Archive for March, 2010

I have been in a Walker Books-induced frenzy lately. First I discovered that Patrick Ness had come and gone from our shores without calling me – The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in his Chaos Walking trilogy, is one of the saddest, most wonderful things I’ve read lately – and now I have discovered Mo Willems.

Mo Willems, you see, used to be a writer and animator on Sesame Street. (It seems silly to italicise that, but there you are.) And now he writes and illustrates incredible picture books. The ones I have (a present from Maddie) are from two series: I Will Surprise My Friend! from the Elephant & Piggie books, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, featuring a psychotic pigeon that could do with some of Nurse Ratched’s tender ministrations.

These books are seriously cult. They hit the New York Times bestseller list. And it’s easy to see why. Kids must love – and see themselves in – the cheeky humour in these stories. The Pigeon, who spends the whole book begging you to let him drive a big blue bus, tries to slip you a fiver, and says: ‘I bet your mum would let me.’ And adults, the purchasers, must respond to the simple, clean drawings with delight – I’ve already read them both three times.

Elephant Gerald and Piggie are hyper-expressive: when Elephant thinks Piggie has gone missing, his face crumples into a Charlie Brown-style pencil squiggle. But not only that – his trunk slumps right down over his face and his brow creases up like a prune. When Pigeon finally loses it, there are feathers strewn everywhere, and his lidded eye leaves you in no doubt of his disdain for you.

There’s hardly any text in these books – a line per page or two. But the personalities of the characters are bright and clear. When Piggie and Gerald lose track of each other, Gerald gets worried that something has happened to his friend Piggie: perhaps a huge bird has got her in its claws! Or maybe she’s about to get eaten by a monster with giant teeth! And what is Piggie thinking? ‘I am hungry for lunch.’

The good news? I’ll be conducting the final HELLO INTERN interview with Aileen Lord, book design intern at Walker Books. The bad news? There are like a bazillion of these books, and I have a feeling I’m going to have to buy all of them.

March 21, 2010

So no internet yet. Please bear with!

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A couple of years ago, I was sitting on a train, and I felt something brush against my leg. At first, I thought it was merely an accidental brush, the kind of irritation that public transport regularly affords its sufferers. But it happened again after I moved a little distance from the man sitting next to me, and again after I had put a hand’s span between us. I was sure that it wasn’t a mistake, that the man had gotten his jollies from touching me even though I didn’t want him to, and I took a long and glaring look at him. Once he realised I was on to his disgusting game, he sprinted off the train at the next station. I was grossed out and indignant, and I was determined to report the incident to the police.

At the police station, the officer asked me if I would be willing to assist an artist to put an Identikit image together. I thought I could recall his face pretty clearly, so I agreed. At first, the artist showed me some pictures of men who fit the profile I’d briefly described, but I knew for certain that my assailant hadn’t been any of the men pictured. Then, the artist began to ask me about individual facial features: what did his eyes look like? His nose? His mouth? As I opened my mouth to describe the man’s face, I felt my recall of his face melt away in my mind. I was utterly bewildered. What had happened to my memory?

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking is a book about what Gladwell calls ‘rapid cognition’, and how it is often more powerful and useful than extended thought processes. Gladwell is a bestselling author known for his obsessive interest in and ability to identify particular universal cathexes. In Outliers, he attempted to make less ‘crude’ our understanding of how people become ‘so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August’. The Tipping Point was the result of a fascination with ‘the sudden drop in crime in New York City – and that fascination grew to an interest in the whole idea of epidemics and epidemic processes’.

As mentioned above, in Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, the first of Gladwell’s books I have read – Gladwell’s project is to explain how we make snap decisions, and that first impressions can be better than the ones we cultivate after long thought. Who wouldn’t find that fascinating? Though we, as humans, pride ourselves on our capacity for logical thought, there is something seductive about the idea that we are naturally preternatural, that our brains are so disposed to correct decision making that we don’t need time to improve our decisions.

In order to illustrate his thesis, Gladwell kicks the book off with a real-life story about a kouros, or Greek statue of a nude male, acquired by California’s J. Paul Getty museum.  The Getty inquired after the bona fides of the statue, comparing its features with other examples from the age, checking out the identity of the art dealer and inviting a geologist to ascertain the age of the materials used in the artwork. Satisfied with the authenticity of the kouros, the museum agreed to acquire it. However, when the Getty’s curator mentioned this while unveiling the statue for Evelyn Harrison, an expert on Greek sculpture, Harrison said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ How did she know what other experts couldn’t – that the statue was a fake?

Although the statue example is arguably as much a cautionary tale as a paean to the capacity of the human mind to make accurate decisions in a short time – just ask more experts next time, Getty! – it’s a great example that sets instinctive reactions against long processes. Of course, it’s not as simple as just this dichotomy, and in Blink, Gladwell also investigates a few different elements of swift decision making processes, including their vulnerability to error. One example of this vulnerability is what Gladwell calls ‘the Warren Harding error’, named after ‘one of the worst presidents in American history’. How was he elected? ‘Why, the son of a bitch looks like a senator’. That is, Gladwell claims, we all have biases that are unacknowledged and difficult to dislodge, including unconscious biases for people who are tall, for instance, or biases against minorities or women. In addition, as with Harrison’s ‘instinctive’ reaction to the statue, training can enhance the snap decisions we are able to make through honing in on the important information and discarding the dross.

Gladwell is talented at picking vividly illustrative examples and studies to support his points, though the book occasionally assumes an authority that it is perhaps too bare bones to really deserve. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Blink was so popular because it’s so accessible, and so pedagogical – I walked away from this book with a strong feeling of having learned something without having done much work. The insight earned from reading this book, however, is not illusory, and is often immediately awarded, because decision making is so integral to everyday experience for most of us. For instance, while reading the section about creating successful structure for spontaneous decisions, I quickly designated the ‘brain melt’ I experienced at the police station as the result of ‘verbal shadowing’, which occurs when the left hemisphere – which thinks in words – displaces the visual memories collected in the right hemisphere. This explains the ‘lucky’ and timely decisions we sometimes make based on visual information without having kicked off a verbal thought process, such as in Blink‘s case of a fireman who ordered everyone out of a building seconds before the floor of a building ignited.

Our brains are magnificent organs, and while they sometimes fail us, they often fizz and pop away without our having any conception of how they work. But just as we can learn by storing facts and details, we can turn our thinking faculties upon the very part of us that enable us to do those things. Blink is a wonderfully narrative-driven exploration of a particular set of the brain’s strange but beneficial functions. But while Blink does much to explain the seemingly mysterious process of correct and swift decision making, it does not make that process less interesting; rather, it replaces the sense that some of us are special or have a sixth sense, with a healthful dose of that old medicine, ‘knowledge is power’.

I stick my nose in where it isn’t wanted quite often, it seems, but this time — an interview with Tom Cho, conducted by Chris Flynn — it was caught on portable recorder and typed up for posterity at Fly the Falcon. Tom talks about what he reads when writing, the commercial life of a book and the impact of book reviews. I contribute a grand total of three comments, each bottoming out at zero relevance or conversational value. A girl must try.

March 10, 2010

Scorpio: The internet holds a fraction less charm for you this week; your forty-eighth favourite literary blogger has derelicted her posting duty, and only a mid-week apology appears in its usual concentric — Ikea ‘Gustav’ desk, black Apple MacBook screen, Mozilla Firefox, Google Reader — hull. ‘Can you employ ‘concentric’  when speaking of rectangular shapes,’ you ponder.

Even while you excogitate this mystery of meaning, you are not certain whether to be fatigued or merely bored by the insipid excuses she offers. Despite her vow that the swift pace of her life has resulted in such muddle-headedness that she has today mistaken both a plain notebook and a collection of Le Fanu stories for her diary, ‘Fie ‘pon her,’ you think, ‘Blogs are for posting.’

But while you may feel irritated to a minor degree for this transgression, you may also take comfort in the fact that the internet will surely fail. So buck up, rehearse your rendition of a favourite sonnet, and rejoice in the knowledge that strawberry ice-cream, at least, has survived to this golden age.

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March 4, 2010

I’m pretty sure this exact sentence was the straw that broke the camel’s back: ‘It is not the law that the Aboriginal people as holders of any proprietary or possessory rights could not be dispossessed without lateral treaty, lawful compensation or lawful international intervention.’ TRIPLE NEGATIVE, PEOPLE.

*Despite a red-hot go at being one. Okay, it wasn’t even really a go; it was more of a stop.

We hear a lot about the death of language. Whether it’s the death of the author, the novel, the letter – every literary item imaginable has, it seems, been eulogised. Michael Quinion’s Gallimaufry is a delightful book that trawls through the obituaries of the many such fallen soldiers: words that have sailed off into the ether.

A word-nut will have lots of fun with this book. Quinion is an engaged guide, and uses a light writing style, which is a blessing when he navigates the linguistic and historical origins of the words he studies. The title word, gallimaufry, which now means a ‘hodgepodge’, comes from old French. It originally meant a stew or sauce, and it’s still used today, though perhaps only in very enlightened (or pretentious) corners of the English-speaking world. Quinion has divided his enquiry into five thematic parts. The first deals with food and drink, and is of course my favourite; the second with health and medicine; the third, entertainment and leisure; the fourth, transport and fashion; and the fifth, names, employment and communications. Those of you with refined palates will relish the knowledge that the word bottarga (or cured fish roe) – as we know it in Australia – came from the Arabic butarkha originally. There are lots of wonderful little slices through history like this that make you feel like you’re lifting up a magic curtain into the past.

Wonderfully, the thematic division of the book allows you to discover English-speaking habits and cultures that are long fallen by the wayside. Quinion fossicks around in the verbal dirt for things I now kind of regret finding out. Harry Potter fans will know that a bezoar is a ‘concretion of hair or vegetable fibre that forms naturally in the stomachs of ruminant animals’, used once upon a time as an antidote to poison. Men awaiting the barber’s attention used to enjoy the music of a cittern. Also, find out what Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts were about wearing a wig! However, I just couldn’t be enthralled by discovering that the zingerilla and the bransle were fancy lady-and-gentleman dances. Perhaps my fellow Jane Austen readers would beg to disagree.

Despite the subject matter of Gallimaufry being predominantly old and now obscure words, Quinion is certainly no obscurant. There are lots of treasures to be had here for readers of British historical fiction, and even those who once pondered why the Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Dolly Varden’ cake was termed as such. (The Dolly Varden was a rakishly side-slung hat. Though what connection a hat has to a cake with a doll stuck in it, I’ll never have the capacity to fathom.) If you like odd language trivia and showing off your vocabularistic prowess, you will like this book, as it will enable you to say things like: ‘Did you know that “fig” used to mean “banana” in the West Indies at one stage?’ NO, I DIDN’T. And now I do.

NB. I work at Oxford University Press.

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