Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Continued books

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley
The heroine is a precocious and rather unpleasant ten-year-old girl with a fondness for distilling poisons from things she finds around the house or garden. Her mother died when she was very little, her father is pretty absent, and she and her older sisters have a relationship of mutual torturing. An old-style country house murder, well plotted and executed, and oddly comforting in the way that such murders are -- I hope there will be many more in the series.

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior, Paul Strathern
A sort of group biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia, based around a time in 1502 when da Vinci was working as a military engineer for Borgia while Machiavelli was in attendance on him as an ambassador of Florence. Cesare Borgia was the brother of Lucrezia Borgia, and had a habit of killing her lovers. Their father was Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, who had the idea of using his papal power to set up territories which could be ancestral Borgia possessions, and who put Cesare in charge of the armies to achieve this. These ambitions may even have encompassed turning the papacy into a hereditary possession of the family, much like it had been five centuries earlier in the time of the Tusculanii and Crescentii. Machiavelli was very impressed by Borgia, and may have been all for the secularisation of the papal territories on the grounds that it was the papacy which was attracting lots of foreign attention into Italy, and making it the complex mess it was throughout the later middle ages and early modern period. Ideally the papacy, as the headship of Western Christendom, would not be an inherited post, but at this point no one seems to have thought of the papacy in moral terms at all -- that the pope held banquets at which various sexual acts were the after-dinner entertainment is attested not by his enemies but by his own master of ceremonies -- so you can sort of see what Machiavelli was thinking. The fact that whenever the pope wanted some more armies he just offered some sort of indulgence to a ruler of a neighbouring kingdom was pretty destabilising. For example, King Louis XII of France wanted a divorce from his wife in order to marry his predecessor's widow, Anne of Brittany, and thus keep her territories under French control. He had no grounds whatsoever for the divorce, so he alleged that his wife was deformed in a way that made consummation impossible. (She was not thrilled by this.) Alexander VI granted the divorce in return for money and troops which Cesare Borgia used to carve out his own territory in the Romagna. (Louis XII's last wife, the one who theoretically danced him into his grave, was the sister of Henry VIII, whose own rather more reasonable divorce request was not granted because by that point it was the Spanish who controlled the papacy, with interesting results.)
Anyway, I enjoyed this book, which brought various aspects of the time together quite effectively. I've never read The Prince on the grounds that it would probably depress me, but Machiavelli comes over as an interesting and entertaining person here, so maybe I will. His letters to his friends are very tongue-in-cheek -- annoyingly the author of this book seems to take them all at face value. For example, a letter from one of Machiavelli's friends congratulating him on the birth of his son, and saying what a relief that he looks at you so you know you haven't been cuckolded, is taken by this author as evidence that there was serious doubt over the paternity of the child, and he brings forward as further evidence for this the fact that Machiavelli's wife wrote to her absent husband asking him to "come back soon" -- so that he can see the child's resemblance for himself, apparently. Hmmmph.

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters
Another book I'd been holding off on reading because I knew I would enjoy it, and it did not let me down. It's set after the Second World War, when England's country-house gentry underwent a suddent decline into poverty and irrelevance. (I don't recommend the Wodehouse books from this period, they're as depressing as asking a farmer about farming.) A small-town doctor gets to know the mother and two grown-up children who live in the local big house when he's called in to treat their one remaining house maid. The son was badly wounded in the war, and the doctor starts to worry about his mental state. Spooky like the author's Affinity but not as crushing.

Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles
I can't remember how this got onto my Amazon wish list, but I do know there were heavy recommendations behind it. But I just completely didn't get it -- perhaps in the same way I didn't get A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Bits of it were mildly amusing but in general it seemed insufficiently interesting. Perhaps it didn't help that it has a peculiarly revolting foreword by Truman Capote, which has put me off ever reading In Cold Blood in case it turns out to be as fey.

The Love of Stones, Tobias Hill
How does this book manage to be so dull? I gave up about half-way through, still unsure whether or not I had read it before. A story about someone pursuing a long-lost jewel through their shady underworld contacts, with flashbacks to the history of the jewel itself and stories of legendary jewels from history, really ought not to be such a total chore to read. Remarkable in its way.

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