fb-pixel Skip to main content
New england Literary News

Rare beauties on display at Boston Athenaeum

The book “Une Fille des Tropiques” includes illustra-tions hand painted on panels of wood.Boston Athenaeum/Handout

Shining a spotlight on uncommon beauties

The best of the rare books in the Boston Athenaeum’s new exhibit are beautiful and smart. They include a volume from the first set of encyclopedias printed in America and one with hand-painted illustrations on panels of wood.

“Collecting for the Boston Athenaeum in the 21st Century” highlights recent acquisitions in the private library’s collection of 130,000 rare books and manuscripts. Curator Stanley Ellis Cushing knows well that anyone with a passion for beautiful books wants to hold them in their own hands so he invites interested parties to return for a hands-on experience after the exhibit closes on Aug. 9.


In the meantime, check out a book with Escher-like illustrations of floor designs, a winged book mobile that carries lines of poetry about high pressure and unstable weather, and a handwritten book of Graham Nash’s lyrics interspersed with photographs of people, such as Joni Mitchell, who inspired the songs he wrote.

There’s a book by Dard Hunter, a leading historian of papermaking, printed on handmade paper and with type designed by his son. Also of interest is a guide to Confederate naval signals and one with engraved illustrations of forts in British North America at the end of the French and Indian War.

Some of the methods used to make books in this exhibit proved too expensive and time-consuming to be practical. One involved printing images and text on dampened paper that was pressed onto forms sculpted from gypsum. The three-dimensional illustrations look like shell cameo jewelry. French sculptor Pierre Roche abandoned the process he called “gypsography” after making 48 books.

Mystery writer on a roll

WHDH-TV reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan’s “The Wrong Girl” (Forge) earlier this month won an Agatha Award for best contemporary novel. In it, newspaper reporter Jane Ryland investigates a tip that a local adoption agency may be reuniting adults with the wrong birth parents.


The Agatha Award is Ryan’s third. It honors mystery writing in the tradition of Agatha Christie; that means no explicit sex or gratuitous violence. Ryan’s seventh novel, “Truth Be Told,” the third in the Ryland series, will be published this fall. Her first mystery series featured TV reporter Charlotte McNally.

Celebrating New England

The New England Society in the City of New York was founded in 1805 to promote “friendship, charity and mutual assistance” among and on behalf of New Englanders living in New York. It has done so over the years through financial gifts, including $5,000 in 1927 to help flood victims in Vermont, and its annual book awards. This year’s winners were feted April 16 at a luncheon at the Grolier Club in Manhattan. They are “Sight Reading” (HarperCollins) by Daphne Kalotay for fiction; “Lifesaving Lessons” (Viking) by Linda Greenlaw for contemporary nonfiction; “Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution” (Viking) by Nathaniel Philbrick for history; and “A Lifetime of Vermont People” (Silver Print) by Peter Miller for art and photography.

Coming out

 “The One & Only” by Emily Giffin (Ballantine)

■  “I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir” by James Webb (Simon & Schuster)

■  “The Luincoln Myth: A Novel” by Steve Berry (Ballantine)

Pick of the week

Josh Christie of Sherman’s Books and Stationery in Portland, Maine, recommends “Wonderland” by Stacey D’Erasmo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): “With a voice as raw as an amplifier crackling to life, Anna Brundage is the perfect rock ‘n’ roll narrator. She’s coming into her own at 44 after her spectacular rise and fall on the indie scene. Anna’s journey is a wonderful meditation on music, the creative spirit, and the highs and lows of an unconventional life.”


Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.