Today Roald Dahl would have turned 95. His legacy includes, of course, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach. Dahl served as a pilot with the Royal Air Force in WWII, and got his start as a writer by publishing “Shot Down Over Libya” in the Saturday Evening Post in 1942. He wrote numerous short stories with dark plot twists for an adult audience, before delving into his much-loved children’s books.
For thirty years, Dahl did his writing every morning in solitude, in a hut on the property of his home in Buckinghamshire. He surrounded his deep wing chair and hand-rigged lap bench with familiar items—an ever-expanding ball of aluminum foil from candy wrappers, a piece of his own hip bone, bookmarks and pictures. He kept a stack of yellow pads and sharpened a handful of pencils every morning. Only an intimate few friends and family were allowed to visit the hut, but it remains as he left it today. His granddaughter has launched a fundraising campaign to move the hut entirely to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. Illustrator Quentin Blake describes the room more here.
Last year The Telegraph ran this extract from Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock (HarperCollins), which gives a more detailed view into the author's family life and his fortitude.
As we mark ten years past the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we’ll find no shortage of political commentary and analysis. I’m gratified to see so many personal reflections and essays too, but the scope of offerings is overwhelming. Here are a few items I appreciated reading:
David Sirota writes in Salon on teaching children about 9/11 to give a fuller frame to its controversial political context. He notes that today’s school-age kids, too young to remember themselves, are blank slates for post-9/11 reaction and spin. For those who would teach them, “That means finally rejecting the culture of fear, demagoguery and intimidation and instead beginning a more mature dialogue about uncomfortable truths.”
David Remnick recalls a historical disaster in New York city, the deadly fire aboard the steamship General Slocum in 1904. He reflects on why that thousand-fold loss of lives left only a scant mark on our common memory, and compares it to the context of 9/11: “Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves—questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about the countervailing limits.”
In my opinion, narrative teaches us in a way that treatises never can. Marion Roach Smith shares a piece of memoir she read on NPR shortly after the attacks. The story, read again now, gives us a pause in the scramble to remember, calling to mind that the past is comprised of people with their own past. Fiction also has its ways of telling, as in this short story by Laila Lalami in The Guardian. The story is gentle and quick to read, yet meaningful. The Guardian has five other short stories that offer their insights.
Reading may both ease and deepen the collective weight of this weekend’s remembrances. If you have any recommendations, please share them.
Lat night I took in a preview performance of British playwright Christopher Hampton’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. The Chicago premiere of this play, which was first presented in 1994 in London, is by City Lit Theater, an organization that specializes in adaptations of literary material for the stage. I attended with some members of my writing group and discussed the script with some of the cast and audience afterward.
City Lit sums up the plot as follows:
Based on the writings of Lewis Carroll and employing Carroll as a character in the play, Hampton's play uses episodes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There as well as material from Carroll's personal correspondence to explore the relationship between the Oxford mathematics tutor and the little girl who inspired his literary legacy.
The play addresses the modern-day controversy about Carroll’s predilection for befriending little girls and even photographing them nude, although that practice was not unusual during the Victorian era of “the cult of the child.” Apparently parents were always present. From a writing standpoint, I appreciated how Hampton braids scenes of Carroll meeting with the little girl with scenes from the books she inspired. The script segues mid-way to a scene of Carroll reading two emotionally wrought letters he had written to some parents whom he felt mistrusted him, and a monologue in which he speaks of his affection as he observes Alice on the beach. The artistry is in the often surprising flow from re-enactment of real life to the flights of imagination depicted in the books. If you’re able to see the play yourself, be watchful for these transitions, some of which only became clear to me in discussing the play afterward.
The audience last night especially responded to actor Lee Wichman’s song performances and what I am dubbing his “lobster pas de deux” with actor Edward Kuffert. All the performances had charm and warmth. The play continues through October 9.
Bits of international lit news:
- Salon has asked eight popular novelists to write about Moammar Gadhafi’s fall:
"A fall so sudden and dramatic is perhaps best told in fiction. So we asked eight top novelists to imagine this moment from Gadhafi's perspective. What is the "King of Kings" thinking as he fights for his life?"
- Javier Celaya, whose credentials include vice president of the Spanish Digital Magazines Association (ARDE), writes about advances in the Spanish electronic publishing market:
"Spanish is the third most spoken language in the world after English and Chinese, and the revenue potential from a market made of 500 million Spanish speakers will not be overlooked. . . . Spanish publishers, booksellers and librarians will have their hand forced and will henceforth need to make strategic decisions in reaction to the arrival of these international competitors."
- About 50 events worldwide will take place between September 5 and October 18 to mark the launch of Granta 116: Ten Years Later. Events include parties, panels, exhibitions, and most are free.
- The Edinburgh International Book Festival is curating a four-volume set of works by over fifty authors on the theme of “elsewhere.” This new writing has been commissioned and funded by the Scottish government and will be published by Glasgow-based Cargo.
- Jason Goodwin, a scholar on Turkey, recommends his top ten books on Turkey. Interestingly, only some are written by Turkish authors. The comments that follow the article stir the pot a bit.
- The subject of the summer issue of Action, Yes is Sweden.
- The Publishers Weekly news blog has “uncovered the cemeteries that can boast the most about the literary quality of their residents.” Locations include Paris, Moscow, and Concord, Massachusetts.
Let us know if you have any other world news of the word to share.
Maud Newton’s piece earlier this week, on the impact of David Foster Wallace’s writing style on blogging and intellectual rigor, has stirred quite a debate online. She writes:
Wallace’s slangy approachability was part of his appeal, and these quirks are more than compensated for by his roving intelligence and the tireless force of his writing. The trouble is that his style is also, as Dyer says, ‘catching, highly infectious’. . . . In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.
One vociferous response comes from Edward Champion, who tries to deconstruct her position using linguistic anthropology. He suggests that, “If Newton were genuinely interested in language or people or the often magical way that words are transmitted in our culture, she wouldn’t be so quick to condemn.” Further reactions, including a thoughtful one by Alexander Chee, are linked at the bottom of the piece. There’s enough hurricane reading for the whole afternoon here. I’d say Newton’s essay succeeded.
Google’s doodle today celebrates the birthday of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer born August 24, 1899. I am a fan of his surrealist and science fiction work, his labyrinths and his libraries. In my copy of Collected Fictions, I see that I have left a notecard on which I have written just one word, “mutability.”
Borges would have had something to say about the mind-numbing effects of PowerPoint.
On another note, Berfois features a poem by Marianne Moore, born in 1887. She has something to say about the raw material behind poetry. I don’t think she would have liked PowerPoint either.
Sir Edward James' surrealist garden, Las Pozas, Xilitla, Mexico
By Bernardo Bolaños) (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
In The Kenyon Review, Hilary Plum mentions TQO’s review of Rachel Glaser’s Pee on Water, and adds to the conversation with a dictionary of literary terms by Glaser. Check out her definition of “beauty.”
Michael Moore’s memoir, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, gets a favorable review from Publishers Weekly: “True to form, Moore doesn't pull any punches, but he's grown as a writer, with more discussion and fewer extended rants than in his previous books.”
Sapphire’s second novel, The Kid, is also receiving enthusiastic reviews. She comments in The Guardian about the reality of racisim she experienced in the favorable but distorted reception to her first book, Push, and seems to have utilized some of those themes in the development of her new character in The Kid.
The new Martin Luther King Junior memorial will be dedicated on August 28. The Atlantic shows some photos that seem to reflect well the monument’s gravity.
Earlier this week I watched a sold-out showing of The Interrupters, the new documentary produced by Steve James (director of Hoop Dreams) and Northwestern MA/MFA faculty member Alex Kotlowitz (author of There Are No Children Here). The film is showing through August 25 at the Siskel Film Center here in Chicago.
The Interrupters are a confict-mediation branch of CeaseFire. CeaseFire was founded in 1995 by Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist in Chicago. Slutkin’s concept, developed after his work with the World Health Organization fighting infectious diseases, is that violence is a public health issue, like an epidemic. Blame and punishment are not the solution. Violence, he states, is a learned behavior that can be prevented.
Each of the Interrupters in the film describes his or her own history of involvement with gangs, crime, and violence. Knowing well the hardscrabble life of Chicago’s streets, they are uniquely skilled to identify and intervene in high-risk situations. Their focus is not to break up gangs, nor do they believe gangs are the source of all violence in our city. Their singular mission is to be present to intervene in scenes where violence is likely to occur. They develop relationships and ongoing involvement in the lives of persons affected by violence. The Interrupters work to stop gunfire and killing one incident at a time.
On the night I viewed the film, two of the Interrupters attended and answered questions from the audience afterward. Cobe Williams spoke about balancing his own family life with his long hours of dedication to his work. Ameena Matthews described her work as “a conversation to action; a call to action, to me.” They were as inspiring in person as on camera.
Also in attendance were Slutkin, Kotlowitz, and Zak Piper, co-producer. Piper noted that the film will be shown in Chicago Public Schools and elsewhere in the community. Slutkin mentioned that CeaseFire is funded by our state budget, specifically the Department of Corrections, as well as private foundations, but it also operates in 15 other cities and five countries.
Kotlowitz made several comments on filmmaking decisions. Early on, the team emphasized that they were not making reality TV. They limited the amount of the time in the film dedicated to actual interruption scenes. An audience member asked whether the film risks oversimplifying the issues. Indeed, the filmmakers chose not to explore political or historical material about violence and race in Chicago. Kotlowitz’ reply was a convincing, “No.” "To the contrary," he explained; portraying in detail the lives and stories of the individuals involved is exactly what plumbs the complexity of the issues. The interviewers are invisible as the subjects talk about themselves and their work. As other students in Kotlowitz’ workshops will recall, he stressed this approach in class and we are rewarded to see its success in action in this film.
There is good news if you can’t get a ticket for this run of the film. It will be returning to the Siskel Film Center from October 14-20. The two-hour documentary is a lot to absorb and many of us will be just about ready to take another look at it by then.
Last month, after threats of imprisonment by the Chinese government if he published his latest book, Liao Yiwu left China for Berlin by walking across an unnamed opening in the Vietnamese border, then traveling by train and air to Berlin. You may recall that he was denied permission to leave China by its government to attend the PEN World Voices Festival in New York in April this year, and in May he was also denied passage to Sydney, Australia for the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Liao served four years in prison after publishing his poem, “Massacre,” critical of the killings in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He later published The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up, a collection of profiles of fellow prisoners he had met, told in question and answer form. His latest book, God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, will be published in the US in September 2011. He also recently released a memoir of his life in prison, published to an eager audience in Germany. (It will be published in English next year.) Germany, with its vigilant attention to history, seems to be becoming a place of refuge for writers and artists.
Ian Johnson recently interviewed Liao for The New York Review of Books. When Johnson asks Liao, who is not a Christian, about his subject for the upcoming book, Liao answers: “Me, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have a definite plan. I had this opportunity to meet the Christians and it moved me so I did it.”
If you are fortunate enough to be in the vicinity of New York on September 13, you can buy tickets now to hear Liao read, perform on his xiao, a Chinese flute, and be interviewed onstage by Philip Gourevich at The New School.
Amazon is in the news this week for two significant developments. First, two weeks ago, Amazon complied with Apple’s mandate to remove the direct purchasing option from the Kindle app for iOS. Apple, as you probably know, insists on collecting 30% from all purchases from its apps. But Amazon had a back-up plan in the works. They have released the Kindle Cloud Reader, a web-based app that can be freely accessed from iPad, Safari, or Chrome browsers. The app allows purchasing, syncing, and reading offline. It is not yet available for iPhone.
The second development is a class-action antitrust lawsuit alleging that five major publishing houses (Hachette Book Group, Macmillan, Penguin Group Inc., and Simon & Schuster Inc.), along with Apple, conspired to force Amazon to stop discounting e-books. Amazon launched e-book sales on the Kindle with books priced at a low $9.99. The lawsuit alleges that publishers colluded to adopt an “agency model” for pricing with Apple, so that Apple adopted the higher prices they set and took a cut of the revenues. Further, the publishers agreed with Apple not to sell the books to other companies at a lower price, so Apple’s higher prices had no competition. Amazon was forced to capitulate and accept the agency model as well, so that now bestsellers often cost $12-$15. Now the legal battle is to prove that there was a conspiracy.
Does this digital jousting leave you pining for paperbacks? Brian Viner, a columnist based in Herefordshire, England, writes about how e-readers have thwarted customary poolside paperback book snobbery: “For me, the book soiled by a combination of heat, suntan lotion and water, fit only for the bin by the eve of the homeward journey, is one of the tactile pleasures of a summer holiday.”
Enjoy your weekend reading but keep the Kindle dry.