December 15, 2014

Occupy your coffee table with a new book these holidays

Let's hear it for the coffee-table book, the entertainment which asks nothing of you while offering so much! For example...

The perfect time-filler:
The coffee-table book can be enjoyed alone or in company, on a sunny day or a rainy one, you can open it anywhere without having to remember where you'd gotten to, using it does not require a show of wit or talent, and it's always charged up.

cover of book published for Francis Bacon retrospective
The centenary retrospective 
A great conversation starter:
"Mmm... Francis Bacon. Cruelty and splendour..." That's Kate Winslet's character in the wickedly funny movie Carnage (from Yasmina Reza's play), a sort of modern day Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf set in trendy Brooklyn rather than in tweedy academia, coolly appraising the coffee-table books of her hostess. Who faux-casually responds that yes, she picked it up at the MoMA retrospective where she...

A status symbol:
At this year's Association of Book Crafts conference I heard someone moot that perhaps the era of the book as a status symbol is drawing to a close. Are we serious? No more books on coffee tables as a statement of who we are? Only decorative bowls and designer lamps? Or for most of us, phones, iPods, remote controls, DVD cases, and offers from your internet provider you haven't decided what to do about?

Clearly, what's needed here is an Occupy Coffee table movement. Battle cry: No coffee table to be without a coffee-table book!

cover of Michelangelo from Taschen BooksWhat's that? You say you're tired of lugging around books which don't fit nicely into wine boxes with your other books, whenever you move house? Or finding they're too tall for your bookshelves when you want to put them away? And are you really going to get in enough views to make it worth the price tag? And what about when you splurged on a complete Michelangelo and then they went and cleaned the Sistine Chapel?

People, the answer is simple. Get your coffee-table books from the library! Enjoy them for a month or two, and exchange them for others. They won't cost you a cent, your selection will always be new and interesting, and you'll amaze visitors with your eclectic taste, not to mention sophistication.

Here are ten awe-inspiring, eye-catching coffee-table books which will give you an idea of the embarrassment of riches you can find nowadays in the library.

1  Wa: the essence of Japanese design by Rossella Menegazzo
syndetics-lcIf, like me, you find Japanese design amazing, you'll love this book from Phaidon Press, one of the most important "high-end" publishers on the visual arts. We feast on 250 objects, from wooden stools to paper chairs, from "skin" juice boxes to kimonos, in an exploration of Wa. What is Wa? Phaidon Press explains: "Wa – the Japanese character that refers not only to the concept of harmony and peace but to Japan and Japanese culture itself – has evolved into a term to describe that peculiar ‘Japaneseness’ which Western culture finds at the heart of Japanese beauty."

You can see a gallery of pictures from the book on the Phaidon Press website.


2. Egyptian Art by Émile Prisse d'Avennes
syndetics-lcThe first complete collection of the nineteenth-century French Orientalist (40 years passed in the Middle East, or Orient as it was then known), author and artist Émile Prisse d'Avennes's splendid illustrations of Egyptian architecture, sculpture, painting and industrial arts, in facsimile  -- over 400 very large (44 cm) heavy matte pages. Echoing the hyperbolic format, the title page announces in three languages that the book was "Directed and produced by Benedikt Taschen" ie the head of Taschen, a world-renowned publishing house in the area of art and design, described by the impeccable Mr Porter website thusly: "Its carefully bound books, on topics as diverse as vintage advertising and the work of Mr Helmut Newton, are invaluable additions to the stylish coffee table or library". FTW, Karen!


syndetics-lc3. William Blake: The drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy
If ancient art doesn't appeal to you, here's another chance to get the Taschen experience. Again a very large book (41 cm), this one with 14 fold-out spreads "to allow the most delicate of details to dazzle", as Taschen puts it, correctly -- I can vouch as I have the book at home right now. The book collects the 102 illustrations which Romantic poet and artist William Blake produced for Dante's masterwork in the last years of his life. Taschen concludes, again correctly, "This is a breathtaking encounter with two of the finest artistic talents in history".

You can see Blake's illustrations for The Divine Comedy file past to the sound of Ed Alleyne-Johnson's version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" (it works!) in a short video created by Jane Burden Morris, the famous muse and model of the Pre-Raphaelites (that's she up in the corner), or perhaps a namesake of hers.






4. Proud too be weirrd by Ralph Steadman syndetics-lc
A first person monograph by the British artist fired from The Times in the sixties because his work was "too seditious", best known to most for his close collaboration and friendship with Hunter S. Thompson (eg the crazed, splattered-ink illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
You can see some of the illustrations collected in Proud too be weirrd on the AMMO (American Modern) Books website, including the wonderful two-page spread which opens the book (I have this book at home too), which reads "The Annual All of Us Are Animals, But Some of Us Wear Glasses and There is Always One Who Doesn't Fit In Festival of Culture" (below).

Ralph Steadman: Proud Too Be Weirrd: Spread #3

Other highlights for me are Alice in Wonderland and the wasp, and Steadman's thoughts on chickens, in particular how hard it is to draw unfunny pictures of them.


5. Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings
syndetics-lc
Whereas most coffee-table books tend to be somewhat triumphant, presenting with a flourish of trumpets, this one is suggestive, unworldly and emotionally charged. It consists of facsimile reproductions of 52 "envelope-poems" by Emily Dickinson -- sentences, stanzas and entire roughed-out poems scribbled on pieces of envelopes -- discovered after her death.
The book closes with a long, intelligent essay by Marta Werner, who describes attempts to discover whether certain kinds of birds possess homing instincts which consist of throwing the birds up into the air and watching whether they drift or find their way. She compares these fragments of poems to distant migrants, saying "Ideally the reader of these writings will assume the role of 'liberator', releasing them high up into the ether, following them until they are out of sight, noting their vanishing points, and, whenever possible, replying to them, counting each brief connection with them as an instant of grace".


6. Building Stories by Chris Ware
Putting my money where my mouth is, arguing that "coffee-table book" does not have to be a disparaging term for a book which is all appearance and no substance, I'm declaring this wonderful creation by cartoonist Chris Ware, which has been compared to Ulysses and Joseph Cornell's boxes, a coffee-table book. A coffee-table comics book. Yes, it's technically (and famously, in the world of comics) a box containing (I quote from the Auckland Libraries catalogue record) 1 hardcover vol., 32 cm.; 1 hardcover vol., 24 cm.; 1 newspaper, 56 cm.; 1 booklet, 31 cm.; 2 booklets, 28 cm.; 1 booklet, 20 cm.; 1 booklet, 8 x 25 cm.; 5 printed sheets, ranging in size from 71 x 9 cm. to 56 x 81 cm., all folded; and 1 folded board, 41 x 107 cm., folded to 41 x 27 cm." but it is definitely a book, and one which has been residing on my coffee table this month, and in which, like coffee-table books, I've been finding something new and intriguing every time I turn my attention to it. "All components are unpaged and are chiefly col. illustrations. None have titles." we are told. There is no order to the experience, in other words; the stories are there for you to build, in three dimensions as in the imagination jumbled together, like remembered dreams.





7. The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz





8. Concrete edited by William Hall
syndetics-lcI knew no list of coffee-table books could be complete without a book involving buildings, but wanted something a little bit different. Eureka! It's Concrete! "Presents a visual exploration of the aesthetics of concrete architecture through 180 structures from ancient Rome to the present day. Includes innovative and inspirational projects from monuments and churches to stations and cultural spaces, by some of the best architects of the last 100 years. Concrete is a beautiful and informative visual exploration of a material often considered dull and cold but actually full of spectacular potential" says the blurb.

You can "Look inside" on the Phaidon website.


9. Don Martin: Three decades of his greatest works
syndetics-lcA shining light of my childhood. As soon as my sisters and I would get our allowances, we would head down to our neighborhood store to buy candy (Necco Wafers or Rolos) and the latest issue of Mad magazine. That's how I remember it anyway, although I realise that since our allowances were paid weekly, and Mad was a monthly, we couldn't have bought it every time. But that was the idea, and when Mad wasn't in, we went home with just candy. There wasn't a second choice for magazine. I'm glad to see that the series this book appears in is called "Mad's Greatest Artists", because this Don Martin certainly was. He was also "Mad's Maddest Artist", a title he alone held. "Inside are over 200 of Martin's funniest and zaniest works from his lengthy career, along with every 'GOOSH,' ' SPROING' and 'POIT' that made his cartoons great", promises the publisher.



syndetics-lc10. The World of PostSecret by Frank Warren
Do you know what PostSecret is? In the words of its creator, Frank Warren, "PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard". Warren posts the cards, often adorned with expressive artwork as an adjunct to the secret, on the PostSecret website, as well as reproducing them in a series of books, of which this is the latest, so new that as of today, it hasn't even arrived in the library yet, though you can already put yourself on the wait list for it. Reading the postcards was not at all like what I expected. There is no mythologising, no banality, no voyeurism. The flow of secrets has something profound and historical about it, almost holy, as if it were some sort of Book of Hours, whose illuminations are the inventive artwork, as in the original, but also flashes of insight into the human spirit.

Some people tweet their secrets at @postsecret. Here's a secret tweeted today:
.


December 04, 2014

Throwback Thursday: I Had a Dog AND A CAT

Ah, the wonders of the Dewey Decimal System!

I Had a Dog AND A CAT, by the Czech novelist and playwright Karel Čapek, written as Europe cowered under the shadow, if not yet the jackboot, of Nazi Germany, and containing, as well as humourous stories about his beloved pets, pointed asides on such topics as dog Eugenics and the need to prepare for the birth of a Super-dog; the current vogue for Dobermans and Alsatians; the lack of a Czech national dog (but if this race existed, Čapek opines, its exemplars would undoubtedly be fattish, small and lie behind the stove and bark a lot); this book, I was saying, shares a shelf in the Central City Library's basement with Richard Dawkins's The selfish gene, three memoirs by the good-humoured animal collector Gerald Durrell, and An illustrated guide to common soil animals by H. Pauline McColl, all classified as 591.5, "Behaviour".

For his anti-fascist stance which he shared with his friend Tomáš Masaryk, the Czechoslovak president, the Gestapo declared Karel Čapek "Public Enemy Number 2" in Czechoslovakia, as if to say "Just wait til we get our hands on you". They never did, however, because Čapek died on Christmas Day 1938, a few months after France and England signed the Munich agreement which handed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, but before the actual invasion. Čapek was an Anglophile who visited England often and was friends with George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton, and he seemed to have lost the will to live after Munich. His friends urged him to leave the country, without success. They had no better success at urging him to eat more. When he died, one of them said that the cause of death was "a stab in the heart from Neville Chamberlain's umbrella".

When the Nazis marched in, they didn't actually know Čapek had died, and did indeed go looking for him, and for his brother Josef, a noted writer, poet and artist, who contributed drawings in his trademark playful, primitive style of dogs, cats, and an occasional human, or human legs, to I Had a Dog AND A CAT. Josef was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, and died in Bergen Belsen in 1945.

syndetics-lc

Before coming across I Had a Dog AND A CAT, I only knew Karel Čapek as the man who brought into the world one of the best purpose-made words ever, "Robot" (he always capitalised it), from the Czech word robota, heavy labour, in his famous anti-utopian comedy R.U.R.; I knew he was considered a sort of non-hardcore Science-Fictiony type, along the lines of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. But then I found another book in the library, published in 1990 on the 100th anniversary of his birth, with a foreword by a big fan of his, Arthur Miller.

Called Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader, it includes such gems as an act from the play "Lives of the Insects", with Mr and Mrs Dung Beetle waxing ecstatic -- "Our little capital! Our golden treasure!"-- over their dung ball (the stage direction is something like "Enter an enormous ball of manure pushed by two dung beetles"); a piece on gardening called "Legs and the Gardener"; one on, well, clumsy people, called "In Praise of Clumsy People"; and the irresistible "In Praise of Idleness". True idleness: not rest, and not repose. Rest is related to work, either recovering from or preparing for, and idleness must bear no relation to work. And repose implies activity, and pleasure. Idleness calls for neither. In fact, "It calls for nothing at all".

"And when a person is through idling", Čapek concludes, "he arises and returns as if from another world. Everything is a little alien and distant, distasteful somehow, and strained; and it is so.. so strange, that... a person has to take a little rest after being idle; and then after resting, lounge around for a while; and then relax a little more, then devote himself to a certain amount of inactivity, and only afterwards is he able to recover his strength and begin to do something completely useless."

You can read all of  "In Praise of Idleness", indeed all of Intimate things, the book where it first appeared in 1936, in the Universal Library of the Internet Archive.



December 01, 2014

"6. The right to mistake a book for real life"

Daniel Pennac turns 70 today, a good excuse to pull out, for your enjoyment or re-enjoyment, his wonderful "Rights of the reader", from his somewhat redundantly titled -- but only in English translation -- The Rights of the Reader. In the original French the book was called Comme un roman, ("Like a novel") and as much as I love Quentin Blake, the Gallimard (the French publisher) cover is my favourite, so I'm going to put it first.

The rights of the reader: 

  1. The right not to read 

  2. The right to skip 

  3. The right not to finish a book 

  4. The right to read it again

  5. The right to read anything

6. The right to mistake a book for real life

7. The right to read anywhere

8. The right to dip in

9. The right to read out loud

10. The right to be quiet



Everyone will have a personal favourite, I'm sure. Mine is "The right to mistake a book for real life", something I have exploited to its fullest. Come to think of it, I might be even better matched to a 6b, "The right to mistake real life for a book". 

syndetics-lcI only knew Daniel Pennac the crime writer -- his crime novels set in the Parisian neighbourhood of Belleville, where Édith Piaf was born under a lamppost, having been recommended to me by Bill Ott (not me personally, it was his review for Booklist, but it certainly spoke to me personally) thusly: "Pennac's novels will appeal to those who find a certain inexplicable joy in spontaneous outbursts of oddity" -- until I came across a book called Au bonheur de lire,"The Happiness of Reading".

It was one of those books publishers put out like record labels do a "Triple Value Soul" -- a line-up of their stars. In this case the stars included Daniel Pennac, and the triple value included a cover with one of the most lascivious images of reading I've ever seen, with ripe jujubes (at least I think that's what they are) peeping from among the pages of an novel. That cerebral image on Comme un roman is so last-century in comparison. 

Pennac's piece is an excerpt from The rights of the reader and it's about ownership of books. Few objects, he says, so inspire a sense of ownership as books. I loved his reasoning on how easy it is when you've really enjoyed a book, to consider it "yours", even when technically it isn't. So hard to give back to the person who lent it to you! (Libraries are different, of course. Of course.) 

Two great anecdotes: 

1. During World War II, the Italian novelists and anti-fascists Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante had to hide out for several months in a shepherd's hut. They had only been able to grab two books when they had made their getaway: the Bible and The Brothers Karamazov. "From which derived," says Pennac, "a terrible dilemma: which of these two monuments should they use for toilet paper?" He doesn't tell us which they chose. But he assures us they did.

2. The grandfather of novelist Tonino Benacquista went so far as to smoke his Plato. Prisoner of war in Albania (World War II again), he found deep in his pocket a page of Cratylus, and a match... "A new form of Socratic dialogue, via smoke signals."

Today a website called Media Mass published a news item announcing that Pennac's ‘The Malaussene Saga’ (the aforementioned crime novels) had just been voted the best book of all time, surpassing Don Quixote, The Three Musketeers, Harry Potter and Lolita. The piece was authored by one Brent Meslow, which I'm thinking might be a play on words, but I just can't quite nail it.

But the best homage to Daniel Pennac, arrived at his eighth decade, came from Feltrinelli Zoom (@FeltrinelliZoom), the digital arm of Italian publishers Feltrinelli, who posted this wonderful taste of Pennac on Twitter:  

"Everyone's good at being born! Even I was born!
But then you have to become! become!
grow, increase, develop,
get bigger (without inflating)
accept changes (but not mutations)
mature (without shrivelling)
evolve (and assess)
progress (without getting senile)
endure (without vegetating)
get old (without a second childhood)
and die without protest, at the end...
an enormous programme, a continual vigilance...
because age, at any age..."



November 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Flaubert in Egypt

When Truman Capote's New York society friends cut him off upon reading the first part of his self-described "Proustian" novel about them, Answered Prayers, he said he couldn't understand why they felt so betrayed. "What did they expect? I'm a writer!" was his line. It's a great line, and it comes back to me now and again, most recently during the reading of a small book with a long title which caught my eye down in the fabled Central City Library basement.

Flaubert in Egypt
A Sensibility on Tour
A Narrative drawn from
Gustave Flaubert's
Travel Notes & Letters 
translated from the French 
& edited by 
Francis Steegmuller

Francis Steegmuller being a noted Flaubert scholar and translator of Madame Bovary, not to mention a friend of Graham Greene and author of a French version of The Owl and the Pussycat, a masterpiece called Le Hibou et la Poussiquette, all of these points featuring in a Books in the City post a few years ago.

The artwork on this jewel was as enticing as the title. The front cover was a plunge into colourful Orientalism, a detail from Delacroix's Women of Algiers, while the back was given over to a period black and white photograph of sunbaked houses, their peeling facades chaotically arrayed with wooden-latticed balconies, a few scruffy acacias in the foreground. Did Flaubert take this photo? I wondered.

To my surprise the jacket flap claimed that it was a photo not by Flaubert, but of Flaubert! Flaubert in garden of the Hotel du Nil, Cairo, photo by Maxime du Camp, it clearly said. But where was he?




The mystery was solved when I got the book home and began reading it. A few pages in, a list of illustrations revealed that Flaubert was also in the Hotel du Nil garden opposite page 40. And sure enough, there he was -- dressed as a Nubian, yet.




The caption reads: Flaubert in Cairo, 1850. 'I would never allow anyone to photograph me. Max did it once but I was in Nubian costume, standing, and seen from a considerable distance, in a garden.' The garden is that of the Hotel du Nil, the name of one of whose proprietors, Bouvaret, Flaubert did not forget.

Yes, because Madame Bovary was still in Flaubert's future. For now, he was 28 years old, with drawers full of unpublished manuscripts in his study at his mother's house, proclaiming in a letter to her how little that mattered:

"Haven't I everything that's most enviable in the world? Independence, the freedom of my fancy, my two hundred trimmed pens, and the art of using them. And then the Orient, especially Egypt, flattens out all the little worldly vanities... The sight of so many ruins destroys any desire to build shanties; all this ancient dust makes one indifferent to fame..."

One of my favourite moments is when his mother suggests that on his return he might get "une petite place", a small job. "Frankly, and without deluding yourself," he replies, "is there a single one that I am capable of filling?" And anyway, "Isn't not to be bored one of the principal goals of life?"

The letters are full of experiences which would keep one from being bored. Flaubert sees dervishes stuck through with iron spikes, he visits a Coptic church and thinks of what Voltaire would have said, he observes the ceremony of the Doseh ('Treading') where a sheik rides on horseback over a human plank of 200 prostrate men, he holds a charmed snake, he gallops off to take in the Sphinx, the sight of which nearly makes him giddy.

A high point of the adventure, perhaps the high point, is convincing the famed dancing girl Kuchuk Hanem to dance "the Bee", the most notorious of the oriental dances, banned by the authorities. The door has to be closed, everyone sent away except for the musicians, who are blindfolded. I expected that "the Bee" would be Kuchuk flitting around as if she were a bee, but no, it is Kuchuk pretending to be fighting off a very pesky bee, shedding her clothing piece by piece. "Finally she was naked except for a fichu which she held in her hands and behind which she pretended to hide, and at the very end she threw down the fichu. That was the Bee." And then to bed, together. "She insisted on keeping the outside."

In a note, Steegmuller tells us that Flaubert's mistress read his travel notes and in her jealousy, seized on a mention of Kuchuk's bedbugs, saying they degraded her. Pas de tout, replied Flaubert. The smell of Kuchuk's bedbugs were "the most enchanting touch of all. Their nauseating odor mingled with the scent of her skin, which was dripping with sandalwood oil. I want a touch of bitterness in everything -- always a jeer in the midst of our triumphs, desolation even in the midst of enthusiasm."

What did I say? A writer!

The most striking passage for me is contained in a letter to his dear friend Louis Bouilhet, sent from Cairo, at the end of his trip, June 1850. Perhaps it was a thought which came to him there among the scruffy acacias of the Hotel du Nil.

"Let's not get lost in archeology -- a widespread and fatal tendency, I think, of the coming generation... the world is going to become bloody stupid and from now on will be a very boring place. Max and I talk constantly about the future of society. For me it is almost certain that at some more or less distant time it will be regulated like a college. Teachers will be the law. Everyone will be in uniform. Humanity will no longer commit barbarisms as it writes its insipid theme, but --- what wretched style! What lack of form, of rhythm, of spirit!"

A year after his return to France, he began Madame Bovary, going off in a new direction from all that he had written before, taking literature ("the old whore" as he calls it in one of his letters) in a new direction as well. But as Steegmuller points out, romantic echoes of Egypt still sounded now and again. In The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the Queen of Sheba tempts the saint by telling him "I dance like a bee".


The books:
Flaubert in Egypt ed by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
and
Answered prayers by Truman Capote

October 30, 2014

“Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.”

"What's an envoy?" asks my non-native English speaker husband, busy reading.

"Oh, it's a poem, that in the old days poets used to put at the end of their book, sending it off and hoping people would like it."

Dead silence.

Me, getting suspicious: "Why, what does it say?"

"That the new Italian ambassador was one."

"Oh, that envoy!"

I am not actually so bookish as to think that a now-rare poetic device is more likely to be referred to in today's newspaper than a diplomatic title. But the "Go, little book" type of envoy (from the French envoyer, "to send", same root as the envoy sent by a government) has been on my mind recently, ever since I came across the exhilirating envoy by Russell Banks which I used as the title for this post, and it started me thinking, what better way to follow a post on the art of the dedication than with one on the art of the envoy?

The envoy dates back to classic Roman literature, meaning that it has been around for over 2000 years. Ovid, the greatest poet of the Augustan Age, affixed a touching envoy to his book Tristia (Sorrows), written from exile in what we now call Romania, but the Romans referred to as "beyond the Danube", by which they meant, at the outskirts of the civilised world, where the emperor had sent him for "a poem and a misunderstanding" (said Ovid).

The envoy opens like this (I include the Latin because English translations of Latin poetry always sound too chatty - so just before you read the English, say stirringly aloud "Ibis in urbem!"):

Parue—nec inuideo—sine me, liber, ibis in urbem:
ei mihi, quod domino non licet ire tuo!

"Little book -- I won't resent it -- go without me to the city
Where alas, your master is not allowed to go..."

But of course he resented it. A man of culture and refined habits, witty and urbane, Ovid found banishment among the (semi) barbarians -- who didn't even know Latin -- a cruel punishment. Cruellest of all, he never got to follow his book back to Rome, dying in exile.

By the nineteenth century, the envoy had become a trope, its more unexceptional manifestations ripe for mockery, as Lord Byron did with the efforts of the rather paltry poet laureate of his time, Robert Southey.


syndetics-lcFrom Don Juan (1819):

"Go, little book, from this my solitude!
I cast thee on the waters – go thy ways!
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
The world will find thee after many days.

Southey's read, and Wordsworth understood,
I can't help putting in my claim to praise—
The four first rhymes are Southey's every line:
For God's sake, reader! take them not for mine."


The twentieth century! War, carnage, decay, disillusion, experimentation, modernism! If anyone was in the thick of that it was Ezra Pound, and he got it all, and Art too, into his revisitation of Edmund Waller's famous 17th century envoy "Go, Lovely Rose" (set to music by Henry Lawes), a poem firmly in the carpe diem tradition, which began:

Go, lovely Rose—
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be...

Here's Pound's "Envoi" from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1919):

syndetics-lcGo, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.

Tell her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Braving time.

Tell her that goes
With song upon her lips
But sings not out the song, nor knows
The maker of it, some other mouth,
May be as fair as hers,
Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers,
When our two dusts with Waller's shall be laid,
Siftings on siftings in oblivion,
Till change hath broken down
All things save Beauty alone.

Where could one possibly go after that, you might find yourself asking. Well, that's what I'm here for! Here, closing the circle and leading us back to Russell Banks, are two dazzling envoys from the second half of the twentieth century:


syndetics-lcWilliam Meredith, "Envoy":

Go, little book. If anybody asks
Why I add poems to a time like this,
Tell how the comeliness I can’t take in
Of ships and other figures of content
Compels me still until I give them names;
And how I give them names impatiently,
As who should pull up roses by the roots
That keep him turning on his empty bed,
The smell intolerable and thick with loss.


Robert Creeley, “Envoi”:

syndetics-lc
Particulars they want,
particulars they
fucking well will

get, love. For openers,
you—the stars
earth revolves about,

the galaxies their in-
struments neglect. I
walk down a road

you make ahead, not
(no negative) there ex-
cept my body finds

it. Love, love,
love, swirls—myriad
insects hum, the

air softens, the night
is here. So empty
these days with-

out you, a box
with nothing in it. I
am waiting, you

are coming, so what’s
the world but
all of it.


And here we are back at Russell Banks. I don't know if anyone else out there has written an envoy in prose, but this is one it would be tough to compete with. It comes at the end of Banks's novel Continental Drift, a tale of our times which mixes "low comedy and high seriousness" (as someone said about Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, which it reminded me of), sardonic descriptions of domestic dissatisfaction, low-end jobs, moral corners being cut, and suddenly, apocalypse.

"The world as it is goes on being itself. Books get written -- novels, stories and poems stuffed with particulars that try to tell us what the world is, as if our knowledge of people like Bob Dubois and Vanise and Claude Dorsinville will set people like them free. It will not. Knowledge of the facts of Bob's life and death changes nothing in the world. Our celebrating his life and grieving over his death, however, will. Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives -- no, especially wholly invented lives -- deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book's objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.”


*****
Post script:

The American poet Robert Creeley (of Pound-Olson-Zukofsky-Black Mountain lineage), sojourned in New Zealand in the 1970s (a trip organised by Alistair Paterson), and Auckland Libraries' Sir George Grey Special Collections has a number of books of his poetry relating to that time, including The Dogs of Auckland, a limited edition artist's book by the Holloway Press, which has this note in the catalogue, a poem by itself: "The binding is cloth spine with Canson Mi Teintes paper-covered boards, & the case & casing in are by Bound to Last, Auckland."

I realise that Canson Mi Teintes is just a mezzo-tinto, half-tint, but what it said to me when I first saw it, and what it still wants to say to me, is "Song, you tempt me!"

October 15, 2014

Dedicated by -- or to -- the Beats

There's nothing quite like a good book dedication, that brush with mystique which you encounter, if you're lucky, opening a new book. And yet, for all the times you come across book lovers exalting the smell of books, the feel of books (I did recently spot one new and genial appreciation of the pleasure of books -- "They don't catch on my braces!"), you rarely encounter celebrations of the well-written dedication. Which, I might point out, is even more valuable for being an attribute any book may boast, no matter its form: print, electronic, or even read aloud.

I've made it a tradition to post, every year, the standouts among the dedications I've discovered at the library over the previous twelve months. They've included one to a typewriter (noir, of course, both the novel being dedicated and the typewriter it was dedicated to) and one to absinthe drinkers, and the authors who composed them have ranged from Edward Gorey to JD Salinger, not forgetting Hunter S Thompson.

There's a Beat theme to this year's finds -- wholly unplanned, I hasten to say, as befits the Beats.

Here they are:

1.  From  Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouacsyndetics-lc

   Dedicated to America, whatever that is

Reading On the Road when I was a teenager rates as one of the most exciting reading experiences of my life, but I'd never tried Visions of Cody, Kerouac's later, posthumously published hymn to Neal Cassady and to those days on the road when the highs were still coming easy, until this year, following a slow, appreciative read of Big Sur. I skipped large swathes which I found too intemperate (who changed more? Jack? me? probably me), but the last 50 pages held, and did they hold.

The Penguin edition I found at the library also includes wonderful, sad, notes provided by Allen Ginsberg, where he calls the book "a dirge for America... for the American Hope that Jack (& his hero Neal) carried so valiantly through the land after Whitman..."

Kerouac himself suggests in his foreword, "This feeling may soon be obsolete as America enters its High Civilization period and no one will get sentimental or poetic any more about trains and dew on fences at dawn in Missouri."

Not yet, though, Jack, not yet!

My sentimental snap of Beat wheels by the Mississippi River
Hannibal, Missouri, 2012

syndetics-lc2.  From These are my rivers by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The owner of the fabled City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, the publisher who gave us Howl, the poet who sang of the pennycandy store beyond the El, 95 years old this year, prefaced a collection of almost 40 years of his poetry with these lines:

For 
various brothers & lovers
eternally present


The book's title, These are my rivers, is taken from a bittersweet and nostalgic poem by the Italian modernist poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, Questi sono i miei fiumi, in which he evokes the phases of his life by naming the rivers which flowed through them, the Serchio of his ancestral home in Lucca, the Nile of his childhood, the Seine of his youth, and the Isonzo, the river which runs through the devastated Carso where Italian troops, Ungaretti among them, had fought a series of terrible battles against the Austrians during World War One.

Ferlinghetti quotes the poem in his book's epigraph:

Ho ripassato
le epoche
della mia vita

Questi sono
i miei fiumi...

[I have revisited
the ages
of my life

These are
my rivers...]

(You can read the whole of Ungaretti's poem here.)


3. From Odysseus in Woolloomooloo by Bob Orr

   to the mysteries

Just three words on the otherwise all white third page of this fine new poetry collection, just out this year. 

Bob Orr is the most beat of New Zealand poets, and if you don't believe me, check out this picture.


Bob Orr's Odysseus in Woolloomooloo in the window of  the City Lights Bookstore

The year I moved to New Zealand, I came across Bob Orr's own "The Names of Rivers" in The NZ Listener. I ripped it out (no, it wasn't a library copy) and still have it, over ten years later. Read it and you'll see why.

The Names of Rivers

The names of rivers
suggest them:
The Nile weaving its scaly blue coolness
serpent like from Africa's hot heart.
The Mississippi each syllable a broadening
of its passage to the ocean.
The Amazon hallucinogenic as the zircon flight
of butterflies above its jewelled rain forest.
Those are the big rivers
the ones we all were taught about
but I would like to take you
to a small creek
whose taste I still recall --
a slight rustiness on the tongue
like old steel or blood. The Mangawara.
I would like to be able to say
that this creek runs through my life
runs through my poems. In fact until
the age of twelve it did.
not a river so much as water.
Not water so much as something as simple as time
perhaps even timelessness. Where I live now
the water is salty and it's blue and huge beyond belief
and you would drink of it only to stop
something from within yourself from bleeding.


Beat poetry lovers are invited to join us for our annual beat poetry read-a-thon, the Day of the Dead Beat Poets, on Monday 3 November at 5:30 pm, at Central City Library. Read or listen to poems by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lew Welch and other classic beats, as well as by poets who have carried the beat spirit into newer times and places. We'll read Bob Orr's poem about panel beating Neal Cassady's car, the one where he says,

Tomorrow with the tiny hammers of a typewriter
I'll make this poem cool again
As if it were a car once stolen in America by Neal Cassady

-- I think it's that one I found in a parking lot along the Mississippi River, panel beaten roof and all.

September 30, 2014

Comics: Librarians Choice

Comic Book Month wraps up today, though as with all good comics, it's just a matter of waiting for the next issue! As a final treat, here are a few personal recommendations from some of the comics fans who work at Auckland Libraries: Michelle and Blair from the 2014 Comic Book Month team; Baruk, creator of our new Comics NZ blog (check it out); Stanley from Collections, and myself! Enjoy!



Adamtine by Hannah Berry

This is the first horror-themed graphic novel I have read. Although I admire the artists' skill, the violent gore scenes typical of this genre are a bit much for me. But I do enjoy a good scare, and with this graphic novel I wasn’t disappointed. It is horror with a difference, with the artwork creating a sense of foreboding and darkness. In fact, I have become a big Hannah Berry fan. The artwork is clever and emotive, supporting a captivating, frightening story line that really does keep you guessing. This is a graphic novel requiring more than one read, with each reading revealing more of its mysteries – most of which are hidden in plain sight. It is definitely a thinking person’s graphic novel... oh, and beware the last page!

-- Michelle, Titirangi Library


Faction 1  ed. by Damon Keen, Amie Maxwell

syndetics-lcQuite simply, I liked this enough to buy my own copy, and that doesn't happen often. Especially not when it is also available for free (legal) download!

Faction 1 is a Kiwi comic anthology, from 14 very different writers/artists. One of the joys of anthologies is the unlikely juxtaposition of very different styles, and Faction does not disappoint. The artwork moves eclectically from Ned Wenlock's bold primary colours, through Damon Keen's delicate shading or Ralphi's yellowish-greenish-brownish and Karl Wills's detailed black-on-white, to Mark Holland's lush, painterly style. The stories very well matched the artistic styles used to tell them.

Faction was created through crowdfunding, and it is nice to see contributors named on the back page (dammit, I missed my chance at fame!). The Faction website has links to individual artist websites, and a free subscription to the (digital) anthology. Auckland Libraries also holds Faction 2 and Faction 3.

If you like anthologies, you may also enjoy Syncopated, an anthology of non-fiction picto-essays. Or not.

And if I sound like a fanboy, that's because I am.

-- Baruk, Digital Services


Shaolin Burning by Ant Sang


Shaolin BurningFull of graphic martial arts action and mayhem, Shaolin Burning is a thrilling and fast-paced adventure through Qing dynasty China. The plot centres on Deadly Plum Blossum’s journey to challenge The Monk Who Doubts, who has been terrorising China. Events like the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, and the legend of the five surviving elders place this in a time of kung-fu legends and martial arts monks.

The illustrations of BroTown’s Ant Sang skillfully capture the chaos of the combat; the parries and thrusts of the sword, feints and blows of the fighters come through in the black and white shading and ink, and deftly illustrate the action.

I found the characters a highlight. They are unique and intense figures with legendary pasts, and equally awesome names. I also like the subtle humour that runs through the book, with skillful plays on words, quirky names like The Benevolent Laughing Monkey Palm Gang, and the tiger-costumed group The Killer Tongs. Still, the themes running through this work – the need to control desire, the perils of revenge and the sacredness of life – make it more than just an entertaining read.

-- Stanley, Collections



The Sandman (The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1) by Neil Gaiman

syndetics-lcWidely considered one of the greatest comic book series of all time, The Sandman tells the story of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, as he escapes from captivity and seeks to rebuild his realm. Along the way, Morpheus is forced to deal with the enormous changes within both himself and his realm. The Sandman is a wildly imaginative series that manages to be as effortlessly entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Its dark, adult story set the tone for DC Comics’ fledgling Vertigo imprint. The Sandman is a story about stories, and should be read by anyone who loves them.

(This Absolute Edition format collects issues #1-20 of THE SANDMAN and features completely new coloring on the first 18 issues, as well as a host of never-before-seen extra material. It is the first of four volumes.)

-- Blair, Central City Library



Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea by Hugo Pratt 

syndetics-lcI was turned on to Corto Maltese long ago when I went to live in his home country of Italy, where the fumetti (Italian for comics) about the sailor with the pierced ear had attained cult status. Fumetti means puffs of smoke, that being what Italians saw where we saw speech bubbles or word balloons, as well as all around themselves. Everyone smoked, and everyone read comics, and Corto Maltese was everyone's favourite. The art work is brilliant -- the scene where an underwater Corto is drawn with squiggly refracted lines which grow ever more boldly abstract as the panels progress leave me in awe -- and the rhythm is intense and filmic. So are the characters. Corto casts a spell over everyone, men and women, in that Humphrey Bogart kind of way.

“Who knows why you make me think of that Arola’s Tango I heard in the Parda Flora Cabaret in Buenos Aires?” “Maybe there was someone there who looked like me?” “No! It’s precisely because you don’t resemble anyone that I would have wanted to meet you anywhere”. Are those tears on Corto’s chiselled face?

The original drawings were all in black and white, while this edition uses colourised drawings which, as with colourised movies, somewhat detracts from the artistry. But Pratt is such a genius that they are still great. If you like comics, you owe yourself a sail with Corto.

-- Karen, Books in the City 

September 27, 2014

Banned Books Week


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 a school district in Texas to pull a new crop of books from the school curriculum. In other words, the school board doesn'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".

I must say 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 personal ties to Banned Books. The first is that it was 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 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. He 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 the Puritans could have judged by 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 (Olympia Press's aptly named "Traveller's Companion" editions, as pictured) while the American courts were still debating whether they were obscene or not, and popped into his daughters' little tote bags for the re-entry onto U.S. soil and into U.S. jurisdiction.

I was just remembering with my sister this weekend the heady moment when, tired out by standing in 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




 
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