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

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Conversing for Fun and Progress

Gosh, what is the world coming to when even David Godine has a blog? Although I notice he has not yet contributed many bon mots himself. Perhaps he is the man behind the curtain? Perhaps he is waiting for Godot? Be that as it may, most of us seem eager to dive into any new means of communication. Blogs are just one more glowing ember in the sticky magma of human communication. It seems we can’t help it.

Remember life before cell phones? We walked off airplanes to where our friends patiently waited, each of us waving happily as soon as we spotted one another. Now we call immediately upon touchdown, “I’m here. The plane’s just landed. I’ll call again when I’m on the jetway.” And we do, often with a follow-up of “I’m just passing the Starbucks. I’m wearing my red sweatshirt. See you soon!”

With this GPS mode of communication we alert everyone to our current position. “I’m waiting in line at the movies.” “I’m just leaving the grocery store.” In essence, it’s a message with no real expectation of or need for feedback. Even if it’s not broadcast in the technical sense (as Twitter is), its intention is one-way.

Many so-called conversations are really just a series of proclamations that go out into the air in this kind of parallel fashion, never touching one another.

In database engineering language, this type of uniflow communication from one source file to multiple recipient files is called a “one-to-many relationship,” and is very useful for the sorts of things that databases do. But in the human environment, although highly seductive for the “one,” it bores the “many” and ultimately it’s not useful for solving big problems.

Far better is a “many-to-many relationship,” where talk eddies back and forth among many people. The caveat, of course, is the inherent confusion and frustration whenever differing points of view rub together. That’s why a patient and alert mind is required in many-to-many conversations.

One of the most brilliant and sustained examples of this sort of conversation occurred repeatedly in a real-time, face-to-face Concord MA neighborhood in the middle of the 19th century. Several families lived and worked together, sharing babysitting and canned fruit, carpentry and farming, ideas and love. Their potluck dinners brought together incredible intellectual firepower. Ralph Waldo Emerson, his wife Lidian, Bronson Alcott and his wife Abba, their friend Henry Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody knew the value of growing ideas communally, of agreeing and disagreeing, but rarely walking away.

Their talk was rooted in the issues of their day — abolition, democracy, education, poverty, justice — and they also tackled blue-sky questions like “what are the responsibilities of being human?” and “what is my relationship to nature?”

These neighbors knew that a many-to-many conversation which encouraged good will and keen vision in the face of disagreement is one of the best ways to bring in a useful harvest. A crop of good ideas will never sprout if we pretend the weedy ones don’t exist.

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