‘Parnassus on Wheels’ and ‘The Haunted Bookshop’ by Christopher Morley

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The old Rizzoli bookshop on West 57th Street was one of those New York spaces that are so grand, so beautiful, and so established that you never even think to fear for its survival. Some things, you think, will endure even in a constantly-changing city like New York.

In the summer of 2013, the Rizzoli bookshop seemed as stable and beautiful as ever. Its interior was like walking into the library in ‘Beauty & the Beast’ — books stretched from carpeted floor to opulently-decorated ceiling. The shelves were made of wood that looked impossibly dark and old and they were matched by huge library tables that didn’t look like they could ever be moved by mere mortals. Grand chandeliers hung from the ceiling between floors, giving the whole store a warm, safe, nook-like feeling even on the brightest summer day.

I wandered in on that particular sunny day with a visiting art historian friend who I was showing around New York. Truthfully, after living in the city for almost 6 years, I had never been inside the famed Rizzoli bookstore on 57th Street. I had just heard that it was beautiful and artistic and that one really ought to see it.

Now I agreed wholeheartedly. My pupils actually dilated in delight when we walked in and saw the glory of Rizzoli’s interior. The respectful hush of the place felt very far away from the heat and bustle of midtown just outside the doors and my friend and I spent a very pleasant afternoon in the shop, neglectful of all other plans. (more…)

June 23, 2016 at 6:48 am Leave a comment

Summer Reading Lists

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As weather heats up this year, I find myself nostalgically thinking back on the various summer reading lists I used to get as a middle schooler. There were the crinkled print-out copies from school — multi-page manifestos stapled in one corner and hopefully passed out at the end of the school year by optimistic teachers with the request to try and read at least one book on the list.

There were the glossier pamphlets from the public library, where there was an annual summer reading contest that awarded much-coveted stickers if you read a certain number of books.

And then there was my own personal reading list, full of a mixture of aspirational books I thought I ought to read (one misguided summer at age twelve I attempted John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and was much chagrined to discover it had nothing to do with rabbits) and as many Baby-Sitter Club books as I could get my hands on. (more…)

June 16, 2016 at 6:34 am Leave a comment

‘Shadows on the Nile’ by Kate Furnivall

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I could write a book unto itself about dodgy books I’ve read merely because of a passing relation to Egypt of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On this list, I would include:

And now, with great fanfare, let us add Kate Furnivall’s Shadows on the Nile to their esteemed company!

Basically, the book tells the story of our Fearless Heroine (Jessie) as she tries to track down her missing Egyptologist brother. Of course, this almost immediately throws her in the path of “dashing and impoverished aristocrat, Sir Montague Chamford,” who inexplicably joins her on her quest all the way to the bloody deserts outside of Luxor.

Oh, and she has a secret autistic brother who has been locked away and forgotten in some asylum by her almost impossibly cruel parents. Oh, and she’s an artist who lives with a lady saxophonist. Oh, and fascism’s on the rise. Also, there’s social unrest at home and abroad. And workers are rioting and subsequently being brutally attacked by police. And, just for some good old-fashioned character development, she has a cat. (Because, obviously, a cat = character development.) Also, she has inexplicably picked up expert-level Egyptological expertise from her brother, evidently through some kind of osmosis.

Needless to say, this book is trying to be a great many things and, I regret to say, fails on most fronts. (more…)

June 13, 2016 at 6:19 am 2 comments

‘The Wood Beyond the World’ by William Morris

This post is part of our on-going 2016 Spring Reading Spree. Kick off your own reading spree this spring by giving some love to the unread books on your shelf!

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Oh, William Morris, you just did everything, don’t you? You were not content to merely create beautiful design or start the entire trend of Victorian medievalism or lead the Arts and Crafts Movement or create utterly lovely books. No, you had to also go ahead and invent the modern genre of fantasy fiction with your novel The Wood Beyond the World. Just couldn’t help yourself, is that it?

William Morris (who, in case you couldn’t tell, I adore) wrote The Wood Beyond the World in 1894 — that’s roughly 30 years before Lord Dunsany produced his fantasy urtext The King of Elfland’s Daughter and two years before Morris’ own influential The Well at the World’s End.

In other words: this is it, folks. This is the first adult fantasy novel. (more…)

June 9, 2016 at 6:54 am Leave a comment

Companion Reads: ‘The Invisible Woman’ and ‘Katherine Swynford’

This post is part of our on-going 2016 Spring Reading Spree. Kick off your own reading spree this spring by giving some love to the unread books on your shelf!

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Ah, mistresses. They are a constant source of intrigue and interest throughout history, often holding unique positions of power and influence over their menfolk. And yet there is frequently a marked lack of information left behind them. Their identities becomes so sublimated to their romantic partners that little source material remains for historians to use to try and understand the women themselves.

I recently read one such book that triumphs over such source-related adversity and it reminded me of another triumphantly good “a woman lost to history” biography. I speak of Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens and Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt’s Scandalous Mistress, the latter of which I first read and enjoyed seven years ago. Both tackle the challenges of writing about mistresses with aplomb and historic precision and both share the goal of bringing vital women back from historic obscurity.

I’ve written about Katherine Swynford here before, but much like Swynford, The Invisible Woman is a terrific example of how to write a great biography when sources are few and far between. Basically, the rule of thumb seems to be: GO BROAD. (more…)

June 2, 2016 at 6:03 am Leave a comment

‘Just My Type’ by Simon Garfield

This post is part of our on-going 2016 Spring Reading Spree. Kick off your own reading spree this spring by giving some love to the unread books on your shelf!

just-my-typeOnce upon a time in college, I took a class where the professor stood up on the first day of class and said, “This course will change your life.” Half of the students stifled sniggers at such a cliched pronouncement as he continued on to promise that the course would completely change the way we looked at the world.

I remember looking around the cluttered workshop in which we were meeting and, for some reason, believing him. We were in a printer’s studio and the class was an introduction to letterpress printing. And I was right to believe my professor: he changed my life in the same way Simon Garfield’s Just My Type will change the way you look at the world: once you see fonts, you can’t unsee them.

Just My Type has a great topic at its heart: it tells the story of fonts and typographic design and printing history, spotlighting specific fonts for special attention along the way. It’s hard to articulate how interesting this is until you’ve actually taken a moment to stop and look around to see all the fonts surrounding you in their nearly infinite variety. Type is everywhere this days and it says a lot more than whatever it spells out in the literal sense. (more…)

May 26, 2016 at 6:55 am Leave a comment

‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton

This post is part of our on-going 2016 Spring Reading Spree. Kick off your own reading spree this spring by giving some love to the unread books on your shelf!

catton-luminaries

As Kate has previously noted in her post on Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, it is incredibly hard to write about big, excellent books. Where do you start when you love something so lengthy and for so many reasons? What do you do when you finish an epic book and want to talk about everything and everyone in the book?

Like The Count, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a hefty tale, largely fueled by revenge and other sorts of nefariousness, that takes its time unraveling its plot and the relationships between its characters. Additionally, The Luminaries is akin to the Victorian mystery novel, but instead of having a Father Brown or a Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Marple to do the mystery-solving, the responsibility of figuring out what actually happened is divided amongst thirteen people. They all want to solve the mystery and they each have a specific piece of information that might do the trick, but they are often hampered by their own blind-spots and prejudices.

But more than the triple mystery at its heart, The Luminaries is an insightful exploration of character and New Zealand’s own history. (more…)

May 18, 2016 at 6:09 am Leave a comment

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