Saturday, December 31, 2011

My shelf life: 2011

Alright. The year is quickly coming to a close, so it only makes sense to bare my 2011 reading list to the world. Let's all pretend you care for just a moment.

I'm not sure how to label myself as a reader. I plowed through 32 books and a total of 11,358 pages this year. That puts me at just over 31 pages per day. In other words, I'm a piker compared to other book bloggers, and a veritable reading machine compared to the general public. Given everything that's on my plate, I'd give myself a grade of "not too shabby" for 2011.

Here's the complete list, in the order I tackled them, along with their respective page counts (top 10 reads are in bold):

  1. Blue Heaven, C.J. Box   352
  2. On Writing, Stephen King   288
  3. The Red Dancer, Richard Skinner   272
  4. A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking   248
  5. All the Pretty Horses, Cormack McCarthy   301
  6. The Lost City of Z, David Gann   352
  7. King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard    320
  8. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card   324
  9. Our Town, Thornton Wilder   112
  10. The Road, Cormack McCarthy   256
  11. Trojan Oddyssey, Clive Cussler   480
  12. Smoke From This Alter, Louis L’Amour   75
  13. The Collected Short Stories of Louis L’Amour, Vol IV   672
  14. Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck   619
  15. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky   480
  16. The Associate, John Grisham   434
  17. Cry, The Beloved Country, Alan Paton  256
  18. The Appeal, John Grisham   384
  19. Animal Farm, George Orwell   128
  20. 2666, Roberto Bolano   912
  21. The Chosen, Chaim Potok   284
  22. A Mercy, Toni Morrison   176
  23. Don Segundo Sombra, Ricardo Guiraldes   212
  24. Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev   226
  25. The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon   565
  26. 1984, George Orwell   326
  27. The Elements of Style, Strunk & White   176
  28. Death in Venice & Other Tales, Thomas Mann   476
  29. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner   288
  30. A Room With A View, E.M. Forster   321
  31. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad   451
  32. Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner   592

As you can see above, I'm not a complete book snob, though my favorites tended overwhelmingly to be classics or high literary fiction. All told, that's 17 so-called classics, 7 works of commercial fiction, 2 short story collections, 2 non-fiction reads, 2 books on writing, 1 poetry collection and 1 play. Continuing on the assumption that you care, here is the breakdown by page count:

It's kind of interesting to take a look back and see how you spent your reading life in the past year. What about you? What did you read this year? What were your favorites? What stunk? What should I pick up in 2012? Show us your cards...

Friday, December 30, 2011

First Line Friday!

Today is officially the last Friday of 2011 (sigh). As such, today's first line is the last piece of prose to roll around in your mind as the clock strikes midnight tomorrow night. And, it's a dandy.

"If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog."

Great opening line, right? Well, it's from Saul Bellow's "Herzog." Again, it's short (15 words), but says so much. And I love love love the name Moses Herzog. Moses Herzog? Are you kidding me? Great name.

But listen. The real reason that this first line is so astounding is that, after reading the whole novel, one realizes that this 15 word introductory sentence is basically a prolific summary of the novel as a whole; a novel where the reader, and the protagonist himself, wonder aloud whether or not Herzog's mind is slipping, and, if his mind has indeed slipped, is it all right to be out of one's mind?

One more plug: Herzog is far and away my favorite Saul Bellow novel. I've struggled with many of Bellow's novels (especially Augie March), but absolutely loved Herzog.

Happy Bellovian New Year . . .

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sticking the Landing (and avoiding the faceplant)

With ‘First Line Fridays’ we talk pretty regularly about beginnings, so sooner or later it only makes sense that we make some noise about endings. Today we’ll tell a tale of two stories; both by the same author, and both incredibly compelling up until that crucial moment at the end. One of them gets a fantastic ending, and the other is maddeningly bad. If you want to make your own assessment before I begin my bloviation, take a few minutes to read "Class Picture" and "Bullet in the Brain", both by the very talented Tobias Wolff.

The Faceplant:

Let’s start with “Class Picture.” This is a story that I loved right off the bat, and one that just continued to grow on me as Wolff brought the thing to a crescendo. Here’s the premise: students in a Dead Poets Society-style prep school await the arrival of the poet Robert Frost. A poetry contest judged by Mr. Frost will determine which of the boys will be awarded a personal appointment with the great man. What follows is a fascinating look at prep-school politics and the rivalry between young, aspiring men of letters. The fragments of poems and stories are especially funny, like when the narrator and his roommate poke fun at Hemingway:

“That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well.

“Today is the day of meat loaf. The meat loaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meat loaf is tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore.”
Anyway, despite the narrator’s best efforts, it is his friend George who wins the honor with a poem entitled “First Frost.” Still, we anxiously await whatever words of wisdom the great poet will share with the winner. I'm sad to say that it has been longed for and built up and fought over for so long that when the great moment arrives, Wolff performs the storytelling equivalent of a bellyflop:

'Mr. Frost told me I was wasting my time in school. He said I should go to Kamchatka. Or Brazil."
There is some confused debate between the two boys about what the advice could possibly mean, and then the story closes with the narrator’s search for answers in the library:
I closed the encyclopedia and sat listening to the wind rattle the mullioned panes behind me. What was it about Kamchatka, that a young writer should forsake his schooling and go there? Spectacle, maybe. The drama of strange people living strangely. Danger. All this could be good matter for stories and poems. But Frost himself had lived in New England all his life at no cost to his art, and I wondered if he'd ever actually been there. I guessed not. But it meant something to him, Kamchatka, something to do with the writer's life, and what else could it mean but hardship? Solitude, darkness, and hardship. But he had also mentioned Brazil. I rose from my deep chair and crossed the room past boys dozing over books and exchanged the "K" volume for "B."

And that's it. Ugh. You can tell me I missed the whole point of that ending, and you can tell me it was an intentional letdown, but you can’t tell me it’s anything other than a turd in the punchbowl. Or if that’s too strong, at least a band-aid in the ice bucket. And let me state once again: I absolutely loved that story up until that dud of an ending. But hey, the New Yorker bought it, so what do I know. On to the next ending!

The Perfect 10:

“Bullet in the Brain” is the story of a book critic, Anders, who finds himself at the center of a bank robbery. Upon entering the bank he criticizes the woman in front of him in line, criticizes the canned jargon of the jittery robbers who break in and, with a pistol under his chin, criticizes the fresco on the ceiling of the bank. He finally bursts into laughter when the hold-up man threatens him with that ultimate cliché of warning, “capiche,” and as the title of the story foreshadows, he get a bullet right through his brain.

But here’s where Wolff takes the story to another level. After some quick anatomical description of the damage to Anders’s grey matter, he recounts all the images one might expect to have flashed before his eyes in such a moment. And then, he focuses our attention so beautifully on the unexpected, fleeting memory that did become his last.

You’ve got the link above, so I won’t spoil the imagery for you here, but what Wolff does with the ending is turn this story into a profound statement about language and words and “their pure unexpectedness and their music.” He transports us from what is essentially a dark comedy at the beginning, to a deeply moving look at life’s smallest moments at the end. It’s an incredible finesse job, and an incredible ending to a great story.

What did you think? Anyone want to pile on? Contradict? Share other good or bad endings?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Haiku-ption Contest #3

It's that time once again. Previous rounds are here. My entry's below, and yours are in the comments. May the best man win.

Outside chance, you said?
How d'you like my lion, sir?
Outside chance, me arse.

The floor is yours, ladies and gentlemen. Comment your entries below...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

An ear for authentic dialogue

Writing good dialogue is tough. Getting the dialogue of children to ring true adds an even higher degree of difficulty. A lot of decent writers just don’t have the ear to pull it off. Their young characters are either petulant, whining brats or super-genius wunderkinds that talk just like the adults. It’s rare that someone truly nails the child’s voice in an authentic, powerful way. Cormack McCarthy does exactly that in his post-apocalyptic novel The Road.

The following passage highlights one such interaction between the two main characters, a man and his young son. Earlier in the day they had broken into a locked cellar in search of food, and were horrified to discover a pitiful collection of fellow human beings who were being held captive as a source of food. Now, after having been chased away by that pathetic assembly, the two of them are settling down for the night:

Can we have a fire? The boy said.
We don’t have a lighter.
The boy looked away.
I’m sorry. I dropped it. I didn’t want to tell you.
That’s okay.
I’ll find us some flint. I’ve been looking. And we’ve still got the little bottle of gasoline.
Are you very cold?
I’m okay.
The boy lay with his head in the man’s lap. After a while he said: They’re going to kill those people, arent they?
Why do they have to do that?
I don’t know.
Are they going to eat them?
I don’t know.
They’re going to eat them, aren’t they?
And that’s why we couldn’t help them.


They sat by the side of the road and ate the last of the apples.
What is it? The man said.
We’ll find something to eat. We always do.
The boy didn’t answer. The man watched him.
That’s not it, is it?
It’s okay.
Tell me.
The boy looked away down the road.
I want you to tell me. It’s okay.
He shook his head.
Look at me, the man said.
He turned and looked. He looked like he’d been crying.
Just tell me.
We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
You said we werent.
I said we werent dying. I didn’t say we werent starving.
But we wouldnt.
No. We wouldnt.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.
If you ask me, this is an absolutely amazing passage. Some will look down their nose at McCarthy’s stubborn avoidance of quotation marks. Others will fault him for his apostrophe-less contractions. But neither of those eccentricities is material in my view. The biggest charge that will be leveled against this passage is that it flaunts the modern adage that every single word of dialogue has to move the story forward. Dogmatic, by-the-book critics will argue that McCarthy’s action gets stalled in the repetitive back and forth between father and child. But that’s precisely why it works. The plot may not be barreling forward, but the emotional story is growing more and more complex.

Here’s what makes this so good: The dialogue of both characters is incredibly telling in what is not said. The boy’s sparse words and long pauses put his cognitive processes on full view for the reader. We can see the wheels turning inside his head. And anyone with little kids will see the authenticity in this kind of multi-layered communication. The father’s simple explanations and one-word answers reveal his own compassion for the boy, and his empathy for someone trying to figure out why the world is the way it is.

The boy puts up a stoic front, as most kids would in his situation, but he can’t hide his fears from a caring, probing father. Meanwhile, the father stonewalls some of his son’s direct questions. He is set on protecting his child from the hellish realities of life on the road, yet quickly perceives when it’s time to level with the boy. They were going to eat those people. That knowledge not only explains why they had to abandon them, but it reinforces the reasons that father and son have to stick together. It illustrates exactly what they’re up against.

Finally, the familiar refrain of “carrying the fire” leaves us with the impression that this is only one of many such discussions they’ve had since the world went to hell. It is their private rallying cry. It’s their only real reason for moving forward. It’s the only reason for refusing to give up, as their wife and mother had done.

I think the whole thing is just brilliant. Buy the book.

What do you think? Who else really hits the mark when writing children?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Is Murakami a Letdown?

Oh Murakami . . .

His novel, 1Q84, was the most hyped literary release of the year (its English translation, that is). I mean, a huge deal. The novel was published in Japan two years ago, and finally hit the shelves in the US in April. So, how critically acclaimed has the novel been? Well, not very . . .

"1Q84 is an enormous letdown - rather like a big budget, much publicized Hollywood film that cost over $200 million but leaves you feeling that it was overstuffed and 45 minutes too long . . . Trying to say anything definite about 1Q84 is like trying to nail Jello to a wall. It's an elaborate puzzle in which the pieces seem to change shape just as you try to fit then into place or a puzzle which, when assembled, adds up to a picture of a perfect blank." - Allen Barra (The Atlantic)

"Don't get stuck in the quicksand of 1Q84. You, sucker, will wade through nearly one thousand uneventful pages . . . 1Q84 has even Murakami's most ardent fans doing back flips as they try to justify this book's glaring troubles." - Janet Maslin (The New York Times)

A year or two ago, I agreed to read a Murakami novel with some friends of mine. We decided upon A Wild Sheep Chase. And, as I read these reviews for 1Q84, I felt like I had already read a Murakami novel that is so amorphous and bizarre, with hints of great writing and sensible characters, that I don't need another Murakami experience. My friends, on the other hand, loved A Wild Sheep Chase. But for me, it was too hard to tie down. As we discussed the novel back then, we decided that the randomness of the novel can be attributed to Japanese culture (which none of us claim to understand). But I'm just not sure.

That is my opinion on Murakami: I'm just not sure.

And it sounds like 1Q84 is more of the same?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays!

As usual, we mark the holiday with some short fiction appropriate for the occasion. Here is John Cheever's "Christmas Is A Sad Season For the Poor," (which is hardly a sad story, it should be pointed out.)

Christmas is a sad season. The phrase came to Charlie an instant after the alarm clock had waked him, and named for him an amorphous depression that had troubled him all the previous evening. The sky outside his window was black. He sat up in bed and pulled the light chain that hung in front of his nose. Christmas is a very sad day of the year, he thought. Of all the millions of people in New York, I am practically the only one who has to get up in the cold black of 6 a.m. on Christmas Day in the morning; I am practically the only one.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Home for the holidays (in a manor of speaking...)

Well, the holidays are upon us at last. And while I’m looking forward to another day or two of full-blown Christmas cheer, there’s a part of me that is already longing for that post-holiday exhalation that every parent of small children knows. I’m eating too much, sleeping too little, and I’ve got Rankin-Bass TV Christmas Specials coming out my ears. It will be nice to collapse on the couch tomorrow night and watch something normal for a change. For Mrs. DeMarest and me, this probably means working our way back through Season 1 of Downton Abbey on PBS.

Yes, go ahead and make fun. I’ll just say my wife is a very lucky woman. I have an amazing tolerance for chick-flicks in general, and an undeniable affinity for well-done series like Downton Abbey. Then again, who doesn’t love a little English Manor intrigue?

For any of the rest of you who are gearing up for Season 2, and even for those who aren’t, I thought we’d share a few reading suggestions to slake your thirst for that venerable institution known as the English Country Estate, courtesy of the Guardian:
"Evelyn Waugh came to regret Brideshead Revisited… That his novel would still be popular more than half a century later would have surprised Waugh. He would be even more surprised to find that novels with an English country house setting are among the most acclaimed written in recent years, among them Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001) and Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger (2009). Next month brings another notable addition to the genre, Alan Hollinghurst's compelling new novel The Stranger's Child, set partly in a 3,000-acre estate called Corley Court. All these are historical novels, set at different points of the last century, with Hollinghurst's spanning 95 years and concluding in 2008. Like Waugh's novel, they're also revealing about present-day preoccupations. And what they confirm is the continuing attraction of the English country house to the literary imagination.


There are plenty more, to be sure. What other books bring the English country house to life for you? Share your favorites in the comments.

Friday, December 23, 2011

First Line Friday!

"Mother Died Today."

What novel is it? Start the guessing, and NO Googling!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Writer's Voice

Sometimes we become so immersed in the distinctive literary voice of an author, that when we hear that same author's actual speaking voice, it can be a little jolting. Have a listen below, and try to tell me that Virginia Woolf doesn't remind you just a little bit of Dame Edna:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

So You Wanna Be A Writer? Join the Merchant Marines!

Who among us hasn’t felt the urge to chip paint, swab the poop deck, or keep the midnight watch over a commercial shipping vessel at one time or another? Who can honestly say he’s never heard the call of the sea?

One thing’s for sure, many a great author has been groomed on the high seas. The literary world is replete with writers who have tackled a stint in the merchant marines: Joseph Conrad, Ralph Ellison, Herman Melville, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Alex Haley, Saul Bellow, Langston Hughes, Louis L’Amour, Eugene O’Neill, there are simply too many to name… One could throw in Jack London, who worked a sealing vessel, Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a ship's surgeon, or Ernest Hemingway, who hunted U-boats in the Caribbean. They probably all dreamed, like Conrad’s Lord Jim, of a life filled with adventure:

“He could see the big ships departing, the broad-beamed ferries constantly on the move, the little boats floating far below his feet with the hazy splendor of the sea in the distance and the hope of a stirring life in the world of adventure.

“On the lower deck, in the Babel of two-hundred voices, he would forget himself and beforehand live in his mind the sea life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line, or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half-naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies on the high seas and in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men. Always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book.”
What’s not to love about any of that? Sign me up! But Conrad quickly follows that passage with this dampening dose of reality:
“After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the region so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages. He knew the magical monotony of existence between sky and water. He had to bear the criticism of men, the exactions of the sea, and the prosaic severity of the daily task that gives bread, but whose only reward is in the perfect love of the work. This reward eluded him. Yet, he could not go back, because there is nothing more enticing, disenchanting and enslaving than the life at sea.”
So, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. So what? It still sounds like a nice gig, if you can get it. And the literary merits have been proven time and time again. Like the great authors named above, you could pluck your ideas and experiences from exotic foreign ports and use the long hours at sea to let your material marinate and develop for our benefit. 

So go ahead. Set sail for literary distinction. Be a writer, be a merchant marine.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What do Tom Joad, Darl Bundren and Macon “Milkman” Dead III all have in common?

Yes, all three are famous literary characters, and each is the tragic protagonist of the story he inhabits. But there’s something more… They all have sisters with crazy-ass names.

Rose of Sharon? Dewey Dell? First Corinthians and Magdelena Called Lena? What is it with these families? What is it about 20th Century American fiction that requires the injudicious and reckless naming of baby girls?

Now, sometimes it’s the guys who get a profligate christening (Soaphead Church and Tea Cake come to mind), but by and large, it is the fairer sex that gets saddled with awkward handles. Scout? Skeeter? Idgie? Sabbath Lily? I could go on and on...

What does all of this mean to you and me? Well, that depends. If your sister’s name is Sarah or Emily or Anne or Jane, it probably means nothing at all.

On the other hand, if you have a sister named “Gypsy Sunrise” or “Heaven’s Own Rays” or something absurd like that- I don't mean to get all Stranger than Fiction on you, but there’s a decent chance that your reality- your entire life as you know it- is nothing more than the figment of some author’s imagination.

The nice thing about this scenario is that your story will be taught to high school students and revered by serious readers for generations. The flip side of that coin is that you're probably headed for some great calamity.    So, you know... be careful.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

See Venice! Read a novel!

If Levar Burton has taught me anything, it's that when I pick up a book, "I can go anywhere." If you're an intrepid mental traveler like me, you'll enjoy trotting across the globe with our See The World series. We kick things off in one of the most beautiful locations on the globe: Venice, Italy. Here are some excerpts from three great books that will take you there:

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann
“And so he saw it once again. The most amazing of landing places, the dazzling composition of fantastic architecture that the Republic presented to the worshipful gazes of approaching mariners. The airy magnificence of the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, the columns depicting lions and saints on the shore, the splendid and projected flank of the fairy tale temple, the view of the gateway and the gigantic clock. And while contemplating this scene, he mused that arriving by the Venice railroad station by land, was like entering a palace through a back door, and that one could only do as he had done, sail across the high seas in order to reach the most improbable of cities.”

The Aspern Papers, by Henry James
"The gondola stopped, the old palace was there; it was a house of the class which in Venice carries even in extreme dilapidation the dignified name. “How charming! It’s grey and pink!” my companion exclaimed; and that is the most comprehensive description of it. It was not particularly old, only two or three centuries; and it had an air not so much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its career. But its wide front, with a stone balcony from end to end of the piano nobile, or most important floor, was architectural enough, with the aid of various pilasters and arches; and the stucco with which in the intervals it had long ago been endued was rosy in the April afternoon. It overlooked a clean melancholy rather lonely canal, which had a narrow riva or convenient footway on either side."
"…I spent the late hours either on the water- the moonlights of Venice are famous- or in the splendid square which serves as a vast forecourt to the strange old church of Saint Mark. I sat in from of Florian’s café eating ices, listening to music, talking with acquaintances: the traveler will remember how the immense cluster of tables and little chairs stretches like a promontory into the smooth lake of the Piazza. The whole place, of a summer’s evening, under the stars and with all the lamps, all the voices and light footsteps on marble- the only sounds of the immense arcade that encloses it- is an open-air saloon dedicated to cooling drinks and to a still finer degustation, that of the splendid impressions received during the day."

"He penetrated into the far side of the city, the side that finally fronted the Adriatic, and that he liked the best. He was going in by a very narrow street, and he was going to not keep track of the number of more or less north and south streets that he crossed, nor count the bridges, and then try and orient himself so he would come out at the market without getting up any dead ends.
"It was a game you play, as some people used to play double Canfield or any solitary card games. But it had the advantage of you moving while you do it and that you look at the houses, the minor vistas, the shops and the trattorias and at old palaces of the city of Venice while you are walking. If you loved the city of Venice it was an excellent game. 
"It is a sort of solitaire ambulante and what you win is the happiness of your eye and heart. If you made the market, on this side of town, without ever being stymied, you won the game. But you must not make it too easy and you must not count."
Which other books bring the City of Canals to life for readers?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Poet's Corner

If literary fiction is misunderstood and ignored by Joe Sixpack, what hope does poetry have of reaching the unwashed masses? Not much. Not much at all.

Unless you can find just the right poem, that is.

This is the first look at a new feature we're calling Poet's Corner, a series aimed to prove that not only is poetry not dead, but that it isn't all flowers and butterflies and unrequited love anymore. We hope you enjoy it.

Short-order Cook
by Jim Daniels

An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain't no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop spit spit . . .
pss . . .

The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point—
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fries done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
"Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries!"
They look at me funny.
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success,
thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

Friday, December 16, 2011

First Line Friday!

This week, we are returning to a good first line, as opposed to a bad one. This week’s stellar first line is from a novel that is obviously a standout. It’s brief, just 14 words. But is says a lot . . . and that’s the sign of a good first line.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Why is this line so great? Simply because as you read it, everything flows nicely, until you slam your face into the last word. Thirteen? The clocks were striking thirteen?

That one profound word, “Thirteen,” immediately proposes to the reader that some sort of alternative reality is at hand. Why? Because we don’t have clocks that strike thirteen. It’s genius. One word throws us for an extreme loop. You are only 14 words into the novel, and you’ve already had to stop and reassess the reality of what you’re reading.

What novel is blessed with this first line?

Orwell’s 1984, of course.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Plot Twists

In the minds of some people, literary fiction is often synonymous with plotless, boring, navel-gazing fiction. We don't pretend to speak for everything published under the lit-fic rubric, but we obviously don’t share that view about the time-honored classics, and we’re happy to stand-up and myth-bust it for you whenever we get a chance.

Yesterday there was a post at BookRiot listing generic plot twists that have kind of run their course and become eyeroll-inducing clichés. I definitely agree with their list, but it also got me thinking about some classic plot twists that have been done really well- those that have caught me off guard, anyway. Here are three that I can think of right off the top of my head. (Major spoiler warning!) Add your own in the comments.

Mistaken identity in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Tom drives Gatsby’s car as their little group heads into town and he stops to fill the tank at Wilson’s station. From the window, Tom’s illicit lover Myrtle makes the tragic association that will kill her later in the day. The group then makes the return trip back to West Egg, only this time an upset Daisy is driving Gatsby’s Rolls Royce and when Myrtle runs out to greet Tom, she is inadvertently struck and killed by the yellow car, which flees the scene.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wilson learns the runaway car belongs to Gatsby and goes looking for revenge while Tom and Daisy run off scot-free. This allows Fitzgerald to make a powerful statement about the reckless decadence of the roaring twenties, and the book becomes a classic for that reason.

Poetic coincidence in Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton:

Anglican pastor Stephen Kumalo tries in vain to work with tribal leaders to rejuvenate and save his barren village of Ixopo. But upon receiving a request for his own help, he uses all his savings to go to Johannesburg and aid his sister. While there he sets out to find Absalom, his long lost son. But just as he gets close to locating Absalom, he learns that he has been arrested for murder.

The man he killed is a white, racial justice activist whose estranged father just happens to be Mr. Jarvis, an aloof, but wealthy landowner living in the verdant hills above Ixopo. It is because of this tragic event that Jarvis posthumously comes to know his own long lost son through his political writings. He resolves to do what little he can to bring his son’s vision of racial justice to fruition. Despite losing his own child at the hands of a former Ixopo villager, he becomes the benefactor that the village always needed. Beautiful. Poetic. Read it.

Missing the forest for the trees in Around the World in 80 Days, by Jules Verne:

In order to win a £15,000 bet, Phileas Fogg and his hapless French valet set off on an adventure-filled journey around the world. Fogg’s stoic calm and Passpartout’s skills as an erstwhile acrobat pull them out of one tragic set-back after another on their unbelievable journey. Still, as they near England on the 80th day, it becomes clear that they will not arrive back at the Reform Club in time to win the bet, and Fogg has resigned himself to failure and bankruptcy.

It is then that Passpartout learns that they had not taken the International Date Line into account, and that Fogg still has a few minutes to race to the Reform Club and win the bet. Verne definitely jumped the shark at a couple points in this novel, but I have to say I didn’t see that final twist coming.

Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 are two others that deliver interesting twists, but since those two books are soon to square off as our first Literary Deathmatch contestants, we’ll leave them for another day. What other works of literary fiction have delivered amazing twists?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ummm... What?

I've been very kind to Faulkner lately, so before I give him a well-deserved rest, I thought it might be a good time to thump him on the head just once. You tell me: What recreational drug was he abusing when he penned the following literary lemon:
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep, and before you are emptied for sleep, what are you? And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not, and when you are filled with sleep you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is, and he is what he is not… And since sleep is is not, and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addy Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addy bundren must be, and then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so, if I am not emptied yet, I am is.