A Round-up of Reader Recommendations: Arthur Rex, The Rack and Lindsay Gutteridge’s shrunken trilogyJune 23rd, 2013
Several readers contacted me within the last few weeks to recommend some neglected favorites.
Martine Sepion suggested A. E. Ellis’s The Rack. This 1958 novel about an Englishman’s stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the French Alps has been in and out of print numerous times, including at least once as a Penguin Modern Classic. A. E. Ellis was later revealed as the pseudonym of Derek Lindsay, but the novel remained his only publication. Graham Greene considered it not just a modern, but a timeless, classic: “There are certain books which we call great for want of a better term, that rise like monuments above the cemeteries of literature: Clarissa, Great Expectations, Ulysses. The Rack, to my mind, is one of this company” It continues to have its advocates: in 1983, the choreographer Kenneth Macmillan chose it as his desert island book for BBC’s “Desert Island Discs,” and in 2001, Dr. David Goldberg chose it as one of his top ten books in an article in the British Journal of Psychology. Goldberg wrote,
It was important to me because it was the first good description that I had read of the psychological consequences of physical disease, and the frantic activities of those who realise that conventional medicine has failed them and that they are dying. It seemed to me a greater book than The Magic Mountain; perhaps because it was expressed in an English idiom with which I could identify. The description of the death of the doctors in the sanatorium punctured my fantasies of medical invulnerability, and the image of the student whose body is found high in the mountain clutching a handful of gentians remained with me indelibly. In my first job as a house physician, I was pleased to work for a physician who allowed his severely ill patients to bring faith healers into the hospital.
This book also heightened my awareness of the problems of the dying, and of the complications of medical treatment. It was the first account that I read of hallucinations produced by therapy with morphine. After I qualified as a doctor I learned far more about psychological reactions to physical illness from my patients, and from the experience of being admitted to my own ward with a physical illness during my houseman year. I found, to my own amazement, that my identifications were with my fellow patients rather than with the medical staff, all of whom I knew very well. After four deaths in a single night, I could take it no more, and discharged myself so that I could recover some vestige of composure at home.
Andrew Georgiou wrote from Australia to recommend Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel (1978). Although out of print in paper, it’s available in Kindle“>Kindle format, part of an extensive series of reissues from Berger’s large oeuvre from Open Road Media. A reworking of Malory’s saga with a dollop of broad comedy and a sprinkling of spicy language, Arthur Rex received a mix of reviews–some enthusiastic and some less so. The usually-skeptical Kirkus Reviews positively applauded: “In addition to providing a galloping Camelot of sheer fun, Arthur Rex turns out to be the first really astute reworking of the Arthurian story in decades, a gesture of great irreverence and homage to a realm in which all men ‘lived and died by legend (and without it the world hath become a mean place).’”
Finally, Greg Friel had three recommendations: Lindsay Gutteridge’s fantastic trilogy recounting the adventures of a raisin-sized spy in the wilderness of a normal-sized landscape: Cold War in a Country Garden (1971); Killer Pine (1973); and Fratricide is a Gas (1975). “It’s like “The Incredible Shrinking Man” meets James Bond!” Gutteridge’s hero, Matthew Dilke, is a British secret agent shrunk down to one-fourth of an inch high and sent to investigate the source of a poisonous gas threatening a much-overcrowded Earth. Killer Pine is more of a Cold War book than the first, as it pits Dilke and his sidekick/main squeeze, Hyacinthe, against a band of Russian micro-men concocting ecological trouble in the Canadian Rockies. One SF guide wrote of them, “They are all splendid adventure stories and powerfully engage the sense of wonder.” According to one Wikipedia poster, Bond movie producer Harry Salzman actually tried to make a spy thriller based on the novel sometime back in the 1970s.