Following the lead of Blogger 3M I have been making my way through a list of 12 books from 12 consecutive decades in 2007. With seven books down with six months to go I thought I would give an update on my progress with mini-reviews of the books that I have read so far.
1910s: The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence – 5/23/07
I must admit this book was a bit of a slog for me. The book follows three generations of the Brangwen family in semi-rural/semi-industrial England. Written in 1915 the book was fairly frank in its discussion of sexual and emotional relationships. I had a friend who used to say “C’mon Oprah, not everything can be a life changing experience.” In that vein I want to say to Lawrence “C’mon D, not every action or emotion needs to be that complex or fraught with meaning.”
1930s: The Big Money by John Dos Passos (3rd in his USA trilogy) – 5/30/07
Each volume of Dos Passos’ USA trilogy uses a mix of narrative forms to tell the tale of the great American experience. In addition to straightforward chapters telling the stories of various characters, Dos Passos intersperses those chapters with non-fiction accounts of famous Americans of the time and sections that highlight snippets of newsreel headlines, stories, song lyrics, and advertising slogans. Once you get used to all of that the trilogy still seems like a bit of an acquired taste. I will say that I enjoyed this volume the best of the trilogy.
1940s: Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon – 5/20/07
I had never heard of Simenon before I picked up this novel from a bookstore. The story takes place in something that seems like occupied Belgium or France during WWII. It captures a fascinating slice of life when the moral depravity of the occupiers becomes a way of life for the occupied. The book doesn’t address the issues of the genocide central to WWII, rather it focuses on the everyday ways that humans can lose their humanity. I quite enjoyed this one.
1950s: Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell (3rd in his Alexandria Quartet) – 2/27/07
Each of the volumes of the Alexandria Quartet tells roughly the same story from a different point of view. As someone who generally prefers to read about Western Europe or North America I have become oddly and intensely fascinated with these books as they describe Egpyt before and during World War II. I find that I like each volume more than the previous. This bodes well for the final volume which I will probably put off (savor) until next year.
1960s: The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark – 7/1/07
In many ways I found the setting of this book (1961 Israel and Jordan) fascinating in the same way I appreciated the setting in Mountolive as described above. The book describes the highly charged and unstable atmosphere in Israel and Jordan in the years following the creation of Israel. Not being a middle-east expert it was a bit of an education for me. The story revolves around a British woman who is a half Jewish convert to Catholicism who decides to go on a pilgrimage to the Christian holy sites in Jordan and Israel. Religion, sex/love, and political intrigue all play an equal part. This Muriel Spark book felt very different, less quirky, than other Spark books I have read. Almost a cross between Iris Murdoch and Ward Just.
1970s: A Word Child by Iris Murdoch – 6/4/07
What can I say. I love Iris Murdoch. She was a philosophy fellow at Oxford who wrote many wonderful novels that read like religious/ethical soap operas. Like most of her books, A Word Child has a large cast of educated characters who jump from bed to bed or relationship to relationship within that circle of characters and under the weight of religious, moral, and ethical dilemmas. Tragedy is just under the surface of every page, but the reader doesn’t really know which of those tragedies will ultimately break that surface to end the book. Every time I read Murdoch I wish a filmmaker with the skill of Merchant Ivory would put her 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s period pieces on film.
2000s: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe – 4/20/07
Having read The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and From Bauhaus to Our House, I think that Wolfe is incapable of writing a boring book. Whether or not you agree or disagree with his books, his politics, or his gimmicky way of dressing, Tom Wolfe knows how to write smart, compelling page turners. Charlotte Simmons is a real doorstop of a book but you fly through it in no time. It is amazing how the aging Wolfe captures the essence and much of the detail of the lives of college students at the turn of the 21st century. Having said that, some of Wolfe’s characterizations, including parts of Charlotte, are somewhat one dimensional and implausible. Still no reason to stay away from this one, it is definitely worth the read. Perhaps most unrealistic is the dearth of technology usage among the students. Wolfe doesn’t realize just how wired and wireless students today have become.