Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, Jason Felch & Ralph Frammolino
Chasing Aphrodite is not just about the “Aphrodite” statue that proved a flashpoint for the Getty Museum after it became clear it was most likely looted from a site near Morgantina. It is, as the subtitle says, about the looted antiquities, the changing attitudes toward that, and the long legal cases that forced American institutions and collectors to change their acquisition policies and return looted art. In some ways, it’s a biography of Marion True, a curator at the Getty who was instrumental in the acquisition of many of the looted antiquities, while also becoming a strong voice for restoration and refusal to purchase such items.
I found it surprisingly suspenseful — if that’s the right word. I wanted to find out what ended up happening; I didn’t remember enough about the events described (many of which hit the news when I was a teen) to remember how things worked out exactly, though it was obvious that the Getty were running their collective neck into a noose. The narrative is fairly dispassionate but nonetheless makes it deeply obvious that what the Getty were doing was wrong, suspect even under their own lax policies.
As a note, the book isn’t pro-repatriation per se. It seems fairly ambivalent about other repatriation requests, like the Elgin Marbles, striking a note that seems to call some of that type of request “unreasonable”, at the end. It casts Marion True as a fairly sympathetic figure in many ways, despite her deep culpability. She was at least as deeply implicated as other figures at the Getty, and a little honesty and self-examination might have helped her weather the storm.
The Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit, Pete Brown
Broadly speaking, I really enjoyed this book. I came across it during my sudden random interest in histories about food, and though it’s also a history about cider and farming fruit, it ticks some of those boxes. It’s perhaps a little unusual in that the author can’t actually eat apples due to an allergy, so though he happily tastes cider (which doesn’t trigger the allergy), he’s otherwise stuck with other people describing the flavours (and textures, which always seem to be mentioned when people describe eating an apple).
There are… a few things that drove me absolutely nuts, though, so people would be forgiven for thinking that I didn’t actually like the book at all. The first thing is the firm location of King Arthur stories in England, as an English thing (just like apples are English, even when he’s talking about ones from South Wales). He’s done some half-assed research, like this:
The problem for Celts who want to claim the Arthurian myth as their own is that the details — such as we assume them now — don’t stack up. […] But Sarmartian warriors did ride horses, which were first domesticated on the Kazakh steppe, and they did wear chainmail and armour of overlapping scales. If we look at the customs and legends from the homeland of these armour-clad horse warriors, other familiar aspects leap out. […] There’s even a sacred golden cup in the Central Asian myths that sounds an awful lot like the Holy Grail.
Sounds very convincing, right? Except the man has done the very bare minimum of research, and quite possibly skimmed his theory off the blog of a random Arthurian enthusiast. It’s manifest bollocks from start to finish: he bases his theory about King Arthur being a Sarmartian on the grounds that we imagine King Arthur to have been armour-clad and riding a horse. But that’s just the version of King Arthur that we’re most familiar with, one that wasn’t really codified until much later. Early sources don’t mention anything about horses or chain mail or any of that stuff. If the sacred golden cup of Central Asian myths has any links to Arthurian literature, those links are no earlier in the Arthurian canon than Chrétien de Troyes, who made the first reference to a graal — which wasn’t even a cup.
Meaning, dear friends, that Pete Brown’s imagined parallels are largely way too late to have any bearing at all on whether Celts can claim the Arthurian myth as their own. We obviously can: the Welsh have the oldest sources.
It is a little worrying when I come across research as woeful as this in a book that involved allegedly years of research. Kind of throws the rest in a bad light — as does saying that CRISPR involves turning genes on and off, rather than full scale gene editing. CRISPR, if we can get past the problem of targeting it precisely, can do whatever gene editing we want. Plus, if you’re going to reference CRISPR, then maybe don’t just explain it like that with a throwaway footnote saying “No, me neither” — some of your readers do actually understand what CRISPR is, or are more than capable of looking it up.
(In case you want to edit that footnote, Mr Brown, here’s my suggested text: “CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It’s a tool adapted from bacterial defences against invasive viruses which can be used for gene editing.” Fixed that for you; not much more difficult to understand than “No, me neither”, and much better at giving context if someone is interested.)
Also, it’s really, truly, incredibly, breathtakingly, moronically irresponsible to write that you are worried about eating “moth bits” in an apple if the tree was gene-edited to include a resistance gene from moths. It’s a piece of DNA; it doesn’t make bits of a moth, you idiot. It makes a protein which has nothing to do with any part of the moth’s lifecycle. If you took that gene and begged it, it could not become a moth, nor could you reconstruct moth DNA from it. If you really want to make some kind of comment about gene editing, I strongly recommend you go and spend at least one more year on your research, because you patently don’t understand a thing about it right now.
All of that said, I realise that makes it sound like I hated the book, but the parts where he sticks to what he knows and has experienced are very pleasant — he waxes poetical about the beauty of apples, the traditions surrounding them, and the events he’s taken part in that involve apples. He should have stuck to that, because overall it’s a really enjoyable read.
Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler
Perhaps it’s not a surprise that a book purporting to be a history of food and class in Britain does itself verge into snobbery now and then, but I was a little annoyed by it all the same. You can feel the judgement dripping off Vogler in what she includes and what she doesn’t — and for the most part, it’s not about British food at all, but the food that English people will eat. A single token reference to bara brith, a few potatoes and a quotation or two from Sir Walter Scott don’t make this British. I think there’s more about French cuisine here than Welsh, Scottish or Irish, and there’s classism going on in the very choice of examples she keeps harping on (Austen, Thackeray, etc).
There are some interesting titbits here, but I found the format of the book really annoying — you really don’t have to link each chapter to the next through a tenuous lead-in, and you really don’t need to make me hop around the book to read other sections.
I don’t know from personal experience whether all of her research is correct, though I saw one or two reviews on Goodreads suggest that she’s a bit off base about some things. She does at least have a fairly exhaustive set of references, should you want to look something else up.
I found this, in the end, surprisingly tedious for something that so clearly catered to my current, randomly acquired interest in food history. I was riveted by the history of white bread in America, so it’s not the subject that’s lacking here — it’s the delivery.
Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England, Liza Picard
Chaucer’s People is pretty much what it says on the tin: a history of the lives of an assortment of everyday people through the frame of The Canterbury Tales. She discusses the various pilgrims and what they did for a living, what they ate, where they lived, the clothes they would have worn, etc. She digs into some of the details Chaucer gives us about them, and draws out what they mean.
One thing I have to note is that it rarely touches on the lives of everyday people, the people who couldn’t afford to go on a pilgrimage. The title is a bit of a contradiction because people who could go on pilgrimage weren’t everyday people! So it’s not as complete as it might sound.
In any case, I’d bet it’s a really good companion to reading The Canterbury Tales — I was somewhat hampered at times by the fact that I last read it when I was an English lit student, a good ten years ago. Because it wasn’t fresh in my mind, sometimes I didn’t have quite enough context, which is reflected in how much I enjoyed reading it.
That said, there’s a lot of detail that doesn’t require you to know or remember anything about The Canterbury Tales.
This is chiefly useful if you’re planning on reading papers in order to apply them to a medical context: it basically teaches you how to use the concepts of evidence-based medicine. However, it can also be useful for those who have to read papers in general, because there is a good discussion of how to read the statistics without getting overwhelmed and weirded out — and it has some hints about what to watch out for in terms of poor methodology and bad data manipulation.
It’s a slow read, of course, but it’s a worthwhile one if that sounds like something you might need to apply in your work or study!
The idea of a history of libraries and all they’ve meant to people is an appealing one — probably to many bookworms! It’s great that this one focuses on the way libraries have been more than just quiet places out of the way of history. I can’t say that this particular book actually worked out for me, though. It felt scattered, and not as engaging as I’d hoped — and I’m a big lover of books, and of books about books.
I ended up just… feeling meh about it, I’m afraid. It hasn’t stuck very well in my head since I finished it, and I wasn’t very compelled to keep reading it. I don’t think I read a single bit aloud to my wife, either, which is usually the sign I’m really enjoying non-fiction.
I read this before I read Burning the Books, but I’d recommend the latter if you were to read just one. It’s not quite the same focus, but pretty similar, and it covers more ground.
The first half of this book is great. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains her subject well, dissecting previous evidence as well as her own research and synthesising them into her full theory. In summary, she posits that emotions are not something pre-formed in the brain, not something genetic, and not something you can point to on a scan. Instead, each instance of emotion is constructed from all kinds of different inputs, in the moment, and may not look anything like another instance of the same emotion if the subject is put in a brain scanner. This makes sense of a lot of things, and makes perfect sense to me — in fact, it starts to seem totally obvious!
She also mentions the “illusion of free will” almost in passing, in a way that made the lightbulb click on for me. I always hate the idea that I don’t have free will, and that “I” am essentially forced to act in a certain way — or more accurately, have no option to act in a different way — by combinations of my upbringing, culture and biology. But the point is that “I” am constructed by all those things anyway, and there is no real separation into “conscious” and “unconscious”, where the “unconscious” isn’t really me. The unconscious part is me as well, and even if it does things without waiting for the conscious me to weigh in — even though the body starts to act before the “decision” to act is consciously made — then… that’s still me. It seems obvious in retrospect, and is completely in line with everything else I believe (mind/body dualism has never been for me).
Why I never saw it that way before… well. Like Robert Sapolsky says in his book Behave, people tend to imagine their conscious mind as a sort of homunculus directing the brain’s actions, and it’s not really the case — but it’s a powerful illusion. It’s that idea of a homunculus separate from the rest of the brain that makes it feel like there’s a problem.
I’m not entirely sure I’m coherent here, but I really appreciated Feldman Barrett’s aside about that. It made things click into place for me.
The second half of the book is more about the applicability of her theories, and it worked less well. There are good examples there of dissecting how her theory works, but in the end her conclusions are familiar ones. That said, her view of constructed emotion, and the ability to impact how your emotions are constructed, give people rather more responsibility for their brains that scientists like (since I mentioned him already) Sapolsky seem to do. That’s interesting and useful.
Overall, I found this really interesting, but the applicability chapters dragged a bit.
Consider the Fork is a look through history at the utensils humans have used for cooking and eating, from knives and forks to the ovens that we prepare food in and our control of fire/heat. Each chapter themes itself around one of these implements, and discusses the changes through history and between cultures.
I found it broadly interesting, but… somehow it didn’t quite keep my attention in the way I expected. I suspect part of it is because I’m not a cook, nor particularly interested in eating food for its own sake. For whatever reason, food and the culture surrounding food is what has caught my magpie interest for the moment, but I don’t have that deep connection to the right pan or the knife that perfectly fits your hand that I think some cooks do and which Wilson seems to have in spades. Also, I think Wilson’s writing style just doesn’t quite work for me, which is fine.
I did finish it, though, and find that in several places I wanted to tell other people the interesting facts I just learned. It’s not bad at all, and I think there are people for whom it would be deeply fascinating. It just didn’t quite click with me.
This could easily have felt really prurient and invasive, given its focus on the various bloody murders that fascinated Victorian society — or too bloodless and dry despite the topic, if it got too academic. I found that Flanders steered a perfect path; it might still be too dry for those who are mostly interested in the murder part of it, but I found it really fascinating, especially as someone who studied the development of crime fiction in novel-form (mostly in the following century).
Flanders does hop about in time a little bit, which gets frustrating and a little confusing. It’s partly because the chapters are grouped thematically, which mostly does work, though since it marks a progression over time then maybe it could have been managed a little better. There are lots of examples to illustrate the trends being discussed, plus images where appropriate as well.
There’s lots of referencing at the end, which is always reassuring in a non-fic work like this. All in all, I’d be happy to read more by Flanders.
I have very complicated feelings about museums. I love the British Museum’s eclectic wonders, but it’s a museum built on the theft of valuable and spiritual/religious artefacts, the pilfering of dead bodies, and all the other things that people have felt entitled to do and take because colonialism is a hell of a drug. I feel like I at least have a responsibility to think about it, so books like this are a great opportunity to do so.
It’s not a book all about how this and that was stolen, but a book about how we can respond to that. It discusses some of the responses people have created that reflect on colonialism, and the degrees to which they’re successful, as well as discussing some of the older art and objects and how they’re presented to people — sometimes with context, sometimes with misleading context, and sometimes without comment.
It’s a fairly easy book to dip in and out of a chapter at a time, and I found it pretty enjoyable. I did have to keep looking up images and photos to get the full context, because any images were not great on my ereader’s screen. I don’t know how good they are in a printed copy of the book.