January 29, 2010

Poem for January

Billy Bracken’s second song  (Will Leadbeater)

When I was young
I thought that I would
love only one
the way certain birds
mate only once;
but when I grew older
and that first song broke,
I knew then that I would
have to love again,
to live,
or die with all my heart
broken to the sky.

I unexpectedly found this poem by my friend Will Leadbeater in the latest issue of Poetry NZ. which is also the way I am always finding Will in the library.  It started years ago, when the poetry books were on my floor, and I used to run into him among the shelves – literally. I never saw him approaching; it was always a sudden appearance, as if he had just then metamorphosed into human form from a mote of dust, a ray of light. Leaving, too, come to think of it. He’d about-face and poof! No one there.

The year that I met Will, five or six years ago, he won Third Prize in the Library’s Montana Poetry Day poetry contest.  I was in charge of shortlisting that year, and I remember his poem, handwritten in blue ink on the back of a real estate flyer. And above all, I remember a fabulous image about the moon like a crescent toenail in the Parnell Baths.

Now the poetry is on the floor above, but Will  still --  poof! -- appears beside me once a month or so, to present me with a sheaf of his newest poems. There were two series of bagatelles, and then there were clerihews, after I introduced him to these idiosyncratic four line poems invented by the English schoolboy Edmund Clerihew Bentley to combat the boredom induced by his chemistry lesson – at least, I presume that’s where he was, because his first clerihew was

Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Will's first clerihew was:

Did Henry James
Ever like dames –
We all know he never married
But was this just because he tarried?

  --  Will Leadbeater's book of poetry Jubal's Lyre won the 2008 EoSAW Poetry Prize.

  --  Down in the Central City Library basement we've got three hoary old Bentley books of clerihews, The first clerihews, a classic with illustrations by GK Chesterton, Clerihews complete, and Baseless biography.

*** Update***

I just discovered that Bentley was not studying chemistry when he wrote his first clerihew, but Roman History.  It's in his wonderful essay about the invention of the clerihew  in Essays of the year (1929-30) which you can read on Google Books .

Bentley's first clerihew collection, Biography for beginners. was recently republished in a modern edition which uses the original text and artwork, and has just been ordered for the library. You can see a good preview of it on Google books.

January 19, 2010

Best book videos

In with the new! I have been introduced to a new phenomenon on the internet, which would have been called book trailers, except that apparently some obnoxious company is claiming to have copyrighted the name “Book Trailer”. I will call them Book Videos until we're sure the coast is clear.

Book Videos are like movie trailers, only they are for books. When they are done well, shunning the mere illustrated narrative, they are vivid, moody and ultimately exhilarating, like many of the best things in life.
Here are my three favourites, off of youtube:

1. Going West by Maurice Gee: this is far and away the best book video I have come across. An imaginative idea, visually amazing, Yay for the New Zealand Book Council!

2. The Little Prince pop-up book – as simple and pure as the story itself. Make sure you have your volume turned up so you can appreciate the sound track.

3. Pride and prejudice and zombies: a dark, handsome, if not especially tall, Italian film director gave me this book for a Christmas present. I had been dubious, but the video has done the trick. I am converted. Besides the syntax, they could have mentioned the accent, too. I couldn't even understand what she was saying, let alone be bored by it.

 There is a website called bookscreening.com where you can search around for hours, or days, or ________s. Have fun! 

January 16, 2010

The Wide Sherlockian World

Did you know that Neil Gaiman belongs to a group of Sherlock Holmes fans called “The Baker Street Irregulars” who celebrate Sherlock Holmes’s birthday every January in New York City, calling each other “Old Bean” and doing things like holding a “Junior Bloodstain” in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel?

The British also have a Conan Doyle society, but rather than stage events in London in January, what they do is go on trips to Switzerland in the summer where they dress up like Sherlock Holmes characters and re-enact the death struggle between Holmes and Prof. Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls on the Rhine. In fact, I recently spent a week in London and there was no Sherlock Holmes activity at all that I could see, unless you count the article in the paper about some inept thieves in Liverpool who tried to break into a money machine and then gave up and went home, where they were picked up soon after by the police, who had followed their footsteps in the snow. “Police use Sherlock Holmes techniques to capture robbers” trumpeted the headlines.

Unlike the Americans and the Brits, with their propensity for panto-style high jinks, Canadian Sherlockians are quite serious. Their society, The Bootmakers, has for many years been responsible for --  I want to get this right so I'll quote from their website, Sherlockian.net, -- "that relatively rare item, a Sherlockian publication prepared to publish articles which looked at the Holmes stories as literature, with Arthur Conan Doyle as their creator; a tradition which continues to this day.”

And where is the largest collection of Sherlock Holmes artifacts in the world? Why, at the University of Minnesota. Here are two videos from youtube in which a series of tweedy professors with beards, but sadly not with “Fargo” accents, show off some of the 60,000 items they hold in their Special Collections, including an original of the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual where the first Sherlock Holmes story was published, and a replica of Holmes’s Baker St. Apt., including the Persian slipper he kept his tobacco in, and something they call his “Chemistry set”, which I wondered– was that just for forensics, or was it perhaps where he was wont to mix up his seven percent solution of cocaine?

One of the videos ends with a shot of a giant replica of a Peanuts cartoon, in which Charlie Brown is reading The Hound of the Baskervilles to Snoopy as a bedtime story. “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” he reads, and then it’s lights out. The look on Snoopy’s face is just how I used to feel after hearing about Marley's ghost.

You can read The Hound of the Baskervilles, or any other of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, in the volumes of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, with its over 1000 illustrations and something like 3000 footnotes by Leslie S Klinger, a tax lawyer, one of the world’s foremost authorities on SH and a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

Breaking news: It seems that some of the Baker Street Irregulars are a bit upset that Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Sherlock Holmes was nominated for a Golden Globe award in the category “Best actor in a musical or a comedy”. It's clearly not a musical, they say, so does that mean someone thinks it's a comedy? Hmmph.

January 01, 2010

Season of lists and mellow fruitfulness

The season of lists and mellow fruitfulness is once again upon us. Appropriately, I’m on the waiting list for a book about lists. It’s Umberto Eco’s just-published “The infinity of lists” (U.S. title; in the U.K. it's “The vertigo of lists”, same as the original Italian, what didn't the Americans like about 'vertigo'?), inspired by an exhibition he curated at the Louvre about lists in the history of art and literature.

I’ve always been fond of Umberto Eco although, and partly because, I have never been able to understand what his field of study, semiotics, is actually about -- and this despite having had a friend who studied with him at Bologna. But I appreciate that he genuinely believes in it and how he is never pompous, even when people call him one of the world's greatest scholars or “a modern-day Diderot”, as his publisher Rizzoli is doing now in the blurb for his book:

Eco is a modern-day Diderot, and here he examines the Western mind’s predilection for list-making and the encyclopedic. His central thesis is that in Western culture a passion for accumulation is recurring: lists of saints, catalogues of plants, collections of art. This impulse has recurred through the ages from music to literature to art. Eco refers to this obsession itself as a "giddiness of lists" but shows how in the right hands it can be a "poetics of catalogues".

What Umberto Eco himself says is “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” You can read the interview where he says this on Der Spiegel online and see also what he has to say about Homer’s lists of ships in the Iliad, Da Ponte counting Don Giovanni’s lovers (2,063) and how to describe a platypus. Is it true he has 30,000 books? He thinks it's around 50,000, but he has never made a list of them.

I like lists myself, but I have a hard time with top tens, especially with something as subjective as literary taste. Here are a couple of top 100’s instead:

100 notable books of the year from The NY Times

The 100 best books of the decade from The Times

And for something a bit more unusual:

“Unknown books of decade”  -- a list of overlooked titles from The Guardian

“Best forgotten books" –  'Writers pick their favorites” from the LA Times

and if you only look at one of the links on this page, it has to be this one.

Joseph Sullivan’s stupendous My Favorite Book Covers of 2009 on his website Book Design Review.

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