plot breakdown gives away a lot.  What I will say though is that Malamud’s novel seems to be about normal people who have to deal with tragic circumstance, one after the other.  As the novel is praised as a masterpiece I’m intrigued to read it for these characters who are victim to really bad luck.  As Goyen says:

“Mr. Malamud’s people are memorable and real as rock, and there is not one gesture of sentimentality or theatrics to render them so. He knows his people and keeps them free with the kind of writer’s control that one does not find often enough in the myriad novels about simple people.”

Interestingly the Bober family of The Assistant has something in common with Malamud’s family.  Both the fathers were grocers.   From the Paris Review interview of Malamud, The Art of Fiction no 52, they talk about the source of The Assistant.

INTERVIEWER

What is the source of The Assistant?

MALAMUD

Source questions are piddling but you’re my friend, so I’ll tell you. Mostly my father’s life as a grocer, though not necessarily my father. Plus three short stories, sort of annealed in a single narrative: “The Cost of Living” and “The First Seven Years”—both in The Magic Barrel. And a story I wrote in the forties, “The Place is Different Now,” which I’ve not included in my story collections.

Have you read The Assistant?  I would love to hear what you thought about this novel.

All TIME 100 Novels – The Assistant

FBF: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

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Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was published in 1970 and is a young adult novel.  The controversial novel is mostly about puberty issues that pre-teen girls face as well as the particular religious confusion Margaret deals with as one parent is Christian and the other Jewish.  A Banned Books Awareness article notes that the combination of these two issues, sexuality and religion, “lead to it being one of the most banned and challenged books of the last 30 years. In fact, second only to Stephen King, Judy Blume is the most margaret-blumebanned author in American history, with several of her books appearing on banned book lists nationwide”.

I haven’t read this book personally but I imagine that it probably answered a lot of questions or at least brought some light to a subject matter that people weren’t really talking about at the time.  Lev Grossman of TIME shares my  sentiments when he writes: “you could almost hear the collective generational sigh of relief in 1970 when Blume published this groundbreaking, taboo-trampling young adult novel: finally, a book that talks frankly about sex without being prim or prurient, and about religion without scolding or condescending. […] Blume turned millions of pre-teens into readers. She did it by asking the right questions—and avoiding pat, easy answers”.  So it strikes me as a bit strange that it was banned in the 80’s a decade after it was published.

Margaret Simon, almost twelve, has just moved from New York City to the suburbs, and she’s anxious to fit in with her new friends. When she’s asked to join a secret club she jumps at the chance. But when the girls start talking about boys, bras, and getting their first periods, Margaret starts to wonder if she’s normal. There are some things about growing up that are hard for her to talk about, even with her friends. Lucky for Margaret, she’s got someone else to confide in… someone who always listens. (read more on GoodReads)

Have you read this book?  What did you think?  And did it really need to be banned in your opinion?

All TIME 100 Novels – Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret