A fine list of newspaper errors and corrections from last year. I rather liked this one from the Huffington Post:
An earlier version of this story indicated that the Berlin Wall was built by Nazi Germany. In fact, it was built by the Communists during the Cold War.
There’s a serious side to this, of course, in that the apology rarely gets as much coverage as the initial error. That error then becomes considered fact by culture at large. Well, perhaps with the exception of the one quoted above…
This year I seem to have discovered more about why I read than good books in particular. This isn’t to say there hasn’t been many good reads – on the contrary.
I think I read for the same reasons I write: to explore. I’m an environmentalist in the text: I like the experience of landscapes, real or otherwise. I like the sense of place. This is partially why I’m drawn so strongly to landscape books: there’s something about a personal interaction with the landscape that appeals to me as a reader and a writer. It is, ultimately, about the world shaping people, after all. Or people shaping an artificial landscape, I never quite know. Inner journeys, at least.
The idea of a ‘increase the number of novels you read’ kind of list doesn’t appeal to me – reading isn’t a race; cramming them in won’t improve me as a reader. Besides, I can still get pleasure from a book if it sits happily on my shelf being a nice edition that I interact with from time to time. With that realisation, I’ll highlight some further areas of exploration for 2014: nature writing that isn’t limited to Britain, although that tends to be my personal escapism these days; history of eras with which I’m not familiar, though I bet I go back to Rome more often than not; more crime novels, though they, too, tend to be strongly connected to settings. For some reason I’d like to try more random biographies, too. There might be the odd SFF book, but writing so much of that genre day and night, I’m not as bedazzled as easily. Or the real world dazzles me more.
A rambling post, this, but I never promised it would go anywhere.
About a year ago I said I wanted to read more books written by women. This was largely to identify whether or not I was being sexist (unintentionally) in my reading. I tend to interact with books in different ways – some I’ll read parts of some for research, whereas others I’ll blast the whole way through. I had an ambitious “aim for 90% women writers” target for my reading, in which I failed miserably. In my vague record I seriously interacted with just under 50 books for 2013, and ended up with an approximate skewing of 60% male writers to 40% female.
1) For many historical topics (this year’s fascination was on Anglo-Saxons as well as Romans) there are virtually no female writers. It’s so utterly male-dominated you would think it a 19th Century gentlemen’s club, and not publishing in 2013. That’s part of the reason I read more men than women this year.
2) Same goes for British nature writing. It’s absurdly skewed towards men – there are a handful of great female writers (Kathleen Jamie today, Ella Pontefract in yesteryear), but it was hard to find any books not written by men. There are publishers to a great job of bringing back writers of the past, such as Little Toller books. But when their list is 95% men, you get to see the problem isn’t anything new.
3) Sexism is invisible in publishing, for some genres more than others. You might not need to be sexist to reinforce sexism, because it’s such a part of the industry. Perhaps more specifically, women are invisible in some genres of publishing more than others.
4) This is, of course, most certainly not unique to publishing, but many facets of society. Or rather, it is society. Only by making a conscious choice – a quota – could I get close to a balance. But even then some areas of my reading are so dominated by men that it was almost impossible to get balance.
5) Making quotas exposes you to new writers. This is good for so many reasons.
6) Things are just as bad, if not worse, for non-white writers. I dare say that the ethnic diversity of the UK is not reflected in publishing.
7) I’m going to try harder next year. I’m going to actively contact publishers in my own areas of interest and ask them why they aren’t publishing more women writers. Imagine how cool it would be if more people did that?
8) Apologies that this deals with gender in a binary sense.
Actors Grahame Edwards and Eryl Lloyd Parry recreate a YouTube comment fight in a rather Beckettian manner. This follows up on a previous video. I have to say, I absolutely love this. LOL, and so on. It actually chimes with recent thoughts on Internet culture, how most comments threads and forums just seem so ridiculous when you think about them. YouTube is probably the worst culprit for ridiculous things people say.
ORBIS, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, is pretty damn amazing:
For the first time, ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.
That means you can plan your epic adventures as per the ancient world. What the hell are you waiting for? For me to get to Alexandria from the nearest Roman settlement Lindum (Lincoln) it would have taken about 56.5 days. Pirates might well have made that more – or just killed me outright.
(Via Medieval POC on Tumblr.)
So, I finally managed to get to see this much talked-about exhibition at the British Museum. Though I’d never visited these two archeological sites in Italy, I have spent a fair bit of time reading up on them during research for Drakenfeld. There are very few places that give a near-perfect picture of daily life in the ancient world, as so few are preserved so immaculately. (I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog doesn’t know what happened at these two ancient sites in 79AD, so we’ll continue with that assumption! If you don’t then, um, spoilers. Or something.)
At these exhibitions – or at least ones I’ve been to at the British Museum – it seems as if the curators want to take visitors through a narrative, which I actually quite like. It’s better than just turning up somewhere and sifting through a pile of very lovely remains. The curators have gone to painful detail in order to allow audiences to understand what it was like to live in Pompeii and Herculaneum – and to show us that there are many similarities between modern and ancient cultures. They are like us, the exhibition reminds us, which of course makes the final part of the narrative so potent. That could have been you.
After getting a general overview of where these sites are to be found, and the kind of people and nationalities of those who lived there, we’re presented with modern representations of a dimly lit Roman atrium. Portraits, busts, mosaics and various items found in an atrium, all of which come from Pompeii, are on display. Branching out from here are further sections – cubiculum, triclinio and horto, and the trinkets found within. I’m reasonably familiar with these kinds of items, having hit the Met Museum in New York before, and the British Museum’s Roman sections a good few times. That said, what’s lovely about this exhibition in particular is the arrangement and context. This was life. This is what they did. This is what they used. Here’s the smutty statues they owned. I won’t go into detail on the items, because that sort of ruins the magic in some ways, but I’m always impressed by the level of sophistication of Ancient Rome. From their engineering to the sublime craftsmanship and ornate jewellery, there’s a level of attention to detail that stands up well against comparative items today – so they must truly have been things of awe and beauty 2,000 years ago.
But from here, once life is established, it proceeds through to death brought by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Bring reminded of the facts, the statistics, and of the sheer intensity of these eruptions, is humbling enough – and then of course we see the resin and plaster casts taken of the hollows in the ash. Families huddled together. Children cowering. Babies in the ‘pugilist pose’ as their tendons retracted after exposure to extreme temperature at the time of death. Their ghosts captured forever.
And then through to the gift shops, in which the amount of Roman tea towels, penis necklaces and books is mind-boggling. Not to mention the centurion rubber ducks.
Image above taken from this Italian website.
“The internet is a powerful tool for communication, but it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. As most of us have seen or experienced, the internet can bring out the worst behavior in people, highlighting some of the cruelest and most hurtful aspects of humanity. Issues such as bullying online and trolling have garnered a lot of attention recently, prompting questions about who does, and should, regulate the internet, and what free speech means online.”
I’ve very much enjoyed the new season of Wallander, on the BBC. I prefer Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Kurt Wallander over any of the international versions. What’s more, this adaptation is visually beautiful. The unusual shots, the strange colour tone, the wonderful vistas – it’s immensely pleasing to the eye.
I am a big fan of Henning Mankell’s books, on which the series is based, and Branagh seems to fit the character perfectly. He might be a bit too handsome and lean, but in terms of the psychology, he’s there. There was an interesting interview a while ago where he talked about that misery:
And I felt as though my skin was sagging. I felt as though the gravitational weight of Wallander was starting to have an impact.’ When filming finished on the first season, Branagh had to recuperate. That is, undertake a burst of exercise, of stretching. ‘I felt as though I had to uncoil from this preoccupation with dark matter. And two weeks after I’d finished I felt about three inches taller and six inches slimmer.’
I wonder, though, why Wallander’s misery is so engaging. It goes way beyond feeling sorry for him – I remember reading one of the books years ago and the level of misery thrown at Wallander almost became comical. Maybe with crime series the audience has surrendered itself to expecting a certain level of blood and gore, yet that’s still not really what Wallander’s about. The gore is not dwelt upon, yet the mood remains intense and heavy throughout. When there is violence, it’s used sparingly but powerfully (I reckon there’s another blog to be written on that topic).
Is the appeal of such misery simply rooting for someone to do well in life? Is it the search for where someone’s breaking point can be found? As someone who creates characters, I find it difficult to create genuine Wallander-scale misery. Sure, bad things can happen to your characters – a relationship breakdown, loss of career, and so on – but this is something else entirely. This is relentlessly depressing, remarkably bleak stuff, yet it’s so engaging. It’s not merely misery for the sake of it, either – the misery is compelling, meaningful and conveys a sense of direction for Wallander’s character.
But how can such a depressing character be so successful? There’s no wish-fulfilment here, no happy endings for him. Where’s the appeal in this? I’m not sure I understand myself, but I would say that a lot of it is down to that part of the craft of writing that can’t be explained – both from Henning Mankell and the screenwriters who bring such misery to life (apparently Mankell has worked closely with the screenwriters). I find the new series irresistible, for its cinematography, acting, but most of all knowing that I’m going to be dragged into a dark place for a while. Such drama makes us feel something profound.