From Books

Ten Books – 2016 Part #1


I won’t wait for the end of the year to produce one long post about my year’s reading. Instead, I will publish something after every ten books read (or so). This should keep my readership on the edge of its collective seat.

(As is my wont, I have indicated the books that show up on my self-compiled “Great Books of the 20th Century” lists. Placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists are identified with nifty color-coded rankings.)
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  • Seeing Further edited by Bill BrysonBill Bryson (ed.)Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society (2010)
       In recent years Bryson, probably still best known as a writer of popular and humorous memoirs (A Walk in the Woods, e.g.), has written several best-selling books on history, science and literature. In this instance he serves as editor of a collection of 20 essays about or inspired by the British Royal Academy of Science on the occasion of its 350th anniversary. The diverse collection of contributors includes James Gleick, Margaret Atwood, Richard Dawkins and Paul Davies.
     
    There are many excellent assays in this collection and I will not try to cite them all. For me, Novelist Maggie Gee’s contribution, “Beyond Ending: Looking into the Void,” an examination of apocalyptic thinking as it relates to climate change, stands out.

  • All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren 38   Robert Penn WarrenAll the King’s Men (1946)
       Stylistically and in its subject matter, this novel reminds me a lot of works by mystery genre writers, Dashiell Hammett in particular. The gritty inner workings of a corrupt, “old boys club” government is the milieu here (Hammett’s Red Harvest is a comparison), while the language and “feel” of the story certainly evokes classic American crime noir to me. Why are the works of Hammett, Raymond Chandler and others so often categorized as mere “pulp” while this and other similar works are not?
     
    This story is set in an unnamed Southern state and centers on the character Willie Stark. Louisiana and Huey Long, more or less. The narrator, Jack Burden, is a “researcher” (read: investigator, if not exactly a private eye).

  • The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey 38  Josephine TeyThe Franchise Affair (1948)
       Tey lands two novels on my 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels list, this one and The Daughter of Time. Neither is quite what might be expected from a “mystery novelist.” In Daughter, bedridden detective Alan Grant “investigates” Richard III’s (460-year-old) role in the murder of the princes in the tower. In Franchise Grant appears only as a minor character and if he investigates anything at all, we don’t read of it. Presumably he does more traditional detective work in the other five novels in which he is featured.
     
    The Franchise Affair is more of a classic whodunit than Daughter, but it is as much a romance as it is a mystery (with similarities to Dorothy L Sayers’s final two Lord Peter novels). A lawyer–not a gumshoe–gets to the bottom of the case.
     
    In both of these books, investigators put great stock in what they can read in the faces of suspects and others. Grant feels sure Richard III can’t have been a monster because of the “open and honest face” of his portrait. Likewise, the investigator in Franchise judges the suspect and her accuser almost immediately based on their faces and even the shape of their heads. Tey seems to have been a late believer in phrenology, but she is a fine read despite this bit of nonsense.

  • Anne Neville: Queen to Richard III by Michael HicksMichael HicksAnne Neville: Queen to Richard III (2007)
       I read this short history of Anne Neville not long after reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, watching the Starz series “The White Queen,” and shortly before seeing a staging of Shakespeare’s Richard III in Minneapolis. A year ago or so I watched Nova’s fascinating “Resurrecting Richard III.” A bit of a bunch-backed toad marathon.
     
    Hicks writes in his introduction about the paucity of direct historical traces of Queen Anne’s life and about the difficulty of writing a biography with such a lack of sources. Nevertheless, he accepts the challenge and–by careful reading of the copious primary source material on her father (Warwick, “the Kingmaker”), her husband Richard, and other contemporaries–he produces a book that is informative, compelling and never dull. Alison Weir gives it a “thumbs up” and so do I.

  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne *   Jules VerneTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870)
       This is the story of Professor Aronnax and two companions who were taken aboard Captain Nemo’s submarine the Nautilus, where there are kept captive for the better part of a year travelling more than 80,000 leagues across and under the world’s oceans and seas. They see a lot. Much of what they see is real and is described as realistically as 19th-century knowledge allowed. Other sites are mythological (the submerged continent of Atlantis) or creations of Verne’s imagination (an underwater tunnel connecting the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean Sea). Lots of fantastical sea life is described (Aronnax is a French Marine biologist): some real, some imagined.
     
    Verne is one of two or three “fathers of science fiction,” and this is one of his greatest works. His technical descriptions of the submarine are remarkable and anticipate advances far ahead of this book’s time. The bulk of the novel consists of discussions of sea life that can be confusing to a modern reader (me, anyway): is this a real creature or an imaginary one? The plot of the novel is exceedingly thin and we never really learn why Captain Nemo is who he is. I didn’t enjoy this as much as the novels of HG Wells (see my HG Wells, Clairvoyant?).

  • The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles 73   Paul BowlesThe Sheltering Sky (1949)
       Another post-colonial novel set in Africa. In this case, North Africa and the Sahara Desert. The combination of its setting and mood immediately evokes the novels of Albert Camus, but in the end I was reminded most of Patricia Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery and, though set in a very different milieu than that of its (unnamed) Congo River location, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Neither–especially Highsmith’s flaccid book–is much of a recommendation.
     
    I found this to be an engrossing read. Not upbeat, not “picturesque,” and not (to more modern sensibilities) an enlightened portrayal of the Arab and Sudanese characters on the periphery of the story. It is, though, a keen psychological portrait of the sad married American couple at its center. Worth reading.

  • Jesus Interrupted by Bart D ErhmanBart D ErhmanJesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (2009)
       In a recent blog post (The Tao of Einstein), I made a passing reference to contradictions in the Bible. I’m sure some who read it thought “where?” or “says you,” or the like. Curious to know what I meant? This book is a good place to start.
     
    Erhman is anathema to biblical fundamentalists. He is a New Testament scholar who writes for a popular (non-specialist) audience about the early years of the Christian church and of what 200 years of higher criticism has yielded for our understanding of the 27 books of the Christian testament and the myriad other writings of early Christians. That he is an ex-fundamentalist–a graduate of Wheaton College and the Union Theological Seminary–does not help his case with those committed to a belief in a literal, God-breathed Bible. This book certainly challenges their views, but more open-minded Christians should find his insights fascinating and, as he himself emphasizes, not incompatible with their faith.

  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark 35   Muriel SparkThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
       What an odd little book! Is it a feminist novel? Not really, but it does offer a portrait of a quirky “war spinster” (among the post-World War I generation of “surplus” British women) with some strong feminist traits. But Miss Brodie is in a category all her own. She is at once Calvinist and freethinking, romantic and modern, fascist and freedom-loving, repressed and liberated. She is a teacher, “in her prime,” with a six-strong coterie of protégées through whom she lives vicariously. She is an unforgettable character and this is an oddly entertaining little book.

  • Against the Brotherhood by Quinn FawcettQuinn FawcettAgainst the Brotherhood (1997)
       Ah, a selection from one of my favorite sub-genres: Sherlock Holmes apocrypha! This one lies on the periphery of the category. Sherlock is not a part of this story and is only mentioned in passing as the unnamed brother of Mycroft Holmes.
     
    Mycroft is mentioned in a handful of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canonical Holmes tales. He is described as being the older and smarter brother, large and uncouth with a “gross body” and a “dominant mind.” He is derided by Sherlock as having “no ambition and no energy” and is said to seldom venture out of the comfort of the Diogenes Club where he occasionally is consulted by the British government on matters of national security.
     
    In one mention, however, Sherlock tantalizingly reveals about Mycroft that “occasionally he is the British government [...] the most indispensable man in the country.”
     
    From these scattered hints, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Bill Fawcett (writing as Quinn Fawcett) created a four-novel cycle portraying Mycroft Holmes as anything but lacking in energy. His supposed lethargy is a ruse supported by a clever device.
     
    More than ten years ago I read two of these four novels. I enjoyed them very much and look forward to reading the complete cycle this year. Brotherhood is a re-read and lived up to my memory of it–the writers do an admirable job producing a satisfying adjunct to Doyle’s world; one with a fun, fresh twist.

  • How Birds Migrate by Paul KerlingerPaul KerlingerHow Birds Migrate (2009)
       A very nice and readable account of what we know about bird migration. If I weren’t already full of anticipation for spring migration (Warbler Weekend is less than a month away!), this book would have slapped some sense into me.
     
    There is a lot we do know about this fascinating subject. But if this book has a theme (beyond the obvious), it is that we still have so very much to learn about birds. There will be plenty of mysteries left to be explained by future generations of ornithologists. (This of course holds true for much, if not all of the natural world.)
     
    Near the beginning of the book, the author writes “Somebody once told me that analyzing and studying an animal demystifies it, making it less interesting and less awe inspiring. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more I study flight and migration, the more I appreciate birds.” I couldn’t agree more and I treasure the work he and others have done to share the joy of discovery with those of us not fortunate enough to be in the field working on these questions.

See also:

Ten Books – 2016 Part #2
Seventeen Books – 2016 Part #3
113 Great 20th Century Novels
46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels
45 Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels