Friday, December 18, 2009

The Classics Never Die

The classics. They’ve been around forever and they’re certainly not going anywhere. They’ve stood the test of time and readers have suffered through them in English classes from grade school to grad school. Of course, there’s another way to read—or re-read—the classics. From time immemorial, authors having been borrowing plots from each other. Modern authors have an excellent source for inspiration in literature’s canon, and it’s long been a popular trend to dust off an old classic and rewrite it with a fresh perspective for a modern audience. Whether it’s a sequel, a prequel, another character’s point of view, or a spin-off into a different genre, the classics are thriving dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of years after their originals authors first penned them. The classics don’t die. They just get retold, reinvented, and rejuvenated in all sorts of inventive and creative variations.

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood, 2005, Canongate Press (Literary Fiction)


Greek mythology. We’ve all been there and done that, from memorizing the Greek Pantheon to studying The Iliad and The Odyssey. And so surely we can’t help but have noticed the raw deal that those ancient Greek women get—daughters sacrificed so their fathers can get a favorable wind to sail off to war, mothers’ warnings dismissed when their young sons head out to die as heroes, wives left home alone while their husbands go adventuring for fame and the fortune of the gods. Odysseus has one of the most famous wives in Greek history: Penelope, who is abandoned for twenty years while Odysseus fights (and wins) the Trojan War and then gets lost at sea to tangle with the one-eyed giant Cyclops and sexy sea-nymphs like Circe and the Sirens. Penelope is left with a small son and a household to manage; as the years passed and Odysseus failed to return, the son becomes increasingly rebellious and the household is overrun by men looking to marry her and inherit Odysseus’ substantial fortune. She manages to hold the suitors off and wait for her long-lost husband, but even he tests her thoroughly to determine her faithfulness once he finally returns. Today Penelope is renowned for her extreme patience--which, to be frank, is pretty boring. All that changes with author Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which sticks to the same old story but gives us Penelope’s unique perspective. We’re not too surprised to find that Penelope is intelligent and compassionate, but she also turns out to be equally the match of her notoriously wily husband. In the spirit of ancient Greek theatre, Atwood lets Penelope’s twelve maids, who Odysseus ruthlessly kills when he returns, act as the chorus to Penelope’s story; the result is a poignant, insightful twist on one of the oldest classics of all time, and it serves to answer an important question: Just what was Penelope up to all that time?

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd, 2008, Chatto and Windus Books (Historical Fiction)


Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein more or less on a dare. Mary and her soon-to-be-husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were staying at Lord Byron’s house. Late at night around the fire, they got to talking about supernatural tales and decided to write a few spooky stories of their own. Young Mary’s short story (she was only eighteen years old) became the masterpiece known today as Frankenstein, the woeful tale of a slightly mad scientist who reanimates dead matter and brings life to a hybrid selection of body parts in the form of an unnamed, unloved, and misunderstood “monster.” In author Peter Ackroyd’s version of events, real life and fiction merge when Percy Bysshe Shelley and Victor Frankenstein are classmates at Oxford. Shelley is a romantic and free-spirited poet; Frankenstein is a moody med student obsessed with “the spark of life.” Frankenstein’s experiments with electrocuting corpses get carried away, and just like in the original, the good doctor is soon horrified when his grotesque creation is actually brought to life. The poor monster is understandably bitter about being so quickly reviled, dismissed, and abandoned, and the creature is not one to let matters lie. For the rest of his life, Frankenstein is shadowed by the man he made, who puts a new spin on many of the events in Frankenstein’s life and in the lives of those around him, including Shelley and his smart young love interest Mary. Ackroyd is a noted author of historical fiction and it’s his level of period research and detail that makes The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein such an appealing and compelling read, as well as the mixing of a well-known work of fiction with the real historical figures who had a hand in its creation. Atmospheric and with just the right touch of things supernatural, horrific, scientific, and historical, this is another classic re-created that’s really got a mind of its own.

Drood by Dan Simmons, 2009, Little, Brown and Co. (Historical Fiction/ Thriller/ Mystery)

When real historical literary figures merge with the works they’re writing, retelling the classics gets very interesting. In Drood, Charles Dickens is the main character, though his real-life friend (“frenemy” is perhaps more accurate) Wilkie Collins narrates the story. The starting point is a tragic and near-fatal train crash in 1865 that Dickens survived but never entirely recovered from. Author Dan Simmons uses this factual event to introduce a mysterious character who Dickens encounters amid the gore and wreckage of the train--a gaunt specter calling himself Drood who emits a decidedly creepy aura and has a sinister agenda of his own. Dickens becomes obsessed with tracking Drood and enlists Collins to assist him in nighttime voyages though London’s ancient and decrepit underground caverns and crypts. Collins, as portrayed in Drood, is bitterly jealous and opium-addicted; Dickens is an egomaniac of the highest order who’s keeping heavy secrets from friends and family, including the motive behind what will be his final, uncompleted book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Things get stranger, spookier, and more bizarre as the final years of Dickens’ life draw to a close for a wholly atmospheric blend of history, historical fiction, and supernatural horror that’s as dramatic (and melodramatic) as the novels by Dickens and Collins that inspired it. Be sure to check out Dickens’ novels (especially the real The Mystery of Edwin Drood), and don’t let Wilkie Collins, who remains largely in the shadow of his better-known contemporary, be forgotten again—his novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White are masterpieces in their own right.

Gemma Bovary by Posy Simmonds, 2005, Pantheon (Fiction/ Graphic Novel)


Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a classic tale of one woman’s utter ennui with her lot in life. In the 1857 original, Emma, a country daughter with a taste for the finer things, marries stolid Charles Bovary, quickly becomes bored with her dreary existence as a housewife, and embarks on numerous adulterous affairs to liven things up. Emma’s rebellions against the prescribed roles of the day struck an early blow for feminism, but she also suffers greatly for her transgressions. It’s a complicated work of literature, and it’s rendered more colorful but no less complex by artist/author Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel adaptation, Gemma Bovary. The plot is similar—Gemma marries a bore and has affairs to while away the tedium—but the story is told by a neighbor, an intellectual baker named Jaubert, who spends his time obsessively observing Gemma on her road to ruin. In fact, from the first page we know that Gemma is dead. The question becomes, who helped her get that way? Gemma Bovary is a true blend of forms—there are comic book-style panels and dialogue balloons typical of the graphic novel format, but Simmonds includes typed text like a traditional novel as well. Her illustrations are elegantly cartoonish and like Flaubert’s criticism of the bourgeois class of his day, Simmonds paints an all-too-real vision of today’s wealthy but shallow yuppie lifestyle. Gemma Bovary is a delightfully in-depth modern look at the classic truisms that hold true even today.

Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn, 2002, Ace Books (Science Fiction)

Jenna Starborn is no less than Jane Eyre—in space. Author Sharon Shinn is an award-winning science fiction writer who transforms Charlotte Brönte’s classic into a futuristic story with all the same mystery, romance, and suspense. The Gothic tale translates surprisingly well, and the space-age setting almost makes it possible to read Jane Eyre again for the first time. And yet, readers are immersed in a completely new world. Jane becomes Jenna, Mr. Rochester becomes Mr. Ravensbrook, and Thornfield Manor becomes a mining post on a remote planet protected by an energy field. Jenna is a product of science, a baby generated by request for a woman who doesn’t want her anymore when a real, biological son is born. Jenna grows up neglected and unloved, knowing that she will never be more than a half-citizen because of her artificial birth status. But Jenna is determined to find an equal place in her society, a dream that’s given some credence when she finds work as a force field engineer on a faraway planet and befriends her enigmatic employer, Mr. Ravensbrook. Fans of the original and new readers alike will be impressed at the creative futuristic twists and turns that mark Jenna’s relationship with Mr. Ravensbrook and the revealing secrets of Mr. Ravensbrook’s past. Shinn re-imagines Jane Eyre exceptionally well and still gives Jenna a unique voice and a story that is entirely her own.

March by Geraldine Brooks, 2004, Viking Books (Historical Fiction)


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is an episodic, allegorical novel about the life lessons learned by a quartet of sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—living in New England in the mid-1800s. Their father is away fighting in the Civil War; the girls draw strength from their mother, Marmee. Little Women is pleasant and wholesome, domestic and sweet. March--which author Geraldine Brooks images from father March’s point of view--is not. Mr. March is idealistic man whose naïve trust in the goodness of his fellow men has left him and his family broke. When he joins the Union Army as a chaplain, he’s an ineffectual leader. A seeming indiscretion with a nurse lands him at a plantation managing newly freed slaves. Mr. March’s letters home are cheerful, but to us readers he shows the brutality of war, the cruelty of racism, and the weakness of men. He reveals his past history, including his friendships with scholars like Emerson and Thoreau and his courtship with Marmee, but when he falls ill the narrations switches and readers get Mrs. March’s varying side of the story. Brooks based the character of Mr. March on that of Louisa May Alcott’s own father; the research into the lives and times of the characters rings clear. Brooks paints a portrait of competing loyalties between husband and wife, duty and desire, right and wrong, North and South that is both poignant and true. March turns the light-hearted charm of Little Women on its head and delivers an introspective work that can stand solidly on its own.

Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman, 2001, Morrow Books (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)


“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This is the famous opening sentence of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a now-classic novel of mystery, romance and suspense. At the behest of du Maurier’s estate, author Sally Beauman pens a companion novel to deepen the mystery, complicate the romance, and up the ante on the suspense. In the original story, our plain Jane young narrator (who is never given a name) makes a match that shocks even herself—she marries impressively wealthy aristocrat Maxim de Winter. The meek new Mrs. De Winter is overshadowed and overwhelmed by the stately mansion of Manderley, the sneering and domineering housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and by the lasting aura of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca, society’s darling and a stunning beauty who lived fast and died young under decidedly mysterious circumstances. The tension builds into a great novel of suspense, but lose ends are left untied—until now. Rebecca’s Tale is set in 1951, two decades after the original, and features a new cast of characters who fall under Rebecca’s ghostly spell to become obsessed with solving once and for all the mystery of her demise. We get four different perspectives on the case from four narrators—Colonel Arthur Julyan, an old family friend of the de Winters; Terence Gray, a historian who has his own reasons for digging up the secrets of Rebecca’s life and death; Ellie, the smartly practical daughter of Colonel Julyan; and Rebecca de Winter herself, who chimes in through newly-discovered journals that have been anonymously sent to the secluded Julyan home. Rebecca’s Tale is more than a sequel that offers an explanation of what really happened to Rebecca; it’s a fresh, entertaining mystery than incorporates new plots, characters, and themes while sticking true to all the suspenseful gothic stylings of the beloved original.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or, The Segregation of the Queen: A Novel of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes by Laurie R. King, 2007, Picador Press, originally 1994 (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

Sherlock Holmes is the quintessential detective of our time. Wickedly intelligent, almost supernaturally observant, full of contempt for anyone else’s theories, a cocaine addict, and a beekeeper to boot, Holmes is drama enough without adding a gawky fifteen-year-old orphan girl who’s every bit as sharp as the great detective himself. Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, put his famous character through the wringer with cases like A Study in Scarlet, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and A Scandal in Bohemia. Today we still fondly remember such Holmsian lore as his “Elementary, dear Watson” quote and his address at 221-B Baker Street. Author Laurie R. King resurrects Holmes from peaceful retirement when our heroine, fifteen-year-old Mary Russell, nearly steps on him one day as she strolls through the fields with her nose in a book. The unlikely duo takes an immediate liking to each other, finding in the other a kindred spirit with whom to match wits and intelligence. Russell becomes Holmes’ apprentice in the art of sleuthing and is a superb student; as the years pass and they solve minor crimes together, a deep friendship and close understanding grows between them. Their unique partnership is threatened, however, by a strange case during Russell’s college years at Oxford after World War I. A master criminal is playing a deadly game with Holmes and Russell’s very lives. How the master and his novice crack the case is only slightly less intriguing than the evolving relationship between the two. This is all accompanied by a fine literary style, with Mary Russell as an intimately honest narrator, and a detailed sense of historical time and place. The first in a series that features Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice does modern wonders with a favorite classic.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, 2009, Harper Paperbacks, originally 1995 (Literary Fiction)

The Wizard of Oz is a modern fairy tale. Young Dorothy (and her little dog too) run away from home, get caught up in a storm, and are blown far away to a magical land of walking scarecrows, talking lions, curtained wizards, wicked witches, yellow brick roads, and emerald cities. Most readers will know the 1939 Hollywood movie starring Judy Garland best, but L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its thirteen sequels way back when in the early 1900s. But it is author Gregory Maguire’s Wicked that really blows the lid off this classic. He focuses on the future Wicked Witch of the West, who begins life as a small green girl named Elphaba. Elphie’s Munchkinlander parents are less than thrilled with this strange offspring, and more so when another daughter (normal-colored but armless) is born a couple years later. Still, the sisters survive their difficult childhood and attend university, where Elphie’s roommate is ditzy Glinda (better known as the Good Witch of the North). Elphaba is never wicked or evil; in fact she campaigns against the politically corrupt Wizard of Oz and fights for economic re-growth instead. Elphaba is ultimately an intelligent and out-spoken young woman, but fate and luck are just not on her side. Readers will sympathize with this other Wicked Witch of the West and relish the clever social satire and biting cynicism inherent in this alternate vision of fanciful Oz. Just as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz blew off the page and became the beloved Hollywood movie, Wicked has transcended its original form to become a popular Broadway musical. Maguire has proved something of a visionary with his reimaging of fairy tales and classics—he has most definitely cornered the market with other inventive perspectives like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Mirror Mirror, and two other entries in his Wicked Years series about the land of Oz, Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men.

Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure by Emma Campbell Webster, 2007, Riverhead Trade Books (Romance/ Adventure)

Your name: Elizabeth Bennett. Your mission: Marry for love and money. Your means: Nothing more than your wit and charm, of course, and a handy book called Lost in Austen. In the grand tradition of both Jane Austen and those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books from your youth, author Emma Campbell Webster brings us a romantic adventure that combines the two. You begin firmly rooted in Pride and Prejudice; a few twists and turns can land you in the city of Bath à la Persuasion, win you a stay in the mansions of Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park, and bring you into contact with rogues like Sense and Sensibility’s Mr. Willoughby or dreamboats like Emma’s Mr. Knightley. Mr. Darcy is the ultimate catch, of course, and the goal is harder than you think—you win and lose points based on your decisions that add or subtract to your various charms and therefore your eligibility as a suitable match. Whether you end up happily ever after with Captain Wentworth or get sent north in disgrace with Mr. Wickham, Lost in Austen is fantastic fun, and certainly one of the most creative ways to channel the magnificent Jane Austen, who is surely spinning in her grave at the inventiveness of this latest reincarnation of her ever-popular work.

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