Book Review: 1000 Books to Read Before You Die

1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich, Published by Workman Publishing, New York, 2018.

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for the reader in the family or among friends, here’s a suggestion: 1000 Books To Read Before You Die by James Mustich. And while you are at it, treat yourself to a copy of this wonderful  book.

James Mustich is the co-founder and publisher of the former book catalog, A Common Reader. It is obvious from his introduction that he loves books, and the joy they bring to their readers.

The first thing you notice about this treasure trove of an advisory is the loveliness of the physical book. Workman Publishing has given the purchaser not only a wonderful read but a delight to the eyes. The cover and the open leaves and the photographs and art with many of the one-thousand essays make this volume a thing to be cherished for years to come. Workman reminds us what publishing can be.

Then there are the essays. Mustich has written one for each of his one-thousand selections. Each essay is short and sweet, not lasting over a page or two and sometimes less. They often supplies not just a summary but some of the context of the book’s creation as well as interesting tidbits. In addition to these major essays, there are even more suggestions with a final total of over than six-thousand titles by thirty-five hundred authors. Mustich does not limit his selections to one classifcation. His choices are a sampling from across the full sweep of human knowledge and endeavor.

Unlike other Reader Advisories, the selections are not laid out by category or timeline. Rather they are alphabetically placed by the name of the author from Edward Abbey to Carl Zuckmayer. In the case where the author is unknown, the selection is placed by title. Occasionally an author will be found out of order. There will be a note letting the reader know where they can find the entry.

Though Mustitch includes many of the usual suspects, such as Shakespeare, Austin and Dickens, he does not limit his selections to just the classics or to fiction or to non-fiction.And the fiction ranges across a variety of genres such as literary fiction, mystery and suspense, humor, espionage, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, And the writers come from a slew of places, including Japan, Russia, Africa, China, Europe as well as the United States, Ireland and Great Britain.

There are children’s books and books for young adult readers as well as selections of travel, science, biography, poetry, short stories, novels, history, drama, sports, letters and diaries among others. He has even included an essay on The 9/11 Commission Report. And also included are a few graphic novels.

To see the ecumenical nature of the selections, here are a list of the first ten entries:
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (Nature, Memoir).
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott (Novel, Mathematics).
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Novel).
My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley (Animals, Memoir).
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (Science Fiction).
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams  (Autobiography, History).
Watership Down by Richard Adams (Novel).
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Novel).
The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Drama).
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (Essays, Photography, Sociology).

Popular bestsellers have their essays too: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Gillian Flynn’s Gone GirlThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Even James Bond gets a write-up. And if a title you love isn’t included in a main entry, it still may be found among th e 5000 other titles.

Many of the titles for essays are humorous, often tongue-in-cheek. The title for the lives and times of archy and mehitabel is “The Greatest Cockroach Poet of All Time;” “Still Crazy After All These Years” for Wuthering Heights; for The Phantom Tollbooth, “Boredom Banished;” and The Count of Monte Cristo, “The Fastest 1200 Pages You Will Ever Read.” But there are some serious titles as well. For Oranges,”The fruit of One Writer’s Inspired Curiosity”; for The Boys of Summer, “A Grand Slam of a Baseball Book”, for Lord of the Rings, “A World of Narrative Wizardry,” and Alice Munro’s Selected Stories, 1968 – 1994 is given “A Nobel Laureate’s Astonishing Gallery of Life”.

From time to time there will be a quote from a work or about the work colored and in a large font. At the end of each essay is a footnote section, listing what genre, when the work appeared, awards, editions (if any), also by, further reading (a work that brings insight to the work), try (similar works) and any adaptations to literary or other media such as movies, theater or radio. In addition, there are Booknote and More-to-Explore boxes that call attention to further titles in a genre or a category the Mustich wants to mention to the reader.

At the end of the book are three indexes. “A Miscellany of Special Lists” “curated by subject or style or with a particular audience in mind.” Here are four of the lists: “Reading in a Sitting,” “12 Books to Read Before You’re 12,” “LOL,” and “”From the 21st Century.”

All in all, this is a generous helping of delights. Here’s a couple of suggestions. Read one of the essays a day. If there is another selection under “Try,” make that the next day’s essay. Or find a book listed you’ve always wanted to read or a title you aren’t familiar with. Read the essay and see if the work appeals to you. If so, maybe it’s time to read it. Perhaps, in a century or two from now, you will have covered all six-thousand  books.

To close, I want to quote from the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai found in the selection of One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji: “From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shape of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with….When I am eighty you will see real progress….At a hundred I shall be a marvelous artist.”

And Good Reading one and all.

I have in no way received a remuneration for this review.

Advertisements

Near 500 words: The Eye of the Needle

 

For a thriller to be successful, it must have three things: great writing, great characters and high stakes. Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle delivers on all three.

In his Ten Rules for Writing, Elmore Leonard’s number one no-no is “Never open a book with weather.” Yet that is exactly what Ken Follett does with his spy thriller.

In paragraphs that Hemingway would have been proud of, Follett opens with some really cold weather.

“It was the coldest winter for forty-five years. Villages in the English countryside were cut off by the snow and the Thames froze over. One day in January the Glasgow-London train arrived at Euston twenty-four hours late. The snow and the blackout combined to make motoring perilous; road accidents doubled, and people told jokes about how it was more risky to drive an Austin Seven along Piccadilly at night than to take a tank across the Siegfried Line.

“Then, when spring came, it was glorious. Barrage balloons floated majestically in bright blue skies, and soldiers on leave flirted with girls in sleeveless dresses on the streets of London.

“The city did not much look like the capital of a nation at war. There were signs, of course; and Henry Faber, cycling from Waterloo Station toward Highgate, noted them…”

With those paragraphs that remind the reader of the opening paragraphs in A Farewell to Arms, Follett introduces the reader to Henry Faber. Henry is a German spy, living in England at the start of World War II. He is known by the alias “Die Nadel”, The Needle. From his vantage point, he counts troop movements and other items and transmits them back to Berlin. And Die Nadel is good at his job. Very good.

Professor Percival Godliman is a medievalist. And it is going to take more than a war to get the good professor away from his Middle Ages. Though his uncle is trying to pull him away from his solitary studies and recruit him to help catch spies. Then Percival finds himself in an air raid shelter, huddling with others. He realizes he misses the comradery of being involved in a great cause. So he joins up to become the spy catcher to take Die Nadel down.

Lucy and David Rose are newly weds, heading off for their one-night honeymoon. David is a pilot for the RAF. Then their car crashes into a truck. Rose is fine but David can never walk again. So they retreat to Storm Island off the coast of Scotland. There they can hide away from the world and the war with Jo, their son.

Four years pass with Die Nadle on the run, collecting information for Hitler. Finally he comes upon some information that could change the direction of the war. With Godliman and his people on his tail, Faber and his information must reach a submarine that will take him back to Germany. He steals a boat and runs into a storm and ends up on Storm Island.

Dropping half dead at her doorstep on Storm Island, he finds Rose irresistible. So he lets down his guard. Big mistake. Very big mistake. It will be this housewife who faces down the greatest German spy of the war. The fate of civilization depends on it. And at the end of the novel, we discover an afterward that is quite logical, yet surprising. And not included in the movie.

Though I had seen the movie several times and enjoyed it immensely, the novel went deeper and gave me a fuller picture of how essential it was to catch Faber. I give the novel, and Ken Follett, a big thumbs up.

A Halloween Tale

It’s October, and you know what that means. It’s harvest time. It’s time the leaves on the trees are red and gold and orange. Seems the trees make an extra-special effort this time of year. The birds take off for their southward journeys. The squirrels make a last minute snatch, gathering up a few more nuts for the coming chilly days of winter. It’s October, and Halloween’s a-coming.

Already carved pumpkins are showing up in folks’ windows and on their lawns. They’re letting us know that the show is coming soon. That show being costumes and trick-or-treating galore.

Yet, over the years, Halloween’s been the runt of the holidays. Unlike Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, Halloween didn’t start showing up in the national consciousness till the twentieth century. And it didn’t even have its own story. Until “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.

All great stories invite the reader in with an invitation. Here’s the invitation from The Halloween Tree:

It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small norther part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of…

Boys.

And it was the afternoon of Halloween.

Eight boys show up for trick-or-treating in a variety of costumes. Tom Skelton is dressed in skeleton bones. There’s a witch, a mummy, an apeman, a gargoyle, a beggar, a ghost and Death himself with his scythe. There’s only one boy missing. And that’s Joe Pipkin.

Joe Pipkin was the greatest boy who ever lived. The grandest boy who ever fell out of a tree and laughed at the joke. The finest boy who ever raced around the track, winning, and then, seeing his friends a mile back somewhere, stumbled and fell, waited for them to catch up, and joined, breast and breast, breaking the winner’s tape. The jolliest boy who ever hunted out all the haunted houses in town, which are hard to find, and came back to report on them and take all the kids to ramble through the basements and scramble up the ivy outside-bricks and shout down the chimneys and make water off the roofs, hooting and chimpanzee-dancing and ape-bellowing. The day Joe Pipkin was born all the Orange Crush and Nehi soda bottles in the world fizzed over, and joyful bees swarmed countrysides to sting maiden ladies. On his birthdays, the lake pulled out from the shore in midsummer and ran back with a tidal wave of boys, a big leap of bodies and a downcrash of laughs.

In other words, this Joe Pipkin was a mighty fine fellow. And the other eight boys waited in anticipation to see what he would be dressed as. But poor Joe is whisked away on a journey of life or death.

With the help of a creature named Moundshroud, the eight follow Pipkin to the celebrations of the origins of Halloween by the ancient Druids. They find themselves among the mummies of Ancient Egypt, the ceremonies for the dead by the Greeks and the Romans, the gargoyles of Notre Dame in Medieval France and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Each ceremony has a jack-o-lantern on the Halloween Tree.

Are the boys able to rescue their friend, Joe Pipkin? And, if they do, what will it cost? Only by reading The Halloween Tree will you be able to discover the answer.

Uncle Bardie’s Book Selection: Summer Lightning

Summer Lightning
by P. G. Wodehouse
320 pages. The Overlook Press (September, 2003).

P. G. Wodehouse had a way with words. He walked that tight rope that comic writers, at least the great ones, walk. One step  to the left or one step to the right and they fall off into the abyss. But Pelham Grenville was always funny. In an English sort of way. As the saying goes, he had the knack. Only Mark Twain had more knack.

“Summer Lightning” takes us away to the fresh air and the country life of Blandings Castle. This tome could have easily been titled “Produce That Pig”. Instead Wodehouse chose “Summer Lightning”. Not sure why. The pig isn’t carrying that name. She is named the Empress of Blandings and that enormous pig is Lord Emsworth’s pride and joy. Lord Emsworth is the lord and master of Blandings Castle.

Unfortunately, the Empress is pig-napped. By none other than Ronnie Fish, Emsworth’s nephew and the son of Old Miles Fish of the Brigade Guards. In other words, Ronnie’s blue blood has blue blood. But he has no money. Dash it all.

So, what does a blue blood with no money do if he wants to marry a chorus girl named Sue Brown? He comes up with a scheme. He’ll temporarily borrow the pig, hide it out, then return it to his uncle for a rapturous applause from said uncle.

I was stunned to hear that someone of the aristocratic persuasion would sink so low. I blushed. My illusions were shattered. To break one of The Commandments. It’s one thing to break the adultery clause which aristocrats often do. At least, in the stories. But theft. No way. These are the noblesse oblige.

And the thefting does not stop there. The Hon. Gallahad, Emsworth’s bro, has all the dope on everybody in his class. For him, that is everybody that matters. Society, you know. He’s been saving up for years. Now he is producing his Reminiscences.

Those memoirs are so dastardly dastard two people want them snatched. Emsworth’s sister, Lady Constance, and Emsworth’s next door neighbor, who is accused of pig-napping. It seems thievery is alive and well among the aristocratic class at Blandings Castle. First the pig, now the manuscript.

On top of that, Hon. Galahad is going to steal the suspected pig stealer’s pig. Take that, you dastardly fellow. When all is said and done, this is the story of two pigs in a pokey, don’t you think?

Talk about your regular getting your signals crossed. Ronnie not only has goo-goo eyes for Sue Brown. Lord Emsworth’s niece, the exceedingly charming Millicent Threepwood, has shown interest in the good lord’s secretary, Hugh Carmody. Actually she’s shown more than interest. She’s in love.

Well, Hugh has to go into town. London, that is. To hire a detective for the missing pig. While he’s there, he decides a night on the town is just the thing. Calls up his old buddy, Sue Brown. She says, “Why not? What can it hurt?” They go dancing. Before he knows it, he will have some ‘splaining to do.

Ronnie, being the Fish he is, decides to drive up to London for a night with the Suze. Sees the Suze with another guy. Steam shoots out of both his ears and a volcano goes off. He heads back home and does the next best thing. Becomes engaged to Millicent who has found out that she too has been betrayed. I am telling you guys. Don’t do the bachelor or bachelorette party. It can end up with the wedding doing a Titanic.

Rupert Baxter, that most efficient of former efficient secretaries of Lord Emsworth, tells Emsworth’s sister, Lady Constance, he can deduce with all his deductibilities and find el missing pig-o. She believes him ’cause he’s her fav.

And who do you think this former secretary has his eye on for the leading suspect? The current secretary. Sounds like that green-eyed monster Jealousy has been let loose. Even if Hugh didn’t do it, the suspicion is enough to destroy Rupert’s rival in his Lordship’s affections.

But Hugh must have a partner. That pig is going to need tending while Hugh is gallavanting about, doing his thing. And does Mr. Efficiency have a suspect in mind? Yes, he does.

None other than Beach the Butler. Poor Butler. It sounds like the whale is about to be beached. Not only did he help Ronnie Fish, he is now suspected of the deed. Talk about something being rotten in Denmark. The fish is beginning to smell.

For whatever reason that fickled finger of fate has, Hugh and Millicent are thrown together. They discover the Empress. Before you know it, Beach shows up to feed the pig. When inquisitioned, he has a story. A story that will rescue Hugh from the purgatory of bachelorhood and allow him into the heaven of marriage to his one true love, Millicent. 

What’s the story? Now that would be a spoiler.

A Moment of Grace

Have you ever fallen in love with a short story? I have. “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, “A&P” by John Updike, “The Dead” by James Joyce, “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri, and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway are just a few I love. “After Rain” is another. It’s a real charmer.

“After Rain” is the title story of a William Trevor short story collection. In the story, Trevor returns to one of his on-going themes, the exploration of a woman’s inner life, her alienation from her environment, her loneliness, and her dignity in the face of that loneliness.

If ever there was a woman in purgatory, it is Harriet. Harriet, a thirty-year-old English woman, had plans. For vacation, she was going to an island spa with her lover. Until he dumped her.

Pensione Cesarina is the consolation prize she gives herself. She chose the Italian hotel because her parents vacationed there when she was a child. Not only is she faced with her own failures at love, her parents were failures as well, both having committed adultery, then divorced.

The story begins in the dining room of the hotel. From her table for one, she orders the same wine she’s ordered all the other nights of her stay. All she has done for the past eleven days is read and stroll through the town and visit the church, not as an act of faith but rather as something to do to pass the time.

Trevor gives us sentence upon sentence, detail upon detail, of the life of the room. He contrasts the four solitary diners with the gregariousness of the other parties, detailing each with their own individuality.

As Harriet sits and dines, moments with her former lover flood back into her thoughts, intensifying her loss. She questions why she made this return visit to the place her parents chose to bring her. She wonders not why her affair had to end, but why did it end before the holiday and not after. It seems like her life has been made up of endings. Unlike the beginnings of young love in the room. Two young Englishmen are hooking up with two Belgian girls. One a stylist, one studying the law.

One of the other solitaries, an older man, joins her at her table. This is the only time in the story when Harriet carries on a conversation. And it’s a conversation with someone she sees as an intruder. Instead of listening to his words, she finds herself daydreaming of what might have been if only her lover had not dumped her. After the older man leaves, she realizes that he was lonely just like her. It is becoming obvious that she is oblivious to her surroundings.

And to what should have been obvious to her. She was unable to see her parents’ divorce coming. She has been unable to see that she has fallen in with lovers who aren’t up to her desire for more in a relationship.

The next morning, a stroll through the town and a seat on a park bench and a rehashing of a conversation between herself and her former lover. She missed all the signs. She was convinced she was happy. Then she’s on for more of the town and then, to get out of the rain, a cappucino and the memories of her parents taking delight in this place.

In the center of the town is the Church of Santa Fabiola. Harriet wanders inside and sees a painting of the Annunciation. Then Trevor describes this painting that will change Harriet’s life in as much detail as any other single thing in the story.

The Annunciation in the church of Santa Fabiola is by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo, no one is certain. The angel kneels, grey wings protruding, his lily hidden by a pillar. The floor is marble, white and green and ochre. The Virgin looks alarmed, right hand arresting her visitor’s advance. Beyond—background to the encounter—there are gracious arches, a balustrade and then the sky and hills. There is a soundlessness about the picture, the silence of a mystery: no words are spoken in this captured moment, what’s said between the two has been said already.

Harriet’s eye records the details: the green folds of the angel’s dress, the red beneath it, the mark in the sky that is a dove, the Virgin’s book, the stately pillars and the empty vase, the Virgin’s slipper, the bare feet of the angel. The distant landscape is soft, as if no heat has ever touched it. It isn’t alarm in the Virgin’s eyes, it’s wonderment. In another moment, there’ll be serenity.

When she leaves the church, Harriet notices a change in herself. The rain has cleared things out. The heat has been replaced by a coolness emanating on the road. A bird sings. It seems like the world around her has been invaded by softness.

She returns to the Pensione and walks in the garden. She struggles to make “a connection to that she knows is there.” Then it comes to her. “The Annunciations was painted after rain.” And so the story continues for a few pages more, revealing that change of hers to her. She has been given the grace to continue her life but not in the isolation and alienation she once felt. She is now connected to the world around her.

This is not the only story in the collection where the supernatural impacts the mortal. In “Lost Ground”, a Catholic saint appears to a Protestant teenager. As the stories reveal, sometimes the supernatural can bring grace, sometimes not. It all depends on our response.