I don’t read modern fiction much nowadays and find “good” literature in the United States that wins awards to be high on style and low on content. Gone Girl, the marvelous best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, is a notable exception. Basically it is a suspense story about whether the main character, Nick Dunne, killed his wife, Amy. There are a lot of plot twists here with an ending that suitably matches the mazes through which the reader is taken. A movie has been made from the book which is coming out in October and I plan to see it. Gillian Flynn deserves all the money she is making from this endeavor and I highly recommend the book.
On the other hand, here are five novels that you may or may not have heard of that I think have made my life richer. They are in danger of being forgotten within the mists of time.
Watership Down by Richard Adams is a story about (yes!) rabbits. The novel came out in 1972 as a result of stories that Adams told his children, and then one day he decided to put pen to paper. The tale revolves around a psychic rabbit who “sees” the imminent destruction of their warren and convinces the troupe to take up residence elsewhere. They find the perfect place at Watership Down but soon are concerned that they have too few female rabbits in their midst and need to find more so their group does not die out. This brings them in contact with another warren headed by the fearsome General Woundwort who launches an attack on their newly-constructed warren. A full scale war ensues, brilliantly described by the author, with a clear delineation drawn between the good guys and the bad guys. The book is notable in that many of the rabbits have distinct personalities. If you liked stories as a child, you’ll like this anthropomorphized story as an adult.
From a nice, normal, feel-good novel I proceed to one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. That would be Pefume by Patrick Suskind. This novel, which came out in Germany in 1985, is set in eighteenth-century France and is about a peculiar man with an extraordinary sense of smell. A loner, he roams the medieval streets of the city at night inhaling the odors all around him. One night, when he detects the exquisite scent of a virgin slicing plums, he is overcome with passion and kills her in order to get nearer to her scent. He then decides to become an expert on perfumes and apprentices himself to a leading perfumer where he uses his unusual talents to produce scents that eventually bring considerable wealth to his patron. But he is not happy with this arrangement and subsequently leaves the town and spends seven months in a cave away from humanity, consumed with his own thoughts. Since he believes people are controlled by their sense of smell, he decides that he can rule humanity through his power of concocting desirable scents. He returns to society and begins murdering virgins in order to create perfumes that no one can resist.
Weird enough? Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.
Moving on, I highly recommend The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing by Marilyn Durham, first published in 1972. This is probably the best western I’ve ever read, and I’m not a western aficionado, though the author has receded into relative obscurity since the publication of this excellent and highly readable novel. It concerns a train robber who kidnaps a woman on the run from her husband and takes her across the vast Wyoming Territory in the 1880’s. The train robber is intent on finding his two children who were stolen from him many years ago after his Shoshone Indian wife, Cat Dancing, was murdered. The novel moves rapidly, with plenty action, and is interspersed with a little humor here and there, to wit, when the train robber is sitting in the tent of a Shoshone chief and hands him a cigar: “Washaki wreathed himself in aromatic smoke, then held his cigar before him, observing its glowing end as appreciatively as a Virginia gentleman testing his own crop. ‘The cigar is one of the white man’s good ideas,’ he said. ‘It needs no care, no vessel to hold it, and it is not so soon gone.’”
Don’t judge the book by the movie, however, which is pretty bad. As my granddaddy used to say, “It aint the same.”
A pretty good movie starring a young William Hurt was created from my next selection: Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. This book came out in 1981 and involves the Russian detective Arkady Renko who is sent to investigate a murder which has occurred in Gorky Park. Three people have been murdered, with their faces mutilated and their fingers cut off in order to obscure their identities. Renko tackles the case with his usual dedication and finds that the three people were involved in the illegal sale of Russian sables. He discovers an American dealer named Jack Osborne is the contact man in this scheme, but that he is protected from prosecution by influential people in the KGB. Soon he must evaluate his own ethical values if he is to continue the investigation.
Gorky Park was a big seller when it first emerged and the author has since produced seven more books starring the same intrepid detective. None, however, have been as popular as the first.
Lastly, and by no means leastly, I am recommending Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton. This short book, originally published in England as a novella in 1933, also ran in “The Atlantic,” and eventually became a best seller when it went through a number of reprintings by Little Brown and Company. It is a simple story about a school teacher in a British public boarding school for boys. “Chips,” as he is called by students and faculty, begins his tenure as a stodgy teacher of Greek and Latin, but eventually mellows with the passage of time and a brief marriage into a lovable character whose eccentric ideas and witty remarks are repeated by all and sundry. Mr. Chips, Hilton’s creation here, is probably one of the most enduring characters ever produced in modern literature. The book was made into two films, the first starring Robert Donat probably being the better of the two. Any reader or writer wishing to learn something about character development needs only to study this short and lovable volume.