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Finished: “A Room With a View,” E. M. Forster (#79)

This book was mildly entertaining. It was slow to start and the problem is that it’s set in the 1800’s (?) and the central controversy of the novel is so lame in today’s terms. Some parts were fun. I thought it was going to be a quicker read than it turned out being. I enjoyed the underlying theme of personal freedom and discovery. Too many characters I just didn’t care about though. But decent. Recommended.

Finished: “Brideshead Revisited,” Evelyn Waugh (#80)

I liked this book. It had an anti-Catholic agenda, which seemed random because I a) didn’t really get the historical religious context, and b) don’t really care. But it was otherwise an interesting character study. Kind of hard to describe all the character themes and dynamics; it was less plot-driven than character-driven so it’s hard to summarize.

Evelyn Waugh was a dude, BTW.

Finished: “The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow (#81)

Damn this book was long. And pretty boring, except for a couple parts in the loooooong middle and most of the end (last ~20% or so). I gather it was about the (mostly futile) quest for the American Dream. There was a bunch of stuff about personal fulfillment and contorting oneself in life to the expectations and opinions of others, rather than seeking one’s own real purpose or true destiny.

Bellow’s style is probably the most complex so far on the list. He goes from light, realistic dialogue and entertaining, functional storytelling to endless dwelling on minutia to crazy ass philosophical mumbo jumbo, that, while seemingly disjointed in context, is pretty mind-blowing and sharply insightful after reading some of the deeper passages 6 or so times. He definitely gets human nature. He nailed the internal struggle for happiness and feeling like you have some equity in your own life’s course of events.

I have to say the first half of this book (which in itself was longer than half of the other books I’ve already read on the list) was really slow. I was certain I was going to crucify this one as a monotonous go-nowhere period piece, but it was much more than that in the end. It was a tough read though. Not one I was psyched to pick up many evenings. But I liked it in the end.

Finished: “Angle of Repose,” Wallace Stegner (#82)

I think this was the first book on the list where I truly lost track of where I was in the book because I was so captivated by the story. No book jacket type blurb will do justice to the story, so I’m hesitant to even try to summarize. In fact, I won’t. This was probably my second most favorite on the list so far, and it was the longest book so far. It took me almost a month to get through.

I don’t usually watch TV before bed anymore because I’m reading, but I finished this at 9:30PM last night so I turned the TV on, and coincidentally there was a profile of Wallace Stegner on at 10:30PM on PBS. Very strange coincidence. I was very curious to know more about the author when I finished the book, and I was shocked to see the profile aired right when that was the #1 thing I would have wanted to see on TV at that moment.

All I can say is, this is a masterful story of hope, perseverance, ingenuity, frustration and loss. Stegner’s style could be my favorite so far.

Finished: “A Bend in the River,” V. S. Naipaul (#83)

#84 wasn’t available for Kindle. This one, #83, was pretty good. It was about an African country (the reader never learns which one) after independence and all the shit that happens after. I don’t really feel like writing much about this one. It was fine. I especially liked the sense that I was reading about a broader epidemic, the plight of the African Every Country, because the country was never named. But overall it was unmemorable. It did, however, have one of the lines that was most striking of all so far: and this is where I suppose life ends for most people, who stiffen in the attitudes they adopt to make themselves suitable for the jobs and lives that other people have laid out for them. So true.

Updated: there were a lot of references to Uganda in this book, and how politically f’ed that country is too. Timely given the uppity #stopkony bullshit, which itself is far from timely. Things never change I guess… I’m glad I live in the United States where politics are mature and productive.

Finished: “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad (#85)

I honestly don’t know where to begin with this train wreck. My emerging faith in Modern Library was shaken to the core after laboring through this book. I’m really scared there are three other Conrad pieces on the list.

The structure of the storytelling is completely implausible, awkward and painful to get through. The story of Jim, a young nautical man, is retold verbally by an older ship captain (Marlow) to a group of his maritime peers in (basically) one sitting. It is totally implausible that a blue collar ship captain of this time would drone on for what must have been ~10 hours in such an airy tone, and that anybody would stick around to listen to the monologue. The device of the narrator literally speaking the whole story was so strained and terrible that it distracted from whatever shred of novelty or intrigue the plot might have otherwise had. Additionally, because the story was conveyed by Marlow who had a supposed firsthand account of the tale of Jim, Conrad was forced to contrive repeated chance and intentional path-crossings between the narrator, Jim and others – how else would Marlow know the story if he didn’t run into Jim repeatedly? It was completely inauthentic and forced. Conrad got himself and the reader pregnant with the narrative device; the first trimester was mildly exciting and hopeful, but the second and third were awful; we had to go on bed rest; the labor was long and painful; the baby came out ugly as sin.

The plot is just stupid. Jim literally jumped ship when he thought the emigrant vessel he was helping to pilot was about to sink. It ultimately didn’t sink. He felt guilty for abandoning the ship and passengers. He found refuge, with the help of the narrator, on a secluded island run by aboriginal gangs. He seized power. He ran the island, and then some pirates invaded and he got killed. Boo, the end. (Spare me the ‘it was a deep allegory of western colonization!’ knee-jerk defense of this poop.) New characters with bare traces of back story and no intertwined relevance to Jim are introduced midway through, and then at the end (e.g., the guy who eventually causes Jim’s killing doesn’t appear until the last ~15% of the book – what kind of character development is that? The bad kind: none).

Conrad in his preface admits this was a short story that he fleshed out to a full novel. Imagine a tenth grader in a creative writing class whose latest assignment is well under the proscribed word count – what do they do? They pepper the existing work with flowery language, banal literary devices and drawn-out descriptions wherever possible. Conrad, you get an F on this assignment. Here are some statistics thanks to the Kindle search function: 169 “as if” similes, 275 “like” similes, 219 “seemed” metaphors, 92 “sort of” phrases, 116 “as though” similes, and many other imprecise and uninhibited metaphors, however he clearly favors the turnkey similes (they’re cheap and much easier to churn out than poetic metaphors). It’s obvious which parts of the narrative were decent pieces from the original novella, and where, in the surrounding chaff, he puked all over himself after consuming the entire contents of “101 Ways to Make a Paper Longer” by Ami Turriter.

Because Conrad was so distracted with making sure his tenuous tale was long enough to be a true novel, much of the plot action is obscured. He buries the lead over and over, leaving plot-crucial action sentences camouflaged among a bunch of tedious and overwritten fluff strewn about to make the damn thing read longer. He’s so liberal with the unnecessary that he commits sad errors; for example, in one description he cites, “great waves of glitter” in describing a surface of water, but then, in the following paragraph, sacrificing consistency for aesthetics, he claims “the canoe seemed to slide painfully on a mirror.” So is it wavy, or glassy water?

His nested quotations are a joke; in the vein of ‘he trembled by the underlying strength of what the other had uttered, “we will stay put! No, but—we will, unless it is, as he said, ‘only under the most dire of chances shall we succumb, as a starving man might submit to the willful doling of stale bread’.” But it was not his choice to proceed…’ Do you know who ‘he’ is, or what the fuck is being discussed by whom and when?? No. By the way, that’s not a quote from the book – I pulled that out of my ass like anyone could;  flowery and convoluted bullshit isn’t hard. Precise and uncompromising depiction of truth is hard. Conrad failed miserably in this task.

Finished: “Ragtime,” E. L. Doctorow (#86)

This book read like a movie or a play. Oh wait…

I’m not entirely sure what this book was really about. There was some American melting pot stuff, some race relations stuff, some rich vs. poor stuff and some family dynamics stuff. I feel like the dominant theme was that everyone, no matter the background, deceives themselves of their importance. Houdini was a great fraud debunker, who gladly provided this virtuous service – no, actually he was just a cheap trickster himself. J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford were reincarnations, with accumulative genius, of mankind’s greatest minds – no, actually they were just a greedy banker and a lucky country boy, respectively. Doctorow weaves fictional stories of these and other actual historical figures throughout the narrative.

The author never uses quotation marks in the dialogue, opting to keep it in-line with everything else. This was disconcerting at first, but I got used to it. He also doesn’t name several of his main characters besides referring to them as Mother, Father, Younger Brother etc. He also doesn’t emphasize facial features or behaviors, which left the characters seeming distant and somewhat alien, but it worked.

While I still feel like I need to reflect on this one more to fully appreciate it, I can say that this was one of the more technically interesting books so far. Between the unique style and the historical fictional elements, it was captivating.