Sunday, 24 May 2009

Books and stuff

I read lots of books on my trip to the US but I've forgotten what a lot of them were. I gave two to Fiona and left five at the guest house. I think the two I gave to Fiona were Mavis Cheek, Amenable Women, and Patrick McGrath, Ghost Town. I found them both good but a tad disappointing because both of them have produced things I've really enjoyed in the past, specifically Mavis Cheek's Janice Gentle Gets Sexy and Patrick McGrath's Asylum. I also read Mark Morris's A Great and Terrible King, about Edward I, which was quite good. Also Slouching towards Kalamazoo, by Peter de Vries, which is quite funny. It's about a youth who's failing eighth grade and then gets his teacher pregnant. I can't remember the others though.

I read James Meek's We Are Now Beginning Our Descent last night. I stayed up late to finish it. It was very good but I really should have gone to sleep because I think there was stuff going on which I was missing. There was an absolutely fantastic bit where a man's talking about a novel he wrote some decades before; it made me think of the amazing stuff about the Siberian death camp in The People's Act of Love.

The Siege by Ismail Kadare is also great, and quite monumental.

I resisted book buying at Kalamazoo because it's easy to get carried away and I need to live more lightly. But I did buy an excellent book which I hadn't heard of before, Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love, and Betrayal, by Gabrielle Langdon. I went to the Uffizi for the first time as an adult a couple of years ago and decided that Bronzino is my favourite painter because of those fantastic Medici portraits. Their self-sufficient beauty is slightly frightening: the children are really beautiful but you're glad not to have been in the same class as them at primary school. Also, you're afraid to ask what happened to them, especially Bia de Medici. And in fact it turns out that by the time it was painted she was already dead, and Bronzino probably got her features from her death mask. The same face is on the monster "fraude" in the Bronzino allegory in the National Gallery.

In the same book I liked the description of Giovanni de Medici as "considered papabile from infancy".

I also read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. It's extremely good, and it's a bit annoying that it's only the first volume of a trilogy of which the rest are as yet unwritten. I read Christopher Brookmyre's Snowball in Hell. A wierd thing about Christopher Brookmyre, Ricky Gervais, and those people who do South Park, is that I enjoy their output even though it is clear from it that they are arseholes. Also, even though his rants about manufactured pop are put in the voice of one of his characters and shouldn't necessarily be seen as his own views, etc, it's still a little dangerous for someone to go on about this whose entire career is based around the book equivalent of manufactured pop: enjoyable, disposable, and with a consistency of output which is as much a professional strength as a failing.

I've started a book called Arcadia by Adam Nicolson about the early Earls of Pembroke at Wilton. They took over most of the lands of Wilton Abbey, and since I'm writing this bloody book about the land-holdings of Wilton I thought I'd read about the later stuff. The problem is first that he writes in quite a stylised way; but more seriously that he gives a little potted history of Wilton Abbey which seems to be entirely based on his misreadings of the fifteenth-century legendary material about it. He says that Alfred the Great laid the foundation stone; and that Edith of Wilton was rebuked for her fine clothes by Bishop Adelwold of Lindisfarne. It was actually Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, her contemporary and an important political figure, rather than a hermit who lived on the other side of England and died more than two centuries earlier. He's obviously come across the spelling with a d rather than a th and ended up with the misidentification because the d spelling is more common in northern material -- in the medieval legends they're all pretty clear it's the Winchester one, so he hasn't got it from that. The anachronism could have rung alarm bells, since Edith is a pretty well-documented character, the much-loved oldest child of Edgar the Peacemaker, and her Life was written only about a century after she lived. (She held her own with Bishop Æthelwold, by the way, saying that since God sees the inner person she could be just as holy in rich clothes as in sackcloth and ashes, and the redoubtable Æthelwold was silenced; she's a pretty endearing saint, and even had her own zoo.) He's also pretty uncritical in his repetition of all that "naughty nun" stuff so beloved of the Reformation era. So I've had to pause in the reading to consider the question of whether cavalier inaccuracies like that cast doubt on the rest of his work, or whether it's a different thing to write about social trends between the Reformation and the Civil War. But really, when you read things by later historians which touch on Anglo-Saxon stuff you sometimes end up wondering whether later history even involves source criticism, or whether they just read narrative sources all the time. This particular author's attitude seems like it might be all about building something nice; I can't explain quite what I mean, but people with theories, or doing Theory, often seem a bit like scrapbookers, who can cleverly assemble existing stuff into something nice and clever, which might have its own intrinsic value, and perhaps win the Turner prize, but isn't much to do with what they started with; it's actually all a game to do with human intelligence, and really more about anthropology than anything else.

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