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  • Jeff Somers 9:00 pm on 2016/04/11 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , iron man, moby-dick,   

    10 Fictional Characters Based on Real People 

    The dirty secret of some fiction is that it’s less, well, fictional than we imagine. Behind every soaring flight of fancy, you’ll find grueling research, direct experience, and, sometimes, real human beings who inspired our favorite characters. While discovering your favorite author isn’t above nicking from real life might be deflating, the trade off is realizing some of the most amazing characters from fiction actually existed, which is kind of like discovering magic is real. Here are 10 fictional characters you might be surprised to discover were based on very real people (or majestic beasts).

    Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
    The most well-known—and creepiest—literary inspiration might be Alice Liddell, who, at the age of 10, met Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (under the pen name Lewis Carroll). Dodgson became quite close with the Liddell family, especially young Alice, for whom he wrote the original story. The author took countless photographs of the young girl before abruptly breaking off his friendship with the family (or was it the other way around?) in 1863, when Alice was 11 years old. Liddell went on to marry into money and became a celebrated society figure, though she was forced to sell the original Dodgson manuscript at auction in later years to pay her bills.

    Moby Dick from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
    That much of Moby Dick is based on actual, real-life stuff shouldn’t be a surprise; much of the novel reads like a 19th-century guide to the whaling industry. But the motif of the “white whale” that the obsessed Captain Ahab pursues to his doom seems so, well, literary that it must be made-up—except it isn’t. There really was a white whale (called Mocha Dick) famous for being a ferocious fighter as well as an unusually large and aggressive example of his species. While not the only white whale known to captains at the time, it’s almost certain Melville took inspiration from this actual creature. Mocha Dick was reportedly finally killed in 1838, although there was an alleged sighting a decade later, so who knows?

    Sethe from Beloved, by Toni Morrison
    Anyone who has read Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel likely had to compose themselves after the revelation of the shattering backstory of the main character, Sethe, an escaped slave who (spoiler alert!) killed her two-year-old daughter rather than see her snatched back to the plantation. The emotional response grows only more powerful when you learn Sethe was based on a slave named Margaret Garner, who fled from Kentucky to Ohio when one of the coldest winters in recorded history froze the Ohio River solid enough to serve as an escape route. When slave-catchers surrounded the house she had barricaded herself in, she did in fact kill her daughter, and when captured, was in the process of killing her other children in order to spare them a life of slavery. Margaret never stood trial; returned to her owners in Kentucky, she was moved frequently in a successful effort to hide her from the Northern authorities.

    Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
    J.K. Rowling based everyone’s favorite Slytherin on one of her former teachers, John Nettleship, who was surprised to learn of his role in the literary juggernaut. Nettleship, who passed away in 2011, was quoted as saying he was “horrified” when he heard what he’d inspired, saying, “I knew I was a strict teacher, but I didn’t think I was that bad.” He admitted he was “a short-tempered chemistry teacher with long hair…[and a] gloomy, malodorous laboratory,” and thus could see the connection. Considering Snape is arguably one of the most complex and interesting characters of all time, it’s not a bad legacy.

    Iron Man
    Comic books frequently borrow from real life in order to fuel their stories, but it’s usually a little less obvious than with everyone’s favorite billionaire-playboy-superhero. Tony Stark is based (very obviously) on Howard Hughes; the connection makes a little more sense when you consider that Iron Man made his debut in 1963, when Hughes was still years away from his sad, insane end. Back then, he was the eccentric, outspoken billionaire who invented technologies in a variety of fields. It probably wouldn’t have surprised anyone if the man who built the Spruce Goose had suddenly shown up to a press conference wearing a flying suit of armor.

    Hazel Grace Lancaster from The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
    No one who reads The Fault in Our Stars finishes it with a dry eye, and the feels become nearly unbearable when you learn that Hazel was inspired by an girl named Esther Earl, diagnosed with terminal cancer when she at the age of 13. Earl met the author online and the two began a correspondence, and later met at a con. While Hazel isn’t meant to literally be Esther, it’s clear she is the basis for the character, and one reason why Green’s portrayal of Hazel is so moving, and so real. Esther was a talented, spirited girl whose YouTube channel remains up and accessible, and whose writings were collected into the book This Star Won’t Go Out, published posthumously in 2014.

    Dean Moriarity from On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
    One of the best-known real people in a novel is Neal Cassady, the counter culture icon who was the basis for Dean Moriarity in On the Road (and who appears in other books, most notably The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test). In fact, this hardly counts as a secret, as the character was actually called Neal Cassady in the original draft. Cassady has a near-epic ability to sow enjoyable chaos in his own life and in the lives he touched, and his death, likely from exposure after he passed out in the open country, remains both tragic and totally fitting for a larger-than-life character.

    Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
    There are certain characters so firmly entrenched in the culture, it’s almost impossible to imagine the world that spawned them. Hester Prynne, central character of Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, stems from a distant past (where names like “Hester” weren’t considered weird), and it’s a shock to realize she was probably inspired by a real person: Elizabeth Pain, a woman who had a child out of wedlock and was later accused of murdering that child. Although acquitted, she was convicted of negligence and sentenced to pay a fine and to receive a flogging (ah, the good old days). For an eerie moment, go find her tombstone in Boston and read the ending of the novel, and realize you’re looking at the same grave that Hawthorne is describing.

    Popeye
    Popeye the Sailor Man is a ridiculous figure: always chomping on a corncob pipe, always wearing his jaunty sailor hat, and such a slave to rage (and spinach) that when he’s not speaking authentic shanty gibberish, he’s beating everyone to a pulp. Obviously the creation of a fevered Prohibition-era brain desperate for alcohol, right? Except, the creator of Popeye, Elzie Crisler Segar, lived in Chester, Illinois, where a man named Frank “Rocky” Fiegel lived. Fiegel chomped on a pipe, wore a jaunty hat, and was constantly fighting with anyone who looked at him funny, often taking on multiple opponents. Fiegel is widely believed to be the inspiration for Popeye, and his grave even features an image of the character.

    Dill Harris from To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
    With the passing of Harper Lee this year, many readers discovered and re-discovered the joys of her remarkable 1960 novel . Berkeley Breathed even published a special Bloom County cartoon informing us that while everyone always thought Harper was the basis for Scout, he believed she was actually the basis for Boo Radley, the shy, disturbed, and ultimately heroic recluse living next door to the Finches. But Lee probably did see herself in Scout, because she blatantly based the character of Dill, Scout’s best friend and asserted future husband, on her own bestie, Truman Capote. To be fair, Capote could also have been the basis for Boo. Let’s just face it: we’re all Boo to some extent.

     
  • Jeff Somers 7:46 pm on 2015/11/13 Permalink
    Tags: aubrey-maturin, , , language arts, moby-dick, ,   

    5 Great Books That Will Expand Your Vocabulary 

    Words are tools. Even if you’re not a writer, you use them every day in order to exist in the modern world (unless you order your daily grande iced sugar-free vanilla latte with soy milk by grunting and pointing). As with any set of tools, the more of them you have, the more accurately and effectively you accomplish a task. Most of us use only about 2,000 words a day or so, although on average we know 10,000 words or more. Considering there are easily more than a million words in modern English, it’s ovious we could all stand to expand our vocabularies. The best way to do so? That’s right: reading. Here are a few books that will expand your vocabulary and entertain.

    Anything by William Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare invented or introduced so many words to the English language, we might as well call it Shakespeare’s English. Estimates suggest her coined or brought back into use some 1,700 words, which doesn’t even count the long list of common phrases that come to use right from the pages of the Bard’s plays, from “all of a sudden,” to “one fell swoop,” to “method to my madness.” Pick a play, read it, and gain dozens of words that will astound and amaze.

    Ulysses, by James Joyce
    James Joyce is another author whose use of language is astounding. Ulysses sports about 30,000 unique words—meaning words that don’t occur elsewhere in the book—and Joyce is credited with transforming many words and phrases, such as botch, into new forms and usages. Even if you don’t quite understand the plot or all the signs and symbols—and trust us, many college professors don’t—simply reading the words will introduce you to a huge number of new ones, which you can then pronounce with a distinct Irish brogue, to the annoyance of everyone.

    Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
    Another novel many people keep locked away out of sheer terror, Moby Dick sports about 17,000 unique words and uses them in a much denser way than even Ulysses, offering up a new one in practically every line. Melville’s language is lyrical and dignified, and many words you might not be familiar with can be understood via context, making it not just the painfully detailed story of 19th-century whaling you’ve been dreaming of, but an incredible way to improve your vocabulary without downloading a single app.

    The Aubrey-Maturin series, by Patrick O’Brian
    There’s a reason the companion to O’Brian’s classic Napoleonic War novels is called A Sea of Words: the author met very few of them he didn’t like. Following the adventures of British Naval officer Jack Aubrey and physician and spy Stephen Maturin as they engage in espionage and sea warfare in the early 1800s, the books are filled with wonderfully obscure words, ranging from sailing-specific terms (you’ll be capable of being rated as a seaman after reading all 20 of them) to terms that have fallen into disuse (not to mention Aubrey’s famously terrible puns). In-between the thrilling derring-do and intrigue, you’ll absorb one of the liveliest vocabularies in literary history.

    The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
    Yes, you read that right. While her “unique word” density isn’t far above average, Rowling’s obvious love of language introduces plenty of new words to absorb and incorporate into your conversational toolbox. Of special note are the names of spells, often taken from obscure phrases and Latin vocabulary, all neatly packaged with built-in definitions in the forms of the spells’ effects. There’s not a more entertaining set of books to read if you want to walk away with a hefty new bag of words to toss around, though a we’d also offer a warning: if you’re looking to sound erudite in your next job interview, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of pointing your pen like a wand and shouting at the top of your lungs.

     
  • Jeff Somers 4:00 pm on 2015/01/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , gravity's rainbow, , , , , , moby-dick, reading resolutions, , , the gulag archipelago, the name of the rose, , , , , ,   

    10 Books You Should Finally Read in 2015 

    Umberto Eco's The Name of the RoseLife’s not getting any easier—and neither are these books. While there’s nothing wrong with reading a brisk spy novel or a weepy romance or a horror novel you have to put in your freezer at night in order to be able to sleep, you know you’ve been avoiding certain novels your whole life. Time to put on your grownup pants and tackle these tomes—and here’s how to do it.

    Ulysses, by James Joyce

    Relax. Ulysses is challenging, but it’s not nearly as challenging as some of Joyce’s other works (did I hear someone scream “Finnegan’s Wake!” in the distance before bursting into tears?). The trick here is to stop trying to comprehend every specific reference to Dublin in 1904 and just get into the rhythm of it. In other words, don’t study Ulyssesread it.

    The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

    The opening chapter of this novel is one of the hardest to crack in fiction, but the secret to The Sound and the Fury is in the fact that all the information you need to figure it out is right there in the story. The trick? Remember that if you take away the technical virtuosity and literary technique, what you have left is a rip-roaring soap opera about a family destroying itself.

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

    The real challenge of Infinite Jest may be its gonzo science-fiction universe. With wheelchair-bound Québécois assassins, years named after consumer products, and women too beautiful to view safely in full daylight, Infinite Jest takes a while to acclimate to. The secret here is to view the book not as a heavy work of literary genius, but as a roiling comedy that uses its ridiculous setting and details to craft a series of darkly hilarious set pieces.

    Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

    Moby-Dick has the distinction of being perhaps the most well-known novel no one has read. Its reputation for 19th-century density and complex language makes it fearsome. The trick to Moby-Dick? It is hilarious. There are more dirty jokes in this book than you can shake your peg-leg at (see what we did there), and the whaling stuff? Absolutely thrilling, once you get used to the rhythm of the language.

    In Search of Lost Time (aka, Remembrance of Things Past), by Marcel Proust

    Yes, In Search of Lost Time is easily the longest thing you’ve ever declined to read. What’s remarkable about it is the depth of the personal—you do get the sense of accompanying someone on a sense-memory exploration. The key here is simple: This book is about many things, but chief among them is sex. Start looking for the dirty bits, and before you know it you’ll be in the middle of volume three.

    The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Rambling, complex, and filled with lengthy philosophical detours, this novel is pretty daunting. But rather than being a dour, endless novel, The Brothers Karamazov is a raucous tale of drunkenness, murder, and lust. The trick here is to stop trying to catch every detail and just enjoy the main stories: Mitya’s and Lyosha’s. If you understand what happens to them, everything else falls into place.

    Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

    It’s time. You’ve been avoiding Gravity’s Rainbow since you were a kid. You’ve been avoiding the endless symbolism, the encyclopedic puns, and the faint sense that Pynchon is pulling our legs. But this is a book you can’t dismiss unless you’ve read it, and it’s time. The trick—as with all of Pynchon’s work—is to stop thinking of the book as an awesome piece of serious literature and just enjoy it as a silly farce. This is, after all, a book that includes a bit about a man whose erections may predict rocket attacks on wartime London.

    The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

    The language of this book even in translation isn’t complex, and the story it tells isn’t symbolic. The difficulty lies in the subject matter; it’s difficult to imagine that anyone could experience—and survive—what Solzhenitsyn and his fellow prisoners did. The trick here? Every time you finish a page, wiggle your toes inside your slippers and sip something nice and simply be happy it’s a book.

    The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

    When approaching this book nervously, from an angle, you’ll hear some fairly alarming terms, like semiotics or deliberate mistranslation. Fear not! The trick with this admittedly dense and fascinating novel is simple: It’s a murder mystery. Let everything else hit you subliminally, and just concentrate on enjoying the story at its most primal level.

    Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

    Cloud Atlas has the difficult novel trifecta: A shattered timeline, an invented patois, and a story involving several sets of characters in completely different time periods. The trick with Cloud Atlas is that it’s like reading seven novels all at once. There is a theme, and a point, but ultimately what this means is that if you’re confused or bored or mildly alarmed by what you’re reading, just muddle through—a new story will begin shortly.

     
  • Maurie Backman 7:30 pm on 2014/08/18 Permalink
    Tags: 20000 leagues under the sea, , , , , , , , , literary vacations, moby-dick, , ,   

    6 Books That Should Have Inspired Their Own Theme Parks 

    Gullivers TravelsFirst there was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which continues to draw countless visitors to Universal Orlando, and this week, we learned that Disney is building a Star Wars theme park for fans who have been longing to immerse themselves in George Lucas’s fictional universe. Given the popularity of theme parks nowadays, we thought we’d suggest some of our own based on our favorite books. Though we don’t expect to see these built anytime soon, we know we’d sure pay good money for a chance to escape to any one of them.

    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s World of Candy Delights
    (Based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl)
    Imagine a theme park where you can swim in a chocolate river, munch on samples from a gumdrop tree, and pick edible flowers to nibble. All you need to get in is a golden ticket—which you wouldn’t have to win, but rather just purchase at the gate—to explore this magical world of sugary goodness.

    Moby Dick’s Water World
    (Based on Moby Dick, by Herman Melville)
    At this exciting, interactive waterpark, you’ll get a chance to swim with and chase after (mechanical) whales in the expansive open ocean pool. Experience the thrills of rides such as Captain Ahab’s Wave Chaser and the winding, twisting Harpoon Slide. And don’t worry about getting hungry or thirsty; there’s a good chance you’ll find a Starbucks on the premises.

    The Magical World of Oz
    (Based on The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum)
    Gather up some friends and get ready to follow the yellow brick road through its many twists and turns. Wear your walking shoes, because you’ll need to explore this theme park completely on foot. Along the way, you may face a run-in with a disgruntled witch, but if you manage to find the wizard, you’ll be entered into a daily drawing where one lucky winner scores an all-expenses-paid trip to Kansas. Best of all, this park is dog-friendly, so you can bring your favorite canine friend along for the journey.

    20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Adventure
    (Based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne)
    At this underwater theme park, you’ll get to visit a series of submarines and explore their inner workings while observing a host of aquatic wildlife with the occasional sea monster thrown in. Scuba-certified visitors can also take advantage of the park’s deep sea dive feature, where they can witness wonders such as breathtaking corals and exotic marine creatures.

    The Time Machine Time Travel Experience
    (Based on The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells)
    This theme park is a little unique in that there’s only one ride to go on, and you never really know where it’ll take you. Perhaps you’ll be sent back to Victorian times, or be propelled millions of years into the future to a world that’s hardly recognizable. No matter where the time machine takes you, rest assured—you’ll be able to purchase a souvenir print of your unique journey as you exit through the gift shop.

    Gulliver’s World of Wonders
    (Based on Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift)
    At this theme park, you can travel to a series of different worlds and expand your horizons like never before. Experience the thrills of towering over the locals, or walking among giants, or seeing live talking horses in action. One low-cost fee buys you a ticket to the adventure of a lifetime.

    Which of your favorite books do you think could inspire its own dedicated theme park? 

     
  • Maurie Backman 7:00 pm on 2014/07/17 Permalink
    Tags: facebook, , , moby-dick, oedipus rex, pollyanna, rapunzel, robin hood, , , , , winnie the pooh   

    What if These Classic Literary Characters Were on Facebook? 

    A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh

    Love it or hate it, Facebook, in its addictive glory, is a force so captivating it causes many of us to forego life’s responsibilities in favor of reading and posting status updates. And while there are those who take the concept of sharing to an unnatural level, Facebook remains a great way to stay connected, solicit advice, and, of course, alleviate boredom. Had it been around back in the day, we think some of our favorite literary characters would’ve made great use of it. We like to think their posts would’ve looked something like this:

    Juliet Capulet

    Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? Thou didst not reply to my FarmVille request.

    Take a chill pill, Juliet. He’s probably just busy playing Words With Friends.

    Rapunzel

    Crowdsourcing: What do we all think of keratin treatment? Got a hot date with a prince tonight.

    Hate to tell you, but supposedly it’s close to $300 a pop, and we hear rates are higher for longer hair. Something to think about.

    Dorian Gray

    Check out my latest #selfie. Looking good, huh?

    Guess he ought to enjoy it while he can.

    Winnie the Pooh

    Oh bother. My honey pot is officially empty, and I’m growing rumblier in my tumbly by the minute.

    Looks like somebody could use a Costco membership.

    Dorothy Gale

    Ladies, looking for a head-to-toe wardrobe update. I’m just not feeling the gingham anymore, and these darn shoes are killing my feet.

    Perhaps you’ll find TOMS more comfortable. We hear they may even come in ruby.

    Pollyanna

    What a beautiful day! The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and everything around me smells like roses! I’ve got 42 new friend requests, 8 friends with birthdays this month, and a whole bunch of brand new features to check out. I’m so happy I could just burst!

    Actually, this sounds like most of the people we know on Fakebook—er, Facebook.

    Captain Ahab

    Anyone up for a little whale watching this weekend?

    Guess he’ll be calling out sick on Monday.

    Oedipus

    There’s this new chick I’ve got my eyes on, but my dad doesn’t approve. That guy really has a complex.

    Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for you and your dad to have The Talk… 

    Robin Hood

    Scored another five-finger discount at the market, so I’ll be cooking up a storm this weekend. Free food for everyone. Come one, come all.

    Hopefully he remembered to unfriend the Sheriff of Nottingham before posting.

    What fictional character would you love to friend on Facebook?

     
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