Category: Classics

Discovery brings Twain back to life in kid’s bedtime story

By Clara Martin

What do cooking grease, ornery dragons, and Mark Twain have to do with each other? As it turns out, quite a lot.

At the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California, in a search for recipes relating to a Mark Twain cookbook in the Twain Archives, the word “oleomargarine” pulled up 16 pages of handwritten notes. But the notes weren’t about cooking. These 16 pages comprised a bedtime story, a fairy tale that Twain told his daughters, Clara and Susy Clemens, while in Paris in 1879.

The story ended abruptly with Prince Oleomargarine being kidnapped and taken to a cave guarded by dragons. The Mark Twain House sold the rights to Doubleday, an imprint under Penguin Random House. But with the author long gone and only 16 pages of notes to work with, the story needed some guidance.
Lucky for us readers, Philip and Erin Stead, the team behind the Caldecott Winning picture book A Sick Day for Amos McGee, took the reins in The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.

prince oleomargarine

But how do you work with a dead man who was writing before the 20th century? By turning him into a character, of course.

In the story (and in real life), Philip goes out to a cabin on Beaver Island to write this story and converse with the ghost of Twain, who interjects in the first half of the story quite frequently. The banter goes on back and forth, with Philip Stead asking Twain “what happens next,” and when Twain’s own story doesn’t fit with Stead’s vision, he goes ahead, sometimes with Twain’s permission and sometimes without.

What ensues is a hilarious feat of storytelling that hearkens back to the oral tradition. As you read, you will feel the need to read this to someone else, to share the story. After all, aren’t the best stories meant to be shared?

So while the Steads make some changes, they stick to the theme that runs through all of their books–the importance of kindness.

The hero of the story, Johnny, is a young African-American boy whose grandfather is a “bad man.” His only friend in the world is a chicken named “Pestilence and Famine.”

He sells his chicken to an “old, blind woman, thin enough to cast no shadow.” This beggar woman gives Johnny a handful of pale blue seeds in exchange for the chicken. She promises him that if he plants the seeds under very specific conditions, then a flower will bloom. If Johnny eats the flower, he will never feel emptiness again. He plants the seeds, and one flower blooms. Johnny eats the seed, ravenous with hunger, but he does not feel fulfilled. He is about to give up when he hears a voice: that of a talking skunk named Susy. As it turns out, the magic flower allows Johnny to talk to and understand animals.

Johnny’s life with the animals is filled with peace. As the old beggar woman promised him, he does not feel emptiness because of his friends. But when they come across a notice proclaiming that Prince Oleomargarine has gone missing, Johnny and the animals go forward to help.

As it turns out, the King is very, very short. So, all of his subjects must stoop before him (or they will be enemies of the state). He claims that giants have taken his only son and heir to the throne. Johnny and the animals follow the trail and end up at the entrance to a cave, guarded by Two Ornery Dragons. AS the narrator says: “An important thing to know about dragons is this: They are always arguing with one another. No two dragons can agree on anything.”

And, as this is where Twain left Philip Stead to pick up the storytelling mantle, this where I will leave you to discover the rest of the tale.

Erin and Philip Stead

Erin and Philip Stead

While reading The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, I felt as though I was reading a long-lost classic children’s story. Which, in a way, I was. Thanks to the magic and artistry of the Steads, the gem of the original story is not lost. With Erin’s ethereal illustrations that are suited for a fairy tale of this magnitude, she brings Phil’s words, Twain’s eccentricity, Johnny’s pure heart, and the importance of kindness to life.

To borrow from Twain, I think the moral of the story can be summed up as such: “There are more chickens than a man can know in this world, but an unprovoked kindness is the rarest of birds.”

Philip Stead will appear at Lemuria on Monday, October 30, to promote The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. He will sign books at 5:00, and he will read from the book beginning at 5:30.

‘The Last Tycoon’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The Last Tycoon” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner, 1941.

F. Scott Fitzgerald published four novels and numerous short stories before his early death from alcoholism. Throughout his career, he had his critics and did not achieve his status as one of the most influential modern American writers until after his death. The author of “The Great Gatsby” was working on a Hollywood novel at the time of his death which would be published posthumously as “The Last Tycoon.”

In the early fall of 1939, Fitzgerald sent a proposal for a story to Collier’s magazine. The editor agreed to serialize the novel if Fitzgerald would send a 15,000 word advance for his approval. The screenwriting experience and his relationship with movie producer Irving Thalberg fueled his ideas for the novel but the actual writing only took a few months. With his health deteriorating, Fitzgerald failed, however, to reach the 15,000 word advance for Collier’s and instead sent in only 6,000 words. He was rejected in a telegraph but with a request for more work by Collier’s Kenneth Littauer: “FIRST THOUSAND WORDS PRETTY CRIPTIC THEREFORE [sic] DISAPPOINTING . . .”

edmund wilsonAfter his death in 1940, a longtime critic and friend Edmund Wilson secured permission from Fitzgerald’s family to publish “The Last Tycoon.” Wilson had never held back his negative criticism of the author’s work, even from Fitzgerald’s beginnings when Wilson published a satirical poem arguing that the young writer’s work was shallow and superficial. But Wilson was deeply affected by his death, expressing in a letter to Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda: “I feel myself as though I had been suddenly robbed of some part of my own personality.”

last tycoonWilson, who must have felt some regret at being so critical of what he often called a “commercial” and “trashy” writer, decided to set the tone for Fitzgerald’s legacy by preparing his last manuscript and titling it “The Last Tycoon.” It would be published in book form accompanied strategically by “The Great Gatsby” and selected short stories. In the Foreword, Wilson announced “The Last Tycoon” to be “Fitzgerald’s most mature piece of work” and “the best novel we have had about Hollywood.” Other critics followed with similar praise. Novelist J. F. Powers asserted that “The Last Tycoon” contained more of his best writing than anything he had ever done and Fitzgerald’s best had always been the best there was.”

last tycoon DECOFitzgerald’s influence, his attention to the illusive American dream, is seen in the work of Richard Yates, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, and many contemporary writers. Mystery writer, Raymond Chandler, wrote that that “Fitzgerald is a subject no one has the right to mess up . . . He had one of the rarest qualities in all of literature . . . The word is charm—charm as Keats would have used it . . . It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite.” While Fitzgerald had sold less than 25,000 copies of “The Great Gatsby” at the time of his death, this book has now sold over 25 million copies worldwide.

Hunter recommends 3 science fiction classics

Today, it would be difficult to find a movie or television show that does not incorporate some kind of science fiction element. Inspired by this, many people now seek to experience the genre at its source: books. However, with such an overwhelming number of classic science fiction books, where should someone start? This is a question that customers have asked me before, and here is my answer: Here are three books that you can find on our shelves that I think are perfect examples of classic science fiction.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

childhoods endTo those who have heard his name, Arthur C. Clarke is most well-known as the co-creator of the book and subsequent film 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, his influence does not stop at cinema. Clarke’s theories in his books about satellites and orbits actually came to fruition in reality, so much so that a geosynchronous orbit used by telecommunications satellites is named after him (The Clarke Belt). My personal favorite work of his is Childhood’s End, a story of mankind’s first encounter with extraterrestrials and the effects that span hundreds of years. The story begins with a simple premise: massive alien ships suddenly appear on Earth, hovering over major cities, doing nothing. It’s an iconic enough image to spawn several copycat stories and films, which I will not list here. Where it goes from there is a bit strange, but I won’t spoil it.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick

do androids dream of electric sheepThere has been a lot of debate as to which author is truly the quintessential sci-fiauthor, and nearly every one comes to the same conclusion. Philip K. Dick made massive contributions to the entire genre of Science-Fiction, molding it into what it is today. Many of PKD’s works have been adapted to film and television, though few know it. Total RecallThe Adjustment BureauMinority ReportThe Man in the High Castle, and Blade Runner are all based on his works. Because of this, many people are more familiar with his stories than they realize. My favorite work of his is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was the basis for the film Blade Runner. It is a detective story at it’s heart, the story of Rick Deckard, a “Blade Runner,” a detective who specializes in identifying and decommissioning rogue androids. It’s an interesting take on the classic mystery novel, and I love it.

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

ult hitchhikers guide galaxyDouglas Adams was, for the most part, a humorist in the vein of Mark Twain, but his genre of choice was science fiction. His masterpiece, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels, now published together as The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, are the best example of his sharp wit and absurdist style of Adams’ work. The opening of the book features (spoiler alert, although it is the beginning of the book) the destruction of Earth, after which Adams writes “This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole, it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” The book is likely the one that I have reread the most, and in my mind, it is, not only one of the funniest novels, but one of the best ever written at all.

Sarah Churchwell’s ‘Careless People’ carefully examines ‘Gatsby’, Fitzgerald

careless peopleSarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby was originally released with the publicity surrounding the 2013 big-budget movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby, so it seems appropriate to use the spotlight of John Grisham’s great beach biblio-thriller Camino Island to recommend Churchwell’s wonderful work to those who, like I, missed it the first time around.

I first read The Great Gatsby on a car trip with my family to the Grand Canyon fourteen years ago, in preparation for sophomore English. Due to the circumstances of my reading and the rampant narcissism exhibited by most of the main characters, I did not engage with the book very deeply. I don’t think this is an atypical encounter for most people to have with ol’ F. Scott Fitzgerald, at least initially.

gatsbyFortunately, I was reacquainted with Gatsby & Co. almost a decade later when it was I, as an English teacher, who assigned Gatsby to a new crop of high school sophomores. I had a better appreciation by then of American history, and dreams, and ambition, and poetry—and so, too, the novel itself. But mine was a fairly by-the-numbers enlightenment about the books’ genius.

The Great Gatsby does stand as an artifact of its age, but in a very symbolic way. It is a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, just as it is a symbol for The American Dream. But the latter has always been an abstraction, while the former is not. The twenties are a time period that actually happened, and can be studied on their own contemporary terms. In this, Careless People by Sarah Churchwell excels.

Careless People is an examination of all the myriad inspirations for Fitzgerald’s most inspired novel. The title of Churchwell’s book is a phrase used in Gatsby by Nick to describe Tom and Daisy Buchanan specifically, but is reframed here to describe Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and the people and culture of the Jazz Age they inhabit.

The book’s framework is structured around a list Scott Fitzgerald made around 15 years after Gatsby’s publication about each chapter’s general inspirations. Churchwell uses the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the fall of 1922 to search for the raw material used to sculpt the scintillating scenes from Gatsby’s explosive story. She does this for three reasons: 1) the fall of 1922 is when the last part of Gatsbyis set; 2) this is the period when the Fitzgeralds lived on Long Island and partied in New York (where Gatsby is set), and 3) this time period shows the aftermath of the Halls-Mills murder case that almost definitely inspired parts of Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson’s torrid and tragic affair.

The book helpfully provides a short manifesto against misusing it:

The problem with trying to think intelligently about the relationship between life and art is that it is so easy think unintelligently about it, to make literal-minded simplistic equations between fiction and reality. Such literalism is reductive and unimaginative, can be deeply tiresome, and often misses the point of fiction entirely. But nor can we simply eliminate life and history from the tale, as if they have nothing to do with the genesis of fiction. If as its best fiction can transform reality, that doesn’t mean that its history has nothing left to teach us. Art does not shrink when it comes into contact with reality: it expands.

Perhaps what Careless People expands best is not even Gatsby itself, but Fitzgerald, the artist who created it. It rescues him from either myth or caricature, and explains what kind of artist he really was. He was in love with his world, but his mind was also outside of it. He had a sense of history, not merely past, but future, with a finely-tuned gift for guessing right where history was heading. Fitzgerald was not a world-creator like a fantasy writer, even if that’s how the modern reader might experience his work, but a world-remixer who rearranged the stuff of daily life to make a grand statement. Contemporary critics could see the daily life, but no statement. We often run into the opposite problem. Careless People is both lyrical and suggestive, much like the novel it profiles, and does a deft job of explaining how Fitzgerald wove fashion into art, and made art from fashion.

‘The Great Gatsby’ dust cover has created its own story

In celebration of the release of John Grisham’s Camino Island, whose plot revolves around stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, Lisa has been tracing Fitzgerald’s career through his novels. You can read her examinations of This Side of Paradise here and The Beautiful and Damned here.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, April 10, 1925.

gatsby firstThe cover art for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner) is one of the most enduring covers in book publishing history. It also said to be the most expensive piece of paper in book collecting.

Before the publication of The Great Gatsby in 1925, Scribner’s had published two novels by Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922). Both of the dust jackets for these novels displayed rather straight-forward scenes from the novels, a man and a woman in courtship. Color is downplayed with the use of three muted shades of orange, gray, and black.

The art of the Gatsby jacket by Cuban artist Francis Cugat is remarkable for its symbolic nature, its use of color, and its fine details. Two feminine eyes float over a nocturnal Coney Island carnival scene. Two nudes are subtly reclining in the irises. A brush of glare, or perhaps a tear, in the midnight blue sky as well as the explosive light emanating from the carnival scene below suggest tragedy.

While Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing The Great Gatsby in the summer of 1924, he was shown a draft of the jacket. His reaction is famously documented in a letter to Maxwell Perkins: “For Christ’s sake, don’t give anyone that dust jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”This influence of a dust jacket on the writing of a book is one of the only recorded instances. Cugat never produced another dust jacket, but his art is still beautifully reproduced on the paperback copies that many high school students purchase for required school reading.

The Great Gatsby as a first edition (18,000 copies in the first printing) is not one of the rarest books, but the survival of the dust jacket is key. The jacket, made too tall for the book, easily chipped, which only encouraged the owner to toss the jacket into the waste bin before long. The dust jacket of The Great Gatsby is one of the most outstanding examples of increased value in a first edition. Without the jacket, a first edition may sell for under $10,000. With the jacket, the price can be upwards of $100,000.

“She was Lo, plain Lo” – musings on the controversial classic ‘Lolita’

Tuesday evening, while vacuuming the store’s forest green carpets after closing time, I began thinking about what reading means to me. “Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape. As soon as he closed their pages he had to come back to the real world,” writes Haruki Marukami in his novel 1Q84. Way to go Marukami, you just said it all. For me reading is an escape. I enjoy reading things I simply cannot relate to, thus creating a beautiful escape from my everyday life…just a thought.

JacketOne escape I have thoroughly enjoyed recently is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. This novel tells the story of a middle-aged man, Humbert Humbert, who goes to live with a widow, Charlotte, and her twelve-year-old daughter, Lolita, in a sleepy New England town. From the moment Humbert lays eyes on Lolita, he is immediately infatuated. Eventually marrying Charlotte in order to get closer to Lolita, Humbert proves his determination for an extremely racy relationship with a girl three quarters his age. Humbert will stop at nothing to have the relationship he wants with Lolita and seems conflicted about it throughout the entire book. Lolita, however, makes the first advance towards Humbert. As their relationship proceeds, it is hard to tell who is leading the way and who, if anyone, is really in the wrong.

Upon telling one of my friends (who absolutely LOVES this book) that I was reading it, she mentioned that it is very hard to trust anything the narrator, Humbert, says. This book does a remarkable job of challenging the reader to read between the lines and find the real truth. The entire book is a question, but one of the main questions surrounding it is whether Humbert truly loved Lolita. Before reading the book, most people would assume that he does not and could not honestly love her in a sincere, romantic way. I suppose this question is for each reader to ponder in his or her own way and maybe come to a conclusion… or maybe not.

This is a story of murder and kidnap, a story of betrayal and love. Humbert’s soul is poured out on every page, thus touching our very own. A love story of a very unique kind, Lolita will have you in an emotional labyrinth… and the prose is beautiful.

“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

Revisiting Travis McGee in ‘The Deep Blue Good-By’

“Travis McGee’s still in Cedar Key—
That’s what ol’ John MacDonald said.
My rendezvous’s so long overdue
With all of the things I’ve sung and I’ve read.”

Jimmy Buffett, “Incommunicado”

JacketI read my first Travis McGee book in 2006, after my freshman year of college. I think I stole the paperback from my brother, but it was my father with whom I shared the rest of the 21 book series over a period of four years. He started reading them as the later ones first came out, but he’s a little young to have caught 1962’s The Deep Blue Good-by, the series debut by noted pulp crime writer John D. MacDonald.

I say “noted” because it’s not just my family who respects MacDonald. He has influenced mystery writers from Carl Hiaasen to Lee Child, both of whom have written introductions for his books and received praise from other writers such as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert B. Parker, and Ed McBain.

Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for continuing characters in crime fiction series, starting with Lawrence Block’s burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr and Rick Riordan’s tequila-drinking, tai chi-fighting English professor P.I. Tres Nevarre and continuing currently to Greg Iles’ Natchez crusader Penn Cage. Each of those series has such a specific sense of character and place. The protagonists are really law enforcement professionals, which sometimes takes the human element out of most crime fiction for my taste.

Travis McGee is a self-styled “salvage consultant” who retrieves precious commodities for people with few legal resources and splits the profits 50-50 after expenses. This debut novel in the series, with almost no origin story to weigh it down, moves quickly as McGee matches wits with oversexed psychopath Junior Allen. He’s trying to recover gemstones smuggled home from World War II by the father of Cathy Kerr, a local showgirl and single mother.

Jacket 2The Travis McGee novels (which can all be identified by the colors in their title, all the way to 1985’s elegiac Lonely Silver Rain) have tightly-constructed and entertaining plots, but it’s the little things that stick with you after you read them: McGee’s philosophical ruminations, proto-environmentalism, and general unease with adapting to modern life (even 50 years ago). The richly detailed settings of 1960s Fort Lauderdale, especially Bahia Mar, where McGee’s houseboat, The Busted Flush, is parked right next to the Alabama Tiger’s Perpetual Floating House Party. And, even though he is strangely missing from The Deep Blue Good-by, the person who outlasts any of McGee’s various lovers is Meyer, the bearded economist living about his yacht the John Maynard Keynes, who frequently plays Watson to McGee’s Sherlock.

Although firmly rooted in their eras, the novels hold-up as timeless summer beach reads (or books to read when dreaming of beaches). Travis McGee is part-James Bond (as 60s action-hero and serial monogamist), part-Jimmy Buffett type (as beach bum and underrated philosopher-poet) who always manages to feel unique to himself. This summer, I recommend revisiting his old adventures, starting with one of his toughest opponents in The Deep Blue Good-by.

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