Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Winesburg, Ohio

Title: Winesburg, Ohio
Author: Sherwood Anderson
List: #24 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Maybe.

I’m still working my way through Pillars of the Earth, but picked up this short novel as an “in-between” read. Once again, it was book I’d never heard of before, but it seemed like an easy read. And, another bonus, it was free online through Project Gutenberg, an excellent resource for books no longer protected by copyright law.

Winesburg, Ohio is an interesting novel. And when I say interesting, I mean sort of quirky and definitely not your typical read. It could be described as a series of short stories, but is probably more accurately described as a series of vignettes about the inhabitants of a small Ohio town in the era shortly before the industrial revolution. When I started reading, I didn’t think there was any connection between the different vignettes, but after a while I noticed that one character, George Willard, made a recurring appearance. George Willard is a young journalist working at the local paper who is somehow connected to most people in the town. He makes fleeting appearances in several of the stories and is featured in others. It almost seems as if he serves as the keystone of the town because several of the other characters seek him out for company or a quick conversation. At any rate, he seems to know most people of the town, and his central location at the newspaper offices makes him a witness or unknowing bystander to the troubles of some of the other inhabitants. George’s desire to leave Winesburg for the city also serves as the loose plot tying the book together.

But I feel like this description attributes more of a plot to the book than there actually is. Many of the vignettes are wholly independent from the story of George Willard and really seem quite random. They can start with a brief description of a person, then describe an occurrence in the person’s life, then, quite abruptly, end. Most of the time there is no real conclusion to the story and I often felt like I was left hanging with a sad, twisted, and unfinished tale. Although the vignettes were certainly compelling, they were also quite depressing. I am not sure that there were any happy events in the novel, just tales of woe and failed dreams, lives, and, especially, love. Consequently, it isn’t a very upbeat novel and, if you have the same reaction to the tales that I did, you will often be shaking your head in puzzlement at the conclusion of each story.

That said, it isn’t really a bad read either—it just isn’t that good. I may be missing something, but I just don’t see what is so great about this novel that it made one of the lists. And because there are so many other fantastic, moving novels out there, I don’t think there is any reason to rush out and read this one.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Good Omens

Title: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
Authors: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
List: #68 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Most definitely!

Because I decided to start this blog partway through my quest, I think I will go back in time a little bit and “review” some of the books I have read relatively recently. My other reason for doing this is that I’m currently only about a quarter of the way through The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and as that is quite a hefty tome and my weekends are currently devoted to packing for an imminent move, it may take a while before I’m ready to blog about that one. There are so many good books that I’ve read over the last two years, well, that I’ve read since I started reading, that I would love to write about, but I fear they aren’t quite fresh enough in my mind for a coherent post that says more than “this book is amazing” and “you should definitely read it!” And so, I will probably limit myself to books I’ve read within the last couple of months. First up, Good Omens.

About a month ago, I was wandering through the stacks at our local public library and this book caught my eye. I recognized the title from The List, and after reading the book description and some of the review blurbs, I decided this would be my next adventure. I had never heard of this book before and, apparently, that either means that (1) I’ve been living under a rock, (2) I am just not cool enough to be “in the know,” or (3) (and this is the most probable) both. Comments from the authors that were included in the book stated that they love signing copies of this book because every copy looks like it has gone through hell—bindings falling off, bindings missing, water logged, torn, held together with rubber bands, you name it. And every fan explains how much the book means to him or her and to what lengths he or she has gone to take it places, loan it out, get it back, and re-read it over and over again. My copy was much less storied—it was still quite pristine in its hardcover binding. Perhaps people are careful with library books after all? Or maybe the library had just been forced to replace it recently!

Wikipedia can give you a very nice plot summary. I will just go so far as to say the book is about the apocalypse and the coming of the Anti-Christ. But not the apocalypse as you could ever have imagined it. It is hilarious and full of fantastic characters, like the demon and angel who each have, respectively, become less demonic and less angelic since Eve ate the apple, the Satanic nuns who accidentally give the Anti-Christ to the wrong people so that everyone thinks the wrong boy is the Anti-Christ, the witch who is following the very accurate prophecies of her ancestor, and a novice witch hunter.

The book is very well-written and the authors draw you into the story so that it is difficult to put down. And, as I’ve already mentioned, it really is hilarious. So if you’re looking for a pretty easy and amusing read or want to read something incredibly original, this is the book to pick to pick up. I can definitely see why it made the list and why, even though I personally don’t feel the need to read it over and over again, it has become a cult classic.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Once upon a time...

A few years ago, a friend tagged me in a note on Facebook entitled "Book Nerds." It was one of those chain notes, you know the type, where I was supposed to copy the text into my own note and respond to the comments or questions. But unlike the majority of those kinds of notes, this one was quite interesting. It listed 100 books and claimed that the BBC believes most people have read only six of the books listed. Now I was interested, and I dutifully copied the text over in my own note and placed my check marks next to the books I had read. I discovered that thanks to a pretty great English program in high school and a, perhaps, interesting taste in literature as a child and teenager, I had already covered a pretty respectable 49 books. Of course, being a book nerd, my first thought was, “How could I be missing out on these other fantastic books?!”

At the time, I was in the middle of law school and had no time to read anything but casebooks and legal research, but I saved the list and decided that one day I would read all 100 books on the list. Over the next months, multiple versions of this list circulated on the internet and I compiled them all, because, even though they all claimed to be the BBC list of the top 100 books, no list was identical. Finally, in August 2009, after finishing law school and taking the Bar, I decided it was time to tackle my goal. I figured the six weeks I had before starting a job would be perfect for devouring all the fiction I had been craving for the past three years.

By this time my list had grown to over a hundred books, even though I condensed series into one listing. For example, instead of listing out all seven Harry Potter books, I felt it was sufficient to have one listing for the Harry Potter series. I also decided to look up this BBC to list to see what was actually on it.

Apparently, the list originated in April 2003 as part of the BBC’s search for the United Kingdom’s best-loved novel. The “Big Read” asked the public for nominations for the nation’s favorite book, and came out with a list of 200 books ranked by number of votes. Interestingly, the Big Read website does not opine that most people have read only six of the top 100 books, although that "fact" has been widely disseminated by Facebook users and bloggers worldwide. The internet top 100 list also includes books listed in the lower half of the list and even has books nowhere to be found on the BBC’s list. (Out of some faithfulness to the list that started me on my quest, I have not had the heart to delete the internet additions from my master list. Then again, one of those, The Shadow of the Wind, has become one of my all-time favorite books, so that seems like an excellent reason to leave them on.) The UK’s best-loved novel, by the way, is The Lord of the Rings. The official list can be found here, with the top 200 also listed here.

You might think that a list of two hundred novels would be enough to satisfy a fiction starved book worm, even if that book worm has read a good number of those books, but I recently stumbled across three other lists. I have now added the Modern Library Board’s top 100 20th century novels, the Modern Library Readers’ top 100 20th century novels, and Radcliffe Publishing Course’s top 20th century novels to my list. If it weren’t for duplicates and my trick of condensing series into one list entry, I might have a seemingly insurmountable task on my hands! And of course, there are other lists out there, but my bookshelves are groaning and I spend too much time at the library, so I may wait a few years before expanding my list again. Especially because I do occasionally, gasp, go off-list!!

But I have gotten ahead of myself. For the past two years, less a month, I have been working steadily through my list, enjoying the freedom of lunches, metro rides, and weekends. But only the other day did I decide that maybe somebody might be interested in good book recommendations or warnings. Clearly, all the books on this list are beloved by someone, or they wouldn’t be on the lists, but I am going to attempt to give my own frank opinions of the books. Don’t look for any in depth analyses of the authors’ intentions in writing the books or discussions of hidden imagery and meaning (forgive me fabulous high school English teachers!). I intend only to discuss the merits of each book as a good read, an interesting story, or, if I’m feeling poetic, fantastic use of language. Forgive me if I insult your favorite book (but I just cannot like Of Mice and Men) and remember that everything here is only my opinion and nothing more.

Also, as a starting point for this blog, my current list stands at 371 books with 248 more books to discover! (Apparently I have not spent enough time exploring 20th century literature!) My version of the combined list, in alphabetical order by author, is here.