Archive for the ‘LOST gratuitous references’ Category

fmagraphicIn July I joined the #Firemanalong, a group read hosted by Care’s Books and Pies and The Capricious Reader. The Fireman is the newest book from Joe Hill, son of Stephen King, about whom I’ve been most curious.

I was all set for this to be a new favorite, especially after reading the opening page, in which Hill cites as “inspiration”: J.K. Rowling, P.L. Travers, Julie Andrews … and Ray Bradbury. Excellent!

Hill has fun with his allusions, one moment citing Samuel Beckett and then MTV VJ Martha Quinn. There are also nods to Dumbledore, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Graham Greene, Mary Poppins, and, of course, zombies.

The Fireman starts out much like one of King’s novels in that it grabs you straightaway. It was an exciting and addictive page-turner … right until about page one hundred and forty-something, when it really slowed down. Considering the book was 747 pages, I wish Hill had kept up the thrill ride a bit longer.

The first part deals with an outbreak of a mysterious epidemic of “Dragonscale,” which causes its victims to self-combust. Hill offered a plausible and scientific explanation for the disease and that kept me invested.

Our heroine is a plucky nurse named Harper (after another of Hill’s favorite authors) who volunteers as a nurse and ultimately gets infected.

The scenes of mass hysteria and of the unraveling of society were believable and suspenseful. There’s a compelling, vivid urgency that makes you think, wow, this could happen. There are also several buzzy cameos: George Clooney, President Obama, and Glenn Beck.

fireman in boxIt wasn’t until Harper joined a sort of commune for the infected, Camp Wyndham, that the book stepped into the slow lane and became more of a morality tale. I felt Hill had pulled a bait-and-switch—I wanted more of the excitement that he had teased me with for over 100 pages.

Instead, I got lots and lots (and lots) of backstory! I don’t know why Hill decided to go the route of having all the subplots and complications relayed second-hand. Hill is a master of twists and turns, but this genius was somewhat diluted because instead of experiencing it … we had it retold by other characters. I like my suspense real-time.

In particular, the Harold Cross subplot and the prison story would have been so gripping to read as they occurred. I cannot think why we had to hear about them postmortem? I wanted to be in there with the prisoners, looking around and fearful of what might happen next. What did happen would have been much more chilling to me if I didn’t already know who would survive. Also, the Mazz and Father Story question would have been spookier and more complicated if I had first known and identified with Mazz.

The Harold Cross thread reminded me of something from 24—the stray character who makes a series of judgment errors that escalate. I just wish I had gotten to experience that paranoia and tension. Likewise, I would have cared more about Cross’s fate.

Even if Hill were not King’s son I would be contrasting this to Under the Dome, in which King had several subplots spinning out at once via many lead characters. Michael Crichton also did this very well.

Since the action was elsewhere, the whole camp kibbutz storyline got stale for me. I wanted to know more about what was going on beyond their hideaway. The state of Maine had burned to a crisp, but what about the rest of the country? The rest of the world?

The camp dynamics of, say, who got soggy oatmeal versus who got fancy coffeecake seemed a bit trifling when there was a worldwide catastrophe going on.

Also, I felt a bit let down by the ending. I’m not asking for things to be tidied up and happy. I loved how Christopher Nolan tantalized us with the conclusions of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. (I even loved the LOST finale!)

But, after 747 pages, I do expect some sort of pay off. This felt like it ended midstream with little resolution and almost no reveals as to what was next for Harper—or for the world. It was like ending halfway through Homer’s Odyssey and just as frustrating as the fuzzy, fade-to-black of The Sopranos.

Having said all this, I must add that Hill is a very good writer and (when he wants) can make for some addictive reading. If he had presented his subplots (with their creepy twists) firsthand and given them the same sense of urgency as the first one hundred pages, then The Fireman would likely have been *the* blockbuster, can’t-put-down book of the summer. Hill definitely has that potential.

Lots of the #Firemanalong readers loved the book! They posted all sorts of shrewd observations and fun reactions on twitter. Indeed, for me, the #Firemanalong was the best part of this read.


#Firemanalong at Care’s Books and Pies

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LOTR LOST comboSeptember 22 has long been celebrated as “Hobbit Day” since it’s both Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday and is also the date when the The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) starts. In a circular twist, Peter Jackson opens and ends The Hobbit movie trilogy on this day.

September 22 is also the date, in 2004, when Oceanic 815 crashed into waters unknown, in the pilot of the series LOST.

Eerie. I can’t understand why more hasn’t been made of this—on fan sites, media, or Twitter. It seems an astoundingly important connection between these two great sagas. (Spoilers Alert!)

Both are mythical stories which involve epic quests. Although LOTR opens with Bilbo’s birthday party, Frodo doesn’t actually begin his journey until the next day. Still, it is on the twenty-second when he acquires the Ring and that is what kicks off the action.

There are many other parallels. Each tale revolves around a group of disparate characters brought together by circumstance. In LOTR, the rise of Sauron and the discovery of the Ring prompts the formation of the Fellowship and ultimately takes these characters across Middle-Earth. A plane crash maroons the LOST characters on an uncharted island, desperate to make the best of it.

Both groups are terrorized by baddies (orcs, Nazgul, Uruk Hai in LOTR; the Others, Charles Widmore’s assassins, the Dharma Initiative on LOST), supernatural forces (Sarumon’s winter, dark magic in Moria and Mordor, Sauron’s eye in LOTR; the Smoke Monster, electromagnetic powers, the time shifts in LOST), and by a supreme villain (Sauron in LOTR; The Man in Black, though some might argue Ben, in LOST). Gandalf the White serves as a guide and leader in Middle-Earth. Likewise, on LOST, the guardian Jacob is always shown in white or light-colored clothing (well, when he is on the Island).

LOTR trilogy poster

Each also features an unlikely hero who struggles to escape that role. Frodo wishes the Ring had never come to him and tries to give it to Galadriel then to Aragorn. Jack refuses to embrace faith (or fate) and just wants off the Island. Yet, each perseveres and ultimately saves the world: Middle-Earth in the case of Frodo, and our planet (not just the Island) in Jack’s. However, neither can return to the world he has saved, as they are both changed and damaged by their missions. Frodo sails into the West with the Elves. Jack sacrifices himself and dies on the Island.

Oddly, despite the September 22 connection and the fact that LOST show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse professed admiration for Tolkien, there are almost no references to the author or his works. There were a few television promos that featured Gandalf’s quote, “not all who wander are lost.” This tease had me on the lookout for Tolkien Easter eggs, to no avail. It’s strange because episodes were rife with allusions to Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, the novels of Charles Dickens, Lord of the Flies, Star Wars, and other favorites of Darlton. Charlie Pace sports a tattoo in Elvish and sometimes wears a t-shirt featuring the White Tree of Gondor, but that is because Dominic Monaghan acted as Merry Brandybuck in the LOTR movies.

Kate Austen, though, makes it off the Island to kick some orc butt in The Hobbit trilogy as Tauriel. Seriously, she was like the same character, which I loved.

Other than that, there is only a musical theme entitled “Down the Hobbit Hole” which plays when Jack and Locke (aka the Man in Black) lower Desmond down to the Source in the finale. But this is also a riff on Alice in Wonderland (Down the Rabbit Hole), and it’s a bit of a mislead because Desmond enters a creepy cave full of skeletons and gloom, whereas Tolkien assures us that hobbit holes are nothing like this.

“Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

He writes in The Hobbit and goes on to describe a cosy dwelling with polished brass, paneled walls, tiled floors, comfortable chairs, and lots of coat hooks as “the hobbit was fond of visitors.”

In the end, it may be that the choice of September 22 for the crash of Oceanic 815 was a merely a coincidence of the network programming schedule. Or perhaps—like so many other unexplained happenings on LOST—it was engineered by “the Island.”

Ten Ways to Celebrate Hobbit Day and Tolkien Week

The Hobbit: My Own Unexpected Journey

LOST Under the Dome

Happy Hobbitversary! 75 Years On

A Tolkien Travesty: Nobel Jury Not so Noble

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Top Ten LogoGoodness, this Top Ten really made me think! Turns out, most of my favorite books are the ones that are peopled with distinctive, believable secondary characters whom I feel that I know. (Perhaps that also explains my addiction to the ensemble masterpiece LOST.)

Anyway, I could have easily rattled off 10 favorites from Jane Austen’s works, or from The Lord of the Rings. But, I didn’t even try to pick just one of G.R.R. Martin’s cast of characters from A Song of Fire and Ice, seriously?

1.) Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen—Austen’s books are rife with hilarious and memorable supporting characters, caricatures really. But, the haughty, domineering (and hilarious) Lady Catherine takes the cake. An authority on everything and everyone, Lady Catherine commands the spotlight. “I must have my share in the conversation!” She reminds Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

2.) Rusty Everett, Under the Dome by Stephen King—My great sorrow is that Rusty does not even feature in the Under the Dome TV show. But he is one of the most human and memorable characters from the book. Rusty is the everyman, the guy we all root for. Of course, there is Barbie the badass, ex-army superhero. But Rusty is someone whom you know you’ve met … thrust into unusual circumstances, who rises to the occasion.

3.) Peregrin (aka Pippin) Took, The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien—It’s hard to pick a favorite hobbit, and I wouldn’t dare. But as literary characters go, Pippin is endearing, mischievous, and stellar. He elbows his way into the Fellowship, peers into the Palintir, and charms both Treebeard and the raving mad Denethor. “Fool of a Took!” cries Gandalf, after one of Pippin’s signature gaffs in the Mines of Moria.

4.) Just about everyone in the Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling—Really these books are a cornucopia of delightful, palpable secondary characters. That is why they were able to get so many British greats to take cameos in the films. There are the scene-stealing twins, Fred and George Weasley; the feared and revered Professor McGonagall; the ditzy and dreamy Loony Lovegood; everyone’s favorite fugitive, wizard godfather Sirius Black, Tonks the ass-kicking, punk auror, oh and also Dobby, the house elf, and then Winky, the drunk elf. Really, I must stop, but it’s not easy…

5.) Nelly Dean, Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë—I actually do not like Nelly very much at all. She is the original unreliable narrator, presenting her story as if she were not taking sides while in reality she drives along the friction between characters. Knowing Heathcliff is in earshot, Nelly prods Cathy to say it would “degrade her” to marry him.” Decorum prevents me from using the apt word describe Nelly, but it rhymes with witch.

6.) Aunt Dahlia, The Jeeves and Wooster books, by P.G. Wodehouse—Again, I could have picked Aunt Agatha, aka ‘the nephew crusher,’ (or the simpering Madeline Bassett who calls stars “daisy chains,” or the completely daft Barmy Fortheringay Fipps, or Harold ‘Stinker’ Pinker). But Dahlia is the one of my favorites partly for the many whacky schemes into which she ensnares Bertie, but also for her line, “curse all dancing chauffeurs,” uttered after she gets locked out of Brinkley Manor during the servants ball. No wonder, Wodehouse titled a book, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen.

7.) Everyone, Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky— Némirovsky planned this as a sort of paean to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It is a wonderful, shattering novel about the early days of World War II in France, as the Germans roll through Paris and the small villages. There are so many finely drawn and distinct characters: the parents of a son missing in battle; wealthy Parisians fleeing to resorts; and the kindly, well-mannered German officer who is also a musician. It is so heartbreaking that this novel was never finished.

8.) Aloysius, Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh—Sebastian’s teddy bear, who accompanies him to Oxford and upon most of his forays, is sort of a forerunner to Hobbes, the best friend of Calvin. Unlike that stuffed plush, though, Aloysius never comes to life, but often Sebastian can express his feelings, or avoid them, by attributing them to his teddy. “How silly, Aloysius wouldn’t approve of that at all.”

9.) Nick Adams, In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway—Ok, so technically Nick is the *main* character. But he is so often the observer, giving us honest, at times awful, insights into those around him, like the brutal, clinical manner of his father in “Indian Camp.” Every few years I reread these stories because I always find something new in Nick’s view of the world. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” there is so much brewing under his subdued reactions to nature. “He went over and sat on the logs. He did not want to rush his sensations any.”

10.) Mma Potokwani, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Series, by Alexander McCall Smith—This bossy, but lovable mistress of the orphanage is like the bizarro Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mma Potokwani orders people about and makes humorous demands, but all for the good of the orphans for whom she will go to (and push others to) just about any lengths. And of course Mma Ramotswe would not be happily married to the quiet, reserved Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, if Mma Potokwani hadn’t ambushed them with a surprise wedding!

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dome darkling“The dead also do not see, unless they look from a brighter place
than this darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night.”

These words leapt off page 439 of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, as they are almost an exact quote from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach (see below). In that poem, Arnold is standing on the shale of the beach looking out at the light of the moon as it reflects across the English Channel and on the distant coast of France.

Similarly, the residents of Chester’s Mill are gazing up at the stars which have been distorted by the haze of the Dome, giving them a pink, streaked appearance, as if the stars are raining down upon them. In both instances, celestial phenomena prompt an observation on how small, and somewhat insignificant, people are compared to the greater world at large.

Arnold’s poem deals with a crisis of faith, and King’s narrator also seems to have lost faith in the society under the Dome. The Dover Beach quote is followed by a list of those who have died since the mysterious barrier came down, and then (spoiler alert!) cuts to the town’s first Dome-driven suicide.

Arnold seems to be searching for faith in human intimacy (“ah, love, let us be true to one another!”) despite a melancholy world that “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.” The people in Chester’s Mill appear to personify and magnify this outlook on humanity. Those who connect and support each other eventually become the only ones who have a chance. (A bit like “live together, die alone” from LOST—a quote which I kept expecting to appear in this book.) Dover Beach hints at dystopia and then King brings this to fruition Under the Dome.

The ‘darkling plain’ is also a loaded reference to Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act I Scene 4. Arnold certainly understood this, and I feel that King too is alluding to the Fool’s observation: “We were left darkling.”

The Fool has realized that Goneril is betraying her father, though Lear can’t bring himself to accept this, asking “Are you our daughter?” This is the moment when Lear begins to question his new situation and his new reality—the moment which ultimately kicks off his descent into madness and rage. Like Lear, the people of Chester’s Mill are going to face new unhinged reality and widespread madness.

Dover-Beach-bookDover Beach must be a favorite of King’s as he also references it in The Shining. Jack wanders around the Colorado Lounge thinking what it must have been like there celebrating there in 1945, “the war won, the future stretching ahead so various and new, like a land of dreams.” Here King is juxtaposing this hopefulness against Jack’s own Lear-like descent into madness.

Finally, it must be noted that in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Dover Beach is the poem that Guy Montag reads aloud in a desperate attempt to reach out to his wife and her friends. King was an unabashed fan of Bradbury’s, having stated “without Ray Bradbury, there would be no Stephen King.”

Dover Beach has long been one of my favorite poems for its complex tension of hope and despair—also the words are beautiful. It’s thrilling to think after more than a century, nearly two, a Victorian poet (who ironically was known for his concept of “sweetness and light”) could exact such an influence on writers like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;–on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain;
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Under the #DomeAlong

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Under-the-Dome-tvFrom the first pages of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, I started to feel that tingly thrill of anticipation that I used to get from watching LOST. Maybe it’s the fact that (spoiler alert!) both stories begin with a plane crash. Or maybe it’s because I knew that King was a big fan of the show. Like LOST, King’s novel offers an amalgam of mystery, supernatural wonder, and suspense—brought to life by a group of indelible characters who mix it up in their new isolated world.

Uncle Stevie also tosses in some overt nods to LOST. Reverend Lester Coggins describes God, as “he who traveled as a pillar of smoke by day” (p. 159). When Rusty can’t sleep, his mind wanders to Desmond, whom he misquotes as saying: “Don’t mistake coincidence for fate” (p. 285). It was actually Mr. Eko who said that. Later Locke repeats the phrase, and Jack says it again in the final season. (Still, Losties will note that Desmond played several very key and ‘fateful’ roles in the LOST journey.)

This crux of coincidence versus fate was a driving force in LOST and a major point of friction among the characters, notably Locke and Jack. With this quote, King sets this up nicely as a similar theme in Under the Dome. By small circumstance, people got trapped in or outside. Barbie just missed a ride south, the Fire Department was away at a parade, and even families are divided.

LOSTI also jumped each time Lissa the librarian fiddled with her ankh necklace (p. 430). The Egyptian ankh (known as the key to life or the key to the Nile) is a repeated symbol in LOST (the Hatch counter; the statue; Jacob gives one to Hurley). However, I couldn’t quite figure this reference out in Under the Dome. Unlike Jacob or Hurley, Lissa doesn’t play a significant role in the fate of those trapped, nor is she one of the more developed characters.

Also, and this may just be me, I wondered if Horace the corgi was named for Horace on LOST? The story is being told from Horace’s point-of-view when we get the most tantalizing LOST tidbit, that Andrea often sat “watching shows like The Hunted Ones (a clever sequel to Lost)” (p.694). I dropped my book (really!) and immediately began to Google, hoping Uncle Stevie had some intel on more LOST. But alas, this is only a fiction, a wish perhaps, on his part.

But now we get Under the Dome on TV. Could this be the heir apparent to LOST? Creator Brian K. Vaughn and Exec Producer Jack Bender are both LOST alums. King is also deeply involved and has cited Game of Thrones as an example of their approach.

I was a bit surprised that the format is a not a miniseries, but an ongoing show. After all, it was King who challenged the LOST team to end the show at its peak—regardless of ratings. They took that message to heart and worked out a deal with ABC to conclude LOST at the end of the sixth season.

UTD dogHopefully, King, Vaughn, and Bender will ultimately follow King’s own advice. Meanwhile, there were approximately 500 pages cut from the original draft of the  novel, so there are plenty of new story lines to explore.

Indeed, the pilot opened with so many changes from the novel that those of us who read the book found ourselves ‘lost.’ (I’m intrigued, but there has been such an outcry, that King has written a response to his Constant Reader.) Extra fun though, imho, Frank Lapidus is reincarnated as Sheriff Duke Perkins. My hopes are high for Under the Dome on TV. Now if only they would somehow bring in Desmond!

Are you watching Under the Dome on TV? What do you think?


Under the #DomeAlong

Under the Dome Update: Left Hanging

I’m Going Under the Dome for a Summer Readalong!

Under the Dome Readathon Sign-up

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More Under the Dome:

Under the Dome, the book

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Under the Dome, trailer

Stephen King Website

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Under the Dome roundedI’ve just started Stephen King’s Under the Dome and I’m hooked! I’ve joined the #DomeAlong—a two-month readalong organized by Natalie aka Coffee and Book Chic. This group read runs through July 27thSo sign up and join us!

I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read much King lately … partly because his books are just so darn scary that I can’t sleep afterwards. This book, however, has been billed as more of a psychological thriller, hopefully not too gory.

I will say that Under the Dome is pretty intriguing right from the start. I’m only about 20 pages in, but already I have that tingly thrill of anticipation that I used to get from watching LOST.

No matter how much I love a book (Harry Potter, A Song of Fire and Ice), I tend to get antsy when books stretch over 1,000 pages. I start to crave that feeling of satisfaction you get when you finish.

Enter #DomeAlong, with fabulous reading tweeps who will keep up the energy and fun with blog posts and banter on twitter as we slog through this together. Even before I cracked the book, I totally got into the spirit by reading all the tweets. Come on Under the Dome and join us!

Under the Dome comes out in paperback on June 11 (not too late to join us) and the CBS mini-series debuts Mon June 24th.

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I really loved this wonderful novel! I admit I had a hard time getting into it, but once I did, I found myself so emotionally taken. I started this on a trip, which seemed fitting as the story is of a journey on the steam liner Oronsay. But I had trouble reading The Cat’s Table in short bursts. This is a book to which you must give yourself over—to read leisurely and to savor. Michael Ondaatje does not write with a melodramatic style, but, oh, did I ache for these characters.

They are such a fascinating group, collected at the ‘Cat’s Table’—the one farthest from the Captain’s table, and thus the least prestigious. The story follows an eleven-year-old boy (interestingly enough named Michael like the author who took a similar trip in his youth). Just as Ondaatje did, the young narrator is leaving Colombo, Sri Lanka to meet his mother in England. Michael, and his two young friends, scramble through the turbine room, play with the dogs in the kennel, discover a secret garden in the hold, and have adventures on the ship’s dark, mysterious decks late at night. These scenes are imbued with a childlike sense of wonder. I loved when the ship goes through the Suez Canal and how that reverberates through the story. The trek is a reverse Passage to India, with the Oronsay crossing back from Asia. Indeed, the novel evokes many of the same themes that Walt Whitman did, including East v. West, progress, and “the Past! the Past!”

We also get a glimpse at the magic of Sri Lanka, with its “chorus of insects … gecko talk. And … rope burning on the street that was always one of the first palpable smells of the day.” Though Ondaatje is not a magical realist, he certainly evokes that sense of finding magic in the ordinary, the quotidian.

As the trip progresses, we get to know the characters not only from their interactions on the Oronsay, which is a bit like a small town, but also through flash-forwards and flashbacks. (It reminded me of LOST in the way a certain scene accrues different meanings and emotions when seen via another character or the veil of time).

These shifting perspectives are not confusing, however, as Ondaatje keeps the reader grounded in the narrative. We feel the ramifications of small acts, a bit in the vein of Ian McEwan. In a flash-forward, an adult Michael reacts to seeing his wife nudge her shoulder strap as she dances with another man. “I knew there was some grace between them that we ourselves did not have anymore.”

In the end, this is a book about moments and the people who come in and out of one’s life. As Ondaatje puts it: “There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.”

More About Michael Ondaatje via Wikipedia

Articles and Related Stories on Michael Ondaatje via The Guardian

The Walt Whitman Archive

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Unless you have been under a rock—or perhaps outside enjoying this unusually fine and springlike winter—you know this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of English novelist Charles Dickens.

For two centuries, Dickens has been a social and cultural force. He was immensely prolific, and his books have never gone out of print. But still, it is pretty amazing that his stories have held up so well, for so long, in popularity and in the public consciousness. It is well known that Dickens changed society’s attitude to the poor by calling attention to child labor, debtor’s prisons, and the dismal, imprisoning poverty of those who fell under the wheels of “social Darwinism” during the Industrial Revolution. Though he was no revolutionary, his words fueled social reform throughout England. His stories also helped spread these notions to Europe and North America.

Culturally, Dickens continues to impact us. The BBC credits him with modern character comedy, our view of the law, and the concept of red tape. He also shaped our notion of Christmas. And just how many catchphrases have been derived from his name? “What the Dickens?” “A Dickens of a time.” And of course, “Dickensian” which appropriately has several different meanings: 1.) squalid or deprived as in “a Dickensian slum” 2.) jolly and cosy as in “a Dickensian Christmas” 3.) overtly serendipitous as in “a Dickensian inheritance from a long-lost relative” 4.) grotesquely comic, like the “Dickensian Child Catcher” in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Ok, the Child Catcher was soooo Roald Dahl, but Dickens was one of his favorite authors.

Beyond Dahl, the litany of writers influenced by Dickens reads like a who’s who of literature: Elizabeth Gaskell, Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, GK Chesterton, Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, Graham Greene, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Tom Wolfe, Richard Russo, Zadie Smith, and John Irving—just to name a few. Dickens was also particularly esteemed by contemporary Russian writers, including Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy.

Oh, and Dickens has snagged a current coup for writers—pick for Oprah’s Book Club—three times. Oprah also invited author Jane Smiley to talk about Dickens and Social Change.

I am still making my way through his giant body of work, picking up a book every year or two. On deck this year, will be Our Mutual Friend. A biggie that I confess I have not read. Many of you will now click away in shock and disgust. And if so, I suggest you try one of the many wonderful Dickens links listed at the end of this piece.

It’s a bit like that comfortable feeling of putting on a favorite sweater when you start a new Dickens—his rich, inviting words and his distinctive characters. I usually read his books in the winter, by the fire. Even though they are nice and thick, I just can’t work them as beach books, perhaps because they are so dense and so descriptive—and often so serious in theme.

Dickens stories have a cinematic feel, as he really invests in setting. There were no movies or TV back then, so he painted out the scenes for his characters … and his readers.

Take the opening passage of Bleak House:

“London … Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun … Fog everywhere … Fog down the river … Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards …
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets … Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.”

Sumptous! It’s almost like the opening of a David Lean film, with the camera panning through the fog and the streets of London until it zeroes in for the close-up of the Lord High Chancellor. And that’s with about half of the words hacked out by my ellipses—the actual opening has even more detail and atmosphere. Indeed, Lean, who is best know for epics such as Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, also filmed both Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Pioneering film director DW Griffiths pointed to Dickens as a source for his choices in camera angles and scene layouts, and even today film theorists continue to cite Dickens’s influence on the cinema. He is the most adapted author, with over 400 versions of his books on film and TV.

In addition to the obvious forum, Masterpiece Theater, Dickens has been a source of inspiration for shows like NCIS, Big Love, and LOST.  HBO’s The Wire featured an episode on Baltimore’s homeless titled “The Dickensian Aspect.” And even South Park spoofed Great Expectations in “A Dickens Classic.” LOST not only had an episode called “A Tale of Two Cities,” but also hid many ‘easter egg’ references to Dickens throughout the series. Exec Producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindenhof said they admired Dickens ability to develop elaborate plots over hundreds of pages, especially tricky considering his novels were mostly written in serial form, like episodes of TV. However, it seems that ‘Darlton’ did not quite pick up on Dickens’s knack for tying up loose ends.

And watch out Disney World, Charles Dickens is feted his own theme park, Dickens World. It’s in England, in Kent (of course), and it does sound a bit twee, as the Brits would say. But then aren’t all theme parks? The New York Times visited the park and also jaunted around Dickens landmarks on a literary tour. I have also heard great things about the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

But why travel when you can enter the world of Dickens just by opening one of his books? And don’t miss the brilliant series of cartoons which lampoon the author and his works in The New Yorker.

Finally, you get a sense of Dickens’s reach just from the many celebrations this year for him in places that he never lived like Paris, France; Bologna, Italy; and Zurich, Switzerland. There are also numerous events in the US, and, of course, throughout the UK. Check out Dickens 2012 for a complete listing of events and tributes worldwide.

Dickens left so many legacies, and he also gave us a perfect bit of wisdom:

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”

More Clicks for Dickens

The Atlantic: 10 Greatest Dickens Characters

The BBC: Six Things Dickens Gave the Modern World

Charles Dickens Museum

Charles Dickens Online

Dickens 2012

Dickens on Screen: the Highs and the Lows

George Orwell’s Famous Essay on Dickens

The Guardian: Charles Dickens at 200

The Lasting Social Legacy of Dickens

The New Yorker: A Far Far Better Cartoon Gag

The Oprah Show: Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens and Social Change

Time Magazine Dickens Top 10 Novels by Dickens

TV Writers on Dickens’s Legacy

Why Dickens Makes Great TV

The World Celebrates Dickens on Screen

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If you’re Catholic and you’ve been to church lately (it is Advent after all, which is not just for reading Jane Austen), then you may have found yourself slightly befuddled. Perhaps, like me, you were tripping over the words and not actually knowing what to say for the first time since you were six-years-old.

The Church has introduced a new liturgy and new prayers which are said to closer resemble scripture than the mass we’ve been saying since Vatican II. Really, this is a closer translation to the Latin Mass, and this whole move seems to be a nod to the small, vocal minority who want to return to that.

As someone who spends most of each day writing or editing, the words of the new version are not sitting well with me from an editorial viewpoint. No, I’m not one of those people who simply hates change. (Hey, I loved the Star Trek reboot!) But hearing the new liturgy has sparked in me a real appreciation for how beautifully the post-Vatican II translation read, and how well it worked.

In the Nicene Creed, we would say that Jesus is “one in being with the Father”—a simple phrase that conveys so much. As a kid, I remember the priest repeating this phrase in CCD as he tried to explain to us the concept of the Holy Trinity—that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all “one in being.” Interconnected—sort of like “the Force” in Star Wars, apologies for the repeated sci-fi references. Growing up, we spent our summers in Georgia, where the Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians at times eyed us with suspicion. Religion is a daily, even an hourly, topic of discussion in the South, and I’m not kidding when I say that more than one kid came up and asked me why Catholics believed in ghosts. I would laugh and try to explain the whole “one in being” thing. Maybe they didn’t get it, but I did. (Aside: updating the Holy Ghost to the Holy Spirit was a good editorial move.)

Now we are to say of Jesus, that he is “consubstantial with the Father.” Huh? It smacks of legalese—not what I’m looking for on a Sunday morning—and has me wondering if I need a contracts lawyer. But more importantly, it just doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s Latin, or Latinate, and this is a perfect example of how simple language works so much better than the inflated. Right now, we are all stumbling over that word, but in a few weeks it is just the sort of phrase to cause our eyes to glaze over as we read it. Though the Church says its aim with the new liturgy is to get parishioners more invested, it feels just the opposite.

One of my favorite spoken responses always came before communion, when the congregation said “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the words and I shall be healed.” It reminds us that we are humble, and flawed, and who the heck are we to look to this greater power each Sunday? But the magic is that we can. It also emphasizes how Jesus reached out to everyone regardless of status (something that mattered a great deal back then to Jewish rabbis, to those phony Pharisees, and of course to the Samaritans—except the good one). The story, if you aren’t familiar, is of a Roman Centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant (Matthew 8). Jesus offers “to come and cure him,” but the Centurion does not feel that he can invite a holy man into his house. Instead he asks Jesus to bless his servant and “only say the words.” So it’s also a bit of a parable of faith—the Centurion believes in Jesus without actually seeing him lay hands on the sick man. (Don’t worry, I won’t segue into the whole faith versus science debate on LOST.)

But, in an attempt to be closer to the Latin translation, the line which has sparked in me so much spiritual reflection now reads: “Lord I am not worthy  … that you should enter under my roof?!”  Suddenly I am thinking about how much mud my dog tracked in that morning and whether or not I have vacuumed yet. The phrase feels rather secular and not so spiritual. I’m not really sure what I am supposed to do with this. It’s not Passover, after all. Not that it would work on Passover, since the whole point then is for the angel not to come under my roof, which by the way is rented.

There are many other awkward changes, such as Jesus being “incarnate of the Virgin Mary” rather than simply “born” of her. Again, this feels overwrought—“purpley” as we say in the editing biz.  After knowing it by heart for most of my life, I’m only now realizing what a great job they did when they wrote the post-Vatican II liturgy—smoothing out the awkward Latin translations and distilling spiritual concepts into the vernacular. I also appreciated how it was the same everywhere in the world, so whether I was in Moscow or Shanghai, I could follow along just by the cadence and rhythm. With the new mass, it’s a bit like when you are traveling in Spain, feeling good about your Spanish, but then someone starts speaking in Catalan or Portuguese. You think you should understand what they are saying, you catch a word or two, but really they might as well be speaking Greek, or in this case, Latin.

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“Things spin. We are made by what we have been … This past and present is braided together with a beauty and an uncertainty.” –Colum McCann

 Esquire Magazine called Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin “the first great 9/11 novel.” This may sound odd since the book takes place 27 years before the World Trade Center attack, on August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked on a high wire between those famous Twin Towers.

The novel examines a day in the life of New York City, using the Tolstoy approach of many characters with multiple vantage points: the acrobat, the Irish priest, the hooker, the visiting brother, the myopic artist, the mother mourning her son killed in Vietnam. McCann makes us really care about these characters, giving them rich backstories and believable voices. Their lives intersect as the vignettes move about the city. It seems fitting that JJ Abrams, whose tv show LOST boasted a rich and interconnected group of characters, has optioned the movie rights.

McCann gives such a true and realistic portrait of 1970s New York that it’s hard to believe he is actually from Ireland. He did an enormous amount of research, meeting people who lived in the city then, and even going so far as to track down and interview retired policemen who had worked in the Bronx.

If you never visited the World Trade Center, than this is an especially resonant book to read. McCann, who has lived in New York since 1995, offers a vivid portrait of the looming Towers and the everyday workings of the city. His images, characters, and themes seem to ripple out from that place and time—after the Vietnam war and before our current state-of-high-alert. Tom Junod, in Esquire, argues that McCann identified “August 7, 1974, as the beginning of an era of American freedom that ended on September 11, 2001.”

What Colum McCann gives us in Let the Great World Spin, is a glimpse of what we lost:  An era. A community. An innocence.

TransAtlantic — the new novel by Colum McCann

Colum McCann’s official website

Esquire review of Let the Great World Spin

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