Monday, December 31, 2012

Dorothy Sayers and the Downton Abbey milieu

Daedalus Books will host a Downton Abbey extravaganza on its web pages during the next few months in honor of its third season and its immense popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. (Apparently, series creator Julian Fellowes—who also wrote the "upstairs/downstairs" film Gosford Park—is working on another historical drama, set in monied New York). Our myriad Downton pages will include themed collections of pertinent books and DVDs, quizzes, dialogues with authors, and much more. These pages will inaugurate the "Daedalus Books Forum," which will provide new groupings every few months and a chance for our discerning readers to chat with us and with various writers. It will be going up any day now, so stay tuned!
In a piece on 2012's best mysteries, NPR's Maureen Corrigan had this to say about the superb novels of Dorothy Sayers: "The Downton Abbey craze may have had something to do with HarperCollins' decision to help launch its new paperback mystery imprint, Bourbon Street Books, with reprints of four classic Dorothy Sayers novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and his sleuthing inamorata, Harriet Vane. The four titles are, in order of publication, Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon. Though the Wimsey-Vane mysteries are set in the Great Britain of the 1930s, their arch dialogue and refined atmosphere link them to the older world of the Crawleys and their servants. All of Sayers' Golden Age tales featuring Wimsey and Vane are standouts, marked as they are by a distinctive atmosphere of restrained erotic yearning. But the masterpiece of this quartet — and of Sayers' career — is Gaudy Night. That story focuses primarily on Harriet (a fallen woman, gasp!), who returns to her class reunion at Oxford's 'Shrewsbury College,' which is based on Sayers' own alma mater of Somerville College. Almost as soon as she steps onto the Gothic grounds of the campus, Harriet becomes enmeshed in a case involving vicious pranks aimed at the faculty and students of the all-women's institution. I once met a woman who had read Gaudy Night upward of 50 times; I well understand that obsession. Beyond its haunting atmosphere and utopian fantasies about the academic life, Gaudy Night delves deep into the mystery of women's place in society, a puzzle that bedevils many readers to this day."
And in a feature on the personalities of Oxford, the BBC profiled Sayers as follows: "The image of Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, the great fictional detective of the 1920s and 30s, is of a moonfaced, heavily built, bespectacled elderly woman in mannish clothes. Yet she first caused a stir as a tall thin girl, nicknamed Swanny on account of her long and slender neck. The slightly gawky, enthusiastic young woman had a passion for language. She also had a zest for friendship, laughter and men. She would in later life become famous for her advertising slogans ('My Goodness, my Guinness'), for her theatre and radio plays, her religious writings, her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, and her letters. Her friend C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series of books, maintained that she was one of the great letter-writers of the 20th century.... She wore dramatic clothes and eye-catching earrings, and was to be seen striding down the High, smoking a cigar, with her cloak flowing out behind her."

Friday, December 28, 2012

Romance in a nutshell

Cupid's arrows are often errant, as evidenced by two zingy collections of Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak: By Writers Famous and Obscure. Here's a mini-sampler of the pithy bon mots therein.

Met him online; blogged the divorce.
No, you can't have the toaster.
My partner in sin found God.
Married by Elvis; divorced by Friday.
Portland she decided; I, the Bronx.
Arranged marriage now sounding pretty good.
Siren wooed. Sailor swooned. Man overboard!
Three marriages. Two divorces. BA 333.
Kissed many frogs. Finally found prince.
Thought Yiddish. Married British. Oy! Oi!
Bachelor visits library, books wife. (Nonfiction)
Love makes the world go stupid.
Therapist: "You went back after that?"
Love plus laughter: happily ever after.
Found soul mate. Became cell mate.
Happiness is a bed to myself.
My marital advice? Marry an orphan.

They never seemed crazy at first.
Tried men. Tried women. Like cats.
No closet could hide this love.
Somebody should  have objected at my wedding.
Three word memoir: Paper. Pen. Revenge.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Joyous, peaceful holidays!

Here are two graphics for all of you vintage typography buffs. The image at left is from the book Snowflakes: a chapter from the Book of Nature (1863), which is housed at the Internet Archive.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Evolution of Santa Claus

If you have time, you might enjoy perusing this engrossing and well-illustrated pictorial overview of the evolution of Santa Claus, from the 13th-century Russian saint to the jocund figure of today. At left and below are some highlights.
Print of St Nicholas by Alexander Anderson, commissioned in New York by John Pintard (1810)
Like the cat! (and the andirons). Is that a stack of pancakes for Saint Nicholas?
Illustration from the 1864 edition of Clement Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas
Japanese illustration from 1914

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Best wishes for holiday fun, warmth, and peace

Greetings gleaners! Click here for a message from Daedalus Books to some very special people.

And we hope you enjoy this performance of Britten's Ceremony of Carols.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A wondrous Christmas Eve tradition

I love every minute of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a charming English-language chamber opera by Gian Carlo Menotti that debuted on NBC on Christmas Eve in 1951. (It probably made an opera lover out of me, as it would of just about anybody, I think.) Below is some background from John Zech over at Composer's Datebook. And the entire piece, should you care to sample or partake!

"This was back in the days of live television, and for decades the kinescope recording of that original live transmission was thought to be lost. Menotti himself thought so, and said as much on a number of occasions. But, miraculously, a copy of the original 1951 broadcast resurfaced -- just in time for the opera's 50th anniversary -- and was shown at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills in December of 2001 and later that month in New York City.
On that tape, the dapper Mr. Menotti says by way of introduction that NBC had commissioned the opera in 1950, but its wasn't until the Thanksgiving of 1951 that he actually began working on it, inspired by the painting "The Adoration of the Magi," which he saw at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. [see images above and below]
Apparently Menotti was delivering the music bit by bit to the original cast members -- right up until air time! That original cast included a 12 year-old boy soprano named Chet Allen as Amahl. Allen sang the title part twice for NBC: first on the Christmas Eve premiere, and then a repeat live telecast the following Easter.
By the summer of 1952, Chet Allen's voice had changed, and a 10-year old named Bill McIver took over for the Christmas telecasts from 1952 through 1955.
NBC continued to broadcast "Amahl" occasionally through the 1970's, but by that time it had become an established seasonal tradition for both professional and amateur performers coast to coast.
Bosch. The Adoration of the Magi. Date unknown. Oil and gold on panel. 71.1 x 56.5 cm (27.99 x 22.24 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Birthday Greetings from Daedalus Books

Here's a sweet vintage card for all of you oft-neglected people who have birthdays on or around December 25. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Harold Bloom's "Last Poems" anthology

Harold Bloom chose the verses below for Emily Dickinson in his anthology Til I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems. "In conceptual scope, originality, and profundity Dickinson surpasses any other literary mind since William Shakespeare's," he asserts.

Emily Dickinson Museum
The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
  The maddest noise that grows,—
The birds, they make it in the spring,
  At night’s delicious close.

Between the March and April line—
  That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
  Almost too heavenly near.

It makes us think of all the dead
  That sauntered with us here,
By separation’s sorcery
  Made cruelly more dear.

It makes us think of what we had,
  And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
  Would go and sing no more.

An ear can break a human heart
  As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
  So dangerously near. [1789]

Further reading: Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wonders of nature and the season

photo by Michael "Nick" Nichols
This snow-dusted giant sequoia from California's Sierra Nevada has pride of place in National Geographic magazine's roundup of best photos of 2012. Can you see the humble human being at the top? Called the President, the 3,200-year-old elder rises 247 feet and was around when Pharaohs walked the earth.
If you're an app person, try the latest version of their National Geographic Birds: Field Guide to North America. Besides being able to identify mystery birds quickly, you can add your own photos and create "life lists." Or if you're a non-tech-savvy person who prefers birding books (yay!) Daedalus has just the titles for you.
'Tis the season for holiday cards, and I just couldn't resist sharing some retro samples with you. Does the Baby J below look weird or what? (He's ready for His closeup!)
"Oh Lord, please let him get into a good preschool!"

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Another hallowed holiday tradition...

Well, at least in some households (and on NPR)! Here's an excerpt from "Santaland Diaries" by David Sedaris from Holidays on Ice. (It's also super to listen to Sedaris read the story himself—especially when he gets to the part where he imitates Billie Holiday.) The autobiographical story has been turned into a musical and is now a staple of community theaters.
"I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.
I've spent the last several days sitting in a crowded, windowless Macy's classroom, undergoing the first phases of elf training. You can be an entrance elf, a water-cooler elf, a bridge elf, train elf, maze elf, island elf, magic-window elf, usher elf, cash-register elf or exit elf.
We were given a demonstration of various positions in action, acted out by returning elves, who were so onstage and goofy that it made me a little sick to my stomach. I don't know that I could look anyone in the eye and exclaim: Oh, my goodness, I think I see Santa. Or can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish?
Everything these elves say seems to have an exclamation point on the end of it. It makes one's mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. It embarrasses me to hear people talk this way. I think I'll be a low-key sort of elf.
Macy's elves, in the proverbial parade
Twenty-two thousand people came to see Santa today, and not all of them were well behaved. Today, I witnessed fistfights and vomiting and magnificent tantrums. The back hallway was jammed with people. There was a line for Santa and a line for the women's bathroom. And one woman, after asking me a thousand questions already, asks: Which is the line for the women's bathroom? And I shouted that I thought it was the line with all the women in it. And she said: I'm going to have you fired. I had two people say that to me today: I'm going to have you fired. Go ahead, be my guest. I'm wearing a green velvet costume. It doesn't get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are? I'm going to have you fired, and I want to lean over and say: I'm going to have you killed.
The overall cutest elf is a fellow from Queens named Ritchie. His elf name is Snowball and he tends to ham it up with the children, sometimes tumbling down the path to Santa's house. I generally gag when elves get that cute, but Snowball is hands-down adorable. You want to put him in your pocket.Yesterday, Snowball and I worked as Santa elves, and I got excited when he started saying things like: I'd follow you to Santa's house any day, Crumpet. It made me dizzy, this flirtation. By mid-afternoon, I was running into walls. By late afternoon, Snowball had cooled down.
By the end of our shift, we were in the bathroom changing our clothes, and all a sudden we were surrounded by five Santas and three other elves. All of them were guys that Snowball had been flirting with. Snowball just leads elves on - elves and Santas.
This morning, I worked as an exit elf, telling people in a loud voice: This way out of Santaland.
A woman was standing at one of the cash registers, paying for her pictures while her son lay beneath her, kicking and heaving, having a tantrum. The woman said: Riley, if you don't start behaving yourself, Santa is not going to bring you any of those toys you asked for.
The child said: He is too going to bring me toys, liar. He already told me.
The woman grabbed my arm and said: You there, elf. Tell Riley here that if he doesn't start behaving immediately, then Santa's going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.
I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you're bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn't behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark.
The woman got a worried look on her face and said: All right. That's enough. I said, he's going to take your car and your furniture, and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing. The mother said, No, that's enough - really.
This afternoon, I was stuck being a photo elf for Santa-Santa. Santa-Santa has an elaborate little act for the children. He'll talk to them and give a hearty chuckle and ring his bells. And then he asks them to name their favorite Christmas carol.Santa then asked if they'll sing it for him. The children are shy and don't want to sing out loud. So Santa-Santa says: Oh, little elf, little elf, help young Brenda here sing that favorite carol of hers.
Late in the afternoon, a child said she didn't know what her favorite Christmas carol was. Santa-Santa suggested "Away in a Manger." The girl agreed to it, but didn't want to sing because she didn't know the words. Santa-Santa said: Oh, little elf, little elf, come sing "Away in a Manger" for us.
It didn't seem fair that I should have to solo, so I sang it the way Billie Holiday might have sang if she'd put out a Christmas album. "Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head." Santa-Santa did not allow me to finish.
This evening, I was sent to be a photo elf. Once a child starts crying, it's all over. The parents had planned to send these pictures as cards or store them away until the child, who's grown and can lie, claiming to remember the experience.
Tonight, I saw a woman slap and shake her crying child. She yelled: Rachel, get on that man's lap and smile or I'll give you something to cry about. Then she sat Rachel on Santa's lap and I took the picture, which supposedly means on paper, that everything is exactly the way it's supposed to be - that everything is snowy and wonderful.
It's not about the child or Santa or Christmas or anything, but the parents' idea of a world they cannot make work for them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Opera, both grand and comic: a laugh a minute!

A proper, goiterless Ring Cycle valkyrie
Illustrating the perils of character-recognition software, this quote comes from the Gramophone website: "Farrell is in fine voice, both here and in the Goiterddmmerung excerpt." All I can say is, "Damn those goiters!"
Say, did you know we have no fewer than three versions of Die WalkΓΌre? An embarrassment of riches, sure not to last long!
"Hold still while I cut your head off!"
Another intriguing opera typo I've come across: The Barbar of Seville (is he akin to a barbarian? see drawing at left). It is said that Rossini wrote Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 13 days, unshaven and in his dressing gown. "How ironic," a friend remarked, "that you wrote The Barber without shaving."
"But if I had shaved, I should have gone out." he replied. "And if I had gone out, I would not have come back in time to finish The Barber in 13 days!"  
Rossini's titular barber also appears in another Beaumarchais-derived libretto, that of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Filmed in Hamburg, Paris, Vienna, and Florence, the various productions we're carrying on DVD all attest to the cherished place this hugely enjoyable masterpiece has in the hearts of music lovers everywhere.
Cherubino hides behind Susanna's chair as the Count arrives (Scene from Act 1 of Mozart's opera Le nozze di Figaro; Anonymous 19th-century watercolor)
I'm in the midst of watching a DVD of one of my favorite Baroque operas, Handel's Giulio Cesare. The insert notes by one Juan Carlos Olivares (which among other things explain the oddball but attractive melange of costumes used in the production) are one of the most impressive examples of total blather I've ever experienced! The singers are great, though, and of course the music is sublime, so beautifully evoking the separate passions of each character. Plus there's a countertenor, a crocodile and Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile. What more could one want? The Met will be be broadcasting the opera live in HD in the spring, but here's your chance to preview it and to own it for half the price. One of the director's more intriguing conceits is that the action takes place on the Rosetta Stone. Literally.
I will leave you with the perspective of an opera lover extraordinaire, in this bit from "The Rabbit of Seville."

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fun with Santa: Holiday caption contest #1 continues

My poor Santa image is not sparking many humorous captions. We need more entrants willing to put their funnybone on the line for a chance to pick the free 2013 calendar or engagement book of their choice from our website! Below are some quips of mine to help get your synapses firing. When that happens, e-mail your entry asap to!
  •  "Curse you, Clement Moore!"
  • "Oh Donder, why couldn't I have been an Easter myth?"
  • "I hope to God they're not teetotal."
  • "You lot look sharp while I case the joint."
  • "Sigh ... no more Ding Dongs and Twinkies for us Blitzen."
  • "I knew I should have bought into that custom igloo startup."
  • "This is the down side of seasonal work."
  • "The Missus was right; I should have stayed local."
  • "Eartha Kitt crooning 'Santa Baby' it's not."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Notes on "The Hobbit" Premiere: Apotheosis of the visceral?

This guest review is by K. L. Mulder, "a committed multi-disciplinarian recovering from specialties in art and architectural history." Let us know what you think of the film versions of Tolkien's stories. And have a look at our beautifully designed paperback editions of all the books in the Middle Earth saga.
The numbers are: 48 frames per second [as opposed to the standard 24]; upwards of $91 million in predicted box office receipts for the first week; 13 dwarves with flawlessly grimy gear. Even the hobbit feet seem tripled in size. Ultimately, the heart has to overcome the numerology if you’re going to enjoy this movie.
In the week before its opening, critics anticipating The Hobbit premiere gleefully shredded its content, ridiculing Jackson’s seamless fashioning of a new world (again) as ‘teletubbies’ for an eternity, ‘overstuffed,’ ‘torturous,’ and ‘inflated.’ The fact is, Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth has morphed into a streamlined fantasy so meticulously rendered that everything seems overly familiar.
For example: no spoiler alerts are needed for the reappearance of the old LOTR crew, whose entrances seem constructed to inspire the audience’s cheers.
In truth, just about every moment is cheerily predictable. The writers obviously mine moments of foreshadowing to support the LOTR realm. The animators obviously mine 3-D technology to nauseating effect (great for rollercoaster fans). Jackson clearly indulges his lust for cinematic overkill, leading to more grossness, more squishy visceral sound effects, and more explosive violence. A pudgier, more tentative Sir Ian Holm fades gracefully into Martin Freeman’s young Bilbo—initially meek, mild, and tweaked by the messy cascade of dwarves that pillage his larder, but later, inexplicably provoked into heroics and swordplay. While Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf seems anachronistically aged compared to his LOTR self, with a more cracked, uncertain voice and stiffer joints, Galadriel and Elrond have clearly enjoyed revitalizing spa treatments. Andy Serkis’ Gollum works every motion-captured pixel to death in a series of facial climaxes, inspiring discussions about a special ‘motion-capture’ Oscar in H-wood. Barry Humphries (of Dame Edna Beveridge fame) rants gloriously from the folds of a goitered, ickily scabrous, pus-slimed body that trumps the disgusting epidermal condition of the trolls and orcs. Such excruciating details make Jackson’s version of Tolkien’s imagined worlds realistic, albeit a little indigestible.
On the other hand, of course the movie is predictable. We’ve been taken back to one narrative from five in the last LOTR film; the story’s been around since 1937; and Jackson’s able crew has mastered every possible ‘trickseyness’ to animate Middle Earth. We must hope that Jackson’s second and third installments expand in complexity (not just texture or visual stench), trusting the director’s godlike purview, if not his extreme dedication to Tolkien’s visions. If you are willing to suspend the endless critical comparisons and simply ‘ride’ the movie as entertainment—provided by one of the most sincere moviemakers on earth—you will enjoy The Hobbit.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Super fantastic holiday miscellany!

This charming drawing of partridges in a pear tree was done by Andy Warhol back in his commercial art days. It and the illustration at right (which I call "Deck the legs...") come from a new title on that period of his life from Chronicle Books.
Today I invite you to share your favorite and least favorite items of Xmas music. I love Britten's Ceremony of Carols and Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors as well as "Coventry Carol," "The Holly and the Ivy" and other very old carols. I loathe "The Little Drummer Boy" and other lugubrious modern ones. Curiously, the most popular Xmas album of all time does not involve Handel's Messiah, The Chipmunks, Nat King Cole, or "White Christmas." Can you guess? (Answer after the jump.)
It being the Christmas season, thoughts may turn to Scrooge and his creator, the inimitable Boz/Charles Dickens.We are flush with Dickensia at the moment, in both books and DVDs—all of which makes for prime gift giving. I just watched the dramatized biography portion of the boxed set from the BBC that includes A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield [the latter with Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins, and Daniel Radcliffe in his very first role!). Besides wishing fervently that it had been narrated by Rupert Everett or similar instead of unphotogenic Dickens expert Peter Ackroyd (who inserted himself annoyingly in way too many period shots!), I enjoyed it immensely. Of course it made me want to read more Dickens novels and to plunge immediately into Claire Tomalin's biography, as soon as I can get my hands on it. There's also the BBC set of Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop, studded with great actors like Gillian Anderson and Derek Jacobi. 
Below is a version of the complete Dickens Centennial poster from The Guardian. It you drag it to your desktop, it should fit on a normal-sized piece of paper and come out with decent resolution on a home printer.