Sunday, 28 February 2010

Lenten literature...

It may have only been eleven days, but I'm sure there are many already guiltily reaching for the biscuit tin and raiding the cupboards. Self-imposed rationing is a painful thing, both for those doing it and also for their friends, whose duty it is to listen to all the subsequent complaining, albeit whilst tucking in themselves. It's Lent again, and a small ounce of discipline is all that stands in the way of losing a few pounds, but for many characters in literature the lack of food is not through choice. From Dickens to Tolkein, this latest Guardian quiz examines the various degrees of literary starvation.

On this day...

American author Daniel Handler, better known by pseudonym Lemony Snicket, was born in 1970. Having followed a reasonably usual education route, graduating from university in 1992, Handler attempted to publish under his own name. Yet having had his first novel, 'The Basic Eight', rejected 37 times due to the dark nature of its subject matter, Handler decided to acquire an alias, and chose to use Lemony Snicket.

The name has since been given a family history, a personal story, which includes felonies and secret societies, and the honour of narrating Handler's most famous works, 'The Series of Unfortunate Events'. The thirteen books, revolving around the lives and the ever increasing misery of circumstances of three orphans, have been translated into 41 languages and, as of May 2007, have sold 55 million copies. Handler has since further blurred the distinction of reality, by making several television appearances in which he is said to be Snicket's handler, or Snicket himself. Handler's next work, will be an adult novel about pirates.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock...

A man appeared in court yesterday, on charges of stealing a £3 million Shakespearian 'First Folio'. Published seven years after Shakespeare's death, the folio dates back to 1623 and is the only reliable source for at least 20 of his 38 plays. The world's largest collection of 'First Folios', 79, is located in the Folger Library in Washington D.C., and it was here that the investigation started which led to Raymond Scott's arrest. A man in possession of the book, which he claimed to have found in Cuba, walked into the library to enquire if it was genuine. Experts suspected it was stolen and tipped off the British Embassy and FBI. Scott, an antiques dealer, is accused of stealing the folio from Durham Universiy in 1998, and yesterday pleaded not guilty to all charges.

On this day...

Romantic poet Lord Byron made his maiden speech at the House of Lords in 1812. Receiving his peerage at the age of 10, upon the death of his great uncle, Byron did not actually take his seat in the House until the age of 23. In the few years previous, Byron had been abroad on a 'Grand Tour' including Albania, Greece and Portugal, a journey customary for such noblemen.Yet in was in 1812 that Byron first spoke in Parliament, and on an issue, supposedly close to his heart, or a least, close to his birthplace.

The Luddite 'frame-breakers' in Nottinghamshire had taken to destroying the texile machines, products of the industrial revolution, that were putting them out of work. Under a new Tory bill, such workers would face the death penalty, and it was against this 'most unparalleled distress' and 'squalid wretchedness' that Byron spoke. Opponents thought the speech not 'at all suited to our common notions of Parliementary [sic] eloquence', and even Byron himself thought he came across as 'a bit theatrical'. As it happened, the publication of 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' less than two weeks later, ensured Byron's success was in the poetic, rather than political, field.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Bones falling apart?....

Last week saw the release of 'The Lovely Bones' in UK cinemas. The film is an adaptation of Alice Seabold's 2002 novel of the same name, in which a murdered girl narrates from heaven. Starring such names as Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, it is directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson, of 'The Lord of the Rings' fame.

Despite an original budget of $15 million, the film has received mixed reviews, many of which are indeed negative. 'An expensive-looking mess that fails to capture the mood, and the poetry, of its source material', is not an unusual comment amongst critics, yet the film has graced several award nominations lists. 'Screen Actors Guild Awards',  'Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards' 'The Golden Globes' and even the latest 'Academy Awards' have recognised the film, however, it must be said that this is mainly for actor Stanley Tucci. It is too early to determine the film's success, but it might not be long before the questions start coming.

On this day...

English playwright Christopher Marlowe, was baptised in 1564. Although the exact dates of neither man's birth is known, Marlowe arrived just two months before his great contemporary and rival, William Shakespeare. Gaining his place on a scholarship, Marlowe was educated at Cambridge and received his degree in 1584. However, three years later, when Marlowe was due to receive his Masters, the university under the impression of a Catholic conversion, hesitated to award it to him, resulting in an intevention by the crown. His 'good service' and 'faithful dealing' to the Queen has led to much subsequent speculation, some even suspecting him of being a secret agent in Sir Francis Walsingham's intelligence service.

Marlowe's literary career began at much the same time. 'Tamburlaine', Marlowe's first major work, is one of the first English plays to have been written in blank verse, and is considered by many, alongside Thomas Kyd's 'The Spainish Tragedy', to be the beginning of mature Elizabethan drama. Numerous succesful works followed, including, 'The Jew of Malta', 'The Massacre at Paris' and 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus'. Yet it is, perhaps, Marlowe's death which has aroused most interest for scholars over the years. On May 30th 1593, Marlowe was stabbed in a Deptford inn. Quite why this happened, no one is sure. Some speculate it was a row over the bill, others, that it was connected to his arrest only 10 days before. Regardless, Marlowe will go down in history as a true genius of his craft.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Short stories ooze diversity...

It is a long title, yet is one, conversely, rewarding succinctness of prose. Nominations for 'The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award', have been announced. Former glamour model, Kay Sexton, who used to pose for risque calenders before finding a talent in writing,is just one of 20 authors to be long-listed for the award. Perhaps unusually 6 of the names are actually award-winning poets, including  Jackie Kay and John Burnside. Indeed diversity seems to be a priority, with a gender split of 13 women to 7 men, ages from 28 to 78, and residences from New Zealand, America and Zimbabwe. The £25,000 prize will be awarded at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival on March 26th.

On this day...

John Burgess Wilson, published under pen name Anthony Burgess, was born in 1917. More than just a novelist, Burgess excelled in fields of poetry, drama, criticism, linguistics, translation, and even music, composing over 250 musical works. Only months after his first birthday, tragedy hit the Wilson household, as both young Anthony's mother and sister died within four days of each other. This, said Burgess, led him to being 'either distractedly persecuted or ignored' by a father who resented him for having survived.

Denied doing music at university, sue to poor physics grades, Burgess went on to graduate in English, yet was soon enrolled in the services. Here, Burgess' flair for languages was utilised by army intelligence, and indeed from that time, Burgess was frequently involved in a teaching capacity. Following posts in Malaysia and Borneo, Burgess published his work famous work, the dystopian novel, 'A Clockwork Orange', in 1962. Although not perhaps met with wild enthusiasm at the time of publication, the novel is now considered a modern classics, and was voted by 'Time Magazine' as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Rushdie reveals all...

Salman Rushdie, is planning to write a book about the decade he spent in hiding. 2008 marked the 20th anniversary of the publication of 'The Satanic Verses', a novel which provoked street protests and book burnings across much of the Arab world. For many believed the book to have insulted Islam, and indeed Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, issued a fatwa against Rushdie, calling for his execution.

Such was the threat to Rushdie's safety, that, under police protection, he spent the next 10 years in hiding. 'It's my story, and at some point, it does need to be told. That point is getting closer, I think', said Rushdie. Indeed, as comments John Howells of Waterstones, 'The ironic thing is that this may be his most commercial book in years...this is one of the most fascinating chapters in recent literary history, and cannot but have affected Rushdie as a writer and as a man'.

On this day...

London's Drury Theatre, already in its third incarnation, burnt down in 1809. The site itself dates back to 1663, making it London's oldest theatre, yet following first a fire, then demolition, then another fire, the building today is the theatre's fourth. The particular installment that burnt down in 1809, had only been built 15 years previously, in an attempt to increase the capacity and therefore success of the theatre. This was duly achieved, and £160,000, 3,600 spectators and five tiers of gallery later, the building was completed.

Yet disaster was close at hand. Following a failed assassination attempt on King George III in 1800, a frequent visitor to the performances, the theatre was razed to the ground only nine years later, spelling ruin for the, already financially unstable, owner, Richard Sheridan. The Grade I listed building, now owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has received the support of aforementioned royalty, diarist Samuel Pepys, Poet Laureate Colly Cibber and, in  recent times, Monty Python. 'Oliver!' is the current production performed at the theatre.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich...

Old news it may be, but still worth a look. Last week, the shortlist for the 'Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year' was announced. A hotly contested title, there have been two occasions, since the award's conception in 1978, that no prize has been given out as no title title was deemed odd enough. Voted for by the public since 2000, the prize last year, saw more votes than the 'Best of Booker Prize'. The current champion is 'The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais', but these are the contenders for this year.....

  • 'Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter' by David Crompton
  • 'Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich' by James A Yannes 
  • 'Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes' by Daina Taimina 
  • 'Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots' by Ronald C. Arkin 
  • 'The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease' by Ellen Scherl and Maria Dubinsky
  • 'What Kind of Bean is This Chihuahua?' by Tara Jansen-Meyer
The winner will be announced on March 26th and will receive either a magnum of champagen or a bottle of claret.

    On this day...

    The Gutenberg Bible, thought to spark the 'Gutenberg revolution' of printed books, was traditionally first printed in 1455. Often cited as the first Western book to have been printed using movable type, they were produced by Johannes Gutenberg in his famous press of Mainz, Germany. Preparation of the book is said to have begun soon after 1450, yet it was not until 1454 or 1455 that the first copies were available. Such a time lapse is due to the enormous labour that just one Bible required.

    Each Bible was made up of 49, 290 sheets of paper, themselves imported from Italy for quality, and each sheet contained approximately 2600 characters, a single one of which might take a craftsman a day to cut. It is therefore of no surprise that only 180 copies were made, 135 on paper and 45 on vellum. As of 2009, 47 of the Bibles were known to survive, 21 of which were complete. 8 of these are located in Britain, in the illustrious locations of the British, Bodleian, Eton, University libraries to name but a few. Such beautiful, but complicated volumes undoubtedly had influence on future books and editions of the Bible alike.

    Monday, 22 February 2010

    British literary festivals get new investment...

    Baillie Gifford, an independent investment firm, has announced that they will be sponsoring some of the UK's biggest literary festivals in 2010. With assets of around £55 billion at the end of last year, the firm are certainly in a position to be active in the promotion of literature throughout the country. Starting with the Bath Literature Festival, which opens on February 27th, Baillie Gifford will support seven festivals in total, including those in Cheltenham, Edinburgh and Windsor. They will also support the newly named, 'Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Award'. The marketing director of the firm said, 'We like to believe in a correlation with the dilliegence and imagination that sucessful writers bring to the creative process and what we bring to investments here at Baillie Gifford'.

    On this day...

    The Republican Party opened with its first national meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1856. The GOP, or 'Grand Old Party', sits on the right of the American political spectrum and has boasted such presidents as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reegan and, latterly, the Bush family. Often considered strong on defence and international affairs, the party can be seen as advocating traditional values and of course, tax reduction.

    Of course, as with many American companies, musicians and celebrities, writers are often allied with one of the two major political parties. Among the supposed Republican contributors are: Thriller writers Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler, crime author Patricia Cornwell and even teenage favourite Stephanie Meyer. Clancy in particular has donated vast sums of money and has even been mentioned in conjunction with office. On the other side of the aisle, horror writer Stephen King, blockbuster John Grisham and civil rights activist Maya Angelou are seen to be prominenet supporters. Yet whatever party, whichever political affiliation, American writers are some of the best in the world.

    Sunday, 21 February 2010

    Books in BAFTA...

    It's the film award season again, and the preview to the Oscars, comes in the shape of the BAFTAs. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts, will this evening present awards to the best actors, actresses, designers, composers and writers to honour the latest cinematic year. Many of this year's nominees, as with so many successful film franchises, find their roots in the literary world.

    • 'An Education' - based on 2009 memoir by Lynn Barber
    Nominated for: Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Leading Actress, Supporting Actor, Costume, Hair & Make-Up
    • 'Up in the Air' - based on 2001 novel by Walter Kirn
    Nominated for: Best Film, Adapted Screenplay, Leading Actor, Supporting Actress (twice), Editing
    • 'Precious' - based on 1996 novel 'Push' by Sapphire
    Nominated for: Best Film, Adapted Screenplay, Leading Actress, Supporting Actress

    Numerous others join the list, and as the stars arrive, everyone waits in anticipation to see whether they are justly rewarded.

    On this day...

    Highly influential political work 'The Communist Manifesto'. was published in 1848. It was supposedly authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, yet the latter himself somewhat disputed this, saying; ' the basic thought... belongs solely and exclusively to Marx...Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented'. Published in London by a group of German refugees in 1848, its popularity spread to the extent that within a few years, the work had been translated into numerous European languages, most notably an English edition two years later. The manifesto itself, is divided into three sections, with a conclusion:
    • Bourgeois and Prolaterians 
    details how the Proletarians will one day rise to power through creation of unions
    'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles'  

    • Proletarians and Communists  
    defends communism from various attacks and outlines short-term demands 
    'Political power... is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another'

    • Socialist and Communist Literature
    distinguishes communism from other socialist doctrines which fail to recognise the role of working class
    • Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties
    briefly discusses communist positions in countries such as France, Switzerland, Poland, and Germany 
    'Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution'

      Saturday, 20 February 2010

      Is Potter just plagiarism?...

      'Harry Potter' publishers Bloomsbury could face legal action over claims that J.K. Rowling stole her ideas for the best-selling series. Earlier this week, the estate of Adrian Jacobs, extended its claim, originally filed against Bloomsbury, to include the author herself. A spokesperson for the estate said, 'we believe that she personally plagiarised the Willy the Wizard book...all of Willy the Wizard is in "The Goblet of Fire"...we now have a case which is not just against Bloomsbury.'

      Claims surround an episode in the Rowling novel, in which Harry is required to solve a task as part of a contest, which he achieves in a bathroom by the aid of clues. A similar episode is to be found in Jacob's 36-page work. Rowling challenged the suit, saying, 'I am saddened that yet another claim has been made that I have taken material from another source to write Harry. The fact is I had never heard of the author or the book before the first accusation by those connected to the author's estate in 2004; I have certainly never read the book'.

      On this day...

      Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier was born in 1927. Altough without obvious immediate literary connections, Poitier's exploitations in the film world had an undeniable impact on literature, ensuring both greater sales and interest. Growing up on remote Cat Island, Poitier's parents made a living by selling tomatoes and other farm produce. At the age of 17, and with the hope of theatrical success, Poitier moved to New York and indeed won a place at the American Negro Theatre, yet was criticised for his perceived lack of ability to sing or dance.

      Nevertheless, Poitier's subsequent acting career, is something to be admired. The star of such films as 'The Defiant Ones', 'To Sir, with Love' and 'In the Heat of the Night', all of which are novels, Poitier hit the heights when he became the first black person to win an Academy Award. This he achieved in 1963, for 'Lilies of the Field', a film based on the eponymous book by William Edmund Barrett. Poitier's consequential fame and international reknown, led him to being named the Bahamian ambassador to Japan, and, on August 12th last year, him being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

      Friday, 19 February 2010

      War Horse charges on...

      It is nominated for a Laurence Olivier award. The Queen, Prince Philip and Prince William have all seen it. Now, hit West End play, 'War Horse' is set transfer to Broadway. First performed at the 'National' in 2007, the adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's book generated huge success, and earned itself a booking at the 'New London Theatre' until February 2011. Yet the month after, the play will move to 'New York's Lincoln Center' and it is already reported that Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights, ensuring continuing publicity for many years to come.

      On this day...

      British author Helen Fielding, was born in 1958. A graduate of English at Oxford, Fielding entered the commercial literary field through a media and journalistic route. Armed already with a group of comic writers and performers as friends, including Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, Fielding worked first on the BBC, especially their Sports Relief initiative, and then Thames TV.She then opted for a change of medium, spending the next nine years as journalist and columnist on several big-name London newspapers, such as 'The Sunday Times', 'The Telegraph' and 'The Independent'.

      Indeed, it is 'The Independent' that forms the backbone of her wider literary success. It was here that, as an anonymous column in 1995, 'Bridget Jones's Diary' started life, eventually spawning two bestselling novels, and two even more successful movie adaptations, starring the likes of Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. The novels themselves, have been published in over 40 countries, and have sold over 15 million copies, becoming, according to the Guardian, one of the ten novels that best defined the 20th century.

      Thursday, 18 February 2010

      Donmar's new directors...

      The Donmar Warehouse is to launch a new scheme promoting the work of young directors. For 12 weeks per year, graduates of the Resident Assistant Director (RAD) scheme will be able to showcase their talent at the Trafalgar Studios under the banner of the Covent Garden theatre. The scheme, regarded as the most prestigious training programme for young directors in the country, already has a fine pedigree in producing the director of the future, having given rise to names such as Sam Buntrock and Rupert Goold. This latest initiative will take place for three years, with the first three names being Charlotte Westenra, Chris Rolls and Roisin McBrinn.

      On this day...

      'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' was first published in America in 1885, two months after it hit British and Canadian shelves. The novel, written by Samuel Clemens under the frequently used pen-name of Mark Twain, and considered one of the 'Great American Novels', is the first major work of American literature to be written in the vernacular. The protagonist had previously been introduced in Twain's 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' and narrated two subsequent adventures, leading many to believe that Twain intended the novel to be a sequel.

      Two decades on from the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, the novel explores themes of racial prejudice, often depicting the white characters as selfish, stupid or even violent. Thus it incurred much controversy, the Concord Libray dismissed it as 'tawdry' and 'coarse', lending itself better to 'slums than to intelligent, respectable people'. Such a reception earned it the title of fifth most challenged book of the 1990s in the United States. Yet, it was not without praise. Ernest Hemmingway deemed it 'the best book we've had' from which 'all modern American literature comes'. 

      Wednesday, 17 February 2010

      What fools these mortals be....

      Almost 50 years after her last performance for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Judi Dench has once again taken to the stage. Sir Peter Hall's production, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, portrays the Queen of the fairies, Titania, as Queen Elizabeth I, who is in love with the theatre. The play, hugely popular in sales, yesterday received its first press reviews. Overwhelmingly in praise of the production, they included the such remarks as; 'Dench can send a thrill of wonder through a line of Shakespeare like wind rippling through a field of wheat' and 'Hall's latest production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is exquisitely well judged in its light-footed, lucid, poetically persuasive, wonderfully funny and brilliantly well-spoken way'.

      On this day...

      American journalist and author, Randy Shilts died in 1994, at the age of 42. Shilts' talent for writing became evident at a young age. Having majored in journalism at the University of Oregon, Shilts went on to become an award winning managing editor for the university's newspaper. Yet at the age of 20, he publicly came out as gay, a decision which was to have major repercussions, as he subsequently struggled to find a job in a homophobic media industry. After several years of freelance work, and a stint at the 'San Fransisco Chronicle', Shilts found his niche in novel writing.

      'The Life and Times of Harvey Milk' was Shilts' first published novel, recounting the career and assasination of the gay politician. Such was the effect of the book, that it was made into a film in 2008 - a Sean Penn work, that won two Oscars and gained a further six Academy Award nominations. Likewise, his second major work, 'And the Band Played On', was also adapted for the big screen, attracting high profile cast members such as Richard Gere, Ian McKellen, Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda. Tragically, it was AIDS, a disease that Shilts had played a great part in bringing to the attention of the public, that claimed his life at such a young age.

      Tuesday, 16 February 2010

      Hey Jude, don't carry the world upon your shoulders...

      It almost seems boring, it's now so predictable. But the amount of theatre awards being won by the same people are only testament to the skill of their craft. Once again this weekend, it was Jude Law and Rachel Weisz who came out on top, both winning a award for their performances in 'Hamlet' and 'A Streetcar Named Desire' respectively. The Shakespearian tragedy won on all fronts, with Sir Patrick Stewart picking up best supporting actor and the play itself being voted the best Shakespearian production. Rowan Atkinson and 'Oliver!' co-star Jodie Prenger also received awards for best musical role and best supporting actress respectively. In a slight twist, these awards were voted for by the public, but it seems critic or layman, they just can't enough of Rachel and Jude.

      On this day...

      Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard', was published in 1751. Known as one of the 'graveyard poets' of the late 1700s, along with Oliver Goldsmith, Christopher Smart and William Cowper, Gray wrote the poem in a graveyard of a church Stoke Pages, Buckinghamshire. Its stoic and reflective tone endeared it to the British public upon its publication, and also leant it to being translated into Latin and Greek.

      It is still one of the most fequently quoted poems in the English language, and indeed a passage was used by General James Wolfe in the Seven Years War to rouse his troops. Such was the poem's success, it was the most reprinted poem of the 18th century, that Gray was offered the post of Poet Laureate in 1757 upon the death of Colly Cibber, yet he refused. The poem has donated several phrases into the English lexicon, including; 'paths of glory', 'kindred spirits' and 'far from the madding crowd', which Hardy famously used for the title of one of his novels.

      Monday, 15 February 2010

      O! For a Muse of fire....

      Booking for Henry VIII has opened today at the Globe, as, of course has every other performance in the 'Kings and Rogues' 2010 season. Yet it is this play, one of Shakespeare's lesser known histories, that holds special significance for this most spectacular of theatres. On June 29th 1613, a cannon, fired for means of a special effects during a performance of Henry VIII, set the theatre's thatched roof alight, and caused the entire building to be razed to the ground ‘all in less than two hours, the people having enough to do to save themselves’. The structure was rebuilt a year later with a tiled roof, yet it seemed to have lost its magic, and it was demolished in 1644 for housing. Now, 397 years after the original incident, with thatch reinstated and sprinklers installed, the play will once again take to the stage; hopefully the fireworks will only be in the performance.

      On this day...

      Miep Gies was born in 1909. A name that you may not have heard of, yet one whose actions have echoed throughout the decades. Although an Austrian citizen by birth, at the age of 11, Gies moved to Holland, escaping the food shortagesthat existed as the remenents of World War One. By 1933, she had begun to work at 'Opetka', a spice company run by German Otto Frank. Gies' extensive knowledge of both Dutch and German became a useful tool in helping the Franks assimilate into society and she was soon close friends with the family.

      The friendship that was forged was tested, yet prove to be ever-enduring, as Gies and her husband helped to hide the Franks from the Nazi patrols for over two years. When the Franks were eventually found and arrested in the Summer of 1944, Gies retrived Anne's diary before the authorities could empty the hiding place, and preserved it, giving it to Otto after the war. Gies' extraordinary humanitarian efforts have since been rewarded, receiving German, Dutch and Israeli honours and even having a minor planet named after her. She died earlier this year, at the age of 100.

      Sunday, 14 February 2010

      Love is in the air...

      Love. The subject for emotive prose and simpering poetry, rich drama and intimate letters. Writers throughout the ages have been its biggest supporters and critics, with few failing to express their opinion on the subject. And so, on Valentine's Day, it seems apt to see what some of them have to say..
      • 'It's better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all' - Alfred Lord Tennyson
      • 'The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved' - Victor Hugo
      • 'Love is the irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired' - Mark Twain
      • 'At the touch of love, one becomes a poet' - Plato
      • 'Keep love in your heart.A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead' - Oscar Wilde
      • 'Love is a springtime plant that perfumes everything with its hope, even the ruins to which it clings' - Gustav Flaubert
      • 'Love is only a dirty trick played on us to achieve continuation of the species' - W. Somerset Maugham

      On this day...

      English writer Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, died in 1975, at the age of 93. Better known as 'Plum' to his family and P.G. Wodehouse to his readers, he barely saw his parents in his first few months of life, a trend that was perpetuated by numerous boardings schools throughout his adolescence. Wodehouse was marked down for Oxford, yet the failing of the Indian rupee, the currency of his father's pension, meant that this was not feasible.

      Instead, Wodehouse found himself a prolific contributor to a variety of magazines, including 'Punch', 'Vanity Fair', and the 'Daily Express'. During the World War Two, Wodehouse took up residence in France, and, doubting the seriousness of the conflict, found himself a prisoner of war. Thus followed a controversy with the Germans, which ended up in the author being roundly criticised by fellow writer A.A. Milne and even MI5. Influencing the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Rudyard Kipling and Salman Rushdie, Wodehouse's most famous works from his 96 books, include the 'Blandings Castle' and 'Drones Club' series.

      Saturday, 13 February 2010

      Politics and romance, a potent combination...

      Louise Bagshawe is in the running to win Romantic Novel of the Year Award. An extraordinary achievement, yet nothing too revolutionary. However, Bagshawe, unlike most potentially award winning writers, is also a prospective parliamentary candidate. The Conservative's nomination for Corby and East Northants will soon get used to competing against others for the the ultimate prize, and she faces no tougher field than in the literary world.

      Whilst Bagshawe's 'Passion' has given romance 'a new twist', Rachel Hore, Lucy Dillon, Jean Fullerton, Santa Montefiore and Miranda Dickinson have all got strong entries, making this year's prize provide 'a taste of the broader church of what romantic fiction is'. The winner will be announced on March 16th, but as for the election, who knows?

      On this day...

      'Peanuts' the comic strip made its last appearance in 2000, the day after writer Charles Schulz's death. First published in 1950, the comic strip actually found its origins two years earlier, published under the name 'Lil' Folks'. After confusion between names of similar comics, it was rebranded 'Peanuts', a name which Schulz hated, saying of it; 'It's totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing, and has no dignity'.

      Yet it became a major success. Debuting in eight newspapers, its popularity grew exponentially. At its peak it was published in over 2,600 newspapers, courting a readership of 355 million in over 75 countries, and was translated into 21 languages. Schulz often used it as a medium for social criticism, touching on religious, gender, and equality issues, as well as the Vietnam War. The birthplace for Snoopy and Charlie Brown, both highly succesful commercial entities, the comic strip received critical acclaim, even debuting on the cover of 'Time' magazine.

      Friday, 12 February 2010

      Jacqueline Wilson's library monopoly...

      Dame Jacqueline Wilson has been revealed as the most borrowed author of the decade. Figures, from the Public Lending Right, has shown that Wilson's books have been taken out of libraries across the country more than 16 million times since the year 2000. Wilson's 'The Story of Tracy Beaker' has come in as the single most borrowed book of the decade, with other Wilson titles such as 'Double Act' and 'The Suitcase Kid' close behind. Danielle Steel, Catherine Cookson, Josephine Cox and James Patterson complete the top five, with the Harry Potter series borrowing figures steadily growing.

      On this day...

      Christopher McCandless, subject of biographical work 'Into the Wild', was born in 1968. The child of rich yet argumentative parents, McCandless received a first class education and graduated from Emory University with a major in history and anthropology. Yet shortly afterwards, taking inspiration from writers Leo Tolstoy and W.H. Davies, McCandless began a quest for a period of separation, and, after donating $24,000 to Oxfam, set off.

      Under the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp, McCandless travelled from his home in California and two years later found himself in Alaska. During the trip he had often little or no food or human contact, taking pride on survivng with the minimum amount of preparation and equipment. Ignoring advice to the contrary, McCandless set up camp in a abandoned bus with few supplies, believing that foraging and hunting, of which he had no skill, would be sufficient to support him. Yet racked with hunger and with no map to aid him, his body was found on September 6th 1992 weighing just 30kg. His journey is the subject no only of Jon Krakauer's book, 'Into the Wild', but also a 2007 film of the same name.

      Thursday, 11 February 2010

      Is this a dagger which I see before me?...

      'So, thanks to all at once and to each one, whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone'. Thus ends Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'. But what does happen after the curtain closes? With Banquo dead, Macbeth killed and Malcom heir in waiting, how will Scotland fair? It is these questions which the Royal Shakespeare Company are attempting to address in their new play, 'Dunsinane'.

      The work is written by award-winning playwright David Grieg, who believes; 'to some degree for Scottish writers, it's always felt a little bit cheeky that unquestionably the greatest Scottish play was written by the great English there is a slight sense of answering back'. He also hopes that it demonstrates parallels with current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where 'men with good intentions going in and trying to coerce a culture to follow its own rules without quite understanding that foreign culture', and encourages modern political leaders to come and watch the performance. The play is on in the Hampstead Theatre until March 16th, and tickets can be purchased here

      On this day...

      Poet and artist Elizabeth Siddal died in 1862, at the age of 32. Siddal developed a love of poetry from a young age. It is said that this stemmed from discovering a portion of a Tennyson work on a piece of newspaper used to wrap butter. Yet at the start of her life, Siddal had not the means to pursue such a career, and instead she worked in a hat shop. It was here that she, 'a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness', was discovered by the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and thus she went on to become one of the famous muses in the art world.

      Painted by all three, William Holman Hunt, John Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it was arguably to Millais that she made the greatest contribution. Whilst posing for his masterpiece, 'Ophelia', she endured icy temperatures float in a bath tub, eventually contracting pneumonia for her efforts. Yet it was Rossetti that she was to marry, and as well as considering aiding his work, she began to develop her own career, even finding funding in the form of art critic John Ruskin. However, following the marriage, Siddal became depressed and addicted to laudanum, a drug that was to tragically end her life. Rossetti buried her with a manuscript of poetry, which he then later published.

      Wednesday, 10 February 2010

      Hamster Massacre wins over the critics...

      The winner of the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize has been announced today. Katie Davies, married to comedian Alan Davies, was honoured for her 'funny and touching story', 'The Great Hamster Massacre'. The book is based on her own childhood experiences, when her hamsters killed two of their litters in an event Davies merely describes as 'disappointing'. Other contenders were BAFTA winning writer Laura Summers and Suzanne LaFleur. Davies, who received £5,000, will publish her next book in a pet-related tetrology, 'The Great Rabbit Rescue', later this year.

      On this day...

      Colourful American playwright Arthur Miller, died in 2005 at the age of 89. Born the son of an illiterate yet prosperous businessman, Miller and his family suffered greatly at the hands of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and he was forced to work numerous jobs merely to fund his education. Yet when there, he seized the opportunity and began to write in earnest, authoring reviews, theatre productions and radio plays.

      It was widely speculated that Miller, by this time, had become a member of the Communist Party, and such allegations plagued him all his life, no more so than after the publication of allegory 'The Crucible'. Indeed he was found in contempt of Congress on related charges, a trial he attended with then wife Marilyn Monroe. Yet despite the controversies, glamorous marriages and dubious political affiliations, it should be for his works that Miller is best remembered. Undoubtedly one of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century, Miller penned such plays as, 'Death of a Salesman', 'A View from the Bridge' and 'All My Sons', winning the Pulitzer Prize whilst doing so.

      Tuesday, 9 February 2010

      Golden oldies...

      A new campaign has been launched in order to encourage the elder generation into penning down their thoughts. The government funded Bookbite project, which wants to create a generation of 'silver scribblers', has the backing of former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. He believes it to be a 'terrific idea', saying that; 'writing reminds us that the life of the imagination offers its rewards at all times of life'. Such an initiative is on the back of successes by elder novelists such as Marina Lewycka, who was 59 when she wrote her bestselling work 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian'. With publisher HarperCollins suggesting that a 'very high number' of over 50s are aspiring authors, Bookbite will distribute more than 100,000 magazines through charities such as Age Concern.

      On this day...

      American author, Alice Walker, was born in 1944. The youngest of eight, and the child of a farmer earning only $300 a year, Walker found herself in poor circumstances. As an African American, such circumstances were exaggerated further under the Jim Crow Laws; one white plantation even suggested to Walker's mother that blacks had 'no need for education'. Yet fortunately, Walker's mother refused to abide by such social rules, and indeed sent her to school a year early.

      However, at the age of eight, a shooting incident marred Walker's childhood, leaving her permanently blind in one eye and with disfiguring scar tissue. It was then that Walker turned to writing, using it as a solace to which she could escape; an experience which allowed her to 'really notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out'. One of the most profound effects on her work, was that of meeting Martin Luther King while a student, and political activism is at the forefromt of many of her novels. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Walker's most notable work is 'The Color Purple'.

      Monday, 8 February 2010

      Hollywood's finest vie for West End title...

      The nominations for the Laurence Olivier Theatre Awards have been announced today. Among the names are those who now are seemingly synonymous with awards. Rachel Weisz and Gillian Anderson are pitted head to head in 'Best Actress' category, for their roles in Williams' 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' respectively. The contenders for 'Best Supporting Actress' are similarly strong, including Ruth Wilson for her work alongside Weisz, and Hollywood star Keira Knightley for her performance in newly opened play 'The Misanthrope'. A theatre awards ceremony cannot proceed without recognition for a famous personality in the guise of Shakespeare, and so it is not surprising that Jude Law is nominated for 'Best Actor' as the Danish prince himself, Hamlet. The winners will be announced at a ceremony in London on 21 March.

      On this day...

      French author Jules Verne was born in 1828. Known as the 'father of science fiction', along with contemporary H.G. Wells, Verne developed an appetite for travel early on in his life, spending summers with the ships of the Loire River. So fascinated was young Jules, that he attempted to sneak aboard a vessel bound for India, only to be caught and whipped by his father, and hence declared, 'I shall from now on only travel in my imagination'.

      This he did with aplomb, yet his expanding literary career ensured the withdrawal of parental financial support, as his father had wished him to enter law. Nevertheless, Verne found support in two of the great French writers of the age, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, and found fortune with publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, one of the most important members of his trade in the 19th century. Verne's works, all voraciously adapted, concentrate on travel in space, underwater, and air; indeed he was, in technological fields, advanced for the age. Some of his most recognisable novels include, 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea', 'A Journey to the Centre of the Earth', and 'Around the World in Eighty Days'. Behind Agatha Christie, Verne is the most translated author.

      Sunday, 7 February 2010

      The glittering career of a postmistress...

      As yet another episode of ever popular 'Lark Rise to Candleford' airs tonight, it appears an appropriate moment to examine the career of actress Julia Sawalha. As postmistress Dorcas Lane, she has produced her own band of followers, yet she has assumed numerous other roles of literary consequence. Her first notable role was that of Mercy Pecksniff, in an adaptation of Dickens' picaresque novel 'Martin Chuzzlewit', a work which he proclaimed to be his best.

      She followed this success with arguably her most well-known role, that of Lydia Bennet in the phenomenon that was the BBC's 'Pride and Prejudice'. Starring alongside Colin Firth, she played the youngest of Austen's Bennet sisters, who eloped with the dashing Captain Wickham. Most recently, she appeared in Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Cranford' as Jessie Brown, daughter of the railway entrepreneur. The drama, led by Dame Judi Dench, made its appearance just months before 'Lark Rise to Candleford', shot Sawalha to the level of screen recognition she enjoys today. And thus will she continue for many a year yet.

      On this day...

      French author Emile Zola was brought to trial over an editorial piece written for the Parisian newspaper 'L'Aurore' in 1898. In an open letter to the French president, then Felix Faure, Zola's article condemned the government for their perceived antisemitic and unjust stance over an issue of military exoneration. Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus was, at the time of writing, serving a life sentance in an island prison on account of espionage; accusations which had later surfaced to be false.

      Yet the army had suppressed the evidence and innocence, and so it was left to Zola in 'J'Accuse', to expose their mistakes. In an affair that deeply divided sections of both the Church and society, Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel and 16 days later was sentanced to one year's imprisonment. Instead he chose to flee to France to England, where he spent an unhappy year until his return in 1899. Dreyfus was not pardoned until 1899, and even then not exonerated until 1906. The issue is still one of some contention.

      Saturday, 6 February 2010

      Six Nations of literature...

      With the Six Nations kicking off today, it seemed an apt opportunity to take a look at the literature produced by these countries, which is some of the best in the world.

      Italy - Starting with the Latin writings of Ovid and Tacitus, Italian literature spans an enormous period and is considered some of the finest. Continuing with Dante and his 'Inferno' in the Middle Ages and the sonnets of Petrach, modern Italian literature still remains in the form of the the late Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco.

      France - Dumas, Flaubert, Zola, Proust; the list is endless. More so than other national literature, the French canon contains numerous philosophical works, the products of Camus, Jean Paul Sartre and Jean-Jacques Rosseau. Drama exists in the shape of Moliere, and France expressed an important voice in Roland Barthes.

      Ireland - Irish literature really found its feet in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bursting forth with the dual force of playwrights Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, Ireland's literary claim was strengthened through the poetry of Yeats and Goldsmith and its place cemented with the prose works of Joyce.

      Wales - Although probably for many, the most famous Welsh writer is poet Dylan Thomas, the literature of Wales is far more diverse. No more so for the strength of works written in its own language, by authors such as William Owen Roberts. Many English writers such as Manley Hopkins have used Welsh subject matter.

      Scotland - Scotland's most recent wave of literary tradition came in the Romantic era under the eye of Robert Burns and Walter Scott. Yet it was the Victorian era which propelled it into public eye, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie all becoming household names; Duffy now being the latest.

      England - Possibly one of the richest literary histories, all that can be said for England is a list of names. The playwrights; Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson. The poets; Milton, Keats, Shelley, Byron and Tennyson. The novelists: Hardy, Austen, the Brontes, Woolf, Dickens, Forster, Eliot and most recently, Rowling.

      So there you have it. Competitors on and off the rugby field. Tradition not only in sport but in literature. Long may it continue...

      On this day...

      John Steinbeck's novella, 'Of Mice and Men' was published in 1937. Following on from the success of 'Tortilla Flat', Steinbeck's newest book was very much in keeping with the themes which had, and would continue to dominate his works. Born in Salinas in 1902, the Great Depression and its effect on the 'American Dream' concept haunted Steinbeck and so manifested itself in literary form. 'Of Mice and Men' exemplifies this, the narrative following two migrant ranchers in search of work, and the struggles and hardships they encounter. Now required reading in numerous school systems, it had previously been a target for censorship, and indeed is listed as the fourth most challenged book of the 21st century by th American Library Association. The novella was written in such a way as to ease transferral to stage, and subsequently many adaptations have followed, the first in the same year as its publication.

      Friday, 5 February 2010

      Lost in translation?...

      From Chekhov to Ibsen, from Dumas to Cervantes, European literature is a genre which has never disappointed. Yet although widely read since the Middle Ages, is it losing a place in today's market, increasingly flooded by transatlantic offerings? Thriller writers John Grisham and Stephen King both appear more popular than dusty, old classics in bookshops, but, in fact the sale figures do not hold this to be true. Russian literatary favourites, Tolstoy and Pushkin triumph over both in the best-selling fiction authors of all time, the former shifting over 413 million sales and the latter 357 million. In their new podcast, the Guardian explores the issues surrounding translated texts, and suggests what to read next

      On this day...

      Scottish critic and writer Thomas Carlyle died in 1881, at the age of 85. Born to a strict Calvanist family, Carlyle was brought up in the expectation that he would become a preacher. Yet Carlyle lost his faith at university, whilst retaining the sense of Christian morality; and so he became the embodiment of the Victorian struggle between religion and science. Following the study of German literature, including Goethe and Fichte, Carlyle began to persue his own literary career, publishing his first major work, 'Sartor Resartus', in 1832. Preceding the development of New England Transcendentialism, the work was an attack on English Utilitarianism, using a fictional German 'philosopher of clothes' to explore them.

      Meanwhile, Carlyle had married Jane Welsh, a woman of letters; yet their union was said to be unhappy. Indeed novelist Samuel Butler said of them; 'It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four'. Carlyle's works, including 'The French Revolution' and 'Heroes and Hero Worship', would go on to influence later commentators, such as John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold.

      Thursday, 4 February 2010

      Anton Chekhov's 150th celebration....

      As written on January 29th, this year sees the 150th anniversary of Anton Chekhov's birthday. The playwright and short story author is considered part of the 'golden age' of Russian literature, ranking among contemporaries Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin. As such, across the media spectrum, Chekhov's works are being rediscovered and reinvented in honour or the great man.

      A production of 'The Three Sisters', is currently being performed at the Lyric Hammersmith, starring Romola Garai, the recent lead role in the BBC's 'Emma', as Masha Prozorov.

      BBC Radio is producing numerous programmes about the writer, ranging from readings of his work, to examining his influences of the modern writer.

      Finally, the Guardian has a quiz on the author to determine knowledge of the author and his works.

      On this day...

      James Fenimore Cooper's historical novel 'The Last of the Mohicans' was published in 1826. The second installment in the 'Leatherstocking Tales' pentalogy takes place in 1757 during the Seven Years War, in which the French allied themselves with Native American tribes against British control. The subsequent racial issues which the novel raises, have combined with masterful characterisation to create one of the most popular works from the nineteenth century, and one which remains an integral part of any American literature courses.

      However, its critical acclaim is not consistent from all sides. Many have disliked the particularly verbose narrative style which Cooper employed, and indeed its popularity has dwindled slightly in modern audiences for that very reason. Mark Twain believed this style, which Cooper used for his other works, was detremental, saying, 'Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115... It breaks the record'. The novel has seen many adaptations, the most recent of which was a film in 1992, starring Daniel Day Lewis.