29 September 2008

A New Use for Single Quote Marks?

My final posting for this Oz and Ends PUNCTUATION WEEK concerns a use of quotation marks in fiction that's not standard, as far as I can tell, but might become so.

In a few books, when the text quotes words that no character is saying in the present scene--words that a character has said before, or often says, or that another character imagines being said--that dialogue appears in single quote marks instead of the regular (American) double quote marks.

I first noticed this usage in Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, published in 1987. Since then, I've kept my eyes open for other books using the same style, and the earliest book in which I've spotted it is Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door (1973), the first sequel to A Wrinkle in Time. (It may not be coincidence that both those titles came from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

Here are a couple of passages from A Wind in the Door, chapter three, showing this style in action:

The children were all fond of Dr. Louise, and trusted her completely as a physician, but they were not quite sure that she had their parents’ capacity to accept the extraordinary. Almost sure, but not quite. Dr. Colubra had a good deal in common with their parents; she, too, had given up work which paid extremely well in both money and prestige, to come live in this small rural village. (‘Too many of my colleagues have forgotten they are supposed to practice the art of healing. If I don’t have the gift of healing in my hands, then all my expensive training isn’t worth very much.’) She, too, had turned her back on the glitter of worldly success.
And a page later:
“You haven’t proven them to me,” Dr. Louise said. “Yet!” She looked slightly ruffled, like a little grey bird. Her short, curly hair was grey; her eyes were grey above a small beak of a nose; she wore a grey flannel suit. “The main reason I think you may be right is that you go to that idiot machine--” she pointed at the micro-electron microscope--“the way my husband used to go to his violin. It was always a lovers’ meeting.“

Mrs. Murry turned away from her ‘idiot machine.’ “I think I wish I’d never heard of farandolae, much less come to the conclusions--” She stopped abruptly, then said, “By the way, kids, I was rather surprised, just before you all barged into the lab, to have Mr. Jenkins call to suggest that we give Charles Wallace lessons in self-defense.”
I wouldn't have used single quote marks in those passages. (And I wouldn't have included the sixth comma in the first passage, or punctuated the clause about the micro-electron microscope within Dr. Louise’s dialogue like that, either.)

I’ve looked in style guides to see if any state this usage is standard, or even a common option, and haven’t found one that recommends treating some quotations differently from others this way. The closest guideline is a Chicago Manual of Style stipulation that in philosophical and linguistic texts certain terms might be enclosed in single quote marks (14th edition, 6.67 and 6.74).

To prepare for this posting, I kept watch for an example of standard use of quote marks in the same situation, and found one in Gail Gauthier's The Hero of Ticonderoga (2001):
Mom sighed one of her “I’m trying to keep from killing you” sighs. “No, it does not.”
The dialogue that start “I’m trying...” would be within single quote marks in the system L'Engle and Turow used. That might even be clearer about what's spoken aloud in that scene and what the narrator is recalling from earlier moments. But until that system becomes standard, and readers know how to interpret it on the fly, I think it risks being confusing instead of clarifying.

Has anyone else come across this quirk of punctuation? Has it gotten into any style guides? Does anyone use it all the time?

28 September 2008

Polite Swearing in the Modern Style

While I was in the midst of the last PUNCTUATION WEEK, Dave Elzey offered some punctual thoughts of his own at Fomagrams. He addressed how to render graphic words graphically--or, rather, how to have comics characters curse in a way that makes their anger more apparent than their word choice. (Get Fuzzy here shows Satchel Pooch taking that to an extreme.)

At one point, prose writers substituted dashes and asterisks for just enough letters to hide offensive from a naive six-year-old. But in comics, which render speech more graphically than ordinary prose, artists found a more expressive approach, which Dave calls "substitute profanity."

There are two elements necessary to create the appropriate substitute profanity, length and symbol. Length is merely how many letter characters are being replaced in the original word with symbols. . . .

Now, as for symbols, the only proper ones available are “caps lock numbers,” those symbols you get when using the caps lock on the number keys. The exception is the exclamation point, a common feature above the 1 on modern computer keyboards that replaced the cent symbol. . . .

There are two reasons to avoid punctuation [including parentheses]. First, you want to reserve them to actually punctuate the profanity in question. Second, adding punctuation in the middle of a word only confuses the reader.
Similarly, Dave recommends against letting letters and numbers slip into such swear words. I don't know how he feels about other mathematical symbols, such as +. Are they closer to punctuation or to the non-letter symbols?

The modern computer keyboard, especially the Macintosh, provides several more options than the typewriter, such as §, £, ®, ∑, and ø. I particularly like the dagger used for footnotes when asterisks just won't do: . Not only is it an unusual typographical symbol, but it conveys the anger often expressed by cursing.

Dave notes that not only did comics come up with this form of expression, but comics letterers have more options available to them.
As a final note, comic books have a wider set of characters to choose from because they employ symbols not found on the keyboard. The inward spiral, for example, or sometimes a simple smudge.
Comics creators also have the option of word balloons in the shapes of thunderclouds or icicles.

However, landmark comics creator Frank Miller chose to go outside that system recently. In his current magazine, All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, Miller has insisted that the profanity in his script be placed in the characters' word balloons, then blacked out.

But $%£#!, the blacking in the latest issue wasn't as powerful as the words, and they showed through. DC just had to recall its copies, and Newsarama reported:
As with “error” and “recall” issues of titles before..., the request to destroy copies had very minor--if any--effect on the book making it into the retail stream. While larger chains, and retailers who have close relationships with DC may have found it politically appropriate to destroy (or “disappear”) their copies..., nearly 200 copies have made their way to eBay, with low bids starting at $15.00, and currently, showing a high bid of $102.50.
For Robin fans, I should make clear that the Boy Wonder doesn't use any of that profanity. Not even Frank Miller's Robin.

27 September 2008

Punctuating Speech, from Borge to Orwell

We don't use punctuation when we speak. (Unless, of course, we are the late, great Victor Borge, reading out punctuation marks in a comedy routine.) But we do have the sonic equivalent of punctuation: a mutually understood system of signals that add nuance to our words, such as pausing after full phrases, rising in tone at the end of a question, and speaking louder for emphasis.

The punctuation we use in written language is an attempt to approximate the nuances of oral speech. And a feeble attempt, given the ongoing lack of an irony font, or a signal for a non-grammatical caesura, or an indicator for unusually quiet or calm speech the way we can signal loud and excited speech!

During this Oz and Ends PUNCTUATION WEEK, current events have forced me to consider the plight of the transcribers tasked to render television discussions into written language. Taking down the words is relatively easy, but figuring out the speakers' meaning, and adding the right punctuation to reflect that meaning--I imagine that can be tough. Take this question and answer from a recent interview:

Why isn’t it better, [interviewee's name], to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families struggling with health care, housing, gas and groceries? Allow them to spend more and put more money into the economy? Instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?
That question takes the form of sentence fragments, each extending the previous. They could be punctuated as a single long sentence or, as here, a complete sentence and two fragments. For modern readers, the second course is easier, but both are understandable.

Here's the answer:
That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. Helping th--it's got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans and trade--we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as competitive, scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today--we've got to look at that as more opportunity.
Even with those highly flexible em-dashes, it must have been hard to stitch that answer together. Of course, the real problem doesn't lie in the limitations of our punctuation marks, but in the speech itself. No number of inky squiggles can connect thoughts and phrases that don't actually fit together in a logical way.

Zubin Jelveh tried to diagram how that answer connected topics and got this. Michael Leddy saw Orwellian rhetoric: not in the 1984 sense, but "throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in," as George Orwell wrote in the essay "Politics and the English Language."

Here's another exchange from the same conversation. This time, try to fill in the punctuation yourself!
have you ever been involved in any negotiations for example with the Russians

we have trade missions back and forth we do it's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America where do they go it's Alaska it's just right over the border it is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation Russia because they are right next to they are right next to our state.
I've written that "Punctuation is a moral issue." But proposing someone with such poor command of vital issues and logical thought to hold a position of power is a moral issue on a whole 'nother level.

26 September 2008

An Apostrophe to the Apostrophe

Oz and Ends can't go through PUNCTUATION WEEK without addressing the punctuation mark that, despite its small size, causes today's writers and readers more headaches than any other. It lacks the solidity of the period and other sentence-ending marks, and style guides differ in some small respects on how to use it. Nonetheless, there are some clear rules about how not to use it, which many people obviously don't recall. I refer, of course, to the-- Oops.

(A natural confusion. Let's resume.)

--to the apostrophe.

O apostrophe, you have only two basic uses in English. You indicate where letters/sounds have been dropped from how we pronounce a word, as in the contraction "can't." And as an outgrowth of that usage, you indicate a possessive; the Old English genitive case ended "—es," and dropping the vowel produced "—'s," which people decided was such a convenient signal for a possessive that it became standard. Why isn't that enough?

For some reason, many people insert apostrophes into plural words. Apparently, the more marks on a sign, the more plural the word is. Misused apostrophes are so common to have inspired three separate blogs using this service alone:

(Those blogs address punctuation marks other than the apostrophe as well.)

People also try to put an apostrophe into the possessive pronoun "its." That I can understand since almost every other possessive does end in "—'s," and we also see the contraction "it's" all the time. Thomas Jefferson preferred the possessive "it's" and used it consistently. Nonetheless, it's wrong; pronouns, like "his," have been sanded down so far that they lack all ornamentation.

To sum up this topic, I can't think of anyone more qualified than Bob the Angry Flower.
Buy the complete poster here.

25 September 2008

Nothing Halfway about the Semicolon

A while back, the Boston Globe ran a column on the semicolon, which pointed back to (and liberally quoted from) this essay by Trevor Butterworth, originally published in the Financial Times.

Butterworth perceived acceptance of the semicolon as a quality that set British journalism off from American. He indeed found several American writers eager to write off semicolons.

  • Donald Barthelme: "ugly as a tick on a dog's belly"
  • Bill Walsh: "an ugly bastard"
  • Cormac McCarthy: "idiocy"
  • Fred Barnes: "should be turned into periods"
But Butterworth also found several American writers and editors who countenance that form of punctuation, and even appreciate its position halfway between a comma and a period.

In June, Slate's Paul Collins reviewed the long history of the semicolon, noting that Edgar Allen Poe was among the authors who thought it was overused, and that since at least 1865 other American critics have lamented its disappearance. (Thanks to PhiloBiblos for this link.) The big drop was between the late 1700s and late 1800s, not between then and now.

I rather like semicolons myself; their subtlety appeals to me. But do I put my keyboard behind that conviction? Do I actually use semicolons, as opposed to simply thinking of myself as a subtle, Anglophilic stylist?

So I searched Oz and Ends for semicolons using the little box up on top of the screen, and you know what I discovered? The Blogger search function doesn't look for punctuation marks.

So I tried another tack. I pulled up all the postings for May 2008 and used my browser program's search function to locate semicolons. Fifteen in thirty-two postings. I actually used semicolons at a higher rate when writing about comics than when writing about other types of books and other topics. (That last observation didn't factor in the relative lengths of different postings, however.)

That same month, Boston 1775 used semicolons at an even higher rate: 23 in 33 postings, exclusive of quotations. I guess working with eighteenth-century prose has its effects.

Finally, I looked at a middle-grade novel I'm working on: 8 in about 150 pages, most in short sentences recreating characters' thoughts. When you're writing for kids, short sentences are best. So I do like semicolons, but I'm not a fanatic.

24 September 2008

Hey, Kids! What Day Is It?

It's National Punctuation Day! And in observance I'm bringing back Oz and Ends's PUNCTUATION WEEK, at least for a few days.

To start with, here's a reminder of how the little matter of punctuation still matters to important and right-thinking people. Author Gail Gauthier brought this recent posting from Kirkus Reviews to my attention. Editor Vicky Smith warns authors and publishers that poor copyediting might cost one of their books big.

Consider the case of one of the best young-adult books of the year. It caught both the reviewer and me up with its compelling plot, world-building and character development, but the galley was so riddled with errors that, in the end, I could not read past them. I contacted the publisher in the hopes that these had been corrected in the finished book and discovered that, alas, many--too many--had not. They were errors of the most basic sort, the kind that we all learned about (and then many of us forgot) in eighth-grade grammar. . . .

After consultation, the reviewer and I agreed that although we both felt the story deserved a starred review, it should not receive one; we felt we had to look at the book as a whole, and the whole included too many grammatical faults to ignore. The publisher has assured me that the errors will be corrected in the second printing.
The publisher could have tried to bull through the criticism as the McCain-Palin campaign has been doing, claiming that what look like mistakes were correct all along. But the fact that the publisher plans to correct those items shows that they weren't part of the narrative voice, or reflections of an alternative style sheet. They were errors.

As for which book that was, Monica Edinger reported that most children's-lit people were guessing The Hunger Games, published by Scholastic.

23 September 2008

Dorothy Gale, Who Are You Wearing?

Oz author and theatrical empresario Edward Einhorn interviewed Oz and Trojan War illustrator Eric Shanower at the Theater of Ideas blog. Eric illustrated Edward's books Paradox in Oz and The Living House of Oz, as well as his own Oz comics and novel and many stories by other writers (including, I'm happy to say, one of mine).

Among the topics they covered was how Eric chose to depict Dorothy Gale:

One conscious progression I’ve made is in the clothing Dorothy wears. This is on display front and center in Adventures in Oz. Over the forty years John R. Neill illustrated Oz books, he always dressed Dorothy in clothing of the time, so I believe it’s part of her character to dress that way.

In my earliest professional Oz illustration, I didn’t want to make a radical break with the last of Neill’s Oz books in the 1940s, so I put Dorothy in dresses that could have been from the 1940s or from the 1980s. But as soon as I could, I found excuses to put her into pants.

In Ice King she wears a parka and snow pants for most of the book. And in Forgotten Forest she’s in pajamas. I reverted to a skirt in Blue Witch, just because I still didn’t think anyone was ready for Dorothy in blue jeans, but since then I’ve illustrated entire books with Dorothy in shorts. I think shorts are visually close enough to skirts that it’s not jarring.

But people still complain. I don’t know why they do. Dorothy always wears what girls in the Great Outside World wear. Not that girls don’t wear skirts and dresses today, but they don’t wear them to go off on adventures full of strenuous walking and climbing.
I was among the readers a little startled to see Dorothy in a T-shirt and shorts on Eric's cover for The Giant Garden of Oz. The stylistic changes Neill made between 1907, when he first drew his Dorothy, to 1943, when he died, seem less significant at our distance. Furthermore, the three artists who illustrated Reilly & Lee Oz books after Neill--Frank Kramer, Dirk Gringhuis, and Dick Martin--put her in pre-war skirts so readers could recognize her.

But Eric's depictions and argument have brought me around--to an extent. I now imagine Dorothy dressing in practical clothing when she expects to have an adventure. But for court visits, I still imagine her choosing to wear a dress from the first half of the last century. I figure her tastes in fashion were formed as a girl on a Kansas farm around 1900.

Edward's interview also gets into the Wizard of Oz adaptation that Eric has scripted for Marvel Comics, now being drawn by Skottie Young. Earlier this month Young posted his cover for issue two, when Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion. Earlier previews here, here, here, here, and here.

22 September 2008

The Little French Elephant

Adam Gopnik wrote an appreciation of the Babar books in the New Yorker, on the occasion of an exhibit of Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff's illustrations at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. That article is happy evidence that I'm not the only reader who spots national portraits in children's literature. (Of course, Gopnik's own children's fantasy novel, The King in the Window, was de trop about Frenchness.)

Gopnik writes:

All children’s books take as their subject disorder and order and their proper relation, beginning in order and ending there, but with disorder given its due. In our century, different ideas of order have been represented in children’s literature by a city or a country.

The Mary Poppins stories, “Peter Pan,” “The Wind in the Willows,” and, in a slightly different way, “The Hobbit” all use an idea of England and, often, of London. Here order is internal, found at home, part of the natural world of the nursery and the riverbank; disorder lies beyond, at times threatening but more often beckoning as a source of joy and Dionysian possibility. . . . We escape the nursery for the disorder of the park.

The idea of Paris that one finds in the Babar books--or in the Madeline books--has another shape. Disorder is imagined as internal, psychological; the natural world is accepted as inherently coquin, “mean,” or potentially violent. Order needs to be created by constant infusions of education and city planning; it is a source of Apollonian pleasure. . . . Disorder is the normal mess of life, what rhinos like. Order is what elephants (that is, Frenchmen) achieve at a cost and with effort. To stray from built order is to confront the man with a gun.

Things are sorted differently in the children’s classics of New York. In “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” “The House on East 88th Street,” “Stuart Little,” “The Pushcart War,” and “Harriet the Spy,” neither order nor disorder is taken to be natural. The world of the books oscillates unpredictably between them, producing battles and freaks. The best we can find are small secret islands of order. Everything turns on the individual child and her ability to create a safe miniworld of her own within the big chaotic city.

In London, in children’s books, life is too orderly and one longs for the vitality of the wild; in Paris, order is an achievement, hard won against the natural chaos and cruelty of adult life; in New York, we begin most stories in an indifferent city and the child has to create a kind of order within it.

Each of these schemes reflects a history: the English vision being a natural consequence of a peaceful nation with a reformist history and in search of adventure; the French of a troubled nation with a violent history in search of peace; and the American of an individualistic and sporadically violent country with a strong ethos of family isolation and improvised rules.
After so many words, I'm sure some folks want a few pictures. The magazine's website offers an online slide show of some of Jean de Brunhoff's art.

ADDENDUM: Today's New York Times offers Edward Rothstein's review of the Babar show and another online slide show.

21 September 2008

Reasons for Robin, #1 and #2

As threatened, here is the first installment of my series-within-a-series that I'm calling "Reasons for Robin." It proposes reasons why the creators of Batman might have introduced Robin, the Boy Wonder, after about a year of solo adventures for the Dark Detective. These postings aren't meant to analyze the Robin characters over the decades, particularly in their own adventures. Rather, I've been cogitating on what the early Robin character brought to the Batman stories.

Reason for Robin #1: So Batman can have someone to talk to.

Back in this posting, I quoted original Batman scripter Bill Finger on his first reason for wanting to give Batman a sidekick:

[Sherlock] Holmes had his Watson. The thing that bothered me was that Batman didn't have anyone to talk to, and it got a little tiresome always having him thinking. I found that as I went along Batman needed a Watson to talk to. That's how Robin came to be.
Although comics, with their captions and thought balloons, can let readers see into characters' heads, they're more like dramas than like novels. The medium's emphasis on the visual means that the strongest way to show what characters are thinking is through action or interaction with other characters--i.e., speech. And that means having someone to talk to.

But sometimes Batman didn't say all that much, which brings me to...

Reason for Robin #2: So Batman can have someone not to talk to.

Okay, this is a bit counterintuitive, but it starts with the fact that good storytelling depends on the audience not knowing how things will turn out. If Batman, the world's greatest detective and crimefighter, told Robin everything he was thinking, readers would lose interest long before many stories end.

idontgetitIn a mystery story, once readers figure out whodunit, there's not a lot of suspense left. Imagine following all the brilliant thoughts of Hercule Poirot as he deduces exactly who killed the victims and how, and then imagine reading several more chapters of Poirot summoning the police, Poirot gathering the suspects, Poirot walking through each clue to the crime--when we know all that already! Nothing could be more tedious.

So Agatha Christie, following Arthur Conan Doyle's model, showed us most of Poirot's cases through the eyes of another character--usually Captain Hastings. He's always lagging behind the great Belgian detective, and we readers therefore read about Poirot's deductions at the same time he presents them to the suspects and authorities. Theoretically, Christie could simply skip telling us Poirot's thoughts as he solves the puzzle, but that would soon seem artificial, and therefore interfere with our reading pleasure.

Though Robin didn't supply the narrative voice of early Batman comics, he was still Batman's Watson. His presence lets us see the world's greatest detective solve the mystery of the month, but we don't have to read Batman's deductions until the story's last page.

huh?There was a similar dynamic when Batman laid traps for criminals, or figured out and prepared to counteract their traps. Again, knowing too much of what's going to happen can sap the interest out of a story. That's especially true of adventure tales, which have to be full of thrilling reverses. Just when things look good, they turn bad. Just when things look horrible, the hero wins!

By having Robin at Batman's side, but not privy to all the caped crusader's thinking, the comics writers could highlight how good or bad things looked at the moment. Yet their hero could be one step ahead of the plot the whole time. Batman could spring a trap he had prepared long before, or escape from one through a weakness he'd silently spotted. Once again, all the explanations would come in the very last panels.

young justice hideoutBatman's penchant for secrecy has increased markedly in the modern post-Crisis stories. Sometimes it takes benign forms, as in the Young Justice panels at left, when Tim Drake as Robin has figured out that Batman was secretly looking after his teenaged hero group for several issues now.

In most stories, however, DC's writers now present Batman's secretiveness as pathological. Long story arcs, such as Bruce Wayne, Murderer?, are built around his inability to open up and level to his family. The two main Robin figures, Dick Grayson and Tim Drake, are always getting on Bruce Wayne's case about that. But after sixty-eight years, we should all be used to Batman not talking to Robin at crucial times. It really does make for better stories.

20 September 2008

The Cybils for 2008 Are Coming!

In early 2009, the children's literature blogging community will once again honor books published in the previous year with the Cybils Awards. As the organizers have explained:

We wanted a literary competition that combined the freewheeling democracy of the Internet with the thoughtfulness of a book club. . . . The winning books must combine quality and "kid appeal."
This season I'm going to be a judge in the Middle Grade Novels category. That's extended prose fiction for readers aged eight to twelve. (There's a new Easy Reader category, as well as Young Adult on the up side.) Nominations will be welcome from anyone and everyone at the Cybils blog on 1 October!

Until then, you can check out the tastes of the various evaluators at their various blogs.

Middle Grade Novel Panelists (Round I)
Middle Grade Novel Judges (Round II)

Easing on Down the Road

From a 1994 newspaper article about the Andover, New Hampshire, One-Wheelers traveling to Andover, Kansas. The One-Wheelers apparently remain a popular school activity up north.

19 September 2008

Why The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Is Not a Good Literary Novel

Back in June, Newsweek interviewed Jane Yolen about her five most important books. The interchange ended with a request for "A classic you revisited with disappointment," and Jane answered:

L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. All I could see were the repetitions, the unvarying sentences and the paper-thin characters.
And indeed, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not a good literary novel.

Nor do I think that it belongs in that category. We've come to see all book-length fiction through the model of the character-driven novel, but I think Wizard's novelistic qualities are mixed equally with Augustan satire and oral poetry.

Most of the book's characters aren't individuals. Many appear in groups: Winkies, Fighting Trees, Hammerheads, wolves. In the whole story, there are only ten characters with proper names. Of those, five are the book's Americans--Dorothy, Toto, Uncle Henry, Aunt Em, and Oz--and none of those has a surname. Only later, as the Oz books became more novelistic, did Baum disclose that Dorothy's family is named Gale and the Wizard's original last name was Diggs.

Of the other five named characters, only one--Glinda--plays a role in the plot. The other four are incidental, in three cases appearing in episodes that seem to have been late additions to the story. There's a Munchkin landowner named Boq; Gayelette and Quelala, a couple mentioned in the story of the Magic Cap; and a china figurine named Mr. Joker.

All the other individual characters are identified not by name but by a descriptive label: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the soldier with the green whiskers, the queen of the field mice, the king of the winged monkeys, and so on. Sometimes those identifiers tell us the characters' most important traits straight away: the Good Witch of the North, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch of the West. Again, in later writing Baum went back and named some of these characters: the Tin Woodman became Nick Chopper, the soldier Omby Amby.

In sum, the characters in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz aren't rounded characters but types, often representing concepts: "I wish I had a heart (though I am actually already kind)"; "I represent the power of the state in the Emerald City"; "I am a wicked witch." In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (another Augustan satire which people try to read as a novel), the king of Lilliput shows little depth or growth as a character. In the same way, Wizard's characters are two-dimensional and unchanging.

As for oral poetry, we know that Baum created The Wonderful Wizard of Oz first as a series of bedtime tales for his sons. Only later did he put the saga on paper. In contrast, he composed the rest of his Oz stories on paper first, usually as novels and occasionally as scripts for stage or screen.

I posit that the "repetitions" and "unvarying sentences" that Jane noted are the remnant of the story's roots in being told aloud. Those repetitions are formulas, like the "wine-dark sea" in The Odyssey. At many moments each of Dorothy's three companions comments on events in turn, each speaking from the perspective he represents. The prose is very spare. Depending on one's literary states and bedtime, those repeated patterns could be soothing or grating.

Baum was never a terrific literary stylist, and his plots were haphazard. His genius lay in characterization. Only when he started to write Oz novels did he color in the characters from Wizard. Those later books show us the Scarecrow's playful side, the Tin Woodman's dignified ego, Dorothy's risk-taking confidence, and so on. And those are the characters that fans of the Oz books remember.

18 September 2008

Virtual Visit to the Emerald City’s Inspiration

The Urban Simulation Team UCLA, formed "to explore the diverse applications for real-time visual simulation in design, urban planning, emergency response, and education," is showing off its methods and technology by creating an incredible visual simulation of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The head of this project is Lisa M. Snyder.

L. Frank Baum and his family visited this fair several times when they moved to Chicago, and most scholars think that its White City inspired Baum's Emerald City a few years later. As we recall from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Wizard's capital is actually white, but it looks emerald-green because everybody must wear green spectacles, ostensibly to shield their eyes from the glare of jewels.

Moving through the recreated Chicago exposition cinematically might therefore be the closest we can get now to understanding Baum's vision, or visiting the Emerald City ourselves. The visual connections seem especially strong to me because:

  • John R. Neill's illustrations of the Emerald City reflect turn-of-the-century taste in monumental architecture, and thus have a lot of similarities with the exposition's buildings.
  • The simulation's bright color palette brings to mind how Baum divided the countries of Oz by color. (In contrast, most real images of the exposition are black and white photographs, which show off the buildings' whiteness but give little sense of Frederick Law Olmsted's landscaping.)
  • There's even a balloon hovering in the background of the boatride through the lagoon.
The virtual Chicago Exposition is best visited with a fast internet connection, of course.

17 September 2008

The MGM Wizard of Oz as a “Meditation on America”?

Ben Alpers's essay on the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie at The Edge of the American West talks a lot about the politics within the movie:

Today it’s easy to see the film, especially its sepia-toned Kansas sequences, as a kind of meditation on America during the Great Depression. But many critics at the time dismissed this aspect of the film. Jane Cobb, in her New York Times piece on the film’s youthful audience, noted that “The more cosmopolitan elements are completely out of sympathy with Dorothy’s grim determination to get back to Kansas. ‘What does she want to go back there for?’ they ask--reasonably.”
The Scarecrow expresses the same thought in L. Frank Baum's book: "I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas."

"That is because you have no brains," Dorothy answers. "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home." Showing she has a firm grasp on American clichés.

The MGM movie's shooting script has a line for Hickory, the farmhand who becomes the Tin Man, about the "contraption" he's tinkering with: “It’ll break up winds, so we don’t have no more dust storms. Can you imagine what it’ll mean to this section of the country[?]” That line would clearly have had deep resonances in Dust Bowl America. But it didn't make the final cut.

MGM wasn't as comfortable showing American poverty as other studios (e.g. Warner Bros.). In Baum's books, Uncle Henry is a small farmer with no help who eventually loses his property to the bank. In the studio's movie, he has three hands, an incubator, and too many chicks to easily count.

Alpers closes his essay with some quotations from 1939 using The Wizard of Oz as a source for political metaphors:
Even before the movie’s premiere, an August 12, 1939, letter to the editor in the New York Times compared FDR to the Wizard:
So many people believed in our President’s ability to solve the depression that he was looked upon as a doctor of economics and philosophy...The President wanted to be popular with the people and granted almost every demand to make the country happy.

It brings to mind that juvenile tale, “The Wizard of Oz.” The Scarecrow wanted brains; the Tin Woodman wanted a heart; the Lion wanted courage. The Wizard gave the Scarecrow brains of bran mixed with pins and needles. The Tin Woodman received a heart made of silk and stuffed with sawdust. The Lion was given a potion which was poured into a beautiful gold dish from a green bottle. Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the three friends exactly what they thought they wanted . . .

It now remains for the next Congress to eliminate all the pins and needles from our private economy so that we can start to pay off some of that 25 billion doctor’s bill and save a little money for the rainy day.
Conservative Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) picked up the same theme two days later. Speaking before the National Fraternal Congress, Vandenberg declared that the Great Depression cannot be ended by “any Wizard of Oz who tries to build a solvent prosperity around an insolvent treasury.”
The Times letter alluded to the Scarecrow's bran-new sharp brains in his head, and the Cowardly Lion's drink of courage--details from L. Frank Baum's book. Within a couple of generations, most Americans would be thinking of the Scarecrow's brains as a diploma and the Cowardly Lion's courage as a medal.

16 September 2008

Could Fantasy Be Presented on the Screen?

At The Edge of the American West, Ben Alpers has guest-posted an interesting and wide-ranging essay about the economics and politics of The Wizard of Oz. Not L. Frank Baum's book but the MGM movie of 1939.

Alpers writes:

On August 13, a few days before the film’s much anticipated premiere, a long, Freud-inflected meditation on fantasy, myth, and the movies penned by Wizard of Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy appeared in the New York Times. LeRoy’s article presented itself as a kind of apology for fantasy filmmaking, acknowledging how unusual The Wizard of Oz was for Hollywood, but arguing that the film stood in a great tradition going back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the films of Georges Méliès.

The Wizard of Oz (M. G. M.) should settle an old Hollywood controversy,” began Time magazine’s August 21, 1939 review of the film, “whether fantasy can be presented on the screen as successfully with human actors as with cartoons. It can. As long as The Wizard of Oz sticks to whimsey and magic, it floats in the same rare atmosphere of enchantment that distinguished Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Looking back, it's hard to grasp how risky The Wizard of Oz was, both financially and artistically. Aside from Disney and Universal's horror movies, Hollywood hadn't done fantasy well. Studios poured a lot of money into star-studded vehicles like Alice in Wonderland (Paramount, 1933) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (Warner Bros, 1935), and the results were leaden.

Even after The Wizard of Oz, Hollywood high fantasy leaned toward overloaded failures like The Blue Bird (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940). But Hollywood had succeeded at the task of presenting fantasy on screen; now its artists needed to figure out how.

The poster above is from the Smithsonian's page of Wizard of Oz-related Treasures of American History.

15 September 2008

Click Your Heels and When You Wake Up...

Fuse #8 made a little mention of a Saks Fifth Avenue window display with an Oz theme, but it came and went so fast that she couldn't take pictures. I decided to look around the web for other documentation, thinking that might make a good start for a series of Oz postings this week. But then I discovered the window contained a ruby slipper-themed display on shoes, and I began to...lose...all...energy...zzzzzzz.

14 September 2008

Further Update on “What if...I asked you to remove some books?”

Yet more information has come to light about Sarah Palin's interaction with the Wasilla, Alaska, public library while she was an elected official in that town. This comes in part from the recollection of Palin's campaign manager during her first run for mayor, Laura Chase. It appears in the New York Times's long article on Palin's governing style:

For years, social conservatives [in Wasilla, Alaska] had pressed the library director to remove books they considered immoral.

“People would bring books back censored,” recalled former Mayor John Stein, Ms. Palin’s predecessor. “Pages would get marked up or torn out.” . . .

But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves and that it did not belong there, according to Ms. Chase and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it.

“Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Ms. Chase said. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”
So to recap all we know so far: As a City Council member Palin told colleagues that a particular children's book didn't belong on the shelves, though she hadn't read it. Then she won the race for mayor on a platform of social conservatism (e.g., abortion rights raised as an issue in a municipal race). Before taking office, Palin began asking how the librarian would respond to a mayoral request to remove books. After the librarian said she would object, Palin sent the librarian a termination letter.

There was then a public protest, and Palin rescinded the librarian's termination. Palin also took no further actions toward officially removing or restricting Daddy's Roommate; Pastor, I Am Gay; or any other potentially controversial book in the public library. Nonetheless, it seems clear that with enough power she would have. Has she changed her views on constitutional rights since 1997?

Incidentally, this passage from the same article was historically interesting and helped me understand the Wasilla more:
Ms. Palin grew up in Wasilla, an old fur trader’s outpost and now a fast-growing exurb of Anchorage. The town sits in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, edged by jagged mountains and birch forests. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration took farmers from the Dust Bowl area and resettled them here; their Democratic allegiances defined the valley for half a century.

In the past three decades, socially conservative Oklahomans and Texans have flocked north to the oil fields of Alaska. They filled evangelical churches around Wasilla and revived the Republican Party. Many of these working-class residents formed the electoral backbone for Ms. Palin, who ran for mayor on a platform of gun rights, opposition to abortion and the ouster of the “complacent” old guard.

Working on His Skills

Today's weekly Robin comes from the pages of The Batman Strikes, #40, written by Matthew K. Manning and illustrated by Adam Archer. This comic book (which is about to see its last issue) tells stories within the "DCAU"--the DC Comics Animated Universe, as opposed to today's standard DC Universe.

The DCAU comics grew out of the very successful Batman TV cartoons of the 1990s, and in many ways they're like how superhero stories used to be. The content is kid-friendly, with lots of humor. Stories tend to wrap up in one or two issues. And the DCAU drawing style is simpler than in other DC comics because the artists aim for the look of the TV cartoons, which in turn aim to keep labor costs down.

Of course, it's hard to see that drawing style in these panels since Archer has drawn his figures in silhouette to emphasize the arson in the background. (Since it's a comic, those silhouettes are allowed to include the eyeholes of Batman and Robin's masks and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon's glasses, so we know where their eyes are.) These panels also have repeated images, a technique I've discussed before.

Without further introduction, Batman, Gordon, and Robin discuss the crime scene.

The Batman Strikes creative team has carried over one element of the modern DCU Batman and Robin stories that's different from the comics of the 1940s through the 1980s: nowadays, Robin is often the more mature partner.

13 September 2008

Update on “What if...I asked you to remove some books?”

Earlier this week I collected some links to news stories on Sarah Palin's inquiry about removing books from the Wasilla, Alaska, public library when she became mayor of that small city at the end of 1996. There's been some new reporting on that event, so this is an update.

On 10 September, ABC News reported that Paul Stuart, who wrote the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman article I cited before, clearly recalls hearing from the Wasilla city librarian that incoming mayor Palin had "wanted three specific books removed from the library." The librarian could neither confirm nor deny that recollection.

At the time, Palin's church (which she has since left for another) was pushing local bookstores not to stock Pastor, I Am Gay, by a minister in a nearby town. According to PolitiFact, Stuart identified that book as one of the three he recalled the librarian said was at issue, but he didn't remember the title accurately until prompted.

There's no record of an official challenge to any book in the Wasilla library at that time, not even Pastor, I Am Gay. The author recalled donating at least two copies to the Wasilla library that were soon checked out and never returned (not an uncommon way for ideologues to restrict access to books). According to WorldCat, there are no copies in the Wasilla Public Library collection today (though the library in the minister's former town has some).

The McCain-Palin campaign has tried to reframe the story of Palin's inquiries, as the AP reported this week:

He [A spokesperson] said a patron had asked the library to remove a title the year before and the mayor wanted to understand how such disputes were handled.
As noted above, there's no record of a patron challenging any book at that time. That patron became merely hypothetical when Palin herself talked to Charles Gibson on ABC:
When I became mayor, in our town was the issue of what if a parent came into a--our local public library and asked for a book to be taken off the shelf. What’s the policy?
But the record from 1996-97 shows that Palin didn't ask how the library handled challenges in general. She repeatedly framed her questions as inquiries from herself as mayor: "What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?" An explanation of policies obviously didn't satisfy Palin according to the Frontiersman article:
“This is different than a normal book-selection procedure or a book-challenge policy,” [librarian Mary Ann] Emmons stressed Saturday. “She was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can't be in the library.”
Palin went on to raise the prospect of "people...circling the library in protest about a book"--again, not the challenge process.

Furthermore, the Frontiersman reported back then, "Palin used the library topic as an example of discussions with her department heads about understanding and following administration agendas." The Anchorage Daily News stories on the librarian's subsequent firing and Palin's reversal days later both confirm that loyalty was the issue.

Palin didn't follow through on firing the librarian or having books removed. However, the more we know about this incident, the clearer it is that she would have if there hadn't been a public outcry. Furthermore, it's increasingly obvious that Palin and her campaign handlers don't tell the truth.


Pants on Fire

Back in June, I noted how Snopes.com had collected many more internet rumors, and many more false rumors, about either of the remaining Democratic candidates for President than about the Republican candidate. Even after the arrival of Sarah Palin on the national scene--an unknown figure creates an information vacuum that sucks in rumors--that pattern has kept up.

Internet rumors are often untraceable, and rarely show a direct connection to the candidates' organizations or parties. But other websites track statements from the campaigns themselves, and they're showing the same difference between the Republican and the Democratic campaigns.

PolitiFact is a website created by the St. Petersburg Times and the Congressional Quarterly which rates political statements by their truthfulness. The lowest rating is "Pants on Fire," and that page catalogues especially shameful, obvious lies.

As of this afternoon, Barack Obama's face never appears on that page, indicating that he didn't make any statements that rate such harsh criticism. Since May, when the tickets settled down, John McCain has produced four "Pants on Fire" lies. Furthermore, in that same period there have been only two whoppers from all sources about the Republican ticket, nine about the Democratic ticket.

FactCheck.org is another website that tries to be scrupulously neutral in vetting political statements. It doesn't rate statements on a "meter" of truth and falsehood like PolitiFact, but analyzes them in detail. As with the other two sites, counting the statements in recent months shows a significantly higher number of false or exaggerated statements coming from the Republicans than from the Democrats.

The McCain-Palin organization recognizes the public's respect for such organizations, enough to have created an advertisement called "Fact Check" that quoted FactCheck.org--but only in a dishonest way. As FactCheck replied:

With its latest ad, released Sept. 10, the McCain-Palin campaign has altered our message in a fashion we consider less than honest. The ad strives to convey the message that FactCheck.org said "completely false" attacks on Gov. Sarah Palin had come from Sen. Barack Obama. We said no such thing. We have yet to dispute any claim from the Obama campaign about Palin.
As Adam Reilly of the Boston Phoenix points out with some indignation, FactCheck did a roundup of reports about Palin that mixed up mainstream media and internet rumors, but still had no statements from the Obama-Biden campaign to dispute.

12 September 2008

The One That Got Away

In connection with the death of respected literary editor Robert Giroux last week, the New York Times printed Giroux's recollection (from Al Silverman's The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors) about how he didn't acquire J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

It shows old-school, handshake literary publishing coming in conflict with the business needs of a conglomerate--in 1950. Even then, there was more money in textbooks than in literary novels. Giroux's story:

He was very tall, dark-haired, had a horse face. He was melancholy looking. It’s the truth--the first person I thought of when I saw him was Hamlet.

“Giroux,” he said. I said something like, “Right. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Salinger.”

“Giroux,” he said again. “Mr. Shawn has recommended you to me. But I want to tell you that to start me out it would be much better to publish my first novel instead of my stories.” I laughed, thinking, you want to be the publisher, you can have my seat. But I said, “I’m sure you’re right about that.” And I said, “I will publish your novel. Tell me about it.” He said, “Well, I can’t show it to you yet. It’s about half finished.” I said, “Well, let me be the publisher.” And he said yes, and we shook hands. ...

A year later a messenger came to the office with a package from Dorothy Olding, Salinger’s agent. ... There on the top page I read the title: “The Catcher in the Rye.” ...

I gave [my boss at Harcourt, Eugene Reynal] the book to read. He didn’t like it, didn’t understand it. He asked me, “Is this kid in the book supposed to be crazy?” ...“Gene,” I said, “I’ve shaken hands with this author. I agreed to publish this book.”

“Yes,” he said, “but, Bob, you’ve got to remember, we have a textbook department.” And I said, “What’s that got to do with it?” He said, “This is a book about a kid going to prep school.” So he sent it to the textbook people, who read it and said, “It’s not for us.” ...
The implication is that Harcourt's textbook division thought that Catcher would be bad for business. Shortly after this, Giroux left Harcourt for Farrar & Straus, and eventually became a partner there.

Ironically, Catcher (eventually published by Little, Brown) has sold extremely well into the school market for the last fifty years. It's well written and serious, but it's also about a teenager and short--kids will love it, right? Anne Trubek recently wrote in Good magazine about "Why We Shouldn’t Still Be Learning Catcher in the Rye"--or, to be less incendiary than a headline has to be, why Salinger's novel of a depressed preppy boy in 1950 may feel as remote to today's high-school readers as David Copperfield was to Holden.

11 September 2008

Sendak as a Lion in Winter

Yesterday's New York Times profile of Maurice Sendak at 80 might be summed up as, "He's gay, but he's not happy." Which is a short way of saying that Sendak appeared just as comfortable telling interviewer Patricia Cohen "that I'm gay" as he was enjoying any other aspect of life, which is to say not comfortable at all.

This wasn't really a public coming-out. Other authors have written about Sendak's long partnership with psychiatrist and art historian Eugene Glynn: Tony Kushner in The Art of Maurice Sendak in 2003 (excerpted here) and Cynthia Zarin in a New Yorker profile from 2006. But this may be the first time Sendak brought up the question with an interviewer, and people are responding to it as news.

I'd wondered about Sendak's family life, hoping he hadn't been living like One Was Johnny, alone with his books and anxieties. But he had a long partnership with, apparently, a good temperamental match until Glynn died in May 2007.

And temperament appears to play a big role in Sendak's life and work. Most of Cohen's article is taken up with dreads named and nameless, everything from the Lindbergh kidnapping to a poor review from Salman Rushdie. He was charming, she assures us, and I've seen Sendak in front of an audience, a completely entertaining curmudgeon. But every profile I've seen describes the same rough emotional ride, and in this one Sendak comes across particularly like my grandmothers when they're fretting and unable to hear any reassurance.

Indeed, I suspect that Sendak's natural anxiety is more of a factor than the many historical events that he hangs his worries on. He's often written and spoke of the shadow of the Holocaust over his work. According to this 2004 AP dispatch archived at the Jewish News Weekly:

Sendak, his sister Natalie and late brother Jack, are the last of the family on his father’s side since his other relatives didn’t escape Europe. The only family member Sendak really knew on his mother’s side was his grandmother.
But Sendak's also stated that one inspiration for his Wild Things were frightening immigrant relatives who visited his house as he grew up in the 1930s--so there must have been more survivors on his mother's side, just not people he "really knew." The disappearance of the Lindbergh child in 1932 also predates Hitler's ascension.

Kushner wrote of those deeper anxieties, still tying them to Sendak's heritage:
Maurice is a child of the Great Depression and of Jewish Depression, if I may generalise. Jewish Depression is that inherited awareness of the arduousness of knowing God, the arduousness of knowing anything, an acute awareness of the struggle to know, the struggle against not knowing; and it is that enduring sense of displacement, yearning for and not securely possessing a home.
But even by American Jewish standards, Sendak is a world-class fretter. I suspect he would fret no matter what historical period he lived through, and would fret--albeit in a different way--no matter what culture he was raised in.

Of course, being gay in mid-20th-century America, even in New York art circles, would have increased Sendak's sense of unease. Not just keeping his partner private from his mother, but wondering what the people who criticized In the Night Kitchen for showing a naked boy would have said if they'd known.

Pulling all this together, I end up wondering about Sendak's thoughts on passing on the family name, a Jewish tradition even for people who don't perceive their family to be in constant danger. Sendak didn't raise children--not an option for him and Glynn. (And at least that meant fewer things to worry about.) But his decades of artistry have made a huge impact on children, and have made the Sendak name both famous and beloved.

10 September 2008

From Pig Farms to the Snacks Aisle

From the Boston Globe's recent interview with Randy C. Papadellis, chief executive of Ocean Spray:

What exactly are craisins?

Ten years ago, craisins were basically what we were giving away to pig farmers as feed. Now they've become the fastest growing and most profitable part of the business. Craisins are the cranberry hull--after we've extracted all the juices. We reinfuse a little juice back in, combine it with a little bit of natural sugar cane, and call it sweet and dried cranberries, or a craisin.

How did it become such a big business?

For most of its existence, it was a baking ingredient sold along chocolate morsels in the baking aisle. A couple of years ago we made the marketing decision to reposition it as a healthy snack, kind of what raisins have been doing it for years. So we moved it from the baking aisle to dried fruit aisle and the produce section. Over the last few years, we've gone from producing 20 million pounds of sweet and dried cranberries to 115 millions pounds by the end of September.
When I was a kid, we didn't have craisins. I occasionally ate a small bowl of raw cranberries with white sugar sprinkled on top. And liked it.

09 September 2008

“What...if I asked you to remove some books?”

As long as I'm talking libraries and attempts at censorship, I might as well continue. Yesterday's example involved a patron: i.e., bottom-up pressure. More disturbing is pressure from the top down.

On Friday, Rindi White of the Alaska Daily News wrote about Sarah Palin's inquiries, as she became mayor of her home town of Wasilla, into whether she could remove books from the public library if she objected to their content:

In December 1996, Emmons told her hometown newspaper, the Frontiersman, that Palin three times asked her--starting before she was sworn in--about possibly removing objectionable books from the library if the need arose.

Emmons told the Frontiersman she flatly refused to consider any kind of censorship. . . .

When the matter came up for the second time in October 1996, during a City Council meeting, Anne Kilkenny, a Wasilla housewife who often attends council meetings, was there.

Like many Alaskans, Kilkenny calls the governor by her first name.

"Sarah said to Mary Ellen, 'What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?'" Kilkenny said.

"I was shocked. Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the line of, 'The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.'"

Palin didn't mention specific books at that meeting, Kilkenny said.

Palin herself, questioned at the time, called her inquiries rhetorical and simply part of a policy discussion with a department head "about understanding and following administration agendas," according to the Frontiersman article. . . .

Books may not have been pulled from library shelves, but there were other repercussions for Emmons.

Four days before the exchange at the City Council, Emmons got a letter from Palin asking for her resignation. Similar letters went to police chief Irl Stambaugh, public works director Jack Felton and finance director Duane Dvorak. John Cooper, a fifth director, resigned after Palin eliminated his job overseeing the city museum.

Palin told the Anchorage Daily News then that the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor's job, which she'd won from three-term mayor John Stein in a hard-fought election. Stein had hired many of the department heads. Both Emmons and Stambaugh had publicly supported him against Palin.

Emmons survived the loyalty test and a second one a few months later. She resigned in August 1999, two months before Palin was voted in for a second mayoral term.
In response to popular interest, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman dug its 18 Dec 1996 story out of its archives, retyped it, and posted it here.
Emmons said in the conversations with now-Mayor Palin in October [1996], she reminded her again that the city has a policy in place. “But it seamed clear to me that wasn't really what she was talking about anyhow,” Emmons added. “I just hope it doesn't come up again.”
Another story from the Alaska Daily News in January 1997, quoted in this Salon article by Glenn Greenwald, reported on how Mayor Palin was dealing with the controversy that her termination letters produced. She responded by doing what's become rather familiar behavior in the week that she's been a national figure: make a statement that sounds nice but wasn't truthful.
Palin said she planned to meet with Stambaugh and Emmons this afternoon. She also disputed whether they had actually been fired. "There's been no meeting, no actual terminations," she said.

Stambaugh's response was to read part of the letter given to him.

"Although I appreciate your service as police chief, I've decided it's time for a change. I do not feel I have your full support in my efforts to govern the city of Wasilla. Therefore I intend to terminate your employment. . . . "

"If that's not a letter of termination, I don't know what is," he said.
Finally, the Alaska Daily News has reprinted the story it originally ran on 1 Feb 1997 about how Mayor Palin had gone through with firing the police chief but rescinded the termination of the librarian. There's no record Palin ever ordered books removed. As a politician, she seems to have great instincts for pulling back from unpopular initiatives and grabbing onto popular ones, and library censorship isn't widely popular. But by raising the possibility as she did, Palin established her social-conservative credentials with voters and her authority with city employees.


08 September 2008

Wedding Crashers in Colorado

Last week I received snapshots of one of my college roommates getting married to his boyfriend of several years in a small ceremony in in San Francisco. They had to travel to California from Illinois because only some states protect any couple's access to marriage. (Congratulations, Charles and Eric!)

On the same day, I received a press release about a challenge to one library's copy of Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen. I learned about this book last year when I introduced Sarah at the first Belmont Children's Picture Book Festival. It's about a little girl (guinea pig) worried that she'll lose the company of her favorite uncle (guinea pig) when he gets married (to another guinea pig).

Because both the guinea pigs getting married wear tuxedos, it's obvious that they're both male. (It's also obvious that tuxedos don't flatter an adult guinea pig's figure. Going in another direction, Charles and Eric appear to have been the most casually dressed people at their own wedding.) And the sight of two males getting married has been enough to produce...two challenges to the Douglas County Libraries, centered in Castle Rock, Colorado.

Librarian Jamie LaRue addressed his patrons' concerns in two thoughtful letters, which he also posted on his blog. The first attracted many comments, most of them complimentary and some not--which LaRue again answered politely and thoughtfully.

LaRue is also author of The New Inquisition, a book for librarians on how to consider and respond to patron challenges like this. Deb Price's column, printed in the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times, characterizes LaRue's attitude this way:

Through his decades as a librarian, LaRue has come to believe that censorship attempts are usually rooted in parental grief at the prospect of losing control over their children's world.
Or control over their children an autonomous thinkers.

One of the most vituperative commenters, I see, has been blocked from Wikipedia for incivility, inability to compromise, and creating a "sock puppet" pseudonym. Not surprisingly, his issue then was the same as his issue now: objections to any sign that American society is becoming more open to gay couples.

On LaRue's blog that commenter offered imaginary children's books on marijuana smoking and prostitution as false analogies to Uncle Bobby's Wedding. LaRue's replies were impressive in how well he understood how kids might see those issues if their parents or other beloved relatives were involved. The commenter clearly didn't care about young readers thinking.

07 September 2008

All Virtues Are Tough, Old Chum

In all my weekly Robin postings, I've said very little about the Batman TV show that cemented the character in so many people's minds in 1966-1968. And that's because it means very little to me. For whatever reason, when I was a young boy I didn't watch this show, and if you didn't watch it as a young boy you're exempt.

Batman reruns therefore hold no nostalgic power over me, as they do for British Batman scholar Will Brooker. Nor do I resent, as some fans do, how the show cemented the mid-1960s campy version of Batman in most people's minds, even after the Batman comics moved in a more serious direction. The show is what it is.

College drama student Burt Ward was cast as Robin. After that show, Ward went on to...not much. He was typecast. And perhaps not talented or ambitious enough as an actor to overcome that obstacle. So Ward continued to make appearances as Robin, titled his self-published memoir Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights, and snagged RobintheBoyWonder.com as his official website.

Ward performed with all the enthusiasm left over from Adam West's deliberate and deliberately stiff line readings as Batman. (West had experience as a straight man in the Three Stooges feature The Outlaws Is Coming! Not as good as The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, but I digress.) As most of the cast emoted, West stood out by quietly investing even the most trite or ridiculous lines with freighted meaning. And that meant Batman's supposedly meaningful lines received enough gravitas to bend light.

Which brings me to "Batman Lecturing Robin", a list of quotes from the show that appears on so many webpages that I can't tell who compiled it. It preserves such dialogue as:

Robin: "You can't get away from Batman that easy!"
Batman: "Easily."
Robin: "Easily."
Batman: "Good grammar is essential, Robin."
Robin: "Thank you."
Batman: "You're welcome."

Robin: "Boy! That was our closest call ever! I have to admit that I was pretty scared!"
Batman: "I wasn't scared in the least."
Robin: "Not at all?"
Batman: "Haven't you noticed how we always escape the vicious ensnarements of our enemies?"
Robin: "Yeah, because we're smarter than they are!"
Batman: "I like to think it's because our hearts are pure."

Robin: "Where'd you get a live fish, Batman?"
Batman: "The true crimefighter always carries everything he needs in his utility belt, Robin."
In punctuation terms, Ward delivered almost all of Robin's lines with exclamation points! West's line readings seemed to be...spread out...over ellipses.

Despite the camp, there are surprising pearls of wisdom in this compilation:
Batman: "That's one trouble with dual identities, Robin. Dual responsibilities."

Batman: "Nobody wants war."
Robin: "Gee, Batman. Belgravia's such a small country. We'd beat them in a few hours."
Batman: "Yes, and then we'd have to support them for years."

Robin: "Self-control is sure tough sometimes, Batman!"
Batman: "All virtues are, old chum. Indeed, that's why they're virtues."
And as long as I'm emptying my thoughts on Burt Ward as Robin, I'll mention a record I learned about from JB's Warehouse Music Annex. In 1966, Ward released a 45rpm single of two songs: "Boy Wonder, I Love You," supposedly based on his fan mail, and "Orange Colored Sky," originally sung by Nat King Cole. (The record company must have been attracted to the "Flash! Bam!" part.)

The arranger and conductor of the music, and composer of the A-side song, was Frank Zappa. Here are his deathless lyrics:
Boy Wonder, I love you
Boy Wonder, I love you
Ooh ooh ooh

Hi, kids! It's me, your pal, the Boy Wonder, taking this opportunity to catch up on my fan mail. Even as a Boy Wonder it's really hard to read all the tons of mail I get. Here is a happy letter from someone just about your age:

"Dear you, wonderful, fabulous, magnificent, exquisite Boy Wonder, A cold chill runs up my spine everytime I see you sock a villain, and, oh, how I cry when you're even scratch. Please, don't send me a mimeograph copy of interesting facts about you, I want your handwriting. I have a whole wall on my room dedicated to you.

"Oh, Boy Wonder, I'm making a gum wrapper chain to symbolize my love for you. It's going to be as long as I am tall, and I'm 5 foot 10 inches in stocking feet. Please, Boy Wonder, PLEASE, come next Saturday and sleep for a week or two. I will feed you breakfast in bed, I will make your bed for you, and I like you so much that I want you to spend the whole summer with me.

"(I hope you know this is a girl writing.)"
(swoon, shriek)

Boy Wonder, I love you
Boy Wonder, I love you
Boy Wonder, I love you
Boy Wonder, I love you
According to this site, there are still two unreleased tracks from Burt Ward in 1966: "Teenage Bill of Rights" and "Autumn Love". I'm not holding my breath.

06 September 2008

Where I Went on My Summer Vacation, part 3

Another of the sites I visited in Britain this summer was St. Mary's church in the parish of Putney on the south side of the Thames. I didn't attend services there. My father and I had food at the café (an appurtenance that seems to be almost required for English churches now) and visited a small exhibit about the Putney Debates.

In 1647, during the English Civil War, some of the victorious Puritan army met at Putney to debate the shape of the new England government. The first day's session took place in the church (which has been considerably rebuilt since). Some men spoke for nearly universal male suffrage, freedom of religion, and other then-radical ideas.

As it turned out, those discussions were cut short by Charles I's escape from custody. They had little influence on Cromwell's government, and, since the detailed notes weren't rediscovered and published until 1890, no influence on the US Constitution or other steps toward republicanism in the English-speaking world. Still, those documents show such ideas were in the air in 1647, long before society was able to act on them.

Later this summer, St. Mary's at Putney welcomed New Hampshire Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, in England for a meeting of Anglican bishops from all over the world but not welcome at that meeting because he's publicly gay. The BBC has footage of a heckler from outside the parish disturbing Robinson's sermon, and here's the bishop's blog response, which brings it all back to the café.