Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Holes and other non-juvenilia

UK readers may have watched an interesting Disney film, Holes, screened on Sunday 27th. If you didn't, get it out on video: it's an unusual storyline, set in a US youth correction facility in the desert whose inmates are forced to dig holes as a character-building exercise (a gritty setting showing that Disney has broken well away from its anodyne past, and with casting as good as it gets - e.g. Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight and Patricia Arquette alongside the then largely unknown juvenile leads). Alternatively (or in addition) find a copy of Louis Sachar's 1998 novel of the same name, of which the film is a largely faithful adaptation.

Holes won Sachar a National Book Award and Newbery Medal and a string of other awards, and well deserves them. It has a highly topical and controversial setting, a tense mix of the comic and deeply dark, and a complex magic-realistic interweaving of many recurring and ultimately interlocking motifs such as peaches, onions, poisonous lizards, bad feet, family folklore, false accusation, and a tragic historical backstory of forbidden inter-racial love. What I've deliberately missed out, for ultimate effect, is that this is a book for the juvenile market.

When books are this good, for whatever readership, is such categorisation even meaningful? This is explored by my friend and writing colleague Felix Grant (who gave me the book originally) at a current post, Juvenilia, feminism, love, and other labels, at his weblog, The Growlery (named after John Jarndyce's refuge in Dicken's Bleak House, chapter 8). This is altogether interesting, but it has a Books category if you want to home in on that, where Felix has an ongoing thread about Jeanne DuPrau's Ember series (which I've yet to read). The first two books The City of Ember and The People of Sparks are post-apocalyptic, followed by a prequel, The Prophet of Yonwood, that looks at the preceding breakdown of civilisation - all this being the setting for examination of conflicts such as personal responsibility vs obedience to authority. This is strong stuff, yet again written for readers of middle school age. Worth thinking on for anyone even considering writing for children: as any number of children's writers advise, the besetting sin of "would-be"s in this territory is underestimating the sophistication of the readership.
- Ray

Monday, 28 April 2008

Something wild

A while back I posted the entry Wild at heart that focused on Peter Green's Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame. I forgot to mention the Kenneth Grahame Society, whose site has a deal of biographical and bibliographic material, as well as a discussion forum. If you're of a creative turn of mind, the Society is running a Short Story Competition: free entry, circa 5000 words, the story to be a "sequel, prequel or countertext to The Wind in the Willows". Of the competition, which marks the centenary of the book's publication in 1908, the organisers say:

This is a unique opportunity for creative writers everywhere to write a short story in the same style as The Wind in the Willows and have it published. It is, similarly, a unique opportunity for academic writers to use creative writing as an alternative approach for presenting some new insights into the book. And it is an opportunity for all to pay homage to their favourite book and add to The Wind in the Willows canon.

Looks an interesting brief.


Thursday, 24 April 2008

M and other non-comical comics

Via the MetaFilter community weblog: New York magazine features Exclusive Comics Excerpt: 'M', a section from the forthcoming Abrams reprint of Jon J Muth's adaptation of Fritz Lang's 1931 film, M. The film (available at the Internet Archive) was ahead of its time in many respects, in theme, technique and in its moral ambivalence (Lang makes strong parallels between the police and the criminal vigilante gang who are hunting the serial murderer 'M' for different reasons); Muth's photorealistic rendering in silverpoint, charcoal and oils is remarkable.

We don't often see graphic novels in the shop, but reading the article about M reminded that two of interest came in recently. One is a classic of the modern reinvention of the superhero genre, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Older readers may remember the jokey Adam West / Burt Ward TV series, as recalled at Adamwest.com. Miller's graphic novel broke with this depiction and featured a middle-aged and retired Bruce Wayne returning to his role as Batman. Despite the title of the upcoming sequel to Batman Begins, it has never been made into a film, but it was iconic in forming the film depictions of Batman / Wayne as an anguished character whose methods go beyond legality and whose mindset, torn between philanthropist and revenge-driven psychopath, is as peculiar as that of the villains he fights. Also, as the introduction by Alan Moore says, it takes the Batman story into the final scenes of the hero myth - maturity, decline and death - that are fundamental to legend.

The other graphic novel that turned up recently is Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (see the taster at Random House, and the CNN review A not-so-comic comic book and interview). Semi-autobiographical, it's a poignant exploration of the origins of a man's crippling inability to interact with the world. The main story concerns events when Corrigan, a timid postal worker, meets his father for the first time in his mid-30s; but this is interwoven with Corrigan's dreams and fantasies and with flashbacks, particularly to the childhood of Corrigan's grandfather at the time of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Past and present also interact: the 1980s Corrigan's neuroses and dreams (such as his fear of women and his recurring dream of a tiny horse) appear to come from the traumas of his grandfather's childhood rather than his own. Through these interwoven narratives, the story gradually reveals and dissects the history of a family with a repeating motif of fractured relationships.

The Dark Knight Returns and Jimmy Corrigan make an interesting juxtaposition. Despite very different subject matter, they're both gripping for the same reason: the clever use of the comic format to explore how their damaged protagonists' emotions are rooted in their origins. This makes them an excellent riposte to those who think comics are incapable of tackling the same themes as those of "real literature".

Addendum. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition - see this hypertext thesis and this Illinois Institute of Technology project - must have been an astonishing sight. Its 600-acre electrically-lit "White City" largely consisted of temporary buildings coated with stucco, and most of it was destroyed by fire during the Pullman Strike of 1894. However two of its more solidly constructed buildings remain on site - the Palace of Fine Arts (now the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry) and the World's Congress Auxiliary Building (now the Art Institute of Chicago) - and two were removed and preserved elsewhere, the Maine State Building and Norway Building.

Addendum 2. The post focused on male-protagonist comics, but let's not forget the equally excellent Gemma Bovery, Posy Simmonds' modern reworking of Flaubert's Madame Bovary as a satire on Yuppiedom; and the works of Claire Bretécher, who specialises in sympathetic but sharply observed female characters. Bretécher normally does short-format work, but her Le Destine de Monique (called Where's my baby now? for the English edition) is a full-length graphic novel following the excruciating tribulations of an actress who desires to have a baby at all costs. It was subversive and even taboo at the time it was written, tackling the topic of in-vitro fertilization when it was not a commonplace, and it was even the subject of a dissertation, The Rhetoric of Parody in Claire Bretécher’s Le destin de Monique. Editions of Bretécher works in English translation are reasonably easy to find second-hand.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

How calmly does the orange branch

It still amazes me what can be found on the Internet. Above, on YouTube, is Nonno's poem from the film of Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana. (For those who don't know the play or film, Nonno is a 97-year-old old poet who travels the world with his granddaughter, the pair hustling money from hotel guests). The full text is here; it's one of the most poignant poems about mortality I know of. (For some reason, the film replaced the phrase "orange branch" with "olive branch"). Overshadowed by his better-known reputation as a playwright, Williams' poetry deserves to be better known: you can preview the Collected Poems at Google Books. Williams - real name Thomas Lanier Williams III - also wrote a good many short stories, some outside his usual genre. For instance, his first published story, The Vengeance of Nitocris, appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, and his Desire and the Black Masseur is a classic of horror, sufficiently so to be included in Peter Haining's anthology of "the world's most horrible horror stories", The Unspeakable People.

Nevertheless, Williams' genre stories are still themetically connected with his other works. The almost certainly fictional Nitocris, whose single anecdote in Herodotus has led to her characterisation as a Caligula of Pharaohs with horror writers such as HP Lovecraft, takes revenge because her brother has been torn to pieces, and themes of similar violence (and cannibalism) appear in Desire and the Black Masseur and the play Suddenly, Last Summer. As Rethinking Literary Biography: A Postmodern Approach to Tennessee Williams points out, Williams' works draw heavily on the author's own life. For instance, it's hard not to connect the insanity of Blanche Dubois in Streetcar and the threatened lobotomy of Catherine in Suddenly, Last Summer with the the fate of Williams' sister Rose and Williams' own depression and self-doubt as revealed in his notebooks (see The blue devils of Tennessee Williams).

It has frequently been commented that Williams' works only contained veiled references to his homosexuality (for example, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof we only suspect that a closer relationship than friendship explains Brick Pollitt's descent into alcoholism after the suicide of his friend Skipper). However, this appears only to be the case for the high-profile plays, and Randy Gener shows in New York Times piece, Suddenly That Summer, Out of the Closet, that Williams wrote more freely in lesser-known works such as the recently-discovered The Parade, or Approaching the End of a Summer.

I like the poem's theme - asking for strength in the face of mortality - so much that in 2013 had a tattoo of the first line and a stylised orange branch. In 2012, I was diagnosed with incurable cancer, and I find the poem very inspiring. See It ain't that kind: a year on for the general story.

O Courage, could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell,
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?

- Ray

Friday, 18 April 2008

Cambridge University Library Paperchase

Nostalgia. This takes me back: The Cambridge University Library Paperchase, a puzzlehunt that used to exist at the Cambridge University Library. As it appears to be defunct now, I suppose there's no problem in revealing its details. In the mid-1970s I ran by accident into an entry point - a slip of paper in a journal in the Metallurgy Department library. This then led to the main Library. Pre-computerisation, the Catalogue Hall, where you looked up locations of books, contained huge scrapbooks with typed labels and clippings pasted in.Then you had to traipse all over the Library to find the book physically.

I followed it for a few days, post-exams with nothing much to do, but never finished it. I recall getting as far as an obscure children's dictionary, Aa's Woordenboek, then getting stuck. From the descriptions I realise now that I failed entirely to realise that it was a branching tree of clues, not a single linear trail, nor grasp that some of the clues broke out of the general format. Pre-Internet, I'm not sure I could have solved
You need to find a biography published in London in 1968 about a man of whom it was said "He was close on to six feet tall, of military bearing and of such extraordinary vitality that young ladies asserted they could feel him ten feet away".
I never entirely believed it was finishable or sustainable: all it required was for one mean-spirited person to break the trail (see Marginalia and other crimes for evidence that moral responsibility and library use don't always coincide). But who had the time and energy to maintain it? Did the librarian in charge of 19th century Japanese journals never get tired, or suspicious, of students who obviously couldn't read Japanese asking for Kokubangaku kenkyu, vol.27?


Thursday, 17 April 2008

Betjeman's Banana Blush

Chatting about an anthology of John Betjeman's poetry reminded me of a pleasant eccentricity from the mid-1970s: the three albums, starting with Betjeman's Banana Blush, of Betjeman's own readings set to the music of Jim Parker.

Listening again, I think they've stood the test of time well, and are definitely worth checking out: a varied mix of appropriately-arranged poems, with moods ranging from exuberance to the deep wistfulness of old age. All three are widely available on CD, and you can find samples of the tracks at Play.com: Betjeman's Bananana Blush, Sir John Betjeman's Late-Flowering Love and Sir John Betjeman's Britain. Among my favourites is A Shropshire Lad, a poem about the Shropshire-born Captain Webb (Betjeman's notes to this poem say that it should be read in a Midland accent). Sun and Fun: The Song of a Nightclub Proprietress is also very good; if you're an explorer of links to our associates, you may have encountered another arrangement, one of Madeleine Dring's Five Betjeman Songs, sung by our friend Mitzi Maybe.

Roy Wilkinson's Guardian article, How Betjeman learned to boogie, reports on the background, with an outro on other poet/musician collaborations.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Rowling vs RDR

The blogosphere is full of news of the latest litigation related to JK Rowling and the Harry Potter mythos. This Legal IQ post explains the background and parties: Stanford Law School's Fair Use Project Defends RDR Books Against Copyright Lawsuit Brought By J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros.

The case hinges on "fair use" - whether RDR Books' Harry Potter Lexicon has sufficient characteristics to allow its particular reassembly of material from Rowling's works. This is a subtle decision based on four criteria: 1) purpose (e.g. commercial or not); 2) nature of original (you can get away with reproducing more of a non-fictional work than a fictional); 3) how much of the original was used; and 4) market effect (i.e. does it undercut the market for the original?). See the Fair Use Network for more on this. Anthony Falzone, the defendant's lawyer (who is associated with the Stanford Center for Internet and Society's Fair Use Project) argues that the case is highly important, in that Rowling's winning would set a precedent majorly eroding the centuries-old right to create concordances and other derivative works. This idea is expanded in Joe Nocera's New York Times article, A Tight Grip Can Choke Creativity (bugmenot).

Dan Slater at the WSJ's Law Blog, reporting on the final day of the trial, thinks it looks good for the the defendant, RDR: Potter Trial: On Last Day, Defense Outshines Rowling. At Info/Law, Derek Bambauer, Assistant Professor of Law at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, Michigan argues otherwise in Harry Potter and the Lexicon of Fair Use. Much of the legal argument is well over my head: I'd never heard of estoppel and laches - loosely, the doctrine that someone's case is weakened by their having acted in a way suggesting approval for what they're now complaining about - so I won't bother to speculate which way it'll go.

We won't know the result immediately: as this Bloomberg account says - J.K. Rowling Returns to Witness Stand, Defends Authors' Rights - the lawyers now have three weeks to submit final briefs. The presiding judge, U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson, had urged both sides to settle, mentioning Bleak House (the futile Jarndyce and Jarndyce case where legal costs ate up the disputed estate). But no deal. Whoever wins, it'll likely go to appeal, because both sides have strong interests to defend and deep pockets.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Views of the countryside

One well-represented area in Joel Segal Books is English topography, and I was just looking at A Corner of England, North Devon Landscapes and People, by the late James Ravilious. His work can be seen at James Ravilious - photographer of rural life and his scenes of North Devon life and landscape in the 1970s to 1990s show him as a masterly exponent of rural photography. Another photographer whose work I like is Simon McBride, whose The Spirit of England is a very nice collection of rural photos over England in general. The genre is fairly timeless - just focusing on the West Country, I can skim the shelves and find WA Poucher's Westcountry Journey and Photographic Memories of Devon and Cornwall from the Francis Firth Collection, as well as the pre-photography images of The Perfection of England, Artist visitors to Devon c. 1750-1870 (published in association with the 1995 University of Plymouth art exhibition of the same name).

It's all testimony to the long-lasting appeal of a beautiful landscape, both of Devon and of England itself......skreet! (FX: the scratched-record noise that's the TV convention when stopping unreliable narratives prior to debunking). At this point I'll contrast another photographic publication that came in recently: Rural myths was the theme of issue #12 of the now-defunct photographic journal Ten.8. Founded by a group of Birmingham-based photographers and journalists including Derek Bishton, explored an alternative/activist agenda on photography in relation to areas such racism, unemployment and social unrest, along with an general brief of analysing the meaning of photography. Rural Myths makes a strong case for the essentially pernicious nature of many of the conventions of rural photography, arguing that imagery of rural scenes has been shaped, from the start, by the social and political agendas of those making the pictures.

For instance, John Taylor's "The imaginary landscape" looks at how 19th century photography portrayed as "natural" a landscape that was actually radically transformed by agriculture and, especially, how it omitted rural poverty; and Stevie Bezencenet's "Landscape - Image - Property" looks at how photography's view of landscape as a prompt for aesthetic pleasure almost never confronts the reality of the land as property. Terry Morden's "The Pastoral and the Pictorial" and Peter Dormer's "Fantasy Island" both look at how photographic conventions tie into maintaining a certain reactionary status quo about the countryside: as a place that is expected to remain picturesque. This is a controversial topic that I won't go into here, but it deserves consideration because, if Ten.8's thesis is true, it affects not merely photography but many topical debates about land use (consider any debate where the word "eyesore" crops up).

It's interesting to re-read the photographic books in this light, as some are more in recognition of such issues than others. Full marks to Photographic Memories, which notes the focus on beauty and tranquility but makes clear that this is primarily because the Frith photos were picture postcards intended as holiday mementoes. Zero marks to The Spirit of England, which apart from one "powerful" scene of cooling towers treats England as an anachronistic pastoral landscape (for instance, boats are predominantly sail, and roads predominantly empty - a selective view in 1989). The Rural Myths point about lack of social and historical reality definitely applies to its picture of Slapton Ley, whose caption mentions its use for D-Day landing practice but not the most significant event of that time and place, the Operation Tiger disaster. Middling marks to A Corner of England: James Ravilious does portray cars, motorbikes, shops and a school computer alongside consciously archaic aspects of the countryside such as horse-drawn ploughing. Its intro by Robin Ravilious also acknowledges that the North Devon landscape is a man-made one, but nevertheless attempts to strongly evoke stereotypes of regret at the loss of the "old ways", and ascribes a particular character - "gentle melancholy" - to the landscape.

I'm not sure where I stand on this. On the one hand, Ten.8 makes a very strong case, but it has a rather Dave Spart edge to it that doesn't fully acknowledge the genuine beauty of many rural locations and the strong effect they have on people. On the other, a yearning for an unspoilt rural world is an aesthetic that runs deep in the English collective pysche, and if that yearning is based on unrealistic fantasy, it's right to expose it to analysis.


Addendum: in all this, I forgot a book I have at home, Britain from the Air by Jason Hawkes. Hawkes' work has won numerous awards, and genuinely reflects the diversity of British landscape, everything from wilderness, via farmland and ancient towns, to the most intensely urbanised areas.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Rural photography - the shaping of aesthetics

 I've just been reading Rural myths, #12 - a theme issue of the defunct photographic journal Ten.8 that came by the bookshop where I work.

Ten.8, founded by a group of Birmingham-based photographers and journalists including Derek Bishton, explored an alternative/activist agenda on photography in relation to areas such racism, unemployment and social unrest, along with an general brief of analysing the meaning of photography. Who photographs and what influences their topics? Who benefits from its display? And so on. If the Rural Myths issue is representative, even if you don't agree with the politics this is a thought-provoking approach and one unusual in photographic magazines, which largely focus on the nuts-and-bolts of hardware and technique, and, at most, practical issues of the rights and responsibilities of photographers.

Rural Myths contains several essays on the same theme: how photography of rural scenes has been shaped, from the start, by the social and political agendas of those taking the pictures. For instance, John Taylor's "The imaginary landscape" looks at how 19th century photography portrayed as "natural" a landscape that was actually radically transformed by agriculture and, especially, how it omitted rural poverty; and Stevie Bezencenet's "Landscape - Image - Property" looks at how photography's view of landscape as a prompt for aesthetic pleasure almost never confronts the reality of the land as property. Terry Morden's "The Pastoral and the Pictorial" and Peter Dormer's "Fantasy Island" both look at how photographic conventions tie into maintaining a certain reactionary status quo about the countryside: as a place that is expected to remain picturesque for the benefit of viewing by those who don't work there.

There are interesting asides about how conventions alter in relation to current opinion: for instance, how the 19th century's traditional artistic convention of offsetting salient features became modified by early 20th century didactic tourist publications into centralising objects of interest. It's somewhat embarrassing, as a photographer, to find yourself repeating the conventions described, such as the urge to eliminate modernity, concentrating on the folksiest parts of town and country. It'd be naive to deny that such conventions work in the sense of pushing the right buttons - any number of my own photos fit into the stereotypes of the "Englishness" of a scene, and I wouldn't have taken the picture if making the composition didn't have that effect on me quite intensely. But at least that self-knowledge might make me think a little more about breaking out of that script.

This aesthetic I think runs deep in the English collective pysche; it applies not merely to photographing rural landscapes, but is also a factor in shaping policy about land use. Attitudes to rural land are not permanent fixtures; historically, parts of rural England were intensely industrialised, such as the mining districts of Cornwall and West Devon, Even the quintessentially rural Kent, the "Garden of Engand", contained the Kent Coalfield (which remains surprisingly little-known despite the last pit closing as recently as the late 1980s).

A Kent coalfield would be inconceivable now, as would many other projects such as building a new railway tunnelling through spectacular coastal scenery, as Brunel did at Dawlish. We've moved now into an era where conservation is the dominant philosophy, where the aesthetic appearance of English rural landscape is a major factor in the debates over, for example, polytunnels, windfarms and new towns. It's right to consider the local and regional impact of such developments, but Rural Myths is interesting in highlighting the role in such considerations of ingrained and sometimes simply untrue memes of what kind of landscape rural Britain was, is, and should be.

- Ray

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Tea and performance in The Cafe

On Sunday 6th April, the Cafe in Topsham kindly hosted a get-together for friends and customers as an official opening event for the new book annexe of The Cafe. Along with tea and cake, by fortunate circumstance we were able to have as guests the American poet Jay Leeming and the British storyteller Martin Shaw. Jay Leeming read from his anthology Dynamite on A China Plate (examples here), and Martin Shaw told one of the many versions of the story from Celtic mythology, Fionn Mac Cumhail And The Old Man's House.

I didn't know the speakers' background at the time, but Googling, I find that both have literary and philosophical connections with the eminent poet Robert Bly (both, for instance, attended Bly's 2007 Minnesota Men's Conference). Bly is, rightly or wrongly, probably best known outside the poetry field as the author of the controversial 1990 bestseller Iron John: A Book About Men. This essentially sought to rediscover, via mythology, archteypal truths about the nature of the male role (for instance, the importance of initiation ritual) whose lack, Bly argued, was behind a cultural malaise among American men. Iron John, rooted around Bly's analysis of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Iron Hans, was a leading inspiration behind the Mythopoetic men's movement. In this light, the connection becomes clear with Martin Shaw's work, which focuses on applying mythological insights about initiatory ritual and rites of passage to skills such as leadership.

- Ray