Monday Miscellany

The top 10 classic spy novels

Cover: In Spies We TrustFrom Joseph Conrad to John le Carré, intelligence historian Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones picks the fiction that best reveals the secrets of espionage

“So my selection of novels reflects the interests of a historian, and draws on both domestic and foreign espionage. They are “classics” in being of some antiquity, and because, in addition to being of literary merit, they tell us something of their era.”

A chronological list from The Spy; or, A Tale of the Neutral Ground by James Fenimore Cooper (1821) through Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (1974).

Nancy Pearl Scours The Shelves For Books You Might Have Missed

Nancy Pearl, perhaps the world’s most famous librarian, discusses some of her under-the-radar reads: “books she thinks deserve more attention than they’ve been getting.”

Shakespeare’s plays to be retold by novelists

In a step that boggles the mind:

Hogarth, the Random House transatlantic fiction imprint, has today [June 27] announced an international project that aims to bring Shakespeare to a wider contemporary audience. The project, titled The Hogarth Shakespeare, will ask bestselling novelists throughout the world to retell his work in a more accessible prose form.

The first two novelists to sign on to the project are Jeanette Winterson, for The Winter’s Tale,  and Anne Tyler, for The Taming of the Shrew. Says Tyler, “I don’t know which I’m looking forward to more: ‘Delving into the mysteries of shrewish Kate or finding out what all the other writers do with their Shakespeare characters.”

Yet I have to agree with this:

many feel that, by altering the form of Shakespeare’s plays, the complex poetic language will inevitably be lost. The accessibility of Shakespeare might be enhanced, but has an integral part of the experience of reading one of his plays been removed?

The article briefly discusses other attempts at adapting Shakespeare’s work, including Charles and Mary Lamb’s 18th century prose summaries and popular television and film adaptations.

WRITING ON THE ETHER: Let’s Review Criticism

Porter Anderson’s piece is more drawn out than it needs to be but nonetheless offers an interesting take on the current state of literary criticism, a topic that has received much coverage lately.

Anderson provides lots of links to related material.

Method to the Madness

Contemporary master of the macabre Patrick McGrath discusses the difficulty of representing the chaotic thinking patterns of mental illness within a coherent narrative framework:

The verbal production of schizophrenics and other psychotic individuals might sound like language without discourse, a useful formulation, but for the novelist it’s not enough. A discourse — a coherent story — must be discernible within even the wildest ramblings of an insane narrator. Technically it’s a tough thing to get right. But madness is never arbitrary, never random in its manifestations — or its causes. The reader who’s been successfully enlisted as a kind of psychiatric detective will find herself engaged with minds blind to their own dysfunction, which makes them as rich in complexity as any in our literature.

Along the way he discusses some of his literary predecessors, including Edgar Allan Poe and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Placing Literature: Where Your Book Meets the Map

Andrew B. Williams and Katie C. Williams have started a database of literary scenes: “We hope to educate the audience about using literature as a way to explore place and to give people the opportunity to use their collective knowledge to help them and others appreciate their communities, both real and imagined.”

And they have opened the database for contributions: “now anyone with a Google login can enter scene information into our database or explore the literary scenes that take place in their community.”

It will be interesting to see how this project evolves.