Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Merry Christmas, one and all!

I'm absolutely sure that you've all got more to do right now than be checking out my blog. I've just recovered from my third inadvertent nap of the evening, to belatedly wish all my loyal readers (and there are some?) a very Merry Christmas. I hope you all got the presents you wanted and that recipients of your generosity were suitably appreciative. We've had a damn fine one here - and once again, after all the battling through the shops and the queueing at the Post Office and the wrapping of kids' presents at three a.m., it all seems worthwhile - and will continue to be so until the Barclaycard bill hits the mat. You hear yourself saying, fondly, 'It's for the kids, isn't it?' as you watch them unwrap the latest electronic gizmo, and you think back to the era when a Spacehopper, an Etch-a-sketch and a Spirograph took pride of place with your Sindy and her special air stewardess outfit. Have your eyes gone a little misty?

Monday, 17 December 2007

This Will Freak You Out

In this week's 'The Bookseller' there's an interview with the children's writer Darren Shan who is now producing adult fiction as well. I was interested to hear that when he wrote Cirque du Freak, his agent Christopher Little couldn't sell it initially, because publishers 'thought it was too dark'. Sound familiar? Getting publishers to take a punt on something unusual when all the time they claim to be looking for something new is and always has been a challenge. Mr Shan is very determined, and very clear on how his audience will react - he knows kids can take any amount of guts and gore (I haven't read any but there were lots of references to demonic mutilation and extracted entrails in the article).

But the scariest thing of all? Not decapitation, not dismemberment - no, it's Mr Shan's terrifying workrate. As Mistress of Procrastination, my blood ran cold. Truly. Listen to this:

'Shan works a few years in advance, so is currently up to 2012 in terms of his children's books and 2010 for his adult titles.' He says, 'The trouble I've always had is getting the publisher to release the books quickly enough.' 'He spends around two years writing each book and has four titles on the go at once, doing eight drafts of each book.'

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Ambush of the Brain

Although I've never read any of his books, I was desperately sad to read today that Terry Pratchett has early-onset Alzheimer's, perhaps as the result of a mini-stroke some years back. This is one of those Diseases to Be Terrified Of and like so many other ailments (and hey, the Big Sleep itself), it strikes out of the blue and strikes unfairly. I'm sure every one of us, when we've gone upstairs to fetch something and have forgotten what it was by the time we get there, when we can't retrieve from our memory-bank the name of a friend or an ordinary everyday object, when we can't remember what we did two days ago, and when we can't remember the name of a major character in a book we've written (this happened to me a few days ago - Jeez!) - we all, at these 'senior' moments, wonder whether that stealthy erosion of personality and identity is setting in. When you are no longer a repository of your own memories, when you are not the accumulation of self built up over a lifetime, when you cannot pass recollection and experience on to others, when you no longer have bonds with your loved ones - well, you have to ask, where does life end and death begin?

I speak with a particular fear: I have a very dear aunt in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's, now in a care home in northern Scotland. We are losing her and losing all that she knew and it causes us all enormous pain and sadness. And selfishly, we all worry about the possible genetic timebomb within us.

Before we all got healthy enough to live long enough to die of these wretched things, nature a few centuries ago would have done its Malthusian duty and seen us off with plague, scarlet fever and so on. There's a cheerful thought for the festive season! And what about all the advice to keep the brain ticking over by being mentally active? What about Mr Pratchett? What about Iris Murdoch? It's a bleedin' lottery - that's all it ever is.

Can I recommend, on the subject of Alzheimer's, a wonderful book by David Schenk, called 'The Forgetting'? It's informative, sensitive, extremely moving, linking personal experience to the medical facts and examples of the famous who succumbed to the sneaky ambush of it - including Ralph Waldo Emerson - there are some wonderful quotations drawn from his writing.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

DollyReads and Keitai Shosetsu

I'm beginning to think I should rename this blog 'Oh for goodness sake!' or 'What are we coming to?' - I love the name of the popular Grumpy Old Bookman's blog - catches the note of exasperated vituperation.

So, what's exercising me this week? First, in the 'What have we come to?' category - what, indeed, have we come to when country star Dolly Parton makes it her mission to bring literacy to infant Britons? Yesterday, she promoted her 'Imagination Library' project in Rotherham at a former steel mill. (Perhaps this can also go under the title of 'You Couldn't Make It Up'). Every child born in Rotherham will now be sent a free book every month until they're five. Today, Rotherham - tomorrow, the world. Of course, Dolly means well and her interest in literacy stems from the extreme poverty of her own childhood in Tennessee, so all credit to her if she brings any children to a love of literature. The sad thing is that the need for schemes like this echoes the survey this week that Britain has plummeted in the league table of nations for literacy and numeracy. In our era of visuals and digitals is trying to cultivate a love of books printed on yer actual paper equivalent to Cnut holding back the tide? Hope not.

A while back I mentioned the rise of what I suppose we could call 'text lit' - or should that be 'txt lt'? The Times has an article today about the increasing popularity of publishing on mobile phones (yes, you read that right!) especially in Japan. Once again, I suppose we should be grateful for anyone reading actual wrds, even in abbreviated form, but it's oh so sad that 'Japan's fiction bestseller list is dominated by books published, read and, in several cases, written on mobile telephones, most of them by young women in their 20s.' Apparently books like 'Love Sky' are written for downloading on mobile phones, then published in book form. The stories - 'keitai shosetsu' - seem to be highly melodramatic and emotional and have given rise to debate and concern: one critic worries that 'young readers are being exposed to immature expressions and stunted vocabulary' which will 'accelerate illiteracy and damage their ability to express themselves.'

Given that my A level students often lack basic knowledge of spelling and grammar and have failed to acquire through reading any inbuilt instinct for the look, feel and rhythm of words, I too am worried. An Orwellian inability to articulate thought and experience with any sort of precision is upon us.

Or am I just a grmpy nvlst?

Monday, 3 December 2007

Diagram Samples

You may remember some months back (15 April)I reported on the results of the annual Diagram Prize, which is given to the Oddest Title of the Year - last year's winner was 'The Stray Shopping Carts of North America: A Field Guide to Identification'. The Bookseller a couple of weeks back reported on some of the entries coming in and I thought I'd cheer up your coming week with a couple of them:

Squid Recruitment Dynamics, by P G Rodhouse

Cheese Problems Solved, by P McSweeney

Glory Remembered: Wooden Headgear of Alaska Sea Hunters, by Lydia T Black

and my current favourite:

If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with your Legs

Ah, if only I'd had a book like that to advise me in my younger days ...