Thursday, June 30, 2011

ramble: research books bought & read, June 2011

The non-fiction/classics I bought this month came from three places: the used book store, where I traded in a bunch of books from classes a while back that I preferred never to see again, ugh; the mail-order bookshop that sells cheap remaindered books (I suppose? I don't really know how it works); and the bargain book sections of local bookstores.

I am, quite obviously, a bargain hunter, even more so this month than usual, because I have flung myself back into collecting fashion dolls, and the Stuff budget has had to adjust accordingly. This is ostensibly a good thing, since I hardly have room for more books, and dolls can perch on things and in corners. However, I'm still buying the same number of books, really, just cheaper ones. I outwit even myself.

Conversely, I didn't read very many research books this month. I've been reading fiction again instead, mostly the few Georgette Heyer Regency/Georgian novels I hadn't read before because I've been saving them, but they are too awesome and I can't save them forever.


Research Books Read, June 2011
  • The Tower Menagerie: The Amazing 600-Year History of the Royal Collection of Wild and Ferocious Beasts Kept at the Tower of London by Daniel Hahn (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004) A very enjoyable read. Hahn has a lively style, and he skips around merrily through the titular 600 years, dishing out remarkable facts about the animals at the Tower and the people who cared for them, and fun gossip and stories to fill in the holes. I didn't know anything about the Tower Menagerie, and I couldn't have asked for a better tour. There are some tough bits to get through, though, when you're sensitive about the mistreatment of animals (which I am), but Hahn handles these episodes deftly, and they're easily skipped, anyway. But, I think, the unfortunate parts of this history are absolutely worth knowing, if only so we don't ever repeat them.
  • Guinevere by Norma Lorre Goodrich (HarperPerennial, 1992) This was a letdown. Goodrich is--I hate to say it, but I don't know what else to say, honestly--rather crackpotty with her theories. The book is neither literary criticism nor history, but instead inhabits an ill-defined and horribly awkward non-genre, wherein the author tries to prove that Guinevere really existed on the basis of... nothing much. She uses later medieval myths and romances to spin interesting theories about the legendary early medieval queen, sure, and I would've been well pleased had she left it at that; but instead, she insists that her theories are based on sound facts when they aren't. It actually made me a bit angry. The literature Goodrich discusses is beautiful and valuable in its own right without protestations of 'truth' and assertions of 'real history' to somehow unnecessarily 'authenticate' it. The willy-nilly mangling of sources left this reader, at least, shaking her head. Many interesting points for one to jump off into one's own research here, but overall, this is an unfortunate and frustrating exercise in wishful thinking.
  • Witchcraft: A Brief History of Demons, Folklore, and Superstition by Lois Martin (Constable and Robinson, 2010) This is a most excellent introduction to, or refresher on, the history of witchcraft in Europe. I have a sensitive bullshit detector when it comes to books on witchcraft, thanks to classes on medieval magic etc., and this one didn't set it off at all (the Brief History series is pretty solid, which is why I picked it up). In fact, this is a very good survey of witchcraft scholarship as well as the history itself; very evenhanded, and not prone to indulging in hyperbole. Martin succinctly distinguishes modern Wicca from medieval witchcraft, then covers beliefs in fallen angels and the devil, and the folklore surrounding witches' pacts, sabbats and powers. She also goes into the legal definitions of witchcraft and ends with a discussion of the many and futile searches for 'real' witches' cults of the Middle Ages. She includes a nice, if cursory, section of primary sources and a bibliography with lots of the major scholars. I definitely recommend this book, especially to anyone interested in learning about medieval witchcraft beliefs but unsure where to begin.

Research Books Bought, June 2011
  • Witchcraft: A Brief History of Demons, Folklore, and Superstition -- see above.
  • Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttelton's Daughters by Sheila Fletcher (Hambledon and London, 2001) A group biography of four nieces of Prime Minister Gladstone, incorporating their letters and diaries. Looks wonderful.
  • Marie and Mary by Nigel Tranter (Hodder and Stoughton, 2004) I've been on a Mary Queen of Scots kick, and picked up this joint biography since I know very little about her mother, Marie de Guise, another powerful yet unfortunate queen.
  • Love and Madness: The Murder of Martha Ray, Mistress of the Fourth Earl of Sandwich by Martin Levy (William Morrow, 2004) "The remarkable story behind the tabloid sensation of the eighteenth century." The tabloid sensation, huh? I'm super excited about this: late 18th century, cult of celebrity, mistresses, 'crimes of passion'... oh yes. Some of my favourite things!
  • The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales ed. by Chris Baldick (Oxford University Press, 1993) A fantastic anthology of short gothic fiction--over two centuries of it, from the late 18th century to the late 20th, including authors from good old Anonymous to Edgar Allan Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle to Ambrose Bierce to H.P. Lovecraft to Angela Carter to Isabel Allende. Whew. So cool.
  • The Book of Guinevere by Andrea Hopkins (Saraband, 2004) I think I'll have much more success with this Guinevere book than the one above. It's an anthology of prose, poetry, and paintings about Guinevere--really all manner of art and literature that involves the legendary queen, from the Middle Ages to the present day. It's a lovely book itself: hardcover, full colour pages, beautifully designed.
  • The Virago Book of Fairy Tales ed. by Angela Carter (Virago, 1991) and The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales ed. by Angela Carter (Virago, 1993) I was so happy to find these. Carter's selection of fairytales encircles the world, culturally and temporally, and she categorizes the stories under such wonderful headings as 'Good Girls and Where It Gets Them' and 'Up to Something.' "Trumps Grimm," proclaims the cover of the first volume, and I believe it!

Previous Lists: May 2011April 2011, January-March 2011

* Bookplate image via The Graphics Fairy (modded by me, obviously)

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