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The Boys of Ballycroy by Kieran Ginty

Kieran Ginty Cover 'The Boys of Ballycroy'Final

A full-time public servant, Kieran Ginty qualified from the University of Limerick with a BA degree in Public Administration. Originally from Ballycroy in Co. Mayo, he is now settled in Limerick.  This week, I had a quick chat with Kieran about his newly printed novel, his first, The Boys of Ballycroy.

First off, I asked Kieran how it all started. “People who have read the book estimated that it must have taken me at least three years to write,” he said, “but I actually did it in less than 6 months – and that was working weekends, evenings and mornings only.  The book revolves around a group of seven friends, and follows how they and their families cope with the arrival of three conflicts – World War I, The Irish War of Independence, and The Irish Civil War.  It is set in my native parish, against the backdrop of poverty, oppression and emigration.”

What prompted your interested in writing this book? “There was a book written in the 1850s by a Scottish visitor that featured Ballcroy, and I have often wondered why no one wrote about the place in the interim.  I pay homage to this book in my publication.  Being a remote townland, the landscape remains largely untouched by modernization and it is the mountains, lakes, bogs, rivers, sand dunes and sea that provided the main inspiration.  Coupled with my deep interest in history, I hope all readers agree that they combine for a good read.”

“My grandparents used to tell me many stories about their days growing up there, and some of these have been integrated into the novel.”

I saw on the Facebook page photos and videos that feature in the book and asked Kieran if it the landscape that inspired the story or the story fitted to the landscape: “Definitely the landscape was the main inspiration.  There are so many old ruins also that prompt you to wonder what went on there in the past.  In some of those photos and videos, there is little sign of tarred roads, electricity wires or satellite dishes – you could actually convince yourself that they were recorded a century ago.  I have often said that it would be inexpensive for a movie set in the 1910s and 1920s to be filmed in Ballycroy, as very little would need to be done cosmetically.  And that is no slight on those who live there today – it is actually a compliment in that they have preserved their parish magnificently whilst still keeping in tandem with the modern world.”

I wonder if Kieran has always enjoyed writing. When did it begin? “From my schooldays I always enjoyed writing, especially creative writing.  However, I always hated reading out loud or speaking in public – even to this day I have ‘issues’ with these aspects of communication.   I used to really enjoy composing English essays in Secondary School – but then, to my horror – the teachers used to make me read my compositions out loud in front of my classmates.  I still have nightmares about that!  As a result, I ended up purposely writing bad essays, so that I would not have to recite them!  That is one of the reasons I held a low-key launch of my book – I avoided having to publicly read a passage.”

Surely such an avid reader has to have favourites. “I have always enjoyed the classics from the Brontes and Thomas Hardy as they vividly describe the surrounding landscape and local landmarks,” said Kieran, “From the initial feedback I have received from readers, the people of Mayo are enjoying reading about Croagh Patrick, The Nephin Mountains, Achill Island, The Inishkea Islands, The Mullet Peninsula – all of which feature in my novel.”

‘Wuthering Heights’ still remains unsurpassed as my favourite book of all time – even after the arrival of ‘The Boys of Ballycroy’!

What caught his interest in self-publishing? “To dip my toe in the water I contacted a number of publishing houses and to be honest, most of them had an ‘auto-reply’ type response saying they would take ‘at least three months to respond’ or ‘we are currently over-subscribed for Irish fiction.’  This ‘don’t call us – we’ll call you’ attitude was not for a good old typically ultra-efficient Public Servant like me (!) so it was such a relief to discover the self-publishing option.”

How did he find the self-publishing process? “Amazingly efficient.  The team in Cork were excellent.  They clearly set out what they do and also (just as important) what they do not do.  As a result, I had a large say in deadlines and in volumes printed, and all of the staff were so adaptable.   They were always ready with helpful tips or advice and were very supportive at all times.  It is a great comfort to know I can always contact them with a query.”

I asked Kieran if this is the end of something, or just the beginning. What’s next? “It is a great source of enjoyment to me to see the reaction to my story,” he replied, “I’ve seen so many smiles in the past few months, so I’m soaking all of that in for the moment.  I am very proud to see my book on display in bookshops that I have frequented for so many years. My only regret is that my grandparents are not around to see it – but I am truly fortunate that my parents are. Nothing definite has yet been decided, but I would like my next book to be about modern day Limerick, the city that has been very good to me.  And of course if I get enough encouragement from people whose opinion I value, I will do a follow-up to what I have just published – perhaps ‘The Girls of Ballycroy’!”

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Abe according to Steve

lincoln_daniel_day_lewis

This post is reblogged in full from the Times Literary Supplement article, here.

 

Abraham Lincoln is America’s most familiar president, as well as the most mysterious. His likeness is, literally, common as a penny – or a $5 bill – while his character continues to confound and elude us even now, nearly a century and a half after his assassination. There are so many Lincolns: the marmoreal figure in whose presence Richard Nixon met with anti-war protesters in May 1970, just a few days after National Guardsmen had shot four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio; the railroad lawyer and tool of Northern finance capital who had ruthlessly destroyed our Southern way of life – a view held by many in the Virginia Tidewater where I was born and by a strand of Marxist historians in the universities; the “father Abraham” of spiritual and legend, martyred Moses of African Americans. In recent years there has even been a lively debate about the sixteenth President’s sexuality.

Yet the persistently nagging, eventually unshakeable conviction, as I watched Daniel Day-Lewis’s impersonation, that I had met this man somewhere before, didn’t trace back to any of that. His Lincoln, like the real one, is over-fond of quoting Shakespeare, appears half-asleep when alertness is most required, is driven to distraction by his wife’s increasingly feeble hold on her sanity, and tormented by visions of the slaughter and ruin wrought on his order. This mounting sense of déjà vu didn’t mar my enjoyment of the film, but it was a distraction – almost as much as the tears I couldn’t seem to stop. Those who think of history as a dry business where facts and figures keep emotions firmly in check will find Lincoln distinctly unsatisfying – except, perhaps, as an invitation to pedantry.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is not, in fact, a PhD. thesis, and though Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, may have as deep a grasp of the complexities and conflicts in American history as anyone now writing for a mass audience, his first obligation is to the drama, not the details. Yet as the flurry of fact-checking articles which greeted Lincoln’s American debut attest, it is apparently possible to spend the film’s entire 150 minutes with pad in hand noting down anachronisms and historical elisions.

Most of these are, admittedly, pretty small beer: the Bavarian-born John Nikolay, one of Lincoln’s two secretaries – and later his biographer – probably sounded more like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who actually voiced him in a television documentary) than Jeremy Strong. Nor would the Vermont native Thaddeus Stevens recognize much of himself in the indelibly Texan tones of Tommy Lee Jones. Amusing though it is to watch the film’s scenes of congressional raillery, members of the House of Representatives, though occasionally fighting duels outside the chamber, did not address one another directly from the floor. And it is highly unlikely that W. N. Bilbo, the Tennessee political operator hired to procure the votes Lincoln needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, thus ending slavery, would utter the particular expletive Kushner gives him when the President decides to pay a surprise visit.

The historian does not go to the cinema seeking enlightenment, and those who attend Lincoln looking for something to complain about will not come away empty-handed. The shooting may have stopped in the American Civil War in May 1865 (or June if you were unlucky enough to be aboard one of the ten whalers captured off the Aleutian Islands by the Confederate warship Shenandoah before her captain learned the war was over), but arguments over the war’s precise causes – particularly over the role of slavery – and its legacy continue to rage. Some of the more serious historical criticism of Lincoln has taken issue with Spielberg’s decision to focus on the events of January 1865, when the newly re-elected President, having freed the slaves in the rebel states by the Emancipation Proclamation two years previously, risked his political capital by pushing forward a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery altogether. This frame doesn’t exactly deny slaves that agency in their liberation that the work of historians like Barbara Fields, one of the stars of the Burns brothers’ documentary series on the Civil War, has done so much to illuminate – but apart from a brief encounter with a pair of black soldiers in the beginning, and a couple of stagey, improbable conversations between the President and Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who served as his wife’s seamstress and confidante, it is left mostly off-screen.

Yet to complain about such matters, however historically well-intentioned, is to miss a point that should have been obvious from the film’s choice of title. Lincoln is not about the Civil War or the evils of slavery. It isn’t even about the whole of Abraham Lincoln’s life, though it is worth noting that, despite the film’s compressed focus, Day-Lewis takes us far deeper inside the President’s character than such earlier, and iconic, incarnations as Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln or Raymond Massey’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois – both of which stopped well short of the White House.

That is because whatever else he was – railsplitter, country lawyer, teller of tall stories – Lincoln was above all else a politician. Lincoln is a film about politics – the most intelligent, least deluded film about American politics since Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949). And while that film, an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel inspired by the career of the Louisiana politician Huey Long, is both an anatomy of corruption and a renunciation of politics, Lincoln attempts something far more difficult: to show, as Thaddeus Stevens put it (repeated, slightly out of context, by Tommy Lee Jones), how “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”.

By January 1865 Lincoln had finally found, in Ulysses S. Grant, a commanding general who could actually fight. He’d also ditched the “team of rivals” that made up his first cabinet in favour of an election cabinet that pledged loyalty not only to the President himself but, in the event of an electoral defeat that most thought likely, to Lincoln’s plan to secure victory in the war before the inauguration of his Democratic rival, the feckless (but popular) General George McClellan. And as the film shows, he’d also undergone a kind of revolution in his own attitudes. Though Lincoln always hated slavery, when he’d written, early in his presidency, that “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it” he’d meant it. He also long favoured colonization – shipping freed slaves to Africa, or Central America – as a solution to the problems posed by emancipation. William Seward, the former governor of New York who began as first among the rivals in Lincoln’s cabinet, but by 1865 had become a ferociously loyal Secretary of State, warns him he can either have a speedily negotiated end to the war or the Thirteenth Amendment. But Lincoln wants both.

David Strathairn’s Seward initially baulks at the political machinations needed to keep the fractious Republican Party in line and to persuade a sufficient number of lame- duck Democrats to back the amendment. In a way, Lincoln is really a “caper” film, with votes being merely so much loot. As Seward assembles his gang, and Bilbo and his crew use threats, cajolery, the offer of patronage posts and, when all else fails, outright bribes to round up the votes, Spielberg heightens the suspense by cutting to scenes of Lincoln’s home life, his spirits crushed between a wife, Mary (played with remarkable restraint by Sally Fields), driven mad with grief by the death of one son from typhoid, and an older son desperate to enlist in the army before the war’s end deprives him of his chance.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a President whose seeming indolence masks a watchful, preternaturally determined manipulator of men and events, easily credible as the strategist who snookered the South into firing first at Fort Sumter. With his high, reedy voice, paternal indulgence towards his youngest son Tad (whose cleft palate seems to have been cinematically corrected) and incontinent fondness for barnyard humour, this Lincoln also comes as close to what we know of the character of the man as we have any right to expect.

This Lincoln also comes as close to what we know of the character of the man as we have any right to expect

There is an extra element of suspense in all Spielberg’s historical epics: will he, we wonder, resist the sentimentality that has brought him so much success in Hollywood? By now it should be clear that Spielberg can do whatever he wants with his medium. In Munich, his last collaboration with Kushner, he even managed to withhold a happy ending. In Lincoln he doesn’t hold out quite so long; viewers who miss the last ten minutes will see a better film.

Yet it was during that final swerve for edification that I finally remembered where I’d met this particular Lincoln before: in the pages of Gore Vidal’s novel. Not literally, of course – the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is barely mentioned in that book’s 700-odd pages (a Derridean might call this an “absent presence”). But the sense that here, finally, walked a man of flesh and blood and passion and intellect. Historians, naturally, hated Vidal’s Lincoln. But I suspect it will be read long after Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, now enjoying a spike in sales thanks to its credit as Kushner’s inspiration, is forgotten. And for those who want more, there will be this splendid film. As the credits rolled, the audience in Brattleboro, Vermont burst into applause. The only state in the union where slavery was never legal, Vermont sent a tenth of its citizenry to fight in the Civil War. It was the Second Vermonters who broke Pickett’s charge, turning the tide at Gettysburg. I don’t know if any of their descendants were in the theatre; but as the lights came up, there were few people left unmoved.

D. D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for the Nation, is the author of American Radical: The life and times of I. F. Stone, 2011, and the producer of Edward Said: The last interview, 2004.

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Interview: Olwyn Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s literary executor

Ted Hughes’s sister tells Sam Jordison how misrepresented she feels the story of her sister-in-law’s death has been


The following post is reblogged entirely from the Guardian online.

I spoke to a number of Plath biographers and friends after speaking to Elizabeth Sigmund (including Al Alvarez, Carl Rollyson and Ronald Hyme). They confirmed the substance of what she said – in particular, that Plath had not wanted The Bell Jar to go out under her own name while her mother was still alive. Elizabeth also produced a scan of the letter from Charles Monteith explaining that Faber was unaware that those were Sylvia’s wishes.

However, since it was almost 50 years after the event, and Faber were consequently unable to supply any further information, it became clear that the only person who really knew about the omission of the dedication to Elizabeth and her husband from the 1966 edition was Olwyn Hughes. Fortunately, she agreed to speak to me and set down her side of the story.

The following conversation comes verbatim, from my notes. I would just like to add that in spite of the force of many of her words, that Olwyn seemed good-humoured and peculiarly charming. It might help if you imagine the following spoken in a warm Yorkshire accent:

I want to ask about the name change on The Bell Jar?
She [Plath] was very worried about it because she thought it was going to upset her mother. It was a nightmare for her, actually. She got quite paranoid about it towards the end. And then she was disappointed when it came out and it didn’t have a very good press.

Sorry, I meant the decision to actually use her name?
The decision to use her name was taken after her death, when everybody really seemed to know it was by her. Her friends all knew. There seemed no point in not publishing under her own name.

I’ve been speaking to Elizabeth Sigmund …
Oh God, have you? I mean gabble, gabble, gabble, gabble … Has she some new stories for you?

She was telling me about the dedication.
She [Plath] dedicated it to Elizabeth and her husband, because she didn’t want the London lot to know – you know, her real friends. She didn’t know Elizabeth very well, you know. Although according to Elizabeth … Anyway, we’ve had enough of Elizabeth … [Goes on to suggest that Elizabeth Sigmund’s accounts of events were not always reliable.] What has she told you?

She was saying she was left off the 1966 edition …
Oh yes, that was a Faber error. She thought that was a terrible plot of Ted’s. I don’t know what that was about. It was just Faber left it off. These things happen in publishing.

She also said that she was sure that Sylvia Plath never wanted it published under her own name.
Well, yes. She didn’t want to upset her mother. What it tells, The Bell Jar, is a watered down version of her own breakdown. And that was also very painful to her – quite apart from the fact that there’s a passage in the book that’s rather unpleasant for her mother to read, about the mother’s snoring or something. Sylvia got very het up about the book because I think it was so self-revelatory. In a way she liked that – and in a way she didn’t.

That’s certainly what I think happened with Ariel – her whole trauma, her father’s death upsurged. I think writing The Bell Jar provoked that … And all that traumatic material that came up in Ariel. I think it caused her a lot of aggro. She was a very agonised lady. She had to battle to live every day – as you might glean from The Bell Jar. When I read it after she died, I just wept.

But people don’t realise. They didn’t then, even. She didn’t always show how troubled she was – but she had no inner calm at all. The Bell Jar deals with the beginnings of the trouble. Then she spent the rest of her life dreading its return.

Oh God.

The nonsense that has continued to be written about the story is shocking to me. Sylvia wasn’t the innocent victim, or half so helpless as she’s been made out to be. You just have to look at some of her poetry. She was just nasty in the last poem about her husband and father [“Daddy”]. She was vicious and I think a bit crazy. I watched her going through her torment and it was agony. But Ted was so taken with her. I don’t know why. I don’t know how she did it … Especially because I don’t think that she could control the negativity in herself. You’ve got to remember the venom that Sylvia dished out.

I don’t think anyone has taken into account how injurious the rubbish that’s been written about her has been. What the feminists don’t take into account was how much psychological trouble she was in. She was a very difficult woman with a very difficult personality. She was horribly unjust both to her mother and to Ted. And I’m sick of reading that he left her for Assia – that’s all you get whenever his name is mentioned. Assia. But Ted didn’t walk out.

It was actually a friend of Assia’s who told Sylvia. She rang her up and thought maybe she was helping her, or wanted to warn her, or something, I don’t know. But this person had no idea how on edge Sylvia was. That she wouldn’t be able to cope with this information. And so when Ted next went down [to their house in Devon] she was in a rage and threw him out.

I wish the newspapers would get it right. He didn’t even know that Sylvia would find out about Assia. He’d done everything he could to be very discreet. It was just one of those things … And of course Sylvia, when she did hear about it, it reminded her of all her terrors about abandonment and everything else. She wouldn’t listen to anything but separation and divorce. But he didn’t leave her for Assia. That’s just not true. He was actually staying on friends’ floors in London until he got a little place by himself. He certainly wasn’t living with Assia.

Oh and she took all the money out of their bank account. She was a monster actually.

So what about changing the byline. How was that decision taken?
What people want after they’re dead. That just goes. And nobody was going to be able to keep the secret about who wrote the book for decades. Besides it was a very good little novel.

She was disappointed when she was alive – she was worried about the Jennifer Dawson’s novel The Ha-Ha – which was similar and got a lot more attention at the time. She hadn’t the calm in her necessary to cope with it.

There was all that martyr talk, even after Ted’s death … in America there were a couple of biographies that were terribly bad. They didn’t take account of the fact that Ted had nursed the bloody woman for seven years. The patience that he had with her!

Of course, I didn’t quite understand or realise that she was quite sick. We didn’t know as much about psychology in those days. But let me tell you about one thing. Ted was meeting an old teacher once – and she just ran off. He had to run out onto the moors after her. She did that in front of his old teacher. Can you imagine? And he lived with it.

And when you read her journals – there were some very dark things in there … And there was a furore when they first came out that they were cut. And a few things were taken out – mainly at the request of her mother, but otherwise he did nothing. But there was this great furore and suggestion that there was an attempt to hide things. But what were the secrets?

Of course, nobody actually read the journals! They were too busy focusing on what they thought wasn’t there. And if they did read it properly they’d have found a very damaged girl. A very mixed-up girl. You just had to look at the dreams she described. Her dreams were bad enough to spoil your own.

I understood then how powerful a grouping the feminists can be. And how it still goes on. This crap. No matter what goes on, you can’t counter it. They just lie, and if they find themselves in the wrong, they just ignore it.

I’m collecting all the press I’ve got and giving it to Pembroke College. There was one thing, by someone from the Guardian that I found really upsetting … Katherine … I can’t remember her name. All that martyr stuff. It was just a few days after Ted died that it came out and I thought aren’t The Guardian ashamed of themselves? [We’re unable to pin down the piece to which she’s referring. There’s an article by Katharine Viner on the Plath diaries from 2000, but this was 18 months after Hughes’ death.]

I don’t have any time for them, really the press. I don’t normally talk to journalists.

I must be very fortunate …
Hmm. Well. I wish you’d print what I actually say. You know I would love to talk to some journalist and they could take me seriously – and actually put down what I say. That would be the first time.

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Lost Robert Burns Manuscripts Discovered


Robert Burns statue in Leith. Photograph: Jason Baxter/Alamy

The following article is reblogged in full from The Guardian website

 

Three long-lost manuscripts by Robert Burns – as well as correspondence between the beloved Scottish author and his friends – have been discovered by a researcher in what is being described as one of the most important Burns discoveries in years.

One of the texts is a letter from “Clarinda”, the pen name taken by the woman Burns loved, Agnes McLehose, following the poet’s death. Clarinda, who in life Burns had addressed variously in his poems as the“mistress of my soul” and “Queen of Poetesses”, was writing to Burns’s friend and doctor William Maxwell, three months after his death in 1796. Maxwell had been at Burns’s side when he died, and after asking for the return of the intimate letters she had written to Burns – whom she knew as “Sylvander” – she also wrote in a postscript that “an account of our late friend’s final scene, if it is not too bold to ask for, would be considered a singular favour”.

“It’s right at the end of a very businesslike letter, as though she couldn’t help herself,” said Chris Rollie, the researcher who discovered the manuscripts. Rollie was contacted by an old friend about the material, but originally dismissed her belief that she had stumbled across something important inside an Extra Illustrated W Scott Douglas edition of The Works of Robert Burns, dating from 1877-79, which belonged to Burns’s publisher, William Paterson.

“I get quite a few calls like this, and I tried to let her down gently,” he said. “But she said she still thought I should have a look. Within 15 minutes of looking at them I could see there was some very important and original material.”

Also unearthed were a handwritten manuscript by Burns himself of the song “Phillis the fair”, with minor textual variations, a pencil manuscript by Burns of an early draft of “Ode to a Woodlark”, lost since 1877-1879, and a handwritten letter from Burns “to Robert Muir, Kilmarnock”. The treasure trove also contained a letter from Clarinda to Burns, dated 2 August 1791 and containing for the first time her complete poetic response to Burns’s poem “On Sensibility”.

“‘The finding of the Clarinda letter in full is very timely as we move towards a new edition of Burns’s correspondence, and the other new manuscript findings of letters will also similarly help,” said Professor Gerry Carruthers, co-director of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, which is hosting a Burns conference on 12 January where the findings will be presented in full. “It is very exciting that such lost manuscript material continues to emerge in the 21st century.”

The manuscripts have now been sold to a collector.

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Kilclooney Woods by Micheal O’h-Aonghusa

Kilclooney Woods Cover Final

Last week, Selfpublishbooks.ie printed Micheal O’hAonghusa’s new book, Kilclooney Woods,  a brief history of Fenianism and the events of 1867 in East Cork. I had a quick chat with Micheal and asked him if he had always wanted to write.

“I have never been into writing,” says Micheal, “but I have always been into history, and especially local history. I was involved for years in Republican politics, and at the age of 23 (I am now 76) I was organising commemorations of Peter O’Neill-Crowley at Kilclooney Wood. That wasn’t surprising, as I was born just a stones throw from there, and in a little corner of Ireland that always had more than its own share of rebels.”

I asked Micheal who he counts amoung his influences. “In history books, Anthony Beevor is the master. In travel books, I have read everything by our own Dervla Murphy from Lismore.”

How did the book come about? “In 1967 (the 100th anniversary) it was suggested to me that I should write a book on the subject, and I commenced collecting stuff, doing interviews etc. But marriage, five children, and trying to put food on the table was more than sufficient challenge at that time. My interest of course never waned, and I continued to collect anything at all that would be relevant.”

So it is safe to say then, that Micheal has always been an amateur historian. “Oh, yes, I devour books on history,” he says, “At this time, it would only be second to my interest in travel, and travel writing. Last autumn I was rooting about the attic and came across a huge box of paper clippings and other memorabilia about Kilclooney Wood and Peter O’Neill-Crowley that I had collected over the years. Thinking about my age, it dawned on me that if I died that day, the whole thing  would be in the refuse container the following week. So there and then I decided that if I was spared for another year, I would spend 2012 writing the book, and that is what I did.”

I asked Micheal what parts he enjoyed writing the most. “I can’t say that I “enjoyed” any of it! But I was surprised at how easy it came to me once I had laid out the framework. It is my first printed book, but as manager of Mitchelstown Credit Union, I had published a high quality Annual Report every year, for 26 years.”

How did Micheal hear about self-publishing? “From my son, Sean, who lives in Midleton, where
presumably he had heard about Lettertec. Early on, I visited the Lettertec website, and of course it was exactly what I was looking for. It was that, more than anything else, that encouraged me to proceed. It had all the elements that I was looking for, high quality, small print runs and a bit of hand holding.”

How was the finished product? “Even better that I had visualised it. The historian (John J. Hassett) that did the launch described it as a work of art.”

What’s next? More writing? “Six months ago, I would have said “never again”. The one thing that could precipitate
another is how easy the actual production was. With Lettertec, I’m also including Shelley O’Reilly and Joanne Buckley.”

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TLS: Hollywood’s Cold War


The following post has been reblogged in full from the Times Literary Supplement website. The article was originally written by James M. Murphy, and can be found on the TLS website here.

 

The fallout from a political scrimmage can last a long time. One example was the confrontation in 1947 between a Congressional committee claiming to represent beleaguered Americanism and the yet more beleaguered of Hollywood’s left wing: at issue, protecting the Saturday matinee from surreptitious agitprop – itself something of an oxymoron. A number of writers and performers were outed as Communists and some (the Hollywood Ten) cited for Contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison. Others were blacklisted by studio executives fearful of public reaction at the box office. Even after a generation which had seen 10 million or more innocent bystanders murdered by ideologydriven despotism, this episode became an iconic reference for political victimization: it can still kindle outrage, and not only at Tribeca dinner parties or Hollywood award ceremonies. As for the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, he never seems to run out of biographers – the latest by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner (reviewed in the TLS of June 1, 2012).

As John Sbardellati tells us here perhaps too often, Hoover’s hostility towards Communism dated from his entry into government service under President Harding and only increased with age. Yet, for the most part, the FBI’s role seems to have been to hold a watching brief on likely Communists in Hollywood, rather than make an attempt to assess or curb their ability to influence the movies themselves. There were, in any case, plenty of amateur censors around to detect politically charged double entendres without help from the G-men. Ginger Rogers’s mother, one of the most contentious of them, detected such a cunning hint of communitarianism when her daughter’s dialogue encouraged people to “share and share alike”. Apart from the nuance police, however, Communists had plenty of enemies among liberals and socialists, whom they called “social fascists” and worse at various twists of the party line. Although he resented Congressional inquisitors trespassing on his turf, it was Hoover who possessed a database of identified party members which was vital to committee plans to purge Communists from access to film production.

Sbardellati deserves credit for the energy with which he has tackled a mountain of FBI documentation – and also commiseration: those familiar with the Bureau’s communications know it to be a foreign tongue only deceptively reminiscent of English and usually employed to say no more than is required to forestall a reply. According to the jacket, his book began as a PhD dissertation, and it shows some of the scar tissue often acquired on that academic obstacle course. For research itself can get out of control and sometimes even confound the scholarship it is supposed to nourish, particularly when faced with something like the Bureau’s archives. Many of the carefully preserved exhibits there are reports and alarms from unidentified and probably uninformed “informants” – an unanalysed litter of gossip and trivia whose preservation is owed to Hoover’s Stakhanovite demand that his team pile up overtime in order to show their dedication. Taking them too seriously can distract one’s attention from something more promising.

To take one example, the author makes only a passing reference to the Hollywood visit of Otto Katz, who, using the pseudonym André Simone, was welcomed by movie society as a veteran of anti-Fascist resistance. Katz was a colleague of Willi Munzenberg, the inventor of “front organizations” (he called them “idiots’ clubs”) and the leading Comintern activist in Europe. It would have been interesting to know how the Bureau followed up this episode. Welcome also would be more attention to the attempt by the Communist screenwriter Albert Maltz to find some wriggle room within the doctrinaire restraints which the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) put on its literary cadres. Hoover and Andrei Zdhanov, founder of the Cominform for the dissemination of Soviet propaganda, seemed to agree on one thing: art can be a weapon in the ideological struggle. Hoover aimed to disarm it and Zdhanov meant to use it. Maltz had gingerly raised the question of whether one had to bow to this dilemma; the party’s ideologists quickly set him straight.

A monograph is a special kind of scholarly exercise: it normally addresses a narrow subject and produces limited conclusions appropriate to it, rather than exports its insights to larger issues, what Sbardellati might call other “discourse”. It seems, therefore, rather going too far to argue, as he does, that Hoover’s anti-Communist crusade “brought to an end a brief, though vibrant, period of filmmaking in which liberal reform and social criticism from the left found its way onto American screens”. After all, a vast assortment of influences tempered popular culture during these Cold War years in America – 10 million servicemen re-entering civilian life, revelations of Soviet espionage, unprecedented economic growth and wealth accumulation which changed public attitudes towards leisure and work, the relentless growth of the mass media – to name only a few. Whatever Hoover’s many bureaucratic sins, it is a stretch to indict him for Doris Day’s escapist comedies or Annette Funicello’s beach parties.

While it is a commonplace to say that movies can manipulate public taste, moreover, it is well to remember that the businessmen who make them go to great lengths and with grim determination to find out what the moviegoer wants, and then to give it to him: they would regard it as a sin against commercial piety to impose their views on an audience who will not pay to hear them. J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies once again raises the question whether the book editor has gone the way of the iceman and the typesetter. Writing a book, even a short one, is not easy, and the result is seldom perfect. Publishers once shared some responsibility for the product they offered to the public, and helped authors when they patently needed it, as here, to iron out tangled arguments, unintended solecisms, varying standards for citations and similar infelicities. Reader and author alike will profit from the return of those who work at the margins in publishing: they have been missed.

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Unpublished Bin Laden Raid story already a bestseller


Penguin is set to publish a first-person account of the mission which killed Osama Bin Laden, the Bookseller announced yesterday.

The book is titled No Easy Day: The Only Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden, and is written by the pseudonymous Mark Owen, a Navy SEAL who was among the first to enter the Abbottabad compound where Bin Laden was hiding.

It will be released on September 11th. Penguin describes it as “an essential piece of modern history”.

Despite the anonymity of the author, Fox News reported that they discovered his real identity — a 36-year-old from Alaska. The US Penguin imprint Dutton, which will be simultaneously publishing the book there, asked the media to withhold his name claiming it risked his personal security. US Military officials confirmed they had not vetted the contents of the book before its release was announced.

GalleyCat reported that the title is already shooting up the charts from presales: “It is currently the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon, ahead of all of the Fifty Shades of Grey titles and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.”

According to Amazon, “No Easy Day puts readers alongside Owen and the other handpicked members of the twenty-four-man team as they train for the biggest mission of their lives. The blow-by-blow narrative of the assault, beginning with the helicopter crash that could have ended Owen’s life straight through to the radio call confirming Bin Laden’s death, is an essential piece of modern history.”

Pre-order it here.

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