Sanitizing “The Giver”

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On August 11, 2014, thousands of teens and their parents eagerly purchased tickets for the long-awaited film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newbery Award-winning novel The Giver.  My teenaged son read it in junior high and loved it. I loved it too. Like Madelyn L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Lowry’s The Giver has a subterranean angst that readers can feel bubbling under their fingertips as pages are turned, a sense that no matter how calm this world is on the outside, something is irreparably wrong.

Everyone complains when a beloved novel is turned into a film. This may be especially true of science fiction works, as  entirely new worlds depend on an individual’s imagination formed from an author’s words. When one person, a director, substitutes his own vision for that of countless personal interpretations, tempers flare. While most moviegoers understand the necessity of divergences from the original text, other alterations are harder to accept.

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Zeroes and Ones and Your Odds of Writing a Best-Seller

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Did you ever suspect the runaway best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey was written by robots?  Well, somebody check E.L. James for vital signs because she might actually be an algorithm.  Check this out:

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Surely a human being would die of boredom before biting a lip in print forty-three times in one novel.

Actually, I’m skewing things a bit.  But it is true that “[s]cientists have developed an algorithm which can analyse a book and predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether or not it will be a commercial success.” (Source)

By downloading books in public domain from Project Gutenberg , scientists from Stony Brook University in New York developed a program called “statistical stylometry, which mathematically examines the use of words and grammar” to determine the popularity of a book, matching the programs results to the sales of works from the past. The experiment involved a wide range of literary styles, from science fiction, to novels, to poetry. Factors in determining sales and popularity included the “style” of writing as well as novelty in plot and character (they do acknowledge that “luck” plays a role as well.)

The program accurately predicted success, or failure, of those works an astonishing 84% of the time.

So what factors seemed to indicate, in a more concrete way, what you should do to increase your odds of becoming a best-selling writer?

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And the Oxford Word of the Year is… Selfie

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Must. Remind. Self..  The OED is not an arbiter of, but a chronicler of,  English language use.

Every year, the Powers-That-Be lean over the windowsills located high atop their Ivory Towers and cock an ear towards the milling crowds below. When they hear a word they do not recognize being shouted often enough, they dip their quills into wells of octopus ink and inscribe that word on gold-rimmed parchment.

Okay, not really.  Actually, it’s only been since 2004 that Oxford has selected a word of the year at all. Judy Pearsall, editorial director at Oxford, explains that a language usage program “collects around 150m words of current English in use each month.”  The word in 2013 that has become the most frequent was “selfie.” According to The Guardian

The word can be traced back to a post on an Australian online forum in 2002: “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

So now we can blame Australia for both Crocodile Dundee and the word “selfie”! (Just kidding, mates!) 

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2013 National Book Award Winners

Is your Kindle finger itching? Do you have a yearning to go to the bookstore or library but don’t know what sounds good? Well, maybe this will help.  Last night, this year’s National Book Awards were announced. Here is the complete list of winners and finalists.

James McBride took the fiction prize for his novel The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead Books/Penguin Group USA):

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Abolitionist John Brown calls her “Little Onion,” but her real name is Henry. A slave in Kansas mistaken for a girl due to the sackcloth smock he was wearing when Brown shot his master, the light-skinned, curly-haired 12-year-old ends up living as a young woman, most often encamped with Brown’s renegade band of freedom warriors as they traverse the country, raising arms and ammunition for their battle against slavery. Though they travel to Rochester, New York, to meet with Frederick Douglass and Canada to enlist the help of Harriet Tubman, Brown and his ragtag army fail to muster sufficient support for their mission to liberate African Americans, heading inexorably to the infamously bloody and pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry.  Starred Review, Booklist  –Carol Haggas

Finalists for the prize included:

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House)

Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (The Penguin Press/Penguin Group USA)

George Saunders, Tenth of December (Random House)

The winner for non-fiction is George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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Do It Now: Advice from Doris Lessing and Junie B. Jones

The world lost two influential literary voices this week. Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing, best known for her novel The Golden Notebook passed away Sunday at age 94.  And Barbara Park, author of the beloved children’s books featuring her irascible character Junie B. Jones, died Friday after a long battle with ovarian cancer.  Park was 66.

While it may not seem that these two very different authors have a lot in common, what Park and Lessing shared was a love of vocal women as well as sense of appreciation for life and its transient nature. Park captured what few writers for children manage to do successfully: the energy and curiosity of a girl with a questioning mind.  For her part, Lessing was always adjusting the lens.  As we get older, the clarity of a Junie B. Jones is harder to maintain, but Lessing asks us to remember, and to seek the authentic in an often exhausting world.

I wonder what Junie B. and Lessing might have to say to each other:

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Joseph Brodsky’s Reading List for Essential Conversations

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Nobel Prize-winning poet, essayist, and professor Joseph Brodsky

In 1972, poet Joseph Brodsky angered government officials in his native Russia and was expelled from the country.  With the help of fellow poet W.H. Auden, Brodsky settled in the United States, found a position at Yale and taught classes at Mount Holyoke as well.  Later, he accepted professorships at both Cambridge and the University of Michigan.  (Not bad for an autodidact!)

Of the many opinions Brodsky espoused to his students was that they could not carry on intelligent conversations unless they had done fundamental reading in what he considered influential texts. He passed out a list of these works to everyone in his classes.

Monica Partridge, a former student at Mount Holyoke recalls an early class meeting with Brodsky.  On the Brodsky Reading Group blog, Partridge wrote that

“Shortly after the class began, he passed out a handwritten list of books that he said every person should have read in order to have a basic conversation.  At the time I was thinking, ‘Conversation about what?’ I knew I’d never be able to have a conversation with him, because I never thought I’d ever get through the list. Now that I’ve had a little living, I understand what he was talking about. Intelligent conversation is good. In fact, maybe we all need a little more.”

Here are the books or works on that list. I’m proud to say that unless the conversation turns to “Icelandic Sagas” I could pretty well hold my own at a Brodsky cocktail party…

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Libraries and Kids: The Only True Magic

where-the-wild-things-are-680uw True Story:  I remember getting my library card more vividly than I recall getting my driver’s license.  My best memories of childhood were going to the library with my mom and checking out armfuls of books, which she would read to me for hours on end.  At two, I am told, I would stand on tiptoe at the librarian’s desk and request  favorites or authors (I didn’t know why the lady laughed at me.  I guess most toddlers weren’t as particular.) I would rather go to the library than the movies, or the park, or anywhere else.  Still true. The libraries I recall were nothing fancy.  Maybe some bulletin boards heralding an upcoming holiday or new books perched half-open, standing on top of shelves. Of course in 197…(cough, cough), there were not nearly as many ways for a child to be entertained.  The television had four channels (as God intended):  ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS.  Cartoons were from 7am to 10am, period. No LOL cats, no Youtube…. I like to scare my son with these tidbits. Today, libraries are competing to keep your child reading and finding some interesting ways to do so, by engaging the imagination.  Here are a few of my favorite new spaces, and some words from others who continue to love libraries:

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Spain’s Playoffice, a child-centric design firm, created the “reading net” in an attempt to making reading more fun for kids. The “reading net” stretches across the length of a library room, and kids can play on it in between chapters.

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