These books worked for us when we weren’t up for anything heavy, when we just wanted to be entertained and taken elsewhere, when all we were after was an old fashioned good read.
In a similar mood, some may do the job for you.
Though they don’t fit neatly into any single category, they have much in common.
All are disciplined polished art
All are peopled with likeable characters
All are rich with carefully selected detail
None are heavy with angst
None are creepy or slimy
All exalt excellence
All are packed with action
All were widely read and commercially successful
…. in chronological order, starting with the Greeks:
700 BC – The Odyssey – Homer – the Fitzgerald translation
Long before the decadence of Periclean Athens, a clean unspoiled world so different from our own it takes work to feel one’s way in. But it’s worth it. Odysseus, untwisted, sophisticated, not to be trusted, an old style unspecialized king, knows more than how to give orders, can build and sail a boat with his own hands. A Goddess sought to hold him in her hollow caves, suiters half his age couldn’t bend his bow. Polished by centuries, mythical, photographic, elegant, fascinating, good for many reads.
Next up is one of the oldest Chinese novels. Written in the Ming Dynasty when the Country was struggling to piece its culture back together.
1350 AD – Shui Hu Chuan – Lo Kuan-Chung – Translated by Pearl Buck as All Men Are Brothers
A band of robbers fights for survival and justice during the chaos preceding the Mongol invasions. Deeply Confucian desperadoes, they make sure the right people are in their proper positions. The fair and impartial lead, the magically swift carry messages, the killers kill. Like the Avengers, each hero has a different superpower; one throws stones with uncanny accuracy, another calls down storms and thunder, the Black Whirlwind fights naked with a bloody battle axe in each hand. It starts slowly as one by one injustice forces the heroes to take refuge in the Lair. Then massed and powerful, they strike back. People’s literature focussed firmly on those at the bottom of society, it used to be the most loved and widely read of all Chinese stories.
Set about a hundred years later but on the other side of the planet, Scott’s world is much like that around the Lair. Central authority is weak, the woods are full of outlaws, his Robin Hood too is Confucian.
1820 – Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott
His very detailed 12th century England is exactly as we’d want it to be, bloody battles on makeshift jousting grounds, cold crowded tiny castles, worldly crusaders, shrewd strong peasants, brave wise jesters. King Richard gets drunk with Robin Hood’s cudgel wielding friar, the defeated Saxon Lords are proud and noble, the knights are ferocious. And Rebecca! Maybe it’s not accurate history, but so what, it’s a convincingly imagined world. Modern historians have hard discs crammed with data, but Scott knew first hand the joys and miseries of travelling on horseback, sleeping in unheated rooms, living without telephones.
Of late we’ve had doubts about Dickens. Many of his novels are saturated with a class anger which doesn’t quite fit the conventional wealthy life he went for after his meteoric rise. Perhaps that’s why his palette is so heavy on the purple. Still at least his written sympathies are where they should be, with the people who actually do the work.
And though his sentences are longer and more complicated than those of anyone else on this list, they’re carefully crafted. Sometimes he makes you wade through complicated nests of clauses, but in the end there’s always an intended relevant meaning.
1843 – A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
Scrooge is a sensitive imaginative young man until he chooses money over love. By the time the story starts he’s locked himself into a cold miserable life. Then the spirits give him a second chance, and he goes for it. But if there’s hope for him, why then there’s hope for us. That’s the book’s message, its charm is in the perfectly chosen details. Ali Baba outside the window, the Cratchits at what they fear will be Tiny Tim’s last Christmas dinner, Scrooge’s glorious rebirth. And if Dickens sometimes gets preachy, his roar of affirmation drowns it out. Gloriously pagan, no book’s better at bringing light to the darkest days of the year. Even now we know what’s coming, still it makes us cry.
During the grand glorious Victorian Age, deep in every tropical jungle crazy Brits roamed with notebooks, maps, and guns, and Haggard sings their myth. Sure some high types claim his many novels are more quality junk than serious art, but so what. Listening to them, sticking strictly with what’s officially called literature, puts your love of reading in a straightjacket. There’s so much else that’s good, not to mention that like with music, many books commonly called “great” are pretty terrible.
But back to Haggard…..
The nobility of his heroes is an almost specific antidote against the pettiness and lazy sleazy greed around us.
Brave, honest, sharp eyed, unprejudiced, intelligent, intellectual, respectful of all religions, tough beyond belief, his heroes are perfect gentlemen, perfect companions for any adventure. Sneer they’re juvenile, laugh at their implausibility, it will be your loss.
1887 – She – H. Rider Haggard
His long dead father’s letter spoke of an immortal queen, a white woman of astonishing beauty who ruled by magic in a place still blank on the map of Africa. Also in the inner sphinx-footed silver casket, a worn potshard thick with ancient Greek and Latin inscriptions telling the same unlikely tale. But Leo knew the jungles hid magic, and his heart told him she was his fate. A legend come to life, She-who-must-be-obeyed, a being not evil but dispassionately self interested, hers was the power to kill with a glance. Made immortal by bathing in the rolling fiery pillar of life, still she was for millennia the prisoner of a great love. Baroque? Certainly. Written large? Absolutely.
Kim is Kipling’s love letter to the miraculously fair and open India we learned to see in Varanasi.
Irresistible spicy smells of frying street food, pilgrims chanting on the way to bathe in Gangaji, cows and donkeys wandering free as people, lepers looking with pity on clumsy rich Indians throwing them small coins.
Eternal ancient India, where poverty might still mean elegant simplicity.
1901 – Kim – Rudyard Kipling
Both his white parents dead, Kim grew up a tough Indian street kid in the slums of Lahore. Then by a twist of fate, for 3 long years at the best school in British India he learned to read, do math, make maps. But never happy in stiff western clothes he lived for vacations when slipping back into loose local cotton, he studied spy craft with a sahib gone full native, searched for the River of the Arrow with an eccentric old Lama from Tibet. Lost among the infinite variety of travellers on the Grand Trunk Road, watching telegraph poles zip past the window of a third class railroad carriage, through tiny farming villages and up into the foothills of the high Himals, you’re right there with him. It’s a book I always hate to finish.
He tried music, then law, but neither captured Owen like the American West, its vast terrifying beauty and in particular the strength of the cowboys. Strong, brave, and wild, they were everything he and his Harvard friends were not. Of course when he grew up he settled down as just another well behaved rich guy, but in the Virginian he left us a record of the open eyed awe which overwhelmed him when first he ventured out of New England.
1902 – The Virginian – Owen Wister
The dude’s near perfect. Ultimately skillful, with a quick flick of his wrist the rope settled smoothly around the steer’s neck. Understated tough, “Smile when you say that”, his words were soft yet the bar fell silent. He loses his heart to a teacher lady from back East, learns to read to win her love, then honeymoons with her in a lean-to on a tiny island in a rushing troutful river. Strangely real, written before the Western had grown its stereotypes. The book’s weakest when it tries to be funny, but even those parts are more beauty marks than serious flaws.
At eleven Yoshikawa quit grade school and began drifting through a succession of shit jobs. In his 20’s he started writing comic poetry and within a decade his long books were being serialized in important newspapers. Musashi is one of them, his fictionalized biography of a master swordsman, it may still be the all time number one Japanese best seller.
1935 – Musashi – Eiji Yoshikawa – translated by Charles S. Terry
More than inspired killer. Tempered by years of strict Zen training, Musashi learns to love his flying sumi brush as he does his two swords, to be happiest when incognito digging dirt shoulder to shoulder with poor farmer friends, when teaching slum kids to read. By his final legendary bout, he’s even lost his taste for blood. As to the book’s historical accuracy, does it matter? For us the important hero’s the one created by Yoshikawa, as in our life Scott’s King Richard has more weight than the actual king. But for what it’s worth, the “real” Musashi was a great swordsman, did study Zen, did write a still respected martial arts manual, and actually was one hell of a painter.
Under needle sharp stars, breathing the sweet breath of the holy mountain, young Frank Waters was awestruck by his friends from the Taos Pueblo. Their world was crumbling, yet no way could he doubt their nobility, their magic.
Saturated with Frank’s love, half an inch down this is sad and beautiful scripture. How to be a big human, Indian style.
1942 – The Man Who Killed the Deer – Frank Waters
Part Apache, educated at the white man’s school, married to a woman from another tribe, Martiniano did not fit. Especially when trying to behave well, he often got in trouble. But fined, whipped, ostracized, each time he came back stronger, more determined to walk his own path, to build a life with Flowers Playing, to come to terms with the deer who stalked his waking dreams. And somehow each time he broke American law, the Pueblo moved closer to recovering its sacred lake.
Betty Smith’s fictionalized self grew up in a turn of the century Brooklyn slum, public libraries were her window to the world. As they were for me, some of my earliest memories are of the old Montgomery Street branch, first the kid’s room, then the young adult’s, and finally the full collection. So libraries have always been important to me, I even built one in Koshi Dekha, a village in Nepal. Our current place has at least one bookcase in every room including the kitchen.
That’s why it saddens me to see public libraries chucking their best books to make room for computer terminals. I think they call it “thinning”. In their eyes they’re being responsible public servants, getting rid of stuff which hasn’t circulated for 5 years, giving people what they want. One unfortunate effect of this has been many wonderful books on this page have been discarded by local libraries. Now they’re available for a buck or less at Friends of the Library booksales all around the country.
1943 – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
Francie’s mom cooked the most delicious meatloaf with stale bread bought for almost nothing. Her evenings ended with a page of noble King James prose, read to her by her mother from a Bible stolen for her by her hot illiterate aunt. Her irresistible Irish father, a chronically broke alcoholic singing waiter, faked her address so she could attend the very special public school of her dreams. Sure her family was always short of cash, but clearly she was lucky, her life rich with love and often even mythological. Sweet it must have been to be a bright kid back when education was more than just the ticket to a well paid job.
In this short novel Lin Yutang doesn’t preach like he sometimes does in his delightful better known translations and essays, he takes us to late 1930’s New York, lets us watch the classic Chinese virtues make one poor immigrant family unstoppable, shows us what it means to have Confucius and Lao Tzu in your bones.
And though it’s not his first language, he does it in elegant carefully crafted English.
1948 – Chinatown Family – Lin Yutang
Before he could bring his family over, seven days a week for a decade Mr. Fong ironed shirts in his basement shop. But the wait was worth it, with them came little cakes up on the tenement roof viewing the full moon of autumn; respect for elders and the past, love of quiet, superb food, an almost cheerful acceptance of hard work. Mrs. Fong for no extra charge mends and sews buttons onto shirts sent in for laundry. Eva keeps the books to the penny and Tom delivers everything right on time, even as they struggle to master English and do well in school. Later the family takes the same Confucian approach to their restaurant, using only the freshest ingredients, serving the best possible food for the lowest price. Whatever they do they try to do right, and it works. I deeply regret never having had a chance to taste Mrs. Fong’s fairy chicken.
Schaefer poured everything he knew about being a big human into this one. It transcends its genre, it’s much more than just a Western. Though the violence is graphic, it happens only when there’s reason and it’s glorified only in young Bob’s eyes.
The style’s spare almost to the point of being choppy, but he chooses his details so perfectly it’s as though you were there.
1949 – Shane – Jack Schaefer
Like Musashi, Shane’s tired of killing. Hoping he’s outridden his reputation, he settles down to help Joe and Marian carve a home for themselves from the wild Wyoming prairie. If more humans were as big as these three, it could be heaven on earth. Their triangle is transformed by love and trust into strength. Their fate is faced with courage. Young Bob gets an unforgettable lesson about what it means to be a man. This sounds sentimental and clichéd, but in Shaefer’s hands it becomes universal myth.
Patterned after the greatest modern English admiral, Hornblower’s a complicated hero. At the start of every voyage he’s seasick, but once he gets his sea legs no storm can phase him. He thinks he’s a coward, but in action he’s fearless and almost bloodthirsty. He worries his men don’t respect him because he’s physically weak, but in truth they adore him for his fairness and willingness to share their risks. He prides himself on his skill with cards and considers himself at least a competent clear thinker, but he shines most brightly when sensing the mood of the sea or responding intuitively to some unexpected turn of events.
I’ve read 5 Hornblower novels and they all caught me. Now I see them as a valuable resource so I’m saving the rest for when I’m again recovering from an extraction or for some other reason need to be elsewhere. They’re fine reads. The ever surprising sea, its winds, its tides, its waves all feel real. So do the rigging, the decks, the ships, the maneuvers, the battles.
1950 – Mr. Midshipman Hornblower – C.S. Forester
Knowing nothing of the sea, he boards his first ship a soaked seasick miserable 17 year old. Soon he’s facing down a bully, forcing a duel. The first of many crises and triumphs on his 11 volume journey to top Admiral. All set against the always present, believable, can almost smell it, all surrounding sea. This is not the volume we read first. “Beat to Quarters” when he’s already a captain is where we met him. But then we read another and another…….
When O’Connor wrote, not just the Irish Catholic world of his childhood was fading, the entire old modern world was also taking its last curtain call.
But most hadn’t noticed it yet, and even those who had were trying to be optimistic. They could still dream Jazz and the Avant Guard were bringing magic back into music, that television was spreading culture to the masses, that automation would mean the end of long workweeks, and that jet planes would finally make it One World.
O’Connor however was far from sure the brave new postmodern world would turn out to be an improvement. His deepest most interesting characters are all on the side of the old.
1956 – The Last Hurrah – Edwin O’Connor
He knows everyone. Mourners at wakes, workers on picket lines, laborers down at the docks, petitioners at the Office, Skeffington’s their mayor and he’s there for each and every one of them. Their names are on the tip of his tongue, and their kids’ names, their parents’ names, their grandparents’ names. Listening, understanding, gently funny, ready to help, his words bring hope and solace because he means them. Since his wife died, each night he goes to bed alone in their tasteful but not extravagant home. His only servant respects and loves him. A truly grand Irish gentleman, more prince than scoundrel, he’s warmer, more decent, than the face he shows to his supporters. This may be the only sweet political novel.
Older Science Fiction set in futures defined by their far-out machines, often sounds dated, stories focussed on mental powers age more gracefully.
Here the power is “jaunting” or the ability to with mind alone instantaneously move oneself to a different location.
His lab coat a mass of flames, he screamed, something happened in his mind, and suddenly he was 70 ft. away next to the extinguisher. The other watching scientists blinked, put him out, started thinking, and got to work. At first only the prospect of sure death unlocked the power, their early volunteers jaunted or died. And even when it became a teachable skill, one huge limitation remained, it only worked between places with known coordinates. Until after surviving a series of interlocking hells, Bester’s hero smashes past the barrier.
A weird and wonderful book. Gleefully anti-authoritarian, it’s difficult to think of another with as many wild ideas.
1957 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
Gully Foyle starts out a mediocre bottom of the line human. “No education, no skills, no merits”, reads his report. But when left to die anger turns on all the mental powers his position in society had doomed to rot, and he starts to grow. Certainly his ruthlessness is sometimes disturbing, but what glorious audacity! Single handedly he wars against the giant conglomerates Bester correctly saw would rule the future. Nothing stops him, Gully absolutely refuses to stay in his proper place. Steadfastly positive in a deeply dystopian future. His is the hatred and the faith of a giant, the faith needed to jaunt to the Stars.
White’s Arthur is a medieval king, not as would be more historically correct, a minor ruler in late Roman England. But having made this change, the 12th century world is convincingly real. The hunting hawks have proper leather hoods, the knights ride thick powerful work horses not prancing Arabians. Of course once Merlin enters, anything goes.
Note, my love of this book has absolutely nothing to do with my name being Arthur.
1958 – The Once and Future King – T.H.White
Qualified to teach by degrees from Plato’s Academy and Cambridge, Merlin gives the future king a dream education, sending him to swim with fish in the moat, to hang with trained hunting hawks in their roost, to fly across the seas with migrating geese. And it works, Arthur grows strong and straight and just. Then as fated Lancelot falls for the Queen and darkness overspreads the land.
Let’s leave the last word to some brave and clever rabbits.
And very rabbit-like rabbits they are. To be sure for the story to work they must behave in human ways, but they do it in a rabbit’s world. They don’t go on picnics, they have no interest in gold, they don’t wear clothing or live in houses. All they’re after is a safe new location for their warren and a dependable supply of clover.
This book changed the way we look at Rabbits. Now when one raids our garden, we can’t quite hate it. It also grew our vocabulary. When we’ve been cooped up too long inside, we know it’s time to “silflay”, and when we see someone squished on the road, we know he had an unfortunate encounter with a “hrududu”.
1972 – Watership Down – Richard Adams
Not a book for children, these rabbits demand to be taken seriously. More than just furry little bouncing animals, they’re proper heroes. Since they have no choice they do what rabbits shouldn’t be able to do. They safely cross a river on a floating log, resist temptation, befriend the weak and injured, and defeat a dictator. Organized like the Confucian bandits in Shui Hu Chuan, fair minded Hazel leads, brave Bigwig fights huge vicious Woundwort to a draw, delicate sensitive Fiver reads the omens, and brilliant Blackberry thinks his way through their problems. What rabbits!