Posts Tagged ‘iain pears’

More Recommended Books from Cody’s Archive

August 2, 2009

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 volumesThe 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.

Andy’s Night Thoughts on Summer Reading

June 28, 2009


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.