Tuesday, December 09, 2003

A bourbon priest. "You could see from his appearance, the shorts, the T-shirts that bore the names of rock bands or different events in America, he made no effort to look like a priest. The beard could indicate he was a foreign missionary, a look some of them affected. What did he do? He distributed clothes sent by his brother, he heard Confession when he felt like it, listened to people complain of their lives, people mourning the extinction of their families. He did play with the children, took pictures of them and read to them from the books of a Dr. Seuss. But most of the time, Laurent believed, he sat here on his hill with his friend Mr. Walker." -- Elmore Leonard, Pagan Babies.
The above takes place in Rwanda, around the corner from a churchful of corpses. Mr Walker, you may have guessed, comes with a red or black label.
[Pagan Babies, by Elmore Leonard, Viking, 2000. Soon enough you are back to Detroit and a good old-fashioned Elmore Leonard money-chase, with the characters on eccentric orbits around an unpictured moral centre. Bandits remains a better statement of Mr Leonard's foreign policy.]

Monday, December 08, 2003

What it is to be well-connected. "Antonio Armellini, Paddy Ashdown, Tony Benn, Lord Biffen (formerly John Biffen), Tony Blair, Sir Leon Brittan, Gordon Brown, Charles Clarke, Kenneth Clarke, Lord Cockfield, Robin Cook, Tam Dalyell, Jacques Delors, Andrew Duff, Lord Garel-Jones (formerly Tristan Garel-Jones), Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar (formerly Ian Gilmour), Lord Hattersley (formerly Roy Hattersley), Lord Healey (formerly Denis Healey), Sir Nicholas Henderson, Michael Heseltine, Lord Howe of Aberavon (formerly Geoffrey Howe), Lord Hurd (formerly Douglas Hurd), Lord Jenkins of Hillhead (formerly Roy Jenkins), Sir John Kerr, Neil Kinnock, Helmut Kohl, Norman Lamont, Ruud Lubbers, John Major, Peter Mandelson, Geoffrey Martin, Denis McShane, Sir Christopher Meyer, Lord Owen (formerly David Owen), Chris Patten, Michael Portillo, Sir Charles Powell, Giles Radice, Lord Renwick of Clifton (formerly Robin Renwick), Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Ryder of Wensum (formerly Richard Ryder), Robert Schaetzel, Richard Shepherd, Lord Shore of Stepney (formerly Peter Shore), Lady Thatcher (formerly Margaret Thatcher), Sir Roger Tomkys, Lord Tugendhat, William Waldegrave, Karel Vam Miert, Lode Willems and Robert Worcester" -- 'Public figures' section of the Acknowledgements in Hugo Young's This Blessed Plot.
[This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, by Hugo Young, Macmillan, 1998. Not finished yet, so judgment will be reserved until a (possibly much) later quotation.]

Developments in academia, second series. "A group of students seized the Frank J. Bellhope memorial aquarium to protest the treatment of Roberta, the manatee savant. The protest was a failure. I called a symposium on the history of student seizure of campus buildings. The symposium was a success." -- Jonathan Lethem, As She Climbed Across the Table.
[As She Climbed Across the Table, by Jonathan Lethem, Doubleday, 1997. A love triangle between an anthropologist, a physicist and a yearning artificial void, which is also -- you'll have to trust me on this -- 2001: A Space Odyssey restaged as a campus novel. Tends to have Don DeLillo's voice where now you'd expect Lethem's, although that doesn't make it any less fun.]

Thursday, December 04, 2003

A small detail of something distressing. "When I asked Daddy what he wanted for his birthday, he said, 'Another birthday.' Instead, I bought him a few books, though I felt it was a bit presumptuous to choose him a book, when he'd been guiding me towards books all my life. One goes on needing a book right up to death -- it's almost inevitable that every keen reader in the world will die in the middle of one, pages left unturned." -- Lucy Ellmann, Sweet Desserts.
[Sweet Desserts, by Lucy Ellmann, Virago Press, 1988. Often playful and true (& on grim subjects), sometimes playful and false. There is a man who strains his "every neutrino" to complete a crossword.]

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Visual link. If you're near a largeish bookshop with a coffee-table section, go and find the recent book on Zero, the designer also known as Hans Schleger. Its official title is Hans Schleger -- A Life of Design and it's edited and/or written by his wife Pat; 'Zero' is the big name on the white cover. Anyway, once you have found this book, turn to the auction doodles on page 32.
I could point out other good bits, but they might compel you to buy the thing. And it's terribly expensive.
[Hans Schleger -- A Life of Design, by Pat Schleger, Lund Humphries, 2001.]

Monday, December 01, 2003

Good praise. "Her contemporaries invited the reader into their souls, had no secrets, cultivated extreme individuality and extreme experience; she (while just as unhappy and unstable as they, an orphan at two, a borderline alchoholic, two long lesbian relationships ending in the suicide and insanity of companions) practised decorum and wit, was recessive, fugitive, kept pointing to a world beyond herself, in what now seems a brilliantly and heroically diversionary defensive strategy, a form of camouflage or display. What she offered her correspondents and her readers was not herself -- fearing or deprecating the gift -- but the world, which has rarely seemed more fascinating or beautiful than in her descriptions of it." -- Michael Hoffman, in Behind the Lines, on Elizabeth Bishop.
There will now be a pause for reading, elongated by my new need to track down everything Elizabeth Bishop ever did.
[Behind the Lines, by Michael Hoffman, Faber, 2001. Reviews repackaged as gruffly journalistic 'pieces' rather than 'essays', many of them containing lines quite as strong as those quoted.]

Order of explanation. "I do worry about the duck in the cold. She's probably awake. We have a duck that lives in a doghouse outside. At night we drape a blanket over the doghouse and put a portable window screen over its front entrance. The screen is there to keep out foxes and coyotes. There is a red fox that lives on the hill with a bushy horizontal tail that is almost as big as he is, and at night sometimes you can hear the coyotes hooting from the fields on the other side of the river." -- Nicholson Baker, A Box of Matches.
These sentences might be clearer if rearranged. But they are better -- closer to speech -- as they are.
Bonus example of Nicholson Baker's skill at loose association of ideas: "On New Year's morning this year Claire got us to drive to the ocean to watch the sun rise. That outing was what made me suddenly understand that I needed to start reading Robert Service again and getting up early -- that New Year's outing combined with the time a few months ago when I took the night sleeper car from Washington to Boston and woke up in my bunk and pulled the curtain to look out the window and saw that we were in the station in New York City, and I realized that I was passing through a very important center of commerce without seeing a single street and that something similar was happening in my life."
[A Box of Matches, by Nicholson Baker, Chatto & Windus, 2003. Sort of a return to the earlier books, with setting and narrator's character made more obtrusive.]

Marriage. "The essay on 'Printing' by William Morris and Emery Walker, published by them in 1893, was the first title issued by the Village Press. For all the other books produced by the Press the type was set by Goudy's wife. (To be married to a wife who can set type is happiness indeed.)" -- Walter Tracy, Letters of Credit.
I'm enough of a type geek to enjoy reading books that get really steamed up about removing space between letters ("a spurious sort of sophistication... can only be due to a compound of ignorance and indifference"). Eventually, I suppose, I'll be enough of a type geek to stop finding them funny.
[Letters of Credit, by Walter Tracy, 1986. Readable and sane, with few errors of proofreading. These aren't normal qualities in design books.]

Max Hastings has an endearing love of embarrassment, even if his. To judge by Editor, his memoir of running the Daily Telegraph, he also has a favourite way of describing it.
"Mrs Thatcher, Bernard Ingham and I sat down to a frosty and attenuated tete-a-tete" (p60); "Our dinner table at the Relai was liberally coated with frost" (p67); "The occasion ended, as it began, with several inches of ice on the table" (p110. Shall we stop now?).
Things do become a little smugger as he settles into the job, but there is still scarcely a dining table mentioned that couldn't double as a skating rink.
[Editor, by Max Hastings, Macmillan, 2002. Also interesting in what it refuses to talk about.]

Sunday, November 30, 2003

The eternal student. "Differences were leveled; courses were regarded with a cynical, practical eye; students of both sexes had the wary disillusionment and aimlessness of battle-hardened marines... To teachers with some experience of the ordinary class-bound private college student, of the quiet lecture-hall and the fair duteous heads bent over the notebooks, Jocelyn's hard-eyed watchers signified the real." -- Mary McCarthy, The Groves of Academe.
"I'm reminded of [the failings of American higher education] the first day of each new academic year when students take turns trying to stare me down after class, while threateningly telling me 'I really need an A in this course, man'." -- Chris Semansky, Illustrated London News relaunch issue, Dec 2003.
I can't help feeling this is the same stare. The students in The Groves of Academe don't seem to get automatic A's, though.
[The Groves of Academe, by Mary McCarthy, Heinemann, 1953. For a book (a) by Mary McCarthy and (b) about academic politics, rather restrained in its bitchiness.]

Self-help with Samuel Beckett. "And yet it is useless not to seek, not to want, for when you cease to seek you start to find, and when you cease to want, then then life begins to ram her fish and chips down your gullet until you puke, and then the puke down your gullet until you puke the puke, and then the puked puke until you begin to like it. The glutton castaway, the drunkard in the desert, the lecher in prison, they are the happy ones. To hunger, thirst, lust, every day afresh and every day in vain, after the old prog, the old booze, the old whores, that's the nearest we'll ever get to felicity, the new porch and the very latest garden. I pass on the tip for what it is worth." -- Samuel Beckett, Watt.
Just typing that cheers me up.
[Watt, by Samuel Beckett, Olympia Press, 1953. More demonstrative fun than his later work, but the same quantity of plot.]

Selection, England, 1958. "There are, admittedly, some initial steps by which the total may be reduced. The formula 'Reject everyone over 50 or under 20 plus everyone who is Irish' is now universally used..." -- C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson's Law.
He's being funny, of course. But I doubt he was trying to be all that shocking. Compare the antisemitic bit on p71, if you have a copy of the book to hand.
[Parkinson's Law, by C. Northcote Parkinson, John Murray, 1958. Suffers somewhat from the fact that its best gags are now proverbs.]

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Conflicting influences. "Working on a farm is a healthy life. The work is hard but good. But when I grow up I mean to be an astronaut." -- Amy, nine-year-old Pentecostal narrator of David Malouf's short story 'Closer'.
[Dream Stuff, by David Malouf (Chatto & Windus, 2000). Full of landscape and damaged childhoods. In the second-to-last story, a dead boy says of his father: "I don't know when I first begun to see he wasn't always in the right."]

A proper commonplace. "Truth lies at the bottom of the well; we drink water from the surface in its place, especially when relying on the testimony of others to scoop it up." --'Augsburg patrician and polymath' Markus Welser, quoted in Anthony Grafton's The Footnote.
I wish I could buy that done in pokerwork.
Incidental note of surprise: The most amusing thing in The Footnote isn't the footnotes, although an expert could probably derive some fun from them. I prefer Anthony Grafton's sportive metaphors -- he describes Gibbon's Decline and Fall as a "great neoclassical country house and witty gazebos" -- and his catty way with parenthesis.
[The Footnote, by Anthony Grafton (Faber, 1997). Books not from 1997 soon, I promise.]

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Music criticism. "The people really liked us -- I know, because one customer turned the jukebox on while we were playing, and somebody else threw him down the stairs." -- Billy May, in David Hadju's Lush Life, on an early Pittsburgh gig of Billy Strayhorn's.
[Lush Life, by David Hadju (Granta, 1997). In the next chapter Duke Ellington descends and sweeps Strayhorn off to affluence, and from then on every quote contains either 'darling' or 'wonderful'. But the book doesn't slacken.]

The Game Laws. This is a blast of oratory from the usually comic Sydney Smith, found in Hesketh Pearson's The Smith of Smiths. Before reading, you will need to know that the game laws reserved to certain landlords the exclusive right to hunt certain animals, and the right to protect that right by means of man-traps and spring-triggered guns. But you already did, no?
"There is a sort of horror in thinking of a whole land filled with lurking engines of death -- machinations against human life under every green tree -- traps and guns in every dusky dell and bosky bourn -- the ferae naturae, the lords of manors, eyeing their peasantry as so many butts and marks, and panting to hear the click of the trap and to see the flash of the gun. How any human being educated in liberal knowledge and Christian feeling, can doom to certain destruction a poor wretch, tempted by the sight of animals that naturally appear to him to belong to one person as well as another, we are at a loss to conceive. We cannot imagine how he could live in the same village, and see the widow and orphans of the man whose blood he had shed for a trifle. We consider a person who could do this to be deficient in the very elements of morals -- to want that sacred regard to human life which is one of the corner stones of civil society." -- Sydney Smith, Edinburgh Review.
Bonus link: Smith's Writings in favour of Catholic emancipation -- a counterintuitive position in a 19-century Anglican priest -- which are all I can find in full online.
[The Smith of Smiths, by Hesketh Pearson (Hamish Hamilton, 1934). Amusing, oddly camp, not very narrative biography.]

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Saint Joan contains clumsier exposition than you would think possible in a play of such good reputation. Knight to Bishop: "It is the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God. I should call it Protestantism if I had to find a name for it." This is meant to be before 'Protestantism' is a common term. It comes in here solely because the audience is lost.
On the other hand, the jokes are good. And the end moves from the ridiculous to the sublime with speed and grace. It caught me, anyway.
[Notes for pedants: Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw, 1923; now published by Penguin. Quote taken from 1934 Odham's Press collected Shaw. The knight, Warwick, is actually an earl. But the bishop, Cauchon, actually is a bishop. There.]

What is this? Mainly a reading diary, mainly intended for me. It's public to give me the illusion that there is a reason for not stopping, and to keep me from being too lazy or too honest. The agenda, so far as there is one, is to quote from sources outside the web and use these as an excuse for commentary. If I appear to have violated your copyright, please tell me and I will erase the offence. If I've offended you for other reasons, it's probably best to ignore me. Everybody else will.