Saturday, October 22, 2022

The 306 Greatest Books #174 - Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The book can be found on the Observer Book List.

Jim Dixon is a first year college professor who seems to be on the verge of losing his job and keeps blundering at any attempts to make things better. On the surface this would seem like an ideal book for me as a former college professor who did also only teach for one year (through no fault of my own though, as I was only hired as a one year temporary fill-in). The book is surprisingly funny and often subtle about it's humor. The characters are all extremely well written and you very quickly get the sense of what each character is and how you should feel about them. And even though the book is slightly male-orientated and misogynistic, it's actually far better than many contemporary works that are hailed far more than this book is. So, overall, I enjoyed reading this. I do however have a problem with it being considered one of the "100 Greatest Books of all time". It's not. I mean it is a good book, and an enjoyable read, but I would classify it as "fine". There is nothing overly special about the book and nothing to write home about. I would recommend it as a quick, humorous, look at the life of a first-year college professor, but other than that it's really just a burner book, read it and move on.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

The 306 Greatest Books #173 - Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The book can be found on the Observer and BBC Book Lists.

The phrase "Catch-22" has become transcendent from the original novel from which it was sparked but I never fully understood what a "Catch-22" was or how exactly it originated. I knew that it was something that was impossible because of conflicting events. You couldn't do A unless you did B first, but you couldn't do B unless you did A first. So it ends up being something impossible. However, I have now learned what it means in respect to the novel. Catch-22 is a war novel set during the latter days of World War II. In here a "Catch-22" is something that happens in response to a soldier trying to get discharged from the army because they was felt they were mentally unfit, or in essence "crazy". All one had to do was go to the doctor and tell them you were crazy to get discharged. However, if you were able to tell the doctor that you were crazy, then you had to be sane enough to know that, and so you were not in fact crazy and therefore couldn't be discharged. The story of the novel itself plays out much like a M*A*S*H or an F Troop (if anyone still remembers those shows) which are all satirical military stories. Throughout the novel there constantly are incidents and conversations that are downright laugh out loud funny. But as the novel proceeds, you can tell that the tone shifts from humorous to more serious as many of the main characters start to die or be killed off. It is an interesting take on the genre and one that I was fully invested in. At least, at first. As I proceeded through the novel I noticed that the vast majority of the characters were all male, most of whom were white, which would make sense for the time period and setting it was set in. However, all of the women in the story were either prostitutes or treated as such. All of them barely had any dialogue, if any at all, and most of them were treated in the worst ways possible. Sexual assault was treated as a joke while rape and murder were blown off by the local police because the woman didn't matter. The blatant misogyny was a bit overwhelming, but not only that but the complete disregard for women at all in the novel. They were set pieces to be used or abused as needed and then discarded when their time was over. And so while I can understand why this could be considered a great novel of its time, it has not weathered the test of time very well and I can't recommend that people wade into it unless they really want to. 


Thursday, July 7, 2022

The 306 Greatest Books #172 - Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. The book can be found on the BBC and My Book Lists.

Night Watch is the 29th book in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, with several other books having also made it onto the BBC 100 Greatest Books list including The Colour Magic, Mort, and Guards! Guards! Having started the first book of the series (The Colour Magic) I have slowly been working my way through all of them so that I could read them in release order, having finally gotten to Night Watch. Throughout the first 29 books (totaling more than 40 in the series), there have been multiple story lines that have appeared with many of the books having absolutely nothing to do with any of the other books except that the location was on the Discworld. Of these varying storylines, Night Watch is the 6th book focusing on the Night Watch, a series of books that began with Guards! Guards!. Having read them all (up until this point) I can say that the Night Watch novels have not been my favorite of the bunch, but they have generally been enjoyable. This book, however, was quite different from all of the preceding stories. Generally the books are about the Watch as a whole, led by Commander Vimes, with many other Watchmen included in the mix. The number of different Watchmen slowly increasing over the course of the series. And while you don't need to read the entire series to understand and enjoy the books, it definitely does help when character names are mentioned and previous plot points pop up here or there. In fact this entire story starts with the murder of a Watchman (off screen), which we had known from quite a few of the previous stories. We are quickly time traveling with Vimes (through the use of magic) to back when he was a young recruit in the Watch and his history takes an interesting turn. Although my feelings on the Watch novels are generally so-so, this one felt so different from the others that I did greatly enjoy it. It was new and fresh but with many of the same characters we had seen introduced in a wide array of the previous books. And although the Discworld books are generally satirical, I felt that this one was more serious in nature. Pratchett's writing is still spot on and hilarious at times but I felt he was more going for a serious narrative and one that he hit amazingly well. This is likely one of the best of the Discworld books and one I would definitely recommend. I feel that even if you were to read this book without all the backstory from the other books there isn't much you would be missing. Highly recommend. 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

The 306 Greatest Books #171 - Gilgamesh

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Gilgamesh by an unknown author. The book can be found on the Norwegian and My Book Lists.

Gilgamesh is one of, if not the, oldest story known today. Written at least 4,000 years ago, it was originally found on a series of clay tablets in the cuneiform language. When originally discovered, we had not yet cracked the cuneiform code and therefore the story sat without us knowing what we had. Roughly 150 years ago linguists cracked the cuneiform code and the story of Gilgamesh was slowly realized and spread out among the world. So despite it being likely the oldest story we have today, it is still fairly young to modern literature, as opposed to The Iliad and The Odyssey. Written as an epic poem, Gilgamesh has not faired completely unharmed through the ages. The story itself is littered with missing words and whole sections of the story just missing. These gaps represent where tablets were illegible or even completely broken apart. The gaps cause a lot of the story to remain unknown, however, luckily, the story has a tendency to repeat itself. A lot. This allows us, as the reader, to potentially piece together many of the missing sections. The repeated sections also adds to the theory that this was originally meant to be presented in front of a live audience. Unfortunately though, the many, many repeated sections in written form have a tendency to get glossed over by the reader. The story itself tells of the ancient Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh who stands over 18 feet tall. Across the 12 known tablets, Gilgamesh battles the guardian Humbaba, he makes some friends along the way, and eventually becomes part of the tale of a great flood sent by the gods to inundate the world. There is even a boat that needs to be built in order to survive the flood (with specific building measurements given). This story, although near identical to the biblical account of the flood, was written over a thousand years earlier resulting in a very interesting history lesson. Overall I found the story of Gilgamesh to be alright on its own, however I found the most fascinating part was the history behind the story and all the contexts interlaid within the story itself. I highly recommend the Sophus Helle translated version, which includes essays about the epic and provides much needed context about various parts of the story. Being the foundational work of essentially the civilization that followed makes me want to recommend this work to everyone.   

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The 306 Greatest Books #170 - The Plague by Albert Camus

 The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is The Plague by Albert Camus. The book can be found on the Observer and My Book Lists.

Despite this book being added to a 100 greatest books list that was compiled in 2003, it is more perfectly timed for right now than any other book I have read on any of the lists. It feels as if it were made for the "post Covid times" (whether we have reached that yet or not) and fits into the narrative that we all have been living for the last two years. Based on the cholera epidemic of the 1800's, the book takes place in the French Algerian city of Oran during the 1940's (I assume post WWII). The story starts off with first hand accounts of rats dropping dead all over the city and proceeds from there into full lockdowns and hospital clinics being overwhelmed. You can physically match the trajectory of the story to the Covid pandemic (without the rats) and as each phase was entered in the story I was able to place that in our own timeframe. With the narrative set up through the use of first hand accounts and journal articles it also feels phenomenally like World War Z, however the similarities do diverge as this story progresses and the reliance on journal articles and first hand accounts is not as pronounced. The entire story is also guided by an unknown narrator, whom we find out who is at the end of the story. It is an enjoyable story and one I would actually recommend, more so now than probably I would have 3 years ago.