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

    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 9:00 pm on 2016/05/05 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , william faulkner, ,   

    6 Authors who Turned Uninspiring Careers into Grist for Their Stories 

    Anyone who has tried to make a living as a writer knows it’s hardly an easy road, and one piece of advice has held true since “working on that novel” became a thing: don’t quit your day job—even if you hate it. In addition to keeping you housed and fed, that day job hate can actually be a good thing—some famous novelists’ disastrous pre-fame careers directly informed their best work. Does this mean all aspiring novelists should seek out the worst jobs they can? Actually, maybe. As these six stories demonstrate, there’s gold to be mined from misery.

    Franz Kafka
    Insurance clerk
    Book: The Trial
    Franz Kafka was clearly not the world’s happiest person, and it’s easy to imagine part of that unhappiness had to do with his need to earn money, generally through a litany of depressing, uninspiring jobs. Kafka thought he could work as a clerk at an insurance company during the day and then have time to write at night—the fever dream of writers to this day—but slowly, the job took over his life, demanding more and more of his time. The Trial offers so many clear connections to the drudgery of endless bureaucracy, it’s clear we’ve all benefited from Kafka’s unhappy career.

    Kurt Vonnegut
    Managing a car dealership (badly)
    Book: Breakfast of Champions
    Kurt Vonnegut liked to joke that the reason he never received a Nobel Prize was due to his early, disastrous career managing the first Saab dealership in the United States. Under Vonnegut’s not so steady hand, the business came and went in less than 12 months, and it was years before Saab could mount a comeback effort. Of course, those early Saabs were much different (and much, much worse) than the modern models, so it might not have been entirely Vonnegut’s fault—but there’s no doubt much of his miserable experience at the dealership inspired parts of Breakfast of Champions and its deranged car dealer protagonist, Dwayne Hoover, offering a clear glimpse of day-job disaster being spun into gold.

    Roald Dahl
    Taste-testing chocolates
    Book: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
    There really are candies called gobstoppers, and they’ve been around since the late 19th century. Given that, it’s no surprise Dahl’s famous Everlasting Gobstopper is based on a favorite candy from his childhood. It is a little more surprising to learn Dahl worked as a taste-tester for Cadbury while he was at school, gobbling down chocolates and reporting his impressions. This led him to become a bit obsessed with the Cadbury factory, and he often imagined the “inventing room” where all the new candies were developed. It’s a short leap from a vague stomachache to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Okay, so maybe “child chocolate taste-tester” isn’t so much a failed career as an awesome career.

    Mitch Albom
    Musician and songwriter
    Book: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto
    Mitch Albom has succeeded first as a sports columnist and later as a novelist, but his first passion, and his first attempts at a career, were in the music industry. Now, “failure” is a strong term for a guy who has had a few songs recorded and even included in film soundtracks, but Albom himself is pretty frank about how his hopes for a career in music never came close to true success. He turned to writing instead, and his most recent novel, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, draws on his experience and knowledge of music in pretty obvious ways. It’s a book that probably wouldn’t exist if Albom hadn’t tried to make it as a musician—and failed.

    Stephen King
    High school janitor
    Book: Carrie
    It has been a long time since Stephen King needed to work for a living, but back in the mid-1970s, he was just like everyone else, struggling to get by with whatever jobs he could land. He worked as a janitor in a local high school, and while there’s no reason to think he wasn’t a fantastic custodial worker, his work mopping up after the kids obviously inspired his first published novel, Carrie. King’s on record about how his access to the girls’ showers inspired the opening scene of the novel—a book he almost threw away after it garnered a stack of rejections. We can thank his wife and (we assume) the fact that he hated working as a janitor for his decision to revise it one last time, with historic results.

    William Faulkner
    Book: Soldier’s Pay
    William Faulkner is one of our greatest novelists, but before he published his first book, Soldier’s Pay, he landed a gig as postmaster at the University of Mississippi, where he was famously terrible at his job. He was known to show up at odd hours, work on his novel while on the clock, and even purposely throw away mail. In 1924, he was forced to resign from his position, and penned a terse resignation letter that lives on in infamy, closing with the epic mic-drop: “I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” His debut novel, about the drudgery of a veteran’s return to daily life, includes a memorable passage snidely commenting on the folks who would show up to check if they had received mail, despite having no cause to think they had (this was before junk mail, obviously).

  • Jeff Somers 5:00 pm on 2016/05/03 Permalink
    Tags: , cabin in the woods, , , , , , william faulkner   

    5 Books Written in Crazy Places 

    Writers are strange folks. This is known. They labor privately on flights of fancy with zero guarantee of financial (or any other kind) of success. Even the ones that attain the ultimate confirmation of their vision—publication—may see very little reward for their efforts. So it’s no surprise that plenty of authors are a little eccentric, and follow strange rituals when it comes to writing their novels. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that while many books are written in cozy offices or clichéd coffee shops, some authors found truly unique places to write their masterpieces—like these five books, composed in places you’d never imagine.

    As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
    Written in: A power plant
    Faulkner was your classic author in many ways, largely incompetent off of the written page, overfond of whiskey, and seemingly incapable of holding a straight job. After being forced to resign from a gig as postmaster at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, he worked the night shift at a power plant in order to make ends meet—and largely ignored the workings of the plant, instead spending his time much more profitably writing his classic novel As I Lay Dying. Since the power plant didn’t burn down, we can assume Faulkner at least pursued the minimum effort in his job, but next time you’re reading this novel, imagine its author toiling at 3 a.m. while the sparks literally flew.

    Justine, by Marquis de Sade
    Written in: Prison
    The list of novels written in prison is surprisingly lengthy—or not surprisingly, since the whole point of prison is there’s not much to do except think and avoid meeting a violent end. Much of de Sade’s work was written in one prison or another; the man spent 32 of his 74 years behind bars, which did nothing to blunt the extreme vision of personal liberty expressed in his writings. Justine began as an early work, written in a few weeks during one of de Sade’s early (and fairly brief) stints in the pokey; later revisions made it so shocking that no less an authority than Napoleon himself was outraged by it, and ordered de Sade’s imprisonment again—an imprisonment that lasted the final 13 years of his life. Which means Justine is that rare book written in prison that subsequently landed its author back in prison.

    Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw
    Written in: A custom-made rotating hut
    Shaw’s classic play, which served as the inspiration for the musical My Fair Lady, was written, like most of his work, in a custom-made rotating hut on the grounds of his home. Shaw liked to work in the sunlight, and designed the hut so he could rotate it manually from inside in order to keep his work area bathed in light at all times. He also named the hut “London,” specifically so his servants could respond to queries about where the famed playwright was with the honest, deceptive answer, “in London.” You can picture Shaw laughing to himself as he worked, thinking about his little joke and the confusion it no doubt caused.

    Walden and Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau
    Written in: A cabin in the woods
    The “writer’s hut” isn’t an uncommon place for great novels to be created, but Thoreau took it one step further, wandering into the woods and literally building his own cabin from scratch, living in it for two years, then writing about the whole experience in a philosophical work that quickly became a classic and a staple of English classes everywhere. The cabin itself was in many ways unremarkable, and if Thoreau had purchased it or hired someone to build it like a normal human being, we wouldn’t be talking about it right now. But when an author builds his writing hut in the middle of nowhere with his bare hands, it’s almost as remarkable as the book he produced there.

    Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
    Written in: A pub
    Rowling didn’t write all of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in pubs, but she definitely wrote a significant portion of it in them, mainly The Elephant House and Nicolson’s Cafe in Edinburgh. As is well known, the first Potter novel was written at a low point of Rowling’s life; she was embroiled in a bitter divorce, raising her daughter alone, and living on government benefits. She found the best way to get her daughter to fall asleep was to take her for a walk, and so she would take the child to a café and sit and work on her novel for a time. The Elephant House’s back room, where Rowling would sit, looked out over Edinburgh Castle, which must have had quite an effect on the author—and the story she wrote.

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

    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, , william faulkner   

    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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