Had a nicely busy last week. I'm starting to like these weekends when I'm up and about every day. Time seems to move slower then, and you experience much more.
But first, books I finished and liked.
Humphrey Carpenter - J. R. R. Tolkien, A Biography
Biographies usually don't appeal to me too much. Recently I've been enjoying them, though. You learn a lot about other people's dreams and ideas. Carpenter moves chronologically through the stages of Tolkien's life, from South Africa through the war to Oxford and Tolkien's last years in South England. If you've read the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's biography is a small treasure chest. It made me realize that all of Tolkien's life echoes in his works (especially in LotR). Every inch of the way the Fellowship travels is an inch on the way of Tolkien's life. I find this quite amazing.
Reading about all the experiences Tolkien had in his early life was also very interesting. It's a bit intimidating to know about all the languages he taught himself even before going to University and the depth of his love for language. Then his experiences in the World War - a very short chapter, but nevertheless very shocking, especially since the book contains letters from Tolkien and his friends which reflect their feelings more authentically than a simple report could. You get a tiny sense of how crushed he must have been when he lost almost all of his close friends to the war. We probably can't even begin to imagine the full extent of what people felt during the wars. Lucky us.
Tolkien must have been a brilliant man. He had his failings (incidentally, they are sometimes described as his strengths ... shows you how subjective certain things are) and made mistakes, but it seems he usually acted with the best intent and purely out of love for his passions - an attitude that is quite inspirational. Maybe that's what biographies are for; to inspire you and give you an idea of how much can be achieved in a lifetime.
Peter S. Beagle - Tamsin
My sentiments towards Peter S. Beagle are a bit split. Watching the Last Unicorn has become a personal Christmas tradition through the years (even now that I have it on DVD and don't have to wait for December 24th to see it on TV). I probably love the film more than any other animation, simply for its underlying concepts that are hinted at, but not told, and for the ideas these concepts gave me in my childhood. And Christopher Lee's voice as King Haggard is simply wonderful.
The book, however, and other books I'd read so far by Peter S. Beagle, is a different matter. I could never fully take to the writing style. The thing I liked most about it was that it explained some of the concepts the film had hinted at further. But my heart was always with the film, not with the book. Beagle got a second chance when I read The Innkeeper's Song, which was even worse (stylistically). Good story, ideas and concepts, but the style made it very tedious for me. Then I tried his short story collection, The Line Between, of which I remember absolutely nothing.
Still, I didn't give up at that point. I just loved the film too much, and this made me want to love the author and his other books, too. So I let some months pass and gave it a fourth try. Fourth time's the charm, eh?
Tamsin tells the story of a girl, Jenny, who is forced to move from America to England upon her mother's second marriage. The family moves to a rural area into a farm house. Here Jenny begins to see the ghost of a girl, Tamsin, who she befriends. And slowly the story on the history of the farm, Tamsin's life and death and Jenny's coping with her new surroundings and family unravel.
It's the strong voice of the protagonist that made this book so appealing. From the beginning her teenage emotions draw you in and carry you through the story - from the sulkiness due to the unfairness of life up to the utter and overwhelming curiosity she displays at everything and everyone in the world, so you begin to share her interest in the farm and its history. I guess this shows you again how important appealing protagonists are (at least for me). They can kill the story or bring it to life.
Fourth chances are good. You just need to search for long enough and at some point it will click. I only needed to go through four average books to get to a sweet one ("sweet" is probably the right category. I assume the target group are children and teenagers, but I can easily enjoy it even though I'm slightly older ;)
That's it concerning books for now. On to last week's business. There was a conference on Popular Culture vs. High Culture in Salzburg from Thursday to Saturday, which I attended on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Special guest was John Storey, professor of cultural studies. He specialises, among other things, in popular culture, identity, consumption and globalisation. In my Pop Culture lecture in Oxford three years ago we read one of his books (I still remember most of what he wrote in it, which tells you how accessible he can make his research topics).
It was my first conference and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The topics were great. John Storey talked about the concepts of pop and high culture; another talk was on Doctor Who and its intertextuality and relation to British Culture (comparisions with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer were thrown in occasionally), and my favourite talk was on TV Judges and the Law. The talk analysed the success of courtroom shows. In one of my lecture we had discussed talkshows and their aims the week before, so I constantly compared the talkshows with the court shows. Basically, it was said that talkshows aim at establishing borders and boundaries for social behaviour. They are manufacture for consensus (Konsensmanufakturen), shown by the fact that according to surveys most of the audience (in the studio and in front of the TV) is under the impression that the show host "always agrees with me". People don't primarily watch talkshows to make fun of people's behaviour, but to be told which behaviour is acceptable and which isn't. The host is the one who established these boundaries - if one of the guests breaks through the boundaries that the show aims at building, s/he gets sent off the stage (sometimes even without applause, which tells the audience that his behaviour was utterly inacceptable and out of the norm).
In court shows, not the host but the law sets the boundaries. So in the end court shows aim at reassuring the audience that the country's law system works and is reliable. Unlike talkshows, court shows don't work in all countries, because the court system is very different in some parts. British audience never took a liking to the court shows, so they are virtually unknown in Britain. Allegedly the reason for this is that the law is always portrayed negatively on regular TV (in films, series, etc.), so the British audience rejects a TV format that is affirmative towards the law. Quite fascinating. I wonder what this tells you about the countries that broadcast court shows successfully. It seems we need (or are pressured to find) reassurance in everything - social behavour through talkshows, the law through court shows. What's next? People used to live by trial and error and the experiences of their elders for centuries, but now we need how-to's, workshops and TV shows for everything.
Friday afternoon/evening and Saturday was spent in Innsbruck, practicing Kendo, meeting many new people, learning lots and having tons of fun. Warm-ups with 18 people are just great. There's so much more energy present right from the beginning.
Sunday went by with moving stuff from Salzburg to Linz ... not fun. You realize how much stuff you've accumulated when you need to move. And the next time I move there'll be even more stuff to take care of (e.g. all the stuff that's towering up left and right of me and that I have to step over at the moment when I want to walk through my room).
And now it's snowtime! By far not as beautiful as the awesome view we had in Innsbruck on Saturday morning from our sleepingplace (somewhere between mountains, mountains and rocks), but nevertheless I love the sight of the first significant snow on Linz.