Sunday, January 27, 2008

Movie better than the book

When the movie Amazing Grace was in theatres, I missed seeing it. I promised myself that once the movie came out on DVD, I would watch it with the family or if they were reluctant, I would watch it on my own. I knew very little about William Wilburforce -- other than that he was the moving force behind the abolition of slavery in Britain -- so figured I might get something from the experience. I tried to watch it at one point during the holidays but the interruptions made it impossible. This month, I finally got to see it without any intrusion.

The movie is fine. Not great, not deeply inspiring, just a nicely handled historical movie focused on Wilberforce and his campaign in the English Parliament for the abolition of slavery. The targeted audience for the movie was clearly families, church groups, and educators. That being the case. it shouldn't surprise anyone that the packagers of the movie produced a glossy, four-color, 18-page "study guide" for the movie and marketed Eric Metaxas' biography of Wilberforce as the "official" companion book for the film.

The title of Metaxas' book is specifically Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the heroic campaign to end slavery. Note that this is very definitely not a novelization (a full text rendition of the movie's actual script). Based on the publisher's reputation, and the fact that it was presented as non-fiction, I anticipated a basic work of historical biography. "Accessible" is actually how the book flap described it. It's important to note as well that this work was neither published by a publisher of children's literature (Harper San Francisco) nor was it targeted to the youth market. The book is decidedly being marketed to an adult demographic.

The difficulty is that the text is neither fish nor fowl. It isn't a serious biography, but neither is it written at a vocabulary level that meets the standard of accessibility that it claims. There is no index to assist the reader in pinpointing periods in the subject's life (a standard inclusion in most biographies) and yet the text uses words like "peroration" in describing political speeches. There are no footnotes in the text, despite direct quotes from primary sources such as letters and journals. Usual practice would dictate at least a date and indication of both writer and recipient of the specific letter. And while there is a section entitled "Bibliography", it isn't really a bibliography at all in the sense that the titles offered are not the works specifically consulted by the author but merely annotated titles of five or six biographies recommended to the reader.

At one point, I went to Metaxas' web page to learn his qualifications for writing this book only to discover that he isn't a trained scholar, but as a writer and/or media commentator. His career spans writing for both children (Veggie Tales) and adults (The New York Times). But here's a sample of his product: "During this trip, Wilberforce and Milner prosecuted their conversation with such intensity that the ladies took notice. Mrs. Wilberforce now complained of her son's less frequent visits to their carriage. Poor, ill-attended Mrs. Wilberforce! If only she had known that she was competing for her son's attentions with the man who was Stephen Hawkings, Dick Cavett, and Andre the Giant all rolled into one." Or this nugget, "By every account it was one of the finest speeches of Wilberforce's life, and those who judged such things thought it had elevated him into the marmoreal pantheon of immortals." He thinks his readers will feel comfortable with phrases such as "marmoreal pantheon" but doesn't want to intimidate those same readers with either formal bibliography or footnotes?

I don't read many biographies in any given year, but when I spend the money and take the time to read one, I expect something rather more solid than this.

Friday, January 25, 2008

More About Science Fiction

Hard on the heels of Wednesday's list of Hugo award winners, I came across this article in Wired Magazine. Two great quotes:

...Alter reality — and see what new results you get. Which is precisely what sci-fi does. Its authors rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds — so we can learn more about ourselves. How would love change if we lived to be 500? If you could travel back in time and revise decisions, would you? What if you could confront, talk to, or kill God?

Then two or three paragraphs later:

So, then, why does sci-fi, the inheritor of this intellectual tradition, get short shrift among serious adult readers? Probably because the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists. Plus, many of sci-fi's most famous authors — like Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick — have positively deranged notions about the inner lives of women.

The quality of writing in science fiction over the past thirty or forty years has improved, but of course there is some status granted those who broke new ground during its Golden Age. Currently, those women, whose names I bolded in this entry, have contributed to shifting the emphasis away from bug-eyed-monsters and rocket ships. I do think it's worth giving them a shot if you are rummaging about looking for something to read in the genre.

Just to keep the conversation going, I don't *think* my husband values Heinlein for his portrayal of women, but then again, I could be wrong. One should recall that Heinlein's great writer character (whose name I can never remember) was consistently portrayed as having three beautiful stenographers to take down his every word and minister to his every need. That's the real curiosity -- why Heinlein's writings are not categorized as fantasy rather than science fiction.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hugo Award Winning Titles

I saw this list over on Carl's Stainless Steel Droppings and felt comfortable with identifying the ones I actually had read over the past forty years or so (titles in boldface):

Hugo Award for Best Novel:

2007: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
2006 Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
2005 Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
2004 Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
2003 Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
2002 American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2001 Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
2000 A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
1999 To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump At Last by Connie Willis
1998 Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
1997 Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
1996 The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
1995 Mirror Dance by Lois Mcmaster Bujold
1994 Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
1993 Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
1992 Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
1991 The Vor Game: The Continuing Adventures of Miles Vorkosigan by Lois McMaster Bujold
1990 Hyperion by Dan Simmons
1989 Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh
1988 The Uplift War by David Brin
1987 Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
1986 Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
1985 Neuromancer by William Gibson
1984 Startide Rising by David Brin
1983 Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
1982 Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh
1981 The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
1980 The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
1979 Dreamsnake by Vonda N. Mcintyre
1978 Gateway by Frederik Pohl
1977 Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
1976 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
1975 The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula Le Guin
1974 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur Charles Clarke
1973 The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
1972 To Your Scattered Bodies by Philip Jose Farmer
1971 Ringworld by Larry Niven
1970 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
1969 Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
1968 Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
1967 The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
1966 Dune by Frank Herbert and This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
1965 The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber
1965 The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov–winner of Best Series
1964 Way Station by Clifford D. Simak
1963 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
1962 Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
1961 A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
1960 Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
1959 A Case of Conscience by James Blish
1958 The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
1957 No award was given.
1956 Double Star by Robert A Heinlein
1955 They’d Rather Be Right by Frank Riley
1954 No award was given.
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

And you thought I only read 19th century authors like Ellen Gaskell and Wilkie Collins!

Clearly, the titles tend to indicate my taste, but even more interesting to me were the authors whose works I had read and yet not their Hugo-award winning works. For example, I have read many of CJ Cherryh's novels, but only one of the ones that won a Hugo. According to that list above, she won three times! I have read a respectable number of Kim Stanley Robinson's full-length novels, but again not necessarily the ones that won the Hugo. I have read the Hugo-award winning work of Ursula K. LeGuin, but then again I have read almost everything she's written. I think she's wonderful. I have read Robert Heinlein, but I don't think he's nearly as good as his reputation would seem to suggest. On the other hand, there's a reverence in my husband's voice when he speaks of Heinlein.

The market for science fiction has changed dramatically in my lifetime. Heinlein, Asimov, LeGuin, Willis, Robinson -- quite a range in tone and topic.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Masefield's The Box of Delights

ALA Midwinter (Jan 11-14) was a peculiar experience (at least, for me). On the one hand, I was there for work purposes, attending some sessions and schmoozing colleagues in the hall and in the exhibits.

In another light, however, I'm there for fun. You can wander the booths in the exhibit hall for hours, thumbing through advance reading copies of various and sundry worth. Librarians pick up physical copies of titles at tremendous discounts. For example, I wafted through the itty-bitty booth that New York Review of Books had and picked up three wonderful titles -- The Box of Delights by John Masefield, The House of Arden by E. Nesbit, and The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay -- paying less than I would have done at Amazon or Borders.

This week, in between other tasks, I decided to see if I could get through John Masefield's The Box of Delights. I've dipped into it off and on all week and am enjoying the holiday tale, even in the middle days of January. Part of the books attraction are Magic and Splendid Adventure and Wicked, Wicked Gangs of Thieves. (One has to love a villain who silkily refers to his dullard henchmen as "My Astuteness" and "My Brightness".) Kaye, a youth just home from school for the holidays, encounters Cole, an elderly Punch-and-Judy man and his kindnesses to Cole and his dog, Toby, yield all of these delights. There is also Maria Jones, a well-armed young hellion of a girl, who has been expelled from three schools already. Indeed, even the mention of her name makes headmistresses swoon. But she's awfully brave in a pinch. The box of delights is entrusted to Kaye and it's important that he keep it safe while the Wolves are Running.

There is a wonderful description of an English Christmas party for the children at the Bishop's Palace but even more enchanting, Kaye encounters the beautiful Lady who draws him into safety away from the Wolves. "Instantly they were within the quiet of the tree in a room panelled with living oakwood and hung with tapestries of oak leaves in which the birds were alive." Just that sentence conveys a wonderful image and of course, Masefield, a Poet Laureate, then goes on to show us even more Magic. There are anthropomorphic mice who guide Kate through tiny spaces, and there is the larger-than-life Herne the Hunter. There is the kind but patronizing Inspector who never believes the information that Kaye brings to him with regard to the friends and adults kidnapped (scrobbled is the English slang) by the villain and his cohorts all in pursuit of the Box of Delights.

I am somewhat entranced by the world of this book while regretful that I didn't find this in my childhood. Worse yet, my sons are too old for me to read it to them. Perhaps in the proper course of things, I can share this with a grandchild. It's so very magical and so in keeping with a child's understanding of holiday magic.

Out of the many-colored Earth
that eats the light and drinks the rain
Comes Beauty. Wisdom, Mercy, Mirth,
That conquers Reason, Greed and Pain.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Reader, The Goblin and The Grocer

My husband gave me The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen (edited by Maria Tartar, W.W. Norton, New York, 2007) for Christmas. It was a surprisingly inspired mistake; I'd originally asked for The Annotated Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Even so, as I have dipped into this over-sized volume of literary fairy tales, I've been returned to some part of my self. This edition features not just new translations of the stories included, but full annotations by Tatar, a noted expert in the field of fairy tales and folklore, and illustrations from a wide variety of artists such as Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham and Honor C. Appleton. Further the stories are divided between those intended for children and those intended for adults. Remember that I wrote of how Neil Gaiman spoke in the foreword to Stardust about that being a revelation for him -- that fairy tales could be for adults?

What do you remember from reading Hans Christian Andersen? Personally, I recall vividly from his original Little Mermaid that the mermaid pays for her new legs by the experience of pain in every step she takes in pursuit of the prince she loves. (Sorry, Disney Corporation, your version doesn't convey anything nearly as pointed. Close, but no cigar.) I remember the Rackham illustrations that accompanied the version of The Little Match Girl I read at the age of 7 or 8. The angel who carries her away to Heaven upon her death was one of the more masculine angels I've ever seen (unlike your average Renaissance angel) and I have retained the image ever since. The Steadfast Tin Solder maintains his love for the dancer outside the castle he guards, but ultimately dies in the flame of a winter hearth. Fairly strong images to carry around with one in the journey of life, but also fairly honest in presentation of life's vissiscitudes. Hans Christian Andersen had his problems as a writer certainly, but the man synthesized the poetry of life's experience.

The story I read today was the unfamiliar tale of The Goblin and The Grocer. Imagine if you will a Scandinavian house troll, a little spirit who lives with you who can make your life happy or woeful depending upon how well you treat him. This particular troll is is well-fed by the grocer in whose house he dwells. The grocer provides him with porridge every Christmas complete with a pat of butter in it. Others living in the house are the grocer's wife, a servant or two and a student who lives at the top of the house in the harsh cold garret (your basic starving Ph.D. candidate). The student sees the grocer wrapping left-over cheese from a page ripped from a book of poetry that the grocer has accepted in barter from an old woman. He is enchanted by the poetry and persuades the grocer to give him the remaining pages, suggesting that the grocer is a practical man but not a man with a particular appreciation of poetry. The goblin is somewhat incensed by the student's attitude towards the grocer and decides he will torment the student for his de-valuing of the good man. When he creeps to the attic, he finds the student reading the book which Tartar's translation describes as "A dazzling ray of light rose up from the book and transformed itself into a tree trunk that spread its branches over the student. Each leaf on the tree was a fresh green color and every flower was a face of a beautiful maiden..." The goblin is captivated and instead of tormenting the student as he thought to do, he creeps up the stairs each night to witness the astounding transformation and is moved to tears by the experience. Eventually one night there is a fire in a nearby house and the inhabitants each race about to rescue that they care for most from the flames -- the servant girl who cherishes a black silk mantilla and the grocer, his business records. However, the goblin races to the attic of the house to rescue the book. He flies with it up the chimney to the rooftop and comes to the realization that this book of poetry is the most meaningful thing in his life. It is then that the goblin understands that he will have to divide his life between the grocer's pragmatism and the student's ecstatic embrace of literature. The treasure of the book is as important to him as to the student, but the grocer - well, the grocer has the porridge.

I like this story. It's entirely in keeping with the realities of modern existence. We may have been born to do one thing, but the grocer has the porridge. The division in our lives is to be expected. I continue to divide my life between doing that which I love here and the daily (metaphorical) porridge. Which is my way of saying I appreciate any comments left and your patient readership!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Lion and The Unicorn [Review]

Title: The Lion and The Unicorn

Author: Richard Aldous (his faculty page at the University College, Dublin)

Publication: 2007, W.W. Norton, New York

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

Length: 368 pages including reference notes, index

Summary: A quick scan of the Wikipedia articles on Gladstone and Disraeli notes the rivalry between the two men, both of whom held extraordinary power over politics and policy in Victorian England. Richard Aldous offers an entirely readable dual biography of these men, both of whom enjoyed great power in their social environment even as they fought against specific attitudes. Gladstone worked at a standard of behavior based on high Anglican ideals but consistently fell short in his own estimation. His particular strength was managing the Exchequer. Disraeli had a gift for rhetoric and a certain enjoyment of celebrity and notoriety. More worrisome in a political enviroment dependent upon building coalitions, he had a wicked streak of sarcasm as well as a easy charm in social situations. The two men were, to use a well-worn cliche, like oil and water. The Lion and the Unicorn offers an accessible account of how these two men managed and maneuvered domestic affairs in a period of transition for the British economy, thereby moving the British empire to prominence and prosperity.

Extract: Gladstone had been speaking for almost two hours by the time his intentions became clear. Midnight was approaching. The House, half-empty at the beginning, had quickly filled up as it became clear 'something' was happening. Disraeli was unsurpassed in an ability to mask his feelings in debate. But MPs on both sides of the House that night noticed an unusual discomfort in the Prime Minister. As he rose to answer Gladstone, he took a large slug from a glass of brownish liquid. Only minutes into his speech, a whisper ran around the chamber that the Prime Minister was drunk. 'Disraeli ambiguous and his manner labored' wrote John Bright afterwards, 'giving the idea that he was worse for the brandy and water he drank before he rose and during his speech'. From the Press Gallery, a New York Tribune reporter observed that Disraeli was 'blind drunk'. Sensing an opportunity, Gladstone mischievously popped up to inquire if the Prime Minister was toiling 'under the influence of [theatrical pause] of a heated imagination'. (page 193)

Also relevant: I found myself largely in sympathy with Gladstone throughout this book. He was a sober, serious man with high personal standards and he failed to meet his own expectations in meeting those standards. He seems to have worked hard at politics, with a certain amount of altruism in his outlook. Unfortunately, his restrained personality type was of the sort readily mocked by a personality such as Disraeli, who was perhaps more pragmatic in his view of human nature. Disraeli flouted to a certain extent the social proprieties of his age, but was Gladstone's match in understanding the political games in the British House of Commons. Disraeli had a sense of humor; Gladstone had little or none. While he and Gladstone would occasionally manage to bridge their differences, friction characterized most of their interactions. At the same time, between the two of them, they steered the course of Empire, each serving as prime minister of England during multiple terms at different points over approximately 30 years. One represented the Liberal Party, the other the Conservative Party; both were acknowledged as brilliant leaders with different styles.

Like the reviewer in the NY Times, I did find that I needed to refresh my memory of certain aspects of British history -- the Repeal of the Corn Laws, the Great Famine of Ireland, various Reform Bills, and other historical events. The book's primary focus is on the men and their political antics and Aldous doesn't go into depth of detail in presenting legislation.

What is familiar is the sense of working the system behind the scenes, finagling deals over drinks at one's club and in government halls. Watching the coverage leading up to this week's Iowa Caucuses, their political gaming tactics seemed more than a little familiar. One could make the case, as Aldous seems to do, that these two personalities created the mold for modern politicians.