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review 2019-09-18 12:28
A fictionalised biography of a fascinating historical character searching for knowledge against all odds
A Matter of Interpretation - Elizabeth MacDonald

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.


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review 2019-05-19 20:49
Gotten as a Kindle freebie
The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba: The History and Legacy of the Moors’ Greatest Holy Site in Spain - Charles River Editors

Good little history.  Could of used more photos though.  

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review 2013-04-08 00:00
Fate Lends a Leg - Jax Cordoba 3.85*This is a very interesting story, it deals with 'fated' love, in the sense that through dreams and emotions and déjà vu moments Cal and Bill are reincarnated lovers from long ago.Cal's father is in the army, he moves around a lot, and to say he wasn't thrilled to move to Oklahoma would be an understatement. That is until he sees Bill on his bike delivering papers, he is instantly intrigued and smitten.This story may be YA but it also deals with a very serious subject, which impacts the story immensely. Bill was the victim of rape, by as it turns out a serial rapist He confides in Cal and they connect or maybe reconnect of you consider the reincarnation theory.It wasn't perfect, Buddy has a meaning to them, deeper than just a name to call the other, but it was used very liberally throughout the story, and I wish maybe a few of the mundane day to day activities had been left out and instead the ending more fleshed out, three years are covered in a flash in the last pages of the book.I enjoyed Bill and Cal's story, Cal's parents are very proactive and supportive, the group of loyal friends surrounding Bill add a lot to the story and I wonder of the author might write a bot more about that group, Mike and Dono maybe?
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review 2012-09-10 00:00
Fate Lends a Leg - Jax Cordoba 3.5 stars

This is Jax Cordoba's debut novel. While it's not exactly perfect, I enjoyed it because it was entertaining and very sweet at times.

It deals with Cal moving to a small town because of his father's military job where he has to go to a new school and meet new friends his junior year of high school. When settling in his new home, he sees his paper boy, Bill, and is instantly smitten. Going to school, he does everything he can to get information on this mysterious cyclist. What he finds is someone that is friends with every social group in school and they're fairly protective of him, too. In an effort to get Bill's attention, he tried to brush off his cycling skills but only ends up hurt. Still, somehow he manages to snag Bill to help him while he's injured and what develops between them is a bone-deep friendship and a sweet love.

I really liked this story. It's a bit different and deals with a lot of themes from reincarnation to rape to coming out to acceptance. I liked both these boys, Cal and Bill, because they're laid-back kind of guys. Cal is the typical big, brawny jock while Bill is smaller, even though he's older, a social butterfly and extremely nice. I really liked that it used dream reincarnation. At first I was wondering what they had to do with the story and was worried they'd be useless but as the story unfolded, you start to realize what they mean and you start to attribute their developing love to that bone-deep, "forever" type. I liked it. Some won't but I liked that there was at least an explanation for the semi insta-love. I also liked that things "just happened" to occur and that it all led back to what "just happened" to be the result. I found it cute because Fate has such a big role in Cal and Bill getting together and I've always been a big believer in Fate.

I had a few problems with the story, though. At times, I felt like Cal and Bill were more just friends than boyfriends. The way they interacted was more how you'd act around a friend and not someone you were attracted to or even loved. I also got a bit annoyed with the overuse of "buddy". It showed up quite often but most of it was unnecessary. The story is pretty well written but there were times when a bit of head-hopping would just pop out of nowhere and end up confusing me.

My biggest complaint with this book, however, is the ending. I felt like it was extremely rushed. I felt like the story was going at a great, consistent pace then the last two chapters covers over three years of time. I wish it had been elaborated on because I felt like we missed a lot with only the vaguest of things to be mentioned. I mean, both Cal and Bill grow up into men in those last two chapters but it's just glossed over and told instead of shown. I was disappointed in that because I really would have loved to see both their dreams coming true from both their POVs like the rest of the story was.

Overall, this was a very good book. I really liked it and I'm looking forward to more stories by this author. I loved how sweet it was and I loved how it handled the more intense aspects of the story. I also loved the secondary characters (love Dino!) so I hope Dino gets a book of his own someday. Recommended for those who'd like a quirky, sweet YA tale.
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