Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Two Men Who Loved Books Too Much

55. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: the True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, by Allison Hoover Bartlett

There are many kinds of book collectors. Some collect a particular author or subject matter, some incunables and others modern first editions. Most are rational, law-abiding citizens. But sometimes the urge to collect becomes an obsession, as with Sir Thomas Phillipps' desire to own a copy of every book in the world. (I highly recommend A.N.L. Munby's Portrait of an Obsession, a distillation by Nicolas Barker of the five volumes of Phillipps Studies.) And sometimes, as with John Gilkey, the subject of Ms. Bartlett's book, it causes the collector to turn to crime.

Gilkey was (is?) a book thief. He seems to have wanted books, not for their content, but to have them, to possess them as physical objects, and as a signifier of taste. But, not having the money to build his collection, he took the view that he had a right to have a collection and that, if book sellers charged more than he could afford, he could simply take them. He gathered, often through retail jobs, credit card information, and used this to purchase books.

Bartlett juxtaposes Gilkey's story with that of Ken Sanders, a book seller and one-time chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America security committee, who became as obsessed with hunting down Gilkey as Gilkey was with hunting down books to steal.

Bartlett conducted extensive interviews with both, and one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the way its writing caused the author to become a bit obsessed herself, not so much with books, though she feels a bit of temptation herself, but with the story. She goes with Gilkey, during a time when he was not locked up, to a store from which he had stolen in the past. He reveals to her certain information, and she struggles over whether to pass it on, knowing that, if she does so, he might close his mouth to her and affect her ability to write her book.

There are those who, looking at my double-shelved bookcases, and the piles of books on my floor and most flat surfaces in my apartment, would call me a woman who loves books too much. I feel what Bartlett terms the "sensory enticement" of books, enjoy the feel of a heavy paper with deckle edge, the smell of a leather binding, the heft of a volume in my hand. But I cannot fathom stealing a book, however tempted, and would say, with the medieval scribe, that a book thief should have "his name be erased from the book of the living and not be recorded among the Blessed".

The book is well-written and well-researched (though I noted a couple of errors in legal procedure, these are minor in relation to the book as a whole), and is sure to please all who love books, detective stories, and the psychology of obsession.

56. Bibliomania: a Tale, by Gustave Flaubert

This small volume from the Rodale Press contains the short story by Flaubert, based upon the true story of a monk who, upon the dispersal of his monastery's library, set himself up as a bookseller in Barcelona. When a rival book dealer outbid him for a unique volume, the rival's home burned down and the man's body was found in the ruins. When the book was found in Don Vincente's home, he was charged with the murder and confessed to it, and others - all people who had bought books from him, books that he could not bear to lose. At his trial for murder, his counsel argued against the alleged motive, contending that the book was not, in fact, unique. This revelation upset DonVincente more than being convicted and sentenced to death!

Flaubert's tale does not follow Don Vincente's story exactly. Some of the alterations he introduces create a very different sort of character of his protagonist. Giacomo, the former monk, was not a librarian. Indeed, he can barely read. His obsession is for books as objects: "He loved a book because it was a book; he loved its odour, its form, its title". His desire for the unique book is "to have it for himself, to be able to show to all Spain, with a smile of insult and pity for the King, for the princes, for the savants, for Baptisto, and say: 'Mine, this book is mine!' and to hold it in his two hands all his life, to fondle it as he touches it, to take in all its fragrance as he smells it!"

There is a twist at the end of Giacomo's trial that shows how far a man may go to ensure that he and he alone owns a book.

The Rodale Press edition has suitably spooky illustrations by Arthur Wragge (one accompanies this review). Unfortunately, the translator is not identified.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Newberry Library Book Fair

It was a beautiful day today. The sun was shining, the temperature was, well, temperate, neither too hot nor too chilly. It was the sort of day when one should be outside playing. But, for many, including myself, the joys of perfect summer weather had to give way to the joys of the final, half-price, day of the annual Newberry Library Book Fair.

I fortified myself with a good breakfast, put a few cloth bags and a shopping cart in the car, along with the printed catalog of my collection (in order to avoid the danger of buying a book I already own, a happenstance that is not unknown!), and headed to the north side to join the line of anxious bibliophiles waiting for the doors to open. Now, it's not really necessary to get there 45 minutes before the start, but there is something rather cozy about hanging out in front of the Library with other readers, exchanging stories of great finds, commiserating with one another on the lack of bookshelf space, discussing the best strategies for book hunting, etc.

As is my custom, I headed first to Room 3, where one finds collectible books, as well as art, architecture, photography, Chicagoana and cookbooks. I made quite a haul there, with one book accounting for nearly one-third of what I bought in that room (you pay for books in that room separately).

54. It is Parodies on Walt Whitman, edited by Christopher Morley, and I found it as I was getting ready to check out. I picked it up, and started laughing right then and there! Some rather well-known names have pieces in this volume, including G.K. Chesterton and Ezra Pound. Quite a number are from British and British Commonwealth authors and journals such as Punch, which leads to poems about Oxford and punting and dons, and things like:


1. "To the Leaden Leaves they Turned"

Behold I am not one that troubles the Permanent Head or the
The regulations never apologize, neither do I apologize:
I find letters dropped on my desk and each one minuted by the
Chief Clerk,
And I leave them alone, knowing that if I do others will come and
go forever.
When the proofs and the figures were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams to add, divide, and
assemble them,
How soon unaccountably I became sick.
Behold I am one that goes out for a walk and smokes.


There are parodies that capture Whitman's homoeroticism, poems about opera and cricket and Joseph Smith and the Spanish-American War. Israel Zangwill is represented by A Song of Advertisements and John Reed (of Ten Days that Shook the World) has


Wash! Flung to the four winds of Manhatta,
I, Walt Whitman, see this.
The simple, democratic wash of my
camerados ---
Italianos, Muscovites, and even Americanos ---
Undershirts, underdrawers, kimonos, socks, bedclothes, pajamas;
PInk, red, green, of various tints, shades and colors;
Some with holes in them, some without holes in them;
Tattered, faded, patched, the Female's equally with the Male's I sing.

This is one funny book.

Okay, I got a bit carried away there! I meant to just list what I bought, but I couldn't resist telling more about that one.

I also found:

Jammin' at the Margins: jazz and the American cinema, by Krin Gabbard

The Journal of Major George Washington: An Account of His First Official Mission, Made as Emissary from the Governor of Virginia to the Commandant of the French Forces on the Ohio, Oct. 1753-Jan. 1754 (a facsimile)

The complete guide to Boston's Freedom Trail, which will come in handy on my trip there in August

Venice Botteghe: Antiques, Bijouterie, Coffee, Cakes, Carpet, Glass... A Handbook for the Self-Assured Shopper, which I hope will come in handy in the not-too-distant future!

Iain Pears' The Titian Committee

Shylock: a Legend and its Legacy

Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen

Reading Zen in the Rocks: the Japanese dry landscape garden

Talking Mysteries: conversations with Tony Hillerman (which includes a Jim Chee short story)

Unlawful Occasions, a Henry Cecil book that I don't already have!

Boccacio's The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta

The Story of Kormak, translated by William Morris and published by the William Morris Society, with plates of Morris' manuscript

The Narrowing Stream, by John Mortimer

Lincoln esteemed Washington, a collection of Lincoln's known references to the first President, by Edmond Meany

Women Chefs: a collection of portraits and recipes from California's culinary pioneers (including my sister!)

Smart collecting : acquisitions 1990-2004 : celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago (this is one of my favorite local museums)

The delightfully illustrated The zoo of Zeus: a handbook of mythological beasts and creatures, by Bernarda Bryson

John Betjeman's Ghastly Good Taste

Disbound and Dispersed: the Leaf Book considered, by Christopher de Hamel. This was a marvelous exhibition, and I was sad that I could not afford the exhibition catalogue. I could today!

Bella Chagall's First Encounter. This includes Burning Lights, which I already have, but has additional material.

Cynthia Saltzman's Portrait of Dr. Gachet: the story of a Van Gogh masterpiece

Culinary Herbs and Condiments, by Maud Grieve

The Art of the Cocktail: 100 classic cocktail recipes (which has gorgeous color photographs)

and last, but certainly not least, "Dear Julia--"; letters from Martha Freeman Esmond to her friend Julia Boyd, of New York, in the days--"When Chicago was young"

I also picked up a couple of books for my sisters: Zydeco, by Ben Sandmel with photographs by Rick Olivier, and Great Buildings of San Francisco: a Photographic Guide, by Robert C. Bernhardi. Both excellent books which I wouldn't mind having myself, should either turn out to be already owned by the intended recipient.

A good time was had by all.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Permissions: A Survival Guide: Blunt Talk about Art as Intellectual Property

53. Permissions: A Survival Guide: Blunt Talk about Art as Intellectual Property, by Susan M. Bielstein

Susan Bielstein is the executive editor for art, architecture, classical studies, and film at the University of Chicago Press. In that capacity, she has dealt with the vexed and complex question of how intellectual property law applies to the visual arts, in the context of the use of images to illustrate academic texts.

Now, it would not be unreasonable for you to think that this is a subject that only lawyers could love, but you would be wrong. In Bielstein's capable hands, it is a fascinating and, at times, even humorous subject. The distinctions between copyright permission and use permission, the way practicalities (the need for a reproducible image, the desire to avoid offending an institution with which one may have to deal in the future) affect whether and how one requests permission, the intricacies of determining what is in copyright, these are the stuff from which she has created a volume that is of great practical use to the author, editor and publisher.

But the non-professional will also find it of interest. How does the ease with which technology allows reproduction of images affect these issues? What is the interplay between property rights and personalty rights and privacy? What effect does the institutional claim of copyright over images that are likely public domain have on future use? These are questions the answers to which concern us all, because they will have an impact on the availability of information. An example from my own recent reading comes to mind. I had read a non-fiction book about a Caravaggio painting, and commented negatively on the absence of images. How, I wondered, was it possible to write a book about a piece of art without showing us that art? I think now that it is quite likely that permission to use images of the work was denied. If that is the case, then I can say without hesitation that the book was much the poorer for it. Why an institution would deny such permission (or make the cost prohibitive) is, frankly, beyond me.

To make her points, Bielstein has included with every image information regarding not merely the copyright, but whether and how much of a fee was requested, how the image was obtained (JPEG, transparency, etc.), and sometimes lengthy explications of the image's status.

As she says, "Welcome to the Fun House."

Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence

52. Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence, by Gene Brucker

In 1455, in Florence, Lusanna di Benedetto, a widow of the artisanal class, brought suit against the noble, Giovanni della Casa, attempting to prove that he had secretly married her, and that, therefore, his publicly celebrated marriage to another was bigamous.

Professor Brucker has taken the simple records of this lawsuit and has used them as the framework for a short, but information-packed, account of Florentine society in the 14th-century. This story of a woman who challenged class and hierarchy in order to protect her reputation and prove the legitimacy of her marriage has a great deal to teach us about the legal process of the time, the interplay and tension between civil and church authority, the relationship between social classes, gender norms, and, of course, marriage laws and customs. This book shows Brucker as not only a scholar, but a story-teller, one who can turn the dry papers of the law courts into a fascinating human narrative. In particular, he brings Lusanna and Giovanni to life. We can almost feel what they felt, and understand how their upbringing, social positions and expectations brought them, first, together, and then into conflict. I was, frankly, surprised to find how much I had learned from a book of slightly over 100 pages!

As one who believes that one of the great disadvantages of closed stacks and internet search engines is the minimized opportunity for digression and serendipitous finds, I was delighted to read that this book was the result of Professor Brucker's fascination with a story that he came across while doing research into another matter at the Florentine State Archives. Indeed, he temporarily abandoned that research to concentrate on this story. A man after my own heart!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow

51. The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow, by Donald McRae

If you are going to write a biography of someone who has been the subject of as many books as Clarence Darrow has, it's not enough to write well. You'd better have something new to say. Unfortunately, McRae, while a decent enough writer for the most part, does nothing to add to our knowledge or understanding of Darrow.

For many years, Darrow carried on an extramarital relationship with journalist Mary Field Parton. He was clearly the love of her life (despite her marriage to Lemuel Parton); whether she was the love of his is not, I think, as clear as McRae suggests. McRae has taken this relationship, using Parton's diaries, letters between Darrow and Parton, as well as writings and interviews with Parton's daughter, Margaret, and has set it as a framing device for his description of three of Darrow's most famous cases, cases that came towards the end of his legal career.

The difficulty is that those cases (the Leopold-Loeb sentencing hearing, the Scopes trial and the murder trial of Ossian Sweet and his co-defendants) have been written about at great length. Here's one bibliography regarding Scopes, and this was compiled more than ten years ago! And the same source on Leopold and Loeb. Although writings about the Sweet case are not as extensive, they are readily available.

If the Parton connection had any relevance to, or effect on, Darrow's participation in, or conduct of, these cases, then the device would work. But, if she did, it is not apparent from McRae's book. For the most part, he simply quotes her diaries or her daughter's writing as to what she was feeling at the time of the events, or engages in speculation as to her or Darrow's reactions. Further, he takes Mary and her daughter (who was quite young at the time of these events) at face value, without seeming to take into account their biases. Should we really assume that Mary is correct in her assessment of Darrow's wife, Ruby, and his satisfaction or lack thereof in his marriage, when she wanted to be married to him herself? People are not generally objective about their rivals in love!

I have the sense that McRae thought there'd be a book in Darrow's relationship with Parton, but found that there simply wasn't sufficient source material to write a full-length book. So he used it as padding. This would have been far better off as an article in a periodical such as The New Yorker.

Finally, I am tired of non-fiction writers who really want to be novelists. Non-fiction is about fact. It is not about pretentious, overblown invention. The opening paragraph of the book gives a broad hint of problems to come. I have to quote that paragraph in full, with my comments, so you'll see what I mean:

"Darkness spread slowly across a city in tumult. It seeped through the burnt orange and faded [is that a verb or an adjective?] red streaks of a sky that softened the stone buildings towering over her [Who is "her"? The "darkness"? The "city"?] Alone in the Loop on a summer evening [well, that's arrant nonsense to anyone who knows the Loop!], Mary Field Parton picked her way through the teeming streets, slipping quietly past the blurred faces and babbling voices. [Wait! What happened to "Alone in the Loop . . . ?"] And the farther she walked the more she lowered her gaze, as if willing herself to become invisible. The dusk framed her own trepidation [huh?] as she went to meet the man she had loved so long."

Writing like this is guaranteed to lose me from the start.

Authors beware!

I often read more than one book at a time. Recently, both books I was reading were Dreadful Warnings to Would-be Authors! Well, not really, but the protagonist of each was a writer who, in the course of trying to achieve success, encountered malevolence. While each book was actually quite different, each contained elements of fantasy or the supernatural. And each was excellent in its own way.

49. The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Anyone who loved Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind will be enthralled by this story of a young journalist who, after having made his name writing pulp fiction, is hired by a mysterious publisher to create the founding scripture of a new religion. Set in Barcelona in the 1920, the novel follows the career of David Martín as he becomes entranced by the beautiful Cristina Sagnier and ensnared by Andreas Corelli of Éditions de la Lumière.

We again find ourselves visiting the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where Martín chooses (or is chosen by) a book called Lux Aeterna. (Odd coincidence: I reached this point in the novel just after listening to Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna on the radio.) He soon learns that the author lived and worked in the house that he himself has bought, but the connections are, in fact, deeper and odder. As Martín hunts for information about that author and his strange employer, he is plunged into mystery upon mystery, and with him we haunt the dark side of Barcelona and of life.

Along with the darkness are humorous bits. When Martín ghostwrites a novel for a wealthy friend that is published at the same time as his own maiden effort under his own name, Zafón takes a jab at critics, as the former that is praised as "a mature, rich work of great quality" while the latter is dismissed as "perhaps this year's worst literary debut". Venal publishers come in for a bit of sniping, as well.

I think that it will be hard for Zafón to top Shadow of the Wind, but The Angel's Game is certainly a fine second novel.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón at International House

Zafón was recently interviewed by 57th Street Books' Tom Flynn, at the University of Chicago's International House.

Comparing The Angel's Game to The Shadow of the Wind, he describe the former as darker, and more complicated, than the latter. They are both parts of what he expects to be a four book "series". "Series" in quotes, because the order of reading is not critical. The experience of the reader will differ depending upon that order, as you combine pieces of a puzzle.

He wanted to use Barcelona as a character. In The Shadow of the Wind, the city was a stagnant, post-Civil War world, while in The Angel's Game, it is a city in turmoil, exploding with the violence of the Civil War to come. The book reflects the darker nature of the times.

In future books, says Zafón, we will learn more about the Cemetery of Lost Books. The idea for that place came to him originally in Los Angeles, a city that made him think about the destruction of memory. Driving around the county, and finding gargantuan second-hand bookstores like Long Beach's "Acres of Books", a store with corridors of books, housing a demonic cat. With the loss of such stores, we lose not just books, but ideas and a sense of identity.

On literature: many people who become writers experience literature as an ungrateful lover. LIterature tries to figure out the basic elements of life. When it works, it helps us better understand ourselves and the world.

What books made an impression on him? The world of books itself, of language, words, style. As a child he read everything. He has never trusted the labels we put on books. In his work, he is trying to communicate respect for books.

On the translations of his books: the translator, Lucia Graves, is the daughter of Robert Graves. She read his books and came to him with the idea of translating them into English, although she had never done so professionally. Reading the first pages she translated, he felt she captured the essence of the his book. They worked together - she would translate, he would review it and provide ideas. (He himself is quite fluent in English.) Says Zafón, you only notice a translation when it doesn't work.

50. The City of Dreaming Books, by Walter Moers

At Lindworm Castle in the country of Zamoria, every young dinosaur has an authorial godfather who is responsible for his literary education and training. When young Optimus Yarnspinner's godfather, Dancelot Wordwright, dies, he leaves his charge a manuscript of such surpassing genius, a piece of writing so perfectly right, that Optimus decides that he must find the author and learn from him.

And so he leaves home and heads for the city of Bookholm, a town that "reeks of old books", where the inhabitants walk with "stacks of books under their arms - indeed, many tow whole handcarts laden with reading matter". But as he begins his search for the mysterious author amid the city's five thousand antiquarian bookstores, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems. Hidden beneath the city are labyrinthine tunnels where Bookhunters seek rare and precious tomes, and where danger lurks. Optimus finds himself trapped in this nether world, and must find his way back to the light. It is his adventures there that form the core of this delightfully exciting book, as he fends off living books (animatomes), spends time among the Booklings (each of whom has memorized the entire output of such literary geniuses as Aleisha Wimpersleake and Wamilli Swordthrow), and learns the secret of the Shadow King.

An utterly charming and amusing book, filled with literary puns. Many booklovers will appreciate the scene where, hypnotized by an odd form of music, the populace madly invades the bookstores, "sweeping books off the shelves regardless of title or author, price or condition . . . I had been smitten with an insatiable hunger for books and only one thing could cure it: buy, buy, buy!" Sounds like me at the Newberry Library Book Fair.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pictures at an Exhibition

48. Pictures at an Exhibition, by Sara Houghteling

What is the loss of art, compared to the murder of millions of human beings? Perhaps little. Yet art is part of what makes us human, and the destruction and theft of art because of its associations with people of a particular ethnicity is soul murder.

During World War II, the Germans looted the great museums and the great private collections of Europe. Much of this loot has never been recovered, and, even where it has, much of it has not or cannot be restituted, because of lack of records, resistance from its current "owners" or because there are no survivors left to reclaim it.

This is the historical backdrop for Sara Houghteling's beautiful first novel.

Max Berenzon (a nod, perhaps, in the direction of Bernard B?) is the son of a Parisian art dealer and his concert pianist wife. Though his father, Daniel, spends hours with him, getting him to memorize the paintings in his exhibitions, Max is not encouraged to enter the business, but rather is urged to go to medical school. Daniel instead hires as assistants young curators from the Louvre, with one of whom, Rose Clément, Max will fall in love. Despite that time spent together, there is no real closeness between Max and his father, and his one attempt at sharing in the business ends in disaster, as he bids on a Manet that turns out to be a forgery. Then the war closes in and the Berenzons flee to the town of Le Puy, and hide in the home of a gentile.

The Germans are routed from Paris. It is August, 1944, and the Berenzons return to their home to find thee had been a fire, and that the paintings in the gallery vault have disappeard. They will learn that many more entrusted to a bank vault are also gone. Max begins his attempts to find and recover his father's collection. In the process, he learns family secrets that go a long way to explaining that lack of closeness, that lack of encouragement, that he experienced.

The first, pre-war, part of this novel describes a Paris under the cloud of the coming war. The warnings are there, observed. Some heed the warnings, others, like Max's friend Bertrand's family, cannot believe that the service and sacrifice they have given France will not protect them.

The second part I found even more compelling, as Max learns the extent of the losses. These are not merely losses of art, but losses of trust, learning of how other dealers have turned a blind eye to the sources of what is now hanging on their walls. But there is honor and bravery, too. Believed by some to be a collaborator, Rose (whose character is based on a real person, Rose Valland) has, in fact, spent the war protecting art, letting the Resistance know the trains on which it is being spirited out, so they will not be bombed, secretly documenting what art the Germans have taken. She is living now with her piles of paper, knowing they will be needed.

Art is important. Its loss, particularly under these circumstances, is a tragedy. But Houghteling does not let us forget the greater loss, the loss of life under circumstances which are almost unimaginable. While Max searches for the lost paintings, he is also searching for news of his friend, Bertrand, and is taken under the wing of a survivor of the camps, who wonders when he will learn the news of his wife and son. There is a particularly compelling passage in which Max's wartime experience at LePuy is contrasted with that of Chaim Tenenwurzeil:

"It was at Auschwitz that [Chaim] learned of the German surrender at Stalingrad, thus locating his arrival there in February of 1943.

"That same winter, I was in Le Puy, where the stark, bare tree branches were like Chinese calligraphy against the sky. After a storm, Monsieur Bickart enlisted me to shake the snow from their boughs so they would not be damaged . . .

"The winter Chaim was first interned, Mother embroidered handkerchiefs for us all and gave them out on Christmas morning, out of respect for our host. We drank a fierce hot cider, then Father and Mother played belote while Monsieur Bickart stirred the fire, lost in thought, with the flush of the fire and the cider in his cheeks."

Suffering is relative.

This is a stunning debut novel, well-researched, with characters who are psychologically believeable. The portraits Houghteling draws of Paris in the days before and after the fall of Paris have the absolute ring of truth.

(If you know the whereabouts of art stolen in the war, or if you or your family had art stolen from you, there are resources available to seek restitution:
A resource list
B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum Holocaust Art Resource List.)

Never forget.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Death with Interruptons

47. Death with Interruptions, by José Saramago

"The following day, no one died." Thus begins this odd little book in which Saramago imagines what happens in a country in which no one dies. People who should die remain just this side of death. At first, the country rejoices. Death is vanquished! But then reality sets in. Who will care for those who ought to be dead? What will become of undertakers, and the issuers of life insurance policies? The Catholic Church realizes that if there is no death, there could no resurrection, and therefore no point to having a church. When it is discovered that death's hiatus is confined to one country, a profitable business springs up to smuggle across the border those who ought to be dead.

Then, after several months of no one dying, a letter on violet-colored paper mysteriously appears on the desk of the director-general of television, a letter from death (small "d", as she insists). Te letter announces that people will start to die again, but that from now on they will receive due warning from her, in the form of a violet-colored letter. So death begins again, but, to her surprise, one letter keeps coming back to her. The intended recipient does not die on schedule. She, curious, follows him. What happens when death falls in love?

How does an individual react to the unexpected? How does a society? When social norms are upended, uncontrollably, what happens?