Thursday, March 31, 2011

ramble: research books bought & read, January-March 2011

I love non-fiction. Thanks to (in spite of?) almost seven years of university education in the humanities, research is my sixth sense. And so, a very great portion of the books I read for pleasure are social histories, biographies, literary criticism, feminist essays, costume books, art histories... and on... and on. You file it in non-fiction and I'll pore over it. I also tend to count classic literature under my 'research' heading, as I read such books as much for the insight into historical periods they provide as for the stories they tell (though really you can't separate it like this, though that's a different post).

So I have decided it would be diverting to take note of all the research books I read and buy, month by month. This list is going to be a very wide-ranging one, as I'm always researching more than one thing at a time, and I'm interested in... everything, basically. I'm sure I'll use the knowledge for something someday, if only for uh, future blog posts.

Since I don't finish (or even get very far into) books I don't like, the 'books read' part of this undertaking is really a list of recommendations (the 'books bought' bit is pure adventure and may indeed end badly). If something really stands out to me, I might give it its own, fuller recommendation post someday.

Okay, let's do this. If nothing else, it'll be amusing for me, but I hope it might help others to find new titles on favourite subjects.

(I should have started this at the beginning of the year. Belated idea is belated. But I have a memory that works like a bear trap for inconsequential things, so I'm pretty confident I can reconstitute the past three months. I'm also going to include holiday gifts, just because.)

Research Books Read, January-March 2011
  • Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos (Penguin Classics, 1961) This witty, scandalous, and truly quite horrifying 1782 French classic is brilliant. The characters are either shockingly innocent or shockingly wicked, the plot spirals into a depraved abyss, and one reads with breath held at the emotional perversity of it all. Truly great in terms of story and as an example of the epistolary novel.
  • Casanova's Women: The Great Seducer and the Women He Loved by Judith Summers (Bloomsbury, 2007) A biography of Casanova--only not exactly. His life is revealed via the stories of several of his lovers. The remarkable lives of these very different women are warmly told and give great insight into little niches of eighteenth-century European history.
  • The Death of Kings: A Medical History of the Queens and Kings of England by Clifford Brewer (Abson, 2000) Short biographies of pretty much every monarch and all sorts of weird and morbid medical details (based on both written accounts and physical remains, with some well-grounded speculation). It gets rather gross in places and I loved it.
  • The Lives of the English Rakes by Fergus Linnane (Portrait, 2006) Oh my god, libertines. I'm obsessed. This is a great sweeping study of them, spanning several centuries, and focusing on the big guns like Charles II, the Earl of Rochester, George IV, and Edward VII. Lots of skullduggery, frivolity, blasphemy, violence, obscenity, and everything else unsavoury.
  • Ruling Women: Queenship and Gender in Anglo-Saxon Literature by Stacy S. Klein (University of Notre Dame, 2006) Thesis research book. Really great literary criticism--examining the portrayal of queens in Beowulf and a lot of other texts too.
  • A Brief History of the Samurai by Jonathan Clements (Running Press, 2010) Great introduction to the samurai and his changing position throughout Japanese history. This is really a history of Japan itself from the military perspective and includes lots of interesting details of battles, coups, etc. Focuses on prominent samurai, and gets into social history, too.
  • Mr Langshaw's Square Piano: The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution by Madeline Goold (Bluebridge, 2009) Amazing book. The narrative winds through economics, society, music, biography, and even includes short stories based on both the real, nineteenth-century Mr Langshaw and the modern-day author's adventures in restoring his piano.
  • Japan: From Prehistory to Modern Times by John Whitney Hall (Charles E. Tuttle, 1971) Useful, though dated, basic introduction to Japan's history.
  • Literary Hoaxes: An Eye-Opening History of Famous Frauds by Melissa Katsoulis (Skyhorse, 2009) An exploration of all sorts of strange liberties with authorship.
  • Japanese Art by Joan Stanley-Baker (Thames & Hudson, 1984) Really gorgeous book, though most photos are black and white. Very thoughtful discussion of artistic trends.
  • Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present by Robert L. O'Connell (Free Press, 2002) History told via the tools and machines that made its bloodiest episodes so bloody. Lots of weapons I'd heard of and plenty I hadn't. Also an interesting exploration of theories of violence. It's heavy on the modern period (post-1800).
  • Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey by Karen Wilkin (Pomegranate, 2009) A brief biography of Gorey, including many quotations from the man himself, followed by a lovely pictorial catalogue of some of his more remarkable and obscure works.
  • Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain's Greatest Monarch by Kate Williams (Ballantine, 2010) Half of this book is about Princess Charlotte, George IV's daughter, she who would have been England's queen regnant. The paired biographies serve to illustrate how Victoria's life and reign was affected by the princess she never knew, the princess whose death allowed her that reign in the first place. Great double study of Charlotte's and Victoria's childhoods and early adulthoods.
  • Samurai Women 1184-1877 by Stephen Turnbull (Osprey, 2010) Very brief illustrated book containing some remarkable tales--a good starting point for further research.
  • Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde by Thomas Wright (Henry Holt, 2009) A fascinating biography from a very specific perspective: reading Oscar Wilde's life via the contents of his library. Explores the books Wilde studied, enjoyed, treasured, and gave to others, and how he constructed his very self out of their words.

Research Books Bought, January-March 2011
  • A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits by Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack (Henry Holt, 1999) Compendium of wicked spirit lore. I love me some demons.
  • All Under Heaven: A Complete History of China by Rayne Kruger (Wiley, 2004) Introductory history, going right back to the beginning (I'd been searching for something like this, as most books seem to leave out the really early centuries).
  • Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn (Vintage, 2005) Bloody Mary, Queen of Scots! Object of my fascination, especially regarding her relationship with Elizabeth.
  • The Marquis de Sade by Simone de Beauvoir (New English Library, 1972) This book contains a translation of de Beauvoir's essay "Must We Burn Sade?" plus some selections from de Sade's works. I've read the essay (which is absolutely genius) but still need to read the selections.
  • The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok by Richard Matheson (Forge, 2009) A novel, but it can join this list because it looks well-researched and anyway, I just love Wild Bill.
  • The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson (St Martin's Griffin, 2006) Again not technically non-fiction, but Erickson is a renowned historian and I really like this kind of gently (I hope) fictionalized history.
  • Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France by Lucy Moore (Harper, 2006) Six biographies of political women (including the famed Mme de Stael) intertwined to illuminate women's roles during the French Revolution. The hardcover I bought is absolutely massive and so glorious.
  • Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria by Julia P. Gelardi (St Martin's Griffin, 2006) Another collection of biographies about political women (I have a fatal weakness).
  • Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valerie Paradiz (Basic, 2005) Fairy tales + discussion of authorship and gender? Another fatal weakness. I am so looking forward to this one.
  • Grimm's Fairy Tales by Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm (Wordsworth Classics, 1993) I needed a cheap paperback copy of the Grimm stories and this has all the major ones plus darling illustrations by Walter Crane.
  • Bawdy Verse: A Pleasant Collection ed. by E. J. Burford (Penguin, 1982) Yesss, raunchy poetry. Medieval to fairly modern.
  • Christina Rossetti by Frances Thomas (Virago, 1994) I adore Christina Rossetti and have always wanted to read a full biography.
  • Ladies in Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present Day by Anne Somerset (Castle, 2004) Surprise! More biographies of women in positions of power.
  • Devils and Demons: A Treasury of Fiendish Tales, Old & New selected by Marvin Kaye (Doubleday, 1987) And back to demons. A wide range of short stories, both classics and modern-day, some I know, some I've never heard of. Looks fab.
  • Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China by Lin Yutang (Elek, 1961) A lovely wide-ranging history with lots of photos.

* Bookplate image via The Graphics Fairy (modded by me, obviously)

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