John's Picks

The Thurber Carnival Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9780060932879
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper Perennial Modern Classics - November 19th, 2013

Going back to my own childhood, and my parents library, I am always reminded of the great wit and beautiful sentiment of James Thurber. Our family watched My World and Welcome to It, a contemporary take on Thurber’s life based on a collection of his stories and cartoons.
 
Thurber lost one eye when he was seven playing William Tell with his brother. This injury would keep him from finishing at Ohio State University as it was compulsory to take an ROTC training course. He was later given a degree posthumously. He was part of a fraternity and rented a house off campus that became known as Thurber House. 
 
He joined the editorial staff of the New Yorker along with E.B.White. He launched his cartoon work in the magazine. He was a man of his era and hobnobbed with Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.
 
Thurber had a great love of dogs and they feature greatly in his cartoon work. 
 
Adaptations of his work are found in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Male Animal, A Unicorn in the Garden, and Thurber Carnival for which he won a Tony Award.
 
The book I am recommending is The Thurber Carnival. This is his most successful collection of cartoons and short stories. It contains his work The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Last Flower, The Macbeth Murder Mysteries as well as others. 
 
At this time in the world with so much going on, a little escapism is justified as well as welcomed. Thurber is timeless and heartwarming, funny and biting. At times it feels like we cannot submerge ourselves into a novel. This collection of short stories and cartoons, you can pick up and put down, return to without skipping a beat or having to backtread to remember where you are. His language and imagination hold up through the years, and keep the reader engaged and almost always amused.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: The inspiration for the films Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780345404473
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Published: Del Rey - May 28th, 1996

There has been a long ongoing debate as to the standing of science fiction and fantasy as literature. Today there are several universities that offer degrees in science fiction/Fantasy themed majors and PHDs. The literary world itself has unwritten standards of merit and importance as to where certain authors in this genre fall, are they serious works or just out to please the populous?
 
There are many writers who laid the groundwork for future writers within this genre. Tolkien of course is one, H.G. Wells, Bradbury, Asimov with his laws of robotics found referenced in many works in film and fiction, Ursula K Le Guin, Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Octavia Butler and Mary Shelly to name a few.
 
My pick for the week is Phillip K. Dick, born in Chicago, moved to, and remained in, the Bay Area so we get to claim him as a local author. Some of the many themes that run through his books trace back to his life, the loss of his twin sister at 6 weeks has been said to have left an indelible mark on his psyche. He, along with Le Guin, were in the graduating class of Berkeley High 1947. His work is a constant source of adaptations for film and TV, some more successful than others.
 
The book I recommend today is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
 
The novel bears some resemblance to the film but not too much. It inhabits the same world of replicants/androids. Dick’s depiction of the future culture of media, as in many other of his novels, is eerily spot on to what we have today. His representation of “Media Breaks” as news, the rise of the corporate state, and the drive of commerce, all play major roles in his work. I often wonder if he had lived, what he would have thought of the world we inhabit now, and how close it resembles his vision of the future. 
 
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a futuristic noir thriller packing quite an existential punch. What is it to be human, to have empathy, what is the spirit? Is our hero really a villain? Questions he raises and leaves you to answer. 
 
 
Many, including myself, are great fans of the film by Ridley Scott who admitted to barely skimming  the book. Dick was always apprehensive of Hollywood and balked at the first script rendition. After rewrites he received he felt it was a better take. He did get to see the opening sequence before his death with the special effects. Here are his remarks:
 
“I recognized it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly."
 
 "After I finished reading the screenplay, I got the novel out and looked through it. The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel."  
 
Phillip K. Dick died of complications from a stroke in 1982, his ashes are buried next to his twin sister in Colorado. He was a fascinating human who led a very complicated life. His work is a reflection of his own inner struggles and questions.


A Room of One's Own (Annotated) Cover Image
By Virginia Woolf, Susan Gubar (Introduction by), Mark Hussey (Editor)
$15.99
ISBN: 9780156030410
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Published: Mariner Books - August 1st, 2005

Virginia Woolf has been many things to many generations. Her books as well as her life have been the subject of films, and stage works. She was the daughter of a Pre-Raphaelite model and her father was a man of letters. They had a large combined family of eight children in all. The family had an extensive library to which she had full access.  She was home schooled and later went on to study at King's College. She lost her mother early on, and her father in 1905 when she was only 23. He encouraged her to write.
 
Virginia, along with her brothers, formed the Bloomsbury group. Much has been speculated about this group of bohemians. It is fair to say they were sexually ambiguous and full of ideas about social and political life. It is here under the influence of the group she writes Orlando, marries,  and with her husband forms the Hogarth Press. 
 
Her style of writing was new and she wrote using the stream of consciousness as a narrative device. You find this strongly  represented in her novel Mrs. Dalloway.
 
The book I want to recommend is A Room of One's Own. Originally  it started out as two papers she gave at several universities and was published in book form the year following in 1929. It not only follows women in literature and social history, speaking to what they need in order to be writers, but the section on the four Mary’s addresses women in history, and their fate.  The idea of having the means to have a room of one's own, to not be the chattel of some man, to have an education, and to be allowed to work for a living.
 
As we sit in our prospective homes during this time of confinement I reflect on this work, not only its importance to women and literature but to all artists who are striving to create, especially now. How much has changed for women? You don't have to be a woman, a feminist, or an artist to get something out of this work. She speaks to our inner lives and what nourishes them.
 
Woolf took her own life in 1949 at the age of 59. She had suffered all her life with what many feel today was most likely Bipolar disorder. If you are looking for a good representation of her, look at The Hours, a book and film that uses Mrs. Dalloway as its inspiration. 


Howards End Cover Image
By E. M. Forster, David Lodge (Introduction by)
$14.00
ISBN: 9780141182131
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Published: Penguin Classics - April 1st, 2000

E.M. Forester  is considered to be a quintessential  author of his time, who captured the struggle and the character of the Edwardian period of England. His life span was long, from 1879 to 1970. His books and short stories continue to inspire and engage.
 
His circle of friends and colleagues included Christopher Isherwood, the poets, Auden and Seigfried Sassoon, Irish author Forrest Reid, and the composer Benjamin Britten to name a few. 
 
Some little known facts: he was a conscientious objector during WWI, declined a knighthood, wrote a couple of short stories that would be considered Science Fiction, and was nominated 16 times for the Nobel prize in literature. What Forester is best at is the conflict within his characters striving to fulfill their hopes and coming up against Edwardian hypocrisy.
 
This week I'm recommending two of his works. The first is Howards End.
 
So much of what Forester writes about, especially in this book, resonates with today’s views on nature, industrialism, greed, and the devouring machine of a capitalistic society. The book pits three specific groups against each other: the materialistic vs the bohemian artist, vs the working poor. No matter how modern we claim to be we still have the vestiges of a ridiculous social order distorting our lives.
 
The second book is Maurice. Published posthumously, this was written directly following Howards End around 1914. The book circulated amongst his closest friends but did not see the public eye until after his passing, along with a collection of short stories titled The Life to Come. Here are Forester’s own words on the novel:
 
“Happiness is the keynote. I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: Someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad businessman, and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him and finally saves him.”
 
For those unaware, Forester was a homosexual all his life. Having a queer perspective allowed him to see the pathos and longing of his generation with a different and perhaps clearer eye. If you're looking for a film version to go along with his works, none have matched the team of Merchant and Ivory for their understanding of the spectacle, and the humanity of his work.


Persuasion Cover Image
By Jane Austen, Gillian Beer (Editor), Gillian Beer (Introduction by), Gillian Beer (Notes by)
$7.00
ISBN: 9780141439686
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Published: Penguin Classics - April 29th, 2003

That book you meant to read is still on your shelf. This week we look to Jane Austen, not Pride and Prejudice, although if you are so inclined I would always recommend it. The book of hers that is keeping me occupied is her last, Persuasion, the tale of Anne Elliot, how she grows into herself and forges ahead to claim her happiness.

We trace Anne through the eyes of other characters around her and we slowly begin to hear her voice, dreams, and desires. Anne, by regency standards, is no longer a young woman, her prospects are few if any. She has, as the title indicates, been persuaded out of several matches, one in particular. We see the ridiculousness of her father and the world of gentry, the fickleness of marriage, and a long held passion.

Do not think that Austen is only for women or the romantically inclined. She speaks to a larger social order that is still reflected in the west, and as reported on NPR in 2018 we see she still holds relevance in a global community. (See article below.)

Published in 1817 she clearly delivers to the reader the world that confines women of her era. In some ways we see how so much has changed and in others so little.

I find her language rich and always engaging, so much so, that my theatre company is in the process of adapting it for the stage. Her last book also contains one of the most beautiful love letters I have come across in a work of fiction. A perfect read as we battle the spring rains and our own confinement.


Oliver Twist Cover Image
By Charles Dickens, Philip Horne (Introduction by)
$8.00
ISBN: 9780141439747
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Published: Penguin Classics - April 29th, 2003

According to the Paris Review the definition of the term Dickensian is as follows;

“Dickensian can signify sentimentality, an attentiveness to the social conditions, a cast of comically hyperbolic characters, a reliance on plot contrivances, or even simply a book’s sheer length.

Charles Dickens has been dramatized both on stage and screen. His books have inspired a local festival, The Great Dickens Christmas Faire at the Cow Palace, that remarkably recreates a “Dickensian” London.

Before I get into the book recommendation let's talk about the phenomenon of Dickens within his own lifetime. Most of his work was published in episodes, a very lucrative and popular approach. There is a famous anecdote concerning Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shoppe. As the boat from London pulled into the New York Harbour people yelled to those on board to ask if it was true that little Nell was dead. The only equivalent I can use for a similar modern phenomenon would be the Harry Potter installments and the fervor in which the public devoured the books.

Dickens was the most famous writer of his time. He also was a harsh critic of the Victorian world. One of the most prosperous times in the United Kingdom but like today the discrepancy between the rich and the poor was drastic. It is not lost on many today that our own society reflects the Victorian age in all its worst elements.

My review this week is Oliver Twist, a book you may think you know, but unless you have read it you will find some large gaps and discrepancies from book to screen. Like almost all of Dickens’ work we follow a straightforward main character who is surrounded by the fantastical characters Dickens creates. The eccentricities, wild behavior, bizarre speech patterns, and habits inhabit all of Dickens' work. I don't think anyone has been able to match him in painting with such a large brush, characters we immediately understand, and are drawn to despite ourselves. It is full of secrets eventually brought to light, justices restored and comeuppances dealt out.

Fagin, king of the pickpockets, is to have been fashioned on a real life criminal, Ikey Soloman. In later editions of the work Dickens had the word Jew stricken from the text.

Nancy, a former one of Fagin's gang and now a prostitute is barely 17. Bill Sikes, a hardened robber and killer is 50. This is not how we normally see these characters portrayed.

There are other surprises waiting for you; the fate of Mr. Bumble and his wife, and a whole host of complex stories, and practically as many deaths as Hamlet. SO, the story you think you know but might not,, Oliver Twist.


Dracula Cover Image
By Bram Stoker, Maurice Hindle (Introduction by), Maurice Hindle (Notes by), Christopher Frayling (Preface by)
$11.00
ISBN: 9780141439846
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Classics - April 29th, 2003

We have seen many adaptations claiming to be a representation of the book. Most fall short, to the point the original story is unrecognizable from what is presented on the screen. The novel has launched a myriad of tales and films all claiming to be inspired by Stoker’s story, who sadly died bankrupt.

Stoker was a theatre manager as well as a writer of sensational fiction. At the time England was experiencing a sort of mania for invasion-based fiction, both natural and supernatural. The idea of the stalwart Englishman protecting his country from a foreign menace struck gold in the heart of Victorians. We know many things about what influenced his writing. It is noted in many examinations of the work and his notes that he studied European folklore and history for the novel. Vlad The Impaler as a veiled identity for Dracula, Dracul from his father which translates to Dragon.

We can fall down many rabbit holes discussing this book from Romanian history to the psychological ideas many feel are represented in the work. That is for you, the reader, to decide and follow.

I want to talk about the book itself. First off, this is an epistolary novel, a collection of journal entries, telegrams, letters, doctors notes, news clippings, and so on. This allows Stoker to switch the narrative voice with ease. We experience the fears and doubts of each character as they write them. Dracula’s words are therefore related to us through the eyes and ears of others; no documents of his own writing appear in the book.

Almost every contemporary adaptation makes the story somehow a love connection between Dracula and Mina; this is completely wrong. To do so is to destroy the key struggle within the book. The overlying relationship that faces challenges and perseveres is that between Jonathan and Mina. Steven Dietz’ adaptation for the stage featured in the Ashland Shakespeare festival stayed true not only to the gothic nature of the work but of the struggle between all characters.

It’s still a great read. The only hurdle is the dialect in which Van Helsing is written in. It takes some getting used to. Other than that, a great romp. So turn down the lights and curl up with the saga of the vampire fiction that launched a thousand spin offs, but be careful for “the dead travel fast.”


Brideshead Revisited Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9780316216456
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Back Bay Books - December 11th, 2012

The story follows Charles Ryder as he is seduced into the Marchmain family’s drama and passions. The book starts as a reminiscence while he is stationed at the Marchmain estate (based on Castle Howard in York) towards the end of WW2, and he begins to relive all the things that brought him there.

I am a fan of Waugh’s style and his use of dialogue, at times witty and biting, and at others, beautifully reflective. His style of writing reflects many other authors from this period. There is always a great sense of banter and play.

This was one of my first exposures to a literary queer character, Sebation Flyte, and the unspoken relationship between him and the main character.

Waugh destroyed all of his college journals before his death, and many point to this work as semi-biographical. The themes are love, religion, and being seduced by tragedy. If you feel like cheating, the Masterpiece Theatre version with Jeramy Irons is the best adaptation going. I have seen it and read the book, and both are worth a look. It's a great escape from our own time and place and he paints the era perfectly. --John


Middlemarch Cover Image
$10.95
ISBN: 9780198815518
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Oxford University Press, USA - July 1st, 2019

Elliot, unlike Dickens, gives us a realistic and non-romantic view of life for women and the lower classes as they struggle with their lives. The book covers caprice, self importance, class, crossed lovers, entailments, and politics.

Dorthea, one of the main characters in the book, is a well-educated woman looking to have some form of purpose in her life. In many novels by women of this time period, and earlier, we see what that struggle is truly like.

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Elliot also tackles the reform act of 1832, as well as addressing new ideas in medicine, (the sterilization of instruments and the dispensing of medicine). The world was changing for the Victorians on almost every front and Elliot wanted to reflect how those changes affected people's lives. She isn't regarded in the same way as Dickens. She is less fantastical and more introspective. Her world is a world that makes sense to a modern reader. Her characters resonate and allow us to see the world from their vantage point. A fascinating woman and an excellent writer.