Some links before I get myself started today. Yesterday was a Sunday, so we had a Snippet Sunday post at our joint blog. Krisztina had some thoughts at her blog. Parsnip had this video at her blog. Whisk asked if you were ready for zombies. Maria writes about writing right. And Lorelei had a Murphy's Law kind of day.
A few days ago on Facebook, there was a meme going around about particular favourite books. I wrote them down, and decided to expand today on what draws me to each book in turn. It occurs to me looking at this list of ten books that I haven’t included any Canadian authors- Robertson Davies, Farley Mowat, L.M. Montgomery, or Alice Munro rate among my favourites. Not Margaret Atwood though; it’s a matter of personal taste. I get why she’s so acclaimed, but reading her work just doesn’t do it for me. I remember a line from a television show: books are like old friends, and every once in awhile you have to drop in and see how they’re doing. These ten books are personal favourites, ones that I like coming back to from time to time.
The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara. My favourite novel. It won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1975. It tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War, from the point of view of commanders on both Union and Confederate sides. Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, John Buford, and others come alive in Shaara’s insightful novel that sticks to the facts of the timeline of that battle. While it’s technically a novel, with dialogue and character interpretation as part of that, it follows the events of the battle closely, and rings true to who these men were. Shaara’s style feels clipped and efficient, presenting both sides of the conflict fairly, and fleshes out the inner voices of the characters. His writing style has certainly been an influence on me, and I’ve long since lost track of how many times I’ve read the novel. Every once in awhile it demands re-reading.
The Lord Of The Rings, J.R. Tolkien. The masterful trilogy by Tolkien tells the story of Middle Earth, following in the footsteps of his earlier children’s book The Hobbit. It follows the adventures of a varied band of warriors and hobbits as they embark on a quest to destroy the source of power of a dark lord rising up once again against the world. Tolkien expands greatly on his world of Middle Earth, establishing a masterpiece of mythology and a true classic that stands the test of time. He blends in themes of the strength of friendship and the notion of fighting for the good in the world. I first read the trilogy in early teenage years, and from time to time I come back to immerse myself in the world of hobbits, dwarves, elves, and other fantastic beings of Middle Earth.
Thunder Point, Jack Higgins. This was the first book by Higgins I ever read, though I had been familiar with the name, as his book The Eagle Has Landed was particularly well known. It’s a spy thriller that brings back his signature character Sean Dillon, who he introduced in his previous book, Eye Of The Storm, as a villain. Dillon, a feared IRA gunman, was supposed to have died in that book, but Higgins’ wife told him the character was just too good to kill off, so Higgins gave him an out. Thunder Point opens at the end of the Second World War, with the Nazi Martin Bormann making his escape from the theatre of war, carrying documents with him, documents that go down in the Caribbean aboard a U-boat during a storm. Decades later, the submarine is discovered, and more than one party is interested in those documents. A British intelligence official, Charles Ferguson, finds himself having to enlist the aid of Sean Dillon to deal with the opposition, under the premise that when dealing with nasty enemies, it helps to bring in someone who fights the same way. Dillon goes from terrorist to operative in the book, turning his back on his past and starting a new career with his old adversaries. While he never apologizes for his past in the books that follow, and while killing still comes easy to him, his shift from terrorist to hero starts here, and it feels like a natural transition.
John Adams, David McCullough. Another one of my favourite authors, McCullough’s known for his historical works and time spent in television documentaries. He’s won the Pulitzer twice for biographies of two American presidents, Adams and Harry Truman. Among his many other works that I enjoy reading are 1776, The Johnstown Flood, and The Great Bridge. McCullough brings a natural storyteller’s gift to his narratives as a historian, making the words flow easily and the past come alive. This biography of the second president is my favourite of his works, examining the complex and compelling life of a man sometimes overshadowed by other presidents, but just as deserving of greatness.
The Civil War, Shelby Foote. If you’ve seen the Ken Burns documentary on the subject, you’ve seen Shelby Foote, the Southern writer who was one of the expert commentators for the series. Foote had been a writer of novels and short stories before he turned his attention to history. He wrote the mammoth three volume narrative history of the War over a period of some twenty years in the 1950s and 1960s, writing a balanced account of the conflict that didn’t cater to the Lost Cause aspect of society plaguing the South; the only argument Foote made was that the War in the western theatre mattered as much as what was happening in the east. It is a massive undertaking to read the series, but it’s a rewarding one. Foote brings the story of the War and the soldiers who fought it alive with vivid detail, using the novelist’s sense of style in energizing the story.
Patriot Games, Tom Clancy. This was my favourite novel by Clancy in the Jack Ryan series, and while it was written after The Hunt For Red October, it serves as a prequel. Ryan is a vacationing tourist in London when he steps into an attack on members of the Royal Family, saving the day and earning the wrath of the people who escape, a band of breakaway Irish terrorists with agendas all their own. Clancy had a reputation early on for being fascinated with technology, often stopping in mid narrative to lecture the reader on how something worked. Still, he had a way of telling a potboiler tale and driving up the tension. I think of all of the novels he wrote- up to the point where his quality as a writer took a steep dive off a cliff- this one still stands as my favourite of his works. Maybe because it feels the most human. Jack is fighting first and foremost to protect his family, the people he loves the most. That’s a very primal instinct, and an honourable one. It elevates the story.
The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara. Jeff is the son of the late Michael Shaara, and after the death of the great man, turned his attention to writing as well in the same vein, telling stories of military history through the perspective of those who fought it. He’s turned his attention to the Civil War, the Mexican War, the American Revolution, World War One, and World War Two, each time taking on the points of view of men (or women) on both sides. His first book, Gods And Generals, served as a prequel to his father’s master work The Killer Angels, telling the story of the Civil War in the first two years through the points of view of several commanders, ending at Chancellorsville. The Last Full Measure picks things up after Gettysburg, following the points of view of several key commanders, including Chamberlain, Longstreet, and Jeb Stuart. First and foremost, though, it is the story of the great duel between the armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, from the battles of Spotsylvania to Appomattox, bringing to life the horrors of war and the complicated personalities of that war. The two novels serve as ideal companions to The Killer Angels, creating a father and son literary trilogy.
Crusade In Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Between the Second World War and the Presidency, General Eisenhower wrote his account of being supreme commander of Allied forces in the European theatre. He examines the events of the war, the personalities of his commanders, the decisions he made, and the prism of history through the eyes of the man in charge. Eisenhower’s writing style is efficient as you might expect of a career soldier, but it flows well and keeps the reader hooked. His personality also comes through, and you get to understand why this man was so good at managing the full force of the western Allies against Nazi Germany. It’s been awhile since I’ve last read it, but Eisenhower’s words draw the reader right back into the Supreme Command’s headquarters.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. A classic of American literature, this two volume book explores the four March sisters, living in Civil War era New England. Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy’s imaginations, their trials and triumphs, the bonds of family, the exploration of love, and the heartbreak of loss are themes that resonate throughout the novel, based on the author and her sisters. This is another of those books that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it. I suspect that I relate to Jo in a lot of ways; she’s a writer with a bit of a temper, outspoken when she has to be, and she’s unconventional. Other readers might relate to another character. Regardless, it’s a classic that still feels fresh and inviting any time the reader picks it up again.
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I first read this one in a children’s literature course, and wished I’d read it years before. It tells the story of Mary, a troubled orphaned girl who comes to live with her reclusive uncle at a manor in the English countryside, amid the wilds of a moor. She comes to find a garden, hidden and locked away behind a wall for years, and as she starts to tend to the place and bring it back to life, she changes herself, going from the unaffectionate and spoiled child to becoming a better person in time. I could identify with Mary’s early personality- I’ve felt that sense of isolation and aloneness, so the character resonated with me.