Sunday, May 22, 2016

My Classic Books List

For a couple of months, I have been working on a list of classic books that I want to read or reread. Primarily I was aiming at works of fiction that were published over 50 years ago that have "stood the test of time." Since part of the idea was to occasionally step out of my usual reading patterns, I only include a few books from the crime fiction, fantasy, and science fiction genres and from those genres, only books that I have wanted to read for a long time but have put off reading.

Here is my list:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Emma by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (short stories )
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Mildred Pierce by James Cain
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
My Ántonia by Willa Cather    
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Nebuly Coat by John Meade Falkner
Giant by Edna Ferber
Show Boat by Edna Ferber
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
The Third Man by Graham Greene
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Passing by Nella Larsen
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Flush by Virginia Woolf


I was frustrated by the fact that there is no real definition of what makes a book a classic. I understand why. It is a subject for endless argument anyway, and the definition probably changes over time. This post talks about the evolution of memorable fiction. I recently found this list of 14 definitions of what makes a classic by Italo Calvino, which is interesting but did not help me any.

Since I am putting this list together in 2016 and limiting it to books that are over 50 years since publication, anything published since 1966 did not make the list. Originally I intended to have an addendum of books published later than 1966, but I only came up with a few so I dropped that idea.

The plan is for this to be a fluid list to which I can add (and subtract) books if I want. One example is Shakespeare. I definitely want to read some plays by William Shakespeare, but I only have one on the list. If I get through that one successfully, I will add more. And I am sure I will remember books I wanted to add after I post the list.

I have no goal for how many books from this list to read in a year or when I will finish the list. There is a very nice group called The Classics Club that has a challenge and related events. The idea is to list at least 50 books and have a goal to read them in five years or less.  I think it is a great idea but I know myself and there is no way I would stick to that goal, even if I wanted to at this point. So for me this is just an open-ended personal project to expand my reading to some of the classics.

Some sources of inspiration for me:

  • Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School by Kevin Smokler
  • The New Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major
  • Suggestions from my husband and son
  • Nancy's blog: Ipsofactodotme
  • Moira's blog: Clothes in Books
  • Katrina's blog: Pining for the West



Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Guns of Navarone: Alistair MacLean

The Guns of Navarone was Alistair MacLean's second novel, and one of the best known of his works. Published in 1957, it is set during World War II on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. This is my submission for the Crimes of the Century meme, hosted by Rich at Past Offences. Every month a year is selected and bloggers read a crime book, watch a film, or listen to a radio show from that year and comment on their selection.

Summary from the back of my Sterling trade paperback edition:
Twelve hundred British soldiers are isolated and waiting to die on the small island of Kheros, off the Turkish coast. Their lives can be saved if only the long-range, large-caliber, and catastrophically accurate guns of Navarone are silenced before the British Royal Navy arrives. 
Manned by a mixed garrison of Germans and Italians, Navarone is a grim iron fortress perched high atop an island ringed by cliffs. Captain Keith Mallory and his small, handpicked team of saboteurs must scale the sheer cliffs and infiltrate the German base to blow up the massive guns.
When I first picked this book to read as my book for 1957, I wondered if it truly fit the definition of crime fiction. However, when I checked it out, I found that it was selected as #89 on The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time by the British Crime Writers' Association. So I stopped worrying and proceeded to devour it.

The men on the team are of various backgrounds and talents. The team leader, Mallory, is a New Zealander and was a famed rock climber before the war. Andrea, a Greek soldier whose specialty seems to be bulk, strength, and indestructibility, has worked with Mallory in the past. Dusty Miller is an American and a specialist in explosives. Casey Brown is a Scottish engineer who also specializes in radio communications. Andy Stevens is the youngest and least experienced member of the team, but is also a talented mountain climber.

It would be hard to name a favorite character. Most of them are fleshed out with some background explaining their role and temperament, and the characters are further developed by their interactions while on the mission. If I had to point out any flaws, it would be that this is a very male universe, and most of the characters are just too good, too heroic. But truly, these facts did not bother me. This was standard at the time the book was written, and this is a war story; the environment and activities were not ones that women would usually take part in.

I don't know how this book succeeds at being suspenseful. It seems fairly clear from the beginning that the team will succeed to some extent in their goal. This reader assumed that there must a traitor who provides additional tension. But even as the book seems to have a very obvious plot line, it still kept me reading eagerly. The author throws enough spanners into the works to ratchet up the tension and it never got dull.

I did see the movie many years ago on  DVD, but I had forgotten much about the plot. One difference in the movie is that there are women characters, but I did not remember that.  I will be watching the movie in the next month and hope to write a post about that later.

See other reviews at Past Offences and Gravetapping.

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Publisher:   Fawcett Gold Medal edition, 1957. Pub. same year as the Doubleday 1st ed.
Length:      288 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Greece
Genre:       Adventure, Thriller
Source:      Purchased both copies at the Planned Parenthood book sale.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Looking Glass War: John le Carré

Summary from the author's website:
The Department has faded since the war, effectively mothballed, without agents or resources. But now, with intelligence of a possible missile threat, it again has a mission. This is a chance to prove its influence to those at the Circus, like George Smiley, who think the Department’s time has passed. The opportunity to reclaim former glory cannot be missed – even though it means putting men’s lives at desperate risk, on foreign soil. 
The Looking Glass War is a gripping story of the amorality of espionage – unflinching in its depiction of the men involved, who are as much full of vanity and fear as of selflessness and courage.
I read this as a part of my project to read all the Smiley books. This is probably the first book where Smiley is actually working for the Circus, under the head of that group, Control . In the others, he is retired or has been called out of retirement. Smiley plays a very small part in this one, although he shows up more than in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

This book focuses on employees of the Department, a group in the British intelligence service that has seen better days. The area the Department handles is related to military intelligence, whereas the Circus deals with political affairs. The Circus's fortunes have improved; those in the Department are looking for a way back to their former glory. They come upon some military intelligence that could be important and they seek to finance an excursion into East Germany to investigate. Smiley is a liaison between the Department and the Circus. It is an interesting part of Smiley's story, but it is not really about him.

I would not have missed this book, but it is pretty much of a downer. It does not glamorize the world of espionage at all. The main characters are all interesting, portrayed with depth, and le Carré tells a compelling story.

In comparison to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War did very poorly, especially in Britain. In le Carré's introduction to this book, written in 1991, he discusses the reception of this book and what he was trying to achieve when he wrote it.
After the success of The Spy I felt I had earned the right to experiment with the more fragile possibilities of the spy story than those I had explored till now. For the truth was, that the realities of spying as I had known them on the ground had been far removed from the fiendishly clever conspiracy that had entrapped my hero and heroine in The Spy. I was eager to find a way of illustrating the muddle and futility that were so much closer to life. Indeed, I felt I had to: for while The Spy had been heralded as the book that ripped the mask off the spy business, my private view was that it had glamorised the spy business to Kingdom Come.
...
So this time, I thought, I'll tell it the hard way. This time, cost what it will, I'll describe a Secret Service that is really not very good at all; that is eking out its wartime glory; that is feeding itself on Little England  fantasies; is isolated, directionless, over-protected and destined ultimately to destroy itself.
One reviewer at Goodreads said this was the bleakest book he had ever read. It is not the bleakest book I have read ... that book for me was The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips. But still, I found The Looking Glass War to be very grim and depressing. I am always looking for some touch of a happy ending and this book had nothing of that for me.

List of  'Smiley' Novels (wih links to my reviews)

1. Call for the Dead (1961)
2. A Murder of Quality (1962)
3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
4. The Looking Glass War (1965)
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
6. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
7. Smiley's People (1979)
8. The Secret Pilgrim (1990)


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Publisher:   Pocket Books, 2002 (orig. pub. 1965) 
Length:       271 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       George Smiley novel
Setting:      East Germany, UK
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.


Sunday, May 8, 2016

Frozen Assets: Quentin Bates

Description from the front flap of the dust jacket:
A body is found floating in the harbor of a rural Icelandic fishing village. Was it an accident, or something more sinister?  It’s up to Officer Gunnhildur, a sardonic female cop, to find out. Her investigation uncovers a web of corruption connected to Iceland’s business and banking communities. Meanwhile, a rookie crime journalist latches onto her, looking for a scoop, and an anonymous blogger is stirring up trouble. The complications increase, as do the stakes, when a second murder is committed. 
Frozen Assets is a piercing look at the endemic corruption that led to the global financial crisis that bankrupted Iceland’s major banks and sent the country into an economic tailspin from which it has yet to recover.
The strength of this book is Gunna, or Officer Gunnhildur. She is a middle aged policewoman and is portrayed in a very realistic way; she is not glamorous, she tries to do a good job, and being there for her teenage daughter is as important to her as her job. Even though pressure is put on her to ignore the crime she wants to investigate, she continues to believe that it was a crime and not an accident, and never completely lets go of it.

On the other hand, the plot was a bit too complicated for me, and a lot of characters are drawn into the plot. Employees of the business firms, government officials, journalists, policemen from the small village and in Rehkjavik, not to mention the criminals involved. The anonymous blogger (Skandalblogger) who is stirring up problems for the businesses and government officials provides another point of view on the corruption in business and government, but the content of the posts was too infrequent and cryptic for me to get much out of.

To be clear, I consider those criticisms very minor because the book was at all times readable  and entertaining. Plus the fact that it seemed a very accomplished novel for a debut author. 

Frozen Assets was published as Frozen Out in the UK. The rest of the books in the series are:

Cold Comfort (2012)
Winterlude (2013) (novella, only available as an e-book)
Chilled to the Bone (2013)
Cold Steal (2014)
Summerchill (2015) (novella, only available as an e-book)
Thin Ice (2016)

Resources:

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Publisher:   Soho Crime, 2011
Length:       330 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Officer Gunnhildur, #1
Setting:       Iceland
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:       I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Robert Littell's Debut Novel, The Defection of A. J. Lewinter

A. J. Lewinter is an American scientist who works on the ceramic nose cones for the MIRV program. He is attending a symposium in Tokyo when he walks into the Soviet embassy and declares his intention to defect.
He had planned the defection for months with his usual relish for detail—the trip to Japan, the pills, the shampoo, the X rays, the last-minute postcard to Maureen, even the book to read on the plane to Moscow. But somehow he had ended up on the set of a Hitchcock film—in a shabby embassy, in an antique room, in the midst of people who did not speak his language.
From that point on both sides are trying to decide how much damage has been done. How useful is Lewinter's knowledge is if it is shared with the Soviet Union? Will the Soviet Union even want to make use of his information? Could he be a double agent?

The story unfolds with cynicism and humor. The structure of the book follows the stages of a chess game. There are six sections: The Opening, The Response, The Middle Game, The Gambit, The End Game, and The Passed Pawn. The game being played is ruthless. One player even admits that he would be willing to play for very high stakes:
"You know, I've often dreamed of playing chess with live people. The ones that are taken off the board would be killed—" 
"Could you do it?" Sarah interrupted in a low voice. "Could you really do it?" 
"I know I could. I could even sacrifice—give up one man in order to gain a position or advance a gambit."
This book has a bleak outlook. I have been reading a string of spy thrillers by John le Carre that have a darker, less optimistic mood. Even so, this book was very enjoyable. This is a book I could reread right now.

The characters are well drawn and interesting, on both sides. In some spy fiction, one feels that the players are doing what they do for the greater good, even if they or others must make sacrifices. In this case, each person has more invested in achieving personal success than in the success of their country's political ideals.

The Defection of A. J. Lewinter was Robert Littell's debut novel; it won the British Crime Writers Association's Gold Dagger Award in 1973.

I have read two other books by Littell. One is Legends, which I loved. It is about an ex-C.I.A. operative who has had so many false identities (“legends”) that he is not even sure who he really is.

The other is The Company, which is a very, very long saga of the Cold War beginning in the early 1950's and going up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. After finishing that book, I passed along my copy because I was sure I would not subject myself to that long story (with lots of boring bits) again. But a couple of years ago I bought a hard back copy because I think I would like to give it another try. I have a few more books by Littell to read first, though. Recommendations would be appreciated.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Penguin Books, 2003 (orig. pub. 1973) 
Length:       293 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      US, Soviet Union
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased this book.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Reading in April 2016

In April I read seven books; six of them were crime fiction. The seventh book was True Grit by Charles Portis, a novel of the American West set in the years following the Civil War, the early 1870s.

The six books of crime fiction I read were:

  • The Defection of A. J. Lewinter by Robert Littell
  • Call for the Dead by John le Carre
  • Trouble on the Thames by Victor Bridges
  • Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook
  • The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
  • Moonraker by Ian Fleming

Of the six crime fiction books, four can be categorized as spy fiction. Two of the spy stories (Trouble on the Thames and Moonraker) were more adventurous and not so bleak as the other two (The Defection of A. J. Lewinter and Call for the Dead). April was a great reading month, with a lot of variety, even with the preponderance of spy fiction.

Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook  is a cross-genre book, combining fantasy and a detective novel. It is the first novel in a series of fourteen books, written between 1987 and 2013, so I would say the series has been fairly successful. Glen Cook has written many books of science fiction and fantasy, but he is most well known for his Black Company fantasy series.

True Grit by Charles Portis, published in 1968,  was one of my favorite reads of the month. This type of book is not one I would normally read. In early April, when we decided to get a copy of the 2010 film adaptation, I decided I wanted to read the book first. (I had never seen the adaptation starring John Wayne and Kim Darby.) So I quickly acquired a copy of the book and read it almost as soon as it arrived.

If you are not familiar with the story, this is from the summary on the back of my edition:
True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, who is just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shoots her father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robs him of his life, his horse, and $150 in cash. Mattie leaves home to avenge her father's blood. With the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshal, by her side, Mattie pursues the homicide into Indian Territory.


My favorite crime fiction read of the month was The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing, published in 1946. I had seen the movie starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton within the last few months, and after reading the book we watched it again. Both book and movie are good but there are significant differences. The book has an unusual narrative structure; each chapter is told from the first person point of view, but there are several narrators. Most of the story is told from the point of view of the main character, George Stroud, but several other characters narrate at least one chapter.

The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise. Bloggers link to summary posts for the month, and identify a favorite crime fiction read for the month.