December 2008

Classic books never go out of style

By Geoffrey Chaucer
By Jack Kerouac
By George Orwell
By George Orwell
By Edited by Greene
By Marlene Wagman-Geller
By Hallie Ephron
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Classics re-imagined

Translator Burton Raffel gives new life to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The epic poem has long been celebrated for its satiric wit and humor; together on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, 30 strangers pass the time by telling two stories apiece.

Raffel is a celebrated scholar whose previous translation of Beowulf has sold more than a million copies. Retaining the joy and irreverent fun of the original, he brings the Canterbury Tales' 14th-century Middle English to the 21st century. While many versions of the poem have existed, this edition is, in the truest sense, unabridged and complete; for the first time, stories such as "Melibe" and "The Parson's Tale" are translated in their entirety. The Canterbury Tales has entertained readers for centuries, and this handsome and beautifully done edition is the perfect gift for someone looking to add the best of the classics to their bookshelves.

Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha by Jack Kerouac is a classic of a different sort. Written in 1955, it's a history of the life of the Buddha, and until now, it has never been released in book form. Raised a Catholic, Kerouac was drawn to the Indian Mahayana Buddhist tradition, a school "sweeter" and less rigorous than Zen Buddhism. Kerouac's novels Mexico City Blues, Tristessa, Visions of Gerard and, most notably, The Dharma Bums, are heavily influenced by Buddhist teaching; Wake Up is the prelude text, the book Kerouac wrote first, the one to influence everything after.

It was while sitting in a California public library that Kerouac initially came across a book of Buddhist and Taoist translations. Reading texts such as the Diamond Sutra and the Lankavatara Scriptures, he was transfixed and changed by the words before him. As Robert Thurman remarks in his introduction to Wake Up, "mercy and compassion were the facets of the wisdom of enlightenment that most spoke to Kerouac's Christo – Buddhist heart."

Classic collections

Though known for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, George Orwell was also a prolific essayist and literary critic. All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays and Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays are two new collections – published in tandem – that showcase Orwell's sometimes overlooked talents as a nonfiction writer. Compiled by New Yorker staff writer George Packer, the pieces are "the work Orwell started doing to pay the bills while he wrote fiction," he says, And yet, Packer writes, Orwell's "reviews, sketches, polemics, columns … turned out to be the purest expression of his originality."Born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in India, where his father was a British civil servant, Orwell served with the Imperial Police in Burma and fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In Facing Unpleasant Facts he tells of tramps ("The Spike"), mad elephants ("Shooting an Elephant") and the cruelties of childhood ("Such, Such Were the Joys"). In All Art Is Propaganda, he takes on the culture at large, reviewing Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and T.S. Eliot's poetry, and providing incisive commentary in pieces such as "Politics and the English Language," "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" and "Reflections on Gandhi."The work assembled in these two collections proves the breadth of Orwell's talent. As Packer states in his introduction, "Orwell shows, again and for the last time, that a great work of art can emerge from the simple act of seeing oneself and the world clearly, honestly, and without fear."

A contemporary of Orwell's, Graham Greene wrote a stream of classic novels, including The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, before his death in 1991. Graham Greene: A Life in Letters is an exhaustive collection of the author's correspondence. Edited by Richard Greene (no relation), it marks the first time such a volume has been put together. Greene once estimated that in the course of a year, he wrote at least 2,000 letters. He corresponded with brothers and sisters, wives and girlfriends, children and grand – children. There are letters here to fans, business associates and literary figures of the day such as Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, V.S. Pritchett and Elizabeth Bowen. Many have only recently been discovered; for years they were hidden, stashed inside the hollow of a book. Comprehensive in scope, the letters are an insightful look at one man's varied – and very well lived – life.

Classic variety

Turn to any page in Once Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications by Marlene Wagman – Geller and there will be a story of romance, passion, drama or inspiration. With an international roster of authors, and a list of titles running from the contemporary to the canonical, Once Again to Zelda (the title is taken from the dedication of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) is a delight. Inspiration for the book came by way of Grace Metalious' Peyton Place. When Wagman – Geller read the dedication, "To George, for all of the reasons he knows so well," she had to learn the story behind the story. One juicy detail led to another, and now Wagman – Geller is what she calls a "Dedication Detective."In Once Again to Zelda, she reveals how Ayn Rand's husband shares his Atlas Shrugged dedication with his wife's lover, and explains the moving tale behind John le Carre

1001 Books for Every Mood by Hallie Ephron, Ph.D., is the one guide sure to help a reader navigate the aisles of any bookstore or library. The daughter and sister of screenwriters, Ephron writes detective novels and reviews books for the Boston Globe, and the titles she's chosen are an eclectic mix. There isn't a table of contents but rather a "Table of Moods" with such options as books "to Laugh and Cry at the Same Time," books "to March into Battle," and books "to Bend Your Mind." There's even a category for those readers in the mood "to Join the Circus."In addition to determining a book's status as fictional or true, literary or a page – turner, Ephron includes such important factors as whether a book is brainy, family – friendly, movie – related or, yes, a good read for the bathroom. Ephron provides quick plot summaries for each entry, and with 1,001 options from which to choose, the chances are high of finding the perfect book for that perfect someone.

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