Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’
Ring in the New Year with these new paperbacks.
Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap
Rosie Schaap has always loved bars: the wood and brass and jukeboxes, the knowing bartenders, and especially the sometimes surprising but always comforting company of regulars. Starting with her misspent youth in the bar car of a regional railroad, where at fifteen she told commuters’ fortunes in exchange for beer, and continuing today as she slings cocktails at a neighborhood joint in Brooklyn, Schaap has learned her way around both sides of a bar and come to realize how powerful the fellowship among regular patrons can be.
In Drinking with Men, Schaap shares her unending quest for the perfect local haunt, which takes her from a dive outside Los Angeles to a Dublin pub full of poets, and from small-town New England taverns to a character-filled bar in Manhattan’s TriBeCa. Drinking alongside artists and expats, ironworkers and soccer fanatics, she finds these places offer a safe haven, a respite, and a place to feel most like herself. In rich, colorful prose, Schaap brings to life these seedy, warm, and wonderful rooms. Drinking with Men is a love letter to the bars, pubs, and taverns that have been Schaap’s refuge, and a celebration of the uniquely civilizing source of community that is bar culture at its best.
The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life by Luc Ferry
A fascinating new journey through Greek mythology that explains the myths’ timeless lessons and meaning.
Heroes, gods, and mortals. The Greek myths are the founding narratives of Western civilization: to understand them is to know the origins of philosophy, literature, art, science, law, and more. Indeed, as Luc Ferry shows in this masterful book, they remain a great store of wisdom, as relevant to our lives today as ever before. No mere legends or cliches (“Herculean task,” “Pandora’s box,” “Achilles heel,” etc.), these classic stories offer profound and manifold lessons, providing the first sustained attempt to answer fundamental human questions concerning “the good life,” the burden of mortality, and how to find one’s place in the world. Vividly retelling the great tales of mythology and illuminating fresh new ways of understanding them, The Wisdom of the Myths will enlighten readers of all ages.
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor
In the not-too-distant future, competing giant fast food factions rule the world. Leonard works for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, in a lonely but highly surveilled home office, answering calls on his complaints hotline. It’s a boring job, but he likes it—there’s a set answer for every scenario, and he never has to leave the house. Except then he starts getting calls from Marco, who claims to be a thirteenth-century explorer just returned from Cathay. And what do you say to a caller like that? Plus, Neetsa Pizza doesn’t like it when you go off script.
Meanwhile, Leonard’s sister keeps disappearing on secret missions with her “book club,” leaving him to take care of his nephew, which means Leonard has to go outside. And outside is where the trouble starts.
A dazzling debut novel wherein medieval Kabbalists, rare book librarians, and Latter-Day Baconians skirmish for control over secret mystical knowledge, and one Neetsa Pizza employee discovers that you can’t save the world with pizza coupons.
Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips
All of us lead two parallel lives: the one we are actively living, and the one we feel we should have had or might yet have. As hard as we try to exist in the moment, the unlived life is an inescapable presence, a shadow at our heels. And this itself can become the story of our lives: an elegy to unmet needs and sacrificed desires. We become haunted by the myth of our own potential, of what we have in ourselves to be or to do. And this can make of our lives a perpetual game of falling short.
But what happens if we remove the idea of failure from the equation? With his flair for graceful paradox, the acclaimed psychoanalyst Adam Phillips suggests that if we accept frustration as a way of outlining what we really want, satisfaction suddenly becomes possible. To crave a life without frustration is to crave a life without the potential to identify and accomplish our desires.
In Missing Out, an elegant, compassionate, and absorbing book, Phillips draws deeply on his own clinical experience as well as on the works of Shakespeare and Freud, of D. W. Winnicott and William James, to suggest that frustration, not getting it, and getting away with it are all chapters in our unlived lives—and may be essential to the one fully lived.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction, or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and at home?
We can, says psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova, and in Mastermind she shows us how. Beginning with the “brain attic”—Holmes’s metaphor for how we store information and organize knowledge—Konnikova unpacks the mental strategies that lead to clearer thinking and deeper insights. Drawing on twenty-first-century neuroscience and psychology, Mastermind explores Holmes’s unique methods of ever-present mindfulness, astute observation, and logical deduction. In doing so, it shows how each of us, with some self-awareness and a little practice, can employ these same methods to sharpen our perceptions, solve difficult problems, and enhance our creative powers. For Holmes aficionados and casual readers alike, Konnikova reveals how the world’s most keen-eyed detective can serve as an unparalleled guide to upgrading the mind.
The story opens in modern day New York City. A man rushes out of a taxi on the corner of Bullfinch and Kipling and into The Woodland Luxury Apartments. He runs past the office of S. White and barges into the one of B. Wolf. There’s an emergency. Snow White’s younger sister, Rose Red, is missing — possibly dead — her apartment overturned, and her living room covered in blood.
This is the start to Fables, the graphic novel set in the world of creator Bill Willingham where fairy tale and folklore-inspired characters attempt to rebuild their lives. United only after an evil being known only as “The Adversary” took over their kingdoms, the Fables live among humans — or “Mundanes” as they’re called. Those who are able blend in operate within a secret community called Fabletown located in Manhattan; those who can’t live on a farm upstate.
Legends in Exile, a collection of the first five issues, is written as a classic murder mystery. Jack, as in Jack and the Beanstalk, Rose Red’s ex-boyfriend and the first to discover the apartment, is the one in the opening scene running to tell Bigby (Big Bad) Wolf, Fabletown’s sheriff, about the crime. True to the genre, nearly everyone is suspect and soon Jack is taken into custody. Snow White, the deputy mayor, is also questionable, given her tenuous relationship with her sister. Bluebeard, who was secretly engaged to Rose Red, soon finds himself on the list as well. It’s up to Bigby and his aptitude for observation to determine what happened to Ruby and figure out where she is now.
Although Willingham’s intent was not to create a fairy tale for a “mature” audience, Prince Charming’s risqué behavior and Snow White’s profanity-inspiring temper alone ensure that these stories are far from those of your childhood. The Fables series is for folklore enthusiasts and comic book fans alike.
When Brian K. Vaughan’s comic book series Saga came out last year you couldn’t turn your head without reading a rave review. Lesser known and just as worthy of the same praise is his award-winning Runaways series created with artist Adrian Alphona.
First created in 2003, Runaways is the story of six kids brought together annually while their well-to-do parents discuss fundraising efforts. This year, bored with being confined to the game room, the group sets out to spy on the meeting—even if it is just talk about tax deductibles.
However, all is not as it seems behind closed doors. After sneaking through the house’s secret wall spaces, the kids learn the shocking truth about the grown ups. Now faced with an impossible question—family or justice?—the group, in shock from what they’ve just witnessed, must decide.
Drawn in the style of teen comic dramas (see: Archie, Blue Monday, Deadenders), Runaways offers an uneasy—yet wholly enjoyable—juxtaposition between youthful innocence and a brutal Shakespearean plot.
Find Runaways at your local bookstore
It was near impossible keeping this month’s roundup short. Lots of good stuff coming out in October. Hit the bookstores!
How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman
For the last fifteen years, whenever a novel was published, John Freeman was there to greet it. As a critic for more than two hundred newspapers worldwide, the onetime president of the National Book Critics Circle, and the current editor of Granta, he has reviewed thousands of books and interviewed scores of writers. In How to Read a Novelist, which pulls together his very best profiles (many of them new or completely rewritten for this volume) of the very best novelists of our time, he shares with us what he’s learned.
From such international stars as Doris Lessing, Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, and Mo Yan, to established American lions such as Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, John Updike, and David Foster Wallace, to the new guard of Edwidge Danticat, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and more, Freeman has talked to everyone.
What emerges is an instructive and illuminating, definitive yet still idiosyncratic guide to a diverse and lively literary culture: a vision of the novel as a varied yet vital contemporary form, a portrait of the novelist as a unique and profound figure in our fragmenting global culture, and a book that will be essential reading for every aspiring writer and engaged reader—a perfect companion (or gift!) for anyone who’s ever curled up with a novel and wanted to know a bit more about the person who made it possible.
Frequencies Volume 3
The latest installment of “Frequencies” follows Norman Mailer and George Plimpton to Vienna for a staged reading of “Zelda,” based on correspondence between Ernest Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. D. Foy tracks krump, from street-art to reality television.Plus: Antonia Crane on being down-and-out in San Francisco, and a discussion between photographer Lynn Davis and husband, Rudolph Wurlitzer.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe
In the early 1960s, a struggling company called Marvel Comics presented a cast of brightly costumed characters distinguished by smart banter and compellingly human flaws: Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men. Over the course of half a century, Marvel’s epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.
For the first time, Marvel Comics reveals the outsized personalities behind the scenes, including Martin Goodman, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and generations of editors, artists, and writers who struggled with commercial mandates, a fickle audience, and–over matters of credit and control–one another. Marvel Comics is a story of fertile imaginations, lifelong friendships, action-packed fistfights, and third-act betrayals–a narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop-cultural entities in America’s history.
The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna
In the midnineties, New York’s Lower East Side contained a city within its shadows: a community of squatters who staked their claims on abandoned tenements and lived and worked within their own parameters, accountable to no one but each other. With gritty prose and vivid descriptions, Cari Luna’s debut novel, “The Revolution of Every Day,” imagines the lives of five squatters from that time. But almost more threatening than the city lawyers and the private developers trying to evict them are the rifts within their community. Amelia, taken in by Gerrit as a teen runaway seven years earlier, is now pregnant by his best friend, Steve. Anne, married to Steve, is questioning her commitment to the squatter lifestyle. Cat, a fading legend of the downtown scene and unwitting leader of one of the squats, succumbs to heroin. The misunderstandings and assumptions, the secrets and the dissolution of the hope that originally bound these five threaten to destroy their homes as surely as the city’s battering rams. “The Revolution of Every Day” shows readers a life that few people, including the New Yorkers who passed the squats every day, know about or understand.
What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art by Will Gompertz
In the tradition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, art history with a sense of humor
Every year, millions of museum and gallery visitors ponder the modern art on display and secretly ask themselves, “Is this art?” A former director at London’s Tate Gallery and now the BBC arts editor, Will Gompertz made it his mission to bring modern art’s exciting history alive for everyone, explaining why an unmade bed or a pickled shark can be art—and why a five-year-old couldn’t really do it.
Rich with extraordinary tales and anecdotes, What Are You Looking At? entertains as it arms readers with the knowledge to truly understand and enjoy what it is they’re looking at.
The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf
It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.
The Dark by Sergio Chejfec
Opening with the presently shut-in narrator reminiscing about a past relationship with Delia, a young factory worker,The Dark employs Chejfec’s signature style with an emphasis on the geography and motion of the mind, to recount the time the narrator spent with this multifaceted, yet somewhat absent, woman. On their daily walks he becomes privy to the ways in which the working class functions; he studies and analyzes its structure and mindset, finding it incredibly organized, self-explanatory, and even beautiful. He repeatedly attempts to apply his “book” knowledge to explain what he sees and wants to understand of Delia’s existence, and though the difference between their social classes is initially a source of great intrigue—if not obsession—he must eventually learn that there comes a point where the boundary between observer and participant can dissolve with disarming speed.
The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves
This labyrinthine and extraordinary book, first published more than sixty years ago, was the outcome of Robert Graves’s vast reading and curious research into strange territories of folklore, mythology, religion, and magic. Erudite and impassioned, it is a scholar-poet’s quest for the meaning of European myths, a polemic about the relations between man and woman, and also an intensely personal document in which Graves explores the sources of his own inspiration and, as he believed, all true poetry.
Incorporating all of Graves’s final revisions, his replies to two of the original reviewers, and an essay describing the months of illumination in which The White Goddess was written, this is the definitive edition of one of the most influential books of our time.
Leapfrog by Guillermo Rosales
Leapfrog depicts one summer in the life of a very poor young boy in post-revolutionary Havana in the late ’50s. He has superhero fantasies, hangs around with the neighborhood kids, smokes cigarettes, tells very lame jokes: “By the way, do you know who died? No. Someone who was alive. Laughter.” The kids fight, discuss the mysteries of religion and sex, and play games — such as leapfrog. So vivid and so very credible, Leapfrog reads as if Rosales had simply transcribed everything that he’d heard or said for this one moving and touching book about a lost childhood.
Leapfrog was a finalist for Cuba’s prestigious Casa de las Americas award in 1968. Years later, Rosales’s sister told The Miami Herald that Rosales felt he hadn’t won the prize because his book lacked sufficient leftist fervor, and that subtle critiques of cruel children and hypocritical adults throughout the playful recollections had clearly “rankled” state officials. In the end the novel never appeared in Cuba. It was first published in Spain in 1994, a year after Rosales’s death.
The other week I was asked to contribute to the popular science fiction and fantasy website SF Signal. They have a series called “Mind Meld” where they ask authors and bloggers to answer one question posed to them by the moderator. I participated once before and what I’ve found is that like contributing to the series because I start off unsure if I’ll be able to come up with an answer. Being asked to come up with a short post about something I never would have thought of on my own allows me to stretch my brain. Luckily, both times I’ve been able to come up with a few hundred words.
You can read the entry in full here. There are tons of book suggestions from others and well worth a look. Below is my answer.
Q: What are your favorite “road trips” in science fiction and fantasy? What makes a good road trip in a genre story?
With summer in full swing travel is on the minds of many. Even if you’re staying put, the season conjures up of visions–and perhaps memories–of long car rides to beachfront locations, hours spent with family in close quarters, and days or weeks with only the most necessary amenities. It’s now mid-July and time for the outdoors, open space, and new adventures; a break from the tedium and habits of the day-to-day.
Whether you’re staying home this season or currently packing up your things, all of this makes summer the perfect time for stories featuring road trips. The protagonist is usually shaking off the constraints of everyday life and seeking something new. A good travel story creates a certain suspense that is inevitably propelled forward by the sheer momentum of whatever vehicle is used–a horse, a car, a spaceship. The circumstances set the pace: Is the character in a hurry? are they lost? do they have direction or is it simply an escape?
Growing up in the 90s I was a huge fan of 1960s counterculture. I was into the Grateful Dead and devoured the literature of the time period. With the amount of drugs everyone did, and then wrote about, their books might as well have been categorized as fantasy. From Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, these were tales of misadventure and chaos. However entertaining these stories were to me in my teen years, true fantasy and science fiction offers something more than reality is able to provide.
Three books immediately come to mind that, if you haven’t read already, you should pick up before the fall is here. The first is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The story begins with a character named Shadow, a man newly released from a three year stint in prison. With his wife recently killed in a car crash he no longer has a reason to go home. Aimless and heartbroken, he accepts a job from a stranger and sets off on a quest across America. What follows is a familiar landscape set slightly askew by fantastically eerie characters based on Norse mythology and a haunting mystery to be uncovered.
Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is another book that came to mind as I thought about road trips. The protagonist, Miriam Black, has an unfortunate power: she can see the way people will die just by touching them. When Miriam, also an aimless wanderer, hitches a ride with trucker Louis Darling and shakes his hand she sees that they will be together for the next thirty days, for better or worse.
Finally, there’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, undoubtedly the lighter of the three. Hitchhiker’s is the story of Arthur Dent, an unwitting Earthling who is taken away from his planet moments before it’s destroyed. Dent and his saviour, Ford Prefect, travel through the universe encountering dangerous aliens, inhospitable climates, and bad poetry. It’s a true comedy of errors. This unintended exploration of space will make you think twice when you start to complain about your summer vacation.
While realist road trips take you on a ride through lands you might never travel to, their science fiction and fantasy counterparts take you worlds beyond your imagination.
Here are some excellent paperbacks to get your April started off on the right foot.
Frequencies: Volume 2
Featuring original work by Sara Finnerty on ghosts, Roxane Gay on issues of belonging in Black America, Alex Jung on the gay sex trade in Thailand, Aaron Shulman on a frontier town of Guatemala, Kate Zambreno on Barbara Loden, and more.
Point of Impact by Jay Faerber (writer), Koray Kuranel, (art)
A gripping, provocative murder mystery from acclaimed writer Jay Faerber and stunning artist Koray Kuranel begins with one woman’s murder and branches out to follow the investigation by three people with personal connections to her: her husband, an investigative reporter; her lover, an ex-soldier; and her friend, a homicide detective. Her death will change all of their lives.
Check out a 6-page excerpt from Point of Impact
Read an interview with Jay Faerber on Comic Book Resources
Bitter Almonds by Laurence Cossé
From the author of A Novel Bookstore comes this delightful story about friendship across racial and economic barriers set in contemporary Paris.
Édith can hardly believe it when she learns that Fadila, her sixty-year-old housemaid, is completely illiterate. How can a person living in Paris in the third millennium possibly survive without knowing how to read or write? How does she catch a bus, or pay a bill, or withdraw money from the bank? Why it’s unacceptable! She thus decides to become Fadila’s French teacher. But teaching something as complex as reading and writing to an adult is rather more challenging than she thought. Their lessons are short, difficult, and tiring. Yet, during these lessons, the oh-so-Parisian Édith and Fadila, an immigrant from Morocco, begin to understand one another as never before, and form this understanding will blossom a surprising and delightful friendship. Édith will enter into contact with a way of life utterly unfamiliar to her, one that is unforgiving at times, but also full of joy and dignity.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle–and people in general–has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence–creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.
The Crisis of the European Mind by Paul Hazard
Paul Hazard’s magisterial, widely influential, and beloved intellectual history offers an unforgettable account of the birth of the modern European mind in all its dynamic, inquiring, and uncertain glory. Beginning his story in the latter half of the seventeenth century, while also looking back to the Renaissance and forward to the future, Hazard traces the process by which new developments in the sciences, arts, philosophy, and philology came to undermine the stable foundations of the classical world, with its commitment to tradition, stability, proportion, and settled usage. Hazard shows how travelers’ tales and archaeological investigation widened European awareness and acceptance of cultural difference; how the radical rationalism of Spinoza and Richard Simon’s new historical exegesis of the Bible called into question the revealed truths of religion; how the Huguenot Pierre Bayle’s critical dictionary of ideas paved the way for Voltaire and the Enlightenment, even as the empiricism of Locke encouraged a new attention to sensory experience that led to Rousseau and romanticism. Hazard’s range of knowledge is vast, and whether the subject is operas, excavations, or scientific experiments his brilliant style and powers of description bring to life the thinkers who thought up the modern world.
Death of Lysanda by Yitzhak Orpaz
The Death of Lysanda collects two macabre novellas by one of Israel’s greatest writers. In the title piece, we meet Naphtali Noi, a recently divorced proofreader, critic, and “creative” taxidermist, given to hallucinations and soon perhaps to add murder to his hobbies. Ants tells the story of a married couple, Jacob and Rachel, who discover that an army of the titular insects is threatening to destroy their rooftop apartment—but Rachel seems to be on their side rather than her husband’s.
In fragmented prose halfway between the Old Testament and the playful stories of Julio Cortázar, these tales take to pieces the psyches of two men—and a nation—at war with themselves.
Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast by Maeve Gilmore
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels are widely acknowledged to be classic works of high fantasy, on par with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this series, Peake created the vividly detailed world — at once gothic and surreal — of Castle Gormenghast. When Peake died in 1968, he left behind the tantalizing pages and clues for the fourth and concluding book in the series.
Maeve Gilmore, Mervyn Peake’s widow, wrote Titus Awakes, based on those pages left behind by Peake. Fans of the Gormenghast novels will relish this continuation of the world Peake created and of the lives of unforgettable characters from the original novels, including the scheming Steerpike, Titus’s sister Fuchsia, and the long-serving Dr. Prunesquallor. Published a century after Peake’s birth, this strikingly imaginative novel provides a moving coda to Peake’s masterwork.
Absolution by Patrick Flanery
A bold and exciting literary novel set in South Africa that contemplates the elusive line between truth and self-perception.
Absolution is a big-idea novel about the pitfalls of memory, the ramifications of censorship, and the ways we are silently complicit in the problems around us. It’s also a devastating, intimate, and stunningly woven story. Told in shifting perspectives, it centers on the mysterious character of Clare Wald, a controversial South African writer of great fame, haunted by the memories of a sister she fears she betrayed to her death and a daughter she fears she abandoned. Clare comes to learn that in this conflict the dead do not stay buried, and the missing return in other forms—such as the child witness of her daughter’s last days who has reappeared twenty years later as Clare’s official biographer, prompting an unraveling of history and a search for forgiveness. Part literary thriller, part meditation on the responsibility of the individual under totalitarianism, this is a masterpiece of rich, complicated characters and narration that captures the reader and does not let go.
The Wizard of Oz is a classic. Full stop. Whether it’s known through L. Frank Baum’s original book for children or through the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, it lingers in the minds of many. Until recently, I had only been familiar with the film—and, to be honest, the first and last time I watched it was to see what may or may not have been a Munchkin hanging himself from a tree as the gang of four skipped down the Yellow Brick Road*.
Now, The Wizard of Oz has found its way back into the cultural conversation with a newly released prequel starring James Franco. Although the film isn’t getting the best reviews, there’s been an outpouring of interest in the book again and a number of thoughtful pieces have surfaced on the Internet.
At Litreactor, Kimberly Turner delves into the history of the Oz series. Included are a number of details about L. Frank Baum’s life, the book’s sales history, and the differences between the popular film adaptation and the original text:
As is typical with movie adaptations, the 1939 film differs from its source material in more ways than I can list here—at least without losing your attention. A few of the notable differences, besides the ruby slippers: In the book, Oz is a real place, not a dream world; thus the existence of forty-one sequels. The Wicked Witch Of The West is a blip on the radar rather than the primary obstacle. Dorothy is a stronger, more feminist protagonist and considerably less weepy. There are quite a few more subplots, including a visit to a city made of China and an encounter with an odd race of armless guards called Hammerhead, and much, much more beheading.
At The New Yorker, Erin Overbey, Deputy head of the magazine’s archive, dug through past issues and found a negative review of the film. Their critic at the time, Russell Maloney, said it had “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Meanwhile an essay written by Salman Rushdie in 1992 links the story to a “longing for liberation from mundane routine.” In a Critic at Large piece by John Updike where he critiques The Annotated Wizard of Oz we learn some interesting background on Baum: he wrote The Wizard of Oz at age forty-four in 1900 and was married to a politically progressive woman, a suffragette who co-authored a book with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Dorothy’s strength, as noted above in the Litreactor piece, may have been her doing as she had a great influence on her husband. He’d even written a few subsequent books under female pseudonyms.
As part of my experiment in reading children’s books as an adult, many of which I missed in my younger years, I’d decided to read The Wizard of Oz late last year. It was an iconic book that I had a cursory knowledge of and felt I was missing out on a piece of American cultural history.
In his introduction to The Wizard of Oz, Baum said he’d written the book “solely to please the children of today.” He hoped to do away with the “heartaches and nightmares” of previous fairy tales and legends. “Modern education includes morality … the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents,” he said. This last part leaves one to wonder how he explained the Winged Monkeys but point taken.
With Baum’s intention in mind I embarked on my reading. Instead of looking for social and political undertones, which many have read into the silver shoes and Yellow Brick Road, I enjoyed it as a simple story about a girl suddenly finding herself in a strange land and longing to return home. Mostly, I was surprised by and taken with the vivid descriptions undoubtedly lost in summary.
By now everyone knows that Dorothy lived on a farm in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. One day a cyclone hits, the house is lifted into the air, and she is flown to a faraway land. What those who haven’t read the book don’t know is the sad state her relatives were in prior to the storm. The opening scene is nearly comic in its darkness:
Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.
When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. …
Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.
Much is made of the use of technicolor of the 1939 film and after reading Baum’s book one has to wonder if it could have been made otherwise. After Dorothy wakes to find herself “in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty,” color is prevalent in his descriptions
Shortly after being set down, Dorothy meets a lion who has no courage, a tin woodman who has no heart, and a scarecrow who has no brains. Together, the four of them set off—often through hostile territory—in search of what they each desire.
They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.
There’s lots of “brilliance” and “dazzle” in this book and after they’re instructed to visit the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz they encounter both again at the gates of his Emerald City.
The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, they started on their way, and soon saw a beautiful green glow in the sky just before them. … As they walked on, the green glow became brighter, and it seemed that at last they were nearing the end of their travels. … In front of them, and at the end of the road of yellow brick, was a big gate, all studded with emeralds that glittered so in the sun that even the painted eyes of the Scarecrow were dazzled by their brilliancy.
Although Baum said he wasn’t in the business of dispensing morals, there are plenty to be found in this story. When asked by the Scarecrow for brains, Oz replies, “You don’t need them. You learn something new every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”
When the Lion asks for courage Oz says, “You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger.” The Tin Woodman, when he asks for a heart, is told he is wrong to want a heart, that hearts “make most people unhappy.”
In the end The Wizard of Oz does offer lessons; it wouldn’t have lasted this long in our collective psyche otherwise.
*While writing this piece I did some research (a.k.a a quick Google search) and learned that the Munchkin thing is a myth and that it was really a bird. Here’s a list of 7 others from BuzzFeed.