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.

August 01, 2009

The Price of the Man Booker

The Longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2009 was announced on July 28th. If you haven't already seen it, here it is, including the book which, rumour has it, hasn’t even appeared in print yet -- that would be JM Coetzee's Summertime, which makes it on by droit de seigneur, or, as they call it, fishing a title.

AS Byatt The Children's Book
JM Coetzee Summertime
Adam Foulds The Quickening Maze
Sarah Hall How to paint a dead man
Samantha Harvey The Wilderness
James Lever Me Cheeta
Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall
Simon Mawer The Glass Room
Ed O'Loughlin Not Untrue & Not Unkind
James Scudamore Heliopolis
Colm Toibin Brooklyn
William Trevor Love and Summer
Sarah Waters The Little Stranger
Here’s what I’ve been doing since I got the news:

1. I put my foot in my mouth in front of Carole Beu of the Women's Bookshop (yes Carole I saw your look, even if I could also see that a minute later you had forgiven me) by saying that I always get Sarah Hall and Sarah Waters mixed up and now it was going to be worse than ever.

2. I had a quick look at the US Indie bestsellers list, the only list I trust, and …unbelievable! – one of the books is on it! That would be… Brooklyn, home to a great bridge, some great Spike Lee movies, and an interesting indie bookstore or two, I’m sure.

3. I had a good chuckle reading the opinion of a British author named Damien G. Walter, writer of weird and speculative fiction (as his blog announces), in a piece he titled “The Booker longlist is ignorant and bigoted". It begins:

In previous years I have compared the Booker judges to the organising committee of a village fete. This year I think it would be fairer to ditch the metaphors and out them as the ethnicaly pure, upper middle class cartel they are. The only praise I can think to heap upon The Booker is that it is at least open in its utter class snobbery and borderline bigotry.

And lets be clear, the reason names such as China Mieville, Ian McDonald, Iain Banks, M John Harrison, Neil Gaiman, Jon Courtney Grimwood or any of the other superlative British authors of speculative fiction are excluded without consideration from The Booker, is nothing to do with quality of writing and everything to do with social discrimination. The Booker Prize and the literary fiction it rewards are the province of a small minded and ignorant cultural elite who are desperate to cling onto status and power.

The phrase “ethnically pure, upper middle class cartel” linked to the Man Booker website where the judges were presented thusly:

“An eclectic line-up of judges was announced on Tuesday 16th December for the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction."

Damien G. Walter has a point. Eclectic, you say? Hmm, let’s see:

James Naughtie – BBC broadcaster and academic ;
Lucasta Miller - author of a book about the Brontes;
John Mullan – broadcaster and academic;
Michael Prodger – literary editor and judge of a BBC literary prize;
Sue Perkins – broadcaster and “is filming a BBC show” where she eats offal and cow brains in restrictive corsetry.

Sue would definitely be their only hope to gain eclecticism standing, I say, although I think eclecticism might actually have to be a plural thing.

4. I discovered on

 The Price of the Two Nest-eggs:

A Literary prize French, created in 1933 - the very same day of the handing-over of the Prix Goncourt with André Malraux - with the terrace of the coffee the Two Nest eggs by the writer Roger Vitrac and a Bibliothécaire (nb from Karen: means Librarian). They joined together at once a jury of thirteen Auteurs which brought each one 100 francs and selected the Grass of Raymond Queneau.
Raymond Queneau, an Auteur who was obsessed with experimenting with language, would have loved this marvelous piece of writing, created perhaps by automatic online translation, our century’s version of the automatic writing his surrealist friends practiced, or maybe by a modern incarnation of Zazie, the heroine of his most famous, wonderful and funny book Zazie in the metro, about a girl from the provinces who comes to Paris to ride the metro, and can't because there was a strike, and engages with this problem -- and with life in general -- in a slang all her own.

The “Price of the Two Nest-eggs” is actually a certain “Prix des Deux Magots”, a prize sponsored by the famous sidewalk café ("the terrace of the coffee" above) in Saint-Germain-des-Pres where half of literary Paris hung out during the past century, from Hemingway down through Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The other half were at the Café de Flore. Of one of the two, I can never remember which, it was said that if you sat there long enough everyone you knew would walk by. Deux magots does not mean two nest-eggs, or even two maggots; it means the Café's two wooden statues of Chinese merchants.

I hope no one is offended by my laughing at bad Franglais. I mean, if you can't laugh at Franglais, well, what can you laugh at?

And finally... The Price of the Man Booker?
That would be L.50,000, I think. Give or take a sou.

Remembering James K. Baxter

I didn’t make it to Jerusalem
but I heard midsummer thunder shake the weatherboards
of a run-down villa in Grafton.
Once in Vulcan Lane he came toward me
a familiar stranger in the rain
a poet of Aotearoa
he fixed me with the obsidian eye of a leathery tuatara.
His beard was a worn-out broom that had cleared the road to Jerusalem.
The day I heard he died I flew my heart like a flag at half-mast
With no other way to grieve walked suddenly alone and desolate
beneath the Moreton Bay figs of Albert Park.

This is the start of Bob Orr’s poem “Jerusalem”, from his book Calypso. He's one of my favourite poets (I love the mix of somewhat stoned imagery and straight shots of emotion) and people (though I have only talked to him twice), and he came to read this poem at Poetry Central, our Montana Poetry Day event, where this year we were celebrating James K. Baxter with two brand-new books to hand.

John Newton was there with his book The double rainbow, the story of the Jerusalem commune, which he calls Baxter’s undiscovered masterpiece. “Jerusalem was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it, its logical destination, even its most vivid accomplishment.“

I find it a remarkable book, not just for how much I learned about people and times still largely unknown to me, but for how John’s driving desire to draw insight from “the vast reservoir of memory” out there is permeated by such absolutely genuine modesty. His one theoretical imperative, he says, is “that I should try to write a book that reads truly to the people represented in it.” And finally, “I hope it’s only a first telling of the story rather than a final one.”

The other book is an almost fit-in-your-pocket volume called James K. Baxter poems selected and introduced by Sam Hunt, another great poetry book from Auckland University Press after Fast talking PI and Mirabile Dictu.  AUP books are always well-designed, but when I found this book on my desk, I picked it up and just sat there with it in my hands, staring at it, running my hands over it, didn’t even get a chance to read it, ended up just stuffing it in my bag and taking it home.

When I did get to reading it the other night, the book kept me up until all hours, reading just one more and just one more, until there were no more to read. I turned off the light and had that same feeling that you get after a long journey with train rides, plane rides, all sorts of rides, vending machines, hard benches, watching someone who reminds you of someone, lots of coffees, magazines, finally you’re home, you take off your clothes with the stain from two cities ago, you climb into bed and close your eyes, but the thoughts keep whirling in your head. Who was that person? How did it go again what she said?

In his very, very good introduction, with its few, choice, simply told stories to laugh and cry about, Sam Hunt says that he picked only the poems which really work, the high-octane, read-aloud ones. The ones he can’t forget. Like this one:

Ferry from Lyttelton (1972)

These bare hills have their own non-human beauty,
A country made for angels, not for men.

And the slow bow wash of the ferry
Covers and uncovers the rocks

At the bottom of the cliffs. Always the feeling comes
That one might leap over the side

And sink in the cold water. Not, I think
A desire to kill oneself

But a longing to go back and rest
In the waters of the womb. So, brother,

Button up your coat against the night breeze
Or come and have some toast and coffee

At the curved bar in swivel chairs
Where the waiter is a friend of a friend of a friend.

James K. Baxter poems selected and introduced by Sam Hunt
The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem commune by John Newton

Calypso by Bob Orr

You can read the complete version of Bob Orr's “Jerusalem” on the AUP website

Two Sarahs for the Man Booker

Sarah Waters and Sarah Hall. The day after I wrote about the trouble I have remembering which is which, aggravated by their joint appearance on the Man Booker longlist, I opened the June issue of the Literary Review and chortled Callooh! Callay! It was like being lent an eraser during the maths final and seeing that someone had written the formula on it that you needed. Gradient = rise/run! Page 52, review of The Little Stranger, photo of author Sarah Waters! Page 54, review of How to Paint a Dead Man, photo of author Sarah Hall.

O Sarah Waters (photo caption “exerts a grip”), I will never again mix you up with Sarah Hall (photo caption “delicate”) of the limpid Cumbrian gaze, all lakes, fells, peaks and valleys, and the head girl-hockey star jaw! You, Sarah Waters, with your lived-in face and hoyden’s mussy hair, who called your books “lesbo-romps” and know enough Victorian sexual slang to use some for your title, you are a perfect namesake to the unforgettable Mrs. Waters from Tom Jones, the one great 18th century English novel I’ve read. (Gulliver’s travels and Robinson Crusoe for me belong to that category of books Italo Calvino calls Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, and Moll Flanders I’d say is in another of his categories, Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered).

Mrs. Waters is the woman Tom rescues when he comes across her being attacked on a country highway. He offers her his coat, as her dress is all torn away from her extremely white breasts (I went and reread the scene just now), but she refuses it. Tom walks back to town with her, declaring he will walk in front “for I would not have my eyes offend you and I could not answer for my power of resisting the attractive charms of so much beauty”. Then she keeps needing help to get over the stiles, and before long, it’s the “amorous battle”, as the chapter title has it. The dinner they share became, in Tony Richardson's hands, one of the most famous eating scenes in the history of movies. You can see it, entitled "Lusty eating scene" on the food blog Feeding groom, along with the recipe, should you wish to try this yourself.

I loved Tom Jones. STYLO QUO NON ALIUS UNQUAM INTIMA QUI POTUIT CORDIS reads the inscription on Fielding’s tomb: "No other man was so able to unlock with his pen the recesses of the human heart". Apparently it’s poor Latin, written by a British chaplain in Lisbon, where Fielding died, having gone there to recover from indulging too much in food, drink and the labour of literature.

Sarah Waters’s new book, which I have just gotten out, is not a romp but a ghost story. The Little Stranger, it’s called, and it’s an early favourite for winning the Booker Prize. The Literary Review made it sound really good, in the vein of The Turn of the Screw, once again an “only” for me, the only Henry James novel I’ve read all the way through -- I’ve got his other novels in yet another of Calvino's categories: Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First. I just reread The Turn of the Screw this year when we got new copies at the library. What a perfect book! It would suck me in between its covers, I’d get off at my usual bus stop and think for a second something was wrong, all that asphalt and sun glinting on car roofs. It was supposed to be gravel paths, where you would dread to hear a footstep crunch behind you.

The Little Stranger has a great opening line: “I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old.” It promises to be very scary. I'm seeing the narrator as a bit of a William H. Macy. I count the first crunching gravel on page 5.

Julian Dashper 29 Feb 1960 - 30 July 2009

New Zealand is smaller now, the world is smaller.

When we launched our new website, I asked Julian to contribute a book list with some of his favourite books. He had it back to me the very next day. That's what Julian was like.

Slowly the moon is rising out of the ruddy haze,
Divesting herself of her golden shift, and so
Emerging white and exquisite; and I in amaze
See in the sky before me, a woman I did not know I loved,
 but there she goes, and her beauty hurts my heart;
 I follow her down the night, begging her not to depart.

-- DH Lawrence, Amaze

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