Brian's Bookshelf - This and That


Antonia Byatt: "Babel Tower" - Philip Greenspun: "Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing" - Haberland, Detlef: "Engelbert Kaempfer - a biography" - Helene Hanff: "84 Charing Cross Road" - Dan Hofstadter: "Goldberg's Angel" - Raymond Sokolov: "Why We Eat What We Eat"

Maps and projections: Mark Monmonier: "Drawing the Line" - Peters Atlas of the World - The Times Concise Atlas of the World

Akasegawa Genpei: Photo books moved to Photography & Light


UKByatt, Antonia: "Babel Tower", pub. Random House, 1996 (hardback cheap from

I read very few novels, and am often disappointed. But this one really held my attention.
My review (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help; UK edition cheaper for some reason)

Book coverUSA Greenspun, Philip: "Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing", pub. Morgan Kaufmann, 1999 (about $45)

A wonderful book of photographs. Oh, and if you read the text, you'll learn a lot about building websites. Not quite a review: Diary jottings - Philip Greenspun talks in Tokyo (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

GermanyHaberland, Detlef: "Engelbert Kaempfer - a biography" (translated by Peter Hogg), pub. The British Library 1996, 158pp, ISBN 0-7123-4503-5

A moderately interesting scholar-ish-ly tome, of moderate size - take away the copious endnotes, bibliography, and index, and it's only just over 100 pages, and these include many, many illustrations.

Kaempfer (1651-1716), aka Kemper or Kempfer, grew up in Lemgo, northern Germany, a studious youth. More by a sequence of accidents than any sort of plan, he joined a Swedish delegation to Persia, aspired without much success to see India and China, joined the Dutch East India Company and spent time in Batavia (modern Jakarta), then finally did a two-year stint as physician at the Dutch outpost of Deshima in Nagasaki. Throughout his travels he showed an amazing ability to record details of what he saw around him, be it buildings, people, or plants. When he finally got back to Amsterdam in 1693, he wrote up a potpourri of the best bits, and made a PhD thesis out of them. The last twenty years of his life were occupied with a disastrous marriage, and attempts to edit and publish his collected material, only a fraction of which actually made print.

One particular anecdote sticks out: he joined two of the Dutch legation's visits to Edo (modern Tokyo) to pay respects to the Shogun. The main ceremony is described as consisting simply of the chief merchant crawling towards the Shogun, bowing his head and crawling away backwards. But "This took place after hours of waiting and the ceremonious deposition of the gifts." Then in the subsequent party, all the foreigners had to clown around, sing songs, and so on, "all in the European manner." Hmm: seems surprisingly familiar to me.

The book covers all this, yet somehow seems thin: the author is sometimes more concerned with sniping at supposed inaccuracies by Meier-Lemgo or one of the other Kaempfer scholars, but there are various irritating obscurities in his own writing, not least of which are endnotes entirely in (untranslated) Latin. Perhaps the best feature of the book is the generous selection of illustrations, mostly of Kaempfer's original drawings. (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

The current price ($72) seems extortionate: I got a (remaindered?) copy from a bookshop in England for GBP 22.50 including shipping, and the "official" price on the back is only 35 pounds. Try ABE for a used copy

Book coverUSA Hanff, Helene: "84 Charing Cross Road" first pub. c. 1970, 200pp

"anything he liked i'll like except if it's fiction. i never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived."

We just watched the video of the 1986 film with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. At least it reminded me where the above quote came from: this is Helene Hanff speaking of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. The film was enjoyable enough, but somehow still only a shadow of the delightful original book, which portrays so vividly the 20-year correspondence between the American writer and the London bookshop at the eponymous address. She never met Frank Doel, her principal correspondent, so on paper we see exactly the views they had of each other, since the book consists entirely of their letters. The story starts in the rationed Britain of the early 1950s, with a tentative letter of enquiry from Miss Hanff. This turns into a long-term relationship, as she discovers what wonderful bargains can be had through the post, sends food-parcels to the starving Brits (whose thank-you letters all write "MEAT" in capital letters!), and indulges in plenty of cross-cultural banter.

This is actually two roughly equal books in one: the first the 84, Charing Cross Rd correspondence, the second ("The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street") the diary of Helene's eventual trip to London, after the bookshop had shut its doors for good. Nothing profound, nothing taxing, just an excellent little read. Skip the film/play.

Oh, but this adventure is open to everyone now! If you happen to be in Britain, get yourself to Daedalus Books and read something from America. (I recommend getting the printed catalog.) (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

Book coverUSAHofstadter, Dan: "Goldberg's Angel, an adventure in the antiquities trade", pub. Farrar-Strauss-Giroux, New York, 1994, 249pp, $22 ISBN 0-374-10507-3

Now here's a funny story. (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Popup help)

USASokolov, Raymond: "Why We Eat What We Eat (How the encounter between the new world and the old changed the way everyone on the planet eats)", pub. Summit Books, Simon & Schuster, New York 1991; 255pp; ISBN 0-671-66796-3

Excellent! My review

Out of print: Try ABE for a used copy


Maps and projections

Monmonier, Mark: "Drawing the Line", pub. Henry Holt, 1995

A curate's egg sort of book: my review, and article on the "Peters projection"

Out of print: Try ABE for a used copy

"Peters Atlas of the World" (Arno Peters), pub. Longman 1989

A controversial, but useful atlas: my review and article

Out of print: Try ABE for a used copy

The Times Concise Atlas of the World (8th edition) pub. 2000; 260 pp maps, 110 pp gazetteer

A traditional atlas: comparison with the Peters atlas

Back in print in the US, (It's interesting that the title includes "Concise" in the British edition, but not in the American one. Did you know that somewhere in Harry Potter there's a book of "one hundred" magic spells that gets translated into "one thousand" for the American English version?) (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (US edition) Amazon Japan (UK edition) (Popup help)



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