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100 Greatest Novels: A High Wind in Jamaica, A House for Mr. Biswas, & The Day of the Locust

Well, these next three books from Modern Library’s 100 greatest novels bring us to some new locations that we haven’t really dealt with in the list. We have interesting stories, new locations, and authors that I’m not too familiar with. Exciting! Alright, let’s go ahead and get into it.

HighWindInJamaicaA High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

This first novel is an incredibly odd and almost fanciful story. Following some British children who live in Jamaica in the mid-1800s, the story begins with their house being destroyed by a hurricane. This prompts the parents to send the children back to England. While on the journey, their ship is commandeered by pirates. Ultimately the children end up on the pirate ship and the rest of the story is the events the children deal with as they travel on a pirate ship. I won’t spoil the rest of the story but what was so enjoyable was that the plot was near enough to being unbelievable that I never knew what was going to happen next. And written from the childrens’ point of view, all the horrific events have somewhat of a dream-like quality to it. All of this really makes for a quick, hilarious, and sometimes dark story.

HouseForMrBiswasA House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul

Now, to continue with the Caribbean locations and the odd stories, we move to A House for Mr. Biswas. Mr. Biswas is born on the island of Trinidad to an Indian family and this story follows him from his birth to his death. He’s not really likable, his family isn’t. He marries an unlikable woman, moves in with her unlikable family. Has some unlikable children and everybody is mean to everybody else. We follow him from job to job and from living quarters to living quarters until he finally buys his own (unlikable) house. And then he dies. That’s about it for the story. Really, I guess, the story is about someone who is trying to break out of traditional family roles and become a man of the modern world. Make his own money, live his own life.

With all this said, it was an enjoyable novel. The writing is incredible. You feel what Mr. Biswas feels, you see what he sees. The story can frustrate you, enrage you, and make you laugh. And what else can we ask from a novel?

West_locustThe Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West

This next novel somewhat keeps up the tropical theme. We’re now in California, Los Angeles to be exact. We’re in the middle of the Great Depression and following numerous characters trying to make it in the movie business. Without really talking about or even barely hinting at the depression, the main character makes some impressive revelations about the people he sees around him. And knowing about the Great Depression it is easy to make the connection between what he’s experiencing and what we’ve learned about the hardships of people during this time period. Following numerous characters making poor decision, this novel is a quick and fun read. Everyone we meet is pretty odd. They interact in odd ways. And we get to enjoy. So I wanted to show you the last paragraph of the novel because it made me laugh. Near the end, the main character gets stuck in a rowdy crowd that ends up becoming a violent mob. He’s ultimately saved by some cops and we get this ending:

“He was carried through the exit to the back street and lifted into a police car. The siren began to scream and at first he thought he was making the noise himself. He felt his lips with his hands. They were clamped tight. He knew then it was the siren. For some reason this made him laugh and he began to imitate the siren as loud as he could.”

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Alright, we’re one novel away from being in the last quarter of the list. It’s crazy to think about. We almost might finish this thing. Until next time…

 

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C. S. Lewis – Historicism

“It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing. Each of us finds that in his own life every moment of time is completely filled. He is bombarded every second by sensations, emotions, thoughts, which he cannot attend to for multitude, and nine-tenths of which he must simply ignore. A single second of lived time contains more that can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived. The past…in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination. By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. None of us could at this moment give anything like a full account of his own life for the last twenty-four hours. We have already forgotten; even if we remembered, we have not time. The new moments are upon us. At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of ‘history’ falls off the world into total oblivion. Most of the experiences in ‘the past as it really was’ were instantly forgotten by the subject himself. Of the small percentage which he remembered (and never remembered with perfect accuracy) a smaller percentage was ever communicated even to his closest intimates; of this, a smaller percentage was still recorded; of the recorded fraction only another fraction has ever reached posterity.”

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2015 in History, Literature, Quotes

 

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100 Greatest Novels: The House of Mirth & The Alexandria Quartet

So I apologize for the length of time since the last 100 greatest novels post. I’ve only read two more from the list but the second one, The Alexandria Quartet, is actually 4 novels. There’s my excuse. Let’s get to it.

The_House_of_MirthThe House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Similar to Wharton previous novel on this list, The Age of Innocence, this story is set around the high society of New York City in the late 1800s. Following one members rise and eventual fall through society, the story is Wharton’s critique of the very society she cannot stop talking about. While I enjoyed the scenery and the historical context leading to the turn of the century, I’m not sure how necessary or relevant the novel is today. There is no discovery of a character’s psyche, there’s no groundbreaking reveal of a world we did not previously know about. And I know these things aren’t necessary for a novel to be read but when there are so many books written by so many people (and multiple by Edith Wharton), I just have a hard time seeing the point. The main character, Lily Bart, isn’t likable or hate-able enough to be worth reading about. At least not for the story alone. So, like The Age of Innocence, if you’re looking for an older version of Gossip Girl then go ahead and read this. Otherwise, let’s move on.

TheAlexandriaQuartetThe Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

Now, to completely change gears, I loved this quartet. And I am so glad I read all the books. They are utterly necessary to appreciate this masterpiece. So this tetralogy is set in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during World War II. The first three novels follow the same events from different perspectives and then the last novel is a few years after the aforementioned events. Let me explain a little more.

The first novel, Justine, follows the events of a love…square between the narrator, his live-in girlfriend, a woman named Justine, and Justine’s husband. The narrator and Justine are sleeping together and ultimately Justine’s husband ends up sleeping with the narrator’s girlfriend. The story is not told “in the order in which they took place — for that is history — but in the order in which they first became significant for me.” So each section and each chapter are just different scenes between these characters exploring their relationships and the search for what love really is. Through all this we meet all kinds of crazy, interesting, and hilarious characters that really give the story the color it deserves. Nobody in the love-square is interesting enough to push the story forward. At least not at first.

The second novel, Balthazar, completely upsets everything we learned in the first. The narrator, who we finally find out is named Darley, sends the manuscript of the first novel to Balthazar and Balthazar returns it with notes added all throughout the pages. Apparently Darley has everything wrong. This second book goes back through numerous events we already know about but with new information. New scenes that deepens the characters and the overall story are also added in. At this point, I’m going to be a little more vague about the details because I don’t want to ruin the books in case you’d like to read it. Anyways, this second novel is written like the first. Short scenes in no apparent order. But now with new information and proof that what Darley believed to be happening was actually a farce. Intriguing…

Now for the third novel. Mountolive. Mountolive is the name of a character that was maybe named two or three times in the second novel but whom we have never met. I don’t think he was ever mentioned in the first. This story is written in standard chronological, normal paragraph and chapter length narration. It backs up in time to when Justine’s husband (Nessim) is a young man and his mother falls in love with a British dude named Mountolive. We follow their relationship through letters as he travels the world until we get to the point where the first two novels’ stories are. Then we get the full story of Justine and Nessim’s relationship. And. let. me. just. tell. you. Nothing we knew or believed or assumed or imagined is anywhere remotely close to what’s going on. This whole story breaks the confines of exploring love and relationships and bursts into the world of geopolitics, religion, diplomacy, and the history of Egypt and the Middle East. We are bombarded with Coptic stories, Muslim stories, British stories, Bedouin stories. We have a whole new world that did not exist to us. Or Darley. And it’s incredibly rewarding to discover. I’m excited for you.

And that brings us to the fourth and final novel, Clea. Now we are a few years past all the above events, we are back with Darley as the narrator, and yet we retain the writing style of the third novel. We go back through all the previously introduced characters, dead or alive, and kind of tie up their stories while continuing the original purpose of the first novel: Darley’s exploration of love and relationships. But with a new subject, Clea. This final novel is a darker, more melancholy, and yet more beautiful. Alexandria is in the midst of the nightly bombardments of World War II while the last remaining characters deal with the deaths, revelations, and relationships of the previous novels. And everything is ended with a poetically beautiful, bittersweet finale that we didn’t know we needed all along.

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Whew, that last one took a lot out of me. As we get closer, I’m getting very excited and very scared to come to another James Joyce novel. But we still have a few more before that. Onwards we go.

 

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Music You Need in Your Life (MYNIYL) – Stromae

First, let’s get through the mouthful of a title I have up there. I decided to make a name for when I share artists I think you should be listening to. Music I think you need in your life. Now. So from now on I’ll just title the blog “MYNIYL” and the name of the artist/band. Anyways, with that out of the way, let me introduce you to somebody.

So a few months ago NPR did a story about this Belgian pop star. I really enjoyed the story and the music but by the time I got home, I forgot his name. Then the other day I stumbled across this news article and video on my Facebook and re-found Stromae.

Singing in French over infectious, piano-driven pop music, Stromae is fairly huge pop star in Europe. Relatively unknown in America, I was excited to find his music. And even without understanding any of his lyrics, I can understand most of the stories he’s telling us through the music. Emotions know no language boundaries. Well, enough words, let me allow his music to speak for itself. I want to start off with “Papaoutai,” a song that is about disconnection from a father (side-note: Stromae’s father was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994):

I really love his music videos. They really push the meanings behind the lyrics that I can’t understand. I also love the use of choreographed dance that is prevalent in all his videos. This next video, “Tous Les Memes,” is really incredible. From what I can tell, the song is about how the different genders react differently to situations. But what makes the video such a joy to watch is that Stromae plays both a male and female character. And he seamlessly switches back and forth between the two. The impressive choreographed dancing I mentioned earlier is also here. Just watch:

Just to show you how powerful a singer he really is, here’s a stripped down performance of “Formidable” live at a Seattle radio station:

So…go buy his most recent album:

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Posted by on April 30, 2015 in Music, Music Review, MYNIYL

 

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100 Greatest Novels: Of Human Bondage, Heart of Darkness, & Main Street

As we keep moving along, getting closer to the finish line, here’s three more of the 100 greatest novels. Let’s go ahead and get to it…

OfHumanBondageOf Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Have any of you seen the film Boyhood? If so, it would be easy to compare this novel to that film. But only if the film started when the main character was much younger and followed them further into his adulthood. The novel starts with a nine year old Phillip Carey dealing with his mother’s death and follows him for a number of years. Phillip goes off to school, decides to drop school to follow different careers, and has numerous philosophical and physical struggles with who he is and what he’s supposed to do with life. He has numerous frustrating relationships with women and plenty of humorous and frustrating friendships. This novel is actually a pretty lengthy novel but it reads as Boyhood is portrayed. Following the events of a mundane life through the growth of a person. In the movie and this novel, I continuously expected some kind of dramatic event to happen and usually, it didn’t. You could make the argument that this means the novel or the movie is boring or you could make the argument that this means we are so conditioned to expect drama and unbelievable events that we don’t know what to do when a book or movie does not provide us with this. Anyways, while this was a slow moving and undramatic novel, I still really enjoyed reading it and looked forward to each new decision Phillip made about his life. I know I saw a lot of myself in him, not being completely sure what he desires to do for the rest of his life and seeing the easy road and the more alluring road and trying to decide which is better.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conradf94142d1-ebff-41a3-ac4f-d94300d03cdbimg100

This is a short and interesting novella. The story follows Marlow, the narrator, as he transports ivory down the Congo River in Africa. At times a damning presentation of European colonization and a racist depiction of civilization around the Congo, the book can be a frustrating read. But in the end the question is if the racism is there because that was the belief and images of Africa at the time or if it represents the actual beliefs of Joseph Conrad (the story is based on his experiences and travels in Africa). If it’s the former, than this is an important novella to question the importance and effectiveness of European colonization in Africa. If it’s the latter, than it’s an unnecessary story that as long as it continues to be read, it will continue to promote incorrect images of Africa then and now. I don’t really know who’s job it would be to decide this. Maybe nobody’s, maybe everybody’s. That said, if you have any interest in this time period or love a good boating story, it’s a quick read for you.

MainStreetNovelMain Street by Sinclair Lewis

This novel is a complete criticism of small-town life. Because of being raised in a smaller town and moving to a major city as soon as possible, I connected to a lot of what this novel tries to say. The story is about Carol, a young woman from Saint Paul, Minnesota, and her marriage to a small-town doctor. He convinces her to move to Gopher Prairie and ultimately, she could not have prepared herself for how much she disliked the town. But she decides that with her education and experience, she can transform the town into a cultured and beautiful mecca in the midwest. Coming up against small town politics, cliques, conservatism, backstabbing, and hypocrisy, it’s difficult to say she was successful. Then she starts making friends outside of her social class and this will create all new kinds of trouble. Although the story gets long-winded at parts and can seem somewhat meandering, I did enjoy it as a whole. The historical context of being set around World War I and the years leading up to Prohibition and the twenties also added great social insight into America at the end of our isolationism. But the best part of the novel might have been that my edition had pictures of different Main Streets from around the world to showcase how similar they all look and, we can assume, act.

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It’s feeling pretty good getting farther down the list. Next is #69, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I hated her novel Ethan Frome in high school so let’s see how this goes.

 

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100 Greatest Novels: A Clockwork Orange

Number sixty-five of the 100 greatest novels has been my favorite book since high school. Recommended to me by the school librarian, I couldn’t even start to guess how many times I’ve read it since then. I’ve gone through two copies of the paperback and have read it on my Kindle multiple times. With as many times as I’ve read it, I’ve never sat down and really tried to explain what makes this book so enjoyable for me and why I love to read it over and over. I’ve been looking forward to getting to it on this list for this exact reason. So here’s my paltry attempt to put my thoughts into words:

Clockwork_orangeA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

I want to look at the novel two ways. First, why I think it’s a great work of art. Second, why I like it so much. Let’s start with the novel as great art. The first thing you notice when you start reading the novel is the language. Mostly that you can’t understand what you’re reading, almost at all. Let me explain. A Clockwork Orange is written in “Nadsat,” a language Anthony Burgess created for this novel. Nadsat is a Russified English used by teenagers in the world created for Clockwork. Nadsat uses a combination of Russian words, English words, made-up words, a few German words, words borrowed from Cockney rhyming slang, and childish English terms like eggiweg for “egg.” I know, that’s a lot to take in. At first it’s fairly off-putting but while reading, you start to learn what most of the words mean using context clues and process of elimination. Honestly, I can’t remember how difficult it was for me to read the first time since I’ve read it so many times. Sorry…

Once you get past the language, the novel gets into the storyline fairly quickly. Following the main character, Alex, and his droogs (friends), the story doesn’t take long to get into the drugs, alcohol, and violence that the novel (and movie) is famous for. Alex and his droogs are a gang of teenagers that go around stealing cars, beating up defenseless citizens, and breaking into houses to rape and pillage. Little is left to the imagination in this novel. It shows teenage-driven violence at it’s most horrible form. Ultimately, Alex is arrested for certain crimes. He’s put in jail or as he calls it, Staja (State jail). While in prison, he’s selected to take part in a new experiment in behavior modification. While drugging Alex, they force him to watch violent films. His body learns to associate his sickness with the violence to the point that any thought of violence will make him want to be sick. His only option is to do the exact opposite, go out of his way to be nice, to counteract the sick feelings. Using a chaplain in the jail and later some politicians that are fighting against the current government, the novel starts questioning some philosophical ideas. What is it to be good? Evil? Where does freewill come in? Is it better to choose to be evil or to have choice taken from you and be “good?”

Really, I don’t want to spoil to much of the novel for you but the story ultimately has a very satisfying ending. And when I say the story I mean specifically the novel. If you have any desire to watch the movie, go ahead. But be warned that the movie ends a chapter earlier than the novel. The movie leaves out the whole denouement of the story. The movie doesn’t have the growth of the character, the reason for the whole novel. If you are interested in reading the novel, make sure you purchase a copy with Anthony Burgess’s introduction titled “A Clockwork Orange Resucked.” He talks about why he hates this novel being his most popular, why the movie ends early and how he feels about it, and the importance of different parts of the novel. The intro is almost as good of a read as the whole novel.

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Now, quickly, let me try to explain why I love this novel so much, this novel that has so many horrible events. First, this was the first novel I read that really pushed the boundaries of language. High school me didn’t know it was allowed to break so many rules while writing a novel. This book opened up a whole new world of literature for me. Not only language-breaking literature but also stories about dystopian future societies. Way before Hunger Games and Divergent, there was A Clockwork Orange, A Brave New World, 1984, etc. And I quickly read all of these. The other thing that really grabbed me about this novel was the use of music. I later learned that Anthony Burgess was a composer and music plays a large role in all of his novels but I loved how he works Alex’s love of classical music into the story. The dichotomy of this teenager that loves to destroy, rape, and steal also loves to lay in his bed and listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is incredible. And it’s not really a dichotomy for Alex, it’s his same desires being played out in two different mediums. And it’s powerful to see.

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Hopefully that came across coherently. Until next time!

 
 

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100 Greatest Novels: From Here to Eternity, The Wapshot Chronicle, & The Catcher in the Rye

Moving a little quicker through the list. I have three more of the 100 greatest novels for you today. I’ve been somewhat ill the last two weeks, taking a few days off of work, so I’ve had some undesired free time to read. So let’s get into them.

200px-JamesJones_FromHereToEternity1From Here to Eternity by James Jones

This long novel has a fairly interesting setting: following multiple members of the military stationed in Hawaii, in 1941, before Pearl Harbor was attacked. The story follows the daily life of a few characters in the barracks. Focusing on their stories, we don’t see as much as sense the build-up of military activity leading to the USA’s entry into World War II. Knowing the date and the inevitable events, each page and each chapter I was just waiting for the attack on Pearl Harbor to start. And it really added to the novel. Reading about these mundane activities and conflicts between members of our military while knowing that everything is about to change. Knowing that these characters are about to join one of the bloodiest global conflicts the world has seen. And they’re upset about whether someone will join the company boxing team or not. Their importance in the company depends on this decision and I’m just sitting there thinking, “You’re worried about boxing!? Your whole world is about to explode into bloodshed and you’re worried about somebody boxing or not!?” It’s a great dichotomy to experience while reading, my future knowledge combined with their focus on everything but.

220px-WapshotChronicleThe Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

This odd novel I really enjoyed reading. About a family living (the Wapshots) in a small Massachusetts town and their lives, the novel follows the father, Leander, dealing with growing old and his two sons, Coverly and Moses, dealing with going out in the world and trying to figure out who they are and where they belong. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad, the novel jumps around between the three men from chapter to chapter. Some of Leander’s chapters are written as if he is writing his autobiography and he has a very disjointed style with every line containing multiple sentence fragments. Sometimes the truth is hidden behind this false pretense he gives you, which isn’t unique to an autobiography. Coverly and Moses go off to the big cities to find jobs, wives, etc. They are somewhat successful with a few hiccups along the way. Coverly, while dealing with problems with his marriage, also starts to experience feelings of bisexuality which opens up a whole new world of problems for him and his station in life. All in all, the characters present to you an interesting and sometimes humorous account of their lives and the whole novel ends up being a light and fun read.

220px-Rye_catcherThe Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

This is the quintessential novel about teenage angst, identity, and alienation. Loved by many, hated by more, Catcher follows Holden Caulfield as he is kicked out of a prep school and spends a few days around the school and in New York City before he goes home to deal with his parents’ anger. This is one of those novels that your experience with reading it depends on what point in life you are currently in. Reading as a teenager, I loved Holden and agreed with every complaint he had towards society and people. I finally found somebody who has expressed into words all the angst of being a teenager. When I reread the novel in college or soon after, I hated Holden. Here was this annoying little brat of a teenager who was more phony than every person he calls phony in every line of the novel. Was I ever like that? I sure hope not. Now reading again as somewhat of an adult, I still think Holden is pretty much an annoying bastard but I can understand what he’s going through. Whether it’s because I’m far enough from being that age that I’m okay with remembering it or because I deal with children as a teacher who are experiencing lots of the same things, I don’t just write Holden off. And when you don’t write him completely off, you come across some beautiful moments of clarity from him as he deals with his problems:

The best thing, though, in that museum was the everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way-I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.

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Alright, there you go. Next up is my favorite novel of all time, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I’m already fairly close to finishing so the next blog shouldn’t be too far behind this one. Till next time…

 

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