A blog on reading, writing and life

Monday, September 29, 2014

Words of Warning: An Unscientific Assessment of Literary Blurbs

My idea of the worst book in the world.
Lately, I’ve noticed some similar terms being used in literary blurbs, so I thought I’d note which ones tend to correlate with books I like and dislike. To me, these words signify shallow, purple-prose driven books:

Brave, confront, human heart, childhood, vision, redeeming, New York Times Notable Book of the Year, painfully beautiful, voice, musical, truth

And these words usually mean good things to me:

Compelling, modern man, intelligence, philosophical, challenge, metafictional, mysteries, humor, our century, decisive, biting, mythical

But of course for someone else, those might mean pretentious dribble. Different strokes, I guess.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Who is too old to be a writer?

It seems like every few months, the literary magazines are hailing a new 22-year old as the next big thing. I know a lot of people who get discouraged seeing incredibly young people praised again and again, and I began to wonder how how old history's most critically-respected novelists were when they were first published.

For this sample, I used the authors from Modern Library Board's list of best 100 novels. It is far from a perfect list--of the 75 writers on this list, only 8 are female--but the important thing was that the all novelist here were chosen by group of independent editors.

The purpose of this list is not to prove that most writers were accomplished by a certain age, but rather to demonstrate the range of ages that authors published their first novels. Certainly a large cohort were first published in their mid or late-twenties, but there are many respected writers who didn’t get a book published until well into their thirties or forties. This particular list doesn't have anyone beyond that, though they are abound.

This list notes the age the author published their first work of long-form fiction, which in most cases is not their best known or most respected work. In fact, in my research I found that a few of these writes later disowned their first books. Also, Short stories, nonfiction and poetry are not counted here. Many of these ages are likely off by a few months due to when birthdays fall in relation to publication dates. Since many writers appear multiple times on the Modern Library list, I ordered them by their first appearance.


James Joyce: 34
F. Scott Fitzgerald: 24
Vladimir Nabokov: 27
Aldous Huxley: 27
William Faulkner: 29
Joseph Heller: 38
Arthur Koestler: 29
D.H. Lawrence: 26
John Steinbeck: 27
Malcolm Lowry: 24
Samuel Butler: 37
George Orwell: 31
Robert Graves: 30
Virginia Woolf: 33
Theodore Dreiser: 29
Carson McCullers: 23
Kurt Vonnegut: 30
Ralph Ellison: 38
Richard Wright: 30
Saul Bellow: 29
John O’Hara: 29
John Dos Passos: 24
Sherwood Anderson: 40
E.M. Forster: 26
Henry James: 35
James T. Farrell: 28
Ford Madox Ford: 18
Evelyn Waugh: 24
Robert Penn Warren: 34
Thornton Wilder: 29
James Baldwin: 29
Graham Greene: 26
William Golding: 43
James Dickey: 47
Anthony Powell: 26
Ernest Hemingway: 27
Joseph Conrad: 38
Henry Miller: 43
Norman Mailer: 25
Philip Roth: 26
Jack Kerouac: 28
Dashiell Hammett: 35
Edith Wharton: 38
Max Beerbohm: 39
Walker Percy: 45
Willa Cather: 39
James Jones: 30
John Cheever: 45
J.D. Salinger: 32
Anthony Burgess: 39
W. Somerset Maugham: 23
Sinclair Lewis: 27
Lawrence Durrell: 23
Richard Hughes: 29
V.S. Naipaul: 25
Nathanael West: 28
Muriel Spark: 39
Rudyard Kipling: 26
Wallace Stegner: 28
Elizabeth Bowen: 28
E.L. Doctorow: 29
Arnold Bennett: 37
Jack London: 27
Henry Green: 21
Salman Rushdie: 28
Erskine Caldwell: 26
William Kennedy: 41
John Fowles: 37
Jean Rhys: 38
Iris Murdoch: 35
William Styron: 26
Paul Bowles: 38
James M. Cain: 42
J.P. Donleavy: 29
Booth Tarkington: 30

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Couldn't help myself


I couldn't help but vandalize this poster with nerdy, nerdy graffiti. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thoughts on Borges: Fictions VS Stories

I've been reading the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges for the first time. I checked out Labyrinths, an American anthology of his work, from the library. Borges is associated with magical realism, but his work is a far cry from the modern north American developments in the genre, which in my experience are often just conventional stories with a monster thrown in. By contrast, the strangeness of Borges is as intricately constructed, with layers of modernism and metafiction, as the labyrinths that haunt his work.

Labyrinths is divided into three sections, Fictions, Essays and Parables, but these distinctions are more or less irrelevant. This is because to describe his fictions as stories, in the conventional sense, would be a misnomer. They are in a way essays, and in a way parables.

Few of his fictions have characters we can hold onto or dramatic conflict between two parties. Many involve narrators discovering  mysterious philosophical treatises or recalling distant conversations. Meta ideas appear throughout the book, such as in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote'" where a 20th century French writer tries to recreate Don Quixote, not by copying the text, but by writing until he came to the same ideas as Crevantes. This piece is not, like a story, made up of scenes, but follows the conventions of a literary review, sketching out Menard's publication history and influences. Though the narrator is a friend of Menard, he reveals no personal details and provides no images or flashbacks on their friendship. Meaning in this piece is construed through the metaphysical ideas examined by the narrator and his subject, not from action or conflict. This is how "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is both fictional, yet not a story.

Still, at times Borges demonstrates he does know how to tell a story when he goddamn well wants to, like in the existential detective tale "Death and the Compass."

I'm still not sure how I feel about Borges on the whole, but I appreciate reading anything that expands my view of how literature can act and what it can accomplish.

Photo credit: Grete Stern, 1951; via Wikipedia.

Shakespeare on Screen: Hamlet (1996)

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count 
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I 
have bad dreams.
—Act 2, scene 2


In the mid '90s, Kenneth Barnagh had a dream. A dream to make the biggest, longest, most spectacular, incredibly long Hamlet film for decades to come. Directing and starring in the film himself, and with a budget so huge, there was no way a four-hour production of an Elizabethan tragedy could ever hope to turn a profit, Barnagh created a luscious and delightful, albeit contentious film.

Casting: 8/10

Kenneth Branagh is the most controversial Shakespearean since John Wilkes Booth. You either love his fresh interpretations of the Bard, or you wish him in a burning barn being fired upon by Union soldiers. Branagh's Hamlet falters in some of the long monologues, but he has a truly brilliant interpretation of Hamlet's sense of humor, which of course angers people who don't have a sense of humor.


Branagh's non-traditional choices for some of the bit parts met with mixed results. Billy Crystal as the gravedigger is maybe the best Shakespearean clown ever on the screen, while Robin William's remained flat as the brown-nose courtier Osric. Luckily, the rest of the cast was helmed by veteran Shakespeareans. Derek Jacobi, who plays the king, performed the role of Hamlet in his younger days and was a major influence on Branagh's interpretation of the character.

Little known fact: Much like Booth, Branagh also killed a man in Ford's Theater.

Cinematography: 10/10

Branagh transports Hamlet to a 19th century palace. The clean, brightly lite halls lack the gloom of prior film adaptations, but present a more decadent view of King Claudius' court. Each shot is decked in lavish colors and framed like a painting.

Some people just have a hard time accepting a bleach-blond Victorian as Hamlet.

Interpretation: 9/10

This is the only word-for-word film of Shakespeare's longest play. Branagh seemed to be fearful of trying audience's patience, and so added a number fast-pace action scenes. The fencing scene, typically point in the play where the spectacle gets ramped up to 11, goes way over the top with Hamlet hurling a chandelier at his step-father. Much more radical is his decision to have the castle invaded by the Norwegian prince Fontibras during the duel.

Overall: 9/10

Despite a few flaws, this movie is still the definitive adaptation of Hamlet. It's beautiful to watch, a real treat, provided you aren't one of those people who want to see Baranagh tried for treason.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Shakespeare on Screen: Julius Caesar (1953)

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves.
—Act 1, Scene 2

MGM presents this star-studded Hollywood classic of Shakespeare's drama of political corruption and power. A group of Roman senators suspect Caesar might seize the power of a monarch. Through flattery and deceit, even Caesar's friend Brutus is roped into the scheme. The complex characterizations that make viewers unsure who to root for mark this as one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, and MGM's production brings it to life as one of the greatest Shakespeare films.

Casting: 10/10

Each actor brings remarkable depth to their character. Shakespeare veteran John Gielgud's portrayal of Cassius, the sour and jealous conspirator, brings sensitivity to this otherwise unsympathetic character during the tense final scenes of the film. James Mason is equally brilliant as the honorable but tormented Brutus. But the real break out performance of the film is Marlon Brando in an Oscar-nominated role as Caesar's avenger, Marc Antony. Just watch this clip from the famed "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech.




Cinematography: 8/10

The vast and historically accurate sets of this film, which won the Oscar for best black-and-white art direction, are old Hollywood at its finest. They are beautiful without asserting their presence over the fine acting. The streets, busy with construction and bustling crowds, create a realistic atmosphere in that classic "cast of thousands" sort of way. One major drawback however, is the long unbroken shots in the early scenes that gave off a stagey vibe.



Interpretation: 8/10

Like many Shakespeare films, it is true to the text but with substantial cuts. The most noticeable change is the shrinking of Octavius's part. By reducing the role of Caesar's adopted son and cutting out the power-plays between him and Marc Antony, the film minimizes the cracks already appearing in the Triumvirate. We also miss Octavius gradually assuming the name of Caesar—the event that sounds the death toll for the republic the conspirators bloodied their hands to save, and reviles that Caesar's spirit, the spirit of a tyrant, will never die.

Overall: 9/10

This movie is easy to understand and watch. Great for any fan of Shakespeare, Brando or classic Hollywood.

Image source: IMDB

Murakami's "After Dark"

So this is the third Murakami book I've read. I loved Kafka on the Shore, but this one and After the Quake were kind of meh.

In After Dark we (the narrator) are watching a group of semi-connected characters out all night in a Tokyo entertainment district. The main character is a 19-year old student named Mari who is willfully avoiding home. After a chance encounter with a one-time date, she is forced out of her comfort zone and into a love hotel, where she has to translate for a Chinese prostitute who has been beat up by a john. The set up is pretty interesting. Like a typical Murakami novel, there are jazz references and philosophical conversations aplenty.

And also like a Murakami novel, the story quickly becomes surreal. We (the reader) become increasingly aware of the voyeuristic nature of "we" (the narrator), a disembodied being whose sight is bound like a movie camera. People's reflections are staying in the mirror after they leave the room. Mari's sleeping sister is transported to a room guarded by a man with no face. Ultimately, I didn't feel any resolution for any of these elements, which left me disappointed at the end of the book.

If anybody has any suggestions for a more satisfying Murakami novel, I'd love to hear them.