September 28, 2012

Dolman Prize for Serious Travel Book of the Year

This year's winner is John Gimlette. I'll drink to that!
Coming to work today I found myself driving along behind a Martian on a motorcycle. No, wait, it was a human being in a bright green jerkin with a box of the same colour bolted to either his back or to the bike, I couldn’t really tell, and then... what was that? some kind of little scooper attached to it. Peering harder I saw the words Auckland Council Litter.

I was trying to figure out what kind of litter would be small enough to fit in the little box and also need removal so urgently as to call out a special operative on a motorbike, when a large white scrap of something detached itself from the contraption and nose-dived into the gutter, the special op blithely chugging on up the road. Littering! The anti-littering special op was littering!

A few minutes later I was behind a large SUV called a… Murano! What? I asked myself incredulously. They named a SUV after that peaceful little island in the Venetian lagoon, the one with the sunlit waterfront lined with houses all in different hues and shops full of glass menageries and NO CARS? Nissan Marketing, listen to me. Murano: stray cats, yes; fishing boats yes; glassblowing, yes; cars, no.

This trip is truly a case of non-serious travel, I said to myself, having serious travel writing on my mind because I had been reminding myself that I needed to check if the winner of this year's edition of the Dolman Prize, "Britain’s only dedicated prize for serious travel literature" (in the words of the Authors' Club, who administer the prize) which rolls around every year in September, had been announced.

And the answer is, yes it has, and it is ... Wild Coast by John Gimlette. The judging session, the Authors' Club website tells us, was held at a bar just down the road from the Authors' Club. I love this! John Gimlette, chosen over drinks! No relation, I suppose, to Thomas Gimlette, the British Royal Navy Surgeon General who gave his name to the Gimlet, from having encouraged British sailors to add lime juice to their gin to ward off scurvy.

I have never actually drunk a gimlet, but I know all about them because the gimlet, and how to make one, plays a major part in Raymond Chandler's most sentimental novel (and my favourite of all of them), The Long Goodbye. A young man with white hair, good manners, a drinking problem and a scarred face practically falls into Philip Marlowe's arms out of a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, and becomes a drinking companion and perhaps a friend, for a time, during which he teaches him, and the bartender at their drinking hole, how to make a real gimlet, Rose's Lime Juice and all. When Marlowe learns that he has died, he goes back to their bar and orders a gimlet, to say goodbye. It turns out he is not the only person there drinking a gimlet; there is a woman dressed in black, also drinking alone, who also learned about gimlets from a friend, perhaps the same one. He lights her cigarette; she tells him her name. Linda Loring. As they say in Italy, a name that is a whole programme.

Gimlette's book is about the three South American Guianas, one of which, the French one, was where the penal colony of Devil's Island was located, famous in the book world as being the setting for one of the greatest prison escape books of all time, Papillon (made into a great movie starring Steve McQueen).

If you, like me, enjoy serious travel writing (defined by the Authors' Club as "works of literary merit that show excellence in the tradition of great travel writing, combining a personal journey with the discovery or recovery of places, landscapes or peoples to instil a sense of place, excitement and wonder in the reader", and by me as "talented writing and no gimmicks") all the Dolman Prize finalists will be good reading suggestions. Here they are, with a few lines from the publishers to pique your interest:

Wild Coast by John Gimlette
"In this compelling and elegant travel memoir, John Gimlette returns to Guyana, the "Wild Coast" in South America, to discover his ancestral colonial history - one of brutal, cruel and often uncomfortable truths. Intrigued by the tale of a distant ancestor who perished on the Wild Coast in 1630, John Gimlette returns to South America to find out what has become of this primeval land."

Harlem is Nowhere: a journey to the Mecca of Black America, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (Granta)
"For a century Harlem has been celebrated as the capital of black America, a thriving center of cultural achievement and political action. At a crucial moment in Harlem's history, as gentrification encroaches, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts untangles the myth and meaning of Harlem's legacy."

Thin Paths; journeys in and around an Italian Village, by Julia Blackburn (Jonathan Cape)
"In 1994, while walking the Alta Via, the high path winding from the French border to the Bay of Lerici, a man stopped in a remote village, and found he couldn't forget it. 'I've just bought a ruin in the mountains of Liguria,' he wrote, some years later. 'You'd like it here.' Julia Blackburn married that man and moved to that house in 1999. What she found in the mountains was a new way of life, and one that is fast disappearing."

To a Mountain in Tibet, by Colin Thubron (Vintage)
"Colin Thubron recently witnessed the death of the last of his family. He is walking on a pilgrimage of his own.His trek around the great mountain, revered by multitudinous others, awakes an inner landscape of solitude, love, grief, restoring precious fragments of his own origins.This is travel writing at its consummate best from an author of unsurpassable experience, sensitivity, and sheer lyrical power."

To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface, by Olivia Laing (Canongate)
"To the River is the story of the Ouse, the Sussex river in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941. One midsummer week over sixty years later, Olivia Laing walked Woolf's river from source to sea. The result is a passionate investigation into how history resides in a landscape - and how ghosts never quite leave the places they love."

White Fever: a journey to the frozen heart of Siberia, by Jacek Hugo-Bader (Portobello)
"A lone journey by jeep (and occasionally kayak) across one of the world's most inhospitable and surreal landscapes. An unparalleled insight into the life in Siberia and its various communities and tribes."

And three more, which were on the longlist:

On Extinction: how we became estranged from nature by Melanie Challenger (Granta) Granta doesn't seem to do blurbs, but I can tell you that the contents include Beginnings: natural history museum, London -- First peregrination: West Penwith, Cornwall -- Wild flowers -- Tin -- Ghosts -- Second peregrination: South Georgia, Antartica and the Falkland islands: Whales -- Ice -- Savages -- The third peregrination: North Yorkshire, Manhattan Island and Baffin island: Bones -- Tundra --- Endings: Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire.

Street Fight in Naples by Peter Robb (Bloomsbury) (I got this out for a friend of mine who is from Naples and he loved it) "Street Fight in Naples ranges across nearly three thousand years of Neapolitan life and art, from the first Greek landings in Italy to Robb's own less auspicious arrival thirty-something years ago."

The Fetish Room: the education of a naturalist by Redmond O’Hanlon "Part biography, part musings on biology and nature, this title presents a moving portrait of one of Britain's greatest travel writers and eccentrics. On this joint road trip with journalist Rudi Rotthier, O'Hanlon visits the places that have made him - schools and vicarages, Oxford, Stonehenge and the Marlborough Downs and many more."

September 21, 2012

A celebration of comics

The kind you read, not the stand-up kind. It's Comic Book Month at Auckland Libraries and we're celebrating the Cosmics, as my father used to call them. "Pass me the cosmics" he'd say as soon as he arrived at the Sunday breakfast table, back when "comics" meant the comics section of your newspaper. Now comics are those comics and comics are cartoons, graphic novels, superheroes, manga and many other genres, and instead of being a once-a-week treat, every big and little kid can get them whenever they want at their local library.

Thanks to Adrian Kinnaird, cartoonist, writer and one of New Zealand's foremost authorities on comics and graphic novels, for contributing this fun reminiscence about the origins of life in the universe, um, I mean, of comics in libraries.

Comics In Libraries: The Collected Golden Age
Comic and graphic novels started popping up in libraries in the early 1980s, if you knew where to look. If you were lucky, you might find a copy of the Smithsonian Book Of Comic Books hiding out in the drawing reference and cartoons section; under the call numbers that would be burned into my memory: 741.5. When I was growing up, I knew if I searched out those magic numbers at any library there was always a chance I might strike gold and find comic books.

On one particular visit to the Christchurch Public Library in 1989 I really hit the mother-lode. While exploring the far reaches of the library floor, the work 'COMIC BOOKS' jumped out at me from a random shelf in the 'Over-sized Books' section. I had discovered the fabled two volume set of Photo Journal Guide To Comic Books: these two enormous volumes contained cover photographs of almost every American comic published from the beginning of the industry to the end of the '50s. The birth of the medium was contained in these two volumes; every cover of Action Comics lined up fifty covers to a page, like postage stamps.

I pored over every page till my eyes hurt, it was almost too much information to take in. It was all here, the history of comics laid out in front of me: the rise of superhero comics, horror, romance and everything in between (who knew Cowboy comics were massive in the 1950s??). Alas, these volumes were marked with the dreaded phrase 'REFERENCE COPIES ONLY. NOT FOR LOAN' ("that means you, kid!", I imagined it saying in smaller print underneath). So I would have to visit them every week, sneaking off to the 'adult' section to the library to soak up as much comics history as I could handle.

On one of these trips I also discovered there was a 'Graphic Novel' shelf, hidden beside 'Young Adult' (sidenote: as a 10 yr old the YA section always made me feel a bit nervous; would I be asked my age if I grabbed the wrong book?). It was only a small shelf, with a couple of volumes that would become cornerstones for this growing section: Watchmen, Maus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. I flicked through a few pages of Dark Knight Returns and three things occurred to me. 1) It scared the crap out of me 2) I had to read it RIGHT NOW and 3) I had to make neither my mum or the librarian got a good look at the contents when I checked it out (hiding it under a safe Tintin volume took care of that).

Over twenty years later, graphic novels are now one of the largest and most borrowed collections in libraries world wide. There are graphic novels and comics to suit every age and subject. From literary autobiographies like Persepolis, through to children's comics like the collected Tove Jansson Moomin comic strips, and Jeff Smith's wonderful Bone series. Or if superheroes are your thing, you can easily read the first 20+ years of Spiderman and Avengers comics (collections that would set us back thousands of dollars) for nothing! And if you look under 741.5, you can learn the secrets to cartooning from the masters themselves, and learn about their lives and craft. I can now read almost all of those classic comics that appeared in those giant reference guides by looking them up on the Library catalogue.

The entire history of the comics medium is waiting for you at your local library, and my 10yr old self wouldn't know where to start.

-- Adrian Kinnaird

Check out Adrian's blog on New Zealand Comics at
...and here's what's happening around the libraries (eg free comics workshops, exhibitions, the "Create a character" competition where you can win a term of drawing classes, prizes for most comics read...)

September 01, 2012

Book dedications n.5

What do British Airlines, a Remington typewriter, the absinthe drinkers of Paris, and the jury which declared that Lady Chatterley's Lover was not obscene, have in common? They have all had novels dedicated to them. The art of dedicating a book was the subject of the very first post I wrote for Books in the City, and every year on the anniversary I like to pass on some intriguing dedications I've run into over the course of the year. Here is this year's selection.

1. From Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac:
"To Maria:
Your portrait is the fairest ornament of this book, and here it is fitting that your name should be set, like the branch of box taken from some unknown garden to lie for a while in the holy water, and afterwards set by pious hands above the threshold, where the green spray, ever renewed, is a sacred talisman to ward off all evil from the house.
                                                          -- DE BALZAC"
Did anyone else besides me think that “box hedges” had that name because they were trimmed into box-like shapes? No! “Box” is “box” because its wood, being non-warping, is prized for making ornamental boxes. And perhaps even more relevant here, the “Garden of Eaden” blog where I learned that goes on to say that “One of the charms of common box is the delicious musky smell it gives off after a period of rain”. Apparently England's dullest monarch (just my opinion) Queen Anne found the smell so unbearable that she had all the box in St. James Park ripped out.

Who was Maria? No one knows for sure. I like the theory that she was a girl whom Balzac described in a letter around the time he was writing Eugénie Grandet as a "poor, simple and delightful bourgeoise”, although the author of Women in the life of Balzac, which I’ve only seen in an online version but imagine must be a nice thick book in hard copy, points out that she doesn’t fit the type: the women to whom Balzac dedicates his books, while they come in many shapes, eg “members of his family, old family friends, literary friends, rich people to whom he was indebted, women of the nobility, or women whom he loved for a time at least”, had in common that they were all women “whom he could respect and recognize in society”.

Not like the simple bourgeoise Balzac characterised as “the most naive creature that ever was, fallen like a flower from heaven". He also records a phrase she wrote to him, which I suppose could be thought of as her dedication to him. I’m not sure if is extremely naïve, or not naïve at all:

"Love me a year, and I will love you all my life."

2. From Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
"You know how it is. You pick up a book, flip to the dedication, and find that, once again, the author has dedicated a book to someone else and not you. Not this time. Because we haven't yet met / have only a glancing acquaintance / are just crazy about each other / haven't seen each other in much too long / are in some way related / will never meet, but will, I trust, despite that, always think fondly of each other... this one's for you. With you know what, and you probably know why."

I came across this a few months ago during a moment of particular fondness for Neil Gaiman after he “shared his reading habits” (this the title of the feature) in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. In my case, the word "share" really did mean “share”, as opposed to a new-speak way of saying “tell about”, because I had been reading the same book. It is Just my type: A Book about Fonts and Neil got a lot of points in my book for telling (sorry, sharing) this wonderful story:

"My 'make this last as long as you can' book is Just My Type: A Book About Fonts. It’s illuminated a subject I thought I understood, but I didn’t, and its chapter on the wrongnesses of Comic Sans came alive for me recently visiting a friend at a Florida retirement community, in which every name on every door was printed in Comic Sans. The elderly deserve more respect than that. Except for the lady I was visiting, widow of a comics artist. For her, it might have been appropriate."

3. From Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
"It was to the soul of CYRANO that I intended to dedicate this poem. But since that soul has been reborn in you, COQUELIN, it is to you that I dedicate it. ~E.R."

Cyrano de Bergerac, which we all think of as a play but which is, as its author states in the dedication, a poem, being written in rhyming couplets, always seems like such a period piece, I don’t know, maybe because Gerard Depardieu played both Cyrano and Porthos of The Three Musketeers as well as -- I just learned at Central Library's Balzac celebration -- the lead in what Nicholas Reid considers the best film ever made from a Balzac novel, the Napoleonic Wars-era Colonel Chabert.

But appearances can be misleading, especially since, as the verse (author undeservedly forgotten) I love to quote goes, "I think that I shall never view, a French film without Depardieu", and Cyrano is actually more contemporary than most people realise, a grandiose revisitation of overblown French romantic literature: a bit of a spoof, and a lot of homage.

The author of Cyrano, Edmond Rostand, died in 1918 aged only 50, a victim of the terrible flu epidemic. His son Maurice was well-known in Parisian society in the inter-war period as what was once called a "homosexual personality", a friend of Jean Cocteau and frequenter of literary salons with the likes of Marcel Proust.

It is fitting that Rostand should have dedicated Cyrano to the famous actor who starred in the prodigiously successful play (500 performances in a row), because Constant Coquelin's talents were a major inspiration for the play, especially the magnificent ending, which Coquelin is said to have collaborated on, where Cyrano tragically expires on stage, throwing his duelling sword into the air and declaring that there is one thing no one can take away from him -- his panache, his white plume, the symbol of his bravery and his honour.

Here's a great trailer for the 1950 movie of Cyrano which starred Jose Ferrer - with quite a bit more nose putty than the Gallic Gerard Depardieu required, but just as much, if not more, panache:

4. From The Shadow-line by Joseph Conrad

Borys and all others
who like himself have crossed
in early youth the shadow-line
of their generation
With Love"

I had heard about people having to cross their shadow-line and used the expression myself in various ways it suggested itself to me for years before I actually read the book and found out precisely what Conrad meant by the term. The Shadow-line, he explains in the opening, is the moment of passage between youth and maturity, the moment when youth must be left behind.

“What moments?” he asks. “Why, the moments of boredom, of weariness, of dissatisfaction. Rash moments. I mean moments when the still young are inclined to commit rash actions.”

He also points out -- I love this -- that he doesn’t mean the very young, because the very young, "strictly speaking, have no moments at all".

As for the dedication, in September 1915 as Conrad was completing the manuscript of The Shadow-Line, his son Borys enlisted in the British Army, heading for the killing fields of France -- the Somme, in his case. He made it home alive and fifty years later he wrote a memoir (My father, Joseph Conrad) in which he looks affectionately at his famous father but where he also notes that his father, with his old-fashioned manners, had a difficult time expressing his love. In person.

5. From Amphigorey Again by Edward Gorey
"In fond collaborative memory…
Addeé Gorrwy
Aedwyrd Goré
Agowy Erderd
D. Awdrey-Gore
Deary Rewdgo
Dedge Yarrow
Dewda Yorger
Dogear Wryde
Dora Greydew
Dreary Wodge
Drew Dogyear
E.G. Deadworry
Edgar E. Wordy
Eduard Blutig
Edward Pig
Garrod Weedy
Gary Dredwoe
Grey Redwoad
Groeda Weyrd
O. Müde
Ogdred Weary
Orde Graykdw
Raddory Gewe
Regera Dowdy
Roger Addyew
Roy Grewdead
Wardore Edgy
Waredo Dyrge
Wee Graddory
Ydora Wredge"

The Table of Contents of Amphigorey Again testifies to the originality and fruitfulness of these many collaborators (I started out thinking I would just copy a few, to give you the idea, but when it came time to leave some off, I just couldn't):

The galoshes of remorse -- Signs of spring -- Seasonal confusion -- Random walk -- Category -- The other statue -- 10 impossible objects (abridged) -- The universal solvent (abridged) -- Scenes de Ballet -- Verse advice -- The deadly blotter -- Creativity -- The retrieved locket -- The water flowers -- The haunted tea-cosy -- Christmas wrap-up -- The headless bust -- The just dessert -- The admonitory hippopotamus -- Neglected murderesses -- Tragedies topiares -- The raging tide -- The unknown vegetable -- Another random walk -- Serious life : a cruise -- Figbash acrobate -- La Malle Saignante -- The izzard book.

Yes, long before there was Lemony Snickett, long before there was Tim Burton, there was Edward Gorey, whose first book came out in 1953. And before Edward Gorey, there were Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. There are a few clips of Edward Gorey floating around on youtube, mostly from interviews made in preparation for a documentary which as far as I can see never got made, which does seem to fit with the Edward Gorey spirit. Here's one where he talks about the nonsense line of the English literature family tree. You're in for a surprise, unless you expect Gorey to have a strong American accent, and to be wearing a yellow slicker rather than a velvet, perhaps threadworn, suit:

And at you can read such gems as "Growing up Gorey": Maurice Sendak, Alison Lurie and Andreas Brown all agree, Gorey is a Good Thing for the Kids.

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