Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Danielewski Code

     If you’re unfamiliar with the name Mark Danielewski, then you’re missing out.  Author of the incredible House of Leaves, Danielewski is nothing if not inventive and challenging.  And his newest challenge seems to be on his Twitter page.  
     Throughout last December, most of Danielewski’s tweets began with the phrase “As a darkness nears,” or “As a darkness gathers,” or “As a darkness falls.”  On January 1st, he tweeted the following:

It contained a link to this image:

On January 17, and every two weeks since then, he has posted what I have to assume is a code of some kind.  He has posted nothing else.

Attached to each is a photo of pitch black square:

Either symbolism for the emptiness of human life or
he forgot to remove the lens cap 

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to help crack the Danielewski Code.  Good look, and try not to get lost.


Monday, February 25, 2013

1915: The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington

            Newton Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) was born, lived, and set most of his works in Indiana.  He was the offspring of old American families: His father’s side of the family moved to Indiana from the south in the late eighteenth century, and his mother’s family in New England could be traced back to colonial days and still held prominent positions in society and politics (in fact, Booth was named after his uncle, Newton Booth, then governor of California).  During his youth, his family was one of many who fell into financial hardship.  They managed to hold on, and Tarkington was educated at Purdue and later Princeton University.  He became a rather successful playwright and novelist, his first novel, The Gentlemen from Indiana, being published in 1899.  But it was not until a divorce and his marriage to Susanah Robinson in 1912 that he entered what biographer James Woodress called his “major phase.”  The first novel of this phase was 1915’s The Turmoil, the first volume of what became known as Tarkington’s Growth trilogy, including his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918).   Tarkington was the first author to win two Pulitzer prizes for fiction (the second was for 1921’s Alice Adams), a feat that has only been duplicated by John Updike and William Faulkner.
So what's this book about?
           The Turmoil tells the story of the nouveau riche Sheridan family, led by the consummate industrialist, Jim Sheridan.  The main character is the family’s youngest son, twenty-two year old Bibbs Sheridan, who at the beginning of the novel is returning from a sanitarium after two years spent recovering from a nervous breakdown brought on by his father’s attempt to mold Bibbs after his own image (as he had successfully done with Bibbs’ two older brothers).  The novel’s main focus is on the relationship between Jim and his children and the relationship between the Sheridan’s and the “old rich” families of Indianapolis, specifically the secretly destitute Vertreeses and their daughter Mary, and how these things affect Bibbs’ personal growth.

            Therein lies the heart of the novel: Bibbs, the dreamer, poet, and outsider, assuming his maturity in a changing world.  Tarkington creates an honest picture of an isolated young man with vague ambition and his transformation as he reenters the world and falls for Mary Vertrees.  The story is often funny and, on a few occasions, tragic, as the lives of all the characters drastically change.  

            Besides Bibbs and Mary Vertrees, the characters are often typecast so as to parody certain kinds of people or situations.  That is not to say that they don’t have depth (although there are a few characters who don’t), and this parody is intended and generally succeeds in being humorous.   And when the characters examine the reasons behind their behavior, or break from their established caricatures, it is done skillfully, giving the reader a deeper understanding of their personalities. 

            Overall, The Turmoil has aged well.  The relationships between the members of the Sheridan family are true to life and easily accessible, even after all this time.  However, the attitudes the characters hold in regard to romantic relationships and the old wealth vs. new wealth are strictly representative of their time.

So why was it so popular?
            This was a time of great industrialization and corporate growth in the United States.  The lives of the rich and powerful have always been popular subjects for novels, and the fall of American “aristocracy” to the nouveau riche was of particular prevalence at that time.  I also noticed an interesting correlation between The Turmoil and The Inside of the Cup: they have remarkably similar openings.  Both describe a midwestern city, once home to the well-to-do, now made urban and industrial.  In both openings, the sign and symbol of this prosperity, is smoke.  Churchill wrote: “Little did the … prominent people foresee the havoc that prosperity and smoke were to play with their residential plans! One by one, sooty commerce drove them out.”  Tarkington wrote: “The smoke is like the bad breath of a giant panting for more and more riches.  He gets them and pants the fiercer, smelling and swelling prodigiously.  He has a voice,  a hoarse voice, hot and rapacious trained to one tune: ‘Wealth! I will get Wealth!’”

            The industrialization of the Midwest affected many people, including Tarkington.  According to his biography: “The sedate, well-mannered, and self-contained society that he rememberd in Indianapolis in 1900 had crumbled before the irresistible force of big business and the vast complexities of an industrial democracy.  The life he formerly knew had been succeeded by a frenetic rat race in the grimy maze of his once relaxed and friendly city (Woodress 181-2).

Why haven't I heard of it?
               That’s a good question.  At the time of writing this, I’ve already finished reading Tarkington’s Seventeen (the bestseller of 1916).  Judging from these two (very different) novels, I feel that the reason is that they are very much period pieces.  Obviously, much fiction takes place at the time it was written, and that time is from a  past period, but that is not what I mean by “period piece.”  As I define it, a period piece is a story in which the attitudes of the characters are deeply entrenched in that specific time and place.  For example, if we look at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the film adaptation Apocalypse Now, even with the change in the specifics of the setting (replace colonized Congo with occupied Vietnam, mercantile with military), the characters’ attitudes and values are not anachronistic.  The same cannot be said of Tarkington’s characters.  The characters are still accessible and coherent, but they can only be understood as products of their time. 
Should I read it?       
               If you don’t mind period pieces, then yes.  The Turmoil is fun, emotional, and well-written. 

You can read The Turmoil on Project Gutenberg.

Also published in 1915:

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham


Churchill, Winston. The Inside of the Cup. 1913.
Tarkington, Booth. The Turmoil. 1915.
Woodress, James. Booth Tarkington: Gentleman from Indiana. New York: J. B. Lippincott. 1955.

Monday, February 18, 2013

1914: The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright

This is Harold Bell Wright, one of the most financially successful authors of the early twentieth century.


           Harold Bell Wright (1872-1944) was born in Rome, New York.  After being orphaned at the age of ten, he worked on a farm, and later took up house painting and other odd jobs to survive.  Despite never being taught in a seminary or religious institution, Wright became a preacher.   He rarely spent more than a couple years with any one congregation, moving back and forth between Kansas, Missouri, and California.  He was a preaching in Pittsburg, Kansas when he wrote his first novel, That Printer of Udell’s.  The novel only saw publication due to a chance meeting between Wright and a man named Elsbery W. Reynolds.  Reynolds, a mail-order bookseller, met Wright at a religious revival event in Chicago.  Reynolds published That Printer of Udell’s to moderate success.  Likewise, he printed Wright’s second novel, The Shepherd of the Hills, with a fair degree of success.  After the publication of his second novel, Wright retired from preaching and, with Reynolds help, became one of the most successful novelists America had ever seen.

So what's this book about?

           The Eyes of the World is the story of a young painter named Aaron King, who heads out west to California.  There, he meets and befriends Conrad Lagrange, a famous and critically renowned novelist who, by his own admission, writes “the putrid offal that self-respecting writers reject.”  The plot revolves around whether Aaron will flatter the rich and powerful men and women who control the art world, or keep his integrity as an artist.  Meanwhile, he falls in love with a free-spirited girl named Sybil. 

            The story is a feel-good morality tale.  Nothing surprising or original is attempted, let alone accomplished.  While simple, morally uplifting stories always have their place, The Eyes of the World is a mess.  For one thing, it frequently loses focus, giving the reader thirty page descriptions of the San Bernardino mountains apropos of nothing.  From the beginning of the story we can guess where the characters are going to end up.  Yet they still take a long time to get there. 

            More problematic than the lack of cohesion is the general weirdness of the characters.  To put it simply, they do not act like human beings.  Then again, perhaps they weren’t meant to.  Each character represents some aspect of society.  Lagrange explains this early on in the novel, telling Aaron that he would like to write a novel in which all the people around him are named for what they represent.  Thus Aaron King is Art, Lagrange is Civilization, Sybil is Nature.  The cast features others, including Lust, Materialism, The Age, and Symbol.  According to Frank Mott’s history of bestsellers, “Up to the last typing of The Eyes of the World, no character had been given any name except that of his or her chief quality.”  Every action a character makes seems to be based solely on how well it represents what the character represents.  Hence, Sybil/Nature is unpredictable, constantly running around and singing.  Does telling someone to avert their eyes so you can secretly weave them a basket sound like something a normal person would do?  Of course not, but Sybil isn’t a normal person.  Today, we’d call her a manic pixie dream girl. 

♪ Missster F! ♪

Why was it so popular?

           Morally simplistic stories with mediocre writing have always had a space in the public’s interest.  But The Eyes of the World was a huge financial success.  Of the thirteen books of the 1910’s to sell a number of copies equal to at least one percent of the U.S. population, three were by Wright, putting him in the company of classics like Tarzan of the Apes (Burroughs), Penrod (Tarkington), and The Riders of the Purple Sage (Grey).  How did he manage this?

            Harold Wright and Elsbery Reynolds were great at one thing: advertising.  After the moderate success of his first two novels, Wright's third book, The Calling of Dan Matthews, was given an advertising budget of $48,000.  Approximately $1,200,000 in today’s currency.  Mott writes, "Though strong book advertising had been fairly common for several years, these figure were nothing less than revolutionary.  Full-page advertisements in the newspapers not only announced the new book but also promoted his its two predecessors."  The Eyes of the World received an advertising budget of $100,000, approximately $2,250,000 in today’s currency.
            Critics were also talking about Wright's books.  Since the publication of The Calling of Dan Matthews in 1909, rarely did a critic say anything nicer than a backhanded compliment.  From The Bookman's review of Dan Matthews:

            It is precisely the sort of book which the readers who like this author's previous volumes may reasonably be expected to enjoy.   That it has no special structural merit, no special distinction of style is quite beside the point.

In its review of The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), the New York Times wrote:

           Mr. Wright had a big theme before him, but he has handled it in a commonplace, amateurish way.  The story, however, is better in construction, more closely and smoothly knit together than his previous novels.  

Publishers Weekly wrote of The Eyes of the World:

            The story has the elements which make for popularity.

Why haven't I heard of it?

            After World War One, Wright’s book sales dropped and Elsbery Reynolds dissolved their partnership.  He turned his attention to other endeavors, but kept writing, publishing nine novels and an autobiography between  1921 and 1942.  Two of his novels were turned into successful movies: The Winning of Barbara Worth starring Gary Cooper in 1926, and The Shepherd of the Hills starring John Wayne in 1941.  Neither have remained notably popular.

Should I read it?

            I wouldn’t recommend it.  Simply put, it’s not very good.

Also published in 1914:
Dubliners by James Joyce
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

You can read The Eyes of the World on Project Gutenberg.

Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1947.

Fanning, Clara and Wilson, Justina. The Book Review Digest. Minneapolis: The H. W. Wilson Company. 1909.

Fanning, Clara and Wilson, Justina. The Book Review Digest. Minneapolis: The H. W. Wilson Company. 1911.

Fanning, Clara and Reely, Mary. The Book Review Digest. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company. 1915.

The inflation calculator

Harold Bell Wright sales information

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I think J. K. Rowling pulled a fast one on us.  Let me explain:

My mission requires a lot of searching through the library’s reference section.  While scanning over a row of specialized dictionaries, one caught my eye.  It’s title was Jazz Talk1.  As I guessed, it was a slang dictionary with a special focus on people who made up the ‘jazz culture.’  Of course, the first thing that came to mind was the jive-talking scene from Airplane!  I thought it would be funny to make a literal translation of that scene, so I printed out a transcription of the dialogue.  To my disappointment, the slang from the movie was in some cases too general to warrant inclusion in the dictionary, and in others made up entirely.  Yet in my search I came across something surprising.  While looking for ‘mofo,’ I found this:

Muggles [etym. Unknown; some currency among jazzmen from c. 1925 – c. 1945, rare since; see also BOO, GAGE, POT, TEA]

The word ‘muggles’, it seems, has a bit of history to it.  I decided to investigate further.  The Cassel Dictionary of Slang2 had what I needed to know.

            muggles/muggie n. [1920s-70s] (orig. US drugs) 1. A cigarette with marijuana (occas. hashish) substituted for some of the tobacco and pushed back inside it; thus muggled up, intoxicated by marijuana, muggle-smoker, a marijuana user  2. A smoker of marijuana.   

            When asked in an interview, Rowling said: I was looking for a word that suggested both foolishness and lovability. The word 'mug' came to mind, for somebody gullible, and then I softened it. I think 'muggle' sounds quite cuddly. I didn't know that the word 'muggle' had been used as drug slang at that point... ah well.3

            Then again, as others have pointed out, there’s a lot of innuendo and implied naughtiness in her books.  I will not go so far as to say that Rowling was untruthful in her interview, but consider the backlash if she said that it was based on the slang term.

As an aside, as I was searching for ‘muggle’ in the Cassel dictionary, I found a few delightful euphemisms.

Much goo about nothing n. masturbation

Much-travelled highway n. [19C] a large and loose vagina

Muddy funster n. [20C] a euph. for motherfucker

1. Gold, Robert S. Jazz Talk. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company. 1975.
2. Green, Johnathon. The Cassel Dictionary of Slang. London: Cassel. 1998.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

1913: The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill

No, not that Winston Churchill. 

This Winston Churchill

     The author of The Inside of the Cup was, at the time, more famous than the future British Prime Minister.  The American Winston Churchill was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1871.  He attended the United States Naval Academy and, upon graduation, was made an editor of the Army and Naval Journal.  In 1895, he was made managing editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine (the same magazine that “now survives as a harrowingly explicit sex manual”1).  He published his first novel, The Celebrity, in 1898, to moderate success.  His second novel, Richard Carvel, was released in 1899 and placed third on the bestsellers list.  From 1899 through 1913, Winston Churchill appeared on the annual bestsellers list eight times.  Five of those times, he was in the number one spot.  He became a millionaire and a household name.  The Inside of the Cup was the last book of his to reach the top of the bestsellers list.

          He got involved in politics in the early twentieth century, and got elected to the New Hampshire state legislature in 1903 and 1905.  He failed to win the Republican nomination for governor in 1906.  In 1912, he ran as the candidate for the Progressive Party (colloquially known as the Bull Moose Party, after its founder Theodore Roosevelt), but lost to Democrat Samuel Felker.  The novel I’m reviewing deals heavily with the political and social values espoused by the Progressive party.

So what's this book?
          The Inside of the Cup was originally published serially in Hearst Magazine in 1912 before being released in book form in 1913.  The title comes from a biblical quote: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.”2

          Despite being written over a century ago, The Inside of the Cup is surprisingly relevant today.  The story centers around John Hodder, an orthodox Anglican rector from a comfortable suburb who is recruited to lead the congregation of St. John’s, a prestigious chapel in “one of the largest cities of the United States of America, and of that portion called the Middle West.”  St. John’s had been built on Dalton Street in what was originally an upscale part of town, but in the past decades, had become the slums.  However, it is still frequented by the rich and powerful.  Through his interactions with the heads of industry and the poor of Dalton Street, Hodder’s worldview drastically changes. 

          Theology is, unsurprisingly, a major aspect of the novel.  The first chapter features a conversation between members of the Waring and Goodrich family which sets the tone for the theological debates to follow.  The aim of the novel’s theology can be inferred from this quote on page eleven:

“So far as I can see, the dilemma in which our generation finds itself is this, - we want to know what there is in Christianity that we can lay hold of.  We should like to believe, but, as George says, all our education contradicts the doctrines that are most insisted upon… We have the choice of going to people like George, who know a great deal but don’t believe anything, or to clergymen like Mr. Hodder that demand that we shall violate the reason in us which has been so carefully trained.” 

          Although initially obstinate, Hodder eventually agrees with the above sentiment and sets to create a new understanding of religion, putting him at odds with Eldon Parr, one of the nation’s most powerful businessmen.  The main focus of the novel is Hodder’s ‘conversion.’  As with practically any book that delves into the can of worms that is theology, the book occasionally becomes encumbered by it.  Its saving grace, however, is the similarity of the issues in the novel to the issues of today.  Regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof (in the spirit of full disclosure, I am not religious in any sense), anyone who has an intellectual interest in theology could gain some insight from reading this. 

          The cast of supporting characters and their subplots are the best part of the book.  Although most of the focus is on John Hodder, he is not so much of a personality as he is a set of beliefs that we watch change throughout as he becomes enlightened.  It is a testament to Churchill’s writing prowess that these small characters are so complete, and tend to steal the show whenever they pop in.   

Why was it so popular at the time?
          The Inside of the Cup was written in what is known as the Progressive Era in the United States and propounds many of the ideals of the Progressive party including women’s rights (including suffrage and minimum wage), an eight hour workday, a social security system, direct election of senators, and more.  The novel deals with all of these to some extent and further shows how they not only do not contradict religion, but are a necessary part of it.    

          Specifically, the novel calls out the unfair practices of major trusts.  Abuse of workers at the hands of large companies was endemic.  If you think corporations are powerful today, this was nothing compared to how it was at the time.  From Thomas Patterson’s textbook “We the People” (ninth edition):

“After the Civil War, the Supreme court also gave nearly free rein to business.  A majority of the Court’s justices were proponents of laissez-faire capitalism, and they interpreted the Constitution in ways that restricted government’s attempts to regulate business activity.  In 1886, for example, the Court decided that corporations were “persons” within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, and were thereby protected from substantial regulation by the states. 

“The Court also weakened the national government’s regulatory power… When the federal government invoked the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) in an attempt to break up a monopoly on the manufacture of sugar, the Supreme Court blocked the action, claiming that interstate commerce covered only the transportation of goods, not their manufacture… However, because the Court had previously decided that state’s regulatory powers were limited by the Fourteenth Amendment, the states were not allowed to regulate manufacturing activity in a significant way.”3

     Public sentiment was incited, and a book that helped them express and expand upon their discontent was bound to receive a large audience.

Why haven't I heard of it?
          Winston Churchill’s popularity declined not long after this book was published.  He wrote two more novels in that decade, plus one non-fiction and a play.  In 1919, he quietly left the sphere of public writing, only releasing one more book in 1940.  He passed away in Florida in 1947.  Since then, the other Winston Churchill has become considerably better known, as a public figure and as a writer. 

Should I read it?
          If you have an interest in theology, academic or personal, there’s a lot to gain from this book.  The showdowns between opposing parties are very tense and exciting, though they are few.  If you can handle some slow parts, I’d recommend giving it a shot.

You can read The Inside of the Cup on Project Gutenberg.

Books with similar themes:
Native Son by Richard Wright
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

1. Vonnegut, Kurt. Bagombo Snuff Box. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999.  Page 7.
2. Churchill, Winston. The Inside of the Cup. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913.
3. Patterson, Thomas E. We the People. 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2011. Page 82-3.

100 years, 94 books

     For this blog I plan, among other things, to read and review every novel to reach the number one spot on Publishers Weekly annual bestsellers list, starting in 1913.  Beyond just a book review, I'm going to provide some information on the authors and the time at which these books were written in an attempt to figure out just what made these particular books popular at that particular time.

    I decided to undertake this endeavor as a mission to read books I never would have otherwise read, discover authors who have been lost to obscurity, and to see how what's popular has changed over the last one hundred years.  I plan to post a new review every Monday, with links, short essays, and the like between review posts.

Here is the list of books I plan to review:

* Books that appear multiple times will be condensed into one post. The review of The Robe, the only book to reach number one on two inconsecutive years (1943 and 1953) will be published under the earlier date.

** Publishers Weekly did not include the Harry Potter books in its listings.  Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix was the bestselling book for 2003, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the bestselling book of 2007.  I have decided to go with the official PW list.  This is not due to any bias against Harry Potter (I have fond memories of waiting in line for the midnight release of the final book).  By not counting Harry, I add The Da Vinci Code and A Thousand Splendid Suns to the list.  The Da Vinci Code already appears for 2004.  A Thousand Splendid Suns has a lot less notoriety than Harry Potter, so is more in tune with the mission.