Thursday, 30 September 2010

Puffin's Birthday books...

To celebrate 70 years of Puffin publishing literary classics, 6 of their most popular titles are receiving makeovers, including 'The Secret Garden', and 'Treasure Island'. A complete set of the Puffin Designer Classics is being auctioned on eBay in aid of the Guardian's Ugandan development project, Katine.

On this day...

Australian writer Patrick White died in 1990, at the age of 78. An ill boy, White was unable to join in with many of the fun and games that form childhood, ensuring instead, a highly developed imagination. He was never particularly close to his parents, and was sent to an English boarding school at the age of 12, allowing him to explore all the delights of the London theatrical scene. After attempting to pursue a career working on the land back home, White decided to stay in England, studying French and German literature at Cambridge, and using his father's inheritance to begin writing and publishing.

His literary exploits were briefly halted during the war, where he joined the RAF and met life partner Manoly Lascaris, a Greek army officer. Yet his work soon began gaining national recognition, and he won two Miles Franklin Literary Awards, declining a further one, was named Australian of the Year, and in 1973, became the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In typical fashion, White used the money to found his own literary prize, the Patrick White Award, which honours those who have not yet gained any real recognition for their years of literary service. This year, his novel 'The Vivesector' was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Bennett's mastermind...

He is best known for such creations as 'Talking Heads' and 'The History Boys', yet this week, Alan Bennett became a mastermind specialist subject. Here you can hear the man himself answer questions on his works.

On this day...

Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547. Little is known about Cervantes early life, bar baptism records, and the first glimpse we get of him is as a 22 year-old soldier in the Spanish navy. Hvaing been shot with three bullets in battles against the Turks, he was captured by Barbary pirates, ransomed after 5 years in captivity. Back in Spain, Cervantes married a girl 18 years his junior and worked sporadically, first as a purchasing agent for the Armada, and later as a tax collector. It wasn't long before Cervantes was again incarcerated, this time for irregularities in his accounts.

The adventure of his life was such, that any autobiographical work would have become an instant hit, but as it was, Cervantes turned his hand to ficiton, writing over 20 plays, and publishing his first major work 'La Galatea'. Yet his masterpiece, and, many argue, the first modern novel, is picaresque writing 'Don Quixote', called by Dostoevsky, 'the ultimate and most sublime work of human thinking'.

Yet Cervantes has interesting parallels with a writer closer to home. It seems that Shakespeare was influenced by Cervantes' work, so much so, that the Spanish author has even entered the Shakespeare authorship question, with some believing they were the same person, others believing that Francis Bacon wrote both. To complete the link, they both died on the same day, April 23rd 1616, leading UNESCO to designate it the International Day of the Book.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Gaskell gains rightful place...

Browning, Chaucer and Dickens are among many names honoured in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner, yet the name of Elizabeth Gaskell has been strangely missing from the monuments. That is, until now. The author of 'Cranford' took her place on Saturday, just four days before the bicentenary of her birth, and was celebrated by over 200 people including her great-great-great granddaughter Sarah Prince. Gaskell now has a panel of a magnificent stained-glass window dedicated to her memory.

On this day...

John Milton's 'Comus' was first performed for the Earl of Bridgewater in 1634. One of only two dramas that Milton wrote, the masque outlines the themes of good and evil, later explored in his masterpiece 'Paradise Lost'. Some see this as the Puritan Milton attempting to reclaim the genre for more virtuous purposes than it had otherwise been used during the Elizabethan and early Jacobean eras. The performance of 'Comus', based on the Greek god of festivity and revels, was given at Ludlow Castle in honour of the Earl's new position of Lord President of Wales, and many of the parts were acted by Bridgewater's own children.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Banned books...

This week sees the American Libraries Association celebrating Banned Books Week. Designed to celebrate the freedom of speech of which Americans are so proud, the event highlights the harms of censorship by detailing the most challenged books of the year. The ALA reports that there were 460 attempts in 2009 to have a book withdrawn from a library or classroom, accompanied by angry emails from parents such as 'What gives you the right to take away my child's innocence?'.

The 10 top most challenged books of 2009 include some old classics as well as new releases. They are:

  • ttyl, ttfn, l8r, g8r (series) by Lauren Myracle: Drugs, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson: Homosexuality
  • The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: Anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group
  • Twilight (series)by Stephenie Meyer: Religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult: Drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexism, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group, violence
  • The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier: Nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

On this day...

Ernest Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms' was published in 1929. Serialised in Scribner's magazine from May to October of that year, the semi-autobiographical novel took its title from a 16th century George Peele poem. The plot is formed from Hemingway's World War One experiences, focusing on indivual tragedy to accentuate the futility of the war as a whole, and thus perhaps offering a cynical commentary on American patriotism.

Yet writing the ending to the novel was not an easy process. Unhappy with his work, Hemingway sent off his manuscript to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who sent back 9 pages of revisions with the comment, 'our poor old friendship probably won't survive this but there you are...'. Hemingway's response was to write on the bottom of the page, 'kiss my ass'. The novel has been adapted for the screen twice, in 1932 and 1957 respectively.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Downton Abbey - the new Gosford Park?

Sunday sees the premier of this year's latest period drama. Although 'Downton Abbey' is not based on a novel, the writing is sure to be superb, with author Julian Fellowes having won an Oscar in 2002 for the screenplay of 'Gosford Park'. Set in a country house in 1912, the drama follows a typical 'upstairs downstairs' theme, juxtaposing the aristocratic Crawley family with their secretive servants to critque Edwardian society. Starring Dame Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville among others, the drama will be on at 9 o'clock on ITV. A trailer can be seen here

Friday, 24 September 2010

On this day...

British author and politician Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Oxford was born in 1717. Cousin of Lord Nelson, and son of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, Walpole's early life was somewhat mapped out for him. He was educated at Eton, then Cambridge, and following a Grand Tour with poet Thomas Gray, Walpole assumed his seat in Parliament. Yet beside his political career, which was, by all accounts, never particularly ambitious, Walpole pursued a number of other interests, chiefly architecture and writing.

His lasting architectural creation is Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, a building which he errected in the gothic style and which prompted the Victorian trend for the design. It was here that he had his own printing press, and indeed his most famous literary work reflects the building in which it was published. 'The Castle of Otranto', published in 1764, is widely acclaimed to be the first gothic romance novel and started the genre which was later to produce such works as 'Wuthering Heights' and 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'. Walpole died in 1797 at the age of 79.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

A passion for literature...

Everyone knows the feeling of opening that book which sends a thrill down your spine, that evokes a passion for literature stronger than before. In this video, writers for the Guardian and the Observer share the book which started off their literary journey.

On this day...

Russian author Leo Tolstoy married Sophia Andreevna Bers, the daughter of a court physician, in 1862. At the age of 34, Tolstoy was almost double the age of his 18-year-old bride. The evening before their wedding, Tolstoy is reputed to have given Bers his diaries detailing an extensive sexual past and a son born to the one of his serfs. The first few years were seemingly hapy ones, and during the course of their marriage Sophia bore him 13 children, 5 of whom later died.

These were some of the most literary productive years of Tolstoy's life, and Sophia acted as his secretary, proof-reader and financial manager, whilst he wrote masterpieces such as 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenia'. Yet marital bliss was not to last forever, and Tolstoy's spiritual adventures left the relationship in tatters. He attempted to give away all the rights to his works, yet his wife managed to salvage the copyright for all works published before 1880. As Tolstoy became increasingly radical, Sophia is reported to have carried out hysterical attempts to starve and drown herself.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Risque Milton?...

Though best know for his religious and political literary works, a new poem attributed to John Milton has been found, which may dramatically alter his reputation. Filled with innuendo, 'An Extempore Upon A Faggot', is 'out of tune' with Milton's usual style, prompting the suggestion that his name was used by a jealous contemporary to bring scandal upon the poet. The work, found by academics at Oxford in the 'Harding Collection', will soon be digitised to be available for the public to view.

On this day...

British playwright Ben Jonson was indicted for manslaughter in 1598. During a duel on Hogsden Fields, Jonson killed fellow actor Gabriel Spenser and was subsequently incarcerated in Newgate Prison for a short while. It was the wit and intelligence shown so frequently throughout his works, that ensured Jonson managed to escape punishment.

Using a loophole-ridden Tudor law, Jonson was able to claim 'benefit of the clergy', by reciting Psalm 51, commonly known as the neck-verse, and thus was able to stand trial in the far more lenient ecclesiastical courts. In order to make sure that Jonson was not able to claim such rights for a second time, his left thumb was branded.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The queen of crime...

Hercule Poirot and Miss, Marple are almost ingrained into the British culture, as is their creator Agatha Christie. Yet, like her writings, much of Christie's life still remains a mystery. Following her birthday last week, here is a quiz on the 'queen of crime'.

On this day...

J. R. R. Tolkein's 'The Hobbit', was published in 1937. Set in the fictional land of 'Middle-Earth', Tolkein's novel began when he found an empty page in between school certificates, and penned the famous first line, 'in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit'. Not long after, he had written a whole manuscript, and, having sent it to friends, including fellow writer C.S. Lewis, it was published five years later.

Such was the novel's immediate popularity, that by December of the same year, all 1,500 copies, complete with a Tolkein's own illustrations, had been sold, and publishers were already demanding a sequel be written. Despite not being available for lengthy periods of time, due to wartime paper rationing, the book has been translated into over 40 languages and remains a children's classic.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Scotland's Chamber of Secrets...

The final book may have been published, but Hary Potter fans have been handed another exciting unveiling. Original handwritten manuscripts by author J.K. Rowling are going to be displayed to the public for the first time in Scotland this week. Donated by Rowling in 2005 to help fund a Scottish language dictionary, the two pages are  extracts from the series' second novel 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' which didn't make it into final publication, including The Ballad of Nearly Headless Nick.

The works are being displayed as part of the Wigtown Book Festival, running form 24th September - 3rd October. This is a major scoop for a relatively small festival, and Potter fans must seize the opportunity, for as Gerrie Douglas-Scot, co-ordinator, said: 'this is a one-off exhibition and contrary to belief it is not on a world tour'.

On this day...

Robert Greene's 'A Groats-Worth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance' was published in 1592. Although he had died three weeks prior, the pamphlet was to become Greene's best known work, mainly for its references to a young William Shakespeare. Quoting lines from 'Henry VI, part 3', Greene wrote; '"...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey'.

Greene's 'groat', equivalent in the day to a fourpenny coin, appeared to be that Shakespeare was a plagiarist, but many commentators believe that it was merely a written expression of jealously. So extravagant was Greene's outburst, that it has even been speculated, by critics such as Stephen Greenblatt, that he may have been the model for Shakespeare's jovial Falstaff. 

Monday, 13 September 2010

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows...

The image of slighted Duke Prospero conjuring a storm on the shores of the island, is one of Shakespeare's most memorable. Yet what if it was not Prospero, but Prospera? Dame Helen Mirren is set to turn the tables by starring as a female version of the protagonist in a new film adaptation of 'The Tempest'.

The idea for the change was instigated by Mirren herself. She says, 'All the relationships shift because she is female. There's the maternal relationship with her daughter - rather than a patriarchal one. She is a lot more vulnerable herself because she understands Miranda's emotional life and need for romance...I am actually convinced that were he [Shakespeare] writing in the modern day, he would have made Prospero into a woman'. Also starring Russell Brand and Alfred Molina, the film was shot on a Hawaiian island, and is set to be released in December.

On this day...

Children's author Roald Dahl was born in 1916. Although raised in Cardiff, Dahl's ancestry lay in Norway, and tales of summer visits back to his native land are recounted in autobiographical work 'Boy: Tales of Childhood'. Indeed, many of his stories find their origins in Dahl's youth. 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' was the result of Cadbury's sending boxes of new chocolates to his school to be tested by the pupils, and Dahl dreaming of concocting his own creations.

Once he left school, Dahl became an employee of Shell, transferring to their Tanzanian branch, where he lived in comparative luxury. Like so many others, Dahl became embroiled in the Second World War, his five aerial victories in Africa, earning him the title of 'flying ace'. Dahl settled down after the war, marrying and having five children, yet two later died, and he dedicated the 'BFG' to one. Dahl's best known works include, 'James and the Giant Peach', 'Matilda', and 'George's Marvellous Medicine'. He died in 1990, at the age of 74, and was buried with snooker cues, chocolate and HB pencils.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Scott's lost poem...

A poem by Sir Walter Scott, previously unpublished, is to read in public as part of the 'Scottsland Programme'. 'The Hills of Killearn' had been kept for 200 years in the care of the Baillie-Hamilton family of Cambusmore House, alongside 9 nine letters written to an associate of Scott. The emergence of these documents celebrate the 200th anniversary of Scott's poem 'The Lady and the Lake'. 

On this day...

American poet Hilda Doolittle, more commonly known as H.D., was born in 1886. The daughter of a University of Pennsylvania professor, H.D. attended a Quaker school in her youth, meeting poet Ezra Pound at the age of 15. Pound was to have a significant influence on her life, presenting her with a book of love poetry entitiled 'Hilda's Book' in 1905, and eventually becoming engaged to her two years later. However, due to her father's displeasure, the engagement was broken off, and H.D. began her literary career, publishing stories in the local church paper. Following a journey to England, she showed her recent works to an impressed Pound, who formed, with Richard Aldington, 'the three original Imagists'. They set out their aims:
  • Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective.
  • To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  • As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome
H.D. later married Aldington and they had a child together, but the couple became estranged, leading to her having numerous affairs with both men and women. The remainder of H.D.'s life became an entanglement writing, relationships, turmoil, leading her to visit and befriend Siigmund Freud, becoming his patient in a bid to better understand herself. Influenced heavily by Japanese and Classical motifs, H.D.'s best known works include 'HERmione' and translations of dramatists such as Euripides. H.D. died in 1961 at the age of 75.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Man Booker explained...

In the aftermath of the Booker Prize shortlist announcement, critics have raised numerous questions about the suitability of several of the choices. Chair of the judges Andrew Motion, has already stated that they 'didn't set out to be popular', but in this podcast, two of the nominated authors reveal what they believe makes their novels contenders.

On this day...

James Joyce moves into Sandycove's Martello Tower in 1904. Originally a defensive outpost against a Napoleonic invasion, the tower was leased from the British War Office by Joyce's friend Oliver St. John Gogarty. However, after reports of numerous fracas, including one in which Gogarty pointed a gun in his direction, Joyce left the dwelling after only a week.

Yet despite being such a fleeting moment, the experience was immortalised in Joyce's most famous work 'Ulysses'. With Gogarty depicted as the 'stately, plump Buck Mulligan', their relationship is explored within the first chapter. The tower has subsequently appeared on bank notes, and numerous covers of the novel, and currently houses a museum dedicated to the writer

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The heir to Mantel's throne...

It's that time of year again, and the shortlist for this year's Man Booker Prize has been announced. Hoping to win the award for the third time, is Australian Peter Carey, who was compared by former Poet Laureate, and chair of the judging panel Andrew Motion, to Charles Dickens. Those aiming to follow in the footsteps of last year's winner Hilary Mantel, are:

  • Peter Carey - 'Parrot and Oliver in America'
  • Emma Donoghue - 'Room'
  • Damon Galgut - 'In a Strange Room'
  • Howard Jacobson - 'The Finkler Question'
  • Andrea Levy - 'The Long Song'
  • Tom McCarthy - 'C'

Donoghue is the current favourite at 9-4, closely follwed by Carey at 5-2, with Jacobson the outside bet at 6-1.

On this day...

UNESCO have celebrated International Literacy Day since 1966. With the aim of highlighting the importance of literacy to indivisuals, communities, and societies, UNESCO uses the day to bring the plight of adult learning into sharper focus. Here are a few statistics as to why...

  • 776 million adults lack minimum literacy skills
  • one in five adults is still not literate and two-thirds of them are women
  • 75 million children are out-of-school and many more attend irregularly or drop out
  • South and West Asia has the lowest regional adult literacy rate with 58.6%
  • Countries with the lowest literacy rates in the world are Burkina Faso (12.8%), Niger (14.4%) and Mali (19%)
A number of famous writers and global organisations are behind this year's initiative, which will focus on 'The Power of :iterature'.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Weird words...

From Lewis Caroll's 'Jabberwocky' to Edward Lear's 'The Owl and the Pussycat', nonsense writing has been an integral, and slightly more light-hearted, part of literature. Thus begs the question, what is the nation's fascination with lexical abnormalties? Here is a quiz on some favourite weird words.

On this day...

French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested in 1911 on account of stealing the Mona Lisa. The painting had disappeared on August 21st, but it wan't until a week later that Apolllinaire fell under suspicion. A former secretary, Gary Pieret, had, in an attempt to display the ease of stealing, gone to the 'Paris Journal', complete with two Iberian statuettes taken from the Louvre. Reading the story, Apollinaire realised the possible implications, even more severe for his friend Picasso who had purchased two similar items from Pieret, and the two planned to flee.

However, they settled on Apollinaire taking the two stauettes to the local police station in return for a guarantee of anonymity. Instead, he was jailed that evening, accused of being 'chief of an international gang come to France to despoil our museums'. Apollinaire was released a week later, going on to produce some of his most famous works, including 'The Breasts of Tiresias', in which he coined the term surrealism.The painting was recovered in 1913.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Summer stories...

Despite children and adults alike swanning off to far flung places in search of a bit of relaxation, the literary world took no such break. Here are just a few of the headlines from the last couple of months...

  • Raymond Scott, the flamboyant antiques dealer accused of stealing a rare couple of Shakespeare's 'First Folio', has been cleared
  • Science fiction author Ray Bradbury has reached his 90th birthday
  • Chris Wormell's 'One Small Fish', a children's book on evolution, has won the Booktrust Early Years Award
  • Following in the footsteps of fellow New Labour founder Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair has released his autobiography, 'A Journey', leading to nationwide press coverage and controversy

On this day...

Polish born novelist Joseph Conrad captained a voyage down the Congo river in 1890. Sailing from Stanley Falls to Leopoldville, the events of the journey were to provide the inspiration of Conrad's most famous work, 'The Heart of Darkness', published 12 years later. Conrad was working for a small Belgian trading company, yet due to illnesses within the company, he found himself promoted to captain, a role he was never to reprise in any of his subsequent trips.

On board the 'Roi des Belges', was Conrad's superior George Klein. Although he was to die on the journey downriver, his name was immortilised in the early drafts of Conrad's masterpiece, changing only to Kurtz later. Alive at the height of the British Empire, Conrad had wanted to discover the 'unsolved mystery' of the African continent ever since he was a child, and the realisation of his dream provided not only an intellectual but emotional stimulus. Although faced with accusations of racism from the likes of Chinua Achebe, 'The Heart of Darkness' has remained consistently popular.