December 25, 2009

Christmas Stories

presenting a few of my favourites

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol will always be for me the story which most makes me feel like Christmas. In  our house, my father read it out loud to us every year, a chapter a night, on the days leading up to Christmas. Even now when I read it, it is his version I hear. Scion of a theatrical family and a bit of a ham, he was a splendid, uninhibited reader who always enjoyed  his performance as much as we did.

"Marley was dead, to begin with." He gave the opening line a neutral, conversational tone, which contrasted marvellously with the tingle of excitement running through us as finally, after dinner, coffee and cigarette (for him) we settled on the couch to let the yearly ritual begin. But by the time we got to "What a turkey! There never was such a turkey", the words were rolling forth in inspired waves, pulling you under into their oceans of gusto and jollity. Finally I could forget the terrifying chapter where the ghostly hand draws back Scrooge's bedcurtains, which would keep me awake for hours afterward with the sheet drawn up to my eyes, casting my eyes about in the dark to make sure no ghost could creep up on me unannounced.

The reading was dosed so that the final triumphant chapter would fall on Christmas Eve. When we got to the lines "And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge"  my father read them out with such heart that I had to agree with my sister, thirty or more years later, when she suggested it would be the single best phrase to remember him by.

You can read both the abridged version of A Christmas Carol, which Dickens used to read aloud on his incredibly popular author tours, and the longer version, at  

And while you're at it, visit David Perdue's wonderful site, the Charles Dickens Page, where The Christmas Carol page offers links to illustrations, maps of Dickens's London, even things like Dickens's original accounts page for A Christmas Carol (6000 copies sold the first day). At the very bottom, there is this jewel from A Christmas Carol:

"It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself."

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

Even if you didn't grow up where it snowed, A Child's Christmas in Wales will be one of the stories most evocative of Christmas you'll ever read, which shows you what a great poet can do. It's all there: the panoply of human types -- the imbibing aunts, the snoozing uncles, the human arts of music and conversation, the human love of sweets, and the mysteries of human time which is both unstoppable and yet capable of preserving some things for you forever.

One of the very best ways to experience A Child's Christmas in Wales is to hear Dylan Thomas reading it aloud. It takes 20 minutes on the wonderful Caedmon collection of Dylan Thomas recordings, 11 CDs where he reads his work and the work of others, including Shakespeare, which you can get from the library.  But you will probably enjoy it so much that you'll want to hear more.

The Gift of the Magi by O.Henry

I am always telling people to read this beautiful little turn-of-the-century story by O.Henry about, as they say, the meaning of Christmas. O.Henry is famous for short stories with a twist ending, often given you to read in school as ambassadors for the form, also because mostly they are very funny - The Ransom of Red Chief about the kidnapping of a little boy so annoying that in the end the kidnappers are willing to pay the family to take him back is one of my favourites. But The Gift of the Magi is sad and sentimental. Approach it with an open mind and you won't be disappointed. You can read it on the Literature Collection website.

O.Henry, a romantic figure (although he always demurred on this) who had headed west from the Carolinas as a young man to work on a cattle ranch, spent time in prison for embezzling bank money, which he may or may not have done -- he first ran off to Central America, to somewhere for which he later invented the term "banana republic", but returned to the United States to be with his wife who was dying of tuberculosis, entering prison the next year and spending three years there -- said "There are stories in everything. I've got some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts, and newspaper stands."

Who knows what stories you might get from this bench - in Christmas colours, note - photographed in front of an Irish library?

Book bench by Irish typepad

December 16, 2009

First fruits

This is just to say  (William Carlos Williams)  

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Biting into the first plums of the season this month, I could not help remembering this poem by William Carlos Williams and being overcome, as well as by the flavour of the plums, by the desire to pass this poem on. So here you are.

syndetics-lcYou can read more poems by this bespectacled doctor from New Jersey who was a friend of Ezra Pound and an inspiration to Allen Ginsberg on the Poetry Foundation website   -- which if you like poetry you should know about anyway -- where you can also hear Library of Congress recordings from the 1940s of WCW reading his poetry aloud, including the famous "The Red Wheelbarrow", which has a special meaning for me, in as much as hearing it dissected at University in a Modern American Literature class made me forswear an academic career forever --  I might even say that had it not been for "The Red Wheelbarrow", I would not today be the person I am.

From the library:

 -- Random House's  William Carlos Williams from The Voice of the Poet series is a 1 hour CD of WCW reading his poetry and an accompanying book with the texts of the poems

 -- WCW's Collected poems in two volumes

-- The William Carlos Williams Reader edited by M.L. Rosenthal

December 08, 2009

Alone in Berlin

When I was 15 or 16 and going through my Hemingway period, reading everything I could find by him or about him and copying bits from Death in the Afternoon to tape up above my desk, I came across something in which he listed the books he thought everyone should read. Everyone! Me!

As I recall, the list was heavy on Rooshians, as Hemingway describes Ezra Pound calling his beloved Dostoevsky & Co in A Moveable Feast  --  “To tell you the truth, Hem, I’ve never read the Rooshians” he has him confessing -- which were a big part of my literary landscape at the time anyway, and there would have been a few others I’ve forgotten because I simply got them and read them, but there were two which eluded me, due to them having eluded my parents and our small local library.

In those pre-internet days that meant you just kind of filed them away in your head to see if you’d run across them someday, somewhere. The first one, The Lost Grove, the autobiography of the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti, showed up maybe ten years later, in a remainders bookstore in Italy. The second held off until ... this year.  It was Everyone dies alone by Hans Fallada. I hadn’t thought of it in years, had long stopped wondering who this mysterious man with the strange interlanguage, fairy tale name was, but suddenly there was a review of it in the TLS, a brand-new English translation, with a less-literal version of the title – it’s called Alone in Berlin – but it was clearly The Book, the one Hemingway wanted me to read.

Hans Fallada turned out to be the pen name of a man who in his life knew both success and suffering, mostly suffering: at eighteen he had killed a friend in a bungled suicide pact, he was addicted to drugs, spent time in prison for theft, and although in the interwar years he had written bestsellers including one picked up by Hollywood and made into a movie, he couldn't make himself leave Berlin when he should have and spent the war in a terrible state, with Goering pressuring him to write pro-Nazi propaganda, which he sort of gave into and sort of didn't, succumbing to alcohol and drugs again and ending up in a Nazi insane asylum. He wrote this book the year after the war ended, in only 24 days, and died not long thereafter.

I asked the library to get it. It came, and I started reading it by chance on the day after the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9th. More pertinently, it was also the day after the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, as the book turned out to be a depiction of life in Berlin under the Nazis, as seen through the thoughts and actions of a cast of average, just-getting-through-the-day men and women. It is over 500 pages of which every single one is dark. It reminds me of nothing so much as Rossellini’s great neorealist film Germania Anno Zero, perhaps the most depressing film I’ve ever seen, and I've seen many, set in Berlin after the city's surrender and occupation.

Maybe it’s even more depressing, considering that in Germania Anno Zero we see a beaten people, which you can’t help but feel contributes to their passivity. Here they are active, and most of them are either jackals or suck-ups to authority, or both. The plot -- based on a true story -- revolves around a couple who are dropping anti-Nazi postcards around Berlin, risking their lives, and it goes something like this: out of 48 postcards they distribute, 44 are in the hands of the Gestapo within a few weeks, and the four which are not, were not passed from hand to hand to read, as they had hoped, but had been burned, or ripped up and flushed down the toilet.

I skipped bits at first, the build-up was uneven (not much time to rewrite and polish when you write a 500 page novel in 24 days) but when I got to the last third or so, from when the couple are caught and put on trial, I couldn't skip a word. The depiction of the nightmare world of totalitarianism is so disturbing  that it made me physically uncomfortable, not because of scenes of gore or torture but because of the overwhelming sense of oppression. I can see how Hemingway would have loved us all to read this book, together with Rafael Alberti's terrible stories about the other ghost stalking Europe, as one of his poems called Generalissimo Franco of Spain.

One funny thing that came out of all this was that I went searching the internet to see if I could find that list again to see what else was on it. It turns out that Hemingway loved making lists of books everyone should read, and there are hundreds of them around. Among them was hidden this gem: a list of the books in his library in his Finca in Cuba, compiled by a team of Cuban librarians after he died. As they couldn’t speak English, the books were all the same to them, so that right after his Rooshians, you find the recipe booklet for his Waring Blender. Or maybe they were smarter than it seems and were simply well aware of the essential role of the frozen daiquiri in Hem’s philosophy of life.

November 27, 2009

Larkin in the Library

We found a fantastic Have-Your-Say in the library suggestion box.

Here is what someone had written under the library's invitation to
Please share your thoughts with us

Morning at last: there in the snow
Your small blunt footprints come and go.
Night has left no more to show.
Not the candle, half-drunk wine,
Or touching joys; only this sign
of your life walking into mine.
But when they vanish with the rain
What morning woke to will remain,
Whether as happiness or pain.

-- Philip Larkin

Did the person who left this know - of course they did, they must have - that Philip Larkin worked his entire adult life as a librarian in Hull, a city in Yorkshire so off-side that its only other claim to fame, that I know of, is being the hometown of the great Mick Ronson. It's one of the few things I knew about him. The others are that he wrote a poem which started with the remarkable lines "They fuck you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to but they do" and that in letters to his friends he used disparaging terms about a number of ethnic groups and women. I pictured him reclusive, crabby, funny, English, unemotional. But as often happens, there were many more things to know once I took the time, inspired by this anonymous donation.

Philip Larkin - older than I realised - started writing poetry in the thirties and got his first job as a librarian during World War II, in Shropshire, in a library so small that he was the only employee. One of his duties was to light the library's gas lamps. The librarian he replaced was over 70, which means, if my calculations are right, that he would have been born about the same year as Charles Dickens died. And Philip Larkin stopped writing poetry in the 1970s, just as Mick Ronson, dubbed "The Pride of Hull", was playing guitar for David Bowie on the mountaintops of Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust.

During those forty years, this man who described himself as looking like an egg, with a bald head and black plastic glasses, this man who was not actually a recluse but certainly solitary, who replied when asked if he wouldn't like to visit China "I wouldn't mind going if I could come back the same day", lived three long, contemporaneous love stories -- the three women proffering hostile stares over his deathbed -- and published no more than a few slim volumes of poetry. He was reputed to be the most costive of artists, according to John Banville in the New York Review of Books. Rarely can I not make even an educated guess at the meaning of a word, but costive was beyond me. It turned out to mean constipated.

Luckily, like most librarians Philip Larkin couldn't bear to throw anything away, and after his death over a hundred poems were found and published in the Collected Poems, all of them works any less perfectionist of a poet would have published without a qualm. For one particularly fine love poem it was noted that he might not have published it to avoid one of his lovers asking for whom he had written it.

You can read John Banville's  "Homage to Philip Larkin"  in the New York Review of Books online

and Richard Goodman's essay on Philip Larkin, librarian from About Larkin.

Then get Philip Larkin's Collected poems at the library

November 21, 2009

Bolaño, el gaucho insufrible

syndetics-lcI stopped reading Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives at about page 80, exasperated with experiencing in real time the lengthy, rambling thoughts of young literary poseurs that I kept mixing up so every few pages I'd have to flip back ten pages to try to remember who they were. Or actually, no. To identify them, not to remember who they were. I remembered who they were. They were that late-seventies phenomenon, the freaks, travelling around Europe, India, North Africa with their embroidered bags full of Caran d’Ache watercolour pencils, shiny things and dope, this last tending to make their conversations boring and pointless, although if you had partaken too you noticed this less.

Roberto Bolaño had come over from Mexico in those years and was travelling around Europe, perhaps with an embroidered bag, or possibly with one of those brown, black and white Inca woven bags. In Europe in those years South American was sexy. Where I had gone to live, in Florence, Iranian students at the University used to try to pass themselves off as South American to get laid. There were barricades in South America and barricades were an important theme back then. I had someone say to me, seriously, "When the Revolution comes, we know what side of the barricades you'll be on, but we're not sure about him", "him" being a newly come-out gay friend of mine who was living an endearing enthusiasm for Barry White music and disco-dancing.

So when I read in The New York Times, as I was waiting for my copy of The Savage Detectives, that Roberto Bolaño, Chilean who had lived in Mexico since he was young, had probably not in fact gone back to Chile to join the struggle against Pinochet and then been arrested and freed only by the miraculous coincidence of having been at school with one of the guards (A Chilean Writer’s Fictions Might Include His Own Colorful Past), I was okay with cutting him some slack. Someone misunderstood and thought so, he didn’t correct the story right away, and afterwards it was too hard. Or maybe he wanted to construct a narrative for himself which he felt expressed him better than the real circumstances. After all, didn’t Hemingway do the same thing with his World War?

But the problem turned out to be, I didn’t like the book anyway.  I wonder who made it into such a myth; it must be either people who missed out sociologically on the whole phenomenon, or people from a later generation, even better if young and uncritical,as I was when I managed to make my way through seven - or was it nine - volumes of Anais Nin's diaries in high school. I asked a friend of mine, who, like me, had known in her time not a few characters like the ones in the book, if she understood why someone wanting to write a “love letter to his generation“, as he apparently called it, would choose to describe a time when they were so young and so full of themselves? There was a pause and then she said, “Well, perhaps if you were dying of liver disease you would.”

The savage detectives by Roberto Bolaño

November 12, 2009

Graphic Fahrenheit 451

syndetics-lcJust out and much praised, Tim Hamilton's graphic adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, authorised by Ray Bradbury, the man who just over fifty years ago wrote the original novel about a book-burning future where rebellious souls pick books and memorise them to keep them alive, has now arrived at the Library.

It's very pleasing: the cover shiny and sharp-cornered, the pages that when you flip through them smell like vanilla and cream, the drawings going along all dark and then exploding into flame and then dying down again.

And a great dedication:

To David Passalacqua
Whose voice is still in my head every day
And I would like to thank the following:
Ray Bradbury, Thomas LeBien, Deep6 Studios,
Chris Sinderson, Tory Sica,
Howard Zimmerman, Dean Motter,
My mom, and Jean lee.

And then there was a passionate introduction by the big man, Ray Bradbury himself:

"... so what you have here, now, is a pastiche of my former lives, my former fears, my inhibitions, and my strange and mysterious and unrecognised predictions of the future. I say all this to inform any teachers or students reading this book that what I did was name a metaphor and let myself run free, following my subconscious to surface with all kinds of wild ideas.

Similarly, in the future, if some teacher suggests to his or her students that they conceive metaphors and write essays or stories about them, the young writers should take care not to intellectualise or be self-conscious or overanalyse their metaphors; they should let the metaphors race as fast and furious and freely as possible so that what is stirred up are all the hidden truths at the bottom of the writer's mind...

Finally, may I suggest that anyone reading this introduction should take the time to name the one book that he or she would most want to memorise and protect from any censors or "firemen" and not only name the book, but give the reasons why they would wish to memorise it and why it would be a valuable asset to be recited and remembered in the future. I think this would make for a lively session when my readers meet and tell the books they named and memorised, and why."

I am sure some of you out there will already be thinking of your choice. Me, I thought first of Macbeth, because you do tend to think of Shakespeare, or I do, and it's my favourite of the plays. Then I thought oh I should leave it for Paul Reynolds, he's much better suited, with that sublime Scots speaking voice.

Next I came up with Stuart Little. It's perfect for me: funny, sentimental, heroic and with a final message I really love, ie that even though Stuart hasn't accomplished what he hoped to do when he set out, which was to find his lovely lost Margalo, it's a happy ending.

"That's the way I look at it," said Stuart. "I rather expect that from now on I shall be traveling north until the end of my days."
"Worse things than that could happen to a person," said the repairman.

And then I thought, actually, even better, I might do the Odyssey, Stuart Little being a sort of starter Odyssey, if you think about it, the hero with more brain than brawn, the journey which becomes its own end.  For dessert, I could recite the final lines of Tennyson's Ulysses, which I already know by heart:

Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.

On the publisher's website you can see a video of an interview with Ray Bradbury ‌in which he talks about the genesis of the novel and the graphic adaptation.

Fahrenheit 451: the authorised adaptation by Tim Hamilton, Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury's original Fahrenheit 451

November 01, 2009

Critterati at The New Yorker

The New Yorker is rightly famous for its cartoons (available in anthologies at the library) but it is not just its Roz Chasts and Charles Barsottis which can brighten your day. For instance, I've always gotten a good laugh out of the little advertisements in the margins of the last pages.  I think the first time I would have read them by chance, maybe nothing left to read but those, but I was hooked right away. They are like haiku versions of John Cheever's beautiful stories saluting, with tenderness and irony, the gods of 1960s New England suburbia.

I'll just flip through a withdrawn library New Yorker which I happen to have at hand so you can see what I mean:

Specialty Bow Ties
Handmade silk ties
by Beau Ties Ltd of Vermont.

The original brass Blo-Poke
The Essential Fireplace Tool
Handcrafted in New England since 1941.

The "I" in College Admission Essay
Your teen finds his/her truth, and gets noticed
By writing the personal essay of a lifetime.

The Pavilion at McLean Hospital
Unparalleled psychiatric evaluation and treatment
Unsurpassed discretion and service.

'Tis an unusual world.
Hendrick’s. A Most Unusual Gin
“Voted Best Gin in the World.” The Wall St. Journal

And now my adored New Yorkers have outdone themselves with the Critterati “Dress your pets like literary characters” contest.  Off they went, having great ideas and rustling up little outfits for their cats and dogs, where do they get the time, I wondered, with those long hours they work, and then dropping by that deli where everyone has to go or you’re not a real New Yorker, not to mention a run or a game of squash and getting sushi and watching The Wire (is it still on?) and David Letterman?

There must be a department at FAO Schwarz with funny pet clothes; they could not possibly have had that stuff on hand in their apartments. Myself, I wouldn’t have gotten further than “We could photoshop a black bob on a picture of the cat and call her Kat Mansfield” – but that’s why I’m not a New Yorker. New Yorkers, je vous salue.

See them all: the Critterati contest winners on The New Yorker online.

My favourites are the dry French couple; you’ll know why when you see them.

October 31, 2009

Judging a book by its cover

Here’s a wonderful book jacket from the 1940s, a satanic thriller which I picked up in our basement stacks the other day. The book is unreadable now, if it ever was, one of sixty churned out by a man describes as “a writer of no great talent, [whose] books were clunky, lumpy slabs of indigestible narrative”, but you have to admit, the cover is a classic.

Something I enjoy with the covers of the old books in the basement is reading the blurbs. Unlike today when every book cover boasts two or three hyperbolic quotes from well-known authors pushed into service by their publishers, the old covers are sort of like long ago Olympic games when athletes were amateurs and wore long pants; they offer quaint phrases like

“I have no hesitation in pressing this delightful story on you” 

That's the Daily Dispatch reviewer on a book by a man named John Symonds, noted for having had Dylan Thomas’s wife Caitlin attack him with a knife at a party.

Then there are those ambiguous lines like this one which Anthony Burgess composed for an Irish writer named Paul Smith,
“When every drunken Dublin writer is a genius I don’t feel like committing myself to the word; but I am sorely tempted.”

It's close to “Damning with faint praise” territory, which I always thought of as an English tradition until I spied this quote on another cover, from James Finn in The New York TImes:

"What Terrarossa attempts is limited but it offers the very real satisfaction of a work that achieves its purpose exactly.”

As for the cover designs themselves, it never ceases to amaze me how, within the hundred years or so that they have existed, book jackets have always had this trait of perfectly evoking a moment in history. I suppose all objects of design do this, but at least for me, the difference between book covers and say, coffeemakers, is that with book covers every period is fantastic, bar none.

Anyone out there love Penguin Classics? The man who came up with the idea of putting photographs of paintings on the covers of the Penguin classics was an Italian named Germano Facetti, who had been deported to Mauthausen during the war for anti-fascist activity, aged only 17, met a Milanese architect there and joined his studio for a while when they got out, and then moved on, Paris, London, Penguin Books.

When my in-laws (who knew him) told me about him I thought that his job consisted of looking through art books all day or visiting museums, picking out paintings to match to various great books. It seemed like the dreamiest dream job ever and I expect I can blame hearing about it for another couple of years of arrested development with regard to thinking seriously about a career.

Now that I work in a library which has the fine history of Penguin Books, Penguin by Design, in its collection, I know that while Facetti did indeed personally pick out many of the paintings, he also invented the grid, chose the font (Helvetica) and did many other ground-breaking things. There's a forum on the Typophile website where book world denizens talk about him, with a link to a gallery of his covers.

Two other books for book cover aficionados are By its cover: Modern American Book Cover Design which pointed out to me that book covers are a form of “communication art” and proceeds designer by designer with a fair amount of depth, and Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design which is a bit more slapdash in that a spread can be an author (eg Agatha Christie), a designer (eg Jeff Fisher, creator of the extraordinarily successful dark dark blue Captain Corelli’s Mandolin cover), a time period (eg “the beat generation”) or a publisher (eg Harvill Press, who did the beautiful edition we have in our basement of The Leopard with the calligraphic writing and the curtain pulled aside to reveal the rampant Leopard -- they date the cover as 1960 so it might be the very first English version).

Websites are of course wonderful places to browse book covers. offers you the chance to browse over 1000 Greatest Book Covers with another gallery of the covers of the greatest novels of all time. Check out the period On the Road with its Natalie Wood-inspired female labelled "Wild and unrestrained", or perhaps they mean the story. There are also sundry jazz musicians, but no sign of Old Dean Moriarty. has thousands of covers which can be viewed by titles, authors, designers, photographers, publication date, etc. There are links to the portfolio sites of about twenty of the designers. I clicked on Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich because the name was so improbable, and guess what! It turned out to be the very name I can put to all my least favourite covers in the entire library, particularly these two books that without ever having opened them I can assure you I will never, ever, read because yes, I judge them by these:

October 28, 2009

Doing the Dante test

And going public with my results in the interest of literature

The Dante's Inferno test by is slightly different from the usual personality test: you answer questions about your sins and are told your fate (slightly similar, too, actually). Here's where I'll end up for eternity, and how I stacked up overall:

“Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to the Sixth Level of Hell - The City of Dis! You approach Satan's wretched city where you behold a wide plain surrounded by iron walls. Burning tombs are littered about the landscape. Inside these flaming sepulchers suffer the heretics. You will join the wicked that lie here, and will be offered no respite.”

Level Score
Purgatory (Repenting Believers) Very Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers) Low
Level 2 (Lustful) Very High
Level 3 (Gluttonous) Moderate
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious) Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy) Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics) Very High
Level 7 (Violent) Moderate
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers) High
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous) Moderate

If I’d just scored a bit higher in lust, I would have ended up in the second circle, fierce winds driving me about in darkness together with the great queens Dido, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy. As it is, I will be in the company of Farinata degli Uberti, the Ghibelline commander who rises up out of his fiery tomb “as if he had great scorn for hell” to talk to Dante when he hears his Tuscan accent. When I asked my husband, who is Florentine -- baptised in fact in the same beautiful Baptistery where Dante was baptised  -- who his favourite Dante character was, I  expected he’d  have to think, or have half-a-dozen, but he chose Farinata right off, reciting a few of his lines.

Did anyone notice how the village plumber, bricklayer, real-estate agent etc. who appears at some point, quoting Dante, in all the Anglo-Saxon-goes-to-live-in-old-farmhouse-in-Italy memoirs, has now advanced to title position with Bill Buford’s Anglo-Saxon-goes-to-Italy-to-learn-culinary-elementals variant, Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.

I haven’t read the book, but it’s very good according to “a passionate foodie” on Amazon, which I misread as “a passionate noodle” while casting a quick eye over the reviews to see if anyone remarked on just what parts of Dante the butcher quoted. They hadn't, but I’m thinking maybe the seventh circle, where Virgil says to Dante “Behold, the river of blood approaches” or words to that effect.

What these people don’t seem to realise is that everyone in Italy quotes Dante, for two reasons. First of all, Italians start studying Dante in intermediate school and continue throughout their entire school career. Second but just as important, the Divine Comedy is such a great story. All those unforgettable images, like Count Ugolino chewing on the head of the man who locked him up to die of hunger, pausing in mid-gnaw to look up at Dante as he passes, and the power of that poetry with which Dante compresses entire, terrible stories into a bare handful of lines.

"Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;
Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma.”

Remember me, I am Pia,
Siena made me, Maremma undid me.

Pia de' Tolomei by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This is the shade of beautiful Pia de’ Tolomei speaking. From a noble family of Siena, she was married off to a Lord from the Maremma region who murdered her after his cousin falsely accused her of infidelity because she wouldn't be seduced by him. It's one of the two Dante verses I can recite, well, three, if you count "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here". (I'd also like to steal the line which the TLS reported some editor had posted above her door: "Abandon all hopefullys, ye who enter here").

Roberto Benigni, who quoted Dante when he won his Oscar and has been touring the US this year with a one-man “TuttoDante” show, said it perfectly in an interview in The New York Times:

"Really this is the most daring, bold poetry ever. In 2,000 years of Christian poetry they never surpassed this. They never produced such a scandal of beauty. Never, never, nobody.”

Guy P. Raffa is a professor at the University of Texas who thinks that if Dante were alive today, and had a Mac, “perhaps” he would have designed a website to tell his allegorical tale. Since he isn’t, Prof. Raffa has done it for him. The result is Danteworlds, an ”integrated multimedia journey combining artistic images, textual commentary, and audio recordings”. It’s won all kinds of prizes and is worth visiting.

I wonder if Prof. Raffa knows the song my father used to sing:

Some folks live in Texas
Some folks live in hell
If I had my choice between 'em
I'd go down below to dwell.

Take the Dante Inferno Hell Test

And get the fantastic Everyman's edition of The divine comedy, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, with an introduction by another great Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, illustrated with drawings by Botticelli, at the library.

October 21, 2009

Quoth the raven "Halloa Old Girl"

From the FAQs of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Number 7:

"What literary landmark can be found at the Parkway Central Library at 1901 Vine Street?"


 "The Rare Book Department houses “Grip,” Charles Dickens' pet Raven -- now stuffed and mounted -- which inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write one of the most famous poems in American literary history, “The Raven.” Grip was donated to the Free Library by Col. Richard Gimbel in 1971."

The Curious Expeditions blog has a lengthy piece on Grip - one of their expeditions having been to see him at the Free Library. They supply a photograph of him in his shadow box, standing on a log in a ferny, Carboniferous sort of habitat – a surprise to my post-Poe sensibilities (I thought he would at least be perched, even if not on a bust of Pallas), but perhaps not to Dickens’s Victorian romanticism.

There's also a description of Grip's last moments from a letter Dickens wrote to his friend Daniel Maclise:

"You will be greatly shocked and grieved to hear that the Raven is no more. On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but he soon recovered, walked twice or thrice along the coach house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed `Halloa old girl!' (his favorite expression) and died."

Just in case you thought his favourite expression was "Nevermore". How does the saying go? If the nose of Cleopatra had been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed. Poe claimed that "Nevermore" popped into his mind immediately, once he decided his poem would need a moody refrain with a long "o", that being the most "sonorous" vowel, and an "r", the letter most suited to being drawn out. He didn't even have the story, the famous "death of a young girl", at that point. It makes you wonder, hmm, no first thoughts of "Chankly Bore"? I think we have to say it was genius and leave it at that.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the great Edgar Allan Poe’s birth. Baltimore has been hosting a year-long bicentennial celebration replete with blog, where you can read about the monumental funeral ceremony which was held this month, on the anniversary of Poe's death, as redress for the miserable service his city gave him 160 years ago. That one lasted all of three minutes, after which seven people accompanied him to the family plot, where he was laid in an unmarked grave. Under pressure from Poe’s mother-in-law, his cousin did eventually have a headstone made, but it never made it onto the grave as a train ran off the rails which bordered the stonecutters’ yard and crashed right into it.

This time around, 700 people attended the ceremony. There was also a day-long open casket viewing at the Poe House, featuring a Poe replica made by a special effects artist named Eric Supensky (not, unfortunately, Suspensky). I can't believe they didn't get a real person to lie in the coffin and suddenly groan, or sit up. I don't think it was a question of being serious, considering they put on a "Cask of Amontillado" wine tasting event.

Speaking of premature burial, you can read Premature Burial on the website of the Poe Society of Baltimore. The Poe Society has been working for over ten years now on a project to provide Poe's complete works in e-texts, in authoritative transcriptions from the original sources. The website has barely any graphics, old-looking fonts and especially no ads for improving your abs. It's kind of nice to see the contents of the old newspapers available now for free, considering how their editors ripped Poe off during his lifetime, the publishers of Grahams paying him $800 for stories from which they earned $25,000.

You can view digital images of the originals on the Edgar Allan Poe Digital Collection which the Harry Ransom Center launched to accompany their exhibition “From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe" which opened in September. Besides the newspapers, the Archive also contains letters, manuscripts and books by Poe, some of these annotated by him, like a copy of The Raven and other Poems which is really fun to look at, it has a "page turn” mode with a surprise.

You can also see memorabilia like Poe’s writing desk (Martin Gardner would have loved to include this coincidence in the Annotated Alice in Wonderland where he discusses the Mad Hatter's famous riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”) and cigarette cards featuring Poe, including one from a series called “Histories of Poor Boys Who have become Rich and Other Famous People series”, Poe presumably being one of the "other famous people". There's also a competition for the best parody of "The Raven".

To finish, two books:

Mystery Writers of America presents In the shadow of the master : classic tales by Edgar Allan Poe
"This compulsively readable collection, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's birth, unites some of Poe's best short works (including The Black Cat, The Raven, and The Fall of the House of Usher) with commentary by a slew of Edgar Award winners and nominees… Opining on The Tell-Tale Heart, Stephen King doesn't miss a beat. Poe foresaw the darkness of generations far beyond his own, he writes. Ours, for instance." (Allison Block, Booklist).


Japanese tales of mystery and imagination by the mysterious Edagawa Rampo

October 01, 2009

What I'm reading: offbeat biographies

Harbingers of summer, the bumblebees are back in my Scotch broom whirring, foraging and pollinating their little heads off. Is it just a coincidence that I am in an exceptionally fertile book pillaging moment? In particular, I’m having a lucky run of biographies, always a favourite read since my childhood library introduced me to the genre with the “little orange biographies” series of famous Americans, noted for always opening with a foretoken of future greatness: “Ben, where are you?" called Mrs. Franklin. “That boy,” she sighed."Always with his head in the clouds, him and his kite."

Here are three offbeat biographies (actually memoirs) I've been reading:

1. Found by chance: Stuart, a life backwards by Alexander Masters
While snooping in the mending shelf at Parnell Library, my eye was caught by a book cover with a drawing of a man in a big blue armchair, half-consumed cigarette dangling from his fingers, and a spine label saying it was the biography of someone whose last name started with SHO. I picked it up and skimmed the last few pages as I usually do when considering a book. Someone named Stuart was hit and killed by the 11:15 PM London to Kings Lynn train. I read, “Death had just shrieked past like a stinking black eagle and made off with a remarkable man”.

Who was this remarkable man Stuart Sho----- (a quick flip through the pages revealed no mention of a last name) and why was some Alexander Masters writing about him in terms like that? A journalist? A literary agent? Carol, the Parnell Community Librarian and invariably up-to-date reader, was as mystified as I was. We were off to a meeting but not before I made her promise to release the book to me as soon as the bandages came off.

When it duly arrived and I started reading it, I realized that I had actually seen this book reviewed. Stuart is an ex-homeless, ex-junkie, still a “chaotic" as they call it, often funny and at times psychopathic person, and the book is both a narrative by Alexander Masters of how he and Stuart meet and become friends, and a working back through Stuart’s past, prompted by Masters, who is trying to find out where it all went so wrong for him. Stuart isn’t. He wants to be in a Tom Clancy-type novel and he worries that it will be a boring book. It's not, Stuart!

2. By a friend’s orders: Manhattan, when I was young by Mary Cantwell
When Julian Dashper told me, soon after we met, that I had to read this book, I thought that in that way in which people, when they are at an impressionable age, fall in love with a certain place or time through its books, or art, or music, that for Julian it would have been New York in the glory days of the 50s and 60s when Mary Cantwell was clicking through mid-town Manhattan in shoes called pumps on her way to her job writing smart copy for Mademoiselle magazine, living in Greenwich Village, drinking espresso at the Peacock Café.

I did get it out then, but I never finished it, although it was, well, sweet. Then when Julian died I was struck by the urge to go back and read the whole thing. It was checked out to another friend of Julian’s. “I didn’t finish it”, she said when I saw her at his funeral. “But it was sweet.”

Now that I’ve read the whole thing I think that what Julian liked, as much as the descriptions of place, was the feeling which pervades the book of what it’s like when you’re young and romantic and you want something so much it’s palpable. “I look like New York.” Mary Cantwell would say to herself in her giddy teenage moments, checking out her face in the mirror, and that’s where she went, with her “suitcase full of unsuitable clothes”. And what happened afterwards, which as it turns out was not all sweet by any means, she counted a fair bargain.

3. Reserved online after spotting review: The afterlife by Donald Antrim
My grandmother had red hair and “the lovely high cheekbones for arrogance”, as Hemingway said of his first wife Hadley. I’m sure they served her well when she swept all the French perfumes off the counter at Saks Fifth Avenue to shatter on the floor, after the snooty saleswoman insulted her husband who had undergone a laryngectomy for esophageal cancer. In her youth she had studied with the Ballets Russes -- "just long enough to justify a Grand Tour" she confided -- and earned herself the newspaper headline “Student of Russian Ballet Master Enlivens Rather Dull Evening at Nice by Executing Original Steps Before Municipal Casino Crowd”.

She was also an alcoholic, which meant rambling late night phone calls which my father would try to foist off on us kids suddenly unanimously overwhelmed by homework, and in-person appearances and then sudden disappearances as dictated by the quarrel or grudge of the moment, but also funny letters about things like what it smells like if you put out your cigarette in a tube of airplane glue. Donald Antrim’s mother was also an alcoholic, and this is the book he wrote – not so much about what it was like for him, as trying to figure out what he thinks about what it was like. I’m about half-way through. Whatever else happens, just the description of her bizarre “artistic” fashion creation kimono will have made this book worth the read, bringing back so vividly as it does all the feelings, including love, these fantastic and troubling people inspire.

Viva Neruda!

Gracias Roberto Bolaño, for so ranting about Pablo Neruda that you have spurred me to read him again. 
Yes, because I still have the first book of Neruda's poetry I bought, Residence on Earth. I must have been very young, judging from the prettiness of my signature on the flyleaf and the $3.75 (American) price. It contains the beautiful Ode to Federico Garcia Lorca, the one that says "Así es la vida, Federico", "That's the way life is, Federico". I've just gone and looked it up. It says "What are verses for if not for that night / in which a bitter dagger finds us out". Lorca was killed by Franco's nationalists the next year.

Some years later I bought the other book I have of Neruda ("$5" is pencilled on the flyleaf of this one), a second-hand copy of Cien sonetos de Amor, the 100 love sonnets which he wrote for his beloved wife Matilde Urrutia. This is the book I got down from the shelf today when I needed a break from the frustrating prose of The Savage Detectives.

Pablo Neruda was in his fifties when he wrote these poems. For years I have remembered a line in a book without being able to remember the name of the book (perhaps someone out there can?) The line is : "He understood that lyric poetry was virtually impossible for the old, for how can an old man say he will die of unrequited love when he knew he didn't?"

Here's how:

No estés lejos de mí un solo día, porque cómo,
porque, no sé decirlo, es largo el día,
y te estaré esperando como en las estaciones
cuando en alguna parte se durmieron los trenes.
No te vayas por una hora porque entonces
en esa hora se juntan las gotas del desvelo
y tal vez todo el humo que anda buscando casa
venga a matar aún mi corazón perdido.
Ay que no se quebrante tu silueta en la arena,
ay que no vuelen tus párpados en la ausencia:
no te vayas por un minuto, bienamada,
porque en ese minuto te habrás ido tan lejos
que yo cruzaré toda la tierra preguntando
si volverás o si me dejarás muriendo.

Don't go away from me even for a day, because just as,
because, I don’t know how to say it, the day is long
and I'll be waiting for you as in stations
when the trains are all off some place, sleeping.
Don't go even for an hour, for then
in that hour the drops of sleeplessness will run together
and all the smoke that's out there looking for a home
might come and kill even my lost heart.
Oh, may your silhouette never break up on the sand,
oh, may your eyelids never flutter into absence:
Don’t leave me even for a minute, my beloved,
because in that minute you’ll have gone so far
that I'll wander across the whole world asking
If you are coming back or leaving me to die.

"I have made a pact with beauty" Neruda said before he died.

If you like this poem, translated by Ana la Española and myself, as literally as possible while still keeping it readable (Read the poem out loud in Spanish to get the full experience! Go on!) get The poetry of Pablo Neruda, the most comprehensive collection of Neruda's poems in English. It contains 600 poems translated by top translators, with the major works given also in the original Spanish.

September 29, 2009

Bukowski's Christmas present

A 'Report from the Bibliographic Bunker' on this month begins: “On Christmas Day, 1990, Charles Bukowski received a Macintosh IIsi computer and a laser printer from his wife, Linda. The computer utilized the 6.0.7 operating system and was installed with the MacWrite II word processing program. By January 18 of the next year, the computer was up and running and so, after a brief period of fumbling and stumbling, was Bukowski.”

How amazing is that! Two hours away down the California coast, I too was receiving a Mac for Christmas! Well, maybe two years and two hours away, I’m not really sure, it might have been 1988, but what are a couple of years in the cosmic scheme of things? I had it up and running the same day. It wasn’t hard, you just read the little book – what was it called again, oh yes, the manual - which came with it, and then you could put the manual on your rug and use it as a mouse pad for your one-click mouse.

The old Macs were so cool. I don't think anything else as cool was ever invented during my lifetime, or at least that portion of my lifetime since I've known about cool. I can think of handy things like suitcases with wheels or cell phones, even notably crazy things like the Concorde, but nothing as cool as the Mac. The two major coolnesses were 1) the way they looked and 2) they were absolutely incompatible with Windows which, having just been purchased by IBM, was pretty clearly going to be the industry standard, so if you chose the Mac you were happy to be completely cut off from mainstream America. I’m sure Linda was on to that.

Despite the fact - a bit mysterious - that it took 24 days to get Bukowski’s Mac up and running, it appears that he took happily to the new technology, writing a poem to the Intel chip (it’s reprinted in the Report) and musing that “There is something about seeing your words on a screen before you that makes you send the word with a better bite, sighted in closer to the target. I know a computer can’t make a writer but I think it makes a writer better. Simplicity in writing and simplicity in getting it down, hot and real.”

This is just the opposite of what I’d always assumed, which was that computers were to blame for the way some authors of the last 20 years have driven me crazy recently by including in their books what appears to be every single thing that passes through their heads. That would be Rick Moody (everything after The Ice Storm, a very good book rife with exhiliration and pain), Dave Eggers (everything), and Jonathan Franzen (I only ever tried The Corrections and when the daughter’s second or third long story started up I had to fast forward to the end, which made me cry -- the ending, not the fast-forwarding). Maybe I’m wrong, and this lack of discrimination is about temperament, and not operational at all.

The 'Report from the BB' goes on to contrast Bukowski’s interest in new technology with William S. Burroughs’s point of view, expressed in an interview in 1987, that you know, it just didn’t seem worth the trouble to figure out how to use a computer, although apparently he had one in the house. This inspired someone named Egil (a real name?) to comment that in his old age Burroughs may have preferred “something reliable like a gun.” I mentally shrieked. Egil, are you sure that “reliable” is the right choice of word? You mean like that thing made of steel which if you’re not careful you can kill someone with? What, he did?

Now, for a genius take on the problems of adjusting to new technology, watch this gem from the show "Øystein og jeg" on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), "The Medieval Help Desk". Don't worry, it's subtitled!

September 25, 2009

Library Quiz

"For the winter's rains and ruins are over
And all the season of snow and sins..."
 -- Swinburne

Yes, it's Spring, and with Spring comes the Library Quiz. My team picked “Authors” for its double-points round. This had seemed a good choice for our group of inveterate readers, but we hadn’t reckoned with just how much information is contained in the fine mind of Iain Sharp, esteemed man of letters and composer of the Authors round questions, and furthermore, we carelessly neglected to consider the factor of the Gaelic impishness. We managed half. See how you do:

1. This woman was Sir Edmund Hillary’s favourite author. She is also mentioned in Maurice Gee’s new novel, Access Road. Who is she?

2. The cousin of which renowned novelist was among the victims of English serial killers Fred and Rose West?

3. The soundtrack for the Wim Wenders film “The Million Dollar Hotel” features a song by U2 with lyrics credited to which Booker Prize-winning author?

4. There’s no prize for knowing that Pride and Prejudice was written by Jane Austen, but which renowned novelist helped write the script for the 1940 movie version starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier?

 5. This oil painting by William Frith is part of Auckland Art Gallery’s permanent collection. The little man anxiously biting his nails is 18th-century poet Alexander Pope. Who is the woman – herself a distinguished travel writer – laughing heartily at his marriage proposal?

6. Which three early 19th-century authors did Douglas Walton, Elsa Lanchester and Gavin Gordon portray in a 1935 film classic?

1. Georgette Heyer
2. Martin Amis
3. Salman Rushdie
4.  Aldous Huxley
5.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
6.  Respectively, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. The film was James Whale’s camp classic The Bride of Frankenstein.

September 16, 2009

Strange language

From our guest blogger, Nick:

This from the New York Times, via Ed Park’s blog, via Jenny Davidson’s blog, via probably someone else: 

“It’s hard to say why I like walking backwards,” said Yang De Fu, 60, who does it for an hour in the morning and again in the evening. “It can exercise muscles you don’t use when you walk forward. And it just makes me comfortable. I’ve been doing it 20 years.”  He explained that walking backward forces the tummy in and the back straight. Then he walked away, backward. He did not have to turn around to wave. 

This scenario is a concrete example of the concept I always heard at art school of “making the familiar unfamiliar”. Experiencing something you think you know in an unexpected way is something that art, literature, physical activity, funnily allows. It sometimes happens when English is used by people for whom it is not their first language, like when Javier Bardem likens John Malkovich to a big Pizza Hut (favourably). 

In an article about quitting a habit, David Sedaris has written this:  

When it came to verb conjugation, she was beyond reproach, but every so often she’d get a word wrong. The effect was not a loss of meaning but a heightening of it. I once asked if her neighbor smoked, and she thought for a moment before saying, “Karl has . . . finished with his smoking.” 

And here is a story by Lydia Davis, from her collection Samuel Johnson is indignant

Happiest Moment 

If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.

September 01, 2009

Naked Lunch's anniversary

I’ve been carrying Naked Lunch around with me for at least a month and I think it’s time to realise that I am just not going to read more than the approximately 50 scattered pages I read during the first 36 hrs after I picked it up: about 25% of it, more or less the same amount as I read the first time I encountered it. That was in the guise of Il pasto nudo, in Italy, at some point in my twenties, at the house of a friend who had once seen William S. Burroughs at JFK Airport, I seem to recall. Or maybe he had made a pilgrimage to Burroughs’s house, and it was Cousin Joe (also very old and very cool, but a bluesman) that he stood in line behind at JFK?

Never mind. I think it’s right in the spirit of Burroughs to just read bits and pieces, my own personal cut-up, you might say. The official caretaker of the Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas cheerfully admits to never having gotten through Naked Lunch either. In fact, I could even have read less of it, and still appreciated it just as much. These lines alone, just at the start, when he has run into the subway fleeing from a narc and is racing for the train, would have sufficed for me to unreservedly call it a great book:

"Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me. I am evidently his idea of a character. You know the type: comes on with bartenders and cab drivers, talking about right hooks and the Dodgers, calls the counterman in Nedick’s by his first name. A real asshole."

How do I know the track record of the official caretaker of the Burroughs house? Because it’s the 50th anniversary of the publication of Naked Lunch this year, and that intrigues me, so I've been reading up. Of the many, the one I liked the best was the one Duncan Fallowell wrote in the New Statesman in July. He had some interesting things to say about Naked Lunch. First he amazed me by calling it the last of the landmark modern novels. What? It’s revolutionary. How can it be the last of something?

So I asked myself, well, what does Fallowell probably think the first modern novel is? And I realised it would probably be Ulysses. And then it made sense. I had a sudden vision of all these grand old men of modernity, in those black and white photos we see of them, aged, ravaged, intense: Joyce, Beckett, Orwell. W.H. Auden. Ezra Pound. Burroughs. It’s like The Wild Bunch, and he is definitely one of them, and yeah, probably the last.

At the end, this stabbing observation: 'His essential message – escape the machine – could well be more relevant, and difficult to emulate, than ever.'

You can read the article online.

When Burroughs died in 1997, phoned J.G.Ballard and asked him what Burroughs had meant to him. Absolute honesty, he said:

"Burroughs called his greatest novel "Naked Lunch," by which he meant it's what you see on the end of a fork. Telling the truth. It's very difficult to do that in fiction because the whole process of writing fiction is a process of sidestepping the truth. I think he got very close to it, in his way, and I hope I've done the same in mine."

You can read all the interview on It's good to remember J.G. Ballard, who departed from this world he believed so strongly in seeing and writing about from "both sides of my retina", as he used to say, earlier this year.

Some other things I found:
A website with the covers of all of Burroughs’s novels, and their translations, through the years. Really fun to look at. Syringes of all shapes and sizes of course, but also serious attempts to depict a hallucinating eye, and even a naked… woman for the Yugoslavs. I see that the French translator, rather than Dejeuner Nu, which would have seemed the obvious choice, with its echo of Dejeuner sur l’herbe -- what more naked lunch than that? some say it was Burroughs’s inspiration -- chose Festin Nu, or Naked Banquet, as in Cezanne’s great painting Le Festin, the Banquet, quite energetically Nu itself.

On you can read about the anniversary celebrations around the world. I quote from the Parisian symposium programme “The session before lunch makes connections between Burroughs, French culture, and traditions of drug-taking through three very different approaches". No mention of what happens at lunch. Aperitif hour, however, offers “Fiona Paton focuses on the spiritual dimension in Naked Lunch by focusing on recurrent imagery of ectoplasm”.

Lawrence Kansas was the one I liked the most, for the photo of Burroughs they chose, for having a show of WSB’s art called “Naked leftovers”, for putting on the program (have to spell it this way) an accordion serenade and “some of the Old Man’s favorite songs on the iPod”.

Lawrence Kansas reminds me of a good book: Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti – it’s actually Albert Einstein’s brain which he is driving across the US (it's a true story), together with the pathologist who had kept it after the autopsy. This pathologist happened to have lived next door to WSB in Lawrence and they stop in to visit him. I drove through Kansas once and I am sure we stopped in Lawrence for either the world’s deepest well, or the world’s best catfish. Unfortunately it wasn’t when Burroughs was living there. I checked. What do I remember about Kansas? The wind, the cowboy boots, and the way the natives threw around names like "Dodge City", as in "There's a great shopping mall up in Dodge City."

Other things that 1959 brought the world besides Naked Lunch:
1. Picasso was working on the sketches for his "Dejeuner sur l’herbe". He didn’t actually put his brush to the canvas until 1960 but I had to put this in anyway. The Musee d’Orsay had an exhibition this year on the Picasso- Manet Dejeuners.
2. Asterix
3. The first Barbie doll
4. The first Mini
5. The first Aluminum Beer Can
6. The Historic Monkey flight, ie the first time a living being (actually 2) went into space and came back alive. You just know this had to have influenced Burroughs.

Two recommended online reads

William Burroughs Interview by Paris Review, 1965 Beats In Kansas: The Beat Generation in the Heartland

And a book to get from the library:
Last words : the final journals of William S. Burroughs

Best books about boxing

When I was growing up I always thought of my father as someone who looked down on sports, but later I realised that it was just team sports he didn’t like. He loved top performers. He watched Wimbledon. He watched the Olympic divers and sprinters and skiers. And he watched boxing. He saw Sonny Liston lose the heavyweight championship of the world to Cassius Clay, and I remember overhearing him say that Sonny Liston had thrown the fight. I wanted to know what it meant, and I guess once I knew that I asked why. Never one to underestimate children, he would not only have mentioned organised crime, but probably attempted an exposition of the Faustian bargain as well.

Well, it was a fascinating riddle to me and it must have lodged itself inside my brain, so that last week, when I was looking up a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis by Nick Tosches on the library catalogue and discovered that he had written a book about Sonny Liston, I found myself rushing upstairs to grab it off the shelf, like the brainwashed agents in that old Charles Bronson spy movie who twenty years later are reawakened by a line of poetry and compelled to go and blow up missile sites.

Nick Tosches is a writer I’ve always liked. In the first photo I saw of him he looked a bit like John Cassavetes (though he doesn’t really) and the first book of his I picked up had a great dedication, with lines like “to those who broke and entered with me / into the cathedral of the heart, / to those who took my back / in right and in wrong.” That’s what his prose is like, Little Italy tough-guy with moments of sentiment but not sentimentalism, and an echo of Dante, except that Dante was never brutal, and he rhymed.

The book is called Night train, after the song Liston liked to work out to, and I read it in two nights. I would have read it in one if I hadn't had to go to work the next day. It’s dark and disturbing, like Sonny Liston, who turns out to have been the archetype of “bad”. I didn't know. The book quotes Liston comparing boxing to a cowboy movie, with the good guys and the bad guys. “’The bad guys are supposed to lose. I change that,’ he had said. ‘I win’.” But Tosches's take is, “He rode a fast dark train from nowhere, and it dumped him at that falling-off place at the end of the line.”

On the lighter side, this book was directly responsible for me watching the DVD of Fight Club last night. I had never wanted to see it because I had imagined it as something World Wrestling Federation types watched, not to mention the problem of pretentious Brad Pitt, but it was proposed to me, and after Night train, men beating each other up didn't sound so shallow after all, so I watched it. Once I would have cried “foul” about the scene where the narrator pounds the guy’s face into pulp, but not any more. Now I’m looking forward to the book, my first Chuck Palahniuk novel ever. I see a whole new world opening up here.

Vice versa, here’s a book I've read which everyone should read: The fight, the book Norman Mailer wrote about the Rumble in the Jungle -- the famous match held in Zaire with which Muhammad Ali won his world championship back from George Foreman. Boxing fans have deemed it the best book ever about boxing, but I just love it for how convulsively funny it is, not to mention exceedingly sharp, and, just often enough, from-the-heart eloquent. It's Mailer totally in command. Here he is on George Foreman:

syndetics-lc"He came out from the elevator dressed in embroidered bib overalls and dungaree jacket and entered the lobby of the Inter-Continental flanked by a Black on either side. He did not look like a man so much as a lion standing just as erectly as a man. He appeared sleepy but in the way of a lion digesting a carcass."

And lastly, there's Hemingway’s classic, great story about the shadowy world of boxing and the mob, “The killers”, which you can now read online -- hard to believe, if you are acquainted with the Hemingway family’s possessiveness with regard to their precious “brand”, including their attempt to stop the Hemingway look-alike contest in Key West from proceeding as not being respectful enough (or not having paid them enough).

This from the family that had the bad taste to bring us the Ernest Hemingway line of rifles! I saw the advertisement in an U.S. magazine with my own eyes.

Read "The Killers"

And get from the library

Night train by Nick Tosches

Fight club (DVD)

Fight club (the novel)

The fight by Norman Mailer

August 31, 2009

Dedications, again

Happy Anniversary!
Books in the City made its debut one year ago with a post called “Dedicated to the one I love”, honouring the well-written book dedication. Since then I’ve run into a few more good ones and here they are, in celebration of a year in which I’ve really enjoyed the blog! and hope all of you out there reading have too.

syndetics-lc1. To Leanora: WE ARE MY FAVORITE STORY 

A book called 20th century ghosts caught my eye because the author was named Joe Hill, as in “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night”, an old song my father used to sing (as did Joan Baez) about the ghost of a slain union organizer. I flipped through the first pages to see if maybe it was a pen name – and found instead this dedication.

For the pen name, I still don’t know, but think probably so:  our very knowledgeable fiction selector told me he is Stephen King’s son. I’m tempted to read the whole book, or at least the story “Pop Art” which Christopher Golden in his introduction says is his favourite, and which opens with these lines: “My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable. His name was Arthur Roth, which also made him an inflatable Hebrew, although in our now-and-then talks about the afterlife, I don't remember that he took an especially Jewish perspective."

syndetics-lc2. To Remington Portable No. NC69411

Cornell Woolrich, author of Rear window, father of noir fiction, alcoholic recluse and tortured soul, dedicated The Bride Wore Black to his typewriter.

3. Tad Williams, "To my father..."

Tad Williams dedicated the four volumes of his “Otherland” science fiction series like this:

Book 1: "This Book is dedicated to my father Joseph Hill Evans with love. Actually Dad doesn’t read fiction, so if someone doesn’t tell him about this, he’ll never know."

syndetics-lcBook 2: "This Book is dedicated to my father Joseph Hill Evans with love. As I said before, Dad doesn’t read fiction. He still hasn’t noticed that this thing is dedicated to him. This is Volume Two – let’s see how many more until he catches on."

Book 3: "This is still dedicated to you-know-who, even if he doesn’t. Maybe we can keep this a secret all the way to the final volume."

Book 4: "My father still hasn't actually cracked any of the books – so, no, he still hasn't noticed. I think I’m just going to have to tell him. Maybe I should break it to him gently. 'Everyone here who hasn't had a book dedicated to them, take three steps forward. Whoops, Dad, hang on there for a second...' "

syndetics-lc4. For C.K. Stead who, like execution, concentrates the mind.

-- Michael King, in Tread softly for you tread on my life.

Thanks to Steve Braunias for this one.

5. For H. Rider Haggard fan Kelly (my dedication):

The Faithful but Unpretending Record of A Remarkable Adventure is Hereby Respectfully Dedicated by the Narrator ALLAN QUATERMAIN to All The Big and Little Boys Who Read It

-- H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s mines.

Stephenie's choice

Chalk one up for New Zealand, even if she didn’t know it! From the August 17th entry on the website of Stephenie Meyer, yes, the Stephenie Meyer, the only author to merit her own voice on Auckland City Libraries’ book-buying budget for 2009-2010:

"I didn't have a ton of time to read this summer, but I did discover one really wonderful two-book series. Dreamhunter and Dreamquake by Elizabeth Knox. It is like nothing else I've ever read. The characters are so real, you'll feel like you know exactly what they look like and how their voices sound and what they would say or do in any given situation. More than that, you'll want to hang out with them. Then the world is so amazing and unique. You will want to go there. You will want to walk into "the Place." And you will want to sleep in a dream opera."

I was surprised that with all that gush she wasn’t struck at all by the uncommon New Zealand component, whether of the author or the place. It’s not yelled about, in fact on the first book the publishers didn’t see fit to mention it, but the back cover flap of number 2, Dreamquake, definitely states that Elizabeth Knox lives in Wellington, New Zealand. And as for the setting, an island republic called Southland, settled by the English, with a capital city called Founderston, where there are “bush bees” buzzing around, mossy forests and waterfalls, well, you can see why Wikipedia’s entry for Elizabeth Knox calls it an”alternate New Zealand-like republic”, expanded in the entry on Dreamhunter to “an alternate universe Edwardian version of a New Zealand or Tasmania-like island republic” (I'm guessing that would be the Dream component).

But when we move to the teens, somehow, New Zealand disappears: unquestioningly declares that Dreamhunter is "set in the beginning of 20th-century Australia”. I’ll refrain from being pedantic about the syntax, but I can’t help wondering if this teen reviewer learned geography at that superb piece of Americana which is the International House of Pancakes restaurant chain (International = 100 American pancake-types plus Swedish pancakes), at one of which a few years back I overheard a vacationing Kiwi family commenting on how New Zealand had been left off the colour-in map of the world on the back of the kiddie menu.

Or was it from one of the many boardgames included in the list “Oh my god, we have fallen off the map OR New Zealand, the amazing disappearing country” on “” which was started by an Aucklander (I am loathe to give the name as I am sure I will do something uncool like think it’s his name when it is actually his cyber persona) noticing that there’s no New Zealand on the Risk gameboard.

I think I only played Risk once or twice in my life, we didn't have it in our house as my parents didn’t see the point of buying any board game more modern than Scrabble, but the little girl next door did, just one of many typical Southern California things she had and we didn’t, come to think of it, such as toy ponies, Dr. Suess books, a television and divorced parents. I didn’t show any talent for it anyway, so thought it a better investment to spend my time lobbying for a Clue game. However Risk appears to have been so popular as to have inspired many more world-map games, involving also timely things like pandemics and historical things like exploration, all bearing the gene for No-New Zealandness, including, ironically, one about 18th century exploration called Endeavour.

Is this the other side of the coin of that comment by someone named Eric Korn in the TLS, who, reviewing the book Spike and Co, related how he had learned with horror that the BBC had inadvertently wiped eighty of the first hundred Goon shows:

The Saga of the HMS Aldgate, Operation Bagpipes, and The Building of Britain’s First Atomic Cannon, all gone into the dark, unless some Goonophile in Wellington or Ouagadougou has a tape.” (TLS, Feb. 23 2007)

Now what do Wellington and Ouagadougou have in common, you might ask? All I found, in a quick browse of traveler feedback on the internet, is no noted tourist traps.

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