Musings on Place, Travel, Books, Literature, Poetry, Literary Criticism, Collecting, Media, Life and the Arts

Archive for November, 2009

November 30th, 2009 • Posted in On Book Collecting

Where to invest in Rare Books…

I’ve been thinking seriously of late about throwing more dough at books. Not that I don’t already buy enough to fill gymnasiums every week. No, I’m talking about buying fewer, more expensive, rarer books…for ‘fun and profit.’ Treating them like blue chip stocks.

Over the past decade I haven’t even broken even on the stock market. The only people who seem to make money in this scam, both on the way up, and the way down, are the brokers. Real Estate has been marginally better, and then there are GICs, but if 0% to 6% is the best one can do, why not use the money to actually enrich life? Put it into something you know and love? Everyone will tell you that buying books for profit is a fool’s game. But what if your objective isn’t to make a killing…but, just, for a time, to possess beautiful, important objects, and in so doing make a reasonable return, surely this is possible? To sit and hang out with a set of good friends…and then pass them on for a 0-6% gain? Is this so unreasonable?

Now the challenge of course is to find the friends…the books you love which are sure to hold their value. Right now there appears to be a real glut on the used book market. I have lots of f/f first editions by decent authors -  currently looking at: Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried, Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs – that booksellers I’ve approached just don’t seem interested in buying, at least for reasonable money…can’t blame them really, when they can get the same or better for one or two dollars per at local book sales and auctions… these used to be $50 books…and I can’t get my money out of them.

Which begs the question: If I do invest say $15,000 in a handful of books, for a start, which ones – of those I’m passionate about – should I buy? The last thing I want to do is go starving to the grave clutching my Kelmscott Chaucer, my Nonesuch Shakespeare, my Sphinx in scurvy’d hand. Which ones will hold their value over say the next decade? Given the advent of e-books and digitization, it’s pretty clear that -as in the past- books which are well constructed, beautifully made, in fine condition, will gain in importance…I’ve been reading about Fine and Private Press books lately, and talking to current producers (Stay tuned for an interview conducted recently with Richard Coxford of Bytown Books on collecting fine press editions). This is where I think I’ll be going…but not before talking to some experts in the field. I plan to put this scenario to the cognizanti of the antiquarian book trade in the coming months. Stay tuned for their responses.

November 28th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with author Bruce Bawer conducted by Nigel Beale: On Islamism and Islamophobia

“Written with an urgency and clarity that makes it hard to stop reading and re-reading it. It should be studied by all who wish to understand the forces at work in the West that make an Islamic ‘House of Peace’ a brewing nightmare.”
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali

"Bawer is unquestionably correct, and that fact is quite simply terrifying."
- Stephen Pollard, New York Times Book Review

I talk with Bruce Bawer here about his most recent book Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom (Doubleday, 2009); about Norway, Sharia laws’ intolerance toward women and hatred of gays, the Western media’s hypocritical reluctance to criticize Islamism; and the ‘Islamophobe’ label. I found Bawer to be sincere, passionate and genuinely concerned about the serious threat certain elements in the Islamic world pose to the free expression of ideas.

Listen here to his important message:

November 27th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Laughter that Destroys all Pomposity

 "No doubt Aubrey Beardsley was the more original artist; also the more limited. Even if he had lived I doubt if he would have gone much beyond his strictly linear style. Whereas Ricketts painted from a rich palette, and was also an accomplished sculptor in the manner of Rodin. From the point of view of reputation with posterity, versatility is a dangerous gift, and seems to arouse a sort of jealousy. Ricketts did everything well, bringing to each a branch of art or craft a feeling for design, a sympathy with the medium and an inexhaustible gift of invention. And, in addition to his technical endowments, all his work shows the stamp of a superior character. Bernard Shaw described him as ‘the noble and generous Ricketts…a natural aristocrat as well as a loyal and devoted artist.’ And it is perhaps a good thing that he should be remembered in this form. But those of us who knew him will always think first of his laugh, destroying all pomposity and encouraging us to say outrageous things. "

                Kenneth Clark in the foreword to Stephen Calloway’s Charles Ricketts: Subtle and Fantastic Decorator.


Just as Oak Knoll Books is the place to go for all who love Books on Books, The Kelmscott Book Shop is a must for those who adore the art and ambiance of England in the 1890s. Listen here to my interview with proprietor Fran Durako.


November 27th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Greatest Painter of the Late 19th Century?

the greatest painter of the late nineteenth century.

November 26th, 2009 • Posted in Nigel Beale Photos

Duck or Loon?

So, I’m prepped to take a bunch of extra


architectural photos, when this great big honkin’

duck, shows up

or is it a loon? Anyways, the first thing it does, of course, is high tail it in

the opposite

direction; but damned if that bird didn’t end up

lookin’ artsier than that buildin’ ever could.


November 26th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with 2009 GG Award Winner Kate Pullinger, conducted by Nigel Beale.

(last night at Art Matters)

Kate Pullinger is a novelist who also writes for film and various digital platforms. Born in Cranbrook British Columbia she went to high school on Vancouver Island, dropped out of McGill University, worked for a year in a copper mine in the Yukon, traveled, and eventually settled in London. Pullinger has written two short story collections; her  novels include When the Monster Dies (1989), Where Does Kissing End? (1992), A Little Stranger and most recently The Mistress of Nothing which has just won Canada’s GG Literary Award for best English Fiction (to be awarded this evening).

She has lectured and taught at, among other institutions: the Battersea Arts Centre, the University of Reading, and Cambridge University, as well as in various prisons. She currently teaches Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University, Leicester.

The Mistress of Nothing (2009), takes its inspiration from the life of Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon, and is set in nineteenth-century Egypt. I met with Kate yesterday afternoon. Among other things we talk about what it’s like to win the GG, class structures, and the future of the book (check out her website here). Please listen here:


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November 24th, 2009 • Posted in Bookstores

A Word on how to run a great Used Bookstore

After interviewing Yann Martel the other day I stopped by Patrick McGahern Books on Bank Street in Ottawa for a quick browse. Combing the literature section I came across two items that demanded I buy them.

First – because I’ve been reading lately about Fine Presses in the 1890s – was Aubrey Beardsley by Robert Ross. Illustrated, with an annotated list of Beardsley’s drawings at the back. Crown octavo/ duodecimo sized, with gilt top edge and front cover image, the text is printed on laid paper, it’s a first edition published by The Bodley Head in 1909. Yours for $35 plus shipping. I paid $12.00. Then – just because – a later edition paperback copy of The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye for $5.00. Why the smile? Because in it, in tiny writing, is inscribed ‘Michael and Kim Ondaatje, Kingston, 1967.’

I impart this story not to gloat, but to observe that the best used bookstores always ensure that little treasures lie waiting on the shelves to be found. Because ‘finds’ is what it’s all about for the biblioholic.  McGahern’s is a store I will always check in on, because, by design or oversight, it yields precisely what the hunter enters a store for in the first place: choice, underpriced game.

Benjamin Books, incidentally, is another such reserve. I pulled a signed first edition of Two Solitudes, in NF/NF condition off their shelves recently for a tiny fraction of what it’s going for here.   I happen to know too that there’s a signed copy of Robertson Davies’ World of Wonders (2nd Printing) – inscribed to Canada’s first female supreme court judge – currently available there for $45.00.


November 24th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Why James Wood is so Good…

NY Observer.

The poetic use of words in unusual, appealing ways:

an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading

The entertaining animation of simile and metaphor

A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book

At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist.

This is the kind of balsa-wood backstory that is knocked into Hollywood plots every day.

          as tidy and punctual as postage stamps

The entertaining animation of simile and metaphor combined with specific comparative, contextual background and observation about technique:

Charles Bovary’s conversation is likened to a pavement, over which many people have walked; twentieth-century literature, violently conscious of mass culture, extends this idea of the self as a kind of borrowed tissue, full of other people’s germs. Among modern and postmodern writers, Beckett, Nabokov, Richard Yates, Thomas Bernhard, Muriel Spark, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, and David Foster Wallace have all employed and impaled cliché in their work. Paul Auster is probably America’s best-known postmodern novelist; his “New York Trilogy” must have been read by thousands who do not usually read avant-garde fiction. Auster clearly shares this engagement with mediation and borrowedness—hence, his cinematic plots and rather bogus…

…capped with the crisp, well-turned critical phrase:

…dialogue—and yet he does nothing with cliché except use it.

Bold Postulation:

he wants both the emotional credibility of conventional realism and a frisson of postmodern wordplay (a single vowel separates the names, and Tod is German for “death”).

Followed by rational argument and unalloyed judgment:

What Auster often gets instead is the worst of both worlds: fake realism and shallow skepticism. The two weaknesses are related. Auster is a compelling storyteller, but his stories are assertions rather than persuasions. They declare themselves; they hound the next revelation. Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched.

Clear statement of shortcomings, use of comparison, and explanation of what separates good from bad:

Presence fails to turn into significant absence, because presence was not present enough. This is the crevasse that divides Auster from novelists like José Saramago, or the Philip Roth of “The Ghost Writer.” Saramago’s realism is braced with skepticism, so his skepticism feels real. Roth’s narrative games emerge naturally from his consideration of ordinary human ironies and comedies; they do not start life as allegories about the relativity of mimesis, though they may become them. Saramago and Roth both assemble and disassemble their stories in ways that seem fundamentally grave. Auster, despite all the games, is the least ironic of contemporary writers.

Theoretical context, and concluding assessment: 

The classic formulations of postmodernism, by philosophers and theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Ihab Hassan, emphasize the way that contemporary language abuts silence. For Blanchot, as indeed for Beckett, language is always announcing its invalidity. Texts stutter and fragment, shred themselves around a void. Perhaps the strangest element of Auster’s reputation as an American postmodernist is that his language never registers this kind of absence at the level of the sentence. The void is all too speakable in Auster’s work. The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue.


November 23rd, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with Bookseller Don Lindgren: On Cook Books and How to Collect Them

Researching ‘literary’ Portland (Maine) before trekking down there, I came across mention of Rabelais Book shop.  What an interesting concept it’s built upon:  the vertical integration of new titles on food, wine, gardening and farming with rare out-of-print  books. Patrons therefore inhabit several distinct categories: Book lovers and collectors from around the globe, food lovers and cooks from around the block. Situated in Portland’s East End next door to Hugo’s (chef Rob Evans won the 2009 James Beard award for Best Chef Northeast) and within walking distance of half a dozen other great restaurants, including Bresca, Duckfat and Fore Street, the store, in several short years, has become the go-to place for New England’s foodies. Hosting author readings, art exhibits, film showings/dinners and  Slow Food meetings, the shop is a jointly owned by Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, a former photo editor and pastry chef, and her husband Don, an antiquarian book dealer. I met with Don at Hugo’s – we thought it would be quieter there than in the store – to talk food and books…listen for the names of titles you might want to start collecting here:

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November 23rd, 2009 • Posted in Literary Criticism

This Essay changed my mind about Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith has just come out with a new collection of ‘occasional’ essays entitled Changing My Mind. (Penguin, 2009). The first, ‘Their Eyes were Watching God: What does soulful mean?’ changed my mind about her.Very much for the better. Not so much because it represents an admission, but because first it’s an extremely well written, focused, powerfully felt piece of writing; and second, it proves she’s not as rabidly, or irrationally, anti-realist as I once supposed.

Here are some of the highlights:

"I had my own ideas of "good writing." It was a category that didn’t include aphoristic or overtly "lyrical" language, mythic imagery, accurately renedered "folk speech" or the love tribulations of women."

I lost many literary battles the day I read Their Eyes were Watching God….had to concede that occasionally aphorisms have their power…

"She saw a dust-nearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom"

I had to admit that mythic language is startling when it is good…my resistence to dialogue (encouraged by Nabokov, whom I idolized) struggled and then tumbled beofre Hurston’s ear for black colloquial speech.

Her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all…

Above all I had to let go of my objection to the love tribulations of women…the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another…is in the end a choice between values, possibilities, futures, arguments…languages and lives.

Their Eyes were Watching God…is about the discovery of self in and through another. It suggests that even the dark and terrible banality of racism can recede to a vanishing point when you understand, and are understood by, another human being. Goddammit if it doesn’t claim that love sets your free.

At fourteen, I did Zora Neale Hurston a critical disservice. I feared my "extraliterary" feelings for her. I wanted to be an objective aesthete and not a senitmental fool. I disliked the idea of "identifying: with the fiction I read: I wanted to like Hurston because she reporesented "good writing" not because she represented me.

Zora Neale Hurston – capable of expressing human vulnerability as well as its strength, lyrical without sentimental, romantic and yet rigorous and one of the few truly eloquent writers of sex – is as exceptional among black women writers as Tolstoy is among white male writers.

Like all readers, I want my limits to be drawn by my own sensibilities, not by my melanin count. These forms of criticism that make black women the privileged readers of a black woman writer go against Hurston’s own grain."

At fourteen I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hari, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.

…after I read this novel…the word soulful took on new weight…The culturally black meaning adds several more shades of color. First shade: soulfulness is sorrowful feeling transformed into something beautiful, creative and self-renewing…Another shade…to follow and fall in line with a feeling…Hurston…makes "culture" that slow and particular and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance – seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise…

…when I’m reading this book, I believe it with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like : She is my sister and I love her."


Check out her recent thoughts on ‘the essay’ here in the Guardian