Thursday, January 28, 2010

Robert Reid at ForeWord

Robert Reid, author of the forthcoming memoir Arctic Circle: Birth & Rebirth in the Land of the Caribou, has been featured in an interview at Foreword Magazine. His advice to young writers is particularly interesting, since by-the-by Godine had the good fortune to nab his timely memoir. Here is a brief excerpt from the piece:

Who shaped your ideas of what it means to be a writer?

“That’s a complex question but I can mention two early influences. One was my mother, who taught me that the imagination is a powerful thing, and who gave me both the means to find it and the courage to use it. She made of my pre-school years a kind of wonderland. We did magic tricks, flew kites, designed costumes that enabled us to visit other planets. She saw to it that invisible but friendly beings left messages and prizes for me at unexpected locations around the house. One activity in particular must have contributed to the fostering of my creative courage. I would sit before a typewriter and tell my mother I was going to write a story for her. This was long before I knew how to read or write, but somehow those limitations didn’t deter me. I would sit up very straight, address the typewriter, and begin typing madly. Over the next minute or so I would churn out a page of complete gibberish. Satisfied that I was finished, I would hand the paper to my mother, who would take a glance and then begin reading. . . . ”

You can read the rest of the interview at ForeWord Magazine.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More Georges Perec at Words Without Borders

The brilliant Words Without Borders website has published an interview between Martin Riker of the Dalkey Archive Press and French literature / Georges Perec expert Warren Motte. Here's a brief excerpt to whet your whistle:

“MR: So how did you get interested in Perec?

“WM: I came across Perec like I come across most of the writers I write about, reading in a haphazard manner: I go to France and go to my bookseller and pull books off the shelves more or less at random, and become interested in some and not others, and sort of bumble my way through French literature. And that's what I did with Perec, I came across A Void, and I came across his wonderful memoir-novel W, or the Memory of Childhood, and the books floored me. I've always been drawn to books that provide a variety of reading experiences, and Perec is very good for that. To take an obvious example, A Void, his book written using only words that do not contain the letter E. You can read that book on many different levels — on the level of the detective story, for instance, where the mystery is bound up in the fact that E has absconded from the alphabet. So you've got a hospital ward with 26 beds the fifth of which is empty, an encyclopedia set with 26 volumes but the fifth volume is absent, and so forth. But you can also watch this constraint work its way through the text on other levels, in terms of a literal poetics, or a narrative innovation. Perhaps most poignantly, you can watch as Perec's constraint enables this book to say things that Perec couldn't say otherwise. That is, the absent E becomes the signifier for other kinds of absences in Perec's life — the death of his parents, the fact that he felt he had lost his childhood, and so forth. The way that this process plays out enables him to say things that he could not have said in a more conventional way, things that were quite literally unsayable.

“Getting back to your original question, though: Perec's books floored me, and as is my wont when I find some really excellent books, I read everything I could of that particular writer. Then in 1978 when Life a User's Manual came out, that too floored me.”

As you know, we were floored too. Read the rest of this interview at the Words Without Borders website.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reznikoff at UPenn

PennSound, the center for writing at the University of Pennsylvania, has posted the recordings of a reading of the long poem Holocaust by the author, Charles Reznikoff. The reading took place on December 21, 1975, and was recorded by filmmaker Abraham Ravett, whose portraits of the author also appear on the site.

As I listen to these, it immediately strikes me that the poem is far more musical — at least, as Reznikoff performs it — than it is often given credit for being, full of internal rhymes, off-rhymes, and assonance. It reminded me of a medieval history or an epic. In some way though, and unintentionally I suppose, that is exactly what Holocaust is, the renewal of a bardic tradition that traces back to a time of lineages and monarchies: it is the preservation of history in verse form, a witness to our modern era and what was probably the defining event of the twentieth century.

Thanks to Ron Silliman for alerting us of this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Novels with Indices

At a holiday dinner party, I was introduced to a woman who had recently seen the new Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side. She liked it very much, bubbling, “and it’s a true story!”

Why do movie publicists insist on telling us that their film is “based on a true story”? Because they know that we connect more deeply to true stories. And why is that the case? Because despite the American emphasis on independence and individuality, there’s another, perhaps more sensible part of us that is reassured by the similarity of our loves and struggles. We like to be reminded that we are all in this together; there is a part of us that is inevitably drawn to the chance to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves.

I go to maybe one movie a year, and I read far more nonfiction than fiction, mostly biographies. Contemporary fiction tends to be too formulaic to hold my interest, and I’m at an age when I don’t have time to burn anymore. When I do read fiction, I like to have it aged, like a wine, before I crack it open. But biography is my hands-down genre of choice.

Last month, I discovered a biographical treat in a wonderful Oxford series called “A Very Short Introduction.” Oxford has issued Very Short Introductions since 1995 and now there are over two hundred topics covered in as many volumes. The books are a lovely small size 6 3/4” by 41/2”, soft cover but with front and back flaps, very pleasant to handle. Some of the subjects must have been harder to make into Very Short Introductions than others — Nationalism for example, or Logic or International Migration or Psychiatry. Others, maybe Relativity or Schopenhauer or The World Trade Organization might have provided less of a challenge to the assigned writer.

But it was Biography that I read, written by Hermione Lee, the well-known British biographer of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton. I bought a copy for myself and one for my brother, who is the genealogist in the family — his occasional essays on family members qualify as biographies in every way . . . which raises the question: “What is a biography?”

Obviously there are many styles of biography — syncophant whitewashed versions, ax-grinding versions, boring versions, wildly Freudian versions. Stepping back from those choices, the biographer must first choose a subject — again, there are many interesting or tedious options. The traditional biography covers a birth-to-death time-frame, but some of the most fascinating ones focus on several people who lived and acted together on a particularly climactic stage.

Ms. Lee quotes John Updike as saying that biographies are just novels with indexes, which nicely sums up the trail-mix of supposition and documentation that every biographer must serve up. The best biographers are continually chewing on the problems of how their subjects define and shape the purpose of their lives, and how they give and find value in those choices. Thinking about these issues in the context of someone else’s life is easier than confronting them in one’s own life, but reading a good biography can give us a helpful nudge in the direction of a more personal application.

Ms. Lee argues that philosophy and biography both try to describe and understand human thought and activity. The narrative of a human life leapfrogs between a person’s thoughts (which we cannot see) and a person’s activities (which we can see). But what is the connection between the two and how is each weighted differently in different people’s lives? In part, that is what the biographer is trying to answer by sifting through letters, pictures, journals, articles, reminiscences, lies and truths about his or her subject.

Each of our lives is a true story, and like all true stories, the characters have the opportunity to grow and change in ways that are sometimes surprising, sometimes predictable. This never-ending combination of strangeness and familiarity is what casts the spell that binds us together.

[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email; a work of fiction, with an index.]

Representing Vermont at the National Book Festival

No better way to start a short week than with a bit of great news: our children's title Electra To The Rescue: Saving a Steamship and the Story of Shelburne Museum, by Valerie Biebuyck, has been chosen to represent the great state of Vermont at the National Book Festival!

Congratulations to Valerie, who put an enormous amount of hard work into this really fabulous, one-of-a-kind book.

Friday, January 15, 2010

P.K. Page

We were saddened this morning to hear of the passing of Canadian poet and Godine author P.K. Page. Poet Lorna Crozier is quoted describing Page at the CBC News: "[Page] was such an intelligent poet. I can think of no one in literature — Canadian and worldwide — who had such an impeccable ear and such a marvellous sense of choosing the absolute, precise, exact word for what she wanted to say. There was a kind of marvellous sharpness of diction used to describe very mysterious, very ephemeral things. No one did that better than P.K. Page."

An artist as well as a renowned poet and author, Patricia Kathleen Page was born in the United Kingdom in 1916. Her family moved to Canada when Page was just three years old, where they relocated often due to her father's position in the military. She married the Canadian diplomat and one-time editor William Irwin, and lived abroad for much of her adult life. Page was the author of more than a dozen titles, from her well-known poetry to non-fiction, drama, as well as children's books. Her new and selected verse, Cosmologies, was published by David R. Godine, Publisher, in 2003, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Award for Excellence in Poetry.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Michael Lally on “A Palpable Elyseum”

At his blog, poet and Black Sparrow author Michael Lally writes, “A Palpable Elysium contains photographs of some of the many friends and acquaintances [Jonathan Williams] made from the 1950s to the 1990s (the book was published in 2002), as well as some of their artwork or their gravestones. The photographs are often as casual as snapshots and sometimes as unexpectedly unique and / or flawed. But with his commentary added to each, they become something much more, something that typically cannot be described any better than Jonathan did himself in the title he gave this collection: A Palpable Elysium.

“Even if you don't have the same taste as Jonathan, and I sometimes don't, if you read his comments often linking his subjects to other artists and friends and then look up the lives and work of all those he mentions in this book, you will have given yourself an education, on the highest level, in a particularly rare contingent of the avant-garde of the second half of the 20th Century.

“For my taste, the book is worth owning just for the quality of its production, let alone the sometimes exquisite images (his photograph of poet William Carlos Williams not long before WCW passed is stunning and one I wish I had a framed print of hanging on my wall). But it's Jonathan's commentary that makes this book unique and worth paying attention to. His fearless judgements, his ribaldry, his appreciation of the lone genius creator whether renowned or unknown (he spent a lot of time searching out so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘outsider’ artists and even gives directions to their locations so you can drive the country back roads of rural Georgia or South Carolina and go see their work yourself!).”

Thursday, January 7, 2010

David R. Godine In New York City

On Wednesday, January 13, 2010, David R. Godine will take part in a panel discussion: “Current Challenges to Fine Printing and Book Design.” The talk will take place at the Grolier Club in New York City from 6-8 pm, and will also feature Ronald Gordon, designer and printer, Oliphant Press; Jamie Kamph, bookbinder; Jerry Kelly, designer, calligrapher and printer; and Luke Ives Pontifell, designer and printer, Thornwillow Press; and it will be moderated by David S. Rose.

With Kindles and iPhones proliferating with Comic Sans, what do practitioners of fine book-making see as the great challenges to making beautiful books in the coming decade? Join us as five Grolier Club members distinguished in the book arts talk about the challenges faced in producing well-made books in the 21st Century. A reception will follow. Held in connection with the exhibition “The Grolier Club Creates: Book Arts by Club Members,” on display through January 15, 2010.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities a Boston Globe Best of 2009

For those of you who have eagerly received new seed catalogs in the mail and are paging through with visions of tulips in your head, Carol Stocker at the Boston Globe has gathered up her favorite gardening books of 2009 to pass away the remaining snowy days — including Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! She writes "[it] captures the rapture of a gardener's journey through her own evolving quarter acre by integrating Smith's personal essays, hand's-on advice, and paintings."

Monday, January 4, 2010

Butterfly Courtyard Blooming

New notes of fresh scents. Black earth, alive, revealed! The ground becomes awash in a sea of aquamarine striped squill. Warming winds and sun showers — all of New England rejoices in May’s heart song — and the nascent bud opens her grace to the garden.

Delicious pink and white flowering dogwoods and crabapples billow into blossom. The earth between affords a spring carpet of true-blue forget-me-nots, ‘Spring Green’ tulips, and warm, buttercream fragrant jonquils, woven with dashes of the Red of Riding Hood’s tulips. The much-awaited Eastern redbud arrives fashionably late in her brilliant Persian pink dotted dress. Ostrich ferns unfurl their fiddleheads and wildflowers violet, rockbell, bloodroot, and bleeding heart dance the spring fête. Lily of-the-valley takes hold the senses and the fragrance of lilacs and viburnums envelope the courtyard. So begins the seasonal revelry of sultry scented blossoms and kaleidoscopic hues.

As the summer unfolds, sweetbay and Oyama magnolias exude their lustrous satiny perfume — the fragrant festival swells — and aromatic, butterfly-attracting blossoms begin their florescence. The air becomes impregnated with the scent of lavender, rose, lemon lily, and peony. Coral honeysuckle twines round the entryway and there, you may capture a gleam from the hummingbird’s ruby throat. Buttonbush for swallowtails, meadowsweet for azures, a butterfly, or two, or three is spied! Coneflower and cardinal flower, poppy and phlox, moonbeam and catmint, balloon flower and buddleia — yield nectar punch for intrepid travelers. A tableau vivant to bedazzle royal Monarchs, the milkweed and gayfeather feast is arrayed. With whisper soft steps, we catch a glimpse of the clearwing moth nectaring at the verbena, and a sphinx at the wand flower. Never quieting to the dog days of August, a Mexican mariachi of cosmos, nasturtiums, zinnias, and lantana continue to regale. Rose-of-Sharon throws another blossom and Rudbeckia ‘Autumn Sun’ stretches ever taller still.

Late summer has arrived, and still the stalwarts flower. Now the moon vine and morning glories embower the courtyard entryway. Hazy, slanting rays gild the late season glory in the garden. Autumnal hues and fragrances are due in part to copious members of the aster family. New England and New York asters bloom in shades of pink and purple, smooth aster and ‘October Skies,’ in shades of lavender blue. The potent perfume of Montauk daisies is surpassed only by that of the apricot-pink washed Korean daisies. Not to be ignored is the divine scent of the peacock orchids, hailing from the banks of the Nile River, and the purple polka dots of toad lily and tissue paper petal-dress of anemone, both of Japanese fame.

[Kim Smith is the author of Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! which was selected by The Boston Globe as one of 2009's Best Gardening Books.]