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Adult Blog

2011 Book #1: One Hundred Years of Solitude

I've certainly begun my 52 books with a bang. One Hundred Years of Solitude just might be the best novel I've ever read. It's definitely the most epic. It follows a family and a town from birth to death, through wars and colonialism and personal tragedy. The family line is so complicated, with the vast majority of names involving Jose Arcadio or Aureliano in every generation, that the publisher was kind enough to include a family tree just before the first chapter begins. At one point, one Aureliano begets seventeen more Aurelianos.
It's also very long and a rather slow read - not to say it's boring: it held my interest throughout. I should also say that listing it as the first book of the year is somewhat of a cheat because I started reading it at least a couple of weeks ago and only read the second half of it since the first of the year.

The funny thing is that most of the things I'm saying about it seem bad when I think I've found a new favorite novel. It beats any Murakami I've read hands-down. I read somewhere that Murakami lists Marquez as an influence on his own work, and I can see how: One Hundred Years of Solitude is infused with the same kind of magical realism that Murakami's is. It's like the supernatural elements - like flying carpets, benign ghosts, and an ascension into heaven - are fully integrated into reality.

I'm half tempted to gorge myself immediately on the rest of Marquez's books, but I'm not going to. I'll spread him out like I did Murakami, stretching his novels into a couple years, at least - and not ruining him for myself like I did DeLillo.

One Hundred Years of Solitude isn't my first Marquez book, though it's the first one I've finished. Years ago, I tried reading Autumn of the Patriarch, which I didn't finish because it seemed impossible to read. It's around three hundred pages, split into eight chapters, and each sentence is almost the length of the whole chapter. I read it for a challenge, and I lost. Reading this one, though, makes me want to give it another try.

2011 Book #2: Franny and Zooey

After spending some time browsing at Barnes & Noble yesterday, I picked up Franny and Zooey and ported it to a chair thinking I'd never read it. I got through the Franny story, about a quarter into the whole thing, decided I'd finish it, and when I looked on Goodreads discovered that I'd already read it and rated it three stars. There's no date with the rating, but I'm pretty sure it's been over a year.

The funny thing is that I had no memory of it. As I was reading it at B&N, there were little parts that seemed vaguely familiar, but I didn't recall any of the plot or the characters. I didn't even remember that Zooey is Franny's brother or that they're Seymour Glass's family. (Based on Nine Stories, some of which I read when I was in high school, I romanticized Seymour Glass. Another book I need to reread.)

Which gets me to a general outline of the plot. In the first part, Franny goes out with her boyfriend and they argue about lots of things. She's all dramatic about a religious book. She gets sick and faints, and the boyfriend is suddenly nicer to her. In the second part, Franny goes home to stay with her brother, Zooey, and her parents. She's in the middle of a nervous breakdown of sorts, partially over the "Jesus Prayer" in the religious book she's been carrying around. And then people talk a lot about religion, college, and Franny, and Zooey calls Franny pretending to be another brother, Buddy, and is found out. That's about it. It's structured more like a short story than a novel.

I think I liked it better this time than when I read it a year or two ago. I can identify with Franny: when I was her age, around 20, I was a lot like her. Franny and Zooey reminds me that life is much more peaceful now that I've grown up a bit.


2011 Book #3: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I didn't like this one. I should qualify that: I didn't like this one except for the last thirty pages. It's a novel about love and sex. I could only identify with one character and the dog because everyone else was busy sleeping with people who weren't their spouses. There are only a few types of novels I don't like: mysteries, novels about people being taken away or imprisoned (I find those incredibly frustrating, and it's why, as much as I love The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, I couldn't get through its sequel, Pigs in Heaven), and novels in which the principal plotline focuses on infidelity.

There are five important characters: Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, Franz, and the dog, Karenin. Tomas is married to Tereza, who adores him and is generally faithful, and he likes to have affairs with many women. He has a prolonged affair with Sabina, who, after Tomas dies (I think - the story isn't exactly linear) has a prolonged affair with Franz, who is also married to someone else. And then there's Tereza's dog, who is very nice and doesn't have sex with anyone, though, in Tereza's dream, gives birth to two rolls and a bee. Kundera explores the difference between love and sex and how love affects people differently. I wasn't enthused until the last thirty pages when the dog dies. That made me cry.

I probably should have liked it more. The only other Kundera novel I've read is Life is Elsewhere, which I adored, though I don't really even remember what it's about. I read it five years ago, or so, so I guess that's to be expected. The Unbearable Lightness of Being reminds me of the only Paulo Coelho novel I've read, Veronika Decides to Die, which annoyed me in its preachiness. A first-person narrator (Kundera himself?) tells the story from the first person: the novel is generally written in third person, but the narrator breaks in often with nonjudgmental ideas about what's going on. It was like inspirational nonfiction (which annoys the hell out of me) on top of what could have been a good novel - like Kundera was filling in all the spaces the reader should be able to figure out on his own.

2011 Book #4: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I should probably start by saying I'm not a fan of historical fiction. I guess The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an example of historical magical realism, though it's relatively skimpy on the magical part. It has echoes of Cloud Atlas, my favorite novel last year, though it's certainly more in the realm of the historical. I was bored through most of it. I read most of the second half today - it's really long - simply because I didn't want to be reading it anymore. After The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I was looking for a short, easy read, and this novel certainly doesn't qualify. That said, I usually avoid historical novels, and for a historical novel, this one isn't bad, though I found a few problems. I'll get to that in a minute.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki around the turn of the nineteenth century. The main character is Jacob de Zoet, who is trying to win a bride in the Netherlands by getting enough money in the East. But things happen, and so on, and so on. He falls in love with a Japanese woman named Orito who ends up in a shrine that's basically a farm for babies born to be consumed by monks who are trying to live forever. I guess that's the magical realism part. It takes up the middle third of the book and is the only part that really interested me. There's a multitude of characters from both the East and the West, and their cultures conflict, etc, etc. No one knows who he can trust. And it just goes on and on.

The two storylines - Jacob's life and Orito's - are the novel's main problem: Mitchell doesn't seem to tie them together well enough. It's like two novels in one, and the only thing they really have in common is that they include the same characters. I also think the novel is simply too long and that lots of it seems like Mitchell did lots of research and doesn't want it to go to waste. I was bored, but it kept my interest enough for me to finish it, and since it's so long, that's something. As I'm not a fan of historical fiction, I'm not a fan of long books. That said, I've been reading lots of long books lately.

So, to the verdict: It's okay. I didn't dislike it, though it's certainly not in my list of favorites. It certainly wasn't as good as Cloud Atlas, and it's making me question how much I liked Cloud Atlas in the first place. I'm not sure what I think about reading more Mitchell: I first read him because of the comparisons to Murakami, but they're not really that similar except for the string of magical realism, which is much more evident (and interesting) in Murakami's works.

2011 Book #5: Good Morning, Midnight

I've been wanting to read Good Morning, Midnight for a long time. Years ago, I randomly picked up another Jean Rhys novel, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (which doesn't have a Wikipedia page!), and I really liked it. Later, I was assigned Wide Sargasso Sea, which, it turns out, is a sort-of prequel to Jane Eyre, for a modern fiction class. I liked that one too, though at the time I hadn't read Jane Eyre, and when I finally did, I was kind of disappointed in the fire part.

Anyway, back to the current novel. It's about the Loneliest Woman on Earth living in Paris, and it's Very Modernist. The woman, who calls herself Sasha, lives off money from friends and former lovers, as she seems emotionally incapable of any sort of work, though she tries a couple of times. She thinks everyone in Paris dislikes her, thinks something is wrong with her, and she tries her best to be alone and avoid their critical eyes. And, of course, things happen. She goes back to London for a time and falls in love with Enno, who is at times very loving and at others emotionally abusive. She marries him and has a baby who dies shortly after birth. Enno leaves. Sasha becomes more and more depressed, eventually slipping into a sort of drunken madness.

This novel surprised me because of what there wasn't. Several people told me that it's really disturbing, and I didn't find it that way. Nobody ends up dead. What did disturb me, though, was how much I identify with Sasha. Okay, not currently, thank God, but when I was younger. If I had lived alone in 1930s Paris, leaving what friends or family I had behind in England, the same things would have gone through my mind, and my life might have been a lot like hers. After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is a similar novel, though its protagonist isn't so terrifically lonely. I guess I just tend to identify with Jean Rhys's characters, and that's why I like her so much.

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