The medieval travelogue presents present-day writers and artists with an abundance of material. Writing in an age when the boundaries between fiction and non- were not so sharply drawn, early explorers and sailors had little compunction about embellishing their tales with exaggerations and outright lies. Travelers circulated stories of giants and monsters and credulous readers back home swallowed them whole. Well, sometimes. In the case of the most famed medieval traveler, Marco Polo, scholars have debated whether Il Milione—one of the titles of a narrative based on his accounts—refers to a family nickname or to Polo’s reputation for telling “a million lies.” But whether Polo told the truth or not hardly mattered to Italo Calvino, who found in the explorer’s colorful tales just the inspiration he needed for his 1972 novel Invisible Cities.
More a series of vignettes than a narrative, the book consists of chapter after chapter of Polo describing for Kublai Khan the various cities he encountered on his travels, each one more fantastic and magical than the last. “Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says,” Calvino tells us in his introduction, “but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” As readers, we too listen with rapt attention to curious stories of cities like Olinda, which “grows in concentric circles, like tree trunks which each year add one more ring” and Eusapia, where “the inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground,” so that the dead can “continue their former activities.”
Playing on the bizarre nature of travelers’ tales and the imaginative excesses of exotic romances, Calvino’s novel abounds in delightful architectural absurdities and puzzling allegories, almost demanding to be illuminated like a medieval manuscript. Deciding to meet the challenge, artists Matt Kish, Leighton Connor, Joe Kuth began illustrating Invisible Cities in April of 2014. Their tumblr, Seeing Calvino, updates every Wednesday with a new interpretation of the novel’s many strange cities. At the top of the post, see “Thekla,” the “city forever under construction,” by Kish. Below it, Kuth’s imagining of “Irene,” the “name for a city in the distance, and if you approach it, it changes.” And just above, Connor’s interpretation of “Beersheba,” in which it is believed that “suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba … They also believe, these inhabitants, that another Beersheba exists underground.”
Seeing Calvino isn’t Kish’s first foray into literary illustration. Previously, he undertook an illustration of every page of Melville’s Moby Dick, animpressive effort we featured last week. (Above, see another of his Invisible Cities pieces, “Adelma.”) Of the new, collaborative Calvino project, Kish tells us, “the episodic structure really appealed to us and we thought it was the perfect kind of thing to build a tumblr around and share with people.”
Invisible Cities has been fascinating to create… each of us brings a very different approach to the work. Joe’s Cities tend to be far more literal, realistic and representational, which I find kind of staggering because that is so difficult to do with Calvino. My illustrations are far more abstract and conceptual, trying to show in symbolic ways the ideas behind each chapter. Leighton falls somewhere between us on that spectrum, and his work has elements of realism and abstraction. None of us even talked about this before we started, we simply began independently (after settling on a rotation) and watched each other’s work evolve.
The three artists of Seeing Calvino have to date painted 45 of the 56 cities in Calvino’s novel. Kish has also illustrated Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and his blog features many other graphic interpretations of literary and cinematic works. The Moby Dick project saw publication as a book in 2011. We can only hope that Calvino’s publisher sees the value of anInvisible Cities edition incorporating Kish, Kuth, and Connor’s illustrations.
‘The Tropic of Cancer’ by Henry Miller
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood
‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemingway
‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov
‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee
‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley
‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac
‘O Pioneers’ by Willa Cather
‘Gone with the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell
‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut
‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger
And may not have existed either! In the Middle Ages, Bestiaries were created to catalogue the various creatures that lived around the world. They would include various animals like horses and lions, along with more fantastical creatures such as dragons and unicorns. Here are ten creatures that are less known but have unusual characteristics. Some were based on real animals, while the origins of others remain a mystery.
A group of American critics has named Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an ingenious take on the life of an overweight Dominican-American nerd, as the best novel of the 21st century to date.
BBC Culture, the arts section of the international BBC site, polled “several dozen” US critics to find the greatest novels written so far this century, with 156 novels in all named by experts from papers including the New York Times, Time magazine, Newsday, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. Díaz’s first novel was top of the list for the most critics, said BBC.com, with the Latino author’s Pulitzer-winning creation Oscar Wao, a “hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man” desperate to get laid, compared to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and John Updike’s Rabbit by one respondent, the critic and playwright Gregg Barrios.
“Díaz’s deft mash-up of Dominican history, comics, sci-fi, magic realism and footnotes totally rocks,” found Barrios, while critic and author Rigoberto Gonzalez said the debut “re-energised these questions: Who is American? What is the American experience?”
Second for the critics came Edward P Jones’ 19th-century-set novel The Known World, in which a slave turned slave-owner lies dying on his plantation, with Hilary Mantel’s reimagining of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, third. “I have never felt so completely catapulted into a character’s mind, not to mention a long ago and far away place,” said Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times books editor. Wolf Hall’s sequel Bring Up the Bodies, which also won the British author the Booker prize, drew votes as well, but failed to make the top 12, said the BBC.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s tale of small-town Iowa minister John Ames, was fourth – it “will be read in 100 years”, said Anisfield-Wolf book awards manager Karen R Long – and Jonathan Franzen’s look at the life of the Lamberts, The Corrections, was fifth. It was described as an “astonishing third novel – a masterpiece of voice, character, and storytelling” by New York Times columnist Carmela Ciararu.
The list also includes Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth, Jeffrey Eugenides’ tale of hermaphrodite Calliope Stephanides, Middlesex, Ian McEwan’sAtonement, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set amidst the Biafra conflict. Adichie’s Americanah, and Smith’s NW, also feature in the overall top 20, which includes three works in translation: Austerlitz by WG Sebald, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, and 2666 by Roberto Bolano.
But it does not feature some of the last 14 years’ most acclaimed works, from Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Instead, BBC Culture’s critics completed their line-up of “The 21st Century’s 12 greatest novels” with Ben Fountain’s award-winning debut Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, distinguished by its “sheer wise merriment”, according to critic Steven G Kellman, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. “Chabon’s capacious, propulsive and many-storied novel is exquisitely written, emotionally rich and historically and morally profound,” said Booklist senior editor Donna Seaman.
1. Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
2. Edward P Jones, The Known World (2003)
3. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)
4. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
5. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001)
6. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
7. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)
8. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
9. Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001)
10. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
11. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)
12. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)
The runners-up were:
13. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
14. WG Sebald, Austerlitz
15. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
16. Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
17. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
18. Zadie Smith, NW
19. Roberto Bolaño, 2666
20. Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire
According to the book review website Goodreads I recently finished reading my 1,000th book. They didn’t notify me of this, there’s no gold star on my profile and my book collection did not break into spontaneous applause (Harry Potter high-fiving Humbert Humbert, the Mitford sisters dancing a celebratory can-can). But I knew the second I finished reading my 1,000th book because I have been watching this day creep closer for four years. Four years of diligently maintaining my Goodreads account, including two afternoons carefully uploading every book I’d read since childhood. Give or take a few Where’s Wally? books I can be fairly sure that We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saw me reach this milestone. Assuming I live into my 90s (which my penchant for pasties and panic attacks suggests is unlikely), I will read just over 3,000 books in my lifetime – which doesn’t seem like an especially high number.
Finding out what the last book Liz read was is one of those questions I’ve never been able to ask. Instead, in the months leading up to her death I read constantly, three, four, five books at a time. Words were a way to push what was happening out of my head, and two years later I realised I was a couple of books off my 1,000th. As Liz’s death had kickstarted a period of compulsive reading, I wanted the book to be relevant to her, something that would somehow make up for all the books she would never read. Obviously no one book would ever manage that (although for my activist aunt, Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists comes closer than most) but the idea of a worthy book has stayed with me.
The books that deserve a place among my remaining 2,000 reads are those with an idea that excites me. I’m making room for novels like Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo, Sirius by Olaf Stapledon, The City and the City by China Miéville, Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, We Were Liars by E Lockhart, The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane and The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m going to spend more time reading authors I enjoy and relate to, either because of their use of language (Jackie Kay, Toni Morrison, Monique Roffey, Andrea Levy and Orhan Pamuk) or their subject matter (Jenni Fagan, Jhumpa Lahiri, HG Wells and Kazuo Ishiguro). In short; I’m going to demand more from the books I read. I’ve got 2,000 books left to read, at best, and I intend to be ruthless in choosing them.