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Archive for the ‘writers’ Category

Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American writer of the Harlem Renaissance. She is best known for two books, “Quicksand” (1928 ) and “Passing” (1929). Her characters are women like herself who are part white, part black and not quite sure who they are.

For years she was out of print. In the 1970s she started to be read again. Those who teach courses in black and women studies at American universities like her books because her characters question who they are as women and as blacks.

In America there is the One Drop Rule: if you look part African, then you are considered to be black. If you look pure European, then you are seen as white. Most people fall squarely on one side or the other. But some, like Nella Larsen herself, lie on the colour line. Some pass for white.

“Passing” is about two friends who are on that line. One marries a black man and lives as a black woman in Harlem. The other passes for white: she marries a white man, who has no idea she is part black, and lives as a white woman. She thinks it is the answer to all her troubles, but in the end she finds she would rather be poor and black than rich and white!

Helga Crane, the hero in “Quicksand”, is also on the colour line. Much of the book is based on Larsen’s own life. Crane goes from place to place, but she does not feel like she belongs anywhere. Not with whites, not with blacks. She goes from man to man but never finds love.

Larsen’s books were so good that in 1930 she got a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first black woman ever to get one. But soon after her life started to fall apart. First people said her short story “Sanctuary” was copied from someone else’s story. Not true. Then in 1933 she went through a very public divorce.

She left Harlem. She said she was going to South America. Some thought she never left the country but changed her name and passed for white. No one knew what became of her till 1964 when she turned up dead in the Lower East Side, a poor part of New York. She had been working as a nurse in Brooklyn all those years.

Her father was a black man from St Croix in the West Indies, her mother a white woman from Denmark. Her father left and her mother married a white man (some say it was her own father passing as white). Larsen grew up in a white part of Chicago, the only black person in a white family. It was not till she got to Fisk, a black university, that she found herself among blacks.

She went from place to place till she came to New York in 1912. In time she became part of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Ntozake Shange (1948- ) – her name sounds like “Ento Zocky Shongay” – is a great American writer who found herself growing up as a black woman. She is famous for writing the Broadway play “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” (1975). Her writing is angry but beautiful, full of pain but full of joy too.

She writes the books she wished she could have read growing up as a black girl in America.

Her father was a doctor. They were rich. He taught her to be proud of being black. As a girl she met Josephine Baker, Dizzy Gillepsie, Chuck Berry, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and other famous black Americans. She learned to play the violin and to dance. She went to poetry readings. She loved to read. She read Melville, Langston Hughes, Dostoevsky and others. She read books in French and Spanish too.

In many ways she lived in a perfect world, but none of it prepared her for what would come next.

In those days in America – in the 1950s – white children went to white schools and black children went to black schools. Then the highest court in the land said that this broke the law: they had to go to the same schools.

Shange lived across the street from the all-black school where she went. They told her she now had to go to a white school.

She had to take three buses to go across town to get there. But that was the easy part. When she got there she found out that the white children hated her because she was black. She had no way to make sense of it. She wrote about it in “Betsey Brown” (1985), a book that took her ten years to write.

She did well at school and then went to Barnard College in New York and got married. But then her husband left her. She tried to kill herself four times. She stuck her head in an oven; she drank poison; she cut her wrist; she drove her car into the ocean. But none of it worked. So she wrote about it. She had to write about it – it was the only way she could live.

She wrote about it in 20 poems. That became the play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf”. It started out in the jazz lofts of Soho in New York. In time it made it to Broadway and then across the country.

The other day I read a poem of hers, “you are sucha fool”. It has been 15 years since I last read it, but it all came back to me and I loved it all over again. Few poets are that good.

In 1971 she got rid of her slave name, Paulette Williams, and named herself Ntozake Shange. It is a Zulu name, Xhosan in fact. Her last name means she walks like a lion.

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Terry McMillan

Terry McMillan (1951- ) is an American writer. She is best known for her books “Waiting to Exhale” (1992) and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” (1996). Both were made into successful Hollywood films. She is perhaps the richest black writer in the world.

With her first book, “Mama” (1987), she proved to the book industry that black people read books too. That led to a huge growth in black fiction.

Her writing is honest. She does not dress things up to make them seem nicer or more important than they are. Her writing style matches this: it is close to how people talk.

She grew up in Port Huron near Detroit, the oldest of five. Her father became a violent drunk and her parents broke up when she was 13. At 16 she worked at the library and discovered James Baldwin: she had no idea that black people wrote books.

She got her degree at Berkeley and then moved to New York. There she studied film and joined a writer’s workshop in Harlem. She wrote a story based on her mother. They told her she should make it into a book. She did. It became “Mama”.

As a single mother, she got up early in the morning to write and she wrote during lunch at work. On the train to work in the morning and again at night coming home she read over what she had written and made it better.

Houghton Mifflin loved her book and printed it. But they gave her no money for a book tour: they thought black people do not read books! So she went from town to town and read her book at any black university or bookshop that would have her.

She developed a following so that when her second book, “Disappearing Acts” (1989), came out two years later it sold two million copies. “Waiting to Exhale” came out three years after that and sold four million copies. It was made into a film.  Having studied film at school, she writes her books with that in mind.

She was now rich and famous. But not happy. Then her mother died. Then her best friend.

She went to Jamaica for a change of scene. She fell in love with a man there half her age, Jonathan Plummer.

When she got back she wrote about it in a rush of words for 30 days. It had few periods, but she left it that way: it was true to how she felt. That became “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”.

She and Plummer married and lived in her beautiful house in northern California. She wrote other books. Then in 2004 she found out that Plummer had been having an affair – not with another woman, but with a man!

The divorce was very bitter, very raw and very public. A part of the battle made it onto Oprah and the Internet.

Her latest book is “The Interruption of Everything” (2005).

I met her in 1992 at a book fair in New York. She is very charming in person.

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Dominick Dunne (1925- ) is an American writer and one-time television and film producer. He writes magazine articles for Vanity Fair and books of his own, the best known being “The Two Mrs Grenvilles”. You might remember him from the O.J. Simpson trial: he was the man with white hair who sat in the back wearing a bow tie and big round glasses.

Dunne is a sort of latter-day Anthony Trollope who writes about the rich and famous to show their human failings. He knows these people: he goes to their parties and to their murder trials. He has a good eye and knows how to tell a story. He is our fly on the wall.

He did not become a writer till he was 50. He had hit bottom in Hollywood. His wife had left him. His money was gone. He was a drunk. His world of Hollywood parties, the big house and a beautiful wife were over. He got in his car and drove north. He drove and drove until he got a flat somewhere in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. There he got a small place in the woods and dried out from years of drink.

All alone, he read the books he had brought with him in a bag. One was “The Way We Live Now” by Trollope. He fell in love. Dunne would make a new life for himself and become a writer.

He moved to Greenwich Village in New York and wrote a book. It was so good that the New York Times said it was bad. He knew he had made it as a writer.

Then came the worst possible thing, something worse than his own death: his daughter, only 21, was murdered.

On the night before he headed for California for the murder trial he sat next to Tina Brown at dinner. She was then little known, but she was about to take over Vanity Fair. She asked him to write about the trial. He has been writing for Vanity Fair ever since.

Living in New York in the 1980s he noticed how much it was like Trollope’s London of the 1870s. So he became its Trollope and wrote a book called “People Like Us”.

Dunne’s father was a rich doctor in Hartford, Connecticut and his mother came from a rich family. He cannot hear in one ear because his father once beat him for liking dance and stage instead of sports. Dunne grew up reading about film stars and dreaming of one day going to Hollywood.

After fighting in the Second World War he went to New York and later Hollywood and worked his way up in the world of film and television. He directed “Playhouse 90” (1956) and was the executive producer of “The Boys in the Band” (1970). He went to all the Hollywood parties and got completely caught up in it. Too caught up: he started drinking and doing drugs. That was when his world fell apart.

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Jack Kerouac

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Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) wrote “On the Road” (1957), one of the best books ever written in America. He was seen as the leader of the beats, a new movement of writers that sprang up after the Second World War. Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs were his friends and fellow beats.

“On the Road” is about Kerouac’s travels back and forth across America with his friend Neal Cassidy. Kerouac wanted to see and feel and experience everything:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

The spirit and length of that sentence is Kerouac all the way.

Kerouac drank in life and poured out his soul onto the page.

He wrote “On the Road” in three weeks, in a mad rush of words, leaving periods and other things behind, sitting at his typewriter, drinking down endless cups of coffee – not benzedrine as Ginsberg claimed.

His new style of writing made it hard to get the book into print, but for what he was writing it was perfect.

His model as a writer was not Walt Whitman or Thomas Wolfe, whom he loved, but Charlie Parker, a bebop jazz musician. Like Parker, he was expressing something inside him and going with it, not creating something carefully designed and thought out beforehand.

When “On the Road” did appear in print, half of it was cut out. The missing half appeared years later as “Visions of Cody”. But now you can get “On the Road” just as Kerouac wrote it – as one long paragraph and with all the sex parts left in: “On the Road: The Original Scroll”.

Kerouac and his friends in “On the Road” have no place to call home and very little money, but they do not care. They have traded security for experience. They have traded a life of the half-dead who go to work every day and make house payments, where every day is the same as the one before, for a life on the road. They were like mad saints.

Kerouac wrote 20 other books too. “Dharma Bums” and “Big Sur” are good. So is “The Town and the City”, even if it was written in his Thomas Wolfe days.

To the great disappointment of his friends, Kerouac later gave up his wild life. He went to live with his mother on Long Island, with its streets of houses that all look the same. He gave up writing and lost himself in drink.

He lived long enough to the see the hippies and the protestors against the Vietnam war in the late 1960s. He had little patience for either, even though it was his books that helped to inform the spirit of that age. By that time he had returned to the old-fashioned Catholic faith of his boyhood.

He died of drink at age 47.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Lola Ogunnaike

Lola Ogunnaike (1975- ) was the star entertainment reporter at the New York Times, their “hot, hip young thing” and, it seems, their all-round expert on black people. In 2007 she moved to CNN, where you can see her on “American Morning” talking about Britney Spears, upcoming films and so on.

When was the last time a New York Times reporter made the jump to television?

The move to CNN started in October 2006 when she appeared on the morning television talk show, “The View”. The New York Times said they never approved the appearance. It looked like the Times was going to fire her. While they left her hanging in doubt, she started talking to CNN and others about a move to television. CNN hired her.

She came to the New York Times in 2002. She brought the old Grey Lady up to date on the world of hip hop and all things young and cool. And black.

Before the Times she worked for the New York Daily News on their Rush and Molloy page, which reports the doings of film stars and their kind. Before that she wrote for VIBE magazine. She has also worked for Essence magazine (she hated it) and the cable television networks MTV and BET.

She is good at putting entertainers at ease and getting them to say things that are interesting to read or hear.

Not only does she look good in print, she also looks good (but not great) on television. Few print reporters do: just watch C-SPAN for long enough and you will see what I mean.

Although she is now on television she still intends to continue writing for print. Maybe even a book. (Do it, Lola!)

She was born in Nigeria but grew up in America, near Washington, DC. Her last name sounds like “Oganaki”, as if she were Japanese.

She has always loved to read and write, but it did not sink into her that she could get paid to write till she worked part-time at BET. She still cannot quite believe it.

One of her teachers at New York University, Pamela Newkirk, told her she should get her writing into print. So Ogunnaike took a piece she wrote for homework about break dancing and sent it to the New York Times. They put it on the front page of the Style section!

By age 30 she already achieved two of the things she wanted to do in life: to work for the New York Times and to get in print in Rolling Stone magazine. Her article on Kanye West was the cover story of their February 2006 issue.

Her writing has also appeared in Glamour, Details, Nylon, New York and V magazines.

About Live Earth, Al Gore’s music benefit in 2007 to help save the earth, she said:

Frankly, I don’t want to hear about environmental causes from the Pussycat Dolls.

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William Gibson (1948- ) is a science fiction writer, famous for giving us the word “cyberspace”. His first book “Neuromancer” (1984) is still his best. It was the beginning of a new sort of science fiction called cyberpunk, which gave us, among other things, “The Matrix”. Many of the ideas in that film come from Gibson. One of his own stories was made into a film: “Johnny Mnemonic”.

In the 1980s he was a sort of dark prophet of the coming Internet age, writing about evil hackers and virtual reality when those things were still science fiction, not yet the stuff of newspaper articles.

He now writes fiction that takes place in the present day, but it is the world that has changed, not him. The present has caught up to his future.

As a boy Gibson discovered William S Burroughs (beat author) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (science fiction author) in the same week. His own fiction is a marriage of the two: science fiction with a beat or punk rock sense of the world. Thus the name “cyberpunk”. It is more Orwell than Asimov; more “Blade Runner” than “Star Trek”. Not a golden age of spaceships, but a troubled age of computers. Like ours.

His prose can be a bit hard-going, but he has a fertile mind. Reading Gibson helps you to understand the world we live in because he saw it coming.

Gibson’s father helped to build Oak Ridge, where the first atom bomb was made. He died suddenly when Gibson was six.

His mother moved them back to south-western Virginia where she was from. Gibson said it was like going back in time. He withdrew from the world into books: mainly science fiction (Dick, Zelazny, Bradbury, Burroughs) and the beat writers (Kerouac, Ginsberg and the other Burroughs).

His mother had the rare presence of mind to send him to a boys’ school in Arizona. This helped to bring him out of himself. But when he was there the other shoe dropped: out of the blue his mother died.

He left school and joined what became known as the counterculture. To avoid fighting in the Vietnam war he fled to Canada when he was 19, first to Toronto, then to Vancouver, where he lives to this day.

He had always dreamed of becoming a science fiction writer, but not till he had a family to feed did he get serious about writing for a living. He was not suited for anything else. This was 1977 when punk rock was in the air and he saw it as the next big thing. It guided his science fiction. His first stories appeared mainly in Omni magazine.

He comes out with a new book every three years or so. His latest is “Spook Country” (2007). It takes place in the same world as “Pattern Recognition” (2003), probably his best book after “Neuromancer”.

Gibson likes Borges.

He has written two so-so television shows for the “X-Files”. That they were not very good is no surprise: Gibson himself rarely watches television. He prefers to write instead.

Cyberspace: Although he credits Bradbury, Gibson was one of the first to understand that hooking computers together into a worldwide network was creating a new kind of world, a new space. Thus “cyberspace”.

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Reading David Foster Wallace

I just read David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” from his book, “Consider the Lobster”, which for some reason I bought the other day. I have seen his books before, but by the time I get to W my money is gone and I am not about to give up a book I have set my heart on for an unknown, even if they say he is good.

Well, now that I have read something of his, I know first-hand that he his good – almost great, in fact.

Not quite great because of his use of footnotes. He uses so many of them he calls them “FNs”. While they are almost always worth reading, it makes him hard to read: all this jumping about. People say we live in the age of hypertext, but even on the Web this stuff would not work. That is not how hypertext works, when it works well. (The best use of hypertext I have seen on the Web, by the way, is everything2.com).

But that aside, he is wonderful.

He is like Jesus: You like him because he is fearless, because he gives it to you straight. Because he cares more about the truth – and therefore more about you – than about making people like him or fear him or respect him.

He got in trouble with his university once for being “insensitive”: for privately telling the blacks he teaches that they have to write in White English if they want to get good marks – and to make their mark on the broader (mostly-white) society. He was trying to help them by being plain and truthful, but because he is white himself, it did not always come off that way. But as an example of his courage and truthfulness, it is priceless.

Wallace knows and cares about the English language and uses it far better than most. He uses words like “stuff” and yet in the same sentence he also uses long words too – some of them even seem to be made up. Yet you do not have to know the long words to make sense of him. He uses long words the same way Rushdie uses Hindi words or Dr Seuss uses made-up words: for the joy of it. Not, like most, to make you think he knows more than you.

His opinions are also interesting and surprising, because he thinks them through. He is like a Chomsky who can write. But he is not as solidly on the left like Chomsky is.

“Authority and American Usage” is great to read because it makes you laugh and makes you think. Like Orwell, he makes the case for good, solid, written English against Academic English, but then Wallace goes on to make the case against Politically Correct English and Black English as well.

And, by his own example, he makes the case for writing the truth, like Orwell, but writing more in the way people talk, like Hemingway.

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Rushdie

rushdie.jpgSir Salman Rushdie (1947- ) is a British writer famous for writing “Midnight’s Children” (1981), for which he won a Booker Prize, and “The Satanic Verses” (1988), for which he won a fatwa in 1989 and became world famous overnight. He was in hiding during the nine years of the fatwa. He said it was like living in a bad Rushdie story.

A fatwa is a ruling in Islamic law. Ayatollah Khomeini ruled that “The Satanic Verses” was blasphemous and that Rushdie should die for his crime.

That is because at one point in the “The Satanic Verses” Rushdie tells an old story about the Koran, that it once had Satanic verses. In these verses Muhammad allowed some to go on worshipping three goddesses as the daughters of God.

Some say Satan put the verses there, others that Muhammad himself did it in a moment of weakness, but most pious Muslims believe that the verses never existed, that the Koran has been pure from the very beginning.

But in “The Satanic Verses” it is the Pure that is the great evil! That is why Rushdie, a fallen-away Muslim, attacks the Koran and its purity. If he were a fallen-away Catholic it would have been the Virgin Mary instead.

Unlike Rushdie, many in the Muslim world fear the songs and dress and ways of the West, the Impure, and seek salvation in the Pure, in Islam. Rushdie, having experienced both sides, says that is a mistake.

Rushdie was brought up Muslim in Bombay, India. But when his parents sent him to England to get an education, he became one of those godless Western intellectuals.

After reading history at Cambridge Rushdie went to London. There he wrote ad copy by day and wrote his books by night.

His first book, “Grimus” (1975), was nothing great, but it gave him enough money to go back to India. He saw as much of the country as he could. Out of this grew “Midnight’s Children”, a history of India in the late 1900s as told through the wild and mixed-up lives of his Indian characters. It made his name as a writer. Most consider it his best book so far.

Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rushdie writes in the style of magic realism. He tells stories in a way that makes them seem real and yet impossible things keep happening – like two men falling out of the sky towards London and talking as if it were all perfectly natural.

His prose is wild and over the top and full of laughs, with Hindi words thrown in. When he heard stories as a boy he did not know all the words, yet that somehow made the stories better.

Rushdie loves the 1700s, especially Fielding, Swift and Sterne. Among writers of the 1900s he likes Joyce, Marquez and Gunther Grass. From Joyce he learned that you can do anything if you do it right.

That tall and beautiful woman you see him with sometimes is not his daughter but his fourth wife! Being a famous writer has its advantages.

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Ovid

daughterofminosOvid (-43 to +17), a Roman, was one of the best poets ever to write in Latin. He wrote the “Metamorphoses” and the “Art of Love”, among others. Most of our old Greek and Roman stories about heroes, gods and goddesses come from him.

At the end of “Metamorphoses” Ovid said his words would last down through the ages and so they have. The stories he told had been told for ages, even in his time, but no one has told them better.

As one of the best-loved authors in the West from 1100 to 1650, he influenced Dante, Botticelli, Shakespeare and Milton, among others. Shakespeare, for example, did not invent “Romeo and Juliet” – he took it from “Metamorphoses” and set it in Verona.

But even though Ovid was a great poet and storyteller, his writing is not what you would call deep. What depth it has comes from the stories themselves, which he merely retold.

Ovid came from Sulmo to the east of Rome across the mountains. He came from a family of rich blue bloods. His father sent Ovid and his brother to Rome to study rhetoric and law. Ovid did well and in time became a judge.

It looked like one day he might become a senator, but Ovid followed the true passion of his heart and became a poet. He became famous and all was well. But then in the year 8 the First Citizen, Caesar Augustus, banished Ovid.

Augustus gave no reason. Ovid’s “Art of Love” had offended him, it is true, but that was not reason enough. It seems that Ovid knew some deep, dark secret about Augustus.

Ovid was sent to live at the edge of the Black Sea, then called the Pontus. He lived there till his death. We still have the sad letters that he wrote from there.

The “Metamorphoses” tells the history of the world from the Creation down to the time of Augustus by means of stories about Greek gods and heroes. Love, jealousy, betrayal, murder – it is all there, just as in Shakespeare. So are Hercules, Venus, Icarus, Minus, Daphne, Aeneas and so on. It is called the Metamorphoses – Greek for “changing form” – because men turn into trees, birds, cows, stones, stars and even gods.

His “The Art of Love”, written in verse, is just what it sounds like: a handbook for men and women in the art of love. It offended many and helped to get him into trouble.

His earliest work was “Loves”. Well-written but not deep, nevertheless it greatly influenced how love is written about in the West.

In his book “The Feasts” Ovid wrote about the months of the year, telling us a lot about Roman history, custom and religion along the way as well as more of the old Greek and Roman stories. He never finished it: he only got up to June.

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Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is one of the great English poets of the early 1800s. He wrote grand, beautiful poems about nature, love and liberty. His writing is uneven, his word choice often careless, but he more than makes up for it.

Mary Shelley, his second wife, is the one who wrote “Frankenstein”. She was the daughter of a philosopher that he wrote to.

He was a friend of Lord Byron. He admired Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, who influenced him deeply along with Southey.

Like them he was one of the Romantic poets: he wrote as an expression of his feelings and passions, especially about nature and love. He wanted to free writing from the old, dry rules of the 1700s.

Of all he wrote, the best known is “Ozymandias”. Here it is in full:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

He died a month before he was to turn 30. His boat overturned in the sea on his way back from a visit with Byron (who died two years later).

At first he wrote political prose – he wanted to change the world. Not bit by bit in the English way, but all at once. This was in an age when America and France had overturned their kings not long before. One of his best friends was named after Thomas Jefferson.

Shelley was a great believer in liberty. If man could be freed from the old kings and the old gods, he could become perfect. (He thought Christ was made up.)

Later, though, he turned from writing prose to change the world to writing verse to show how he felt about the world. That came from reading Wordsworth and Coleridge. It is his verse, most of it written in Italy, that made him an intellectual angel.

People either loved him or hated him. He lived life to the full according to his passions and his high ideas. He was not one for half measures or heeding the words of older, wiser heads.

So, the Shelley who would not put sugar in his tea because it meant making slave masters rich, was the same Shelley who abandoned his first wife and their two little children because of his passion for another woman. Shelley married that other woman – the same one who later wrote “Frankenstein” – just a month after his first wife killed herself.

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Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) wrote “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings” and other books in which he tells stories of Middle Earth, a world he invented. It is so wonderfully detailed that you feel as if you were there. Even though it is full of elves, dwarves, dragons and orcs, it seems realer than ours when you are reading it.

Tolkien loved languages. After learning Welsh and Finnish, he invented a language for himself. From there he invented the rest of the world that goes with it – other languages, histories, countries, kings, heroes, old songs and strange creatures.

He started by telling the stories to his children. Later they became books.

As with the old Greek stories about gods and heroes, the attraction lies not in the sort of truth you find in history or science books, but in its moral truth.

  • 160px-JRRT_logo.svg“The Hobbit” (1937) tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit – like a man but shorter with more hair. He goes on a journey with 12 dwarves and a wizard, Gandalf. They cross the mountains and then the great Mirkwood to fight Smaug. He is a dragon who lives in a mountain, where he keeps the gold he took from the dwarves. On the way Bilbo finds a ring with strange powers…
  • “The Lord of the Rings” (1954-1955): Bilbo gives the ring to his son Frodo. With the ring Frodo could rule the whole world, but that would make him even more evil than Sauron, who rules the south and wants the ring for himself. To save the world Frodo must go to the heart of Sauron’s land to destroy the ring. “The Lord of the Rings” is often written as “LOTR” for short. It was put out as three books for reasons of length.

Tolkien says there is no deeper meaning to his stories – he wrote them only to amuse. The ring does not stand for the atom bomb, Sauron is not Hitler. Still, they tell a great story of good against overpowering evil.

Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings” out by hand. He did not have money for a typist, so he had to type it himself before it could be put out as a book. This became in effect a rewrite.

Tolkien taught at Oxford. He studied and taught the language and books of the West Midlands of England in the Middle Ages, stuff like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (1300s).

He fought in the First World War at the battle of the Somme, where he lost two good friends. He thought the 1900s were a grey time to live in, but it is where God had put him so there must be a reason for it.

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The corner of the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, England where the Inklings met.

Like C.S. Lewis, he was part of the Inklings, a writing club. They met and read what they were writing. Here is where “The Lord of the Rings” and the Narnia stories were first heard.

Tolkien worked on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). He researched word histories for the words from “waggle” to “warlock”.

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Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918- ) is perhaps the best Russian writer of the 1900s. He is most famous for the “Gulag Archipelago” (1973). Unlike most writers of his time, he has a strong Christian outlook and even looks like a bearded prophet.

For writing the truth about the evils of communist Russia, especially its system of political prisons known as the Gulag, he was a hero in the West and won a Nobel Prize in 1970.

He first wrote about one day of one man in the Gulag in the book that made him famous, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch” (1962). Then he detailed the whole system in an 1800-page book called “The Gulag Archipelago.”

In “Gulag” he showed that communism is not evil because Stalin was evil: communism was evil from the ground up. Even Lenin, his hero as a boy, was part of that evil.

He sent the book secretly to the West. In 1974, a few months after it appeared, he was banished.

While he lived in America in the mountains of Vermont, he wrote his Red Wheel series about the history of Russia in the 1910s when the communists took over. Solzhenitsyn was not so much writing as rewriting history from the lies the communists have told of those times.

When he got to America he did not keep quiet about its evils either. In his 1978 speech at Harvard he said that while America has an incredible wealth of things, spiritually it is very poor. (Mother Teresa has said the very same thing). Americans do not act like men, but like animals in a herd – even their leaders, intellectuals and news reporters. They do not recognize evil and stand up to it.

After the fall of communism he returned to Russia in 1994. He crossed Siberia in a train speaking at the towns along the way. He had a television talk show in 1995, but it did poorly.

The new Russia made Solzhenitsyn sad: it had copied all that was worst in the West.

Solzhenitsyn says that if Russia does not get its moral foundation right no amount of money will save it. He longs for a Holy Russia based on God and country. To many Russians he seems old-fashioned and out of touch.

solzhenitsynSolzhenitsyn experienced the Gulag first-hand. After fighting the Germans fearlessly for three years in the Red Army during the Second World War, he was thrown in prison for letters he wrote to an old school friend. The state opened the letters and saw the disrespectful things he said about the man with the moustache. Everyone knew he meant Stalin.

After eight years as a political prisoner of Stalin – a light sentence in those days – he was banished to what is now Kazakhstan. It was ruled by Russia in those days but it was not home. He taught high school and wrote his books in secret.

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Asimov

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was an American writer of science fiction and science fact from the late 1900s. Although he wrote hundreds of books about science for ordinary people, he is famous for his science fiction. He is best known for his books and stories about robots, like “I, Robot” (1950), his Foundation series and the short story “Nightfall” (1941).

His robots were like men made of metal, not born of flesh. They had Three Laws of Robotics built into their brains:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

His robot stories show how these would play out in real life – or what happens when they are broken.

The Foundation series is about an empire among the stars that fell and how Hari Seldon shortened the dark age that followed through the science of psychohistory (made up by Asimov). Seldon designed the history of a new, future empire. Of course Seldon could not predict everything…

Asimov tied his books into a future history, which goes something like this in years AD:

  • 0,000
    • 2007: I, Robot (1950)
    • 3500: Caves of Steel (1954)
    • 3501: The Naked Sun (1957)
    • 3503: The Robots of Dawn (1983)
    • c. 3700: Robots and Empire (1985)
  • 10,000
    • c. 11,000: The Currents of Space (1952)
    • before 12,000: The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
    • 13,327?: Pebble in the Sky (1950)
  • 20,000
    • 24,522: Prelude to Foundation (1988)
    • 24,530: Forward the Foundation (1993)
    • 24,567: Foundation (1951)
    • 24,878: Foundation and Empire (1952)
    • 24,944: Second Foundation (1953)
    • 25,066: Foundation’s Edge (1982)
    • 25,067: Foundation and Earth (1986)

Before becoming a full-time writer in 1954, Asimov was a scientist (and part-time writer). He did work on nucleic acid, one of the substances that life is built on.

Writing style:

While his writing is very clear and easy to read, it rarely rises to the level of art. His characters are a bit flat. You do not feel any real difference between them whether they are male or female, flesh or metal. But his stories are good and full of interesting ideas.

When writing about science, he writes just as if he were talking to you, not as if he were writing some long-winded, dry-as-dust schoolbook. Rather than listing facts and explaining theories, he prefers to tell stories. Science in a way is nothing but a great big mystery story.

He wrote about 468 books. He worked on two or three books at a time and finished about one or two a month. He could write 1,880 words a day. For him it was a labour of love.

Although it was not known at the time, he died of Aids from blood he received during a heart operation nine years before (when, unknown to doctors, Aids was spreading among New York’s heroin users).

His best books:

  • I, Robot (1950)
  • Foundation (1951)
  • Nightfall and Other Stories (1969)
  • Asimov’s New Guide to Science (1984)

– Abagond, 2006.

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Orwell

George Orwell (1903-1950) is an English writer who wrote “1984” and “Animal Farm” among others. His English prose is among the best of the 1900s.

His real name was Eric Blair. He was born in India to British parents. Although he went to Eton, one of the best schools in England, he never went to university. Instead he followed in his father’s footsteps and went overseas to serve the British Empire. He went to Burma but soon found the Burmese did not want British rule. So he came back to England to become a writer.

He lived down and out in London and Paris, becoming an anarchist, then a socialist, but never a communist. He hated communists. Later he went to Spain to report the civil war, but he soon found himself fighting for the republic against the communists.

He wrote many books and newspaper articles but did not become famous till near the end of his life when he wrote “Animal Farm” (1945). It is his fable about what happened to communism in Russia. The story tells how farm animals overthrew the farmer but soon found themselves under the rule of swine who said “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Their rule was even worse than the farmer’s. They sought power for power’s sake. Although Orwell wrote it as an attack against Stalin, it shows how the natural outcome of human nature and political power is not freedom but rather its opposite.

In the 1930s many on the left saw Stalin’s Russia as the great hope of mankind. They knew what evils Stalin was committing, but looked the other way. Orwell did not and they hated him for it.

As good as “Animal Farm” was, it was soon outdone by “1984” (1949). It paints the future in the dark colours that Orwell saw it in: the world is divided between three cruel empires which fight each other in endless wars.

People live under the evil eye of the state, their every move watched through two-way televisions that can never be turned off: “Big Brother is watching you”, as the saying went.

Meanings of words are turned upside down: the Ministry of Truth tells lies, the Ministry of Peace fights wars and the Ministry of Love breaks down your door in the middle of the night to take you away. Newspapers and books are controlled by the state: “Ignorance is strength.” The state rewrites history and makes the dictionary thinner and thinner to make “thoughtcrime” impossible and “duckspeak” natural. Newspeak replaces English.

Orwell thought democracy was not strong enough in the long run to stand up to evil or, for that matter, to the power of money.

Orwell saw the world with a clear and truthful eye and wrote accordingly. Largely unloved in his own time, history has valued him for telling the truth.

His best work:

  • Shooting an Elephant (1936)
  • Animal Farm (1945)
  • Politics of the English Language (1948)
  • 1984 (1949)

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