reading pile


Ecologist Reviews

I realise I’ve not actually linked to any of my recent Ecologist reviews, which have taken up the bulk of my reading time over the past couple of months. The one I enjoyed the most was actually a book I’d bought myself – J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which I enthused about here. It is, quite simply, an incredible piece of nature writing:

Buried within the poetic language and the seemingly eccentric quest to observe nature is a manifesto. Beneath this quiet observation, this passionate hunt, The Peregrine is a book about connecting with nature on a level that many of us probably would not consider. It teaches us many things, the most important of which is that the natural world will not be understood online, or from a day trip somewhere. We can only scratch the surface in this way.

The other books I’ve reviewed are the No-Nonsense Guide to World Population:

Chapter by chapter, Baird picks up some larger themes. Agriculture in an ageing population, and what that means for us. Women’s control over their own bodies and fertility, and how that is being challenged by religious traditionalists. The way that the rich attempt to control the birth rates of the lower classes – ‘“Stop poor people breeding” has been the mantra of the privileged for some time’.

And finally Water Matters:

It’s not yet summer and already the prospect of drought is on the horizon. It’s only when things get bad and our vulnerability is highlighted – when it is really too late – that concern begins to increase. And issues with water aren’t just a local problem. Far greater ones are faced by communities across the world. So how did we come to be in such a dire situation with respect to water resources, and just how bad are things?


This is a reading pile

A three-story sculpture “tower of books” representing over 15,000 titles that have been written about Abraham Lincoln, are part of an exhibit at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington on Wednesday. The new museum, located across from Ford’s Theatre and next door to the house where Lincoln died, will open in time for President’s Day.

(Via MSNBC.)


The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Abridged Edition

There is, perhaps, very little point in reviewing this book. Where would I even start? Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written between 1776–89, is a monumental work of literature. Distilled: it is a monstrous explanation of the reasons Gibbon believed the Roman Empire fell from the giddy heights of the Republic, notably the period of the Caesars, to just after Constantinople being taken by the Ottoman Empire. Whether or not much of this period, pretty much from the 1st to the 16th Century, was entirely spent in decline, or simply how reliable and judgemental many of the accounts are, remains to be debated by proper scholars. So, instead of struggling to review this monster – which, even abridged, approaches 800 pages – here are 5 very casual observations:

Here be stories. In fact, some of the most stimulating and phenomenal stories a writer could possibly hope to exploit. From the towering and brutal Emperor Maximinus and his march on Rome, to the spread of Christianity and its possible role in the downfall of the Empire, to the sheer brutality of Atilla the Hun and his sharp shock to civilisation. Simply breathtaking exploits – and all of them real(ish). I don’t know why more fantasy writers don’t read history books.

Christianity again – fascinating to see its spread in the context of, and with an equal treatment to, the Roman pagan religions, Jupiter, Bacchus, and so on. I can only imagine how provocative this book was at the time of publication, to treat Christianity as any other religion and not something special, but without being disrespectful. This was all the more poignant for me, as I was casually watching the Christmas services on TV: to think that, with history going a different way, I could have been viewing blood sacrifices instead. Or even just observing the rituals of Christianity for what they were: rituals. This is a useless explanation for what I’m trying to say, but Gibbon’s treatment certainly left a lasting impression.

Belisarius. Why, why is there not more about this general in popular culture? And by more, I mean huge amounts of fiction, art, film, music, books, whatever. That entire age of Emperor Justinian, his wife Theodora, and his remarkable general, Belisarius who, after much of the Western Empire was lost over the decades, rolled his sleeves up and marched back to reclaim half of it. Gibbon paints a remarkable portrait of him, and I’ll certainly be reading more of this period. (Procopius’ Secret History; even the fiction of Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.)

Power dynamics. There’s something awfully comforting reading about the ebb and flow of territories and empires. Nationalism seems pretty silly, ultimately. The power dynamics of various religions was impressive, too, as Gibbon writes about their origins and spread, and their ultimate importance as different rulers absorbed them into their own national fabric.

Civilisation is nothing new. While Britons were still scratching around in the dirt with their arses painted blue, Roman society had done things that would take us another thousand years to get close to (and even most of that was copied). Much of the contents of Gibbon’s book dealt with events that occurred well over a thousand years old. He depicted a society that, even in its decline, was far more advanced than we could imagine, and from them we’ve inherited nearly everything: from city plans to stadium design to political set-up. Yes, times were different. Yes, the concept of what was civilised is probably different. Yes, people were treated fairly brutally; not to mention appalling women’s rights – though we’ve taken thousands of years just to get to our own barely adequate state of equality. But the presence of such culture, and in such staggering quantities, is (and forgive the cliché) rather humbling, to say the least. We can understand this on a cerebral level, but it’s truly felt here.

So there we go. I’ve not done the book any justice whatsoever. The events, people, places all kind of wash over you. It’s a beautiful reading experience. It’s also a slow reading experience, because what Gibbon talks about requires attention. (Also, I wanted to keep googling what he was talking about, which led to twenty minute interludes while you looked up the various emperors or tribes.)


Second-hand Bookstore Finds

I went back to the second-hand bookstore, where I previously spotted a huge number of Folio Society editions sitting on the shelf, most of them in pristine condition. I bought two books: Lives of the Later Caesars and Ovid’s The Art of Love, both of which were marvellously illustrated. (I’m not sure the latter is the kind of thing you’d want to leave open when your mother visits.)

These are wonderfully constructed books. You won’t find that sort of quality or craftsmanship on (or even in) your Kindle.


Holiday Reading

I’m halfway through this, which though abridged, is still a huge book. Not an easy read and one you’ll benefit from by Googling bits and pieces throughout, but it is remarkable – not only in its historical achievements, but that it offers a treasure trove of inspiration for writers. I’ve already a dozen ideas for good stories. Quite a nice time of year for reading – I don’t think I’d ever have as much free time to really tackle something major as this.

I’m also listening to the unabridged audiobook of Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, a vibrant and detailed biography, and a fascinating glimpse into a ruling woman of the ancient world (a nice contrast to the male-dominated histories I’ve come across so far).


Random book purchase – Cities of the Classical World

This is a splendid hardcover book, an illustrated guide focussing on the great centres of classical civilisation:

…120 specially drawn maps tracing each city’s thoroughfares and defences, monuments and places of worship. Every map is to the same scale, allowing readers for the first time to appreciate visually the relative sizes of Babylon and Paris, London and Constantinople. There is also a clear, incisive commentary on each city’s development, strategic importance, rulers and ordinary inhabitants.

Just thought I’d share it.


Recent Reads – G.I. Bones & The Twelve Caesars

Martin Limón’s G.I. Bones is an immensely enjoyable and smart novel. Set in 1970s Korea, it follows two military police investigators, Sergeants Sueño and Bascom; they’re on the trail of a deceased US soldier in order to locate his bones. This is to help a Korean fortune teller, so she will not be haunted by the dead man’s ghost any longer. It’s a pretty cool set-up to a novel, with the right amount of mumbo-jumbo versus logic. Soon enough our investigators – guided by the first person narrative of Latino soldier Sueño – are plunged into the dark and exotic world of 70s South Korea, from the local gangs to the red light district, to the US military camp and the tropical villages. The world and culture is brought to life with phenomenal eye for detail. I often think that the crime is rarely central to the success of a crime novel – it’s merely what binds the rest together. The rest comes down to location, character, narrative skill, prose and so on.

So I don’t want to linger too much on the plot – though it is indeed nicely sophisticated. But I do want to mention the what makes Sueño particularly interesting as a character: he is a lead who manages to be respectful to women, different races, local culture and so on, in a world and period (and, we’re led to believe, of a type of soldier), where this sort of thing just isn’t the norm. Sueño’s non-mysogenistic and tolerant presence is a really interesting contradiction to those detective novels for whom women are simply plot points or wet dreams for the author or detective in question. And that makes Limón a very interesting writer. For a really good review of this novel, go here. I thought this was an excellent novel, full of style, acute observations and possesses a wonderful understanding of people.

What can really be said about one of the defining books of the classical age that hasn’t been said already? For those of you who don’t know, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars is a collection of biographies of some of the defining figures of Ancient Rome, and arguably one the most famous families in history. Beginning with the conquests of Julius Caesar and ending with Domitian, second son of Vespasian, it offers commentary on the qualities of these emperors (and dictator), their legacy, and their performance on the world stage – as well as in the bedroom.

It is, as you would expect, a lively old book, but surprisingly readable for something that was published in AD 121. It’s rather sensational at times, particularly when Suetonius discusses the antics of Caligula and Nero. It is, of course, hard to say what was real or what was gossip – and some of it does seem rather outrageous (but when you’re one of the most powerful men the world has ever known, pretty much anything goes…). Whether or not you believe much of what Suetonius writes about, it’s clear from reading other contemporary authors that his influence on our knowledge of the period is profound.


Nightfall by David Goodis

David Goodis’ 1947 novel, Nightfall, is a surprisingly psychological noir thriller. It follows James (Jimmy) Vanning, who’s laying low in NYC, all paranoid and edgy, trying to pass as a freelance artist. It turns out people are after him – a bunch of crooks think he’s got their $300,000 dollars from a bank job across the country.

Meanwhile Detective Fraser, a detective who has recently become interested in psychology, is observing Vanning from a distance, watching his every move, following him about the city, knowing full well who the man is, but isn’t utterly convinced he’s a guilty man. He doesn’t seem the sort to kill a guy and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There’s not much more to it than that. We basically have a short novel that consists entirely of chase scenes, conversations in the shadows, and flashbacks. There’s a blonde involved and a seemingly innocent/guilty guy – it could be anyone at the centre of this novel – trying to cling on to his life and his own inner reality.

But! It’s good. The dialogue is superb. The descriptions are deeply poetic without straying from the the convention of minimalist noir prose. Here we’ve got everything that seems typical of genre, yet there’s fascinating, complex psychology at the heart of it – those shadows and backstreets heighten the sense of alienation – and it is all very well orchestrated. Goodis also has a habit of making his characters have profound conversations in bars or apartments.

What makes something so rich in suspense, I think, is not the immediate situation and what might happen on the other side of the page, but what’s at stake for every character involved, and that’s what strikes me as important about Nightfall. From Fraser to Vanning, to the crooks and the blonde, we’re constantly informed of what they’re doing what they’re doing, what could transpire should all the events in the book work out in their favour: prison, life on a yacht spending money, or simply settling down with a family. They’re big life-changing events and they have significance.

And that’s why Nightfall is a great novel: everything means something.


Counterpower Review

This is a brilliant book:

Rather than becoming a taxonomy of political movements, Counterpower focuses its arguments on the key, shared characteristics that unite political movements. By adopting this approach, he neatly provides a framework for the morass of loose and imprecise rhetoric that so often surrounds political debate. To do this, Gee examines the notion of what power actually is, both in the linguistic and physical senses – in other words, how governments and elite groups exercise their power over people. In response, people and movements have ‘counterpower’ at their disposal, which Gee splits into three main categories: Idea Counterpower, Economic Counterpower, and Physical Counterpower.

Read the rest.


Loeb Classical Library

This. This has got my inner bibliophile excited once again.

I’ve been a bit of a late-starter on really getting to grips with the classical world. My education went down the scientific route for the most part and, aside from your usual Homer and Ovid, never really dabbled much with classical writings.

This has all changed with my recent obsession with classical history, of course, and it’s been a very nice experience in choosing a new section of a bookstore to get my teeth into.

So, when perusing such a section in Blackwells in London, I stumbled across the Loeb Classical Library, which:

gives access to all that is important in Greek and Latin literature. Epic and lyric poetry; tragedy and comedy; history, travel, philosophy, and oratory; the great medical writers and mathematicians; those Church fathers who made particular use of pagan culture—in short, our entire classical heritage is represented here in convenient and well-printed pocket volumes in which an up-to-date text and accurate and literate English translation face each other page by page

I’ve bought number 58, Marcus Aurelius, and there are quite a few texts to go, too. I don’t think anyone outside of an academic institution would ever have a full set. The books are a little on the pricey side for a classic: the cheapest I’ve found them is at Blackwells, where they retail at £12.50 each (or, bizarrely, 2 for £25). So these books are the sort where you can add a couple now and then, one a month, or perhaps binge on your birthday.

Still, it’s nice to dream that one day I will have a library full of them.