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28 OCTOBER, 2014

Neil Gaiman Reimagines Hansel & Gretel, with Gorgeous Black-and-White Illustrations by Italian Graphic Artist Lorenzo Mattotti

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“If you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”

J.R.R. Tolkien memorably asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Maurice Sendak similarly scoffed that we shouldn’t shield young minds from the dark. It’s a sentiment that Neil Gaiman — one of the most enchanting and prolific writers of our time, a champion of the creative life, underappreciated artist, disciplined writer, and sage of literature — not only shares, in contemplating but also enacts beautifully in his work. More than a decade after his bewitching and widely beloved Coraline, Gaiman returns with another terrific embodiment of this ethos — his adaptation of the Brothers Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have attracted a wealth of reimaginings over their long history, including interpretations as wide-ranging as those by David Hockney in 1970, Edward Gorey in 1973, and Philip Pullman in 2012. But Gaiman’s is decidedly singular — a mesmerizing rolling cadence of language propelling a story that speaks to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, that listens for the peculiar crescendo where the song of the dream becomes indistinguishable from the scream of the nightmare.

With stark subtlety, Mattotti’s haunting visual interpretation amplifies the atmosphere that Gaiman so elegantly evokes.

In this wonderful short video, Gaiman discusses what makes fairy tales endure with legendary graphic storyteller Art Spiegelman and longtime New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly:

I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.

And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming — it’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell you that story — as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.

Hansel & Gretel is wholly enthralling from cover to cover. It is also available as a deluxe edition — a lavish large-format volume with a die-cut cover, and dog knows die-cut treats are impossible to resist.

Complement it with Gaiman on why scary stories appeal to us, Tolkien on the psychology of fairy tales, and the best illustrations of the Brothers Grimm tales. For more of Mattotti’s enchanting art, see his visual interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe.

Illustrations courtesy of Toon Books / Lorenzo Mattotti; photographs my own

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28 OCTOBER, 2014

Walter Benjamin on the Key Qualities of the Successful Person and How to Master the Art of Asking for What You Want

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“And please believe me when I tell you: successful people are never sore losers.”

Walter Benjamin may be best known as a literary critic, philosopher, and essayist — with enduring insight on the written word that includes his thirteen rules of writing and his advice on how to write a fat tome — but he was also a pioneer of early German radio. Between 1927 and 1933, thirty-something Benjamin wrote and delivered nearly ninety broadcasts over the nascent medium. (The world’s first radio news program had aired in August of 1920 and commercial entertainment broadcasts followed in 1922.) Those pioneering pieces, at last translated into English and released as Radio Benjamin (public library), were notable for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for upholding the idealism and optimism of any young medium. (Early German radio, for instance, was based on subscriptions and had strict rules against commercially sponsored programming — something wholly heartening and wholly heartbreaking in our era of “native advertising” and other unending violations of the church-state relationship between public-interest journalism and private-interest greed.) Many of Benjamin’s broadcasts were also groundbreaking in being aimed at children, from educational programming to fairy-tale adaptations to original plays. But one of his pieces in particular stands out for its timeless and timely allure.

On February 8, 1931, Benjamin’s broadcast “How Do I Deal with My Boss?” aired on Radio Berlin. A few weeks later, on March 26, it was broadcast again on Radio Frankfurt under the title “A Pay Raise?! Whatever Gave You That Idea!” The piece, which Benjamin wrote in collaboration with his friend Wolf Zucker, offered a semi-satirical but strikingly lucid take on the eternal question of how to ask for a raise — or, rather, how to ask for anything when there is a power dynamic involved between giver and receiver. Benjamin’s advice, at once playful and practical, is not only timeless in answering the money question today with equal wisdom, but also widely resonant far beyond the particular context of employment — at its heart is practical wisdom on the art of asking itself, with immense insight into its delicate balance of dignity and humility.

The piece is structured as a two-person play-parable, where The Speaker reveals to The Skeptic the secret of success through a couple of anecdotes about workplace dynamics. “Are you suggesting that a single, lousy individual has the power, all on his own, to transform his life into a better one? Do you really believe that?” The Skeptic probes the premise incredulously, to which The Speaker responds: “Yes, nearly one hundred percent, absolutely.”

In the first anecdote, we meet a man named Herr Zauderer — for this was 1931, and the workforce was a monolithic swarm of testosterone — who approaches his boss about a raise with remarkably poor timing, after having underdelivered on a project. After a series of questionable attempts at manipulation by Herr Zauderer, the vignette ends with a door slam, which only confirms The Skeptic’s conviction that it’s impossible to ask for a raise with any outcome other than humiliation. But in distilling the moral of the fable, The Speaker sheds light on the essential elements of a successful ask, outlining the seven rules for getting what you’re asking for:

First off, the dumbest thing you can do is to ask for something when the boss already has reason to be miffed. Second, if you notice that the boss is in a bad mood, don’t keep harping on the salary issue. Third, when speaking with the boss, you can’t be perpetually shy, fearful, and submissive. Never be impolite or arrogant. One must maintain one’s dignity. But stay on point and speak your mind. Fourth: Herr Zauderer responded to the criticism from his boss by passing the blame onto a colleague. This is unfair and makes a poor impression. Fifth: Herr Zauderer addresses the question of the pay raise in terms of his needs alone. The boss is interested in his business, not in the private life of his employees. Sixth: a very stupid maneuver: Herr Zauderer threatens to quit when he sees he’s lost the cause. The boss knows, of course, that there is no chance Herr Zauderer can seriously consider walking away. It is most inept of Herr Zauderer to insist on playing the injured party. It never works. And finally, seventh: the word unjust is never appropriate. A boss does not let himself be told to which employee he will give more or less pay. That is his concern. It is inappropriate for Herr Zauderer to speak to him about other employees’ salaries.

We then meet another fellow, Herr Frisch. He is the head of accounting at a wholesale knitwear company and “accomplishes everything he sets out to do.” We follow him as he asks his own boss for a raise, with a very different result, thanks to his arsenal of courage and composure, dignity and determination. The Speaker then examines the secret to Herr Frisch’s success and what universals it might hold for all. He tells The Skeptic:

Every person is an isolated case. Nevertheless, there will always be certain situations in which the same rules apply to everyone.

This second fellow had avoided all the mistakes of the first, The Speaker points out, to which The Skeptic retorts that there surely must be something more to success than merely avoiding mistakes. The Speaker responds:

Something else is necessary… A fundamental attitude, a state of mind… An inner bearing, the basic values [the successful person] displays at work, with the boss, and in his entire life. He is clear, determined, and courageous. He knows what he wants and therefore he can remain both calm and polite at all times. He understands how to attune himself to his opponent’s state of mind without sacrificing his dignity in the slightest.

In a sentiment that Pixar’s co-founder would come to echo decades later in exploring the rewards of fostering a fearless culture in a company, one that also calls to mind Nietzsche on the value of suffering, The Speaker points to the particular value of Herr Frisch’s relationship with failure:

[The successful person] is always prepared. Even in failure, he is composed. He is not easily discouraged. [He] considers his struggles to be a kind of sport, and he approaches them as he would a game. He contends with life’s difficulties in a relaxed and pleasant manner. He keeps a clear head even when things go wrong. And please believe me when I tell you: successful people are never sore losers; they’re the ones who don’t whine and give up after every failure. Indeed, they are the ones who keep their chins up, weather life’s misfortunes, and live to fight another day. Who will be first to fail the test? The timid and the faint of heart. The whiners, the complainers. He who goes to the exam cool and calm is already halfway there. Such people are in great demand today. That is, I believe, the secret of success.

Radio Benjamin is a treasure in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with Joseph Brodsky’s rules for winning at the game of life, possibly the greatest commencement address ever given, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success and Picasso on why you should never compromise in your work.

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28 OCTOBER, 2014

Kahlil Gibran on the Absurdity of Self-Righteousness

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A simple reminder that nothing undoes dignity like peevish indignation.

Decades before artist Anne Truitt pondered the cure for our chronic self-righteousness, another extraordinary creative mind tussled with this human pathology. Among the many gems in Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s 1918 collection The Madman: His Parables and Poems (public library) — Gibran’s first work in English, a classic that falls somewhere between William Blake and Mary Oliver — is a short poem that speaks with great subtlety and great insight to our illusion of separateness and the self-righteousness it produces, our lamentable tendency to mistake others for interruptions and nuisances, to forget that everybody is simply doing their best in this shared experience called life.

SAID A BLADE OF GRASS

Said a blade of grass to an autumn leaf, “You make such a noise falling! You scatter all my winter dreams.”

Said the leaf indignant, “Low-born and low-dwelling! Songless, peevish thing! You live not in the upper air and you cannot tell the sound of singing.”

Then the autumn leaf lay down upon the earth and slept. And when spring came she waked again — and she was a blade of grass.

And when it was autumn and her winter sleep was upon her, and above her through all the air the leaves were falling, she muttered to herself, “O these autumn leaves! They make such noise! They scatter all my winter dreams.”

For a different side of the same existential coin, treat yourself to Mary Oliver’s beautiful reading of “Wild Geese.”

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