acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Month: September, 2010

Literary Superfriends

My Strand Bookstore tote bag is so totally geek-chic awesome I can hardly stand it:

For anyone who doesn’t know, this image, created by comic artist R.Sikoryak, is a play on the iconic image from the opening of the Super Friends television cartoon from the 70s and early 80s:

The core of the Super Friends/Justice League of America group consists of Superman, Batman, Robin, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman. They were joined by some, uh, much lesser-known sidekicks; in the first season (pictured above), these sidekicks were Wendy, Marvin, and Wonderdog (what?), but in the subsequent seasons–the ones I remember–the sidekicks were the famous Wonder Twins and their, um, purple space monkey, Gleek (huh?).

In any case, the Sikoryak literary version keeps the original configuration of two women and five men. (Sensibly, he has dispensed with the animals; though it might have been funny to have had a monkey typing out Hamlet, but oh, well.) He has also drawn Shakespeare in the Superman stance, which I love. I would pretty much agree with Shakespeare being the Superman of literature.

After the Shakespeare/Superman configuration, though, things get less obviously transposed (which of these authors, for instance, is Batman? Which two are the ineffectual sidekicks?), but what I’m interested in is the choices. In case you can’t tell, the authors pictured are (left to right): Dante, Emily Bronte, Herman Melville, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Homer, and Oscar Wilde.

(Side note: I love that Dante appears to be wearing a fleece slanket, and Oscar Wilde is wearing what appear to be breeches and tights, a fashion choice that would have been a good 100 years behind the times for him. But he is also wearing the green carnation, so it’s all good.)

So, what do we think of this? Personally, I am a little surprised that Emily rather than Charlotte Bronte was chosen, though I suppose Emily might be perceived as having more spunk. Austen seems right, but Wilde and Melville are a little surprising to me, too. And when you throw Dante and Homer in, everything suddenly seems enormous in scope: how can we decide on the superheroes of literature if we can’t even confine ourselves to the English language? Obviously Dante and Homer and hard-hitters in the Western tradition, but if we’re not even going to narrow it to English, how can we narrow it down to only seven figures? Does this accurately represent the most super-heroic authors of Western literature? If not, who would you replace, and with whom?

Who are your picks for the seven Super Friends of literature?

(Oh, and before anyone accuses me of over-thinking trivialities: this is all in good fun, folks.)


Uh… what just happened?

I just bought all of these books within one hour, in two bookstores. I went to Harvard for a lecture, and look what happened. At least they’re all used, and I bought them from independent bookstores. But what I am doing with a Vita Sackville-West novel? It just… happened. Be sure to note, however, that I bought a copy of Swann’s Way. The next step is just to read it — easy, right?

Giving Books Away

This blog is about collecting books. I find it very difficult to resist buying books I find interesting, and I tend to accumulate books at a rather alarming rate. I also have a difficult time giving up books, even if I don’t like them. I like to see the books I’ve read, and even remember the books I hate reading.

cat and box

My cat inspects the donation, hoping to be able to keep the box.

But recently, I was inspired by a blog post I read on Freshly-Pressed, which informed me of International Literacy Day, of which I am embarrassed to admit I knew nothing. I have given small monetary donations to local libraries, and I have dropped a book or two into a book drive box, and very occasionally, I have included a book or two in with a bag of old clothes I’m dropping off at Goodwill. But I realized that I have never made a book donation of more than two or three books at a time. So I decided to purge my bookshelves a tiny bit and send a donation to the Global Literacy Project which, I learned in my email exchange with the donations organizer, will be sent to high schools in South Africa.

Ok, I know this sounds pathetically selfish given that my last paragraph alludes to children who need books for their school libraries, but it honestly is hard for me to part with books. I have such a sentimental attachment to them. And I should be sending more, but I couldn’t part with them yet (maybe in a separate shipment). So I am posting a goodbye to the books I am sending out tomorrow.

First up: The Writer’s Presence

This is a collection of essays and stories I used when teaching first-year composition. I actually have an older edition, which I prefer and decided to keep (sigh). I have held on to this one because I felt bad about preferring the older version that my students would not have been able to purchase. What a strange guilt complex I have. Included in the package will be the teacher’s guide, so that the students will have all the answers.

Next: Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers

I have owned this novel for at least 15 years and never finished it. I hated the author’s writing style. But my best friend at the time of its purchase loved it, and I felt guilty for not liking it. (Hm, is this going to be a trend in this post?) Finally, I think it will be going to a good home. Maybe someone else will love it as much as my friend did.

The Best American Short Stories 1993

For about eight years of my life, in the 1990s, I religiously bought the Best American Short Stories collection each year and read it cover to cover. I was planning to donate all eight collections, but I kept looking on the back and finding one story I just couldn’t live without. Except for 1993. I guess that year just didn’t speak to me.

The Woman That I Am and International Women’s Stories

These are two very good anthologies that were given to me as gifts (guilt!), and which I read pretty thoroughly. The reason I feel ok about giving these away is that these anthologies were jumping off places for me: when I connected with a piece, I would buy the book by that author. So I have most of the material I really like in other places. I hope that other readers out there will do the same.

Lucky Child

This is a memoir that was chosen as a Common Reading book at a college I used to adjunct for (guilt! guilt!). The writing in this is not very good, but a middle school or high school reader might enjoy it, and the story is certainly compelling even if the prose is not. I just know I won’t ever read it again, so I might as well pass it along.

Doubles or triples of some favorites:

When going through my shelves, I discovered that — not even counting my “collectible” copies — I had two copies each of Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Wuthering Heights. I also had three — THREE — copies of Pride and Prejudice. That did not seem necessary. But still, my dear readers, I hesitated over those Longman editions — they are so pretty. I am proud to have had the strength to put them in the donation box.

Goodbye, books! I actually will miss you, even those of you I didn’t like. I hope you find happy new homes!

The House of Seven Gables (Review)

What an odd book. What is going on here?

house of seven gables

The House of Seven Gables in Salem

I should say, to begin with, that I had a history with this book before reading it. When I first moved to the Boston area years ago, well before I began grad school, I visited the “real” House of Seven Gables in Salem. I loved the house tour and, after visiting some other former haunts of Hawthorne’s in Concord and teaching some Hawthorne stories in an Intro to Lit class, became interested in visiting it again. However, I was determined not to re-visit until I had read the novel, though it took a while for the novel to get to the top of my reading list.

Then, this summer, I came across an amazingly over-the-top pulpy vintage copy. Above the title on the cover, a line reads, “What secret joys and dread shadows haunt… THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES.” There is a rat and what looks like a stone gate adorned with a dragon-gargoyle in the foreground of the cover illustration.

cover of the novel

What is it about this illustration that reminds me of my D&D-playing high school boyfriend?

The first line of the back matter reads: “Built on land taken from a dead wizard, the Pyncheons’ seven-gabled mansion was the focus for two centuries’ secrets and legends” legends of hauntings and dying curses, secrets of madness and missing fortunes.”


How could I possibly resist?

I suspected going in that the over-the-top presentation of the book would not be entirely reflected in its content; I didn’t expect a full-on gothic novel, but rather a realistic novel with some gothic elements. This does not exactly describe what I felt the novel to be, however; actually, I was surprised by how thoroughly domestic the novel was, at least in the beginning. The first chapter, which describes the house and the legend of how it was stolen from the accused “wizard” Matthew Maule got me excited for the rest of the novel. This, however, was followed by three chapters – THREE CHAPTERS – about one of the main characters, Hepzibah, being forced to open a cent shop. Now, look, I’ve read plenty of Victorian novels, so not only do I love to read about quotidian domesticity, but I’ve also certainly read my share of stories of genteel poverty and those who suffer from too great a disparity between their family reputation and the amount of cash they have on hand. But, wow, Hawthorne really knows how to draw that out for so long that I really couldn’t take it any more.

Speaking of which, anyone who has taught or even just loved nineteenth-century literature will know that one of the most annoying criticisms of said literature is that the language is “flowery.” For a typical undergrad, “flowery” is an insult roughly translated to mean, “the sentences are unnecessarily long and complicated, and I had to work too hard to understand them.” What usually gets called “flowery” is a style that I think is elegant and often witty, full of unusual syntax and beautiful rhythm. Usually I cringe at the word “flowery.” However, if an undergrad called this novel “flowery,” I would have to agree. I have never read such clunky, overwrought sentences—at least, not from a canonical author.

In fact, I was about halfway through the second chapter of the three about Hepzibah and the damned cent shop when I began to wonder if maybe the whole novel was a satire. Were the three chapters about the cent shop meant to be some kind of parody of the domestic novel? Or were they meant to be taken seriously, as pathos – as a poor mimicry of the kind of tragic domesticity you might read in Gaskell or Dickens? There are shades of both those writers in this novel, even as it never reached those heights – that is, again, unless this was meant as some kind of parody.

The question of comedy is intimately related to the “flowery” style. Since there are times when Hawthorne clearly does use a mock-heroic style, it’s hard to tell whether the whole novel is meant to be funny. Take this passage as an example:

“The girl ran into the house to get some crumbs of bread, cold potatoes, and other such scraps as were suitable to the accommodating appetite of fowls. […] The chicken, hereupon, though almost as venerable in appearance as its mother—possessing, indeed, the whole antiquity of its progenitors in miniature—mustered vivacity enough to flutter upward and alight on Phoebe’s shoulder” (89-90).

(Side note: is it weird that, when I began to read about the rooster Chanticleer and the other chickens, I immediately recognized a passage from the literature GRE? And, in fact, I’m fairly certain that it was given as an example of mock-epic or mock-heroic style.)

So in this sentence, clearly Hawthorne is using deliberately convoluted vocabulary to discuss something quotidian, to comic effect. He is (I think) making fun of the way the chickens seem to take themselves so seriously, and of Phoebe’s desire to make herself useful.

Yet what if we compare this to what I think is intended as a serious description of Phoebe’s positive influence on her cousin Clifford:

“But Phoebe afforded her poor patient with a supply of purer air. She impregnated it, too, not with a wild-flower scent – for wildness was no trait of hers—but with the perfume of garden roses, pinks, and other blossoms of much sweetness, which nature and man have consented together in making grow from summer to summer, and from century to century. Such a flower was Phoebe, in her relation with Clifford, and such the delight that he inhaled from her” (144-145).

(Gag! “The delight that he inhaled from her”—seriously, Nate? What is this, “Scent of a Woman”? And it goes on for pages like this. I have seen my share of vapidly sweet Victorian heroines, but seriously, I expected the chickens to start making her a dress to wear to the ball at any moment.)




flowery prose, flowery girls… and flowers


If the first passage is mock-heroic, what is the second? Is the whole novel written in mock-heroic style, or is there a distinction to be made? And if there’s a distinction, where is the line drawn? Obviously, I don’t think a serious novel must be void of humor, but if the humor lies specifically in the very use of style and language, what are we to make of what appears to be non-humorous passages written in what appears to me to be the same style?

And this is not even to mention all the weirdness and all-over-the-place-ness that generally pervades the novel. There’s an entire chapter in which the narrator implores a character we KNOW is dead (there is no question) to get up and take part in all the things on his calendar for that day. What IS GOING ON in that chapter? And then there’s the part that seriously is my favorite, just because it’s so wacky: when the “artist” character takes a chapter to tell Phoebe his version of an old family tale, using a style that is even more over the top than the rest of the novel.

All in all, I will say this: though I thought the novel was very clunky and arguably may not know what it was trying to be, every time I start to describe it to someone, I get so tickled with its craziness that I find some affection for it. And in this way, I think I will always have a confused fondness for… THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES.