Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Must! Have!

Thanks to the Hungry Ghost Blog, who came across an Indian publisher called Blaft. Five minutes ago, I'd never heard of this book. Now I need it!


Best Books of the Year Part 4 [Not About Covers]

 (Continuing from here and here and here...)

* * * 

Roberto Bolaño: 2666
FSG, 2008

I went on and on about the design of this book here. It was the look of the thing, and a heartfelt recommendation from book designer Michael Kellner, which eventually persuaded me to read 2666, six months after everybody else had already read it and raved about it. You probably already know whether you intend to read it or not, based on the hype, so I'm not sure what I can say that will sway you if you are in the NO camp, but I'll try.

Bolaño's posthumously published, 900-page doorstopper is an intimidating but thoroughly rewarding book. In fact, in some ways, it's five books. Though all are interlinked, and the whole tells one big, complex story, it actually consists of three short and two long novels. The first is an academic satire about a group of literature professors seeking an obscure German writer in Mexico. The second book is about a Spaniard and his daughter moving to Mexico, and getting mixed up in things they don't really understand. The third book follows an American sports writer to Mexico on an assignment to cover a boxing match. The fourth, and longest (and sometimes hard to endure) part takes a look at a series of hundreds of horrific murders of poor Mexican women, and the fruitless police investigation (all, horribly, based on reality), told with the clinical distance and alarming detail of a forensic report. And the final part, which brings all the others together, is the life story of the mysterious German writer from the first section, from his birth, through the front lines of WWII, to his Mexican fate. All five books stand on their own, but read together are like nothing else I've come across.

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes
Virago Modern Classics, 2000 (and NYRB, 1998)

The Virago Modern Classics are one of the Lost Great Things of modern literature (see also the Harvill/Panther paperbacks of the 1990s). From 1978 until some time in the 1990s, Virago put back into print some 400 books, mostly by women, which had been undeservedly forgotten or neglected. With their characteristic apple-green spines, these books were a wonderful collection of great novels, short stories and autobiographies. But then Virago was sold to Time Warner, and the list was savagely cut back. Now it's a shadow of its former self, but a few great books have survived: Antonia White, Elizabeth Taylor (the fantastic writer, not the appalling actress) and Rebecca West still have a few titles in print, though not all. Another amazing author who had a couple of books survive the purge was Sylvia Townsend Warner, who is also ably supported in the US by NYRB.  

Warner's short stories are brilliant, but good luck in finding them. Luckily, her novels are brilliant too, and Lolly Willowes might be the best of them. It starts as what might seem a straightforward repressed-woman-in-the-1900s narrative, but opens out to become someothing much odder and richer. It even seems to be parodying (though with more depth than any parody normally manages) books and films that hadn't even been written back in 1927, when it was first published--everything from the Elizabeth Gilbert-style middle-aged-woman-finds-herself memoirs that have boomed in bookshops over the last decade, to The Wicker Man. To say much more would be to spoil it, so I'll stop here.

Ron Currie, Jr: Everything Matters!
Viking, 2009

Before he is even born, Junior Thibodeax is hearing voices in his head, telling him that the world will end in 36 years. What's worse is that he's not mad, and the voices are telling the truth. They tell him other things, too--things he could never know otherwise--but they don't often tell him what he wants to know, and he can't really share his gift/curse with anyone in a way that they'll understand and believe him. Growing up with the indisputable fact of global destruction hanging over him, Junior's life goes understandably awry. He's unable to share his gift.

Taking in the end of everything, parallel universes and time loops, teenage sex, powerless gods and domestic terrorism, this could have been an appalling mess. Instead, it's a funny, clever and deeply touching novel: the sort of energetic, all-encompassing book that seems as though it could only have been wrtten by a young writer, but which seems much wiser than such youth should allow.

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin
Penguin Classics, 2009 (also Melville House, 2009, as Every Man Dies Alone)

I collect a lot of books about great forgotten books (often themselves out of print), listing reams of wonderful novels that never got the attention they deserved, or which vanished into oblivion despite one-time popularity. One writer who keeps popping up in these lists is German novelist Hans Fallada, who died in 1947. After years of neglect in the English-speaking world, Fallada is suddenly back in 2009, with more to come.

Alone in Berlin, Fallada's last book, is a story of the Germin resistance to the Nazis, based on a true story. Given his own troubled relationship to Hitler's regime, Fallada could well have chosen to write an uplifting tale of moral, upright citizens, defiant in the face of horror, working together to fight fascism--the sort of book Germans might have wanted to read in 1947. Instead, he produced this gripping, bleak thriller of hopelessness and petty revenge. The husband and wife at the centre of the story leave subversive postacrds all over Berlin, trying to change the minds of their fellow Germans, turning them against their Nazi masters. Most books would have pushed the light-in-the-darkness angle, but Fallada seems to view hope as something of a dirty trick, and the postacrds go astray, are ignored, or handed over to the authorities--and so the hunt is on for the subversive couple. To mention that this book is translated by
Michael Hofmannis is to mention that it's translated masterfully.

Melville House also republished two other great novels by Fallada--Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker, both excellent--and are bringing out another, Wolf Among Wolves, in 2010.

Dash Shaw: Bottomless Belly Button
Fantagraphics, 2008

I can't add much more to what I already said here, but Bottomless Belly Button really is that good. And Shaw is only 26, which means he started writing and drawing this graphic novel when he was 22. It's depressing when other people are so talented and so young, and all you have to show for yourself is a blog and a series of foolish self-inflicted injuries.


Monday, 21 December 2009

The Most-Used Cover Image in the World?

As someone with an interest in the use of one image on multiple books, I've wondered in the past which image has been most popular, appearing on the greatest number of books. I think I've found the answer: it's Diego Velázquez's 'Rokeby Venus', which was attacked in 1914 by "Slasher" Mary Richardson, the militant suffragette, supposedly to protest against the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst the previous day.

(Click for much bigger version)

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history,” Richardson said at the time, though she admitted in 1952 that another reason was simply that she “didn’t like the way men visitors gaped at it all day long”. (See more here.)

It's the painting's combination of sexiness and restraint, I suspect, that has seen it so widely used. Here are just a selection of covers which feature it, and this excludes the many other Velázquez-focused books which also make use of it.


The second book featured above, The King Amaz'd by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, is a wonderful and strange novel: Spain is in trouble, struck by incursions from Hell, because the King desires to see his wife naked. Meanwhile, a pure-hearted priest who is able to chat with Satan without becoming corrupted, meets up with the Devil to sort out what can be done. Beautifully written, and obeying its own strange internal logic, it's a beautiful book.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Twenty Thousand Streets, One Cover Image

One of my favourite books by one of my favourite writers, the Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky trilogy by the great Patrick Hamilton, has recently been rejigged in the cover department by Vintage UK. Unfortunately, it's been rejigged to look the same as a couple of other books that already exist.


Before the update, it featured possibly the least prepossessing barmaid in history...

This is from a Bill Brandt photo, 'Barmaid at the Crooked Billet, Tower Hill 1939'.

And before that, it looked like this...

And way back in the misty past, like this (an edition which now will set you back between $2000 and $5000, depending on condition).

This is as good a place as any to have a small whinge: Hamilton's much-praised first novel, Monday Morning, remains out of print and also completely unavailable, both second-hand and in libraries. Two different publishers have assured me over the last couple of years that they were going to reprint it in the very near future (at one point it was meant to be a Faber Find). No luck. Somebody needs to publish that book NOW, or my wrath will be terrible indeed.

UPDATE: John Self points out what I had forgotten--that NYRB also publishes Twenty Thousand Streets..., with a rather nice cover (designed by Katy Homans) using 'The Long House (red Bathroom/Blue Figure)' by Laurie Simmons.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Best Books of the Year Part 3 [Not About Covers]

(Continuing from here and here...)

* * *

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver
NYRB, 2009 (also Sort Of Books, 2009)

I’m gratified by the way my favourite writer as a child has also ended up becoming one of my favourite writers as an adult, for a different set of books. Tove Jansson, for it is she, wrote the wonderful Moomin books. In her later years she turned to novels and short stories for adults, and they are great. Back in the mid-1990s, when I first had a credit card and internet access, one of the first books I tracked down was Jansson’s The Summer Book, then long out-of-print in English, but now available from both NYRB in the US, and Sort Of Books in the UK. If you haven’t read it, I demand that you do. It’s a perfect evocation of childhood and old age, and the strange relationship between the two.

The True Deceiver (first published in Swedish in 1982, and now translated by Thomas Teal) is another small masterpiece. In less than 200 pages, Jansson tells the story of two odd women in a remote Swedish village. Katri is something of an outsider, yellow-eyed, brutally honest, no observer of social niceties, and always accompanied by an enormous, nameless dog. Anna, much older, lives alone in ‘the rabbit house’, where she paints illustrations for a wildly successful series of children’s books. Katri sets about moving into Anna’s life and home, motivated by both selfishness and altruism, trying to scrape together enough money to buy a special gift for her “simple” brother, Mats.

It is a brilliant, beautiful book. And for another side of Tove Jansson, 2009 also saw the publication of the fourth (and probably final) volume of her collected Moomin newspaper comic strips. Light-hearted, anarchic, humane and satirical, they’re also highly recommended: see more here.

Muriel Spark: A Far Cry from Kensington
Virago, 2008

A 20th-anniversary republication, this is probably the best of Muriel Spark’s later novels. Given the incredibly high standards Spark set in her fiction, that’s saying something. Like Tove Jansson, Spark worked almost exclusively at short novel or novella length, with no wasted words and beautifully clear, tight prose. Kensington is the story of Agnes Hawkins, a war widow in the 1950s, living in a boarding house (a frequent Spark setting), and working at a publisher’s. A mixture of bad temper and pride see her sabotaging her career, and becoming involved in a long-running feud with a hack journalist and womaniser called Bartlett. Black humour, death and diabolism ensue. (Weirdly, both this book, the Tove Jansson and two other bloody good books I read this year all have introductions by Ali Smith, who I don't even like much, and yet she obviously has excellent taste.)

I go on about Spark and some of her other great books here.

Miriam Toews: The Flying Troutmans
Faber & Faber, 2009

The set-up for Toews’ third novel is simple: Hattie, a woman fleeing a bad relationship in Paris returns to Canada to see her suicidal, institutionalised sister. The sister has two children, and desperate, to offer them hope, Hattie takes them on a road trip to find their estranged father.

That simple description gives no idea of how deeply funny and moving—as well as frequently alarming—this book is. It’s told mostly through the dialogue between the three characters in the car as they cross the border and roam the US, and it’s mostly in the dialogue that the humour of this book is found.

No a fifteen year old cannot live on his own, I said.
Pippi Longstocking wasn't even fifteen, said Thebes, and she -
Yeah, but she was a character in a book, I said.
And she was Swedish said Logan.
So there would have been a solid safety net of social programmes to keep her afloat, I said. It doesn't work here.

(Quoted text stolen from Dovegreyreader’s excellent blog, as my own copy of this book was loaned to a friend several months ago, and is yet to return (Are you reading, Trish?).)

Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories & Other Writings
Library of America, 2008

Porter is one of those writers I was vaguely aware of, but had read nothing by. To be honest, I’m not sure why I suddenly decided to buy this 1100-page volume, except that it was on sale and I have no self-control. Whatever the reason, I’m very glad I did—it was a revelation. I have a particular fondness for short stories and novellas, and Porter must be up there with William Trevor and Alice Munro as one of the great English-language short story writers. This book (half of which is short fiction, half of which short non-fiction) is superb. Hell—the final story, ‘The Leaning Tower’, a 75-page story of pre-WWII Berlin, is reason enough alone to get this.

Shirley Jackson: The Lottery and Other Stories
Penguin Modern Classics, 2009

Somehow, despite hugely enjoying those novels of Jackson’s which I have read, I’d never got this famous short story collection. Like the Porter book, though, this was a serious treat. First published in the 1950s, this collection demonstrates a range of mood and subject I really hadn’t expected: I knew Jackson could do creepy and mad and supernatural, but I had no idea she could do so much more. Having said that, though, the creepy and famous title story is one of the highlights.

The International Children's Digital Library

The wonderful and wide-ranging Animalarium blog (specifically, this beautiful post) directed me towards the International Children's Digital Library, a site I can't believe I didn't know of. It's amazing: a repository for full digital copies of children's books from around the world, both in and out of copyright, complete with the original texts and illustrations. You can read every book they have online, and many are available in multiple languages.

Here are just a few of the books I found in my first wander round the site. From their huge Farsi holdings...

The Call of the Mountain, by Mohammadrezaa Baayraami

The Emperor of Words, by Ahmad Akbarpour

The frankly amazing-looking The Fable of Afsaneh,
by Mohammad Reza Yusefi and Ali Namvar

Here are a couple of pages from that...


From the Yiddish collection, The Golden Peacock, a collection of songs and rhymes...


From the ex-Yugoslav collection...

Otto the Spider, by Manuela Vladić-Maštruko (Croatian)

A Collection of Poems for Children, by Milovan Danojlić and Nikola Masniković (Serbian)

There are tonnes of great things there. From a Swedish book of fairy stories...

From a German book of Japanese fairy tales...


And from the English-language collection...


I've barely scratched the surface of the site. It has a child-oriented search system (ie by cover colour, language, reading age, type of main character), so there's a certain amount of serendipity involved in finding things. But given that there are almost 500 books in English, nearly the same number in Farsi, and even 240 in Mongolian, I'm unlikely to exhaust it quickly.