Sunday, July 03, 2005

The use of taboo words on websites

I've decided to start this and future blogs with a list of contents for visitors who might find the first item dull but be interested in another part of the blog.

In today's blog :
Recording a week's reading
Mary Seacole's story
On being bored by Madame Bovary
Anatomy of a buzz : Julia Child rides again
Taboo words
My comments on your comments

Recording a week's reading

Last weekend I thought it would be interesting to record my reading from Monday to Saturday.

For years my day has begun at 5.45 a.m. From 6-8 a.m. I write fiction. My target output or "quota" is 1,000 words which might be achieved before breakfast or take the whole day. Depending on how things are going, I do a lot of reading online. The following record is of offline reading only.

At breakfast : A chapter of Huckleberry Finn

Coffee break : amusing Daily Telegraph UK obituary of William Donaldson a k a
Henry Root

Lunch break: the new [June 24th] issue of The Bookseller which comes by post. Sarah Broadhurst's Paperback Preview pages [for October] have a new section For Grown-Up Women.

[It will be interesting to see if the photograph of Trevor Dolby and Rik Mayall on the Bent's Notes page provokes any disapproving comments in next week's Letters to the Editor. I had to go to Google to find out who Rik Mayall is. On the first site that came up, the homepage had a picture of him with a finger up his nose. I left, concluding that, whoever he is, his forthcoming autobiography won't be my kind of book.]

Evening : two short stories from Flowers in the Rain by Rosamunde Pilcher.

Breakfast : another chapter of Huck Finn in which Old Baldy Shepherdson shoots 14-year-old Bud Grangerford because of a long-standing feud betweeen the two Southern families.

Coffee break : Mark Steyn's leader page piece headed My virility doesn't matter – the EU's does. Steyn is one of my favourite journalists.

Lunch break : First chapter of Lee Child's The Enemy bought at Buttons Bookshop this morning. As usual, gripped from the opening para.

Evening : Started Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird borrowed from Guille-Allès public library this morning. The computerised catalogue told me the library had four copies, two on loan. When I checked the hardback shelves, the L section was being rearranged by a member of staff but there was no sign of Mockingbird. However the librarian said she had seen it behind the scenes. Given the choice of two hardbacks, I chose the lighter one – there's a steep-ish hill on the way home – published in 1966 in the Heinemann New Windmills series. At the back of the book there's a list of titles in the series and Anne and Ian Serraillier are named as Founding Editors.

The Harper Lee book was less gripping than the Lee Child, but anyway I couldn't read for long as we had a friend to supper.

Breakfast : Chapter Six of The Enemy. Can't remember the last time a novel brought me close to tears. It's not what you expect from a thriller, but Lee Child is as good at emotion as he is at tension, and brilliant at cliff-hanger endings. Reading an interview with him I was touched by the following – Q : Describe the best breakfast of your life. A : Room service in the George V hotel in Paris, with my wife on our wedding anniversary.

The Enemy has 68 reviews at Amazon. Mary Whipple, a Top 50 reviewer, wrote - "Though Child is brilliant in creating an exciting story packed with action, the final pages feel cynical and reveal a view of humanity that is grim." Rather difficult not to take a grim view of humanity, I should have thought.

Coffee and lunch breaks : Looked at Guy Bouchet's illustrations in New French Connection : A Style and Source Book by Linda Dannenberg, published last year by Thames & Hudson. It was on display at the top of the staircase in the Guille-Allès and, although it weighs a ton, I couldn't resist borrowing it. May not be able to resist buying it.

Evening : Now totally hooked on The Enemy

Breakfast : The Enemy.

Coffee break: Read Melissa Whitworth's piece about Tracy Quan, a New York prostitute, whose book Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl has been reprinted nine times in the US. It tells you something about 21st century Britain that the Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet supposedly aimed at the intelligent upper and middle classes, thinks, probably rightly, that its readers will lap up reading about a way of life that, in reality, is both sordid and fraught with risk.

Lunch break/evening : The Enemy.

No reading today. Talking rather than reading at breakfast, out to lunch and later to drinks party where I chatted to an interesting man from the island of Alderney who recommended The Time Traveller's Wife.

Breakfast : a chapter of Huck Finn in which, after Colonel Sherburn shoots a drunken nuisance, a lynch mob comes to his house and he tells them, "The pitifullest thing out is a mob; that's what an army is – a mob; they don't fight with courage that's born in them, but with courage that's borrowed from their mass and from their officers. But a mob without any man at the head of it, is beneath pitifulness."

Coffee break : Read the Prologue of The Time Traveller's Wife which, to my surprise, was not "out" at the Guille-Allès as I had expected.

Lunch break : More Huck Finn. Colonel Sherburn confronting the mob and telling them to go home reminded me of Jack Reacher. But I don't think I should have liked Reacher as much as I do had my first encounter with him been in The Enemy.

Evening : The Time Traveller's Wife. When did I fall into this habit of juggling with several books instead of reading one to the end before starting another? I can't remember. Perhaps it's something that a lot of readers do now. I must ask around.

Mary Seacole's story

I rarely watch TV and, when I do, tend to watch the screen with one eye and read with the other. But Channel 4's Mary Seacole, last Sunday night, about the Jamaican "doctoress" who, after the Crimean War was as famous as Florence Nightgale, was riveting. This was largely because of the perfect casting of Angela Bruce in the title role. She exuded warmth and humour and kept my attention on the screen for an hour.

Although, like the majority of viewers probably, I hadn't heard of Mary Seacole before, there is masses of stuff about her on the web, including a dedicated site where the delay in putting up her blue plaque is discussed.

The Amazon UK synopsis of Jane Robinson's book about her reads –
The Times called her a heroine, Florence Nightingale called her a brothel-keeping quack, and Queen Victoria's nephew called her, simply, 'Mammy' - Mary Seacole was one of the most eccentric and charismatic women of her era. Born at her mother's hotel in Jamaica in 1805, she became an independent 'doctress' combining the herbal remedies of her African ancestry with sound surgical techniques. On the outbreak of the Crimean War she arrived in London desperate to join Florence Nightingale at the Front, but the authorities refused to see her. Being black, nearly 50, rather stout, and gloriously loud in every way, she was obviously unsuitable. Undaunted, Mary travelled to Balaklava under her own steam to build the 'British Hotel', just behind the lines. It was an outrageous venture, and a huge success - she became known and loved by everyone from the rank and file to the royal family. For more than a century after her death this remarkable woman was all but forgotten. This, the first full-length biography of a Victorian celebrity recently voted the greatest black Briton in history, brings Mary Seacole centre stage at last.

On being bored by Madame Bovary

If Madame B is Flaubert's masterpiece, I shall not be reading any more of his oeuvre, though I might dip into Geoffrey Wall's biography of this overrated French writer to see if it confirms my impression that Gustave F was a weirdo who pulled off a spectacular literary con trick, at least as far as posterity is concerned. Perhaps the novel seemed exciting and controversial in the middle of the19th century, but it doesn't today...or not to this reader.

In the 19-page introduction to his translation of Madame B, Geoffrey Wall tells us –
Flaubert was naturally fluent and copious as a writer, but it took him five years to write Madame Bovary. He worked fastidiously, compulsively, often sixteen hours a day, revising every sentence many times over, until it sounded exactly and exquisitely as it should. In a new age of mass-production, in a world of cheap crude fiction manufactured in quantity, every sentence of this novel was to declare the enormity of his labour that had gone into its making. It was to be a luxury item, gratuitiously crafted and minutely detailed. His mother remarked, judiciously, that the pursuit of the perfect phrase had dessicated his heart.

The introduction ends – Writing such as this invites us, delectably, to reinvent our reading.

What that means I'm not clear. The novel supports my view that many of the books considered brilliant by literary people are neither entertaining, inspiring or even mildly interesting to ordinary readers.

Take this sentence mid-way down p 13 of the Penguin Classics paperback. "She was at the door; she went to fetch her parasol, she opened it." Dull, unnecessary padding. The book is full of it.

By this point I had already lost interest in poor feeble Charles Bovary who had allowed his domineering mother to bully him into marriage with the ugly and "splendidly bepimpled" but rich widow Madame Dubuc. As for his second wife, Emma, the Madame B of the title, there is nothing to like about her. Flaubert describes her as difficult and capricious. She is also totally self-centred. Even her suicide is an act of gross selfishness.

My interest quickened briefly when the slightly pock-marked pharmacist Homais came on the scene, but the young man called Léon is a bore. Within two pages of Léon's departure for Paris, Rodolphe, a 34-year-old womaniser with a chateau and 15,000 francs a year, arrives. Tired of his current mistress, he is soon lusting after Emma and she after him.

My dislike of and impatience with her became irreversible in the scene when, on a country walk, a knife is needed and Dr Bovary produces one.

- Ah! She said to herself, he carries a knife in his pocket, like a peasant.

Silly little snob! Any man worth his salt always carries a knife, nowadays often a Swiss Army Knife.

The translator tells us that "We are drawn, with great skill, into a sustained imaginative contact with Emma…There is an intenseley pleasurable primary identification with Emma."

In my view it's impossible for any woman reader – except perhaps those who enjoy the most inane type of chick lit – to have any sympathy with Emma. I shouldn't have thought a man could either, although we are told "…it is a vital part of Flaubert's design to arouse his readers sexually."

Anatomy of a Buzz : Julie & Julia

Last Thursday morning I read
Anna Weinberg's piece
under this heading and was reminded of the first time I heard cookery expert Julia Child's distinctive drawl on television while we were spending several months in America.

Weinberg wrote –
Julie Powell’s cooking memoir, Julie & Julia, could easily have gone the way of so many other blogger memoirs. (Anyone remember Save Karyn?)

Instead, Powell’s account of her year-long cooking project, in which she prepared every recipe in Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking while blogging about it, is one of the most highly buzzed books of the fall season. For those unfamiliar with the story, in 2003, Powell was a secretary living in Queens. Nearing 30 and hating her job, with little (she thought) to show for her life, she embarked on her epic cooking project in order to, as she wrote, “save myself from giving up entirely to dreariness and mediocrity.” With her profanity-laced blog detailing the daily struggles of cooking like Julia, Powell soon won the hearts of thousands of readers, and, by the end of the project, was fielding interview requests from NPR, CNN, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. With that kind of built-in media attention, a book deal was inevitable.
Powell, who’s re-launching the blog this summer to reconnect with her readers, will also be going on a “sizeable” author tour in early October. Though Little, Brown hasn’t confirmed cities or stores yet, “response from booksellers has been extraordinary,” says Cottrell. “In as many places as possible, we plan on having bookstores collaborate with a local restaurant. The restaurant may even serve a Julia Child meal featured in Julie & Julia. Booksellers are embracing the idea of very special, unique events for Julie, which we love to hear.”

After reading that I went to my shelf of cookery books and took down From Julia Child's Kitchen [more than 600 pages long] bought in the early Eighties for £8.50. In it there's a press clipping dated 14 August 2004 with the heading "Julia Child American television chef who learned to cook in France and was not afraid to be seen making a hash of it."
The report starts "Julia Child, who died yesterday aged 91, was the television cook responsible for introducing America to French cuisine." It ends "Paul Child died in 1994. When Julia Child moved to California in 2001, the kitchen from her Cambridge house was placed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington."

Julia Child was one of the great life-enhancers of the second half of the 20th century. All her admirers will be delighted that her influence has brought success to Julie Powell. Unfortunately the link above requires you to download Flash 6 player which, on principle, I won't do. But you can see a picture of the kitchen here without hanging about for Flash 6 to download which on a slow dial-up connection takes forever.

Profanity online

Reading about Julie Powell's "profanity-laced blog" reminded me that earlier this week I went to look at the website of an interesting new project which I won't name at the moment as I don't wish to embarrass the people behind it before they've got off the ground.

As I always do at a new-to-me site, after looking at the public part, I clicked on View/Source to take a look at the HTML code. At this site I was startled to read –
Congratulations. You're the sort of c--- who reads meta tags

[The taboo word was given in full in the original]

Thinking that the site-owners might not be aware of the message in the code, I emailed to ask who their designer was. To which they replied that the site was designed in-house.

I then emailed – "I thought you might have fallen into the hands of some young geek who was playing a joke on you. But sites designed by YGs usually have a Flash splash screen."

To which the reply was "Ah! Yes, sorry, no it was a joke we played on ourselves. But just a temporary one. Will be gone soon."

Whether it will go remains to be seen. It was still there the following morning.

The new site has a connection with another site where profanity and lewd jokes seem the norm. However two of the grandees of British publishing have lent their names to the new project and it is an exciting idea I shall watch with interest.

My comments on your comments

Stephen asked "What happened to The Shadow of the Wind? You took that out of the library but haven't put it back yet." It went back this week. I was disappointed by it. If anyone would like to know why, ask me and I'll explain. Otherwise I feel it's better to concentrate on books I can praise.

Stephen, I was much amused by your acerbic comments on the Thomas Covenant books. If the Guille-Allès Public Library has it, I'll try your recommendation "Robert Holdstock's wonderful Mythago Wood".

Adrian Weston was kind enough to say he liked this blog. At his own new-this-month blog I made notes of several book recommendations. His wife sounds an intrepid woman, attending the Glastonbury festival in, I gather, a late state of pregnancy. They also have a teenager and a three-year-old who are lucky to be growing up in a house stuffed with books. I feel sorry for children who don't. A huge disadvantage.

Most days, en route to the library, I pass a school whose pupils are dropped off and fetched by car by mothers who probably indulge their every whim. But I often wonder how many live in houses where there are more videos and CDs than books.

Coming next Sunday

A moral dilemma for library users
Thoughts about blogging