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At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 4
Wednesday December 1, 1999

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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This Issue:
1. Influencing Science
2. The Haunted Heiress
3. e-this, e-that, e-the other thing
4. Do You Know Me?
5. Messages to the Editor
6. Blue Underlined Words
7. Production Notes

1. Influencing Science
This isn't a quiz, but it's kind of interesting. Here are 15 books.

You doubtless know of all of these books, and I strongly suspect that you've read at least a couple. But why in the world am I citing these disparate books together? They were all mentioned in an article by Philip and Phylis Morrison: "100 or so Books That Shaped a Century of Science." The article appeared in the November- December issue of American Scientist. And you can find it online: http://www.sigmaxi.org/amsci/bookshelf/century.html.

The 15 titles I extracted from the list only begin to convey the eclectic flavor of the full list, which has sections for biography, field guides, explorations, monographs, history of science, science itself examined, the evolution of life, the nature and rise of our own species, and novels. I don't know about you, but the idea that scientists are capable of this kind of panoramic view of (in the words of Douglas Adams) "life, the universe, and everything" gives me real hope for human progress. If you are one of the world's innumerable armchair scientists (or even a professional one!), you could do worse than printing out the article and devoting your free time for the next couple years reading or re-reading all the books on the list.

 

2. The Haunted Heiress
Daphne du Maurier, whose "sharp-edged fiction, with its brutal and often perverse family relationships, has been softened in such movies as Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, The Birds, and Don't Look Now," is the subject of a new biography from University of Pennsylvania Press (Penn Press). The quotation is from the Press's catalog copy, which unaccountably left out of the list of filmed du Maurier novels Frenchman's Creek and My Cousin Rachel, and maybe some others. I must confess to never having read the original story, but the grim psychology of the film Don't Look Now has haunted me for decades. (Parenthetically, he said redundantly, Don't Look Now and The Birds were both short stories originally. For an argument about how short stories make better films than novels do, see Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralson Saul.)

Du Maurier's childhood was said to be happy, but she lived in the shadow of her father, the actor Gerald du Maurier, and her grandfather, the acclaimed illustrator and writer (Trilby). "Her own phrase for her secret self, 'the boy in the box,' hints at her sexual ambivalence and her alienation from the prescribed roles for women of her day" (more Penn Press catalog copy). She evaded both the debutante life and an acting career and was determined to succeed on her own terms as a writer.

She wrote her first novel, The Loving Spirit, at the age of 24, and it became a best-seller. She has been accused by critics of using stereotyped characters and too many plot similarities, but she herself said she was "not so much interested in people as in types -- types who represent great forces of good or evil. I don't care very much whether John Smith likes Mary Robinson, goes to bed with Jane Brown and then refuses to pay the hotel bill. But I am passionately interested in human cruelty, human lust, and human avarice -- and, of course, their counterparts on the scale of virtue."

The Penn Press biography, written by Nina Auerbach, is titled Daphne Du Maurier, Haunted Heiress, and it is scheduled for publication this month. Auerbach is a professor of history and literature at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Our Vampires, Ourselves (which has to be one of the more intriguing titles of all time). You can read the Penn Press catalog on the web: http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/13316.html. But here's the really interesting news. Penn Press, as a result of publishing this new biography, has decided to publish a couple of du Maurier's out-of-print novels in February: The Scapegoat and The House On The Strand. Here's a description of The Scapegoat the Penn Press P.R. guy sent me in an email: "Two men -- one English, the other French -- meet by chance in a provincial railway station and are astounded that they are so much alike that they could easily pass for each other. Over the course of a long evening, they talk and drink. It is not until he awakes the next day that John, the Englishman, realizes that he may have spoken too much. His French companion is gone, having stolen his identity. For his part, John has no choice but to take the Frenchman's place -- as master of a chateau, director of a failing business, head of a large and embittered family, and keeper of too many secrets."

If you can't wait until February for a du Maurier fix, send an email to Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop. The shop often has du Mauriers on hand. If you want a recommendation, ask the staff if they have The Glass Blowers. It is a family chronicle set in the time of the French Revolution. It's so damned good it was required reading in a graduate course on French history I look in the early 1970s.

 

3. E-this, E-that, E-the Other Thing
It began with e-mail, and by and by, somebody started talking about e-commerce, and that was all right because it seemed to describe something there wasn't any other word for. But then people started talking about e-business, and some pundit with apparently nothing to do made up the term e-tailing (for web-based retailing). As usual with an interesting quirk of the language, it has gotten completely out of hand. People talk about e-services. The financial people are getting into e-banking and offering e-loans. People who develop and administer web-based training talk about e-learning. We have e-strategy, e-solutions, and e-leadership, although no one has yet noted the rise of e-tedium.

A company called Persistence Software has shouted, "e-nough!" and put up a website on behalf of The Society for the Preservation of the Other 25 Letters of the Alphabet. It offers t-shirts to people who provide particularly e-gregious examples of the abuse of the letter e, and its website has links to anti-e essays. The website is at http://www.persistence.com/e-nough/. "Nobody wants to live in a society where all the words start with the same letter," said Chris Keene, CEO of Persistence Software. "More vendor effort seems to be going into promoting new e-words than in helping companies deliver real electronic commerce solutions. We felt it was time that somebody took a stand and stood up for the other 25 letters of the alphabet."

Although the Society is obviously a promotional gimmick, the people behind it have some depth to them. One of the links on the website is to a page devoted to Georges Perec. You may have heard of Perec. Here is a line from a 1994 translation (by Gilbert Adair -- Harvill Press) of his 1969 novel, La Disparition: "Worst of all, nothing can stop you now from fabricating and propagating all sorts of vicious rumours." If you study the line closely, it may tip you off as to the significance of La Disparition (usually translated as "A Void"). The entire novel is a lipogram in e, which is to say the letter e is absent from it. (You have to hand it to Gilbert Adair, who translated it into Nglish and thus had to accomplish the same feat.) The novel is the story of the disappearance of a man, but it takes place in a world from which the letter e has disappeared, although none of the characters in the novel notices. For more on George Perec, there is a page on him at a website called Libyrinth: http://rpg.net/quail/libyrinth/scriptorium/perec.html. He also happens to be the author of the world's longest pallindrome (reads the same backwards and forwards), which runs more than 5,000 words.

 

4. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer (caution: he or she may not be famous for being a writer). The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to fkemske@thirdlion.com. Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.

This Issue's Sentence: The morning of the Tilney-Studdart wedding rain fell steadily from before daylight, veiling trees and garden and darkening the canvas of the marquee that should have caught the earliest sun in happy augury.

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence: It will be remembered that the death of Dr. Owen Dawnay was attributed to partisans of the Colombian National Liberation Army.

One reader ventured a guess: Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was a good guess, but it's not correct.

The sentence is from Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household.

Here's the novel's entire first paragraph: "It will be remembered that the death of Dr. Owen Dawnay was attributed to partisans of the Colombian National Liberation Army. The evidence of his only neighbors, a few families of squatters and masterless cattlemen, appeared conclusive. They had been terrorized into supplying cattle to guerilla headquarters in the foothills of the Cordillera. Two of them had been brutally murdered. The headman of the village had disappeared. Dawnay himself was known to have been threatened."

The novel was originally published in 1969.

Geoffrey Household was born in 1900 in Bristol, England and died in 1988. He was graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford with first class honors in English literature in 1922. Until 1939, he worked in various commercial occupations, including stints as a confidential secretary for the Bank of Romania, a marketer of bananas, and an ink salesperson. During the war (1939-1945), he served in the Intelligence Corps, where he was decorated and mentioned in dispatches. But he had already started on a career in writing (1935). He is considered a master of the thriller and has been widely praised for his wit and sense of irony as well as his taut, spare storylines. Dance of the Dwarfs is one of his three "manhunt" novels, of which the most famous is Rogue Male, the story of a well-heeled English sportsman who takes on himself the task of assassinating a European dictator. Household was thinking about Hitler when he wrote it. The second manhunt novel, Watcher in the Shadows, is the mirror image: it's about a man suspected of being a Nazi collaborator who must stop the man who is tracking him. I can't describe the nature of the manhunt in Dance of the Dwarfs without giving away an important part of the story. Household also wrote books of short stories and a handful of books for young readers. At the risk of causing a run on his novels at Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, I must say that everyone I've met who has read a Geoffrey Household novel reports difficulty sleeping for some time afterward.

 

5. Messages to the Editor
On the Decline in Book Reviews
Re: book reviews [see "Finally Somebody Says It Out Loud" in At The Margin #3]. One thing that I've noticed when I read them in the Boston Globe is how uninformative they are. The ones that I seem to consistently come across are little more than a synopsis of the book, with a paragraph or two of critique thrown in. I grew up reading the New York Times Book Review section and, although I haven't read those reviews in at least 10 years, I remember them to have considerably more substance than the ones I read now. So it seems to me that not only may there be fewer book reviews, the ones that are around are really pretty fluffy. I wonder what the cause of that is; maybe it's just the Globe, maybe it's a general de-intellectualization (is there such a word?). Either way, I think it's a real shame.

Janet McCartney

Notes on the Amazons
Just to answer your question ["The Amazon Wars," At The Margin #3], yes, the wonderful Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis has indeed, advertised itself as "a feminist bookstore for all women" for the last three decades. In the wonderful cartoon by Alison Bechtel, "Dykes To Watch Out For," the Amazon is thinly disguised as "Madwimmin Books." Though it is a "feminist" bookstore, the fact that many feminists are lesbian or lesbian friendly (or at least not lesbian phobic) is not exactly news! The cartoonist knows it, the clientele knows it, and it seems amazing to me that Amazon.com doesn't know it! I kept wondering why the dot com folks hadn't bothered to see that someone else already owned the name. Ah well. I'm enjoying the newsletter. Thanks!

Cheryl

 

[Editor's Note: Some time after I received Cheryl's message, the Amazon war was settled out of court. PW Daily (the daily email for booksellers from Publishers Weekly) reported on November 4 that the provisions of the settlement include Amazon Bookstore Cooperative's giving the rights to the name to Amazon.com and then licensing it back. The two parties also agreed to implement some procedures to reduce customer confusion. Amazon Bookstore agreed to always refer to itself as Amazon Bookstore Cooperative. The parties to the suit did not say how much money might have been involved in the settlement.]

[Another Editor's Note: In the last issue, I mentioned Victor Walter's story, "The Fires of Alexandria," which appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of New England Review and suggested readers go to the library and find it. Vic sent me a message to say you could get it directly from him: "I'd appreciate it if you put a note in the next issue that if anyone wants a copy, send me an email, and I'll mail it to them." His email address is manush@bu.edu.]

 

6. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.

Underappreciated Writer
"To write so well and then to be forgotten is a terrifying legacy." So writes Stewart O'Nan in "The Lost World of Richard Yates," an article in Boston Review. He makes Yates, who died in 1992, sound like a truly compelling novelist whose work is nevertheless entirely out of print and unobtainable at the retail outlets that specialize in new books. The article is on line.
http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR24.5/onan.html

A War with Wired
A man named Walter Jon Williams wrote a science fiction novel called Hardwired, which was published in 1986. There were a number of Hardwired spin-offs, including games and action figures, which were licensed, adding to Williams's income. Then Wired magazine created a book publishing imprint, which they named Hardwired, and loosed their lawyers on Williams, even though he had prior claim to the trademark. The long, sorry tale is told on a website Williams created, although it has a happy ending: an out-of-court settlement that was so generous Williams had to agree not to talk about it.
http://www.thuntek.net/~walter/war.htm

Zooland
I can't imagine there's anything you would want to know about artificial life that you couldn't find out at Zooland. It has innumerable links to sites, papers, and software explaining or implementing artificial life. If you've ever had a hankering to play God, this is a pretty good place to start.
http://surf.de.uu.net/zooland/

Classified Warehouse
The Classified Warehouse site features a bot called Adhound. It searches classified ads in newspapers all over the country on a daily basis. When it finds the item you're looking for, it emails you the ads. I thought it looked interesting, but I haven't used it yet myself. Needless to say, registration is required.
http://www.classifiedwarehouse.com/index.html

Google!
The Google! site performs web searches that return hits it judges are important to your query. It gives you the names of pages that include your search phrase and the names of pages that are linked to those pages. And, when I do business research, it is so good at finding what I am looking for (mostly information about companies and organizations) that it sometimes scares me.
http://www.google.com/

 

7. Production Notes
If it seems like it has been a long time since the last issue of ATM, it's because I have changed the publication schedule from twice a month to once a month. It's not that I don't think there's enough serious news in the book world to fill two issues a month. Heck, hardly a week goes by that Tom Clancy doesn't change the course of western civilization with another high-tech thriller or the world of metaphysical philosophy isn't set on its ear by a new dummy's guide to making chicken soup. No, there's plenty of serious high-profile news in the book world. It's good obscure information that is lacking. Trying to produce two issues a month, I am on the verge of including the serious news. And I think the world is already well served with excellent reporting on the activities of Oprah's Book Club and the latest guide to losing weight without getting up from the couch. You can now expect to receive this newsmessage around the first Wednesday of every month. Thank you for your patience.

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