From Books

Seventeen Books – 2016 Part #3

Another deferred post. I read these seventeen books in the last five months or so of 2016, and jotted down most of these notes at the same time. It’s taken me this long to edit them, scrape the best part of this post (the shiny book cover images) from the Internet, and to add the all-important links and footnotes. Now I can publish this vital piece of self abuse for all to savor. Don’t mention it!

As you have come to expect, 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  are identified with nifty color-coded rankings.
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  • Smiley's PeopleJohn le CarréSmiley’s People (1979)
       The final chapter in le Carré’s “Smiley” trilogy (following Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy). I discovered the novels of le Carré only two or three years ago (they were hiding in plain sight), but I will really miss George Smiley. I guess he does appear as a peripheral character in a few other of le Carré’s spy thrillers (including one I’ve read, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), but still it feels like a death. Who knew–certainly I didn’t–how much I would enjoy these works? They really rise above the marginalizing “genre fiction” label I might have ignorantly applied to them before reading. David Cornwell (John le Carré is a pen name) is a really fine writer.
     
    The Cold War is the backdrop for this and many of le Carré’s novels. But the Cold War is over, right?

  • The Power of MythJoseph Campbell with Bill MoyersThe Power of Myth (1988)
       A companion book to the 1988 PBS series of the same name. The television programs and the book present a series of conversations between Bill Moyers and the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Either format provides a fine introduction to Campbell’s fascinating work. I taped the TV programs on VHS tapes way back in day. I no longer own a VCR, but the programs are available on YouTube. Watch or read and you may be inspired to read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, or perhaps even his multi-volume The Masks of God. You could find worse ways to fiddle away these dark days.

  • Time’s ArrowMartin AmisTime’s Arrow (1991)
       A very strange and unsettling novel. We experience the protagonist’s life in reverse as it is narrated by the voice of his confused inner presence. The identity of this voice remains a mystery until, perhaps, the end of the novel (which coincides with the protagonist’s birth). I use the qualifying “perhaps” because I don’t really know what I believe. It may be his conscience–he certainly needs one–but it remains unclear. There is nothing I can write about this one without revealing too much. Not that I have anything interesting to say. Read it, though.

  • It Can't Happen HereSinclair LewisIt Can’t Happen Here (1935)
       I am a big fan of Sinclair Lewis. At least I am a big fan of four or five of his novels. Not this one, though. Didn’t care much for it when I first read it back in 1983 and can’t say this re-read did much to change my mind.[1] Why did I bother? Because America elected Senator Windrip, and so now it has happened here. Oh, Trump is no Windrip really. Where Windrip is an empty suit, a folksy populist, and a fraud with fascist tendencies, Trump is an empty suit, a vulgar populist, and a mentally-ill fraud with fascist tendencies. Much different.
     
    Yes, the book is somewhat interesting now as a flawed cautionary tale, but it’s just not a very good or entertaining story. The best of Lewis’s novels can seem dated (of course) and quaint. This one fatally so.

  • The Thousand-Mile WarBrian GarfieldThe Thousand-Mile War (1969)
       A full account of the “forgotten campaign” of World War II, the United States’s costly battles to recapture Aleutian Islands invaded and occupied by Japan. It is doubtful there has ever been such an expensive fight–in terms of money and human life–over such a poor prize as this one. Principally it was a fight over the remote and desolate island of Attu. A US naval air base was constructed in an absurdly short period of time on the only somewhat less remote and desolate island of Adak, and it was from this rain-muddied, bitterly-cold and wind-battered outpost that the crazily tough and brave US pilots, sailors and, finally, ground troops were able to eject (kill) the unfortunate, exposed, and largely abandoned Japanese occupying force. It is quite a story.
     
    In 1983-1984 I was stationed on Adak, affectionately (really!) known as “the Rock” to those of us lucky to have served there during a more peaceful time.

  • The Postman Always Rings Twice 10   James M. CainThe Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
       Pulp fiction? Maybe. Greek tragedy as crime noir. Gripping. No postman in evidence.

  • Counter-Clock WorldPhilip K. DickCounter-Clock World (1969)
       This seemed to be a good place to visit shortly after reading Amis’s Time’s Arrow. I did know something about the plot going in (beyond the obvious giveaway of the title), so, I thought, a thematic diptych![2]
     
    Counter-Clock World is made of the endlessly bizarre, inventive stuff of Philip K Dick’s hallucinogenic imagination. It doesn’t pay to think too deeply about the illogical bits of his dystopian visions. Best, I think, to just enjoy the colorful and disorienting views.

  • Lord of the Flies 21   William GouldingLord of the Flies (1954)
       Along with just about every other kid attending junior high and high school in this country in the 1970s, I was assigned to read this book. I can’t remember how old I was when I did, or even whether I was in junior or senior high at the time. I do remember that I didn’t enjoy it. I really wish I knew why. Probably as simple as that I had to read it and/or that I procrastinated until the evening before my book report was due and had to skim quickly through it and write a two-page, double-spaced report in longhand.
     
    This is a book my younger self should have enjoyed. I read a lot as a kid, but I was no precocious literary critic. I wouldn’t have grokked[3] much of of the allegorical significance of the novel, probably, but as an action-packed island adventure, I should have loved it. I do remember reading Robinson Crusoe and longing to find myself stranded alone on an uncharted island[4]. This tale should have tempered my yearning at least somewhat.

  • Darwin's IslandSteve JonesDarwin’s Island (2009)
       There is one small island in the Galapagos named Darwin Island. This book, however, is concerned not with it, but with the island home of Charles Darwin, Great Britain. It is on this “sceptered isle” that the great naturalist worked out his history-changing ideas. Both before and after his voyage on the Beagle, it was England and its flora, fauna, and geology that provided the book of nature from which Darwin was able to learn so much.
     
    This is just a delightful book. Never dull, it manages to paint a lovely portrait of the man and his methods, while not failing to clearly and concisely illuminate the power and importance of his work.

  • The Flying ScotsmanQuinn FawcettThe Flying Scotsman (1999)
       Third book in the authors’[5] quartet of Mycroft Holmes novels. The familiar cast of characters is back: Mycroft’s Watson, Guthrie; his valet (his Bunter?), Tyers; his thespian double, Sutton; and not least of all, the mysterious and alluring Miss Gatspy. Alluring to Guthrie, that is. Mycroft Holmes is above that sort of thing. (Throughout the novel, Holmes needles Guthrie by referring to her as your Miss Gatspy.) The book’s title refers to a train running between London and Edinburgh on which the action takes place.
     
    Again (I’ve written it before), these novels will appeal to fans of Mycroft’s brother Sherlock, and especially to those like me who are fascinated by the thriving cottage industry of “Holmesian Apocrypha.”[6] Light entertainment for sure, but as Paul McCartney sang, “What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?”

  • Brideshead Revisited 33   Evelyn WaughBrideshead Revisited (1945)
       The Flyte family is a piece of work! Unhappy in their marriages and stifled by their Roman Catholic faith. Thou shalt not divorce, of course. Also, thou shalt not be homosexual. But for the Flytes of Brideshead Castle, in the end nothing is as important as their faith (except maybe appearances). No matter how unhappily stifled they may be, the bosom of the mother church is their home. Charles Ryder is our narrator and finds himself sucked first into the family’s malaise and, later, into its church as well. He falls for the younger son Sebastian and then for his sister Julia. He can’t have either, of course.
     
    I liked the novel a lot more than that incoherent and vaguely hostile paragraph must make it seem. It reminds me quite a bit of the Catholic novels of Graham Greene (The End of the Affair and Brighton Rock for two). The London scenes involving Ryder and his father are Dickensian funny.

  • Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal SurvivalBernd HeinrichWinter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival (2003)
       A great book. If you love the natural world and find beauty in its secrets, this book is for you. In fact, all of Heinrich’s books are for you. I wrote at length about this one in “Heinrich’s World”. You’ll even find two lovingly-culled excerpts from the book there to whet your appetite.

  • Ready Player OneErnest ClineReady Player One (2011)
       One of my therapists at the VA, knowing I had been reading SciFi, recommended this novel. Later, while I was reading it, a friend recommended it to me in a Facebook post. Neither was wrong. I enjoyed it. I’m thinking it may be a “one-off” for the author. It is an interesting concept and should make a fun movie (reportedly, Steven Spielberg will direct a 2018 release), but I will be surprised if Cline duplicates his success anytime soon. The writing is nothing special and the ending is a bit of an anticlimax. But it’s an enjoyable ride. It will be (probably already has been) read with great enthusiasm by 1980s video gamers.
     
    The book creatively employs 1980s pop music throughout. I had the idea of creating a YouTube playlist of every track mentioned. Ultimately, I abandoned the idea–I’m sure Spielberg’s soundtrack will suffice should I ever feel the need to indulge. Since I went through the trouble of jotting down the name of every track, I might as well share the complete list.

  • Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective AgencyDouglas AdamsDirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987)
       Just as much fun as his Hitchhiker’s Guide series. According to a blurb on the back of the paperback, “There is a tradition of Great Detectives, and Dirk Gently does not belong to it.” But who can resist a detective who claims as his first success a case involving the object of a poorly–executed Schroedinger’s Cat experiment?

    “Oh, that. Well, some researchers were once conducting such an experiment, but when they opened up the box, the cat was neither alive nor dead but was in fact completely missing, and they called me in to investigate. I was able to deduce that nothing very dramatic had happened. The cat had merely got fed up with being repeatedly locked up in a box and occasionally gassed and had taken the first opportunity to hoof it through the window. It was for me the work of a moment to set a saucer of milk by the window and call ‘Bernice’ in an enticing voice—the cat’s name was Bernice, you understand—”
     
    “Now, wait a minute—” said Richard.
     
    “—and the cat was soon restored. A simple enough matter, but it seemed to create quite an impression in certain circles, and soon one thing led to another as they do and it all culminated in the thriving career you see before you.”


  • Killing the SquirrelBruce DennlerKilling the Squirrel (2014)
       This is an impressive debut novel written by a high school friend of mine. I really enjoyed it and posted an enthusiastic endorsement of it here in the cleverly-titled post, Killing the Squirrel. In it, I somehow failed to mention the novel’s bit of Madison Avenue brilliance, the yogurt-shilling “Health-conscious Camel.”

  • The Things They CarriedTim O’BrienThe Things They Carried (1990)
       A memoir disguised as fiction? It is hard to say what is autobiographical and what is not in this collection of related short stories. The author includes himself as a character: a character sharing a name and biographical details with the author. This makes the book read very much like a cathartic memoir. Which, I would guess, thinly-disguised and augmented, it largely is.
     
    A remarkable, unforgettable book. Sad. Edwin Starr’s “War (What is it Good For?)” in prose.

  • The Scottish PloyQuinn FawcettThe Scottish Ploy (2000)
       See above for my keen observations on the previous book in this series, The Flying Scotsman. Since I cagily avoided any actual discussion of the book, it applies just as well to this one. All but the bit about the train, that is. The title of this novel alludes to Macbeth, and Shakespeare’s tragedy does play a peripheral role in this Mycroft Holmes adventure.
     
    This is the final book in a four-book series. I was disappointed in the muted “sort of” resolution to the series’s unlikely Guthrie-Gatspy subplot. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the authors had intended to continue the series and, facing a change of plans, dashed off the quick, unsatisfying scene.

See also:

Ten Books – 2016 Part #1
Ten Books – 2016 Part #2
113 Great 20th Century Novels
46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels
45 Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels

 

Notes

  1. Enroute from Adak Island, AK to Coos Bay, OR. Riding comfortably in an Air Force C-130.Here is a photo of my 23-year-old self, not really caring much for It Can’t Happen Here more than half a lifetime ago. [^]
  2. I’ve always wanted to use the word “diptych.” It’s not an easy word to slip into a casual conversation. [^]
  3. “Grok” was coined by Robert Heinlein in his 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, so it is anachronistic used in reference to my junior high school self. [^]
  4. Alone, except for my own Friday, that is. My Friday I imagined as Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island. If her friend Ginger were along, well okay. But that’s it. [^]
  5. “Quinn Fawcett” is the nom de plume of co-authors Bill Fawcett end Chelsea Quinn Yarbrough. [^]
  6. My favorite series has been Nicholas Meyer’s trio, the best known of which, The Seven Per-Cent Solution, was adapted for Hollywood. Local author Larry Millet created a series of Sherlock-in-Minnesota novels. Innumerable examples in print exist, which is to say nothing of the variety of film and television adaptations. [^]