Thursday, October 31, 2013

The History of Whatever Through Recently Released Nonfiction--On Baseball and Balloons, Servants and Secrecy.

One doesn't generally expect to see a baseball book in the fall, despite the uptick in interest from the World Series. That said, The 34 Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball as Told Through Bobble Heads, Cracker Jacks, Jockstraps, Eye Black, and 375 Other Strange and Unforgettable Objects (Little, Brown) might also be counterprogramming genius. It's hot to document history through objects, as we most recently saw with A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps. Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin has also appeared in Best American Magazine Writing. His history through objects includes the evolution of the uniform, the batting helmet, the gloves, and of course, the memorabilia. For more, here's a conversation with Bill Littlefield on WBUR.

Eclectic histories can be of a traditional subject told in a different way, or a little-known topic told traditionally. In the case of Richard Holmes, he's chronicled the history of ballooning in the new Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (Pantheon). I particular like the texture of the jacket, which mimics the rubber of a balloon. Holmes was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize for The Age of Wonder (you know who that is, the subject of James Boswell's famous biography) and in his new book, he offers an account of the early Anglo-French rivalries, the long-distance voyages of entrepreneur John Wise and photographer Félix Nadar, and the Civil War flights used to document the horrors of the battlefield. Charles McGrath and Lori Holcomb document a balloon journey with Holmes in The New York Times.

The Yale "Little History" series has been a nice success at taking general subjects that have been covered exhaustively, and eloquently making them not just palatable, but mouth-wateringly readable. The original Little History of the World continues to sell well, with the illustrated version being a surprise hit. Additional entries covered science and philosophy. This fall John Sutherland's A Little History of Literature has been published, covering everything from Beowulf to Moby Dick to 1984 and dozens more, enlivening his his offerings with humour (ah, not reset for the U.S.) as well as learning. As you know, Yale has a British office, so unlike the Holmes, which was an acquisition of a UK title, this was published in both countries by the same publisher. My interesting link has nothing to do with the new book, which like all books in the series, is a great cross-over to young adults. Instead, I note this quote from Sutherland on judging the Man Booker prize and not completely reading all the submissions: "You don't have to eat the whole fish to tell that it's off."

A more traditional history is the new Peter Ackroyd volume, The Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I (Thomas Dunne Books). Why cover this well-trod territory? In this case, the key is to put the author's own spin on it. The publishers note that Ackroyd take is rich in detail and atmosphere. It turns out this is #2 in a six-volume series, the first of which was Foundation. In this interview with Gabrielle Pintera in British Weekly, he notes that the idea for this series came to him in a flash. He talks about the research, and how the arc of the book's narrative came to him. It came to be as much about the Church as royal family. John Cornwell reviewed the book in last year's Financial Times, when the book was published in the UK, after which, surely a customer came in to get it, found we didn't have it as it was not published here, and ordered it online. I hope that St. Martin's will come to the realization that for high-profile books, simultaneous releases need to be the way to go.

Aren't we Anglophiles today? Another book on our new and noteworthy cases is Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times (W.W. Norton), by Lucy Lethbridge. This renewal of interest in servant life obviously has Downton Abbey connections, and London writer Lethbridge has had very nice recommendations from Amanda Foreman, author of Georgina, and Hugh Brewster, the man behind Gilded Lives. Like Ackroyd, Letbridge's book came out in the UK first, with Ben Wilson reviewing it in The (London) Telegraph. But I don't mind this so much, because I suspect the book wasn't sold to Norton until well into the UK publishing process, as opposed to the Ackroyd, which would definitely come out in the USA.

What did Wilson think? "Servants is full of eyebrow-raising and laughter-inducing vignettes. But what is most fascinating is Lethbridge’s account of the dark side of the master-servant relationship. In the first decades of the century, thousands of young women slept in airless cupboards in the homes of the urban middle classes. Their stunted lives make for painful reading. It is told with great sensitivity"

One last title, an American release, that is likely to get some European coverage is The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power, a timely book that documents the release of formerly classified CIA archive information, written by John Prados. Senior fellow in the National Security Archive, Prados is writer of over 20 books, and this new volume is part of the Discovering America series, which is overseen by Mark Crispin Miller. On the new release, Kirkus Reviews calls this "an impressive research effort showing how, when it comes to current political affairs, the past is almost always prologue."

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