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Fiction writers outside the pale

Sunday, 24 May, 2015 0 Comments

Quote: “As a writer one doesn’t belong anywhere. Fiction writers, I think, are even more outside the pale, necessarily on the edge of society. Because society and people are our meat, one really doesn’t belong in the midst of society. The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local, the parochial. And to do that, one needs distance.” William Trevor, who was born on this day in 1928 in Mitchelstown, County Cork, the Republic of Ireland.

William Trevor was born in this house in Mitchelstown, County Cork, the Republic of Ireland on 24 May 1928.

Language: The “pale” William Trevor refers to comes from the Latin palus, a stake driven into the ground and, by extension, a fence made of such stakes. The word “pole” comes from the same source, as do impale, paling and palisade. The Pale in Ireland was the area around and about Dublin which England controlled directly in the 15th century, and the English Pale in France was the territory of Calais, the last Crown possession in that country. The Russian Pale consisted of specified districts within which Jews were required to live between 1791 and 1917.

Morrissey and the Eurovision Song Contest

Saturday, 23 May, 2015 0 Comments

According to Simon Goddard, author of Mozipedia: The Encyclopedia of Morrissey and the Smiths, the Lancashire-born singer is a dedicated fan of the Eurovision Song Contest. “My fascination with the show had an almost religious aspect,” Morrissey confessed to Goddard.

This reverence has been expressed in his work: The video of You Have Killed Me opens with a pastiche intro that mirrors the contest from its glory, glitzy days in the 1960s and ’70s, and for interval music during his 2006 tour, Morrissey used the immortal Pomme, Pomme, Pomme by Monique Melsen, who represented Luxembourg in 1971 and was awarded 13th place for her efforts. By the way, the 1971 Song Contest was held in Dublin and was won by French singer Séverine, representing Monaco with Un banc, un arbre, une rue. In a sign of our globalized times, neither Luxembourg, Monaco nor Ireland are in tonight’s Grand Final in Vienna, but Australia, Israel and Serbia are.

Seven short sentences

Friday, 22 May, 2015 0 Comments

In the fiction business, crafting that captivating opening sentence requires a special gift. Some writers have managed it using just three words; others needed more but they still had the knack of making a dozen sound compact. Seven examples:

“Mother died today.” Albert Camus, The Stranger

“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“I am an invisible man.” Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

“The moment one learns English, complications set in.” Felipe Alfau, Chromos

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between

Train station, Hungary

Thursday, 21 May, 2015 0 Comments

Train station, Hungary

Railway stations stand deserted,
Rights-of-way lie clear and cold,
What we left them, trains inherit,
Trains go on, and we grow old.

Displaced Person’s Song, Thomas Pynchon

Vexillography and Mars

Wednesday, 20 May, 2015 0 Comments

Just learned today that the scientific study of flags is called vexillology, and the practice of designing flags is called vexillography. For that useful information, we’re indebted to Oskar Pernefeldt, who had designed the International Flag of Planet Earth as a graduation project at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm. The flag could be used by explorers “representing planet Earth” as they travel across the solar system says the idealistic young Oskar, and he envisages it being planted on the arid soil of the Red Planet to mark the creation of an “Eventual colony on Mars in 2025.”

Earth flag on Mars

That’s pretty much in line with the projections of Elon Musk: “I think we’ve got a decent shot of sending a person to Mars in about 11 or 12 years,” he said last month during an episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio show. FuturePundit is pouring cold water on this, however. Send robots first, he says. Argument:

“Only send humans once enough robots have broken down to justify a repair team visit. First thing we have to be aware of: Mars is a very hostile environment for humans. Little atmosphere, too much radiation, too cold, too far from the Sun, low on nitrogen (which is probably a bigger problem than low on water), very costly to ship to, too far away to do remote real-time control of equipment. Really a very unappetizing place to live.”

All very reasonable, no doubt, but the future belongs to optimists and visionaries like Oskar Pernefeldt and Elon Musk.

“To drive a car in Arabia is not only wanton”

Tuesday, 19 May, 2015 0 Comments

“In her Saudi Arabia homeland, Lubna Olayan can’t drive, show her hair in public or leave the country without her husband’s permission. She can, however, run one of the nation’s biggest conglomerates.” So begins Devon Pendleton’s profile of the Olayan Group and its manager in the Financial Review.

It is undeniably true that our world has progressed dramatically since Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964. Back then, she piloted a single engine Cessna 180, nicknamed “Charlie”, through a flight that took 29 days and covered 22,860 miles (36,790 km), but despite this achievement some things have remained stubbornly the same. From Three-Eight Charlie, her memoir of that historic flight, this is the touchdown scene in Saudi Arabia:

“Dhahran Airport may be the most beautiful in the world. Its gleaming concrete strip is 10,000 feet long, and the marble-columned terminal is a worthy reminder of the graceful grandeur of the Islamic architecture of the Taj Mahal. A U.S. Navy Blue Angel jet was taking off as I came into the traffic pattern. Several hundred white-robed people were crowded onto the broad steps of the terminal, waiting to see the first flying housewife to venture into this part of the world. As I climbed from the red-and-white plane and was presented with a huge bouquet of gladioli (they had been flown in from Cairo especially for me), they saw from my blue skirt that I truly must be a woman, and sent up a shout and applauded.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the most puritanical, or orthodox, of the Muslim countries, and the Islamic religion makes the laws of the country. From the time of the Prophet Mohammed, Arabian women have been hidden from all but their immediate families. They may not see, or be seen by, the outside world. To show one’s face or even wear bright clothes is a great sin. For a woman to drive a car in Arabia is not only wanton but prohibited by law, under penalty of her husbands being sent to jail. While European or American women are permitted to go in public unveiled, even they may not drive. So the men were puzzled. Probably no one had thought to make a law saying a woman couldn’t drive an airplane, but somehow the men thought it couldn’t be happening.

Then, in the excitement, one of them evaded the handsome airforce guards that Prince — later King — Faisal had sent to look after Charlie and me. He looked into the crowded cabin, saw the huge gasoline tanks that filled the inside of the plane, except for my one seat. His white-kaffiyeh-covered head nodded vehemently, and he shouted to the throng that there was no man. This brought a rousing ovation.”

Jerrie Mock

Although she was warmly welcomed by her hosts, Jerrie Mock was not tempted to stay in the Kingdom. “It sounds terribly romantic, but as long as Islam rules the desert, I know that if I find a black camel-hair tent and venture in, I’ll be hidden behind the silken screen of the harem, with the other women, and my dinner will be the men’s leftovers.” Much has changed for the better since 1964, but Lubna Olayan still can’t drive, show her hair in public or leave Saudi Arabia without her husband’s permission.

The Curse of the jOBS Film

Monday, 18 May, 2015 0 Comments

It’s been two years since the film Jobs, in which Steve Jobs was portrayed by Ashton Kutcher, hit cinema screens. It was not very well received and the unflattering reviews continue to echo: Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote, “Although I think I could watch a whole movie called Woz and not grow tired, Jobs eventually begins to suffer from an ailment common to many biopics: milestone fatigue.”

But two years is a long time in Hollywood and the deciders there reckon that the world is ready for for another movie based on the life of Apple’s co-founder. This time round, though, there’s more film/tech cred on offer. The screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, it’s based on the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and the director is Danny Boyle. Should be a winner, right? Actually, the omens are everything but propitious.

Sony acquired the rights to Isaacson’s book in 2011, but according to the e-mails found among the gigabytes of data leaked by the Sony Pictures’ hackers late last year, the road has been rocky for all involved in the adaptation. First, the lead star Christian Bale backed out. Then, Sorkin wanted Tom Cruise to play the part and he protested vehemently that he didn’t even know Michael Fassbender when he was cast as Jobs instead. Original director David Fincher dropped out due to financial and creative disagreements with Sony and the deeply troubled project was sold eventually to Universal. Still, Steve Jobs might have more luck than Jobs did. As the blues singer and amateur astrologist Albert King put it: “Born under a bad sign / I been down since I begin to crawl / If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

Infinite peace and radiance

Sunday, 17 May, 2015 0 Comments

The novelist Denis Johnson said that the poems of Franz Wright “are like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers — miraculous gifts.” Regarding the poet, New Criterion critic William Logan wrote: “He has drunk harder and drugged harder than any dozen poets in our health-conscious age, and paid the penalty in hospitals and mental wards.”

Franz Wright once said in an interview, “Our suffering may be the real form love takes, but we also know that at the end of it waits infinite peace and radiance,” and that infinite peace descended upon him on Thursday when he died of cancer at his home in Massachusetts. As the obituary writers have have pointed out, Franz Wright was unique in that he and his father, James Wright, are the only parent/child pair to have won the Pulitzer Prize in the same category: Poetry.

Auto-Lullaby originally appeared in “Poetry Not Written for Children that Children Might Nevertheless Enjoy” by Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler.

Auto-Lullaby

Think of a sheep
knitting a sweater;
think of your life
getting better and better.

Think of your cat
asleep in a tree;
think of that spot
where you once skinned your knee.

Think of a bird
that stands in your palm.
Try to remember
the Twenty-first Psalm.

Think of a big pink horse
galloping south;
think of a fly, and
close your mouth.

If you feel thirsty, then
drink from your cup.
The birds will keep singing
until they wake up.

Franz Wright (1953 – 2015)

North and South

Saturday, 16 May, 2015 0 Comments

Combine Mozambique, Norway, Zimbabwe and Sweden and you get Monoswezi. Underpin the vocals of Hope Masike with the tenor sax of Hallvard Godal, add in mbira and bass and you get a North-South soundscape that’s traditional and modern, African and European and unique. Matatya is taken from the album Monoswezi Yanga, which will be released by the World Music Network on 25 May.

The return of the Boiler Room

Friday, 15 May, 2015 0 Comments

Long-serving British poppy-seller died after being ‘tormented’ by cold-callers” is the disturbing headline on the Guardian story about 92-year-old Olive Cooke, whose body was recovered from Avon gorge in Bristol. There’s more nuance to the story than the headline suggests, but we do learn that “she had felt under pressure from the number of requests she received from charities by phone and letter”, and there is enough evidence to suggest that Ms Cooke was being targeted by those who have made a business out of exploiting the goodwill of the elderly.

But it’s not only the elderly that are at risk from the cold callers. “Boiler Rooms Meet Boardrooms as Scammers Invade City of London” is the title on a Bloomberg story by Neil Callanan today. Snippet: “Cold-calling con artists promising outsized returns are jumping on a surge in the availability of serviced offices at prestigious locations to give their operations an air of respectability, investigators in London’s main financial district say. These ‘boiler rooms’ dupe investors out of about 1.25 million pounds ($2 million) on average before they ‘rip and tear’ and disappear with little trace, they say.”

Definition: “A boiler room is a place where high-pressure salespeople use banks of telephones to call lists of potential investors (known as a ‘sucker lists’) to sell speculative, even fraudulent, securities. A boiler room is called as such because of the high-pressure selling.” Source: Investopedia

The return of the boiler room brings back memories of March 2000, when the NASDAQ peaked at 5132. That was the day when the dot-com bubble burst and lots of people lost their fortunes and their savings. With perfect timing, Ben Younger’s Boiler Room premiered that year. It has lost none of its punch or relevance with the passage of time. BTW, the NASDAQ closed at 5050.80 yesterday, up 1.39%.

Dei ex machina

Thursday, 14 May, 2015 0 Comments

Speaking at the Zeitgeist 2015 conference in London on Tuesday, the famed physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking had this to say: “Computers will overtake humans with AI at some within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours.” In its report, Geek.com illustrated Hawking’s prediction with a terrifying Terminator image. As the world knows, Hawking signed an open letter alongside Elon Musk earlier this year warning that Artificial Intelligence (AI) development should not go on uncontrolled, and guess which image The Independent uses today to highlight a story about Musk and his AI concerns? That’s right, the Terminator.

The cliché rules when it comes to AI it seems. We should be grateful, then, that Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is more imaginative and less lazy about the subject. The
film takes an adult approach to AI (full frontal nudity included) and explores ethics, consciousness, sexuality and search engines in its quest for answers.

In the film, Google becomes Bluebook, a nod to Wittgenstein’s notes on language games. Bluebook was founded by a tech genius called Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who retreats from Silicon Valley to create Ava (Alicia Vikander), a consciously erotic humanoid robot. The fun begins when a young Bluebook programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives after having won a company lottery and it’s his job to subject Ava to the Turing test. Thanks to the hot London visual effects company, Double Negative, Alex Garland’s humanoids are irresistible and it’s only a matter of time before love and hate and murder are in the air. But there’s humour, too. This is one of our favourite scenes.