Book Reviews 2006 (6-10)

A bit of a change of pace. I was fortunate in the generosity of friends and family in providing me a couple of reference books for Christmas, and since I have digested them, I am adding them to my reading queue, officially, and want to say a few words about each of them. In addition, to round out the set, a book on a fabulous exhibit I saw last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The books are:
Atlas of the Medieval World, by Rosamond McKitterick
America Discovered, an Historical Atlas of North American Exploration, by Derek Hayes
National Geographic’s Mapping the World, an Illustrated History of Cartography, by Ralph E Ehrenberg
Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, by Jess Nevins
Prague, The Crown of Bohemia 1347-1437 edited by Barbara Drake Boehm and Jiri Fajt

Atlas of the Medieval World
I am a fan of historical atlases, as witness three of the books in this book review. I already have a couple of the small Penguin historical atlases, including one that covers the Medieval time period, but this one is new, and larger, than those.
It doesn’t cover the Americas and barely touches upon the Pacific and Australasia, but it admits it up front, and explains it as having been covered in a companion volume that I do not possess. Too, though, the weight of the maps and the information is squarely on Europe, with lesser amounts of information on the Middle East, and East Asia.
The book is lavish with photographs and full color maps, something the small Penguins that I already have could not and do not match. The maps are clear, too, showing, for example, just how far the Mongols raided and conquered, or the mess of polities and cities and colonies in the British Isles in the 9th and 10th centuries AD.
The maps are amply amplified by text and short essays on numerous topics, and while not at a high level, its not as dumbed down as I feared. I don’t know if its because it was produced by a British University (Oxford!), but its certainly a change from many books of this type.

America Discovered: A Historical Atlas of Exploration
This book, along with the National Geographic one, is a beast of a different color, and uses actual historical maps to show changes over time. In the case of America Discovered, it illustrates the discovery of North America through crisp and flawless scans of actual maps, from the 16th to the 20th century.
Since the original maps are often much larger than an oversized coffee table book page, the maps are miniaturized, and shine and show even better with the aid of a magnifying glass. The maps really do speak for themselves, the text provided serves as counterpoint. With these maps, one can see that, for many years, California was erroneously thought of as an island. On the other hand, another map by French explorers of the Upper Mississippi refuses even to speculate that the river reaches the Gulf of Mexico as it must obviously do, stopping the river’s progress where the expedition reached at modern day St. Louis.
The maps, though, really are front and center and make this book a wonderful resource to just sit and marvel at the maps of those who trekked into the unknown to make them.

Mapping the World : An Illustrated History of Cartography
As mentioned above, this one uses real historical maps like America Discovered. This one is broader in its subject, which is a blessing and a curse. This book tackles the history of cartography, from Ancient Sumeria to the modern day.
The book is a National Geographic book, and the text is definitely “dumbed down”, written at perhaps a mid-high school level. I was hoping for more in the way of Cartography as a science, but in its absence, I mainly enjoyed the pictures of the maps and other instruments of cartography depicted. Its a very light read.

The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
I am not that well acquainted with Jess Nevins, but he is a friend of friends, and it is for that reason that I wound up with a copy of it for the holidays.
And I am very glad of it.
A comprehensive as well as an idiosyncratic and opinionated view of Victorian fantastic literature, Nevins has entries on the usual suspects, Moirarty, Alan Quartermain, and Dr. Jekyll, but also entries on obscure and rare pieces of Victorian fiction that I had never heard of, and you probably haven’t either. Nevins clearly knows and loves his subject. His style is strongly opinionated, he is not afraid to put his own personal feelings on characters, authors and motifs.
The only real downside to the book is a bit of a lack of organization to the entries. There is a bit of inconsistency, in for example, having Professor Moriarty alphabetized under “Professor”, while Professor Lidenbrock (from Journey to the Center of the Earth) is alphabetized under “Lidenbrock”.
Still, it is a reference work that I shall flip through time and again for years to come, and I am eager to see his future endeavors as well.

Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437 (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series)
Prague the Crown of Bohemia was a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit in 2005, an assemblage of beautiful artifacts from the titular city during its heyday in the High Middle Ages. A center of commerce and power under a few powerful Holy Roman Emperors, the effects of Prague’s glory are still seen today not only in its architecture, but in the beautiful objects on display in the exhibit, detailed in this book. The book has a good sized (120 pages) of history and background to the pictures of the collection itself, and it gives a detailed grounding of the time period and area that I don’t think even the history degree people in my circle of friends can fault.
It was a beautiful exhibit, and this is a book worthy of it, at the highest levels of a book-based-on-a-museum-exhibit category