Trivia : Henry James

Today is the birthday of Henry James who was born in New York City in 1843. He was raised in comfort, spending considerable amounts of his childhood abroad, being taught by tutors and governesses in London, Paris, Geneva, and Boulogne-Sur-Mer. He was not a particularly keen student, and he was shy, but he loved reading and he decided early on, that writing would be his vocation.

Henry James wrote steadily for more than 50 years, producing 20 novels, numerous short stories, 12 plays, and several volumes of travel writing and literary criticism. He was a true cosmopolite and he moved freely in and out of drawing rooms in Europe, England, and America.

He was perhaps more at home in Europe than he was in America. He spent three decades of his life there but he retained his American citizenship until 1915 when he became an English citizen to protest America’s failure to enter the war against Germany.

With few exceptions, most of his works deal with some type of confrontation between an American and a European. His fundamental theme was the innocence and exuberance of the New World in clash with the corruption and wisdom of the Old, as illustrated in such works as Daisy Miller (1879), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), and The Ambassadors (1903).

In spite of his decision to live abroad, James remained essentially American in his sympathies. His central characters are almost always Americans. So are some of his most unpleasant characters. What is telling, though, is that the characters who change, mature, and achieve an element of greatness are almost always American.

Henry James has been called the first of the great psychological realists in our time. But his realism is of a special sort. He was not concerned with all aspects of life. There is nothing of the ugly, the vulgar or the common in his work. He was not concerned with poverty or with the middle class who had to struggle for a living.

Instead, he was interested in depicting a class of people who could afford to devote themselves to the refinements of life. There are no really poor people in his novels. He wrote about people who had enough money to allow them to develop and cultivate their higher natures.

Writing about realism in later years, James maintained that he was more interested in a faithful rendition of a character in any given situation than in depicting all aspects of life. Accordingly, when he has once drawn a character in one situation, the reader can anticipate how that person will act in any other given situation.

Honoured as one of the greatest artists of the novel, Henry James is also regarded as one of America’s most influential critics and literary theorists.

He had his critics, though, like Virginia Woolf, who wrote to a friend: “Please tell me what you find in Henry James. We have his works here, and I read, and I can’t find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane and sleek, but vulgar and pale as Walter Lamb. Is there really any sense in it?”

Oscar Wilde was so bored by James’s writing, he quipped that James “wrote fiction as if it were a painful duty.” And T.S. Eliot famously deadpanned, “James has a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”

Henry James was a prolific letter writer, penning more than 10,000 letters during his lifetime. He had a particularly long correspondence with the writer Edith Wharton, whose work was often compared to James’s. Wharton called him “Cher Maître” and he called her “Princesse Rapprochée” and “Dear and Unsurpassedly Distinguished Old Friend.”

In a fit of depression in 1909, James burned many of his letters. After his death, when his friend, sculptor Hendrick Christian Anderson, asked the James family for permission to publish the letters he had exchanged with Henry James, it was discovered that James had been gay, a fact that his family had tried to hide for many years.

Writing about the life of a novelist, Henry James once said: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”


The Writer’s Almanac

Cliff’s Notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica.


John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath


It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. It is a novel that chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California.

It is a portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength. The novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck wrote the novel at an incredible rate — about two thousand words a day — in a tiny outhouse that had just enough room for a bed, a desk, a gun rack, and a bookshelf. He finished it in about five months.

When he was done, he wasn’t very satisfied with it: He wrote in his journal, “It’s just a run-of-the-mill book, and the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.” And he warned his publisher that it wouldn’t be very popular.

The Grapes of Wrath became one of the most beloved novels of American literature. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and has since been translated into nearly every language. Over 14 million copies of the book have been sold and it is estimated that around 100,000 copies of the book continue to sell every year.

When it was first published, Americans both embraced and scorned the novel. Some applauded Steinbeck for capturing so honestly the lives of migrant farm workers during the Depression. Others accused him of being a socialist and of championing communist beliefs.

Californian farmers loathed Steinbeck’s unsavory depiction of, well, Californian farmers. In short, this novel sent America into a bit of a frenzy. Eleanor Roosevelt took note, and, as a result, she called for congressional hearings on migrant worker camp conditions and labour laws were changed.

The Grapes of Wrath has been banned, burned, and bought over and over again.Steinbeck’s publishers lauded the book as one of the, if not the, greatest work of American Literature. Time Magazine disagreed in its 1939 review of the novel, saying, “It is not [the greatest work of American literature]. But it is Steinbeck’s best novel, i.e., his toughest and tenderest, his roughest written and most mellifluous, his most realistic and, in its ending, his most melodramatic, his angriest and most idyllic.”

The Grapes of Wrath has firmly lodged itself within American culture, and references to the novel continue to be made in movies, music, art, and TV. Allusions to this epic tale have surfaced in both  South Park and The Simpsons. Many songs have been written and sung about Tom Joad, most notably by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. The Joads are a fictional family, and yet they (and what they represent) have become a part of the American story.


Writer’s Almanac


Terry Pratchett is one of the most brilliant writers that I have ever read…

Terry Pratchett

It was sad to hear of his death. He was a wonderful, wonderful writer, one of those rare people who could write a story that had brilliant characters and an engrossing plot. He wrote books that were outrageously funny, but not frivolous in the least. And he would make you think even as he was making you laugh.

I was introduced to Terry Pratchett by a friend when I was maybe nineteen years old. I hadn’t read any fantasy fiction at that point and I had no idea what to expect. The book I took home from the library that day was Interesting times. 

Intersting times

I was completely taken by the cover. It was so weird and interesting. There just has to be a good book in there, I thought. The book was unlike anything I had ever read before and it completely blew my mind. It is by no means Terry Pratchett’s best book, but it is a very good book. I had no idea until then that  a book could be so clever.

I went back to the library and picked up another of his books, Wyrd Sisters. And this is without a doubt one of his best books. It is a parody of Shakespeare and the Globe theater and Macbeth and conniving dukes who kill kings for the throne, but are caught in the end.

A lot of his books are a parody or satire on something in the real world like opera and rock and roll, fairy tales, news papers, film making and so on. And they are so well done. What gets me every time is just how smart the books are.

Most of Terry Pratchett’s books are set in the Discworld, a magical world that is balanced on the backs of four elephants which are in turn standing on the back of a giant tortoise called The Great A’Tuin. In Pratchett’s words,

“The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. This is one of the great ancient world myths, found wherever men and turtles were gathered together; the four elephants were an Indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber rooms of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off.”

Terry Pratchett was just thirteen years old when he sold his first story. He used the money he made from that to buy his first typewriter. Ten years later, his first novel, The Carpet people was published. The Colour of Magic was the first Discworld novel to be published. It came out in 1983.

There have since been more than forty books in this series. His books have been translated into 36 different languages and have sold over 60 million copies. Terry Pratchett was awarded the OBE in 1998 and he was made a knight in the New Year Honours list of 2008. He received the honour for services to literature.

In addition to Fantasy, Terry Pratchett has written science fiction and horror as well.  But fantasy was his preferred genre. According to him,  “Fantasy…is about seeing the world from new directions”. His writing certainly lived up to that belief.




Trivia : Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams

Today is the birthday of Douglas Adams. He was born in Cambridge, England in 1952. He studied literature and spent many years struggling to make his mark as a writer.

He had nearly given up hope when in 1978 BBC radio accepted an outline of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for a radio comedy. He wrote 12 episodes for the radio series, which was a big hit.

It was nominated for a Hugo award and it is the only radio show ever to make it to the shortlist. It was nominated in the category “Best Dramatic Presentation” and it lost to Superman, the movie.

The success of the radio show resulted in an offer from a publisher and the show turned into a book. When the book came out, it went straight to number one in the UK Bestseller List and in 1984 Douglas Adams became the youngest author to be awarded a Golden Pen. He won a further two (a rare feat), and was nominated – though not selected – for the first Best of Young British Novelists awards.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the first in a series of comic science fiction novels that have sold over 15 million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages.

The idea for the book came to Adams when he was backpacking through Europe at the age of 19, lying drunk in a field with his tour book called the Hitchhikers Guide to Europe. He said it occurred to him then that somebody ought to write a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.

The book is about an Englishman named Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect who has been posing as a human (and an out of work actor) for nearly 15 years.

He comes to find Arthur seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway. Arthur is plucked off the planet by Ford who is in fact, a researcher for the revised edition of
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by advice from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”) and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers:

Zaphod Beeblebrox–the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie, Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur had tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot and Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years.

The book was followed by four others, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and EverythingSo Long and Thanks for all the Fish and Mostly Harmless.

Friday Flashback : 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

flash back friday

Flashback Friday is a meme hosted by Bookshelf fantasies  focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. 

The book I have chosen this week is one that has been on my mind for the last few days. I don’t quite know why, but I have been thinking about this book a lot. I was fourteen years old when I first read it and I have read it many times since. I only stopped re reading it when I realised that I almost knew it by heart.



“I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books…” 

This is the ultimate book about books. It is a record of a twenty year long correspondence between Helene Hanff, the afore mentioned writer with the antiquarian taste in books and Marks and Co, a second-hand book shop in London, located at 84 Charing Cross Road.

Most of the letters written on behalf of the bookshop were written by Frank Doel, who was their principal buyer. The book is made up of letters written between 1949 and 1969 and though they are primarily discussions about books, they carry all the flavour of that time, everything from post war food rationing in Britain, to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the second to the advent of television.

Helene has an abiding love for the England of English literature and hopes to see it for herself one day. In the meantime, she has her bookshop. She buys books from them because as she says, “Why should I run all the way to 17th Street to buy dirty, badly made books when I could buy clean, beautiful ones without leaving the typewriter?”

But mostly, she keeps buying books from them because she likes to have a link with London. Marx & Co. send Helene old books and Helene sends them food parcels. She is appalled to hear about the food rationing in Britain and uses some of her meagre income to send parcels of eggs and meat to her friends at the bookshop.  They write her thank you letters and send her gifts for Christmas, which are mostly books.

What makes this book so unique is Helene herself. She is a spirited soul with a wonderful sense of humour and a passionate love of books. Here are a few of my favourite quotes from the book.

“The books arrived safely. The Stevenson is so fine it embarrasses my orange-crate bookshelves. I’m almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream coloured pages…I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch.”

“I do love second-hand books that open to the page that some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came, he opened to ‘I hate to read new books’ and I hollered ‘Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.”

“I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.”

“Frankie, guess who came while you were away on vacation? SAM PEPYS! …he came a week ago, stepped out of four pages of some tabloid, three honest navy-blue volumes of him; I read the tabloid over lunch and started Sam after dinner.

He says to tell you that he’s overjoyed to be here, he was previously owned by a slob who didn’t even bother to cut the pages.”

This book is a must read for anyone who loves books.




Daily Trivia: George Orwell

George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India (1903). He didn’t care for his birth name; he found “Eric” too Norse and “Blair” too Scottish. When he began writing in earnest, he adopted what he felt was a solidly English name; his surname comes from the River Orwell in East Anglia.

His father was a British civil servant, and the family was, in Orwell’s words, “upper lower middle class”; nevertheless, the boy went to several exclusive boarding schools, including Eton, on a scholarship. He didn’t enjoy the experience, feeling alienated from his well-to-do classmates, and chose not to go on to Oxford or Cambridge.

He became a military policeman instead, serving in Burma, where he came to hate imperialism, totalitarianism, and the class system. He returned to England a literary and political rebel. He called himself an anarchist for many years, and later a socialist who was nonetheless critical of the existing socialist movement.

He’s most famous for his anti-communist and dystopian novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), but he was also a master of literary nonfiction, using deceptively straightforward prose to describe moments of personal insight. His 1931 essay “A Hanging” describes his role in the execution of a prisoner in Burma:

Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) was a retelling of time he spent among the poor in England and Europe; The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) was both a pro- and anti-socialist look at unemployed miners in the north of England. His posthumously published essay “Such, Such Were the Joys …” (1952) recalled his boarding school days and the classism he encountered there.

He also wrote an essay decrying the abuse of language by politicians and the media, called “Politics and the English Language” (1946). In it, he includes five rules for effective written communication:

   (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
   (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
   (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
   (iv) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
   (v) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Writers on Writing: P G Wodehouse

“A certain critic — for such men, I regret to say, do exist — made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.’ He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”
― P.G. Wodehouse, Summer Moonshine

Daily Trivia: Ernest Hemingway

The phrase “grace under pressure” was coined by Ernest Hemingway. He used the phrase for the first time in 1926 in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The two had met a year earlier in a Parisian bar called Dingo and they had begun a tumultuous, alcohol- and envy-fueled friendship, which Hemingway wrote about in his memoir A Moveable Feast (published posthumously in 1964).

Hemingway was a prolific correspondent, and he probably wrote six to seven thousand letters in his lifetime, perhaps because he was an informal letter writer who believed letters should never be written for posterity.

Write letters “for the day and the hour,” said Hemingway in a May 1950 letter to English professor and author Arthur Mizener. “Posterity will always look after herself.” In his letters, he regularly ignored apostrophes, rarely crossed a t or dotted an i.

And while he frequently boasted that he was a better speller than Fitzgerald, he almost always misspelled certain words, including apologize (apoligize), responsibility (responsability), and volume (volumne). He would also drop pronouns and common articles (an and the) from his letters (and sometimes even from conversation).

He might have been mimicking the language of cables and telegraphs, which he loved, but he also thought the shortened, abrupt style was manly and down-to-earth.

In this particular letter to Fitzgerald, Hemingway gossips, talks about what he’s getting paid, offers facetious money advice, badmouths other writers, and asks Fitzgerald to read his new manuscript,The Sun Also Rises.

He uses the phrase “grace under pressure” to describe what he means when he uses the word “guts”:

“Was not referring to guts but to something else. Grace under pressure. Guts never made any money for anybody except violin string manufacturers.”

Daily Trivia: Michael Chrichton

Michael Crichton was born in Chicago in 1942. He grew up in a suburb of New York where his father was the editor of Advertising Age magazine.

Crichton had always been fond of writing. So he went to Harvard to be an English major, but one of his professors didn’t like his writing style and kept giving him C’s. So for an essay on Gulliver’s Travels, he turned in an essay written not by him but by George Orwell, and the professor gave him a B- on that.

He figured that if Orwell only got a B- at Harvard, the English department was too difficult for him, so he went ahead and switched his major from English to anthropology.

He went on to medical school, but tuition was so expensive that he decided to keep writing to make some extra money, and he tried his hand at novels.

His first novel was Odds On (1966).  Chrichton published his first thrillers under the pen name John Lange — lange is the German word for “tall” and at 6 feet and 9 inches, Michael Crichton is a tall man.

He was publishing between two and three novels a year, so he wanted a different pseudonym for some of them, and chose “Jeffrey Hudson” for his first big medical thriller, A Case of Need (1968) — Jeffrey Hudson was a famous 17th-century dwarf in the court of King Charles I. 

The Andromeda Strain (1969), published under his own name, was a best-seller, and Crichton decided to devote his career to writing after all.

He went on to write a series of thrillers, many of them exploring the unintended consequences of science or technology gone too far. His books include Jurassic Park (1990), Rising Sun (1992), and State of Fear (2004).

Michael Crichton managed to be a huge success not only in the literary world, but also in film and television. He was a Hollywood director, and he wrote the screenplay for some of the film adaptations of his books, including Jurassic Park. He also created the hit TV series E.R.

Daily Trivia: P G Wodehouse


“You should read Wodehouse when you’re well and when you’re poorly; when you’re travelling and when you’re not; when you’re feeling clever, and when you’re feeling utterly dim. Wodehouse always lifts your spirits, no matter how high they happen to be already.”
                -Lynne Truss.

P G Wodehouse is the author of almost a hundred books and the creator of Jeeves, Blandings Castle, Psmith, Ukridge, Uncle Fred and Mr Mulliner. As well as his novels and short stories, he wrote lyrics for musical comedies with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, and at one time had five musicals running simultaneously on Broadway.

Wodehouse introduced Jeeves in 1915. About 50 years later, in a book called The World of Jeeves (1967), he explained: “I find it curious, now that I have written so much about him, to recall how softly and undramatically Jeeves entered my little world. … On that occasion, he spoke just two lines.

The first was:
‘Mrs Gregson to see you, sir.’
The second:
‘Very good, sir, which suit will you wear?’
It was only some time later … that the man’s qualities dawned upon me. I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter.”

When asked how he approaches his writing, he said, “I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit.”

Daily Trivia: Mark Twain

William Faulkner called him “the father of American literature,” and Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain, called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” 

Mark Twain was a travel writer, a master of humor and satire, an ardent abolitionist, an inventor, a publisher, and a popular public speaker, but he wasn’t a good money manager, and though he made a lot of money at his writing, he lost it all through bad investments and declared bankruptcy in 1893. He began a lecture tour the following year to earn the money he owed to his creditors.

In 1909, Mark Twain is reported to have said: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year and I expect to go out with it. … The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'” And he was true to his word: Mark Twain died on April 21st. 1910, a day after the comet’s closest approach to Earth.