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Book Notes, February–March 2021

April 14, 2021

Wayne writes: Not in any particular order, here are books I read during February and March, heavier on fiction than usual:

The Silence: A Novel by Don DeLillo. Scribner, 2020. I was attracted to this short novel (‘novel’ is much too generous to describe its length, even ‘novella’ would be excessive) which takes as its potentially interesting premise that digital technology has suddenly, inexplicably failed. Planes crash, computers don’t work, electronic communication is dead. What would people do without all of this, who have come to rely on it? Apparently they would not really know what to do if they couldn’t watch the Super Bowl on television. Conversation would be dull and tedious. They would not be inventive and resilient. DeLillo wrote this before Covid-19 became a thing, but it was published when its readers were in the midst of a pandemic, and for the most part coping – if with even greater reliance on technology than ever before. One could pan this slight work in so many ways, and many of Amazon’s reviewers have done so.

Ed Kluz illustration for John Fowles The Tree dust jacketThe Tree by John Fowles. Little Toller, 2016. A largely autobiographical essay by novelist Fowles, first published in 1979. A bit rambling, but with some interesting points about trees and nature. To be honest, I bought this for its stunning cover by Ed Kluz.

Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect by Annette Carruthers, Mary Greensted, and Barley Roscoe. Yale University Press, 2019. The publisher’s blurb calls Gimson ‘a central figure in the British Arts & Crafts Movement’. I had never heard of him, but that’s my ignorance, now corrected. Christina and I have a good Arts and Crafts Movement library, to which this is an interesting addition though the text is repetitive.

We Are Not Amused: Victorian Views on Pronunciation as Told in the Pages of Punch by David Crystal. Bodleian Library, 2017. Rather more of language expert Crystal (not a bad thing) and less of Punch cartoons than I expected.

Tales from the Folly: A Rivers of London Short Story Collection by Ben Aaronovitch. JABberwocky Literary Agency, 2020. I’ve enjoyed Aaronovitch’s series since 2011, when the first novel, Rivers of London, introduced Metropolitan Police constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant. Since then the books have become more complex and have branched out with new characters. Tales from the Folly (the Folly is the headquarters of the London ‘magic police’) fills in some of the gaps between and around the novels (or novellas).

What Abigail Did That Summer by Ben Aaronovitch. Gollancz, 2021. Speaking of Aaronovitch’s novellas, this one features teenager Abigail Kamara, junior apprentice wizard and fox-whisperer, who was introduced in the third novel, Whispers under Ground. The story fills a gap between Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree. I like Abigail, and Aaronovitch clearly does too.

Wild Cards I cover by Michael KomarckWild Cards I, edited by George R.R. Martin. Tor, 2010 (I got the ‘mini-hardcover’, 2017). There was a short piece about this in a recent Locus which convinced me to give it a try. I had known about the series for some time and was intrigued by the concept (just after World War II, an alien virus mutates random survivors, giving some of them superpowers) but was reluctant to start, with more than two dozen ‘Wild Card’ volumes and counting. I don’t think I’ll continue with it. Since it’s a ‘shared universe’ with multiple authors contributing interconnected stories, the quality naturally varies, with some parts more exciting, or more tedious, than others. Of course, readers of genre fiction will think of fictional antecedents: Airboy comics, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the Justice Society appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, etc.

Designing English: Early Literature on the Page by Daniel Wakelin. Bodleian Library, 2018. Despite having worked with rare books for more than forty years, I learned a lot from Wakelin, and from his book’s many illustrations from the Bodleian’s superb collection of early English manuscripts. If I had to criticize this it would be for its design: long lines of text in a small size, and often very long paragraphs, all of which is wearying to the eye.

The Desolations of Devil’s Acre by Ransom Riggs. Dutton Books, 2021. The sixth and apparently last novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, unless Riggs goes for a third trilogy. This has been an inventive series, and like all stories with interesting characters one wants to read more of them, but the fiction has often seemed forced when Riggs invents incidents or traits to suit the strange antique photographs with which he illustrates his books, and it became overblown in the fifth novel, if not the fourth. The last has some blatant dei ex machina and ends on a pleasing but perhaps too sentimental note.

Later by Stephen King. Hard Case Crime, 2021. A semi-supernatural mystery – Jamie Conklin can speak with the dead – Later moves quickly. Although interesting, as King always tells a good story, I found it less satisfying than much longer books by him, such as The Stand.

Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth beyond the Middle Ages by Holly Ordway. Word on Fire, 2021. Christina and I were sent a copy of this by the publisher, and have a separate review coming up in our blog.

Book Notes, January 2021

January 31, 2021

An advertising email received this morning from Pottery Barn asks: What are some creative ways to utilize wall space? Our answer, for the most part: bookcases! This is also our answer to the question of utilizing floor space.

 

Wayne writes: Not in any particular order, here are books I read during January:

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham. Macfadden, 1967 printing (first published 1930). The first full Albert Campion mystery. Rather clumsy by today’s standards, and compared to some of the later Allinghams.

Merton College Library: An Illustrated History by Julia C. Walworth. Bodleian Library, 2020. An attractive book on the oldest library in continuous use at a university (Merton College, Oxford was founded in 1264). Christina and I did some work there when writing The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

Beetles The Illustrators 2020 coverThe Illustrators: The British Art of Illustration 1865–2019 and The Illustrators: The British Art of Illustration 1894–2020. Chris Beetles, 2019 and 2020. When we can, time and global pandemics permitting, we like to see the exhibitions at London art dealer Beetles, and as we have a keen interest in illustrations, we’ve picked up the mostly annual catalogues for Beetles’ Illustrators shows. Each is well written and has many good reproductions. These can also be read online, but well, we’re book collectors, so we have the physical volumes.

True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s & 1930s by Patrick Elliott and Sacha Llewellyn. National Galleries of Scotland, 2017.

Evelyn de Morgan Oil Paintings. Compiled and edited by Catherine Gordon. De Morgan Foundation, 1996.

The Edwardians and Their Houses: The New Life of Old England by Timothy Brittain-Catlin. Lund Humphries, 2020. I bought this on the recommendation of a review in the Voysey Society journal, but expected it, despite the honest emphasis in the title, to have more on the houses and less on the Edwardians. ‘This book’, the blurb says, ‘is the first radical overview of the period since the 1970s, and focuses on how the leading circle of the Liberal Party, who built incessantly and at every scale, influenced the pattern of architecture across England.’ I did enjoy the section on the development at this time of magazines such as Country Life and Architectural Review.

Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler by Nicholas Rankin. Faber & Faber, 2017. Now here the title definitely misinforms. A good part of this unnecessarily thick book, entertainingly written though it is, deals with other events in World War II, only some of which are needed to treat to put the doings on Gibraltar in context; and Gibraltar didn’t defeat Hitler in the sense of direct, sustained resistance to attack. In fact, one of Hitler’s biggest blunders was that he didn’t take Gibraltar when he could (before he turned his sights on Russia), thus cutting off the Mediterranean to British support for Malta or Egypt.

Enchanted Norman Rockwell Museum catalogue coverEnchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration. Edited by Jesse Kowalski. Abbeville Press, 2020. Published for an exhibition scheduled for this summer at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Christina and I were attracted to this book for obvious reasons, but were disappointed. It defines fantasy much too broadly, from fairy tales, mythology, and the Bible to Tarzan and Star Wars, much of the focus is narrowly on illustration of the late twentieth century, and the text is often on the level of Wikipedia. But it has many images I had not seen before.

Book Notes, November–December 2020

December 31, 2020

Ten Best Books

Since 2004 the New York Times has named selections for the ten best fiction and ten best non-fiction books of the year, and earlier this year published a tally of all of these titles through 2020. Two out the 340 published over the seventeen years of the survey coincide with Wayne’s reading over the period: Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer in 2004 (on Colonial troops under George Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack Trenton on 25–26 December 1776), and The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes in 2009. No doubt each of our readers could suggest a different set of ‘bests’.

 

Looking Ahead

Blackwell’s are presenting, for pre-order, a selection of notable books to be published in 2021. Among these is The Nature of Middle-earth by Tolkien, edited by our friend Carl Hostetter. It’s illustrated on Blackwell’s home page; in the list proper it’s on the third screen of titles. Among other books scheduled for next year is the final (?) novel in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs and a new Rivers of London novella by Ben Aaronovitch.

 

Antiquarian Variation

A bookseller’s catalogue that came our way illustrated how collecting tastes and interests, not to say nostalgia, can affect prices of secondhand books. William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1948), a work generally considered an important American novel, was offered as a first edition in its original dust-jacket, in collector’s condition, for $250. But this price isn’t a patch on the $2,000 asked for a first, in jacket, of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) by Dr. Seuss, even granting that Seuss firsts are more scarce (and harder to identify) than first Faulkners. In the same catalogue, a 1930 printing of Tolkien and Gordon’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in dust-jacket and with some wear, was offered at $450.

 

New Reading

Wayne writes: Not in any particular order, here are books I read during November and December:

Heal’s Posters: Advertising Modernism by Ruth Artmonsky and Stella Harpley. Artmonsky Arts, 2020. Heal’s is a venerable furniture maker and dealer in London, who also helped to promote contemporary artists.

N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives by Jessica May and Christine B. Podmaniczky [et al.]. Brandywine River Museum of Art; Portland Museum of Art (Maine); Yale University Press, 2019. Wyeth is looked at from contemporary points of view, including racial criticism and suggestions of depression in the artist, for some of which I have limited sympathy. The reproductions are excellent.

Buried by Vesuvius: The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, edited by Kenneth Lapatin. Paul Getty Museum, 2019. A technical book but worthwhile for anyone interested in either the architecture and culture of Herculaneum or, like me, the carbonized papyrus scrolls found there.

Last Supper in Pompeii by Paul Roberts. Ashmolean Museum, 2019. Published to accompany the exhibition of this title which we saw in Oxford in summer 2019. It cleverly uses food as evidence to help reconstruct Roman life in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius.

Tales of Barnett Freedman, edited by Emma Mason. Bread and Butter Press, 2020. A slight but interesting booklet about the twentieth-century illustrator and designer, about whom we have more substantive volumes.

At the Sign of the Rainbow: Margaret Calkin James 1895–1985 by Betty Miles. Felix Scribo, 2005. We had never heard of this artist, and were glad to learn about her. This booklet, among other titles, turned up at a discount at the online Pallant House Gallery Bookshop.

Wrapping It Up: 50 Years of British Packaging Design 1920–1970 by Ruth Artmonsky and Stella Harpley. Artmonsky Arts, 2019. The authors really needn’t have apologized, as they do more than once, for writing a history of packaging. Yes, packaging (in excess) has been bad for the environment, but it deserves attention as much as anything else with graphic designs.

Sybil Andrews and the Grosvenor School Linocuts. Osborne Samuel, 2015. A small gallery catalogue of Andrews’ linoleum cuts alongside work by contemporaries such as Cyril Power.

True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe 1780–1870 by Ger Luijten, Mary Morton, and Jane Munro [et al.]. National Gallery of Art, Washington; Fondation Custodia; Fitzwilliam Museum, 2020. The exhibition, which we saw at the National Gallery, was impressive in person but doesn’t translate well into book form. The pictures needed to be larger and brighter.

Conversations with Madeleine L’Engle, edited by Jackie C. Horne. University Press of Mississippi, 2019. As with any book of this sort, which collects a variety of interviews made over a period of years, there’s a lot of repetition. But L’Engle’s books, beginning with A Wrinkle in Time, have long been favourites.

Sanctuary: Artist–Gardeners 1919–39. Garden Museum and Liss Llewellyn, 2020.

Edward Burne-Jones, edited by Alison Smith. Tate Gallery, 2018. A must for anyone interested in Burne-Jones, William Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites, though the text is sometimes overlong. The book is very well printed.

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016 (first published 1983). I haven’t seen the Netflix series, but I want to. I dabbled in chess in my high school days (never in competition) and still fondly remember the game in which I offered up my queen in sacrifice, something my opponent couldn’t resist. After that it was checkmate in one.

Design: Wyndham Payne by William Connelly and Paul Payne. ACC Art Books, 2020. A brief biography of the illustrator and graphic designer (1888–1974).

MI9: A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two by Helen Fry. Yale University Press, 2020.

Art, Faith and Modernity, edited by Sacha Llewellyn and Paul Liss. Liss Llewellyn, 2019.

A Shimmer of Joy: One Hundred Children’s Picture Books by Chris Loker. David R. Godine, 2020. Loker, a dealer in antiquarian children’s books, chose one hundred ‘outstanding picture books read by American children from 1900 to 2015’ of which ‘only one work by each picture book author or illustrator’ would be included, unless ‘two books by the same creator seemed necessary to include’. It would have been better simply to say that this is a personal selection: there are five cases when two books by the same creator appear (Peter Spier, Robert McCloskey, Crockett Johnson, Leo Lionni, William Nicholson), Maurice Sendak, David Wiesner, David Macaulay, and Anno receive only one example, and there are no entries for Nancy Ekholm Burkert, Trina Schart Hyman, William Joyce, Fred Marcellino, Alice and Martin Provensen, Genady Spirin, or Lisbeth Zwerger – et al.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Bloomsbury, 2017. Published to accompany the exhibition of the same title, which we unfortunately missed at both the British Library and the New-York Historical Society.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters by Jan Marsh (et al.). National Portrait Gallery, London, 2019. A feminist history of women artists and models among the Pre-Raphaelites. The subject is interesting but the typography (a Futura-like sans serif and a Bodoni-like modern) is unattractive.

Mr Campion and Others by Margery Allingham. Penguin Books, 1960 (first published 1939). Short stories involving Albert Campion, one of the most curious of British detective fiction characters. This is from a baker’s dozen of Allinghams, twelve of them from the old green Penguin paperback mysteries, once owned by a late arts colleague from whose library I was allowed to pick what I liked. It was only after she died that I learned we shared some of the same literary tastes.

 

Margery Allingham mysteries on shelf

A ‘baker’s dozen’ of Margery Allingham mysteries

Tolkien Notes 19

December 21, 2020

Richard C. West, 1944–2020

Richard West Minnesota 1993One of our oldest friends, Richard West, died on 29 November from Covid-19. We first met him in the nineteen-eighties, and were awed by his knowledge, kindness, and humility. When asked by a Tolkien fan if he was the Richard West, he replied that he was only a Richard West. But as one of the leading figures in Tolkien studies, he was indeed the Richard West, noted bibliographer of Tolkien, a founder (in 1966) of the University of Wisconsin Tolkien Society (which itself this year became a victim of the pandemic), editor of its journal Orcrist, and author of one of the best essays on Tolkien even to this day, ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings’ (1975). For nearly four decades we have been honoured to see Richard from time to time at Tolkien-related gatherings and to read, and hear, his occasional essays. His scholarship was always full of insight, well informed, and well argued. We cite many examples in our own books.

Richard did not shy from considering aspects of Tolkien’s legendarium less studied by other scholars, such as mythology in the story of Beren and Lúthien (2003) and ‘tragedy and divine comedy’ in the tale of Aragorn and Arwen (2006). Recalling his B.A. and M.A. studies in English language and literature at Boston College and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he explored Old English elements in Tolkien’s story of Túrin (2000) and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth (2018). He also (in 1997) gave Warren Lewis the attention he long deserved, as a historian and scholar in his own right, not merely the brother of C.S. Lewis and a diarist through whose eyes one could view the Inklings. A list of Richard’s writings was compiled by Douglas A. Anderson for Tolkien Studies 2 (2005), and will be updated in next year’s volume.

In our work we often consult both editions of Richard’s Tolkien Criticism – the first (1970) marked writings he thought ‘especially valuable or that ought to be read for some reason’, the second (1981) was expanded but, perhaps necessarily, omitted critical recommendations. A brief addendum appeared in 2004 in the journal Modern Fiction Studies. Tolkien Criticism influenced Wayne’s early efforts as a Tolkien bibliographer, and was essential to Christina when, in her first years as a collector, it served as a vade mecum as she sought out books and articles to read and copy. When we came to edit The Lord of the Rings, we looked for guidance into Richard’s ambitious but unrealized plans in the nineteen-seventies to create a variorum edition of that work.

Richard was a librarian by profession, by the time of his retirement a few years ago the Senior Academic Librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was also active in the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies symposia at Kalamazoo, Michigan, and in the Dorothy L. Sayers Society. His interests extended far beyond Tolkien, and he could speak just as expertly about comic books, animated films, and classic detective fiction. He leaves his wife, Perri, and many friends and admirers.

 

Addenda and Corrigenda

We have updated some of our web pages providing additions and corrections to some of our books:

 

The New College School Hobbit

On 14–17 December 1967, students of the New College School, Oxford, performed a dramatic adaptation of The Hobbit (‘a play for children and adults’) prepared by Humphrey Carpenter, with music by Paul Drayton. Tolkien himself was present on the final night, and reportedly was pleased as long as the text followed his own words. Carpenter was then an Oxford undergraduate, and played double-bass in the show’s orchestra.

Remarkably, two copies of the printed programme for the production are simultaneously for sale (at the time of writing). One is offered by Maggs Bros., London, in their Christmas catalogue (Catalogue 1511), as item 121: autographed by Tolkien, with light creasing to the outer margin, ‘the odd spot’, and a rust mark to the lower cover, ‘otherwise near fine’, it is listed at £8,500. The second copy, in the December 2020 catalogue (no. 169) of Peter Harrington, London, item 170, is likewise autographed by Tolkien, as well as by Carpenter, Drayton, and nine of the actors, and contains hand-colouring by Andrew J.A. Sharp, a student at New College School who played First Goblin in the production; with binder holes punched in its margins, and ‘very faint soiling’, it is nevertheless ‘remarkably well-preserved’.

Peter Harrington earlier listed (at £3,000, apparently since sold) Andrew Sharp’s marked copy of the script for the production, with his own illustrations and the signatures of ten of his fellow student actors. The work was described as having wear to its edges, light foxing and minor soiling, and a small early tape repair, though generally ‘remarkably clean and bright’.

 

Outstanding Contribution Award

Wayne and Christina with Tolkien Society award

At the Tolkien Society’s annual Oxonmoot gathering in September – this year, held expertly over Zoom – we were given the Society’s Outstanding Contribution Award, for our body of work on Tolkien rather than any specific book or essay. (We won’t look on it as an award for lifetime achievement, hoping that there is much more life, and achievement, to come!) The physical award is a heavy metal statuette of a winged dragon. An interview we gave during Oxonmoot with our friend Mike Percival was videoed but has not (yet, at least) been made available on the Tolkien Society’s YouTube channel; currently it can be seen, through 31 December, only through paid access. (Those who had paid memberships for Oxonmoot have free, password access for the same period.)

Another, audio-only interview, however, which we gave to the German Tolkien Society, can be heard as a podcast on YouTube. Please keep in mind that we both had bad colds at the time!

 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), for many years Tolkien’s primary American publisher, are exploring the sale of their trade division. HMH have had declining income since 2019, and are now focused on a ‘digital-first, connected strategy’ and educational technology. It is not clear what this would mean for HMH Tolkien titles, which presumably would be a desirable property in any sale.

 

The photograph of Richard West was taken by Wayne at a 1993 Tolkien symposium in Minnesota; Richard is seen here with Matt Fisher.

Apples of Our Eye

November 20, 2020
apple crisp

Back in July we wrote about the three apple trees on our front lawn bearing abundant fruit, and were looking forward to a good harvest come autumn. But between hungry squirrels and crows and, for the first time this year, yellowjackets, only a half-dozen apples survived in an edible form. Next year we’ll double down on yellowjacket traps; there’s not much we can do about other critters, though if not for the insects there would still have been a good crop.

In the past, Wayne has baked a succession of apple crisps which were doubly satisfying for being made with our own apples. This year we had to drive an hour to Windy Hill Farm in south county to buy two bags of their freshly picked honeycrisps. Those are gone now, but our Big Y supermarket had bags of organic Fuji, so apple crisp has been on the menu again. Here’s Wayne’s recipe:

 

Peel, core, and slice 5 or 6 apples, medium or large size (they cook down). Grease a pie plate or the like (Wayne uses a 9-inch ceramic quiche dish, as in the photo). Add the sliced apples in layers, with 1/4 cup raisins (Wayne uses golden raisins). Add a sprinkling of granulated sugar and ground cinnamon (or apple pie spice) per layer, more or less sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit. (The topping of course will add sugar. This recipe on the whole minimizes sweetness to allow the taste of the apples to come through.)

Combine in a medium bowl 1/2 cup light brown sugar, 1/8 cup granulated sugar, 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, a dash each of cinnamon and cloves (or apple pie spice), and a pinch of salt. Rub or cut in 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter; the result can be rough. Spread this mixture evenly over the apples.

Preheat an oven to 375° F (190° C or Gas Mark 5). Put the dish with the combined apples and topping in a shallow pan, cookie sheet, or the like, to catch any spill-over, and bake for about 45 minutes, until the topping is a golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack.

Book Notes, October 2020

October 25, 2020

Books on sofa October 2020

Booktober

The venerable London bookseller Sotheran’s (mentioned before) headed an advertising email ‘A month devoted to reading books & revelling in art’, and called this month ‘Booktober’ (and maybe next month ‘Novel-ember’). Isn’t every month Booktober, just as every day is Book Lover’s Day?

In the Eye of the Beholder

An antiquarian bookseller described an item as ‘interior excellent’ but did not mention the condition of the binding other than that it was made from later tree-calf (i.e. calfskin chemically treated to have a pattern roughly resembling a tree). Wayne asked for more information about the binding, as a bookseller will sometimes emphasize one quality to distract from a defect: interior excellent, (by implication) exterior not so good. In this case, the binding was in fact good, though nothing special.

Around the same time, Wayne read a Catalogue No. 1 by another bookseller. There are few antiquarian catalogues no. 1 being issued these days, especially in print, but they’re always worth looking at, since booksellers just starting out may offer exceptionally good prices in their inaugural catalogues to attract customers and develop a base. This was also a well-designed catalogue; but because a professional-looking catalogue can subconsciously confer the notion of quality on anything it lists, it’s important to read the descriptions very carefully. Wayne thought this one notable for the disconnect at the end: ‘light shelfwear and soiling to cloth, toning and foxing throughout text, some light waterstaining to margins, rear free endpaper torn, a handsome copy’.

Struggling Indies

The New York Times published an article about the struggles of independent bookstores (indies) versus the online behemoth (predominantly Amazon). ‘Buy books from people who want to sell books, not colonize the moon.’ Some of the readers who commented don’t buy books locally because they’ve adopted ebooks. Others say, with perfect reason, that local shops don’t (can’t) offer the discounts Amazon can. A few book buyers do still patronize their local independents. In our rural village in north-west Massachusetts there’s only a small shop for new books, which also sells coffee and handles college texts; it seems to do good business, or did before the pandemic, but for the most part it doesn’t stock what we want to buy (books like most of those listed below). A half hour away is a Barnes & Noble, but its stock isn’t as broad as at other Barnes & Nobles, not even all of the new Del Rey Tolkien editions which surely come under the heading of popular literature, and anyway B&N isn’t an indie. There is an indie about an hour’s drive from here, but it’s small and has never had anything to tempt us.

Sometimes we buy from Book Depository (UK), but they’re owned by Amazon, and Book Depository’s prices are sometimes much higher than Amazon’s. Amazon UK get a little business from us, but their packaging leaves much to be desired. Wayne received a box broken open at the ends, and the book inside not only had damaged (indeed, shredded) corners and edges but was wet, unsalvageable – and it wasn’t raining that day in Williamstown. More and more, for British books at least, we’re looking to Blackwell’s in Oxford, as their prices are good and their packing has been excellent. Wayne has also discovered the Pallant House Gallery (West Sussex) bookshop for certain art books; they too pack very well.

The photo at the head of this post shows our current month’s haul (so far; a few more should arrive still in October). Christina puts them in our booklist, and covers dust-jackets with Mylar, at the end of each month.

Time Magazine’s Best One Hundred Fantasy Books

John Rateliff mentioned this recent list in his blog. Some of the one hundred titles haven’t been out long enough to earn the title of ‘best’, while at the same time (as John points out) the list omits important authors such as Lord Dunsany. But really, the whole thing is a cheat to begin with. The Lord of the Rings is on it, naturally, but as three of the one hundred: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, as if they were separate works and not three parts of a single whole. Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy gets the same treatment; granted that The Golden Compass (Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass were written and published with more separation than The Lord of the Rings, they still comprise a single work rather than a series, and should be treated as one work on lists like this.

New Reading (Wayne)

Aquatint Worlds: Travel, Print, and Empire by Douglas Fordham. Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2019. A beautiful book on aquatint prints of foreign lands (relative to Britain), with much on their makers and the culture that produced a market for them. The text, however, is aimed at specialists rather than general readers.

Cosmos: The Art and Science of the Universe by Roberta J.M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff. Reaktion, 2019. A folio with many illustrations, emphasizing related art more than the science of astronomy. I’m teaching a course on the great astronomers this term with Prof. Pasachoff, and have known Roberta (Curator of Drawings at New-York Historical Society) for many years.

Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style by Alison Brown. DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2019. This catalogue accompanied the splendid exhibition we saw at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, last year.

John Nash: Artist & Countryman by Andrew Lambirth. Unicorn Press, 2019. A long account of Nash (1893–1977), perhaps too long, setting him in a larger history and art culture. Its images are often too small to be effective, and there are many works mentioned in the text which aren’t illustrated. I’ve just bought yet another biography of Nash; we’ll see how that compares. I disagree with Lambirth’s appraisal of Eric Ravilious, that his popularity stems largely from nostalgia, and that had he survived the war (Ravilious’s plane disappeared over Iceland in 1942) he would have had nowhere to go in terms of artistic development – by which Lambirth means, presumably, he would have remained a ‘decorative’ artist or given art up altogether.

The Lost House Revisited by Ed Kluz. Merrell, 2017. Kluz makes sad, haunting mixed-media pictures of English grand houses that have been lost to time, mainly to fire and neglect. Here again I know some of the contributors: Tim Knox, ex-Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum (now at the Fitzwilliam), and art historian John Harris.

POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe, 1939–1945 by Adrian Gilbert. John Murray, 2006. A more concentrated account than Gillies’ Barbed-Wire University I read earlier.

Scene through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving by Anne Desmet. Ashmolean Museum, 2020. Another exhibition catalogue, but for obvious reasons we couldn’t get to Oxford this year to see it. The book reproduces many (to me) unfamiliar wood-engravings and provides a good history of the art in the past century, but the arrangement, by theme, confusingly spreads information about individual artists hither and thither.

Serpentine by Philip Pullman. Penguin Books, 2020. A story of Lyra and Pantalaimon set between The Amber Spyglass and The Secret Commonwealth, and anticipating the latter. Filled out with illustrations by Tom Duxbury, it’s a very slim book; I read it in about fifteen minutes. But I love Lyra, and forgive Pullman the adverse comments he has made about Tolkien.

Telling the Map: Stories by Christopher Rowe. Small Beer Press, 2017. I was attracted to this book by its cover art by Kathleen Jennings, the style of which deliberately echoes Pauline Baynes’s Tolkien poster-maps. The stories are science fiction mainly in the short, strange, Twilight Zone mode. Most are too short, ending just when a concept or character was getting interesting. Even the longest piece, the novella ‘The Border State’, needs more space to avoid an ending that seems abrupt.

In the Curse, er, Course of Reading

August 14, 2020

Wayne writes: I forgot to include in my list of recent reading Science and Human Values by Jacob Bronowski, HarperPerennial, 1990. It’s not the most coherent of Bronowski’s works, but it has its moments. Bronowski remarks, for example, that in 1665, when the twenty-two-year-old Isaac Newton was sitting in his garden at home while the University of Cambridge was closed due to plague (so familiar!), he saw an apple fall from a tree. But

what struck the young Newton at the sight was not the thought that the apple must be drawn to the earth by gravity; that conception was older than Newton. What struck him was the conjecture that the same force of gravity, which reaches to the top of the tree, might go on reaching out beyond the earth and its air, endlessly into space. Gravity might reach the moon: this was Newton’s new thought; and it might be gravity which holds the moon in her orbit.

I must remember this for the Great Astronomers course I’m co-teaching this fall.

There’s also an interesting discussion of the nature of the creative act, which in Bronowski’s view has to do with the recognition of two aspects, a ‘hidden likeness’ such as between Newton’s apple and the moon, which are then fused into one. He writes:

The poem [a work of Art] or the discovery [a work of Science] exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work. In the moment of appreciation we live again the moment when the creator saw and held the hidden likeness.

I was put in mind of Tolkien’s comments on the ‘sub-creative act’ in On Fairy-Stories.

Next up for my reading will be Ransom Riggs’ The Conference of the Birds, the fifth novel in the ‘Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children’ series, but first I’m re-reading the fourth novel, The Map of Days, to refresh my memory of what went before. Christina is putting together a list of her own reading for a future post.

Speaking of reading, I read in the Williams College catalogue a description of one of this fall’s courses, which refers to it as a curse: I hope that isn’t prophetic. Our local paper, meanwhile, has these double-takes:

‘The Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] is compromised of more than 8,000 voting members.’

‘tapping the breaks’ (i.e. brakes, for those who don’t drive)

‘Faith Leaders Must Stand for Moral Principals’ (not heads of schools)

I’ve also read, in an ad, that a new webcam has a ‘wide angel lens’. Its images must be heavenly.

Book Lover’s Day

August 9, 2020

Wayne writes: Happy National Book Lover’s Day! I didn’t know it was, either, until Easton Press mentioned it in an email this morning. To a book lover, isn’t every day Book Lover’s Day?

Speaking of books, apologies to anyone who has come to this blog thinking, from its title, that it has something to do with Mary Trump’s book, Too Much and Never Enough. And welcome! We have nothing to do with The Donald, but much to do with books, so I thought that we should be saying more about what we’ve been reading – in this post, what I myself have been reading. I started to make a list of titles only at the end of May, after the library director at Williams asked staff, and others at the college, to say what we were reading at that moment, to be the subject of one of a series of Daily Messages emailed to the college community. I replied:

On my table is The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies (2011), about how Allied prisoners-of-war in WW2 kept themselves occupied (other than by escaping). Officers, at least, who generally weren’t required to work, and at least those in Europe rather than Asia, had plenty of time not only to read but also to hear lectures and take courses. It’s not why I’m reading it – I’ve had this book for a while – but POW experiences of confinement, uncertainty, and fear uncomfortably parallel current circumstances. Two books read immediately before this were Humphrey Stone’s 2019 biography of his father, wood-engraver Reynolds Stone, and Tessa Wild’s 2018 William Morris and His Palace of Art: Architecture, Interiors and Design at Red House.

Here, with little further comment, are other books I’ve read since May, more or less in the order I read them:

The Art of Darkness: Staging the Philip Pullman Trilogy by Robert Butler. Oberon Books, 2003. On the Royal National Theatre adaptation of His Dark Materials. I wish I could have seen it.

Restoration Stories: Patina and Paint in Old London Houses by Philippa Stockley. Photographs by Charles Hopkinson. Pimpernel Press, 2019.

Laurits Andersen Ring. National Gallery of Denmark, 2019. Christina and I saw an exhibition of his work at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, just before the shutdown in March.

Louis I. Kahn and the Yale Center for British Art: A Conservation Plan by Peter Kinskip and Stephen Gee, in association with Constance Clement. Yale Center for British Art/Yale University Press, 2011.

John Piper’s Brighton Aquatints. Mainstone Press, 2019.

Winifred Knights, 1899–1947 by Sacha Llewellyn. Dulwich Picture Gallery/Lund Humphries, 2016.

Creating the V&A: Victoria and Albert’s Museum (1851–1861). Lund Humphries/V&A Publishing, 2019.

The Rise of Everyday Design: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and America. Edited by Monica Penick and Christopher Long. Harry Ransom Center/Yale University Press, 2019.

Oxford: Mapping the City by Daniel MacCannell. Birlinn, 2016.

Novel Houses: Twenty Famous Fictional Dwellings by Christina Hardyment. Bodleian Library, 2020. One of the fictional dwellings discussed is Bag End from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

False Value by Ben Aaronovitch. Gollancz, 2020. The latest book in the ‘Rivers of London’ supernatural mystery series.

Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany. Crooked Lane Books, 2017. The first in the ‘Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery’ series, but the last I’ll bother with, as I found the lead character unsympathetic. In general I’m a sucker for Holmes spin-offs (see below).

The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth by John Garth. Princeton University Press, 2020.

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts. Edited by Diana Donald and Jane Munro. Fitzwilliam Museum/Yale Center for British Art/Yale University Press,  2009.

American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison. Tor Books, 2020. Holmes and Watson, as ‘Crow’ and ‘Doyle’, in an alternate-universe England in which angels, vampires, werewolves, hell hounds, ghosts, etc. co-exist with ordinary people. The reader needs to know something of the Holmes Canon to appreciate what Addison has done with it. A bit of character development left me wondering What? How? for half the book, and the explanation, awkwardly left to the end, wasn’t satisfying (I mean, within the frame of the story; I didn’t think of Rex Stout’s notorious Holmesian ‘theory’ until afterward).

The Life and Art of Clifford Webb by Simon Brett. Little Toller Books, 2019.

And now I have to choose another book! What are you reading on Book Lover’s Day?

Baker, Baker

July 24, 2020

Potato Flour Cake ingredientsWayne writes: This summer, library staff at Williams College are trying their hand at making recipes from the Chapin Library’s historic cookbook collection: among others, marrow spinage (spinach) pasties from 1671, pound cake from 1830, donuts from 1952 (from an Eskimo cookbook, substituting vegetable shortening for seal blubber). I chose to make a potato flour cake from the first edition (1901) of the Settlement Cook Book. Elizabeth Black Kander wrote this slim volume for people served by the Settlement House in Milwaukee, many of them poor, mainly Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. The book became widely popular, and new editions appeared well into the twentieth century. I bought a copy of the 1944 edition long ago at a public library sale.

The recipe for potato flour cake has only a few ingredients:

9 eggs
1-3/4 cups sugar
scant cup of potato flour (a flour made from dried potatoes, gluten-free)
half a lemon (rind and juice)

Separate the whites and yolks of seven of the eggs. Beat these whites very stiff. Beat well the seven yolks together with two whole eggs, then add the sugar, lemon rind, and juice; beat this mixture thoroughly, add the potato flour, and beat again. Now fold in the beaten egg whites and bake at 350° F in a preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. Let cool in the pan before removing the cake to a large plate.

Potato Flour Cake finishedGiven the age of the recipe, I had a number of questions. How big were the eggs? In 1901, they were probably smaller than our Large eggs, which are now the standard size. (I remember when supermarkets carried Medium eggs, but haven’t seen them in a long while.) The U.S. government didn’t start to grade eggs by size until 1943. Then, what kind of pan to use? The recipe doesn’t say. Not knowing how high the cake would rise, I decided to use a 9-inch springform pan and to grease it with butter. How hot should the oven be? The recipe calls for baking ‘slowly in a moderate oven’; well, a ‘moderately slow oven’ is said to be 300–350° F, and a ‘moderate oven’ 350–375, so I split the difference at 350 (around 180° C, Gas Mark 4), which was right. Forty minutes was quite enough for baking; any longer and the bottom might have burned.

Local supermarkets had no potato flour, so I had to order a pound from the King Arthur website. The finished product is dense and sweet, though not as sweet as I expected with one and three-quarters cups of sugar. The lemon rind (removed using a Microplane grater) and lemon juice offset the sugar and added a distinct but not overpowering flavor. If I were to make this again, however, I would reduce the sugar by a quarter cup. The cake is good for dessert or breakfast, and best in small slices.

The batter is very stiff. If you use a whisk to mix it, after beating the egg yolks and whole eggs don’t leave the whisk sitting in the batter, or you’ll find it hard to remove! Presumably, the addition of beaten egg whites (which I whisked, not all that successfully, in a KitchenAid stand mixer) is meant to lighten the cake, but the batter is so heavy that one could not possibly fold the egg whites in ‘very carefully’ as the cookbook states (to keep as much air in them as possible). I had to mix them in as best I could.

This morning, I saw a recipe in the New York Times for ‘Roman Breakfast Cake’, which is similar to the Settlement recipe except that it uses fewer eggs and all-purpose rather than potato flour, adds berries, and includes a little baking powder. This was shown baked in a ring pan.

A week ago, we had a banana gone too soft for slicing on cereal, and Christina wondered if I could make banana bread with just one banana. I searched for a recipe, and adapted a good one by Christina Lane at dessertfortwo.com, a site I’ll be looking at more closely. The result is actually more like a cake than a bread. I added the vanilla and spice.

1 over-ripe banana
3 tbsp. unsalted butter at room temperature
3 tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. honey
1 large egg yolk
dash of vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. wheat germ (optional, but I used it)
1/4 + 1/8 tsp. baking soda
dash of apple pie spice (or equivalent: cinnamon, cloves, etc.)
pinch of salt
2 tbsp. chopped nuts (optional; I used walnuts and pecans)

Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C, Gas Mark 4). Grease a mini-loaf pan well with butter. (A mini-loaf pan is roughly 6 × 3 × 2 in.; mine is an Ekco 3-1/4.) Mash the banana with a fork; add the butter, sugar, and honey, stir well. Stir in the egg yolk and vanilla. Sprinkle over the flour, wheat germ, baking soda, spice, and salt. Stir in the chopped nuts. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the bread comes out clean. Let cool in the pan before removing the bread to a wire rack.

The only food I bake on a regular basis is granola. I much prefer my own simple (some would say dull) recipe to anything commercial in a box. This consists of:

6 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (I use Quaker)
1 cup wheat germ
small handful of sliced almonds
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I use canola)
1/2 cup honey

Mix the oats, wheat germ, and almonds in a large bowl. Combine the water, oil, and honey in a large measuring cup, add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients. Spread the granola on a large rimmed baking sheet, such as a jelly roll pan, either greased or (much easier for cleaning) with a sheet of parchment paper more or less to fit. Bake for around 40 minutes at 325° F (around 160° C, Gas Mark 3), until golden brown.

Coronavirus Forever

July 19, 2020

Scull and Hammond garden June 2020Well, it seems like forever, doesn’t it? More than six months since the first word of the coronavirus, four since schools and businesses shut down, and who knows how long before things return to normal – whatever ‘normal’ may mean down the road. Williams College has invited students back to campus this fall, and most have said they intend to be here; how it will work out in practice remains to be seen. Covid testing will be done twice a week to begin with, results to be returned within forty-eight hours. Wayne’s library will be open (eventually) by appointment only, and with restrictions, and only to faculty, staff, and students, at least in these early stages. Wayne will be working from home as much as possible, as he has been since mid-March, going in only when needed and for a course on the great astronomers he’s co-teaching this fall. Many of the classes here will be held remotely even if the students are on campus; all classes will be remote once campus closes down early at Thanksgiving break, and there will be no January term in 2021.

Usually on July 4th Wayne is at the library for its Independence Day celebration, featuring an original printing of the Declaration of Independence, the text of which is read by actors from the Williamstown Theatre Festival. That wasn’t possible this year due to the pandemic, so a virtual reading was assembled using Williams faculty, staff, and family members as Declaration readers. Wayne introduced the programme, mixed the video and audio, and created video commentary.* The result can be seen on the Williams online digital repository or on Vimeo.

Scull and Hammond garden June 2020We’ve been to garden centres a few times (masked). The plants available now, this late in the season, are mostly past their best, though the other day we picked up cheap some nice hosta and heuchera for the back (shade) garden. Wayne continues to shop for groceries alone. We’ve kept our stocks up as shortages come and go. At present, at least at the closest store, one can’t find graham crackers or tinned pears, or leaf lettuce, fresh green beans, or frozen peas, and there were no strawberries to be had yesterday though they were advertised as on sale. We (mainly Christina) spent some idle hours the other day putting together a diabolically cut vintage wooden jigsaw puzzle, reproducing one of Pauline Baynes’s medieval-themed pictures, The Betrothal, based on a poster she made for Macmillan in 1952.

Travel of course is out of the question. Williams has ruled out business travel until at least the end of December – not that this will matter, as the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, which we’ve been attending every autumn, will be only a virtual event this year – and has asked employees to be careful about personal travel, after which one would need to self-quarantine. Meanwhile, the American Automobile Association would like Wayne to become a member, British Airways have extended our Bronze frequent flyer memberships, and we receive emails from our favourite hotels and restaurants in England announcing their re-openings. We wonder if we’ll see London or Oxford ever again, with the USA a hotspot for the virus and travellers from here personae non gratae, in addition to all the closings and restrictions.

Wayne also receives frequent emails from clothiers such as Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, and Ben Silver, for all the good it does. Brooks Brothers seem to have been the first major menswear house to sell their own brand of cloth masks, but Ben Silver have made an ingenious combination mask and pocket square. In most of these advertisements, the coronavirus doesn’t exist: the models are happy, maskless of course, and dressed much better than most of us are these days, with nowhere nice or special to go. At least the lockdown has reduced wear and tear on Wayne’s better clothes and shoes, which he wears to work, and he has saved a lot by not being tempted to buy anything new – which is not, specifically, why Brooks Brothers recently declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, though it’s part of the problem.

Scull and Hammond garden June 2020Our garden, at least, is flourishing, even in an official drought here in Massachusetts and temperatures too high for us to go out for long. A few photos are included here. All three of our apple trees (Cortland, Fuji, and Honeycrisp) are bearing fruit, Christina’s flowers are taller and more abundant than ever (with a few exceptions), and two Early Girl tomato plants, which Wayne planted in pots, are doing very well. Even our one indoor plant, a cyclamen, is happy. We thought that this had come to its end, as supermarket cyclamens tend to do before long, but we decided to see what would happen if we moved it into a larger pot and used a trick found on YouTube, by which the plant is watered with a mixture of H2O plus a little 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide. This adds oxygen to the soil and helps the flow of nutrients. Magic! at least for our cyclamen, which now doesn’t know when to quit growing new leaves and flowers.

 
 

* Wayne writes, for anyone interested in the tech: Ideally, I would have recorded myself at the library in front of the actual documents, rather than in my home office, but that too wasn’t possible. I’m looking off to the side most of the time rather than into the camera to reduce glare on my glasses from the monitor and a key light off to my right, and from a tablet in front of me running a teleprompter app. I made my commentary with a Logitech C920 webcam, a lavalier microphone, and Debut software. The other readers (except Michael from the Theatre Festival) recorded their voices with iPhones; I equalized these in Audacity (and used that to record my own part of the Declaration), and converted the files in VLC media player to mp3. I made the title slides in InDesign, saved as jpegs, and mixed everything together in Shotcut.

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