New Books | Summer Reading

Posted in books by Editor on August 1, 2013

With the arrival of August, many of you begin thinking about syllabi and teaching loads. If, however, you’re looking for a bit more summer reading before it all starts again, you might consider one of these books: a trio of novels and a sampling of non-fiction that might even count as research for those of you working on topics in natural history. -CH

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From the Peepal Tree Press:

David Dabydeen, Johnson’s Dictionary (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2013), 224 pages, ISBN: 978-1845232184, $20.

41tCXU6e0IL._SY300_Manu, a revenant from Dabydeen’s epic poem “Turner,” leads us through 18th-century London and Demerara (in British Guiana), recounting experiences that might be dreamed or remembered. We meet slaves, lowly women on the make, lustful overseers, sodomites and pious Jews – characters who have somehow come alive from engravings by Hogarth and others. Hogarth himself turns up as a drunkard official artist in Demerara, from whom the slave Cato steals his skills and discovers a way of remaking his world. The transforming power of words is what enlightens Francis when his kindly (or possibly pederastic) master gifts him a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary, whilst the idiot savant, known as Mmadboy, reveals the uncanny mathematical skills that enable him to beat Adam Smith to the discovery of the laws of capital accumulation – and teach his fellow slaves their true financial worth. From the dens of sexual specialities where the ex-slave Francis conducts a highly popular flagellant mission to cure his clients of their man-love (and preach abolition), to the sugar estates of Demerara, Dabydeen’s novel revels in the connections of empire, art, literature and human desire in ways that are comic, salutary and redemptive.

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From Canongate:

Jonathan Grimwood, The Last Banquet (London: Canongate, 2013), 368 pages, ISBN: 978-0857868794, £15. [due out in North America from Europa Editions in October]

6a00d8345295c269e201910402543e970c-200wiJean-Marie Charles d’Aumout is many things. Orphan, soldier, diplomat, spy, lover. And chef. This is his story.

We meet Jean-Marie d’Aumout as a penniless orphan eating beetles by the side of a road. His fate is changed after an unlikely encounter finds him patronage and he is sent to military academy. Despite his frugal roots, and thanks to wit and courage in great measure, he grows up to become a diplomat and spy. Rising through the ranks of eighteenth-century French society, he feasts with lords, ladies and eventually kings, at the Palace of Versailles itself.

Passion, political intrigue and international adventure abound in Jean-Marie’s life, yet his drive stems from a single obsession: the pursuit of the perfect taste. Three-Snake Bouillabaisse, Pickled Wolf’s Heart and Flamingo Tongue are just some of the delicacies he devours on his journey toward the ultimate feast. But beyond the palace walls, revolution is in the air and the country is clamouring with hunger of a different kind.

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From Harper Collins:

Michael Irwin, The Skull and the Nightingale: A Novel (New York: William Marrow, 2013), 416 pages, ISBN: 978-0062202352, $26.

skull and nightingaleMichael Irwin’s The Skull and the Nightingale is a chilling and deliciously dark, literary novel of manipulation and sex, intrigue and seduction, set in 18th-century England.

When Richard Fenwick, a young man without family or means, returns to London from a Grand Tour of Europe in 1761, his godfather, James Gilbert, has an unexpected proposition. Gilbert has led a sedate life in the country, but now, in his advancing years, he feels the urge to experience, if vicariously, the extremes of human feeling—love and passion, in particular—along with something much more sinister. He asks Richard to serve as his proxy and to write to him of his city adventures, and his ward believes he has no option but to accept. It quickly becomes clear that Gilbert desires correspondence of a titillating nature—tales of carousal, seduction, and excess—and so Richard begins to write of London’s more salacious side. For here is an invitation to hedonism and Richard, eager to taste all that a privileged life has to offer, rises to the challenge.

But Gilbert’s elaborate and manipulative “experiments” into the most intimate workings of human behavior soon drag Richard into a vortex of betrayal, where lives may be ruined and tragedy is only a step away. And when Richard does the unthinkable and falls in love, the stakes are raised and he must make a defining choice. But what sort of man has he by now become?

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From Harvard UP:

Edward H. Burtt and William E. Davis, Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 464 pages, ISBN 978-0674072558, $35.

9780674072558-lgAudubon was not the father of American ornithology. That honorific belongs to Alexander Wilson, whose encyclopedic American Ornithology established a distinctive approach that emphasized the observation of live birds. In the first full-length study to reproduce all of Wilson’s unpublished drawings for the nine-volume Ornithology, Edward Burtt and William Davis illustrate Wilson’s pioneering and, today, underappreciated achievement as the first ornithologist to describe the birds of the North American wilderness.

Abandoning early ambitions to become a poet in the mold of his countryman Robert Burns, Wilson emigrated from Scotland to settle near Philadelphia, where the botanist William Bartram encouraged his proclivity for art and natural history. Wilson traveled 12,000 miles on foot, on horseback, in a rowboat, and by stage and ship, establishing a network of observers along the way. He wrote hundreds of accounts of indigenous birds, discovered many new species, and sketched the behavior and ecology of each species he encountered.

Drawing on their expertise in both science and art, Burtt and Davis show how Wilson defied eighteenth-century conventions of biological illustration by striving for realistic depiction of birds in their native habitats. He drew them in poses meant to facilitate identification, making his work the model for modern field guides and an inspiration for Audubon, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and other naturalists who followed. On the bicentennial of his death, this beautifully illustrated volume is a fitting tribute to Alexander Wilson and his unique contributions to ornithology, ecology, and the study of animal behavior.

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From Harvard UP:

Peter Hansen, The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 392 pages, ISBN 978-0674047990, $35.

9780674047990-lgThe history of mountaineering has long served as a metaphor for civilization triumphant. Once upon a time, the Alps were an inaccessible habitat of specters and dragons, until heroic men—pioneers of enlightenment—scaled their summits, classified their strata and flora, and banished the phantoms forever. A fascinating interdisciplinary study of the first ascents of the major Alpine peaks and Mount Everest, The Summits of Modern Man surveys the far-ranging significance of our encounters with the world’s most alluring and forbidding heights.

Our obsession with “who got to the top first” may have begun in 1786, the year Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard climbed Mont Blanc and inaugurated an era in which Romantic notions of the sublime spurred climbers’ aspirations. In the following decades, climbing lost its revolutionary cachet as it became associated instead with bourgeois outdoor leisure. Still, the mythic stories of mountaineers, threaded through with themes of imperialism, masculinity, and ascendant Western science and culture, seized the imagination of artists and historians well into the twentieth century, providing grist for stage shows, poetry, films, and landscape paintings.

Today, we live on the threshold of a hot planet, where melting glaciers and rising sea levels create ambivalence about the conquest of nature. Long after Hillary and Tenzing’s ascent of Everest, though, the image of modern man supreme on the mountaintop retains its currency. Peter Hansen’s exploration of these persistent images indicates how difficult it is to imagine our relationship with nature in terms other than domination.

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