Saturday, May 27, 2006


Amazon Review of the Week

A posting I came across reviews the classic Milton Bradley game Operation:

I learned everything I know about life on this game. I am a trained and successful surgeon because of it and I did not even attend medical school. My specialty is removing bread boxes and wishbones.

The fact is when performing surgery on a real human being you may be shocked to discover that tissues around the ailments will indeed make a loud buzzing sound if your surgical tweezers touch them. Your patient may suffer a "ruddy spetum" or blinking red nose in this instance which could be fatal.

This game is both educational, philisophical, emotional, nutritious as the small plastic pieces are delicious.


Reading the Nasty

Cambridge's fabled Tower of Nasty Bits is being opened to the public! Today's Independent of London reports:

[F]or the first time the university is set to reveal that the 170,000 books and papers previously consigned to the tower for being too populist and lowbrow to be of academic interest contain unique literary gems. An entire social history is recorded in assorted cookbooks, photo albums, school registers and cheap novels known as penny dreadfuls, which will now be available to the public.

Much of the material hasn't even been opened yet, apparently. But the Independent cites a few items already found in there, e.g. "Cookery books including one called Cheap, Nice and Nourishing Cookery, which recommends boiling carrots for two hours."

Ugh. Turns out there really is nasty stuff in that collection.

Sharp-eyed readers of the article will also notice that their holdings include a health & sex guide by one "Dr. Foote".... that's right. My favorite wacky Victorian doctor EVER.


A Busy Week at Stubble HQ

I have a long article examining the economics of the chain v. indies bookstore battle in this week's Village Voice, a piece on the invention and influence of the cash register over at New Scientist, and a... peculiar article about that whole Times fiction poll coming up over at The Stranger.

The great revelation to me in researching the Voice article was that the chain v. indie fight has been going on for well over a century now; in many ways, only the names have changed. One tidbit not included in my Voice piece came from a well-informed veteran bookseller who shall remain nameless; he told me about BookStop, a long-forgotten 1980s bookstore chain. The bookseller was convinced that the reason BookStop could charge such low prices was because it wasn't actually pursuing profits. Huh?

It wasn't really a bookstore at all, he explained, but a speculation in retail real estate. I don't think they cared at all about books, he said -- they were just looking to get acquired.

Barnes & Noble acquired BookStop for $41.5 million in 1989....

Sunday, May 21, 2006


The Great Wooden Hunter

Did you know there was a 1928 Pinocchio sequel set in America? I sure didn't.

It gets weirder. It turns out there were a number of other Italian sequels that were translated into English, including Pinocchio in Africa and Pinocchio Under the Sea. Here's that first one in its Italian edition:

Perhaps this book now lives on the Island of Misfit Sequels, along with Tom Sawyer, Detective....


Men Without Hats

Today's San Francisco Chronicle review of Giles Slade's new study Made To Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America includes some interesting historical revelations:

The idea entered the American consciousness in the late 1950s and quickly became part of the critique of consumption.... Slade discovered a much earlier instance in a 1932 pamphlet by real estate broker Bernard London, who was arguing in favor of it. The Depression may seem a weird time to propose that things break down as soon as possible, but London was looking at it from the producer's standpoint. If people could be induced to replace things sooner, he reasoned, sales and jobs would increase, and the economy would improve. London seemed to want to go so far as to make planned obsolescence a legal requirement.

...Slade takes planned obsolescence one step beyond with a chapter on how the United States fed Soviet spies faulty technological designs in the '70s and '80s, so that their oil facilities and military systems broke down suddenly and sometimes spectacularly.

In a recent essay in the Christian Science Monitor, Slade also made another offhanded revelation about an unexpected casualty of cellphones: "Nearly 60 percent of American teens have never owned or worn a wristwatch. Wristwatch consumption is in a spiral of decline at a rate slightly exceeding 10 percent a year." The LA Times article that first noticed this study includes this all-too-apt comparison: " "It's like a hat," said Francis Eagan, a 21-year-old waiter from Tustin. "It serves no purpose, like earrings."

Suddenly I feel old.


Cities Without Cities

I know I'm constantly banging the drum for The Village Voice (naturally) and The Stranger on this blog, but the two really have built some of the best alt-weekly book review sections around.

This week The Stranger has a long and very thoughtful review of Cities Without Cities, by the German urban historian Thomas Sieverts:

Our expectation that city neighborhoods are densely built, and suburban ones not, leaves us unprepared for the patchwork reality. In Washington State, Seattle is the only city with higher density than what we call suburbs: Mountlake Terrace, Des Moines, Edmonds, Kirkland, Burien, and Shoreline round out the state's top 10 city densities. (The much smaller cities of Mabton, Mattawa, and Toppenish, all less than 10,000 in population, are second, fifth, and sixth.) In Oregon, Portland is actually third in density, well behind neighboring "suburbs" Beaverton and Gresham.... the data simply shows how meaningless city boundaries have become in sorting out evolving patterns of urbanity.

Sieverts never casts this as a victory of the suburbs over the city. Rather, the old logic separating the two has failed. In the Zwischenstadt there are many intensifications, and no center; urban concentrations multiply like knots in an endless net.

Here's the thing: this translation of Seivert's book came out in the fall of 2003. The review is ostensibly of a new book (Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl), but it quickly places it in the context of Sieverts, and basically turns into a review of that book. Occasionally you'll get old & new books reviewed together this way in NYRB, and indeed this used to be a common practice in some journals in the 19th century. But finding a newspaper with the artistic latitude to review an old book... and do it at great length? It's almost a miracle.

Better read the whole review, too, since you probably won't be shelling out the $45 list price for the book in paperback...

Saturday, May 20, 2006


The Alphabetical Review

An alphabetical review in the Times of London today of Sue Clifford and Angela King's England in Particular:

Badgers, Bakewell pudding, Beach huts. It is hard to express a love of England without turning into the British National Party. Instead, we are caught up for ever in embarrassment, irony, diffidence. The Empire’s gone, a Sikh and a Muslim take wickets for England at Lord’s, and we are part of something called “Europe”. How, then, should we express love of country? By saying that well, it’s not such a bad place on the whole. It has its points.

Cabman’s shelters, Coasts, Crinkle-crankle walls...
Seeing a review with even a modicum of inventiveness in its form puts the usual plot-recap-and-thumbs-up-or-down reviewing to shame.

A crinkle-crankle wall, incidentally, looks like this:


A Good Day for Dickens

Today's Telegraph notes a new biography of Dickens illustrator Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"), Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens, written by the fellow's own great-great-granddaughter Valerie Browne Lester. Over at the Times there's a review of Hunted Down: The Detective Stories of Charles Dickens. Dickens spent a lot of time in the London courts in his early days, and there was a real explosion of crime reporting and its fictional offspring underway by 1830s. I have a long article slated to come out later this summer on this very subject -- more on that closer to the time -- and it's great to see some of this work reemerging...

In a fine touch, the Times also has a newspaper clipping of the author's dismayed account of a public execution.


The Abandoned Journal

Back in the fall I stumbled across someone auctioning their old teenaged diaries on eBay; this week, there's an abandoned journal by a homeless man, dating to the 1980s:

The description notes it was "found in the streets of Houston near a homeless shelter -- writings in this tablet are from the 1980s and other dates unknown -- it appears the homeless person was from France..."

I would sometimes come across stuff like this in the shipping containers when I worked briefly in Hay-On-Wye. There'd be these random personal notebooks that got swept up into estate sales and the like. It always unnerved me a bit -- not the voyeurism -- but the way people's journals become unstuck from their families and friends, and... swept out to sea, you might say.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Oddball of the Week

Here's something I've never seen before: an antique edition of the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Sign of Four... printed in Pitman's Shorthand.


Meanwhile, Reporting From a Parallel Universe...

The Daily Telegraph claims that there is "Anger as Literary Giants Lose Out to Slavery Novel."

Ok. But journalist Harry Mount -- his actual name, not a Bart Simpson crank call to Moe's -- only quotes two people. There's Melik Kaylan of the Wall Street Journal. (Lit crit from the WSJ? Isn't that like going to the dentist to get your tires rotated?)

And then there is... well, let's just use the magic of quotation here:

"Toni Morrison is the perfect New York Times poster girl," said Roger Kimball, the co-editor and publisher of The New Criterion, America's leading review of the arts and intellectual life, and the publisher of Encounter Books.

America's... leading... review?.... of?


Oh, you Brits! Your dry humor never fails to amuse!

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Shuffling to the Review Pile

Not a usual source of literary news, the Kiplinger newsletter -- you know, the thing your Uncle Morton down in Miami Beach subscribes to? -- carries an intriguing headline: I Published My Own Book and the Critics Noticed.

Writes Champ Clark of his book Shuffling To Ignominy:

I bought the Select Package for $460 and e-mailed iUniverse my manuscript and the photos I wanted to use. Within a few weeks it was for sale on Amazon and other Internet sites. If anyone goes to and types in "Stepin Fetchit," my book pops up along with the other one, and iUniverse prints and ships each order on demand. You wouldn't know my book was self-published.

I own the rights to my book, and I receive a 20% royalty on the $14.95 charged for each copy sold. (The other book costs $26.95.) I spent $400 on copies of the book that I sent to reviewers. The book was favorably reviewed along with the other Stepin Fetchit book in the New Yorker and the New York Times. My goal, besides having the book reviewed and read, is to make back my investment. So far, I've sold about 170 books.

Interesting to hear that you can get reviewed in the New Yorker and the New York Times, and still not have enough royalties to cover an $860 investment.

Even so, as a headline, I Published My Own Book and The Critics Noticed should probably rank up there with I Built My Own Saturn V Rocket and Landed On The Moon.


Strange Indeed

The Stranger has been consistently doing some of the most interesting experimentation in the literary review format in the last year or two. This week they have eight authors each reviewing a different story from Charles D'Ambrosio's new collection The Dead Fish Museum.

In related news, Dan Savage declined the opportunity to become an unacknowledged legislator of the world.


Turns Out All That Lying Was Good Practice

Australia's ABC Radio National news recently caught up with Helen Dale, the woman behind one of the great literary scandals of the 1990s. As her interviewer summarizes:

At the age of 20, under the name of Helen Demidenko, she wrote the novel The Hand That Signed the Paper. Appearing to be autobiographical, the novel tells the grim tale of her father and uncle, Ukrainian peasants who witnessed the destruction of their home and family under Stalin's communists.They then joined the SS death squads during the Holocaust, in order to take revenge against the Jews, who they perceived to be their persecutors. It's an attempt to enter the minds of genocidal murderers.

In order to write the book, Helen Darville, as she was then, took on the identity of Helen Demidenko, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants. In public, she wore Ukrainian folk costumes and alluded to a background of heavy vodka-drinking; reinforcing her ethnic identity.

Her book was extremely successful. To her own surprise, it won three literary awards, including the esteemed Miles Franklin award in 1995. But then all hell broke loose. Her true identity was revealed; Helen Darville, of distinctly British origins. She was exposed as a fraud.

Not noted in the interview is that, in addition to being exposed as a fraud, in 1997 she got booted from the Brisbane Courier-Mail for plagiarism.

What's she up to these days? Well...

Lynne Malcolm: So now you're Helen Dale. Are you Helen Dale through marriage? So who's Helen Dale?

Helen Dale: Oh, well Helen Dale's a country lawyer. Yes, and it's much easier to be a country lawyer, I can tell you now, than always playing this silly bloody arts game, I can tell you now.

Viswanathan and James, there's a future for you... in law school!

Sunday, May 07, 2006


An Army of One

From today's Oregonian:

Jared Guinther is 18. Tall and lanky, he will graduate from Marshall High School in June. Girls think he's cute, until they try to talk to him and he stammers or just stands there -- silent.

Diagnosed with autism at age 3, Jared is polite but won't talk to people unless they address him first. It's hard for him to make friends. He lives in his own private world.

Jared didn't know there was a war raging in Iraq until his parents told him last fall -- shortly after a military recruiter stopped him outside a Southeast Portland strip mall and complimented him on his black Converse All Stars.

"When Jared first started talking about joining the Army, I thought, 'Well, that isn't going to happen,' " said Paul Guinther, Jared's father. "I told my wife not to worry about it. They're not going to take anybody in the service who's autistic."

But they did. Last month, Jared came home with papers showing that he not only had enlisted, but also had signed up for the Army's most dangerous job: cavalry scout. He is scheduled to leave for basic training Aug. 16.

Officials are now investigating whether recruiters at the U.S. Army Recruiting Station in Southeast Portland improperly concealed Jared's disability, which should have made him ineligible for service.

Unbelievable. Ungoddamnbelievable.

On a much happier note, this morning on NPR there was an interview with autism chronicler Kamran Nazeer -- author of Send In the Idiots, a memoir I will keep harping on until every reader caves in and gets a copy.


Wordless Novels

Today's LA Times reviews three new graphic novels, and curiously describes Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo's Bluesman as reminscent of a Lynd Ward "wordless novel." There was, for a while in the 1920s and 1930s, a burst of these wordless novels rendered in woodcuts by Ward and especially Frans Masereel...

They're not as well known as they should be, though City Lights reissued Masereel's Passionate Journey a while back. It's worth seeking out.


For Sale: A Clean Well Lighted Place

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books has gone up for sale. Whoever buys it has a hard and charmless row (i.e. Van Ness Avenue) to hoe, despite the store's heroic efforts to bring some spark of human life to the cold slab of Opera Plaza.

Owner Neal Sofman is opening a new store next month with new investors in a much more welcoming neighborhood, with Bookstore West Portal. No apparent web site yet.... Sofman was savvy enough to snap up the domain back in the day; now the tables have turned a bit, because looking up, I see it is already owned by another store, West Portal Books. Oops.

Anyway, his move is a part of a much longer trend; while chains control the airless concreted expanses of commuter territory -- and it's hard to describe Van Ness any other way -- indies like the Booksmith in Haight Ashbury and Bookstore West Portal now survive in high density neighborhood economies.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Book Reviewing Explained For You

At the Times of London, Ben Macintyre explains the language of book reviewing, including:

Wears its scholarship lightly -- Author is not a real scholar. But I am.

Triumphant return to form -- I was expecting this to be as abysmal as the last one, but it was only mildly disappointing.

Gnomic -- Baffling.

Imaginative Fiction -- reviewers use this to describe a book that they wish they had written; nonfiction reviewers use it to describe a book they do not believe.

Compelling -- I managed to finish it.

There is, sadly, no literary equivalent to Roger Ebert's Little Movie Glossary -- no way that you can yell "Fruit cart!" at a book review -- but there really should be.


Message in a Bottle

Today's Telegraph review of Karen Leibrach's The Letter in the Bottle begins with a sentence that is always sure to get my attention: "This is a curious book about a curiosity."

On a lonely Kent beach in the winter of 2002, a woman found a message in a bottle, written in French and wrapped carefully round two entwined locks of hair. Intrigued, she sent the letter to Karen Liebreich to translate. The message appeared to be a sort of elegy, a mother's farewell to a dead son.... Liebreich began a quest to seek the truth of what had happened.
In the Fall 2001, oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer wrote a fascinating Cabinet article about messages in bottles. In addition to "ocean evangelists" who from the 1940s onwards launched some 300,000 scripture-filled bottles into the ocean, he notes another rather less theological effort:

The only other case that rivals the scale of these evangelists' efforts was by Guinness beer in the 1950s when the company threw 200,000 specially designed bottles with messages into the ocean as part of an advertisement campaign. On average, one of these bottles still washes up on shore every year.
Its message? Instructions on how convert the bottle into a table lamp.....

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