Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Most people have been in this place before: You obsess over some particular subject/object/person and they keep appearing before your eyes. Only, typically, what you think you see is not what is actually before you.

In a twist on this, I have discovered that Godfrey is everywhere. To refresh the memories of those whom I have not dulled into a stupor with endless yammering, Godfrey of Bouillon is the subject of the book that I am writing. It is a novel, but based on the lives a several real people, including Godfrey himself. Although work proceeds slowly, I do think about it a lot. When I am not actually writing or reading through medieval history, in my head I replay scenes, untangle unnecessarily complicated sections and develop dialogue.

In the last few weeks, however, I have become eerily aware that my characters keep getting up and walking out of my head and onto the street in front of me. Here in Belgium, a Godfrey statue in Brussels or certainly Bouillon is expected. But he keeps showing up elsewhere as well.

In Rome, at the Vatican Museum, I was diligently reading through the Blue Guide descriptions of the Raphael Stanze and Loggia when Godfrey waved hello, sitting beside Ethelwulf of England — as well as a few tourists.

But it is not just Godfrey who keeps popping into my life; other characters are making unexpected appearances.

In the ruins of the Orval Abbey, I stepped up to one of the explanatory tables to read about the abbey myth of the lady, her ring and a fish. The story I knew already from the logo on the Orval beer bottle: a fish with a ring in its mouth. Evidently this unnaturally thoughtful trout delivered the ring back to the lady after she dropped it in the spring. There before me was the so-called spring (still used to feed the revered brown bottles of Orval brew) and the place where, upon receiving her ring back, Mathilda, declared that the waters must be sacred indeed and . . . Wait. That Mathilda? As in the daughter of the evil stepmother to Godfrey and the one who is married off to his hunchback uncle? Yes, indeed. And Mathilda waves hello.

Then, last night, we were watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so that I could point out to a certain non-aficionado where the Venice square in which we sipped cappuccino appears in the film. The Jones boys have escaped Brunwald Castle when Dr. Jones, Sr. explains the threat of holy grail booby traps.

But I found the clues that will safely take us through, in the Chronicles of St. Anselm.

I am pretty sure Anselm was not writing choose-your-own-adventure material back in the Middle Ages. He was, however, corresponding with a certain Ida, Countess of Boulogne, also known as the mother of Godfrey of Bouillon. In my own novelization of his achievements I have him gliding in at the right moment to help save the day, not that far off from writing clues to hidden treasures.

“Hello!” Anselm hails me from the screen.


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Print History

Clearly I love books and pretty much everything about them. So the thrill of walking through one of the oldest print shops in the world cannot be overstated. On a quick weekend jaunt up to Antwerp, we took in the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the former home and business Christoffel Plantin established in 1546. This charming museum and its gorgeous garden courtyard may be one of those last hidden gems of Belgium.

From the book collection to the historic impact of the printers, the intertwining tale of family friend Peter Paul Rubens, the wood-lined libraries, the rooms filled with lead letters, the wooden presses lined up against the windows . . . For the book-geek it was a wonderland.

Consider . . .

This piece from its collection: the only complete set of the original Garamond dies and matrices.

My writing nook is comfortable, but how is this for a proofreader’s desk, set by the ceiling-high windows for better light.

Although our accommodations may differ, we all still use the same marks, half a millennium later.

Then again, these guys were also working in Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew, among other languages.

But this is what it is all about: type. Drawers upon drawers of incredible fonts, designs and scripts from centuries past; amazing, beautiful and inspiring.

And then there was this. A better view of a Rueben’s painting than you are likely to get anywhere else and only one of a series he did of the extended Plantin-Moretus family. This is Mother Plantin. Known for his realism, Reubens certainly seems to have captured the essence of Mrs. Plantin. From the look of her, one might guess that Mr. Moretus, her son-in-law, truly earned his right to take over the business.

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Backyard Reading

On a remarkably beautiful spring day I had the good fortune to admire the luck of my life, sitting under the warm sun in the green garden reading and taking notes for the book. It is impossibly not to be smitten with days like today.

Working in lovely weather has always made me productive. In the past, I have taught myself to read Swedish while gaining a fall-proof tan during long Nordic days. And today I alternated between admiring pieces of insight that could help layer the book better and other tidbits that seemed applicable for life in general off the page.

The topic was The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. In only the first few dozen pages I scribbled down quotes that left me hopeful and inspired. Campbell offers an array of other writers’ excerpts as well as his own beautiful paraphrasing of ideas generated anywhere from thousands to a few decades ago.

He describes the action of King Minos disregarding the rituals of life’s progress as “an impulse of egocentric self-aggrandizement,” which is just perfect for one of the — obviously evil — characters in the book. He goes on to describe the great trial of life, i.e., to delve into the true difficulties of it, which will be a splendid conceptual setting to create a more interesting adventure for my hero.

…where we had thought to find abomination, we shall find god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

No less fascinating were the words of wisdom that seemed overly applicable to our current, and ongoing, life adventure. Campbell writes of taking a different path through life, and plants a seed of encouragement as we continue down our own little-frequented trail.

. . . elected to follow, not the safely marked general highway of the day, but the adventure of the special, dimly audible call that comes to those whose ears are open within as well as without . . . [know] the wonderful song of the soul’s high adventure.

Pandora’s box . . . filled with the seeds of the troubles and blessings in existence, but also provided with the sustaining virtue, hope . . . so will each whose work is the difficult, dangerous task of self-discovery and self-development be portered across the ocean of life.

So, that is pretty heady talk for someone writing a kid’s novel. But it is always good to have reminders of the benefits — and the costs — of pushing beyond the realm of normal, an alternative location of which I am rather fond.

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I Do as I Criticize

“The recycling and cut-and-paste esthetic has resulted in tired imitations; cheap, lazy re-dos,” writes Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times/International Herald Tribune article “Snip Here, Paste There.”

There I go, proving her point.

She makes a solid argument against the transition forced by digital media and lazily allowed by all of us to our own detriment. She cites Nicholas Carr’s upcoming book The Shallows as suggesting this state is “rewiring our brains, impairing our ability to think deeply and creatively.”

Immediately the instinct kicks in to shut down my Facebook, close up shop at the blog and restrict myself to once-a-day retrieval of email as if it were actually arriving in the mailbox by way of the postman.

Established and respected writers and scholars, she claims, are joining the gloomy march with “cherry picked anecdotes” and isolated “nuggets of information that might support their theses.” These are the ones with paying jobs still.  Lucky them.

For the rest of us with names slightly less recognizable and tenure more tenuous , we might as well just dig a hole and jump before the marginalization of the author “[hobbles our] ability to earn a living from [our] published works, while at the same time removing a sense of both recognition and accountability from [our] creations,” as John Updike puts it.

“More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one,” Kukutani writes.

As depressing as her own mash-up/critical review may be, intrigue struck when I drew a connection to a small piece of my own research, notably conducted from the pages of an actual book from an actual library with shelves and that nostalgic smell of dusty paper.

In a sweeping over-simplification of the matter from a non-scholar: in the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote City of God. It was a huge success. For nearly 700 years afterward, however,  the only new books of this sort were mere “quotes,” i.e., transcribed copies of his arguments, presented as original thought. Sound familiar? Only with Abelard’s Sic et Non at the turn of the 12th century did this change. Original scholarly content took a 700-year hiatus. Hopefully we catch on a little faster than our Dark Ages ancestors.

But we can draw a glimmer of inspiration during that dark time in literary life from the creation of some rather well-known fiction, most notably Beowolf. As journalism and non-fiction slide away from their strongholds of rigorous objectivity, perhaps the truth found in fiction can carry us until recovery.

Of course, Kakutani puts a damper on that thought in her first paragraph. She quotes David Shields: fiction “has never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself.” I find it easy enough to dismiss his notions, but a tiny fear still nags that an understanding of fiction’s value may be slipping away too.

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The perplexity of a single day in Paris is that it can seem like just a dream. Was that cherry tree in Jardin du Luxembourg really that pink? Was the boeuf bourgogne that rich? Was the restaurant toilet really a ceramic hole in the ground?

Of course, there is little to complain about for having a dreamy day, even if it left us eager for another, more thorough visit. The privilege, and truly it is just that, of several visits to this most beautiful city allows us the time to experience the magic of dreams. We no longer need to scurry from renown monument to acclaimed museum, and so we can take a parcel of Paris and wander about it in a state of reverie.

Our only handicap is a growing list of little shops that beckon us back: Mariage Frères for a shiny black satchel filled with one of our favorite teas; the Maille shop at Place de Madeleine where we refill our ceramic pot with mustard on tap — a sweet and refined ancienne style this time; E. Dehillerin to wander amongst the towering shelves of fabulous kitchen goods; and a reputable patisserie displaying those beautiful packages of sweet delight: les macarons.

On this trip we added new stops at a number of well-known bookstores: Shakespeare & Co. and Gibert. The trouble is that it only encouraged a desire for a full day spent meandering bookshop to bookshop in search of rare finds and intriguing book deals.

Otherwise, we walked a meandering tour through the neighborhoods once haunted by the famous expatriot writers and authors of the early twentieth century. At this bookshop Hemingway, Pound, Wilder, Fitzgerald and Joyce mulled around. In that well-lit, second-floor studio, Whistler pissed off his colleagues with his arrogance. Faulker spent 55 cents a night to stay at that gorgeous hotel across from the park; it now sets guests back about $450. Looking into that courtyard Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms. Miller ate his porridge at this cafe and Pound hosted great parties on a pittance income at that apartment — encouraging news, really.

Inspired by the ghosts who once lived there and fed by conjured images in just one neighborhood, we slipped smoothly from a stroll on the streets of Paris into a dream-like memory of a lovely day. Spoiled and lucky we are.

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In the continuing theme of being served perfectly prepared ideas and cultivated sources for blog topics, I offer this clipped-and-sent  article from the UK’s Guardian: “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” Numerical lists litter today’s publications and suggestions on writing are almost as common as stress management and weight loss tips. But the Guardian impresses with both its sources (Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood and Annie Proulx amongst my idols) and their novel insight. There are practical guidelines, but more useful may be the clever jabs that deliver a smile and inspiration.

Margaret Atwood:

  • Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  • If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  • Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

Roddy Doyle:

  • Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
  • Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.

Geoff Dyer:

  • Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.

Richard Ford:

  • Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
  • Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)
  • Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.
  • Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.

Joyce Carol Oates:

  • Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

Colm Tóibín

  • If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane

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The Rosetta Stone

The New York Times/International Herald Tribune this week ran a front-page article about Google that declared: “Perfecting translations with power of computing.” Perhaps fault can be laid at the feet of the editors who devised the headline, as the article does not profess such hyperbole, but more care in the choice of words from an institution that survives on words would be appropriate. Perfecting? Really?

Neither the author nor Google representatives appear to make such a claim. There are plenty of caveats that express the limitations of machine-based translations and their ability, truly, to only “convey the essence.” Still, contrary to this tone, a sidebar listing the Google version against a human translation of a line from Le Petit Prince, seems to imply by their nearly identical results that this is an acceptable form of converting literature from its original tongue.

Those who have discovered the brilliance and magic of unique and untranslatable words in foreign languages know that particularly when it comes to literature, automatic translation misses the point entirely even if it provides the gist.

Perhaps an unfair comparison (as it was written in Old French), but consider this medieval poem from Voir Dit by Guillaume de Machaut:

Les lettres pris et les ouvry
mais à tour pas ne descouvry
le secret qui estoit dedens,
ains le lisoie entre mes dens.

I seized and opened the letters,
but the secret that lay within
was not revealed to all,
because I read them between my teeth.

Google translator managed this:

The letters made and Ouvry
but not all do descouvry
who was the secret Dedenis,
ains the lisoie between my dens.

Regardless of the nonsense translation, even the academic, human effort loses some essence of the writing — the poetry and song of the specific words the original author chose. Whereas Google’s Franz Och may be correct in many ways that “this technology can make the language barrier go away [and] allow anyone to communicate with anyone else,” the practical advantages may eventually threaten an awareness of the specific beauty of words, in whichever language they are originally written. Sure it is great for translating that Dutch Cycling Club web site and the one from the tiny French town we would like to visit. But technology has a funny way of not stopping at necessary as it — or, rather, its creators and consumers — pushes on to excessively consuming.

Besides, is anyone else a little taken aback by the notion of machines learning?

If they fed a computer thousands or millions of passages and their human-generated translations, it could learn . . . [emphasis mine]

Have these technology reporters not watched the latest “Battlestar Galactica” series, before they cavalierly refer to machines evolving on their own accord? Well, at least the computers at Google are growing with a love of literature.

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