Category Archives: Curious Lists

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Necessary Books, Books Necessary [Roman Numeral] V

BLOWING A NEW PATHWAY IN MY BRAIN:

The first story that blew a new pathway in my brain didn’t happen to come from a book.  I was seven and my mother would occasionally tell one of us a bedtime fantasy agreeably centered on our very own adventures.  On that occasion her story had a bit of Grimm’s Fairy Tales darkness (likely her way of suggesting to me some behavior modification), involving me crossing into a fabulous land where all that was available to eat were the sweet treats of one’s heart’s desire.  Homey pies and fairy confections, Cool-Aid powder that you licked out of the palm of your hand, cream puffs and hot chocolate and whipped cream.  Eventually, however, I wanted real food and there was nothing to be had:  no juicy red tomatoes or corn-on-the-cob dripping with butter, no hearty casseroles, no hamburgers, not even any fruit….and no way to get back home to them.  Trapped in pastry Paradise!  I began to feel a bit panicked.  The startling thought had begun to creep in that one’s desires, held too tightly, could take one into an unexpected gilded hell of no return.  Oh my!

I read like a fiend in high school.  Devoured everything in sight: Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, the haiku of Basho, the romantic poems of Robinson Jeffers, J.D. Salinger, and finally when everything in our little rural school library was exhausted I even read the few bodice-rippers hidden in the back shelves (my version of reading cereal boxes as a last resort). Savor, illumination, delight, but not knocked sideways by any.  More that literature simply became part of my oxygen. 

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THE BOOKS THAT WOULD ACCOMPANY ME TO A DESERTED ISLAND, WHERE I WOULD SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE CUT OFF FROM PEOPLE AND ALL THE OTHER THINGS NORMALLY NOT FOUND ON DESERTED ISLANDS:

Yeesh…

                                                   The practical aborigine in me would demand The Ashley Book of Knots,  maybe Gregory J. Davenport’s Wilderness Survival.  For sure Laurie Shimizu Ide’s Hawaiian Shell Lei Making and Marie McDonald’s Ka Lei: The Leis of Hawaii (how-to) and Na Lei Makamae: The Treasured Lei (pure inspiration), plus Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa by Hans Silvester. 

Then from body to spirit:  The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche,  Wearing the Body of Visions by Ngakpa Chogyam, The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages by Paul Foster Case.  For pure entertainment: Anthony Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers because his “complete appreciation of the usual” (as Henry James called it) and his lapidary eye for humor in human foible I find endlessly repeatably delightful.

 

 

-Jane

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Necessary Books, Books Necessary IV

THE FIRST BOOK THAT SHATTERED PREVIOUSLY-HELD NOTIONS AND OPENED MY EYES:

When Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown came out in 1971, during the Vietnam War, I read it right away because my children (in school in Mill Valley, California) were being urged by their teachers to read it.  It had a profound effect on me and my family.  Up to that point I had read my share of American history, but somehow nothing that included such a heart-stopping jolt of reality. It certainly opened my eyes and changed forever the way I perceive American history and the manner in which it is delivered to most of our elementary and high school students.  I don’t think that I was exactly naive prior to reading Bury My Heart but I certainly had not given much thought or attention to exactly what went on with the “settling of the west”.
Having been raised in Texas in the 40’s and 50’s my perception of the American Indian was drawn largely from historical novels and cowboy films in which the Indians were portrayed as mostly bad, who attacked the circled wagons of the mostly good white pioneers. My grandparents had souvenirs and old photos taken during visits to Indian reservations in the 1920’s and my feeling when looking at these as a child was that it would be great to see a reservation someday (a form of entertainment). No one talked to me about the life of the Indian as a real and horrific journey after the white man came to stay. Perhaps even after visiting reservations my grandparents were not aware of the profoundly sad history of the American Indian.

The fact that I read this book during the Vietnam War years doubled the effect on my life by enforcing a permanent sense of cynicism and doubt of government, politicians, written history and the media.

-Donna

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Necessary Books, Books Necessary III

THE BOOKS THAT WOULD ACCOMPANY ME TO A DESERTED ISLAND, WHERE I WOULD SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE CUT OFF FROM PEOPLE AND ALL THE OTHER THINGS NORMALLY NOT FOUND ON DESERTED ISLANDS:

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When I was under 30 my list looked something like this:

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – because it is long and I thought I was a special individual, above the “masses”.

The Bible – because it is long and mostly inspirational.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – because I liked the rugged, emotionally tormented Heathcliff… so sexy.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – because Kurt Vonnegut was my favorite writer.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – because I fancied myself a Texas “Scarlett” looking for her Rhett.

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Under 50 my list was:

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – because I loved the doomed romance of it.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – because I loved the doomed romance of it and the element of Russian history.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – because I loved the doomed Russian history.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – because I loved the doomed Humbert Humbert and the Russian Nabokov.

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Today my list is:

Charles Dickens’ Complete Works – because it’s time to read the ones I missed and re-read the ones I loved.

Tieta by Jorge Amado – because it is long, witty, political and I loved it.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child – because I don’t want to forget about food on the island.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable and Fraud by David Rakoff – because I would need a good laugh with a witty writer.

If I Were Another by Mahmoud Darwish – because the poetry would keep me busy thinking and feeling.

-Donna

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Necessary Books, Books Necessary II

THE FIRST BOOK I CAN RECALL THAT SHOOK MY NOTIONS OF… EVERYTHING:

The Tombs of Atuan, the second part in the ‘Earthsea’ fantasy trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin.  I was about nine or ten years old and already addicted to fantasy literature of all kinds, but readers of Le Guin might be aware that her literature is somewhat idiosyncratic.  The world of ‘Earthsea’ is one of the most realistic in fantasy literature, and somewhere in trying to comprehend that often disturbing realism I became extremely curious about real life societies and the history of civilization. The really troubling thing about ‘Tombs’ is the way she subverts heroic fantasy.  In the first book we see the hero, Ged, sail the sea, learn wizardry, and do all those things expected of heroes, but in the second book we initially hear nothing of him.  Instead, we follow the story of Tenar, priestess of an ominous religion who is trapped alone in a pitch black labyrinth for what she expects to be the remainder of her life.  When the hero Ged does make an appearance he is broken and frustrated by the labyrinth, and, quite against the logic of fairy tales, he requires his heroine’s aid to escape.  Going into all the ways ‘Tombs’ and other Le Guin books play against type would require a good deal of space, but rest assured her tipping over of heroic conventions is quite mind-blowing, in its own elegant and spare manner.

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Another book that upset my preexisting notions was The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.  A relatively simple and fable-like novel  (though one filled with Chesterton’s trademark snark,) The Man Who Was Thursday paints the world in such a light that it seems an endless and terrifying battlefield between good and evil.  Then, after a series of double-crosses and climactic showdowns, Chesterton does a quick turnaround and confronts us with the absurdity of such notions.  Chesterton wrote the work after a bout of depression to prove (perhaps to himself,) that the world was good at its heart, and to strengthen that argument he is not afraid to show the terror inherent in facing it.

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THE BOOKS THAT WOULD ACCOMPANY ME TO A DESERTED ISLAND, WHERE I WOULD SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE CUT OFF FROM PEOPLE AND ALL THE OTHER THINGS NORMALLY NOT FOUND ON DESERTED ISLANDS:

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

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The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

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The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant

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And probably some comics.

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BOOKS I WISH I’D WRITTEN:

Most of Phillip K. Dick’s corpus of works, preferably without having to live the life he did to do so.

-Kevin

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Necessary Books, Books Necessary

THE BOOKS THAT WOULD ACCOMPANY ME TO A DESERTED ISLAND, WHERE I WOULD SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE CUT OFF FROM PEOPLE AND ALL THE OTHER THINGS NORMALLY NOT FOUND ON DESERTED ISLANDS:

The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara

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Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979

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Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore

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Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore

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The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

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Cathedral, by Raymond Carver

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
, by Raymond Carver

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Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote

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A book I made with photocopies of my favorite poems by various poets (cheating, I know!!)

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BOOKS I WISH I’D WRITTEN:


Reasons To Live, by Amy Hempel

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Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore

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Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore

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Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

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Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood

-Lucia

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Make-Believe Man-Made Disasters -Part III-

Like everyone else, I have been pondering the Gulf oil spill with great concern and an eye to future consequences. Suffice it to say I am terrified, and although rationally I doubt a large-scale ecological disaster is on the horizon, I have been playing out the possibilities in my head just enough to keep me awake at night. As a sort of gateway to catharsis, I thought I might revisit  a list of memorable instances in literature with man-made disasters at their core– not as an exercise in taking advantage of living comfortably far away from direct effects of the crisis, but as a way to humbly bring things back into perspective.

[Read Part I and Part II ]

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The Drowned World
by J.G. Ballard

Lucky for Harlan Ellison that J.G. Ballard is on this list, otherwise Ellison would have to accept the dubious honor of being the most twisted and perverse mind herein mentioned. The Drowned World, which is highly surreal but not quite as shocking as Ballard’s later works, takes place in a future world where much of the planet is flooded and London is a primeval tropical jungle.  Ballard puts an interesting spin on the disaster novel in the way he links the external landscape with the minds of the protagonists. Faced with a world lapsing into atavism, all of the characters undergo their own psychological degeneration, uncomfortably forced to struggle with their own mental archaeology. This is a fascinating conceit, and one that I suspect is true (even if I am unwilling to test it out). A worldview is only as good as the world surrounding it, and our psychologies rely heavily on the preexisting social, linguistic, political and even physical structures. It is worthwhile, then, in my mind, to carefully analyze the way disasters and social upheavals affect the individual and group psyche and to not take for granted that our current mental state is neither a static point nor a high water mark for excellence, but rather a product of the landscape.

World War Z
by Max Brooks

Back in the long long ago, deep in the recesses of time before Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was released (if you can even imagine such a time!) there was a very popular book on the bestseller lists called World War Z that was very entertaining, fun, well-written, and actually pretty thoughtful. Taking a cue from George A. Romero and the vast corpus of zombie-related fiction, Brook crafts a meticulously well-researched and carefully thought out story of what happens when the dead walk the earth. As Brooks puts it, “except for the zombies everything is 100% real,” meaning that he took every opportunity to depict a realistic zombie invasion scenario, with attendant looks into the reaction of the developed world, the emotional toll on people’s lives, potential political and sociological changes, and, on top of it all, he actually comes up with a fairly reasonable method to halt a zombie invasion. It is impressive the way Brooks ties together the narrative in a manner that fulfills any horror fan’s wishes but still also offers a larger commentary on the state of the world and its polities and he even weaves in a subtle message about the danger of irrational extremism in an interconnected world.  Read it before the movie comes out!

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a rather grim future where America has been taken over by Christian Fundamentalists and pollution in the atmosphere has slowed down the birth rate dramatically. As a result of these two factors, women are forced to serve in concubinage for bad, nasty men and generally suffer exaggeratedly poor treatment in society. There is a certain lack of plausibility in the work that comes as a result of Atwood being perhaps more afraid of Christian fundamentalists than anyone except perhaps Starhawk, and her futuristic dystopia more resembles the Empire in Star Wars than any real life government past or present. Written during the ’80’s, The Handmaid’s Tale works best as a rather thin-skinned, if undoubtedly thoughtful and inventive, critique of the time it was written, and like many science fiction writers who were paranoid about the times, she turned out to fairly accurately predict some trends further down the road, and her more recent work Oryx and Crake satirize our time quite well and offers an even more thorough disaster event as a result of humanity’s stupidity. Feminism figures as a key detail in both these novels, and is a philosophy she views as essential to living in a better tomorrow.

Children of Men
by P.D. James

Readers who saw the fantastic movie adaptation of Children of Men might be surprised at how different that work is from the original novel, but both versions share the same initial disaster event as a jumping off point. That event is the inability of men to impregnate women, presaging what seems to be a total die-off of humanity in a number of decades. Without hope of future generations to carry on, humanity has lost all purpose and the whole of the world comes to resemble a rather oppressive toilet. The cause of worldwide infertility is left unexplained, but given James’ religious conviction I think it can be inferred that the man upstairs is fed up with his issue. Really, no reason need be given for spreading infertility; considering how delicate life is, anything, really, can upset it. Even if  Children of Men featured a disaster meant to be mysterious and symbolic more than outright plausible, I think mass infertility, just like an infinite number of other disasters, could be a real life concern in time.

Cat’s Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat’s Cradle is perhaps Vonnegut’s best work, and tackles such issues as the arms race, religion, and irresponsibility in technology and the sciences. The disaster in question occurs at the end of the novel and is rather interesting (I won’t give it away, but rest assured it is a rather implausible event). Leading up to the end of the novel though, we see that the road to disaster is set on course when an amoral scientist exchanges his discovery with an unpleasant and totally self-absorbed dictator with a strong sense of ‘If I can’t have it, nobody can’, ‘it’ being the planet Earth itself. We see through Cat’s Cradle that progress and advancement are only beneficial if implemented responsibly, and that catastrophic consequences can occur if the people in charge of potentially dangerous technologies are more concerned for their own interests than for those of humanity; a rather obvious and somewhat pat conceit, but one that we will have to keep relearning over and over again until we run out of opportunities.

-Kevin

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