If you've ever been to a bookshop in the UK (or to one of the few bookstores in the States that imports British books), you've probably noticed that the books on the shelves look stunning compared to their Yankee counterparts. At the bookstore where I worked in LA, I encountered authors who hated their American book covers but adored the British ones. Why the discrepancy? I don't know; I suspect it has to do with the fact that books are marketed by entertainment companies as "entertainment products" here in the US, while elsewhere, books are treated simply as books. To illuminate the differences in book design, I've placed some American books (on the left) side by side with their British versions (on the right). (click on the images to enlarge).Freakonomics by Steven LevittThe American cover looks like an ad for insurance, while the British version is more vivid and features nifty pixel art.Until I Find You by John IrvingThe American version is flat and looks like a promotion for the "John Irving brand," while the British version is slick and sexy.Cloud Atlas by David MitchellUS version: as dull as a textbook. UK Version: so groovy, you want to dive right in.On Beauty by Zadie SmithThe US versions of Zadie Smith's books look nice, but they are quite pale compared to their British counterparts.Slow Man by J. M. CoetzeeThis time the US version gets the better of the British one with mysteriously iconic silhouette of the broken bicycle.If you are interested in book design have a look at my long ago post about superstar book designer Chip Kidd, and you'll also enjoy the book design blog Forward.
This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He's a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children's series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques' Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn't gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there's a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It's actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids' books and aren't allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn't seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children's book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids' books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a "Student Edition" of Yann Martel's international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here's hoping that this doesn't kick off a new trend.
John Boyne’s The Absolutist is a slim, tightly wound novel of love and disaster in World War One, narrated in a claustrophobic first person by Tristan Sadler, a young soldier who returns to England after the war with a secret that is too horrifying to share and too heavy to bear alone. The story unfolds through flashbacks to Tristan’s war training and trench life, during which he falls in love with a fellow recruit, Will Bancroft, the “absolutist” of the title. A soldier turned conscientious objector who refuses to do anything to further the war effort, Will is eventually executed by a firing squad, leaving Tristan to fight on for a morally bankrupt cause. After the war, Tristan meets up with Will’s sister, Marian, to rake over the questions of love and guilt, right and wrong, and the struggle to preserve them against the onslaught of the trenches. I spoke with Boyne about the challenges of creating a fresh story out of well-worn history, and finding a voice to describe the unimaginable. The Millions: I’d like to start by asking about Tristan’s voice. How did you find that balance, a voice that sounds contemporary but also authentic to the time period? Did you go back to letters, diaries, and memoirs of World War One? John Boyne: I like to go back to novels that were written at the time my novel is set. I’ll fall into the idiom of the time, and find phrases that have fallen into disuse, and if I immerse myself in those, I find a voice starting to appear. I knew that because Tristan was going to be narrating his story from old age, and because he was going to be a novelist, he would have to speak in quite an elegant style—very proper and English. That was a challenge too, because it was about paring down the language, nothing superfluous. It’s a shorter book than any of my other adult novels. For the trench scenes, I spent a lot of time at the Imperial War Museum in London, and I read a lot of letters not only from the front but also from the families the soldiers were writing to. I was trying to find the themes running through those letters, and the ways that a voice would change. There’s only a short space of time between the scenes where Tristan is a young man before the war, the scenes where he’s in the trenches, and immediately afterwards, in 1919—but emotionally he was going to have changed in so many ways, that he would have to sound different, but the same. Same person, but experience is going to have to have come in on him. TM: It’s so revealing to look at letters from families and not just from soldiers. Perhaps it upsets Paul Fussell’s claim that communication is always one way: his idea that the soldiers can’t communicate and stop trying, and that the people at home can’t understand, and also stop trying. The character of Will’s sister Marian, for instance, is a complicated and traumatized figure in her own right. JB: In any novel I’ve ever read about the First World War, you never seem to read about what’s happening back home, the effect of the war on the family. In the previous novel I wrote for adults, The House of Special Purpose, which is the next one coming out here, I started with the idea that I hadn’t previously written a really strong female character, and I wanted to rectify that. When I wrote this I wanted to go further—I wanted a female character who was stronger than either of the two boys. She would be articulate, she would be a woman out of her own time, a woman who was capable of so much, but not allowed to do anything. I really invested in her as a character, probably more than any other character I’ve ever written, including Tristan, because I didn’t know how she was going to react. In those long chapters in the cafés, when she meets and talks to Tristan, I didn’t know how she was going to respond to him, and I knew it would change as the day went along: there would be moments where she would be suspicious, moments where she would be warm and funny, moments where she would be aggressive. I wanted that conversation to just go where it went, but for her to be always one step ahead of Tristan, putting him in his place a lot. She talks along the way about things like the fact that she doesn’t have the vote—she’s a victim of these politics along with everybody else, but she’s not allowed to vote out the politicians who start the wars. I named her after Marian Maudsley, from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, which is one of my favorite novels, and a great character. I wanted her to leap off the page. TM: She’s so active, even in those static scenes in the café. You have this wonderful detail of the ubiquity of cigarettes—how important they are to how people manage their emotions during a conversation. JB: I felt she would be someone who wanted to help the soldiers coming back to the front, but at the time would be so conflicted about the fact that they killed her brother. I mean, emotionally, what does that do to a person? That’s the key to novel writing for me: putting characters into situations where you don’t know how they’re going to respond, and letting the story take you where it takes you, to show you that. I thought that was an interesting conundrum for her: great anger, great pain, but still helping. TM: Not just for her character, but for Tristan as well, there’s an enormous sense of frustration about what they can possibly do with these situations that are not in their control, and they don’t emerge heroically. Rage, for instance, becomes the emotion that drives Tristan. Even in fiction about war, I imagine rage is a difficult emotion to work with, as a novelist—it doesn’t really have a forward motion. JB: Those climactic scenes were very difficult to write. It’s hard, in the printed word, to achieve that sense that you have in real life, where something just snaps—to create a moment where the reader will honestly feel that a character’s gone too far. TM: Like the challenge of writing about the violence of the war—you reach these limits. One of the things you did so well in the trench scenes was to convey how the soldiers have to keep going, the next day, and the next day, even though every day seems to be a limit case of what can be endured. JB: I deliberately made those into very short scenes, which could almost have been taken out of the book, juggled in different directions, and put back in. I wanted to create a sense of disorder and confusion, no linear structure to it all. When you write about the First World War, you’ve read so many books that you have to be careful not to simply replicate what you’ve read before. It’s one of the things this book has in common with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which deals with the Holocaust: when you’re approaching a subject as big as this, that’s been written about so many times, you’ve got to find some fresh way to tell it. So I knew when I started that I was going to spend more time in a café in Norwich than I was in a trench in Northern France. TM: So you get rid of the idea that the events of the war are part of an arc, a conflict-to-resolution story. The war blows that up. JB: I felt there shouldn’t be a beginning, middle and end, but that Tristan should be at the heart of the action all the time. Even when Tristan and Will’s story ends, when their wartime story ends, it’s not the end of the war—that continues off the page. TM: Right, and his survival is just a matter of chance. You create that sense of chance, of randomness, as the characters we get to know in the training scenes are gradually picked off. We feel the shock every time someone we’ve met dies. JB: I had to keep a chart of who was still alive and who wasn’t. TM: I wanted to ask about the role of homosexuality in the book. Of course it’s important in the literature of World War One for writers who were gay, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but I was also thinking about Pat Barker, and her character Billy Prior, in the Regeneration trilogy, who was a gleefully boundary-crossing character in both class and sexual terms. Yet Tristan doesn’t have that kind of freedom. So what does thinking about sexuality in this context allow you to do with a character that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise? JB: It occurred to me I hadn’t really read anything about gay soldiers in the trenches—there must have been gay soldiers there, and surrounded by so much horror, relationships must have struck up. But that wasn’t something I had read, so it was a new way into a familiar story. What interested me was the idea of two boys where one has already started to come to terms with who he is, and the other hasn’t, so it would be an ambiguous relationship between them. Tristan gets angry with Will for rejecting him, but Will can’t understand this, because as far as Will’s concerned it doesn’t matter. In France, Tristan is all about this obsessive love, and Will is about the politics, and he finds this conversation that he’s forced to endure every so often to be an embarrassment, and to be almost trivial compared to what it is that’s going on there. I wanted there to be moments where you think that Will would open up, and let Tristan in, and moments where he would shut down. It was important to me that at the end you wouldn’t really know who this boy was. TM: The term Will keeps coming back to is “comfort.” That’s all the relationship is for him, a purely temporary alleviation—it’s not love, it’s comfort. JB: And Tristan can’t accept it. But that’s how it is in life, isn’t it? In most relationships, one person is much more into it than the other—in my experience, anyway—until you find someone who’s at the same place as you. Tristan’s just in love. TM: To come back to the Shot at Dawn politics—as you know, after a long campaign in the UK we finally have a memorial to the men who were killed in this way. But there’s still so much we don’t know about what happened to these men. The term “absolutist,” which gives you your title—that was a technical term used at the time? JB: It’s not a very common term, but I came across it one day when I was researching conscientious objectors and immediately thought, “there’s my title.” I knew that a lot of conscientious objectors would do some work on farms, or in field hospitals, or—as I talk about in the book—a lot of them were made to be stretcher-bearers. But there was this small group of people, absolutists, who wouldn’t do anything. It was important that Will would be a soldier and would be fighting when he becomes an absolutist. I didn’t want any charge, any confusion, that he was a coward, that he just wasn’t willing to fight—he had to be out there fighting, and seeing that the moral absolutes for which the war was being fought were being corrupted. If they can murder a German boy in cold blood, it’s a different kind of killing, to him, than the shooting in war. It’s interesting because Tristan is the person in the book who cares about truth, and wants to express himself and his love, and he feels that Will is being dishonest in not doing that. But when it comes to a political situation, when a captured German boy gets murdered by group of British soldiers, Tristan doesn’t see that that’s a problem. It’s the same thing turned around: in the romance, Tristan is one place and Will is in the other, but in the morality and the politics they’re also in different places. Will’s morality has become much more finely tuned. He can’t just go shooting people without some kind of emotional response. Tristan is also completely honest when he says, I don’t get it, it’s just another—what does it matter? TM: That line that seems so faint to Tristan is absolute to Will. JB: So they’re both absolutists—Will in a literal sense, and Tristan in terms of his love affair. It’s all or nothing to him.
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1. “A very American film.” That’s what John Waters called Pink Flamingos, his first movie to gain a significant distribution. “It deals with very American subjects – competitiveness and war – and concerns two groups of outcasts vying for the title ‘The Filthiest People Alive.’” A couple has sex while rubbing a live chicken between them, decapitating it. A contortionist flexes his sphincter to the beat of a pop song. In the movie’s money shot, Divine, the colossus of transvestites, eats dogshit. Every homosexual invents homosexuality for himself. Every homosexual American invents his own America. And the America of Pink Flamingos is a trailer-park carnival where violence overwhelms sex and the monstrous becomes heroic. Waters’s camera didn’t cut away from his spectacles and Pink Flamingos has as much in common with a work of pornography as it does with a work of cinéma vérité. After I first saw the film in 1997, I walked out convinced that the entire cast had died in the 25 years since the film premiered, pursuing whatever they were pursuing on screen. I was wrong. They hadn’t all died at that point and Waters’s performers were very much performers. Divine, the John Wayne to Waters’s John Ford, was an actor who forced himself to smile for the dogshit-eating scene and later called the local hospital, freaking out that he may have done himself serious harm. Everything was scripted. Nothing was improvised. Still, Waters’s motive in not cutting away from his spectacles has something in common with the documentarian’s desire to capture the truth with his camera. And some viewers’ assumptions suggest a subliminal knowledge of American history. Since the seventeenth century, and probably before then, this continent has been home to transvestites who eat dogshit. In the back of his mind, Mark Twain probably imagined a dogshit-eating transvestite, but couldn’t find a place for him in Huckleberry Finn. And someone somewhere during the silent era probably filmed a dogshit-eating transvestite and then showed it to his buddies in a church basement. John Waters just concentrated his attention on that dogshit-eating transvestite, stood back and said, “America!” In the years since, Waters’s carnival became tamer and tamer. His circle of misfits expanded beyond Baltimore’s outcasts of Divine, David Lochary, Edith Massey, and Mink Stole, to include the oddballs of American pop culture and respectable actors taking a vacation in the world of camp. There’s room in his world for Sonny Bono, Willem Dafoe, Patty Hearst, Johnny Knoxville, Ricki Lake, Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston. Like Fellini, he selects and sculpts perfect ugly faces. There’s a difference, of course. Fellini Satyricon can give you an erection. Female Trouble and Desperate Living can’t. In Waters’s carnival, Johnny Depp, Troy Donahue, and Traci Lords are virgins who can only imagine fucking as comedy. His new book Carsick presents Waters at his absolute tamest. The book chronicles his adventures hitchhiking from Baltimore to Los Angeles playing the role of a “hobo homosexual.” It’s divided into three parts. The first two are novellas, “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen,” in which he imagines his journey playing out like one of his movies. The third part is the actual memoir, “The Real Thing,” in which Waters meets just the nicest people, some of whom recognize him with glee, some of whom have at least heard of him, and some of whom treat him as a friendly anonymous stranger. He eats at chain restaurants, including an Outback Steakhouse, which he had never heard of, and stays at a La Quinta Inn. His novellas aren’t as funny as any of his movies. His sense of the berserk is stronger when he’s working with the moving image than when he’s working with the written word. His memoir is earnest, lacking the irony and introspection of his 1980s essay collections Shock Value and Crackpot. People who eat at Applebee’s and humble farmers exist too, his book says. No one in Carsick is a stereotype, many are lovable eccentrics, but he doesn’t turn anyone into a grotesque. He’s a kind man who meets kind people. 2. Waters is not the first wandering homosexual in American literature. John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night depicts the life of a half-Irish, half-Mexican outlaw who lives an American Satyricon in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Edmund White’s 1980 book States of Desire is a celebration of pre-AIDS gay America, and White’s niche celebrity as the author of The Joy of Gay Sex leads him to Hollywood’s kept boys, adorable campus activists, Cuban immigrants, celibates, pedophiles, Boston intellectuals, and an Indian who practices homosexuality as a tribal tradition. John Waters does not travel America as an adventurous hustler or as a celebrity unknown outside gay circles, but as “John Waters”, the “Prince of Puke”. Early in the memoir he meets a 20-year-old who’s never heard of him, who happens to be the youngest City Council member in the state of Maryland, an affable Republican who picks up Waters out of grace and curiosity. While in the car the young man calls his mother and tells her what he’s doing. Waters enters panic mode, and imagines all the horrors she would discover if she did a Google search. “That I was just awarded the Outfest Gay Award and would be performing my one-man show, This Filthy World: Gayer and Filthier, in two months? Or my friendship with ex-Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten? Or the dogshit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos?” The punchline: No one is scared of his resume. The highlights include a couple of would-be grifters setting out to take advantage of North Dakota’s oil boom and a Republican farmer who says that he’s glad Obama came out for gay marriage, thus temporarily quelling Waters’s persistent gay paranoia. He meets disabled vets and hippies. The 20-year-old boy from earlier in the book returns and they enjoy a fun night in Reno. They share a misunderstood bromance. He likes everyone he meets and almost everything he sees, and yet he is always “John Waters”, the pervert who wants to discover new perversities. The guy who gave the world Tracy Turnblad is for some reason shocked by the fat teenagers he sees in Denver. “Four hundred pounds fat. All with giant plates of alarmingly unhealthy food piled in from of them in outdoor cafes.” He just adores the coal-mining town of Wellington, Utah with tiny houses painted in “gay pastel colors.” He eats tilapia at a Ruby Tuesday and discovers something fascinating. Ruby Tuesday serves good tilapia. 3. In the first novella of Carsick, John Waters imagines a meeting with Edith Massey, who was immortalized as The Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos. Massey enjoyed a camp celebrity in the late ’70s and early ’80s, appeared in a music video during the early years of MTV and died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 66. In Waters’s fantasy, Massey never died. At 94, he finds her playing a new role, running a store in the middle of nowhere which sells “toiletries out of their boxes and thrown into a 25¢ bin, makeup jars half-filled, shampoo tubes squeezed almost empty, loose Band-Aids without the paper wrappers, outdated sunblock” and an assortment of unused prescription pills. Waters is writing one final role for one of his finest muses. It’s a touching scene, and one that upsets my immature assumption that everyone in Pink Flamingos met an untimely end doing the things they were doing on screen. It’s true that Divine’s morbid obesity probably led to the heart attack that felled him shortly after the filming of Hairspray and that David Lochary died of a drug overdose in 1977. But Waters’s camera didn’t capture Massey doing anything dangerous, just something disgusting and interesting and that’s exactly how he imagines her in advanced old age. There was nothing about Massey’s behavior onscreen that physically threatened her or anyone else. (To be fair, there was nothing about Lochary’s or Divine’s behavior onscreen that was all that dangerous either.) The puritan impulse teaches us that every eccentricity is a weapon that threatens the state and that threatens oneself. Waters’s oeuvre up to this point teaches that every eccentricity is absolutely a weapon that threatens the state but also a means of ennobling and even saving oneself. In recasting Massey in one final role, and in seeing an America he has never allowed himself to see before, John Waters finally settles into an uneasy peace.