Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan (2005)

For readers who are already familiar with Amy Tan novels, this novel will be surprising, because it does not concern itself with her usual specific examination of family dynamics, which she generally centers on the mother-daughter relationship. Instead, the focus is on the universal: on how the "do-goodism" of individuals and organizations and even governments can backfire, leading to tragic results rather than to the fortunate results that have been intended.

Tan's plot concerns a group of twelve tourists on an art expedition through China into the jungles of Burma, with the narrator of the story being the ghost of the tour organizer, who has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Without their intended leader, the group falls into several humorous mishaps before a Christmas Day boat cruise when eleven of the travelers disappear into the jungle.

The tone throughout is satirically humorous, as the tourist are held as captives, without ever realizing they are captives, by a tribe of natives who are hiding from the repressive military government. Tan slyly addresses such issues as the impact of media and the difficulty in separating what is real from what is fiction. As a plus, the narration of the knowledgeable ghostly tour guide provides interesting historical information.

The plot itself does have several gaping holes: How is it that the ghost can communicate with some characters through their dreams, but not with all? Why is the health-obsessed tourist who is equipped with all sorts of medical supplies not carrying medication for malaria, the most common ailment in the jungle? How clueless must the tourists be not to realize that they are actually prisoners?

Nevertheless, this is an entertaining book to read, although I'll have to say it is a bit depressing in the end.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Pursuit of Love/Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford (1945-1949)

It is always difficult for me, when reviewing a book, to separate my opinions about the merits of the book itself from my opinions about the actions of the characters. That separation is particularly hard with these two novels because the characters are all admittedly copied from the real life family and friends of the author and even modeled on the author herself in some cases, so they are not the typical "made-up people" of novels. Thus I could almost write two totally different reviews about these well regarded books -- one favorable and one condemnatory.

The first novel, The Pursuit of Love concerns the youthful upbringing of the aristocratic Radlett children, before concentrating of one of the daughters and her checkered love life. It is narrated by a cousin of the family, Franny, who also narrates the second book, Love in a Cold Climate, which concerns Franny's dear friend, Polly Hampton, who has a scandalous love affair.

In my favorable review I would say that these books are charmingly written, in a chatty and breezy manner, with sophisticated and witty dialogue. They are always comically satiric in tone and are often even chuckle-worthy. For those fascinated by Downton Abbey, they provide an alternate version of aristocratic English country life between the Wars, one that emphasizes the eccentricities and egocentric behaviors of the very privileged. I would characterize the novels as literary chick-lit with a bite.

In my condemnatory review I would say that the writing is also brittle and superficial and sometimes totally incongruous in tone to the situations, as when Mitford flippantly relates the death of a main character, or the still-birth of a child, or the sexual molestation of a young girl. I would say that people such as these are despicable, equivalent to current-day figures like Paris Hilton or the Kardashian clan, and that Mitford does not seem to satirize them to condemn but to display their misbehaving as humorous and even charming.

I will settle for a review which straddles the issue. These are well done books which amusingly accomplish the author's goals. They obviously appeal to a great many people, especially in Britain, where people seem to crave accounts of the doings of the aristocracy. On the other hand, these are also books which trivialize serious situations and promote the validation of the moral corruption of the rich and famous. Nevertheless, many will find them amusing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Atticus by Ron Hansen (1996)

Atticus is a love story, not about romantic love which can come and go, but about parental love which is constant and unconditional--a father's unceasing love for his modern-day prodigal son. That this is also a mystery story seems almost an afterthought, to make the story more appealing to novel readers who expect drama and suspense.

Atticus is the name of the father, a wealthy rancher from Colorado, who learns of his son's death by suicide at a resort in Mexico. When he travels to Mexico to claim the body and learn about his son's life and death there, he begins to suspect murder and attempts to unravel the mystery.

It is not too usual these days for the protagonist of a novel to be a deeply decent person, but that's what this one is. Of course, his name immediately brings to mind Atticus Finch, the exemplary father in To Kill a Mockingbird, and I'm sure that it is not by happenstance that Hansen chose that name. This novel is a reminder to us in these days of cynicism and blame that many out there still live their lives as the best people they know how to be.

Hansen's writing style here is very understated and straightforward, and the story has something of the atmosphere of a parable, which, of course, it is. I do think the author could have been a bit less explicit in his interpretation. Readers sometimes like to make these leaps of comprehension by themselves.

This is a lovely book, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart

I did something this week that I have never done before: I finished the last page of a novel and immediately turned back to the first page and read the whole book again. Here's why -- I wanted to study how Machart did it, how he took a story that is a little hackneyed and sometimes illogical and turned it into a family epic of mythic, almost biblical, proportions, one that is written in such a way that the reader is compelled to race through it at breakneck speed, much like the speed of the horse race that is the centerpiece of the story. It's been a good long while since I was this impressed by a book.

It's the story of the Skala family, four motherless sons raised by a harsh and brutal father who works his boys like animals, using them as plow horses while the actual horses are saved for racing. When a rich Spanish patriarch proposes a high stakes race that offers the three oldest a chance for escape into lives (and beautiful wives) of their own, the stage is set for brother against brother and father against sons. The story then shifts to fourteen years later, when Karel, the youngest son, must finally come to terms with his legacy of revenge and violence.

So how did Machart do it?

First and always, it's the language, the immediacy and the specificity and most of all the very rhythm, the cadence. It is every bit as good as, and sometimes better than, anything Cormac McCarthy ever came up with, to which it is somewhat similar. The accounts of the horse race, the epic fight between father and sons, and the coupling of Karel and Graciela are as impressive as anything I have ever read.

The time shifts are also genius, as Machart jumps back and forth between 1895, the year of Karel's birth and his mother's death; 1910, the year of the horse race; and 1924, the year of forgiveness. This allows him to skip the day-to-day and concentrate on the particulars. Along with the time shifts, Machart switches tenses, with the 1895 and 1924 pieces in past tense and the 1910 pieces in present tense. I actually didn't even notice this the first time through, but I can see now that the present tense gives the principal events much more immediacy and drama.

In addition, the details are right. The dialogue is pitch perfect for the time and place, South Texas in the early 20th century. The sights and sounds and smells and weather of the area are so vividly described that the reader feels he has actually been there.

Although this novel was published in 2010, I had never heard about it until lately when I just happened across mention of it in a blog by another eager reader. I can't imagine why it didn't win one of the major literary prizes that year. It is that good.

And, oh yes, the book includes a good many references to Shiner beer, still the best beer ever. A person could have a real good time by drinking a Shiner every time it is mentioned, making a good book even better.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Redux, #4 in Trollope's Palliser series, continues the story of the young Irish politician Phineas Finn, began in the #2 book in the series. At the end of that book, Phineas had taken a stand in Parliament in opposition to his Party, and had subsequently resigned and retired from political life, returning to Ireland and marrying the sweetheart of his younger days, leaving behind three separate unsuccessful love affairs. As this installment of the story begins, Phineas's wife has died and he has once again been elected as a Member of Parliament.

The first half of the book concerns itself somewhat with Phineas's efforts to regain his previous social footing, as he interacts as a very good "friend" with his previous sweethearts, but mainly it's about politics. Some of the political maneuvering became tedious to this American reader, but I did find it interesting and timely that the members of the Liberal Party all vote against a bill that they actually support in principle, just because it is introduced by members of the Conservative Party. Doesn't that sound just a little too familiar?

The second half of the book takes a turn unusual for Trollope and concerns a murder. The victim happens to be Phineas's chief political enemy with whom he has publicly quarreled, and that and other circumstances point to his guilt. He is thus arrested and tried for murder. But Trollope doesn't make this a mystery at all, because he reveals right away that someone else did it. The suspense then becomes the "how and if" Phineas will be acquitted, and, of course, which of his former sweethearts will he choose as the next Mrs. Finn.

As always, Trollope's strength lies his portrayal of characters, who are believable and sympathetic. Although his plots are generally predictable, he is still great fun to read.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling)

I'm not particularly qualified to write a review of a detective novel such as this because I seldom read in that genre, but from my limited knowledge, I believe this one to be very good. The detective is believable and likable, as is his secretary/sidekick. The clues to the solution to the mystery, along with several red herrings, are provided so that the reader can try to figure it all out, although I would say that some of the motivations and actions of the characters seem slightly far fetched to me. The writing is way above average for this genre, as far as my reading experience goes.

The plot concerns the death of a supermodel which has been ruled by the police as a suicide. Her adopted brother hires Cormoran Strike, the detective, to investigate what might instead be a murder.

I believe this to be more similar to Agatha Christie-style mysteries than to more more stylish offerings. I was somewhat disappointed that Rowling chose to continue to follow the hackneyed modern trend of making her detective wildly attractive to unbelievably beautiful women.

I will probably read Rowling's second book in this series, if only to see how she progresses her central characters. She did such a good job of that in the Harry Potter series.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Raye's Top 100 Novels -- Part I 1.through 33

Due to popular demand I am posting a list of my 100 favorite novels. (Actually, only one person even mentioned this, but whatever.) I will be posting in three parts, because I don't believe my blog page will hold them all at once. I estimate I have read close to 4,000 books in my lifetime, so I have read a great many good ones; these are the books that I have read more than once or, in the case of more recent ones, intend to read again soon, These are my keepers.

I have included only one listing per author, although some writers have produced multiple books which I treasure. The books are in no particular order except that the first on the list is my favorite. Most on the list are accepted classics, but some are less well known and reflect my unique preferences. You may notice the heavy presence of books from the fantasy/science fiction/magical realism genres. I believe in make believe. You may also notice the absence of some respected writers -- Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, and Henry James, for example. While I acknowledge the obvious talent of these, I just don't enjoy reading them that much. I have included the dates of first publication, because I find it often to be important to place a book in its time. For that information I thank the internet and my best friend Wikipedia.

I welcome your comments as to what I should have included or should have left out. I know I have forgotten some really good ones.

1. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-55) by J.R.R. Tolkien
Hobbits, elves, dwarves, ents, wizards, and orcs. The best created world novel ever written. Always my favorite.

2. Catch 22 (1961) by Joseph Heller
Satiric novel about the insanity of military life and war. A very funny book with a very serious theme.

3. Zorba the Greek (1946) by Nikos Kazantzakis
An introverted intellectual learns from a peasant how to live life to its fullest. (Translated from Greek.) Also outstanding: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Greek Passion.

4. The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner
Hypnotic stream-of-consciousness prose in the story of a dysfunctional Southern family, told from several viewpoints. Several others by Faulkner are outstanding, including Absalom. Absalom, As I Lay Dying, and the Snopes trilogy.

5. Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte
Highly emotional Gothic-tinged story of a love that transcends death.

6. Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert
Second best created world novel, about the struggle for a desert planet that is the only source of an essential commodity. Describes every aspect so completely that you could go there and feel right at home.

7. The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O'Brian
Connected short stories about an American platoon of soldiers in Vietnam; anti-war by implication.

8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo
A Romantic Gothic novel about a hypocritical priest, a naive Gypsy girl, and a deformed bell ringer. About as exciting a novel as they come. (Translated from French.) Les Miserables is also very fine.

9. Middlemarch (1872) by George Eliot
Several interconnected stories about residents of an English town. Particularly good characterization. Adam Bede is also recommended.

10. A Long Long Way (2005) by Sebastian Barry
A young Irish lad joins the British army and fights in World War I, only to be asked to fire on his fellow Irish during the Easter Uprising. One of the most beautifully written novels I've ever read by my favorite living writer. All Barry's are excellent, particularly The Secret Scripture.

11. Great Expectations (1861) by Charles Dickens
A humble young boy acquires a mysterious benefactor, gets all full of himself, but turns out all right in the end. Bleak House is actually the better book, but I have special fondness for Pip and Joe the blacksmith.

12. Nights at the Circus (1984) by Angela Carter
A journalist becomes captivated by an aerialist in a circus who may or may not really have wings. Feminist magical realism. All Carter's books are unusual and fascinating, particularly Wise Children.

13. The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby tries to realize the American dream and win the beautiful princess during the excesses of the Jazz Age.

14. Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad
The allure of evil symbolized by a journey into the Congo. All Conrad's books are outstanding, particularly Lord Jim and Nostromo.

15. Titus Groan (1946) by Mervyn Peake
Grotesque characters, a crumbling castle, and intentionally archaic language create an alternate world in the Gothic tradition. The sequel, Gormenghast, is equally as good.

16. She (1887) by H. Rider Haggard
A Gothic-tinged adventure story of explorers who discover a lost kingdom ruled by She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. I've tried to get my daughter to call me that, but she only does it in jest.

17. The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White
The best modern telling of the King Arthur story. I usually skip the first part with Arthur as a child and jump right into the legend portions.

18. East of Eden (1952) by John Steinbeck
The story of two families in the Salinas Valley of California. Better than his more well known The Grapes of Wrath, though that one is excellent, as is Of Mice and Men.

19. The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Gothic story of a family curse lasting through the generations. I like it even better than The Scarlet Letter.

20. Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A love story of sorts extending over 50 years. The language is wonderful. (Translated from Spanish) Also outstanding: 100 Years of Solitude.

21. The Magus (1965) by John Fowles
A young British teacher in Greece gets involved with a trickster and his dark illusions. The Collector is also chilling.

22. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) by J.M. Coetzee
The allegorical story of a nation so afraid of the "other" that they behave as barbarians themselves. Perfectly written. All his books are outstanding.

23. Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick
From the Master of Alternate Realities, for anyone who has ever asked himself, "What is real and what is not?" All of Dick's books are strange and mind bending. My favorite science fiction writer.

24. The Way We Live Now (1875) by Anthony Trollope
Greed and dishonesty in Victorian England. It could as well be about the 1% here and now. Also recommended: The Barsetshire series and the Palliser series.

25. The Girl in the Swing (1980) by Richard Adams
A socially awkward antiques collector falls in love with a mysterious young woman with a dark secret. A chilling story with touches of the supernatural.

26. Gilead (2004) by Marilynne Robinson
The reflections of a Congregationalist pastor on his heritage and his life as he faces death. Very insightful in its examination of religious faith. Home and Lila. approach parts of the same story through different characters.

27. Look Homeward Angel (1929) by Thomas Wolfe
The coming-of-age story of a young American boy. Very lyrical and emotional.

28. The Glass Bead Game (1943) by Hermann Hesse
An imaginary school in an imaginary location where all knowledge is synthesized through the playing of a chess-like game. This book fascinates me and I have read it three times trying to understand it, and I still don't, really. Also favorites by Hesse: Steppenwolf and Siddhartha.

29. Blindness (1995) by Jose Saramago
A chilling allegorical story about the downfall of society when everyone suddenly becomes blind. (Translated from Portuguese.) Also excellent: All the Names and The Cave.

30. Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan
A young girl tells an almost-innocent lie and then is afraid to admit the truth, with tragic consequences that follow her into adulthood. All McEwan's books are excellent, though most are a bit dark.

31. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) by Ray Bradbury
Two boys have a nightmarish experience with a traveling circus and the evil Mr. Dark. Truly scary. Also, of course, Fahrenheit 451.

32. The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
A Western about the dynamics of a lynch mob. Very insightful.

33. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon
Two cousins and their lives and careers in the early years of the comic book industry. All Chabon's books are quirky and interesting and often very funny.

Raye's Top 100 Novels Part II 34 through 66

As stated in the Part I post, these are in no particular order.

34. The Last Picture Show (1966) by Larry McMurtry
This may not be an accepted classic, but anyone who grew up in the '50s in a small town in Texas, as I did, will know that McMurtry tells it like it was.

35. The Master and Margarita (1966) by Mikhail Bulgakov
The satirical tale of the devil's visit to atheistic Russia. A really fascinating book (Translated from Russian.)

36. Kafka on the Shore ((2002) by Haruki Murakami
Two intertwined stories, of a young boy trying to escape a family curse and of an old man who is a finder of lost cats. Japanese magical realism. (Translated from Japanese) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is also excellent.

37. The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt
Precocious students at an elite college commit murder. Why?

38. All the Pretty Horses (1992) by Cormac McCarthy
A teenaged Texas boy heads to Mexico to be a cowboy and finds love and a pile of trouble. Not as dark and violent as most others by McCarthy.

39. Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville
Mad Captain Ahab hunts for the Great White Whale. People are still arguing about the symbolism.

40. Brighton Rock (1938) by Graham Greene
Murder in a British seaside resort. I picked this almost at random from the many by Greene that I love. This is one of those he called his "entertainments." He also wrote very serious novels, such as The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair and even very humorous novels, such as Our Man in Havana.

41. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
A chilling portrait of an amoral killer.

42. Emma (1815) by Jane Austin
The story of a well-meaning but inept matchmaker. My favorite Austin book because Emma is a charming character. Of course, all of Austin's novels are outstanding.

43. The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
A dystopian novel about the sad plight of women in a theocracy. Quite timely in today's political climate.

44. Empire Falls (2001) by Richard Russo
One man's life in small town Maine. Funny and sad and totally engrossing.

45. Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte
I love the early parts with little orphan Jane, but not so much the rest. Mr. Rochester is a prick and Jane should have kicked him to the curb.

46. 1984 (1949) by George Orwell
A prophetic dystopian novel about a nation engaged in perpetual war and a government that spies on every move of its citizens. Guess what? Big Brother is still watching us. Also prophetic: Animal Farm. Some animals are still more equal than others.

47. Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy
A country girl becomes the victim of a judgmental society and of hypocrisy. May be the saddest book I have ever read. All of Hardy's are complex and meaningful.

48. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert
Also very sad, but this time the victim is the man, whose wife betrays him.(Translated from French.)

49. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979-1992)) by Douglas Adams
Wacky, off-the-wall comic adventures in outer space.

50. Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994) by Louis de Bernieres
About love, music, and the insanity of war. A beautiful book.

51. Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding
Boys stranded on an island without adults turn savage. Can be taken literally or as an allegory.

52. Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov
A professor's sexual obsession with a 12-year-old nymphet. It's hard to believe that such a distasteful premise could result in such an good book, but it does.

53 Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding
The history of a good-hearted but somewhat rakish young man. Very funny.

54. Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell
Six stories ranging in setting from the South Pacific in the 19th Century to the apocalyptic far future, connected thematically and by the reincarnation of souls. All Mitchell's books are wonderful.

55. Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro
A dystopian science fiction novel about clones raised to be organ donors. Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is also excellent. His Unconsoled is so well done that it made me unbearably anxious and I couldn't even finish it.

56. Swan Song (1987) by Robert R. McCammon
This one is kind of obscure. A post-apocalyptic story of a group of people traveling to find a place to build again. Very similar in theme and content to Stephen King's The Stand, but this one is better and it was written first.

57. Vanity Fair (1848) by William Makepeace Thackeray
Biting satire, with deliciously amoral Becky Sharp and her insipid friend Amelia.

58. A Passage to India (1924) by E.M. Forster
A friendship ruined by racial tensions and prejudices in 1920s British India.

59. The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter S. Beagle
The magical tale of the quest by the last unicorn to find out what happened to the others. Fantasy that takes itself seriously.

60. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde
Dorian stays young and beautiful while living the wild life. Maybe we all secretly wish we had such a picture hidden away somewhere.

61. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey
A mental hospital perhaps stands for society as a whole in its inhumane treatment of the "different," with Nurse Ratched, one of the meanest villains of all time.

62. Grendel (1971) by John Gardner
The story of Beowolf and his monster from the monster's point of view.

63. The Dark Tower series (1982-2004) by Stephen King
The 7-book series about the quest by The Gunfighter to defeat the evil of The Dark Tower. Kind of a combination of King Arthur and a spaghetti Western, with some science fiction thrown in.

64. I, Claudius (1934) by Robert Graves
Written as the autobiography of the man who became the Roman Emperor Claudius. So well done that you could swear it is actually the emperor's own account.

65. Giants in the Earth (1925) by O.E. Rolvaag
The hardships of early Norwegian settlers in the Dakota Territory. The best account of pioneering I have ever read. (Translated from Norwegian.)

66. The Killer Angels (1974) by Michael Shaara
An account of the Battle of Gettysburg from the viewpoints of several of the participants. Examines the question of how good men of conscience can bring themselves to kill each other.

Raye's Top 100 Novels Part III 67 through 100

As indicated previously, these are in no particular order. I just wrote them down as they came to me. I'm sure I left out some that should have been included.

67. At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) by Flann O'Brien
A very Irish novel with several interlocked stories, including one about a writer who is imprisoned by his characters because he treats them so badly. More than a bit quirky and marvelously funny.

68. Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein
Heinlein was a hippie before being a hippie was cool. This novel about an Earthling raised by Martians celebrates free love and communal living and peace and love. I really grok this book.

69. An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser
Like The Great Gatsby, a story of trying to achieve the American Dream, except that this fellow is not a sympathetic hero. I usually don't appreciate books that are this depressing.

70. War With the Newts (1936) by Karel Capek
Satiric fantasy fiction about a race of intelligent newts who are exploited by the major nations, until they finally decide to fight back. Particularly insightful, as it was written before the beginning of World War II. (Translated from Czech.)

71. Plainsong (1999) by Kent Haruf
Interrelated stories about characters in a small Colorado town. Proof that ordinary people can be meaningful and fascinating. Lovely in its simplicity.

72. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain
Maybe the best use ever of an unreliable narrator as Huck tells his story of his trip down the river.

73. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque
The story of a German soldier in the trenches of World War I. A powerful anti-war message. (Translated from German.)

74. The Age of Innocence (1920) by Edith Wharton
The conflict between society's expectations and passion in upper class society of the late 19th Century. Wharton's House of Mirth and Ethan Frome are also among my favorites.

75. The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis
No-holds-barred in a very early Gothic novel, with The Bleeding Nun, The Wandering Jew, rape, incest, and murder.

76. The World According to Garp (1978) by John Irving
Comedy which is sometimes very, very dark in the life story of one man.

77. Scoop (1938) by Evelyn Waugh
A humorous satire of sensationalist journalism. Waugh's The Loved One is also great fun. Brideshead Revisited is serious but also very good.

78. Bel Canto (2001) by Ann Patchett
Terrorists hold hostages for several months. Unexpectedly, this is primarily a love story.

79. Fifth Business (1970) by Robertson Davies (Book 1 of The Deptford Trilogy)
The complicated plot follows the life of one man and includes love, suicide (or maybe murder), and magic.

80. Little Big Man (1964) by Thomas Berger
Kind of a parody of the myth of the West, about a white man adopted by Indians. Hilarious, but includes some real history and much food for thought.

81. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (1920s) by H.P.Lovecraft
The ultimate in horror fiction, as far as I am concerned, using archaic language, highly evocative words, and many poetic devices to add to the terrifying situations. Lovecraft wrote short stories and one short novel, From the Mountains of Madness, which are now published in various collections. All will keep you awake at night.

82. Deliverance (1970) by James Dickey
Who would guess that the story of some city boys who meet up with some inbred white trash out in the Georgia backwoods could be so powerful?

83. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys
Remember Mr. Rochester's mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre? This is her story.

84. Lost Horizon (1933) by James Hilton
High in the mountains of Tibet lies the utopian community of Shangri-La. We could use their help right now.

85. John Dollar (1989) by Marianne Wiggins
Somewhat similar to Lord of the Flies, giving evidence to the fact that girls can become as savage as boys, perhaps even more so, under the right circumstances. A little-known book which deserves more attention.

86. Wise Blood (1952) by Flannery O'Connor
Southern Gothic story of a young man who has a crisis of faith. This one is really strange.

87. All the King's Men (1946) Robert Penn Warren
The rise and fall of a cynical politician. Particularly interesting in today's political climate.

88. Barren Ground (1925) by Ellen Glasgow
A young woman betrayed by her beloved takes charge of her own life.

89. High Wind in Jamaica (1929) by Richard Hughes
The supposedly innocent children taken captive by pirates prove to be more dangerous than their captors. Chilling.

90. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain
A unique crime novel, told from the viewpoint of the criminal.

91. The Forsyte Saga (1922) by John Galsworthy
A portrait of upper-class England around the turn of the century through the story of a failed marriage and its far-reaching implications.

92. A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
A dystopian England where the youth are out of control. Written using a made-up slang that takes some getting used to. Pertinent because we have a good bit of the old ultra-violence going on today, and we don't seem to know what to do about it.

93. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2012) by Ben Fountain
A soldier returned from Iraq experiences the surreal obliviousness and jingoistic patriotism of average American football fans.

94. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula Le Guin
From one of science fiction's most thoughtful and skilled writers, the story of an androgynous civilization facing peril.

95. Shadow Country (2008) by Peter Matthiessen
A fictional history of the life and death of a real person who carved an empire in Florida with a sugar plantation and perhaps some outlaw activity. Very Faulknerish.

96. Ender's Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card
I still find this science fiction novel about a war with an alien species interesting, both for its original concept and its larger implications.

97. Slaughterhouse Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
A one-of-a-kind satiric novel about a prisoner of war who experiences the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies and who later comes unstuck in time. So it goes.

98. Little, Big (1981) by John Crowley
A fairy story, literally. The long history of the Drinkwater family, who live on the edge of, or maybe in the midst of, the land of fairy. A truly magical book.

99. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers
A deaf-mute and the people he befriends. A sensitive portrayal of the lonely and misunderstood. Also wonderful: A Member of the Wedding.

100. I left this open in case I think of something really great or in case someone suggests something that I did not think of.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

I have such old-fashioned reading tastes that I think every book should have a point, a reason for existing. Sometimes the point can be as simple as telling an exciting or scary or romantic story, and as long as it is done well that can be enough. Some more complex books examine their characters and convey a picture of human nature under certain conditions. Others are more theme driven and perhaps attempt to portray trends in society as a whole. Although this novel has an interesting premise, I suppose, for the life of me I cannot see that it has any point.

The central character is born without any scent; he doesn't have that human odor that is unique to each individual. Ironically, however, he has a supernaturally keen sense of smell, even more developed than that which we are told dogs possess. He becomes a perfumer, learning the methods of distilling the essences of plants and combining them to create fragrances. But then he discovers that a few young virgin girls have a natural scent more alluring than the best perfume, and he proceeds to try to distill their essence and bottle it, hence the subtitle of the novel: "The Story of a Murderer."

This brief summary makes the book sound more interesting than it actually is. Suskind's method of telling his story robs it of any vitality or suspense or horror or believability. This is a translation from German, so that might be part of the problem; maybe it comes alive in the original, but I doubt it. It has something of the tone of an allegory, but if so, his point is lost on me.

This was evidently a best seller in its time (1985). I welcome comments from any who appreciate it to explain to me what I missed.

Friday, October 2, 2015


Peter Carey is a tale-spinner of the very first order, fit to be in company with Dickens. The plot of this marvelous book is inventive and constantly surprising, making it a page turner from first to last.

The two title characters, Oscar and Lucinda, are misfits even in Australia, a country comprised of unconventional people. He is an Anglican priest who still harbors the beliefs of his devout Brethren father. She is a teenage heiress with feminist views who owns a glassworks. They come together through their mutual fascination with gambling, fall in love with each other without ever quite admitting it out loud, and eventually make a mad wager leading to an expedition to transport a glass church across the uncharted Outback.

In addition to telling a delicious story, Carey gives us the details of life and attitudes in 19th Century Australia. All the characters, even the minor ones, are so convincingly portrayed, with all their quirks and foibles, that they seem to be people you once knew. The writing is not pretentious or showy, but it is oh so effective.

This novel won England's Booker Prize in 1988. I recommend it highly.