It’s indisputable that there are far more books out there than any of us have time to read. Most of us would have to quit our jobs to have enough time to read all the books mentioned in The New York Times Book Review, let alone all the recommendations in Indiebound or bookpage.com. Nevertheless, I’m going to make deciding what to read in your precious spare time even more difficult, because The New York Times Book Review et al. focus on recently published books. I often like to go back and re-read old favorites. Sometimes someone will tell me about a book published in 1968 (or 1908) that they chanced upon in a used bookstore, and I’ll want to read it. So here’s a list of books, some old, some not, that I’ve enjoyed.
Flicker by Theodor Rozsak (1991)
In the early 1960s UCLA student Jonathan Gates becomes romantically involved with Clarissa Swan, the owner of a local movie theater, who gives him an informal education in film studies over the course of their relationship. Through Clarissa’s quest for classic films to show at her theater, Gates stumbles upon the work of 1930s B-movie director Max Castle. His research on Castle leads him to piece together an alternative history of the film industry as he discovers Castle’s profound behind-the-scenes influence on the movies of his day, right up until his mysterious disappearance in 1941. But when Gates begins to research Castle’s involvement with a fringe religious group known as The Orphans of the Storm, he discovers that the film industry was never just about entertainment, or even making money, but about a profoundly disturbing interpretation of reality with implications for us all….
Leave it to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse (1924)
Ronald Psmith (“the p is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) is an energetic but impoverished young man yet to make his way in the world. He places an ad in the Times saying he’ll do anything for pay. One Freddy Threepwood sees his ad and decides to hire Psmith to steal his Aunt Connie’s diamond necklace so his uncle can sell it to help a niece in financial straits. Meanwhile Freddy’s father, Lord Emsworth, ninth Earl of Blandings, has been sent to London by Connie (a patroness of the arts) to meet Ralston McTodd, a Canadian poet she’s invited to stay at Blandings Castle. A rather complicated and hilarious plot ensues, that includes one of the most exciting fictional poetry readings ever, teaches the reader the importance of flowerpots, and demonstrates that your fate often depends not on how smart you are or how hard you work, but on the color of your pajamas.
Making History by Stephen Fry (1996)
Michael Young is a Cambridge history student completing his thesis on Adolf Hitler’s early years. His girlfriend is a biochemist who has invented a male contraceptive. Michael becomes friends with Leo Zuckerman, a physicist who has developed a prototype time machine. In an attempt to undo some of the worst events of the twentieth century, Michael and Leo send one of his girlfriend’s male birth control pills back in time to 1889—directly into the well where Hitler’s parents get their water. Michael suddenly finds himself in an alternative earth where Hitler was never born—and where everything is much worse as a result. Fortunately Michael finds this world’s Leo Zuckerman, who is also working on a crude time machine, and this time they make a plan to ensure Klara Hitler conceives…
The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald (1990)
1912, Cambridge University: St. Angelicus College is a veritable link to the Middle Ages, from its fourteenth-century building to its requirement that fellows of the college not marry. Fred Fairly, newly appointed to St. Angelicus, is a young physicist to whom science is everything. All that matters is what can be seen and analyzed. Then, thanks to a bicycle accident, one Miss Daisy Saunders literally crashes into his life—and disappears almost as suddenly. Fred is overwhelmed by feelings that defy rational scrutiny. He wants to find Daisy, but having Daisy in his life makes no sense at all. Nevertheless, through a series of accidents, mistakes and misjudgments, they keep turning up in each other’s lives…
Outside the Dog Museum by Jonathan Carroll (1992)
Architect Harry Radcliffe is shallow, selfish, and spoiled. But his life takes a couple of difficult turns that put him on the road to becoming a better man—whether he likes it or not. First he goes insane and is led back from madness by Venasque, a retired restaurateur-turned-shaman. Under Venasque’s unconventional treatment, Harry re-experiences moments of his past as vividly as if they were happening again. When he’s more or less recovered, Radcliffe accepts a commission from a Middle Eastern sultan to design a dog museum, which is an unusual request in and of itself, but even more so given that dogs are unclean, according to some Islamic teachings. Then he starts having conversations with the dead…
Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton*
In addition to being a great novelist, Wharton was also a superb short story writer. All the pieces in this collection feature her trademark flawless prose and deft characterizations, but I recommend two in particular: “The Other Two,” a wry depiction of changing social mores concerning marriage and divorce in Gilded Age New York, and “Xingu,” a savage send-up of book groups—and a comic masterpiece.
* Stories published individually between 1904 and 1936, anthology published,1964.