Douglas Stuart is the first Scottish writer to win the Booker Prize since James Kelman in 1994. Stuart has cited How late it was, how late as his ‘bible’, though Shuggie Bain has more in common with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), another transatlantic misery-lit smash. Its more obvious Scottish precursors would include the tender brutalities of Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes (1958) and the Gorbals shocker No Mean City (1935). From the perspective of literary Scotland, the harrowing content of Stuart’s novel is largely beside the point. What matters is that a Scottish novel has been recognised on the world stage, boosting the prestige and marketability of the category itself.
Cain’s Jawbone, one of the more demanding puzzles of the 20th century, was recently solved for the third time. Devised by the inventor of the cryptic crossword, Edward Powys Mathers (aka Torquemada), it was first published in 1934. Perhaps inevitably, it has taken another crossword buff to crack it in 2020: John Finnemore sets puzzles for the Times under the moniker Emu (when he isn’t appearing in his own Radio 4 comedy series). Cain’s Jawbone isn’t a crossword, however, even if it has some of the same cryptic, sideways logic. It’s a whodunnit mystery novel with a structural twist, in that its 100 pages appear out of sequence, making the plot unintelligible and obscuring the identities of the murderers and their victims. The task is to find the correct page order, working out in the process who dun what to whom.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump tweeted a series of photographs with the caption: ‘Kayleigh McEnany presenting Lesley Stahl with some of the many things we’ve done for Healthcare.’ The pictures showed his press secretary handing some papers and a hefty volume to the 60 Minutes reporter, just before an interview which the president cut short acrimoniously. As many Twitter users were quick to point out, one of the images showed Stahl opening the book and peering inside at an apparently blank page. Had the book been mocked up for the purposes of the interview, embodying not only the lack of an actual health policy, but also the fakery and pretence at the heart of the administration? Others responded that the absence of text proved nothing, since it could have been a flyleaf or title page: ‘Haven’t you ever read a book?’
George Mackie is 100 years old today. I first met him a few years ago, at a party celebrating an earlier birthday. My father, Peter Campbell, was in his last year, and not feeling up to the train. He asked me to drive him and my mother to George’s house in Lincolnshire. Peter and George had been writing to one another since George had sent what he describes as a ‘fan letter’ praising the design of the London Review of Books. They had both had long careers as typographers and illustrators. If these jobs are done well, it’s often by being as unobtrusive as possible. As Beatrice Warde argued in ‘The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible’, ‘almost all the virtues of the perfect wine-glass’ – ‘crystal clear’, ‘thin as a bubble’, ‘transparent’ – ‘have a parallel in typography.’ George thinks that as his eyesight deteriorated, his typography improved. Some of the lost clarity of vision can be repaired by making clearer pages.
Here was this bird, that should be in the jungle learning to emulate the sound of gibbons and rushing water, but was instead imitating Skype ringtones, trapped in a dreadful situation made still more wretched by the fact that its owner was also trapped, with nothing to look forward to for the duration of the lockdown except more Skype calls and getting whistled at by her parrot.
The strangest parcel I’ve received in the post recently is a plain black box about the size of a paperback. It doesn’t contain a book, though, or at least not at first sight. Instead there is another, smaller box labelled ‘Milton’, which opens to reveal a row of delicate, inch-tall glass vessels, each with around ten white pills in it.
For those of us who get a kick out of spying on other people’s bookshelves, the last few weeks have offered an embarrassment of riches. Whole Twitter accounts have been set up for the sole purpose of scrutinising the titles that famous people choose to display in the background during their televised Skype calls. The point of the game is not to find out the books people are reading, but the books they want to be seen to be reading. Some people are more sporting than others, acknowledging the rules of the game and knowingly playing along.
In the late 19th century, as public libraries grew, so did anxieties about their threat to public health. Scarlet fever, smallpox and tuberculosis were thought to be spread through germ-ridden books, and various methods of disinfection were used, including steam, formaldehyde solution and heated carbolic crystals. (The practice was revived this year, in less elaborate form, as libraries began disinfecting books with antibacterial wipes.) Demands that libraries should be closed were resisted, but the 1907 Public Health Amendment Act threatened heavy fines for anyone infected with disease who borrowed books.
For twenty years, Alejandro Cesarco has been making fake book indexes: alphabetical lists that look authentic enough, down to their page numbers and layout, but are actually free-floating artefacts. For the first time, the whole series of seven indexes is on show, at the Witte de With gallery in Rotterdam (until 5 January). Each refers to a different ‘imaginary book’. They are not endmatter but ends in themselves.
The Bocas Literary Festival in Port of Spain draws its distinctive character from the way poetry, storytelling, satire, performance, recitation and masquerade are bound up together in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, and in the lives of the vast diaspora of Caribbean people. The festival is inclusive: even descendants of former colonials, like me, are invited (my grandfather, the cricketer Plum Warner, was born in Trinidad, and I still have cousins there, called Cadiz).
The fantasy of a universal language is at least as old as the story of the Tower of Babel.
During the flurry of George H.W. Bush’s death, funeral and canonisation, it was impossible to escape the photograph of George and Barbara Bush at their house in Maine, in their PJs, sitting up in bed surrounded by a mob of grandchildren. First published in 1987 in Life magazine, it’s a candid shot meant to show that, in their homey, comfy setting, the vice-president and his wife were just regular folks: doting grandparents, game for anything, unfazed at being awakened early (reportedly, 6 a.m.; ‘Poppy’ does look a tad dazed) by an invasion of grandkids, stuffed animals, and – oh! hi there! come on in! – a photographer. Behind the vice-presidential bed is a reassuringly messy bookcase, stuffed not only with photos, a clock, coffee mugs and various doodads and tchotchkes, but actual books. My fifth novel, Duet, is at the top of a stack of them, just above the veep’s head.
When the wind blows through the dunes around the Western Chinese city of Dunhuang – long a garrison town between the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts – it is said to produce sounds similar to song. In 366, the itinerant monk Yuezun was wandering through the arid landscape when a fantastical sight appeared before him: a thousand buddhas, bathed in golden light. (Whether heat, exhaustion or the strange voice of the sands worked themselves on his imagination is anyone’s guess.) Awed by his vision, Yuezun took up hammer and chisel and carved a devotional space into a nearby cliff-face. It soon became a centre for religion and art: Dunhuang was situated at the confluence of two major Silk Road routes, and both departing and returning merchants made offerings. By the time the site fell into disuse in the 14th century, almost 500 temples had been carved from the cliff.
‘There’s a writer in England called … er, Peter Ackroyd,’ David Bowie said in a short film he made in 2003, ‘who wrote a book called … Hawksmoor I think it was. Wasn't it? Yeah.’ Ackroyd's 1985 novel struck him as 'a very powerful book, and quite scary', and in 2013 Bowie included it on a list of his favourite 100 books, ranging from the Beano to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. His son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones, recently launched #BowieBookClub to discuss 'dad's favs' on Twitter, choosing Hawksmoor as 'an amuse cerveau before we get into the heavy stuff'.
Behind the handsome 18th-century façade of The Hague’s Museum Meermanno, ‘the House of the Book’, pages are turning. Everywhere you look they are turning over, but also turning into other things: screens, data, moving image, sound, even skin. The Art of Reading: From William Kentridge to Wikipedia is not so much an exhibition of contemporary book artists as an attempt to use their work to ask what reading is. The question has increasingly exercised theorists and scholars as the printed book loses its dominance, but here the overfamiliar act is scrutinised through the lens of art.
'People are like boats, we head off for a place we've been longing to visit for ages,' says a character in 'Pirate Rum', a short story by Tove Jansson. 'Maybe an island. Finally we get there. And what happens? We go right past, further out.' Having set off in a canoe, the man gets caught in a storm and is sheltered by two women living on a secluded island.
A few miles south of Soledad, California, not far from the Salinas river, George Milton and Lennie Small arrive at a ranch. Itinerant workers who have been forced to flee their last town, they are assessed by the boss – an unnamed figure in a Stetson hat, high-heeled boots and spurs; unlike them, he is no labouring man. ‘What stake you got in this guy?’ he asks George. ‘I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy.’ I was reminded of the scene earlier this year, in the week of Trump’s inauguration. I was on a bus in North London, when the driver pulled to a stop and went across the road to help a woman who had collapsed. Some passengers got angry. ‘What’s he doing helping someone else?’ one of them barked. In 2014, OCR (the major exam-awarding body in the UK) announced that it would be scrapping John Steinbeck’sOf Mice and Men from the GCSE English syllabus. Other American texts, such as The Crucible and To Kill a Mockingbird, were also to be dropped. Michael Gove, then the education secretary, complained about the ‘narrowness’ of a syllabus that he went on to make even narrower. He was disappointed that 90 per cent of candidates were studying Of Mice and Men. I’ve taught the book to pupils of all abilities and I’m always struck by its power to engage and move them.
It seems a category error to expose a pseudonymous novelist as if you were acting in the public interest; to adopt the tools and language of investigative journalism, go through someone’s financial records and harass their family in order to ruin an authorial position that has been almost as interesting as the author’s novels themselves. There’s no value in revealing Elena Ferrante’s ‘true identity’ (as Claudio Gatti claimed to have done yesterday). What’s interesting about her anonymity depends on its being sustained; it’s a creation, as well as a political proposition, that has engendered a conversation about literary making rather than dismantlement and confession. In an age of autofiction, when so many protagonists take their authors’ names, the idea that the author, too, is a literary creation extends the fictiveness out of the books and into the world. Why ruin the fun?
They were playing the soundtrack of the The Godfather in the lobby of the Aurassi hotel, a huge modernist statement built in the 1970s on a hill above the centre of Algiers. Today its cavernous spaces feel understaffed, and guests complain of water shortages in the morning. But the wide open view of tanker ships slowly coming and going in the bay of Algiers is spectacular. I was there for a conference on higher education and unemployment. Algeria has dozens of new, subsidised, overcrowded universities. In the last fifteen years, the number of students has tripled, to 1.5 million. But there are few jobs.
From Hot Milk by Deborah Levy: I stood up and took my place behind the wheelchair, lifted up the brake, which was difficult because my espadrilles were flopping off my feet and began to push my mother down the dust road, dodging the potholes and dog shit, past the handbags and purses, the sweating cheeses and gnarled salamis, the jamón ibérico from Salamanca, the strings of chorizo, plastic tablecloths and mobile-phone covers, the chickens turning on a stainless-steel spit, the cherries, bruised apples, oranges and peppers, the couscous and turmeric heaped in baskets, the jars of harissa and preserved lemons, the torches, spanners, hammers, while Rose swatted the flies landing on her feet with a rolled-up copy of the London Review of Books.
On the high streets of small towns, the success stories are Primark, Greggs, Wilko, Poundland and variety shops like Tiger. Card and gift emporiums are ubiquitous. In this unpropitious climate, Waterstones is holding out with almost 300 shops, recovering – according to the figures – from near failure four years ago. The owner, Alexander Mamut, has invested over £50 million. James Daunt was brought in to give the shops more character and relax central control: booksellers can decide which books to promote and tailor their own displays. But it isn’t all about the books.
A couple of years ago, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers were statistically certified, by Forbes magazine, as the most addictive novels in commercial fiction. The key finding was that ‘Child carries more readers with him from book to book than any other bestselling author.’ Perhaps I’m too weak-kneed to be a proper Reacher fan: the ones I’ve read I found hard to put down, but I didn’t feel compelled to go out and buy the lot. The airport-thriller page counts and twitchy plotting sometimes left me feeling jangled and strung out, as though I’d been bingeing on espressos and Haribo Tangfastics while playing a frenetic computer game. That wasn’t the case with another series about a laconic tough guy with a name ending in ‘-er’, a series that’s put together with more artistry than you’d expect and which has, for me, greater addictive properties: the Parker novels by Richard Stark, a pseudonym of Donald Westlake (1933-2008).
In Munich, Steven Spielberg’s fictionalised account of Israel’s response to the massacre of 11 of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics, Makram Khoury plays the writer and PLO spokesman Wael Zuaiter. Unaware he’s the first of the 11 Palestinians targeted for assassination by Mossad, he gives a talk on his Italian translation of the Thousand and One Nights at a café in Rome, does some shopping, and is gunned down in the hall of his apartment block. At the end of the movie, the chief assassin exiles himself to Brooklyn, wondering if he has merely inspired more violence. He is told that he is a small part of a bigger story: Mossad had other teams on the job. The newly completed World Trade Center is visible in the final shot of the New York skyline.
Dover Press has reissued William Seabrook’s 1934 memoir Asylum, an account of his self-committal to a mental hospital in an attempt to cure his chronic alcoholism. Seabrook, who committed suicide in 1945, is probably most famous now for introducing the zombie to American popular culture in 1929, but he was also a bestselling journalist, travel writer, pulp anthropologist, Great War veteran, primitivist, sadomasochist, occultist, and fellow traveller among the Modernists in New York, London and Paris.
From Larissa MacFarquhar's Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity: She and Aaron had been rigorously vegan for years – and now Jen ate cheese. She went to Paris and gorged herself on cheese. She went shopping for clothes that were new. She drank alcohol for the first time in her life. She smoked pot and loved it. She revised her views on Israel. She worked as a dominatrix for foot fetishists. She stopped recycling.
Am I the last person to have noticed this subcategory in WHSmith bookshops? There must be people who head straight for it to grab the latest Cathy Glass, but it had passed me by, or I'd passed it by, until this weekend. I puzzled for a while over the upside-down face – I think it's Billy Connolly – then went off to see what they had on the shelves under Comic Death Stories.
Last Thursday, Stephen Colbert, the comedian, gave Stephen Colbert, the character, his perfect send-off: a death scene the character was too stupid to see through, though many old guests – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alan Alda, Christiane Amanpour, Ken Burns, Katie Couric, Peter Frampton, Henry Kissinger, George Lucas, Yo-Yo Ma, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Samantha Power, Gloria Steinem, Michael Stipe and others – had gathered to sing him on up to heaven. In the background, just behind Barry Manilow, I caught a glimpse of George Saunders.
In case you haven’t been able to get your hands on Merci pour ce moment, Valérie Trierweiler’s sellout tract about President Hollande, herself and her feelings, here it is, accelerated and reduced in the first available English translation. I No choice but to take up the pen. I didn’t smash the crockery AS WAS ALLEGED when FH told me, on the bed, in the Elysée apartments, about Julie Gayet. Does a real man in charge of a country have an affair with an actress – that’s actress, not actor – when factories are closing and unemployment is rising?
A few days before Isis fighters captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, Saqi Books released an anthology called Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, a thoughtful collection of work by Syrian writers, activists, visual artists and anonymous collectives who were at the vanguard of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.
The hashtag was invented by Chris Messina, a programmer and open source advocate, in August 2007 as a way of flagging up the salient features of a tweet. He took the hash sign, which had meant ‘number’, and made it mean ‘important concept-alert’. The hashtag’s use in tweets has now developed a style and language of its own. They’re everywhere, punctuating Twitter and Instagram jokes, Facebook posts and other forms of communication. I like making stupid hashtag neologisms, but I’m probably not alone in feeling uneasy about the way they boil large bodies of information down to a couple of words. There is, of course, something brutally reductive about them, and the word ‘tag’ has overtones of criminality or pricing: available for search, available for purchase.
At the Junction bookshop in Thimphu the manager is reading Sartre’s Age of Reason. ‘I’ve been trying to get hold of Nausea for months,’ she says, ‘but the Indian distributors won’t send it up.’ On a stand in the centre of the shop there are glossy photo books: cute, scruffy waifs; austere Himalayan panoramas; a coffee-table celebration of carved wooden phalluses (the Bhutanese strain of Buddhism employs phallic symbolism with zeal). These are the books laid out for souvenir shoppers. On the shelves, there’s a section dedicated to Ancient Greek drama, another to 19th-century Russian novelists (all in English translation). There’s a volume of Elizabeth Bishop, and some Freud. She has sold her last copy of Infinite Jest but still has a copy of The Pale King.
A while ago I bought an invisible book. Or at least I think I did. It’s hard to tell. I certainly got a confirmation email from its author and creator, the artist Elisabeth Tonnard, advising me that it had been sent and acknowledging my payment of €0. This seems like a shrewd investment: my book is one of a limited edition of 100 (neither signed nor numbered) and, as Tonnard’s website says, it is ‘a product without a single fault, available at the lowest price possible’. To make the transaction a little more concrete I also ordered the set of (visible) postcards accompanying the work. Highlights in the History of ‘The Invisible Book’ includes pictures of the book’s early underwater testing in the Galapagos Islands, its acclaimed 1962 exhibition at the New York Public Library, and the undisclosed facility where the original manuscript has been kept since the 1870s, although ‘some say it is no longer there’.
Somewhere in the inner recesses of the British Library is a place called the Z Safe. The physical safe doesn’t exist anymore, though it did when the national bibliographic collection was housed in the British Museum. In those days it was a Chubb strong room beneath the west stairs in the Department of Manuscripts. Now, ‘Z Safe’ is a category given to the most valuable manuscripts, but I like to imagine it as still an actual place, a holy tabernacle in the bibliophiles’ temple.
In 1919, 130 cyclists registered to race in the Tour de France. Only 69 turned up at the start line: the war had made rubber scarce, and many couldn’t find tyres. Riders were instructed to bring their passports with them as they’d be travelling through contested territory, and there wasn’t enough sugar around for the organisers to keep them properly fed. By the time the peloton arrived at the foot of the Pyrenees, only 25 riders were left in the race. Ten made it to the finish line. The last rider to complete the race, Jules Nempon, limped home 21 hours after the winner, Firmin Lambot. Géo Lefèvre, the tour's originator and its most breathless early chronicler, called it ‘the most beautiful Tour de France I have ever seen’.
Peter Campbell on Adrian Mole (LRB, 5 December 1985): Children take to the books partly, I gather, because the disgusting details of Adrian’s spots, the mention of his wet dreams and of his regular measuring of his ‘thing’, break taboos. But more because – despite his hypochondria, his naff intellectual ambitions, his deeply untrendy tastes – he is a hero who suffers as they suffer.
The new rules that govern what prisoners can be sent in the post by families and friends have caused small tremors in the social media, calling them and their perpetrator, Chris Grayling, the minister in charge, mean, vicious, offensive and disgraceful. The aspect of the changes that has upset people most is that books are no longer allowed to be sent to prisoners. Other 'small items', such as underwear and handmade cards from children, are also prohibited. One odd thing is that these new rules were put in place in November. I remember there being some pieces in the newspapers and comments decrying the changes on Twitter and Facebook. But it didn't take fire as it has now. I don't know why an article about it by Frances Crook has gripped those who care about books and prisoner rehabilitation now, rather than in November when it actually happened.
One Saturday afternoon last summer, the forecast for rain, I set out on a dérive. Or not quite a dérive, because I knew where I was going, or aiming to go: to the dump, more than 70 blocks away across Vancouver, while reading Michèle Bernstein's The Night in Clodagh Kinsella’s new translation. Bernstein’s intention fifty years ago was to create a ‘fake popular novel’ that would both form a ‘critique of the novel itself’ and alleviate her and Guy Debord’s financial woes. The narrator of La Nuit, Geneviève, is in a ménage-à-trois with Gilles and Carole. The novel describes a walk through Paris over the course of a night.
From Daniel Defoe's The Storm: or, a Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters Which Happen'd in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land (1704): We have reckoned, including the City of London, about 123 People kill'd; besides such as we have had no account of; the Number of People drowned are not easily Guest; but by all the Calculations I have made and seen made, we are within compass, if we reckon 8000 Men lost, including what were lost on the Coast of Holland, what in Ships blown away, and never heard of, and what were drowned in the Flood of the Severn, and in the River of Thames.
From the beginning of the last chapter of The Mill on the Floss: In the counties higher up the Floss, the rains had been continuous, and the completion of the harvest had been arrested. And now, for the last two days, the rains on this lower course of the river had been incessant, so that the old men had shaken their heads and talked of sixty years ago, when the same sort of weather, happening about the equinox, brought on the great floods, which swept the bridge away, and reduced the town to great misery.
As the Cambridge Edition of Virginia Woolf’s fiction slowly unfurls, this year will see the publication of Mrs Dalloway. It follows Anna Snaith’s edition of The Years (2012), which nestles Woolf’s 393-page novel in 600 pages of scholarly material: explanatory notes (144 pages), textual apparatus (220 pages), textual notes (50 pages), maps, chronologies, lists of illustrations, abbreviations, archival sources and editorial symbols, a bibliography and an (excellent) introduction. One paratext the Cambridge series doesn’t have, however, is an index.
Every morning the postman delivers a sack of new books to the LRB office. The bulk of them turn out to be either books about religion or self-help books, which may say something about the apocalyptic mood of the publishing industry. The categories often overlap, as in The Truth Within by Gavin Flood, ‘a history of inwardness in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism’: religion can put you in touch with ‘a deeper, more fundamental, more authentic self’. The rest of this week's religious haul includes the Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies and a collection of essays on Habermas and religion. There’s less variation in the self-help books, as the genre creeps forwards fad by fad. Pace Flood, the new hot topic is outwardness: help yourself by understanding others.
Writing drunk rarely works. Writing hungover, on the other hand, can be surprisingly effective. A bastard behind the eyes can still the frivolous part of the brain – the part that wanders off and watches cats on YouTube, or scrolls through Vice’s Dos and Don’ts – and allow the serious part to take control. Daily Rituals, Mason Currey’s compendium of working methods of the ‘great minds’, is full of writers who spent their nighttimes getting wasted, then got up and almost immediately started producing.
‘I hate books. Can't read them. They send me to sleep,' says the man responsible for annihilating tens of thousands of books a year. Let’s call him B. Secrecy is at a premium in his trade and we are granted an interview only after protracted negotiation, a series of deferrals and cancellations, and lots of provisos. Sat in a bare, bleak office somewhere in the Midlands, with the constant background din of next door's shredding machines, he lets us know we're fortunate to get a glimpse of the world of 'destruction work'.
Earlier this year Jesse Norman claimed that so many Etonians end up in government not because they’re born into money and power, but because ‘other schools don’t have the same commitment to public service’. Boys at Eton are encouraged to run parts of the school, so ‘don’t defer’; they also study rhetoric, poetry and public speaking, which are ‘incredibly important to young people succeeding in life’. Norman failed, however, to mention the kind of all-important physical training that Edmund Marlowe puts at the centre of his new novel of Eton life, Alexander’s Choice.
Legal sanctions were in place against the talking cure in Ireland when Samuel Beckett decided to give it a shot. He'd been having panic attacks since his father’s death in 1933. So in 1934, aged 27, he moved to London, a place he didn’t much like but that at least wasn’t Dublin (where, he wrote in a letter, ‘you ask for a fish & they give you a piece of bog oak’). In addition to not believing that the Irish public ‘ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever’, he was on the run from his mother, who was, as he put it, ‘alertly bereaved’ and also prone to unlettered bourgeois notions concerning salaried employment. When not discussing her with his analyst, Wilfred Bion, a future pioneer of group therapy, Beckett read widely, moped in galleries and parks, visited a doctor friend working at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, and generally gathered the material that went into Murphy, his first published novel.
A French tribunal decreed in February that all copies of Marcela Iacub’s latest book, Belle et Bête, carry a notice ‘informant le lecteur de ce que le livre porte atteinte à la vie privée de Dominique STRAUSS-KAHN’. Belle et Bête is written entirely in the second person, addressed to an unnamed man whose presidential aspirations had been brought to an end by a series of scandalous revelations starting with the accusations of a New York chambermaid. It begins ‘Tu étais vieux, tu étais gros, tu étais petit et tu étais moche,’ and continues in the same vein, recounting the narrator’s affair with the man, ‘le roi des cochons’, who likes to lick off her eye make-up and pour oil into her right ear so he can tongue it out. In another scene he asks her to suck his thumb while he talks on the phone with his wife. She ends their liaison, which does not involve more canonical forms of sexual intercourse, after he bites off her left ear and swallows it.
Some recent blurbs: 'We know him as the Renaissance genius.
A press release from the British Council: British-based design studio Raw-Edges has been commissioned by the British Council to design a bespoke travelling bookcase to house one carefully selected work of fiction from each of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. The bookcase will also hold editions of Granta magazine. The highly inventive design means the books themselves take centre stage in the installation. The interactive nature of the bookcase also allows visitors to change the display by repositioning the books.
As everyone knows by now, it’s 600 years since a pope last resigned. It’s even longer than that since the pope was an Englishman: Hadrian IV (1154-59) is the only one there’s been so far, and it seems unlikely there’ll be another any time soon, despite the aspirations of the Twitter account @tonyforpope: 'Tony Blair. Regular guy, former PM, saviour of Western civilisation, next pope.' Hadrian IV has had a few fictional successors, though. Hadrian the Seventh (1904) is a brilliant fantasy self-portrait by Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo.
Just in from Cape, an advance proof copy of The Twelve Children of Paris, the second part of Tim Willocks's Mattias Tannhauser trilogy (out in May). The novel opens on St Bartholomew's Eve 1572. We especially look forward to reading about the 'de-limbings'.
Browsing in a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road in the spring of 2004, I came across a copy of History and the Early English Novel by Robert Mayer. I opened it up and loose papers tumbled out. Turning the book’s pages, I saw hundreds of annotations pencilled in the margins: shaky lines and ringed numbers and then, across the endleaves and inside back cover, a thick scrawl of largely illegible notes: page numbers, cross-references, summaries, words circled furiously or underlined – ‘21. Facts’; ‘135. Origins of novel’; ‘143-4. Cromwell, Defoe’. What looks like ‘48-9. Milton’s lust’ is probably ‘Milton’s hist[ory]’. The inside cover has an elegantly looping signature: ‘Christopher Hill/1997/7’. I put the loose papers back and handed over £15. Then I put the book on my bookshelf and forgot about it for nine years.
The first edition of The Bell Jar to appear under Sylvia Plath’s name was published by Faber in 1967, with a cover designed by Shirley Tucker. This month Faber have brought out a 50th anniversary edition of the novel (it was first published by Heinemann in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), with a cover about as far from Tucker’s Bridget Rileyish concentric circles as you can get: a stock photo from the 1950s of a woman with a powder compact. As Dustin Kurtz, a marketing manager at Melville House, tweeted, ‘How is this cover anything but a “fuck you” to women everywhere?’
There’s a second-hand bookshop around the corner from where I live called Ripping Yarns – just a hole in the wall, near a relatively busy intersection, but close to Highgate Woods. It’s been there since before the war but I’m not sure how much longer it will last. The lease is up next September, and I worry that the internet and charity bookshops will eventually drive it out of business. Celia Mitchell, the owner, has to dip into her pocket from time to time to cover costs. I buy as much as I can there, especially in the run-up to Christmas, but it doesn’t add up to much. Second-hand books are cheap. The shop is worth more to me than the books.
Colin Burrow on Bring Up the Bodies in the LRB, 7 June 2012: The word 'haunting' is much abused, but is absolutely, almost literally, right for this book... At one time or another almost every character (except plain, prosaic Jane Seymour) sees something like a spectre.
There are the books you like, and the books you can recommend, and the books around which you can muster arguments. And then there are the books from which you can get no aesthetic distance at all. Often they’re books about childhood, or about something or somewhere you knew as a child. They can also be books about books. Among Others by Jo Walton, is one such book for me, and not for me alone: last week it picked up the British Fantasy Award, having already won the Nebula and the Hugo for the year's best science fiction novel. The two awards together describe the state of SF (one’s voted on by working authors, the other by fans); when the same book wins both, it’s a recommendation, and it says something about the state of the genre. And yet Among Others is not science fiction at all, if you judge by its plot.
After regaling them with the story of how he fell for an elaborate hoax at the hands of one of the actors in Copenhagen, Michael Frayn told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday that there's a seven-word private joke hidden in his latest novel, Skios. He'll send a bottle of champagne to the first person to spot it. 'All you need to have done to understand it is have read my complete works – my 10 novels and 15 plays,' he said, apparently without feeling the need to add that they're available at all good bookshops.
A very long trailer for the very long film version of David Mitchell's very long novel Cloud Atlas, directed by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, and starring multiple Tom Hankses and Halle Berrys, is propagating across the internet, with Warner Bros' lawyers in hot pursuit. It would be nice to think they're trying to repress the trailer because it makes the film look utterly terrible: lots of dreary CGI, clunking explicatory voice overs, bombastic score, intertitles announcing the themes as 'death life birth future present past love hope courage everything is connected'. 'You've saved me twice,' one of the Berrys says to one of the Hankses. 'You fall, I'll catch you,' he replies. Barf.
The Man Booker Prize (or as the press release for The Yips – review forthcoming in the LRB – has it, Man Boozer Prize) longlist, with a few links to the LRB archive:
Elif Shafak’s novel Iskender, published in English as Honour this week, came out in Turkey last August. Like her previous books, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Within days of its appearance, however, a blogger accused Shafak of ‘lifting’ themes and characters from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The blog post quickly went viral. Smith’s Turkish translator said that Shafak had used White Teeth as a ‘template’ which didn’t really fit with the Kurdish characters in her novel. One journalist suggested the book should be moved to the foreign fiction shelves of Turkish bookshops.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica has at last succumbed to the inevitable. It will no longer be published in a print edition but is going online only. David Runciman's 2009 review of The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih begins:
Implausible, improbable, too good to be true or too good not to be true: such was the life of John Fairfax, the first man to row single-handed across the Atlantic, who died a fortnight ago and who became world famous over the weekend, when the obituaries really began to flow, many of them leaning heavily (and without acknowledgment) on an online extract from The Ocean Rowers by Kenneth Crutchlow and Steve Boga. ‘One of the world's most interesting men is dead,’ said a bold headline on Newser; he certainly led an interesting life, but that’s not necessarily the same thing.
Four months after Amanda Knox was acquitted of murdering Meredith Kercher, HarperCollins has paid her several million dollars for her memoirs. We will soon be able, we're told, to hear ‘her side of the story’ – except that her side, an account of the ‘nightmarish ordeal that placed her at the centre of a media storm’, to be told with the help of a ‘collaborator’, already sounds a little familiar.
Mark O'Connell has written quite a funny piece for The Millions on Martin Amis's out-of-print classic Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines, a book that Amis has done his best to disown. 'I recently discovered a copy in the library of the university where I work,' O'Connell writes, 'and I don’t think the librarian knew quite what to make of my obvious excitement at this coup.' Tom Shippey reviewedInvasion of the Space Invaders in the LRB when it came out in 1982:
Jonathan Franzen's homily on the trouble with ebooks and the superiority of print has zapped its way around the world from the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia (the Telegraph’s showbusiness editor has the full story):
Two new book proofs have arrived in the office: And: Both are to be published by Faber early next year. One is a history book, the other a novel. Guess which is which.
Apocalypses aren't what they used to be. Thirty years ago, science fiction stories about sentient computers taking over the world tended to imagine them trying to wipe us all out using nuclear bombs (The Terminator, War Games). These days, if Robert Harris's new novel, The Fear Index, is anything to go by, the rogue AI's weapon of choice is the financial markets. 'Tales of computers out of control are a well-worn fictional theme,' Donald MacKenzie wrote in the LRB earlier this year,
Doom and gloom doubled last week when the Economist announced not just the death of books, but proved it by the death of bookcases. In particular Billy, a classic IKEA item of furniture that has been available for thirty years, has five adjustable shelves, is cheap enough for students to give up the brick and plank solution to book storage (though I don't know why they would) and which even 'may be completed with BILLY height extension unit in the same width for added storage vertically'. Billy, the Economist said, was suffering a redesign that suggested a change of use: the shelves were being deepened from 11" to 15" in order to hold ornaments, framed photographs, trophies, plants, decorative boxes. Glass doors have also been added: through which to look at objets, rather than to give instant book access. IKEA, it seemed, was declaring the end of books as we know them, a sure marker that the ebook revolution was complete.
The LRB recently sent me Cita Stelzer’s Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table to review. It’s a good subject. We know that Churchill believed in personal diplomacy (he thought he could charm the most obdurate dictator if he could only meet him face-to-face); that he did a lot of negotiating over meals; and that he was a sparkling conversationalist. I hadn’t heard of Stelzer, but the CV provided by her publisher, Short Books, looked good. She is a 'Reader at Churchill College, Cambridge’ (‘reader’ being a rare and high academic accolade, one step short of 'professor'), 'a Research Associate at the Hudson Institute' in Washington, a 'member of the Board of the Churchill Centre (UK)', and a freelance journalist and editor. Dinner with Churchill promised to be a lively but serious work of history. If only.
I recently got back from la Creuse in central France, where the annual local treasure hunt has been glossed by an insanely elaborate, cross-disciplinary polytext. The instructions for ‘Sherlock Holmes enquête à Boussac’ come on a double-sided sheet of A3 done up to look like an old newspaper, l’Eclaireur. About 15 square inches of it are taken up by the rules; the rest – six fat columns of newsprint (c.3300 words) – is devoted to explaining the game’s back story. Holmes and Watson have been summoned to the small Creusois town of Boussac by a painter friend, who has been tipped off by one of his more famous painter friends (Gauguin) that there’s buried treasure in the region.
On the second Friday of the Egyptian revolution (4 February) I noticed a change in the dusty, makeshift bookstalls on the streets leading to Tahrir Square. The usual array of cheaply printed, sun-faded, sometimes used books – Programming for Dummies, C++, The Prophet’s Hadith, The Little Prince, Advanced Mathematics – were joined by An Alternative President, Red Card for the President, Revolution 2025 and a selection of pirated publications with covers bearing the silhouette of Che Guevara or social networking logos. ‘It was a revolution for our business,’ one of the booksellers told me recently. ‘There were no longer police on the streets – there was no one to arrest us or take away our goods. Censorship ceased to exist.’
One of the more unlikely heroes in English literature is Dickens’s rent collector Pancks, a ‘dry, uncomfortable, dreary Plodder and Grubber’, who shows a ‘sagacity that nothing could baffle, and a patience and secrecy that nothing could tire' to determine that the Dorrits languishing in debtors’ prison are heirs to a fortune that ‘had long lain unknown of, unclaimed and accumulating’. No such sagacity would now be required, at least in America.
It has been suggested that to make sense of the recent riots we should put down our commentpapers and turn to our bookshelves. At the Economist, 'Bagehot' has been readingHooligans: A History of Respectable Fears by Geoffrey Pearson (D.G. Wright reviewed it in the LRB in 1983). Slavoj Žižek looks to Hegel. But the book I've been brought back to most often over the last couple of weeks (at the urging of someone too young to know about the riots) is The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs.
There’s a TV reality show in the US (Same Name) about people with the same name swapping lives. I feel confident that the producers won't be calling on me. But a few weeks ago, Google alerted me to the improbable existence of another Ange Mlinko.
The Harry Potter industry excels at eking out the franchise. There were only ever going to be seven novels in the series, but they've been turned into eight films – the last of which will be released in a couple of weeks – and countless other spin-offs. It was announced (or 'confirmed') today – at a press conference at the V&A and on YouTube, how else – that a website, Pottermore, will be launched in the autumn to sell exclusive ebook versions of the novels.
For a while in the mid-1990s you couldn't walk through a university town without seeing at least one young man in a black T-shirt covered in text that claimed to be the Bible verse Ezekiel 25.17. Actually it came from the 1970s movie Karate Kiba, which is where Quentin Tarantino lifted it from to give to Samuel L. Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction. The boys who bought the T-shirts have now grown up and had children – or maybe they've just had children – and the audiobook version of the spoof bedtime story Go the Fuck to Sleep, read by Samuel L. Jackson, when it was released last week sold almost as many copies within 48 hours as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It goes like this:
In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan distinguished between 'hot' and 'cool' media: hot media, like the radio, are 'high definition' but 'low in participation'; 'cool media', like the telephone, are 'low definition' but 'high in participation'. (In the early 1960s, TV was 'cool', compared to the 'hot' movies. Obviously that was long before the arrival of hi-def.) Predictions about the way technology is heading, whether made by SF writers or tech companies, tend to assume the future will be hot. Characters in Brave New World go to the Feelies. Thirty years ago, everyone (well, maybe not everyone) imagined that by now we'd be watching holographic movies and wandering around with virtual reality helmets on. But no one foresaw the rise of text-messaging or Twitter. Michio Kaku's whiggish Physics of the Future, published last month, follows the trend, confident that the future will be lived in high definition.
It's almost June. If you worry you have accomplished little in 2011 so far, do not read any of the following, more or less recently published: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy A Year of Blind Dates: A Single Girl's Search for 'The One' Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple
'As if Joyce had sat down and written Sin City.' (Cape) 'If Fred Astaire had been a novelist he'd have been Paul Bailey.' (Bloomsbury) 'An homage to Miss Marple – or Miss Marple as a badass, paralysed Norwegian lesbian detective.' (Corvus)
The Social Animal by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and right-wing talking head, combines fictional narrative, studies-have-shown pop psychology and conservative social satire in unusual ways. Thomas Nagel calls it 'a moral and social tract... hung on the life stories of two imaginary people, Harold and Erica'. Here are ten of its weirdest sentences:
On the same day that the architect of the Gherkin announced the death of the skyscraper, it emerged that Little, Brown have paid a ‘high six-figure sum’ for a romance, set in 2008 just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, between an out-of work-architect and a recently retired banker. So while we live through the consequences of the credit crunch – the Sure Start centres closing, the paramedics being sacked, the libraries disappearing – it seems we want to relive the moment in a cosy rom-com mode.
Alan Bennett's Smut: Two Unseemly Stories is published this month by Faber and Profile. One of the unseemly stories is 'The Greening of Mrs Donaldson', which first appeared in the LRB. Here he is reading from it.
Recently published (and possibly available from the London Review Bookshop): Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gave Us Life The Meerkats of Summer Farm: The True Story of Two Orphaned Meerkats and the Family Who Saved Them Trawlerman: My Life at the Helm of the Most Dangerous Job in Britain Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat The Wolf Within: How I Learned to Talk Dog I Remember, Daddy: The Harrowing True Story of a Daughter Haunted by Memories Too Terrible to Forget Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine My Natural History: The Animal Kingdom and How it Shaped Me Schizophrenia: Who Cares?
Novels that mention the LRB, an occasional series: no.17, The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus. William Mendez, the ever more evasive and ever less sane writer of a novel within the novel, is looking for someone else to pose as its author. His agent suggests a journalist called Leo Benedictus. Mendez replies, by email: Leo sounds perfect! I’m actually punching the air with my left hand and typing this with my right. (A tough trick. Try it.) I’ve had a look at his stuff online... He’s a different type of writer from me, in some ways, but not too different to be believed.
I haven’t seen the play of War Horse, and never got to the end of the novel either: my son had Private Peaceful, another of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War books, as a bedtime story, and it was so sad and full of injustice – and dragged out, chapter after bleeding chapter, night after night after night – I am just relieved that now he can read these terrible documents, should he wish to, without my help. In War Horse (1982), it’s 1914 and Joey’s owner sells him to the cavalry – and that’s all you need to know, really. The book is one of the five ‘classic war stories for children’ that the Imperial War Museum aims to ‘bring to life’ in its new exhibition, Once Upon a Wartime.
Does the right to free speech entail a right to lie? On Wednesday, lawyers acting for five New York consumers filed a five-million-dollar lawsuit against ex-President Jimmy Carter. Litigants in Unterberg et al. v. Jimmy Carter et al. allege that Carter’s 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid contains defamatory falsehoods about the state of Israel. The plaintiffs, who each bought a copy of the book for $27, maintain not that Carter was not entitled to make ‘malicious and false’ statements in the book, but that under New York General Business Law section 349 the plaintiffs’ rights were violated because they assumed they were buying a factual account of Israeli-Palestinian politics. Hence, they contend, Carter and his publisher (and now co-defendant) Simon & Schuster would have been within their rights had bookshops shelved the book with fiction rather than non-fiction.
The action compresses a number of oddities, which will prove fatal to it.
‘I invite anyone who has a copy of this book to bring it into Piazza Bra for a public burning.’ The man speaking purported to be a priest. He was phoning a local radio station in Verona. The book in question was my exploration of Italy through football, A Season with Verona (2002), translated as Questa pazza fede (‘This Mad Faith’). But the priest wasn’t concerned about heresy. Italian football fans constantly refer to their ‘faith’. The first chapter, an account of an all-night bus trip from Verona to Bari, offered examples of the fans’ obsessive use of blasphemy to establish their credentials as bad boys, their opposition to a mood of political correctness that was seeking to ‘clean up football’.
What happens when you forget to tell the jacket designer you've changed your subtitle? A proof copy of Jonathan Glancey's Nagaland, which Faber will be publishing in April, arrived in the office this morning, with an erratum sticker on the cover.
The online secondhand bookselling broker AbeBooks has published a list of its ten most expensive sales of the year. Among the haul were a first edition of Joseph Story's Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, which was sold for £8910, a complete first edition of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which went for £17,425, and a rare 'super deluxe' 1979 edition of Moby-Dick, which fetched £18,310. Top of the list though is a 12th-century Arabic manuscript of Al Wajaza Fi Sihhat Il Qawl Bi l Ijaz, which was bought for £28,500 – still a long way from the £7.3 million paid for a copy of Audubon's Birds of America earlier this month, but then AbeBooks isn't Sotheby's, and isn't trying to be. Meanwhile, Michael Gove's Department for Education has told Booktrust that its Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up programmes will no longer receive government funding.
Ever since the reports of October’s foiled ink-cartridge bombings mentioned that a book was in one of the boxes along with the printer, I’ve wondered what it was, and if it had some symbolic meaning. It was impossible to make out in news photographs, but the mystery is solved in the November issue of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language magazine (via Christopher Hitchens in Slate), which published pictures of one of the bombs being made and a close-up of the book:
Tomorrow morning, at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers in Midtown Manhattan (and online at www.txauction.com), the US Marshals are selling off the assets of Bernie and Ruth Madoff. There's a preview today (until 7 p.m.) at a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard; some items are for ‘visual inspection’ only, but the feds will let you try on the jewellery. Madoff seems to have liked gold Patek Philippe watches, though I preferred a Rolex with a moonphase and a perpetual calendar in less gaudy stainless steel (lot 182, est. $60-70,000). The clothes wouldn’t fit me, though there are handsome ties from Charvet, and if you wear a size 8½ shoe you should pounce on lot 331: 16 pairs of John Lobb loafers with a low estimate of $1500, the price of a single new pair. There are lots of shoes. I counted more than 200 men’s pairs, including dozens unworn, to say nothing of slippers, running shoes and boots.
The Madoffs also had a library that is being sold en bloc,
Google announced that they were going into the digital bookselling business at last year's Frankfurt Book Fair. The first e-books for sale from Google Editions, they said, were going to be available in the first half of 2010. As yet, there's still no sign of them although Google remains adamant that the project is on its way. It's already clear that there are some key differences between what Google Editions will offer and what's already on the market.
It takes about a year to publish a book now, what with the festivals, the hairdos, the film producers and the jetlag. At the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year, I was happy to see the Indian schoolchildren out in force, ready – as nowhere else – with their autograph books and stubby pencils, keen to capture a signature just in case the author turned out to be famous. The children of Jaipur seem to imagine that anyone placed before a microphone is a possible celebrity. But, more than that, they have watched the talent shows over the last few years, and they know the difference between a common clerk and a monster celebrity is merely a matter of time and a little exposure to the public vote. It was nice, though, to see how open they were to the notion that writers stood a chance, as opposed to the average Joe mangling a Whitney Houston song.
Everyone breathe easy: Andrew Wylie and Random House are friends again. As the headline in the Bookseller would have it, the publisher has won the battle: the literary agent has agreed not to publish electronic versions of Random House titles under his own imprint, Odyssey Editions (a name perhaps implicitly casting Random House and the other big publishers as Polyphemus and the Cyclopes). In return, however,
In an interview with Back Cover earlier this year, Richard Hollis, the graphic designer, writer, teacher and now publisher, said that when he was starting out fifty years ago, Designers were more like doctors then. A client would consult them, and say: 'My problem is, I’ve got to tell these people about this and that.’ Looking at books in British bookshops for the first time in a while, I began to wonder what symptoms the patients, four different publishers in this case, complained of to get these cures:
Even though I was born almost in Essex, giving me an enduring taste for the exceptional qualities of an unexceptional landscape which I often indulge by walking in it, I hadn’t read (or, frankly, even heard of) J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine until it was reissued by New York Review Books a few years ago. Robert Macfarlane’s introduction says that almost nothing is known about Baker except that he was born in 1926 and was diagnosed with a serious illness around the time the book was published in 1967. The NYRB blurb added that ‘he appears to have worked as a librarian for the remainder of his life.’ There was no date of death. The book is written in the form of a journal over six months, from October to April. Criss-crossing on his bicycle a small area of countryside to the east of Chelmsford, Baker is on the track of a peregrine falcon – less murderous in intent than Captain Ahab, but no less obsessed.
What to make of last week's move by the agent Andrew Wylie to cut out the middle men – not the old middle men, literary agents, but the new middle men, publishers – and publish e-books himself as Odyssey Editions ('wily Odysseus', geddit?), sold exclusively through Amazon?
The Strand Bookstore, which opened on Fourth Avenue in 1927, now takes up 55,000 square feet on Broadway and 12th and has '18 miles of New, Used, Rare and Out of Print Books' in stock. The novelist David Markson, who was born in Albany in 1927 and died in his West Village apartment last month, spent more than a few of his intervening hours at the Strand. (Here's a short clip of him speaking there.) Still, it was a shock to walk into the Strand last week and find the contents of his personal library scattered among the stacks.
'It's the kind of book Jane Austen would've written if she'd been male and hipper.' 'It's The Name of the Rose if Sean Connery's character was a conglomeration of self-aware spores instead of a medieval monk.' 'If Virginia Woolf had a younger sister with a passionate interest in icebergs – ' 'This book is probably the first introduction to disciplined introspection in over 100 years.' 'A powerful depiction of humanity personified.' 'George has fallen in love with Lucy. A prostitute. Worse, a robot.' 'No leader of modern times was more unique and more uniquely national than Charles de Gaulle.' 'James Brabazon has written a fully-adrenalised book.' 'If Joan London never writes another word, The Good Parents is more than enough.'
If you want to distinguish poetry, the multifarious, sometimes ridiculous ongoing enterprise, from ‘poetry’, the set of prestigious texts (most by people long dead) found on school exams, and if the poetry in question is your own, you can attempt to make the verse you write as shockingly informal, as anti-academic, as unmonumental, as your other aesthetic goals permit. We recognise the New York School poets, and the poets who would be their heirs, by such attempts, which is why scholars who work on them face a paradox.
Claire Bloom – Ophelia to Scofield and Burton; Lady Anne to Olivier’s Richard III; the girl handpicked by Chaplin to play his protegée in Limelight, the last of his films to have any shadow of greatness; Lady Marchmain in the original television Brideshead Revisited – is going to appear in an episode of The Bill next week. Whatever you think of Bloom’s acting (she’s always struck me as limited by her self-conscious seriousness; try to imagine her telling a joke), and despite her stints in daytime drama in the US and last year’s cameo as the Doctor’s mother on Dr Who, she will be an incongruous presence on ITV’s long-running, soon-to-be-axed cop opera, with its notoriously plodding scripts and cut-price production values. (A series like The Wire still only shows the way poverty blights imagination; The Bill embodies it.)
Paul Johnson has written 'an intimate and very personal portrait of the 20th century' called, after John Aubrey, Brief Lives: two hundred portraits of famous people he has known, or met once, or nearly. The blurb calls him a 'shrewdly humorous analyst'. Here are a few examples of his shrewd humour, some of it so shrewd as to be surely unintentional. And the juxtaposition of Picasso and Pinochet is something else.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-73) was, in my view, a bad man with some good qualities.
Nikita Krushchev (1894-1971) was the ebullient, ruthless, blood-stained and accident-prone Soviet leader between the end of the Stalin era and the long, comatose reign of Brezhnev.
Richard Nixon (1913-94) led a busy life after his enforced resignation.
Craig Venter has created life. Or at any rate half-life: a synthetic copy of the goat-pathogen Mycoplasma mycoides. Neither creating an artificial genome nor transplanting a genome from one bacterium to another are world firsts – Venter’s team have done both before – but doing both at once is a breakthrough. In Venter's words: ‘It’s the first self-replicating cell on the planet that’s parent is a computer.’ Hidden in its genetic folds are a web address, the names of the 46 scientists who worked on the project and a few choice quotations, all written in a secret code. There’s this from American Prometheus, a biography of Oppenheimer:
A selection of recent book dedications, the last two from the same novel: a prize for guessing who it's by. 'I'd like to thank my girlfriend... who travelled with me while I did the field work, and read through the whole manuscript at stages. Admittedly she was paid handsomely in fine Italian wine.' 'In Memoriam Matris' 'To Barack and Michelle Obama, and the future of American art' 'To complainers everywhere' 'to mine enemies, without whom none of this would have been possible' 'Animals possess a purity that exceeds even that of children and they have much to teach us, if only we will cease our arrogance and listen.
The idea of film ‘trailers’ for books may look like yet another unpleasant twist in the commodification of literature, or, at the very least, an attempt to convince consumers that books really are just like movies, but all the same there have been some enjoyable results. Most trailers consist of the author reading a short (and usually dramatic) extract from the book over a montage of images. The recent one for Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed is a pretty representative example:
The four most ‘informative’ words in Moby-Dick, statistically speaking, are ‘I’, ‘whale’, ‘you’ and ‘Ahab’. Marcello Montemurro and Damian Zanette worked this out by comparing the text of Moby-Dick to all the possible alternatives obtainable by shuffling Melville’s words into random sequences. These are not the four words that are used most often, or that carry the most ‘information’ in the everyday sense of the term, but the words whose positioning in the original, meaningful text differs most from the way they would be scattered in all other permutations. The ‘information’ here is of the mathematical, measurable kind: ‘most informative’ means ‘least randomly distributed’. It may seem a slightly odd way to try to quantify semantic content, as though when Melville wrote Moby-Dick, it wasn’t so much a matter of finding the right words, as of putting them down in the right order.
James Ellroy comes across as being a difficult man to interview. It’s not that he clams up – he seems to love doing interviews – or only says boring stuff. But his schtick-to-vaguely-serious-answer ratio is highly variable, depending on what kind of mood he’s in, how much press he’s been doing lately and so on, and is in any case quite hard to judge. Choose the wrong day, or press the wrong button, and you’ll get something like this (from a 2006 New York Times Magazine interview): I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime writer who ever lived.
One of the many silly books being published for Halloween is The Horror Film Quiz Book. The questions are organised by film, though it might have been as well to categorise them according to difficulty. They range from the absurdly easy – 'who directed the original Psycho?' or 'For his main female lead roles Hitchcock chose girls with what hair colour?' – to the uttery impossible for anyone except the most committed horror nerd: 'What type of chainsaw was used in Texas Chainsaw Massacre?' Winter evening fun for all the family.
The title of Sarah Palin's ghosted memoir is Going Rogue: An American Life. Will Palin, the rednecks' favourite, eventually see the idiocy and the aptness of her title? Maybe, maybe not. A rogue is a crook or a vagabond. A rogue is an elephant ostracised by its herd. A rogue is a racehorse inclined to shirk its work on the course, something Palin may know about having given up as governor of Alaska before finishing her term. Still, in the annals of right-wingers shooting themselves in the foot (quite a phenomenon in the US), Palin's book title doesn't quite match a song Bob Dole chose for his campaign in 1996. That was a rendition of the Sam & Dave song, 'Soul Man' – the words of the chorus were changed from 'I'm a Soul Man' to 'I'm a Dole Man'.
Think of a book. Then imagine someone other than the author who might – or could never – have written it.
Theo Tait on Gordon Burn's last book, Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel, from the LRB of 5 June 2008: Gordon Burn’s work takes place at a point where fact and fiction, public events and private lives, fame and death all meet. Burn, who died last Friday, wrote pieces for the London Review on John Cheever (the ‘gut-spilling’, the ‘ear-scalding exhibitionism’) and Robert Stone (his ‘stoned rap’, his ‘junky jabber’).
Recently published (and possibly available from the London Review Bookshop): Fire: The Spark that Ignited Human Evolution Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens William Golding: The Man Who Wrote 'Lord of the Flies' We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain that Killed My Father Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionised Ocean Science The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and his Sons of Genius The Making of Miranda: From Gentleman to Gentlewoman in One Lifetime Bad Mother: A Chr