Category Archive 'Books'
19 Apr 2021

“The English Gentleman”

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A Yale classmate recently sent me a link to this book coming up for auction at Swann: Lot 0021: Richard Brathwait (1588?-1673) The English Gentleman.

We both thought the frontispiece, showing the English Gentleman in Youth, during his Education, his Recreations, Vocation, Disposition, &c., His “Hope in Heaven, but His Feet on the Ground” attired in Carolingian fashion delightful.

I would certainly have purchased this curiosity if it were not horribly expensive. Alas! it went for $1700, with Buyer Premium: $2210. The book is quarto sized, and I fear a lot of people like framing and hanging that amusing and evocative frontispiece.

I looked for a free ebook, but was disappointed. There isn’t one.

HT: Tom Weil.

09 Feb 2021

Bindings from the French Renaissance at the Morgan Library

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Jacopo Vignola (1507−1573), Regola delli cinque ordini d’architettura (Rules of the Five Orders of Architecture), [Rome: s.n., 1562–64]
The Morgan Library & Museum, Purchased in 1960; PML 51314.

Claude III de Laubespine commissioned the binding, executed in Paris circa 1567–68 by the Atelier au Vase. Morgan Library director Frederick Adams declared that this elegant example “sends a tingle of pleasure down the spine.”

The Morgan Library in New York will be exhibiting through May 16th extraordinary bindings from the Laubespine-Villeroy Library.

Young, handsome, and highborn, Claude III de Laubespine lived in luxury after marrying an heiress and obtaining the favor of King Charles IX. His brilliant career at court was cut short in 1570, when he died at the age of 25. He left behind a splendid library, which was dispersed, and only recently have his books been identified and properly appreciated for their superb quality and fine bindings. Laubespine now ranks among the great collectors of the French Renaissance.

For the first time in more than 400 years, this exhibition brings together some of the most spectacular bindings in that collection, exquisite examples of Renaissance ornamental design. They will be shown along with related artwork and literary memorials of Laubespine. He left his books to his sister, a patron of the poet Pierre de Ronsard, who praised her country estate, the library, and its perfumed bindings, which, he said, “smells as good as your orange trees.” This exhibition will evoke the sensual pleasure and literary connoisseurship implicit in a noble library of that era.


11 Nov 2020

Sloan Wilson’s WWII Trilogy

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Sloan Wilson, now largely forgotten, was once famous for his 1955 novel The Man in the Gray-Flannel Suit, which captured, and did much to define, the 1950s ethos of corporate conformity.

I recently stumbled upon Kindle versions of his WWII Trilogy, which delivered somewhat fictionalized versions of his war-time experiences as a Coast Guard officer.

Most of us were not actually aware that, during the WWII Emergency, the Coast Guard sailed far beyond the coast, operating as an extension of the US Navy.

In the first book, Ice Brothers, the protagonist, just out of college and married at the outbreak of the war, having a recreational yachting family background, wangles himself a commission as an officer in the Coast Guard, and finds himself immediately appointed Executive Officer of a meagerly-armed fishing trawler destined to fight the ice, deliver supplies, and finally eliminate German weather stations on the Greenland coast. It’s a darn good story.

In book 2, Voyage to Somewhere, after shore leave and recovery following two years service on the Greenland coasts, the protagonist (now with a different name) is handed command of a brand-new, hastily constructed and far-from-fully-equipped freighter with a crew made up of 26 newly enlisted seamen, all with surnames beginning with W, tasked to sail from California to Hawaii then on to New Guinea and every small island in between.

Book 3, Pacific Interlude, the same Sloan Wilson-figure, again with another name, has his third command: a decrepit, rusty and leaky tanker loaded with high-octane aviation fuel for delivery to brand-new American bases on the Philippines. His chances of survival look slim.

Wilson’s alter ego knows perfectly well that he could easily escape this assignment, but just can’t bring himself to do it.

Did he really have to accept the likely death sentence of being assigned to the Y – 18? Like the woman who did not want to make love, a man who did not want to fight for life in a war could get constant headaches and backaches. If he complained enough to some doctor here in Brisbane, the word would be sent to the personnel officer in New Guinea and a replacement would arrive. Headquarters didn’t want skippers who are chronically ill. No one was forced to command a ship. So why not just beg off this crazy assignment?

He would not do that because he would not do that. Not much of an answer, but it was the truth. He remembered his father telling him that the Grants and his mother’s people, the Garricks, had fought in every American war and probably in the wars of England and Germany, where they came from, back through the centuries… “Wars never make much sense if you try to find fancy causes for them,” his father Charles had said. “No country is morally much superior to any other, if you think of history, the battles over religion and politics always seem ridiculous in retrospect. One fact remains: it’s the nature of any human society to expand until it collides with another. It then is repulsed or swallows the other. A nation without enough good fighting men is bound to be swallowed. In time of peace no one likes fighting men — they are a reproach to our morality. But when the bugle blows as it does and will in almost every generation, a nation stands or falls according to the strength of its fighting men. Nowadays industry and science have a lot to do with the fighting of wars, but they would be useless without the cutting edge of fighting men. Never be ashamed that all your people have been fighting men.”

10 Oct 2020

Ray Chandler’s Letters to James M. Fox


Ray Chandler’s correspondence with James M. Fox (an obscure writer of crime and espionage novels) offers interesting glimpses of Chandler’s tastes and responses to the work of other authors.

In the course of their letters, he comments on, mostly disparages:

Ross Macdonald (The Drowning Pool)

Dorothy B. Hughes (The Davidian Report)

Julian Symons (The Broken Penny)

Eric Maschwitz (Little Red Monkey)

John Dickson Carr

Agatha Christie

Ian Fleming (Casino Royale)

William Campbell Gault

Jacquin Sanders (Freak Show)

James M. Cain

Holly Roth (The Content Assignment)

And, last and perhaps least: James M. Fox.

05 Oct 2020

A Kindred Spirit

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The late Professor Macksey had books the way Karen and I have books.

02 Oct 2020

The Ultimate Rare Book Collection

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Alison Flood, of the Guardian, interviews a very knowledgeable book dealer and authority.

Edward Brooke-Hitching grew up in a rare book shop, with a rare book dealer for a father. As the author of histories of maps The Phantom Atlas, The Golden Atlas and The Sky Atlas, he has always been “really fascinated by books that are down the back alleys of history”. Ten years ago, he embarked on a project to come up with the “ultimate library”. No first editions of Jane Austen here, though: Brooke-Hitching’s The Madman’s Library collects the most eccentric and extraordinary books from around the world.

“I was asking, if you could put together the ultimate library, ignoring the value or the academic significance of the books, what would be on that shelf if you had a time machine and unlimited budget?” he says.

Following up anecdotes, talking to booksellers and librarians and trawling through auction catalogues, he came across stories like that of the 605-page Qur’an written in the blood of Saddam Hussein. “If that was on a shelf, what could possibly sit next to it?” he asks. “I mentioned it to a bookseller and they told me about a diary that they’d had, from the 19th century, written by a shipwrecked captain who only had old newspaper and penguins to hand. So Fate of the Blenden Hall was written entirely in penguin blood.”

There’s the American civil war soldier who inscribed his journal of the conflict on to the violin he carried. There’s the memoir of a Massachussetts highwayman, James Allen, which he “requested be bound in his own skin after his death, and presented to his one victim who had fought back as a token of his admiration”. Or the diary of the Norwegian resistance fighter Petter Moen, pricked with a pin into squares of toilet paper and left in a ventilation shaft; although Moen was killed in 1944, one of his fellow prisoners returned to Oslo after it was liberated from the Nazis and found the diary. Or the entirely fabricated book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa: its author George Psalmanazar, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned man with a thick French accent, arrived in London in about 1702 and declared himself to be the first Formosan, or Taiwanese, person to set foot on the European continent. (“Obviously no one had been there and nobody knew what Taiwanese people looked like, and he became the toast of high society,” says Brooke-Hitching.)


11 Aug 2020

Publishers Hurt by Obama’s ‘Failure to Perform’


VodkaPundit is amused by the Great One’s famous work ethic.

It looks more and more like Barack Obama has made chumps out of yet another publisher:

    Book contracts routinely include a “failure to perform” clause. Contracts that come with a reported $65 million advance, such as the one signed by Barack and Michelle Obama in February 2017 with Penguin Random House (PRH), will inevitably include such a clause.

    Among the most common of such failures is the failure to complete a contracted work by an agreed-upon deadline. PRH is staring down one such failure right now. At the time the Obama deal was made in early 2017, insiders were telling Publishers Weekly that books by both Michelle and Barack would be released in fall 2018.

Michelle’s book did great, although Insanity Wrap believes there might have been some sales shenanigans as is sometimes the case with Democrat-penned political biographies.

That aside, here we are nearly two years after Barack’s deadline, and the publisher still has nothing to publish:

    “The delay is wreaking havoc with print scheduling and of course budget planning,” one publishing insider told me. “The enormous advance is starting to ‘raise’ concerns within the publisher. While Michelle’s book performed well, Obama needs to deliver the book and sales to make the overall deal worthwhile.”

Back in the early ’90s, Obama took a $125,000 advance for a book on race and voting rights he never finished, although he did manage to hand in “bloated, yet incomplete drafts.” He also never repaid the advance, claiming he had too much student debt.

Some of the pages Obama did turn in, he wrote on a third-party’s dime:

    He also did some writing at the offices of his new employer, Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, the town’s leading civil rights firm. Some of his new colleagues were reportedly less than thrilled to see their young associate, feet up on his desk, doodling on his book on company time. The named partners, however, indulged him.

Insanity Wrap is impressed: Obama managed to get two organizations to pay him for a book he never wrote.

Nice work if you can shirk it.


21 May 2020

Reviewing With Good Taste

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The late David Foster Wallace.

I’m going to have to start reading Dale Peck‘s novels. He has the good taste to recognize that Pynchon, DeLillo, and especially David Foster Wallace are not any good.

The US literary world can be divided into two camps: those who think Thomas Pynchon is a very clever guy, and those who also think he’s a great writer. As it happens, I’m of the former camp. While I admit that Pynchon’s writing is packed with all sorts of ideas, ultimately the novels strike me as more crudités than smorgasbord: the appetisers keep coming (and coming, and coming), but the main course never arrives. Pynchon’s hallmarks are his tentacular – I might almost say his amorphous – prose, which can and does snare just about any philosophical concept or pop cultural phenomenon in its grasp; and his sense of satire, which can be awfully funny if your taste runs to broad humour. Neither of these traits is necessarily ruinous, but it’s Pynchon’s particular conflation of them that can limit his appeal. Given a choice between pathos and bathos, Pynchon errs on the side of farcical melodrama again and again (and again), and while I admire him for his efforts to undermine traditional narrative tyranny with humour rather than resorting to a Barth-style hatchet job, all four of his novels offer the same one-dimensional commentary on contemporary US society, and, in the end, a thirty-year writing career hasn’t produced a single memorable or even recognisably human character.

Pynchon does have his admirers, and he also has his followers, or people who are labelled his followers, and they do keep cropping up. I think there’s more than a little Pynchon floating around John Kennedy Toole, whose A Confederacy of Dunces is a book nearly as bloated as its protagonist; Don DeLillo’s social, um, satires owe more than a little to Pynchon’s work; and in a recent essay in Harper’s magazine the young novelist Jonathan Franzen declares Pynchon a personal hero. David Foster Wallace moves beyond admiration to adulation – if not, to put it more plainly, outright imitation. It is, in fact, a virtuoso performance that has eclipsed its progenitor: Wallace out-Pynchons Pynchon, and his third book, Infinite Jest, may well be the first novel to out-Gravity’s Rainbow Gravity’s Rainbow.

If nothing else, the success of Infinite Jest is proof that the Great American Hype Machine can still work wonders, in terms of sales. The novel has moved some 60,000 copies and racked up a stack of glowing reviews as thick as it is. What makes the book’s success even more noteworthy is that it is, in a word, terrible. Other words I might use include bloated, boring, gratuitous, and – perhaps especially – uncontrolled. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Infinite Jest is one of the very few novels for which the phrase ‘not worth the paper it’s written on’ has real meaning in at least an ecological sense; but to resort to such hyperbole would be to fall into the rut that characterises many reviews of this novel.

As the preceding paragraph should make clear, I found Infinite Jest immensely unsatisfactory. I resent the five weeks of my life I gave over to it; I resent every endlessly over-elaborated gag in the book, like the ten-page riff on why video telephones are unviable, or the dozen pages on the teenager who won all his tennis games by playing with a pistol held to his head, or the thousands and thousands and thousands of words devoted to pharmaceutical trivia on all sorts of mind-altering drugs; and I resent especially the 96 pages of tinily typed and deliberately pointless endnotes and ‘errata’, 388 in total, which make the novel a two-bookmark experience. In a hoped-for effort at balance, I also slogged my way through Wallace’s freshman effort, a novel called The Broom of the System, which, at 450 pages, is a relative lightweight next to Infinite Jest; nevertheless, what the novel saves in brevity is more than made up for in banality. The only thing even remotely interesting about Wallace’s first novel is that it reads like a study for his second. Both novels are set in an imagined United States; both revolve around an emotionally disturbed family full of geniuses, cripples and money; both feature a manmade wasteland which becomes central to the national imagination (in The Broom of the System it’s called the Great Ohio Desert, which is why the book is set in Ohio of all places; in Infinite Jest it’s called the Great Concavity); both, most importantly, work up an elaborate – and elaborately digressive – plot which deliberately ends as unsatisfactorily as possible.


06 May 2020

British Lefties Policing Bookshelves

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Britain always leads the way, even preceding California, in reaching new levels of left-wing tyranny.

Nobody in America knows who Michael Gove is. But, it should be suficient to explain that he is high-ranking Tory politician and cabinet member.

Gove is in the news currently because his wife, Sarah Vine, a prominent newspaper columnist, indiscreetly published a photo of one of their bookshelves on Twitter, and some of its contents provoked leftist accusation of thought-crime.

The Spectator commented:

People want to know why Michael Gove owns “racist” and “anti-Semitic” books’, reports the Independent’s website. By ‘people’ it actually means the time-rich Twitterati, who have discovered a new hobby: bookshelf policing. And the latest bookshelf to fail their purity test, to commit the sin of containing books these people disapprove of, is Gove’s.

Yes, not content with policing speech, tweets, jokes and even hairstyles (witness the screams of ‘cultural appropriation’ that greet any celeb who wears her hair in a way her race isn’t meant to), now the offence-taking mob is policing bookshelves. The Shelf Stasi, we might call them, peruse the tomes in people’s private book collections and bark ‘Verboten!’ if they spy something unacceptable.

Sarah Vine the Daily Mail columnist and Gove’s wife, posted a photo of one of their bookshelves on Twitter and almost instantly the literature cops were out in force. As the Independent puts it, people spotted ‘something sinister’. They always do. Everything’s sinister to people who live to take offence.

The sinister thing in this case was a book by David Irving, the historian and Holocaust denier. And a copy of The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard J Herrnstein, which argues that intelligence is shaped by environmental factors and genetic inheritance. Oh, and Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, which, as the Independent balefully informs us, ‘praises individualism and defends capitalism’. Lock up Vine and Gove instantly!

The meltdown was epic. Owen Jones, who can never resist the thrill of censorious rage, pointed a judgemental finger. It is very iffy, he said, that a Cabinet member owns a book by ‘one of the most notorious Holocaust deniers on earth’. Hicham Yezza, a writer for the Guardian, went further. If this bookshelf had been on Through the Keyhole, he said, ‘I’d have guessed Anders Breivik’.

Right, so Michael Gove is being spoken about in the same breath as one of the worst mass murderers on the basis of his bookshelf. That is deranged. It isn’t Gove and Vine who have behaved badly (by merely owning books!) – it’s the frothing Twitterati with their borderline medieval insistence that certain books should be banned. Why don’t they draw up an Index Librorum Prohibitorum decreeing which books are ‘contrary to morality’ and should never be read, as the Vatican did in the 1500s?


29 Apr 2020

A Fine Argument For Home Schooling

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How can a remote place like Matanuska-Susitna, Alaska gain the attention of the rest of the world? Why, it need merely elect a school board and turn the bozos loose to make micromanaging curriculum decisions. NBC News.

An Alaska school board removed five famous — but allegedly “controversial” — books from district classrooms, inadvertently spurring renewed local interest in the excluded works.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison were all taken off an approved list of works that teachers in the Mat-Su Borough School District may use for instruction.

The school board voted 5-2 on Wednesday to yank those works out of teachers’ hands starting this fall. The removed books contained content that could potentially harm students, school board vice president Jim Hart told NBC News on Tuesday.

“If I were to read these in a corporate environment, in an office environment, I would be dragged into EO,” an equal opportunity complaint proceeding, Hart said. “The question is why this is acceptable in one environment and not another.”

“Caged Bird” was derided for “‘anti-white’ messaging,” “Gatsby” and “Things” are loaded with “sexual references,” “Invisible” has bad language and “Catch” contains violence, according to the school district.

Dianne K. Shibe, president of the Mat-Su Education Association teachers union, said parents and her members were stunned by the board action.

Even though the school board had listed an agenda item to discuss “controversial book descriptions,” Shibe said no one believed those works were under serious threat.


29 Mar 2020

Used Books


“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

— Virginia Woolf

11 Dec 2019

Meeting Norman Maclean

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Rebecca McCarthy, as teen-age girl, got to meet and talk with the great Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It.

John and I were riding around Seeley Lake when we turned down the narrow driveway to Norman’s cabin. John made a habit of checking on the older summer people, and today was Norman’s day.

The cabin was on a knoll overlooking the water. There were tamaracks all around it. As we approached the door, I could hear someone inside humming. Before John could knock, Norman opened the door, smiling, inviting us in. He stepped into the kitchen, took the lid off a Crock-Pot, and stirred whatever he was cooking, releasing a delicious, meaty aroma. He herded us onto the screened porch, then disappeared, humming as he walked. A few minutes later, he returned with two tumblers half full of something brown, handed one to John and one to me, then went back inside for his glass. He sat down in a chair near me and began to talk.

“Rebecca, this is Scotch on the rocks. Before dinner, you can drink Scotch or bourbon, with ice or water or club soda. With a twist of lemon in the Scotch if you like. Or you can have a glass of sherry.
“A Tom Collins, a gin and tonic, those are drinks for you and your boyfriend after a game of tennis. Not before a meal. With food, you can have wine. And after a meal, you can have another glass of Scotch or bourbon. Or a sherry. Or a cordial, maybe brandy. That’s it, darling, those are your choices.”

I looked at the Scotch in my glass. I was 16, and I had never had a real drink. The Scotch smelled and tasted like lighter fluid, but I managed to swallow a little without choking. It went straight up my nose, setting my nasal passages on fire. Norman was complaining to John about some clear-cutting bastard who needed his testicles removed. From my brother’s response, I realized that the bastard was the ranger who lived next door to us, who I had thought was a nice man. I looked around the porch. There were two beds against one wall and a few chairs and tables. I drank some more Scotch and closed my eyes, then opened them and gulped down the rest of the drink.

“Rebecca, darling, I’ll get that,” Norman said as he took my glass away. He soon returned with more Scotch. I made it about halfway through the second drink before getting up and lying down on one of the beds.


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