Friday, May 2, 2014

Some novels, stories, and poems that I revisit regularly

 The following is a short list of some novels, poems, and short stories that I reread irregularly for the most part.  There's no particular order or schedule to this.  One day I will get the urge to read something once again, and so I dig it out, settle down in my recliner, surrender to the cat's demand for some lap time, and leave this world for a while.   There are others whose names I can't come up with right now, but sometime tomorrow or the next day, week, month, year, I will see one in my bookcase or read a comment by somebody about it and that's it--time for a another visit. 

J. R. R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings   
These three books are the ones that I have read more than any other work on my reread list, which is strange because I prefer SF to fantasy.   Right now, I am slowly reading The Silmarillion and expect to get to the others this year.    

Thomas Mann
The Magic Mountain
This may be the second most reread book on my list.  I first read it while an undergraduate sometime during the years 1958-1961.  It was for a lit course, and I had to choose a novel from a list provided by the professor to write the outside paper on.  I choose this one, probably because of the title, and I haven't stopped reading it since.  I am now on my second hardbound copy as the first one is falling apart.

Life in a TB sanitarium doesn't sound that enthralling, but once begun, I found it impossible to put down.  It's partially based on a true experience.  Mann's wife went to a sanitarium for several months because of a lung complaint.  While visiting her, Mann underwent some testing and, like his hero Hans Castorp, was told that it would be a good idea if he signed himself in.  Unlike Castorp, he refused and, instead, wrote a novel about the experience.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment
I've reread this a number of times, perhaps as often as The Magic Mountain, or close to it anyway.  I consider this book a very significant work because it first introduced me to Dostoyevsky (I think I've read everything of his that's been translated into English), secondly it introduced me to Russian literature, and thirdly it was my introduction to foreign literature.  Moreover, I may not have selected Mann's The Magic Mountain a year or so later. and instead.  I might have gone with an English language work instead.

Raskolnikov believes himself to be a superior person who is not bound by the laws of human society.  The average person is someone who, if he kills someone, is caught and punished.  On the other hand, superior people, such as Napoleon, can be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and are seen as one of the Great Ones.  He kills a pawnbroker, someone useless and odious, to prove that he belongs among the elite.


Jack Finney
Time and Again
Simply the best time travel novel ever written.   Time is a mental construct, and the mind can be fooled into traveling into the past if the environment is appropriate and if the individual can be convinced that he or she is actually living at that particular time.  It's a mystery and a romance, and Finney provides sufficient information, along with appropriate photos, to make this a special work, and one that leaves me wishing this was real.

Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose
A marvelous amalgam of mystery and history and religious conflict is all that this is.  Brother William of Baskerville, a monk, has been called to the monastery to act as a mediator and a witness between two conflicting religious ideas of importance.  While there, he is persuaded to investigate a series of murders in the monastery, and his name should provide a vital clue as to his methods.  If he is unable to solve the murders, the Inquisition will be called in, and nobody wants that.  Adso or Adson of Melk is his amanuensis.  The novel is supposedly an edited copy of Adso's recounting of their stay at the monastery.

PD James
 I've read all of her mysteries a number of times, even though I have figured out the villain shortly after getting into the story.  The plots and characters are complex, carefully drawn out.  There seldom is the expected denouement at the end where Commander Adam Dalgliesh gathers all the suspects in the drawing room and slowly works his way around the room, pointing his finger at each in turn.  Instead, the process is a slow one, developing throughout the novel as each suspect is considered and then dismissed until it's a matter of uncovering the final bit of evidence rather than uncovering the identity of the guilty party. 

Jane Austen
Everything including her juvenilia.
I tried reading Pride and Prejudice several times, but I always stopped reading.  Then at age 42 I returned to graduate school in the English Department.  In the first course I took, the reading list included Sense and Sensibility.  I groaned a bit and then settled down to read it.  I loved it and then went out to read everything else by her.  I guess I had to mature a bit before I was ready for her.  If I was forced to list my favorites among her works,  I would say Persuasion would be No. 1 and Mansfield Park would be next.  The others follow closely behind.  It's been a while since I read them all, so I shall probably dust them off and settle down once again.

Russell Hoban
Riddley Walker
This is one of my favorite post-holocaust novels, thanks to a Chaucer course I took a year or two prior to reading the novel.  In the Chaucer course, we had to read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English (the language it was written in).  I struggled mightily because I had always hated reading something that wasn't written in Standard English.  I really didn't want to pay attention to the language; that was too much work.  However, at the end of the course, leaving the classroom for the last time, I felt as if I had lost a world somehow that I would never return to.

A year or so later, I had to take my qualifying exams and The Tales was on the list.  I decided to  play it smart and bought a modern translation and settled down to read.  However, something important was missing, and so I got out the Middle English  text and happily reread it in Middle English.

What has this to do with Riddley Walker?  The answer is simple: Russell Hoban has written the novel in what he speculates English would be like maybe 500 years from now after a nuclear war and  during that period most people have been illiterate.  Those few who could read and write learned from their predecessors and not from teachers or texts which would have kept the language unchanged.  If I had not learned to accept non-standard English texts from the Chaucer course, I never would have finished the novel.  The following is the opening paragraph.  If you read it out loud, as you should do with poetry, you will find it much easier to read.

 "On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he weren't all that big plus he lookit poorily. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and make his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, 'Your tern now my tern later. . ."

 I've made some other posts about Riddley Walker and some other works by Russell Hoban.  You may want to check them out.  Russell Hoban is a unique writer, with a wild imagination.  Reading anything by him is well worth the time spent.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
This is another of my favorite post-holocaust novels.  It too is set hundreds of years after a nuclear war. The locale seems to be somewhere in New Mexico, where monks at a monastery manage to survive as monks did during the so-called Dark Ages perhaps almost 2000 years earlier.  And, along with their farm duties (they have to be completely self-sustaining) they also are dedicated to keeping records of the achievements of the past, even if they don't know what it is that they are painstakingly copying.   They have faith that some day human knowledge will increase to the point that these arcane books and schematics and diagrams will be not only intelligible but also help to spark a resurgence of human learning.

Their task is much like that of the Encyclopediasts in Isaac Asimov's "Foundation series."  However, the monks of the Order of Blessed Leibowitz do not have high tech aides and spaceships to travel about, but only sandals, and if they are lucky, a mule.  The novel is really three novellas, set roughly centuries apart, with only monastery and the monks' task of preserving knowledge to link them.  Well, there's always Benjamin, but he really can't be the Wandering Jew, several thousand years old, could he?

Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness
I'm never certain about whether this is a short novel or a long novella, so I will guess this time and call it a novel.  It's the work by Conrad that I've read most often for I find it fascinates me, both in its description of the countryside, the inhabitants, and the Europeans who plague the inhabitants.  It's a biting indictment of the treatment of the black Africans by the white Europeans who have come there supposedly to civilize and bring the benefits of European civilization  and in reality end up brutalizing them in search of profit.

The POV character is Marlow, but the center of the novel is Kurtz   Marlow has taken a job as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River.  Far up the river is a trading outpost run by Kurtz, who has been amazingly successful in obtaining ivory for the company.  Suddenly all shipments stop, and after a few months of silence, Marlow is ordered to take the steamer up the river to Kurtz's trading post.  He is accompanied by the district manager and a group of ivory hunters and treasure seekers, along with a crew consisting of a few cannibals.  Marlow becomes obsessed with the idea of Kurtz and only slowly does he realize that Kurtz is not only at the heart of darkness, but also he is the heart of darkness.

The film, Apocalypse Now, is loosely, very loosely, based on the novel--more of an adaptation than a recounting.  The film is set in Vietnam during the war.  Captain Willard, of the US Army, is sent up the Nung River into Cambodia to find Col. Kurtz and assassinate  who has set himself up as a god among the local tribes people and is conducting his own brand of guerrilla warfare against the Viet Cong.  While much of the novel has been changed for the film, I still found the film to be very close in capturing the tone or atmosphere of the novel--the absurdity and arrogance of the white invaders.

Something happened that I did not account for.  I initially said that this would be a short list, something around ten, maybe even fifteen, but the list keep growing.  I'm now at ten and I still have the same amount left.  I guess I will end this here and continue with the rest on Part Two.  I hope this doesn't turn out to be similar to those fantasy trilogies that reach double digits.  


  1. What a wonderful little library of selections! You remind me that I ought to dig up some of my neglected copies for another visit. Thank you!

    1. RT,
      I know what you mean. I found it difficult while posting this to not go running to my bookcase and pulling out a stack of books.

    2. And I look forward to your next (2nd) installment.

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