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1. Money matters

By Valerie Minogue

Money is a tricky subject for a novel, as Zola in 1890 acknowledged: “It’s difficult to write a novel about money. It’s cold, icy, lacking in interest…” But his Rougon-Macquart novels, the “natural and social history” of a family in the Second Empire, were meant to cover every significant aspect of the age, from railways and coal-mines to the first department stores. Money and the Stock Exchange (the Paris Bourse) had to have a place in that picture, hence Money, the eighteenth of Zola’s twenty-novel cycle.

The subject is indeed challenging, but it makes an action-packed novel, with a huge cast, led by a smaller group of well-defined and contrasting characters, who inhabit a great variety of settings, from the busy, crowded streets of Paris to the inside of the Bourse, to a palatial bank, modest domestic interiors, houses of opulent splendour — and a horrific slum of filthy hovels that makes a telling comment on the social inequalities of the day.

Dominating the scene from the beginning is the central, brooding figure of Saccard. Born Aristide Rougon, Saccard already appears in earlier novels of the Rougon-Macquart, notably in The Kill, which relates how Saccard, profiting from the opportunities provided by Haussman’s reconstruction of Paris, made – and lost – a huge fortune in property deals. Money relates Saccard’s second rise and fall, but Saccard here is a more complex and riveting figure than in The Kill.

Émile Zola painted by Edouard Manet

It is Saccard who drives all the action, carrying us through the widely divergent social strata of a time that Zola termed “an era of folly and shame”, and into all levels of the financial world. We meet gamblers and jobbers, bankers, stockbrokers and their clerks; we get into the floor of the Bourse, where prices are shouted and exchanged at break-neck speed, deals are made and unmade, and investors suddenly enriched or impoverished. This is a world of insider-trading, of manipulation of share-prices and political chicanery, with directors lining their pockets with fat bonuses and walking off wealthy when the bank goes to the wall — scandals, alas, so familiar that it is hard to believe this book was written back in 1890! Saccard, with his enormous talent for inspiring confidence and manipulating people, would feel quite at home among the financial operators of today.

Saccard is surrounded by other vivid characters – the rapacious Busch, the sinister La Méchain, waiting vulture-like for disaster and profit, in what is, for the most part, a morally ugly world. Apart from the Jordan couple, and Hamelin and his sister Madame Caroline, precious few are on the side of the angels. But there are contrasts not only between, but also within, the characters. Nothing and no-one here is purely wicked, nor purely good. The terrible Busch is a devoted and loving carer of his brother Sigismond. Hamelin, whose wide-ranging schemes Saccard embraces and finances, combines brilliance as an engineer with a childlike piety. Madame Caroline, for all her robust good sense, falls in love with Saccard, seduced by his dynamic vitality and energy, and goes on loving him even when in his recklessness he has lost her esteem. Saccard himself, with all his lusts and vanity and greed, works devotedly for a charitable Foundation, delighting in the power to do good.

Money itself has many faces: it’s a living thing, glittering and tinkling with “the music of gold”, it’s a pernicious germ that ruins everything it touches, and it’s a magic wand, an instrument of progress, which, combined with science, will transform the world, opening new highways by rail and sea, and making deserts bloom. Money may be corrupting but is also productive, and Saccard, similarly – “is he a hero? is he a villain?” asks Madame Caroline; he does enormous damage, but also achieves much of real value.

Fundamental questions about money are posed in the encounter between Saccard and the philosopher Sigismond, a disciple of Karl Marx, whose Das Kapital had recently appeared — an encounter in which individualistic capitalism meets Marxist collectivism head to head. Both men are idealists in very different ways, Sigismond wanting to ban money altogether to reach a new world of equality and happiness for all, a world in which all will engage in manual labour (shades of the Cultural Revolution!), and be rewarded not with evil money but work-vouchers. Saccard, seeing money as the instrument of progress, recoils in horror. For him, without money, there is nothing.

If Zola vividly presents the corrupting power of money, he also shows its expansive force as an active agent of both creation and destruction, like an organic part of the stuff of life. And it is “life, just as it is” with so much bad and so much good in it, that the whole novel finally reaffirms.

Valerie Minogue has taught at the universities of Cardiff, Queen Mary University of London, and Swansea. She is co-founder of the journal Romance Studies and has been President of the Émile Zola Society, London, since 2005. She is the translator of the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Money by Émile Zola.

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, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog.

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Image credit: Émile Zola by Edouard Manet [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

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2. Shakespeare’s 450th birthday quiz

480px-Shakespeare_Droeshout_1623William Shakespeare was born 450 years ago this month, in April 1564, and to celebrate Oxford Scholarly Editions Online is testing your knowledge on Shakespeare quotes. Do you know your sonnets from your speeches? Find out…

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

Need a clue or two? Then take a look at our Shakespeare birthday infographic!

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) is a major publishing initiative from Oxford University Press, providing an interlinked collection of authoritative Oxford editions of major works from the humanities, including the complete Oxford Shakespeare series.

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Image credit: The Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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3. Room to Write

Tell us about the places you have written. The actual place where you set up your writing desk. Were there windows you looked out of? What did you see? Faraway Places was written at 211 East Fifth Street, Apt. 1A, in Manhattan. My apartment was a studio about nine feet wide and not a lot [...]

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4. “The Mouth that roared”: Peter Benchley’s Jaws at 40

By Kirk Curnutt

The novel that scared a generation out of the ocean and inspired everything from Shark Week to Sharknado recently turned forty. Commemorations of Peter Benchley’s Jaws have been as rare as megalodon sightings, however. Ballantine has released a new paperback edition featuring an amusing list of the author’s potential titles (The Grinning Fish, Pisces Redux), and in February an LA fundraiser for Shark Savers/Wildaid performed excerpts promising “an evening of relentless terror (and really awkward sex).” Otherwise, silence.

The reason is obvious. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation is so totemic that the novel is considered glorified source material, despite selling twenty-million copies. Rare is the commentator who doesn’t harp on its faults, and rarer still the fan who defends it. Critics dismiss the book as “airport literature,” while genre lovers complain it lacks “virtually every single thing that makes the movie great.” Negative perceptions arguably begin with Spielberg himself. Amid the legendary production problems that plagued the making of the movie—pneumatic sharks that didn’t work, uncooperative ocean conditions that tripled the shooting schedule—the director managed to suggest that his biggest obstacle was Benchley’s original narrative: “If we don’t succeed in making this picture better than the book,” he said, “we’re in real trouble.”

Jaws by Peter Benchley, first edition paperback, 1975.

Jaws by Peter Benchley, first edition paperback, 1975.

It’s unfortunate that Benchley gets so little love. In the mid-seventies book-Jaws didn’t simply inspire a movie but was integral to the overall phenomenon. My mother brought home the hardback months before Spielberg even began filming. As the pre-release hype roiled throughout spring 1975, her ten-year old cobbled together $1.95 for his very own paperback, which featured Roger Kastel’s iconic illustration of a massive beast with a mouthful of stalactites and stalagmites speeding toward a naked woman. (The hardback’s cover was toothless, both literally and figuratively; the shark looks like an index finger with a paper cut aiming to tickle its prey). Shortly after seeing Jaws I owned the soundtrack with John Williams’s ominous dun-dun theme; co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log, which detailed the torturous filming; and a Jaws beach towel, which made me the envy of the pool, if only briefly.

Obsessed, I collected newspaper and magazine clippings on sharks. Following the loony lead of Mad, Cracked, and Sick, I drew goofy, pun-laden parodies (Paws) and became a connoisseur of gory rip-offs (Grizzly, Orca). My paperback was essential to feeding my frenzy. I managed only three matinees before the movie left town. That was as many times per hour as I probably pored over Benchley’s bloodier passages. The urge to revisit scenes would today send a young fan to YouTube for clips or to Google for GIFs and memes. For a pre-Internet, pre-computer kid, however, rereading was the original refresh and replay. I knew Jaws so inside out I could cite the page number where the legs of the boy my age “were severed at the hips” and “sank, spinning slowly,” and I could flip straight to the bizarre moment when the shark hunter Quint insults his quarry’s penis.

I also detailed differences between the book and movie in my journal. (I was an only child; I had free time). The first change beguiled the beginning writer in me: “[Benchley] didn’t like any of his characters,” Spielberg declared, “so none of them were very likable. He put them in a situation where you were rooting for the shark to eat the people—in alphabetical order.”

The director flattened Benchley’s characters into eminently relatable archetypes: the everyman-cop with a near-fatal fear of water, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider); Quint, the aged fisherman (Robert Shaw); and the cocky scientist, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Their counterparts on the page admittedly lack both their comic relief (Scheider’s famous deadpan “You’re going to need a bigger boat” upon first seeing the shark) and their riveting monologues (especially Quint’s tale of surviving the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, brilliantly if soddenly delivered by Shaw). Benchley preferred his people perturbing, not heroic. His insecure, snockered Brody belligerently spoils his wife’s dinner party; Hooper beds Mrs. Brody; and for bait Quint uses a dolphin fetus he brags of carving from its mother’s womb.

Despite its armrest-gripping terror, Spielberg’s movie is cathartic because man ultimately conquers nature. Like most audiences, I fist-pumped and cheered when Brody blew the shark to smithereens by exploding an oxygen tank. The book’s battle is less intense and yet more primal. Benchley’s captain hurls his harpoons as Queequeg or Tashtego would instead of firing them from a gun, while Quint’s and Hooper’s deaths are cruelly ironic. Maybe it’s because my friends and I had great fun sneaking ketchup packets into the pool to reenact it, but Shaw’s blood-belching final close-up never haunted me as much as the novel’s Ahab-inspired image of Quint dragged to a watery grave snared in his own harpoon line. Hooper’s fate is even more macabre. As the ichthyologist is turned into a human toothpick Brody attempts an ill-conceived rescue by strafing the water with rifle fire. He manages to miss the shark completely yet land a bullet in Hooper’s neck. Long before reading Melville, I intuited that this was how a naturalistic universe mocked humanity.

Jaws remains a very seventies-novel. I rather like that quality, much as, by contrast, I like that Spielberg’s movie hasn’t aged a day. (Thanks to Deep Blue Sea and Sharknado, we know how un-scary CGI sharks are compared to life-size pneumatic ones). Benchley’s book feels the way the first half of its decade did: amorphous and off-center, dubious of heroes, titillated by dirty talk.

Perhaps I might feel differently if I hadn’t read it on the cusp of adolescence, but Jaws reminds me of how novels attuned me to adult frailties. It’s going overboard to say it exposed me to the sharkish side of humanity, but I could recognize Brody’s resentments, Quint’s unapologetic violence, and Hooper’s sense of sexual entitlement in men I knew. A year after I outgrew my obsession I was berated for entering a community-theater dressing room and discovering a very Mrs. Brody-like friend of my family’s kissing a man I knew wasn’t her husband.

Benchley’s novel certainly made me afraid of the water, but unlike the movie, it did nothing to convince me I was any safer on dry land.

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.

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5. Writing as technology

vsi banner

In honor of the beginning of National Library Week this Sunday, 13 April 2014, we’re sharing this interesting excerpt from Contemporary Fiction: A Very Short Introduction. As technology continues to evolve, the way we access books and information is changing, and libraries are continuously working to keep up-to-date with the latest resources available. Here, Robert Eaglestone presents the idea of the seemingly simple act of writing as a form of technology.

The essential thing about technology is that, despite our iPhones and computers and digital cameras and constant change, it is not new at all. In fact, human civilization over the longest possible time grew up not just hand in hand with technology but because of technology. Technology isn’t just something added to ‘being human’ the way we might acquire another gadget: the essence of technology is in the creation of tools, technology in the creation of farming and in buildings, cities, roads, and machines. (p. 87) And perhaps the most important form of technology is right here in front of you, you’re looking at it right now, this second: writing. It too—these very letters here, now—is, of course, a technology. Writing is a ‘machine’ to supplement both the fallible and limited nature of our memory (it stores information over time) and our bodies over space (it carries information over distances). So it’s not so much that we humans made technology: technology also made us. As we write, so writing makes us. It is technology that allows us history, as a recorded past and so a present, and so, perhaps a future. So to think about technology, and changes in technology, is to think about the very core of what we, as a species, are and about how we are changing. As we change technology, we change ourselves. And all novels, because they are a form of technology, implicitly or explicitly, do this.

The word ‘technology’ comes from the Greek word ‘techne’: techne is the skill of the craftsman or woman at building things (ships, tables, tapestries) but also, interestingly, the skill of crafting art and poetry. ‘Techne’ is the skill of seeing how, say, these pieces of wood would make a good table if sanded and used in just that way, or seeing the shape of David in the block of marble, or in hearing how these phrases will best represent the sadness you imagine Queen Hecuba feels in mourning her husband and sons. It’s also the skill, in our age, of working out how best to use resources to eliminate a disease globally, or to deliver high-quality education. But ‘techne’ has become more than just skill: it is a whole way of thinking about the world. In this ‘technological thinking’, everything in the world is turned into a potential resource for use, everything is a tool for doing something. Rocks become sources of ore; trees become potential timber for carpentry or pulp for paper; the wind itself is captured by a windmill or, in a more contemporary idiom, ‘farmed’ in a wind farm. Companies have departments of ‘human resources’. Even an undeveloped piece of natural land, purposely left undisturbed by buildings and agriculture, becomes a ‘wilderness park’, a ‘machine’ in which to relax and recharge (p. 88) oneself from the strains of everyday life. Great works of literature are turned into a resource through which to measure people, by exams or in quizzes. This is the point of the old saw, ‘To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail’: to a technological way of thinking, everything looks like a resource to be used (just as to a carpenter, all trees look like potential timber; to a university academic, all fiction is a source of exam questions). More than this, the modern networks which use these resources are bigger and more complex. Where once the windmill ground the miller’s corn to make bread, now a huge global food system moves food resources about internationally: understanding and using these networks are a career in themselves. This technological thinking, rather than the tools it produces, is a taken-for-granted ‘framework’ in which we come to see and understand everything. Although many people have made this sort of observation about the world, the influential and contentious German philosopher Martin Heidegger, from whom much of the above is drawn, made it most keenly.

Is this a bad thing? It certainly sounds as if it might be. Who wants, after all, to be seen only as a ‘human resource’? It’s precisely technological thinking that has put the world at risk of total destruction. On the other hand, technology has offered so much to so many: in curing illness and alleviating pain, for example. The question is too big to answer in these simple terms of ‘bad’ or ‘good’. However, contemporary fiction seems very negative about technology, positing dystopias and awful ends for humanity. However, I want to suggest that contemporary fiction doesn’t find the world utterly without hope, precisely because of technology.

Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is Deputy Director (and formerly Director) of the Holocaust Research Centre. His research interests are in contemporary literature and literary theory, contemporary philosophy, and on Holocaust and genocide studies. He is the author of Contemporary Fiction: A Very Short Introduction and Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students (third revised edition) (Routledge, 2009).

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS, and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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6. Writing about the Dead and Bringing Them Back to Life

In my novel, In the City of Shy Hunters, there were so many dead friends to write about. There's a line in Shy Hunters: "It's the responsibility of the survivor to tell the story." As I was writing the book, I felt the wisdom of that line very keenly. And since I was the one [...]

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7. What’s Allowed and What’s Forbidden

What for you is the relationship between writing and death? Not just literal death but dying emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. Dying to one's own ego, dying to what's allowed and what's forbidden. Writing about the dead and bringing them back to life through writing? I'll try to answer this part of the question: What is it [...]

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8. Gabrielle Zevin: The Powells.com Interview

The American Booksellers Association collects nominations from bookstores all over the country for favorite forthcoming titles. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry not only received the most votes for April's Indie Next list, it received the most votes ever in the history of the program. You don't, however, need to work in a bookstore [...]

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9. Writing Where It Hurts

You write about things that are deep and painful. Do you emotionally relive the painful feelings and experiences? Does the process of writing your novels bring pain or relieve it? I write about things that make us human. There is a great Zen saying that goes: when you meet someone, look them closely in the [...]

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10. Roberto Bolaño and the New York School of poetry

By Andrew Epstein

The late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño is of course best-known as a novelist, the author of ambitious, sprawling novels like The Savage Detectives and 2666. But before turning to prose, Bolaño started out as a poet; in fact, he often said he valued poetry more highly than fiction and sometimes claimed he was a better poet than novelist. His work is marked by a deep and abiding fascination with poetry and the people who write, read, and teach it. As Ben Ehrenreich wrote several years ago in an essay for the Poetry Foundation, “through his legions of fictional poets (some more fictional than others), through their political compromises, their self-betrayals, their struggles and feuds both petty and grand, Bolaño built a world.”

Ehrenreich is surely right about the importance of poetry, and fictional poets, to Bolaño’s oeuvre, but the critical discussion of this element of Bolaño’s work thus far has mostly remained on a general plane, instead of connecting his writing to particular poets and poetry movements. However, with the recent publication of his unfinished novel Woes of the True Policeman and of his complete poetry in The Unknown University, Bolaño’s rather surprising links to a specific poetry movement — the New York School of poetry — have come into sharper focus.

It is common for readers to link Bolaño to Latin American and Spanish literary influences, to European avant-garde movements, or to other fiction writers. But Bolaño clearly read and absorbed the New York School of poetry and painting, along with a truly astonishing range of other sources. Although commentators on his work have barely mentioned it thus far, the New York School plays an important role in his work. It flickers just on the margins of Bolaño’s fictional universe, a ghostly example of the kind of poetry — as well as the type of intimate avant-garde community of like-minded others — that continually beckons and frustrates Bolaño and his characters.

Bolaño’s preoccupation with poetry can perhaps be seen best in his wonderful novel The Savage Detectives, which is actually a novel about poets. At its heart is a semi-fictional movement of young poets Bolaño calls the “Visceral Realists” (loosely based upon his own youthful involvement in a coterie called the Infrarealists). Throughout the remarkable opening section of the novel, this group — with all of its subversive energy, its iconoclasm and playfulness, its goofy, idealistic naivete, romanticism, and tragic flaws — reminds one of a host of other avant-garde communities, including the Surrealists, the Beats, and the New York School.

But it is more than just a novel about poets. The Savage Detectives is a moving meditation on poetry as a horizon of possibility and disillusionment. In fact, it’s one of the most exhilarating, devastating, exhausting, and revealing accounts of avant-garde poetry — and the movements and social worlds that sustain it — that I have encountered. It portrays the avant-garde as dream, as tragedy, as farce, as inspiring coterie and impossible community, tantalizing potential and heart-breaking, inevitable failure. In this, Bolaño echoes one of the hallmarks of the New York School itself: an intense, often ironic awareness of the paradoxes inherent in any avant-garde community, both its allure and its limitations.

Larry Rivers, "The Athlete's Dream" (1956) source: lunacommons.org

Larry Rivers, “The Athlete’s Dream” (1956) Source: Luna Commons

However, The Savage Detectives contains few direct references to the New York poets themselves (except for a passing reference to poets Ted Berrigan and John Giorno). Traces of the New York School stand out more prominently in the recently published book Woes of the True Policeman, one of the many (and perhaps the last) of Bolaño’s posthumous works that have appeared in recent years. At the novel’s center is a Chilean university professor named Óscar Amalfitano who falls in love with a young Mexican artist whose specialty is making forgeries of paintings by … Larry Rivers, of all people. Rivers, of course, was Frank O’Hara’s close friend, collaborator, and sometime lover, and the painter who is perhaps most closely allied, both socially and aesthetically, with the New York poets. This unusual detail — and the figure of Rivers himself — becomes a significant thread in Bolaño’s novel. The young artist, Castillo, explains that he sells the forgeries to a Texan who “then sells them to other filthy rich Texans.” When Castillo informs Amalfitano that Rivers is “an artist from New York,” he replies “I know Larry Rivers. I know Frank O’Hara, so I know Larry Rivers.”

Soon after, as Amalfitano meditates on the strangeness of this situation — the amateurish Rivers’ forgeries, the Texans who buy them, and the art market in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas — Bolaño writes:

“he immediately pictured those fake Berdies, those fake camels, and those extremely fake Primo Levis (some of the faces undeniably Mexican) in the private salons and galleries, the living rooms and libraries of modestly prosperous citizens… And then he imagined himself strolling around Castillo’s nearly empty studio, naked like Frank O’Hara, a cup of coffee in his right hand and a whiskey in his left, his heart untroubled, at peace with himself, moving trustingly into the arms of his new lover” (58).

Near the end of the book, the Rivers plot culminates with a strange and funny anecdote about running into Larry Rivers himself at an exhibition of his work.

The novel also features an amusing collection of Amalfitano’s “Notes for a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet.” This takes the form of an almost Buzzfeed-ready list that consists of items like “Happiest: Garcia Lorca,” “Banker of the soul: T.S. Eliot,” and “Strangest wrinkles: Auden.” Among other names cited in this rather crazy, irreverent list, one finds several important figures of the New York School – Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, and Diane Di Prima — getting top honors in some strange categories: “Biggest cock: Frank O’Hara,” “Best movie companion: Elizabeth Bishop, Berrigan, Ted Hughes, José Emilio Pacheco,” and under “Biggest nervous wreck: Diane Di Prima”.

Signs of Bolaño’s interest in poets of the New York School can be found elsewhere across the body of his work, as when Frank O’Hara pops up in a short story collected in Last Evenings on Earth in which two poets meet, share poems with one another, and discuss their influences: “We talked a while longer, about Sanguinetti and Frank O’Hara (I still like Frank O’Hara but I haven’t read Sanguinetti for ages).” In the newly published collection of his complete poetry, The Unknown University, Bolaño’s connection to O’Hara is considerably more substantial. He not only uses a passage by Frank O’Hara as an epigraph to a poem, but the (untitled) poem itself closely echoes O’Hara’s work:

I listen to Barney Kessel
and smoke smoke smoke and drink tea
and try to make myself some toast
with butter and jam
but discover I have no bread and
it’s already twelve thirty at night
and the only thing to eat
is a nearly full bottle
of chicken broth bought this
morning and five eggs and a little
muscatel and Barney Kessel plays
guitar stuck between a
rock and an open socket
I think I’ll make some consommé and
then get into bed
to re-read The Invention of Morel
and think about a blond girl
until I fall asleep and
start dreaming.

(translated by Laura Healey)

With its “I do this, I do that” narrative conjuring up an ordinary but melancholy-tinged everyday moment, its references to listening to music, and jazz at that (Barney Kessel), its intimate and conversational tone, its lack of punctuation and its headlong rush, Bolaño’s poem seems to intentionally evoke O’Hara’s signature style.

In another poem in The Unknown University, Bolaño chronicles his experience of reading Ted Berrigan’s 1963 book The Sonnets.

A Sonnet

16 years ago Ted Berrigan published
his Sonnets. Mario passed the book around
the leprosaria of Paris. Now Mario
is in Mexico and The Sonnets on
a bookshelf I built with my own
hands. I think I found the wood
near Montealegre nursing home
and I built the shelf with Lola. In
the winter of ’78, in Barcelona, when
I still lived with Lola! And now it’s been 16 years
since Ted Berrigan published his book
and maybe 17 or 18 since he wrote it
and some mornings, some afternoons,
lost in a local theatre I try reading it,
when the film ends and they turn on the light.

(translated by Laura Healey)

The poem portrays the speaker’s formative encounter with Berrigan’s ground-breaking collection of experimental sonnets, but also hints at the frustrations or limitations of his exposure to it: the “lost” speaker, who may also have recently lost his lover (Lola), merely tries to read the book. He seems to long for the energy he seems convinced Berrigan must have had so many years ago when he wrote those poems. The poem also underscores both the cosmopolitan nature of Bolaño’s imagination and the international reach of the New York School of poets. Berrigan’s book The Sonnets, like this sonnet itself, crosses time and space, speaking across 16 years, and sliding across boundaries and nationalities: written in New York, circulated around Paris by a Latin American poet who is now in Mexico, read by a young 26 year old Chilean poet in a movie theater in Barcelona.

Bolaño of course read voraciously, immersing himself fully in a wide range of 20th century avant-garde writing and art, but as the final pieces of his work appear in translation, it has become clearer than ever that he seems to have had a special connection to a poetry movement that sprouted from a place far from Santiago, Mexico City, Barcelona, and other key points in his own geography — the world of Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, Ted Berrigan, and other New York poets.

Poetry — especially the kind of poetry the New York School produced, and even more so, embodied, in its example and its ambivalent attitudes about community — seemed to exemplify Bolaño’s guiding belief about art in general: that it always promises us shimmering possibilities and perpetual disappointment at the same time.

Andrew Epstein is Associate Professor of English at Florida State University. He is the author of Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry.

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11. Happy 450th birthday William Shakespeare!

But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve …
– Othello (Act 1, Sc. 1, l.64)

April 2014 sees Shakespeare mature to the ripe old age of 450, and to celebrate we have collected a multitude of quotes from the famous bard in the below graphic, crafting his features with his own words.

To read the free scenes, open the graphic as a PDF.

Shakespeare birthday infographic

Download the graphic as a jpg or PDF.

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online provides an interlinked collection of authoritative Oxford editions of major works from the humanities. Scholarly editions are the cornerstones of humanities scholarship, and Oxford University Press’s list is unparalleled in breadth and quality. Read more about the site, follow the tour, or watch the full story.

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12. One Crucial Tip for New Writers

If you could dispense with a single point of advice/wisdom to a new but promising writer, what would it be? And why? Your best friend is in town and you haven't seen him or her in years. You have something very profound that has happened to you that your friend does not know about yet. [...]

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13. The Plover

From the author of Mink River, a jaunty, modernist take on the seafaring yarn, complete with a grizzled boat captain, resident gull, and prose that sparkles and leaps like the ocean waves it travels. Books mentioned in this post The Plover Signed Edition Brian Doyle New Hardcover $24.99

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14. The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison is a marvel. The essays that make up this collection are wise, uncomfortable, beautiful, humane, and utterly absorbing. They demand an investigation of the reader's own heart. I can't think of another book I've recommended to so many people so fiercely. I'm already happy to declare it the best nonfiction book of 2014. [...]

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15. Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish

A novel told in verse? This type of thing usually makes me want to claw my eyes out. I'm a serious skeptic: Is this a gimmick? Pretentious? A plea for attention? Normally, I'd say yes, but Rakoff is amazingly magical here. The story of several folks who are loosely connected, these short pieces have the feeling [...]

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16. Like Water for Chocolate

"Like water for chocolate" refers to the desired temperature for the perfect cup of hot chocolate. And that is: just at the point of bursting into a rolling boil. So, too, is the steamy love affair between Tita and Pedro: just about to boil over. Blistering, indeed! Books mentioned in this post Like Water for Chocolate Laura Esquivel Used [...]

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17. President’s Hat

This is a quirky little novel about French president François Mitterrand's hat, and the life it leads when separated from the man himself. He accidentally leaves it in a restaurant, and for the lucky souls who will next wear it, it is a good-luck charm of immense proportions. Thoroughly engaging, this unlikely story is a [...]

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18. All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

Oh, it's a happy day when there is a brand-new Fannie Flagg novel! There is something so comforting and soothing about diving into her version of small-town Alabama. Here she follows two families; the Simmonses of Point Clear, Alabama, in 2005 and the Jurdabralinskis of Pulaski, Wisconsin, during WWII. Flagg deftly weaves the stories of her families closer [...]

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19. Sherlock Holmes’ beginnings


Here at Oxford University Press we occasionally get the chance to discover a new and exciting piece of literary history. We’re excited to share the newest short story addition to the Sherlock Holmes mysteries in Sherlock Holmes: Selected Stories. Never before published, our editorial team has acquired The Mystery of the Green Garden, now believed to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first use of the Sherlock Holmes’ character in his writing. Written during Doyle’s time at Stonyhurst College before entering medical school, the short story displays an early, amateur style of writing not seen in his later published works.

The Mystery of the Green Garden is set during Sherlock Holmes’ childhood – a rarely discussed part of Holmes’ life. Holmes’ is only sixteen years old when he is called to his first case. Unlike many of the stories in the Holmes series which are narrated by the loyal Dr. Watson, Holmes himself tells the short, endearing tale of his mother’s beloved garden. Getting our first look at his parents, Holmes briefly describes his mother as a “lively but often brooding woman.” We catch only a glimpse of his father who he calls a tireless civil serviceman with, “rarely enough time to fix even a long ago missing board in the kitchen’s creaking floor.”

Before attending university where he first acquired his detective skills, and moving to 221S Baker Street to practice his craft, Holmes lived at 45 Tilly Lane overlooking “a lush, never ignored garden.” Described as his mother’s favorite pastime, she gardened tirelessly day in and day out. As a young boy he recalls “spending countless hours playing in the dirt as mother tended to her beloved flowers and ferns.”

One morning, Holmes wakes to discover the garden destroyed. Flower beds are overturned, and shrubbery and plants are ripped apart. His mother is beside herself upon seeing her hard work demolished, and Holmes vows to discover the foolish culprit behind the dastardly act. A neighbor provides the first clue that sets the wheels in motion. His elderly neighbor who often wakes “before the sun has met the sky,” describes to Holmes a “tall, lean man with a crooked gray cap” that he saw running down the pathway between their two houses in the early hours of the morning while everyone in town still slept. Without any experience at solving cases, Doyle displays the first use of Holmes’ abductive reasoning skills later developed in the stories. As Holmes gathers clues as to what seems to be a random act, a story bigger than anyone can imagine slowly unravels.

April Fools! We hope we haven’t disappointed you too much. Although The Mystery in the Green Garden is just the work of a fool’s mind, there are seven Sherlock Holmes novels in the Oxford World’s Classics series. Sherlock Holmes: Selected Stories includes over a dozen stories truly written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

9780199672066For 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, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog. Subscribe to only Oxford World’s Classics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

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20. My Two Worlds (staff pick)

A meandering and somewhat melancholic work, My Two Worlds is the tale of a nameless author, whom, on the cusp of his 50th birthday, finds himself in Brazil to attend a literary conference. Likely an unsuccessful novelist, the narrator spends his day traversing the city, strolling through the park, and ruminating on whatever crosses his [...]

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21. Dublinesque (staff pick)

"The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair." Samuel Riba, Dublinesque's depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and [...]

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22. The Returned

Jason Mott, haunted by the death of his parents and his self-acknowledged inadequate response to those deaths, tries to reconcile his feelings in The Returned. In the small town of Arcadia — the irony of that name is perfect — dead people are suddenly alive again, just as if their lives started back up again [...]

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23. Guadalajara (staff pick)

Guadalajara is a strong, inventive collection of short stories from Catalan journalist and fiction writer Quim Monzó. Of the 14 stories featured in Guadalajara, there is not a single one lacking in intrigue, imagination, or charm. Monzó's prose is alluring enough, but it is the quality of his overall storytelling that allows this work its [...]

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24. When science stopped being literature

By James Secord

We tend to think of ‘science’ and ‘literature’ in radically different ways. The distinction isn’t just about genre – since ancient times writing has had a variety of aims and styles, expressed in different generic forms: epics, textbooks, lyrics, recipes, epigraphs, and so forth. It’s the sharp binary divide that’s striking and relatively new. An article in Nature and a great novel are taken to belong to different worlds of prose. In science, the writing is assumed to be clear and concise, with the author speaking directly to the reader about discoveries in nature. In literature, the discoveries might be said to inhere in the use of language itself. Narrative sophistication and rhetorical subtlety are prized.

This contrast between scientific and literary prose has its roots in the nineteenth century. In 1822 the essayist Thomas De Quincey broached a distinction between the ‘the literature of knowledge’ and ‘the literature of power.’ As De Quincey later explained, ‘the function of the first is to teach; the function of the second is to move.’ The literature of knowledge, he wrote, is left behind by advances in understanding, so that even Isaac Newton’s Principia has no more lasting literary qualities than a cookbook. The literature of power, on the other hand, lasts forever and draws out the deepest feelings that make us human.

The effect of this division (which does justice neither to cookbooks nor the Principia) is pervasive. Although the literary canon has been widely challenged, the university and school curriculum remains overwhelmingly dominated by a handful of key authors and texts. Only the most naive student assumes that the author of a novel speaks directly through the narrator; but that is routinely taken for granted when scientific works are being discussed. The one nineteenth-century science book that is regularly accorded a close reading is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). A number of distinguished critics have followed Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots in attending to the narrative structures and rhetorical strategies of other non-fiction works – but surprisingly few.

Charles Darwin

It is easy to forget that De Quincey was arguing a case, not stating the obvious. A contrast between ‘the literature of knowledge’ and ‘the literature of power’ was not commonly accepted when he wrote; in the era of revolution and reform, knowledge was power. The early nineteenth century witnessed remarkable experiments in literary form in all fields. Among the most distinguished (and rhetorically sophisticated) was a series of reflective works on the sciences, from the chemist Humphry Davy’s visionary Consolations in Travel (1830) to Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33). They were satirised to great effect in Thomas Carlyle’s bizarre scientific philosophy of clothes, Sartor Resartus (1833-34).

These works imagined new worlds of knowledge, helping readers to come to terms with unprecedented economic, social, and cultural change. They are anything but straightforward expositions or outdated ‘popularisations’, and deserve to be widely read in our own era of transformation. Like the best science books today, they are works in the literature of power.

James Secord is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, and a fellow of Christ’s College. His research and teaching is on the history of science from the late eighteenth century to the present. He is the author of the recently published Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.

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Image credit: Charles Darwin. By J. Cameron. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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25. The Lives of Things (staff pick)

Originally published in Portuguese in 1978 (as Objecto Quase), The Lives of Things collects six short stories that are amongst the earliest of José Saramago's writings to have yet been translated into English. Released the year after Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (long out of print in English, but recently republished) and some four years [...]

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