99. The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy

Year Published: 1965
Pages: 347
First sentence: Today a rare sun of spring.
Rating: 1/3 (don't bother)

Approach The Ginger Man gingerly.

Well, not necessarily. Best not to approach this book at all, and save yourself the trouble of an acquaintance with Sebastian Dangerfield. It seems very likely (if not at all true) that he may be singlehandedly responsible for the generally bad feelings that people have towards the ginger race.

Who he is exactly isn't quite clear. The book simply jumps into his life and offers very few real explanations or introductions. He originated somewhere in the United States and ended up in Dublin shortly after World War II, leaving behind a very rich father. In theory he studies law at Trinity College, except that he never attends class. He has an English wife named Marion, who he beats, and a baby daughter. He cheats and steals and drinks, never appearing to think of anyone but himself. An exhaustive list of all the sins he commits throughout The Ginger Man would be exhausting to compile. Basically, Sebastian Dangerfield is a horrible human being--a blackguard, if you will (can we please bring that term back into common usage?). His Ireland is the Angela's Ashes one, not the jolly, Guinness-swilling, rainy, wool sweater one.

The book does work as a character study of Sebastian. The writing style is pretty intriguing, too, if not quite coherent. It's vaguely stream-of-consciousness, fluctuating without warning between first and third person, past and present tense. Also I'm pretty sure that there isn't a single speech tag in the entire novel. It's a testament to the author's skill that usually that isn't confusing.

The saving grace of The Ginger Man is that there are some really bright bits of humour. Sebastian is saved from being totally impossible to relate to by some odd poetic sense in some of his thoughts. Still, his adventures become tedious because he won't learn anything from them. I hope I'm not giving too much away, but by the end of the book I really didn't care if he lived or died.

I have a feeling I'm missing something going on under the surface, but oh well.

- - - - -
"Kenneth, is this not a fine country?"
"Look at that woman."
"I say, Kenneth, is this not a fine country?"
"Size of watermelons."
"Kenneth, you poor bastard."
- - - - -
She waves again. She smiles once more. Please come back and play with me. Your sensible clothing is sexy.
- - - - -
This house at the end of the street. Little do you know out there, you strollers and spies perhaps, how much despair and yelling for love goes on in this shrouded house.
- - - - -

R1. The Farmer Takes a Wife by Barbara Gale

(NB: Whereas I'm going to try to keep the Top 100 reviews as spoiler-free as possible, I'm pretty much doing the opposite for the romance novels. Also in lieu of the publishing year I'm including some more pertinent/hilarious information.  And let's not get ridiculous about ratings, either. -M.R.)

The Farmer Takes A Wife (Silhouette Special Edition)Pages: 245

Pairing: doctor and farmer
First Sentence: oops...
Climax: "Then the world spun and together they shattered into a million pieces."

Of course you can't expect great things from a book that takes its title from a children's song and yet professes to be a romance novel. All I wanted was a quick read with lots of purple sexual prose, and instead I got 245 pages of utter tedium. So I wasn't expecting great things at all. The bar was set so low it was practically on the ground.

And yet still I was disappointed. I admit I've never read a Harlequin romance novel before, but I thought these things would at least be edited! Instead there are mistakes and bizarre continuity issues throughout.

Okay so anyway, Dr. Maggie Tremont gets stranded in a remote mountain village in New Hampshire. She has an astonishingly bad flu. She is a barren old maid (40ish) from Boston. She's nursed back to health by an old lady and our hero, Rafe Burnside, a "reclusive" farmer who has an apple orchard, the admiration of the entire town (for some reason), broad shoulders, a broken heart, and an eight year-old son. Also he reads The Nation, which I had to look up.

Rafe's wife left him after the kid was born, and he's been something of a broken man ever since, which is apparently a good enough excuse for him to be a giant creep to Maggie, sleep with her, then tell her he's not interested, then agree to be just friends, and then randomly propose. Maggie, meanwhile, is pretty lonely in her life back in Boston, so she decides she might as well just move out to the town and singlehandedly revitalize it with a farmer's market. That doesn't explain why she accepts Rafe's proposal, though.

This is all a mess, of course. Basically there's sexual tension and heartache, except that none of it actually registers because the characters are all flat and not at all compelling. I hated Rafe and Maggie and nearly everyone else in the book. People in this book actually say the word "townsfolk" with straight faces. Also there's this very weird obsession with the term "medical care."

Also, one day I hope to discover why it's apparently not acceptable to use "swear words" in books that contain graphic depictions of sex.

- - - - -
Truthfully, Rafe was not annoyed. Actually, he was pretty pleased, Maggie just didn't know how to read him. He would've counted himself a fool not to realize his good fortune being tied—metaphorically speaking, of course—to an interesting woman like Maggie. Her energy, her smile and her kindness charmed the socks off Rafe.
- - - - -
Was that what they called a six-pack?
- - - - -
And then this scrawny, rain-soaked woman drives into Primrose on a godawful thunderous night, sneezing into a wad of dirty tissues—and his heart starts thumping like the Mad Hatter. (Is this simile as ridiculous as I suspect it is? -M.R.)
- - - - -
And all the ice cream in the world could not sweeten his pain.
- - - - -

100. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

The Magnificent Ambersons, Large-Print EditionYear Published: 1918
Pages: 427

First Sentence: Major Amberson had "made a fortune" in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then.

Well, the Ambersons are indeed magnificent.

Here is what little I know about this book: It was written by Booth Tarkington and published in 1918. It won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It's way better than I expected it to be (since in my previous experience, some of these "great books" tend to be pretty much unreadable). It's over 400 pages long in large print.

Basically the book is about George Amberson Minafer: son of Isabel Amberson, heir to his grandfather's magnificent fortune, and complete jackass, living somewhere in the middle of the United States at the turn of the last century. Because love works in the same mysterious ways that God supposedly does, George and Lucy Morgan fall in love. Lucy Morgan is the daughter of an automobile inventor, whereas George is hopelessly old-fashioned. There are a lot of other various shenanigans going on, not the least of which involve George's maiden aunt and bachelor uncle, who aren't actually together, but which logic dictates must totally be doing each other. The book says absolutely nothing about that, I just drew my own conclusions.

Don't get me wrong, though. There's a lot at work here besides the love story. Things about progress, and family, and money, and forgiveness. If you can get past the sort of stamps of the time ("darkies" and dependent women, for example), the book is pretty awesome. The style, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes scornful, but usually amusing, helps with navigating some of the passages where you really start to ponder the author's prejudices.

I've never actually read a book much like this before, or at least none that really dealt with this time period in this way. In a way it's sort of like reverse science fiction, because the book actually reads a lot like a science fiction novel examining the effect of a new technology on a society. In this case, however, the examination is of something that's already taken place.

It's also worth noting that a lot of our current environmental issues got their start around the same time as cars did, so although Lucy Morgan and her father are some of the book's more likeable characters, you kind of want to tell them to "git a hoss!" right along with George. (Not all of the dialogue is written like that, by the way, so don't worry.)

Anyway, read the book, riffraff!

- - - - -
The stairway was draughty: the steps were narrow and uncomfortable; no older person would have remained in such a place. Moreover, these two young people were strangers to each other; neither had said anything in which the other had discovered the slightest intrinsic interest; there had not arisen between them the beginnings of congeniality, or even of friendliness—but stairways near ballrooms have more to answer for than have moonlit lakes and mountain sunsets. Some day the laws of glamour must be discovered, because they are so important that the world would be wiser now if Sir Isaac Newton had been hit on the head, not by an apple, but by a young lady.

—there are some thoughts to which one closes the mind.

People no longer knew their neighbours as a matter of course; one lived for years next door to strangers—that sharpest of all the changes since the old days—and a friend would lose sight of a friend for a year, and not know it. (I find it really interesting seeing this sentiment expressed in a book from 1918, when everyone is always implying that this whole "alone in a crowd" thing is a recent development. Just further proof that nothing ever really changes. -M.R.)

Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

In Which A Mission Is Stated

I first encountered Modern Library's list of the top 100 novels quite a few years ago, probably thanks to some meme or other. Because I hadn't read many of the books on The List but wanted to read quite a few of them, I bookmarked the page and forgot about it.

Since then I've finished school and started reading again, and found that old bookmark. Lately I kept going back to The List, wanting to work my way through it, but... unsure. After all, it generated some bad press when it was first released, and there are other 100 best books lists. Notably, there is this list, where Modern Library's #1 book, Ulysses, finds itself in last place, far behind Confessions of a Shopaholic and The Da Vinci Code.

Although mostly That Other List makes me ashamed to call myself Canadian, I find the disparity between the two lists very interesting. Even Modern Library's readers (mostly scientologists, it looks like) disagree with "The Board" about the top 100 novels.

So I guess that's where I come in. I think I'm a pretty ordinary reader. Actually I'm an engineer, i.e. a member of a group not usually known for its artistic sensibilities. I took one three-credit English class in university, called "Reading Poetry." Before that I took ordinary high school English classes. I kid myself that I'll eventually read The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost and Le Morte d'Arthur, but none of those will make any more sense to me than Dante's Divine Comedy, which I struggled through for over a year.

And with little or no ability to pick out themes, or symbolism, or Shakespeare references, I'm going to review all of the books on The List, with the intention of determining which ones are worth reading, and which ones aren't. I can't guarantee insight, hilarity, or good grammar. I will guarantee the following two things: comma splices, and my own complete lack of good taste.

As if that wasn't enough, I'm also reviewing 100 random romance novels. Just to avoid getting too pretentious, and stuff.