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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Literature, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. This Is the Water

Page-turning suspense Yannick Murphy style — always inventive, with gorgeous prose, surprising perspectives, and captivating characters. This Is the Water is a most unusual mystery. Books mentioned in this post This Is the Water (P.S.) Yannick Murphy New Trade Paper $14.99

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2. Lucky Us

Amy Bloom's hypnotic and gorgeous new novel displays her trademarks — remarkable narrative skill and richly drawn, evocative characters. Iris and Eva, half-sisters creating a family in World War II-era America, will draw you in and not let go. Perfect summer reading. Books mentioned in this post Lucky Us Amy Bloom Used Hardcover $17.95

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3. Roll over, Rimbaud: P. F. Kluge, Walt Whitman, and Eddie and the Cruisers

By Kirk Curnutt


Ask folks who came of age in the 1980s what they remember about the movie Eddie and the Cruisers and one of the following responses is likely:

  1. It spawned the great rock-radio staple “On the Dark Side” and briefly made MTV stars of the improbably named John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.
  2. It was such a shameless Bruce Springsteen rip-off that Boss fans considered it as sacrilegious as devout Christians do Jesus Christ Superstar.
  3. It had a whiplash-inducing twist ending that Roger Ebert called “so frustrating, so dumb, so unsatisfactory that it gives a bad reputation to the whole movie.”
  4. It was a box-office flop that thirty years ago this month shocked Hollywood by becoming a surprise HBO hit.
  5. It was a movie you rented repeatedly during the decade’s video boom because it fit perfectly VHS’s promise of cheap home entertainment: undemanding, toe-tapping, and eminently re-watchable, it was an ideal 99-cent diversion that helped you forget VCRs cost $500 and were as boxy as Samsonite suitcases.


What you’re less likely to hear, unfortunately: it was based on one of the best, most criminally underappreciated rock ‘n’ roll novels ever.

In a preface to Overlook Press’s 2008 reissue (the book’s first widely available trade paperback), no less than Sherman Alexie admits he never knew Eddie was originally a novel by P. F. Kluge until deep into his own career, long after “obsessing” over the movie as a high-schooler. It’s indicative of how the film overshadows its source material that Kluge’s Eddie doesn’t even make this supposedly comprehensive list of rock novels published since the 1950s.

The novel’s relative obscurity is a shame, for as Alexie notes, it has literary “ambitions and secrets and qualities” that far surpass the movie’s “mainstream” pleasures. Director Martin Davidson, who co-wrote the script with his wife, Arlene, made several changes to Kluge’s tale of a Jersey rock star who may or may not be haunting former bandmates twenty years after his supposed death. The most significant is seemingly the most cosmetic. Whereas Kluge conceived hero Eddie Wilson as a Dion-esque doo-wop rocker, Davidson turned him into an awkward splice of Springsteen and Jim Morrison. In so doing, the filmmaker altered the literary inspiration that in Kluge gives the musician a model for imagining rock ‘n’ roll as an art form instead of mere entertainment. The change is decisive to how differently each version of Eddie depicts the purpose of popular music.

Une_saison_en_enfer_-_01

Une saison en enfer, Arthur Rimbaud, Bruxelles, Alliance typographique, 1873. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the movie, college dropout Frank “Wordman” Ridgeway, the story’s Nick Carraway, introduces Eddie to the 19th-century French symboliste Arthur Rimbaud. Literature spurs the hunky frontman to make “serious” music instead of cranking out bar-band favorites for Jersey beachgoers: “I want songs that echo,” Eddie insists. “The [music] we’re doing now is like bed sheets. Spread ’em, soil ’em, ship ’em out to laundry. Our songs — I like to fold ourselves up in them forever.” Soon enough, Eddie pens a concept album called A Season in Hell, after Rimbaud’s most famous work. His slimy record-company owner refuses to release it, however, because the music sounds “like a bunch of jerkoffs making weird sounds.” The rejection sends Eddie squealing away in his ’57 Chevy, which hurtles off the Raritan Bridge, either an accident or a suicide. The Cruisers are forgotten for two decades later until an Entertainment Tonight-type reporter begins hyping Hell as an ominous foreshadowing of the late sixties, “a new age, an age of confusion, an age of passion, of commitment!” Suddenly, someone claiming to be the dead rock star is stalking the surviving Cruisers, intent on finally releasing the missing opus so the public can recognize Eddie’s brilliance.

Serious scholarly papers have drawn parallels between Eddie and Rimbaud, but the script’s invocation of the poet never really rises above literary window dressing. Davidson mainly uses Rimbaud to allude to Morrison, who idolized the literary libertine and who, according to a farcical urban legend, faked his 1971 death to escape the rock biz (much as Rimbaud abandoned literature before he was twenty). The movie asks us to believe that the Beatlemania-era Eddie predicted the Dionysian extremes of the Doors’ “The End” or (God help us) “Horse Latitudes,” but the song that’s supposed to illustrate his visionary genius, “Fire,” hardly qualifies as “weird sounds”. It’s merely an arthritic gloss on Springsteen’s “Adam Raised a Cain” with none of the Boss’s blistering vitality.

Walt Whitman by George C. Cox (1851–1903, photo) Adam Cuerden (1979-, restoration). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Walt Whitman. Photo by George C. Cox, restoration by Adam Cuerden. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For Kluge’s Eddie, by contrast, the spirit father isn’t Rimbaud but Walt Whitman, and Eddie’s magnum opus is Leaves of Grass. Having seen Leaves appropriated to do everything from woo interns to expose unlikely meth kingpins, I’ll be the first to say that the Good Gray Poet’s popularity as the Go-To Lit Reference sometimes leaves me craving a Longfellow revival. Yet his role in Kluge isn’t gratuitous. Whitman inspires Eddie to reimagine rock ‘n’ roll as the vox populi, a medium not for becoming famous but for creating the true song of democracy. To produce his rock version of Leaves, Eddie recruits black and white greats from Elvis to Sam Cooke to Buddy Holly (the novel is set in 1957-58, a half-decade earlier than the film). Their mission is to snip the American barbed wire of segregation through a series of secret jam sessions designed to “to bring off the impossible, some fantastic union of black and white music.” What breakthroughs Eddie achieved before his supposed death is as compelling a page-turner as the mystery of who’s harassing the surviving Cruisers. (Spoiler alert: Eddie does not predict “Ebony and Ivory”).

In ditching Whitman for Rimbaud, Davidson’s film became a story not about the Gordian knot of race in American music but about rock-star greatness and fame. That point is bashed home like a gong by the movie’s trick ending, which reveals Eddie is indeed alive but indifferent to the hullaballoo the media creates when his masterwork is finally released. Despite the adaptation’s defects, Kluge speaks appreciatively of it, and rightly so: as a cult favorite, the movie kept the novel’s name alive during the decades the book was out of print. Besides, when the other movie based on your writing is Dog Day Afternoon, you can afford to be generous.

Nevertheless, the lack of attention Book Eddie receives feels like a missed opportunity for rock novels in general. The genre is a diverse, unruly one. Some of its entries are romans à clef that do little more than pencil fictional names into legends rock fans already know by heart (Paul Quarrington’s Brian Wilson-retelling Whale Music). Many others are coming-of-age novels in which that form’s traditional theme of lost innocence plays out like a Behind the Music episode, all downward-spiral cocaine and coitus. Still others are less about music-making than about the grotesquery of fame and fan worship (Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street). What rock novels aren’t nearly as often about is race — or, at least, the alchemies of ethnic interchange explored in such great nonfiction music histories as Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986). A handful of exceptions do come to mind, Alexie’s own Reservation Blues (1995) most notably. Yet for the most part storylines about ahead-of-their-time geniuses predominate, and frankly, the plot of making personal art instead of appeasing a hits-happy public is as tired as the playlist at my local oldies station.

The idea of rock ‘n’ roll as both the promise and impasse of a racially egalitarian barbaric yawp, on the other hand… That’s a song in fiction we still don’t hear nearly enough.

Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University’s Montgomery, Alabama, campus, where Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre in 1918. His publications include A Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald (2004), the novels Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and Dixie Noir (2009), and Brian Wilson (2012). He is currently at work on a reader’s guide to Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Read his previous OUPblog posts.

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4. 10 questions for Jenny Davidson

Each summer, Oxford University Press USA and Bryant Park in New York City partner for their summer reading series Word for Word Book Club. The Bryant Park Reading Room offers free copies of book club selections while supply lasts, compliments of Oxford University Press, and guest speakers lead the group in discussion. On Tuesday 22 July 2014, Jenny Davidson, Professor of English at Columbia University, leads a discussion on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

Jenny Davidson_PhotoWhat was your inspiration for choosing this book?

The book I’ll be talking about is Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. It doesn’t tend to be a favorite with readers, though I’ve always loved it; I especially appreciated it when I was a graduate student, as there is something about the status of the novel’s protagonist Fanny Price as hanger-on and dependent relation that resonated with my own station in life! I write a little bit in my new book Reading Style: A Life in Sentences about how there is a perfect Austen novel for every stage of life: I loved Pride and Prejudice the most when I was young, Sense and Sensibility as a teenager, Emma in bossy adulthood, and Persuasion now that I have fully come into my own professionally as a literary critic. I am not a huge fan of Northanger Abbey, but I do love Austen’s juvenilia, the short tales like Love and Friendship and so forth. I think in many ways they show us how we might want to read the novels of Austen’s adulthood.

Did you have an “a-ha!” moment that made you want to be a writer?

I wanted to write books for as long as I can remember. (Here is the evidence: it’s my first known work, age three or so, as dictated to my mother.) I wrote compulsively throughout childhood and adolescence, but it wasn’t until my first year of college that I realized that though I really still wanted to write novels as well, my true vocation would be as a professor of literature. It still seemed an almost insurmountably long road, but from that point onward I was sure what direction I should point myself in.

Which author do you wish had been your 7th grade English teacher?

Well, many authors would have been very poor teachers – but I would have to say Anthony Burgess, whose book 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 was my guide for reading throughout my teenage years. He would have been disreputable – unreliable, frequently hungover – but brilliant. Gore Vidal would have been another interesting one to have in the classroom.

What is your secret talent?

Punctuality. I have a very bad sense of direction – all places look the same to me, and I can get lost even in places I know very well – but it is easy for me to be on time and also to have a sense of how time’s passing. You would have to ask my students to know if this is really true, but I pride myself on not wasting their time in class and ending a little early whenever possible.

What word or punctuation mark do you most identify with?

The exclamation point! I do have a soft spot for the semi-colon, of course, and I can’t do without commas and periods. I am also rather partial to the em-dash and the hyphen, each of which has its own charms. I will hyphenate whenever possible.

Where do you do your best writing?

The truthful answer: anywhere with no Internet! I like to go to a cafe where there’s a bit of background buzz – easier for me to concentrate against a backdrop of minor noise than in full silence – and either write by longhand, with no distractions in the way of the internet.

Do you read your books after they’ve been published?

No, but I sometimes have to look up something or remind myself of what exactly I said in the past. My novel The Explosionist was written because I’d fallen in love with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books and Garth Nix’s Sabriel books, and was haunting the bookstore wishfully hoping for something similar. When there really wasn’t anything new along those lines, I realized that I would have to write it myself.

Do you prefer writing on a computer or longhand?

I am still on longhand for a lot of draft-writing. Occasionally I have a project that seems to call out for typing rather than handwriting, but it’s less common. The couple things I always write on the computer, that come easily and enjoyably and wouldn’t feel the same in handwriting: blog posts and lectures.

What book are you currently reading? (And is it in print or on an e-Reader?)

Just finishing Alice Goffman’s wonderful On the Run, which I highly recommend. I love my Kindle Paperwhite, and read most of my pleasure reading on it these days. My apartment is also full of stacks of library books right now that I’m dipping into to make a new fall-semester syllabus.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I have toyed with the idea of taking up “kitten socializer at animal shelter” as a secondary job description. More seriously: neurologist; epidemiologist; copy editor. It would be hard for me not to be an academic of one kind or another, though I suspect I’d be in the hard sciences, computer programming or mathematics if I weren’t a humanist.

Jenny Davidson is a Professor of English at Columbia University in the City of New York. She is interested in eighteenth-century British literature and culture; cultural and intellectual history, especially history of science; and the contemporary novel. He latest book is Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. She blogs at Light reading.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook. Read previous interviews with Word for Word Book Club guest speakers.

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Image couresty of Jenny Davidson.

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5. So you think you know Jane Austen?

How much do you know about the works of one of our best-loved classic authors? What really motivates the characters, and what is going on beneath the surface of the story? Using So You Think You Know Jane Austen? A Literary Quizbook by John Sutherland and Deirdre La Faye, we’ve selected twelve questions covering all six of Austen’s major novels for you to pit your wits against. Whether you are an expert or an enthusiast, we hope you’ll learn a little extra than you already knew.

Jane Austen coloured version.jpg

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image credit: Jane Austen. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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6. Summer reading recommendations

owc_standard

Whether your version of the perfect summer read gives your cerebrum a much needed breather or demands contemplation you don’t have time for in everyday life, here is a mix of both to consider for your summer reading this year.

If You Liked…

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, you should read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Themes of family, coming of age, poverty, and idealism provide the framework for both titles. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s tale of four spirited sisters growing up in Civil War-era Massachusetts, continues to charm readers nearly 150 years after its original publication.

9780199564095_450Interview with the Vampire, you should read Dracula by Bram Stoker. An obvious association, but if you gravitate toward vampire tales you owe it to yourself to read the book that paved the way for True Blood and Twilight, among many others.  Although Stoker did not invent the vampire, he is credited with introducing the character to modern storytelling.  Told in epistolary form, the story follows Dracula from Transylvania to England and back, as he unleashes his terror on a cast of memorable characters.

…Bridget Jones’s Diary, you should read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The parallels between these two protagonists prove that universal themes such as love and the absurdities of dating can transcend centuries. Fans of Bridget Jones, who was in fact inspired by Pride and Prejudice, will find amusement and sympathy in the hijinks Elizabeth Bennett experiences in one of literature’s most enduring romantic and comedy classics.

…The Harry Potter series, you should read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. J.K. Rowling herself has purportedly cited this timeless children’s classic as one of her first literary inspirations, read to her as a measles-stricken four-year-old. Like Potter, Wind in the Willows employs child-centric characters, adventures, and allegory to explore such adult themes as morality and sociopolitical revolution.

…The Da Vinci Code, you should read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Where Da Vinci Code’s treasure is symbolic in nature, Treasure Island’s booty takes a more literal approach. The book boasts the same page-turning suspense offered up by Dan Brown’s mega-hit, with some good old fashioned pirates thrown in for added fun. This edition includes a glossary of nautical terms, which will come in handy should you decide to take up sailing this summer.

9780199535729_450…Jaws, you should read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. If you like to keep your holiday reading material thematically consistent with your setting, you may have read Jaws on a previous beach stay. For a more pensive and equally thrilling literary adventure, try Moby Dick. Where the whale pales in the body count comparison he surpasses in tenacity, stalking his victim with a human-like malevolence that will make you glad you stayed on the sand.

…Jurassic Park, you should read The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. Reading Jurassic Park without having read The Lost World is like watching the Anne Heche remake of Psycho and skipping Hitchcock’s classic version. Though most people are familiar with the book by Michael Crichton, you may not be aware that the blockbuster was inspired by a lesser-known original that dates back to 1912. And isn’t the original always better?

…The Hunt for Red October, you should read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Although an adventure of a different sort, Leagues takes readers on a similarly gripping underwater journey full of twists and turns. Verne was ahead of his time, providing uncannily prescient descriptions of submarines that wouldn’t be invented until years later. For a novel that’s been around for over 150 years, it still has the ability to exhilarate.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook.

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7. Advanced praise for The Getaway Car

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On our forthcoming The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, from Kirkus Reviews (read the review in full here):

Westlake (1933–2008), who wrote under his own name and a handful of pseudonyms, was an award-winning writer of crime, mystery and detective novels; short stories; screenplays; and one children’s book. University of Chicago Press promotions director Stahl thinks this collection of Westlake’s nonfiction will please his fans; it’s likely these sharp, disarmingly funny pieces will also create new ones. The editor includes a wide range of writing: interviews, letters, introductions to Westlake’s and others’ work, and even recipes. “May’s Famous Tuna Casserole” appeared in the cookbook A Taste of Murder. May is the “faithful companion” of Westlake’s famous protagonist John Dortmunder, “whose joys are few and travails many.” Another of his culinary joys, apparently, was sautéed sloth. One of the best essays is “Living With a Mystery Writer,” by Westlake’s wife, Abby Adams: “Living with one man is difficult enough; living with a group can be nerve-wracking. I have lived with the consortium which calls itself Donald Westlake for five years now, and I still can’t always be sure, when I get up in the morning, which of the mob I’ll have my coffee with.”

To read more about The Getaway Car (publishing September 2014), click here.

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8. In Praise of Rejections: Why I’m Glad It Took Me 10 Years to Publish This Darn Book

When I see my name in print next to the phrase "debut novel," I can't help but picture my hardcover yanking at an ill-fitting cotillion dress that keeps falling off its shoulder. The descriptor seems off somehow — it's right, but not quite that. I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You is my [...]

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9. Landline

This is A Christmas Carol meets Rainbow Rowell. If you had a telephone that could call your spouse in the past, what would you say? Funny, a tiny bit tragic, and full of Rowell's usual magic and quirk, this is her best book so far. Books mentioned in this post Landline Rainbow Rowell New Hardcover $24.99

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10. Five questions for Rebecca Mead

Each summer, Oxford University Press USA and Bryant Park in New York City partner for their summer reading series Word for Word Book Club. The Bryant Park Reading Room offers free copies of book club selections while supply lasts, compliments of Oxford University Press, and guest speakers lead the group in discussion. On Tuesday 8 July 2014, Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch, leads a discussion on George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Mead-author-photo-credit-Elisabeth-C.-ProchnikWhat was your inspiration for choosing Middlemarch?

I first read Middlemarch at seventeen, and have read it roughly every five years or so since, my emotional response to it evolving at each revisiting. In my forties, I decided to spend more time with the book and to explore the ways in which it seems to have woven itself into my life: hence my own book, My Life In Middlemarch.

Did you have an “a-ha!” moment that made you want to be a writer?

Not exactly, but getting my first story published in a national newspaper at the age of eleven in a contest for young would-be journalists—and getting paid for it—must have been a motivating factor.

Which author do you wish had been your 7th grade English teacher?

The best book I can think of that gets into the mind of a thirteen or fourteen year old is Huckleberry Finn, so please may I have Mark Twain?

What is your secret talent?

I used to be able to charm children with my ability to walk on my hands. Then I had my own child, and ever since my balance hasn’t been what it used to be. Luckily, my son doesn’t require charming.

With what word do you most identify?

“perhaps”

Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She is the author of My Life in Middlemarch and One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding. She lives in Brooklyn.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook. Read previous interviews with Word for Word Book Club guest speakers.

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Image credit: Rebecca Mead. Photo by Elisabeth C. Prochnik. Courtesy of Rebecca Mead.

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11. Rhetorical fireworks for the Fourth of July

By Russ Castronovo


Ever since 4 July 1777 when citizens of Philadelphia celebrated the first anniversary of American independence with a fireworks display, the “rockets’ red glare” has lent a military tinge to this national holiday. But the explosive aspect of the patriots’ resistance was the incendiary propaganda that they spread across the thirteen colonies.

Sam Adams understood the need for a lively barrage of public relations and spin. “We cannot make Events; Our Business is merely to improve them,” he said. Exaggeration was just one of the tricks in the rhetorical arsenal that rebel publicists used to “improve” events. Their satires, lampoons, and exposés amounted to a guerilla war—waged in print—against the Crown.

Cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

While Independence Day is about commemorating the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence, the path toward separation from England relied on a steady stream of lies, rumor, and accusation. As Philip Freneau, the foremost poet-propagandist of the Revolution put it, if an American “prints some lies, his lies excuse” because the important consideration, indeed perhaps the final consideration, was not veracity but the dissemination of inflammatory material.

In place of measured discourse and rational debate, the pyrotechnics of the moment suited “the American crisis”—to invoke the title of Tom Paine’s follow-up to Common Sense—that left little time for polite expression or logical proofs. Propaganda requires speed, not reflection.

Writing became a rushed job. Pamphlets such as Tom Paine’s had an intentionally short fuse. Common Sense says little that’s new about natural rights or government. But what was innovative was the popular rhetorical strategy Paine used to convey those ideas. “As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain,” he wrote, playing upon the sensational language found in popular seduction novels of the day.

The tenor of patriotic discourse regularly ran toward ribald phrasing. When composing newspaper verses about King George, Freneau took particular delight in rhyming “despot” with “pisspot.” Hardly the lofty stuff associated with reason and powdered wigs, this language better evokes the juvenile humor of The Daily Show.

The skyrockets that will be “bursting in air” this Fourth of July are a vivid reminder of the rhetorical fireworks that galvanized support for the colonists’ bid for independence. The spread of political ideas, whether in a yellowing pamphlet or on Comedy Central, remains a vital part of our national heritage.

Russ Castronovo teaches English and American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His most recent book is Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications.

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12. Landline

If we could call into the past and speak to earlier loves, would we beg them to let us go or egg them on in their long-ago pursuit of our affections? Rowell's tale of a marriage in crisis is woven with this particular bit of magic, which forces us to reimagine our personal narratives and [...]

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13. Ask a Book Buyer: Tales of the Home Front, the Sea, and Overseas

At Powell's, our book buyers select all the new books in our vast inventory. If we need a book recommendation, we turn to our team of resident experts. Need a gift idea for a fan of vampire novels? Looking for a guide that will best demonstrate how to knit argyle socks? Need a book for [...]

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14. Josh Weil: The Powells.com Interview

Dima and Yarik are twin brothers in a Russia set in a slightly alternate universe, in the city of Petroplavilsk. The city is in perpetual daylight, thanks to the Oranzheria — a "sea of glass" greenhouse built over farmlands lit by mirrors in space. Though inseparable in childhood, Dima and Yarik begin to take radically [...]

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15. On Great Expectations

Each summer, Oxford University Press USA and Bryant Park in New York City partner for their summer reading series Word for Word Book Club. The Bryant Park Reading Room offers free copies of book club selections while supply lasts, compliments of Oxford University Press, and guest speakers lead the group in discussion. On Tuesday 24 June 2014, Maura Kelly, author of Much Ado About Loving, leads a discussion on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

By Maura Kelly


Great Expectations is arguably Charles Dickens’s finest novel – it has a more cogent, concise plot and a more authentic narrator than the other contender for that title, the sprawling masterpiece Bleak House. It may also enjoy another special distinction – Best Title for Any Novel Ever. Certainly, it might have served as the name for any of Dickens’s other novels, as the critic G. K. Chesterson has noted before me. “All of his books are full of an airy and yet ardent expectation of everything … of the next event, of the next ecstasy; of the next fulfillment of any eager human fancy,” wrote Chesterson. What’s more, it might have been used for a number of the best novels written by any author – American novels in particular. Think of The Great Gatsby, Absalom, Absalom, Invisible Man, or Revolutionary Road. The same goes for Saul Bellow’s short tour de force, Seize the Day, or that of Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle. But think too of Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions, nearly a synonym for Dickens’s phrase, or another French book, Madame Bovary. Think of all the works of Jane Austen, with the various expectations that so many characters in every one of her books have about who should marry whom. And on and on.

But think too of most life stories, most personal narratives: Might they not also be called Great Expectations? For what are our lives but our attempts to realize our dreams about what we might become, and to either castigate or console ourselves if we don’t?

Miss Havisham, Pip, and Estella, in art from the Imperial Edition of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. Art by H. M. Brock. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Miss Havisham, Pip, and Estella, in art from the Imperial Edition of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Art by H. M. Brock. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In Pip, the hero of Great Expectations, we have a character who is something of a combination of a Gatsby and an Austen heroine. He is fixated on attaining romantic union that will, he believes, quiet his persistent feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy; he is also all too painfully aware that he is not of the right class to attract that person. As a youth, Pip feverishly hopes that he will miraculously come into money so that he might win the heart of his Daisy – the beautiful, haughty, wealthy Estella. If Pip were a character living in America, he might have done more than dream about getting rich quick – he might have gone the Gatsby route, or the route of any number of Horatio Alger protagonists. However, living in England as he does – where for centuries, people were either born into the aristocracy or they weren’t – Pip doesn’t do much more than fantasize. Nonetheless, thanks to the magic of Dickens’s narrative, through a turn of fate that seems quite plausible in the world of the novel, into money Pip does mysteriously come. And yet, despite his newfound wealth and status, he can’t “get the girl” – the girl who is not simply the person with the power to cure Pip of his terrible sickness of the soul, but the very same girl who inflicted him with that psychological malady when she disdained Pip as a child, calling him “coarse” and “common” and generally making it clear that she thought him beneath her.

One more story that might have been called Great Expectations is that of Elliot Rodger, the young man with a BMW, a closet full not of silk shirts but Armani sweaters, and a trove of guns who killed six college students during a shooting spree in California a couple of weeks ago. Judging from the manifesto he left behind, he did not get the girls; he was scorned by beautiful women; his life had fallen woefully short of his expectations. Who can say just how that troubled young man developed his expectations, but he was what you might call a spawn by Hollywood; his parents met on a movie set, after all. And if there is any city in the world that might be called the city of Great Expectations, Los Angeles has to be it, where the world’s most visible examples of glamorous, glittering success serve as foils to some of the most desperate characters around – the red-eyed and unhinged hopefuls who have been hanging around for years or decades, hoping for the big break that never comes.

Rodger’s father seems to have had experiences on both ends of the success spectrum: Though he directed some extra shots for “The Hunger Games,” he also spent $200,000 of his own money on a documentary that sold only a “handful of tickets,” according to The New York Times. Rodger seems to have resented his father: “If only my failure of a father had made better decisions with his directing career instead wasting his money on that stupid documentary,” he wrote. And Pip, too, resents his multiple father figures – at first, at least. But unlike Rodger, Pip works through his resentment, and in doing so, finds his redemption.

When Pip’s biological father dies, he is adopted by his sister’s humble husband, the kindly if simple blacksmith Joe Gargery. Though Joe serves as the main source of comfort, happiness, and stability in Pip’s young life, when Estella infects Pip with shame, he becomes ashamed of Joe, too; thinking him too much a country bumpkin, Pip distances himself from Joe. He reacts in a similar way to the other father figure of the novel, Abel Magwitch. A good-hearted criminal, Magwitch bestows an honest fortune on the adult Pip out of gratitude for some help that a frightened young Pip had given him during an escape attempt he made years ago. Pip more or less recoils in horror when Magwitch explains that he’s the one who’s been funding Pip’s life as a gentleman. But Pip eventually pushes his through his feelings of mortification and revulsion in order to do the right thing. He repays Magwitch’s loving kindness with some loving kindness of his own, by helping the old convict attempt to evade capture after he returns to England despite threat of death, because he so much wants to see Pip.

Pip’s overcoming his lesser self in this way “is not a simple recovery from snobbery, but courage of a rare and fine kind,” according to critic A. E. Dyson. Scholar Sylvere Monod writes that the only reason Pip is able to propel himself to such courage is because he has been on a “groping quest … for the truth, not only about the world and the society among which he lives, but also, and more importantly, about himself.” That quest is what allows him to come to a greater acceptance of both himself, at the end of the novel, and his two adoptive fathers – men who, for all their lack of societal cache, have always done for Pip something that neither Estella nor Pip himself were able to: love Pip more or less unconditionally.

“Poor, miserable, fellow creature” : it is a phrase often repeated by humble Joe Gargery, and it helps to point to the lessons about empathy and acceptance that Pip must learn. While it likely would not have been possible for someone like Elliot Rodger to have derived much from Great Expectations, plenty of other readers – like this one – can continue to rely on it as a source of wisdom and comfort, as an inspiration for humility and a font of hilarity, as we grapple with our own feelings of doubt and worthlessness, with the disparity between our own great expectations and the disappointing realities of our lives. “This is the Dickens novel the mature and exigent are now likely to re-read most often and to find more and more in each time,” wrote British literary critic Q. D. Leavis in 1970, “perhaps because it seems to have more relevance outside its own age than any other of Dickens’s creative work.” That is as true now as it was when Great Expectations first appeared in serial form in 1860.

maura_bwMaura Kelly writes personal essays, profiles and op-eds. Her new book, Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, is a hybrid of memoir, lit crit and advice column. She graduated from Dartmouth College and received her MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University. She started her career with jobs at The Washington Post and Slate. She has been a staff writer for Glamour, a daily dating blogger for Marie Claire and a relationships columnist for amNew York. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Daily, The New York Observer, Salon, The Guardian, The Boston Globe Magazine, Rolling Stone, More and other publications and anthologies.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook. Read previous interviews with Word for Word Book Club guest speakers.

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16. How much do you know about The Three Musketeers ?

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, celebrates its 170th birthday this year. The classic story of friendship and adventure has been read and enjoyed by many generations all over the world, and there have been dozens of adaptations, including the classic silent 1921 film, directed by Fred Niblo, and the recent BBC series. Take our quiz to find out how much you know about the book, its author, and the time at which it was written.

Still from the American film The Three Musketeers (1921) with George Siegmann, Douglas Fairbanks, Eugene Pallette, Charles Belcher, and Léon Bary, on page 24 of Peter Milne, Motion Picture Directing; The Facts and Theories of the Newest Art (1922).

Still from the American film The Three Musketeers (1921) with George Siegmann, Douglas Fairbanks, Eugene Pallette, Charles Belcher, and Léon Bary. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook. Read previous interviews with Word for Word Book Club guest speakers.

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17. So Many Books, So Many Writers

I'm not a bookseller, but I'm married to one, and Square Books is a family. And we all know about families and how hard it is to disassociate yourself from them even if you're happy within their bosoms. I do have some bookseller cred: I worked for two years at the old Savile Bookshop in [...]

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18. The Other Vampire

It's a wild and thundery night. Inside a ramshackle old manor house, a beautiful young girl lies asleep in bed. At the window, a figure watches — a hideous creature with long fingernails and eyes that shine like polished tin. The girl wakes up, but is too terrified to flee as the vampire breaks the [...]

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19. The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys is a story about family — what it is, what it isn't, and what it can become. For their entire lives, a childhood tragedy hangs over Bob, Jim, and Susan Burgess. It takes another tragedy (of sorts) to shake apart the tedium that has flattened their lives. Strout's three siblings each undergo major character [...]

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20. Summer House with Swimming Pool

Deliciously nasty, gritty, and strangely redemptive, this will be the best thing you read at your summer house. It's murder mystery entwined with medical maleficence, warring ethics, and a storyline that will barely allow you to blink as you read obsessively long into the night. Books mentioned in this post Summer House with Swimming Pool [...]

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21. Life in occupied Paris during World War II

By David Ball


If you were a fifty-year-old intellectual, a well-known writer of left-wing articles and literary essays, and your country was occupied by the Nazis and its more-or-less legal government collaborated with them — and now the editor of the leading literary magazine of the time pressed you to contribute an essay to his review, would you do so? Just an essay on Voltaire for the Nouvelle Revue Française, mind you, nothing subversive. Anything at all suspect would be censored anyway.

The answer, for the overwhelming majority of French intellectuals in 1940-44, was “Write the article, of course!” And keep writing, whatever happened to France. Not about the war, of course, or the Occupation—you couldn’t do that—but novels about personal relationships, plays, literary articles and criticism, why not? André Gide kept on publishing his Journal; Sartre finished Being and Nothingness, wrote No Exit and saw it produced on the Paris stage; Simone de Beauvoir published a novel and a philosophical essay; utterly non-fascist writers like Colette, Jean Anouilh, and Marcel Aymé contributed to actively pro-fascist journals. In short, judging from what they wrote at the time, most French writers seem to have lived through four years of Nazi occupation without noticing it. You would think they had never seen the swastika floating from the Eiffel Tower, nor the huge banner hanging over the front of the Chamber of Deputies which housed the French parliament before the war: DEUTSCHLAND SIEGT AN ALLEN FRONTEN (“Germany is winning on all fronts”), nor the booted German soldiers who paraded down the Champs-Ėlysées every day. And apparently never read about the execution of hostages or Résistants reported in the daily papers or on posters in the Paris Metro, and never heard about friends and acquaintances arrested and deported “to the East.”

Germany

Paris, deutsche Parole am Bourbon-Palast. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2004-0216-500 / CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Jean Guéhenno, whose portrait I have sketched in the first paragraph, was a notable exception. His answer to Drieu La Rochelle, a literary acquaintance of his and the ardently fascistic writer who edited the Nouvelle Revue Française from 1940 to 1943, was silence — and inner rage, which he noted in his diary: “We have no means of telling these gentlemen what we think of their activity. At least they might leave us in peace.” (24 January 1941)

He had resolved to remain silent, not to write a word for a publishing industry under Nazi control, not to “play our jailors’ game,” as he later put it, “to appear as if we were still living and enjoying ourselves as we used to, in the time when we were free.” He remained silent, but he wrote. He kept his diary, where he noted details of ordinary Paris life under occupation (some extraordinary ones, such as the first round-up of Jews in Paris), his thoughts on French literature (especially the great texts he was teaching), and above all his anger at the stupidity, cowardice, and vanity of those of his fellow countrymen who played along with the Nazis, the politicians (Pétain, Laval and company) and “the species of men of letters, [which is] not one of the greatest species in the human race. The man of letters is unable to live out of public view for any length of time; he would sell his soul to see his name ‘appear.’” (30 November 1940) Guéhenno also worked away at his two-volume biography of Rousseau, “the exemplary life of a man who does not surrender,” he notes (17 July 1940) — the very image of Jean Guéhenno himself. He would publish his diary and the Rousseau biography when the war was over and France was free.

Paris, Parade deutscher Soldaten . Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-751-0067-34 / Kropf / CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Paris, Parade deutscher Soldaten . Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-751-0067-34 / Kropf / CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Guéhenno was too well known as an anti-fascist intellectual ever to join one of the Resistance networks which soon sprang up in occupied France. It would have meant his arrest and that of his comrades. He was under surveillance, and he knew it. He taught in some of the elite schools of France, but just being who he was and teaching French literature as he always had was enough to get him “demoted” by the Ministry of Education of the Vichy government. In the last year of the Occupation, he did meet with other writers (his friend François Mauriac, for example) and discuss what they could do, as writers, to keep the spirit of freedom alive in France. They distributed underground literature in Paris. In 1944, Ėditions de Minuit, the remarkable underground publishing house which managed to print so much free-spirited French prose and poetry clandestinely during the last three years of Nazi occupation, put out part of Guéhenno’s diary under the title “In the Prison.” He signed it “Cévennes,” the name of the mountain range in central France where Protestants had hid to resist persecution four centuries earlier. (It also echoed “Vercors,” the name of the mountains where the Resistance had concentrated thousands of armed men, and the pseudonym of Jean Bruller, who founded the house; his novella “The Silence of the Sea” was the first work it published.)

It was a pleasure to live with this honorable, stubborn, cultivated and passionate man for a few years, translating, annotating and presenting his Diary of the Dark Years: 1940-1944 so that today’s English-speaking readers could understand this unique piece of testimony to the inner and outer life of a French intellectual under Nazi Occupation.

David Ball is Professor Emeritus of French and Comparative Literature, Smith College. He is the editor and translator of Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris.

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22. Ruby

Ephram Jennings spends a lifetime in love with Ruby Bell. He is a good man with good intentions, but is she too broken to reach? A harrowing tale set in rural Texas in the '50s, Ruby is a story — and a woman — you will not be able to forget. Years and years and even [...]

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23. A thought on poets, death, and Clive James. And heroism.

By Andrew Taylor


Whatever else we think of poets, we don’t tend to see them as heroes.

Gold fountain pen on hand written letterThere are exceptions, of course – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon famously won the Military Cross, and some three hundred years earlier, Sir Philip Sidney was praised for his dash and gallantry at the Battle of Zutphen; then there’s Keith Douglas from World War II, one of the few deserters ever to abandon his post to get into a battle, who was killed shortly after the D-Day invasion.

It’s not a long list, and those on it performed their acts of heroism in, so to speak, their time off. They were heroes who happened to be poets as well. Poetry, by and large, is a solitary craft: it’s not easy to perform acts of derring-do when you’re hunched on your own over a desk. The greatest battle most poets fight is the unequal struggle against a blank sheet of paper.

But there’s another sort of heroism that poets can achieve, in honour of their talent and their craft – the courage to stare death in the face, and to keep on writing, honestly and truthfully.

Vernon Scannell managed it. After months of illness, shuffling from room to room and from oxygen cylinder to oxygen cylinder, he gave up and took to his bed — often, in the sick and ailing, a sure sign that death is approaching. Instead, he started writing again, and produced Last Post, maybe the best volume of his life:

“There’s something valedictory in the way
My books gaze down on me from where they stand
In disciplined disorder and display
The same goodwill that wellwishers on land
Convey to troops who sail away to where
Great danger waits …”

A couple of months later, he was dead.

And now there’s Clive James. Poems like Sentenced to Life and Holding Court chart James’s progress towards what he calls “dropping off the twig” with clear-eyed courage. There’s sadness and regret, but not a shred of self-pity. Approaching death, he seems to say, brings its compensations:

“Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known

The name for Japanese anemones,

So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees

Without my seeing them. I count the bees.”

The Daily Mirror, never far from the front of the pack in the race to find a crass and clumsy phrase, quotes James (inaccurately, as far as I can see) as saying that he has “lost his battle with cancer”. Not so.

We all, as one of Shakespeare’s less well known characters points out, owe God a death, and getting better from cancer can only ever put off the final reckoning. But facing it down, as Scannell did and as James is doing – sending back poems like dispatches from the last frontier any of us will ever cross – is the only battle we can win. Catching the tone of leaves as the world closes in is what a real poet does, and if it’s not heroism, then I don’t know what is.

This article originally appeared on andrewtaylor.uk.net.

Andrew Taylor is the author of ten books, including Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scanell, biographies of the Arabian traveller Charles Doughty and the 16th Century cartographer Gerard Mercator, as well as books on language, literature, poetry and, history. He studied English Literature at Oxford University and worked as a Fleet Street and BBC television journalist in London and the Middle East before returning to Britain in the 1990s to concentrate on his writing career.

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Image credit: Selective focus on gold pen over hand written letter. Focus on tip of pen nib. © AmbientIdeas via iStockphoto.

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24. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers has a wonderful sense of time and place ('88 Bangkok, '99 New York, '11 Wales) and a great cast of characters (Tooly, Venn, Humphrey). On the last page, I felt lucky to have met these newfound friends but sad to say goodbye. Books mentioned in this post The [...]

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25. The Sound of Things Falling

Set in the aftermath of Colombia's horrific drug wars, Vásquez's elegant novel provides an intimate look at a generation still coming to terms with the crimes of a not-so-distant past. Written from the perspective of a law professor who unknowingly befriends a drug mule, The Sound of Things Falling offers a wholly original story told [...]

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