Reading Snapshot: January 18th
Here’s a quick glimpse at my reading this Sunday! They’re all nonfiction: two regular books and an audiobook intent on making photos awkward. Isn’t that a lovely cover though? I’m lucky in that all of the books I’m reading right now have wonderful cover art; it makes me happy to leave the books scattered around my apartment and lets me appreciate them on an aesthetic level. I’m always more drawn to books with stunning covers, although I read a fair share of ones with unfortunate covers. What about you?
I used to only read fiction as audiobooks, but as my audiobook consumption has expanded in the past few months, I’ve tried adding in some nonfiction. I began with history, on the premise that it’s likely to have the most narrative flow (other than memoirs, which I don’t read much of), and I’m happy to report the experiment has been a success! I’m now a happy history audiobook reader, although I do hit the occasional dud (looking at Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror). Currently, I’m in the middle of Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone. It’s a group biography of four 13th century, aristocratic Provencal sisters who went on to marry (in birth order): the king of France, the king of England, the English king’s younger brother, and the French king’s youngest brother. Due to crazy Medieval politics, the younger brothers both eventually become kings of other lands, and their wives are all queens, hence the title. Goldstone does an excellent job of presenting the sometimes complicated relationships and politicking in a straightforward way, as well as in bringing the women and their various courts to life. She does occasionally stray into speculative psychological land, but she always marks this as speculation, and keeps the frequency low enough that I still trust her (aka she keeps it nonfiction. They led truly fascinating lives, complete with crusading trips to the Middle East, and the power jockeying you might expect at the highest political levels. Goldstone is good at explaining how the medieval mindset differed from the modern one, but she also keeps an emphasis on the humanity of the people she’s describing & never descends into ‘dark age’ stereotypes. All in all, this is a wonderfully informative group biography, on the lighter side but solid enough to satisfy. The narrator is good too, with a pleasant voice. My one complaint is that when she quotes direct Middle Eastern sources, she gives them accents, which I find insulting & deeply unfortunate. At least it doesn’t happen too often. I’m sad to only have three hours left (which means I’ve listened to eight hours in the past two days!) in it, but it looks as if Goldstone has a decent backlist. Hopefully some of them are also available as audiobooks!
You might recognise Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World; I put this aside last month but now I’ve picked it back up and am enjoying it immensely. The wintry scenes outside of my window probably help! And I just adore the cover. I must admit Heinrich will never be my favourite natural history author; although I love the themes he chooses for books, and his wonderful illustrations, his writing style doesn’t quite engage me. If I didn’t find the content so interesting on its own, I doubt I’d ever pick up his books. Luckily, he’s an excellent naturalist, and is regularly in awe of the natural world, which is certainly endearing. So I keep turning the pages, although with the secret wish that I could wave a wand and change the style a bit. Just this morning I learned how frogs manage to freeze during the winter and what life is like inside a beaver’s winter lodge. Good stuff.
Finally, yesterday I began my second read of The Dancing Goddesses by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. I read this last year for the first time & loved it enough to put it on my Christmas list; it showed up under the tree, and I couldn’t be happier to revisit it. Barber manages to be both a fabulously technical scholar (the bibliography includes titles in multiple languages & this is published by Norton) and full of general appeal. She’s telling stories, but stories based on years of cross-disciplinary research and thought. Her deductions are wonderful to watch, as she leads you through the process, and she manages to capture truths about prehistory & folk culture, neither of which lend themselves to traditional scholarly approach, being outside of the literary tradition. Anyway, this book is about folk dances, particularly in central and Eastern Europe (draw a box from Greece, up to Scandinavia, over to Russia, and that about covers the main geography), and how they arose out of a farming culture that depended on fertility and capricious forces like the weather and the kind of everyday, sympathetic magic that tries to influence those forces. It’s also very much about women and what their roles have been in these cultures. In other words, it’s like catnip to me. If you love folklore or fairy tales or central Europe or history that focuses on everyday people’s everyday life instead of big events or the tiny elite, I’m sure you’ll find it delicious too. Or if you’re just looking for an excellent nonfiction book to sink your teeth into. After this, I want to track down one of her other books: When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Who could resist a title like that?
I’m off to make some popcorn and settle back in for the evening, first with the paper books, and then later I’ll turn to Four Queens while I’m knitting. It’s so wonderful to be bookish, isn’t it?