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Damien Hirst ABC (c) Other Criteria, 2013.
Describe the achievements of contemporary artist Damien Hirst, and children’s book author is likely not the first thing that comes to mind. Controversial and divisive, the unofficial leader of the Young British Artists group has scaled his art to board book dimensions.
Let’s be clear: ABC is not for children, despite the back copy saying it’s “Fun for all the family.” Children should not be given this book. It is for collectors who enjoy or appreciate Hirst’s fascination with death, religion and medicine.
Other Criteria (c) Damien Hirst & Science, 2013
This alphabet book is a retrospective of sorts - each letter of the alphabet is accompanied by a piece of Hirst’s art. If an ignorant parent offers this book to a child, it won’t help young readers learn the alphabet because the images don’t always correspond to the letters they represent. For example, opposite the letter J is a close-up photograph of the artist’s 1991 installation of a dead tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Here the J refers to “Jaws.” Other creepy images of dead animals, as well as Hirst’s infamous diamond encrusted skull, show up throughout the book.
That being said, the images are fascinating, and that the artist even produced a book nominally geared towards child-age readers will no doubt provoke discussion among readers. This is an excellent book to consider giving as a holiday gift to anyone who adores modern and contentious artists and would appreciate Hirst’s latest attempt to provoke the viewing public.
Codex Seraphinianus is an art book in the most direct sense--there are big, beautiful drawings accompanied by indecipherable letterforms--and it is impossible to “read” it in a literal way. Form prevails, and that form is an elegant large quarto bound in cream canvas with gold lettering and laminated decoration, containing thick, textured paper. When paired with the cryptic script, Serafini’s surreal illustrations recall centuries-old manuscripts of natural history--and yet the overall effect is not old-fashioned; it is Salvador Dali and Italo Calvino with a dash of Dr. Who.
Rizzoli’s newest edition, Codex Seraphinianus XXXIII, is published to coincide with the book’s thirty-third anniversary. It is available as a deluxe limited edition signed by Serafini for $400 or the trade edition for $125.
The text has remained a mystery all these years, and perhaps that’s part of its draw as an art object. And if you think the Decodex pamphlet provided in the book’s back pocket will give you even a sliver of understanding, think again. In it, Serafini tells us that the true author of the Codex was a stray white cat found on the streets of Rome.
Courtesy of Penguin Young Readers Group
Courtesy of Penguin Young Readers Group
“Flo & Wendell,” by William Wegman; Dial Books for Young Readers, $16.99, 32 pages, ages 3-5.
After a decade-long hiatus, William Wegman and his loveable, huggable Weimeraners are back in print. In this story, we meet little Flo and her brother Wendell, and aside from their adorable faces, these puppies have very little in common. Flo likes dressing up and baking delicious cupcakes, while her younger brother is more interested in playing sports and causing mischief. Their hopeful parents encourage them to try and find something to do together, but with each page it seems less and less likely. Wegman playfully dissects the intricacies of sibling rivalry through simple text and engaging images. In previous Wegman books, the dogs are pictured in actual clothing; here the author departs from tradition and mixes photographs of the dogs with painted costumes and backgrounds. This book is so cute parents may find themselves suddenly besieged with requests to bring home actual puppies. (Full disclosure: our family recently brought home a pair of pups after reading this book.) Cave canem amabilem.
“The Snatchabook,” by Helen Docherty, illustrated by Thomas Docherty; Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $16.99, ages 3-6.
“In every house,
in every bed,
a bedtime book
was being read.”
The story starts innocently enough; all the critters in the arboreal hamlet of Burrow Down complete their days with a delightful bedtime tale. All is well until an unwelcome stranger flies into town one night and steals the books quicker than a bolt of lightening. Who is the book thief? (Readers can rule out Stephen Blumberg.) After all the books disappear, a brave bunny named Eliza Brown is determined to catch the crook. Once collared, the aptly-named Snatchabook confesses his crimes, and Eliza decides to help the creature find redemption in a most appropriate and caring manner. Helen Docherty’s jaunty rhymes keep pace with husband Thomas Docherty’s loveable renditions of badgers, bunnies and porcupines. Children will love acting this book out - sometimes as the sneaky Snatchabook, other times as the wise Eliza Brown. While fun to read, The Snatchabook also teaches an important lesson about the power of reading to stir young minds.
© 2013 Thomas Docherty. Published in The Snatchabook by Sourcebooks. All Rights Reserved.
Compiled by Laura Heyenga, with a preface by Brian Dettmer and an introduction by Alyson Kuhn, it is, by coffee table book standards, rather slim and handy. It is an anthology of artists who use books as their primary material in making art -- this could mean “treating” a book with any number of tools and instruments, from scissors, X-Acto knives, and needles to ink, paint, and glue.
The first thing one notices about this book is the creative binding -- the front and back boards seem to float in place while the sewn (and glued) signatures are fully visible along the spine, where a strip of chartreuse binding tape holds it together. Inside is a beautifully illustrated look at working book artists. Some of them will be familiar to readers of this magazine--in the past we have featured the work of Brian Dettmer, Guy Laramee, and Jeremy May--while others no doubt have a following among artists, collectors, and dealers. Su Blackwell’s book tableaux invite viewers into her captivating storybook world, while the intricacy of Julia Strand’s three-dimensional collages are astounding. I have long enjoyed the bookish photography of Cara Barer, and it’s nice to see large, color reproductions of some here. There are also great photos of the book sculptures left around Edinburgh by an anonymous artist in 2011. Her sculpture marking the publication of Ian Rankin’s The Impossible Dead, showing a couple of paper skeletons drinking, smoking, and listening to records, is particularly striking.
If I had one gripe with the selection of artists presented here, it’s that the focus seems to be on younger artists, shunning the artists who, in many ways, created the field. For example, Doug Beube is one of the most experienced book artists in this book. He started altering books in 1979. (Beube is the subject of our winter issue’s Book Art column.) On the other hand, reading up on the newer artists is ideal for collectors.
THE SELFISH GIANT Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London.
Perhaps best known as a playwright and novelist, Oscar Wilde also wrote several fairy tales. The Folio Society has published a new edition that would make an excellent gift to fairy tale fans as well as to those who love a beautiful, well-crafted book.
As with everything published by the Folio Society, the production standards for The Selfish Giant are first-rate. A sturdy metallic silver box keeps everything safe, and beautiful end papers covered in snowflakes set a magical mood. The book is printed on Abbey Wove paper and is three-quarter bound in buckram. (Buckram is a 100% cotton cloth used to cover the boards of the book.) On the cover is an exquisite illustration of the title character looking over a little boy who sits in an ethereal white-blossomed tree.
Grahame Baker-Smith illustrated The Selfish Giant. (Smith was also recently commissioned to illustrate the Folio Society’s 2012 edition of Pinocchio.) During a conversation with the illustrator I asked if he incorporated Wilde’s likeness into any of the images. He did; try to find which one it is in the accompanying image post. The mixed-media illustrations capture Wilde’s wit, yet recall a certain melancholy, suggesting - rightly - that these stories are not for the faint of heart.
British fiction author Jeanette Winterson writes an engaging introduction, giving readers a quick primer on Wilde’s life while intertwining major life milestones with his work. She reminds us that these are not bedtime stories for babies; rather, Winterson declares that these tales ‘tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not’. As a result these stories deal with themes that young children may not understand. Still, this is a glorious book, and as Wilde himself said, “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?”
Read more and see images from the book here --
As fate would have it, the author is Adam Langer, a magazine editor with whom I worked a dozen years ago at a start-up called Book Magazine. He and I haven’t been in touch since, so this felt like a great opportunity to seek him out and tell him how much I enjoyed his novel--and also to ask him a few questions about the story.
RRB: I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the antagonist is a collector who insists on hoarding manuscripts that will never be published, indeed will never be read by anyone else. In fiction, collectors are often depicted as sinister and compulsive, but you give it a bigger twist. Do you think collectors get a bad rap?! (And do you collect anything?)
AL: Well, I would hate to think of my collector character representing collectors as a whole group of people. For myself, I can’t say that I’m much of a collector except in the case of stories, which my collector character also collects in his own sinister way. When I was younger, I collected baseball cards and stamps and my father gave me his stamp collection, which I still have and cherish. And somewhere safely locked away, I do have some Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente baseball cards, which aren’t worth anywhere near what one would think because I never thought to keep them in mint condition. But, like the stamps, they’re more valuable for their role in history--both mine and history in general--than whatever negligible resale value they might have.
RRB: It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the novel’s main character shares your name -- why did you do that? After all, you’re not a house husband/aspiring writer in Bloomington, Indiana.
AL: Well, I was living in Bloomington for a while so that’s actually true. The real reason for using my name is because I thought it was as good a method as any to get the reader to trust me, which, of course, is almost always a silly thing for a reader to do. I wanted to start out with some basic realities, then totally warp them into a funhouse reflection of reality, and the easiest way to do that was to use a lot of elements of my own biography. There are also some very specific reasons why I thought that using my own name and that of my father would work well for the plot, but I probably shouldn’t get into that.
RRB: One of the blurbs on the back of the book describes the plot as a series of “nesting boxes,” (I was thinking Russian dolls), but your novel has that Calvino-esque quality. Was it hard to plot out? How long did it take you to conceive and write it?
AL: I love Calvino. When my Italian professor Doris Ingrosso introduced me to The Baron in the Trees I was totally taken with it. I had a similar reaction, perhaps an even more profound one to If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler. Both taught me how much you could play with form in a novel and still tell an engaging story. As for The Salinger Contract, I didn’t really plot it out. I’m not a writer who outlines. I follow the plot where it takes me. I let it surprise me and then I spend a lot of time backtracking and making sure it all makes sense. It might not be the most logical method for writing a novel, but it’s fairly organic and it’s the one that I find most satisfying.
RRB: Your book takes literally the adage that a book can “save your life.” What book--metaphorically speaking--saved your life?
AL: I don’t think any one book saved my life, but there are certainly plenty that helped to form who I am, and if they didn’t save me, they did change me. Probably for each phase of my life, there’s a different book or series of books. When I was a kid, it was Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona books, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books and Secret Agents Four. When I was in high school, it was Kerouac, particularly On the Road and The Subterraneans and also a play by Simon Gray called Quartermaine’s Terms. In college, it was Calvino and Borges. When I was studying literature in grad school, it was Jane Eyre and The Aeneid. There has been a Graham Greene phase and a G.K. Chesterton phase and an Edna O’Brien phase and a Joseph Conrad phase. And about ten years ago, I got into a Virginia Woolf phase that I still haven’t gotten out of. Even now, when I’m stuck or I don’t know what to write about, I pick up The Waves or To The Lighthouse. Most recently, the book that blew me away was one I was surprised I’d never read before--Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.
RRB: As a reader, do you enjoy “biblio-fiction” -- meaning novels about rare books and manuscripts -- and if so, what are some of your favorites?
AL: The first character that comes to mind is Arthur Geiger in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. And then there’s James Atlas’s The Great Pretender. I really liked the first fifty pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, but then I misplaced the novel and never actually finished it.
RRB: And with a title like The Salinger Contract, I have to ask, will you see the new Salinger documentary?
AL: I did. I didn’t hate it as much as some people did, but it’s not a very good movie. And now that all the spoilers have been spoiled--more Salinger books are on their way; Salinger was pretty much a creep; Salinger was deeply affected by the time he spent in the war--there’s no real artistic reason to see the movie. But then again, I’ve never been all that interested in author’s biographies. That’s why I decided to make some up, including my own.
In Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, Dedman and co-writer Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Huguette’s second cousin, have written the definitive account of her eccentric life. As the last child born to 67-year-old copper king and (briefly) Senator William A. Clark and his 28-year-old wife, Anna LaChapelle, Huguette was perhaps bound from the beginning to be odd. The death of her older, teenaged sister, with whom she was close, surely didn’t help. Nor did the immense amounts of money and attention. Still, hers was a charmed life, full of travel and music and lengthy correspondence with friends. It wasn’t until 1991, when a doctor made a house call to her Fifth Avenue apartment and discovered a skeletal woman with various cancers, that it seemed her life was coming to its natural close. But, in many ways, that was just the beginning of this strange tale, because the patient recovered, and yet ended up staying in the hospital for the next 7,364 nights. And she began giving away her money -- by the millions -- which didn’t go unnoticed by long-lost relatives or, once Dedman was on the trail, the media. This is a story that very much needed to be told.
How much money did Huguette have? Something in the range of $300 million. (Among other things, her father had founded Las Vegas.) Like her parents, Huguette was a collector. Mainly she collected dolls and doll houses, but she also had Stradivarius violins and major paintings, including Manet, Monet, and Renoir. (Nate Pedersen wrote about Clark’s collections on our blog last year.) Christie’s auctioned a collection of rare jewels from her estate, which realized $18 million. She seemed fond of books, as well. Of all the rooms in her father’s dismantled 121-room New York City mansion, Dedman writes, “the library was the one Huguette described with the most fondness, the one she missed most of all.” (According to the footnotes, Senator Clark’s library is detailed in an auction catalogue for a sale on January 29, 1926 by the American Art Association. I’d love to see that.)
Empty Mansions is full of rich details and solid research--we’d expect nothing less of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dedman--and yet I did not come away as convinced as the authors seem to be about Huguette’s decision-making skills as she aged, or indeed that her mental capabilities had ever progressed past childhood. It’s difficult and sad to imagine that a person of reasonable adult faculties would choose to remain hidden away in a small, sterile room watching The Smurfs on television when she could have had the world at her fingertips, or that she didn’t feel trapped by those around her--nurses, hospital administrators, lawyers, accountants--who claimed to be (or truly thought they were) helping.
The book’s publication this week coincides with a trial set to begin tomorrow that pits nineteen of Clark’s (mostly estranged) relatives against the beneficiaries of her last will (a charitable foundation, a hospital, a nurse, a goddaughter, an attorney, an accountant, and several employees). The relatives believe that Huguette was mentally incompetent when the last will was signed and that she may have been the victim of fraud.
It’s an incredible tale, and not yet complete.
Summer isn’t over yet, so here are a few books that capture the whimsical spirit of these final days of the season.
Now Open the Box, by Dorothy Kunhardt; The New York Review of Children’s Books, $16.95, 72 pages, ages 4-7.
Before Clifford the Big Red Dog, there was little Peewee the circus dog. Originally published in 1934, Dorothy Kunhardt’s Now Open the Box tells the story of a beloved red canine and his opening act at the circus.
Now Open the Box by Dorothy Kunhardt. Reproduced with permission from the New York Review of Children’s Books © Dorothy Kunhardt.
To beckon spectators, the ringmaster stands in front of a large red tent while holding a yellow box that fits in the palm of his hand. Inside is Peewee. Although the tiny pooch can’t perform a single trick, everybody loves the cute canine, from circus-goers to fellow performers. Unfortunately the dog begins to grow, and this threatens his place under the big top.
The New York Review of Children’s Books has just reissued this book by the author of Pat the Bunny. A torrent of words, coupled with bright illustrations and simple sentences lend a childlike, innocent quality to the storytelling. Kunhardt’s iconic line-drawn illustrations employ a basic color scheme of fire engine red, canary yellow, black and white.
At times, the story may seem lengthy and very young children might lose patience, but most readers will enjoy following Peewee on his adventure extravaganza. Kunhardt aficionados will surely want to add this edition to their collection.
By way of plot, we open with antiquarian book and manuscript dealer Joseph Barkeley (“low volume and high margins,” he tells us), who is called to authenticate the original draft manuscript for Stoker’s Dracula. (Such a manuscript does indeed exist, having surfaced in a Pennsylvania barn in the 1980s. It is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.) An anonymous Romanian buyer then employs Barkeley to purchase and deliver the document to the legendary Castle Bran. Once there, Barkeley realizes he is dealing with the devil. To avoid impalement, he must decode messages hidden in the text and locate the secret burial site of Dracula’s bride.
Prouty’s style is more storyteller than trained novelist, so while he excels at plot and tone, his sentences could have had more finesse. His descriptions of Romanian history, geography, and lore add much to the tale. Those who have enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Historian, or even, say, Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, will find themselves on common (unhallowed) ground -- a thriller with enough literary references to keep both the bookish and the bloodthirsty amused.
When Amanda is called to appraise some clothing in the apartment of 98-year-old Jane Kelly, she makes an important discovery among the mod A-lines and mid-century cocktail dresses. An old trunk with Edwardian-era garb hides the century-old diary of a 20-year-old woman named Olive. Against her better judgement, Amanda makes a deal on the dresses and pockets the diary. Unmarried and childless at 39, Amanda is beginning to search for something more in life than a married boyfriend, a struggling business, and rampant insomnia. To that end, she visits a hypnotist and starts reading Olive’s diary. Some odd things begin to happen; she isn’t exactly haunted by Manhattan’s past, but her life begins to mirror Olive’s in disquieting ways.
Olive began writing in September of 1907, having just moved to Manhattan with her father, a manager at the Woolworth’s on 34th Street. The upwardly mobile Olive enjoys many luxuries and yet has a burgeoning feminist streak. (She even buys herself a book on the female body since no one has bothered to provide her with the basics.) She eschews marriage and instead hopes to pursue a career as a department store buyer. When tragedy strikes, Olive relies on willpower and ambition to succeed in a city full of binding corsets, foul tenements, and, for many ladies of her station, a woeful lack of sex education.
Lehmann deserves much credit for bringing history alive in Astor Place Vintage (Touchstone/S&S; original trade paperback, $16), allowing Amanda the opportunity to stumble upon the buildings where Olive lived, shopped, and ate, in their modern context. The two narratives effortlessly braid together, each with its own tensions and well-developed characters, and each a welcome sight when I removed the bookmark and read well beyond my bedtime.
Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios shows off items preserved in the Smithsonian but often gathered or collected by laymen. Bird, curator at the NMAH, prompts us to think about the idea of souvenirs, not so much in the way of plastic knick-knacks we pick up at landmarks these days, but the ones chipped from monuments and clipped from heads in years past. Here are a few of the neat items you’ll find here: a piece of George Washington’s mahogany coffin, railroad conductors’ punch cards, and actress Laura Keene’s bloodstained cuff worn at Ford’s Theater. As always, I enjoy the format of Princeton Architectural Press books. This trim red, white, and blue hardcover resembles a history textbook, if textbooks were a bit groovier. The endpapers are decorated with patriotic stars, and the book even contains two ribbons (red and blue) for placeholders.
The Civil War in 50 Objects has a narrower focus and yet is a heftier read. Holzer, a Fellow at the N-YHS, offers a more narrative approach, allotting each artifact--iron slave shackles, a draft wheel for drawing names, a Confederate cipher key--a mini-chapter instead of a page. The bookish among us will be glad to note the number of items that fall under the rubric of ‘print culture’ represented by broadsides, prints, letters, newspapers, watercolor drawings by prisoners, a pocket diary of a private from NY, a bible used at a “colored orphan asylum,” c. 1863, the First Dixie reader, and lastly, a manuscript of the thirteenth amendment. Illustrated with fine color reproductions, this book is a collection of treasures for anyone interested in Civil War history.
Charlie Lovett’s debut novel, The Bookman’s Tale (Viking, June, $27.95), entices the general reader in me. It opens in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye where antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerly finds what he believes to be a watercolor portrait of his recently deceased wife, Amanda, tucked into a copy of An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers by Edmond Malone. Oddly, the portrait appears Victorian, so it sends Peter’s mind reeling. An intriguing premise, but here we are on page 4, and already I’m doubting Lovett, a book collector and former antiquarian bookseller, because Peter removes the watercolor from the book and slips it into a cheaper book before checking out. What?! A find like that and he doesn’t pause to consider whether the book contained more evidence, or the sagacity (not to mention ethics) of separating the book from its extra-illustration? Bad bookseller. And yet, as the story continues, we are meant to think of him as a something of a hapless genius.
Peter’s pursuit to find the artist of this little watercolor turns into quite the quest--spanning numerous sets of characters and several centuries. William Shakespeare is one such character; Lovett imagines him annotating a copy of Robert Greene’s Pandosto and then handing it off to a bookseller. That becomes the holy grail at the heart of the novel, surrounded by forgery, murder, and sex (the latter recounted from Peter’s memories of his college days would have been better left unsaid). And while there were too many set changes for a novel under five hundred pages, what I liked about this story is how Lovett invents such a book’s origin and follows it through the centuries from writer to bookseller to collector (Robert Cotton) so on and so forth. I would have preferred more in those chapters and less on Peter’s personal history.
As my colleague Jeremy Dibbell pointed out last week, this may be the only novel to feature a Hinman Collator, which is pretty neat. Peter uses it to compare two copies of Pandosto while trying to prove that one is a genuine first edition. The final quarter focuses on forgery, through which Lovett develops narrative tension and delivers an interesting ending.
The Bookman’s Tale is a breeze to read, and if you are not yet as jaded a reader as I am vis-a-vis biblio-fiction, it makes fine poolside reading.
Now those sea monsters are getting some deserved scholarly attention, thanks to Chet Van Duzer, an invited research scholar at the John Carter Brown Library and soon-to-be research curator in the geography & maps division at the Library of Congress. His new book, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (British Library/U. of Chicago Press, $35), is illustrated with 147 color images. Van Duzer analyzes the most important examples of this decorative cartography from the tenth century to the end of the sixteenth, examining each mapmaker’s sources and influences.
Van Duzer is also the co-author of last year’s Seeing the World Anew: The Radical Vision of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 & 1516 World Maps.
The hand-bound, double-elephant folio of flower photography was created in an edition of ten in 2008-2009 (we profiled Singer in our July/August 2008 issue). Last month, Abbeville Press published an unabridged, palm-sized “Tiny Folio” edition of Singer’s masterwork. In 376 pages, there are 250 full-color photographs, with text describing each specimen’s botany, geography, history, and conservation.
Singer was a New Jersey podiatrist with a great eye before his botanical photography became so popular. Using his Hasselblad camera, he began photographing rare and exotic plants. When a curator of botany at the Smithsonian saw some of Singer’s images, he invited Singer to have a look at the museum’s greenhouse. Singer ended up snapping 750 pictures there; he selected 250 to print and publish as Botanica Magnifica. Singer also recently published Fine Bonsai: Art & Nature.
Incidentally, Abbeville Press has an impressive list of Tiny Folio editions of art/museum collections (e.g., Audubon’s Birds of America, Morgan Library’s Illuminated Manuscripts). Take a peek.
Images courtesy of Abbeville Press.
MATCHBOX DIARY. Text copyright © 2013 by Paul Fleischman. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Bagram Ibatoulline. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
MATCHBOX DIARY. Text copyright © 2013 by Paul Fleischman. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Bagram Ibatoulline. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Using acrylic gouache, Ibatoulline creates an impeccable portrait of a collector’s controlled chaos, with old books, artwork, antique clocks and other bric-a-brac filling every shelf, corner and wall. The images of the past are skillfully rendered in black and white.
Told entirely through dialogue, The Matchbox Diary is an ode to collectors and diarists of all ages, and certainly stokes the flame of bibliomania. As the story concludes, the worldly grandfather offers this reflection, one that will no doubt resonate with the readers of this blog: “Books are like newspapers. They show you where you’ve been.”
Interview at the Waldorf Astoria NYC
Introduction to “Pinocchio” by Umberto Eco, ”...it’s not even a fairy tale, since it lacks the fairy tale’s indifference to everyday reality and doesn’t limit itself to one simple basic moral, but rather deals with many.”
On Veteran’s Day, the internationally acclaimed children’s book illustrator Fulvio Testa sat down with me over tea in the Peacock Bar at the Waldorf Astoria to talk about his ground-breaking work for Geoffrey Bock’s new translation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. The wide-ranging conversation inevitably led to a discussion of his artistic philosophy regarding children’s book illustration in general, and how he can’t get New York out of his mind.
Focus and Rhythm
For this project, Testa told me how he created a special storyboard that allowed him to keep constant track of the visual and literary levels he was trying to maintain. During the process, he constantly asked himself, “How can I get readers to understand the story simply by creating an image? There are two ways that I might create an image, either one image with two stories, or one large edited image.” To choose the right scenes for Pinocchio, Testa outlined places where he felt the images would best compliment the text, and read the book repeatedly in order to completely grasp the flow of action. Perhaps equally important to the actual artwork itself, he added, is the pacing and the precise location of where an image is placed in a printed book. “There are fifty-two images in this book, and they are relatively close together. I try to create a rhythm to the illustrations,” meaning that each picture represents a pivotal moment in the story, and in Pinocchio most chapters either end or begin with an illustration. The flowing imagery allows the reader to maintain a steady pace, while creating pauses in the storyline and breaking the text into manageable parts.
Action and movement
At first glance the art for Pinocchio appears lighthearted and buoyant, however Testa’s work is in reality quite dynamic. To show where the action lies in what appears to be a passive image, Testa pointed to an illustration in the book. In it, Pinocchio stands at Geppetto’s worktable and argues with the Cricket. “Some images are deceptive. They look approachable and friendly, but an older reader will see some of the darker aspects at work here. Look at the table. Pinocchio’s hand is very close to the mallet, which he will pick up shortly and throw at the Cricket, killing him. This is a triangle of violence here.” This is not simply a picture of a quarrel, but a violent avant scène, and yet is still an image that is appropriate for children. “Children need action to convey a story of experience through repetition,” which may be why, in Pinocchio,Testa has filled the pages with the scurrilous puppet in all manner of situations, from skipping school to facing a fearsome serpent. Testa also believes that in order to be successful at his craft, a part of him must retain a childlike understanding and appreciation for the world. “To illustrate, an illustrator needs to have a part of himself that hasn’t grown up yet,” Testa explained. “I have to be willing to re-experience pain, rejection, joy, and other emotions, as if for the first time.”
Just as parents once used Pinocchio as a way to teach social and moral values, fables are equally important today in constructing a moral compass for children. Testa illustrated an edition of Aesop’s Fables, and finds their universal qualities a captivating way to educate young minds. “Through these stories there is a possibility to acquire a social sensibility.” He views his illustrations as an educational tool because they show how to deal with society from a children’s point of view, which is often more effective than an adult telling a child what is right and what is wrong. There is historical precedent to this approach going back to the nineteenth century, when Pinocchio was first published. Before there was mandatory schooling, children’s books were crucial teaching tools. Carlo Collodi originally published Pinocchio in installments and he initially intended to end the book with the death of the unfortunate puppet. Indeed, the illustration that closes chapter fifteen shows Pinocchio strung up and hanging from a large oak tree. The puppet survives the hanging, and continues on his adventures.
(Available April 9, 2013)
Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, NY.
This book takes the art of custom-drawn fonts, - lively, hand-drawn letters often perfected by middle school adepts - to an extraordinary level of sophistication. British graphic designer Tony Seddon opens the manual with a primer on the history of hand-lettering, including tips for perfecting one’s craft, the pros and cons of tracing, and understanding the basic structure of letterforms. Seddon teaches the proper techniques to create funky, personalized fonts in this very hands-on workbook.
The thirty alphabet fonts all are custom drawn by a team of young designers and illustrators who each reveal a little about themselves and the inspiration for their fonts. For example, artist Michelle Tilly discovered the origins for her “Spotty Fairground” font by observing antique signs on a Bristol pier.
Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, NY.
There is a style here to suit any mood and personality, ranging from the Pacman-inspired “Butterman,” to “Topiary” where the letters resemble leafy bushes. My favorite font is the “Octobet.” This intricately detailed font is influenced by the Norse legend of the fearsome sea-monster, the Kraken.
Seddon concludes with a useful section on how to use one’s fonts by digitizing them. A glossary of terms as well as an anatomy of principal font features rounds out the book. This isn’t necessarily a book geared towards children, but placed in the right hands it would no doubt be lovingly received and perhaps nurture grains of artistic creativity. A perceptive child might also enjoy reading the included designers’ biographies.
Draw Your Own Alphabets: Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, & Make your Own Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, NY.
Written by Paula Bryne, author of the acclaimed Evelyn Waugh biography, Mad World, this new bio of Austen takes an innovative approach: Byrne collects a set of objects from Austen’s world and uses each as a jumping off point to talk about one aspect of the author’s life. For example, an East Indian shawl calls forth some family history, and a card of lace purchased in London conjures a time when Austen was perhaps preparing for the “marriage market” in Bath. Red velvet cushions are wonderfully evocative, and it turns out they can tell us a lot about the fine houses Austen visited and wrote about (Humphry Repton, known for his “Red Books” quite fittingly has a cameo in this chapter.)
It’s a rare biographer who can write a serious book that is immensely readable. For me, the description and study of the objects and the emphasis on material culture makes Byrne’s achievement all the greater. It tugs at my antiquarian side, and as someone who has studied book history, I found her insight into this subject using Austen’s childhood notebooks, a subscription list, a royalty cheque, and Austen’s lap desk encouraging for the discipline.
I would love to ask Byrne about the Austen ring sold last year at auction for $236,557. What does that humble gold and gemstone ring tell us about what was important to the author, or what relationship did it inform? Those are the kinds of questions Byrne takes up when she discusses Austen’s topaz cross in chapter 14 or a painted ivory miniature in chapter 11. By rummaging through her “things,” we see Austen at a personal level, and she’s as amazing as ever.
“The Olive Fairy Book,” by Andrew Lang, illustrated by Kate Baylay; The Folio Society, $84.95, 296 pages.
In late January, author Jane Yolen - considered by many to be the ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ of her generation - spoke with me about the introduction she wrote to theFolio Society’s The Olive Fairy Book, a new edition of fairy tales originally published in 1907 by Scottish author Andrew Lang. We also talked about heroes, magic, and discovering hope through storytelling.
THE OLIVE FAIRY BOOK Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London.
The Folio Society & Andrew Lang
There are twelve Fairy books, and the Olive Fairy is the eleventh in the series. As a child Yolen read many, if not all, of the Rainbow Fairy series. In the introduction to the Folio Society’s edition she highlights three of her favorite stories- ‘Jackal or Tiger,’ ‘Samba the Coward,’ and ‘Kupti and Imani.’
“I’m pretty sure I read them all as a child. I was one of those childhood readers who, once I found something that I loved, I would seek out everything that was related to it.” The Olive Fairy Book includes all the elements necessary for riveting reading - heroic princes, wise fairies, talking animals, evil trolls, and witches. While being a prolific writer of children’s novels and poetry, Lang was recognized as a leading authority on world folklore and mythology.
Bound elegantly in olive green cloth, this edition of The Olive Fairy is itself a work of art, featuring an Art Deco frontispiece and bright gold illustrations by British artist Kate Baylay. Inside, readers will find more visual feasts- twelve full-color illustrations and thirteen black and white drawings.
Yolen discussed the era that inspired the artwork, and why it is wholly appropriate for this edition. “This book was published originally in 1907, which is when arts and crafts, art nouveau and art deco all come together.”
Yet as beautiful as these pictures are, this edition is perhaps most appropriate for older readers. “I think the pictures in this book are exquisite. But they’re also not for children. They’re very sexy, very dark; some are quite violent. It’s exquisite bookmaking and of course the Folio Society is known for that. And the price reflects that; it’s for collectors. You can get the edition in paperback for very little money, but the point of this kind of book is that it’s an art object.” If a collector wishes to acquire the entireRainbow Fairy series, The Folio Society is issuing all twelve of the books, each similarly designed and illustrated by a contemporary artist. The Olive Fairy Book is the tenth to be published.
THE OLIVE FAIRY BOOK Copyright © 2013 by Kate Baylay. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London.
At least once a summer for the past twenty years Yolen has visited the gravesite of Andrew Lang in St. Andrews, Scotland, partly because his work played a significant role in her development as a writer. “He was one of the most important ones [to me.] And I happen to have a house there. When writers visit, I’ll take them to the grave. Or if I’m on my own I’ll go. It isn’t that I’m genuflecting at his grave, it just happens to be a lovely grave with a beautiful Celtic cross on it.”
In a classic example of serendipity, Yolen was unaware of the writer’s presence in the town before settling there with her late husband, David Stemple. “I didn’t even know about the connection when I first moved there. My husband was a professor of computer science, and took his second sabbatical at St. Andrews.” (Now she spends her summers there, and returns to her home in western Massachusetts each winter.) After some poking around, Yolen found a chapel with a plaque dedicated to Andrew Lang. “I discovered that Lang was buried on the cathedral grounds. It was a hunt.”
In November 2012, Yolen was the 22nd person and the first woman to deliver the annual Andrew Lang Lecture at the university, which was also celebrating the centennial of Lang’s death. “Every academic in Cambridge has lectured here. The month after I was born, in March 1939, an Oxford professor named J.R.R Tolkien gave the lecture, which became the iconic essay on fairy stories - and really changed my life as a writer. So St. Andrews asked me, and I said, ‘How can I follow in these footsteps?’ As I said to the audience, ‘Here I am, walking in Tolkien’s shoes, who walked in Lang’s shoes -- why not give me a ring and point me towards Modor?’”
To continue reading about The Olive Fairy Book, read my full review at Literary Features Syndicate!
Well that’s a headline to entice many readers and collectors -- it’s also the title of a new novel by Syrie James, author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.
In The Missing Manuscript, James uses a twenty-first-century story to frame the nineteenth-century narrative, i.e. Austen’s missing first novel. While on vacation in England, Samantha McDonough, an American special collections librarian who failed to finish her dissertation on Austen at Oxford, pops into an antiquarian book shop and picks up an old poetry book. Much to her surprise, a letter is found tucked into the uncut pages, and that letter turns out to be an unknown and unsigned letter from Jane Austen to her sister. Better still, the letter mentions a missing manuscript.
While that frame proved hackneyed at best, Samantha does uncover a manuscript, stowed away in a secret cupboard in an English country manor house. (She also finds its handsome, young, divorced owner, Anthony Whitaker.) They begin to read the manuscript, written in 1802. It involves a clerical country family named the Stanhopes, who endure financial and social ruin and an embarrassing trip to Bath. The characters of Rebecca Stanhope and the friends and suitors she encounters have more life to them than their modern counterparts in this novel. Thankfully, their well-plotted story constitutes the bulk of the book, which will delight Austen fans. It may even gain a few new ones.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Anthony Whitaker is counting his chickens, ticking off prices of book and manuscript sales at auction found via his cell phone browser. He feels that his manuscript will break the current record--that of $30.8 million paid by Bill Gates for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester. With the proceeds, he can restore his family’s ancestral home. But will he sell?
After several hours amiably passed, you, dear Reader, will know the answer to that.
A handsomely illustrated book for map lovers, this book is not a history of cartography per se, but a look at the graphic elements and beautiful imagery of maps from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. As John Noble Wilford notes in the foreword, “When it came to orienting the map, the inner artist felt free to embellish the necessary with symbolic blossoms--compass roses--spreading in the cardinal directions. In other flights of whimsy, cherubs with chubby cheeks blow in the directions of the prevailing winds. These features drive up old-map prices at auction.”
In this volume, one sees the evolution of the compass rose and watches how images of humans were used by mapmakers through the centuries. Flora and fauna are common ornamental elements too. One of my favorites is Islandia, a map of Iceland, from the 1587 edition of Theatrum. It shows all manner of fantastic beasts off the coast, including man-eating monster fish.
Animal-shaped maps form their own section, and I was glad to see the “Peaceful Lion,” of Leo Belgicus, coincidentally featured in our soon-to-be-mailed winter issue. The Pegasus-shaped map of Asia, 1581, is also pretty neat.
For anyone who studies or collects maps, The Art of the Map will be a welcome addition to your library.
Casting a wide net out to novelists, artists, designers, chefs, filmmakers, and journalists, the duo asked contributors to create a shelf of books that they could not live without, that had changed their lives as readers. Jane Mount then illustrated the list of books in her charming, colorful way.
I am often tempted to flip through coffeetable books without quite reading them, which would have been a shame in this case. Stopping not only to read the brief essays by people like Chuck Klosterman, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Tony Hawk, but to ‘shelf-read,’ their collections offers flares of insight into modern reading and book owning. Did anyone else know that Johnny Cash loved old books? Rosanne Cash remembers one treasure: “My dad would get so anxious if anybody held it, if anybody touched it. He loved books more than anything.” Her shelf was heavy on literature. I loved finding Steinberg’s Five Hundred Years of Printing on the shelf of Penguin Books cover designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. Look closely and you’ll spy Graham Greene, Tobias Wolff, Nabokov on many a shelf; Edith Wharton, too. I was surprised to see her so often.
Needless to say, it is a perfect gift for the book lover in your life. The very last page of the book is a blank ideal bookshelf, beckoning readers to fill it in for themselves. I, for one, could not resist, and so here it is: H.D. Thoreau’s Walden; J.M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind; Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors; Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale; Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold; The Portable Dorothy Parker; A.S. Byatt’s Possession; John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman; David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.
In this immensely readable and enjoyable book, Dr. Ross culls each author’s symptoms from contemporary source material and attempts to diagnose his or her likely ailment. This book grew out of an article on syphilis he originally published in Clinical Infectious Diseases. Because Ross is a real M.D.--a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School--the urge to scoff at his multiple diagnoses of Asperger Syndrome is (mostly) quelled.
There are chapters on Milton, Melville, and Swift, all of which will cause readers to gasp and chuckle in turn, as Dr. Ross provides a light history of the medicines and treatments they endured. I guarantee that the opening paragraphs of the chapter on James Joyce and his “irrigation” treatments for gonorrhea will make readers squirm in their seat.
Tuberculosis picked off the five Bronte children one by one, a sad story with many dimensions deftly explained by Dr. Ross. Unfortunately the Bronte sisters are the only women under examination here -- what does Dr. Ross make of Jane Austen’s death? Last year, a British crime novelist claimed that Austen was poisoned, although she is commonly thought to have had Addison’s disease. Ross does discuss arsenic in a chapter on William Butler Yeats, saying that arsenic therapy was long used for many disorders, but that the “effective dose is very close to the amount needed to cause harm.” Arsenic treatments were also used on Jack London for his many maladies, but that wasn’t what killed him in the end.
Intrigued? Read an excerpt.
The novel’s main character, Clay Jannon, takes a job at a San Francisco bookshop where, he discovers, the real business is a lending library of leather-bound books for a crew of odd readers. Once he begins snooping around a bit and applying his techie skills--hacking, data visualization--to the mystery, he discovers that his boss, Mr. Penumbra, is a disenchanted leader in a “bibliophile cult” called the Unbroken Spine.
Following Penumbra to New York City, Jannon finds the object of the Unbroken Spine’s desire: a codex vitae printed by Aldus Manutius (founder of the cult) in a typeface called Gerritszoon at the end of the fifteenth century. The problem is, the book is in code; Jannon and his Silicon Valley friends aim to break it open and free the text, as it were.
At 288 pages, it is difficult to escape the feeling--especially when the flap copy compares it to “young Umberto Eco”--that the novel lacks depth, and the main plot feels formulaic at times. After all, we do find ourselves in a subterranean library vault pouring over an antiquarian book said to contain the key to immortality. But Sloan is very bright, and that shines through -- even to his glow-in-the-dark dust jacket. Plus, if he entices even a handful of younger readers to the coolness of rare books, well then, all is forgiven.
Incidentally, Sloan was pictured in the New York Times last month hiding away in the Grolier Club stacks, where he poured over Aldines, printed by the real Aldus Manutius.
Read an excerpt here.
Peter Geye’s charming essay about Micawber’s in St. Paul, Minnesota, pinpoints the beginning of his bibliomania to the purchase of a couple of Signet Classics in high school. “In the years between then and now, I’ve become a proper bibliophile ... There are many reasons I love books: for the worlds they show me, for the things they teach me, for the way they feel in my hand or in my satchel...” Francine Prose and Pete Hamill take turns reveling in the Strand’s 18 miles of books; Prose offers the intriguing tidbit that she often sells her used books and review copies to them.
With an introduction by Richard Russo and whimsical line illustrations by Leif Parsons, My Bookstore offers some perspective on contemporary bookselling, and it is as much about writing as it is about bookselling. A common theme in the essays is the support a young writer finds in a community bookstore -- these are the stores that zealously promote author events, hand-sell first novels, even slip manuscripts to publishing insiders. Without these stores, where do readers go? And also, where do writers go?
This endearing collection of essays provides a literary roadmap of the last great bricks-and-mortar bookstores in America -- now go!
Apparently a closeted vegetarian was reading 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger (Doubleday, 1960) because she left a recipe for zucchini bread inside. Was a Betty Draper-type housewife reading Frank Edwards’ Strange People whilst she whipped up macaroni loaf and apricot bavarian cream? Sour cream coffee cake with Less Than Zero is an odd combination, but two different kinds of pickle in The Spy Who Loved Me (NAL reprint, 1963) seems understandable.
Because some of the recipes are untested--let’s call them vernacular--Popek goes the extra step and brings in experts for some of the more interesting dishes. Blogger Shannon Weber of A Periodic Table, for example, provides professional measurements and advice for a pineapple chiffon cake recipe that seems thoroughly worth trying out.
Many of these “found recipes” turned up in cookbooks, for obvious reasons. So for cookbook lovers, there’s the added bonus of finding interesting new titles. Slenderella Cook Book by Myra Waldo (Putnam’s, 1957) contained a recipe for Boston Prune Cake and Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Dainties by Janet M. Hill (Little, Brown, 1914) offered okra gumbo.
Popek, who runs Popek’s Used and Rare Books in Oneonta, New York, seems to have a found a recipe for success in scrapbooking the paper ephemera he finds between the pages and among the stacks in his daily business. His first book, Forgotten Bookmarks (reviewed here last year), focused on letters, postcards, photographs, and other bookmarks he has uncovered. The handwritten recipes here were culled from the nearly 5,000 he has found in the past few years and are now published in color alongside the book (with a basic bibliographical entry) that each was in found in. For daring home cooks, food historians, lovers of paper and ephemera, this book is altogether satisfying. Bring one to your Thanksgiving host.
What I particularly liked is that is a terrific introduction to the terminology and processes that can seem complicated to those who were raised in a primarily digital design environment. Know the difference between a personal monogram and a cipher? Or, what the size of a calling card signifies? Or, how to tell the difference between wood engraving and steel engraving? You will. Collins’ book is abundantly illustrated and her timeline of engraving, from Gutenberg (who dabbled in copperplate engraving) to today’s specialty engravers is clear and useful.
The Complete Engraver is both a history and a how-to. This is one for the home library reference shelf.
To read an interview with the author over on the Crane & Co. blog, go here.
Reviewed by Edith Vandervoort
One could confidently say that all women in Western societies are permitted to enjoy the pleasures of reading. We are able to chose what we would like to read and how often we want to read. This is, even today, not the case in countries with restrictive rights for women, nor was this the case throughout much of history. In her engaging book, The Woman Reader (Yale UP, 2012), Belinda Jack traces the history of reading and education for women--notably linked to the accomplishments of the women’s movement--and, with the inclusion of drawing and photographs, highlights important female readers, writers, and literary critics.
Reading for women (and men) was based on whether or not one was wealthy and had the books and the time to read. In the twelfth century, book ownership was limited to members of the nobility, but convents, which had been established as early as the fifth century when they served to offer protection from the scourges of war, provided a more egalitarian system of education in French, English, and Latin for women of various socioeconomic classes. They varied greatly by the number of book bequests and the literacy of the community, but provided women with the opportunity to achieve a high level of scholarship. In the early middle ages, men and women collaborated in writing the scripture for the purpose of serving God in the conversion of non believers. With the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century, women largely read religious works, but also secular materials on “acceptable” topics. Romances were not included in this category and were, for many centuries, considered morally damaging and conducive to frivolity and the release of inhibited sexual desires. The Reformation provoked contentious, often dangerous religious ideas. At this time, women began to write to express their religious and political views. With improved technology came the increased availability of secular reading materials and, with it, the degradation of women through inexpensively produced pamphlets and booklets, leading to hotly-debated rebuttals written by women.
The commercialization of books thrived and women were encouraged to read advice manuals, how-to books on household activities, books on etiquette, but also pulp fiction. The debate of whether or not women should be educated abated and women became more assertive. Various salons in the seventeenth century and the Bluestockings in the eighteenth century were intellectual societies where women could freely exchange ideas. Rousseau’s theories proclaiming that women should be educated to promote men’s happiness was discarded and in the eighteenth century women’s magazines, printed for the sole purpose of pleasure in reading what other women wrote, increased in number. The idea of reading for personal edification eventually became largely accepted for all people.
Jack’s well-researched and fascinating book makes us appreciate the gift of reading and equally conscientious of how slaves, women, and disenfranchised populations are manipulated through illiteracy and the lack of quality education.
--Edith Vandervoort is a freelance writer based in California.
Of course he is. Bonnet discourses on buying books, reading books, organizing books, annotating books, and lending books (never!). When discussing the future of personal libraries, Bonnet believes that the combination of specialization and digitization will hasten the end of large general collections. He writes, “Bibliophiles will still keep their collections, and libraries devoted to precise topics will survive, but we may be pretty sure that vast and unwieldy personal collections of a few tens of thousands of books are likely to disappear, taking their phantoms with them.”
This slim volume is a treat to read, and its Continental flair seemed to this reviewer to bring something fresh to topics already covered brilliantly by Alberto Manguel and others. The introduction by novelist James Salter is a paean to the book and the personal library--you can read part of it at the New Yorker’s book blog.
Poet’s Pub is the charming story of the Pelican Pub in Downish, England, run by middling poet Saturday Keith. His guests are an interesting group of English and American travelers: a professor and his daughter, a retired colonel and his wife, a businessman, and a “harmless” book collector who turns out to have a sinister side (“a folio-sized wolf in calf’s clothing”). The author provides comic relief at the expense of bibliophiles (but I laughed anyway), particularly in this passage:
Wesson sat a little distance away, still behind his enormous folio. Wesson had talked old books to Sir Philip Betts, who hated reading; to Jean Forbes, who disliked Wesson; to Sigismund Telfer, who believed only in new books; to Jacquetta Telfer, who preferred maps; to Colonel Waterhouse, who wasn’t interested; and to Lady Porlet, who thought it a sin and a shame to pay hundreds of pounds for dusty volumes that nobody read...
The novel evolves into a caper that might well be described as a wittier, less deadly Gosford Park.
The new edition features a foreword by librarian and author Nancy Pearl, who felt compelled to revive Eric Linklater’s novel for modern readers. Pearl deserves many thanks for that. For years Poet’s Pub was out of print, even though it was one of the first ten titles used by Allen Lane to successfully launch the Penguin Books line in 1935. Linklater was shelved alongside an eclectic group, including Andre Maurois, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Ertz, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Beverly Nichols, E.H. Young, Mary Webb, and Compton Mackenzie.
Last week Tom Phillips celebrated his 75th birthday and the release of the 5th edition of The Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, a watershed in the latter-day history of artists’ books inspired by Surrealist methods in cutting, pasting, and heavy duty reassembly and collage. The work takes the text of A Human Document, by W. H. Mallock and effaces the pages in every which way: scraping, painting, pasting images, and obscuring huge swathes of text. As Phillips ‘writes’ on the title page: “I have to hide to reveal”.
Unlike the Surrealists, and unlike anyone else working in 1966 when Phillips began the book, The Humument was not a one-off but something he wanted “to spend the rest of [his] life working on”, “sometimes mining, sometimes undermining” and constantly remaking. So the work is not one story but many, with 80 new pages in and a few alterations of the original 367 treated pages, Phillips explained to a packed basement at the Review, an independent bookshop in Peckham, southeast London.
It was a fitting location, close to the spot where the great-grandaddy of DIY bookmaking, William Blake, hallucinated a tree full of angels, and more recently close to the (now-defunct) antique shop where Phillips first came across the book he would transform into The Humument. The shop was Austin’s Furniture Repository, the price was a thruppence, another far cry from the present day, as Phillips pointed out that in 46 years using 15 copies of The Human Document in his art, Mallock’s original has “seriously appreciated in value” to around £100-£200.
If the celebratory launch of the 5th edition was a chance for Phillips to reflect in good company about what has changed in his life since 1966 (for instance, The Humument’s archive is now established at the Bodleian Library, Oxford), his selected readings from the new edition spoke to what has changed about life in general. For starters, the artist admitted that he has improved over time in cutting out words and sentences, shapes and shadows, from the book, a temperamental medium. The visual style has also evolved to include other interests on Phillip’s part, for instance his extensive postcard collections. Among the additions to the story, Bill Toge, the “forced” protagonist of the novel, “condemned to appear, to be apart of the story whenever the word ‘together’ or ‘altogether’ occurs”, experiences the horror of 9/11 (“nine eleven, the time singular, which broke down illusion”) and the rise of social media. This is the first edition of the book where it is possible for a character to check her facebook profile on an app to find pictures of Bill Toge. And never merely a source for commentary, Phillips has already adapted the late 19th century work to the times in big way: as of 2010, it was translated into an app for iPad - with an added feature allowing readers to use the book as an oracle, combining bibliomancy with social networks (you can post your results on Facebook and Twitter).
As an oracle for the future of artists’ books Phillip’s Humument brings tidings from a world where digital apps complement rather than replace the works they represent, and where repetition is always an enriching experience (“your weaknesses become your strengths,” Phillips noted when asked by a member of the audience why he was so repetitive). As Daniel Traister writes: “collage, a shaky assertion of stability, orders materials with no obvious or stable basis for their relationship into a framed composition”. What was true for Dadaists and Surrealists, and each edition of The Humument, is now one way of thinking about the relationship between books and their digital counterparts: they are the new components of collage, of making meaning, and of creating stable links between otherwise unstable media.
Reviewed by Bill Butts
The greatest fear of novice collectors is not being able to correctly identify a book’s edition. This can lead to costly mistakes or can cause you to pass up an underpriced bargain. The vast majority of noncollectors are under the impression that a first edition is identified by those two words on the copyright page. Sometimes this is indeed the case, often not. Pitfalls abound. Not only are there many methods of indicating edition, many of them cryptic, but publishers often switch from one method to another, apply them inconsistently or otherwise complicate matters to confound collectors.
Bill McBride’s A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions - the seventh, revised edition of a booklet first published in 1979 - is the remedy. This handy “cheat sheet” has been a mainstay of booksellers for three decades now. I’ve recommended the Pocket Guide to countless bibliophiles or wannabe bibliophiles. A hideous specimen held together with packing tape and good will has been within arm’s reach for more than twenty years, and I keep a copy in every car’s glove compartment.
McBride’s Pocket Guide is an A to Z listing of 5,835 English-language publishers current and former, from A & B Publishing through Zone Books. (According to McBride, that’s 2,193 more publishers listed than the 3,642 that appeared in the sixth edition - up 38% -- plus an additional 2,342 pieces of data.) A clever abbreviation system then shows each publisher’s method of noting edition. The abbreviation that follow every publisher’s name is explained in the key. Baylor University Press, for instance, uses “NAP,” meaning “no additional printings are indicated in the book.” Ross & Haines employ a straightforward “FE,” meaning “words FIRST EDITION must appear on back of title page with no additional printings indicated.” Rand, Avery & Co. favor “SD” - “same date must appear on title page and back of title page with no additional printings indicated.” A dozen other abbreviations are used, including the popular “N” (“a sequence of numbers... must appear on the back of the title page with the ‘1’ present”) and “L” (“a sequence of letters... must appear on the back of the title page with the ‘a’ present”) and the unfortunate “No designation” - yes, there are publishers for whom “no consistent way to determine one printing from another exists.” But despite these general rules, exceptions do abound, and the Pocket Guide spells out many of them. For instance, a new collector might know the number sequence system noted above, but not be aware that Random House employed it incorrectly. Their first editions always begin with the number “2,” which would usually indicate a second printing - so anyone not knowing this will misidentify a true Random House first edition as a second printing. Amateur Hour mistake.
This listing is prefaced by an eight-page introduction that crams in lots of condensed bookseller gems. Neophyte collectors overlook this at their own peril. There are thumbnail discussions on the distinction between edition, printing and impression, another on the often-misunderstood distinction between issue, state and point, a must-read section on identifying book club editions, and other tidbits of wisdom to shorten the learning curve. Read, study, and repeat.
As Bill McBride notes in his introduction, “The most useful tool in determining a first edition is an acute mind. This guide can take you only so far.” Oh so true, but without books such as the Pocket Guide providing concrete data that acute mind can really be stymied. And dealers need it just as much as collectors - more so, since they need to access this information far more frequently. Sure, any good dealer can normally identify most first editions without it, but this is a massive number of publishers, many of them obscure mom-and-pop presses rarely encountered. No one can memorize this mountain of minutiae.
A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions is certain to be the smallest reference book on your reference shelf and probably the one you’ll use the most. Any reference work that helps make better collectors gets a big thumbs up in my book!
--Bill Butts runs Main Street Fine Books & Manuscripts in Galena, IL.
McBride, Bill. A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions. Hartford: McBride/Publisher, 2012. 16mo. Softbound. 142pp. $18.95.
Briscoe’s fiction debut plays with the contemporary themes of the decline of reading, the death of the book, and increasing digitization in lieu of acquisition at research libraries. It is a breezy read for a summer afternoon, and for those of us in the trade -- librarians, booksellers, collectors -- you may well recognize yourself here, and smile.
The Ready Made from Amsterdam-based Next Architects is so called because it features a facade (leather, with gold tooling, no less) of one hundred classic books that one can gently press in and replace with real books. A cool idea, but perhaps best left to the couture crowd.
I couldn’t quite get on board with the Library Bath from Malin Lundmark--it’s an idea that is both so wrong and so right--but I did like the Book Case from Makeshift. Essentially it’s a suitcase with three shelves inside. Heavier than your e-reader, but a much more civilized way to travel with your library.
As for me, I received a new bookshelf for my birthday this past weekend. I had been interested in something small that would fit next to my desk and hold all of the books I’m currently working on for several different projects. I imagined a library book truck with style. What I got was this Eiffel revolving bookstand, which is quite perfectly suited to the task and handsome, too.
For collectors, there is an incredible sub-narrative to savor in this book -- around the mid-point of his life, I.N. Phelps Stokes became a manic collector of prints and maps of New York City. Trying to preserve the bucolic past of his youth, he bought everything he could get his hands on and spent his entire fortune doing so. Zimmerman writes of Stokes’ goal: “Collect every map, every view, every fact, every detail about Old New York. Research the city’s beginnings. Bind it all together in a book of exquisite quality.”
Which is what he did. Titled The Iconography of Manhattan Island, the massive, six-volume set was his life’s passion. In it are reproductions of everything Stokes could get his hands on, plus histories, chronologies; it took a team of researchers and more than a dozen years to complete. The edition was 402 copies, and those, Zimmerman tells us, are scarce (and expensive) today. (Christie’s sold an inscribed one last year for $5,625, a steal! They tend to go for double that retail, and even the reprint editions aren’t cheap.) She adds, “None of the classic or contemporary histories of New York could have been written without the Iconography as a source.”
Love, Fiercely is an engaging and erudite biography of this incredible couple and their passions. I heartily recommend it.
Malcolm’s Wine is a noir crime caper featuring “vintage wine, rare books, and sneaky people” from Philadelphia-based author-bookseller, Hugh Gilmore. I took this novel on vacation with me a few weeks ago and finished it in three days, leaving me bookless for the rest of the week. In the novel we meet Brian Berrew, a divorced bookseller living in Ann Arbor, and a bit of ladies man who is still grieving over the loss of his sixteen-year-old son. When his apartment is burgled on a night during which a local woman is murdered with a baseball bat, things get interesting. A host of quirky characters play a part in a zany drama involving a collection of stolen rare Americana. If you enjoy bibliomysteries, place your bet on Malcolm’s Wine.
Glaciers is slim debut novel by Portland, Oregon author Alexis M. Smith. It was the book’s cover that first sold me -- a dress made of cut-up text against a bright blue background -- and then I found that the main character works in a library doing book conservation and generally feeling a little out of place in her historical moment (Incidentally, this would have been a perfect description of yours truly about ten years ago). But there is so much more to story, layer upon layer that peels back like an onion, in language aptly described by Publishers Weekly as “lyrical and luminous.” Though Smith may choose less bookish characters or settings in her next novel, she’ll still be on my radar as one to read.
Girl Reading by English debut novelist Katie Ward is creative and clever -- the author bases each of the seven chapters on seven portraits of women reading, from a painting of an orphan reading a prayer book in medieval Siena to a modern woman photographed reading at a bar, her photo uploaded to Flickr. All are inventive stories, well-written, and surprising in their depth. One reviewer called Girl Reading “demanding,” and I would not disagree. With seven strong narratives to keep in mind--spanning the fourteenth century to the twenty-first--as well as their various subplots and tropes, a reader could feel overwhelmed. Then again, an abundance of intelligent literary fiction is nothing to complain about. (Read an excerpt here.)
Most people believe the book jacket to be a modern creation. Even the great Matthew Bruccoli got it wrong when he declared Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), to be the first American novel in a jacket. Tanselle believes that printed jackets were common as far back as the 1870s, but they were routinely discarded. Over the past forty years, he has located 1,888 examples of book jackets, stretching as far back as the proto-jackets/coverings of the 1820s. A color insert shows off a few of them, and a list of pre-1901 printed book jackets is printed in the second half of the book.
Jacket restoration? Nay! Tanselle writes, “A few prominent dealers have forgotten that the product they are selling is historical evidence, and they have violated collectors’ trust by supporting the alteration of that evidence (even when they have disclosed it).” And, “To condone the alteration of artifacts for cosmetic reasons is to rob collecting of meaning as a serious intellectual pursuit.”
Tanselle’s collection of nineteenth-century book jackets--the basis for much of the research presented in this book--will soon be placed at Yale’s Beinecke Library, where Tanselle’s collection of American imprints also resides.
To view the table of contents, an excerpt, or a slideshow, or to order the book, click here.
In the postscript, Bennett, formerly with Christie’s rare books department and more recently past president of the ABAA, writes that the working title of this book was “A Bibliographical Romance” -- less creative than the final title, taken from Austen’s Emma, but more descriptive. He goes on to say, “If I have tinkered a little with history, I have done my best not to tinker with bibliography...Every reference to books, authorship, texts, publisher’s imprints, and prices is, as far as I know, accurate.” It brings to mind the PBS slogan, “entertainment without the guilt.”
This year, I asked for ten titles, and ten I did receive. As you’ll see, books about books and literary fiction are my main genres. Some were recommended by others, some I learned about through reviews, and some are part of “collections” within my library.
It’s such a fresh idea, and each page is vivid and welcoming. You dive right into Frankie’s story, told in typewritten snippets, and page through reading both the text and the images. The tone is smart and sassy. It’s like reading an entire book of Anne Taintor.
The setting and the premise are interesting. It’s England in 1812, and young Lucy Derrick is almost without a friend in the world, and she’s being forced into marriage. That is until she learns how to cast magic spells from a neighbor who is--not to spoil the story--an otherworldly being. The Luddites are just beginning their uprising against industrialization, and Lucy gets swept up into an implausible good versus evil narrative in which she must save England from Luddites and the Undead by finding a magical book--“There is no book on earth so dangerous as the Mutus Liber. It secrets are devastating.” All the while Lucy, a strong heroine, must preserve her heart and her virtue from the rakish Lord Byron. He plays a major role in the novel, which at first seems promising, but rather quickly dissolves into thin fantasy. William Blake also pops into the narrative a few times.
The dealer Stanton shadows, Curt Avery (a pseudonym) is a brash character, extraordinarily impressive, if a little rough around the edges. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of antiques, learned in the trenches. Stanton picked well; Avery is great fun to listen to, and viewing the business through his eyes keeps the pace of the book brisk.
This slim catalogue was just published in an edition of five hundred to honor the gift of William J. McGill, who donated his collection of books and ephemera related to the British artist John Piper to the Watkinson Library at Trinity College. McGill’s essay about Piper and the collection explains why he--“I am not an art collector, but a book collector”--should be so interested in a British artist. By way of example, he discusses Brighton Aquatints, a folio of twelve etchings and aquatints, as well as Piper’s collaborations with poet John Betjeman. An annotated checklist of some two hundred items follows.
This production is an example of the continuing good work of Richard Ring, head curator and librarian of the Watkinson Library at Trinity College and author of The Bibliophile’s Lair blog (also a former FB&C book review editor!). In his introduction, Ring says he hopes the publication rallies students, that McGill’s collection and donation might be an “inspiring model.”
The twenty-four-page paperbound book can be purchased directly from Oak Knoll.
I found this bit of news wonderfully coincidental, as I have just finished reading The Art Detective: Adventures of an Antiques Roadshow Appraiser by Philip Mould (the paperback came out this past spring). Mould has a thoroughly enjoyable voice, and he wins over his readers time and again with tales of a forged Norman Rockwell, a Rembrandt in disguise, and a long-lost Gainsborough that he found misidentified at a Los Angeles auction. The zeal of collector Earle Newton--who hoarded an immense collection of masters in a Vermont church that Mould was called in to catalogue--is something we all recognize.
I learned much from this book about the process of “overpainting”--in which a later artist actually paints over the piece at hand to hide wear and tear, to remove offensive items, or merely to freshen it up--and how important and effective conservation treatments can be in finding the masterpiece underneath. Not to mention superb research skills, such as those employed by Mould and his colleague Bendor Grosvenor as they pieced together the amazing provenance of a Queen Elizabeth I portrait.
After all--as I myself have learned with my own minor (but thrilling) art “discovery” last year--art collectors aren’t so different from book collectors. We’re all in it for the chase, and we all love making a discovery.
The catalogue accompanies the Folger’s new exhibit, Fame, Fortune, and Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio (open though Sept. 3 of this year). As Folger Shakespeare Librarian Stephen Enniss writes in the foreword, the exhibit takes up where the 1991 folio exhibit left off and reminds us, “what this iconic book has meant to readers over the years.” Eighty-three First Folios are on exhibit (82 owned by the Folger, plus one private copy), “the most ever assembled in one place since their original dispersal from Jaggards’ print shop.”
Anthony James West, curator of the exhibit, provides a wonderful overview of the exhibit and the catalogue. He explains briefly what each essay covers -- one on the paper by Carter Hailey, one on bindings by Frank Mowery (with great images), one on type by Paul Werstine, one of the Droeshout Portrait of Shakespeare by Erin C. Blake and Kathleen Lynch. Steven Galbraith gives a brief history of the First Folio and the Folger Library -- one of the images that accompanies his essay shows the Folger’s First Folio vault, practical and yet amazing to behold. West offers an essay on Constantine Huygens’ copy of the FF, Steven Escar Smith covers the Shakespeare collections of William Evans Burton and Edwin Forrest, and Don Weingust looks at the FF as an actors’ text. If I had to choose a favorite essay, though, it would be Georgianna Ziegler’s essay on “Gentleman, Ladies, and Folios: The Lure of the Chase.” It details the relationships between Folio collectors, particularly between Mr. and Mrs. Folger, the Halliwell-Phillipps family, and the Burdett-Coutts family. The catalogue ends with an excellent glossary of early printing and Shakespearean terms (e.g., collation, King’s Men, vatman).
All together, this seems less like an exhibition catalogue than a 72-page, well-illustrated book of essays about the First Folio by the foremost experts in the field. The price is $24.95 at the Folger shop; I say take money out of thy purse for this one.
This new book is an account of a grisly New York murder at the tail end of the nineteenth century. A human torso is found floating in the East River, severed limbs in Harlem, and a mysterious bloody pool in Long Island -- and who’s piecing it all together but the newspapermen employed by Joseph Pulitzer (for the World) and William Randolph Hearst (for the Journal). The vile details of this murder mystery created the perfect storm for tabloid journalists, who, in many cases, worked harder and better at locating evidence and suspects than the police. Of course, they also plotted against each other, fighting for higher circulation.
Though a different case, Collins’ true crime tale is reminiscent of Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett. His publisher also makes an apt comparison to Larson’s Devil in the White City. Which is to say that this is a book that has been thoroughly researched and has solid history within, and yet it is far from a dry, scholarly tome. The rich cast of characters -- a married midwife murderess among them -- is better than one finds in fiction. Collins is a skillful writer, and his narrative zips the reader from beginning to end.
Murder of the Century will keep you up at night, borrowing time from tomorrow to read ten more pages. Look no further for a summer read that will entertain and educate in the way that only the best books can.
The decoupage “biographical bracelet” would be a great project for girls, and the “kindle keeper” (complete with library pocket) perfect for the bibliophile who enjoys his e-reader as well as old books. The illuminated switch plate looks simple enough for anyone to attempt and would make a neat accent to bookish decor.
Occhipinti is responsible about discussing the types of books she uses--bookstore remainders and unwanted ex-library books--and gives a brief overview of collectible books and how to avoid using a valuable book for an art project in chapter one, “Books, Tools & Techniques.” She acknowledges that “spotting rare and collectible books is an art form in and of itself, replete with loopholes and expert-only savvy,” and she offers some basic instruction. I have one minor criticism here. She suggests that, when in doubt, you consult your local librarian. No offense to any local librarian, but that’s a terrible idea; with very few exceptions, local public librarians have absolutely no training in rare books (and are far too busy with summer reading programs and reference queries). If you don’t have a knowledgeable bookseller nearby, a few good searches on Abebooks or Biblio might be preferable.
Occhipinti’s “repurposed” books are truly beautiful art objects, and whether or not you’re crafty enough to give them a try yourself, her book is thoroughly enjoyable.
To read more about Occhipinti, take a look at this Q&A from the New York Times.
The premise of the book is, at first, hard to swallow. It’s England, 1964, and Esther Hammerhans, a young library clerk at the House of Commons, has advertised for a boarder. What shows up on her doorstep is a big black dog who calls himself Mr. Chartwell. He walks, he talks, he drinks gin; little by little, Esther lets him in.
Winston Churchill enthusiasts will understand the ‘black dog’ reference, as the great man once characterized his depression as such. Indeed the 89-year-old Churchill plays a prominent role in the novel, and it is in portraying the struggle and desperation of these two characters--Winston and Esther--that Hunt is at her best. She certainly takes risks with this novel, which she pulls off for the most part. Her agility with language is impressive, and Mr. Chartwell can be a very satisfying read for those willing to play along.
Published first in the UK, Mr. Chartwell was praised as “daring,” “quirky,” “original, tender, and funny,” by the national papers. Here, reviews seemed mixed. Publishers Weekly found it “very original” and “clever,” while Tadzio Koelb for the New York Times Book Review thought it “strained.”
Judge for yourself. To read an excerpt published by the New York Times earlier this month, go here.
The text, of course, can be had anywhere. What this edition offers is seventy-two gorgeous photographs, taken over the past twelve years. Flora, fauna, landscape -- the same panoramas that Muir himself viewed. What’s more, several pages from Muir’s “Sierra Journal” manuscript (the original of which is housed at the Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library) are reproduced herein; he had lovely handwriting, certainly neater than Thoreau’s scrawl. Several of Muir’s sketches are also seen here for the first time in print.
Miller, has been involved in three other photobooks of this nature (no pun intended): Walden: 150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition of the American Classic, Cape Cod: Illustrated Edition of the American Classic, and First Light: Five Photographers Explore Yosemite’s Wilderness. He and his wife own and operate Sun to Moon Gallery, a fine arts gallery in Dallas, Texas. He will be doing several book-related presentations and signings, particularly in California and Texas, from now until the book’s formal centennial in June.
Visit the book’s website to read more, see some of the stunning photography (limited edition prints are also available for sale), and/or watch a book trailer.
And from this massive collection comes one of the most ambitious THNOC projects, Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835.
Inside the graceful pages of Stealing Magnolias: Tales from a New Orleans Courtyard, Debra
Shriver shares her love affair for New
Orleans and her French Quarter home. The poetic
journey captures the city’s lusty European flair with the whimsical memories of Mardi Gras, the deep-seated traditions of Southern ambitions, and the grand pursuits of dining and imbibing.
I have decided to start the new year off with a few books that came to my attention a bit too late to make my holiday roundups, but which are eminently worthy of notice all the same. Think of each one as a little present for yourself; you won’t be disappointed.
So you didn’t get a pony for Christmas, too bad, but you can still treat yourself to what is easily the most magnificent art book devoted to the horse that I have ever seen, and the best part is you don’t have to feed it or clean out its stall. Arguably the most beautiful animal in nature, the horse has inspired creative expression for many centuries, with magnificent examples in a multitude of media to be found in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, the sands of Mesopotamia, and depicted over the generations by cultures as varied as Babylonian, Scythian, Chinese, Greek, and Roman. First published in France in 2008, this remarkable book, newly translated and issued in a lovely boxed edition, pays homage to the horse in all its glory, with more than 300 color illustrations and thirteen learned essays to make the case. The horse, John Louis Gourand writes, is “undoubtedly the most frequently represented living being in art after man himself, from the very earliest of times.” Abbeville Press lives up to its well-earned reputation for producing art books in the grand tradition; the illustrations are superbly chosen, and vividly reproduced.
George Washington’s America: A Biography Through Maps, by Barnet Schecter; Walker, 304 pages, $67.50.
Known most famously, of course, as hero of the Revolution and first President of the United States, George Washington also worked as a surveyor early in his life, and had a lifelong relationship with maps. At his death, many of the charts he had owned and used were bound into an atlas that eventually made its way to the Map Collection of Sterling Library at Yale University, a corpus that provides the framework for this most interesting examination. In addition to the maps he purchased, Washington drew a number of his own that have survived. “These visual images,” historian Robert Schecter writes, “place us at the scene of his youthful ambition and his later battles--in the landscapes and on the waterways that were the theater of war in Britain’s North American colonies, and that sparked the imagination and desires of the preeminent founder of the United States.” Once independence was secured, the maps helped shape Washington’s “vision of America as ‘a rising empire in the New World.’”
The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson; Yale University Press, 1,561 pages, $65.
First published in 1995, this wonderful, one-volume encyclopedia about the city that never sleeps was one of the most successful books in the long history of the Yale University Press, prompting the preparation of this completely updated effort. The World Trade Center no longer anchors the Manhattan skyline, to cite just one major change, and Bernie Madoff was not a household name back then. The E-Z pass hadn’t been invented yet either, and the New York Giants hadn’t shocked the New England Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl. These are just a few of the 800 entries to be added to the mix, bringing the total to 5,000. Each is written by an acknowledged authority, be it in sports, entertainment, finance, architecture, or art, and each is a delightful little essay in its own right about every manner of New York person, place, institution, and curiosity, spanning pre-history to the present, and covering all five boroughs.This is one of my very favorite reference books, all spiffed up, and relevant as ever.
For collectors, there is an interesting backstory to the book. Every holiday season since 1993, Penzler has commissioned an original short story from a leading mystery writer. The only directive: some of the action in the story must take place in the Mysterious Bookshop. Penzler printed each story in pamphlet form, limited to 1,000 copies, and mailed them out as gifts to customers. A hot ticket for mystery collectors today! All of these tales are collected in this volume.
And if you are simply dying for a signed edition, there’s a holiday party this Thursday (Dec. 9th) at the Mysterious Bookshop (now located downtown at 58 Warren St.) at which Penzler and many of the authors in this anthology will be present to autograph copies.
One of America’s truly great storytellers, the incomparable Pat Conroy, is also a determined bibliophile--indeed one of the first signings of this delightful paean to reading was held last week at the Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville, NC--so it is no big surprise that he has written a number of essays over the years about his particular passion for books and authors. The fifteen pieces gathered here form a whole of Conroy’s reading life thus far, and are a joy to pick up at any point. “Books are living things, and their task lies in their vows of silence,” he writes in one chapter that will be of particular interest to collectors, his association with the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta. (He admits to having bought up to five thousand books there.) “I could build a castle from the words I steal from books I cherish,” he writes in a tribute to the librarians of his early childhood. Everything this man of the South writes, he writes from the heart. The bookish drawings by Wendell Minor that garnish these lovely ruminations are a pleasant plus to one of the outstanding books about books of the season.
The black and white jazz photographs of Herman Leonard, shot during the 1940s and ’50s have become the stuff of legend. Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clark, Stan Getz, Modern Jazz Quartet--they’re all here in this definitive collection, a veritable feast of musical images. “He was a master of jazz,” music historian K. Heather Pinson wrote earlier this year on the occasion of Leonard’s death at the age of 87, “except his instrument was a camera.”
Give Joseph Ellis all the credit in the world for committing his considerable skills to a fresh evaluation of the correspondence exchanged between John and Abigail Adams over the course of their marriage during what we can all agree were eventful times, and for demonstrating how the 1,200 surviving letters of theirs constitute “a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history.” David McCullough made full use of these same letters in his magisterial biography of John Adams a decade ago, though the canvas there was monumental. Here, it is focused strictly on the remarkable relationship as revealed through the letters. The writing, of course, is superb, as always, and a joy to engage.
Collectors of Americana know Robert Morris as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and covet examples of his autograph accordingly, but chances are that few know much about the Philadelphia entrepreneur’s role in the founding of the Republic. According to historian Charles Rappleye, Morris was unsurpassed in his efforts to fund the rebellion; after the war, he served in the Continental Congress and United States Senate, and was the first Superintendent of Finance, or treasury secretary. His methods were not always above reproach, however, and a dramatic downfall led to a resounding fall from grace. All in all a ripe prospect for a modern biography, which Morris gets in this thorough examination of his life.
Dual biographies can be problematic undertakings, but Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, both respected historians and the authors separately of other books on early America, have combined here to produce a most readable account of a fifty-year friendship, perhaps one of the most consequential acquaintances in American history. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Virginians who each served as President of the United States, we all know that, but their relationship, as profiled here, was as much symbiosis as it was mentor-protégé. Burstein and Isenberg had made a significant contribution to the literature of our Founding Fathers.
You could almost regard this huge biography as a bookend to the Morris volume cited above in that it looks at a significant player in American history who pretty much excelled away from the spotlight, in this case as Chief of Staff during World War II to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the consummate military man, Ike was legendary for delegating authority to key officers, and the aide who rode herd on all of them was Walter Bedell Smith. In 1950, Smith was Harry Truman’s choice to head the CIA in 1950; three years later, his former boss, by then president, named him Undersecretary of State, in which capacity he oversaw the partitioning of Vietnam into two nations, and implemented a plan for a coup d’etat in Guatemala. This is the first biography of his life, one long overdue.
No big surprise that Jessica Kerwin, writer for Vogue, thanks “legions of librarians” in the acknowledgments she appends to this charmingly eclectic compendium, given the wealth of arcania on subjects ranging from the balloon adventures of the Montgolfier Brothers in the eighteenth century, to the history of women’s lingerie, to the tradition of dining outdoors known as alfresco. It is, in short, an encyclopedia of very interesting things, and the documentation is impressive. The writing is elegant, the style accessible; altogether a fun book.
Venice: Pure City, by Peter Ackroyd; Nan Talese/Doubleday, 403 pages, $37.50. Writing about the life of a city as if it were a living, breathing organism is a specialty of the estimable English writer Peter Ackroyd, his “London: The Biography” of a few years back being an exemplar of the form; with “Venice: Pure City,” he offers a worthy companion. As a place seemingly set apart from the rest of Italy--Venice is a cluster of islands in a lagoon, really--the city’s insularity has given it a degree of independence. “The Italians do not really think of Venice at all,” Ackroyd writes, “it belongs to some other realm of fancy or of artifice.” His blend of detail and atmosphere is always in perfect balance, his narrative skill apparent in every chapter.
I was lucky enough to receive a galley of the book, and I so thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Anne takes us to Whitman’s house in dilapidated Camden, NJ; to the slick shrine to Hemingway in Key West, FL; to the ‘boyhood home’ of Mark Twain in Hannibal, MO. At each stop, she takes a good look around and tries to separate fact from fiction, writer from building. It’s a travelogue combined with literary history, written with humor and humanity.
If you’ve been reading along with me for the past year, you may remember that I’m a big fan of Thoreau. I’ve made the “literary pilgrimage” to Walden Pond maybe eight or ten times, even brought my then one year old on a tour of the Emerson House on one of the trips. Bad idea. In one of the chapters in A Skeptic’s Guide, Anne goes to Concord--former home to so many literary luminaries--and finds herself “preternaturally anti-Concordian.” I laughed at this, as I can completely understand how odd our strange devotions to these writers’ haunts can be, and yet I can’t help but associate that feeling with the desire to buy first editions. I suppose I’m hoping to see or experience something the way that author saw it, something very personal, like the view from her library window, his hat hanging on the hook by the door, or the first edition of his first book, if only for a moment.
I am delighted to report the publication of two books that I have been eager for some time to see appear between hard covers, having had the opportunity to know a bit about them beforehand, and to have had communication with each of the authors as they were works-in-progress. Happily, they are everything I expected they would be, gracefully written in both instances, wisely reasoned, and a genuine pleasure to read.
Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers; Harper, 267 pages, $24.99.
A former staff writer and media critic for the Washington Post, William Powers
has written extensively on every manner of communications technology, developing the premise of this book--and coming up with the splendid title--while a Fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press in 2006. Powers is exceedingly savvy when it comes to navigating his way about the digital world, and while he is not about to abandon its wondrous applications in any way, shape, or form, he has chosen to step back a bit, take a deep breath, and pay attention to the wisdom of our cultural forebears. “The interior struggle” of “information overload,” he writes--the phrase was presciently coined in the 1970s by Alvin Toffler--“is having a dramatic impact in our personal and family relationships.” Constant connectivity with the entire world--text messages, cellphones, video streams--leads him to ask the fundamental question: “What is the point anyway?” This is neither a preachy polemic nor a boring diatribe, and while he calls on Plato, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and others for guidance, he does so with style, humility and elan. “Every space is what you make it,” he concludes. “But in the end, building a good life isn’t about where you are. It’s about how you decide to think and live. Place your index finger on your temple and tap twice. It’s all in there.” Links to various reviews and broadcast interviews are available on Powers’ website.
The Groaning Shelf and Other Instances of Book Love, by Pradeep Sebastian; Hachette India, 295 pages, 12.99 GBP ($20 US).
A well-known literary columnist in India whose many pieces for major publications are available on the Internet, Pradeep Sebastian has entered the books about books genre in impressive fashion, with a very nice collection of his erudite pieces on a striking variety of subjects, many of them previously published in different form, though a few--including a generous profile of yours truly he calls “The Collector of Collectors”--appearing here for the first time. How can a reader of the Fine Books blog not be simpatico with someone who makes this admission: “Holding a book but not actually reading it gave me time (and put me in the mood) to reflect on the act of reading and the physicality of the book; the book as material object.” Or someone whose favorite Sunday afternoon ritual is take volumes off his groaning shelves and rearrange them in a new order? “Should I abandon the by-author arrangement and categorize them by subject matter?” Very heavy concerns, indeed. The book has just been released by the India division of Hachette, parent company of Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt. It should be available in U.S. outlets shortly; for now it can be ordered through Amazon.UK.
Impressions of Nature is a beautiful book, brimming with full-color illustrations. Cave impressively relays the early history of nature printing, its spread through Europe, the work of major printers, and its applications in photography and graphic design. There seems to be something for everyone in this splendid volume.
Taking this opportunity to chat with Richard about something aside from rare books and deadlines, I asked him about creating this memoir and about his life in New York City.
Nicholas Basbanes was literary editor of the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram & Gazette from 1978-1991, in which capacity he was able to interview hundreds of authors whose publicity tours took them through the city of Boston. In “About the Author: Inside the Creative Process”, Basbanes draws upon his conversations with an immense diversity of literary greats ranging from Alfred Kazin, Arthur Miller, John Updike, and Toni Morrison, to Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Simon and Alice Walker, to explore the motivations and processes that authors experience and utilize to create their novels, poetry, histories, and other literary works. A fascinating read from beginning to end, this 246-page compendium is as informed and informative as it is insightful and inspiring. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, “About the Author: Inside the Creative Process” is highly recommended reading and a seminal work for both academic and community library Literary Studies reference collections.
Well-done, Nick! About the Author is available in both a trade edition and a signed limited edition in the FB store.
This book is the first publication in honor of AAS’s 2012 bicentennial. It can be purchased online at AAS or through Oak Knoll Books.
The minute I read that profile, Woodsburner went on my wish list. A few weeks later, that wish came true, and yet the book sat on my bedside table until I could find the time to read it. It’s a lovely novel. Supporting Thoreau is a full, intriguing ensemble cast of nineteenth-century characters, including, as Chris pointed out in his article, a Boston bookseller who dabbles in pornography and an illiterate book collector, who tucks away some of the great first editions of the time period on her single bookshelf.
Kirkus Reviews called the novel “Pulitzer Prize material” (though this year’s Pulitzer for fiction went to Paul Harding’s Tinkers, also now on my wish list). Indeed, this is the kind of novel that seems rare these days. I don’t often post book reviews here, but if you enjoy historical fiction or literary fiction, take a chance on this one.
“Publishing people are fascinating, interesting, occasionally horrifying and astounding. This book shows that their contribution to twentieth century British history and intellectual life was enormous and my research has forced reassessments of people like Robert Maxwell and Allen Lane as well as re-introducing many lesser-known individuals whose roles were important in shaping what we read.”
The pub details: Book Makers: British Publishing in the Twentieth Century by Iain Stevenson, Hardback, 336 pages, 244 x 172 mm, £25.00. It can be purchased from the British Library Shop (tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7735 / e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) and online as well as other bookshops throughout the UK.
Another just-issued title will be of particular interest to Francophiles -- it’s a new English-French, French-English glossary of terms by Roland Herrmann. From the press release: “More complete, more precise, more realistic than anything that exists so far, it contains approx. 1300 entries each way. A handy and elegant volume, it will prove of considerable help in your understanding and/or drafting of book descriptions.”
Available at: Librairie de l’Amateur, Strasbourg (France), or e-mail: email@example.com. Price 23 € plus postage.
An exhibit of vintage posters from his collection will be on view at the Furman Gallery at Walter Reade Theater through March 9.
Below, Resnick’s book signing at Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan, last month.
Hamilton’s title piece took irreverent note of the fact that Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798) spent the final years of his eventful life as a librarian in the household of Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein of Bohemia, and it was in that dreary castle that he took pen to paper and wrote Histoire de ma vie, the racy memoirs for which he became famous, and which an anonymous benefactor acquired on behalf of the French National Library (BNF). Though the actual purchase price was not disclosed, the figure was widely reported to be five million euros, about $9 million, which, if correct, would qualify it as the costliest manuscript transaction on record. The papers--comprising 3,700 pages of yellowing sheets--were transfered Monday to the BNF in thirteen boxes, and represent the complete, uncensored account of Casanova’s amorous adventures. The material had been owned since 1821 by the Brauckhuas publishing company in Germany, and was once thought to have been destroyed in World War II; it was later found safely stored in a bank vault.
For those truly interested in the role of librarians, especially those coping with so many seismic changes brought on by the twenty-first century, I heartily recommend a new release from HarperCollins, This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, $24.99, by Marilyn Johnson. A staff writer for Life magazine. Johnson says that she first became interested in the subject while doing research for her first book, a well received examination of obituaries wryly titled The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. “With the exception of a few showy eccentrics, like the former solder in Hitler’s army who had a sex change and took up professional whistling, the most engaging obit subjects were librarians.”
Before long she was fully involved in the world of these wonderful professionals whose sole goal in life, it seems, is to provide knowledge and information to others. Johnson’s coinage of the word “cybarian” takes note of the changing nature of the business, and of the many ways the people she proceeded to spend so much time with have adapted to the new technologies. She describes the modern librarian as a person whose job is to “create order out of the confusion of the past, even as she enables us to blast into the future.”
The result is a most enthusiastic book that is great fun to read (and one which, I feel bound to disclose, makes generous mention of several books that I have written.) Its greatest contribution, I think, is that it pays tribute to an essential public service that so many government officials blithely feel can be cut at will during budgetary crises, reductions made especially easy for them to impose since these temples of wisdom have no well-heeled lobbyists throwing corporate money around to champion their cause. The epigraph to one of Johnson’s chapters says it best: “In tough times, a librarian is a terrible thing to waste.”
Since the press releases cannot radiate immodest praise, I will step in and radiate some myself. Wow! The book is a triumph. The Gazette’s weak points were a lack of cohesion and fairly modest production quality; it had a limited appeal to anyone without serious devotion to the Yale Library. This certainly cannot be said for the new series, judging by this volume. Robert A.M. Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, contributes the main essay, a superb overall history of the Yale Library’s buildings. Other essays focus on particular libraries or renovation projects, all thoroughly researched, extensively color-illustrated, and footnoted. They seem less like a collection of journal articles than a unified history, and the finished product comes as close to being a page-turner as any collection of academic essays I’ve read.
The Yale Library is fortunate to serve both as a world-class research library and as a series of welcoming, bookish spaces that continue to encourage students. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who has ever enjoyed the YUL in either capacity, or to anyone interested in the history of library architecture writ large. Having read this all too quickly in one sitting, I will be eagerly awaiting the 2010 volume of Yale Library Studies, as I imagine many will. Unlike the Gazette, this is a series people will want to collect.
But a friend of mine was kind enough to share his copy with me. (Thank you, Gary!)
In it, 57 authors of world-renown are asked to write about some of their favorite reading experiences of the preceding year. Among the 57 writers this year were Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Nadine Gordimer, Seamus Heaney, etc. Opening this annual issue is akin to a circus car arriving in your mailbox that opens up and, instead of clowns, deposits some of the greatest writers into your living room all in a tumble where they proceed to hold a grand salon.
A consistent theme runs through many of the entries: everyone seems a bit pea-green with envy over Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. They complain about its intelligence, the hype, about the Man Booker Prize - but everyone eventually manages to get over themselves and it seems to have been cited most often by this august group of 57, who have the good manners to refrain from wishing they’d written it themselves.
Another favorite seems to be The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940. (There are three more volumes to come.)
Julian Barnes devotes his two paragraphs to a gracious salute to John Updike, who died in 2009. Barnes feels that Updike’s final works, My Father’s Tears and Endpoint were grotesquely misunderstood. “Death afforded him no courtesy, and the stories received several reviews of impudent stupidity.” He reminds us all of Updike’s Herculean contribution to letters by noting that Everyman has published Updike’s final reworking of the Rabbit quartet as Rabbit Angstrom and calls it “the greatest American novel of the second half of the twentieth century.
Reading the TLS Books of the Year edition is not for the faint of heart, because whatever books you’ve read this year suddenly seem like Miss Piggly Wiggly.
Marjorie Perloff would like you to try out a 700-page bilingual edition of The Poetry of Rilke, translated by Edward Snow. David Wooten urges you to pick up the 13 lb. (yes, 13 lb.) The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. Also be prepared to thank Michael Hofman for suggesting a novel from 1970 (Metropole), which has just been translated into English from the Finnish.
The TLS year-end summary may be the most satisfying and the most challenging of the “Best Books of the Year” genre. It will inspire you to stretch your reading habits; to read harder. It’s the literary equivalent of feeling compelled to go to the gym. I am perfectly willing to have these 57 writers serve as my personal coaches. I look so much better sitting on a sofa than I do on the treadmill.
Elizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall, 1540-1640, by Mark Girouard; New Haven, Yale University Press, 516 pages, $65.
Mark Girouard is internationally admired for several accessible books on architecture, most famously the best-seller Live in the English Country House. This latest effort of his has all the makings of monumentally about it--a grand subject, handled by an acknowledged authority in the field, and published sumptuously in a beautiful edition. The many considerations take in social structure, craftsmanship, patronage, continental influence, and of course execution. This copiously illustrated production is published in conjunction with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965, by Sam Stephenson; Alfred A. Knopf, 268 pages, $40.
The New York jazz scene that burst forth in a constellation of brilliance in the 1950s and ’60s, with such names as Miles Davis, Theolonius Monk, Johnny Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, and Bill Evans, is at the heart of this rich selection of material culled from the archive of the photographer W. Eugene Smith, who spent eight years documenting the rich culture, exposing 1,447 rolls of film comprising some 40,000 images, in the process. His base of operations was 821 Sixth Avenue, in the heart of the flower district. Sam Stephenson spent thirteen years going through the archive, now housed at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
Classic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame: A Celebration of the Greatest Toys of All Time, by Scott G. Eberle; Philadelphia, Running Press, 264 pages, $29.95.
What kind of great stuff is in the National Toy Hall of Fame--yes, Virginia, there is such a creature, happily installed in the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York--is the subject of this evocative treat. G. I Joe, the Hula Hoop, the Radio Flyer, Barbie dolls, Crayola crayons and Monopoly games, of course, but Erector sets, Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, and Jumbo Jacks as well, quite a feast here for the young at heart. A nice text puts it all in context; a very useful reference for toy collectors, needless to say.
The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley, and Karen van Dyck; New York, W. W. Norton, 692 pages, $39.95.
A rich canon of Greek poetry, epic, drama, and lyric--even some few precious lines that survive only in fragments--are gathered in this fat anthology of 1,000 poems that spans the centuries, many of them newly translated, and appearing in English for the first time. Four eras are defined: Classical Antiquiry, Byzantium, Early Modern, and Twentieth Century. Some 186 artists in all, Homer, Sappho, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides at one extreme, Nikos Gatsos, Odysseus Elytis, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis at another. Quite a bounty.
China, principal photography by Ming Tan, edited by Guang Guo; New York, Abbeville Press, 244 pages, slipcased with a numbered print, $235.
Of all the books you might pick up showcasing the natural wonders and architectural landmarks of China, you will be hard pressed to top this truly panoramic effort, which really has pulled out all the stops in pursuit of elegance. Yes, the book is enormous--12 pounds, 18 inches by 12 inches, with a dozen gatefold spreads that open up to 44 inches, almost four feet in width, and is justified by the subject matter--the Himalayas, the Great Wall, the terracotta army of the First Qin Emperor among them. It is an amazing piece of bookmaking, not many of examples of which you are likely to see these days. The photography is crisp and beautifully reproduced, a generous gift for anyone whose passion is the history and culture of the Middle Kingdom.
The Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica of Rome, by Pavl Letarovilly; New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 320 pages, $125.
First published posthumously in three volumes in 1882, this remarkable suite of intricate architectural drawings of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica was executed by Paul-Marie Letarovilly (1795-1855), “an acute, opinionated architect and a superb draftsman who devoted most of his professional life to a single massive enterprise: drawing and publishing the architecture of Rome from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries,” Ingrid Rowland writes in the forward to this elegant new facsimile edition; it is published in conjunction with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, and the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame.
And while we’re at it:
Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, by Christopher Andrew; Alfred A. Knopf, 1,032 pages, $40.
This is my kind of book--big, fat, packed with fascinating detail on an irresistible subject, in this instance the 100-year history of the British Security Service, better known as MI5, which opened its archives to the scrutiny of an independent historian. I won’t pretend I’ve read the whole thing yet--it just came in a couple days ago--but what I have dipped into so far, I have devoured. Christeopher Andrew, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Cambridge University, is the author of 14 previous books, including two volumes of The Mitrokhin Archive. “The Service,” he writes in the preface here, “like the rest of the intelligence community, was to stay as far from public view as possible.” This little bit of sunshine should open a lot of eyes.
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, by Gordon S. Wood; New York, Oxford University Press, 778 pages, $35.
Gordon S. Wood, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, here offers a painstaking account of the United States of America during its first quarter-century, a continuum that takes in the formation of the Republic and the beginning of nationhood under the Constitution, and follows through to the War of 1812. It is a period, as David M. Kennedy, general editor of the Oxford History of the United States--of which this is the latest installment (three earlier titles in the series have also won Putlizers)--was an “astonishingly volatile, protean movement that lay between the achievement of national independence and the emergence of a swiftly maturing mass democracy and modern economy in the Jacksonian era.” Wood’s approach takes in politics, law, the economy and popular culture, and anticipates the great battle that will divide the country by the middle of the nineteenth century. One ominous note at book’s end is the realization that despite Northern opposition, slavery was stronger in 1815 than it had been in 1789. Wood’s effort--30 years in the making--has all the earmarks of being a standard work.
The American Civil War: A Military History, by John Keegan; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 396 pages,$35.
In more than twenty books over the past half-century, the British scholar John Keegan has established himself as the outstanding military historian of his generation, with several of his works, most notably The Face of Battle, The Second World War, The Mask of Command, The Price of Admiralty and A History of Warfare, acclaimed as classics in their own time. In his last book, Keegan offered a cogent analysis of the Iraq War; now, he applies his outstanding grasp on the nature of human conflict to offer a fresh evaluation of the American Civil War. He opens thusly: “I began an earlier book with the sentence ‘The First World War was a cruel and unnecessary war.’ The American Civil War, with which it stands comparison, was also certainly cruel, both in the suffering it inflicted on the participants and the anguish it caused to the bereaved at home. But it was not unnecessary.” Among the numerous areas he explores are psychology, ideology, and demographics, but most tellingly, the role of geography in the unfolding course of the war. One of the more astonishing findings: “about 10,000 battles, large and small, were fought in the United States between 1861 and 1865. This enormous number of battles, seven for every day the war lasted, provides the principal key to the nature of the war. Americans fought as frequently as they did in the Civil War because they could find no other way to prosecute the conflict. Economic warfare, excepting blockage, was not an option.”
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein; New York, W. W. Norton, 598 pages, $29.95.
A great deal has been written about the long national nightmare of the Great Depression, with numerous interpretations offered as to its causes, concerns made especially relevant by the recent downturn in the economy that has had many people recalling the bad old days. But none, to my knowledge, have taken on the subject in a true cultural sense--the films, the novels, the architecture, the music, the photography, the penetrating images that continue to resonate of those dark days. Morris Dickstein, professor of English and theater at CUNY Graduate Center in New York and author previously of Gates of Eden and Leopards in the Temple has fashioned a remarkable narrative of the times that is a model of interdisciplinary technique, and a true joy to read. The Empire State Building, Citizen Kane, the Yellow Brick Road, Scarlett O’Hara, the Rockettes, the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, James Agee, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Richard Wright, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas--it all fits in, and is all handled seamlessly. Dip into this, and you will quickly appreciate why Norman Mailer called Dickstein “one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature.”
The Red Flag: A History of Communism, by David Priestland; New York, Grove Press, 676 pages, $30.
The official publication date for this big book is Nov. 9, the twentieth anniversary of when the Berlin Wall began to come down, the first vital sign that the twentieth century’s thunderous experience with Communism was entering its final stages. David Priestland, a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University, offers a sweeping overview of the phenomenon, tracing its roots to the French Revolution, and carrying it forward into its continuing applications today in China, Cuba, and Korea. All the big names are here--Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara--and many others who are lesser known, but just as compelling. Drawing generously on the wealth of archival materials that have become available in recent years, he is able to offer fresh insights that do not rely entirely on the published works of others. Just as important, he writes in a lively, accessible style that never loses sight of the continuing drama. A massive, admirable effort.
The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, translated by John Marincola, edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York, Pantheon, 579 pages, $40.
This new translation of the ancient historian Xenophon’s Hellenika joins earlier editions in the Landmark series of Greek histories by Thucydides and Herodotus, and includes a fabulous selection of maps, annotations, photographs, illustrations and sixteen appendices written by notable classical scholars. This work covers the years between 411 and 362 B.C., a time when relations between Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Persia were extremely volatile. A student of Socrates, Xenophon was an Athenian who first served in the expedition against the Persian King Artaxerxes II, and later joined the Spartan army.
Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness, by Tracy Kidder; Random House, New York, 277 pages, $26.
Tracy Kidder has to be ranked among the best writers of literary nonfiction out there, one of the few authors who you can pretty much say, time after time, is not going to disappoint you with his latest effort. No surprise, then, to report that this, his eighth book, may well be his best--which is saying quite a bit, when you consider that his earlier efforts have included The Soul of New Machine, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Home Town, and Old Friends, and that his honors include the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Robert F. Kennedy Award. The story can be summarized briefly--a young man comes to New York from Burundi in 1994 with $200 in his pocket, a survivor of the horrific civil wars that have decimated his country, no English-speaking skills at all, but filled with hope and grit. Two years later, he enrolls in Columbia University without so much as a green card to his name, his story not only one of survival and hope, but one of tenacity, decency and good will that will lead him on to medical school and a life filled with purpose. It’s a great tale, of course, and Kidder is one terrific reporter.
The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc, by Larissa Juliet Taylor; New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 251 pages, $30.
As historical figures go, I can think of no other individual who has achieved the kind of iconic stature accorded in death to Joan of Arc (1412-1431), the peasant girl from Domremy variously cast as saint, sorcerer, soldier, lunatic, witch, gifted leader, and martyr in the seven centuries that have elapsed since her execution by the English, and her subsequent passage into sainthood. Larissa Juliet Taylor, a history professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has written a splendid biography of the young woman that takes a fresh look at the original sources--which survive in abundance--and presents a full, rich examination of the person and the many myths that grew around her. Just as interesting is the informed look Taylor offers into medieval life.
The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker; New York, Simon & Schuster, 243 pages, $25.
I was planning on taking this one along with me on a flight I’m making tomorrow out to Columbus, Ohio--I’m speaking at a meeting of the Ohio Preservation Council on Thursday, and will file a report here in due course--but wound up getting absorbed in it beforehand, and read it straight through. So it goes. What impresses me most about Nicholson Baker, I think, is the easy facility he has for going back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, sort of the way David Halberstam used to do one big work of cultural history, then treat himself to a change of pace with a book about sports. I don’t know which form is more relaxing for Baker, though I would suspect it is the novel. His latest here is a fun book, especially for those among us who are fascinated by the creative process. Baker’s narrator is a middle-aged poet named Paul Chowder who is trying like the dickens to write an introduction to a new anthology of poetry--rhyming poetry, no less--and finds himself blocked. The ruminations are witty, as always, a delight to read, and the celebration it offers of poetry most welcome. The voice is spot on here, vintage Baker.
Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems, a new selection edited by John N. Serio. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 326 pages, $30.
With this volume we go from a novel that considers the creation of poetry to an actual poet who not only excelled at the craft, but tried his level best to explain it to others. “No other poet I know of has written so elegantly and so persuasively about the beauty and significance of poetry in everyday life,” writes John N. Serio, a noted scholar of the great American poet, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). “The imagination--frequently synonymous with the act of the mind, or poetry, for Stevens--is what gives life its savor, its sanction, its sacred quality.” This generous selection of the Reading, Pennsylvania, native’s work--published to mark the 130th anniversary of his birth--will delight those familiar with his work, and encourage newcomers to thirst for more. Kudos to the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for its commitment to publishing great poetry in beautiful, superbly edited editions.
The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, by Janet Soskice; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 316 pages, $27.95.
This meticulously researched effort takes what for decades has been an intriguing footnote in the history of textual serendipity, and gives it the full examination it so richly deserves. Janet Soskice, a professor in philosophical theology at Cambridge University, tells the story of Agnes and Margaret Smith, identical twin sisters from Scotland, and their discovery in 1892 at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt of what was then the earliest known copy of the Gospels--it was a palimpsest that had escaped earlier detection--and how against all accepted convention for two women in Victorian times without university degrees, translated the document from Syriac into English, and secured for themselves a place in the history of biblical scholarship. The story of their spirited adventure on camelback to Mount Sinai where the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery is located makes for an exciting adventure, which Soskice accomplishes with style and aplomb. I am reminded, in this effort, of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, in which a theretofore ignored interlude in literary history (in that instance an institutionalized killer’s manifold contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary), became a breakthrough bestseller. All in all, this is a welcome addition to the books-about-books bookshelf.
The F Word, edited by Jesse Sheidlower, foreword by Lewis Black; New York, Oxford University Press, 270 pages, $16.95.
This release is a real challenge to write about in a public forum, but I’m going to give it my best shot because I rather like it, number one, and because the word in question--no ambiguity at all, by the way, about which word we are talking about--is an integral part of our language, and one of the very few I know of that works variously as a noun, verb, adverb, and adjective. (Feel free, please, to use your imagination.) That a compilation like this should come from such a distinguished publishing house as Oxford University Press gives me all the cover I need; that it should now be in its third revised edition, moreover, makes it all the more irresistible. So what, you might ask, is there to learn from this compendium? The word’s etymology, for starters--no, it’s not an acronym, it’s far to old a coinage for that, with roots going back to the fifteenth century, Germany being the likely origin, though the precise progenitor is vague at best. That master wordsmith of all time, William Shakespeare, never used it--the word was decidedly vulgar, even then--though there are numerous allusions and puns in the canon that leave no doubt about what the old rascal had in mind. All in all, this is a scholarly work, though unquestionably with a light tough, and includes dozens of definitions presented in traditional OED style, with illustrative quotations drawn from myriad published sources. Jesse Sheildlower’s introductory essay is a superb overview of this truly phenomenal word.
Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution, by Iain McCalman. New York, W. W. Norton, 423 pages, $29.95.
This has been the bicentennial year of Charles Darwin’s birth, an occasion that has brought forth numerous books, a few of which I have noticed in earlier postings. This one, a later release, should not be lost in the deluge. Iain McCalman, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, and a past president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, has written an energetic, lively account of evolution that casts a wider net, as it were, and takes in the contributions of Darwin’s principal champions, the botanist Joseph Hooker, the the biologist, Thomas Huxley, and the zoologist Alfred Russel Wallace, whose support in the early going was crucial to the reception of his monumental work. McCalman begins with a most engaging account of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and describes in highly accessible prose the intellectual process that led to formulation of his theory. Some excellent illustrations are included.
Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, edited by Maureen Carroll. New York, The Library of America, 960 pages, $40.
Every time I think I have exhausted my inventory of superlatives when it comes to the Library of America and what this essential publishing initiative means to our shared culture, a new release comes along that forces me to dig deeper and come up with another. I admit, I am bragging a bit here--but I have every book issued in this series going back to when it started in 1982, close to a150 of them, all kept together in their own book case. It’s both a collection for me, and an indispensable resource that I turn to on a regular basis. This latest effort gathers all of Raymond Carver’s published stories--“Will You Please Be Quiet, Please”, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and “Cathedral” among them--along with many of his early sketches, and pieces that were discovered after his death in 1985. A thorough chronology of Carver’s life and accomplishments--more like a mini-biography--is included in one of several appendices. Like all the others from LOA, this one’s a keeper.
What in the world does that mean, you might reasonably ask: restored to what? Restored to what Hemingway intended when he agreed toward the end of his life to publish a truncated version of the notebooks he had kept while living abroad three decades earlier, and which had been rediscovered in 1956 by him, quite miraculously, in the bottom of a steamer trunk that he had left in storage at the Ritz Hotel in Paris and forgotten all about? Or “restored” to modify what has stood since 1964--the year the work was first published by Charles Scribner’s (now just Scribner)--with ten additional essays that Hemingway also wrote, and which reflect more kindly on Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife--and the grandmother of Sean Hemingway, who has edited this new edition for publication?
There’s been a lot of huffing and puffing going on, all of it quite fascinating, all of it quite amusing, if you want to know the truth. On the one hand you have Sean Hemingway, a 42-year-old curator of ancient art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and editor of two earlier collections of Papa’s writings on war and hunting, declaring in the introduction his belief that his re-cobbled version “provides a truer representation of the book my grandfather intended to publish” than the one offered up forty-five years ago by the writer’s fourth wife, Mary Hemingway. And on the other you have the argument for retaining the original text, as articulated by A. E. Hotchner, 89, a close friend of Hemingway over the final fourteen years of his life, and the author of Papa Hemingway, an affectionate biography published in 1966. Writing in an OpEd piece published this week in the New York Times, Hotchner pointedly recalls discussing the manuscript with Hemingway, and delivering it personally to Charles Scribner Jr. in New York. “The manuscript,” he asserts, “was not left in shards but was ready for publication.”
With Hemingway’s suicide in 1961--we all know the grim details of that depressing story--the book was prepared for publication by others--Mary was his executor--and the portrait painted of Pauline was not pretty at all. Their tempestuous affair had ended Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson, a deeply unpleasant turn of events that the writer eloquently bemoaned in what became the final chapter of the published book. The compelling title, A Moveable Feast, was derived by Mary Hemingway from a beautiful sentence her husband had written which seemed to capture the spirit of the writings perfectly: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Given that essential circumstance--the understanding that yes, the 1964 work surely represents Hemingway’s writing, but that it was presented to the world as an unfinished work not only groomed and signed off on by others, but titled by them as well--my take on the matter is this: A Moveable Feast--which is a splendidly evocative memoir of a young writer’s emerging life in 1920s Paris--should stay in print, just the way it was issued, and that the material newly published in the “restored edition” appear under another title of the new editor’s choosing. Why not? We all know that neither distillation is likely to reflect the true “authorial intention” precisely, since the author did not live to see through the press what was ultimately selected from his writings. And the reality of the matter is, there is some great material in the new edition--ten previously unpublished sketches--and it very definitely should appear between hard covers.
Lost in all this, of course, is the role of the publisher, Scribner. Ernest Hemingway has been a cash cow for the imprint for many decades, and what this squabble does more than anything else is to insure more sales; this reality is underscored by the announcement that both versions will remain available to a credulous public for purchase.To this point, in particular, I defer to Hotchner, who has this to say about the matter:
“As an author, I am concerned by Scribner’s involvement in this ‘restored edition.’ With this reworking as a precedent, what will Scribner do, for instance, if a descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald demands the removal of the chapter in ‘A Moveable Feast’ about the size of Fitzgerald’s penis, or if Ford Maddox Ford’s grandson wants to delete referneces to his ancestor’s body odor...All publishers, Scribner included, are guardians of the books that authors entrust to them. Someone who inherits an author’s copyright is not entitled to amend his work...I hope the Authors Guild is paying attention.”
This time around, the find was not a particularly old book--even though the stock-in-trade at Parnassus is overwhelmingly second-hand books, with a respectable inventory of antiquarian items and a tastefully-chosen selection of new-releases mixed in--but a work I confess I totally missed when it was released two years ago, and am thrilled--dare I say relieved?--to have come across now. How I missed The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist (New York, De Capo Press, 2007), by Reviel Netz and William Noll, I can not fathom. But there it was, on a shelf, at a very good price, and all I can say is better late than never.
Perhaps a little back-story is in order here. One of the key contemporary collectors I had the privilege to profile in A Gentle Madness was Dr. Haskell F. Norman, a San Francisco psychoanalyst who had put together what was renowned to be the outstanding collection of medical and science books assembled by anyone in the twentieth century. A year before his death in 1996, the Grolier Club in New York published One Hundred Books Famous in Medicine, edited by Hope Mayo and based on a 1994 exhibition conceived and organized by Dr. Norman. In his interview with me, Dr. Norman had explained quite precisely why he had chosen to put his books on the market, so when Christie’s announced that it would mount a three-part sale in 1998, I was not surprised at all, and decided in fact to attend each session. When all was said and done the books brought in a whopping $18 million, breaking all sorts of sales records in the process.
Though a landmark auction in and of itself--and a great tribute to one of the most decent people I ever had the privilege of meeting (remind me some day to explain what I have come to regard as the “Haskell Norman Moment” in the writing of all of my books)--the final day of the sale, Oct. 29, 1998, was marked by yet another extraordinary book event. Halfway through the bidding for the 501 lots, a time-out, in essence, was called, so that another mini-auction could proceed in and of itself. What was about to go on the block--and a battery of television cameras was set up in the back of the Park Avenue gallery to record it all--was a dingy, dreary-looking little volume that had come to be known as the Archimedes Codex.
On the surface, the book is a medieval manuscript prepared in the thirteenth century for liturgical use in the form of a palimpsest, which once-upon-a-time was a standard method for recycling leaves of parchment by scraping away unwanted writings, and inking them over with a new text. What made this palimpsest especially noteworthy was that it contained the earliest known writings of Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), the greatest mathematician of the ancient world. In a fast-moving exchange of bids, an anonymous American buyer outbid a representative of the Greek government, which had hoped to bring the document back to its native land, paying $2.2 million, the most money ever spent, Nicolas Barker would later quip, “for a text that can not be read with the naked eye.”
The Archimedes Codex begins, dramatically enough, with the Christie’s sale, and continues on with what becomes a thrilling account of traditional scholarship and modern technology, written by William Noel, curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, who headed up a research team of scholars and conservators known as the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, and Reviel Netz, a professor classics and philosophy at Stanford.Their efforts--fully supported and underwritten by the new owner, coyly referred to as Mr. B--resulted in the discovery of several previously undiscovered Archimedes writings, Balancing Planes, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion. The manuscript also contained some lost speeches by Hyperides, a noted orator of ancient times.
Addressing complaints from some quarters that such an important manuscript had not found a permanent home in an institution, Noel offers this: “When the Archimedes Palimpsest was sold, some scholars were outraged that the book had returned to a private collection. But if Archimedes had meant enough to the public, then public institutions would have bought it. Archimedes did not. Public institutions were offered the book at a lower price than it actually fetched at auction, and they turned it down. If you think that is a shame, then it is a shame that we all share. We live in a world where value translates into cash. If you care about what happens to world heritage, get political about it, and be prepared to pay for it.”
Once again, a collector came to the rescue. This is a great read, and since January, available in a new paperback edition.
A perfect example of this phenomenon emerged in an email I got last week from John D. Cofield, a person I’ve never met, but one who I have admired for some time for the insightful reviews he writes on Amazon.com of books that interest him. By way of back story, I had emailed Cofield some months ago to thank him for what I thought had been a very perceptive review he wrote of “Every Book Its Reader.” We exchanged a few pleasantries on our mutual passion for books, and that was that.
“Back in 1981 I bought a book at a library sale in Chattanooga, Tennessee, called ‘My Life Here And There.’ Published [by Scribner’s] in 1921, it was the memoirs of a granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant who married a Russian prince [her married name was Princess Julia Cantacuzene] and lived in St. Petersburg until after the Revolution. It wasn’t all that great of a book, but I liked it because she was the granddaughter of a President. Anyway, I was sorting through some old books of mine last week and looked at ‘My Life Here And There’ more closely. It had always had a ladies’ visiting card slitted into the front page with a handwritten message on it saying something about ‘I’m so sorry for your loss and I hope when you can read again this will give you some distraction.’
“Obviously the book had been given by a lady to another lady who had just suffered a bereavement. Now I looked more closely at the card and saw it was engraved ‘Mrs. Benet.’ The little message written on it was signed ‘Frances Rose Benet’ I wondered if there could be a connection to Stephen Vincent Benet so I typed her name into Google and lo and behold, Frances Rose Benet was Stephen Vincent’s mother!
A terrific book story, and like all terrific book stories, this one has kept a few secrets to itself. Cofield, by the way, teaches social studies in a Georgia High School, and is obviously a great believer in the power that books have to stir the world. Many thanks to him for passing this along.
I undoubtedly had this childhood fascination for postcards in mind back in 1984 when I bought, at a small auction put on by the Friends of the Goddard Library at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., 4,800 of them filed judiciously in eight boxes, all gathered over many years by the late Francis Henry Taylor, who from 1931 to 1940 was director of the Worcester Art Museum, followed by fifteen years at the helm of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, then back again to Worcester, until his death in 1957. Taylor had gathered most of these pieces of graphic ephemera while traveling the world to build the collections of the two museums, and used them, from what I have been able to determine, as a kind of pre-Internet form of search engine to gather information, not only for his art quests, but also as background for his writing; he was the author, in 1948, of “The Taste of Angels,” a best-selling history of art collecting.
What has prompted me to recall my interest in postcards, and to mention my sub-collection of Francis Henry Taylor (which I wrote about, by the way, in “Among the Gently Mad,” pp.32-36), is a fabulous exhibition showing now through May 25 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the publication of a splendid catalog to accompany it, “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard,” by Jeff L. Rosenheim (Steidl/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 408 pages, $65.
Walker Evans (1903-1975), of course, was one of the great photographers of his time, acclaimed by some as the poet laureate of the medium in America. A master of the documentary approach, Evans is best known for the 1938 monograph of his work, “American Photographs,” and for his collaboration with the writer James Agee in 1941 on “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” a powerful commentary on life among tenant farmers in the rural South during the Great Depression.
The exhibition at the Met includes a number of Evans’ photographs, but the principal thrust is on showcasing several hundred examples of a collection that consumed him for more than fifty years--the gathering of some nine thousand postcards--and the way they informed his vision as an artist. “A surprising number of highly accomplished writers, picture makers, and performers are obsessive collections,” Rosenheim, a curator of photography at the museum, writes in the monograph, noting the butterflies of Vladimir Nabokov, the bakelite bracelets of Andy Warhol, the vast collection of paintings by other artists coveted by Edgar Degas as just three examples.
In the instance of Evans, the postcards--most of them dating from the early decades of the twentieth century--are in the permanent collection of the museum, part of the Evans archive which it acquired from the artist’s estate. “He collected postcards when they were new and he was young, and when he was old and they had become classics,” Rosenheim notes. Evans also collected such things as printed ephemera, driftwood, tin-can pull tabs and metal and tin wood signs that he photographed in situ, and then removed from their moorings. Altogether my kind of guy.
Not content to merely collect postcards--which covered a vast range of subjects, from the purely pictorial to the nutty and the whimsical--Evans researched their history, and wrote about them as a cultural phenomenon distinctive of their time. In 1963, he gave a lecture at Yale University on them that he titled “Lyric Documentary,” a phrase he coined to describe their function as a window into American cultural life.
The book includes color reproductions of 400 examples from the collection; Rosenheim’s text is richly informed, and represents an important contribution to the study of this largely unappreciated form of popular art, and makes a very strong case for the premise that his photography was greatly influenced by it. A terrific book--and a terrific exhibition; by all means take it in if you find yourself in New York over the next couple of weeks.
Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, by Christopher I. Beckwith; Princeton University Press, 472 page, $35.
A region often overlooked in the grand continuum of world history--a huge, landlocked part of the world between Europe and Asia that has been home to such empires as those of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, Tamerlane and the Timurads, the Anatolians, the Tibetans, and the Scythians--is given its just due in this majestic work that spans a sweep of five thousand years, from the Bronze Age to the present. In the process, Christopher Beckwith, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, tackles a number of misconceptions, not least among them that the peoples of an international trading network in Central Eurasia known collectively as the Silk Road were primarily nomadic, warfaring, barbarous and generally slothful groups. Indeed, he argues that for several critical centuries in the development of global civilization--and despite incursions by Persians, Greeks, Arabs, and Chinese, among others--Central Eurasia led the world in science, economics, and the arts. In the process of illuminating this essential piece of the human past, Beckwick constructs a scrupulously researched narrative that is wholly accessible, and demands close attention.
Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, by Thomas Maier; Basic Books, 411 pages, $27.50
If the subject is about how a single book has the power to impact the way people think and comport themselves in intimate relationships, then you have to include the release in 1966 of Human Sexual Response by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, a blockbuster with international consequences that was followed four years later by a powerful followup, Human Sexual Inadequacy. Prior to these books, what people knew about the mechanics of sexual relationships came from text books. Their first-hand reports of human sexuality, reported clinically in their books--Masters and Johnson observed 10,000 sexual acts in pursuit of their data--changed the entire paradigm. Thomas Maier--the biographer previously of another inhabitant of this exclusive group of attitude-changing authors, the baby doctor Dr. Benjamin Spock--has written a compelling profile of the two pioneers that concentrates on their own relationship and working patterns. Altogether a fascinating book.
World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West, by Laurence Rees; Pantheon Books, 442 pages, $35.
As creative director for the BBC, documentary filmmaker Laurence Rees has produced several television series on war and the atrocities that usually follow, including “The Nazis: A Warning from History,” “”War of the Century,” “Horror in the East,” and “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution.’” He also is the author of five books on the same subjects, and was the recipient three years ago of the British Book Award for History . This effort--which is being released to coincide with a PBS series that will air on three successive Wednesdays beginning May 6--draws on the testimony of more than a hundred witnesses to the events which had been kept secret for decades, only available recently since the opening of the archives of the former Soviet Union. Though not likely to alter prevailing evaluations of the war, the book does offer fresh insights on the relationship between Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill.
Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers, by John Sutherland, illustrations by Mark Rowson; Skyhorse Publishing, 273 pages, $22.95.
Last--but not by any means least--we have this thoroughly engaging compendium of literary arcania (and plenty of significa as well) to salute. British academic John Sutherland has culled every manner of primary source to unearth such nuggets as the longest novel in the English language (Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa,” c. 1 million words), an interesting enough fact in its own right, but for him the springboard for a learned essay that explores the phenomenon of “writing long” in depth, citing Stephen King’s “The Stand” (464,216 words) and Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” (591,554) as particularly egregious examples of tomes that require, as a condition of being read, the development of “considerable upper body strength.” In a chapter he calls “The Body of Literature,” Sutherland tells of the battle among provincial forces for the right to bury the corpse of Thomas Hardy, with a compromise finally being hammered out that provided for the novelist’s remains to be divided among home-town loyalists in Stinsford--they got the heart--and Westminster Abbey, which got the cremated ashes of what was left. Similarly, Lord Byron’s heart was interred at Missolonghi, where the swashbuckling Romantic died in defense of Greek independence, while his body--too carnal, apparently, for sacred interment in the sanctity of Poet’s Corner--was laid to rest in the family vault. This is a really fun book, and smartly written to boot. Highly recommended.
A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, by Elaine Showalter; Alfred A. Knopf, 586 pages, $30.
I admit I’m a sucker for books about books, and that I am particularly partial to trenchant works of literary biography and literary criticism, especially when new ground is clearly being broken. Elaine Showalter, professor emerta from Princeton University and author previously of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from From Bronte to Lessing (Princeton University Press, 1977), a standard work, now offers a penetrating history of American women writers in America, as the subtitle states, from the early seventeenth century, up to the present moment (a nice touch, that--Anne to Annie.)
“I believe that American women writers no longer need special constituted juries, softened judgment, unspoken agreements, or suppression of evidence in order to stand alongside the greatest artists in our literary heritage,” she writes, explaining her purpose. “What keeps literature alive, meaningful to read, and exciting to reach isn’t unstinting approval or unanimous admiration, but rousing argument and robust debate.”
Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships, by Tom D. Crouch; Johns Hopkins University Press, 191 pages, $35.
This copiously illustrated overview of lighter than air aviation chronicles an adventurous period in human accomplishment with style and insight, focusing on the earliest attempts to take flight by way of inflated envelopes, with two French paper-makers, the brothers Jacques-Etienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, leading the way in the 1780s. “Why did it take so long to learn to fly?” Tom Crouch, curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, asks. “The Greek philosopher Archimedes (287-212 BC) explained the basic principle of buoyant flight more than twenty centuries before human beings first took the sky aboard balloons.” He offers a fascinating account of the thrilling quest for human flight.
Babylon, edited by I. L. Finkel and M. J. Seymour; Oxford University Press, 238 pages, $40.
Few names from antiquity conjure up images of exotic mystery and curiosity more than biblical Babylon, the city of the wondrous Hanging Gardens,the Tower of Babel, King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the Ishtar Gate, despite the passage of 2,500 years since its fall. Located on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now war-torn Iraq, what remains of the vanished city today are mostly dim memories and second-hand accounts passed on by such historians as Herodotus and Ctesias, and, of course, a range of exquisite artifacts that have been recovered over the years and removed to a number of great museums.
Irving Finkel and Michael Seymour have edited this comprehensive catalog issued in conjunction with what by all accounts has been a dazzling exhibition at the British Museum in London (it closes on March 15), showcasing treasures from numerous collections, the BM’s, of course, but also twenty-three other lenders, including the Louvre in Paris and the Vorderasiatisches in Berlin. “Babylon, in all its manifestations,” they write, “is at once remote to us and all around us. Like no other city, its history has become bound up with legend.”
History buffs, art buffs, and archaeology buffs alike with love this book.
For those of us who care about these things--the library in California that had loaned the waterlogged book to Sullenberger had declined, for privacy reasons, to identify the title--the book turns out, in a delightful twist of aptness, to be “Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability” (Ashgate Publishing, paperback, $29.95, hardcover, $39). According to the dustjacket blurb, the author, Sidney Dekker, is a Professor of Human Factors and System Safety, and Director of Research at Lund University School of Aviation in Sweden.