Monday, May 24, 2010

My Favorite Book: Casino Royale

I had to think about this one for a while. Unlike movies and musical albums, I don't re-read a lot of books anymore. When I was a kid, I wore out the Star Wars novelization because there was no other way to relive the adventure without another trip to the movie theater (which I made 30-something times - and that's not an exaggeration like my number of Lost Boys viewings from last week were - but that still wasn't enough). In high school, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings many times, but owning Peter Jackson's version on DVD has eliminated the need to do that (I'll say it: I like the movies better than the books). These days, my book collection has swelled to the point where I'm not sure I'll ever read everything on it, and I'm still adding to it every week. There's not a lot of time for re-reading old favorites.

But there are a couple of books that I would enjoy re-reading when I've got the time. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes is one. Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles is another. And I'm sure I'll make several more trips through Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. More than any of those though, I love Ian Fleming's Casino Royale.

I don't particularly like James Bond more than Tarzan or Holmes. In fact, pound for pound I tend to like the Tarzan series better than the Bond series. My affection for Casino Royale is for how well written it is. It's well known that Fleming was working through some pre-marital jitters when he wrote it and you can see that working in the novel in a stunning way. Though Bond is often labeled a misogynist, that's an over-simplification of his attitude about women and Casino Royale powerfully captures those conflicting emotions that I imagine Fleming was sharing as he approached his wedding day. I don't want to overstate my fondness for this aspect of the book, because I don't have those same conflicts, but it's a fascinating character study and - added to his mixed thoughts about patriotism and even good-vs-evil - makes Bond a character that you have to know more about.

Fleming was a brilliant writer who could make details like cocktail recipes and the rules of baccarat exciting. He was one of the first writers I read who knew how to end every chapter on a cliffhanger and was the first writer I ever read to use non-linear storytelling to plop me into the action and then later flashback to earlier events and fill in important details.

Most importantly though, Casino Royale has the best last sentence in the history of literature. But don't sneak a peek at it without reading the rest of the novel first. It won't make any sense and you'll spoil the whole book for yourself.


Kelly Sedinger said...

You know what else Fleming is really good at? Chapter titles. I'm serious. I will not think the James Bond film series complete, even if it goes to 75 films, if they never have one called "A Whisper of Love, A Whisper of Hate".

Michael May said...

That's absolutely true. I keep dreaming of a time when they'll just re-adapt the novels into film and if they're reluctant to re-use the novel titles, there are plenty of chapter titles that will serve as perfect substitutions.

snell said...

Fully concur on the last sentence. Blew me away the first time I read it.

Warning, though: taken out of context, many parties won't properly appreciate its brilliance. Painfully so :-(

Michael May said...

Yeah. I don't understand why anyone would want to read the last line without reading the rest of the novel first, but I can imagine their getting the wrong idea if they did.

snell said...

Well, it was my bad. I was trying to explain why CR was so great, and like you mentioned it had the best last line. But then she insisted I tell her what that last line was, and fool that I am, I didn't make her read the book first, so...

Michael May said...

That's too bad. Of course, she's partially to blame for insisting. I have friends who are the same way and always want the spoilers right away.

Austin Gorton said...

One of my favorite things from Casino Royale is when Bond discusses his enjoyment of good food and fine wine; that in his line of work, he never knows which day will be his last, so he's determined to enjoy his downtime as much as possible. And that there's worse vices to have.

I've always loved that bit of characterization.

And you're right about Flemings ability to make even mundane descriptions exciting. I actually copied out his explanation for what Bond loves about playing cards into a notebook once, just because it was such a well written passage.

I'll say it: I like the movies better than the books

I'm with you there; I like the LOTR movies more than the books too.

Bang Potential said...

I'm pretty annoyed that I only found your blog about a month ago, but I've been enjoying the bejeezus out of your perspective/taste since. I'd never thought to read Fleming, but am totally down for trying a person's fav.
Just checked the "text stats" on Amazon, it's only 50K words! Sign me up twice!

Michael May said...

Ha! Cool! I hope you enjoy it (obviously). :D

And thanks for the nice compliment about the blog. Made my day.


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