Sometime in mid-December I paused on the J.D. Robb “In Death” binge read and moved on to cozier fields: detective novels by M.C. Beaton (aka Marion Chesney), who died in December 2019. I read the complete Agatha Raisin series, easily plowing through 2 in an evening, and am now up to book 25 in the Hamish Mcbeth series. Hamish has a Scottish wildcat, a dog with oddly blue eyes, a once-per-book longing for a cigarette even though he quit, and about 5 ex-girlfriends who all happen to show up at once for him to feel conflicted about as he discovers dead bodies. As a nice touch, he sometimes reads an amazingly exotic U.S. detective novel where everyone has guns and there are lots of high speed car chases.
In between ridiculous mystery novels, I read The Story of the Mongols Whom We Call Tartars by Giovanni Caprini, which was excellent and all too short. It’s an Italian ambassador’s account of his 13th century visit to Mongolia. He met Batu Khan and Güyük Khan, describing the journey and customs of the people he met, and rounded off the book with strategic advice on how to fight the Mongols. (Right at one of those turning points dear to writers of alternate histories as, if Ogedei Khan hadn’t died just about then, Batu would likely have overrun Europe.)
As a chaser I’m reading Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. It’s a collection of travel narratives by Muslim writers from the 9th century to about the 14th and it’s also pretty great. There’s no way for this not to be interesting and I love a primary source SO MUCH no matter what.
Ibn Fadlan‘s story describes his 9th century journey through Kazakhstan and then up the Volga to the far north where he meets the Rus, at least writes about the Samoyedi, and describes a Viking (Varangian) ship burial.
The next section of the book promises to be good as it’s an excerpt from Abu Hamid al-Garnati’s Wonders of the World where he goes to the land of the Bulgurs and writes enthusiastically about how cool beaver dams are. I look forward to his complaints about the food, the cold, the 20 hours of darkness per day, and how gross it is when people eat their own lice.
I also have William Cobbett’s Rural Rides going in the background, as it’s perfect for when I wake up at 3am and don’t want something with a compelling plot, so I can fall back asleep in the middle. It’s just Cobbett riding around Sussex or somewhere describing the scenery (which when I look it up, no matter how dramatically he describes it, it just looks like gentle, boring hills; Hawkley Hangar, I’m looking at you) and enthusing about the soil quality, how early you can harvest the corn (ie barley/wheat) or the turnips and swedes and also continuing his obsession with anyone who plaits straw for hats. Notable in recent middle of the night hallucinatory Cobbett memories, he had whooping cough and to cure it, rode all day and most of the night in the freezing rain with his shirt off, somewhere in the South Downs. Best sort of book as you can congratulate yourself on being in a warm, dry bed, totally not riding around England with whooping cough.