The great book clear-out

August 25, 2018 at 6:04 pm (books)

And so it begins…With these three:

The Egyptian was recommended to me by my former husband’s father, a lovely man whose views were always worth attending to. I remember it as a vivid depiction of ancient Egypt, the Egypt of the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaton.

I had this idea that the author Mika Waltari was Polish. Wrong – he was actually from Finland.

This book is not owned by the local library but should be obtainable via interlibary loan. Used copies can be purchased via Amazon. I’m not currently seeing any e-book availability, though several other titles by Waltari are available in that format.

Here is how The Egyptian begins:

I, Sinuhe, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this. I do not write it to the glory of  the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor to the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor  from any hope of the future but for myself alone. During my life I have seen, known, and lost too much to be the prey of vain dread; and, as for the hope of immortality, I am as weary of that as I am of gods and kings. For my own sake only I write this; and herein I differ from all other writers, past  and to come.

First published immediately following World War II, this novel became available in English translation in 1949. The above paperback was published by Berkley Medallion Books in 1970. Price: $1.25.

Rather to my amazement, I was able to pull up the original Kirkus review:

The Egyptian was made into a film in 1954. I’ve never seen it, but it boasts a rather impressive cast, not to mention a first rate director and a famous producer:

(A terrific novel set in roughly the same remote era is Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood.)
The King Must Die brings to vivid life the legend of Theseus, a hero of Greek mythology. I recall none of the particulars of this novel, yet I know that while reading it – a long time  ago – I felt transported to that remote realm. I went on to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

Mary Renault was born in Essex, England, now part of Greater London. She received her undergraduate degree in English from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. In 1948, when she was in her early forties, Renault, with her partner Julie Mullard, moved to South Africa. She remained there until her death in 1983.

The King Must Die was originally published in 1958. The Cardinal Giant edition pictured above, published by Pocket Books Inc., came out shortly thereafter. Price – if you can believe it  – 50 cents.

  This is the original hardback. The Wikipedia entry names the cover artist as Eric Carle. This startled me. Could they possibly mean, this Eric Carle? Well, they most certainly did!

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1929, Eric Carle was taken to Germany to live when he was six years old. He grew up and was educated there, graduating from the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. Meanwhile, Carle yearned to return to the U.S. This he did in 1952, when he was in his early twenties. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? came out in 1967; The Very Hungry Caterpillar followed in 1969.

Back to The King Must Die. The novel opens thus:

The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands,was built by giants before anyone remembers.But  the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it  from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.

The King Must Die is not owned by the local library; however, it is in print in paperback, thanks to Vintage Books. (And they’ve given it a rather splendid cover.) It’s also available in Kindle download  format for $2.99.

Giants in the Earth tells of a group of Norwegian immigrants trying to make a go of a farm in the Dakota Territory in the early 1870’s. My chief recollection of this story is that it was magnificently told and deeply tragic. There is a plague of grasshoppers, Biblical in its ferocity, and a winter of relentless blizzards. (I believe I read this book while I was living in Wisconsin and getting my own first taste of winter in the upper Midwest. I recall at one point driving past a sign outside a bank that announced the temperature as  being minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit. That of course did not take into account the wind chill. Also I remember trying to coax a dog down from atop a snow drift higher than my head.)

Vernon Parrington, author of the landmark study Main Currents in American Thought, says of Giants in the Earth:

We have been used to viewing the frontier in broad and generous perspective and have responded most sympathetically to the epic note that runs through the tale of the conquest of the continent. It is the great American romance that gives life and drama to our history. It was this epic quality that de Tocqueville felt when he discovered the poetry of America in the silent march of a race toward the far-off Pacific, hewing its way triumphantly through forests and mountains to arrive at its objective. But the emotional side, the final ledger of human values, we have too little considered–the men and women broken by the frontier, the great army of derelicts who failed and were laid away, like the Norse immigrant lad, in forgotten graves. The cost of it all in human happiness–the loneliness, the disappointments, the renunciations, the severing of old ties and quitting of familiar places, the appalling lack of those intangible cushions for the nerves that could not be transported on horseback or in prairie schooners: these imponderables too often have been left out of the reckoning in our traditional romantic interpretation…..

Giants in the Earth is a great and beautiful book that suggests the wealth of human potentialities brought to America year after year by the peasant immigrants who pass through Ellis Island and scatter the length and breadth of the land. Written in Norwegian, and stemming from a rich old-world literary tradition, it is at the same time deeply and vitally American. The very atmosphere of the Dakota plains is in its pages, and it could have been written only by one to whom the background was a familiar scene. The artist has lived with these peasant folk; he is one of them, and he penetrates sympathetically to the simple kindly hearts hidden to alien eyes by the unfamiliar folk ways.

(Full text of this essay can be accessed here.)

Ole Edvart Rolvaag was born in Norway in 1876. Twenty years later, he emigrated to America, living first in South Dakota, where he worked as a farm hand. He traveled to Northfield, Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree at St. Olaf’s College, and then a master’s degree at the same institution. In 1906, he was asked by the college’s president to join the faculty. He continued to serve in that capacity, eventually becoming head of the Norwegian Studies department. In addition, he was the first secretary of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. He followed both of these vocations for the remainder of his working life.

And of course, he wrote novels. Giants in the Earth, the first novel in a trilogy, was originally written in Norwegian and published in two successive volumes in 1924 and 1925. It was shortly thereafter translated into English by the author with the help of his friend and colleague Lincoln Colcord.

Original cover of the first edition in English

The novel was made into an opera by Douglas Moore in 1951. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

Giants in the Earth is not owned by the local library, but a number of other systems in the interlibrary loan network do own it, so it can be requested from one of them. In addition, it’s in print in paperback, published by Perennial Classics. Presumably this is the same publisher – Perennial Library – that I am looking at right now. I’m not finding a publication date for this particular edition, but judging by the Library of Congress cataloguing number it is most likely 1965. Price: $1.95.

At the front of the book, Rolvaag makes this statement:

To those of my people who took part in the great settling, to them and their generations, I dedicate this novel.

The novel opens in this wise:

Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon…Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.

…And sun! And still more sun! It set the heavens afire every morning; it grew with the day to quivering golden light–then soften into shades of red and purple, as evening fell…Pure color everywhere.

The novel takes its title from a verse in Genesis vi: 4:

‘There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.’

There is a beautiful selection that goes well as an accompaniment to this subject: The Last Spring, by Norway’s great composer Edvard Grieg:

It’s with some regret that I let go of these volumes. But the pages have yellowed and the print is now too small for my aging eyes. I don’t rule out rereading them, but the print will need to be larger and crisper.



  1. Michelle Ann said,

    Giants of the Earth sounds interesting, like a more grown-up version of the Little House on the Prairie stories, (including grasshoppers and blizzards!) but which understandably omitted the harsher realities of pioneer life.

  2. Carol said,

    It’s SO difficult to get rid of books. Tiny print is one of the few reasons I can make myself do it.

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