The Grave by Robert Blair

The Grave: A PoemThe Grave: A Poem by Robert Blair
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An enjoyable read, especially since my copy has Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard appended to it. It was common to see the two of these bound together. I like that the Gray came later, since Blair’s poem was very dark and grim. Gray’s, while also profound, is a little lighter in spirit and a nice way to end an evening of reading about life and death. That could partly be due to its rhymed meter. I think I preferred the blank verse of Blair’s poem when engaging such a subject.

Overall, very pleased to have encountered these poems.

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Infinitesimal by Amir Alexander

Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern WorldInfinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World by Amir Alexander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an interesting romp through some of the mathematics of the 16th and 17th centuries. The author’s larger goal was to tie the battle regarding infinitesimals (which would lead eventually to calculus and modern analysis) to the rise of modernity across Europe. He succeeds on the first part but I think fails on the linkage. It’s a clever hook but it feels like he’s forcing the facts into his thesis to make a gripping story, not because they cleanly fit.

This is not a math textbook, but there are some neat things for the reader to work through. I enjoyed even more the history of the mathematicians: where they were from, how they were educated, what they did, who they worked for, who they collaborated and fought with, etc. That was very interesting and worth reading the book just to get their stories.

The writing was repetitive. Points were made, reiterated, reflected upon and written again. I felt whole chapters could have been reduced to several paragraphs. This topic would have been better suited to a long article instead of a book-length piece. While redundancy can be forgiven (one can always skim), the author was often melodramatic. I can tell he was excited about his topic and that excitement was contagious, but he went overboard in trying to make each paragraph feel like a cliff-hanger of a poor television series. I kept waiting for music to cue up and hear the announcer from Batman say “What will become of Cavalieri? What secrets does Guldin have up his sleeve? Tune in next paragraph to find out.” [Yes, I am being consciously melodramatic here.]

I’d originally thought of giving this book two stars, but I looked at my reviews from the last two years and I thought that would be unfair. So, I gave it three stars. I did learn things and I enjoyed the history of mathematics, religion and politics.

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Notes from Sotheby’s (1909) by Frank Karslake

Notes from Sotheby's; being a compilation of 2,032 notes from Catalogues of book-sales which have taken place in the rooms of Messrs. Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, between the years 1885-1909Notes from Sotheby’s; being a compilation of 2,032 notes from Catalogues of book-sales which have taken place in the rooms of Messrs. Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, between the years 1885-1909 by Frank Karslake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another fabulously fun read of one of my “books on books”. This one is an alphabetical encyclopedia of volumes sold at Sotheby’s around the turn of the 20th century. Each entry gives bibliographic information about the actual edition, its history and provenance and sometimes a pithy comment on the item. Books from the 15th century until the 19th are listed.

I learned some intriguing things, especially about Shakespeare. Some of the books sold were either read or referenced by Shakespeare when he was writing his plays. Others mention the bard or his theater, the Globe, including a map from a mid-17th century book that showed the location of the Globe before the Great Fire of 1666. Shakespeare may have drawn the character names of Rosencrantz and Guidenstern from the frontispiece of a book written by Tycho Brahe in 1602. The names were included in a list of Dutch nobles on that item.

I just love these types of books, because many of these items are gone or in private collections or university libraries. Through these entries, I can “visit” with them, at least for a short while and marvel at all that has come before.

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What I want…

I was thinking about this in 2014 and 2015 and wrote it down on an index card just a few weeks ago. I thought I’d lay it down here.  I want:

  • to have someone like me holding a treasured volume of a book I wrote, long after I’m dead
  • to seed the future with the children of my mind
  • to quell the questions of others about my chosen vocation
  • to quell the incessant question in my own head as to whether I can accomplish these things that make me happy


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Nineteenth-century English Books: Some Problems in Bibliography

Nineteenth-century English Books: Some Problems in BibliographyNineteenth-century English Books: Some Problems in Bibliography by Gordon N. Ray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The 1951 Windsor Lectures in librarianship from the University of Illinois were a fun and quick read. It contained three lectures, of which I most enjoyed Mr. Weber’s topic. In it, he covered the differences between English and American editions of English novels. Sometimes you had typos, sometimes pirated editions, sometimes the pirated editions more correctly reflected the author’s intentions than the official version. Ray and Carter both covered how much things have changed in book publication and collecting. Ray notes the rise and fall of the “triple-deckers” (3-volume sets of novels popular in the early 1800s) and the shift in collector taste from finely-bound volumes to “original boards”. Carter takes on the original boards topic as well, noting how there often wasn’t just one “original board”. Carter also tells us how there was more innovation in publishing in the first 35 years of the 19th century than in the previous 350 years.

If you’re a collector, librarian or bibliomaniac, this is an interesting read and worth the little bit of time it takes to read it.

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Fugitive Pieces by Lord Byron

Fugitive PiecesFugitive Pieces by George Gordon Byron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading Byron’s first book of poetry, even though it was recalled before being published and all but four copies destroyed. It’s interesting (sad, funny, and hypocritical) that the edition I read was a photo facsimile of the Rev. Becher’s copy of the book. He was the one who told Byron that several poems were too risqué. In response, Byron recalled the print run and destroyed it. But, the Rev. kept his copy to himself and it has survived.

It was fun to read these early poems, which focus mostly on young love, passion, death and how one will be remembered. Some of his poems reminded me of some lines I wrote during college, showing that some of what makes us human has continued to be passed down through the generations.

One poem that caused Rev. Becher distress was called “To Mary” (p 17-19). It was an exciting piece about a former lover, that dwelt on their passionate moments. Somewhat mild by today’s standards in its choice of words, it remains thrilling and exciting. It shows an inkling of the passion, pacing and fire Byron will bring to his later works. It’s always cool to see a writer progress. It think “The Tear” (p. 43-46) also shows hints of the future Byron, using a single tear to show true and sincere emotion and honor, moving beyond empty words or actions.

I really liked a little fragment (1803) he had about how he wanted to be remembered:

Oh! may my shade behold no sculptur’d urns,
To mark the spot, where earth to earth returns.
No lengthen’d scroll of virtue, and renown,
My epitath, shall be my name alone;
If that with honour fails to crown my clay,
Oh! may no other fame my deeds repay;
That, only that, shall single out the shot,
By that remember’d, or fore’er forgot.

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The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

The Meursault InvestigationThe Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read the Stranger by Camus in high school. Then again after college, then once more, this time in French. I fell in love with his writing, consuming everything he produced. I read biographies of him. But then, I started to see the disconnect he had between what he wrote and how he viewed his birthplace in Algeria, the French colony where the native population didn’t have the same rights as the French colonizers. It complicated him for me and made me want to explore it more.

Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, is just what I needed. He offers a take on Camus’s defining novel. It turns the story around, to look at the situation from the perspective of the murdered character’s brother. It’s eye-opening, to say the least. I never really thought about this when I read the Stranger, but the person Meursault murders is only called “The Arab.” He never gets a name or any humanity. Even at Meursault’s trial, the focus is more on the main character’s lack of sympathy regarding his mother’s death than the murder. Daoud’s novel calls that out and tries to re-inscribe the dead man, Musa, into the book of humanity. Through a wonderful re-use of The Stranger’s opening paragraph and the narrative device used in Camus’s later novel, The Fall, Daoud explores the murder of the narrator’s brother and what it does to him, his mother and his country.

The narrator beautiful states one core element of his thesis: “You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name” (Ch. 5, p. 52). Camus called the murdered man “the Arab” or “an Arab”. But the narrator says “Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes” (Ch. 6, p. 60). Later, “He was Musa to us, his family, his neighbors, but it was enough for him to venture a few meters into the French part of the city, a single glance from one of them was enough to make him lose everything, starting with his name, which went floating off into some blind spot in the landscape” (Ch. 6, p. 61). From these three quotes, I felt a resonance with what is going on today in Baltimore, Ferguson, Sanford, Charleston and others cities across the US. My jaw just dropped, thinking how this Algerian, writing in French, in 2013, so nailed the events and discourses going on today in America.

The author also deals with religion and atheism throughout the novel. One line that stood out for me was: “How can you believe God has spoken to only one man, and that one man has stopped talking forever?” (Ch. 7, p. 69).

The Arab Spring is also touched upon, I believe. While talking about the newly independent Algeria of 1962, I feel he was also talking about today’s Libya, Tunisia, etc. Rebel groups, some extreme, some poor, some illiterate, came together to overthrow a bad government. But, once it was gone, they didn’t seem to want to go back underground, or dissolve. They like their newfound power and are unwilling to give it up so easily. Something to consider, both for countries that underwent these revolutions and for Western nations, especially the US, which want to dive into yet another war, arming anyone who will overthrow the tyrant du jour. A warning: remember that the US, in its proxy war with the Soviet Union, funded and backed extremist in Afghanistan. That didn’t work out too well in the long term for anyone on our planet.

This is an amazing read and one for people to read for so many reasons. And, if politics, religion, philosophy, etc. aren’t your thing, it’s still a really good story, well-paced, well-written and nicely translated.

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