Su-/Monday miscellany 18

Lots of nonfiction this week, oddly enough. And the last of the five main books in the African Summer reading challenge!

The Virgin in the Ice, by Ellis Peters (1982): My Cadfael kick continues, this time with the attemped murder of a monk and the achieved rape/murder of a young nun whose body is hidden in a fast-freezing stream, leaving her coffined in ice. Once again, the strengths of Peters’s series are appealing: the carefully delineated historical background (which I think is largely accurate and, where inaccurate, at least convincing), the (entirely correct and appropriate) assumption that people in the past were both not stupid and generally believed in their religions, leading them to behave accordingly, and of course the character of Cadfael himself: sturdy, practical, thoughtful and perceptive. Sexual violence appears in the main storyline for the first time in this volume, and it its treatment is neither casual nor prurient. The young nun’s rape is a serious crime, a compounding of the violence of her murder and of the divine punishment—as well as human—that will await the man who did it. It’s not human sexuality per se that’s condemned, but use of sexual force and disregard for the nun’s sacred vows of chastity (and, by extension, disregard for her consent). She, Cadfael says to a younger monk, went straight to God, free of sin; her killer is to blame, not her. And they find the killer, of course. Good stuff.

The Business of Books, by James Raven (2007): PhD reading; an overview of the British printing, publishing and bookselling industries from about 1450-1850. I was reading it to find out more about advertising practices, since that’s part of my idea for the next chapter. I particularly liked the data-driven breakdown of things like why colonial trade was so relatively minor for London booksellers (shipping costs, basically, which is hilarious because the high cost of sending books across the Atlantic is literally the exact thing that the bookshop I work in right now is grappling with), and the fact that owning the right to reprint particular titles was far more lucrative than mostly publishing new titles. Also, surprisingly large numbers of women owning printing/bookselling concerns throughout the eighteenth century and beyond, which was really interesting. Some of it I didn’t need (extensive but niche tracings of who rented which commercial premises in which alleyway off Fleet Street at what time), but it’s a pretty readable overview for those with an interest.

Perdita: the Memoirs of Mary Robinson, ed. M.J. Levy (Memoirs originally published 1801; edition published 1994): PhD reading; a “modern” (i.e. spelling, punctuation and capitalization standardized) edition of Robinson’s Memoirs, with a chronology of her life and some endnotes. Robinson had an extraordinary life, which included a very promising career on the stage (she was privately tutored by David Garrick and held in great affection by Richard Brinsley Sheridan), marriage at age fifteen to a man whose personal fortune was not exactly what he represented it to be (but her mother was desperate to get her married lest she go on the stage and be ruined; spoilers: she went on the stage anyway and her marriage was the worst thing that ever happened to her), an affair with the young Prince of Wales, literary achievements that won her the respect of Coleridge and Southey, further affairs with various men of high accomplishment, a miscarriage that seems to have left her permanently disabled, and exile on the Continent. She was writing the Memoirs as she was actively dying, and they break off just before she begins her affair with the future George IV. Her daughter wrote the second half and brought the whole to publication, which brings up several issues of academic interest over reliability, messaging, and so on. Frankly, though, the Memoirs make terrific leisure reading. The writing is genuinely high quality, the events are gripping, the emotions are strongly engaged throughout, and Robinson has a real gift for the character sketch that makes her circle of acquaintances come alive. This is something else TV producers should be adapting instead of limp rehashes of Austen—if they can do it with Anne Lister, they can do it with Mary Robinson.

She was also immensely magnetic to look at—she doesn’t believe herself beautiful, but she has a fascinating face. There are several different portraits of her and they all show this quality, but this one is my favourite.

Ground Truth: a Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home, by Mark R. Hineline (2018): For a reason I forget now, I’m signed up to receive a monthly free ebook from the University of Chicago Press. The process of downloading them is irritating and opaque, so I often don’t get round to them, but I decided to try reading this one online and it turned out to be extremely thought-provoking and well-written. It’s in a personal, accessible tone which could be easily understood by a switched-on teen, and is about phenology: data tracking of seasonal changes. This is something we have historical records for in unexpected ways; people like Thoreau, who kept journals and wrote about when plants and animals appeared and disappeared over the course of the year, but mostly random individuals with strong letter-writing habits and observational skills and a keen interest in nature. Hineline encourages us to practice phenology as a way of living with climate change, which he has no interest in arguing about or “proving” (the book proceeds on the baseline position that anthropogenic climate change is a real thing and is happening). Getting intimately acquainted with your immediate to mid-range neighbourhood, he suggests, is a way of becoming grounded in your space, which might equip you better to notice when/if the seasonal patterns of things become unusual, and perhaps even to protect it. It was very inspirational for me; I’m not doing it very scientifically, but I am keeping a journal of nature observations now and am trying for starters to learn the names of all the trees in the courtyard garden.

Petals of Blood, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1977): The last book in my African Summer reading challenge was highly political and (from my limited experience of postcolonial fiction) felt like a Platonic ideal of a postcolonial novel. The murder by arson of three prominent Kenyan businessmen is the premise for the detention of four citizens of Ilmorog: Munira, a schoolteacher; Wanja, a former barmaid and prostitute and current brothel owner; Karega, a trade unionist and activist; and Abdulla, a former shopkeeper now reduced to destitution by the march of neocapitalism on his community. The novel is told largely in flashback, demonstrating how the four got to know each other over the course of years, and how Ilmorog grew from a small rural community to a sink of international development money with no soul. The Mau Mau rebellion and its repercussions tie all of the main protagonists together, directly and indirectly, and Thiong’o emphasises the ways in which corruption continues to be the order of the day after nominal independence from Britain; by adhering to capitalism instead of attempting a different way, Kenya condemns itself to more of the same. The novel reads in a sort of stop-start fashion, with more fluid sections of dialogue and free indirect speech alternating with denser segments of political thought (usually theoretically the free indirect thought of a character, but practically speaking, more of a narratorial intrusion). I would also have appreciated even minimal endnoting; my edition was a Penguin Modern Classics one printed in 2002, and there was no editorial work apparent, other than a fairly opaque introduction. Because Petals of Blood is so deeply rooted in Kenyan indepedence history—the Mau Mau, Dedan Kimathi, Uhuru—it would be a particularly good idea to give readers all the information they need to fully appreciate it. (I used Wikipedia and was fine, but an expert’s guidance in a dedicated editorial apparatus would have given me more.) I’ll read more of Thiong’o, though; this was so different to Wizard of the Crow and yet I enjoyed the experience of both.

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