With an unbelievable two complete cycles under his belt, Alan Walker, our Senior Director of Academic Marketing and Sales has embarked on yet another Penguin Classics reading marathon from A–Z. This time, instead of choosing books by the author name, he’s reading one book by title per letter of the alphabet, beginning with John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. Check out the Penguin Classics website to re-visit Alan’s entire first and second marathons!
And once again we come full circle, back to the letter A where I can begin again my stroll through the Classics. This time, instead of going by author name, I will journey from A through Z using the title of the Penguin Classic, and will expect the customary wealth of choice for just about every letter except possibly X, where I will be forced to use its algebraic definition. And what better choice for the first selection of this new start than to pick the recently rediscovered John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, which Penguin Classics published in 2013 in a lovely graphic deluxe cover, followed shortly after by publications of O’Hare’s BUtterfield 8, New York Stories, and Ten North Fredrick. For fans of Jazz Age greats Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Appointment in Samarra is a must read. In fact, Charles McGrath’s introduction in the Penguin Classic edition calls the novel “more Hemingway-esque than Hemingwaymore transparent and less mannered.” Taking place in the small town of Gibbsville, PA, the story follows the stunning collapse of the seemingly perfect marriage between Julian and Caroline English, our two central characters, set against the backdrop of Prohibition and the town’s social, religious, and class distinctions. A large cast of local characters weave in and out of the novel, giving it a realistic yet unsettling sense of place. Julian’s destructive alcoholic binge is possibly only matched in literature by that of Geoffrey Firmin in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and starts when Julian throws a drink in the face of a “country club bore” (from McGrath’s introduction) from whom he has recently borrowed a large sum of money in order to support his failing Cadillac dealership. I won’t tell you where this epic drinking binge ends, only to say it helps explain the novel’s title and its reference to an ancient Arabic tale retold in a play by W. Somerset Maugham. Intrigued? You will be once you pick this book up! This one is a real standout, one of my favorites from all my Classics ventures. Hope you enjoy it as well.
For my letter B I dipped once again into the deep Penguin Classics backlist and read Alexandre Dumas's last major historical novel, The Black Tulip. It's been a few years (OK, decades) since I devoured The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo in my early teens, and although The Black Tulip has never earned the recognition or garnered the numerous film adaptations of these beloved novels, its story certainly conveys the Frenchman's signature wit and the same mastery of plot found in those earlier works. Published in 1850, the novel takes place almost two hundred years earlier in Holland, thirty years after "tulipomania," a period when Dutchmen were selling and trading tulips valued higher than the wealthiest of estates before the ultimate market crash. The novel starts with the brutal murder of two renowned Dutch statesmen, the DeWitt brothers, by a riotous mob. Dumas uses this embarrassing moment in Dutch history as the starting point for his fictional work, introducing his hero, Cornelius van Baerle, who spends his time ignoring the politics of the day, preferring to obsess over his magnificent tulips. Despite this simple life, he finds himself imprisoned for his connection to the DeWitts, where he meets Rosa, the jailor's beautiful daughter, and with her help continues his attempt to be the first to grow the unattainable black tulip. I don't have the space to go into all the subsequent plot points, but take my word, that the book is a fast and furious tale of love, jealousy and obsession, and as the introduction to the black spine edition also points out, an allegory for the power of art. If you've never read Dumas I'd still recommend starting with his more famous novels. But if, like me, you haven't read Dumas for as long as you can remember, this novel may just bring back memories of D'Artagnon and Edmond Dantès, and make you want to read their stories all over again.