Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Drawing Inspiration from Perec

Georges Perec's novella "The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex" (included in Three by Perec, Godine 2004) uses only the vowel "e" and no others (honest). It is known as a complement or reciprocal to A Void (Godine, 2005) which avoids all and any words containing the commonest letter in the alphabet—(you guessed it) "e." Why would Perec constrain his writing in this way? Well, Perec was never one to turn down a challenge but also he was a member of OuLiPo, a group of writers and mathematicians concerned with the literary potential of formal constraints or "writing with rules." With A Void and "The Exeter Text," Perec had become the acknowledged champion of writing under the hardest of rules.

Illustrator Katja Spitzer has taken inspiration from "The Exeter Text" with her new book, Quodlibet (Nobrow Press), which features her illustrations of a host of different words, phrases, and names all beginning with the letter "q" and is written by Sebastian Gievert. According to Design Week (UK) "she chose to focus on Q because in her native German—as in English—Q is a peculiar and rarely used letter." Featured in the book are "cult Hollywood directors, 18th-century dances, ancient Chinese mythical beasts and French poets of the last century."If you're in London, the Quodlibet exhibition at The Book Club (London EC2) will take place from Oct 27th–Jan 2012.

Here are a couple examples of Spitzer's work from Quodlibet:

Quarterhorse: A horse of a small, stocky breed noted for agility and
speed over short distances, especially a quarter of a mile.

Queen Alexandra and a Bird's Wing

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Superior Person's Tuesday!

Recubation n Reclining in a near-horizontal position, as did ancient Romans at the banquet table. "There'll be no recubation at this dinner table, young man! Sit up straight – and take off the baseball cap!"

Each Tuesday, we’ll offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. You can purchase all or any of the four Superior Person’s Books of Words from the Godine website. Recubation appears in the Third.

Wanda Coleman on Life in SoCal

Black Sparrow poet Wanda Coleman is known as "the LA Blueswoman" and "the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles." She has just published her latest book, The World Falls Away, with the University of Pittsburgh Press and the collection focuses on her life in Southern California. KPCC (Southern California Public Radio) recently featured a piece on Coleman:

For the last 40 years, Los Angeles-based poet Wanda Coleman has written about the L.A. she loves — and hates. The University of Pittsburgh Press has just published her 19th book, looking at her life in Southern California.

The poet’s latest collection is titled “The World Falls Away.” "It’s a continuation of my odyssey as an African-American woman, writer, mother, now grandmother, and the city as I live it, the city as it’s defined me," Coleman says.

The 84 poems transport the reader across Southern California and through Coleman’s life. The poem “On Cleaning Up All These Ashes in the Sand” is a series of 16 couplets.

During Indian summer 1955, I decided to live life
sidewise – head pointing to Manhattan, heart in the West.

My father takes me to Disneyland. He tells me America
Rises from a sea of blood. Learn to cry while you laugh.

When I was a teenager, I was my mother’s keeper
I disappeared from the kitchen to make history.

Coleman was born in Watts; she grew up in South Central. In the 1960s and '70s she soaked up the literary scenes in L.A.'s Venice neighborhood, Watts and downtown L.A. at the Woman’s Building. She’s always defended her right not to be pigeonholed as an issue-driven, rhyming black poet.

"Just like we should live in any community or listen to any music, including country and western," Coleman says, "or have any option in terms of our hair; we can wear it straight, we can wear it kinky, we can braid it."

She worries about young African-Americans, she says, because popular media shackles them with negative definitions of blackness while the schools and adults closest to them fail to push back against those images. "I have a grandson who’s gone through the local public school; his image, he comes out of there, he wants to be anything but black."

Read the rest of the article here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Boston Book Festival Was Awesome!

The 2011 Boston Book Festival was an astounding success for the Godine team. We arrived promptly at 8:30am and proceeded to deliberate with surprising passion as to the best arrangement for our 200 books. Following several ingenious innovations in design, we acquired some tissue paper and scotch tape and transformed our cardboard boxes to make a makeshift (but very professional) side display.

Even before we’d finished setting up visitors were trickling into our tent. We participated in the festival’s scavenger hunt for children by featuring our very local book Catie Copley's Great Escape by Deborah Kovacs about the retired guide dog and current employee (she has her own business card!) of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, whose red awning was visible just across the street from our tent. Even better, Miss Catie and her caretaker Joe paid us a celebrity visit, and Catie very good-naturedly helped tell the story of her great adventure to Quebec. She was quite content to receive so many scratches behind the ears.

Soon the Godine team was in need of replenishment, and with characteristic spirit we braved the line for Roxy’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese. It was well worth the wait – butternut squash, baked apples, rum-soaked raisins and caramelized onions! Grilled cheese has entered its renaissance.

Overall, the day was a great success. As an intern, I was touched by the number of supporters who came to express their appreciation for our books. We make books and write blogs with an audience in mind, but you always wonder if anyone’s paying attention until you shake their hand. Thanks to all our supporters!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Superior Person's Tuesday!

Dactylogram n Fingerprint. A casual reference to your having been invited by the authorities to let them have your dactylograms may give the listener the impression that you are a distinguished applied mathematician who is called in by the government from time to time in a consultative capacity.

Each Tuesday, we’ll offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. You can purchase all or any of the four Superior Person’s Books of Words from the Godine website. Dactylogram appears in the First.

How to Dig

My mother is a gardener. The pursuit began several
years ago pursuant to a certain Michael Pollan book, when she marched into the backyard with a spade and turned over a rectangle of black Iowa soil. The first year’s crop – cabbage – left the local rabbit population in excellent health. For my mother, what began as an experiment became all-out war, and in its second year the garden was outfitted with a wire fence and a godlike plastic owl, and my mother successfully harvested more than a single serving of coleslaw.

The garden is now in its third year, my mother is a skilled horticulturalist, and I often receive news about the garden. This June, she wrote, “It's going to be a thousand degrees here today so I'm out in the garden early. Picking sweet peas and digging potatoes. Vegetarian supper tonight . . . from fifty paces off the back door stoop,” and then in August: “It's high summer in Iowa . . . Although you may not see your neighbor's backyard, you know which of us have gardens by the rows of bright red tomatoes in the kitchen window . . . My freezer is half full of vegetables . . . and very little meat. A better balance.”

I am not a gardener. But, in exploring Godine’s various gardening books and in perusing my mother’s e-mails, I’ve noticed that gardeners, contrary to what you might think, are reckless. What made Thoreau think he could tame a patch of rugged wildflowers into robust rows of beans? After battling weather, worms, and woodchucks, he muses in Walden, “What was the meaning of this Herculean effort, I knew not,” (Writing the Garden, just published in October 2011 by Godine). Some years later, Michael Pollan battled the woodchuck in his own garden, going so far as to set his enemy’s burrow ablaze.

I don’t mean to say gardeners are pyromaniacs, but rather that they are similarly afflicted with imagination, by the ambitious vision of Forsythias, Violets, Rosemary and Lupines where there is only brown and tangled nature. The English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932), who pioneered gardening for women with her thirteen gardening books, writes “There is no spot of ground, however arid, bare, or ugly, that cannot be tamed into such a state as may give an impression of beauty and delight,” (The Gardener’s Essential, published by Excellent Press).

If gardening begins with intoxication, its labor is both sobering and invaluable. Jekyll continues: “It is no use asking me or anyone else how to dig – I mean sitting indoors and asking it. Better go and watch a man digging, and then take a spade and try to do it, and go on trying ‘til it comes, and you gain the knack that is to be learnt with all tools, of doubling the power and halving the effort; and meanwhile you will be learning other things, about your own arms and legs and back . . . and you will find out that there are all sorts of ways of learning, not only from people and books, but from sheer trying,” (The Gardener’s Essential).

William Robinson, a contemporary of Gertrude Jekyll, writes: "We have no attractions in or near our gardens compared with what is within our power to create" (Writing the Garden). He means, I think, that the real value of gardening is not the harvest, but the process of building it. The true gardener is the one who butchers her backyard, plants seeds too close, fantasizes about killing rodents, and after months of backbreaking labor reaps a few lopsided, ant-speckled tomatoes, and then turns around the following year and does it all over again, this time with a better grip on her spade. In doing so, she cultivates more than a crop of healthy tomatoes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Superior Person's Tuesday!

Embonpoint n Plumpness. From the French en bon point (in good shape). Often used of women, and with just a trace of raillery implied. Commonly pronounced in the French fashion; but may be anglicized, in which event you would choose a moment when your neighbor, the zaftig (q.v.) Mrs. Frobisher, is displaying her new sewing machine to your wife, to tell her how much you admire her embonpoint.

Each Tuesday, we’ll offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. You can purchase all or any of the four Superior Person’s Books of Words from the Godine website. Embonpoint appears in the First.

Independent Publisher - Beginnings and the Future

Independent Publisher is currently featuring an article on David R. Godine and the publishing house. Here's an excerpt on how David was first introduced to publishing:

“I really got started at Dartmouth because Ray Nash (a legendary teacher there) was giving his courses on ‘Books and Bookmaking’ and ‘Prints and Printmaking.’ These were unusual (at least for Dartmouth) in that they combined serious study of the subject, looking firsthand at the objects involved and finally (and probably most importantly) actually setting type, printing it, and doing the same for prints.

"So you not only had the theoretical background and the history, but also some practical knowledge based on actual experience My senior year I was awarded a Senior Fellowship which absolved me of formal course work and allowed me to travel in Europe to visit the great libraries and also print my first book entirely handset ad printed on a Vandercook proof press. 112 pages, printed in fours in an edition of (gulp) 500 copies. Very few sold, but that’s another story.

"So when we began, we really had our roots in printing and design, not publishing (about which we knew nothing). But most of the early books were still issued in relatively large quantities and at very low prices. We did not think of ourselves as a ‘private press’ in any sense, and we did a lot of work for others to survive in those first years.”

The rest of the article can be found here.

Translator David Bellos on Learning from Georges Perec

This past Saturday, translator David Bellos had a great piece in the Wall Street Journal on what translating Godine's Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec taught him:

Among the people I thank for their help at the end of my new book about translation is Georges Perec—a French writer famous for having written a whole novel without the letter "e" in it.

Perec never met me and never knew he had helped. But he most certainly had—he taught me how to attend to the craft of writing, and for me that means: how to write.

In Chapter 51 of Perec's masterpiece, "Life A User's Manual" (1978), the character Valène imagines a painting of the apartment house in which he lives with its façade removed, showing all its street-side rooms with their contents and the characters who lived there. The project is laid out as an inventory of items numbered from 1 through 179, and each "item" is a summary of a story told elsewhere in Perec's 99-chapter novel.

I was translating the novel, so I had to locate the stories to which the lines referred. But in doing so I noticed (thanks to some prompting) that each line of the inventory was exactly the same length. Exactly 60 keystrokes.

On top of that, the inventory is separated into three blocks, two of them consisting of 60 lines and the last one of just 59. The "great compendium," as Perec called it, thus consists of three squares, the last one slightly defective.

A traditional use of such letter-squares is to smuggle a message by making the letters of one edge spell out a key. Sure enough, the "left diagonal" of square one (reading the last letter of line 1, the second-to-the-last of line 2, etc.) was constant—"A." The second letter square had "M" in the same sliding position, and the third had "E." Together, they spelled out AME, the French word for "soul"—a term that the avowed rationalist Perec doesn't use anywhere else in his novel.

For a couple of months, every day in the late afternoon, I tackled this fiendish challenge. It had to be done: It was obviously the heart, or soul, of the book. I invented training exercises, using squared paper to write any old thing in expressions exactly 60 characters long.

Eventually, I became almost adept at this skill. Then I looked at the stories to which Perec's lines referred and began to compose summaries in English to fit the rule. I was making progress.

I called on Perec's German translator, who had been one of the writer's close chums. He showed me what he had done. He'd chosen ICH (German for "I") to replace AME, because no German word for "soul" has three letters.

There was my solution! Latin EGO translates German "Ich" directly, and in English can also be considered close to "soul." Es, Gs and Os are common letters in English and can often be moved around in a phrase (verbs give you "–ed" and "-ing" to play with, and "of" can be massaged into any position). I sweated and struggled, but I pushed on. It came out all right in the end.

That's how Georges Perec taught me to write.

He set a puzzle that forced me to acquire a fuller grasp of the units of the writer's craft—words, and the letters from which they are made. By the time I finished translating Chapter 51, I could have written 60-character lines to summarize just about anything.

Twenty-five years later, I was asked to translate the French and Hebrew text explaining the meaning of "righteous among the nations" for a plaque at the Shoah Memorial (Holocaust Museum) in Paris. I was able to do it in such a way that the English was precisely the same length as the French, so that it fit neatly alongside, allowing viewers to feel that the two texts were "the same."

Such applications are rare, but to my mind, the mastery of this peculiar skill has served me well. The muscles that I grew to translate Perec's "great compendium" have gone on helping me to meet challenges I face in translating other texts—and in writing my own.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Godine at the Boston Book Festival – Sat, Oct 15!

This year's Boston Book Festival is quickly approaching and, of course, David R. Godine, Publisher will be there, bells on. Come on down to Copley Square on Saturday, October 15th (it's free!) and visit our booth on the square, facing Dartmouth St and the beautiful Boston Public Library. New titles and our backlist will be on sale for 20% off or more; we'd love to chat with you and throw free bookmarks your way.

And if that wasn't enough, Miss Catie Copley (star of Godine's Catie Copley titles), who lives at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, will be joining us at the booth from 10:30–11:30am and then again from 2:30pm–3:30pm as a special guest for the festival wide children's scavenger hunt we will be participating in.

There are some seriously cool events planned: "Fiction: Time is . . . " with Jennifer Egan, Peter Mountford, and Lawrence Douglas; "Memoir: Writing a Life" with Ben Ryder Howe, Carlos Eire, Maisie Houghton, and Sandra Beasley; "Far Out Fiction" with Gregory Maguire, Karen Russell, Chuck Klosterman, and Kate Beaton.

We hope to see you next Saturday! We'll be there from 10am–5pm.

Herb and Dorothy

This post is from one of our beloved past Godine interns, Melanie Sooter. She is now working in publishing in Taipei, Taiwan and recently featured the following entry on her personal blog, Amateur Bohemian:

Last May, I attended BookExpo America in New York, NY, a glorious four-day convention for everyone in the book biz. I was working the event for Godine, the house I interned with this spring, and one of our debut titles was Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel, an illustrated book about Etta and Claribel Cone, who purchased Matisse’s and Picasso’s work before they were discovered by mainstream collectors. One author who dropped by our booth recognized the cover’s illustration of the Cone sisters, which surprised me, seeing as no one I pitched the book to had heard of them. We got to chatting, and I commented that I wished I had the resources to collect art. She enthusiastically replied, “But you can!” She proceeded to tell me about Herb and Dorothy, a documentary about a Manhattan couple who, without any professional training, amassed a selection of art worth millions. “Watch it,” she said. “It’ll change your life.”

Well, I just watched it. Twice. Consider my life changed.

At first glance, Herb and Dorothy Vogel seem like your average elderly couple. In many of the film’s shots, they sit at the kitchen table, Herb watching TV and Dorothy fussing over her cat, Archie. But the backdrop for these scenes is anything but commonplace. The otherwise stark white wall is canvassed in paintings, sketches, and colorful paper constructions. As the camera pans through their one-bedroom apartment, you realize their place doesn’t function as a living space – it’s a sanctuary for thousands of artistic creations. They don’t own living room furniture because their stockpile takes up too much space, hence the filming in the kitchen. The real mind boggler is that this isn’t even their full collection. They donated 4,782 pieces to the National Gallery of Art in 1992. The pieces you glimpse in the film are just what they’ve acquired since then.

Throughout the documentary, Herb and Dorothy narrate their life story. Dorothy was a librarian and Herb a postal worker who didn’t graduate high school. So how does a middle-class couple come to own one of the most renowned late 20th century art collections? By buying art no one else wanted.

Herb and Dorothy explain that when they started collecting in the 1960s, pop and abstract art were the popular styles, and experts weren’t interested in the fledgling minimalist and conceptual movements, making these productions affordable. They spent Dorothy’s salary on living expenses and Herb’s on art. Dorothy said they only had two rules for purchases: “It had to be affordable, and it had to fit in our apartment.”

The artists interviewed in the film speak not only highly of Herb and Dorothy, but also warmly, as if talking about life-long friends. And for some of them, that’s the case. A few artists said they get a call from Herb once a week just checking in on them, and one referred to them as “friend collectors, not collectors collectors.” Christo and Jean-Claude, an artist team-couple, said they even traded the Vogels art for cat-sitting. It’s inspiring too that they genuinely collect art for art’s sake. Dorothy said, “I never thought the artists we collected in those days would become so famous. It wasn’t a goal for us. We liked the work, and when they got recognition, we shared their joy. We sort of became part of it.”

But the documentary’s point isn’t that everyone can collect art or even that everyone should learn about art. The message is more universal than that. Dorothy says it best herself: “You don’t have to be rich. You can enrich your life.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Superior Person's Tuesday!

Aeaeae a. Magic. As in "aeaeae artes," the magic arts. The only all-vowel six-letter word known to the author. The derivation is from Aeaeae, which was a surname of the legendary pig-fancier Circe and the name of a small island off the coast of Italy, said to have been her place of abode. Useful for unscrupulous players of parlor word-games. If taken to task for using it in such circumstances, you say: "Well, yes, strictly speaking it is foreign, I suppose – at least in origin – but, surely, it's a words everyone knows, isn't it?"

Each Tuesday, we’ll offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. You can purchase all or any of the four Superior Person’s Books of Words from the Godine website. Aeaeae appears in the First.