The Lost Gutenberg
By Margaret Leslie Davis. (TarcherPerigree, 294 pages, $27.)
Despite its misleading title, “The Lost Gutenberg” is a fascinating read for anyone who cares about books. The bibliobiography’s subject is the Gutenberg Bible known as Number 45, which was published in 1456 and became the world’s most expensive book when it was sold in 1987 for $5.4 million.
The title could lead readers to think the Bible was stolen at some point, or held for ransom by Russian mobsters, but it was only “lost” in the sense that the book’s key figure, L.A. socialite Estelle Doheny, first tried to buy it at an auction where she was the losing bidder. She didn’t blow her second crack at the book, though, and Margaret Leslie Davis paints a vivid portrait of Doheny, a book collector who prized the Bible because of her Roman Catholic faith.
Relying on diaries and financial records, Davis’ lively book traces Number 45 through the hands of five eccentric owners but it gets most interesting after Doheny’s 1958 death. She left Number 45 to the church, which waited the legal minimum of years before unloading it, allegedly to finance the redo of an archbishop’s home. It’s a betrayal of Doheny, a woman we’ve come to admire, but also a surprising step toward scientific study of Number 45, which ended up unlocking secrets about how Gutenberg revolutionized printing and, thus, the world.
The New Me
By Halle Butler. (Penguin, 208 pages, $16.)
“Jillian” author Halle Butler, a Granta best young American novelist, offers a darkly comic view of contemporary life in the highly readable “The New Me,” about a Chicago temp with a good education and a bad attitude.
Millie has two successful, indulgent parents and no student loans. Yet she is “flailing, filled with puke, thinking about death and feeling angry all the time.” At age 30, she hasn’t made the “temp to perm” transition, which might have something to do with arriving late, leaving early and not completing her work. She’s filled with contempt for her new colleagues at a designer furniture showroom — and pretty much everyone else. She misses her ex-boyfriend James, even as she realizes she was “too mean and too self-centered.” Her only friend is the equally self-absorbed Sarah, who’s jealous of slovenly Millie’s financial support and joins her in drinking too much.
Her downstairs neighbor Kim recognizes the smell coming from Millie’s apartment from her “pseudo-freegan co-op” undergrad days at Michigan State. Presented as a counterpoint, coupled Kim is glad to be free of “vulgar and desperate ways of living justified by the false pretense of nonconformity as a sign of intelligence and authenticity.” Millie may recognize something is wrong, but she’s unable or unwilling to make the slightest changes, a millennial stereotype taken to the extreme.
Butler presents a vivid portrait of her pitiful yet pitiless protagonist. It’s hard to know what Millie needs most: medication, a hug or a restraining order.