Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Guest Post: Snobbery and Geekery

I’ve always thought of myself as a literary snob. I’ve got the credentials to prove it. Beyond those, I’ve stuck steadfastly to the notion of quality first and literary fiction only. But lately I’m not sure that my pomposity has served me well. Once I might have rejected everything even remotely smacking of genre out of hand. But even Boychik lit, and that’s about as opposite to literary snobbery as you get, is providing pleasure for me. Add to that my growing stack of audio books which even includes Grisham’s latest (and I'd always been particularly snooty about him, mainly because he earns more than I do), a couple of science fiction novels on their second time round, and my son’s pre-read young adult book, and I’m going to have to throw in the snob towel. Am I growing stupid? Am I following the shortening attention span of the public? Nah. I still love most (not all) of the Man Booker shortlist, and I still love the well turned phrase. Poetry is still my favourite literary form, and there hasn’t been a Julian Barnes novel I didn’t read twice. But I’m not sure I can use genre to define my reading habits anymore. It's just the usual broadening that comes with age (I'm not talking about my bottom).

I’m not entirely sure what the opposite of Boychik lit is. I know most people will say chick lit, but I don’t think that’s correct: chick lit might be parallel, but the rules are completely different and it certainly isn’t opposite. Maybe the opposite would be serious female fiction. But there are all sorts of connotations to the word “serious” that I no longer like in my new egalitarian clothes. Serious smacks of dullness, difficulty, intensity. And since my next novel is going to be funny (that’s my funny, which is a little black), I’m not going to slide in that direction. Instead, I’m going to go the way of all geeks and talk about forms of reading that don’t involve a physical book in the hand. Why? Because I went to bed for the past week with The Lord of the Rings playing on my i-pod, and it had a dramatic impact on my dreams. I also spent some of my time last week immersed in an electronic book of poetry. No, not on the um, Kindle. Instead I used my AA1. That’s a netbook or small laptop for those of you not as geeky as I am. Mine is Linux too (instead of Windows), and you don’t get geekier than that. I've become quite attached to it. When I finished my poetry book, I just downloaded another (in this case, a Penguin classic Jane Austin). Both books were .pdf and easily obtained from multiple vendors. There were no issues with formatting, no high purchasing costs (review copies actually, but the poetry book retails from the publisher for about $2 and the Austin is available free on Gutenberg) – I was able to bookmark and annotate and write my review all on the same machine I read on. Then I did some work on my next novel on the same machine. Best of all, it fits in my small handbag. Acer didn’t pay me to write this (though I'm open to it), and they didn’t provide me with the netbook free of charge either. At $320, it was cheap as chips though, and once they manage some kind of electronic paper screen (e-paper) as a standard or optional extra, I’m sure ebooks are going to replace the reading book. That's the kind of book you read, rather than book as artefact – there will always be a place for a beautiful edition on the shelf. But at least it will only be one shelf.

Of course at the moment the paperback is still a reasonably current sort of technology, and I'm old, so I do like holding one in my hands (still like vinyl too -- CDs just don't have the whole flip side/cover art thing going -- I don't buy them anymore though and they're awkward to store). Considering that I've got print books 3 deep on my 5 or so bookshelves and stacked in boxes under the bed, the benefits of electronic reading (and listening) are starting to seem significant. In the meantime, I’ll share my reading time between the old fashioned product, and the latest gadgets. It won’t have a jot of impact on the real test of quality: the simple response of a reader to wonderful words. That's timeless and technology independent.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything, and three other poetry chapbooks, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She also runs the podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

LA Opera Review - All A-Twitter!

Walter Braunfels' The Birds

Your country has just been humiliated in a disastrous war, in which it was the aggressor. A weak coalition of progressives and moderates has taken over the government, but they are printing so much money to pay the huge war debt that hyperinflation is sure to follow. Right-wing fanatics are just waiting for the opportunity to take over. You and your countrymen are looking for a way to repair your lost ideals and establish a new national identity and recover a sense of pride. You want to be optimistic, but you fear no matter what you try, the fates are allied against you.

It's Germany in 1920 (full review here)

(Photo by Robert Millar courtesy LA Opera)

Monday, April 6, 2009

G&G Review Die Walküre at LA Opera

Last Saturday night, Georja and I did our habitual gig stringing for LASplash.com and took in almost five hours of Die Walküre, the second installment in Richard Wagner's "Ring Cycle."

When I mention these exercises in cultural appreciation in this blog, I try to find some linkage to the theme of sexual politics to justify taking up space here. In the case of this opera, the accompanying press photo says it all. Designer-director Achim Freyer has Sieglinde (Anya Kampe) and Siegmund (Plácido Domingo) costumed literally as two halves of a whole. In the story, Siegmund is the mortal warrior-son of top- god Wotan, and, unbeknownst to Siegmund at first, Sieglinde is his estranged twin sister. To complicate matters, Sieglinde is married to the broad-chested, narrow-minded Hunding, who conveniently for the sake of dramatic conflict happens to be a loyal member of a clan that has sworn death to Siegmund.

(Photo by Monika Rittershaus)

So when battle-weary Siegmund literally stumbles onto the cozy hearth of Sieglinde and Hunding -- infatuation, recognition, love, adultery, incest, procreation, and death occur in rapid succession.

By all rights, Siegmund should be able to simply take what he wants in this situation. He is, after all, Wotan's son, and he is as certain as she is that Sieglinde is the only one for him. And to add to his worthiness, he is the only one who can pull the magic sword out of the ash tree in Sieglinde's backyard. The sword has defied all comers until now, having been stashed there by Wotan years ago against just such a needful contingency.

So it is doubly unfair that Wotan intervenes in the inevitable battle between Siegmund and Hunding, breaks the magic sword with his even-more-magical spear, and leaves our unfortunate hero exposed so he gets Hunding's knife in the back. And dies, as mortals do with such dramatic flourish.

Why did Wotan betray his son? Two reasons: First, because his wife Fricka (goddess of marriage) says the order of the universe won't be preserved unless the adultery-incest is punished. Second, because Siegmund's demigoddess half-sister Brünnhilde has defied Wotan and tried to save the young man -- another defiance of the natural order that keeps the gods in power.

But the story doesn't end there. One of Siegmund's lucky thrusts has made Sieglinde pregnant. After the expectant father's death in the battle with Hunding, Brünnhilde rescues and shelters Sieglinde. In the next installment of the Ring Cycle, baby Siegfried will grow up to become a powerful warrior himself, and he will rescue Brünnhilde from the bonds of Wotan's condemnation.

And those two will hook up. (Wagnerian audiences apparently didn't need the explanation, but let's just say Brünnhilde is placed in "suspended animation" so she's not an old hag by the time Siegfried is old enough to lust after her.)

What's it all mean? You could say that the universe really doesn't care much about human preoccupations with morality. Squeezing out the optimal next generation is the important thing.

Hitler was supposedly a big fan of both Wagner and his telling of this story. He wasn't much concerned with morality either.

If this isn't grist for sexual politics, I don't know what is. You can read our review of Die Walküre here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

One More Reason to Envy the French

Remember those ads for contraptions that train your pet to do it in the toilet? And then flush?

It's so like the French to take a different, less capital-intensive, approach. If you believe this street poster in Aix-en-Provence, the dogs of that village clean up after themselves. These savvy Gallic canines take it upon themselves to execute a "swipe of the paw for a cleaner city."

(Photo by the author)

So I'd say if this result is any indication, perhaps Mr. Sarkozy's advice on the banking crisis should be studied more carefully.

Then again, it's difficult to see how anyone can be motivated to clean up their own shit without some significant stimulus.

How I Approach Book Reviews

What should I do if I agree to write a review but I think the book, ah, lacking in merit?

In a public review, I either emphasize some aspect I found interesting or use some topic in the book to spin off into a related discussion on something that genuinely interests me.

Then, if there are obvious flaws the writer needs to know about, I send him/her a private email and I'll be frank. But even then it's usually along the lines of, I'm sure your second novel will be stronger now that you've gotten this out of your system. And actually, many first novels are throat-clearing for what comes next. I never want to be any writer's excuse for putting the pen down.

If the writer is more experienced and I didn't like the book, it probably has a lot to do with choice of subject matter or approach. Those are matters of taste and I have no trouble whatever saying what turned me off in my review. A good example would be my recent dual review of The Tourist and The Spanish Game (previous post on this blog).