July 25, 2010

Rewarding Book Designs

The Packard automobile and the sleek passenger cars of the Santa Fe Railway were obsessions of Merle Armitage when he was a boy growing up on a ranch in Kansas, and he collected all the advertising "literature" (as it was called) about them he could find. Years later, having become a celebrated avant-garde designer of books -- and sometimes author or editor too, as with this one, a memorial to his friend George Gershwin which we have in the Central Library basement in a republished facsimile -- he told an interviewer that his boyhood collection of advertisements for those two splendid combinations of aesthetics and utility had been his University.

I love this story for how it associates book design with leather seats, purring carburetors, streamlining, speed and a lounge car called the Pleasure Dome.

I’m going to say something a little heretical here. If I order in a book I want to read, sight unseen, and its design is annoying or its cover boring, even if the story turns out to be good it’s not going to completely dispel my sense of disappointment. But if the book is beautiful and the story turns out to be not so great, I don't feel let down. I might read just a few chapters and turn it back in, but I feel as though the whole thing was worth it, all told.

It was a real treat on July 22 when I got to attend the 2010 PANZ (Publishers Association of New Zealand) Book Design Awards Ceremony at the Auckland Art Galcover of Magpie Halllery lounge. There were many people there I am a fan of, and many trays of fantastic canapes passing and repassing.

The Harpercollins Award for Best Cover had us all holding our breath as the presenters talked about the desirability of creating a cover which makes you want to open the book. The winner was Rachael King’s Magpie Hall, designed by Sarah Laing who photographed her own forearm for the cover photo. On either side of me people nodded at it up there dead christ by andrea mantegnaon the giant screen and concurred that it was definitely enticing them to get their noses into the book.

Not me. For me the image is too bloodless, too amputated, too creepy. Actually (maybe this was the intent?), it reminds me of one of my least favourite, also creepy, Renaissance paintings, Mantegna's Dead Christ.

 cover of "A beautiful game"The book I wanted to see win was called A Beautiful Game. The cover is a photo of a white soccerball in extreme close-up – when it first flashed on the screen I didn’t grasp the dimension and thought the stitching was some kind of magnified gene sequence. Now I know it’s a soccer ball and I can’t get over how alluring, not to say erotic, its roundness and puckers are. I can’t believe that the PANZ programme didn’t mention it. Or maybe the final line did: "This handsome hardback's subtle and appealing cover challenges our assumptions of what a sports book ought to look like." The book design and the image research were by Carolyn Lewis, and the production and origination by PQ Blackwell.

cover of Mirabile Dictu by Michele LeggottKeely O’Shannessy was chosen as the Awa Press Young Designer of the Year, deservedly so. Some books of hers you may have seen around are Martin Edmond’s Zone of the Marvellous, Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver, and Mirabile Dictu, the fantastic collection of poems Michele Leggott wrote during her Poet Laureateship which also won the Hachette New Zealand Award for best non-illustrated book later in the evening, all from Auckland University Press, and Ned & Katina by Patricia Grace, from Penguin.

O'Shannessy's work is remarkable focover of "As the earth turns silver" by Alison Wongr how much her book designs differ among themselves, and how carefully she has thought each one through. She takes the book seriously and takes us, the readers, seriously as well, disdaining the easy emotional grab. This might be what Merle Armitage meant when he said good book design should have 'integrity'.

The awards were judged by Graham Beattie, Peter Gilderdale and Sharon Grace. Here is a link to the article on the PANZ website where you can see the other nominated works and read more about the rewarded designers.

cover of "Katie Stewart's guide to Danish bacon cookery"

Book cover from the 1950s which I found on the Book worship website. I think it makes me more afraid than curious about what's inside the book.

July 18, 2010

It's a book!

From MacmillanChildrens, a  chuckly little book video for Lane Smith's new picture book, "It's a book!" 

On the “Curious pages” blog which he writes with Bob Shea (“A site for all your reading disorders -- Here we celebrate the offbeat, the abstract, the unusual, the surreal, the macabre, the inappropriate, the subversive and the funky") Lane Smith has posted the story of how he came to write “It’s a book!”, how the little jackass started out a nerdy kid and so on.

If like me you were a teeny bit worried - despite the chuckles - that there might be some anti-technology instrumentalising going on in the background, you’ll be relieved to read Lane Smith's confession:

“I know eventually everything will be digital and kids won't even know from a regular old book book and that's fine. Truthfully? The reason I made the book? Certainly not to "throw down the gauntlet" as one critic has stated. Naw, I just thought digital vs. traditional made for a funny premise. No heavy message, I'm only in it for the laffs.”

July 10, 2010

Dolman Travel Book of the Year

The dead yard book coverIan Thomson’s The dead yard: tales of modern Jamaica has won the 5th Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award. This is Britain’s only prize dedicated to “serious travel literature”, as their website has it. Founded by William Dolman, a Reverend Doctor, Author’s Club member and retired London coroner, it used to be only for UK travel writers (or those residing in the UK, like Kapka Kassabova, whose Street without a name was a finalist last year), but starting this year books published in English translation by a UK publisher can also compete.

I was wondering if this new rule is meant to let everyone in except Americans, when it occurred to me that I didn’t actually know who these other authors would be. I couldn't think of any writer currently producing travel books who isn’t British born or a British resident, or American. Pico Iyer, everyone’s darling, so exotic-sounding: born in Britain! Tahir Shah, author of In Arabian Nights, a big hit a couple of years ago: born in Britain! Is this is a real phenomenon or just my ignorance?

I tried a google search in French for "new travel books". The first hit was a new audiobook of de Bougainville’s Voyage around the World (Eighteenth century). I kept going. Aha! A “cultural” site boasting 40,000 new titles. No “Travel” category… hmm…  here we are, “Travel and Nature”, that’ll do.  Two dozen titles about animals and one about the Porqueroll islands (real name), located off the faraway, undiscovered Côte d’Azur. Resisting the temptation to peek at the blurb for The grandeur and decadence of the giraffe, I moved on to an Italian search. Magnifico! Straight away, up came a book called Austral voyages. But no, I had read too quickly. It was Astrali, not Australi. I was being offered out-of-body experiences.

Leaving the question of possible future nominees aside for now, therefore (but if anyone knows more about this apparent Anglo monopoly in travel writing - or publishing? -  I'd love to be clued in), here are this year’s short-listed titles:

A single swallow book cover   Lost and found in Russia book cover

The dead yard: tales of modern Jamaica by Ian Thomson (winner)
Along the enchanted way: a Romanian story by William Blacker
A single swallow: following an epic journey from South Africa to South Wales by Horatio Clare
Eleven minutes late: a train journey to the soul of Britain  by Mathew Engel
Lost and found in Russia by Susan Richards
Out of steppe: the lost peoples of Central Asia by Daniel Metcalfe
Tequila oil: getting lost in Mexico by Hugh Thomson

Although the Dolman Prize regulations do  not prohibit punning titles, a ban I would have a certain sympathy with, they do state that “single-issue driven books, ‘disguised’ cookery or aspirational lifestyle books, are discouraged from entering.”  I’m not sure about the quotes around ‘disguised’, but I'm right there with the sentiment. Actually, if they were my awards, I think I'd use "disallowed" rather than "discouraged".

A few Karen Craig Travel Writing Awards:

Best description of a person through a clothing item: William Least Heat Moon in Blue Highways, “... I said to the man whose hat told me what kind of fertilizer he used”.

Best “Rude about Australians” moment: Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar when he says that when he found himself sharing a compartment with Australians he always knew he’d hit bottom. (Also great is the part with the guy -- but I think he’s German, not Australian -- blithely listing the places he might go next while taking bites out of an apple, and it seems as if he’s biting into the globe, apportioning it out to himself. “Maybe Bali,” crunch, “maybe Bangkok,” crunch.)

Best “Oops” moment: In Around the World in 80 days, when Fogg’s valet Passepartout remembers that he has left the gas on back home.

Great truism moment: Henry Miller when he says in The Colossus of Maroussi  “The more humble the employment the more interesting I find a Greek to be.”

Saddest travel writing: the finale of Bruce Chatwin’s Lament for Afghanistan in What am I doing here? which starts “But that day will not bring back the things we loved” and goes on to list things like blue icecaps on the mountains and the whiff of a snow leopard at 20,000 feet.

Unforgettable image: Joseph Brodsky in his book about Venice, Watermark, describing the fog arriving in Piazza S. Marco like a king riding in on a stallion and unwrapping his immense white turban. His boots are wet and he’s wearing a cloak embroidered with jewels which are the street lights. Brodsky says, He’s dressed like that because he doesn’t know what century it is, or even what year. How could he, being fog?

July 01, 2010

AWRF 2010 - John Carey on William Golding

John Carey. John Carey made me want to be enrolled at University again, for the first time ever -- but only to be in one of his classes. I would happily go to hear him speak every week. Unfortunately, I think he doesn’t actually teach classes anymore, having become an Emeritus Professor in 2001 after fifty years at Oxford, where he started as a student and ended up the Merton Professor of English Literature, considered the top “English lit job" in the country, which I suppose might be equivalent to saying top "English lit job", period. Fifty years at Oxford makes me think of what someone once told Anais Nin: "Be like the Spanish dancer, who can dance her entire dance upon a table”.

I went to hear Prof. Carey deliver the Michael King Memorial Lecture at AWRF 2010, in which he spoke about William Golding, or, as the title of his new biography of William Golding has it, William Golding, the Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies. He did not choose this title to explain to you who William Golding is, as some in  the literary world fretted. He gave his biography this title as a way of winking at the fact that this is the phrase which always identifies William Golding for people who hadn’t thought about him since their school days, when they were givenThe Lord of the Flies to read (and why? I reread it after the Festival, and all I could think was, what was the point of reading it back then? Why do they think adolescents should appreciate this book?  Because the characters are adolescents? "A book for grownups" Golding called it firmly in a letter to a prospective publisher).

William Golding book coverThe book bears a cover portrait of an old guy with a beard, piercing blue eyes, crow’s feet of the kind you get from squinting into the sun, cigarette and giant blue cable knit sweater – you know, a bluff old guy. “Affable old seadog” is the phrase John Carey uses, which you immediately realise is even better, and then while you’re still appreciating that, he lays down the rest of his hand:  the “affable old seadog disguise which hid the real William Golding.”

It was a brilliant talk, beautifully cadenced, informative and insightful, lifted here by irony, pinioned there by tragedy. Emphasis was given not by waving hands (Prof. Carey talks with one hand in his suit jacket pocket, like my favourite English teacher) but by a pause & sniff , like a character in a Thackeray novel or – another thought which hit me -  Bill Nighy in The boat that rocked, whom he resembles except in the way Bill Nighy always seems right on the edge of not being in command.

Best of all is the slight eccentricity of speech by which he pronounces his  “r”s as “v”s. Not “w”s! I actually read something in The Guardian or similar which said he says his "r"s like “w”s. This may seem like a small difference but it is quite definitely not.  One makes you sound like  Elmer Fudd talking about the wabbit; the other lends your speech an air of bemused detachment.  It is an idiosyncracy Carey shares with Kerry Baillie, noted Antipodean computer and technology businessman and yachtsman, and the famous Italian playboy, fashionplate, yachtsman and Fiat chairman, Gianni Agnelli (yes, he’s dead, but when he was alive).

So that’s Prof. Carey (oh yes, one last thing, he keeps bees). And the real William Golding, who was that? The son of an intellectual, atheist, theory-of-evolution-worshipping school teacher, the only grammar school boy among his year’s entrants at Oxford, who named as his chosen reading Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique – he said it made him feel “cheerful”.  An enemy of the class system, who was happy to become a "Sir". An appreciator of myth, who provided the name "Gaia" for the new hypothesis of his friend James Lovelock.

Also, a man who drank too much, a man who saw and disliked a sadistic streak in himself, and who so was afraid of the night all his life, even with a light on, that when entering a room at night he would throw the door open loudly to alert any unseen presences.

John Carey: “Another thing his parents gave him would have been questioning and being unafraid of being different. All his novels disagree with something. What I connect with this disagreement is Golding’s freedom from conventional ideas about art and literature.”

And “He read Ulysses three times and finally got through it (sniff) in March 1977. He almost didn’t. He wrote in his journal ‘I can’t. I must go on.’”

In the ‘30s as Golding was going down from Oxford he appeared before the University’s Appointments Committee which advised undergraduates about careers. The index card on which his interviewers jotted down their impressions survives in the archives. “Not quite" it says, standing for "Not quite a gentleman” in their classist parlance.

During World War II Golding captained a “Rocket ship”. These incredible vessels were landing craft modified to do nothing but fire rockets onto a beach -  a fire power equivalent to 200 destroyers. The crew had to stay below not to be incinerated. He took part in D-day and then in the terrible Walcheren operation aimed at opening up the port of Antwerp. Ships blowing up, ships burning, sinking. The sea full of broken and drowning men. “These are memories that dim the sunlight” he wrote.

After the war it was back to being a school master, a new interest in the spiritual, the supernatural, vying with the old morbid atheism of his father. He scribbled away during school hours at Lord of the Flies.  Prof. Carey: “He sent the manuscript  to eight publishers, all of whom (pause, lifts his eyes to ours) vejected it.”

I was so carried away, as John Carey talked about Lord of the Flies, by the stream of suggestive words going by to the sound of his wonderful “r”, betvayal, visionary expevience,  ignovance , tevvified, that I’m not sure I caught the last phrase exactly right. But I think it was this:   “Lord of the Flies speaks to all of us, of any faith… or love.”

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