Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, Daisy Dunn
If this were sold as a novel, I probably wouldn’t have been so annoyed with it. However, it’s sold as non-fiction, despite doing the most amazing reaching to try and describe authentic episodes of Catullus’ life — nothing you could argue with as obviously untrue, but who knows where he ever walked up towards the Forum cursing the heat, or whatever anecdote like that first caught my eye? Dunn writes as if partially fictionalising the subject matter, while disarmingly taking the non-fictional stance of “perhaps” and “surely he felt that” and so on outside of the weird fiction scenes.
It’s a mixed approach and it’s probably true that that keeps some people more engaged, and that some people even prefer it. I don’t like being told that Catullus did this and did that part of the time, and then “maybe” and “perhaps” and “probably” the rest, when the things the writer says did happen are completely unknowable, and the maybes and perhapses are things Catullus actually wrote about.
Also, I know people have praised the close-reading of the poetry in this book, but I did better close-reading that some of this in the first year of undergrad alone. Most of it struck me as completely obvious — even facile. I’d take that with a pinch of salt, given I disliked the book, but… still.
Life in a Medieval Castle, Frances Gies, Joseph Gies
This book is pretty much what it says on the tin: an exploration of what life was like in a medieval castle, mostly drawing from the case of Chepstow Castle, but mentioning other castles when variations and other points needed to be made. It covers the life inside the castle — what the Lord and Lady of the castle would do, how they would entertain themselves — but also how the castle was supported by the lord’s people. There’s some space given to warfare and surviving siege conditions, as you’d expect, and the exact social circumstances that promoted the building and use of castles.
It’s an easy enough read, though there wasn’t much that surprised me in terms of being new information. For a more engaging read, I’d probably turn to Marc Morris’ book: Castles, which covers some similar ground. Probably makes a good reference read (no surprises there — the cover mentions that George R.R. Martin used it as such, which is probably why it and the other related books are having a nice little lease of life in bookshops)!
Patrick Nunn’s premise is that oral traditions may preserve details about events from a long time ago — not just decades, but centuries, and even millennia. He goes about trying to prove this by taking inundation stories as an example, linking them to post-glacial sea rise events, and trying to prove that the stories accurately depict the experiences of the tellers’ ancestors. I think his basic point is proven anyway: we know that oral traditions can preserve an amazing amount of detail over astonishing lengths of time. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written down long after the events they describe, with clear features showing they were actually performed aloud and passed from person to person in a feat of memory. We know that this survival wasn’t just a matter of a generation or two, because the stories contain clear details that were no longer relevant to the time when the stories were actually written down: weaponry, customs and geopolitics were different, but are preserved in the epics with a surprising degree of fidelity.
However, I think Nunn tries to go too far, and is generally pretty unsound. For one example that made me question his research, he mentions his theory that people originally created rock art as a sort of aide-memoire, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t aid in survival — that it must be so, because they wouldn’t have had time for anything other than survival. However, the 40 hour work week is actually a purely post-Industrial construct: modern hunter-gatherers — even living in a world circumscribed by land ownership and industry, i.e. with nowhere near the range they would have had prehistorically — need to spend far less time on subsistence. Anything from 2 hours a day to 8 hours is suggested, most of it on the lower end of that scale; if nothing else, hunter-gatherers had the same amount of free time as modern humans, likely more.
That’s a comparatively minor point, but it definitely made me sceptical. Add to that Nunn’s tendency to use phrases like “it is plausible to assume” and “it seems likely”, and his rather circular attempts to use sea levels to date the stories and stories to date the sea levels, and I’m extra-sceptical. These are mythic stories — things like a kangaroo digging a hole that causes the sea to flood in — and his interpretations are faltering. Does it mean X? Does it mean Y? At one point he says the presence of a particular feature in a story proved it referred to a permanent inundation and then later, though I suspect this was bad editing, seems to say the opposite of another story (it didn’t contain the same feature, and therefore still referred to a permanent inundation — what?!).
I think Nunn attempts to use two things that are necessarily imprecise to date each other, and gets tangled up in the relationship between those. I’d much rather see some underwater archaeology to show that people were living in these locations at the right time, as a kind of independent third corroboration. I think he’s particularly shaky when he discusses stories where drowned buildings are clearly visible beneath the water: it’s obvious that those stories cannot be purely handed down from the time of the inundation, but will have been reinforced, changed, or possibly even invented by new tellers, when the drowned buildings were observed in later times.
The basic premise that oral culture can preserve some astonishing detail from very far in the past is undeniable, and I commend Nunn’s use and examination of Australian Aboriginal stories in particular — I think it was a sound choice given their isolation from other people’s and the strength of their oral culture. I just think Nunn tries to stand up a stool with only two legs (the stories and sea levels), and should definitely have thought about other ways to establish his theories.
Obviously this is not my field in any sense, though I have a background in scientific investigation, so take my opinion for what you think that’s worth. I found the book interesting and largely well-written, even if the arguments are weak. I did find the recounting of every single individual inundation story known to the author rather tedious. There’s something like 21 one of them: pick the best ones, dude. Make a table to compare them. Just… something!
The Mummies of Ürümchi, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
The Mummies of Ürümchi discusses the rather Caucasian looking bodies found, naturally mummified by sand and salt, in the Tarim Basin, northwest China. These bodies were found with amazingly well-preserved textile grave goods, and that is the main focus of this book. Barber tries to discover where these people came from, linking their technology, customs and textiles to what we know of other related people’s.
I wasn’t expecting to read another book so strongly focused on textiles right after I read The Golden Thread, but I guess I came well-equipped. And I love that there’s colour plates with good photos of some of the discussed items — they haven’t fallen prey to the urge to just show the mummies, although several of the plates do.
A little out of date by now, yes, but fascinating.
This was exactly my kind of pop-history: a narrow focus on a particular subject in various different time periods and geographical locations. In this case, Kassia St Clair looks at the development and importance of fabric throughout history, from the earliest fabrics known to modern stretch fabrics used in the Olympics and high tech designs used on the Moon. The obvious fabrics like linen and silk and wool obviously get plenty of play here, with peeks at their influence on history (and the influence of history on them). I found it very absorbing, and enjoyed the way she gave a glimpse of the importance of fabrics in a lot of different contexts.
If you enjoy the Great British Sewing Bee, some of this will be familiar already, but there’s also plenty more to learn…
This is part of a series on “Lost Civilisations”, but Shipley pushes back on that idea from the start — Angkor Wat, for example, was never “lost” to local people; it was “discovered” by non-local people who acted as though locals had no connection to it, and this is a pattern that keeps repeating: Westerners find something monumental and assume that it has been “lost” and the civilisation that created it is dead, etc, etc. I don’t want to get into the truths and lies about that or debate it too much, but I found it interesting and refreshing to view history and archaeology this way.
The Etruscans are pretty enigmatic, and frequently portrayed as such, partly because we don’t have much insight into their language. The amount of Etruscan we have to work with is steadily growing as finds are made, though, and maybe someday soon we’ll know more. Shipley takes the reader on a tour of the finds we have got, focusing each chapter on a single find or site to tease out what it says about the Etruscans on various topics, including the position of women in their society (often portrayed as rather egalitarian). I enjoyed it very much: Shipley writes well and makes her points very clearly. It helps that the book has a lot of colour photographs as well, and the finds are well-chosen: I love the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses”, in particular.
Definitely what I was looking for. I wonder how good the other books in this series are…
A more accurate, but less attention-drawing title, would be something like “How the Irish helped to preserve the literary records of the Greeks and Romans”. In parts, it’s more of a history of the fall of Rome than about the Irish, and in others, it’s more about the coming of Christianity to Ireland. Cahill’s portrait of St Patrick is rather tender and actually worth the read if you’re interested in reading about a saint who seemed to be a bit of a stand-up bloke, but… none of this is actually about saving civilisation in any kind of general sense.
Which all makes sense, because awesome as Ireland can be, saving civilisation is a bit too big a task. I don’t even agree with Cahill in the sense that Greek and Roman literature and philosophy were that necessary for later civilisation to exist — there would be civilisation, I’m sure: it just wouldn’t be Western civilisation. There’s way too much privileging of the Classical and Christian tradition in this book, in a way that’s kind of gross if you consider how many other civilisations have existed. He’s also a patronising dick about medieval people in general, spouting cliches all over about their views and inner feelings in a generalising and condescending sort of way. Meh.
Cahill is certainly invested in his subject matter, and fascinated by what he’s writing: he portrays St Patrick in particular with sympathy and care. However, there’s that basic premise being all wrong, the condescension towards whole peoples and ways of life, and the condescension to the reader in assuming they’ve never encountered Plato and couldn’t possibly understand what Plato is saying.
Threads of Life is a history of the world through sewing, from the Bayeux Tapestry to modern protest banners. Obviously, part of the reason it caught my attention is that I’m doing a fair bit of sewing (cross-stitch) myself at the moment — but also, I’m a sucker for this kind of micro-history that focuses in on one particular element of the human experience of history. In this case, there’s a lot of personal musing too: the author has been involved with a lot of community projects and art initiatives encouraging people to sew, bringing communities together through sewing, etc. There’s a healthy amount of history too, though, discussing how embroidery is viewed and how that has changed, discussing the roles embroidery has played in all kinds of situations.
Overall, it’s an interesting book, and there are all kinds of things I had no idea about that I’d love to see, like the quilts made by women in captivity during wartime. All of it makes me want to sew, and to be political with my sewing as well — if I could design worth a damn, I’d be cross-stitching Jo Cox’s (somewhat paraphrased quote): “We have much more in common than that which divides us.”
Overall, the author tries to get more than just a Western perspective, and to include people from all walks of life and how they’ve used sewing — both as something that is useful in itself, and as a form of self-expression. The abridged BBC programme about this book is good, but very much abridged: it’s more of a taster than a full idea of everything Hunter covers.
Pale Rider is about the 1918 flu pandemic known as “Spanish flu”: the fact that it killed many more people than the Great War did is a well-known fact now, and this particular pandemic is credited with making scientists realise the dangers of a global health crisis like this — and the likelihood that it could and would happen again.
I’ll confess, I didn’t think I’d learn that much about the flu from reading this book, having already read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, but in fact there was a lot here that was new to me. Not so much in understanding the disease itself — if Barry’s book didn’t do that, studying for my exams certainly did — but in understanding the impact it had on the world, and particularly on non-Western countries. There’s a lot here that’s new to me about China and Russia, for instance, whereas I feel like The Great Influenza focused much more on the American side of things.
There’s also, I feel, more of an attempt to understand the social and political effects of the pandemic, rather than just the medical and scientific.
However, my end feeling is the same: influenza is a fascinating topic, and if it doesn’t scare you (in a measured informed way that leads to taking sensible precautions like getting the flu vaccine every year), it should. Spinney has a common-sense approach to it all — there’s a lot of things that need to align to make a pandemic, and Spinney doesn’t overstate the likelihood of that happening, but she does lay out the risks and emphasise the need for data collection and disease surveillance. Hear hear!
Fayke Newes looks like a gimmicky book, and it’s true that it lacks a references section entirely, so it’s difficult to evaluate the depth of the research. What I read tallies with what I already know, but it’s impossible to trust a serious non-fiction book without references or at least some “further reading”, and it raises my eyebrow a little that the book suggests teaching children to distinguish real news from puffed up misinformation… and that book does not itself have the basics I would consider important for evaluating whether a piece of writing is accurate. (Though admittedly I’ve fallen into this trap myself, and need to start adding sources on my science blog posts.)
Taking it with a pinch of salt, though, it’s an interesting survey of the press vs power — the media vs the mighty, in the other alliteration it uses a lot — from Henry VIII to Trump. It discusses how the press have clashed with governments in the past, discussing how the media has made and broken politicians… and how they’ve been complicit in hiding things from the people during situations such as wartime. This is pretty much the main theme of the book: is the press speaking truth about power to inform the people, or aligning with it in order to deceive them (regardless of the intent behind the compliance)?
It’s odd, given that the book ends with a paean to a long history of marvellous unbiased reporting, that mostly the incidents it mentions sound very much to me like the press is mostly biased and prone to falling in with the wishes of the rich and powerful. Taylor suggests that unbiased, well-trained reporters are going to save us in this age of misinformation — in the concluding chapter of a book with example after example of the press being owned by the rich and dictated by their demands, or cheerfully complying with government bans to send home encouraging untruths during wartime, etc, etc.
I think we do need some well trained and unbiased reporters we can trust to tell us the facts. I’m not convinced by his arguments into believing that those reporters exist, or rather that when people with that ambition do exist, they have a platform and are able to tell us a damn thing people with power don’t want us to know.
Interesting book, but has several blind spots about the implications of its own content.