Monday, September 1, 2014

God's Philosophers

Most awesome cover.
God's Philosophers, by James Hannam

I found this book through a really long, really great review: The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews God's Philosophers.  I really encourage you to go read that article--you can even skip mine if you do--because it's far better and more entertaining than I am.

God's Philosophers sets out to destroy the common myth that Christianity clamped a lid of oppression and censorship on Europe, ushering in the Dark Ages during which no one thought or invented anything until the Renaissance came along and rescued us by inventing science.   (Guess who invented this idea first?) 

Hannam therefore leads us through a series of short biographies of medieval thinkers: people who delved into mathematics, engineering, natural philosophy (what we would now call science, only it wasn't then), and even a bit of medicine--because they believed strongly that God was a rational being who created a rational universe that could and should be understood through study and--yes!--experimentation.  I can almost promise that you've never heard of most of them, yet they were doing some pretty impressive stuff, and for the most part they were doing it with the approval of the Church.

Medieval scholars made great progress in logic and mathematics most especially the marriage of mathematics and physics, but we don't hear much about them.  This is partly because Renaissance scholars really did render much of previous work obsolete, and partly because Renaissance people purposely got rid of a lot of medieval scholarship.  Most of us were taught in school that the Renaissance was partly due to the discovery of ancient Greek texts, which sparked an interest in learning.  This is true enough, but it also sparked a contempt for anything more recent than Aristotle.  Medieval scholars knew something about Aristotle and built on that foundation, finding out that Aristotle was not always right; Renaissance scholars trashed all that work, cleaning out their libraries and getting rid of most of it.  Happily, the printing press had already been invented and medieval scholarly works had been widely printed, so they couldn't be lost completely.

It seems to me that the Renaissance scholars did something we see often in history; they trashed their immediate forebears and convinced future generations of their own superiority, simply by saying loudly and often that those old guys were stupid and stodgy and ignorant, with no redeeming values at all.  The Tudors did it to the previous rulers of England, the Edwardians did it to the Victorians (who did it to the Georgians), and the Baby Boomers did it to their parents's generation (so to speak.  Not blaming you, Mom.)

Now, medicine was the trickiest area to progress in, because so much of the human body's functions take place on a level unseeable by the human eye.  Medieval Christians were the first people to do dissection on human bodies, because nearly all other societies put very strong taboos on messing with dead bodies.  Galen had to do his anatomy studies on animals and extrapolate from there, and it was known that he got a lot wrong.  Hannam thinks that studies of the human body probably started with autopsies to determine cause of death.  But even so, what they could discover about the body didn't lead much of anywhere because they couldn't find out enough to really fix anything much.  It's great to know that blood circulates, but attempted transfusions were impossible until we figured out blood types.

There is a whole lot about astronomy, of course.  We get detailed summations of the studies of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo among others, and exactly what the scholars of the time thought about them.  Copernicus was a controversy, but apparently much of the objection was not so much theological as practical.  Many scholars thought heliocentric ideas theologically fine, but scientifically absurd.  The math didn't really work, and it took Kepler and his ellipses to solve the objection.  Kepler was an extremely religiously strict man, and studied the Bible carefully on this point.  He came to the conclusion that circular orbits were a Greek ideal; the Bible only required a reasonable universe and was OK with ellipses.

Hannam concludes, "...the most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable.  They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense."

I really enjoyed this book of history and science, and I certainly learned a lot.  If you're fond of the Middle Ages, as I am, and kind of resent it when people talk about those times as an era completely dominated by oppression and superstition, this would be a great choice.




Saturday, August 30, 2014

R. I. P. IX

For a few years now I've seen bloggy friends participate in--and wax enthusiastic about--the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event, but I've never done it myself.  I think this is the year.  I love reading spooky books in the fall anyway.  So here are the rules:

1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

As I do each and every year, there are multiple levels of participation (Perils) that allow you to be a part of R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril without adding the burden of another commitment to your already busy lives. There is even a one book only option for those who feel that this sort of reading is not their cup of tea (or who have too many other commitments) but want to participate all the same.
R.I.P. IX officially runs from September 1st through October 31st. But lets go ahead and break the rules. Lets start today!!!

Multiple perils await you. You can participate in just one, or participate in them all.


I am going to sign up for the Peril the Second level, which is for two books.  I had already decided to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the Classics Club September theme, which is the Romantic movement.  And I have really been wanting to read Eugene Onegin's very favorite book: Melmoth the WandererMelmoth is pretty long so I can't guarantee that I'll finish it by Halloween, and it is probably not too clever to read it at the same time as I'm trying to read War and Peace (yes, I am, and I'm only on page 70 because it's so unwieldy!) but what the heck.   

Parzival

Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Written in about 1200, Parzival expands and finishes Chretien de Troyes' unfinished tale of Parsifal.  I'm used to seeing this knight in a sort of mystical, perfect Christian knight way, because I'm most familiar with the Quest for the Holy Grail which is very mystical indeed, but Parzival is flatfootedly not one bit mystical and, while Christian, does not spend a lot of time on religion.  Parzival is a perfect knight--by the end--but he takes a while to get there and his virtues are largely expressed in chivalric battles that reveal his prowess.  His progress is revealed by how and why he fights.

Wolfram was something of an upstart in the world of German Arthurian storytelling, and he has to fight for his place a bit.  His story (he actually refuses to call it a book!) was written in episodes which were performed before he wrote the next part, and there are some references to his audience and to other, more established Arthurian poets.  He knows the French tales well and is really quite the all-around knowledgeable guy; we hear about all sorts of things and there is a lot of variety.

We start with a couple of chapters on Parzival's father, Gahmuret, a very skilled Angevin knight who sails to far-off lands for adventure.  He sails so far that he gets to a country where the people are dark-skinned non-Christians, though they have the same courtly society.  (Apparently they are meant to be Muslim Arabs, but Wolfram's information was so bad that it's impossible to tell; I got it from the notes.)  Gahmuret fights for the Queen of the country and marries her.  Again, however, Wolfram shows a stunning naivete; he had probably never seen any dark-skinned people in his life and was evidently not sure what would happen if two people of different races married.  So he makes their son parti-colored "like a magpie."  This son, Feirefiz, grows up to be a wonderful knight, and he eventually marries the Gral Maiden and fathers Prester John.

Gahmuret, however, does not stick around and heads off for more adventure, marrying another Queen, fathering Parzival, and then heading out to die in battle.  Parzival grows up isolated from all courtly society, so naive that he doesn't know a knight when he sees one, but he sure knows that he wants to be one!  He is so ignorant and gauche that he gets into trouble several times and even commits an awful sin that has to be expiated before he can reach his goal.  Soon, however, he learns and becomes a member of Arthur's court.  He wins and marries a queen who he loves deeply, but knightly adventure calls and they become separated by events.

It's at this point that Parzival miraculously gets to the Gral castle of Munschalvasese.  There he sees a fantastic Gral procession and a miserable Fisher King, but it's more magical in tone than religious.  Here, the Gral is a stone that prolongs everyone's life.  Of course Parzival fails to ask the Question he is supposed to ask, and weighed down by his failure, he wanders for a few years and falls further and further down from where he should be.  He fights unjustly, and eventually stops caring about God, but then he is called to repentance and taught what he should do.  It is when he learns to fight with a heart true to the right that his chance to make amends arrives.

The story takes a sudden turn and spends a whole lot of time following Gawan on his adventures, much of which involves getting his sister together with a king who loves her but also wants to kill Gawan.  I found this diversion kind of exasperating, but evidently Wolfram's audience were big Gawan fans and were in fact rooting for him to succeed in the Gral quest!  Eventually Wolfram wrestles the tale back to Parzival in time for him to fully mature, be reunited with his wife and sons, and travel to Munschalvaese to fulfil his quest, whereupon he takes his rightful place as Gral King.

The names in this story are something else.  By the time they've gone through English, French, and German, they are really interesting.  Utepandragun should look a bit familiar; he is Arthur's father.  Ginover is Arthur's queen, and most of the rest of the characters have names like Meljekanz and Condwiramurs.

A really fascinating Arthurian tale, with lots of detail and interesting material to delve into. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wonderfully Wicked Readathon


The ladies at My Shelf Confessions are hosting the Wonderfully Wicked Readathon in October!  They are so nice about any participation being OK with them, and I like that relaxed attitude.  I'll be joining up and reading what I can between October 17 and 27.


Here's the deal, in their words:
The  Wicked Wildfire Read-A-Thon is a time when we all get together to dedicate the days of October 17-27 to as much reading as possible. You read as much as you can in order to get yourself a little further through that huge to-read pile! We know real life gets in the way and even if you can’t participate more than one day, you’re welcome to join in on the fun!
In the meanwhile, we will be hosting book-related challenges where you can win some awesome prizes and have a Twitter party at the hashtag #WWReadathon! You can posts updates on your blog, Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook or even YouTube — as long as the profile is public and we all can enjoy your reading progress! Make sure to link to the site where you’ll be sharing your posts/updates with us. 
Sign up now!

I just love the mini-challenges.  Want to join me?


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Small House at Allington

The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope

This was my Spin title, and very glad I am that it was.  After reading Savage Continent, a nice story about nice civilized people doing ordinary things and having ordinary problems was just what I wanted!  It was lovely to sink into this novel.  It's the 5th Barsetshire novel, though it's actually set in the next county over; almost none of the action takes place in Barsetshire.

The Small House at Allington is sort of a little dower house attached to the much larger manor of Allington.  It is occupied by Mrs. Dale and her two daughters Bell and Lily, who live there because their uncle owns Allington.  He is fond of the girls and, under his patronage, they are able to have a bit more social life than their straitened circumstances would otherwise allow, but they do not expect to marry wealth or anything like that.  They are thoroughly nice middle-class girls.

Bell has no particular prospects of marriage--well, they thought the local doctor might like her a couple of years ago but nothing came of it.  Lily, meanwhile, has met a rather dashing friend of her cousin's, and has become engaged.  Mr. Crosbie is a high-class sort of secretary in London and very popular.  He loves Lily (and she loves him unabashedly), but he's rather like Mr. Willoughby, always sighing for what he hasn't got whether it's money or love.  Worried that he will be trapped by poverty if he marries a penniless girl and has to live on his 'paltry' 800 a year, he drops Lily in favor of an earl's equally penniless but socially-connected daughter.  He does this knowing that Lily is the better person and that he's making a bad bargain.

Lily has a strange reaction to this.  Yes, her heart is broken, and yes, she's trying to get over it; but otherwise she has some serious problems.  Meanwhile, there are lots of other people having interesting problems too.  Bell is being pressured to marry her cousin.  John Eames, a poor young clerk, might be up-and-coming but the one thing he truly wants is the one thing he can't have. 

Although this looks like a comedy novel which will land everyone in their proper places by the end, it really isn't.  Some of the story lines just stop short; Trollope says "I know you want a happy ending, but you're not going to get it!"  Others tie up satisfactorily.  It's a darker novel than you might expect.

I'm looking forward to reading The Last Chronicle of Barset!  I really like Trollope.


Monday, August 25, 2014

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps, by John Buchan

The Back to the Classics Challenge asks for "a classic mystery, suspense, or thriller."  It so happens that I picked up a collection of Richard Hannay thrillers some time back, and the first one, The 39 Steps, is certainly a classic thriller, so I picked that.  And then it so happens that I found a Franklin Library edition for almost nothing--I don't collect those (do any serious readers buy Franklins? To read? I want to know) but this one has illustrations by Edward Gorey.  They are not actually terribly interesting illustrations, with the exception of the cover image, which I share with you here.

It's summer 1914, and Richard Hannay is visiting England after a lifetime spent on the African veldts.  He is bored stiff and planning to leave, when his upstairs neighbor invites himself in and tells a fantastic tale.  The Black Stone gang are planning to assassinate the only man who can keep peace, and he's got the vital information to stop them.  All he needs is to lie low for a month...but it's only a couple of days until Hannay finds him murdered in his parlor.  Now it's up to Hannay to stay a few steps ahead of the Black Stone gang, decipher the code, and prevent a disaster.  He plans to use his knowledge of the veldt to hide in the wilds of Scotland, but the Black Stone is on to him...

It's a pretty good yarn, though surprisingly short.  The murdered spy fellow has a weird thing about "the Jew," so that's more than a little uncomfortable, but it is presented as his prejudice, not the actual villain of the story.  I'd be quite happy to read the other 3 Hannay stories sometime; I always love vintage British mysteries and thrillers.

Friday, August 22, 2014

It's the Morte D'Arthur Readalong!

To wrap up my year-long project, and to celebrate Arthurian literature generally, I'd like to host a readalong of Malory's Morte D'Arthur in the late fall.


Sir Thomas Malory was in prison in the 1450s, and he passed the time by compiling all the French romances and English stories he had into one big collection.  The job took him about 20 years!  We don't really have a certain identification for him--there are a few candidates for exactly which Thomas Malory he was--but the most probable is that he was the one from Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, a veteran of Calais.  He was in prison for rather a lot of distinctly non-chivalric behavior.  He also spent time in prison for conspiracy in the Wars of the Roses.

Le Morte D'Arthur is quite long, so I'm giving us a good chunk of time.  The scheduling turned out to be unexpectedly tricky; Caxton originally published the text in 21 books, each with a bunch of short chapters, and my edition uses that arrangement, so I just divided into four sections.  But!  It turns out that many more modern editions collect those 21 books into just eight, divided up by story, so that some books are very long and others very short.  If you have an edition that contains eight books, check the key (which I lifted from Wikipedia) below the schedule and do your best.


Schedule:
October 1-15: Books 1-5
October 16-31: Books 6-10
November 1-15: Books 11-15
November 16-30: Books 16-21
December 1-15: Catchup & Wrapup


List of Modern Divisions
Book I: “From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles” (Caxton I–IV)
Book II: “The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome” (Caxton V)
Book III: “The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lac” (Caxton VI)
Book IV: “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney” (Caxton VII)
Book V: “The First and the Second Book of Sir Tristrams de Lione” (Caxton VIII–XII)
Book VI: “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal” (Caxton XIII–XVII)
Book VII: “Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere” (Caxton XVIII–XIX)
Book VIII: “The Death of Arthur” (Caxton XX–XXI)



Malory's original 1485 very early modern English is not really hard to read when compared with, say, Chaucer's Middle English from not that long before.  It's usually been modernized rather than translated; if you fix up the spelling and punctuation, the words themselves are not difficult.  There are many re-writings that put it entirely into current English, but I think those are usually for younger audiences.   So if you're feeling very ambitious, by all means read the original!   

I did read the original at one time, but for this event I want to read the two-volume Everyman edition I got as a library discard from UC Berkeley in April.  It makes me happy to have them, even if they were only in Moffitt library.  It's an 1897 translation by John Rhys, and my copy is from the 1930s.  I might dip into the original too, though...

Hey, if you don't have time to READ the entire Morte D'Arthur, you could listen to it!  Derek Jacobi recorded a wonderful unabridged version.   So I will probably listen to that too; I have it and I enjoyed it quite a bit last time I listened to it.

I hope you'll grab the button and join me for a fun readalong!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Joys of Motherhood

The Joys of Motherhood, by Buchi Emecheta

I've never read a Buchi Emecheta novel before.  It was recommended on Celestine's blog, Reading Pleasure, so I picked it up as part of my prospective summer reading.

A young mother, mad with grief, runs away from her home to kill herself by jumping off a bridge...

And then the story goes back 25 years to tell the story of Nnu Ego's life, starting with her mother's story.  Nnu Ego grows up as the favorite daughter of her eminent father, and he wants a good marriage for her, but she doesn't get pregnant and eventually her husband shoves her aside.  Nnu Ego is sent to the big city of Lagos to marry another man, who she desperately hopes will give her children. 

Emecheta writes ambiguously, both defending and critiquing traditional Ibo ways.  Nnu Ego lives by them strictly, but comes to question her life and wonder if she will ever be free.  Everywhere she turns, she is chained by obligation, rules of status, and by her own great and determined love for her children, but the rewards are meager at best.

As I read, I was struck several times by the similarity between the events of this novel and the actual events in the life of Mark Mathabane as he tells them in Kaffir Boy.  Very different countries, several decades apart, and a different level of violence, but similar themes of the slow collapse of African colonialism, older men lost in a fast-changing world, mothers determined to make their children's lives better, and the children who grow up to an utterly different life.

A really good novel.  I'll have to look for more Emecheta books.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Second Treatise on Government

In August, the Classics Club theme is the Enlightenment.  It so happens that Locke's Second Treatise on Government is on my CC list and my TBR challenge list for this year, so I figured this would be the perfect time to read it.

Locke is clearly a genius, but since he was writing over 300 years ago, he isn't all that easy to understand all the time.  He would certainly repay repeated readings.   As some background, he wrote the treatise anonymously, partly to support William III's ascension to the British throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and to discredit James II, and partly to rebut Hobbes' Leviathan treatise.  Hobbes said that since everyone was pretty rotten, people needed an authoritarian government--an absolute monarch--to keep control, while Locke argued that the only legitimate government was one derived from the consent of the people governed.  James II was in the absolutist tradition, and William was supposed to be a king subject to the law.

Locke argues from first principles, imagining people living in a state of nature, with no government--everyone is equal to each other and subject to none.  In such a state, when one person attacks another, that produces a state of war.  For protection and freedom of trade, people might group together, which puts them in a society, and then there have to be laws.  What constitutes property and how do we know when someone owns something?  What does a just society look like?  Who has the authority to administer the law?  What powers does a government justly have, and how can it wield them?  Under what circumstances it might be ethical to overthrow a government?

Locke leads the reader on from one conclusion to the next, building his model of civil society out of clear statements and logical arguments.  It's interesting to watch.  I would like every high school student to read it as part of their government studies, but the fact is that it's a very difficult essay to read now.  I'm sure there are paraphrased versions out there.  It would be interesting to know what modern 'translations' exist, and if any of them try to convey the sense exactly, or if some of them tend to throw in some biases one way or the other.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

History Reading Challenge Check-In

Fanda at ClassicLit is doing a check-in for her history challenge:

Time flies so really quickly, and here we are already on the eighth month of 2014, two third of our sail to the past with History Reading Challenge 2014. This is our second check in, to check how we have been progressing since our start. Let’s share in the comment below (or if you want to write it in a post, you could link up your post here),

  • How many books have you read so far?
  • Are you on schedule or left behind?
  • What is your most favorite so far?
  • Which history are you looking forward to read?

(You don’t have to answer all the questions; basically tell us what you think about this challenge so far).

And I would like to remind you, that in the end of this challenge there will be two giveaways, one of them for the Analysis posts. If you haven’t submitted your posts, there is still enough time to do so. 
I managed to miss the last check-in post, so I think this is actually my first.  Here are the titles I've read:
  1. The Perfect Summer, by Juliet Gillespie
  2. The History of the Ancient World, by Susan Wise Bauer
  3. Arthur's Britain, by Leslie Alcock
  4. The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
  5. A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  6. Savage Continent, by Keith Lowe
  7. In the Steps of the Master, by V. H. Morton
I've therefore technically hit my goal of 7 or more books, but I have at least two more that I would really like to read by the end of the year: The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer, and Eight Pieces of Empire, by Lawrence Scott Sheets.  I feel that I'm right on schedule.

It's been kind of a blood-soaked year of history reading (I guess that's what history's like, but those WWII books were particularly brutal).  The Guns of August was excellent but not a lot of fun.  A Time of Gifts, though, was just a delight the whole way through, so that's certainly a favorite.  In the Steps of the Master was also wonderful and at the top of the list.  I'm looking forward to both of my next picks, though I don't expect them to be very fun either.