Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: "The Ballad of Tom Dooley"

Sharyn McCrumb's latest novel is The Ballad of Tom Dooley (St. Martin's, 2011), a fictional examination of the actual events which inspired the famous song (whose real-life title character was named Dula, not Dooley). McCrumb's tale is told through the narratives of Pauline Foster (cousin and hired girl of Tom Dula's married lover Ann Melton) and Zebulon Vance (former governor of North Carolina and lawyer for Dula and Melton in their trials for the killing of Laura Foster).

I didn't know there was such a fascinating backstory there to be worked with, and give McCrumb much credit for how she's spun a readable, elegant story out of the case. While we may not ever be able to know whether the scenario she lays out is precisely what happened, it seems, as she notes, just as plausible as any other.

Perhaps it would have been worthwhile to add another perspective or two into the mix: Pauline works well, but perhaps including James Melton (Ann's husband) might have been useful too (Vance's vantage point is interesting, but somewhat removed from the actual events at hand). Nonetheless, it's neat to see original historical research brought to bear here and an imaginative reconstruction of what led to the death of Laura Foster and the hanging of Tom Dula.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: "The Technologists"

I've been a fan of Matthew Pearl's novels from the get-go; while I always have a hard time picking "favorite" books, The Dante Club would certainly make any list of top novels I've read. I'm very happy to say that his newest, The Technologists (due in early 2012 from Random House) is another big win.

Set in 1868 Boston, the novel opens with a series of terrifying attacks on the city's commercial infrastructure: compasses on ships in the harbor suddenly malfunctioning simultaneously, window-glass in the business district spontaneously dissolving ... and the events seem likely to continue unless someone can figure out who's behind them.

And just who does Pearl assign to figure out how to save Boston from further attacks? Departing from his earlier trio of novels, it's not a major literary figure, but rather three young men, seniors at the nascent Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plus Ellen Swallow, the first female student at MIT. Facing off against a motley crew of MIT's opponents (including some rowdy trade unionists, Harvard's Louis Agassiz, and a mysterious hooded figure calling himself the "avenging angel,"), the unlikely quartet (who dub themselves "The Technologists") must break some rules in order to protect themselves, their school, and their city.

Pearl's captured the tensions of post-Civil War Boston beautifully, and told the story of MIT's genesis and early years very nicely. The conflicts between those who supported MIT's mission of practical scientific education and those who saw this as a dangerous trend were real, and The Technologists brings that to life in a way that I'm not sure a historian could.

I greatly enjoyed the richly-drawn characters, the pace, the plot, the setting - this is the real deal, a thrilling read that I wanted more of. All I can say is, keep up the good work!

Book Review: "Those Across the River"

If you're in search of a really creepy book (one which I wouldn't suggest trying to read right before bed), give Christopher Buehlman's debut a try. Those Across the River (Ace, 2011) is the story of washed-up academic and WWI veteran Frank Nichols, who takes possession of a family house he's inherited in the backwoods town of Whitbrow. Nichols decides he'll write a book about the ancestor whose plantation had been in the neighborhood, believed murdered at the hands of his own slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War.

But Whitbrow's not the quiet river hamlet it seems to be; there's something out there (yes, it's across the river), and Frank's arrival sets into motion a chain of events with dramatic consequences for the entire town.

An eerie page-turner with its fair share of unexpected plot twists, interesting characters, and an unconventional and unexpected explanation.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Links & Reviews

Irene's winds and rains have begun to move into Portland overnight, although we're not expected to see the worst of it until this afternoon and evening. So today will be a day for hunkering down and getting some serious reading done, with any luck at all. Meanwhile, here's what happened this week:

- The book world received the very sad news this week that longtime Rare Book School faculty member and world's expert on 19th-century American publishers' bindings Sue Allen passed away after a short illness. She was 93. I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Sue at RBS this summer, and was immediately struck by her generosity, kindness, and expertise. She will be greatly missed.

- That volume of Harbottle Dorr's annotated newspapers I mentioned recently sold at auction this week for a total of $345,000. The buyer was, as I'd hoped it might be, the Massachusetts Historical Society, which holds the other three volumes. The purchase was made possible by gifts from anonymous donors. Coverage in the Portland Press-Herald, or see the MHS press release.

- From The Collation (a new Folger blog that you should be reading), Steven Galbraith writes about this summer's re-evaluation of the number of First Folios in the Folger's collection (now being counted as 82 rather than 79). A fascinating look at the process behind this.

- In the NYTimes, Geoff Dyer writes about "what we do to books" (by which he seems to mean that he beats up on his pretty hard).

- Peter Ackroyd has embarked on a six-volume history of England, the first volume of which will be published in the UK next month. He says in a Telegraph essay that he's taking Gibbon and Macaulay as his models, and wants to "address the general public and introduce to them the long story of England."

- Author and historian Deborah Harkness talked to Humanities Magazine about her historical research, animated pies, and how she came to write her recent novel A Discovery of Witches. She also answers (and correctly, too), that age-old question "Footnote or endnote?"

- The Google Book Search blog had a post this week in honor of what would have been Jorge Luis Borges' 112th birthday, putting their Ngram viewer to good use.

- At Anchora, Adam Hooks examines examples of blank A1 leaves (which gradually begin to turn into half-title pages during the later part of the 17th century) in the Iowa collections (he found six neat examples).

- From Antipodean Footnotes, a very nifty discovery: printed prospectuses for an edition of Johnson's Dictionary have been found in the binding of a copy of the 1785 folio edition of the Dictionary.

- Skinner has posted a preview of their November Books & Manuscripts sale; highlights will include a manuscript draft petition calling for passage of the 13th Amendment, a George Washington letter about a house in D.C., and a Lincoln letter to Massachusetts Governor John Andrew (not Andrews) about the defense of Boston Harbor. The sale will be held on 13 November.

- Over on PW's ShelfTalker blog, Elizabeth Bluemie asks "Is the Personal Library Doomed?"

- This week's earthquake caused minor structural damage at the National Archives Records Center in Suitland, MD, but the damage did not seriously affect any records.

- Yale will work with the National Library of Korea to digitize some 140 rare Korean works from the Yale collectios.

- I quite like the most recent William Reese Co. bulletin, titled "Evidence" [PDF]

- Unabridged Chick has an interview with David Liss about his new novel The Twelfth Enchantment (which may well become one of the books I take up this afternoon for hurricane reading).

- Files released this week by the UK National Archives reveal that MI5 briefly investigated P.G. Wodehouse as a possible Nazi collaborator for making radio broadcasts from WWII Berlin.

- From the Edinburgh book festival, Ewan Morrison's argument about the future of publishing and authorship is well worth a read.

- Stepanie Williams writes about her new book Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire in the Telegraph.

- Menachem Youlus, who set up the Save a Torah charity in 2004 to rescue Torahs supposedly lost in the Holocaust, has been charged with mail and wire fraud; prosecutors say he bilked the charity out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and lied about where he "rescued" certain Torahs (in some cases having simply purchased them from dealers).

- A 15th-century illuminated lectionary has been returned to St. Kieran's College; it had apparently made its way to the National Library of Ireland in the 1960s and been catalogued into the library's collections.

- Berlin's library will return some 70 books stolen from the German Social Democratic Party during the 1930s, including Engels' copy of The Communist Manifesto. The return is part of an ongoing project to give back books stolen from Jewish and other political organizations during the Nazi years.

Reviews

- James Pennebaker's The Secret Life of Pronouns; reviews by Ben Zimmer in the NYTimes and Dennis Drabelle in the WaPo.

- Lev Grossman's The Magician King; review by Dan Kois in the NYTimes.

- Robert Booth's Death of an Empire; review by Michael Kenney in the Boston Globe.

- Simon Garfield's Just my Type; review by Janet Maslin in the NYTimes.

- Maeve Gilmore/Mervyn Peake's Titus Awakes; review by Michael Moorcock in the LATimes.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

This Week's Acquisitions

Some review copies this week, plus visits to the Portland shops last weekend and the closing Borders on Monday. Still quite a bit of good stuff there for the snagging!

- Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by R. A. Scotti (Vintage Books, 2010). Longfellow Books.

- One Man's Meat by E. B. White (Atlantic Books, 1997). Longfellow Books.

- Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). Longfellow Books.

- The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (Puffin Books, 2000). Green Hand.

- Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century by April Lee Hatfield (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). Borders, Portland.

- Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer by David Roberts (Broadway, 2011). Borders, Portland.

- Unfinished Revolution: The Early American Republic in a British World by Sam W. Haynes (University of Virginia Press, 2010). Borders, Portland.

- Black Hills by Dan Simmons (Reagan Arthur Books, 2011). Borders, Portland.

- Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam Adult, 2011). Borders, Portland.

- The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies by Alan Taylor (Knopf, 2010). Borders, Portland.

- Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993 by Paul Bowles (Ecco, 2011). Publisher.

- The Pilgrim by Hugh Nissenson (Sourcebooks, 2011). Publisher.

- Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Publisher.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review: "The Magician King"

It's not all that often that I like a sequel better than the original, but I'd rate Lev Grossman's The Magician King (Viking, 2011) a little bit higher than its predecessor, The Magicians. Some of the unresolved issues from the last book get tightened up here, and Grossman continues to draw on and allude to a wide range of fantasy fiction for his plot motifs, themes, and characters. It's great fun to read these books and try to pick out what he's alluding to.

This isn't a perfect book; the series still feels like it's missing something, although I can't quite put my finger on just what it is. The main, save-the-world, "quest" plot here seemed somehow too simple, even though twists and turns managed to find their way in; the alternating chapters provided some key backstory which went unexplained in the previous volume (and were, I thought, the strongest part of the book).

Grossman's brand of fantasy is grittier than most, which makes it interesting - that, along with the enjoyment I get from trying to figure out what's influencing his writing, will keep me reading future books in the series.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Links & Reviews

- Duke University Libraries received its largest gift ever this week, $13.6 million from university trustee David Rubenstein, managing director of The Carlyle Group. The donation will support the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections library.

- Over at Past is Present, Doris O'Keefe highlights some really fascinating early 19th-century government documents.

- The Boston Athenaeum announced this week that it will digitize a selection of its extensive Confederate imprints collection.

- The recent launch of Old Bailey Online, a searchable database of the Old Bailey's criminal trials from 1674-1913, garnered some coverage this week in the NYTimes.

- New from Penn, the Seymour de Ricci Bibliotheca Britannica Manuscripta Digitized Archive, some 60,000 digitized research cards for de Ricci's unfinished census of pre-1800 manuscripts in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

- J.L. Bell notes the release of the Bostonian Society's new iPhone app, Mapping Revolutionary Boston (a fantastic idea).

- On NPR this week Robert Siegel talked to Hugh Thomas about his new book The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V, and the Creation of America.

- A document thought at one time to be an autobiography by Butch Cassidy was revealed this week to be not that, although it's still not clear just what it is.

- An Abraham Lincoln letter was returned to the National Archives this week; it'd been "removed" from the collections at an unknown date.

- From 8vo, photos and a writeup of what looks like a fabulous visit to Hay-on-Wye (I'm more than a little jealous!).

- In today's NYTimes, David Streitfeld looks at the growth industry of pay-for-review schemes.

- The Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, England is likely to close next month after more than 60 years in operation. It was founded by Christopher Robin Milne.

- The first statue of Charles Dickens [in England - see comment] is planned for Guildhall Square, Portsmouth; it's to be installed by next year to celebrate the bicentennial of the author's birth.

Reviews

- Willard Sterne Randall's Ethan Allen; reviews by James Zug in the Boston Globe and Fran├žois Furstenberg in Slate.

- Charles C. Mann's 1493; review by Ian Morris in the NYTimes.

- Hugh Thomas' Golden Empire; review by Jonathan Yardley in the WaPo.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: "The Murder of the Century"

I've made no secret over the years just how much I enjoy Paul Collins' books, and his latest is no exception: The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars (Crown, 2011) is another home run. The tale of the gruesome 1897 murder of New York masseuse William Guldensuppe by his (married) paramour Augusta Nack and her paramour Martin Thorn captivated New York for months, and Collins recounts the events as they happened, drawing on the extensive coverage in New York City's newspapers, police records, and other sources.

Collins offers a wide-angle view of the Guldensuppe case, delving deeply into the crime, the investigation, and the trials of the perpetrators. By doing so, he offers the possibility of looking at the extent to which the newspapers (particularly William Randolph Hearst's Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's World) played a key role in discovering evidence (or following leads which led to its discovery), influencing public opinion, and keeping interest in the case (and their increased circulation) alive.

A brilliant recreation of all aspects of this captivating, nasty crime and its aftermath.

Book Review: "Definitely Not Mr. Darcy"

Karen Doornebos' debut novel Definitely Not Mr. Darcy (Berkley, 2011) is a humorous (even ridiculous, but in a good way) parody of the 19th-century sentimental novel. Set in the present, it sees Austen enthusiast Chloe Parker (a down-on-her-luck American letterpress printer) heading across the pond for what she thinks is the filming of a documentary on Austen's life and works, but is in reality a dating show (set, naturally, in 1812). Chloe must navigate the dangerous shoals of Regency-era clothing, etiquette, and communications technology while fending off more-accomplished rivals and competing in various tasks to give her a leg up in the dating contest.

Revivifying many of the sentimental tropes, motifs and plot techniques that Austen herself deployed, Doornebos has written a book that succeeded in making me laugh without leading to (very many) eye-rolls (the bachelor prize is named Mr. Wrightman, after all). Silly? Yes. Predictable? You bet. Entertaining? Indeed.

This Week's Acquisitions

Mostly review copies this week, plus a few deals I couldn't pass up.

- Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (Riverhead, 2011). Publisher.

- Definitely Not Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos (Berkley, 2011). Publisher.

- An Account of Denmark: With Francogallia & Some Considerations for the Promoting of Agriculture & Employing the Poor by Robert Molesworth (Liberty Fund, 2011). Publisher.

- The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland; edited by Peter Hoare (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Publisher.

- Tristram Shandy (Norton Critical Editions) by Laurence Sterne (Norton, 1986). Amazon.

- The Magician King by Lev Grossman (Viking, 2011). Amazon.

- Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Quirk, 2011). Amazon.

- The Technologists by Matthew Pearl (Random House, 2012). Publisher.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Followup on Landau Thefts

The Baltimore Sun, which has been doing a very decent job covering the Barry Landau/Jason Savedoff thefts, has another followup piece today about the aftermath of the theft discoveries at the various institutions the duo seem to have hit.

Landau was released from prison last week and allowed to return to his Manhattan apartment, under electronic surveillance. The Sun reports that Landau is "barred from accessing the Internet, cannot keep his passport, can have no contact with museums, can't sell assets without approval and can't have any communication with his co-defendant, Jason Savedoff." Prosecutors had sought to portray Landau as a flight risk and urged a judge not to release him lest he destroy evidence against him, but a judge disagreed.

Landau's accomplice, Jason Savedoff, is reportedly cooperating with prosecutors, and government lawyers have suggested that additional charges against the pair are possible, since "thousands" of documents, some already identified as being from the collections of a variety of institutions in the US and Britain were removed from Landau's apartment.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Book Review: "Lionheart"

It's been quite a while since I've read one of Sharon Kay Penman's historical novels, but I was happy to see Lionheart (Putnam, 2011), the first of a two-volume series about Richard I. The book, hefty like most of the author's others, treats the events before and during the Third Crusade (1189-1192); the next installment, A King's Ransom, will cover the aftermath. Previous titles provide some backstory, though it's certainly not absolutely necessary to read them first.

I like the details Penman adds to her novels; it's obvious that she's taken the time to really dig into the sources (and in fact she quotes from several contemporary chronicles throughout the book), and her author's note at the end does a great job of outlining the (reasonable) liberties she took in writing the book.

Aside from just a few points where I thought there was a bit too much historical exposition stuffed into the dialogue, with characters explaining things to each other that they'd likely not have had cause to do, this made for a good story and an extremely enjoyable read.

Book Review: "Nightwoods"

Charles Frazier's third novel is Nightwoods (Random House, 2011), a rich Appalachian tale told with clear prose and a fair helping of suspense. Our main character is Luce, a woman living on the outskirts of a small isolated North Carolina town whose world is changed mightily with the arrival of Frank and Dolores, the orphaned young children of her murdered sister. Luce faces quite a challenge connecting with this pair of traumatized youngsters, whose arsonist and, shall we say deconstructionist tendencies cause no end of problems.

With plenty of trouble on her hands, Luce certainly doesn't need what comes next: her sister's acquitted murderer, eager to find something of his which he suspects might be wherever the children are. And then there's the heir of her former employer, the new owner of the abandoned lodge where she lives as the caretaker; he's arrived too, and (naturally) sparks fly.

A fast read, mainly because it's difficult to put down; I wanted to know what came next, even if it was going to make me squirm (and it did, a few times). Frazier's written a dark but hopeful novel, both funny and heart-wrenching at times.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Review: "A Dance with Dragons"

Over the course of the spring I reread the first four volumes of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series (well, reread the first three and read the fourth for the first time) so that I'd be able to pick up the fifth volume, A Dance with Dragons, when it came out in July. I was a bit delayed in that, but I've now finished up ADWD. This installment begins with the same chronological period covered in the previous book but from the perspective of different characters, but toward the end, as Martin notes at the outset, the two streams converge again.

The several major plot points of the series grind slowly forward in this volume, which barely references any of the major cliffhangers from the last book (and ends with more than a few of its own). There are so many little points and questions I have about what's happening to one character or another that it was frustrating to read a book of nearly 1,000 pages and not get some of those answers, but one lives in hope that the next volume might finally bring resolution to some of lingering plot threads.

What I love about these books is the realpolitik, the debts-must-be-paid grittiness of the world Martin has built. When a thousand pages isn't enough to satisfy me and leaves me wanting just another few chapters, I know I've just read a good book. Frustrating it may be, but I'll be waiting impatiently for my next chance to shiver at the Wall.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Links & Reviews

- On 25 August one of four volumes of Harbottle Dorr's collection of early American newspapers will be sold at auction in Maine. The volume is from the collections of the Bangor Historical Society; the other three are at the Massachusetts Historical Society. From the Kennebec Journal article on the upcoming sale: "Lippitt [Dana Lippitt, the curator] said the Bangor Historical Society's board considered a private sale to the Massachusetts Historical Society to complete its collection. 'That's where we'd prefer they end up,' Lippitt said. But the need for the most money possible convinced board members to put the newspapers up for auction." This is incredibly unfortunate, and not the way decisions about our cultural heritage should be made. I seriously hope that an institution is able to obtain the volume, so that it doesn't end up in the hands of a dealer and get broken up for piecemeal sale.

- It had been expected, but the news nonetheless is sad: the British Museum closed the Paul Hamlyn Library on Friday

- From The Cataloguer's Desk, Laura Massey looks at a fascinating example of forgery, fakery, and false provenance in a 1793 copy of Shakespeare Illustrated.

- In the Chronicle this week, an excerpt from Alan Jacobs' recent book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

- This week J.L. Bell looked at two recent books which maintain the American Revolution was a mistake. First post; second post.

- NPR Books got a facelift this week.

- A.N. Devers writes about the trials and tribulations of Poe's houses, for The Book Bench.

- David Orr has an essay in the NYTBR on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series and how it's reshaping modern fantasy. I'm greatly enjoying my trip through A Dance with Dragons just now! And speaking of fantasy, The Millions has an interview with Lev Grossman, whose The Magician King was released this month.

- Frida Kahlo's annotated copy of Poe's works, which includes handwritten notes, paintings, and collage, sold for $24,400 at auction in Chicago this week.

- At EMOB, Eleanor Shevlin looks at open access and subscription databases, using the Aaron Swartz case as a jumping-off point.

- Another interesting take on crowdsourcing from the photo archive Magnum, which combines social networking and gaming with photo identification.

- Very glad to see that the Providence Public Library's Occasional Nuggets publication will continue!

- James McAuley talks to Maya Jasanoff about her book Liberty's Exiles, which I enjoyed very much earlier this spring.

- From the NYT's Disunion blog, a look at James Garfield's early career and entry into the Civil War.

- Perhaps not new (I'm not sure) but Harvard in the 17th and 18th Century is a fantastically detailed guide to the holdings of Harvard's archives on a wide variety of topics.

- An employee of Hartford's Mark Twain house admitted to embezzling more than $1 million from the museum's coffers.

- Over at 8vo, a look at Innerpeffray's lending library, the oldest in Scotland. Great pictures and background!

- A copy of the 9 May 1754 Pennsylvania Gazette, containing Ben Franklin's famous "Join or Die" political cartoon, will be sold at Heritage Auctions in September, with an estimate of $100,000-200,000 (which may be rather low).

- Slate asks a series of authors, editors and critics to name the "great books" they think are most overrated. I quite like, and strongly agree with, Elif Batuman's comment: "My view is that the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book. Literature is supposed to be beautiful and/or necessary—so if at a given time you don't either enjoy or need a certain book, then you should read something else, and not feel guilty about it."

- Bookride looks at some of the best printing errors in history.

- Via @john_overholt, a mini-documentary on marginalia.

- Charles C. Mann talked about his new book 1493 on NPR this week.

- The Paul Fraser Collectibles newsletter has a profile of David Rumsey and his famous map collection.

Reviews

- Brook Wilensky-Lanford's Paradise Lust; review by Laura Collins-Hughes in the Boston Globe.

- Several new editions and works about John Donne; review by Robert Fraser in the TLS.

- Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending; review by Lidija Haas in the TLS.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

This Week's Acquisitions

Here's what arrived this week:

- The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins (Crown, 2011). Amazon.

- Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley (Putnam, 2007). Amazon.

- A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (Bantam, 2011). Amazon.

- The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss (Random House, 2011). Publisher.

- Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir (Ballantine, 2011). Publisher.

- Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt, 2011). Publisher.

- Justin Winsor: Scholar-Librarian; edited by Wayne Cutler and Michael Harris (Libraries Unlimited, 1980). ABE.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Happy Fortsas Day!

Today marks the 171st anniversary of the Fortsas Hoax, still the greatest biblio-hoax ever! For background on the hoax, and links to the Comte's library catalog, see my post from the 168th anniversary back in '08.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Book Review: "Ex Libris"

Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates (Yale University Press, 2011) presents a selection of 100 pictorial bookplates (some never before published) from the collections of the British Museum. Edited by Martin Hopkinson, the former Curator of Prints at the University of Glasgow's Hunterian Art Gallery, the book is a fine example of excellent design: each of the bookplates (or bookplate designs) is reproduced beautifully and accompanied by a short contextual caption covering the artist, owner, style and symbolism of the plate.

If I had to lodge an objection it would be with the coverage: all but six of the hundred bookplates are from the period 1875-1930, and almost all are English. Given the British Museum's extensive collections I'm sure there are some wonderful things from outside that narrow chronological and geographic range that might have made the cut. As Hopkinson notes, though, it's a small book and doesn't attempt comprehensiveness; given the limitations, he's chosen an impressive and varied selection.

Overall, a lovely book, highlighting some great bookplate designs and artists.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Book Review: "Edward Bancroft"

With Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy (Yale University Press, 2011) Thomas J. Schaeper finally offers up a full-length biography of Bancroft, one of the most successful Revolutionary War "secret agents," whose role as a spy wasn't known until the late 1880s. But, Schaeper argues persuasively, there's more to Bancroft than his espionage activities, and there's more depth to those than previous historians have written.

This is a masterful book. Schaeper has done what far too many of his predecessors haven't and actually taken the time to look at the documentary evidence and its context(s). By doing so he's able to offer a much more balanced look at Bancroft's role as a British agent within the American mission in France during the Revolution, gauging the impact of Bancroft's efforts in a considered way. He painstakingly rebuts many of the more outrageous claims that have been made about Bancroft's spy career (by Julian Boyd among others), and is able to offer a much more evenhanded and accurate treatment of Bancroft's efforts within the larger British intelligence operation (such as it was).

While the re-evaluation of Bancroft's motivations and impact would be more than enough, Schaeper also widens the view and takes in Bancroft's entire career, as an entrepreneur (who knew that he was involved with the dye industry?), an author (of not only an important natural history of Guiana but also a 1770 novel, The History of Charles Wentworth), and as the widowed father of several young children. Schaeper provides much-needed perspective by putting Bancroft's spying period into context as a reasonably short episode in his long life.

Offering a close and cautious reading of the available sources, and by carefully noting the limits of the documents that have come down to us, Schaeper has given us a book that is historical scholarship at its best. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Links & Reviews

- Kari Kraus has an important piece in the NYTimes today, "When Data Disappears."

- Another must-read from this week is Sarah Werner's post "the serendipity of the unexpected, or, a copy is not an edition."

- I've added a sidebar link to 8vo, Brook Palmieri's excellent biblio-blog. Add this one to your rotation. Her most recent post, on a really delightful provenance discovery, builds on Sarah's (just linked to above).

- In the Boston Globe, a look at the new 18th-century-style print shop recently opened in the North End.

- From the Guardian this week, a look at a new Dickens project, Dickens Journals Online. The aim is to produce an online, open-access edition of Household Worlds and All the Year Round, and they're looking for volunteers!

- The August Fine Books Notes is out: it includes a special report by Catherine Batac Walder on the Reibenbach Falls area, Nick Basbanes on the new fourth edition of Allen and Patricia Ahearns' Collected Books, and more.

- There's a new digital library of books published in Mexico before 1601, Primeros Libros.

- A fascinating long piece by Simon Kuper on the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.

- Somebody on Twitter (sorry, I've forgotten now just who) posted a link to audio of Jorge Luis Borges' 1967-1968 Norton Lectures at Harvard.

- Bloomsbury Auctions has been acquired by Fine Art Auction Group.

- In the NYTimes, Eve Kahn writes about the difficulties of scrapbook preservation.

- Rick Anderson has a fascinating post at the scholarly kitchen on the "good, the bad, and the sexy" of the Espresso Book Machine.

Reviews

- David Pearson's Books as History; review by Rebecca Rego Barry in Fine Books Notes.

- Michael Sims' The Story of Charlotte's Web; review by Lee Randall in the Scotsman.

- Melanie Benjamin's The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb; review by Diana White in the Boston Globe.

- Brook Wilensky-Landford's Paradise Lust; review by Andrea Wulf in the NYTimes.

- Other People's Books; review by Pradeep Sebastian in The Hindu.

Book Review: "Cloud Atlas"

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (which I read in the new flipback edition from Hodder & Stoughton) is an imaginative and well-designed novel. Told in six very different sub-novels, each with an extremely different perspective, narrator, time period, and linguistic style, Cloud Atlas proceeds chronologically forward from the 1850s through the distant, post-apocalyptic future with the first half of each sub-novel, and then moves back through time through the second half of each. While the loose connections between the sections seem slightly contrived at times, Mitchell's ability to use a variety of different genres and voices made it well worth the read.

While I enjoyed a couple of the sub-novels better than the others (the series of letters from an ambitious young composer and an elderly British publisher's harebrained escape from his nursing home were my favorites), seeing how the entire work came together was great fun.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Recent Acquisitions

It's been a while since I've posted an arrivals list:

- Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates by Martin Hopkinson (Yale University Press, 2011). Publisher.

- Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto (Crown, 2011). Publisher.

- Nightwoods by Charles Frazier (Random House, 2011). Publisher.

- The Ballad of Tom Dooley: A Ballad Novel by Sharyn McCrumb (Thomas Dunne Books, 2011). Publisher.

- Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman (Putnam, 2011). Publisher.

- Memorandum on the Folly of Invading Virginia, the Strategic Importance of Portsmouth, and the Need for Civilian Control of the Military; Written in 1781 by the British Negotiator of the First American Treaty of Peace by Richard Oswald (UVA Press, 1953). Book cart.

- The Discoveries of John Lederer, with Unpublished Letters by and about Lederer to Governor John Winthrop, Jr., and an Essay on the Indians of Lederer's Discoveries by Douglas L. Rights and William P. Cumming (UVA Press, 1958). Book cart.

- Notes on the Professors for whom the University of Virginia Halls and Residence Houses are Named by Harry Clemons (UVA Press, 1961). Book cart.

- Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free by John Ferling (Bloomsbury, 2011). Publisher.

- The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley (Princeton University Press, 2011). Gift.

- Printed Americana in the Harlan Crow Library: A First Progress Report. With an Annotated Checklist of 250 Books, Pamphlets, and Broadsides Acquired from 2003 to 2009 by Stephen Weissman (Harlan Crow Library, 2010). Gift.

- Exceptional Manuscripts in the Harlan Crow Library by Joe Rubinfine and Ryan Lord (Harlan Crow Library, 2010). Gift.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Landau Accused of More Thefts

The Poughkeepsie Journal reports today that "historian" Barry Landau is now accused of stealing documents from the FDR Presidential Research Library and Museum in Hyde Park, including seven speeches signed by FDR.

A bail hearing for Landau is to be held today; his accomplice, Jason Savedoff, is currently out on $250,000 bail. The pair were indicted by a federal grand jury in Baltimore on 28 July; an FBI press release notes that the indictment covers the thefts from the FDR Library, the New-York Historical Society, and the Maryland Historical Society.

The investigation is ongoing, and I suspect there are more shoes yet to drop.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Book Review: "Caleb's Crossing"

Geraldine Brooks' latest novel is Caleb's Crossing (Viking, 2011), set in 17th-century Massachusetts and taking its inspiration from Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Iacommes, two Wampanoag students at Harvard in the 1660s. Narrated by Bethia Mayfield, a young Martha's Vineyard resident who by a rather implausible series of events finds herself with Caleb and Joel in Cambridge as they prepare for their matriculation at Harvard, the novel is a fine if occasionally imperfect treatment.

The best parts of this book were the period details, which mostly came through fine except for the occasional anachronism or linguistic infelicity. The texture and tenor of early Cambridge and the attempts to Christianize the local native societies (with the concomitant tensions) came through well. The rest of the plot seemed just a bit unlikely, and using Bethia's "journal" as a framing device didn't work quite as well as it might have done.

Entirely worth reading overall, even if not quite to the level of Brooks' Year of Wonders (still my favorite of her novels).