L.A. Replays Itself

Neil Patrick Harris flits across the screen, and a series of long-familiar film scenes dances beside him. Being, as it is, one of the de rigueur elements of the proceedings, we all know what to expect from the “Hollywood ode to itself” medley with which the Oscars ceremonies often open. Time-worn tropes and images lifted from the studios’ back catalogues will assert the apparently undying ‘magic of the movies.’ But where do these images really come from, you ask? And has Hollywood always been so reverentially cognizant of the immortal value of its past output? Enter Eric Hoyt’s recent work Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries Before Home Video. Hoyt traces the emergence and evolution of the business of film libraries from the 1910s to the 1950s, challenging the assumption that the industry only came to realize the economic value of its vaults with the advent of television. With many parties now scrambling to ascertain the worth, whether commercial or cultural, of digital film libraries, Hoyt’s examination of the first half of the American film industry’s 20th century sheds a curious light on the shifting perception of film libraries’ “value.”

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Holiday reading

Holiday reading list season is nigh upon us. Which means that even as finals grind our undergraduates’ souls to a fine powder, and our collective christmas-cookie high slides helplessly into a twitchy, exhausted plateau — relief is on the horizon. A pristine span of weeks lies ahead, in which pleasure reading long-delayed can resume with a vengeance. If you’ve started planning your winter literary escape, you may already have taken a gander at some of the ‘Best of’ lists circulating in the press. There is the ever-reliable New York Times Book Review list of notable books for the year; Slate’s staff recommendations; NPR’s best of; or the Washington Post’s picks. Of course, there’s no law of god or man that says you must accompany your nog with a new release. The Lit & Lang Library will be open through December 23rd, with staff at the ready with their own personal recommendations. Whether you need an antidote to holiday treacle (some Robert Aickman might do the trick), or the season makes you crave something a bit Victorian, LLX is here to assist.

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Franzen’s ‘Pip’

For many in the Anglophone literary community, the debut of a new novel by Jonathan Franzen is a major event. This week, publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux announced that Franzen’s next work, a novel centered on the multi-continental misadventures of a young woman in search of her father, would be released in a year’s time. While fans of Franzen have yet twelve months to savor the anticipation of what publishers say will be a “stylistic departure” for the author, there are already indications of some of the literary history to which Franzen’s work will pay homage. Purity’s eponymous main character goes by the nickname ‘Pip,’ recalling the heroine of Dickens’s Great Expectations –as will come as little surprise to many who have previously spotted Dickens’s influence in Franzen’s work (among whom Harold Bloom might be the most notable, if not the most laudatory, commentator). While Franzen is not infrequently likened to Dickens and to Tolstoy in terms of the world-encompassing reach of his novels’ ambitions, references to his Dickensian streak of “social realism” are something of a refrain in criticism of his work. Whether fan, foe, or indifferent bystander to the Franzen phenom, an opportunity to reacquaint oneself with Dickens should not go unattended. Check out The Interpolated Tales from the Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, or Martin Chuzzlewit for some lesser-known gems.

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Amazon Takes the Hatchet to Orwell?

You likely know him best as the author of such classics as Animal Farm and 1984. George Orwell, whose name is synonymous with those of some of his best known works, was both a novelist and political thinker, and one of the great talents of 20th-century British satire. In an odd move recently, the Orwellian aegis was invoked by the Amazon corporation as part of their response to the publishing group Hachette, with whom they’ve had contractual disputes over e-book pricing since the spring of 2014. Acccused by Hachette of imposing sanctions on the sales of the publisher’s books as a negotiating tactic, Amazon has attempted to portray itself as a benefactor to readers, providing financially-crunched consumers with low e-book prices by cutting the profits of an “elite” European publishing house. Some authors, both Hachette’s own and others, have supported the publisher as defending their livelihood by maintaining non-cut-rate pricing, with nearly a thousand signing an open letter to Amazon’s board of directors calling the ethics of the company’s actions into question. In a perhaps ill-conceived attempt to invoke literary authority while critiquing that of publishers, Amazon’s official response to this letter compares Hachette’s resistance to e-book prices to the reactionary conservatism of Victorian publishing houses faced with the rise of cheap paperbacks–and uses an Orwell quote to do so, writing:

The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if ‘publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.’ Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion. Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme…When a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books — he was wrong about that.

Representatives of the Orwell Estate, literary critics, and others, however, have been quick to point out that the incompleteness of this quote robs it of its intended import. Orwell’s full comment reads as follows: “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.” Far from suggesting that paperbacks should actually be suppressed, Orwell’s commentary is clearly meant to be read as ironic.

The words of the great enemy of propaganda seem to have been somewhat distorted in Amazon’s public-relations efforts–which might serve to instruct us all that, regardless of our opinion on this dispute, it’s always a good idea to exercise caution when quoting a master ironist–and moreover, that should one attempt such quotation regardless, it helps to hire a well-compensated writer with competence in literary interpretation.

To discover more about the history of the uses and abuses of Orwell’s writings, see John Rodden’s George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation and Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War: the CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. For more info on proper citation and best practices for integrating sources into your writing, see the Citing Sources LibGuide.


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Ocean Crossings Reading Group

Spray at the little arch rock, waves, islands, Pacific Ocean, South Mazatlan, Mexico

“Spray at the little arch rock, waves, islands, Pacific Ocean, South Mazatlan” by Wonderlane on Flickr (via Creative Commons license)

The interdisciplinary reading group Ocean Crossings will meet three times over the course of the Fall 2014 semester. According to their website, Ocean Crossings “explores the Mediterranean as a space, marked by the fluidic and nomadic networks formed by transnational fluxes.”

The group seeks to explore “the role of culture, history and literature for non-national spaces, characterized by exchanges, migrations and conflicts that take place outside existing legal frameworks” (Ocean Crossings).

The first Ocean Crossings meeting took place in September; the second will take place in mid-November at the IPRH Building (805 West Pennsylvania Ave). In March, graduate students will co-host a colloquium on the topic with students from Duke University.

To follow the group and access readings for future meetings, visit the Ocean Crossing public Facebook group.

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Man Booker Prize shortlist includes American authors

On September 9th, the Man Booker Prize judge panel announced the 2014 shortlist for the literary prize. For the first time in the prize’s 46-year history, contestants include American authors. The judges released a statement on their decision to extend the prize to all English-language publications:

“This is the first list to reflect the diversity of the novel in English regardless of the author’s nationality, as the Man Booker Prize has opened up to any author writing originally in English and published in the UK. Previously, the prize was open to authors from the UK & Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe.” (The Man Booker Prize shortlist)

This year’s shortlist includes two American novelists, Joshua Ferris and Karen Joy Fowler, as well as an Australian author, Richard Flanagan. The prize shortlist is:

  • To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
  • J by Howard Jacobson
  • The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
  • How to Be Both by Ali Smith

The winner, revealed on October 14, will receive £50,000 and worldwide exposure for their work. For more information on the Man Booker Prize and the contestants, see The Guardian’s shortlist coverage.

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Pygmalion Literary Festival

Audrey Petty and Peter OrnerThe second annual Pygmalion Literary Festival kicks off this evening. Part of the Pygmalion Festival, the festival features readings and literary events with local and visiting writers and publishers.

UIUC Creative Writing professor Audrey Petty and author Peter Orner will read tonight at Krannert Art Museum at 5:00 PM. The festival, which takes place September 25-28, also includes readings from authors Richard Siken, Jennifer Percy, Jamaal May, Tarfia Faizullah, Alissa Nutting, and more.

All Pygmalion Literary Festival events are free to the public. For a full listing of events, visit the Pygmalion website.

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Welcome to Fall 2014!

A belated welcome to new and old students and faculty alike for the Fall 2014 semester!  We hope that you are settling into the new school year, and the Literatures and Languages Library is here to help you with all of your research needs.  Our semester hours are as follows:

Monday-Thursday: 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Friday: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Saturday – Sunday: 1 – 5 p.m.

If you can’t stop by 200 South Library in person, email one of our librarians, or explore our website with links to all of our library catalogs, electronic databases, and other valuable research resources at http://www.library.illinois.edu/llx/. 


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Review: Alif the Unseen

“The semester is coming to a close, and I have a lot of work to do. Why can’t I put this book down?” I ask myself, having spent this last week completely engrossed in G. Willow Wilson’s latest novel, Alif the Unseen, which came out in June 2012. On Sunday, I fell asleep with the book on my pillow.

From the book jacket:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.

This book is an adventure, a veritable tour de mystical force. I cannot help but compare the book to Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods; both require the protagonist and the reader to believe, and belief opens the doors to worlds unseen. Although many may see it as such, this belief is not an exotic dressing for the novel, but a part of the world. To call fire-eyed jinn, the power of words and code, desert car chases, and revolution “mundane” would certainly be wrong, but Wilson treats them as part of the world, and this world’s got them all. Wait, how do you believe in a car chase? That there is hope of escape. In a world of increasing digital state surveillance, this is a powerful hope. It is not an exotic impulse to hope, and believe, and to act on hope and belief.

This is perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of Wilson’s writing, and is impressive for a debut novel. This is without even mentioning her wonderfully crafted characters. It takes a while to warm up to Alif, another unsurprisingly male protagonist, but his struggle with identity is real and worth note. He has personality, convictions, and a capacity to learn. Nearly all of the characters, in fact, show these traits. From the indomitable Dina, Alif’s childhood friend, who invites us to share a space both personal and spiritual, to the jinn Vikram in which Alif sees “a predatory, unnerving humor, like the musing of a leopard in a pen of goats,” G. Willow Wilson urges perspectives into the world.

Alif the Unseen won the 2013 World Fantasy Award. You can find this book in our collection at the Literatures and Languages Library. Click here to view Alif the Unseen in the catalog. Other works by G. Willow Wilson include her graphic novel Cairo (2006), comic series Air (2008-2010), and an autobiographical account in The Butterfly Mosque (2010). Currently Wilson is writing a Ms. Marvel comic series starring an American Muslim teenage shapeshifter.

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