Last Update 12/12/12

Caves of Terror by Talbot Mundy, Wildside, 1922  

Originally published as The Gray Mahatma, this is one of Mundy’s shortest novels.  Two of Mundy’s recurring characters, Ramsden and Athelstan King, visit the princess Yasmini because they believe she has reneged on her promise to avoid the politics of India, despite her assertion that the East will displace the West as world leader under her tutelage.  There they also meet the Gray Mahatma, who takes them on a tour of caves where there are alligators and where several men voluntarily undergo torture for reasons not really explained. This is the least interesting Mundy novel I’ve read, but mercifully it was quite short. 12/12/12

Affair in Araby by Talbot Mundy, Royal, 1922 (also published as The King in Check

This in an early adventure of Jim Grim and Ramsden, who star in some of Mundy’s better known novels. They are in the Mideast following World War I when the French and British were disavowing the promises of Lawrence of Arabia and abandoning their support of Feisul. The story involves a plot to discredit Feisul, evidence of which falls into Grim’s hands. He and his friends engage in an elaborate charade to pretend they are carrying the evidence to Damascus – it is actually in charge of an American woman – and they use impersonation and other varieties of subterfuge to thwart their various opponents, who are largely supported by the French. Exciting adventures and some intricate plotting and while his later novels would prove to be much better, this one is still worth reading. 10/24/12

Guns of the Gods by Talbot Mundy, Bobbs Merrill, 1921

This is a prequel to Mundy’s classic, King of the Khyber Rifles, showing us the youth of Yasmini, the half European princess who becomes a charismatic revolutionist in India.  The local Hindu ruler lusts after a treasure supposedly concealed within his domain, but the local British commissioner has the same ambition. Yasmini is a virtual prisoner in the former’s palace, where she has to avoid several attempts at assassination, but she is also skilled at escaping and making her way into the surrounding town, where she befriends an American woman whose husband has been hired as a geologist. Yasmini employs a devious series of plots to forestall the contending parties, determined to win the treasure for herself. There are lots of chases and escapes and the villains get outwitted. Very enjoyable. 10/18/12

The Eye of Zeitoon by Talbot Mundy, 1920 

A group of adventurers get caught up in the Turkish massacres in Armenia when they are invited by a local man to visit a remote Armenian stronghold. There are personal rivalries among their group as well as two potential romances, one with an American nurse and the other with a fiery Gypsy woman. There is also a sinister German agent who wants to arrest the outsiders so that there will be no witnesses to the massacre, hordes of Turkish and Kurdish thugs, some Armenian freedom fighters, and lots of battles, sieges, individual fights, and conspiracies. Mundy’s prejudices show at times but overall it’s one of his better early adventure stories. The title, incidentally, refers to a spy rather than an object. 10/6/12

The Ivory Trail by Talbot Mundy, 1919  (also published as Trek East) 

While visiting Zanzibar, a group of adventurers hear stories of a monstrous horde of elephant tusks worth a considerable fortune buried somewhere in East Africa, so they decide to find it and smuggle it back to Europe. They have a great many adventures and not a great deal of success. For some reason I found this much more labored and difficult to read than the other Mundy novels I’ve recently read. The characters all tended to blur together and the story just drags on and on and on, almost as long and boring as a real life version of their fruitless endeavors would have been. Adventure fiction should be believable but not necessarily realistic. 9/26/12

Hira Singh by Talbot Mundy, 1918 

Mundy had great respect for the Sikh culture, hence this look at a battalion of Sikh soldiers sent to fight in France during World War I. Woven through the story is the distrust between the soldiers and their Sikh commander, who was involved in espionage against the Germans and whom they suspect may not have their interests at heart. The survivors from the trenches are captured by Germans and through a complex maneuver fool their captors into believing that they have switched loyalties. They are sent to fight alongside the Turks, but quietly defect and begin trying to return to their own side. A fair to middling adventure story. 9/23/12

Rung Ho! by Talbot Mundy, 1914 

Talbot Mundy’s first novel is set in India just as a rebellion against English rule is bubbling to the surface. A young female missionary is troubled by the brother of a local Hindu ruler who lusts after her body, and a Muslim decides to protect her for the sake of the late British officer he admired. To this end, he takes that officer’s inexperienced some in hand and trains him to be a leader like his father was. As the Sepoy rebellion looms closer, the two story lines are drawn together in fairly predictable fashion and there’s a rousing battle near the end. A bit clumsy at times but overall a good adventure story that has largely fallen into obscurity.  It’s also interesting to note that Mundy despised the Hindus but admired the Muslims and Sikhs, that he little good to say about the British bureaucracy and most of the military establishment, but still considered the culture superior in most ways to that of the Indian states. 9/19/12

The Queen’s Warrant by Talbot Mundy, 1931   

This is an historical novel in which William Hastings befriends a young William Shakespeare for a number of low key adventures on the way to and in the city of London in the time of Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare dedicated some of his work to “W.H.” who has never been identified, so that’s the basis of Mundy’s conceit here. Hastings is the bankrupt son of a dishonored knight who eventually makes his fortune, clears his father’s name, foils a handful of bad guys, and wins the girl of his dreams. Trite but well told and apparently well researched. The idiomatic dialogue is occasional hard to follow. 9/9/12

The New Arabian Nights by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1882 

Stevenson’s first book was this collection of short stories, which opens with the classic “The Suicide Club”, in which members randomly become killers and victims with the former hunting down the latter who wish to end their lives but lack the courage to do so by their own hand.  This is actually three separate but related stories culminating in the death of the president of the club. One episode involves a man trying to dispose of a body in a trunk and it’s the best of the three. A sequence of four related stories follows under the general name “The Rajah’s Diamond”, which traces a fabulous jewel that passes through various hands through theft and otherwise. The man responsible for the demise of the Suicide Club appears in this series as well. He acquires the diamond and throws it into the Seine, considering it a curse on humanity. “The Pavilion on the Links” is a novella in which the protagonist throws in his lot with an old acquaintance who is protecting a man on the run from both the law and a vicious gang of Italian revolutionaries. It’s a pretty fair adventure story.  The remaining three stories are unrelated and all very minor. 8/31/12

The Merry Men by Robert Louis Stevenson, Scribner, 1914 (originally published in 1887) 

This is a collection of shorter pieces, none of which I’d read previously except for the short novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The title story is set on a remote part of the British coast where the protagonist, while searching for a sunken treasure ship, discovers that his uncle has gone mad and has murdered a shipwrecked sailor. When another shipwreck mimics the first, he is driven completely over the brink. The Jekyll story is so familiar it needs no description here but it holds up remarkably well. The next four stories are relatively short and all involve some element of the fantastic. In “Will o’ the Mill” an odd man lives a strange life and meets death incarnate. The devil appears to a murderer in “Markheim”. “Thrawn Janet” involves witchcraft and “Olalla” involves a cursed family. The nature of the curse is never explicitly stated but there are hints of vampirism. The novella “The Treasure of Franchard” describes the  quasi-adoption of a precocious child by an aging doctor and his wife. The doctor finds a treasure in some ruins, which is subsequently stolen from him, but restored after a disaster leaves him penniless. Rather confused and the weakest story in the collection, which is otherwise quite good – although some of the dialect is a struggle to understand. 8/18/12

World So Wide by Sinclair Lewis, 1951 

The author’s last novel, published posthumously, is not one of his better efforts. The protagonist feels guilty about an automobile accident in which his wife is killed, so after convalescing he goes off to Europe to lose himself. Instead he gets caught up in two separate love affairs while basically bumming around and feeling sorry for himself. In the course of doing so, he recovers an interest in life and deals with his self hatred. Although ultimately more optimistic than most of the other novels by Lewis, this one never really gets any traction and drifts from scene to scene in much the same way as does its main character. I kept drifting away from this and it took far longer to read than it should have. For diehards only. 6/8/12

Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis, 1947 

The author’s intentions in this one are admirable but the execution doesn’t hold up. Neil Kingsblood is a blatant racist until he discovers that he has Negro blood, after which he undergoes a revelation. Unfortunately, when he tells some of his friends they react as you might expect and before long he is a social pariah, eventually forced to defend himself when his neighbors try to evict him. His transition is a little too pat and contrived and the subsidiary characters are pretty flat, even though some of them were introduced in Cass Timberlaine. I was amused and disgusted to discover that a group of white supremacists tried to get the FBI to suppress the novel as seditious, but it probably helped boost sales. 6/4/12

Cass Timberlane by Sinclair Lewis, 1945 

The title character of this one is a judge and one of the more likeable if not entirely sensible of the author’s protagonists. Forty and divorced but still handsome, he becomes infatuated with a younger woman with high spirits and independence who enjoys his company but is reluctant to actually marry him. His conservative friends and relatives are, naturally, horrified at the prospects of his marrying outside his class, or dallying in public view, and his girlfriend is either bored or disgusted by his friends – most of whom deserve it. Eventually they do get married, but the odds seem stacked against their making a success of it. As expected, she leaves him for another man, but there is a happy ending after all. Once the fling is out of the way, she realizes that she really loves Timberlane, he forgives her, and they live happily ever after. Not one of his greatest but enjoyable. 5/30/12

Gideon Planish by Sinclair Lewis, 1943 

Another of the author’s minor novels, this one about a self obsessed social climber who gets involved in a number of either shady or superficial organizations involved in fund raising. He does get relatively happily married and isn’t a complete failure, but when he actually has a chance for a job that is meaningful, he balks and then regrets it from that point on. There are some very humorous scenes, particularly in the first half, and to my surprise Elmer Gantry reappears more than once for short roles in this one. Readable but it seems like a retread of some of the earlier novels. Lewis had flashes of his earlier brilliance in some of the later novels but wasn't able to sustain it. He was suffering from serious alcoholism by this time and that may have been a contributing factor. 5/23/12

Selected Stories by Sinclair Lewis, Elephant, 1935 

All of the stories from the collection Ghost Patrol are included here, along with about the same volume of other stories. The opener is “Let’s Play King”, a novella about a family exploiting a child actor, although it’s as much a comedy as a tragedy.  The child actor and the child king of a European nation run off together. “The Cat of Stars” is an amusing bit about how petting a cat eventually leads to the loss of a European throne and the deaths of thousands of people. “Land” is an interesting story of a man raised in the city who wants to return to the farming he once loved but discovers it is not exactly as he remembered it. A cross country racer finds love in “Speed”, which is amusing because a really spectacular run would only take five days. The remaining two stories are relatively minor slice of life pieces. 5/19/12

Bethel Merriday by Sinclair Lewis, 1940 

One of the later and less memorable of the author’s novels, this one with a female protagonist. Bethel decides while still a child that she wants to be an actress, and after high school she pays to become an apprentice to a stage company where she manages by dint of hard work to make herself into a fair minor player, while fending off the amorous advances of some of the male cast members. The novel follows her rise and fall as an actress and her eventual marriage, and while it has a more or less happy ending, there’s no real tension in the novel that makes us care about it. Lewis was never as skillful writing about female protagonists as he was about the male ones and this is destined to remain one of his least memorable novels. 5/10/12

The Prodigal Parents by Sinclair Lewis, 1938 

Lewis pokes fun at lazy young adults and cocktail party communists in this one. Fred Cornplow’s son is a jock who thinks he has all the answers to making money and his daughter is equally convinced that a communist revolution will make America a paradise. Their beliefs do not stop either of them from living on large allowances provided by their father, a successful businessman. Fred has surprised everyone by announcing that he will retire in one year, but no one takes him seriously. Eventually he and his wife run off to Europe to get away from their kids. There are several very good sections of the novel, including the rivalry between two car companies, Fred’s abortive attempt to take a vacation, and the end of the local chapter of the communist party. Minor compared to his classics but still very readable. 5/2/12  

The Ghost Patrol by Sinclair Lewis, Avon, 1946 

Seven stories by the author of Babbitt and other classics. The title story is about a retired police officer who becomes senile and decides to resume his patrols as a kind of vigilante. Not a bad story but Lewis apparently couldn’t think of a good ending because it kind of peters out.  “The Willow Walk” is much better. A bank clerk spends a year building up the identity of a fake twin brother so that he can embezzle money and then take over the fabricated personality. Unfortunately, he is so good at adopting the morality of the false person that he feels guilty about stealing the money. “A Letter from the Queen” details a series of encounters between an ageing diplomat and a less than admirable college professor. It’s not bad.  “The Hack Driver” is minor but fun – a summons processor gets tricked by his quarry. “Go East, Young Man” is an entertaining satire about the American art expatriate community in Paris, following the adventures of one of them who decides he really doesn’t want to live the artistic life. “Moths in the Arc Light” tells the story of a romance between two people in facing office buildings who fall in love before they actually meet, sort of. It’s actually quite a nice story. The last entry is “Young Man Axelrod”, a fairly minor  tale of a retired man who decides to go to Yale, but it includes some biting satire about college students. These were good enough that I ordered another collection of his short fiction. 4/23/12

Work of Art by Sinclair Lewis, 1934 

Another lesser known Lewis novel, but like Mantrap, one I liked as much or better than some of his famous novels. It’s the story of Myron Weagle, ostensibly not the brightest star in the sky although he works very hard to learn the business of managing a hotel by doing every job from cook to waiter to chambermaid. He runs into problems with his younger brother, a lazy obnoxious type who considers himself a superior artist, various other snobs, and the intransigence of his employers who invariably tell him that he should stick to one job and not get above himself. Eventually he becomes very successful and, while visiting his home town, gets a new perspective about the people he formerly envied. His career has its highs and lows and eventually he settles down to a less grand plan than he initially envisioned, but it’s a happy ending, which is not always the case with this author. I enjoyed this one very much. 4/7/12

Ann Vickers by Sinclair Lewis, 1932 

Although this is one of the author’s minor novels, it’s not bad at all. It follows the life of the title character – a normal proceeding with Lewis – as she goes from being a contrary child to a controversial adult. There are elements of satire and a good deal of commentary about the relative roles of men and women. Ann is not an entirely likeable character but most of these with whom she interacts are much worse. The movie version of the book was toned down a bit – while married she has an affair and an abortion in the book – but even then it was enough to cause the formation of the Catholic League for Decency. Enjoyable, but more sedate than most of Lewis' other novels and  probably only for those who enjoy a long, casual read rather than a more intense plot. 4/3/12

Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis, 1929 

The title character is a one time business executive who decides to take his wife to Europe for an extended vacation after his company is bought out, leaving him wealthy and jaded. The novel concerns their interactions with the various people they meet, the clash of cultures, the presence of expatriate Americans, and his wife’s romantic involvement with two different men, eventually leading to their divorce but ultimate reconciliation. Some parts of the novel are nicely done but in general it’s very weak compared to Lewis’ better work, tedious at times, and the characters seem to get caught up in trivial situations for too much of the time. This is generally considered one of his mid level novels, but I thought Mantrap, almost forgotten, was much better. 3/24/12

Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis, 1929 

This is one of my all time favorite novels. The title character is a slow witted thug who becomes a Baptist minister despite his egotism and fondness for women, booze, and alcohol. At times he thinks he has a genuine calling, and the ways in which he can rationalize even the most reprehensible activities is fascinating to watch. The book is, of course, an indictment of the clerical profession and not just Baptists, with particular attention to evangelists who are clearly only in it for the money. Gantry is kicked out of the regular church after a drunken binge, but surfaces some time later as the assistant of a successful female evangelist with whom he is infatuated.  She’s more than a bit crazy and is later killed when a fire ravages one of her meetings. Gantry is an early anti-hero, and he never really gets his just desserts. Lewis clearly was contemptuous of evangelists of his stripe, and of organized religion in general, and the novel is a biting indictment.3/17/12

Mantrap by Sinclair Lewis, 1926 

Although this is one of the author’s minor novels, I thought it was pretty good. The protagonist is a lawyer who succumbs to an urge to take a vacation with a casual acquaintance in the wilds of Canada, traveling by canoe. Not only is he unsuited for the journey, but he and his companion are a very poor match and fight constantly until our hero encounters a local storekeeper who befriends him and takes him to his home. There we find the inevitable pretty young wife and sparks fly, although Alverna is more of a flirt than an ardent lover and is more interested in getting away from the stifling lack of social activity at the tiny and remote settlement.  Then they get caught up in a dispute with the local Cree tribe, many of whom resent being cut off from their credit lines at the local trading post. 2/20/12

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, 1925 

This is the novel that won Lewis the Pulitzer Prize, even though he turned it down. It’s the story of Martin Arrowsmith, starting when he is a medical student and progressing through most of his career.  Unlike Babbitt, who makes a cameo appearance in this one, Arrowsmith is a flawed but basically admirable person who wants to make a difference, although his inclination is research rather than practical medicine. He has his flaws – a brief affair, a touch of conceit, and isn’t always as good to his wife as she deserves – but he still seems heroic compared to most of the other characters in the novel. As was common at the time it was written, the novel is perhaps overly long and provides more detail about his life – some of it repeating points already established – but it moves well for the most part and has some interesting things to say about public attitudes toward medicine. Paul DeKruif was his uncredited co-author. 2/12/12

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, 1922 

I read this so long ago that I had only the vaguest recollection. Re-reading it now, right after Main Street – which I had trouble plodding through at times – I’m impressed by how smoothly it flows even though there is little conventional plot. George Babbitt is a successful realtor who occasionally does some shady things, but always justifies them in his mind, treats his family well but without much emotional content, strives to get ahead in the community while being careful to conform. In his forties, he begins to feel a vague sense of unhappiness leading to flirtation with another woman, disillusionment with his friends, and a passing liberalization of his political views. The book is an indictment of middle class conformity and hypocrisy, racism, and the double standards of the business community toward outsiders. It is just as relevant now as it was nearly a century ago 2/1/12

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, 1920 

I went through  a brief period of reading Sinclair Lewis when I was in junior high school, but that was when I discovered SF and I drifted away after reading only a few of his novels. This was one of the ones I never read, his first really successful book. The story deals with a young city woman who marries a rural doctor and has difficulty adjusting to the limited potential of a very small town. My impression from reviews I’d read was that it was an indictment of narrowminded pettiness and to an extent that’s true, but Carrie is not without blame herself. She clearly feels superior to the local people, is impatient that they won’t change to suit her, and while her husband is no prize, he’s not entirely wrong in his complaints about her incivility. Lewis’ depiction of the petty, short sighted, anti-union, anti-immigrant attitudes that prevail reminded me vividly of some Tea Party pronouncements. Things haven’t changed much in 90 years in some places.  I think Lewis belabors his points a bit too much but it’s still a very effective novel. 1/23/12

Peace Breaks Out by John Knowles, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1981 

The last novel of John Knowles is a return to the school where his first novel took place. It has some thematic similarities – the boys are uncertain what they will do in peacetime – but none of the other virtues. The protagonist is a teacher, former student, who has returned with physical and psychological scars from his time fighting in Europe. Almost immediately he gets caught up in the feud between two students, one of whom is a Nazi sympathizer, and things deteriorate from there.  The confrontation between the students struck me as completely artificial, and the confusion about what to do in peacetime nearly as hard to accept.  Outside of a few brief passages, this is just boring. 1/8/12

A Vein of Riches by John Knowles, Bantam, 1978

This is Knowles’ novel about the rich families that dominated West Virginia during the union organizing/busting years following World War I.  Much of the novel consists of summaries of the various activities – mostly illegal – practiced by both sides in what amounted to a minor civil war. The main characters include the pampered wife of one of the magnates who discovers religion and a social conscience, much to the dismay of her husband, and a willful son who wants to get out and see things for himself. The fictional parts of the story are disorganized and sometimes unfocused, and while parts of the novel make good reading, it really doesn’t hold together as a single work. Eventually the conflict is between father and son as the younger man falls in love with a young woman who turns out to be his father’s mistress.  There’s a lightness to the prose that makes this easy to read, but I doubt I’ll remember any specific scenes a month from now.

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