Monthly Archives: October 2011

Tom Clancy’s Ryanverse

If I’d had a smartphone and been on a social network Sept 11, 2001 I’d have tweeted something like “I feel like I’m in a #TomClancy novel.” (Yes, I know, smartphones and social networks didn’t exist in 2001, but go with me here.) Fans of Clancy’s will know that the novel that most came to life that Tuesday was Debt of Honor. (I won’t tell you how the book was so similar to 9/11 in the way it ends because when I was reading it for the first time, someone told me the ending. And I was quite annoyed. But that is another story.) Clancy’s books featuring Jack Ryan somehow managed to capture a little twist on the present and near future all through the 1980s and 1990s. Since 9/11, the one Ryan book to be published didn’t have the same edge. As history actually unfolded and both collided with and diverged from Clancy’s imagined world, the Ryanverse couldn’t keep up. Clancy has begun a new series featuring Jack Ryan Jr., who was born in Patriot Games, but I wasn’t impressed by the first of this set published in 2003. Possibly the next will be better if Clancy took the time to integrate the reality of our world and the crazy way it collided with his imagined world in 2001.

The first of the Ryanverse books, published in 1984 (ancient history!), is The Hunt for Red October. I listed Red October as the Clancy book I’ve read more than 3 times, but I’ve actually read many of the Ryanverse books 3 or more times. Debt of Honor is the one I’ve read most often (5 times). I’ve only read Red Rabbit, Teeth of the Tiger (both post 9/11 publications), and Without Remorse once. (My friend the Biologist likes Without Remorse the best and is always shocked when I say I haven’t re-read it.) Red October is actually the book that hooked me on Clancy, thus I thought it would be best to list it as representative. Plus, I first read it long before I started keeping track of my reading in 1993, so I don’t know how many times I’ve read it.

I’m not sure I think Clancy is great literature. I’ve re-read his books a few times, and I think they do interesting things. He builds a very believable parallel universe populated with characters that are consistent through the 12 books. This is very impressive and difficult to do. He does some interesting things with ethics and ethical arguments. Jack Ryan is Roman Catholic and so the ethics of the books are very Catholic. The problem is that the ethical lectures in Clancy are too obviously ethical lectures, handily placed in the mouths of characters. Better to show not tell, or so I’ve heard. I think someone could do an interesting thesis on Catholic ethics in the Ryanverse. Clancy tries hard not to be anti-women. I’m afraid he just doesn’t make it there. His female characters are interesting, but ultimately they always need the protection of the men in their lives. Sigh.

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Sunday Lists – Geek Books

I like lists. So here are links to two lists that I quite enjoyed this week:

9 Essential Geek Books You Must Read Right Now

and

These Are the Greatest Geek Books of All Time – Readers Say

I don’t quite qualify as a Geek as I haven’t read all of the books. I’ve only read 10/18.  That is barely a passing grade. One is on my to-be-read list, but 11/18 is still only 61%. Once I’ve read Ender’s Game then I’ll be 61% Geek I guess.

Any guesses on which ones I’ve read? C’mon, you know you want to.

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Pride and Prejudice: An Acquired Taste

Now that I’ve listed 25 books I’ve read more than three times, I figure that gives me 25 blog posts right there. I’ll talk about each of the books. Just to keep you guessing, I won’t go in any particular order.

I’m going to start by talking about Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. (Obvious from the title possibly, but just to make sure we are all on the same page.) Let me be clear that I’m talking about the book here. Once, when I mentioned P&P aloud, someone said “Oh, I love Pride and Prejudice!” I asked, “When did you read the book?” “Oh, I haven’t read the book. But the movie is so great!” I mean the book. I read the book before I saw any of the movie versions. I say this not to be a book snob or anything, but because the movies changed how I saw the book, and in fact helped me read the book better.

The first time I read Pride and Prejudice it was tough sledding. I quit, I just couldn’t do it. Then I decided to try again. I can’t remember why, but I remember being quite determined, even in the middle of what seemed the Most Boring Book In The Universe, to get through it this time. Once I was on a streetcar with a colleague from work and he saw what I was reading. “I never finished that,” he said. “I just couldn’t see the point.” I was in one of my I-will-get-through-this-if-it-kills-me moods, or he might have put me off Austen forever. I finally finished P&P for the first time Nov 11, 1994. In my notes on that reading I said that it was “a bit dry at times.” I didn’t mean dry wit. I meant slow. My notes also indicate that I was pleased that I mostly followed the story this time as I’d totally lost the thread in the previous attempt.

After I saw the BBC series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle several times (I taped it from the television on this old-fashioned technology called a VCR), I read the book again. I noticed more things this time because the movie helped me to see the writing differently. I was also reading differently because I was re-reading. I’ve now read P&P six times. I’ve watched the BBC adaptation more than 6 times, and I’ve seen the feature film with Keira Knightly as well. The adaptations are different, but both faithful to the book in interesting ways. Both highlighted things I’d overlooked in previous readings of the book.

In one of my more recent readings of P&P I noted that the book “gets better every time.” I think that this phenomena might be what C.S. Lewis was on about in his Experiment in Criticism. Books that not only hold up under a second reading, but are more enjoyed the more often read, are great literature.

Don’t be discouraged if you find some works that people tell you are Great Literature difficult at first. I have to remind myself of this as I look at the pile of books I want to read but found difficult and so stopped. Difficult at first might mean better second time around. Then even better every time after that.

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Other Books I’ve re-read

It might sound like I’ve only read and re-read two books — Possession (which isn’t about demons by the way) and An Experiment in Criticism (which isn’t about science). In fact I’ve read many other books, and also re-read lots of those other books. For your Friday reading, here is a list of Some Books I’ve Read 3 or More Times (other than the two already mentioned).

Some Books I’ve Read 3 Times (or more)

1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

3. Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy

<Eek, I just noticed I’ve read Possession 9 times since 2004. That might explain why I keep talking about it.>

4. Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy (Just in case you thought you spotted a pattern developing above!)

5. Jurrasic Park by Michael Crichton

6. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

7. Proof by Dick Francis

8. The Runaway Jury by John Grisham (IMHO the best of Grisham’s oeuvre so far)

9. About A Boy by Nick Hornby

10. Children of Men by P.D. James

11. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

12. All 7 of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis

13. Killing the Shadows by Val McDermid

14. Houses of Stone by Barbara Michaels

15. Take and Read: Spiritual Reading An Annotated List by Eugene Peterson

16. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher

17. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost

18. In A Dry Season by Peter Robinson

19. All the Harry Potter books except book 7, which I’ve only read twice so far. By J.K. Rowling

20. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

21. How To Read Slowly by James W. Sire

22. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

23. The Twilight of Courage by Brock and Brodie Thoene

24. The Ice House by Minette Walters

25. Girl Meets God by Lauren F. Winner

You may notice that this list is alphabetical by author’s last name. I made it by running through the database I have of Books I Have Read. I’m a little obsessive about keeping track of all the books I read cover-to-cover. And how many times I’ve read them. And when. I might have a problem.

I did notice that the first six of my repeat reads all had movie versions. I got a little worried — though I do know that when a movie version of a book I like comes out, I go and see it. Then I re-read the book, usually to get the movie out of my head. Not all of my repeats have movie versions though, so that is not the only reason I read things more than once. I usually re-read to revisit an imaginary world. Why do you re-read? Or why not?

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Non-Fiction Re-reads

I don’t re-read a lot of non-fiction, but I have read An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis 6 times. I first read this dense little book in February, 2000. The last time I read it was in March of 2010. I’m about due for another reading I think.

It seems appropriate that I re-read this particular essay frequently, as it is a book that talks about re-reading as a sign of a work’s literary value. If a book can sustain a re-reading, it is probably good literature. (I’m summarizing. Obviously.) Lewis points out that people re-read books for different reasons, but suggests that a book evokes a world for the reader. If the reader wants to return to that world, they re-read the book. This may be true for narrative works as they clearly build imaginary worlds for readers. But what about non-narrative works? Why would we re-read them?

I re-read non-fiction books that have no narrative thread because they make me think. The work illuminates something about the world I live in that attracts me back to it. In that sense I make the book a part of my own narrative, a part of my own thinking. As I read and re-read it, it becomes more imbedded in my story, in my thought.

I also re-read because of memories associated with reading a particular book. I remember one reading of An Experiment in Criticism particularly. I didn’t have my own copy of the book yet, so I had a hardback library copy. One cold winter afternoon, I sat in a wood-panelled reading room next to the (fake) fire in a wing chair and savoured a part of Lewis’s essay. A friend of mine was also reading in the same room in a matching wing chair next to the (still fake) fire. She’d not heard of this particular book before, and so I introduced her to it. She later read it. When I look at my own copy of the book, a paperback re-print, I still think of holding the worn library hardcover and sitting in that chair that afternoon. The book evokes a particular memory of a happy occasion when I enjoyed it. I look forward to re-reading the book and building another memory of enjoying it.

Why do you re-read? Or do you just read something once and then its finished?

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The Book is Better than the Movie

In my last post I said that Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt is the best book I’ve ever read. What made me pick up Possession in the first place? you might ask. I’m glad you asked. Let me tell you. I watched the movie.

In 2002, Possession was made into a movie staring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. I heard about the movie and thought it sounded interesting because of the connection of the present and the past. Time travel has long been an interest of mine, and it seemed like this movie might go there, but it wasn’t clear from the trailers. It turns out there was no time travel in the conventional H.G. Wells sense in the movie. The time travel happened through documents long hidden that revealed a mysterious past. I quite enjoyed the movie (on video) and noticed it was adapted from a book. The same evening I watched the movie, I looked up the book in the U of T library system and the next day checked it out.

The book is so much better than the movie. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is quite good, it is very enjoyable. There isn’t anything wrong with the movie. It is a good adaptation of the book. The book is just better. The book contains so much detail, it develops the characters, it contains so many things that cannot be captured on screen. For example, Byatt is a ventriloquist of extraordinary range, but this is only evident in the book. Two of the fictional characters are poets with a large – and of course fictional – body of work. How do you quote a fictional poet? You make up his or her poems. And short stories. And letters.

The book is just so good I cannot say anything else other than go read it. It did win the Booker Prize in 1990, so there are a few people other than me who think it is worth reading.

Really, I’m done talking about Possession now.

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Best Book Ever

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt is the best book I’ve ever read.

Why? you may legitimately ask. Where to start? I’ll start with it is a great story. It has interesting characters, hidden mysteries from the past, a grave-robbing episode, and romance. What more could you want? Oh, you might want some great writing. Yes, it has that too. The writing is so good that you cannot possibly read this book only once and see all its nuances. This book compels what C.S. Lewis would call good reading (see his Experiment in Criticism).

I could go on and on about this great book, and I’ll probably go on in another post or two. To start, let me tell you what the sub-title means. A.S. Byatt uses a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface to The House of Seven Gables as an epigraph to Possession. The Hawthorne quote contrasts a romance with a novel, claiming that a novel aims at narrating “the probable and ordinary course” of human experience, while a romance “presents truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.” The Hawthorne quote ends, appropriately, with a sentence that describes Possession. “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.”

Possession connects the past with the present. Its two main characters are academic researchers who study writers of the nineteenth century. I first read Possession while writing my doctoral dissertation on a woman who wrote between 1789 and 1810. The connection of the past and present was part of what I was trying to do. This was clearly a book that related to my life. But I’m not convinced I’d like the book less if I’d never studied Sarah Trimmer. I’d like it differently.

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