Friday, 1 April 2011

Things I have read in March

Because it's Lent I am currently reading Augustine's Enarrationes in Psalmos, in a very good English translation by a hermit called Maria Boulding. It's not a quick read -- many of the Psalms have more than one commentary, and I've only just got onto the third volume, Psalms 51-72, even though I started the work last Lent. I'm not rushing through it because I'm enjoying it. It includes expected things and also unexpected things that make me stop and think, and jolt me out of an easy reading -- if it were an exam script I would give it a first. I love the feeling you get sometimes when you're reading something centuries old, either in the original or in a very fluent translation, that the author and the original audience are both totally alien and remarkably recognisable. The sermons were preached in North Africa, often in Carthage, to a people who were occasionally tempted away to the chariot races instead. I have never skived off church to go to see my favourite chariot racer. But in other ways it's strikingly germane. If I muster the energy I'll blog about the specifics of this at some point.

Lent means I have read less in March than in February and January, which is a good thing. I read the first two of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books with enjoyment, and marvelled at the way the series completely crashes and burns in book three. I enjoyed Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind, but had trouble quite understanding at whom it was aimed. Most of what she was saying seemed utterly self-evident to me, and a lot of my enjoyment came from a sense of relief that someone is actually saying it. But with her formidable mind and her extremely wide reading comes a tendency to rather opaque language which I'm not convinced is completely necessary. I suppose it's a dichotomy in the sources she criticises: some of them are aggressively aimed at everyperson, while others are couched in the polysyllabic sociolect of post-Theory academia. But her most telling points are against the former, but written in the style of the latter, which I'm not sure is going to do anyone much good. [Edit: in the middle of the night I suddenly remembered that this book was first given as lectures to just such an audience. Which accounts for the tone.]

I read two books with thoroughly depressing premises, Emma Donaghue's Room and Kazuo Ishuguro's Never Let Me Go. The first one transcends the horribleness by being through the eyes of a small child who loves his mother, while the second was just bloody depressing, though technically good, I suppose.

And I read Jenny Uglow's book about the first ten years of Charles II's reign. Bloody Charles II. Here's my review off LibraryThing:
This was quite good. I'm not totally convinced by it, though. The idea of Charles as a gambling king is a little forced, because surely no statesman has any choice other than to take the occasional risk. Also this only covers the first ten years of his twenty-five-year reign. It's hard not to suspect that this has something to do with Pepys' abandonment of his diary in 1669, though Uglow implies that it's because of Charles' last meeting with Minette in 1670, and his successful completion of his secret treaty with Louis XIV (*spits*). The way that this book splits things up into categories means it doesn't have a strong narrative, although this is more a problem in the first than the second half. And I have read a lot of other books covering the same ground. This book just didn't seem that engaged with the period, and although disengagement is a deliberate way of writing history, it's not very human. She's clearly on Charles's side, but failed to make me understand why. The King Charles who spent tens of thousands on his mistresses and laughed when his foully-behaved gallants tricked lower-class women into fake marriages and then abandoned them was the same Charles whose navy didn't pay its sailors, and who was offended when he found that one of his servants had stopped laying out paper for council meetings because he had not once been paid and could not afford to keep running up personal debts to provide the king with paper. Charles could not stand being dependent on the English parliament for his money to such an extent that he preferred to be dependent on Louis XIV for his money, making a secret treaty with the most dangerous despot of the time, and agreeing to convert to Catholicism for two hundred thousand pounds cash. We should have stuck with the kingless commonwealth, says I. Roll on the Glorious Revolution!
But I liked the Duchess of Newcastle's poem inspired by Lucretius on atoms:
For millions of these atoms may be in
The head of one small, little, single pin.
And if this small, then ladies well may wear
A world of worlds as pendents in each ear.
Also I didn't know that Charles' widow, Catherine of Braganza, went back to Portugal and was regent for her brother for a while.

No comments:

Post a Comment