Monday, 22 August 2011

The Popes: A History by John Julius Norwich

Popes, popes, popes!  More popes than you can shake a stick at.  They're all here, from Peter (who was almost certainly never a pope) to Benedict XVI  (who gets a bit of a pasting on paedo priests) and all the assorted bigots, psychos, doddering fools, sickly wimps, nepotistic bastards and occasional good eggs in between.

Here are some of the best bits:
  • The 9th century Pope Formosus being put on trial for heresy - seven months after he died.  And yes, they actually dug up his body and put it in the dock.  He failed to clear his name.  
  • Rome being so disease ridden, violent and generally horrible in the Middle Ages that the papacy moved to Avignon in France for the best part of a century.  
  • The Papal Schism, which saw rival popes in Avignon and Rome.  Cardinals from both sides attempted to fix the problem by electing a third pope.  It didn't work.
  • Pope Julius III in the 16th century, who after being elected immediately made his 17 year old boyfriend a cardinal.  Classy
  • Various Borgias, Medicis and other scumbags during the Renaissance, who had a great time and at least made Rome a bit prettier.
  • The Jesuits being kicked out of pretty much every Catholic country in Europe in the 18th century for winding everyone up the wrong way.
  • Napoleon treating more than one pope as a Corsican peasant treats his donkey.
  • Pius XII turning the blindest of eyes to the Holocaust.  Not that he condoned it exactly, but he was never a massive fan of the Jews.
  • The recent absurd growth in canonisations (Pius XII's is in the post.)  By 2068, we will all be saints.
This is a first rate history covering the best part of twenty centuries at breakneck speed, and it's always entertaining.  A couple of things struck me when reading it - firstly, European history (when compared to British history) is insanely complicated.  I'm still not entirely sure what the hell the Holy Roman Empire was, but I'm pretty sure it was stupid.  And I learned that Catholic countries appear to hate the pope even more than protestant ones.  Especially France.

In the end, the Catholic Church doesn't really come out of this book smelling of roses.  And yet, I know if my sanity finally does snap and I start thinking there's a God, there's nowhere else I'd turn.  If I ever become a protestant, kill me.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Half Read Round Up

There've been a few interesting and not so interesting books I've made a stab at in the past month or two.

Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe - I made it to page 70, when two characters started to disect the work of an obscure Welsh poet.  No.  Pretentious and dull.

Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf - The memoirs of East Germany's legendary spy-master.  A fascinating and well written account by a man clearly still wrestling with his conscience.  Turns out they never even told him the Berlin Wall was going up.  Plays havoc with your spy network, that kind of thing.


 Byzantium by Judith Herrin - Right up my street, but never grabbed me for some reason.  I can recommend a book I read a year or two back called Justinian's Flea, which looks more closely at that Emperor's reign, and the devastating impact of the Black Death.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville - Alright, I've thrown in the towel on this one.  Brilliant first half - grimy fantasy steampunk with sentient beetles and cacti.  A wonderfully realised world with lots of colour.  Unfortunately half way through all the plot lines seem to be abandoned while everyone looks for a monster.  Lost interest.

Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick McFarquhar and Michael Shoenhals - A fascinating period of history.  It takes balls to start a revolution.  It takes massive swinging counterintuitive balls to start a revolution in a country you're already in charge of.  This is a very well researched and detailed account of who did what, when.  But I think the problem is, not of that really mattered.   None of the cultural revolution made any sense, so the maneuverings of various loathsome apparatchiks (with names which are way too similar) became depressing and repetitive.

The Man Who Ate Bluebottles by Catherine Caufield - A list of first class weirdos, from psychopathic duelists to rich tramps and from hermits and misers to clergymen who decided to eat everything on Earth (William Buckland of the title - bluebottles and moles came bottom of his list.)  I also liked the first entry - John Alington, who made his estate workers build replicas of the streets of London, the Battle of Sebastapol and even the British Isles in the duck pond.  He performed religious ceremonies on a four wheel bike, while wearing a leopard skin and shoving snuff in people's faces.  Alington also enjoyed being carried around his estate in an open coffin.  Proper bonkers.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Osterman Weekend by Robert Ludlum


Godawful garbage, but not without its quirky charms.

I do have a soft spot for Ludlum - his thrillers are easy to digest, they have a unique feeling of paranoia and hysteria and they always handle the most ridiculous things with the utmost seriousness.  But the balance here is far too heavy on the ridiculous.

The main character is a TV executive called Tanner who lives in a upmarket village on the outskirts of New York.  He's got a wife and kids, and he's close friends with three other couples - two of which live in the same village; the third couple work in Hollywood.  These are the Ostermans, and their visits are known as Osterman Weekends.  It's a great pulpy title, if nothing else.

As often happens in Ludlum, our hero is taken to a secret room by a CIA agent and told what's really happening.  Turns out some or all of his friends are ruthless, deep cover KGB moles who are due to bring down capitalism in just under a month.

This nefarious plot's quite intruiging actually - the spies gather blackmail info on key people in the US economy, and at the right time each is told to, say, withhold a loan or issue a stock warning or whatever these people do.  Recent events have thrown light on the precariousness of our system (though not capitalism itself) so I was hoping this would figure in the story.  No - it's just the maguffinest of maguffins.

What it's really about is Tanner trying to figure out which of his friends are spies.  The CIA rattle their cages with late night calls and mysterious encounters to make them suspect Tanner.  This does make them nervous, but it becomes clear very quickly that none of them are secret agents.  It's a case of the reader being a step ahead of the book, which always sucks.

So when the eponymous Osterman Weekend finally arrives, there's no dramatic tension because you're already pretty sure none of these people are in the KGB.  Luckily there's some shooting and a dog gets decapitated to keep you interested.

What it felt like was less a spy thriller and more a bad dream.  That Ludlum hysterical paranoia is pumped right up, but when you take a step back none of it makes any sense.

Having said all that, I polished it off in two sittings.  I didn't feel good about it though.  I've got some highbrow fare out the library as penance.  I'll see how far I get through Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe.