Friday, May 1, 2009

Push the Limits

For as long as they've been around, books have enlightened , instructed and given pleasure. Despite this, and freqently because of it, too, they have also offended and outraged in equal measure.

The history of book censorship is long and colourful, from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to Lady Chatterley's Lover and beyond. And if you thought that in this enlightened, more tolerant age censorship was on the decline you'd be wrong. Each year more and more books are challenged and removed from bookshelves on the grounds of what is deemed to be "inappropriate" content. It may surprise you to know that the immensely popular authors J.K Rowling and Judy Blume have both fallen under the hands of censors.

Censorship mainly occurs on a local level, affecting the distribution of titles through local or school libraries only, although a government will occasionally step in to ban a book. Whilst it still remains legal to read these titles, the rulings can make them difficult to find especially in those countries where the government is perceived as being particularly militant or repressive.

Booksellers have also been guilty of removing books from their shelves, caving in to pressure from their customers or from perceived threats from consumer groups. Public outrage can be a powerful tool though sadly seldom wisely exercised.

What follows is an account of ten of the most challenged books throughout the history of literature. Some have ironically grown infamous through the controversy, leading to them being more widely read than ever. Others are lesser known, and some are just plain surprising. Whilst by no means a definitive list nor in any particular order, it does however demonstrate that our basic concerns about what is deemed suitable for a public arena have changed very little over the centuries.

1) Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

Now considered one of Orwell's most popular and enduring works Animal Farm was completed in 1944 but delayed for publication by British publishing firms for fear of offending their Soviet allies. Utilizing the form of the animal fable, this novelette chronicles the attempts by a group of barnyard animals to revolt against their human masters in an attempt to create a Utopian state.

On a larger scale, commentators widely view Animal Farm as an allegory for the rise and decline of socialism in the Soviet Union and the emergence of the totalitarian regime of Joseph Stalin. Critics regard the story as an insightful and relevant exploration of human nature as well as political systems and social behavior. After its translation into Russian, it was banned by Stalin's government in all Soviet-ruled areas.

2) American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

Despite the huge amount of press coverage regarding the apparant social, moral and sexual dereliction of Easton Ellis's novel, it only romped in at number 60 in the 2005 American Library Association's 100 most frequently challenged books.

A first person account, told from the perspective of serial killer and Manhattan businessman Patrick Bateman, the novel chronicles the double life of its protagonist in unswerving and intimate detail. Originally intended for publication in 1991 by Simon and Schuster, the publishers later pulled out of the deal because of the novel's content. It was eventually published by Vintage in a heavily edited form. The book has received an R18 content warning in New Zealand prohibiting its sale to persons under the age of eighteen.

In 2000 a film adaptation of the book opened to mainly positive reviews. Ironically the mother of the film's star, Christian Bale, was one of the novel's main detractors. Gloria Steinem spoke out vociferously on the subject of the book's relentlessly mysogynistic themes. Of all the books in this list, this is the one which most of my friends say has been the hardest to complete, many giving up in the face of its relentless violence without the mitigation of either remorse or emotion.

3) The Catcher in The Rye by J D Salinger (1951)

A great example of a book that is both lauded and admonished in equal measure. Originally published for adults, the novel has become a common inclusion in both school and university curricula being translated into almost all of the world's major languages. Around 250,000 copies are sold each year, with total sales of more than sixty-five million.

The novel's anti-hero, Holden Caufield, has become an icon for teenage rebellion and defiance.
The first person narrative, which follows the weeks following Caufield's expulsion from his American prep school, is both a story of maturation and degeneration as Caufield's increasingly unreliable narrator slowly deteriorates into a state of mental breakdown.

Taken to the hearts of disaffected youth throughout the world, the book remains one of the most challenged in literature probably due to the perceived negative influence it is said to have over its target audience. In particular, it has been criticised for its expressions of profanity, sexuality and teenage angst.

4) Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, also named Best Book of the last 25 years by The New York Times, is a loose interpretation of the life and legal trial of slave Margaret Garner. The book's epigraph: "sixty million and more" refers to the estimated number of slaves to have died in the trade.

The novel examines both the mental and physical trauma caused by slavery as well as its effect on survivors and follows the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver as they try to rebuild their lives after having escaped from slavery.

In 1998 the book was made into a film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Oprah Winfrey.

American groups, including Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools, objected to the inclusion of the book onto its cirriulum due to
its depictions of "incest, rape, pedophilia, graphic sex, extreme violence, sexual abuse, physical/emotional abuse, infanticide, and an extensive amount of profanity". It may also be that they felt uncomfortable publicy distributing a work which showed the depravity of a period in their history that was still too recent for comfort...

5) Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

Bradbury's speculative novel about a future American society in which hedonism is encouraged at the expense of critical thought and freedom of expression. The central character is employed as a fireman, which in this dystopian world translates as someone whose job it is to burn books.The title comes from the temperature at which paper auto-ignites (although the factual correctness of this has since been disputed).

Written in the early years of the Cold War, the novel is a critique of what Bradbury saw as an increasingly dysfunctional American society and is frequently interpreted as being critical of state-sponsored censorship. In 2007 Bradbury himself stated that the intention of the book was to explore the effects of television and mass media on the reading of literature although in an earlier edition, a coda was added to the book which made multiple comments on censorship and its relation to the novel.

A more obvious interpretation seems to be that a government which tries to suppress freedom of expression should be opposed. In the early 1950's, when this book was written, the advocacy of opposition was seen as a bad thing by real world authoritarian groups (e.g. McCarthyism) that claimed to have all the answers.

Initial complaints about the book cited the use of the words "hell" and "damn" which were perceived to have a corrupting effect on its readership. There were also complaints arising from the fact that one of the books burned in the novel is the Christian Bible.

Like the opposition to "1984", the opposition to "Fahrenheit 451" seems to grow as the depicted society grows too similar to our own. One of these uncomfortable parallels is today's increased use of entertainment in place of learning and culture. Ray Bradbury has stated that this dumbing down was one of the concerns he was trying to raise.

In 1966 Francois Truffaut made a film adaptation of the book which has since gone on to critical acclaim.

6) A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck (1972)

This young adult novel is a semi-autobiographical work which revolves around a boy's growing relationship with his father, a butcher who slaughters hogs, and his pet pig named Pinky. Based in the fictional town of Learning, Vermont, Robert Newton Peck involves his own childhood in this story to reveal the problems the young protagonist faces growing into manhood.

This book is often listed on the American Library Association's 100 most frequently challenged books. Objections are based mainly on its appropriateness for its target audience specifically citing the incidences of drug taking, profanity and sexual relations in addition to scenes touching on murder and the exhumation of an infant's grave. Other objections were that the depiction of life and death on a farm were just too realistic for a young adult audience. Most of these objections have since been overruled by the relevant authorities on the grounds that none of these scenes are gratuitous and are indeed intrinsic to the nature of the story.

According to the BFI database, the rights to the book were bought by Morgan Freeman's production company with the intention of making a film adaption with both Freeman and William Hurt starring. It seems, however, that this has become a shelved project.

7) A Light in the Attic, written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein (1981)

A children's anthology of poems published by Harper Collins in 1981. Despite winning a number of national book awards, the book has been criticised for its overly morbid themes and encouragement of childhood disobediance. Specific cited examples include "How Not To Have To Dry The Dishes" which is criticised for encouraging messiness and rebellion against authority and "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony" which describes the death of a girl after her parents refuse to buy her a pony. Other objections have centred on mentions of the supernatural.

Supporters of Silverstein's work have insisted that there is much humour in the anthology and have praised his realistic approach which encourages the admirable, indeed vital idea that life is not always perfect.

8) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

An extraordinary post modern anti-war novel which deals with the memories of a soldier during World War 2 and his experiences with time travel.

The novel has been the subject of many censorship attempts based on its purported frequent expressions of profanity and acts of sex. In addition, it was apparantely the first work of fiction to explore the idea that homosexuals were among the victims of the Nazi holocaust.

In the American Library Association's list of the 100 most challenged books between 1990-2000, Slaughterhouse Five turns in, rather appropriately, at number 69.

9) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2004)

The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir, a young boy from the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul, who betrays his best friend Hassan, the son of his father's servant, and lives in regret. Set against a backdrop of tumultuous events the novel chronicles the fall of the monarchy in Afghanistan through the Soviet Invasion, the mass exodus of refugees to Pakistan and the US and the rise of the Taliban regime.

The story, which includes the rape of a boy, provoked challenges in the US over what objectors saw as sexual content and offensive language. Some objections led to the removal of the book from library shelves, while others saw it replaced with bowdlerised versions minus the offending scenes.

Despite the objections the novel remains a critically acclaimed and masterful work.

10) And Tango makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (2005)

All Images plus title image via Google Images

Topping the American Library Association's top 100 list of challenged books for the third year running, And Tango Makes Three is a children's book which tells the story of two male penguins who raise an orphaned chick.

The book, based on a newspaper article which described a zookeeper's experience of watching two penguins trying to hatch a stone, has been criticised for being pro-gay, anti-religion and anti-family. It appears that some parents are unprepared to let their children have access to anything which challenges the notion of stereotypical parenting methods, despite the alternatives being a recognised and largely accepted concept in the modern world.

As a writer there are many responsibilities we face in honouring our contract with our readers. But If the above examples prove anything it is that we can never expect to please everyone all of the time. Rather, we should write from the heart; with integrity and passion for our material so that no matter how we are judged we will at least have pleased ourselves.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Make Do and Mend

Upcycle, recycle,'s post would have made our wartime ancestors proud! I've always been a huge fan of renovation projects whether it's one piece of furniture or a whole house. And in the current economic and ecological climate what better way to go than to make something "good as new"?

One of my favourite interiors sites, Design*Sponge, has been running a very popular thread entitled Before and After, in which readers have the opportunity to send in their own makeover projec
ts. Ranging from the modest to the magnificent, from the successful to the "I kind of preferred it before", all share a creativity and resourcefulness that can do little else but inspire. Below are my picks of the bunch.

Sacrilege or sense? This rather battered Eames chair, rescued from a skip, is shown some love courtesy of tile grout and porcelain tiles. I personally think this would look amazing on our roof terrace...

Patchwork is huge news in interiors, thanks to the likes of kooky company Squint. Below, a 50's dinette type chair is given some multicoloured harmony...

Whilst the owner of this sideboard keeps the 50's love going with a homage to Kandya's painted panel midcentury furniture.

Two variations on a similar theme below; one solution takes colour firmly by the horns, the other plays it safe but serene in pure white.

I have actually, (like in REAL LIFE and not in my imaginary world) sat on the staircase below. They happen to belong to a friend of mine and yes, they really do look that good.

The owner of this rather tasteful ottoman obviously decided that under all that extraneous flesh there were some rather good bones. A brave rebranding.

Whilst this one makes me rather glad that I didn't recently shell out a fortune for a Time Life chair..what a difference some fabulous Scandi fabric can make..and I happen to have four yards of this very one kicking around in my cupboard...

As you can see from the image below, some of the projects were a little more large scale than others. This particularly beautiful house reno is in Alaska.

...And some projects are just decidedly controversial. The picture below shows identical chairs, one in its original state, the other refurbished by the owner. It's always a tough call when you're playing around with a classic and for me, the original fabric (as seen on the right of the image) wins hands down, although as a mismatched pair they still look fab.

Finally, an inspiring and design conscious reality check to toy manufacturers. Rockers good; revolting plush furry things that take up visible house room bad...Just because we became parents didn't make us lose the taste gene completely.

Look and learn...

All Images via Design*Sponge
Title Image via Google Images

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Write Now

If you always wanted to write a novel but never quite found the time (aka motivation), you could do a lot worse than join the annual national novel writing competition at NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month - founded ten years ago by Chris Baty, is described as a seat of the pants approach to novel writing.

Here's the rather Faustian deal: you agree to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your writing chair for one month and turn out 50,000 words of prose towards a first draft novel. in return you get to eat junk food and be excused from the tasks mere mortals have to contend with each day such as hoovering, tidying and taking out the rubbish (ok, so I wouldn't actually condone the last one).

There are no real winners or losers here; you either finish or you don't and it's perhaps testimony to the real hard graft of the thing when you consider that there is a huge drop out rate each year. In the bigger scheme of novel writing one month doesn't seem that big a deal but as soon as you start out you realise that this is much more of a marathon than a sprint. 50,000 words in one month equates to more than 1000 words a day (okay, so I'm also a maths genius) and for me, that's a tall order. On my very best days I can just about manage 1500, but the thing to remember is that this is a cumulative thing; rather like counting calories, it's the number you arrive at at the end as opposed to the daily totals that count.

Whilst 50,000 words (basically a novella) is probably not going to gain you much truck in the publishing world (unless you're
Ian McEwan) it's a great start to a longer work and a fantastic kick up the bum to getting your novel actually written.

Although it's described as a contest there are no real prizes (what did you expect: a medal?) If you do get to your 50,000 word total by the deadline of 30 November each year, however, you get a rather splendid certificate of achievement and a virtual badge of honour plus the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you actually did it. And if you're serious about being a writer this is the only sort of reward you should be realistically aiming for at the beginning, anyway!

Word totals are verified by automated bots following submission after which time you also get the opportunity to upload your work to the site for feedback and comment from other readers, although I would say be realistic about how good the quality is going to be after a month and don't unknowingly put yourself out there for a public flogging too soon.

To date there are over 71,000 winners of NaNoWriMo, testament to its huge success. Last year alone 1,643,343,993 words were written by its participants. It also receives funding from quite a few relevant American sponsors including Writers Digest and Create Space who, along with the other supporters, offer considerable discounts off their products for NaNoWriMo participants.

Sign up anytime you want. The start date for this and every year's competition is November 1 and the deadline is midnight November 30.

No Plot No Problem, the companion book to the competition, written by its founder, is also available to buy, and whilst it probably won't teach you much about the actual craft of writing is a fun motivational aid to the process and a good read.

In addition the NaNoWriMo site is full of great stuff to keep you informed, including a members' forum area plus articles and interviews on writing, including how to take your novel to the next stage.

So get your pencils sharpened, your cupboard stocked with Pot Noodle, and get ready to write...

via NaNoWriMo
Title Image via Google Images

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Five Things I'm Loving Right Now

I've decided that along with Shop of the Week, this is going to be a regular blog spot. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly because the things I am loving right now are notoriously transient and won't justify a whole individual post, and secondly because I know the majority of blog readers are lazy buggers and have the attention span of goldfish. This means that they can't get to the end of my long and beautifully crafted posts without losing the will to live. This I conclude from the lack of comments. Thanks.

So, here for your delectation and delight are five pithyly crafted lovlies:

1) Dog Noses:

Mother Nature has all the best designs and in creating these she really did do herself proud. Part fly eye, part Henry Moore sculpure, dog noses are one of the most beautiful things in the world to me. And if you think I'm just weird, be assured that this is a fetish mainstream enough to warrant its own photo stream on Flickr. And they smell good, too...

Above image and title image via Your Dog Nose
on Flickr

2) Whigby:

I would have been more than happy to nominate Whigby for my Shop of the Week slot but they only ship to the US and Canada (Boo) so they have been relegated to the still rather hallowed slot of Things I am Loving Right Now.

The brainchild of Todd Temporale and Frank Viva, two lovely Canadian chaps, I first came across Whigby when my house appreared on Design Sponge's Sneak Peeks. Frank's beyond gorgeous house was another featured domicile and so a lifelong association was formed. Well, not really, but Frank was wonderful enough to make an exception to Whigby's shipping policy and send me one of their fantastic George Orwell screenprints.

Specialising in print and pattern, Whigby also promise to hand deliver all orders totalling one million dollars or more. You can't say fairer than that.

via Whigby

3) Blog Widgets:

Someone came to visit me from Canberra, Australia last night....not literally of course, but thanks to my rather wonderful widget I can now see where all my blog visitors are coming from. It's all abit Big Brother, I suppose, but it's nice to know that the interboogle continues to make the world a smaller and more friendlier place. Other visitors have hailed from Canada, Italy, Finland and of course, good old Blighty. If I haven't scared you all away please continue to come and keep me company and leave a message inbetween watching your telly programmes. If you can be bothered.

via Google Images

4) Family Guy

The TV show. This is just how we are. Enough said.

via Google Images

5) The Upper Room

I''ve got this Brighton based band's one and only album, Other People's Problems on repeat at the moment. It takes me back to my uni days of jangly guitar based bands and smoky nightclubs. Not as self-referential as some of the shoegazers from that day, The Upper Room manage to write feel-good tunes about feel-bad situations. Sadly, they split in 2006 but thankfully their music lives on...

via Amazon

The Upper Room TV on MUZU.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Raiders of the Lost Art

Most people have films that inspire them, that they revisit for the rest of their lives and which occupy a special place in their heart. Not many, however, decide to remake them...

But in 1982 this is exactly what three schoolboys did, and the result, a 100 minute shot- for- shot homage to Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, called Raiders of the Lost Ark: an Adaptation, will receive its London premiere tomorrow night in Leicester Square.

Chris Strompolos, Jayson Lamb and Eric Zala, three friends who first met on the long bus journey to school in Mississippi, were just eleven when Spielberg's film came out but there was no doubt about the effect that it would have on them. "Coming down" from the Star Trek phenomenon, Indiana Jones, the rough and ready adventurer was exotic and yet somehow accessible, a true hero for teenage boys everywhere.

Indeed, it was probably their youthful exeuberance and, some would say, naivite, that enabled them to overcome the small hurdles of absolutely no budget and no filmmaking exerience to persevere with a project which would end up taking seven long years to complete.

Substituting money for imagination and sometimes pure chuztpah most of the scenes in the film were shot in and around Mississippi, enlisting the help of most of the local youth as stand-ins and extras for the crowd scenes. For example, the Cairo street scene was filmed in the Gulfport business district where the trio were almost arrested after a local businessman assumed they were making a porn movie. Interior scenes were shot at the boys' homes, usually without parental consent. These included a faithful replica of the Well of Souls aswell as the burning bar scene (hilariously, in one of the out-takes, a pre-teen is seen studying the instructions on one of the fire extinguishers as flames spread through the basement of Eric's house...).

Given the financial and technological constraints of the film don't expect it to look all that slick; shot on a Betamax camera, the visuals are shaky and grainy and the audio track sometimes inaudible but despite this, and maybe because of it, the love for the source material always comes through.

The seven year process and $5000 total budget almost ended the boys' friendship for good, but in 1989 on its completion it received an enthusiastic reception at a small hometown premiere before being consigned to the vaults.

Fast forward to 2003, and through a six degrees of separation type happenstance, the film made its way into the hands of producer and director Eli Roth who then made two of the most influential decisions he could have: first he gave a copy to Harry Knowles (of Ain't it Cool fame) and second, he gave a copy to Stephen Spielberg himself. Bearing in mind the complete and flagrant disregard for copyright that the film demonstrates (including its illicit recording at the cinema in the first place), it would not have been surprising if Spielberg's response would have been to slap a law suite on the trio. Instead, he wrote them all letters describing the film as the nicest compliment he and George Lucas had ever received and invited the trio to meet him.

In an ironic twist of fate with a particularly American flavour, the producer Scott Rudin bought the life rights of all three filmmakers in 2004 with a view to making a film of their lives. The screenwriter Daniel Clowes is now on board and Paramount in place with funding.

Thanks to the growth of concepts like You Tube, we now tend to have a rather cynical view of the whole premise of DIY filmmaking and it might therefore be tempting to downplay the enormity of what these three guys have created. It is only when we place it in context, that of two and a half decades ago, that the true wonder of their achievement shines through. It's just a shame we don't all start that young; as Zala himself has been quoted as saying: "(Kids') motivations are the purest, and they aren't unduly swayed by commercial considerations or a Teamsters strike or even the mortgage. It's about the love of the story."

The Making of an Adaptation:

All Images including title image via