Archives for category: Favorite Books

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In 2006, Haruki Murakami – author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — accomplished a long-standing goal by translating The Great Gatsby into Japanese. Murakami has discussed his reverence for the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel many times over the years — and has written a compelling afterword to his translation. Read Murakami’s moving love letter to Fitzgerald’s masterwork at scribd.com.

Here are some excerpts from Murakami’s heartfelt homage to The Great Gatsby

When someone asks, ‘Which three books have meant the most to you?’ I can answer without having to think: The Great GatsbyDostoevesky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. All three have been indispensable to me (both as a reader and as a writer); yet if I were forced to select only one, I would unhesitatingly choose Gatsby. Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel, I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there).

Whatever the case, you can sense the level of my infatuation with The Great Gatsby. It taught me so much and encouraged me so greatly in my own life. Through slender in size for a full-length work, it served as a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which I was able to organize the many coordinates that make up the world of the novel. I read Gatsby over and over, poking into every nook and cranny, until I had virtually memorized entire sections.

Remarks such as these are bound to perplex more than a few readers. ‘Look, Murakami,’ they’ll say, ‘I read the novel, and I don’t get it. Just why do you think it’s so great?’ My first impulse is to challenge them right back. ‘Hey, if The Great Gatsby isn’t great,’ I am tempted to say, inching closer, ‘then what the heck is?’…Gatsby is such a finely wrought novel – its scenes so fully realized, its evocations of sentiment so delicate, its language so layered – that, in the end, one has to study it line by line in English to appreciate its true value.”

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The Moving Target — originally published in 1949 — features Lew Archer, an L.A. private investigator, who appears in a series of novels by Ross Macdonald.

While reading the work of this amazing wordsmith/poet, I was struck by its similarity to the best passages in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — and figured somebody somewhere must have written about this. A quick Google search revealed more than I’d hoped.

My research uncovered a fascinating article entitled “Ross Macdonald’s Marked Copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Study of Influence” by Robert F. Moss. In the article, Moss demonstrates how Macdonald learned from Fitzgerald on a variety of levels, including language, plot, structure, and technique. Macdonald is quoted as calling Fitzgerald “a dream writer,” “our finest novelist,” and “my master.” Read the entire article here.

To give a sense of Macdonald’s command of language, here is the opening paragraph from Chapter 4 of The Moving Target:

We rose into the offshore wind sweeping across the airport and climbed toward the southern break in the mountains. Santa Teresa was a colored air map on the mountains’ knees, the sailboats in the harbor white soap chips in a tub of bluing. The air was very clear. The peaks stood up so sharply that they looked like papier-maché I could poke my finger through. Then we rose past them into chillier air and saw the wilderness of mountains stretching to the fifty-mile horizon.

The Moving Target was made into Harper, a 1966 movie starring Paul Newman. Legendary screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidAll the President’s Men) adapted the novel for the screen — and considered The Moving Target his breakthrough script (it was his second screenwriting credit). Newman also starred as Lew Harper (the screen name for Lew Archer) in the 1975 movie The Drowning Pool, based on Ross Macdonald’s novel of the same name.

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Photo: Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) rides with Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the 2013 film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby.

Here’s how Nick Carraway describes Gatsby’s car in Fitzgerald’s novel:

It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory, we started to town..”

While Nick describes Gatsby’s car as “cream colored,” other characters in the book describe it as “yellow” — which, as most of us learned in high school, symbolizes Gatsby’s pursuit of the gold, of the American Dream.

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Photo: Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) drives with Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford) in the 1974 film version of Fitzgerald‘s novel.

But what make and model of car did Gatsby drive — in the novel and the various film versions? A recent article in the New York Times by Jerry Garrett offers some interesting answers. Since the information gets a bit convoluted, I’m going to resort to bullet points — and, in movie parlance, cut to the chase.

  • 1925 novel: Fitzgerald writes, “On weekends, his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight …” According to Garrett’s New York Times article (May 10, 2013), “The Rolls most likely would have been a 1922 Silver Ghost…”
  • 1974 movie (starring Robert Redford): Redford drives a 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom  — for a story set in 1922.
  • 2013 movie (starring Leonardo DiCaprio): DiCaprio drives a 1929 Duesenberg Model J — again, for a story set in 1922.

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Photo: Cars featured in the 1949 film version of The Great Gatsby starring Alan Ladd.

I also checked out Jerry Garrett’s blog, where he adds another interesting fact…

  • 1949 movie (starring Alan Ladd): In this film version, as in the 2013 offering, Gatsby drives a Duesenberg (though I don’t know year or model). According to vintage car expert Jerry Garrett, “The point of having Gatsby owning a Rolls-Royce in the book, and having a closet full of clothes from England, was to help sell his fantasy girl Daisy Buchanan on his lie of having gone to school at Oxford. The original Duesenberg was made in Indiana. Would Daisy, a society belle from Louisville, Kentucky, have been impressed with a Hoosier?”

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THE CASTLE (Novel Excerpt)
by Franz Kafka

Translated from the German
by Anthea Bell

Chapter 1, Arrival

It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of Castle Mount, for mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.

Then he went in search of somewhere to stay the night. People were still awake at the inn. The landlord had no room available, but although greatly surprised and confused by the arrival of a guest so late at night, he was willing to let K. sleep on a straw mattress in the saloon bar. K. agreed to that. Several of the local rustics were still sitting over their beer, but he didn’t feel like talking to anyone. He fetched the straw mattress down from the attic himself, and lay down near the stove. It was warm, the locals were silent, his weary eyes gave them a cursory inspection, and then he fell asleep.

But soon afterwards he was woken again. A young man in town clothes, with a face like an actor’s — narrowed eyes, strongly marked eyebrows — was standing beside him with the landlord. The rustics were still there too, and some of them had turned their chairs round so that they could see and hear better. The young man apologized very civilly for having woken K., introduced himself as the son of the castle warden, and added: “This village belongs to the castle, so anyone who stays or spends the night here is, so to speak, staying or spending the night at the castle. And no one’s allowed to do that without a permit from the count. However, you don’t have such a permit…” 

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In the photo above, actor James Franco holds an edition of Kafka‘s THE CASTLE released by Schocken Publishing in 1998. (Find the book at Amazon.com.)

Franz Kafka died from tuberculosis at age 40 in 1924 before finishing THE CASTLE, considered one of his greatest works. Only a few of Kafka’s stories were published during his lifetime, and his literary executor ignored his request to burn the remaining manuscripts after his death.

A lawyer by profession, Kafka spent much of his life in the insurance business investigating claims — and worked on his writing before or after his day job. Today, Kafka is considered one of the most influential authors of the past hundred years. Poet W.H. Auden called him “The Dante of the 20th century.” Kafka’s other well-known works include THE TRIAL and METAMORPHOSIS, books that are available for free in a variety of formats (including Kindle) at Gutenberg.org.

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Billboards for THE GREAT GATSBY, director Baz Luhrmann’s take on F.Scott Fitzgerald‘s masterpiece, are popping up all over Los Angeles, citing a May 10 premiere. I’ve listened to Fitzgerald aficionados say that the movie does not appeal to them (okay, they put it in stronger terms), but I can’t wait to see it. One of the controversies about the film is Luhrmann’s use of modern music in the soundtrack of a period piece set in the 1920s. Bring it on!

I can’t wait to see a party on Gatsby’s estate done with a $100+ million dollar budget!

Photo: Daily Billboard, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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“A good novel begins with a small question and ends with a bigger one.” PAULA FOX

April 22, 2013 marks the 90th birthday of novelist Paula Fox, author of DESPERATE CHARACTERS, originally published by W.W. Norton in 1970. The novel fell out of print and was championed by Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) — who stumbled upon it in a library — but has been available since 1999 in a new edition with an introduction by Franzen.

Frazen is passionate about DESPERATE CHARACTERS and states in his introduction:  “The first time I read Desperate Characters in 1991, I fell in love with it. It seemed to me obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow. It seemed inarguably great.” 

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Paula Fox is recipient of the 2013 Hadada Prize from THE PARIS REVIEW. The prize is presented each year to “a distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature.” Previous recipients include Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, Philip Roth, and William Styron.

Like Franzen, I stumbled upon DESPERATE CHARACTERS over a decade ago (in my case, the encounter occurred at a Salvation Army thrift shop in Chicago) and was immediately captivated by the novel. If you love literary novels — and, at 176 pages, this is a relatively short one — don’t miss DESPERATE CHARACTERS. At Amazon.com, used copies of the novel are available for as low as 24 cents plus shipping — and you can probably find it at your local library. Enjoy.

Happy 90th birthday, Paula Fox! You are an inspiration to all novelists! 

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Today, we celebrate the birthday of Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932), author of the beloved children’s classic The Wind in the Willows. This charming, wise book is not just for the under-eight set — it’s for everyone: a volume to be read, reread, and savored.

First published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows follows Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger as they embark on adventures in pastoral England.

Here are some memorable quotes from this masterwork (and one of my all-time favorite books!): 

“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.” 

“But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.” 

“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the wild world,”said the Rat.”And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or to me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going’ nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.” 

“Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of your old life and into the new!” 

“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.” 

“Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!” 

“The Mole… sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.” 

Download the book for free in a variety of forms — including Kindle versions — at Project Gutenberg.

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BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS

Novel Excerpt by Dai Sijie

We crept up to the suitcase. It was tied with a thick rope of plaited straw, knotted crosswise. We removed the rope and raised the lid in silence. Inside, piles of books shone in the light of our torch: a company of great Western writers welcomed us with open arms. On top was our old friend Balzac with five or six novels, then came Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Dumas, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Romain Rolland, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and some English writers, too: Dickens, Kipling, Emily Brontë…

We were beside ourselves. My head reeled, as if I’d had too much to drink. I took the novels out of the suitcase one by one, opened them, studied the portraits of the authors, and passed them on to Luo. Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives.

“It reminds me of a scene in a film,” said Luo. “You know, when a stolen suitcase turns out to be stuffed with money…”

 “So, are you weeping tears of joy?” I said.

“No. All I feel is loathing.”

“Me too. Loathing for everyone who kept these books from us.”

 Hearing myself utter this last sentence frightened me, as if there might be an eavesdropper hidden somewhere in the room. Such a remark, casually dropped, could cost several years in prison…

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THOUGHTS ON THE NOVEL

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) takes place in China during the Cultural Revolution of the early 1970s – when educated young adults from the big cities were sent to do hard labor in rural areas to learn about “real life” and rid them of Western influences.

The novel follows the fortunes of a young male narrator and his friend as they try to navigate an unfamiliar way of life, while maintaining their love of art and literature. The village headman recognizes their storytelling skills and once a week sends them to another remote town to view a propaganda film, then return and recount the movie scene by scene to the villagers — who listen with avid attention and emotional engagement.

Based on the author’s re-education experiences, this brilliant novel is about our need and our hunger for stories – stories are what keep us human, what keep us connected to other people. Stories are food for our souls. When the book’s main characters uncover a stash of hidden novels from the West in Chinese translation, as described in the above excerpt, they risk torture and imprisonment to feed their hungry souls.

The little seamstress in the title is a beautiful young woman the thieves take into their confidence – reading the smuggled books to her, and introducting her to the outside world.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a short novel (less than 200 pages) with a huge impact – bringing home our deep need for stories and storytellers.

Highly recommended — an all-time favorite! Find beautiful hardcover editions for just one (1!) cent (plus shipping) at Amazon.com.

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I’ve gained most of my knowledge (what it is) not through histories, biographies, or other nonfiction works — but through what the professors call “world literature.” I’ve never read a complete biography of Napoleon, but have read his extensive depiction in War & Peace.

Yes, I’ll admit, most of my understanding of the world comes from literature, starting with Shakespeare and Dickens — and then moving around the globe. These writing hero/heroine guides are too numerous to mention, but I will applaud the literature of Great Britain, Ireland, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, Australia, Africa, South America, Latin America, Canada, India, and many other places not specifically mentioned.

All this is a preamble to my thoughts on The White Tiger, a novel set in India, by Arivind Adiga. First off, I’ll say this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read (hands down). Why do I love it? The book has all the components that, for me, make a work fascinating — unique voice, compelling main character, exotic location, an inside look at a subculture (taxi drivers in India), and an intriguing mystery.

Yesterday, I read an article on another blog about literary mashups (a woman had written an Oscar Wilde mashup called Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray). While I can’t say that most of the current mashups on the market appeal to me (you know, the ones that feature zombies, vampires, et al), I do love genre crossovers: Magic realism detective novels (Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami), science-fiction/comedy/war stories (Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut), and sci-fi-alternate histories (The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick).

All this leads me to another reason why I admire and adore The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga — it reminds me of Dostoyevsky meets Vonnegut meets Hamsun, while remaining totally original. The novel isn’t a mashup (which to me reads “ripoff”) but an homage to great world literature.

Hats off to young Mr. Adiga (born in 1974) who in 2008 won the prestigious Booker Prize for The White Tiger. (The novel is available at Amazon.com, where copies are on sale for just 1 cent plus shipping!)

To get a “free” flavor for Adiga’s masterful writing, check out his short story “The Elephant” in the New Yorker at this link.

Photo: Aravind Adiga winning the 2008 Booker Prize for The White Tiger.

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A CHRISTMAS MEMORY (Excerpt)

by Truman Capote

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning…Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable — not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “It’s fruitcake weather!”

…”I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”

 It is always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch the buggy. Help me find my hat.”