(always a work in progress)
My favorites in different genres: CHILDREN
FICTION IN HISTORY
FICTION AS HISTORY
plus several categories and
MegaTokyo under construction at the end of the page
Adult enthusiasm for children's books often comes from
being given a respectable excuse for keeping in touch with some of the
most lovingly-crafted productions of literature. But we are shopworn
enough to usually need the presence of children to get full benefit.
The Oz books of L. Frank Baum and successors have a
surprisingly original and varied morality underlying their overt goody-goody
style. Admittedly the plot lines are mostly weak (a series of incidents
until a magic rescue), but the many memorable minor characters
provide little archetypes that stick with you (e.g., the vanity of the
Glass Cat and the pomposity of Prof. Wooglebug, H.M.).
Dr. Seuss, especially the earlier books that have a
subversive edge rather than an explicit message. My favorites are The
King's Stilts (kids will recognize killjoy Lord Droon in many
adults, while seeing the Grinch as just a fairy-tale monster), and Horton
Hatches An Egg (which points out that being nice will not necessarily
produce gratitude, but that justice can work in mysterious ways).
Dr. Doolittle -- My first glimpse of a scientist in
fiction. In retrospect, I realize that these books were also the first economic
books I read, since there is a recurrent theme of limited resources and having
to earn money. They also have great images of a cooperative
household, dependent on the varied talents and perspectives of the animals
(including the few human ones). The political correctness of the
books is mixed (although very nonchavanistic about other species),
with avant-garde appreciation of Native-American medicine-man Long Arrow
but occasional heavy-handed use of African-native stereotypes.
Wind In The Willows -- This is a book that you may need to
read to kids, rather than just letting them read it by
themselves. It is a magical evocation of both nature and friendship, with
much more depth than the movie. As with most of the best read-to-children
books, it is a fine read-for-yourself book as well.
A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books are well known and
loved. His children's verse collections Now We Are Six and When
We Were Very Young also have some little-known jewels that
beautifully capture aspects of childhood: "Now I am six, and I'm as clever as
clever, so I think I'll be six now for ever and ever." Christopher
Robin grew up to be a banker, but it is Pooh and Eyore and their ilk that
are the heros here.
The Hobbit -- Much lighter than the Lord of the Rings in
every sense, it still wonderfully conveys two LOTR themes: the involuntary
hero, and that the present is built on a deep (and sometimes shaky) foundation
of the past. One of Tolkien's little-noted literary achievements in
the Hobbit (repeated in LOTR) is to make a fat, modest 50-year-old into a
The Naria stories of C. S. Lewis. Some of the stories
are a little forced, when Lewis's preparation-for-Christianity agenda
shows too clearly, but other times (such as in The Voyage of the Dawn
Treader) we are reminded that our sensitivity to, and appetite
for, magical quests transcends sectarian boundaries.
Alice in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass). The
first really great books I know of deliberately written for children, they
show wonderful even-handedness between childish and adult
perspectives. Their mad logic is both instructive and
Uncle Remus stories. When I was in the Peace Corps in
Nigeria, I learned that the tales of Brer Bear, Brer Fox, and Brer Rabbit are
direct translations of West African stories, a reminder that many of the
treasures of Southern-US culture were involuntarily imported from Africa.
These stories are also examples of the wealth of traditional
stories each culture provides to give people archetypes that
they can use to sort out their experiences.
Calvin & Hobbes (and fellow travelers) -- Bill
Watterson's decade of daily comics remain one of the best artistic expositions
of the creativity children not only show, but also provoke (I identify
with Calvin's Dad). Among comics, only in the midcentury comic-book
series Little Lulu (not to be confused with the insipid Nancy)
and Carl Bark's Uncle Scrooge (and the related Junior Woodchucks)
have I seen a similar level of wild invention untainted by patronage or
Are Scrooge McDuck comics politically incorrect?
Some people feel that they exalt wealth and reflect a propaganda effort by the
right-wing Disney corporation (or even darker conspiracies). I disagree
completely. On the contrary, they seem to me to be deeply subversive of
respect for rich people and go out of their way to point out that everyman
Donald is constantly being exploited by Scrooge and betrayed by his own
greed. It is the nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie who repeatedly use
intelligence, accumulated knowledge (via the omniscient Junior Woodchuck
Manual), and humane principles to save the day. They are the
role models here.
From about age 10, the stories of interest include growth and
change, not just action -- a "coming of age". There is a sense in
which this strand of thought is the basis of most higher literature, with the
static detective and sexual-adventure stories that occupy so much of adult
reading being less mature. But the books that best serve the voracious
appetite of youthful readers also have a directness that avoids explicit
reflection on the complexities of the world, which is better saved
for readers who have already encountered them.
Tarzan -- The stories are immensely better than the movies in
every respect, and Tarzan (Lord Greystroke to us other great white apes) is a
complex and interesting character. He is deeply individual (compared to
those bound by either African or aristocratic-English tribal customs), and
his superiority is clearly based more on intelligence and knowledge
than just physical strength. Other Burroughs stories (the
alternate-evolution The Land That Time Forgot is one of my favorites)
are also great youth reading, but the early Tarzan books are the best.
Kim -- This is my favorite of all youth books, and the
"Friend of All the World" eurasian youth Kim one of my favorite characters in
fiction. The book is Kipling at his best, when he is reflecting the wild
mixture that constitutes world culture (a mixture of personalities as well
as of peoples) and showing the possibilities that exist for those who can live
in several worlds.
Hawkmistress -- This story of a youth building
competence on her own terms collects most of the themes
of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series into a particularly
well-crafted and self-sufficient tale. Bradley also has several
other youth-oriented Darkover stories, most with the clash-of-cultures
theme that is developed so well in the adult-protagonist books in
-- These are stories of kin and kith families where both
individuality and community are celebrated. The science-fiction/adventure
plots are a slight-of-hand distraction from character-counts morals, which
go down smoothly because you really like the people.
The Pern novels of Anne McCaffrey, with their working dragons
and harper-led culture, narrate a mixture of high politics and
personal growth that is attractive to more than young readers.
Horatio Alger -- Okay, he recycles plots freely, but his
books give fascinating insights into 19th century American life,
especially at the low end of the social scale. Contrary to legend, the
books are not celebrations of capitalism (villains and friends are drawn from
all classes), and the contributions of luck and charity to
success are repeatedly acknowledged, as is the obligation to share
success once achieved.
Mark Twain -- Tom Sawyer succeeds by
honestly reporting a youth perspective, but Huckleberry Finn
goes much further, showing Huck developing an authentic personal morality amid
the temptations of both slave-owning respectability and live-by-your-wits
Robin Hood -- These tales of outcasts banding together
as an alternative government are both fun in themselves and indicators
that resistance to exploitation is not new, and that community is a larger idea
Cheaper By The Dozen and sequel Belles on Their Toes
-- No doubt my enjoyment of this biography of the Gilbreth family is
colored by being one of nine kids myself, with somewhat similar parents.
But the stories should be all the more interesting to those to whom such a
family is news.
The Earthsea trilogy of Ursela Le Guin -- The path of Ged
from shepard youth to Archmage (via the mage school, visits to the underworld,
and conversations with dragons) is engrossing, but it is the story
of his errors and the growth forced in correcting them that
makes this tale stick in the mind and soul.
The dialogs introducing chapters of Godel Escher Bach -- Some
of my best read-to-children experiences were with the brilliant
lead-ins in Douglas Hofstader's tour de force. Starting
with the "Achilles and the Tortoise" dialog from Lewis Carroll (which
shows that reasoning is not founded in axioms), they progess through recursion,
self-reference, musical structure, and contrafactuals (which of
course don't really exist) to a final "fugue" in six voices that brings it
The Peloponnesian War -- This detailing
of the decline of classical Athens into imperialism and then disaster was
written soon after the events but is, alas, all too relevant
to today's America. The book is strikingly modern in tone,
with Thucydides using standards of judgment (for both
facts and morality) that have not been improved on in two dozen centuries.
The French Revolution -- Thomas
Carlyle proves that history need not be dispassionate (or
dull) to be fair, as he shows the flaws and the strengths of the
all parties in this landmark period.
A Study of History -- Arnold Toynbee's classic balances
provocative intellectual compartmentalization with sensitivity to the
untidiness and interrelatedness of the underlying civilizations. It is
all the more interesting for being a bit out of date, inspiring the reader to
think about what adjustments to the analysis are needed.
Geography -- Hendrick Van Loon uses
a geographic survey to give a comprehensive summary of world history and
immediate prospects in a single moderate-sized volume. That his 1932
predictions are so often on the mark demonstrates that there are larger forces
shaping history than which politician happens to gain power.
Guns, Germs, and Steel. -- Jared Diamond's
explanation of the big currents of human history (and it is an explanation,
not a recounting) is staggeringly successful, although guns and steel have a
limited role compared to animals, crops, and geography. What is most
impressive about it is how well the interplay between factors is illuminated,
as when the presence of domesticated animals promotes germ mutation and spread
(with resultant immunities).
FICTION IMBEDDED IN HISTORY
Mary Renault 's novels of ancient Greece. My favorite is
the first in temporal sequence, the Theseus story The King Must Die,
but each of the others suceeds very well in giving insight into the spirit
of one of the eras of classical Greek life.
King Arthur et al -- The
strength of these legends is indicated by the contrasting first-class
stories they have later inspired. In addition to the classics of
Malory and Tennyson, my favorites are T. H.
White's The Once And Future King (whose core idea
is that Lancelot was ugly, transforming our understanding of both his
quest for perfection in knighthood and his disasterous romance), Marion
Zimmer Bradley 's The Mists of Avalon (where the
tragedy is the sacrifice of Spirit to Church, not petty adultery), Mark
Twain 's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
(whose lessons on how modernity fares when imposed are all too timely), and
C. S. Lewis 's That Hideous Strength
(where Merlin is awakened in the 20th century by Arthur's surprising successor
to fight a perverted science).
The Lymond Chronicles of Dorothy Dunnett .
This series of six books following an ambiguous hero starts in Scotland in the
late 1540's, and returns there repeatedly until it ends ten years later
just as Elizabeth becomes queen, but has brilliant extended excursions into
France, Malta, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, London, and France again.
While the history is scrupulous and informative, it is the story of adventure,
politics, and love (familial as well as romantic) that compels attention.
I find this early work of Dunnett's more compelling as literature than her
later-written 1460's House of Niccolo series, which on the other
hand describes a greater range of cultures, from Trebizond to Timbuktu.
The Amelia Peabody (and family) stories of Elizabeth
Peters. While this long series started as a well-written set
of comic mystery/romance adventures in 1890's Egypt, it has accumulated
impressive seriousness and depth (still with plenty of humor) as the children
produced or adopted by the original protagonists come of age amid the
contradictions of World War I and its aftermath. The older folk keep
growing too, overcoming their racism (on the British side) and misogyny
(on the Egyptian).
The Brother Cadfael stories of Ellis Peters.
These stories of mid-1100s Shrewsbury and Wales (starting with A Morbid Taste
For Bones) have an abundance of sympathetic characters
and skillful evocations of the contrasting English, Norman, and Welsh
religious and political spirits of the time, but the heart of their charm for
me is that crusader-turned-monk Cadfael and his comrades (both cloistered and
secular) have the combination of free minds and restricted power that makes
their challenges interesting and their successes relevant. This is
also true of Peters' less numerous modern-settings stories.
C. S. Forester 's Horatio Hornblower
stories of the Napoleonic-era British Navy. In addition to the wealth of
illuminating detail about the workings of the navy, these stories build an
impressive portrait of a man whose conscientiousness, intelligence, and luck
builds a successful career, but who remains a surprised observer rather than
becoming a boring self-confident hero.
Georgette Heyer wrote adult but chaste historical romances of
uniquely high quality, with excellent dialog (what insults!) and
psychological depth. Except for two army-oriented ones (which
include a renowned description of the battle of Waterloo), the stories are
purely personal, with the settings (mostly early-1800's England) used to
display the characters, not as a goal in themselves. Ten or so of the
books are absolutely first class: The Masqueraders [my favorite],
These Old Shades, Sylvester, The Unknown Ajax, Venitia, The Tollbooth,
Fredrica, The Grand Sophy, and Bath Tangle . The
rest are better than anything else of their kind, with some quite close to the
best. All include many plums, and are well-stocked with characters that
you can both like and respect.
Upton Sinclair 's Lanny Bud books,
starting with World's End . This is a series of eleven books
that gives, in the course of love stories and secret missions and
other growing pains, a scrupulously accurate and deeply informative
political/social history from 1913 to 1948. While the central perspective
is Sinclair's democratic socialism, much of the value of the book is that it
puts every shade of political opinion into articulate voices -- this is a
choral work (or perhaps an opera), not a sermon. Although long (a
virtue to heavy readers), the books are steadily rewarding, with every
paragraph supplying some tasty morsel of insight, wit, or sympathy without
calling attention to the skill required to make readers repeatedly say "What an
interesting world!" rather than "What an interesting book!".
Lives, by Hendrick Van Loon
, is a unique interweaving of biography, history, fantasy, and current
events. By special heavenly permission, a sequence of pairs of historical
personages (starting with Erasmus) are invited to share dinner with two 1930's
Dutch hosts and with each other. The book includes briefing notes, menus
and music selections for each visit (always tailored to the guests), and
the conversations, which sometimes get out of hand.
Mary Renault 's books telling the story of the life
of Alexander the Great (Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral
Games) have sources detailed enough to make the transition into
being primarily historical, although her storytelling skill is fully
FICTION AS HISTORY
The Lord of the Rings -- J. R. R. Tolkien explains
in his preface that what he writes is history from an imagined world,
which readers are welcome to apply as they will to their own
thinking, not allegories with author-determined meanings (a jibe
at his close friend C. S. Lewis). This approach lets him transcend
his own conservatism to build a saga that is anchored in many traditions but is
not predetermined by them, giving a bravery and variety to the characters that
would be missing if they were unreflective champions aligned with
destiny. We are all halflings in the great currents of history -- but at
our best we can be elf-friends (and perhaps even Ent-friends) as well.
Dune -- Frank Herbert may have put his full
stock of invention into this masterpiece (its sequels are not remotely as
good), but the result is a book packed with ideas and images in which
historical forces clash and shift before our eyes.
Red/Green/Blue Mars -- Kim Stanley Robertson
provides, in an excellent hard-science and hard-politics setting, a future
history whose interaction of personal, multi-personal, and impersonal
forces illuminates how history happens (and implicitly how it can be changed).
Josephine Tey wrote eight detective novels, all of
outstanding quality: Inspector Grant stories To
Love and Be Wise, The Man in the Queue, A Shilling For Candles, The Singing
Sands, and The Daughter of Time (a tour-de-force
retrospective investigation of Richard III), as well as stand-alones Brat
Farrar [my favorite], The Franchise Affair, and Miss
The Nero Wolfe stories of Rex Stout
. Unusual in having a balanced (but not at all symmetrical) relationship
between the genius (fat stay-at-home Wolfe) and the narrator/helper (sociable
Archie Goodwin, whose job is as much to provoke and manage Wolfe as
to assist him), this very long series starts with a fully-developed background
and maintains a high level from 1934 (Fer de Lance) to 1975 (A Family
Affair). My favorite is when Wolfe outfoxes J. Edgar Hoover
in The Doorbell Rang.
The stories of Dick Francis all have mysteries to be solved
but are adventure stories at their heart, centered on the impact of events
on their protagonists rather than on the answer to a puzzle. They are
strikingly good and vary much more widely in their plots than the recurrent
presence of horseracing would suggest.
The Dr. Thorndyke stories from Austin Freeman
. The first one, The Red Thumb Mark , is one of the best, but I
am also very fond of many others such as Pontifex and Son, Mister
Polton Explains, and A Certain Dr. Thorndyke. The
stories celebrate applied science: disciplined, informed, and humane
intelligence in action; they go beyond the oblique scientific references in
Sherlock Holmes stories to clear and convincing descriptions of the technical
and lab work involved.
Arthur Upfield's stories of half-caste aborigone Napoleon
Bonaparte show the fascinating world of outback
Australia using one of the most original and attractive main characters in
detective fiction. The stories are not of uniform quality, although all
are rewarding; The Will of the Tribe is a good starting point.
Robert van Gulick's Judge Dee mysteries,
tales of 7th-century China written in a pattern derived from
traditional Chinese detective stories but adapted to Western tastes (less
supernatural, more plot). This gives them just enough distance
from our expectations to open us to new perspectives, which are
copiously supplied. All the books are good and largely
self-sufficient, but starting with the first in temporal sequence, The
Chinese Gold Murders, lets you follow the development of Magistrate
Dee and his assistants.
Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsey novels
are justly famous, although they build in quality over Sayers' career. I
suggest Murder Must Advertise as an easy start (Sayers
worked in advertising and provides a hilarious informed-but-not-impressed
view). The high point of the work is the Oxford-situated Gaudy Night,
which is a serious novel about the conflict between romance and
intelligence. It is the third of four involving Whimsey's destined mate,
Harriet Vane, but reading it and its successor Busman's Honeymoon before
reading the less brilliant lead-ins works fine. A recent sequel based on
Sayer's notes (Thrones, Dominations by Jill Paton Walsh) is fully
up to the standard and should not be left out.
The six Charlie Chan novels of Earl Der Biggers
are intelligent and anti-racist, in contrast to what Hollywood has done in
their name. The first one, The House Without A Key, is a
particularly deft mix of cultural contrast, detection, and romance.
Laurie King 's The Beekeeper's Apprentice and its
sequels (especially A Monstrous Regiment of Women, O Jerusalum, and
The Game) are an astoundingly successful extension of the
Sherlock Holmes mythos, adding comparably-capable young Mary Russell
(and a late-middle-aged Holmes' interactions with her). King's
contemporary-settings stories (such as To Play The Fool) are also
excellent -- much more than escapist fare.
The Superintendent Bone books by Suzanne Stacey are
an odd mix: police-procedurals full of perceptive and
loving people of all ages. There is a strong progessive
development of widower Bone's relationship with his teenage daughter
Charlotte (and eventually with her favorite teacher), so start with Goodbye
The Professor Kate Fansler novels of Amanda Cross.
Intelligence, liberated and sympathetic but trained and genteel, deployed
in academia based in New York City. Heart and mind working
A Night At The Vulcan, by Ngaio Marsh, is one of the
most successful romance-with-mystery-trimmings novels I have
read. Also noteworthy is her Artists In Crime, in
which gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn starts
the romance that becomes an attractive marriage of impressive integrity.
Sherlock Holmes -- Start with The Sign of Four
and move on through. Some of the stories are a bit routine (author
Conan Doyle got tired of Holmes before the public did), but His
Final Bow (on the eve of World War I) still has some jewels.
Patricia Wentworth -- While her books featuring
governess-turned-detective Miss Silver (e.g., Eternity
Ring, Latter End, The Story of William Smith ) are dependably
good, her stand-alone books like Nothing Ventured show that she
can vary the formula, although she always includes a romance.
While my favorite at this point is Professor Peter Shandy
of Balacava Agricultural College rather than Boston downstart Sarah Kelling
Bittersohn, all four of Charlotte McLeod's
cosy mystery series are attractive, including the two she writes as Alisa
Craig (Mountie Madoc Rhys and Grub-and-Stakers
Dittany, Osric, et al). All are ensemble pieces with
several contrasting but (mostly) harmonious protagonists.
Too Many Magicians -- Randall Garrett's unique
tour-de-force novel is both a fascinating alternative history (where high
technology developed via magic rather than science and a reformed feudalism has
led to a well-integrated but very human society) and an excellent mystery,
where Duke's Investigator Lord Darcy and his
forensic sorceror Sean O Lochlainn untangle a mixture
of crime, espionage, and government politics arising from a murder at the
Anglo-France Sorcerers' Convention. Garrett wrote eight other
shorter stories in the same vein but, alas, no more novels in our strand of
Agatha Christie -- No sex, not much romance (and then mainly
as a motive), very little lab work or insight into police methods.
Instead, a steady stream of perceptive psychology in characters and plots,
with solutions that seem fair in retrospect but get lost in the
distractions even on the second or third reading. Of the detectives
I particularly like Miss Marple, the old
maid whose village-gossip experiences have given her a level of
insight that it would be unfair to expect of policemen.
While the Mrs Pollifax stories of Dorothy
Gilman are well done, her other stories (Incident at Badamya,
Thale's Folly, Caravan, The Tightrope Walker, Kaleidoscope) are where
she fully deploys the character insight and creativity that she has to ration
in a popular series.
Yes, Perry Mason is rather a formula,
but Earl Stanley Gardner varies the legal situations to
keep us (and the District Attorney) guessing until the end each
time. Gardner's authentic passion for justice shows through in
these and other stories, and if few of his plots are memorable, all are
Leslie Chateris ' stories of The Saint,
like the actions of their protagonist Simon Templar (the
"Robin Hood of Modern Crime"), are irresponsible expressions of unapologetic
male ego that expect exemption from normal rules. They get it from some
(a flaw in us, no doubt) because the combination of wit, freedom, grace,
and skill is rarer than the missing docile virtues.
Sara Woods -- London barrister Antony Maitland
has the initiative and commitment to justice of Perry Mason
without Mason's self-confidence or (as a junior figure in a
tradition-based system) freedom of action. Instead he has a
family/friend network of supportive but dissimilar equals, with the result
that each of these stories packs an emotional punch as well as an intellectual
Philo Vance -- The greatest interest of the
dilettante-as-detective 1920s New York City stories of S. S. Van Dine
is their early exploration of that motif, with the conflict of
official/evidence and intellectual/psychology cultures all the more clearly
portrayed since they are nominally working together.
Elizabeth Daly took a different tack in her 1930s
stories of bibliophile/gentleman Henry Gammage,
whose incidental detection is more in the unsupported-amateur tradition, with
more emotional realism and less rhetorical florish.
Emma Lathen's many stories in
which eminent investment banker John Putnam Thatcher is
forced to solve mysteries in the course of business deals are surprisingly
varied and fresh, benefiting from the complexity of the world's relationship to
Dickens -- Little Dorritt
Fielding -- Tom Jones
Hemingway -- For Whom The Bell Tolls
Jane Austen --
William Shakespeare -- The only reason to read Shakespeare
(except for the sonnets) is so that you can be amazed at how much more
effective the plays are in performance. Books are not the only medium for
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW (always in a category of his own)
Thought and Language
The Origins of Order
Fluid Dreams and Creative Analogies.
A wealth of art and literature is
emerging online, mixing the classic themes of love, honor, and adventure
with the cultures of gamers, techies, and artists. A
particularly engaging and accessible example is Megatokyo, an American
manga strip set in Japan. Now with over 1000 hand-drawn scanned strips
(all free at http://www.megatokyo.com/),
it has been growing at 3 strips per week since 2000. The strips form a
single continuous still-developing story but include meta-strips about the
artist, digressions of various sorts, and occasional guest
strips. The art has manga stylization and varies, without
apology, in its level of polish as it explores various levels of
experience. An extended Wikipedia
entry is available.
I'm a fan. My
MegaTokyo guide site makes it easier to access the main
story. The first few dozen strips evolve from self-contained
gags to character-driven narrative, so persevere through Chapter 0 to
get a feeling for the style (the drawing gets much better too). You
will see that what we have here is not just escapism, but literature about
escapism. The gamer, romantic, and fantasy elements
are played against the cliches and realities of modern
culture with striking honesty and richness, both in
characters and situations. As the plot layers and
swirls accumulate, whatever strands and people you first identify
with lead you to a wider and deeper feeling for all the rest.