28 May 2010

Technology Travels

Just a few weeks ago, packing for holiday in Scotland, I discover there is more to the to-do list than in the past. Not only the right clothes, essential toiletries and guidebook, but now I have to be sure to charge and carefully pack all necessary technology. I laugh out loud at the lineup of gadgets charging for the trip: Camera, check. Ipod, check. Phone, not usable most of the trip, but ready for the return. And now, added to the technology pile: Kindle, check.

I have gone to the dark side. My daughters presented me with a Kindle for Mother's Day, a thoughtful and generous gift, but I nearly faint when I open the Amazon box, recoiling for the moment at the very idea of this. I who cherish every printed page, love the feel of paper between my fingers and the heft of a well-bound book, read on a machine? But my daughters have sent me a gift of reading, my favorite pasttime, and I cannot refuse. In moments I learn all there is to know to use this remarkable little gadget. 10 ounces that might at some point hold 1500 books! It slips easily into the side pocket of my purse, even the smaller purse I use to travel because is presses tightly to my body and every one of several pockets zips or tucks away, neatly protected from the casual thief. The side pocket usually holds whatever book I might be reading, now it holds them all.

In another few moments I download The Imperfectionists, a new novel recently featured on the cover of the New York Times and thus temporarily out-of-print [which I thought was over-rated.] I hardly ever buy hardcover books, too expensive, but this downloads in seconds for $9.99. A collection of short stories well reviewed, always good to have on a long journey. Another of essays by David Sedaris, as if traveling with a dear friend. Sufficient reading for a week for sure. But at LAX, waiting to board, I am reminded by a friend that I should have read one of those great Scottish mysteries, to set the tone, so I log up, search through the huge selection, and in seconds download a mystery that will be read on the journey across the pond. Remarkable!

I am truly grateful to have such a lightweight reader and will use it surely when I travel and likely when I go out to lunch, which I enjoy now and then, so much easier to sit at the bar without having to prop up a book or turn pages. I am also pleased that I can in fact highlight passages I want to save and shift them to a separate file, and now and again, the built-in dictionary is simply fab. But when I return home, the first thing I do is grab the next book off the pile and savor the feeling of it. [Chang Rae-Lee's The Surrendered, beautiful and powerful.] Every Friday afternoon throughout my childhood, my mother and I went to the library to choose our books. I was allowed only three, as a way of sharing well with others, and because my mother said even I would not read more than three books in a week, true, and this made the choosing both challenge and delight. To this day, I always have at least three books by my bedside waiting to be read [and usually many more] and always feel that flutter of excitement when choosing the next one. What Kindle also allows you to do is drift a bit. I grew weary of the novel so switched to a story, without having to dig another book out of a bag. Transportable and immediate. [New story collection highly recommended: If I Loved You I Would Tell You This.]

In my last days in corporate marketing many moons ago, I established a strategy for new products at Mott's USA that would fit what I defined in 1985 as the three most important trends in the food and beverage category: portability, snackability, fruitability. The result was wonderful products like Mott's Snack Packs and ultimately Jello pudding packs. Trends tend to migrate across categories and surely portability is the hallmark of this generaation and into the future. From cell phones to iPod, we take it all with us - our connections, our to-do lists, our music, now our readings. Resist as many do, I'm afraid I agree with Jeff Besos, CEO of Amazon that the literary technology train has left the station and while I will always favor printed paper, I am glad to have a Kindle as yet another option. When I spend my summer holiday on the east coast, I won't have to trek or mail a pile of books and always have something to read at the ready. The only drawback truthfully is that it means I will have to wait at least two years before I can justify purchase of an iPad!

23 May 2010

On the Road Again: Scotland

I am blessed once again with a week with my daughter in a foreign place. Not that Scotland is as foreign as SouthEast Asia, but there are sufficient differences: Toto, we are not in Kansas any more. Language trips off the tongue with a lilt and an occasional unfathomable sound. People do not smile as they approach, but exude a friendliness that is just under the surface. Ask a question, you get a story. I had expected a sort of small London, not at all, nothing like it. Elegant is the word that keeps coming to mind. A native tells me that Edinburgh is not really a city, rather a large village. That’s it.

Restaurants are small, intimate and the food surprisingly sophisticated. We especially enjoy vegetarian and organic cafĂ©’s and wonderful seafood, beyond the obligatory fish and chips.

Not much traffic except in spots leading to the city’s outskirts where rows of charming houses prevail. Many buses go in all directions, easy to get around, but we prefer to travel on foot, exploring streets wide and narrow, streets leading suddenly to broad vistas of the harbor down below, or to the castle that looms above like the beacon it was meant to be. The residential sections were designed, after forfeiting independence to join the union as the united kingdom, in a way meant to please the King. Street after street of row houses in some sort of limestone, flat facades with very little molding or finish, but tall elegant windows, and doors, often painted in contrasting colors like blue or purple. Repetitive but not at all boring, these rows of small buildings stand like old trees, elegant and proud. However most streets have no trees, not even urns or buckets of foliage, thus rather stark, with wide unobstructed sidewalks, but every few blocks or so, there is a crescent or small park, or one of the several large parks that punctuate the city, with tall leafy trees that bring the green of a very green country to the city.

Because of the generally low roof lines, church spires and monuments and the castle peek to their full height as in punctuation. Beautiful sights. We delight in the botanic garden, the many tiny streets off the Royal Mile that lead you to a stunning city garden or an old school or some other surprise, a 2-mile river walk that leads to the port town of Leith, and in the winding streets leading to Stockbridge, a trendy neighborhood near our flat which is bright and drafty, exactly as you would expect in an old row house in New Town.

There is history here, quiet and regal, unpretentious. I’m told it is a business center for the country and huge Royal Bank of Scotland buildings are in every district. Only a few taller more modern buildings occupy a business area in town, and a few large but recessed urban shopping centers. We stop one rainy day at a huge incredibly comfy movie theater to see Robin Hood, seems right to watch in a place facing similar power struggles way back in the 12th century. California in contrast seems like a psychedelic poster to me from here, 2-dimensional and surreal, and New York too frenetic and closed in.

We spend one full day in Glasgow, just a 45 minute train ride through incredibly green rolling hillsides. Glasgow is much bigger, taller buildings, more eclectic and also marred by poor attempts at development years ago as well as prolonged urban blight. It seems a younger city, Dana feels a stronger vibe here. The university area is gorgeous, the botanic gardens bigger and even more beautiful. Dana is delighted by the herbs growing there and we wander through an orchid show as well. It is a sunny Saturday afternoon and families linger on the lawn, children run around and play or ride their bikes and there is a lovely relaxed ambiance. The Scots seem to know how to enjoy themselves without much fuss.

On the way back to the US, I am delayed in London by black ash. Nothing to do about it, and frankly I don’t mind another day away. I wish I had taken a bit more time to explore. Perhaps I’ve become spoiled, one week on holiday used to be the norm and now it is not enough. Air New Zealand, a wonderful friendly airline with comfy planes and lovely free wine, puts me up at a 4-start hotel near Heathrow and after I check emails for the first time in a week, I read, enjoy a lovely buffet dinner at their hip restaurant bar, watch a bit of TV, try to sleep, prepare for the long ride home, which turns out to be easy. I watch the entire first season of Glee which makes me laugh, a lot.

So, I check Edinburgh off the long list of places I wish to see, now a fond memory of a place that, if it were not for the general gray and often cold rainy weather, one would be happy to live. Someday I might like to go back to the fabulous art, music and theater festivals that happen throughout the summer, must be great, although likely a different vibe. I think I’ll keep the memory of this elegant place just as it was. Now I’ve got my sights set on Turkey. Next year.

Pics at http://picasaweb.google.com/maple57/Scotland#

09 May 2010

The New Fiction in Film

They will release this week yet another film about Robin Hood. According to the New York Times, my definitive source, this film is a "prequel" which goes back into the history of this captivating character. However this so-called history lingers through his marriage to "Maid" Marion, which in this script is no maid, and beyond to the return of the King. So I am forced to wonder, where is the true story and how is it Ridley Scott et al can make whatever they like of Robin Hood, and this is much on my mind given films of late that borrow the title of a known work of fiction, and manipulate the story to another end entirely.

Let us begin with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, certainly not true to the original, rather a hodge-podge of the title story, Through the Looking Glass, the Jabberworky and a bit of Joan of Arc and Avatar, among other things, and thus in my view not at all Alice in Wonderland and not worthy of the title. Then there was the film of Sherlock Holmes, originally a captivating OCD genius sleuth created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a series of stories of which many are masterpieces of mystery, turned into an adventure hero with an equally infamous lover and a strained relationship with the no-longer so affable Dr. Watson as played by Jude Law. I am second to none in my admiration and affection for Robert Downey Jr., but please, what makes it all right to compromise such a carefully crafted character? In both cases, I would have minded a lot less if they had given the film another title: Alice would have sufficed, sufficient allusion to the character without bastardizing the source, and maybe Sherlock would have worked to the same end. Not Holmes, that's too representative.

And now we have a new Robin Hood, again no name change, although I discover in my research that Robin Hood is more folklore than original fiction, so perhaps more maleable. In the interest of creativity, I pose this question: it's one thing to contaminate the truth, but what makes fiction sacrosanct? David Shields in his remarkable work "Reality Hunger" poses the possibility that there are no divides between so-called truth and fiction, as the moment something is said or done it's subject to context and memory, thus making it fiction from that moment forward. He's got a point there. So, if the truth is open to revision, fiction surely must be vulnerable to further fiction. I suppose. One never owns words or thoughts or even characters [unless licensed to Mattel] as there is no copyright for intellectual property, but if not illegal, it's still wrong, or at the very least, inappropriate, to appropriate other people's stories, even lore. Revisionism always has an agenda, if only box office receipts. I feel the same way every time a novelist takes a character from another book and writes the prequel, the sequel or the what if? What happened to pride of originality?

For me, Robin Hood is Errol Flynn, and that character might have been drawn even less to the lore, but he's Robin of Loxley in my mind, and the divine Basil Rathbone, as the Sheriff of Nottingham, also my favorite Sherlock Holmes on film. Surely Russell Crowe may bring something entirely new, and perhaps wonderful, to the character, he often does, but couldn't he just be somebody else? Some other fighter for the rights and freedoms of ordinary mortals - surely we need such characters in our world. What is to be lost by fabricating a fabulous new persona? On the other hand, perhaps we can no longer call something fiction at all - perhaps stories cannot be considered proprietary. But we might have to call it original fiction, like original screenplay, fine, but please, let's make it original.