Book Notes: Hours Later….

A place for exploration... Source:

A place for exploration…

Some bookish sites that can magically make hours of your life disappear:

•  Literature Map – type in the name of an author and a floating map appears with other writers’ names at various distances from your choice; the closer to the original name, the closer in proximity of style. Some interesting suggestions have popped up to add to my Mount TBR.

•  50 Watts – a marvelous place to see the best of the printed page and illustration; click on one of the thumbnails to go to a detailed post about a publication; each post includes short, but enlightening notes and a cornucopia of the illustrations.

•  Writers & Co – take a listen to Eleanor Wachtel’s show on the CBC, she just might be the best interviewer of writers out there; knowledgeable and always gives the writer the time to actually answer her perceptive questions; she’s the audio equivalent of The Paris Review author interviews.

•  The Public Domain Review – the Open Knowledge Foundation runs this site which has fascinating articles about all sorts of unusual artsy things.

August 25, 2015

Book Review: A Wandering Character

Death and Mr. Pickwick – Stephen Jarvis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

Death and Mr. Pickwick - S. JarvisSamuel Pickwick – a gullible, roly-poly, good-hearted, innocent, jolly man… or a malign influence on those who created him? At first blush Stephen Jarvis’ first novel seems to be a fictionalized biography of the nineteenth-century illustrator, Robert Seymour, who came up with the characters of Mr. Pickwick and his friends. It is that, but it’s also a biography of sorts of Samuel Pickwick and many who are somehow connected to him. The novel has a nineteenth-century feel with its multiple story-lines and characters and is about as long as one too.

It starts quite cleverly with a scene in which it’s easy to make certain assumptions about who the characters are and I fell right for it. Then it’s off to begin the story starting with Seymour’s father getting ready to take the beautiful furniture he makes to his local market in Somerset to sell, but before he sets off:

Seymour put his boot upon the footboard and took up the reins–but just then saw a magpie hopping across the road. The bird paused to stare. As was the tradition, he was about to take off his hat to the magpie, and had raised his hand to the brim, when the woman opened the door and asked Seymour to bring back a quarter of cheese from the market.

As it turns out that was one insulted magpie.

The book alternates between the slowly unfolding story of Robert Seymour; then a person or place mentioned will lead to another story and that can spin off yet another. There is also an overall narrator in the present day, a stand-in for Jarvis, who is a scholar who has studied Robert Seymour. In fact, Jarvis and his wife tracked down Seymour’s gravestone and worked for years to restore it to his gravesite. (The Guardian had an interesting story on it.)

As Jarvis tells it, Seymour grows up poverty-stricken in London, drawing constantly, apprenticed to a pattern maker, but leaves to go out on his own as an artist, illustrator and caricaturist. This is at a time when Rowlandson and Gillray are still working and print shops are everywhere:

For in those days, all along Fleet Street were dozens of bow-fronted print-selling shops. I rented such a shop myself, bought stock, and established contacts with artists, many of whom I knew already, at least to nod to. I set up the sign: Prints: Two shillings coloured, one shilling uncoloured, bound volumes for rent at half a crown a night plus one pound deposit. From within, I would watch the crowds gather, the men elbowing each other aside, for a better view.

Crowds is no exaggeration. It was the experience of every print shop. All classes of society gathered at the windows: bang-up-to-fashion à-la-mode men looked, but so did men in rags. You would see the fashionable beau with a diamond in his cane on his way to a rouge et noir den and grubby youths in gangs who wandered from one print shop to another, as a day’s cheap entertainment. Respectable old gentlemen on their daily stroll would look in too.

Ideas flow so fast and furious for Seymour that at times his physical and mental health are jeopardized, but his reputation grows rapidly. Almost anything he sees can spark an idea that he turns into another one of his striking works. This is one of those times when publishing and reading are rapidly changing and Seymour’s work is part of what is driving the changes. How Jarvis shows this upheaval is one of my favorite bits; here’s what a publisher sees as he goes about his daily life:

The man, meanwhile, walked a few hundred yards to Fleet Street. He noticed, as he went along: a chap descending from a cab, with his thumb marking a page in the middle of Blackwood’s Magazine; a shop window offering miscellanies of verse and prose; a youth boiling a kettle on a brazier, reading a Newgate Calendar; and many other sights relating to the act of reading. [….] He had been known to state to bookshop owners, in their very bookshops, that people read differently these days. Yes, there were still those who buried their faces in a book in intense study. But there had been a change, particularly in relation to the newly literate — people nowadays snatched a few minutes of reading here and there, whenever they had the chance.

Hmm, that last part sounds kind of familiar.

But though Seymour’s work seems to be everywhere and he is successful, his connections with others are rarely smooth, particularly with colleagues. They hit a low point when Seymour decides to take the idea of Samuel Pickwick he’s been germinating for years, adds a small group of friends and a club they report their adventures back to, and brings them to a publisher he has just started working with. He suggests that the Pickwick Club adventures might be published as an ongoing story in monthly parts. Though Seymour has adventures in mind for his characters, he wants to find someone to write up his story-lines to accompany the illustrations. The writer selected is an unknown parliamentary journalist who has recently published Sketches by Boz. From the beginning though, there are hints of trouble to come and the working relationship with the young Charles Dickens quickly sours.

Seymour sees he’s losing control of his ideas and characters which he cannot bear. Jarvis then moves the story to focus on the exploding popularity of Mr. Pickwick and his effect, and how the character changed. As years pass, even the story surrounding how Pickwick came into being is rewritten by Dickens and Robert Seymour is written out. This is all obviously close to Jarvis’ heart and in this book he is retelling the truth as he sees it.

This turned out to be an unexpectedly nice summer read, gently paced and meandering to go along with hot days. Though there are some wonderful digressions, sometimes they got to be a bit much. Often it was difficult to see how some fit and not until much later does it come together. Particularly enjoyable besides the portrayal of changes in the world of books, was how Jarvis imagines Seymour’s creative process, and the astounding following the Pickwick stories had. Unsurprisingly Charles Dickens doesn’t come of out it too well and maybe this comment from one of Mr. Pickwick’s numerous fans gives the best insight:

‘Vell, I don’t know vether it is the vork of vun man, two men, or many men, young or old,’ said a third companion, on the right, who straightened himself up and tucked in his shirt as a mark of his desire to give his opinion, ‘but if it is vun man, ‘e’s a werry strange man. In Pickwick it’s all laughs and smiles vun moment, and then in come a load of ‘orrors. If Boz is vun man, ‘e’s got a lot of the two men about ‘him.’

August 23, 2015

Book Notes: R.I.P. Robert Conquest

In 1968 a book appeared that absolutely infuriated the Soviet Union. This was Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, a history of Stalinist rule in the 1930s and 40s when Stalin and his cronies killed millions of Harvest of Sorrow-R. Conquesttheir own people. Conquest was attacked for years for his work, but when the Soviet Union fell and archives were more accessible, lo and behold it turned out that his portrayal was uncannily accurate, in fact his numbers may have low, not high, and there is no question that Stalin was the instigator of this reign of terror, not ignorant of his subordinates’ actions. (When Conquest updated this book he joked that he actually wanted to call it I Told You So, You F* Idiots.)

Then later, his book The Harvest of Sorrow, focused on the devastation caused to the peasants by Stalin’s policy of collectivization. Ukraine was especially hard-hit and mass starvation ensued in many places. It was another groundbreaking work.

Conquest wrote many other books of history and poetry. Though I’ve never been a fan of his politics, I’ll always be grateful to Conquest for his honest account of what the people of the Soviet Union went though under Stalin’s leadership.

August 5, 2015

A Gallimaufry: Monday Motley

• Eric Ravilious was the subject of Sunday Feature on BBC Radio 3. Among the many people Alexandra Harris spoke to is Robert Macfarlane. She visited the Fry Art Gallery which features work of Ravilious, Edward Bawden and others who worked in Great Bardfield. There are some wonderful tidbits about Ravilious the person too. Here’s the link to listen to the program on iPlayer. Also one to the Fry Art Gallery.

Radcliffe Camera

Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library
Source: Wikimedia Commons

• the Bodleian has been digitizing its collections for years, but they have embarked on a project to give access to all the different digitized content in one place called Digital Bodleian. It allows users to share it, set up their own online collection and even use their own notes if they’d like.

• at the Minneapolis Institute of Art they’re exhibiting Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester with a twist. Da Vinci’s notebook is being shown alongside the work of modern creative types in which the process of creating is part of the exhibition together with the finished work. It runs through the end of August.

• the Harry Ransom Center is another major institution that is providing digital access to more of its vast collections.  Here it is to manuscript collections of various writers such as: Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and L. Frank Baum. Here’s the link to Project Reveal.

August 3, 2015

Book Review: Muted Voices

Ivan's War - C. MerridaleIvan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 – Catherine Merridale
Henry Holt & Co., 2006

Somehow I imagine Catherine Merridale sifting through gigantic mounds of grey paper, grey words, and greyish propaganda until she catches a little sparkle out of the corner of her eye and comes up with another gem to incorporate into her work. She takes that well-worn subject, WWII and brings a fresh perspective to it in this look at the Eastern Front through the eyes of the Soviet rank-and-file – the Ivans. Like her previous book, Night of Stone, Merridale doesn’t shy away from writing about the difficult aspects of her subject.

Merridale and her colleagues interviewed as many veterans and civilians as would talk and did research in archives across Russia and Germany. She cleverly had a male ex-soldier do some interviews which avoided the problem of having a female foreigner ask these former Red Army men about sensitive subjects.  It seems to have made them more comfortable and candid in telling what actually happened and honest about their own feelings; for various reasons not an easy task to elicit these stories.

To begin with, before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, propaganda, often in the form of movies, sold the idea that the coming war would be aggressive, not the defensive one it turned out to be. So began the gap between the war’s reality and the information that was given to the public. Then, in the first months of the war when Germany overwhelmed the country with its fast and widespread invasion, information was hard to come by for everyone and as time passed what happened during those months was deliberately suppressed. The very few who survived the initial onslaught weren’t overly eager to talk about the nightmare of those early months. As the war went on, Stalin’s government made sure they were the ones shaping the narrative to their own designs, especially after Stalingrad and as the war ended and occupation began. After the war veterans were mostly relieved to go along with the political line; not that they really had much choice.

“We had to sign something,” the veterans admit. In fact, they were warned that their demobilization, and the material assistance that went with it, depended on their agreeing to keep most of their wartime experience and knowledge to themselves, from death rates and atrocities to missing rations and cold feet. The veterans’ discretion now, which often borders on a string of outright lies, dates back to the moment when they signed that document.

The background leading up to the shocking collapse of the Red Army at the beginning is described: the purging of experienced leadership of the army, the insistence of Stalin to only plan for an offensive war, his disastrous decision to go to war with Finland in 1939, giving the Germans an all too-clear view into the weaknesses of the Red Army which was later exploited. One of the worst underlying problems was the control political officers were given over any remaining experienced military officers. This meant Stalinist loyalists rather than knowledgeable military minds set policy or made military decisions, and valuable training time was spent in ideological lectures instead of drills.

In spite of warnings from other countries and his own spies, Stalin refused to believe Germany was about to invade. This allowed the Luftwaffe to immediately destroy almost all the Soviet air force and many of the army’s tanks. For months the Red Army was beaten down militarily and psychologically by the Germans. A huge swath of the Soviet Union was occupied by the Nazis, an area with vital industry and agriculture and where many soldiers’ families and homes were.

“Don’t believe the newspapers,” a soldier wrote. “Don’t believe the papers or the radio; the things they say are lies. We’ve been through it all and seen it all, the way the Germans are driving us–our own people don’t know where to run; we’ve nothing to fight with; and then the Germans catch up with us, our men have nothing to escape in. We’ve got no fuel, so the men abandon the cars and tanks and run for it.” Another bleakly added that “they make us keep our mouths shut.”

The one bright spot for the USSR during this time came in the fall of 1941 just outside of Moscow. The army and citizens stood and defended Moscow as the autumn rains started and the Germans were swamped in deep, heavy mud. Next, came a bitter Russian winter they weren’t prepared for. Though Moscow never fell into German hands, the Red Army still had months ahead of continued low morale, fear and loss.

At last Stalin removed the worst incompetents from top military leadership positions and took away some power from political commissars. This was the start of the turnaround for the Red Army which culminated at Stalingrad, a major propaganda stand for both leaders. After weeks of vicious fighting, the Red Army held onto the devastated city and started pushing the German army back.

But his discovery that Fascist troops could be beaten had made the winter bright. Ageev would have understood. “I’m in an exceptional mood,” he wrote to his wife. “If you only knew, you’d be just as happy as I am. Imagine it–the Fritizes are running away from us!”

As the Red Army continued to recover their occupied lands, rage built up at what they and those under occupation had suffered. Propaganda deliberately stoked this anger so as the army moved into other countries, the anger was taken out on anyone they encountered. Their fury reached a peak as they arrived in East Prussia and mass rape, murder and destruction was unleashed. It continued as they moved further into Germany and on to Berlin.

Whenever I read about the Eastern Front, I go through a rollercoaster of emotions. Disbelief at the stupid decisions made by Stalin and his henchmen before the war, disgust at the public disappearance of Stalin for days when the invasion started, heartbreak at the horrors suffered by the civilians and soldiers that were inflicted on them by Stalin and Hitler, admiration of the people surviving and fighting back, sadness that so many were forced to choose between two of the worst leaders the world has seen, happiness that the Red Army steadily pushed the Nazis out of their country, and shock at the way that same army inflicted great suffering on the people of other countries they went through.

There is no question the Soviet Union suffered almost unimaginably during the war and the rest of the world isn’t knowledgeable enough about what happened. Russia ends up feeling slighted and is even more insistent on seeing itself as suffering more than anyone else and as the country that won the war. But I wonder if part of the reason those outside Russia can be unwilling to learn more about Russia’s role is that Russia has never really come to grips with its own mistakes and crimes. They certainly don’t want to acknowledge the even greater suffering of Jews. And no credit is given to tiny Great Britain for holding its own against Germany and enduring nightly bombing at a time when the Soviet Union was warmly embracing Hitler.

Merridale’s book is a unique look into the Ivans’ lives and the changes they went through during the war and after it. She has such a talent for taking big, complex subjects and turning them into compulsively readable books such as this one.

July 28, 2015

A Gallimaufry: Discipline, Perseverance, Joy!

Congratulations to the wonderful Misty Copeland on her well-deserved promotion to Principal dancer at American Ballet Theater. May you soar for years to come.

Firebird - M. Copeland, C. Myers
Here are a few links to articles and photos showcasing her work:

• from CBS News a story and photo gallery at the time Copeland performed the Firebird in ABT’s production (while dancing with six stress fractures of her tibia)

• one of the most amazing facts is that she started ballet training at the incredibly late age of 13; the New Yorker did an in-depth article on Copeland’s life

• and Julie Danielson talks to Copeland and Christopher Myers about their children’s book Firebird (shown above) at Kirkus Reviews

July 1, 2015

Book Review: A Good-Hearted Pickpocket

Smith, The Story of a Pickpocket – Leon Garfield
New York Review Books Children’s Collection, 2013


Smith - L. GarfieldOf course NY Review Books are wonderful, but their children’s books might be the most wonderful of all. Smith is a case in point.

This story is pure adventure with its hero the 12-year-old urchin, Smith (or Smut), who lives with his two older sisters in dire poverty in 18th-century London. They live in the cellar of the Red Lion Tavern and his sisters, Bridget and Fanny, are seamstresses who alter clothes of the recently hanged and have aspirations to gentility. Smith spends his days running errands for the jailers and the jailed of Newgate Prison and plying his trade of picking pockets in the byways around St. Paul’s. Small, fast, and gloriously filthy, Smith can pick a pocket and disappear before his victim knows what has happened.

One day Smith’s mark is an elderly country gentleman who is a bit lost, but to Smith’s horror immediately after he relieves the man of the contents of his bulging pocket, the gentleman is killed by two men in brown who then rifle the man’s pockets for whatever Smith has just lifted. When the boy has a chance to look at it, he finds a document that he is convinced must be valuable, but he doesn’t know why because he cannot read.

For, though he was quicker than a rat, sharper than a stoat, foxier than a fox, though he knew the Town’s corners and alleys and courts and by-ways better than he knew his own heart, and though he could vanish into the thick air in the twinkling of an eye, he lacked one necessary quality for the circumstance in hand. He could not read.

The story revolves around Smith’s efforts to find out what this document is and evading the men in brown who desperately want to get their hands on it. After consideration Smith decides the answer to the first difficulty is to learn to read:

“You and me’s going up in the world…just as soon as I gets you to talk!”

Smith’s initial attempts to find someone who will teach him are both funny and sad. Then one night he literally runs into the blind magistrate, Mr. Mansfield, and accidentally knocks him over. Thanks to this abrupt introduction, Smith ends up joining Mansfield’s household which is run by the magistrate’s daughter and though this arrangement ends up solving one of Smith’s problems, he unwittingly ends up in greater danger.

As is fitting for an adventure book, Smith undergoes trials and tribulations; misunderstandings abound, but in spite of his necessary, but unsavory way of surviving, Smith is a most engaging hero. Under the layers of dirt he is intelligent, funny and to his own annoyance, soft-hearted. There are many other wonderful characters, the toby (highwayman), Lord Tom, Meg the scullery-maid who cares about Smith, but views his desire to learn as a mistake:

“Learning? Give you a farthing for it! Mark my words, little one–a yewmanbeen’s better off without it! What good’s it ever done a soul? Brains? Wouldn’t have ’em if you paid me! A penn’orth of heart’s worth all your skinny clever heads!”

The story feels quite Dickensian and is suitably atmospheric, but Dickens for the younger set and with a better sense of humor and faster pacing. It is a perfectly enjoyable book to read as an adult too. Garfield is brilliant at tucking in ideas and ‘lessons’ without even a pinch of preachiness. His writing just sparkles and the plot has surprising twists and turns that make it difficult to put down until the satisfying end. I definitely need to search out other Garfield titles.

June 23, 2015

Book Review: A Tale From the Ottoman Empire

The Architect’s Apprentice – Elif Shafak
Viking Penguin, 2014

The Architect's Apprentice - E. ShafakHave you ever had the experience of reading a book and wishing someone, anyone had taken a red pencil to it? This book is the opposite; I wold have happily spent more time in 16th-century Istanbul in the company of Jahan and Chota. Elif Shafak’s most recent novel is as striking as a piece of Arabic zoomorphic calligraphy.

Arabic calligraphy of an elephant

Source: CreativeBits

When they arrive in Istanbul, Jahan is a 12-year boy, Chota is also a child, a white Asian elephant who is a gift to the great Ottoman sultan Suleiman. As Jahan tells it, he has stowed away on the ship transporting Chota because he feels responsible for the elephant who he has cared for even before it was born, and to escape his vicious stepfather. The elephant barely survives his journey and Jahan encounters his own problems on-board. But they do make it and Jahan has his first glimpse of Istanbul:

The longer he stared the more the land seemed like an extension of the sea, a molten town perched on the tip of the waves, swaying dizzying, ever changing.

Then as they are transported to the sultan’s palace:

In every street through which they passed, people moved aside in fright and delight. Women drew their babies close; mendicants hid their begging bowls; old men grabbed their canes as though in defence. Christians made the cross; Muslims recited surahs to chase Sheitan away; Jews prayed benedictions; Europeans looked half amused, half awed.

The two youngsters settle in at Topkapi Palace in the sultan’s menagerie; Chota recovers from the journey, Jahan joins fellow keepers and begins learning how to navigate the still Byzantine-like world he has ended up in. He meets the sultan’s lovely young daughter Mihrimah and her mother, the conniving sultana Hurrem. One day as the sultana questions of what use Chota is, Jahan describes him as a war elephant and in trying to get himself out of one difficulty, falls into another. Jahan has to teach Chota to go to war and when the sultan and his army go off to fight again Jahan and Chota go with them. The one good thing that comes out of this awful experience is they meet and work with Sinan, a military engineer in the Janissaries,  the army’s elite guard. Thus begins Jahan’s life as both the sultan’s mahout and eventual apprentice to Sinan who has become the sultan’s Chief Royal Architect and Engineer.

Being an elephant keeper and an apprentice are not the only ways in which Jahan is leading two lives. He is trying to balance his new life and a problem originating from his journey to Istanbul. But thanks to his positions and his curiosity, dangerous as the latter can be, he meets a wide gamut of people and sees much in his new home. Even briefly sketched characters are memorable; Jahan’s fellow apprentices and animal trainers, Simeon the gruff, wise bookseller, the astronomer Takiyuddin, and the three sultans who rule during Jahan’s time in Istanbul.

The most important relationships he has are with Chota, Sinan, the gypsy king Balaban and Princess Mihrimah. Chota is the creature Jahan is closest to throughout his life; he describes Chota as a ‘milk brother‘ and Jahan’s imagination is stretched by having to solve some unusual problems such as finding Chota a mate in a place not native to elephants or what to do when Chota has a raging toothache. Jahan is bothered throughout by the idea that animals cannot move on to an afterlife, but comes up with a lovely, clever way to honor his companion. Chota as a character certainly has his own personality without the portrayal becoming anthropomorphic.

Mihrimah sultan mosque

Mihrimah Sultan mosque
Source: Wikipedia

Sinan is a mentor and father figure to Jahan. At this time the historical Sinan really was designing and constructing the Ottoman Empire’s most iconic buildings such as the Suleymaniye and Selimiye mosques. He and his apprentices and students also carried out major engineering projects. In the story he is a rather enigmatic person to his apprentices and the reader, but he does care deeply for people and buildings and sees many parallels between them. But when he talks of such things Jahan doesn’t always fully understand his teacher until much later. Sinan is a strong believer in furthering knowledge which causes him problems with religious and political authorities, but he well understands Jahan’s curiosity about everything and encourages it.

Because of this love of learning and books on both their parts, Jahan ends up, at Sinan’s request, using a talent he doesn’t like to admit to to try to protect those things:

The books and manuscripts and maps and charts started to call his name: first in muted, then in increasingly shrill tones, begging him to take them with him. Jahan could see their mouths of ripped paper, their tears of ink. They threw themselves off the shelves, stepped on each other, blocked his way, their eyes wide with horror.

Shafak’s writing is that of a Scheherazade, weaving spells with words as time slips away. There were times where I stopped short in admiration at some of Shafak’s lines:

There were secrets a whole town might know about that still remained secrets.


Some cities you go to because you want to; some cities you go to because they want you to.

The composition of the city changes rapidly with people moving from the countryside and captives from the empire’s numerous wars settling there. Then Sinan’s architecture and civil projects become a large part of what makes Istanbul the city it still is today. The precariousness of living in a place and time where life could be a matter of whim thanks to fate or the various authorities is vividly evoked along with the underlying fear that prevailed. Even the sultans are frightened of what fate will bring.

All this is so effortlessly depicted by Shafak, there is still a bit of me wandering off in Istanbul with Jahan and Chota.

May 30, 2015

Book Notes: Unusual Stitchers

Threads - J. BlackburnThere is a recently published book in the U.K. about John Craske, who came from a long line of Norfolk fisherman, worked as a fisherman and fishmonger, contracted influenza after he enlisted (on his third try) in 1917, and thereafter suffered much illness. It’s not known if the flu or his diabetes or something else caused his illnesses, but he would go into what was described as ‘a stuporous state‘ for weeks or months at a time. He began working with his hands as a way to cope with ill-health, starting by making toy boats, then took up painting, then at his wife Laura’s suggestion, embroidery which he could do even if bed-bound.

'Historia Ecclesiastica', restored binding

‘Historia Ecclesiastica’, restored binding Source:

Fellow fisherman have looked at Craske’s work and commented on how accurate the depictions are; they understand immediately what the water, the boats and the sky are doing and what will happen next. Being totally ignorant of such things myself, what I really like in his work is how he seems to put the viewer in the scene and the emotional pull of the paintings. Most impressive is how he carried that over to his embroidery work. The emotion, the accuracy – still there.

Hannah Brown binding

Hannah Brown binding, ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden’
Source: Society of Bookbinders

Unsurprisingly, Craske’s embroideries got me thinking about how bookbinders have used embroidery in their work. There is a long and rich history of such bindings in many countries, and in England there was a particularly strong use of embroidered bindings during the Tudor and Stuart reigns. Embroidered bindings were much used on prayer books, psalm books and bibles. The British Library has many lovely examples of such bindings and their database can be searched for them – try ’embroidered’ as a keyword.

Two binders working today who use embroidery, not just as an added touch to a binding, but as a central part of the bindings they create, are Hannah Brown and Jill Oriane Tarlau. Their work is quite different from one another, Brown in some respects is the more traditional binder, but the way she uses embroidery gives an added dimension to her work. The British bookbinding organizations, Designer Bookbinders and the Society of Bookbinders has examples of her work and Erin Fletcher at Flash of the Hand spoke with Brown and featured her work throughout February 2012.

Binding by Jill Oriane Tarlau

Binding by Jill  Tarlau, ‘Earthquake and Five Days of 1906’
Source: Book Patrol

Tarlau’s work is a little more nontraditional. Her bindings incorporating needlework remind me of beautiful quilt-work. An article in a San Francisco newspaper shows some of Tarlau’s bindings and with Arion Press, Tarlau published a book with examples of her bindings.

Fingers crossed that Random House will publish the book about John Craske in America; it sounds as though Julia Blackburn has written an engaging and special book in spite of the fact that information about Craske and his life is difficult to come by.


Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske – Julia Blackburn
Random House UK, 2015


May 4, 2015

Book Notes: Cornflower Book Group and ‘Jane Eyre’

Jane Eyre

Setting the tone…

Over at Cornflower Books Karen reactivated her book group and selected Jane Eyre for discussion starting April 25th. She asked a question for those who read the book at a young age and would now be rereading it – have our feelings about it changed from that first early reading? That started me thinking about a variation on Cornflower’s question. The reason for this has everything to do with the copy I’ve had for many years. It’s part of a two-volume set of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights that could be most accurately described as ‘faux-fancy’. Two things make this set special; they were given to me as a gift by someone who let me borrow many books when I was a child, and secondly I love the woodcuts illustrating the stories.

So my question is: if I read a different copy of Jane Eyre, would that change my perception of the book? I picked up a Penguin paperback and read it instead to see what would happen. And what is the point of my question anyway? Well, the bookbinding side of me is particularly curious about how we react to physical books themselves; for instance a copy of Don Quixote that was on my parents’ shelves when I was growing up was covered with a particularly putrid shade of yellow-brown and though I’ve tried reading the book several times I’ve never finished it because the memory of that awful cover haunts any reading attempt.

Jane Eyre is among those books that are my comfort reads, so it’s been read a few times in between first reading and the latest which makes it a little difficult to compare first and last, but the first was probably very caught up in the injustices Jane faces and the romance. Now I have much more appreciation for the way Charlotte Brontë was able to take a character like Jane; plain, downtrodden, poor, and turn her into a heroine and pulled off the feat of making a good person an interesting central character. And St. John Rivers! I think my initial feeling about him was more along the lines of ‘another man who thinks he always knows all the answers’, but now I’m impressed with Brontë’s portrayal of a sociopath lurking underneath those good works. I’ve always been very fond of Mr. Rochester; he’s made many mistakes, but is aware of his own flaws and is capable of change.

Those feelings didn’t change when reading the Penguin, but I did feel a little less engaged with the story this time around; it felt a bit as if I was seeing people I know well at a distance through cloudy glass. Some of the fortuitous timing in the plot looked more obvious and the tying up of all the loose ends made the story feel more dated.

The real difference in the two books came about because of the design of my original book; the layout of the pages, fonts and those atmospheric woodcuts are perfect for the voice and time of Jane Eyre. It deepens my connections with the story, characters and just maybe with Charlotte Brontë herself. So instead of feeling like I’m reading a ‘classic’ with all the baggage that can imply, I’m pulled back into a brilliant story filled with people I know and care about.

Here is Cornflower’s original post about selecting Jane Eyre, and here’s her post with her thoughts about the book.

April 25, 2015