27 October 2010

Will you have fries with your twenty hamburgers, fifty shakes . . .

The body of journalism needs burial or cremation. Another typical story, this in today's "BREAKING NEWS" from Murdoch/AAP.
Boulders hidden in bags placed on freeway

A LATE-NIGHT prank on one of Melbourne's main freeways has damaged two vehicles.
Two boulders had been hidden inside McDonald's take-away paper bags and placed on the EastLink Freeway …

Roos at the beach

We've all gone down to the surf again,
the joeys with us too,
though humans wonder what we see
in this grassless saltsea stew.

We wonder too,
what humans see
in those balls they chase around.
For when we've finished bathing
we go to higher ground
to watch the silly golfers
while we laugh without a sound.

26 October 2010

What's in a trice?

"How long is a trice?"
— How long is a moment?
"So a trice is three moments."
— Or three times once.
"Or one once, and a twice."
— Always remembering that you can't have once more time.
"Hm. And if a push speeds things up, then what?"
— What push?
— How could that count?
"How couldn't it? It's the force."

24 October 2010

Review of Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? - Folktales from Tamil Nadu

Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? – Folktales from Tamil Nadu
by Ki. Rajanarayanan
translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy

artwork by Trotsky Marudu

235 pages

The gist, in 100 words
A feast of pickings from the collection of a raconteur. For freshness of stories, nothing else comes close. People who enjoy a good time will love this, as will those interested in human relationships wherever they are. Save the planet. Reduce overpopulation! So folks who choke at sex in books: open and read the sealed section.
Criticism: Although the glossary is well organised and easy to use, it is somewhat hit-or-miss. Another dozen words would have been illuminating.
Summary: A must-have for every decent library. This book goes in my bag of Books To Save If the House Burns Down.

Further, and further thoughts
I had overheated my brain so much in urging it to tell you what you need to know about this book that it was a cool breeze to both of us when we were interrupted by 'So did it work, or not?'
'I don't know yet. Whadyou put in it?'
'That flour you said you liked, and oatmeal—'
'Not that. The stuff in the middle.'
'Banana and prunes.'
'We never had prunes in food when I was growing up.'
'You never had a lot of things.'
'Prunes were always medicine.'
'So you don't like the taste?'
'I didn't say that. Prunes are medicine.'
'I should have cut them smaller. I should have made sure the filling was all dark.'
'No prunes.'
'You'll never see a prune again!'

And as it is for the delights of the sundried plum, so it is for folktales. There are people who even as you read this, are having folktales administered to them—formerly delicious folktales, now plumped in a chlorinated syrup-of-improving-messages, and served as something so goodforyou that—on the label, 'Moral' looms over the 'folk'.

Ki. Rajanarayanan, on the other hand, is a first-rate scamp. His 'naughty and dirty' section, sealed with red ribbon—the first section any unruined human will open in this book—will hold readers enthralled at the very least, though if Blaft were another publisher (and not the most seriously fun quality publisher in the world) the term 'naughty' would not be used; the 'dirty' would be fumigated, then eschewed. The proper word in higher circles, is 'Chaucerian', though 'bawdy' may also be employed if Chaucerian shares the bed. Ki. Ra., as his name is abbreviated, says in the introduction that is so good, it's worth reading before opening up the sealed section (though I wouldn't like to know the person who would):
Though I used to tell and listen to such tales all through my childhood, the idea of recording them came to me only after I read Boccaccio's Decameron. So many of those stories resembled the ones from my own soil; the Italian had seen fit to write down what people here considered too vulgar to be published.
One thing I can guarantee. If you get a copy and loan it to a friend, your likelihood of getting it back matches the lack of luck I've had getting back my annotated copy of Aretino's Dialogues (about which this book reminds me, with all its strong and lusty women).

But Where... is an extraordinary collection ranging over many topics (and seven named sections such as Birds & Beasts, Gods & Goddesses and Husbands & Wives), and the individual stories have strong differences in the telling. Ki. Ra. makes a point of saying there are different stories for different audiences, and in his retelling of them, his written style follows through – a marvellously sneaky way to get us readers to be even more involved. He further enhances this relationship by refusing to make the stories archaic.

While, for example, Calvino's Italian Folktales, a masterpiece, never veers from the dreamy never-neverland past told so cleanly it's spotless, it's a jolt that makes a reader sit up and feel the sting of mosquitoes when one reads in one story in this collection, 'motherfucker'. This reminds me of a sweet old grandmother's recipe-telling. 'You piss a little bit of this, a little bit of that.' Other stories in Where…, such as 'Two Brothers and Two Boiling Pots' are gruesomely Grimmish, or sound as if they could have fit well into Calvino's collection, as reading those Italian folktales is like traversing the whole of Europe in one book, so many stories seem familiar.

How many stories have come how far, to be told in the 'dry red-earth country down south' of Tamil Nadu? Who knows? But as Ki. Ra. says:
'If a person masters a hundred folktales, his knowledge about the world in general increases.'

This collection shows above all, how alive folktales can be, even when the setting is historical, as in my favourite, 'The Brinjal' in the Rajas & Ranis section—about an eggplant and advice. History? History lives, and wherever we live, everything here that makes us laugh in unwishing recognition. The advisor in this story reminds me of my favourite folktale hero, Nasr-ed-din-Khoja, who under many names, made his way into folktales from Europe to India, to China. The story goes that he was, in reality, a composite of two real people, unbelievably.

But I have never read any collection that approaches the freshness of the tales told by Ki. Ra. here (though one contender, also a must-have, is Speak Bird, Speak Again, Palestinian Arab Folktales, by Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana. University of California Press, 1989—this book has other similarities, as its earthy sex made Hamas apoplectic). It isn't just the sex in folktales collected by Ki. Ra. that can offend people. Claiming to be harmed by what ones sees is an addiction that loves company.
'The chap who wrote that book you're always reading? Put Me Among The Pigs, isn't it called?'
'On The Care Of The Pig.'
'That's right. Banned in Boston, I believe.'
– Galahad at Blandings, P.G.Wodehouse, 1964
Ki. Ra.'s introduction makes distinctions between the types of stories that do offend, and the purpose of stories themselves. But his opus has not censored stories because they could offend. Rather, he has included them because they are as much a part of history as war is. Considering that the Blaft English translation is an abridged edition of நாட்டுப்புறக் கதைக் களஞ்சியம் (Nattupura Kadhai Kalanjiyam), his 944-page compilation of folktales published in 2007, we who can only read English are fortunate that the selection was relatively unsparing of our morals, and that the superb Pritham K. Chakravarthy is the translator.

I probably shouldn't judge her, as maybe she murdered those stories, but if so, then she murders with panache. In both of Blaft's indispensable Tamil Pulp Fiction collections, and now in this challenging folktale collection, she is invisible, and leaves no fingerprints. So many voices resound in these stories. I assume that Ki. Ra. led her on a maddening chase as she tried to match his many voices, from the most ribald and earthy, to a story that would truly keep young children awake, 'listening with their mouths agape, not noticing as the mosquitoes flew in and out.'

Not only is the text something to treasure, but the book itself is quite attractive. The droll cover and rather calligraphic full-page illustration introducing each section are by Trotsky Marudu. His art fits the book like a melon does, its skin. Though Marudu's style is different, the humour in his line reminds me of some of the best of Sukumar Ray, who could have inspired Doctor Seuss. And Blaft does it again, by accident or purpose? Not only is the book a pleasure to behold, but to hold. The paper and board choices of this well-bound book are excellent (no bright-white paper!) and in terms of the cover, unusual.

And now, an irresistible comparison
There are certain books that are more important than themselves. Ki. Ra's collection is an example. Another is Le Cheval d'Orgueil by Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1975) known in English as The Horse of Pride: Life in a Breton Village, translated and abridged by June Guicharnaud, and first published by Yale Press in 1979 but still in print. The photograph that faces the very first page of this memoir is 'A Breton storyteller fifty years ago'. That storyteller was surrounded by Breton peasants, people of the earth, not towns.

That picture is not as evocative as the description of the storytellers, their dress and features, their styles of telling and their audiences, everything so exotic—but maybe so familiar to Ki. Rajanarayanan, who paints another unforgettable picture in a book that is so important, it needs to be produced in a library edition.

'The people of the neighbourhood,' Rajanrayanan writes, 'after returning from their fieldwork, having their bath, and eating their dinner, would gather around Paangyam Veerabaagu to listen to his stories … As a child it would seem to me that Beerabaagu had just begun the story, and almost immediately the cock would crow to announce the dawn.'

That folktale. It's alive!
Hélias writes at the end of his book:
'Folklore continues to take on new shapes right under our very eyes. Its shapes evolve, of course . . . It is very adaptable.'

Rajanrayanan, in the intro:
' Once, when I was invited by Kerala University to deliver a talk on folktales, I was asked by one of the students: "Will new folktales still be created, in these modern times?"
A very good question! "Why do you doubt it?"I asked. "If all the jokes that were told about our last Defense Minister, Baldev Singh, are not a part of folklore, then what are they?" '

On the tip of the tongue
Translating from the oral to the written, and from language to language, Laurence Wylie wrote in the forward to Horse…, about Cheval d'Orgueil:
'When I first read the book I was saddened by the thought that it could not be made available to English readers. The task of translation seemed impossible. The style is colloquial. There are many Breton expressions, and sometimes even the French translation sounds strained because Hélias wishes to convey a flavor of Breton, the language in which he obviously feels . . . For most of us, a farmer is a farmer, but when one describes peasant France one must be precise about social and professional nuances among different kinds of farmers . . . June Guicharnaud has accomplished a miracle in this translation. To the degree that is possible she has been precise, but at the same time she has expressed in English the earthiness of the text.'
This could be paraphrased to describe the work cut out for Pritham K. Chakravarthy. If there is some high and recognitiony prize for brilliant translating, I hope she gets it.

As to Ki. Rajanarayanan, his life's work is what the Nobel Prize in Literature should be all about. His introduction alone is worth more than many a laureate's entire oeuvre. So I hope that he is nominated and awarded the P.—in his full name—which by the way, I would like to have seen somewhere in this translation.

Like that other master storyteller, Twain, he can tell a story in many ways. See him tell one that could not make it into either of his collections, here:

Now buy the book, and tell those reviewers in important places that this book should be on Bestseller lists around the world, even if the title and author take up two lines.

17 October 2010

Protagonists as sugar-teats

"My sweet tooth remained firmly in control until the age of four, when, emulating the passions of grown-ups, I began to explore the hot and sour."
– Madhur Jaffrey (born 1933), Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India

We live in a time when vegetables aren't allowed to be vegetables, but candy substitutes in toy-bright colours. So it is perhaps in keeping with this supersweet sugar-teat taste that a protective stance has come into fiction, to protect us from growing past infancy. Who first brought it down from the Mount, I don't know, but it's Number 2 in the current Ten Commandments to Writers (Commandment Number 1: Write Every Day, whether or not you have something to say.)

Commandment Number 2:
Your reader must sympathize with your protagonist.

As if that weren't enough, this is Commandment Number 3:

Your reader must identify with your protagonist.

Accept dumbly, repeat and swallow. If these commands-without-reasoning were only Rules that writers were trying to follow or not, at their peril, that wouldn't change society. Readers on the plains would still be innocent sinners, cavorting as they will, consuming a bit of bitter here, a touch of sweet, the shaken and the stirred as adults do, in a free society. They might have to get their heretic fiction in the form of samizdats scratched on the backs of melon rinds, but they'd still have adult fiction.

"All of this however is for naught if the reader doesn't sympathize with the protagonist."

"I found it easy to sympathise with J…"

"…they are ultimately the reason we come to sympathize with C…"

"This is problem one: I didn't like the protagonist."

"A well written story with a nice ending but it couldn't grab me, mainly because I couldn't identify with the protagonist."

But priests have laid waste to the plains, and now so many readers act like they believe or think they must, that the reading of fiction has become an act proscribed, and the private pleasures readers had in their their time of freedom when a story was a story, forgotten as the bounty of Astarte. And thou, you reader you, shalt know the meaning of Protagonist.

"I'd care more about the protagonist if…"

Even the Other Ten Commandments aren't followed quite as rigidly. In fact, breaking one of them is the basis for not only the American Way of Life, but the economic structure of the world. Thou Shalt Covet They Neighbor's Riches, Fame, Newest Electronic Device—Or, as we are told: we face another Great Depression.

So why is a writer now expected to produce a protagonist who a reader finds attractive and must sympathize (or sympathise) with, and even identify with—unless, perhaps, these rules have been created to make fiction sweet soma sucked in dreamless sleep, an experience completely free of stranger danger.

"I wish I could find the kind of books now that I read as a baby."

Sympathy for the devil, and please pass the ketchup to the wolf
Why shan't a writer have a protagonist that said writer finds repellent, though s.w. doesn't make this fact known? I often write about people I disagree with, people I wouldn't want to have anything to do with, in real life. They are complex, just like people are in r.l.

I have a rule about friends in that life. Think of the good parts. But back to characters who aren't so attractive. They are just as real as… no, actually. They are more real. And they are more spread out amongst the human fauna, and with much greater diversity—and isn't diversity supposed to be good for the planet? But back to following those Commandments. Yes, my fiction earns me lightning bolts that sting like the lines in italics above. I do have secret favourites in my stories—though as with taste in men and all friendships: some would say bad taste, and others: shocking! Whatever, I keep my affections as hidden as lovers in a farce.

As a reader, I don't want to meet the writer in any shape or thought in fiction (and only rarely and briefly in non-fiction). When reading, I want to form my own relationship with the story, my own thoughts about the people in it. I consider writers who blab about their characters, crass and indiscreet. So as a writer, I hide my feelings. As a result, there are readers who have cried with sympathy over people in my fiction who I would love to anoint with boiling oil. Wonderful! That's what makes true adulthood more like lime pickle than a spoon of sugar.

Olivia over at The Independent Book Review might also be inviting lightning bolts. She recently wrote:
"Is it fair to judge a book by its narrator? If I despise a character (especially a narrator) so much as to lose total interest in what they are saying, is it fair to hate the book itself? Humbert Humbert is certainly despicable, Raskolnikov not above reproach, and yet those books enraptured me and held me skillfully in their presence years after first cracking open their covers. Perhaps the difference is simply that Dostoevsky and Nabokov did not try to make you like their creations. Hillary Thayer Hamann tries desperately to make you first identify and then empathize with her heroine Eveline Aster Auerbach in Anthropology of an American Girl…"
And so, away from religion, tastes are vary. I've always had quite a bit of sympathy for Humbert Humbert, though I consider no one likable in this story, nor do I identify with anyone. But I've always considered those likability and sympathy aspects irrelevant in my reasons for thinking Lolita one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. This exploration of individuals and their motivations in a society that is surveyed with the same forensic dedication is a masterpiece of satire and tragicomedy.

It is funny in a way, that as a manuscript by just some author searching for a publisher, Lolita would have more publication problems today, for even more reasons, than at its years'-long birth.

Perhaps the imperative that today's readers must like and identify with a protagonist is the imperative that makes millions join Facebook and Twitter, or be damned to die out in the wilderness. We must all have instant gratification and constant reassurance that we are loved. That's only natural, needed by all babies.
"When I was about three or even younger and living in Hua Hong, I took an overdose. Mum said I really liked Gripe Water and I must have downed half a bottle of it."
I Am Sarawakiana

16 October 2010

From the mailbag

A reader writes:

"Most fiction is written by women for women."

A little test of English

Choose the correct usage.
  1. He got off the chair.
  2. He got off of the chair.
  1. Police took the injured to the hospital.
  2. Police took the injured to hospital.
  1. between you and I*
  2. between you and me
  1. He wrote me.
  2. He wrote to me.
Choose the words that are English.
  1. cohort-component projections
  2. prepone
  3. derestricted
  4. enstool
Choose the correct punctuation.
  1. organs, organizations and bodies
  2. organs, organizations, and bodies
  1. French’s Forest
  2. Frenchs Forest
  1. Dr Almaz
  2. Dr. Almaz
  1. James' house
  2. James's house
  1. We all screamed when he said “ice cream”.
  2. We all screamed when he said “ice cream.”
  1. Tomorrow the team play Georgia.
  2. Tomorrow the team plays Georgia.
  1. plain clothes police
  2. plainclothed police
  3. plain-clothed police

If you chose everything, you are correct somewhere, as well as incorrect.

The United Nations English Language Programme is located at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

The United Nations Spelling Guide still flies with aeroplane because “The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2004) is the current authority for spelling in the United Nations.”

"In India, those who consider their English to be good are outraged at being told that their English is Indian. Indians want to speak and use English like the British, or more lately, like the Americans. This desire probably also springs from the fact that it is a second language for most Indians and to be able to speak a non-native language like native speakers is a matter of pride—more so in the case of English, given its higher status and the several material advantages it carries."
— Pingali Sailaja, Indian English, Edinburgh University Press, 2009
I got this book 'cause I was looking for ideas on how to teach my children(5&7), w/out the pressure of "school setting" but w/fun. I also learned that my attitude and mind set had to change from the "school setting". The suggestions in the book R practical and I can be involved in their play or not, they still R learning.
The only disappointment is that it talks about evolution & femminism. I don't support eather one of them.
My goal on reading this book was to have a diffrent "school setting" other than the schools. An enviroment that allows them to learn at their leasure. That goal was accomplished. Both the kids don't feel intimideted by a chair and a table 'cause that ment "stop being yourself and start to preform or else".
Now they R looking foreward to learn whether sitting down or playing around.
review on Amazon for Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning

* "Imagine, then, my astonishment at reading Pam Peters [sic] style guidance that by the 1970s ‘between you and I’ had become ‘standard and even formal English’. I fear that this lapse will not endear the Guide to my judicial brother."
Review of the Cambridge Australian English Style Guide

15 October 2010

Hairy plants and their relationships

There are "hairy plants", like Australia's flannel flower, and then the rest, including many lawn grasses, which cats are very picky about when they choose the ones to graze on if they have the freedom of the outdoors.

Here, in this match made under a springtime sun, the hairy meets the hairy in a harmonious relationship.

14 October 2010

In praise of cluttered minds

Spring—the uncleanest time
Since winds bring down so many nests at this time of year, the top layer of the desk gets more layered than usual,
as light brings out the intricacies of woven structures.
"If a cluttered desk means a cluttered mind, what does an empty desk mean?" is commonly attributed to Einstein, but it might have been said by any slattern.

Timmi Duchamp has a marvelously cluttered mind, displayed recently in her essay in Ambling Along the Aqueduct, Birds and memory. Her interest in birds, and in learning more than can be found in books, complement her ponderings over the problems of "discourse in public and in the blogosphere" at a time when extremism and ignorant statements are viewed and encouraged as mainstream argument. In The Politics of Discourse (feminist and otherwise) she says,
One might argue that the reason right-wing extremists are now dominating public discourse is that the news media have decided that right-wing extremism serves the important functions of distorting our sense of the political spectrum and drowning out the conversations we would otherwise be having. Certainly that's how it's working for the larger political picture . . . Countering ridiculous disinformation is an endless treadmill of distraction.
That endless treadmill is something that untold numbers of people have walked away from in disgust. Right-wing extremism rejoices in disinformation and downright lies not just in the US. Rupert Murdoch can take credit for being a global leader in the spread of lies as news, and disinformation as legitimate commentating. It would be good if his role in influencing people and shaping public discourse were exposed for what it is, instead of suffering him to lecture nations on the importance of education. When he says, as he recently did, that US public school education is a failure factory, I agree with him. In Australia, it's even worse. When he says, “The price for the status quo will ultimately be paid by all of us,” I agree with him. Millions of immigrants learn about a country through the media they read and watch. So do children. Murdoch media tries its hardest to shape opinion and mould minds. Its viewsportage has thrown the idea of reportage out the window and eschewed truth in favour of the buck.

As all sensationalist penny dreadful producers have always known, the most sensational lie sells the most, and so goes the public consciousness if that becomes the dominant source of news, opinion, norms. Lies, blessed lies, so nearly 1 in 5 Americans think Obama is a Muslim, and around the world, Murdoch "news" coined the "The Ground Zero Mosque" . Would Murdoch have a different consciousness if he had a cluttered mind—in other words, if he could think past profit? If he could look at the world he is helping to make? I honestly don't know, but when Australians see Americans in power state without blinking an eye, "America has the best health care in the world", jaws drop not just at the audacity, but the breadth of ignorance that allows that statement to be made and taken seriously by the very people most taken advantage of by that lie.

But lies have become the currency of discourse. I had an experience lately. I got on that treadmill to try to show that a pack of lies had been made and grossly misleading assumptions touted as truths, but really, what good did it do? Nothing. The liars just reinforced their own bigotry and displayed even more, agreeing with each other being sufficient to make them feel that they know what they're talking about. Reason? Evidence? So Age of Reason! The most frightening aspect of extremist liars is the attraction they have to keeping their opinions for the sake of having them. They do not experience embarrassment when their lies are exposed because they are so sure that no one will bother to learn, will take the time to actually read or listen to something that might take a bit of thinking beyond base opinion. So they reinforce their own prejudices, labeling away, desecrating all that they can for the joy of their anger. And the result? Unfortunately, ghettos. In the media, online, in electronic communication.

Timmi Duchamp brought up many good questions about public discussion, including these two:
  1. Is treating an outburst of extremism as an attempt at dialogue a moderate response?
  2. Where, I would ask the "moderate," does one draw the line?"
In the public sphere, the lines have been drawn too often, by default—the withdrawal of moderates (and the non-aggressive, non-extrovert communicator) in disgust—the result being that the loudest and extremistissimus overrun the field. There is an added element that is especially relevant today. Discussion, and indeed, most online activity, is more and more: reaction. Discussion to be of any value, needs thoughtfulness and a willingness to learn from evidence and resources exposed in the discussion. This brings me back to the cluttered mind. People like L. Timmel Duchamp, a person who has a greatly cluttered mind, would never consider using a lie as an argument, because, well, Why? If there isn't a good reason to come to some conclusion, it's not time to come to any conclusion at all, but time to continue learning, something we all should consider unfinished till we are.

I'm so glad that Jeff VanderMeer wrote this piece:
It tells so much more than I know.

I do highly recommend the books from Aqueduct Press.

  1. It Walks in Beauty—selected prose of Chandler Davis, edited and with an introduction by Josh Lukin
  2. Dorothea Dreams by Suzy McKee Charnas, with an introduction by Delia Sherman
The choices made of what to publish in every series at Aqueduct are extraordinary, and more powerful than an oyster knife to an oyster are they in the power to open openable minds.

What I can also say authoritatively is that "It Walks in Beauty" is (although I first thought it about the worst title I'd ever read) one of the best titles ever, really hitting when one reads this milestone of a story (in a great and very unpredictable collection), a milestone we are seeing again. History sometimes seems like a circuit.

08 October 2010

Pimpernel & Pigface

Blue pimpernel weed in grass, council park
First noted in Australia in 1804,
Anagallis arvensis is a "naturalised alien".

Pigface on beach dune, late afternoon
Carpobrotus glaucescens is a native.
Most of its close relatives live in South Africa, where it is called sour fig.

04 October 2010

"Enter fee is $5."

" * First prize is valued at over $200!
* First Prize: $75 cash prize, plus a six week course on SF & Fantasy Writing, a $120 value. A copy of The Last Man Anthology; An author spotlight feature and publication in n Sword & Saga Magazine: the Magazine of SF, Fantasy, Steampunk, and Speculative Fiction "

This reminds me of the man who loved helva (or halva or halawah or halwa—whichever, a most delicious sweet of endless excellent variations, when made by someone who knows how). He loved it so much that he ran an annual contest for the best helva, the prize being mostly honour. As he was the sole judge, for the cost of only about one visit to the confectioner's, his storeroom was filled every year with the most lovingly, competitively made helva—and thus he stayed fat and blissfilled from contest to contest. Of course he couldn't make helva, but that wasn't the point. He just knew what he liked, and the best way to get his fill of the best of it.

" Woe: Great Sorrow of distress. THings that cause great sorrow or distress; troubles."