One of My Best Friends: Happy Birthday, The Raven

raven
I have been on quite the mystery kick lately, so more posts will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, today is the 170th anniversary of the publication of Poe’s The Raven. Earlier this month I wrote a piece for the Review Direct newsletter listing some lesser known facts about Edgar Allan Poe in honor of his birthday. To celebrate both, I am going to share eighteen of those facts.

  1. He was born Edgar Poe in Boston. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died, he was unofficially adopted by John Allan of Richmond, VA.

 

  1. He usually went by E.A. Poe or Edgar A. Poe after his estrangement from his adopted father as a young man.

 

  1. His often scathing book reviews in Southern Literary Messenger increased readership in the publication by almost seven fold- and got him fired twice!

 

  1. He coined the term ‘short story’. There is reportedly no record of its definition before Poe used it in 1840.

 

  1. Poe is considered one of the first Americans authors to make his living solely through his writing (which caused many financial problems in his life).

 

  1. Charles Dickens and Poe were pen pals and even met once.

 

  1. He loved cats and often wrote with his cat on his shoulder.

 

  1. The mustachioed Poe most people think of really only represented the last couple years of his life. For most of his forty years he was clean shaven.

 

  1. In 1837, Poe published Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the story of shipwrecked men who were forced to select one of their crew to be eaten. The unlucky sailor in Poe’s story was Richard Parker. The books was largely panned as sensational, though Poe tried to claim it was based on a real story (it wasn’t). Later, a real shipwreck in 1884 eerily mirrored Poe’s story right down to the unfortunate victim, the cabin boy, Richard Parker.

 

  1. Poe originally wanted to write about a parrot in his classic, The Raven.

 

  1. After the success of the The Raven there were stories of kids following him down the street flapping at him. It is reported he would respond good naturedly by turning suddenly to face them uttering, “Nevermore”.

 

  1. Poe was a fan of cryptography and tried to make it mainstream by incorporating ciphers into some of his short stories.

 

  1. Before his death, he left Virginia for Philadelphia and disappeared for days, until he reappeared a week later in a Baltimore tavern ill and wearing clothes that did not belong to him.

 

  1. His cause of death is unknown. At the time newspapers reported different illnesses and all records pertaining to his death, including death certificate, have been lost. Speculation often concludes he died of complications from alcoholism, but theories as far ranging as rabies to cooping (the practice of using booze and force to make someone vote for a particular candidate) have been put forth. The later theory has been given more credence recently as he disappeared on election day in an area of Baltimore known for this practice.

 

  1. His travel trunks were not located for weeks when one was found in Baltimore and another in Richmond.

 

  1. After his death, alleged friend Joseph Snodgrass, a teetotaler, exacerbated claims of Poe’s alcoholism to serve as a morality tale to be shared on the lecture circuit. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had a vendetta against Poe after a bad review, also helped to spread the rumor Poe was a terrible drunk- including writing a fake biography of his rival.

 

  1. Though his credibility has been questioned, Poe’s physician John Moran claimed that Poe was not a heavy drinker and it was unlikely to have been the cause of his death.

 

  1. The NFL Baltimore Ravens were named in tribute to him, which might not be as odd as it seems as Poe was actually an athletic man and even held a swimming record as a young man.
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Some of My Best Friends: Reading Festive

Christmas to me is listening to classic Christmas tunes, decorating a tree from my favorite lot, and rereading a few books that always put me in a festive mood. Two are novels I still treasure from my childhood, while one is a more recent tradition.

darkrising
The Dark is Rising
by Susan Cooper
Before there was Harry Potter, there was Will Stanton. Just before Will’s Midwinter eleventh birthday, he notices strange things happening around him- family pets avoid him, electronic devices go on the fritz, and neighbors are behaving oddly. On his birthday, Will discovers he is the last of the Old Ones, a group of immortals who exist to fight the Dark, an evil that threatens the world. As a Sign-Seeker, he is tasked with collecting the Six Signs of the Light . This quest takes him through time and space as the story races to a thrilling ending. Fantasy fans will have no trouble believing Cooper was an actual student of J.R.R. Tolkien when reading this tale.

This books speaks to me at this time of year since I have long been fascinated by the co-opting of pagan traditions by Christianity (and now the secular world as well). The action in The Dark is Rising takes place around the holidays, but it begins with the Winter Solstice for a reason. The mythology underpinning this book and series is very much rooted in Celtic myths and Arthurian legend. The heavy winter snow that builds throughout the story always makes it festive for me, but the nods to ancient customs definitely brings to mind the old celebrations like Yule and Saturnalia. Recommend reading with some nog-or maybe even some wassail- by a fire and a real tree if you have them. It is really a good read anytime though!

This was the cover of my copy from childhood.

This was the cover of my copy from childhood.


The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
by C.S. Lewis
I can still remember being truly amazed when my mom first read this to my brother and me. Sure, I had watched fantasy based cartoons before and heard fairy tales, but this was my first true fantasy novel. Imagine! Kids just playing in a house and discovering a door to a whole new world filled with “imaginary” creatures. It filled me with such a sense of wonder and curiosity. When I started reading full chapter books on my own, it was one of the first I read- followed shortly by the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia. This is a pretty standard classic, so I will not go into plot.

As to why it is a Christmas favorite, I yield to a description of Narnia from the book, “Always winter but never Christmas.” Later, I would read it in school through a more academic lens, but that was lost on me. The basic story- kids fighting an evil witch in a magical land to break up an endless winter (did I mention I live in a place where it tends to snow a lot?)- is all I need. When the snow begins to melt and Father Christmas shows up with gifts, I recapture some of the joy I experienced while reading this as a child. How often can any of us say that about anything in life as adults?

poirotchristmas
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas
by Agatha Christie
There are few characters whose deaths I have wanted more than Simeon Lee. In this patriarch Christie gives us quite a villain- so much so I hesitate to call him a victim. His death is early in the book, so no spoilers here. And what a death it is! A locked room mystery of the finest order! Add to that a bevy of suspects by way of the family all stuck under the same roof and you have all the ingredients for a classic Christie mystery.

This is not a cheap holiday gimmick of a book though. The characters in this one are some of the most well developed in any of Christie’s works. A proper English family handling the pressure of a murder investigation as well as trying to keep up with all the traditional trappings of the holidays creates the perfect dynamic for it. As he does though, little by little Poirot chips away at the seemingly baffling case to solve it in a brilliant fashion.

When I was home from college my senior year (quite a few years ago), I happened to pick this one up for the first time in ages and found a whole new appreciation for it. Since then I like to reread it every couple years. If you want to read this one for the holidays, it is great for travel or a lazy day of reading- it is just a great puzzler.

So, that is what I have been/will be reading. Do you have any holiday reads you enjoy? Or reading traditions tied to the holidays (Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years,etc)?

Exception to the Rule: Outlander

Ad for the Starz show.

Ad for the Starz show.

I have to be honest- I really didn’t like Outlander when I read it. In 2005, I was working at a bookstore among some of the most interesting readers I have ever met. Several of these co-workers would not stop recommending Outlander. One in particular, whose taste in books was completely in line with my own, was relentless- with me, with customers, probably even strangers in the street! Around this time Random House released a special $5.99 paperback edition and my coworker bought it for me and sent me home with it. (side note: RH also released a similar special edition at the same time of a book I was unfamiliar with called A Game of Thrones. Great foresight, RH.). I slogged through the 800+ pages.

EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES!

The characters and concept were quite original, I give Gabaldon credit for that. Especially for creating such a strong, female lead (as opposed to Strong! Female!). Even this sometimes hard heart was cheering for Jaime and Claire. But the plot was beating me down. How many horrible things could happen to these poor people? When I finally finished, I decided I was done with the series- creative or not. Another 800+ pages seemed too much to ask.

Then two things happened.

First, the pilot for the Starz series was released- in advance to reviewers, then to the general public by way of the premium channel offering up the first episode free. From social media to Sci-Fi/Fantasy blogs, I was reading nothing but raves for the writing, actors, and cinematography.

Second, I had a chance to listen to an author event Gabaldon did in my town last month. She was delightful and quite the storyteller. While I am sure she has addressed it before, it was the first time I heard her explain that Outlander was a practice novel. She never intended it to be read by the public, so she threw everything but the kitchen sink into the plot because she thought it would be her only chance with these characters. Also, maybe more importantly to nerdy me, the inspiration for Jaime came to her while watching an old episode of Doctor Who featuring Scots in kilts.

So, I gave in and watched the premiere this weekend. It was quite good. The actors seemed comfortable in their roles straight out and it was visually stunning. Claire, who was physically rather vague to me while reading, was brought to life wonderfully by Caitriona Balfe. As soon as Sam Heughan was on screen, I was reminded of the picture I had of Jaime through the first couple hundred pages of the book, before it became more about terrible events than characters to me.

So, for the first time I can recall, the adaptation of a book might be changing my mind about the book itself. I am still coming to terms with this idea, but it will be easier to work through while watching Sam Heughan. He is rather handsome, so if he convinces me to tackle the second book I will definitely post it here.

If you are a fan, what do you think of the show? Has a movie or television series changed your mind about a book?

Ode to Audiobooks

If you check in and read my posts these days, you might notice I have been reviewing a lot of audiobooks. Solely audiobooks, as a matter of fact. Summer in my neck o’ the woods is beautiful, especially this year after a particularly harsh winter. Between visitors and trying to get the most out of every nice day, it has been difficult to settle in to read. I don’t have a backyard, so hammocks are out and if I go to the park that substitutes for my backyard, my feet always seem to keep going along the trail instead of stopping at a bench.

I don't have a backyard, but this trail is so close it might as well be.

I don’t have a backyard, but this trail is so close it might as well be.

My great aunt's picture from this winter- which lasted from early November until late April.

My great aunt’s picture from this winter- which lasted from early November until late April.

While nothing compares to curling up with a good book, I have to say a great narrator can be a treat. Much like good casting for a movie, they can sometimes lift up an average thriller or mystery to quality entertainment.

Do you mix audiobooks into your reading routine? Are there any narrators you particularly like?

Casting American Gods

The Russian cover because I think it is pretty cool.

The Russian cover because I think it is pretty cool.


Anyone who knows me, knows I LOVE American Gods. For years I have cast and re-cast a film/tv version of, what I believe, is a very adaptable book. My hopes were dashed a bit when HBO’s option on the book expired in January of this year, but raised all over again when FremantleMedia picked it up in February (on my birthday of all days!).

At the time several industry sources claimed HBO had pushed American Gods to the back-burner when it picked up Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers. Last week HBO’s Michael Lombardo claims the network tired three different writers, but could not get a satisfactory script. The timing of his comments, over four months after HBO’s option expired, sounded a lot more like poisoning the well for future attempts than coming clean to me.

I still have hope one day we will see Shadow, Mr. Wednesday, and the assorted gods and outcasts of American Gods on the small screen (series or mini-series would be fine by me). Here is my ideal cast using realistically available actors because… why not?

Shadow: Michael Ealy or Jason Momoa- they both would be good choices given the description of Shadow’s stature and ambiguous ethnicity.
Wednesday: Charles Dance- I actually pictured him in my mind while reading it years ago, long before Game of Thrones.
Laura: Alexis Bledel, mostly because of her eyes, but I think it would be interesting to see her play loving wife with Shadow, then take care of business as needed.
Loki: Stephen McHattie- I pictured Loki a bit older given his history with Wednesday. Mackenzie Astin, if younger.
Mad Sweeney: Chris Rankin- he played straight-laced Percy in the Harry Potter films, I would like to see him in almost the opposite role. Plus, ginger.
Czernobog: Tom Waits. Think about it.
Mr. Nancy: Morgan Freeman- he has the personality and would totally rock those suits.
Ibis: Giancarlo Esposito, also one I pictured while reading the book.
Jacquel: Lance Reddick- he has the right gravitas to be lord of the dead
Kali: Sarita Choudhury- she seems like a good representation of Mama-Ji
Hinzelmann: John Mahoney or Len Cariou- both men have the kind, grandfatherly vibe but could pull off the twist
Buffalo Head: James Earl Jones (voice)- because how could it not be his voice?

So AG fans, who would you choose? Any characters I missed that you would cast? Or are you waiting on another optioned book to finally be adapted?

Recognizing a Classic

classicbooks
As I have shared at this blog, I write a column monthly for Review Direct. It is a collection of mostly literary stories and musings. As I come up for air from the annual frenzy of the Independent Publisher Book Awards, my thoughts turned to great books. What makes a classic? So I wrote on the topic. People have responded with positive feedback about the article- including suggestions it would make a great topic for a book itself. So, I am posting it here to open up comments and dialogue.

Recognizing a Classic

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” – Mark Twain

What makes a novel a classic? Does it need to exist for a period outside its own time to prove its merit? Or do certain works seem to define themselves immediately as greats? With the death of authors like John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut and the advancing age of greats likeToni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, we cannot help but look at current authors to try and pick the next greats from the crop. As we look for new literary stars, we face a very different landscape from generations past. From Modern Library to Buzzfeed, websites far and wide almost weekly offer us lists of authors to watch, books we should be reading, and subjective classics.

Some authors probably come instantly to mind to those who work in the world of books. With two Man Booker Prizes to her name, Hilary Mantel seems destined for a place on the Classics shelf. Jonathan Franzen, author of the much discussed The Corrections and Freedom, is often brought up when discussing currently literary writers. His notorious personality (and big mouth) certainly help to keep him at the forefront. David Foster Wallace has a certain following that seems to indicate his works, especially Infinite Jest, will be talked about for a while. Jennifer Egan cemented her place among current literary greats with her Pulitzer winning A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The literary writers of today open interesting debate, but what do the careers of now classics indicate for the future? Charles Dickens ranks among the accepted literary greats. When he wrote he was the most popular novelist in England and his works were serialized in magazines. Such readership made him very different from the literary elite we think of as classics today. Will Nora Roberts be more widely read than Jeffrey Eugenides in 75 years? Jodi Picoult than Jhumpa Lahir?

Another aspect to consider is how the current publishing industry will affect longevity. When many of the novels we consider classics were published there were limited numbers of print runs each year. Books were also a luxury item for some classes. In 2011 almost 3 million books were printed. Major publishing houses put out thick catalogues every season featuring new titles. With such a flooded market to compete in, do authors today really have the same chances of surviving five years in print, let alone five decades? Do the masses marginalize wordsmiths?

What current authors do you think students and scholars will be reading in fifty years? Do you think any popular authors will achieve longevity despite critics? Is it possible for authors to find staying power in a publishing system that produces so many books per year? Share your thoughts.

Weekend Musings: The Unending To-Read Stack

Any reader worth their salt has a stack, pile, or even full bookcase filled with their upcoming reads. No one sets out to create this stockpile, it is just part of our nature. Between BEA, my library and their ridiculously easy iPhone app, ARCs for the bookstore, and reading for my job, my kitchen table is actually covered right now.

My kitchen table.

As I have mentioned in other posts, I do try to keep up on new books, but sometimes they fall through the cracks and it can be a while before I find them again. It leaves me with a guilt complex, like neglecting my friends. Surely, there are others out there like me.

Turns out, there must be a lot of people out there who don’t prioritize their reading well. Eterna Cadencia, an Argentinian independent publisher, knows readers like us and thinks they have proper motivation- disappearing ink! The Book That Can’t Wait will feature new authors with the idea being new authors don’t have the luxury of waiting for their works to be read. With a shelf life of only a couple months, would be readers are reading against a ticking clock. Eterna Cadencia is hoping their trick will jump start the writing careers of their talent.

They buzz is certainly out there for this edition with hundreds of advanced copies already shipped. I know I am curious. The question is will this become a novelty and fade out as quickly as the ink?