December 31, 2010

What I'm reading

Last great reads of 2010

I've just finished off a stack of books (one of those people who read their stacks simultaneously rather than consecutively) in time to collect a new stack for summer and hey, a new year! Hope they'll be as good as these. I loved them all.

Straight life by Art Pepper
The autobiography of a jazz star who was a white man when jazz musicians were black and a drug addict all his life. I had read an excerpt from it when it first came out and was amazed at how powerful a charge this man transmits, this man who was not a writer and in fact did not write the book -- it was born in the form of stories that his second wife (met in rehab) convinced him to tell her while she kept a tape recorder running. This year it occurred to me to suggest the library purchase it so I could finally read the whole thing. What a narrative! I know there are people out there disagreeing with this fact or another, but I say who cares about the facts. Find a more truthful description, if you can, of how you can find yourself taking the wrong turn with no good reason at all, just driving home with the radio playing. As someone in the book notes about his playing, Art Pepper never 'coasts'.

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek

An unidentified male I found myself in a cluster with at the Book Design Awards said he was loving reading this novel about a Czech battalion stranded in wintertime in some far outpost of northern Russia during the Russian civil war. I can’t remember if he mentioned the cannibalism, perhaps he thought it would be out of place as we munched our canapé‎s, or maybe it just didn’t catch my imagination (hard to believe). At any rate, the idea of the lost battalion, desperate to get home, their mad Captain -- a sort of cold-weather Kurtz -- that by itself sounded like a good story. As it turned out to be! A Russian novel sort of good story, in fact, without ever being obsequious to that great genre. Let's say, a kindred spirit.

syndetics-lcAncient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S Thompson

My favourite was the interview by PJ O’Rourke from 1996, because PJ O’Rourke is smart and funny, and because HST comes across best when interviewed by people who are smart and funny.

“What was the first book, the first whole book, you read?”
“Good lord, man – anybody who would remember that is probably in some kind of trouble or lying.”
“No, they say that drug addicts always remember the very first time they had the drug, or alcoholics remember the first drink.”
“Jesus, I think you’re right.”

I remembered the same book from my childhood. You might too. Read the book and find out what it was.

syndetics-lcAsk Dr. Mueller by Cookie Mueller

I knew about Cookie Mueller, who had that crazy feeling, from Nan Goldin’s photographs and her cameo appearances in various stories from the New York art and drug scene of the seventies, but I didn’t realize we had her book in the library until I came across it by chance. It collects various pieces of writing by Cookie which she wouldn’t be surprised to learn have dated – she was not someone who was trying to write for posterity.
The sad thing is that there are no later and thus less-dated pieces, because of her early death from AIDS. She certainly went down with banners flying, as befits someone who, as John Waters pointed out in his introduction, didn’t comb her hair for 25 years and still looked beautiful.

syndetics-lcSwish:  my quest to become the gayest person ever  by Joel Derfner

This book, besides being really fun to read, taught me an important lesson. I had always thought that cheerleaders were destined to be cheerleaders from birth, that it was not a learnable art. But apparently you can practice yourself into becoming a cheerleader, flips and everything, if you really want to. The other thing this book was notable for was a passage about pain and vulnerability which yes, was his viewpoint from a gay perspective, but which, like all deep insights, will say something to just about everyone. At least it did to me.

Riding toward everywhere by William T Vollman

I was seventeen, the age for dares, and on the return leg of a hitchhiking trip that was somewhat of a dare already (California to Canada and back in a four-day break from University) with a friend, when we met a Gary Snyder-type in Eugene, Oregon who filled us in on how to hop a freight. Did we do it? Of course!

syndetics-lcAnd that was how I came to ride the rails from Eugene to Portland, over the mountains, at night, in an empty boxcar with a wooden floor. I remember this detail because my friend had a new and expensive ski jacket on, a present from a guilt-burdened absentee father, and she kept worrying, as we huddled and hugged on the floor while the wind chill took the temperature down to zero and then below, that a splinter would get into the jacket and ruin it. My teeth were so gritted I couldn’t even say “Your jacket? Our lives! I think we might be going to die of the cold!"

It was thrilling and the view of the dawn over the Portland train yard was thrilling, but it turned out not to be a lark at all. It was life-and-death.

William T Vollman has written a book about trainhopping as the ultimate underground lifestyle. This is the dedication:

This book is dedicated to STEVE JONES,
who never pretended
that he or I were hobos
and who therefore coined the word fauxbeaux,
who turned fifty riding the rails with me,
who was riding the rails with me as I turned forty-seven,
who never made me feel guilty for saying
that this or that train was too fast for me,
and who is the finest Christian
who ever bought me a cigar,
drank my booze
or shouted fuck!
into the diesel-scented night.

Fleeting Rome by Carlo Levi
Memories of Rome in the years of La Dolce Vita, when Vespas roared through the city by day and sheep were herded through at night, by the author of Christ stopped at Eboli. The osteria where Levi ate lunch had seasonal wild asparagus, much better than the market variety. Where did they get it? From an employee of the Ministry of Finance who every day, after clocking in, would head off on his bicycle to hunt asparagus, which he would trade for dinner or wine. One year there was no more. The man had reached compulsory retirement age at the Ministry, and had promptly stopped his true job as well.

December 30, 2010

Fifty years on: sad literary anniversaries

Books in the City looks back at two sad literary anniversaries of the departing year

The death of Albert Camus 

Camus in 1957
It's fifty years this year since Albert Camus was killed in an automobile accident while travelling from Provence to Paris. He was 46, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, at the peak of his fame and – see photo – charisma. He had accepted a ride in his publisher’s Facel Vega, a high-speed luxury sports car, a light rain was falling, the car skidded off the road and hit a tree. Camus died instantly, although it took the rescue workers two hours to extricate him from the wreck.

In his briefcase they found his diary, a book of Nietzsche and a copy of Othello, and the manuscript of Le Premier Homme (The First Man). His unused train ticket was in his pocket. I can’t remember seeing it in print myself, so take it for what it’s worth, but I’ve been told that Camus once said that the most meaningless of deaths would be to die in a car accident.

Richard Wright, too 

Fifty years ago, too, and again in France, but this time in a Parisian clinic, the American writer Richard Wright died after being in poor health for years. His body was cremated and the ashes mixed with the ashes of a copy of his novel Black boy, as he had wanted. He was only 52, he was nearly penniless and had spent the last year of his life writing haiku. As an expatriate he escaped the prejudice he experienced back home, but it was one hassle after another and the fire just seemed to dwindle and go out.

You need to read Wright's great novels, Native son and the autobiographical Black boy, to see why this is so sad. In Black boy he tells about how in order to get a library card he had to forge the application using the name of a white co-worker. He was fifteen. The minute he started reading (it was a book by HL Mencken, he of the slashing wit) he was consumed by the desire to be a writer, but immediately as he sat down with pen and paper, he found that the constrictions of his Jim Crow upbringing meant he didn't know what to write.

 He says "I could endure the hunger. I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger."

December 25, 2010

Joseph Brodsky's Christmas Poem

I first encountered the poet Joseph Brodsky in the pages of The New York Review of Books, it would have been something to do with St. Petersburg, the city where he was born and raised and which in many ways defined him -- the city where, as he used to say, everything can change (including its name, twice) except its weather and its light.

Even after serving 18 months at hard labour for the crime of "social parasitism" (ie being a poet), and when that didn't deter him from writing poetry, seeing himself diagnosed as schizophrenic by a medical expert of the regime, clearly a menacing development, and despite repeated invitations to emigrate to Israel, Brodsky didn't want to leave St. Petersburg. They had to break into his apartment and get him and put him on a plane; he didn't even know where it was going.

It went to Vienna, and after that he went on to America, became an American citizen and, like his city, changed his name. Fifteen years later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I happened to visit New York that year, and that was where I encountered him again, in the Strand Bookstore, under the guise of his book of essays, Less than one, which I bought and still treasure. And then, just a few years ago, I found his grave in the beautiful cemetery of San Martino in Venice, near those of Ezra Pound and Diaghilev.

Brodksy ended Less than one with a piece which is a tender eulogy to St Petersburg and a brave one to the memory of his parents. He called it In a room and a half, that being the size of the apartment his family was allotted by the communist officials. And now, the director Andrey Khrzhanovskiy has made a film with this name, based on Brodsky's life and poetry.

I haven't been able to see the movie yet but I found the theatrical trailer on youtube and it looks wonderful. It opens magnificently with the old slave spiritual Go down Moses as the soundtrack, an impeccable choice given how Brodsky described his parents' greatest failure: they weren't able to raise their son to be a slave.

Joseph Brodsky, who would have turned 70 this year, used to write a poem every Christmas. Here is one of them I particularly like, written during his time at hard labour in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia. It surprised me to realise, as I was writing this, that he was only 24 when he composed it. My first thought was that the tone is that of a much older man, which would have been more than understandable, but then I re-read it and thought, well, no, actually. For my money, that's defiance there in the last line.

January 1, 1965

The kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards' nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you'd snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.

What is this? Sadness? Yes, perhaps.
A little tune that never stops.
One knows by heart its downs and ups.
May it be played on par
with things to come, with one's eclipse,
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for what occasionally keeps
them trained on something far.

And staring up where no cloud drifts
because your sock's devoid of gifts
you'll understand this thrift: it fits
your age; it's not a slight.
It is too late for some breakthrough,
for miracles, for Santa's crew.
And suddenly you'll realize that you
yourself are a gift outright.

-- translated by the author

December 23, 2010

Iain Sharp's favourite beat poem

Iain Sharp couldn't make it to our Day of the Dead Beat Poets, and although his presence was missed I have to say that part of me is glad, because of how he wrote these things down for me instead, meaning I could read them and then read them again, as you will also want to:

Hi Karen

It occurred to me after we spoke that my all-time favourite beat poem is an untitled little one by Lew Welch that goes like this:

Step out onto the planet.
Draw a circle 100 feet round.

Inside the circle are 300 things
nobody understands and,
maybe, nobody’s ever seen.

How many can you find?

Poor Lew Welch! He seems, at heart, to have been such a nice man, but he was plagued throughout his short life by mental problems as well as alcoholism. In May 1971, while staying with Gary Snyder in a remote part of northeast California, he walked into the woods one day with a 303 rifle and killed himself. His body was never found. He left behind a heartbreaking note:

"I never could make anything work out right and now I'm betraying my friends. I can't make anything out of it - never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It's all gone. Don Allen is to be my literary executor- use MSS at Gary's and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America - use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don't owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest.
Goodbye. Lew Welch."

Another of my favourite beat poems is the elegy Snyder wrote a couple of years later:

For/From Lew

Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. "Damn, Lew" I said,
"you didn't shoot yourself after all."
"Yes I did" he said,
and even then I felt the tingling down my back.
"Yes you did, too" I said—"I can feel it now."
"Yeah" he said,
"There's a basic fear between your world and
mine.  I don't know why.
What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles.  All other cycles.
That's what it's all about, and it's all forgot."

A footnote: the birth name of Huey Lewis (of "Hip to be Square" fame) was Hugh Anthony Cregg. He changed his surname to Lewis as a tribute to the stepfather who helped raise him -- Lew Welch.


December 20, 2010

Day of the Dead Beat Poets

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."

Do you need a reason to celebrate the great Beat poets? Well no, but anyway we had one. It's 55 years since Allen Ginsberg gave his first impassioned public reading of "Howl", the poem which "knocked the sides out of things", in the words of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was there to hear it and the first to publish it, the next year. Last week we honoured the occasion at Central Library with the first antipodean "Day of the Dead Beat Poets", an inebriating evening of readings from the work of the dead (and some still-living) Beat poets.

Besides us hip librarians, we had that born-to-be-a-beat poet Bob Orr who, in the vein of Dean Moriarty travelling 3000 miles just to see me, took the day off work to be able to come in and gave a transcendental reading which included his fabulous poem -- which I was going to read if he didn't -- about panel-beating Neal Cassady's car, we had Michele Leggott and Jack Ross, among the public we had an American who grew up across the river from Paterson NJ and gave us a poem full of Beats and William Carlos Williams who had once treated his father which blew us away, we had a truck-farmer from San Jose California, we had Mel with burgundy hair, we had a guerrilla poet. We even had a drifter, whom I thought we might have group-hallucinated into being, so much did his appearance suggest a down-at-heel Dennis Hopper (who, aficionados will know, used to hang out with Allen Ginsberg).

syndetics-lcIt would have made Allen Ginsberg happy to know he was the catalyst for such a great evening. In the build-up to the event I read a few of the many books which have been written about him, or the Beats in general, since his death; I can recommend I Celebrate Myself: the somewhat private life of Allen Ginsberg, a thick biography by Bill Morgan, who knew Ginsberg from having worked on his archives with him, Beat, by Christopher Felver - more style than content but fun to look through and also it's pleasurably brand-new and shiny -- and The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963 by Barry Miles, long-time chronicler of the Beats, which has a wonderful story about Ginsberg and Corso, stoned out of their minds, listening to a tape-recording of a performance by Antonin Artaud, the avant-garde actor/playwright/director, and being so deeply moved by its newness and strangeness they went to replay it, only to realise that they had been listening to it backwards, by mistake.

But my favourite of all the Ginsberg stories I read, the one which for me expresses the essence of the Ginsberg I love, comes from the website of Larry Keenan, a student of Michael McClure's who became a photo-documenter of the Beats. It goes like this:

"Once when I was visiting Allen in his apartment he asked me if I would like some coffee. Having said "Yes," he presented me with a metal bowl with coffee in it. The bowl seemed strange (like a dog dish) and I nursed the coffee to cool it down. Soon he started asking "Are you finished with that, man?" I would say "No, not yet" and after awhile I started to feel uncomfortable because the bowl seemed important to him. When I finally said "Yes," he grabbed the bowl away -- threw the remaining coffee in the sink and sat down with the bowl for his breakfast cereal. I was using his only bowl."

-- "Breakfast in his apartment" by Larry Keenan

December 12, 2010

one brown box

Unlike the way it always seems to happen in fairy tales, I was not heading off to market to sell the family cow when I stumbled onto good fortune the other day, but walking home from a K Rd art gallery. Feeling a bit disjunctive in the bright sun after emerging from the cool shadows of the Michael Lett Gallery where I had been watching four green-hued videos involving night, dark water and saturation at Campbell Patterson’s “Orewa” show, I went right past an open doorway beyond which stood a big empty brown box before the feeling of intrigue a big empty brown box still manages to inspire in me, even if with a bit of a delay compared to once upon a time, made me stop, turn around, go back and peer inside.

The open door was that of the objectspace gallery and the big brown box was part of an exhibition by Bronwyn Lloyd and Karl Chitham called “one brown box”, all about storybooks and fairy tales.

Princess and the pea bedEveryone whose heart stirs at the thought of fairy tales should go see this marvellous exhibition. Starting from the plainest structure with the most unlimited imaginative potential, the brown box, “one brown box” illustrates five classic fairy tales with sculptures and models made entirely from boxes and paper, such as a tiny canopy bed made by Bronwen Lloyd with a real pea (I asked Bronwen) on the pillow, an entire castle for the Steadfast Tin Soldier and, most amazing of all, Karl Chitham’s “King’s Tower” from the “Twelve Dancing Princesses”, which is a tower and a King’s face, too, perched high on a wall for all the world like a cardboard version of a river god grotesque in one of those mannerist stone grottoes in the gardens of old Italian villas.
There are also fairy tales retold from the point of view of minor characters (eg "Snow White: The Mirror’s Story”), an I Spy Cabinet and a Cabinet of Curiosities, and a wonderful display of Jack Ross’s collection of fairy tale books, with one of the nicest signs I have ever seen in an art show letting you know that you are welcome to pick them up and look at them, along with a written piece by Jack called “A Short History of Fairytales”.

I was happy to see Jack mention Italo Calvino’s book of traditional Italian fairy tales, which I was given as a child and read many times over, with no knowledge of Calvino’s literary status but a keen appreciation for their whimsy -- I remember chick peas which turned into children -- and for the figs, dates and pomegranates with which the stories were festooned, so … southern compared to those tales with little match girls freezing to death or bears bursting into houses to get out of the torment of snow.

Jack’s piece is reprinted in the brown paper-covered exhibition ‘catalogue’, which makes it possible for me to end with this wonderful quote from Dr. Johnson with which Jack introduces it:

“Memory once interrupted is not to be recalled. Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had hidden it has passed away, is again bright in its proper station. Tradition is but a meteor, which if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.”

-- Dr. Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775).

The show is open until December 18th, at object space, 8 Ponsonby Road.

December 01, 2010

A glossary of hard-boiled slang

Last month the mouthpiece I got taking care of business for me out in California, he lets me know we’re behind the eight-ball. “You got to be straight with me, Vinny.” I tell him. “What does it mean? Are we jake or are we in a jam?”

Actually what I said was “Vinny, every time someone says ‘we’re behind the eight-ball’, I never know, is that good or bad?”  Sadly un-hardboiled, but what’s a girl to do?

Well. Not long after that, compiling a hard-boiled crime bookmark for our Libraries guys promotion, what did I come across but “Twists, slugs and roscoes: a glossary of hard-boiled slang” by William Denton, a web librarian in Toronto (hey, isn't that the same place the guy was from who made the list of Captain Haddock’s curses? Is this something to do with weather?). There it was, "behind the eight-ball", right between “beezer” (nose) and “bent car” (stolen car). If only I'd have known, it would have been eggs in the coffee.

According to Erle Stanley Gardner, in "Getting away with murder", a piece he wrote for The Atlantic which Denton reprints, that genius Dashiell Hammett’s dazzling command of criminalese was gained not so much from his time as a Pinkerton op, as we all thought, but from slang dictionaries. Apparently he even got the quintessential “shamus” from a dictionary, and here’s the startling claim: it’s not Irish, from Seamus, the cop on the beat, as I always thought, just as everyone did who’d ever seen a James Cagney movie or read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but Jewish-American, although the precise origin escaped Gardner, to his frustration.

What? Shamus is Jewish?

I did some sleuthing around and it looks as though it might be true. An article published a few years back in the Jewish Daily Forward, “Bogie speaks Yiddish”, makes a convincing case that 'shamus’ comes from the Yiddish word for the synagogue beadle, “shammes”,  the person who knows everyone’s business, or, as the proverb has it, "I don’t need to know him," Ikh ken dem shammes un der shammes ken di gantze shtot, “I know the shammes and the shammes knows the whole town.”

syndetics-lcAn Irish version of  'shammes', pronounced with a long 'a' like the ubiquitous Seamus, did sprout on the streets of New York. But, reports the article (whereby its endearing title), in the great Howard Hawks film version of  Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, when Humphrey Bogart is asked what he does and replies “I’m a shamus”, he gives it the Yiddish pronunciation, rhyming it with Thomas. Always a class act, Bogie.

In the book, although Eddie’s “pug” calls Philip Marlowe a shamus, Marlowe never calls himself one. What he says is “I’m a sleuth”. Raymond Chandler is one of my favourite writers, and I've read everything he ever wrote. He spent his final years in my home town of La Jolla, which he called 'Esmeralda' in the book he set there, Playback. It's not a good book, but then he was in bad shape, adrift on a sea of alcoholism, having found no anchor to replace his beloved Cissy, pink-rinsed curls and all.

My mother reiterated this when I checked the address and found out it was next door to our dentist (a sort of Chandlerian character with a mustache who would be smoking a cigar as you settled into the chair, although he wasn't illegally dispensing drugs ending in -caine as Chandler's dentists do, at least as far as I know), and asked if she'd ever seen him. "I know he didn't go out much, but you might have caught sight of him through the window". "I don't think so dear, in those years he was really always horizontal" she replied.

*     *     *

'Tall, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘I didn’t mean to be.’

Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.

'Handsome too,’ she said, ‘And I bet you know it.'

I grunted.

'What’s your name?’

‘Reilly,’ I said. ‘Doghouse Reilly’.

‘That’s a funny name.’ She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.

‘Are you a prizefighter?’ she asked, when I didn’t.

‘Not exactly. I’m a sleuth.’

-- from The Big Sleep, first published 1939

November 12, 2010

Galileo's finger points at the heavens

syndetics-lcFour hundred years ago this year Galileo Galilei published his Sidereus Nuncius, The Starry Messenger, described by him on its title page as "revealing great, unusual, and remarkable spectacles, opening these to the consideration of every man, and especially of philosophers and astronomers, as observed by Galileo Galilei, Gentleman of Florence, with the aid of a spyglass lately invented by him".

Or, as Bertolt Brecht put it in his play The Life of Galileo, "Today is the tenth of January, sixteen hundred and ten. Mankind will write in its journal: Heaven abolished."

An exciting event marks this anniversary. The Museum of the History of Science in Florence has long been the proud owner of one of Galileo's fingers, the third finger, to be exact. During the transfer of Galileo's body to the Church of Santa Croce after his supporters had finally gotten permission, something like 100 years after his death, for him to be buried on consecrated ground, one of the eminent intellectuals, aristocrats and freemasons who was present had sliced off three of Galileo's fingers. Two went missing (my uncle, who once worked for NASA, suggested that they had them) but the third was right there on display in the Museum, in a glass chalice.

I tried to go see it last year when I was in Florence but every time I tried to get there the Museum was closed. As all kinds of museums seem to be closed all the time in Italy, I didn't dwell too much on it. But it turns out it was closed because it was undergoing renovations in order to reemerge for the 400th anniversary of The Starry Messenger, newly renamed the Galileo Museum, now the proud owner of - get this - all three fingers! Yes, the other two fingers have been found!

Two new biographies of Galileo have come out to coincide with the 400th anniversary of The Starry Messenger.

by JL Heilbron, from Oxford University Press, is a major new biography which captures Galileo the humanist, passionate reader of Ariosto and defender of Dante, as well as Galileo the mathematician and scientist.

syndetics-lcAlways surprising when this happens after so many years. In Galileo: watcher of the skies (Yale University Press) David Wootton draws on Galileo's at times "self-censored and sly" letters to reveal such things as a previously unknown illegitimate daughter and evidence refuting the idea that Galileo was ever a good Catholic.

And finally, if you love beautiful illustrations, get The Starry Messenger , a picture book for all ages by the fabulous author/illustrator Peter Sis.

A final note. This is about Galileo, not Brecht, but I have to say that The Life of Galileo is a great read, full of Brechtian wit, intellect and revolutionary spirit (no pun intended). I've just been down to the basement to get our copy (noting that we have it in both German and English, even) and I've been sitting here reading it instead of finishing this.

First scholar: Signor Galileo, you have dropped something on the floor.
Galileo: No, Monsignor, it fell up to me.
Fat prelate: Impudent rascal.

If you don't like reading plays, you can get it from the library on DVD, directed by Joseph Losey or as an e audiobook with Stacy Keach.

October 26, 2010

Interview with the Sheehan Bros.

Jo Lo from our web team recently interviewed Kelly and Darren Sheehan, authors of The Inhabitants, a superhero/fantasy series about a boy who discovers he has magical powers, and travels to another universe full of hipsters and slackers, pit stops and digressions.  The Inhabitants picked up the Best Writing honour at the 2010 Eric Awards for New Zealand comics in March.

What inspired The Inhabitants?

Kelly: Lots of things. The original idea for The Inhabitants was that everything in it would be ‘stolen’. Samples culled from whatever we thought was cool. It didn't quite work out like that, but a list of inspirational sources would include Zenith (a superhero comic by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell), England’s Dreaming by John Savage, SJD, Dimmer, Wilco, Alan Moore and Alan Davis's Captain Britain, Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series, Philip K Dick, Warren Ellis's brainstorming about comics in various essays and reviews he has written (most of which are online), The Matrix, Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, Akira, Joss Whedon's Buffyverse, the sense of place in any novel by Robert Stone, William Gibson's crystalline writing and loads of coffee. Oh, a retrospective inspiration, if I had read it before I started the series, was Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. It's the best book I've read in the last 10 years. It's so digressive that it makes The Inhabitants straightforward and to the point.

Darren: I wanted to tackle a more ambitious project on a wider scope at the time I was reading England’s dreaming by Jon Savage. It's a book stuffed full of ideas and history and it really fuelled the initial charge at The Inhabitants.

How did you get started in the graphic novel world?

Kelly: Darren and I started work on our first comic around 1996. It was a short mini-comic called The Long Man. We went on to complete six Long Man comics before we started The Inhabitants.

Does your job at the libraries help with graphic novel work?

Kelly: It helps in that you work in an environment where you see inspiring things – novels, DVDs, CDs – on a regular basis. However it sometimes works the other way around, in that there is a danger that you become overwhelmed by 'stuff' and part of you begins to think why bother adding to it?

Do you have a writing process or routine?

Kelly: Unfortunately I don't. I'd like to be a disciplined, methodical person, but I'm not. The writing of The Inhabitants was a piecemeal process with time grabbed here and there. That's part of why it took so long to finish. Being a husband and a dad only intensified this personal shortcoming though my wife is very supportive in helping me find time.

What's the history and inpiration behind all the pictures in Inhabitants, Longman, Go Gorillas?

Darren: The Longman was the first comic Kelly and I attempted together so we were finding our style and working out how to tell a story and create a world and populate it with characters. Go Gorillas was a way of doing one-page stories and experimenting with form. I was thinking Spy vs Spy with evolution thrown in the mix as a backbone. Those strips are really inspired by the work of Martin F Edmond. The Inhabitants was Kelly and me taking on a more ambitious scope of storytelling and really rolling up our sleeves and do some hard-out worldbuilding.

Any favourite comic books/series?

Kelly: Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, Zenith, Bible John, JLA-Rock of Ages, Seven Soldiers, All Star Superman and most of Final Crisis. Alan Moore's Captain Britain, From Hell, Promethea, V for Vendetta. Akira and Domo by Katsuhiro Ōtomo. Jamie Hernandez's Locas. Anything by Taiyo Matsumoto, Timothy Kidd or Sophie Mcmillan. Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Jim Woodring’s Frank stories. Tintin. Bone by Jeff Smith. 2000ad. Charley's War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. Jared Lane's Progress.

Darren: Too many, but off the top of my head, anything by Frank Quietly eg All Star Superman, The Authority, Flex Mentello, We 3 etc.  The Invisibles, Zenith, The Biologic Show by Al Columbia, Crickets and Poor Sailor by Sammy Harkhem, Progress by Jared Lane, a New Zealand comics artist based in Christchurch. Anything by Tim Kidd, another great New Zealand artist.

Does winning make you think of making the series into an animated feature/TV series?

Kelly: The thing I like about doing comics is that you can get it done and finished and out there. Filmmaking is such an expensive and complex process that anyone I know who wants to make movies is still waiting to be given the chance. If someone was interested I'd take their cash, but I'd probably stand waaaayyyy back from the production process.
What do you think of the recent spate of comic-based films out there e.g. Iron Man, Watchmen, Batman, Spiderman?
Kelly: Some are good, most are bad. I really like both Hellboy movies and the first two Spiderman movies are almost perfect. I refused to see Watchmen.

Working on anything new at the moment?

Kelly: Yeah, mostly short things and one longer piece. We might put out an anthology next. We have also started on a weird-dreamy-fantasy series.  The idea is that we will work on it slowly over a couple of years, perhaps putting one out each year-as a kind of break from the anthology.

Darren: I’m just finishing work on a set of illustrations for a novel by Mike Johnson called Travesty. It’s being published later in the year by Titus books.

Any pearls of wisdom for the budding comic writer/graphic artist?

Kelly: Just do it! Remember you don't need someone else's permission. Nothing’s going to happen if you sit around waiting for someone to ask you to produce your masterpiece. If you want to approach publishers overseas, you’re better off having something in your hand than just telling them about your really, really good idea.  
Darren: Always keep a sketchbook to record those stray thoughts or inspirations.
How does the comic book publishing world work in NZ? Or is self-publishing the norm in NZ?

Kelly: Self-publishing is the norm. There are some exceptions to the rule. Everyone pretty much makes it up as they go along with varying degrees of support from New Zealand’s eccentric comics community.

I see Central City Library in Volume 1. Are there other buildings in the city you've included in The Inhabitants? E.g. I thought I recognised the Carlisle building on Richmond Rd in it? (I could be wrong).

Darren: Yeah, the whole series is really informed by old buildings in Auckland as a backdrop, when I was initially coming up with sketches for the Great old city nothing was really working so I started taking photos of old building and chopping and dropping them in as the street scapes. There are a lot of buildings on Symonds street, the inner city, Mt Eden Road, parts of Albert Park, the Art Gallery interiors and exteriors, a wrought iron fence here, an abandoned staircase there. I think some of it harks back to growing up in Auckland and coming across to the central city on the ferry from Devonport in the weekend  when everything was closed on a Sunday. That deserted empty feeling.

Do you base the characters/character names on people you know? E.g. I know an TV editor called Tibor, and the Tibor character shows up in Volume 3.

Kelly: There are some real people in our cast of thousands (well, actually, more like dozens). The Auckland graffiti artist Deus plays himself in one scene, (and then we kill him), also Auckland band Golden Axe are the inspiration for the mostly robot band in the background of the party scene. There are characters who are sampled from other strips and sources (mostly with permission). Tibor and his crew are taken from MF Joyce and Dominic Correy's 'I Agree 49%'. There are also a couple of Timothy Kidd and Sophie McMillan's characters here and there, and one of Karl Wills's anti-social school girls. And we  also sampled the Jimmy Dynamite character (and in another story the character the Glasgow Pixie) from a couple of Playstation '3rd Place' ads (can be found here and here).

Charlotte says "We're on the edge of something that consumes worlds and suns, whole places and times, whole dimensions" - is this some sort of metaphor?

Kelly: It's as close as I get to a metaphor, but since it’s a superhero comic it’s mostly just a cosmically omnivorous, sentient universe.

-- Jo Lo, Online content editor, Auckland City Libraries

September 28, 2010

Talking Poetry

The launch of 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry

syndetics-lcPaula Green and Harry Ricketts have been incubating this wonderful book for a long time and on September 17th ten invited poets, plus Paula and Harry, very good poets themselves, spent an evening at the library to celebrate its arrival by talking poetry and reading poetry for an assorted public of fans and friends (also fans).

I am rarely able to truly take in poems I hear being read (an exception might be the old recordings of Yeats sonorously tolling his beautiful lines, one by one, like majestic breakers rolling in, not to mention the dramatic rolling of the r's) because I’m one of those people who has to see the poem on the page. I need to be able to gaze at the whole as I zoom in on the part, visualize the verses and slip from one to the next rather the way falling leaves descend floating first to one side then to the other, to finally catch and hold perfectly still for a fraction of a second before landing just there and nowhere else.

But Paula’s genial idea of having everyone mix talk and poetry unexpectedly made it work for me. It should be de rigueur for readings – although I suppose you’d need to  have poets who are interesting talkers, like Sonja Yelich, whose chosen topic was erotica (I loved it and I bought her book Get Some, the only book of poetry I’ve ever owned with a US Marine on the cover), or Anna Jackson, offbeat and tender, or Robert Sullivan being wry about our setting, Central Library, where he once worked, and offering up several surprising poems, including this one which stole my heart, from his new book Cassino City of Martyrs / Città Martire:

The Dalai Lama’s Smile
brings one to me when I think about him

99 Ways is a gorgeous book, thick and heavy, a bright orange cover pleasingly devoid of rural highways and sombre beaches – against that orange? -- nothing figurative at all, in fact, just giant white handwriting as if a mad housepainter suddenly decided to write a scrap of poetry on the wall with his huge whitewash brush (the lettering is the work of Athena Sommerfeld, who designed one of my favourite last year's book covers, the little book from AUP of 50 James K. Baxter poems selected by Sam Hunt). When you open it, the paper is sweet-smelling and shiny, a photograph-type quality which amazingly doesn't glare at me when I put the book on my kitchen table under the old hanging lamp we keep meaning to replace. It is dense with text in a small but classic font, poems in a more rarified and artful font which slows your reading down just the right amount, and photos of poets and their books.

As I skip around in it – the only way most of us can approach a book like this -- I keep encountering the moments which have marked the chapters of my New Zealand life.

“Oh look, there’s CK Stead’s book with the writing in the shape of a dog that I always chose for the new books display."

“Oh look, The loop in Lone Kauri Road, that I photocopied the poem from, when Jen was living on Lone Kauri Road...”

“Oh look, Rain, the first New Zealand poem I read which took my breath away.” 

“Oh look, The Long Road to Tea Time”, that had the poem about Ursula and Gudrun in their Minnie Cooper shoes which had just been used for a poetry display when I came to work at Central, and I was wearing Minnie Cooper shoes at the time, and I pinned the poem up on the wall by my desk.”

“Oh look, a photo of Bob Orr without his cap. And look at this poem from Valparaiso, watermelons cut in half revealing ‘the cool pink of dawn and small dark boats a long way out to sea’!  I have to get Valparaiso!” 

Here is how Paula opens the last chapter of the book, which she calls "Ways into Writing (New Zealand) Poetry". I like it because I have something like this too, mine is when I'm driving home and cross the Ponsonby ridge at sunset, heading down into Grey Lynn, and suddenly see the view out over the water towards Te Atatu, every day a free show, unexpected and utterly unlike the one of the day before.

“Whenever I leave home I have to drive along a ridge with Auckland City and the Sky Tower visible in the distance on one side and a smidgeon of Tasman Sea on the other. My eyes are always drawn to the ocean because it seems like two tablespoons of poetry on the horizon. Like a poem, this visual magnet depends upon set ingredients (water, salt, sky) and then transforms them to strikingly different effect each day. And like so many poets facing something utterly magnificent, I wonder how words can do justice when the view itself seems to be poetry enough. My body tingles, my breath catches and I feel moved as I absorb the ocean, yet I have never written a Tasman Sea poem."

"Each day I pass this sea view, I choose a single word that captures its essence: bloated, translucent, smudged, skinny, gone, swollen, blue. How then does the world become poetry? How do we face the unsayable – the world’s largenesses (love, death, beauty, truth, tragedy (and the world’s particulars (things, daily routines, daily relations) – and produce poems? Trawling through the writings of poets, it is clear that the ways into writing are as rich and varied as the ways into reading poetry.”

Although the back of the book says the 100th way is “your own unique take” on appreciating poetry, I like what Elizabeth Smither said in the Sunday Star Times:

“Inspiration is unconfined. You write with all you’ve got in order to find out what it is you’ve seen or felt or experienced… New Zealand needs poets and this book leaves a gap for you. You could be the 100th.”

September 25, 2010

Kafka in the news

syndetics-lcOne of the funnier things that happened in the book world last year was someone publishing a book made up of the reports Franz Kafka wrote for his job at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague (see Books in the City's “The unexpected Kafka”). Now Kafka’s unpublished writings are again in the news, thanks to Elif Batuman (author of  The possessed: adventures with Russian books and the people who read them), who has been to Israel and gotten the story of a legal tug-of-war going on there between two aged sisters and the National Library of Israel for the papers of Max Brod, and thus Kafka's papers, and reported on it in a long and very readable article in The New York Times

Max Brod was the friend to whom the dying Kafka turned over his unpublished manuscripts, diaries etc. with the request to burn them. Taking this as the expression of a mood rather than a conviction, Brod got three of the manuscripts published (The Trial, Amerika and The Castle) and took the remaining papers with him when he escaped to Israel just as the Nazis were about to close the Czech borders.

Except Brod (dead), no one has really seen those papers except Esther Hoff, Brod’s assistant and “presumed” lover (also dead) and her two daughters (alive), who are holding onto them for dear life despite a strong claim by the National Library of Israel that Brod had never named their mother his heir, but only his literary executor. This would mean that on her death the papers would revert to his estate, which he had stipulated pass to a public library or archive in Israel. The sisters wish to sell the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany, to which their mother already sold the manuscript for The Trial for 2,000,000 USD.

I’ve never been able to think of Kafka’s works as German Literature, despite the fact that in libraries his books are classified as such because cataloguing rules, which cataloguers never ever break, classify literature by the language in which it is written. I suppose the classification which least startles me, when I have seen it in discussions of Kafka's work, is “Czech-Jewish”. Kafka’s family were Jews from Bohemia. His grandfather spoke Czech, his father spoke Czech, and he himself spoke fluent Czech. It was to be more upper-class in a country which had been conquered by Austro-Hungary that Hermann Kafka, a man of the middle class with ambitions for his children, decided they should speak German and that his son Franz should attend the prestigious German Gymnasium.

Most of all, when I think of Kafka, I think of his birthplace, and the city he hardly ever left, Prague. Prague with its enormous Jewish heritage -- at the start of  the 18th century more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world, Prague, one of the vertices (along with Turin and Lyon) of the white magic triangle of esoteric legend, Prague with its “Old New Synagogue” and a clock in the Jewish quarter with hands which run backwards, Prague whose old town has such tiny streets and houses that walking in it I felt as if I were Alice in Wonderland after eating the “Eat me” cake, and whose “new” town is medieval and crisscrossed by a maze of concealed passageways called things like the “Lantern” passage (where there is a statue of Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse), Prague with the golden roofs, but dark and mysterious too, the city Kafka called “this dear little mother” and then “with sharp claws”. "She never lets you go," he said.

Milan Kundera, in a very old Granta (1984!) which I got at a library withdrawn book sale, writes about how much Kafka is inseparable from Prague and Prague from Kafka. He tells a story to illustrate this. When a friend of his, the philosopher Karel Kosik, was accused of counter-revolutionary activities and expelled from Charles University after the Russians invaded, his sex life immediately "took off" (as Kundera puts it), his flat becoming besieged by admiring young women. Kundera asked one of them, a hairdresser, why. “All defendants are handsome” she replied, using the words of Leni in The Trial, amazing Kundera once again with how “the images, situations and even the individual sentences of Kafka’s novels are part of life in Prague.”

It was when I was reading this story that I realized for the first time that my grandfather would have been born almost exactly the same year as Kafka, and not far away, in a village just a hundred kilometers from Prague. I emailed my uncle to get the exact date so I could compare. The reply was “My father was born in 1886, so the blackbird was older" (blackbird being his colloquial translation of the Czech word ‘kavka’, the learned one being 'jackdaw'). So, just three years difference.

The blackbird/jackdaw is known to have frequented Karlovy Vary, the famous Czech spa which was also visited by Mozart and Casanova. I wonder if he was ever served by my grandfather, who worked there for a time as a waiter at the Grand Hotel Pupp, saving his money to buy a ticket to America, still just a boy, as they did in those days. That would likely have been the only place their paths could have crossed – not at the Prague coffee houses Kafka loved and certainly not at Charles University. But they did have one other thing in common, as did probably most young men of that time and place: authoritarian fathers.

Much is made of Kafka’s relationship with his authoritarian father – how when he published A Country Doctor, which he dedicated to his father, he gave him a copy and his father replied ‘Put it on the night table’. In our family story, when my grandfather was leaving the house at dawn to start his voyage to America, still in his teens, his father didn’t get out of bed to see him off, nor let his brothers do so. The story goes that the father said “We have to work tomorrow. We need our sleep.”

When I was little I took it literally: it was like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, the youngest son of the exceedingly poor woodcutter family setting off to make his fortune, the father who worked so hard he couldn’t drag himself out of bed. But actually the family owned an inn, and when, older and aware of that, I heard the story again, I interpreted it differently: a father's integral, if harsh, statement of disagreement with his son’s decision,

Kafka is buried in the New Jewish cemetery in Prague. I assumed it would have been the Old Jewish Cemetery, which my mother had wanted to take us to visit when she first took us to Prague, but which the regime of the time had long kept closed, so that all we saw were photographs of it at the Jewish Museum. I only found out now that he is actually buried in the New Jewish Cemetery, as the Old Jewish Cemetery, as so often happens in Europe, was really old, having been founded by a King of Bohemia who appears in The Divine Comedy.

The New Jewish Cemetery was built in the 19th century and was planned to last one hundred years, the equivalent of 100,000 graves. Instead, it remains a sort of architectural monument which will probably never be completely filled. When the Nazis arrived in 1939, there were 118,000 Jews living in the Czech lands; 26,000 managed to get out, including Max Brod. Of those who remained, 80,000 were murdered by the Nazis, including all three of Kafka’s sisters.

Is this Kafkaesque or just Czech irony? According to Czech, the express train R 354 FRANZ KAFKA goes from Prague (Czech Republic) to Munich (Germany).

Recommended: Kafka's Prague : a travel reader by Klaus Wagenbach; translated by Shaun Whiteside

September 21, 2010

Hunter S. Thompson demurs -- in style

If, like me, you have wondered about the quotes by celebrated authors splattered over the covers of less-celebrated authors’ books, telling you this book is the greatest I’ve read all year, you will enjoy this letter Hunter S. Thompson wrote to Ted Solotaroff of The American Review, demurring an invitation to provide such a quote. I found it in Fear and loathing in America: the brutal odyssey of an outlaw journalist 1968-1976, the second volume of his collected letters ("A wild ride!" -- Karen Craig).

--ellipses are HST’s, not mine

February 3, 1976
Woody Creek, CO
Dear Mr. Solotaroff…

I’ve spent about three hours trying to write you a letter to say why I can’t send the kind of “words of welcome” I suspect you want in re: Even cowgirls get the blues. But everything I’ve written so far would almost certainly sound rude and cynical & arrogant on your end, so I figure it’s best to just junk all the earlier drafts and tell you in this one, that I spent a few years as a part-time book reviewer and almost ten years, now, reading reviews of my own books … and on the basis of all that evidence, I think I’ll pass on the chance to render any judgement on other people’s books.

There are, of course, exceptions. When I first read Dog soldiers, for instance, I recommended it to friends with the assurance that I’d reimburse them for the price of the hardcover if they didn’t like it…and on the other end of the scale, where rancid bullshit lives, I am forced from time to time to comment on the Works of “Werner Erhard.”

In any case, I wish to hell you’d never sent me the galleys or proofs or whatever of Cowgirls – but since you did & I tend to trust yr. judgement for a variety of reasons that would take too long to list or even think about here I’m inclined to lend you the use of my name (since I assume that’s why you sent me this goddamn thing in the first place) to say – and to reproduce in any & all forms – any combination of English-language words amounting in total to less than 20, to say anything you deem fitting with regard to the merits of Cowgirls. You can say, for instance: “A weird & stunning work,” or “Sooner or later a book like this was bound to be written.” And sign my name to anything you compose.

I just got back home from 3 wks in Miami & LA, and I’m not in the mood to read a book that begins with an apology by the author for his use “throughout this book” (of) “third person pronouns and collective nouns in the masculine gender” – or any other gender, for that matter… And I also opened the book, as in my wont with unknown manuscripts, to a page somewhere in the middle: and in this case I hit on pages 160 and 161, where I found the style & tone or whatever of the writing to be not in my taste… which doesn’t mean this is anything but a wonderful book; but that’s your business, since I assume you’re somehow involved as an editor, and because of that and what I’ve heard about you I figure you’re in a far better position to judge this book than I am… and for that reason I’ll trust your judgement (in twenty (20) words or less) to say anything you want about the book, and to use whatever you want to say in my name for any purpose you think is right; I can’t imagine that anything I’d say would make the slightest difference in any way, but if you think it might, seize this opportunity & kick out the jams. For any & all legal, promotional & esthetic purposes, I hereby appoint you my spokesman for any combination of up to 19 words you can lash together.

          For good or ill;
          & Good luck,
          Hunter S. Thompson

 Incurably curious as I am, I wanted to know if Mr. Solotaroff took him up on the offer. The American Review has long since ceased publication (it folded not long after Even cowgirls get the blues came out, in fact), leaving no digitized traces. But surely a pithy 19 words-or-less endorsement by Hunter S. Thompson would have found its way onto the cover or the frontispiece of the book itself? Where could I find a 1976 copy of Even cowgirls get the blues?

The only person I could think of who would have kept his all these years was my older sister’s first boyfriend (I bet I’m not the only person this is true for). But presumably he is still living in Los Angeles -- not necessarily still with long hair and vaquero boots but quite possibly -- and our last encounter was in the pre-email era, so that didn't take me very far.

Who else could I try? Aha! A collectible Even cowgirls get the blues on a page of 50 iconic covers in the AbeBooks website’s Rare Book Room. A nice dustjacket with no quotes, no 'Search inside me'. Yeah, you know, collectible, as in quaint.

As long as I was there, I took a quick look at the AbeBooks price for a first edition ($1000 signed by the author, so I guess the market won’t be flooded by graying pony-tailed guys in vaquero boots selling their copies to buy a condo in Hawaii for their impending retirements – or maybe they have flooded the market, and the price used to be 5 times as much) and then headed down into my Old Faithful fabulous Central City Library basement, where I found a Bantam trade paperback bearing a 16 word testimonial from... hold on, one Thomas Pynchon. “This is one of those special novels – a piece of working magic, warm, funny, and sane.”

If you know anything about Hunter S. Thompson you can see how alien that would be to him. Warm, funny and sane?

If you don't know anything, or not enough, I recommend:

Buy the ticket, take the ride: Hunter S. Thompson on film. A documentary on DVD with lots of actors, some authors, and one really cool sheriff talking about Hunter S. Thompson, along with some good HST in first person. Includes Harry Dean Stanton singing Danny Boy to HST's memory.

Fear and loathing in Las Vegas

The Gonzo papers anthology

Ancient Gonzo wisdom : interviews with Hunter S. Thompson / edited by Anita Thompson.

The proud highway : saga of a desperate southern gentleman, 1955-1967 (the preceding volume to the one I am reading)

The kingdom of fear : loathsome secrets of a star-crossed child in the final days of the American century (the volume after the one I am reading)

Fear and loathing in America : the brutal odyssey of an outlaw journalist, 1968-1976, the one I am reading, with an Author’s Note from Hunter S. Thompson which ends like this:

“The period covered in these letters (1968-1976) was like riding on top of a bullet train for eight years with no sleep and no wires to hang on to. (Is that a dangling participle?) Never end a sentence with a preposition. Never get off a train while it’s moving. These are only a few of the rules I have learned & carefully broken in my time.”

I also like the homage to HST which John Dolan, American poet and author who resided in New Zealand during the final years of the "American century" (as HST liked to call it), wrote for the online version of “The Exile -- Mankind’s only alternative since 1997” called “A Hero of Our Time Hunter S. Thompson 1937-2005”.

September 01, 2010

My Dedications collection

It’s Books in the City’s second anniversary, and like last year I thought I'd celebrate by sharing the book dedications I've added to my collection over the last 365 days  -- at least the ones I remember, or can find where I scribbled them down, and can still read my handwriting.

1. From a very old-looking novel in the Central Library basement called Sally Lunn, by a certain Leo Walmsley, who turned out to be a friend of Daphne du Maurier’s, so not so old after all. 1937 is the publication date. I read the ending. Sally is accused by the man she loves of being “swank” and just wanting to go off to London. She swears she is not swank, and to prove it she pulls out the Guernsey sweater she has knitted him. They embrace.

The dedication reads:

For our darling Boodles, whose home is the sea.

Who is Boodles? I thought it might have been a family cat who drowned, but from the "Walmsley Society" website I learn that the family cat was named Choo-i.

. And the prize for best sense of humour goes to Christine Leov Lealand, author of a R18 book at Central Library called Quintessence: Erotic adventures of fantasy and desire:

Dedicated to everyone who knows that sex is better than drugs
To all who encouraged me as I wrote.

If you think you feature in this book please introduce yourself.
I’m always interested in meeting figments of my imagination.

syndetics-lc3. Larry McMurtry’s book The Last Picture Show is a sad book about two incoherent boys and a town beauty growing up in a small town in West Texas which was a "thinly disguised" (as they say) portrait of the small town McMurtry himself grew up in. Many years later, in his book about the lost art of storytelling, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at sixty and beyond, McMurtry returned to write again about this town, called Thalia in his books, Archer City in real life, like this:

"And always, there were diners who were just passing through, few of whom aspired to stay in Archer City. They stopped at the Dairy Queen as they would at a gas station, to pee and take in fuel, mindful, gloomily, that it was still a good hundred miles even to Abilene, itself no isle of grace. Few of these nomads, if they had stories to tell, bothered to tell them to the locals – and if they had wanted to tell a story or two, it is doubtful that anyone would have listened. People on their way to Abilene might as well be on their way to hell – why talk to them? Folks in Archer City knew the way to hell well enough; they need seek no guidance from traveling men."

The Last Picture Show's first page reads:

This book is lovingly dedicated to my home town.

4. Rudyard Kipling’s Plain tales from the hills:

To the wittiest woman in India, I dedicate this book.

She turns out to be a certain Lucy Hauksbee, aka Mrs. FC Burton. I found this out from a google book which was missing the pages, as google makes sure happens with their books, which might have told me something about her. For now, a mystery.

5. I thought Marie Corelli was a Saint, so you can imagine my surprise when I opened an old book of hers in the basement to find the dedication:

To the absinthe drinkers of Paris.

She turns out to have been a bestselling 19th century English author of eerie and occult novels, on record as having had various mystical experiences, which might be what had led me astray. I think mostly I just confused her with the Italian saint Maria Goretti. Pretty similar!

As it turns out, the novel is called Wormwood and the absinthe drinkers of Paris are depicted as poor tortured souls damned by their fatal addiction. So the dedication is actually a sort of “You who are about to die, I salute you.’

6. Thanks to Nick for this last and best, from JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey:

As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor, and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.

August 29, 2010

Clever old penguin!

Penguin Books is 75 years old 

From the Penguin website’s “Company history” page
Penguin paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane, then a director of The Bodley Head. After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.

Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.

The first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie. They were colour-coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime) and cost just sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes. The way the public thought about books changed forever - the paperback revolution had begun.
There's a Penguin 75th anniversary minisite about all the ways that decisive moment is being remembered this year. If all you can spare is a glance, do it just to see the banner with all the penguins from the last 75 years: skinnier ones, fatter ones, one that looks almost The New Yorkerish, and in 1945 a happy penguin executing a Fred Astaire dance step for Victory.

The famed orange covers are being honoured by Douglas Coupland in his “Speaking to the Past” project as a fantastic element of interior design for home or crack den, and oh yes, also something which communicates. He asks, “How would you speak to someone in the year 1935 from 2010, using a Penguin cover?” and shows some clever mock-covers he’s made with titles like Every book ever written fits into a shoebox, which surprises even modern me.

You download a Penguin cover template, add your title and image, and upload it to a group pool on Flickr. Of the ones uploaded so far, most seem to be about 2010 problems – energy wars, credit cards -- or inventions -- ipods, the internet -- rather than 1935 problems. Now, if you could speak to people in the past, wouldn't you be tempted to pass along some wisdom? I suggest a cover with an image of the first stretch of the German autobahn, in 1935 just completed and being sold as a "jobs creation programme", and the title The practical art of moving armies ( borrowed from the Baron de Jomini’s treatise on the art of war).

My favourite anniversary initiative is Penguin Decades. These are 5 books each from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, re-issued with new covers by famous designers from each period. The blurb says “Discover Penguin Decades. The scandalous, misunderstood, and most celebrated novels which have defined the post-war generations.” I definitely want to try them all. I might even re-read the ones I’ve already read, which are only three: From Russia with Love (50s), and A Clockwork Orange and The British Museum is falling down (both 60s). I’m not sure how I ever managed to define myself with such a poor track record, but this is definitely a chance to make up for lost time.

The Penguin decades pages on the minisite give thumbnail sketches of the decades and show all the new and old covers, including the very edition of A Clockwork Orange which my husband bought on a youthful trip to London (moving on from the more youthful still purchases of Health & Efficiency, a British magazine which lauded the salutory effects of sunbathing, even better if done naked) and which is still on our shelves. They’ve got it down as a 60s cover, but it’s actually the cover which David Pelham created in the 1970s for the movie tie-in edition. I vividly remember when the movie came out, because it quickly earned a reputation as a shocker, and doubly so for me, as my mother unexpectedly proposed that she and I go see it together, shooting us up a couple of notches in our evolving mother-daughter relationship.

Someone at Penguin should have reread the transcript of the talk David Pelham gave five years ago as part of their 70th anniversary celebrations. It's online on the Creative Review blog; it’s got lots of good anecdotes about book covers, from Lennon to Nabokov, if not Lenin.

Rest assured, a small error like this is not going to displace Penguin Books from its special place in my heart. I liked this part of the Company story about Allen Lane choosing a logo:

"He also wanted a 'dignified but flippant' symbol for his new business. His secretary suggested a Penguin."

I couldn’t help thinking of the Edward Lear nonsense alphabet of my childhood.
A was an ape
Who stole some white tape
And tied up his toes
In four beautiful bows.

Funny old ape!
That's from Edward Lear. And here's from me:
P was a penguin
Dignified but flippant  (it’s assonance, okay?)
He turned seventy-five
Spry and alive.

Clever old penguin!

August 27, 2010

Super super super book trailer

Gary Shteyngart's book trailer for Super sad true love story is a smash hit on youtube -- well, for a clip about books anyway

Many thanks to Random House for these four minutes of delirium which made me laugh and laugh and laugh. The script (written by Shteyngart) made me laugh, Edmund White (up there in my pantheon of favourite writers and people ever since I was invited along to an interview with him a few years ago and started reading my way through all his books) made me laugh and want to throw my arms around him, Jay McInerney made me laugh and shriek with disbelief at how funny he was, James Franco made me laugh and melt with how cool and adorable he is. These are not the only friends/literary stars Gary Shteyngart put into the trailer, but they are the ones who are still making me laugh out loud even now that I’ve watched it half a dozen times.

I had never read anything by Gary Shteyngart but the trailer was so funny I went to look for the book right away, only to discover that there’s already a waiting list for it, so I took his second book Absurdistan (the first was The Russian debutante’s handbook) instead. I’ve gotten to page 135 and I’m taking it back without reading the last 200 pages because it’s one of those books where the jokes are more important than the plot, which could be fine, except they’re pretty much all the same joke. It just can't hold a candle to A Confederacy of Dunces, whose spirit it sometimes appears to emulate.

Still I’m happy to have read far enough to reach a very good line on page 130 (I marked the place so I could write about it). The scene is Svani City, the capital of Absurdistan, “a small country south of Russia” a bit small also on democracy. The hero of the book, like Shteyngart a Russian Jew who emigrated to America, goes to the Svani Hyatt for a lunch with “Josh” from the American Embassy-cum-American upper class whom he irritates when he shows him up for not wanting to spring for extra fries for the hungry “native democrat” he’d invited to lunch with them. The line is “I watched Josh Weiner unfurl his lower lip my way, menacing me with his active cold sore.”

Gary Shteyngart was featured in this year’s The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 fiction issue. You can read the Q&As and his story “Lenny hearts Eunice” (the germ of Super sad true love story) in The New Yorker online.

I nearly forgot: James Franco really did take a class from Gary Shteyngart when he was a graduate student at Columbia.

August 24, 2010

The Owl and the Poussiquette

Edward Lear goes multilingual

Being fond of a good nonsense read myself, I was pleased to come across the following quote from Carolyn Wells’s introduction to an anthology of nonsense writing (via Kenneth Gangemi, an author, also an engineer and a bartender, from Bronxville, New York who is so cult I hadn’t even heard of him until my friend Nick told me about him, in a great interview in Gargoyle magazine).

"On a topographical map of literature, nonsense would be represented by a small and sparsely settled country, neglected by the average tourist, but affording keen delight to the few enlightened travelers who sojourn within its borders." syndetics-lc

Besides Lewis Carroll, my favourite nonsense writer is Edward Lear, not the limericks -- perhaps too antique for my taste -- but the “story” poems. I find it fascinating, or maybe I mean heartrending, how this depression-prone, epileptic, lonely man who earned his living painting watercolours of rare birds, was also the creator of wild and exuberant poems about Pobbles who swim the Bristol Channel with their noses wrapped in scarlet flannel (my all-time favourite), Jumblies going to sea in a sieve, and the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

But the emotion inspired by the man is not the reason I love his poems. I love them because of how it’s impossible to read them silently, at least for me. Last night I spooked my family because I was rereading “The Owl and the Pussycat” and they thought I had gone crazy whispering away to myself at the kitchen table at midnight. But how can you not? “And there in the wood a piggy-wig stood, With a ring at the end of his nose, his nose, his nose…” syndetics-lc

A couple of years ago I stumbled on a website which everyone who ever loved having “The Owl and the Pussycat” read to them as kids, or reading it to their kids, or both, should visit. You have to know that in the 1950s or 60s an American named Francis Steegmuller, one of the most famous Flaubert scholars of his time and translator of Madame Bovary, translated “The Owl and the Pussycat” into French. It was published in The New Yorker and is probably the most felicitous translation of a poem I have ever encountered.
The flair is there right from the start when he rhymes Owl (hibou) and kitty (minou), but the refrain is pure genius, when he comes up with “Poussiquette” for a perfectly scanned “O Poussiquette, comme tu es rare!” for “What a beautiful pussy you are!”

 I’ve never been able to find out any more details about the translation beyond the fact that it only took one afternoon to do and that Francis Steegmuller bought a Rolls Royce with the money it earned. This leaves me free to imagine that it happened in Capri, where Steegmuller and his wife, the writer Shirley Hazzard, had a villa. They made friends there with Graham Greene, who also had a villa in Capri, after Shirley broke the ice by supplying the missing line in a Robert Browning poem Greene was trying to remember over a drink in the Gran Caffe'-- I am thinking not coffee -- with a fellow Englishman (I know about this from having read her memoir Greene on Capri).

I like to think it would have been over a long lunch and vodka gimlets with Graham Greene and Yvonne Cloetta that the translation took form. “They dined on mince and slices of quince… I’m damnedly becalmed here, Graham.” And the tormented Catholic novelist would have taken a sip of his gimlet, leaned back in his chair, and produced a Lent-inspired “Ils firent un repas de maigre et de gras” -- "They had a meal of lean and fat".

The website

You can read Steegmuller's (and Greene's?) "Le Hibou et la Poussiquette" on a ridiculous but fantastic -- or maybe we could just say nonsensical -- website dedicated to "The Owl and the Pussycat" translations, which includes versions in Volapuk, an invented language which only 22 people in the world speak (I googled it), and… Morse Code. It grew out the collection of a Mr. Hugh Stewart and all in all it contains over a hundred translations.

For many of the languages, including Morse Code, you can hear the poem read aloud, or in the case of Morse Code, I suppose I should say transmitted. I listened to some of it just to see if it were at all possible to tell it was poetry -- it wasn't. I recommend trying the Russian (a Flemingesque KGB-spy-in-tight-skirt-posing-as-a-translator-type voice) and also the Cornish (local historian/pub poet), whereas the Latin is great on the page but an unpleasant read offered up by a know-it-all schoolteacher type.

The Italian translation was contributed by Domenico, an employee of an Italian restaurant in England. “Ah, just a couple of doubts here”, as Graham might have said. The piggy-wig has become a pigeon, and the turkey who lives on the hill has become a Turk. It reminded me of how I once said something about the Persian blinds at our bedroom window to my (Italian) husband, and made the word masculine instead of feminine, thus calling them “Persian men” instead of “Persian blinds”. I still have the funny picture he drew me of dozens of little men with Persian headdresses swarming at the window glass.

Try it now!

August 01, 2010

Bwana Paka Mcheshi, the Swahili Cheshire Cat

I was saddened to learn of the death of Martin Gardner, whose annotated edition of Alice in Wonderland was one of the best reads of my childhood. Well, as sad as you are when someone dies who is 95 years old and has had a good life and a painless death. That kind of sad like when a great old battleship gets decommissioned, the flag lowered for the last time, the sailors saluting, the final watch secured.

In fact, besides being a lover of maths, science, philosophy and Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner was one of the great old battleships of the skeptical movement, consecrated to debunking pseudoscience and superstition. His columns for The Skeptical Inquirer (which you can read online in our Digital Library) were one of the pillars of the magazine, and he finished his last one just ten days before he died. It will appear in the September/October issue, which should also be the first issue in print version to arrive at Central Library. We decided to start up a subscription in May, which turns out to have been the month Martin Gardner died. No evidence for paranormal suggestion being involved, I hasten to add.

Proud to be a liberrian

The tributes to Martin Gardner which his friends posted on their blogs after his death, like Richard Dawkins's "Rest in peace good old man", were followed by comment after comment about how important his books had been in people’s lives. The word libraryjumped out at me from a few of them, in contexts like "I first encountered one of his books at my library and it blew my mind".

I first encountered Martin Gardner as a child when I was given his book The Annotated Alice for my birthday. Just as well I didn’t get it from the library because I would never have wanted to return it. It's an oversize book with big wide margins where the notes are written (so superior to footnotes!). My sister and I were thrilled to discover an annotation which credited the father of her friend Andrea Burkenroad for explaining a particular Carrollian pun. “Thanks to Martin Burkenroad, of Panama” it read. Dr. Burkenroad (a biologist who had been studying Panamanian shrimp, possibly observing their quadrilles) was a mysterious and exciting figure to us already, as Andrea had told us he had once drunk rattlesnake poison to illustrate a scientific point. You can see why he would have been a friend of Martin Gardner's.

The Annotated Alice gives "The Jabberwocky" in French (“Le glaive vorpal fait pat-a-pan!”) and German (“O Freuden-Tag! O Halloo-Schlag!”), and now, to honour the memory of Martin Gardner, I’m going to let you see Alice in Wonderland in Swahili. Elisi katika nchi ya ajabu was published in 1940 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and is now part of the Burstein collection of Alice in Wonderland books on the Internet Archive.

It's illustrated with the original Tenniel drawings with marvellously random transpositions of some characters to Africa. Alice is a little African girl in a sarong instead of a pinafore; the White Rabbit is still a white rabbit (in a caftan, although later he gets his waistcoat back); the Caterpillar is still a caterpillar; but have a look at Baba Wilyam (pg. 46)! And in one of my favourite chapters, Pig and Pepper, the Ugly Duchess is the same but her cook has turned into an African houseboy, still holding the pilipili shaker (that's pepper). The Cheshire Cat, unchanged except for his fantastic new name, Bwana Paka Mcheshi, lies grinning at his feet.

I was intrigued by the treatment of the Tea Party. The Mad Hatter still sells hats, although they are fezzes, but the March Hare has become a tortoise, and the Dormouse seems to be -- quick check of an online Swahili dictionary -- a lemur? Okay, I got that -- a lemur being nocturnal, it would be sleepy during the day. But what does a tortoise have to do with a March hare?

Funny you should ask. You know about "Mad as a March Hare", right? How hares leap about with great abandon in March when their mating season starts? Well, Edward St Lo de Malet, the author of this translation, whom I think I've identified as the 8th Baronet Malet, Colonel in the Irish Hussars who had been posted before the war to Palestine, must have set those missionaries to work observing the mating behaviour of all the local animal types to come up with a species which could convey this special elan. And they found him one!

From the deadpan pages on the African tortoise on the Honolulu Zoo website:

Able to run and burrow quite well. Get excited just before it rains, running around (…)

Copulate during the rainy season (February-March) for about one week."

Apparently they are also very noisy. The zoo doesn't mention it but lots of websites about travel in Africa warn about people being kept awake by amorous tortoises. This caused some confusion on one site when someone thought "tortoises" was poor English for "tourists".

Here is the book (if it hasn't embedded right for your computer, click here). Enjoy!

Alice in Wonderland is one of the most translated books ever (the Bible is the most). Did you know that Vladimir Nabokov translated it into Russian in the 1920s when he was living in the Russian émigré community in Berlin, trying to make a living from writing rather than tennis lessons? They say he did a good job, especially considering he did it for the money, and probably in a hurry. Rather than a cheese cat, he made the Cheshire cat a Butter cat, using the name of a Russian holiday, Butter Day, where everyone gets to eat pancakes, with butter I presume. There's a Russian proverb which says "A cat can't have Butter Day every day"-- meaning, you can't have fun every day, eventually you have to go to work.

Unless of course you're a tortoise.

Powered by Blogger.