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February 27, 2010

Old Friends - Taran, Eilonwy, Vesper, The Arkadians and The Beggar Queen

Before J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, before Tannith Lee and Rick Riordan, before Garth Nix and Christopher Paolini, before Cornelia Funke (but after C.S. Lewis) there was Lloyd Alexander.

I spent Thursday evening at a local book store, filming students from our Orchestra performing at a fund-raising event. While I was there, I had a good coversation with a young author /artist friend and fellow tribal member. She enjoys writing, but is not so keen at performing (the other event going on was
a poetry slam of sorts). That's OK. Being creative is largely its own reward. Monetary rewards (except perhaps in Paolini's case) can sometimes take a while. Such was the case with Lloyd
Alexander (1924-2007), who vowed, at age 15, that he was going to be a writer, and went on to become an award-winning American author. He certainly found his niche in life - a very important niche - explaining important things about life in ways that a child could understand (my apologies to Ron Nyswaner).

After military service in Europe at the end of World War II, Lloyd studied in Paris, married his wife Janine, and returned to the U.S. to write. And he wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote, and he submitted manuscripts to publishers and was rejected time and again. It was ten years before one of his books was published (obviously he did other things to make a living) and seventeen years before he found out that his true skill was in targeting a younger audience. His first success, as Anne Lamott or Stephen King would would predict, came when he began to 'write what you know' - he wrote about his job and his relationship with his wife.
Alexander really found his voice, however when he shifted from writing about the here and now, to writing in fantasy worlds of his own creation, and when he began writing for a younger audience.

Alexander wrote his fantasy novels using simple but striking images and well developed characters to tell entertaining and captivating stories whose subtext included lessons on the value of loyalty, patience, diligence, bravery, curiosity, and tolerance. Alexander's adolescent novels often used simplified or re-interpreted versions of familiar story lines from history, mythology and folklore as the context for these lessons, and did so in ways that rang true to the original in a manner that present-day authors often seem unable to grasp. He was an awesome storyteller. If I remember correctly, in The Arkadians his Odysseus character re-tells the trojan war in perhaps three pages without seeming rushed.

His best-known books are a story that is very similar, in many respects, to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, but aimed at a younger audence. The Prydain Chronicles, which won two Newberry Awards, have many plot and character parallels with Middle Earth, but call heavily upon Welsh and Greek mythology. The three Fates play a significant role, for example, as does the Book of Three, in which the characters' lives and fates are, in a sense already written. The Welsh background, by the way, comes from the time
Alexander spent in Wales during his military training.

As I mentioned,
Alexander decided to become a writer at age 15 after reading Dickens and Shakespeare. Not an obvious choice for the son of a stockbroker whose parents did not like to read even though, according to an interview cited in his obituary in the Washington Post, "...they had lots of books. They bought them at the Salvation Army to fill up empty shelves."

Like his characters Taran and Eilonwy, he and Janine had a long and happy life together, living in suburban Philadelphia, and both passing away within a few weeks of each other in 2007. He received two National Book Awards and authored some 40 books, the last published after his death at 83.

Some quotes from Lloyd Alexander, on reading and writing:

"We don't need to have just one favorite book. We keep adding favorites. Our favorite book is always the book that speaks most directly to us at a particular stage in our lives. And our lives change. We have other favorites that give us what we most need at that particular time. But we never lose the old favorites. They're always with us. We just sort of accumulate them"

"For me, writing fantasy for young people has surely been the most creative and liberating experience of my life. As a literary form, fantasy has let me express my own deepest feelings and attitudes about the world we're all obliged to live in."

"[My] characters all come out of various parts of my own personality—the good guys and the bad guys as well. They are all parts of myself, and since I'm real, I believe they are real too. The reason for that is that all of us are not just one personality, within ourselves we are an infinite number of personalities.
Some of them are marvelous, some of them are perfectly awful. I hope the awful ones are the smallest parts. Even so, we're not just all one thing. And I think we can find characters all within ourselves. Plus, a little imagination."

"Most of my books have been written in the form of fantasy. Using the device of an imaginary world allows me in some strange way to go to the central issues—it's one of many ways to express feelings about real people, about real human relationships. My concern is how we learn to be genuine human
beings. I never have found out all I want to know about writing and realize I never will. All that writers can do is keep trying to say what is deepest in their hearts. If writers learn more from their books than do readers, perhaps I may have begun to learn."

"As adults, we know that life is a tough piece of business. Sometimes the most heroic thing we can do is get out of bed in the morning. I think it's just as tough for young people. On an emotional level, a child's anguish and a child's joy are as intense as our own. Young people recognize their own inner lives while they journey through a world that's completely imaginary."

Some quotes from his books:

"Of the events that followed, the less said the better. If modesty forbids boasting of one's accomplishments, surely a similar veil of decency can be drawn over one's mistakes." - from The Illyrian Adventure

"Lidi was not easy to ignore, especially when flame shot out of her fingertips. Also, she had an attractive smile." - from The Rope Trick

"There was still a road, but it had changed. Under a sky streaked with the pale blue of early spring the fields whispered like sleepers about to waken." - from Time Cat

"There is always one in every group, whether the Ladies Garden Committee or a meeting of cabinet ministers; once all is happily settled, some wretch has to point out what has been overlooked, raise questions, pick nits, and start the whole business again."- from The Illyrian Adventure

"Elephants were in Sundari Palace courtyard, half a dozen or more, torchlight flickering on tusks ornamented with gold bands and ropes of pearls; horses with jeweled saddles; chariots flying flags and banners; and a dark figure striding through the gates. Servants ran to wake the young king, Tamar, already up and watching from his balcony. Curious naturally. Not altogether pleased. No more than anyone would be, jolted out of a sound sleep by unexpected elephants. " - from The Iron Ring

"Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horse-shoes. " - from The Book of Three



"This is a tale of a jackass and a young bean counter, a girl of marvels and mysteries, hosemen swift as wind, Goat Folk, Daughters of the Morning, voyages, tempests, terrors, disasters. And the occasional rainbow." - from The Arkadians

"Curled in a heap of wood shavings, Lukas was comfortable except for the carpenter's boot in his ribs and the carpenter’s voice in his ear.” from The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha



The Other Pages "This is a tale of a jackass and a young bean counter, a girl of marvels and mysteries, hosemen swift as wind, Goat Folk, Daughters of the Morning, voyages, tempests, terrors, disasters. And the occasional rainbow." - from The Arkadians



"Curled in a heap of wood shavings, Lukas was comfortable except for the carpenter's boot in his ribs and the ... See Morecarpenters voice in his ear." - from The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha



"He dropped to his knee and drew the violin from the pile. As he did, he caught his breath and his hands trembled. The instrument was the most beautiful he had ever seen, and made with such perfection he could not believe his eyes. The wood was dark , deeply and richly varnished, and through it ran a lighter grain, like a flame glowing of itself. On the scroll was carved a woman's face, so lovely and so lifelike it seemed about to speak. " - from The Marvelous Adventures of Sebastian


February 16, 2010

Puzzling over the Winter Olympics

OK, admittedly I have not been doing much editing lately. Watching cross-country snowboard races and short-track speed skating, even on TV, is not simply distracting, its hypnotic.

So for those few of you out there who are following the events, here is a puzzle to keep you occupied during those long commercial breaks.


And yes, there is a link to the solution at the bottom of the page.


February 07, 2010

Escher's Tesselations

I spent and enjoyable afternoon Saturday at a local art fair and museum with two of my children, an outing that included the museum's featured exhibit of works by M.C. Escher. The exhibit was extensive, encompassing over 300 of Escher's 445 known finished works, and included the furnishings of his workroom along with some of his drafting tools and "cancelled" stone blocks of some of his better known lithographs.

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1878-1972) was a Dutch graphic artist whose drawings, woodcut prints, and lithographs are amazing for their textures, patterns, and exploration of 2-d and 3-d geometry. The exhibit also included both his preliminary pencil and ink sketches for some notable works, and in one case, his mathematical calculations for projecting one of his "impossible" geometries onto a flat piece of paper.

Nearly all art is the expression of some type of pattern or other. The rhyme scheme or rhythm of a poem, the repeating melody and beat of a piece of music, the patterns of color or contrast that make a painting memorable, the storyline of boy finds girl / boy loses girl / boy finds girl again, gospel's call and response / call and response / call and response, an author's use of asonance and disonance. Some of the best art is that which blends together the patterns and contrasts in the world around us to create something new and different.

Escher was a master of this synthesis. He could look at a flat plane in space and imagine tesselations - breaking the smooth featureless surface into intricate patterns of repeating interwoven shapes - which might subside back into smoothness or might suddenly evolve into the infinitely large or infinitely small. Escher also liked visual paradoxes - impossible arrangements in space where the question of "which way is up" is meaningless. He liked the ideas of cycles with infinite repetition or recursion - like mobius strips inflated into fully three-dimensional geometries.

Among his most famous designs are an image of a hand drawing a second hand, which is in turn drawing the first hand. Another is a room filled with stairways, doors and windows with figures posed on impossible surfaces as if gravity was pulling in all directions at once. Another is a pair of identical landscapes - "Day and Night" overlaid with interwoven flocks of tesselated birds, half white, half black.

Escher's images tell their stories with a clarity and simplicity that seriously belies the effort he must have put into them. Even his straightforward graphics of city scenes and landscapes from his travels in Spain and Italy have an otherworldly quality, every shadow etched with crisp precision.

While I have always been a fan of his art, the most fascinating exhibit item for me was actually the door of Escher's studio cabinet in which his wooden squares, rules, and triangles were kept. Taped to the door were photographs that he had chosen to have in his studio, to look at day in and day out over the years. There were photos of his childhood, of him as a young man, photos of his son, and two photos of him with his wife Jetta.

Those two photos caught my eye - one I think was of the two of them at the reception after their their wedding, raising champaigne glasses towards each other in a toast. The two figures, in their formal dress and the high contrast of a very old photo, poised with their glasses raised in perfect symmetry. The other appears to be taken outdoors a few years later, Jetta sitting at an angle across Mauritis lap, the vertical corner of a rural building behind them splitting the scene into two nearly matching portraits, hands at their sides, faces each at a quarter-turn. I think these were special for Escher becaue they captured his life in a way that mirrored so appropriately his life's work - turning patterns into life, and then back into patterns again.

February 05, 2010

Who Will be Number 800?

I suspect no one has noticed, but we are up to 799 poets in the Poets' Corner author index. That's a lot, even after 15 years of collecting and editing works from the past 500 years. My question to you is - who should be number 800?

Remember the criteria: works must be in the public domain, at least in the U.S. - that means published in some form before 1923, abandoned after the initial copyright filing, or explicitly placed in the public domain by the author. For translated works, the same rules apply to the translation.

So who are we missing? Please give us your suggestions.



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