31 July 2007

The Way We Live Now

A Flickr portrait of July 2007. Last night I started the book myself.

Of course, some kids are too busy doing other things.

30 July 2007

Gregory Smith: "Getting to Be Kind of Bad"

Here's material from an MTV Movie Blog interview with Gregory Smith, who plays older brother Max Stanton in his next movie. (Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the warning.)

MTV: Tell me, then, how does Max - how does he fit into this epic battle of Light versus Dark?

Smith: Max comes home from college and he is acting a little strange and you’re not really sure what is going on with him but you know that something is a little wrong. It turns out he has been kicked out of college. He is ashamed and doesn’t want to tell his parents and is trying to hide it. The Darkness senses that insecurity and weakness and they sort of use that to their advantage.

MTV: So he becomes a tool of the Darkness, against Will in his quest to find the Signs?

Smith: Yes, I am trying to get the Signs before he does. I am trying to stop him from his quest and get the Signs for the Darkness. I have a foray into the Dark Side. But my character is redeemed before the end.

MTV: That’s kind of cool for an actor[,] isn’t it?

Smith: It’s totally awesome. Like, there is one sequence where Max chases his little brother through time. So on top of getting to be kind of bad there were all these special effects, all these fights that we choreographed.

MTV: Tell me about that big fight.

Smith: It was basically a choreographed karate fight scene, but the director [David Cunningham] set it on top of a vegetable cart. He had the entire cart surrounded by peasants and gave them bread, or rotten pieces of fruit, or carrots, or hay, or whatever.
And now a pause while we remember critic Robert Ebert's definition of a "Fruit Cart Scene", especially in connection to chases.

Rather than continue the pretense that this movie has much to do with Susan Cooper's novel called The Dark Is Rising, today I feature a photo of Smith as Harriet's friend Sport in Harriet the Spy (1996). Another beloved children's book, modernized for the movies a generation after publication. But not one that strayed aggressively far from the plot, themes, or spirit of the original.

29 July 2007

The Bags Swipe at Tolkien-esque Narrative Heavy Metal

Bookshelves of Doom spreads the word of the recording called "L. Frank Baum" by the Bags, a Boston rock group.

How had I missed this in my own back yard? I wondered. But I found two good reasons. First, the recording dates from fifteen years ago, when I had other things to obsess me. And second, it's quite bad. Intentionally so.

Here's the Boston Phoenix review of the song from early 1992:

“L. Frank Baum” (previously released as a single) is the cleverest swipe at Tolkien-esque narrative heavy metal since Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge.” The Bags actually one-up Spinal Tap by playing this metallic version of The Wizard of Oz with impressively precise technical proficiency, including thunderous double kick drums, a well executed Van Halen guitar lead, and some truly beautiful screaming falsetto vocals. It almost makes you think these guys could make a living as a cheesy heavy-metal band, though they would need new haircuts.
The track really does answer the burning question, "What would result if David St. Hubbins were inspired by the MGM Wizard of Oz?" All we need is an ominous voice intoning, "Oh, how they danced, the little people of Munchkinland..."

A bit of the song can be heard by scrolling down this page to the "L. Frank Baum" title. A video from last year's Bags reunion is on YouTube; you can also click on the thumbnail above. Bookshelves of Doom has the lyrics. Don't say I didn't warn you.

28 July 2007

Should You Address Prof. Snape with Respect?

From Geek of All Trades I learned about this Times of India profile of Sudhir Dixit, the literature professor who translates J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books into Hindi.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone wasn't published in Hindi until after the movie adaptation had become a hit in translation. Before then, it appears, publishers thought Indian readers were satisfied with the English-language book. (The latest title in English has already sold well in India, both officially and in pirated editions.) Curiously, the article suggests that Prof. Dixit's best-selling translation job is not HP1, but Who Moved My Cheese?

As the professor notes, most of the Potter books' spells have Latin roots. He chose to seek Sanskrit equivalents since that ancient language has similar connotations in Indian culture. (Ironically, the professor's own surname would translate from the Latin as "he says.") Another way that choice is easy: since the spells don't actually have to work (SPOILER!), they could be written any way an author or translator chooses.

The article offered this cross-cultural snapshot:

What bothered him more was the moral and literary dilemma within him. For instance, in Hindi, unlike in English, expression of respect is unambiguous. So, Dixit had to decide if the character of Snape had to be addressed with respect or with disdain. Dixit would take a long time to decide between 'kar raha tha' and 'kar rahe the'. He eventually decided to treat Snape with respect, "because, he is after all a professor".
And so is the translator, who would not like to be disdained.

Choosing how to refer to Snape or other characters isn't just a matter of how his students or colleagues address him. Hindi has three second-person pronouns for different levels of intimacy or respect (standard English has one choice of second-person pronoun; French and Southern American English have two, but only the French forms can also imply intimacy or respect). Furthermore, respect can also inflect third-person forms. Therefore, it was necessary for Rowling's generally detached narration to become a voice that expresses some value judgment about each character.

Dixit's work and background have given him an unusual perspective on Rowling's storytelling:
"I don't think she intended Harry Potter to be a children's series. It's much too advanced and dark. Children pick it up because she makes them feel like adults. The way she writes about love and death in her books is amazing."
Also, Dixit says, "Everything an author has, he or she uses in the first book best."

27 July 2007

Junie B. Jones and the Judge

In a controversy-stirring article on Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones books yesterday, the New York Times quoted Elizabeth Bird of Fuse #8: "There are parents who will defend her till their death and those that call her loathsome. It’s unusual to find that sort of divide for early chapter books. They’re just not the sort of books that usually get much attention."

Certainly I hadn't paid attention to this controversy. I had no idea Park's series was unpopular anywhere, nor that its unpopularity focuses on, as the Times would have it, narrative voice. Specifically, Junie B.'s improper use of the past tense in irregular verbs, adverbs, and other grammatical niceties.

Child-development experts have actually studied how young children learn irregular verbs. It's a predictable process that shows them grasping the rules of English grammar ("adding ‘—ed’ to verbs produces the past tense") before moving on to our language's exasperatingly long list of exceptions. Junie B. is a little behind her peers--most kids catch onto common irregular verbs by kindergarten and first grade. But it's those verbs that break the rules, not her.

(For a different quibble with the Times article, see Language Log's objection to its parallel to the phonics v. whole language debate.)

I suspect Junie B.'s detractors actually dislike having to read the books aloud in what sounds like baby talk. All the more reason to make them transition books: "Daddy has to, um, change the paper towel roll now. Do you think you can finish this chapter all by yourself?" But the critics seem to complain that books like Park's confuse readers about proper grammar and lower our standards.

As a test of whether popular children's literature has the power to warp readers' ability to spell, I give you The Real Diary of a Real Boy, by Henry A. Shute:

Father thot i aught to keep a diry, but i sed i dident want to, because i coodent wright well enuf, but he sed he wood give $1000 dolars if he had kept a diry when he was a boy.

Mother said she gessed nobody wood dass to read it, but father said everybody would tumble over each other to read it, anyhow he wood give $1000 dolars if he had kept it. i told him i wood keep one regular if he wood give me a quarter of a dolar a week, but he said i had got to keep it anyhow and i woodent get no quarter for it neither, but he woodent ask to read it for a year, and i know he will forget it before that, so i am going to wright just what i want to in it. Father always forgets everything but my lickins. he remembers them every time you bet.
Shute (shown above) claimed this book was his own childhood diary, but it was fiction. It fits into a literature of "typical" American boyhood that had its highest moments in Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, and Booth Tarkington's Penrod.

Shute published The Real Diary of a Real Boy in 1902, and by 1906 it had gone through twelve printings. For the rest of his life he wrote sequels in the voice of young "Plupy" with titles like Sequil, Brite and Fair, and Chadwick & Shute: Gob Printers (our wirk is equil to none).

Shute (1856-1943) was an educated man: a graduate of Exeter and Harvard who became a municipal judge in New Hampshire. His books were undoubtedly popular. So if a widely read book series with deliberately bad English could really destroy American letters, that would have happened before June B. Jones's critics were born.

26 July 2007

Might as Well Jump

(Click on picture for video.)

Ah, those crazy Dutch.

First they were competing at dangling off bluejeans over canals. Then they were collecting shiny rocks in shiny boxes. And now they've taken the lead over shorter nations in "jumpstyle" dance.

There have been many styles within jumpstyle since it first arose in Chicago almost two decades ago: "stamp," "kick," and my favorite to watch, "duo." There are now tutorial videos to explain it all--in Dutch. To judge by other YouTube offerings, the Benelux countries are seeing a small craze for recording "jumpen" in public places, including train stations, malls, and retail establishments.

Two young enthusiasts named Ahmed and Sven demonstrate several styles in this video. At about the one-minute mark, they move into a book and stationery store. At two minutes, they demonstrate their "duo" moves there. But the best performances come from the shoppers who try to ignore the lads.

25 July 2007

Who You Gonna Call?

Last month New York-based schoolteacher Monica Edinger blogged about her unit on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In addition to Baum's original novel and its sequels (optional), she shares the Dreamer of Oz biopic with John Ritter; the famous MGM movie; and its depressive sequel, Return to Oz.

One assignment for the fourth-graders is to post their thoughts on the MGM movie. Is it a good adaptation or a bad adaptation?

Only one blog posting? I can do an hour on that topic! In fact I did, at a gathering of New England Oz fans a few years ago.

Past Ms. Edinger classes have also created their own Oz boardgames, like "Witchbusters" above.

24 July 2007

Hunger for Books, Desire for Martyrdom

Somini Sengupta's article from Pakistan in today's New York Times struck me for the familiar details of its portrait of teenaged girls. The article quotes nineteen-year-old Hameeda Sarfraz lamenting:

“My contact with books is gone. At home the only thing for me to do is take care of my parents. I clean the house. I cook.”
The Sarfraz family lives in rural Pakistan, where opportunities for a young woman to either read and escape household tasks seem thin.

And then there's this scene:
Up the road from Miss Akhtar’s home, in a village called Kotla,...four girls, ages 15 to 18...sat in one girl’s home telling their story. . . .

Mohammed Matloob, the father of one of the girls, walked in. . . . His daughter, Nagina, 16, ordered him to leave the room, which he did, with a surprised shrug.
I could almost hear the girls scolding, "Daddy!"

What's startlingly unfamiliar about these scenes is that these are young female Islamists, teenagers who attended the Jamia Hafsa Islamic school for girls associated with the Red Mosque in Islamabad.

The students of that mosque bullied their neighborhood, taking over a public library and kidnapping some women to accuse them of prostitution. The mosque and its schools contained enough weapons to produce a gun battle with police that stretched over days and took many lives.

The female students brought the Red Mosque's version of Islam home to their villages. Sengupta's article starts with Sarfraz teaching the value of martyrdom to local children, both girls and boys. The four girls interrupted their conversation not just to tell the father to leave, but also to cover their faces with scarves.

At core these young women seem to want the same things we can find many other teenagers wishing for: books, privacy, respect. But they're not finding those things in their villages; they're finding them in a form of their faith that praises intimidation, suicidal gestures, and even stricter gender segregation.

23 July 2007

Constabulary Notes from All Over

From a story by Michael Jones in the 20 July Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pennsylvania:

McDONALD - Follow the yellow-striped road through McDonald, and you'll see the characters from the "Wizard of Oz" greeting visitors at the borough's entrance.

But a few brainless mischief-makers seemingly committed a cowardly and heartless act two weeks ago, when they stole the head of the Cowardly Lion, one of four metal statues standing in a line.

The Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Dorothy were built in recent years by Richard "Herky" Kendall of Candor, who died in April at age 69.

The foursome face east along Noblestown Road in the Allegheny County portion of the borough. The maniacal Wicked Witch of the West, with glowing red eyes, rides her broom next to them.

Kendall's widow, Loretta, said he originally made two tin statues and named them Mr. and Mrs. Valvoline - a tribute to their daughter's instant oil-change garage - and placed them on the family's farm for their grandchildren. Soon, he turned them into Dorothy and the Tin Man, and erected them in public.

But some residents eventually asked Kendall, a construction worker for 47 years, to build the remaining Oz personalities. Loretta Kendall said people are still waiting for a metal-forged Toto . . .

The head was discovered missing two weeks ago during the borough's McSummerfest activities. Police have no suspects, although a gang of flying monkeys is being sought for questioning.

The Lion appears to have been an easy target because - besides his reluctance to fight - the head was never riveted to the neck. Instead, it swung freely from side to side.
I haven't been able to find any online photos of this artwork, before or after defacement.

Ironically, in chapter 21 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Lion becomes King of Beasts by knocking the head off "a most tremendous monster, like a great spider, with a body as big as an elephant and legs as long as a tree trunk."

(Thanks to Scott Hutchins for the original tip.)

22 July 2007

Wholly Nine Yards

Last month Language Log spread the word that the phrase "the whole nine yards" can now be dated as early as...1964. Yes, I can now be confident that it's older than I am.

There have been many explanations of the origin of that phrase, most of them involving long-ago or not-quite-so-long-ago-but-still-quaint technology. As Michael Quinion wrote at World Wide Words:

I’ve seen references to the size of a nun’s habit, the amount of material needed to make a man’s three-piece suit, the length of a maharajah’s ceremonial sash, the capacity of a West Virginia ore wagon, the volume of rubbish that would fill a standard garbage truck, the length of a hangman’s noose, how far you would have to sprint during a jail break to get from the cellblock to the outer wall, the length of a standard bolt of cloth, the volume of a rich man’s grave, or just possibly the length of his shroud, the size of a soldier’s pack, the length of cloth needed for a Scottish “great kilt”, or some distance associated with sports or athletics, especially the game of American football.
But none of those theories hold water, especially when we consider the relative youth of the expression.

A couple of the theories Quinion chronicled involve American military aviators, which connects with the 1964 translation that Language Log quoted. So I'm leaning toward .50-calibre machine-gun ammunition belts as the source.

21 July 2007

Testing the Predictions

To my surprise, since I hadn't asked for special shipping, my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was waiting on my porch this morning.

I have yet to find the easy-open tab on the special packaging, and I'm in the middle of three other books now, so I won't start to read this one for a while.

However, slightly over a year ago, I made the following predictions about what would happen in this book, based on my reading of the previous six and opinions about genre fiction:

Finally, I wrote:
For a grand slam, run-the-board perfecta, Harry will:
  • believe a very close friend has been killed,
  • attack Voldemort in a fury and subdue the villain,
  • refrain from killing Voldemort because of a conversation with a resurrected father figure,
  • see Voldemort counterattack and die anyway because of his own or a disciple's action, and
  • then learn that his close friend has not died after all.
So how did I do?

20 July 2007

Sneaking Off to Watch Circus Smirkus

One of the fun things about being self-employed is the freedom to take in a noon performance of the circus. Circus Smirkus, in today's case--the Vermont-based, one-ring, no-animal youth circus.

In looking at the program for today's performance, I realized this was the fifteenth year I've seen the show. For a while I enjoyed seeking out Smirkus in a different New England city each year. But I got older, and ran out of cities, so I've settled down and now watch the show nearest my home.

When I first attended, the Smirkus troupe had a wide range of ages and sizes, accentuated that year by a clownish wrestling match between eighteen-year-old Toby Ayer, who had already had his growth and someone else's besides, and twelve-year-old Chris Grabher, who hadn't.

The website still says, "The Troupers range in age from 10 to 18," but now all the troupers appear to be in their mid-to-late teens. The only exceptions were a couple of acrobats from Mongolia and the preschool daughters of ringmaster Troy Wunderle. That creates a different dynamic for the audience.

The star of the first show I watched was Jade Kindar-Martin, so good my friend and I assumed he was one of the visiting Russians. He was clearly headed for higher things. Lately there hasn't really been a standout star. Rather, the troupe works closely together, and most look like ordinary young people doing extraordinary things, like Ben Bond.

This year's performance raised some other thoughts--

  • Why hasn't Book Kennison done a juggling solo for the past two years?
  • What are these: Hazel, Cat, Lindsay, Sylphie, Kia, Aerial, Ariana, Maddy, Thula, Greylin, and Joy? They're the first names of the young American women in this year's troupe. Do no girls have familiar, girl-next-door names like Katie? Of course one does! I left out Katie Sickels. And of course she's from Bettendorf, Iowa. (Hey, I can make jokes like that; my grandma lives in Pleasant Valley.)
  • Not even Taylor Wright-Sanson can make the unicycle look sexy.
(Tickets still available for many Smirkus shows this year. All Flickr photos from a circus dad.)

19 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Code of the Sith

Publishers Weekly reported today on Will Collier, an Atlanta-area executive who ordered a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from an online discounter and received it on Tuesday. The magazine said:

Collier put his copy up for sale on ebay without reading it--or even peaking [sic] at the end of the book to find out whether Harry lives or dies. He said he'd rather take his time reading the book. And though he sold the book, he doesn't have much use for anyone who would reveal its contents. "I think that's pretty rotten," he said. "When I was a teen-ager, I wouldn't have wanted anyone coming out of a movie theater telling me, "Darth Vader is Luke's father." [Have they forgotten how to punctuate at PW?]
Actually, we know exactly how "much use" Collier has for someone who might reveal the Potter saga's ending: at least $250 worth. That was his minimum price for the book on eBay. He didn't keep his copy to himself to help ensure no teenagers' enjoyment was spoiled by "pretty rotten" people. He didn't share it with a young neighbor or relative, if he knew one. He didn't go to the local hospital and donate it to a sick child. No, he put it up for sale to the highest bidder.

The Washington Post revealed:
Collier said the book was purchased yesterday by an editor at Publisher's [sic] Weekly. Editors at Publisher's Weekly could not be reached for comment. [They, of course, have experience dealing with advance copies.]

In lieu of further details, Collier responded by offering for $300 a written account of his story, which he'd sentimentally titled, "I Was an eBay Voldemort." The Washington Post declined.
Then Collier sold his piece to the National Review. It reveals that he also considered breaking eBay's rules after using its resources to publicize his sale ("eBay hates this kind of thing"), evaded a phone conversation with someone from Scholastic ("I hung up without responding"), and runs on fumes of resentment toward "media organizations" like, well, of all things, Publishers Weekly.

As Collier insists, he has the right to resell his copy of the book, and to sell his story about it. But to try to present himself as righteous because he himself didn't spoil the story--it's too late for that. He's already gone to the Dark Side.

18 July 2007

Only a Monkey Would Drink and Fly

Today's Oz and Ends thumbnail is taxidermist Sarina Brewer's vision of a flying monkey, martini glass and all.

But if you want to buy me something from Ms. Brewer's shop, I'm partial to the golden griffin.

And there are so many other creatures to choose from.

Link from Blair Frodelius's Ozmapolitan Express.

17 July 2007

The Church Scene in The Dark Is Rising Movie

Back when I first read about Fox Walden's plans to make of a movie of Susan Cooper's novel The Dark Is Rising this year, I queried how director David L. Cunningham's evangelical Christian background would affect the book's picture of older, deeper power in pagan form.

Having raised that question (and seen that blog entry become a locus for people to express concerns about this adaptation), I feel obligated to follow up on it. Articles on the making of the movie which I quoted here reveal that (a) the church scene has changed drastically, and (b) this probably had nothing to do with Cunningham or his faith.

First, the change. In the book, the Dark howls outside the church, Will and the Old Ones form a circle to drive away the Dark, and Will spots the Sign of Stone glowing in the plaster of the church. This leads to a discussion with the vicar of what religious traditions are oldest and most powerful, as I quoted. Though that scene is full of menace, it's not full of action--certainly not Hollywood-style action.

The equivalent scene in the movie will deliver such action. Will still finds the Sign of Stone in the village church, but he and Merriman have to go down into the church crypt to retrieve it. And there they find snakes. Lots and lots of snakes. The imitation of Raiders of the Lost Ark couldn't be clearer, even to the image of a snake slithering out of someone's mouth.

Now for Cunningham's role. He came into the project after John Hodge had written the screenplay to the producers' and studio's satisfaction. As director he had some influence over the final script revisions, but very little time to make changes: the movie was on a tight schedule, and major scenes had to be planned right away. That means the big changes from book to movie came from Hodge, working with the producing team.

Might the changes reflect the producers' bias instead of the director's? After all, Cunningham was hired for The Dark Is Rising by producer Marc E. Platt; they had filled the same roles on The Path to 9/11, which was widely criticized for presenting a distorted, politically conservative view of recent history.

That, too, seems unlikely. Critics of the 9/11 miniseries searched the background of Platt and other producers for political bias. And they found some--but in a surprising direction. Platt's political contributions from 1982 to 2002, dug up by Newsmeat, all went to Democrats, mostly centrists. The other producers seem to have had similar records. Most of the miniseries's historical distortions came from screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh.

Hodge is clear about his reason for changing the church scene:

In the novel, there's an atmosphere of threat. He sees light shining out through the wall, and he finds the sign. That's fine, but that doesn't provide quite enough action for this type of film. And so we basically increase the scale of the battle quite a bit.
And nothing says "increase the scale of the battle" more than lots and lots of snakes.

A cerebral, symbolic scene on the page will be turned into a visceral, active scene on the screen. That's what movies do, of course. In the transition, Cooper's interpretation of her supernatural system through Will's conversation with the vicar is almost certainly going away. It wasn't cinematic, not at the level of an effects-driven action movie. It might have produced resentment among some Christian moviegoers; it would probably have produced boredom among many more in the audience, who just want more snakes. In any event, Cunningham is not responsible for the new shape of that scene.

15 July 2007

Harry Potter Numbers, for What They're Worth

Among the folks jumping on the Harry Potter bandwagon this month is Neilsen Media Research, which issued a special report on the sales of the books and their ancillary products. Obviously the company wants to reinforce its position as the top tracker of media sales and consumption. But some of those numbers strike me as highlighting what Neilsen can't do.

The report stated:

Since 1998, when Nielsen began measuring book sales in the United Kingdom, the six Harry Potter books have sold more than 22.5 million copies in the UK alone. In the United States, the Harry Potter titles published after 2001 have sold more than 27.7 million copies.
Neilsen thus reminded us that its systems didn't really get rolling until after the Potter series did. (Those systems also still cover only a portion of the bookselling business.) In this case, its US data cover only the last two Harry Potter hardcovers and one Harry Potter paperback, the only new editions published since 2001.

That means Neilsen's numbers are very spotty indeed. On the same day as the firm's report, the front page of the New York Times stated:
In the 10 years since the first one, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” was published, the series has sold 325 million copies worldwide, with 121.5 million in print in the United States alone.
Thus, Neilsen's tracking systems have managed to capture only 23% of all American sales.

Confusing matters further, according to the Independent this week, "Philosopher's Stone, by far the most popular of the Potter books, has sold 107 million copies to date." That's a figure for all editions in all languages. Which means that approximately a third of all the copies sold are HP1--and thus pre-Neilsen.

Then there's this statement from the report:
A recent survey of moviegoers shows 51% of persons age 12+ are aware that the new book is coming out next month. Twenty-eight percent of persons 12+ in the U.S. have read one or more of the previous Harry Potter books, and 15% have read all of the Harry Potter books-to-date.
Was the company's conclusion about "persons 12+ in the U.S." adjusted for the fact that it surveyed "moviegoers" only? Obviously, those Americans are more involved in popular culture than the average, and probably younger as well.

Neilsen really works for the advertising industry, so its data on advertising seems most complete and reliable:
In the U.S., ad spend for all Harry Potter branded merchandise (including books, movies, DVDs and other promotional products) totals $269.1 million from 1998 to date.
Don't you love industry jargon? "How's your ad spend, Bob?" "Going up, Debbie!"

At the bottom, the report adds:
In total, $3.6 million in the U.S. has been spent to date for the Harry Potter books (1-7), Harry Potter Fantasy Beast/Quidditch books and the Harry Potter Deluxe Box Sets...
In other words, of all those advertising dollars, book publishers spent slightly more than 1%.

That about sums up the book industry. Even on a series that gets unusually high advertising budgets, as reflected in this week's centerfold in the New York Times Book Review, a book publisher puts out only a tiny fraction of what Hollywood and the toy industry spend. The biggest Harry Potter book ad spend, for HP5, comes in at less than a million dollars. On contrast, Warner Bros. spent at least thirty times that amount when its movies were in theaters, fifteen times that amount for the DVD market. It's refreshing that people still notice the books.

13 July 2007

Once More Into the Wild

Tomorrow at 3:30 Sarah Beth Durst will read at the Worcester Barnes & Noble, so this posting about her book, Into the Wild (previously highlighted back here), is more timely than I'd planned.

Both that novel and Diana Wynne Jones's The Game (discussed this week) take their heroines into supernatural landscapes where they witness, and are caught up in, the endless playing out of traditional stories. In Into the Wild those tales are Europe's fairy tales. In The Game they're Greek myths.

In both cases, the books highlight the beauty and the cruelty of those stories, and their implacable, cyclic unstoppability. Jones doesn't delve into the mechanics of her "mythosphere," and her characters defeat its governor quickly, without much planning. Durst's story, on the other hand, is all about trying to figure out the workings of the Wild and bringing it under control, which means Durst spends more time explaining just how those stories play out over and over again.

Does the difference reflect British versus American sensibilities? The acceptance of age versus the eagerness of youth? Or just the two authors' visions? These parallel tales were in the works at the same time, so there's no direct inspiration, just two storytellers exploring similar ideas.

Two of Durst's choices in Into the Wild struck me as particularly bold. Her second chapter and later passages of the book shift the point of view from the young heroine, Julie, to hairdresser Zel. What makes this so bold is that Zel is Julie's mother. Yes, a book for young teen girls asking them almost immediately to sympathize with the heroine's mother. Not that Zel's a typical mother, but still.

The second bold choice involves the character who lets the Wild loose in underhanded fashion, thus endangering our heroine, her mother, and all of central Massachusetts. This fact isn't deeply hidden, it doesn't drive the plot or the heroine's emotional journey, so it's only a small ***spoiler*** that I feel comfortable highlighting.

That character is the town's librarian. She wants the Wild to spin more traditional tales for the world, and her library. How's that for a gutsy move by a first-time author? Make the closest thing your novel has to a villain someone from your most important constituency!

12 July 2007

Slimming Down in The Game

Last October I wrote about how HarperCollins had expanded the heft of Diana Wynne Jones's The Pinhoe Egg with larger than usual type and generous leading. The result was a 500-page brick, the way we fantasy readers are supposed to want our books these days. Even Publishers Weekly has noticed how thick such books had become.

Now Jones has a new US publisher in Firebird, a Penguin imprint led by Sharyn November. Penguin brought out a new edition of her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and it's the publisher of her latest fiction, The Game. (Presumably the firm will soon correct the spelling of Jones's middle name on its webpage for that book.)

Harper commissioned new cover art for its US edition of The Pinhoe Egg, and dropped the interior art. In contrast, the two Penguin editions of The Game are the same size--and a small size it is, too. This book represents a complete turnaround from Jones's last novel.

The typeface is small, the leading proportional, the margins slim. The Game comes in at well under 200 pages, even with a small trim.

The result looks like a young adult fantasy, not a middle-grade one, particularly with the cover art. The girl's face and neck are long, the light falling on her chest shows the start of breasts, and the image of a female holding out an apple in western culture carries connotations of Eve, the first fallen woman. Yet I think that's supposed to be Hayley, the protagonist. Although we never learn exactly how old Hayley is (which turns out to be significant), she behaves like a middle-grade child, and she's definitely one of the two smallest cousins in her family.

Of course, even with a different design, The Game couldn't be large. It's a small story, though full of magic. It doesn't have the two (or more) protagonists of The Pinhoe Egg. The plot is brief, without many turns. Hayley doesn't set out on a mission or accomplish much; her story mainly involves discovering who she is and where she belongs. In Jones's oeuvre, The Game seems like a minor work, fun and clever while it lasts but over awfully quick.

Indeed, in this story Jones *****SPOILERS IN SO MANY WAYS***** seems to be trying variations on a number of themes that she's explored before. Celestial objects embodied on Earth (Dogsbody). A pantheon of gods stomping around modern Europe (Eight Days of Luke). An immensely magical family that turns out to include the protagonist (Archer's Goon). A competition across multiple realities soured with a frightening glimpse of eternal punishment (The Homeward Bounders). And no doubt there are echoes of other books as well.

11 July 2007

A Hairy Situation with Spiderwick

Fuse #8 alerted me to the new Spiderwick Chronicles movie trailer on Yahoo!, so I checked it out. "Wow, they're really playing up the darkness of the books," I thought, before realizing that for some cyberreason my browser wasn't showing me a picture.

So I sought out the same trailer on YouTube. This peek at the movie emphasizes the story of troubled twin Jared over nerdy twin Simon, to the extent that you'd have to read the books to know that Freddie Highmore is playing two parts. Perhaps special-effects shots of the two boys interacting are still being worked on.

As shown in the cover above, Tony DiTerlizzi drew Jared with a messy part in his hair, Simon with a neat one. In the movie, Jared has no part at all, just unflattering prepubescent bangs. Back in college my theatrical roommates called that sort of sacrifice "follicle realism." Judging by Highmore's own hairstyle at a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory premiere in Europe, however, he already understands hair as an artistic expression.

10 July 2007

What Has She Got in Her Pocketses?

And the Oz and Ends Award for Best Use of an Inexplicable Trend in Kids' Clothing goes to...

The Game, by Diana Wynne Jones.

This brief novel is yet another of Jones's magical explorations of sibling relationships. At the start young Hayley, an only child who's been raised by strict, old-fashioned grandparents in the city, is suddenly sent off to a country house in Ireland that's buzzing with cousins.

To symbolize Hayley's initial isolation, Jones highlights the contrast between her clothing and how her cousins dress. On page 3 Hayley is wearing "her neat floral dress and her shiny patent leather shoes." Her cousins, she notes bitterly, wear "long baggy trousers with lots of pockets down the sides." But in chapter six we know Hayley can fit in with her family when an aunt supplies her with "shorts with pockets, trousers with pockets,...jackets with pockets, sweatshirts with both hoods and pockets..."

Yes, Jones manages to find meaning in what has struck me (and what I suspect has struck her) as an inexplicable fashion trend: cargo pants. Shorts and trousers with spacious pockets hanging off them like popped blisters. Given all the electronic devices we carry around these days, there may be a practical purpose for all those pockets. But how many kids actually use them all? Why are they there?

Leave it to Diana Wynne Jones to supply a masterly answer. The game in The Game is a cousinly competition to collect things in the mythosphere (I'll discuss later). Hayley has pockets to store golden apples so she can pull them out later. In other words, her pants with lots of pockets down the sides turn out to be significant both to revealing character and furthering the plot.

09 July 2007

Making Off with The Lightning Thief

On Friday, Ann Giles devoted her blog on the Guardian's website to "The best Aspie fiction," meaning books about and for young readers who have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

Giles included Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (the Potterian British title for The Lightning Thief) on her short list of "great Asperger's fiction" for young readers. Separately she lists "books that aren't openly Aspie, but that have a real Aspie feel to them," writing, "Kate Thompson's book [The Last of the High Kings] is really about Irish fairies, but I suspect they are closet Aspies, just like Rick Riordan's American half gods."

Yet Riordan clearly didn't write about young people with Asperger's syndrome. His narrator, Percy Jackson, is explicit about the diagnoses he's received: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. In addition, he's a world-class wiseass. All of which he traces back to being son of a Greek god.

This morning a commenter called Giles on her choice of Riordan's book, writing, "I would say that while Rick Riordan's LIGHTNING THIEF series is meant to show ADHD and dyslexia; I've heard him speak and he did not mention Asperger's as a part of his books." Indeed, on his website Riordan states, "Making Percy ADHD/dyslexic was my way of honoring the potential of all the kids I've known who have those conditions."

To which Giles replied, "I agree about the Percy Jackson book, but ADHD is close to AS and I think the way the half god children feel different fits in just as well with Asperger's. It's that outsider feeling, being different, that readers need." But Giles didn't include Lightning Thief in her list of "books that aren't openly Aspie"; she included it on the main list and confidently stated that its heroes are "closet Aspies."

I disagree with Giles's comment that ADHD is "close to AS." The two diagnoses can overlap and be confused, but the whole point of separate diagnoses is to recognize each in order to allow the best understanding and treatment. Dr. R. Kaan Ozbayrak's Aspergers.com website notes, "DSM-IV prohibits diagnosing ADHD when there is PDD [a pervasive developmental disorder such as Asperger's] since all the ADHD symptoms can be attributed to PDD. Clinicians who overlook other symptoms of PDD tend to diagnose these children as ADHD." In other words, assuming kids with Asperger's syndrome actually have ADHD is a common mistake, and it's a mistake for doctors to treat children with Asperger's as if they had ADHD.

Giles apparently feels that "that outsider feeling" is all that's needed to define "Aspie fiction." But that feeling isn't confined to children with Asperger's traits, nor would they necessarily see themselves in any character who feels like an outsider. Percy Jackson shows no hallmarks of Asperger's syndrome. To claim that Riordan wrote about "closet Aspies" looks like projecting one's own concerns onto his work, neither respecting his characterization nor the distinct qualities of young people with Asperger's.

08 July 2007

Let the Wild Rumpus Begin

Here's the first production still released from Spoke Jonze's filming of Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, courtesy of Movieweb. A well-chosen image, I must say. Evocative, exciting, and yet unrevealing.

Almost enough to overcome my dread based on the track record for feature-length movies made from picture books.

07 July 2007

Penguins of Doom—Tastes Like Barbecued Chicken!

I spent a very pleasant afternoon celebrating the official publication date of Greg Fishbone's epistolary farce for young people, The Penguins of Doom: From the Desk of Septina Nash. There was a catered cookout, lovely views of wedding and quinceanera parties getting their photos taken at the nearby pond, and good company of all ages.

The only problem was that the other guests of honor besides Greg--the Penguins of Doom themselves!--hadn't shown up. We had to make do with a Happy Feet balloon, some advance reading copies, and individually autographed limited-edition pages of the manuscript. Mine, shown above, is page 91. Yes, I'm that special. (Enter here for a chance to win your own!)

Penguins of Doom is being publishing by Blooming Tree Press, a young, small press that's conserving costs by printing books in Singapore. And that means they're subject to delays that don't affect books printed in North America, such as storms in the Pacific. So it all comes back to melting icecaps.

06 July 2007

When Pigs Fly in The Baum Bugle

Yesterday I posted links to some images that supplement my article about John Dough and the Cherub (1906) in the latest issue of The Baum Bugle. Today I'm displaying another image from that magazine that got pixelated in the printing.

The small image to the right, which comes from Oz-Central.com, is a color plate from Ruth Plumly Thompson's The Wishing Horse of Oz (1935). It shows Pigasus, the winged pig, and Princess Dorothy trapped in the coils of a stretchable palace.

Who's the man poking his head out of his skylight? And how might he help Dorothy restore proper order to Oz? For answers you'll have to read the book. Fortunately, it's in print and available from the International Wizard of Oz Club, as well as other sources.

Also in this issue of the Bugle are Ruth Berman's discussion of some difficulties in mapping Oz, Atticus Gannaway's discussion of flying pigs in literature and life, the annual Oz trivia quiz, and many fine reviews and reports about recent Oz publications and news. The Baum Bugle goes free to all members of the Oz Club.

05 July 2007

A Clearer Peek at John Dough and the Cherub

The latest issue of The Baum Bugle, dated winter 2006, includes an article from me analyzing L. Frank Baum's fantasy John Dough and the Cherub, published in 1906. (The Bugle, published three times a year by the International Wizard of Oz Club, is devoted to scholarship about the Oz books and related matters.)

Because of an error at the printer, some images in this Bugle were reproduced poorly. I'm therefore posting links to where I found two of the images that appeared with my article, for anyone who's interested.

The photo on top of page 9 shows the INFANT INCUBATORS building at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. That image and another from Buffalo appear on Dr. Ray Duncan's fine website Neonatology.org, which archives a great deal of material about the medical care of newborns.

At the bottom of page 9 is an illustration by May Wilson Preston from Ellis Parker Butler's "gently satirical novel" [did I write that phrase? I like it] The Incubator Baby. That was published in book form the same year as John Dough and the Cherub but had started to appear in a magazine a couple of years before. Here is a clearer image of spectators peering at the little baby at an exposition. Neonatology.org offers page scans of the entire novel.

I included links to other interesting Neonatology.org items back in this posting about John Dough. My article in the Bugle goes over some of the same ground as my introduction in the Hungry Tiger Press edition of Baum's book (hyped at right), but each version contains material not in the other. The book introduction, for instance, starts with how Baum started to write his story for Ladies' Home Journal editor Edward Bok, and how that relationship affected the story. The article has more to say about John R. Neill's art.

For another John Dough image, Jared Davis offers a comparison between Marcus Mébès's colorization of a Neill image for the cover of the Bugle above and the picture as originally printed in only three colors.

04 July 2007

Recommendations for Revolutionary History

As an Independence Day special, Roger Sutton alerted us to The Horn Book's recommendations of illustrated books about the American Revolution.

On that topic, over at Boston 1775 I posted several articles exploring the sources (and lack of them) behind the 2006 picture book Hanukkah at Valley Forge, by Stephen Krensky and Greg Harlin. I think this book should be designated as a holiday fable rather than a fictionalized version of poorly documented history. There really are no reliable documents at all for its core story. The analysis starts here.

Here's the Boston 1775 commentary on:

03 July 2007

Stormbreaker and the Enemies of England

Just because I disliked Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker, the first Alex Rider thriller, doesn't mean I can't find significance in its literary influences. And I'm not just talking about the James Bond novels.

Rather, there's a history over a century and a quarter long behind this scene, on page 104 of the US edition:

Alex stared, unable to quite believe what he was seeing.

A submarine. It had erupted from the sea with the speed and the impossibility of a huge stage illusion. . . . The submarine had no markings, but Alex knew it wasn't English. . . . And what was it doing here, off the coast of Cornwall?
A hostile ship just off the British coast shows Horowitz's debt to what's become known as "invasion literature." This genre that began with The Battle of Dorking in 1871 and remained popular in Britain until World War I made thoughts of such warfare less entertaining. This field begat the British spy thriller through Erskine Childers's Riddle of the Sands (1903), so it's only fair for its echo to reverberate down through Stormbreaker. The invasion genre was also a major influence on science fiction via H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds (1898).

Two of my favorite authors even got into the act. In 1909, P. G. Wodehouse wrote a parody of invasion literature called The Swoop! In his Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz comic page of 1904-05, L. Frank Baum had his travelers from Oz spot a German naval ship off the US coast. (Nothing came of that.)

Usually the invaders in British invasion literature are Germans, though there's always the possibility of Russians and occasional Turks and Arabs as well. How does that change for Alex Rider's post-Cold War world?

Not much, it turns out. The bad guys in Stormbreaker are:
  • Russian assassin Yassen Gregorovich
  • Lebanese (in the UK edition) or Egyptian (in the US edition) computer genius Herod Sayle [Harrods sale, get it? aren't foreign names funny!]
  • scarred circus performer Mr. Grin
  • blonde-bunned assistant Fraulein Nadia Vole (as in rodent)
Vole's actually a triple threat because "Fraulein" is clearly German, but Nadia is a popular girl's name in both Slavic and Arabic cultures!

"Invasion literature" popularized the notion of an island surrounded and infiltrated by enemies, and Stormbreaker reinforces that world-view. The villain tells Alex, "You'd be surprised how many countries there are in the world who loathe the English. Most of Europe, just to begin with." The head of MI6 speaks of "China and the former Soviet Union, countries that have never been our friends"--WW2 alliances entirely forgotten.

There's no reason in Stormbreaker's plot for the villain to come from outside Britain, just as he doesn't have to be "so short that Alex's first impression was that he was looking at a reflection that had somehow been distorted" and he doesn't have to have "very horrible eyes." But he does, he is, and he has.

Sayle's stated motivation is that he was badly bullied at school because he was a small foreign newcomer:
"From the moment I arrived at the school, I was mocked and bullied. Because of my size. Because of my dark skin. Because I couldn't speak English well. Because I wasn't one of them. . . ."
To that Alex replies, "Lots of kids get are bullied and they don't turn into nutcases." Indeed, the book has already told us that Alex himself was bullied at a new school because of "his gentle looks and accent."

Of course, the book has also told us that Alex is "well built, with the body of an athlete"; English and white; rich; and highly trained in karate. So Alex was bullied only once. He acknowledges no difference between his situation and Sayle's, and the book implies that we shouldn't, either.

The succeeding books seem to extend this basic pattern. In the Main Criminals page of the Alex Rider website, five of the seven villains are foreign, three of those Russian. Only one, Damian Cray, is English. He's also (a) interested in India and Buddhism, (b) a crusader for environmental preservation and animal rights, and (c) linked by names and characteristics to certain gay British icons. Hmmm.

As it turns out, while I was cogitating this little essay Horowitz was writing on the same topic from another direction. In the 5 June edition of the right-wing Daily Mail tabloid he lamented that it's not so easy to be beastly to downtrodden groups these days. So where's a thriller writer to find scary villains?

Might I suggest exercising enough imagination not to rely on stereotypes that were cliché a century ago?

02 July 2007

The Hype Is Rising

As Fox Walden prepares to release The Dark Is Rising later this year, it's starting to ramp up the on-set interviews, sneak peeks, and other publicity material. Already we have the new cover design with "Soon to be a major motion picture" at the bottom.

There are, of course, deviations from the book. Will is older by two years, and an American living in Britain. The Walker has a love interest. The Arthurian basis of the magic is gone. There are more action sequences, including one with lots and lots of snakes.

The filmmakers' changes seem to go well beyond what seems necessary for a commercial film, into inserting new themes into the book. Here's a passage from screenwriter John Hodge's interview at JoBlo.com:

He [Will] has to find these 6 signs which are hidden, restore the power of the light and than defeat the dark. He has to do this, and this is what I thought was interesting about the story, he has to do this at the same time as being a 13-year old boy and dealing with the issues that a 13-year old boy has to deal with. So, for example, he's the second youngest in a large family. He has older brothers who are picking on him and kind of trampling on him and ignoring him because he's at the lower end of the family. Also his parents don't seem to take much notice of him. . . .

For example, the opening of the film, Will arrives home with his twin older brothers who've been kind of persecuting him on the bus and then as he arrives home there's another brother who has been away at college and has arrived back. He's the kind of bohemian of the family and there's that tension there. Than we discover that the returning bohemian has taken Will's room and he says, well, I've got your room. There's just nothing Will can do about this. He goes to try and share with his other brothers and it's like 'King Lear' or something. Every door he goes to, he gets turn[ed] away from. He's offered less and less every time. So I put in stuff like that just to give it a personal note.
Much the same interview appears at Movieweb.

It's true that the notion of Will's family being "too big!" is in the very first line of the book. But that's not Will's feeling; that's a complaint from his next-older-brother James. The Stanton family is very supportive of Will, particularly on the matter of where he sleeps that first stormy night. The tension comes from Will not being able to tell his supportive family about his new mission.

And that's not the only sibling-based change Hodge made. In the words of Merriman portrayer Ian McShane's interview at Movieweb, "Of course [Will]'s got the twin who has been imprisoned by the Dark for all these years." (Remember that from the book? No? Perhaps I'm thinking of The Man in the Iron Mask.) So this movie isn't really about "the issues that a 13-year old boy has to deal with"; it's about sibling issues that Hodge wanted to write about.

JoBlo's interview with director David Cunningham says that most of those major changes had been settled by screenwriter and producers before he started work. It's disquieting that he seems already to be making excuses for the quality of the film:
We had three months to prep a movie that really needed six to eight months. I have three or four months to shoot a movie that really needed seven or eight months. I've got a few months to edit a movie that really needs five or six months. So that's my challenge as a filmmaker.
One of Cunningham's strategies was to shoot some scenes with several cameras simultaneously, to get the most footage out of a single effect or run-through. Again, McShane spoke candidly about what that meant for him as an actor:
I think he [Cunningham] has the toughest job. On this, he's always thinking about something else. So he tends to gloss over the acting. He has to trust the acting. To do what they do with that dialogue stuff? He's constantly walking around with, at the very least, three cameras at all times. Which can get very annoying. It sometimes gets in the way, I think. These are very big sets. It's very rare that we are in an intimate situation. It's hard when you find yourself in a one-on-one, and you don't know where he has the camera. I think he knew that the more natural it was, the better it was. Easier. More fluid.
As for novelist Susan Cooper's feelings about the adaptation, Cunningham suggests a lukewarm endorsement:
I don't want to speak on her behalf, but I think it’s mixed feelings. She's thrilled that it's being introduced to a new audience, but of course she would love it to be truer to the book and in many ways we would, but at the same time we needed to translate it. She’s also done screenplays so she understands the difference between books and screenplays and in her words there is violence done to the book to get to that point. So she's been supporting us and it's got to be a tough position to be an author and say, "Okay, let's make the movie version." Yikes I wouldn’t want to have to do that.
And McShane is once again more candid:
I don't think they've been very faithful to the book. I don't know how many of you've read the book. I know they sold a few copies, but I couldn't read it very well. It's really dense. It's from the 70s, you know?
Thanks to the Wild Hunt and authorblog for the links.

In other hype news, in the last hour two comments came into my original posting on The Dark Is Rising movie, both offering the same link to an MTV.com “reality” show about interns on the set. Both "ken" and "clayton" compared the behind-the-scenes footage to The Real World. Neither spelled correctly. Both declared the movie would be a big hit, though a connection between being used as the game board for a reality show and becoming a successful movie escapes me.