Sunday, May 29, 2005


It's a Really Slow Read

Now here's something that caught my eye on eBay: a book bound in tortoise shell.

A little digging around reveals some similar tortoise-shell Bibles, and this note in P.M. Hough's 1901 book Dutch Life in Town and Country mentions the practice:

Singing was one of the principal social pastimes of the Dutch nation during the eighteenth and far into the nineteenth century, and the North Hollander was especially fond of vocal music. When young girls went to spend the evening at the house of a friend they always carried with them their 'Liederboek '—a volume beautifully bound in tortoise-shell covers or mounted with gold or silver. The songs contained in these books were a strange mixture of the gay and grave. Jovial drinking-songs or 'Kermisliedjes' would find a place next to a 'Christian's Meditation on Death.' It was an olla podrida, in which everybody's tastes were considered. Recitations were also a feature of these little gatherings.

Has anyone else seen these? I've seen other some odd bookbinding materials before -- a design book bound in curved sheets of metal, for starters -- and I own a 19th century poetry volume bound in some sort of porcelain-like material, though I'll be damned if I can figure out what it is. It didn't even work very well as a tureen at Thanksgiving.


Hawaii Calls

The San Francisco Chronicle profiles David Stannard, whose new book Honor Killing delves into a once-infamous but now long-overlooked 1932 rape case and susequent murder in Honolulu:

"...What we knew about Hawaii was this wonderful time of (the radio show) 'Hawaii Calls,' Bing Crosby and beach boys," he says. "It was a whole world operating like a false facade. Behind it were incredible slums and ghettos, where the impoverished -- a jumble of nonwhite races -- were packed in terrible conditions. Honolulu had both of these."

In the early morning of Sunday, Sept. 12, 1931, those two worlds collided when Thalia Massie, the socially connected young wife of a Navy officer, accused five nonwhite island men of gang-rape. Nearly 74 years later, Stannard's new book, "Honor Killing: How the Infamous 'Massie Affair' Transformed Hawai'i," deconstructs the racially charged spectacle that followed -- a troubled accuser, flimsy evidence and a hung jury, the subsequent vigilante kidnapping and murder of one of the rape suspects, native Hawaiian Joseph Kahahawai Jr. .... Associated Press editors voted the story one of the top world news events in 1932, and the single most important criminal trial in the country.

Though a suppressed report by the Pinkerton Agency concluded that neither the rape charges nor identification of the 5 suspects stood up to scrutiny, the governor of Hawaii commuted the murder charge in the "honor killing." As the Chronicle article and this pair of stories by Honolulu Star Bulletin point out, Stannard believes the resulting racial uproar may have been an important catalyst in native rights movements on the islands.


Loaded Envelopes

The Guardian's Hay Festival blog has this tale from Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow about the oddly ritualistic manner of government leaking in the UK:

Among his stories is an insight into how leaks work; at least that of the attorney general’s advice on the legality of the Iraq war (published simultaneously here on Guardian Unlimited the night Channel 4 led on the story). It arrived at Jon Snow’s house via five people carrying brown envelopes. None of the five had loaded the envelopes nor knew what they contained. Only one carried the advice.

It was not the full text but just three pages of summary. The next day, Snow challenged the prime minister: “Now we’ve got the summary, will you publish the rest?” Blair retorted: “No doubt you’ve got the rest.” Snow took the chance: “So will you publish or shall I?” - and his bluff wasn’t called.

Incidentally, Bill Deedes -- the model in Scoop for Evelyn Waugh's hapless journalist William Boot, and still alive and kicking at age 92 -- has also put in an appearance at the festival.

Saturday, May 28, 2005


And Then The Defendant Shot Me With a Poison Dart From His Aston Martin

The BBC reports that the family of Ian Fleming has gotten tangled up in a legal feud over a " 'worthless' 5 foot strip of grass."


Bush Unmakes History

Inside Higher Ed notes that the Bush Administration is attempting to kill off The National Historical Publications and Records Commission:

The budget of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission has never exceeded $10 million. A major grant from the commission might not exceed $100,000. This is small change in the context of the federal budget — a rounding error would be larger than the agency’s budget. But the funds have been vital to scholars who are editing and publishing the documents of American history.

President Bush proposed eliminating all support for the program this year....

The article notes that projects supported by NHPRC include the First Federal Congress Project, which makes publishes records from the earliest Congress (it "has enormous importance in American history, having passed the Bill of Rights and the laws creating the first three executive departments, and setting the course of the legislative branch") , and editing and publishing the papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.


Before Darwin -- and After and After and....

If you enjoyed H. Allen Orr's fine takedown of Intelligent Design in this week's New Yorker, then you'll also want to check out Keith Thomson's new book The Watch on the Heath, which I see is being published this week in the US by Yale University Press under the title Before Darwin. New Scientist says in its glowing review :

Beautifully written and epigrammatic, it is full of characters of talent, disputatious skill and wit. The "watch" represents William Paley's famous argument for the existence of God: if you stumbled on a watch, abandoned on heathland in Paley's example, and investigated its moving parts and what they did in measuring time and date, you would reasonably conclude that someone must have made it.

Paley's "Natural Theology" argument (and likewise those of William Buckland and Thomas Dick) may seem like a historical artifact, but Intelligent Design is their old wine in new bottles. And, as Orr's article points out, to counter them it is crucial to engage them: they are not easily caricatured Bible-waving science-hating phobics, and indeed never have been. The original proponents of Natural Theology were dedicated geologists, astronomers, and the like; so are some of their modern counterparts. Scoffing at them won't work.

Friday, May 27, 2005



Yes, it's Hay Festival time again. The Guardian (which sponsors the festival) has a generously long write-up of the festival and its history by Aida Edemariam. My favorite Hay-on-Wye folk Richard Booth, Diana Blunt and Derek Addyman -- all of whom figure in Sixpence House -- turn up in various parts of the article.

And, as always, any festival article is good for a few author anecdotes:

There was Bill Clinton, in 2001. Florence is dismissive of this as an achievement - "he stands up on his hind legs and talks anywhere", especially for the fee of £100,000 - but the town has not forgotten the buzz he brought to their corner of Wales. The crowds were five deep. People held up their babies. They also booed, when he was late.

Some old-timers carp that the festival isn't as much fun as it used to be, when everyone drank together at the Swan, and you could talk about football with an unknown Nick Hornby into the early hours, but Hay in festival time is still a town of surreal late-night encounters.... Most performers do hang around, and tents are difficult places in which to stand on your dignity. Though some do try. Technical director Paul Elkington remembers hearing Jeffrey Archer say grandly to a fan, "I don't sign paperbacks." "You miserable bastard," said Elkington under his breath. Archer heard and complained to [artistic director] Florence, who said Archer would not be asked again.

The festival highlights include the inspired pairing of Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens at 9:50 tonight.... late enough to allow plenty of time for fermented nourishment over at Kilvert's beforehand.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Author Meets Wolves, Publishers -- Prefers Wolves

This has got to be one of the weirdest stories of the week, and yet this AP wire doesn't appear to have been picked up anywhere outside of the Boston Globe and few other MA papers:

A state appeals court yesterday upheld a $22.5 million award to a Massachusetts woman who sued the publisher of her memoir about surviving the Holocaust with the help of a pack of wolves that gave her food and protection. The author, Misha Defonseca, lost her home even after the book about her harrowing childhood in Europe during World War II became a best-seller overseas.

Defonseca and a coauthor sued the publisher, Mount Ivy Press, and its founder, Jane Daniel, for breach of contract in 1998. They accused Daniel of keeping royalties that belonged to them and hiding the money in offshore accounts. A judge later ordered Mt. Ivy and Daniel to pay a total of $32.4 million to Defonseca and her ghostwriter, Vera Lee of Newton, who was Daniel's friend and neighbor before the court battle.

Whoa, whoa... $32.4 million? Cared for by a pack of wolves?


The AP report gives barely any details, though I found at least a few more on this press release by Defonseca's lawyers at Sullivan & Worcestor:

The verdict and the decision on triple damages are the culmination of several years' legal effort by Defonseca and her law firm, Sullivan & Worcester LLP. The firm has pursued Defonseca's case without payment because of the compelling circumstances of Defonseca's life and her victimization at the hands of Mt. Ivy.

First published by Mt. Ivy Press in 1997, "Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years" was a bestseller in France, Italy and Quebec, and caught the eye of movie producers, including Walt Disney Studios. However, it sold only 5,000 copies in the United States because Mt. Ivy terminated marketing efforts, including a segment on the Oprah Winfrey Show, in support of the book in 1997. Misha Defonseca now hopes to tell her story in the United States by reprinting the book and selling its movie rights.

I see that the book is also selling well under the title Surviving With Wolves on Amazon UK -- though, oddly, I don't see any newspaper coverage or reviews of it over there, either. Incidentally: has there ever been an actual substantiated case of a child being tended to by wolves? I mean, outside of Kipling stories?

Just wondering.


And, er, Eric Clapton is God?

Today's Globe and Mail has a review of Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With the Beatles, by their longtime roadie and aide Tony Bramwell, and commences with a fine anecdote...

1968. John Lennon, recently inspired by LSD, calls an emergency meeting of the Beatles at their Apple headquarters in London.

"I've got something very important to tell you," Lennon says. "I am Jesus Christ. I have come back again. This is my thing."

"Right," responds Ringo Starr, well-used to the eccentricities of this brilliant Beatle. "Meeting adjourned. Let's go have some lunch."

At the restaurant, Lennon, unbowed, is approached by a fan eager to meet John. "Actually, I'm Jesus Christ," he insists. "Well," replies the fan, "I still liked your last record."




Saturday, May 21, 2005


Welcome to Iowa

When my family moved into an old Victorian in Iowa City last fall, we were in for a bit of a shock. Jen and I showed up at the bank for the usual interminable signing of final mortgage and deed documents, when they matter-of-factly handed us a folder filled everything relating to our parcel of property -- court records, valuations, lot maps, even arrest records -- dating from the founding of the Iowa Territory in 1838 up to the present. And not photocopies, either -- they were original documents. They showed that though the house is a century old, we were only the third owners: both families previous to us had lived here for about a half-century apiece.

I was staggered. "This is for us?" I asked. State law, I was told. Almost unique in all the US, Iowa homeowners are handed over the complete historical documentation of their property upon purchase, and in the original yellowing copies -- so please do not lose them.

I've often thought of that moment since then. It gives this state a different feel than any other; you are never just passing through here. The presumption is that from this point onward, you are an Iowan; you are a part of its history and entrusted to preserve it accordingly.

Which brings me a piece in today's Telegraph (reg. req.) by novelist Julie Myerson, about her latest work, Home: The History of Everyone Who Ever Lived In Our House -- just issued in paperback, it's a nonfiction delving into the history of her London home:

When, two or three years ago, I told people I was going to find out everything possible about everyone who'd ever lived in our 130-year-old house, and write a book about it, some of them told me it was a brilliant idea, but others asked me what I would do if I found out something really awful had happened in it - a murder, for instance?.... In fact, it was the very ordinariness of our home - a medium-sized, red-brick, Victorian terraced house in Clapham - that made its history beguiling to me. That, and the fact that no one seemed to have bothered to dignify an ordinary house with its own biography.

It was while researching my novel Laura Blundy that I stumbled on a census for 1881 and discovered that our house had once been home to a Victorian "author and journalist" and his wife and three children aged 13, 11 and nine - the exact ages of my own at the time. The idea of this spooky parallel family was irresistible to me. I had to know more.

The story of a house, like George Howe Colt's The Big House: A Century In The Life of an American Summer Home, or even a group of houses (e.g. Edward Platt's fascinating Leadville) is a very small genre, but it's an idea that I frankly adore. Unfortunately, Myerson's book doesn't appear to have a US publication, so you'll have to find it on Amazon UK or as an import order at Powell's, who have it listed for $21.50....


Paperback Wanker

It's a dirty story about a dirty man, and.... yep, LA Weekly reviews Sin-A-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties, complete with the varied fates of authors of one-handed fiction:

Pornographic prime mover Earl Kemp’s San Diego–based Greenleaf Classics put out sleaze opuses by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Harlan Ellison and Georges Bataille and got him a cell at Terminal Island, where he became almost iconic as the Pornographer Arrested by Police. In the entertaining and still-stimulating collection Sin-a-Rama, the ways in which the various authors dealt with their work emerge with radical variety, just as different individuals treat their more basic instincts. Author William Knoles’ suicide and writer Ron Haydock’s hitchhike hit-and-run death contrast with the success of Robert Silverberg, who diversified into texts on archaeology and science and then on to science fiction.

It could be worse. After all, Horatio Alger preceded his writing career with a stint as a child-molesting priest ...


Red Romer Red Romer!

Ed Park's got a great Village Voice VLS account of Crippled Detectives, Or The War of the Red Romer, an extraordinary novella written in 1978 by a 7-year old Lee Tandy Schwartzman. It is a veritable modern The Young Visiters, Or Mr. Salteena's Plan:

This is how it goes with Crippled Detectives, a breakneck, brilliantly bizarre book packed with globe-trotting set pieces (South Dakota—Paris—the "hot Congo"), stories-inside-stories, fourth-wall demolition, and some of the most impossibly absurd dialogue legally available. (In the pièce de résistance, someone starts speaking in shapes.) There are shadowy sorrows, too, once we learn to read between the lines—but I'm getting ahead of the story.

As much as any book I know, Crippled Detectives transcribes the dream state, not just in its flights of fancy and logic-jumping juxtapositions, but in the mutating narrative tactics, the topsy-turvy focus (the climax is over in a flash, whereas digressions distend to marvelous effect), and especially the inconsistent point of view: "They" and "we" trade places, and a character named Lee is also sometimes "I." Thick with incident but ever on the verge of oblivion, the story contains its own negation. Things happen, but don't. For example, the titular heroes are only nominally crippled (hit by a falling tree or paralyzed by jellyfish poison, they're ambulatory again in no time) and engage in minimal sleuthing. "After they got better they were not well," runs a typical line. Yet contradiction becomes a heady virtue, and Crippled Detectives is a wonderfully sustained performance, a triumph of authorial impulse that never bores or confuses even as it runs circles around the helpless, happy reader.

Though Crippled Detectives was published by the magazine Stone Soup in the 1970s, and can also be found on the Stone Soup website here -- the author seemed to have vanished altogether, and the VLS article tracks down her heartbreaking and fascinating story.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Book Excerpt of the Year

Someone at the Times Literary Supplement deserves a case of wine for including an entire transcript of a frontal lobotomy operation within their review of Trepanation: History, Discovery and Theory. The doctor is Walter Freeman, the patient a 24-year old laborer named Frank, and the whole thing is the weirdest book excerpt I have ever seen. Read on...

Doctor: Are you scared?

Frank: Yeh.

Doctor: What of?

Frank: I don't know doctor.

Doctor: What do you want?

Frank: Not a lot. I just want friends. That's all. How long's this going on?

Doctor: Two hours.

Frank: Two hours? I can't last that long. (Squeezes hand)

Doctor: How do you feel?

Frank: I don't feel anything, but they're cutting me now.

Doctor: You wanted it?

Frank: Yes, but I didn't think you would do it awake. Oh Gee whiz, I'm dying. Oh doctor. Please stop. Oh, God, I'm goin again. Oh, oh, oh. Ow (Chisel). Oh, this is awful. Ow. (he grabs my hand and sinks his nails into it) Oh, God, I'm goin, please stop.

Doctor: Frank?

Frank: Yeh?

Doctor: What work have you done?

Frank: A little bit of everything.

Doctor: Such as what?

Frank: Brakeman on a railroad. That was a good job. Ow . . . and a material checker . . . Ow . . . stop, unh, unh, uhn. (The doctor records that at this point the patient is scarcely controllable, even though fastened down to the operating table) I liked that one, too. Hey listen, cut it out for God's sake. Oh, quit, I'm goin. What's goin on? . . . Hey, give me some air. (The towels have slipped a bit) Hey, what's goin on? Oh, please stop.

Doctor: Relax!

Frank: I can't relax. Oh, what's going on here? (Rongeur (a device for removing bone)) (Admits he feels no pain) Hey this is . . . Oh, you know I can't go on. Oh, I'm having trouble breathing. Oh, stop experimenting.

Doctor: Stop what?

Frank: I don't know. How long's this goin on? Fix it up. I'm having trouble breathing.

Doctor: Feel better now?

Frank: No, I'm getting worse. I'm goin. Oh, come on, will you?

Doctor: How much is a hundred minus seven?

Frank: Ninety-three, Unh, unh, Ow! (Tapping) eighty-six, seventy-nine, seventy-two, sixty five (Drilling) Ow! I don't know. Give me some air. Air, Air.

Ow! Hey, Cut it out. Cut it out! (Trembling hands still cold. He is quick to grab my hand when I try to take it away)

Doctor: How do you feel?

Frank: Yes, sir. Click.

Doctor: What's it like?

Frank: Oh, a pickle puffle phl, hey stop it will ya?

Doctor: You're grabbing me awful tight.

Frank: Am I? I can't help it. How long does this go on?

(Right lower cuts)

Doctor: Glad you're being operated?

Frank: Yes, it makes me feel better.

Doctor: Why all the fuss?

Frank: Oh, I can't help it. I can't breathe. Hey, what are you doing there?

(Right upper cuts)

Doctor: Feel all right now?

Frank: Yeh, I can't breathe. Hey, when is this thing over?

Doctor: What will you do when you are well?

Frank: Oh, go back to work. Oh, I can't stand it.

Doctor: What job?

Frank: Oh, it's a good job, brakeman with a railroad.

Doctor: Scared?

Frank: Yeh.

Doctor: Sing God Bless America.

Frank: (He starts rather high and does a couple of lines, then grunts and continues his chatter) Ow! That's hot. What's going on here? (Warm saline) (Left lower cut) (Left upper cut) (Stabs left)

Doctor: Was that hot?

Frank: No, it wasn't hot.

Doctor: How do you feel?

Frank: Yes, yes.

(10.15 a.m. He is moving his head about during the stabs) (Stabs right) (Voice suddenly becomes muffled)

Doctor: Who's operating?

Frank: I dunno.

Doctor: Are you uncomfortable?

Frank: No.

Doctor: Why do you jerk around?

Frank: I don't know.

Doctor: Can you breathe?

Frank: Yes. (He thumps with his hands which are now quite warm and pink)

Now, let me first admit that I had my doubts about this book review when I noticed that the book's authors include one "Stanley Finger" and -- so help me -- a certain "C.U.M. Smith." Or that the TLS reviewer for Trepanation is... wait for it... "Andrew Scull." At that point I threw my hands up and said -- alright, this is a pretty good wheeze directed at Jack El-Hai's The Lobotomist.

But damned if I didn't find that both the book and reviewer ... do in fact exist.

Saturday, May 14, 2005


Born Drunk

Today's Washington Post (reg. req.) reviews Janet Golden's Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a history that serves as a reminder -- one that, growing up in the post-FAS era, I find mind-boggling -- that at one time the influence of alcohol or just about anything else on fetuses was not well understood.

The book explains how laypeople and doctors alike were hesitant to accept that alcohol might be dangerous. Indeed, not until 1973 did researchers first note fetal alcohol syndrome's characteristics in children -- small size, developmental deficiencies and particular facial characteristics. And a warning on alcoholic beverages advising pregnant women not to drink didn't exist until 1989.... Many people, during and before the 1970s had a "perception of the womb as a protective barrier not easily breached," so they found it hard to believe that alcohol could do any damage; research into the dangers of alcohol and other substances soon revealed that the womb was actually not as tough a shield as they once believed.

I suppose. That said, it was very well understood by then that the fetus could indeed be vunerable -- the thalidomide scandal of a decade earlier was certainly no secret. (Although there's a popular notion that the US was saved from thalidomide only through the FDA's foot-dragging, its safety on pregnant mothers was in fact hotly debated during its ill-fated approval process.) And witness the 19th century literature on folk methods of inducing abortion, pennyroyal being especially popular.

But it probably took coming up with set of definable criteria and, above all, a name for people to become worried about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. It's almost bizarre, the rhetorical power that nomenclature can have in health care. Without a memorable name to conceptualize a condition or a vunerability, people just can't be bothered.


The Sunday Special: Oysters

The Sydney Morning Herald catches up with Cod author Mark Kurlansky and finds him, among other things, having just completed a book on... oysters.

He has also just finished The Big Oyster, about the history of oysters in New York. Is he bravely revisiting the "biography of things" genre? "It's a very different kind of book. It's very tightly focused on one place. New York harbour used to be full of oysters. Oysters were an intrinsic, fundamental part of New York culture. Dickens and Thackeray and everybody who wrote about New York in the 19th century wrote about oysters. Then [the industry] was destroyed by pollution."

I'd never thought of this before, but he's right; when reading restaurant scenes in fiction and nonfiction alike from the 1800s, it's striking how frequently oysters show up. It was a fairly common menu item then. It would be interesting to track the change of typical menus in Manhattan, say, over the last century -- not just what tastes changed, but also why they changed -- and whether outside forces like long-forgotten fad diets, commodity price fluctuations, or the waxing and waning of certain species have been been fossilized as what we unthinkingly imagine to be typical menu items.


The Black Hole of Adolescence

The fine folks at The Stranger -- who incidentally deserve immense credit for pummeling local titan Microsoft over and over and over again until the company renewed its support for gay rights -- have a glowing review for Charles Burns's Black Hole, No. 12 in their latest issue:

The story is simple: Teens are starting to catch a new disease, known as "the bug," from having sex. No one seems to die from it, but its effects are sometimes so horrible that they drive the afflicted out of society. There are whole groups of freak kids camping out in Ravenna Park, with faces turned feline, or skeletal with tufts of hair. Others, with less visible symptoms, live closer to the margins of society or even try to pass as healthy, only to be revealed as carriers.... This all may sound like a kind of Northwest version of the Uncanny X-Men, but there are no mutant superpowers here, just sad teens getting stoned, scavenging burgers from the Herfy's dumpster, and flipping through old yearbooks to remember how they used to look.

In this final issue (the series will appear as a graphic novel in the fall) there's an offhand mention that the bug finally clears up and disappears, as mysteriously as it arrived (making it more like acne than AIDS). But not everybody makes it out of those teen years unscathed, and the end of the story feels as menacing and melancholy as its beginning.

I see that Pantheon -- building upon their previous triumph with David B.'s Epileptic -- is slated to publish the complete series in October. Until then, check out the individual issues over at the always-awesome Fantagraphics.


Invisible Ink

There's a fascinating review in The Telegraph today of Andrew Parker's Seven Deadly Colours: The Genius of Nature's Palette and How It Eluded Darwin:

The eye was "Darwin's nemesis". As Parker explains in Seven Deadly Colours, Darwin was led to doubt his theory's universal validity by misunderstanding the process of vision. Parker describes seven examples of behaviour in the natural world that would have been beyond Darwin's ken, yet which modern ideas about light and perception render comprehensible.

In his first example, Parker asks why kestrels hover over motorway verges, where their prey of brown voles are well camouflaged and therefore especially hard to see. The answer, Parker explains at length, is that kestrels can detect the likely presence of voles through their trails, which have ultraviolet pigments... which human eyes are unable to see...

In another conundrum, Parker asks how the American milk snake, whose skin has bands of orange, black and white, successfully camouflages itself in green grass, where it should be plainly visible to predators that view it as a good dinner. It turns out that the solution lies in an old optical demonstration in which a rapidly rotating black-and-white disc appears to be coloured - the rotation tricks our eyes into believing that the disc is coloured. Parker convincingly argues that the swift motion of the milk snake fools its predators into seeing only olive green and so becomes hard to discern among the grass.

Unfortunately, although Perseus published a US edition of Parker's previous book (In The Blink of An Eye), I don't see any indication of a US publisher on this new one. Powell's Books, however, does carry the UK edition for $31.50.


Blasting Caps

I have an historical essay in this week's Village Voice on 19th and 20th century proposals to deliberately induce global warming by, among things, damming the Bering Strait, building a gigantic jetty to alter the Gulf Stream, and blowing up the polar caps with A-bombs. (The A-bomb proposal was championed in 1945 by Julian Huxley -- the head of UNESCO.)

Sure, we'd drown from the rising sea levels, but... fresh coconuts in Manhattan!

Sunday, May 08, 2005


Schopenhauer On Bullshit

The Guardian reports that Arthur Schopenhauer's posthumously published 1896 edition of The Art of Always Being Right: Thirty-Eight Ways To Win When You Are Defeated has been reissued in paperback:

We are here presented with 38 different ploys commonly used in disputation, which work to produce victory, regardless of where the truth lies. The motivation of the essay is rage and disgust at the horribleness of false arguments.... For the tricks he describes are meant to persuade not just the opponent but, more importantly, the audience of the dispute. The crucial question is who will be seen to come off best. Who will win votes?

Many of the 38 tricks are easily recognisable. The fun of the book is the attempt the reader inevitably makes to fit modern examples to the named ploys.... One of my favourites, number 31.... is called 'This is beyond me'. You win, and win over the audience, by declaring yourself to be lost in your opponent's subtle philosophising. 'What you now say passes my poor powers of comprehension. It may all be very true, but I can't understand it.' This appeals to the Plain Man and makes your opponent look arrogant.

Well, I can't imagine what prominent politician in our country that would describe.

Despite the popularity of On Bullshit -- and despite the immense and enduring popularity of bullshit itself -- I don't see an American edition. We certainly could use one. Maybe if they slightly altered the title to The Art of Always Being Right Wing ...


Not Bought and Not Read

Sign and Sight features an English translation of Götz Aly's March 1st Süddeutsche Zeitung article about the woeful state of war memorials in Berlin:

The displays in these memorials give an impression of mustiness and hostility to innovation. They have become museums to themselves. Anyone who occasionally takes foreign guests through them cannot fail to be embarrassed by their present state. The displays give a disproportioned, overly complex impression, their statements are ambiguous. In extreme contrast to the carefully selected material of the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Berlin curators make do with photos most of which have been shown countless times. In the German Resistance Memorial, there are no explanatory texts in English at all.

The functionaries and advisers of the memorial industry have remained the same for ages, and are very much bound up with one another.... The Topography of Terror catalogue is typical of the well-paid neglect seen in the memorial as a whole. Its unpretentious layout is reminiscent of Soviet youth publications, and has remained unchanged since 1987.... None of the Berlin memorials has set up a bookshop to provide interested visitors with further information. Nowhere can you buy "The Diary of Anne Frank" or the Auschwitz Calendarium, nowhere can you leaf through the newer titles in National Socialist research. In their place, the memorials offer small selection of their own excruciatingly boring writings.... Even hard-boiled sceptics will be stupefied at what is on sale there in place of the current literature: Neatly arranged and priced, as if they were the major works on the Nazi era, are the administrative reports of the memorial.

I have a fine experiment for Süddeutsche Zeitung, one that Spy magazine once tried to great effect on DC-area bookstore copies of Stephen Hawking's famously bought-but-not-read A Brief History of Time: insert checks for 100 Euros into the middle of a few copies of those administrative reports being offered for sale. Odds say they'll never get cashed.


And They Still Haven't Paid Us For All That Delicious Spam

Did you know that Britain is still paying World War II debts to the US? Me neither.

According to today's Times of London:

The American forces who helped Winston Churchill to defeat the Nazis may have been “overpaid, oversexed and over here” but the money that Britain borrowed from the US government is overdue.

Gordon Brown’s Treasury officials will write cheques totalling £43.5m — equivalent to 94p for every adult — over the next few months in final settlement of a £1 billion loan taken out in 1945 and worth more than £50 billion today.

It should have been repaid by 1999 but governments deferred annual payments six times, mostly in the hard-up 1970s. Brown is committed to pay it off by 2006.

Hey, wouldn't it be funny if we fooled Britain into getting into another war and piling up a bunch more debt and.... oh, right.

Never mind.

Saturday, May 07, 2005


The Diabolic Tomato

Literary voyeurs! Are you done looking through the checking account of Lewis Carroll? Well, now you can root through the kitchen drawers of Charles Dickens. The Guardian reviews Susan Rossi-Wilcox's Dinner for Dickens: The Culinary History of Mrs. Charles Dickens' Menu Books:

Rossi-Wilcox has delved into Catherine's domestic records to... [find] a sprightly intelligence keen to graft dishes learned while living abroad in France and Italy on to a stock of sturdy "Scotch" staples that reflect a much-loved Edinburgh childhood.

The reason that Rossi-Wilcox can even attempt to do this is that Catherine's manuscript menu books have survived (ironically because they belonged to the first wife of a great man) together with the odd fact that in 1852 she published a pseudonymous recipe book entitled What Shall We Have for Dinner? which was re-issued, in altered form, right through to 1860. Buttressed by the kitchen inventory from 1 Devonshire Terrace, where the family lived in the 1840s, as well as scraps of information about the arrangements at Doughty Street and Gad's Hill, Rossi-Wilcox is able to study Catherine's household in a way that has historically been impossible for all but a handful of courtly kitchens.

In some respects the Dickens family table turns out to be typical of its type, that of a metropolitan household leapfrogging several sections of the middle class. There is the usual love of mutton, beef and pork, pork, pork (Catherine is thrifty and anything piggy is cheap) and the instinctive resistance to vegetables and salad, especially the near-diabolic tomato.

One can only hope that this book finds a wider audience among scholars (and it will be scholars, at $50 hc) and not simply among Dickens freaks. What's great about a project like this is not that it really matters what Dickens ate -- I mean, honestly, does it matter? -- but that, since at some point people began saving every scrap of paper associated with him, his house has become an almost unique core sample of London domestic life from the era.

I do occasionally come across 19th century references, incidentally, that seem to regard tomatoes as nutritionally worthlessness -- even dangerous. So now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go risk my life on a slice of pizza...

Friday, May 06, 2005


I Love What I've Heard About Your Book

"Book's Message Disturbs Officials," announces last week's Chester Daily Local in my dear old home state of Pennsylvania:

"Missing Heaven," the two-year-old, self-published work by Westtown resident Caroline Wagner, was selected as the inaugural work for the Chester County Reads program last week. The goal of Chester County Reads is to encourage residents to read the book this summer, then participate in discussion groups about it in the fall. However, since it was publicly announced that the book was chosen, questions have been raised by some about its message and whether it is appropriate for the taxpayer-funded Chester County Library to make it the centerpiece of its new literary program.

The book centers around the character, Hannah, and her healing powers. Wagner believes "Missing Heaven" could be interpreted to have an anti-organized religion message. "The most unlikable character is very heavy-handedly religious," Wagner said, "and uses religion against Hannah when she’s a child."

"Missing Heaven" has prompted a letter from the Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League followed by an apology from the commissioners, read during their Thursday meeting by commissioners’ Chairman Donald A. Mancini. The county did not decide to eliminate the book from Chester County Reads.

At the time, Mancini noted that none of the commissioners had read "Missing Heaven."... The commissioners will not endorse another book, [Commissioner Dinniman] said, without first reading it.

So. The people in charge of Chester County Reads can't be bothered to... er, read. Will it surprise you if I add that Chester County also has a Ten Commandments plaque on their courthouse?

No, of course it won't surprise you.


They Prevent Arson, But Can They Prevent Sequels?

The audience for The Bridges of Madison County is brainless and glassy-eyed.

I'm referring to newly installed security cameras. On the actual bridges. Of course.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


Not Mitch-Albom-Fake, But Still Pretty Fake

Now that they're finished counting the money made from Harry Potter and Leopard Walk Up To Dragon, the LA Times finds that Chinese publishers are issuing idiotic fake translations of nonfiction:

The five-volume "Executive Ability" book series is a classic in Chinese business and management circles. Collectively, it has sold more than 2 million copies in the last two years. Top universities and public libraries in China keep multiple copies on hand.

It's also a big fake.

The series purports to be a translation of English-language works, but no such titles exist. The principal author — a Paul Thomas, said to be an eminent Harvard University business professor — is not real.... [In fake books] "There are [bogus] recommendations from Bill Gates, New York Times or even Einstein, which is really ridiculous," said Jiang Ruxiang, general manager of Beijing Zion Consulting Co., which has been trying to expose the problem ever since Jiang found out that his own articles were copied into someone else's book. He and his staff of six recently inspected about 1,000 different management books. A third were deceiving readers, Jiang said.

The funny-fake story is a perennial media item from China, of course, but they haven't been unknown in the English-speaking world. I've come across in the British Library a fake 1794 jokebook, Tom Paine's Jests -- not written by Tom Paine, in case you were wondering. And I've come across complaints in the past that entire 19th century triple-decker novels were being hawked as "by Sir Walter Scott," when they were nothing of the sort.

Well, perhaps they were simply written by two guys named Walt and Scott.


Supersize Him

Inside Higher Ed interviews Christopher Phelps, editor of a centennial edition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the grandaddy muckraker of all time. There are plenty of other editions already, Phelps admits, but then notes:

This new edition is for readers seeking context. It has a number of unique aspects. I’m pleased about the appendix, a report written by the inspectors President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched to Chicago to investigate Upton Sinclair’s claims about the meatpacking industry. In one workplace, they watch as a pig slides off the line into a latrine, only to be returned to the hook, unwashed, for processing.

Something I'm sure that never happens in processing plants now. Umm... right?

In the comments section to the article, one Wake Forest prof writes in: "I’ve been teaching the book, in my US Survey II course, for more than 25 years. And it is, hands down, the singular book that alumni cite to me as most memorable."


And Flava Flav Wore A Big Sundial Around His Neck

Rap is 500 years old.


Theories Too Good To Check

Today's Times of London reviews the paperback edition of Lars Svendsen's The Philosophy of Boredom:

A fascinatingly modern essay on ennui and emptiness... There is possibly one sure cure for boredom,” says Svendsen, “to leave Romanticism behind and renounce all personal meaning in life.” The word boredom, he says, appeared in English only in the 1760s and its use has progressively grown. Svendsen’s thesis is so cool that boredom, linked with desire rather than need, suddenly seems like a desirable state of being in an agitated age.

1760s? Really?

I pulled down the OED from the shelf next to my desk and, sure enough, he was right. Unfortunately, the word boredom does not have a monopoly on the concept of boredom. The OED dates ennui back to 1667, and an earlier variant ennoysance to a Wynken de Worde text of 1502. Which is about, er, three centuries before Romanticism.

Oh well. Nice theory, anyway.

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