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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That cutting phrase

I've always envied people (mostly people in novels) who can summon up a snappy rejoinder or a memorably cutting phrase in a split second, without any apparent effort whatsoever.

I was reminded of this when watching a rugby game between the Waikato Chiefs (a real pleasure to watch this season) and the Queensland Reds, where the commentators were Aussie blokes with silver tongues. "I have to say it, there are too many Chiefs and not enough Indians on the field," quipped one after the Chiefs had made yet another runaway try. "That was great refereeing," said a second commentator, reminiscing about some past match. "'Great refereeing' is an oxymoron," retorted the other.

Enviable indeed! And entertaining, too.

It brought to mind those famous quips and putdowns that one hears quoted rather often, an awful lot of which seem to be the heritage of British parliamentarian Winston Churchill. Writers also feature boldly in this off-the-top-of-the-head list:

There is that infamous exchange between Churchill & Lady Astor, for a start. She said, "If you were my husband I'd give you poison," and he retorted, "If you were my wife, I'd drink it." And who was the woman he accused of being ugly? "You're drunk!" she exclaimed. "Yes," he agreed; "but I'll be sober in the morning."

Disraeli could be quick with a snap, too. A member of Parliament exclaimed, "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease!" "That depends, Sir," countered Disraeli, "on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

Churchill again: "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire," he quipped about one, and, "A modest little person, with much to be modest about," concerning another.

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary," said William Faulkner, about Ernest Hemingway.

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?" Ernest Hemingway snapped right back.

Mark Twain, too, was a master of the phrase that devastates. "I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it," mused he once, concerning some unfortunate character.

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends," meditated Oscar Wilde, about another.

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend.... if you have one," wrote George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill.
"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one," Churchill responded.


P.S. Ever wondered about the indignant and ruffled scowl on Churchill's rugged countenance in the famous photograph by Yosef Karsh? It's because Karsh had had the nerve to pluck the famous cigar out of the famous quipper's mouth.

Friday, March 27, 2009

James L. Nelson, not talking about his book

My good friend Jim Nelson, who writes great novels and nonfiction accounts of life at sea (and life in the early American navy, in particular), has hit on a great way of promoting a book. And that is NOT to talk about it.

To interrupt this anecdote, I must say that the book in question is a really great book. It is called George Washington's Secret Navy -- How the American Revolution Went to Sea. It is about a man you might have heard of, called George Washington, who didn't have a ship, let alone a navy, but had to do something about the British who were blockading Boston at the time. What did he do? How did he go about founding the US Navy out of a bunch of little privateers? It's an untold mystery - well, untold until now.
Jim, knowing I'm a fan as well as a friend, sent me a pre-publication draft, which I enjoyed so immensely I sent him a sentence about it, which was eventually published on the back of the jacket.

The political machinations are as exciting as the blood-stirring ship actions in this meticulously researched story of the shadowy beginnings of American might on the seas, I wrote.

Other people enjoyed it too, Eric Jay Dolin calling it "A gripping and fascinating book about the daring and heroic mariners who helped George Washington change the course of history and create a nation." Eric got it right -- it is the swashbuckling mariners who roam the pages that make this work such a delight. Knowing Jim as we do (as he says himself, he spends far too much time dressed as a pirate, considering he is a grown man), it is easy to imagine him taking part in the adventures himself.

Anyway, back to the story. Jim has a new way of publicizing this great book -- or, at least, the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago has found the new way of doing this. Jim gave a talk there, the Library put on on their website, and presto, you can see this swashbuckling author for yourself.

Does he talk about the book? No. Which takes me back to my anecdote. As he points out at the start, telling the audience all about a book takes away any need for anyone to buy it and read it. To find out what he does talk about -- and very entertainingly, I might add -- visit the website and see.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Decoding the Heavens

Decoding the Heavens by Jo Marchant
Nelson Hernandez, in the Washington Post reviews a pre-historical mystery that is a lot more fascinating than the rather blah jacket.
In 1900, a group of divers and archaeologists salvaging an ancient ship fished out a corroded, fragmented box with Greek writing on it and bronze gearwheels arrayed with a sophistication unmatched until the Renaissance. They had found the Antikythera Mechanism, an astronomical computer dating from about 80 B.C. that modeled the motions of the sun, the moon and possibly the planets, all by cranking a handle.
"Its discovery . . . was as spectacular as if the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb had revealed the decayed but recognisable parts of an internal combustion engine," wrote Derek de Solla Price, one of a parade of historians, archaeologists and computer scientists to become obsessed with how the device worked.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Libraries play a lively part in prom madness

One has to admire the ingenuity and enthusiasm of those who deal with teenaged girls and the problem of what gown to wear to the prom. A heartwarming story appears in the School Library Journal about the pleasures of outfitting young ladies for that special date -- and literature to go with it.

Did you know that the institution we now call “prom” began in the late 19th century? Prom is actually the shortened form of promenade, which was basically a parade of guests held at the start of a formal event or celebration. Prom has become a more lavish affair recently, and to help high school students (and their parents) on tight budgets, libraries are finding a multitude of ways to serve their communities -- including collecting prom dresses.

Originally, the idea was to organize a "swap your gown" event, but people proved so generous that libraries ended up with collections of wonderful froth and fun, in a community event with a Difference.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gobbledegook now made illegal

We have all come across official jargon that doesn't make sense, and manuals that only serve to bewilder. You can read some wonderful examples in a couple of books by Nick Renton, called Compendium of Good Writing, and, Enjoy your English!

Well, according to the BBC News, the Local Government Association in the UK has just made the use of gobbledegook illegal.

LGA chairman Margaret Eaton said: "The public sector must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases," and so irritating cliches such as "level playing field" and inscrutable terms like"re-baselining" have been prohibited.

They have compiled a list of the worst offenders (and I bet you can suggest some more):

Blue sky thinking
Can do culture
Double devolution
Horizon scanning
Improvement levers
Revenue Streams
Thinking outside of the box

Heroism has its just reward

Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot who saved the lives of all 155 souls on board USAir Flight 1549, by making an emergency water landing on the Hudson River, has sold his memoirs.

The two-book package was bought at auction by William Morrow. Reports of the amount of the advance vary between $2.5 million and $3.2 million. Nice!

One just has to wonder about the second book. What can it be? According to rumor, it is a collection of inspirational poetry.

Last words from a book reviewer

As everyone knows, the print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has seen its last issue, and it will now exist only in electronic form. What effect this will have on the newspaper industry is yet to be seen. What is sure is that the media barons (along with all the writers, reviewers, commentators and editors) will be watching with riveted interest.

What does this mean for the other Seattle newspaper, Seattle Times? Up until now, they have shared revenue and expenses -- and the latter being larger than the former, of late, this means that the ST will be struggling. Will it leave Seattle with no print newspaper at all?

Only the future will tell.

John Marshall, book reviewer, has posted his thoughts on the oddest, nicest, and most gob-smacking moments of the past decade. I especially love the mental image of Mary Karr (The Liars' Club) packing her teeny bikini knickers while Marshall asked questions in her hotel room.

Go to the Seattle website, to see what it is going to look like in future.
(And yes, the Seattle P-I did warmly review the occasional book written by a New Zealander, such as Island of the Lost).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The message in the watch

William Hempel of Denmark very kindly sent me an image of the message etched inside Abe Lincoln's watch. (See post below.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Secret message found in Honest Abe's watch

For more than a century there has been a persistent rumor that an Irish immigrant watchmaker by the name of Jonathan Dillon had etched a brief message inside Abraham Lincoln's watch.

The legend was launched by Dillon himself. He told his children (and anyone else who would listen) that he had been repairing the president's watch when he learned that Fort Sumter had been attacked, in the opening salvo of the Civil War. Struck by a patriotic impulse, he said, he had etched a message along the lines of, "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try." Then he closed up the watch, and sent it back to the White House. Lincoln unknowingly wore the watch throughout the days of tumult, and the watch ended up in the Smithsonian.

No one knew if the story was true, until today, when -- as Neely Tucker reports in the Washington Post -- officials at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History decided to find out. Expert watchmaker George Thomas delicately pulled the timepiece apart -- and on the inside of the case, he found etched words.

"Jonathan Dillon, April 13, 1861," the message read. "Fort Sumter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. Thank God we have a government."

So the old man's memory had not been exact. But his story had been the truth. Douglas Stiles, Dillon's great-great-grandson, was delighted. "That's Lincoln's watch," he exclaimed, after being shown the timepiece. "And my ancestor wrote graffiti on it!"

Boost for news-stand sales

Last November was great in more than one respect, comments Amanda Andrews, media editor of the Telegraph Group.

President Barack Obama's supporters were not the only ones celebrating his victory. It brought a much-needed boost to magazine and newpaper sales in the midst of the global advertising slump. Some news-stand operators were forced to compile waiting lists for election issues of certain newspapers and magazines such as Time and Newsweek.

"We had to go back on press four times for Time's person of the year Obama issue," says Ann S Moore, Time Inc's chief executive. "And Time magazine renewal rates are up a whole percentage point this quarter."

Theatrical remains uncovered

It's a Big Birthday for the Bard. Not only has a portrait made while Shakespeare was actually alive and around to sit for it been identified, but significant parts of his first theatre have been found

BBC News Online reports that a team from the Museum of London found the foundations in Shoreditch last summer. This is the theatre where Shakespeare started his acting career, and the premiere of Romeo and Juliet was staged.
Taryn Nixon, from the Museum of London, said her team has found part of the original curved wall.
They also uncovered a gravelled area, part of the pit where the common part of the audience stood and cheered on the players -- or threw local produce, as it should be added that the Shoreditch area was known as "the suburbs of sin" at the time. The group that was cheered or smeared was the Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's theatre company.
The original theatre was polygonal. About 25 years after it was built, it was dismantled timber by timber and moved to the South Bank of the Thames to construct the famous Globe Theatre.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

President Obama makes British Book Awards shortlist

Twice! Barack Obama, US President, leads the nominations for the 2009 British Books Awards in two categories, author of the year, and biography of the year.

As reported by BBC News Online, Obama is lined up against Stephanie Meyer, Rose Tremain, Diana Athill, Sebastian Barry and Aravind Adiga for the Best Author Award. (One couldn't dream up a more varied selection in a lifetime!)

His contender for Best Biography Award, Dreams from my Father (first published in 1995),faces strong competition from memoirs by JG Ballard, Dawn French, Paul O'Grady, Julie Walters, and Marcus Trescothick.

Shakespeare in original splendour

Well, he looks as if he could have discovered South America, but it is actually the Bard himself. An authenticated portrait of William Shakespeare, thought to have been made in 1610, when he was 46, is going on show at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in (guess where) Stratford-on-Avon.

Rather appropriately, it will be unveiled on 23 April, his four-hundred-and-forty-fifth birthday.

According to the interesting story in BBC News Online, the portrait belongs to the Cobbe family, and is currently in the possession of Alec Cobbe, who -- also appropriately -- is an art restorer. Mr Cobbe realized the true nature of the painting -- which had been in the family for many generations -- when he visted an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and saw the portrait of Shakespeare there.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Last week, invited readers to submit original verse about the economic downturn. The sampling published in this last weekend's "Week in Review" demonstrates that even economic hardship can release a wonderful creativity, along with a dry sense of humor.

My favorite, penned by Gregoire Vion of Santa Cruz, California:

It's 2009 and still they show women
with long, open legs on high heels
next to the car they want me to buy.
I have never known such a dream-girl.
No surprise here, as I have never owned
the right wheels, even though I am sure
I would enjoy it all very much for a while.
My own car is more likely to be seen
above an oily mechanic, and
my woman, she wears socks in bed
sometimes two pairs in winter.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

O Dear, Joe the Plumber is not doing very well as an author

Under the smile-triggering headline "Joe the Author, Plumbing New Lows in Interest," the Washington Post describes a local book signing by the temporary headline-maker and the man who ghosted his book.

The memoir written by Joe (real name Samuel) the Plumber is not doing very well, judging by the poor crowd that turned up to his little chat in a downtown Border's bookstore. It numbered one dozen, apparently, and just five stopped to buy the tome.

Altogether, it's a sad story. His radio gig ends in March, and he can't do any plumbing any more. If he messes up a job -- and people are bound to be picky -- it'll make the late comedy shows and derisive headlines. And he doesn't even like politicians, and that list includes McCain. So, what next? Construction, he thinks. Let's hope President Obama can fix the economy in time for that not to be a very poor choice, as well.