Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Book Den Is Open Again

After taking much too long a hiatus from The Book Den, I’ve decided to jump back in with a renewed resolve to keep it at least as current as the old days. We'll see. With the increased attention I’ve given to Vital Signs Blog, my other duties for Vital Signs Ministries, and now an ongoing commitment to prepare a sermon each week for an inner city church, that’s going to be a rather tough assignment. But hey – who needs six hours of sleep a night anyway, right?

My shamefully lengthy furlough from The Book Den shouldn’t be taken as a vacation from books themselves, however, and as I play catch up here in the next few weeks, I’ll write posts dealing with at least a few of the titles covered in that period.

Here's a quick rundown. Among those titles of my fall and winter reading have been several re-reads of John D. MacDonald; five novels by Robert Louis Stevenson (Only four of them I count as classics. David Balfour doesn’t rise to that status for me.); Bleak House by Charles Dickens; The Face of Battle by John Keegan; Magic and The Return of Don Quixote by G.K. Chesterton; Bellarion the Fortunate by Rafael Sabatini; What If? edited by Robert Cowley; A Christmas Gift by Glendon Swarthout; and Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas by Ken Foskett.

Also in the mix for these months were Beau Geste by P.C. Wren; Lost Horizon by James Hilton; Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo; The Collectors by David Baldacci; a couple of John Buchan re-reads; The Path to Rome by Hillaire Belloc; America Alone by Mark Steyn; Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope; and the regular amount of Bible study and the re-reading of such favorites as Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories; James Thurber's comedy; and various poets.

I think I can say I found reading most of the ones I’ve mentioned above beneficial and enjoyable. But as I said, I’ll be doing a few specific reviews in the days to come.

However, the first “official” entry of this new era will be an overdue installment of a feature that has become very popular with the nation’s English teachers, librarians and retired disc jockeys; namely, Denny and Claire’s Annual NHN Book Recommendations, primarily developed for the consideration of the members of our “fine vintage” literary club. I'm sure a few of these books have shown up in previous lists we’ve compiled for the Notting Hill Napoleons but most of them are new. Check it out below and see if you find the list helpful as you make your own reading choices for 2008.

And, by the way, if you’re interested in what the Napoleons have already read in our long and adventurous history (more than 15 years), check back in a few days and I'll post the full rota.

Denny’s and Claire's 2008 Notting Hill Napoleons
Book Recommendations

1) The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini.
What's not to like here? Pirates, adventure, daring escapes, sea battles, romance, a wronged man's quest for justice, and more. One of Sabatini's most popular novels. And, oh; that 1940 Errol Flynn movie called The Sea Hawk? Warner Bros. simply stole the title and applied it to a film that had nothing whatsoever to do with Sabatini’s book! (372 pages. New: $12. Used from $1.50. 1 copy in OPL system.)

2) 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 historical fiction at its very best. (1000 pages. New: $20.00. 3 copies in OPL.)

3) Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo.
1793 was the year that Louis XVI was decapitated and Robespierre really swung into “terror mode” to further the French Revolution. Hugo had evaded the subject throughout most of his career. Nevertheless, when he finally braved it, he did an admirable job. (392 pages. New: $27.95. Used from $15.)

4) Parnassus On Wheels by Christopher Morley.
"A man who's fond of books need never starve." So reckons Roger Mifflin, the last of the truly independent booksellers, who loads a horse-drawn wagon with books and brings literature home to the plain man. Parnassus on Wheels is also a sweet romance story between Roger and Helen McGill, a lonely farm woman who really comes to life when Parnassus and Roger come swaying up her path. Their adventures on the way to Brooklyn will likely cause you to want more of Christopher Morley. Hmm…perhaps The Haunted Bookstore or Kitty Foyle? (190 pages. Used from $8. 2 copies in OPL system.)

5) Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope.
Our reading of The Warden and Barchester Towers were the first exhilarating steps into the Chronicles of Barsetshire, the next one being Doctor Thorne. (These are followed by Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset.) And, you know, if we read just one more of his novels, we become automatically nominated for Auxiliary Status in the U.S.A. branch of the Trollope Society. Fellow Trollopians include Dame Antonia Fraser, P.D. James, Jeffrey Archer, Louis Auchinloss, John Mortimer, Paul Johnson, Enoch Powell, Ruth Rendell, Joanna Trollope, and so many more. And, of course, when we get round to them, there’s always the Palliser novels to start in on: Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, and The Duke's Children. (524 pages. New: $14. Used from $7.)

6) The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott.
Sir Walter Scott ranks Number 4 in the standings of the Napoleon’s “Most Read Authors.” Fortunately, we have a long way to go before we need worry about running out of Scott titles to delight us. Our recommendation for this year is The Heart of Midlothian, an exciting novel inspired by several historical events, including the Porteous Riots of 1736 in Edinburgh and Helen Walker’s long trek on foot to London to obtain a pardon for her sister, wrongfully sentenced to death for child murder. (566 pages. Used copies at $1. 2 copies in OPL system.)

7) Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
It’s a fine movie but an even finer novel, one which on the surface deals with airplane crash survivors finding the fantastic utopia of Shangri-La but which underneath is full of reflections on human character, romance, idealism, the depressed hopes of political solutions on the eve of World War II, and more. We think Hilton’s popular novel would lead to a great discussion. (240 pages. New: $6.99. Used from $.75. 10 copies in OPL.) Note: There’s another James Hilton recommendation coming later.

8) The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout.
Now here’s a writer who has satisfied an amazing diversity of readers with such very successful (but very different) novels as Welcome To Thebes, Bless the Beasts and the Children, Where The Boys Are, The Eagle and the Iron Cross, A Christmas Gift, and the one we are suggesting for the Napoleons, The Shootist. This novel won him wide applause and several awards and was, of course, the basis for John Wayne’s last film. Like in others of his works, Swarthout emphasizes in The Shootist the kind of extraordinary heroism and dedication that even quite ordinary men are capable of. (160 pages. Used from $1.45.)

9) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.
Mansfield Park is full of events concerning betrayal, social ruin, and ruptured friendships. But this is a comedy, after all! So, rest assured, there’s the requisite happy ending and plenty of Austen's gentle satire along the way. (448 pages. New: $6. Used from $2. 4 copies in OPL.)

10) The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain.
Costain is one of America’s most popular 20th Century novelists with this being his bestselling book. Based on legends that have circulated from the earliest days of the Church, The Silver Chalice describes the life of Basil, the artisan who fashioned the silver chalice that held the sacred cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. Following its publication in 1953, the Chicago Tribune said of the book, "Costain paints a tremendous canvas filled with color and vitality. . .he breathes life into history. But The Silver Chalice does more than this. It makes the New Testament, perhaps for the first time, seem real." (Doesn’t say much for the reviewer’s preacher and Sunday School teachers, does it?) Anyhow, similarly high praise comes from the woman who wrote the introduction to the latest edition, Peggy Noonan. (533 pages. New $11. Used from $1.25. 2 copies in OPL.)

11) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.
One of the greatest of all writers in English, this is his most popular book probably 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. New: $14.95. Used from $2. Several copies in OPL system.)

12) Father of the Bride by Edward Streeter.
Stanley Banks is just your ordinary suburban dad. He's the kind of guy who believes that weddings are simple affairs in which two people get married. But when daddy's little girl announces her engagement to Buckley, Mr. Banks feels like his life has been turned upside down. And it most definitely is! Originally published in 1949. (240 pages. Used from $5. 2 copies in OPL.)

13) All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.
This landmark book is a loosely fictionalized account of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana, one of the nation’s most remarkable politicians. All the King’s Men tells the story of Willie Stark, a southern-fried politician who builds support by appealing to the common man and playing dirty politics with the best of the back-room deal-makers. Though Stark quickly sheds his idealism, his right-hand man, Jack Burden retains it and proves to be a thorn in the new governor’s side. (456 pages. New: $11.20.)

14) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
The second Dickens novel we read in the Napoleon rota was Tale of Two Cities. However, my guess is that most of us have read that particular Dickens novel more than any others. If that isn’t the case, then let’s go ahead with it as our 2nd repeat of Dickens. But if my guess is correct, I suggest we choose instead Great Expectations. (544 pages. Easily and inexpensively available at bookstores and libraries everywhere.)

15) The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington.
This 1919 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel portrays the decline of the extravagantly affluent Amberson family, serving as a touching backdrop for the huge social changes America saw in the decades following the Industrial Revolution. Rather than join the modern age, George Amberson insists on remaining a "gentleman" and tries desperately to hang on to traditions, to power and to his own version of patrician pride. But his town soon becomes a city, and the family palace becomes surrounded by industry, destroying the elegant, cloistered lifestyle enjoyed by the family in years gone by. A genuine literary masterpiece. (276 pages. New $13. Used from $4.85. 2 copies in OPL system.)

16) Ruined City by Nevil Shute.
This novel is one of our favorites of Shute's. It concerns a reputable London banker, tired of life's passions and business, who learns important truths about himself, his values, and the opportunities for making a difference in people's lives after taking a trip to a dying industrial town in the Great Depression. It is a novel of discovery, hope and mature romance that I think the Napoleons will enjoy. (240 pages. Used from $3.)

17) 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 bodies a bit and dispersed them from one another. But treasons and stratagems still cry out for justice and, eventually, civil war endangers the throne of France. Meanwhile in England, Cromwell threatens to send Charles I to the scaffold. It is in this firestorm that the immortal quartet comes out of retirement to cross swords once again with time, the malevolence of men, and the forces of history. (880 pages. New: $10.85. Used from $6. 4 copies in OPL.)

18) That Printer of Udell’s by Harold Bell Wright.
It would be hard to write a better recommendation for this book by the author of The Shepherd of the Hills than the one written by President Ronald Reagan: “I found a role model in that traveling printer whom Harold Bell Wright had brought to life. He set me on a course I’ve tried to follow even unto this day. I shall always be grateful.” Certainly we could all benefit from reading this warm-hearted novel that emphasizes a strong belief in God (and the resultant good deeds) forms the basis for a fulfilling life, no matter what a person’s past might hold. (346 pages. New: $5.95. Used from $2.)

19) Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk.
Wouk's dramatic story of life aboard a World War II minesweeper includes climatic scenes of madness, mutiny, and an intense court martial. It was hailed as a modern classic when first published in 1951 and instantly raised Wouk into the front rank of American writers. Wouk, a strict Orthodox Jew, went on to write several other acclaimed novels, including The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, plus two religious works, This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life, and The Will to Live on: The Resurgence of Jewish Heritage. (Caine Mutiny is 560 pages. New: $10. Used from $2. 4 copies in OPL.)

20) 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 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, I also believe She would make for a rousing adventure for the Napoleons. (320 pages. New: $9.95. Used from $1. 2 copies in OPL.)

21) 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. New: $10.00. Used from $2.50. 2 copies in OPL.)

22) Beau Geste by P. C. Wren.
A tired and wary French officer rides his camel towards a lonely fort in the Sahara Desert. He looks at the walls of the citadel and sees a steady soldier, rifle at the ready, in each break of the parapet. Yet no bugle sounds and nothing disturbs the eerie silence of the moment. Thus begins a truly unforgettable mystery over the theft of a priceless sapphire and how it concerns the Legion, Victorian England and the remarkable adventures of three brothers. This is the first volume in the author's now famous French Foreign Legion series. (368 pages. Used from $3. 4 copies in OPL system.)

23) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
After a terrible fall from a horse in 1920, Margaret Mitchell’s health began to decline. In fact, by 1926, she had to resign from the Atlanta Journal where she had developed into a popular and responsible reporter. Fearing that she was becoming bored and depressed, her husband gave her a new Remington typewriter upon which was this challenging message, “Madam, I greet you on the beginning of a new career.” The result? Only the bestselling novel of all time in any language, Gone with the Wind! It is a long read, but hey - that’s part of its charm for the story, characters and writing are splendid enough to make you never want it to end. Gone with the Wind would make a terrific wintertime book. (1024 pages. New: $8. Used from $1. Several copies in OPL.)

24) Brewster's Millions by George Barr McCutcheon.
It is New York at the turn of the century -- that's 1900, by the way. And playboy Montgomery Brewster is heir to his uncle's vast fortune. However, after his uncle's death, Monty discovers there's an unusual challenge left to him along with a $1 million inheritance. It is this -- if the young man can spend the million in a year's time (but with several difficult strings attached, mind you), he can actually inherit $7 million! One of the hurdles is that if he decides to go for the bigger sum, he must keep his plans a complete secret from everyone. And what havoc that creates for Monty, his fiancé, and his friends makes for the stuff of an entertaining (and surprisingly instructive) read. Originally published in 1902. (307 pages. Used from $3.35.)

25) No Name by Wilkie Collins.
This is William Wilkie Collins at the height of his literary powers. It is the story of two sisters, Magdalen and Norah, who discover after the deaths of their dearly beloved parents that their parents were not legally married at the time of the girls’ births. Disinherited and ousted from their estate, Magdalen and Norah must fend for themselves and either surrender to their fate or recover their wealth by whatever means available. (784 pages. New from $10.25. Used from $3. 1 copy in OPL.) Other Collins titles yet before us? Hide and Seek, The Haunted Hotel, The Dead Secret, and The Law and the Lady.

26) Good-Bye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton.
This touching, inspiring but brief novel tells the story of a much-beloved teacher through the long years of his tenure at Brookfield, a properly English boys' school. The novel explores many facets of human relationships including those involving teaching, mentoring, and even romance when Mr. Chipping’s vacation to Italy results in a whirlwind courtship and marriage. (144 pages. New from $6. Used from $1.45. 8 copies in OPL.) And speaking of Hilton, in addition to the former recommendation of Lost Horizon, there’s always Random Harvest, Knight Without Armor, and We Are Not Alone.

27) Selected Stories by O. Henry (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)
It was a wonderful evening in Minsk with the aroma of Belarusian food wafting from Tanya's kitchen to the living room where Lena and I had launched into a discussion of O. Henry. We already knew we had a common love of G.K. Chesterton so it wasn't really surprising to find out we both loved Henry also. Nor was it surprising that our conversation soon shifted to a series of plot summaries of our favorite stories that we shared with Vera, another friend and pro-life colleague. Amid the laughter as we realized how many stories came back to us in vivid (and emotional) detail, we promised each other we'd do some serious re-reading of O. Henry before Christmas. I've kept that promise with ease...and delight. So sure, it's a different genre for the Napoleons but I really can't think of anyone whose work we would find more enjoyable. And to avoid the problem of which stories to read, I recommend we all go for the inexpensive Barnes and Noble edition. (464 pages. New: $5.95.)