Rare books in detective fiction

About to recommend Hans Tuzzi to yet another librarian, I realized that I was more than half way to a llist of detective stories featuring rare books. So, time to make a list.

Sayers, Dorothy. Whose Body? The very first Lord Peter mystery begins with the interruption of a shopping trip to snap up some incunabula…as one does. The only Lord Peter mystery to be out of copyright in the US.

Tuzzi, Hans. Il Principe dei Gigli. Technically, this story features rare book librarians, not rare books.

Leon, Donna. By Its Cover. Nothing worse can happen to a special collection or rare book library than to have a successful thief on the inside. Set in today’s Venice but with nods to Aldus and Venice’s rich book and printing history.

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California is weird. For example, Democrats are by far the majority of voters in California, but a majority of California counties have a Republican majority of voters.

The question of party affiliation is complicated by the large number who state “no party preference” when they register. Other sources are needed to know how these registered voters actually line up politically. Republican presidential candidates especially will need this kind of information. What type of Republican candidate could take California? A maverick, or a centrist? Establishment or libertarian? It all depends on those mysterious, unaffiliated Californians.

Women’s Equality Writ in the Stars

Shortly after Caroline Herschel’s discovery of Comet C/1786 P1, her brother William Herschel went to Windsor Castle to provide a viewing to King George III and the royal family. Novelist Frances Burney, who had just begun several years’ service as a companion to Queen Charlotte, noted the event in her diary.

The way in which she chose to mark the event is moving. “We found him at his telescope, and I mounted some steps to look through it. The comet was very small, and had nothing grand or striking in its appearance; but it is the first lady’s comet, and I was very desirous to see it. Mr. Herschel then showed me some of his new-discovered universes, with all the good humour with which he would have taken the same trouble for a brother or sister astronomer…”



A depiction of Caroline Herschel.

The BBC radio and podcast series In Our Time recently devoted an episode to Frances Burney.

Xenokin and Haplotribes

“Dear Customer! 56 new relatives have joined 23andMe in the last 58 days!”

I still wonder if we don’t need a new vocabulary to better talk about DNA relationships. For a variety of reasons. In Winnie the Pooh we learned the category “friends and relations” which I always thought summed things up rather well. It was based on personal acquaintance, but varying degrees were implied, and it helped one realize that not all relations were necessarily friends, and that that’s OK.

In some places, the old Gaelic communities in Scotland and Ireland for example, you might very well know some 4th or 5th cousins, and how you are related to them.

Now that we have technology to reunite co-descendants, we should think about expanding the language a little bit. I have a hard time thinking of people I’ve never even met as cousins, and to call them relatives suggests that I grew up knowing them. Even “distant cousins” has that effect on me. On the other hand, I didn’t really meet one second cousin until he was almost grown up, but we are now both friends and relations.

I think there are now regular reunions for descendants of my 4x great grandparents (on my maternal-maternal-maternal side). This is a celebration of heritage, I suspect, more than family, but I won’t really know without attending one. Are there reunions for genetically confirmed, but genealogically undocumented, distant cousins? “Sniplings” comes to mind. Then there are tribe, kin, words out of which new words could be coined. Xenokin, for instance. The genes relate us, but we are strangers in every other way, foreign to each other even as we exchange surname lists and puzzle over pedigree charts.

Drought plus disaster would be, er, a disaster

30 years ago, when it became inevitable that we would move west, I begged my mom, “Please, not on the San Andreas Fault.” So of course, she found a place to live where the San Andreas and the Banning and the San Jacinto fault all converge, ticking away, deep underground. Brilliant.

I’ve been in Los Angeles for 16 years, now. At the moment I live near a major terrorist target, above the only tsunami zone in the city, on a few small earthquake faults, and still way too close to the San Andreas Fault. I’ve tried to pay attention to the geologists. And to the first responders, who tell us, “We’ll be way too busy. Plan to take care of yourself.”

Oh, did I mention the fires? There are lots of wildfires. Even when there’s no major drought, there are wildfires. So there is always a good chance of a huge earthquake coinciding with fires and no water to fight them with. So, even as goofy and fake as the disaster prepping show on TV was, the truth is that disaster prepping isn’t a waste of time here. I just have to figure out how to make all the 5-gallon containers fit in with the furniture.


How to get the water out of a water heater

Is it interference or oversight?

One of my favorite podcasts takes a look at one of my favorite subjects, personal genome testing and 23andMe and the FDA… one good point is that doctors are more restricted than such companies, and that the ethics of providing this testing needs to be closely reviewed by everyone involved – it really is a public policy question that the FDA, or somebody, should probably be engaged in. Listen in!


What I’m reading these days

For a number of years after becoming a librarian, I actually didn’t read much. One reason was the amount of time and effort I was expending on learning Scottish Gaelic, and then my changing eyesight after age 40 also put me off. Lately, though, I’ve been reading a lot. Over the past two years, I’ve become intensely, almost obsessively curious about a number of subjects. There are always a dozen books piled up on my desk and next to the sofa. I’ve even been dipping into fiction again, after more than a decade of disinterest.

The first John Murray and the late eighteenth-century book trade, by William Zachs. Over the holidays last December, my efforts to make some progress in family history led to the discovery that my 4x great grandfather was a famous London bookbinder. Famous in some circles, anyway. For a librarian, that’s a pretty big deal. Especially if you originally went to library school with a big interest in rare books. Publishers, printers and booksellers have left some records behind, but bookbinders not so much, except the artifacts themselves. So any books that focus on the late eighteenth century book trade in London are really important for understanding the life and times of my ancestor. This is also one of the most interesting periods in the history of London. John Murray was a Scot who entered the book trade almost randomly. His shop was not far from my ancestor’s shop off The Strand. The lucky thing for historians is that Murray’s archives remained intact, and provide enough material with which to set out his biography and provide a detailed checklist of his business partners and complicated business arrangements throughout Britain.

Defending the faith: nineteenth-century American Jewish writings on Christianity and Jesus, by George L. Berlin. This book is on my sofa at the moment due to one of those odd bits of thought that gets into my brain and, while not occupying too much time, never really goes away. In broad terms my interest is in the question of the Jewish response to the appropriation of their religion and scriptures by another faith that grew much more powerful and dangerous. In the twentieth century, Christians seem to have decided on the whole to respect and support Judaism and Jewish people (never more so than after Hitler and the Holocaust). At the same time, mainstream society remains biased and in many ways disrespectful. Standard library terminology, just to take one example, still denominates the Hebrew scriptures as “The Old Testament, (O.T.)” This book deals with an additional issue: that of Jewish people living in a republic that has struggled since its founding with a difficult question. How much freedom of conscience and belief is its Christian majority willing to tolerate? These questions are still very timely.

The Taste of Brussels Sprouts

A few quick notes on the results of my DNA analysis from 23andMe

23andMe got back to me a couple weeks ago, my account automatically loaded with information about health and haplotypes. There’s been a lot to digest, and a weird sort of social media experience, like being on a facebook where people only care about surnames and SNPs and only poke you to suggest sharing genomes.

And oddly, my main recurring thought has been, « but I like Brussels sprouts! »

The first thing I checked was the Y-DNA haplogroup, the clue to my paternal ancestry across the millennia. Haplogroup R1a1a. Spent the last glacial maximum in the Black Sea refuge. The most common haplotype in Eastern Europe. No surprise there, but a lot of material to cover in future posts. Since I spent most of my life not even knowing what my father looked like, I tend to be obsessively curious about his background.

Then the traits – that lactase question. Genetically, milk has no quarrel with me. If there are issues when I eat dairy, it’s not my ancestors’ fault. Bitter taste sensitivity was a surprise, because I’ve always loved broccoli, and at least as an adult, I’ve been a fan of Brussels sprouts. It’s true they can be bitter. In fact, I realized that they taste a lot like a pint of Guinness. That this trait is genetic has actually been understood since the 1930s, and actually used to be used as a paternity test!  What doesn’t make any sense to me is the absence of discussion about olives. People with this bitterness sensitivity can’t possibly like olives, but certain green vegetables are always held up as the main victim of this trait. I actually feel guilty about not liking olives, because they’re supposed to be so good for you, and it’ll be a relief to blame this on a genetic trait.

Finally health, or really, threats to health. 23andMe won’t let you see the Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s risk until you read yet more info and deliberately « unlock » the file. My risk for Alzheimer’s is 4 in 100, as compared to your average American’s 1in 100 risk. That was the worst of it. With a pretty clean family record in dementia of any kind in my long-lived grandparents and near relatives, it’s not something that will worry me. There were slightly elevated risks for Parkinson’s, heart disease, and Type 1 diabetes. Thankfully, most of my lifestyle choices are ones that should allow nurture to offset nature. Coffee drinking, for example, has been found to correlate with later onset of dementia, and better memory retention even if it does set on. And my doctors are always happy with my calm heartbeat and healthy blood pressure.

Where is the less than average risk? Most of the conditions my hypochondria throws at my imagination when I’m not feeling well. So much for that.

The last category of information, the least relevant to me since I don’t have kids, is the part about what your genes carry and may pass on. In my case, zilch. No congenital defects, no quirks, none of the stuff that made House so fascinating to watch (hemochromatosis, for example).

The taste of olives

23andMe sent an email to say that they received lots of kits at the same time as mine, and it will take them longer then usual to get around to the processing. Must have been a popular Christmas present.

While I wait for analysis, I’m invited to familiarize myself with the 23andMe online experience by means of the Mendel family. This is a real family (but hidden behind Gregor Mendel’s name) of European extraction, whose DNA analysis serves as a typical sample of what the customer should expect to find when their data is loaded into their account.

I find that Greg Mendel is probably lactose intolerant, but his spouse should not be, at least not for genetic reasons. This is what I looked for first, because it’s one of the things I’m looking forward to the most. This information is listed under Traits, along with a lot of other things that are interesting, but not life-changing. Well, that depends on how you feel about ice cream. Or eating broccoli (perception of bitterness). These are all things you already know about yourself when you’re 48. Or do you? In the case of lactose, you may be genetically OK for it, but have other issues preventing its digestion. If I’m lactase typical (and therefore lactose intolerant) it will be time to just stop torturing myself with the possibility of trying that new gelato shop around the corner from Helms Bakery. If it turns out lactose shouldn’t be a problem by virtue of my genes, I can try to find out what my limits are. Maybe it’s really beano I’ve been needing lately, not lactaid?

There are lots of things in the Traits section I didn’t know about before. One’s level of caffeine addiction, for instance, and whether ear wax is wet or dry. I suppose some of this stuff would be good for parents to know. Why force kids to eat Brussels sprouts if the taste is truly offensive to them? Personally I was hoping to see olives listed somewhere, they are a food that really tastes disgusting to me, while my mom will happily eat a whole can during a holiday dinner. One of my cousins likes them, another doesn’t. That has to be a gene thing. Instead of olives, the list said “dark beer.” I love dark beer, even though it is unarguably on the bitter side. Maybe I can get 23andMe to add the olive question to one of their surveys or experiments. Not liking olives makes me feel guilty in a way that avoiding milk does not. Olives are supposed to be really delicious and good for you. On the other hand, broccoli and Brussels sprouts rank really high on my list of delicious, eat-raw-right-out-of-the-garden vegetables.

So all these traits you can learn about are good for chit-chat over lunch. The next two categories of genetic destiny are a little more serious. I’ll save those for next time.