I’ve read quite a few of Alison Weir’s historical biographies and am a big fan of her writing. Elizabeth the Queen has been on the shelf for a long time. Well, most of the books I reading have been; either they get read straight after being bought or they go in the pile only to surface years later. Anyway, still largely reading non-fiction. I’m currently 30,000 words through my 120,000 word work-in-progress so I think the non-fiction streak will continue for a while.
I enjoyed this a great deal. The writing is engaging and the court around Elizabeth comes to life quite vividly. I read this shortly before I read Fools and Mortals so I enjoyed having the real background to the setting. One of the interesting themes of the book is Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and the various factors that may have influenced that. In reality, Elizabeth had very little choice about who she might marry – there were few men equal in status to her, and most of them were Catholic. Of course, she showed little inclination to give up being supreme ruler of England. If she’d married her husband would have been her superior and she does not appear to have really believed that women were inferior to men. The prevailing opinion that women should not rule meant that she could never openly express that opinion so it must be inferred from her letters. Weir also posits that given the fate of her sister Mary and several of her father’s wives, Elizabeth may have subconsciously associated marriage with death. In her lifetime there were rumours of affairs and illegitimate children but they seem hardly credible in hindsight. I came away from the book thinking that she may have been asexual. Elizabeth clearly enjoyed flirting with men, as evidenced in her letters and contemporary accounts, and she had several emotional intense relationships, but did not seem to have to work terribly hard to repress her sexuality.
There’s a lot more to the book than speculation about marriage, even though this is tightly bound up with her diplomatic relations with other countries. It gives a lot of information about the court and the characters present, about Elizabeth’s finances and the corruption inherent in the system of patronage that was the 16th century economy. There’s a lot of detail about how Elizabeth negotiated her way between her powerful neighbours, France and Spain, and cleverly avoided wars she couldn’t afford. War wasn’t always avoidable, but a different ruler might have gone to war much more frequently given the circumstances.
I would highly recommend it. Informative, entertaining and very readable.
I forget how this book ended up in my library. Probably picked up while killing time at a train station or airport. That’s where I mostly seem to buy this kind of lightweight non-fiction. My brain is too tired for the imagination required of a novel or the attention required of more in-depth non-fiction.
How to Speak Money by John Lanchester is a dictionary of terms used about money in the media and by the financial services industry. It’s a handy think to have because many of those terms are difficult to grasp and the meaning of them quite technical. Reading this book will give you a better understanding of what people mean by such things as inflation, equities and hedge funds, or downsizing and rent. There’s some historical context given in the entries about Keynes, Friedman and Marx, and a long introduction that describes what’s happened in economics and finance in the last century or so.
What I found interesting was Lanchester’s focus on the amount of reversification used in the language used to talk about money. Reversification is a word coined by Lanchester for when a term is used to describe the opposite of their initial sense, often deliberately in order to obscure what’s really happening. An example is ‘credit’, which really means ‘debt’. We were brought up to believe debt was a bad thing and people don’t want more of it, but if you rename it credit it sounds like a good thing that you want more of.
It’s bit dry. Lanchester’s writing is quite witty and snarky but there’s only so much he can do with the material. But it is informative and enlightening and well worth reading if you want to understand money and economics a bit more.
I read Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwall because it was my employer’s Book Club read. I was fairly excited as I like Cornwall’s books. Or at least, most of them. I loved the Winter King’s series, the Sharp series and the Last Kingdom series.
Fools and Mortals is about William Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard, his quest to graduate from playing female characters to playing male leads, and the intrigue between the theatres in Elizabethan England. A play is stolen, Richard is suspected and he must get the play back to prove his innocence.
It was okay. It was a light, easy read. Maybe I had high expectations but I didn’t think this was Cornwall at his best. The plot was a bit obvious and the writing not great. The main character wasn’t very likeable, but, it occurs to me most of Cornwall’s protagonists are arrogant and reckless, so Richard Shakespeare fits the mold. It’s just that there’s nothing engaging to go along with that.
There’s a few pages at the end talking about the historical basis for the story which is quite interesting. The setting is brought to life really well with lots of little details of Elizabeth England.
The Sutton Hoo Helmet is the second of the British Museum Objects in Focus series that I’ve read. There’s seven of them in the series so far.
It is an in-depth look at an iconic object in the Museum’s collection, and is another of my favourites. The Sutton Hoo helmet is a finely crafted helmet, both fully functional as armour and exquisitely decorated with gold and garnet.
The book talks about the excavation of Sutton Hoo, which was not straightforward, and the effort involved in discovering the treasure hoard. The helmet was in many tiny pieces and putting it together took years. Indeed the first attempt was later decided to be wrong and it had to be taken apart, carefully, and reconstructed again. Putting the helmet in context with similar finds across Northern Europe, based on the decoration and shape, gave the scientists a better idea of what it would have looked like.
And, of course, the best bit is the model of what it is now thought to have been, made by the Royal Armouries in the 1970s. This is also in the Museum alongside the reconstructed original.
Finally, the book covers the candidates for the occupant of the tomb. It is made difficult because dating the helmet can only give an approximate date within a hundred-year range. These are fascinating little books and I’ll be getting another one as soon as I next get to the Museum.
The Way of the Wolf is a book of paintings by Pollyanna Pickering, with text and photography by Anna-Louise Pickering, bought for me as a Yule present by my parents. It is absolutely gorgeous and I loved it.
The book recounts two trips made by the Pickerings to photograph and draw wildlife. The first was to seek out the threatened European wolf in Transylvania and the second trip was to look for the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf. Both areas are pretty remote and along with paintings and photos of the wolves are descriptions of the effort needed to get anywhere near them. There’s some interesting observations on the way of life in these areas and a little history. In both cases the authors worked with conservation teams to get close to the animals and descriptions of that work is included.
As the wolves are both rare and shy (the Ethiopian wolf is the rarest of all wolves) there’s a lot of time spent not seeing them, and instead painting and photographing other wildlife, the people they meet and the places they pass through. In Ethiopia they describe a feeding ritual with hyenas accompanied by some intense photos.
I love wolves and I enjoyed The Way of the Wolf for the beautiful art and the loving way it is presented. The Pickerings have published a number of books of wildlife art, including tigers, pandas, polar bears and owls. They are not readily available through the usual booksellers so I’m going to include a link to their website Pollyanna Pickering Studio.
Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination is the book of an exhibition I never went to. I’ve had it for so long I’ve forgotten where I got it. I first started reading it about ten years ago but didn’t get very far with it because it is too big to carry around and I don’t read much at home. And finally I’ve finished it, thanks to my miracle morning routine.
Fuseli’s The Nightmare is one of my favourite pictures and there are several others in this collection that I was taken with. I’m not such a fan of William Blake. The book explores Fuseli’s position on the divide between neoclassical and romantic art. The use of neoclassical forms in new ways with new themes to produce something that reflected the changing times of the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th.
I enjoyed looking at the pictures and learning a bit more about art history. Maybe one day I’ll know what it all means.
Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not by Robert N. McCauley is an exploration of how cognitive processes predispose us to religious thought and feeling, and make science very difficult for us.
I picked up the book after visiting the excellent Living with Gods exhibition at the British Museum. I find the psychology of faith, superstition and religion fascinating. McCauley’s book is not for the faint-hearted. This is a difficult read. The first half, where McCauley lays out the theories of cognitive processes that underpin his argument, is especially hard going. I don’t have much knowledge of the work in this area and I think it is quite hard to make it accessible to a layperson. Once you get through the theories of cognition, the second half of the book is relatively more digestible. I still found myself having to re-read most of it, but there were whole pages I could absorb in one go.
The argument is that, although some form of religious belief appears to be present in every society for which we have archaeological or anthropological evidence, there’s no specific thought process for religion. Instead it is a by-product of processes we use for much more mundane things like dealing with other people, not getting eaten by predators, and avoiding contamination. Religion comes from possessing a theory of mind and a tendency to ascribe agency to everything. Science, on the other hand, has only appeared in a few societies and requires writing and substantial expensive infrastructure to survive. It requires us to learn how to think in a way that is continually challenged by our natural cognition.
McCauley draws a distinction between everyday religion (what people actually practice) and theology, and a distinction between popular understanding of science and the practice of it by people who dedicate their lives to it. He also draws a distinction between science and technology, and gives many examples of where humans develop technology they can use without understanding how it really works. The argument also explains why we’re so fond of conspiracy theories, prone to ascribing intention to others without evidence, and why we make both science and atheism into a form of religion. Science requires us to be perpetually uncertain because even when there is a lot of evidence to support a theory there always remains the possibility that new information could change that. Human brains aren’t keen on uncertainty.
This is a very interesting book and I would recommend it, with the caveat that, unless you’re already working as a scientist, it’s a tough read. I do feel much cleverer for having read it, which is a quality I enjoy in a book.