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  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2018/05/23 Permalink
    Tags: charles dickens, , first impressions are everything, , james baldwin, , virginia wolfe,   

    The Ideal First Novel for 10 “Must Read” Authors 

    The list of “must read” authors is long, and differs depending on who you ask. But usually, the authors on these lists are (or were) pretty prolific, and like a pool of frigid water, you may be nervous about diving into their backlists; better to dip your toe in first. Here are 10 ideal “starter novels” for authors guaranteed to be on many, if not most, lists of can’t miss writers.

    Author: William Faulkner. Start Here: The Reivers

    Experts will insist you must read The Sound and the Fury, a real bear of a book. A brilliant novel, sure, but also one that drops you into the deep end on page one and then proceeds to hold your head under water for 300 pages. Instead of tackling what can be a frustrating and difficult read, start with Faulkner’s final novel, The Reivers, which discards most of his heavier literary gambits to tell one of the most straightforward stories of his career, a lightly comedic picaresque about three unlikely car thieves in a small Mississippi town. That doesn’t mean it’s not a brilliant novel—it was award the Pulitzer Prize, after all—but it does mean you’ll get an intro to Faulkner’s sensibility and obsessions without having to parse his peculiarly Southern style.

    Author: William Shakespeare. Start Here: Much Ado About Nothing

    Just about everyone is assigned Shakespeare at some point in their high school or college careers, usually one of the major plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth. Aside from the challenge of reading works designed to be performed, his major works can be dense with allusion, reference, and, of course, wordplay (and in archaic language, no less). What makes Much Ado About Nothing a good choice for a first attempt at the Bard is its sense of fun—it’s a comedy, so the wordplay is less about historical and political references and more about, well, making off-color jokes. Even on the page, it’s hilarious and playful, which takes away some of the anxiety and difficulty.

    Author: Stephen King. Start here: Misery

    King might seem a surprising inclusion here, but as his career has gone on, his literary cred has gone up by orders of magnitude; it could be argued that anyone seeking an understanding of modern literary culture has to be familiar with the man once crowned the Master of Horror. The problem, of course, is that King’s best-known books (the ones most likely to be recommended to a newcomer) are long, and often dense with references to other works written in his uniquely wordy style. Instead of diving into the infinite pages of The Stand, start with Misery, one of the tightest, most-focused books King has ever written. It has the fluid prose and creeping dread of his longer, much-beloved books, minus the over-arching mythology that clutters much of his work, and the supernatural aspects that might turn some folks off.

    Author: Leo Tolstoy. Start Here: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

    The words “Russian novel,” with their connotations of length, complexity, and dour atmosphere, might scare you off of Tolstoy and his contemporaries altogether. Still, some of the greatest works of fiction come from this literary tradition, and Tolstoy’s name is always on the list of challenging must-read authors. Before dedicating a year of your life to War and Peace, pick up the relatively short and uncomplicated The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s a powerful story that touches on the themes and techniques the author uses to incredible effect in his major works, but it’s accessible in a way that those other novels aren’t—and deals in universal themes you can appreciate even if you’re not a Russian living in the 19th century. It’s the perfect introduction to Tolstoy’s genius.

    Author: Charles Dickens. Start Here: Great Expectations

    Dickens is one of those oddball literary greats who is also much maligned. Bring up Dickens, and half the room will complain that he was paid by the word and thus wrote sloppy, structureless stories merely designed to entertain, with no greater artistic merit. The other half will ask what, exactly, is the problem with that? Dickens had a way with words, and his storytelling techniques revolutionized literature, but his books are a bit lengthy, and they do get quite complicated. Start with Great Expectations; it’s the novel that would result if you poured all of Dickens’ other works into a computer and had it gin up a more concise, sharply-organized version of the ideal Dickens story.

    Author: Haruki Murakami. Start Here: A Wild Sheep Chase

    Murakami is another mainstay on the list of challenging contemporary authors, and it’s usually because people recommend his most famous works first—dense bricks like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore. These books are brilliant, but they are also difficult to parse, unique in both style and structure, not to mention imagery. To ease into Murakami, start with A Wild Sheep Chase—it’s got all the trademark weirdness, but within a much more straightforward story. It will help you feel like you “get” Murakami, even the parts you don’t, so by the time you read one of his “must-read” books, your head (probably) won’t explode. Some might argue for Norwegian Wood, which has more in common with traditional Western literature, but that one is an outlier in his bibliography, and won’t prepare you for the epic strangeness of his major works.

    Author: Ernest Hemingway. Start Here: The Sun Also Rises

    Anyone seeking to pad out their reading resume will be eventually directed to Hemingway; love him or hate him, there’s no arguing that his style and approach to fiction—both very consciously honed and developed—changed everything. His influence is immense, so you simply have to read him, if only to decide for yourself if his reputation is deserved. You might be advised to start with The Old Man and the Sea because of its relative simplicity and slim page count, but don’t—it’s an outlier, his final major work, and doesn’t represent what made Hemingway Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises is the ideal starting point—the story is engaging in ways that some of his other novels aren’t, yet it also features the Hemingway “style” at its most controlled.

    Author: Virginia Woolf. Start Here: A Room of One’s Own

    Virginia Woolf’s contributions to modern literature are everywhere—subtle, often hidden or downplayed, but there nonetheless. But reading her major works of fiction if you’re not a student of literature can be daunting, so instead, start with her excellent, book-length essay, which implements a fictional narrator and story, and yet is nonetheless considered non-fiction. If you think it takes great talent to pull something like off, you’d be right. The benefit of starting here is that you’ll get a much clearer idea of Woolf’s literary sensibility and thematic focus before diving into her fiction.

    Author: Toni Morrison. Start Here: The Bluest Eye

    Morrison is one of the most important writers of the 20th century; her work is consistently beautiful and poetic. But you shouldn’t just dive into Beloved—as incredible as that book is, it is one of the densest popular literary novels ever written, a book in which Morrison’s prose resonates, where an unexpected structure and layered allusions to myth and history form something greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, dip your toe in with The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, and which shows the beginnings of her style while keeping the number of characters and the branches of the plot more limited than her later work, which will allow you to pay closer attention to the smart things Morrison is doing on the edges (and to listen to that prose sing).

    Author: James Baldwin. Start Here: Giovanni’s Room

    If you’re looking to master 20th century American literature, you’re going to have to tackle Baldwin at some point. His work is beautiful, but it also focuses on social commentary and criticism; Baldwin was a writer who was part of the world instead of removed from it. This can make his novels challenging, because they are all doing three things at once—telling a story, teaching a lesson, and shining a light on some of society’s worst aspects. Giovanni’s Room is an early novel that has all of that, but the central love story—concerning a man who falls in love with another man while on honeymoon with his new wife—is primal and tortured, compelling and universal. When you consider how ahead of its time this book is, it’s essential reading—and the perfect intro to Baldwin’s body of work.

    The post The Ideal First Novel for 10 “Must Read” Authors appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2017/10/04 Permalink
    Tags: , , answered prayers, , anthony trollope, , , , , charles dickens, , , , , j. g. ballard, , joan weigall, , , , , , , , , the adventures of huckleberry finn, the macdermots of ballycloran, , , , , through the looking glass, , why I want to f*ck ronald reagan   

    15 of the Most Infamous Deleted Chapters in History 

    Revision is a vital aspect of creation; all authors delete, re-write, and occasionally burn entire manuscripts with tears streaming down their faces. Most of the time, deleted chapters occur so early in the writing process that they’re not relevant—or interesting. They’re just the cost of doing literary business. Sometimes, though, the story behind excised material is almost as interesting as the finished version of the book it comes from. The fifteen chapters listed here didn’t make it into the published version of the book—but that hasn’t stopped them from being part of the conversation.

    Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
    Heller’s classic 1961 novel, one of the funniest, darkest, and most complex ever written, took about eight years to write—and remains the defining work of Heller’s career. Put simply, if you’re discussing Joseph Heller, you’re discussing Catch-22, and even Heller seemed to accept this towards the end of his life. Much of his late output was directly connected to his first novel, and in 2003 he published the collection Catch as Catch Can which contained two deleted chapters from Catch-22: “Love, Dad” and “Yossarian Survives” (both of which had been previously published). The chapters provide some background on Nately and Yossarian while offering some of Heller’s most savage mockery of the military—and both chapters work perfectly well as standalone stories, making them perhaps the rare examples of chapters deleted from books because they were too good.

    Dracula, by Bram Stoker
    Stoker’s novel is one of the most influential in all of history, but it originally ended a bit differently from the version you’re familiar with. A deleted chapter detailed Dracula’s castle literally falling apart as he dies. It’s not very long—a grace note, really—and there are several theories as to why Stoker excised it very close to its publication. Some people think he might have been envisioning a sequel and wanted to hedge his bets. Others think he might have worried about being accused of stealing the concept from Edgar Allan Poe. Whatever the reason, reading the chapter does change the tone of the novel just enough to make it significant.

    The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
    Wilde’s only novel originally contained a great deal of homosexual imagery, sexual allusions, and other edgy stuff that made his publisher’s head explode. So his editor forced him to cut a great deal of this “objectionable” material. Even so, the book created a stir upon publication, as it still contained passages that outraged a lot of people, and so Wilde revised the book a second time in an effort to make it acceptable. Wilde’s reward was a novel everyone is still reading and, of course, a few years in jail simply for being a homosexual. In 2011 the uncensored version of the book was finally published with the deleted chapters restored, so you can now read the book in all its dirty glory.

    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
    In the early versions of Dahl’s beloved book there were actually eight kids brought into Wonka’s factory, and they had some different adventures—including the original chapter 5, which brings the children and their parents into the Vanilla Fudge Room, where a literal mountain of fudge is worked on by Wonka’s servants with picks and hammers, sending boulders of fudge down to the floor where they’re grabbed by cranes and sent on wagons into a hole in the wall. Sounds delightful until two of the kids and their parents ignore Wonka’s warnings and ride the wagons to what they think will be fudge heaven. Instead, Wonka reveals that the fudge is tipped out of the wagons into a machine that pounds it thin then chops it up. Dahl’s publisher thought this was a bit too nasty for kids, and so the chapter was deleted and didn’t see the light of day until 2014.

    The Martian, by Andy Weir
    The Martian by Andy Weir went through a lot of revision. The original version posted on Weir’s website—still available online if you know where to look—is very different from the final version. A few years ago Weir went on Reddit for an unannounced, secret “Ask Me Anything” session and revealed the original epilogue of the story, which featured Mark Watney cursing at a child who asks him if he’d return to Mars if they asked him. It’s actually kind of a delightful ending, and one we wish they would have included in the movie.

    Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
    The original ending of Dickens’ famous novel was kind of dark and sad: Pip and Estella meet years after the events of the novel, but instead of a bittersweet moment implying a future for the two, both are simply bitter, and they part on savage terms. Dickens liked this ending because he thought it was unexpected and original, but his Beta Readers disagreed, so he changed the chapter to the version we’re all familiar with. After publication he went back and revised the final line, coming up with the perfect “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

    Why I Want to F*ck Ronald Reagan, by J. G. Ballard
    In the late 1960s, Ronald Reagan was something new: one of the first “media politicians” who knew that how you said something was more important than what you said, as well as one of the first “far right” politicians in mainstream politics. Although a decade and a half from the presidency, he made an impact that J.G. Ballard found interesting, and he wrote a short work styled as an academic paper describing bizarre experiments to measure Reagan’s sexual appeal. It was meant to be challenging and confrontational—and it sure was. It was originally included in Ballard’s collection The Atrocity Exhibition, but the American publisher of the book actually destroyed the entire printing rather than let it loose on the country. Let that sink in: the publisher destroyed every copy of the book rather than publish this. If there’s a better reason to read it, we’re unaware.

    A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
    It’s well-known that the last chapter of Burgess’ novel was deleted before it was published in the United States; the publisher thought the “softer” ending in which Alex starts to mature and see that his behavior in the earlier portions of the book was wrong would turn off American readers. Indeed, many still prefer the way the book ended in the truncated version, which is also the beat Stanley Kubrick’s classic film version ends on: Alex dreaming of violence, thinking “I was cured all right.”

    The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
    Wells’ novel about a man who invents a time machine established not just one of the sturdiest sci-fi tropes of all time, but a template for the modern speculative novel. Wells’ publisher insisted he add a section showing mankind’s ultimate evolutionary fate, and Wells obliged under protest, writing a chapter in which the time traveler escapes the Morlocks by traveling into the distant future, where he encounters small mammals which he determines are the descendants of humanity. Wells never liked it and had it removed as soon as he was able, and while the story, which you can read under the standalone title “The Grey Man,” is interesting, the book is much better without it.

    Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
    Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland is more Alice than Alice in many ways. The illustrator working on the book sent Carroll a note saying he wasn’t inspired by the “wasp chapter”, and suggested none-too-subtly that if Carroll were looking to cut the book down a bit, the Wasp part would be the place to start. No one knew what he was referring to, however—until 1976 when the missing “Wasp in a Wig” chapter was put up for auction. One problem, however: no one has ever been able to verify that this was actually written by Carroll. Reading it, the reason people have doubts is pretty clear: it’s awful. Either Carroll cut the one example of bad writing he ever managed…or he didn’t write it.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Weigall
    Weigall’s 1967 novel was a sensation at the time, despite the fact that it literally had no ending. The story of college students who disappear while visiting Hanging Rock in Australia was originally ended with a pretty crazy explanation of everything that happened, but Weigall’s publisher suggested the book might do better without the, um, crazy part and so the final chapter was deleted (you can read it here if you want), meaning that the story just stops, and no explanation is offered at all for the mystery. This actually fueled the book’s success, making it into a “must read” at the time. If the Internet had existed in 1967, this book would have broken it.

    The MacDermots of Ballycloran, by Anthony Trollope
    Trollope had very low expectations for his first novel, and these were borne out when it didn’t do very well. Although the novel has gained in reputation since its initial lackluster publication, you have to be careful to get the original 1847 version, because Trollope later hacked his book to death in an effort to…improve it, we guess? He deleted three chapters and changed a great deal of what makes the original novel interesting (mainly the Irish dialects, politics, and the character flaws). The revised version isn’t nearly as good, and the three missing chapters are, ironically, some of the best writing in the book.

    Answered Prayers, by Truman Capote
    Capote’s transformation from brilliant writer to alcoholic gadfly took about twenty years, and in that time he continuously accepted advances and signed contracts for Answered Prayers, a novel he never got around to finishing. Four chapters were published in magazines (the first, “La Côte Basque 1965,” was so obviously based on his real-life friends and acquaintances Capote pretty much lost every friend he had) and they’re pretty hefty, amounting to a novel’s worth of text if put together. But several other chapters have been referenced in Capote’s correspondence—and he claimed he’d written the final chapter first so he’d know where he was going—that have yet to turn up anywhere.

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
    Twain, never one to be typical, wasn’t satisfied to delete a mere chapter, instead opting to delete 665 manuscript pages, essentially an entire shadow version of his all-time classic novel. Twain paused work on the book for three years, and scholars have long argued over where exactly he broke off and what he changed when he returned to the book. The deleted chapters contain plenty of material not present in the final book, and have proved invaluable in trying to determine Twain’s intentions and process.

    Persuasion, by Jane Austen
    Austen was one of the most meticulous writers of all time, and put a lot of effort into revising her novels. Persuasion is one of the few in which we can compare early drafts to see how the novel developed, and Austen’s deleted chapters show a ruthless approach to improving the pacing of the plot and the creation of her characters. Assembling earlier versions of the novel show what her original inspiration was, how her ideas changed as she worked, and cast some light on the sausage-making underneath the charming and compelling narratives Austen created.

    Did we miss any famous deleted chapters?

    The post 15 of the Most Infamous Deleted Chapters in History appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 3:30 pm on 2017/01/19 Permalink
    Tags: charles dickens, , , , , the fault in our stars original ending, the sense of an ending, wait what?   

    5 Beloved Novels That Almost Had Very Different Endings 

    The act of creation isn’t always simple. Sure, sometimes writers receive a flash of inspiration and create something fully-formed. More often, writing a novel is a start-stop process, marked by flurries of intense work and stretches of contemplation. Most novels undergo serious revision between the initial idea and the final version. (Heck, some authors continue revising even after a book has been published.) Even still, usually a finished novel is fairly similar in its main plot points to the first draft. But not always, as these five famous novels demonstrate—the endings of each were actually quite different in the initial draft, sometimes shockingly so. (Beware of spoilers, obviously!)

    The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
    Anyone who has struggled to main their composure when reading the devastating, somehow inspiring ending of Green’s novel knows the death of Augustus, the co-lead and primary love interest of the main character, cancer-afflicted teen Hazel, hits hard. It’s a quiet, yet intense ending that fits perfectly with what comes before. But Green recently admitted that he had two other endings in mind, and in retrospect, both of them sound absolutely insane: in one, Peter Van Houten ties a character to railroad tracks in order to explore the philosophical puzzle known as the Trolley Problem, and in another, Van Houten and Hazel die together in a shootout with drug lords. Green was talked out of both ideas and settled on the tragic ending that so perfectly ends the story, and no, you’re tearing up thinking about it again, not us. Pass those tissues.

    A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
    The final lines of Hemingway’s 1929 classic A Farewell to Arms are perfectly Hemingwayesque: “But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” The clipped rhythm, unadorned sentences, and bleakness: that’s Hemingway, all right. But in 1958, Papa admitted he’d struggled to find those words, and estimated he’d written 39 alternate endings before settling on the final version. Recent scholarship ups that to 47 distinct endings, all preserved in Hemingway’s papers—including one suggested by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A 2012 edition of the novel includes them all, and while only the final few lines are altered, the tone and implication of the ending is often completely transformed between variations.

    Matilda, by Roald Dahl
    Matilda is one of Dahl’s best-loved novels, the story of a precocious little girl whose intellectual prowess is stymied by schoolwork way beneath her abilities, triggering the development of temporary telekinesis, which she uses it to play pranks on the mean-spirited school headmistress and help her kind-hearted teacher, Miss Honey. The ending is a bit abrupt—Matilda’s awful parents are implicated in an elaborate fraud scheme and go on the run from the police, disinterestedly giving her permission to live with Miss Honey instead—but Dahl’s early manuscripts reveal a much darker ending in which Matilda dies. In that early version her pranks are a little meaner, as well, demonstrating an overall different tone.

    Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
    Dickens actually revised the ending to this classic novel twice. The original ending had Pip meet Estella—but she has remarried after Drummle’s death, and thus there is no chance of a happy ending. Dickens liked this ending because it was unexpected and went against convention. However, he was persuaded its melancholy tone was uncommercial, so he altered it to something very close to the modern ending, wherein Estella is widowed but not remarried, and indicates she now sees Pip as a potential future. His final revision was to finesse the famous line “I saw no shadow of another parting from her” into its current form in order to make it slightly more ambiguous.

    Rinkitink in Oz, by L. Frank Baum
    Baum wrote 14 Oz books in his lifetime, and dozens of official entries in the series have been penned by others. Like many authors of successful series, Baum tried to do something different, only to come back to Oz because the books sold well. The 10th installment, Rinkitink in Oz, is often considered an outlier—albeit a very good one—because 90 percent of the story takes place outside of Oz; Dorothy only appears suddenly at the very end to give the heroes a tour of Oz. The reason for this is simple: it was originally written a decade earlier as a standalone fairy tale with no connection to Oz whatsoever. In need of a new Oz book and exhausted after a particularly busy few years of writing, Baum dusted off King Rinkitink, rewrote the ending with a bit of Ozness injected, and published it. The good news is, it’s one of the best stories in the series.

    If John Green had gone with the shootout ending, would The Fault in Our Stars still be as beloved? Discuss below.


    The post 5 Beloved Novels That Almost Had Very Different Endings appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Nicole Hill 5:30 pm on 2015/12/17 Permalink
    Tags: , charles dickens, , christmas classics, , ,   

    The Book Nerd’s Guide to Picking the Right Christmas Carol 

    Welcome to the Book Nerd’s Guide to Life! Every other week, we convene in this safe place to discuss the unique challenges of life for people whose noses are always wedged in books. For past guides, click here.

    I don’t need to tell you how to select the perfect bookish gifts for your loved ones this year—not in this column anyway. Y’all got this. And if you don’t, B&N’s got you well covered with our Holiday Gift Guide. But there’s lots about the holiday season that book nerds experience just a little bit differently than others. Our gingerbread houses turn into gingerbread libraries. Those shiny balls on the Christmas tree? Those are snitches. And we get snippy if grandma interrupts us in the middle of a chapter to play canasta.

    But wait, there’s more. Personally, one of my favorite parts of this most wonderful time of the year is seeing how many adaptations of A Christmas Carol I can cram into my eyeballs in a single month. Why? Because A Christmas Carol is a work of pure genius. Charles Dickens managed to write the quintessential Christmas novel by making it spooky, silly, thought-provoking, and heartwarming—all while adding heaping doses of social commentary. It’s not often I reread the classics, but I pull this one out almost every year.

    Thus, the viewing frenzy. Of course, not all adaptations are made equal. Some hew closer to the book than others. Some are light-hearted, while others are nightmare fuel. All of them have the advantage of being based, in whatever small way, on the greatest Christmastime novel this side of Tiny Tim’s empty chair. Here’s how to find the right one for you.

    A Christmas Carol (1951)
    Pro: This particular version is almost universally agreed upon as The Standard, and rightly so. Here before us is a Scrooge who gets at both the cantankerous elements of a dastardly businessman and the underlying humanity of a ne’er-do-well returned from the brink.
    Con: The film does, however, take some narrative liberties, adding in backstories where none existed before. Maybe knowing the fate of Scrooge’s mother works for you, and maybe it doesn’t. Though admittedly, nothing here is more far-fetched than what is to come…

    Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
    Pro: It’s Scrooge McDuck in, literally, the role he was born to play. That he does his own bookkeeping seems even more in character than the original Ebenezer Scrooge.

    Con: Outside of Scrooge, there’s some serious miscasting going on. No one’s buying Goofy as Marley because 1) if Scrooge had had Goofy as a partner for years, he wouldn’t have survived to old age, and 2) Goofy couldn’t swindle the poor if he tried. Seems to me the big lug would have made a less-scolding Ghost of Christmas Past than Jiminy Cricket.

    Scrooged (1988)
    Pro: Well, Bill Murray, for one. While it’s not a one-for-one adaptation, Murray manages to be hilariously awful as a Scrooge stand-in. Perhaps that is what a life of receiving five pounds of veal from Santa brings to a personality.

    Con: It’s a crying shame that the movie within the movie, Scrooge, starring Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, did not come to fruition in the real world.

    The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
    Pro: Where do I even begin? For a movie in which even the vegetables join in on the musical decimations of Scrooge’s character, the story is remarkably similar to Dickens’s original—probably because Gonzo is on hand to narrate the proceedings as Dickens himself. And that’s not even mentioning Michael Caine, turning in a stellar dramatic performance as the main miser, despite being surrounded by a sea of felt.

    Con: A distinct underuse of Sam Eagle, and a distinct surplus of underprivileged mice families.

    Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)
    Pro: Robert Zemeckis’s animated effort is tremendously faithful to the original story and plays up the frightening elements to greater effect than any other adaptation. Scrooge is legitimately pants-soiling scared of Marley, not just warily inconvenienced. (I, myself, found the whispering flame-bodied Ghost of Christmas Past utterly traumatic.)

    Con: The reviews of the animation tend to fall into one of two camps: it will either take your breath away or make you feel like you’re navigating a Dickensian video game. But what’s not in doubt: you’ll be able to see clearly every pore on the old skinflint’s face.



    And a special mention goes to Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol, which, while only eight minutes long, proves that Mel Blanc can create an even more frightening specter than Jacob Marley. Being haunted by a live, wily Bugs is probably more hazardous to one’s health than any of the ghosts of Christmas. On the downside, it’s difficult to suspend disbelief with Yosemite Sam as a crotchety Victorian London banker, not only because of the dialect differences, but also because I find it a dubious prospect that Yosemite Sam could ever be successful enough at a venture to amass a fortune.

  • Kelly Anderson 5:00 pm on 2015/06/05 Permalink
    Tags: , charles dickens, , , , , , , , , , ,   

    For Your Next Cocktail Party: A Crib Sheet of Classic Literary References 

    I love hanging out with book nerds, for many reasons. One of them is feeling like I’m part of an elite club, one with secret handshakes and passwords and everything. (Remember before Game of Thrones became a TV show, when the “Red Wedding” was a nerd password?) But sometimes, even we’ve missed a few passwords along the way, and can feel left out in the cold when our fellow book nerds drop references they assume we’ll catch. We find ourselves smiling and nodding along, the door to our lovely club closed.To ensure this never happens to you, here’s a list of the top 10 literary references to prove your book nerd mettle (or, you know, allow you to have a richer literary experience, or lead you to reading some awesome books or something).

    1. The madeleine (from Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust)
    If there is a quintessential reference that marks you as a “literary person,” it’s knowing what someone means when they say, “It was my own madeleine moment.” In case you haven’t yet tackled the Mount Everest of reading, here’s what that’s all about. In Search of Lost Time is a seven-volume mega-novel tracking its protagonist through his youth into middle age. In our narrator’s telling, time and memory are blurred together as one, an ever circling mark, reaching back into the past as often as it reaches forward. The most famous moment comes fairly early in the first volume, Swann’s Way. The narrator bites into a madeleine, setting off on one of the novel’s first deep dives into the past, instantly transporting the reader to his childhood family home, with every last detail of the room as clear as day. The madeleine is a famous example of sense memory, nostalgia, and the irresistible power of the past.

    2. The Green Light (from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
    There are a lot of famous symbols in this tale of American decadence, nostalgia, and yearning in the Jazz Age, from East Egg, to Daisy, to those creepy eyes your teacher insisted every last one of us write an essay on, but the green light is the most famous of them all. Throughout the book, Daisy, Gatsby’s lost love, is representative of the ultimate attainment of everything his life can offer: the American dream. We witness his increasingly piteous attempts to convince himself he can re-create a vanished, never-really-was past with her, all of which crash and burn fairly quickly. The green light, which stands at the end of her dock, is a forlorn symbol of all of Gatsby’s doomed hopes, something always on the horizon and never quite reached, something he forever travels toward, “boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.”

    3. The Wife in the Attic (from Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë)
    Look, if there’s any way I can get anyone else to fall in love with this tale of a brave girl, with no resources or family to speak of, who nonetheless makes a career out of doing the right thing every single time…I’m gonna do it. But more than that, the book is a goldmine of useful literary references—none more so than the specter of the wife in the attic, the haunting figure whose chilling laugh and nighttime wanderings build tension, and the bombshell who kicks off the book’s powerful third act. However horrifying a figure she is, a reference to her is generally much more likely to be pointing to frustrated female desire, sexuality, or energy, especially as seen through an uncomprehending male gaze and in the corset of 19th-century society. If we’re talking about poor Bertha, the least we can do these days is find solidarity with a woman whose very existence was too threatening to be mentioned.

    4. Shakespeare’s Sister (from A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf)
    Maybe you like the band, maybe you’re a fan of the song, but chances are this isn’t the first time you’re hearing this phrase. But where does it come from? Virginia Woolf took the attic wife metaphor farther, giving the trope her own sober-eyed, equally incisive spin. In her masterpiece of an essay, A Room of One’s Own (itself a reference you should probably also know—and read—as soon as possible), Woolf posited the existence of Shakespeare’s sister, a woman whose talents may have equalled those of the Bard, whose imagination, drive, wit, and talent may have also been on offer to the world, but whose gifts were never discovered because no one bothered to ask. “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,” Woolf states, and Shakespeare’s silent sister was Exhibit A.

    5. “Ew! Ew! Cannot unsee! I want to pull an Oedipus!” (from Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles)
    You might not think that references to a play published thousands of years ago would still be making the rounds at the literary hors d’eouvres table, but here we are. This one’s used as a punchline as often as anything, but it’s as worth getting the joke as it is being involved in whatever Freudian deconstruction of the latest New Great American Novel contender is underway. Oedipus Rex is your classic tale of parent incest and murder: Oedipus, King of Thebes, discovers he is the source of a curse placed upon his land when, unbeknownst to him, he killed his father and married his mother, fulfilling a prophecy that he would be “son and husband to his mother and brother and father to his own children.” When he comes into possession of this delightful information, Oedipus does what most of us might: he immediately puts out his own eyes with his mother/wife’s hairpins, and wanders lost for eternity. Soooo, all in all, a nice, wholesome family show.

    6. “STELLAAAAA!” (from A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennesee Williams)
    This one is much more Brando in origin than it is literary, but Tennessee Williams gave Brando the platform, so I think the bookish folks can still take credit for it. It comes from A Streetcar Named Desire, arguably Williams’ most famous play, centered on one of the saddest entangled trios that ever there was, married couple Stella and Stanley and Stella’s glamorous, down-on-her-luck sister, Blanche DuBois. These three, along with sundry hapless others along for the unfortunate ride, proceed to tear each other apart. At one point, the proceedings reach such a low point Stanley finds himself screaming for his wife to come back to him. While the moment feels sincere when you’re sitting there with the house lights down, wrapped up in a thick blanket of emotion, it’s now become an easily mocked signifier that someone is being a weeee bit melodramatic, usually in the context of a (probably rightfully) disintegrating relationship.

    7. “A plague on both your houses!” (from Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare)
    This one comes from Romeo and Juliet, home of, oh, about a thousand other references I could have named. This, as most of us know, is the tale of a pair of star-crossed lovers from quarreling families who must conduct their romance in secret, and who meet an inevitably doomed end (well, it must have been inevitable, what with the timing on that just-seems-like-you’re-dead poison, right?). What’s less often mentioned is the collateral damage of their passion—namely the friends and family who go down defending what they think is family honor in the face of this romance. Mercutio, the most heartbreaking casualty, dies defending his friend Romeo. Amid the laughter of those who have never taken him near seriously enough, he finally cracks his jokester facade to let everyone involved know his opinion of the senseless bloodshed. Which is how it is generally used now: as a shorthand for endlessly, pointlessly squabbling parties who just can’t seem to get it together.

    8. Tilting at windmills (from Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes)
    This reference comes to us via Spain’s national work, the story of an old man who has convinced himself that he is a knight errant, bent on defeating villains and saving damsels in distress. He sets out on a quest to rid the world of evil, accompanied only by his faithful “squire” Sancho Panza. This book is rife with the ironic symbology of his darkly comic journey that we know to be doomed at the outset. In one particularly famous episode, our supposed knight spots a group of windmills that he convinces himself are giants, and proceeds to haplessly attack them. It’s generally used to refer to someone trying to accomplish a hopeless, if idealistic task that is unlikely to produce the desired result. Just like the don, you’ll be tilting in a circle uselessly, forever, if you continue. There is a sort of admirable beauty to it, but of the sort that comes to us via the tradition of the Fool, not the Hero.

    9. “The book was rather Dickensian….” (Charles Dickens, generally)
    Ah, yes. Now we’re getting into the part where literary folks contribute their own vocabulary. There are a legion of these shorthands. Some are infamously overused, and often considered pretentious (try to deploy the term “Kafkaesque” in conversation and see how fast your couch miraculously empties). But this is a pretty stolid classic that’s stood the test of time, and is too common to get you regaled to the snooty corner. The term “Dickensian” tends to be used to denote the atmosphere of a book: a richly described, likely urban and layered milieu reminiscent of Victorian England. It’s likely filled with social injustice and dark corners, woven into the sort of pervasive class system that defined English society at the time. It is epitomized in books like Oliver Twist and Bleak House, books with both entertainment and a social message at their cores. Remember that part in a Muppet Christmas Carol where everybody in the streets is singing about how mean Scrooge is? Yup. It’s like that. But with no puppets and singing. More workhouses though.

    10. “The dog recognizes me.” (from Homer’s The Odyssey)
    You’ve seen this one in a thousand movies, read it in a hundred romance novels: the hero returns from war a changed man. He leaves a young skinny boy, and returns a grizzled battle veteran nearly 10 years later, walking in off the road to a family that no longer recognizes him. But someone does—and it’s usually the dog. The idea that animals see essential truths long before humans do is a old one—in this case, one of the oldest, dating right back to Homer’s The Odyssey. When the wandering hero Odysseus makes his way home after the fall of Troy, he encounters many obstacles that delay his journey (many of them famous references in their own right). He finally arrives incognito, disguised as a beggar, in order to get the lay of the land, and no one recognizes him. Except the dog. A reference to Odysseus and his faithful hound is a reference to this famous moment.

    What essential literary references have we left out?
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