Tag Archives: fiction and literature

Rotten Reviews: A Long and Happy Life

“Very nearly a parody of the Southern Gothic novel…written in imitation Faulkner–a wearisome and hopeless style.”

Excerpted from: Bernard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

Finnegan’s Wake

Finnegan’s WakeA radically experimental modernist novel (1939) by James Joyce (1882-1941). He began work on it in 1922, but was too superstitious to reveal the title; sections were published (1927-1930) in New York as ‘Work in Progress.’ Finnegan’s Wake is a record of a night, in which the mind of the sleeping H.C. Earwicker is interpreted with great virtuosity and invention of language, with meaning piled upon meaning. Joyce illustrated his literary method by saying that he was tunneling through a mountain from two sides. The structure largely follows the Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744), who divided human history into three ages, divine, heroic, and human, to which Joyce added a fourth, return, emphasizing Vico’s theory of evolutionary cycles in civilizations. The circularity of Joyce’s work is emphasized by the fact that the last sentence merges into the first:

‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve to shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.’

The punning title derives from and Irish-American ballad about Tim Finnegan, a drunken hod-carrier who falls from his ladder and is killed. A splash of whiskey at his wake awakes him and he exclaims ‘Do ye think I’m dead then?’ The title also suggests the return (awakening) of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, mythical hero of the Ossianic cycle of stories.

Among the many coinages in Finnegan’s Wake, one in particular has come into wider usage. It was from Joyce’s phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark” that the US physicist Murray Gell-man (1929-2019) took the word ‘quark,’ which he applied to what were then hypothetical elementary particles making up the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom. Intriguingly, quarks have such properties as charm colour, and strangeness.”

Excerpted from: Crofton, Ian, ed. Brewer’s Curious Titles. London: Cassell, 2002.

Book of Answers: Jason and the Argonauts

“What classical writer told the story of Jason and the Argonauts? The most complete treatment is the Argonautica by third-century poet Apollonius of Rhodes.”

Excerpted from: Corey, Melinda, and George Ochoa. Literature: The New York Public Library Book of Answers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.


I have to assume that people somewhere in the nation–even with its rapidly declining and increasingly unsophisticated literacy–are still teaching The Iliad and The OdysseyThat means someone, somewhere, unless I very much miss my guess, might need this short reading on Homer as well as its accompanying vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles: (1910-1999) American writer and composer. Born in Queens, New York, Bowles fled America at the age of eighteen to live in Paris. His early mentors Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas advised him to travel in order to develop as an artist. Bowles went on to exhaustively explore the issues that arise when modern Westerners confront non-Western cultures. Bowles first gained attention as a composer, studying with Aaron Copland and Virgil Thompson and producing scores for work by Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles. He is best known, however, for his first two books, The Sheltering Sky (1949), a novel, and the short-story collection The Delicate Prey and Other Stories (1950), which introduced his central theme: the disintegration of developed Western culture as it encounters more primitive societies and a less mediated natural world. Bowles is also highly regarded for his translation of North African tribal tales and his poetry. Sympathetic critics have praised his work as a powerful encapsulation of existentialism, while others have found it repetitious and stunted in development.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

Rotten Reviews: V

Reading V. is like listening to a scholarly but erratic documentation of hell by a disinterested onlooker, while verbal sewage and vignettes of all that is most disgusting in mankind alternates with with sociological asides, sardonic and blasphemous attacks on Christianity, Freudian tidbits…. To attempt to convey a sense of how completely boring all this melee finally is would tax the capabilities of better reviewers then myself.”

Best Sellers

Excerpted from: Bernard, Andre, and Bill Henderson, eds. Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1998.

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire: An intense drama (1947) by the US playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-83) about the relationship between a faded Southern belle, Blanche Dubois, and her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. It was subsequently turned into a successful film (1951), directed by Elia Kazan, starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. The play had several titles before the final one, including The Moth, Blanche’s Chair in the Moon and The Poker Night. The eventual title was inspired by a streetcar labeled ‘Desire’ (for its destination, Desire Street), which, together with another called ‘Cemeteries,’ plied the main street in the district of New Orleans where Williams lived. In the play the names are taken symbolically, Blanche contending that her sister Stella’s marriage is a product of lust, as aimless as the ‘streetcar named Desire’ that shuttles through the narrow streets. The name of the street does not denote a place of pleasure but derives from the French girl’s name Desiree. A monument, the ‘Streetcar Named Desire,’ now stands on the site near the French Market. The play is a leitmotif in Pedro Almodovar’s film Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother1999).

‘They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, then transfer to one called Cemeteries.’

Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire (Blanche’s first line).”

Excerpted from: Crofton, Ian, ed. Brewer’s Curious Titles. London: Cassell, 2002.