The Medieval Underworld – Andrew McCall

22dded172de0c8c59354f585277434f414f4141I honestly don’t remember what added this book to my reading pile – it’s a scholarly work. It’s also very readable, and has some great information.

Sadly, I was a little disappointed, because most of the crime in this book was against the church, and I guess I was expecting something a little more interesting than various forms of heresy. Which is to say, I am a child of the twentieth century, and far enough out of school that I just wasn’t in the right mood to appreciate this book on its scholarly merits.

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Marta McDowell

b06xppyh47-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_I distinctly remember my mother reading the Little House books to my sister and me before bed, over a longish period of time, as we got them from the library. It was before fourth grade, because it was in our original Portland house. There are only a few books I remember from that bedtime reading series- they had to have something fairly special about them to stick in my mind.

This book talks about Wilder’s connection to the natural world, and how she’d portrayed it in her books. I’d never thought very much about it, but that was definitely one of the things I loved so much about those books – the incredible sense of place she conveys throughout them. I’ve never been to a prairie – but I feel like I’ve experienced it through her eyes in her books.

McDowell breaks down the different landscapes covered by the books, and even certain intervals in the real Ingalls family life that didn’t make it into the more fictionalized version of their life in the book series. (If you want to see the difference – I highly recommend the annotated Pioneer Girl.) She talks about the actual plants and animals Wilder may have encountered, and gives ideas for doing a modern day pilgrimage to those sites. (You can visit the historic sites, but accurate representations of the landscapes are harder to find.) It’s a great book – very interesting for fans of the Little House series, but also an interesting tracing of the natural landscape over the life of a single person, and the wide variety of places she saw, and how much has changed since then. The book ships out at the end of August – I definitely recommend it.

A Distant Mirror – Barbara W. Tuchman

7617437604fec0959354c325667434f414f4141This is a serious, scholarly book about the 14th century, but written in such an approachable manner that anyone interested in this time period should be able to read it.

To illustrate the time period, the author settles on one man to trace how his life was impacted by all the changes of this century. That man is Enguerrand de Coucy VII – the last of a dynasty of grand seigneurs of France in the Picardy region. Enguerrand’s first wife was Isabella of England, daughter of King Edward III. As a peer of France, this put him in an extremely interesting position through the Hundred Year’s War.

But really, this story is about the Black Death, and how that influenced (or killed, take your pick) chivalry, and how that created the conditions that made the Hundred Year’s war. It’s really a fascinating story. This is the end of the Middle Ages, and having everything that unfolds channeled through the lens of this single life is such a perfect way to understand everything that was happening in that time.

Coucy is such a fascinating man. He did so much, and had connections all over Europe, to the Holy Land. I had a much narrower vision of the breadth of the Medieval world – I guess I didn’t think that they could possibility be so cosmopolitan. This book was an eye opener for me there.

The funny thing too is that this was first published in 1978, but it is such a brilliant work, it still holds up. Kudos to the author for thinking of this brilliant way to present this work, and the careful research she put into it.

The Mistresses of Cliveden – Natalie Livingstone

LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.

I’ll admit, I was a little worried about this book based on the preview write up – they’re definitely trying to market this to the Downtown Abbey fan crowd, and have decided to market it accordingly.     I was a afraid it was going to go for a slightly sensationalist bent, but it’s actually a well researched book about this house – built in the 17th century, and five of the women that managed it (the first is a bit of a stretch – Anna Maria Talbot never lived there, but she was definitely an inspiration for the Duke of Buckingham to build it).     Still, these women all have interesting stories, and the history here is an interesting read.

I think my favorite was Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, who was a very good friend of Queen Victoria, and a political activist in her own right.     (She’s a granddaughter of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, and continued in that Whig tradition.)     She’s an interesting person to be so influential in Victoria’s life, and I found that section fascinating.

I do think this is a good book for Downtown Abbey fans, and fortunately, it’s well written and informative.

Sounds and Sweet Airs – Anna Beer

Librarything Early Reviewers book

This book tells the stories of eight women composers, all the way back to the Renaissance Medici court.    I had previously only heard of two of them, which is one of the points of the book, and is also sad.

I minored in music in college (something I am using even less today than I am my Zoology major, but I digress).     I’d found a lot of new composers I’d never heard of through the courses I took for my minor, but you would definitely get the sense from them that women just didn’t compose up until the Romantic period.     Which isn’t at all true, but there were definite barriers to women getting noticed in musical circles, which you can imagine, based on women’s restricted roles in past times.

I think the most disappointing thing I learned is that the marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann was not the romantic musical partnership you get from the quick gloss in a history of music overview course.     Not that I should be  at all surprised, but it’s a little sad that she was more famous than her husband while alive (and more talented), but she’s mostly remembered in the literature more as his wife, and keeper of his legacy, than as a musician and composer in her own right.

This was a fascinating read – it was nice to see some stories of composers going back further in time than I had knowledge of before, and I do hope this is the start of these (and other) women getting wider exposure.

Worlds Elsewhere – Andrew Dickson

I’d never given much thought to Shakespeare in translation – I mean, the thing about his work is his amazing use of the English language.     You find lists of words that he pioneered in his work that we’re still using today.     Heck, we’ve basically moved on from that particular form of the language, and yet, his work is still taught in schools today.

But, it turns out his work has moved around the globe, and in many cases been translated, and Shakespeare has been adopted into other cultures as a national poet/playwright.     Or, his work has come to be associated with some very fraught ideas of colonialism and national identity (see: South Africa), or even with the very nature of what is art for the masses vs. the intellectuals (see: China).

There are five sections: Germany, the US, India, South Africa, and China.     The author travels to each, so you get a really great flavor of the places involved.     It’s just a fascinating read.

The History of the English Church and People – Bede

Here’s my serious reading for the year – one of the first primary sourced histories written out of England.

Bede was a monk who lived nearly his entire life between two monasteries in Northumberland, so there’s a decided religious slant to the narrative, but he’s very careful to give as well rounded a picture of the various secular doings of the age as well.     (It’s mostly Saxon kings, because let’s face it – kings always get the most press where anything historical is concerned.)

This book does concern the time before England was truly England – we’re talking after the Romans left, when the Britons and Saxons were still wrestling for control over land (non-spoiler spoiler if you’ve ever paid attention in history class – the Saxons won).     So we’re talking about various kings of smaller lands.    Bede being from Northumberland, there’s perhaps a bit more about the kings from northern England.     As well as plenty about St. Cuthbert – the local exulted saint.

It’s an interesting read – he did get as many primary sources as he could get his hands on – letters from the Pope to bishops in England, and the like.       There’s also a lot of flavor for the day – the thing that sticks out in my mind the most is that the Celtic church (up in Scotland), had apparently gotten it into their head that they were going to hold Easter two weeks later than the regular Catholic church, and Bede Did Not Approve.     Seriously, some note of disapproval is in almost every other chapter for a stretch.      There’s even a full chapter where the pope explains to one of the Scottish kings why their way of calculating Easter is correct.    (I skimmed.      It was detailed.    Very detailed.)       It’s all very distant and quaint in its own way.

Definitely an interesting read if you enjoy history, and don’t mind wading through a more archaic style of writing.