November 26, 2011

Loving those BFBs (Big Fat Books)

“A big book is generally referred to as a 'tome', and can be 'a weighty tome' or 'a mighty tome'.” 
I noticed that the person who made this deathless pronouncement on an online forum for helping non-native speakers with the fine points of the English language was banned from further posting. After 8,797 posts! Had he proven to be a sort of Typhoid Mary of the Trite, heedlessly spreading clichés among clueless ESOL speakers, despite perhaps having been warned time and time again about it, just as the infamous healthy carrier would be severely enjoined from working as a cook and yet always end up back in someone's kitchen, preparing her contagion-laden meals?

If so, I ought to alert the Times Literary Supplement, which has been featuring on its back page submissions from the public for a "Dictionary of Received Phrases", modelled on Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues. These are those words which always appear together, like “high dudgeon”. Had you noticed how no one is ever in dudgeon without it being high dudgeon? Ardent admirers, slippery slopes, you get the idea.

I have used the word “tome” in my life, but only drily, and the phrase “a mighty tome” has certainly never escaped my lips. How do I describe, say, Wolf Hall (651 pages)? Offhand, I'd probably say, “A big fat book”. But if you seemed susceptible to it, I might say, “a BFB”, which is my favourite name for those 600+ pagers which you experience almost more as a cohabitation than as a read.

I wish it would catch on more: a whole movement of people talking about their favourite BFBs. (Everyone’s non-favourite BFB being, probably, Infinite Jest (1079 pages). From what I hear it's the most purchased-but-not-read book in publishing history, after Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, that is. I had to chuckle the other day when I spotted a Reader’s Companion to A Brief History of Time on our library shelves - not checked out, you'll notice.)

So to start us off, here are some of my favourite BFBs:

Gone with the wind by Margaret Mitchell (1042 pages)
Gone with the wind marked its 75th anniversary this year. Don't underestimate it, though. I am sure it still boasts a fine-turned leg under its hoopskirts, like those Broadway musical comedy stars who are still high-kicking into their seventies, their hair dyed an improbable red or platinum. I'm pretty sure it's the most bodice-ripping book I've ever read, and I've probably read it five or six times -- I still remember the tattered red cover of my sister's paperback copy which we all shared, even well past the point at which all the pages started falling out. It didn't really matter, of course, as by then we knew most of them by heart. I can still recite the opening line, or at least most of it. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were..."

Added bonus, I can also recite the verse by Ernest Dowson (unhappy, alcoholic poet doomed to die young) which gave Margaret Mitchell her title:

I have forgot much, Cynara, gone with the wind,
flung roses, roses wildly with the throng
dancing to put thy pale lost lilies out of mind...

Added added bonus: in the movie version of Gone with the wind, my great-grandmother, from New York and Boston, played the part of Mrs. Elsing, one of the Atlanta dowagers scandalised by Scarlett's defiant lack of interest in The Cause, as the rebel war effort was known on its home turf. When the movie had to be trimmed from 8 hours to 3 or whatever it eventually ran to, nearly all her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, but her southern accent, which came and went but was quite good when it was there, remained a favourite family story forever.

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (659 pages)
I loved noticing a while back on the library catalogue that this BFB had gone missing on the Library book bus! Did someone at one of the resthomes which the bus visits think that even with all that leisure time it would be tough going to finish it in 4 weeks plus 2 weeks renewal?

What can I say about this book or about Tom Wolfe that Tom Wolfe hasn't said better? I aspire to do enthusiasm the way Tom Wolfe does it. When it comes to that, I aspire to do sarcasm the way he does, too. Rather than compete with the man in the three-piece white suit, I'll just quote the library catalogue summary, which manages to describe Tom Wolfe (I think turning 80 this year definitely qualifies him as vintage) and his book both:

"Vintage Tom Wolfe, the #1 bestseller that will forever define late-twentieth-century New York style."

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1273 pages)
How many times have you seen this book at the top of someone’s list of the greatest books ever written? I myself often think that it’s the best book I have ever read, but I am always loathe to say so, for fear that some other book will come to mind a few minutes later. But maybe after half a lifetime in which I haven’t thought of any, I ought not to worry about it.

The Sun Also Rises, which I read about the same time as War and Peace, may have had a greater influence on me in terms of lifestyle choices, and this other book may have had this other thing, but reading War and Peace truly is one of those standout experiences, like scaling Everest for mountaineers, I suppose, or mastering the Concierto de Aranjuez for guitarists.

My husband told me this story: that when he was a teenager and used to get into terrible arguments with his father, at a certain point his father would say "Have you read War and Peace?" and when he would admit that no, he hadn't, the reply would come back, "Well then, how can you think you understand anything about life? I'm off! No point in arguing with you!" And then, years and years later, he discovered that his father had never actually read War and Peace himself. It didn’t make him angry, though. Because in the meantime he had gone and read it and he figured his father was right.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (800 pages)
I’ve always been a Dickens fan. I come from a family of Dickens fans. My earliest and strongest literary memories include having A Christmas Carol as a bedtime story at Christmas season and subsequently being terrified of being visited after dark by a moaning, clanking ghost; being taken to see David Lean's movie version of Great Expectations and being terrified by the convict materialising out of the fog (in the cemetery, yet!) to grab the hapless Pip, not to mention terminally horrified by Miss Havisham's screams as she burned to death in her papery old wedding gown; and playing a card game called "Authors" where you won points by collecting four cards of the same author, and my oldest sister would always try to pad out a set out of three Charles Dickens (chestnut locks, long curly beard, balding) cards with an Alfred Lord Tennyson (chestnut locks, long curly beard, balding) card.

What I mean is, Dickens and his books, a number of which are BFBs, are a part of my life. But The Pickwick Papers foiled me. Even before I tried unsuccessfully to read it, I had always found the part in Little Women where the March girls refer to each other as characters from The Pickwick Papers a bit irritating. It must have been a premonition, I told myself.

And then one year Paul Reynolds came to my Desert Island Reads event and his chosen book was The Pickwick Papers, which he introduced by saying that it was the funniest book he’s ever read. I told him about my Pickwick Papers problem and he looked at me in that way Paul always had of intently relishing how you’d given him something new to consider, no matter how unearthshattering a topic it might seem, and he said “That’s because you didn’t read far enough. It's no good reading The Pickwick Papers unless you read to where Sam Weller comes into the story. Read as far as Sam Weller and then see.” So not right away, but at some point, I decided to do it, to read as far as Sam Weller. And Paul was absolutely right! As soon as Sam Weller came into the story, I couldn’t wait for night to come to be able to pick up the book again. I might not ever have laughed out loud so many times in the course of reading one book.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (945 pages)
It's hard for me to separate this book from the fantastic television version in which Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones played Captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, not the heroes of the book which has no heroes, just two retired Texas rangers doing their damndest not to go gentle into that good night. It might be hard for Larry McMurtry too, as I believe the book started life as a filmscript, but was then turned into a novel, which had such great success that it was turned back into a script again, this time for television.

I once read an interview with Robert Duvall in which he said that Lonesome Dove was his Hamlet, and this vast epic might be Larry McMurtry's War and Peace. Only, this being the West, the soldiers are cowboys and the campaign is a cattle drive. Instead of Moscow and its salons, there's a town called Lonesome Dove, and a saloon called the Dry Bean. The supporting characters are all unique and colourful and I'm willing to bet you won't need to flip back through the pages to remember who they are, the way you (or at least I) have had to do with more than one Russian novel on first reading (blame it on the patronymics, I say). And most of all, there's Texas. The whole vast boneyard of Texas, which however, as one of the rangers says in the book, does look pretty in the sun.

A suitable boy by Vikram Seth (1349 pages) and A fine balance by Rohinton Mistry (603 pages)
I'm presenting these two BFBs together because that's what they are in my mind, a sort of BFBinary star. For years, when I hadn't read either of them, I could never remember which was which. Now that I've read A fine balance I can usually distinguish between them, although, if I am in one of my periodic bouts of distraction I will sometimes still have to ask, when someone starts talking about A suitable boy (the more often mentioned of the two), "Is that the one with the scene of people chatting on a train?" The reason I know about the scene of people chatting on a train is that at the same Desert Island Reads where Paul Reynolds read from The Pickwick Papers, Jennifer Ward-Lealand read a scene from her favourite book, A suitable boy, which took place on a train. The prevailing sensations were great heat and chattiness, the various tones and accents of which Jennifer rendered fabulously, as she would.

When the conversation turns to A suitable boy, and I have established that it is not the one I read, I try to avoid feeling as if I picked, between the two, the "starter". Certainly there are a lot of people out there, besides Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who are fanatical about A suitable boy, even if not as good at doing the accents. Will it be on my bedside table soon? Hmmm. It might be the fact of having so frequently encountered the word "leisurely" being used about it, as in "a leisurely read", not to mention this noteworthy phrase I once saw being used about it: "The action, if you can call it that...", which makes me think that yes, I will read it someday, but that I might be taking the road to that moment at a leisurely speed.

On the other hand, if I wait too long, I will have two leisurely Vikram Seth reads ahead of me, and I might not actually have enough years left in my life. Vikram Seth is working on a sequel to A suitable boy, due out in 2013.

M by Peter Robb (567 pages)
The person this book is about would approve of my including it here: it isn’t 600+ pages -- although my copy, which I got at a library book sale, is a real brick, must be very thick paper -- plus it clashes with all the other titles for being non-fiction and not a novel; and then, I haven’t even read it.

“M” is how Peter Robb refers to the late-Renaissance painter Caravaggio, christened Michelangelo but known by the name of the Northern Italian town where his family originated, whose greatness I discovered -- late, not until I was given a monograph about him by a famous Italian art historian to translate (no, the library does not hold a copy of my only published oeuvre).

Up until then, Caravaggio to me was luscious boy Bacchuses posed with bowls of luscious fruit. Why had no one ever told me about David holding up the severed head of Goliath, hunted, defeated, but still violent as all hell, and how Caravaggio had given David the semblance of his lover, and Goliath his own? Why had no one told me about the warring light and dark, the white gauze skittering across the breasts of Salomé? The cardsharps, the ugly old women, the ruffians, the dead Madonna the Carmelites contracted him to paint and then wouldn’t hang in their churches because she was so carnal, a whore dragged from the Tiber?

Looking at Caravaggio paintings is a bit like reading Bret Easton Ellis – afterwards it's hard to find a contemporary novel that doesn't seem lackluster; after Caravaggio Titian and Tintoretto seem stilted, somehow. Caravaggio’s life, too, was revolutionary, dramatic and outside the law. Peter Robb is the Australian who wrote the superb Midnight in Sicily about the collusions between Italian national politics and the Mafia. The back cover of his book quotes Nicholas Poussin as saying in 1660 that Caravaggio “came into the world to destroy painting”, and Robert Hughes describing him in 1985 as “saturnine, coarse and queer.” I haven’t read M – yet, is what I meant to say in that first line.

The complete Terry and the Pirates Volumes 1-6 by Milton Caniff, edited by Dean Mullaney (each about 375 oversize pages)
I am not actually co-eval with this great old comic strip (although some people might think I am) but when I was little our newspaper's Sunday comics section reprinted old Terry and the Pirates strips, which fortunately allowed me to become acquainted with the sultry Dragon Lady. Everyone's childhood should include a Dragon Lady. I just opened Vol. 6 at random to see if I could find her and there she was, being rowed across a dark moonlit harbour which I imagine Saipan, 1945. She's with Terry and his sidekick Hotshot, and here's what the speech bubbles are saying:

Dragon Lady: "Right, Terry! It is a trick the Dragon Lady used when she was a -- ah -- in business before the war."

Terry: "When is a pirate not a pirate? Answer: when she is beautiful and on our side against the Japs! -- Even if she does go in for kidnaping pilots!"

Dragon Lady: "Do you enjoy seeing me writhe under the whip you hold?"

Hotshot (who would be played by Mickey Rooney in a movie version): "You hear the darndest things on these night boats!"

Despite such fantastic scenes as this, this is not actually one of my favourite BFBs, but I put it in anyway so that I could finish up with an extremely funny BFB-themed video which I discovered on Tom Richmond's The Mad Blog. It appears that RC Harvey, noted for ranting and raving about cartoons and cartooning lore on his website, and who wrote the introduction to Vol 6 and possibly others of The Complete Terry and the Pirates,a mere five pages, has also written a big fat biography (900 pages) of Milton Caniff.

"This isn’t really a Ken Burns documentary," Tom Richmond lets on."This is one of several brilliant videos shot for the NCS Reuben Awards show by Tom Gammill. This one had me in tears… Tom is one funny guy. Hopefully R.C. got a chuckle out of it." I'm sure he did.

October 31, 2011

Best book dedications, no. 4

So Bob Dylan didn't get the Nobel after all. But would being cited in a Hunter S Thompson book dedication make a Nobel citation, or the lack of it, small beer? If Bob Dylan is anything he's unpredictable, but I’d like to imagine he thinks it does.

The Nobel Prize in Literature, after all, is the award Alfred Nobel decreed be given not for literary merit, but for "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” -- not a very clear guideline, and one not made clearer by the judges’ record, which smacks more of realpolitik than idealism. Except perhaps for Camus. I give them Camus.

syndetics-lcBut no prize for Graham Greene, friend of too many Latin American líders hostile to the US? And how about the Czech writer Karel Čapek, who was passed over in the late '30s because the judges were worried that choosing the author of War with the newts, a brilliant satire on European dictatorships, would offend the Germans? (According to his widow, the Nobel Committee asked him if he couldn't write them something uncontroversial and he replied, "Thank you for your good will, but I have already submitted my doctoral dissertation".)

But to get back to Hunter S Thompson and Bob Dylan: I recently spent a few days and nights unpacking 41 boxes of dusty books at my house to set them out on our new bookshelves, at a pace which so infuriated my husband you would have thought they were letters from ex-lovers. Of course, in a way they are. I dusted each one with a little paintbrush (this particularly maddened him), which at times made me feel as though I were on an archaeological dig, which, once again, in a way I was, stopping to leaf through some of the ones I hadn't had in my hands for a while.

And that was when I stumbled on Hunter S Thompson's dedication of Fear and Loathing to Bob Dylan, and realised that I had let Books in the City's anniversary go by this year without my usual post honouring shining examples of the fine art of book dedication. So here they are:

1. From Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

"To Bob Geiger,
for reasons that need
not be explained here
--and to Bob Dylan
For Mister Tambourine Man"

The first Bob would be a friend who gave HST, his first wife and his son Juan, just a boy at the time (rather than an IT guy in a polo shirt as he is now), a place to stay after they'd been evicted from one or another home, and I would say something else of value as well, which HST doesn't feel the need to spell out in detail in public, thus meeting one of my main criteria for a good book dedication.

And in a copy of his Hell's Angels: a strange and terrible saga, which I had never read and got for half-price the other day at Andrew Rumbles's bookstore's closing-out sale, one of those bargains which in one way you'd actually rather not get, I found this:

"To the friends who lent me money and kept me mercifully unemployed. No writer can function without them.
Again, thanks. HST."

Another interesting thing which happened to me recently in relation to HST was coming across an article which appeared in a Colorado newspaper the year he died, titled "Hunter Thompson’s family seeks permanent home for his archives".

Thompson’s family and executors hope to place the archives, now in temporary storage at a secret site in Aspen, with a university in a city or state with some connection to the author. Obvious candidates include Kentucky, Thompson’s birthplace; Colorado, where he lived for nearly 40 years; and literary-rich New York, where he once worked. 
“Something that would feel right for Hunter,” added presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who also is Thompson’s official biographer. “He’s somebody who didn’t like Phoenix.”

Douglas Brinkley was also a personal friend of HST's, so I expect he has a good sense of humour. I was curious to know if this dislike of Phoenix was something HST had actually expressed, or if Phoenix were a metaphor Brinkley came up with for the occasion. Perhaps it's a 21st century version of when East Coast theatre critics used to use Peoria, Illinois as an example of the cultureless wasteland of mid-America: "Will it play in Peoria?" they used to say.

I tried googling Phoenix and culture to see what would come up. So, Douglas, there are actually five book clubs in Phoenix, including one called "Chow Bella" devoted to books about food, and one called "Devouring Divas", which, as much as I'd like to think that it's a bookclub where Hannibal Lecter types discuss books while munching on opera stars, is probably not.

But best of all, for me, were these two lines which appeared near the end:

Juan Thompson recalls hotel bills from 20 years past, and 1,000 small, hotel-sized bars of Neutrogena soap Thompson probably purchased when he first discovered the brand.
Anita Thompson said her husband learned his archival ways from his mother, a librarian.

(you can read the whole article online at www.summit

syndetics-lc2. From Howl’s moving castle by Diana Wynne Jones

"This one is for Stephen. The idea for this book was suggested by a boy in a school I was visiting, who asked me to write a book called The Moving Castle. I wrote down his name, and put it in such a safe place, that I have been unable to find it ever since. I would like to thank him very much."

I am a big fan of Diana Wynne Jones, who died this year in March. Not from having read her books, as they came too late for my childhood, and then when I had my own little girl, I still didn't hear about her because all anyone was talking about was Harry Potter.

Diana Wynne Jones, I found out when I started working in a library, had written a story years before JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter which was very, very similar to it, and the first reason I found to like her was when I read an interview where she got asked about this coincidence, and didn't have a mean thing to say. And the more I came across her, the more she appealed to me, this talented woman with her warm, slightly muddled and yet serenely unfazed, air.

She made me think of a beloved aunt of mine who somewhat resembled her physically, the cheeks and the unruly curls. Like Diana Wynne Jones she had not had a happy childhood, if for different reasons, and she seemed to live in a world where real and unreal coexisted without being aware that this could be seen as a problem. She would do things like announcing she was getting married and inviting us to her wedding, and then when her brother, my uncle, not a rich man, travelled all the way across the US to be there, he called us when he got home to report that they'd had a lovely visit, but that the entire weekend had gone by, not only without any incarnation of a wedding or a partner, but without either of these even being mentioned.

2003 interview with Dina Rabinovitch for The Guardian  in which the Harry Potter question is asked.
"The wild magic of Diana Wynne Jones" is a lovely obituary of Wynne Jones by Alison Flood which appeared in The Guardian

syndetics-lc3. I learned about this during Banned Books Week this year. The 1960 Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence contained this added "publisher's dedication":

"For having published this book, Penguin Books were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, at the Old Bailey in London from 20 October to 2 November 1960. This edition is therefore dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of “Not Guilty,” and thus made D.H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom."

Penguin Books did owe those twelve people a lot, and not just for the $2,000,000 I think the book made them just in the first year. According to the Act, the purpose of which was “to provide for the protection of literature and to strengthen the law concerning pornography", the penalty for the publisher of a book which was found to have “a tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences,” was a prison sentence.

The standard of the time was what was deemed acceptable for fourteen-year-old schoolgirls. No mention of fourteen-year-old factory girls. In this particular case this may have been an important distinction: factory girls wouldn't have been receiving French lessons so the concept of the demi-vierge, so morally equivocal, could be expected to go safely over their heads.

I was fifteen myself when I read Lady Chatterley's Lover, and yes, was studying French. But the part I remember being most thrilled by was not the demi-vierge, not the sap rising in the giant oak or whatever it was, but the letter Lady Chatterley's lover writes her during the time they are forced to be apart. "We won't let them blow the crocus out," was how it went, I think.

I remember still being excited by this morally unequivocal oath ten years later when for the first time I saw crocuses poking up out of the snow, in Scotland, at Easter.

October 08, 2011

Nobel Prize in Literature announced!

So, Bob Dylan did not win the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature, which went instead to another octagenarian poet, the Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer. (Just kidding, Bob, I know you're only seventy.) As I had only read yesterday afternoon the post on The Guardian books blog which reported that the British bookmaker Ladbrokes was giving 5 to 1 odds on Dylan nabbing the prize, I hadn't even had time to decide whether I wanted him to (tending to think no, but open to discussion), or even to find out whether it was all a hoax or not.

I've just been doing a little reading up about this year's “Ladbrokes list”, as the list of favoured candidates and the odds on their winning which the company compiles every year is known among literary cognoscenti, looking for a clue. was an excellent source of information, including the nugget that the curator of the list is “a Swede named Magnus Puke, whose job title at Ladbrokes is Nordic Sports and Novelty Odds Compiler, and who writes love poetry in his spare time.”

This year Mr. Puke’s list had 77 candidates on it. At the top was the octagenarian Syrian poet Adonis as the most-favoured, followed by the octagenarian Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, followed by Haruki Murakami. The top English language contenders included Les Murray, Thomas Pynchon, Julian Barnes, Cormac McCarthy, John Banville, Don de Lillo and yes, Bob Dylan, at the time of that article being given odds of 25 to 1.

I am sure there is an apt line from a Bob Dylan lyric for this near-miss, but it isn’t popping into my mind. Maybe someone out there can suggest it. All I can come up with off the top of my head is “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.”

So who is Tomas Tranströmer? He is Sweden’s most famous poet, translated into over 50 languages (I include this because I know what you are thinking). For a characterisation, I can relay from today’s newsfeed from The Guardian that he is known as a “Buzzard Poet”, “a term coined by a fellow-poet Lasse Söderberg to express how he views the world from a height, in a mystic dimension, while bringing every detail of the natural world into sharp focus. His poems are often explorations of the borderland between sleep and waking, between the conscious and unconscious states.”

Sounds good to me. The fantastic Central City Library basement has two collections of his poetry, which when I looked them up just now were both already winging their way out of the library to fill customer requests.

The great enigma: new collected poems from 2006
Selected poems, from 1981

October 01, 2011

Apple censored "Ulysses" iPad app!

"I don't think the Apple representative I first spoke with even knew what Ulysses was" added the publisher's business manager.
How did this get by me? Last year on June 16, ie Bloomsday, Alison Flood told the world via the The Guardian blog, about how Apple had just uncensored a censored iPad app of a graphic (in more ways than one) novel adaptation of Ulysses.

Throwaway Horse, publishers of the comic, had been told by Apple that if they wanted to make Ulysses Seen -- this its name -- an application for the iPad they had to edit out the nudity -- a not-better-specified "naked woman" and a naked Buck Mulligan, presumably about to take his morning swim in the waters of Sandycove after descending with Stephen from the Martello Tower, not bad itself as a phallic image.

"Apple's policy had been that app developers should not be permitted to use nudity in any of their images, even if it's pixellated or covered by 'fig leaves'. Our comic has a mature rating (no one under 17 understands Joyce's book anyway), but we were still not allowed to show frank nudity," said illustrator Robert Berry. Throwaway cropped and edited as requested for the iPad app, but did continue to show the original images on the Ulysses Seen website where the comic is posted, along with a Readers Guide and various other very readable things.

And then, one day, an unexpected phone call and a happy ending: Apple called and offered them the opportunity to resubmit the original drawings. Michael Cavna from the Washington Post talked to Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller about the change of heart for Ulysses Seen, and also for another adaptation of a classic, a graphic novel of The Importance of Being Earnest which showed men kissing. Here's what she told him, as related by him in the "Comic riffs" blog he writes for the Post:

"With Ulysses and The Importance of Being Earnest, we made a mistake. When [the art] of these graphic novel adaptations was brought to our attention, we called the developers and offered them the opportunity to resubmit. Both [graphic novel apps] are now in the store with the original panel drawings."

I'm curious about what the actual phrase was behind that little paraphrase "[the art]". Surely "[the art] of these graphic novel adaptations" was visible from the start. I went to the website and read the first chapters and quite liked it - especially when the cat comes in and says her famous "Mkgnao!" My only objection is the bright blue sea - what happened to 'snot-green'?  Was she talking about [artistic merit seeing as it was based on a classic]? That might have not been visible if, as the Throwaway Horse business manager suspects, you didn't know what the original Ulysses was.

I can't help pointing out, however, that it takes a fraction of a second to do a google search for Ulysses which will tell you all about its merits, unlike what happens if you want to find out about the novel Lolita and have "Google Safe Search" set to "moderate" on your computer, as I found out earlier this week that this computer I'm writing on does. And I can't modify the setting, and neither could the guy who answered my call to the IT help desk.

I did consider, while I had him on the phone, quizzing him if he knew what Ulysses was. But he was so nice I just couldn't turn him into a guinea pig. Or myself into a pedantic fop.

September 29, 2011

Mark Twain on banning Huck Finn

Should The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be off-limits to children? I didn't dream that Mark Twain himself had answered a resounding "Yes" to this question which has been dividing America for years. 

Well, I'm cheating a little for the sake of the story. The reason some Americans today think that children should not read Huckleberry Finn is that the book will expose their impressionistic minds to racism. Yes, Huckleberry Finn indubitably depicts an era when slavery existed in half the states of America, and rampant racism in all of them. But how?

The anti-censorship camp points out how the book actually satirises the attitudes of its time, and note that the escaped slave Jim was made out by Mark Twain to be much more admirable than the white people pursuing him.

The censorship camp thinks that all that doesn't matter. Jim is called "Nigger Jim" in the book, so the book has to be banned, or, for the milder component, rewritten so that he is called instead "Slave Jim". Whom are we kidding, you might ask. Even worse, why are we kidding them? What about their right to know about the historical injustices whose repercussions still affect the society they live in?

So much for the present and so much for seriousness. Now I'm going to tell you something I just learned during Banned Books Week about Mark Twain, who is never serious, and an attempt over 100 years ago by a crusading young librarian, presumably serious although you do need to suspend your disbelief when you hear what she had to say -- to ban Huckleberry Finn from the Children's Room of the Brooklyn Public Library.

The story is contained in an exchange of letters which Mark Twain included in his Autobiography of Mark Twain, between the librarian Asa Dickinson who also worked at the Brooklyn Public Library (and by the way had studied with the great Melvil Dewey, the father of modern librarianship), and himself.

The crusading young librarian, who was Superintendent of the Children's Dept., had found out that there were copies of Huckleberry Finn in the Children's Room (gasp!) and had given orders for them to be removed because Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer were "bad examples for disingenious youth". Mr Dickinson, who counted Huckleberry Finn his best reading experience ever, thereupon wrote to Mark Twain asking him if he could intercede on behalf of this book he so loved:

Dear Sir:
I happened to be present the other day at a meeting of the children's librarians of the Brooklyn Public Library. In the course of the meeting it was stated that copies of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" were to be found in some of the children's rooms of the system. The Sup't of the Children's Dep't -- a conscientious and enthusiastic young woman -- was greatly shocked to hear this, and at once ordered that they be transferred to the adults' department. Upon this I shamefacedly confessed to having read "Huckleberry Finn" aloud to my defenseless blind people, without regard to their age, color, or previous condition of servitude. I also reminded them of Brander Matthews's opinion of the book, and stated the fact that I knew it almost at heart, having got more pleasure from it than from any book I have ever read, and reading is the greatest pleasure I have in my life. My warm defense elicited some further discussion and criticism, from which I gathered what the prevailing opinion of Huck was and that he was a deceitful boy who said "sweat" when he should have said "perspiration."
The upshot of this matter was that there is to be further consideration of these books at a meeting early in January which I am especially invited to attend. Seeing you the other night at the performance of "Peter Pan" the thought came to me that you (you knows Huck as well as I -- you can't know him better or love him more -- ) might be willing to give me a word or two to say in witness of his good character though he "warn't no more quality than a mud cat."
I would ask as a favor that you regard this communication as confidential, whether you find time to reply to it or not; for I am loath for obvious reasons to bring the institution from which I draw my salary into ridicule, contempt or reproach.
Yours very respectfully,
Asa Don Dickinson.
(In charge Department for the Blind and Sheepshead Bay Branch, Brooklyn Public Library.)

Here is the reply:

21 Fifth Avenue,
November 21, 1905
Dear Sir:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave. Ask that young lady - she will tell you so.

Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than God's (in the Ahab & 97 others), & the rest of the sacred brotherhood.

If there is an Unexpurgated [Bible] in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,

S. L. Clemens

On the website (which if you visit it you can also read features such as "MARK TWAIN AND THE INFERNAL COUNTESS MASSIGLIA - the lowest-down woman on the planet" and "MARK TWAIN'S QUARREL WITH UNDERTAKERS: It All Begins with Jennie") you can read the original story from The New York Times when Asa Dickinson (no longer at Brooklyn Public Library but Head Librarian at Brooklyn College, I couldn't help noting) first made the letters public, in 1935.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is at our library And so is the Autobiography of Mark Twain

September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week dinner party

It's here! I look forward to it all year: Banned Books Week, the occasion for anti-conformists everywhere to revel publicly in the fact that the censors never win out in the end. To get people thinking about whether other people should be able to proclaim themselves the guardians of everyone's values. And of course to have a good laugh: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut's novel about the fire-bombing of Dresden (talk about books that make you think, I can still remember the feeling I had when I was reading it of being asked to consider something I'd never considered before), was banned from a school in the US for containing "shocking material"? What, you mean war?

Or what about the the guy who, commenting on a NY Times blog post about the Brooklyn Public Library locking away (literally) Tintin in the Congo, said that they did right, Tintin is a racist and so is his "viscous little white dog"! That's sic, if you were wondering.

I also got a good laugh from the Harry Ransom Center, the famous home for rare books (and films etc) and literary archives at the University of Texas, which invites the public to come commemorate Banned Books Week at a dinner inspired by their exhibition "Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored". Here's what their website says:

"The menu exemplifies the opulence of the 1920s at a time when the government waged war on "objectionable" literature, and larger-than-life personalities battled publicly over obscenity, "clean books," and freedom of expression. The menu includes salmon croquettes, Waldorf salad, roast duck with broiled potatoes, carrots, and peas, and pineapple upside-down cake."

Salmon croquettes? Pineapple upside-down cake? What is this? It sounds like Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald having dinner at the Plaza in New York and I don't think they passed the time arguing about clean books! More about how to get a drink with Prohibition on! The place where all the books were being banned in the twenties was Boston, due to the frenetic activity of a certain "Watch and Ward" committee in that city (which, in a not-unexpected similar vein, called itself "The Hub of the Universe"); thus the phrase, "Banned in Boston". Publishers used to try to get their books banned in Boston, because sales immediately shot up everywhere else. I think the menu should have featured Boston Baked Beans and brown bread.

Anyway, it got me to thinking about a Banned Books dinner menu which would honour famous banned books. Here's where I've gotten so far:

Henry Miller crudités

Hors d'oeuvres à la mode de Gargantua
- several dozen hams
- smoked beef tongues,
- caviar
- fried tripe
- a shovelful of mustard

Steak Tartare au White Fang

Muttonchop au Mellors (aka Lady Chatterley's lover)

Ivan Denisovich bread (10.5 oz)

What's missing of course is Ulysses, next to Lady Chatterley's Lover the most famous banned book of the twenties. But how can you turn a masterwork of a description like this into a menu (as AA Gill said at the Writers and Readers Festival, "Menus always read horribly because they are written by chefs, and chefs all leave school at 15")?

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

September 01, 2011

With Blaise Cendrars in Provence

I almost wrote "Reading Blaise in Provence" but actually it wasn't true: what I did with Blaise Cendrars during my four days in Provence which followed my four days in Prague (see previous post) was to carry him around in the form of two books I found in a bookstore in Aix-en-Provence, one of those pleasant bookstores mixing the old and the new, the upstairs with tall windows framed by provençal sky-blue shutters, bookshelves full of poetry and no cash register; and an urbane downstairs for literary novelties where I encountered, among other things, my first ultra-poches.

Ultra-poches means "extreme pocket books", or, better yet, "pocket books beyond your wildest dreams". These are not gimmicky little books about fashion astrology or "Catfucius says", but real, hard cover, unabridged novels, only small, not much larger than -- what would be appropriate here -- a box of Gitanes cigarettes, something they achieve by being printed on bible paper and formatted to be read vertically. They were invented in the Netherlands a couple of years back and only made their debut in French bookstores a few months ago, where they seem to have right away struck a chord as their stand was 90% empty, offering only a handful of crime novels, mostly Michael Connelly, and one Swann's Way. The Cormac McCarthys, the Hugh Lauries touted on the display placard, all gone. I chose one of the remaining ones at random (I hope you don't believe that) and here it is, posed next to my mouse for scale:

I was actually looking for a different Marcel and that's Marcel Pagnol, the great novelist and filmmaker who was born back at the turn of the century between Aix and Marseille near one of those massive outcrops called (I love this) massifs that dot the region. "I was born in the town of Aubagne, under a Garlaban covered with goats, at the time of the last goatherds" is how he puts it in the book I was looking for, My father's glory, about the summer vacations his family used to take on the Massif during his childhood, which I have wanted to read since having seen and loved Yves Robert's very sad, sentimental, funny movie version.

When I got upstairs where I thought Pagnol might be, whom did I stumble into instead but Blaise Cendrars, the audacious, emphatic, disenchanted, lyrical adventurer and avant-garde poet who captured my heart (and that of Apollinaire, who credited Cendrars's poetry with revolutionising his own) many years ago with his two great 'river-poems' (they flow on forever) Prose of the Transsiberian and little Jeanne of France, and then Le Panama: or, the adventures of my seven uncles. And here they were in a shiny new Complete Poetry, which I took away, along with a little biography which proclaimed itself a "literary discovery", or, the word being the same in French, a "literary uncovering", not quite a " between the covers" but almost as good.

It turned out to be somewhat difficult to read, from being seriously imprinted with the zapping culture (la culture zapping as the French have it) of the eighties, when this "Literary Discovery" series was born. You know what I mean -- those books where each page has three different fonts and the margins are stuffed with cut-out photos, art, quotes reproduced in autograph.

Still, it looked fantastic lying around every day on the bed of the house where we were staying, the yellow fingerpainting of Cendrars by a beautiful Brasilian modernist named Tarsila do Amaral almost picking up the tone of the blanket. A bit more sulphurous, perhaps, or maybe that was due to its being superimposed on an old black and white photo of Cendrars squinting into the sun, cigarette jutting from his mouth, wearing a wrinkled workshirt which yells out "Cargo boat full of prostitutes and tuberculars" (as the book describes the vessel for one of his Atlantic crossings):

In one of the bits I did read, I learned that I had not lost out completely on taking home a book that would be a souvenir of Provence:  Blaise Cendrars lived self-exiled in Aix-en-Provence from 1940 to 1943, after the Gestapo in the occupied north had seized all the copies of his latest book, and the proprietor of the hotel where he used to live in Paris wired him "Your Aunt Amelie keeps coming looking for you".

He had fought in the first World War and lost an arm, immediately afterwards teaching himself to write with his left hand and in 1918 publishing I killed, where he described a hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier (an excerpt quoted in the book: "I killed the Boche, I was sharper and quicker than he was. I acted, I killed. As a man does who wants to live."); this war he passed in silence, a recluse in a beret and shabby jacket who passed his time at the public library when he wasn't standing in line for his ration of potatoes.

But before all that, back in the Belle Epoque Blaise Cendrars blazed a path across the continents of the known world and the literary map, announcing his destiny with this name -- yes, Cendrars means cinders -- which he invented for himself in his twenties, in New York, poor, hungry, even sick, but "that won't stop me from writing. I am ready."

Arriving back in Paris the year Marcel Duchamp presented his scandalous painting "Nude descending a staircase", he produced the poem which brought modernism hurtling into the literary scene like the locomotive it describes speeding through a Russia in the throes of the Revolution of 1905. It was inspired by Cendrars's first great adventure, eight years before. Aged seventeen, he had run away from his boarding school near Basel, catching the first international train to come into the station and ending up in St. Petersburg, making friends with anarchists and spending time with the librarian of the Imperial Library, who told him he was a poet.

The poem is called The prose of the Transsiberian and little Jeanne of France (Jeanne is a prostitute), and here are a couple of my favourite verses from it, translated by Ekaterina Likhtik:

The sky is like the shredded tent of a poor circus in a small fishing village
In Flanders
The sun is a smoky oil lamp
And at the very top of a trapeze a woman makes a moon.
The clarinet the piston a sharp flute and a bad tambourine
And here is my cradle
My cradle
It was always next to the piano when my mother like Madame Bovary played Beethoven sonatas
I spent my childhood in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
And skipping school, in the railroad stations in front of departing trains
Now, I have made all the trains run behind me
I have also bet on the races at Auteuil and at Longchamp
Paris – New York
Now, I have made all the trains run the course of my life
Madrid – Stockholm
And I lost all my bets
There is now only Patagonia, Patagonia, that suits my immense sadness, Patagonia, and a journey to the South Seas
I'm on the road
I've always been on the road
I'm on the road with little Jehanne from France
The train makes a perilous jump and falls back on all of its wheels
The train falls back on its wheels
The train always falls back on all of its wheels

“Blaise, tell me, are we very far from Montmartre?”
We are far, Jeanne, you've been on the move for seven days
You are far from Montmartre, from the Hill that nourished you from Sacre-Cœur that cradled you
Paris has disappeared and its enormous flame
There is nothing but continuous ash
Falling rain
Rising peat
Whirling Siberia
Heavy rebounding sheets of snow
And the bell of madness that quivers like the very last wish in the bluish air
The train beats at the heart of the heavy horizons
And your sorrow sneers…

“Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?”
The worries
Forget the worries
All the railroad stations cracked askew on the road
The telegraph wires on which they hang
The grimacing lampposts gesticulate and strangle them
The world expands elongates and retracts like an accordion tormented by a sadistic hand
In the shreds of the sky, locomotives in a fury
And in the holes,
The dizzying wheels the mouths the voices
And the dogs of misfortune that bark at our parcels
The demons are unchained
Scrap iron
All is in false harmony
The broom-room-room of the wheels
Bouncing back
We are a storm in the skull of the deaf… 

This is just a fraction of the poem, but you can read the rest of it on the website The drunken boat.

As I said, I didn't get around to reading the Complete Poetry when I was in France; I read it when I was back at home. And the funniest thing happened. As I was reading it, one night in bed, I kept smelling tobacco, not just any tobacco but pungent French cigarette tobacco. I looked around. I was alone. My husband was still in Europe; Jean-Paul Belmondo was not on the deck outside my window.

I read some more. The odour didn't go away. I looked around again. Still alone. The cat had not taken up smoking in our absence. Turned my attention back to the book. Still there. I brought the book up to my nose. And then it hit me. I opened the tube of lotion I had bought in the pharmacy in Avignon which was on the bedside table. I sniffed it. I sniffed my hands. Somehow I had bought French hand lotion that smells like tobacco.

Was this a new French fashion? The next day, for fun, I googled "tabac perfume women". 0.05 seconds later, up came the result: Tabac blond Caron.

Why, c'est moi!
Complete poems by Blaise Cendrars or try his cult novel Moravagine   
My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle: Memories of Childhood by Marcel Pagnol
My Father's Glory (DVD of the movie version by Yves Robert)

August 01, 2011

Report from Prague

In the ten years gone by since my last visit to Prague the city of a hundred spires has turned into the city of a hundred Franz Kafka tourist spots. T shirts featuring a close up of his enigmatic eyes definitely outnumber the Mucha t shirts and perhaps even the t shirts saluting the joys of beer drinking. I mused, do I want Kafka's eyes looking at someone from out of my chest, and decided I didn't. The souvenirs I'm taking away are a miniature baby doll in a walnut shell cradle bought from a stall in front of Kafka's synagogue; a set of antique green travertine coasters etched with red elephants picked up cheap from a bric-a-brac shop in the old quarter because two were missing; a book by Bohumil Hrabal, the most famous Prague literary denizen of modern times; and the taste of a yellow plum plucked from a tree on Petrin Hill, the ex-vinyard of the Emperor planted now with trees bearing walnuts, hazelnuts, pears, plums, apples, apricots, pomegranates and cherries, all there to be picked and eaten by the strollers-by.

The one I'm going to zoom in on is, as you might have guessed, the book. Bohumil Hrabal is my favourite modern Czech author, the one whose wonderful books Closely Watched Trains, I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age inspired me not to worry about long sentences (Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age being the ne plus ultra in this sense; the entire book is one long sentence).

 He died in 1997 so I didn't expect to see any new books by him, but I spotted this in the window of a tiny bookstore built into the foundations of the Charles Bridge (you had to climb down a spiral staircase to get in), replete with an annex full of folding chairs, mismatched wineglasses and stacks of papers which you could imagine old samizdat publications. It's called Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, borrowed from a Hrabalian description of a famous soccer player's footplay, and it's a posthumous edition of an extended interview in which Hrabal lets himself go into long, free-wheeling flights of thought just like the kind his characters are always going into, full of comedy and pain, joy and failure, the trivial and the grand.

I loved this part, especially the description of Dostoevsky's laugh:

Do you cry often? When did you last cry? Very often. Very often. Deep emotion from whatever source mists my eyes. Tears are in a way a typical element of Slav-ness. The old Russians have always enjoyed a good weep, they would even have mild forms of choleric passion, rising to fits of tears. Most of Dostoyevsky or Chekhov's heroes melt into tears. They weep for joy, they weep from discovery, no matter whether it is death or love that they have discovered. It all goes together, love and death and futility and happiness and unhappiness – it all lies together in such a way that the transition, the rhythm, evokes one and the same response…

So you reckon tears are a specifically Slav thing. How can I put it? What's typical is in literature, where heroes have no qualms about crying. Dostoevsky himself weeps like that. After all, he was a man who burst into tears so very often and when he laughed they would tell him to cry instead. His way of laughing was like that of someone released from prison – people's hair would just stand on end. He better suited the role with wrinkles, with those tears ever in his eyes as if touched with emotion. 

Only half my blood is Slav but I'm prone to expressing emotions with tears myself, and I had two good watery-eye moments in Prague, one when I stepped into the beautiful Gothic cathedral of St. Vitas and looked up and saw the ceiling floating away as if the stained glass windows were red and blue bonfires lifting it with the force of their heat, and the other at the Pinkas Synagogue, where the walls are covered with the names of the 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews murdered by the Nazis.

I didn't cry, but it did grip my throat, when I read in the book's preface that Hrabal, 83 years old and ill, died in 'an appropriately bizarre manner', falling from the window of his hospital room while feeding the pigeons. Was this so, I asked my Czech cousin? She shook her head.

In the book, in response to the question "Have you ever contemplated suicide?", he had said that he had not, except in literary terms. But then the book also opens with this quote:

I withdraw everything that I have ever said
That was just to avoid my soul's damnation,
To which I still don’t have the key.

June 07, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor's favourite poem

I'm not sure why I missed reading about Elizabeth Taylor's funeral. I am sure I would have taken the opportunity had it presented itself. I enjoy stories about funerals, from the one about how at Chekhov's funeral some of the mourners joined the wrong procession by mistake, following, to the sounds of a marching band, the casket of a certain General Keller, to the descriptions of the hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets to farewell Edith Piaf on her way to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

And I have always been an Elizabeth Taylor fan. I loved her little Donald Ducky voice and the way that she converted to Judaism for love and coincidentally ended up the ne plus ultra of Jewish-American style, or at least what you might call its "ostentation" subcategory -- the outré clothes, the jewels (did she and Richard used to talk about 'rocks' or is that just my imagination), the bouffant hair. Above all, I loved her for not caring more about her incredible beauty than she did about having a good time, a trait which was never so evident as during her tumultuous and famously boozy love affair with Richard Burton.

Which brings me to my story. The other day I was killing time trolling through poetry-read-aloud clips on youtube -- don't laugh if you haven't tried it, you would be amazed at what is there -- and I came across a recording of Richard Burton reciting a poem by the great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a very complex and beautiful poem about the fading of beauty called "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo", and there on the little side bar was a clip about Elizabeth Taylor's funeral! It turns out that Richard used to recite this poem to her and she had asked that Colin Farrell read it at her funeral.

I don't know how Colin Farrell read it, but Richard Burton's performance of it is incredible. He is so urgent, so alive in every pore -- he really gives back to Gerard Manley Hopkins all that flood of feeling, that romantic ecstasy which used to make him throw himself down on the ground to be closer to the beauties of the earth -- and which the contortions of his inner self made him decide he had to sublimate to the love of God, depriving himself of worldly pleasures, choosing a life of discipline and drudgery as a Jesuit priest, and dying young of typhoid caused by the leaky drains of the squalid dwelling he had been assigned.

I have a wonderful scene in my mind of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in bed, in their cups, she is wearing diamonds and he is wearing nothing, and he leaps out of bed and recites this to her. Listen:

Here is the text of the poem, if you'd like to try it yourself:

The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo
(Maidens’ song from St. Winefred’s Well)

How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep,
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there ’s none, there ’s none, O no there ’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.

There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that ’s fresh and fast flying of us,
seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why should we tread?
O why are we so haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered,
When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept. — Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. —
Yonder. — What high as that! We follow, now we follow. — Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

May 18, 2011

"Inside Stories" at AWRF 2011

Again, note the quote marks. Not a collection of Festival gossip, but a piece by Dr. Richard Nightingale, an assiduous library user and a man always willing to expand his horizons, who went to hear author Frances Walsh talk with Anna Miles about her new book "Inside stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890-1975" with its wonderful table of contents ("The Filth", "The Husband", "The Servant", "The Tub"...) With the sang froid befitting someone on his way to becoming a writer himself, he cheerfully agreed to my request that he supply a piece about it for Books in the City.
During the space of 50 minutes Walsh’s oral presentation glissaded entertainingly across some of the insights that she has unearthed in her revelatory journalistic compilation "Inside Stories". She easily captured the attention of her audience with her witty, wry and sympathetic observations of the key lifeline-for-domestic-women role played by New Zealand’s women’s magazines between 1890 and 1975. She explained that the choice of the start date was determined by the event of the 1890s campaign for women’s political enfranchisement; and the end-date by a number of features of the 1970s including the fight for work-place equity with men, the abortion rights campaign and an overall disillusionment by housewives with the domestic trap of housewifery.

With verve and panache Walsh outlined her methodology: she scoured through women’s media (and one or two general journals such as the Catholic Tablet), collecting a miscellany of articles from and of the domestic front. Her archival dig revealed that while the circumstances of the housewives’ lot changed significantly in the 20th century (largely due to the application of electrical technology to household appliances), their prescribed tasks and obligations were never-ending and grindingly time-consuming. Their domestic enslavement was only leavened by the application of the many and various household (and marital and parental) tips which the women’s media earnestly promoted. Women’s magazines were, Walsh claims, women’s saviours.

Walsh illustrated her presentation with a selection of images from women’s magazines, including covers, advertisements, photographs and illustrations. She took great delight in reporting on some of the more innovative and often whacky or downright unorthodox tips that the magazines provided New Zealand women: for example, to stave off depression, drink gin and chant; to banish insomnia, read Plato; and to rid the hair of dandruff, apply brandy.

She pointed out that her subject matter has been organised into chapters that reflect the diversity of the housewife’s world. These headings include The Filth, The Husband, The Servant, The Tub, The Child, The Shopping and The Neighbour.

Walsh’s presentation of the subject of her book was affectionate and great fun. Her book will undoubtedly be equally engaging, It is a book that surely must be read and re-read. Her publishers have produced a handsome book that will beautifully complement any home study, office or library. Certainly, given the trenchant observations of its author, it is more than just a coffee-table book.

-- Dr. Richard Nightingale

May 17, 2011

David Mitchell at AWRF 2011

Most people I know who love reading admire David Mitchell, who possesses a wonderful talent for infusing his novels with both original ideas and narrative drive, as with his latest, The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet. So it's not surprising that he was one of the hottest attractions at this edition of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Zoë Colling from Central Library was one of a number of us who attended "An hour with David Mitchell" in which he was interviewed by Emily Perkins, and she came away enthusiastic. Now if I could just get her to change her name to Zoë de Zoet. Would that not be a fantastic name for a librarian? For anyone? In the meantime, here's her description:
Sounding like a modest rapper delivering a controlled, detailed and sharp spiel, David Mitchell's first reading was a passage from near the end of his latest novel The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It was a poetic prelude to his warm, entertaining talk. In his introduction he mentioned he finished The thousand autumns sixteen months ago and loudly, with a touch of tongue-in-cheek, proclaimed he was sick of it. The second reading was from a new short story that may turn into his next book. Hand gestures, facial expressions, pauses and the sound of his voice all changed as we were introduced to characters involved in an inside job, a hundred miles away from the last conjured realm.

Having not read Mitchell's latest novel, but a firm fan from falling into previous ones, it was exciting hearing about how he accidentally stumbled across Dejima when he was intending to find an inexpensive mountain of food in Chinatown. Dejima was once a tiny island and a trading post for an incredibly closed off Japan. When he came across this place and the museum there, he recognised from an internal Geiger counter of his imagination that this was a splendid spot for a story. Mitchell spoke charmingly about the challenges of writing an historical novel. How themes appear in his work after characters and plots have been figured out. Ideas concerning language, translation, miscommunication and language learning in The thousand autumns were discussed. He spoke about the difficulty of writing authentic-sounding dialogue for people from another era, who speak or are prevented from speaking a number of languages. The solution to this? Make up a language with a plausible name: 'Bygonese'.

The audience questions revealed some insightful information. Yes, he has been to the Chatham Islands and Mongolia! He uses Google Earth as a writing tool - what better way of discovering teetering, cliff-top monasteries? The gripping "imaginatively intelligent" worlds of Ursula Le Guin were recalled from his childhood as an early and enduring influence. Mitchell was very open at times. He talked about how his writing had changed since he had become a parent. His loss of interest in Trans-Siberian escapades as plot devices and his new fascination with "muddy" characters and their relationships that evolve when certain events occur or with passing time.

Mitchell made a number of light-hearted comments about himself during the hour, so it seemed inevitable the talk ended on a self-deprecating note. Perkins read out a line from his first reading – “This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself” - and praised him by asserting the audience would argue against this point. The last word went to Mitchell though, stating the line was not his but Leonard Cohen’s. Quietly mentioning he had slightly re-engineered the words. This manages to make writing delightful sentences, and novels, sound as simple as remembering a line one has heard somewhere and then modifying the line, like magic. A fittingly polite end.

-- Zoë Colling

Graphic Novels, Comics & Cartoons at AWRF 2011

Tim Kidd from Readers Services is a comics reader, creator and appreciator, and the person who takes care of the teeming comics and graphic novel shelves at Central City Library. He is also the only person on our library quiz team who knew which creature possesses the largest eye in the animal kingdom. It's the giant squid. Here Tim casts his own eye (in black bakelike glasses) on the comics and graphic novels session at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, which was chaired by Adrian Kinnaird, cartoonist and writer of the New Zealand Comics blog From Earth's End.
The guests were Karen Healey, Dylan Horrocks, Chris Slane and Ant Sang. All four have had books published in the last year, which are available in regular bookstores around the country. Dylan re-released his major work, Hicksville, last year, with a new design, new cover and a lovely new comics-form introduction; Guardian of the Dead is Karen Healey’s latest, award-winning teen novel; Ant Sang’s Shaolin Burning is set in medieval China and tells the story of Plum Blossom, a young woman who is determined to be the best Kung Fu warrior in the land; and Chris Slane’s Nice Day for a War adapts the diaries of Cyril Elliott, a soldier who served in the trenches in France. A big year for New Zealand comics.

It was a nice hour, led by Adrian Kinnaird, who began by asking the creators to talk about their early experiences reading comics, accompanied by pictures of Spiderman, Casper, Tintin, Donald Duck etc. projected on the big screens.

Then Karen and Dylan discussed the role of women in superhero comics. Karen Healey had been involved in the Girl Wonder group that was concerned with rehabilitating the male-centric genre of superheroes for everyone. Dylan had written Batgirl for some time and so had some insights to bring to a conversation about the poor treatment of women superheroes in recent years (for an interview with her and Mr Kinnaird about this and more go to

But my favourite part of the talk was when the cartoonists showed some of the preparatory material that went into their finished comics. It was illuminating to see these private sketches and notes blown up large on the big screen. They are such good cartoonists that even what they might consider a throwaway working-drawing still looked great enlarged a hundred times the size. I could see that what might take just a few seconds to read on the page could take many days of work to make. And I liked seeing the very different approaches they took to construct their stories.

Slane was obliged to do historical research for his book and he certainly did not take any shortcuts. Images of the battle fields in France as they look today on Google Earth, tourist photos of the area uploaded to the internet (beautiful green rolling pastures, lovely vineyards, cyclists) were married to photos taken by soldiers of the time ( blackened limbless trees, shattered buildings, mud, holes) and maps of battle positions and trench layouts. These gave him the ability to place his characters into the landscape. He went on to show how he unobtrusively incorporated all this reference work into the finished pages.

It was nice to see his thumbnails (small, sketchy drawings made to plan the comic page as a whole and test how one panel flows to the next). He showed how these were tightened up into more detailed sketches to get the character placement right, the story information clearly shown, and to check for readability. I thought these sketches from him looked good enough to publish as they were. But there was a further version of the page to work out the balance of dark and light tones. Only then came the finished drawings- done in pencil and watercolour. The writing, for him, he said, was inseparable from the drawing.

Ant Sang's Shaolin Burning is a beautifully crafted story and I was excited to see that Ant had chosen to show us the plotting process. He used techniques adapted from cinematic writing and his book does have the feel of a great dramatic action movie. To see the way he diagrammed the plot and the characters' transitions and development was fascinating. He displayed pages full of tiny notes with scribbled arrows leading to other notes to other arrows to more notes. A pair of columns of writing side by side -- each one representing a character -- with arrows shooting back and forth; triangles with words at each corner. His writing was arranged in a very visual way.

Dylan showed the pages from the script notebook he uses for his new story The Magic Pen, as serialised on his website To see someone's handwriting blown up so large was very personal and nice. A cartoonist needs to be clear above all other things and he excels at this. I thought it was neat that even his hand-written notes are a model of clarity. Then he showed how a few sketches in the corner of a page could expand into a new character and then how that character could intrude into the story so much that the whole thing changed. It all seemed natural and fun.

-- Tim Kidd

Fatima Bhutto at AWRF 2011

I'm always proud to be a librarian when I spot the stylish silhouette of my colleague Robin Whitworth gliding across the crowded floor of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, which she never misses so luckily I get to see her there a lot. She contributed this description of Fatima Bhutto's star appearance (for such it seemed to be among festival goers):
Treasa Dunworth, a university lecturer, very fluently conducted the session with Fatima Bhutto. It provided a personal insight into the basket-case country that is Pakistan. The slight and very attractive 28-year-old Bhutto certainly possesses the presence and authority that mark her as an heir to the Pakistani dynasty. However, when asked by an audience member if she has considered standing in politics she prevaricated, likening it to when people ask why she did not become a dentist: she does not want to.

It probably goes without saying that it might also be a death sentence for her, as it was for her father, grandfather, and aunt. She still lives, one would imagine somewhat precariously given her outspokenness, in the country now ruled by the man she deems responsible for the murder of her father. She works as a columnist, and is also active in encouraging women to enrol to vote. Given that one has to have an ID card to enrol, and this costs more than a week’s food, very few women vote in Pakistan.

Bhutto's recently published book Songs of blood and sword is both a personal and political history. There is much research on her grandfather, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed before she was born, and who is her greatest role model. Her father, Murtaza, followed in the same socialist footsteps, after he returned from exile, and was shot by police in 1996 (assassinated, she says). Aunt Benazir is accused of being directly complicit in her brother’s murder, and of selling out to corruption and betraying all her father’s principles by rescinding a number of laws that had aimed at social equity. Fatima and Benazir remained estranged up until the latter’s assassination.

Fatima related an anecdote about how when they were growing up, Murtaza painted his room ‘Communist red’, whilst Benazir’s room was black and white stripes, like a jail cell.

Fatima described her childhood as ‘quite ordinary’, in that her father did everyday things like taking her to school each day. But she did admit that for a child's vocabulary to include words like ‘junta’ was unusual. She talked of how it felt to be a Pakistani in New York (where she was at University) after 9/11. Her opinion on the burqa is that it as an Arab, not a Muslim, garment, and she would never wear one.

-- Robin Whitworth

"Talk to the Taliban" at AWRF 2011

Thank goodness for quote marks -- or maybe not! In my rush to publish this very newsworthy piece contributed by Jo Davidson, our savvy Serials Librarian, I nearly forgot them, meaning the post would have been titled Talk to the Taliban at AWRF 2011. It might have been contested but hey, it would have gotten a lot of attention!
But the "Talk to the Taliban" session at AWRF should interest all of us as well. James Fergusson has a number of thought-provoking things to say on the subject of the Taliban, whom he first encountered fifteen years ago as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan. He has written a book called Taliban: the true story of the world's most feared guerrilla fighters, and after hearing him speak, I have to say that I hope it will be widely read. It won't happen but it would be great if all those people (I am one of them) who read Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novels The Kite Runner and A thousand splendid suns which depicted all members of the Taliban as sexually depraved, drug-addicted,or both, and always monstrously cruel, would read this book.

Here's Jo's summary of the salient points of the session:
This packed session on Friday afternoon had James Fergusson, journalist, conflict specialist on Bosnia and, since 1996, Afghanistan, being interviewed by Sean Plunket. Fergusson believes that the West must start up a dialogue with the Taliban if we are to find a way to withdraw from Afghanistan. He asserts that there are no al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan and that the Taliban have no interest in exporting terror. Quite the opposite in fact: they have always been a force for security in the country and helped bring stability in the period of civil war that followed the withdrawal of the former USSR in 1994. He emphasized that the Talibs or religious scholars have deep roots in Afghanistan amongst the majority Pashtuns and are not the foreign soldiers the West often portrays them to be. Fergusson explained that the Taliban never approved of al-Qaeda methods but desperately needed Osama Bin Laden’s money. Later, despite the problems his presence created them, their culture of courtesy to all guests prevented them from betraying him to the West.

In my view the Taliban’s treatment of women was glossed over by Fergusson, although of course that issue is not why the West invaded and is not used as justification for keeping troops in the country.

A question from the floor led Fergusson to opine that the role of our SAS in Afghanistan is dubious, as captive Afghanis are handed over to the National Security Directorate which, Fergusson has been told, still operates with the KGB handbook for which torture is acceptable.

Fergusson hopes that if a climate of trust can develop, both the Taliban and their neighbours in the region should be involved in the talks that lead to Western withdrawal. However as both sides want to have the military advantage before negotiations begin, there is no quick solution in sight.

-- Jo Davidson

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