There are questions of such vast, cosmic import that most of us never think to ask them. I’ve wondered why there’s something rather than nothing; I have pondered the nature of objectivity; I’ve questioned the existence of free will. But I’ve never asked why some hairs on my body grow in one direction, and other hairs an entirely different direction.
That’s where Walter Aubrey Kidd comes in. He was not like you or me; his was a mind so restive, so thick with a passion for inquiry, that no mystery, however impregnable, was safe from its advances. And so it was that in 1903 he bequeathed to us The Direction of Hair in Animals and Man, taking a fine-tooth comb to a subject most of us had hardly seen fit to tousle. Read More
- In 1791, a fifteen-year-old Jane Austen wrote The History of England, a satirical pamphlet “by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian,” featuring watercolor illustrations by her sister, Cassandra.
- Out of print and in demand: What are the most sought-after books no longer being published? Norman F. Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976) leads the list—there’s also “an enthusiast’s guide to building bamboo fly-rods” and Madonna’s Sex.
- Tom Stoppard’s new play is opening at the National Theatre in London. Tickets are very hard to come by—it might be easier just to write your own Tom Stoppard play. Here’s a step-by-step guide. Remember, “what you’re aiming for is intellectual sparring that manages to be tragic and comic at the same time, while alluding to a universal emotional truth and revealing a vast, in-depth knowledge of the literary canon. Basically like the way you think you talk to your oldest friend when you’re both drunk. Do not shy away from paradox and metatextuality!”
- Or maybe you’d rather try your hand at some fiction from Africa. In 2006’s How to Write About Africa, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina advised, “Always use the word Africa or Darkness or Safari in your title … be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention … Africa is doomed.” But in the years since he made those pronouncements, “writing from Africa has flowered, and many of those clichés have been dispelled … This is a fertile moment when young writers are emerging as some of the elders they grew up reading are still at their peak … This cross-generational richness enhances a literature that today ranges from dirty realism and crime thrillers to science fiction, digital serials and graphic novels.”
- One man’s intrepid journey into the craft of hand-making lace: “I had no teacher, and unlike knitting classes in knitting stores, never considered that I could find one even in a metropolis like New York City. Indeed, if you ask employees in yarn stores if they have any tatting supplies, half will not know what you are talking about and say no, and the other half will know what you are talking about but still say no.”
The old girl kept writing and complaining about the police. It was enough to start Townrow on a sequence of dreams. Night after night he floated in the sunset-flushed, marine city. He could smell the salt and the jasmine. He dreamed that Mrs Khoury, Mr Khoury and he were all sailing out of the harbor in a boat that slowly filled with water. He dreamed he was in a hot, dark room with a lot of men who argued and shouted. It must have been in the Greek Sailing Club because when a door opened there were oars and polished skiffs; and opposite, high over Simon Artz’s, of the other side of the Canal, was Johnnie Walker with his cane and his top hat setting off for Suez. Or was it the Med.?
So begins P. H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, the 1969 novel that won the first-ever Booker Prize. “The Booker was not, as it is now, a high media event,” Anthony Thwaite wrote in an obituary for Newby in 1997. “I remember the then–sales director of Faber & Faber, the book’s publisher, telling me that the prize probably resulted in no more than about four hundred extra copies.”
That’s a shame, because Newby, who was born today in 1918, deserved, and deserves, more attention. Graham Greene called him “a fine writer who has never had the full recognition that he deserves,” and that’s as true now as it was in Newby’s lifetime. Very few of his twenty novels are still in print; in the whole of The Paris Review’s archive, his name comes up only once, in Truman Capote’s 1957 Art of Fiction interview: “Well, who are some of the younger writers who seem to know that style exists? P. H. Newby, Françoise Sagan, somewhat.”
In additional to his success as a novelist, Newby enjoyed a long career as a broadcast administrator—he rose through the ranks to become the managing director of BBC Radio. He lived in Cairo from 1942 until 1946: it was “like living in a human laboratory, in which there were no inhibitions,” Thwaite writes, and it informed a number of his novels, Something to Answer For among them. Read More
I am ashamed to admit that, as recently as one week ago, I’d never heard of Fredda Brilliant. My life was the poorer for it. Born in Poland to a Jewish family in the diamond trade, Brilliant was an actress, novelist, screenwriter, and activist who died in 1999. According to the dust jacket of her 1986 memoir-cum-art-book Biographies in Bronze, “She also composes the music and lyrics for songs which she herself sings at concerts, radio, and TV.”
She was best known, however, as a sculptor and personality. As the Independent related in her obituary,
Nehru once said of Fredda Brilliant that when at work she looked like a mad woman—in day-to-day life she would without restraint sing out loud in public—tears would flow as easily as laughter and anger. She promenaded around the Sussex village of Henfield dressed in long black dresses, tasselled shawl about her shoulders and brilliant headscarf encircling her dark hair and small face—in winter she would wear a fur coat to the knees.
The dust jacket intrigued me, yes, when I came across Biographies in Bronze on the dollar cart at Unnameable Books. But it was not until I actually opened the book—specifically, to the picture of Brilliant’s bust of one Tom Mann—that I knew it must be mine. Read More
Selected from AbeBooks’ Weird Book Room.