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100 Greatest Novels: The Death of the Heart, Lord Jim & Ragtime

The next three from the 100 greatest novels were interesting in how different they were. I liked each one more than the one before it. We’ll get into the reasons below. I’m excited to talk about the last one though. Let’s go ahead and get to it.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

220px-TheDeathOfTheHeartHere we are again with another British novel set in London in the early 1900s. I’m getting fairly tired of these novels but I feel bad for doing that. I would probably thoroughly enjoy some of them if it wasn’t for reading so many during this list. Anyway, let’s get to this novel. Like all of them, you have the one character that doesn’t fit into London society. This time it’s Portia, who moves in with her half-brother after her mother and their shared father dies. She, of course, falls in love with a friend of the family who tries to straddle his relationship with Portia and his obligations towards London society. The one thing that makes this story interesting is Portia’s age. She’s only 16 when she moves to London so we have somewhat of a coming-of-age story. We get the frustrations of a teenager towards her authority figures but how much authority can her half-brother and sister-in-law really hold over her?

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

2b6bcb34ed3d68ff7f7aaf65ce1987ceSo if you’ve read any of Conrad’s novels, you’ll know what to expect. The story usually has something to do with the sea and ships. And many of Conrad’s novels are structured by being a story told by Charles Marlow. He is usually with his fellow shipmates and he narrates the story. All of his narration is in quotations so any quotes told in the story use single quotation marks. Then it get’s real confusing when you have characters in the story quoting somebody else. Sometimes you end up with 3 or 4 levels of quotation marks! Once you get past all that and the introduction of the story into why this Jim character is named Lord Jim, it gets really interesting. Jim ends up in a secluded village and becomes a leader, a lord, to the people. And it’s a fascinating transition and ultimate ending to the story. Quick note, this is free on the Kindle.

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

RagtimeDoctrorowHardcoverReally, I just rushed through writing the above paragraphs because I’m so excited to talk about this novel. I wasn’t familiar with Doctorow when I started Ragtime and I did not read any synopsis of the story. I assumed it might have something to do with Scott Joplin or the musical genre ragtime. The novel alluded to the genre but it didn’t play a huge role.

Anyway, this book. This book is what I want every book I read to be. I had a hard time starting the next novel in the list because I just wanted to read everything by Doctorow. Let me tell you what I’m so excited about. This novel combined fact and fiction in such a flawless, beautiful way that I wanted to cry with joy. Historical characters are treated with the same care as fictional characters. Historical events are intertwined with fictional storylines. I’m going to quote Wikipedia’s paragraph about this because it explains it fairly well:

The novel is unusual for the irreverent way that historical figures and fictional characters are woven into the narrative, making for surprising connections and linking different events and trains of thought about fame and success, on the one hand, and poverty and racism on the other. Harry Houdini plays a prominent yet incidental part, reflecting on success and mortality. Arch-capitalist financier J.P. Morgan, pursuing his complex delusions of grandeur, is delivered a plainly spoken comeuppance from down-to-earth Henry Ford. Socialite Evelyn Nesbit becomes involved with the slum family and is aided by the anarchist agitator Emma Goldman. The black moderate politician Booker T. Washington tries to negotiate with Coalhouse Walker, without success.

I feel like a novel like this does better than any textbook or biography or history book at making the reader understand what a time period was like. We can google names and dates. But how do we understand what the wealthy and the poverty-stricken felt? How can we know what the average person felt about certain events or even decades? Can we know how the heroes viewed the citizens and vice versa? We can, but with only extensive research into the histories of the rich and famous and into the journals of the not rich and not famous, extensive research into the biographies of the mammoths of history and the news articles of the mundane events around town. Who has time for that? So read E. L. Doctorow. At least read Ragtime. I can’t vouch for the rest of his novels yet.

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Alright, next up is The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett, number 87 on the list. We’re getting seriously close to the end. What will I do with myself?

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2016 in 100 Greatest Novels, Book Review, Lists, Literature

 

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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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