Dean Koontz and Frederick Pohl: The Old and the New

Years ago when I first started writing fiction I read Dean Koontz’s guide How to Write Best Selling Fiction. The last chapter was titled “Read, Read, Read” and there he noted:

Regardless of the type of fiction you write (or wish to write), you should read every kind of popular fiction you can get your hands on, both mainstream and genre. The more you broaden your interests as a reader, the more you will simultaneously broaden your perspective and your talent as a writer.

After which he provided an annotated list of recommended authors.

Since then, I have sought out other lists of the 10 best books in various literary genres and have tried to add those books to my library. One genre in which I do not read frequently—Science Fiction—did provide some great reads, e.g., Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth. So the other day I picked up an old tattered copy of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway (in my personal library) and read it with interest. I especially enjoyed his reference to a holopic of Lake Garda and Sirmione.

Several years ago I toured the Lake Region in Italy–Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, and Lake Lugano, all in Lombardy, and then Lake Garda, which lies to the east and is shared by both Lombardy and the Veneto. Sirmione lies on a peninsula that justs 7 kilometers into Lake Garda. At a certain point, cars have to stop and the rest of the peninsula is accessible only on foot. At the far end, lie the ruins of a villa that belong to the Latin poet Catullus. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Well, when I went to add Gateway to my list of “books read” what do I find but that I first read it back in 1983, along with several Heinlein and Silverberg novels. So I took what Koontz had to say to heart. In June and July of that year I read the following books:

Dean R. Koontz, How to Write Best Selling Fiction
James Cain, Double Indemnity
Harry Kemelman, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late
Alistair MacLean, Where Eagles Dare
Robert B. Parker, Ceremony
Alistair MacLean, The Guns of Navarone
Helen MacInnes, Agent in Place
Jack Higgins, Solo
Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Russell Hoban, Ridley Walker
Helen MacInnes, The Snare of the Hunter
Robert Silverberg, Downward to the Earth
Frederik Pohl, Gateway
Robert Ludlum, The Parsifal Mosaic
Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity
William Goldman, Control
Harry Kemelman, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry
Alistair MacLean, Force 10 From Navarone
Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17
Joseph Wambaugh, The Black Marble
Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang
Alistair MacLean, Circus
Robert Ludlum, The Holcroft Covenant

Yep, there’s Pohl’s Gateway, so now I’ve read it twice, the second time just as “new” to the book as the first time. That’s discouraging in a way! I guess it means that I should find the world’s best 25 books and read them over and over for the rest of my life, each time finding them “new.”

Recent Readings

Lee Child, Persuader (which I read in sequence with The Hard Way, Gone Tomorrow, and Nothing to Lose)

A perfect one-sentence characterization of Jack Reacher (who’s talking about 20-year-old Richard Beck):

He was majoring in some kind of contemporary art expression thing that sounded a lot like finger painting to me.
(p. 19 in the Dell Mass Market edition)

Hilarious!That use of “thing” and then “finger painting.” Can’t get much more disdainful (of the fine arts) than that!

Yep. Jack Reacher is no Lee Child (who presumably cares about his craft/art since he does such a good job at characterization).

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of Pointed Firs and Other Stories

Excellent descriptions of the landscape in Maine and vivid characterizations of its inhabitants at the end of the 19th century.
A slow, leisurely pace (no bother in the days before TV, though some readers today might find that it occasionally drags). I liked the elegance of her prose, as seen here (p. 65 in the Penguin Classics paperback):
[The author/narrator is visiting the island where poor Joanna, a recluse, dead now for 22 years, lived isolated by the loneliness of sorrow]

Poor Joanna’s house was gone except the stones of its foundations, and there was little trace of her flower garden except a single faded sprig of much-enduring French pinks, which a great bee and a yellow butterfly were befriending together. I drank at the spring, and thought that now and then someone would follow me from the busy, hard-worked, and simple-thoughted countryside of the mainland, which lay dim and dreamlike in the August haze, as Joanna must have watched it many a day. There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun. In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

Nice touches of humor, as in these two passages:

‘Yes, Mari was one o’ them pretty little lambs that make dreadful homely old sheep,’ replied Mrs Todd with energy.’ (p. 81)

‘There was good singers there; yes, there was excellent singers,’ she agreed heartily, putting down her teacup, ‘but I chanced to drift alongside Mis’ Peter Bowden o’ Great Bay, an’ I couldn’t help thinking if she was as far out o’ town as she was out o’ tune, she wouldn’t get back in a day.’ (p. 88)

And, finally, when the narrator is reluctant to accept a gift:

‘When it rains porridge hold up your dish,’ said Mrs Flagg. (p. 183)

Owen Wister, The Virginian, A Horseman of the Plains (Dover Thrift Editions)

First published in 1902, this Western—as the editor Suzanne E. Johnson notes, “the first modern Western ever written and the benchmark for all subsequent North American frontier literature”—sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year. One might also call it a Western romance.
Funny line addressed to the reader: [after a discussion of lynching cattle rustlers]

Forgive my asking you to use your mind. It is a thing which no novelist should expect of his reader. (p. 252)

A good read, although I think the issue of hanging rustlers is handled with greater depth by Walter Van Tilburg Clark in The Ox-Bow Incident.(1940).

And, if you want to read another romance of early America, this one of the 17th century in Virginia, you might track down Mary Johnston’s bestselling To Have and To Hold (1900). Very good! I read the Pocket Book edition of 1946 (No. 149,592,378, according to the top of the front cover) in July 2008. There’s one travesty of a misprint on page 289 (ch. 38):

Mounting the breastwork that we had thrown up to shelter the women who were to load the muskets, he coolly looked over the pales at the oncoming sausages.

Yikes! Sausages for savages. (Oh well, they’re already being disparaged anyway.)
I happen to also own the 1900 Houghton, Mifflin and Company illustrated hardcover with a beautifully designed front board. Fortunately, that particular misprint does not appear in the earlier hardcover.
Great concluding paragraph to the novel, a bit too long to cite here.

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