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100 Greatest Novels: The Adventures of Augie March, Angle of Repose, & A Bend in the River

Well, we’re into a new year. And hopefully this is the year I finish the 100 greatest novels. After the three novels we’re talking about today, I only have 17 left. That’s crazy. It’s been a long, challenging, and enjoyable adventure through these books. I’m not really sure how I’m going to choose what books to read if I don’t have a list to follow. Also, new books are expensive. It saved me money reading all these older cheap and sometimes free books. Anyway, let’s get to it.

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

AugiemarchI was really looking forward to reading this book because the previous novel by Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King, was a hilarious adventure. At first, I struggled to get into the story. It was nothing like Henderson the Rain King, it wasn’t even funny. But once I got past my hangups, the story really captured me. Following around Augie March from early childhood into adulthood, we get to watch him go through numerous adventures. Growing up in the Great Depression in Chicago to a poor family, Augie uses his wit and some good luck to more around from job to job, education opportunity to criminal opportunity, woman to woman. Living in drastically different situations from chapter to chapter, it was exciting to see where Augie would end up next. And through all of this, Saul Bellow gives us an incredible image of America (and Mexico for a few chapters) during this tumultuous time period. We get an exploration of a person, an exploration of a country, and an exploration of human existence. And it’s worth exploring all of this.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

So I went into this book not knowing anything about it or the author. And because of this, it AngleOfReposewas a great experience to unfold the layers of this story. At first we meet the main character, a disabled historian who has an obviously tense relationship with his son (and most likely the rest of his family). After learning of him and his situation, we find out he is writing a novel based on his grandmother’s experiences as an artist from the East coast who marries a miner and travels the western frontier in the late 18o0s. The novel jumps back and forth between the historian’s daily activities and issues and the engrossing story of this frontier woman trying to survive in these extreme places. In between these two narrations, we get sections and whole copies of letters from the grandmother sent to her friend who still lives in New York City. By the end of the novel, I wasn’t really sure whose story I was more involved in, whose story I cared more about. But once they get tied together, it’s an incredibly satisfying payoff for reading two distinct stories throughout.

A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul

BendInTheRiverAs you know, I’ve been somewhat annoyed with this list because of the similar narratives. Numerous British novels with almost identical stories. So anytime I get to a novel with a new location, a new story, anything, I’m excited. And this novel provided all of this and more. This novel is set in an unnamed country in central Africa during the tumultuous period after colonialism began to end. Many African countries accomplished their independence in from the European powers between the end of World War II and the 1970s. Sometimes independence came easily, bloodless. Sometimes it took years of warfare. And after independence, numerous countries dealt with civil wars and destabilized governments. Anyways, A Bend in the River takes place amongst all of this. And it’s really a simple story of a man who owns a store by the river and watches all the changes and growth of his city, his nation, and Africa in general. Between the numerous characters, we see how these changes effect different people: politicians, foreign businessmen, students, people from the tribes, people from the coast, etc. They all have unique experiences and deal with the changes around them differently. And this creates a dense, multi-faceted viewpoint of the decolonization of Africa.

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So let’s keep moving forward. Next is The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. We should be coming to the end of the list soon!

 

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100 Greatest Novels: Invisible Man, Native Son, & Henderson the Rain King

These next few books from the 100 greatest novels mainly focus on race. We hear a lot about the Civil War and the freeing of slaves and we hear a lot about the 1960s, MLK, and the fight for equality. What many people forget is that there were 100 years of oppression, discrimination, and abuse between those events. That is where these novels fall.

That said, I’m not going to talk about the race issues of the novels. As a middle class white guy historically, socially, and racially removed from that era, there’s not much I could add to the conversation. So I’ll talk about the novels from a literary point of view.

165px-Invisible_ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison

This novel follows an unnamed narrator from graduating high school and starting college to leaving college and moving to New York and trying to find his way. He becomes a speaker for an organization named the Brotherhood, speaking about race and social issues. Then he falls into a manhole.

The story is consistently engrossing and always somewhat entertaining and depressing. Ellison’s writing sometimes glosses over events to the point that I wasn’t sure if it happened or not (“Wait, what just blew up? Did they have sex or not?”). There’s much philosophy and social issues hashed out between characters and inside the narrator’s head. This could turn some people off but I enjoyed it. I never thought it detracted from the overall storyline but actually pushed the story forward. These moral and philosophical arguments are what made him and other characters do what they did, whether it was right or not. His ultimate decision is to become invisible. Not physically, but because others refuse to see him and he accepts that.

200px-NativeSonNative Son by Richard Wright

I have never read a novel that did so little to make a protagonist likable but ended with me fighting for his life so passionately. This is a story of Bigger Thomas, a poor African American living in Chicago in the 1930s. He’s a bully. He’s mean to his family, he beats up his friends, he masturbates in movie theaters, and he refuses to keep a job, preferring to make his family live off of government help. What a lovable person! And yet. Keep reading. By the end I was praying, demanding, hoping, and crying for his life to be spared. Only a masterful author like Richard Wright could pull off a task like this and he does it beautifully.

220px-HendersonTheRainKingHenderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

Reading through the 100 greatest novels, this is the first novel that has really inspired me to write. I loved the writing style of Saul Bellow. It reminded me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut: a very conversational 1st person narrative. As for the story, what an incredibly enjoyable adventure. Henderson, middle-aged and somewhat dissatified with life (he explains it as an inner voice that repeats, “I want, I want,” without ever saying what it is it’s wanting), decides to travel to Africa with a friend. He leaves his friend and hires a guide to bring him to far off African cities. He finds one and gets in trouble and leaves. He finds another and befriends the King, becomes the Sungo (the rain king), and acts like a lion. And that’s about it. It’s a great story with some incredible narration. I was tweeting and facebooking quotes from the book left and right. Henry Miller described this novel perfectly: “It made me dance.”
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On a side note, I discovered a great series of eBooks. They’re called History in an Hour and they are just short, concise histories of different topics. I read Henry VIII’s Wives this past week and loved it. Anyways, thanks for keeping up with this. Next up is Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2013 in 100 Greatest Novels, Book Review, Literature

 

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