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Finished: “The Old Wives’ Tale,” Arnold Bennett (#87)

I enjoyed this book. I wouldn’t have guessed I would like a Victorian Era story about the lives of two English sisters, but I did. It was a circle-of-life type deal. Bennett did an amazing job of capturing the human condition and revealing underlying motivators, fears and ambitions that we probably all share. Pretty much everyone dies in this book, but I don’t think the reader is ever meant to feel sad about these deaths. Lots of interesting child-parent dynamics. Strangely, this book also made me want to succeed in business doing something I enjoy and own myself. I’m not sure if Bennett was aiming for this theme, but it left me thinking about living without regrets. Also some go-with-the-flow stuff. Good read.

Oh, one other thing: there was one part where Bennett was reflecting on the death of a character and the author slipped into the first person for just 2-3 sentences. It was so weird. I think the character that died was probably based on him or someone close to him or something. It was about 2/5 of the way through the book, and after that I was left with this feeling that I wasn’t alone reading the book. The author had made it known that he was there too, which was a really cool sensation for the rest of the book. But he never slipped back into the first person after those brief lines. Less is more. Odd and awesome reading experience.

Finished: “The Call of the Wild,” Jack London (#88)

So good. You know the story. I need to find my wolves…

Finished: “Loving,” Henry Green (#89)

This was a very quick read. Most of the prose is dialogue, and really fun and magnetic dialogue at that. I doubt there was much science behind the precise placement of books on the list, but Green’s refreshing and touching story was enhanced because it followed Rushdie’s overwritten borefest. I don’t really get the title, “Loving”. It was about the currencies of trust and gossip, and how they’re spent among the servants and underlings in a British (but located in Ireland) mansion while WWII is off in the distance. The accents were tough to read at first, but once I got the hang of it, the voices of ‘im and ‘er in me ‘ead made it that much better.

Finished: “Midnight’s Children,” Salman Rushdie (#90)

I have a moderate cutaneous wool allergy, so 446 pages about Kashmir made me a bit itchy (thanks folks, I’ll be here all week!). No, but seriously, this book chafed me good. It was a belletristic black diamond; fraught with no fewer than 3-6 ellipses, 3-6 parenthetical clauses and double-digit hyphenations per page. My pace was noticeably handicapped by the choppy, rambling style; often I had to reread paragraphs to know what the hell was going on. Rushdie introduces tidbits of new background information and undefined proper nouns like a subcontinental, politically-inclined J.K. Rowling. The endless stream-of-consciousness perspective is hard to follow. Rushdie knows he’s long-winded too because he introduces a stand-in for the reader; a character (named Padma) who’s often pestering the writer-narrator to quit the incessant foreshadowing and get to the damn points. Rushdie uses the narrator-Padma dialogue to make sure the reader appreciates his masterwork; like the annoying friend that restates lines from a movie in real time. He also can’t seem to resist explaining his own symbolism and doing the legwork of connecting dots that the reader should be able to do themselves. Rushdie, I get it, you’re a visionary cultural genius, this is an oh-so-important book. Tell the damn story.

And like Harry ProductⓇ, “Midnight’s Children” employs tedious episodes of a bunch of kids with magic powers as a cheap metaphorical device. Well, that’s not really fair to either. The former is straight-up literal fluff, and the latter is, in all fairness, a very deep and multilayered historical fiction, and I suspect the telepathic elements reflect the distorted perspective of a narrator with dementia. But where he might have developed believable human characters, Rushdie opted for political metaphors and cluttered cultural sentimentality. I guess it was deep (?), but the major problem with this novel is that it isn’t a story with universal appeal. The characters are unlovable symbols. It’s a story about India, and it’s not written such that people of other cultures can empathize with the human struggles.

I have a hypothesis as to why this book made the top 100 list. It was a laborious euphemistic depiction of India coming into its own after independence from Britain in 1947 and subsequent partitioning. The Anglointellectualelitists behind Modern Library simply threw the subcontinent a bone. “Hey, you guys wanna throw in an India one since we kind of dominated them for a hundred years and caused the chaos Rushdie illustrates? It’s only one spot on the list, what the heck? Guys?” The story (maybe, but this point is debatable) warrants inclusion… but I can’t see how – people actually read this book and think – there was something new… and (powerful stylistically… but we’ll get to that later…) that commanded a spot in the elite oeuvre. (That’s how much of it read, BTW. Painful at best, solecistic at worst.) Maybe I’m just a know-nothing, ill-read, small-minded amateur who doesn’t get it. Or maybe this emperor’s junk is on full display…

P.S. Google Image search Rushdie’s wife. WTF? The man looks like Newman and Stanley Kubrick had a smug, pot smoking frog-son. Well played, Rushdie, well played.

Finished: “Tobacco Road,” Erskine Caldwell (#91)

This book made me feel uncomfortable and heartless. I disliked it for those reasons, but I guess I like the fact that it elicited strong feelings. A poor white family in rural Georgia post WWI is slowly crippled and literally starved by the patriarch’s habitual laziness, selfishness and procrastination. Filled with irony and symbolism (I think). The characters almost didn’t seem human in their physical actions – more like animals. I’m pretty sure most everyone got a smackdown in this one – the poor, the rich, the religious, the institutions of family and marriage, the white South, agriculture culture and industrialization. I felt uncomfortable by the complete disregard for human life, and heartless in that I couldn’t have cared less about the family’s suffering. They were  just so lazy.

Boooo Amazon; and a technology ramble

Just went 0 for 3 on finding the next novels in the Kindle bookstore (“Ironweed”, “The Magus”, and “Wide Sargasso Sea”). I’m going out of order by skipping ahead to “Tobacco Road”. Where the hell am I going to find e-texts of these other books? Fack.

I’ll take a moment to share an interim conclusion about e-texts versus paper books: e-texts are superior. Several reasons:

  • (this is a personal note, not a universal pain point) whenever I read paper books, I get paranoid that I missed a page, so I neurotically make sure I can’t separate pages 53 and 54, which are opposite sides of the same sheet. Perceived problem is eliminated by eliminating the physical sheets.
  • e-readers have built-in dictionaries. My vocabulary has already begun to tumesce (thanks for that gem Styron!)
  • e-readers can report your location in the book as a percentage of how much you’ve read already. “that’s weird! don’t like it!” – I know, right? That was my first thought. But then I realized the only reason I seem to care about page number is because I know the total page count to begin with – so implicitly, I’m doing a rough percentage-completed calculation anyway, which is ultimately what I care about. If you don’t know how many pages are in the book, you don’t care what page you’re on. You care about percentage complete and you don’t even know it.
  • e-readers allow pacifists of medium build like myself to read titles like “Sophie’s Choice” on the bus without getting strange looks. Also, Sophie’s Choice is very very long – I’m sure the book would be heavier than the device. (I feel like I’m talking about “Sophie’s Choice” too much…)
  • Form factor interchangability. I have the Kindle app on my iPad and on my laptop. 15 spare minutes during lunch at work – bam, reading and nobody’s the wiser. Pulling a book out would look really weird.
  • I won’t elaborate on the obvious benefits – e.g., reduced space use, collection centralization, immediate access – but they’re great too.
  • This might be tautological, but e-texts are better because you can act superior and enlightened to people you don’t like who still read paper books. They convey a certain je ne sais quoi; a certain go-fuck-yourself-you-stodgy-old-snob.-oh-really?-you-like-“the way it feels in your hand”?-you-like-“the way pages smell”?-good-luck-with-that. And if you happen to like the people who still read paper you can tell them you respect how they keep it real. Win-win.

Finished: “Under the Net,” Iris Murdoch (#95)

I don’t know if it was because it was on the heels of Sophie’s Choice, or if this book just sucked, but it sucked. I think I’m missing something, maybe allegorical or crocodilian. Flat, undeveloped characters mashed together in a contrived set of coincidental encounters that somehow goes nowhere. I think it was about the ease with which we interpret the world incorrectly, see causation where there is none, and fumble the real meaning of things with the fundamentally flawed conveyance tool of language. Weird, boring, and not good.