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Excerpt: Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova

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In her debut novel Everything Happens as It Does, Bulgarian writer Albena Stambolova tells the story of seven characters, their lives weaved together through an experimental structuring of events and relationships. Here is a brief excerpt, taken from the opening chapter.

1. Little Boys and Their Parents

In the beginning, Boris was unable to think about the surrounding world. Things just happened to him, and he had no way of avoiding them.

His parents, for example, meek as they were, looked like a grandpa and grandma rather than a mother and father, and that always unsettled him. His sister was eighteen years older than him, and people mistook her for his mother.

Later, as he grew older, he devised a way to escape. He would try to lose himself in uninhabited worlds, where it was hard to establish relationships of the family kind.

It was with the bees that he first managed to draw the boundaries of something he could call his own.

Before he enrolled in the English Language School in Plovdiv, he had a lot of time on his hands and nothing to do. He made it his purpose simply to pass the time. Afterward the opposite happened: he learned to stretch time to fit whatever work he was doing. And to stay in his room, while his sister’s family, although he was supposed to be living with them, carried on a life of its own.

When he started to wear glasses, the painful awkwardness of his childish face shifted into a look of seriousness. The glasses somehow set everyone at ease, as if things had finally slipped into place. Wearing glasses had the effect of calming the vague fears the family harbored about Boris. Not that they now knew him better than before. But an introverted boy with glasses was less worrisome than an introverted boy without glasses.

Boris could feel the change in people’s perception of him and immediately saw its advantages. Later, when he grew a beard, he could see how, just as the glasses before, the beard replaced whatever it was in him that provoked fear in others. One thing substituted for another. And behind it all stood the child named Boris.

He never asked himself how others did it. Getting to an inviolable place of his own was all that mattered, and he could always tell when he was there.

He learned to do things no one paid attention to. Or to do things in such a way that no one paid attention to him. For instance, he was willing to eat something he couldn’t stand, rather than give himself away and make his dislike known to others. He realized that his mother felt anxiety and, although he could not understand why, he felt he knew enough already.

Excerpted from Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova, published by Open Letter. ©2002 Albena Stambolova. Translation ©2012 Olga Nikolova

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Find Everything Happens as It Does at your local bookstore

Written by Gabrielle

January 28, 2014 at 6:49 am

Charlie Chaplin in New York

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Born in London in 1889, legendary comic actor Charlie Chaplin grew up poor. He was the son of a singer who often found herself out of work due to poor health. Together with his older brother, Sydney, he found ways to make ends meet by following in the family’s entertaining footsteps. The two Chaplins were successful both on stage and on screen, each signing million dollar contracts at some point in their career.

Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, simply titled My Autobiography, recently published as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library series, is a fascinating life story. Not only is it a portrait of the film industry from the early 1920s to the 60s, it’s a look at how a mixture of luck, talent, and business savvy created one of the era’s top performers.

Around 1910, Chaplin landed in New York for the first time. Here is his first impression:

At ten o’clock on a Sunday morning we at last arrived in New York. When we got off the street-car at Times Square, it was somewhat of a let-down. Newspapers were blowing about the road and pavement, and Broadway looked seedy, like a slovenly woman just out of bed. …

However, this was New York, adventurous, bewildering, a little frightening. Paris, on the other hand, had been friendlier. Even though I could not speak the language, Paris had welcomed me on every street corner with its bistros and outside cafes. But New York was essentially a place of big business. The tall skyscrapers seemd ruthlessly arrogant and to care little for the convenience of ordinary people; even the saloon bars had no place for the customers to sit, only a long brass rail to rest a foot on, and the popular eating places, though clean and done in white marble, looked cold and clinical.

I took a back room in one of the brownstone houses off Forty-third Street, where the Times building now stands. It was dismal and dirty and made me homesick for London and our little flat. In the basement was a cleaning and pressing establishment and during the week the fetid odour of clothes being pressed and steam wafted up and added to my discomfort.

That first day I felt quite inadequate. It was an ordeal to go into a restaurant and order something because of my English accent — and the fact that I spoke slowly. So many spoke in a rapid, clipped way that I felt uncomfortable for fear I might stutter and waste their time.

I was alien to the slick tempo. In New York even the owner of the smallest enterprise acts with alacrity. The shoe-black flips his polishing rag with alacrity, the bartender serves beer with alacrity, sliding it up to you along the polished surface of the bar. The soda clerk, when serving egg malted milk, performs like a hopped-up juggler. In a fury of speed he snatches up a glass, attacking everything he puts into it, vanilla flavour, blob of ice cream, two spoonfuls of malt, a raw egg which he deposits with one crack, then adding milk, all of which he shakes in a container and delivers in less than a minute.

On the Avenue that first day many looked as I felt, lone and isolated; others swaggered along as though they owned the place. The behaviour of many people seemed dour and metallic as if to be agreeable or polite would prove a weakness. But in the evening as I walked along Broadway with the crowd dressed in their summer clothes, I became reassured. We had left England in the middle of a bitter cold September and arrived in New York in an Indian summer with a temperature of eighty degrees; and as I walked along Broadway it began to light up with myriads of coloured electric bulbs and sparkled like a brilliant jewel. And in the warm night my attitude changed and the meaning of America came to me: the tall skyscrapers, the brilliant, gay lights, the thrilling display of advertisements stirred me with hope and a sense of adventure. ‘That is it!’ I said to myself. ‘This is where I belong!’

Written by Gabrielle

November 20, 2013 at 7:20 am

The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle

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Clockwork ManSmall press HiLoBooks has been reviving stories from the “Radium Age,” a term coined by publisher Joshua Glenn to mean the era in science fiction encompassing 1904 to 1933. The Clockwork Man, having come out last week, is their most recent title in the series.

Written by Edwin Vincent (E.V.) Odle, a British playwright, critic, and short-story author, The Clockwork Man is considered by many to be the first cyborg novel. Unfortunately it came out in 1923, the same year as Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., which succeeded in taking all the glory.

For years The Clockwork Man languished in obscurity, ultimately becoming out-of-print. Joshua Glenn, having heard about the book, was tired of waiting for someone else to reissue it, found a first edition, and brought it back to life.

A forgotten classic, first serialized online at HiLoBrow, now published in paperback with an introduction from Annalee Newitz of io9, The Clockwork Man should be on the shelf of every science fiction fan.

Here’s an excerpt:

It was just as Doctor Allingham had congratulated himself upon the fact that the bowling was broken, and he had only to hit now and save the trouble of running, just as he was scanning the boundaries with one eye and with the other following Tanner’s short, crooked arm raised high above the white sheet at the back of the opposite wicket, that he noticed the strange figure. Its abrupt appearance, at first sight like a scarecrow dumped suddenly on the horizon, caused him to lessen his grip upon the bat in his hand. His mind wandered for just that fatal moment, and his vision of the oncoming bowler was swept away and its place taken by that arresting figure of a man coming over the path at the top of the hill, a man whose attitude, on closer examination, seemed extraordinarily like another man in the act of bowling.

That was why its effect was so distracting. It seemed to the doctor that the figure had popped up there on purpose to imitate the action of a bowler and so baulk him. During the fraction of a second in which the ball reached him, the second image had blotted out everything else. But the behavior of the figure was certainly abnormal. Its movements were violently ataxic. Its arms revolved like sails of a windmill. Its legs shot out in all directions, enveloped in dust.

The doctor’s astonishment was turned into annoyance by the spectacle of his shattered wicket. A vague clatter of applause broke out. The wicket keeper stooped down to pick up the bails. The fielders relaxed and flopped down on the grass. They seemed to have discovered suddenly that it was a hot afternoon, and that cricket was, after all, a comparatively strenuous game. One of the umpires, a sly nasty fellow, screwed up his eyes and looked hard at the doctor as the latter passed him, walking with the slow, meditative gait of the bowled out, and swinging his gloves. There was nothing to do but glare back, and make the umpire feel a worm. The doctor wore an eye-glass, and he succeeded admirably. His irritation boiled over and produced a sense of ungovernable childish rage. Somehow, he had not been able to make any runs this season, and his bowling average was all to pieces. He began to think he ought to give up cricket. He was getting past the age when a man can accept reverses in the spirit of the game, and he was sick and tired of seeing his name every week in the Great Wymering Gazette as having been dismissed for a “mere handful.”

He looked out the window, and there was that confounded figure still jiggling about. It had come nearer to the ground. It hovered, with a curious air of not being related to its surroundings that was more than puzzling. It did not seem to know what it was about, but hopped along aimlessly, as though scenting a track, stopped for a moment, blundered forward again and made a zig-zag course towards the ground. The doctor watched it advancing through the broad meadow that bounded the pitch, threading its way between the little groups of grazing cows, that raised their heads with more than their ordinary, slow persistency, as though startled by some noise. The figure seemed to be aiming for the barrier of hurdles that surrounded the pitch, but whether its desire was for cricket or merely to reach some kind of goal, whether it sought recreation or a mere pause from its restless convulsions, it was difficult to tell. Finally, it fell against the fence and hung there, two hands crooked over the hurdle and its legs drawn together at the knees. It became suddenly very still—so still that it was hard to believe it ever moved.

It was certainly odd. The doctor was so struck by something altogether wrong about the figure, something so suggestive of a pathological phenomenon, that he almost forgot his annoyance and remained watching it with an unlighted cigarette between his lips.

Find The Clockwork Man at your local bookstore
Listen to Joshua Glenn on Gweek (second segment)
Read The Clockwork Man online
Check out the other books in the HiLoBooks Radium Age series

Written by Gabrielle

September 17, 2013 at 6:54 am

The Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon

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In Sixty-One Nails, Mike Shevdon’s first book in his Courts of the Feyre series, Londoner Niall Petersen learns of special powers previously dormant inside him. His abilities, awakened on the Underground platform during rush hour, altered the course of his life in moments.

Dragged into a generations-old world of magic and danger, Niall must embrace his Feyre lineage, learn to move in the shadows, and save the world from the Seventh Court. He succeeds by the end of the book–and finds Blackbird, a female companion for his new life, in the process.

Now, in Shevdon’s follow up, The Road to Bedlam, Niall’s daughter from his previous marriage is involved in a tragic accident at school and the wrong people have noticed. Only when Niall hears her calling for his help through a mirror does he realize she’s not dead, as the doctors had led him to believe. With Niall on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter, Blackbird in her final months of pregnancy, and an unwanted houseguest at headquarters, The Road to Bedlam is just as packed with action, mystery, and suspense as its predecessor.

The contemporary landscape in which The Courts of the Feyre takes place and the fast-paced storytelling are two strong elements in the series but what strikes me most while reading is the way Shevdon makes you care about the characters. Niall’s a good-hearted guy–thoughtful and sensitive–and Blackbird is a feisty, independent woman who would much rather protect herself than rely on others You read compulsively–to find out what happens next, to know they’ll be okay.

The Road to Bedlam balances the tricky question of how much background to give: just enough for a newcomer to enjoy the current story but, at the same time, well-short of annoying those who come to it informed. Off to a strong start, The Courts of the Feyre series is an excellent example of modern, dark fantasy. Now that North America is heading into fall, this is the perfect set of books for those dark and chilly nights.

Pick up The Road to Bedlam at your local bookstore
Mike Shevdon on Angry Robot
The Road to Bedlam on Angry Robot


From chapter one:

The pool of light was no more than twelve feet across and, for this critical moment, defined my world. Beyond its boundary circled my attackers. They would not kill me, at least not on purpose, but they would hurt me if they could.

The blade in my hand was heavy, a training blade made of dark wood, the handle worn smooth by calloused hands and burnished with sweat. I held it level, two-handed, keeping my grip light but firm, giving it the potential for movement in any direction and leaving my assailants no clue as to how I would react.

It had been a long day, both physically and mentally. I was already aching and sore from earlier sessions and I was unlikely to leave this circle without further bruises to add to my collection.

I took a slow breath, rejecting the distraction of consequences. I had to stay in the moment and not let my mind wander. I had to deny them an opening, an opportunity to step into my circle and attack.

This was my circle. It had been made for me to define the space I could defend. Every day the circle got smaller, sometimes by a little, sometimes a lot. I’d given up trying to predict how it would change, only acknowledging that it would not grow in size, only shrink.

A shift in the air brought me round as a dark figure danced into the light, blade arcing down at my head. I stepped forward and around, sliding my own blade diagonally upwards so that his slice glanced off my blade with a clack and swished down over my shoulder. I spun and sliced my blade where the shadow had been but it just whistled through empty air, the figure once again merging with the shadows.

“Too slow,” chuckled Tate, his deep voice rumbling from the darkness.

I stepped back into the centre only to have a figure leap in front of me launching a series of short diagonal strikes. I used my own blade to deflect each one, slowly giving ground, only to realise that her intent was not to strike me, but to drive me backwards out of the circle. Once outside the pool of light I would be at the mercy of anyone already accustomed to the shadow. I deflected the next slice and pushed the attacking sword away, using its momentum to break my attacker’s balance and letting my own point drop. I reversed my grip and punched the pommel hard into the attacker’s midriff.

There was an answering grunt as my blow sank home and the figure folded over, at the same time trying to tangle my wrist in her grip. I wrenched the sword away, lowering my stance to give me posture and drawing the blade up in a long slice. It found only shadows.

Written by Gabrielle

September 11, 2012 at 6:51 am

Book of the Week: Enrique Vila-Matas’s Dublinesque [Excerpt]

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Dublinesque by contemporary Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas is a surprisingly humorous story about a failed publisher, Riba, living in Barcelona. Rather than admit his company’s demise is attributed to his poor financial skills, he places the blame on the current state of the publishing industry.

Throughout the book Riba makes plans to visit Dublin in order to stage a metaphorical funeral for the printed word, a “requiem for the Gutenberg age”. A review of Dublinesque is forthcoming but until then, enjoy the opening page of this wonderful book. If you’ve read it, please share your comments below. If you haven’t, pick it up now. It’s perfect for a read-along.

He belongs to an increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary publishers. And every day, since the beginning of this century, he has watched in despair the spectacle of the noble branch of his trade—publishers who still read and who have always been drawn to literature—gradually, surreptitiously dying out. He had financial trouble two years ago, but managed to shut the publishing house down without having to declare bankruptcy, toward which it had been heading with terrifying obstinacy, despite its prestige. In over thirty years as an independent he has seen it all, successes but also huge failures. He attributes the loss of direction in the end to his resistance to publishing the gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion, and so forgets part of the truth: he was never renowned for good financial management, and what’s more, his exaggerated fanaticism for literature was probably harmful.

Samuel Riba—known to everyone as Riba—has published many of the great writers of his time. In some cases only one book, but enough so they appear in his catalog. Sometimes, although aware that in the honorable sector of his trade there are still some valiant Quixotes, he likes to see himself as the last publisher. He has a somewhat romantic image of himself, and spends his life feeling that it’s the end of an era, the end of the world, doubtless influenced by the sudden cessation of his activities. He has a remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text, interpreting it with the distortions befitting the compulsive reader he’s been for so many years. Aside from this, he is hoping to sell his assets to a foreign publishing house, but talks have been stalled for some time. He lives in an anxious state of powerful, end-of-everything psychosis. Nothing, and no one, has yet convinced him that getting old has its good points. Does it?

From Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas. Copyright 2010 by Enrique Vila-Matas.

Find Dublinesque at an indie bookstore near you 

Written by Gabrielle

July 12, 2012 at 6:52 am

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

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“This is the time of myths. They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern, a grand design, a repeating motif. Don’t dismiss myth, boy. And never, ever, dismiss the Bookman.”

The thing about steampunk novels is that they make you want to Google everything. It’s the reimagined history element that does it; the fascinating with British Romantic poet Lord Byron and the English inventor Charles Babbage alone will leave you guessing what’s fact and what’s fiction. The urge to search is even stronger with Tidhar Lavie’s novel The Bookman thanks to cameos by Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and Jules Verne.

Externalities alone make The Bookman is irresistible. David Frankland’s gorgeous cover illustration is worthy of professional framing and the title is one that no book nerd can ignore.  Dig a little deeper and a quick thumb through shows literary epigraphs at the start of each chapter.

Set in Victorian London, as one would expect from a steampunk novel, The Bookman, laden with questions at every turn and sparing with its answers, is a riddle to its core. Although the multiple twists can be confusing if not read with the utmost care, the mystery is one of the driving forces of the book. The unresolved relationships between characters, their conceivable motivations, and possibly most compelling, the unknown origin of the protagonist, Orphan, keeps the eyes moving and the pages turning.

Orphan, both a name and an apt description, is a poet-hopeful and a lackadaisical employee and resident of Payne’s Booksellers. Although the store is owned by a known seditionist and doubles as a meeting place for those looking to overthrow the government—an alien reptilian race known as Les Lézards, the Lizard Kings, who have infiltrated Britain and now occupy the empire’s throne—Orphan’s earthly concerns extend little beyond his romantic interest, Lucy, a slightly aloof, whale-loving girl. Head-over-heels for her, Orphan proposes one night and all seems right with his world.

Unfortunately, the political climate, growing tense by the day, can no longer be ignored. Terrorists, presumably headed by the Bookman, an esoteric and feared figure, have begun setting off bombs in the public arena with deadly consequences and Lucy, unwittingly, becomes a casualty of another attack. Heartsick and desperate, Orphan is forced to play the Bookman’s game, becoming his pawn and setting off on a preternatural adventure.

The vividity of the worlds Orphan passes through on his quest to retrieve his one true love is a strength of Tidhar’s writing. His lyrical prose and use of metaphor ties the fantastical elements to an emotional realism. The outcome is a romantic voyage along the boundaries of absurdity.

The Bookman was a fun and engaging read; Tidhar’s imagination, responsible for creating a world of royal lizards, convincing simulacrum, multicultural pirates, and a shifting island with a strict entrance policy, is something I look forward to experiencing again in his follow up, Camera Obscura.


On Orphan . . .
“Who was Orphan and how had he come to inhabit that great city, the Capital of the Everlasting Empire, the seat of the royal family, the ancestral home of Les Lezards? His father was a Vespuccian sailor, his mother an enigma: both were dead, and had been so for many years. His skin was copper-red, his eyes green like the sea. He had spent his early life on the docks, running errands between the feet of sailors, a minute employee of the East India Company. His knowledge of languages was haphazard if wide, his education colourful and colloquial, his circle of friends and acquaintances far-ranging, if odd.

He learned poetry in the gutter, and from the public readings given by the great men and women of the age; in pubs and dockyards, in halls of learning and in the streets at dawn — and once, from a sword-wielding girl from France, who appeared mysteriously on the deck of a ship Orphan was helping to load with cargo bound for China, and recounted to him, in glorious, beautiful verse, a vision of God (he had never forgotten her) — and he learned it from the books in the public library, until words spun in his head all day and all night, and he agonised at writing them down on paper, his hand bleeding as the pen scratched against the surface of the page.”

On love . . .
“Orphan had first met Lucy one day at the bookshop. She came through the door like — sunshine? Wind? Like spice? Orphan wasn’t that much of a poet — looking for a book about whales. He fell in love the way trees do, which is to say, forever. It was a love with roots that burrowed deep, entangled, grew together. Like two trees they leaned into each other, sheltering each other with their leaves, finding solace and strength in the wide encompassing forest that was the city, holding together in the multitude of alien trees. Orphan loved her the way people do in romantic novels, from the first page, beyond even The End.”

On books . . .
“Paynes was a haven of light in a dark world. Stepping inside, he was nearly overwhelmed with the feeling of home. The familiar, conflicting smells of the books vied for his attention. The musty tang of old volumes, the polished smell of new leather bindings, the crisp clear scent of freshly printed books, all rose to greet him, like a horde of somewhat-dysfunctional relatives at a family event.”“There is nothing sadder than an unused bookshop. Volumes of words, ideas and stories, blueprints and diagnostics, illustrations and notes scribbled in the margins — they did not exist unless there was someone there to hold them, to open their pages, to read them and make them come alive, however briefly.”

The Bookman at IndieBound
Lavie Tidhar’s page at Angry Robot
Lavie Tidhar’s World SF Blog, a site dedicated to science fiction writing from non-English speaking writers
An interview with Lavie on the Functional Nerds podcast
Follow Lavie on Twitter @lavietidhar

Written by Gabrielle

August 23, 2011 at 6:11 am

Classic Steampunk :: Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter

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“An innate trust was an element of my nature that had been dissolved through harsh experience.”

The sepia tone-inspired cover of Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter typifies the sub-genre of science fiction to which it belongs. The image of a man, mouth made of metal, face half covered in leather, wearing a top hat and tux, the background a layering of gears, industrial-sized screws, shiny pipes, and a pressure gauge all scream steampunk.

Steampunk, as it’s often described, takes elements of Victorian-era Britain—its fashion, culture, architecture, art, and the advent of steam-powered technology—and combines them with elements from science fiction and fantasy. Authors, filmmakers, and other artists find inspiration in what was the historic rise of communication and travel and infuse world domination, mass destruction, and conspiracy.

Early influences are Jule Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1870, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895. Steampunk novels, as we think of them today, were published as early as the late 1960s but ascended to popularity in the 1980s and 90s with authors such as Tim Powers and James Blaylock—in addition to Jeter who published his first steampunk novel, Morlock Night, in 1979.

In an attempt to explain what he and his fellow writers were doing, Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to the editor of Locus magazine, printed in their April 1987 issue. In it he says, “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks’, perhaps…”.

Jeter’s second steampunk novel, Infernal Devices, published in 1987, is a surrealist mystery set in Victorian London. The story begins with George Dower, the son of a deceased watchmaker left in charge of the family business. One night, George is visited by an unknown creature who he names, because of his deep brown skin, Brown Leather Man. Having been a client of his father’s, the man brings with him a mechanical regulator in need of repair. Though George protests, having been estranged from his father and never trained in the ways of the trade, Brown Leather Man insists on leaving it with him. As partial payment he hands George a silver coin embossed with the face of a Saint Monkfish, a holy man previously unknown to the unwitting heir. The object is met with mixed results throughout the story: at one point leading George directly to the person he’s looking for and yet at another nearly causing his death.

By accepting the device, George enters into a clandestine conflict between warring factions—the Royal Anti-Society, the Godly Army, and the Ladies Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice—finding himself in murky waters, often not knowing which of these questionable characters is friend and which is foe. As intentions unfold so does the depth of George’s father’s skills and the story grow darker.

Full of fantastical elements, gear-driven gadgets, elegant language, and rich descriptions, Infernal Devices is a twisting tale that reads like classic literature.

The gentleman ignored my forays towards his name, and produced a paper-wrapped parcel from the crook of one arm. Placing it on the counter between us, the Brown Leather Man (as I had already begun  to identify him in my thoughts) undid the knotted cord and pushed aside the paper with his dark hands. “I was a client of your late father,” he said. “For me he built this, upon my commission. Some elements of disorder has entered its workings, and I seek to employ you in the setting right of it.”

The last of the wrappings fell away. “What is it?” I asked. My eyes turned upward at the Brown Leather Man’s silence, and found the narrow slits studying me with an unnerving intensity.

In relief I looked back down to what lay before me. A mahogany box a little over a foot in length, half that in its other dimensions; a pair of brass hinges faced me. With one finger I attempted to swivel the box around, but the surprising weight of it kept it motionless upon the counter. I was forced to grasp it with both hands in order to turn it about.

I unlatched the simple brass hasp and tilted the box’s lid open. My heart sank within me as I looked down at the intricate anatomy of the device.

This feeling of despair was not unfamiliar to me; it often welled up at the sight of one of my father’s creations. His genius had not been limited to the production of the packet watches and larger time-pieces whose subtlety of design and intricacy of execution had established his name among admirers of the horological art. Since his death and my inadequate assumption of his place, I had become acquainted with facets of his work that are still little known, having been undertaken at the behest of a select arid discreet clientele. Scientific and astronomical apparatus of every description, ranging from simple barometers, though of a fineness of calibration rarely if ever equalled, to elaborate astrolabes and orreries, the latter distinguished by a set of reciprocating eccentric cams in the clockwork drive mechanism capable of showing the true elliptical orbits of heavenly bodies rather than the simplified circular motions employed in other such mechanical representations of the universe — all of these and more were my father’s children. More so than my own self, I would often think as I gazed at some intricate intermeshing of gears and cogs such as the one revealed inside the Brown Leather Man’s mahogany casket. The bits of finely turned and crafted brass showed the care and attention that had been absent in the creation and assembly of my own personal manhood.

The purpose and function of some of the devices brought to me were unfathomable, and an odd secretiveness prevailed among my father’s former clients. Amateur scientific pursuits had long been a preoccupation with serious-minded gentlemen of property and leisure, but the ones who came to me were often as uncommunicative as the devices they wished to be repaired. Sextants that devided the sky into angles not found in the usual geometries, microscopes whose hermetically sealed lenses distorted the viewed object into shimmering rainbow images, other instruments whose complexity and manifold adjustments quite overwhelmed my powers of speculation as to their use — all of these had in time been brought into the shop.

—copyright: K.W. Jeter / 1979

Infernal Devices on the Angry Robot website

Written by Gabrielle

July 12, 2011 at 6:11 am

First Books: Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov

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“The trouble is, Hari, that a human being is easy to identify. . . . But what is humanity?”

Whether large or small, permanent or fleeting, many of us have experienced regret. It’s because of this human condition that one can sympathize with mathematician Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The first book in this seven-volume saga, Prelude to Foundation, opens with Seldon, in the year 12,020 Galactic Era, having just delivered a paper on psychohistory, a theory of prediction, at a conference on the planet Trantor. Although still in the speculative stage and its ultimate fruition uncertain, Seldon comes to the attention of the Emperor of the Galactic Empire and is summonsed to the palace the next day—and so begins Hari’s remorse.

After hearing that psychohistory is not ready for practical use, the Emperor wants Hari to falsify a prediction in his favor. Being an honest guy, Hari refuses. Allowed to leave the palace for his flight back to home to Helicon the next day, Seldon is led astray by a Trantorian journalist, Chetter Hummin, before the sun sets. Told that the Imperial forces will track him if he returns to his home planet, Hari reluctantly agrees to become a fugitive on Trantor, living with local hosts and attempting to stay under the radar. Along the way he picks up a female sidekick, Dors Venabili, a historian who specializes in the rise of Royal Trantor and who is sworn to protect him. What follows, partly due to Hari’s stubbornness and sometimes downright obnoxious behavior, is a series of misadventures. If you don’t appreciate semi-unlikeable characters, don’t bother reading this one. Hari is far from charming.

Prelude to Foundation, first published as a series of eight short stories in Astounded Magazine between 1942 and 1950, is a classic science fiction novel. It’s set far in the future, involves fantastic modes of travel, and imagines advances in technology that seem to foreshadow some of our devices today—book-films for example can easily be seen as the next step in the evolution of eReaders.

As with most science fiction, Prelude to Foundation asks larger questions of the world we live in today. While traveling to other sectors of the galaxy, Seldon and Dors are exposed to their diverse inhabitants, many of whom hold fast to their individual cultural traditions, some of which offend the two travelers—and undoubtedly the reader. It’s unsurprising that Asimov, as someone who eschewed religion, preferring Humanism to the religious Judaism of his ancestors, touches on the misogynistic practices that are often prevalent in fundamentalist communities. For example, in the sector Mycogen, women are prohibited from speak to men and are the relegated to the kitchen.

Also raised is the notion of class. After violating the laws of a spiritual sanctuary on Mycogen, Hari and Dors are whisked off to Dahl, a sector where the people are inherently unsavory. Instituted within the community is a hierarchy. The lowest of the low, designated by employment in the “heatsinks,” the energy-producing plants that the sector is known for, are looked down on by those fortunate enough to have other professions.

Readers of political philosophy will find the ruling tactics of the future familiar. A political agitator in Dahl explains to Hari and Dors:  “The Imperial forces must keep their hands off, but they find that they can do much even so. Each sector is encouraged to be suspicious of its neighbors. Within each sector, economic and social classes are encouraged to wage a kind of war with each other. The result is that all over Trantor it is impossible for the people to take united action. Everywhere, the people would rather fight each other than make a common stand against the central tyranny and the Empire rules without having to exert force.”

And, one of the first things Dors says to Seldon when they first meet at the university where she teaches, she explains the admission policy of accepting a mixture of students, those who are local and those from the “Outworld”: “Professionals are turned out by any university anywhere, but the administrators of the Empire—the high officials, the countless millions of people who represent the tentacles of Empire reaching into every corner of the Galaxy—are educated right here on Trantor. . . . It’s important that the officials of the Empire have some common ground, some special feeling for the Empire. And they can’t all be native Trantorians or else the Outworld would grow restless. For that reason, Trantor must attract millions of Outworlders for education here. . . . That’s what holds the Empire together. The Outworlds are less restive when a noticeable portion of the administrators who represent the Imperial government are their own people by birth and upbringing.”

This mixture of fantasy and politics makes Prelude to Foundation a fast-paced and often thought-provoking story. The twist at the end will leave the reader wondering what happens in the second book, Forward to the Foundation. If you’re looking for an old-school science fiction series for your summer reading pile, this is it.


Hari Seldon remained uncomfortably silent for a while after Hummin’s quiet statement. He shrank within himself in sudden recognition of his own deficiencies.

He Had invented a new science: psychohistory. He had extended the laws of probability in a very subtle manner to take into account new complexities and uncertainties and had ended up with elegant equations in innumerable unknowns. —Possibly an infinite number; he couldn’t tell.

But it was a mathematical game and nothing more.

He had psychohistory—or at least the basis of psychohistory—but only as a mathematical curiosity. Where was the historical knowledge that could perhaps give some meaning to the empty equations?

He had none. He had never been interested in history. He knew the outline of Heliconian history. Courses in that small fragment of the human story had, of course, been compulsory in the Heliconian schools. But what was there beyond that? Surely what else he had picked up was merely the bare skeletons that everyone gathered—half legend, the other half surely distorted.

Still, how could one say that the Galactic Empire was dying? It had existed for ten thousand years as an accepted Empire and even before that, Trantor, as the capital of the dominating kingdom, had held what was a virtual empire for two thousand years. The Empire had survived the early centuries when whole sections of the Galaxy would now and then refuse to accept the end of their local independence. It had survived the vicissitudes that went with the occasional rebellions, the dynastic wars, some serious periods of breakdown. Most worlds had scarcely been troubled by such things and Trantor itself had grown steadily until it was the worldwide human habitation that now called itself the Eternal World.

Prelude to Foundation on the publisher’s website
More on the Foundation series at

Written by Gabrielle

July 5, 2011 at 7:21 am

short takes: the magicians by lev grossman

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Remember the last time you ran home to finish a book?  This is it, folks.  THE MAGICIANS is the most dazzling, erudite and thoughtful fantasy novel to date.  You’ll be bedazzled by the magic but also brought short by what it has to say about the world we live in.
—Gary Shteyngart, author most recently of super sad true love story

there’s been much discussion in the literary world about book blurbs, the marketing tool that asks well-known, well-regarded authors to come up with a positive sentence or two about a forthcoming book roughly within the same genre that they themselves write. this praise is then included on the book jacket and in press releases in order to attract the interest of bookstore browsers and media people. while some are cynical, doubting whether the blurber actually read the book, gary shteyngart’s words for lev grossman’s the magicians captures perfectly the encapsulation you feel while reading. it’s the kind of book that makes the walls and furniture drop out around you. with steady fascination and unwavering endurance, i finished all 400 pages in a week.

the magicians might feel familiar at the start—the main characters are a group of enchanted kids who go to a secret magic college—but let’s be honest, genre fiction only lends itself to so much originality. what rescues this story from the jaws of triteness is lev’s superb use of language and philosophical leanings.

in one scene, an uncharacteristically candid dean fogg, the head of Brakebills, the aforementioned magic school, gives an excellent soliloquy on the nature of magic:

“Sometimes I wonder if man was really meant to discover magic,” Fogg said expansively. “ It doesn’t really make sense. It’s a little too perfect, don’t you think? If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart—reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.

“Little children don’t know that. Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it. Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children. The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded.

“But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.

“I sometimes feel as though we’ve stumbled on a flaw in the system, don’t you? A short circuit? A category error? A strange loop? Is it possible that magic is knowledge that would be better off forsworn? Tell me this: Can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?”

in addition to making the barely-avoidable fantasy themes fresh, lev deftly handles the sex scenes that inevitably find their way into these stories. what often feels like an ex-pimply teenager making up for not getting attention from girls in high school, these moments in science fiction and fantasy can often leave a girl reader feeling icky. the magicians, as with any coming-of-age tale with the characters growing into their early 20s through the pages, sex is often uneludible. with lev, the encounters are tasteful, discreet, and not some invitation for the author to compensate for his pubescent frustrations. if lev were bitter about not getting the cheerleader, he isn’t showing it. he also scores major points for including a gay character who, while affecting a certain proclivity towards fashion, avoids the stereotypical mold as well.

lev grossman’s ability to bring scenery to the reader, breath life into characters, and create an instinctive pace makes the magicians a naturally unfolding tale that will leave you with a smirk on your face and a unquenchable desire to read the next chapter in the life of these young enchanters.

the second installment of the magicians series, the magician king, will be published by Viking in August 2011


Q: What was your inspiration for The Magicians? Were you, like Quentin, the kind of “nerd” who’s read and re-read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Once and Future King multiple times?

A: Is there any other kind of nerd? There were a lot of inspirations for The Magicians. Of course, I did all those things, and still do them. I suppose on one level I was trying to bring together the literary sensibilities of the Modernist writers I studied in graduate school, and the glorious escapism of the fantasy novels that I love, and mash them up together into one perfect book, where they would be forced to sit down and talk to each other. On another level I was going through a difficult time personally (divorce) and having a lot of fantasies about other, better worlds that I might possibly escape to. On still another level, it was 2004, and we were in the long two-year trough between Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I badly wanted something new to read. So badly that I decided to write something myself.

Q: How would you compare the C. S. Lewis and T. H. White books to those by J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman?

A: Very broadly speaking—very very broadly—I think the shift from Lewis and White (and for that matter Tolkien) to writers like Rowling and Pullman has to do with the gradual separation of fantasy from religion, specifically from Christianity. In Lewis and White, most of your supernatural power comes from God. There may be magic in the picture—Digory’s uncle Andrew is a magician, and of course there’s the White Witch—but the mightiest power is a mystical, spiritual Christian force. In Pullman and Rowling magic is the only power we see. There is no divine force. In Pullman’s universe magic comes from dust. Rowling’s understanding of magic is more difficult to theorize, but it is evidently tied in closely with human emotions like love and hate, rather than any deity. God may or may not exist in Harry’s world, but if he does he has withdrawn, and doesn’t interfere directly. Magic is a secular power. One of the ambitions of The Magicians is to crash these two world-views, the secular and the divine fantasy, into each other with maximum force.

Q:  The Chronicles of Narnia are superbly written but thinly veiled Christian parables. Did you intend to convey any similar lessons with The Magicians?

A: Well, I think it’s a bit of a red herring to call the Narnia books Christian parables. They exemplify some Christian virtues, certainly. But they’re pretty thickly veiled. And to me the veil is the most interesting part. As for The Magicians, it’s not a parable of any kind. You could probably (I’ve never tried) divide novels into two camps, those that try to build up theories and lessons, and those that explore the way that life is often too messy and difficult and cruel to fit any theories or lessons. The Magicians is in the second camp. Now that I’ve said all that: there is a character in The Magicians who teaches Quentin a very hard lesson about self-sacrifice.

*the Q&A was edited from the publisher’s press materials


idiosyncrasy (n.): an individualizing characteristic or quality
caterwaul (v.): to protest or complain noisily
sloop (n.): a fore-and-aft rigged boat with one mast and a single jib
dipsomania (n.): an uncontrollable craving for alcoholic liquors
penny-ante (adj.): small-time; two-bit
glassine (n.): a thin dense transparent or semitransparent paper highly resistant to the passage of air and grease
excrescence (n.): a disfiguring, extraneous, or unwanted mark or part
apropos (adj.): relevant and opportune
vernal (adj.): of, relating to, or occurring in the spring
sylvan (n.): one that frequents groves or woods
persiflage (n.): frivolous bantering talk; light raillery
bumptious (adj.): presumptuously, obtusely, and often noisily self-assertive
epiphenomenon (n.): a secondary phenomenon accompanying another and caused by it
kludge (n.): system and especially a computer system made up of poorly matched components
docent (n.): a teacher or lecturer;  a person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery
avuncular (adj.): suggestive of an uncle especially in kindliness or geniality
obstreperous (adj.): stubbornly resistant to control; unruly
topiary (adj.): of, relating to, or being the practice or art of training, cutting, and trimming trees or shrubs into odd or ornamental shapes
eidetic (adj.): marked by or involving extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall especially of visual image
ruminant (adj.): characterized by chewing again what has been swallowed
oenological (n.): a science that deals with wine and wine making
saurian (n.): any of a suborder of reptiles including the lizards and in older classifications the crocodiles and various extinct forms that resemble lizards
aeruginous (adj.): having the characteristics of or the color of verdigris— a green or greenish-blue poisonous pigment resulting from the action of acetic acid on copper and consisting of one or more basic copper acetates
multifarious (adj.): having or occurring in great variety

Written by Gabrielle

March 29, 2011 at 8:18 am

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books for readers :: how to write a sentence / stanley fish

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Chapter 1
Why Sentences?

In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’ ” The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that “if he liked sentences he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.’ ” The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it), is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.

But wouldn’t the equivalent of paint be words rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on a canvas and make something interesting happen, just piling up words, one after the other, won’t do much of anything until something else has been added. That something is named quite precisely by Anthony Burgess in this sentence from his novel Enderby Outside (1968):

And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nestled in the places “ordained” for them—”ordained” is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures—they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine. . . .

. . . Here is Dillard again: “When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” And when you come to the end of the path, you have a sentence.

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One / Stanley Fish / ©2011


syntax: the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)
syntactical: of, relating to, or according to the rules of syntax or syntactics
inexorable: not to be persuaded, moved, or stopped
syntactic structures: good definition not found
ligature: a) a printed or written character (as æ or ƒƒ) consisting of two or more letters or characters joined together;
b) something that is used to bind
subject: a) one that is acted on; b) an individual whose reactions or responses are studied
object: a) a noun or noun equivalent (as a pronoun, gerund, or clause) denoting the goal or result of the action of a verb;
b) the goal or end of an effort or activity
actions: things done
descriptives: serving to describe
indications: serving to point out
stanley fish on ABC radio national’s the book show

Written by Gabrielle

March 27, 2011 at 10:51 am

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portrait of an artist as a tormented man

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Theo decided to give a party for Vincent’s friends. They made four dozen hard-boiled eggs, brought in a keg of beer, and filled innumerable trays with brioches and pastries. The tobacco smoke was so thick in the living room that when Gauguin moved his huge bulk from one end to the other, he looked like an ocean liner coming through the fog. Lautrec perched himself in one corner, cracked eggs on the arm of Theo’s favourite armchair, and scattered the shells over the rug. [Henri] Rousseau was all excited about a perfumed note he had received that day from a lady admirer who wanted to meet him. He told the story with wide eyed amazement over and over again. Seurat was working out a new theory, and had Cezanne pinned against the window, explaining to him. Vincent poured beer from the keg, laughed at Gauguin’s obscene stories, wondered with Rousseau who his lady friend could be, argued with Lautrec whether lines or points of color were most effective in capturing an impression, and finally rescued Cezanne from the clutches of Seurat.

The room fairly burst with excitement. The men in it were all powerful personalities, fierce egoists, and vibrant iconoclasts. Theo called them monomaniacs. They loved to argue, fight, curse, defnd their own theories and damn everything else. Their voices were strong and rough; the number of things they loathed in the world was legion. A hall twenty times the size of Theo’s sitting room would have been too small to contain the dynamic force of the fighting, strident painters.

Lust for Life, the classic biographical novel of Vincent Van Gogh / Irving Stone /1934

painting: Coalmine in the Borinage / Van Gogh / 1879

Written by Gabrielle

March 13, 2011 at 9:07 am

Posted in art, books

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translation matters :: borges edition

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the first time i gave any thought to literary translations was when a friend bemoaned her inability to read french. she felt she missing the true experience of a novel she was reading. for a while i was convinced that my translated dostoyevsky was inferior and the author possibly not worth reading until i mastered Cyrillic. since the initial shock of realizing that what was in my hands was not the author’s original work, i’ve come to trust the art of translation—especially those of well-regarded translators. translations matter, translators matter, and for those who don’t have time to master multiple languages, they are essential. there is no  lack of discussion within the literary community on this theme and i always enjoy hearing what authors and critics have to say.

i recently came across the essay of jorges luis borges, ‘two ways to translate,’ in his nonfiction collection, on writing. here’s an excerpt where he discusses two approaches to translation:

Universally, I suppose there are two types of translations: one is the practice of literality, the other, paraphrase. The former corresponds to the Romantic mentality, the second to the classical. I’d like to explain this statement in order to diminish its aura of paradox. The classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies. Poetry must be a beauty similar to the moon: eternal, dispassionate, impartial. The metaphor, for example, is not considered by classicism as either emphasis or personal vision, but as the attainment of poetic truth, which, once engineered, can be (and should be) seized by all. Each literature possesses a repertory of these truths, and translators know how to take advantage of it and to pour the original not only into words but into the syntax and usual metaphors of his language. This procedure seems sacrilegious to us, and sometimes it is. Our condemnation, nevertheless, suffers from optimism, since most metaphors are no longer representations, but merely mechanical. Nobody, upon hearing the adverb “spiritually” thinks of breath of air, or of the spirit; nobody sees any difference (not even of stress) between the phrases “dreadfully poor” and “poor as a church mouse.”

Inversely, Romantics never seek the work of art, but rather the man himself. Man (as we already know) is neither timeless nor an archetype, he’s Jack So-and-So, not John Doe; he possesses a way of being, a body, an origin; he does something, or nothing, has a present, past, future, and even his death is his own. Beware of twisting one word of any he wrote!

That reverence for the I, the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations.

Written by Gabrielle

February 18, 2011 at 6:13 am

books for writers :: wallace stegner

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conventional wisdom within the publishing industry says that short stories don’t sell—here’s why to write them anyway:

Basic to all fictional writing is the problem of point of view, the stance of the consciousness from which one chooses to make the reader follow the story. . . . The writer of fiction, however he may pretend to be invisible, is always there; he cannot help steering, cannot help providing some double vision, some commentary, insight, or irony. If he wants a reader to participate intensely, he adopts the point of view of one of the characters in the story, sees through those eyes alone, thinks with that mind, knows nothing that that individual would not know. If he wants to imitate the dramatic, he pretends to be a camera—a sound camera—as Steinbeck does in Of Mice and Men . . . He must be in his story but not apparently in it; the story must go his own way while appearing to act itself out. For this sort of skill, the short story is the best practice ground. It is so short that a flaw in the point of view shows up like a spider in the cream; it is so concentrated that it forces a writer to develop great economy and structural skill; and it is so intense that like a high-velocity bullet it has the knock-down power of  a heavy missile.

—wallace stegner, on teaching and writing fiction

Written by Gabrielle

January 19, 2011 at 5:50 am

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books for writers :: the art of fiction

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whether you write fiction or non-fiction most of us at some point have been told, “show, don’t tell”. hyper-awareness of this prescriptive rule can derail a writer’s voice . . . here’s another way to think about it:

art of fiction / david lodge / 1992


Fictional discourse constantly alternates between showing us what happened and telling us what happened. The purest form of showing is the quoted speech of characters, in which language exactly mirrors the event (because the event is linguistic). The purest form of telling is the authorial summary, in which the conciseness and abstraction of the narrator’s language effaces the particularity and individuality of the characters and their actions. A novel written entirely in the mode of summary would, for this reason, be almost unreadable. But summary has its uses: it can, for instance, accelerate the tempo of a narrative, hurrying us through events which would be uninteresting, or too interesting — therefore distracting, if lingered over. It is easy to examine the work of Henry Fielding, because he was writing before the technique of free and direct style, in which authorial speech and characters’ speech are fused together, had been discovered. In his novels the boundary between these two kinds of discourse is clear and unambiguous.

the art of fiction, david lodge

[dig deeper] ::

henry fielding was an english writer who lived in the first half of the 1700s. he’s best known for his satirical novel, the history of tom jones, a foundling, the story of an abandoned infant who grows up in the home of the landowner where he was left. as the affection between him and the neighbors’ daughter unfolds, it becomes the classic star-crossed tale. fielding threw some sexual promiscuity and prostitution into the mix, something new for its time, and was considered trashy because of it.

david lodge is a british author whose books have been adapted to television and shortlisted for the man booker prize.

Written by Gabrielle

January 8, 2011 at 10:35 am

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. . . humans have the ability to conceive a past which is not constructed from the materials of our own experience, and which precedes our existence. We are able, in other words, to imagine both a historical and an abstract past. . . .the conception of time outside the present moment is surely a formative act of abstraction altogether. In the apprehension of a “past” and a “future” we recognize the existence of something that is not present to our senses as concrete reality. But such detachment from what we can see, smell or hear is the basic condition of thought altogether—at least, of symbolic thought, as opposed to immediate sensory perception. —time, eva hoffman (2009)

Written by Gabrielle

December 5, 2010 at 10:15 am

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