Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bloggers & Readers VS literary critics.

This article (Books bloggers are harming literature, warns Booker prize head judge) caught my eye today, and after thinking about it for a few minutes, I think it's annoyed me.  Peter Stohard, a head judge of the Booker Prize panel has suggested that
"If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics ... then literature will be the lesser for it"
Which sounds, to me like saying "We don't want people to talk about books amongst themselves, we want to tell them about what we think is good".  Apparently there is no room in the world for both reader-to-reader recommendations and legitimate literary criticism.  The ability to share opinions online appears to be reducing the need for formal writeups.

Personally, I've never really been able to place literary criticism on the reading scale.  There's reading for academic purposes, to write essays or semiotic analysis on texts, there's recommending books to friends, family, followers...there's reviewing books for sale or for promotion...but the role of the literary critic, to me, has always been a bit of a mystery.  I've always wondered who reads literary criticism recreationally.  There will always be literature students...do the critics write solely for them?  

I think the main thing that I object to in this article is the assumption that only the fiction that they deem good enough for them counts for anything.  The reason that they read must be the only reason anybody reads.  People read for all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, and they enjoy different things about it and take away different things from every book.  "Unguarded", free opinion is worth less than their journalistic opinion.  Which is obviously nonsense.  In real life, people are more likely to take up a recommendation from someone that likes similar stuff to themselves, that recommends things out of enthusiasm, kindness and genuine interest, not some guy who makes a living writing about books.

I can't imagine this argument being made in any other leisure are.  Can you imagine if sports reporters or pundits decided that Twitter, forums and the rest of the internet reduced the impact or value of what they were saying?  Or if Rolling Stone or the NME decided to shut up shop because everyone gets their music news online and from Bloggers.  It's stupid.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

I was nursing a bit of a post-hunger-games book hangover at the time of reading, so had gone for
something completely different.

I started this knowing only the basics: It's an alternate future (or past, I guess, as it's the 1960s) where the Axis forces won World War II.  That was all I knew.  Having finished the book I'm not sure I'm any the wiser.

The narrative switches between several story groups.  They never really link up, so I assume the Author is trying to show a sort of cross-section of life in Japanese San Francisco.  The character groups are:

  • Robert Childan, a middle aged US citizen Antique Americana dealer and a young Japanese couple he becomes besotted with.  The antiques dealer sort of flips between admiration for the unemotional efficiency of the 'superior' Japanese race and hatred and contempt for them, seeing what the American nation has been reduced to.  He adopts the Eastern ways of thinking and acting, he worries that his behaviour is unappealing or vulgar.   He still secretly retains the opinion that the Japanese are trespassers and that they are ultimately inferior to his own race of Americans.
  • Frank Frink, an illegal Jew beginning a jewellery business.  He attempts to revive the pride of the US art world, offering something contemporary and new, rather than pre-war household tat that has proven so popular with the Japanese.  We also meet his estranged wife, Julianna and an Italian soldier that she goes on an ill-fated road-trip with.
  • An elderly Japanese diplomat, Nobusuke Tagomi, and his dealings with a Swedish plastics technician.
  • The Nazis pop up now and again.  The backdrop for the whole plot is the death of the Nazi Party's leader and the choosing of his successor.

Canada also appears to be the only country not currently possessed by either the Germans or the Japanese.  Poor Canada.  Even the fascists shun it.

The most interesting aspect of this book so far for me has been the characters' discussion of a banned book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an in-narrative novel depicting a fictional alternative future where the Allied forces won the war.

The former US states are divided up between the Japanese and the German empires.
Note the apparent neutrality of Canada...
I think this is where I fell down with this book.  Ultimately, I know very little next to nothing about the Second World War.  Most of what I do know, I learned from Call of Duty.  To me, all Russians therefore sound like Gary Oldman.  The Grasshopper Lies Heavy depicts several events that I presume happened in the WWII.  A War buff could read this and bask happily in the topsy-turvyness of it all.  I'm just sat there thinking, "So did that happen in real life?  Is the actual author making this fictional author seem like a crazy person, a dimension traveller or a prophet?  What was it that enabled the Allies to win the war that didn't happen here?"

So while I'm sure this was a very intelligent and well written book that makes profound comments on the nature of power and the position of the victors,  it just failed to make any connection to my non-American and history-starved brain.  Which is more my fault than its

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest at Nottingham Playhouse

A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.  This play, probably the best known of all Wilde's work tells the story of two aristocratic men leading double lives and the lengths they'll go to to keep them separate.  Algernon, a self-obsessed bachelor is initially confused when his friend Ernest turns out to be named Jack- a country gent with a (make-believe) roguish brother named Earnest who lives a wild and wicked life in London.  Jack explains his motives for this duplicity.  A man may benefit from the pleasures of country and city life.  He may also avoid the boring or unpleasant responsibilities of either life, by quickly flitting to the other.  Algernon himself uses similar methods to avoid his demanding family gatherings, so kind of sees where Jack is coming from with this.

Jack and Algernon are pretty pleased with themselves for having pulled it off so far, whiskey before noon, going to the 'club' and generally being your typical Victorian bachelors.  Jack reveals his intention to propose to Algernon's beautiful cousin, Gwendolen.  Gwendolen accepts, as she "Could only love a man by the name of Earnest", despite the disapproval of her formidable and hilarious mama, Lady Bracknell.  A Lady's daughter cannot marry somebody of such low, luggage-room related heritage.
So what does Jack do now?  Is there any way that he can become Earnest? Afterall, the name does have "a music" to it, and how to produce the parentage that Lady Bracknell demands he trace?

Algernon meanwhile, is intrigued by the sound of Jack's country ward, Cecily and hatches a plan to make an unscheduled visit to Jack's country address, introducing himself as the wayward brother, Earnest.

Not wanting to give too much away there's an enjoyable sprint through mistaken identities, the institution of marriage and its various pitfalls and triumphs, farcical circumstances and a study in sheer human ridiculousness.  Hywel Morgan's Algernon is brilliantly laid-back and overindulged while Sam Callis' Jack is so uptight and worrisome that it's funny to just watch them sit next to each other.  Joanna Brookes plays formidable matriarch Lady Bracknell to perfection, silencing people with the merest of fingers, controlling their movements with the slightest of gestures-stealing every scene and drawing lots of laughter.  A proper Victorian battleaxe.

Source http://www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk
The set is brilliant- simple but effective.  One minute your outdoors, the next you're in a comfortable house.  Good sets always have a bit of a mind-boggling effect on me.  It's the ingenuity of the design- little things that contribute so much to the atmosphere of a play.  Many of Wilde's more famous quotes have been lifted straight from this play, so keep an ear out for them.  I promise they will be delivered with excellent comic timing and will raise lots of laughs.  It was a lively matinee that I attended, with spontaneous mid-scene applause.

My personal favourite scene is the first meeting of Gwendolyn and Cecily.  Each is truly delighted to make each other's acquaintance and predict they will be firm friends, until they believe themselves to be engaged to the same man.  Both men have told their ladies that their names are Earnest.  It's such a good send up of the politics and mind games involved in female relationships, and the passive aggressive one-up-(wo)man-ship that flows so easily when women detect a rival.  No wonder a lot of men are baffled by female behaviour.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden
Steinbeck's epic novel starts with a description of the Salinas Valley that's so full of smells, sounds and colours that it'll be burned into your mind's eye forever.  Every tragic story of human nature needs it beautiful natural backdrop.

It's a story of numerous generations of two farming families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks.  The Hamiltons are poor, but work hard and live happily.  The Trasks are a family of soldiers and farmers, and not particularly good (or suited) to either occupation. The Trask brothers seem doomed to re-enact the story of Cane and Abel and their fatal rivalry generation after generation, fighting and competing for their father's love and attention.

So much of the story asks questions about what it is that makes a person.  Is a person the product of a time?  A place? Their upbringing? Is a a person genetically programmed to behave a certain way?  Are they a product of their education?  Their choices and decisions?  Most of the characters in this novel struggle with these questions throughout their entire lives.  Apart  from Lee, the Chinese servant and Sam Hamilton, who are perhaps the only two men in California who can think straight and see sense.  Their conversations showcase Steinbeck's knack of showing true understanding between people and giving the reader faith that perhaps one in every 100 people has that calming influence and sensibility that's needed so universally.

Personally, I think the most interesting character in the novel is Cal, the third generation Trask.  He's dark complexioned, brooding and hugely intelligent.  The type of intelligence that can make a man a brilliant businessman, or a malicious malcontent.  Cal's angelic twin, Aron, is loved by everyone and appears to sail through life with ease.  Everybody knows how it feels to try your hardest and to find that it still isn't enough and the reader can't help but ache with sympathy for Cal, reliving the neglected life of his uncle Charles, who Steinbeck himself abandons part way into  the story.  Cathy/Kate too is a brilliant study of pure evil.  Every Biblical allegory has to have its Devil.  Her complete lack of emotion, her unending patience and her psychopathic-genius intelligence make her seem otherworldly or mythological, like Pandora.

I absolutely loved this novel.  Usually I can tear through 600 pages in a couple of days, but you can't do that with East of Eden.  It's too good to rush.  You get full of it.  Like gateaux or cheese.  The ending is devastating too.  You wonder how you can end a novel that sprawls continents and decades like this one does.  Turns out you end it with a punch to the guts and the confirmation that it's your choices that make you who you are.

I honestly did not know that James Dean played Cal in the film.
I only sort of half knew there was a film.
Casting like that doesn't happen anymore.