Category Archives: Curious Lists

Special Books Banned for Special Reasons, 1 and 2

 

Banned Book of the Day: Monday, September 27

 

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell, is  a children’s book about the life of a horse, as told by Black Beauty himself. It’s about the many varieties of man available out there in the world– kind men, stupid men, evil men– and his life while in the care of each one. There is quite a lot of suffering that goes on and a bit of rejoicing, as well.

This book was banned in South Africa during the years of Apartheid– not because those in power saw themselves in the broken, awful men responsible for the horse’s despair and suffering, but because the title of the book was Black Beauty and if you didn’t know any better, it would seem to you that this was a book about a black woman… who was a beauty.

 

Banned Book of the Day: Tuesday, September 28

 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, banned in China in 1931 by the Governor of Hunan Province, because “animals should not use human language” and “it is disastrous to put human beings and animals on the same level”.

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Goth Talk

What does it mean to be truly Gothic?  Does it mean purchasing all of your clothes at Hot Topic and writing bad poetry on the backs of your hands?  Or perhaps your are a member of a Germanic tribe in the Dark Ages, and wish to pillage Rome and conquer large portions of Western Europe.  Because that’s totally Goth.

If you’re somewhat lukewarm on either of the above, do not fear. There are still ways to nurture the inner Goth living in the basement of your heart.  Gothic literature, the most dark and decadent literature imaginable (except for Decadent literature, of course,) is associated with the Romantic period, but actually precedes it.  The first novel defined as ‘Gothic’ was The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764; interesting to note, because even though the first ‘official’ novel was written way back in the early 1600’s (and anyone is welcome to guess what book that was,) fiction as we know it didn’t really take off until the middle of the 18th Century. This means that Gothic lit is arguably the first example of genre fiction, and all subsequent genres were to some extent spawned from it.

Like Romanticism, the basic impulses behind the Gothic genre were a rejection of the Enlightenment rationalism and a deepening interest in intense irrational emotion.  Though it would be incorrect to say the Romantics focused solely on positive aspects of human experience, Gothic literature attempted to give the reader a full and engrossing insight into the sublime aspects of terror, revulsion and madness.  Themes in Gothic literature are fairly common; there are usually motifs of the supernatural, darkness, secrets, curses, death and fear thereof, decay, and especially doubles.  The author of a Gothic tale will make every effort to draw the reader into an awful, fearful world filled with unpleasant extremes, usually with a strong attention to atmosphere and setting, and the effort is not intended to give the reader some purgative experience, but rather to deepen their respect for the power of the unknown, and to thrill them and excite their emotions in doing so.


As always, my lists are highly subjective and not only do I pass over obvious examples (Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, anyone?) for choices I find more obscure and interesting,  I also use the term Gothic Literature to describe some works that are admittedly on the margin.

I offer you Part I:

_____________________________________

The Horla
by Guy de Maupassant
1887

Guy de Maupassant is regarded as one of the best short story writers of all time, and is considered, along with Edgar Allen Poe, one of the founders of that format.  His stories are known for spare, economic writing as well as for clever, careful plotting.  His oeuvre is usually considered to fall in the camp of Naturalism, which, although sharing similarities with Gothic Literature, lacks the flights of fancy and lurid detail of that genre.  The Horla, one of the last stories he wrote, features the characteristic economy of his writing style but includes a somewhat more fantastical element of supernatural horror and is permeated by an atmosphere of terror and insanity.

The story, which is rather short, is written in first person in the form of a journal.  The narrator, a unmarried upper-class man, begins to experience physical and mental anguish after waving at a boat on the river one day, inviting, as it seems, the ghastly, invisible Horla in to his life.  Over time, the presence of the Horla grows more oppressive as it begins to dominate him and control his thoughts.  Eventually, he begins to suspect the Horla belonging to a species of invisible vampires who feed on and dominate humans like cattle. 

 The Horla was written during the final years of Maupassant’s life at the beginning of a period of declining health and increasing signs of dementia.  Many of the elements of the story come from Maupassant’s own life and some would debate the story was drawn from his own journal.  Maupassant’s mental state decayed quickly after writing this story, and five years after its publication he tried to slit his own throat, much as the unnamed narrator sets out to do at the end of the story.  It didn’t quite do him in, but he spent the short remainder of his life in a mental asylum after that point.  A sad end for one of the finest writers of all time, but at least there is a clear lesson to take away from all of it; that lesson being not to wave at any boats if you think an Horla might be on it.

**

The King in Yellow
by Robert W. Chambers
1895

The King in Yellow, (as well as The Horla,) is a work that had a direct influence on H.P. Lovecraft and similar writers, so much so that the work is placed in the shared setting of Cthulhu Mythos literature.  Despite this, Chambers wrote The King in Yellow when Lovecraft was five years old, so there is no real association between Chambers and the later writers besides them appropriating his themes and characters.  The book is written as a collection of short stories centering mostly around artists and Bohemians in fin de siecle Paris, incorporating a variety of different genres among the stories such as fantasy, mystery, and romance, as well as a section devoted to poetry and short prose pieces.  What connects the stories in the work to each other is the malevolent and otherworldly King in Yellow, as well as a play named after that entity and an eerie symbol known as the Yellow Sign.  These elements come in to play, if only fleetingly, in each of the stories, but they contribute to an aura of supernatural dread and the macabre.  The King himself, who is rarely glimpsed but undoubtedly active through the book, seems to want nothing more than to drive various characters insane.  Besides paying personal visits to various characters to do so, there is also his play, which we get to read the first act of.  From our perspective it is not a very interesting play, but it is made clear that anyone who reads the second act is guaranteed to fall into madness after being revealed ‘irresistible’ truths.  Chambers did not write many other works worth mentioning, but The King in Yellow is a highly enjoyable and suitably Gothic work recommended for any fans of horror and weird fiction.

**

Melmoth the Wanderer
by Charles Robert Maturin
1820

Melmoth the Wanderer is considered to be the last of the ‘High Gothic’ novels.  The story is fairly simple; the protagonist, Melmoth, sells his soul to the Devil for 150 years of extra life, and going backwards from the then-present, we hear the story of Melmoth’s wanderings in a nested book-within-a-book form.  Besides containing stock characteristics of the Gothic novel, the story also ventures into the territory of social commentary.  Like in much of early English Gothic literature, there is an undercurrent of Anglo-Saxon superiority that runs through the novel — championing English Protestant life and depicting the rest of European culture as  flawed, decadent, and somewhat sinister.  Notably, this was a characteristic of English and American writers, who often associated foreign cultures with evil and depravity in general.  The ‘Continental’ tradition of Gothic Literature lacked some of this antipathy, which is not to say they weren’t just as prone to unappealing and ignorant attititudes on a variety of subjects.

**

House of Leaves
by Mark Danielewski
2000

Taking our Gothic time machine forward a century or two, we come to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.  Taking a cursory glance through the text, a reader will notice the book’s unusual layout: narrative strands visibly spilling over in to each other on the page, footnotes within footnotes within footnotes, and lines of text arranged in bizarre fashions.  The main story involves a photographer and his family living in a house that is found to be slightly bigger on the inside than the outside. Trying to uncover why (and how) this is, the characters are drawn into a Borges-like nightmare of recursive infinite passageways.  On top of that story, we learn about the book’s two editors, the first who went predictably insane and the second who is wasting no time going down that route as well.  Although it can be a little tough-going, the book’s unusual format can also be entertaining and more, than that, it serves as a device to increase tension and contributes to the all-important sense of atmosphere in this work.

As much as I believe House of Leaves stands as an example of a Gothic novel, it is also undeniably a work heavily influenced by Postmodernism.  Now wait, Gothic Postmoderism?  Is that possible?  I would not only argue that is it, but I  say that Gothic literature in and of itself possesses most of the attributes of Postmodernism. Gothic literature is transgressive — it addresses the terror and incomprehensibility of life and nature —  it is constantly experimental (as evinced by practically every story on this list), it is capable of self-parody, and it often acts as a pastiche of current literary trends.  All these are tell-tale traits of PoMo, but it seems Gothic literature beat it to the punch on every count.

**

The Monk
by Matthew Gregory Lewis
1796

One of the earlier examples of the genre, The Monk is perhaps one of the most lurid and unappealingly transgressive works ever written in English.  Fans of authors such as Brett Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk might wish to take a look. This book is a Grand Guignol examination of every imaginable act of depravity, degradation, cruelty, and wantonness, perhaps only eclipsed by de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom.  Not surprisingly, it was a bona fide best-seller in its time.

**

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa
by Jan Potocki
1810

If not for the later additions of Gravity’s Rainbow and The Illuminatus Trilogy, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa would be the reigning contender for the title of the longest shaggy dog story in literature.  The story, which claims to come from a manuscript found sealed in a casket in the Spanish city of Saragossa, follows the story of a young officer as he travels through the Sierra Morena Mountains in Southern Spain.  This is only a framing device, for it seems the young officer cannot go more than three steps without hearing the life story of some newly-arrived character passing on the same road.  Inevitably, the stories these wanderers tell frame stories within them, and sometimes those stories have stories within them.  Each story reflects some element of a greater narrative, which seems to center around an unseen Islamic secret society that the piously Christian main character might be being groomed to lead.  The entire novel is packed with Gothic lit stock elements: ghosts and spirits, thieves, immortal wanderers, magicians and alchemists, lusty exotic women, and secret societies.

For all of its exhaustive segues, which, I’ll admit, do get old, The Manuscript Found in Sargossa is a highly enjoyable and exciting book.  Moreso, it possesses some of the most entertaining and lively characters of any book I can think of, and the writing style is fresh and experimental even two centuries later.  What I like most about this book is that, unlike other works of Gothic literature that seem horribly dissonant in their values by modern standards, Potocki’s work had an endlessly egalitarian, tolerant, and curious attitude about it.  Ideas, philosophies, beliefs, and ways of life are all examined and compared against each other, and Potocki broaches no conclusion but that life is best when all elements of humanity are able to come together in heartfelt examination and raucous merrymaking.

**

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
by Patrick Suskind
1985

A notable example of modern Gothic Fiction, as well as of the genre lacking any discernible elements of the supernatural.  Perfume is the story of a young French orphan who lacks his own personal scent but possesses an extraordinary sense of smell.  Somewhat unusually, the descriptions in the book almost all concern scents and odors, and words cannot describe the atmosphere of horror and revulsion that results from the exhaustive litany of smells that Suskind describes in the course of depicting life in 18th Century Paris.  Many other elements of Gothic literature are present in this work, but more prominent than anything else are the horrific, oppressive odors.  I can honestly say that few books can actually genuinely disturb me, and without a doubt this is one of them.

Do stay tuned for the second installment…

-Kevin

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Books for Discussions

Our women’s book group at Portrait has been meeting once a month since 1999.  In that time we have read  approximately 132 books, some of which were wonderful to read and terrible to discuss, others were both wonderful to read and wonderful to discuss, others missed the mark on both counts, while still others were difficult to read yet made great discussions.
I have compiled a list of the books, mostly novels, with a couple of non-fiction works, which engendered the most energetic and enthusiastic discussions.  Naturally these are not the books that were “liked” by every member.  A good book for discussion is one that introduces controversial ideas, characters or situations. A book that compels you to highlight, or use post-its to mark the points you want to discuss at the meeting, often it is not even a book that you necessarily enjoy reading.  One such book for me was Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  I had so looked forward to this book because I had enjoyed her previous novel Amy and Isabelle (which had provided for a great discussion, by the way).  In spite of its winning the Pulitzer, I had real problems with Olive Kitteridge.  I felt in the beginning that the author had taken disjointed short stories and injected a character named Olive to tie them together in service of turning them into a novel.  It wasn’t until midway into the book that I began to realize that it was going to make for a great discussion precisely for that reason.  It is also, as most Pulitzer winners are, a composite of small town America and the characters whose lives overlap and intertwine to various dramatic degrees.

So the following books, in my experience, fit all the criteria mentioned above in making for lively discussions. And another thing: who says you need to be in an official book club to have discussions about books? No one. That’s who.

On to our list:

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
Guests of the Sheik by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea (non-fiction)
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
History of Love by Nicole Kraus
March by Geraldine Brooks
Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (non-fiction)
Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Which books made for good disussions for you?

-Donna

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Very Special Sleuths -Part II-

As a treat to mystery readers, and to honor the unlikely (fictional) geniuses who labor endlessly to solve equally unlikely and contrived crimes, here is the second installment  of a list of the (sort-of-) eleven most interesting and colorful sleuths of detective fiction.

Please see PART I for the purpose of making this make sense.

****

6. Dirk Gently (Douglas Adams)

Besides his beloved-by-millions The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams was known for creating Dirk Gently, a chubby, slightly nebbish detective who pursues a ‘holistic’ method of solving the crime.  Owing to the ‘interconnectedness of all things’, Gently’s methods can often involve long leisure trips at the client’s expense, flights of fancy, and blind guessing in pursuit of the truth.  Gently rarely misses his mark though, as his penchant for random guesswork seems to inevitably solve the crime, owing to his amazing luck and perhaps the intervention of the author.  Don’t let his laziness and lack of procedure fool you; Gently is clearly not a detective to be messed with, as he routinely overcomes omnipotent beings, Norse Gods, and monastic robots… and saves the world on more than one occasion.

7. Hugo Rune (Robert Rankin)

Truly bizarre is the only way to describe Hugo Rune.  He is described as being a very large, bald-headed man with a large pentagram tattooed on his forehead and dripping with silver occult jewelry.  He claims to be immortal, to have reinvented the ocarina, and, despite great wealth, he refuses to spend money and steals everything in his path that has yet to be nailed down.  And yet, despite some troubling habits, he is a kind and compassionate man who solves mysteries out of a desire to right injustice, frequently involving himself in mysteries that, on a slow day, can involve aliens, wizards, time-travelers, and any other manner of Fortean oddities.  Robert Rankin, the series author, claims his intention is to write novels that are as hard to categorize as possible, and yes, he succeeds.

8. Harry Dresden & Anita Blake (Jim Butcher and Laurell K. Hamilton, respectively)

Two different detectives from two unrelated series, I have lumped them together because they share similar settings and characteristics.  Both take place in worlds that, like the world of Lord Darcy, are awash in magic and include all manner of mystical creatures.  Unlike Garrett though, these two authors (usually) strive for verisimilitude and as much as these writers are informed by the conventions of fantasy literature, they both aim for a realistic, hard-boiled feel.  Harry Dresden and Anita Blake have both undergone major changes as their series have progressed, transitioning from tough, honest urban detectives to dark, conflicted heroes who save the world on regular occasions, possess multiple superpowers, and kill anyone who gets in their way.  In the case of Harry Dresden this has led to a certain type of appeal in wondering ‘what if Mike Hammer were a wizard, and even more violent’.  Anita Blake has an interesting character arc that takes her books out of the horror-fantasy genre and puts them squarely in the romance genre.

9. Arsene Lupin (Maurice Leblanc)

The French equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, from roughly the same period and something of a Gallic icon.  Arsene Lupin is a gentleman thief with tons of style and a flair for the dramatic.  Having a good heart but a disdain for the law, Lupin rarely actually takes on the establishment but rather chooses as his enemies thieves and criminals like himself, but inevitably more villainous and goonish.  To my knowledge Lupin has never fought Fantomas, but the crossover potential is limitless.

10. Lionel Essrog (Jonathan Lethem)

Lionel Essrog from Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn has Tourettes Syndrome, which causes all of his contemporaries in his dismal mob-infested corner of Brooklyn to rule him out as either being stupid, crazy, or both.  Ah, you say, the perfect cover for any amateur detective!  And it is, although it does seem to be a constant source of pathos throughout his narrative.  Lionel is a sad, intelligent character with a great deal of warmth and humanity, and unlike most of the characters on this list, he is neither idealized nor made quirky for quirky’s sake.  Lethem probably isn’t going to return to stories about Lionel any time soon, but if he would the character would be warmly welcomed.

11. Batman (Bob Kane)

Kind of a cheat, since the character is primarily from the comics and most novelizations aren’t much good, but hey, he is the world’s greatest detective. Isn’t he?

-Kevin

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Very Special Sleuths -Part I-

Cover of the pulp magazine Mystery (February 1...

To commemorate the runaway popularity of 'The Girl Who...' series, otherwise known as the Millennium Trilogy, and also the glut of Agatha Raisin mysteries we have in our store, I have decided to put together a list dedicated to mystery fiction. Though the varieties are endless, mystery fiction in general follows a rather strict formula that dictates the narrative.

Usually, the first pages involve an impossible, or at least unsolvable crime, and the protagonist (who is either a police detective, private investigator, or Jessica Fletcher-like busybody inexplicably given access to crime scenes the world over,) is called in to solve the crime.

They do, inevitably, but not before being stymied by at least one dead lead and weathering B-plot personal difficulties that eventually give them the strength to overcome the heavy and solve the crime.

The crime itself, having been solved, is usually revealed to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors regardless of how impossible it at first seemed, and the hidebound rule of ‘fair play’ requires that clues to solve the mystery have all been discovered and explained sufficiently for a smart reader to solve the case.

Usually, all this will happen over twelve chapters, sometimes more if the author has a talent for fluff.  Naturally, the strict format most mysteries follow is not to the genre’s detriment; legions of passionate mystery fans will agree that the formula most of these books follow is extremely satisfying, and by adhering to a sense of ‘what works’ in terms of plotting, the author is free to focus more on aspects of the story, like style of writing, setting, and character.  And character, perhaps, more than the plot, setting, or the mystery itself, is what makes a reader want to come back for more.

The protagonist of any given mystery story, besides being required to live in an atmosphere of death and deceit at all times, must have something unique and, daresay, quirky about them.  Rabbis, Confucian judges, Welsh monks, bed and breakfast owners, and all other kinds of individuals have been featured as the sleuth of some mystery series or another, and it seems inevitable that mystery fiction sleuths will grow ever more colorful and bizarre against all expectation of realism.  As a treat to mystery readers, and to honor those unlikely (fictional) geniuses who labor endlessly to solve equally unlikely and contrived crimes, I offer a list of the ten (well, eleven) most interesting and colorful sleuths of detective fiction.

Here is the first installment.

****

1. Agatha Raisin (M.C. Beaton)
The Agatha Raisin mysteries belong to the sub-genre of mystery fiction known as ‘Cozies’.  To wit, they occur in a bucolic, countrified setting and play down the murder and gore aspects, remove elements of danger and harm to the detective, and generally aim for good, clean fun without falling into the grittier aspects of the genre.  Think the classic ‘Miss Marple‘ mysteries, or perhaps ‘Rosemary &Thyme‘.  The Agatha Raisin mysteries fit nicely in to this sub-genre, but in some ways are a deconstruction of them.  The titular detective, Agatha Raisin, is an older woman in the vein of classic cozy detectives, but is herself not a cozy type of person.  Moody, abrasive, man-crazy, and restless in her little town, Agatha Raisin is a far more fleshed out and believable character than other notables of the genre, and usually more entertaining.

2. Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton)
A popular character from Victorian literature, Father Brown was written as a deliberate alternative to Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes, like Poirot, is a haughty eccentric who champions reason and observation as the key to solving a mystery. Father Brown, on the other hand, is a diminutive, modest priest who comports himself as a bumpkin and utilizes his talents of understanding and intuition in his cases.  Chesterton based the character on a priest friend of his , whose years of hearing confession had instilled in him a deep understanding of human nature, and most Father Brown stories have a philosophical aspect to them, with the crime being an ontological puzzle as well as a logistical one.  Although some of Chesterton’s ideas have not aged well, the Father Brown mysteries are still highly thoughtful, enjoyable, ornate, and surprising, and the good father himself is as likable a character as one could hope for.

3. Lord Darcy (Randall Garrett)

Imagine a world where Richard the Lionheart remained King of England, and for some reason, as a result, magic existed in the place of technology.  Now imagine a detective living in that world capable of utilizing magic for the sake of forensic examination, who goes on tosolve mysteries that, despite the mystical nature of the setting, are all by and large mundane whodunits with realistic solutions.  Take that, and add a bit of James Bond-type espionage, and you have the Lord Darcy novels.  Lord Darcy himself is a suave, gallant aristocrat who is not terribly interesting, but he represents a blending of the classic genre detective with elements of the pulp action hero, and to boot, he’s a sorcerer.  As I’ve said before, fantasy fiction is not for everyone, but if you are a mystery fan who can open your mind to a bit of Tolkiensque world-building, with dazzling, relentless humor and inventiveness, then I would suggest giving these novels a try.

4. Mike Hammer (Mickey Spillane)

Maybe you don’t want your detective fiction with a side of fantasy.  Maybe you want the real stuff: hard-boiled, gritty, hyper-realistic, cynical, and violent detective fiction.  Then welcome to Mike Hammer’s world.  Mike Hammer takes the qualities of such characters as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but dials them up to the extreme and adds in a characteristic streak of misogyny, sociopathic violence, and a total contempt for the machinery of justice.  Mike Hammer does not solve crimes through detection, intuition, or any other mental capabilities, he solves them through copious use of his fists, feet, and any blunt object at hand.  If you like Mike Hammer, or support his tactics of investigation then you are probably missing the point, but Spillane’s character has influenced a whole school of detective fiction and does not seem to be waning in popularity.  The key, perhaps, lies in how deeply enjoyable such an unpleasant character can be once you find humor in his awfulness.

5. Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene)

All-American girl.  Wonderteen.  Idol to millions, proto-feminist icon, and a formidable fighter when she has that Maglight at hand.  Just remember, the secret in the old clock was not political correctness.

Too Bee Cuntinuuued… Duh Duh Duh Daah!

-Kevin

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Kevin Makes Another List

Authors that Should Have Received The Nobel Prize for Literature (But Didn’t)

Like the Academy Awards, the Nobel Prize for literature is the highest honor an author can receive, with the added distinction of being an award for a lifetime of work, which comes with a cash prize of a cool million.  And like the Oscars, the decision-making process when it comes to picking the recipient can seem capricious, petty, or downright bizarre, and many of the best authors of the last century lost that prize to inferior (in my view) contemporaries, or were simply ignored.  Why don’t you make this list longer, as surely it can go on forever, by adding your own in comments!

***

1. Jorge Luis Borges

A fairly notorious case of the Swedish Academy ignoring an author for their political beliefs, Borges was turned down time and time again for the prize, for his conservative political views and support of South American dictatorships the fervor of which, perhaps over-exaggerated by his critics.  A list of those authors influenced by Borges would include all South American writers, all science-fiction and fantasy writers (including, arguably, Tolkien), all postmodern writers and some modern ones, and perhaps any authors whose fiction contains a tiger, a mirror, a maze, or any combination of the three. Generally, the decision to pass over Borges for the award is reason numero uno that many consider the Academy to be out of touch with prevailing literary opinion, and a quarter century after his death the omission still raises hackles.

**

2. W.H. Auden

Auden, who was one of the best poets in the English language and one of the few Modernists to actually deal with modernity instead of treating it as some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, was allegedly passed over because he made some rather scandalous remarks about Dag Hammarskjold.  Since the Academy is comprised entirely of Swedes, you can see where this might have been a miscalculation on Auden’s part if he’d really desired the prize.

**

3. Vladimir Nabokov

Best known for a novel that inspired a song by The Police, Nabokov was hugely influential among high-minded writers everywhere, and wrote in a style that expressed both a great deal of wit and playfulness while still being dense and rigorous as anyone could imagine.  While Borges was perhaps more influential in terms of style and theme, Nabokov set the high-water mark  for four generations of authors after him.  He was nominated once but two Swedish authors took it home that year instead.  Both those authors were on the deciding committee.

**

4. Graham Greene

Another also-ran, Greene probably confused the political-minded Academy with his eclectic beliefs, which combined strident (even if often laissez-faire,) Catholicism with secular humanism and a flirtation with Socialism.  Greene, who wrote about ugly characters in ugly situations, grappled with the problems of suffering and unhappiness and, although he depicted many characters that wanted badly to be good and just, his books are filled with ambivalence and confusion in the face of evil.  The effect of all this is that his world is rather bleak and unlikable, but that’s the point.

**

5. Mark Twain

Mark Twain was passed over for the prize not once, not twice, but ten times.  From my understanding, he really could have used the money.

**

6. Joan Didion

Didion’s work, whether fiction or truth, sheds more light on the trends, culture, aspirations, and interior life of 20th Century America than practically anyone else I care to name.  Her prose is lucid, clear, and spare, and at times it touches a rare perfection in her prosody.  And, as anyone who has read her knows, she is unbelievably brutal; painful, heartbreaking disenchanting and sometimes just plain mean.  The Academy probably has no plans to offer her the award any time soon.

**

7. Haruki Murakami

An author who has blossomed into an international superstar of mind-boggling proportions, and one that has become an icon for the protean, conflicted, deeply imaginative character of modern Japanese culture.  He’s still young(ish) so he might get it some day, but his serious-minded contemporary Kenzaburo Oe already scored the award a little while ago, so don’t count on it.

**

8. Thomas Hardy

What do the works of Henry James and E.M. Forster have that Thomas Hardy’s don’t? Answer: brief glimmers of happiness.  Thomas Hardy is best remembered as a Naturalist writer, but I think his work contains elements of the Gothic as well as a sense of transcendentalism that is often overlooked.  Life is tough in a Hardy novel, but that’s because it’s tough in real life too. Hardy never pulled his punches and endured scandal for it.  He deserved the award doubly, since his career as a poet was as fruitful as his career as a novelist.

**

9. Robert Graves

Though he was, in my opinion, a second-rate scholar, Graves defined the genre of the historical novel and wrote some of the best of them, when not writing otherwise on every subject under the sun, and some, like his quasi-fictitious White Goddess, under the moon.  Graves’ status as a polymath, as well as his fearless unconventionality, honesty, and the evocation of the wonder and mystery of the human experience should have won him the prize. But didn’t.

**

10. Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon is one of my favorite authors, perhaps the greatest American author of all time, even if his books are impossible to figure out, frequently obscene and loaded to the gills with lame jokes, shaggy dog stories, and esoteric minutiae so lovingly detailed it takes several Ph.D’s to know what is going on.  But, even if that doesn’t win accolades, he’s gotten a lot more lucid with his later novels and people are actually starting to figure out what he’s talking about.  Plus, he wrote ‘A Journey in to the Mind of Watts’, which is regarded as one of the best essays written on race in 1960’s America.  If he ever did get the award, it would mean he would have to leave his Salingeresque seclusion and actually make a public appearance, something he has never done in his career.  Here’s hoping.

-Kevin

[Unsolicited, Somewhat Related Editor’s Note: The only writer since 1901 who refused to accept the prize for Literature was Jean-Paul Sartre. You’re probably not surprised. Good. I hate to break it to Kevin, but Pynchon, if he were to win, would probably follow suit. Which would be appropriate. In lieu of the cash prize, however, (which would be the real pity to waste,) all he’d have to do is sell his toilet on ebay. ]

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Necessary Books, Books Necessary VI

If I was told to choose

 A BUNCH OF BOOKS TO TAKE WITH ME FOR MY NEW LIFE ON A DESERTED ISLAND

I would initially be unable to do it, so overcome would I immediately be with a massive case of the vapors. But after whatever length of time it took me to recover, I would immediately gather my wits and  pack. Besides including insect repellent, sunscreen and a claw hammer, practical for cracking open coconut shells, I would sadly bid farewell to books as I love and adore them. Goodbye to the smell of  ink, the feel of the page, the small but distinct sound that a hardback makes when it is first cracked open. And, dastardly though it would be, I would purchase an  iPad and a heap-load of solar powered batteries, which would allow me access not only to favorite books from my past but stacks of new ones yet to come.    

 

-BJ

[Editor’s Note: It pains me greatly to inform you that you will never again hear from BJ, as she was sent to the guillotine early this morning.]

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