Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

In university, I took a Literary Traditions course that featured Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times. It tells the story of Coketown, a fictional, industrial mill town in the 1850s where buildings are bland, sooty, carbon copies of one another. Things are overseen by factory owner Josiah Bounderby and rigid, hard-nosed educator Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind’s job is to stamp out any and all creativity from the town’s schoolchildren, thereby creating useful automatons for Bounderby’s factory. The workers get married, have families, and put their children in Gradgrind’s care. Thus, the cycle never ends.

In our first class about the book, the professor asked us who we thought the protagonist of the story was. Since most of the characters are given equal weight, we gave a variety of answers. Most thought it was Thomas Gradgrind, some thought it was his daughter, Louisa. A few thought it was Bounderby, others guessed Stephen Blackpool, a lowly worker in Bounderby’s factory.

Then there was the guy who sat next to me, who gave what would go down as the worst answer I heard in my six years of university. With the embarrassing esotericism that only self-conscious suck ups can muster, he said, “I think the main character is Coketown.”

This answer was stupid for two reasons: 1) he just wanted to appear like an interesting, philosophical contrarian (he was the type to wear a huge scarf indoors in September and glasses without a perscription), and 2) no matter how fleshed out a city is, settings cannot, by definition, be characters (which are, by definition, people).

I bring this up because I just finished reading China Mieville’s setting-rich sci-fi novel Perdido Street Station. Then I read some of the reviews, seemingly written by other non-prescription-wearing, scarf-toting poseurs and my life flashed before my eyes.

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Acknowledgments: February

Every month I wrangle up some of the more interesting things around the blogosphere and present them to you in a neat and tidy package. But first, a diatribe about Shakespeare as a potential fraud…


In his novel The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips had the audacity to challenge the infallibility of Shakespeare. He put the Bard on blast, then aimed the gun at the thousands of automatons critics who willfully, stubbornly, and perhaps even negligently evangelize the following dogma: Shakespeare as an irrefutable deity.

As it is taught, Shakespeare is perfection, he is without fault, blemish, or equal, and as a result, to challenge his greatness is to not understand him, to reveal one’s own incompetence, because, surely, he did not make even a single mistake.

Yet, his body of work–which supposedly captures the entire human experience in less than 40 plays–contains hundreds of strange turns, missteps, and jokes gone awry. As Phillips pointed out in his novel, Shakespeare is far from perfect. Was he brilliant? Of course he was. Was he infallible? No one is.

But for some reason, people have been covering for him for hundreds of years. Phillips points it out like so:

“…you have a weak spot where Will’s not thinking very clearly, and the character rambles on, and Will sticks in a joke that he like about flowers that look like wieners. It plainly doesn’t belong there. Any editor would cut it. It breaks the rhythm and the logic of the scene. And your sweet old Gertrude noticed it and rightly points out the weak spot. Anybody else, we’d say, ‘Whoops. Not buying it, Will.’ If I wrote it, they’d send me home to rework it. Instead, what do you all do? You all talk it out until you make it make sense for him. He wrote it, so it must be right. You six very intelligent people form a committee to offer him your help, and when you’ve done the best you can, consulting old books of other would-be helpers, when you actually come up with some very clever solutions, you marvel at him for composing such a subtle moment.”

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“How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf

Woolf ReadI used to think that constant hand wringing over book choices was the exclusive domain of anxiety-ridden bloggers.

  • Am I reading enough classics?
  • Should I be reading something “smarter”?
  • Do I read too many dead white guys?
  • Should I read more non-fiction?
  • Do audiobooks even count?
  • Is 50 books a year enough?!

We all do it. We’re all self-conscious. We all write at least a post a year as a solemn decree to read what we want, when we want, and let the snobs be damned. Then we go back to asking the same questions again and the cycle never ends.

As it turns out, this process has been going on for at least a hundred years, as evidenced by Viriginia Woolf’s read-whatever-you-god-damn-well-please essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” (Available for free right here.)

So today, on what is Woolf’s 136th birthday, let us give Virginia the stage. Let her ease our worries, and clean our guilty slates for a year of reading whatever makes us happy in 2018.

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Batman Rebirth: Vol 1 (Deluxe Edition)

Before you roll your eyes and scroll past this post, I’m going to ask you to set aside your preconceived notions for just a minute. Even if you’re not a fan of comics (as most of you aren’t, I’m guessing) there’s a moment in the recently released Batman Rebirth: Vol 1 Deluxe Edition that kind of blew me away.

In it, Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) writes a letter to Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) during her imprisonment in Gotham’s infamous Arkham Asylum. Despite being arch-nemeses (don’t worry, that’s a real word), Bruce and Selina have developed an attraction to one another. They’re not all that different, really. They’ve just chosen to deal with their pain in different ways.

Bruce, as you might recall, watched his parents die after they were shot in an alley when he was just seven years old. As a response to that trauma, he deals out vigilante justice dressed a man bat. Which is stupid.

It’s why I’ve never been able to get behind Batman. To me, he’s always been one of the most ridiculous super heroes (in a genre that is ridiculous by nature) because he takes the thing so seriously. He’s this dark, brooding, bad-ass character and yet he dresses in cosplay, does karate, uses words like batarang, and drives a “Batmobile”. It’s insane. And nobody talks about it.

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The Fullness of Life by Edith Wharton & Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda

In her short story, “The Fullness of Life,” Edith Wharton wrote about a woman who dies. In heaven, she is met by the Spirit of Life, who rewards her with the chance to live for eternity with her soulmate, something she did not get to experience during her time on Earth.

Seems like an easy decision, right? But here’s the catch: the woman still feels a dutiful attachment to her former husband, who has yet to die. In a classic bit of Whartian tragedy, he’s always considered her his soulmate, and will surely want to spend eternity with her once he, too, passes on.

Thus, her dilemma: does she selfishly take the Spirit’s offer and spend eternity with her true soulmate, or does she stay loyal to the man she married?

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