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... it appears to be day three hundred and fifty-five. Whoa.

You would be amazed by how complicated a concept the thought of being done with this is. I mean, there are ways in which this project is the thing what has been keeping me sane, and there are ways in which it has eaten major chunks of my life at occasionally inopportune times (I get, like, three days every few months with my girlfriend, you know?), and ways in which I'm absolutely exhausted and ways in which I'm not and I mean what am I even going to do with myself?

Besides reread Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which is NOT COMPATIBLE with a new book a day, believe me.

The answer to what I am going to do with myself, by the way, is: not this. As incredible an experience as this has been, it ain't sustainable. I am going to, firstly, take some time to relax; secondly, run some statistics, which should be interesting; thirdly, start arranging the reviews as a book and putting together the agent packet and all that jazz. And I assume I'll keep writing up really notable books, and I have some other ideas for Possibly Interesting Blogging Tricks, but no way are any of those starting until oh let us say November or so.

Now, your regularly scheduled review.

If you aren't a knitter, this isn't your book. There are knitting books I cheerfully recommend to non-knitters, mainly Elizabeth Zimmermann, who is an absolutely fantastic prose stylist and as much an autobiographer as a knitter, but this is not one of them.

On the other hand, if you are a knitter, even if you are a complete and total beginner, this really, really is your book meant for you and you should go look at it right now. Possibly even if you only want to learn to knit.

Alice Starmore is justifiably a legend in knitting circles. Her sense of color is amazing, she lives in the Outer Hebrides and draws on a substantial Scottish knitting tradition whose history she actively researches, and one of her sweaters is so famously complex and beautiful that Adrienne Martini wrote a very readable book about the process of knitting it. (Speaking of knitting books I recommend to non-knitters.)

This book is about Aran knitting, which most people know as 'those sweaters with all the cables from those islands off the coast of Ireland'. Starmore begins with a history of Aran knitting, in which she explains where the prevalent scholarly theories about its origin arose (commercial mystification) and proves, using historical records and careful stitch-by-stitch analysis of museum-held knitted garments, that Aran knitting arose as a tradition in the 1940s and was almost certainly based on the innovations of a single knitter working from the base of the Scottish fisherman's gansey. This section of the book is amazing. Very, very few people bother to do solid research into the history of knitting, and Starmore looks at it from cultural, economic, social, and gender-relations directions. I have read books by professional historians on many subjects that were both worse and less comprehensive than this single, gorgeously written chapter.

Then she starts explaining how to do it. All you need to know at the start of this book is how to cast on, make a knit stitch, make a purl stitch, and bind off. That is all. She takes you from there through simple cabling theory (not difficult; when I was learning to knit I taught myself to cable on a twist tie), using photos of real swatches, and then expands... and expands... and expands... She is always careful and logical, going one step at a time: what happens if I use three stitches here instead of four? it does this. If I put two cables right next to each other? it does that. And within a very few pages you're getting these gorgeous cascading complexities that look as though you'd have to be Escher to come up with them, except that they make perfect sense, because they are elaborated from things she explained from the ground up. And she does explain everything she does, from which yarns make the designs really pop to how to keep the border from looking crooked. This is a model for structure in a knitting book. I would cheerfully hand this to somebody who started knitting last week, and I bet they could do Aran from it.

Then there are the actual garment patterns. I am usually one of those fidgety picky people who is like 'I want to knit x pattern only in a different yarn and a different weight and I don't like that bit so I'll graft on the bit from the other thing oh god I'm not experienced enough to be doing all my own designing aagh'. In ninety percent of knitting books, there are two patterns I like enough to consider knitting, and I usually want them to be in a color other than, say, chartreuse. This is why I don't own any knitting books (Elizabeth Zimmermann, being all out of print, is a library thing).

I would knit every single thing from this book, in the yarn she says, in the color she says, knowing I would have to order the yarn from Britain. Okay. Maybe I wouldn't do the pink one in pink. But. I would even knit the hats. I don't wear hats! I don't think I know anyone who wears hats! (As opposed to hat, singular. I know a couple of people who have A Hat.) Most knitted hats look like confused beanbags! I would knit these hats anyway.

In addition to all of this, Starmore points out that Aran knitting sometimes looks a lot like traditional Irish knotwork, except that knotwork is based around the concept of the infinite line that goes around and around, and Aran cable lines begin at the bottom of the garment and end at the top. So she said to herself, I like knotwork, and invented a method of making cable stitches into an infinite line. Which means, if you want to knit motifs from the Book of Kells into a sweater? She did that pattern for you. It's ridiculously beautiful. And there is a section on how to design Aran and knotwork patterns for yourself; I was kind of overloaded by that point but it seems as methodically solid as the entire rest of the book.

Sometimes when people are legendary it is for very good reason.

I have to buy this and knit everything in it ever. I am not actually sure I have much of a choice in the matter. God, now I have to save up for yarn from Britain.
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Borrowed from [personal profile] nineweaving, with thanks.

This is a curate's egg of a book: parts of it are still good. Other parts not so much.

But the whole is of great historical value, because it is a contemporary account of a story that does not, I think, get told much these days. Certainly it does not get told much in America. In the U.S. one can grow up reading British children's books, and then one hears about children being evacuated to the countryside during the air raids of the Battle of Britain, but one does not hear much about the ones who were evacuated all the way to the U.S. and Canada.

Sabrina, whose diary this purports to be, and her brother James, are sent to upstate New York to stay with family friends. They are eleven and eight, old enough to know perfectly well that they may never see their parents, or England, again, and to know that the boat they travel on could be attacked, but not old enough to internalize that if the boat sinks it could kill them. It's an interesting age to have as the narrator, because of course the adults spend a fair amount of time talking over Sabrina, but also a fair amount of time talking to her, as she is a bright eleven. The intersection of what she hears and understands, hears and doesn't understand, is told and doesn't understand: this is all beautifully done.

There's the boat, which is the first half, and then there is settling into America. They are privileged children in both portions and nearly know it, privileged on the boat because they are traveling with a family friend (who is evacuating with her newborn son) and can afford to pay for a cabin, privileged on the land because they are going to friends who know their parents and are loving and generous. It goes as well as this sort of thing can go. It does not hurt them any less for that.

The problem, though, is that I cannot quite buy many of the aspects of Sabrina as narrator. She is a bit too naive, sometimes, a bit too knowing at others, and I can see too much of what the author thinks a Very Nice Girl should be like inside. And her diary is full of cute misspellings which is maddening and distracting and aggravating and just a bad idea. Things also maybe go a little too easily for them, a little too nicely. There is more than a minor touch of the Mary Sue, and also Sabrina and her brother behave a bit more rambunctiously than the way they think about things would indicate they should.

There is a good reason for that last, though, which is that the author had the opportunity to observe their outside behavior, but not their interior thoughts. She was the family friend with the baby who took them across the Atlantic, famous already as an author-- there is a moment where a Red Cross lady recognizes her and suddenly takes them all home to lunch instead of issuing them Red Cross food. Travers clearly loves these children (I am sure they were lovable) and therefore makes their faults ones the readers will, she hopes, find charming. (She is wrong.)

More of value as history than as fiction, then, I'd say, although still very readable (except those damn misspellings). Also be warned: this came out in 1941, and contains in it the attitudes towards people of color which one might regretfully expect of that era. It is not nasty-- as you may remember if you have ever read an unedited copy of Mary Poppins, Travers dealt in stereotypes which she intended to be polite and kind, rather than in Not Our Sort, Dear-- but the white people in this book have an unexamined deep sense that they are superior and that is all. Ah well, on this subject books fall into the categories of bad for its era, standard for its era, and good for its era. This is very much standard.

I am not sure why this fell thoroughly out of Children's Books That Get Reprinted when a lot of the rest of Travers still firmly sits there, but it does seem to be quite obscure. Unless everyone read it but me. It's probably the cuteness. I have no particular explanation otherwise as I was certainly given far worse things to read as a kid, and less educational. Not remotely as good as the Mary Poppins books, though.

Travers has gone onto my list of people I should read a biography of, because I find upon Googling that she did not die until, good heavens, 1996. 1899-1996, and first published by A.E., and a friend of Yeats. I had no idea. Now that must have been a life, and I am curious.
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The disadvantage to writing a book review every day is that it means that I do not get much processing time. If I schedule things carefully, and read my book early, I can get a few hours to think about it, but often life intervenes (it's amazing how people want one to do things during daylight). I cannot always predict in advance what is going to need a particular sort of time and thought and care, when a book will require some turning over in my brain before I can even start to get my thoughts in order and make sentences. Some books one can review by starting to type, and some not.

It is five-thirty in the morning. I have been reading Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes since half-past midnight. I would love to go away and think about this book for a week. Then I might begin to be able to tell you how good this is, and why.

On the other hand, I suppose the resultant review might lose something in immediacy. I do not think that is sufficient, but I guess it is something.

So: my apologies. I cannot live up to this book. It is too good for me to know how to write about right now. I will try. It will not be right. I'm sorry.

Edmund de Waal is a potter by profession, and, I have heard, a good one, with work in museums. He has inherited, from his great-uncle by way of his great-uncle's husband, a collection of two hundred and sixty-four Japanese netsuke pieces that has been in his family since the 1870s. This book is a history, a story of the collection in his family, or his family around the collection, and the world around that.

I can tell you in his own words what he is trying not to do, and what sort of book he is trying to make:

... I really don't want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss...

It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Époque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.

And I'm not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago. And I am not interested in thin. I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers-- hard and tricky and Japanese-- and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and what they thought about it-- if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.

Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return.


And that is exactly what he does, he builds that exactitude and he succeeds in every way. Because in order to make those rooms come alive, and to make the people come alive who lived in them, so that he can guess at the relationship those people had to these objects, he goes and does the kind of exacting, thorough, loving research that most historians wish they could live up to, and then he gives you his insanely wealthy, intelligent, Jewish, multi-lingual generations-back family and they walk off the page. This is the only work of its kind I can think of that is equally good on every time period and place it covers, which is two continents and more than a century.

And because of who his family were, and where they were, and the amount of money they had, this is also a very particular kind of history, one of the world of people one has heard of, the world of high society and the artists and thinkers around the edges of that. They knew the wealthy and the great: they were the wealthy and the great, and interested in the arts, and they knew everybody.

They were also, as I mentioned, Jewish. This is a book that engages fully with the anti-Semitism that was going on, in all its time periods, as it must.

It also, and this is rare and wondrous, engages with the orientalism, the various crazes for Japanese art, the ways that the sculptures and the sculptors and the country of Japan have been represented and misrepresented over the years. Because that needs to be thought about, too, when you're holding one of these objects.

It is a joyous book, a joy to read, and it made me cry for two separate reasons within the same paragraph, because it also has in it all the pain that was, of course, there. This is a book that can make you rage against history as you already know it to have happened, against what you already know is inevitable.

I need to stop writing about this. I am not doing well enough at it. This is one of those reviews that makes me so frustrated with myself, because this is not right, I am not saying this well enough, I am not making it sound like the incomparable, the specific and exact and weighted book it is, the real place it takes up in my brain, the way it widens out the world. This review should be giving you this precise book, because the author of it demanded no less of himself. I am not doing that, and I do not know how to do that. I should be silent where I cannot say the right thing. Read the book. It is a masterpiece. It is the best thing I have read this year.
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A book on Botticelli produced in conjunction with an exhibition, but still of general interest and relevance.

Botticelli is probably currently the most famous painter from Renaissance Florence-- I mean the most famous who did not also do other things, such as sculpting or goldsmithing-- but it's amazing how little is generally known about him. He lived between 1445 and 1510, and painted several things which are ridiculously famous such as the Birth of Venus, the Primavera, etc., and several things which aren't (I had not known he illustrated an edition of Dante).

The essays included provide a very good biographical overview of Botticelli: what we do know (that he apprenticed with Fra Lippo Lippi, that his father was a tanner), what we don't know (why he is called Botticelli, a nickname which means 'little pot' and which was apparently originally his brother's nickname and spread or something else confusing like that), and what has been debunked (Vasari's biography, which as most contemporary was taken as gospel for generations, is apparently factually inaccurate about the last years of Botticelli's life).

It also gives a good overview of Florentine politics of the time, the reign of Lorenzo de Medici and his attempts to make Florence into the next Athens or Rome fading into the brief reign of the monk Savonarola, who held the famous Bonfire of the Vanities and wished to make Florence the New Jerusalem. Many famous artists and scholars, including Botticelli, followed Savonarola, which has confused later academics; this book argues convincingly that there is not that much difference, in some ways, between one scheme to reform humanity along utopian ideals and another. It also argues convincingly that many of Botticelli's later-period works, due to the changes in his style because of his association with Savonarola, have been inaccurately seen as lesser, and that it's quite possible many of them have not even been properly attributed to him yet.

The plates give a good overview of early Botticelli, with his master Lippi's influence clearly visible; mid-period, the ones everyone has memorized; the few that are known to be late-period, which certainly do look different and are clearly full of even more obscure academic and theological symbolism than the previous (if you think the Primavera is confusing, try the Mystical Crucifixion, yeesh); and the drawings from Dante, which fascinate me by conforming almost perfectly to the not-yet-evolved narrative conventions of the comic strip.

In short, ignore that this is exhibit-related, and find it if you can, if you need a good resource about this painter, his milieu, and how they related to each other, because there is a lot of very useful data packed into a very brief space here, including even rankings of the relative usefulness and accuracy of other books on the subject. This is one of the periods in history I know something about, both from natural inclination and from research for setting fiction in it, and there were things here I had not heard, which was not something I really expected.
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Via Nineweaving.

This is Penelope Fitzgerald's loving and hilarious biography of her father and uncles: Edmund (Evoe) Knox, longtime editor of Punch magazine; Dillwyn Knox, classical scholar, famously of Bletchley Park during the era of the breaking of Enigma; Ronald Knox, mystery writer, Catholic priest, and translator of the entire Bible all by himself; and Wilfred Knox, best described as a uniquely Anglican sort of ascetic. The eldest and longest-lived, Edmund, was born in 1881 and died in 1971. The book goes into some light family history before the 1880s and is then comprehensive through the middle 1950s, when the younger three died.

And by comprehensive I mean comprehensive. The Knox brothers, by virtue of genius, wide-ranging interests, and quantities of luck, knew just about everyone famous in their generations and were also familiar with large swathes of the not-so-famous. This book serves very well as a history of its times, though it is perhaps best at the period just before World War I, a time it looks at with relief, interest, fury and regret-- the 'All That' Robert Graves was saying goodbye to.

But the reason to read this is its tender portrait of four very different, very opinionated, very brilliant men. Also, it is consistently hysterically funny, in that way that only happens when things are drawn directly from life. The young Edmund Knox, for instance, on first getting a house of his own, piled all his receipts and tailor's bills into two hatboxes on the floor of the closet. When he had to write a business letter, he would overturn the hatboxes, and then begin 'Dear Sir, on consulting my files...'

Or there is the inimitable diary entry their stepmother, a scholar of Greek, made and was never after let to live down: "Finished the Antigone. Married Bip."

Or this excerpt, which is longer, but worth it. )

I am not going to try to attempt to excerpt the description of Wilfred at Christmas, except to say that I laughed until I hurt myself, and no favorite uncle ever had a better epitaph. There is also an utterly priceless description of Lytton Strachey, at Cambridge, falling into and out of love with Dillwyn in the space of about twenty minutes. (Dillwyn, though the book does not go into it, was seeing someone at that point-- Maynard Keynes.)

And yet it's a book that does handle the dark as well as the light, the losses and disappointments and the terrible rift that formed between Ronald and the rest of his family when he became a Roman Catholic. Wilfred was an Anglo-Catholic: it is not, remotely, the same thing. And their father was an Anglican bishop. And Dillwyn was an atheist. Unlike many families in such circumstances, they continued to speak, continued to see each other, continued to love; but they inflicted deep wounds. This is part of what makes this such a good history, the details of these doctrinal conflicts that mattered so terribly much, and which now I only know because I read a lot about this time period. Fitzgerald makes you care about them here.

I have left out so much that is good about this, from Ronald's scheme for writing bestselling mystery novels to support himself while Chaplain at Oxford (it worked) to Dillwyn's plans for writing poetry according to a schema based on cryptography (the poems, surprising everyone, aren't half bad). This is a lush book, an embarrassment of riches, the kind of thing I am always hoping to run into among the histories of various people's favorite Victorian and Edwardian relatives. This is a treasure.
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The full title of this book is Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris.

Darnton examines the Affair of the Fourteen, an incident in 1749 in which Parisian police were ordered to track down the author of a subversive poem. Louis XV had recently dismissed the Compte de Maurepas, who had been the comptroller of both the navy and the king's household, and it was not a popular dismissal. Poetry in favor of Maurepas and against the King and his mistress Madame de Pompadour was circulating throughout Paris, which was illegal. The specific poem in question was brought to police notice by a spy, who also gave the name of a man who had a copy of it; the police proceeded to arrest that man, question him as to where he'd gotten the poem, arrest the man whose name he gave and question him, and so on. Eventually fourteen men were arrested and imprisoned as part of the poem's chain of transmission, none of whom was actually the author; one other man went into hiding, but then gave himself up and traded information for his safety. The author may have been protected by one of the detainees, or may have been unknown to any of them, or there may indeed have been no author and the poem may have arisen from the numerous additions and subtractions of oral vocal tradition before being written down by somebody or other at some point.

The thing that Darnton finds interesting is that, because of the police records, we have a clear notation of who each man was (mostly abbés, minor clerks, and students), where each says he got the poem, and in which form each man had it (memorized, copy obtained from someone else, copy transcribed while hearing the poem, copy written from memory), as well as any tiny changes in wording. (It's also interesting and worth noting that everyone arrested did either have a print copy or was able and willing to recite the poem. Subversive poetry was not punishable by death, but prison was a dangerous environment, and one got out of the Bastille much faster by cooperating with an investigation. Eventually all of them wound up exiled to the provinces, which was financially ruinous but not deadly.)

In short, we have here a record of the actual modes of transmission of samizdat poetry. This does not often happen. Darnton uses this record to examine the political role of subversive poetry in Paris at that time, the reasons for the crackdown against it, the speed and reach between classes of the poetry communications network, and the rise of public opinion, a concept which was just coming into existence at that time-- the phrase 'public opinion' begins to be used towards the end of the eighteenth century. The overarching question of the book is whether to take a Foucauldian view of public opinion, which means that in meaningful ways it didn't exist until it existed as a discourse, or whether to take it as an unconscious force which nonetheless existed and had influence, but was only just beginning to emerge due to technological advances. Darnton pretty much splits the difference.

This is a well-researched, well-contextualized, interesting and quick read-- unsurprising, as Darnton is the leading historian of France in the English-speaking world and has a list of awards and honors several miles long. This is exactly the caliber of unusual and illuminating work one expects from him, although I am rather confused by the book's internal organization scheme, if there is one. But it provides vast quantities of information in a short space and provokes thought in multiple avenues. And you don't need to speak French (though you will get more out of the appendices and endnotes if you do; but everything major is translated).

Also, it has the best bonus materials of any book in basically ever, which I now get to share with all of you. You see, subversive poetry was quite frequently set to popular music, which made it memorable and more easily spread around, and the most popular tunes of eighteenth-century France were collected in volumes of sheet music called chansonniers. Some of these volumes were reference works and some were sold in the street by street musicians; many have survived. Darnton has deduced from the refrain structure of the subversive poems he examines which poem goes with which tune, and has had the Parisian singer Hélène Delavault record them, with guitar.

Free downloading and listening, with program notes and texts appended, of Hélène Delavault singing incredibly scurrilous things about Madame de Pompadour and the War of the Austrian Succession to popular and catchy tunes of the day: here you go.
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I am not intentionally trying, in the last while, to read books with titles so long that I can't get them into an LJ subject line. It just seems to happen that way. Anyhow, the full title of this book is Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York. Which is misleading and inaccurate, because the book actually starts with Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror) and goes from there to the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

There is a fair quantity of ground to cover, with that; the book is something of a brick and yet feels, at times, distressingly condensed. It is at its best dealing with the queens who have not been as marked by history or explored by other historians, such as Adeliza of Louvain (the second queen of Henry I) or Berengaria of Navarre (who tends to get lost in the general mythmaking around her husband, Richard the Lionheart). It is worst at-- well, I feel I should not complain too harshly at a historian who cannot adequately explain the Wars of the Roses in the less than two hundred pages Hilton allots herself, but the problem seems to be that Hilton assumes everyone knows everything about the really famous bits already, such that she does not actually have to provide any context for them. It does not work that way. Hilton is a writer who is capable of handling her material-- she proves that when she manages to cause the reader to remember the differences between Matilda of Flanders, Matilda of Scotland, the Empress Matilda, and Matilda of Boulogne. (I swear there were entire generations of medieval politics where everybody had variations on like maybe two names.) But she seriously falls down on the latter Plantagenets, rise of Houses of York and Lancaster, etc. and it is just not a readily comprehensible read.

In addition, she has a possibly natural tendency to want to disagree with previous historians, and to want to point out overlooked competencies and deflate overemphasized reputations. I actually believe her that Matilda of Boulogne (queen to Stephen) has been overlooked, given the sheer factual list of things the woman accomplished, but Hilton seems insistent on denying that Eleanor of Aquitaine ever did anything important, which is patently silly.

And she argues so vehemently against anyone, ever having been homosexual, including, oh, you know, Richard Coeur de Lion and Edward II, that her insistence that she's only saying this because no one can really know at this distance anyway and what's important is their contemporary reputations starts feeling a lot like that chapter out of Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing-- you know, the one titled "She Isn't, She Wasn't, She Didn't, And Why Do You Keep On Bringing It Up?" And she insists on taking, for some reason I cannot fathom, only the evidence of pregnancy or publicized attempts at pregnancy as evidence of a royal couple liking one another, which again is flatly silly as several royal marriages that were to all appearances fairly poisonous had lots of children and likewise the reverse.

Factually, it's fine. It's very well-cited. It needs better appurtenances-- the family trees should have been located in more appropriate places so a reader could actually refer to them against the text, and the map gets major, major points deducted for not including Hainaut-- but I am willing to take her word on events, dates, etc., because they are carefully proven against primaries. I really do recommend the chapters on any Queen of England you've completely never heard of.

It's just that her interpretations are so unconvincing that they throw me into doubt about her primary thesis, which is that queenship in England began as a role with a great deal of real legal and political power and then declined over time into a role with primarily ceremonial and symbolic power, until, of course, Elizabeth I. I would be willing to believe this thesis. But not the way Hilton tells it. Which is a problem.

Really the whole thing just makes me want to go read Froissart, whom Hilton quotes at length, mostly disparagingly, but in a way that makes him sound so appealingly obviously biased. This book is an exercise in sorting what to trust, which makes it tiring.
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The unofficial theme of the last two days is 'trying to get all the relevant information to fit in the subject line'.

A note: one of the authors is my roommate.

So this is a book that will be profoundly, life-savingly, devastatingly useful to about ten people in the world, and quite useful to some others, and interesting to a wider selection, and completely irrelevant to the world at large. I fall into the 'quite useful' category, although I am using it as background research for my novel and not for anything academic.

If you are studying intellectual history, it is important to know what books were available at what points in time. If the specific thinker you are interested in did not have access to a work, or did not have access to it in a relevant language, or had access to it only in manuscript, it makes a big difference. The Catalogus Translationem et Commentariorum is attempting to go through all the significant ancient authors and list all editions, printings, commentaries, known manuscripts, translations, excerpts, citations, etc.; but they've been going since 1945 and have produced eight volumes, which is not nearly comprehensive as of yet.

Therefore this, which is focused on the great ancient philosophers and their availability in the Renaissance. It gives the date of the first print edition, the date of translation into Latin, the dates of relevant translations into vernacular and their print editions, and occasionally other useful bibliographical data (it will usually let you know when something was widely circulated in manuscript).

Now, I have a novel with a chunk set in Florence in 1508, so this is useful to me, but I also find it interesting. For example, Marcus Aurelius? Almost unknown in the Renaissance. Survived in only two Greek manuscripts. Translated into English before translation into any other vernacular, which is really weird, and that English not till well into the 1600s. His place in the canon did not come till later. But Diogenes Laertius? Incredibly omnipresent, incredibly reprinted, cited, read, etc. etc., and the major source on biographical data for ancient author after ancient author. Nowadays, not so much.

Or the entire system of commentaries and summaries, which has basically gone by the wayside. The number of works mentioned which are things along the lines of an early Latin commentary on Aristotle translated into the Italian from a single Hebrew print copy picked up by the translator on a trip to Constantinople... we simply do not value commentary this way anymore. Especially now that textual emendation and correction are not participatory exercises for the reading public.

Also, without Marsilio Ficino I swear the history of Europe would be entirely different. The list of things he translated, edited, had printed, corrected, collated, wrote commentaries on, dug out of basements and was generally responsible for is ridiculous. Before him, the only Plato available in Latin was the first half of the Timaeus. After him, the entirety of Plato and vast stretches of ancient commentary on Plato and just about everything we have to this day of the neo-Platonists and neo-Pythagoreans. Did he ever sleep?

Oh, and the various pseudo-Platos, pseudo-Aristotles, pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagites and so on are also covered, along with discussion of when people began to doubt their authenticity, which was almost uniformly after the Renaissance. The Renaissance did not as yet even see the point of differentiating Seneca the Elder (rhetorician) from Seneca the Younger (tragedian).

And I will always love the various Humanist names, there was a translator actually named Hieronymous Wolf, I couldn't get away with that in a fantasy novel as it would be insufficiently realistic.

Therefore I loved this. If it should happen that you are one of the people to whom it would be desperately vital, be aware that it was put out by one of those terrifyingly confusing Italian academic presses, and therefore the best way (or possibly only way) to get hold of it would be through one of the authors (i.e. PM or email me and I'll tell her). Unless you are better than we are at confusing Italian academic presses, in which case please tell us how you manage to get hold of it so we can a) do the same and b) tell others to do likewise. But seriously, the reaction of the Italian press to being informed that if the book were given a barcode, it could be sold on Amazon, was 'but why would anyone want to do that?', so I have no particular faith.
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I know William Weaver primarily for his translations from the Italian; he's done both Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. Thrud had a fellowship for some time at the Villa I Tatti, and it turns out that Weaver wrote a history of the house, so I read it mostly out of curiosity about where Thrud had been living. A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti is I think a vanity project, honestly; it's a factual account of the house, its various refurbishings and renovations and contents, but it does not make an argument as to why the house is so important except that Bernard Berenson bought it, Edith Wharton stayed there a lot, and Harvard owns it now. There are a great many photos, and honestly that is what was important to me, but I cannot recommend this to anyone who is neither passionately interested in the architecture of Italian villas nor doing research on one of the relevant historical figures, especially as the last chunk of the book essentially reads as one long apologia for Harvard's tenancy and a lot of assurances that they are Maintaining The Place's Historical Value, which, I mean, it's Harvard, I was not going to assume that they aren't. Personal interest barely got me through this, though Weaver's prose is perfectly competent. I wonder why he wrote the thing?

And then the next night I read Paul Kozelka's The Theatre Student: Directing, because I have never been in a play and have always been curious about the directing process-- there is a lot of mystique surrounding it. Unfortunately, while vaguely informative, the Kozelka was also fairly dire. It seemed to be aimed at persons wishing to direct community theatre for an audience of children and operates on the assumption that such persons are by definition more cultured than the people around them and must bring this culture to the unenlightened masses; it also worships Stanislavsky, which does not seem entirely compatible with the previous. And the included play may be by Betty Smith, but I am sorry, a novelist does not always a playwright make. I learned some details about ways directors could organize their lives into a notebook and that is really all the help this gave me. Can anyone recommend anything better on the philosophy and technique of stage directing and acting? There must be more than this.

Fortunately after that I came to Osamu Tezuka's Swallowing the Earth.

I have an odd relationship with the God of Manga. Honestly, I don't enjoy Tezuka ninety percent of the time. I find Phoenix too unbearably depressing to be manageable, I tend to summarize Princess Knight to people as 'a comedy where all the wrong people die', and I find Urasawa's Pluto far more readable than the chunk of Astro Boy from which it is adapted. However, I keep reading and watching Tezuka, because every so often something happens like his nineteen-fifties theatrical version of Saiyuki (the English dub stars Frankie Avalon, I will never get over this), or the first ten pages of Apollo no Uta, or the Tezuka studio's gorgeously weird Kanashimi no Belladonna, one of the strangest films ever made (it's a film based on the 1860s book about witchcraft La Sorcière, and almost all of the animation consists of still pans over paintings-- I love this movie, but I totally understand why it was an utter commercial failure).

So I tend to go into Tezuka with a certain hesitancy. I refuse to become attached to his characters, and honestly I am usually waiting with trepidation for the book to do something I hate.

Swallowing the Earth I do not hate. )
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For 0 read zero. The pun is intentional.

This is an analysis of the philosophical and cultural changes surrounding the introduction of the concept of zero into Renaissance Italy, done from a comparative lit standpoint. If you think this is a book that Thrud dropped into my lap one day on her way back from the university, you are entirely correct.

It is a fascinating book, in that it is crammed full of interesting information and ideas, one half of which are impeccably supported and beautifully cited and really well phrased and the other half of which--

this will require some explanation, and I'm going to digress into my adolescent reading habits to do that. When I was a teenager, I started reading a lot of things from the New Age/esoterica section of the library, partly as a form of adolescent rebellion and partly because of the random-cool-things factor and partly because I kept stumbling across things in other books I was reading that led me in that direction. I was voracious and indiscriminate for a while-- I mean I was reading Erich von Daniken-- and I swallowed a lot of it whole because I was twelve, in the way that twelve-year-olds believe things without believing them. (This was the huge reading phase just before I discovered lesbian feminist theory.) And then, after a while, I started developing qualms. And the qualms grew to massive cynicism. I have always been the sort of person who reads everything mentioned in the bibliography of a book I really like, and I started reading older and more obscure books, shifted from New Age stuff to Renaissance magic and earlier, primary sources when I could find them. A lot of stuff on witchcraft trials. It freaked my parents out as they were okay with a kid who read fantasy but I was bringing home the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.

By late high school, I had learned a great deal about some very obscure subjects. Everything I had learned boiled down to one thing, which is I think one of the truest lessons that can be learned from reading a lot in that field, and which I not only deduced on my own but had confirmed in fictional form in those years by two authors I trust, Umberto Eco and John Crowley. Here is a main truth behind the vast majority of esoterica, both ancient and modern: if you look for a pattern in anything, you will find it. If it comes into your head that you believe in a certain correspondence of signs, a conspiracy theory, the existence of a pattern behind all this-- if you figure out a pattern and hold hard to it-- you will find evidence for it no matter where you look, evidence that convinces you when you have put it in a form you like. This is true no matter what the pattern is, whether it's the Bavarian Illuminati or that the number ten is stalking you. Humans see patterns. It is a thing we are built for. And every occultist wants to tell you that they have the true key to reality (I'll be kind: some say they have one of many), and that the thing they believe is the pattern that underlies it all, and if you understand this pattern of theirs you can do magic.

Half of this book, that I read tonight, is very good scholarship. The other half is the natural tendency of a person who has very good ideas to seek the patterns behind those ideas in everything, and insist that there are no coincidences, there are no mistakes, every piece of evidence that sounds like evidence is evidence. In short it is, and I use this term very advisedly about this particular book, magical thinking. There are some kinds of magical thinking that I think are actively encouraged by postmodernist critical methods-- I wish it were not possible to get through a comp lit program without any comparative linguistics, as the cross-linguistic pun as an actual signifier of actual significance usually crumbles before the entire concept of 'false cognate'.

In short, half of this book is totally batshit.

I recommend it highly because of both halves. )
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This is the other book Thrud picked up at the Imperial War Museum in London some time ago, along with the cookbook from two days ago. (By the way, over in the Dreamwidth comments to that entry Zeborah has both made and reviewed those potato truffles.)

This one is about clothes: keeping them, mending them, making them, reusing them, and preventing them from wearing out. I suspect it of being a lot more useful than the cookbook to a modern audience, because knitting tips have not changed that much since WWII, but I also think it's a lot less likely to be of general interest, as it is quite technical. Large chunks of it boil down to 'to mend x sort of tear in x kind of garment you should use x stitch', and although I would consider myself at least intermediate at sewing (i.e. I have made entirely by hand garments which were worn in public by myself and other persons), and I live with at least one person who is professional-caliber at it, I have no idea of half what they are talking about. Stitch names may have changed in the interval, or across the ocean, is one thing; and also the fabrics that are common today are not the fabrics that were common then, but I also think the skill set of sewing has changed generally, at least in a local way.

I mean, I am not joking when I say I am living with a professional-caliber seamstress; Thrud has done everything from genuine eighteenth-century costuming to a wedding dress. We were just talking yesterday about the fact that no one in the house has the vaguest idea how to darn anything. The thing is, we don't have to. You can't darn synthetics and the other things are, like, socks, which are cheap enough to us that it would be worth more in labor to fix them than to get new. (If I ever knit anyone in the house socks, well, that is when we will learn how to darn.) And that is one of the major differences between Now and Then: labor, and our time, are by far the more expensive thing, and as far as clothes go, throughout history the reverse has been true more often than not. The skill set of a person who is very good at sewing, in our particular first-world academic-upper-class milieu, is centered around making things, and making them to look pretty, and also if possible to last. The skill set of this book is centered around making things and making things to last, and last, and last, and, if possible, to look pretty. So not orthogonal, but not overlapping much. This could therefore then be a useful reference book to me, assuming I can extrapolate from it to mending modern fabrics-- and assuming that I want to take the time.

Because I have that option. Of course, one of the things this book is good for is reminding one that other people didn't and often still don't.

Also, of course, it reminds one of many other things which are actually past as opposed to just not right here-- for example that women used to wear rubber corsets, and a whole lot of other garments which have gone out. The sections on the care and maintenance of corsets are sufficiently arcane and technical to be by themselves reasons I am glad I've never had to wear the things. I have seen small animals with less complicated life-cycles.

Oh, and if you have a lot of leather boots, you can certainly learn how to keep them in good condition from this. Mostly I have learned I am doing everything wrong.

I shall leave you with the place this book became not just history but living at me and basically kicked me in the stomach. This is a chapter heading:

Here are some ways in which a man's unwanted garments can be converted to your own use, if you are quite sure he won't want them again after the war.


I mean. Ouch.
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This is a lot of the Daily Telegraph's World War II-era recipes, collected and organized. As a result, it's an interesting look at wartime British cookery and the way that recipes adapted to rationing, and probably not at this point in time to be used as an actual cookbook.

One thing that I note is that some ingredients that were evidently common are not, in fact, common to me. This may be an across-the-ocean thing as opposed to time period, I'm not sure; but fresh redcurrants are both seasonal and very expensive anywhere I've lived, fresh damsons unheard of (damson jam is mad expensive too), fresh loganberries right out; and apparently rabbit was a cheap meat. Oh, and suet. I have cooked with suet precisely once in my life, this time that [personal profile] eredien and I were using a pudding mold she had, and it had to be special-ordered. It is so assumed in this book that one knows how to make a suet crust that they do not bother with a recipe. And I think we have sultanas in this country under the name 'golden raisins' but they are not remotely standard.

On the other hand, of course a great many ingredients were incredibly scarce, and I was interested to notice which ones: dairy, certainly, most dairy, these recipes invariably use margarine and dry milk and something called 'household milk' which seems to be liquid but is distinguished from fresh, and there are many more uses for sour milk than one usually sees in a cookbook. Cheese seemed fairly plentiful, though, it's a staple here. Eggs-- everything here is with reconstituted dried egg. There's a section on how to make most egg dishes with dry ones, including how to fake hard-boiled egg for the center of a Scotch egg, how to fake scrambled eggs (with a helpful note that scrambled eggs are President Roosevelt's favorite food), how to do Yorkshire pudding with dried egg and dry milk. Many cuts of meat seem to have been prohibitively expensive, so they recommend you pot-roast everything, and make a Sunday joint by rolling a flatter piece jelly-roll style and stuffing it with forcemeat. Much fruit seems to have been around, except for some reason lemons, which were so dear that there's a recipe here for lemon curd using margarine, dried eggs, saccharine tablets and pounded lemonade drink mix powder.

There's also a fake marzipan made of almond flavoring and soybean flour, which actually doesn't sound that bad to me.

Many of the recipes here don't sound that bad, in fact. )
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Some while ago, as I was looking over the entries for the 2009 Diagram Prize For Odd Book Titles, I happened to notice An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (which, correctly, didn't place, as I don't think it's an odd title at all; most of them weren't; my vote for best, though not weirdest, goes to On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers). Anyway. I saw this title, and I said, 'Wow, somebody wrote a book with an audience of Thrud'. As in, I have never seen a book more specifically and obviously written for one person the author has never met or heard of, ever. Therefore we have a copy, and I have been meaning to read it for some while and putting it off because it is very, very dense.

Please note, this is an intellectual history: this is the history of how European philosophy has thought about cannibalism, not an actual history of cannibalism, and therefore this is quite a readable book for persons who are used to the general amount of gore found in, oh, histories of religious conflict and so on. I mean it is not prurient, though I rather wish there weren't chapter-heading illustrations, even though they are useful contemporary art related to whatever is being discussed.

Anyhow, this is very definitely a European history, one ranging from Herodotus to Freud but concentrated on the Enlightenment and the shift from casuistry towards the modern scientific method. As such, it is one of the most valuable books on the history and theory of colonialism and a certain type of racism that I have ever met, although I am not entirely certain that it knows that about itself.

Philosophy! )
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An interesting meditation on the history of the great utopian scientific dreams of the early twentieth century and the stories that were told about them, wrapped in something of a frame story, though not much of one, and beautifully drawn. This book begins at the 1939 World's Fair, undoubtedly the highlight of the Art Deco future-modernist fantasias, with its exhibits of models of the sort of city Fritz Lang thought up for Metropolis; it continues through 1975 and the end of the Apollo missions. In the interim it hits the major points of scientific progress, space exploration, and geopolitical fear, but I think the thing it does that I like the most is its careful, note-perfect re-creations of typical space-exploration whiz-bang comic books from the forties through sixties, correct in every detail down to disclaimers, publisher's prices, and bad four-color reproduction. Each of these mini-comics rings absolutely perfectly as an archetype of what the sf adventure story meant at that time.

The point, of course, is the evolution of the dream, especially the dream of space, and how what we got is not what anybody dreamed, though what we got is wondrous. I-- hm. I am of two minds about this. )
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A book Thrud brought home for me from the university-- she has always had the habit of bringing home books she does not have time to read herself and seeing whether I will read them and tell her about them, and if I find them interesting I do.

Buddhist Warfare is an anthology about precisely that: the philosophical basis of warfare waged by Buddhists; the theological corollaries of violence; the history of various wars involving Buddhists including wars between sects, wars of suppression both against and by Buddhists, and the role of Zen in World War II; and analysis of the discourses and the written histories surrounding these wars, along with discussion of cultural images of Buddhist pacifism and their relationship to the historical record.

I know so little about the subject matter of this book that I have to rely entirely on observation of the methodology of the scholarship to tell you whether I think it is any good. )
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The full title of this book is City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, and that is precisely what it is: an almost overly monumental examination of laughter (as thought of socially and anatomically), satire (in its various kinds), class, geography, literature, later images of London, earlier images of London and anything else within reason, all seen through the lens of the many thousands of satirical prints produced in the city.

Gatrell states that this is the first real survey of those of the satirical prints that are not centered specifically on radical politics. I have no reason to doubt him, and the prints are what really make this book. They are scatological, rude, scurrilous, witty, charming, absurd, good, bad, and indifferent, and they provide a link I had always found missing in what I know of art history. They are the direct line between the apocalypses and hell-visions of medieval woodcut and the nineteenth-century newspaper cartoon. )

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