Using from Chicago to the big apple this summer season? Probabilities are accurate that your route will take you past Toledo. 4 years in the past my own family traveled via Toledo riding Interstate 90 east to Washington DC.
I thank NetGalley and Fairlight Books for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This is a case of a historical figure whose life is so gripping and fascinating that we would find it difficult to believe in if he was a fictional character. Although I must confess to not having previous knowledge of Michael Scot, the setting of the story in the XIII century, the variety of locations, and the endeavours of Scot attracted me to the book, and I’m happy that was the case.
Although the story is seemingly simple (a monk, particularly gifted for academia, pursues his objective of getting to the source of knowledge wherever it might be and in whichever language, in XIII century Europe, travelling, translating, accumulating knowledge, and having to fight against conspiracy and orthodoxy), there are many different strands woven into it, and reflecting the complex push-and-pull of the politics of an era in which religion and faith wars played a huge part in the struggle for power and combining that with Scot’s quest for knowledge is a mighty task. In my opinion, MacDonald does a great job, but I am not sure everybody will appreciate the way the story is told, and it is not one for people looking for a plot that moves along quickly and is full of adventures. There are journeys and adventures, but some of the most interesting parts of the book come from philosophical discussions and disquisitions as to the nature of truth and knowledge.
The book is written in the third person, from an omniscient narrator’s point of view, and even though we read the story from what appears to be Scot’s perspective most of the time, this is not always the case, and even when we are following his adventures and are privy to his thoughts, we might learn about the way he appears to others and get comments and observations from others around him as well. There is also some first-person narrative, a “Confession” Scot is writing, interspersed with the rest of the novel, which, for me, was the part that made Scot appear more sympathetic and human (at points he is so obsessed with his studies and his project, that he seems unaware of the human beings around him, and he made me think of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, although he seems to also have his “humanities”). The story starts close to what we later find out (and most readers might already suspect) will be the end, with an event that hints at a mystery, and then most of the rest of the story is told in something akin to a flashback, offering readers a chronological account of Scot’s lifestory. Although this did not bother me, I suspect readers approaching the story with the expectation of a standard mystery (and no, this is not The Name of the Rose either) might be disappointed. Yes, there is a mystery, or several, but the book is not about that. It is about Scot and his time, and how his figure was more important and his pursuit worthier than he and his contemporaries realised. I’d recommend possible readers to check a sample of the novel to see if they feel the writing style would suit them.
Scot’s life has all the elements that would mark him as a heroic figure (and as I said, one that we’d struggle to believe possible if he were fictional). He has a traumatic childhood, with the loss of his mother (who was a healer and suffered because of it); he proves himself a great scholar despite his humble beginnings, and although he faces opposition from the start, he also gets some help and assistance, manages to become Frederick’s (later to become Holy Emperor Frederick the II) tutor, and with his patronage, he sets off to find and translate Aristotle’s old texts. His journey towards knowledge makes him face dangers, come into contact with other countries and cultures (in Toledo and Cordoba he studies closely Arabic texts and his main collaborators are Jewish scholars), and be faced with the strict opposition of the Church, which at the time saw much knowledge (other than approved Theology) as a likely source of heresy and inherently dangerous.
As I read the book, I felt as if I was immersed in the different countries, smelling the spices, contemplating the landscapes, touching paper for the first time (an amazing discovery for Scot), and was captivated by Scot’s goal. As a person who regularly does translations, I appreciate how hard his self-imposed task was and enjoyed learning a bit more about the process and the difficulties he faced. If I missed something, though, was hearing a bit more about the texts themselves. Perhaps that is only me, and many people would think there is enough detail, but I felt many of the discussions about Aristotle and about the work of some of his other interpreters and commenters was very vague and general —either assuming that all readers would already know, or that they would not be interested— especially when compared to more detailed accounts of Scot’s use of astrology and his dreams/visions. At some point in the novel Scot makes peace with his interest in Medicine (something he had tried to avoid due to his mother’s fate), but although he manages to avoid the worst of the church’s ban on Aristotle’s works and on translations by studying Arabic texts on Medicine, I missed a more detailed account of his work on that subject. (I studied Medicine, so perhaps this accounts for my interest more than any gaps in the novel itself).
There are many characters, as is to be expected in a novel covering so much ground and where many of events are of great historical importance. We have several popes, bishops, abbots, we have the crusades, we have kings, scholars, politicians… It is not always easy to keep straight who is who (especially if you don’t know much about the era), and I wonder if the final version will contain some charts or even a timeline to clarify matters for readers who are not experts on the topic. The political intrigue, corruption, battles, and jostling for power and influence make it as gripping a read as modern political thrillers can be.
I have mentioned the distance imposed by the point of view of the narration. I must also confess to feeling more intellectually interested in Scot than connected with him at an emotional level. Only towards the end of the story he seems to come to reflect and appreciate the importance of engaging with people and the help others have given him through the years, but there is little in the way of connection to other human beings, and that perhaps is where he fails (for me) in the role of hero. His weaknesses seem to come only from his illness and, perhaps, from his single dedication to knowledge, that results in others less qualified getting into important positions likely to influence events more than he can. (There are warnings about the risks he faces from early on, but he dismisses them and only comes to realise they were right later in his life). Women also play very little part in the story (apart from mentions of his mother —the most significant— and the wives of some of the characters, only in passing), and other than a comment about their role according to a philosopher, towards the end, this is not a book about them, and we learn close to nothing about their lives.
We know what the end will be from the beginning, but most people will enjoy seeing Scot get some redress (even if it is a case of too little, too late). The author’s note at the end of the book explains her interest and reasons for writing the book, and also her sources, which I am sure, will be useful to many readers who will want to explore the topic in more detail.
Overall, this is a book I’ve enjoyed, and I recommend it to people interested in XIII century European history, especially in the struggles for power and knowledge, the interaction between the different religions, and the influence of the various centres of learning. It is sobering to realise that attitudes have changed so little in some scores, and how even the seemingly most enlightened civilisations are (and have been) afraid of intellectual enquiry, knowledge, and research, as if, indeed, they believed it to be a poisoned apple. Attempts at keeping the population under control by limiting their access to knowledge (or by manipulating the information they are given access to) are not new and, unfortunately, never seem to go out of fashion. Not a light read, but one sure to make readers want to learn more about the period and the man.
Fabulous 5 Friday: Books About Clothes and Style
I’m a sucker for style books. Not books about fashion, per se, but about personal style and the relationships we develop with clothing. Humans are highly visual and clothing is one of the many heuristics we use to make judgments, intentional or not. Anyone who says they don’t care about style or only wear what is comfortable is still making a style choice; it’s an unavoidable part of living in society. Humans value self-expression and we communicate through clothing in conscious and unconscious ways. If you doubt this, just think about how you feel when you go out dressed to the nines versus running to the store in your sweatpants. You feel different, don’t you? Whether one of those experiences is “better” than the other is up to personal preference, but they certainly are different. Personally, I find this sort of clothing-as-language phenomenon fascinating and I like to take some time, usually once or twice a year, to look at my closet and see what I’m saying to the world and what I would like to change. I also just really enjoy clothes.
These books are the “guides” (really more like inspiration) I use when my closet cleaning mood strikes. Each must be taken with a grain of salt; they are almost all written by people who work in the fashion world and are privileged financially and socially, and they tend to have a severe lack of body diversity. But they are all fun and helpful in their own, somewhat limited ways.
The Little Black Book of Style by Nina Garcia
You may know Garcia from her regular stint as a judge on Project Runway. She has been an editor and/or fashion director for several big name fashion magazines, most famously Elle and Marie Claire, so she certainly has her fashion credentials. What I really appreciate about Garcia’s take on the genre is that she is straightforward about the difference between having personal style versus simply following fashion. She may work in the fashion world (and come from a stylish, wealthy background) but she appreciates the little personal touches that make a wardrobe something genuinely expressive. She may namedrop like any fashion insider, but she doesn’t let that overshadow a genuine love for self-expression and self-respect. Plus, the watercolor illustrations by Ruben Toledo are fabulous.
The One Hundred by Nina Garcia
Perhaps this is cheating, but I had to give the second choice to Garcia as well (she’s written 4 books so far). The One Hundred is less about the “how to” and more a fun reference guide for the items that have proven themselves as staples time and time again. She gives advice on what pieces are worth investment versus which ones can be cheap fun while also giving little mini-history and pop culture lessons on various iconic items like trench coats and cashmere sweaters. There are a few chapters that are misses (in my personal opinion) but everyone’s list of “must haves” will vary and she acknowledges that, too. This one is also illustrated by Ruben Toledo.
I Love Your Style by Amanda Brooks
Amanda Brooks, much like Nina Garcia, comes from a pretty well-to-do background and has a lot of connections in the fashion world. Even so, she has a decidedly eclectic sense of style, which she illustrates (literally and figuratively) in this style-manual-cum-memoir. The photographs alone are worth the price of admission, but she has some pretty good advice to give, too. Anyone who has made as many questionable clothing decisions as Brooks has to have something worthwhile to teach. The beginning of the book is devoted to her life as a budding fashionista, while the rest is a sort of reference book for particular “types” of style and how that translates in all sorts of different ways for different people. I love looking at the vintage pictures of people like Cher and Bianca Jagger for inspiration, I just wish there was more body diversity.
The Sartorialist by Scott Schuman
Anyone with even a passing interest in clothes or street style blogs knows of The Sartorialist. While everything in the book can be seen online on the original blog, the book itself is like a little trove of amazing images that you can peruse when the mood strikes or you need a little inspiration. Unlike Garcia and Brooks, Scott Schuman isn’t focused on capturing one vision of personal style, but of celebrating it in all kinds of ways and on all types of people. There may still be some snobbery here and there, but it’s overall a supremely open-ended way to look at beauty and self-expression.
The Thoughful Dresser by Linda Grant
This is a book that looks at the personal ways we are affected by clothes, rather than offering any sort of style advice. “The only thing worse than being skint (poor) is looking skint.” Until I read this line in The Thoughtful Dresser, I had never fully processed the way I think about clothes and social class. We all know that clothing can be used to assess wealth on some level, but we forget that clothing can also allow for a sort of dignity that may be otherwise unavailable to someone who is struggling. Every time someone complains that a “poor” person spent money on new clothes instead of some other necessity, I think about this. Grant looks at clothing as a means to various ends: she looks at a woman “saved” by clothing after surviving a concentration camp, at women who were able to turn shopping into an act of independence, and at the many ways we use clothing as a marker of identity.
I do love suprises. As long as they are pleasant and not accidental. For the first quarter to a third of How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. It was weird and it seemed just weird for weird’s sake. I don’t mind weird as long as it has a purpose and in the end I think the strange beginning of the book does serve a purpose.
And maybe it’s not fair to call it weird. It’s quirky. It’s about two astronomers, George and Irene and it’s about their Mothers who raised them in Toledo. Their mothers were best friends growing up and decided that they would raise their children to be soul-mates using astrology and psychology. They do it as an experiment and so that their children can experience true love and be happy. It’s a quirky premise and in the beginning I felt like I was having trouble, connecting the dots and connecting with the characters. People don’t quite interact with each other in any kind of normally acceptable manner. There’s a side character who was raised by her priest father to not speak but only use music until he is arrested for child endangerment when she’s 5 or 6. She speaks without inflection, she sits with her feet dangling out the window of her office at the Toledo Institute of Astronomy and plays an instrument. Later she frolics in Lake Erie with Narwhals. So. Quirky.
George initially seems kind of stupid and shallow and wacky as he hallucinates gods and goddesses frolicking and speaking to him. Irene is cold and practically devoid of emotion. What kept me hooked through this first part of the book were the flashbacks to George and Irene’s mothers’ childhood. Sally and Bernice’s friendship is real and it anchors the more surreal parts of the narrative.
Then George and Irene meet and everything starts to make sense and feel more like real life. The book never becomes fully grounded in reality but the important word here is sense. It all starts to make sense. George and Irene transform each other into real live human beings who are funny and sweet and smart and even a little wise. I'm pretty this shift is deliberate and its kind of awesome. Before these two “stars” align everything is just a little off kilter but as soon as they come together, order in some sense is restored. In the first third of the book I could not in any way connect to the characters, once they meet I almost immediately began to sympathize with and love them.
“It’s more like every electron in every atom in the universe paused, breathed in deeply, assessed the situation, and then reversed its course, spinning backward, or the other way, which was the right way all along. And afterward, the universe was exactly the same, but infinitely more right.”
What else did I love? There is all sorts of fun astronomy speak. It is laugh out loud funny at times. The writing is lovely. The ending was completely unexpected and possibly quite clever – is it real? After I got through the first bit, I found it addictively readable.
The narration was very good and fit the book well. Like the style of the book, it did take me a while to warm up to it but once I did I loved it.
Final Verdict: This book was a pleasant surprise.