Sunday, October 31, 2010
The Guardian reflects on the United States' beloved icon on the publication of his new autobiography.
From the piece...
Twain was always a barometric writer, with a knack for registering contemporary social pressures in sharp-eyed aphorisms that weren't merely quotable, but often well ahead of their time. His indictments of imperialism in Following the Equator, for example, read like post-colonialist mottos avant la lettre: "The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice"; "There are many humorous things in the world, among them the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages"; "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." The autobiography adds some new aperçus: "Man is the only [creature] that kills for fun; he is the only one that kills in malice, the only one that kills for revenge [. . .] He is the only creature that has a nasty mind." The autobiography is driven more often than not by outrage – personal outrage at times, as at the malfeasance of Paige, or the hapless "Joan of Arc" editor, or the American countess from whom the Clemens family rented the Florence villa, whom Twain roundly abuses. But most of the outrage here is social and political, including startlingly contemporary denunciations of American military interventions abroad, and condemnations of a society increasingly dominated by corrupt corporations, greedy capitalists, and vested interests. Writing of gilded age monopolists and robber barons, Twain's prescience is remarkable: he denounces Jay Gould, the financier and speculator, for example, as "the mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country". He is equally critical of American foreign policy, condemning its imperialist ventures in Cuba and the Philippines and calling its soldiers "uniformed assassins". He discusses with some pride his affiliation with the "Mugwumps", a faction of Republicans who voted Democrat in the elections of 1884 in protest against the corruption of the Republican candidate. They were derided as traitors in an age when party loyalty was at a premium, but the Mugwumps were reform-minded independent voters. In this respect, they might be held to anticipate the Tea Party movement, but although Twain would have sympathised with the Tea Partiers' anti-tax, small government agenda, he would have loathed their historical ignorance and their susceptibility to manipulation by the same corrupt corporate interests he was railing against.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer discusses the horror genre Renaissance.
From the article...
Scary monsters are coming out of the closet. And leaping off the pages. The oft-dismissed genre of horror fiction has been creeping into some unexpected places in the last few years: the book-review pages of major publications such as The New York Times; the shortlist for the esteemed Man Booker Prize; college syllabi; and the best-seller charts.
Horror literature is being viewed as, well, literature -- and scaring up more fans in the process. "It's not just seen as genre fiction anymore," says William Patrick Day, a professor of English and cinema studies at Oberlin College. "Those older boundaries between serious fiction and things clearly within a genre are breaking down. People are starting to see more clearly that there is a wide range of things that can be done within the genre."
Thank the vampires. These blood-sucking creatures of the night are at the forefront of the current horror trend.
From "Twilight" to "True Blood" and "The Vampire Diaries," bloodsuckers lurk all around, including in the book world.
"Two things make this the perfect storm of the undead," says Eric Nuzum, author of "The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires From Nosferatu to Count Chocula."
"The number of vampire movies isn't that much different now than it has always been. The difference is that vampires are more popular. . . . Books are exploding because, more than any other industry, the publishing industry apes success."
For Halloween, why not read some creepy tales? The Guardian takes note of some spooky haunted house fiction, here.
From the piece...
The classic haunted house story – whether or not the malevolence of the house, flat, garden or bathroom is later "explained" by a forgotten grisly suicide, murder most foul or Satanist conclave scribbling pentagrams on the floor – may seem a bit on the old-fashioned side. After all, it was Baron Bulwer-Lytton, of "dark and stormy night" infamy, who kicked off the sub-genre in 1857 with "The Haunters and the Haunted", in which a curious gentleman spends a night in a diabolical house with a sturdy servant and a prize bull-terrier. (This story has remained with me, both because of the house's pervasive eerie chill – "I felt an exceedingly cold air pass by my cheek, like a sudden draught ..." – and because the poor dog winds up having its neck wrung. It stands up surprisingly well to rereading, although I prefer the reasons for a house's hauntedness to remain a little more shrouded in mystery than Bulwer-Lytton eventually allows.) It's certainly true that most of my favourite haunted house stories were written in the Victorian and Edwardian periods – MR James produced several, including an intoxicatingly horrible haunted house in miniature, as did Sheridan LeFanu and Charles Dickens.
Also in the Guardian, Kate Mosse offers up her Top Ten Ghost Stories.
Booktryst transports us through it, here.
From the piece...
One of the most famous scenes is the weighing of the heart. Here the departed is led to scales watched over by Anubis, and his heart is weighed against a feather. A wicked heart will outweigh the feather, and be eaten by the monstrous devourer, Ammit. A pure heart balances the scales perfectly, and allows the deceased to continue his journey. The optimal outcome of the journey was to reunite with one's dead ancestors in paradise. "The family unit was crucial," explains Taylor. "You cared for your dead family because they were still there, on the other side. They could communicate with you and had power over you. So people wrote letters to the dead asking things like, 'Why are you still punishing me?'" (Some things never change...)
Saturday, October 30, 2010
"Last fall I came across a copy of “Native Trees of Canada, Bulletin No. 61, Fifth Edition,” originally published in 1917 by the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, Forestry Branch," notes Leanne Shapton for the New York Times.
In its flat, monochrome survey photographs I saw a simplified version of the Canadian landscape, like the one I understood as a child. Seeing the pictures reminded me of our capacity to colorize memories, some not even our own. I made a series of paintings from the book, and afterward, whenever I read a story, any mention of a tree stood out like an old friend. It’s hard to find stories about Canada that do not include references to its trees. Here, from my bookshelf, are passages from some of my favorite Canadian authors on their leafy heritage.
The Huffington Post has the list, here. On it, Maxwell Perkins (pictured above).
From the piece...
Often called the most famous literary editor, Maxwell Perkins's resume speaks for itself. He was heavily involved in the development of the following: The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man And The Sea, Cry The Beloved Country, From Here To Eternity, Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time And The River. Perkins was a close friend of Fitzgerald's (to whom he loaned money) and Hemingway dedicated The Old Man And The Sea to him.
And, while we're discussing Mr. Perkins, there might be a movie about his life with Sean Penn in the lead role. The Los Angeles Times has more about that possibility, here.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy (author of The God of Small Things) is being authorized by the Indian government to be arrested for "sedition" because of statements she made about the territory of Kashmir.
From an article in the Los Angeles Times about the issue...
This summer, tensions in Kashmir were inflamed after a number of incidents involving security forces: It came to light that Indian security forces killed three civilians, then staged a firefight to make it appear as though the killings had been committed by militants; two officers were suspended. Three teenagers were killed in June when security forces fired on a demonstration calling for independence. Another died in early July when he used a drainage canal to flee from security forces and drowned.
"Politicians, academics and human rights groups have long cited a culture of impunity among security forces in Kashmir," Magnier reports, "epitomized by a controversial 1990 national law granting soldiers the right to detain or eliminate all suspected terrorists and destroy their property without fear of prosecution. Critics have called the provision, which doesn't clearly define 'terrorists,' as a license to kill."
Arundhati Roy's Tuesday statement reflects on these issues. "Anybody who cares to read the transcripts of my speeches will see that they were fundamentally a call for justice," she wrote. "I spoke about justice for the people of Kashmir who live under one of the most brutal military occupations in the world; for Kashmiri Pandits who live out the tragedy of having been driven out of their homeland; for Dalit soldiers killed in Kashmir whose graves I visited on garbage heaps in their villages in Cuddalore; for the Indian poor who pay the price of this occupation in material ways and who are now learning to live in the terror of what is becoming a police state."
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Elif Batuman, for the Guardian, discusses buying e-books under the influence.
From the piece...
3. Sentimentality. I am a sentimental, rather than angry, drunk. One night, having coerced the cat to sit on my lap, I proceeded to read free samples of four different memoirs by scientists who form unlikely and ultimately tragic bonds with research animals.
4. Decreased inhibitions. Until technology empowered me to order books while drunk, I didn't realise the scope and diversity of literature that I wasn't reading purely out of embarrassment. To name just one genre, many off-colour books that were recommended to me over the years by boyfriends and crushes have now found a home on my Kindle: Marcuse's Eros and Civilisation, Miller's Sexus, Plexus, Nexus, Dworkin's Intercourse (I'm not making that up), Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (that one, published in 1748, is actually great, and free).
5. Impaired judgment. I order a lot of books that I'm just clearly never going to read without the help of substances I don't abuse yet. Example: Phenomenology: A Very Short Introduction.
A few months ago, my drunk reading tendencies converged upon a single author. The Kindle actually made the suggestion itself, in the form of one of its standard issue author screensavers: a portrait of Agatha Christie that I found staring up at me, half-obscured by a pile of bills.
Going to Portland this weekend? Perhaps you should stop by and partake of the Jane Austen Conference. This year's theme? "Mystery, Mayhem, and Muslin."
The Los Angeles Times previews the event, here.
And, also, from a story in the Oregonian...
If you're a Jane Austen fanatic, also known as a Janeite, you don't have to guess because you're planning to attend a lecture called "Henry Tilney: Portrait of the Hero as Beta Male" at the Jane Austen Society of North America's annual meeting in Portland this week. You could also attend "Henry Tilney: Austen's Feminized Hero" or any of several discussions of muslin, the fabric that Henry can't stop talking about. You might even wear "a sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings" at the masked ball (they're calling it a "Bal Masqué") on Saturday night.
The Bal Masqué is a highlight of the weekend for the Janeites. There are dance workshops to prepare participants for the ins and outs of English country dance, and a stylist will be available to mold the ladies' hair into "updos" appropriate for the Regency period. Before the ball, those in costume will parade around the Hilton Portland in a "grande promenade" that will continue outside and around the block (weather permitting, of course).
It's all good fun, a point hammered home by the conference theme: "Jane Austen and the Abbey: Mystery, Mayhem, and Muslin in Portland." It's also serious fun, in more ways than one. More than 650 people are registered for the conference, the majority coming from out of state, and organizers are calling this the largest literary conference in Portland history. (Wordstock is a festival and isn't, by these standards, strictly literary.) Dozens of academics and scholars are presenting papers and discussing "Northanger Abbey," and not all of their scholarship concerns Henry Tilney's strange fondness for muslin. Shannon Campbell, a docent at the University of Alberta's Botanic Garden, will speak on "The Mystique of the Pineapple: A Lure for General Tilney."
The Millions discusses it.
From the story...
The publishing world has embraced e-mail rejections for obvious reasons: speed and convenience. The need for speed is driven by the simple fact that there are too many people writing too much stuff and publishing houses are producing too many books, most of them bad, some of them decent, a few of them truly dreadful, and a tiny handful of them brilliant and destined to last. All of a sudden everyone with a laptop has a novel inside them, or a book of short stories, or at the very least a memoir about incest, anorexia, substance abuse and/or the thrilling world of rehab. More than 4,000 Americans apply to creative writing MFA programs every year. American publishers cranked out about 280,000 “traditional” titles last year, including about 45,000 novels. That’s nearly a thousand novels a week. That’s insane. When you factor in on-demand, self-published and “micro-niche” books marketed almost exclusively on the Internet, the number of new titles surpassed 1 million last year for the first time. Understandably, agents and editors complain that they’re swamped with product, and anything that can hasten the culling process is a godsend. There’s simply no time today for such tweedy niceties as writing thoughtful, constructive rejection letters to some schmuck whose book you’re not going to buy.
But I would argue that American book publishing doesn’t need to speed up; it needs to slow down. Nobody can stop people from writing, of course, but editors can – and should – determine what is truly worthy and then take the necessary time to make it truly great. One way to buy that time would be to publish fewer titles. It’s no secret that most books today are sloppily edited if they’re edited at all, that a disturbing number of memoirs are figments of the writer’s imagination, and that most published novels and short story collections simply do not deserve to exist, either on aesthetic grounds or on the brute reality of what the market will bear. We’ve all had the experience of walking into a bookstore and feeling overwhelmed by the number of titles on the shelves. You may know in your heart that there are only a few gems in those tall cliffs of books – but how do you spot the gems?
I say it’s time for writers, agents, editors and publishers to admit that less would be more. We need fewer books, and better ones; we need more readers, and smarter ones. And I believe the former would lead to the latter.
Media Bistro is reporting that Danny DeVito is to star in a cinematic adaptation of Dr. Seuss's beloved The Lorax.
From the piece...
Zac Efron will play the human hero, Ted (named after Theodore Seuss Geisel), and Betty White will play his grandmother. The two villains will be voiced by Ed Helms and Rob Riggle. Helms will play Once-ler while Riggle will voice a new villainous creation.
The film will be shot in 3-D and release is tentatively set for 2012. The video embedded above shows a clip from the animated musical television special of The Lorax developed by CBS back in 1972.
USA Today quoted Illumination Entertainment chief Chris Meledandri: “Danny has this wonderful ability to be acerbic and grouchy but at the same time absolutely lovable. It’s almost like Walter Matthau had. His comedic edge was very sharp, but he always maintained that warmth.”
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Care of The Hairpin.
From the piece...
The Big Scoop
The Life, Etc. section of the magazine continues to amaze me. The fresh ideas in “Summer Party Guide: Ice Cream!” [July] gave me the incentive to prepare homemade ice cream and present it in a fun manner. The gourmet ice cream sundaes were my favorite and the most delicious.
Rachael C., Lynbrook, NY (InStyle, September 2010)
One idea I had was to put a little hat and shoes on the ice cream. Under the hat I also put a little hair from my brush. I call her Linda because she looks just like a little woman. And you KNOW I couldn’t eat her, so I put her on a saucer and I keep her in the freezer. Linda, Linda, Linda. What goes on inside your ice cream head? Lol, my electricity bill is going to be so high this month, too (from standing in front of the freezer with the door open, looking at Linda).
Deirdre J., Roanoke, VA
The Wall Street Journal has a piece about people who are starting to leave the grind of 9 to 5 workplace life to revisit their creative interests that have been stifled by said grinding 9 to 5 workplace life.
From the story...
There's nothing like the daily grind of work to stifle the artist that lurks within us. It's hard to tap into your creative side when you're worried about meeting deadlines, making a sale or drumming up new business. But step away from the day-to-day routines, and you never know what you'll find.
Take Ed Walsh, age 61, who thought of himself as a creative teacher but after retiring discovered a deeper, more personal level of expression and satisfaction in painting. Or Judy Greenberg, 65, whose rediscovery of her love for making art has not only brought new excitement and purpose into her life but also helped her family deal with the death of one of her sons.
Many people who take up artistic pursuits after retiring from their primary careers talk about rediscovering feelings they haven't experienced in years—or finding something inside themselves that they never knew existed. Their newfound avocations often evoke an interest they explored in their youth but then put aside as the responsibilities of work and family intruded. Their rekindled passions may or may not provide much of a living, but they do bring feelings of achievement—and an opportunity to create a legacy.
The Bygone Bureau has an interesting little piece about what goes on behind the scenes of some well-known websites, editing-wise. McSweeney's, The Morning News and The Awl are discussed.
From the piece...
Not every venerable web publication needs a dozen editors. McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the online presence of the San Francisco-based publisher, is a two-man operation. Christopher Monks has been editing the bulk of McSweeney’s web content since 2007, and along with his predecessor John Warner, who works part-time handling the 15 recurring columnists, they are the only two on McSweeney’s staff that don’t reside in the Bay Area. (Monks is a stay-at-home dad in Boston, MA; Warner resides in Clemson, SC.)
“I upload to the site every morning right here from the MacBook on my dining room table. Usually my two bleary-eyed sons are there watching me, munching on their Golden Grahams, trying to figure out what exactly it is I do for work,” Monks said.
Monks receives roughly 200 submissions a week, which gives him quite a bit to read. But the upside is that he can be picky — almost all of the site’s content comes from unsolicited submissions — and generally, most of the accepted humor pieces don’t need much editing. Monks usually makes a few tweaks to run by the writer before the article is ready for publication. But there are exceptions.
“From time to time a piece will come in with a brilliant conceit, but not great execution, and if I think it’s worth a major overhaul I’ll work with the writer to make it fit for the site,” Monks said.
Monks communicates with writers, and his co-editor, solely by email. Warner uses Google Calendar to schedule recurring columns; Monks organizes humor content about a week in advance. His biggest technological hurdle is the software he uses to run the site, which is so antiquated that he needs to hand-code all the content, upload everything manually, and he can’t even schedule content to run on a future date — all features that are standard in modern platforms.
“The software we use to upload content is very old, like cart-and-buggy-and-men-with-hats-and-funny-mustaches old,” Monks joked.
The platform has gone largely unchanged since McSweeney’s Internet Tendency went live in 1998. (For reference, that was the year Google was launched.) Luckily, the team is in the process of creating an entirely new engine for the site, a project led by McSweeney’s digital media director Russell Quinn, who also designed the gorgeous and eccentric McSweeney’s iPhone app. When I asked if the site’s classic, Times-New-Roman-on-white look would be getting an overhaul as well, Monks said he wanted to keep it a surprise.
“The site’s new engine will probably be the biggest makeover, he said. “The site will be more user friendly, though.”
With Halloween just around the corner, AbeBooks goes to the vault to highlight some spooky horror book covers. Enjoy...if you dare!!!
And, if you want to be creeped out, the Guardian suggests these ten ghost stories.
Oh, care to be creeped out even more? Very well. The Washington Post takes note of these five books on zombies.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
That's how a new version of the ancient Kama Sutra has been updated.
From the piece in the Telegraph...
For years it has been seen as the ultimate sex guide – the first point of reference for young men eager to learn about the art of adventurous lovemaking.
But now, the Kama Sutra is to be updated in a new version, presented as a "lifestyle guide for the modern man and woman".
Gone are the erotic drawings and sexual illustrations that have accompanied various translations of the ancient Hindu text.
Instead, the new edition, to be published by Penguin, will be a text-only pocket-sized handbook, described as a "classy" manual "covering every aspect of love and relationships".
Previous English versions of the Kama Sutra have been widely based on the 19th-century translation by the explorer and orientalist, Sir Richard Francis Burton, often featuring erotic illustrations to enhance Burton's old-fashioned language.
But the new version, written by A. N. D Haksar, an Indian scholar and a leading translator of Sanskrit texts, will include updated chapter headings such as "Making a Pass", "Why Women Get Turned Off", "Girls to Avoid", "Is he Worthwhile?", "Getting rid of him", "Easy Women", "Moves towards sex," and "Some Dos and Don'ts".
Booktryst has a fun post on weird books written by weirder people.
From the post...
Like chillaxin’, the word nutcase has gotten a heavy workout within the last few years, used so indiscriminately that its true meaning has become lost and the word worn thin. It is often confused with and substituted for wing-nut, a subspecies of Homo Politico, recently flourishing on the far Right of the political spectrum but not exclusive to it. As my old friend from Texas, the self-proclaimed and proud Librarian to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, relentlessly enjoys pointing out to me, it was the far Lefties of the 1960s and their antics that were the real wing-nuts. There’s enough truth in her assertion that what remains are mirror images blind to recognizing their flip-side reflection.
What, then, constitutes a nutcase book?
Singularity and oddity. It can’t be the current flood of titles from Tea Partiers and Rightward media commentators. There are too many of them, too similar, and issued in huge print runs by mainstream publishers. By definition, a nutcase book cannot appeal to a large, popular audience. Possessing a strange title is not enough, nor, necessarily, a strange subject. The anonymously written How To Boil Water in a Paper Bag (1891) is out there but not so far that it is utterly implausible.
A nutcase book must be in a class by itself, possessing a certain j'nais se WTF?
The Daily Beast has an excerpt from the Dalai Lama's new book, My Spiritual Journey.
I have been confronted with many difficulties throughout the course of my life, and my country is going through a critical period. But I laugh often, and my laughter is contagious. When people ask me how I find the strength to laugh now, I reply that I am a professional laugher. Laughing is a characteristic of the Tibetans, who are different in this from the Japanese or the Indians. They are very cheerful, like the Italians, rather than a little reserved, like the Germans or the English.
My cheerfulness also comes from my family. I come from a small village, not a big city, and our way of life is more jovial. We are always amusing ourselves, teasing each other, joking. It’s our habit.
To that is added, as I often say, the responsibility of being realistic. Of course problems are there. But thinking only of the negative aspect doesn’t help to find solutions and it destroys peace of mind. Everything, though, is relative. You can see the positive side of even the worst tragedies if you adopt a holistic perspective. If you take the negative as absolute and definitive, however, you increase your worries and anxiety, whereas by broadening the way you look at a problem you understand what is bad about it, but you accept it. This attitude comes to me, from my practice and from Buddhist philosophy, which help me enormously.
Monday, October 25, 2010
The Reader's Almanac makes note of Bob Dylan's ties to the Beats.
From the post...
Dylan never met Kerouac (who died forty-one years ago today). But he loved Kerouac’s “breathless, dynamic, bop phrases.” Wilentz details the close and complex relationship between the folk-music crowd and the Beats in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. Dylan arrived there in January 1961, having read the Beats in Minneapolis:
"I came out of the wildness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd, it was pretty much connected, “ Dylan said in 1985. “It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Felinghetti . . . I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic. . . . it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley."
But while Dylan could identify with Kerouac as another “young man from a small industrial town who had come to New York as a cultural outsider,” the friendship he developed with Ginsberg transformed both their lives. They first met at a party thrown by Wilentz’s uncle in December 1963 and their bond deepened over decades, “each influencing the other,” as Wilentz writes, “while their admirers forged the counterculture that profoundly affected American life at the end of the twentieth century.”
The Guardian travels the world with Tintin as more and more modern day fans follow in his fictional footsteps for vacations.
From the piece...
So I found myself looking up at the famous first view that travellers get of the Treasury at Petra in Jordan – framed between the walls of the ceremonial Siq passage - holding a grubby copy of Hergé's book The Red Sea Sharks before me. The pink pillars, dusty sand, horses and Arabs in keffiyehs, their vivid colours flattened and bleached by the heat, could have leapt straight out of the page.
Thousands of tourists visit Petra every week, but this summer I was part of the first small group of adventurers to arrive at the rose-red city in the footsteps of Tintin, led by one of the world's leading Tintinologists, Michael Farr.
For Michael – who, dressed in beige linen suit and explorer's hat, looks to have stepped from that golden era of travel – this is clearly part of the delight. A natural raconteur, he explains that Tintin creator Hergé's drawings were astonishingly accurate, from his rendering of landscapes such as the Middle Eastern desert and local costumes, down to the accuracy of Egyptian hieroglyphs painted on a tomb or the Chinese lettering on a street banner. When fans of the comics see images of the real thing they perhaps cannot help but be reminded of the books in which they first saw them.
The Guardian takes note of why editing a cookbook can be a recipe for chaos.
From the story...
Before I offered to edit one, I hadn't realised how complex recipe books are, or, crucially, how much washing up they involve: while producing Cook, which includes more than 250 seasonal recipes by 80 different chefs, we washed up more than 500 times (oh, how I dreamed of dishwashers). My boyfriend, photographer Steven Joyce, was commissioned to do the pictures so I naively offered our little kitchen as a location, unconcerned that most books have someone to do the shopping and food styling, someone to test the recipes and another to do the words.
Enthusiastically, we took on the lot and our home became a scene of sticky, greasy, gastronomic chaos. Our hair and clothes permanently smelled of food. For months our pillow talk was about where to get good-looking asparagus or comté cheese. We had to buy fresh ingredients every day we shot, meaning endless trips to our increasingly baffled local shops – just what were we doing with 8kg of potatoes, litres of cream and a crate of onions a week?
Sunday, October 24, 2010
The Financial Times has an interesting piece about books as physical artifacts.
From the piece...
Books, like bricks, are a basic element of architecture. I wasn’t quite aware of this until I viewed a couple of properties recently and was struck, and appalled, by the lack of books. No books. Not one. The otherwise impeccable interiors seemed painfully incomplete. Bereft.
At the exact moment that the book would seem to be in the greatest danger in its history, threatened by e-books and a proliferation of disposable gadgets, the book’s very old technology seems at its most attractive – and its most physical. E-readers may be able to convey content but they leave no physical trace. Once the machine is turned off or fails, the knowledge disappears. They are resolutely not a part of the architecture but rather of the increasingly messy landscape of stuff. Libraries and bookstacks have always been a physical and aesthetic manifestation of knowledge, of the world informed by reading and, consequently, a way of reading the inhabitant. There is more information to be gleaned about the occupant of a house from what is on the shelves than from the furniture or the food. Books, or the lack of them, form an almost perfect mirror of concerns and character.
As well as being a means of expression – whether conscious or unconscious – books serve another representational purpose. From the Renaissance and on through the Enlightenment and into a world in which books went from being precious, handmade treasures to affordable commodities, the library or the study lined with books was a cipher for an ordered reality, a defence against a real world outside that could be frighteningly unpredictable. Within their pages lay the answers, the knowledge to fend off an apparent lack of meaning in the universe. Yet, paradoxically, in their disorder, in the random systems we impose (or fail to impose) upon them, they can equally represent the impossibility of knowing. Walter Benjamin, the German thinker, in his beautiful essay “Unpacking my Library”, managed to reconcile these ideas while contemplating his unpacked books in a new apartment: “The chance, the fate that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”
Georges Perec makes a similar point considering his shelves: “We would like to think that order and disorder are, in fact, the same word, denoting pure chance.” The library can also denote the end of time. To find someone’s library in a second-hand bookshop is extraordinarily moving, a document of a life abruptly ended at the moment acquisition stops. But it can be voluntary. There was Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, who built a private library in his submarine, 12,000 uniformly bound volumes submerged with him, the sum of all knowledge up to a point at which, for him, it all stopped, there would be nothing new.
Smithsonian has a fascinating story about a murder in Salem, Massachusetts. Richard Crowninshield bludgeoned 82-year-old Captain Joseph White while the former slave trader and shipmaster slept. It was April 6, 1830.
From the piece...
The chapter on Captain White’s savage killing, evocative of the golden age mystery tales of the late 19th century, riveted me at once. The famed lawyer and congressman Daniel Webster was the prosecutor at the ensuing trial. His summation for the jury—its inexorable cadence, the slow gathering of dreadful atmospheric details—tugged at my memory, reminding me of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of terror. In fact, after talking with Poe scholars, I learned that many of them agreed the famous speech had likely been the inspiration for Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” wherein the narrator boasts of his murder of an elderly man. Moreover, I discovered, the murder case had even found its way into some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works, with its themes of tainted family fortunes, torrential guilt and ensuing retribution.
Those facts alone proved an irresistible magnet to a crime historian like me. But the setting—gloomy, staid Salem, where in the 1690s nineteen men and women were convicted of witchcraft and hanged—endowed the murder case with another layer of gothic intrigue. It almost certainly fed the widespread (and admittedly lurid) fascination with the sea captain’s death among the American public at the time. The town, according to an 1830 editorial in the Rhode Island American, was “forever...stained with blood, blood, blood.”
The 99, a comic book series featuring a team of superheroes based on Islamic culture and religion, is teaming up with DC Comics this week. The Guardian has more about it, here.
From the piece...
Even if you deliberately set out to try to dream up the least probable superhero ever, it's unlikely that you'd manage to come up with a character as far-fetched as Batina the Hidden. Forget Wonder Worm, or a man born with the powers of a newt, Batina is a superhero of a kind the world hasn't until now seen. It's not just that she's a Muslim woman, from a country best known for harbouring al-Qaida operatives – Yemen – but that she wears an altogether new kind of super-person costume: a burqa.
She, along with her fellow crime-fighters, a vast team of characters from around the world, including Jabbar the Powerful from Saudi Arabia and Hadya the Guide from London, collectively known as "The 99", are the world's first Islam-inspired superheroes. And this week, in what is perhaps the ultimate comic-book accolade, they will join forces with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. DC Comics, the US publishing giant, will publish the first of six special crossover issues in which The 99 will be fighting crime alongside the Justice League of America, the fictional superhero team that includes Superman and Batman.
What's even more remarkable is that The 99 only came into being in 2007 with some remarkable firsts: the first comic book superheroes to have Muslim names and be directed at an international audience and the first to come out of the Middle East. Crossovers don't happen often and even less often with characters that are just three years old. Even The 99's creator and mastermind, a Kuwaiti-born, American-educated psychologist and entrepreneur called Naif al-Mutawa, seems to be having some trouble believing the Superman link-up.
"For me, there's a nerd part and a business part. On a business level, it's pretty exciting to be acknowledged as having created something that's considered to be on a level with something that's been around 50 years or more. And that obviously has business ramifications. But the nerd part is the thing that makes my eyes light up."
Joe Queenan, for the Guardian, discusses his love for Charles Schultz's famous strip.
From the piece...
You didn't have to like all the characters in Peanuts to enjoy the strip. I never quite got Marcie or Franklin, mid-60s additions who seemed to serve an ancillary function. Woodstock, the lovable little bird who became Snoopy's protege, annoyed me. Linus's Beethoven fixation I found tiring. But Lucy, Chuck, Peppermint Patty and Snoopy were fine.
From the very beginning, Peanuts had an elegiac quality. It made Americans pine for an earlier, more innocent time that had never actually existed. In this sense, Peanuts occupied a place in the American consciousness that was a bit like that occupied by Sir Walter Scott's novels in Victorian times, evoking a time and place where life was simpler and easier to understand, and therefore entirely illusory. Though Schulz would sometimes make satirical allusions to events of the day, the adult world never really intruded. Physically, he did not allow adults to enter the strip. Nor did he allow senseless cruelty. Pratfalls, yes, but not cruelty. The world of Peanuts was hermetically sealed, in the way that children at play have always wanted their cosmos hermetically sealed.
Peanuts did not look like the comic strips that had preceded it. Many of these were incredibly busy and complicated, and sometimes grotesque. They were stylish and beautiful, but inaccessible; the artist did not invite his audience in. Peanuts, by contrast was deceptively simple in design and very accommodating to the viewer. There was usually not much more than the characters' expressions, perhaps a doghouse or a playing field. This graphic approach didn't change much over the years; it was not broke, so there was no reason to fix it.
And, since Halloween is just around the corner, a clip from the classic TV special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown":
The Philadelphia Inquirer has a piece about how the studying of brain injuries is leading to a greater understanding of the roots of creativity.
From the story...
Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says that while brain injuries and disease usually hamper the production of art, the exceptions could be revealing. "Sometimes," he says, "the great artist can give us insight into the process because they have distilled it into a more extreme version."
Using a technique called fMRI, or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, scientists can measure changes in the brain while a person engages in creating art or any form of mental activity. The technique was invented in the mid-1990s, but "it's only in the last few years that it has taken off," Chatterjee says.
So it is an infant science with anecdotal information preceding scientific studies and questions far outnumbering answers.
But the implications are vast. Unlocking the secrets of creativity, scientists say, could result in everything from improvements in helping stroke victims recover to developing new teaching methods.
To take an example that might seem unlikely, Chatterjee cites a situation in which creativity can be the key to survival: Army Special Forces soldiers dropped behind enemy lines and needing to improvise to survive.
"People are creative in different ways," says Chatterjee, himself a serious photographer. "For example, the kind of creativity that operates in the visual arts might be different from the creativity that operates in mathematics. We are at the beginning of understanding the physiology of why certain sensations give us pleasure and the neural underpinnings of aesthetic experiences.
"There are two ways to approach this," he adds. "What is the brain teaching us about creativity and what is creativity teaching us about the brain?"
Saturday, October 23, 2010
For the New Yorker, Judd Apatow discusses comedy, kids' books, and why he'll never finish Moby-Dick.
From the piece...
How did you select the pieces for the book?
I worked with Lisa Yadavaia in my office and Chris Monks, who runs the McSweeney’s site. I could be wrong about that. Always assume that there’s a small chance that I am wrong about everything. We worked on searching for pieces for almost a year. And it was really fun to have an excuse to be forced to read way more than I normally would, and to ask people for recommendations. If someone agreed to be in the book, I’d say, “Well, who else should be in the book?” And I would ask people like James Franco, and James Franco would send me a long list of people he likes. And he asked his professor for stories that he likes, and then slowly we whittled it down.
James Franco has really become Hollywood’s man of letters, hasn’t he?
Oh, I love it. I love James Franco. I remember when he was on the set of “Freaks and Geeks” and in between takes he’d be reading Freud and I would think, “Is he actually reading Freud, or is he trying to impress people? Is he actually processing this information?” And he proved that he was not kidding.
So when you decide what to read next, it’s mostly a word-of-mouth thing?
I like to get recommendations from people. If I like a certain author, I pay attention to who’s in their world, and it leads me to something else. If you read Tobias Wolff, it leads you to Raymond Carver which leads you to somebody else and that’s the fun of it for me. Especially if you’re reading short stories. It’s hard to do that with novels, because that would be a slow ride. With short stories, you can do one a day and say, “Well, who does Alice Munro like? Who’s the quote on the back of her book, because that must be one of her friends.” She probably only wants a good writer to say she’s a good writer. That’s the fun connective tissue.