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  • Tara Sonin 3:30 pm on 2017/08/24 Permalink
    Tags: , cat on a hot tin roof, , , darkness and light, , , , , , , , , , the sound and the fury, ,   

    The Gothic Novel Survival Guide 

    So, you’ve found yourself in the 18th or 19th century, stuck in a gothic—or Southern Gothic!—novel. Surrounded by mysterious settings, dangerous characters and a bit of romance, these novels can prove fatal, but nothing you can’t survive, if you follow these instructions:

    1. First, are you in Europe or America?

    The Gothic genre originated in Medieval Europe with The Castle of Ontranto, the story of a man who undoes his life while trying to prevent a prophecy from coming true (think Macbeth meets Oedipus Rex) while Southern Gothic novels like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are the American response to the popularity of this genre, and deals with the South’s blood-tainted history as a result of slavery. So, depending on where—and therefore, when— you are, you play by different rules.

    2. If you’re in Europe, figure this out first and foremost: if there’s magic, hide on the sidelines.

    Look, I’m not saying Dracula isn’t kind of sexy (especially the Gary Oldman movie version), but in the Gothic genre, magic and mystery almost always spell death. The people who survive are the ones who don’t get mixed up in it. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, wishing for eternal youth has horrific, murderous consequences when a man decides to trap his youth inside a painting, but ultimately damns his soul. (The servants survive though, so probably best to stick to the downstairs parts of the great, gothic houses.)

    3. Are you a woman? Then decide: villain, or victim?

    There are two types of women in gothic literature. There’s the mysterious, often off-the-page villainess (such as Rebecca, in the classic gothic novel about a woman unraveling the truth about her new husband’s dead first wife) and Jane Eyre (whose romantic anti-hero Rochester keeps his mentally unstable wife locked in an attic until she tries to burn their house down). But there are characters like Jane, who is in many ways a victim of circumstance—an orphan, abused, forced into a life of servitude—and Nelly, in Wuthering Heights, the narrator of the story and servant to the family. She isn’t culpable for the tragedy that ensues as a result of Catherine and Heathcliffe’s romance, but she witnesses it, and lives to tell the tale. As I said before: villains usually have a tragic end, but as far as gothic literature goes, they’re usually the most infamous (and interesting) characters.

    4. If you’re in a Southern Gothic novel, outrun your past—fast.

    In books like The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, and plays like Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the characters are obsessed with events that happened in the past that they cannot undo. If your past is haunting you, it can be almost as powerful as the magic present in the European gothic novels. For the characters in The Sound and the Fury, three brothers fixating on what happened to their youngest sister, Caddy, caused the ruin of their entire family; and in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick’s inability to confront the truth about his sexuality led to tragedy both for his marriage, and a close friend. If you’re going to survive the Gothic South, either make peace with the past, or invent yourself a new one.

    On second thought, these books may be much more fun to read than they are to live through, but with these steps, you’re primed to make it to the 21st century intact. Unless, of course, I’m one of those gothic villainesses haunting you from the shadows of your past, waiting to take you down.

    What tips would you offer someone who’s just trying to live through a gothic novel?

    The post The Gothic Novel Survival Guide appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 3:55 pm on 2015/07/28 Permalink
    Tags: , being there, , , , , the sound and the fury   

    Let’s Celebrate the Best Morons in Literature 

    It’s easy to celebrate smart people—detectives who figure out mysteries just by observing clues, evil geniuses who devise horrific ways of ending the world and the sullen brainiacs who defeat them, anyone who figures out how to game the system and come out on top. But let’s put aside the hero-worship, because we all know that in literature at least, it’s the morons we enjoy the most. They deliver chaos and stupidity right when a plot needs them, and lend otherwise incredible actions credible by dint of their obtuse idiocy. Forget the smart heroes, and take a moment to celebrate some of the greatest, dumbest characters in literary history.

    Chauncey Gardiner, Being There, by Jerzy Kosinski
    Chance the Gardener is without question an empty vessel—a moron who has known nothing but the garden he tends for the wealthy “Old Man,” and what he sees on television. When the Old Man dies, a series of chance meetings and coincidences convinces a group of wealthy, connected people, including the president of the United States himself, that Chance (whose name has been misheard as Chauncey Gardiner) is a genius of few words and immense vision. Mocking the modern world of soundbites and instant celebrity, this prescient novel is still hilarious today. There is a chewy center of despair in Chance, who remains completely unchanged and unaffected by everything he experiences, ending the story back in a garden, where he finally feels at home.

    Benjy Compson, The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
    Benjy is easily one of the most complex, challenging characters in literature. His lyrical, time-jumping, emotionally inarticulate narration at the start of Faulkner’s novel has caused more than one reader to admit defeat and back away from the book slowly, as one would from a hungry bear that has crashed your campsite. Benjy is never a figure of fun—he is a tragic, almost a force of nature, a person who cannot speak or communicate with those around him, a character who clings to the few stable aspects of his life like a drowning man to a log. Seeing the world from Benjy’s point of view is incredibly challenging, but in the end, his tragic life is the one we get to know best, lending The Sound and the Fury an elegant sadness.

    Ignatius J. Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
    The smartest, best-read moron in literary history, Ignatius J. Reilly is a comical figure of contrasts. He’s a man who disdains the modern world, yet enjoys many of its comforts. He’s completely incompetent in almost everything he tries (even selling hot dogs turns into an Epic Fail), yet looks down on almost everyone he encounters. He believes himself to be open-minded and worldly, despite never having left his home city of New Orleans—in fact, his one attempt to travel a modest distance remains a story of deep psychological horror he repeats often. Reilly’s attempts to wriggle free of society’s requirements only lead him to work far harder and live deeper in squalor than he otherwise would. He is a lesson to anyone who has railed against the fact that we all have to “fit in” somehow to society.

    Lennie Small, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
    One of the most tragic figures in literature, Lennie Small is a huge, powerful man who loves animals, his friend George, and their shared dream of living a simple life on their own farm. The Lennie/George dynamic is so well-known today, it’s a cliché that’s often used humorously, but Lennie himself is tragic; incredibly strong, but lacking the brains needed to use his strength constructively, Lennie kills the things he loves by accident. His charming innocence endears him to the reader, and we wish for a happy ending—but the version of “happy” that Lennie receives heaps tragedy upon tragedy.

    Don Quixote, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
    One of the few literary characters whose name coined an adjective, Don Quixote is a marvelous creation, a man driven mad by reading too many romantic stories of medieval chivalry who sets out to be a knight, to set things right, and to find his “lady love.” Although more insane than actually stupid, Don Quixote’s misadventures always harm the people he attempts to help, and always leave in their wake more chaos than anything else. He’s a remarkably dumb, albeit charming, character who has come to define the crazy, stupid passion that inspires people to make poor decisions, waste resources, and ultimately fail in their stated endeavors. Of all the morons on this list, the world would truly be a dimmer place without this one.

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

    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.

  • Jeff Somers 4:30 pm on 2014/11/04 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , peter wimsey, the man in the empty suit, the sound and the fury,   

    5 Books that Contain Amazing Self-Contained Scenes 

    Sean Ferrell's Man in the Empty SuitA great book is more than the sum of its parts—there’s always something you can’t quite put your finger on that elevates a book to a work of art that fully immerses you in the alternate world it has created. Every year a parade of good books come out, and every year a handful jell into greatness. What’s always interesting is that within many good and great books are individual scenes that are, in a word, perfect. No matter how the novel plays out, that single scene is a standalone gem that can be read on its own, out of context Here are four books that contain such flawless sequences:

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace: The Prologue
    Yes, Infinite Jest is huge, sprawling, complex, and difficult to comprehend without repeated readings. But the opening sequence, which actually lies at the end of the narrative, is a perfect organism: You don’t need to know anything else about the book, the characters, or the story to appreciate this amazing scene. Writing in a more straightforward manner than in the rest of the book, Wallace eschews formal trickery to craft a creepy, Twilight Zone-ish scene about a brilliant young man interviewing for college—and being completely unable to communicate. Worse, his attempts to speak visibly shock and horrify his audience. This scene is essentially a masterful short story that gains significance and power read at novel’s end, but also stands alone perfectly.

    Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers: The River Scene
    The Peter Wimsey mystery novels were primarily cosy whodunits, with Wimsey functioning as a hilarious, brilliant sleuth making his way through mildly alarming adventures. In Gaudy Night, however, Sayers slowed down and wrote a novel that’s barely a mystery at all, concentrating instead on the relationship between Wimsey and his love interest, Harriet, and her struggles to balance her desire for a life of achievement and independence and her burgeoning love for him. Though this was written in 1936, the sexual politics are surprisingly modern (except for when they’re surprisingly hilarious), but the scene where Wimsey and Harriet float serenely on the river while Harriet slowly, then pulse-poundingly works out that she is actually in love with this man is sublime—and worth reading even if cosy mysteries aren’t anywhere near your thing.

    Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell: The First Hotel Sequence
    This brilliant literary sci-fi novel, about a man who invents time travel and returns to a specific point in the future every year on his birthday to gather with his younger and older selves, is a brain-bending achievement. The scene where the narrator enters the dilapidated hotel and we see him—dozens of him, older, younger, broken and blustering, each version the result of the particular challenges that version of the man has dealt with in his subjective year since the “last” party. It’s an amazing sequence that leads directly into the central mystery of the story, but if you were trying to convince someone that time travel doesn’t have to be silly, show them this sequence and mission accomplished.

    Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn: The “Cool Girl” Monologue
    Very few excerpts in novels have the kind of impact the Cool Girl speech in Gone Girl has had over the last few years. The soliloquy opens like this: “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl.” Then it builds from there into one of the most ferocious and memorable inner monologues ever committed to paper. It’s rare to see a film adaptation criticized specifically over a single sequence in a novel that isn’t action-oriented, but the recent Gone Girl film caught some flack because people thought they gave short shrift to the Cool Girl speech. If you’re curious what the fuss about Gone Girl is all about, you can read this speech and suffer no spoilers, but know exactly why you want to read the rest of the book.

    The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner: Part 1
    Yes, it’s a lengthy selection, but the brilliance of this opening sequence to one of the most challenging novels of the 20th century can’t be overstated. Initially disorienting, it can take uninitiated readers quite some time to figure out what’s going on. But the cadence of the writing, the rhythmic tricks Faulkner uses to almost subliminally guide you, and the recurrence of images and sounds and smells slowly coalesce into what amounts to the most thorough introduction to the story you could ever experience, and you’re not even consciously aware of how much information got dumped in these first few dozen pages until you’ve finished the book.

    What’s the most perfect scene you’ve ever read?

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