Book Reviews—8 Favorite Novels (and Authors)

Hesse’s collection of anti-war essays

In response to a challenge by an old friend, I recently posted these short reviews of some of my favorite novels (along with their covers) on Facebook. For followers of my blog who may need a good book and who don’t do Facebook, I republish them (without covers) here. They are mostly focused on spiritual quest and/or political engagement. In light of the great insights of Buddha’s eight-fold path, I think these two projects ideally come together at some point. The illustration here is a picture of Hesse, who in addition to writing many truly great novels, was an outspoken peace activist in Germany during WWI and WWII. Not a popular position at all in that place and time.

The Journey to the East- Hermann Hesse

This transformative little novel is probably one of the most important books in my life. I first read it at age 14. Joining in the “Journey to the East” became a guiding metaphor for my life. I did eventually spend many years in “the East.” If you like Hesse, he has many other great books: “Demian” Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and (if you are seriously interested in education) “The Glass Bead Game—also known as “Magister Ludi.” Certainly, as good as Thomas Mann (and much more readable.)  “Journey” captures some of the intellectual ferment that was occurring in Europe between the World Wars. A very creative period, especially in the arts. 

The Razor’s Edge- Somerset Maugham

This great novel is sometimes overlooked in discussions of “Lost Generation” literature.  It is a really well-crafted and well-written look into the life of a guy named Larry. Larry is a pilot who narrowly survives World War One. He suffers from what we might today call PTSD. In his search to “find himself” he goes on his own memorable “Journey to the East.” His adventure starts with a long stay in Paris in the 20’s. The book was made into a great classic movie with Tyrone Power. A good, but somewhat quirky remake with Bill Murray was done also. Memorable characters and useful soul searching.

King of the Khyber Rifles- Talbot Mundy

This novel goes perfectly with a book called “The Great Game” recently posted by Kyle Foster. Talbot Mundy was a very popular writer in the early 20th century. He wrote a bunch of gripping adventure novels set in “The East”—and often involving “The Great Game.” He was well travelled and set books everywhere from East Africa to Egypt, to Jerusalem, to Afghanistan, to India. He created a cast of heroes who often joined together in various ways in different books. Sadly, he is almost forgotten today. Also, a little hard to find. Two great reads that you might come across though are this one, and also (my favorite) “Om: The Secret of the Abhor Valley.” Like Kipling’s “Kim,” “Om” is a great and very colorful romp through the India of the British Raj. Mundy was deeply interested in mysticism and does a lot with it in his books. Also, a movie starring Tyrone Power. The old Mundy novel “Trek East” also goes perfectly with another Kyle Foster book post, “The Zanzibar Chest.”

Midnight in Europe- Alan Furst

Alan Furst has written a really first-class series of books set in Europe as fascism is on the rise. This is one of the best. There are probably almost 20 now. They are usually set around a sort of average man or woman who finds that they can’t tolerate what is happening anymore. One by one they are drawn (sometimes in seemingly small ways) into resisting the rise of fascism. No super-heroes—just average folks. This one centers around a Spanish lawyer living in France who gets sucked into procuring arms for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Furst is sometimes compared to Eric Ambler—whom many consider the father of the modern spy/detective/ adventure novel. In many ways, Furst’s prose is reminiscent of Hemingway. Spare and concise, but evocative too. Really nice handling of love and romance as well. And great notes on local food! Every book at some point places the characters in the Brasserie Heininger—apparently a must for Parisian diners. The ideal meal here is “Choucroute Garni Royale’–various sausages, pork chops and sauerkraut cooked in champagne. Holes from machine gun bullets grace the walls. If you like this book, there are many more. Though few of his main characters are soldiers, they all risk their lives in the struggle against fascism. This seemed like a good pick for Memorial Day.

It Can’t Happen Here- Sinclair Lewis

Lewis wrote a long list of novels that critiqued various aspects of American life and culture. He was notable for biting, acidic, satire. Not always pretty prose, but always insightful. His books are well worth re-re-reading in the age of Trump. Lewis might have had him in mind when he wrote. Trump has the crass, vulgar, bumptious, commercial shallowness of “Babbitt.” The creepy, ruthless phony preacher/con-man skills of “Elmer Gantry,” and the dangerous character of “Buzz” Windrip, whose dictatorial inclinations drive the story in “It Can’t Happen Here.” Seems it already has… A novel titled “Kingsblood Royal” is a great exploration of the dangerously absurd and destructive tradition of racism in America. In 1930, Lewis became the first American to win a Nobel prize for literature.

Slaughterhouse Five- Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut was really popular when I was growing up. He was often thought of as a comic, but I think he is taken nearly as seriously by critics as he should be. He took on all the big issues, (love, war, free will vs. predestination, the nature of time, and man’s enduring propensity to do stupid things). He was sad and hilarious and put it all in terse, economical prose that went straight to the point. He was certainly Hemingway’s equal at that. He is sometimes surreal, sometimes makes forays into magical realism or sci-fi, but he makes it all work. This book was a classic, and it was made into a great movie too! It hit me really hard when I first read it—partly because Dresden, where a key part of the action is located, was my father’s hometown. My father was never able to go back there after the war. We had some books that showed Dresden before and after the really pointless air-raid that laid it to waste. “God Bless you Mr. Rosewater” runs a close second for me. It describes how a hugely wealthy American got his money—and what happens when he tries to give it to charity. It’s an interesting meditation on wealth inequality.

Sword of Honor (Trilogy)- Evelyn Waugh

Waugh wrote a ton of good stuff (Black Mischief, Decline and Fall, The Loved One, Brideshead Revisited, Vile Bodies, etc.) This trilogy is among his best. It follows the wartime career of a befuddled member of the minor British nobility named Guy Crouchback. Guy is burdened by his noble heritage, family tradition and honor, doubts about his faith, and a frisky and volatile wife. He seeks meaning and redemption by enlisting in the British army at the beginning of WWII. The story follows his adventures with special ops in the North Sea and the coast of France> It moves on to the bizarre invasion of West Africa, the disastrous battle of Crete, the North African desert, London during the “blitz” and ends with his work with the Serbian partisans. Sad, funny, dark and compelling. This was made into a great movie with Daniel Craig as Guy. He was perfect for the role. It seems that war is rarely redeeming.

The Magus- John Fowles

I really loved this when I first read it. Great writing. It is a tale that many of our friends will recognize: a young aspiring literary genius needs a change of scene and takes a job teaching English overseas. Then things get pretty weird. An interesting movie was made with Anthony Quinn as “The Magus,” “young Michael Caine as the teacher and Candice Bergen as one of two love interests. The book was said to have been inspired by another favorite of mine—”The Grand Meaulnes” (also published as “The Wanderer,”) by Alain-Fournier. Fournier died in WWI. The theme of the two books is similar in that it involves drifting across the line into a different world where other rules apply–a basic theme in what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s quest.”  In 1999, I traveled to the island of Ithaca in Greece. It was really kind of spooky in a way that very much reminded me of the book. A bar called “Café Dracoulis” was just down the way. It was seemingly only frequented by people wearing black—and mostly only at night. That was just for starts!

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