Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Axe and the Oath, by Robert Fossier

Why I read it: Atlantic Review

Podcasts: None

Brow: Sorbonne Professor? Check. Editor of The Cambridge History of the Middle Ages? Check. Yup, this is highbrow fare.

Summary: Clearly I didn't read the review very well, because I was expecting a regular history book, one that introduced a few characters and led us through their everyday lives during the Middle Ages. Instead we get a 400-page essay mostly about the French experience. There are no characters and the work is largely impressionistic rather than drawing on concrete examples.

What I liked about it: As I've said before, I'm a nerd and a lot of my non-fiction reading choices are made like this: I read a review and think, 'Wow. I don't know much about that subject. And if the Economist/New Yorker/Slate etc. finds this book good enough to give it a positive review, maybe I should give it a try.' I'm also a dilettante: I want to know a few facts about a subject, but it's comparatively rare that I want to dig down deep into a subject. So books that offer a survey of a topic while giving me a few good tidbits to bring up at dinner parties are great. And this one delivers: for example, did you know that people with blood type B are more resistant to the bubonic plague? And for some reason a lot of Hungarians are blood type B? And therefore Hungary escaped the plague relatively unscathed? Also, it is strongly suspected that many medieval female 'authors' such as Heloise of Abelard and Heloise, and Marguerite de Navarre, probably did not write their books, because female literacy rates were appalling, and probably no women were actually taught to write.

What I didn't like about it: This is just a personal preference, but I find it a lot easier to get into a subject, even dilettantishly, if I have a plot line and characters to follow, and this book lacks both.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans

Why I chose it: Harold Bloom's Western Canon

Podcasts: None.

Brow: High. But not the highest.

Summary: In 1936, Walker Evans and James Agee accepted a commission from Fortune magazine to write a story about the plight of white sharecroppers in the southern US. They lived with 3 families for a month, photographing them and documenting their day-to-day existence. When the article was not published, they re-wrote it as a book.

What I liked about it: The photographs are amazing, of course, as are the descriptions of the families' homes, possessions, meals, work, clothing and schools.

What I didn't like about it: First, the photographs are presented with no descriptions, so you have only a rough idea of which person is which. Second, while the authors spend dozens of pages exhaustively cataloging the contents of one family's living room, they devote almost no time to the families themselves. There is almost nothing in the way of character development or plot. We get no sense of how family dynamics work or how the families relate to their community or society at large. I definitely would have preferred to have some psychology and sociology mixed in with the static snapshot of their lives.