Daily Trivia : Aldous Huxley and Brave New World

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Aldous Huxley was born on 26th July, 1894, in Godalming, England. Huxley completed his first (unpublished) novel at the age of 17 and began writing seriously in his early 20s.

He spent much of his time in Italy until the late 1930s, when he settled in California. He established himself as a major author with his first two published novels,  CromeYellow and Antic Hay.

But it is for Brave New World that he is most remembered today. Published in 1932, Brave New World arose out of Huxley’s distrust of 20th-century politics and technology.

He started out intending to write a parody of H.G. Wells’ utopian novel 
Men Like Gods (1923). He ended by envisioning a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford’s assembly lines: a mass-produced culture in which people are fed a steady diet of bland amusements and take an antidepressant called soma to keep themselves from feeling anything negative.

Brave New World is often compared with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), since they each offer a view of a dystopian future. Cultural critic Neil Postman spelled out the difference between the two books as follows:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”

“Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

“Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. … In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”

Sources:

Writers Almanac
Wikipedia
Biography.com

Book Review : Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

I finished reading this book two days ago. I read it in a little more than a day, ignoring any and all chores that I could, just so I could keep reading…I love it when a book grips me that much.

I have read this book before, but the last time I read it, I was 16…that was 21 years ago. I remember it as a book that I thoroughly enjoyed, but I did wonder if I would like it as much this time around.

I did. I thought the resolution was a bit implausible…not the solution to the mystery, but the manner in which it was revealed…barring that, I loved everything.

The plot was brilliant and the story was full of clues, false trails and surprises, the way a good detective story should be. But what I noticed this time around was the characters. They were all so well crafted each with their own set of perfectly plausible motives for doing what they do.

When we think of Agatha Christie, we think about plot and action and lots of clever writing. All of that is very much in evidence here, but so is her ability to create believable and some genuinely likeable characters.

The story is set in a school called Meadowbank. It is one of the best girl’s schools in England, the last place that anyone would associate with murder. And yet one night, just a week into the summer term, the new games mistress is found murdered in the sports pavilion. The police are trying to solve the crime, but there are too few clues and a complete absence of motive.

Just a few days later, one of the students is kidnapped. She’s not a regular student, she’s a princess and she’s from the small middle eastern kingdom of Ramat, which has recently had a revolution in which her cousin, the former ruler of Ramat was killed.

Before there is any proper investigation of the kidnapping, a second murder happens. Another of the teachers is killed…in the sports pavilion. What is  so special about the sports pavilion? What is the connection between the Revolution in Ramat and the murders in at Medowbank? No one can make head or tail of it.

There are rumours about jewels that were smuggled out of Ramat just before the revolution, there's blackmail and secrets a plenty. And one fifteen year old school girl who figures out one part of this mystery and realises that her life is in danger. She runs away from school and goes to Hercule Poirot looking for help and advice.

He brings her back to the school and he slowly figures out exactly what happened and why. The book is an absolute romp from start to finish.

Writers on Writing : Raymond Chandler

“The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.”

Daily Trivia : Erle Stanley Gardner

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Erle Stanley Gardner was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1889. He went to Valparaiso University to study law, but he was kicked out after only a month for participating in an illegal boxing match.

So he studied law on his own, and he passed the California bar exam when he was 21. He went to his swearing-in ceremony after a boxing match, and said that he was probably the only attorney in the state to be sworn in with two black eyes.

Innovative and restless in nature, he was bored by the routine of legal practice, the only part of which he enjoyed was trial work and the development of trial strategy. So in his spare time, he began to write stories for pulp magazines.

He created many different characters for the pulps, including the ingenious Lester Leith, a “gentleman thief” in the tradition of Raffles, and Ken Corning, a crusading lawyer who was the basis of his most successful creation, the fictional lawyer and crime-solver Perry Mason.

In 1933, he published The Case of the Velvet Claws, his first novel featuring detective and defense attorney, Perry Mason.

Gardner wrote more than 80 Perry Mason novels, and his books have sold more than 300 million copies.

With the success of Perry Mason, he gradually reduced his contributions to the pulp magazines, eventually withdrawing from the medium entirely, except for non-fiction articles on travel, Western history, and forensic science.

He said: “I still have vivid recollections of putting in day after day of trying a case in front of a jury, which is one of the most exhausting activities I know about, dashing up to the law library after court had adjourned to spend three or four hours looking up law points with which I could trap my adversary the next day, then going home, grabbing a glass of milk with an egg in it, dashing upstairs to my study, ripping the cover off my typewriter, noticing it was 11:30 p.m. and settling down with grim determination to get a plot for a story. Along about 3 in the morning I would have completed my daily stint of a 4,000-word minimum and would crawl into bed.”

After a few years of this, Gardner gave up the practice of law to devote himself to writing. In 1937 he moved to Temecula, California, where he lived for the rest of his life. On August 9, 1968 he married his long-time secretary Agnes Jean Bethell, the “real Della Street”.

Gardner also devoted thousands of hours to a project called “The Court of Last Resort”, which he undertook with his many friends in the forensic, legal and investigative communities.

The project sought to review and, if appropriate, to reverse, miscarriages of justice against possibly innocent criminal defendants who were originally convicted owing to poor legal representation; or to the inadequate, careless or malicious actions of police and prosecutors; or most especially, because of the abuse or misinterpretation of medical and other forensic evidence.

The resulting 1952 book earned Gardner his only Edgar award In the Best Fact Crime category.

Sources:

Writer’s Almanac
Goodreads
Wikipedia

Flashback Friday : 2001 Space Odyssey

Flashback Friday is a meme hosted by Bookshelf fantasies  focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. 

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This is another wonderful book that I read as a teen. It is the first science fiction book that I ever read and it opened up a whole new world of thought and ideas that I hadn’t known existed. Arthur C Clarke immediately became one of my favourite writers and he still is.

This book was written in 1964 (four years before the first moon  landing). It was conceived as a movie before it was thought of as a book. Stanley Kubrick apparently approached  Arthur C Clarke and told him that he wanted to make “the proverbial good science fiction movie” and that was how 2001 came to be.

It is based on a short story that Clarke had written a few years earlier called The Sentinel and the book and the movie were created almost in tandem. But there are a few small differences between the two and the three sequels follow the movie and not the book.

The story begins when an ancient artefact is found under the surface of the moon. The moment it is brought into the sunlight, it lets out a loud radio signal aimed directly at Saturn and then it becomes completely unresponsive.

The scientists on the moon believe that there must be something on Saturn, a device or a machine that the radio signal was intended for. And so they set up a manned mission to Saturn.

Things are very peaceful in the beginning, but soon they start to go wrong. HAL, the on board computer, goes rogue and kills all the crew members except one…the captain, David Bowman.

He shuts off the computer and takes control of the ship and he is all alone when he comes face to face with another artefact…a gigantic monolith which is the same size and shape as the one on the moon, only many, many times bigger…he enters the monolith and finds a universe that he could never have imagined…

It is a gripping tale and it is told very, very well…

Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

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This was my first pick from my Classics Club book list. I’ve read it before, of course, but that was nearly two decades ago. So while I had a general idea of the story, I had forgotten a lot of the specifics which was good, because it made my experience of the book a lot more fresh than it would have been otherwise.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the most famous of Conan Doyle’s stories which is both fitting and surprising. Fitting because it is such a good story and it is told so well. The suspense builds and builds until the reader feels as if his head is going to explode from all the tension and then comes this giant hound with glowing eyes and a glowing mouth to push the tension up even further…

Surprising, because of all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, this is perhaps the most atypical. It begins in the same way as most of the other stories, with the arrival of a client and the unfolding of a mystery. But it reads more like a thriller than a detective story. There are clues aplenty, but working out the clues is less important to the progress of the story than the unfolding action which is brilliantly written.

All the characters, Sir Henry, Dr Mortimer, Stapleton, Frankland, Barrymore…each of them is important to the story and each has a role to play in the unfolding mystery. Stapleton and Frankland in particular are written very well.

The story is full of great sequences, but my favourite is the night on the moor when Dr Watson and Sir Henry go looking for Seldon, the escaped convict and hear the awful howling of the hound for the first time. It is a chilling moment. Then there is the part where Dr Watson goes looking for the other man hiding on the moor and finds Sherlock Holmes…the suspense that is built up here is just wonderful.

Conan Doyle is a very visual writer and he has an amazing ability to paint a scene and describe a place…the moor is a very important part of this story and he really makes you feel the coldness, the isolation and the darkness of the place.

The book is very well paced and it goes easily from fast paced action to slow building tension. It was a joy to read.

Daily Trivia : The Catcher in the Rye and J D Salinger

It was on this day that The Catcher in the Rye was published back in 1951. The book is about a 16-year-old prep school boy named Holden Caulfield, who is fed up with all the “phonies” and wants to go live in a cabin in California. Salinger took ten years to write this book and it was at one time the most banned book and the most frequently taught book in America.

The book begins with Holden Caulfield saying,  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

And later he says: “I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

The book earned its share of positive reviews, but some critics weren’t so kind. A few saw the main character of Caulfield and his quest for something pure in an otherwise “phony” world as promoting immoral views. But over time the American reading public ate the book up and The Catcher in the Rye became an integral part of academic literature curriculum. To date the book has sold more than 120 million copies worldwide.

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The Catcher in the Rye, set a new course for literature in post-WWII America and vaulted Salinger to the heights of literary fame.  For the young writer, who had fiercely boasted in college about his talents, the success he had seemingly craved early in life became something he ran away from once it came.

In 1953, just two years after the publication of Catcher, Salinger pulled up stakes in New York City and retreated to a secluded home in New Hampshire. There, Salinger did his best to cut-off contact with the public and significantly slowed his literary output.

Two collections of his work, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters—all of which had appeared previously in The New Yorker—were published in book form in the early 1960s. The June 19, 1965, edition of The New Yorker was devoted almost entirely to a new Salinger short story, the 25,000-word Hapworth 16, 1924, a novella in the form of a long letter from seven-year-old Seymour Glass while at summer camp.

His first new work in six years, the novella was almost universally panned. This was the last Salinger piece ever to be published while he was still alive. Despite the lack of published work over the last four decades of his life, Salinger continued to write. Those who knew him said he worked every day and speculation swirled about the amount of work that he may have finished by the time of his death in 2010. In 2013, Shane Salerno and David Shields published a biography of J D Salinger in which they revealed that there are about five unpublished works of his that are scheduled to be released over the next few years.

Sources:

Writer’s Almanac

Biography.com

 

Daily Trivia : Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil, France, in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (originally translated as Remembrance of Things Past and  more recently, as In Search of Lost Time.) It is 3,000 pages long and it is Proust’s own life story, written in a stream of consciousness style and told as an allegorical search for truth.

Proust was born during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponds with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of Remembrance of Things Past concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, that occurred in France during the Third Republic.

Proust had a serious asthma attack when he was nine and from then on he was considered a sickly child, so he spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with aspects of the time he spent at his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of Remembrance of Things Past take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.)

Despite his poor health, Proust served for a year as an enlisted man in the French army, stationed at Coligny Caserne in Orléans, an experience that provided the basis for a lengthy episode in The Guermantes Way, volume three of his novel.

As a young man, Proust was a dilettante and a successful social climber, whose aspirations as a writer were hampered by his lack of application to work. His reputation from this period, as a snob and an aesthete, contributed to his later troubles with getting his book published.

Towards the end of the 1890s Proust began to withdraw more and more from society, and although he was never entirely reclusive, as is sometimes made out, he lapsed more completely into his lifelong tendency to sleep during the day and work at night. He was also plagued with severe asthma, which had troubled him intermittently since childhood, and a terror of his own death, especially in case it should come before his novel had been completed.

Proust started writing Remembrance of Things Past in 1905, but he put it aside after a while. He realised that he needed to think about his book a little more and  to clarify what  it’s philosophy would be. He did other writing in the mean time…plays, parodies and essays. He had an epiphany in January 1909, and he went back to his novel the following June.

He produced the first volume, Swann’s Way, in 1913, publishing it at his own expense after several publishers rejected it.  He spent the next decade working on the rest of his book which has a total of eight volumes, the last three of which Proust was  proofreading and editing on his deathbed in 1922.

Proust is widely recognised today as one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, and À la recherche du temps perdu is considered one of the most dazzling and significant works of literature to be written in modern times.


Source:

Writer’s almanac

Goodreads

Wikipedia

Writers on Writing : Alice Munro

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”

Review : Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

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I am a bit conflicted about this book. It’s a good book. It says on the cover that it is about the life of a chef and it certainly delivers on that count. I gives you a real insight into a chef’s life, the long hours, the training, the mistakes, the learning experiences,  the joys, uncertainties and difficulties of the restaurant business. It is also the story of Samuelsson’s life and it is told with an honesty that I appreciate. He talks about his mistakes, his errors of judgement, his (excessive) ambition and (complete) self absorption without trying to hide or gloss over anything.

But the problem is that the nothing is treated in depth. There are plenty of family stories and emotional moments that should have been given a lot more space than they were. Like his reaction to his father’s death. Samuelsson was in the States cooking at Aquavit when his father passed away. He made the decision not to go to Sweden for the funeral because leaving the States then would have affected his visa situation. That would have a been hard call to make. And it does portray him in a negative light. Now I’m not about to make judgments on anybody’s choices, but the way the incident was presented…it lacked the emotional depth it should have had. He keeps saying that his father’s death was real blow to him, but the way he says it, makes that a bit hard to believe.

Another incident that comes to mind is his first meeting with his daughter who he basically ignored for the first fourteen years of her life. This part of the book reads as if Samuelsson just wanted to rush through the narrative as quickly as possible.  Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t want to face the emotions it brought up, but why write about it, if you cannot treat it with the honesty and the emotion that it deserves? The nature of the narrative here, makes it seem as if this man does not care about anything or anyone. It’s all about the cooking. Even when he talks about meeting his wife and falling in love with her…there is a distinct lack of emotion in the writing that is a bit off putting.

Samuelsson didn’t write the book himself, of course. He had a writer friend do it for him. The writing is fairly fluid in the beginning of the book, but then it starts to read like a bunch of anecdotes strung together rather than a coherent story. There is a lot of writing here about food and it is all very good…whether it talking about the idea behind a dish, the emotion or the tradition behind it, the writing makes you feel as if you can see and smell everything if not taste it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the quality of writing in the book is inconsistent. It’s a good book. But it could have been so much better.

The importance of fantasy fiction : J R R Tolkien

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

Writers on Writing: Stephen King

“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”

Current Reading: Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

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This is obviously a memoir written by a chef and it is a book about food and cooking. I love food memoirs and that is reason enough to pick up this book. But what makes it particularly interesting is the chef in question.

Marcus Samuelsson is an unusually talented chef who has led an interesting life. He was born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden and he now lives and cooks in America. His idea and experience of food has to be fascinating.

To quote the publisher:

This book is a love letter to food and family in all its manifestations. Yes, Chef chronicles Samuelsson’s journey, from his grandmother’s kitchen in Sweden to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four.

Since then, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs, and, most important, the opening of Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, and bus drivers. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and living in America, can feel at home.

Review : Encore Provence by Peter Mayle

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This is the third in the series of memoirs about his life in Provence that Peter Mayle has written. It has all the spirit and the flavour of his earlier books. It is perhaps a bit special because it was written a few months after Mayle and his wife returned to Provence after a four year long stay (hiatus? Mayle might actually call it exile) in the US.

So it is written with all the fervour of a man who is incredibly happy to be back in his beloved home. As far as Mayle is concerned, Provence is home. He says and I quote:

“…we did our best to adapt. And yet there was something missing. Or rather, an entire spectrum of sights and sounds and smells and sensations that we had taken for granted in Provence, from the smell of thyme in the fields to the swirl and jostle of Sunday morning markets.  Very few weeks went by without a twinge of what I can best describe as homesickness.”

“Provence is still beautiful. Vast areas of it are still wild and empty. Peace and silence, which have become endangered commodities in the modern world, are still available. The old men still play their endless games of boules. The markets are as colourful and abundant as ever. There is room to breathe and the air is clean.”

There are stories here about planting olives, trying to grow truffles, the glories of olive oil, how and why the people of Provence are as long lived as they are, all the lazy and seriously enjoyable things you can do in Provence (not for the serious tourist), life in a typical Provencal village, the art of creating perfumes, the importance of the perfect corkscrew and so on. There are of course, several descriptions of wonderful meals and extraordinary restaurants.

It is the sort of writing that we have come to expect from Peter Mayle, stories and observations about the little things in life, the small pleasures and the everyday joys. He writes lovingly about Provence and its people, even when he’s poking fun at them. This is a man who is happy. It seems to take a particular place to make him so, but he has found it and Provence has found him.

Of the three memoirs, A Year in Provence continues to be my favourite, but the quality of writing in this book is far superior. The narration is tighter, the stories are told in a more engaging fashion and the open eyed wonder  that comes through the first book has been replaced by a warmer, deeper appreciation of life in his beloved Provence.

 

 

 

Daily Trivia : The Type-Writer and the QWERTY keyboard.

sholes-prototypeIt was in June of 1868, that the typewriter was patented by Christopher Latham Sholes. It only had capital letters and it took up as much room as a large table. Typewriters were slow sellers at first, but Mark Twain bought one almost as soon as they came out, and in 1883 Twain sent the manuscript of his book Life on the Mississippi to his publisher in typed form, the first author ever to do so.

Sholes’ machine was not the first typewriter. It wasn’t even the first typewriter to receive a patent. But it was the first typewriter to have actual practical value for the individual, so it became the first machine to be mass-produced. After receiving his patent, Sholes licensed it to Remington & Sons. The first commercial typewriter, the Remington Model 1, hit the shelves in 1873.

The earliest typewriter keyboard resembled a piano and was built with an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys. It was assumed that this would be the most efficient arrangement. Anyone who used the typewriter would know where to find each letter without having to look for it and typing speed would be increased.

So why did the typewriter switch to the qwerty layout that we all use today? There are two very different theories about this.  One story goes that with the old alphabetical typewriter, the keys tended to get stuck whenever a user typed a succession of letters whose type bars were near each other. So Sholes redesigned the arrangement to separate the most common sequences of letters like “th” or “he”. In theory then, the QWERTY system should maximize the separation of common letter pairings. But the idea doesn’t quite hold when you consider that “er” is the fourth most common letter pairing in the English language.

The other story says that the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. This theory suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators.

Whatever the reason for its creation, the qwerty keyboard was quickly accepted. Sholes took out a patent for the qwerty layout in 1878.  When the first generation of computer keyboards emerged, there was no longer any technical reason to use the qwerty layout…computers don’t get jammed. But against this was the fact that millions of people had learned to type on QWERTY keyboards and the layout was familiar.

So the QWERTY stayed and we continue to use it not just in computers, but even on tablets and smart phones…a 136 years after it was created.

Source: smithsonianmag.com

ideafinder.com

 

Daily Trivia : Hans Christian Andersen, story-teller, novelist and travel writer

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Hans Christian Anderson is the man who created Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina,
The Ugly Duckling and many other beloved fairy tales which have become a part of our collective consciousness. His stories have been translated into 125 languages and are read around the world.

But they were not particularly well received when they were first published. Andersen was in fact, recognised as a novelist and a travel writer before he came to be known for his fairy tales.

His first, successful book was The Improvisatore. It is an autobiographical novel, reflecting Andersen’s travels in Italy in 1833 and it reveals much about his own life and aspirations as experienced by Antonio, the novel’s principal character.

Considered by some to be the first modern European novel, it was published by Reitzels Forlag in 1835. It was an immediate success. It was published in Germany the following year and, in France three years later. For many years, The Improvisatore was the most widely read of all of Andersen’s works.

In 1851, he published to wide acclaim
In Sweden, a volume of travel sketches. A keen traveler, Andersen published several other travelogues: Shadow Pictures of a Journey to the Harz, Swiss Saxony, A Poet’s Bazaar, In Spain, and A Visit to Portugal.

In his travelogues, Andersen paid heed to some of the contemporary conventions of travel writing, but he manipulated the genre to suit his own purposes.

Each of his travelogues combines documentary and descriptive accounts of the sights he saw with more philosophical passages on topics such as being an author, immortality, and the role of fiction in a travelogue.

But it’s for his three collections of fairy tales that he is remembered today. Andersen wrote in the everyday language of the common Danish people, and he refused to talk down to children or shelter them from the dark and scary.

Later translators cut out some of the scarier parts and gave the tales happy endings, and so we think of them as lighthearted and innocent, but that was not originally the case.

Sources : Writer’s almanac

Biography.com

Wikipedia