Ippolito d’Este

The Cardinal’s Hat, Mary Hollingsworth

This book drew me in. I was a bit reluctant when I first started reading it, but as I got more into the story, I became much more interested. This book is part-history, part-biography and tells a fascinating story of life in Renaissance Italy and France, focusing specifically on the life of Ippolito d’Este.

Ippolito d’Este was the archbishop of Milan and this book details, in part, his route to becoming a cardinal. Mary Hollingsworth researched this book using archives of documents at Modena and one of the most fascinating things about it is discovering how much of the story of a life can be gleaned from documents such as bills, inventories and letters. Chapter Two was particularly interesting, as it contains a reconstruction of Ippolito’s household – describing the members of staff who worked there and the physical appearance of his home. There is, for example, a highly-detailed description of his bedroom, including decorative items. When visiting homes from the sixteenth-century today they sometimes lack the textiles and other decorative objects that would have been present in the past, and therefore can seem austere to modern eyes. The high level of detail that Hollingsworth has gleaned from the archives corrects this impression, ensuring that the reader sees in her mind’s eye the real sumptuousness of Ippolito’s surroundings. It provides a little bit of insight into daily life, albeit for a very wealthy household.

The nature of this book provides an interesting combination of everyday life and larger political events. During the period covered by the book, Ippolito spends a significant amount of time in France with François I and we are therefore see the conflict between Charles V and the French king through the lens of his experiences. Although this was interesting, particularly in the context of Ippolito’s attempt to acquire a coveted position as a cardinal, it was really the juxtaposition of this with the details of everyday life which I found the most interesting.


The only criticism I have is that the story ends fairly abruptly. I’m not sure why this is – perhaps the archive did not cover a later period in Ippolito’s life – but it was a shame. For example, there is no explanation as to what happened to Ippolito in later life. We know that he eventually became a cardinal, but we are left somewhat in the dark as to Ippolito’s eventual fate. This is, however, a minor criticism and I would otherwise recommend this book as a little window into everyday, albeit affluent, Renaissance life.


A Fairy Tale

E.T.A. Hoffmann, ‘The Golden Pot’ (translated by Ritchie Robertson)

There are some stories that you need to read multiple times in order to get to grips with them. Not necessarily because they are overly complicated or particularly difficult to understand, but rather because there is so much going on in them and there are so many layers of meaning, that it would be impossible to grasp them all after reading them just once. These can be some of the most rewarding stories to read. When you first read them, there is the satisfaction of finding out what happens in the story, but then you are rewarded for subsequent readings with more and more interesting things to think about.

I suspect that is one such story. ‘The Golden Pot’ by E. T. A. Hoffmann is a relatively short story, so it’s a fairly quick and easy read. It tells the story of Anselmus, a student, and the adventures that result when he takes a job copying texts for the Archivist Lindhorst. The Archivist appears to be a man, but claims to be a salamander from Atlantis with three serpents as his daughters. There’s a love triangle, in which Anselmus is torn between Veronica and Serpentina, the Archivist’s daughter. One of the main themes of the story is the interplay between reality and a fairy world. Are the strange events in the narrative dreams, imaginative flights of fancy, or are they really happening to the characters?

I really enjoyed this story and am keen to read more of Hoffmann’s work. It was both fun and thought-provoking and I would recommend it to anyone interested in fantasy literature or fairy tales.

Adventures in Stories

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

Do you know what it’s like to be completely absorbed in a book? The world around you seems dim and distant, you are totally focused on the story you’re reading, to the extent that the imagined world that you’ve entered seems almost real?

In The Eyre Affair, Fforde has created a world where it is possible to step into the stories you’re reading and interact with the characters, living in the story alongside them. The reverse is also possible; literary characters can step out of their stories and interact with their readers in the real world, or rather, the ‘real’ world created by Jasper Fforde.

This is set in an alternate version of England, sometime in the mid-1980s. This is a world of literary detectives, vampires, pet dodos and time travel. Our heroine is Thursday Next – one such literary detective, on the trail of the villain Acheron Hades who is planning to kidnap Jane Eyre from the pages of the novel and hold her to ransom. This sounds very silly, but it is also a very clever story, and that’s an irresistable combination. It really works as a thriller or crime drama, and is just as absorbing as any non-fantasy inspired thriller. It’s also on occasion laugh-out-loud funny, filled with puns, wordplay and literary references. Shakespeare and Dickens feature fairly heavily, as of course does Jane Eyre. If you’ve never read Jane Eyre before, I would recommend it before starting this book – you’ll get so much more out of it.

The Eyre Affair is one of my all-time favourite novels. I first read it over a decade ago and my enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed. Needless to say, I recommend you try this one.


Have you heard of the Horrible Geography series of books? The Horrible Histories TV series is well-known nowadays, but I was unaware of Horrible Geography until fairly recently. Bloomin’ Rainforests (by Anita Ganeri,  llustrated by Mike Phillips) is part of this series and provides an engaging introduction to rainforests, which, whilst being accessible to children, is also interesting for adults.

I am no geographer, but I found this book fascinating. It clearly explains what a rainforest is and contains chapters on the animals and plants that thrive there, as well as some of the people who build their lives there. The last couple of chapters are important, focusing on the future of the rainforest and the dangers facing it. Overall, the book is written in a really engaging way, including cartoon-like illustrations, quizzes and a colloquial writing style which make the content really come alive and encourage the reader to interact with it, learning more in the process.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It reminded me of things I used to know as a kid and had forgotten, and taught me a few new things as well. I learnt about lianas and rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower, and that there are plants that can walk. This is a great book for kids, but I’d recommend it for adults as well – it’s a quick read and a fun, engaging way of learning more about our world.

A Story of Ayrshire

(The Annals of the Parish, John Galt)

It’s always exciting to read a story set in a place you know well, and The Annals of the Parish fits the bill for me. I spent a lot of my childhood visiting Ayrshire and, although the location of The Annals of the Parish is fictional, it feels familiar. Published in 1821, it’s the fictional memoirs of a Church of Scotland minister, dealing with the years from 1760 to 1810. Rather than presenting his personal history, the author/narrator focuses on the events that occur in the town. It is therefore a fictionalised history of a small town that would rarely make it into the history books.

Wider global events are engaged with only as they affect the residents of Dalmailing. So, for example, the Napoleonic Wars are addressed, because they induce fear in the locals. The American Warsof Independence is discussed because a character arrives in Dalmailing after fleeing it. The development of the textile industry in Scotland at the time has a highly significant effect on the narrative, given the major changes that result for the local residents. It’s really interesting to see this perspective on history and how bigger events affect the lives of ordinary people. Although, of course, it’s important to remember that this is a fictional told by narrator who may not always be entirely reliable.

Overall, this book wasn’t a page turner, but I enjoyed reading it. It was a fascinating window into Ayrshire life during the late eighteenth century and has inspired me to seek out other classics of Scots literature.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I’ve been looking forward to reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane for a long time and it didn’t disappoint. It’s about childhood, memory and stories, and is one of those books that begs to be re-read so you can delve into the story further and (perhaps) figure it out more. On the back of the book, there is a quote from Gaiman summing up the book, in which he states that, ‘fundamentally, I hope, at it’s heart, it’s a novel about survival’.

I loved the way that food was represented as a real, tangible comfort in difficult situations. There are delectable and cosy descriptions of the food the protagonist eats:

      ‘I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things,         even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in,                 could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took         joy in the things that made me happy’.

The thing he takes joy in here is spotted dick and custard, an excellent example of the type of food he eats at the farmhouse, all of it typical British comfort food, roast dinners shepherd’s pies, steaming puddings with custard. These simple, small pleasures, enjoying these little things that make you happy, are such a crucial part of taking care of yourself properly. Treating yourself to good food is an excellent way in which to do that.

I also loved the way that the protagonist uses reading as an escape. When he’s in a stressful situation, he retreats into stories. This happens near the beginning of the book:

      ‘It was a warm spring day, and sunny, and I climbed up a rope ladder to the       lowest branch of the big beech tree, sat on it, and read my book. I was not             scared of anything when I read my book’

Similar situations happen throughout the novel – reading is an escape and a support for him, and it helps him survive. It shows, I think, the power and importance of stories, helping us make sense of the world around us and helping us to navigate complex situations outside of our control.

This is a rich novel, full of myth and meaning. I would heartily recommend it.

Thoughts on ‘Soul Music’

‘The library didn’t only contain magical books, the ones which are chained to their shelves and are very dangerous. It also contained perfectly ordinary books, printed on commonplace paper in mundane ink. It would be a mistake to think that they weren’t also dangerous, just because reading them didn’t make fireworks go off in the sky. Reading them sometimes did the more dangerous trick of making fireworks go off in the privacy of the reader’s brain’.

Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

There are all sorts of reasons to read. I love reading books which are comforting and familiar, maybe ones written by authors I’m familiar with, in which I have a good idea of how the story is going to end. Then there are those books that I go back to again and again, like old friends, there to prop me up and provide the best kind of escapism. But the most exciting and invigorating books are those which cause metaphorical fireworks go off in my brain, when I’m introduced to new ideas, and new ways of looking at the world, when I’m surprised by characters or plots and when the stories trigger my own ideas and creativity. Needless to say, Pratchett’s works are some of the best examples of those kinds of stories.