120 Years On – Still Gripping!

Widely considered one of the best spy novels of all time, The Riddle of the Sands remains a riveting read. I had difficulty putting it down. The book really engaged me in unexpected ways.

Penned in 1903 by Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands was very popular in England before World War I. It became an international best seller and was read, too, by government officials. Some credit it with changing military strategy. The novel has remained a staple in the genre and has been made into movies and television.

The Riddle of the Sands was new to me. There are more than a few forgotten classics out there. Search those used book stores!

The story is told in the first person by a minor official in England’s foreign service office, their state department. An old friend, more acquaintance than confidant, contacts him about some duck hunting in the Baltic. Who would say no to a yachting holiday? However, it was no pleasure cruise. As truths unfold, we’re led into a complicated game of exploration, discovery and espionage. The characters are expertly drawn and there is anticipation as we all try to figure out what is and is not going on.

What sets the book apart is that it is extraordinarily grounded in detail, from the particulars of the ships to the description of places. I opened up my laptop several times to look up nautical terms and to map the action. While a work of fiction, there is nothing fantastical about it. It is still easy to trace what happens where. In all candor, though, I would need to spend significant time on a sailing ship to understand the sailing with the same degree of authenticity.

The author, Childers, is worthy of historical investigation and contemplation in his own right. A writer, soldier, explorer and lawyer, he led an extraordinary life of adventure, from work in Parliament to military service and honors. He sailed the Baltic several times. The novel was based, in part, on his direct experiences. Childers support of the British empire, strong in his early years, waned as he became an ever greater proponent of Irish nationalism. That led to his involvement in the Irish revolution and his execution. It was a hasty, brutish affair yet Childers, ever with presence, shook the hands of all of his executioners. Childers’ son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, would grow and later become president of Ireland.

Who could make this up? I certainly lack the imagination, so instead, I heartily recommend The Riddle of the Sands, a century plus page-turner.

David Potash

Storytellers and Writers

Reading two works of fiction in a row – an unusual thing for me – has me thinking about reading and writing. My regular practice for reading is a predictable routine: non-fiction, non-fiction and then a bit of fiction. And occasionally a dash of “literature” as opposed to fiction to stretch myself. Non-fiction is my bread and butter. The regained ability to visit in-person bookstores and browse has upset the apple cart. I am enjoying the disruption.

Wells Tower’s collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was a fiction treat. It had been on my “wouldn’t it be good to pick this up?” list for several years after reading a glowing review. Everything in this work of fiction aspiring for literature is good. It is polished, especially the rough bits. Tower’s prose is muscular and confident. He writes with expressive masculinity, direct with just enough distance. It’s engaging and interesting. The characters are memorable and there are lovely phrases sprinkled throughout. But as soon as I picked up my next book, it started to fade – and quickly.

Stephen King’s Billy Summers is a crime novel from the prolific horror author. King, impressively, continues to write and publish and write and publish – and do it consistently well. At first Billy Summers seemed like an exercise in a well-traveled theme, the last crime gone wrong crime genre. Hard-boiled and gritty might be the description that immediately comes to mind. In this novel, Summers is a hit man who only kills bad people. He is morally compromised but not without charm. He’s a very good protagonist. King, as usual, gives us a cast of well-drawn characters, somewhat familiar plotting and backstory – a decorated soldier sniper with terrible childhood trauma – and you think you know what’s going to happen. It is familiar terrain.

And then, halfway through the book, King shifts the direction with giving his protagonist a moral choice. It was unexpected, powerful, and it charged the novel with a new direction and energy. The latter sections of the book are outstanding. It’s storytelling at its best. I was pulled into the novel, cared for the characters, and wondered what King could do with a Reacher-like theme. King’s prose throughout is clean, crisp and carefully crafted. He doesn’t draw our attention to it, though, even though it’s worthy of consideration. What he is doing is writing to tell a story. I remember the plot and characters; they have remained vivid and I’m confident that they will do so for years. It has happened with other King writing, too.

In Billy Summers King gives his character multiple undercover identities. It is both plot device and an opportunity for King to enjoy himself writing with different voices. One of Summer’s identities is as a writer. King, through his narrator, and then through his narrator’s created fake identity, attempts to tell his “story.” It’s unreliable first-person narrator through unreliable first-person narrator, with commentary on what it is to write and why.

Does a book’s ability to remain with us signify quality? Often, but not necessarily so. Sometimes writing sticks with us because it is extreme; it shocks or disturbs. It can also remain with us if it is simple and recognizable. And there are also very well-written thoughtful works of literature that are complicated and profound. Some of these remain with us and others engage and we move on. I may not remember much of the book, but if it was assigned (and I’m thinking of all those papers in years ago college), parts will stay with me. I loved Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier the first time I read it. Much of it has remained vivid, including that amazing first sentence. But I would be hard pressed to map the book’s plot. What did stick, both as a reader and as an object of study and reflection, is Ford’s use of an unreliable narrator to tell the story. I wonder if that is a literary device that works for me.

The contrast between King and Tower is about more than structure and style. It is about perceived intent, or perhaps how I understand what they are trying to do. Tower is a writer who is focused on his writing. He wants us to pay attention to his prose. King is a story teller who writes to tell stories. He wants us to engage in his stories and characters. Reading Tower and King led me to a realization after all these years: my preference, truth be told, is for stories. Some stories stand on their own. However, what makes for a truly memorable is a skillful story teller.

David Potash

The Narrow Road

A brilliant big novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Booker Prize in 2015 among many other well-deserved awards. It is an outstanding work, a book that will grab you, engage you and keep you thinking.

Richard Flanagan is the author. An Australian born in Tasmania, Flanagan has written non-fiction, novels, short stories and screen plays. He is prolific and if the critics and editors are to be believed, just about everything he puts his mind to, he does well. He is rightly considered one of the most important writers in the world today.

The Narrow Road is a story about love, betrayal, loss, fame, leadership, and above all else, the horrors that Australian POWs faced in World War II as slaves for the Japanese in the construction of the Burmese railway. Flanagan’s father was a POW who lived through it. It was his father’s stories, Flanagan has recounted, that inspired the novel. In real life and in every sense of the word, it was a truly awful history.

In Flanagan’s account, the bigger historical narrative is captured through the actions, reactions, and struggles of multiple characters. Reading it, I thought of Tolstoy’s description of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace. That chapter famously retells the conflict through the “fog of war.” It is scary, confusing, and messy, giving the reader a powerful sense of just how incomprehensible “history” can be when experienced without a clear narrative. It is overwhelming and, in many ways, unknowable. Only later can it be comprehended, if at all. Flanagan’s characters, trapped in the jungle, live, work and die in just such an unknowable situation. When we are in history, we have little but our convictions to assure us of outcomes.

Flanagan does details with great care; they are haunting and revealing. Especially compelling is Flanagan’s commitment to his characters. He treats each with consideration and care, even the war criminals. I found myself thinking about them as “people” – and wondering, after I finished the book, about particular plot choices and actions. My sense is that Flanagan is most interested in a certain kind of authenticity, a fidelity to a character, a moment, and place. Plotting is important to him, too, but it is not an aggressively plotted work.

Flanagan’s narrative moves effectively across time, space and scope. The success and somewhat “ruined” life of our main character is the thread, the anchor, and reference point. However, the book is really about much, much more than the life of Dorrigo Evans and the tremendous tensions between his public life as a hero and his private pains.

Big picture questions and themes are very effectively explored, weaving together a novel that is memorable and expansive. It has all the heft and weight of literature with a capital “L.” All things considered, it is probably best characterized as a novel whose key theme is history, not people. In that it differs from Dr. Zhivago, for example, a love story set against a sweeping historical drama. Here, and probably much more truthfully, is history rearranging the lives of all that it touches. But the novel is not didactic. The Narrow Road is enough of a page turner that it could be comfortably found in a bookstore under fiction, or perhaps historical fiction. I had trouble putting it down.

I heartily recommend The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

David Potash