Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Jane Austen's Emma published 200 years ago today

First posted 6/12/2020; updated 7/5/2020.


Jane Austen

First Publication: December 23, 1815

Category: novel/comedy of manners

Sales: ?


About the Book:

“Virginia Woolf called Jane Austen ‘the most perfect artist among women,’ and Emma Woodhouse is arguably her most perfect creation.” BN “Before she began the novel, Austen wrote, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’” WK

“The main character, Emma Woodhouse, “is spoiled, headstrong, and self-satisfied.” WK She is “a young girl from a good home that does not need the financial support of a husband and is determined not to marry.” AZ She is a “thoroughly self-deluded young woman who has ‘lived in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’” BN

This doesn’t deter her from playing matchmaker for the locals in the “fictional village of Highbury and the surrounding estates of Hartfield, Randalls, and Donwell Abbey.” WK. However, she “is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives; and her imagination and perceptions often lead her astray.” WK

At the same time, she considers herself “herself impervious to romance of any kind” BN and “refuses to recognize her own feelings for the gallant Mr. Knightley.” BN “What ensues is a delightful series of scheming escapades in which every social machination and bit of ‘tittle-tattle’ is steeped in Austen's delicious irony.” BN

Emma, the last novel completed and published during Austen’s life, WK is her “most cleverly woven [and] riotously comedic” BN work. “As in her other novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian–Regency England; she also creates a lively comedy of manners among her characters and depicts issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status.” WK

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: 150th anniversary!

Last updated 7/6/2020..

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

First Publication: November 26, 1865

Category: fantasy/children’s novel

Sales: 100 million

Accolades (click on badges to see full lists):

About the Book:

“During a boat trip up the Isis River with Reverend Robinson Duckworth and the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, one of whom is named Alice, Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, invents a story about a bored little girl named Alice who goes looking for an adventure. Several years later this tale would be forever immortalized as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.” AZ

Alice follows a White Rabbit “down the rabbit hole and ends up in the fantasy world of Wonderland,” AZ a place “filled with a plethora of interesting and fantastical creatures.” AZ The reader can watch Alice “take tea with the Mad Hatter and March Hare [and] follow a game of croquet between Alice and the Queen of Hearts.” BN

Alice also “encounters a blue Caterpillar smoking a hookah, the mischievously grinning Cheshire Cat, …a sleepy little Dormouse whom she attends a tea party with, …[and] many other curious characters.” AZ

“Beloved by millions of children and adults ever since its first publication, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a classic tale of fantasy that has been cherished by readers ever since its first publication and will surely delight for many years to come.” AZ

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Monday, August 17, 2015

The Guardian: The Top 100 Novels

First posted 6/17/2020.

The Guardian:

Top 100 Novels

In 2003, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum assembled a list of the greatest novels of all time. The list was presented in chronological order with no rankings. It was also published in The Observer. In 2015, McCrum revisited the list, this time focusing specifically on novels written in English. Once again, it was presented chronologically with no rankings.

This list is an aggregate of the two lists. It is presented as a ranked list, based on the books’ overall ratings in Dave’s Book Database. The 50 titles which appeared on both lists are ranked first.

  1. J.D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  2. Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  3. F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby (1925)
  4. George Orwell 1984 (1949)
  5. Vladimir Nabokov Lolita (1955)
  6. Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
  7. Joseph Heller Catch-22 (1961)
  8. James Joyce Ulysses (1922)
  9. Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre (1847)
  10. William Golding Lord of the Flies (1954)

  11. Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
  12. Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights (1847)
  13. Herman Melville Moby-Dick (1851)
  14. Jack Kerouac On the Road (1957)
  15. Aldous Huxley Brave New World (1932)
  16. Louisa May Alcott Little Women (1869)
  17. Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter (1850)
  18. William Grahame The Wind in the Willows (1908)
  19. Mary Shelley Frankenstein (1818)
  20. Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

  21. Charles Dickens David Copperfield (1850)
  22. Jack London The Call of the Wild (1903)
  23. Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
  24. Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe (1719)
  25. William Faulkner As I Lay Dying (1930)
  26. Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
  27. E.M. Forster A Passage to India (1924)
  28. John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
  29. Jane Austen Emma (1816)
  30. William Makepeace Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848)

  31. Laurence Sterne The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759)
  32. Henry Fielding Tom Jones (aka “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”) (1749)
  33. Ford Madox Ford The Good Soldier (1915)
  34. Toni Morrison Song of Solomon (1977)
  35. Raymond Chandler The Big Sleep (1939)
  36. Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1960)
  37. Thomas Hardy Jude the Obscure (1895)
  38. D.H. Lawrence The Rainbow (1915)
  39. Anthony Trollope The Way We Live Now (1875)
  40. Martin Amis Money: A Suicide Note (1984)

  41. Marilynn Robinson Housekeeping (1981)
  42. V.S. Naipaul A Bend in the River (1979)
  43. Evelyn Waugh Scoop (1938)
  44. Samuel Richardson Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748)
  45. Jerome K. Jerome Three Men in a Boat (1889)
  46. John Buchan The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
  47. Kazuo Ishiguro An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
  48. Thomas Love Peacock Nightmare Abbey (1818)
  49. Benjamin Disraeli Sybil (1845)
  50. Elizabeth Taylor Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

  51. Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote (1615)
  52. J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings (trilogy: 1954-55)
  53. John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  54. Gabriel García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  55. E.B. White Charlotte’s Web (1952)
  56. Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness (1899)
  57. Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises (1926)
  58. Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina (1877)
  59. Gustave Flaubert Madame Bovary (1857)
  60. George Eliot Middlemarch, a Study of Provincial Life (1872)

  61. Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
  62. Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange (1962)
  63. Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart (1958)
  64. Salman Rushdie Midnight’s Children (1981)
  65. Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)
  66. Truman Capote In Cold Blood (1966)
  67. Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence (1920)
  68. Marcel Proust In Search of Lost Time (1913)
  69. Franz Kafka The Trial (1925)
  70. Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar (1963)

  71. Philip Pullman The Golden Compass (aka “Northern Lights”) (1995)
  72. Henry James Portrait of a Lady (1881)
  73. Bram Stoker Dracula (1897)
  74. Stephen Crane The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
  75. Robert Penn Warren All the King’s Men (1946)
  76. Doris Lessing The Golden Notebook (1962)
  77. Henry Miller Tropic of Cancer (1934)
  78. Robert Louis Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
  79. Sinclair Lewis Babbitt (1922)
  80. Malcolm Lowry Under the Volcano (1947)

  81. Saul Bellow The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
  82. Philip Roth Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
  83. Louis-Ferdinand Céline Journey to the End of Night (1932)
  84. W. Somerset Maugham Of Human Bondage (1915)
  85. Albert Camus The Plague (1947)
  86. Ian McEwan Atonement (2001)
  87. Dashiell Hammett The Maltese Falcon (1929)
  88. Wilkie Collins The Woman in White (1860)
  89. Gunter Grass The Tin Drum (1959)
  90. Rudyard Kipling Kim (1901)

  91. Saul Bellow Herzog (1964)
  92. Philip Roth American Pastoral (1998)
  93. John Dos Passos U.S.A. (trilogy: 1930-36)
  94. John Updike Rabbit Redux (1971)
  95. Joseph Conrad Nostromo (1904)
  96. Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim (1954)
  97. John le Carre Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)
  98. Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
  99. Robert Louis Stevenson Kidnapped (1886)
  100. Pierre Choderos de Laclos Dangerous Liaisons (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) (1782)

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: You Can't Go Home Again

The biggest lesson to learn from Go Set a Watchman? You can't go home again. That is a prominent theme of the book, but also a warning for those hoping for another To Kill a Mockingbird (see my review here). Mockingbird, published in 1960, focused on Jean Louise "Scout" Finch from the ages of 6 to 9 and her interactions with fellow Maycomb County residents as she tried to understand racism and bigotry. Watchman traverses the same territory from the adult Jean Louise's perspective.

Watchman was written prior to Mockingbird but shelved when her publisher suggested she rework it to focus on the stories of her childhood. The manuscript, thought lost for decades, was found in a safety deposit box. Controversy swirled over the announcement of its publication in the wake of the death of Harper Lee's sister, who had fiercely protected the author's legacy.

Watchman tells the story of 26-year-old Jean Louise, now living in New York, returning to Alabama for a visit. She is naturally conflicted over the changes she observes. However, the story eschews vivid depictions of the physical contrast between the small-town rural life of Scout's youth and her adult, big-city life. I anticipated her observing the slower pace, the buildings which hadn't changed a bit, the businesses she was surprised were still standing, and what people had died or moved away. This would have been similar to how Mockingbird unfurled its lessons couched in character vignettes and snapshots of young Scout's adventures.

Instead, Watchman focuses on the adult Jean Louise's inner turmoil and debates with other characters. This makes for an even deeper exploration into racism and bigotry, but at times it feels less like a novel than a philosophical dialogue constructed by Plato.

In the end, the reader feels Jean Louise's pain in recognizing that home will never be the same and that maybe it was never what she'd thought in the first place. However, the reader also feels another kind of pain. The reader longs to return to the world Harper Lee built for To Kill a Mockingbird but must accept the futility of such a dream.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Aural Fixation: My Latest Book!

Aural Fixation: More Essays from a Musical Obsessive

Available at Amazon for $9.95.

This sequel to No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haze” trots out another collection of music-themed essays, this time as originally featured in the column “Aural Fixation.” Essays take on the Grammys, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Glee, terrestrial radio, Tom Cruise, and the state of the music industry, often voicing a contrary opinion to the all-too-common laments of the typical music critic. Whitaker asserts that rock and roll isn’t dead, that pop music matters, and that best-of lists are a good thing. 146 pages. Published 2015.

Monday, March 9, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird: The Master Class of Novel Writing?

Image from 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

With the recent announcement of the impending publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, which features a grown-up version of the Scout character she introduced in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), I was inspired to revisit the latter. According to, this Pulitzer Prize winner is part of the curriculum in 3/4 of American public schools and sells about a million copies a year. All told, the book has sold 30 million copies in more than 40 languages (Crash Course Literature 210). The 1962 movie version was nominated for Best Picture and garnered Gregory Peck an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Unsurprisingly, some critics made it their mission to knock the book as overrated. They're wrong. In fact, some of the criticisms of the book are precisely what make it great. For example, Scout, who ranges from ages 6 to 9 during the book, serves as a first-person narrator. However, the sophistication of her language, storytelling, and awareness feel more like an adult. Despite the inconsistency of the approach, it gives the novel an added dimension of allowing the reader to view the story through a child and adult's eyes simultaneously.

Another criticism concerns the potentially disjointed nature of the vignettes about the townspeople. Rather than distract from the primary stories around Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, these seemingly superfluous stories immerse the reader in Maycomb, Alabama. In addition, each of Scout's (and her brother Jem's) encounters leads to another lesson handed down from their father, Atticus, about not judging other people.

The novel also has characters painted in one-dimensional strokes, from the noble heroics of Atticus to the without-any-redeemable-quality nature of Bob Ewell. However, these polarizing characterizations of good and evil remind readers how a child oversimplifies perceptions - and serve as warnings for us to not do so as adults.

In my own writing, I can only dream of achieving half of what Mockingbird accomplishes. Harper Lee paints her characters and the town with such vivid language that the reader is transported to that place and time. Scout's sense of exploration and child-like curiosity is fully embraced even as she is exposed to ugly truths about racism and prejudice.

These are all qualities which play into my current project, Abigail's Atlantis, about a 12-year-old girl coming to grips with the transition from childhood to adulthood. While the language and perspective I employ may occasionally feel too adult, that's precisely the point. Like Mockingbird, I want to capture that in-between state of sometimes seeing things as a child and at other times as an adult. If I can make the same mistakes as Mockingbird with even a modicum of the same ability, I'll consider my book a success.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Last Stop on Market Street: Has the Newbery Medal Forgotten What It Represents?

image from

The Newbery Medal, awarded each year to a children's book for distinguished writing, has been in place since 1922. It is usually awarded a children's novel and has occasionally been given to poetry. This year, however, it goes to...a picture book.

Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, is the story of a boy and his grandmother riding across town on a bus. CJ wonders why they have to ride the bus. When they exit, he asks, "How come it's always so dirty over here?" and Nana replies, "Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirty, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful."

It's a good message about appreciating the heart of a city and its people which is driven home by vivid drawings. As a good picture book does, it unfurls its tale through strong images that convey a message even to young non-readers. It understandably was a 2016 Honor Book for the Caldecott Award, given to a children's book for excellence in ILLUSTRATION.

This, however, is the first Newberry winner I've read which left me feeling like I could have cranked this out in an afternoon. No disrespect is intended to De la Peña, who offers beautiful words to accompany those pictures ("The outside air smelled like freedom, but it also smelled like rain, which freckled CJ's shirt and dripped down his nose"). This book accomplishes what it should and does it well, but let's reserve the Newbery Medal for more involved literary works that take more than ten minutes to read.