Ask The Agent generally tries not to snatch other material from the internet. But this entry will be an exception. It was just irresistible. I stole this from an item in the Huffington Post.
Ask The Agent generally tries not to snatch other material from the internet. But this entry will be an exception. It was just irresistible. I stole this from an item in the Huffington Post.
The Dream of Scipio. Iain Pears. This is a brilliantly conceived and magnificently executed novel, both an historical novel and a ethical and philosophical puzzle. It is also a gripping story. The action takes place in 3 historical periods, all of which are times of cultural dissolution: the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the Fifth Century, the time of the great plague in the Fourteenth Century, and Vichy France. Each story is interrelated by characters who, as scholars, have studied the other characters in the novel. Each character must face parallel ethical dilemmas. The book asks whether action in the world that is imbued with ethical wisdom makes a difference.
The Seven Ages of Paris. Alistair Horne. Alistair Horne is one of the great historians of France writing in the English language. For the past 25 years he has devoted himself to writing this book, a history of everyone’s favorite city, Paris, from the 12th century to its liberation in 1945. As in all of Horne’s books this work is imbued with a masterful narrative sweep.
Master of the Senate. Robert Caro. Caro’s Johnson is epic, larger than life, great in his flaws, endlessly fascinating. Just as the other great Johnson in literature was defined by the genius of his biographer, Boswell; so Lyndon Johnson will be remembered through the ages by this masterpiece of biography. This, the third volume in his story, takes us through the years in the Senate. It is as much a history of that great institution as it is of Johnson’s life. It is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History for 2002. Also read the equally spellbinding first two volumes: The Path to Power and Means of Ascent.
Hotel Honolulu. Paul Theroux. This is a funny, mesmerizing and touching collection of related stories about Hawaii. The author has created a character, a composite of himself and his imagination. The stories all center around a somewhat long at the tooth hotel off Waikiki Beach. Guests come and go. All seek a kind of paradise, but inevitably bring their own flawed existences with them.
War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy. This is arguably (unarguably) the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy’s epic of Russia during the Napoleanic Wars contains both grand historical sweep and minute psychological detail. The characters are so real and so compelling that they practically walk off the pages. It is both profound and accessible. When you have finished, read Tolstoy’s no less magnificent novel, Anna Karenina.
The Name of the Rose. Umberto Eco. The English friar, William of Baskerville (his name, a pun on the Conan Doyle tale), is called to a monastery to employ his mastery of Aristotelian logic to solve a number of perplexing murders. The brothers in the monastery represent the entire range of medieval thought. This book is a brilliant novel of ideas, a profound recreation of an historical epoch, and a superb who-dunnit.
Death Comes for the Archbishop. Willa Cather. This enduring masterpiece is Willa Cather’s greatest achievement. It is the story of the French cleric Father Latour, who is sent to convert the American Southwest to Catholicism. He eventually becomes Archbishop of Santa Fe. With elegant simplicity of prose, we follow the life of Father Latour for 40 years, during which time he struggles with derelict priests, a beautiful but forbidding land, and his own loneliness.
.A History of Warfare. John Keegan. In this time of war, we all seek to comprehend how the activity of war, which is at once so horrifying, can yet be so embedded in the human condition. The world’s preeminent military historian has written a masterpiece. There are no long and boring descriptions of battle tactics and no indecipherable maps with black and white squares. Instead, Keegan examines the role of warfare in all cultures from stone age to atomic age. He shows that the history of warfare is really the history of human nature’s darkest side. This book is an eloquent and absorbing work of cultural history.
A Thousand Acres. Jane Smiley. This book, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature of 1992, is Jane Smiley’s greatest work. It is the retelling of the King Lear legend transposed to a contemporary American family farm and told from the point of view of one of the older sisters. Smiley interweaves mythic themes with issues of family dysfunction. Throughout we are dazzled by the work of a master literary realist.
Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte. Is this literatures greatest love story? I think so. It is the tragic tale of timeless love between Cathy and the magnificent and mysterious Heathcliff. It is written with beautiful descriptive language of the moors on which the action takes place. The story builds slowly in momentum and volume of emotion until it reaches the climactic doom of Heathcliff. Be sure to keep some hankies at your side.
Gone to Soldier., Marge Percy. Marge Piercy has written a sweeping epic of the Second World War. It is not a blood and guts battle saga, but more a tale of the other war, the men and women who were not on the front lines but on the assembly lines, the food lines, and behind enemy lines.The Second World War gave birth to our own age. No book has demonstrated this so well as Gone To Soldiers.
Below is a very personal and idiosyncratic list of books that are best left to seasons other than Summer if at all. If you have other recommendations for this list, Ask the Agent invites your participation.
Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen. This book is perhaps the greatest oddity in the history of the printed page. It was originally published in 1925 and has been long out of print. The author of the book is either the 4th or 5th Earl of Aberdeen. It is not entirely clear. From the appearance of the dour visage on the cover, one questions whether His Lordship made any significant contribution to the world of Tomfoolery of the late Victorian Period. Indeed, one must ask whether the concept of “crack a joke” would even enter the same universe of discourse occupied by Lord Aberdeen.
Foundations of a Complete Science of Knowledge. (Grundlage der Gesammten Wissenschaftslehre.) Johan Gottlieb Fichte. Once a towering figure in German Idealist philosophy, now happily forgotten. Unfortunately for me, when I was 25 and a graduate student in German history, I picked Herr Fichte’s thought as the subject for my master’s thesis. This was an error in judgment on my part. I was required to read the entire 660 page work in its original German. The number of expressions in German that I knew at the time was limited. I believe I could give a pretty good rendition in Hochdeutsch of: “Wanna go back to my place?” and also “Shut up, you Nazi”.
I will never forget the impact of the first majestic words from the Grundlage on my emotional and intellectual development. (Roughly translated): “X is in the Ego, and posited through the Ego, for it is the Ego which asserts the above proposition, and so asserts it by virtue of X as a law, and must therefore, be given to the Ego;…”
At the time I was doing a considerable amount of experimentation with certain (how shall we say) mind altering drugs and attempting at the same time to win my girlfriend back from a free love commune. Fichte’s immortal words restored my hope and gave a new sense of purpose to my life.
The Collected Works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Several years ago, I had a quintessential Berkeley experience. I was having dinner at my local hamburger place and was informing my companion that I was to introduce Salman Rushdie who was giving a reading later that evening at Cody’s. A stranger at the next table turned around and said “Salman Rushdie will be remembered as the Edward Bulwer- Lytton of the twentieth century.”
This audacious and entirely uninvited judgment peaked my interest in this great, but forgotten Victorian novelist. He is most remembered now for the first sentence of his novel Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night”. There is a general consensus amongst critics that this is the worst first sentence penned in all of English literature. He is also remembered for the hackneyed and ponderous expression: “The Pen is Mightier than the sword.” I would not begin reading these collected works this summer or any other season for that matter. For those who will not read Bulwer-Lytton’s works, I also recommend that you not read: The Letters of the Late Edward Bulwer-Lytton to his Wife.
Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer. I recommend not reading this masterpiece. Unlike the first sentence penned by Bulwer-Lytton above, Chaucer has written one of the most memorable first sentences in all of literature.
“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, /The droughte, perced to the roote, /And bathed every vein in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour,…”
It is doubly remarkable in that it appears to be utterly meaningless and with numerous misspelled words to wit (or should I say to witte?). Not unlike my daughter’s first grade homework assignment: “My Daddy and I at the Zoo”.
The Book of Numbers. There have been periods of my life when I have felt doubt and despair come over me as the darkness upon the face of the waters. And in these times, I have turned to scripture for consolation and spiritual renewal. In particular, the unforgettable words of Numbers 2:16 have restored my faith:
” And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.”
Gentle Reader, I humbly present for your consideration – The Book of Numbers.
This is another selection from the Cody’s Recommended Summer Reading lists. Mostly from 1998 -2001. All of the books below are in print and as wonderful as ever.
Great Books, David Denby, The author returns to Columbia after 30 years and takes his original core classes on great books. It is both a reexamination of the great ideas of the West from a layman’s point of view and a look at the younger generation and their reaction to these ideas. This book is fascinating and written with great vigor and clarity.
Roman Blood, Steven Saylor, This is the first of a series of historical mysteries featuring a private detective in ancient Rome named Gordianus. Originally he is an associate of Cicero. But in succeeding stories, he encounters all of the great statesmen of the Late Roman Republic including: Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cataline, and Sulla. It is a perfect blend of history and mystery fiction. At the end of reading all five of his novels, I returned to Plutarch to discover the accuracy of his characters and events. Also read Arms of Nemesis, Catalina’s Riddle, and others.
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver, Barbara Kingsolver is a national treasure. Her new novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the century, the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium. It is narrated in turns by 4 sisters of startling perception and individuality, freshly transplanted by missionary parents to the heart of the Congo. This is Kingsolver’s most ambitious work to date. Also read Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.
A Widow for One Year. John Irving. 20 years after The World According to Garp, John Irving continues to surprise us with amazingly rich characters and bold unpredictable plots. This new novel traces the life of Ruth Cole through 3 periods of her life. As in most Irving novels, it is at times comic and disturbing and always unforgettable. It is Irving’s greatest novel yet. Also try reading Irving’s Cider House Rules.
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Rosen, The author of this book is a white American male who has, nonetheless, accomplished a miracle. He has created a seamless and wholly believable world of a geisha coming of age in 1930’s Kyoto. Her story is utterly compelling and her voice is perfect. It is a magnificent first novel which recreates a fascinating and far off culture.
Gates of Fire. Steven Pressfield. What a supurb historical novel! It is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, one of the decisive battles of history, in which 300 Spartans held off the army of Persia numbering 2,000,000 men for 7 days. This book is a great story of ancient Sparta and of the universal quality of courage.
Straight Man. Richard Russo.. Richard Russo is one of America’s contemporary masters of the realistic novel. Straight man is an hilarious sendoff on the academic profession. It includes the usual farcical academic battles, sexual tensions, and funding struggles; but also great prose and brilliant characterizations. Also read Russo’s Nobody’s Fool.
Saints & Villains. Denise Giardina. This is a majestic and compelling biographical novel of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and an emblematic representative of the anti-Nazi resistance. This book captures the spirit of Germany in the 30’s and the war years through Bonhoeffer’s life. He is a flawed hero whose tenacious commitment to moral values in the face of the practical impossibility of serious resistance makes him a perfect representative of the noble, yet ineffective, acts of German opposition to Hitler.
The Killer Angels. Michael Shaara. The Killer Angels is one of the great war novels ever written. It is a sweeping narrative of the Battle of Gettysburg that captures its epic grandeur and its tragedy. It is told through the eyes of the leaders of both armies as a battle of ideas. The narrative of Pickett’s fatal charge up Cemetery Ridge on the 3rd day is heartbreaking. Michael Shaara’s son, Jeff Shaara, has written both a prequel and a sequel that are worthy accompaniments: Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure.
This is about the books I’ve been reading this summer. Actually, I’m a little embarrassed. They are kind of low brow. I thought of trying to impress you by saying that I was re-reading Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, Doctor Faustus, while playing Wagner’s majestic Goetterdaemurung as backround music. But I don’t think I would be fooling anybody.
By the way, I do not in any way want to discourage genuine literary frauds, intellectual poseurs, and other assorted fakes and windbags from visiting “Ask The Agent”. We welcome you and even encourage intellectual pretension in this blog. We assure you that we will never show more than
relentless withering contempt a gentle ribbing at such efforts.
But I digress. For the last 3 weeks, I have been reading a troika of authors who are masters of commercial fiction. The first would be Lee Child, a thriller writer of renown and popularity. His books all play around the same character, Jack Reacher, a wonderful modern day noir hero: tough but sensitive, world weary but idealistic. And 250 pounds of brute force. Who crushes bad guys with his fists and beautiful women in his arms. Child says of Reacher: “he never killed a man who didn’t deserve to be killed.” All male readers secretly want to be like Reacher. All women readers secretly want to save him from the ineffable sorrow of his secret past. The only flaw with these books is that Child inevitably employs the worst, most predictable, most hackneyed device in the thriller tool box (a genre that revels in hackneyed devices), the chase. My recommendation is to skip the last 20 pages of any Lee Child novel. We have all read enough chase scenes to last a lifetime.
A less well-known practitioner of modern pot boiler is William Lasher. You may not have ever heard of him. But he is very good. As with Child, Lasher’s books all revolve around a single character. In this case it is Victor Carl, a not too successful criminal lawyer in Philadelphia. Another noir personality. Lasher has a great sense of humor, and only occasionally resorts to the hackneyed chase scene. In real life, Lasher is a lawyer. But happily, most of the stories takes place out of the courtroom. And he tends to harpoon the pretensions of the big firm practitioners. You’re a good man, Victor Carl.
The third author I have been reading is Richard North Patterson. Now Patterson is a very good writer, and none of you need be embarrassed to bring his paperback with you to the National Book Awards Dinner. He started by writing legal mysteries that climaxed with dramatic courtroom pyrotechnics (another clichéd device, but one with more possibilities for invention). Lately he has moved into the realm of political drama. And it is good. His best book, which I read several years ago, is Exile. It is about the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis. It portrays both sides with great sympathy and captures the nuances of this complicated dance of death. I read several of his other political dramas (they aren’t really thrillers) this month. He does create some very bad people that will make you feel good, because you hate them. As you would expect, these very bad people include: cynical and unscrupulous Republicans, gun nuts and their trade associations, anti-abortion nuts and their lobbying groups. And the heroes, as you would expect, are idealists or shrewd realists with great integrity. Some of them even have mixed feelings about complicated issues like abortion.
Ok. I just want to mention one book that is not a schlocko summer read. It is a literary masterpiece that also puts you into the trance-like state that happens with all commercial literature. The book is Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. I read it in the Spring. It is an 800 page historical mystery with 3 parts that interlock like a Bach fugue. It is an epic. A book of ideas, and a magnificent bringing to life of Europe before the First World War. I read it in 3 days. He has written 2 other books that I love just as much: The Instance on the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio.
Next week at Ask the Agent, we will engage in a little contrarian fun. We will have a list of books that you should definitely not read in the summer. We welcome your contributions.
I just discovered a previously lost file from the Cody’s Archives. For years, I prepared a summer recommended list. They were all books that I actually read and actually loved. I’m posting some selections from Summer 1996. That was a long time ago. And some of the books on the list are -well-forgettable. But the ones I am posting are still as delightful to read now as they were back then. In all modesty, people loved these lists . I will keep going through the Cody’s archives and post more.
Native Tongue, Carl Hiaasen. Carl Hiaasen is the most entertaining and amusing author of crime fiction writing today. Native Tongue is my favorite, but all of his books are equally enjoyable. His novels are filled with ultra sleazoid weirdoes from South Florida all intent on raping the environment or fleecing tourists in South Florida. You will marvel at the sheer loathsomeness of his characters. Read the rest of his novels too: Strip Tease, Skin Tight, Double Whammy, and Tourist Season.
A Philosophical Investigation, Philip Kerr. This is a stunning mystery novel which truly transcends its genre. A brilliant serial killer seeks to outwit Inspector Isadora “Jake” Jacowitz. He is nicknamed “Wittgenstein”. He is as brilliant as he is mad. You will love this marvelous and intellectually satisfying thriller.
Jasmine, Bharati Mukherjee. The author, herself an immigrant from India, has written a novel about the immigrant experience with great finesse and wit. The heroine flees from her family poverty and Sikh terrorism of her village to New York and finally, improbably to a farm in Iowa. The twists and turns of the plot tell us much about America from the eyes of an outsider. It’s funny and profound.
The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is a great novelist and this is my favorite of hers. It’s a very funny tale of an evil anti-heroine who masterfully manipulates the lives of 3 decent women. There are serious themes in this story, specifically the power of evil and the weakness of good in the face of it. You will find this book impossible to put down.
Small World, David Lodge. Lodge has written a brilliant spoof on academic manners. It contains side-splitting satire of the pretenses of scholarly conferences and the drolleries of French literary theory, all mixed up with much seduction of spouses and graduate students. Added to this is a new twist on the Holy Grail legend. Also read the prequel, Changing Places, a satire of Berkeley in the 60’s.
The Eight, Katherine Neville. What do Charlemagne, Napoleon, Rousseau, Catherine the Great, Tallyrand, Johan Sebastian Bach, and Muammar Khaddafi have in common? They are all characters in this remarkable feminist-historical-alchemical-cryptographic thriller. It is a gripping tale told in time and space for the search for the famous chess set of Charlemagne, the pieces of which unlock the power of the universe. The story is full of twists, riddles and mathematical puzzles. It’s great!
The White Hotel, D. M. Thomas. Rarely has literature revealed so profoundly the mysteries of the human soul as in this haunting and masterful novel. It is the story of Freud and his fictional patient, Lisa. Through the unfolding, imperfect process of psychoanalysis, the novel reveals to us the ambiguous connection between love and death as a metaphor of the human psyche and of European civilization in the Twentieth Century. this novel is astoundingly original and deeply, viscerally moving.