March 29, 2010

Diagram Prize announces year's oddest title!

Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes is the winner of the Diagram Prize for the year’s oddest title, followed by What Kind of Bean is this Chihuahua? and Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich.

My vote had gone to Collectible spoons of the Third Reich. I was disappointed to see it come in behind a kids book (shouldn’t kids books be handicapped, like overly endowed racehorses, in a contest for odd titles?) but Horace Bent, custodian of the prize, more than made it up to me with these comments quoted in the The Bookseller's official announcement on March 26th:

"Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes proved to be the initial front runner. It defended its poll-topping position despite strong support for the spoon-carrying Third Reich, once again attempting to muscle in on someone else’s territory.

"But the public proclivity towards non-Euclidian needlework proved too great for the Third Reich to overcome. If only someone had let the Poles know in ’39.”

Titles have been on my mind recently. I finally got around to reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin, one of my favourite literary personalities since the times of In Patagonia, considered one of the great travel books, which it is, but not only. In Patagonia is the reason why, when we had to clear out my childhood home after my parents died, I put at the top of the list of the things I wanted the fragment of dinosaur egg which a student of my father’s had sent him from some dig somewhere in France, and which resided ever after on the dining room bookshelves amid H Rider Haggard books, family snapshots and rock samples. Those of you who have read In Patagonia will get it: it's my brontosaurus skin. If you haven't read it, do.

When I saw how thick Nicholas Shakespeare's book was, I was afraid that it might be one of those biographies like Norman Sherry’s magnum opus on Graham Greene, in which for every day of Mr. Greene’s life we are given such details as where he had tea and what kinds of cakes he had, or the postcard he sent to his colleague at The Times, and what room that colleague's office was in. But it wasn’t. In fact, 600 pages seemed the only length one could possibly use to close in – a bit – on someone as complicated, contradictory, elusive and talented as Bruce Chatwin.

I kept it on my bedside table and every night for about a month I’d pick it up and read ten or twenty pages wherever the book opened to, and every time there’d be a different -- how does Yeats put it, "the careless planets in their courses”. Loulou de la Falaise, Werner Herzog, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gregor von Rezzori, and so on and so on, and… a British film maker named Peter Adam, who wrote an autobiography with the fantastic title Not drowning but waving. Maybe it’s because I’m not English (I was told, as I went around the library enthusing, that it’s a common phrase in Britain) but for me this went right up on there on the best-ever autobiography titles list.

Who out there has played the game of  'What would be the title of your autobiography'?  Back in my twenties I found this jewel in an old phrasebook for travellers and thought it could be mine: The lady wants hers with cream.

And now I’ve found a new one, for my prime. Danger vehicle exit lane. Driving into the Civic Car Park the other day I caught sight of this trenchant, punctuation free warning on a sign posted alongside the carriageway opposite mine.  My first thought  - I swear this is true - was that it was indicating an exit lane reserved for “danger vehicles” eg giant diggers and such. And it flashed through my mind that if they only knew, they’d be making me use that lane. This was a few days after I’d knocked off a hubcap on the approach to the Hopetown bridge. I had an image of my little white Vitz with its missing hubcap, like a tomcat with a torn ear, bursting out of the Danger vehicle exit lane into the night.

Which is my favourite autobiography title? Probably this one from the great adventurer Beryl Markham, the first person to fly solo over the Atlantic from east to west:

West with the night

At the library:

Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

West with the night by Beryl Markham

March 26, 2010

dear stormbird (Michele Leggott)

dear stormbird  

whose offshore passage I watch
with the ache that means only   I remember
your small weight in my arms
the first time   the great ocean of forgetting
lay before us   ankle-banded
and determined you set off at once
into the storm   I put one blue hemisphere
over another trying to tell the story
and give you a place to come back to
I carved our image in words
that extend over whatever distances
the world will put between us   they are there
when you want them   incised
with metal tools from an elsewhere
that does not matter now   the feathers
on the back are rounded   with a central line
from which smaller lines slope down
on both sides  
bird you will come and go
be lost and found many times
hold tightly to a prow or keep your balance
on a rolling globe   you will be all these things
over under and around the breathing world
with a specific gravity of 2.581 at 60o F
his words not mine   the first time
you were measured and weighed

Posted in honour of Nick and Saskia, and little Agatha, just-new and much-loved.

Michele might not have been thinking about parenthood at all when she wrote this but that was what I saw when I read it. And thinking about it just now, I realise that what makes this poem so affecting to me is not actually that it expresses my feelings as a parent – although it does -- , but that I hope, longingly, that my parents felt thus about me.

"Dear stormbird" is from Mirabile Dictu, the poetry collection which was the fruit of Michele Leggott's stint as the first New Zealand Poet Laureate, published last year by Auckland University Press. As soon as you open this perfectly titled book (Mirabile dictu being Latin for “wonderful to relate”, sometimes given in our times as “Strange to say”) you are hit with a bright turquoise inside cover flap bearing an introduction which to me, who am lucky enough to know Michele Leggott, sounds just like Michele talking: devoid of small talk, open to wonder, and always thinking about poetry.  Here it is:

"Something strange happens every day sometimes up close, sometimes further away. If you can’t see the whole story in one place, you may find it in another. If you know part of it now, you may recognize more of it later though it will have changed in the interim. And then there is the singular moment where we plunge in among particulars of language and say ‘this is the poem, this is the event. I was looking (I was listening) for this.’

"These poems follow the course of a year in which I walked from light into darkness and found ways of making the return trip. They begin in high summer with a poet’s funeral and they range the places and occasions poetry makes for itself in the world. They also attend to the making and naming of gifts present and to come, of people living and dead. They look for what is lost and sometimes they make visible what has disappeared. They are work for the living, relating wonders (mirabile dictu) and closely related to the moment when light and darkness define each other in the camera of the human eye."

You can read online works of Michele's on nzepc, the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, "electronic gateway to poetry resources in Aoteaora/New Zealand"  at the University of Auckland. I especially like h o n e y b e  e:  " I am the dancer on the plate the one in blue / with a honey stomach full of delectable lies..."

At the library we have:
Mirabile Dictu,
As far as I can see , a collection of poems from 1999
and Michele Leggott, a CD of her poetry released last year.

March 15, 2010

Alice in Wonderland on screen

 Everyone knows that things being the way they are supposed to be is the antithesis of Alice in Wonderland. So maybe I shouldn’t confess, but I will anyway, how amiss I felt when I saw the trailer for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice has breasts. It just wasn't right! "Breasts!"

I hope it’s clear that I am not doing anything so boring as to insist on total fidelity to the book. I love the Walt Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. I think the gardeners singing “We’re painting the roses red” are truly catchy and I am seduced by the caterpillar’s smoke rings turning into letters from the words he speaks, as I’m sure Lewis Carroll would have been.

And how can I not adore the movie which gave rise to one of the greatest theme park rides ever, and certainly the most cult: Disneyland's Mad Tea Party spinning tea cups, the scene, I am not ashamed to say, of some of the strongest emotions I've ever experienced.

My current favourite Alice movie is the one by the Czech genius surrealist animator and puppeteer (not sure where to put the commas there) Jan Svankmajer. The little girl who plays Alice is the only screen Alice I’ve ever seen who captures that fearless-child look you see in the famous photographs of Alice Liddell, saved from being too knowing for her years only, and just barely, by the piercing sweetness of the gaze.

Here's the trailer for "Neco z Alenky", as the movie is titled, which my profound knowledge of Czech, aka my library-withdrawn Czech dictionary, says means “Alice from nowhere”, or, alternatively, “Alice from anywhere”.

The British Film Institute National Archive recently restored the earliest film version of Alice in Wonderland and posted it on youtube. It was made in 1903, just 37 years after the book was published. Moving pictures had been around for less than a decade. I kept thinking, as Alice twirls around looking for the key, how there was something that reminded me of Degas's paintings of backstage ballerinas. And then I realized that this film and Degas are contemporaries! I find it amazing.

The director pressed his family's pet into service as the Cheshire Cat. I love how fat and disdainful he is as he floats photomontaged among the tree branches, more often than not looking pointedly in the wrong direction.

At Auckland Libraries you can get:

Disney's Alice on DVD

Tim Burton's Alice on DVD

Alice in Wonderland  in an audiobook of children's classics read by Alan Bennett

Alice in Wonderland, audiobook read by Miriam Margolyes

The Annotated Alice: the complete text of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the looking glass with notes and diagram of the chess game by mathematician Martin Gardner

and we hope to soon be able to put our hands on a DVD of Svankmajer's Alenky as well!

March 01, 2010

Diagram Prize: Cast your vote!

Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter by David Crompton

Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich by James A Yannes

Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Daina Taimina

Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots by Ronald C Arkin

The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease by Ellen Scherl and Maria Dubinsky

What Kind of Bean is This Chihuahua? By Tara Jansen-Meyer

Not the reading list for a very serious Book Club, but the short list for the 2009 edition of everyone's favourite quirky literary award, the Diagram Prize for the year's oddest book title. The Diagram Prize is run by the British trade magazine The Bookseller, in the sense that they organize the voting, but it is the magazine’s diarist Horace Bent who is its guiding spirit and custodian.

Mr. Bent used to select the winner, but since about 2000 (the Diagram Prize, which began as a way of beating boredom at the Frankfurt Book Fair, is over 30 years old) he only creates the short list from titles submitted by the public, who then get to vote their favourites. I haven’t seen it stated but I don’t think the change was his idea. He has been known to grumble over some of the public’s choices, mostly the “rude” titles they have a tendency to pick, such as If you want closure in your relationship, start with your legs which went on to win a few years ago.

He also scoffs at the intentionally odd. "The adage that everyone has a book in them may well be true," he is quoted as saying, "but that doesn't mean every Tom, Dick and Harry out there can bash a few words out on a keyboard and then upload it to Scribd with a humorous title like: The Historic Adventures of the Purple Waffle Iron on His Horse Made of Asparagus, and then think they have a chance at winning my prestigious award. I refuse to acknowledge such submissions."

You can see on The Bookseller website Bent's long list of the titles he felt passed muster. I was curious to see if I had read any of them. I hadn’t, but I feel I did come within a couple of degrees. Just a few weeks ago my eye was caught by a book on a shelving trolley with the odd title Tuna: a love story, and I now see its close relative Bacon: a love story on the longlist.

Okay, I didn't read it all, but I did read the start and other good bits here and there. I was expecting a jokey, David Sedaris-type book about growing up with a Tuna casserole-making Mom. Actually, although it began very funnily (perhaps, in a sort of Diagram moment, without the author even realizing it) by mentioning that the fifteenth century British printer who produced the first treatise about fishing was named Wynkyn de Worde, the book really was a love story to the fish alive and free in the ocean -- when it manages to be, which is scarily always less often, because of the enormous amounts of raw tuna being consumed, in Asia but now also in the western world, where sesame-encrusted slivers now gaze down from the Mt. Olympus of taste on those sad, unlucky melts and casseroles.

Visit the website to vote for your favourite shortlisted title.  The voting closes March 21 and the winner will be announced on March 26.

Tuna: a love story by Richard Ellis, if you're interested in knowing more about this magnificent animal, one of the most highly evolved of the fishes - maybe the most highly evolved, I can't remember now. But I do remember that it makes the longest journey of them all: across the Pacific from California to Japan, where it turns right around and heads back, all of this at 55 mph.

and a book which is not an odd title but a fascinating story, at once nostalgic and unconventional, that I'd like to recommend: Mattanza: love and death in the Sea of Sicily, Theresa Maggio's eye-witness description of the 4000 year old ritual of the Sicilian tuna slaughter (what "mattanza" means). Once a year, in Spring, when the tuna arrive in the Mediterranean to spawn, for one hour the sea turns red. There's a bit of a love story with a fisherman, but the people I've given the book to read ignore that part, just as I did. The sea is the real romance here.

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