From time to time, some of you may remember me mentioning a John Cole, a friend and reading aficionado, and a source for some of the most eclectic and prolific book recommendations. I might even consider him a reading mentor. John is a retired executive, an avid history-buff as you will see, spending his days with his wife Linda between their homes in Chicago and Palm Springs. I know John is a note-taker, so I was fairly sure if I asked him for his all-time top 10, I wouldn't get too much flak from him. In fact, he was intrigued and challenged by my request, and embraced it full on. Here are the books that have left their mark with John. I've copied EXACTLY what he wrote about each book. Don't you think he needs to become a blogger????
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald's genius in this favorite is his ability to insert the reader into the idle, barren, and the intellectually and morally bankrupt world of the Long Island wealthy at the height of the roaring 20's. Through Fitzgerald's insights and dialogue I am there watching it all happen along with Nick, the narrator, and the highly symbolic eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg staring from a long abandoned billboard. Heaps of decay set in very well constructed prose.
The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway
My favorite author at his best featuring his literary creation - the direct hard hitting short phrase constituting a sentence at times and at others a piece of a long run on sentence. Meticulous descriptive detail support a relatively simple plot. This is all about the American intellectual expatriate Paris community of the 1920's with the famous Pamplona scene thrown in as a bonus. Hemingway, as he does in so many of his works, exposes many of his own personal defects as a bully, anti-semite, homophobic, and general boorishness throughout this most treasured work. Well, it WAS the 1920's!
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
Three of the most memorable words ever begin a novel - "Call me Ishmael". And off you go into one of the great classics which has held its own over time. This is a powerful high seas adventure featuring man as represented by Captain Ahab vs nature, The Great White Whale Moby Dick set in a challenging dose of literary symbolism. A must in any serious reader's library.
The Civil War: A Narrative - Shelby Foote
Twenty years in the writing resulting in three huge volumes of the best and most thoroughly entertaining historical work in my experience. Note the "Narrative" in the title. Foote did not consider himself an academic historian, but rather a researcher capable of telling history as a true story with a world of anecdotal information based on quotes taken from contemporary speeches, government records, newspaper articles and especially personal letters. A native Mississippian, Foote gained some popular recognition before his death three years ago from his commentary in Ken Burns' memorable documentary "The Civil War".
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
How can an unsophisticated 23 year old woman (more of a girl) raised in the deep South of the 1930's possibly have the perception and knowledge of the human condition to write this gem of a first novel? Sad, funny, uplifting, heart rending, introspective beyond her years and real life experience - it's all here. The relationship between the young protagonist and a deaf mute, well it is just so pure. A weeper! Fine movie with Alan Arkin. McCullers ended up in the NY literary scene in the 1940's, produced more good work and died young.
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Another young Southern woman in her first,and only, novel. Jim Crow days in the rural Depression South come alive in juxtaposition to Atticus Finch, the iconic really virtuous person in a frustratingly unfair world. He ranks as one of my favorite fictional characters worthy of personal emulation (which I have yet to attain). And all of this through the eyes of a six to eight year old tomboy receiving life lessons from her extraordinary father. Truman Capote appears as one of the children in this semi autobiographical work. Harper Lee lives today as a recluse in some small Alabama town.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill - William Manchester
Biographies constitute a marvelous platform for gifted researchers who can write. William Manchester is among the best and the two volumes of a planned three(failing health and death curtailed the third) are the finest examples of the biographical art in my experience. Of course, Churchill is one of the most interesting men in all of history. Manchester's two volumes take the reader through the formative years, the influence of his controversial mother, military training, soldiering in South Africa and early Government days in the Admiralty. The second volume, subtitled "Alone" provides a skillfully-presented picture of Churchill as the rock in Great Britain standing alone against the government policy of appeasement towards Hitler. Oh for that third volume of beautifully crafted biography of the war years, the prime ministry, and role as world statesman!
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
This classic presents a view of the fate and inner strength of the common man(and woman) set in the dust bowl and the great Depression of the 1930's. The description of the human tragedy is almost overwhelming to the reader. Despite all of the cruel challenges hurled at the Joad family, Steinbeck's characters survive, not thrive, and somehow a thread of everlasting hope for mankind permeates the closing chapters. This book was, of course, a social commentary with a strong message directed at class inequities. Steinbeck was very sympathetic to these severely disadvantaged people and critical of American society for permitting these conditions to exist. Steinbeck's thoughts are clearly relevant today.
The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War - David Halberstan
Halberstan, who was recently killed in a car accident, was one of my favorite writers. It came down to "The Best and the Brightest" or this more recent work about the Korean War. I chose the latter based on my genuinely troubled reaction to this most visceral description of the stupidity, horror and heroism of war. The winter retreat of the Marines from the mountains of North Korea under relentless attack from hordes of Red Chinese as told by Halberstan is a story for the ages. General MacArthur's stubborn refusal to recognize the Chinese threat, his faulty strategy, and his unwillingness to be accountable for the suffering and deaths of so many Americans provide the political backdrop of this real life drama. And oh yes, I remember the Korean War!
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
This five years in the writing volume impacted the 1960's American literary scene as the first significant heavily researched docunovel - a true story written in the style of a novel as Capote interpreted facts and characters from his view to create a most readable manuscript. I well remember the unspeakable events(such events were rare in those halcyon days) as the senseless murder of the Clutter family was reported in the papers and the network news broadcasts. Capote's work, published years later was a Book of the Month Cub selection and I still own it. It just bowled the reading public over. Readers were horrified, mesmerized, and could not stop thinking or talking about it. Capote's self- appointed task was to humanize the murderers and he achieved that to some extent. There was no forgiveness. As a result of "In Cold Blood", Capote became the toast of the literary world, but he never wrote another novel.
As you can see, I'm sort of having fun with this Top 10 feature. I'm going to try to keep it up, and recruit the widest array of people I can. I am always amazed at people's different tastes, and how we can learn from them!