Sunday, August 28, 2005


Sounds About The Right Place For It...

The Bonkers-in-Chief president of Turkmenistan has blasted his wacky-ass book into space, according to the BBC:

Part One of the Ruhnama was blasted off on a Russian Dnepr booster rocket from Kazakhstan's Baykonur launch site on Wednesday, local media said. People are obliged to read Mr [Sapamurat] Niyazov's book, an interpretation of Turkmen history, for moral guidance. Known as Turkmenbashi, or Turkmen father, he has ruled from Soviet times. He has created a vast personality cult around himself, issuing decrees regulating behaviour in all walks of life. He has been named president-for-life, his portrait hangs everywhere in Turkmenistan, and streets and towns have been named in his honour....

"The book that conquered the hearts of millions on Earth is now conquering space," said an article in the official Neitralny Turkmenistan newspaper. The container is being described as an "artificial satellite". Turkmen TV said it was expected to orbit the Earth for the next 150 years.

In the meantime, the article notes, "Mr Niyazov signed a decree banning the playing of recorded music at public events, weddings and on TV." I can only presume that the audiobook version of his Ruhnama is now the required listening at these events.


Used in Seattle

An interesting little notice in this week's Seattle Times was widely overlooked: Seattle area booksellers are increasingly moving towards selling both new and used books:

Powell's will operate a kiosk at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., from Sept. 10 to 18. People will be offered either cash or credit that can be used at University Book Store. The books Powell's buys will be taken back to Oregon to be sold there.

Then on Sept. 22, University Book Store, which already trades in used textbooks, will begin buying and selling used books of all kinds on a permanent basis, general book manager Mark Mouser said. Used books have become a growth business for brick-and-mortar booksellers in recent years. Bailey/Coy Books, 414 Broadway E., started selling used books last week.

Weirdly, the story doesn't mention that the other big local independent, Elliott Bay Book Co., also sells both new and used. Nor is any explanation given why this trend started. Weekend Stubble, as a public service, hereby provides you with its own one-word explanation: Amazon.


Troublemaking Tour 2005

Most of the dates are together for the fall tour of The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine:

F 10/21 -- IOWA CITY, Prairie Lights Books
Sat 10/22 -- BERKELEY, Cody's
M 10/24 -- SAN FRANCISCO, The Booksmith
T 10/25 -- CAPITOLA, Capitola Books Cafe
W 10/26 -- PORTLAND, Powell's
Th 10/27 -- SEATTLE, University Bookstore
W 11/1 -- CHICAGO, Quimby's
W 11/9 -- NYC, Housing Works: "A Wake For Tom Paine" w/ Tim Carvell & David Rees
Th 11/10 -- BOSTON, Brookline Booksmith
F 11/11 -- AUSTIN, Book People
Th 11/17 -- MADISON, University of Wisconsin Library

Another Chicago event is likely TBA, probably for December, and events in Trenton and possibly Philadelphia; the Quimby's event on 11/1 will actually be a launch for the next Collins Library title.

Saturday, August 27, 2005


Six Feet Under and One Foot in The Mouth

I've got an article in this week's Village Voice about the Victorian origins of the slogan t-shirt. One anecdote on the cutting room floor was about a favored shirt motto for fin de siecle smartasses, Get Off The Earth Now, Your Time Is Up. According to a columnist in the October 11, 1896 issue of the Brooklyn Eagle, it caused problems for a local undertaker:

He relates that he sent an assistant to make preparations for a funeral in a family who was well known.... He was surprised to see the assistant come back after a brief time and hear him say: "Well, boss, I think you've lost the job." "What is the trouble?" "I don't know. The woman just looked me over for a minute when I said who I was and busted out cryin' and wouldn't let me in." The undertaker went right around to the house, where he was admitted, after some persuasion, and secured an explanation from the weeping widow, as follows:

"My grief is too recent to be trifled with, and when that big, rough man came to the door, wearing a button on his coat with the motto Get Off The Earth, he simply stirred my sorrow and hurt..." The undertaker soothed the widow's grief by explaining that the words on the button were only a slang phrase, which had nothing to do with the undertaking business.

Funny, I thought it had everything to do with the undertaking business...


No, Me Neither

Hey, remember when surgical supply companies published funny books about cats?


The Living Library

Sighted over at The Depraved Librarian, an AP wire notes a Swedish library is also lending out people with its books:

The city library in Malmo, Sweden's third-largest city, will let curious visitors check out living people for a 45-minute chat in a project meant to tear down prejudices about different religions, nationalities, or professions. The project, called Living Library, was introduced at Denmark's Roskilde Festival in 2000, librarian Catharina Noren said. It has since been tried at a Copenhagen library as well as in Norway, Portugal, and Hungary.

The people available to be "borrowed" also include a journalist, a gypsy, a blind man, and an animal rights activist. They will be available Saturday and Sunday in conjunction with a Malmo city festival and are meant to give people "a new perspective on life," the library said in a statement. "There are prejudices about everything," Noren said. "This is about fighting those prejudices and promoting coexistence."

Borrowing a person will be free, and the library will also provide coffee at its cafe where the "living books" will answer questions about their lives, beliefs, or jobs. "It's supposed to be relaxed and human-to-human," Noren said.

"At its cafe"? Dammit, where's my library cafe?

Curiously, some months back I heard a report on Radio Sweden about the planting of what they called -- and oh, how I love this coinage -- Snack Forests. In recognition of the foraging traditions of some of their immigrants, and out of fear that lookalike poisonous mushrooms and berries might lead them astray, Swedish forestry officials proposed creating a series of forests planted exclusively with safely edible plants and fruit-bearing trees.

Still, I can't quite get out of my head the image of trees magically sprouting bags of Doritos.


Feed Me!

S'true -- we've finally tweaked the blog template and at last have an RSS feed ...

Sunday, August 21, 2005


Ok, Now Give Me My £20

The Glasgow Herald has a clever idea worth emulating at other papers: give an author 20 quid, set them loose in the secondhand bookstalls, and watch what they buy.


Dickens vs. The Water Works

Plenty of coverage in the London papers this weekend for Liza Picard's latest in her series of London histories, Victorian London. In addition to glimpses into consumer goods -- "did you know that in the mid-1860s a top-of-the-range velocipede, complete with umbrella and sketch desk, would set you back 100 guineas?" -- the book is praised in the Guardian for its attention to everyday needs among householders:

Picard is particularly good on the sort of thing that contemporary chroniclers didn't always think to put in: her chapter on "Practicalities" is fascinating, especially with regard to water and gas supplies, refuse collection, postal services and the like. By the late 1840s, many houses were connected to a primitive water mains, the service being supplied by one of any number of private companies. Water was provided either at basement level or, for a 50% premium, the "high service" allowed it to be pumped to a height of 13 feet, thereby serving a first-floor bathroom. Charles Dickens was one of the few to pay the extra, and his frustration with the service rings clearly down the years: "My supply of water is often absurdly insufficient and ... although I pay the extra service-rate for a Bath Cistern I am usually left on a Monday morning as dry as if there was no New River Company in existence - which I sometimes devoutly wish were the case."

Picard gets not one but two reviews at the Telegraph, including a nod to two varieties of crime that I too have always had a weird fascination with when I come across them in old newspapers:

Crime was a growth industry in Victorian London. Women's hair had a sale value for use in wigs, consequently women were sometimes robbed of their hair by violent muggers. More genteel was the crime of purloining lapdogs: they were lured away from the owner using a bait of meat or a bitch on heat and then returned in answer to the advertisement by the distracted owner, in order to collect the reward.

Each of the reviews -- including one at the Times -- pegs Picard for not advancing any Grand Theory. But her book sounds tempting anyway... and if someone's appetizers are good enough, you don't always need a main course.


A House in the Country

The Telegraph gives a glowing review to Xandra Bingley's new book Bertie, May & Mrs. Fish, her memoir of growing up during the war in a formerly deserted Elizabethan farm in the Cotswolds:

Seemingly artless, this story is in fact told with great technical skill.... It is rather like leafing through somebody's family photo album: the time the cattle strayed into the clover and got blown, the time Munday cut off his fingers with the circular saw, the time the snow came in through the roof, the time Daddy brought home a clapped-out racehorse.... She writes particularly brilliantly about the relationships between people and animals. There is an extraordinary description of May dealing with a stricken bull in the aftermath of a road accident, and an account of hand-rearing a foal that, like so much of this book, is extremely touching without being in the least bit sentimental.

Horses dominate these lives. People talk of women being "due to foal", worry at funerals what will happen to the deceased's pony, and go hunting with notes sewn into their hacking jackets, instructing: "Please Do Not Take Me To Cheltenham Hospital." Anxious about her wedding night, a young bride is told by her married sister: "It's a riot, June… you'll love every minute… I just ride him astride… he's like a narrow little mare galloping along in a point-to-point."

The review ends with the suggestion that this book has "all the makings of minor classic"... to which I might add my own little bit of praise for another minor classic of the genre -- so minor, perhaps, that scarcely anybody seems to have heard of it: My Own Master, by Adrian Bell. He's better known for his novel Corduroy (still in print), but this 1961 memoir of raising a family in the country -- and staying there -- is one the most thoughtful and amiable little books I have ever come across. It's utterly out of print, but used copies still go cheaply on Abebooks.

Friday, August 19, 2005


Ralphie the Vampire Slayer

One mark of a true classic is that every time you read it you are surprised by new questions. Questions like: Did the author decapitate his wife?

In a fascinating post on his blog, Caleb Crain raises the possibility that Ralph Waldo Emerson beat Van Helsing to the punch:

Without using the word "vampire," however, New Englanders did believe that people who died of consumption (i.e., tuberculosis) could suck the life out of those above ground who still loved them, especially those in their own family. To remove the threat, you had to dig up the corpse....

Here's my question: Did Emerson fear that his first wife was a vampire? Robert Richardson famously began his biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire with an account of Emerson opening the grave of Ellen Tucker Emerson on 29 March 1832.... In Waldo Emerson: A Biography, Gay Wilson Allen saw the exhumation of the first Mrs. Emerson more darkly: "the act remains so unnatural as to seem almost insane" (182). Both Allen and Richardson remarked on the brevity of Emerson's description in his journal. "I visited Ellen's tomb & opened the coffin," he wrote, and nothing more.

And Ellen Emerson, Crain points out, did indeed die of TB.

I've been curious about this practice ever since a 1993 Washington Post article about archaeologists finding strange 19th century burial practices in New England -- namely, that bodies had been decapitated and the femurs placed across the neck -- an attempt, apparently, to keep the dead from rising. As Paul Barber explains in his 1988 Vampires, Burial and Death (Yale U Press), "[TB has] been associated with vampirism, presumably by analogy with the tendency of the corpse to exhibit blood at the mouth.... sometimes the supposed revenant is even held responsible for eating the bodies in nearby graves."



Making Trouble

Another splendid advance review this week for The Trouble With Tom, this time in Publishers Weekly. Tour info for about a dozen cities this fall will be firmed up this coming week...


Living in the Moment

Strange days indeed for linguistics. In the middle of George Monbiot's column in Tuesday's Guardian comes this very, very curious item:

Yesterday I read a study by the anthropologist Daniel Everett of the language of the Piraha people of the Brazilian Amazon, published in the latest edition of Current Anthropology. Its findings could scarcely be more disturbing, or more profound.

The Piraha, Everett reveals, possess "the most complex verbal morphology I am aware of [and] are some of the brightest, pleasantest, most fun-loving people that I know". Yet they have no numbers of any kind, no terms for quantification (such as all, each, every, most and some), no colour terms and no perfect tense. They appear to have borrowed their pronouns from another language, having previously possessed none. They have no "individual or collective memory of more than two generations past", no drawing or other art, no fiction and "no creation stories or myths".

All this, Everett believes, can be explained by a single characteristic: "Piraha culture constrains communication to non-abstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of [the speaker]." What can be discussed, in other words, is what has been seen. When it can no longer be perceived, it ceases, in this realm at least, to exist. After struggling with one grammatical curiosity, he realised that the Piraha were "talking about liminality - situations in which an item goes in and out of the boundaries of their experience. [Their] excitement at seeing a canoe go around a river bend is hard to describe; they see this almost as travelling into another dimension".
Over on the LINGUIST list, a summary of Everett's piece ("Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language") adds:

Despite 200 years of contact, they have steadfastly refused to learn Portuguese or any other outside language. The unifying feature behind all of these characteristics is a cultural restriction against talking about things that extend beyond personal experience. This restriction counters claims of linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, that grammar is genetically driven system with universal features. Despite the absence of these allegedly universal features, the Pirahã communicate effectively with one another and coordinatesimple tasks. Moreover, Pirahã suggests that it is not always possible to translate from one language to another.

This is pretty amazing stuff, and I'm flabbergasted that it hasn't been more widely reported. It would seem to imply one of two things: that there needs to be some serious beard-tugging and head-scratching over Chomsky's theories across all languages, or -- and I'm taking a wild guess here -- that perhaps the Piraha people are an extraordinary genetic anomaly in the annals of neurology, and share a condition that has left them with language centers in the brain that permanently lack aspects otherwise assumed to be necessary for any language. 200 years of steadfastly not learning any other language might indicate that there's something more fundamental at work here than a simple case of cultural resistance.

Sunday, August 14, 2005


Smiling For Dummies

A few weeks ago, New Scientist had a fascinating History column on how CPR and Artificial Respiration dummies use a face taken from a famous 19th century death mask of an unknown drowning victim. For those of who can't get into the New Scientist subscription site, there's a article about this mysterious mask at -- of all places -- the Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions:

During the first decades of the 20th century, copies of a young woman's death mask were widely sold in France and Germany and hung on the walls of many homes. Enchanting many by her "smile of sublime satisfaction," (Phillips, 321), the mask was known as the Inconnue de la Seine, and inspired a remarkable number of literary works, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. The story was that around the turn of the last century the body of a young woman was recovered from the Seine near the quai du Louvre (Vautrain, 550).... it was said that her smile was so compelling to a medical assistant at the morgue that he took a death mask, and that the great numbers of plaster casts produced and sold came from this unknown young woman's death mask.

"During the 20s and early 30s, all over the Continent, nearly every student of sensibility has a plaster-cast of her death-mask" (Alvarez, 156)..... In the The Savage God: A Study of Suicide Al Alvarez writes: "I am told that a whole generation of German girls modelled their looks on her," to add in a note: "I owe this information to Hans Hesse of the University of Sussex. He suggested that the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s. He thinks that German actresses like Elisabeth Bergner modeled themselves on her. She was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo." (Alvarez, 156).

For those wondering what an art student's wall looked like in the 1920s, here it is:


Every Street Is Paved With Fool's Gold

In a splendid find today by the Literary Saloon, the Asia Times reports on the Literary Crimes of the Daewoo Chief:

After five years and eight months in exile as a laxly pursued fugitive, Kim Woo-choong returned to the motherland in June to face charges of political payoffs, illegal loans and accounting fraud. There is one charge that is missing from the list, and that is being a literary fraud.

In 1989, Kim penned a book in Korean called The World Is Big and There's Lots to Do. It was required reading for all employees of the Daewoo empire. It was the company Koran, the chaebol bible, and in 1992 it was translated into English and published as, Every Street is Paved with Gold: The Real Road to Success.... Early in his book, Kim writes, "Business is more than making money; losing less money is sometimes important, too." He also wrote, "In business, you can't just add one and one and get two. You have to see one turning into 10, and 10 turning into 50. That's the way to count in business." He is believed to be responsible for the largest accounting fraud in history, bigger than Enron and WorldCom. When Daewoo tanked with $80 billion in debt, Kim fled the country.

Surely this deserves a place on the shelf next to Al Dunlap's 1996 masterpiece of modest entrepenurial dignity, Mean Business: How I Save Bad Companies and Make Good Companies Great. To my amazement, Amazon lists this book as still in print.

For those who weren't paying attention in Fraud 101, here's what Dunlap was doing in the very year that his book came out. Because he stood to earn millions from stock options, he was pumping up the price of the Sunbeam Corporation stock through some of the oldest accounting tricks in the book -- including, at one point, shipping out millions of dollars worth of barbecue grills to a distributor and immediately counting that as revenue, even though all the grills were returned at the end of the quarter. By 1998 the scam was up, Sunbeam stock tanked, and the company plunged into bankruptcy.

Mr. Dunlap was known in the press as Chainsaw Al. I've always wondered about this. Who actually called him that in day-to-day life? I mean, really? Did his wife? His doctor? Or was it just his publicist and hack business writers? But I will give him this much: it was an apt name, if you think of a chainsaw as being a big tool that recoils and mutilates anyone next to it.


Young Maiden Janie Hath Got A Gun

Yesterday's Guardian reviews David Hinton's Gold & Gilt, Pots & Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain, and delves into one of those basic questions elicited every few months by some pensioner with a metal detector: why were the Roman settlers always tossing pots of coins about?

Gold & Gilt covers more than 1,000 years from the end of the 4th century AD - the departure of the Roman legions - to the early 16th century. It was a period of enormous change, of the developing power of the church, and of the emergence of the feudal system and kings. It was also often dangerous: Britain as the legions withdrew was a risky place to be if the number of hoards of coins and jewellery buried in the late 4th and 5th centuries is anything to go by. Irish raiders threatened in the west, Frisians and Saxons in the east. As Hinton notes, the people who buried their treasure in pits were right to worry - their failure to retrieve their valuables speaks volumes about what happened next. Hundreds of years later, people still resorted to burying things in the ground when danger threatened. A number of hoards have been found from the turbulent 1460s during the Wars of the Roses. One, in Fishpool in Nottinghamshire, held valuable jewels and 1,200 gold coins.

The British Museum has a writeup on the Fishpool hoard, the largest gold coin hoard ever found in Britain. Better still, though, the Museum also has an exhibit of old children's toys found in the Thames, dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries. They include a surprising number of toy guns.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


Land of the Lost

An intriguing look today in the Times of London at Stuart Kelly's The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Books You Will Never Read, which is already available in Britain -- the US edition by Random House won't be out until April of next year:

Some things were, perhaps, better lost. T. E. Lawrence mislaid the first draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom on Reading railway station; the second draft, on his own admission, was “shorter, snappier and more truthful” than the first (he had been having such trouble with it that he may well have lost it on purpose). Hemingway’s anguish at the loss of all his unpublished typescripts, stolen in a suitcase en route to Switzerland in 1922, may have had its compensations in catapulting him headlong from juvenilia to the mature style of “Papa” Hemingway. Even Byron’s autobiography, the loss of which caused near hysteria at the time of its destruction, may have proved to be a damp squib, refusing to name names: Don Juan was Byron’s true, unfinished, autobiography, still ongoing at the time of his death.

Some things refused to be lost: Dylan Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood not once but three times: first in London, then in America, and then again in London (where it turned up in a pub). Other things were never started: Milton, Dryden and Pope all planned epic versions of the Arthurian legend, long before Tennyson finally gave us Idylls of the King.... But perhaps the most famously unfinished work is Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, which ends with the incomplete sentence: “So that when I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s . . .” This seems less like genius inconveniently interrupted by mortality (Sterne died in the year the book came out) than a joke from the grave.

My own little nomination would go to Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which produced all sorts of would-be endings by other writers... including one that swooped in just months after Dickens died, the anonymous 1871 book John Jasper's Secret. Hmm... I don't know, somehow that just doesn't have the same ring to it as the original.

Friday, August 12, 2005


A Beauty Marked Man

My favorite website find of the week is Odd Books I Like. Alfred Armstrong is clearly a man after my own heart, and I must thank him for discovering this:

Yes, that would be Moles as in "on your face," Meaning as in "you are incapable of fidelity" or "beware of lightning," and Harry De Windt as in "crazy as an outhouse rat." But I'm afraid that even Mr. De Windt must bow before the creepy weirdness of this 1943 children's pop-up book I found this week on eBay:

Nighty night, kids!


The Cletus Critical Edition

I've a piece in New Scientist about the Hinman Collator, a wonderful postwar contraption made of mirrors, lenses, flashing high-intensity lights, and clad in a vaguely menacing 1950s sheet metal housing; they were used for decades by scholars to compare variant copies of Shakespeare, Twain, etc. If you've ever read a Norton Critical Edition in college, you were probably reading something made at a Hinman.

The Hinman was subsidized in part by the success of a very different invention altogether, the Targeteer. This was a sort of a poor man's skeet-shooter, which lobbed beer cans in a the air so that you could blast them out of the sky. That's right, you high-falutin' types: your precious scholarly tomes were created thanks to drunk gun-wielding hillbillies.

Sunday, August 07, 2005


The Moor of St. Petersburg

There's some amazing stuff in today's Times of London review of Gannibal: The Moor of St Petersburg by Hugh Barnes. I will quote the review at length here because -- good lord, what a story this guy has dug up:

In 1704, a seven-year-old black boy arrived at the court of Peter the Great, the tsar of Russia. Peter noticed his intelligence, adopted him as his godson, and had him christened Abram Petrovich Gannibal. As was customary with court blackamoors, he was given the Russian version of Hannibal as his family name, after the Carthaginian general and enemy of Rome, “his African precursor,” Hugh Barnes writes, “in the heart of Europe”...

Gannibal was thought to be Ethiopian but, in a tour de force of historical research and travel-writing, Barnes convincingly proves that he was the son of a chieftain from Chad, finding and visiting his native village, as well as meeting his descendants.

As part of Peter’s entourage, Gannibal went on to fight against Charles XII of Sweden, and also trained as an engineer, just as the tsar was to train as a shipwright and carpenter. In 1709, aged only 12, he fought at the great battle of Poltava that smashed the Swedish empire and secured Peter’s new capital St Petersburg. By now, Gannibal was Peter’s secret secretary... [later] Gannibal was exiled to build a fortress on the distant Chinese border, where — in another great display of how travel writing and adventurous trips can dovetail with history and biography — Barnes discovered his long-forgotten works....

Barnes rightly highlights the extraordinary trajectory of Gannibal’s life journey: that a black slave from Chad moved from being the servant of an Ottoman sultan to the godson of the Russian emperor, and went on to become an outstanding engineer, general and landowning nobleman is an amazing tribute to the cosmopolitanism of the 18th century as well as to Gannibal’s own talents.

It gets better: Gannibal also happened to be a great-grandfather of none other than Alexander Pushkin, who wrote (but never finished) a novel about him titled The Negro of Peter the Great.

The AP Watt agency website lists Ecco as the US publisher for Gannibal, but I don't see any listings for the book release yet. It is out already in Britain, though, and published there by Profile Books.


Lost and Found in Translation

Newsweek has a neat literary find, and... ok, stop laughing. Seriously, Newsweek actually covered a book that nobody else has. A book from a vanity press, no less. And... will you please stop rolling your eyes?

No, I cannot explain what possessed them to do this, but I was pleased to see that Newsweek's website has a geniune and genuinely obscure literary discovery this week. It's an interview with Robert S. Carter, a 89-year-old translator of A Roumanian Diary, by Hans Carossa. It's the forgotten diary of a WWI German medic:

This was a little book in German, which was part of my required reading when I was in school, and for some reason I liked it so much, I’ve kept it all these years … I was at Harvard and I majored in modern languages, primarily in German … As I got into my 88th year, I decided I ought to do something to exercise my mind. And what I decided to do is to translate this book into English....

I sometimes say I was in the trenches of World War I, because when I was 5 years old, the war was just over. I was in France, and I was taken out to the battlefield, and it was still a scene of utter devastation … Our instructions were “Don’t pick up anything; it might explode,” and, “You can’t go in the dugout; they still are full of gas.” I’ve had this little exposure, so I think of WWI as part of my life, even though it really was not.

Now, there are a couple bizarre omissions in the reporting for this article. First, it doesn't note that there was already an English translation of the book which Knopf published in 1930. Stranger still, Newsweek doesn't tell you where you can buy the new translation. This is no small matter, because it's not listed on Amazon, BN, Powell's, or... anywhere. Nor can I find a website for publisher Regina Books.

Oh Newsweek, you incompetent tease.

So you'll just have settle for buying the old edition at abebooks or eBay, I guess. And that's too bad, because Carter sounds like a pretty interesting guy: among other things, he and his wife discovered the submerged Roman seaport of Aperlae off the coast of Turkey in 1969. But he's slowing down a little now. When Newsweek asked him if he had any other translations in the works, he responded: "No, I’m finished with that. I am now a few weeks short of being 90 years old, so that’s the end of it."


Turning Up The Heat On Michael Finkel

The Des Moines Register reported last week that Michael Finkel, author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, and Mea Culpa, has been promoting his book by stopping off in libraries in the course of a bicycle ride across Iowa:

The guilt he says he has about his past wasn't reflected in his demeanor as he walked around Titonka on Wednesday in a bright yellow Hawaiian shirt with blue flowers, distributing some of the 2,000 bookmarks he brought along on the ride. On Wednesday, he had worked halfway through the stack.

"I'm getting rid of them," he said. "I'm not taking any home."

A hardcover copy of his book is tied with a cord to the back of his bike, along with more bookmarks.

"A lot of people think it's religious material," Finkel said as one man refused a bookmark. "I already know Jesus," the rider yelled back to him as he walked to his weathered bike.

One detail left out of the newspaper piece: this story was filed during a week of horrible, horrible heat here in Iowa City. I do not envy this man out in the sun on his bike.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


So Now You Know What I'll Be Doing For The Next 2 Years

Good news indeed this week -- my proposed next book has been picked up by my longtime publishers Bloomsbury USA. In the pithy words of Publisher's Lunch, it is:

Paul Collins's THE BOOK OF WILLIAM, about the rise of Shakespeare's First Folio over the course of five centuries.

Any charge that this is simply a ploy by me to spend the next couple years lollygagging about in rare book rooms is, of course, completely and utterly untrue.


Men Without Hats

The Daily Telegraph reviews Hatless Jack by Neil Steinberg, which despite a great deal of sniping by the reviewer, has some curious tidbits on the pre Kennedy era of required men's headgear:

We learn about the social meanings of the collapsible opera hat; have itemised for us the papers that Abraham Lincoln kept inside his stovepipe hat; are led into a genuinely fascinating economic history of hat-check concessions in New York restaurants and nightclubs in the 1920s; are reminded of the bizarre craze in the first days of air age for armchair travellers to dispatch their hats on world tours.... In the days of uniform hat-wearing, hatlessness represented a fallen state. Magwitch's bare head when Pip meets the convict in the graveyard at the beginning of Great Expectations adds to his aura of wretchedness. Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick has his hat stolen by a swooping sea hawk before the Pequod goes down. Lord Dunsany's pathetic protagonist of "The Lost Silk Hat" wails, "I can't be seen in the street like this."

The reviewer grouses about the sheer sartorial trainspotting involved and repetition of Steinberg's book, which for all I know may well be true. But frankly, this negatively reviewed history still sounds more interesting than most of the ones they give good reviews to.


The Other Seattle Sound

Ah yes -- that would be bagpipe hip-hop.


The House of Wax

In today's Times, Eleanor Updale takes a fascinating tour of La Specola, a venerable museum of waxwork cadavers in Florence:

The sheer quantity of these beautiful models overwhelms you. The museum has more than 1,000, most of them on display. In addition to the full-size bodies there are detailed explorations of individual organs, of heads, torsos, even cross-sections of babies in the womb. Each exhibit is an object of beauty in its own right, the work of 18th and early 19th-century artists schooled in the same traditions of Florentine craftsmanship that made the city’s churches some of the wonders of the world. So around an explosion of intestines a figure of pure serenity sleeps like the effigy of a marble saint. But the models were commissioned for a practical purpose. The sculptors worked in collaboration with anatomists to produce accurate reference tools for medical students, thereby keeping the dissection of real human cadavers to a minimum.... This, possibly the first free public museum, is paved with terracotta tiles, originally sealed with red paint. Over the years visitors’ feet have worn the paint away, showing exactly where people have stopped and stared. The huge shark is obviously a favourite, but by far the biggest hit has long been the display of wax models of female genitalia alongside the voluptuous form of a naked Venus complete with flowing hair, pearl necklace and trim fingernails.

Taken behind the scenes, high up in the building, I stood in the dilapidated remains of the 18th-century observatory from which the museum takes its name. Surrounded by the crumbling forms of fantastic stone beasts that support the roof, I was allowed to hold the lifesize model of a newborn baby. It should have been repellent. The skin was slit and peeled back to expose the liver and digestive tract, and the head was convincingly coated with soft hair apparently still moist and matted with the fluids of childbirth. Yet the face was so delicate, the chubby limbs so peacefully relaxed, that it was impossible not to cradle him like a real child.

In the course of researching the phrenology chapter of The Trouble With Tom, I came across similar examples of this kind of craftsmanship; the old phrenology store of Fowler & Wells used to offer for sale complete wax anatomical models for upwards of $1000 -- serious money in 1850s. That should give you some sense of the sheer level of labor and craft involved in these.

Inevitably, the showmen eventually took over what the med students began: probably the closest modern equivalent to the resulting sensationalism is "Professor" Gunther Von Hagen's Body Worlds exhibit. (Even his shaky academic title is prime Victorian humbug.) I saw it when it was in London, and I'm sure some subtle scientific purpose was achieved by creating a superhuman-sized cadaver posed as if playing basketball.

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