November 22, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part III


Watership Down (Richard Adams) - Set in the once idyllic rural landscape of the south of England, this is a powerful saga of courage, leadership, and survival. An epic tale of a hardy band of Berkshire rabbits forced to flee the destruction of their fragile community. Led by the doughty Hazel and his oracular friend Fiver, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing dangers posed by predators, hostile warrens, and worse, to a mysterious promised land known to them only as Watership Down. From their travails, they forge a more perfect society, made stronger by the vision that drives them.

When I was (I think) 13, almost 14, I heard of this book and decided to read it, but didn't find a copy handy right away. That summer we visited an old lady friend of my parents' who lived in Waco, and stayed in her large, ancient house. It was rather a creepy house, deathly silent but for the creaking noises made by the wooden floor when we walked around in it. It was the sort of house I could spend a great deal of time carefully exploring, and still be certain of missing some secret panel or passageway, but the almost total lack of air conditioning made one too lethargic for exploring.

In one of the guest bedrooms, however, I discovered a copy of Watership Down: a bulky, hardcover version without the dust jacket. Everyone thought I was reading a book about submarines as I carted it around with me to restaurants, church potlucks, and the like. My parents always have a lot of visiting to get done in Waco, and it has always been my philosophy to bring along a hefty chunk of "boredom insurance" in the hopes of finding a quiet corner to tuck myself into.

Well, as immersed as I was in the story of Watership Down (which offers an unforgettable portrait of Adams's made-up rabbit culture, including a language and complex folklore, in addition to page-turning excitement), between one thing and another I didn't quite finish the book before we had to leave. I was terribly disappointed, but I received a shiny new paperback copy for my birthday not long after, and all was well. When the sequel, an anthology entitled Tales from Watership Down, came out a few years later, I snapped it up and devoured it, too. These books are not to be missed.


The Rescuers (Margery Sharp) - The Prisoners' Aid Society, run entirely by mice, strives to help cheer and aid a variety of human prisoners held around the world. When the society learns that a Norwegian poet has been wrongly imprisoned in the legendary (and much feared) Black Castle, home to a number of terrible dangers (including the dreaded Mameluke, a monstrous cat belonging to the prison warden), the mice waste no time in formulating a plan for his release. Bernard, a stolid brown mouse, is dispatched to enlist the aid of Miss Bianca, a white mouse who has always lived in the lap of luxury. If Bernard can convince Miss Bianca to locate a brave Norwegian rodent for their cause, the prisoner may stand a chance. Being a bit of a spoiled pet, Miss Bianca initially shies away from Bernard's pleas, but his good heart and her better nature prevail and soon she too is involved in the world of intrigue and heroic rescues.

The Rescuers and its eight sequels are, much to my dismay, long out of print, and I had a heck of a time even finding a picture of the cover. For all I know, they may have already been out of print when I first checked them out from the CAG library and read them years ago. This is a shame because any one of the first three (which are the only ones our library had, and are still the only ones I've read) could eviscerate either Disney animated version in a fair fight. The first book remains my favorite for a variety of reasons. The mission undertaken by Bernard, Miss Bianca, and Nils is just so ridiculously impossible at the outset that their ultimate success is all the more exhilerating in the end.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Mark Twain) - Vibrates with slapstick comedy and serious social commentary. While Hank Morgan, Twain's time-displaced Yankee traveler, keeps up a steady stream of flippancies, founding the first tabloid, the Camelot Weekly Hosannah and Literary Volcano, and organizing a game of baseball between armor-clad knights, he also keeps up a steady commentary on the social mores of King Arthur's court, criticizing the hereditary social classes and state church still strong in the Victorian England of Twain's own day, and championing women's suffrage and union labor organization.

This may seem like a bit of an odd pick to some, considering Twain's other great works. Huck Finn is, of course, widely regarded as his best (and by some as the best) novel. Personally, my difficulty was more in deciding between this one and Tom Sawyer, and in the end I may not be able to adequately justify why, with my love of the South and Southern literature, I picked a book about a Yankee set in legendary Arthurian Britain. My fascination with Arthurian legend aside, it probably boils down to the fact that my favorite element of Twain is his humor, and this is (in my opinion) by far his funniest book. Connecticut Yankee made me laugh. A lot. And at this point I'd probably have to re-read it in order to make my analysis any deeper than that.


And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie) - Ten complete strangers, apparently with nothing in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon. Once there, all of them are accused of murder and sentenced to die. One by one the members of the party are killed off, and tension mounts as, cut off from the mainland, the dwindling survivors realize that the killer must be one of them.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've actually read more books by Agatha Christie than by any other single author (a fact which quite surprised me when I discovered it). I never got into any of her detectives except Hercule Poirot, and I read everyone of his mysteries I could lay my hands on. I remember burrowing my way through a thick tome of five Poirot mysteries at a fairly young age, lugging it around everywhere I went.

Christie has the uncanny ability of throwing me so totally off the scent in her mysteries that, not only is the killer not the most likely suspect, they are not even the least likely suspect. With almost no exceptions, Christie reveals the killer to have been the one character who was not a suspect at all, who hadn't even entered into your reckoning when you formed your list. I remember one mystery where the murderer was the policeman investigating the case, and another where the murderer was the person narrating the story.

Neither of those refers to this particular book, which is one of perhaps three non-Poirot Christie's that I have read. It does not feature any of her regular detective characters, or any detective at all for that matter. Relying more on suspense than investigation to keep the reader glued, the ending is, of course, a complete surprise. I've seen a couple of movie versions and have been thoroughly disgusted both times with the adaptation. Moviemakers can be such weenies sometimes, and in this case seem thoroughly incapable of following the original plot through to reach Christie's brilliant, dark ending.


King Solomon's Mines (H. Rider Haggard) - Three men trek to the remote African interior in search of a lost friend. At the end of a perilous journey they reach an unknown land cut off from the world and inhabited by a lost civilization which stands on the brink of savage civil war, where terrible dangers threaten anyone who dares to venture near the spectacular diamond mines of King Solomon.

King Solomon's Mines stands out in my mind as the most action-packed, adrenaline-pumping, rip-roaring adventure novel I have ever read. I bought it on a whim from a tiny bookstore in a mall in Guatemala and devoured it shortly thereafter. This is the quintessential African adventure of the British Imperialist period. It has pretty much everything: danger, suspense, men being ripped in half by stampeding elephants, bizarre encounters with the natives, an epic, day-long battle with tens of thousands of warriors savaging each other in hand-to-hand combat, our mighty, larger-than-life heroes emerging victorious, bathed in blood, wealth beyond measure surrounded by booby-traps . . . I'm telling you, it's all in here. Just thinking about that battle scene makes me want to go read the whole thing again.

To be continued . . .

Posted by Jared at November 22, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack