Okay, we’re all stuck indoors for the duration, so many are using the time to get to unfulfilled promises and put-off projects: cleaning, learning to bake, playing board games, binge-watching, and of course reading. In a related vein, I’ve taken the opportunity to get to some books I’ve not read. However, occasionally I like returning to a guilty pleasure—whether it’s a movie or book. Here are three such recommended novels that, while likely never making a university reading list, pass one’s time nicely.
Making the old new
Although George Fox wrote several novels, Amok remains my favorite of his. The ride is such fun that I can now breeze through it in about two hours, making it perfect to fill time while indulging a thirst for thrills.
The story isn’t new by any stretch: a Japanese soldier still fights WWII in the Philippines during the 1970s. Hell, even Gilligan’s Island did that one, but it’s the way Fox constructs his story that makes this version so interesting.
For example, he begins by noting that the word “amok” began as a noun. Now, there’s a hook. Moreover, Fox’s story is so cinematic that, during my first reading some 40 years ago, I was casting it. In fact, any screenwriters looking for an idea might want to check this one out. It’s a script that practically writes itself even if it would now be considered, I assume, a period piece.
The novel brings together the white plantation owners, the Philippine authorities and tribes, and the Japanese representatives who realize the situation needs to be handled as delicately as possible. Its reward is in the payoff, where this early “special forces” solider—after decades terrorizing the island as a mythic legend—becomes the sympathetic character in the mold of Quasimodo.
Puberty on the High Seas
When Nicholas Meyer moved from writing scripts and novels (Time After Time and The Seven Percent Solution are two of his works that stand out) to directing films, I felt a certain sense of loss to the world of letters. Not that I blame the man; after all, there’s more money in that market. Besides, he is actually responsible for two of the better Star Trek films (The Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country), so there has been a certain upside.
But his novel Confessions of a Homing Pigeon offers one of the best coming-of-age books around. Set in the mid-20th century, Meyer’s protagonist is the child of circus acrobats whose “draw” is never using safety nets while performing, so of course, the inevitable opens the book. Now orphaned, the boy is taken to Paris by his paternal uncle who, much like his brother, is a free spirit who earns his living as a piano player in a Parisian brothel. His mother had been disowned by her upper-class, Sheridan Drive family for having chosen to run away to the circus, but when her brother learns of the child’s existence and current living situation, he is properly appalled.
The child is then taken from the arms of his morally ambiguous relative to Chicago after his maternal family decides he needs the “proper upbringing.” Quickly tiring of the affluent but soul-crushing suburban grind, he decides to return to the beloved uncle and make his way back to France in a novel that is quite accurately described as “charming.” His odyssey includes becoming a stowaway on the Queen Mary
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of Confessions of a Homing Pigeon shows up about two-thirds in. Meyers breaks the fourth wall in a chapter wonderfully titled “In Which the Fine Italian Hand at the End of the Long Arm of Coincidence Raises Its Ugly Head.”
Meyer is a great writer, and this may be his greatest yet least known book.
Modern espionage in ancient Rome
Pulitzer prize winner John Hersey is probably best known for his books dealing with Asia, where his father served as a missionary, or those set in Florida, his eventual home. However, in The Conspiracy, he takes readers back to first century Rome and Nero’s imperial and mainly insanity-tinged reign. Like the works of Robert Graves or Leon Uris, Hersey uses this historical backdrop to present a political thriller of the first order.
Employing two main characters—Tigellinus, co-consul of the Praetorian guard, and Paenus, tribune of the Roman secret police, along with a series of memos, assorted notes, intercepted letters, and interrogation transcripts—the two members of Nero’s intelligence community gather and collate leads concerning a potential assassination attempt against their emperor.
The primary suspects involved in this plan?
The philosopher Seneca and a cadre of poets—artists that Nero had earlier supported and entertained—are surveilled, bringing up images from the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others.
However, as the layers of the plot are peeled back, The Conspiracy also reveals Nero’s obvious descent into madness.
Soon, the reader begins to wonder if this is an actual investigation or a means to create a paper trail pointing to others in order to establish scapegoats while the members of Nero’s own security people become the real perpetrators.
One interesting aspect of this book is that it was released in 1972, when news and revelations of the Watergate incident dominated worldwide media and occupied American minds. Hersey’s story produced numerous parallels between the subterfuge and hidden messages of the novel with the events of those days. If readers want to make those connections or draw any parallels with more recent events is their choice, of course, but the fact that it’s possible only verifies what a relevant story Hersey concocted in any age when he conceived and delivered The Conspiracy.
Up next: Some volumes to submerge yourself in the senses