Friday, March 29, 2013

I Apologize in Advance

The Birthday Party

            Poor old Mrs. Peters, I thought, smiling perfunctorily as I strapped on a ridiculous cone-shaped party hat and moved to the kitchen in the little suburban house.  These hats are basically festive dunce-caps.  I was always prone to epiphanies, so long as they were self-deprecating.  But poor old Mrs. Peters was wearing one of these stupid hats too, and I didn’t want to seem rude.  After all, it was her birthday. 

            Now, you may very well wonder why a fifty year old woman was throwing herself a birthday party.  That very question was one of the three that popped into my head after I received the invitation.  One of the others was:  Why invite me?  I didn’t know Mrs. Peters very well.  I later learned that Mrs. Peters invited all her neighbors.; I was just the only one to actually attend.  The low turnout was related to my other question:  Why throw a birthday party at noon on Super Bowl Sunday?  I have yet to get a definitive answer to this question.  But nevertheless, there I was, sitting across the table from Mrs. Peters, sipping from a glass of fresh lemonade, trying to overlook the thinly veiled sadness lining her face. 

            Mrs. Peters had no family, unless you count Mr. Fuzzykins, her hairless Siamese cat (which I don’t).  All skin and claws, Mr. Fuzzykins begged (i.e. scratched hashtags into my leg) for some of the cake on the table, a two-layer chocolate disk with a wholly irresponsible number of candles stuck in it.  “That’s a lovely cake,” I said.  Mrs. Peters began to sob.  This carried on for a few minutes, during which Mr. Fuzzykins chewed through my shoelaces in three places.  When Mrs. Peters calmed down, she explained:

            “I’m sorry.  I just remembered something from when I was a little girl.  My parents never had much, and I’d never get birthday presents.  But every year my mother would bake me a flourless cake.”

            “Those are very tough to make,” I said.

            “No, she just didn’t put in any flour.  It tasted awful, but I was always grateful for the thought.  When I was ten or so, my father got a better job, and I started getting real cakes for my birthday.  I just remembered, at my first real birthday party, there was a cake.  Small, nothing special, but to me it was the most beautiful cake in the world and a sign of the great things that were happening for our family.  I promised myself, when I grew up, I was going to have two beautiful cakes for all my birthdays.”    

            Mrs. Peters stood up, grabbed a plate from a cupboard and rummaged through a drawer, eventually emerging with a large knife.  She returned to the cake, removed the top level and put it on another plate.  She beamed proudly at the dishes.  “Now how about that?” she asked.

            “Mrs. Peters,” I sighed:

            “You can’t halve your cake and deem it two.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Judging Books By Their Covers

People say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but good cover design can tell you a lot about a book's premise, themes, and tone.  Bad cover design can be confusing.  And no one has been consistently worse than Tutis Publishing with its "Great Classics Series."  Basically, Tutis decided to print a bunch of old classics whose copyrights had expired.  They then slapped on covers that range from bland to hilarious.  Sometimes they're very literal.  For example -

"3:30 is too damn early!" - Zeus

Sometimes they're ridiculously literal-

I love trying to figure out the thought processes for these cover designs.  In this case, instead of a book of fairytales, the designer thought it must have been about a book that was also a fairy.     

My favorite part of this is that it's turning a nut, not a screw.

But those mistakes make sense.  Some are so baffling and wildly incorrect, that I can barely begin to fathom what was going through the mind of the people involved.  I'm curious who they think King Arthur was.

If you've been following this blog, you'll have heard me talk about Zane Grey, who pretty much defined the Western genre.  You wouldn't know it from Tutis.

But my personal favorite is their take on L. Frank Baum's Oz series.  I have a feeling that Tutis's version would be much more  bizarre and interesting.  The least bizarre is the cover for Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.

I say that one's the least bizarre because the other two are much more subtly wrong.  For example, the Emerald City on the cover of The Emerald City of Oz, is Detroit.

No, seriously.  This is a photo of Detroit.

And finally, who could be the lost princess of Oz?

That's a picture of Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights and notable Victorian literary figure.  She has no connection to L. Frank Baum or the Oz series.  What she is doing on the cover is a question I don't expect answered.  At least it's the most confusing use of an unrelated historical figure on a cover of an unrelated book, right?

Monday, March 25, 2013

1919: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez

Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1867 – 1928) was born in Valencia, Spain. Blasco Ibáñez (Spanish naming conventions put the family name, Blasco, second to last) was a political activist Spain’s transition from a monarchy to a republic, from a republic back to a monarchy, and the loss of much of their western territories to rebellion and conquest in the Spanish-American War.   He was briefly exiled and later imprisoned for his political support of Cuban independence.  In 1910, he founded two colonies in Argentina: Nueva Valencia and Cervantes.  His best known novels (in the English speaking world) are Blood and Sand (Sangre y Arena) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Los Cuatros Jinetes Del Apocalipsis), both of which became films in the early 1920’s, launching the career of silent film star Rudolf Valentino. 

            The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was published in Spanish in 1916, and translated to English in 1918.

So what's it about?
            The story starts with Argentinean youth Julio Desnoyers on a ship to France.  Half French himself, Julio is travelling with a number of French and German travelers returning to Europe.  The first section of the book is split between Julio’s life as a wealthy libertine ‘artist’ in Paris and his father Marcelo’s life in Argentina after fleeing France to avoid service in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.   The story continues to split its focus between Julio and his father.  The second section is lauding the brave service of the soldiers going out to war, and criticizing the cruelty and arrogance of the Germans.  Considering that the novel was published while the war was still ongoing, much of the pro-Allies discussion can be seen as propaganda, or at least an attempt to persuade readers of the time to enlist in the fight. 

            The book is strong throughout, but it shines at two points.  The history of the Desnoyers family in Argentina and the German invasion and defeat during the Battle of the Marne.  The prose beautifully displays the tragedy and inhumanity of war:   

            He went on toward the village – a mass of black walls with a few houses still intact, and             a roofless bell tower with its cross twisted by the fire.  Nobody in the streets sown with                 bottles, charred chunks of wood, and soot-covered rubbish.  The dead bodies had
            disappeared –”

Why was it so popular?
            In 1919, World War One was still on everyone’s mind, with over 100,000 American deaths and over 200,000 wounded in a war that changed who wars were fought.  Blasco Ibanez was already popular in Europe, and the book is quite good.

Why haven't I heard of it?
          Blasco Ibáñez’s popularity in the United States has decreased over the decades since his death.  As with Mr. Britling Sees It Through, this novel has, like most World War One fiction, been overshadowed by non-fiction works and by novels about the Second World War. Also like Mr. Britling, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was published in 1916, and doesn’t cover the end of the war.  Likewise, the propaganda aspect can be unappealing to some readers. 

Should I read it?
            Unless you can’t stand war novels, the answer is a resolute ‘yes.’  Despite its occasional preachiness, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a great novel.  

You can read The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on Project Gutenberg

You can watch the 1921 film version on Internet Archive

Also published in 1919:

The Budding Within by Marcel Proust
Demian by Herman Hesse
The Magic of Oz by L. Frank Baum


Blasco Ibáñez, Vicente. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Trans. Charlotte Brewster            Jordan. 1918.  New York: E. P. Dutton. 1965. Print. 

Day, A. Grove and Knowlton Jr., Edgar C.  Blasco Ibáñez. New York: Twayne Publishers.                1972. Print.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Post In Which I Get Pedantic About Spelling

As the title suggests, I'm here to talk about spelling.  There are a few particular words that I see misspelled all the time, even among the work of my fellow English majors.  Never fear; a random fellow on the internet is here!

Through / Threw

Through is a preposition, as in "Superman can see through walls."   Threw is the past tense of throw, as in "Superman threw several criminals into space before he remembered that humans can't breathe there."  It's understandable how the mistake would be made, especially since the pronunciation of "ough" is the point at which the English language has a mental breakdown.

Wander / Wonder

To wander is to roam aimlessly, as in "Superman wandered through the ruins of a moon colony."  This is not the same as wonder, which, when used as a verb, means to ponder or consider.  For example, "Superman wondered what happened to those nuclear missiles he diverted into space."  I usually see people spell 'wander' with an 'o,' and rarely see this mistake the other way around.  This is reasonable, because the 'a' in wander makes a sound usually associated with 'o's.  Here's a simple story to help you remember which is which:  Superman destroyed the TV satellite, so I missed the end of the game.  I wonder who won?

Past / Passed

Passed is the past tense of the verb pass.  Example:  "Superman passed by a wig shop that was being robbed; he didn't stop to help."  The past is that point in time before the present and even farther before the future.  Example:  "Superman has an unpleasant past with bald people."   This is an easy mistake to make, due to the similarity in pronunciation and, often, meaning.  If the word you're looking for is a verb, it's probably passed, if it's an adjective or a noun, it's probably past.

Monday, March 18, 2013

1918: The U. P. Trail by Zane Grey

            Pearl Zane Grey (1872-1939) was born in Zanesville, Ohio, a city named after his maternal great-grandfather.  As an adult, he dropped his first name, and is still better known as Zane Grey. Even someone like me (whose entire knowledge of the Western genre comes from The Wild Bunch, the Coen brother’s True Grit, and Back to the Future: Part Three), considers Zane Grey synonymous with Westerns.  Grey grew up in Columbus, Ohio and attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship.  After graduation, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a dentist, opening his practice in New York City.  With the help of his soon to be wife, Lina (better known as Dolly), Grey self-published his first novel, Betty Zane, in 1903.  He published eight more books before 1912, when he published his most famous and commercially successful book, Riders of the Purple Sage.  In all, he published over sixty books in his lifetime and more than thirty posthumously.

So what's this book about?
            The U. P. Trail takes place in the late 1860’s during the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, the first to connect the east coast to the west.  The story centers on Warren Neale, a railroad engineer, his gunslinger friend Larry King (who is fortunately referred to as “Red,” although the image of a bespectacled, suspendered fast-draw artist is entertaining), and the love interest, Allie Lee.  While laying out the course of the railroad, a trapper named Slingerland arrives looking for help.  Neale and Red come to the aid of a wagon caravan heading east that had been attacked by a Sioux Indian war party.  With the exception of Allie, who had been heading east with her mother to escape her gambler step-father, all the travelers had been killed.  Neale falls for Allie, who, when she comes out of shock, feels the same. 

            The characters are all archetypical Westerners.  The mysterious gunslinger; the plucky damsel in distress; the lone woodsman; the chivalrous hero; the heartless gambler, etc.  Within their roles as characters in a Western, they are consistent and have enough individuality to make them barely three dimensional (usually). 

            Grey’s description of the land is probably the best part of the book.  He writes with a lot of emotion, some of which invariably impresses itself on the reader.  Unfortunately, the events in the story seem contrived.  There are series of chance encounters and coincidences that stretch too far into the realm of implausibility.

            While I can’t speak from a background in Westerns, The U.P. Trail seems like pretty standard fare for the genre.

Why was it so popular?
            Zane Grey had appeared in the top ten on the bestsellers list twice before the publication of The U.P. Trail. Since the publication of Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912, his popularity had been increasing.  If one thing is certain, it’s that previous popularity is a strong force for getting to the top of the bestsellers list.  Likewise, a history in film helps.  His work has been adapted for the screen over 100 times, since 1911.  

It’s possible, too, that a purely escapist story set in a different time period would appeal to a populace engaged in one of the largest wars in history. 

Why haven't I heard of it?
           Zane Grey is more famous than any one of his novels individually.  With the exception of Riders of the Purple Sage, there doesn’t seem to be any specific Zane Grey novel that has become, and remained, remarkably notable.  Zane Grey’s work overall is still significant as a large part of the foundation for the Western genre. 

Should I read it? 
         The U.P. Trail is pure escapism with a little bit of history.  As someone who isn’t a fan of Westerns, I can’t say I enjoyed it much.  But if you enjoy Westerns and are looking for escapism, The U.P. Trail seems like a good choice.      

You can read The U. P. Trail on Project Gutenberg. 

Also published in 1918:  
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

Grey, Zane. The U. P. Trail. 1918. Roslyn, New York : W. J. Black. 1946. Print.
Gruber, Frank. Zane Grey: A Biography. Roslyn, New York: W. J. Black. Print.
Zane Grey on

Monday, March 11, 2013

1917: Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

     Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) remains popular to this day, and is best known for his work as one of the fathers of science fiction. Wells was born in the county of Kent in England.  Growing up, his family had considerable financial trouble resulting in Wells’s placement in various harsh apprenticeship programs as a child and teenager, giving him experiences which lent themselves to some of his novels (e.g. Kipps).  He later became a teacher and, in 1895, wrote his first (and possibly most famous) novel, The Time Machine.  Between 1895 and 1901, Wells published three non-fiction books and eight more novels, including The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901).

     Wells wrote prolifically about social and economic issues, and put forth many volumes on better ways to organize the world.  He wrote extensively on the subject of utopias and authored many non-fiction works on popular history. Yet he is remembered for little else than his science fiction, despite having published over fifty novels at the time of his death, and even more non-fiction books.  Wells passed away due to undetermined medical causes in 1946.

So what's this book about?
     Mr. Britling Sees It Through can be best explained by this passage from the novel itself:
“This story is essentially the history of the opening and of the realisation of the Great War as it happened to one small group of people in Essex, and more particularly, as it happened to one human brain” (216).

     The titular Mr. Britling is a writer primarily of essays and non-fiction books on social issues of the day and larger aspects of human nature.   The novel begins with the arrival of Mr. Direck, an American who has come to ask Mr. Britling to give a lecture in Massachusetts.  Mr. Direck stays at Mr. Britling’s home in Matching’s Easy, along with Mrs. Britling, Mr. Britling’s secretary Teddy, his wife Letty and sister-in-law Cecily (whom Mr. Direck immediately falls for), Herr Heinrich (a German student), the Britlings’ two young sons, and Hugh Britling (Mr. Britling’s older son from his first marriage).  The first section of the novel establishes these characters and focuses on the British attitude leading up to the outbreak of World War One.  The rest of the novel focuses on how life and attitudes changed (or refused to change) while some characters left for war. 

            The novel is mostly character-driven.  World events are expressed primarily as to how they affect the characters.  There is very little of the war itself in the novel, and scenes from the war are all expressed either in the form of stories from refugees or letters from soldiers on the front. 

            The characters are complex and honest, and much of the discussion of global politics and social concerns still resonate today.  There are some points where these dissertations on the ethics of war or the mechanics of attaining world peace (among other things) get hard to trudge through. 

     If the character sounds like H. G. Wells, that’s because it, in essence, is.  In Experiment in Autobiography, Wells writes: “Before the end of 1914, I had already set to work upon a record of my mental phases, elaborated in a novel, Mr. Britling Sees It Through.  It is only in the most general sense autobiographical… Mr. Britling is not so much a representation of myself as of my type and class, and I think I have contrived in that book to give not only the astonishment and the sense of traic disillusionment in a civilized mind as the cruel facts of war rose steadily to dominate everything else in life, but also the passionate desire to find some immediate reassurance amidst that whirlwind of disaster” (573).

Why was it so popular?
     Mr. Britling Sees It Through was published in England in 1916.  In 1917, the United States officially joined World War One.  There was no subject more at the forefront of the public consciousness.  H. G. Wells was already a well-known author, so it is quite easy to see how his MBSIT would be widely read. 

Why haven't I heard of it?
     For one thing, it deals very little with the events of the war itself, and the causes of the war are only debated upon by the characters.  Additionally, since the novel was published in 1916, it did not cover the end of the war or (as would be important to a modern American audience) the American involvement in the war effort.  Since the time of its publication, other novels about World War One (most notably Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front) have focused on the soldiers’ experience of the war, and non-fiction works that cover the war in its entirety have covered the social and political causes of the war in more detail than Wells’s novel.  “Following the war, popularity swung steadily toward non-fiction, until by the mid-thirties it was outselling fiction” (Mott 241).

Should I read it?
     If you have an interest in World War One, you will likely enjoy this book.  The discussions on politics and ethics and philosophy are thought-provoking and worth reading. 

You can read Mr. Britling Sees it Through on Project Gutenberg.

Also published in 1917:      

Prufrock, and Other Observation by T. S. Eliot

Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1947.
Wells, H. G.  Mr. Britling Sees It Through. London: Cassel and Company, 1916. Print.
Wells, H. G.  Experiment in Autobiography. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1934. Print.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Happy Birthday Bret Easton Ellis!

Today is author Bret Easton Ellis's 49th birthday.  Ellis is probably one of the most controversial living authors, with books like "American Psycho" and "Less Than Zero" and their extremely graphic sex and violence.  Whether you're a fan or a detractor, it's hard to deny that Ellis has had a strong impact on what's (in)appropriate in modern fiction.  Here's a short interview with Ellis, discussing self-censorship:

Monday, March 4, 2013

1916: Seventeen by Booth Tarkington

            Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) appears twice on the list.  The first time was for 1915’s The Turmoil.  While he had great commercial and critical success with serious and mature novels (garnering two Pulitzer prizes in the process), he was also well known for his comedic fiction starring children and teenagers.   Penrod (1914), which followed the eponymous twelve-year old, was one of his bestselling books in terms of numbers of copies sold. Both Seventeen and Penrod and Sam (the sequel to Penrod) were published in book form 1916.

So what's this book about?
            Seventeen was originally published serially in ten parts in Metropolitan Magazine beginning in January, 1915, before being published as an individual novel by Harper in 1916.  It tells the story of seventeen year old William Baxter and his summer spent trying to woo Lola Prat, the girl from out of town who he, and a number of his friends, have immediately fallen for.  William treats the situation with all the subtlety and rationality one would expect of a love-struck seventeen year old.  His wildly over the top responses to the rest of the world are hilarious and, as anyone who did not grow up in a cave can attest, embarrassingly true:  

          “He walked in his own manner, using his shoulders to emphasize an effect of carelessness which he wished to produce upon observers. For his consciousness of observers was abnormal, since he had it whether any one was looking at him or not.”

            The cast includes bizarre and amusing characters like William’s ten year old sister Jane, the adventurous, free-spirited bane of William’s existence.  And of course, the love interest, the exasperating Lola Pratt, whose refusal to speak in any fashion other than ‘baby talk’ straddles the line between humorously annoying and cringe-worthy. 

            Seventeen is funny, even though at times the gags get a bit repetitive.  But at 185 pages, it doesn’t have a chance to drag.  The humor is largely based on the over-the-top love-strickenness of William and the overwrought nerves of the adults who have to deal with them.  All this is strung together with a heaping dose of slapstick.

Why was it so popular?
            It certainly benefited from Tarkington’s popularity and the success of his other teenager stories.  It’s a short, fun read which would certainly boost its saleability.  On top of that, a silent film version of Seventeen was released in early November, 1916. 

So why haven't I heard of it?
            Seventeen remained popular for several decades after its publication.  In addition to the 1916 silent film, the novel was also adapted into a stageplay in 1918, a short-lived musical (Hello, Lola) in 1926, an Orson Welles radio broadcast in 1938,  a talkie in 1940, and lastly another musical in 1951.

              Eventually, Seventeen went the way of the rest of Tarkington’s oeuvre and faded into obscurity. 

Should I read it?
            As with The Turmoil, there are aspects of the story that do not translate well into modern attitudes.  Certain subplots (e.g. William’s quest for an evening suit) are far removed enough from modern culture that they lose much of their impact.  If you can overlook that and have the patience to deal with Lola’s (intentionally and humorously) grating personality, I’d gladly recommend it as light, fun reading.

You can read Seventeen on Project Gutenberg.
You can listen to the Orson Welles radio adaptation on Youtube.

Also published in 1916:  

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Chicago Poems by Carl Sandberg


Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1947.
Tarkington, Booth. Seventeen. New York: Harper & Row. 1968.
Woodress, James. Booth Tarkington: Gentleman from Indiana. New York: J. B. Lippincott. 1955.