Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Mysteries of the Middle Ages

I've been sitting on this post for a few days now, thinking about what I really want to say in reviewing this book. The easiest way is to start by saying that I liked it, and I'm glad I read it--but with heavy qualifications. Part of the challenge in discussing a book like this is reminding myself that Cahill is not a Christian writer, and despite his Christian (or rather Catholic) leanings, he still has a secular approach. It would be unfair to fault him in purpose, given that his is not that same as mine would be. I kept something of a running list of issues I had taken with him while I read, and I realized when I looked them over that most were problems of small detail. For instance, his claim that II Timothy wasn't written by St Paul. Really? Says who? I haven't heard any theologians make that comment, so I bristled at it. (I suppose it's altogether possible that it is true, but it will take more than his word for me to believe it, cultural arguments aside.) Also, I tend to get peeved when I see people claim that Richard Cœur de Lion was a homosexual. I've heard this for years, and yet I've also read perfectly solid historians point out why he wasn't but would be seen as such through modern lenses. Thus, I get irritated when people say, "Well, you know Richard was almost certainly a homosexual. After all, he and his wife never had children." Well, no, but absence is an amazing contraceptive. I'll bet he had loads of children floating around from France to Palestine, though.

These are really just trifles, however, and shouldn't interfere with whether or not I agree with Cahill's main point. Here is where things get a little tricky for me. From a distance, I can see what Cahill is doing, and I admire his goal. He's an extremely readable writer, and I always enjoy perusing one of his books. Up close, I'm not entirely sure it works. For one, the book begins about four times, which really confused me. We start in Alexandria, and then go to Rome--leaving me to wonder if the whole book is going to be about Italy in the Middle Ages (Cahill has been promising a book about the Romans). And then, we wander again. We touch on Hildegard and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and keep moving until we graze a few topics that course through the Middle Ages, never staying anywhere long enough to be sure we know how it applies. I'm particularly disappointed with his discussion of St Francis of Assisi. No offense intended, but I've never cared for St Francis. He's always come across as somewhat unstable and unreliable as a good example of sainthood, and yet Cahill makes the startling claim that Francis might be the most important historical figure since Christ. Ummm...no. If that were the case, one has to wonder why Cahill only gives him a few pages (and yet devotes so much more to both Hildegard and Eleanor of Aquitaine). The reality is simply that if he did, readers would be even more startled because they would discover that St Francis was a few raisins short of a fruitcake.

Ultimately, I think this book is interesting, but I don't think it works. Cahill is attempting to discuss some very broad topics in a book that was never designed to be broad. He's a great writer of detail. He should have written exclusively about feminism, art, poetry, or politics, and not tried to touch on it all. Poor Dante gets such a short shrift. I almost wish Cahill had left him out, because Dante is just too big to be touched on so briefly. My other problem with the book is that it references the other books in the series far too much. Cahill is very close to assuming that everyone has read them, when in reality this book should be able to stand on its own. Many of his comments made complete sense to me, but then I did read Sailing the Wine Dark Seas and Desire of the Everlasting Hills. Both are great, and both are greater than this one. I'd recommend them, probably more than I can recommend this one. Again, I liked it. I'm glad I read it. But I wouldn't read it again--which is something I certainly can't say about his other books.

On the side, I apologize for not using the book cover to lead this post. I went on Cahill's website and found the image above. And I liked it. It's from Chartres Cathedral...and it's just plain pretty.

Note to Bookfest members: I've cross-posted this review to my own blog.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Magazine for Booklovers!

I just discovered Bookmarks magazine, and wanted to spread the word. This mag covers reading lists, winners of prestigious book awards, tips for book groups, and interviews with contemporary authors. You can also find it online at www.bookmarksmagazine.com Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Psmith in the City, by P.G. Wodehouse

I was glad that LT had suggested this book from the great P.G. Wodehouse collection because I thought it was one that I hadn't read. I started it and everything was sounding so familiar . . . a bank, "coffee breaks", cricket, etc. WHERE had I heard of this before? Anyway, I decided to go ahead and read it again and I enjoyed it - again.

This time Wodehouse takes us inside a bank and paints a picture of boring monotony such a life entails (or so it would seem). When young Mike Jackson's family suffers a financial blow, he must take a job in the city working at a bank and learn how to make his own way in the world. His friend and "Comrade", Psmith, offers to share a flat with him and pays some of his expenses on account of the fact that he would consider Mike his personal and confidential secretary. Mike agrees to the generosity of Psmith and as a result is led on many an adventure of Psmith's, mostly in the realm of socialistic circles. I was most entertained by the dinner scene in which Mike is cornered and forced to listen to Comrade Prebble babble on unintelligibly about the Rights of Property.

"Mike began to realize that, till now, he had never known what boredom meant. There had been moments in his life which had been less interesting that other moments, but nothing to touch this for agony." (p. 123)

P.G. Wodehouse himself worked in a bank and left it upon finding success with pen and paper. I find this particular book, Psmith in the City, entertaining in light of that fact. Wodehouse, per usual, has an agreeable and witty way of describing his characters and their personality traits. He never paints the entire picture of who any of his characters are. He gives you just enough to paint your own picture of each individual and it is enough to leave you with a smile and a sigh.

Anything by Wodehouse is, of course, to be highly recommended. This one included.