Sunday, April 29, 2012

Wishlist: Shit Surrealists Like

tristan tzara book
Tristan Tzara and Joan Miró, Parler Seul: Poéme. Paris: Maeght Editeur, 1950.

Did you know that the Pope of Surrealism, André Breton, had a day job as a librarian? It's true. And while being very bored at his job, he would read all the old books no one was that interested in (NEVER underestimate a bored librarian). Then, when he found authors he liked, he would tell all his friends about them and be like, "These people are totes surrealist!" Then all the other surrealists would read them and say, "Oui! Bien sûr! Jeeze, André, enough with the books already," etc. (actually, they wouldn't say that, because the whole lot of them were raging bibliophiles, one of the many reasons why we love), and the authors would be posthumously inducted into surrealism. Also occasionally posthumously excommunicated.

What did surrealists like? They loved the symbolist poets, philosophy, psychology, alchemy, and anything weird and wonderful. Below is an incomplete list of authors I was able to find online. Note that for some of these authors, only the original French is available in the public domain.

The Symbolists:
  • Isidore Ducasse, aka Comte de Lautréamont, is most known for Les Chants de Maldoror, a poem about pain and suffering, whose main character is unrelentingly evil. So, you know, cheery. The first surrealist to discover Ducasse was Phillippe Soupault, who found a copy of Les Chants completely by accident, mis-shelved in a used Parisian bookshop. Surrealists LOVE chance finds like this. Breton and Louis Aragon searched out the only surviving copy of Ducasse's Poésies in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and subsequently republished them in their magazine. What the surrealists loved most about Ducasse was how he liked to compare and draw meaning from the seeming randomness of modern life. He's also a romantic figure, having died at the age of 25--reportedly, killed by Napolean III's secret police. [Les Chants at Project Gutenberg (French)]
  • Arthur Rimbaud felt that poetry should strive 'to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses.' This naturally appealed to the surrealist writers, who constantly questioned what the senses told us about the "real" world. A Season In Hell and Illuminations are probably his most famous works, but they pale in comparison to the story of his life, which included a torrid affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine, ending in attempted murder. At 21, Rimbaud declared his poetry a failure and decided to become an adventurer instead. This ended badly. [Project Gutenberg (French)|Illuminations (English)]
  • Raymond Roussel wrote poetry in complicated puns and word games that appealed to the surrealists' sense of the ridiculous. Marcel Duchamp, who gave up art to play chess (supposedly), was a big fan, and often employed similar puns in his own work (for example, L.H.O.O.Q., which read aloud in French sounds like "she has a hot ass"... or something). [Project Gutenberg (French)|New Impressions of Africa (English)]
  • Alfred Jarry is another interesting character, a prankster who specialized in absurdest plays, the most famous of which is Ubu Roi, with the opening line "Merde!" When he wasn't painting himself green and riding around on his bicycle extolling the virtues of absinthe, he was inventing pataphysics, a pseudoscience that makes fun of metaphysics and is defined as "the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments." I have no idea what that means, by the way, but since it's a science dedicated to not understanding anything, that's probably the point. [Project Gutenberg (French)]
  • The Marquis de Sade was admired for his open beliefs about love and sexuality. [Project Gutenberg (French)]
  • Edgar Allan Poe was called by Breton "surrealist in adventure." His stories are filled with strange happenings, signs of the unconscious, and people with neuroses. [Project Gutenberg (English)]
  • Pierre Reverdy was a contemporary of the surrealists, whom they called 'our immediate elder, the exemplary poet.' His work is characterized by a feeling of existential loneliness (of course! He's French). He also had a torrid affair with Coco Chanel. Rawr. [8 poems by Reverdy at Milk Mag (English)]
The Philosophers:
  • Paracelsus was a German alchemist from the 16th century who was interested in how the four elements could be transformative. He is also the first known person to mention the unconscious, and is rumored to be the real-life inspiration behind the identity of Christian Rosenkreutz, a mythical alchemist. [Scans of original manuscripts]
  • Giordano Bruno was a 16th century astrologer who was also interested in hermetic studies. He was burned at the stake for defying the Catholic church, which would be enough to get the surrealists' vote alone; but he also pioneered the idea of the universe consisting of multiple worlds full of infinite possibilities--a pre-quantum physicist. [Works by Bruno at the Warburg Library]
  • Eliphas Lévi was a 19th century French magician who incorporated tarot cards into his rituals. [Project Gutenberg (French)|ebooks online (French and English)]
The Psychologists:
  • Freud--of course, Freud! The surrealists loved Freud and the concept of the unconscious, as well as Freud's theories on sexuality and oedipal complexes. Not to mention that Freud had the insight to recognize poets as the true "discoverers" of the unconscious. Surprisingly, there are a ton of Freud's writings available in the public domain. [Project Gutenberg (English)]
  • Pierre Janet was kind of the anti-Freud. Breton was inspired by him during a brief stint as a med student, but Janet himself wasn't down with the kids those days, yo. Those crazy surrealists! He's the one who coined the terms disassociation and subconscious, not Freud, and some people credit him as the true source of psychotherapy practice. [works by Pierre Janet online (French)]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Review: THE FAERIE QUEENE Book I Knight of Red Crosse by Edmund Spenser

book cover
Walter Crane illustration of The Faerie Queene book I. Image care of The Folio Society.
Original Publication Date: 1590

Genre: poem, quest, adventure, Arthurian romance

Topics: virtue, honor, love, nobility


The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser is one of the longest poems in the English language and an allegorical work about the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Now, I know what you're thinking: "A long-ass poem that's an allegory? Kill me now." I know because I would have thought the same thing before I started listening to it. BUT! I promise you, The Faerie Queene is so kick-ass awesome that I weep for the people who haven't read it. I WEEP.

Book I introduces us to the Knight of Red Crosse, who grew up in Faerie. He's traveling with a woman named Una back to her kingdom so he can help rescue her parents from a vicious dragon. Along the way, they're separated by an evil sorcerer name Archimago, Redcrosse is tricked by a witch into thinking he's still traveling with Una, and Una believes Redcrosse is dead. Eventually they're reunited with the help of King Arthur, and go to Una's kingdom to defeat the dragon.

I listened to this on audio (Project Gutenberg only has Book I; Librivox has Books I-VII) and it was soooo much fun. I didn't know anything about it when I started other than it was an epic poem extolling Queen Elizabeth, so I wasn't sure what to expect; but the language is beautiful and the story is incredibly romantic--in the traditional sense of the word, full of adventure and magic. I loved the descriptions, especially of the Duessa when she's finally revealed to be a witch, and of Arthur. Actually just the fact that Arthur is in this is enough of a reason to read it, don't you think? There are also dragons, talking trees, lusty giants, a dwarf, curses, several other knights whose names are all similar, lions who help people, satyrs, and three-headed serpents.

As for Una, she does have the prototypical fair maiden thing going on, and she faints at one point (which, come on)--but she's not passive or helpless. She's the one who goes to find Redcrosse, rescues him from Duessa, and manages much better than he does while they're separated. She's not exactly Buffy, but she's no damsel in distress, either.

Now, I'm not going to say I understood everything that was going on here, and when I read the other books I'll probably try to find a summary before I start so I have a clearer idea of what's happening; but you definitely don't need to know anything about the reign of Queen Elizabeth to appreciate The Faerie Queene. It may be a political allegory, but it works purely as a story. Mainly it seemed to me a book about how to be honorable and virtuous, and in tone it reminded me a lot of the Narnia books.

If you have any fondness for fantasy or Arthurian stories, you have to read The Faerie Queene. You just have to; you'll be cheating yourself if you don't. I know a 16th-century poem is a tall order for most people, but listening to it on audio made it go by really quickly for me, and it's totally worth it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Short Story Review: The Monkey's Paw by WW Jacob

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1902

Genre: horror

Topics: wishes, unintended consequences


Another audiobook from Ralph Snelson, aka the bossest reader on Librivox and the person I'm currently stalking.

Do I really need to tell you what a story called The Monkey's Paw is about? The Whites are a happy if boring family, until one day when a friend of Mr. White's, a Sergeant-Major, shows up out of blue and is like, "Hey, look at this monkey's paw I got in India! It's supposed to grant three wishes, but it's really dangerous. You guys don't even know." Then he tries to throw it away, except naturally the Whites pick it up because they want to try it out. The Sergeant's like, "Your funeral!" and leaves. Wow, what a great friend.

Is this going to end badly? You know it.

you damn dirty ape

The Monkey's Paw is probably a little predictable and cheesy by now, especially considering how many adaptations there have been of it, but I personally think it's worth reading. It's a very well-told story, where people destroy their own lives through the innocent things they wish for. Plus there's incipient zombieism!

I found this short story to be pretty creepy, mainly because I would have totally wished on that monkey's paw. Seriously, if someone hands you something and tells you it grants wishes, how can you NOT test that out? But it's like Karl from An Idiot Abroad says: "Never wish for anything. You'll just end up being disappointed."

Also, monkeys are scary.

Find The Monkey's Paw at Librivox|Gaslight

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Random Wednesday: THE MARY FRANCES COOKBOOK, Adventures Among the Kitchen People by Jane Eayre Fryer

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1912

Genre: children's, cookbook

Topics: cooking, food, anthropomorphizing


Random Wednesday is where I, in the interest of reading some of the more obscure books on Project Gutenberg, select one at random using a highly scientific method involving, the alphabet, a ruler, and bunnies.

My second foray into randomness was The Mary Frances Cook Book: Adventures Among the Kitchen People, another children's book. After Bunny Rabbit's Diary (review here), you can imagine my expression when I realized this. Is Project Gutenberg full of children's books or is it something about me that attracts them? I don't know. I am happy to report that The Mary Frances Cook Book left me pleasantly surprised, though.

The title itself is a little confusing: the first half makes it sounds like a cookbook, but the second half makes it sound like a story. In fact, it's a "book within a book," as Jane Eayre Fryer herself puts it in the introduction--i.e., a story with recipes.

Mary Frances is a little girl whose mother has to go to a sanatorium for a few weeks because she's sick. Since her aunt is only able to make breakfast and dinner for the family, Mary Frances decides to make lunches for herself and her brother by following the recipes in a cookbook her mom wrote for her. Isn't that sweet??? To help her, Mary has the "Kitchen People"--basically the pots and pans and other tools in the kitchen, that come to life and talk her.

Mary Frances making toast

This book is SO. CUTE. Seriously, I cannot emphasize enough how freaking adorable this book is. The Kitchen People all have their own personalities and are really fun to read about, and they help out Mary Frances when she runs into inevitable kitchen incidents like burning something, scalding her hand, pots boiling over, cakes not turning out, and so on. The illustrations have a Japonisme influence and are generally fun and beautiful to look at (except for the floating heads, those are creepy).

I also liked that Fryer emphasized how cooking can bring families--most especially women--together. Mary Frances is handed down recipes from her mom, and teaches her friend a few of the candy recipes. When her stuffy aunt finds out she's teaching herself how to cook, the aunt offers to help and turns out to be really nice. Mary Frances also makes friends with a hobo, has a tea party, a picnic, and a huge dinner party at the end, all because she learned how to cook! It's so special.

"This hat's crazy!"

As for the recipes, most of them aren't really practical for the 21st century, seeing as how this book was written back in the day when stoves still had to be heated with either coals or firewood; but they are fascinating to read about. The omelet, for instance, is like nothing someone today would recognize as an omelet--it's kind of a combination between a soufflé and a frittata. Here's the recipe:

Ingredients: 2 eggs to each person.

  1. Separate yolks and whites, putting them into different bowls.
  2. Add dash of salt to whites, and dash of salt and white pepper to yolks.
  3. Add cold water to whites, allowing 1 teaspoon to each.
  4. Add cold water to yolks, allowing 1 tablespoon to each.
  5. Beat both very light.
  6. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a smooth frying pan.
  7. Pour in yolks. Let cook a moment.
  8. Spread whites over yolks, making a little hole in the center for steam to escape.
  9. Cook slowly for 5 minutes, or until the puffed up whites look dry.
  10. Fold one half over the other.
  11. Turn out on a warm platter.
  12. Trim with parsley and serve at once.
There are other recipes I'd never even heard of, like Apple Snow, which seems to be some sort of soft meringue. Interestingly, the Supersizers had a snow in their Restoration episode, which they hated ("Basically shaving foam in egg and rose water," was how Sue put it).

Of course, I did start to wonder where Mary Frances was getting all these ingredients she just happened to have on hand for all these recipes, and I probably would not let an 8-year-old broil steak. But beyond that, I kind of loved this book. It's just so freaking adorable and fun, it makes me totally jealous I didn't have a book like it when I was little. If you need some warm cuddly fuzzies in your life, I recommend it.

Find The Mary Frances Cook Book at Project Gutenberg.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Short Story Review: The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood

Original Publication Date:  1910

Genre:  Horror

Topics: Hunting, First Nations myths, Canada, supernatural beings

Review: This was my second brush with Algernon Blackwood. The first occurred recently when I reviewed The Willows. Hearing that The Wendigo was a finer story than The Willows, I went in search of it on Project Gutenberg.

In The Wendigo, a Scotsman and his nephew take an expedition into the backwoods of Canada with two hunting guides and their cook. The pair enlisted the experienced men to help find them “shy moose” in the autumn of the year. Things are fine until one of the guides, Defago, starts to feel nervous. He has heard that they are entering into Wendigo territory. With some teasing and pricks to his pride, the man brushes off his fears and leads the nephew, Simpson, into the Bush. The two set up their camp but in the night they are disturbed by a sound, the sound of the guide’s name being called: “De-fa-go!”  And without warning, the guide disappears into the wilderness. Simpson, as unfamiliar with the Bush as he is, tries to find Defago, but all he finds are bizarre tracks and then…nothing.

Simpson returns to the original camp, shaken, but determined to have the other men form a search party. Will they Defago alive, dead, or worse?

The Wendigo is a mythological beast of the Algonquian speaking tribes, usually associated with cannibalism. The Wendigo has appeared periodically in written stories from The Wilderness Hunter (Teddy Roosevelt) to Pet Sematary (Stephen King), even Margaret Atwood did a lecture on the creature. For the purposes of Blackwood’s story, the Wendigo is “quick as lightning in its trakcs, an’ bigger’n anything else in the Bush, an’ ain’t supposed to be very good to look at.” Its appearance coincides with a peculiar odour, has the ability to run in the air, and take on a human form. It also causes madness in those unfortunate enough to have tangled with it.

I found parts of The Wendigo ridiculous. The characters are caricatures: the staid Scotsman, the hilly-billy guides, even Punk the cook. The Canadian guide speaks in a laughable vernacular, Punk the native cook is ignored almost entirely by everyone. Anyone not European is shown in an unfavourable light. They’re either silly or gutless. That’s fairly standard, I suppose, for the time. Putting that aside, there is a lot to enjoy about the story. There is a scene near the end of the story that is truly hair raising; it’s worth reading just for that. Blackwood paints an accurate picture of an empty wilderness, and an atmosphere of isolation.

Even though the material for The Wendigo is more interesting, I liked the writing in  The Willows more. At about 50 pages, it's a quick read. Give it a look, just maybe not while camping.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Short Introduction to the Public Domain (US)

public domain cover

January 1st is generally known as public domain day around the world, the day when a new batch of work--whether book, film, photographs, or art--enters the public domain. So what entered the public domain this year?



Nothing. Not in the US, anyway (Duke University).

Generally speaking, works enter the public domain 70 years after the death of their author. This means that there's no longer an applicable legal copyright (it DOESN'T mean you're free to plagiarize the work, which is an ethical and not a legal issue).

This seems rather straight-forward, but in practice it's a little murky. In 2002, the US Supreme Court extended the copyright law 17 years, which means the US will have to wait another 7 years before anything enters public domain. The Court recently upheld this decision and said that even if works had already entered the public domain, they could be re-copyrighted (New York Times). It is entirely likely the Court will be prevailed upon to extend copyright again in 2019; and considering their track record, this extension will probably be granted.

As a result of these decisions, the US public domain is shrinking. The generation of works effected most, starting in the 1930s and going into the '50s, is already being called "the missing 20th century" (The Atlantic).

Why is this bad? This is the information age, you have to ask? Think about two blogs--one allows fair use (i.e. non-commercial, academic, critical) of all images and text, and share buttons to all the major sites like FaceBook and Twitter. The other blog won't allow any use of images or text, and has no sharing options. Which blog do you think is going to be read and discussed more? Probably the latter, right? Sharing is caring in digital world, and more people you're able to share your work with, the better. Those who have the most open sharing policy and become a platform for generating creativity win at the internet.

Copyright and the life plus 70 years clause was created to protect artists and their families (interestingly, the idea of protecting copyright for an artist's family began with the death of Charles Dickens, but that's a whole story on its own). Protecting artists and their intellectual property is a GOOD thing. But who exactly are we "protecting" when the artist and his or her immediate family are long dead? And what sort of awareness of our past will we have when the literature and art from previous generations is either unavailable or prohibitively priced due to low consumer demand? These are the questions one wishes had been addressed by the Supreme Court.

What can you do? There's not much the average person can do about a Supreme Court decision, but if you want to promote the public domain and fair use, there are things you can do. Sites like Project Gutenberg and Librivox are not-for-profit and are always looking for volunteers. You can also publish books that are in the public domain yourself through Amazon (if you're not sure whether a book still has copyright or not, check the US copyright renewal database). Or, if you're an author, you can dedicate some of your own work to the public domain. For more ideas, visit Everybody's Libraries.

What are the rules for public domain in your own country?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

CAPTAIN BLOOD by Rafael Sabatini

Original Date of Publication: 1922

Genre: adventure

Topics: piracy, colonialism, swashbuckling, Monmouth Rebellion, Caribbean, British Royal Navy


This is my second Rafael Sabatini. I had great fun with Scaramouche, and after reading Captain Blood I'm once again surprised at how (unjustly) his books are usually eclipsed by their movies adaptations. Still, almost from the first pages I thought this would make the perfect Errol Fynn movie, so you can imagine my joy when I discovered such a movie really existed. I guess Sabatini's stories are just perfect for the big screen.

Peter Blood, a country doctor during the reign of James II, was minding his own business and geraniums when he's called to attend a friend injured during an attempt to de-throne the King and put in his place the Duke of Monmouth. For this kindness, Blood is accused of treason and sentenced to slavery in the British colony of Barbados.

There he is bought by the malevolent Colonel Bishop of the Barbados Militia, but Dr Blood’s medical training soon becomes highly valuable in the island. He also meets Bishop's beautiful and feisty niece, Arabella. Right from the start there's chemistry between them and one of the books’ biggest delights is reading their witty clash of minds and seeing them plunge into endless misunderstandings (it’s like Jane Austen in the Caribbean!). Blood’s dialogues with his enemies are also clever and beyond what you would expect from your typical pirate story.

Some months after their captivity, Peter Blood and a group of his fellow slaves take over a Spanish ship and although the newly-elected Captain Blood finds freedom, he has no alternative but to become a pirate. It’s a risky and harsh business, but our hero is a natural! A gentleman-pirate, he does what he must while always following a strict moral code – “He’s chivalrous to the point of idiocy“.

The story includes grand-scenes at sea and land, far-fetched plans and near misses. There’s treasure, kidnapping and enough romance to keep the romantics entertained. Some scenes go by too fast and there's quite a few lucky coincidences, but in the end it’s a swashbuckling classic by a classic author that's close to becoming a favorite. It's not the most intelectual classic literature you'll ever read, but it's fun! Behold how Sabatini tackles head-on the incredible coincidences he writes about:

An intelligent observation of the facts of human existence will reveal to shallow-minded folk who sneer at the use of coincidence in the arts of fiction and drama that life itself is little more than a series of coincidences. Open the history of the past at whatsoever page you will and there you shall find coincidence at work bringing about events that the merest chance might have averted. Indeed, coincidence may be defined as the tool used by Fate to shape the destinies of men and nations.

He's an author that deserves to be re-discovered.
Here's the 1935 movie trailer - the drama!
(You gotta love the cover of the original edition. Not exactly very faithful to the tone of the book, but at least it’s different from the pirate covers you so often see…)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wishlist: Wa-oooo-Werewolves!

werewolf image
Look out! Werewolves are back, y'all! Yes, there's the fuzzy guy who always loses his shirt in the Twilight saga, but there is also the down and dirty Jake Marlow from The Last Werewolf. Plus, a plethora of paranormal characters both goodies and baddies.

Of course, ye olde werewolf has been around for ages. I recently read Anne Rice's latest, The Wolf Gift, in it she references a bunch of wolf related novels. You may or may not have heard of these.

*The Wolf Leader by Alexandre Dumas. I've actually read this one. A man sells his soul for the vengeful powers of a wolf. This one is based on the folklore tale Dumas heard from a family friend when he was a boy. Project Gutenberg doesn't have it but I did find it online for free. It's not the easiest read because of the typos.

*The Man-Wolf by Erckmann-Chartrain  (also The Count of Nideck adapted by Ralph Browning Fiske). A short story of a Black Forest monster, The Man-Wolf was created by the French duo Erckmann- Chartrain. The link goes to an English version of the story. I'm not sure about the adaption by Friske. I can't find much about it, other than it's illustrated.

*Wagner the Wehrwolf by George W M Reynolds. This one sounds really terrible! It's a penny dreadful and even the description on Goodreads is flowery. Wagner gives the last year of his life to a guy named John Faust for wealth and youth. Of course, he has to become a werewolf to get it. Should be interesting.

*Vandover and the Brute by Frank Norris. As far as I can tell, there are no werewolves in this one. Darnit. Vandover is a young artist in San Francisco who does a lot of drugs in seedy bars. This bad side of his personality is referred to as 'a wolf.' Boo.

Other werewolf stories I ran across while researching this post that you'd might like:

*Were-wolf by Clemence Housman. This one involves a lady werewolf. Housman was a suffragette. HP Lovecraft had this to say, "attains a high degree of gruesome tension and achieves to some extent the atmosphere of authentic folklore." This could be interesting.

*The Werewolf by Eugene Field. This is actually a short story within a collection of Eugene Field's work called Second Book of Tales linked here. Field was a children's author.

*The Book of Were-wolves by Sabine Baring-Gould. If you really want to know about the myths and legends of the werewolf, this vicar (yes, vicar) and historian who taught classes with a bat on his shoulder wrote quite the tome on them. Not on Project Gutenberg but scanned onto Sacred Texts (a website). I think I'll skip this one.

Have you read any of these? Are they worth reading? 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Short Story Review: The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1842

Genre: horror

Topics: art, obsession, death


Another Librivox short story! First of all, I have to give a shout-out to the narrator of this short story, Ralph Snelson, who is the bossest narrator I've ever encountered in a Librivox audiobook. Keep up the good work, my man! The story is really good, too.

The Oval Portrait is one of Edgar Allan Poe's shortest stories, but it packs a punch. The narrator is recovering from injuries in Italy, and finds himself in a room filled with paintings. Suddenly he comes upon a portrait "in the style of Sully" that takes him aback with its "absolute life-likeliness". The rest of the story is an account of the creation of painting--basically, an artist painted his wife, but every brush stroke stole a bit of her life until the painting was complete and she was nothing but an empty shell.

fanny kemble by thomas sully
Thomas Sully, Portrait of Fanny Kemble, 1834

As someone who knows a bit about art, I found this kind of chilling. There are plenty of tales about artists falling in love with their work or their subjects, one of the most famous being the tale of Apelles and Campaspe. Campaspe was Alexander the Great’s courtesan and the most beautiful woman in Ancient Greece. Apelles, the ancient world's greatest painter, was commissioned to paint Campaspe's portrait by Alexander; but while painting her Apelles fell in love. He knew that the day he finished the painting, he and Campaspe would have to part, so he delayed as long as he could; but finally Alexander asked for her portrait. After taking one look at the portrait, however, Alexander knew Apelles loved Campaspe more than he ever could, so he offered the painter a trade: he’d take the portrait and in exchange, Apelles could have the living and breathing woman.

Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were obsessed with Apelles and strove to imitate him, despite the fact that none of his works of art survive. Because of the legend of Apelles and Campaspe, Leonardo said the "Modern Apelles" would be able to paint an image of a woman so realistic it would inspire desire in the viewer. This was the driving force behind many of the Renaissance's most famous works of art, including Botticelli's Venus and the Mona Lisa. Ever seen a Raphael portrait and noticed the eyes follow you no matter where you stand in the room? That's a little trick he developed to make his paintings of women seem as if they were alive.

madonna of the chair
Raphael, Madonna of the Chair, 1515, Pitti Palace, Florence

Considering the portrait that the narrator in The Oval Portrait sees is formatted like many of Raphael's Madonna paintings, and the story is set in Italy, I think Poe had to be deliberately drawing on this tradition. But Poe, being the morbid bastard he was, gives it a twist by making the artist steal the life of the woman he loves in order to create a beautiful work of art. Instead of the painting representing his love for the subject, as in the story of Apelles, it represents monomania and selfishness. Poe himself believed that the most beautiful poetry was that about the death of a woman--I bet he was AWESOME in relationships.

The Oval Portrait inspired many other works, including The Picture of Dorian Grey. This is a great short story and I highly recommend you check it out!

Find The Oval Portrait at Classic Lit

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review: PARNASSUS ON WHEELS by Christopher Morley

Original Publications Date: 1917

Genre: literary fiction

Topics: literature, books, rural communities, mobile bookshops


If you’re looking for a short feel-good story, Parnassus on Wheels comes with my humble stamp of approval. It’s the type of book-about-books that makes a book-lover feel like they're half-way between a Harry Potter-style Chosen One and an Evangelist preaching the good word. There's really an almost religious respect for the power of books to change lives in Parnassus on Wheels.

Published in 1917, this is the story of 39-year-old Helen McGill. She (gladly) gives up her governess job to live with her bachelor brother Andrew on a farm and quickly becomes proficient in all the arts of a country woman, from baking to taking care of chickens.

At some point Andrew decides to write a book that unexpectedly become a huge hit and disturbs their placid routine. Helen is happy for him, but little by little she starts resenting Andrew for wandering off in search of new material, leaving her to carry on all the farm work.

One day, a funny little man with a caravan approaches the farm while Andrew is out. He’s Roger Mifflin ,the owner of a traveling bookshop – Parnassus on Wheels – and comes with a proposal: he’s ready to retire from his wandering life and thinks Andrew is the perfect person to take over his beloved Parnassus. Partly to prevent Andrew from once again leaving her alone, and partly to have her own adventure, Helen decides to buy the Parnassus and take off to make her fortune and spread the gospel of good books. For a few days she’s accompanied by Roger, who teaches her the ropes of the nomad book business.

Roger’s enthusiastic speeches about the power of books almost made me hit the road myself. He's able to sell anything and has a knack for knowing what each person will like: from cooking books to poetry, from Louisa May Alcott to Henry James, although his respect for Shakespeare prevents him to sell it to anyone who’s “not ready”.

The book he’s planning to write during his retirement has the temporary name of “Literature Among the Farmers” and I can’t help but be curious about this fictional non-fiction. It'll be a compilation and analysis of Roger’s notes during his years selling books in rural communities and by the sound of it, something I'd be really interested in reading:

You see, my idea is that the common people — in the country, that is — never have had any chance to get hold of books, and never have had any one to explain what books can mean. It’s all right for college presidents to draw up their five-foot shelves of great literature, and for the publishers to advertise sets of their Linoleum Classics, but what the people need is the good, homely, honest stuff — something that’ll stick to their ribs — make them laugh and tremble and feel sick to think of the littleness of this popcorn ball spinning in space without ever even getting a hot-box! And something that’ll spur ‘em on to keep the hearth well swept and the wood pile split into kindling and the dishes washed and dried and put away. Anyone who can get the country people to read something worth while is doing his nation a real service.

You cannot but like Roger, the Book Preacher, and marvel at the effect his work has on his clients (some of whom we meet along the way). Harriet is portrayed in a less flattering light because of her apparent lack of poetic soul, but even she eventually succumbs to the Parnassus’ magic. She discovers a whole world of new possibilities, just when she was ready to resign to her dull life.

Since the morning of the day before my whole life had twisted out of its accustomed orbit. I had spent four hundred dollars of my savings; I had sold about thirteen dollars' worth of books; I had precipitated a fight and met a philosopher. Not only that, I was dimly beginning to evolve a new philosophy of my own.

In a twist of meta-fictional fate, Parnassus on Wheels is not likely to change anybody’s life, but it’s fun, whimsical, charming and romantic enough to give you some hours of escapism. There is a sequel called “The Hunted Bookshop”, also available on Gutenberg.

Here are some examples of modern-day Parnassus from all over the world, from a dedicated Flickr Group :)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Guest Review: THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

worst journey in the world book cover
Original Publication Date: 1922

Genre: memoir, adventure

Topics: exploration, science, tragedy

Review by Elizabeth from Just One More Page:

A hard night: clear, with a blue sky so deep that it looks black: the stars are steel points: the glaciers burnished silver. The snow rings and thuds to your footfall.The ice is cracking to the falling temperature and the tide crack groans as the water rises. And over all, wave upon wave, fold upon fold, there hangs the curtain of the aurora. June 22 1912 Midwinter Night – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The Worst Journey In the World is a blow-by-blow account of an Edwardian expedition to the South Pole/Antarctic and is an exciting description of what it was like to live for weeks in 65 below zero when your tent has been blown away by a blizzard, it’s dark 24 hours a day, your food is very repetitive, and you don’t know if you’re going make it home. When one compares the equipment of the this century with the heavy woolen and cotton clothes that this group was wearing, it must have been doubly hard.

“There is something after all rather good in doing something never done before.”

Apsley Cherry-Garrard was a young assistant zoologist on the 1910 expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott with the quest of being the first to reach the geographical South Pole. (This was the expedition that was pipped at the post by Norwegian explorer Roald Armundsen.) This expedition was privately funded and aside from the Pole goal, more focused on scientific discovery. One focus of the expedition was to study the embryos of Emperor Penguins, thought only to exist in the Antarctic. Embryos were believed to be important as they could prove to be the missing link between reptiles and birds at that stage of development. Additionally, the earlier Discovery expedition had missed the eggs when they were there last time, so it was even more important this time. The team also needed to get the penguin blubber as they were running very low on oil fuel for the stove (their only source of heat and cooking).

As the expedition continues throughout the Antarctic winter months, different teams of men were sent off to complete different parts of the mission. Cherry-Garrard’s “I was there” descriptions are detailed and do not gloss over the details (or over-emphasize the difficulties). There were frequent gale force blizzards which made it hard to travel; their tents were blown away leaving them in their fur sleeping bags (which were not water-proof and froze). They built an igloo of sorts, but because the ice was so hard, each block took ages to cut and then when they put together in the wall, there was large gaps that the wind could whistle through as there was no soft snow to fill in the spaces. Cherry-Garrard and his team-mates dreaded having to get into the sleeping bags, as they were not warm and were uncomfortable as the bags froze into awkward shapes as the men slept.  (He describes their sleeping bags as “frozen coffins” at times.) Things were so rough that having hot water to drink at supper was a high point of the day.

The freezing temperatures meant frostbite was only a minute or two away all the time – frostbite would lead to blisters which then had the fluid inside each blister (between the layer of skin and the flesh) and this fluid would freeze leading to enormous amounts of pain. The men had to wait for the blister fluid to thaw out before they could pop their blisters – it was that cold. It was minus 66 degrees frequently during the day (and less at night), and it would take the team eight hours to move a couple of miles due to heavy sledges of equipment and frequent falling into hidden crevasses. This was all complicated by the poor vision of Cherry-Garrard who needed to wear glasses to see. With the temperatures as they were, he was frequently not able to put the glasses on (due to the snow and ice) and this made him become more or less blind and therefore very slow progress for the rest of the team (who could not, of course, leave him behind).

I just read volume one of this amazing story, and so have not reached the point where things really began to go haywire for the expedition later on. However, I am struck full of admiration for the bravery of these men (no women, of course) who really did not know whether they would be coming home (or even back to base camp). This diary is frequently put into “Top 100 Adventure Stories” and is really very exciting to read.

(Another side note: Cherry-Garrard was born in Bedford, England, where I grew up. Hometown boy does good.)

It is extraordinary how often angels and fools do the same thing in this life, and I have never been able to settle which we were on this journey….Endurance was tested on this journey under unique circumstances, and always these two men with all the burden of responsibility which did not fall upon myself, displayed that quality which is perhaps the only one which may be said with certainty to make for success, self-control.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Wishlist: Characters Based On Vidocq

Eugene Vidocq
Portrait of Eugène François Vidocq by Achille Devéria

Eugène François Vidocq's life was one that defined the term stranger than fiction. He was a complete troublemaker, stealing and going in and out of prisons from an early age. He was an expert fighter and duelist, a skill he employed in numerous fights, mostly over the women he seduced. He traveled with troupes of players, puppeteers, and gypsies at various times in his life, served in the army, and worked in prison gangs. But what he's most well-known for is his role as the world's first private detective.

To get out of prison, Vidocq agreed to spy on criminals for the French police. When he got out, he organized his own plainclothes police unit called the Brigade de Sûreté, the first undercover police force. Basically Vidocq hired criminals to spy on other criminals, a venture that was wildly successful. Under a writ of Napoleon, the brigade became a state police unit called the Sûreté Nationale--which still exists today--with Vidocq as its first director.

Vidocq trained his agents in fighting, including martial arts; the use of disguises, which he himself often employed; profiling the personalities and habits of criminals; and applying the scientific method to cases. It was said he had a photographic memory and could recall the face of every criminal he ever came across. Not expecting his agents to have the same skill, however, he set up the first police record system that contained information on a criminal's physical description, modus operandi, handwriting samples, etc. He was also the first person to employ ballistics in an investigation. He consulted directly in the establishment of Scotland Yard, and the FBI later adapted many of his methods.

After a regime change in France that temporarily disbanded the Sûreté, Vidocq opened a paper company, hoping to capitalize on a new chemical process he invented to prevent check fraud. There he employed mostly criminals and indigents. The business went under, and Vidocq's next venture was to open le bureau des renseignements, the first private detective agency. However, in order to catch criminals, Vidocq himself often engaged in criminal activity, which frequently landed him in prison. Fortunately for Vidocq, he now had powerful friends who influenced the court to get most of the cases against him either thrown out or overturned.

With a history like that (not to mention his friendship with several of France's greatest writers, including Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas, all of whom plumbed his life story for their own work), is it any wonder that his biography became fodder for numerous novels? Even if you've never heard of Eugène François Vidocq, chances are you're familiar with at least one of his literary incarnations:

  • The Memoirs of Vidocq (1828)--After Vidocq wrote his memoirs, his writer friends Balzac, Hugo, and Dumas, told him it was too short and needed work. The memoirs were eventually published with considerable reworking by a ghostwriter. One could say they're the books that started it all. [Project Gutenberg]
  • Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (1835)--Balzac modeled many characters after Vidocq, most obviously Vautrin, which was Vidocq's nickname as a teenager. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)--In what is considered the first mystery, Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin, uses logic and abductive reasoning to solve crimes. Poe is known to have read stories of the life of Vidocq in Burton's Gentleman Magazine, and Dupin employs the same unique techniques Vidocq espoused. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue (1842)--Despite the title, this is a French version of the Victorian sensational novel, and has nothing to do with the mystery genre per se. However, the main character of Rodolphe displays similar traits to that of Vidocq, being a good fighter, yet sympathetic and kind to the poor. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)--Vidocq is mentioned admirably here, supposedly. He's also mentioned in White Jacket. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • Les Mohicans de Paris by Alexandre Dumas (1854)--Here the character of Monsieur Jackal was inspired by Vidocq. [available at Internet Archive]
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860)--The fugitive in this novel was inspired by Vidocq's real-life exploits. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)--Hugo and Vidocq were close friends, and BOTH of the main characters in Les Mis--Jean Valjean and Police Inspector Javert--were modeled after after different roles Vidocq took on during the course of his life. Not only characters, but whole scenes and chapters in Les Mis mirror Vidocq's experiences, particularly in prison. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
  • Monsieur Lecoq by Emile Gaboriau (1868)--Gaboriau's detective is the head of the Sûreté, just as Vidocq himself was, and employs similar methods of detection based on science and logic. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]

Do you know of anyone else who inspired so many different characters?