Century of Books

My project to read the top 100 English-language books of the twentieth century.

Location: San Francisco, United States

I am an Australian writer and blogger living in San Francisco. Visit my professional site at caitlinfitzsimmons.com, or my travel and food blog at Roaming Tales or my personal blog at The Niltiac Files. I am also on Twitter as @niltiac. See the full list of books or visit me on BookCrossing.

02 November 2008

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

Published 1918, My Ántonia is considered one of the greats of American literature. It's about pioneer families in Nebraska in the 19th century and in particular tells of the immigrant experience. The tale is narrated by Jim Burden, who moves west from Virginia to live with his grandparents after his parents die, but the focal character is Ántonia who moves with her family to Nebraska from Bohemia as a young girl.

I was surprised by the similarities between the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and My Ántonia. It's true that both are set in the American Mid West in the 19th century but the Ingalls Wilder books are written for children so I was not expecting too many parallels. However, the landscape described in Cather's book, with the flat land and waving red grasses and dug-out houses, was very familiar to me from reading Little House in the Prairie as a child. The description of Black Hawk, the small town where Burden goes to school and Ántonia works as a hired girl, reminds me of the town where Laura and her family move for her high school years in the sequel Little Town on the Prairie. However, I don't remember the immigrant theme being particularly developed in the Ingalls Wilder books and this was central to My Ántonia.

It was really interesting to have the book peopled with Bohemians and Russians and Norwegians and to show the differences and commonalities with everyone else. For example, the importance the Bohemian family attaches to finding a Catholic priest to say masses for their father's soul, rather than buying a new coat for the youngest girl to wear in winter. Or how the oldest children don't get the chance to go to school because they have to work and help support the family, but the younger ones do. We see all of this through the narrator's eyes and he is a great champion for the immigrants - passionate about how full of life and vigour the immigrant girls were compared with everyone else.

The structure of the novel is quite interesting - the story is told in episodes from various stages of the narrator's life. Although it's more or less chronological, in some ways it feels more like a portrait than a novel. I mean that in a good way - I found it very easy to read with wonderful language but the lasting impression at the end is a snapshot of particular people at a particular place over a number of years in a particular period in time rather than one character's story.

41 down, 59 to go.

25 January 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is the tale of the Francie Nolan and her family, growing up poor in early 20th century Brooklyn. It's a portrait of the poor people of Brooklyn and of Francie herself, an intelligent, imaginative child. The dogged determination of the tree growing up towards the sunlight, no matter what the obstacles, is a poignant metaphor for Francie's coming of age. The writing has a deft but light touch and interesting in the way that it does not progress in a strictly linear fashion.

It reminded me a fair bit of Ruth Park's The Harp in the South, which is set in the slums of inner-city Sydney during the Great Depression. It's also about a poor Irish immigrant family in the new world and the challenges and prejudices they face, although it's set about 20-30 years later than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and in a different city, on a different continent.

40 down, 60 to go...

01 December 2007

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This is about the loss of identity and sense of self of the tribal people of what is modern day Nigeria during the colonisation by England in the 19th century.

It is told through the experience of one man and his own loss of identity and sense of self as he grapples with the changing world around him. He was once a proud and strong - and often cruel - leader of men but now everything that was once certain is changing.

It's a slim book; very short and very easy to read. It provides a fascinating insight into the culture of the Nigerian tribes (it reminded me in many ways of the Highland tribes of Papua New Guinea) and it is also a moving emotional journey.

39 down, 61 to go...

01 May 2007

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is set mostly in the West Indies and the writing feels as lush and vivid as its setting. A young girl marries a man she barely knows. He is attentive at first but then gossip poisons his mind against her, with devastating results.

The time is the mid-nineteenth century and it was extremely interesting reading about the post-slavery society and the relationship between black and white people. Many of the white people have fallen on very hard times so their lives are not always as different as one might imagine.

Particularly interesting for literature fans is the fact that the novel was inspired by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Although it never says so explicitly, Antoinette's husband is Rochester and this is the story of her unfolding madness.

I haven't read Jane Eyre in years but it's tempting to do so as I think Wide Sargasso Sea would be worth re-reading with the Bronte novel fresh in my mind.

38 down, 62 to go.

28 January 2007

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I first read Animal Farm for English class in high school, back when I was fifteen years old. We were told of course that it was based on the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinist Russia, but I was yet to formally study Russian history. Re-reading it now, it is striking how closely the plot of Animal Farm follows Soviet history. Orwell invents almost nothing and all his characters are either modelled on real historical figures (eg. Napoleon is Stalin and Snowball is Trotsky) or broader social groups (eg. Boxer is the working classes, while Mollie is the bourgeoisie). At the time of Animal Farm's publication, Stalin was a crucial ally in the war against Nazi Germany and fascism and it was considered very impolitic to criticise him. The novel was almost not published because of the prevailing political mores and the self-censorship of British publishers at the time.

Clearly, it was not many years later that criticising Stalin and Soviet Russia became decidedly less controversial in the West. However, the novel did not lose its ability to disturb the Powers That Be, especially in the United States, when publishers learned that Orwell intended the novel to apply to the inherent dangers of all revolutions and not just the particular case of Russia.

Despite the close parallels to Soviet history, the novel clearly has broader relevance. The central lesson of Animal Farm is that power corrupts and the citizens of a country need to be eternally vigilant about loss of freedom or civil rights. Governments should be trusted only as far as is absolutely necessary and be held to regular account. This does not apply only to revolutions, for the situation was not much better under Mr Jones in the novel or the Romanovs in real life.

We all have a duty to vote and to engage with the political process at all levels. The alternative is the erosion of freedom and the encroachment of tyranny. Britain is now a full-on surveillance state, with one CCTV camera for every 14 people. Just as the pigs of Animal Farm would cry "you don't want Jones back, do you?" to justify any decision, from appropriating the apples to abolishing weekly meetings, our governments frequently use the threat of terrorism or criminality to justify restricting our freedom.

Of course, I'm not trying to say that Blair is Stalin or anything of the sort; what I am saying, is that we shouldn't just accept something like ID cards with the blithe argument that "if you're not a terrorist or a criminal, you don't have anything to worry about". I know of too many cases where police have planted evidence (eg. in the 1970s the police would raid hippie houses and if they didn't find any drugs, they would plant them, reasoning that they must have hidden them) to be that trusting. And I know too much about technology to believe that the government has the know-how to keep a central database of every citizen's private information secure from hackers, some of whom may be the very criminals and terrorists we're supposed to be protected from.

Since I've already read this, I'm still at 37 down, 63 to go...

14 September 2006

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

A Passage to India was published in 1924, as India stood on the threshold of great changes. The portrait it paints of Anglo-India (the British in India) is quite damning and the portrayal of the Indians is not especially flattering either. The Brits were nearly all close-minded snobs and the natives were overly emotional and inclined to value form and courtesy over truth and genuine compassion.

I felt claustrophobic reading this novel as if I were forced to choose between the tiresome and confined world of the Anglo-Indians or the grinding poverty and daily humiliation of the Indians. There was no sense of openness or freedom; everything seemed narrow and closed.

To be completely honest, I found this book a hard slog. I didn't find any of the characters especially sympathetic, the plot was hardly gripping and the device of Adela's psychological condition after the incident in the caves felt contrived and untrue. The novel covers rich thematic territory but without the emotional engagement it all felt a bit abstract.

I know Forster is rated very highly and I would be willing to try again with some of his other novels such as Howard's End or A Room with a View. I am not saying that A Passage to India is a bad novel and indeed I can see why others might like it. However, it is my personal response to literature that matters to me and ultimately this novel neither moved nor interested me.

I read this book through BookCrossing - see all journal entries for this copy here.

37 down, 63 to go...

10 September 2006

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

This is really a novella rather than a novel and it certainly doesn't have the epic scope of The Grapes of Wrath. However, it is a moving portrayal of friendship, betrayal and hard decisions. I found it easy to read, tightly structured and well paced. The contrast between dreams and reality was quite striking, especially the recurring evocation of the dream farm with its the rabbits.

36 down, 64 to go...