Mar 28, 2010

The Holy Roman Empire, by Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce's seminal history of the Holy Roman Empire was written first in 1866 and went through numerous editions. The particular edition I just read was published in the early 1900s, and reprinted in the 1960s. Despite its old age, Bryce's work has proven its worth by remaining, while not the epitome of modern scholarship on the subject, certainly still quite relevant. The only thing the book lacks is breadth. As noted in the prologue, Bryce set out to write a purely political history of the Empire, with much attention to religion, and absolutely no attention paid to anything else. Cultural historians need not look here, unless they are lacking political background. Therefore, as a modern work of history, Bryce's book is inadequate, but it succeeded quite well at what it aimed to do.

Bryce takes us chronologically from the original Roman Empire up to the (contemporary) present day, 1866. He is adept at tracing common threads as well as developments and evolutions from the former to the latter. This makes sense, as his main historiographical goal is to point out that what wasn't important was whether the Holy Roman Empire was in fact holy, roman, or an empire, but that it can be defined by a certain sentiment and desire that remained true to itself throughout the Empire's thousand-year history. In his work, we see the beginning of the realm of the history of ideas, and the beginning of the understanding that ideas are quite palpable, tangible things that can affect the course of history.

The greatest pleasure in reading this book is Bryce's writing. Historians, and other academicians, simply do not write like they used to. The writing is fluid, strong, visual, powerful. Though it tends to suffer from a bit too strictly enforced chronological organization, the book still reads almost as easily as a novel. If scholars only started to write like Bryce again, we would perhaps not see such a lack of interest in reading and history that exists today.

Mar 1, 2010

The Blue Roan Child, by Jamieson Findlay

This is a lovely little gem of a book in the category of young adult fantasy. It's a little bit like a really really short version of Lord of the Rings: epic journey far beyond known realms, creatures known only from legends, the magic and power of one young person with the courage of someone three times his/her age. But I suppose expecting originality in young adult fantasy is somewhat of a pipe dream.

Either way, the book is really quite well written. A bit on the simplistic side, it still flows well and moves forward with its own rhythm. And despite what I said about the lack of originality in the plot, there are aspects that are incredibly unique. Most of these are clustered at the end of the book, and it would be a shame to reveal them, but the part about dreams and the talking bird blew me away. That one section had enough beauty in it to make up for whatever the rest of the book lacked.

Certainly, this would be a good book for any person who loves horses, as it does have an extremely romantic view of that animal. Not knowing a thing about horses doesn't take much away from it, though, which is good, and a difficult effect to achieve. Particularly considering that this was a first attempt at fiction by a science writer, I would have to say I was quite pleasantly surprised, and would recommend the book.

The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields

I initially read this book because it was the chosen book for my library's new book club that I joined, but was unfortunately unable to attend the session. It's a shame, really, because I would have liked to hear what others thought of this unique novel.

The book follows, essentially, the life (birth through death) of Daisy. But it does so much more than that, as it also intimately details the lives of her various ancestors, both blood related and related by marriage, and of her children and other relatives. The narration is mostly in the third person, with short splatterings of the first person to highlight certain momentous occasions in Daisy's life. What is so remarkable about this book is the omniscience of the narrator. Yes, it is Daisy, and yes, most third person novels have omniscient narrators, but not quite like this one. Every single person is dissected, but not dispassionately at all. Their true inner desires are laid bare, aspects of their souls even they themselves know little about.

In contrast, oddly, Daisy is almost an empty shell, up until her imminent death. Defined largely by the relationships she holds to other people, it is not until she has no one left to take care of nor is even able to care for herself that she allows herself to become an individual. Even then, she maintains her outwardly, polite demeanor. Even when she is hit by months of severe depression, for which we get her numerous loved ones' theories, her own reality is that she enjoys wallowing in her own being. She is not really, truly depressed, she just wants to not have to deal with life for a while.

As I got further and further into the book, I kept thinking how much it reminded me of "2001: A Space Odyssey". Odd, I know, but this is why: both works follow a thread through a period of time (in one, it is a life, in the other, it is the life of man); both start with the ancestor and work their way into death, which is really a sort of rebirth; both have that odd, outsider yet omniscient, almost glassy feeling to them (this is incredibly hard to explain). And when I got to the end, I was creeped out to find the same song that Hal sings as he dies printed during the chapter entitled "Death". Call me crazy, but I think the movie was a slight influence for the book.