Sunday, January 30, 2005


Livres Du Mal

Over at the Telegraph Mark Sanderson notes the worstsellers of 2004:

A survey of retailers conducted by The Bookseller has revealed which books bombed this Christmas. Those that failed to find favour with the public include: So Me by Graham Norton, Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary by Vivian Cook, The Goldfish Bowl by Cherie Blair and Cate Haste and My World by Jonny Wilkinson.

It's an evergreen story; back in 2000 the Guardian noted how Anthea Turner's £400,000 autobiography sold only 451 copies in its first week. US publisher rarely fall over themselves to release Bookscan numbers to the public; one encounters damning Booktrack sales figures much more readily in Britain.

But save your real pity for authors in France; a L'Express article (thanks to Literary Saloon for the link) -- which I translate from crudely here -- notes that some authors do not even learn that their books have been pulped out of existence:

"France manufactures approximately 500 million books per year," explains book-market economist Christian Robin, lecturer in Paris XIII. "And we sell less about 400 million of them. Do the math: in the long term there are some 100 million copies to be pulped.".... [one publisher] acknowledges, for its part, to having pulped 3000 copies of a novel (of which it had sold only 146 copies) without having informed the author of it. They explain: "That would have made him feel bad."

Or "evil," I'm not sure which. Hmm... probably both.


Black Books

BBC America has at long last answered my assorted prayers, curses, and chicken entrail sacrifices and is finally running Black Books Thursdays at 9:30 ET and 11:30 PT. For those of you who missed it when Comedy Central ran it exactly once in the dead of night a couple years ago, it's an absurd comedy set in a disintegrating used-bookstore (as all television shows should be, in my opinion), and stars Bill Bailey and the perpetually soused Dylan Moran. I can't say that I ever resorted to eating dead bees off the window sill in my brief time working in a British used bookshop, as Bailey's character does in one episode... but do not doubt that the thought had occurred to me.

So far it looks like BBC America is only running the first season of Black Books. Those converted by the show's short run here will find all three seasons on DVD at . It's coded for European DVD players, of course, but I find that Windows XP and OS 10.2 on my iMac both have no trouble at all playing it.


Who Are You?

The Christian Science Monitor reviews John Bailey's The Lost German Slave Girl, which digs up a strange legal tale from 1840s New Orleans:

Five-year-old Salomé Müller had come to New Orleans in 1818 from the Alsace region on the Franco-German border, along with her parents and two siblings. In Amsterdam, they had been swindled out of their passage money, and the father had agreed that upon arrival the family would serve as indentured servants to pay for the fare.

Shortly after landing, along with hundreds of other German-speaking immigrants, the Müller family disappeared into the teeming port city. A quarter-century later, in 1843, another German immigrant, Madame Carl Rouff, saw someone on the street who looked like Salomé Müller's mother. She concluded it must be the long-lost Salomé, now grown to adulthood. But to her horror, Madame Carl learned that not only did Salomé not remember her, but she was a slave with the name Sally Miller, whose owner ran a local cabaret.

There was a resulting court fight to free her, led by fellow German immigrants who swore that Sally was the little Salome that they once knew. Such identity squabbles were not unknown in the pre-DNA era: the one-time "trial of the century" in Britain was the Tichborne Case, which for a while also held the title of the longest trial in British history. A grieving mother insisted that a butcher found in Wagga Wagga, Queensland was in fact her son Roger, a scion to a huge family fortune and presumed lost at sea years earlier. Not surprisingly, the other heirs to the fortune were mightily unamused by his alleged rediscovery, which created the bizarre spectacle of a mother arguing with her family over whether this gentleman was her son.

Curiously, The Lost German Slave Girl came out first in Australia (where it received a glowing review in the Sydney Morning Herald). It sounds like Bailey has done a lot of digging into the court records and racial politics of a long-forgotten case: here's to hoping that more US book reviewers take notice.


Hit the Road

The Guardian reports that London novelists have been clobbered by a road atlas:

The London A-Z street atlas, first published in 1936, yesterday beat volumes by Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Joseph Conrad, Zadie Smith and Peter Ackroyd to come in at number five in a poll of the 30 best-loved London books.

The poll of the readers of Time Out magazine attracted hundreds of nominations. Books editor John O'Connell said that while the A-Z was undoubtedly a London book, his readers may have taken the instructions too literally.

Or: perhaps the books editor has taken his instructions too narrowly. The A-Z might get top marks in the future, too. I find that some of the most interesting insights into the past are to be found in maps and humble traveler's guides; while researching my finished-any-day-now book about the missing bones of Thomas Paine, I trudged around London and Paris equipped with an 1887 Dickens Guide to London, and an 1890s Baedeker guide to Paris. If you want to know exactly what a person would see when they walked down a street -- what businesses they would patronize, what things cost, what cons and arcane laws they had to watch out for -- then old Baedekers and the like are just extraordinary. The curious thing -- particularly with the Baedeker guide -- was to realize how these were the last generation of guides to show the dynamic of city life before automobiles overran everything.

And even they have produced their own curious literature. Along with Iain Sinclair's London Orbital, I've already beaten the drum in The Believer for Tim Moore's Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road To Mayfair and Edward Platt's Leadville: A Biography of the A40; both are terribly undderrated (and not picked up by a US publisher) glimpses into the life of a pedestrian amidst our car culture. And last week The Guardian also ran this intriguing review for Around the M60: Manchester's Orbital Motorway by Matthew Hyde, Peter Portland, and Aidan O'Rourke:

The authors love the unfamiliar and stop off at Abney Hall near junction 2. They don't seem to know that the Guardian Weekly was published in this former cotton magnate's mansion for several years but they know a lot about Agatha Christie. The creator of Poirot and Miss Marple spent many of her childhood winters at Abney and returned to recuperate after she lost her memory and disappeared in 1926. "Whatever the truth of her amnesia, the opulence of Abney ... had early slid into Agatha Christie's unconscious, to reappear in the foreword to Adventures of the Christmas Pudding, published 1960 and dedicated to Abney Hall," writes Portland. The hall became Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys (1925) and Gorston Hall in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938). Two characters in They Do It With Mirrors (1952) drown in Abney's fish pond.

Samples from the M60 book can be seen at Aidan's web site.


Axis of Fecal

Deutsche Welle reports that police in Bayreuth are seeking the evil doo-er in their local parks who has been sticking little American flags into dog droppings:

The man or woman has "decorated" some 2,000 to 3,000 piles of puppy poop in a city park with little American flags. Josef Öttl of Bayreuth's Castle and Garden Administration is baffled and a little upset about the matter... The police has increased patrols in the area, but a police spokesman said it is not a criminal act to place American flags in doggy doo. One state prosecutor pointed out that freedom of expression is highly protected in the German constitution.

My prime suspect? Christo.

Saturday, January 29, 2005


And Now, Back to My Catch-Basin

I'm down for the count today with the flu -- tune in tomorrow....

Sunday, January 23, 2005


They're Just Fine, Thank You

Reader James Dale points out that a previous post where I bemoaned the state of British graphic narrative is in fact rubbish. On second thought -- if indeed there was a first thought -- he's right and has been for a long time now.

There's not as much of a storefront presence there, perhaps, but I should hardly conflate that with the health of a genre. Anyway, for those visiting London, here's an entertaining argu.. er, discussion on the merits of various London comics shops.


Globs Blogs on Gobs o' Bogs

In today's Times of London, Robert Harris reports that the Italian town of Ercolano is sitting atop a potential mountain of lost works of Roman literature. The works of a massive classical library, apparently burnt by the eruption of Vesuvius, turn out to be readable:

All knowledge of the great house was lost until 1738, when workmen sinking a well shaft encountered a mosaic floor.... workmen retrieved what looked like lumps of coal which they unthinkingly dumped in the sea. It was not until 1752 and the discovery of an intact library lined with 1,800 rolls of papyrus, that the excavators realised that what they had been throwing away were carbonised books. The site has since been known as the Villa of the Papyri.

Once the villa had been stripped, 200 years ago, the tunnels were sealed. But last week a group of the world’s leading classical scholars gathered in Oxford to demand that the site be reopened..... Their optimism is therefore worth taking seriously. It follows the first detailed analysis of the 1,800 papyri, now largely unrolled and deciphered thanks to a technique known as multi-spectral imaging (MSI). What appear to the naked eye as jet-black cinders are transformed by MSI into readable text. Thirty thousand images are now legible on CD-Rom; suddenly poems and works of philosophy are speaking again, 2,000 years after they were sealed in their cedar-wood cabinets in the summer of AD79.

A great many of the works are by Philodemus, teacher of Virgil and Horace; many others are works that have been lost for thousands of years, including a number by Epicurus. A newly formed advocacy group for digging for further papyri at the site, The Herculaneum Society, is now working to raise the $20 million needed. Harris points out that the potential finds could be staggering: "We have, for example, a mere seven plays by Sophocles, yet we know that he wrote 120; Euripides wrote 90 plays, of which only 19 survive; Aeschylus wrote between 70 and 90, of which we have just seven."

The seeming "destruction" and burial by lava of the villa library is probably what has saved it for us. Only every once in a long while some past disaster leaves this sort of silver lining, and a review yesterday by Aislinn Hunter in the Globe and Mail notes that NYRB Classics -- Bless them! Bless them! -- recently reissued of P.V. Glob's The Bog People, a book which is vastly entertaining simply to pronounce the author and title of. Glob's 1965 study of an Iron Age man preserved in a peat bog "isn't just about science." Hunter writes. "It's also about the wonder and confusion experienced by those in the 19th and early 20th century who came face to face with a disturbingly well-preserved body from the past."


Five Pennies For Your Thoughts

Did you know that British authors get paid 5p every time one of their books is borrowed from a library? I certainly didn't. I really should start reading my royalty statements. But what a splendid idea. Damn it, with all the insane copyright restrictions we have in the US now, why didn't authors at least get one like this that they could take to the bank and have a nice lunch on?

Writing in the Daily Telegraph (reg. req.), Mark Sanderson reports that the latest author payment numbers give an revealing glimpse into the public's reading patterns:

Although fewer registered books have been borrowed – 158 million between July 1, 2003 and June 30, 2004 compared with 169 million during July 2002 to June 2003 – the number of authors receiving the maximum payment of £6,000 has increased from 274 last year to 291 this year. This suggests that fewer authors are being read by more people: in other words best-sellers and prize-winning publications.... The total number of recipients has dropped from 18,763 to 18,686 – and 12,430 of those will receive less than £100.

As noted previously here, a decline in borrowing in Scotland also coincided with many libraries missing their book-buying targets. Hmm. I'm guessing that those missing books weren't yet more copies of The Da Vinci Code. Might British readers be increasingly driven to bestsellers because libraries are giving short shrift to midlist and specialist authors?


A Winter's Tale

A fine bit of odd history from Brian Cathcart in today's Independent: in 1930s Britain, if you were lucky enough, you could shiver uncontrollably over your Latin primer and writing exercises in the dead of winter:

At Aspen House in the 1930s, Collier and his fellow pupils studied in classrooms that had floors, roofs, desks, blackboards and teachers like most others. They just didn't have walls. Apart from a low balustrade whose purpose was to stop the children falling out, they were completely open to the elements. At the height of summer the sunlight poured in; on a rainy autumn day the child on the end of a row could reach out and get his or her hand wet.

And then there was winter. "Sometimes, when we got there in the morning," Collier recalls, "the snow would have blown in on to the tables and chairs and we would have to clear it off before we could start."

There's more: to apply to be in an open-air school, you also had to be sick enough. That's right. They were part of a buck-up-old-chap movement to cure children susceptible to tuberculosis, a notion promulgated in multiple editions beginning in 1912 with the Hugh Broughton book The Open-Air School. Cathcart goes on to quote some, ahem, chilling passages from Broughton's book:

"Children who live in the open become acclimatized to cold," Broughton states firmly, "and so should not be fussed over." He continues cheerily: "On an occasion some of us will not easily forget, the ink became solid in the ink-wells, snow blown into the classroom in the morning was swept out in the afternoon, dinner was served with snow sauce... The experience, though uncomfortable, was not followed by any ill-effects on staff or scholars - no one caught cold."

Ironically, though this seems the stuff of "I walked ten miles to school, uphill both ways" grandpa stories, the octagenarian alum of these schools remember them fondly. It sounds like open-air schools attracted a distinctly progressive faculty that followed in the footsteps of the Malting House and Dewey schools in the UK and US.

Cathcart mentions but one history of this truly curious movement, Frances Wilmot's A Breath of Fresh Air (1998), which from my searches looks to be a fairly rare book already: only two used copies are on bookfinder, and both are nearly $100. Broughton's 1912 guide is missing altogether. Miraculously, amidst all this obscurity I see there is a pdf version of Broughton online at the library of the University of Surrey. May I suggest that, for the full effect, you read it while sitting in a snowdrift?

Saturday, January 22, 2005


The Dustiest Shelf in the Library

Speaking of odd titles (see the previous post), here's a splendid one rediscovered by Tom Stoppard in his wonderful paean to the London Library, appearing in the Sunday Telegraph (reg. req.):

Arthur Koestler, John [Wells] said, had been commissioned to report the Fischer-Spassky chess match for the world championship in Reykjavik. To prepare, Koestler went to the London Library to borrow books on chess and on Iceland. In the entrance hall he hesitated. Chess first or Iceland first? Chess was nearer. On the Chess shelf the first book that caught Koestler's eye was Chess in Iceland .... Its full title is Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature by Williard Friske, published in Florence in 1905. It was presented to the London Library by Cornell University Library in 1910. Koestler had the book out from May to September 1972. It was taken out twice during the next 21 years, and twice more 11 years after that. On average it has been borrowed every eight years since Koestler brought it back from Iceland.

What I'm drawing attention to, of course, is the volume's active career. Compared to some, Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature is a flibbertigibbet for ever dashing in and out of 14 St James's Square. Personally, I have a soft spot for the availability of books for which the demand is as yet entirely notional.

There was a court case not too long ago where a library thief -- a fellow caught razoring rare illustrations out of books, or some such evildoing -- mounted the novel legal defense that nobody was reading those books anyway: therefore, it wasn't much of a crime. Perhaps for punishment that gentleman should have been smacked in the face with a hardcover copy of Chess in Iceland.

Like most haunters of libraries, I've often had that experience of picking up old books which not only prove to have never been checked out, but in fact still have uncut pages. It would be interesting in this age of circulation databases for a library to determine what the proportions of books frequently read, read once a year, once a decade, or never read at all are.

Then again, who knows? I often pick up books, peruse them or even photocopy them, and that's it: they never leave the library. I found in my brief career working a reshelving cart in a library that my duties didn't include keeping track of this less visible internal circulation. Just as the seemingly lifeless bottom of the ocean hides more than one would imagine, so might the darkest, dustiest depths of a library. Might there be, as Wired recently put it (props to Rodes Fishburne for the link) a "long tail" present when both external and internal demand is graphed out? -- or, if you prefer, a faint but persistent pulse felt in even the dustiest of books?


Winner of the Title Title

The Guardian covers a topic dear to my heart: strange book titles. The 2004 winner in a Bookseller magazine poll, by a whopping 42% of the vote: How To Bombproof Your Horse.

It replaces the currently reigning champion from 2003, The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories -- there's just something about about horses and book titles, I guess -- and joins such illustrious previous winners as Design for Impact: 50 Years of Airline Safety Cards and Hot Topics in Urology. Oh, and my all-time favorite: How To Avoid Huge Ships.

There is an entire book of such splendid stuff, incidentally: Bizarre Books by Russell Ash and Brian Lake. It appears to be out of print now, but there's plenty of cheap copies around on bookfinder and the like. If you care at all about such things, you simply must install this book permanently as bathroom reading; also, put it on a chain, because one of your friends will surely steal it.


Have a Pickle.

For any NPR listeners pulling their hair out trying to find a copy of Timothy Dexter's berserk unpunctuated memoir A Pickle for the Knowing Ones: it's been out of print for a while, and old 19th century reprints easily go for $200 apiece. So put down those wallets for a moment. I've never seen an original 1802 edition for sale, but I imagine it would go for many thousands now.

But! There is an online transcription by a Newburyport history teacher who occasionally dresses up as Lord Dexter for public events. Also, there is a way to get a really great-looking old copy of Pickle. Here's the thing: it's inside another book. The once-famous novelist John Marquand -- he won a Pulitzer for 1949 novel The Late George Apley -- also happened to be from Dexter's hometown of Newburyport MA, and he wrote not one but two books on his favorite local loon. His 1925 Lord Timothy Dexter actually contains an appendix with the Pickle in its glorious entirety. Because Marquand is a once-famous-now-forgotten author, it means that his books are plentiful and cheap. You can find Lord Timothy Dexter for five or ten bucks at many used books sites, and it's got a beautiful 1920s jacketless binding -- by far the cheapest and most handsome form of the Pickle to be had.

Also not to be overlooked: Marquand's 1960 memoir Timothy Dexter Revisited. Also out of print and plentiful in the used-book stacks. It's a gem. On the surface, he goes back to his earlier work from 35 years before, finds it wanting, and completely rewrites it. But Revisited is really an elegy on the passing of time in Newburyport, and how all the familiar landmarks and routines of daily life from Dexter's era, still visible during Marquand's youth in the 1890s, were inexorably disappearing under the tide of modern life.

In the opening days of the 20th century, the 17 year-old Marquand and his cousin retrace Dexter's walk from Newburyport to Boston:

We decided to begin the walk at night, since at that time the road would be nearly deserted. It would surely be highly dangerous to take such a walk at present. Eliminating the probability of being killed by a truck or motor car, there would remain the certainty of being stopped by the police. The hour we selected was midnight, and two of us made it in, I imagine, bettertime than Timothy Dexter. I recall sitting down in Salem to a breakfast of of oatmeal, cream and coffee and momentarily blacking out when the heavy food hit my stomach.... My cousin twitted me about the Salem mishap until we reached a point near Lynn, where we stopped at a small store that sold candy and soft drinks. Here I took a malicious delight in watching him, after he had drunk a glass of Moxie, turn ashen, stagger to the rear of the store and collapse on a trestle table, upon which the owner had been making candy.

They reach the Hotel Lenox in Boston after 12 hours of walking; but what stays with Marquand are the first minutes of their walk and realizing that, with darkness to cover the passage of time, his town's looming old buildings suddenly looked just as they had 100 years before... new, slumbering, full of promise.


Vladimir Propp, Call Your Agent

The Village Voice and the Times Literary Supplement seem none too fond of Christopher Booker's new study The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Though his notion does sound pretty nifty, especially if you've never read a work of literary theory from the last... oh, century or so. Or for, that matter, if you haven't read any literature from the last century or two.

Carolyne Larrington's TLS takedown in the January 19th issue points out that in order to shoehorn messy post-1800 literature into his framework, Booker decides that art is broken -- epitomized by such tiresome stuff as "pop-groups," "art films" and women's "rights." ("The scare-quotes," Larrington notes drily, "are Booker's." )

Well. I'll forbear criticizing Booker until I get a chance to read the "ideas" in his "book."

But best of luck, Chris, on saving up for that time machine you've been wanting so badly!

Sunday, January 16, 2005


Another Shite Night In Sucketh City

The Daily Telegraph (registration required) favorably reviews Tim Hitchcock's Down and Out in Eighteenth Century London, pointing out that the author brings an unusual perspective to the subject:

Hitchcock spent 10 years as a young man travelling and sleeping rough - meeting by turns with the "small kindnesses" and indifference of strangers.

Had the author tried his luck on the streets of Georgian London, he would have encountered a similar mixture of reactions. Eighteenth-century citizens were renowned for their spontaneous, compassionate generosity. So much so, in fact, that Henry Fielding made the complaint (familiar to modern ears) that "the giver… is encouraging a nuisance". The poor could expect donations on Sundays, public holidays and "play days", at weddings and funerals. On the other hand, they were subject, then as now, to the threats of robbery, violence, starvation and hypothermia....

Hitchcock's characters are the sock-vendors, milk-maids, chimney-sweeps, cinder-sifters, mackerel-touts and cabbage-sellers that made up the 18th-century metropolitan poor. Haphazard, laborious professions, undertaken alongside occasional begging, amounted to an "economy of makeshift".

One can only hope that Hitchcock might bring his empathetic perspective to write a sequel set in the 19th century; with the onset of punitive Poor Laws and enclosure acts that drove rural poor into cities, Dickens' London would make for a telling contrast. In the interim, one can always scavenge for the 1985 reprint of John Hollingshead's eyewitness account Ragged London in 1861.

Hollingshead's old book might be easier to find in the US than Hitchcock's new one: I don't see any US publisher listed for Down and Out. Really now, this is not an unsaleable or arcane subject. Will someone please do Mr. Hitchcock the honors?


Stuck Inside With the In-Laws

The Observer covers a series of darkly humorous e-mails detailing the absurdities of everyday life with a 93-year-old mother-in-law.... who just happens to live in an apartment near Yasser Arafat's beseiged headquarters in Ramallah. Her dispatches have become an unlikely publishing hit, and they bear an even more unlikely title:

Sharon and My Mother-in-Law has since been translated into 11 languages (it is ironic that no edition in Arabic is yet available - though at least this means that the mother-in-law has not yet read the book). It is published in Britain this month, and was the subject of a recent bidding war in the US. In France, it is a bestseller. In Italy, its author won the prestigious Viareggio prize...

Amiry likes to remind people that things always look worse from afar - and so it is with Ramallah. Last week, as Mahmoud Abbas was elected president, the city was in the newspapers every day and, as usual, it looked grim, all rubble and graffiti and young men with guns. The reality is a bit different, though there are big piles of stones absolutely everywhere - Suad often jokes that she dreams of being made the Palestinian 'Minister of Rubble'.

In what almost seems like the makings of the world's weirdest sitcom, author Suad Amiry talks about the exasperation of being stuck in the house with a picky relative. 'Perhaps one day I may forgive you for putting us under curfew for 42 days,' she writes at one point. 'But I will never forgive you for obliging us to have my mother-in-law for what seemed, then, more like 42 years.'


A Pickle For The Knowing Ones

I'll be marking the birthday of eccentric author Lord Timothy Dexter next Saturday, January 22nd, on NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. In the mean time, read his 1802 memoir A Pickle for the Knowing Ones and marvel at how a man got rich selling mittens to the West Indies.

Saturday, January 15, 2005


As in "Independent of Data"

A curious article indeed in the book section of today's Independent of London. Titled "Do Children's Self-Help Books Really Help?", it leads off with the claim that "Children are being targeted by the self-help book industry, with the latest DIY therapy advice aimed at young people rather than angst-ridden adults," before purporting to examine this alleged trend.

Let's sharpen our editorial pencils and have a look, shall we? It then claims that:

Manuals on obesity, teenage problems and overcoming bullying are stacking up in the self-help sections in bookshops. Publishers and booksellers are cashing in on research that shows a generation of children and teenagers finding life increasingly hard to cope with.

The suicide rate among children is three times higher than it was 20 years ago, and youngsters as young as five are deliberately self-harming. Ten per cent of callers to the helpline Parentline Plus say their children have had suicidal thoughts.

There are no numbers given to back up this "stacking up" of titles. Nor are any financial figure or sales figures of books produced to show the "cashing in" occuring. No publisher or trade group appears to have been asked.

Very well. But what about that alarming suicide rate? Surely that indicates a tide of despair needing self-help? Funny thing, that. The awfully round-sounding "three times" figure is not sourced; nor are the ages of "children" defined. I could find no such figure in a brief trawl of UK government statistics. What I did find was some most interesting charts at the Oxford University Centre for Suicide Research. Note this chart on male suicides: the youngest cohort listed (15-24 age group) shows a large jump in suicide rates in the early to mid-1980s -- not very happy economic years in Britain, you'll recall -- followed by levelling or decline from 1988 onwards. And the female chart shows very few changes at all. In other words, our Independent writer might have fiddled her x-axis rather selectively. She might more accurately have said "The suicide rate has declined over the last 16 years." But I don't suppose that is so exciting. And as for the 10% Parentline figure: interesting, if also rather round. But compared to what previous rate?

Onward: the article soon proceeds to a discussion of self-help books in general.

Self-help books are big business in Britain, with more than 400,000 sold last year. The online retailer Amazon says self-help books account for six of its 20 best-sellers and the industry analyst Book Marketing says two-thirds of the buyers are women. Titles include Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps and If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure?

Well, at least there's a number here. But again: compared to what? One major novel alone -- Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime -- has hit 1.2 million copies sold in UK since May 2003, vastly outselling the figure quoted here for an entire genre. Perhaps we should also conclude that the nation is overrun by autistic teenaged detectives?

Fully half of the article is hereafter dedicated to a roundup of popular adult self-help titles, without any explanation of why they are conflating a discussion of these with a piece on children's self-help. To put this in perspective: imagine announcing that your article is about children's fiction, and then spending half your word count talking about Philip Roth.

Two experts -- a psychiatrist and a teen counsellor -- are also duly quoted in the piece about their doubts on the effectiveness of self-help books. Fair enough: someone made a couple phone calls there, so that's something. Now, here's who was not quoted: any parents. Or publishers. Or booksellers. Or authors.

Or any of the children using the books.

The piece ends by naming 5 children's self-help books and giving brief description quoted, without sourcing, though presumably from the book jackets. There's no indication that the correspondent stirred herself to crack open any of these books, or indeed to even answer the question her own article's title raised. Given that we are discussing products purportedly aimed at the well-being of vulnerable children, it seems a rather serious matter deserving a serious answer.

So: do children's self-help books really help? It'd be an interesting question for a journalist to look into. Maybe the Independent should try hiring one someday.


You Ought Not To Be In Pictures

An intriguing failed effort to bring a book to the screen is described by The Guardian:

A film company which asked Catherine Cookson fans to stump up £3.2m for her latest adaptation has abandoned its plans after raising less than a 5% of the budget.

Producer Ray Marshall, who has brought 18 of Cookson's books to the screen over the years, appealed to fans of the romantic fiction writer to pay £15.99 each. The money was to be taken as pre-payment for a video copy of the film when it was eventually made. When 200,000 of them sent in their money, he would have the £3.2 million necessary to make a new film of Cookson's novel Katie Mulholland. But, three months on, Marshall has received fewer than 10,000 orders.

Granted, it was a flop: and granted, it was for a movie I'd never go see. But the idea is an provocative one, not least because -- though not noted in the Guardian article -- having such a large number of small stakeholders, all being reimbursed through DVDs, would change the dynamic normally associated with appeasing producers. Namely, no backer would interfere with how the film was written, cast, edited, or marketed. (You think your £15.99 gets you a vote on rewrites?) Moreover, if a DVD was the only thing promised to backers, then remaining profits would flow to the director, actors, and maybe even (gasp!) the author.

In movie days of yore, rounding up thousands of backers would have been impractical: but now, with online communities, paypal, and cheap-to-mail DVDs? The problem might not have been the idea so much as the author. I think it's safe to say that Cookson's fans are not, ahem, text-messaging each in high school classrooms. But for an author with a younger, more devoted, and more wired following... who knows?


Quiet in The Library

The irony of the cutbacks and closings suffered by American libraries is that in many cities library usage has been setting new records. But that's not true in Scotland, according to The Scotsman: "Audit Scotland said the number of items borrowed, including books and audio tapes, fell by more than 1.5 million from the previous year, to 32.5 million. "

Also noted is that many local council governments missed their goals in new book purchases. Ahh... now the statistics begin to make sense.

When I lived in Oregon, budgets dictated absurd contortions in the business hours of local libraries; yet I never noticed the new book racks going empty. Pent-up demand simply flowed more heavily (to a point, at least) into the reduced hours. But I doubt as many would have shown up if the books were mouldering. Skimping on new book purchases in a library is equivalent to killing and eating your sled dogs: eventually you'll be alone, abandoned, and frozen.


Down the Tubes

The Guardian reviews Christian Wolmar's The Subterranean Railway, pronouncing it a splendid introduction to the mysteries of the Tube. It also reveals why it is that the damn Tube always closes down at night:

It becomes clear from reading it that the faults of the system were built into it from the moment the first sod was turned.... lack of capital meant that the lines were not built large enough (this is why the underground shuts down at night; if London's system had allowed for four tracks instead of two, like in New York, the trains could run at night on some tracks while engineers worked on others).

It'll make a nice companion to Richard Trench's old standby guide London Under London, which includes odd bits on the sewer systems and bank vaults -- including what they found in some Victorian safe deposit boxes (women's knickers, rather curiously) when one old vault got flooded.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


Writers, Earn Extra $$$!

The Guardian reports one of the stranger stories of the week: the revelation that Mary Wollstonecraft was involved in an operation to smuggle silver out of France in 1794.

For the Norwegian coastal town of Risør, Mary Wollstonecraft had no mercy. In A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), this pioneer of woman's rights sails along a "wild coast" to find in Risør a hotbed of secretive, unscrupulous dealings. Even the setting seems immoral: houses huddle together without proper paths. Planks make do for the passage from house to house, to be mounted like steps, under a high rock that looks to her like a Bastille, a place "shut out from all that opens the understanding, or enlarges the heart". To be born here is to be "bastilled by nature."

Wollstonecraft never mentions smuggling, obviously, but her itinerary just happens to match her efforts to recover a lost cargo of the illicit silver. Her dislike of Norway appears to have had more than a little to do with her frustration at only being able to recover £1000 worth of the load of "36 silver platters said to carry the Bourbon crest and 32 silver bars worth £3,500."

Still, I bet it's a lot more than what she got for writing A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark...


Weekday Stubble

Are you an Iowan? No? Well then, would you like live as one vicariously through a Real Player connection? I'll be talking about the Collins Library and strange old books in general as the guest on Iowa Public Radio's call-in show Talk of Iowa, from 10-11 am on Wednesday January 12th.


On The Road Goes On The Road

Yet more corn-fed news: Kerouac's teletype scroll of On The Road is coming to Iowa, reports the Iowa City Press-Citizen:

The University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) will present "Jack Kerouac: On the Road," an exhibition of Kerouac's scroll manuscript of the iconic Beat Generation novel, typed on nearly 120 feet of continuous paper. The manuscript will be shown Jan. 19 through March 13 in the museum's North Gallery.... The scroll has seldom been seen publicly before. Iowa City will be the only venue in the Midwest displaying the scroll in 2005. The appearance in Iowa City is part of a 13-stop, four-year national tour of museums and libraries that began when James S. Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, bought the scroll for $2.43 million in 2001.

"When Kerouac died," the story continues, "his estate was reportedly valued at less than $100."


I Dropped My Copy and Now I Can't Find It

The Times of London reviews Hardy Blechman's Disruptive Pattern Material, an "astonishing, monumental, exhaustive and exhausting" encyclopedia of camouflage -- slipcovered in two volumes, and selling for a nosebleed-inducing £100. You're liable to find some heavyweight artists at work inside:

When a belt-fed recoil-operated Maxim gun had a range of several hundred yards, high visibility became a liability for the squaddie more than an operational convenience for the commanding officer. Early in the First World War French soldiers suffered heavy casualties, partly on account of their bright red trousers. Accordingly, a Section de Camouflage was created in 1915, recruiting stage designers and artists. It happened in Germany, too: the painter Franz Marc (who with Kandinsky formed the Blaue Reiter group of Expressionists) designed camouflage for the Kaiser’s army.

Too bad they didn't hire Cubists. Then the war could have ended immediately -- nobody's uniforms would fit.

Saturday, January 08, 2005


Write What You (Can't) Know

Fellow memoirists, if you're feeling bad about your childhood, read The Scotsman and be glad that at least you have one:

LYNSEY Calderwood’s latest story is written from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old girl. There’s nothing unusual in a writer adopting a child’s perspective - some of our most successful have done so, from Dickens to Mark Haddon - but Lynsey can’t remember being 12 years old. A brain injury when she was 14 wiped out her memories. Though it changed her life, and forced her to re-learn basic skills, from reading to using a toothbrush, it has not prevented her from fulfilling her childhood ambition and becoming a writer....

"My tutor said: ‘Why don’t you write about something about your childhood?’ I said ‘I can’t, I don’t remember anything’. I thought he would drop it, but he then said: ‘Why don’t you write about what it’s like not to have a childhood?’.

Calderwood, now 26 and finishing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Glasgow, is also the author of Cracked: Recovery After Traumatic Brain Injury, which is available here in the US at the usual sources. But her venture in child-narrated fiction is in a new U Glasgow anthology called Stramash, which for me at least has proven extraordinarily hard to find. The only seller I've found listing it is, which has it in their abandon-all-hope "4 to 6 weeks" category. With any luck, further interest by the British press will nudge it into wider distribution...

UPDATE: Reader Gavin Pugh has been kind enough to direct me to Lynda Perkins at U Glasgow as the person to contact for copies of Stramash; she's at

ONE MORE UPDATE: ... and she directed me at . So..... in 4-6 weeks, perhaps I'll have something further to report.


Open and Shudder

Back in 1819, John Cecil authored Sixty Curious and Authentic Narratives and Anecdotes Respecting Extraordinary Characters: Illustrative of the Tendency of Credulity and Fanaticism; Exemplifying the Imperfection of Circumstantial Evidence. As far as I know, it's the first work of its kind, devoted to case studies of innocent defendants who were sent to jail and to the gallows on the basis of flimsy or perjured evidence. The cases are not all blatantly obvious miscarriages: in some the evidence seemed to be strong, only to be found much later to be wrong.

Cecil's book remains, sad to say, as timely as ever -- though it's quite rare now. Some civic-minded fellow should transcribe it online. It would certainly make an apt companion to Sister Helen Prejean's new book The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Prejean's follow-up to Dead Man Walking has been the subject of favorable reviews in Newsday and the Christian Science Monitor, though CSM's Steve Weinberg notes:

Unfortunately, though, Prejean's reportage is less compelling than her logic. Her presentation of the Williams and O'Dell cases show questionable conduct by police, prosecutors, and judges, to be sure. But, after reading each account, I am uncertain about the innocence of either dead defendant. That uncertainty, should it exist in the minds of other readers, will make it difficult to generate new opposition to the death penalty.

Well, yes. But in the end, I suspect it's not the bloody-minded public who will end the death penalty: it's the Supreme Court. And there, the logic counts over the reportage. Perhaps the most compelling legal case against the death penalty is offered up by Judge Jed Rakoff, profiled this week in the New York Times, who has been arguing against it on the basis that it violates due process. You can't appeal, after all, when you're dead.

Surely that shouldn't matter in open and shut cases, right? Surely. And John Cecil has Sixty Curious and Authentic open and shut cases for you to read.


Cavity Creeps

The Globe and Mail reports a judge has ruled that swishing and flossing are not equal.

An advertising campaign that says Listerine mouthwash is as effective as floss at fighting tooth and gum decay is false and misleading and poses a public health risk, a judge has ruled. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin said in a decision made public Friday that he will order Pfizer, the maker of Listerine, to stop the advertising campaign.... The judge ruled after McNeil-PPC Inc., a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, filed a lawsuit saying that false claims in the advertising campaign that began last June posed an unfair threat against its sales of dental floss.

You'll recall that Chin was the same judge who laughed Bill O'Reilly & Co. out of the courtroom when they sued Al Franken. Apparently dental floss manufacturers have a better grasp of laws covering protected and unprotected speech than Fox News does.


Der Very Hungry Gleiskettenfahrzeug

Turns out the Greatest Generation nearly pulverized our Illiterate-in-Chief's favorite author:

[Eric] Carle was born in Syracuse, N.Y., where one of his most vivid memories is sunlight streaming through the classroom windows. At age 6, Carle moved with his German immigrant parents to Germany shortly before World War II began. He has bitter recollections of the life he encountered there. "Things got grayer and grayer, even the houses," he recalls, noting that even the buildings were painted a uniform gun-metal color to conceal them from air raids.

Timothy Cahill's profile of Carle in the Christian Science Monitor goes on to note how Carle's subsequent children's book art "can be viewed as both a reflection and repudiation of his childhood years in Germany. "

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Lovey Dovey-Ovey All The Time

Now that the obligatory "Best of 2004" articles are the out the way, London papers are turning to a more interesting topic: what's coming in 2005. The Guardian weighs in with two articles; along with the usual nods to Updike, McEwan, and Ishiguro, there are some appealing oddballs listed.

Take At Day's Close: A History of Night-time by A Roger Ekirch ("A fascinating idea, exploring what went on at night between 1500 and 1830. Before gas and electric light rewired the glamour of darkness, night was a different thing altogether...") and Epileptic by French artist David B ("The author's visual account of his brother's struggle with epilepsy... The art style is strikingly beautiful, at times so heavily inked as to resemble occult woodcuts, and the decision to show the oppressive swarmings of serpents and other fantastical monsters as a visual metaphor for the illness is inspired. ")

I've blurbed Pantheon's US edition of Epileptic, and enthusiastically so. Parts have been previously published by the heroic Fantagraphics, but this new complete version is a must-have if you care about graphic narraritives, or books, or the human condition. So: Just. Go. Get. It.

Meanwhile, down the hallway at The Guardian, Stuart Jeffries cites a memoir that should warm the hearts of bookworms everywhere: "Julie Myerson's touching memoir Not a Games Person is about how hopeless she was at PE. " Julie, you are among friends now. But over at the Independent, there is a horrifying preview of the Atlantic title Divine Love:

Its authors, Sara Hulse and Toby Starbuck, "examine their own romance" to "embark upon a journey that is part wedding plan, part philosophical odyssey". If that makes you feel a little queasy, just read on. "About the authors: Sara and Toby recently abandoned their West Hampstead love nest for the Sussex countryside, regularly returning to the capital for work, sushi and fashionable clothing. When in town, Toby provides the scripts for movie trailers and Sara works at a literary agency."

Ah yes. Splendid. Please excuse me while I put out my eyes with a rusty thumbtack.


G'day, Inmate!

"Not so long ago Australia's middle classes were deeply ashamed of their criminal past," writes Robert Verkaik in The Independent. "Now Sydney dinner party conversations are dominated by boasts of convict ancestry as doctors, lawyers and politicians stake their claim to belonging to one of the "first families" of Australia. " What's got them so excited? Well, the Old Bailey's criminal records for April 1674 to October 1834 are in a searchable online archive, and the press is finally sitting up and taking notice.

I've been rooting through it for a year now and it's catnip for a primary-document freak like me. Here's a typical sample of a neighbor's testimony, taken from the murder trial of Anthony and Thomas Meadows, held on January 11th 1753:

Mrs. Kitson. I live within three doors of the prisoners. Near eleven o'clock that night Mr. Meadows came into the yard very much in liquor as I thought, and said every stick and stone of this place is mine, and that son of a b - h, G - d d - n him, I'll make him piss vinegar, and clapped himself by me on a bench at my door; by and by came the deceased up the yard; said Meadows, you little animal, you son of a b - h, what do you want here? said the deceased, I'll let you know I have as much business here as you have, I am going to my brother's. Meadows said he would send for a boy nine years old that shall kick your a - e ; he called Anthony out, who struck the deceased, and he fell down, and got up again ; they scuffled together, and fought up in a corner; his wife came and said, you dog, are you going to murder my husband? the woman squealed out, murder! three times; the deceased groaned, so I went to him and said, Anthony, don't kill the man; after which he let him alone. The deceased lay at my house that night; the next morning I said to Thomas Meadows , this man has been used very ill, he is sadly bruised, and has vomited a great deal in my room; I believe he vomited the quantity of a gallon and better. Thomas Meadows sent him a bed to lie on, and sent me for some Irish slate for him.

Turns out the deceased was suffering from edema (dropsy, in the old parlance), and not from anything the Meadows family did: they were found Not Guilty. For all the savagery in the Old Bailey verdicts, I've found a suprising number of Not Guilty pronouncements. Though if you want a Guilty case that will give you nightmares for days afterwards -- everything from the crime to the punishment will make you want to take your brain out and wash it -- there's always John Wiliamson's murder trial for January 15th 1767. I don't think any Australian will be boasting about a relation to that one.


Yet You Never See Them In The Same Room Together

In its year-end round-up of literary gaffes, the Times has this corker "from the Nobel prizewinner's Q&A with readers of a Swedish paper" :

Literary interview of the year
"Daniel: 'I have heard that you are vegetarian, quite shy, and that you also like to bicycle. Is it coincidence that these things can also be said about the German popgroup Kraftwerk? Are you influenced by them before? Or are they by you?'

J M Coetzee: 'I regret to say I have never heard of Kraftwerk'."


Ironically, So Is Jim Morrison

The Morrison Hotel, of album cover fame, is now overrun with rats.

Saturday, January 01, 2005


OK, I Admit It

Sean O'Hagan in The Observer takes note of Martin Parr's follow-up to his gloriously droll collection Boring Postcards. This time it's The Photobook: A History, which reviews more than a century's worth of some truly odd coffee-table books:

At the more surreal end of the scale - the end, one suspects, that Parr prefers - sits The Book of Bread , a true testament to the power of individual obsession. Written by a lecturer called Owen Simmons in 1903, it is an illustrated guide to the minutiae of bread manufacture, complete with lifesize photographs of cross sections of every kind of loaf, from the humble batch to the barn-brack. There is even a short chapter entitled 'Holes in Bread', and an accompanying photograph of the perfect perforated slice. 'However critical readers might be,' writes Simmons, 'they will be forced to admit that never before have they seen such a complete collection of prize loaves illustrated in such an excellent manner.'


Physiognomy is Destiny

The Christian Science Monitor notices this curious observation in Sam Posey's book about model-railroad geeks, Playing With Trains: A Passion Beyond Scale: "Many of the top modelers have beards, which Posey believes makes them look a bit like locomotives (with cowcatchers)."


Why Authors Become Recluses

In an entertaining piece on book tour horror stories, John Birmingham in the Sydney Morning Herald recounts his own near-death experience when a bookstore called him at the last minute to "warm up the crowd" for a new author. Sure, he said:

Thing was, when I got there, I didn't know anybody. Not the author. Not his publishers. Not a soul in the surprisingly well-to-do audience. A kindly bookseller pushed a steadying ale into my hand and I figured, what the hell.... I leapt onto the stage. The piece I read involved too much dope smoking, too much tequila drinking, unresolved lust for three Tasmanian hotties, some masturbation and two former flatmates setting their hair on fire....

The ashen-faced star of the night, the virgin author, stood up shaking and looking confused, as I took my seat among the glowering audience to listen to his bit. I confess, I don't recall the exact words he spoke next, but they went something like this: "My own journey into my family's Holocaust tragedy began when I visited Auschwitz ..."


Secret Notes From a Small Island

Not that you'd know from US coverage, but Britain's first Freedom of Information Act is to take effect today. One unexpected development: the location of every speed trap in the country is to be revealed.

Here's a thought: various US and UK agencies, not the least the DoD and the Ministry of Defense, share information with each other. Might Britain's FOIA become a back door for US media to get at information hidden back home by the dastardly Patriot Act?

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