April 14, 2015

The wickedest author to author insults

Salman Rushdie (AAP file)
(Photo: AAP File)
Is everyone up on the literary scandal du jour? The one where Salman Rushdie rated a couple dozen modern classics on Goodreads, and his clamorously low ratings for many of them (To Kill a Mockingbird, three stars out of five?! Lucky Jim only one?!) were shared with the 30 million members of the site, as is the wont of a "social networking website", resulting in a few shocked people and much media kerfuffle? Sir Salman claims he didn't dream they would be on public view and he was just playing around, which sounded a lot like saying he didn't inhale, but he did stick up for his right not to like Kingsley Amis books, which has to count for something.

Zero stars from me for The Independent, which described Sir Salman as having "sparked controversy with some trenchant opinions of some authors widely regarded as among the finest of their generation".

Star-rating a book is not a "trenchant opinion"! Trenchant opinions are, well, trenchant: from the French, meaning cutting, sharp. They involve skill, and are not done with an abacus, nor with a blunt instrument such as Bret Easton Ellis used on David Foster Wallace a few years ago when he declared "I continue to find [him] the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation", an earlier scandal du jour.

The best trenchant opinions make use of trenchant wit, as with Oscar Wilde's arch comment about the 18th century master of the heroic couplet: “There are several ways to dislike poetry; one is to dislike it, the other is to read Alexander Pope."


Here are some of my favourite author to author insults, witty, mostly trenchant, always wicked.

For caustic, you can't go wrong with Dorothy Parker. Here's what she said in The New Yorker about Lady Asquith: "That gifted entertainer, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith, author of The Autobiography of Margot Asquith (four volumes, neatly boxed, suitable for throwing purposes), reverts to tripe in a new book deftly entitled “Lay Sermons.”

Cited by Quote Investigator as part of the evidence proving Dorothy did not actually quip, in a review of Atlas Shrugged, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."  Alas. It made for good telling.

Please note: our copy of the Asquith memoirs is a one-volume abridged version.

Strong Opinionssyndetics-lc
Vladimir Nabokov on Hemingway, from his book Strong Opinions: “I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”

T.S. Eliot attributed to Edgar Allan Poe “the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty.”
(1948 Library of Congress lecture "From Poe to Valery")

“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’."

Mary McCarthy's judgement on Lillian Hellman, proferred during an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, caused Hellman to sue her for libel, possibly not the wisest decision (shades of Oscar Wilde) in view of how many people came forth to testify to Hellman fabrications. Of course, it depends on what you want to get out of it. McCarthy was not wealthy and the cost of defending herself nearly ruined her, which she always suspected was the reason why the wealthy Hellman would not let go, through five long years. Only with Hellman's death was the case extinguished, if not the grudge, which I picture having been so strong as to still be lurking somewhere in the universe.

Which reminds me of Nancy Mitford's quip that Violet Trefusis's memoir Don't look round, politely deemed "unreliable" by the Times Literary Supplement, ought to have been titled Here lies Mrs Trefusis. (You can read more about Mrs.Trefusis, who never refuses, in the Books in the City post Speak, Memoir title).

A tale of two lions: George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill. Shaw had a play premiering and sent two tickets for the show to Churchill with a note, "Here are two tickets for my opening night. Bring a friend, if you have one". Churchill returned them, also with a note. It said, "Sorry, I'm busy that night, but I would be available for the second night, if you have one".

Quote Investigator says the jury is still out on the accuracy of this story, despite noting that it is on record that GBS, aged 94, recounted the anecdote to his doctor. You have to wonder if it were the lead-up to a jest about the uncertainties of being nearly a century old.

Katherine Mansfield had this to say about Howards End and its author, in her journal: "E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea."

And to finish off, my personal favourite.

Danger, danger, Janeites! Someone's about to be outrageous about Jane Austen:

In an 1898 letter to his friend Joseph Twichell, Mark Twain confided: “I often want to criticise Jane Austen but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”


March 31, 2015

The Mad Dog Gang meets Rotten Fred & Ratsguts -- Ian Mune

I can remember buying this book from Ian Mune himself sometime in 1977. The TV programme, which this book is based on, was pretty big at my primary school. The purchase was made from a bookshop in Devonport  that I remember as being called Evergreens but in fact was called Greener Grass.

I used my own money. Ian Mune signed it, which seemed kind of cool to seven or eight-year-old me.

Photo: Auckland Libraries (id 786-A008-6)

Apparently this is how Devonport looked in the 1970s. I don't think so. I remember it in colour. A whole world you roamed at will, often bored, but with agency. (In the background of that picture looms Mt Victoria. My Uncle Pat once told me and my brother about how he and his friends, sometime in the 1940s, rolled an empty truck off the top. I'm sure they were back home in time for dinner by six o'clock.)

Actually, this is what my childhood looked like but with less clouds and with more topless sunbathers. 

Photo: Auckland Libraries (id 996-10)

I am currently reading The Mad Dog Gang meets Rotten Fred and Ratsguts to my seven-year-old and last week he was curled up tight on the bed next to me with his hands pressed to his mouth, tense with excitement, filled with trepidation. The soon-to-be-formed Mad Dog Gang were creeping up on Rotten Fred’s shack. In this time, so removed from that past, his reaction to the book has been one of excitement, of pure enthusiasm.

He is desperate to know if The Mad Dog Gang will make friends with Rotten Fred and Ratsguts but I won’t tell him.

If you look around you can find the programme on Youtube (in colour too, but, like my memory, more than a little bleached by time). It’s not without its charms, I'm sure Seamus would like to check it out, but I would be reluctant to show him. It is not a patch on this book. The book is a masterpiece. The writing is taut and exciting. From cover to cover there is hardly a word out of place. Told from the kids' perspective, there is not a trace of sentiment.

If I was asked to describe the book in one word I would have to choose ‘classic’. Seamus has already opted for ‘epic’.

"It’s epic, eh Dad?" says my kiwi boy with an Irish mother.

Thinking about why I prefer the book to the programme I conclude that the book seems more dangerous. The details are more intense. The talk seems like the talk of my childhood. Mr Newman, (Pooman), the teacher at the school, while initially friendly enough is revealed as being a bit of a petty prick. Angela Marks, top of the school, is a source of contempt for natural born rebel Harvey Kepuni.  ‘Angela-Bangela-stuck-up-bitch’ he thinks when she reprimands him for picking on Tony and Suey, the new kids at school. Tony and Suey will soon be his allies and co-conspirators in after-school shenanigans. (This includes assaulting an angry orchard owner with a large stick, a scene Seamus found tremendously amusing).

Like any great read, The Mad Dog Gang meets Rotten Fred and Rats Guts is not one thing. There are not just laughs and adventures. It is also a book with a deeply serious side. In it children face death for the first time and it does not offer a tidy or easy or comforting lesson. Seamus was silent and somber in this part of the story but did not complain. This is stuff he has thought about and at an age much younger than his current seven-and-a-half. Mune knows children.

The world of The Mad Dog Gang is a world where you don’t tell adults a thing and you sort out problems yourself. This is a book where the children have agency.

In closing, here are a couple of images from the golden days when kids tv programmes featured seven-year-olds smoking cigarettes*…

…and dogs featured top billing in the end credits.

(*Seamus was scandalised. "He can't do that Dad, he's the the hero!" he said)

-- Kelly

Book cover photo and South Pacific promo clip from KiwiTV website

March 30, 2015

"I moved in the great mystery": Tomas Tranströmer 1931-2015

(Photo: New Republic)

Tomas Tranströmer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature not quite four years ago, died last Friday, aged 83. When the announcement of the Prize was made, I had never read a poem by him. But what a name! Did we have a book of his poems? We did! A 30-year-old Selected Poems was squirrelled away in the good old Central City Library basement. Oh no, actually, not squirrelled away any longer: four quicker-on-the-draw readers had formed a queue within hours of the announcement.

So I turned to the newer publications which Auckland Libraries had quickly ordered au complet, and chose The great enigma: new collected poems from 2006. The fact that the diacritical marks weren't showing correctly on the catalogue, so that the name Tranströmer appeared as Transtr?mer is not the only reason I chose it, but it certainly cinched the deal. How could I resist someone described thus:

"Transtr?mer's dominant moods are almost warily inward-turning..."

As well as being a great poet (as I discovered for myself when the book arrived, and you will discover if you keep reading), Tomas Tranströmer was also a noted entomologist, a beetle collector. There is even a beetle named for him, in an 80th birthday tribute. The “Tranströmers tornbagge” was discovered on the island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea, where Tranströmer spent his summers as a boy. You can't help getting a whiff of Nabokov. The image in my mind's eye, in fact, is a Nabokov who never left a St Petersburg which never stopped being St Petersburg, as Max von Sydow would interpret him in an Ingmar Bergman film.

Of the beetle, the Tomas Tranströmer website tells us "Its habits are still unknown". The Great Enigma. 

Mordellistena transtroemeriana photo: tomastranstomer.net

The Great Enigma includes a wonderful piece of autobiographical prose called Memories Look at Me, in which Tranströmer recalls (as well as his early visits to the library) his love of beetle-collecting:

"I moved in the great mystery. I learned that the ground was alive, that there was an infinite world of creeping and flying things living their own rich life without paying the least regard to us. I caught a fraction of a fraction of that world and pinned it down in my boxes... they're sitting there, those insects. As if biding their time."

And so, to

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter by Vermeer
(Image: npr.org)


by Tomas Tranströmer (translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton, from The Great Enigma)

No protected world... Just behind the wall the noise begins,
the inn
with laughter and bickering, rows of teeth, tears, the din of bells
and the insane brother-in-law, the death-bringer we all must tremble for.

The big explosion and the tramp of rescue arriving late,
the boats preening themselves on the straits, the money creeping down in the wrong man's pocket
demands stacked on demands
gaping red flowerheads sweating premonitions of war.

And through the wall into the clear studio
into the second that's allowed to live for centuries.
Pictures that call themselves The Music Lesson
or Woman in Blue Reading a Letter --
she's in her eighth month, two hearts kicking inside her.
On the wall behind is a wrinkled map of Terra Incognita.

Breathe calmly... An unknown blue material is nailed to the chairs.
The gold studs flew in with incredible speed
and stopped abruptly
as if they had never been other than stillness.

Ears sing from depth or height.
It's the pressure from the other side of the wall.
It makes each fact float
and steadies the brush.

It hurts to go through walls, it makes you ill
but is necessary.
The world is one. But walls...
And the wall is part of yourself --
we know or we don't know but it's true for us all
except for small children. No walls for them.

The clear sky has leaned against the wall.
It's like a prayer to the emptiness.
And the emptiness turns its face to us
and whispers,
"I am not empty, I am open."

 -- Karen

March 25, 2015

World Poetry Day: Untie that poem!

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

-- "Introduction to poetry" by Billy Collins

From The apple that astonished Paris, 1996
(University of Arkansas Press)

If you've ever had the traumatic experience of witnessing this being done to a poem, and especially if a residual sac of trauma is still bobbing around in your psyche, I recommend a dose of World Poetry Day. World Poetry Day has been around for almost a hundred years, is celebrated on March 21, and although other purposes are read into it, worthily (most notably UNESCO's adopting it to promote the saving of endangered languages), at its heart it's still about people sharing poetry with each other.

In our modern world, where few of us have anything like a village square in our lives, a good place to do this is on Twitter, not least because in cyberspace the day stretches out to become two or three, with people jumping on and off according to their time zones and whatever idiosyncratic hours they keep.

Here are some of my best catches from the World Poetry Day twitscape. I'm sure one of them will get you waterskiing!

This first one needs a bit of introduction. To celebrate WPD, cafés around the world invited people to swap a poem for a coffee, a new initiative which I hope will spread (do you read me, Running  Horse Café?) and become a tradition. Here's The Guardian tweeting the phenomenon:

Now join me in a hats off to poet Ian Duhig (@ianduhig) for this masterpiece:

And this isn't bad either:

Keats-Shelley House (@Keats_Shelley) has long been one of my favourite twitter accounts, and they didn't disappoint:

Couldn't be a poetry day without Sylvia; I especially liked the choice of poem:


Ferlinghetti, one of my first loves (and his own hieroglyph: "the arrow"):

Embedded image permalink

A plum blossom from Basho, the master:

Mandy, do you know what James Dickey said about Robert Frost?
"Of all the haunted artists, Robert Frost is the most haunted of all":

Clever as hell from The Grove Bookshop (@GroveBookshop):

and this was my contribution:

Apollinaire's friends had this poem inscribed on his grave.

Which makes me think of,  "So long lives this, and this gives life to thee".

What better thought for a poetry day?


March 21, 2015

Patrick Leigh Fermor: lost in time and geography

I struck the board and cry'd 'No more;
I will abroad.'
What, shall I ever sigh and pine?
My life and lines are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind.      
     -- lines from a poem by George Herbert, used as an epigraph to A time of gifts

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934
Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece, c 1934

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. It's also the centenary of the birth of the modern passport, meaning that when Paddy (as all his life he was universally known), aged 18 and harbouring literary ambitions, decided to walk across Europe to give himself something to write about, passports were just as young as he was, and applying for one was still something it was hard to take seriously.

From A time of gifts, the first of his trilogy of books about his 'Great Trudge', as he called it:

"Profession? 'Well, what shall we say?' The Passport Official had asked, pointing to the void. My mind remained empty."

Casting about, he hums the song from Al Jolson's latest movie, Hallelujah I'm a bum!, which has been running through his head for days. The Passport Official tells him 'Well, we can't put that!' and suggests he put 'student', not knowing how many schools he'd been expelled from. So 'student' it is, although 'footloose romantic scribbler' would have been more apt.

You'll see Patrick Leigh Fermor referred to as a travel writer, even as the finest travel writer of his time, which is a long time given that he lived to be 96, but it's a categorization which doesn't do him justice. To me he's more like the last in a line of romantic adventurers with a literary bent which comes down from, say, the erudite Victorian explorer Richard Burton, the first European to reach Mecca (in disguise, risking his life), through T.E. Lawrence, that "very inspiring gentleman adventurer", as a fellow army officer described him, whose first trek East, let's not forget, was for archaeological interest in the crusader castles of Syria, and on through the brilliant aesthete Robert Byron, already the author of six books on travel and art history when Paddy was setting out on his first journey, ten years Paddy's senior, the perfect age difference for a bit of hero-worship.

Paddy in fact is thrilled when Mark Ogilvie-Grant lends him a rucksack for his journey which he had carried on his travels around Athos with Robert Byron. "Weathered and faded by Macedonian suns, it was rife with mana," he exults, and he filled it with army surplus clothes, a sleeping bag, a couple of white linen shirts (for occasions), notebooks, a tin of pencils, plus the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. Just so you don't think this is a bit too much, he soon loses both the sleeping bag and one of the books of poetry, and realises he doesn't miss either one.

It took Paddy over a year to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople, as he always called it, refusing to use the name the Turkish Republic had imposed on the city the Emperor Constantine had founded as the new Rome. In the course of that year he had known the "ecstasy", as he described it, of realising that nobody in the world knew where he was, and that he had to be a writer. And from then on, he made the rest of his life be about that. Though of course there were other loves, too: knowledge, including a particular passion for exotic historical arcana, friendship, good conversation, song, women, drinking and smoking (both of which he did prodigiously), and saying things backwards.

In A time of gifts he declares himself addicted to this practice, which he links back to having gazed out of many windows of restaurants and cafes, deciphering the writing on the glass. He gives the example of 'Ode to a Nightingale', which he used to like to recite backwards on the march, noting the "arcane and unearthly beauty" of the lines, such as

Yawa! Yawa! Rof I lliw ylf ot eeht!

But his favourite is

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

which becomes

Hguorht suorudrev smoolg dna gnidniw yssom syaw.

You have to agree with him when he says "It seems almost to surpass the original in forest mystery".

He travelled and lived in Greece, gaining such familiarity with the Greek language and culture that when World War II broke out, and he went to London to report for duty, leaving behind the beautiful Rumanian princess he had been living with, the British sent him to Crete as a Special Op. I wouldn't call it a love, but he certainly demonstrated an enormous gift for warriorship, including the fabled action (a movie was later made about it, starring Dirk Bogarde as Paddy) he carried out with a small band of men, dressing in stolen German uniforms and kidnapping the German commander, driving him in his own car through 20 German checkpoints before marching him across the island to a beach where they were picked up by a British launch.

In their stolen Wehrmacht uniforms (Paddy on  right)

The book which was my introduction to Patrick Leigh Fermor is Mani, in which he describes his travels through the most remote area of the southern Peloponnese, recommended by a friend who shared my passion for Greece, and travelling in Greece. Reading the book I could see that everyone voyaging south through the Peloponnese gets the same geography lesson, in which a hand is held up for a map, perhaps a residue of the days when Greek sailors -- I learned in Mani -- navigated with their fingers. I still remember the modern-day Lacedaemonian who gave us ours, on our first trip. "The Peloponnese is a hand with three fingers extending into the Mediterranean. The Mani is the middle one. The wild one." Mountainous, arid, its fierce inhabitants noted for their historical trades of pirates (by sea) and robbers (by land).

But the Mani turned out to be also a place of boundless hospitality and suggestiveness and I can easily understand why Patrick Leigh Fermor came to love it so much he built himself a home there, with nine-foot high bookshelves, in the little town of Kardamyli. Bruce Chatwin, who if life were fair would have been the one to carry on the line of literary adventurers, spent many months there, thinking and walking, while grappling with the writing of Songlines, and requested that after his death his ashes be taken there.

Here's a passage from Mani which is quintessential Patrick Leigh Fermor:

"The air in Greece is not merely a negative void between solids; the sea itself, the houses and rocks and trees, on which it presses like a jelly mould, are embedded in it; it is alive and positive and volatile and one is as aware of its contact as if it could have pierced hearts scrawled on it with diamond rings or be grasped in handfuls, tapped for electricity, bottled, used for blasting, set fire to, sliced into sparkling cubes and rhomboids with a pair of shears, be timed with a stop watch, strung with pearls, plucked like a lute string or tolled like a bell, swum in, be set with rungs and climbed like a rope ladder or have saints assumed through it in flaming chariots; as though it could be harangued into faction, or eavesdropped, pounded down with pestle and mortar for cocaine, drunk from a ballet shoe, or spun, woven and worn on solemn feasts; or cut into discs for lenses, minted for currency or blown, with infinite care, into globes. On top of this, all the nautical wind-talk and scrutiny of the elements fills it with innumerable unseen coilings and influences and cross currents and comings and goings. It is no wonder that the Greek word for wind -- anemos -- should have produced the Latin word anima, for soul; that pneuma and spiritus should mean spirit and breath and wind in both languages. Perhaps it is not strange that the age-old Greek war-cry -- the equivalent of St. George!, Montjoy--Saint Denys!, and Santiago! -- should be the single word Aera! which means both wind and air."

Patrick Leigh Fermor's books

The traveller's tree: a journey through the Caribbean Islands (1950)
A time to keep silence  (1953)
Mani: travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958)
Roumeli: travels in Northern Greece (1966)
Words of mercury: tales from a lifetime of travel (2003)

The trilogy recounting the 'Great Trudge' was written after his other travel books, nearly half a century after that voyage of a lifetime. A time of gifts (1977) covers the walk from Holland to Bratislava via Nazi Germany and Austria,

Its sequel Between the woods and the water (1986) takes him from there to Hungary and Romania

Third in the trilogy, The broken road : from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (2013) was still in manuscript at his death, and was edited for publication by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. He'd been working on it for 20 years and just couldn't bring himself to finish it. No one thinks it was his age -- this is a man who swam the Hellespont at age 69. Perhaps he simply didn't want the voyage to end, to say good-bye to “the feeling of being lost in time and geography with months and years hazily sparkling ahead in a prospect of inconjecturable magic...”

Paddy in Ithaka, 1946

-- Karen

March 11, 2015

The book that comes with its own piece of moon rock

Phenomenal! I've just learned that the record for the most expensive sale in the history of AbeBooks, held for 12 long years by a first edition of The Hobbit which went for US $65,000, was broken practically as soon as it featured here in January (Fetish vessels of cash: the world's most expensive books)!

That honour now belongs to a rare book of ornithology published in Italy in 1765. Its five volumes of hand-coloured engravings of birds took the two illustrators ten years to complete, and have garnered attention throughout its 2.5 centuries of life for how the birds, with their "lively posturing" (as an AbeBooks expert described it), seem to reflect the "human comedy" of 18th century Italian society. That's what it said, 18th century, but this raptor reminds me a lot of a certain 20th century Italian dictator!

A Natural History of Birds
photo: AbeBooks

The lively birds are the first six-figure sale for AbeBooks, the anonymous collector having shelled out US $191,000. The news item on the AbeBooks website about the sale lets you see, besides a slideshow of some of the engravings, what other books they have on sale at that cost, namely:

  • An inscribed first edition of The Sun Also Rises
  • The birds of Europe, a 19th century ornithological book in ... fancy that, five volumes
  • A second folio edition of Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies

Now you're talking! A second folio! I can't believe this hasn't been snapped up yet. What are these rich people doing with their disposable income?

AbeBooks has some ideas. For the same amount, they say, you could get one of these:

  • A brand new 2015 Ferrari California
  • A one-bedroom flat in central Manchester with a roof garden
  • A diamond ring featuring a six-carat ruby

Well! As it happens, last year I was invited to a Ferrari meet and got to take a turn around the track in a California. I wasn't driving it, I was riding shotgun, but I did get to push the start button. And wear an official Ferrari owner hat, given to me because the California is a convertible and the sun was turbocharged that day. (I didn't realise that the hat said 'Ferrari Owner' and experienced some gleeful moments when people would ask me which Ferrari was mine, before the truth was broken to me.)

It was truly a high, a communion with the beauty of the machine taken to a whole new level. What can I say? If I were so rich that I could take care of everyone and still have $200,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I don't know if I'd spend it on a Ferrari, but if it were $500,000, I might buy the Second Folio and a Ferrari. There is, however, a key difference between the two, which is that I would never want to give the Second Folio up, whereas I'm not convinced I would keep a Ferrari once the newness wore off.

Eight people in the world have spent that kind of money to buy themselves a book which is neither old nor irreplaceable, but which comes with something rarer and more exotic than a Ferrari, even:  a moon rock.

This novelty is the brainchild of publisher Benedikt Taschen, the man who started out back in the eighties, still a teenager, by selling his comic book collection, and never looked back, moving on to remaindered art books, and then reprinted (by him) art books, before making his name in publishing with a genial new kind of affordable art book whose maximum expression was the series of 1000 photographs of some thing: record covers, tattoos, chairs. Was the choice of 1000 over the more usual 100 a first hint of the now-overt megalomania of the man who claims that from the start, his goal was to make the greatest books in the world? Who prints on the title pages of his company's great (size, subject, workmanship and price) art books that they are "Directed and produced by Benedikt Taschen"?

The production in question is Moonfire, a book which Taschen put out in 2009 in a limited edition of 1969 copies, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo ll moon landing. And in what can only be seen as perfect casting, the text is by Norman Mailer, a new reprise of his coverage of the moon shot for Life magazine. This is the author whose ego was so big that, as someone pointed out, he not only decided to run for mayor of New York, but continued to think he could win even after he'd been convicted of stabbing his wife with a penknife, possibly because she was taunting him about being a lesser writer than Dostoevsky, at a party for his campaign.

The last 12 copies of the limited edition, numbers 1958 through 1969, contain a piece of moon rock. Not one of the rocks gathered on the moon by the Apollo astronauts, though you'd be forgiven for thinking that, seeing as the term used for this special edition of the limited edition is "Lunar Rock Edition", but a piece of the moon, nonetheless, from an asteroid of lunar origin.

Here's Book No. 1,969 (cost, about US $ 520,000):


It comes in a designer case which playfully resembles a coffee table, with aluminum legs shaped like the Apollo 11 landing module struts, and a surface which reproduces the lunar surface.

The coffee table featuring aluminum legs shaped like the Apollo II struts

Here's its rock:


Eight of the twelve Lunar Rock editions have been sold, but four are still available, at a price.

What's priceless is Mailer's prose.

The television image was improving. It was never clear, never did it look any better in quality than a print of the earliest silent movies, but it was eloquent. Ghosts beckoned to ghosts, and the surface of the moon looked like a ski slope at night. Fields of a dazzling pale ran into caverns of black, and through this field moved the ghost of Armstrong. There were moments when one had the impression it was possible to see through him. His image was transparent.

Aldrin descended the ladder, then jumped back on the lowest rung to test his ability to return to the Lem. The abruptness of the action broke the audience into guffaws again, the superior guffaw a sophisticate gives to a chair creaking too crudely in a horror movie. Now two ghosts paraded about, jogging forward and back, exchanging happy comments on the new nature of hopping and walking, moving faster than a walk but like much-padded toddlers, or overswathed beginners on skis. Sometimes they looked like heavy elderly gentlemen dancing with verve, sometimes the sight of their boots or their gloves, the bend of their backs setting up equipment or reaching for more rocks gave them the look of beasts on hindquarters learning to think, sometimes the image went over into negative so that they looked black in their suits on a black moon with white hollows, sometimes the image was solarized and became positive and negative at once, images yawing in and out of focus, so the figures seemed to squirt about like one-celled animals beneath a slide -- all the while, images of the Lem would appear in the background, an odd battered object like some Tartar cooking pot left on a trivet in a Siberian field.. It all had the look of the oldest photographs of expeditions to the North Pole -- there was something bizarre, touching, splendid, and ridiculous all at once, for the feat was immense, but the astronauts looked silly, and their functional conversations seemed farcical in the circumstances.

"What did you say, Buzz?"
"I say the rocks are rather slippery."

You can read it in a later, non-limited edition of Moonfire from the library, and the amazing photographs and maps are there too. Norman Mailer didn't get to see the special edition either; he died in 2007. The New York Post reported that one of his sons, an actor, had sung "Candle in the Wind" at his funeral. How ridiculous, said Stephen Mailer. A forest fire in a hurricane is more like it.

You can read more about Taschen's limited collector's editions on the Taschen website. A monograph on Ai Weiwei which comes wrapped in a silk scarf, with its own marble bookstand, anyone?


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