Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

Thomas’s poetic telling of his childhood memories of Christmas in early twentieth-century Wales is one of the classics of the literature. Dylan Thomas’s writing, here, though not really a poem in form, is infused with the same vivid, sensory imagery that makes him one of my favorite poets.  For instance, near the beginning of the book, he captures a quintessential boyhood experience.

Thomas leaves no sense unfurled here, and while some might dismiss his work as nostalgic sentimentality, the beauty and wonder of his depiction of a Christmas celebration that is not overshadowed by consumerism stirs up a storm of possibilities in the imagination. May all of our Christmas celebrations this year be full of the frivolity and child-like joy that Thomas poignantly recalls here.

Like his poetry, 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' does not have a narrative structure but contains several descriptive passages designed to create an emotive sense of nostalgia. The story is told from the viewpoint of the author recounting a festive season as a young boy in a fictionalised autobiographical style. In the first passage Thomas searches for a nostalgic Western belief in Christmas past with the line, It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. He furthers the idyllic memory of childhood past by describing the snow as being better and more exciting than the snow that is experienced as an adult. The prose is comedic with exaggerated characters, used either for comedic effect or to show how childhood memories are enlarged due to youthful interpretation.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Luttrell Psalter

The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous medieval manuscripts because of its rich illustrations of everyday life in the 14th century. It was made in the diocese of Lincoln for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276 - 1345) of Irnham, probably sometime between 1325 and 1335. 

The manuscript is named by modern scholars after its original patron, whose picture appears in the book. Geoffrey Luttrell was lord of the manor at Irnham, between Grantham and Spalding in Lincolnshire, but he owned estates across England, thanks to his great-great-grandfather, also called Geoffrey. His ancestor's loyal support and service to King John had been rewarded with grants of various properties, which were greatly added to by marriage to an heiress. The style of the illumination shows that Sir Geoffrey commissioned the Psalter some time between 1320 and 1340.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Poetry: The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens

Stevens was a seeming contradiction: an insurance executive who was also one of the most challenging poets of his time. Central to his work is a faith in the redemptive power of the imagination, as well as the conviction that ultimately "Poetry is the subject of the poem".

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Watch Patti Smith Read from Virginia Woolf

In the video above, poet, artist, National Book Award winner, and “godmother of punk” Patti Smith reads a selection from Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves, accompanied on piano and guitar by her daughter Jesse and son Jackson. The “reading” marked the opening of “Land 250,” a 2008 exhibition of Smith’s photography and artwork from 1965 to 2007, at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris.

I put the word “reading” in quotes above because Smith only reads a very short passage from Woolf’s novel. The rest of the dramatic performance is Smith in her own voice, possibly improvising, possibly reciting her homage to Woolf—occasioned by the fact that the start of the exhibition fell on the 67th anniversary of Woolf’s death by suicide. Of Woolf’s death, Smith says, “I do not think of this as sad. I just think that it’s the day that Virginia Woolf decided to say goodbye. So we are not celebrating the day, we are simply acknowledging that this is the day. If I had a title to call tonight, I would call it ‘Wave.’ We are waving to Virginia.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Romantic period in American fiction 1820 – 1860

Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and the Transcendentalists represent the first great literary generation produced in the United States. In the case of the novelists, the Romantic vision tended to express itself in the form Hawthorne called the “Romance”, a heightened, emotional, and symbolic form of the novel. Romances were not love stories, but serious novels that used special techniques to communicate complex and subtle meaning. 

Instead of carefully defining realistic characters through a wealth of detail, as most English or continental novelists did, Hawthorne, Melville and Poe shaped heroic figures larger than life, burning with mythic significance. The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals. Hawthorne’s Arthur Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Ahab in Moby-Dick, and the many isolated and obsessed characters of Poe’s tales are lonely protagonists pitted against unknowable, dark fates that, in some mysterious way, grow out of their deepest unconscious selves. The symbolic plots reveal hidden actions of the anguished spirit. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Modern fiction: God's Grace by Bernard Malamud

Pulitzer Prize-winner Bernard Malamud is most renowned for his brilliant, lyrical short stories, often set in Jewish ghettoes and written in a pastiche of Yiddish-English. God's Grace is a full-length novel, and like all Malamud's work deals with immense issues in microcosm.

Cohn, the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust, wakes adrift in a boat with only a trained chimpanzee, Buz, for company. Cohn and Buz make their way to a deserted, uninhabited Eden-like island. Buz has been modified by his previous owner, a scientist, and fitted with a voice box. Cohn reconnects the dangling wires and the chimp begins to speak fluently, and fortuitously, in English.

Soon other animals, all primates, begin to come to the island, and Cohn names them and tries to create a morally sustainable, peaceable society, but he is unable to control competition and jealousy. Eventually he mates with the female and she produces a half-ape-half-human child. Ultimately Cohn is unable to maintain the moral basis in his private life and since his 'creations' have free will, they rebel against his authority.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Modern Fiction: "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

At first glance Harold Fry is a sad, lonely English milquetoast, the human equivalent of a potted geranium. “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” Rachel Joyce’s first novel, contrives a way to shake him out of his monotonous life and send him on a voyage of self-discovery. Harold will learn that there is more to life than mowing one’s lawn. Readers will learn that one man’s quiet timidity should not be taken at face value. Potted geraniums have feelings too.

Ms. Joyce’s novel, a sentimental nominee for this year’s Man Booker Prize, has a premise that is simple and twee. One day Harold receives a letter from an old acquaintance, Queenie Hennessy. Queenie is dying at a hospice that is 627 miles north of Harold’s home near the English Channel. When Harold reads the letter, he responds with a tearful “I um. Gosh.” Then he writes her a postcard and walks down his road to mail it. Then he keeps on going. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

For the first time in history, the Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded to a Canadian. Alice Munro, one of the world’s most respected and admired writers, was announced this morning as the winner of the prize in an especially notable year: one in which she has announced her retirement.
The 82-year-old author of 14 books of short stories is only the 13th woman to win the world’s most prestigious literary award. Earlier this year she announced her intention to stop writing, stating that her most recent book, Dear Life, would be her last.

“I’m amazed and very grateful,” Ms. Munro said in a statement read by her longtime editor, Douglas Gibson, Thursday morning. “I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy, too, that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.” Mr. Gibson called the Nobel decision “wonderful news for all of us. Canada has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.” He added: “People have asked if I’m surprised. No, I’m not surprised. She deserves it. It’s about time, but it’s wonderful that this has now happened.”

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Man Booker Prize 2013 shortlist is announced

The Man Booker Prize promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year. The prize is the world's most important literary award and has the power to transform the fortunes of authors and publishers.

The Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2013 has been unveiled, as judges acknowledged the “most diverse” and “exceptionally international” range of books spanning five continents. The shortlist was announced at a ceremony in London this morning, is comprised of six books, each now in the running for the £50,000 prize.
Judges have already acknowledged the contenders as the “most diverse list ever”, with an “exceptionally international” feel for subjects and authors scattered across the globe.

Monday, September 2, 2013

On this day: Tolkien departs Middle Earth (1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford scholar of mediaeval English, died on 2nd September 1973, aged 81. He will be remembered for the story he wrote for his children about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, a furry-footed hobbit who lived in a burrow in the Shire, a bucolic idyll of Anglo-Saxon Britain. The tale grew into a saga of warriors and wizards, elves, demons, trolls and goblins locked in an awesome struggle of good and evil, with the fate of Middle Earth hanging on a lost ring - the ring of the chillingly evil dark lord Sauron.

Tolkien published his Lord of the Rings in 1955, but it was not until the 1960s that anybody really noticed the book. The otherworldly Tolkien suddenly found himself the revered guru of a whole generation of flower children, their psychedelic idyll threatened by the evil lord Nixon and military industrial complex. Tolkien cared little - he was scarcely aware of the modern world outside of his imagination. Other books include the Hobbit, and the rings saga continues in the Silmarillion, to be publish posthumously.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Modern Fiction: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks’ powerful novel, set in France before and during First World War, received he acclaim and achieved both literary and popular international success when it was published in 1993. It was deemed extraordinary for a writer as young as Faulks to treat both the period and the subject with such understanding, depth, scholarship and sensitivity.

In 1910, Stephen Wraysford arrives in Amiens as a guest of Monsieur Azaire and his family. He is there to study the French textile business, but he and his host’s wife, Isabelle, fall passionately in love and begin an extraordinarily sensual and highly charged love affair, set against the stifling social mores of the time.
He returns six years later to Picardy, where as a young British officerhe faces a profound horror of trench warfare and the matchless ferocity of the battles of the marne, verdun and the Somme. The wartime narrative centres on Wraysford, his friend Michael Weir, and a former miner Jack Firebrace, employed to blast the hellish labyrinth of tunnels in which mines are laid. Threaded through the narrative is the near present-day story of waysford’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, who has discovered his coded diaries and is attempting to understand both her grandfather and the effects of the terrible and mindless war that shaped Europe. 

Exquisitely written, devastatingly moving and disturbing, Birdsong is one of the best contemporary literary novels of the 20th century. Faulks explores the personal and the public human experiences of love, death and redemption for both men and women and the boundless endurance of the human spirit, amid the carnage and meaninglessness of war.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why don't we take children's books seriously?

The bunny rabbit, whose propensity for breeding is legendary, has long served as a fertility symbol for the Spring. Bunnykins figures came from the fertile imagination of a young woman whose father, Cuthbert Bailey, happened to be the managing director of Royal Doulton. As a child, Barbara Vernon Bailey had filled sketchbooks with drawings of the countryside, and of the animals kept by her four brothers and two sisters including pigs, cows, horses and ferrets, as well as the more cuddly dogs, cats and guinea-pigs.
I don’t know if we’re the only country whose media doesn’t take children’s books seriously, but certainly the situation is different in Germany. My publisher there often sends me double-page articles devoted to the work of just one children’s author or illustrator. America also appears more enlightened. I recently read a long serious article in The New York Times about British author-illustrator Rebecca Cobb’s Missing Mummy, a book about parental loss which received not one single print review in a British national paper.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Modern Fiction: The Group by Mary McCarthy

In 1963, Mary McCarthy's novel based on the lives of eight women Vassar students in the class of 1933 caused a ripple of protest in some circles. The alumnae of Vassar even requested that her degree be rescinded. It seems the more extraordinary that a book depicting the social, political and sexual mores of the previous generation of women should cause a stir, when at the time of publication the Western world was on the brink of the 'sexual revolution' and the 'women's movement'.

Perhaps it was the sophisticated McCarthy's reputation for disguising only thinly the autobiographical details of her own life, and that of her friends, in her work that offended the sensibilities of these matrons.

Each of the novel's eight chapters describes the life and loves of a different member of the group and follows them up to ten years after graduation. It is an examination not only of the social and sexual politics of the time, but of the way in which individuals from different backgrounds deal with the challenges of massive social change.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A short history of the short story... And how to write it

 Up until the 14th century, short stories were mainly used to convey religious morals. With Boccaccio's The Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the shift moved from the sacred to the profane by focusing on human folly instead.

The English short story changed from verse into prose in the 15th century, but it didn't really begin to emerge as a form until the 19th century when it took off among American writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. In the UK, such writers as Thomas Hardy mastered the genre: his Wessex Tales (1888) was the first succesful short story by a British author.

Short stories went from strength to strength in the 20th century, partly because the rise in literary magazines and journals created a market for the genre.

The genre has suffered a bit of a decline in recent years. At least enough for writer Margaret Wilkinson to launch the Save our Short Story campaign in 2002. Join the fight and subscribe to the Endangered Species online anthology of stories by both known and new writers.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Modern Fiction: The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

Alice Munro is recognized and acknowledged as one of the greatest living short story writers. She has had many collections of short stories published and The Progress of Love deals, like much of her work, in the examination of human relationships in all their complexity through the minutiae of daily living in small, provincial and rural Canadian towns.

A young man examines his sense of responsibility for a younger sibling when he recalls the terrifying trauma of his childhood. A woman divorces and seeks sanctuary in her childhood home where she must confront her parent's ambiguous relationship. The trust between parents and their children is tested after the accidental near-drowning of a child. These are some of the themes of the stories in this collection, and through the lives of the protagonists we shine the light into the dark corners of our own humanity.

In this collection Alice Munro examines, in elegant witty prose, the constant paradoxes of our lives where responsibility vies with freedom, security with independence, and creativity with obligation.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Story of Parzival

The Bavarian knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (c.1170 – 1220), author of Parzival, was not the first great artist to be attracted by the story. Chrétien de Troyes, author of the unfinished Perceval, le Conte du Graal (Perceval, the Story of the Grail), was also inspired by the tale. He dedicated the romance to his patron Philip, count of Flanders, and his account of the Arthurian hero has a stylistic and thematic connection with Peredur, one of the medieval Welsh prose tales collectively known as the Mabinogi.

Parzival illustrated manuscript

The true origin of Perzeval’s story is unknown, but the variety of its treatments shows how literary material reflected local circumstances within a cosmopolitan ambiance. Von Eschenbach’s poem, arguably the greatest of the German medieval epics, is infused by the knightly ethic with its portrayal for the need of compassionate love when searching for a healing wisdom. Parzival’s grief-stricken mother, Herzeloyde, has consciously brought him up to be ignorant of chivalric knighthood following the death in battle of the boy’s father Gahmuret.
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