My Books of 2018: The Crime of Galileo

“A great and rigid authoritarian administration with a thought police which is supposed to know all should at least keep its records straight.”

De Santillana, The Crime of Galileo. 1955. Page 263

The Crime of Galileo by Giorgio De Santillana (Goodreads)

“Galileus Galileus Florentinus” by Ottavio Leoni. Painted 1624. Source: Wikimedia

In school I only learned the most basic information about Galileo: that he was a genius scientist and polymath who sought to prove that the Earth orbited the Sun, at a time when the accepted view was that the Sun went around the Earth. That the Roman Catholic Church opposed him, and when he would not recant, employed the Inquisition to see that his writings were banned and he himself was put under house arrest. The reality is far more complicated. For example, at first the church had little problem with his writings; rather, it was other academics who first became hostile to Galileo and who were suspicious of applied mathematics. Throughout his life there were certain groups, especially, it seems, of the Dominican Order, who declared themselves his enemy and worked tirelessly to turn the Church bureaucracy against him, even when he often had the support of powerful church officials, and sometimes even of popes. Galileo himself bent over backwards to avoid getting in trouble with the Church; he had no fear of controversy so long as the authorities granted him the right to debate on equal footing, but he took care to avoid needless provocation. Still, drama and frustration seemed unavoidable. His life was full of mountains and valleys, and it’s something of a wonder how much data this book is able to collate and make into a single, understandable story.

“…it was clearly established among all concerned, with the possible lone exception of the Pope himself, who stood there in the solitary unawareness of despots, that Galileo’s trial was based on a judicial forgery, although it could not be stated explicitly without bringing about a diplomatic crisis.” (297)

Giorgio De Santillana’s examination of Galileo and his world is packed tightly with extracts from letters, legal documents, private memoirs, contemporary published works, Inquisition files, and many other primary documents. With an impressive attention to detail, and a strong belief in the humanity behind each historical character, he stitches together a saga based on fact, that reaches beyond the narrow confines of the Florentine scholar’s books and touches not only other aspects of his life, but the many aspects of the lives of every significant player in his story. So we learn not only what Galileo Galilei wrote about the movements of the sun and earth, but also of his personal friendships, his relationships with the Catholic and Protestant denominations, his health problems, his hopes and desires and disappointments. And then when another major character enters the picture, say the Duke of Tuscany or Cardinal Bellarmine, we dive into their own life to try to understand just who they were and why they did what they did at the time of Galileo’s story. I was continually surprised by just how much contemporary evidence there is for all of this. De Santillana will quote from characters who were very minor in history, who perhaps made only one or two important contributions to Galileo’s life, and yet De Santillana has found this person’s diary, and in it something which sheds new light on these events. It’s a dense approach, to be sure, and makes for heavy reading. Heavy, but riveting.

“Moralist historians do not seem to notice that their perspective is that of believers in another religion…They forget [Galileo] was a member of the Apostolic Roman communion and had to submit in some way. Quite apart from the personal inconvenience of being burnt at the stake…” (278)

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My Books of 2018: “Frontier Wolf” by Rosemary Sutcliff


“If we break faith with thee, may the green earth gape and swallow us, may the grey seas break in and overwhelm us, may the sky of stars fall and crush us out of life for ever.”

“Frontier Wolf” by Rosemary Sutcliff

This historical adventure novel is pure Sutcliff: a young Roman commander making up for a disaster early in his career, a lonely British frontier fort, and a first half of thoughtful character drama followed by a second half of a long, thrilling chase through wet Scottish hills and valleys. These elements make Frontier Wolf feel like a companion piece to The Eagle of the Ninth, and fortunately the core narrative is different enough to make the similarities complementary rather than repetitive.

Alexios and his band of “half-wild” auxiliaries called the Frontier Wolves are an engaging group, with Romans, Greeks, Germans, Celts,pagans, Christians, veterans, and green recruits all mixing, clashing, and bonding in the tense atmosphere and rain-soaked landscape. There’s a coming-of-age strand to the plot, as young Alexios tries to overcome his past of privilege and failure to be a worthy leader of the rowdiest, roughest bunch of soldiers in the empire. There’s also a political strand, as the conflicts between Rome and the various Celtic tribes prove rather tricky to navigate, especially when the Roman fort itself is split by various ethnic, cultural, and philosophical divisions. The disaster that kicks the climax into gear is scarily realistic in how an impossible-to-predict event ignites very predictable tensions, and creates a scenario where even doing what you know is right won’t avoid deadly conflict. There’s also a lesson in changing one’s view of victory and defeat, as sometimes it’s simply more important to save the lives of the soldiers under one’s command rather than to maintain a certain flag over a particular spot of dirt.

A great illustration of the supporting character Hilarion, with one of the kittens adopted by the soldiers at the fort. Art by Leyna. 2012. https://archiveofourown.org/works/471830

Frontier Wolf was my “comfort” read for 2018, in the sense that I always come to a Sutcliff historical novel with a sense of delighted familiarity, even on a first reading, knowing that I will be able to immerse myself in a satisfying,richly-written tale. I will definitely revisit this one.

Goodreads

My Books of 2018: Carpenter on Tolkien

Humphrey Carpenter met with J.R.R. Tolkien once before the Professor’s death. He made an appointment, showed up promptly, and was ushered into the man’s cluttered study, which was in a converted garage separate from the main house. It is some time before he is able to state his business, as Tolkien seemed to treat a new pair of attentive ears much the same as he would a blank page: as an opportunity to talk at length about things that interested him.

“He says that he has to clear up an apparent contradiction in a passage of The Lord of the Rings that has been pointed out in a letter by a reader… He explains it all in great detail, talking about his book not as a work of fiction but as a chronicle of actual events; he seems to see himself not as an author who has made a slight error that must now be corrected or explained away, but as a historian who must cast light on an obscurity in a historical document.

Disconcertingly, he seems to think that I know the book as well as he does. I have read it many times, but…” (Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, 4-5)

…but The Lord of the Rings and its multifaceted legendarium is vast enough for even the most ardent explorer to get lost in from time to time. Such was my thought when I read that passage in Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, the only such biography authorized by Tolkien’s family. I’ve lived with Tolkien’s works for so long, and read through many other books about his world produced by other authors, that I think I know it all fairly well. But I fear if I too were face-to-face with the Professor himself, listening to him ramble delightfully to the air around me about all sorts of minute details of the world of Arda, I too would soon be lost. Happy and fascinated, but at least a bit lost!

But part of what makes Carpenter’s biography so excellent, is that it at least never loses sight of the real, human man behind the legends. Here was an excellent man, a good man, but not a perfect one. He could be overly stubborn and picky, and seems to have gotten moreso as he aged. His marriage was imperfect, though loving. His friendship with C.S. Lewis became strained in later years, and it seems to have mostly been Tolkien’s own fault (though his grief at Lewis’ death is a very moving thing to read about). But he was generous, often very patient, and devoted to his friends. While he treated Faerie seriously, he had quite a roguish streak in him as well—in college he acted a crossdressing role in a comic play that apparently got rave reviews as the most hilarious performance of the evening!

Many other studies have been published about Tolkien’s life, which I hope to delve into before too long. The Authorized Biography, however, remains an essential and warm-hearted starting point. Each page of Carpenter’s book gave me a better understanding of the man whose writings have shaped so much of my own life. He is less a pristine statue in my mind, and more a real human whom I cannot wait to meet in heaven.

My Books of 2018: Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart, Firefight, and Calamity (The Reckoners Trilogy) by Brandon Sanderson

If you’ve read Mistborn and its series, you know that Brandon Sanderson is one of the most reliable fantasy authors working today for intricately-plotted entertainment. I’ve now read six novels and a novella by this man, and every single one has been thrilling and satisfying. The characters are sharply drawn and likable, with enough wrinkles and surprises to make them believable. The action is quick and dramatic, but seasoned with enough reality and common sense to keep the worldbuilding from falling apart. And the plot is pure Sanderson: carefully-planned twists and setbacks, plans going against plans, failures leading to changes in heart as well as actions, and innovative solutions to problems. These books are lean, quick reads, but worth every minute. While The Reckoners doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first Mistborn trilogy, it’s still an extremely fun and clever mix of the superhero and post-apocalypse genres.

My Books of 2018: Ursula K. Le Guin

According to Goodreads, I finished 120 books this year. Sadly I didn’t review very much on The Warden’s Walk, but a few of them have reviews on my Goodreads profile. The actual total is a little higher because a few books I wasn’t able to log, but still, that is quite a bit more than I had expected at the beginning of the year! There is, however, a sneaky little secret to it. I currently work as a teacher’s aide in a preschool, and therefore read several children’s books in a workday. Some of them are quite good, too! However, I’m also proud that I read a fair amount of “adult” books. I thought I’d take you all through a few of my most notable reads, in a series of posts.

Firstly, two books by the master Ursula K. Le Guin. I read A Wizard of Earthsea at the end of 2017, my second time ever (the first was easily over fifteen years ago), and loved it deeply. Here are my condensed thoughts on the two novels that continued the story of the Archmage Sparrowhawk.

The Tombs of Atuan

This is a fascinating, unusual book, and an oddly perfect follow-up to A Wizard of Earthsea. Leaving behind the long naval journeys, world-saving quests, and awesome dragons of Sparrowhawk’s story, the second novel tells of a young pagan priestess and her struggle for freedom and spiritual light. Much time is spent on her early life and upbringing, and how she sees the dark world in which she feels trapped. We only get hints of adventure and a supporting hero in the latter half of the book. Many readers might be disappointed by this, if they had hoped for a story that focused again on the mighty Sparrowhawk doing flashy magic and defeating dangerous creatures. But Le Guin never panders; she tells the story she found within her to tell. And it’s a good one, folks, Thoughtful, heartwarming at the end, and very atmospheric. I may love A Wizard of Earthsea more, but I am very glad to have visited The Tombs of Atuan.

The Farthest Shore

Photo from GoodreadsOne of the better “magic is leaving the world” stories, the third book involving the Archmage Sparrowhawk is a return to the format of the first: a long island-hopping quest to discover and defeat the source of a new darkness threatening the world, with dragons and plenty of soul-searching along the way. And again, I love it. The world of the Archipelago is developed even further than before, in ways I found both surprising and satisfying. This time Sparrowhawk is fully mature in his power and responsibilities, and wise from his previous experiences. He is accompanied by a young prince who reminds him a bit of his own youth, and their relationship, and what they learn from each other, makes, I think, the heart of this moving story.

Classic Remarks: Favorite Picture Book – Saint George and the Dragon

What is your favorite classic picture book? Or you can tell us about a picture book you think will or should become a classic.

I have written of this once before, but one of the most magical books from my childhood was Saint George and the Dragon, retold from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene by Margaret Hodges, and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.

Please permit me the indulgence of quoting from my old post on the subject (linked above), as that post was answering essentially the same question as this.


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This is the knightly quest told in its purest form…

…the true attraction is really the art by Trina Schart Hyman…The weather is present in her images, whether wind or blue sky, clouds or boiling dragon-smoke. Her Fair Folk are wispy, like they might blow away at any moment, her Red Cross Knight (George) exudes strength and pure-heartedness, and her Princess Una is a vision of loveliness, quiet strength, and deep feeling.

…The battle of the dragon and knight is exciting and well-paced. You really feel the energy that both of them exert, and when after the first day of fighting the Red Cross Knight falls exhausted and wounded to sleep by “an ancient spring of silvery water,” and Una comes up to cover him with a cloak, in the picture you can hear the brook bubbling and the crickets singing as cool nighttime descends.

…It’s a fairy tale given the breath of life.


Classic Remarks: Should “Lolita” be assigned in schools?

Should we be assigning Lolita in schools or is it taking up valuable syllabus space another book should have?

This is another case where I have not read the subject book, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I have never been required to read it, nor have I desired to. However, I am familiar with it in summary and reputation. Based on this, I would most definitely keep it out of school syllabi, except possibly for a college course in which the novel’s subject matter of pedophilia and psychiatry would be deemed relevant. I would be interested to hear from someone who has read or studied the book.

The story follows a man calling himself Humbert Humbert who obsessively lusts after young girls, especially a flirtatious and manipulative 12 year-old called Lolita with whom he has a perverse and torrid affair for several years. Humbert narrates his ugly, evil actions in beautiful, sophisticated prose designed to win the reader’s sympathy. There’s a deliberate contrast between the way he writes and the way he acts. Yet even though he labors to prove he is not insane and to justify his life and actions, his story still ends in violence and loneliness.

As I understand it, Nabokov fully intends for us to despise Humbert and his sins. He also seems to scorn psychiatrists (especially those in the Freudian tradition) who seek simplistic ways to understand human behavior. One may do terrible, despicable things and yet still be a complex human being. Likewise, one may be a complex human being and yet still be justly condemned for choosing to do (and to enjoy) terrible, despicable things.

Do students, even up to the high school level, need to explore the crime of pedophilia in detail? And from the viewpoint of a charismatic predator? I don’t think so. Warn kids against strangers and teach them how to stay safe, by all means! But I see no reason why high school students (or younger) should be required to read a book that dramatizes such a traumatizing perversion from the viewpoint of the predator. From what I can tell, any important lesson in the book could also be gained from other powerful books that don’t dramatize pedophilia so graphically.

Looking at my own high school self, I guess that if I had read Lolita then, I would have been disgusted and disturbed, with those affects lasting, and would not have received much of any redeeming value in return. As opposed to something like Night by Elie Wiesel, which was disturbing in a way that was important and eye-opening. Night causes the reader to challenge prejudice and oppression by forcing us to confront the humanity of the victims and the injustice they have suffered, whereas Lolita gives us only the viewpoint of an unrepentant sexual predator.

Classic Remarks: A Classic Book that Translates Well to Film

Recommend a classic book that you think translated particularly well to screen (even if the adaptation was not entirely faithful).

Happily there are many films that count as successful adaptations of their source books. Some changed a lot in order to make a unique and successful film, such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Princess Bride, and most adaptations of The Three Musketeers. Others managed to be remarkably faithful to the book’s plot, tone, and themes. One classic in particular has always seemed to be particularly suited to adaptations.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson may be one of the most easily-adapted of classic books. It has over fifty adaptations for film and television, and most of the ones I’ve seen have been pretty faithful. The book’s plot is clear, efficient, and colorful. It doesn’t need elaboration, condensation, or drastic changes. It contains no extraneous subplots, which would either distract in a film or be first for the cutting floor. The action itself develops the characters and plot so well that an adaptation needs only to follow Stevenson’s layout to get an exciting feature length movie that doesn’t leave much out. Even the looser adaptations, such as the anarchic Muppet Treasure Island, still feature scenes and dialogue lifted directly from Stevenson. Why mess with what works?

My favorite adaptations are the 1934 and 1950 versions, starring Wallace Beery and Robert Newton as Long John Silver, respectively. These actors exude so much slimy charisma and chew their lines with such mischievous relish that it’s a delight to watch them. And each also brings out the desperate menace and corrupted dignity of Stevenson’s iconic character.Honorable mentions go to many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially Romeo and Juliet, which has been faithfully adapted in many surprising ways, and Richard Lester’s two-film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, which is shockingly and successfully faithful to a book whose many adaptations rarely resemble its actual plot.

Classic Remarks: Favorite Musketeer

Which of Dumas’ Musketeers is your favorite, and why?

For the musketeers of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling stories, we have D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. They are the most interesting and effective when all together, which makes it a bit difficult to single one out as a favorite. Additionally, it is worth considering their various portrayals in adaptations, since the characters of The Three Musketeers are probably better known in adaptation than in their original novel.

Speaking generally, I can say my favorite musketeer is Porthos. He’s the loud, boisterous, fun fellow, always ready to make others laugh, even when being threatened with a duel. Always loyal to his friends, though I suppose that rather characterizes all the Four. He’s fun in the book, but I also admit to my choice being influenced by the 1993 Disney film, where he was played with cheerful wit by Oliver Platt. Behold:

Frank Finlay also played Porthos quite well, if drier, in the excellent 1973 film. Witness his unique solution to uncorking a wine bottle while the musketeers seek a peaceful breakfast and private conversation in the middle of a siege:

Portho’s charisma and enthusiasm for life makes him a natural favorite for many fans, and I suppose I’m not immune to that charm either.