Monday, November 25, 2013

W47: A Short History of the Irish People

A few months ago I went drinking with an Irish friend and his football teammates. My only recollection of that night was being surrounded by drunken Irishmen recanting the history of their country and trying to convince me that the Irish first arrived to Isle of Man by riding flying rocks across the sea. Not a metaphor for something, but actual rocks that floated through the sky. Being heavily inebriated myself, it made sense at the time so this week’s Biblio-Mat book was an interesting follow-up to that history night.

It was fitting that A Short History of the Irish People had a green cover, but what was surprising was the presence of the dustjacket. Despite the sun-fading, the paper jacket was in amazing condition for a book published in 1921. In addition to stating that this was the second volume of the history, the cover also provided a synopsis on the book, which was an interesting idea since there was more than enough room on the inside flaps. Written by Mary Hayden and George A. Moonan, this was a scholarly look into the backstory of Ireland that sold me based on design principles alone. However, the title was a misnomer as my definition of a ‘short history’ is something that fits on the back of a pamphlet or restaurant menu, not a 572 page text.

Kind of wished this was the Mediaeval Ireland one.
Having studied Gaelic literature in my undergrad, I was familiar with the rich and very violent history of the Irish people so was therefore quite excited to dig into this book. Unfortunately, it turned out that part two of A Short History of the Irish People covered the years from 1603 to the ‘present’, which in this case meant 1921. Outside of the Great Famine and the establishment of Northern Ireland, I knew very little about this particular time period and even less on why this specific year was chosen for the volume split instead of a more rounded number.

Cúchulainn this ain't.
It turns out that 1603 marked the end of the Nine Years War which drove out the Earls of Ireland and replaced them with a new government structure that essentially put them under English rule. From here it was a lot of hopscotching through numerous political events, culminating in the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. It was pretty clear from the beginning that the authors had a bias to the history, as any scholar of their nation would, and at times there seemed to be some pretty heavy resentment and bitterness to the events that unfolded under British rule.

To be fair, he was actually insane.
The chapter on the famine itself was fairly short at four pages but presented a damning critique on not only how the government handled it, but also on how it was represented in the press at the time. For an event as significant as this, though, the entry in the book felt short and seemed to gloss over most of it, choosing to view the political landscape more than the cultural one, which seemed strange for a history book.

While the text wasn’t a dry read, it also wasn’t very exciting. Being written in the style of a school textbook, it was more informational than colourful. What was a fun read though, were the pencil scribbles and notes in the margins providing running commentary on the events as they unfolded. My educated guess would be that one of the previous owners of this book was an Irish nationalist of sorts.

Also reads like my love history...
Another entertaining deviation from the straight history were the sections on the literature of the period. Although these spanned only a few pages, they did provide some insight on what was big in each of the centuries A Short History of the Irish People covered.

Isn't 'War on learning' pretty much every high school class?
The biggest surprise, though, came halfway through the book where an envelope was lodged between the pages. Opening it up, it was a perfectly preserved subscription card, Christmas card order form, and envelope to The Atlantic Monthly Company from 1947! Founded in 1857 by a group of writers that included one of my most revered authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Atlantic Monthly was a magazine that had been printed monthly for almost a hundred and fifty years before changing into The Atlantic, one of my favourite magazines. Still being printed today, it was quite amazing to find a piece of this history randomly in this book. 

Most awesome surprise I've had in any book to date.

Book rating: 8/10 (Interesting but nothing Wikipedia couldn’t tell you)

Random quote: “They still talk about it here in 1942” (written in pencil next to the section stating that future generations of Parnell’s countrymen will remember him)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Off Topic 1: Lumio Book Lamp

A slight deviation from the regularly scheduled programming but this is too good not to share. I love gadgets and usually jump on things that advance technology but rarely have I been this excited about something as simple as a lamp.

Love the design.
I think it’s pretty clear that I’m a bibliophile at heart so when I heard about the Lumio book lamp half a year ago, I couldn’t wait to back the Kickstarter project. Following the inventor’s updates was a journey that was worth the price of the backing alone. Encountering setback after setback in both material sourcing and manufacturing, it was eye opening for anyone who ever wondered what it takes to bring something from idea on paper to mass production. Without further ado:

The box also doubles as a slipcase for travel.
Clean and simple.
Designed as a book, the lamp turns on when you open the cover, radiating a warm glow. The wider you open it, the more light comes out. The Lumio opens all the way around to form a desk lamp or a hanging lamp with the strap. Pics make it look dimmer than it actually is to capture more of the detail.

The wraparound cover is made of wood (I choose dark walnut) and the ‘pages’ are made of Tyvek. Both covers also have high strength magnets that are used to hold the book closed or fully open. They also function with the two round wooden circles that also function as a clasp, stand, and wall/desk mount – genius design. The best part is that the Lumio runs on a lithium-ion battery that powers it for 8 hours and charges with a micro USB port.

At about $100.00, the price is a bit steep but the quality of this project is just stunning. From the production of the wood and power of the battery to the solid design of the box to the leather strap and wood accessories, it’s clear that this was made to last. Hell, the USB cable was even cloth braided to guard against wear and tear.

Fits into the bookshelf well.
Small enough to take anywhere, this may turn out to be one of the more useful gadgets I’ve bought. Simple idea but build a better mousetrap… Definitely well worth picking up for anyone who loves books.

The official site:

Monday, November 18, 2013

W46: The Leisure Hour

After this week, I’m more convinced than ever that the Biblio-Mat has a darker sense of humour than I do. Having to pack for a cross country trip, I needed to get two books from the machine to keep to my schedule so it decided to give me last week’s 594 pages of goodness and this:

Yep, that's a quarter.
The Leisure Hour may have well been called The Leisure Month, because at 764 pages of tiny text it was a beast of a timesink. Published in 1883, this tome appeared to be the collected issues of a year’s worth of The Leisure Hour, a magazine akin to Reader’s Digest with one crucial difference – no author names were published. With a gorgeous forest green embossed cloth cover and gilded text, it screamed antiquarian relic that would classy up any bookshelf. For a hundred and thirty year old book, it was also in amazing shape, probably due to having never been read all the way through till now.

The worst part about this book was that it came at the most inconvenient time. Flying to Vancouver and driving back across the country to Montreal was daunting enough but doing it while lugging this book along with the previous week’s was just plain punishing. Travelling light was not an option since it was an extra eight pounds of paper between the two books but at least it provided some distraction on the flight and drive since it was quite the random read.

I did take the train back from Montreal so this section was relevant.
For most trips I tend to have a short attention span due to the nature of travelling so in this sense, The Leisure Hour fit the bill perfectly. Composed of short stories, anecdotes, quick snippets of informational instruction, poems, and editorial articles, it was very much a pick up and go book. With most pieces in the book falling between two to five pages, it was actually quite digestible despite the sheer number of pages. While I had never been a huge fan of Reader’s Digest, something about The Leisure Hour captivated me.

Perhaps it was the redundancy, perhaps.
Part of this was no doubt the way it looked. This was magnificently decadent, which was not that surprising as the magazine most likely had a fairly large following and thus had the support to produce a solid anthology. It could not have been cheap to purchase and this particular volume had “To Aggie, From Phebe, Xmas 1883” written inside.

What was most striking about this book were the engravings that populated almost half the pages. While the only coloured one was the frontispiece, there were eleven that were printed on thicker toned paper and numerous that were scattered across the stories and articles. These ranged from scientific illustration to simple doodles to maps to ridiculously detailed etchings that must have taken hundreds of hours to produce.

The full colour was seriously impressive.
For the contents itself, The Leisure Hour was all over the place. Luckily, I had a solid week of traveling to read it all. The anthology opened with a story called ‘The Old Man’s Will’, which would soon turn out to be part of the framework of the collection. When I started reading it, it ended abruptly with four chapters that totaled thirteen pages. The next forty-one chapters would unfold in nine parts scattered throughout, turning it into the longest serial in the book. With a style reminiscent of Jane Austen, it told the tale of a young girl caught up in a love triangle of sorts with suitors from a wealthy family.

Vintage rom-coms.
Despite my disdain for melodramatic romance, I did find myself becoming excited when another piece of the serial popped up and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get drawn into the story. Alas, just when the girl appeared to finally begin to fall for the right man, the story cut out at the end of the anthology. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t find any information on this story as no authors are credited in The Leisure Hour so it appears that I will need to find the 1884 edition to find out what happens. Worst cliffhanger since The Wheel of Time.
The rest of the book was tame by comparison but still quite entertaining. Travel and revelations into other cultures made up a good portion of the editorial articles, probably since much of the world was still considered to be exotic in this time period. Surprisingly, the articles weren’t as unknowingly racists as I would have imagined, but did still had an undertone of considering most of the non-white cultures as savages.

Russians, though, were still cool.
Also enlightening were the educational entries describing how things, such as newspapers, were made and how professions, such as lawyers, work. This not only provided a look into the history of these items and people, but also the society at the time and how they were perceived. Scattered throughout were also various poems that seemed to have been almost included as filler to fix the white space on columns. While not fantastic, it did provide nice breaks from the blocks of encyclopedic text in some sections.

The art was hands down the best part.
All in all, if I hadn’t had a week and a half to spend reading this, I probably would not have enjoyed it as much since you really do need time to digest the almost five hundred pieces of writing. Despite the abundance of illustrations, it was still a heavy read, made heavier when I eventually track down the next volume.

Book rating: 9/10 (Beautiful book, entertaining content, random goodness)

Random quote: “’Forgive me,’ he resumed gently. ‘I thought I was seeking your future happiness.’” (Pickup lines circa 1883)

Monday, November 11, 2013

W45: Darkness and Dawn

This week’s Biblio-Mat book came out with the heavy thunk that was usually accompanied by the sight of a textbook but instead out dropped a work of drama… that was loosely based off of textbooks.

Finally, a good piece of fict- Oh.
Dawn and Darkness was a small book but a lot thicker than it appeared to be. At 594 thin pages, it fell on the longer side of Bibio-Mat books but at least it looked impressive. With a navy clothbound cover, gold foil embossing, and gilding on the top edge, it had a regal vibe to it that, if nothing else, will at least make my bookshelf look more sophisticated. The interior pages were so thin they showed a bit of the text from the other side and the first quarter of the pages had heavy foxing, though, which was unfortunate but not surprising for a book of this age. Written by F. W. Farrar and printed in 1892, this particular edition had a book plate from the Manchester Diocesan Board of Education stating that it was part of an annual prize awarded for teachers of religious knowledge in 1891.

Curious to know what the other parts of this prize was.
Despite the length, Darkness and Dawn was a fast read. It was a re-imagining of various scenes of the life of Nero from ascension to pitiful death and all the misery in between, which made for an entertaining book for people who are amused by chaos and despair. Needless to say, I loved it. The preface stated that the author researched the life of Nero intensively and used surviving knowledge of the emperor as the framework to his story to make it as accurate as possible, but it actually read more like a fantasy novel than history book. What was missing, though, were illustrations and etchings that seemed to go hand in hand with books of this nature from the 1800’s.

The foxing, though, did fill every other page with abstract art.
The most interesting aspect, though, came at the beginning of each chapter where Farrar opened with a quote or reference from other works that related to the chapter. These snippets were presented in their original languages and usually followed with a translation below, which set the tone well for the chapter.

The tone was pretty much hatred in every chapter.
For those not familiar with Roman history, Nero was the emperor probably most known for fiddling while Rome burned. This, of course, was an exaggeration as he simply lounged around fawning over the flames and singing odes to the fire but never actually picked up any instruments. Regarded as a cruel and tyrannical emperor that offed anyone that looked at him funny, he is often overshadowed by his uncle Caligula, mainly because Tinto Brass never made a film about him.

Cruel? Maybe. Fabulous? Definitely.
The book begins with Nero coming to power through the death of his great-uncle Claudius, who was also his stepfather (it was a different time). From the first few pages he was already painted as a spoiled brat that looked down on everyone, including said uncle, and spent his time scheming and tormenting others.  However, it played out in this version that his mother was the one who poisoned Claudius so that Nero could replace him on the throne. The plotting and execution was quite well written and read better than most thrillers today, especially since there were a lot of throwbacks to the beginning at the end that made the small details much more significant.

The following chapters depicted various scenes of Nero’s reign. While a good chunk of it centered around his half-brother Britannicus and his half-sister Octavia, who was also his wife (it was a very different time), much of the book followed the struggle of power between the Tolkien-level ensemble of characters and showcased the sheer amount of deceit and backstabbing in Roman politics.

Cause modern politics is so clean.
Funny enough, for the infamous great fire scene, Nero was presented almost as a sympathetic figure. Sure, he enjoyed seeing the city in flames and was fascinated by the inferno, but the citizen’s accusation of him being the one who set the fire felt like a witch-hunt that targeted a naïve boy who just happened to have a borderline sexual fixation on bright red and yellow colours.

Weaving countless storylines together, the book drew on a lot of imagined interactions that paid off in real events. As this was based on real life, there were a lot of deaths as none of the characters could be rescued from the history books. What resulted was an intricate tale of plotting, power struggles, incest, murders, royal schemes, and vengeance. I half expected a crazy blonde girl to show up at the end with three dragons since this might as well have been Game of Thrones without the Starks. Seriously, Nero was pretty much this kid:

Admit it, you can't wait to see him die.

Book rating: 8.5/10 (If all history books were written like this there would be a lot less sleeping at school)

Random quote: “They began to dig the grave, and he whined out, ‘Oh. What an artist to perish! What and artist to perish!’” (I’m determined to use this at least once in my lifetime)

Monday, November 4, 2013

W44: Pioneer Work

Every time I’ve brought a friend to use the Biblio-Mat they would go first and get an amazingly fascinating book and I would become excited only to drop my toonie in and pull a dull read, like say, a book about commuting across the prairies twenty odd times. So this time, I figured I would go first and fool the mechanical book machine elves inside. Didn’t work. My friend received an old book of vintage card games. I ended up with this:

Who wanted to read about awesome vintage card games anyway?
Outside of the publisher’s logo, the light olive green cloth cover was bare. The spine read Pioneer Work, however, the title page called it Pioneer Work for Women, and the publisher’s page called it Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, so someone was clearly just seeing what was going to stick to the wall.

No nonsense coversheet.
Interestingly, there was no publishing date but from different references in the foreword, it appears to have been printed around 1913. Although the book was only 236 pages long, the font was tiny and the text went a lot further to the edges of each page than normal books.

Pioneer Works was actually an autobiography by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. She was famous enough to have a legitimate Wikipedia page so at least the book was not a completely unknown piece of work as it is often the case with Biblio-Mat books.

Apparently she's pretty great at treating insomnia.
The first few chapters in the book covered her childhood, which turns out was fairly privileged in both wealth and family values. Born in England to a liberal sugar factory owner with very progressive ideas, her childhood would be considered more modern than what most kids go through even today. For instance, instead of beatings, she actually got time outs to reflect on her mistakes. This was in the early 1800s. Hell, I grew up in the 90s and I still got spankings left right and center (builds character). This would actually end up explaining a lot of the things she would go on to do further in life.

At least she had a great eye for title pages.
In her early teens, her family moved to America and they ended up spending some time in New York before moving to Cincinnati. What was fascinating in these chapters was the sheer amount of racism present in her new environment, all described in detail. It became a constant reminder of the time period and setting.

Inside cover was fairly artsy as well.
Surprisingly, her college career made up only a small portion of the book considering how groundbreaking it was at the time. Summed up in twenty odd pages, the rest of the book focused on her studies and adventures in Europe. This ranged from political protests to hanging out with Lady Byron. Ultimately she leaves England again and returns to America to do medical work and spends much of the latter chapters in correspondence with various people she met in London.

Didn't even know pig skin was an option...
The writing style of Pioneer Work lent a lot to the readability of the book as the actual core story was neither amazing nor educational. Reminiscent of Jane Austen’s narrative with a heavier epistolary twist, the prose had a flowery tint that was sometimes overpowering but ultimately held attention throughout. Without the artistic flourish, though, the biography could have been summed up as rich English girl goes to America, enrolls in medical school, graduates after studying really hard, and ends up wandering back and forth between America and England.

Book rating: 7.5/10 (Much better than anticipated)

Random quote: “I find interesting details of that long drive, when every day took me farther and farther away from all that I loved.” (Life summed up in a sentence)