Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Denny’s and Claire's 2006 Book Recommendations for the Notting Hill Napoleons

Every year about this time, the Notting Hill Napoleons prepare for a weekend stay at a bed and breakfast out of town. Quint and Carol Coppi, John and Barb Malek, Bill and Karen Coker, Karla Struble, Jo Bonifant, Chet Thomas, and the Hartfords enjoy a couple of days away from their regular responsibilities as they take over The Whispering Pines in Nebraska City. There we will relax a bit, have meals together, and converse about many things. But special times are set aside for our discussion of the year's Charles Dickens novel (Barnaby Rudge this year) and for our good-natured debate and vote on the reading rota for the upcoming year.

This book club is getting ready to begin its 15th year and since the very start I've prepared a list of possible books for the Napoleons' consideration. I take time in doing the research and try to present books that meet what I believe are the key standards of the Napoleons: quality writing, an interesting story, uplifting moral tone (or at least a book that will effectively stimulate conversation about morality), and the book's utility as a "bridge" to the culture. It seems to be a very useful thing for the group (several of our nominees have made the grade) and it is certainly a delightful task for me to perform. I pass this year's list of nominated books on to you in hopes you find it helpful in your reading choices. As always, I'd love to hear from you. Contact me at

1) The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Trollope is one of the finest of all 19th Century authors, an extremely prolific writer (47 novels) whose popularity endures despite scant attention by the literary establishment. Trollope’s fame is increasing, however, due to television versions of his Palliser novels and other works, and the work of the U.K.’s Anthony Trollope Society. The Society (which has as members such belles lettres as P.D. James, Antonia Fraser, Rumpole’s John Mortimer, Paul Johnson, and Louis Auchincloss) won Trollope a memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner in the late 90’s. Warm-hearted, bright and vividly imaginative, Trollope’s works rival those even of Charles Dickens. I suggest we start with The Warden, the first of Trollope’s outstanding series, the Barchester novels. (285 pages. $8.00 new. Used starting at $2.00. 4 copies in the OPL system.)

2) Becket (or “The Honor of God”) by Jean Anouilh
This epic play portrays the conflict of loyalties between church and state as they influenced the lives of two of the most powerful men in English history. Sure, there are a couple of historical inaccuracies but I won’t tell if you won’t! A great study in Christian conversion; this play was the basis for the excellent movie that starred Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. Anouilh’s Becket makes a wonderful counterpart to Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which is a “Becket bonus” for those of us who read it last year and a special opportunity for the five Napoleons who missed it. (128 pages. $11 new. Used from $.99 -- 3 copies in the OPL system.)

3) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Sure, it's a wonderful movie, but has anybody read the book? Well, Claire and I now have and we are really enthusiastic about its value as a NHN selection. After all these years, GWTW remains one of America's most beloved novels. It is long but that’s actually part of its charm – the story, characters and writing are that good! Gone With The Wind would make a terrific wintertime book. (1024 pages. $8 new. Used from $.95 -- several copies in OPL system.)

4) The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott
Scott stands tied with G.K. Chesterton for #3 among the Napoleons’ favorite novelists – only Dickens and Shakespeare rank higher. But fortunately, we have a long way to go before we need to worry about re-reads. Our recommendation for this year is The Antiquary. This stirring story was Scott’s favorite of the Waverly series. It is about a young man’s unrequited love for the daughter of a grand landowner. However, his meeting a mysterious antiquary and facing a tremendous test of courage are key events in the fast moving plot. (425 pages. New $11.82. Used beginning at $8.50. 4 copies in OPL.)

5) November 1916 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
With August 1914, Solzhenitsyn began his epic of the Russian Revolution, the finished version of which (The Red Wheel) he hopes to leave as his greatest and most important work. After 20 years, the second of the series is here. This is history but much more; in fact, in this particular novel, the characters really take center stage: Nicholas and Alexandra, Lenin and a whole host of fictional creations. (1000 pages. $20.00 3 copies in OPL.)

6) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.
One of the greatest of all writers in English, this is his most popular book -- thanks to the groundbreaking PBS series! It is a "flashback" novel about England's upper middle class before WWII. We have so far discussed three Waugh novels. We suggest going on to what most would consider his most finely crafted work. (350 pages. $14.95 new – several copies in OPL system)

7) Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas
Two decades have passed since the famous swordsmen triumphed over Cardinal Richelieu and Milady in The Three Musketeers. Time has weakened their resolve, and dispersed their loyalties. But treasons and stratagems still cry out for justice and civil war endangers the throne of France. Meanwhile in England, Cromwell threatens to send Charles I to the scaffold. Dumas brings his immortal quartet out of retirement to cross swords once again with time, the malevolence of men, and the forces of history.
The exact count of the “D'Artagnan Romances” depends on the edition you consult. The canonical set is The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and Vicomte de Bragelonne. The Vicomte is traditionally published in three volumes as Vicomte de Bragelonne (sometimes entitled Ten Years Later), Louise de la Vallière, and The Man in the Iron Mask, but a division into four (with Ten Years Later following the Victomte) is not uncommon. Why mention all this? It goes to show that we have several delightful Dumas novels yet ahead of us! (880 pages. $10.85 new and from $6 used – 4 copies in OPL system.)

8) Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford
This coming of age novel is without the angst, perversion, and rebellion of so many which attempt this theme. Instead, it is a warm, engaging story of an Alabama family in the early 1940’s adjusting to their new home in the Hispanic community of Corazon Sagrado, in the high mountains of New Mexico. A great read for all ages. I never knew until just a few days ago that a film was made from this novel in the early 70’s with a whole raft of stars: Richard Thomas, Catherine Burns, Desi Arnaz Jr., Richard Crenna, Claire Bloom, Harry Guardino, Strother Martin, Nehemiah Persoff, and Gregory Sierra.
Novelist and playwright Richard Condon said of the author, “Bradford believes in the human comedy the way Joe DiMaggio believes in baseball, the way Nureyev believes in the dance, the way people, no matter what, believe in laughing when they might just as well be weeping.” (246 pages. $20.00 new hardback. Used from $1.00. 3 copies in OPL system.)

9) Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Lew Wallace, the Indiana attorney and politician who distinguished himself in the Mexican War and then especially the War Between the States (Ft. Donelson, the defense of Cincinnati, Monocacy, et al) eventually served as Governor of New Mexico territory and later as U.S. Minister to Turkey. In his years in New Mexico, he helped oversee that area’s development; met Billy the Kid and…yes, penned Ben-Hur. The saga of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince sent into slavery whose sufferings, adventures, and spiritual quest have made for one of America’s most phenomenal publishing successes, is a book eminently suited for the Napoleons. This is a novel fully deserving of the title, “classic.” (576 pages. $8.00 new. Used from $1. 5 copies in OPL.)

10) The Hounds of God by Rafael Sabatini
A fascinating story of romance, politics and religion set in the late medieval period. As much a thriller as an adventure story, it provides one of the most intense glimpses into the court life of the era as well as the Spanish Inquisition. Kidnapping. Shipwreck. Intrigue. Rescue. There’s plenty of punch in this remarkable Sabatini novel. (274 pages. $10.00 new. Interlibrary loan process needed for copies.)

11) A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg
This was one of our niftiest Christmas surprises last year. It is a funny, touching, and an overall lovely Christmas read. Why not start making December’s Napoleon book add to the festivity of the season? (224 pages. $7.00 new. Used from $2.00. 11 copies plus audio versions in OPL system.)

12) Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
The finest “author discovery” Claire and I have experienced in the last few years has been Nevil Shute, a talented and thoughtful writer who was a bestseller in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He has given us many wonderful hours reading the most interesting plots with superbly drawn, realistic characters. We are really high on Shute for NHN status and, well…we’re really high on Shute, period. Any one of the 6 or 7 novels of Shute’s that we’ve read would be terrific for the Napoleons but our first choice is Pied Piper, a 1942 novel featuring John Howard, an elderly Englishman who is caught in France at the outbreak of WWII and undertakes the huge task of escorting several children out of harm’s way and to a safe haven in England. Tense. Compassionate. Courageous. Inspirational. (282 pages. $8.95 new. Used from $2.00. 4 copies in OPL.)

13) The Last Days of Pompeii by Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
Most of us only know Bulwer-Lytton from his oft satirized line, "It was a dark and stormy night …" However, he was one of the most popular fiction writers in the 19th century. His writing is intelligent and rich with stories that abound in historic detail, myth, intrigue and suspense. This novel follows the actions of four people in Pompeii in the days immediately preceding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Their loves, fears, lifestyles, groping for spiritual enlightenment (leading to Christianity, by the way) are all described in a style evocative of a time and place much different than ours. This fascinating period piece will draw its readers to sunny Mediterranean slopes, Greek forums, unusual philosophies, and the suspense of an impending disaster – all seen through the clever structure and extravagant language of the talented Victorian, Sir Bulwer-Lytton. (360 pages. $19.95 new. Used from $7. 3 copies in OPL system.)

14) Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo started writing this his last novel on 21 November 1872. The title alluded to the year when Louis XVI was decapitated and Robespierre adapted terror to further the Revolution. Hugo had evaded the subject until now; it was the conflict between white and blue, between his revolutionary father and royalist mother, between his own beliefs as a young man and the convictions he came to cherish later in life - a conflict of France as well as a conflict of Hugo's self. The novel, however, was not about the torments of a soul, but of the battle between men, of the greatness and cruelty found in both camps. Interestingly too, it is said that one of the characters in Ninety-Three, the ex-priest Cimourdain, inspired the man who would become one of the most brutal champions of terror in history, Josef Stalin. (392 pages. $27.95 new and used from $15 -- none to be found in OPL system)

15) The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
This is the last Dickens novel of his fabulous fifteen; indeed, he didn’t live to write the novel’s finale’. It makes the book the most famous mystery story of all time because the reader is forced to supply the solution. Having read all of Dickens’other novels in our time together, it seems fitting we go ahead and tackle Drood before starting over. We suggest that different Napoleons read the editions where Drood was completed by other authors so we can compare their solutions with each other…and with our own! (The Penguin Classic’s edition is 432 pages. $8.00 new. Used from $2. 3 copies in OPL.)

16) Sea Wolf by Jack London
London, of course, is an American master in the short story realm. (Who could ever forget the tragic shock they experienced at the conclusion of “To Build a Fire”?) Well, London did pretty well in his few tries with novels as well. This realistic story has intense moral conflict, adventure, grapplings with the complexity of evil, the drama of overcoming personal weakness, and more. (256 pages. $5 new. Used very cheap. Several copies in OPL.)

17) Dragonwyck by Anya Seton (aka Philippa Gregory)
First published in 1944, Dragonwyck was a national bestseller and was made into a major motion picture starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price in 1946. It is a classic gothic romance featuring an 18-year-old girl who falls under the spell of a mysterious old mansion and its equally fascinating master. She becomes part of Dragonwyck, with its Gothic towers, flowering gardens, acres of tenant farms, and dark, terrible secrets. Into her experience also come meetings with visiting European royalty as well as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and the Astors. This is a heart-stopping story of a remarkable woman, her breathtaking passions, and the mystery and terror that await her in the magnificent hallways of Dragonwyck. (352 pages. $10.00 new. Used from $2.50. 2 copies in OPL.)

18) Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
One of the most famous satirical works in history. It’s an important and very influential fantasy novel that is still under discussion by readers all over the world. (280 pages. New from $5. Used from $1.00. 3 copies in OPL.)

19) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
We have only read one novel from the famed trio of Bronte sisters – not enough. So we suggest this engaging novel. Bleak, lonely houses out on the moors…unrequited love and cruel betrayal…wicked forces being met and overcome by good – all combine in one of the Bronte girls’ best. (386 pages. $6.95 new and used from $2.50. Multiple copies in OPL system.)

20) The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) by Allesandro Manzoni
One of the great novels in Italian history, The Betrothed is also considered one of the greatest historical novels ever written. Manzoni magnificently blends together a score of memorable characters with a string of vividly rendered historical events to provide an epic story of frustrated lovers during the Thirty Years Wars (early 17th century) when the state of Milan was occupied by the Spanish Habsburgs. The result is a great story of religion and redemption placed against the background of one of the most turbulent periods in Italian history. Our bibliophile colleague, Ron Prenot, suggested this to me several months ago and, after checking around a bit, I think it would be an admirable choice for the NHN. (720 pages. $11.00 new. No OPL copies.)

21) King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
In 1885, Haggard’s publisher considered this novel “the most amazing book ever written.” Haggard clearly displays here his dramatic imagination and his deep knowledge of Africa. King Solomon’s Mines recounts the pulse-pounding adventures of Allan Quartermain, Sir Henry Curtis, and Captain John Good. Among Haggard’s other novels, She would also make for a rousing adventure. (320 pages. $9.95 new. Used from $1. 2copies in OPL.)

22) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park is rife with adultery, betrayal, social ruin, and ruptured friendships. But this is a comedy, after all, so there is also a requisite happy ending and plenty of Austen's patented gentle satire along the way. (448 pages. $6 new. Used from $2. 4 copies in OPL.)

23) Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
They don’t come any better than this. A great tale when we were kids (like all of Stevenson’s!), but also a splendid read now that we’re…well, a little older. (297 pages. Commonly available.)

24) Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
Now this is a different read! The creator of Watership Down returned to the world of animals in this novel but with a more naturalistic approach. This is one of those books that both entertain and teach. (480 pages. $7.95 new. Used – commonly available.3 copies in OPL system.)

25) The Mistress of Husaby by Sigrid Undset
The second novel in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy is this one. The previous Undset was a charmer to most of us and it’s always nice to complete a set. (That may suggest a connection to other recommendations regarding trilogies we have started but not finished like C.S. Lewis’, Tolkien’s, and Cooper’s.) Anyhow, we toss in our list, The Mistress of Husaby. 379 pages. (New - $14 and used from $.75. 8 copies in OPL system.)

26) The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
“And now for something completely different…” In this haunting tale, Daphne du Maurier takes a fresh approach to time travel. Magnus Lane, a University of London chemical researcher, asks his friend Richard Young and Young's family to stay at Kilmarth, an ancient house set in the wilds near the Cornish coast. Here, Richard drinks a potion created by Magnus and finds himself at the same spot where he was moments earlier--though it is now the fourteenth century. The effects of the drink wear off after several hours, but it is wildly addictive, and Richard cannot resist traveling back and forth in time. Gradually growing more involved in the lives of the early Cornish manor lords and their ladies, he finds the presence of his wife and stepsons a hindrance to his new-found experience. Richard eventually finds emotional refuge with a beautiful woman of the past trapped in a loveless marriage, but when he attempts to intervene on her behalf the results are brutally terrifying for the present. Echoing the fantastic stories of Lovecraft and Poe, The House on the Strand is a masterful yarn of history, romance, horror, and suspense that will grip the reader until the last surprising twist. (304 pages. $10.00 new. Used from $1.50. 6 copies in OPL system.)

27) -------------- by Edward de Vere (aka William Shakespeare)
TBA according to UNO’s summer performances.