Sunday, February 27, 2005


They're Slashing... um, Prices! Killing the Competition! Gouging the....

Wal-Mart dunnit.


My Big Fat List Price

Yesterday's Times of London has an intriguing review of Christopher Forth and Ana Carden-Coyne's Cultures of the Abdomen: Diet Digestion and Fat in the Modern World:

One hundred and fifty years ago an undertaker called William Banting wrote a bestselling weight-loss pamphlet recommending a diet of meat, small amounts of fruit and lashings of claret..... But credit, if that is the right word, for our modern attitude to fat and weight should go to Edward Smith, a more obscure contemporary of Banting, who was an inspector for the Poor Law Board. He was one of the first to apply the economic approach to dieting — energy in should be less than energy out.... to ensure that workhouse inhabitants had the smallest possible amount of fat on their bodies, and so detailed calculations were made to show how much fat was consumed by different sorts of work. Six hours on the treadmill, for instance, would use up 1lb.

The wonderful irony is that this system, designed to keep society’s poorest just on this side of starvation, meshed perfectly with middle-class ideas about the link between efficiency and health... the science of calorie-counting was born, along with insurance charts showing the ideal height-weight ratio, albeit applied rather less rigorously than in the workhouse.

I've had a longstanding fascination with Banting and the Atkins-like low-carb diet fad he set off in the 1860s -- his pamphlet circulated in other languages and kept reappearing in reprints for decades. But I hadn't realized the oddly... well, Dickensian roots of the dieting culture that he helped begin. Unfortunately, I won't be finding out any time soon, since Palgrave Macmillan is selling this 300-odd page book for $59.95...

What on earth justifies a price like that? Does it come with a steak dinner?

Saturday, February 26, 2005


The Knife Man

The Telegraph finds Wendy Moore's new biography The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery both horrifying and edifying:

There is much suppressing of gag reflexes and crossing of legs to be done when reading this book. Hunter's first task in London was to procure bodies for the anatomy school, which was in a flat in Covent Garden and must have been disgusting for the neighbours.... Hunter experimented with cross-breeding, and, some 70 or so years before On the Origin of Species was published, stated that animals had not necessarily remained the same as they were at "the time of creation". He kept exotic animals – leopards, lions, giraffes – roaming around the grounds of his Earl's Court estate, and boiled up their bones in his basement vat. He picked open eggs at every stage of gestation, trying to pinpoint the first moments of life. He implanted a cock's testicle in the stomach of a hen, without it being rejected.... in a bid to prove gonorrhoea an early stage of syphilis he injected a penis (almost certainly his own, although he didn't say so) with pus from a gonorrhoea patient. Sure enough, syphilitic symptoms followed, and Hunter wrote an influential paper stating that the two diseases were one and the same. In truth, the patient was suffering from both. Hunter's experiment took place while he was engaged to be married - which might explain why the wedding did not go ahead for seven years.

Moore's book isn't coming out in the US until September, but if you're already chomping at the mad-scientist bit then you can find it from British booksellers.

The lengths that Hunter went to to obtain freakish and odd skeletons was legendary, and included having an assistant unnervingly trail a giant around, the better to pounce the moment the fellow dropped dead. In a bit of medico-poetic justice, I recently came across a lengthy 1859 article by the Victorian eccentric Frank Buckland describing how he exhumed John Hunter's skeleton. Hunter had died spurned and reviled by colleagues, and in a fit of penance six decades later the Royal College of Surgeons and Buckland decided that perhaps they should inter their medical patriarch in Westmister Abbey. After over a week of shifting coffins about in Vault 3 of the crypt at St. Martin's in The Fields, Buckland found and opened Hunter's coffin. The sheer "effluvia" of the vault left Buckland ill for weeks afterwards.


Two in Bed or Somebody Dead

There's a write-up of the midcentury explosion of Australian pulp fiction -- who knew? -- in the Sydney Morning Herald. They interview Audrey Armitage, who wrote her pulp under the pen name K.T. McCall:

"We'd be given a picture of the cover and were given the title, along with a few words," Armitage says. "From that you prepared the plot and wrote the story. One of the rules of the game was that you started off with a body - either two in bed or somebody dead.

"There was a certain similarity to all my books."

The boom lasted from 1939 to 1959 as local publishers filled the gap left by the banning - inspired by morals campaigners - of US paperbacks. In pulp fiction's heyday new publishers sprang up everywhere and prospered - until the prohibition ended and cheaper imports flooded in again.

When they say "boom," they're not kidding: English expat Alan Yates wrote 297 books under the pen name Carter Brown, and racked up sales of 80 million copies. It's a staggering number, and it makes me wonder whether anyone has ever attempted a comparative overview of pulp fiction from different countries. If nothing else, a collection of pulp cover art from around the world would make for a pretty nifty coffee table book.


Life in the Woods

The Boston Globe reviews Donald Linebaugh's The Man Who Found Thoreau: Roland W. Robbins and the Rise of Historical Archaeology in America:

The 100th anniversary, in 1945, of Henry David Thoreau's sojourn at Walden Pond kindled interest in identifying the exact location of his cabin. And that interest, writes Donald W. Linebaugh in "The Man Who Found Thoreau," prompted Roland W. Robbins, a self-described "Thoreau Yankee," to undertake the search.

Robbins, a high school graduate from a local working-class family, brought little more to the task than "an intuitive knowledge of the world around him" and "his everyday skills as a handyman," writes Linebaugh, director of the archeological research program at the University of Kentucky. But over two seasons of digging, Robbins found first the chimney foundation and later the cellar hole of Thoreau's cabin -- and, Linebaugh suggests, spurred the development in New England of the historical archeology already underway at Williamsburg and Jamestown.

I'm looking forward to reading Linebaugh's book, and I certainly wouldn't want to take away from what sound like Robbins's considerable achievements. But that review, at least, is going to leave many people with the idea that nobody had "found" Thoreau before. Not true. I have in front of me a very handsome old volume -- creamy paper, haunting black and white photos, and pastoral gold-stamped blue cover -- titled Through The Year With Thoreau, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1917. In it, author Herbert W. Gleason explains:

During the fifteen years succeeding, the writer has made frequent pilgrimages to Concord, under all conditions of season and weather, searching out places and objects described by Thoreau, treading his footsteps so far as they were discoverable, and bringing back photographs of all that was most interesting.... It seems, but it is fact, that during all these fifteen years of frequent rambling among the fields and woods of Concord the writer has never yet met with a single other person bent on a similar errand....

There was a peculiar fascination in hunting down localities to which Thoreau had given names after an arbitrary method of his own, and without any regard whatever for their possible recognition by other people. Ripple Lake, Cardinal Shore, Bittern Cliff, Owl-Nest Swamp, Arethua Meadow, Curly-Pate Hill, Purple Utricularia Bay, Bidens Brook, Hubbard's Close,-- these and many similar names are capitalized and otherwise dignified in his journal records as if he were speaking of London or Paris or New York.

But Gleason does find them, along with the site of the cabin -- which indeed was already well known and marked by a pile of rocks. The most amusing revelation of Gleason's book is that when he meets elderly residents of Concord who still remember the writer, they remain entirely unimpressed by him. They regarded Thoreau as a lazy bastard.

Sunday, February 20, 2005



Well, it wouldn't just wouldn't be a Scottish newspaper without an utterly random Robert Burns story, would it?

From yesterday's Herald of Glasgow:

When artist Graham Fagen approached legendary British music producer Adrian Sherwood about a long-treasured scheme to match the words of Burns with the sounds of Jamaican reggae, it was only a matter of minutes before Sherwood – never afraid of an offbeat musical adventure – said yes.... [since then] he has produced a CD and a video documenting the musicians at work on dub versions of the lament and Auld Lang Syne.

I know, I know, you're asking: but can I get reggae Auld Lang Syne on iTunes? Well, no. In the mean time, may I suggest Senor Coconut's merengue rendition of Riders on the Storm?


Tractatus Logico-Merriam Websterus

Yesterday's Guardian reveals the sale of page proofs of a children's spelling dictionary by Ludwig Wittgenstein:

...Proofs of the 42-page guide annotated in the teacher's handwriting went on sale for £75,000. For it is rare and famous among collectors as Ludwig Wittgenstein's "other book" - only the second work published between hard covers in his lifetime by the thinker acknowledged as the pre-eminent genius of 20th century philosophy.

The proofs, which are being sold by Bernard Quaritch, the London antiquarian bookshop, have been taken to the US where a director of the firm, Ian Smith, is displaying them at the San Francisco book fair.... The most curious feature of the dictionary, titled Wörterbuch für Volksschulen, is that it was published in 1926, when he was 37, and written several years after the Tractatus [Logico-Philosophus] had begun to make him famous among philosophers...

Wittgenstein had decided to devote himself to teaching in rural Austrian schools, where the pupils were too poor to afford costly textbooks. "I had never realized dictionaries would be so mightily expensive," he complained. So I guess textbook publishers never really change...


Sheet Music

The Stranger details how Craig Thompson's graphic novel Blankets now has a soundtrack:

Sure, there are compilation albums to complement nonfiction titles, but Blankets , the latest CD from Portland ensemble Tracker , is a more ambitious undertaking. It is, to quote its striking, Tiffany-blue sleeve, a set of "recordings for the illustrated novel Blankets by Craig Thompson"...

The musical incarnation of Blankets was born from mutual admiration. Askew loved Thompson's first graphic novel, Good-bye, Chunky Rice , and befriended its publishers. So it came to pass that Thompson, who also resides in Portland, was introduced to Tracker's music on the highway to San Francisco. "That's such an amazing drive, through the mountains and then descending into sunny California," recalls Thompson. "And we were spacing out to the first couple Tracker albums, Polk (2002) and Ames (2001). It's great road-trip music, and that was when the idea was planted."

The literary soundtrack is an intriguing idea, and "match the author with their appropriate band" makes for a fine parlor game. But it's probably a good thing that Tracker and Thompson became friends first: when Camel recorded their similarly inspired 1975 instrumental album The Snow Goose, author Paul Gallico returned the compliment by siccing his lawyers on them.

Saturday, February 19, 2005


The Absent-Minded Oppressor

There's a fascinating article in this week's TLS about Bernard Porter's study The Absent-Minded Imperialists: What the British Really Thought About Empire. He sounds determined, through roll-up-your-sleeves archive-diving, to knock the Edward Said school of assumptions about Imperialism for a loop:

Porter... has sampled a huge collection of source materials: some seventy-eight newspapers, periodicals and school magazines from The Times to Tit-Bits via the Harrovian ; official publications ranging from Hansard to the Lord Chamberlain’s list of plays performed; over 100 memoirs; more than 130 “school textbooks” – a category that include Macaulay’s History of England ; and a further 200 contemporary publications, including many popular novels.... In the course of inquiry a number of the more ebullient claims about the place of Empire in popular culture are subjected to a crushing (and justified) dismissal.

The overall conclusion is heavily negative. Porter concedes that there is abundant evidence for Imperialist attitudes, the internalization of Imperial values and the passionate belief in an Imperial mission. But rather than being spread through British society it was heavily bunched. In working-class culture, it was practically invisible. Empire held almost no interest and evoked even less enthusiasm among working-class audiences, readers and voters....

Porter is sceptical of the fashionable claim that English identity was shaped by unflattering comparisons with non-European peoples. They were far more likely, if popular histories are any guide, to stress the contrast with their own “savage” forebears. He is dismissive of the suggestion, also highly fashionable, that twenty-first-century racism is the lineal descendant of Imperial attitudes, arguing that the majority view in Victorian England attributed English success to cultural not racial attributes: the English were in front, not on top. Modern-day racism was a post-colonial phenomenon.

Porter finds Imperialism highly concentrated among the ruling class, but that popular culture is much more of a mixed bag, one that can get presented inaccurately through selective quotation by later historians. My own experience at reading the periodical literature of the time certainly finds attitudes towards the empire were more complex than we give them credit for. To claim this hardly makes Victorians loveable paragons of enlightened progressivism: but it does make them less of a caricature and more recognizably like us. Many did not particularly agree with what their government did abroad, but they also meditated upon their role as an empire less than we might imagine: it was difficult and tiresome to think about something that was much bigger than they were. And anyway, they had their own problems and everyday lives to attend to.

I wonder if, a couple hundred years hence, some future Bernard Porter will be find much the same to be true of Americans today?


About the Size of It

Nicholas Blincoe gives a handy primer in the Daily Telegraph about book sizes:

The smallest standard size, "A" format, is easy enough: the size of the ordinary, now rather quaint-looking, paperback. "B" format, slightly larger, is used for trade paperbacks, where "trade" means: "Let's hope we can get away with charging £10 or £11, rather than £6.99, like a proper paperback." After A and B come Demy and Royal, often used for hardbacks. It gets more confusing when Royal and Demy are cropped to make squarer or slimmer-looking formats, something that Bloomsbury like to do, thereby creating the popular publishing industry game of "Guess the Size".... The one format no one ever forgets is known as "French flaps", a paperback edition with folded flyleafs. It is attractive, but so expensive it is almost never approved.

I'm fond of those smallish paperbacks that designer Edward Young created for Penguin in 1935: they fit nicely in a coat pocket. It's a size that one now tends to see in supermarket displays of carb-counting lists and used car price guides, but it would be good to see it brought back for literature -- and sold, as it originally was, to commuters.

Young himself, incidentally, went on for a harrowing tour of duty in the submarine service in World War II, and not only survived to return to publishing, but lived to a ripe old age before passing away a couple years ago.


Set Phasers on Alphabetize

The Daily Iowan reports that the University of Iowa library has just acquired the world's largest collection of sci-fi fanzines:

A private collector's 250,000 fanzine items arrived at the loading dock of the Main Library Dec. 30, thanks to UI alumnus Greg Beatty's serendipitous sighting of what one UI professor called a "treasure trove" of material. Beatty noticed the private collection's sale status while surfing eBay.... Private collector Mike Horvat of Stayton, Ore., decided to sell the lot in part because the storage facility where he housed the items was scheduled to be destroyed, [Professor] Latham said. The local fire department was planning to set the building ablaze and use it for extinguishing practice.

Though newspapers endlessly flog variations of the old "man sells his immortal soul for 99 cents" sort of eBay stories, what gets less attention is the degree to which eBay has become useful for historians and restorers. I find the experience of browsing all the way through, say, the 1800 - 1849 category of antiquarian books to be roughly akin to a day in Hay-on-Wye, particularly in that I am constantly finding stuff on eBay that I didn't know existed. Libraries tend to be much stronger at collecting hardcover books than old ephemera, cheap paper-bound dime novels and the like. Online auctions are great for precisely these sorts of undervalued items.

My latest random find on eBay: a yellow-paperbound 1896 dime novel titled Gipsy Reno, The Detective: A Marvelous Tale of Adventures. Reading it was odd, because -- unlike, say, a Henry James novel -- it is almost all dialogue and extremely terse description, and without any he-said she-said dialogue tags. In other words, it looks sort of like a Hemingway novel... but over 20 years before he started writing any. Hmm.

Sunday, February 13, 2005


Tricky Dick

Writing recently in The Guardian, James Sharpe describes how in writing his new book Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, he found the Turpin legend is not all it's cracked up to be. (For stateside readers, Turpin is sort of their 18th century Jesse James):

Intriguingly, what I could reconstruct of the historical Turpin was totally unlike his modern image. He was just another fairly unpleasant career criminal, and the 18th century had plenty of those. What puzzled me even more was that he attracted no real notoriety in the years after his death. Turpin is the only 18th-century criminal of whom anybody these days has heard. At the time, nobody seemed very interested in keeping his memory alive.

Enter William Harrison Ainsworth. About 20 years ago, the relevant committee at my university fingered me to deliver a public lecture on Turpin, and I had to sit down and find out why and how this nasty thug became a romantic hero.... The answer lay in the book that first shot Ainsworth to fame. This was Rookwood, first published in 1834 and instantly a massive success.

Ah, the vagaries of fame. I've come across Ainsworth books in used bookshops, but I've never actually read his stuff. Turns out I'm not only one. He's long out of print, and as Sharpe points out, "Turpin lives on, but Ainsworth, his great re-inventor, is forgotten. His career went downhill from about 1850, and he lies in an obscure grave in Kensal Green cemetery, where he was buried in 1882."

Reading Sharpe's account, I found myself wondering why, of all people, didn't Jack Sheppard become a folk figure instead? Here was a criminal whose Newgate Calender writeup really is the stuff of fiction: he was the original Man No Prison Could Hold.

Well, well: a look through Ainsworth's bibliography reveals that in 1839 he also published Jack Sheppard: A Romance, and illustrated by the formidable George Cruikshank, no less. It appears the original editions go for hundreds now, but later editions turn up at least until the 1940s, and they sell quite cheaply. It'll be interesting to see whether Sharpe's new study gets Ainsworth back in print -- or, perhaps, nudges some screenwriter into looking at Turpin or Sheppard's stories.


Dreaming in Flow Charts

The Portland Mercury reviews the recent Yale U Press publication of Daniel Raeburn's study Chris Ware:

Drawing comparisons to visual art, music, architecture, typography, theatre and music, he presents Ware as not just the future of comics, but as someone who has realized the truth of Art Spiegelman's aphorism: "The future of comics is in the past." Raeburn takes the reader on a very brief tour through the early history of comics and illustration--from Winsor McCay ( Little Nemo in Slumberland ) and George Herriman ( Krazy Kat ) to vintage Sears Roebuck catalogues--tracing Ware's inspiration and influences.... bolstered by countless full-color reproductions of Ware's comics and illustrations, from Quimby the Mouse to his latest projects, Rusty Brown and Building . While some of the reproductions suffer from a reduction in size, the informative sidebars add context and insight.

Sure, Chris Ware is an extravagant novelty purchase. But if you dream in complex flow charts and carry bologna sandwiches around in a Jimmy Corrigan lunch box, well, you're a nerd with a book to buy.

As soon as I saw Raeburn's book over at Prairie Lights I was intrigued; the way it places Ware's work in context with early 20th century graphic art (especially of the commercial art / clip ad variety, which Ware just nails dead-on in his work) is perhaps not surprising to anyone familiar with Ware's stuff, but seeing his work and his influences brought together in one place is a revelation nonetheless. The book is a little too small in its format... I have a sneaking suspicion this was YU Press's doing and not Raeburn's, since he's done newspaper-sized issues of The Imp before, so he's certainly not averse to large formats. Well, maybe someday there'll be a deluxe folio-sized reprint.

And now, if you don't mind, I have to go and pack my Jimmy Corrigan lunch box...

Saturday, February 12, 2005


You May Already Be A Loser!

The Boston Globe reviews Scott Sandage's Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. And as any Banvard's Folly readers might guess, I'm already halfway to the bookstore to get a copy:

Sandage, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has centered his book in an extensive documentation of how individual Americans failed in business through the 19th century, and what such failure meant to them, in an era when success went from being an individual affair to a national and social ethic.

...At the heart of the book, [are] the reports ["red books"] of agents of the early credit bureaus. The pioneer was the Mercantile Agency, founded in 1841 by Lewis Tappan, a prominent abolitionist and a founder of Oberlin College.... It came to use some 2,000 correspondents -- young Abraham Lincoln was one -- men of some prominence in their communities and with knowledge, presumably, of their neighbors. Their comments went beyond the subjects' commercial activities; they included personal gossip, moral assessments, and the like. One merchant's adulteries and a prospective divorce action by his wife were reported; of another firm, the comment read: ''The whole lot of the 'W[eatherby]s' are Bad Eggs." ''Tight as the bark on a black gum," went another, presumably laudatory.... The abolitionist William Henry Brisbane, who courted ruin by buying slaves and freeing them, is summed up in an agency report: ''never succeeded at anything." ''If red books did not tell the whole story," Sandage comments, ''they told stories that would sell."

I've come across some of these credit reports in my own meanderings through 19th century history, and they make for fascinating reading -- and by focusing upon them, I think Sandage is really onto something as a social historian. From the mid-19th century onwards, the weight of failure has grown rather heavier. Think about it: it used to be that, no matter how disreputable or broke you were, if you simply moved to a new town or a new state you could start over again. And now? A call to Equifax or a single search on Google...

Incidentally, there's a interview with Sandage in the "Failure" issue (#7, Summer 2002) by the fine folks at Cabinet magazine, which itself was just profiled this week in a much-deserved New York Times piece.


Bouncing Checks Down The Rabbit-Hole

TLS features one of the strangest and most curiously engrossing book excerpts I've seen in a while, from Jenny Woolf's new Lewis Carroll in His Own Account: The Complete Bank Account of the Reverend C. L. Dodgson. If it was April 1st, I'd imagined that someone was having me on with that book title -- but it really is an actual book, and a oddly revealing one at that:

Recently I discovered that Barclays Bank held, in their archive near Manchester, the entire C. L. Dodgson account... no one had ever seen Dodgson’s account, because no one had ever asked to. Forgotten and unread for over a century, it is the only major uncensored document about him that is known, and it makes revealing reading....

He began running into overdraft almost from the start. By the eighth transaction, his account was in the red..... Using a rough rule of thumb of £50 (modern) to £1 (Victorian), Dodgson’s £148 overdraft in June 1863 was the approximate equivalent of £7,500 now, and that was fairly typical....

Things deteriorated in the early 1880s, when Dodgson was around fifty. It is tempting to wonder whether he was experiencing a mid-life crisis at this point.... From September 25, 1883 till January 22, 1885, he was continuously overdrawn, often for substantial sums. His overdraft rose to over £666 in January 1884, money which, if only it had been a credit, would have bought him a very nice house at the time.... Perhaps predictably, neither the surviving diaries nor the correspondence refers to this matter at all: this was clearly one of the areas which his family wished to remove from the public gaze. From that time onward, Dodgson survived mostly on his income from publications, with overdrafts to tide him over until each February, when the annual payment came in.

And no, Woolf says, there are no hush payoffs to angry parents of little girls -- in fact, it looks like Alice Lidell's father earned about about six times as much as Carroll did -- though there are a number of drama school payments and the like for actresses that Carroll took a liking to. And with his latest royalty payments constantly heading right back out to pay off rolling debts, it seems that one of the most unusual authors in the English language had some very typical authorial finances.

This is one of the better examples of the scholarly titles which approach an author from the most absurdly specialized angle, yet somehow manage to tell you something new about the person. (A much larger academic genre would be absurdly specialized books that tell you nothing.) An old book analyzing Walt Whitman's opera reviews for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle also comes to mind; I picked that one up off a university library shelf for a laugh, and damned if it wasn't pretty good.

Still, for all the pure voyeuristic fun of Woolf's study -- a little like sneaking into an author's office and prying into their filing cabinet -- I am left slightly unsettled. This account record was not among Carroll's personal effects: it was in a bank manager's safe at Barclay's. At what point, exactly, did one's private bank records become public information? Just curious.



A Guardian article seems to indicate that the offgassed fumes of cheap laminates and brushed chrome causes psychosis in crowds:

When Ikea opened its biggest British store in north London, the worst that might have been expected was the odd frayed temper in the store's legendary queues. But when the Swedish furniture giant opened its doors in an industrial park in Edmonton at midnight yesterday, staff were met with a situation they had not bargained for. More than 6,000 descended, attracted by the promise of sofas, dining tables and bed frames at huge discounts....

Nine ambulances were called and three people taken to hospital with minor injuries. A fourth man suffered chest pains, while others were left with crush injuries and shock....

Kerry Christian, 38, from Edmonton, sprained her ankle after being pushed over. "People were fighting over the sofas in the back of the store," she said. "Someone pulled a wooden mallet and threatened my friend. One person had one end of a sofa and another had the other end. They were both shouting 'mine, mine'."... It is not the first time the opening of an Ikea store has led to violence. Three people were killed and 16 injured in a stampede when the furniture company offered vouchers at an opening in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last September.

Here's what I'd like to know: Why was that one gentleman carrying a wooden mallet on his person? What, was he the roadie for a travelling circus? A professional croquet player? A veal-tenderizing hobbyist?

The mind reels at the possibilities here.


Yee-Hah! (Wha?...)

The Daily Telegraph (reg. req.) reviews Tony Gould's new book Don't Fence Me In: From Curse to Cure, Leprosy in Modern Times:

The terrible truth is that leprosy is a most unromantic disease which rots the flesh of poverty-stricken black or brown people in distant lands. Thus it took some time to work out why Tony Gould's biography was so compelling, until one realised that his main subject was not so much the disease but an extended meditation on human goodness – why should people dedicate their lives to caring for the most miserable and oppressed of all?....

Father Damien arrived at the Hawaiian leper colony of Molokai in 1873 to find almost 1,000 "unfortunate outcasts of society" living in makeshift huts, the smell of whose bodies, mixed with the foul odour of their festering sores was apparently "unbearable to a newcomer". The burials in the graveyard were perfunctory, with corpses frequently interned so shallowly that scavenging dogs and wild pigs soon exposed their putrid flesh....

Inevitably, for his years of work comforting them, Father Damien himself eventually got leprosy and died a medical martyr.

Though not mentioned in the Telegraph review, Gould previously authored A Summer Plague: Polio and Its Survivors, and is indeed himself a polio survivor. I don't see a US release for his latest listed on Amazon, though Barnes & Noble has a undated placekeeper listing by St Martin's set aside for Gould under the title A Disease Apart, which does strike me as a rather less confusing title.

Oh, imagine the shock all those country music fans are in for if they pick up the British edition...

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Attack of the Killer Headline Writers

It must be a slow day and a fast pint for the Guardian headline writers, in section titled SPECIAL REPORT: GLOBAL FISHING CRISIS, to come up with this one:

Killer US Goldfish Sparks Fears Of River Bloodbath.

Gentlemen, if you tire of London, I'm sure there's a job waiting for you at the New York Post.


Graveyard Stew

A couple weeks ago, Kate Colquhoun reviewed Italian essayist Aldo Buzzi's collection The Perfect Egg in The Daily Telegraph, and it sounds appetizing in a weird way:

It is rare for a list of contents to feel seductive, but here is one well worth the pause, ranging in its delightful promises from a consideration of Sopa de lima to rabbit and polenta (a combination that Brillat-Savarin observed "goes down like a letter in the postbox") and stuffed pigeon. Interspersed with these loftier subjects are thoughts on overcooked pasta (served with Bolognese sauce, on a cold plate), Graveyard stew (I won't spoil it for you), cooked ham with pineapple, crow soup and the humble sandwich.

Since then I've looked and noticed that Buzzi's book is nowhere to be found in the US.

(And now, a pause for some exasperated cursing.)

The Royal Mail does pretty well off me, what with all the airmail postage I wind up paying to them. Yes, not only is Buzzi's book nowhere to be found in the US , neither are his other books, save for a few remaindered copies of Journey to the Land of Flies. It's a shame, really, to think that there's no market in the States for a book of clever writing about food and... oh, wait, I forgot. That is a market here.

Perhaps someone can pick up Mr. Buzzi?


Patriot Acts

Sound familiar?:

[The] Government panicked. It suspended habeas corpus, allowing the courts to imprison suspects without charge, and a High Treason Bill was rushed through Parliament. The Bill condoned indefinite detention for suspected terrorists on the grounds that “it may be inconvenient in many such cases to proceed forthwith to the trial of such criminals, and at the same time of evil example to suffer them to go at large”.

"The year," the Sunday Times of London goes on to note in its review of Jessica Warner's new biography John The Painter, "was not 2002, or 2005, but 1777" -- and it was in London. John Aitken's attack on a highly flammable London naval warehouse filled with rope set off a string of copycat arsons by other British sympathizers with American rebels, though the Times review describes him as more of an opportunist than a idealogue -- though occasionally an itinerant housepainter, his primary career seems to have been in armed robbery. But all London fires afterwards were suspect; notes the Times: "Americans, and their sympathisers, were blamed. America was denounced as what we would now call a terrorist state, part of an axis of evil that included France. "

It is the fashion among some American politicians to wonder why our Bill of Rights is so concerned with the rights of the accused, and not of victims. This may give them a clue why, if indeed such people are capable of having a clue at all. And that is this: that our founding fathers were criminals, one and all, so far as the British government was concerned. You can see why matters of crime and punishment were still very much on their minds, for every one of them had been a marked man. Their fate, had they been caught, would not have been much better than Aitken's:

He was hanged from a mizzen mast at Portsmouth, the scene of his first crimes, and dangled 60ft in the air above 20,000 spectators. His soiled clothes were then stripped from the body and sold as lucky charms. Then his corpse was covered with tar, for exhibition in the gibbet or iron cage used as a spectacular form of entertainment and deterrence. He swayed above the entrance to Plymouth harbour for several years before being finally brought down as a nuisance.

You'll recall, incidentally, how well suspending habeas corpus worked for the British in winning that war with the Americans.

Saturday, February 05, 2005


The Most Boring Literary Crime Ever

Want to plagiarize, but need a source no one has actually read? How about using a textbook?

[Murray Bail's Eucalyptus] so beguiled Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman that they are starring in the film adaptation, in production near Bellingen this week. London's Evening Standard opined:
"You won't have read anything like it."

But a Singleton man, John Bennetts, felt he
had read something like Murray Bail's Eucalyptus. He found that several passages from Bail's novel were word-for-word matches with an out-of-print textbook, Eucalypts Vols One and Two by Stan Kelly, George Chippendale and Robert Johnston, published in 1969 and 1978.

Mr Bennetts said he discovered eight "direct lifts" from the textbook....

One such sample lift, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald: "The trunk has a short stocking of greyish bark at the base, the upper bark smooth, spotted. Its juvenile foliage is conspicuous and attractive in the undergrowth."

People, people, people: if you're going to steal, steal something interesting.

Actually, reporter Malcolm Knox renders the story as a little more complex than it may appear. The author's excuse of a notes mix-up is believable in this case. But the crowning quote comes when Knox tracks down the author of the original text.

Stan Kelly died recently, but the author of the text in Eucalypts, George Chippendale, now 83 and living in Canberra, said he had read Bail's novel and enjoyed it. Asked if he recognised his own words, he said: "Not at all!"

All's well that ends well, I suppose.

Friday, February 04, 2005


Broad Sides and Wide Bottoms

The Daily Telegraph is feeling marginalized:

The pages of Tim Parks's new novel, Rapids, just published by Secker & Warburg, look distinctly odd. The bottom margin is more than twice as deep as the one at the top of the page: it suggests that the pages have been cut incorrectly.

"Absolutely not," says a spokesperson at Random House. Their new designer believes that the top margin should be about 30 per cent of the white space whereas the bottom one should be between 60 and 70 per cent because "the eyes move down the page"....

I've seen a number of books from the first couple decades of the 20th century that have similar margins, not to mention some awfully wide side margins as well. It's a handy format for marking up a book: a wide margin operates as a sort of additional column of implied text, waiting to be filled by generations of readers with penciled-in notations. You still see it in textbooks and Dummies guides and the like, but not much in either fiction or nonfiction narratives. Perhaps we should bring it back...


The (Ghost) Town of Books

News comes from the Star-Telegram (thanks to MobyLives for the link) that Larry McMurtry is shuttering his Archer City bookstore indefinitely:

In the latest plot twist of McMurtry's off-and-on romance with his hometown, the author of Lonesome Dove now says he will padlock his small-town bookplex, Booked Up, at year's end for a "sabbatical"....

Booked Up sprawls across four buildings around the courthouse square: 20,000 square feet filled with 200,000 used and rare books, or about 100 books for every resident of Archer City.... Until this week, the store hours had been intermittent. Visitors came to Archer City, only to find the store closed except Thursdays through Saturdays and "by appointment."....

Last year he told Texas Monthly that he was tired of cedar allergies and of driving to Fort Worth for a good steak. He couldn't imagine growing old in his hometown, he said. "I'm very social," he was quoted as saying. "I like to go out at night. I like to sit in a nice room and look at beautiful women. I don't want to just sit on my back porch drinking scotch, and there isn't much more to do in Archer City."

Very social? Good lord, man, what are you in used bookselling for?

But seriously: I know that hopeful comparisons have been made over the years between Archer City and the Welsh book town Hay-on-Wye. It's nice to think that such a thing could have happened in Texas too, but... well, as one old saying from Hay's neck of the woods goes, "when the sky falls, we can catch larks with our hands."

My brief time living in Hay-on-Wye made me ponder why it succeeded so well. There have certainly been attempts at recreating its model elsewhere. Here's the problem: you can't just dump hundreds of thousands of books any old place and expect it to become a Book Town. And for these purposes, Archer City is indeed any old place.

Hay was an ancient market town that hit the skids. That means it had lots of very serviceable old storage and retail buildings going cheaply, none of which had been "improved" by modernity, and which proved to be splendid for packing with old books. Also, although it feels quaint and isolated, Hay is in fact only half an hour out of a medium-sized city (Hereford) with train service from London, and with two airports (Birmingham and Cardiff) within 60 miles. There's bus service from Hereford directly into Hay. Plus, the surrounding countryside is beautiful.

Archer City? It's two hours from DFW airport, and you Can't Get There From Here: no bus, no train service. And god knows what else you'd be going to Dallas for.

If I were to guess, I'd say that that if a Hay-scale book town (I know, I know, Nevada City is trying) ever arises in the US, it will be in a neglected old mill town -- you need some good old 19th-century brick commercial buildings sitting about -- with a densely built walkable downtown. It will be within a hour's drive from a city with an airport... preferably a city served by Jet Blue or Southwest, since bookworms like me are cheapskates... oh, and within reach of one of the rail or bus corridors, since a lot of us are crap drivers. And it wouldn't hurt to have some bucolic rural landscape outside of town.

I'd lay my bets on something on New England. Any suggestions?


Glass Half Empty

The original architecture of British pubs is disappearing at an alarming rate, according to a new book cited by The Guardian:

Only 250 original Victorian pubs - complete with antique-tiled exterior, stained-glass windows and roaring log fire - have survived unscathed from a 30-year wave of redevelopment, say the authors of a new book on pub heritage....

Travel writer Bill Bryson, who wrote the foreword to the English Heritage book Licensed to Sell: The History and Heritage of the Public House, said: "It's easy to dismiss a lost pub sign here or a refurbished Victorian interior there as not worth worrying about. But it is, to every last, minor detail."

Though the general retreat of pubs from British towns has been a matter of concern before -- witness their governmental Pub is Hub scheme -- there is something particularly melancholy in watching the Victorian ones fade away. One of the most curious stories from BBC News in the late 90s was the discovery of a veritable King Tut's Tomb of British pubs :

A Devon pub which has not changed since last orders were called more than 30 years ago is to be re-opened as a museum. Now the search is on for the American servicemen who made The Valiant Soldier their regular during the war years. The pub in the village of Buckfastleigh has remained untouched since the last pint was pulled in 1965.

Beer glasses remain unwashed, there is still old currency in the till, a darts match has been left unfinished and unopened bottles of wine and beer are stashed behind the bar... [Local] Mr Cross says the war years were definitely the pub's busiest time when the village was thriving. "It's like stepping back in time. It still smells like a pub, not an unpleasant smell, but the smell of smoke and beer," he said.

The building's landlady still lived upstairs until 1997; apparently she just never got around to cleaning the old pub up. So I now cling to the hope that somewhere out there is a dust-covered Miss Havisham who inherited a slumbering Victorian pub from a negligent great-grandmother who closed it up back when Disraeli was in office, and where the beer glasses and dice cups still sit on the tables abandoned mid-game, like an alcoholic Marie Celeste.

I know, I know: unrealistic. But it's a pleasant thought.

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