Friday, April 29, 2011

#34 - "The Sheltering Sky" by Paul Bowles

I've now finished The Sheltering Sky, my 34th book from The List.  And, it marks the fifth book from The List that I'd heard of neither the book or the author.  I like to consider myself 'in the know' but it's true; I'd never heard of this book or author Paul Bowles until I first came across this list.  It joins Lucky Jim, Snow Crash, Play it as it Lays, and The Heart is a Lonely HunterAnd taking a quick glance of said list, there are quite few more as well.

The Sheltering Sky (P.S.)The Sheltering Sky takes place in North Africa in the late 40's, and follows three Americans as they travel the area.  They are Port and Kit, a young married couple, and their friend Tunner, and together they venture deeper and deeper into the desert, unsure of what they seek, but determined to find it.  But the farther they stray from 'civilization', the more their lives unravel, until it's one debacle after another.

While I read this book, I found myself fascinated with the journey, jealous of people who could pick up their lives and venture to Africa's hinterlands for an undetermined amount of time and without any kind of plan or destination.  The experience of different cultures, far from the typical tourist spots most people visit, is incredibly appealing, but at the same time frightening.  And many of the reasons for those fears are played out in The Sheltering Sky.  As the trio delves deeper into the culture and closer to the locals around them, they drift apart from each other and things take a turn for the worse.

The story and setting were interesting and well written, but I'm still undecided on the main characters.  Or better yet, I'm unable to figure them out.  At times I found myself cheering with great interest, for Port and Kit, whose marriage seems rocky at the best of times.  But there would always be some seed of doubt about both of them.  Whether it would be something they said or did, or more often than not something they didn't say or do, there was just something that stopped me from really getting on board with either of them.  By the end of the book, I was of the conclusion that although interested in their story, I didn't really like them as people.  This probably made their tragic fates a little easier to accept.

In the final of three parts to this book, Kit, on her own, ventures into the desert, where she experiences a series of rather tragic events.  Said Richard Lacayo, co-creator of this very list, "...when Kit is given over to her fate in the desert, (it) is one of the damnedest things you will ever read."  And much of it is quite disturbing.  But what struck me about it was the way in which it was told.  Bowles was able to set a, at times, horrifying scene, through wonderful descriptions and prose, but without any detailed or graphic descriptions.  Like how a Hitchcock movie creates suspense without blood and violence, Bowles is able to create a dreadful situation with the same technique.  Of course I really have no problem with graphic descriptions of violence or sex, nor 'offensive language' so it's not that I'm relieved/glad it wasn't used.  I just noticed the author took the road less travelled, so to speak.  I guess it can be chalked up to good writing.

Despite my difficulties with the characters, I truly found this book to be a 'page-turner,' and was always eager to see what would happen next.  Even if I knew it wasn't going to be pretty.

Read Time magazine's original review from December 5, 1949 here.

For number thirty-five, I have officially entered the ring for a no holds barred match against Gone with the Wind.  At  957 pages it will be over 200 shorter than Infinite Jest, but still quite a read.  My plan is for 50 pages per day, meaning I finish this behemoth on May 15th.  Through 60 pages, I'm happy to report I'm already finding it a much more pleasurable read than the other gigantic one.

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