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The Cloud Rank: CHINA MIÉVILLE

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of our readers had not heard of the novelist China Miéville before.  I myself only stumbled upon a story of his in a collection a few years back, and had to read backwards from there to catch up with his writing.  Below, I’d like to share some thoughts about his newest novel, Embassytown and then list “The Cloud Rank” of all of his works that I have read, but before I do, here are just a few brief thoughts by way of introduction…

  • Miéville is primarily known as an author of science fiction/fantasy-esque novels, but they are eruditely creative, densely multilayered (political/spiritual/culturally reflective), and deeply engaging examples of those genres, that is, versus the kind that have implausibly-bosomed alien/elfin women in space/fairy bikinis.  Supposedly, there is a “school” of writing to which Miéville belongs called the “New Weird.”  I don’t know about weird, I just think it’s devastatingly clever. Except when it’s not (see Cloud Rank below for works that fall in the AVOID category).
  • He’s British and male, though his name seemed French and feminine when I first encountered it (he made himself the central character in the first story of his I read, mentioned above).  He is a avowed Marxist (I think? Maybe just a hyper-socialist?) with a PhD in International Something (Law? Economics? Can’t be bothered to fact-check anything floating about in my memory).  He has a shaved head, a plethora of earrings in one ear, and he’s far from either of the polar extremes one normally associates with the sci-fi/fantasy crowd (i.e. skinny nerd or fatty schlub). This last sentence is rendered wholly unnecessary by inserting…

    Portrait of the artist as a person you would hand over your wallet to

    His newest novel, Embassytown, was released in May of 2011, to mostly quite positive reviews.  It is set in the future on the most distant planet of the known universe, when human existence on earth is only a vague memory (or something like that).  I won’t go into the details of plot, character, etc.  All those things can be found in reviews elsewhere with considerable ease.  Instead, I’d simply like to tell you a few of my own impressions…

  • I initially found myself simultaneously intrigued and baffled by the world he created (aliens, technology, politics, etc.), yet I was willing to patiently uncover the meaning of words like “miab” or “immer” by their use in context.  However, I later became a bit bored with this lexical snipe-hunt, being that some words’ meaning seemed almost indeterminable.  Still, the wordsmithery of this writer cannot be denied.
  • The central character and narrator, a human woman called Avice, held my attention and affection throughout, though there was a disquieting passivity to her–intentionally, I’m sure, as Avice describes herself as a “floaker,” which is a neologism the author uses to define someone who is an underachiever/layabout/slacker combination mixed with a dose of elitist and a hint of mischievous social agitator.  I personally would hope to live up to such a description on my finest days…
  • In terms of literary pedigree, I found myself sensing the influence of two works quite strongly in his novel (though he may have read neither):  Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (if you’re ever in a used bookshop, look for this & buy a pulpy copy…it’s so worth reading) with its androgynous sexuality and ambassadorial politics, and C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra (I’m pretty sure that Miéville would not be a fan of Lewis, given his harsh words regarding Tolkien) with its re-imagined Edenic narrative and grand human themes.  If you liked either of those books, I think you would enjoy their offspring in Embassytown.
  • The book had the potential to be a microcosmic epic, an unveiling of life in a particular place that seemed to speak to the totality of universal existence.  But ultimately, it lost steam on this quest and became a story that was crushed by its own inability to live up to the grand vision it had promised.  And yet, this book is so much better than most of whatever else that is published every year, so it comes highly recommended nevertheless.

So where does Embassytown fall on the Cloud Rank of China Miéville’s literary output?  About the middle…

  1. The Scar (2002):  This is the second novel in the Bas-Lag trilogy.  It is a sci-fi sea novel (Miéville is also known for experimenting with hybrids of various genres) and one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ (Note: this book can be read as a stand-alone novel, but why not start with…
  2. Perdido Street Station (2000):  The first of the trilogy, sometimes a bit bogged down by detail, but absolutely brilliant in its world creation, vivid descriptions (it can actually be a somewhat intense read with the violent accounts of the horrific “slake moth” monsters and what not), and deeply compelling storyline.  I was gripped by this book.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ
  3. The City & The City (2009):  This is a crime/noir novel set in an Eastern European-esque location which actually houses two distinct cities, existing in the same geographic space but divided by an ingrained, mutual disregard established in a elaborate set of rules that keeps one city from acknowledging the other.  Brilliant conceit, but the story lost the central suspense narrative (to my mind) at some point. Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  4. Embassytown (2011):  See above comments.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  5. Railsea (2012):  Sometimes, a bit hit & miss, this is a postmodern re-imagining of Moby-Dick with trains replacing boats in a futuristic world.  If you can stick to the end, I think you’ll find it is ultimately a satisfying read.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  6. Looking for Jake (collection, 2005):  A mixed bag of stories and other pieces, notable mainly for the post-apocalyptic vampire novella, The Tain, and a story in the Bas-Lag universe called “Jack.”  Cloud Rank = MOSTLY FOR FANS
  7. Iron Council (2004):  The third book in the Bas-Lag trilogy, half of it written in the manner of a classic western novel, other parts a narrative of class struggle, and yet other parts creepy sci-fi.  I was so deeply disappointed in this conclusion to the trilogy, I finished it only out of a sense of obsessive completism.  Cloud Rank = AVOID, UNLESS YOU HAVE THE SAME NEED TO COMPLETE THE SERIES
  8. Kraken (2010):  I could barely bring myself to keep reading a few chapters in–there was not much that I liked at all.  It felt like a D-grade rehash of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  And just to be spiteful, I will spoil the end here:  the whole thing with the kraken is just a red herring and the real villain is a former fundamentalist Christian who wants to erase the evidence for Darwinism. This is inexcusably bad.  Cloud Rank = AVOID AT ALL COST

Moby Books in Comparision to Original Text

In response to my post on the Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions, one of our faithful readers…ok, my brother, asked what the difference was between the abridged version of a Moby Books edition (MB) and the original version.  I thought I would provide a sample of the first chapter from the MB edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in contrast to Stevenson’s original text.

Chapter 1:

The Old Sea-dog at the Admiral Benbow

SQUIRE TRELAWNEY, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow–a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest– Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.

“This is a handy cove,” says he at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop. Much company, mate?”

My father told him no, very little company, the more was the pity.

“Well, then,” said he, “this is the berth for me. Here you, matey,” he cried to the man who trundled the barrow; “bring up alongside and help up my chest. I’ll stay here a bit,” he continued. “I’m a plain man; rum and bacon and eggs is what I want, and that head up there for to watch ships off. What you mought call me? You mought call me captain. Oh, I see what you’re at– there”; and he threw down three or four gold pieces on the threshold. “You can tell me when I’ve worked through that,” says he, looking as fierce as a commander.

And indeed bad as his clothes were and coarsely as he spoke, he had none of the appearance of a man who sailed before the mast, but seemed like a mate or skipper accustomed to be obeyed or to strike. The man who came with the barrow told us the mail had set him down the morning before at the Royal George, that he had inquired what inns there were along the coast, and hearing ours well spoken of, I suppose, and described as lonely, had chosen it from the others for his place of residence. And that was all we could learn of our guest.

He was a very silent man by custom. All day he hung round the cove or upon the cliffs with a brass telescope; all evening he sat in a corner of the parlour next the fire and drank rum and water very strong. Mostly he would not speak when spoken to, only look up sudden and fierce and blow through his nose like a fog-horn; and we and the people who came about our house soon learned to let him be. Every day when he came back from his stroll he would ask if any seafaring men had gone by along the road. At first we thought it was the want of company of his own kind that made him ask this question, but at last we began to see he was desirous to avoid them. When a seaman did put up at the Admiral Benbow (as now and then some did, making by the coast road for Bristol) he would look in at him through the curtained door before he entered the parlour; and he was always sure to be as silent as a mouse when any such was present. For me, at least, there was no secret about the matter, for I was, in a way, a sharer in his alarms. He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my “weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg” and let him know the moment he appeared. Often enough when the first of the month came round and I applied to him for my wage, he would only blow through his nose at me and stare me down, but before the week was out he was sure to think better of it, bring me my four-penny piece, and repeat his orders to look out for “the seafaring man with one leg.”

How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body. To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares. And altogether I paid pretty dear for my monthly fourpenny piece, in the shape of these abominable fancies.

But though I was so terrified by the idea of the seafaring man with one leg, I was far less afraid of the captain himself than anybody else who knew him. There were nights when he took a deal more rum and water than his head would carry; and then he would sometimes sit and sing his wicked, old, wild sea-songs, minding nobody; but sometimes he would call for glasses round and force all the trembling company to listen to his stories or bear a chorus to his singing. Often I have heard the house shaking with “Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum,” all the neighbours joining in for dear life, with the fear of death upon them, and each singing louder than the other to avoid remark. For in these fits he was the most overriding companion ever known; he would slap his hand on the table for silence all round; he would fly up in a passion of anger at a question, or sometimes because none was put, and so he judged the company was not following his story. Nor would he allow anyone to leave the inn till he had drunk himself sleepy and reeled off to bed.

His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were–about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main. By his own account he must have lived his life among some of the wickedest men that God ever allowed upon the sea, and the language in which he told these stories shocked our plain country people almost as much as the crimes that he described. My father was always saying the inn would be ruined, for people would soon cease coming there to be tyrannized over and put down, and sent shivering to their beds; but I really believe his presence did us good. People were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life, and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a “true sea-dog” and a “real old salt” and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.

In one way, indeed, he bade fair to ruin us, for he kept on staying week after week, and at last month after month, so that all the money had been long exhausted, and still my father never plucked up the heart to insist on having more. If ever he mentioned it, the captain blew through his nose so loudly that you might say he roared, and stared my poor father out of the room. I have seen him wringing his hands after such a rebuff, and I am sure the annoyance and the terror he lived in must have greatly hastened his early and unhappy death.

All the time he lived with us the captain made no change whatever in his dress but to buy some stockings from a hawker. One of the cocks of his hat having fallen down, he let it hang from that day forth, though it was a great annoyance when it blew. I remember the appearance of his coat, which he patched himself upstairs in his room, and which, before the end, was nothing but patches. He never wrote or received a letter, and he never spoke with any but the neighbours, and with these, for the most part, only when drunk on rum. The great sea-chest none of us had ever seen open.

He was only once crossed, and that was towards the end, when my poor father was far gone in a decline that took him off. Dr. Livesey came late one afternoon to see the patient, took a bit of dinner from my mother, and went into the parlour to smoke a pipe until his horse should come down from the hamlet, for we had no stabling at the old Benbow. I followed him in, and I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his powder as white as snow and his bright, black eyes and pleasant manners, made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting, far gone in rum, with his arms on the table. Suddenly he–the captain, that is–began to pipe up his eternal song:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest– Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest– Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

At first I had supposed “the dead man’s chest” to be that identical big box of his upstairs in the front room, and the thought had been mingled in my nightmares with that of the one-legged seafaring man. But by this time we had all long ceased to pay any particular notice to the song; it was new, that night, to nobody but Dr. Livesey, and on him I observed it did not produce an agreeable effect, for he looked up for a moment quite angrily before he went on with his talk to old Taylor, the gardener, on a new cure for the rheumatics. In the meantime, the captain gradually brightened up at his own music, and at last flapped his hand upon the table before him in a way we all knew to mean silence. The voices stopped at once, all but Dr. Livesey’s; he went on as before speaking clear and kind and drawing briskly at his pipe between every word or two. The captain glared at him for a while, flapped his hand again, glared still harder, and at last broke out with a villainous, low oath, “Silence, there, between decks!”

“Were you addressing me, sir?” says the doctor; and when the ruffian had told him, with another oath, that this was so, “I have only one thing to say to you, sir,” replies the doctor, “that if you keep on drinking rum, the world will soon be quit of a very dirty scoundrel!”

The old fellow’s fury was awful. He sprang to his feet, drew and opened a sailor’s clasp-knife, and balancing it open on the palm of his hand, threatened to pin the doctor to the wall.

The doctor never so much as moved. He spoke to him as before, over his shoulder and in the same tone of voice, rather high, so that all the room might hear, but perfectly calm and steady: “If you do not put that knife this instant in your pocket, I promise, upon my honour, you shall hang at the next assizes.”

Then followed a battle of looks between them, but the captain soon knuckled under, put up his weapon, and resumed his seat, grumbling like a beaten dog.

“And now, sir,” continued the doctor, “since I now know there’s such a fellow in my district, you may count I’ll have an eye upon you day and night. I’m not a doctor only; I’m a magistrate; and if I catch a breath of complaint against you, if it’s only for a piece of incivility like tonight’s, I’ll take effectual means to have you hunted down and routed out of this. Let that suffice.”

Soon after, Dr. Livesey’s horse came to the door and he rode away, but the captain held his peace that evening, and for many evenings to come.

Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions

“Rosebud.”  The classic symbol of nostalgic longing from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (though I won’t mention what Rosebud is exactly, as I myself had the mystery spoiled by finding out the answer before I had seen the film).  Just as William Randolph Hea–oh, I mean, Charles Foster Kane, yearned for the symbol of his lost childhood in his dying moments, many people today become fixated on preserving some memento from their younger, more care-free days when they become adults:  sports trading cards, doll collections, Star Wars action figures, etc.

The logo that launched a thousand internet searches.

For me, the emblem of my childhood is a set of mini-books called “Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions.”  These were a series of small (5 1/2 x 4″) editions of classic novels published in the 1970’s and 80’s which had been abridged and simplified so that a young reader could grasp the story and encounter key sections of the original dialogue and narration of a classic work of literature.  One of the most notable features for me, as a young reader, was the comic-style illustrations that accompanied each page of the narrative, as well as the vividly-depicted covers, which had a simple, Van Gogh-like beauty in their coloring and style.

How, exactly, does one see this as being a “grocery”?

I have discovered in my wanderings on the sea of human information that is the Google Search Engine that there are others who share in my fascination with these books; however, there has yet to be a definitive site dedicated to these volumes (as was pointed out here–this post was part of my motivation to finally write this!).

While this will not be the final word on Moby Books, I would like to share as much information as I have with my fellow devotees and the world at large; however, there are many more questions that require researchers far better than myself to answer.

My first memory of Moby Books came from opening a McDonald’s “Happy Meal” sometime in the late 1970’s (back when only millions had been served) and discovering a copy of Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” inside (smelling of french fries I’m sure).  McDonald’s apparently worked with Moby Books on a special promotion tied into a TV series the fast-food company was sponsoring on PBS called “Once Upon a Classic.”  After years of searching, I found a copy of this version in quite good condition, which is the crown of my Moby Books collection.

God bless Moby Books…each and every one!

Replacing the MB logo with the golden arches? BLASPHEMY!!

After reading that first book, I pressed my parents to buy more and more of these books (which could be found at grocery stores!) and began to fancy myself quite the literary type.  At my elementary school library, I checked out a copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (the unabridged original), believing that I had already taken on his The Last of the Mohicans (in Moby Book form)–I was in for a sharp awakening, as I couldn’t get past the first few pages!!  Even though it took me a while to wean myself from the Moby Books versions of classic novels, they were my “gateway drug” to the realms of classic and contemporary fiction which have been a passion ever since.

Around 5 years ago, my mom brought over some of my old Moby Books to give to MY kids and it reawakened so many memories of being lost in other lands and people’s lives in these books that I decided that I needed to obtain the full collection.  At this point, I believe I have all of the books that are available to be had (41 total), but I would love to complete the collection if I find any more.  Here are some facts about the Moby Books collection I have discovered, as well as some questions that I have, followed by a categorized list (by volume number) of all the Moby Books of which I am aware.

MOBY BOOKS FACTS & FAQS

  • There were 36 Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions published in 3 batches of 12 each in 1977, 1979, and 1983.  “Moby Books” was the brand name, published by Playmore Inc. out of New York City in arrangement with I. Waldman & Son, Inc.
  • Playmore later released (sometime between 2001-2002) a number of “Illustrated Classic Editions” without the Moby Books imprint and featuring a different style of cover art & illustrations.  I do not consider these to be part of the “canonical collection,” however, these later editions were given catalog numbers in sequence with the earlier editions, so there seems to be some sense of intended continuity by the publisher.
  • The McDonald’s editions are an interesting puzzle.  There seem to have been two sets released of “4 volumes” each in 1977 and 1979; whereas the original series catalog numbers are from 4501-4536, the McDonald’s editions are given catalog numbers from 1001-1004/95.  The books I own from the 1977 set include The Wizard of Oz (1001/95, vol. 1), Black Beauty (1003/95, vol. 3), and The Three Musketeers (1004/95, vol. 4).  I have never found the 2nd volume of this set.  Of the 1979 set, I have Tom Sawyer (1002/95, vol. 2) and A Christmas Carol (1004/95, vol. 4); I have also never come across any other books from this set.  Since two books share the same catalog number (1004/95), I am assuming these were completely different sets with no shared titles.  I would love to find out about these missing editions if anyone has any information…

     

  • In the back of the 1977 and 1983 books, there are two catalogs of the editions in the series.  While the 1983 listing contains the full 36 books from the official Moby Books canon and no more, the 1977 listing includes 5 books that apparently were intended to be part of the series, but were never actually published:  Frankenstein (which was later released in a 2002 “non-canonical” edition), Aesop’s Fables, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Kim (by Kipling), and “Stories from the Bible.”

This is the information I have.  For those wishing to begin their own collection of Moby Books, I would recommend a frequent search of eBay listings, as you can find people selling 15-20 books for 5 dollars total.  There is also a site called Series Books which sell the books, but they are much more expensive.  The McDonald’s editions are quite hard to come by and sell for $25-30 a piece (I found mine for around $3-5 a while back!).  Below I have listed the books with catalog numbers…any corrections or new information would be greatly appreciated!

Moby Books Illustrated Classics editions

Catalog No./Title/Author/Publishing Date

4501 Wizard of Oz, The Baum, L. Frank 1977
4502 Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles Doyle, A. Conan 1977
4503 Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, The Defoe, Daniel 1977
4504 Black Beauty Sewell, Anna 1977
4505 Kidnapped Stevenson, Robert Louis 1977
4506 Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, A Twain, Mark 1977
4507 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Verne, Jules 1977
4508 Heidi Spyri, Johanna 1977
4509 Three Musketeers, The Dumas, Alexandre 1977
4510 Treasure Island Stevenson, Robert Louis 1977
4511 Little Women Alcott, Louisa May 1977
4512 Around the World in 80 Days Verne, Jules 1977
4513 Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, The Pyle, Howard 1979
4514 Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Twain, Mark 1979
4515 Call of the Wild, The London, Jack 1979
4516 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Twain, Mark 1979
4517 Oliver Twist Dickens, Charles 1979
4518 David Copperfield Dickens, Charles 1979
4519 Count of Monte Cristo, The Dumas, Alexandre 1979
4520 Moby Dick Melville, Herman 1979
4521 Last of the Mohicans, The Cooper, James Fenimore 1979
4522 Mutiny on Board H.M.S. Bounty Bligh, William 1979
4523 Oregon Trail, The Parkman, Francis 1979
4524 Tales of Mystery and Terror Poe, Edgar Allan 1979
4525 Ben-Hur Wallace, Lew 1983
4526 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Doyle, A. Conan 1983
4527 Swiss Family Robinson, The Wyss, Johann 1983
4528 Journey to the Center of the Earth, A Verne, Jules 1983
4529 War of the Worlds Wells, H.G. 1983
4530 Time Machine, The Wells, H.G. 1983
4531 Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Stevenson, Robert Louis 1983
4532 Tale of Two Cities, A Dickens, Charles 1983
4533 Man in the Iron Mask, The Dumas, Alexandre 1983
4534 Great Expectations Dickens, Charles 1983
4535 Prince and the Pauper, The Twain, Mark 1983
4536 Captain Courageous Kipling, Rudyard 1983
4537 Red Badge of Courage Crane, Stephen 2002
4538 Frankenstein Shelley, Mary 2002
4539 King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table Pyle, Howard 2002
4540 Jungle Book, The Kipling, Rudyard 2002
4541 Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Hugo, Victor 2002
4542 Wind in the Willows, The Grahame, Kenneth 2002
4543 Gulliver’s Travels Swift, Jonathan 2002
4544 Invisible Man, The Wells, H.G. 2002
4545 Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Irving, Washington 2002
4546 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Wiggin, Kate Douglas 2002
4547 Alice in Wonderland Carroll, Lewis 2002
4548 Pride and Prejudice Austen, Jane 2002

A brief reflection on Salinger

An obituary would be rather unnecessary as there are so many about.  Even if I wanted to write one there is no proper way to explain how the world is any different without J.D. Salinger – the highly secretive author had not published anything since 1965.  I had hoped to meet him at some point, a child-like hope in the face of high improbability, which has now effectively morphed into impossibility.  Salinger now dwells among the likes of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and John Gardner – the American writers with whom I would love more than nearly anything to have a conversation, but never will.  I’m certain that Greg shares my sentiments.

Salinger was a genius storyteller.  Perhaps this is due to the way in which he so precisely enters into the minds of his exquisitely developed characters (and in doing so makes his way into our minds).  Salinger often employed a special tactic in his writing which keeps it dynamic and captivating: he wrote almost exclusively about or from the perspective of the young.  Part of this approach is reflected in the fact that Salinger’s rhetoric never stoops to exhaust his vocabulary.  While this has been used by critics to reduce Salinger’s audience to those in their teens and early twenties, I believe his writing very deliberately utilises the perspective of the young in order to communicate the constant liminality of life and the tension it brings.  In such a way, when we read Salinger’s works we are not reading mere stories, but we are invited into a tangible and magical world that can make even the most common event beautiful, profound, revelatory and sacred.

Thanks for sharing, JDS.

Nine Stories (1953) – For years it’s been a dream of mine to write a screenplay for a feature film version of ‘The Laughing Man’.

– Elijah

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Thank you Elijah for noting with such tenderness the passing of Salinger.  I hope it’s not presumptuous to add some memories.  J.D. Salinger was quite a significant figure in my development as a human being.  The scarlet and yellow-covered Catcher in the Rye holds a magical fascination in my memory – it was a sacred text to my best friend Wade and I.  We even wrote a play together that was performed at my high school called ‘The Whole Aquarium’ as an exercise in adoring emulation of CITR.  My first year in college, I remember wandering through the bookstore at CSULB and finding a copy of Franny & Zooey.  I can clearly see myself reading it on the slope of lawn below the science buildings and thinking, “I don’t care about college–this is all that I want to understand.” His Nine Stories was an endless source of wonder and contemplation for my pensive post-adolescent musings – particularly ‘Just Before the War with the Eskimos,’ ‘The Laughing Man,” and ‘For Esme – With Love & Squalor’.

I wrote a number of papers exploring Salinger’s stories as an undergrad; I just found one in my files which analyzes the story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ as a narrative version of the Zen Buddhist koan, “designed to activate spiritual insight in the mind of an ideal reader.”  In my analysis, I saw the little girl Sharon Lipshutz, whom Seymour claims to “like…so much” as the ideal reader, being that she is “never mean or unkind” – unlike the critics and lit. profs who took apart & psychoanalyzed Salinger’s stories to death – and I posited that her name may represent a reader who simply keeps their “lips shut,” personifying quiet reflection.

Salinger wondered in the dedication of his novella Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters “if there was an amateur reader still left in the world” and if so, he gave them his “untellable affection and gratitude.”  I hope I never become too sophisticated of a reader to deserve these blessings, but I know that I will always remain deeply grateful for the power and influence of Salinger’s works on sensitizing my soul to the small delights, oblique insights and deep longing, never to be fulfilled in this broken world, found in his stories.

Salinger pieces by two of my favorites:  David Lodge & Dave Eggars.

– Greg

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J.D. Salinger (1919 – 2010)

An article from The Onion.

21 Artifacts from the 21st Century

The end of the decade has resulted in a number of best of the decade lists.  We’ve kind of OD’d on best of lists here already, but Elijah and I wanted to throw in our votes for those works of culture from the 2000’s WE think will/should stand the test of time.

I feel somewhat presumptuous putting this out there, as if my vote actually mattered, but what I have found is that my friends, acquaintances, and YOU dear reader, often find your interest piqued by something that has been declared “the best.”  I know that some of Elijah’s musical selections caused me to listen to albums I had not heeded before…so perhaps you may find something here that causes you to want to experience, reconsider or even maybe avoid (?) the following creative endeavors.  Hope you enjoy…see you next decade!

- Greg

Albums (Greg | Elijah)

  1. Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens | Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead
  2. The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads (2001) Lift to Experience | Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens
  3. In Rainbows/Bonus Disc (2007) Radiohead | Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith
  4. The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit | The Sophtware Slump (2000) Grandaddy
  5. Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens | Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000) Belle & Sebastian
  6. Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith | Songs in A & E (2008) Spiritualized
  7. Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead | Jane Doe (2001) Converge
  8. Lifted, Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002) Bright Eyes | Turn On the Bright Lights (2002) Interpol
  9. Feels (2005) Animal Collective | Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens
  10. Funeral (2004) The Arcade Fire | Blood Money (2002) Tom Waits
  11. Takk (2005) Sigur Rós | Control (2002) Pedro the Lion
  12. Boxer (2007) The National | Veckatimest (2009) Grizzly Bear
  13. Asleep in the Back (2001) Elbow | We Are the Only Friends We Have (2002) Piebald
  14. A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) Coldplay | The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit
  15. Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) Animal Collective | Hot Shots II (2001) The Beta Band
  16. Gang of Losers (2006) The Dears | The Life Pursuit (2006) Belle & Sebastian
  17. Control (2002) Pedro the Lion | Tyrannosaurus Hives (2004) The Hives
  18. The Last Broadcast (2002) Doves | The Argument (2000) Fugazi
  19. The Invisible Band (2001) Travis | Hail to the Thief (2003) Radiohead
  20. Oh, Inverted World (2001) The Shins | Sea Change (2002) Beck
  21. Retreiver (2004) Ron Sexsmith | How It Ends (2004) DeVotchKa

Books (there were so many that we didn’t read [Elijah read only a handful of novels from the 2000s], so this list is incredibly subjective and limited in scope)

Novels:

  • Cloud Atlas (2004) David Mitchell
  • House of Leaves (2000) Mark Z. Danielewski
  • 2666 (2004) Roberto Bolaño
  • Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan
  • The Book of Illusions (2002) Paul Auster
  • Black Swan Green (2007) David Mitchell
  • American Gods (2001) Neil Gaiman
  • Thinks (2001) David Lodge
  • The City & The City (2009) China Mieville

Misc:

  • Blankets (2003) Craig Thompson, graphic novel
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) Dave Eggers, memoir
  • The Book of Other People (2007) ed. Zadie Smith, story collection
  • The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories (2007) Nicholas Gurewitch, comic collection
  • Box Office Poison (2001) Alex Robinson, graphic novel
  • The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction (2005) literary survey
  • Wall and Piece (2005) Banksy, art collection

Religion/Christianity:

  • Free of Charge (2006) Miroslav Volf
  • Jesus of Nazareth (2008) Pope Benedict XVI
  • The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (2009) David Dark
  • Renewing the Center (2000) Stanley Grenz
  • Across the Spectrum (2002) Gregory Boyd & Paul Eddy
  • The Mosaic of Christian Belief (2002) Roger Olson
  • The Shaping of Things to Come (2003) Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch
  • These last three Tom Wright books are included for their effective introductory appeal rather than any necessary anticipation of ‘classic’ status.
  • Paul: In Fresh Perspective (2005) N. T. (Tom) Wright
  • Simply Christian (2006) N. T. (Tom) Wright
  • Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (2009) N. T. (Tom) Wright

Film (G | E)

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Michel Gondry | ditto
  2. Amelie (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet | Lord of the Rings (2001-03)  Peter Jackson
  3. Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón | There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson
  4. Lord of the Rings (2001-03)  Peter Jackson | The Pianist (2002) Roman Polanski
  5. The New World (2005) Terrance Malick | Dancer in the Dark (2000) Lars von Trier
  6. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson | The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson
  7. All the Real Girls (2002) David Gordon Green | Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan
  8. Waltz with Bashir (2008) Ari Folman | Adaptation (2002) Spike Jonze
  9. In the Mood For Love (2000) Kar Wai Wong | Big Fish (2003) Tim Burton
  10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) Ang Lee | ditto
  11. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Andrew Dominik | Zodiac (2007) David Fincher
  12. WALL-E (2008) Andrew Stanton | The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat
  13. There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson | Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson
  14. Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan | The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan
  15. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro | Elephant (2003) Gus Van Sant
  16. The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson | A Beautiful Mind (2001) Ron Howard
  17. The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat | Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro
  18. The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan | About Schmidt (2002) Alexander Payne
  19. The Lives of Others (2007) Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | Capote (2005) Bennett Miller
  20. Moulin Rouge (2001) Baz Luhrmann | Lost in Translation (2003) Sofia Coppola
  21. Donnie Darko (2001) Richard Kelly | American Splendor (2003) Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini

The Greatest Novelist of the early 21st Century?

As fascinated as I am by economic theory & Christian belief (ok, maybe not fascinated), I thought I might write something more aligned with my deepest passion:  literature.  And since this seems to be the place to say the things that seem of greatest significance to me, I will share my thoughts with you as if they truly did matter.

I believe I may have discovered a writer who will be remembered as one of the greatest novelists of our generation.  He certainly has joined the ranks of my favorite contemporary authors (just for shits and giggles, other favorites include David Lodge, Paul Auster, Ian McEwan and Tom Perrotta, as well as the late John Gardner and Italo Calvino).  His name, dear reader, is David Mitchell.  Have you heard of him already?  I am finding out about him 9 years late, but perhaps you run with more literate crowds than I.

If you are not familiar with Mr. Mitchell, I will introduce you to his works in the order in which I have read them (all within the last 3 months):

-Black Swan Green…a “coming-of-age” novel which captures both the common human experience of teenage angst and reveals a singular story of beauty and depth that could only be told by a budding poet with a speech disorder (which he personifies as “Hangman” in a brilliant conceit) in early-80’s Britain.  I was stunned by Mitchell’s originality of language and his masterful revelation of the uniquely fascinating consciousness of his narrator, while often finding myself lost in the sea of characters and details into which he pulls the reader.

-Ghostwritten…so Mitchell’s ability to uncannily depict the inner essence of a character?  He does it with NINE different characters here (one of which seems to be a disembodied consciousness who parasites off of various hosts) in a variety of global settings, depicted pitch perfect (well, I guess I can only assume that, not having been to Okinawa, Mongolia, St. Petersburg, etc.).  This was his first novel.  Genius right out of the starting gate.

-number9dream…at first, I thought this would be the novel of his which I liked least, beginning with a fantasy sequence ala cyberpunk meets Walter Mitty, only to discover that this was the method of revealing his narrator–through a series of what have been called “alternate realities” that help the young Japanese protaganist escape from inner pain at losing his sister & never knowing his father.  It probably will remain a lesser of his novels, but still more capably executed and intriguing than most of the fiction around today.

-Cloud Atlas…the masterpiece (for now).  Utilizing a variety of different literary forms (journal, letters, mainstream fiction, memoir, interview, oral storytelling, etc.) in a palindromic structure, Mitchell once again tells stories from a range of geographical settings, but now also from a variety of historical periods (1800’s to well into the future), again, all feeling spot on.  His vast imagination and attention to minute detail, along with the intertextual trick of bringing in characters from his other novels (which he does frequently), make this an encyclopedic work unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

This guy is amazing.  It’s often a demanding task to read his work, but the quality of his writing will probably insure that future literature “seminar” classes will be devoted to him, if not to EACH of his books.

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