Weekend Book Haul!

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Happy Saturday everyone!  Very much hope you’re managing to find some reading time this weekend.  I’m massively excited about my latest book haul (I think this is now the 6th book delivery since the start of lockdown but I’m losing track!) – expect to hear me talking about these beauties over the coming weeks….

Isabella – Alison Weir

I caught up with a really interesting BBC4 documentary on iPlayer a few days ago exploring the nature of power and hierarchy in the Middle Ages.  Queen Isabella got a very brief mention, but it was enough to make me keen to find out more about her.  I love Alison Weir’s history books so this was the obvious choice; she crams in a huge amount of detail and analysis, but in such a readable way it’s easily accessible even if you have no prior knowledge of the period or people in question.

Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

Earlier this week I was chatting to Princess and Pages about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the same author, and I mentioned that I’d deliberately not read Flights because of a couple of fellow booksellers saying they’d been disappointed by it in comparison.  Following our conversation I’ve been converted (this is why I love book bloggers so much!) and am really looking forward to giving it a try; I think it’s going to be very different in tone and format from Drive Your Plow, but I’m going in with an optimistic frame of mind.

The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry

This one’s been on my radar for absolutely ages, but it took the brilliant Grayson Perry’s Art School on Channel 4 (is anyone else loving this as much as I am?) to remind me to finally buy it.  I’ve read a number of books looking at gender and society from a female perspective, and I can’t think of anyone better than Perry to provide a thoughtful balance.

Thanks for reading as ever, stay well and stay smiling.

Related posts: My Top 5 Reads of 2020

Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell – review

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I bought this book for two main reasons: I love medieval stuff and I love the cover.  What I didn’t expect was quite how much fun it was going to be.

Starting at the head and working down, the author gives us a colourful and exuberant guided tour of the medieval body, not simply addressing literal, medical approaches to human physiology but its more abstract significance too.  The body as a whole was a universally understood metaphor for the functioning of medieval society, with the monarch as the head, the peasants as the labouring feet and all other levels of life in between, everyone working within their God-given social sphere to keep the state functioning as it should.  The phrase “the body politic” is of course one we still use today.  Beyond that generality, however, it turns out there were a huge number of bodily parts that had their own philosophical significance; one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the connection it highlights between the spiritual meaning attached to the various body parts and the age’s prevailing scientific understanding of how they functioned.  The heart, for example, had for several centuries been regarded as the seat of the soul and, as opposed to the brain as we now know, the organ that governed actions and emotions – hence the plethora of art and literature depicting deep feeling, but in particular love, as being almost literally linked to a person’s heart.  In fact, for all culture vultures out there, this is a very satisfying book, including its fair share of analysis of art forms ranging from tapestry to music, sculpture to literature, all presented in the context of the medieval body.  A real bonus is that rather than the small section of colour plates often found in the centre of non-fiction paperbacks, this book has coloured illustrations throughout, which definitely adds to the reading enjoyment and appreciation.  What I really liked as well was the fact that this bodily exploration isn’t just confined to English medieval history, but also takes in Europe and the Middle East, the latter in particular providing a fascinating comparison and an opportunity to introduce many artworks with which most of us won’t be at all familiar.

In case you were getting worried, don’t fear – there’s also a lot of the inevitable gruesome fun to be had from the accounts of medieval medical procedures and pictures of surgical instruments and body parts.  Of course we regard it all as incredibly primitive stuff, but the author is keen to point out that we shouldn’t look down on the middle ages too harshly; he demonstrates that diagnoses and treatments weren’t plucked out of the air according to pure superstition, but rather followed their own definite logic to what was considered a reasonable conclusion, even if that isn’t the conclusion we would draw today.

Far from being dense or heavy-going, Jack Hartnell writes with a light, easy style and a definite sense of humour.  The only drawback I found was that because the subject is so vast, certain aspects of the body are abandoned just as you were getting interested.  I wouldn’t say it’s unsatisfying by any means, but it definitely leaves you wanting to find out more.  The flipside of that though is that it’s accessible to absolutely everyone, and as such I think there are loads of people out there who may not be particularly into medieval history that will still find this a really absorbing read.

Wooden Books – a bookshop discovery

Not long ago I was in a lovely little bookshop on the south coast and I stumbled across one of these gorgeous books.

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Looking inside I saw a list of other intriguing titles in the same series: weird and wonderful little studies of some of the more obscure and enigmatic elements of art, folklore, history and more.  From crop circles to Celtic patterns, mazes to mind tricks – these minute editions instantly seemed to me to be a spark of mystery in a sometimes pedestrian world.  I immediately ordered four that particularly caught my interest, but I suspect I will be adding more to the collection before too long.  “Symmetry” is about the remarkably ordered patterns we find in nature and how those patterns have subconsciously passed into human art and culture.  “Sacred Geometry” explores the concept that certain shapes and proportions have a symbolic value and meaning that influences music, architecture and many other aspects of human design.  “Mazes and Labyrinths” I just couldn’t resist (do you know the difference between the two?  I didn’t) – it may not sound like the most riveting subject but I was fascinated to read about the different types of design and why they work.  Lastly “Islamic Design”, which I picked quite simply because it’s a thing of beauty, explains how the earliest Islamic artists founded the tradition of incorporating Arabic script with ornamental patterns that is so recognisable the world over.

I love an unexpected bookshop find and I’m so chuffed with these.  From the diminutive size to the striking cover design, everything about them is appealing.  The publisher is Wooden Books; I’d thoroughly recommend looking them up and discovering these miniature gems for yourself.