Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Goat-Faced Girl Event in St. Paul

Author Leah Marinsky Sharpe will be reading from and signing her new book, The Goat-Faced Girl, at The Red Balloon Bookstore (891 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105) on Saturday, January 16, 2010, at 2:00 p.m.

In this witty, modern interpretation of a classic Italian folktale, Leah Marinsky Sharpe has crafted a light-hearted mother-daughter fable with a moral that is sure to strike a chord with readers of all ages. The illustrations by Jane Marinsky glow with rich color and playful humor. Together, words and pictures provide a zesty treat for parents and children alike.

From the Reviews
“Children ages 5-10 will relish Jane Marinsky's colorful, naïve-style paintings of Isabella learning to persevere, especially the image of her determinedly stirring a bowl of batter, unaware of the dab of chocolate on her goaty nose.” – The Wall Street Journal

"Rich storytelling and intricately imagined artwork make this debut a standout. [...] Marinsky's paintings, in the chalky, sun-bleached colors of the Italian renaissance, contain many small pleasures: the woods and flowers of medieval tapestries, the goat-headed princess licking cupcake batter off her goat nose, and a portrait of the shallow prince's just fate. A must for anyone who would rather be a sorceress than a princess." – Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The cast of characters in this reinterpretation of an Italian folktale includes a lizard and witch, deserted baby, and a lovely, lazy girl troubled by a bout of goathead-itis. Not to mention a finicky prince who is shocked to discover a faun-like face on his girlfriend’s body. The story is rich with subtle reminders to be self-reliant, productive, authentic, and watchful of the motivations of others. Marinsky’s rich, renaissance-inspired artwork captures just the right imagery." – Foreword Magazine

Monday, December 28, 2009

More on Miss Alcott Herself

Hope everyone had a great holiday! We know we shouldn't be showing videos of authors talking about other books and such — bad marketing, all that — but things just aren't as stiff around here as they are in other companies, and we wanted to share this fine presentation about one of the house's heroines. So check out this C-Span video of author Harriet Reisen discussing her book, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women (Henry Holt and Co.; October) at the Boston Public Library. (And if you're interested, we humbly recommend Kit Bakke's Miss Alcott's Email as well.) Along with the new PBS special on Miss Alcott, it appears that Kit Bakke was at the verge of an absolute tidal wave!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Andrew Motion Interview

Check out this great interview between Sir Andrew Motion and Chris Lydon at the podcast Whose Words These Are. Motion tells his interviewer, “A lot of the subjects of my poems are on the face of it very personal — they’re poems about my partner, they’re poems about my childhood, they’re poems about my mother in particular, they’re poems about my father, they’re poems about what happens to me in a rolling way — but I’ve always thought that the very large amount of my time that I spend engaged with the political things around my writing is evident here . . . a sense of England mutating from being one kind of society into another one. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m sort of lingeringly, damp-eyedly peering back at a golden age and wishing that it would come back again. That’s very much not my political position. I feel very much engaged with the here and now. As I say that, I also feel very struck of course by living at the moment where the old imperial idea of the UK gave way to something else.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

Andrew Motion this Week in New York

Former British poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion will be appearing this week in New York City to read from and discuss his first American collection, The Mower. The Barnes & Noble Review describes Motion's work as "poems where time textures us, where time stands in for all the forces that take in trust our youth and joys and all we have, as Raleigh put it somewhere around the turn of the 17th century. In Motion's work, this harrowing truth — long the province of the best lyric poetry — remains constant."

Tomorrow (Tuesday), December 15, at 7:00 pm, Andrew Motion will read from his collection The Mower: New and Selected Poems, at 192 Books (192 10th Avenue)

Wednesday, December 16, at 7:00 pm, Andrew Motion will appear at the National Arts Club in conversation with Alice Quinn, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America (Marquis Gallery, 15 Gramercy Park South)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Louisa May Alcott on PBS

Humanities Magazine has an insightful article by John Matteson on Louisa May Alcott, and reports, 'NEH-funded documentary Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, to be aired December 28 on PBS'. Mark your calendars! I'm sure it will be great.

In the article Matteson writes, 'The Alcotts’ idealism reached its pinnacle in 1843, when Bronson and an English reformer, Charles Lane, cofounded a utopian community called Fruitlands, whose members swore off all animal products, as well as coffee, tea, and any commodity generated by slavery. The Fruitlands community called itself a “consociate family,” meaning that all its members were entitled to an equal claim on one another’s loyalties and affections. Ill-planned from the start, Fruitlands foundered in less than a year, but not before Bronson and Lane had proposed that the men imitate the Shakers by segregating themselves from the women. Since the only women left at Fruitlands by this time were Abigail and her daughters, the plan essentially meant that Bronson would leave his family. Eleven-year-old Louisa responded with tearful prayers. In her journal, she begged God to keep her family together. The Alcotts did not separate. However, Louisa’s experience of first gaining a larger family and then watching her biological family nearly dissolve left a tremendous impression. It both convinced her of the importance of family unity as a bulwark against misfortune and opened her mind to the possibility of forming close attachments on some basis other than blood or marriage. Both the centrality of the family and a willingness to redefine family on broadly inclusive terms were to characterize much of her later writing.'

Of course, we at Godine know all about it, thanks to Kit Bakke's extraordinary and engaging book, Miss Alcott's Email: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds. It is particularly popular with book groups, and we've offered a selection of resources as well as a special offer if you decide to make it next month's pick.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Local Bookstores Just a Click Away

Clicking around the New York Times' Best Books of 2009 lists, I noticed their snappy new integration of IndieBound's database of local bookstores. Maybe this has been up for awhile and I haven't noticed, but it seems like a great addition for the season. Buying local seems that much more sensible when it's a mere click below Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I've already used IndieBound's local bookstore finder when I'm hunting for new bookstores in unfamiliar areas, and they've proven handy because their extensive database is consistently updated by taking submissions from local customers, not to mentioned their integrated Google maps.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Life a User's Manual: a Recommendation

At the Oxford University Press blog's Holiday Book Bonanza, Simon Winchester, the printer and typophile, writes, 'Georges Perec is my absolute literary hero because of one giant, magical, marvelous, sprawling, irredeemably clever and unforgettable book published just before he died, translated into English by another genius-figure named David Bellos (and who also wrote Perec’s biography) and which came out in Britain and America under the title Life A User’s Manual. This majestic monster of a book remains, year after year, now decade after decade, my single favourite book – the Everest which I constantly aspire to climb, the model of literary accomplishment which lies before me on each occasion that I write one of my own books, and which goads me to hope that in time I might achieve such mad and magical excellence.'

New York Times Best of 2009

David R. Godine, Publisher, is proud and excited to announce that Genius of Common Sense, the young adult biography of Jane Jacobs written by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch, has been chosen as one of the eight New York Times' Notable Children's Titles of 2009! It is the first book for young people about Jane Jacobs, this heroine of common sense and author of the groundbreaking work The Death & Life of Great American Cities, a woman who never attended college but whose observations, determination, and independent spirit led her to far different conclusions than those of the academics who surrounded her.

Through her tireless efforts, Jacobs helped save neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village in New York City and the historic North End of Boston from destruction by bold city planners, and helped change the way we think about cities and the people who actually live in them. The New York Times writes, "No stodgy history text . . . Genius of Common Sense [is] loaded with primary sources like photographs and contemporary news accounts that bring alive [this story] for any teenager wondering how she can make a difference in the world."

Bound to find a place among modern children's classics, Genius of Common Sense makes the perfect holiday present for that inquisitive, obstreperous young lady or lad in your life — and is available now through the Godine website or wherever fine books are sold!

Monday, December 7, 2009

People Say We're Crazy

The first thing that people usually say at trade shows or conferences is, "Godine makes such beautiful books!" We take great pride in that, from the page margins, to the typography (call us crazy, but over digital types like Georgia and Arial, we prefer Minion or Miller, Bulmer or Bell), to the printing quality, and — perhaps most important to the public — the cover or jacket design. Some say they aren't all gems though. At The New York Times, Joe Queenan describes the effect of book design on his reading habits:

"It all added up. Until now, I’d thought that I had set these books aside for so many years because they were too daunting or, in the case of Thomas Mann, too dull. Now I realized that what these books had in common was that they were ugly. Really, really ugly. The 1987 hardback of George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual [ed: edition in question pictured to the left, & no longer available; our new edition pictured to the right] is a dreary reimagining of a Balthus street scene. The shabby 1991 hardback edition of the Thomas C. Reeves biography A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy looks as if somebody in the design department got desperate and pasted clip art onto the cover seconds before it was shipped to the printer. A 1997 edition of The Bad Seed comes adorned with a photograph of a macabre doll that bears an odd resemblance to a girl I sat next to in fifth grade. A girl who creeped me out.

"Gradually, I realized that the books I had put off reading for so long all had covers that screamed: “Pulp me! Pulp me!” I’d owned Jorge Luis Borges’s Personal Anthology for 35 years, but had never opened it because the cover looked like somebody had smeared mustard all over it. This may also be the reason I’d never taken a crack at Wallace Markfield’s unjustly overlooked novel Teitlebaum’s Window, or Don DeLillo’s Libra. Graphic vileness was also the common denominator linking Stock Market Logic; Three Plays, by Sean O’Casey; Can You Drill a Hole Through Your Head and Survive?; History of the Conquest of Peru; The Crying of Lot 49; L’Assomoir and even The Satanic Verses."

Ah, the best laid plans . . . but at least we're in good company!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Godine Authors in “PEN America”

The new issue of PEN America landed on my desk the other week with its surreal collaged cover and enticing topic: “Make Believe.” While I always enjoy finding new writers in translation between the covers of PEN’s semi-annual journal, I was especially pleased to recognize in the contents of Issue #11 two names of our very own: Damion Searls and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. Searls is the translator of a new volume of poems and prose by Rainer Maria Rilke, The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams, due out early next year from Godine, and Le Clézio is of course the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize and author of the recently published Desert, as well as The Prospector (Godine, 1993, 2008).

In response to a question from PEN to imagine a book one wished had been written, Searls considers the eighty-eight plays by Aeschylus lost in the fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria, all the books Walter Benjamin did not live to write, and a thousand-page mystical Jewish treatise on the aleph, among others. The brilliant thing about this question of PEN’s is the creative challenge it lays down for the author, after all, in dreams begin responsibilities…

And if you missed Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio’s last-minute appearance at the 2009 PEN World Voices Festival in New York last year, you’ll be happy to know Issue #11 includes a transcript of Le Clézio’s public conversation with Adam Gopnik at the Festival — enjoyable reading covering topics from Creolization, to the bibliophilic delights of the Larousse dictionary, to living a life of action versus one of contemplation. Thank you PEN for yet another vital contribution to the world of letters.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Child's Holiday

Elizabeth Bluemle, the children's book buyer at Flying Pig Bookstore in Vermont, points out Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales as one of her reliable "go-to" Christmas books in her blog post at Publisher's Weekly. She writes, "It's the sheer acrobatic brilliance of the language here that we most love. This is the most delicious read-aloud for having words trip off the tongue." We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

If you're in the Boston area, you can also catch a performance of Thomas' classic story at BCA Plaza Theatre in the South End through December 23rd!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Oh Garden! Review at The Patriot Ledger

At The Patriot Ledger, master gardener and college professor Thomas Mickey has a very complementary review of Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! by Kim Smith. He writes, 'This book is a joy to read for anyone looking for inspiration for a garden, small or large. Plant lists, plant habits, plant history, plant care, all find space within these pages. The color and the fragrance of the plant’s flower most captivates the author. She chooses certain plants because of their colors, mostly white, and then shades of rose and light blue. A flower’s fragrance welcomes a visitor to the garden during any season.'

You can browse the book and buy a copy at our website.

Monday, November 30, 2009

History Worth repeating

Last week I helped facilitate a luncheon discussion of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky. Subtitled "Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," the book has generated much conversation here in Pacific-Rim Seattle; it is full of ideas for action and extends its reach through the website The content is enormously powerful: stories of women’s oppression (slavery, rape, death) in the developing world, and their incredibly heroic and tenacious battles for just a tiny slice of the daily personal freedom, physical health and safety, and emotional and intellectual fulfillment that so many Americans take for granted.

The eighteen Seattleites at lunch were women ranging in age from their young twenties to their early seventies. They worked in different fields and most didn’t know each other. Some were already involved in organizations that support women’s educational, health, or employment initiatives in developing countries; some had lived for a time in Asia or India; others were just curious. Some had experienced gender discrimination or violence themselves, some had not. All appreciated the complexity of the issues, and were not afraid of the messiness of reality.

They came together at the invitation of an energetic young woman who has the trick of making tough conversation (slavery, rape, death) honest, productive and not paralyzingly guilt-producing. She arranged to have our lunch catered by a local farm and restaurant that sells its products to our neighborhood farmers’ markets. Our cook and server was the wife of the farm’s butcher. With cheerful panache, and her six month old son strapped to her side, she served up incredibly tasty soups, quiche, pumpkin pie and apple crisp made with the farm’s butter, eggs, cream, bacon, honey, chicken, pork and vegetables. Even the bread was made with wild yeast.
The growth of farmers’ markets and local food-buying reflects the “Think Globally, Act Locally” approach to problem-solving. The idea is to consider the problems of the world, but realize you probably can’t do much to affect global change, so you should focus your charitable efforts in your own neighborhood.

But Half the Sky pleads the opposite case. Imagine you cannot leave your house without your husband’s permission, imagine facing a one-in-ten chance of dying in childbirth, imagine being kidnapped as a 12-year-old, locked in a brothel and beaten daily for not smiling enough during forced sex. Imagine that world was local. Then act globally.

George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Often used to encourage students to study harder, the phrase assumes most of history is a record of bad and wrong things. In fact, there are a good many progressive lessons in history that we would do well to remember and repeat.

One of these lessons that Half and Sky urges us to emulate is the British effort to abolish the slave trade in the 1830’s, led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. Slavery didn’t exist on the British Isles. It wasn’t local — unlike in America, the vast majority of British citizens never personally saw the degradation of human slavery, while at the same time they greatly benefited economically from their country’s participation in the global slave trade.

Wilberforce and Clarkson led an unrelenting campaign to describe the moral horrors of slavery in scrupulously fact-checked detail. Public outrage eventually forced Parliament to ban slavery and the slave trade, even though the country lost an estimated 1.8% of its GNP by doing so, effectively transferring wealth and power to its enemies France and Spain.

Half the Sky argues that Britain’s success at ending its association with human slavery in the early 1800s is exactly what Americans should do now with respect to ending our acquiescence to the oppression (out-and-out slavery as well as systematic discrimination in education and health care) of women in much of Asia and Africa. There are more women enslaved in brothels in the world today than were ever transported on slave ships across the Atlantic in the 1700s and 1800s. We don’t see it, it’s not local, but it’s what Half the Sky calls a “transcendent” moral outrage, one in which outsiders (us) can “truly make a significant difference.”

How did my luncheon conversation change me? The opacity of cultures, the overwhelming nature of the injustices, and the sheer “foreignness” of the developing world have been a barrier to thinking that I can, in any meaningful way, alleviate the suffering of an African child or a Indian teenager or a Afgan woman. That barrier is lower now. Useful action is possible.
I think I may start with introducing a few new conversational topics over the Thanksgiving turkey this year. I also have some creative gift ideas for those on my Christmas list who already have everything that truly matters, except, perhaps, the gift of helping oppressed women fight to live a fully human life.

[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds.]

Monday, November 23, 2009

An American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

Imagine my surprise and delight in encountering this newly emerged beauty nectaring in our garden on a sunny day in early November. She stayed the afternoon, earnestly probing the newly opened florets of the Korean daisy blossoms. Generally speaking, we can assume that when a butterfly is in as pristine condition as she, it has recently emerged, or eclosed. But from where had she come? This was by far the latest we had ever seen an American Lady in our garden, or local meadow for that matter. Perhaps it is because last year we planted pussytoes, one of several of the caterpillars’ host plants, and now have a great patch of it. For whatever reason, I was glad to see her.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Nymphalidae
Genus: Vanessa
Species: virginiensis

The American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) is often mistaken for the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). Painted Ladies are holarctic (found throughout the northern hemisphere of Eurasia and North America); American Ladies are found in the western hemisphere from southern Canada to Venezuela. The simplest way to differentiate the two is by observing the ventral (underside) hindwings. Painted Ladies have five spots along the wing margin (four small and one very small) whereas American Ladies have two comparatively larger blue-centered ‘eyespots.’ Several different families of Lepidoptera bear eyespot patterns on their wings. Eyespots are thought to resemble the eyes of vertebrae and are an example of how animals have evolved to mimic other animals in order to confuse predators. The higher the internal contrast, as well as the contrast between the concentric circles and the background, the lesser the risk of predation.

I am frequently asked (especially by children), Where do butterflies live during the winter? Different species differ in their habits, and some species exhibit several methods of surviving cold winter temperatures. We are familiar with butterflies that migrate to warmer climates — Red Admirals and Monarchs, for example. In late summer, newly-hatched caterpillars of the Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly nestle into leaf litter near violet plants. In early spring the awakening caterpillar feeds on the freshly emerging shoots of violets. Question Mark and Mourning Cloak butterflies both hibernate and migrate to warmer climates. The overwintering adults reside in various hide-a-ways such as the sheltering nooks and chinks of bark. Hibernating adult Mourning Cloaks have been observed emerging as early as February to feed briefly on sap. Painted Ladies migrate, as do other Vanessa butterflies.

American Ladies are a bit of a mystery. Able to withstand colder temperatures than other members of its family, American Ladies are the hardiest of the Vanessa butterflies. It is believed some migrate and some spend the winter sheltered in natural overwintering sites such as the loose bark of tree crevices and the eaves of homes.

Two favorite larval host plants of the American Lady caterpillars that grow beautifully in our region are plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) and pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea). Pussytoes are a low growing and moderately fast spreading ground cover for shade, with smooth-edged oval leaves and kitten paw-like blossoms. A member of the aster family, pearly everlasting grows naturally in dry fields and along roadsides. White petal-like bracts surround the diminutive yellow flowers. Pearly everlasting grows approximately two feet in height and blooms from June to September. The foliage is silvery and woolly, making it an attractive plant for the garden both in and out of flower.

I often plant Korean daisies (Chrysanthemum x koreana ‘Single Apricot’) in my clients’ gardens. I let them know at the outset of its untidy habit. How does a bit of unruly behavior compare to masses and masses of gorgeous apricot pink daisies in bloom from mid-October to mid-November, providing nectar for pollinators of all sorts? Would they prefer the ubiquitous blobs of greenhouse grown mums? With nothing to lose and everything to gain (I freely give the daisies from my garden), if they don’t like it, they can pass it along. Upon seeing the great collection of butterflies and bees attracted, they all fall in love and, as do I, forgive its wildy ways.

[Kim Smith Designs is an interior and garden design firm. Kim’s first book Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! (David R. Godine, Publisher, 2009), which she wrote and illustrated, is available through your local bookseller and Barnes and Noble. She will be happy to respond to questions and comments at For more information about Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!, butterfly gardening, current projects, exhibits, and events, please visit her website at]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

To Trailer, or Not to Trailer

At Slate today, Troy Patterson casts his critical eye on the newest marketing phenomenon of the book world: filmed trailers. He writes that they are "but the latest reflection of the ways that such clips — 'book trailers' — can reveal the hopes and fantasies of readers, writers, and publishers alike." He then looks at a few trailers and dissects them, which we won't wade into here.

What leaps to mind is: What would a Godine book trailer look like? I can't help but envision us all set in the heyday of noir, Hitchcockian black and white, ducking planes on long dusty roads; but, then again, there is a whimsical side to the list as well — the Will Cuppy affect, let's call it. Slightly silly, "punny", occasionally inappropriate: yes, that's probably us too, despite ourselves. We've had books adapted to film before: In the Bedroom (2001) and We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004) were both based on fiction by Andre Dubus. Georges Perec wrote and produced several films. The femme fatale of Russel Hoban's Linger Awhile is a starlet stepping magically off the screen.

Still, no one sums us up and I am, as ever, open to the thoughts and ideas of our readers here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Holiday Offer 2: Children's Titles!

A Children's Gift Pack from Godine
A limited-time holiday offer

In Anna Rosen's The Merchant of Noises, an industrious entrepreneur sells ingenious devices that make wonderful sounds; in Ned Kelly and the City of the Bees, a sick boy is swept away on a magical (and educational) journey through the buzzing hive; in All Around the Block, Judy Plume's visual puzzles will entertain child and parent alike; in Catherine Certitude, a little girl and her father share a special bond, as well as a secret. No gift is more rewarding than a good book: as a companion, as a playmate, and as life-long inspiration. Godine is pleased to offer these four fine titles together for only $30.00, now until December 20. Happy holidays!

List Price $65.80 · Special Offer $30.00 · a $35.80 Discount!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Holiday Offer 1: Adult Books

Great Holiday for Grownups: Stocking-stuffers for the Rest of Us
by Le Clézio, Hoban, Krystal, McMahon and Eschelman

A Nobel Prize-winning novelist, a New York Times essayist, a cult comedic genius, and two award-winning poets: this is the holiday grab-bag special you've been wishing on a star for. From now until December 20 (great for pesky last-minute Secret Santa celebrations), you'll receive these five brilliant volumes — Half-Life of an American Essayist, by Arthur Krystal; Linger Awhile, by Russell Hoban; The Prospector, by J.M.G. Le Clézio; My Devotion, by Clayton Eschelman; and Sentimental Standards, by Lynne McMahon — all for only $35.00!

List price: $97.75 · Special offer: $35.00 · a $62.75 discount!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Genius Goes to Toronto

“So it’s OK to be obstreperous,” Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Minister of Education, announced to a group of Toronto high school students. “And there are lots of people in this room who know it’s OK to be obstreperous,” she added, referring to the many activist friends and fans of Jane Jacobs also attending the Canadian launch of Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

In the large gallery space of a nineteenth-century industrial building, beautifully refurbished by Margie Zeidler — of Urbanspace Property Group — for artists, non-profits, and micro-entrepreneurs, the convivial crowd was in high spirits as they celebrated the theme of “author-activist Jane Jacobs for a new generation.”

Emcee of the event, Minister Wynne had just read the opening passage of this new book, aimed largely at young adults, in which the obstreperous young Jane had once again challenged her fourth-grade teacher’s contentions. Wynne’s exhortation met with delighted laughter from young and old alike. “We’re here because we all loved Jane, we all love cities, and we all think they are important living things,” Wynne declared to many of Toronto’s movers and shakers, along with teenagers from such intensely urban neighborhoods as St. James Town, Flemingdon Park, and Scarborough.

Toronto City Councillor Adam Vaughan followed the charismatic Wynne, “What I wouldn’t have given as a student at your age to have the Minister of Education give me permission to be — I’ll use a shorter word because I always pronounce that one wrong — a troublemaker,” he said to more laughter. “You have her permission. That is like real power when you are students.”

Vaughan described his fond childhood memories of afternoons at Jane’s house, accompanying his architect father (they first met when Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968). “What I remember . . . is the endless flow of conversation and ideas and observations and challenges and arguments and disagreements. All respectful. Not quite as defiant as with her teacher. All inquisitive ideas about how cities work, how they build, how they grow, and how they move forward.” The Councilor explained that Jane had changed the way his father looked at the city. “And, as a result, it changed the way I looked at the city.”

“What’s brilliant about Genius of Common Sense,” Vaughan continued, is that “without missing a beat, without simplifying in any way, shape, or form, but by making ideas digestible in sizes that are useful in a classroom, useful to children, it gives them the right, the responsibility, the opportunity to start thinking about how their city works — for them, against them, instead of them, with them. This is a truly revolutionary gesture on behalf of the people who dreamed up delivering Jane’s ideas — the ideas that she worked on with so many in this room — to children.”

The Councilor reached a crescendo, urging the students to take the books to their teachers and school libraries and get involved in civic issues: “One of the challenges we have in the city is to make sure that you as young people are troublemakers. The trouble you make is the trouble we have to find solutions to. So when your housing isn’t right, when the trip to school is too long, when lunch isn’t hot at school . . . and all these sorts of challenges mount up . . . you identify them as problems . . . If we don’t work together with you to solve them, we haven’t read Genius of Common Sense. That’s the magic of this book.”

Education Minister Wynne read two more sections from the book — about the “sidewalk ballet” and cities as the crux of so many subjects. She asked the students what they liked and didn’t like about their neighborhoods, how they felt about busy versus empty streets, or dark streets. Many of these young people had been thinking about cities, and some had worked to create an annual exploratory “Jane’s Walk” of their neighborhood in Jacobs’s honor.

One teenage boy contemplated his neighborhood: “I live in St. James Town, and our community is actually one of the most diverse and most dense communities in North America. So it’s really, really amazing to have the entire world represented in one community. I think that’s the biggest thing our community has.” The audience clapped and cheered in response.

“The people who had the idea to write this great book are here with us,” Wynne went on. “We’re very lucky. You guys are all going to get a copy of the book, and the authors are going to sign them. . . . So if you were going to explain to your teacher tomorrow, why would it be important to read this book in your class?”

“As high school students,” a girl offered, “teachers try to keep us in control and not let us be rebellious. But listening to students is very important, so this book hopefully will help teachers realize that even us young ones can make a difference, no matter how rebellious we might be getting.” The crowd erupted in enthusiastic applause.

Minister Wynne thanked the students for their insights, reminded them that Jane did raise her hand in class, and concluded the event: “We’re so lucky that Jane lived, and so lucky to have this book.”

[Glenna Lang is the author of Genius of Common Sense as well as several other titles from Godine.]

Monday, November 9, 2009

J.M.G. Le Clézio on the passing of Claude Lévi-Strauss

A beautiful consideration of the recently deceased philosopher and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss by Nobel Prize–winning Godine author J.M.G. Le Clézio at the New York Times:

'What always struck me most about Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s thought was his ability to dodge the traps of modern ethnology, sometimes so much like old colonialism. There is an enormous difference between Mr. Lévi-Strauss and his most notable predecessors, E. E. Evans-Pritchard or Bronislaw Malinowski: his humanity and his melancholy kindness, which made him reluctant to go into the field for fear of intruding on the people he studied or finding himself disappointed by what had been lost to the evolution of modern times.

'Still, Claude Lévi-Strauss overcame his reluctance and went, opening our minds to the extraordinary complexity of the Bororo’s and Nambikwara’s way of life. He expressed in his books the beauty and intelligibility of myths. And he kept in his heart the warmth and the modesty of the young man he once was, a man who was struck by a pessimistic sympathy for dying civilizations, dying people.'

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Political Presbyopia

I recently read a friendly biography of Beatrice Webb, the British reformer. Although annoyed at the book’s general lack of analytic depth, I did find a few nutritious nuggets of thought to chew on. Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) was a self-taught social scientist and political progressive who didn’t approve of a society that allowed so many of its citizens to live without “sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and (a) modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged.” She was good at envisioning a better future, but not so good at seeing the currents of the present.

With her husband Sidney Webb and a group of friends, she shaped the Fabian Society, and later founded the London School of Economics. Members of the group were also instrumental architects of the pre-World War I Labour Party, and launched the New Statesman. Beatrice and her friends believed in preventing poverty, not charitably relieving it. They held sensible — but advanced for their times — views about the value of public health and a minimum wage, and they advocated governmental support for children and the elderly. They believed more and more people would inevitably come to agree with them and then society would gradually evolve into a better place for all.

Like her, I have always had trouble understanding how anyone could be opposed to building a community where no one was starving or homeless or illiterate or (dare I say it?) without access to primary health care. I tend to get impatient at well-fed, sheltered, well-insured people who do not seem to mind that millions of their fellow citizens are not so well protected.

Mrs. Webb thought of herself as “one of the B’s of the world — bourgeois, bureaucratic and benevolent” as opposed to her friend and fellow Fabian Bernard Shaw, whom she saw as one of the “A’s of the world — aristocratic, anarchist and artistic.” The “B’s” of the world tend to think that everyone tries to be as rational as possible when making both personal and political decisions.

Reading the biography, I realized that I also am a “B.” Like Beatrice Webb, I continually undervalue the forces of personal emotion (jealousy, fear, anger) that underlie people’s political stands. “All their lives,” the biographer says in one of her rare on-target comments, “the Webbs were insufficiently aware of the deeper currents of irrational public opinion.” (This sort of sentence is exactly why I keep reading books that might otherwise not be very well-written).

The Webbs really thought people could be swayed by sensible, moral discussion, and that, in the end, rich people could be peacefully persuaded to share their wealth for the good of all.

Reading the book reminded me of my appearance in 1969 in a Chicago courtroom. I had been arrested and jailed, and was now was being arraigned in the aftermath of a violent anti-war demonstration. When given the opportunity to plead guilty, I instead carefully explained the vicious, imperialistic nature of the American presence in Vietnam to the judge, whom I mistook for being a little like my father, an open-minded intellectual who loved philosophical conversation. I acted as if I was in a graduate school political science seminar, not a courtroom. I acted as if I were in a rational environment. My grasp on the present was clearly much shakier than my vision of a better future.

Successful reform requires both.

[Kitt Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email: Yours for Reform of All Kinds.]

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Beauty of Black Sparrow Books

At The Rumpus, Michael Berger writes, 'Black Sparrow Press, a “boutique” press, might have produced some of the most distinctive-looking paperback titles ever. The off-white, mottled, autumnal covers of the book covers are always eye-catching but even more fetching are the distinctive front covers that are always embossed with some futuristic painting or drawing.

It helped too that they almost always published maverick authors of an extraordinary high caliber. Most people know Black Sparrow through Bukowski who was the original Black Sparrow author.

Now that Black Sparrow is being distributed through David R. Godine, itself an amazing publishing house, the original Sparrow paperbacks are becoming harder to come by. I was tipped off to this fact by a discerning customer at my store who bought two Paul Bowles’ novels as well as a Robert Creeley for what I thought was a pretty generous price!

Since then I’ve put a copy of Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles on my hold shelf along with A Brief History of Camouflage by Thaisa Frank.'

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Boston Review: a Special Offer

Subscribe to the Boston Review today and receive your choice of Black Sparrow Books titles for free: Mirage, a novel by Bandula Chandraratna; Dawn, the memoir by Theodore Dreiser; or American a History in Verse: Volume 3, by Ed Sanders — one book with a 1 year subscription, two books with 2 years, and all three books with a 3 year subscription.


Subscribe for 1 Year!
Choose your free title:

Subscribe for 2 Years!
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All three titles for free.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On Reading Ransome

Like Arthur Ransome, I spent many glorious summer holidays as a child in the English Lake District. So, when Audible invited me to narrate Arthur Ransome’s classic series for children, I was delighted to hop on the train to Audible’s recording studios in Newark and read all twelve novels for them.

Beginning with Swallows and Amazons (1930) and ending with Great Northern (1947) I was transported back to an England where children get rid of their parents by chapter two and head off on sailing and camping adventures in the Lake District, the Norfolk Broads or the South China Seas. Whether they’re escaping from Black Jake in Peter Duck, literature’s only Latin-speaking Chinese pirate in Missee Lee, or the formidable Great Aunt in Picts & the Martyrs, the adventures are as engrossing and enchanting today as they were eighty years ago.

Arthur Ransome couldn’t have come from a world more different than the young engineer whose job it was check the sound levels and make sure I didn’t mispronounce "bowsprit" or "halyard." When he took Great Northern home one night saying, “I gotta know what happens next” — we were at the point when Dick is trying to save a rare bird’s egg from the wicked Mr. Jemmerling — I knew it wasn’t just me who had fallen under Ransome’s spell.

These days I live an all-American life just outside New York City. But since Ransome’s world reached into mine, I’ve been dreaming of sailing boats and creaking oars and lakes and sea and sea gulls and picnics and knapsacks and Pirate ships and buried treasure and tent pegs and charming English children asking each other to please pass the pemmican and the strawberry jam.

Accompanying Nancy, Peggy, John, Susan. Titty, Roger, Dick, Dorothea and Captain Flint word by word on all their adventures has been jolly good fun. I shall miss them.

[Alison Larkin is a comedienne, voice artist, and the author of The English American, a novel. Visit her website at]

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Letterpress Documentary

The Boston Book Festival: the Wrap

Though by turns persistently rainy and seriously windy our day at the Boston Book Festival was a huge success. Bostonians (and many denizens from the surrounding areas) were not deterred by the weather, and in fact were all the better dressed because of it. From within our tent we heard that most of the events were filled beyond capacity, and it felt good to represent the city alongside The Boston Review, Symposium Books, Brattle Bookshop, Grub Street, and many other wonderful locals. Aided in no small party by our close proximity to the Sausage & Hot Dog stand, we gave out dozens of catalogs, took addresses and emails, and of course, sold books.

If you saw us there and we didn't get your email, you can join our mailing list now!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Boston Book Festival, October 24

Like every Boston bibliophile with an penchant for festivities, we'll be spending this Saturday at the Boston Book Festival. You'll find us in Copley Square at the official Godine table, right next to the savvy folk from the Boston Review. Come by to say hello, buy a book straight from the hands that made it, and maybe even leave with a free sample. Catie Copley will be hosting tea at the Fairmount around 3:00 pm, and if we weren't manning the Godine table all day, we'd probably over at Trinity Church seeing what David Pogue looks like in person, or watching what bodes to be a brutal show — Grub Street's Writer Idol.

Rain or shine, see you there!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

To Begin: Do You Have a Blog?

The New Yorker has a very, very funny post spoofing the marketing department of publishers, particularly the online aspects (and being the online guru here, I was tickled pink). To wit:

"Let me introduce myself. My name is Gineen Klein, and I’ve been brought on as an intern to replace the promotion department here at Propensity Books. First, let me say that I absolutely love Clancy the Doofus Beagle: A Love Story and have some excellent ideas for promotion.

"To start: Do you blog? If not, get in touch with Kris and Christopher from our online department, although at this point I think only Christopher is left. I’ll be out of the office from tomorrow until Monday, but when I get back I’ll ask him if he spoke to you.

"We use CopyBuoy via Hoster Broaster, because it streams really easily into a Plaxo / LinkedIn yak-fest meld. When you register, click 'Endless', and under 'Contacts' just list everyone you’ve ever met. It would be great if you could post at least six hundred words every day until further notice.

"If you already have a blog, make sure you spray-feed your URL in niblets open-face to the skein. We like Reddit bites (they’re better than Delicious), because they max out the wiki snarls of RSS feeds, which means less jamming at the Google scaffold. Then just Digg your uploads in a viral spiral to your social networks via an FB / MS interlink torrent. You may have gotten the blast e-mail from Jason Zepp, your acquiring editor, saying that people who do this sort of thing will go to Hell, but just ignore it." [Read more . . .]

Monday, October 19, 2009


by Kit Bakke, author of Miss Alcottt's Email

I took Home Economics in ninth and tenth grades, in the very early 1960s. One year was required, but I liked it and took two years. It was very hands-on — cooking, baking, sewing, mending, setting the table, writing a thank you note. Our teacher visited all her students’ homes, telling us to brew and serve her tea, all the while engaging in gracious social conversation. I was nervous and stewed the tea into bitter, tannic awfulness.

Home Ec classes are mostly gone and, surveys tell us, so are home cooking and family dinners. Is cause and effect at work here? Is the absence of Home Ec the causing the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes? Perhaps also the decline of parenting skills and western civilization in general? Unlikely, but still. . .

Cooking and good nutrition came to my attention this week in the same way that when you name your baby Olivia you immediately meet dozens of other parents with an Olivia of their own. Suddenly my week was filled with references to people working to improve our nutritional knowledge and eating behaviors.

I belong to the Washington Women’s Foundation, a Seattle-based foundation that educates women to be responsible philanthropists as we give away $500,000 each year. We recently had a discussion about food in schools and read about Ann Cooper’s Lunch Box Project. The project provides broad resources for parents, kids, school administrators and kitchen staff — recipes, cost breakdowns, best practices (such as Michigan’s work to make it easier for schools to buy from local farmers) and more — all designed to help schools and parents provide healthy food for all children.

Later in the week, I learned that our county United Way has paid for coolers to be installed in “minimart” food stores so they can sell fresh fruits and vegetables in Seattle neighborhoods without convenient access to large grocery stores. Then a friend emailed me a New York Times article about British chef Jamie Oliver. I’ve been a Jamie fan since his extremely cute Naked Chef days, and have admired even more his growing engagement with community problem-solving. First he developed a food service training program for street kids in London — now a multimillion dollar foundation that turns out skilled restaurant chefs on a regular basis. His first restaurant staffed with these kids — Fifteen, in London — is superb and has been replicated in Cornwall (near Newquay), Melbourne and Amsterdam.

Then Oliver took on the London school lunch program, as abysmal as many in the U.S. With his introduction of healthy foods and scratch recipes, the kids showed statistically reduced rates of asthma attacks, less manic behavior and better concentration. Next he tackled an entire community — a town in northern England with high rates of poverty and obesity. He built a community center and taught people to buy, cook, and eat fresh, inexpensive foods — skills they apparently didn’t have a chance to learn in Home Ec. The idea of cooking a meal and eating it together as a family was new to them; one told Oliver that she thought only rich people ate that way. He is now in the U.S., spreading the same message: good food is available, it’s easy to cook, it’s fun to eat and it’s good for your family.

All these efforts remind me of Jane Addams and the settlement house movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Women arrived in American cities from farms in Poland or Italy or Russia and had to cope not only with a new language, but with different foods, food sources and cooking tools. It was difficult to learn what was nutritious and what wasn’t, and how to prepare it safely and deliciously. Settlement houses like Hull House taught immigrant women to provide good and safe food for their families in a foreign and often treacherous environment. New organizations now assist our more contemporary immigrants.

Most of us don’t face a language hurdle, but (dare I say it?) without Home Ec, we are as helpless as foreigners in our own land for all we know about healthy home cooking. The prepared food industry works hard to convince us that cooking is tricky and time-consuming, and it bombards our taste buds with so much sugar that we’ve forgotten how to appreciate a ripe tomato or a crisp apple.

My apologies for sliding into a rant. What I’m really trying to say is that historic skills are still valuable and that there is great pleasure and benefit to discovering the lessons of the past. Enough said.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Special Offer: The Woman in Black

Being October, and in the spirit of the haunted holiday, we at Godine thought it appropriate to offer Susan Hill's remarkable ghost story, The Woman in Black,through our website for 30% off the cover price. Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story's hero is Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the nursery of the deserted Eel Marsh House, the eerie sound of pony and trap, a child's scream in the fog, and, most dreadfully, and for Kipps most tragically, the woman in black.

The Woman In Black
is both a brilliant exercise in atmosphere and controlled horror and a delicious spine-tingler — proof positive that that neglected genre, the ghost story, isn't dead after all.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Aestheticism

Godine translator Damion Searls has a manifesto in the newest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, in which he proclaims New Aestheticism: 'For all its implicit timelessness, New Aestheticism will no doubt one day be seen as a reaction to its age and therefore part of it, like the Chinese literati in dark times who turned away from a corrupt court to tend to their gardens. Whom has all our genocide testimony helped? Has deconstructing the bourgeois subject of linear narrative served any purpose but to construct an escapist ghetto for intellectuals who might otherwise have been among the best minds of their generation? And then of course there’s the Bush years.

But hear how shrill this all sounds. The New Aesthete would rather be beautiful than shrill. “I don’t know why literary people spend so much time apologizing for their perfectly harmless little books that no one will ever read. You don’t hear generals apologizing for killing people” (Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet).

If you write interesting sentences then people will want to read them if not then not, that is the truth.'

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Booked in Seattle

We Seattleites regularly share honors with the citizens of Minneapolis for living in the most literate American city, thanks to an annual study of urban newspaper circulation, bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment and internet resources. However, high rates of bookishness could just as easily boil down to weather: we have rain; they have snow.

In 2004, Seattle built a new central library, designed by the very cool Rem Koolhaus. We called the building, naturally, our Cool House. Opening year, I was one of dozens of docents taking thousands of admiring visitors on weekly tours of the soaring glass walls, pointing out the views of mountains and water, and threading my charges through open stacks which spiral through five continuous levels (picture a parking garage corkscrew). These days, I am one of four hundred volunteers who stage a semi-annual book sale of donated books and library cast-offs. Selling hardbacks for one dollar and paperbacks for fifty cents, these events have raised over a million dollars for the library.

The two-day book sale is housed in an abandoned airplane hanger, appropriate for Seattle. Add coffee and a laptop and we’ve fulfilled everyone’s cliché of a Seattle event. We volunteers gathered on the last Friday this past September to arrange 200,000 books spine-up on hundreds of long tables marked with homemade wooden signs labeled by subject category. I spent most of my time setting up history, gender issues, and biography. I noticed an inordinate number of Princess Diana books — maybe we’re finally over her? As a small guerrilla action, I removed all the copies of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces from the biography section and put them in fiction.

Volunteers may take any two books for free and are allowed to buy six more during their shifts. This is a wonderful benefit as the sale itself is extremely crowded with long check-out lines. After about an hour of sorting and arranging, I’d already set aside twelve books I didn’t think I could live without. Clearly over my limit, I removed myself from temptation by working in the Slavic and Russian language section, where I couldn’t read the titles, let alone the books.

The agony of decision! It’s still a painful memory to think of the books I had to let go, as a fisherman regrets the ones that got away. One I regretfully released was Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, which looked like great fun, especially since I have recently finished pasting all our family travel pictures from Pompeii into a photo album — I love those red and black frescoes of the winged cherubs pouring wine from elegant amphorae as large as they are.

What treasures did I keep from my shift? Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade. I’ve long admired her biography of Florence Nightingale and expect her treatment of the Light Brigade to be equally intelligent and readable. Others were MFK Fisher’s Among Friends, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s selected letters, a biography of Bess of Hardwick, Consuelo Vanderbilt’s autobiography, Carolyn Heilbrun’s Hamlet’s Mother, the letters and journals of a Wyoming settler from 1905-1910 for a friend of mine with Wyoming roots, and a very small volume of essays titled Are Women Human? by Dorothy L. Sayers.

And what am I reading right now? The Brothers K by David James Duncan, and E.M. Forster’s Commonplace Book.

Looking at a person’s book collection says a lot about them. Go figure.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Genius Works in Portland, ME

Many hands shot up with questions following our authors’ presentation at Longfellow Books in downtown Portland, Maine. A thirteen-year-old Somalian girl wearing a beautiful hijab thoughtfully disagreed with a gray-haired man who said it was worth demolishing a New York City neighborhood in order to build Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. If that neighborhood had not been destroyed, she contended, there would have been more places to live for the many immigrants who arrived in the 1980s and ’90s. A blond eleven-year-old, perched attentively in the front row, asked if Jane Jacobs would ever have thought it was OK to tear down old buildings. What a great question. And there were more.

The inquisitive young people were middle-school children who had signed up for an after-school discussion with their resourceful school librarian about Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. After pondering such topics as mixed uses of buildings in a neighborhood, what makes for vibrant city life, and what worked in their own urban community in central Portland, they walked to an evening author visit (attended mainly by adults) at a local bookstore.

The young minds were racing with thoughts and questions stimulated by reading this book about Jane Jacobs, the obstreperous child who challenged her teachers with her questions and grew up to write a book that debunked conventional wisdom about cities. Marjory and I – and David Godine, who was also in the audience – were delighted to see that Genius can work with such “young adults” and older ones too. We thoroughly enjoyed the lively exchange across generations and cultures.

[Glenna Lang is the illustrator / author of several Godine titles, including Genius of Common Sense.]

Friday, October 2, 2009

NEIBA 2009: Hartford

Sales manager Rachael Ringenberg and production / sales associate Daniel Pritchard will be attending this year's New England Independent Bookseller Association trade show in Hartford. We're at Booth #10, so please stop by and introduce yourself or just to say hello. We're also holding a Free Raffle good for a $100 Gift Certificate to David R. Godine — so make sure to pack your business cards!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lark Rise to Candleford: 30% off!

For a limited time, Godine is happy to offer our online customers Flora Thompson’s classic trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford for 30% off the cover price. Adapted by the BBC and now airing all across the United States as a 10-part PBS miniseries, this book tells the story of three closely-related Oxfordshire communities — a hamlet, a village, and a town — and the memorable cast of characters who people them. Based on her own experiences as a child and young woman, it is keenly observed and beautifully narrated, quiet and evocative.

“Flora Thompson’s great memoir of her Oxfordshire girlhood [is] a model of the form. The richness of the language, the lingering over detail and incident creates a haunting classic.” – The New York Times

Friday, September 25, 2009

Perec at the Onion A.V. Club

Over at The Onion A.V. Club (one of my favorite sites for pop-culture diversions) the critics discuss their "Favorite Micro-Genres," and wouldn't you know who popped up: Leonard Pierce writes, "I also have a weakness for novels which feature highbrow philosophy and /or theory in an incongruous context, like Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, Robert Grudin’s Book, Tibor Fischer’s The Thought Gang, and Georges Perec’s La Vie: Mode D’emploi. Unfortunately, it’s sort of a difficult concept to explain, so you’ll have to just take my word for it."

Thankfully, we the good folk at Godine don't need to be convinced about Perec's masterpiece La Vie: Mode D'emploi — or as it's known in this parts, Life a User's Manual. We've been banging that proverbial gong for going on twenty years now.

You can get your own proverbial gong through the Godine website.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trailing Clouds of Gloria

I had dinner with Gloria Steinem a couple of weeks ago, arranged by my friend Stephanie Kallos at Hedgebrook, a writing retreat on Whidbey Island near Seattle where Gloria was in residence.

We all have people in our lives to whom we owe great thanks — a parent, teacher, a mentor where we work, or maybe a friend who saw us through tough times. But there is also the person whose scope of good deeds is much larger. Mostly, these are historic figures, like Florence Nightingale or George Washington. Rarely do we have the good fortune to be alive with them — to experience the “before” and “after” of their presence. Even more rarely are we in a position to thank them in person.

Ms Magazine appeared on newsstands in 1972 when I was in my twenties. I was living in Oakland, California, pregnant with my first daughter and trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life. Gloria Steinem, fresh from her first-person exposé of life as a Playboy bunny, was launching a magazine that promised to tell truth to power about discrimination against women. Ms was public in ways that hadn’t been seen since the suffragists had stood in front of Woodrow Wilson’s White House with their hand-sewn, upright banners planted in the snow that read, “Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?” Steinem’s timing was perfect; I studied every word of every issue.

Flash forward to 2009. Gloria Steinem is physically a much tinier woman than I expected, but her kindness is unbounded and her knowledge wide-ranging. Our dinner conversation at Hedgebrook’s picnic table (over plates of local vegetables and chicken sausage, fresh berries, ice cream and peanut butter cookies) ranged from ourselves and our books to our families, politics, history and religion: always talking about women. Every comment provoked a new trail of thought, as when she described a language invented by Chinese women in the third century, when women were not allowed to read or write. Called Nushu, its characters represent sounds (as opposed to standard Chinese ideographs) and it was secretly taught from woman to woman for their use in writing diaries, poetry, and letters.

We moved on to Louisa May Alcott and living on communes, and then jumped to Victoria Woodhull and women in politics. She said her grandmother was known in her family for raising four boys and keeping Kosher. Only later did she learn the other story — her grandmother was active in socialist and anarchist causes supporting labor and social justice. That got us reminiscing about our own political days in the 1960s and 70s, trading stories informed by time and warmed by the comfort of mutual understanding.

Back to religion, we talked about women’s prominence in séances and channeling during the ferment of religious activity in upstate New York in the early 19th century.

“You know what I figured out about those days?” she asked. “Almost all the channelers were women and almost all the spirits whose words they channeled were men. In those days, it was one of the only acceptable ways for women to publicly express themselves on political and public issues.” Like Nushu, women developed a safe way to speak in a hostile environment.

As our dinner dishes were cleared, we talked about how women’s circumstances have changed and not changed in our lifetimes, and how young women today have little idea of the effort their mothers and grandmothers expended to create today’s opportunities. “Yes,” she said, “It’s good for young women to have a sense of history, but rather than admire that past work, they should focus on fixing what’s still wrong now.”

True, but even so, it mattered a lot to me to be able to thank her for all she’s done.

[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email.]

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sky and the River

In the final stages of proofreading two books I’d acquired for this year’s fall list, I came across an uncanny similarity between the two, despite the fact that a whole world lay between them, written as they were by authors living at a great remove in both place and time from one another.

And yet, and yet . . . this echo persists, not even a variation on a theme, but a strange reverberation of the same note.

“After a great strain,” writes the first one, at age forty-seven in 1923, “like my production of work last year, there always comes a feeling of being at a loss: not that you are actually empty but certain things you had stockpiled in your being have been transformed, given away, and as it were withdrawn from personal use forever. You don’t want to look around for other inner possessions right away – you don’t know what you want to do, it is a condition of hesitation, of slowly turning to face another direction – and one sign of being in this state is that you don’t like to say ‘I.’ Because what is there to say about this ‘I’ without strain and constraint?”

The other author, writing sixty-odd years later, muses, “. . . a curious thing had started to happen to me. Having by now written quite a bit and published much of it, I began to feel a little depleted, a little spent, as though I had used up the better part of my writer’s capital, to use Henry James’s phrase. And I was uncertain about how to go about renewing my resources or finding new ones. I looked with secret envy on the commuters who crowded the L.A. freeways at rush hour every morning, all of them securely stitched into the American mainstream, or so it seemed to me. I wondered what things were like in their offices. I was in my mid-forties now, married and the father of three children, and yet I had no world, as it were, aside from whatever project I could come up with in the hope that it would interest a publisher.”

The first writer is Rainer Maria Rilke at age forty-seven in 1923, from The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams, selected and translated by Damion Searls. The second is Aram Saroyan, writing at a similar age, only sixty-odd years later, from Door to the River: Essays and Reviews from the 1960s to the Digital Age. One is writing in Muzot, Switzerland; the other, in Los Angeles, California. And yet they seem to be writing about one and the same thing: this feeling of being held in suspension, of an ellipsis in creative thought, a lack so severe that it results in the loss of a self — an “I”, a “world.”

Finding the next step — Rilke calls it “completing the circle”, Saroyan refers to it as knocking on the door — is described as an experience almost like sailing in the dark.

“To make a long story short,” Saroyan writes, “in my mid-forties I began a new phase in which I took the sort of jobs that usually precede literary careers, to be recounted in those book jacket biographical notes. Airport van driver . . . editor of medical reports on job-related stress for workers’ compensation claims . . . public relations receptionist . . . and finally, Public Information Officer for a federally funded job training program in Ventura County. I wouldn’t have taken any of these jobs unless I had to, and at the same time I had a gut instinct that each one was an opportunity to renew my resources as a writer — that they comprised individually and en masse my own next step.”

“At such moments earlier in my life,” writes Rilke, “I often found that an external change was useful, beneficial for recuperation and equally for a new beginning ( — part of what has made my life so unstable, in fact, may be that every time a period of intensity like this had run its course I took any change that offered itself from outside as the help I was looking for . . .); it might have turned out that way this time too. I decided to leave Muzot, either to move back to Paris (a move which was long overdue for certain projects I have in mind) or to visit Carinthia, my ancestral homeland (where I myself have never been), and see whether it might be possible to set myself up there. . .”

Despite being in the dark, there seems to be a kind of celestial navigation at work here. Saroyan ponders if his experience is “outside any parameters of literary vocation that we recognize,” but the idea that begins to emerge, in my mind at least, reading the experiences of these two writers simultaneously, is that the feeling of sailing blind is fundamental to the writer’s life, that a literary vocation consists not of hearing the call once, but of trying to locate that call again and again, not by waiting passively, but by seeking it out, tracing barely discernible points of light into constellations, and then steering by them, fiercely.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dame Drabble Recommends "Life a User's Manual"

Over at the Daily Beast, Margaret Drabble recommends Life a User's Manual in the Bookbag. She writes, "Life, a User’s Manual, by Georges Perec, is a wonderfully rich and intricate novel, set in an apartment block in Paris in the 1970s. I discovered it when doing research on the history of the jigsaw puzzle for my most recent book, for the jigsaw provides the central motif of Perec’s plot, as it does of my memoir. Perec himself loved jigsaws and did them obsessively, like I do, but unlike me he also liked word games, chess, crosswords, and all kinds of verbal play. I was surprised to find a French experimental novel so enjoyable and accessible. It was recommended by a friend of my son."

Don't forget that, for a short while longer, you can still buy Life a User's Manual with the brand new Thoughts of Sorts together for 30% off the cover price — only through our website!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Regarding Heroes "a masterpiece of bookmaking"

When such a well-respected publishing professional as Bill Ott bestows on one of our titles praise such as "masterpiece of bookmaking," it is a cause for celebration.

At Booklist this week, there is a starred review of our title Regarding Heroes by the legendary photographer Yousuf Karsh, a photo from which is featured on the issue's cover (left). Please visit the Booklist website and read the complete review; to tide you over, here is a snippet: "Whether Karsh is capturing Audrey Hepburn’s almost ethereal beauty, or Fidel Castro in a rare moment of introspection, or the iron will of Winston Churchill (in the 1941 image that launched Karsh’s career), the viewer is struck simultaneously by the formal beauty of the composition and the way that beauty feeds our sense of the personality before us. A master photographer and a masterpiece of bookmaking."

You can buy Regarding Heroes right here on our site.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Georges Perec: Statement of Intent

[For those of you familiar with Georges Perec, you'll be excited to learn that we have just released a newly-revised edition of David Bellos's translation of his masterpiece, Life A User's Manual, the 700-page novel that deserves every accolade it's ever earned, from being named to Rolling Stone's "Hip Reading List," to winning the Prix Medicis. Interviewed shortly after the novel's publication in 1978, Perec stated that his intention for the book had been to tell "stories which one devours, stretched out on one's bed." And the novel delivers; it's a page-turner and far more. In conjunction with Life A User's Manual, we have also just released Thoughts of Sorts, a collection of Perec's essays, and the first collection of his writings to be published posthumously in 1985. The selection was made by Marcel Benabou, a fellow Oulipian and friend of Perec's. Available now for the first time in English translation by David Bellos, Thoughts of Sorts is a window into the comically classifying mind of Georges Perec. We've reproduced here the first essay, "Statement of Intent," in order to give you an idea of the nature of these writings, as well as a key to understanding Perec's diverse and numerous works, all available now in English translation from Godine. For those of you who haven't heard of Perec before but have read this far, the "Statement" below is a great place to start. I recommend then that you read his first novel Things, A Story of the Sixties; it's short and poignant, and I guarantee you'll be hooked from then on and thankful for the prolific output of Perec's sadly abbreviated life. — Susan Barba, editor]

“Statement of Intent” by Georges Perec

When I attempt to state what I have tried to do as a writer since I began, what occurs to me first of all is that I have never written two books of the same kind, or ever wanted to reuse a formula, or a system, or an approach already developed in some earlier work.

This systematic versatility has baffled more than one critic seeking to put his finger on the “characteristics” of my writing, and in all probability it has also disheartened some of my readers. It has earned me the reputation of being some sort of computer or machine for producing texts. As I see it, I should rather compare myself to a farmer with many fields: in one field he grows beets, in another wheat, in a third alfalfa, and so on. In like manner, the books I have written belong to four different fields, four different modes of questioning, which, in the last analysis, perhaps address the same problem, but approach it from different perspectives, each of which corresponds, for me, to a specific kind of literary work.

The first of these modes could be called sociological: it has to do with looking at the ordinary and the everyday. It is this mode of questioning which underlies texts like Things, Species of Spaces, Tentative de description de quelques lieux parisiens, and the work done by the team at Cause Commune under the direction of Jean Duvignaud and Paul Virilio. The second mode is of an autobiographical kind: W, or The Memory of Childhood, La Boutique obscure, Je me souviens, Lieux où j’ai dormi, etc. The third is the ludic mode, which relates to my liking for constraints, exploits and “exercises”, and gives rise to all the work based on the notions and devices gleaned from the Oulipo’s experiments: palindromes, lipograms, pangrams, anagrams, isograms, acrostics, crosswords, and so on. The fourth and last is the novelistic mode, and it grows from my love of stories and adventures, from my wish to write books to be read at a gallop: Life A User’s Manual is the obvious example.

This is a rather arbitrary distribution, and it could be greatly refined. Almost none of my books is entirely devoid of autobiographical traces (for example, an allusion to one of the day’s events in a chapter in progress); likewise, almost none is assembled without recourse to one or another Ouli­pian structure or constraint, even if only symbolically, without the relevant constraint or structure constraining me in the least.

Actually, beyond these four horizons which define the compass of my work – the world around me, my own history, language, and fiction – I think my ambition as a writer would be to run through the whole gamut of the literature of my age without ever feeling I was going back on myself or treading ground I had trod before, and to write every kind of thing that it is possible for a man to write nowadays: big books and small ones, novels and poems, plays, libretti, crime fiction, adventure stories, science fiction, serials and children’s books. . . .

I have never felt at ease in talking about my work in theoretical or abstract terms. Even if what I produce seems to stem from a long-worked-out programme, from a long-standing plan, I believe far more that I find my direction by following my nose. From the books I have written, in the order I have written them, I get the sometimes reassuring and sometimes uneasy feeling (uneasy because it is always suspended on a “projected” work, on an incompletion pointing to the unsayable, the desperate object of writing’s desire) that they map a path, mark out a space, signpost a fumbling route, describe the specific staging posts of a search which has no why but only a how: I feel confusedly that the books I have written are inscribed and find their meaning in the overall image that I have of literature, but it seems to me that I shall never quite grasp that image entirely, that it belongs for me to a region beyond writing, to the question of “why I write”, which I can never answer except by writing, and thus deferring forever the very moment when, by ceasing to write, that image would visibly cohere, like a jigsaw puzzle inexorably brought to its completion.

excerpted from Thoughts of Sorts
translated by David Bellos