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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Music Inspired by Literature

I recently wrote about reading and music ( and then came across a BookRiot article listing songs that reference classic works of literature (

This lead to my thinking about songs that actually retell a work of literature.  One of my favourite singers/songwriters is Loreena McKennitt and she has included on her CDs a number of songs based, in whole or in part, on literary works, both prose and poetry.

An Ancient Muse:
“Penelope’s Song” gives the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife.
“The English Ladye and the Knight” is a poem by Sir Walter Scott set to music.

The Visit:
“The Lady of Shalott” is the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson set to music.

Parallel Dreams:
“Annachie Gordon” is the Romeo and Juliet story told in a Scottish folk song.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley:
“Down By the Sally Gardens” is based on the W. B. Yeats poem.

The Book of Secrets:
“The Highwayman” sets Alfred Noyes’ poem to music.
“Dante’s Prayer” was inspired by The Divine Comedy.

McKennitt also sings songs from Shakespeare’s plays:
“Prospero’s Speech” on The Mask and Mirror
“Cymbeline” on The Visit

If you are interested in listening to musical versions of literature, Wikipedia has an extensive list of such songs:

Friday, August 18, 2017

Writing a Character Sketch of Donald J. Trump

Considering all the drama emanating from the White House, people may sometimes feel they are living in a fictional world from which they would like to escape.  BookRiot recently speculated about our being trapped in a novel with Donald Trump as a main character.  Read what readers/reviewers might say:

When I was teaching English, I taught students how to write a character sketch; before asking them to write one for a character in the novel we were reading, I would have them write one for a famous person or fictional character everyone could identify.  If I were teaching today, I know a lot of students would choose to write their sketch of Donald J. Trump.

I imagine statements like the following: 
Donald J. Trump is a totally egotistical character who only ever thinks of how things impact him.  Every speech, regardless of the topic, will eventually have him mentioning his accomplishments which will, in virtually all cases, be greatly exaggerated.  He expects total loyalty, even if that means not defending the country’s Constitution.
Trump has poor impulse control which causes him to say stupid things without considering the impact of his words.  He tweets constantly and obviously doesn’t stop to check what he is going to post.  He is like a bully who cannot control his emotions and resorts to threats of revenge.    
The 45th president is also very hypersensitive; to say he has a thin skin is to understate the extent of his sensitivity to criticism.  Should anyone be even mildly critical of him, he lashes out.  A deep sense of insecurity probably lies at the bottom of this touchiness. 

If you were going to write a character sketch of Donald Trump, what traits would you highlight?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Maybe We Need More Utopian Literature?

Yesterday, I wrote about the recent popularity of dystopian literature, a genre that often reflects the darkness of today’s world.  But perhaps what we should be reading is more utopian fiction in which the author proposes a better way of life than currently exists. 

The word "utopia" was coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, but the genre has roots dating back to antiquity.  Luke Mastin in his website ( has an extensive list of utopian fiction; for each book, he mentions the publication date, the country of the author, and a brief synopsis of the plot and description of the utopian society.  He also indicates which books are, in general, best described as utopias and which dystopias and which have elements of both.  He also notes which books are the classic utopias, which are second-rank in the genre, and which are books where the utopian element is more peripheral.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dystopian Literature: Today's Must-Read Genre

As I discussed the other day, apparently book sales have suffered since Trump became president ( except for dystopian literature.  I’ve blogged about this genre in the past (, but thought it was worth discussing again in light of this finding. 

There was a recent article in the Village Voice entitled “Darkness Falls on America” which argues “In a country turned upside down, is it any wonder that dystopian fiction rules?”  It reviews some recent dystopian books set in the U.S.: 

If you’re looking for suggestions for your next foray into this genre, check this list of 100 works of dystopian fiction:
Here you’ll find literary fiction, young-adult works, graphic novels, realist tomes, some books written long ago, and others published in just the last few years.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review of LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders

4 Stars 
This experimental novel puzzled and frustrated me at first but I adapted to its style and in the end was so very happy I had persisted.  It is definitely a book worth reading.

Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln, son of President Lincoln, died in 1862.  The author imagines him trapped in bardo, a transitional world between life and the afterlife.  Willie is not alone; many people are in bardo with him – people who have died but who are in denial and are unwilling to complete their journey to the afterlife.  Willie remains in bardo because of his father’s love and grief; his father comes to the cemetery to mourn and promises to return, and Willie wants to be there when he does.  It is imperative that Willie leave bardo because “the architect of this place has, for reasons we cannot know, deemed that to be a child and to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here is, in this place, a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment.”  A trio of spirits makes it their mission to influence Lincoln to let his son move on. 

It is the book’s style which stands out at first.  There are two sections.  The story of the living, focusing on Lincoln at the time of his son’s death, is told via a collage-like narrative.  Quotations from both real and invented primary sources are carefully arranged to describe events and Lincoln’s reaction to Willie’s death.  What is often emphasized is the contradictory elements; for instance, Lincoln’s eyes are described as dark grey, gray-brown, bluish-brown, blueish-gray, and blue, and he is described as “the homeliest man” and “the ugliest man” and “the handsomest man” depending on the observer. 

The story of the bardo is also told from multiple perspectives.  roger bevins III, hans vollman and reverend everly thomas are the main narrators, but numerous other voices are heard as well:  a soldier, a murderer, a rape victim, an alcoholic couple, a pickle merchant, a disgraced clerk, slaves, etc.  Again, the words of these bardo inhabitants are strung together like the quotations are assembled in the other section.  These speakers are often physically deformed, their disfigurements representing their failings, desires or pre-occupations when they were alive.  For example, a man who was killed just before consummating his marriage has a huge erect penis.  They represent the aspirations and disappointments of ordinary people; frequently, they focus on missed opportunities.  What these speakers also share is an unwillingness to accept their death.  They have a number of euphemisms for their condition; their coffins, for instance, are “sick-boxes.” 

What emerges most strongly from the book is the portrayal of President Lincoln.  He is shown as a thoughtful, dignified man burdened by a terrible personal grief but also by the grief of the nation because of the Civil War.  At one point, he is described as “the saddest man in the world” and when he mourns his son he becomes “a sculpture on the theme of loss.”  He comes to realize that it is grief and loss that unify all mankind:  “His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering  (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time. . .”

Of course, it is not only Willie that is in bardo.  Lincoln, like any person grieving the loss of a loved one, is also in a transitional phase, between his former life in which Willie lived and the next phase after he comes to terms with his son’s death, accepting that his son “came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.”  Lincoln is described as “An opening book.  That had just been opened up somewhat wider.  By sorrow.”  He realizes that “in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”  All that is missing during his epiphany is the “always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” 

This is a book I may re-read.  I’m certain there is much that I missed, especially at the beginning when I was impatient with the style.  I guess even readers may initially find themselves in bardo until they embrace the unusual form.  Readers should be warned, however, that pathos permeates the book; sections where Lincoln is shown mourning his son are heart-wrenching. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Books for Dog Lovers

Today, August 13, our dog Akira, an Alaskan Malamute, turns 7 ½ years old.  If you have a companion dog or love dogs, you are probably a sucker for books about them. 

I’ve found a number of sites recommending books for dog lovers:
Many of the recommendations are non-fiction, but some fiction titles are included as well.

Akira when she first joined the family

Akira as an adult

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Book Sales Suffer under Trump's Presidency

I’ve written about Donald Trump’s lack of reading ( though it seems he has inspired a number of writers ( and lists of suggested readings during his term in office (   There was even a campaign to buy Trump a book for Valentine’s Day:

Despite having inspired writers and lists of recommended readings to survive his presidency, it seems that the president has actually had a detrimental effect on book sales.  An article in the New Republic argues that “Trump’s Presidential win has sent a rippling effect through the book publishing world, affecting authors, booksellers, editors, agents, and publicists: In a world where reality has become stranger than fiction, actual books are no longer selling.” 

Apparently, watching televised hearings has replaced reading:  “The disastrous and almost comically incompetent Trump presidency has both frightened the reading market away from popular books and functioned as a kind of mass entertainment with which it is difficult to compete, with Senate hearings and official testimonies becoming must-see TV.” 

The good news is that “there seems to be a renaissance emerging for marginalized artists: The same identities that are being persecuted and demonized by the Trump administration are finding a warm welcome from an increasingly diverse literary audience that is eager to hear vulnerable voices.” 

The article concludes, “For authors whose books were released in the thick of the political storm, to booksellers watching readers flock to dystopian works, the Trump administration has succeeded in influencing our consideration of books—not necessarily for better or for worse, but in ways that demonstrate how much we need words to survive and provide solace for troubling times ahead.”