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.]