Five Years Ago This Month: February 2013

Five years ago this month...

I spent most of my evenings in bed in camp.

...I analyzed the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway's writing style can take a bit of getting used to.

...I wrote about increasing the number of women in engineering. As usual, more years of perspective means that there are some things in this post that I would probably rephrase if given the chance, but I generally still agree with the points I made. This is something I still think about a lot as I try to figure out where I want to go next with my career.

...I was distracted.

First Annual Personal Top 100 Update

Well, I've ranked all of the novels I read last year and I've added them in to my personal Top 100 list. The results confirm what I felt at the end of last year: that I'd read very few books that really blew me away. The Secret Garden ranked highest at #35, but that was after being dethroned from its position at #23. Again I have to remind myself that, having read over 700 books in my life to date, if even only two thirds of them are novels, that means I have to exclude about one out of every five books I've read from this list. The Dune series is in last place right now, for God's sake! And again I have to face the fact that many of the books on the upper reaches of this list are there for nostalgic purposes, or because of the profound effect they've had on me over the course of my life. The books I read last year are in bold in the list below.

My Personal Top 100

  1. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
  2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
  3. Little Women and Little Men - Louisa May Alcott
  4. The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger
  5. The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
  6. The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson
  7. Silence - Shusaku Endo
  8. The Long Walk - Richard Bachman
  9. The Little Mermaid - Hans Christian Andersen
  10. As for Me and My House - Sinclair Ross
  11. The Discworld series (too many to list, including Small Gods) - Terry Pratchett
  12. Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  13. His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) - Philip Pullman
  14. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  15. The House on the Strand - Daphne du Maurier
  16. Bird Box - Josh Malerman
  17. Fall on Your Knees - Ann-Marie MacDonald
  18. Peter Pan - J. M. Barrie
  19. A Room with a View - E. M. Forster
  20. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
  21. The Last Unicorn - Peter S. Beagle
  22. One Hand Clapping - Anthony Burgess
  23. Of Human Bondage - W. Somerset Maugham
  24. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll
  25. Watership Down - Richard Adams
  26. The Anne books (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley, Rilla of Ingleside) - Lucy Maud Montgomery
  27. The Harry Potter series (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) - J. K. Rowling
  28. Where Nests the Water Hen - Gabrielle Roy
  29. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
  30. The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
  31. The Old Wives' Tale - Arnold Bennett
  32. The Earth’s Children series (The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage, The Shelters of Stone, The Land of Painted Caves) - Jean M. Auel
  33. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - Judy Blume
  34. Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner
  35. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
  36. The Running Man - Richard Bachman
  37. A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess
  38. The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain
  39. Jamaica Inn - Daphne du Maurier
  40. Persuasion - Jane Austen
  41. Le Petit Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  42. The Stone Angel - Margaret Laurence
  43. A Passage to India - E. M. Forster
  44. The Foundation series (Prelude to Foundation, Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation) - Isaac Asimov
  45. The Orenda - Joseph Boyden
  46. 1984 - George Orwell
  47. My Ántonia - Willa Cather
  48. Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather
  49. Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
  50. Double Indemnity - James M. Cain
  51. The Cat Who Went to Heaven - Elizabeth Coatsworth
  52. Black Beauty - Anna Sewell
  53. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
  54. Plowing the Dark - Richard Powers
  55. Calculating God - Robert J. Sawyer
  56. Summer Sisters - Judy Blume
  57. Kane and Abel - Jeffrey Archer
  58. Nightfall - Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
  59. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - Douglas Adams
  60. The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
  61. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
  62. The Red Tent - Anita Diamant
  63. House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski
  64. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
  65. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  66. The Crimson Petal and the White - Michel Faber
  67. The Dream Where the Losers Go - Beth Goobie
  68. A High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes
  69. Howards End - E. M. Forster
  70. Main Street - Sinclair Lewis
  71. The Dark Tower series (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, The Wind Through the Keyhole, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower) - Stephen King
  72. Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  73. The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway
  74. East of Eden - John Steinbeck
  75. The Call of the Wild - Jack London
  76. The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
  77. A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway
  78. The Emily books (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, Emily’s Quest) - Lucy Maud Montgomery
  79. The Once and Future King - T. H. White
  80. His Majesty's Dragon - Naomi Novik
  81. The Pendragon series (The Merchant of Death, The Lost City of Faar, The Never War, The Reality Bug, Black Water, The Rivers of Zadaa, The Quillan Games, The Pilgrims of Rayne, Raven Rise, The Soldiers of Halla) - D. J. MacHale
  82. City of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett
  83. The Canterville Ghost - Oscar Wilde
  84. The Little House series (Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, These Happy Golden Years, The First Four Years) - Laura Ingalls Wilder
  85. The Chronicles of Narnia (The Magician's Nephew; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’; The Silver Chair; The Last Battle) - C. S. Lewis
  86. Olympiad - Tom Holt
  87. Scoop - Evelyn Waugh
  88. As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner
  89. Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  90. Carrie - Stephen King
  91. The Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) - Guy Gavriel Kay
  92. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
  93. Eifelheim - Michael Flynn
  94. Master and Commander - Patrick O’Brian
  95. Dolores Claiborne - Stephen King
  96. Shogun - James Clavell
  97. Doomsday Book - Connie Willis
  98. The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton
  99. Battle Royale - Koushun Takami
  100. The Dune series (Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse: Dune) - Frank Herbert

42. Deliverance by James Dickey

Year Published: 1970
Pages: 284
First Sentence: It unrolled slowly, forced to show its colors, curling and snapping back whenever one of us turned loose.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

Deliverance by James Dickey | Two Hectobooks


There are several books on The List with well-known film adaptations, and many others with less-known film adaptations. It seems to me that James Dickey's Deliverance is in a class by itself in terms of enduring notoriety.

The funny thing is, though, I've never actually seen Deliverance. I had no idea that young John Voight was that adorable. I have seen the infamous rape scene, and not on purpose, just via an unfortunate channel-surfing incident. So I went into this book knowing about a banjo-playing kid and a guy getting raped, but I had no idea how it'd all end.

So if you've been living under a rock since 1972 or that rape scene isn't actually as infamous as I thought, here's what Deliverance is about. Four men from Atlanta (I actually don't think the city is named, but it's somewhere in Georgia so I drew my own conclusions) go on a weekend canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River, which is about to be dammed and turned into a lake. The region is basically inaccessible except via the river. Lewis, the ringleader/instigator, is a survivalist fitness maniac. Our narrator is a man named Ed Gentry, who is a partner in a graphic art firm and has a beautiful wife. These two are the closest friends in the group, which is rounded out by Drew, the musician, and Bobby, the fat one. (These guys are actually more well-described in the novel, I promise, I just can't really remember what Bobby does.) The group is hilariously unprepared, and after one afternoon communing with nature, the next day sees their two canoes being separated, and things go from peaceful river cruise to nightmare hellscape in short order when Ed and Bobby meet up with a pair of locals.

The first third of the book is actually just the build up to the trip and then the first day, so I'll end my summary there (although I suppose I should mention that the banjo scene and rape scene are both present in the original text, in case you were wondering). The whole thing is structured such that there's a "Before" chapter, each day of the trip is its own chapter, and then there's an "After" chapter. I was pretty sure that Ed would make it, given that he's a first person narrator and they only die in the most irritating novels, but I wasn't sure about any of the others.

What I'm saying is that this is a pretty tense and absorbing book for something that's become cultural shorthand. I have to admit that my hopes were for a bit more disaster than I got. The whole trip was so ill-conceived that one suspects these four men would've met disaster even if they hadn't met some very hostile locals. The naivety and hubris on display are colossal, which is kind of the whole point, and I liked that, but I feel like Dickey could've taken things in a direction that would've been more satisfying to me personally (ha!).

I'm probably sounding like a broken record at this point, but as usual I did very little background reading on this book. However, the back flap of the edition I read had a fairly thorough author bio that cast a different light on some things.

First of all, James Dickey was a poet laureate, of all insane and unlikely things. Deliverance was his first of only a few published novels. In retrospect, the poet thing should've been obvious. The language in Deliverance isn't the kind of flowery nonsense that makes me roll my eyes, but it's very clear that the words are all chosen with extreme intent.

Second, the book has a lot to say about masculinity and some of it definitely went over my head, but given that Dickey's author photo on the back cover makes him look like someone's dad who is an accountant, I found myself curious about him (I don't think I believe in the death of the author). Turns out that not only was he a poet laureate, Dickey was a WWII and Korean war pilot, an ad executive, and also "an avid woodsman, archer, and guitarist," i.e. all things that come up in this novel. I would imagine that a manly-man who became a full-time poet at the age of 38 would have a lot of thoughts and feelings about masculinity. So that's cool.

In any case, I'd hoped to be blown away by this novel and that didn't quite happen. On the other hand, the prose is great, the whole thing flies by at a pace I seldom see from List books, and I suspect that there are rewards here for just about any reader at all. Ed Gentry's encounter with an owl in the early going is one of the most haunting things I've ever read.

Not recommended for reading immediately prior to or during a wilderness excursion or hunting trip of any kind.

- - - - -
The change was not gradual; you could have stopped the car and got out at the exact point where suburbia ended and the redneck South began. I would like to have done that, to see what the sense of it would be. There was a motel, then a weed field, and then on both sides Clabber Girl came out of hiding, leaping onto the sides of barns, 666 and Black Draught began to swirl, and Jesus began to save. We hummed along, borne with the inverted canoe on a long tide of patent medicines and religious billboards. From such a trip you would think that the South did nothing but dose itself and sing gospel songs; you would think that the bowels of the southerner were forever clamped shut; that he could not open and let natural process flow through him, but needed one purgative after another in order to make it to church.
- - - - -
"I just believe," he said, "that the whole thing is going to be reduced to the human body, once and for all. I want to be ready."
     "What whole thing?"
     "The human race thing. I think the machines are going to fail, the political systems are going to fail, and a few men are going to take to the hills and start over."
     I looked at him. He lived in the suburbs, like the rest of us. He had money, a good-looking wife and three children. I could not really believe that he came in from placating his tenants every evening and gave himself solemnly to the business of survival, insofar as it involved his body. What kind of fantasy led to this? I asked myself. Did he have long dreams of atomic holocaust in which he had to raise himself and his family out of the debris of less strong folk and head toward the same blue hills we were approaching?
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