Talking About Books . . .

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave, which just won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year, will be added to the reading list for high school students around the U.S. thanks in part to the efforts of the National School Boards Association.  The film will also be shown in classrooms around the country.

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How have film adaptations of books fared in the Best Picture category over the Years?  Quite well, thank you.  Word and Film gives us a brief history.

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Monuments Men

The Monuments Men (members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program) not only found and saved priceless works of art, they also saved 2.5 million books that the Nazi’s stole and hid during World War II.  The books they saved included many that preserved the history of the Jews.

The recovered books were stored in Offenbach, Germany.  That, you probably know, was the surname of Jacques Offenbach, who wrote numerous delightful French operettas.  His father, Isaac Juda Eberst, was born in Offenbach, and was known as “der Offenbacher.”  Eberst eventually changed his surname to Offenbach, so his son (who was born in Cologne) was named Jacob Offenbach.  When Jacob moved to Paris, he adopted the French spelling of his first name, and is now remembered as Jacques Offenbach.

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Here is yet another article about what are and aren’t “classics.”  In this one Laura Miller makes two points that you don’t find in other discussions on the subject.  First, how does the teacher of a university course on the classics decide what to include and what to exclude.  Second, if you own a bookstore how do you decide where to put a book like Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca?  Do you shelve it under “classics” or “fiction”?

While you’re still trying to decide where you would place Rebecca, you might enjoy reading an article (sent to me by a friend) that offers cute synopses of a few certified classics.

Each November as we decide what to read the following year in my Reading the Classics Book Club we face this problem.  I can’t say how we decide what is a classic and what isn’t, but I can say that the boundary is definitely fluid.  Age is a factor, but not always the deciding factor.  That’s why we felt comfortable choosing Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) a few years ago, and that’s why we will discuss V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) in April.

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Why did Jeff Bezos decide to sell books when he started Amazon.com?  Not because he loves books, but because the pragmatic Mr. Bezos realized that books are easy to ship and hard to break.  That’s one of the interesting facts about Amazon in a recent New Yorker post.

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“With only the rarest of exceptions, and even then only for a page or two, each author [who is the subject of a biography] is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous—Dickens’s treatment of his children, Lawrence’s fisticuffs with Frieda—is invariably described in a flattering light. We’re not quite talking hagiography, but special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.”  That is Tim Rice’s assessment of biographers in a recent New York Review of Books article.

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Nicolai Leskov

In an Irish Times article Eileen Battersby argues that the writings of a little known Russian author named Nicolai Leskov are on a par with those of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Chaucer.  “He was a natural sponge,” Battersby writes, “eyes out on stalks, missing nothing and grasping the essential ambivalence of life and art. Structure and form did not interest him; his impulse was to hold an audience.”  Though we don’t hold Leskov’s works in high regard, Anton Chekhov did – and was greatly influenced by them.

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After World War I things changed for the Lord Granthams and the Mrs. Patmores of Britain.  For them and for us the Washington Post offers a Downtonomics primer that certainly applies to our 21st century world.

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