Archive for the 'Culture' Category

Reading the right road, traveling the right book

By themselves, reading and traveling are two of the greatest pleasures in life; combined, the effect can be, well, transporting.

We all have our favourite passages. I once spent an idyllic afternoon on the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, amiably accompanied by Henning Mankell, the great Swedish mystery writer.

Pierre Berton and his fine book Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, kept me company while I toured Alaska. Charles Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities illuminated my vacationing footsteps to London and Paris, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea struck the perfect note for an afternoon at the beach in Cuba. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Books can do what no tour guide can – by providing resonating detail and bringing different times, places and people to life. You can’t look out on the Cape of Good Hope without thinking about its mythical place in the briny literature of sea-faring adventure – that is, as long as you’ve dipped your oar in that particular writing current.

I also take great delight in purchasing books – good, bad or otherwise – in the places in which they are rooted. I’ve picked up A Town Called Alice, by Nevil Shute, in Alice Springs, while cruising through the Australian Outback; I bought Sarum, by Edward Rutherford, in the little gift shop set up near the site of the ancient settlement near Salisbury; and most recently, I risked missing a ferry ride to buy Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela, at Robben Island, the former South African prison turned museum.

Maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe for other people it doesn’t matter what sort of reading material they pile into their carry-on, or what sorts of books they cart back home. But such indifference will never work for me. It’s been said there are really only two rules of the open road: make sure you have good shoes on your feet, and keep your bowels open. To those I’d add a third: make sure you’re packing a book that tells you something interesting about the place and its people.

What are your most memorable passages?

Happy trails; happy reading.

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Can you ever read too many novels?

A while ago I wrote a blog post about research published in the May Scientific American touting the therapeutic value of writing. Now, research published in the June issue of New Scientist says longtime readers are more empathetic and have better social skills than their less well-read peers.

Interesting. Describing someone as being well-read connotes a certain worldliness that may well encompass social graces that are above average. It’s curious that even though film and television have been around so long, we never refer to people as being well-viewed. Despite its immediacy, film still can’t show us the hearts, minds and souls of others as effectively as fiction.

On the other hand, why do so many bookworms sometimes seem nerdy and maladjusted? I guess this particular research assumed a broad reading base and not an exclusive diet of SF or fantasy.

Here is a link to an interview with one of the researchers; the article on the New Scientist site is not available for free. For other interesting psychological research on reading and writing, check out the researchers’ blog On Fiction.

Photo credit: Moriza, Creative Commons

Zombies: at last lurching into the limelight?

If we can say Bram Stoker’s Vampire, Count Dracula, personified fears of unknown perils and unchecked appetites when if was written in 1897, then the Zombie seems to be a fitting trope for our Wal-Mart world of rampant globalization fostered by sociopathic corporations. The Vampire mesmerizes, plays on repressed sexuality, and “vants to drink your blood.” The relentless Zombie, together with gazillions of his friends, just keeps coming at you — “brains…brains,” he moans.

Zombies have pursued the living up on the silver screen since the 1950s, well before George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Since then, comic books, video games, many more movies — and novelizations of movies — have followed. But the Zombies have never quite cottoned to the printed page like the vampire. A Google search for “Zombie fiction” yields 18,400 matches, while “Vampire fiction” delivers 155,000. The difference in the number of fictional titles at my local library is even greater: Zombies – 15, Vampires – 301.

There could be many reasons for that. Books were the dominant entertainment medium when Stoker popularized his Vampire, while the Zombie is very much the child of cinema. (Even so, numbers from the Internet Movie Database also indicate Z. has a long stagger to catch up to V.) Zombies have little, if any, personality, intelligence or sex appeal, so it’s pretty much impossible to create an engaging character out of one. Reanimated decaying corpses are just too conceptual and machinelike and can’t capture the imagination like those charming, shape-shifting vampires can.

But perhaps a new day dawns for the dead with the publication of World War Zby Max Brooks. And yes, I freely concede I’m betraying a certain snobbery by suggesting Zombies haven’t fully arrived until they’ve broken into the bookstore and mainstream bestseller lists. So go ahead — bite me. I mean, as long as you’re not a Zombie or anything.

Brooks gives us a future history describing the global conflagration known as “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” or simply “World War Z.” The real genius of his novel is to appropriate the journalistic technique pioneered by Studs Terkel, in which the event is told from a multitude of different voices and perspectives. Just as Terkel’s war reporting ranged across time, rank and theatre of operation, Brooks covers the progress of World War Z from Sydney to Jerusalem, Manitoba to Tokyo. And then some.

Through more than 50 different voices we learn about the early days of the conflict, The Great Panic, pivotal battles like Yonkers, cleaning up frozen Zombies in the north and the rationale for key decisions by world leaders.

It’s all very richly imagined and capably told. Although the narrative structure precludes the development of any genuine suspense, Brooks does register a reasonable creepiness quotient. Consider this scene told by a Japanese man about how, as a teenager, he managed to flee his infested apartment building by climbing down the outside, balcony by balcony. (Note: he uses the Japanese word for Zombie, siafu.)

I looked up at my balcony and saw a head, the one-eyed siafu was squeezing himself through the opening between the rail and the balcony floor. It hung there for a moment, half out, half in, then gave another lurch toward me and slid over the side. I’ll never forget that it was still reaching for me as it fell, this nightmare flash of it suspended in midair, arms out, hanging eyeball now flying upward against its forehead.

It takes a very special ear to be able to particularize the speech of more than 50 different speakers and if I have a quibble with World War Z it’s that many of the accounts wind up sounding much the same in tone and diction. Brooks sets himself a formidable challenge and does succeed admirably with several memorable accounts — but one wonders what might have been achieved by a more gifted ventriloquist. For example, here is an excerpt from a novel I’m reading now, Lush Life, by Richard Price:

See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.

I didn’t tell you anything about who was talking or where, but I bet the dialect and detail helped you form a pretty reasonable picture. Although I know nothing about this milieu, it sounds pretty authentic to me. And I guess that’s the trick – capturing the specific cadences, slang, attitude and character-appropriate imagery to create a believable portrayal.

Those misgivings about World War Z aside, there is still much to enjoy and shudder about. On the macro level it attains resonating plausibility. We’ve already got a brimming Pandora’s box with global warming, illnesses hopping species to species, and humanity’s clumsy and dangerous interference in so many areas. Is a Zombie-like plague really so farfetched?

So if you want to see how it all might go down, check out World War Z. If nothing else, you’ll know what supplies you might want to think about laying in….

Incidentally, if you care about this sort of thing, Brooks is a former Saturday Night Live writer and the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks and actor Anne Bancroft, according to the World Wide Web, which is never wrong. A movie based on the novel is in production for a 2010 release by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

What Yann Martel is doing…

…is beyond delightful. For the past year, the Booker Prize-winning author of Life of Pi has been sending a book to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and lovingly documenting his choices on his web site, What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images)Harper is well-grounded in economics, conservatism and hockey — and pretty much nothing else. Unkind observers say, “stuffed shirt” or “automaton.” The conservative government’s parsimonious approach to arts funding precipitated Martel’s efforts, but many would argue the Tories have a record of other short-sighted and soulless policy choices since they took office back in February 2006. (Has it really only been two years?)

Martel’s choices aim at “expanding stillness.” Thus far Harper has been the recipient of everthing from Kafka to Lindgren, Acorn to Tolstoy.

Truly I say to you, there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic. Everything else is illusion that crumbles before the onslaught of time. If you die having prayed to no god, any god, one expressed above an altar or one painted with a brush, then you risk wasting the soul you were given. Repent! Repent!

The very first book Martel sent, The Death of Ivan Ilych, netted a perfunctory response from a prime ministerial assistant, but since then, nothing. But no matter — Martel’s charming introductory essays may be falling on deaf ears at 24 Sussex, but I’m sure they’re being savoured by lovers of literature worldwide. You should check a few out…

Martel has vowed to send Harper a book every two weeks for as long as he’s prime minister. For Martel’s sake — and ours — let’s hope that’s not much longer.

Photo credit: Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images

I’m writing this with two hands, 10 fingers

Pause for a moment today, March 7, to think of Jean-Dominique Bauby. On this day in 1997 he had his book Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly) published. Two days later, at the age of 44, he died.

bauby.gifThanks to the film his story is well-known. The former editor of the French Elle magazine, he suffered a massive stroke at the height of his career and recovered only enough to move his left eyelid. He retained complete cognizance of the world around him but suffered what is called Locked-In Syndrome.

Eventually he and his therapists developed a system of communication whereby, while stepping through the alphabet, he would blink on arrival at the letter of the word he wanted to spell. Then on to the next letter, and then the next word, and so on.

By such painstaking perseverance a book was written — and a beautiful, affecting book it is. You should read it.

The next time I feel a whine coming on about how difficult writing can be, I’m going to think of Jean-Dominique, feel truly humbled and thank my lucky stars.

Then get back to the keyboard.

There Will Be Sex; or, How Not to Write a Title

One thing’s clear 125 pages into Upton Sinclair’s novel of the California oil boom of the early 1900s: both it and the 2007 film version are atrociously titled.

sinclair.jpegSinclair called his work Oil!, complete with the perky exclamation point, which conjures up the idea of a broadway musical featuring singing toolpushers and dancing roughnecks.

Paul Thomas Anderson, in his screen adaptation of the novel, renamed it There Will Be Blood. If you overlook the adolescent portentousness, as well as the fact it serves as an annoying spoiler, you still get an undeniable suggestion of either horror or gang warfare. When I saw the gothic font promoting the film I thought – “Transylvania.”

twbb.jpegIt’s a shame – I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed a book quite as much, and the film, by all accounts, is excellent – it’s in the running for a Best Picture Oscar.

Perhaps Sinclair (or his publishers) can be forgiven for reflecting some of the conventions of his day, and who knows? In 1926 maybe a one-word noun — emphatically punctuated — was even avant garde.

There Will be Blood, by comparison, bears the sticky fingerprints of Hollywood marketing winkies. You can almost hear the conversation:

“OK. Audiences aren’t going to be much drawn to a detailed historical account of an old-time oil boom. And they especially aren’t interested in any of the moral implications inherent in big concepts like capitalism or class structure or religion.”

“You got that right. Any car chases in this flick?”

“Nope.”

“Any sex?”

“Not really.”

“Any violence?”

“Well, a few people do get hurt.”

“How hurt?”

“Let’s just say, there will be blood.”

Alas, if only it were that easy.

Coming up with a good title may be one of the most overlooked and difficult elements of the fiction-writing process. In his book The Art of Fiction, David Lodge observes: “The title of a novel is part of the text — the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter — and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention.” It must serve several purposes — descriptor, teaser, emblem.

David Madden, in Revising Fiction, quotes Walker Percy: “A good title should be like a metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or too obvious.” Madden continues: “Titles have a runic, iconic, talismanic, touchstone, charged-image effect.”

There Will Be Blood, however, seems to me less iconic charged-image, and more crass, cynical attention-grabber. Top of mind for the title creators, in fact, may have been the notion, There Will Be Profits.

Story catalysts, gift-warped characters and other creative prods

No, it’s not a typo in the headline. It’s how I’d like to think of some of the real live genuine authentic true-life people found on a few strange but delightful web sites I’ve come across. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction.

If this doesn’t get your creative pot boiling with ideas for characters and story twists, then go back to accounting.

PostSecret is a site where people creatively represent one of their secrets on a homemade postcard. Do you think it’s true? I wonder if there’s more creativity here than genuine secret….

In much the same vein is Mortified: Woe and Tell, where people share their most embarrassing moments. Hmmm….got a few of my own I could send here….

Found Magazine has a strong ring of authenticity with its sometimes obscure, inane, touching but generally interesting detritus picked up from strangers’ lives. Great stuff here.

And then there is the hilarious PassiveAggressiveNotes.com, a site to which people send the notes they’ve seen or been left by others with an axe to grind. The ensuing discussions are also worth a look!

Happy browsing, and happy writing.