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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: 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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