Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I missed a birthday!

Well, good lord, how could have missed it? Pulp romantic fiction publisher Mills & Boon batted its century on 28 November, and I didn't even notice.

And yet it is such an amazing success story. Just look at the statistics! Mills & Boon report a UK book sale every three seconds, with 130 million sales globally every year. The books are translated, too, and published in 26 countries.

One thousand, three hundred Mills & Boon authors labor at their computers to produce four books each per annum, to meet an apparently insatiable demand for their work.

The economic downturn has actually worked in their favor -- sales of romantic fiction are rising as people look for happy endings. As editorial director Karin Stoecker reveals, "Generally speaking, we have been quite successful in gloomier economic times." When budgets are tight and newspaper headlines dire, "It's a value-priced entertaining escape from otherwise harsh realities."

Can a man write romantic pulp fiction?

"Can a man really write a Mills & Boon?" asks the BBC newsletter in the arts and entertainment section. (American readers, think "Harlequin.")

Apparently a broad-shouldered Yorkshireman who goes weight training three times a week, climbs mountains in the weekends, and enjoys a drink with his rugby-playing friends churns out four romances a year, and sees his work do well in 26 different countries.

Now an active member of the Romantic Novelists' Association, Roger Sanderson (pictured) would have been a soldier if life hadn't beckoned him in another direction. He was making a sort of living out of writing scripts for commando comics when he just happened to pick up one of his daughter's Mills & Boons, and was hooked. Initially, he co-wrote with his wife Gill, but soon took over her name and did it alone.

"Today," as BBC writer Peter Jackson reveals in the story, "he specialises in medical romances, setting many of his stories in the Lake District around chisel-jawed doctors, with hearts either beating or melting."

Roger reckons he has all the qualifications, being happily married and knowing what it is like to be in love. But how does he know what it is like for a woman to be in love? That, he admits, is difficult. Men like to know how physical things work, while women are interested in relationships and what makes them work.

An unusual success story, which poses a couple of questions. Does Roger tell his rugby mates what he does to make a living? And is he the only male who writes for Mills & Boon (or Harlequin)? I seem to have a vague memory of a bloke in Tasmania who wrote under the name of Victoria Gordon.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

O for Obama

President-elect Barack Obama has selected Yale's Elizabeth Alexander to write and read a poem for his inauguration on 20 January. Intrigued by the news (because I had never heard of her, I admit, shamefaced), I looked up her works, and have decided that he has made an excellent choice.

I have a favorite work already. It is The Venus Hottentot, which begins with an ode to a microscope. Wonderfully evocative, it brought back vivid memories of the wonders that are gradually revealed when a slide with even the humblest smear beneath the cover slip is slid under the lens, and the magnification is adjusted.

Science, science, science!

Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass

Colors dazzle insect wings.

A drop of water swirls

like marble. Ordinary

crumbs become stalactites

set in perfect angles

of geometry I'd thought

impossible. Few will

ever see what I see

through this microscope.

EU online library reopens

The BBC has announced that the European Union's digital library, europeana, which crashed soon after its launch on 20 November -- apparently because so many people wanted to have a look at the Mona Lisa online -- has been resuscitated.
The Mona Lisa! Why not books or promotional packaging, for heaven's sake? It's not as if the iconic painting doesn't pop up all the time in the traditional media!
When our boys were nine and eleven, we carted them around the art museums of Europe for five months, an interesting experience for me, as at the entrance to each great gallery I asked them to choose which painting they would buy if they were unimaginably rich. Their choices were fascinating. The only predictable one was the Mona Lisa, and when I asked why, I was told it was because that was the picture advertising a certain brand of television. With constant exposure, it had become warm and familiar, apparently.

But to return to the topic. The site, which gives multilingual access to cultural collections across the European Union, was swamped by users on its launch, with a volume of ten million hits an hour. Now that it's server capacity has been quadrupled, they are trying again, but don't guarantee that "the user experience" will be "optimal."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Winnie the Pooh for King!

In these hard times, it was a delight to read heartwarming news in the BBC arts and culture section -- that the favorite of childhood bedtimes, Winnie the Pooh, has performed magnificently at Sotheby's.

A collection of E H Shepard's original drawings for the children's books has fetched one-point-two-six million pounds at auction.
"He went on tracking, and Piglet ... ran after him," one of Shepard's best-loved works, went for 115,250 pounds, while "Bump, bump, bump ... going up the stairs," fetched almost double the estimated price at 97,250 pounds.
The sale also included limited edition and signed books by the author, A A Milne, plus a first US edition, dated 1926, and inscribed by Milne to Shepard, which also went for almost double the estimate of twenty thousand pounds.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Let the cover match the book!

I have always been interested in the art of hand bookbinding, since the day that artist Julie Beinecke Stackpole showed us her entry in a competition for the binding of a rare copy of Moby-Dick. Her husband Renny was director of the Penobscot Maritime Museum in Searsport, Maine, at the time, and he and Julie invited us to their beautiful old house in Thomaston, where Julie had a studio. From memory, six book binding artists had been given a copy each of the historic edition of Melville's immortal tale, and a certain amount of time to make and attach an appropriate cover. Julie had etched a pattern of ratlines -- the ladderlike ropes the seamen used to climb the shrouds to the top of the mast -- on textured leather. The result was striking and memorable.

A story by Roberta Smith in the art and design section of the New York Times today discusses the glories of hand bookbinding over the centuries, a sampling of which can be viewed at the Morgan Library and Museum. Called "Protecting the Word: Bookbindings of the Morgan," the exhibit presents 55 of the thousand-plus holdings in its special bindings collection.

The show spans fourteen centuries, dating back to a time when books were entirely handmade The earliest is an illuminated manuscript of the Gospels, made in Coptic Egypt about the seventh century, and one of the most recent is an op-art binding made in 1959. A particular gem is a binding of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Poems (pictured), made by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Truth is truly stranger than fiction

Fictional Corruption Meets Real Life Corruption, headlines GalleyCat on, going on to ask, "What happens when your novel comes to life?'

The recent arrest of Governor Rod Blagojevich has unexpectedly boosted the sales of an obscure political novel. Scott Simon's satirical version of Illinois politics came uncomfortably real when Blagojevich was charged with his attempt to bolster his bank account in a novel and surreal way. Simon's novel, Windy City, is replete with corruption, greed and all that stirring stuff, but the author says he would have drawn the line at having any of his characters try to sell a Senate seat, as it would have been so hard to make it plausible.

Electronic books taking on at last?

In today's New York Times, writers Brad Stone and Motoko Rich ask, "Could book lovers finally be willing to switch from pages to pixels?"
Electronic book readers, largely ignored for the past ten years, are finally taking off, thanks to amazon's $359 Kindle. White, light, and about the size of a trade paperback, the Kindle was released a year ago, and appears to be creating interest in this new way to read books. It is selling so well, partly because of the recommendation of talk show host extraordinaire Oprah Winfrey, that stocks are currently sold out.
Sony, grabbing the window of opportunity in these hard times, has embarked on an intense publicity campaign for its latest version, the Reader 700. It comes equipped with a touch screen so readers can interact with the book by making notes (great for researchers, I imagine). It costs only slightly more, $400, and, in an echo of the first paperbacks, which were produced by Louis Hachette back in 1853, with the aim of selling cheap, light, readable books to travelers, it is being promoted in train stations and airports.
So what do the publishers have to say? HarperCollins, Random House and Simon & Schuster say that electronic editions constitute less than one percent of total book sales--but that figure is climbing, having tripled or even quadrupled in the past year.

The things you find left between the pages of a book

Sunday's New York Times magazine has a delightfully meditative piece by Henry Alford, called "You Never Know What You'll Find in a Book."

Alford talks about the slice of fried bacon found in a volume in the Duke University Library, and a letter in a used paperback which read, "Do not write to me as Gail Edwards. They know me as Andrea Smith here." There's a novel lurking in that idea -- and another one in the rejection letters that a miffed author inserted between the pages of several copies of the book after it was published, and then sold to a used book dealer.

In my own experience, I have found library books to be an interesting source of between-the-pages litter. Receipts, letters, addressed envelopes, and photographs have all obviously been used as bookmarks, and then forgotten. A box on the counter of one branch library is there especially for people to leave such things.

I must confess to being a deliberate between-the-pages stuffer myself. Originally, I was following the example of Fildes, a prominent early Wellington book collector, whose collection is now in the Beaglehole Library at Victoria University. All the books he owned have a special added interest, in that he inserted newspaper clippings (too often, alas, unsourced and undated) relating to the content, in each the book, along with bits of paper with scribbled comments about said content, sometimes quite unkind. The receipt from the bookseller from whom he bought the book is often there, too, recording a fascinatingly small amount paid for a volume that is now quite valuable.

So, with my own books, I started slipping in relevant newspaper cuttings (carefully sourced and dated, of course). Then I started adding relevant letters I'd received, sometimes from the author of the book, and occasionally from people who are researching the same topic. This has proved frustrating in the long run, as there are times I need to find a certain letter, and can't remember which of the books I put it in. But it is tremendous fun when I buy a secondhand book and find that the previous owner(s) did exactly the same thing.

The most exciting discovery came the day a copy of Nimrod of the Sea, or The American Whaleman, by William M. Davis (Boston: Charles E. Lauriat, 1926) arrived. The first owner had signed his name and date, "P. B. Blanchard, 1926," on the flyleaf -- and I "knew" him! I quote from my book about the strange lives of seafaring wives of captains, Hen Frigates, chapter one.

On October 3, 1906, twenty-year-old Georgia Maria Gilkey of Searsport, Maine, was married in her graduation dress. There had been no time to make a wdding gown, for the bridegroom was a seaman. Captain Phineas Banning Blanchard had proposed to her during one of his fleeting trips home, and one week later they were married. Georgia felt no doubts about the headlong courtship. As she reminsced later, when Banning had taken her out sleighing the sled had capsized, dumping them both in the snow. And that, according to a local old wives' tale, was a sure sign they were to be wed. So George married her captain in her gradulation gown, carrying a bouquet of pink carnations. And, after a hasty buffet luncheon, the newly weds took the train to Philadelphia, to embark on the great square-rigger Bangalore, for a honeymoon voyage around Cape Horn.

Not only had Captain Blanchard signed his copy of Nimrod of the Sea, but he had used a picture postcard of the Bangalore as a bookmark, which was there in the book -- and is still there now.

Booker Prize sponsor damaged by Madoff losses

Last Sunday's book section of the New York Times features an alarming story by Dave Itzkoff. The Man Group, a publicly traded investment company and hedge fund that has sponsored the Booker Prize since 2002, announced that it had about $360 million in funds linked to the rogue Wall Street executive Bernard L. Madoff (pictured).

Former Nasdaq chairman Madoff was recently arrested on a charge of making off with fifty billion dollars entrusted to his companies by trusting investors, in the most high profile collapse of a hedge fund to date. Breaking news is that a New York-based money manager who may have lost $1.4 billion of client funds in Madoff investments has killed himself in his Madison Avenue office. By contrast, Madoff, who appears to have no conscience at all, is probably headed for a comfortable white collar prison.

His shenanigans have sent two European banks to the edge: Royal Bank of Scotland and Santander have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. "Madoff has single-handedly turned an already very bad year for hedge funds into a catastrophe," said one commentator, according to Times On Line. So is it a catastrophe for the Man Booker, too?

Apparently not. Man Group's loss, though it appears huge to ordinary folks like you and me, wipes out only 1.5% of its assets, and the company insists that the sponsorship deal will not be changed or cancelled.

Will Borders claw its way out of trouble?

Christmas sales are drear, so hopes rest on post-Christmas sales.

Borders announced yesterday that they have extended the deadline by one month on both the repayment of their $42.5 million senior secured term loan to Pershing Square, as well as the "put" to require Pershing to purchase their Paperchase subsidiary for $65 million. Both deadlines have been extended to February 16. In late November when reporting quarterly earnings Borders said they were "in discussions with Pershing Square regarding an alternative financing transaction."

Their nearly worthless stock has still managed to decline another 20 percent in early trading today, though Barnes & Noble has suffered weak trading the past two days as well.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hopefully not the Nobel prize for literature ...

The probity of the Nobel Prize is under investigation, in high profile accusations of bribery and undue influence, according to news released by The Times.

Two senior figures in the process that chose Harald zur Hausen for this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine have strong links with the London-based multi-national pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which has also recently begun sponsoring the Nobel website. The company strongly denies any wrongdoing.

It is not the only question mark hanging over the probity of the Stockholm-based foundation. The Swedish prosecutor yesterday opened a parallel investigation into bribery allegations after several members of Nobel committees admitted enjoying expenses-paid trips to China to tell officials how candidates are selected for prizes.

Other members of the Nobel Foundation are said to be gravely concerned that the reputation of an organisation that honours the highest achievements in human endeavour is under threat from companies and nations hungry for Nobel glory.

So far, the literature prize has not been implicated, thankfully, but ramifications could lurk in the wings.

More fuss from the Nobel sector

Horace Engdahl Resigns After Ten Years as Secretary of the Swedish Academy

Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize-distributing Swedish Academy, has just announced that he will leave his post in June. A couple of months ago, I posted a report that Engdahl had dismissed American literature in a couple of impolite sentences: "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular ... They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

Have the chickens come home to roost?

Kafka and pornography?



Thus run the sub-headers in a story written by Kate Connolly which was published in The Guardian on Friday, August 15, this year. Old news, but new to me. Apparently, it is hotly debated in the blogosphere (to which I return after being stranded for days with very limited internet connection. Don't, whatever you do, download a program called "iTunes," as it monsters your internet usage without you knowing it, and you can end up with an enormous bill.)

Well, it seems that a collection of pornography owned by Franz Kafka was recently discovered at the Bodleian Library (Oxford University) and the British Library, by Kafka authority James Hawes. Hawes revealed some of this erotic material in his recently published book Excavating Kafka. According to the story, this stash was concealed by scholars in an attempt to preserve the writer's image, and the content is definitely sensational, in an upmarket sort of way. "These are not naughty postcards from the beach," Mr. Hawes is quoted as saying. "Some of it is quite dark. It's quite unpleasant."

Understandably, German academia is outraged.

"Hawes has given us a look through the keyhole of a Kafka with his trousers down," wrote Kafka researcher Anjana Shrivastava, going on to colorfully scoff that to call those "illustrated magazines ... hardcore porn is like comparing a poem by Heinrich Heine with an advertising slogan for McDonald's." Kafka critic Klaus Wagerbach called Hawes an ignorant idiot. Kafka biographer Rainer Stach said the furore was an "unbelievable marketing ploy."

So, does the pornographic collection exist? Oh yes. No one has ever claimed that Kafka was pure and chaste (though I am surprised that anyone so subject to utter gloom, who so tragically starved to death while those who cared for him stood helplessly by, should be so interested in sex, the source of life). However, says Stach, the "pornographic" pictures are quite innocent, really, being "playful representations, some styled like caricatures."

Hawes, an Oxford graduate who teaches creative writing, has hit back at his critics, accusing them of "a conspiracy of censorship." Why, he demanded, have Kafka scholars deliberatedly ignored this aspect of their idol?

Who knows? The debate continues.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

At last - the NYT review of that "Jewel of Medina" book

This weekend, Lorraine Adams reviews Sherry Jones's Jewel of Medina, the highly controversial novelization of the story of Muhammed's fourth wife, for the New York Times

She first goes over the ground already covered in this blog, as well as in a host of newspapers and other internet sites -- the warning issued by a pre-publication reader that the book could incite Muslim outrage -- the decision by the original publisher to halt publication -- the attempted firebombing of the London office of the publisher who took up the project -- and so on and so forth.

Then we get to the nitty gritty of her take on the book itself. In brief, Jones's research gets a B plus, while her writing gets a C minus.

Read it for yourself. Adams did a good job -- apparently a better job than the novel merits.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Heartwarming -- or just plain weird?

Nine-year-old Alec Greven hand-wrote a book, called it How to Talk to Girls, and sold it at a school fair for $3. Apparently it went like hot cakes, as it was a dating guide for kids, replete with hints about how to talk with the opposite sex. HarperCollins picked it up and turned it into a hardback, and the movie rights were sold to Fox, all within a week.

As GalleyCat comments, it is surely worth a disbelieving shake of the head that "during these topsy-turvy days for publishing, a 9-year-old kid struck gold."

History of the British Merchant Navy

Despite hard times, The History Press is bravely forging ahead with a multi-volume history of the British Merchant Navy, penned by eminent maritime writer Richard Woodman.
The first volume is Neptune’s Trident: Spices and Slaves: 1500-1807. It is divided into three sections – “The Trade of the World,” which covers English shipping from 1500 to 1707; “The Danger of a Seafaring Life,” which describes British shipping in the Atlantic from 1550 to 1807”; and “The Grandest Society of Merchants in the Universe,” spanning British shipping in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, from 1707 to 1793.
A great Christmas present for that Man in your Life.

Black October and British book sales

Major British bookstore chain Waterstone's reports that sales are down and getting worse -- and it can't all be blamed on the lack of a Harry Potter miracle.

The bookseller showed an operating loss of 9.3 million pounds for the period, 4.5 percent more than last year's loss of 8.9 million pounds, reflecting "a very challenging book market, which contracted by over 5 percent in the period, impacted particularly by poor performance in the non-fiction category."

Particularly worrying is the company's warning that "the book market has seen a marked deterioration in the five-week period to 29 November." Revenue from sales at high street booksellers (Waterstone's, as well as WH Smith and others) fell 12.7 percent in the single week ending December 6--almost five points worse than the overall decline in sales tracked by Nielsen BookScan.

The Telegraph newspaper noted in a story published yesterday (but no longer available on the internet) that "high street book sales are plummeting as discounting, the growth of internet operators such as Amazon and dwindling consumer spending hits retailers." The basic trouble, however, is the economic downturn.

Everyone in the book trade is crossing their fingers for a big boost in pre-Christmas sales.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sea Quotations and Elevated Reading

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reckons bookstores are the "temple of the soul," according to a story by John Elder in The Age.

And, sure enough, the eminent politician was surprised by a reporter from The Sunday Age while ferreting around in Readings bookshop in a Melbourne suburb, Carlton, where Mr Rudd bought a copy of Nuns Having Fun, although he tried to pass off his purchase as a "bit of Christmas shopping." Having delivered that prevarication, he headed for the new releases table at the front of the store, and became elaborately immersed in Edward Duyker's A Dictionary of Sea Quotations in an effort to avoid this unseemly interruption by the press.

The public foiled him, however, by demanding that he pose for photos with them, occasionally with babies in tow. The babies, he liked, but the inspection of his choice of reading matter was evidently unsettling. By the time he got to the cashier, Mr Rudd was also carrying Tom Holland's Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom and Simon Schama's The American Future: A History.
But how refreshing -- and what a wonderfully prime ministerial example for buying books for Christmas presents. Hopefully, Mr. Rudd is setting an international trend.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tribune Company Files for Bankruptcy

The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy protection in a federal court in Delaware on Monday, as the publisher of newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune struggled to cope with rising debt and falling ad revenue.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A huge plus for the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

The famous Auckland Writers and Readers Festival will truly glitter on its tenth birthday next May. While the program is always exciting, next year the winners of the 23rd Commonwealth Writer's Prize will be announced in a scintillating ceremony.

All eight regional winners -- who will be announced in March 2009 -- will take part in the activities, and visit schools and literary bodies while they are in the country. This Festival is always a big boost for the cultural scene in Auckland, with famous writers, critics, and journalists flitting here and there in the crowd. Next year, obviously, be bigger, brighter, and better than ever, with visitors arriving from all over the world.

While the first deadline for entry has passed, publishers are urged to make late entries. They can do this as long as they notify the relevant chair, and get the books in by December 31, 2008.

Woes in the media world continue

At Viacom and NBC Universal more than a thousand jobs are being shed before Christmas, according to the New York Times.

Sumner M. Redstone has announced that Viacom would shave seven percent of its workforce, and freeze salaries for top managers, in an effort to save about $200 million next year. NBC Universal, likewise, is going to lay off five hundred staff, including some veteran correspondents.

At Universal Studios, a memo from chairman Marc Shmuger announces that staff numbers will be cut by three percent, and the studios will be "scaling back on travel, overtime, consultants, premiers, conferences, newspaper marketing and general administrative costs."

"This kind of message is never easy," said Jeffrey A. Zucker, CEO of Universal (which is owned by the General Electric Company). Executives at the Walt Disney Company, the News Corporation and CBS are preparing themselves to issue that "kind of message," too, as sales and advertising revenue dry up.

Employees who have lost their jobs at Viacom, including those at Paramount Studios, will be paid until December 31, and then get some kind of severance payment. "Saying goodbye to friends and colleagues is always difficult," say the president, Philippe P. Dauman, and Thomas E. Dooley, the chief financial officer. It must be hard for them to feel their pain, though -- their salaries might be frozen, but they will still receive an end-of-year bonus for navigating the firm in rocky financial waters. Last year, Mr. Dauman's bonus was $7 million, and apparently the target this this year's sterling work is to be $9.5 million. Last year, Mr. Dooley's bonus was $5.6 million, and this year it is slated to be $7.6 million.


Actually, it should be PHRASE of the year. I learn to my amusement that Webster's New World College Dictionary runs an annual "word of the year" competition.
And the shortlist for the 2008 accolade has just been announced:


Leisure sickness


Selective ignorance


You can vote for the winner at


Chris Kelly, in an amusing blog on Huffington Post, headlined GET SARAH PALIN'S NEW BOOK -- FREE! breaks the news that magazine Newsmax is offering "Sarah Palin's new book" for just the cost of shipping.
"Except," as she found on clicking onto the offer, "it's an old book, it's not by Sarah Palin, you'll pay three times the cost of shipping, and you'll have to subscribe to Newsmax magazine.

Yes, it's the same old biography I blogged about myself during that long, riveting, and often mind-boggling presidential campaign, written by Kaylene Johnson and lifted out of obscurity when Sarah abruptly hit the headlines. Now, Newsmax is trying to get the same boost out of the Alaskan Belle -- but without the expense of updating the book.

As Kelly points out (did she succumb and buy the book to check?), John McCain's name doesn't make the index, though a quote from him now appears on the cover. Yes, the only revised bit of the book is the jacket. One word has been removed from the old title. See if you can find it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Simon & Schuster trims staff

More alarming news from the Wall Street fallout -- Lay-offs at Simon & Schuster

According to Publisher's Lunch a memo from the CEO of the publishing house, which in the past has enjoyed huge sales (after paying huge advances) of books written by such glittering stars as Mary Higgins Clark and Stephen King, announces that Simon & Schuster has "enacted a reduction in staff in which 35 positions across the company were eliminated, from areas including our publishing divisions and international, operations and sales.

"Despite having "literally examined our budget line-by-line to find those areas large and small where we might further economize," Reidy goes on, "today's action is an unavoidable acknowledgment of the current bookselling marketplace and what may very well be a prolonged period of economic instability. In light of this uncertainty, we must responsibly position ourselves for challenges both near term and long."


One of just seven original copies of J. K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which was handwritten and illustrated by the author of the you-know-who series, is on display at the New York Public Library’s Bill Blass public catalog room from December 4, 2008, to January 4, 2009.
December 4 is altogether a huge day for ordinary common-or-garden Harry Potter fans, as Beedle goes on sale on the website of Big collectors have already signed up for their special edition, which is valued at $100 greenbacks, and comes with a deluxe jacket, ten extra illustrations, a metal skull, a velvet bag embroidered with JKR's signature, and a set of fake gems.
The story of this book is worth a novel in itself. 'Way back when, JK Rowling handwrote and hand-illustrated this little group of tales, and six copies were made. Late 2007, one copy was auctioned to raise money for JKR's favorite charity. Amazon bid $3.98 million -- which may explain why has exclusive rights to the launch.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Intrigued by the rush of adverts. for "Black Friday" which have crammed the online US new papers the last couple of days, I wondered why the term was used. I have always believed that Black Friday fell on the 13th day of the month. My mother used to warn me to beware of accidents and mishaps on that day, and I wore clean underwear in case I had to go to hospital. She didn't suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia (obsessive fear of the number thirteen), thank God, or I would not have been allowed out at all.

Friday has been considered unlucky since time (written time, that is) began. Chaucer mentioned it in The Canterbury Tales. Seamen refused to sail from port on a Friday, and their captains agreed with them, though the owners of the ships might have griped. Thirteen is equally unlucky, so the combination is particularly dire.

And "black" is the color of mourning. Friday, September 24, 1869, was certainly a day for mourning on Wall Street. A bunch of hotshot financiers tried to corner the gold market, and their abject failure led to a total collapse of the stock market, followed by a depression. The Panic of 1873 also began on a Friday, but apparently it was the 1869 debacle that added the word "black" to the economic lexicon of misfortune. From there, it was just a step to "Black Friday 13."

So why all these ads. for "Black Friday," when it isn't even Friday-the-thirteenth this week, Friday's date being November 28? And why advertise something that is supposed to be unlucky?

Apparently, in the shopping lexicon, Black Friday is the shopping day after Turkey Day. Everyone who is currently employed is off work, there are no games on TV, so everyone goes out shopping. BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR, the adverts. blare. It's a lucky day for the owners of the stores, because that their account books finally get into the black, and an unlucky day for the staff behind the counters, because those hungover crowds are grumpy. And, according to the entry for "Black Friday" on it isn't really the biggest shopping day, as people go to see the bargains before they start thinking about Christmas.

Happy Window Shopping.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Let Us Give Thanks for a Bounty of People

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds, and the wind soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation, and fondly remember where their roots are.

Let us give thanks for generous friends, with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

for feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

for crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn;

and for the others, as plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes;

and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash;

as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill;

As endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening time, and young friends coming on fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us despite our blights, wilts, and witherings;

And finally, for those friends, now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter.

For all these we give thanks.

--by Max Coots

Saturday, November 22, 2008

European online library crashes on Mona Lisa mania

A new digital library launched by the European Union has crashed within hours of opening - forcing its closure -- according to a BBC story.

The Europeana website was attracting more than 10 million hits an hour - more than double the anticipated number.

The site includes paintings, photos, films, books, maps and manuscripts from 1,000 museums, national libraries and archives across Europe. It is expected to reopen in December after technological improvements. Users currently find a message saying the site is"temporarily not accessible due to overwhelming interest after its launch". It adds: "We're doing our utmost to reopen Europeana in a more robust version as soon as possible. We'll be back by mid-December."

"Thousands of users were searching for the words 'Mona Lisa' at the same time", explained a spokesman for the European Commission." It confirms it's worth doing, European culture is more popular than we had anticipated in our wildest dreams," he said. After a massive surge just before Europeana's launch, the system's creators doubled the number of servers from three to six and got it working again for a short time. However they will now perform more tests to ensure the digital library can stay open at peak times.

On Thursday, most hits came from Germany, followed by France and Spain. Four per cent of online requests about Europe's cultural heritage came from the United States.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Service From The Sea– The New Zealand Navy Story

Penguin Group (NZ), with support from the Royal New Zealand Navy and the Naval Museum, has produced a new navy history, Service from the Sea – Ngā Mahi Nō Te Moana” -- and the launch is going to be quite an event, on a uniquely Navy venue.

The Chief of Navy (RNZN), Rear Admiral David Ledson, will host the event on board the Amphibious Sea Support Vessel, HMNZS Canterbury, berthed at the Devonport Naval Base.

The sea and seafarers have been an important and enduring element of the New Zealand story. However, it is often taken for granted that what happens at sea often occurs out of the sight of land Unsurprisingly, therefore, our ‘sea’ history is not as well known among most New Zealanders as the stories of farmland and forest. This book should go a long way to fill that gap.

Rear Admiral David Ledson says, “Service from the Sea tells the Navy’s story and highlights the important role the Royal New Zealand Navy Museum plays in enabling the story to be told. But the Navy Museum is far more than just a backdrop to the story; it provides those essential elements that bring those stories to life, make it interesting and relevant, and illustrate that theNavy is about more than ships – that people lie at the heart of the story.”

Rear Admiral Ledson will sign copies of the book. Quite a change from the normal book launch, where the author does the signing! The end of the event will be memorable, too, with a formal Beat Retreat Ceremonial Sunset, featuring an Armed Guard and the Navy Band, will be performed at 8:00 pm to mark the end of the book launch. The evening gun will be fired from HMNZS Philomel saluting guns, which are situated on The Promenade, Devonport Naval Base.

The Service from the Sea Book Launch will be held on Friday 28 November 2008 from 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm. All media are invited. Is the author, Kelly-Ana Morey, to be invited too, I wonder? It would be interesting to meet the writer of such unusual and strangely gripping novels as Bloom, which I read just a few weeks ago, and think about quite often.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sarah Palin to author a book

According to the ever-knowing GalleyCat, last week's defeat and resultant backlash might be stinging still, but former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin can look forward to a sweet book deal. (Though for some reason I thought the book had been written already, by avid fan Kaylene Johnson.)

Page Six avers that Random House is "eager" to talk with her, and an unnamed publishing insider predicted Palin would score a deal with somebody by the end of the month. Because she will have words of her own to say about the campaign?
Linda Mann, the president of Mann Media, who regularly books celebrities for television, was upbeat about this, saying "Her buzz is incredible. She has car-wreck appeal. you're compelled to watch, hoping she'll say the dumbest things possible. I'd propose a show combining her love of fashion and lack of brainpower."
Miaou! -- though I have to agree that Sarah P. has a certain hypnotic pulling power. But one does have to feel sorry for the author who ghosts her book, once the big deal is made. Trying to turn her convoluted sentences into readable prose will be quite a challenge, as for instance her meditations about whether God will call her to the presidency, which hit the headlines today.
"I can't predict what's going to happen a day from now, much less four years from now," she said, according to excerpts released by her friend (and who needs enemies when they have friends like this), Fox News. "You know, I have -- faith is a very big part of my life ... I'm like, OK God, if there is an open door for me somewhere, this is what I always pray, I'm like, don't let me miss the open door ... even if it is cracked up a little bit, maybe I'll plough right on this that and maybe prematurely plough through it, but don't let me miss an open door."

The challenge reminds me of a page-turner I picked up by mistake and couldn't put down -- a book called Ghost by the chronicler of the Roman Empire, Robert Harris, who suddenly abandoned the caesars to do a number on Tony Blair. The mystery was great, but what chiefly intrigued and enthralled me was the main character, who was a ghost writer for written-word-challenged public figures. Until I read it, I had never thought about the immensity and intensity of the tact, diplomacy, and sheer self-control necessary to get the job done.

Boy, do they earn their money.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Galleances and guinea fowl


Well, old ships' logbooks can be fascinating, because of the mysteries they hold, as well as the strange events and observations they reveal.

As part of my research into the story of Tupaia, the Polynesian priestly navigator who sailed from Tahiti on the Endeavour with Captain James Cook and rich young botanist Joseph Banks, I'm transcribing the log kept by Captain Samuel Wallis on the Dolphin, June-July 1767, when Tupaia and his fellow Tahitians were enduring (or enjoying) their first encounter with British seamen.

And, in the course of this, I have come across what may be a strange animal. Well, it could be an artifact, but it is included in a list of shipboard livestock. Wrote Wallis on July 8, 1767, "Employed as before. Served Pork & fruit to the ship's company, gave the Old Man a Goose & Gander, a Turkey Cock & Hen & Three Galleances, an Iron Pot many sorts of Garden Seeds & shewd him how to Plant them, sot in different places Plumb, Peach Cherry Apples, Mellon and Pumpkin, Lime, Lemon & Orange Seeds. ―I was taken very ill again ―"

Galleances were new to me -- what are (or were) they? I thought of hens and roosters, but Tahiti had plenty of hen and roosters already. (Wallis called them "fowles.") Then again, he could have been playing with a Latin word. Galliformes, I found, are game birds, terrestrial, grain-eating, and ground-nesting. They include the common fowl -- also pheasants, partridges, grouses (grice?), turkeys, guinea fowl, and peacocks.
Peacocks? I love the idea! However, John Hawkesworth, in his 1773 book about important eighteenth century voyages (An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere), claims that on Friday 14 July 1767, Captain Wallis sent "the queen" of Tahiti (Purea) "two turkies, two geese, three Guinea hens, a cat big with kitten, some china, looking-glasses, glass bottles, shirts, needles, thread, cloth, ribands, peas, some small white kidney beans, called callivances, and about sixteen sorts of garden seeds, and a shovel, besides a considerable quantity of cutlery wares, consisting of knives, scissars, bill-hooks, and other things."
Well, those callivances were new to me, too, but obviously there were lots of those small white kidney beans, while there were only three Guinea hens, exactly the same number as the mysterious galleances -- so could they be one and the same? It's possible, because Hawkesworth took liberties with his material, and it would have sounded a lot more important if the "queen" had been given all those fancy presents, instead of a helpful but ordinary old man -- who probably had to pass them on to Purea, anyway, for she was a chief, and chiefs tended to appropriate such things.
So, having plumped for poultry, I went to the library and looked up books on chooks, and though I found not a single galleance, I learned a lot about guinea fowl. They were called that because they came from Africa. The word "guinea" originally meant "foreign" but was then adapted to mean "African." Fascinatingly, the people of Bristol were very familiar with guinea fowl in the 18th century, because ships came in with flocks of guinea fowl perched in the rigging.

They were exceptional at foraging for themselves in open country, so were presumably a good bet for acclimatisation, too. They were also very good watch dogs (watch birds?), being even better at the job than geese. One book assured me they make excellent pets, being very affectionate -- but I leave that to someone else to prove.
Meantime, the galleances remain a mystery -- which might or might not be solved. Perhaps there are international guinea fowl fanciers out there who know the answer?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Barack Obama and the libraries of America

President-Elect Barack Obama keynoted the opening general session at the American Libraries Association Annual Conference in Chicago, June 23-29, 2005. The following August his speech -- which drew record crowds, and a standing ovation -- was keynoted itself, being adapted for the cover story of the August 2005 issue of American Libraries.

The message, headlined, Bound to the Word, is inspirational.

It begins: "If you open up Scripture, the Gospel according to John, it starts: 'in the beginning was the Word.' Although this has a very particular meaning in Scripture, more broadly what it speaks to is the critical importance of language, of writing, of reading, of communication, of books as a means of transmitting culture and binding us together as a people."

Read it all on American Libraries Online.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Female Shipwright

As part of its “Caird Library Reprints” series, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has reprinted two works describing the very different maritime historical experiences of two women.

A Lady’s Captivity Among Chinese Pirates by Fanny Loviot was written by a woman who set sail for California in 1855, only to be overtaken and kidnapped by a band of Chinese pirates; the book describes her experience of capture and rescue.

The second book is the 1773 autobiography, The Female Shipwright, by Mary Lacy. Both works are provided with a brief introduction by Margarette Lincoln.

A strange juxtaposition, but both stories are absolutely fascinating. Mary Lacy, at the age of 19, ran away from her nursemaid's job and signed up as the boy servant of the carpenter of the 90-gun ship of the line Sandwich, under the alias, William Chandler. The following year she moved to the guardship Royal Sovereign, then decided to serve an apprenticeship as a shipwright, which she managed despite hard work and awful difficulties, with the help of her multitude of friends (many of whom were girlfriends, with whom she had lighthearted and probably lesbian relationships). I sketched out Mary Lacy's career in my own She Captains, and there is a more detailed study in Suzanne J. Stark's Female Tars.

However, it is an excellent idea to read Mary's strange tale in her very own words.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Is the era of the print newspaper coming to an end?

Lost in the glut of dismal news and the world's preoccupation with the US presidential election campaign is a week's worth of bad tidings for the print newspaper you skipped through over breakfast.

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times announced that 75 of its newsroom staff would have to go.

On Tuesday, the Christian Science Monitor announced the end of its weekday print edition. Apart from a weekly magazine edition, you will only be able to read it online.

The publisher of the stable of magazines that includes globally recognizable names like Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, is cutting 600 jobs.
Basically, the problem is because of YOU. And ME. Reading (and writing) online is rapidly replacing the print newspaper, along with the advertisements that paid most of the publishing costs of that newspaper, in the first place. As David Carr comments in his story for the Media section of the New York Times, "A single newspaper ad might cost many thousands of dollars while an online ad might only bring in $20 for each 1,000 customers who see it."
Add that to the fact that the three biggest entities that paid for print advertisements -- the car industry, the retail industry, and the financial services industry -- are in steep decline, the situation for paper newspapers is increasingly dire.
Can traditional print media survive at all? Or will we all be reduced to trawling the murky pool of the worldwide web for in-depth news and commentary?
Watch This Space.

Latest from Spy Mouse

Spy Mouse has emerged from a summer of reading books (and castles in Italy may have had something to do with it, too).

The whisper, it seems, is that an Australian author is creating a lot of interest in London. This is Stephen Scourfield, whose first novel, Other Country, was in the short list for the 2008 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Book.

It is not, as it happens, his first book, as he is the author of several nonfiction volumes. Scourfield is also the Travel Editor of The West Australian, and according to his website takes quite spectacular photographs. One of these has been chosen to illustrate the publications page of the site, rather than an image of the jacket of Other Country.
I wonder why?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

New series on women scientists

In the harbinger of what promises to be remarkably successful venture, book distributor Beagle Bay of Nevada has just announced that one of their clients, Stone Pine Press, has sold the Russian rights to a young adult book about female scientists.

This is Women Astronomers: Reaching for the Stars, by the rather aptly named Mabel Armstrong. The first in a planned Women in Science series, Women Astronomers describes the fascinating women who strived for the stars, from Hypatia of Alexandria through Maria Mitchell of Nantucket to astronaut Sally Ride.
Women Astronmers has won a silver medal in the Moonbeam Children's Awards. (Scan down to listing 17.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tony Hillerman passes away

Sadly, the great mystery writer Tony Hillerman has died at the age of 83, and Ron and I have read the last of his wonderful books.

Though Caucasian, Hillerman very successfully brought two Navajo detectives vividly to life, complete with their inner thoughts and private problems. Ovet the years, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, sterling members of the Navajo Tribal police in the gaunt, arid, stunning setting of New Mexico, have almost become members of the family. They were certainly part of the inspiration for Wiki Coffin, the half-Maori detective of my mystery series. And, while the color schemes of the distinctive Hillerman book jackets may not have been as spectacular as the desert the two native American policemen roamed, I have always enjoyed the use of stylized American-Indian figures.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A book jacket that breathes

It's funny, but you never think much about breathing. Until it's all you think about ...

Amber Thody has responded to Hugh Price's comment that blue and green are too cool and bland for selling book covers by pointing us to the latest book by twice-shortlisted-for-the-Booker Tim Winton of Western Australia.

Tim Winton, I find, writes about the sea, and the impact of the ocean on the human psyche, so it is only logical that the book jacket for Breath should be blue.

And wow, which jacket did Amber mean?
The one with the wave, farthest left, is the London edition. The lower middle one comes from Melbourne, while the one on the right comes from New York.
And I can't make up my mind which one I like best.

Friday, October 24, 2008

What jacket helps a book sell?

My last post elicited a very interesting comment from bookseller Amber Thody. Fascinated by the idea of jackets selling books, she confided that she found the cover of the Fall catalogue she had received from Canadian publisher Talonbooks quite enchanting.

So I asked her to send along an image of the cover that had fascinated her so -- which she very kindly agreed to do, adding:

I don't know if you can really see the pic clearly - it is a misty mystery of sepia forest growing up into typewriter keys. Not keys. The arm things that fly back and forth to the ribbon when you bang the keys. Do they have a name? Stampy arm-banging things. Anyway this is the one I want to hug and kiss and stroke every day.

The other one is HB Fenn's latest, and I included it because this is what southwestern Ontario looks like right now and it's beautiful. My route to work involves a lot of countryside and I go past immense fields of pumpkins. They are hidden to me in the dark mornings, but burst forth in the startling sparkly blue afternoons every day.

I would be interested to know what others think of these two catalogue covers. I love the one with the pumpkins. They jump out of the image, and make a statement -- because of perspective, atmosphere, and color. This feeling is confirmed by a conversation I had yesterday with one of Wellington's most wellknown sons, bookseller, publisher, and bibliophile Hugh Price. When I asked him which jackets sold best, he instantly said, "The warm colors -- red, maroon, orange. Blues and greens are cool and uninviting," he added.