Saturday, February 28, 2009

Act of God

Original Novel Title: Act of God: A Novel

Author: Charles Templeton
Publisher: Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

The Lost Van Gogh

Original Novel Title: The Lost Van Gogh

Author: A.J. Zerries

Publisher: New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2006 (hardcover); New York: Tor Books, April 2007 (paperback)

A long missing Vincent van Gogh painting arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by courier from Argentia and thereby hangs this suspense thriller.

Leonardo's Swans: A Novel

Original Novel Title: Leonardo's Swans: A Novel
Author: Karen Essex
Publisher: New York: Doubleday, January 2006 (hardcover); Anchor, January 2007 (paperback)

This work depicts the time the artist-inventor Leonardo da Vinci spent under the patronage of the Duke of Milan, Italy.

The Audubon Quartet

The Darwin Conspiracy

Original Novel Title: The Darwin Conspiracy
Author: John Darnton

Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, September 2005 (hardcover)

A murder mystery that flips between the present and the past and involves the 19th century English naturalist Charles Darwin, there are some excellent scenes in the Manuscripts Room of Cambridge University. Part of the plot revolves around the discovery of a diary kept by Darwin's youngest daughter Lizzie.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Stealing Athena: A Novel

Original Novel Title: Stealing Athena: A Novel
Author: Karen Essex
Publisher: New York: Doubleday, 2008 (hardcover)

A historical recreation of how the Elgin marbles were brought from Greece to the British Museum. The narrators are the wives of the Earl of Elgin, British ambassador to Constantinople, and Aspasia, the mistress of Perikles of the city-state of Athens two thousand years earlier.


Original Novel Title: Masterpiece
Author: Miranda Glover
Publisher: London: Bantam Press, 2005 (hardcover)

Performance artist Esther Glass sells herself at auction. According to the dust jacket blurb, the novel "gives us rare access and insight into the workings of the contemporary art scene...."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Bible of Clay

Original Novel Title: The Bible of Clay
Author: Julia Navarro; translated from the Spanish La Biblia de Barro by Andrew Hurley
Publisher: Barcelona: Random House Mondadori, 2006 (hardcover); New York: Bantam, March 2008 (hardcover)

According to the Publisher's Weekly review published on, "In Iraq, shortly before the current war, Iraqi archeologist Clara Tannenberg announces an incredible find: two cuneiform clay tablets that refer to another set of tablets that record the biblical patriarch Abraham's story of the creation of the earth. The twist is that this clay bible with Abraham's narrative was written a thousand years before the papyrus version we know today."

The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud

Original Novel Title: The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud
Author: Julia Navarro; translated from the Spanish La Hermandad de la Sabana Santa by Andrew Hurley
Publisher: Barcelona: Random House Mondadori, 2004 (hardcover); New York: Doubleday, 2006 (hardcover)

Art history thriller involving the Holy Shroud at the Cathedral of Turin, Italy, and the Italian Art Crimes Department police force unit.

The Secret Scroll

Original Novel Title: The Secret Scroll
Author: Ronald Cutler
Publisher: Beaufort Books, February 2008 (hardcover).

Professor of Archaeology Josh Cohan, on vacation in Israel, discovers an ancient scroll tied to Jesus Christ that he believes, along with others, could change the course of history and religious faith.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Archivist: A Novel

Original Novel Title: The Archivist
Author: Martha Cooley
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.
Could this be a trend, two first novels, nearly a decade apart, with the same title? The similarities end there, as this novel, unlike its 1989 predecessor, is a contemporary romance featuring a librarian whose institution preserves letters of poet T.S. Eliot. The poet's life intersects not only with the librarian/archivist of the title, but also that of a woman poet who fervently hopes to see the sealed letters.
Terry Abraham, special Collections, University of Idaho, commented to the ARCHIVES mailing list: "I do not think this will be the book that will expand and improve the public's image of archivists."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Archivist: A Black Romance

Original Novel Title: The Archivist: A Black Romance
Author: Gill Alderman
Publisher: London, England: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
A first novel, this science fiction work is set some four thousand years in the future on the planet Guna, a matriarchal society whose Archivist is a male named Magon Nonpareil. At some point in this vast book (380 close-spaced pages.), the Archivist comes to power and sweeps away old social structures, replacing them with new ideologies and systems. Among the most significant change we learn on page 273, "The Archive was opened to all."


Original Novel Title: Archangel
Author: Robert Harris
Publisher: London, UK: Hutchison, 1998 ; New York, NY: Random House, February 1999.
Harris, author of the novels Fatherland and Enigma, sets this novel in modern Russia where a one-hit wonder historian, Dr. Christopher Richard Andrew "Fluke" Kelso, is in search of a secret notebook kept by Josef Stalin. Russian archives and archivists play a starring role in the novel, so much so that this work could represent the Great Archival Novel of the 1990s.
Quotations are from the British hardcover edition:
Kelso, addressing a conference, "Confronting the Past": An International Symposium on the Archives of the Russian Federation", paints a grim picture of Stalin's personal life unaccounted for in any archives (p. 69-70):
Colleagues, whenever I sit in an archive, or, more rarely these days, attend a symposium like this one, I always try to remember that scene, because it reminds me to be wary of imposing a rational structure on the past. There is nothing in the archives here to show us that the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, when they made their decisions, were shattered by exhaustion, and very probably terrified -- that they had been up until three a.m. dancing for their lives, and knew they might well be dancing again that evening. ...
Here we are, gathered in Moscow, forty-five years after Stalin's death, to discuss the newly-opened archives of the Soviet era. Above our heads, in fire-proofed strong-rooms, maintained at a constant temperature of eighteen degrees celsius and sixty per cent humidity, are one and a half million files -- the entire archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Yet how much does this archive really tell us about Stalin?
A former hardline Communist Party and KGB member, Vladimir Mamantov, acidly comments to Fluke on how some Russians view the opening of the Russian Archives and its exploitation by historians (p. 73):
"So you're part of the gathering of thieves,' he said to Kelso.
"The symposium. Pravda published a list of the foreign historians they invited to speak.Your name was on it."
"Historians are hardly thieves, Comrade Mamantov. Even foreign historians."
"No? Nothing is more important to a nation than its history. It is the earth upon which any society stands. Ours has been stolen from us -- gouged and blackened by the libels of our enemies until the people have become lost."
Kelso smiled. Mamantov hadn't changed at all. "You can't seriously believe that."
"You're not Russian. Imagine if your country offered to sell its national archive to a foreign power for a miserable few million dollars."
"You're not selling your archive. The plan is to microfilm the records and make them available to scholars."
"To scholars in California," said Mamantov, as if this settled the argument. ...
The Tenth Directorate (pp. 107) is the shorthand form for the Special Federal Archive Resource Bureau, "or whatever the Squirrels had decided to call themselves that particular week" wryly notes one Russian investigator of Fluke's discovery. (p. 133).
The Tenth Directorate records room is maintained by one (p. 134, 136)
Blok -- an ageless creature, stooped and dusty, with a bunch of keys on his belt -- [who] led him [Feliks Suvorin] into the depths of the building, then out into a dark, wet courtyard and across it and into what looked like a small fortress. Up the stairs to the second floor: a small room, a desk, a chair, a wood-block floor, barred windows. ...
He had been expecting one file, maybe two. Instead, Blok threw open the door and wheeled in a steel trolley stacked with folders -- twenty or thirty of them -- some so old that when he lost control of the heavy contraption and collided with the wall, they sent up protesting clouds of dust. ...
He couldn't read them all. It would have taken him a month. He confined himself to untying the ribbon from each bundle, riffling through the torn and brittle pages to see if they contained anything of interest, then tying them up again. It was filthy work. His hands turned black. The spores invaded the membrane of his nose and made his head ache.
In another extract from Kelso's speech before conference delegates he pessimistically assesses the worth of the Russian archives (p. 156-157):
And the opening of the archive? "Confronting the past"? Come, ladies and gentlemen, let us say frankly what we all know to be the case. That the Russian government today is scared, and that it is actually harder to gain access to the archives now than it was six or seven years ago. You all know the facts as well as I do. Beria's files: closed. The Politsburo's files: closed. Stalin's files -- the real files, I mean, not the window dressing on offer here: closed.
In the town of Archangel, to which the notebook about, not by Stalin, led Kelso and a reporter who intruded into the hunt, the men bribe a Communist Party official to let them see the Party archives. The scene is once again rather dismal and almost pathetic from Kelso's perspective (p. 276):
The Russian conducted them back along the passage and into reception. The woman with the dyed blonde hair was watering her tinned plants. Aurora still proclaimed that violence was inevitable. Zyuganov's fat smile remained in place. Tsarev collected a key from a metal cupboard and they followed him down two flights of stairs into the basement. A big, blast-proof iron door, studded with bolts, thickly painted a battleship grey, swung open to show a cellar, lined with wooden shelving, piled with files.
Tsarev put on a pair of heavy-framed spectacles and began pulling down dusty folders of documents while Kelso looked around with wonder. This was not a storeroom, he thought. This was a catacomb, a necropolis. Busts of Lenin, and of Marx and Engels, crowded the shelves like perfect clones. There were boxes of photographs of forgotten Party apparatchiks and stacked canvases of socialist realism, depicting bosomy peasant girls and worker-heroes with granite muscles. There were sacks of decorations, diplomas, membership cards, leaflets, pamphlets, books. ...
The tension that exists between the historian and the archivist is well portrayed in this novel. This conflict, driven by the desire of both parties to possess history, is molded and manipulated to an evil end by Mamantov.

The Da Vinci Code

Original Novel Title: The Da Vinci Code
Author: Dan Brown
Publisher: New York: Doubleday, 2003
Despite being hammered by critics for its writing, this novel has attained a cult status with electronic and print pro-, anti- and guides to the Da Vinci Code. Lewis Perdue published a similarly titled novel in 1983, then a second one about Mary Magdalene in 2000. Brown's novel, as Perdue points out on his Ideaworx site, bears some similarities in character and plot development to these two novels. Having read Perdue's highly forgettable The Da Vinci Legacy, I can't say I'm convinced Perdue's plagarism case would stand up in court. See also The Novels of Lewis Perdue and Angels and Demons.

All the Names

Original Novel Title: All the Names
Author: José Saramago; translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Publisher: New York: Harcourt Brace, 15 September 2000.
Originally published under the title Todos os nomes.

Based on glowing reviews in and other sources, this novel is highly recommended. The principal setting is the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths. So vast are its depths that
one poor researcher became lost in the labyrinthine catacombs of the archive of the dead, having come to the Central Registry in order to carry out some genealogical research he had been commissioned to undertake. He was discovered, almost miraculously, after a week, starving, thirsty, exhausted, delirious, having survived thanks to the desperate measure of ingesting enormous quantities of old documents that neither lingered in the stomach nor nourished, since they melted in the mouth without requiring any chewing. (quote from novel copied from
The protagonist is a clerk working in the registry, also described as an archives, who commits the archival sin of removing records nightly from his office for his personal research. And thereupon hangs the tale by this Nobel-Prize winning Portuguese author.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Amnesia: A Novel

Original Novel Title: Amnesia: A Novel
Author: Douglas Cooper
Publisher: Toronto: Random House, 1992 (paperback)
Public librarian Rhonda K. Kitchens describes this novel as the "best example of modern gothic today by a Canadian writer." She notes that "the archivist functions as a sort of confessor...or is he the perpetrator???"
Divided into four sections or chapters, the very first is titled "Archive". The narrator describes himself as "an archival librarian" who works with plans upon first meeting one Izzy Darlow. The narrator is getting married later in the day, but Izzy quickly convinces him to hear his confession. The novel contains only one or two references to the functioning of the archives such as this one:
   The entire city is mapped in the Archive. We can trace the horizontal evolution of every building and street in Toronto. In a sense, the Archive is very much like Rome in Freud's analogy to the mind: an impossible city in which everything exists simultaneously. A building that was torn down a hundred years ago coexists with the present building, occupying the same site. Nothing is ever destroyed. Everything is remembered. (p. 9)
Many more references abound to libraries and the profound impact certain books had on Izzy.
The narrator listens to Izzy's story, misses his own wedding, dismissess Izzy, then wanders about until he assumes Izzy's name and perhaps even his identity.

Suggested by Rhonda K. Kitchens, 1997.07.28

Sunday, February 8, 2009

All the King's Men

Original Novel Title: All the King's Men
Author: Robert Penn Warren
Publisher: 1946 (hardcover)
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel was recounted (edited here) by Robert Shuster, Director of Archives, Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Illinois:
The book is mainly about the rise and fall of Willie Stark, but the narrator, Jack Burden, takes about forty pages to talk about his historical research into the life of his ancestor Cass Mastern, reluctant slaveowner and Confederate soldier. This research is based on, "A large packet of letters, eight tattered, black bound account books, tied together with faded red tape, a photograph, about five by eight inches, mounted on cardboard and stained in its lower half by water and a plain gold ring, man-sized, with some engraving on it, on a loop of string." Burden is sent the material by a relative who wants to know if they could be sold to a historical library. Burden says he does not think so, because Mastern was not a "historical significant" figure, so the relative tells him to keep them for sentimental reasons and Burden tries to use them to write his doctor's dissertation.
The rest of the chapter is the story of Mastern, as told by the documents and supplemented by other records Burden turns up. The purpose, I think, is to provide some counterpoint in the conflict between Cass and brother to the realtionship between Stark and Burden in the main part of the novel. The documents are brought in to represent the burden, specially the Southern burden, of history. They apparently never make it to an archives or repsoitory, but perhaps they deserve an honorable mention.
The film of the novel won the 1949 Academy Award for best picture.

Submitted by Robert Shuster, 1997.01.07.


Original Novel Title: Airframe
Author: Michael Crichton
Publisher: New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996 (hardcover); New York, NY: Ballantine Books, November 1997 (paperback).
The tragic deaths of three people and numerous injuries on a trans-Pacific jet flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles set in motion an internal investigation. Norton Aircraft, builders of the plane, conduct their own investigation to determine cause. Much of the novel centers on records-keeping practices required by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and electronic data recovery processes.
Quotations are from the hardcover edition:
During the initial inspection of the aircraft, a counterfeit part is the prime suspect for the pilot losing control. In order to foil counterfeiting (in this case after the fact) and to guarantee accountability
The FAA required commercial carriers to keep extraordinarily detailed maintenance records. Every time a part was changed out, it was noted in a maintenance log. In addition, the manufacturers, though not required to, maintained an exhaustive ship's record of every part originally on the plane, and who had manufactured it. All this paperwork meant that every one of the aircraft's one million parts could be traced back to its origin. If a part was swapped out and repaired, that was known. Each part on a plane had a history of its own. Given enough time, they [the investigators] could find out where this part had come from, who had installed it, and when. (p. 100)
Norton Aircraft maintained operational records for each "ship":
The ship's record consisted of a mass of documentation--a million pieces of paper, one for every part on the aircraft--used to assemble the aircraft. This paper, and the even more extensive documentation required for FAA type certification, contained Norton proprietary information. So the FAA didn't store these records, because if they did, competitors could obtain it under the Freedom of Information Act. So Norton warehoused five thousand pounds of paper, running eighty feet of shelf space for each aircraft, in a vast building in Compton. All this was copied onto microfiche, for access at these readers on the floor. But finding the paper for a single part was time-consuming, she [Casey Singleton, Quality Assurance/Incident Review Team, Norton Aircraft] thought, and--- (p. 118)
Having determined that a failed part was a counterfeit, when she viewed electronic repair records
Paper for the part appeared to be proper; a photocopy came up on Casey's screen. The part had come from Hoffman Metal Works in Montclair, California--Norton's original supplier. But Casey knew the paper was fake, because the part itself was fake. She would run it down later, and find out where the part had actually come from. (p. 123)
A counterpoint plot in this very suspenseful novel has Jennifer Malone, a TV investigative journalist, also tracing the historical record of the same problem with the Norton Aircraft model whose current accident Casey Singleton is probing. A videotape taken by one of the passengers becomes a crucial piece of evidence for both women. The company probe eventually becomes a race against time and a test of the evidentiary multimedia record to discredit the reporter whose story could prevent certification and production of a new Norton airframe.

After Many a Summer

Original Novel Title: After Many a Summer
Alternate Title: After Many a Summer Dies the Swan
Author: Aldous Huxley
Publisher: London: Chatto and Windus, 1939 (hardcover); New York. Harper & Brothers, 1939 (hardcover).

According to archivist John Sanford, this novel about the search for immortality by the author of Brave New World is
about life and death, rather than Archives, but the principal character, Jeremy Pordage is rather clearly an archivist/manuscript scholar imported from London to LA to catalog a collection of British aristocratic manuscripts. It has perhaps the most accurate distillation of the inoffensive yet purposeless existence that is archivist.

Submitted by John Sanford, 2000.09.18.

The First Horseman

Original Novel Title: The First Horseman
Author: John Case
Publisher: New York, NY: Random House, August 1998 (hardcover); New York, NY: Ballantine Books, June 1999 (paperback)

All quotations are from the Ballantine paperback edition.
A biogenetic-terrorist thriller, Case's second novel is based on an actual search for the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic virus in frozen corpses. The heroine, spunky Annie Adair, uncovers a vital clue in the last half when she learns the cause of flu outbreaks around the United States: an "archival flu" strain.
"They got an archival flu, that's what I was trying to tell you on the telephone."
She was up and pacing. "I just talked to a friend from CDC. Most of us have access to a genomic database that stores the nucleotide sequences of flu strains--it's how we track what's out there, how we do comparative studies, how we spot new variants. ... All these people who got sick, Frank--people in four different geographical locations--they got a flu that is genetically identical to a strain called..." She paused, to look at the white pad next to the telephone. "A/Beijing/2/82." She threw her hands out to the side. "Well, that just doesn't happen."
"Why not? What's 'A/Beijing--'"
"It's a strain of influenza that was first identified in China. In February, 'eighty-two. And here it is again. But that can't happen, Frank. Influenza is in a constant state of mutation. That's what influenza does. It's unstable. It mutates. You don't get exact replicas of sixteen-year-old strains.
(p. 294-95)
A few pages later Annie uses an electron microscope and "the central NIH database" with its "visual archive of influenza virus samples" (p. 303) to discover the terrifying secret behind the suspicious flu outbreaks.

Life of Sethos

Original Novel Title (English translation): Life of Sethos, Taken from Private Memoirs of the Ancient Egyptians
Author: Abbé Jean Terrasson
Publisher: Paris: 1731; London: J. Walthoe, 1732.
Digital reprint: Google Books from Princeton University (view online or download as Adobe Acrobat PDF)

A three-volume novel, which, according to classicist Mary Lefkowitz
purports to be a translation of an ancient manuscript found in the library of an unnamed foreign nation that is "extremely jealous of this sort of treasure." The author is said to have been an anonymous Greek in the second century A.D. Here Terrasson is following the conventions of ancient writers of historical fictions, such as the author of the Hermetica, who pretend that their works are translations of ancient writings that no one but themselves has seen. But Terrasson is careful not to deceive his readers completely: he assures them that the work he has "translated" for them is a fiction; .... He assures them that although fictional, the story keeps close to ancient sources, which, for the reader's convenience, he cites throughout the text. But he also says that "it is natural to suppose" that his author had access to original sources (now lost), such as memoirs available in the sacred archives of Egypt, written by unknown priests who accompanied Sethos on his travels. The sophisticated reader would be amused by the notion that the anonymous author had consulted these otherwise unknown documents, but Terrasson gives no warning to less well-educated readers that there is in fact no reason to "suppose" that these documents ever existed. (Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrist Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, New York, BasicBooks, 1996, p. 111-12)
What is even more remarkable about this novel, besides serving as the inspiration for Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, is that it formed the basis for Freemasonry's rituals and ceremonies, including those practiced by Masons of African descent in the Caribbean and the United States (Lefkowitz, p. 120-21).