Remaindered at the MIT Press bookstore when I visited a week ago was Angus Calder‘s Gods, Mongrels, and Demons : 101 Brief But Essential Lives. The single Amazon reviewer pretty much pans it, but I disagree after a week-long acquaintance with many of the Brief Lives, and find Dave Hallsworth’s review much more congenial (“Today’s academics, whose knights and emblems have all fallen in the gutter, are unable to differentiate between odds and sods..”). The dust cover offers this additional description:
A compendious assemblage of oddballs, tinks, heidbangers, saints, keelies, nutters, philosophers, freaks & other personages, whether real, imaginary, legendary or mythical from Billy the Kid & Hedy Lamarr to the Scottish Queen of Morocco & Ludwig Witgenstein
Biography is pretty voyeuristic anyhow, so it might as well be entertaining. Most of Calder’s miniatures are 4-6 pages, but some are longer and some shorter –i.e., they’re ideal Bathroom Reading (a genre which ought to be better appreciated). They’ll provoke you into unexpected excursions: the Tricky Sam Nanton profile rekindled my interest in the fine structure of Ellington Orchestra pieces of the late 1930s, and the entry for Lee Miller reminded me of her remarkable WWII photographs and her collaboration with Man Ray [they developed solarisation, aka The Sabattier effect, seen in the middle image below]:
…and there are lots of people one had never heard of, but is glad to have made acquaintance at last. Racier than Wikipedia (no requirement for neutrality), more British than American in sensibility and vocabulary (trying to discover the meaning of “keelies” led me to WordNavigator.com [which didn’t help], but it took my Chambers Scots Dictionary to point me to “street arabs, pickpockets” and the Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang to specify “an Edinburgh band of young blackguards, ca 1820”), and withal a lot of fun.