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1. The Catholic Supernatural

From eighteenth century Gothic novels to contemporary popular culture, the tropes and sacred culture of Catholicism endure as themes in entertainment. OUP author Diana Walsh Pasulka sat down with The Conjuring (2013) screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes to discuss their cinematic focus on “the Catholic Supernatural” and the enduring appeal of Catholic culture to moviegoers.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: Your recent movie The Conjuring was financially very successful and is the third highest grossing horror film about the supernatural, behind only The Exorcist (1973) and The Sixth Sense (1999). Each of these films engage Catholic themes, and more specifically, the supernatural. The Conjuring, of course, is based on the lives of Catholics Ed and Lorraine Warren. What is it about Catholic culture that you think resonates with audiences?

Carey Hayes: Catholic culture is global. It also has a long history that almost everyone in the West identifies with on some level. Medieval cathedrals, priests in black robes and white collars and nuns in habits, in many ways these visuals are like short hand or code, and audiences understand them. For example, take the movie, The Exorcist. When it is apparent in the movie that the little girl is possessed by evil, they call in the priest. The priest, with his identifiable clothing, his crucifix and holy water, is the representation, visually, of the antidote to evil. Of course it doesn’t hurt that authors and filmmakers have used these themes over and over again, and this adds to the recognizable effects. The more we see elements of Catholic culture used in visual culture this way, the more we understand what they mean.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: That’s interesting. The meaning of these tropes, then, can take on a second life, of sorts, in popular culture. Non-Catholic audiences might equate what they see about Catholicism in the movies, with Catholic-lived practice.

Chad Hayes: That could be the case, of course, but in our experience we’ve had only positive reinforcement from Catholics. When we promoted The Conjuring in San Francisco a Catholic priest approached me and said “Thank you for getting it right.” That one comment was one of the best compliments I’ve received about the movie. We were also interviewed for U.S. Catholic, and they were very positive.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring. New Line Cinema. © 2013 Warner Bros Entertainment.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring. New Line Cinema. © 2013 Warner Bros Entertainment.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: A few years ago, Carey, you coined the term “The Religious Supernatural” to differentiate what you were doing from other screenwriters who wrote movies about the supernatural. Why designate it “religious?”

Carey Hayes: I coined the term to identify a certain framework, and, I suppose, to suggest a history. Today there is a lot of focus in popular culture on the supernatural or the paranormal. It is almost all secular. In the past, the supernatural and paranormal occurred within a worldview that allowed for the supernatural but within a religious framework. People had tools like prayers to deal with the supernatural, which, you have to admit, is scary. We wanted, in our movies, to return to that. We thought that, in many ways, religion deals with the big questions, and the supernatural is usually a scary thing that interrupts daily life and causes people to think about the big questions. So, we wanted to pair the two, religion and the supernatural, and remind audiences that this is, ultimately, what scary movies are about: ultimate questions about life.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: Are you ever frightened by what you write about?

Chad Hayes: We’re not afraid when we write and produce movies about the supernatural. But our research frightens us!

Carey Hayes: Right! It is frightening because some of this is supposed to be true, or based on events that are true.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: I wondered about that. Part of the appeal of your movies, and other movies like it such as The Exorcist, is that they play on the ambiguity of fiction and non-fiction, or the realism of your subject. The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a great example of the play on realism. The movie was presented as recovered footage of an actual university student project. I was in Berkeley, California for the pre-release of that movie, and I couldn’t get tickets for three days because the lines outside of the theaters were so long. When I finally got to see the movie members of the audience were wondering, is this real? Of course, we knew that it wasn’t, but we were also intrigued that it was presented as real. That definitely contributed to its popularity. The marketing campaign for that movie was unique at the time, too, in that they emphasized the question of the potential realism of the movie.

Chad Hayes: We purposely look for stories that are based on true events. We do that for this very reason: because people can relate. They can Google the story and see that maybe its folklore, or its real, but it is out there and is an experience for other people. So that contributes, no doubt, to the scare factor.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: Do you think this also has something to do with the appeal of the Catholic aesthetic, like the use of real Catholic sacred objects — the sacramentals, the crucifix, and the robes of the priests?

Chad Hayes: Absolutely. Ed and Lorraine Warren are practicing Catholics. Ed has passed away, but Lorrain still attends a Catholic Mass almost every day. That part of The Conjuring is based on her real Catholic practice. We were in contact with Lorraine throughout the writing of the movie and we included the objects that she and Ed actually used, like the sacramentals, the blessed objects, and holy water. My Catholic friends tell me that most Catholics don’t use these objects in their daily lives, but then they aren’t exorcizing demons, are they?

Diana Walsh Pasulka: I suppose not!

The post The Catholic Supernatural appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. Storytellers: Escaping the Nightmare of Myth in Chaudhuri and Rushdie



Continuing on from yesterday's post about Amit Chaudhuri's A Strange and Sublime Address (a novella included in the collection Freedom Song), here's a bit more academic writing about the book. This time, my goal is to undermine, or at least question, the common opposition of Chaudhuri's "realism" to Salman Rushdie's "magical realism". The two writers have frequently been set against each other as polar opposites, but my argument here is that they have far more in common than might be obvious at first...

In his 2009 essay “Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face”, Amit Chaudhuri tells of a conversation he had with the Bengali poet Utpal Kumar Basu:
We were discussing, in passing, the nature of the achievement of Subimal Misra, one of the short-story writing avant-garde in 1960s Bengal. ‘He set aside the conventional Western short story with its idea of time; he was more true to our Indian sensibilities; he set aside narrative’, said Basu. ‘That’s interesting’, I observed. ‘You know, of course, that, in the last twenty years or so, it is we Indians and postcolonials who are supposed to be the storytellers, emerging as we do from our oral traditions and our millennial fairy tales’. ‘Our fairy tales are very different from theirs’, said Basu, unmoved. ‘We don’t start with, “Once upon a time”.’ (91-92)
Chaudhury goes on to explore the implications of this statement, and of the desire to solidify an idea of pure cultural identity (“Our fairy tales … We don’t start with…”) against ideas of modernism and cosmopolitanism, but here I would like to take the statements in the above paragraph more on their surface and to explore the effect of the stated and implied Once upon a time…
   
Salman Rushdie’s Shame does not begin with exactly those words, but the sense of a fairy tale beginning is strong: “In the remote border town of Q., which when seen from the air resembles nothing so much as an ill-proportioned dumb-bell, there once lived three lovely, and loving, sisters.” The narrator quickly assumes the role of storyteller: “…the three sisters, I should state without further delay, bore the family name of Shakil…” (3), the narrative voice here asserting, for the first of many times in Shame, the kind of presence that most European novels of the 19th century sought to vanquish in the name of realism.

The idea of realism led to third-person narratives unburdened by the presence of a narrator, and the success of that style has created a sense that storytelling was a more primitive tradition, a tradition that the 19th Century European novel first refined and then progressed beyond. The realist European novel is inextricable from a particular idea of European progress, and the aesthetic is strongly located within a specific, and quite narrow, time and place. Storytelling may be universal, written narrative may have a long and multicultural history, but the realistic novel is a particular technology.

The first sentences of Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address draw from that technology: “He saw the lane. Small houses, unlovely and unremarkable, stood face to face with each other.” The narration is submerged within the perception of the character, and in these first lines we don’t even know the character’s name — the character is nothing but a gendered pronoun, and the normal, sense-making syntax of noun followed by pronoun is reversed (there is no antecedent). The first name we encounter is not that of the viewpoint character, but rather what the viewpoint character sees: “Chhotomama’s house had a pomelo tree in its tiny courtyard and madhavi creepers by its windows.” Here, the unnamed viewpoint character possesses knowledge that is not allowed to readers: Who is Chhotomama? How do we know it’s Chhotomama’s house? We begin in medias res, but not so much in the middle of events as in the middle of perceptions. Perceptions are foregrounded, and we, the outside observer, build our knowledge from them. Only once we have perceived can we be provided with even some of the necessary information for ordinary meaning to be possible, but the importance of that information is de-emphasized: our viewpoint character’s name doesn’t appear until a parenthetical remark in the final sentence of the first paragraph: “A window opened above (it was so silent for a second that Sandeep could hear someone unlocking it) and Babla’s face appeared behind the mullions” (7). The technology of the realistic novel doesn’t require this technique; the technique emphasizes a decisive rejection of the storytelling tradition. Not only is there no narrating “I” situating the reader in relationship to the tale, but there is a determined lack of information about the character.

The first paragraph of A Strange and Sublime Address thus forces readers to make connections and draw conclusions, to connect that first “He” to “Sandeep”, while also showing us what may matter in the novel and what may not. Where Shame emphasizes storytelling, A Strange and Sublime Address emphasizes perception. The apparently radical differences between the two books — and the ostensibly opposite aesthetic approaches of Rushdie and Chaudhuri — diminish if we look at the novels’ types of storytelling and thus analyze both texts as metafictions that take different paths to similar conclusions about history, place, and representation.

Saikat Majumdar applies Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flâneur to Chaudhuri, but here we might draw on some other of Benjamin’s ideas, these from the 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, particularly section XVI, in which Benjamin writes of fairy tales:
The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which myth had placed upon its chest. … The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally — that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy. (157)
This view of the fairy tale as a tool for liberation from myth is one that aligns well with Shame, but it’s harder to locate the engines of “Once upon a time…” within A Strange and Sublime Address, despite that novel mostly being presented through the point of view of a child. To find the fairy tale, we must locate the pedagogical imperative of the text. Benjamin concludes: “…the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel — not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. … The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself” (162). Chaudhuri clearly wants to teach readers something about perception, materiality, and history, and his writing is determinedly anti-mythic. Further, the novel is strongly concerned with how stories represent the world, and how language and perception intertwine in narrative, which is why I call it a metafiction. To limn the liberatory magic of A Strange and Sublime Address, though, we should begin with the more obvious metafiction of Shame.

Though Chapter 1 of Shame is filled with asides from the narrator, it is Chapter 2 that truly breaks out of the established narrative, bringing us into a more recognizable reality with the first sentence: “A few weeks after Russian troops entered Afghanistan, I returned home, to visit my parents and sisters and to show off my firstborn son” (19). The narrative voice here is more straightforward and unified, and the details fit Rushdie’s known biography to such an extent that some readers and critics have confidently asserted that the voice is Rushdie. It is problematic to associate the writer with a textual effect in any book, and especially so in a book as wild, imaginative, and concerned with questions of history, identity, and representation as Shame, so here I will simply call this Voice 2, as opposed to the narrator of the more obviously fantastical sections, Voice 1.

Voice 2 is intimately related to Voice 1, however, and may logically be seen as the creator of Voice 1 (“I tell myself this will be a novel of leavetaking…” [22]). Voice 2 is an explainer and a ruminator, and the Voice 2 sections read like personal essays. But the genre (or mode) of the novel is remarkable in its ability to contain and recontextualize other genres (and/or modes) — the personal essay becomes embedded within the novel, and so its identity as an essay can no longer be trusted, because it is being put to use for novelistic purposes. It is thus rendered impure, and in a novel about impurities of identity and the translation of being and substance. “I, too, am a translated man,” Voice 2 says. “I have been borne across” (23), and this translation, this bearing across, is as true for the voice’s genre as for the character evoked by that voice.

The problem for Voice 2 is that the storytelling force of Voice 1 comes from a different age and place, and translating the form and tendencies of old aesthetics is, like all translation, a process that deforms and reforms the original, skewing the results. Even if the original could be moved perfectly into a new time and place, the result would still get skewed, as Borges proposed with Pierre Menard’s Quixote. Voice 2 must break in because Voice 1 is inevitably doomed to fail — or, if not fail exactly, to sputter unforseen effects all over the page. Voice 2 is forced to acknowledge this late in the novel:
I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge. But the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies, obliging me to couch my narrative in all manner of sinuous complexities, to see my “male” plot refracted, so to speak, through the prisms of its reverses and “female” side. It occurs to me that the women knew precisely what they were up to — that their stories explain, and even subsume, the men’s. (180-181)
Voice 2 here blames the failures and fragmenting of Voice 1 (or, perhaps, Voice 1-1.∞, as the possible voices within Voice 1 are infinite) on “the women”, thus giving the characters an autonomy that might be better ascribed to aesthetic and ideological forces rather than to a plane of reality in which the characters are real people and not textual figures. (Voice 2 is a textual effect that ascribes blame to other textual effects for the shape of the narrative.) We might more productively say that the phantasmagoria is overtaken by what resists fantasy — the factitious overcome by the factual.

This would seem to be a triumph of realism over fantasy, but that would only be true if the fantasy were wiped out, and it is not. The majority of Shame remains phantasmagoric, but differently so, and differently in multiple ways. The reader cannot erase the knowledge of Voice 2 within Voice 1, and so, from Chapter 2 on, we read the phantasmagoria differently than we might were Voice 2 never introduced. Were the book only to include Chapter 1, we could assume a unity to Voice 1 as, simply, the narrator. The introduction of Voice 2 in Chapter 2 offers the reader another hypothesis: Voice 1 is really Voice 2, the controlling power from our own recognizable reality. Passages such as the one quoted above, though, demonstrate that Voice 1 is not entirely controlled by Voice 2, and that, rather than a single narrator, it should be perceived as an assemblage of narrators. As a textual function, then, Voice 1 is plural (though its plurality is often indeterminate) and Voice 2 is singular.

The passage I quoted above begins with the crucial phrase that is missing from the first paragraph of the novel: “Once upon a time there were two families, their destinies inseparable even by death” (180). That could have been the first sentence of the book, but instead Voice 1 fumbled around a bit more. By here, Once upon a time can begin the section, but the section it begins is one about liberation. We have located the liberatory magic. Once upon a time there were “destinies inseparable even by death”, but the past of this tale may not be — or may not have to be — the present of this novel.

We have here located what Fredric Jameson has recently called “the antinomies of realism”.  Jameson’s dialectical approach sets the récit against the roman, the tale against the novel, with the récit as, philosophically, a narrative form based on ideas of destiny and fate (crucially linked to the past) and the roman as a work that creates a narrative and existential present through the use of scenes. The récit relies on telling, while the roman subsumes telling within an overall strategy of showing. (Hence the common 20th Century command to aspiring writers of narrative: “Show, don’t tell!”) The difference between the two forms is, Jameson says, important “not as récit versus roman, nor even telling versus showing; but rather destiny versus the eternal present” (26). In Shame, Voice 1 is the voice of the récit (the [story]teller), Voice 2 is the voice of the roman, with the informational moments of telling subsumed within specific scenes, most dominantly the scene of writing. While the majority of the novel is written within a storytelling mode, the presence of Voice 2 infects that mode and inflects our reading, making Voice 1 into instances of what Voice 2 seeks to show.

Yet Voice 2’s will is a construction, and “what Voice 2 seeks” is itself an instance of “showing” within the text as a whole. The novel is the story of Voice 2 constructing and wrestling with Voice 1.

Jameson points out implications to his antinomies that may be useful as we return to Chaudhuri. In a discussion of the way that an aesthetic that constructs everyday existence as exterior/outside and an aesthetic that constructs existence as interior both avoid and resist genres that impose a prototypical destiny onto lived material, Jameson writes:
It is precisely against just such a reification of destinies that the realist narrative apparatus is aimed, which reaffirms the singularity of the episodes to the point at which they can no longer fit into the narrative convention. That this is also a clash of aesthetic ideologies is made clear by the way in which older conceptions of destiny or fate are challenged by newer appeals to that equally ideological yet historically quite distinct notion of this or that “reality,” in which social and historical material rise to the surface in the form of the singular or the contingent. (143)
In Shame, the two aesthetic ideologies clash through the conflict between Voice 1 and Voice 2, and the synthesis they achieve is literally apocalyptic — the entire dialectic is blown away, making space for something new. The apocalypse synthesizes, perhaps, a new voice. Who is the blinded “I” in the final sentence (“…I can no longer see what is no longer there…” [305]), Voice 1 or Voice 2? We could choose to see them as merged, and thus the new possibilities of Voice 3 — or Voice ? — are born into the blank space.

The two ideologies clash in A Strange and Sublime Address, too, but not as obviously, because the text avoids any first-person narration. Nonetheless, its perspectives shift and there is a strong authorial voice guiding readers through the novel’s paths, a storyteller. We are given information by this voice, for instance: “There are several ways of spending a Sunday evening” (16). The storyteller also provides commentary: “He would become an archetype of that familiar figure who is not often described in literature — the ordinary breadwinner in his moment of unlikely glory, transformed into the centre of his universe and his home” (20). At times, the storyteller presents us with interpretations of what we are reading that are nearly as prescriptive as the interpretations offered by Voice 2 in Shame: “This kind of talk, whether at the dinner-table or in the bedroom, did not become too oppressive: it was too full of metaphors, paradoxes, wise jokes, and reminiscences to be so. It was, at bottom, a criticism of life” (48).

These examples of storytelling clash with the expectations created by the first paragraph of A Strange and Sublime Address and highlight this novel’s heteroglossia. Its polyphonies are not only at the level of narrative voice, but also of perspective, and it is through shifts in point of view that A Strange and Sublime Address makes its case for the location of reality within perception. From the first paragraph, we are set to expect the viewpoint character to be Sandeep, and certainly Sandeep is the primary viewpoint character, but the text moves away from his point of view with some regularity. Early in the novel, a mention of dust moves the narrative away from the room and out of Sandeep’s immediate perception to a simple declaration: “Calcutta is a city of dust,” which then leads to a portrayl of the servants who clean the dust from the rooms (14-15). Later, the text shifts a couple of times into Chhotomama’s point view, sometimes only for a few paragraphs (97), but once he is in the hospital, his point of view is the strongest and most defining (e.g., “But there were times, in the afternoon, when Chhotomama would wake from a nap and find himself facing a bright, hard wall. At first, it surprised him with its sheer presence. Slowly, he came to realise that it was his future he was looking at” (113).

Soon after highlighting Chhotomama’s perceptions, the text unifies the family’s perceptions as they drive away from visiting him: “Watching the lanes, they temporarily forgot their own lives, and, temporarily, their minds flowed outward into the images of the city, and became indistinguishable from them” (115).

Like Shame, A Strange and Sublime Address ends with a kind of obliteration, and one that is, in its implications, nearly as apocalyptic. Chhotomama sends Abhi and Sandeep out to the garden to look for a kokil, and his command is described as sounding “like a directive in a myth or a fable” (120). The search for the kokil puts the boys into the discourse of the pre-novel, the land of the fairy tale. They get distracted, though, and only find the kokil by mistake while playing hide-and-seek with each other. The bird is real, not a creature of myth. It has details that can be shown; it can become a character and not an archetype. The boys watch it eat an orange flower (the sort of apparently meaningless detail that creates, in Barthes’ sense, a reality effect). The first sentence of the final paragraph gives us a representation of perception tempered by probability and inductive reasoning: “But it must have sensed their presence, because it interrupted its strange meal and flew off”, which both provides us with an idea of perception and limits that perception, for it highlights that the kokil’s own perception cannot be known. The sentence is not finished, however. A dash slashes us into a revision: “—not flew off, really, but melted, disappeared, from the material world.” It’s as if the bird goes back into the mythic discourse of Chhotomama’s command. We, the readers, are left with the characters in the material world from which the bird has disappeared. What is that material world, though? It is the words of the book itself, because that is the world we share with the characters. The final sentence is mysterious: “As they watched, a delicate shyness seemed to envelop it, and draw a veil over their eyes” (121). The “it” of that sentence is nearly as mysterious as the “He” of the novel’s first sentence, and much more uncertain, because here we have no subsequent sentences to clarify it. The antecedent could be either the kokil or the material world. (Grammatically, it would be the latter, which is closer to the pronoun.) The kokil, having melted back to myth, cannot be the material world. But the ambiguous pronoun makes the force that veils the children’s eyes uncertain: is it myth or is it reality? Is it the absence of myth within reality?

The “I” of the last sentence of Shame could also have a few antecedents. The indeterminacy is meaningful because it makes us reflect on the importance of the antecedent as opposed to other elements of the sentences. Both novels offer an uncertain pronoun and a certain statement of blindness. “I can no longer see what is no longer there” could be a statement from one of the children in A Strange and Sublime Address. The voices of Shame are united in the indeterminant “I” of the end, as are the children of Chaudhuri’s novel. Both groups are blinded, and the blinding suggests that the mythic and historical past have been obliterated in favor not so much of a meaningful present as for the potential of a future. (In Chaudhuri, our group is, after all, a group of children, who, for all their claims of materiality, can’t help but stand for some sort of future.) Destiny is gone, fate is unknowable. The storyteller’s tale of the past became present voices and present details of the material world, but the present is temporary, as is perception, even when it flows out toward images of a city.

Speaking to Basu, Chaudhuri said Indian and postcolonial writers have been characterized as storytellers “emerging … from our oral traditions and our millennial fairy tales”, and the tone suggests he is skeptical or dismissive of this simplistic characterization, just as Basu is skeptical and dismissive of fairy tales beginning, “Once upon a time…” Both Shame and A Strange and Sublime Address conclude by obliterating fairy tales, myths, the past, and the present. The storyteller is a figure of the present because the story is the antecedent of the teller. The reader is more free, and may be, in fact, freed by the storyteller to shake off the nightmare of myth and the weight of history, to speculate on a future, to see a blankness, a potential, a voice marked by the question of infinity.

The paradox of once upon a time is that the storyteller’s recitation of the past may unleash the liberatory magic that we need. Once the present is named, it is past. Cities produce and receive perceptions and stories, but though their materiality may flow more slowly than perceptions and stories of that materiality do, even concrete and steel bend, weather, erode, melt, disappear. This is what the storyteller teaches, the knowledge that, in Benjamin’s terms, the righteous person keeps hidden until the story pries it loose, pulling away the veil, providing sight. Whether récit or roman, myth or material, the future always looms, a blank space like the blank page after the last sentence of a book.


Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Trans. Harry Zohn. Selected Writings. Ed. Michael William Jennings and Howard Eiland. Vol. 3: 1935–1938. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1996. 143–166.

Chaudhuri, Amit. A Strange and Sublime Address. Freedom Song: Three Novels. New York: Vintage International, 2000. 1–121.
---. “Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face.” New Left Review 55 (2009): 89–106.

Jameson, Fredric. The Antinomies of Realism. New York: Verso, 2013.

Majumdar, Saikat. “Dallying with Dailiness: Amit Chaudhuri’s Flaneur Fictions.” Studies in the Novel (2007): 448–464.

Rushdie, Salman. Shame. 1st Owl Book ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

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3. Report Realism

At Gukira, Keguro has posted some provocative thoughts on "report realism" in Kenyan fiction:

Over the past 15 years and more specifically the past ten years or so, Kenyan writing has been shaped by NGO demands: the “report” has become the dominant aesthetic foundation. Whether personal and confessional or empirical and factual or creative and imaginative, report-based writing privileges donors’ desires: to help, but not too much; to save, but not too fast; to uplift, but never to foster equality. One can imagine how these aims meld with traditional modes of realism and naturalism and also speak to modernist truncations and postmodern undecidability. However, report realism names a more historically accurate way to name a genre indebted (very literally) to NGOS in Kenya.

The report aesthetic goes beyond citing NGO facts and figures. It is concerned, above all, with a search for truth and accuracy and is threatened by imaginative labor.
I cannot comment on the specific accuracy of Keguro's observations, because I'm not in Kenya reading aspiring writers' work. But I was interested in the observations because when I was in Kenya (over five years ago, now) and talked with some young writers there, the sorts of contemporary writers they cited as inspiring them were people like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. Indeed, that's mostly what was available for fiction in the bookstores, with most stores putting Kenyan and African fiction, if they stocked it at all, in dusty corners. Yet the writers who cited these inspirations to me were, with one exception that I can think of (someone who'd spent quite a bit of time in the U.S., in fact), writing in a very realistic, documentary manner. That can happen anywhere, though, if you only talk to a limited sample of people; I hoped (and assumed) that there were other writers out there aspiring to different sorts of writing, whether fantastical in its content or experimental in its form, because aesthetic diversity makes for healthy reading-writing ecosystems. And there is some such work being written (heck, Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow is a good example); it just seems hard for it to get attention or to be celebrated in the way documentary realism is.

I'm a dedicated (if undisciplined) reader of African fiction, and particularly Kenyan fiction, but I'm very much an amateur and obviously an outsider, so I'm wary of saying anything other than, "Go read Keguro's post," because anything I say could easily be taken as a white American guy telling African writers what to write. My desire is not to tell anybody anywhere what they should write; instead, I would hope to encourage us all to do what we can to create the space for people to write what most compells them. Great writing of all types happens when writers find the forms and styles that allow them to express their own unique experiences and imaginings.

The danger of report realism is its normative power — if writers think this is what they should write, or this is the only type of writing that will get them an audience beyond their closest friends, then it is not just limiting, it is insidious and harmful.

Those of us outside of Africa who want to encourage more attention to African writing and more opportunities for African writers sometimes reinforce such harmful assumptions. The Caine Prize is a perfect example. In my Rain Taxi review of Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing, I said that the Caine Prize judges' narrow tastes are helping to limit the possibilities for writing from the continent. That was born out again during this year's Caine Prize. I don't blame the writers for that.

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4. HBO’s ‘Girls’ — Why We Have A Love/Hate Relationship With The Show

If you haven’t heard about HBO’s new show, “Girls,” directed by and starring Lena Dunham, you’ve probably been living under a rock for the past few weeks. It’s been years since we’ve seen so much virtual ink spilled over a television... Read the rest of this post

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5. Worldbuilding



From three of the most interesting things I've read recently and, thus, started thinking about together...

M. John Harrison:
A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass. It has no V. It has no Dog Years. It has no David Foster Wallace. It isn’t a generous genre. The same few stolen cultures & bits of history, the same few biomes, the same few ideas about things. It’s a big bag but there isn’t much in it. With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.

Ian Sales on Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey:
There are some 150 million people living in the Asteroid Belt. The greatest concentration is six million in the tunnels inside the dwarf planet Ceres. There is no diversity. There is passing mention of nationalities other than the authors’ own – and a bar the characters frequent plays banghra music – but the viewpoint cast are American in outlook and presentation. Ceres itself is like some inner city no-go zone, with organised crime, drug-dealing, prostitution, under-age prostitution, endemic violence against women, subsistence-level employment… Why? It’s simply not plausible. Why would a space-based settlement resemble the worst excesses of some bad US TV crime show? The Asteroid Belt is not the Wild West, criminals and undesirables can’t simply wander in of their own accord and set up shop. Any living space must be built and maintained and carefully controlled, and everything in it must in some way contribute. A space station is much like an oil rig in the North Sea – and you don’t get brothels on oil rigs.

Further, what does all this say about gender relations in the authors’ vision of the twenty-second century? That women still are second-class citizens. One major character’s boss is a woman, and another’s executive officer is also female. But that female boss plays only a small role, and everything the XO does she does because she has the male character’s permission to do so (and it’s not even a military spaceship).

Paul Di Filippo on Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany:
Given that the book achieves liftoff into SF territory halfway through, you need to know that Delany does not stint on his speculative conceits. His hand is as sure as of old. The future history he creates is genuinely insightful and innovative. But it’s always background, half-seen. Because our heroes are living in a semi-rural backwater and are self-professed “Luddites,” their mode of life is more archaic than the lifestyles of others. But the shifting world keeps bumping up against them, rather in the manner of Haldeman’s The Forever War. Eric and Shit move ahead almost in a series of discontinuous jumps, waking up at random moments like Haldeman’s returning soldiers to find the world growing stranger and less comprehensible and less welcoming around them. It’s as if they are riding a time machin

1 Comments on Worldbuilding, last added: 4/29/2012
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6. False Teeth and the Foreign Office

Terry Eagleton, from a review of the 50th anniversary edition of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis:

To describe something as realist is to acknowledge that it is not the real thing. We call false teeth realistic, but not the Foreign Office. If a representation were to be wholly at one with what it depicts, it would cease to be a representation. A poet who managed to make his or her words ‘become’ the fruit they describe would be a greengrocer. No representation, one might say, without separation. Words are certainly as real as pineapples, but this is precisely the reason they cannot be pineapples. The most they can do is create what Henry James called the ‘air of reality’ of pineapples. In this sense, all realist art is a kind of con trick – a fact that is most obvious when the artist includes details that are redundant to the narrative (the precise tint and curve of a moustache, let us say) simply to signal: ‘This is realism.’ In such art, no waistcoat is colourless, no way of walking is without its idiosyncrasy, no visage without its memorable features. Realism is calculated contingency.
The idea itself is as old as the hills (how old are the hills? and which hills, exactly?), but Eagleton expresses it concisely, and his examples made me chuckle.

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7. IF : Homage To A Tree


"Each time these blossoms open I recall the friend who gave me the saplings, and the times we used to stop and drink beneath his trees;

But those springs of twenty years ago are like a dream,

And the wine cups of those days are tea-bowls now."

~Kisei Reigen~


If you have sound, please listen to "Dream Tree" as it plays, and then "Magnolia" if you have time to linger.
Acrylic on canvas 36" x 36" for Illustration Friday prompt : Homage
(The cropping cut off the bottom shadowing a bit)

40 Comments on IF : Homage To A Tree, last added: 4/9/2008
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8. President Obama’s Latent Realism

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at President Obama’s trip to the G-20 Summit. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

If there was one message President Obama wanted to send to allies in his trip to the G-20 Summit in Europe, it was to say that he is not George Bush, and the era of arrogant American unilateralism is over. In Strasbourg, France, the President said, “We exercise our leadership best when we are listening … when we show some element of humility.”

Does humility engender respect or does it evidence weakness? This week in Europe, President Obama was applauded and cheered, but this soft power didn’t seem to translate to much. The score is 0-1 in Round One of Liberalism versus Realism. I think the President knows this, and is merely waiting to cash in the store of goodwill he banked this week. As the major decisions of the presidency are made quietly behind the desk at the Oval Office, not in international summits, we should not mistake Obama’s courtesies as the prologue of things to come.

The President could not have missed the setbacks he encountered in this trip. Sure, he successfully mediated the disagreement between Chinese President Hu Jintao and French President Nicolas Sarkozy so that the G-20 would “take note” rather than fully endorse a list of rogue offshore tax havens. But the American president’s new found respect for the world did not engender newfound cooperation or an increased willingness to take America’s lead. (And we should not have expected otherwise, for courtesies are exchanged only up to the point when conflicting interests are at stake.) Europe was not malleable to the president’s call for a larger global stimulus package, and far from enthusiastic at his call to welcome Turkey into the European Union.  NATO allies only agreed to sending 5,000 more non-combat troops to aid the US war effort in Afghanistan. And of course, the President stood before a crowd of 20,000 people in Prague painting a Utopian portrait of a nuclear-free world just hours after the North Korea successfully tested a long-range missile launch.

President Obama’s European trip was a very well orchestrated and executed photo-op.  There is no doubt that Europe is feeling the love, but it is unclear if she is returning it in real ways that matter. The dance of diplomatic and royal protocols may have thrilled the public and the media, but on things that matter, the president squarely confronted the limits of symbolism and gesture.

After all, the president did let slip in the same speech in which he was extolling humility that “when we recognize we may not always have the best answer but we can always encourage the best answer.” In the end, (even ) the Liberal Way  is still the American Way. And I expect, as Theodore Roosevelt once counseled, the president’s soft voice will soon be amplified by a big stick.

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9. The representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in British contemporary YA fiction

* Hi Vanessa and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hi Tracy
Who am I? Well it depends how I am feeling on the day as to whether I say ‘I am a writer and an academic’ or ‘an academic and a writer.’

I lecture in creative writing at both undergrad and post grad level at the University of Winchester, which has a great Creative Writing programme.

I love writing and have an MA in Writing for Children. It never occurred to me to write for children/teenagers until I went to University at Winchester which opened a huge number of doors for me and gave me a focus.

I’ve just submitted a creative writing PhD where I’ve been exploring the representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in British contemporary young adult fiction to see if there has been a perceived change in the way it is portrayed. And because it is a creative writing PhD I’ve written a YA novel called Ham & Jam as the main part of my thesis. Ham & Jam is the story of four teenagers in Normandy on a school trip who just can’t leave behind a young girl from Afghanistan who is being sold for sex. Despite the title of the PhD this is not a story which is driven by sex, drugs and alcohol instead it is about hope and the fact everyone is not what they seem at first.

Don’t get me wrong though, my PhD is not a ‘how to write about sex, drugs and alcohol’ job. Neither is it a diatribe saying these things should not be spoken about. It is more an exploration of how authors have previously dealt with it and consequently how I handled it in my own piece. And I certainly don’t intend to preach to any authors on the right way to write about these things. They have to find the level of detail that they are comfortable dealing with.



It is Melvin Burgess that stated that young adults can deal with anything as long as it is in context and I used his book Junk (1996) as the starting point for the research part of my thesis.  It was the first British YAF that dealt openly with drug use. Gemma starts by using cannabis but then both Gemma and Tar eventually end up using heroin. There was sex in it but it was implied and stayed discretely within the sleeping bag or happened elsewhere though the consequences were obvious with a teenage pregnancy.



For my thesis I looked at a selection of YA realist novels to see how the authors approached these issues. I believe there has been a perceived shift in the way drugs and sex have been used within stories. As I said above in Junk the first you know about the main characters using drugs is when they get stoned but

5 Comments on The representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in British contemporary YA fiction, last added: 5/9/2011
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10. DIVERSITY MATTERS: PHIL EARLE discusses BEING BILLY and writing gritty teenage fiction.

In the first post of a new series, DIVERSITY MATTERS
tall tales & short stories talks to author, Phil Earle.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


* Hi Phil and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a thirty-six year-old dad of three, who spends the rest of his time (which isn’t much, believe me) reading and writing YA fiction. I work for a children’s publisher too, which means most of my waking hours are spent thinking or talking about kids books. I’m a very lucky bloke.


BEING BILLY


Faces flashed before my eyes.
And for every face there was a time that they had let me down.
Each punch that landed was revenge.
My chance to tell them I hadn't forgotten what they did.

Eight years in a care home makes Billy Finn a professional lifer. And Billy's angry - with the system, the social workers, and the mother that gave him away.
As far as Billy's concerned, he's on his own. 
His little brother and sister keep him going, though they can't keep him out of trouble.
But he isn't being difficult on purpose. Billy's just being Billy. He can't be anything else.
Can he?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* What inspired you to write Being Billy?

Billy had been in my head a long time before I started writing it all down. About eleven years in fact. I’d met a lot of children like him whilst working as a carer in local authority homes, kids who were angry and disillusioned with their lives. They were the sort of young people you’d cross the road to avoid, the ones you’d label as trouble at first sight.

Having been lucky enough to work with them however, and seen beyond their abrasive exteriors, I started to understand why they behaved like they did: because they’d been let down time and time again, witnessed more violence and neglect than many of us face in a lifetime.

I desperately wanted to make sense of how they viewed the world, to understand what future they saw for themselves when the rest of society had already written them off.

I suppose as well, I wanted to celebrate them, to show people what resilience and strength of spirit they had, their ability to make sense of the utter chaos they’d experienced.


* Did you do much research for your story? Do you think when dealing with issues

3 Comments on DIVERSITY MATTERS: PHIL EARLE discusses BEING BILLY and writing gritty teenage fiction., last added: 8/18/2011
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11. DIVERSITY MATTERS: COLIN MULHERN and his publisher talk CLASH & respecting the teen reader.


* Hi Colin and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

I work full time as a Teaching Assistant in a primary school. I laugh at my own jokes when no one else does, I like throwing things in the air and catching them, currently trying to learn to ride a unicycle despite being in my forties. I love cartoons, old horror movies, and anything with Simon Pegg in.


CLASH


Alex: school psycho and under-ground cage-fighting champion. 
Kyle: talented artist, smart school-boy and funny man. 
When Alex witnesses a brutal murder at the club he can't go back to The Cage, but without fighting, he starts to lose control. He soon sets his sights on Kyle, a boy he thinks can help. 
But Kyle has his own problems and he's convinced Alex is one of them. 
Boys can play dangerous games when they're scared and this one will haunt everyone involved. 
What will it take for each boy to confront the truth?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Colin Mulhern on Clash and writing for teens.

First of all, I haven’t got a clue what teenagers like to read, and I think, for writers, it’s a lost cause trying to work it out. I spent several years trying to write for teens, trying to gauge what would work. I missed the mark every time. That’s probably because the market moves so quickly. If you look at what is popular now and try to write something similar, then by time an editor sees it, she’ll know it’s going out of fashion. The only thing you can do is write the book you really, really, want to write. That’s how Clash came about – total frustration at getting nowhere for a long time. I decided to write something I wanted to read. I didn’t even plan to send it out because I never thought it would get picked up. Weird, eh?

On the subject of issues and moral boundaries, I try not to consider them unless they come into play as the story progresses. If you set out to write an “issue” book, say on a medical or mental condition, you risk it sounding like an “issue” book. There are issues in Clash, but I never set out with those things in mind from the start; I started with Kyle and Gareth getting chased by the local psycho. It grew from there. The local psycho became Alex, began to develop, and before I knew it I was writing about him just as much as Kyle. Their individual problems developed with them.

I didn’t worry about taboo subjects, otherwise a lot of Clash would never have been written. There were a few scenes that were calmed down when it came to editing, but I never really considered holding back at th

2 Comments on DIVERSITY MATTERS: COLIN MULHERN and his publisher talk CLASH & respecting the teen reader., last added: 9/2/2011
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12. DIVERSITY MATTERS: TRENT REEDY on “insider/outsider” narratives and the young Afghan girl who inspired Words in the Dust.


* Hi Trent and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Thanks, Tracy. It’s a pleasure to speak to you.

I spent most of my life in Iowa. I always loved telling stories, and in elementary school I used to entertain my classmates at the lunch table with long adventure stories. By an early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In pursuit of that goal I majored in English at the University of Iowa, enlisting in the Iowa Army National Guard to pay for my classes.

In 2004 my combat engineer was activated and sent to the war in Afghanistan. When I returned home, I taught high school English for four years. Now I spend most of my time writing at my home in the state of Washington.

WORDS IN THE DUST


Zulaikha hopes.
She hopes for peace, now that the Taliban have been driven out of Afghanistan. She hopes for a better relationship with her hard stepmother. And she hopes one day even to go to school.
Then she meets Meena, who offers to teach her the poetry she once taught her mother. And the Americans come to the village, promising not just new opportunities, but surgery to mend Zulaikha's face. But can Zulaikha dare to hope they will come true?


~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* What inspired you to write Words in the Dust?

My unit’s overall mission in Afghanistan was to provide security for the reconstruction effort. On one patrol to a small village, my fellow soldiers and I encountered a young girl named Zulaikha who had suffered from birth from a defect known as cleft lip. She was born with a split in her upper lip and with horribly crooked teeth. We knew we had to help this girl so we pooled our money together to pay for her transportation to our main airbase where one of our army doctors had volunteered to conduct her reconstructive surgery.

When she returned to us, I was amazed at how she had transformed. Only a small scar hinted there had ever been anything different about her. For me, she became a symbol of the struggle that all Afghans face in trying to build a new, better, more peaceful Afghanistan. The last time I saw Zulaikha, she was riding off our base in the back of a truck. She could not hear me or understand my words, but I promised I would tell her story. That promise is what led to me writing Words in the Dust.


* Some might say that a male, American, ex-soldier can’t possibly write a truthful story told from a young Afghan girl’s perspective. What made you believe you could and should write such a story?

I am well aware of the debate surrounding “insider/outsider” narratives. I would submit that if writers are limited to writing only about people who are exactly like themselves, fiction would be replaced by autobiography. Nevertheless, despite my conviction that a wr

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13. Book review: Blood Runner by James Riordan

2012 is the year of the London Olympics so, in anticipation, I shall be reviewing three books all with an Olympic theme but all of them very different.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Samuel's parents and sister die in a bloody massacre.
His brothers retaliate by joining the anti-Apartheid movement, with guns and terrorism as their weapons. But Sam decides to fight prejudice in his own way- as a runner. 
Against all odds - from a poor township childhood to the Bantu homelands, from work in a gold-mine to competing for gold - he focuses his mind, body and heart on the long, hard race to freedom...


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blood Runner ~ a tall tales & short stories review

James Riordan states at the beginning of the book that Blood Runner is a work of fiction but it is inspired by the athlete Josiah Thugwane who became the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, in 1996 - and herein lies the strength and the heart of this short but inspiring book.

Although in places the execution feels a little dry, the story of Samuel and the loss and pain he endured and his ambition to provide for his own family epitomises the struggle and horrors faced by many black South Africans during Apartheid.  Against all the odds, Samuel (and Josiah Thugwane), achieves his dream of not only providing for his family, but running for his country, being the first Black South African athlete to win Olympic gold, and meeting Nelson Mandela.

Included at the end of the book is a 'Note on Apartheid' which gives more background information on Apartheid South Africa and which also helps ground the novel in an historical context.

Blood Runner is a book about sacrifice, dedication and belief. It is an inspiring story of one boy growing up and not giving in, a boy who has a dream and a burning ambition to be the best - and against all the odds, he succeeds.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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14. "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart" by Rebecca Makkai

I've been reading through this year's Best American Short Stories, edited by Geraldine Brooks, little by little, almost randomly, not quickly, and mostly as a reward to myself when I get other work done. I got it as an ebook, because that's a nicely convenient way to read it. What ultimately attracted me to it was that this year's table of contents is more interesting to me than any in the last few years. (Finally, a BASS that isn't a Best American Rich White People!) My favorite story so far is Rebecca Makkai's "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart", originally published in Tin House. For me this story alone is easily worth what I paid for the book.

Before saying a few things about "Peter Torrelli...", though, I want to recommend Geraldine Brooks's introduction to you. BASS is in many ways the old guard of the old guard when it comes to self-consciously literary fiction, and the regime seems to be enforced by the publishers and series editors, as the more adventurous guest editors of the past (whether John Gardner, Michael Chabon, or Stephen King) have politely hinted in their introductions, and as the tables of contents have amply demonstrated. BASS is rarely a book you go to to find out what's new and interesting in the realm of short fiction; it's a book you read because there is a generally consistent level of accomplishment and pleasure. (True, also, of the annual Pushcart Prize volumes.) It's a rare BASS story that makes me feel like reading it was a waste of time; it's also a rare BASS story that overwhelmingly awes, thrills, inspires, or challenges me. (In that sense, "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart" is a rare BASS story; I'd happily employ all four words to describe it. Also, and perhaps most importantly: enchants.)

What's interesting about Brooks's introduction, though, is that while she seems to be a fairly traditional reader, she is also clearly more open-minded in her approach than quite a few past guest editors. Her introduction's first pages are similar to the openings of past introductions, and then she offers specific observations about many of the stories included in the book; the really interesting bit comes at the end, beginning when she writes about George Saunders's "Escape from Spiderhead" (originally in The New Yorker), calling it "that rare example of full-bore speculative fiction to make it through the literary magazines’ anti-sci-fi force field," and says that "Coming across this story elicited the same joyful surprise I once felt when offered a glass of wine after a dry week in Riyadh." This leads her to say, "I would like to raise a small, vigorously waving hand in favor of releasing more such stories out of the genre ghetto and into the literary mainstream."

(Please, fankids, don't jump on that sentence and start accusing Brooks of somehow wanting to steal your beloved genre and suggesting that she should read at least 50 years of back issues of Analog or F&SF. No. Just: no.)

This leads Brooks to offer six, as she calls them, "carps of the day". They are:

   1. Enuf adultery eds. Too many stories about

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15. Sylvia Long profile

Kris Bordessa's fabulous profile of Sylvia Long (illustrator of A Seed is Sleepy and An Egg is Quiet) is up at the Christian Science Monitor.

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16. Book Review: Build It Yourself (Non Fiction Monday)


The Do-It-Yourself bug starts early in some children. Certain projects have enduring appeal, like the old paint-your-own-room-with-markers job, or the build-an-igloo-out-of-wet-toilet-paper activity. But, maybe, just maybe, you as a guardian might prefer to channel the creative activity of your youngsters--and give them a little learning in the process to boot. So, if you have a crafty child in your home, classroom, or library, then I highly recommend Nomad Press's Build It Yourself Series.

I read Great Ancient Egypt Projects You can Build Yourself, by Carmella Van Vleet, and Great Colonial America Projects You Can Build Yourself, by Kris Bordessa. Both books follow a similar structure: They are organized around historical themes (Egypt--"Foundations of "Ancient Egypt," "Boats," "Hieroglyphs"; Colonial America--"The First Americans," "Life in a Colonial Home," "Colonial Farms and Gardens") and each chapter contains historical information and a few projects of varying complexity. Take, for example, Bordessa's chapter on "Life in a Colonial Home." In this chapter, projects include building your own model Wattle-and-Daub house, creating your own bricks, making straw ticking for a bed, making candles and candle holders, creating your own silhouette and braided rug, and making your own broom. There's something for everyone!

The Build It Yourself books also feature a number of games and toys a child can build, as well as information on the history of the toys and games and how to play them. The volumes also include brief asides on important historical figures, manners of the age, and on language. The Build It Yourself books are best suited for children ages 8 to 12 (third through sixth grades).

Now, get busy!
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Personal note: PJ Hoover! There's a make-your-own papyrus section in Great Ancient Egypt Projects.
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Anastasia Suen hosts the Non Fiction Monday roundups at Picture Book of the Day
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4 Comments on Book Review: Build It Yourself (Non Fiction Monday), last added: 3/12/2008
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