Sunday, June 26, 2005


The Secretly Deceased

There should be a word in the English language for that experience of very belatedly discovering that someone well-known is not only dead, but has been dead for a long time, and apparently you are the only person who didn't know. (The antonym would be for famous people who, when you hear about them appearing somewhere, you gasp... "Christ, he's still alive?")

The example that always sticks in my mind is Andy Warhol. I was flat-lining with flu the week he died, and I didn't read or watch anything. About a year later, I pointed out to a friend that he was talking about Warhol as if the man were dead. Whereupon he replied, "Uh, Paul...."

And so it was that this week with Fred Dibnah, a steeplejack-turned-BBC-host whose industrial-history shows were beloved by trainspotting types. It's Fred that I was referring to in Sixpence House when I joked about an (actual) BBC program that spent an hour searching the countryside for an obscure variety of a Victorian beam-engine. Since he's written several anorak books like Fred Dibnah's Industrial Age, I found myself wondering if he has any more in the works.

The answer? Probably not.

A line from his BBC obit last November : "His passion for Victorian engineering caused the breakdown of his first marriage, and in recent years he clashed with his neighbors for attempting to build a mineshaft in the back garden of his home in Bolton."

Ah, there'll always be an England.


And This Week's Beer Money Goes To...

Ron Hogan, who has been heroically covering lit online since the days when Lynx browsers and dinosaurs still roamed the earth. He's running a pledge drive of reader donations to support his famed Beatrice web site.

Give the man some love in $10 increments over here....


Monkey See, Monkey Poo

In a brief piece about the art sale of paintings by a chimp, the New York Times amazingly missed every interesting aspect of the story. It's not just some chimp throwing paint around who attracted more auction interest than works by Warhol and Renoir, it's that the chimp in question -- named Congo, who died in 1964 of TB after creating over 400 paintings -- was in fact part of a debate by behaviorist and science writer Desmond Morris on animal cognition and the ability of apes to understand artistic creation. Morris regularly featured him on his Zoo Time tv program.

Fortunately, the British press has been covering this wonderfully odd story in greater detail -- though I will admit that nothing quite tops the pure idiotic genius of the CBS headline Dead Chimp's Art Sells Big. But back to the other side of the Atlantic, where the Times of London reports:

Dr Morris said that Congo was unusual because he was the only non-human painter who took care over his art. He said: “With other animals there was an element of accident in their work. Congo was desperately trying to avoid accident. If you tried to interrupt him he would have a temper tantrum. If you tried to get him to continue after he had finished he wouldn’t do it. I would offer him a brush and he would just look at me. In the end he got too strong. He had a very powerful bite.

Jeez. Next thing you know, he'll be getting himself an agent.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


The Green Lane to Nowhere

When I toured bookstores for Not Even Wrong, I ended my readings with a selection from another author altogether -- from a book that, in fact, I had chanced across in the Piccadilly Waterstone's just days earlier. I'd never heard of it or the author before, and I just picked it up off that store shelf because... I don't know why, actually.

Sometimes that just happens.

The piece I'd read from was about a local eccentric, quite possibly autistic before there was really a term for it, and how he'd become an odd but curiously vital part of his community. For one thing, his house was like a museum of prewar British life: he'd never updated much of anything, including the plumbing.

The book was An Audience With An Elephant by Byron Rogers; the publisher touts it as a tour of English eccentricity, though there's a good deal more in there that's simply unclassifiable. One story that still haunts me a year later is of a visit to a long-abandoned munitions factory that produced immense quantities of bombs over several centuries; workers sat on one-legged stools, so they couldn't nod off and allow an unchecked reaction to blow themselves and the surrounding countryside off the map.

I'm halfway into another collection of his, The Green Lane to Nowhere: The Life of an English Village. They're drawn from columns Rogers wrote about his Midlands village of Blakesley, where he proudly retains the sublimely useless post of Warden of Paths. I'd be surprised if it's sold more than a few dozen import copies in the US. But they actually do have it on Amazon, and it's a wonderful slice of the quiet beauties and absurd melancholies of English village life. Rogers does things like read the forgotten diaries of the village headmaster from a hundred years ago, climb into the vertiginous local bell tower, and try to track down a vicar who disappears leaving his vicarage door ajar and half-eaten food on the table, like a landlocked Mary Celeste.

A sample:

"What are you like at heights?"

The question surprised me, for the tower did not look that high. "You'll be surprised," said Phil. "It's a bit odd up there."

The church was extensively rebuilt in the 1890s... the pillars and interior walls, even the gargoyles, are now of hard Victorian stone, except the little door to the side of the bellropes, which, like men on the frontier of fairyland, we crouched to enter. Beyond that door is the thirteenth century. No hardness here, everything is blurred with use, and the winding narrow stair makes you think you are entering the heart of stone. There is much white dust.... Here everything moved. It is a cluttered place, of wood and metal and wheels, where if you steady yourself against a bell, it begins to roll...

By the end of it, Rogers is virtually fleeing for his life down an ancient trap door. It's splendid stuff, and he really does deserve a wider audience.


The Imperial Hub

Hilary McPhee, writing in today's issue of The Age of Melbourne, has decided not to join in with reviewers piling onto Tom Maschler's memoir Publisher -- she simply calls it "a dog," and leaves it at that. But among McPhee's own editorial memories of the publisher at Jonathan Cape, whose feats included the UK edition of Heller's Catch-22, here's an interesting bit of Australian publishing history:

His book reminded me painfully how much harder we had to run to publish literature in this country. First the struggles for editorial autonomy: until the late 1960s Australian book contracts in most publishing houses had to be signed in Britain. How those antipodean publishers - Capes in the making as it were - were refused the right to publish the world's best books here because they were distributed out of London. (Maschler once furiously showed me the door when I suggested we might acquire Australian rights in Bruce Chatwin's Songlines. Yet he and his colleague, Graham C. Greene, made shameless overtures to Australian authors not only for UK rights, which we were proud to sell, but for their Australian rights as well.) The assumption was that Australian authors would be much better off exported back into Australia from the imperial hub.

It is still common for Canadian sales, for instance, to get bundled together with a US or (more frequently) UK contract. So perhaps some things haven't changed so much...


Reading at... Umm, Never Mind

The year mark is approaching since the release of the ballyhooed NEA Reading at Risk report, whose results have ever since been the subject of blogger disputes worthy of medieval theologians. So it's a funny thing that virtually no media picked up on this June 3rd release of a Gallup poll that found a shocking...

Oh. Seems it found nothing shocking at all:

About one in every two Americans is currently engrossed in some type of book, according to Gallup's latest measure of the public's reading habits. About half of Americans also say they have read more than five books in the past year, not much different from the number reported a decade and a half ago.

Only the Christian Science Monitor appears to have paid much notice, adding this detail: "A Gallup poll taken in May found that 47 percent of Americans on any given day are reading a book. This is up from 37 percent in 1990, and 23 percent in 1957. The median number of books read in a year is five."

Now, I'm not sure if I entirely believe those numbers, at least not in direct comparison with the NEA's -- and until the day comes when I'm willing to shell out $95 to get behind Gallup's subscriber wall, I guess I'll never know. Frankly, 47 percent on any given day sounds high to me. But the results reported do give one pause... as does a Canadian study reported in yesterday's Globe and Mail:

Yesterday's study, titled Reading and Buying Books for Pleasure, comes while some have speculated that the Internet and television would result in a decline in reading. Almost 90 per cent of Canadians said they read books, a figure that did not change since the last survey in 1991. More than half of Canadians surveyed said they read almost every day.

The report also points out that people spend far more time watching TV than reading. But that does not necessarily translate into the death of literature. It might just mean that reading is trundling along, more or less the same as before. Or the conflicting studies might indicate a far more complex and perhaps less sustained type of decline than what was trumpeted after the NEA study.

But that's not nearly as gratifying as proclaiming the literary Apocalypse, is it?

Sunday, June 19, 2005


Killed, With Little X's in Their Eyes

Has your editor told you to go to hell? David Wallis is putting together a collection of Killed Cartoons, to be published next year by W.W. Norton, of strips and panels spiked by newspaper editors.


Sometimes a Sanctuary is Just... a Sanctuary

About a year ago, I was riding a train into London when I came across and clipped out an utterly engrossing article in the Guardian about Botton, a village in north Yorkshire that I'd never heard of before. Turns out it's now the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, The Strangest Village in Britain, which is reviewed in today's Observer:

Half of the 300 villagers here are 'special needs'. They make wooden toys - rather well, it seemed - and fold paper for schoolbooks, and hug each other with fond earnestness, and guard their appointed jobs jealously, and in the evenings they live, mostly, with the Steiner Christians and their families. This great little programme about Botton, celebrating 50 years of the experiment, had me dangerously close to tears a couple of times, as does the ongoing argument which seeks to blame the toweringly sane Baroness Warnock for once recommending, gently, more inclusion in the right circumstances, and now mildly changing her mind after watching successive governments use her nuanced argument as a slab, a manifesto to save money and avoid complicated thoughts.

In some circumstances, inclusion works, in others it doesn't. Got it?

This is probably the most sensible comment I've seen on the inclusion-or-separation issue with special-needs populations. Denying people a way to fit in, however awkwardly, is cruel: forcing them to keep trying to fit in when this makes them existentially miserable is also cruel. And no amount of absolutist rhetoric by experts or activists on either side holds up to the harsh tests of daily life and direct experience in these matters.

I don't see any word yet on whether the documentary will have a US broadcast -- one can only hope that it will.



Any time Ricky Jay has a new book out is worth celebrating. Ricky's new book Extraordinary Exhibitions:The Wonderful Remains of an Enormous Head, the Whimsiphusicon & Death to the Savage Unitarians (Broadsides From The Collection of Ricky Jay) is covered in yesterday's New York Times, which notes a few of the more unusual entries:

One wonders what Faustian bargain he'd strike for a trip to 1829 to watch Signor Cappelli, "The Inimitable Tuscan," induce his Learned Cats to "beat a drum, turn a spit, grind knives, strike upon an anvil, roast coffee, ring bells . . . with many other astonishing exercises." Or to catch a 1753 show by Duncan MacDonald, "The Scottish Equilibrist," who performed his celebrated slack-wire balancing act, Mr. Jay writes, "wearing a pair of large and cumbersome boots to which quart bottles were affixed, neck downward." Or for the chance to examine such technological sensations as Professor Faber's Wonderful Talking Machine of the 1840's, Mr. Haddock's lifelike Androides of the 1790's, or the 1872 Phantoscope projecting its ghostly "Carnival of Spirits."

Here's an example from his recent Yerba Buena exhibit of the handbill for the Wonderful Talking Machine....

Saturday, June 18, 2005


Deferred Maintenance

My favorite sentence in this week's papers comes from the Property section of the Sunday Times of London:

Once an 11th century castle, then a farmhouse, Castle Farm, set in 1.16 acres, was described as "decayed" as far back as 1540 and is now in need of complete modernization.

Good luck with that.


Got.... ?

"...the world's most bizarre, beautiful and sexy milk bottles."


Quick, Nicholson... Into the Bookmobile!

Remember when Nicholson Baker nailed the San Francisco Public Library for recklessly throwing out books? Well, it's happened again, reports today's Guardian:

The Octagon library at Queen Mary, University of London, in Mile End, east London, is in the process of refurbishment and decided that it would have to dispose of its surplus books. These have now been dumped in skips outside the library, to the outrage of staff and students who were clambering through them yesterday to find what they described as literary gems. "This is a crass display of philistinism," said one staff member. "There are books dating back to the 18th century, there are first editions, there are copies of Voltaire."

Couldn't they have at least tried calling Richard Booth? Or any used book dealer at all?

Sunday, June 12, 2005


Misery In the Air

I have a history column in this week's New Scientist about Morrill Wyman, the physician who first linked hay fever to ragweed pollen. His entire family suffered from the allergy. Wyman haunted vacant lots in Boston and stuffed ragweed into a bag; then, once his family was vacationing in the mountains, and had been free of the condition for weeks, he produced the bag and had them huff from it... and, well, their reactions were exactly what you'd expect.

A pretty cruel experiment, but effective.

One odd thing I discovered is that Wyman's 1872 book Autumnal Cattarh (Hay Fever) identified a select few mountains in New York, New Hampshire, and Michigan miraculously out of reach of ragweed pollen. Well-heeled sufferers started leaving NY and Boston for these mountains every August, just in time to avoid pollination. Wyman inadvertantly created a roaring tourist economy, and the continuing tradition of leaving the city for a cabin in the mountains in the late summer is the living relic of this fashionable Victorian cure.



Friday's Guardian tells the tale of how a single book, Gideon Defoe's The Pirates! An Adventure With Scientists, went from pub bet to publication. Among some good first-book-hazing anecdotes -- "Orion's publicity department also made Defoe dress as a pirate and tour London bookshops by rickshaw, autographing their stock. 'It was,' he recalls, 'the most mortifying day of my life.' " -- is buried this sharp observation on the nature of modern bookselling:

The first 20 feet of any large bookshop, people in publishing will tell you, are all that really counts. Not that the placement of books in the shelves at the back of the store isn't fought over too: whether a book is displayed "face-out", or merely "spine-out", is a subject of much negotiation. But what matters most of all are the windows, the "new titles" shelves and the display tables, with their special offers: inclusion in Waterstone's famous 3-for-2 offer, for example, frequently boosts the sales of low-profile literary fiction titles by as much as 5,000%. To decide what gets placed in these crucial zones is, in large part, to decide what is going to sell, and it is here that the pyramidal structure of the industry becomes most acutely apparent.

Last Sunday's New York Times discussed just what lengths publishers will go to for those face-outs -- it's an old practice, but one that few customers are aware of.


Panic in Milwaukee

Bostonians and Washingtonians! I'll be reading with Kevin Smokler at a bookstore near you next month -- at Harvard Book Store on July 7th, and Politics and Prose on July 8th, to be exact.

Kevin's new anthology Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times has hit the stores -- you can see Kevin's running commentary and tour info here -- and among some very fine pieces in the book is this wonderful bit by Tom Bissell that pinpoints the weirdly associative nature of childhood memory:

"I think I believed that only Milwaukee had Space Invaders. To this day, the word Milwaukee floods my mind with involuntary images of dive-bombing amoebas and digital bulwarks slowly annihilated by enemy-insect offensives..."

Saturday, June 11, 2005


Yet Another Occupational Hazard for Authors

A New Scientist history column by Stephanie Pain uncovers an odd bit of authorial lore that I'd never heard of before. Turns out the first automotive fatality was a bestselling author:

On 31 August 1869, Mary Ward and her husband were travelling along a quiet Irish road in a steam-driven car when it suddenly jolted, pitching Mary under one of its heavy iron wheels. She died almost instantly in what many believe was the first fatal automobile accident.... The fatal injury, said the doctor, was a broken neck. The death certificate records the cause of death as "Accidental fall from a steam engine. Sudden." The family was so distraught, they broke up the offending object and buried it.

But, as Stephanie points out, there's more to Ward's life than the manner in which she left it. She was one of the great microsope artists of the 19th century, working for the likes of Sir David Brewster -- whose 1831 book Letters on Natural Magic, incidentally, counted Edgar Allan Poe among its fans, and is still great fun for lovers of weird science. In time Ward became an author herself, and her self-published Sketches With The Microscope became a Victorian bestseller when it was reissued under the title A World of Wonders Revealed By The Microscope. (Check out its gorgeous cover art here at Cambridge's Whipple Library.)

I see that the Offaly Historical & Archeological Society also has a page devoted to the unfortunate Ms. Ward, including "Appalling Accident: Sudden Death of the Hon. Mrs. Ward," the text of the September 1, 1869 King's County Chronicle report of the accident and its inquest.


Mona Lisa's Smile (Color #8)

The 50s fad of Paint By Numbers is now featured in "Canada's first paint by numbers exhibition" at a gallery in Toronto, according to an article in today's Globe and Mail:

The idea that someone might one day put paint-by-numbers paintings in a gallery or teach a course on the subject never occurred to the inventor of paint-by-numbers, Dan Robbins.

"What they have done in Canada is [they have] taken the lead in this particular genre, using paint-by-number sets as a learning tool," Robbins, 80, said. "They are encouraging people to use their own creativity to make them as individual as they can, and not another 'me-too.' "

Robbins, who was a young commercial artist in Detroit in 1950, came up with the idea of paint-by-numbers after he remembered that Leonardo da Vinci's students prepared backgrounds from the master's numbered sketches. Each number indicated a different colour.

Robbins' idea was also the subject of an utterly engrossing interview with Smithsonian curator William Bird in Cabinet last fall; Bird authored the 2001 history Paint By Number: The How-To Craze That Swept The Nation.


Brick's Auction

The Canadian lit journal Brick is holding a fundraising auction on eBay of handwritten pages donated by 17 authors. Details and pictures -- of Margaret Atwood's illuminated first page of Oryx and Crake, an edit-scarred New Yorker proof by Jonathan Lethem, and pages by Marilynne Robinson and Michael Chabon, among others -- can be found here on Brick's website.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


The Other Way to Skin A Cat

Bet you haven't seen a book review before like this one in The Stranger... eh? Eh?



Writing in the Times of London, John Carey raises an interesting point in his review of Richard Girling's new book Rubbish!: Dirt on Our Hands and Crisis Ahead:

Waste is partly a generational thing. If you remember the second world war or its hungry aftermath, seeing people leave food on their plates will probably disgust you. If you are under 30, you will hardly notice. Richard Girling’s passionate and combative book is more concerned with national than with generational differences. But the underlying cause may be the same. Germany, Austria and the Netherlands — nations that knew wartime deprivation on a scale unimaginable in Britain — far outpace us in recycling and waste retrieval. Britain is a garbage heap by comparison. We come bottom of the European recycling league, and would be even dirtier and more wasteful if it were not for the wholesome pressure of our European Union partners.

And as for the country that not only has not been invaded, but can grant tax cuts during wartime? We-h-hell...

While I see that Girling's book is already released in the UK, its American release is slated for the July. But if Amazon is to be believed -- and they're not, sometimes -- they're still using the British cover. Call your book Rubbish! instead of Trash!, and have a cover depicting a map of Britain instead of the U.S.? Hmm. That cover may result in rather more paper recycling at the publishers than the author intended...


Hiding In The Cottage

I often complain about the short reviewing cycle for books, and in Sixpence House basically groaned for several hundred pages straight about how some titles completely vanish from public view, so it's good to see an article over at the Boston Globe on the books buried within summer cottage shelves. Katherine Powers' recommendations include "the funniest, most poignant, and -- consider yourself warned -- preeminently disgusting of all the great dog books," J.R. Ackerley's 1965 memoir My Dog Tulip, the collection In A Darkened Room (which "distills 155 volumes of journals kept by the odious, addictively readable Arthur Inman from 1918 to his death, in 1963"), and the deathless petit-bourgeois satire Diary of a Nobody.

Better still -- now here's a rarity indeed in a Books section -- there's a recommendation for an obscure out-of-print book. The lucky resurectee is Geoffrey Household's 1968 novel Dance of the Dwarves, a novel which "purports to be the journal of a British agronomist whose skeleton has been found entwined with that of a young woman at an experimental station in Colombia."

It certainly sounds intriguing, and Powers isn't joking when she calls it "esteemed by a commited minority." I've never heard of it before, and very few mentions of Dance of the Dwarves turn up online, though it does appear to have been used as the titular pretense of a grade-Z 1983 movie starring, yes... Peter Fonda.

Oh, where is Mystery Science Theater 3000 when you really need them?

Saturday, June 04, 2005


Masters of Atlantis

Everybody keeps telling me to read Charles Portis, and I still haven't got around to it. Why? Because I am a bad person.

Anyway, Newsday has a promising-sounding review by Scott McLemee about yet another Portis I Haven't Read:

Do the Rosicrucians still run those magazine ads where they offer to initiate you into the occult sciences by mail? I haven't seen one in years. But perhaps I am reading the wrong magazines. The ads seemed to have been designed in the 1930s and never updated. My hunch is that the Rosicrucian grandkids knew better than to mess with any part of the family business. There'll always be a market for ancient wisdom, reasonably priced.

The imaginary history of a similar organization, the Gnomon Society, is recounted in Charles Portis' comic masterpiece "Masters of Atlantis," first published in 1985 and currently available in paperback from Overlook Press.

Say... what did happen to those ads? Are those Rosicrucian guys all working for Jack Chick now?


The Ragged Trousered Authors

Guess what? Turns out that socialist writing doesn't pay!

I know, I know... who knew?

But it's not quite what you think. As today's Guardian reports:

Forty-five years ago, when British television dramatised Robert Tressell's classic novel of socialism The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Tressell's granddaughter Joan and her husband, Reg, were too poor to afford a TV set. Wellwishers had to buy them one so that they could watch.....Philanthropists has run through at least 111 editions since it was published in 1914, three years after Tressell's death. Eight stage adaptations have been made. Yet the family has received only the £25 originally paid to the author's daughter Kathleen by the publisher Grant Richards after he discovered that she kept the manuscript under her bed. Kathleen Noonan (Tressell's real surname) received no contract but signed a letter written by Richards which made her say: "You hand over all rights".

Well, at least she didn't submit it to a Twentysomething Contest....


Urine Luck!

It's strange enough to discover that there is a book dedicated to the medicinal quaffing of urine. But stranger still to discover that Golden Fountain: The Complete Guide to Urine Therapy actually has many competitors -- this appears to be a veritable genre.

One Amazon reviewer for Martha Christy's Your Own Perfect Medicine enthuses:

If you top up half a glass of urine with water, hold your breath, and then chug-a-lug, it goes down easily enough. It's a bit like green tea. There's little taste, and only a mildly unpleasant aftertaste which you quickly get used to. And you'll soon find that you can dispense with the water.... I began to feel better in every way. I had much more energy, a clearer head, more positive moods, easy bowel movements, was enjoying better sleep, became much more cheerful and so on. Yes! .... Whether you are healthy or ill, your own perfect heaven-sent tonic and medicine may just end up working wonders for you, as it has for me. In fact, I'm pretty sure it will. I think that Martha Christy deserves a toast!

Yes. And a breath mint.

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