Posts Tagged ‘summer reading’

Books Not Recommended for Summer Reading

July 5, 2009

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.


Lord Aberdeen

 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 would question 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 foolishly picked Herr Fichte’s thought as the subject  for my master’s thesis. 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 of: “Wanna go back to my place?” and also “Shut up, you Nazi”.

I will never forget the impact of those first words upon my mind.  (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 considerable 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 give an introduction to Salman Rushdie 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 as it is written in original Middle English.  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: “What Daddy and I did on the weekend”.



The Book of Numbers. There have been periods of my life when I have felt the darkness of doubt come over me. And I have turned to scripture to be restored and renewed. And in these dark times, I have always found profound consolation in the  Book of Numbers.  I cannot overstate the deeply moving and profoundly spiritual qualities of this great book of the bible. To my knowledge,  there is no  text in world literature  that truly captures at once the heroic and tragic quality of the human endeavor  as in Numbers 25:1

” 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. 






More of Cody’s summer reading lists from 1998-2001

June 28, 2009

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.

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.


Summer Recommended Books from the Cody’s Archive

June 23, 2009

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.