The last of the book recommendations/reviews gathers up a bunch of material I’ve read over the last few months here and there, dealing with arts, literature or straight-up history.
Nancy Marie Brown’s The Abacus & The Cross -The Story of the Pope Who Brought The Light Of Science To The Dark Ages examines the life of Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II. Gerbert, as a peasant monk, traveled to Muslim Spain in the mid 900s, got exposed to all the ancient knowledge compiled by the Abbasids and others, returned to France to start a school in Reims where he taught all the ancient Greco-Roman classical knowledge he’d learned in astronomy, math and the like (he may have also built astrolabes) and eventually through a myriad journey through the Medieval politics of the day mostly involving the inner workings of the Holy Roman Empire and the Capetian Dynasty of France, became Pope for a brief period. Brown puts forth an interesting thesis on how if Sylvester II and young Otto III of the HRE had lived longer, the schism of the eastern and western churches in 1054 could have been avoided, thereby changing all of European and Middle Eastern history, etc etc. It’s an interesting theory that’s tough to defend but her scholarship on the life of this dude is a fascinating dive into the way the Medieval European world worked, both in terms of the state of education and culture, as well as the politics.
Mark Lamster’s Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the painter Peter Paul Reubens follows similar lines of mixing a cultural examination of its subject (it’s a great straight-up bio of Reubens, discussing his art, the major works, and his great commercial and business success) with another dive into the politics of its era. This time it’s the Wars of Dutch Independence, and the Flemish Reubens serves as the perfect go-between to sneak messages and information between both the Spanish/Hapsburg and Netherlandish sides. They both like him, trust him… and while important powerful people & royalty pose for him, they chat in ways knowing he can pass the messages along. Not sure if he hid any coded messages in the cellulite of the female nudes he pained, but I guess we’d be getting into Da Vinci code territory going down that road.
Thomas Cahill’s Heretics & Heroes: How Renaissance Artists & Reformation Priests Created Our World is another entry in Cahill’s highly readable Hinges of History series. Cahill writes in a relaxed, breezy style, discussing the various figures he puts in the center of the catalyst-actions he sees moving civilization along. Cahill is not hiding that it’s all his opinion when he writes about Vermeer or Luther or Savonarola or anyone, really… so after a while the book becomes akin to listening to a really smart guy just talk about this stuff in a free wheeling manner. I recommend the other entries in this series as well.
Finally, a pair of similar books that are basically entertaining personal polemics, where each author cathartically releases whatever vitriol they have on assorted subjects in art and literature. Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art catalogues academic works by various professors on specific paintings that are radical way-out-there interpretations of the works in question, offering Kimball some truly low-hanging fruit to pick apart. Kimball sticks to articles by various art professors where a predetermined political ideological agenda gets put in place first, and then whatever analysis of the work can be hammered into that structure happens, regardless of any other interpretations or sometimes obvious meanings found in the works. While the book focuses on art, the same argument against the sort of garbage that turns up in far too many humanities research could be applied to numerous other areas. It kept reminding me of my own personal episode with the sort of polemicist crap Kimball rails against, back in an undergrad film class listening to the stupidest analysis of Hitchcock’s Rear Window by a semiotician overly determined to cram as much Freudian symbolism and deconstructionist twaddle into an analysis that purported to argue that Hitchcock intended for it all. I ranted about it then and, probably similar to Kimball’s experience in writing this book, enjoyed a very cathartic exercise of reproducing said rant many years later in my Wagstaff & Meatballs novel, much of which I set at a Brown U reunion.
If you want the English literature version of the Kimball approach, albeit with MUCH more straight out analysis of some great books ranging from Beowulf to Jane Austen, I listened to The Politically Incorrect Guide To English & American Literature by Elizabeth Kantor (audiobook). Good GOD does she hate Margaret Atwood & Handmaid’s Tale, and good GOD does she hate the way that book has supplanted, in her eyes, the greater books by greater authors in the canon, all for pushing the sort of political agenda Kimball also rails against. Handmaid’s Tale turns up as the go-to “why do they teach this crap?” example throughout the book, regardless of what period of lit is being discussed. But the polemics aside, there’s some nice straight-forward what-you-missed-in-lit-class discussions of Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, and so forth, but Kantor also offers some very nice discussions of how to read these classics – how to deal with the language, how to approach their context, etc. which is excellent advice for anyone pursuing an interest in great literature, for academic purposes or just for reading great books and knowing them.
I’m in the middle of a major move, which means boxing up TONS of books. I’ll be spending more time boxing books in the next weeks rather than reading them. But once those boxes open, it will be back to the grind again. So, until next time…