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Archive for February, 2011

I was nine years old when I first watched the Academy Awards, the first time I really understood what they were and rooted for a movie to win.  It was April 15th, 1971 and I remember being allowed to stay up late to see whether or not my favorite movie that year — Airport — would win. It’s a fuzzy memory, watered down by time and the similarity of multiple memories of ceremonies past, but I do remember noting a certain look on my mother’s face whenever I expressed my hopes for a Best Picture win.  It’s a knowing look a parent gives when they want to be encouraging in the face of a child’s lack of understanding.  Of course I hadn’t seen any of the other nominees — why should that matter?

By most accounts, 1970 was a good year for movies. Nominees for Best Picture that year were Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story, M*A*S*H, and the winner, Patton. The Best Documentary winner that year was Woodstock, and the Beatles walked away with a Best Song Score for their cinematic epitaph Let It Be. If I had to pick a winner from that group today, having since seen them, I would have had a hard time choosing between Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H. Neither Love Story nor Airport have held up as well over time, but that’s always the gamble when picking the “best” of anything in a given year.

It wasn’t like I would have seen any of the other films that year.  I only went to Airport because my aunt was in town and wanted to do something.  Or maybe it was the teen girl upstairs who occasionally watched us kids while our parents went out.  Whatever the reason, I had seen my first real grown-up movie in a theatre (as opposed to “adult” movies with their triple-x connotations) and as far as I was concerned it was the best movie I’d ever seen.

I don’t know if I’ve missed and Oscar night since, though having seen that many I can’t be sure how many were truly memorable.

I grew up in LA and Hollywood is a company town. I quite literally had MGM movie lots just over the wall in my backyard. MGM took out full-page ads i the back of my high school yearbook. The Oscars were a big deal but only because Hollywood made sure they were a big deal, a tradition that continues to this day across the country. If you know which film had the highest grosses on any given opening weekend — or better still, went to a movie because it was opening weekend — then you have participated in one of the longest running and most successful marketing strategies of the last 50 years. Hollywood might seem perpetually on the brink of collapse, but you’ll ever see a studio in line for a government bail-out.  It’s one factory that just keeps humming along.

But my adult self, looking back and from the perspective as a writer with an interest in younger readers, feels a little sad that we don’t have a similar national excitement over books.  A few years earlier, in 1968, I would have been in a better position to choose a title from the ALA Newbery list: The Black Pearl, The Egypt Game, The Fearsome Inn, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, and the “winner,” From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (a good year for Konigsburg with two titles in the running.  My first choice would have been The Black Pearl, but I would have been fine with The Mixed Up Files.  I would have been 100% behind the 1970 winner, Sounder, a book my teacher read to us in class.  I fact, while most of my serious moviegoing didn’t take place until my late teens, and my knowledge of Oscar nominated films was minimal prior to that, I was well-versed in books — for adults and for kids — and could have been as equally excited by an awards show treated with the panache of the Academy Awards. In adult books, 1970 saw the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road, Hard Times, Deliverance, Ringworld, QB VII, The Paper Chase, Islands in the Stream (posthumously), and Master and Commander.  What fun it would have been to root among those titles!

I know, what bizarro planet am I living on, thinking we would celebrate books and authors the way we elevate and celebrate movies and actors?

For just a moment though, lets imagine that world.  Folks are rushing around getting food and drinks ready for their Book Award party.  Some are even doing themselves up in the costumes of their favorite characters. Celebrity authors are hosting — that is, authors who are celebrities, as opposed to those who are wielding their fame in other areas to get books deals — and there are dramatic readings and reenactments of key passages from this years’ nominees.  This year (finally!) they have a Graphic Novel category, there’s a separate special category for audio poetry, and rumor has it that Apple has bought ad space right in the middle of the broadcast to launch their new, smaller tablet that will make one-handed reading easier than on any other e-reader. The ads on TV and in newspapers have been pretty intense, but no more so that the friendly arguments taking place in people’s homes across the country as everyone chooses their favorite books. Buyers in bookstores have already hedged their bets and pre-ordered some titles they expect to win, but are otherwise glued to their seats tonight with phone in hand ready to place orders for winners. Pre-paid orders for winning titles will turn the day after the ceremony into the second biggest sales day in most stores fiscal year, right after Black Friday in November. Office betting pools will be won, lesser-known authors will gain new-found clout, full-page ads will fete the winners in the newspapers…

Sadly, there really is nothing like Oscar night… for books.

 

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I can’t stop!  Well, actually, I could, but I’m having a little too much fun writing these “sequels” to Mother Goose rhymes.  This week a sort of accidental theme emerged: children being bad.  Technically, I think “children being bad” sums up a vast majority of fairy tales and nursery rhymes.

A Tattler’s Tale

Jack Horner’s brother
Cried to his mother,
“Guess where Jack’s put his thumb?!”
Jack’s brother, the snitch,
Brought mother a switch,
And said, “You’re not good, you’re just dumb!”

 

The Calamity Kids

Jill and Jack were sent out back,
To fetch their mother some camphor;
Jill was tripped and split her lip,
And Jack was caught by a brown bear.

Jill staggered ‘round, fell to the ground,
Her limbs felt heavy, her thoughts dim;
“Don’t leave me here!” Jack cried in fear,
But no one bothered to save them.

Repeat Offender

Tom, Tom, the preacher’s son,
Stole a bull and he tried to run;
The bull got bored, and Tom was gored,
And Tom was denied his Great Reward!

It’s Poetry Friday!  Plenty of good poems just ripe for the pickin’!  The roundup this week is hosted by the effervescent Sara over at Read Write Believe.

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St. Peter ascended
to heaven resplendent,
his mother he longed to see.

But she was polluted
and thus was rerouted,
a prominent Hell addressee.

“There’s been some confusion
at this institution.
Who gave my mom a bad rep?”

Thus Peter was granted
his mother transplanted
so long as he made the schlep.

Both were excited
to be reunited,
no longer would they be cleft.

But then Peter observed
reputation deserved;
Ethically, she was bereft.

St. Peter ascended
his spirits amended,
his mother remained below.

Does she yet dwell in Hell?
Only one way to tell.
Here’s hoping you’ll never know!

.
c. 2011 david elzey

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Well, that was a bit of fun last week digging up some old ‘Nother Goose rhymes, so I thought I’d try another round this week.

Burning Sensation

Jack be numskull
Jack perspire
Jack now finds
His pants on fire!

.

Shopping List

Snakes, steaks, abalone,
Chocolate cheesecake, macaroni,
Carburetors, alligators,
Coffee for the percolator,

Ham hocks, salt, and chili sauce,
Bottles, swamp gas, slimy moss,
A musty, rusty old cheese grater,
Buttons from an elevator,

Wigs, figs, cauliflower
Several puddings, Sweet and sour,
Horseshoes from a Shetland pony,
Soap flakes, dried-up pepperoni

Licorice whips and gravy mix
Egg shells, sheep dip, garlic bricks
Moisturizer, fertilizer,
A broken popcorn sanitizer

Gingerbread, a telephone
Beans and franks, a doggy bone…

All the things that Mother Hubbard
Used to have inside her cupboard!

.

Thrush Mush

Four-and-twenty blackbirds
Met an awful fate.
Packed inside a pastry,
Now it’s much too late.

Every Simple Simon,
Any child of five,
Knows that birds from ovens
Don’t come out alive.

It’s Poetry Friday, do you know where your couplets are?  Why not check the roundup over at Great Kid Books and see if they aren’t hanging out over there.

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Dog’s version:

After all my years of loyalty to the service of Lion I was finally recognized as a Noble and ceremoniously decorated.  About time, too, if you ask me.  In addition to ceremony he gave me a title — Duke Dungslakeheaping — and the deed to my own small kingdom. Quite an honor and a prize, I must say.

When I told my sister Cat she was very sweet and congratulatory, which should have made me suspicious, but I was too jazzed to think clearly.

“Listen, Duke, you can’t run around with your deed in your mouth getting all slobbery,” she purred.  “Why not leave it with me and I’ll look after it.  When necessary you can retrieve it.”

Again, I should have known, sister Cat is never anything less than clever, but I found her enthusiasm intoxicating and agreed.  It’s that purring, it’s like some sort of drug, I tell you.

Anyway, one day I’m out and about and I find some Wolves making a mess in my brackens and I say “Hey, you Wolves, clear out!” And they were like “You don’t own this land, Dog, you’re not the boss of us!” So of course I have to run home and get my title to show it to these wannabe dogs

“Yeah, so, about that title, Duke” Cat says, and I knew she’d planned the whole thing even before she told me what happened.  “So I have this little hidey-hole in my cupboard — it’s where I like to keep special treats away from the kittens.  That’s where I put the parchment you gave me.  But the other day I went looking for a little treat and saw that the parchment had been destroyed…”

She took it out and showed me.  It was in strips no wider than one of my claws.  She claims Mouse must have done it, but I know better.  She wouldn’t put her treats where a mouse could get them, and there’s no way she didn’t do this herself out of spite.

I went back to Lion an explained the situation, and do you know what he said?

“Well, if you can be so careless with the title I gave you then I don’t suppose you’re fit to rule the land I deeded you.”

Which is why I’m going to spend the rest of my life bowing and scraping to Lion. And why now and forever I hate Cat.

Cat’s version:

Really, you’re going to take his word?

I had as much to gain and lose by Dog’s commission.  With him in charge I felt I finally had the ear I needed to get some much-needed improvements to this crummy end of the kingdom.  Our waterways are polluted by Raccoons upstream, Birds are constantly breaking noise ordnances with their early morning parties, and those Wolves are a menace and have been rumored to run off with kittens in the night. Why, when I finally had a chance to be heard by Lion would I throw it all away?

It happened just like I said. I put it away not imagining for a moment that Mouse would have any interest in paper. But one day I hear this noise in my kitchen and there’s Mouse, tearing the parchment into shreds.

“Mouse! What are you doing! That isn’t even food!”

“My nest needs lining, dear Cat, and I didn’t think you cared what I did so long as I left your food and your kittens alone.”

I was so furious I gave Mouse a good batting.  I should have killed Mouse when I had the chance but I didn’t.  Now I might as well give up ever getting anything taken care of in this part of the woods. I understand Dog is mad, but the truth is the truth, and for the rest of my days I’m never going to forgive Mouse for what he did.

Mouse’s version:

Oh, please.  Everyone knows what this is really about. It’s all about the Cheese.

Think about it, who loves cheese more?  More than mice, I mean.  That’s right, Dog.  Cat doesn’t mind a nice cream now and then, maybe a runny Brie, but if he could Dog would eat Cheese until it was coming out both ends.  Sorry to be so graphic about it, but there’s Cat’s truth and then there’s just plain Dog truth about the matter.

Because Dog can’t hold his Cheese it is kept under lock and key in Lion’s castle.  For decades now Dog has been bowing and scraping before Lion in the hopes of one day getting access to the Cheese House. It’s because of Dog that the only way I can ever get any Cheese is by making daily rounds to people’s homes and making it look like they have an infestation.  They freak out, put down mouse traps with tidbits of Cheese, and I go making my rounds trying to keep myself fed without breaking an arm or a leg or having to chew off my own tail.

Did I shred that piece of paper?  You bet I did.  You know why?  Because Cat told me it belonged to Dog.  If she had told me what that paper meant, if she’d told me that it meant Dog was no longer in Lion’s palace I would have left it alone.  With Dog gone maybe Lion would have lightened up the security and I wouldn’t have to risk life and limb to eat.

So even though, yes, I tore the paper to bits to line my nest — you try living in a wall, it’s cold and drafty — the only person at blame here is Dog.  He’s ruins everything, for all of us.  I’ve hated Dog forever and I always will.

Cheese’s version:

For a long time the Cheese stood alone, sequestered for her own protection and with no knowledge of what went on beyond the walls of the Cheese House.  She had heard horrible stories, bedtime fairy tales, of Cats and Dogs and Mice and Lions and all manner of Beasts and she was glad for her cool dry home in the dark. The outside world sounded like a dreadful place to her and she was afraid it would eat her alive.

And she was right.

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I’m on assignment.  Sort of.  A friend who is a professor has asked me for the second year in a row to contribute to a blog based on one of her course subjects, Los Angeles.  I grew up there, and though I haven’t lived in the city or spent any significant time there in the last (mumble mumble) years or so, I still have some pretty vivid memories.

When I was initially asked to contribute to last year’s blog I wrestled with some mixed emotions.  On the one hand, having not lived in a city that changes as radically within a given ten-year period I didn’t feel I had anything to contribute.  On the other hand, at what point does one’s history become an invalid point of departure for reportage?  Distance is a physical thing, but memory is as close as the memory is strong.  Why shouldn’t I be able to talk about the city of my formative years?

My current assignment involves the memories of streets.  I have a few I’m sorting through in my mind to determine which will speak the loudest to me.  At the same time those old doubts come creeping in. Do I have anything relevent to say?  Are my memories of streets that have long since seen cosmetic surgery even really the same streets?

It was while perusing a book on screenwriting this past weekend that I stumbled on a quote by Willa Cather.

I became an artist when I stopped admiring and started remembering.

Setting aside that I’ve never like Cather’s books, or that I find her use of the word “artist” pretentious and a bit insecure on her part, I found this quote to be remarkably well-timed for discovery.  In the beginning we learn by studying those who inspire us. In 8th grade I wrote an unbelievably ridiculous story based on people I knew in the style of Kurt Vonnegut.  Since then I’ve studied, and aped, films and radio plays and painters and photographers I admired.  While I find some of the work done in homage to be relatively successful, it wasn’t until I learned how to mine my memories that I understood these various arts and crafts better.

What “works” in my writing are those moments that tap into the rich vein of what I remember.  About childhood, about cities, about creating, about everything.  I can see the clear, clean architectural lines of a building but cannot capture it until I can tap into my memories of wonder at first seeing such things.  Standing in front of an abstract painting may mean nothing at first, but then comes a memory of color or pattern, where describing it becomes an attempt to locate the hidden vocabularies of experience.

Why do certain colors and scents move us?  What makes a particular time of day feel brighter or melancholy?  Everyone admires an exquisite sunset; it’s how you remember it that renders the memory valuable.  We attach emotions to these things we admire and experience, and rendering these feelings transforms the work.

So I’ve stopped questioning whether or not there’s validity to my memories of the streets of Los Angeles. The only question now is to settle on which ones are the most evocative.  We can tussle over whether or not it’s art later.

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kidlit book love

It’s St. Valentine’s Day, which means among many other things that it’s the day the Cybils winners are announced.  After a public nominating process and two rounds of judging by bloggers in the kidlitosphere, the 2010 winners have been selected and are officially posted on the Cybils website.

Once again I was a judge, and this year I was back to graphic novels.  I’ll have more to say in about a week about the winners and my choices in the graphic novel category (and perhaps about judging in general), but for the next week or so I’m going to be posting reviews of some of the books considered for this years Cybils over at the review site, the excelsior file.  I’ve decided to hold off on posting about my decisions until after my reviews are up, starting tomorrow since I’ve got a (semi) Valentine’s book reviewed today.

As with most years, they Cybils provides a nice alternative to the other book awards out there.  I don’t know if it’s the nominating process, or the variety of people involved in judging, but there always seems to be a few surprises when it comes to naming winners.  And this year I actually read a number of winners before they were announced! That’s a first.  (I even reviewed the Teen Sci-Fi winner Rot & Ruin for Guys Lit Wire.)

Always full of surprises, the 2010 Cybils: check ’em out.

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