February 11, 2016

Celebrating Pride 2016 with a rainbow Review Revue

 Auckland Museum lights up for Pride 2016

Yesterday evening at Central Library we celebrated Pride 2016 with our annual Review Revue, an evening of stand-up reviewing with a focus on the world of GLBTIQ literature. "You get up with a book and you have seven minutes to make it notorious" is how we describe it to people we invite to join our line-up of reviewers. And no one says no, which gives you an idea of the atmosphere.

And for an idea of the content, well, you're in for a treat! One of last night's reviewers is a fellow librarian, so he also couldn't say no when I asked him to turn his notes into a post for Books in the City. Here he is and here you go!


Morgan Borthwick on Cinnamon toast and the end of the world

I have never been to a Review Revue before. When my colleagues discovered an ancient book review of mine and asked me to speak, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to sit here and listen to me waffle on about that book I read one summer that I sort of liked because it had a hot guy in it. But hey, I’m here and I’m queer and I’m here to talk to you about a book! 

I thought long and hard about a book to read, do I go the popular route and review a classic you’re probably pretending you’ve read? Do I choose a best seller like A little life (which by the way, is totally fantastic and everyone should read)? Do I spend all night extolling the virtues of Maggie Smith (hint, it’ll be longer than 7 minutes)? Do I get up on my soapbox about the gay erotica that the library stocks and why I find it hideous (the inability of so many writers to accurately write gay sex scenes)? Or do I find a hidden gem that many people wouldn’t have heard about and bang on about it for seven minutes until I’ve convinced you to read it?

You guessed it. I’m going to speed review for you a hidden treasure of a book that I read in one night, with lots of tears and smiles, Cinnamon toast and the end of the world by Janet E. Cameron.

Picture yourself as a Russian-Ukrainian Jewish gay teenager in a dead-end small town in Nova Scotia 1987. Can’t do it? Well, meet Stephen Shulevitz, our hero. Three months before graduation he realises that he is in love with his best friend Mark. Mark is straight, dyslexic, from the wrong side of the tracks and doesn’t know what he’d do if he ever met a queer. ‘Probably kill them if they touched me’ is one of his many sweet lines in the book.

What follows from this realisation is Stephen’s coming of age, interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood, to his adolescence with an absent father, and to his ever changing relationship with his dreamy mother.

I don’t really want to tell you any more than that, because it is a fucking fantastic book that should be read by as many people as possible. At times hilarious, at others heartbreaking, it never fails to be unflinchingly honest. From Stephen’s experiences with sex to the horrors of -- and attitudes towards -- AIDS in 1987 to the clichéd but ever fascinating topic of gay men and their mothers, this book covers it all in vivid, graphic detail.

What I do want to focus on in this review is the truth behind this book. I have read many, many novels about gay teenagers discovering who they are, starting at around age 12 when I was first discovering who I was beyond the Saddle Club novels and Cleo magazines. They veered between two extremes.

Some were nauseatingly cutesy romantic (Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the Universe, Fan Art, Rainbow Boys, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens agenda) where funnily enough, the best friend is in love with them or SHOCK GASP the cute guy at the back of the bus is actually gay and has been stalking them too. This is heart-warming to read but it is simply not true. These books should come with a "Don’t try this at home" warning, as they’re setting poor questioning teenagers up for failure or worse.

One the other end of the spectrum there is a range of teen reads where life is shit, high school is shit and the focus is on themes of suicide, depression, prostitution and runaways (Money Boi, Bait, Suicide Notes). While again a very real thing in the world for many gay teenagers, it is not always like that, nor is it helpful for books to perpetuate stereotypes and offer ideas like the ones some of these do.

Very few books find that rarely discussed but commonly experienced middle ground in exploring what being a gay teenager is like, and for me it's important to get up on my soapbox about one that does. I find it ironic that I had to go to a book set in 1987, in the middle of the AIDS crisis to do so, but there you go. Without spoiling it for you, it is an open ending, it has a bittersweet tone and it showcases that life for gay teenagers isn’t always about extremes. Often, writers forget that with gay teenagers, and trying to describe their life experiences, the drama is already there, honey. You don’t need to add to it, we’ll do that for you. I love books that focus on the character, rather than the circumstances surrounding them and this book nailed that.

For me, that was my life. As a gay teenager, I didn’t struggle, there were problems, bullies, unrequited crushes and awful experiences with girls -- I won’t lie. But there was no happily ever after as a 15 year old with that cute guy at the back of the bus; there were also no suicide attempts or drug overdose and years in rehab. That’s not to say those things don’t happen or take away from the struggles that people have, but for me, there was none of that.

There was just me, an ordinary gay teenager, trying to find his way in the world with not a lot of advice, a lot of alcohol and plenty of hormones. That’s what this book is about. Simple, plain honest life regardless of sexuality, written in the most beautiful of ways that understands sometimes life is messy, definitely not straight, but with a bit of grit and the odd tear, you’ll get there. I recommend you all read this book, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll all wish you knew a small town gay Ukrainian-Russian Jewish teenager like Stephen Shulevitz.

(Podcast of the entire Revue coming soon!)

December 16, 2015

Steve Braunias on The Scene of the Crime (with podcast!)

Had the eclectic public which filled Central City Library's Whare Wānanga earlier this month come to hear Finlay Macdonald interviewed by Steve Braunias, as the publicity had seemed to announce and Finlay picked up on in his opening gambit? No worries. I was there -- I'm not a "horrible trout" wont to pronounce without first hand experience, to borrow one of Steve's colourful animal kingdom descriptors which he used on the night -- and I can attest that the only thing threatening to upstage Steve Braunias was the lure of the subject of his new book The scene of the crime

The book, which developed out of Steve's reporting from a dozen notorious trials for variously heinous crimes, is not actually a study of the criminal mind, despite the book being placed in the true crime area of the library collections. As the title suggests, what he repeatedly found himself most interested in was the places. "It's impossible and pointless to try to put yourself in the mind of a killer", he says in the book, "but the setting takes you to the scene of the crime, shows you something about New Zealand".

In this way, it is indeed, as he pointed out, a companion to Civilisation, his wonderful and prize-winning (2013 New Zealand Post Book Award for General Non-fiction) stories evoking "twenty places on the edge of the world", and not its flip side, as one might be inclined to think.

Yesterday I was told that Steve Braunias has referred to himself as "the poor man's Martin Edmond". He does himself a disservice. They are both fine writers, of two different moulds: off the top of my head I'd say Martin Edmond is more Whitmanesque, the long lyrical cadences, the transcendencies, the bare feet and bare-stript heart; and Steve Braunias, more of a rascal and more of a realist, indignant and contrarian but also a lover of whimsy, would be more of a Mark Twain. Or maybe I mean Tom Sawyer.

No trace of Tom Sawyer in Finlay Macdonald, whose smooth and capable interviewing remained happily free of the cronyism which so often mars "in conversations" between friends. One of my favourites among his questions: does Steve Braunias, with over ten years under his belt now of hearing evidence of people doing horrific things to other people, believe in evil?

Stream the podcast to hear the answer to this and many other interesting questions. Either listen via Soundcloud below or search for "Auckland Libraries" in iTunes or on your favourite podcast app to download the episode.

Oh, nearly forgot: have you seen our new Auckland Libraries Top 100?  The scene of the crime is there, along with 99 other reading suggestions, including one from Steve Braunias.

November 29, 2015

Book dedications of the year

Every year I like to honour the art of the book dedication by posting some dedications which have caught my fancy through the months, a tradition harking back to the very first Books in the City post.

Just as there is no one recipe for a good book, there is no one recipe for a good book dedication. It's a bit like stone soup. Cryptic or poignant, cabbage or peas -- put in what you've got; the one essential ingredient is the magic stone, which in the case of dedications is personality, as so often in life.

1. Daniel Nester in How to be inappropriate

For our daughter, Miriam Lee Nester.
I’ll try to behave myself from now on.

I like the honesty of that "try", from someone who is so attuned to the inappropriate as to be able to offer an absorbing variety of examples, including "an Australian opposition leader caught sniffing a woman's chair; two more Australians, cadets this time, of Chinese descent singled out by superiors to play-act Koreans in knife combat; a Russian formalist points out a playwright's disregard for logic, and offers as evidence how characters break into scenes with strange or 'inappropriate' remarks; a proposed new drug treats 'inappropriate' levels of separation anxiety in dogs... ".

In other words, he goes on to say, anything "odd, out of place". Hey! I think I've found an example of that:

It just seems like the second something becomes really solemn [like poetry], I want to do something wrong with it. I cant help but think it has something to do with being an alter boy. -- from an interview with Daniel Nester, as quoted by the online magazine Smith

2. Jane Hill in The Murder Ballad

For my dad, who was proud of me

This made me so happy, and all the more when I saw a photo of Jane Hill.
This is Jane Hill, isn't she great?

Jane Hill

3. And these are the Nabokovs, Vladimir and Véra:

Vladimir and Vera Nabokov on the butterfly trail. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s
(Photo courtesy of Christie's)

Vladimir Nabokov in Speak memory, Lolita, Pnin, Pale fire, Ada, Transparent things, and Look at the harlequins:

For Véra

I learned this from Brian Boyd at this year's Writers' Festival, where he was presenting Letters to Véra, the book he edited of Nabokov's letters to his wife over their 52 years of marriage, the longest marriage in literary history, if I remember correctly. Starting from his memoir Speak memory in 1951 and until his death, Nabokov dedicated every one of his books to Véra.

The passionate lepidopterist also presented her with the first copy of each book as it arrived from the publisher, having first drawn in it an imaginary butterfly, a different one every time, playing on the occasion. Here's the harlequin butterfly he drew in Look at the harlequins, possibly a reference not just to the book but also to the harlequin mask Véra was wearing when they first met.

On their 43rd wedding anniversary, in Véra's copy of The Gift Nabokov wrote "Here is the tenderest of butterflies worthy of the anniversary, 1925-68", and labelled the butterfly he drew a male Charaxes Verae Nabokov. I looked up Charaxes. It is a genus of butterflies known for their constancy in returning always to the same spot.



4. Jules Feiffer in Backing into forward

For my children, my grandchild, my future grandchildren –

    Success is nothing to sneeze at, but failure, too,

                      Offers great possibilities.

And always remember, do not let your judges define you.

I saved this one for last. A summa cum laude dedication, a capture in amber of that moment in which the book is finished and ready to be sent off, a message to the dedicatee, but also to us, idiosyncratic and direct from the heart. I love the dedication and I loved the book, a memoir by the great cartoonist, playwright and illustrator (most notably of the children's-classic-for-all-ages The Phantom Tollbooth). A boy growing up in the Bronx who lacked "the basic Bronx gene, the ball-playing gene", with a father "primarily gentle and not very significant in my life -- or his own", a mother whom he would happily have murdered, but didn't want to wound. The girl he hitch-hiked across America to rejoin, who when he shows up at her door can't change her weekend plans. "If you didn't love me anymore, why didn't you write me? I wouldn't have come!" he says.

"I didn't know I didn't love you," she said.

"When did you find out?"

"When I opened the door and saw you."

If you have never at any time in your life thought that could happen to you, this book isn't for you, and I feel sorry for you for that.

If you'd like to see more dedications, here are the posts:

Dedicated by -- or to -- the beats: Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and Bob Orr

Book dedications n. 5: Balzac, Rostand, Conrad, Edward Gorey, and Neil Gaiman

Best book dedications n. 4: Hunter S. Thompson, Diana Wynne Jones, Lady Chatterley's lover

My dedications collection:  Christine Lvov Lealand, Larry McMurtry, JD Salinger

Dedications, again: Cornell Woolrich, Michael King, H. Rider Haggard

Dedicated to the one I love: Ken Kesey and Diane Wakoski

October 30, 2015

Launch of The Dreaming Land by Martin Edmond

(All photos by Dan Liu)

You missed it? Don't worry. In an exciting first for Books in the City, we're offering a podcast of the event. We've asked Simon Comber from Readers Services, who presented on the night, to present it.

On a pleasant spring Tuesday evening in late October people gathered at Central City Library to celebrate the launch of Martin Edmond’s childhood memoir The dreaming land.

Martin Edmond has been writing acclaimed prose works since his debut in 1992, the haunting The autobiography of my father. Other significant works include Chronicle of the unsung (2005) and Dark night: walking with McCahon (2011). The launch of Edmond’s memoir this year coincides with his increasing acknowledgment as one of New Zealand’s best writers. In 2014 he was honoured by the New Zealand Society of Authors for his work, and this year he was the Michael King Writer's fellow.

The initiated and the curious turned up to have a wine in the Atrium before moving in to the Whare wānanga to listen to a discussion between Edmond and Peter Simpson, a former Associate Professor of English at Auckland University with an expert knowledge of, and large passion for New Zealand literature. Simpson had prepared thoughtful engaging questions, and Edmond never failed to reply with warmth and generosity, but what really made the discussion was the rapport between the two, and their obvious mutual respect as writers and scholars.

Stream the podcast to hear the discussion. Either listen via Soundcloud below or search for "Auckland Libraries" in iTunes or on your favourite podcast app to download the episode.

October 18, 2015

Patti Smith on the childhood pleasure of reading books too old for you

(Photo Jesse Dittmar)

From Patti Smith's new memoir M Train:

There were red rosebuds in a small vase in the bathroom at 'Ino. I draped my coat over the empty chair across from me, and then spent much of the next hour drinking coffee and filling pages of my notebook with drawings of single-celled animals and various species of plankton. It was strangely comforting, for I remembered copying such things from a heavy textbook that sat on the shelf above my father's desk. He had all kinds of books rescued from dustbins and deserted houses and bought for pennies at church bazaars. The range of subjects from ufology to Plato to the Planarian reflected his ever-curious mind. I would pore over this particular book for hours, contemplating its mysterious world. The dense text was impossible to penetrate but somehow the monochromic renderings of living organisms suggested many colors, like flashing minnows in a fluorescent pond. This obscure and nameless book, with its paramecia, algae, and amoebas, floats alive in memory. Such things that disappear in time that we find ourselves longing to see again. We search for them in close-up, as we search for our hands in a dream.

My father claimed that he never remembered his dreams, but I could easily recount mine. He also told me that seeing one's own hands within a dream was exceedingly rare. I was sure I could if I set my mind to it, a notion that resulted in a plethora of failed experiments. My father questioned the usefulness of such a pursuit, but nevertheless invading my own dreams topped my list of impossible things one must one day accomplish.

In grade school I was often scolded for not paying attention. I suppose I was busy thinking about such things or attempting to untangle the mystery of an expanding network of seemingly unanswerable questions. The hill-of-beans equation, for example, occupied a fair portion of second grade. I was contemplating a problematic phrase in The Story of Davy Crockett by Enid Meadowcroft. I wasn't supposed to be reading it as it was in the bookcase for third graders, but drawn to it I slipped it into my schoolbag and read it in secret. I instantly identified with young Davy, who was tall and gangly, telling equally tall tales, getting into scrapes, and forgetting his chores. His pa reckoned that Davy wouldn't amount to a hill of beans. I was only seven and these words stopped me in my tracks. What could his pa have meant by that? I lay awake at night thinking about it. What was a hill of beans worth? Would a hill of anything be worth a boy like Davy Crockett?

I followed my mother around the A&P pushing the shopping cart.

--Mommy, how much would a hill of beans cost?

--Oh, Patricia, I don't know. Ask your father. I'll take the cart and you go pick out your cereal and don't lag behind.

I quickly did as I was told, grabbing a box of shredded wheat. Then I was off to the dry-goods aisle to check the price of beans, confronted with a new dilemma. What kind of beans? Black beans kidney beans fava beans lima beans green beans navy beans all kinds of beans. To say nothing of baked beans, magic beans, and coffee beans.

In the end I figured Davy Crockett was far beyond measuring, even by his pa. Despite any shortcomings he labored hard to be of use and paid off all of his father's debts. I read and reread the forbidden book, following him down paths that set my mind in unanticipated directions. If I got lost along the way I had a compass that I had found embedded in a pile of wet leaves I was kicking my way through. The compass was old and rusted but it still worked, connecting the earth and the stars. It told me where I was standing and which way was west but not where I was going and nothing of my worth.

-- Excerpt from M Train by Patti Smith, published by Alfred A. Knopf

Patti Smith on reading books too old for her-- and a lot more, I should have said. 

I've been reading 'M Train' all weekend. It's as singular and as moving as her earlier memoir 'Just kids'. But if 'Just kids' had something of the 'One thousand and one nights' about it, with its magic talismans, enchanted trips to Coney Island, even a young prince in the person of Robert Mapplethorpe, 'M train' would be more akin to the classical era narrative 'Anabasis' by the Greek historian Xenophon.  The term anabasis means an expedition from a coastline into the interior of a country.  Although Patti Smith is of course at least a continent.

October 14, 2015

Into the river is no longer a banned book!

"I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library."

If -- as I imagine -- you're visiting Books in the City because you like reading about books, chances are you've already encountered this quote from the great Argentinian poet, writer, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges.

Maybe you also know that for many years Borges earned his living as "first assistant" at a municipal library in Buenos Aires, cataloging books down in the basement (also, apparently, catching up on his reading), until he was dismissed for political reasons when Juan Perón came to power – only to be appointed the director of the National Public Library of Argentina after Perón was deposed.

My appreciation of this feel-good quote for readers par excellence was turned upside down recently when I read Paul Monette’s Borrowed time: an Aids memoir. Monette's friend Roger Horwitz (I use the word 'friend' because in the book Monette spends some time telling us how it is the term he prefers to use for what another might call lovers or partners), under assault from HIV in the pre-antiretroviral days, comes to the traumatic realisation that he is losing his sight. Monette recalls Borges, who famously also lost his sight in mid-life, and reveals -- guess what! That the quote as we’ve been fed it is all wrong!

Borges was not musing dreamily about his enjoyment of books. He was commenting on how his encroaching blindness meant that he would never be able to read again (this was the 1950s, no audiobooks, and he never learned Braille). And this twist of fate had happened to him, of all people -- “I, who had always thought Paradise to be a kind of library”.

Ironically, a decade earlier, in his famous story "The Library of Babel", Borges had described how the very infinity of the hexagons of the library which held all books meant that the possibility of finding any one book was equal to zero, and how this made men despair:

The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable.

The other night I went to hear Ted Dawe talk at Central City Library about his book Into the River, which had been banned in New Zealand by the Office of Film and Literature Classification while their board of review examined a submission from the conservative Christian lobby group Family First.

What powerful things came out of the mouth of this white-haired ex-teacher of English (35 years, Aorere College, Dilworth School) and author of acclaimed books for young adults, including Thunder Road (New Zealand Post Children's Senior Book of the Year and New Zealand Post Best First Book in 2004) and Into the river (New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and Best Young Adult Fiction Book in 2013), with his firm but lightly quizzical expression.

On being a writer:

"I write from a sense of mission. I want to create readers by giving them a powerful and memorable experience. I believe one novel can create a reader. I know it can, because it happened to me."

"Inspiring new readers has been my life's work."

"My iwi is the tribe of writers."

About Into the River: 

"I wanted to tell a powerful story and leave nothing out."

"The events depicted in the novel are blunt, coarse, immoral, illegal and shocking. But never gratuitous. Every one has a reason."

On its banning:

"Writers hold a mirror up to the world and sometimes the world doesn't like what it sees. This is true in New Zealand. If 'Into The River' has made aspects of our society look ugly, then hiding the mirror will not make it beautiful again." 

On the importance of reading:

"Novels are the last bastion of introspection."

On his reaction when he was notified the book was being examined:

 "I didn't realise we still censored books!"

As we headed out of the library, we passed a display which had been put up for the occasion, pictured above. I had been well aware of the long travail of Into the River, in and out of the censor's office, on and off our shelves, but the combination of Dawe's words, scribbled in my little notebook, and the physical representation of those small rectangular objects (smaller than a breadbox!) which according to some people are so dangerous that they must be kept off library shelves, made the oppression suddenly overwhelming. How did Borges put it? "Almost intolerable".

Today, the news is just in that the Film and Literature Classification Board of Review, following an appeal by Auckland Libraries to lift the 14+ restriction on Into the river,  a counter-appeal by Family First and a subsequent restriction order banning the book from being given, lent or even exhibited, have now made their decision. Into the river is to be "unrestricted". We are releasing all our copies back on to the shelves and/or into the hands of the more than fifty readers who optimistically put themselves on the wait list.

It would be nice to think that some of those who were lobbying for it to be restricted are on that list, but I doubt it. As Ted Dawe pointed out:

The book's critics often start by saying  "I've never read the book and I don't intend to."

What does that tell you?

Ted Dawe at Central Library, unable lawfully to "exhibit" his book

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Find out more:

Read an interview with Michelle Baker, Acting Manager of the Information Unit at the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

Listen to a podcast of the talk:

July 28, 2015

The Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award: the contenders

Have you ever wondered why the best narrative travel writers always seem to be British, or long-term residents of Britain? After years of wondering myself (particularly around literary festival time), I recently came upon a clever explanation for this phenomenon in Abroad, Paul Fussell's classic study of British literary traveling.

Another reason for British distinction in both traveling and travel-writing is suggested by Christopher Sykes, who imputes these impulses to the complicated British sense of "residing on the outskirts of the Roman Empire" and thus of being teased by a Germanic suspicion that "we are not wholly satisfactory". One result of this little unease, Sykes says, is the British desire to escape from oneself (cf. gardening, stamp-collecting, crossword-puzzle working): the "easiest relief ... is in foreign travel... Delight in travel has long been an English characteristic".

It is Britain in fact which (as Fussell goes on to point out) gave birth to both The Travellers Club and to that epitome of "empiricism and singlemindedness", the Railway Enthusiast.

It has also been for many years the home of the Dolman Prize, the world's only prize for "serious travel literature", now rebranded the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award. Happily for the authors, the arrival of the new sponsor, Edward Stanford Ltd., owner of Stanford's maps and book stores, doubles the prize money. Luckily for us, it doesn't interrupt the association of the award with The Authors Club, and, I presume, the tradition by which the judges get together at a pub down the road from The Authors Club to decide the winner.

The prize will now become part of a suite of new Edward Stanford Travel Awards. One of these, the Edward Stanford Award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing, is destined for a living travel writer who will be chosen from a long list incorporating nominations from the public, or at least the twittering public:

And now, here's this year's short list for the best travel book of 2014, and their publishers' summaries. Not all the authors are British, just five out of six!


The land where lemons grow : the story of Italy and its citrus fruit by Helena Atlee

Just the Table of Contents has my head spinning:

Citrus crops in Italy -- The scent of lemons -- Curious fruit: citrus collectors in Renaissance Tuscany -- Cooking for the pope -- Golden apples: a case of taxonomic havoc -- A day in Amalfi -- One of the sunniest places in Europe: Sicilian lemons, 'like the pale faces of lovers ...' -- Antiscorbuticks -- A golden bowl of bitter lemons: extraordinary wealth on Sicily's west coast -- A Sicilian marmalade kitchen -- Oranges soaked in sunsets: blood oranges in the shadow of Mount Etna -- The runt of the litter: Liguria's cosseted chinotti -- The sweet scent of Zagara -- Dogged madness: limonaie on Lake Garda -- Battling with oranges in Ivrea -- Green gold: Calabria and the most valuable citrus in the world -- Unique harvest: on the Riviera dei Cebri -- Places to visit -- A citrus chronology.

Down to the sea in ships : of ageless oceans and modern men by Horatio Clare

Applause for the anonymous author of the summary for this book, for using "wuther" in its active verb form.

"Horatio Clare joins two container ships, travelling in the company of their crews and captains. Together they experience unforgettable journeys: the first, from East to West (Felixstowe to Los Angeles, via Suez) is rich with Mediterranean history, torn with typhoon nights and gilded with an unearthly Pacific peace; the second northerly passage, from Antwerp to Montreal, reeks of diesel, wuthers with gales and goes to frozen regions of the North Atlantic, in deep winter, where the sea itself seems haunted. In Clare's vibrant prose a modern industry does battle with implacable forces, as the ships cross seas of history and incident, while seafarers unfold the stories of their lives... A beautiful and terrifying portrait of the oceans and their human subjects, and a fascinating study of big business afloat, Down to the Sea in Ships is a moving tribute to those who live and work on the great waters, far from land."


"In Rising Ground, Philip Marsden sets out on foot to explore the power of the landscape and the continuing hold it has upon our imagination. Starting in Bodmin Moor and moving westward along the narrowing Cornish peninsula to Land's End with a growing awareness of the great ocean beyond, Marsden travels an ancient route of pilgrimage towards the setting sun, rehearsing the soul's passage after death. Along the way, he seeks out others whose have felt similarly compelled by the landscape, from Geoffrey of Monmouth and the inventors of the Arthurian legends to Tudor topographers and 18th century antiquarians; and from Romantic scholars to post-industrial poets, abstract painters, and new-age seekers. As he camps on clifftops, criss-crosses the moors, and digs around in the archives, Marsden reflects on the spirit of place, asks how we are shaped by our connection to the landscape, and takes us right to the heart of what it means to belong."

Walking the woods and the water: in Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn by Nick Hunt

"In 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to chance and charm his way across Europe, 'like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar'. The books he later wrote about this walk, including Between the Woods and the Water, are a half-remembered, half-reimagined journey through cultures now extinct and landscapes irrevocably altered by the traumas of the twentieth century. Nick Hunt dreamed of following in Fermor's footsteps. Eighty years later he began his own 'great trudge'—on foot all the way to Istanbul. He walked across eight countries, following two major rivers and crossing three mountain ranges. With only Fermor's books to guide him, he trekked some 2,500 miles from Holland to Turkey. Why? For an old-fashioned adventure. To discover for himself what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, wildness, the unknown, the deeper currents of myth that still flow beneath Europe's surface. This is a story worthy of Fermor's own."


Indonesia etc. Exploring the improbable nation by Elizabeth Pisani

"In 1945, Indonesia's declaration of independence promised: the details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out as soon as possible. Still working on the etc. seven decades later, the world's fourth most populous nation is now enthusiastically democratic and riotously diverse. It is one of the richest and most enchanting countries on earth, but is riddled with ineptitude and corruption. Elizabeth Pisani, who first worked in Indonesia as a foreign correspondent, set out to rediscover its enduring attraction, and to find the links which bind together this impossibly disparate nation. This book weaves together the stories of Indonesians encountered on her journey with a considered analysis of Indonesia's recent history, corrupt political system, ethnic and religious identities, stifling bureaucracy and traditional 'sticky' cultures. Fearless and funny, she gives a compelling and sharply perceptive account of a captivating nation."

A journey into Russia by Jens Mühling

"The recent crises in Ukraine have reminded us that Russia's interests run counter to those of many other nations, but what of the Russian and Ukrainian people themselves? What kind of lives are they leading, and what are their feelings toward the political regime that has so inflamed the West? When German journalist Jens Mühling met Juri, a Russian television producer selling stories about his homeland, he was mesmerized by what he heard. The encounter changed Mühling's life, triggering a number of journeys to Ukraine and deep into the Russian heartland on a quest for stories of ordinary and extraordinary people. Unveiling a portion of the world whose contradictions, attractions, and absurdities are still largely unknown to people outside its borders, A Journey into Russia is a much-needed glimpse into one of today's most significant regions."

July 04, 2015

Happy 150th to Alice in Wonderland, the mother of all quirky books

It's 150 years today since Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published, three years after Charles Dodgson told the story to the Liddell sisters as they boated down the Thames. Together with its sequel Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it is now known by all of us as Alice in Wonderland, and by me as one of my favourite books of all time.

For the occasion, I thought I'd republish the love letter to Alice I wrote for a Quirky Books series we ran on our website many years ago, which I called

The mother of all quirky books

Because of everyone who's loved it or borrowed from it, from Virginia Woolf to the Jefferson Airplane; because Wonderland is where surrealistic starts; because the characters play croquet with flamingos for mallets and don't follow the rules; because the logic is faultless but illogical; because it celebrates absurdity; because of "Contrariwise" and "Off with their heads!"; because Alice wants to know, was she in the Red King's dream or was he in hers; and because it's funny.

Nearly everyone read, or had read to them, the Alice books as a child. Some people were delighted, others frightened or bewildered. But whether you loved it or hated it, it's worth taking another look. Alice is a fairy tale, perhaps the most original and imaginative fairy tale ever. Some parts are grim and disturbing, some are comic and demented. The "beasts", whether chess pieces or mock turtles, all remind us of someone we know. The heroine is undaunted, incurably curious, and, deservedly, she wins a crown at the end.

Try The Annotated Alice, an oversized, complete text version of both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the looking glass with the original John Tenniel illustrations (surely half the charm of the book) and an introduction and running commentary by Martin Gardner, who was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Alice and who loved mathematical puzzles as much as Charles Dodgson -- for many years he wrote a column on them for Scientific American. Gardner knew it was important not to take Alice too seriously, but he rightly saw that no joke is funny if you don't see the point. He quotes the original versions of the many poems Carroll lampoons, reports on the discovery of a note in which Carroll signed himself "the White Knight", reprints French and German translations of Jabberwocky and, true to his mathematical origins, maps out the chess game for us.

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying, " she said: "One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Go ask Alice, indeed.

And to finish, here are some Books in the City posts on Alice you might not have seen:

Alice in Wonderland on screen, where you can view the earliest film version of Alice, from 1903.

Bwana Paka Mcheshi, the Swahili Cheshire Cat, on the death of Martin Gardner, genial annotator of Alice.

Adolf in Blunderland: a Treasure from the Basement, on a 1939 parody of Alice in Wonderland I found in the Central City Library basement stacks.

illustration by John Tenniel via www.fromoldbooks.org

Powered by Blogger.