Saturday, September 27, 2014

Not only do I read banned books, but...


My award for Best Headline of Banned Books Week goes to Melville House Publishers for "Texas school district thinks “Banned Books Week” means they’re supposed to ban books this week", with which they called attention to the decision on the part of the Highland Park School District, in the state of Texas, to pull a new crop of books from the school curriculum, because inappropriate for young people. In other words, they don't subscribe to the sentiment voiced by the great, banned-in-his-time writer and philosopher Voltaire: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too". It's good to see Banned Books Week getting ever greater, and wittier, attention in the media, as well in that old stalwart, libraries (it is, in fact, an initiative of the American Library Association).

I'm proud to have two family history ties to Banned Books. The first is my 10th great-grandfather, William Pynchon, who wrote the first book to be banned in the New World. It happened in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1650, and the book was called The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, Justification, etc. It refuted the important Puritan belief that punishment and suffering were the price of atonement, and as such the order went out for it to be burned -- by the colony's executioner, no less -- the very next day, on the Boston Common.

Its author, perhaps because of his standing as an important businessman (exporter of beaver pelts) and a magistrate, was given time to retract-- or be tried for heresy and receive the same treatment as his book, and wisely precluded the need for either by heading back across the sea to England, where he continued to write tracts until his death 12 years later.

Nine copies of the book survived and here is one of them, held at the Congregational Library in Boston. The blog where I found it, History of Christianity, points out that this is one book which could be judged from its cover. Just look at that subtitle: Clearing it from some common Errors. Seriously?


My other claim to banned books fame is having smuggled Henry Miller through US Customs at the tender age of eight. Not Henry Miller in person, but a number of books by him which my father had purchased in Paris while the American courts debated whether they were obscene or not, and popped into his daughters' little tote bags for the return to US soil and jurisdiction.

I was just remembering with my sister this weekend the heady moment when, tired out by standing in the long line at LA airport, and perhaps from lugging her tote bag (no cute little wheeled suitcases back then!), she began feeling faint and our parents were frantically trying to get us through before she keeled over and drew the agents' attention to us. She remembers the books as being by DH Lawrence, so it looks as if each daughter might have carried a different banned author.

It was the attempt by Grove Press to publish Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in the United States which led to the obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. Witnesses for the defense included a professor of medieval literature at Harvard, who testified (quoted in The Harvard Crimson), about the "meaningless and irrational" social conventions around the use of some words: "Words of Latin and French derivation referring to the sex act and bodily organs are acceptable in English, Bloomfield testified, but words of Anglo-Saxon origin with identical meanings are tabu." Indisputably.

The case was heard by the Superior Court of Suffolk County (Massachusetts, again!), which decided that the book was indeed protected by the First Amendment. I love this passage from the opinion:

That a serious work uses four letter words and has a grossly offensive tone does not mean that the work is not entitled to constitutional protection. Much in modern art, literature, and music is likely to seem ugly and thoroughly objectionable to those who have different standards of taste. It is not the function of judges to serve as arbiters of taste or to say that an author must regard vulgarity as unnecessary to his portrayal of particular scenes or characters or to establish particular ideas. Within broad limits each writer, attempting to be a literary artist, is entitled to determine such matters for himself, even if the result is as dull, dreary, and offensive as the writer of this opinion finds almost all of Tropic. Competent critics assert, and we conclude, that Tropic has serious purpose, even if many will find that purpose obscure.

Personally I prefer Tropic of Capricorn, which was the second of Miller's two autobiographical novels but describes his early days in Brooklyn, to Tropic of Cancer, the one written first, which covers the time after his move to Paris, and is I think the more noted of the two, perhaps because it includes his love affair with cult personage Anaïs Nin. I remember as a teenager devouring the very Tropic of Capricorn I'd sneaked through US customs, a full-immersion in Brooklyn in the twenties, as experienced by an irrepressibly high-energy, high sex-drive, very funny, quixotic genius.

(Genius and lust was the name Norman Mailer gave his book about Henry Miller's works.)

Some past Books in the City posts you might enjoy about banned books and censorship:

Mark Twain on banning Huck Finn

Banned Books Week dinner party

A funny story about censorship




Friday, September 26, 2014

Timothy Kidd's comics choices

The best thing that happened to me this Comic Book Month was reading the piece Kelly Sheehan wrote for Factional, the Faction Comics blog, about the work of Timothy Kidd. For a second I was going to correct that to say 'the best comic-booky thing', but actually I think it was the best thing, period. It's a wonderful, unstinting exposition, absolutely worth reading.

Timothy Kidd is one of my favourite comics artists, as well as being one of my favourite people, unforcedly original and unfeignedly genuine. I still remember that the first time I talked to Tim about his having written a graphic novel, I saw a twinge of discomfort cross his face. Not, as you may be thinking, because he didn't want to talk about his work. It was because of the terminology I used. "People who make comics don't really like the term graphic novel", he said. "We think of all these (gesturing towards Central Library's graphic novel shelves) as comics."

Comics 

It made sense to me. Comics was what I had always called them, too, until I went to work in a library, where the first time I heard someone talking about 'graphic novels' I thought it meant books with explicit sex and violence. What, a whole collection? "No, no, it means comics in book form! You know, when they tell a story!"

Well. Years after this conversation, it's still hard for me to think of the term 'graphic novel' as anything much more than a ploy to convince establishment figures such as book publishers, the compilers of the New York Times 'Books of the year' book lists, school boards, and old-school librarians, that comics can rub elbows with Lit-ra-ture! (Here I need a sound clip of Johnny Angel, creator of Afithe first Samoan superhero, the time he was pretending to me he didn't know how to pronounce the word.) Comics lovers don't need to be convinced! It reminds me of the episode in the American comic classic Doonesbury where a survivor of Nixon's "secret bombings" of Cambodia says "Secret bombings? There wasn't any secret about them! My wife knew too! She was with me and I remarked on them. 'Here come the bombs!' I said."

There's not much to add to Kelly's appreciation of Tim's talent. Here instead, for your enjoyment and edification, are some of the intriguing comics recommendations he's written for us over the last few years.

Or, "Here come the comics !" I said.


Very Casual by Michael Deforge (2013)

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On the cover is a weird deer. Is it a deer? Maybe not. It is deer-shaped, with deer legs, a kind of deer face, and antlers, all in the right deer places. But something tells me that it is not actually a deer. It seems to be made out of some kind of oozing, red substance and its eye is like a big flat dish. And it kind of has a beak.

Something is wrong with something familiar. Or else something weird is treated as if it was the most mundane thing in the world. This is what Deforge plays around with in this collection of short comics. A faux-natural history comic explains that the creature on the cover is actually a common Canadian quadripedal slug. The narrator in another story is a teenage guy who is super-excited to be hanging out with a cool local band. We the readers see that the band is made up of disgusting meaty blob-monsters, but do the characters notice? No one mentions that the singer looks like a piece of fried chicken. Are the kids oblivious? or brainwashed?... or just living in a world where monsters are pretty ordinary?

This weirdness is so underplayed that it seems all the more weird, and Deforge draws it just right-- in a cartoony, clear line style, so that nothing looks exactly normal. Post-Fort Thunder indie-comics weirdness meets twisted body horror meets goofy bigfoot cartooniness. Weirdness aside, these are compelling stories told in an entertaining way. I really liked this book and I look forward to new things from Deforge.


Everything together by Sammy Harkham  (2012)

syndetics-lcI always try to read every comic Harkham makes but he doesn't always make it easy to be a completist. Most of his strips are published in obscure places-- small anthologies, niche websites, or his own indie comic book, Crickets. I love his stories so much that I have always made (grainy, pixilated) copies/print-outs of them, then read, and re-read those loose A4 pages until they fall to pieces.

So I am happy to say that those short stories have finally been collected in this shiny new volume-- his first book. And it’s great; I think he is the best new cartoonist to emerge in the last ten years. He has figured out the perfect style for comics-- it can be goofy like Popeye, grown-up like Chris Ware, sweaty like R. Crumb, satirical like Dan Clowes, or exuberant like Roy Crane.

I like the way his characters seem to want to be civilized or act like grown-ups, but really are just at the mercy of the random whims and needs that come over all creatures. At some point in a Sammy Harkham story, the façade will crack and a professor will get punched in the nose for blocking another academic’s ambitions (The New Yorker Story), or teenagers will put rubbish bins on their heads and crash into each other (Somersaulting), or one cartoonist will laugh when his dog bites the other’s drawing hand (Clowes+Huizenga). Heartbreaking and hilarious.


Garden by Yuichi Yokoyama (2011)

syndetics-lcIt doesn't have a plot exactly. There are just a lot of oddly-dressed guys walking through a huge landscape filled with weird structures and features. One guy's head looks like the front of the space shuttle, another guy is spiky. They look at the weird things, climb over them, swing, jump, crawl through them and narrate as they go-- "Oh look, it's a river filled with giant rubber balls instead of water" or "The walls are suddenly made of concrete”.

All the strangeness is underplayed, though. The drawing is uninflected and spare -- lines ruled, circles stencilled -- there are no faces to get attached to. It is quite stilted but very fascinating. It looks as if the natural world had been remade out of concrete and water by some faceless architect who had never actually seen the natural world. And the way the reader follows the guys from moment to moment reminds me a lot of platform video games. It is pretty engrossing. I’ve never read anything like it.


Wilson by Daniel Clowes (2010)

syndetics-lcWilson is the kind of guy you would hate to sit next to on the bus-- opinionated, obnoxious and quick to take offence, a middle-aged misanthrope who thinks that he is way smarter than you. Fortunately for the reader, Clowes is a good enough cartoonist to find the humanity lurking within this apparently charmless man. About halfway in, Wilson finds himself alone in the world and goes on an odyssey to try to reunite the family that he has alienated. This plan goes about as wrong as possible for him-- with darkly comedic results. The book is made up of a series of self-contained one page strips, each drawn in a different style. Some of these are individually funny or tragic but taken as a whole they add up to a nuanced and touching story. This approach engages the reader, and gives the book the strange liveliness that is in contrast with its surface blankness. This is an odd book and an odd character but it turns out that Wilson is not so bad.


Auckland Libraries holds these works by Timothy Kidd, published by Comic Book Factory,

Came the dawn. Book One

Came the dawn. Book Two

Came the dawn. Book Three

Coming up, more comic book recommendations...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dorothy Parker, Winnie the Pooh, and a proofreader's Fail

Two recent birthday shout-outs on social media that spoke to me were those for Winnie the Pooh on August 21, the anniversary of the day in 1921 when the real-life Christopher Robin received him as a present, and those for the great Dorothy Parker, poet, short-story writer, critic and notorious wit, on August 22, she having been born on that day in 1893, across the Atlantic in New Jersey, USA. Not just because I am a fan of both, but because coincidences delight me, and this is a very good one, especially when you add in a third august anniversary: August 25, 1928:  the day Dorothy Parker's famous review of The House at Pooh Corner came out in The New Yorker. The one where she sentenced "Tonstant Weader fwowed up".

Harold Ross had started up The New Yorker in 1925, and Dorothy Parker, a fellow-member of that Algonquin Round Table characterized by liquid lunches and sharp wit, was a contributor from the second issue on. She was perfect for the The New Yorker in its early, non-establishment era, of course, being fresh, urbane, sophisticated, and funny, and within a couple of years had found her niche as the author of the popular Reading and Writing column, signing herself Constant Reader, a term from Victorian times used when writing letters to the editor. Charles Dickens, for example, is noted for having written a Constant Reader letter to the Daily News, complaining about their numerous typos, and also the Editor's reply to the letter.

(Keep in mind: typos.)

Here's the story of Miss Parker's review of The House at Pooh Corner, as told by Marlene Wagman-Geller in  Eureka! : the surprising stories behind the ideas that shaped the world:

The House at Pooh Corner proved to be one pot of honey too many for the acerbic critic. The breaking point for Parker was when Pooh revealed that he added the "tiddely pom" to his Outdoor Song which Has To Be Sung In The Snow "to make it more hummy". Her caustic ink stated, "And it is that word 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up."

Now, here's what Dorothy Parker's obituary in the New York Times, as posted by the Dorothy Parker Society on their website, has to say about the review:

Book Briefly Dismissed
She reduced A.A. Milne's sugary "The House at Pooh Corner" to water by remarking that "Tonstant Weader Fwowed up" after reading one too many of the word "tummy."

Tummy! Tummy!

Can't you just hear the proofreader?  "Hummy! What's a hummy? She can't have said hummy! It must be a ...a... tummy! That'll be it!"

You just know that mistake would not have been in the original obituary, which was written by the legendary Alden Whitman, the man who made an art of the obituary, the inventor of the "Interview with the still-living", the one where he'd meet with the meritorious before they died to get the story for the obituary he would eventually write for them. Apparently they quite welcomed the chance.

I found Alden Whitman's own obituary in the The New York Times, in their archives.You have to wonder if it were one that he wrote for himself. It does sound like it:
Mr. Whitman, short, amiable and professorial, worked 13 years as an editor on metropolitan and national copy desks of The Times. He became something of a clubman and literary figure in his later life, writing book reviews for The Times and other publications and donning a cape to sally from newsroom for luncheons with authors. 

Now, Mr Whitman would have read Dorothy Parker's review. But even if he hadn't, anyone who was a child in the '20s, as he was, and later a father of four children, would know that Winnie the Pooh is full of hums, Good Hums, Hopeful Hums, all sorts of hums, all modified with capitalised adjectives, as was A.A. Milnes's way, and that of any number of writers attempting to emulate the sacred mysteries of childhood, an annoying habit on their part which Miss Parker did not point out but could have.

Whereas 'tummy' not only does not appear in The House at Pooh Corner, but is simply not a word jazz-agers have trouble with, however much the Dorothy Parker Society might think they do. We even have the story of Hemingway on a clothes-buying expedition at Abercrombies exchanging quips with the belt clerk about his "hard tummy" (punching himself in the stomach with the clerk's hand), courtesy of Lillian Ross's Portrait of Hemingway, which first appeared in ... The New Yorker!


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Poetry in the City

To celebrate National Poetry Day, this month we took poetry out of the library and into the city streets, or more exactly, onto the city walls. The very cool Phantom Billstickers designed, printed and put up nearly a hundred poetry posters featuring works by Michele Leggott, Robert Sullivan, Selina Tusitala Marsh, John Newton, Murray Edmond, Alice Miller, Jack Ross, Ya-Wen Ho, and Makyla Curtis, stars of this year's Poetry Central, the gig we put on every year with nzepc on Poetry Day.

 

Here's a shot of Rutland St, where I loved seeing the poster of John Newton's poem "Kerouac, somewhere near Billings, Montana" juxtaposed with posters for "Sunset Road".

Summer, 1975. Rotorua, New Zealand … Jimi Hendrix, motorbikes, ika mata and dawn raids… it’s the scene of Tawata Productions’ new play Sunset Road, by Miria George.

is what the show's producers say about "Sunset Road".

Winter, 1949. Billings, Montana... Jack Kerouac, Greyhound bus, the memory of a girl, the night... it's the episode from Kerouac's journals which inspired this poem. 

is how John introduced his poem at Poetry Central.

And here is the poem, of which John gave a masterful reading before dashing out the door -- "Off to Moscow!" I heard someone say, and thought it was a reference to Ferlinghetti's "Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow", a friendly salute to John's artistic prowess, but it turns out he really is going to the white stone city. Still, the metaphor would hardly have been amiss.


Kerouac, somewhere near Billings, Montana

Beneath the outline of his face, in the smoky window
of the Greyhound bus, the atavistic continent,
its pitch-black mountains, its steel-grey rivers,
scrolls by him. Knight of the Dolorous Countenance.
Here is the west of his mislaid connections: neighbourhood
softball games under floodlights, a girl in bright denims
with strawberry hair, a fatherly face among the wind-beaten ranchers
at the card tables back in some beer joint in Butte.
In every valley there's a single light, and every light
is a family's love, and the inky night between them expands
in his chest. With his hand in his trousers
he comforts himself, adrift in the darkness and solitary joy
of an epic grief that could almost be real, that
could almost be something else, minor, too painful to touch.

-- John Newton

Poets and posters at Poetry Central 2014
The poets with their posters at Poetry Central 2014

syndetics-lc

You can read about Kerouac's bus trip through Montana in his journals, published as Windblown world : the journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954Deftly and unobtrusively edited by Douglas Brinkley, they make a great read for Kerouac fans, or, if you're not already a fan, might get you heading down the Kerouac road.




John Newton's books of poetry are Lives of the Poets (2010) and  Family Songbook (2013). He is also the author of  The double rainbow : James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem commune.

nzepc, which celebrated its thirteenth birthday at our Poetry Day gig, is the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, an electronic gateway to poetry resources in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Pacific region, based at the University of Auckland.

To learn more about the Phantom Billstickers, visit www.0800phantom.



Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Sandi Toksvig's evening

"I find life funny."

"Life is funny."

"Funny things happen."

-- Sandi Toksvig

Once again, the Writers Festival teaches me not to judge people by their book covers. Or maybe even by their books! How many times, as we descended the stairs, the ASB Theatre being packed to the brim for this event, and through to the end of the Festival, did I hear people saying that they had not read Sandi Toksvig's books, and had not even now added them to their must-read lists, while at the same time expressing some variation on what session chair Sean Plunket quoted Festival Director Anne O'Brien as having said about Sandi Toksvig after having heard her at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, "She should rule the world!"

Sandi Toksvig? Who is Sandi Toksvig? Am I the only person who didn't know? Her name is Danish but she's the host of  The News Quiz on BBC, her books have chick lit-type covers and as with chick lit there are many, many of them, yet one of her latest is about the Boer War, hardly a chick lit preferred setting or era. Gleaned from the library shelves and the Writers Festival programme, that's about all I knew about Sandi Toksvig, up to when she bounced out on stage.

Well! There was a lot more. She grew up in New York where her dad was The Foreign Correspondent for Danish TV -- not having the budget to plant correspondents around the world, the intelligent Danes decided to plant just one, at the United Nations. During the course of this growing up, she got thrown out of three schools and "I was bored". But then, sent to boarding school in England, isolated by her differences, she found a bookstore and began reading. Hardy, Dickens, Austen.

And writing? "I'd always scribbled. My whole family writes. I just went into the family business. If my dad had been a butcher, I'd be selling you chops."

When she started her new show on BBC TV, the next day the comment from the organisers was "Good news. No complaints". She points out, "A 56-year-old man -- no one would have had any problems. A 56-year-old woman, they can't believe I'm still breathing".

Which brought her to one of my favourite lines of the evening, probably because I am a woman of a certain age myself. "What I like about women of a certain age is that they can't be bothered to dress things up anymore".

Why the Boer War as a setting for her novel Valentine Grey?

"The Boer war was interesting because 1) it was the first war Britain fought where the average soldier was literate, and 2) it was the end of the British Empire -- people were asking why their boys were dying, for what?"

Also, a lot was happening in terms of women's liberation at the time of the Boer War. Bicycles, for one thing. Women were working, as telephone operators, as typists. They needed to ride bicycles to work, and "you couldn't wear corsets and flounces on bicycles". The protagonist of Valentine Grey is an adventurous woman who changes places with a gay soldier and goes to fight in the war in a bicycling regiment.

Toksvig came out as a lesbian in 1984, the first lesbian in public life to come out, she says. She got death threats, and she and her then-partner having three children, had to get protection, go into hiding.  I choked up when she described her public event wedding (actually a renewal of civil partnership vows, for bureaucratic reasons), on the day same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales. "I wanted it to be free, not by invitation. Two thousand people came, and when I came in on my daughter's arm they all stood up and cheered."

"What makes you outraged?" Sean Plunket asked.

"Girls in Nigeria. Casual racism. Casual homophobia. Fundamentalism, because it doesn't allow for the diversity of human thought."

"What does the future hold?" (slight editing by me who just doesn't like the term 'bucket list')

"Lose two more stone. Travel more. There's always things I'd like to learn. The most exciting is the thing you didn't expect."

The most exciting event I went to at the Auckland Writers Festival was "An evening with Sandi Toksvig".

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Alice Walker

Guest post by Ella, Readers Services, Central City Library.


The great author and activist Alice Walker came out on stage to a standing ovation which she received graciously. Alice Walker is clearly used to provoking a strong reaction. She was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, but in her words “not the first to deserve it”. She is a polarising figure, considered by most to be a national treasure, but one whose radical politics and individual worldview challenge the norms of conventional society.

Alice Walker’s most famous novel The Color Purple was much acclaimed, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award in 1983, but has always been controversial and was censored throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. These days the book is a modern classic, but to Walker’s bemusement it is still banned in North Carolina. She suggests she may go down there herself and ask them why. She seems to be joking but she’s a person so strong in her convictions that I wouldn’t be surprised if she really did.

Walker’s powerful stage presence was striking and had me fascinated from the moment the interview began. Selina Tusitala Marsh was a wonderful interviewer and really got a lot out of the author. You could tell that there was a lot of mutual respect between the two women. Their discussion covered a wide range of topics from the writing process and personal growth, to global issues such as the environment and world politics. Feminism, particularly the role of indigenous women, was a key part of the conversation.

Walker is a self-described “democratic womanist” which means that she’s dedicated to making changes for women through government, and by helping people of colour and the poor. Walker thinks that the only way to do this is through the creation of a radically different political system and the inclusion of women in politics. For Walker it is a type of “feminine wisdom” that the world needs to tune in to in order to live on this planet without destroying it. She talked about women’s circles as a mode of engaging with other women and the community to make positive change happen. “Womanism” is Walker’s term for a specifically African-American brand of feminism. The term is related to the word “womanish” that she describes as denoting a kind of “sauciness or bodaciousness”. “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” she says.

Alice Walker has a holistic view of the planet, and Buddhism is very influential on her philosophy. Gardening, walking, silence and contemplation are all important parts of her life and her creative practice. Meditation has become an important part of her writing process, which she recommends to everyone. Walker turned to transcendental meditation after a divorce which she described as a time of “intense suffering” and meditation was something that helped her to “connect with something real”, and gain consciousness, as well as find out what really matters in life. Walker has always had a love of story and believes in the magic of writing and its power. It is through her writing that Walker is able to share this “consciousness”.

Alice Walker is a rebel and Selina Marsh asked her where she got this willingness not to conform. Walker responded that she has always felt that she had a right to be herself. She compares herself to a mango tree. A mango tree cannot bear any other fruit, but why would you want it to? A mango tree can never be anything but a mango tree, why ask it to be anything else? It is this attitude that makes Alice Walker such an inspiring individual. She rounded off the hour by giving the audience some sage advice. “Hard times require furious dancing!”. It was a privilege to hear her speak at the Writer’s Festival!

 
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