Wednesday, June 28, 2006

War and peace and homework

I am now the proud possessor of the sexy new hardcover edition of War and Peace , a translation hot off the press by Anthony Briggs, with nobody called Andrew in it, you'll be pleased to hear.
It features the usual headless woman image on the front cover, so you know it's historical fiction (which it is, even when first published) and a gold sticker on the front that screams: "A life changing NOVEL a must read NEW translation". Will people really only buy it if it has gold sticker that promises life changes, like Oprah?
Best of all, there are blurbs by Flaubert, Woolf, Updike, AN Wilson, John Bayley (of course) and Simon Schama.
This cracks me up.
"Love and battle, terror and desire, life and death. It's a book that you don't just read, you live." Thank you Mr Schama.
If it wasn't my favourite book I'd never read it in a million years with that wrap. Normally I'd believe Simon Says, but that makes it sound like Bernard Cornwell's latest.
She was a timid princess, trapped in her own home by a tyrant father - he was a reckless but penniless hussar ... etc
Which reminds me, I have long believed people can be classified according to which plotline in War and Peace they consider most romantic:
- Natasha and Andrei
- Natasha and Pierre
- Marya and Nikolai.
[drum roll] Your votes please.
I don't know what it means, but it's a theory I hold dear and will one day form the basis of a doctoral thesis.
I'm a timid princess/reckless hussar person myself, and the only one I know. Hence the theory, half-baked though it may be.
I wish they'd asked me for a blurb. Imagine being so famous you can blurb Tolstoy. Even if you're dead.
Anyway, silence will now descend upon us as I have completely screwed up my schedule and now have to do a month's homework in a week.

Just crazy

I know I promised not to mention The Da Vinci Code again, but I just stumbled across a reference to this line from Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and can't help myself:
The lunatic is easily recognised. Sooner or later he brings up the Knights Templar.

Enid gets a makeover

The Times reports that Enid Blyton's biographer has accused publishers of bowing to political correctness by sanitising some of the children’s author’s best known books.
Barbara Stoney, backed by the Enid Blyton Society, has condemned changes introduced to make the books more palatable to today’s readers.
Dame Slap has become Dame Snap, who now scolds naughty children rather than giving them a smack.
Bessie, a black character with a name associated with slavery, is now a white girl called Beth, while in the Far Away Tree stories Fanny and Dick have been changed to Frannie and Rick.
The rigid gender divisions in the Famous Five and Secret Seven series have also been swept aside, with both sexes expected to do their fair share of domestic chores.
"I say" has been replaced by "hey", "queer" with "odd" and "cookies" replaces "biscuits" in an attempt to appeal to the American market.
"What has happened is a lot of nonsense," said Stoney. "I just don’t see why people can’t accept that they were written in a particular period and are a product of that."
I have to admit it's the cookies thing that annoys me the most. The Sun's headline screeched "Five Go And Do Ironing". Hilarious.
If this is true (Hodder denies it) then my feeling is that the greatest crime is in not crediting children with enough intelligence to know when they are reading stuff that is clearly from "the olden days" - which it was even when I were a lass.
On the other hand, over at the good old Guardian, Guy Dammon argues that:
What is brilliant about Blyton, rather, is her ability to transform everyday worlds into landscapes rich in imagination and adventure - in her ability to enhance and enrich children's relations with their surroundings. But if children actually can't find anything everyday about what is presented - which is what happens with unexpurgated Blyton - this is much less likely to take place. If the stories don't feel real, there's no place for the imagination to take hold.

I'm just not sure. I feel that young readers see the past as one reality (maybe not their own, but grounded) and still take flight into the Faraway Tree. I certainly don't think the argument applies to the adventure stories like the Secret Seven books.
I hate arguments about so-called political correctness, but let's put that to one side for the moment. The critical questions, really, as with any kind of cultural censorship, are "where does it end?" and also, "who decides?".

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reading pile update

I have a new hero: UK food writer Nigel Slater. I'm reading and reviewing his Kitchen Diaries, which are splendid (although the recipes are as yet not trialled in the Waiheke Island Test Kitchens, since we can't eat ever again after the Slow Food weekend in Matakana). A sensible message - the right food at the right time - charmingly conveyed, and beautifully produced on lovely thick stock. I shall have to move straight on to his autobiography, Toast.
Over the weekend, I reignited my faith in the favourites of my childhood, after last week's disappointments, with Cue For Treason by Geoffrey Trease. He was way ahead of his time in constructing equally interesting male and female lead characters, and very good at the dollops of history. And adventure. Not too much depth in the adults, but you can't have everything.
Regular readers of this blog know better than to start me on the hilarious Da Vinci Code. Well. I don't usually read mysteries, but I picked up one of Iain Pears's art world crime novels for $2 somewhere because I read The Dream of Scipio last year and it is still dancing about in my head.
There's no real similarity in style or intent between that and The Last Judgement, but I still vote we take away all Dan Brown's money, and give it instead to Iain Pears, who actually knows how to write and wrote several books much more deserving of global domination than that pathetic drivel in Da Vinci Code, years before Dan Brown could even afford one of those infernal black turtlenecks.
Then Mr Pears can buy lots of beautiful paintings and write anything he wants; and nobody would ever sue him, except possibly Dan Brown - but who cares?
Now I'm onto Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches (on Holland's Golden Age) for research purposes, but as it's too heavy to lug into town on the ferry I will have to alternate it with a new kids' swashbuckler, Secrets of the Fearless. (I hate people who get to thank "the staff of the National Maritime Museum ... and the Musee National des Douanes in Bordeaux". I'd just kill for a couple of hours in either.)

International theft

We wuz robbed.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Historical truths

It is a great pity that every human being does not, at an early stage of his life, have to write a historical work. He would then realize that the human race is in quite a jam about truth.
~ Rebecca West

Her Madge celebrates golden age

I may have to rethink my staunch Republican stance, after the Queen threw a garden party at the Palace for a couple of thousand kids and invited everyone from Toad of Toad Hall to JK Rowling along for fairy bread.
You can do that kind of thing when you're 80. And when you're the Queen.
"British children's literature has been for many years an extraordinary success story," she told the crowd, which sang Happy Birthday to her.
The ABC reports that the biggest reception was given to JK Rowling, who was mobbed by children desperate for an autograph. The stars of the Potter movies were also in attendance.
"I think it is a wonderful idea to celebrate the Queen's 80th birthday by celebrating children's literature," Rowling said. "I really do think it is a golden age at the moment."

Friday, June 23, 2006

Chicken v Egg: Round Seven

History begins in novel and ends in essay.
~ Macaulay

Go slow

I'm off for a Slow Food weekend up around Matakana: log fires, long large meals, winter beaches, farmers' market on Saturday morning, ploughing through the reading list, rummaging through shops crammed with old things, coffee and cake, hat and gloves and gum boots.
Although I may never eat again after salt and pepper squid and lamb shanks (with green pea cappuccino) last night at the sublime French Cafe.

Big win

Well, there you go. Roger McDonald has won the Miles Franklin award, for The Ballad of Desmond Kale, chosen from a shortlist of five out of a field of more than 50 nominated books.
Good on 'im. I haven't read Desmond Kale yet, but I could never see what all the fuss was about over 1915 - on the other hand, the main character, in particular, in Mr Darwin's Shooter was really very finely drawn.
Also on the shortlist were Kate Grenville's The Secret River (she's won every other prize, so thank goodness someone else got a go), Carrie Tiffany's Orange Prize-nominated Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, Brian Castro's The Garden Book and The Wing of the Night by Brenda Walker.
But never mind the kulcha. The Socceroos are through to the next round of the World Cup.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Writing Australian life

The Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia' most prestigious and also most controversial, is announced today. My money's on Kate Grenville. But that, as is often the case with this award, is beside the point.
This year, several commentators have again raised the central issue of the framework of the award, and its criterion that novels must represent Australia. Not the Australian experience, but the country itself, usually taken to mean that the novel should be set in Australia:
"Without an indigenous literature people can remain alien in their own soil. An unsung country does not fully exist or enjoy adequate international exchange of the inner life. Further, a country must be portrayed by those who hate it or love it as their dwelling place, familiarly, or remain dumb among its contemporaries."
Bless 'er. And her brilliant career. In her will, Miles Franklin left £8996 (almost all she had) for an annual prize to a novel "which is of the highest literary merit and must present Australian life in any of its phases".
But over the years, works by some of our finest authors have been ruled ineligible:
This year, Geraldine Brooks' March, which in April won the US Pulitzer Prize, and Delia Falconer's The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, are among those novels by Australian writers not considered for our top literary prize.
Jane Sullivan has recently argued in The Age that any novel written by an Australian is in fact 'part of Australian life' and should be eligible to win the Miles Franklin. Sullivan contends that, since the award's establishment in 1954, 'times have changed in a good way for our books'. She suggests that Australian literature is no longer 'an endangered species' needing 'all the nurturing, protection and encouragement' it can get, and that if Franklin herself 'were alive today ... I'm sure she would celebrate the fact that Australian writers feel free to take anything and anywhere and anyone in the world as their subject, and still expect their work to be seen as Australian'. If the situation remains as it stands, Sullivan states, 'we will have to look elsewhere for a prize that will take over as the top award for our fiction writers'. (The Age, 18 June)
Perhaps. But it's a minefield. Define an Australian writer: A resident? A part-time resident (like Brooks)? An Australian citizen living elsewhere? Australian-born but living in a tax haven in the Caribbean for the past 40 years? Recently arrived and still incarcerated? All of the above?
There's something less readily definable which creates a novel about the Australian experience and perspective that can't be bound by award rules: a perspective on the world; cultural influences and literary heritage that all go into creating Australian writers, even if they are writing about the US Civil War or New York art dealers or the League of Nations - or even my humble pirates (I'm not suggesting they're in the same league). It might be seen from the inside, by a writer steeped in the experience, or from the outside, as it were; from eyes new to the country and the people and the literature. It most certainly might be set anywhere in the world, at any time.
Of course, we need books that engage with Australia's history and help to explicate its present - and future - character. But most of all we need generations of writers willing to engage with the world, with humanity, wherever it may be found and however it may be portrayed. In that lies a cultural maturity of which Miles Franklin could only dream.

Sing along, please

Happy birthday to me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Whining writers

Just yesterday I was thinking about how much fun it is to write: what a privilege, a luxury; how hilarious it is, that I actually get to do this thing. I laughed even more when I read Garrison Keillor's piece on Salon in which he takes a swipe at those who constantly remind us how deeply they suffer for their art:
I have had it with writers who talk about how painful and harrowing and exhausting and almost impossible it is for them to put words on paper and how they pace a hole in the carpet, anguish writ large on their marshmallow faces, and feel lucky to have written an entire sentence or two by the end of the day.
It's the purest form of arrogance: Lest you don't notice what a brilliant artist I am, let me tell you how I agonize over my work. To which I say: Get a job. Try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35 kids in a class, from September to June, and then tell us about suffering.
The fact of the matter is that the people who struggle most with writing are drunks. They get hammered at night and in the morning their heads are full of pain and adverbs. Writing is hard for them, but so would golf be, or planting alfalfa, or assembling parts in a factory.

Ah, how the mighty have fallen

Last night I re-read The Silver Sword, by Ian Serrallier, a book I read at about nine and have ever since considered to be a moving indictment of war and a harrowing story of children's survival in the face of utter destruction.
Well ... maybe.
I'm reading it now, obviously, having read a great deal of WW2 and Holocaust literature, and as someone able to deal with much more harrowing events than the nine-year-old. But knowing that, I still can't help but see how Serrallier has sanitised much of the action. Yes, these Polish children caught up in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation are starving, homeless, and so are many around them. But everyone they meet just seems to want to help them, even the post-war Germans are all friendly and there's no hard feelings on anyone's part.
I imagine he was striving for some kind of reconciliation at that critical point in post-war history (late 50s), and interestingly the Red Army is portrayed as mildly as the American and British occupiers. But while the only hint of ongoing anger is personalised in the hostile attitude of the boy Jan to any German, it's clearly because he's simply disturbed and will grow out of it eventually.
Now. Far be it for me to suggest that there were not many German people or occupying soldiers who would have helped a group of starving children find their way to Switzerland, but this is rather extreme.
Funnily enough, I remember feeling a bit let down by the book when I read it all those decades ago because I thought it went all God-like and preachy at the end. That turns out not to be the case either.
My other trip down memory lane this week has been through a couple of books by Henry Treece, the Viking adventure expert, whose books sent me into several years of fierce determination to grow up to live in Norway, if not be an actual Viking. This is something from which I've never quite recovered.
Recently I've read a few learned assessments of that era of historical fiction for children in which Henry Treece doesn't measure up to the other great favourites. I bristled. But now I admit those critiques are quite right.
Sure, there's some good Berserker battle frenzy in Horned Helmet but the storyline jumps all over the place and the characters barely develop at all. You know when development has happened because the boy suddenly becomes tall and muscle-bound and miraculously learns how to wield a sword.
Hounds of the King is much worse, with great leaps in time and heavy dollops of Anglo-Saxon politics, incomprehensible even to me. The main character misses all the big battles (otherwise he'd be dead, but still it's an anti-climax), and King Harold's character is so confusingly drawn that we are not sure whether he's great or bad, and therefore why our protagonist is fighting for him.
This is a tragedy. I feel somehow bereft.
Ronald Welch, whose Carey books inspired me to start fencing and whose great swordfighting scenes are still in my mind when I write swashbucklers, is also often criticised nowadays. I think his work still stands up pretty well. Yes, they are all about blokes, but he was a man of his time and you can't really expect to have feminist heroines leaping about. And the swordfighting is just as sharply-drawn as I remembered (in fact, really much more technically detailed than I would write).
Happily, I've found that most of the work of Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff is as fine as I remembered, sometimes even better, and easily measures up to the historical fiction written now for children - although I find we can no longer assume that any young reader has heard of the Roman Empire, let alone Caesar's conquest of Britain. But that's another story, and makes me sound terribly old.
Tomorrow I am officially middle-aged. (There was some debate about this over breakfast, as nobody could quite remember how old I am and we had to get out the calculator - a sure sign. And the paper announced subsidies on medical care for middle-aged people, that is 45 to 64. I wonder if it's worth paying the doctor an extra $25 next visit if they promise to pretend I'm not that old?)
Anyway, as I advance into middle-age, I can accept that I might not grow up to be a Viking.
I might have to write a Viking book instead.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Distractions from writing

- Blogging
- Coffee
- Books
- More books
- Staring into space
- Researching obscure historical details
- Lunch
- Corinne Bailey Rae
- Email
- Deciding which book to write today
- Deciding everything I've written this morning is crap
- Deciding everything I've written this morning is so brilliant I may as well stop and have a coffee to celebrate
- Web surfing
- Chooks
- The Secrets of World War 2 on the History Channel
- Gallipoli on the History Channel
- Poring over the History Channel programme
- Dishwashing (but only in emergencies)
- Trying not to eat chocolate

This morning I have had the blinding realisation that it might be better to actually write something, instead of getting so carried away with complicated research matters that I forget where I started and where I meant to be.
And so I am. This is my lunch break. Honest.

Paradise gained

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
- Jorge Luis Borges

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Older kids not so keen on reading

Publishers Weekly reports on a new study in the US which found that interest in reading declines as kids get older. "Children ages 5-17 like to read books, but they read significantly less after the age of eight," says the Kids and Family Reading Report, a national survey of children ages 5-17 and their parents, sponsored by Scholastic.
The good news is that 92 percent of kids say they like to read for fun. But while 44 percent of children age 5-8 were classified as high frequency readers (reading every day), that number falls to 29 percent for ages 9-11, down to 25 percent for ages 12-14, and ends up at 16 percent for ages 15-17.
46 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds are characterized by the study as low frequency readers (reading no more than 2-3 times per month), while only 16 percent in that age group are high frequency readers.
One reason for the drop-off, the study found, was the poor role models parents set as readers. Only 21 percent of parents are frequent readers. One might also argue that life starts to intervene around the same age, and any 14 year old who can find time to read for fun every day between piano lessons, basketball training, homework, school concerts, talking on the phone, Saturday morning sports and horse riding is doing pretty well. It's hard enough to find time for sleeping and eating.
Interestingly, and running counter to common - and learned - opinion, the study did not report a huge disparity between girls and boys on the topic of whether or not they like to read.
49 percent of boys said they enjoy reading for fun "a lot", while 57 percent of girls said the same; 26 percent of boys said they read books for fun every day while 36 percent of girls do. Some difference, but not as much as is generally feared.
However, just 5 percent of girls called reading "not at all" important, compared to 14 percent of boys.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Great etymological disasters of the 21st century

In the Times, Jeanette Winterson roos the day she ever admitted to thinking there was such a think as a damp squid:
I feel very sorry for the child who nearly choked on his biblical cord, and for the gentleman who feels "out on a limbo". I think we have all felt out on a limbo sometimes, perhaps especially the lady who "has a milestone round her neck".

Her mother is, as always, the champion of the spoken word:
Mrs Winterson used to talk about an interfering madam she disliked as a "proper Cleopatra". On further inquiry I discovered she had "a rod up her asp". When I asked what this meant, Mrs Winterson replied: "she won’t let sleeping snakes lie."

Friday, June 16, 2006

The ultimate list

The Index librorum prohibitorum - the dreaded Index - is the official list of books once prohibited by the Catholic Church.
The Index dates back to the momentous years of the Counter-Reformation, when the church (and many state) authorities felt themselves to be in the midst of the ultimate battle for the souls of humanity - or their lucrative power base, depending on which side of the Reformation you're on.
One of their bright ideas, along with torture and burning people at the stake, was to compile a single list of books that no God-fearing man (and I use the term advisedly) should possess or read.
The idea was first formally introduced in 1557 with the publication of the Index auctorum et librorum prohibitorum under the direction of Pope Paul IV. The Pauline Index, as it became known, was the first in a long succession of papal indices, forty-two in all.
The 32nd edition, for example, published in 1948, contained 4,000 titles, including many that were banned on the basis of politics or morality, rather than heresy.
Authors who made it onto the ultimate A-list include Hugo, Rabelais, Balzac, Zola, Flaubert and Voltaire - basically the golden ages of French literature. Pierre Larousse, compiler of the Grand Dictionnaire Universel, found it banned after all those years of work. Words, it seems, are dangerous even if only in dictionaries.
Perhaps more significant in terms of the effects on other writers and thinkers were the bans on Copernicus and Galileo (for trying to understand the universe), Spinoza (expelled by the Jewish community as well), Erasmus (perhaps the greatest mind of all) and Bruno (who burned along with his books). Those of you who suffered through Milton at school may be shocked to learn he made the list (he was a die-hard Puritan), as did swashbuckler Dumas, pirate enthusiast Defoe, and Swift of Gulliver fame. They were in good company, along with Descartes, Machiavelli, Locke, Hume, Paine, Rousseau and even Madame De Stael: perhaps the only thing these names have in common is that what they wrote was banned.
More recently, of course, the Index has included books by Gide, Sartre and Joyce but, strangely enough, not Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. Even more amazingly, recent research indicates that the inquisitors in the Sacred Congregation of the Index never had a problem with Darwin.
It was in force until a mere forty years ago this week. Another Paul, Pope Paul VI, abolished the Index on June 14 1966.
As we know, there are plenty of people who wish it were still in place - with JK Rowling's name high on the list.

Whenever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.

~ Heinrich Heine (who was also on the Index)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Greedy as a novelist

History for a greedy novelist like me is just one more place to pillage. What we're after, of course, is stories, and we know that history is bulging with beauties. Having found them, we then proceed to fiddle with them to make them the way we want them to be, rather than the way they really were. We get it wrong, wilfully and knowingly. But perhaps you could say that the very flagrency of our 'getting it wrong' points to the fact that all stories - even the history 'story' - are made. They have an agenda, even if it's an unconscious one. Perhaps there are many ways to get it right.
- Kate Grenville
(Interviewed in The Telegraph)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Cracking the best-seller code

David Dale in the Sydney Morning Herald looks at the latest publishing figures and suggests:
"If you want to create a bestseller in Australia, here is this year's formula: 'The Magic Bum Cleaning Diet Code for Cricketers'. To maximise your sales, you will need elements of self-help, suspense, fantasy, autobiography, spirituality and a film tie-in. Plus fart jokes. And you should change your name to Dan Brown."

Thumpingly good

You write not for children but for yourself, and if by good fortune children enjoy what you enjoy, why then, you are a writer of children's books ... no special credit to you, but simply thumping good luck.
- Arthur Ransome

Historical fiction dilemma #5: Projection

"I think of the past as the ultimate holiday destination," Geraldine McCaughrean told the BBC History magazine last year.
"Life today is pretty safe and anodyne: adventure doesn't abound for children. But in the past there were any number of ways you could meet a horrible end before the age of 12. So it's possible to write a plausible-sounding, danger-packed adventure involving children in war, pestilence, fire and/or flood. That's the only reason I go there."
Philip Pullman agreed.
"It's hard to put modern children in an adventure story because there would always be a parent or a policeman or social worker to tell them not to do things. So one way to put children in an exciting adventure is to set it in the past and arrange it plausibly."
Quite so. But in the plausibility mentioned by both lies a thicket of modern and historical dilemmas for the author and dangers for the readers - particularly, I think, for adult readers who are the gatekeepers of the books children read.
For the writer of historical fiction, something that has been extensively researched and is perfectly plausible in an historical sense might appear to be utterly incongruous to the modern reader: either because it is so other-worldly that it seems almost fantastical; or conversely, because sometimes historical truth is stranger than fiction.
As readers we project the values of their own lives onto the past as well as the logic of 20th to 21st century thought - the unconscious knowledge of a whole raft of meanings, such as Freud or physics or atheism or racism/anti-racism. You might suspend disbelief when you read a book about a 12-year-old girl pirate, but you don't suspend your entire world view.
We forget, for example, that until quite late in the 20th century (and today in many parts of the world) children worked at a very young age, girls got married off as soon as they hit puberty, people died in middle age as a matter of course, and everyone grew up much earlier than we do now.
Only last week, marine archaeologists in the US discovered the remains of John King, who was 11 when pirates captured the ship on which he and his mother were sailing in the Caribbean. John joined the pirate crew, led by Captain Sam Bellamy.
290 years later, John's remains have been found in the wreck of Bellamy's ship, the Whydah, 460 metres off the coast of Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The research team said, "While teenage pirates were common in the 18th century, John is considered to be the youngest ever identified."
Gosh, people said to me when this appeared in the papers, you mean there really were kids who were pirates? Well, of course. Nelson went to sea at 13, Bligh at 9. There were eight-year-old farm hands and milkmaids, and ten-year-old fishermen and housemaids. Romeo and Juliet were kids. So are many of the characters in nursery rhymes and fairy tales, who have working lives, go to the market, milk cows and tend sheep and sleep in the fireplace and put kettles on - and are so often hungry.
This particularly applied, of course, to poorer families; that is, almost everyone. But most of the books we read in the past were about aristocratic children who had the luxury of growing up at a more leisurely pace. We must not confuse the fictional world of The Secret Garden with the harsh world of kids like Dickon.
So the writer has to know this is going on in the readers' mind, anticipate her own projections, and sift through them all to see which ones are helpful and which should be avoided or addressed.
And then watch it all happen anyway.

I've lost count of the dilemmas list and Blogger search isn't working, but here, I think, is the previous post: Historical fiction dilemma #4: Character.

Back on board

A dazzling layer of ice on the car, and frost in the valley, this morning. (That might not sound very impressive to those of you who live in colder climes but Australians are dreadful wimps when it comes to winter.)
Today I have to drag myself out of 17th century Amsterdam and back to 18th century Maltese pirates, as I'm working on the edited pages of the second Swashbuckler book, The Pirate's Revenge. It's been so long since I last read it, I get to laugh at my own jokes - and notice things I was too close to see before. But at least I know the ending.
It's due out in September/October.
Just heard that the first book, Ocean Without End, is going into its second print run, as it's nearly sold out - fantastic news.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

This children's book brought to you by...

The New York Times looks at product placement in a new YA book from Running Press:
In Cathy's Book, a young adult novel to be published in September, the spunky eponymous heroine talks about wearing "a killer coat of Lipslicks in Daring."
As it turns out, Lipslicks is a line of lip gloss made by Cover Girl, which has signed an unusual marketing partnership with Running Press, the unit of Perseus Books Group that is publishing the novel.
Cover Girl, which is owned by the consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, has neither paid the publisher nor the book's authors, Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, for the privilege of having their makeup showcased in the novel. But Procter will promote the book on, a Web site directed at adolescent girls that has games, advice on handling puberty and, yes, makeup tips.

Apparently they decided against a similar mention of Tampax, for which we can probably all be grateful.
We're used to blatant product placement in films and on TV, but in kid lit?
It's an extraordinary development, although I suppose one shouldn't be surprised. Thin edge. Wedge. Shoulda seen that coming.
But surely as authors for children we have a particular duty of care to ensure authenticity, transparency - not to mention reader credibility. Surely we ought to be on the side, as Maxwell Smart would say, of the forces of goodness and niceness?
Or am I just bitter because you can't do product placement in historical fiction?
"She grabbed her Wilkinson Sword replica chromed cutlass and shoved it into the Tiffany scabbard that hung from her stylish-yet-practical DKNY belt."
Maybe I should try chick lit instead?

Fatal flaw

Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?
- Henry Ward Beecher

Bookworm style

Oh, I've clearly always been on the cutting edge of style.
Decorating With Books, by Marie Proeller Hueston, contributing editor at Country Living magazine, is reviewed today at Publishers' Weekly: it "demonstrates how a display or library of books can enhance the look of almost every room in your home ... and add color and texture to a space."
Hueston encourages readers to keep books "stacked on an ottoman, piled on the floor, lined up on a bench, or ... draped over a ladder," in addition to keeping books "confined to shelves and tabletops ..."
You see? It's not an obsession, or even absent-mindedness - it's style.
The review goes on to discuss Hueston's methods of "judging books by their covers, as it were - as objet d'art, without regard to content."
How fabulous.
I might spend the next week rearranging the house. I see the error of my ways. Rather than organise books by genre and then alphabetically, I should have them sorted by colour.
(Yes, you may sneer, I hear you say, but you'd love that book and will snap it up at the next Dymock's sale.)

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Lit list city

While we're on the subject of lists, here are the most expensive books ever sold on my spiritual home on the web: Abebooks (all prices plus postage and handling, of course).
Number one is not hard to believe but it doesn't seem right, given the place-getters, and Tolkien would be horrified:
1 The Hobbit
JRR Tolkien
Published in September 1937, this first edition first printing is in its original dust-jacket. Only 1,500 copies of the first edition were printed, and they were sold out by mid-December. Purchased by a buyer in Arizona from a New York bookseller.
2 Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing To the Parliament of England
John Milton
Published in 1644, this pamphlet by the author of Paradise Lost defended the freedom of the press. Purchased by a UK buyer from an American bookseller.
3 (Utopia) De optimo reip. statu, deque nova insula
Sir Thomas More
This 1518 fourth edition outlines More's ideal state, and pleads for religious tolerance and universal education. Purchased by a UK buyer from an American bookseller.
4 Poems with elegies on the authors death
John Donne
Little written by Donne appeared in print in his lifetime but hundreds of manuscript copies were circulated by hand. This 1633 first edition was the first collection of his poems. Purchased by a buyer in Pakistan from an American bookseller.
Read the Top Ten here.

And the winner is...

There's a bit of huffing and sniffing going on, after JK Rowling was voted the Greatest Living British Writer by readers of The Book Magazine. Some commentators, and no doubt other writers, are gnashing their teeth.
I suppose if the question asked was about readers' "best loved author" there would be little doubt, but the word "greatest" holds so many elevated and broad-ranging implications.
The writer with the greatest influence? Arguably so.
The greatest technician? As opposed to Rushdie or McEwan or Byatt or Ishiguro? Well...
At any rate, for my money the real surprises lie in the other rankings. Terry Pratchett is second. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but it makes me wonder about the age of the respondents.
But Nick Hornby, for God's sake, is at #8 between Pinter and Byatt. Rose Tremain doesn't rate a mention. And the list is almost entirely English novelists (apart from the Poet Laureate and a smattering of playwrights and a couple of token Scots). Cast your eye down the list. Fascinating.
My picks from this selection?
Novelists in no particular order:
Hilary Mantel
Pat Barker
AS Byatt
Kazuo Ishiguro
Ian McEwan (sometimes)
Salman Rushdie (most of the time)
Julian Barnes

Diana Wynne Jones
Michael Morpurgo
Philip Pullman
JK Rowling
Neil Gaiman
Anne Fine
Jacqueline Wilson

Peter Ackroyd was the only biographer/history writer listed - no mention of:
Simon Schama
Antony Beevor
Claire Tomalin
John Julius Norwich
Niall Ferguson
John Keegan

Let alone...
Jan Morris

It's years since I've read Lessing or seen a Stoppard play but I feel they ought to get a run in the A team. The young crowd (all those Smiths, for example) can wait their turn.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A nation of scribblers

A morose Frank Moorhouse has written a series of features for The Australian on the country's literary landscape - sort of. His conclusions are mixed, but there's some interesting analysis:
"There is a literary logjam. Many doomed books, especially novels, pass by unnoticed in ghostly procession, never reviewed, never mentioned in the media, often barely stocked by bookshops, hardly selling a copy.
In their 1994 survey, Throsby and Beverley Thompson found that among the writers surveyed, 47 per cent had published a book but only 7 per cent had been reviewed.
Research I had done for the CAL showed that, among other things, in the Sydney Morning Herald in November 1964, 142 books were reviewed or mentioned: in November 2004, only 88 books were reviewed or mentioned.
While a review is not the only way to find out about or to evaluate a book (there are also word-of-mouth and browsing, although I'd hate to depend on these alone), it is the primary way. Furthermore, book reviews are the intellectual news of our society."

I think that makes me feel better - and yet...

You can't kill a good book

For books are not absolutely dead things, but... do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand unless warriors be used, as good almost kill a Man a good Book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills Reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

- John Milton

Monday, June 05, 2006

A corner of hope: adventure

The longlist for The Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for 2006 is out.
Chair of the judging panel, Julia Eccleshare, announced the list in London over the weekend, saying:
"It is often assumed that unhappiness makes more interesting fiction than happiness; memories of unhappy childhoods are apparently particularly captivating. And yet in children's books there remains a convention of offering a corner of hope. As the crossover novel edges children's books ever upwards in every respect, that may come to be the defining characteristic of the genre. Among other things, this year's longlist includes considerations of our future, concerns about the emotional security of children, and the lies and secrets that surround teenage pregnancy. Issues aside, all highlight the recurrent need for great adventure stories to fuel children's imagination."
The winner will be announced on September 28.

Memoir and memory

I see James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces has finally dropped off the best seller lists in New York, where it had stayed, classified as non-fiction, long after the revelation that for a memoir it was a pretty fanciful novel. You might remember this towering genius told Larry King:
"The genre of memoir is one that's very new and the boundaries of it had not been established yet."
I guess the guy's never heard of Julius Caesar. We won't get started on that twit Frey or I'll never stop. But as a result of the scandal, apparently, publishers are currently looking askance at new memoirs. This is a real pity, because in memoir the reader can find some of the most insightful and often beautiful writing imaginable. Here are just a few that have affected me, in different ways, over the last twenty-five years or so:
If This Is A Man - Primo Levi
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom - TE Lawrence
Coasting - Jonathan Raban
Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain
A Humming Under My Feet - Barbara Deming
Goodbye to All That - Robert Graves
Conundrum - Jan Morris (you knew I'd say that, right?)
The Fiftieth Gate - Mark Baker
The Woman Warrior - Maxine Hong Kingston
Paris, France - Gertrude Stein
My Childhood - Maxim Gorky
A Restricted Country - Joan Nestle
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter - Simone de Beauvoir

It pains me that I can't add to that list Pentimento by Lillian Hellman, even though she was my hero when I was young, and even though it remains one of my favourite pieces, and even though she wrote "I trust absolutely what I remember about Julia". It seems (can you tell this is a grudging admission, even after all these years?) to perhaps be not precisely true.
On the flipside of the coin, or memoir mixed with fiction, I can add to the list Siegfried Sassoon's George Sherston novels, which really ought to be considered a memoir with a few names changed to protect the dead.
More recently I've loved:
A Mother's Disgrace - Robert Dessaix
The Zanzibar Chest - Aidan Hartley
Tiger's Eye - Inga Clendinnen
Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose - Sandy Balfour
Craft for a Dry Lake - Kim Mahood
Our Woman in Kabul - Iris Makkler

I've just read Still Life with Chickens, by Catherine Goldhammer. Marvellous. Because I work on a magazine for seachangers/small farmers, I get sent a lot of run-away-to-the-country memoirs and many of them are really boring. Still Life with Chickens is and isn't one of that genre, but it is far from boring, and is also much more than a seachange memoir.
Still on the rural front, Richard Benson's The Farm is a memoir of changes in his life, and his family's future, that reflect sweeping agricultural change all over Britain - an important and moving book.
Any other bids?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Can't keep a good book down

Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.
- Alfred Whitney

White out

Wild and woolly on the beach this morning - grey ocean, seaspray across the beach, black clouds and thunder in the distance.
A cloud of tiny terns flew up, wheeling, drifting and shifting like fog around my head. They looked so weary. I imagine they've just arrived from Antarctica. I tried to tell them to stay where they were, that I meant them no harm and would skirt around, but they clearly can't speak English - maybe they've come from Siberia - and so they fluttered and squeaked and rose reluctantly in the air just in case I was a polar bear.
By the time I'd finished my walk I was much the same, trudging pitifully in soft sand into a wind that froze every cell in my face, imagining myself only slightly better off than Pierre shuffling through the snow after the burning of Moscow.
Pathetic, I know.
Usually I write stuff in my head while I walk but I was too sorry for myself this morning, and grateful only for the fact that I'm not a tern. Or Siberian.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Book bans

It's so dull. Or at least it would be if it wasn't so terrifying.
Almost every week somewhere in the US (and of course elsewhere) some kids' book or other is banned, or parents decide to protest against the presence of poor old Harry Potter (well-known subversive and possible Anti-Christ) in their local school library.
The latest case has seen David LaRochelle's teen novel Absolutely Positively Not banned from a reader event in Minnesota because it's about a young man who is - or at least might be - gay.
Perish the thought.
You can read more on this at Publishers' Weekly.

Hibernation down under

It's winter.
We hit the first of June and suddenly the temperature plummeted: now the car takes forever to warm up, my eyeballs freeze and fall out on the walk from car to ferry, my nose may be frost-bitten, and flannelette pyjamas are proven yet again to be the greatest invention in the history of humanity.
So we're having a Slow Food festival here this weekend, with my world-famous-in-New-Zealand thick minestrone, lamb shanks and mash, and my girlfriend's having a glass of red before dinner.
There may even be pudding.
Desperate measures for desperate times.

PS It's very boring being a non-drinker in winter. I'd rather be dehydrated than have yet another glass of cold water. I might sulk instead.

Picture books (or not)

I'm a bit confused by some titles in the latest crop of picture books.
Clearly influenced by the likes of Neil Gaiman, they are dark (ish), perhaps provocative (ish), and more like graphic novels than picture books. Or are they?
I'm thinking mostly of The Three Fishing Brothers Gruff, by a "young graphic designer and surfer", Ben Galbraith. It has a new (ish) look about it, high production quality (although it could do with a couple of extra commas here and there) and it's clearly very hip. I imagine it's selling like hotcakes.
But at which age group is it aimed?
It's not a kid-friendly read-aloud, and the reading age is quite advanced, even though the words are few. There's a message so didactic that even this reader, who feels very strongly about over-fishing and the environment, felt it to be OTT. Many kids would feel a bit strange, too, about the fact that all three brothers have to die to prove an environmental point.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the book - I just wonder about its market.
I could ask the same about Uncle Jack, by Kate De Goldi and Jacqui Colley. I loved Clubs (more graphic novel than picture book) but I just don't get Uncle Jack, its target readers or the impact it would have on young kids. Maybe it's me.
I see some reviewers have asked this too, and perhaps it's more to do with the industry (and we readers) coming to terms with the rise and rise of the graphic novel.
Still, Uncle Jack, I suspect, will stand the test of time and find an older readership than is implied by its pitch. The astute Ms De Goldi knows what she's doing, and perhaps people who have bought it as a picture book for young children will find that they enjoy it more as they grow older.
The Three Brothers Gruff will no doubt win design awards, but I'm not sure that kids will warm to it.
Hopefully I'll be proved wrong.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Down the garden path

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.
- E. M. Forster

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Last letters from a traveller

You might have noticed: Jan Morris is one of my heroes.
Her latest book returns to her mythical, mystical Hav, where "Chopin, for example, when he came here with George Sand in 1839 after their unhappy holiday in Majorca . . . rented a house in the Armenian quarter of the Old City and briefly took Armenian lessons with the city trumpeter of the day. On the other hand James Joyce spent nearly all his time at the Cafe Munchen, the famous writers' haunt on Bundstrasse, while Richard Burton the explorer, as one might expect, went entirely Arab, strode around the city in burnous and golden dagger..."
Salley Vickers' review in The Times explores Hav, but also pays tribute to lifetime of travel, and some of the finest writing about place - and people - that has ever blessed us:
Of all the qualities that Morris values, she places kindness first. Kindness has the same root as kin. To be kind is to recognise kinship, that we are all, in essence, of the same kind. We are lucky to have Jan Morris, and her gift of transporting us to other realms, and other, apparently foreign, sensibilities to aid us in this lifesaving understanding.