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Literary Traveler Talks to Bill Bryson

October 27, 2011 in American literature, Behind The Article, Bill Bryson, British literature, Contemporary Literature, Uncategorized

There are few writers who can so seamlessly marry information with a strongly absurdest sense of humor. Bill Bryson is one of those rare authors. Unlike the dry, factual essayists we read in school, Bryson’s books are not only sidesplittingly funny, but also deeply authoritative and observant.

As you might be able to tell, we have been reading Bryson for years, and admiring his singular style and voice. From the first book we picked up on the Appalachian Trail, the 1998 A Walk in the Woods to his wildly popular A Short History of Nearly Everything.

In 2010, while traveling across the Atlantic on the Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, Literary Traveler got to meet the famous writer. Bill was taking the cruise as a special guest for their Liners & Literature series. During this time, he had a few duties: relax, enjoy himself, and speak to the other passengers about his impressive career, his thoughts on Britain, and his unique views on writing and reading.

“Everybody likes books that are about them,” he observed during our interview. “My book about growing up in Iowa seemed to really resonate with Americans. The other book that did very well in America was A Walk in the Woods… but the book that sold in Britain was Notes on a Small Island. I suppose it’s natural that people are most attracted to something about them.”

He also revealed the genesis of his writing career. “My dad had a great collection of hardback books from the 1930s and 40s, and he had a lot of books by PG Wodehouse. He had books by people like James Thurgood, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman—four really, really funny writers. I picked up these books when I was thirteen and fell in love with the idea of being able to use language as a way of making people laugh.”

To learn more about Bill Bryson, take a few minutes to watch our full interview with the author, shot on board the Queen Mary 2. Covering everything from baseball to the Brits, it’s the perfect way to get to know one of the most beloved humor writers living today. See the clip at Literary Traveler TV here.

Never Let Me Go Packs a Surprising Emotional Punch

May 10, 2011 in Behind The Article, British literature, Literary Movies

Kazuo Ishiguro by Mariusz Kubik / CC License

I have never read another book quite like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. First of all, it is a rather difficult novel to categorize. It seems somehow apt to label it science fiction, yet Ishiguro’s tranquil prose is nothing like the action-packed, alien-fighting romps we’ve come to expect from the genre. It has also been suggested that the novel is mainly fantasy or mystery, and though elements of both are certainly present, the novel truly resists classification as it subtly employs characteristics of genre without playing into any of the hackneyed  conventions.

What I find to be truly intriguing about Ishiguro’s style, however, is his way of evoking intense emotional depth, while seemingly saying nothing out of the ordinary. The reading level of Never Let Me Go is well within the grasp of most middle school students, and overall the prose is very informal and easy to understand, yet the philosophical profundity and heart-breaking emotional precision  behind Ishiguro’s writing could overwhelm even the most seasoned adults.

In a short video interview about the novel, Ishiguro reveals that his main theme throughout  Never Let Me Go is rather simple: he really hoped to explore the way we struggle with the knowledge of our own eventual mortality.  This theme may seem rather morose and unappealing, yet Ishiguro doesn’t bemoan the inevitability of death or even attack it straight on. To some extent, he distracts us. By creating the vivid depictions of Kath, Tommy, and Ruth and by employing elements of suspense and mystery, Ishiguro causes us to sympathize with these characters, as we become increasingly engrossed in the actions of the story. So, when the characters finally discover and confront their own mortality, we discover it along with them,truly sharing their pain as we recognize our own ephemerality. It may seem almost impossible to address such a weighty topic in a way that is both entertaining and heart-breaking, but Kazuo Ishiguro has certainly done it with poise and intelligence.

In addition, the first film adaptation of Never Let Me Go recently debuted in November of 2010 to positive reviews. The cast boasts young talent as Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley.  Many critics have concluded that director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland have captured the ethereal yet moving quality of the original work.

To read more about Never Let Me Go and how writer Zoe Smith uncovered a longing for her native English countryside through Ishiguro’s prose check out Ode to England Inspired by Kazuo Ishiguro.


Jane Austen in The New Forest

May 1, 2011 in Behind The Article, British literature, Travel to England

Photo by Janet Halliday

Of all places to find Jane Austen, who would think The New Forest in Hampshire, England?  Writer Janet Halliday cleverly thought of this idea as she was inspired by Austen’s adventures in the nearby village of Beaulieu.  Halliday details the wildlife, plant life and springtime beauty of The New Forest in our latest article.

Literary Traveler: When is the best time to visit The New Forest i.e. spring, autumn?

Janet Halliday: All the seasons have their joys, but my special favourite is late spring/early summer; say May and June. In spring there’s the fresh green foliage, bluebells and primroses; in summer the foals are everywhere and the fabulous honey-scented heather makes the moor areas purple; and in autumn the russets and golds as the trees change colour are lovely. Winter is maybe best avoided, though, as it can be very wet and muddy.

LT: Do you think Austen’s time spent in Beaulieu had an influence on her famous works in any way?

JH: I’m no expert on Austen, but given her powers of observation I’d be surprised if some of the things she experienced on those visits didn’t end up in her works, even if the material isn’t specifically referenced to Beaulieu.

LT: Are you scared of the wild pigs of The New Forest?  We have wild boars in the US and they’re pretty big and terrifying.

JH: No. Just give them a respectfully wide berth – especially if they have piglets – and they’ll ignore you. They aren’t ‘wild pigs’, they’re domestic ones being allowed to forage, but you should adopt the same cautious attitude to them as to any large, untethered animal.

Incidentally you should never, never feed any of the ponies/cows/pigs/donkeys. It encourages them to come close to roads, to pester people, and to be less self-reliant. They are monitored by their owners and by the Verderers (people charged with the management of grazing in the forest) and if conditions mean the animals need extra feed, the owners will provide it.

Please continue onto our latest article, Ponies & Tranquility, Jane Austen’s New Forest.


Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre: Independent Women

April 21, 2011 in British literature, European Writers, Literary Movies, Literary Movies 2011, LIterary Traveler Birthdays

Charlotte Bronte, Painting by George Richmond

Charlotte Brontë was no stranger to death. Her mother died when she was only five years old. When Brontë was nine years old both her older sisters died, and the rest of her siblings, Branwell, Emily, and Anne all passed away in 1848-49. Charlotte herself came to an untimely end when she died of tuberculosis at age 38, along with her unborn child.

However, this presence of death did not stop her from publishing the literary masterpiece, Jane Eyre and taking her place among the most prominent writers of the 19th Century. In fact, the hardships Brontë suffered may have helped her to portray the character of Jane with such realism and sensitivity. The orphaned Jane is forced to endure a variety of unfortunate situations throughout her childhood as she is passed from guardian to guardian: first her pitiless aunt, Mrs. Reed, then the cruel headmaster of Lowood School, Mr. Brocklehurst. Just when Jane appears to have finally found happiness at Thornfield Manor, she discovers that her fiance, Mr. Rochester, is in fact hiding a horrific secret that could compromise her blissful “happily ever after” ending.

It is precisely Jane Eyre’s strength in the face of adversity and her independence (characteristics not frequently ascribed to women of the time period) that make her such a compelling character. These traits are famously showcased in one of Jane’s speeches to Mr. Rochester: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” This sort of empowering, proto-feminist discourse was rarely found in many novels of the time, and in fact, Brontë felt the need to write her first two novels under the masculine pen name, Currer Bell, because, as she later admitted, she had “a vague impression that authoresses [we]re liable to be looked on with prejudice” Later, however, her identity was very well known, thus Charlotte Brontë, herself was an independent woman who possessed the strength and determination so frequently attributed to her most celebrated character.

Jane Eyre is a character who has obviously left her mark on the public mind, as she has inspired various adaptations of the novel, including musicals, literary sequels, television series, and of course, motion pictures. The most recent film version was just released March 11, 2011 to positive reviews; it stars Mia Wasikowska (who also played Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) as Jane, and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester.



Behind The Article: Jane Austen in Chawton

April 20, 2011 in Behind The Article, British literature, Travel to England

Jane Austen's House Museum / Photo by Helen Palmer

Jane Austen arouses feelings of the provincial life in England.  The English countryside arouses feelings of home life with quiet villages and quaint cottages.  It is from this connection to English home that Austen wrote her best work.  Today, Jane Austen’s House Museum located in Chawton is open to the public.  Book-lovers of Austen’s great works can explore her humble residence and the place where she labored over characters, plot and setting.  Writer Helen Palmer has been exploring Austen’s House since 2006 as she discusses her deep connection to it in our latest Jane Austen article.  But first, Palmer answers a few extra questions:

Literary Traveler: In the article, you wrote that you’ve made many visits to Austen’s home in Chawton. Was there anything that stood out during your most recent visit?

Helen Palmer: My most recent visit to the house was memorable in that the village lay under several inches of snow, and all the trees were frosted white. This past winter was a particularly long and cold one in England – visiting the house in the big freeze gave me much more of a feeling for the harshness of life in Austen’s time. I could imagine Jane and her sister Cassandra huddled around the open fire to keep warm. Obviously it’s lovely to visit the house in the spring or summer time when everything is in bloom, but I’ve enjoyed seeing it in every season.

LT: Jane Austen continues to inspire us as writers.  Were you surprised to hear Austen was heavily edited?

HP: I was quite surprised – and fascinated to hear that NPR interview with Kathryn Sutherland at Oxford University. Like many people I had always had the image of Jane Austen sitting at her writing table with her quill, turning out perfectly polished prose. Learning that she had trouble with punctuation doesn’t change my appreciation of her as a writer though. The essence of her genius is unchanged.

LT: How does Austen continue to inspire you as a literary writer and travel writer?

HP: I think for me it’s her wit and lightness of touch that continue to inspire, both in writing and in life. It’s her gift for observation of people and their foibles that’s completely timeless.

Please continue reading our latest article: Jane Austen, A Beloved Friend in Chawton.


Wordsworth Lake District House Fire

April 7, 2011 in British literature, Literary Traveler Poetry, National Trust, Travel to England

Dove Cottage, Photo by Sourav Niyogi CCA

April 7th is the birthday of the famous Romantic poet William Wordsworth.  Instead of happy birthday news of the long-deceased writer, we have some bad news.  On March 24, 2011, The Guardian reported: “One of the Lake District homes of the English romantic poet William Wordsworth was severely damaged by fire in the early hours of yesterday morning.”

The house is situated in Grasmere, Cumbria.  The poet lived in the house from 1808 to 1813.  The fire was most likely caused by a faulty electric wire in the roof.  The National Trust owns the property; however, it is not open to the general public.  We wonder about Wordsworth’s reaction beyond the grave, if the fire would have left a scar on his invisible heart.

The good news is two of the poet’s other houses, Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, are open to the public, so when traveling to the Lake District, a literary traveler can still get her/his fill of Wordsworth.  As the poet wrote so succinctly in his poem “The Farewell”:

FAREWELL, thou little Nook of mountain-ground,
Thou rocky corner in the lowest stair
Of that magnificent temple which doth bound
One side of our whole vale with grandeur rare;
Sweet garden-orchard, eminently fair,
The loveliest spot that man hath ever found,
Farewell!–we leave thee to Heaven’s peaceful care,
Thee, and the Cottage which thou dost surround.

William Wordsworth b. April 7, 1770

Please continue reading our archived article entitled Wordsworth’s Lake District.

Behind The Article: Apocalypse Now in Cambodia

April 1, 2011 in British literature, Literary Movies, Pop Culture

Bayon Buffalo, Photo by Simon Glassock

In my house, my fiance must say “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” at least once a week.  It’s always referring to something guy-like, maybe not as guy-like as the infamous John Mayer quote, but it’s always in guy terms.  When writer Simon Glassock proposed his idea for an Apocalypse Now article, I knew I’d immediately have a male audience.  War movie, men hunting, men in their most primal state.

But after reading Glassock’s article, I realized there’s a lot more to Apocalypse Now (and Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which the movie was based on) then just being a “guy” film.  Glassock details the history of the film, including Marlon Brando’s diva-like behavior and Francis Ford Coppola’s struggles on set.  Glassock also discusses the infamous water buffalo sacrifice scene and where the idea originated.

Literary Traveler: You write about the history of Apocalypse Now.  But when you were in the Cambodian jungle, what was your visceral experience?

Simon Glassock: Being in a jungle, or in any wild place, makes me feel pleasantly empty and inconsequential. I say ‘pleasantly’ because it is not a negative sensation. I find being reminded that the natural world is oblivious to us quite refreshing and the jungle-encroached ruins of past civilisations such as those at Angkor are a striking example how small and transient we really are.

LT: Why do you think Apocalypse Now resonates with a male audience (more so than with a female audience)?

SG: I hadn’t thought about the film specifically in gender terms but now that you prompt me I think it may partly be because there are no females in it. Apocalypse Now shows how a flawed man can be the agent of his own redemption. It also presents a homosocial (not homosexual) world in which men form relationships that can be, are permitted to be,  perhaps because of the proximity of death, close and intimate in a way that men seldom experience. War films often suggest a sense of belonging, purpose and even moral growth which can elude men in civilian society.

LT: Do you think with current animal rights restrictions, would the water buffalo scene still have been done if filmed today?

SG: It is worth reiterating that the water buffalo sacrifice was a cultural event that was recorded and incorporated in the film rather than a scripted scene. I strongly suspect that liberal intolerance of substantive difference and the threat of real violence from some quarters would prevent the scene from being included today. Respect for diversity and multi-culturalism, anyone?

Please continue reading Apocalypse Now, A Film History & the Sacrificial Water Buffalo.

Will Literary Colin Firth Win the Oscar?

February 25, 2011 in British literature, Literary Movies 2011, Literary News

Colin Firth / Nicogenin, CC LicenseColin Firth is certainly a handsome brooder.  He’s made his mark on literary television when he played the always brooding Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  For those of us–especially the ladies–who remember this epic series in 1995, we all remember Colin Firth’s scene stealing dark glares.

Firth has made quite a bit of money off of the literary.  In fact, he played the modern version of Mr. Darcy as the character of Mark Darcy, a lawyer from a well-established, British family, in Bridget Jones’ Diary.  The movie was a modern and quirky adaption of Pride and Prejudice.  Firth then continued his literary movie success acting in hits such as Shakespeare in Love, The Importance of Being Earnest, Dorian Gray and A Christmas Carol.

For anyone who has seen Colin Firth in his latest movie, The King’s Speech, you’re probably not surprised to hear he’s a favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  The King’s Speech is not exactly literary, but it is historical.  It keeps in line with Firth’s career, which is to put quality over anything else.

So what do you think, will Colin Firth win the Oscar?

Behind The Article: Oscar Wilde at Pere-Lachaise

February 10, 2011 in Behind The Article, British literature, Classic Writers, Travel to Paris France

Jim Morrison Grave / Photo by Kevin E.G. PerryOur latest article, Jim Morrison & Lipstick Kisses at Oscar Wilde’s Pere-Lachaise, is very rock-n-roll.  Wilde was flamboyant, fun-loving and ostentatious, so why not be buried in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France, along with other celebrities such as The Doors Jim Morrison, Chopin, Proust and even Edith Piaf?

Oscar Wilde found a resting place that suited him.  He is buried in a grave that is adorned by literary fans and fans who just want to leave their lipstick kisses on his tombstone.  Kevin E.G. Perry, the writer of the Oscar Wilde article, completely agrees: Oscar is living in death, the way he loved living in life.  And good for him.  We should all be so lucky.

A new literary tradition we’re trying at LT is to go “Behind The Article.”  Now you can read more fascinating tidbits and observations about the writer and the place … things that weren’t included in the article.  For this blog post, we asked Perry a couple of questions that we’re sure our readers would love to know.

Literary Traveler: We hear you visited Edith Piaf’s grave as well.  Did it evoke any different emotions than visiting Wilde’s or Morrison’s graves?

Kevin E.G. Perry: Edith Piaf’s grave is very close to Wilde’s, but it’s an altogether more modest affair. It’s a family plot which displays only the inscription ‘Famille Gassion-Piaf’, and you’d easily miss it if someone hadn’t attached her photograph. This simplicity and the fact that it is set back away from the path seemed to add to the air of reverence that surrounds it–and makes it even more startling to think that when she was buried there, over 100,000 mourners attended the ceremony.

LT: Can you tell our readers a little more about The Doors fans at Jim Morrison’s grave?  How many fans were there?  Did you find the experience overwhelming or overly-touristy?

KP: On the day I visited Pere-Lachaise there were six or seven Doors fans who seemed to be spending the day at Jim Morrison’s grave, quite apart from the ebb and flow of other cemetery visitors. They were smoking cigarettes and playing music at a low volume–the latest torch holders in a perpetual vigil that has lasted almost 40 years.

We hope you enjoyed this first installment of “Behind The Article.”  We’ll keep them coming.  In the meantime, please enjoy Oscar Wilde at Pere-Lachaise.

Harry Potter in Alaska for Winter 2011

February 1, 2011 in British literature, children's literature, Winter Travel

Photo by Lindy MapesHarry Potter is a phenomenon.  We all know that.  Even though J.K. Rowling put out her last Harry Potter book a while ago, readers still love him and want to believe in Harry and his magical powers.  His world is a world where anything can happen and you can be a hero, no matter how small, young or old you are.

When I first read Harry Potter, I believe I was in college.  But what I most remember is passing around Harry Potter books as a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia.  Winters in Estonia ranged from around 0 degrees to -30 degrees.  The wind pummeled me every morning as I walked out the door.  It was cold and dark for eight months of the year, and one of the best activities was to read.  Therefore, several of us volunteers passed around the Harry Potter books to read for entertainment.

That’s when I got the idea to use Harry Potter in the classroom.  I taught English as a foreign language and knew my seniors, who were advanced English speakers, would love the world of Harry.  And they did.  It kept them learning and entertained on those cold, dark days of winter.

To cope with yet another winter storm, we proudly present our latest article entitled A Harry Potter State of Mind in Winter Alaska.  Make yourself a hot cup of tea and enjoy!

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