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 Trashfiction.com 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. Coverbrowser.com 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.

Bookcoverarchive.com 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 4degreez.com 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.

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