The latest books and literature reviews, comment, features and interviews, with extracts from famous texts and neglected gems.
Did you see the books arranged behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Castle Rock school in Coalville, Leicestershire. Was the school librarian making a point in their choice of books to backdrop Boris? Titles on the top shelf included: Betrayed, The Resistance, The Subtle Knife, Fahrenheit 451, The Toll, Oliver Twist and Terry Pratchett’s genius Guards! Guards! What could it all mean asked the assembled hacks. “No comment,” said the school, which is, of course, a comment.
“Books seen behind Boris Johnson tell their own story,” says the Guardian headline. “Has a savvy school librarian or English teacher snatched a golden opportunity to have a pop at the PM in front of the nation?” asks a reporter from the TES. “Are the books behind Boris artfully arranged with a secret political agenda and commentary on the current government?” mused the Indy.
What you might not also have noticed is the PM’s words on the exams results fiasco. “I’m afraid your grades were almost derailed by a mutant algorithm,” guffed Boris. “I know how stressful that must have been for pupils up and down the country. I’m very, very glad that it has finally been sorted out.”
That mutant algorithm was coded by human beings. Sally Collier, the head of England’s exams regulator Ofqual has resigned. Jonathan Slater, the most senior civil servant in the Department for Education (DfE), is ‘stepping down’. But Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, aka The Mutant, remains. Look for codes and symbols of defiance by all means, but in so doing try not to miss the obvious. Nearly 800 libraries have closed since 2010. Johnson holidayed amid the exam disaster-class, popping up to tell us that he was reading Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things.
Johnson, that school librarian and political pundits dialling in opinions from seats positioned in front of their bookshelves – watching on for signs of wrong-thinking by their peers and enemies – all assure us that books matter. But schoolchildren suffer through the lack of books and formal education. The local library has gone and there’s no longer a free space to sit, read the think. Books have been reduced to props. And that is telling.
Madeleine McCann: a look at repotting on the missing child. In the stead of any news on the hunt for the missing child, the Daily Express gawps at the parents. News is that Gerry McCann had an ‘image fixed indelibly’ in his memory from less than an hour before his daughter disappeared”. This was “revealed during a book written by the parents on the missing toddler”. First up, dear Daily Express: get a sub-editor. Yesterday’s garbled news form Reach plc titles (the Express, Star and Mirror) was riddled with typos and literals.
The scoop is that Kate McCann wrote something in her book, Madeleine: Our Daughter’s Disappearance and the Continuing Search for Her. That book was published in 2011. The Express has taken 9 years to tell its readers what was “revealed in it”.
Here’s the extract – “the heartbreaking account of Gerry’s final memory of seeing his daughter”:
“Madeleine was lying there on her left-hand side, her legs under the covers, in exactly the same position as we’d left her. For Gerry, this became one of those images I described earlier, pictures that fix themselves indelibly, almost photographically, in the memory. He paused for a couple of seconds to look at Madeleine and thought to himself, she’s so beautiful. After pulling the bedroom door to, restoring it to its original angle, he went to the bathroom before leaving the apartment.”
As the Express reads old books to ‘reveal’ nothing new, the Mirror looks at Christian Bruckner, the convicted German peadophile and rapist accused of kidnapping and murdering Madeleine McCann, a claim he denies. The headline is a sort of anti-news:
Madeleine McCann suspect Christian Brueckner ruled out of raping and murdering girl, 11
Claudia Ruf was kidnapped from Grevenbroich, Germany, in 1996, while walking her neighbour’s dog – before her partly burned body was found dumped around 40 miles away
A police spokesman told German newspaper Bild: “After comparing the information obtained, it can be said that Christian B was not in Grevenbroich at the time in the case of Claudia Ruf. In addition, a DNA comparison is said to have been negative.”
Are we now at the point where every unsolved case of child abduction and murder is to cross-checked with Christian Brueckner’s life? Good to look but why now – why not check him before? It all looks a b it ike PR, as if the police having pointe the finger at the revolting Brueckner are desperate to keep his name in the frame. This might be in hope that someone who knows something comes forward. But right now the is only circumstantial evidence linking Brueckner to the worlds most famous missing child. And in light of any evidence saying he committed a crime against her, we should presume he did not.
Word on twitter is that these are the 20 books people are most likely to lie about having read.
A friend once worked for a record industry bigwig who used to read the pass notes and then pretend he’d read the book. He did it in the hope it’d impress women. He was an utter bellend, of course. And it was enjoyable watching him founder when he met someone who’d actually read War And Peace.
Hermann Göring wrote the forward to a puppy training manual you can buy on Amazon. Sections are not dedicated to knowing Jews by their scent, teaching your dog to raise a front right leg and going vegetarian. There is, however, lots about obeying orders. The JC reports that shopper Lorraine Phipps bought the Puppy Training manual from Amazon unaware that it contains a eulogy on Adolf Hitler printed inside, namely Adolf Hitler, 1931-1935: Pictures from the Life of the Führer with a forward by Hermann Göring.
“I bought a purported puppy training book from Amazon on March 2,” says Lorraine. “When my husband and I went to read it, despite the cover being as expected, it was actually a reprinting of a 1936 pro-Nazi propaganda book.” She wants Amazon to remove the “awful and misleading item from their listings”. Amazon says they are “investigating”.
Elsewhere you can buy Pictures from the Life of the Führer – without the Puppy Training cover. It is “one of the crowning popular propaganda achievements which helped consolidate Hitler’s hold on power, this book had sold millions of copies by 1940 and was one of those specifically ordered destroyed by the Allied occupation forces after 1945”.
Meanwhile… Somewhere in a German bunker a Nazi is teaching other recreational Herrenvolk to ‘Stay’, ‘Beg’ and ‘Play Dead’.
Stuck for a good book to read as the coronavirus spread makes staying in doors obligatory? Don’t be. This is a great reading list compiled by Ernest Hemingway. As Paul Gallagher writes at Flashbak:
In 1934, Arnold Samuelson read Ernest Hemingway’s short story One Trip Across. It inspired the 22-year-old student to travel across America and seek out the author. He wanted to ask Hemingway for his advice on how best to write.
Samuelson had just finished a course in journalism at the University of Minnesota. He harboured ambitions to be a writer. Packing a bag, he hitch-hiked his way down to Hemingway’s home in Key West. When he arrived, he found the place, like the rest of America, in the grip of the Great Depression. He spent his first night sleeping rough on a dock. During the night, he was woken by a cop who invited Samuelson to sleep in the local jail. He accepted the offer. The next day, feeling refreshed, Samuelson ventured out in the sun to search for his hero’s home.
When I knocked on the front door of Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, he came out and stood squarely in front of me, squinty with annoyance, waiting for me to speak. I had nothing to say. I couldn’t recall a word of my prepared speech. He was a big man, tall, narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered, and he stood with his feet spread apart, his arms hanging at his sides. He was crouched forward slightly with his weight on his toes, in the instinctive poise of a fighter ready to hit.
The full list is at Flashbak. But my pick would be… Well, I don’t know. I need to read them all. It’s a cracking list.
Shut indoors you can read and read thanks to the Internet Archive which has suspended waiting lists for the 1.4 million book on it shelves by creating a National Emergency Library.
During the waitlist suspension, users will be able to borrow books from the National Emergency Library without joining a waitlist, ensuring that students will have access to assigned readings and library materials that the Internet Archive has digitized for the remainder of the US academic calendar, and that people who cannot physically access their local libraries because of closure or self-quarantine can continue to read and thrive during this time of crisis, keeping themselves and others safe.
This library brings together all the books from Phillips Academy Andover and Marygrove College, and much of Trent University’s collections, along with over a million other books donated from other libraries to readers worldwide that are locked out of their libraries.
And you can help:
You can read for free the 23,000-word essay for Rolling Stone that Hunter S. Thompson turned into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson’s tale begins with the death of Ruben Salazar (March 3, 1928 – August 29, 1970) at an anti-Vietnam War protest. During the rally, Salazar was struck by a tear-gas projectile fired by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy. The story of Salazar’s killing became Thompson’s story Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.
Thompson strayed off subject. Waylaid by a jaunt to Las Vegas for the Mint 400 desert race for Sports Illustrated, the story fanned out. The eventual 23,000-word piece appeared in the November 1971 issue of Rolling Stone as ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.‘
Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) survived the allied bombing of Dresden during World War II. It inspired his novel Slaughterhouse Five.
The Allied onslaught on the German’s industrial and transportation hub was brutal. On 13 February 1945, British aircraft began the attack on the eastern German city of Dresden. In less than half an hour, warplanes dropped 1,800 tons of bombs. More then 25,000 people died in the firestorm. “Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn,” Vonnegut wrote. The city became “like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighbourhood was dead.”
In 1983, Vonnegut recalled his time in an underground meat locker as a prisoner of war in Dresden for the BBC – ‘And So It Goes’:
Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt is the hottest book you haven’t read. Reportedly bought for a seven figure sum, the work hailed as the “Grapes of Wrath for our times” by someone in the know tells the story of a Mexican mother and her son who escape the drugs cartels. Sounds great. But not everyone’s a fan:
The publisher of the controversial novel American Dirt has canceled the remainder of the author’s book tour as critics and many in the Latinx community criticize the book for its portrayal of immigrants.
In a statement Wednesday, Flatiron Books president and publisher Bob Miller acknowledged the controversy surrounding the novel and its author, Jeanine Cummins, and said they decided to cancel the tour because of “specific threats,” including that of physical violence, that have been made against her.
Salman Rushdie is over here…
These pictures show us a handmade book by Janet Gnosspelius. The book contains her cats’ whiskers. Janet collected the whiskers she found in her home from 1940 to 1942. She then wove each and every whisker into the pages of her book and catalogued them, noting when, where and how they were found.
Janet Gnosspelius had artistic pedigree. Her mother was Barbara Collingwood, granddaughter of W.G. Collingwood, John Ruskin’s secretary. She was one of the first women to attend the Liverpool School of Architecture. Archivists say the meticulous nature Gnosspelius exhibited in creating her book remained throughout her life as she worked in “local history and building conservation, regularly posting samples of masonry to Liverpool City Planning Office, neatly labelled with their provenance and date, demanding their restoration.”
Gnosspelius continued her love of cats. At age 40 she wrote a diary. “The diary is no ordinary one,” says her archivists. “It is written from the perspective of her beloved ginger cat Butterball, recording the dates of his fights, illnesses, and stays with friends: ‘9 March 1965: wrapped my mouse in the mat outside kitchen door.’”
You can read crcaking stuff from Amazing Stories Volume 01 Number 01 (April 1926), featuring: Off on a Comet (Jules Verne; 1/2), The New Accelerator (H. G. Wells), The Man From the Atom (G. Peyton Wertenbaker), The Thing From—”Outside” (George Allan England), The Man Who Saved the Earth (Austin Hall), and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (Edgar Allan Poe).
And there’s a load of racier stuff, too.
William Matthews Bookseller instructs us ho to open a lovely book for the first time.
The Truth Blue Cookery Book is is “an assembly of recipes contributed by the Conservative Members of Parliament and their wives”. No husbands can cook, or at least no husbands are prepared to share their recipes.
Published in 1977 in association with the Ruislip-Northwood Conservative Association, the people and recipes are a blast from a different age. In the same series, titles include: “Right Way To Make James”; “Deep Freeze Secret”; “Easy Wine And Country Drinks”; and “Choose A Wine”. Any wine. They all get you there, dear boy:
Salvador Dalí designed a full deck of tarot cards for the James Bond film Live and Let Die. But the production team were reluctant to pay Dalí’s fee, so they never appeared in the movie. But the artist liked the work and completed the set in 1984. Now art book publisher Taschen (they make those massive coffee table books so big they could double as coffee table) is releasing the deck.
The new Joan Didion film on Netflix, The Centre Will Not Hold, got me reding her essays. In The Year of Magical Thinking (public library), the American essayist writes of the pain that followed he death of her husband John Gregory Dunne (May 25, 1932 – December 30, 2003).
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves the for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
In 2002, Blackburn Rovers striker Matt Jansen was on holiday in Rome. He could have been with England’s World Cup squad in Japan and South Korea. He’d narrowly missed out on selection – a 16-goal season had not been enough. So a trip to Italy with his girlfriend Lucy was booked. One sunny day they hired a moped to explore the city. What happened next changed everything. In his autobiography What Was, What Is and What Might Have Been, Jansen tells the story of life changed in a flash.
I was told I was going to the World Cup’ To win the League Cup and get called up by England, my ego was as big as it has ever been. I was at the top of my game, getting more and more confident. I was told I was going to the World Cup. The team was going to be announced the day after the penultimate game of the season.
We were playing Liverpool and Sven [Goran Eriksson] told Graeme Souness, who was Blackburn manager, not to tell me but say “don’t get injured” because I was going to be named in the World Cup squad.
He wasn’t picked. But Manchester United and Arsenal wanted him. Juventus had show a keen interest. Things would only get better. So to Rome…
We had got a taxi from the airport to the Hotel Eden at the top of the Spanish Steps and it was the worst journey I have ever had.
The way they drive in Rome, you toot the horn and have right of way I think. It is just chaotic.
So we hired this little scooter, a couple of helmets and we were pottering around Rome. We went to the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and here and there. It was the best way for us to travel.
On the second day we went out again and Lucy was on the back and her helmet flew off. We were on our way back to the hotel, and were only about 600 metres from it.
We couldn’t find her helmet anywhere but there were some police parked on the side of the road and Lucy spoke to them and said: “OK if we go back to the hotel and then look for the helmet or get another helmet tomorrow?” And they said: “Yes, as long as you go straight back to the hotel” as they knew it was only 600 metres up the road.
I said “do you want my helmet?” and took it off and handed it to Lucy. She said: “No, no. You are driving; you had better keep it on.” Fortunately I did.
We were coming around a corner, maybe 50 metres from the hotel at a crossroads. So I am edging out at this crossroads and as I am edging out there is a flash across me. A taxi smacks me on the side of the head and I take the full brunt. Lucy was thrown off the bike apparently and I was unconscious on the ground. That was me in a coma for six days.
Jansen has been stricken by crippling anxiety. But with help and hard work he’s improved. And – yep – he married Lucy.
We’ve not witnessed the end of the world. So the rich industry in predicting it continues. One day it really will be all over, the huge whimper triggering the race in the afterlife to scream ‘first!’. Beatus was not the first to peer into the future and see a decisive battle between God and the Devil. The Spanish monk created his Beatus Of Liébana in the 8th Century, a chronicle of the biblical book of Revelations. In the 11th Century King Ferdinand I of León, Castile, and Galicia wanted an updated version of Beatus’s work. So he shipped in a monk called Facundus to copy it. You can see lots more of the Beatus Facundus on Flashbak.
On Doug Gilford’s Mad Cover Site – “a resource for collectors and fans of the world’s most important (ecch!) humor publication” – you can see every cover since the magazine’s 1952 debut. Alfred E. Neuman is, of course, ever present.
“Totally normal caveat such as you might find in any normal book review,” tweets Richard Smyth. He points us to a book review by Nigel Jones in the latest issue of History Today. The subject is German author and war hero Ernst Jünger (29 March 1895 – 17 February 1998).
Spotter: Richard Smyth
In 1982 Roald Dahl, showed us inside his writing shed at his home in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England. The shed was relocated to the Roald Dahl Museum. The desk – a board balanced on the arms of a tatty chair – we knew about. Dahl called the 6ft x 7ft hut his “little nest, my womb”. One thing we didn’t know: Dahl modelled his shed on Dylan Thomas’s own writing shed in Carmarthenshire, Wales. The BBC:
Although Dahl based the design of his hut on Thomas’s shed, there was one major difference – the lack of natural light. He often kept his curtains drawn (10) to block out the outside world and was dependant on an angle-poise lamp for light….
Dahl’s widow Felicity said: “He realised he had to have a space of his own in the garden away from the children and the noise and the general domesticity and he remembered that Dylan had felt the same.
“And so he went down to Wales to look at Dylan’s writing hut and, like everybody, fell in love with it.”
Built to the same proportions, with the same angled roof – the similarities could be a coincidence. But according to his widow it was built in a similar design by Dahl’s builder friend Wally Saunders, who the BFG was based on.
“He built it exactly to the same proportions as Dylan’s hut, the same roof, one skin of brick,” said Mrs Dahl. “Of course Dylan’s hut was a garage originally, whereas Roald had nothing, it was an empty space that he built on.”
Spotter: Boing Boing