Monday, February 24, 2014

1964: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

The Author:

John le Carré (1931-  ) is the pseudonym of David Cornwell.  He was born in Poole, Dorset, England.  His mother abandoned the family when he was five years old.  His father had a troubled relationship with the law, and was connected to organized crime.

His family was financially volatile, his father making large sums of money and losing it, time after time.  In 1948, le Carré attended the University of Bern, Switzerland, to study foreign languages.  In 1950 he joined the British Army's Intelligence Corps before returning to England in 1952.  He married Alison Sharp in 1954.  It is around this point that le Carré joined MI5.  In 1960, he transferred from MI5 to MI6 (MI5 is the domestic intelligence agency, MI6 is the international.  The rough U.S. equivalent would be the NSA and the CIA). Le Carré ran operations within the intelligence community, led interrogations and tapped communications.  He published his first two novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) under a pseudonym due to MI6 regulations.  His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) was an international bestseller and won le Carré the Somerset Maugham Award for young British writers.

Le Carré left MI6 in 1964 after his identity was compromised, and became a full time writer.  He divorced Sharp in 1971 and married Valérie Eusatce in 1972.  He had eight more appearances on the annual bestsellers list including 1974's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Le Carré and his wife currently live in St. Buryan, Cornwall, U.K.

The Book:

Length: 256 pages
Subject/Genre: Cold War/Espionage

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is technically the third book in a series of interconnected stories, but reading the previous two novels is not necessary to understanding this one (I didn't even realize it was a sequel until after I'd finished reading it).  The novel follows Alec Leamas, a middle-aged spy in command of East German espionage.  The novel starts with him waiting at the border for an East German asset to cross into safe territory.  Every other asset Leamas had has been murdered.

The rest of the novel focuses on Leamas as he pretends to defect to East Germany and seeks to bring down the head of East Germany's secret police, Hans-Dieter Mundt while trying to keep safe the innocent woman who's gotten mixed up in it all.

I've never been a huge fan of the espionage genre, but I really enjoyed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  While the major focus in on the unfolding mystery of secret informants and obscure instructions, le Carré creates a world where moral ambiguity is the status quo, and anything that gets the desired results is accepted as a good thing by those in charge, regardless of the damage it does to any operatives or citizens.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold met with (and still receives) considerable critical acclaim.  Publishers Weekly has listed it as the best spy novel and TIME Magazine included it in their list of the 100 best novels since 1923.  A film version starring Richard Burton was released in 1965.

If you like espionage novels, or if you don't like espionage novels but want to be won over, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a good choice.

Bestsellers of 1964:

1. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
2. Candy  by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
3. Herzog by Saul Bellow  
4. Armageddon by Leon Uris
5. The Man by Irving Wallace
6. The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss
7. The Martyred by Richard E. Kim
8. You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming
9. This Rough Magic by Mary Stweart
10. Convention by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Baily II

Also Published in 1964:

Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
William Golding - The Spire


Le Carré, John. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. New York, Coward-McCann Inc, 1963.

Monday, February 17, 2014

1963: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West

The Author:

Morris West (1916-1999) was born near Melbourne, Australia.  He received a B.A. from the University of Melbourne in 1937, and taught modern languages and mathematics in New South Wales and Tasmania.  He spent twelve years studying with the Christian Brother Order, studying for the priesthood, but left in 1941. West gained notoriety as a director with Australasian Radio Productions, where he worked from 1943-53. He left Australia in 1955, taking up residence in numerous countries on multiple continents.

His first book, Moon in My Pocket, was published under the pseudonym Julian Morris in 1945.  His next book was published in 1956.  Between 1956 and 1959, he published eight books, under his own name and the pseudonym Michael East.  The most famous of these, at the time, was 1959's The Devil's Advocate, which he wrote after spending six months as the Daily Mail's Vatican correspondent.  The book received critical and commercial success.  The next novel published under his own name, Daughter of Silence, was the #8 bestselling novel in the U.S. for 1961.  The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) was his biggest commercial success.  He appears on the top ten annual bestsellers list twice more, in 1965 for The Ambassador and in 1968 for The Tower of Babel.  

The Book:

Length: 374 pages
Subject/Genre: Catholicism, World Politics/Political Thriller

"The pope is dead."  Now the cardinals must elect a new pope, and the unlikely electee is the new Ukranian cardinal, Kiril, now Kiril I, who spent 17 years in a Siberian prison camp and only escaped to the West three days before the election.  Or was he released?  Switching between an omniscient third person narration and excerpts from the new pope's secret diary, we are given a picture of a man who, within the course of a year, went from a prisoner to a pontiff (although Kiril isn't sure there's much of a difference).  Now Kamanev, the man who tortured and tried to destroy him (and is rumored to have orchestrated his release), is leader of the Soviet Union, and it's up to Kiril to try to prevent a war between U.S. and the U.S.S.R.    This takes place among a few subplots, the political intrigue of the Vatican, and frequent pontificating on faith, goodness, etc.

This is far from the first book about priests on my list.  The bestselling novels of 1913, 1927, 1935, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1948, 1950, 1952, and 1953 have been about priests, preachers, and prophets and saints.  The Shoes of the Fisherman happens to be the meeting point between the religious trend pre-1960s, and the political thrillers/conspiracy novels to come (e.g. le Carré, Ludlum, Clancy, Brown).  Of the lot Elmer Gantry (Sinclair Lewis, 1927) is my favorite.  Shoes is tied for second for my favorite of the priest novels, alongside Cronin's The Keys of the Kingdom (1941).  While religion is obviously a huge part of the plot and character development, unlike most of the other priest novels, it's not just preaching to the choir (pun intended).   West creates a pope who is unsure of himself, who is a complex character with serious doubts and insecurities: he creates a human character, not an archetype or a caricature.  Many of the lead priest characters are two dimensional, or are given flaws that are entirely affected, flaws that are only one small life-lesson from being completely vanquished.

The novel was adapted for the screen in 1968, starring Anthony Quinn as Pope Kiril I and Laurence Olivier as Kamanev.

I apologize for the brevity of this week's review.  A lot of coursework is piling up and I have to get around to that, too (and maybe have a social life?).  Anyway, The Shoes of the Fisherman is a good political intrigue novel, and a good priest novel.  If either or both of those interest you, this would be a good choice.

Bestsellers of 1963:

1. The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West
2. The Group by Mary McCarthy
3. Raise Hight the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger
4. Caravans by James Michener
5. Elizabeth Appleton by John O'Hara
6. Grandmother and the Priests by Taylor Caldwell
7. City of Night by John Rechy
8. The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier
9. The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna
10. The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden

Also published in 1963:

Pierre Boulle - The Planet of the Apes
Julio Cortázar - Hopscotch
John Fowles - The Collector
Sylvia Plath - The Bell Jar
Thomas Pynchon - V.
Kurt Vonnegut - Cat's Cradle
Charles Webb - The Graduate


"Morris L(anglo) West." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2001. Literature 
     Resource Center. Web.

West, Morris. The Shoes of the Fisherman. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1963. Print.

Monday, February 10, 2014

1962: Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

The Author:

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was born Callie Russell Porter.  Her father was a farmer in Indian Creek, Texas, until his wife, Katherine’s mother, died in when Katherine was only two years old.  Her father then moved the family to his mother’s home in Kyle, Texas.  His mother was named Catherine Anne Porter and was the main adult figure from the author’s childhood.

Catherine died in 1901, and the Porter family moved to San Antonio, where Katherine was briefly enrolled at a private dramatic arts school, before financial hardships made tuition untenable and the family moved to Victoria, Texas.  In 1906, sixteen year old Porter married John Koontz and converted to Roman Catholicism.  She left Koontz in 1914, and went to Chicago to take up work as a film extra.  When she officially divorced Koontz in 1915, she changed her name from Callie Russell to Katherine Anne.

In addition to the divorce and name change, 1915 was the year Porter moved to Dallas and came down with tuberculosis.  While recovering from the disease, she befriended Kitty Crawford, who ran the Fort Worth Critic with her husband.  She hired Porter, setting her on the path of being a professional writer.  In 1919, she moved to New York, where she made a living doing PR and ghostwriting and developed a relationship with the Mexican revolutionary movement, later taking trips through Mexico (just six years after Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance down south).

Porter married Ernest Stock in 1925 but the two divorced soon after.  She published several short stories near the end of the 1920’s and her first short story collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories was published in 1930.  Porter was awarded the Guggenheim fellowship in 1931, then left for Europe with Eugene Pressly, who she would marry in 1933 in Paris.  She returned to the U.S. in 1936 and divorced Pressly in 1938, marrying Albert Erskine ten days later and divorcing him in 1942.

Her only novel, Ship of Fools, was the biggest commercial success of her career.  The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award. (1965) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award.

The Book:

Length: 497 pages
Subject/Genre: Human interaction/literary realism

The majority of Ship of Fools takes place aboard the German ship Vera, traveling from Veracruz, Mexico to Germany in the Fall of 1931. Porter includes a list of characters, their nationalities, and who they are bunkmates with, at the beginning of the book, and it's a necessary inclusion.  Their are nearly forty named characters on that list, and many unnamed ones (e.g. "the bride" and "the political agitator").  All are heading to Europe with hopes of some kind, an easy retirement, financial success, a recaptured youth, etc.  

Porter said of the novel: "My book is about the constant endless collusion between good and evil; I believe that human beings are capable of total evil, but no one has ever been totally good: and this gives the edge to evil."  The human flaws, nationalism, bigotry, cowardice, and indifference that would lead to the rise of Nazism are to be found in the passengers of the Vera.  The story is in many ways hermetic, focusing on this one group almost always at sea, the plot arising entirely out of the characters interactions and introspections.  As I previously mentioned, there is a large cast of characters and no main character, which at times make the novel seem to have forty subplots, but no main plot.  While the individual vignettes are generally fantastic, the structure makes the novel flow like, well, a month-long sea voyage.  Now, this may be intentional, like the increasing complexity and incomprehensibility of Heart of Darkness, or the the hallucinatory/surreality of Gravity's Rainbow, but I can't help feel that Ship of Fools is really a novel of stories, except the stories flow into each other instead of having their own space to breathe.  

Quibbles about how the story should be structured aside, Porter creates complex characters who behave in a realistic fashion.  I wrote that the subject was human interaction but humanity's flaws would work as well.  As cliche as the phrase "scathing indictment" may be, I think it may be accurate to apply it here.  Ship of Fools is a scathing indictment of mankind's small-mindedness and capacity for evil.    

Porter was in her 70s when Ship of Fools was published and had a sterling reputation to launch the book from.  The critical reviews were generally very positive and a film version was produced in 1965, starring Vivien Leigh (Scarlett in Gone with the Wind) in her last film role.

I feel like I would have enjoyed Ship of Fools more if I had less of a schedule to maintain.  It's not a quick read, but if you have the time and patience, and like character driven realism, then Ship of Fools is a good choice.  

Bestsellers of 1962:
1. Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
2. Dearly Beloved by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
3. A Shade of Difference by Allen Drury
4. Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk
5. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
6. Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
7. Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II
8. The Prize by Irving Wallace
9. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
10. The Reivers by William Faulkner

Also published in 1962:
Edward Albee - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Ray Bradbury - Something Wicked This Way Comes
Anthony Burgess - A Clockwork Orange
James Clavell - King Rat
Philip K. Dick - The Man in the High Castle
Aldous Huxley - Island
Shirley Jackson - We Have Always Lived in the Castle
James Jones - The Thin Red Line
Ken Kesey - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Vladimir Nabokov - Pale Fire
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
John Steinbeck - Travels with Charley in Search of America
Kurt Vonnegut - Mother Night

Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 10. New York, Scribner.
Porter, Katherine Anne. Ship of Fools. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, and Co., 1962. Print.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Three Unlikely Bestsellers Based on Winnie the Pooh

Everyone knows A. A. Milnes's classic children's book, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), which he wrote for his son, Christopher Robin Milne.  The character was based on Christopher Robin's stuffed bear (which was actually named 'Edward'), and many other characters were based on his son's stuffed animals.  

The "real-life" Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga, and Eeyore

That Winnie the Pooh would inspire future best-sellers is not surprising.  Surprisingly, there have only been two sequels to the the original children's book: The House on Pooh Corner by Milne (1928) and Return to the Hundred Acre Wood by David Benedictus (2009).  No one looking just at the original book would have been able to guess the odd nature of the books it inspired (don't worry, they're not Wicked-esque semi-erotic retellings).  

If you were going to use Winnie the Pooh to teach people something, what would it be?  If your answer was "Eastern philosophy," then you're either very odd, or you've heard of Benjamin Hoff's 1982 bestseller, The Tao of Pooh (or you are Benjamin Hoff, in which case, "Hi, Benjamin Hoff!").  Famous in its own right, Hoff's book explains Taoist principles through the stories of Winnie the Pooh.

Winnie the Pooh, it seems, is the embodiment of the Taoist principle of wei wu wei, which can be translated as 'action without action' or 'effortless doing.'  The Tao of Pooh became a popular college textbook for a while.  It also spawned a sequel that made the bestsellers list in 1992:

While books about Pooh, Piglet, and Lao Tzu may seem like unusual fodder for the bestsellers list, they have a leg up on the other Pooh bestseller. You see, Tao and Te were at least written in a language their audience could understand.    

This is 1961's Winnie ille Pu, and no you didn't misread that book cover, this is a Latin translation of the 1926 Winnie-the-Pooh by Alexander Lenard, and it is the only Latin book to ever make the New York Times bestsellers list.  In 1998, Brian Staples published Winnie ille Pu Semper Ludet, a Latin translation of The House on Pooh Corner. (To the best of my knowledge, it never made the bestsellers list.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

1961: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

The Author:

Irving Stone (1903-1989) was born Irving Tannenbaum, but later adopted his step-father's last name.    A San Francisco native, Stone attended UC Berkeley where he studied political science and economy.  He received his BA in 1923, and attending graduate courses at Berkeley and USC in Los Angeles until 1926.  In 1933, he published his first novel, Pageant of Youth, about life at college in California.  The novel did not succeed commercially, and even Stone later declared it to be of poor quality.  A year later, with the help of editor Jean Factor (soon to be Mrs. Jean Stone) he published Lust for Life, a 'biographical novel' about Van Gogh which quickly became a bestseller.
Stone was known for extreme research on his subjects, going so far as to live in Van Gogh's asylum cell.  He worked within the biographical novel genre for most of his career, writing novels on, Clarence Darrow, Jack London, Jessie Fremont, Andrew Jackson, and Sigmund Freud, among many others.  He published 24 books of fiction and non-fiction, in addition to editing several more. He died of heart failure in 1989.

The Book:

Length: 755 pages
Subject/Genre: Michelangelo/ Biographical Novel

People who know nothing about art know Michelangelo.   They know his paintings:

The Creation of Adam

They know his sculpture:

They know his architecture:

St. Peter's Basilica
So how do you tackle the life of one of the greatest artist's in history?  Well, The Agony and the Ecstasy is extremely well-researched.  Stone went so far as to have all of Michelangelo's surviving letters translated into English, besides living in Italy and immersing himself in Michelangelo's world.  

The novel follows Michelangelo from his early adolescence, a son of the nearly destitute, once noble Florentine, Buonarroti family, as he decides to defy his father and become an artist.  From there, we have his life story: his training, the patronage of the Medici's, his conflict with the Pope. 

The novel's greatest strength is also its greatest flaw.  Stone provides a huge amount of information, which is frequently overwhelming.  When trying to blend the conventions of the biography and the novel, he frequently swings too far on the biography side, providing information that would be interesting and useful for a non-fiction (e.g. details about the fashions and foods of the day, long passages of Florentine history, etc.) but turn into clunky dead-ends in a work of fiction.  I would be remiss if I didn't mention a point that is brought up by critics of this book, that it overlooks Michelangelo's sexuality.  There are numerous extant love poems and letters written by Michelangelo to other men.  While I feel this is alluded to in the novel, it's kept completely tucked away between the lines.     

Stone gives us a vision of Michelangelo as a man with a very clear ambition from the start, to be a great sculptor, but whose life and work are incredibly complex.  Even with any omissions about Michelangelo's personal life, we have a very dense and well documented work.  This is the only novel I've ever read to include a works cited bibliography, which in this case spans ten pages.  A question many have asked is, if there is so much research, why write a novel instead of a biography.  Stone answered this question himself, saying: "I know from experience that biographies have a limited audience. We have thousands of readers who love [the biographical novel] and are thrilled by it, who'd never get near a conventional biography."

Like other of Stone's popular novels, The Agony and the Ecstasy was adapted for the screen.

The 1965 film version starred Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II and was nominated for five Academy Awards.

The question I ask myself when giving recommendations is "who is this book for?"  If you are an avid history/art buff, you'd probably be better off with a biography than a biographical novel.  If you are interested in the subject, but don't have the background in it, The Agony and the Ecstasy would be a good choice.

Best Sellers of 1961:
1. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
2. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger    
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
4. Mila 18 by Leon Uris
5. The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins
6. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
7. Winnie Ille Pu by Alexander Lenard (a Latin translation of Milne's Winnie the Pooh)
8. Daughter of Silence by Morris West
9. The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor
10. Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

Also Published in 1961:

Jorge Luis Borges - Ficciones (first translated in English)    
Roald Dahl - James and the Giant Peach  
Robert Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land
Joseph Heller - Catch-22
Norton Juster - The Phantom Tollbooth  
Stanislaw Lem - Solaris
Walker Percy - The Moviegoer
Muriel Spark - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Kurt Vonnegut - Mother Night
Richard Yates - Revolutionary Road


Stone, Irving. The Agony and the Ecstasy. 1961. New York: Signet Books, 1963. Print.

"Irving Stone." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web.