April 02, 2011

Six word stories

I wonder if the people behind the Electric Literature Single Sentence Animation series know about Hemingway's wager, made over lunch at the famous haunt of Jazz Age literary life, the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, that he could write an entire short story using just six words, and how he won it with "For sale: baby shoes, never worn".

Naturally many people since then have wanted to try their hands at this exploit, and to see their varying success you can go to sites like Six Word Stories. Most of the attempts resemble death bed utterances rather than stories, such as this from the annoying Dave Eggers (Category: Celebrity): "Found true love. Married someone else." Compare it to this jewel from the unknown Dan Rako: “Home early. Whose car is that?” (Category: Surprize).

The Guardian commissioned and published a collection of noted authors' six word stories a few years ago where the pickings are much better. My favourites are

"Apple?" "No." "Taste!" "ADAM?" Oh God.
--  David Lodge

Juicy offer. Must decline. Still paralysed.
--  Richard Ford

If only they could be seven words, I'd have one ready made. It's this phrase spoken a few days ago by the woman who was driving my daughter's class to school camp, in response to a question from one of the kids: "This isn't a bus, it's a coach".

Anyone out there want to try their hand?

The books that rocked

Lolita, The collected short stories of Roald Dahl and Think and grow rich were some of the titles that library users put forth when we asked "What book rocked your world?" for a promotion we held during New Zealand Book Month (slogan: "Books change lives"). I didn't know what to expect when we opened the entry box at the end of the month and started reading, but what I got was a very fun couple of hours on an adrenaline rush.

And here's the thing: it wasn't because so many of them were favourite books or authors of ours. It started like that, but by the end it was almost the opposite. The choices were so full of personality that I was loving them all: classics (Crime and Punishment, The Castle, the aforenamed Lolita which a reader who left no name had devoured in 72 hours, or to be precise, "72 hours of intrigue, black humour and despair"), acclaimed contemporaries (Colm Tóibín who had rocked a Sarah and a Pamela with The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn respectively), non-fiction (The end of faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason or Everything a woman needs to know about business - for a second I had thought it said 'bluebirds') and, marvellously, books I'd never heard of or imagined, like Secret Knowledge, in which David Hockney explodes our received wisdom about the development of perspective and chiaroscuro, or The snakebite survivors' club: travels among serpents by Jeremy Seal, a single copy in the entire library system, held at Waiuku Library, which helped a reader named Graham get over his fear of snakes.

A few others, not quite at random:

Oldest book (500 years) The Essays of Michel de Montaigne (“He lived 500 years ago but I find more in common with him than with my contemporaries” -- Eddie)

Oldest subject (500 BC) Buddha, a graphic novel by Osamu Tezuka

A book which intrigued me and I got it out myself  Ours Are The Streets, a novel by Sunjeev Sahota, a look into the mind of a suicide bomber.

Book which received the cleverest comment  The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (“It’s like 1984 for people who were born after 1984!")

Yay! two people named one of my favourite authors  Michael Ondaatje with In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, both from his good period!

Most hyperbolic comment  The Holy Bible ("Best library of books in the universe. Full of wondrous happenings, murder, conquest, love requited and unrequited, faithfulness, sexual treachery, anything and everything (except aliens?) Book par excellence, Book non pareil!” -- Neil)

Quincy, you rock!  King of large by June Colbert, a children's book about a boy who has to go on a diet (chosen by Quincy)

Awesome twosome from Adam  Journey to the end of the night by Céline, a book I know is awesome, and The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa which I don't, but you know it's got to be awesome when the library catalogue says this: "Like Camus, he is irritated by the happiness of men who don't know they are wretched, and his main objective is to perceive tedium in such a way that it ceases to hurt."

Our prize winners (fruit of a random draw, but we love the choices) Emily McDonald won a copy of Gregory O'Brien's beautiful new book A micronaut in the wide world: the imaginative life and times of Graham Percy. Her book was Robert Sullivan's book of poetry Jazz Waiata, which inspired her to enroll in his creative writing class. Eleanor Macfehin won a copy of Fantastica: the world of Leo Bensemann, the distillation of 30 years of research by Peter Simpson. Her book was All the pretty horses by Cormac McCarthy and her comment would have merited a prize too."Like reading an HD film", she called it.

What were mine? It's harder than you think. All the books and all the times and places start swirling around in your head. How can you pick? In the end I thought the best answer was the reading experience which most came at me from out of nowhere, unlike anything I'd ever read before, and probably like nothing I read after, either. One book which did this for me was Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia. His description of the boy pianist in one of the villages who, after getting a small bust of Beethoven out of the closet and putting it on the piano, plays him the Pathétique, while the wind goes on kicking up dust in the street outside. And he says, "I could not imagine a finer Pathétique further South."

And this one which rocked everyone's world:  Shayne chose Me by Ricky Martin

April 01, 2011

Electric literature

From the Manifesto of the Electric Literature website:

"Publishing is going through a revolution. There's opportunity and danger. The danger lies in ignoring or resisting the transformation in media. New platforms present an opportunity to adapt. We believe the short story is particularly well-suited to our hectic age, and certainly for digital devices. A quick, satisfying read can be welcome anywhere, and while you might forget a book, you’ll always have your phone."

Although I personally don't always have my phone, as I sometimes lose it under the seat of the car or under the piles of papers on my desk, and I almost never forget a book in either of the two construable meanings of that phrase, I'm right there with Electric Literature, a quarterly anthology of "five top-notch short stories, delivered in every viable medium", in believing that literature is what's important and not the medium, which I hope saves me from being one of the "sentimental old souls" they say they don't want to be.

I also like the way Electric Literature wants to take us to places that are exciting, unexpected and meaningful (well, I have some doubts about "meaningful" as a goal rather than a by-product of literature), such as their Electric Literature Single Sentence Animation series, short films created by visual artists in response to single sentences from stories published in Electric Literature.

Here is my far-and-away favourite of the ELSSA series, animated by Vance Reeser, inspired by a sentence from "Little things" by Matt Sumell.

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