(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘novel

“Anonymity is the fame of the future”*…

So… late last spring, a strange, beguiling novel began arriving, in installments, in the mail, addressed to writer Adam Dalva at his parents’ apartment. Who had written it?…

It arrived at the height of the pandemic, in a brown envelope with no return address and too many stamps, none of which had been marked by the post office. It was addressed to me at my parents’ New York City apartment, where I haven’t lived in more than a decade. My mother used the envelope as a notepad for a few weeks, then handed it off to me in July; it was the first time I’d seen her after months of quarantine. Inside the envelope was a small, stapled book—a pamphlet, really—titled “Foodie or The Capitalist Monsoon that is Mississippi,” by a writer named Stokes Prickett. On the cover, there was a photograph of a burrito truck and a notice that read “Advance Promotional Copy: Do Not Read.” The book began with a Cide Hamete Benengeli-style introduction attributed to a Professor Sherbert Taylor. Then a fifty-five-page bildungsroman written in short sections with boldface titles. The prose reminded me a bit of Richard Brautigan.

Because I write book reviews, dozens of unsolicited books are sent to my house every month. Many of them, I confess, barely catch my attention before they’re added to a stack on the floor. But I sat down and read this one all the way through. The narrator of “Foodie” is Rusty, who thinks back on his days in high school, when he worked as a thumbtack-maker’s apprentice, then in a floor-mat factory. Rusty meets another kid from school, an idealist called Foodie whose real name is Gourmand, and whom Rusty describes as “a tetherball champ, a king of the taco stands,” in a town “at the edge of the 8-track suburbs.” Foodie, Rusty says, “was the kindest werewolf on the warfront, and I was his hairdresser.” They start spending time with a hulking, ruthless classmate named Dale, who is “right-handed and immoral as parchment,” and fated to die young because he has a white-collar job that causes him to move through time more quickly than his friends do. After Dale’s death, Foodie and Rusty part ways.

The book was good. But who was Stokes Prickett, and how did this person get my parents’ address?…

A most marvelous mystery, solved by @adalva: “On the Trail of a Mysterious, Pseudonymous Author.”

John Boyle O’Reilly

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As we get to the bottom of it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1901 that William Sydney Porter was released (on good behavior) after serving three years in the Ohio Penitentiary for bank fraud and embezzlement; a licensed pharmacist, he had worked in the prison’s infirmary.  But on his release, he turned to what had been a pastime, writing.  Over the next several years he wrote 381 short stories under the pen name by which we know him, “O. Henry,” including a story a week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine.

His wit, characterization, and plot twists– as evidenced in stories like “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief”– were adored by his readers but often panned by critics… though academic opinion has since come around: O. Henry is now considered by many to be America’s answer to Guy de Maupassant.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 24, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers”*…

Fun with facts…

It’s officially time to socialize again. But maybe . . . you’ve forgotten how? Here’s one way to break the ice/pass the time/celebrate your vaccinations with your book-reading friends: organize a day of literary Jeopardy!. (You can also just play by yourself, right here, right now.) To facilitate, I combed through this insane archive of every game of Jeopardy!ever played (YEP) and picked out 100 literary questions of varying difficulties. (You may notice that all of these clues are from the first 9 seasons (1984-1993), for no reason other than that’s how long it took me, haphazardly clicking through, to find 100 interesting ones. Test your brain (and your friends)…

Answer: Pasternak’s Moscow medic

Question:

Answer: Long-time companion of Dashiell Hammett, she was played in “Julia” by Jane Fonda

Question:

Answer: Sophocles’ “complex tragedy”

Question:

97 more answers in search of a query at “100 Literary Jeopardy Clues from Real Episodes of Jeopardy!” (Answers– that is, questions– provided.)

* Voltaire

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As we reach for the buzzer, we might respond to the answer “this great American novel of teen angst and alienation was published on this date in 1951” with the question “What is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye?” Consistently listed as one of the best novels of the twentieth century, it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, was listed at number 15 on the BBC’s survey The Big Read, and still sells about 1 million copies per year.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 16, 2021 at 1:00 am

“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them”*…

Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country” (1913), like much that Edith Wharton wrote, can be described as a novel of manners. That’s to say, a social fiction in which the carefully observed customs of a particular society shape the characters’ actions and the plot. The designation somehow implies frivolity, or at least, traditionally, the feminine or domestic sphere (Jane Austen could be considered the first author of such works); and in this period of profound crisis in American society, it might seem easy to dismiss the relevance of such diverting works…

In this case, Wharton follows the social rise (and rise) of beautiful young Undine Spragg (named after her grandfather’s patented hair-crimper), who arrives in New York City from the fictional town of Apex City, Iowa, in the company of her newly moneyed, wide-eyed parents, Abner and Leota. She initially takes instruction on New York society’s hierarchies from gossip columns and her manicurist, but Undine’s looks soon gain her entrée into conversation with a fashionable portraitist named Popple, and then an invitation to dine at the home of the elegant Fairfords, where Mrs. Fairford’s brother, Ralph Marvell, pays her particular attention. On their eventual honeymoon, he’ll introduce her to European and in particular Parisian society, thereby widening the horizons of Undine’s social ambition: New York comes to feel provincial and dull next to Paris.

The fact that “The Custom of the Country” is entertaining — that it seems to whisk us, as readers, to a faraway time and to glamorous places — doesn’t mean that Undine Spragg’s dogged rise through the social ranks of the early 20th century is irrelevant to our times. Wharton’s clear but complex vision (whether Undine is ultimately heroine or antihero is not entirely obvious) follows her protagonist as she navigates ever more rarefied realms, from the dining rooms and opera boxes of Manhattan to the spas and châteaus of France, each with its own language and conventions, in search of the ultimate triumph — though what that may be, beyond enormous wealth, is never entirely clear, and remains just out of reach… A quick study, she busily absorbs the conventions wherever she lands (she proves a masterful code-switcher, as we might say now), but she’s also resolutely, selfishly, intractably herself, ready to flout convention if and when she can get away with it. Always gorgeous and elegantly dressed — her husband, Ralph, describes her face when in society as “like a theatre with all the lustres blazing” — Undine is nevertheless limited by her vapidity. As an American friend married to a French aristocrat explains, “You’re as handsome as ever; but people here don’t go on looking at each other forever.”…

Wharton’s genius lies in her novelistic ability to allow her characters their perspectives while seeing the situation from all sides. Both in her lifetime and since, she has been maligned for being born rich (Franzen complains that “privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage”); and Janet Flanner accused her, in a waspish 1929 New Yorker profile, of lacking sensuality and sympathy, of “formally proving that the wages of social sin were social death.” But in fact Wharton — who could well have sat around in her fancy houses eating bonbons with her feet up rather than writing wonderfully entertaining, humanly true novels that have stood the test of time — turned her critical eye equally upon transgressors and upholders of convention alike. That’s not to excuse her snobbery or to overlook the limitations of accounts of high society; but now, as then, we’re fascinated by the lives of the wealthy, and shouldn’t project our own secret shame about it onto Wharton. Her sharp wit is hard on all her characters, and crucially, she captures also their redeeming qualities, their humanity. She sees and understands Undine’s laser-focused ambition, her parents’ trembling and self-sacrificing indulgence, Ralph’s highly cultured but weak romanticism, Elmer’s robust desire for material success. And she appreciates also Undine’s splendor, her vitality and allure, Ralph’s delicacy and tenderness, Elmer’s frankness and generosity. Like the novel’s discreet and cheerful Mrs. Heeny, masseuse and manicurist to the rich, who travels from house to house with her bag full of press clippings, Wharton observes and records it all. In this new Gilded Age, when the disparities between rich and poor are again, and disastrously, as great as they were in Wharton’s time, we could do with such a novelist, a cultural anthropologist who might hold up a mirror to our failings and our future, with eagle-eyed clarity and a small measure of compassion…

Novelist, essayist, and professor Claire Messud on the contemporary relevance of the chronicler of the Gilded Age: “How Can We Read Edith Wharton Today?

[image above: source]

  • Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

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As we peer into the not-so-distant mirror, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Marie-Henri Beyle; he was born on this date in 1783. Better known by his pen name “Stendahl,” he is remembered especially for his novels The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) and The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme). One of the first practitioners of acute explorations of his characters’ psychology, he is considered a pioneer of realism– and with Wharton, one of its finest examples.

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“I keep pressing the space bar on my keyboard, but I’m still on Earth”*…

The Nation of Celestial Space’s flag is a #, which is the proofreader mark for “space.”

Anyone can start their own micronation. The hard part is getting the snobbish macronations to accept you into their club. Wikipedia has a list of about 90 micronations from the past and present…

The founder of the Nation of Celestial Space (aka Celestia) wanted nothing more than to have the United Nations recognize his micronation. James Thomas Mangan, a 52-year-old Chicago publicist, self-help author, and industrial designer founded the Nation of Celestial Space in 1948, claiming the entirety of outer space, ‘‘specifically exempting from claim every celestial body, whether star, planet, satellite, or comet, and every fragment.” In other words, Celestia owned no matter — just the empty space the matter occupied. (Celestia’s charter made an exception for the Moon, Venus, and Mars and its two moons as “Proclaimed Protectorates.”)…

Mangan registered Celestia with the Cook County, Illinois Recorder and mailed letters to the secretaries of state from 74 countries and the United Nations asking them to formally recognize the Nation of Celestial Space. They ignored him. “Only my wife, my son, and my partner see the depth of it,” he told a reporter in the May 1949 issue of Science Illustrated. “This is a new, bold, immodest idea.” In 1958 Mangan took it upon himself to travel to the UN building in New York City and run the Celestia flag up a pole alongside the other national flags flying there. UN security personnel quickly removed the flag and told Mangan not to try it again…

From the remarkable Mark Frauenfelder (@Frauenfelder), the tale of the man who declared the entire universe to be a country under his protection: “Dictator of the Vacuum of Space“– a feature in Mark’s newsletter, The Magnet, eminently worthy of subscription.

* anonymous

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As we celebrate sovereignty, we might rejoice in the naively noble: it was on this date in 1605 that El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha ( or The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha— aka Don Quixote), the masterwork of Miguel de Cervantes (and of the Spanish Golden Age) and a founding work of Western literature, was first published. Widely considered the first modern novel published in the Western world, it is also considered by many (still) to be the best; it is in any case the second most translated work in the world (after the Bible).

Original title page

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 16, 2021 at 1:01 am

“I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a very useful little chap.”*…

 

semicolon

 

Consider the semicolon. It’s beloved by some and assailed by others; in the annals of punctuation lore, no other symbol has sparked as much debate. A handful of years ago it was even the subject of a very funny parody song by The Lonely Island and Solange that poked fun at hashtag rap. (Though, in fairness to the semicolon, the song’s punchline is that it was using the semicolon incorrectly all along.) In her new book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, Cecelia Watson ventures into the long history and usage of semicolons, and the results are tremendously enlightening.

Semicolon is a slim book, but it deftly covers a lot of ground. Watson explores the origin of the semicolon, demonstrates how it’s gone in and out of linguistic favor over the centuries, and thoughtfully explored how a host of disparate writers — including Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — have memorably used it in their work. Watson also explores some of the surprisingly severe impacts the semicolon has had on society, such as the semicolon in a Massachusetts law that wreaked havoc on the state’s alcohol consumption, or the way the semicolon in a judicial sentence caused one man’s life to hang in the balance…

Tobias Carroll gets the lowdown from Cecelia Watson on how she learned to stop worrying and love the semicolon: “My Teachers Said We Weren’t Allowed To Use Them.”

* Abraham Lincoln

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As we pause to connect, we might spare a thought for Georges Joseph Christian Simenon; he died on this date in 1984.  A prolific author (who published nearly 500 novels and numerous short works), he is best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret.  His work is featured in the collection La Pléiade (inspiration for the Library of America), and in 1966 he was awarded the Mystery Writers of America’shighest honor, the Grand Master Award.

Georges_Simenon_(1963)_without_hat_by_Erling_Mandelmann

SIMENON, Georges, 1963, Ecrivain (F) © ERLING MANDELMANN ©

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

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