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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Suggestions for summer reading (and through the next year).

by Jamie Lutton

 I was told that the prerequisite for a book to be considered a good 'summer read' was that it be  long but portable, engrossing, but not 'great literature'.  A book to read and forget.  I know that there are many other book columnists who come up with lists of books of this type.  I thought, instead to recommend some light literature by older authors who were prolific but maintain high quality.  There are readers  who go through books quickly, or who want to be occupied for several months with one author.


I won't recommend new novels,  as in my business I see 'the latest thing' fade and be forgotten quickly.  So, I thought about what was the best of the best of what I had read in the last 40 years, and came up with a few authors, beginning with my favorites from my 17th summer.
    
So here is a start of a list of recommendations. I will add to this, in later columns, and tackle other types of good books.

The summer I turned 17, my mother, a public librarian and a speed reader like me,  began to introduce me to her favorites, books that she had read many times.   She was fond of mysteries and lighter fiction, (though she was a also a Shakespeare and poetry fanatic).
   
I will first recommend a romance author,  Georgette Heyer, British, who is heavily stolen from but not very well known..

She came up with a formula, the 'Regency Romance' in the late 1920's,  that was successful and copied by hundreds of authors who wanted to cash in on her success.  Nearly all  of the writers who copied her were not very good,  however, as they could not imitate the labor and time she went into her books.   She  wrote for fun as much as for money. She was independently wealthy, so she could spend the time researching her books and getting the small details exactly right for the time they were set. The clothing, habits and manners of the characters in her stories are exactly right for the exact year the book is set.
   
The slang,  fixations, and drinking habits of the characters are exactly right as well. Plus, she came up with interesting, intricate, and amusing plots.

Her earliest books felt the influence of Alexander Dumas and the like - with duels, and intrigues, with plots dangerous and devious. Later on, her books became more sedate, and were more amusing stories of manners and mores, closely resembling the Austen novels. But in all of them, courtship, love, star-crossed and otherwise, was her theme. 

And her men, as well as her women, were well described, in thumbnail sketches, appealing and interesting. She could write a good rogue or ladies man, fop, or dull stick. Her women were often spirited and intelligent. both were splendid examples of the pre-Victorian people who was not yet been captured by the stifling morality of that age.  And above all, her books are always witty, sometimes even farcical.  They are full of good, believable conversations, not just between the love interests (some books have several couples sparring with each other) but between all the characters. 
    
She wrote, from 1929 to 1970, over fifty novels, and 37 or so are still in print. She set almost all of her books in the period 1795 to 1830, mostly in the period 1790 to 1825.

My mother handed me one of them, I forget which one, when I was 17.  I read mostly science fiction at that time, but would read anything put in front of me.  I was hooked instantly, and ran though all her available books by that October, then began to reread them.
      
And her plots were original to each book. There was very little overlap, each book had its own wonderful plot, distinct and different from the previous book.   And they all end happily, with the loose ends tied up, with a few surprises along the way.
      
Of her 38 main books, I would recommend eight of her books to try first.  Faro's Daughter, Venetia, These Old Shades, The Corinthian, The Unknown Ajax,  The Grand Sophy, The Masqueraders. and The Toll Gate
       
These are not 'serious books', they are what is known as 'good "bad" books', but a critic as well thought of as Jessica Midford called them great 'guilty pleasure'.  For light but very well done comedic-romantic writing, I can't recommend these higher.  And if you have ever picked up a cheap 'regency romance' out of curiosity, this is the master and the creator of the modern genre. She attempted to write like Jane Austen, but had her own, quirky, funny style.  . The hard work and love she put into these little charmers is clear. Rarely does she put her foot wrong.

Rex Stout
Another author I heard about from my mother is Rex Stout. Stout, an author of short, clever  mysteries set in (mostly) New York City, has been voted the great American master, along side of Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammitt
   
Stout's two detectives' first adventure was written in 1933, and references the end of Prohibition, continuing to his last, which references Richard Nixon and Watergate, are in reality set in a New York of the 1930's to the 1950's. His two detectives, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, do not age or age much.  Stout wrote in those years 37 detective stories. If the first, Fer de lance and In the best of families are read back to back, you can see only a few changes. The author kept the characters consistent.
        
These are very witty, intelligent books. The first detective and narrator,  Archie Goodwin is in the employ of the other detective,  Nero Wolfe, and comments cheerily on all the mysteries.  He is a youngish ladies man, witty Midwesterner who a sharp dresser and a good shot.  Nero Wolfe,  a believable, overweight cranky genius who rarely leaves his home, which is staffed with an in-house chef (shades of another age!) and has a greenhouse on the roof with exotic orchids.
    
The  crimes are always murder, but rarely are they  bloody. The great appeal is the banter between Archie Goodwin and his boss, as Archie goads his boss into taking  cases he would rather not, as his preference is to eat, read and tend his orchids.  Seeing Nero Wolfe though the irreverent eyes of his employee is where the real fun is in these books, as he watches his boss untangle crimes, who usually several steps ahead of the reader.
        
The author's genius is having two detectives to watch while reading his book. This is one reason the books have such a cult following, the detail that has gone into developing the characters, as well as the interesting and clever plots.  
           
I, fortunately or unfortunately am a speed reader, so that summer I read all of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries in only six months. Then, I set to rereading them. I have read all of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective novels at least 15 times each, as the wit and the clever writing makes them fun to read and go back to. The plots are intricate enough that I often forget who the murderer is, so the exposure of the murderer is still a surprise, on the 16 reading. And it is irresistible to read all of them, start over and read them again. I have done this, as recently as last year.

There have been several adaptions of these novels on the small screen. Only a few of these have been that good. The best way to enjoy these books is to read a few and see if you get the pleasurable addiction that I got.
      
Of his 37 titles, I would recommend starting with a late one, The Doorbell Rang, written in about 1964.  This one is especially clever, as the author wove a real book into the pages of this fictional one, a nonfiction political expose wrote a year earlier called The FBI Nobody Knows. This book includes all the main characters, and has a good plot twist in the middle. It also reveals the author's annoyance at the over powerful head of the FBI.   Other titles of his that are very good include Some Buried Caesar, The Black Mountain, Over My Dead Body, Too Many Cooks and any of the short story collections.
      
Next time I will recommend some of my favorite nonfiction, mostly history, and science books. I have a long list of both that I read more than once, that reward looking into, and are guaranteed not to bore.

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