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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

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