I’ve been an Anglo-phile for a long time, and the BBC is largely responsible. As a kid, we had PBS on a lot, so I got a lot of exposure to costume dramas, via Masterpiece Theater, and Monty Python. In college, I spent a summer in England. I already had the Tudor thing. And it got worse when a good friend married a Brit and moved there, becoming a reason to visit and a resource on the excellent current programming the BBC continues to produce (as well as the continuing steady stream of costume dramas).
So I am of course concerned when I hear references to the Beeb under attack from the new Conservative government — which is closely tied to the Murdoch empire, and if you think this is a bit paranoid, read this investigative takeout from the New York Times. And when I saw a reference to this video on Neil Gaiman’s Twitter feed I immediately checked it out — and was charmed. I just love goofy dorks. I’ve had this song stuck in my head for a week now — and I’m still not sick of it.
Even more amazingly, they posted it, at my suggestion, on the Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog. Woo hoo! Long live the BBC! The comments section is pretty fun, too.
Lots of Americans, of course, know about Monty Python, the costume dramas and newer offerings on BBC America, like the rebooted Dr. Who and Top Gear. But this song lists — and everyone should consider a region-free DVD player so you can watch — a lot of other great shows, including The Thick of It (if you liked the movie In The Loop, this series is its genesis and continuing sequel), Steve Coogan’s brilliant Alan Partridge shows, and Shameless, Paul Abbott’s great series set in a Manchester housing project, with David Threlfall as drunken, useless but endlessly entertaining patriarch Frank Gallagher. This series also helped launch James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff, among others. Another Abbott production is State of Play, a six-hour miniseries that is available on U.S. DVD format (we even have it at the Key West Library). McAvoy’s in that one, too, but the real treat is Bill Nighy as the crusading editor and Kelly Macdonald’s Scottish accent (you haven’t heard someone pronounce “It’s muhrr-duhrr” until you’ve heard her).
Banned Books Week is here — an issue about which the American Library Association likes to make a big honking deal every year — and with it will come, predictably, a bunch of people pointing out that censorship is not quite the issue here in the U.S.A. as it was in, say, Soviet Russia. This issue is already being debated on our library’s website (check the comments on the linked post).
And while it’s true, the event would be more accurately if less alliterativey called Challenged Books Week, and it’s true most challenges come from individuals concerned about what their kids are reading, not government agencies trying to keep information from the populace, I’m still OK with the American Library Association making a big deal out of this and getting some press and attention to the issue of freedom of information.
The romance genre does not need any defense from me. It’s doing quite nicely on its own, thank you, with sales up 7.7 percent in 2009 over the previous year — a rise that’s particularly notable amid the decline of book publishing as a whole. I got that figure from a recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. That’s where the issue of defense comes in. Because this piece, while noting the success of the genre as a whole, then spent the rest of its time ridiculing the various microniches that have found particular recent success, including NASCAR, paranormal, Amish and (snicker) crafts! You might catch the tone of the piece from the headline — “Getting Dirty in Dutch Country” — though if you’d actually read any of them you’d probably figure out quickly that the Amish-set romances, unlike a lot in that genre, don’t get dirty, and that’s a big part of their appeal. It turns out there are, in fact, romance readers out there who aren’t into ripped bodices and explicit sex. So some smart writers and publishers are catering to them. That’s worthy of ridicule?
There’s another reason the romance genre doesn’t need any defense from me. It already has far more prominent champions, notably the smart women of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, whose response to the Bloomberg piece* is what alerted me to its existence in the first place. Yep, I had good SAT scores, I have a master’s degree, I read a lot, sometimes I read romances and I regularly read SBTB — but I never read Bloomberg Businessweek. Even though a good friend of mine writes for it. What does that tell you?
If you’re genuinely interested in the romance genre and/or the industry behind it, I can suggest a good source of information. Beyond Heaving Bosoms, the book written by the Smart Bitches themselves, is a fun and interesting analysis that reflects what’s so cool about them. They’re appreciative fans of the genre — but also gimlet-eyed realists about its flaws and hilariously harsh critic of ridiculous narratives. Check out some of their low-graded reviews if you don’t believe me.
I just reviewed another work of nonfiction for my alma mater, The Miami Herald — the book is Zoo Story by Thomas French and the review ran yesterday. I liked the book a lot — it was obviously based on years of reporting, which is the sort of thing that the St. Petersburg Times has been able and willing to do — and which may be pretty darn scarce on the ground in the future, even at papers owned by nonprofit foundations.
The story follows the expansion and consequences of that expansion at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, where the CEO pushed for an ambitious new Safari Africa exhibit featuring elephants imported from a game preserve in Swaziland. French makes characters out of some of the zoo’s animals, which is dangerous — my only problem with Mike Capuzzo’s otherwise excellent Close to Shore was when he claimed to be inside the shark’s head — but French navigates the perilous territory very well, describing more of what happens to the animals than pretending to know what they’re thinking.
The same book is reviewed today by Salon’s Laura Miller, one of the best book reviewers in the business. Not that I’m intimidated or anything.
This is not book related but it is writing (by me) so I’m posting it here. Plus it’s my blog, dammit. My second Letter from Key West for WLRN’s Under the Sun ran this morning — and will run again at 5:44 p.m. today (Thursday 5/27) on WLRN, which is 91.3 in Miami, 100.5 Key West and online at www.wlrn.org.
It’s not as fun a subject as my first piece for Under the Sun, but it’s something that’s been all of our minds around here recently so I figured I’d say it.
I post today not to report on any books I have finished since my last entry (though I am closing in on Elif Batuman’s The Possessed practically as we speak) but because I just finished what felt like a book, Janet Malcolm’s piece “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” in the May 3 edition of The New Yorker. The thing was 29 copy-dense New Yorker pages long. I wish there were a word for the nonfiction equivalent of a novella, because that’s what it is.
Ostensibly, it’s an account of the murder trial of a woman named Mazoltuv Borukhova, who was accused of employing an assassin to kill her estranged husband. Because it’s Janet Malcolm it goes off into digressions on the nature of court trials and, especially, on the nature of journalism. Malcolm first came to my attention in 1989 when her two-part piece, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” ran in The New Yorker. That piece, later published as a book, recounts the relationship between journalist Joe McGinnis and the subject of his best-selling book, “Fatal Vision,” convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. Malcolm’s book has a first line many journalists of that era soon learned by heart, especially impressionable 21-year-old aspiring journalists (whether they wanted to or not): “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Continue reading
It’s here, my big day in South Florida biblio-journalism. First, a review in the Miami Herald of Larry’s Kidney, an entertaining account of two cousins and their quest in China for a kidney, a bride and a better understanding of their relationship. And by the way props to The Herald and to the hardworking book (and Weekend section) editor Connie Ogle for keeping on keeping on in this economic climate. The Sun-Sentinel recently laid off longtime book editor Chauncey Mabe — he’ll still be doing freelance book reviews for them but it’s a major institutional loss for South Florida readers. Continue reading
The last book review I wrote as editor of Solares Hill (though probably not the last book review I will write for Solares Hill) is in the current edition of Solares Hill. It’s a good nonfiction read called 40 Days and 40 Nights by a fellow named Matthew Chapman. It’s about the trial in Dover, Pa., over the introduction of intelligent design into high school science classes. Chapman happens to be a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, who (along with Alfred Russel Wallace) figured out natural selection and who is the demon of those who oppose teaching science in science classes. You can get my review in the Solares Hill PDF or online at The Citizen’s web page, http://www.keysnews.com (the Solares Hill book review is posted there every week, WAAAAAAY down at the bottom of the page).
Also in the Citizen and on its web page is my husband Mark Hedden’s birding column, which this week happens to concern books about birding — also the subject of a recent talk he gave at Voltaire Books. Sad to say I’ve only read one of the titles he discusses, The Song of the Dodo (and I agree with his assessment — it’s a great book — so great I actually loaned it to someone who never returned it — and bought another hardcover copy to replace it — it’s never being loaned again). Just to bring things full circle, Quammen’s most recent book, also a very good read, is a biography of, you guessed it, Charles Darwin.
On a totally unrelated note, as long as I’m linking to my own stuff I might as well throw in the new FKCC Library Blog post I wrote about a cool interview from the Paris Review with Key West’s own Harry Mathews.
OK, it’s not about books. But it’s about reading and information and it’s an interesting topic — a book review from the Washington Post, of a book called “Against the Machine,” a rant against the Internet and how Kids Today communicate. The reviewer is a former software engineer who wrote a book called “Close to the Machine” so perhaps she was destined to dislike the book. And as a blogger and avid reader of stuff on screen, I also dislike this guy’s central thesis. Especially from a guy who posed as a commenter on his own blog.
Fundamentally, I just don’t get why this is an either/or question — yes, the Web is full of crap (as is printed matter). But there’s so much good stuff out there, so much of which was inaccessible or couldn’t even have existed before.
Looking at a publisher’s catalogue of upcoming titles, I was interested in one by a writer named Kate Summerscale. Her new book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
, is about a Victorian detective who became a model for a lot of great literary detectives. But the catalogue also referred to her previous book, The Queen of Whale Cay
. That sounded interesting, so I looked it up. The story was REALLY interesting, about a classic 20th century eccentric, Marion “Joe” Carstairs, an heiress to the Standard Oil Fortune who became a very successful motorboat racer — and very out-of-the-closet lesbian — in the 1920s, then retreated to an island in the Bahamas as public opinion turned against her. Even better, it turned out that the Key West library
had the book on the shelf. So on Wednesday evening, I stopped by and got it. It’s a small book (literally), and a quick read.
Turns out Summerscale used to work for the British paper the Daily Telegraph, which is famous for its hilarious and outrageously candid obituaries, which is how she learned about Carstairs. When I heard that, I decided to check out the Telegraph online just to see if they had these great obits every day. Of course there are a limited number of Carstairs types out there — but the Telegraph does the best it can with its material, and the obit editor has a pretty entertaining blog.