The Session and the Henderson Laboratory

Taking a more relaxed approach to blogging today, here is an extract from an emailshot I received the other day:

Review copies are now available for THE SESSION, A NOVELLA IN DIALOGUE by Aaron Petrovich, the debut installment in the "Hotel St. George Press" imprint. Details about the book and the imprint are listed below. Please e-mail us back if you’d like to receive a copy.

Best Regards,
Johanna Ingalls/Managing Editor
Akashic Books

"Funny, frantic, and with a subversive intelligence, Aaron Petrovich’s Keatonesque heroes, Detectives Smith and Smith, stumble upon a bizarre new religion while following the trail of a murdered mathematician’s missing organs. Their investigation to discover the truth–about the mathematician murder, the mob of men and women who may have eaten him, and ultimately the nature of truth, sanity, and identity–leads them into a lunatic asylum they may never leave."

Hotel St. George Press–an online literary and arts quarterly featuring original fiction, artwork, films, short films, music, and radio plays–is dedicated to publishing intra-genre fictions that fuse the formal craftsmanship of artbooks with the substantive content of dynamic, modern prose.

The Winter 2007 Issue is now online . With the Winter Issue comes the opening of a new wing, the HENDERSON LABORATORY, in which one occupant is given free reign to experiment with new and unusual ideas throughout the duration of the season. Our current guest, Catherine
Bloom, has begun posting her astonishing weekly neuroscience blog, viewable here.

Well, I sure get some interesting mailshots.

Hogarth comes to the Tate

The most comprehensive exhibition "in living memory" of Hogarth’s works is coming to the Tate Britain on 7 February.  From the catalogue:

"The exhibition demonstrates that Hogarth wasn’t only a brilliant satirist as it showcases every aspect of his multi-faceted career: his remarkable paintings, ranging from elegant conversation pieces to salacious brothel scenes; his vibrant drawings and sketches; and the numerous engraved works for which he is most famous today, including Gin Lane and Beer Street . His society portraits easily rival those of Gainsborough or Reynolds, and the variety and energy of his output is outstanding.

No other artist’s work has come to define a period of British history as powerfully and enduringly as Hogarth’s. The exhibition explores an artist who was strikingly modern in character, confronting subjects and themes – the city, sexuality, manners, social integration, crime, political corruption, charity and patriotism– that continue to preoccupy us today. The exhibition makes the case that Hogarth was in fact Britain’s first truly modern artist, and shows the relevance of his work to British art now."

The exhibition runs to 9 April and then moves to Madrid.

A book called Hogarth, France and British Art by Robin Simon (editor and publisher of the British Art Journal) has just been published, in time to coincide with the show. The book claims to be a radical reappraisal of Hogarth’s art and achievements, including more than 300 colour and black-and-white illustrations. 

Grounds for optimism?

"I recall Chekhov’s story because of a link Dave Lull sent me to a brief essay by Rebecca Goldstein at Edge. She is one of 160 people – scientists, journalists, psychologists, academics of various sorts – asked to respond to this question: “What are you optimistic about?” Her answer, in short, is that humans have the capacity to understand one another." Thus writes Patrick Kurp in a new year’s essay.

So what are you optimistic about in these first few days of a new year? Putting aside world peace, and end to hunger and a stop to all beauty contests, what is the one best thing that has a good chance of happening this year?

So far, our newly acquired and rapidly accumulating knowledge of genetics and "genomics" has not translated into demonstrable benefits for human health and wellbeing (eg agricultural improvements). I’d like to think that in 2007 such a direct benefit might be found.

I’d also like to think that the seventh and final "Harry Potter" book will be published this year, and that it will be as good, and as satisfying, as the others.

What are your optimistic predictions for the year ahead?

Good deeds for the day

Scott Pack writes here: Me And My Big Mouth :: My Christmas Angel Moment about how he was able to help the man in front of him in the Waterstone’s queue by providing the title and author of the book the man was trying to buy (without remembering the author or title, a frequent occurrence in bookshops as has been noted here.) The book, by the way, is The Woman in Black, and the author Susan Hill.

I had a similar experience the other day: one of those rare occasions when my day job came in useful "by chance". I was walking up the stairs at Wimbledon station in a mass of coummuters when two young women behind me began to talk about their upcoming chemistry exam. "I can’t even remember who won the Nobel prize this year", one of them lamented. I was able to turn round and enlighten them. I think they were so surprised that the name would have stuck in their minds at least until their test came up.  (The answer is Roger Kornberg.)

Webster’s daily blog

I still find it a bit strange to receive an email from a blogger (or other person) out of the blue, containing information about his or her project. I have read posts on several blogs attacking this practice, but I don’t mind so long as the person is a real person and is not trying to sell something, or tell me about something I could have no conceivable interest in. I guess my tolerance arises from from the perspective of someone who is paid to receive hundreds (sometimes) and certainly tens of emails a day from people I’ve never encountered before, almost all of which require some action or work from me.

Such emails in my "off duty" Petrona persona are relatively rare, but one recent example is from a Josh Wallaert, telling me about his blog Webster’s daily. At this blog, a lovely shade of deep blue, Josh posts one "found poem" every day from the first edition of Webster’s American Dictionary (1828).

The example he sent in his email message: Hope [n.] A sloping plain between ridges of mountains. [Not in use.]

I didn’t post about Webster’s Daily straight away upon receipt of Josh’s message because I wanted to check it out for a few days to see if it really is a "daily", and it is. What’s more, it is a really nice blog (I’ve put a bit more information about it on the continuation sheet to this post). I have subscribed, and hope you will take a look.

Dave Lull, in the unlikely event you don’t know about Webster’s Daily already, I think you will like it. Let me know if you would like me to add it to the Librarian’s Place blogroll.

Continue reading

Bill, Susan and David

Nighy Susan Balée has written a review of David Hare’s latest play, The Vertical Hour, on a wonderful website called The Official Bill Nighy Experience.  Susan and I are fellow enthusiasts for David Hare; Susan is also a devotee of Bill N., an actor I like a lot too.

I could not better Susan’s great introduction for why I, too, love Hare’s plays and always have done since seeing "Teeth ‘n’ Smiles" years ago:

"First, a confession: I think David Hare is possibly the best playwright of our era and I know for a fact Bill Nighy is the best actor. Hare has penned so many fabulous plays over the years – Skylight, Plenty, The Secret Rapture, Amy’s View, A Map of the World, just to name a handful – and he’s been willing to tackle Western society’s big issues and explore them in innovative ways. Until recently, he rarely preached to his audience, he simply showed us particular situations and let us draw our own conclusions. His ambiguity was a virtue; ditto his skill at sublimating the political issues that fascinate him into compelling stories about intimate relationships between human beings. As a female, I’ve also admired Hare because it’s clear he genuinely likes women, and powerful women with intelligent, witty dialogue feature in many of the above-named plays. Therefore, when I read this spring that Hare would be premiering a new play on Broadway and that my hero Bill Nighy would star in it … Well, let’s just say I was over the moon."

Unfortunately, Susan didn’t enjoy the new play much: too much politics, not enough passion. But at least there was Bill.

Here is Susan’s bio from the review:

"Susan Balée wrote the first biography of writer Flannery O’Connor and her essays on literature have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Weekly Standard, The Women’s Review of Books, The Hudson Review, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oxford Encyclopedia to American Literature, and Scribner’s British Writers reference series. Her long essay on the career of playwright David Hare is forthcoming in The Michigan Quarterly Review.

Balée is also an unabashed and enthusiastic fan of the greatest actor in the English-speaking world: Bill Nighy."

Museum of childhood

18203_image_1 The Museum of Childhood in London is reopening on 9 December after a £4.7 million development. The 130-year old building should be restored to its Victorian glory (I’m paraphrasing here) with upgraded "visitor facilities" and a stunning new entrance.

The museum used to be called the Bethnal Green Museum, and was opened in 1872. In an early form of placeism (of which this blog approves), the idea was that the local people would run it. This never happened, and nobody really knew what the museum was for, other than vague ideas of cultural enrichment for the impoverished East Enders.

The museum settled on an emphasis on food, which began to decay.  After the First World War, however, Arthur Sabin, one of the curators, began to focus on items that would interest children — and the museum kind of stuttered on like this until the 1970s, when Roy Strong, director of the V&A, decided to officially dedicate the museum to childhood.

On the museum’s website you can find pages of children’s activities as part of its aim" to encourage everyone to explore the themes of childhood past and present and develop an appreciation of creative design through our inspirational collections and programmes." The collections in the museum are indexed here.  Touring exhibitions are listed here.

Best left undiscovered?

From today’s Times. One William Topaz McGonagall is apparently known as the world’s worst poet. His most famous piece is The Tay Bridge Disaster, which includes the lines: “Alas! I am very sorry to say / That ninety lives have been taken away / On the last Sabbath day of 1879 / Which will be remember’d for a very long time.”

Now, a play has been discovered in a Dundee archive, written in 1886 and never performed or published. It is a three-act melodrama, probably written as a tribute to Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays called Jack o’the Cudgel. "Set in the court of Edward III, it tells the story of Jack, a “noble Saxon” who rises from pauper to royal knight and vanquishes his enemies by clubbing them over the head with an enormous cudgel. In one memorable scene, he stops a giant from attacking a minstrel, declaring: “Leave the minstrel, thou pig-headed giant, or I’ll make you repent/For thou must know my name is Jack, and I hail from Kent.”  "

McGonagall himself, an enthusiastic if dreadful actor, intended to play the main role but never got around to it. But even in advance of the play’s publication next month, there is much excitement among McGonagall’s cult following, who are looking forward to "the usual banalities, execrable rhymes and appalling scansion."

Link: Sorry to say, someone has found a McGonagall play – Newspaper Edition – Times Online.

Suffragettes continued at Oasis

In the comments to my recent post on the suffragettes, several readers have asked me the reason(s) for Cathy’s disapproval of the movement. She’s now replied in a post on her own blog, Oasis. Please go to the link and read her argument; she would love to read your responses in her comments. I, too, am looking forward to your views on her views (this is getting rather nested).

Oasis post on suffragettes.

Literary culture

Taking advantage of a day’s holiday from work to catch up, I have read an interview with Gabriel Josipovici on Ready Steady Book, link kindly sent to me, with some excerpts, by Dave Lull.

I hadn’t heard of Mr Josipovici before (I hope that does not make me a Philistine), but he is a French writer who has spent most of his adult life in the UK. This last point is relevant becuase GJ is rather critical of the UK cultural scene; as he lives here, then that’s OK;-)

Much of the interview on Ready Steady Book is about GJ’s writing, old and new. The conversation takes a general turn:

"MT: In this country we tend to see literary novels as ‘heavy’ and popular fiction as ‘light’. Yet you have referred to the ‘lightness’ of The Iliad. What is this quality exactly? Are there modern novels that are light in this way?"

The first part of the response is one that Michael Allen would endorse:

"GJ: There may be two or three different issues here. I find contemporary works that take themselves terribly seriously a pain, as I’ve said. I’d much rather read a good thriller or a good comic novel than one that is bidding to become a Booker prize-winner (and often succeeding)."

GJ then goes on to say that (American, he says) thriller writers these days want to show that their work is important, which he calls a "disaster for their work". This is an intriguing view: which thriller writers can he mean, and why a disaster? (He doesn’t tell us.) The most famous and successful thriller at the moment remains the Da Vinci Code, and I don’t recall the author claiming it as important (though some religious organisations have erroneously taken it seriously, but that’s different). In my opinion, among the best current US thriller writers are the likes of Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Karin Slaughter, Philip Margolian, Robert Crais … I could go on (see Connotea Detective). My point is, I have not known them to take their work "seriously" in what they have written or said about their books. (Karin Slaughter in particular is great copy as an interviewee).

GJ’s examples of modern authors who write "light" novels are Malamud, Shabtai, Simon, Perec, Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Kundera, Joseph Heller and Peter Handke. I am ashamed to say I have not read, or even heard of, many of these. I went through a phase of reading Kundera and enjoyed a few of his, though I found I’d had enough after a while. I read one Malamud ages ago (his most famous one, called "The Fixer") but do not remember much about it. Catch 22 (Heller) I found a bit of a curate’s egg (though was only a teenager when I read it, and knew nothing about the culture or events depicted). The rest I have not read. I admit I am not a literary intellectual, so do feel somewhat intimidated by this list of "light" reading. GJ also mentions Spark, Bellow, Nabokov and Thomas Bernhard. I’ve read a lot of Spark in the past, I read one or two Nabokovs and didn’t like them (probably did not "get" them — he seems a creepy kind of person to me but I know he is much admired), and have not read the others. I guess there is little hope for me, as these days I fear I would not now have the concentration to read these no doubt extremely clever books.

Another point GJ makes, as highlighted by Dave Lull, is about the paucity of British (literary) culture:

"MT: In the past you’ve said that, from your perspective, British culture appears to be "narrow, provincial and smug". How would you say this manifests itself when it comes to literature?"

"GJ: Coming to this culture from the outside I’m amazed at how mean and provincial it is. What do I mean by that? It’s difficult to put into words. It’s like a fog that has covered the British Isles and people go about in it and think that’s how the world is. Look at the bookshops. I lived in Paris for a few months two years ago, in the Montmartre area, not a particularly intellectual quarter, but there were four independent bookshops within five minutes walk of my flat. Their owners had run them for ten to twenty-five years and, while they of course had all the latest works, they also reflected the owners’ tastes. ‘Içi, moi je suis la reine’, one of them said to me one day. Here, every town you go to has the same dreary Waterstones with the same dreary books piled high on the tables, two for the price of one in some instances, supermarket style. I wonder if it is the first time in history that the line between fashion and culture has disappeared. Disappeared in the minds of the reading public, of literary editors, of prizegivers, even of writers themselves."

Well. And again, well! Of course GJ is right to observe the sad decline of the independent bookseller (someone has made a similar comment to my chick-lit posting immediately before this one). When I moved to Kingston 15 years ago, for example, there were 7 or 8 different bookshops in the town, now there are three, and yes they are Waterstones, Borders and WHSmith. But I don’t think this is symptomatic of any problem for the consumer of books (though of course it is for the independent booksellers). Although GJ sneers at the 3 for 2s (very fashionable to do that), Waterstones and Borders offer a large choice of standard books. And where they don’t, there is online. As has so often been said, Amazon offers any book you can think of, in or out of print, 24 hours a day. (Abe books and other online booksellers similar.) I have bought more books in the past 5 years from a huge range of small bookshops and individuals in the UK (and elsewhere) than I ever did before I got hooked on the Internet. The variety is unbelievable. One of my favourite blogs, admittedly not UK, reviews "a book a day", mostly obtained from the public library. Other bloggers do the same. (Doubtless non-bloggers too;-) )

That isn’t to say that independent bookshops aren’t great — they are. Whenever I am in a town where there is one — Keswick, Tenby, Chipping Norton — and have any time (and they are open), I go in and invariably buy some books that I hadn’t previously thought to buy. There are plenty in central London too, but I tend not to go there even though, technically, I live there. It is sad that these shops find it hard to compete. But GJ is wrong, I think, to imply that their absence signifies a literary desert.

My theory is that in Paris and in other cities in mainland Europe, independent booksellers have a better time of it because the Internet has not caught on there to the extent that it has in this island nation, and becuase English is not the first language. Online retail in mainland European languages does exist, but on a much smaller scale than English. I think if GJ waits a few years he will see things change. I am not saying this is a good thing, but I think it may happen. (And I think he’s probably right that the standard of literary debate in the media is higher in parts of mainland Europe and South America than it is in parts of the USA and UK.)

GJ talks about sameness of literary prizes, and so on: I am sure he is right to imply a level of product placement and commercialism, from what one reads. But is he aware of the blog world, and the absolutely first-class standard of literary comments and debate that exists, on books old and new? He fails to acknowledge it.

So I think GJ is incorrect to say: "English literary culture, in sharp contrast to the musical and fine arts culture, has retreated into a safe little Englander mentality, imagining that merely by writing ‘about’ great events and deep subjects you are producing great and deep works of literature."

I think it is still there, just as it always was. It may not be the literary "club" of London publishers and authors he no doubt is attacking (another fashionable activity). But I wonder if he is aware of how many book groups exist – -I know of several locally, among parents of school-age children. Informal, unnoticed by anyone but themselves, yet there for the love of reading. Is the "Richard and Judy" book club beneath the notice of GJ? (It is modelled on Oprah, I believe.) I don’t watch R&J but the books they select are promoted in the dreaded Waterstones et al. I have bought quite a few for my teenage daughter, as she moves into adult reading, and she’s enjoyed them, and found that they have raised questions for her to consider. I don’t think the R&J selections are "safe choices" from well-known authors, but are quite individualistic, on the whole.

There is another aspect to GJ’s comments, but which I am not going to discuss now as this post is too long, and I am currently cooking someone’s tea, doing a load of washing and have to collect a child from somewhere. Such is the fractured life of the "attempted intelligent" person with domestic responsibilities. Petrona will have to retire for the moment.

My message to GJ is: in a culture dominated by instant, digestible media, I am constantly impressed by the variety of reading and thinking done by the people I encounter in daily life. Most of whom are completely unaware of literary prizes and the "scratch my back" nature (we are told) of book publishing. There is hope for us yet!

Note: I see that Ready Steady Book does not have a comments facility 😉

Frank Wilson said…

Many years ago, Maxine, I reviewed Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman. I called it the longest 89-page novel I had ever read.

7:09 PM

Maxine said…

You give me hope, Frank!

7:21 PM