Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

The Grapes of Wrath
A big topic of conversation these days is the idea that we currently live in the Anthropocene Era; that is, the era defined by the effects of human beings on the natural world, most tellingly the climate.  At the same time, there are frequent news stories of “eco-refugees” – people seeking asylum because weather disasters have made their home countries uninhabitable. The linking idea is that human endeavors have caused catastrophic changes to the natural environment, with the result being earthquakes, tsunamis, and droughts that forever alter landscapes and resources.
            With this lens, John Steinbeck’s epic, The Grapes of Wrath (#10 on The Modern Library’s list), has renewed relevance.
            People live in the natural world, but people also (and no other species does this) impose artificiality on it. Nature reacts, in turn imposing conditions that make it impossible for people to live in the environment. Is a dust bowl a “natural” disaster when over-farming and over-population have rendered an area of land incapable of recovering from a cyclical drought?  The natural and the political collide.
            The Grapes of Wrath is a great novel for many reasons, but it is especially intriguing to perceive its echoes in our own time. The novel tells the story of the Joads, who have to leave Oklahoma and try to head for greener pastures, quite literally.  They are among a vast migration of people who left their homes and tried to make it to California, where the farming was excellent and jobs were in abundance.  They are extremely poor people, like so many migrants of our current age, with nothing left to lose but health and life. 
            It is significant that the novel starts with descriptions of the landscape and weather.  A turtle makes an appearance before any human does, and gains character and story trajectory in a passage in which the humans are anonymous agents in the turtle’s life.  This is a story of a world and its human inhabitants in battle with one another. 
            Steinbeck has a way with characters, and the compelling force of this story is the Joad family and the many people they encounter along the way.  It’s a great read, for all ages of readers, because of the language and style of the narrative with its biblical overtones, because of Steinbeck’s rendering of dialogue and dialect, and because of the sheer drama of it all.  It is, like many other novels on the list, a book you can’t put down. 
The novel is biblical not in the sense that it is trying to convey religious doctrine, but in the sense that it evokes the Judeo-Christian mythology that is the heritage of these Americans.  Good myths often involve a journey fraught with hardship and obstacles, illustrating the enduring character of people, promising something quasi-magical at the end, once the obstacles are overcome.  The traveler encounters other people along the way and shares stories and histories with them, thus breaking wide open his personal world and making him a citizen of the larger one.  This story has exactly all of these elements.
            America is a great land for migration because there are no political borders to cross.  Not to say that the Okies from the dust bowl were welcome in the communities they travelled to.  The poor and dispossessed are traditionally regarded with suspicion, their poverty seen as a mark of their undesirability at a basic level.  But in America, the fact of free movement has made migration a part of the country’s character.   People like the Joads leave their homes because they have to.  They can’t make a living in the destroyed land, and the financial institutions – always stronger than any individual – take away what little they own.  They repossess it, in fact, because the system of money lending means the people never really owned it to begin with.  So they acquiesce, they leave, they reach optimistically for the promised land. They journey and struggle and find moments of abject tragedy  and moments of beauty, strength, and community along the way.
            The Grapes of Wrath is a great American novel that should be read by everyone.


Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton is a prolific and reliable writer of the early 20th century who fits the category of true novelist. That is to say, though each of her novels certainly stands on its own, and it is possible to have a favorite among them, it is the cumulation of her insight and style that makes her work significant.
            On the Modern Library’s list are The Age of Innocence (#58) and The House of Mirth (#69).
            Like Henry James (who was a contemporary and friend) and Graham Greene, Wharton has a certain arena of life, a certain thematic thread, and a certain attitude on which she builds her stories, which make them recognizably hers.
            Wharton was an early feminist—a disposition that would be clear from her novels even if you were not aware of the biographical detail.  Her protagonists tend to be women who recognize the multiple layers of swaddling hindering them in their quest for identity and a place in the world. Reading these characters, it is not hard to see why the women’s liberation movement was bubbling up then.
            These novels are not political polemics, though.  They are good reads. They are solid stories told in clean prose of people in their ordinary lives (albeit from the distance of a century and with the details of “ordinary” that distance entails).  They are witty, realistic, and sensory, with characters who stick with you, like people you know.   The novels have the best quality a novel can have: You hate to reach the end.
            Wharton, like James, wrote about the higher classes of society.  Her realm was New York.  The people in her stories are privileged, or once were, and move in fancy environments, or those in contrast to their fancy norm.  Wharton writes about this milieu with knowledge but also with the stance of an outsider.  There is compassion in her attention to detail, but it is layered with wry skepticism. She might seem to be celebrating this society and its better qualities, but she is also exposing its absurdities and, more to the point, its dangerous qualities:  the psychologically denigrating expectations it imposes on its women.  Love gets cynical coverage in Wharton’s hands.  She is a masterful prose stylist and a masterful storyteller, so the dark side of romantic pairing can sneak up on you.  And of course marriage eligibility and the necessity of young women to be married are scoffed at.
The Age of Innocence involves a planned marriage between two people well suited, in societal terms, for each other that is disrupted by the appearance of a woman who is everything but suitable for society.  The Countess Ellen Olenska is an American who has married a foreign Count, which is good.  But she wants to divorce him, which is bad. There is mutual attraction with a man who is destined for the aforementioned suitable marriage.  Both behave honorably, but Ellen’s life defies the rules of her society, and so her actual behavior is irrelevant.
The House of Mirth involves a woman, Lily Bart, who at nearly 30 is almost too old to marry.  She contrives to keep a suitable partner on the hook while she explores the possibility of another partner, but the gears keep moving around her, putting her acceptable destiny and her desired destiny both in jeopardy.
Wharton’s humor is biting yet artful; her insight is deep and multidimensional.  She sees a whole world and has thoughts about it which she shares through nicely wrought scenes.  The opening paragraphs of The Age of Innocence, for instance, are very funny, painting a picture of the New York opera society and its patrons that stops just short of parody. These are not comedies, however.  Tragedy also permeates the novels, as it must when the central conflict is self against the world.


Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

The Heart of the Matter

Graham Greene is a writer who never disappoints.  Nevertheless, of his many novels published in the 20th century, only one—The Heart of the Matter—makes the Modern Library’s list at #40.
            Written and published at the tail end of World War II, set in Africa with British characters, this is a story about moralism. It involves a main character who commits acts against his core beliefs and then makes an ultimate decision that he understands to be a generous one designed to set things right again. The paradox is, however, that it represents a special kind of self-absorption: the superior notion that he has the right to determine what is best for others.  This is the attitude of the so-called “white man’s burden” espoused in tandem with imperialism.  This man, therefore, is a metaphor for the British in Africa.
            This novel is more than a fable or allegory.  A signature style of Greene’s is that his novels tend to have a detective-story feel, and also have something of an O. Henry twist to them. The story unfolds as if a mystery was presented to be solved. He writes with the sensibility of a filmmaker: the stories present themselves visually and viscerally. They are easy and engaging reads, while also intellectually and morally involved. 
            Greene published between the early 1920s, when he was himself only in his 20s, and the early 1980s, within a decade of his death.  His stories are contemporary to his time. This makes him truly a writer of the 20th century. Greene is a go-to writer for me.  Each of his novels is fully absorbing, of the kind that you’d rather not break from until it’s done, and then rather not have it done.  There is a similarity to them that borders on formulaic (like a detective novel), but his eye for detail and the depth of his compassion save them from being mere entertainments (though they can be that as well).  The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, and The Third Man top my list of favorites from Greene’s hand.  But The Heart of the Matter was singled out for acclaim, perhaps because of the overt moral argument it presents. Like The Bridge of San Luis Rey (reviewed in the previous column), this novel is one about Catholicism. The dogmatic ethics contrast with the seemingly unruly native society, allowing the story to explore the nature of adherence and accommodation.
Some of the ideas that arise from this story are these: Pity has erosive effects. Sticking to rules doesn’t work in the real world, not for everyone at least, not when the society is heterogeneous and imbalanced, when some people are privileged and some are not. Rules-following might be a luxury of privileged people.  Religious dogma, particularly Catholic tenets, might be suffocating, unsuited to real life by real people.  Life is unpredictable, and a single person cannot know what is best for other people or even for himself, even when his faith in himself is unshakeable.  People are intriguing.  Those we have to live with are baffling.  People might not get what they deserve; they might well just continue on in a life unburdened by the demands of consistency. 
Mostly, though, this novel falls in the category of a good read. Greene’s writing is flawless. His characters are believable while also representing a new world for the reader. The themes make you think and the plots keep you engaged. And because of his prolific output, one Graham Greene can lead to another, which is a good habit to have.  


Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The conceit of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (by Thorton Wilder, #37 on The Modern Library’s list) is that it’s written by a scholar 200 years after an incident—the collapse of a rope foot bridge—that had been explored and recounted at the time by a monk whose work was subsequently largely (but not entirely) lost.  Five people died when the bridge collapsed and the monk’s exploration of these lives was meant to reveal the meaning behind their deaths. Why these five people? Why together on this bridge?
            The monk, as would be expected, approaches from the premise of Catholicism, and with that bias seeks to confirm that God’s hand guides all events. The question he wants to answer is whether death is foretold in a person’s life. The questions the narrator (and the writer) seeks to answer are a bit more complicated.  One is, can we in this modern age accept the relatively easy premise of the first scholar’s work? 
            The novel is constructed in five parts. The first explains the circumstance of the story and the intent of the narrative. The next three tell the stories of the five people. The last examines the scientific inquiry that the monk brought to his analysis of the event. 
            There is something in the tone of the first and last sections that seems to be baiting our skepticism.  Even the titles of each section convey this: “Perhaps an Accident,” and “Perhaps an Intention.” The middle sections read as short stories in their own right, each standing on its own.  They are old-fashioned in style, not of the style of the modern short story, but in the style of an old tale of people and events that are of interest to later generations.
            The five people who died are connected in various ways in life. There are family relationships among some of them, and mentorship and patronage relationships among others.  Their stories are largely sad and plagued by dissatisfactions, but in the telling of them, they are all normal human stories, with nothing melodramatic to them. They are not overtly pointed toward the support of the monk’s theory, as might be the temptation in a less skilled writer’s hands. This collection of stories builds a philosophical inquiry told in considered and gentle prose. The key to this story is expressed in the last section:  “The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally presumed.”
Why read this book?  Like Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, this novel presents an intriguing view of Catholicism not just as a religion but as a cultural influence in the New World. The story takes place in Peru, and some of the characters are natives while others still have ties to old Spain. The characters span a range of classes.  The novel presents a world that is in setting, customs, and time foreign to American readers.  It keeps its distance with its overlay of modern perspective, but at the same time immerses the reader in the telling of the victims’ lives.  It is linguistically rich without a word going to waste. It is a tiny book, easy to read, readable in one sitting, that leads us into a state contemplation, pondering questions of cosmic significance.


Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

Books for Boys and Other Humans

There are two novels on the Modern Library’s list that are credited with turning generations of adolescent boys into readers of literature.  One is Lord of the Flies (#41, William Golding) and the other is Catcher in the Rye (#64, J.D. Salinger).
            To be sure, the primary appeal is that the characters themselves are adolescent boys, with their myriad confusing, angry, wild and joyful impulses, trying to make their way through to adulthood, that boring, concession-filled state.
            Both of these novels are extremely well known.  Lord of the Flies is a fantastical story of what would happen if a passel of boys were left to govern themselves (spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well).  Catcher in the Rye is a realistic story of a boy more or less alone in New York City and in life, or so he fears.
            With their being so well known, the question is, how did they achieve their status? What qualities have made each not only reach successive new generations of readers—or, more importantly, reluctant readers—but also endure as classics of literature with the ability to touch adult readers as well? These novels do not have a lot in common with one another on the surface.  What they do have in common is something that is a pillar of good storytelling: character.
            Think of Catcher in the Rye and you think of Holden Caulfield.  Holden could be your little brother, and with trepidation you watch him as you watch your brother struggle through his preternatural cynicism, knowing that he is unreachable, hoping he’ll make it okay to the other side. You understand his anger and confusion, his disgust with everything ordinary. You get a charge out of his foul-mouthed mode of expression, though you are supposed to disapprove.  You feel the undercurrent of his vulnerability. 
            If you are the little brother, you see in Holden a reflection of your own inner self.  Holden articulates for you what you’ve always felt to be impossible to articulate.  You love him, and thus love yourself.
            Your little brother could also go the way of the boys in Lord of the Flies. They are so ungovernable, yet longing for governance. They are unformed creatures sorely in need of a firm adult hand, that guidance that in this story is literally absent and in the lives of so many young people lacking in essence if not in body.
            Without someone to teach them and control them, they create their own hierarchies.  They play out the naturalness of the human animal in society. Their approach is a mix of instinct—for self-preservation, for dominance—and the inborn inclination to form a structure around themselves in order to create meaning beyond mere basic need.  Both instincts are equally human.  You can see how easily your little brother might become one of these archetypal members of society: the strong, the bullied, the wise, the incapable. And again, if you are the little brother, here is a range of characters you could mold yourself after, as well as those you secretly fear you are.
            Even as adults we struggle with these fears and aspirations: Who can I become, and what idiocies and unacceptable futures must I face down on my way?
            Thus both novels achieved something extraordinary.  They speak directly to the adolescent sensibility, particularly the male one (which is not so well served as the female).  And they embed themselves in the reader’s mind, so that the adult can read with a kind of duality, simultaneously as a wild adolescent and as the person he did eventually become.


Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.