Goodreads Challenge 2014 8/65 – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England.

Shelley and I had the good fortune to visit Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago, and naturally we saw All The Things. It’s still quiet and gorgeous it was all delightful.

This was where he spent his childhood - his father was a glove maker.

This was where he spent his childhood – his father was a glove maker.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

Holy Trinity Church

Holy Trinity Church

We had even more good fortune when we got to visit the Globe Theatre in London on our last trip. There was no play on at the time (boo! hiss!) but it was still a marvellous visit. We did get to see a RSC production of Richard II at the Barbican though, which was brilliantly produced (and had the wonderful David Tennant as the lead – woohoo!!!!!).

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So the book reviewed here was a natural to get while we were at the Globe. And it was an excellent read too, though I admit my attention wandered a little at the description of clothes. But, get it and read on, Macduff, and damned be he or she that finisheth it not!

Enjoy your reading, all. I may actually write about things library soon.

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The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan EnglandThe Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabethan England is presented as a golden age. It was the period of Shakespeare, the Armada and the voyages of Drake, Frobisher and Raleigh. The music of William Byrd and John Dowland graced court and church. And at the apex, ‘Good Queen Bess’, defender of English freedoms.

Hindsight of course it a wonderful thing and Ian Mortimer tried to show us what it was like to live there. Would we, living at that time, view it through such rosy-hued glass?

The first chapter teases out the changes in landscape that were still underway. Medieval towns were slowly. Some of these are technological. Hall-hoses begin to make way for multi-storied houses because the chimney offers multi-floor heating.

England is still very much a landscape, as opposed to a cityscape. By 1600, only five of the top 20 towns in England have more than 10 000 residents. Of these, London has 200 000 and the remaining four (Norwich, York, Bristol and Newcastle) have 10-12 000 each. Oxford and Cambridge have but 5000 each.

Yet the urban centres were growing. It was a much younger population, with just over 7% of the population older than 60. Social hierarchies from the medieval period continue, though the independent power of the great families is now much less. Social status is shown outwardly through clothing. The Sumptuary laws rigidly defined what type of cloth, what colour and so forth a person might wear. One reason that some builders and masons were able to grow wealthy was that they could not spend their money on the luxuries of their ‘betters’.

Religion set out the parameters in which conflict with other powers took place. Elizabeth’s re-assertion of the monarch as head of the church in England gave Spain a cassus bellum – the re-imposition of the Holy Catholic church. Of course, English Catholics were thought therefore to be agents of Spain and the Pope. As indeed some were. But even for those loyal to the Crown, it wasn’t a good time to be Catholic. Once could choose to be Catholic. One simply had to pay a fine for each Sunday that they did not attend a Church of England service. That weekly fine was 20 pounds per month. A farm labourer might expect a bit over one pound per year.

Geniuses are not usually singular products but are created by their environments. One reason that Shakespeare was such a great talent was that he wrote in a milieu of great talent. He had to compete with the likes of Johnson and Marlowe. It was not a period. As Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own points out, it was impossible for a woman to attain such levels of genius because there was simply no opportunity. Woman by and large don’t own property and can be beaten by their husbands for ‘disobedience’. They were still legally not far removed from chattel. Yet many proved capable of running their households when their husbands we incapacitated (or dead).

We are products of our time, and so the things that we take for granted in the west are integral to our makeup. Access to clean water, decent health care and goodly quantities of nutritious food are things that many on the planet still have no access to. This is a wonderfully written examination of a fascinating period. If you have particular interests you can concentrate on some chapters and skip others. But it’s really worth reading all the way through. It is no doubt an era that I’d not want to live in permanently. But should The Doctor happen by with the TARDIS, I’ll make sure that I have this book with me.

I am aware, of course, that The Doctor would be wary of stepping foot here again, lest Elizabeth divorce him. With an axe.

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Goodreads Challenge 6/65 – Roman Centurions

A thin little book that I finished on the way to work. Including in the challenge feels like cheating, but it’s a read book. So there!. I borrowed this from our local library (actually, they borrowed it from another local library for me). I was interested in the dress and organisation of a centurion from the 5th century, and bingo! It was on the final plate. Just a bit of detail for my book.

I must say that I really like the One Library service that the South Australian Public Library Network provides. A member at Unley, so far this year my loans have come from:

Mount Gambier
Roxby Downs (this one)
Mount Barker (twice)
Salisbury (I think also twice)

Plus a couple from my local. And I’ve returned them on time. All of them. Actually, one may have been a day late. As we all know of course, we librarians are the worst at returning stuff on time. Mostly.

Anyway, enjoy your reading folks. There is some fiction to come. And more Roman stuff. Sorry about that.

Roman Centurions 31 BC-AD 500: The Classical and Late EmpireRoman Centurions 31 BC-AD 500: The Classical and Late Empire by Raffaele D’Amato
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is concise summary of the evidence available on what was the backbone of the Roman beyond the dissolution of the Empire in the West. It covers organisation, career progression, pay, equipment and clothing.

The thing that is striking is that, despite the tremendous changes within the Roman Military over the 500+ years covered, the role and status of the centurion remained remarkably stable. They were very well paid indeed: often as much as 15 times the salary of a legionary. But while they shared the risks of their men, they were also responsible for their men’s performance on and off the battlefield. A perceived dereliction of duty could mean death.

There were a several important distinctions that marked a centurion, but the one that characterised the whole period was the vine staff. This was a mark of office and it could be used to discipline their men. It was fascinating to see the evolutions in its shape. One illustration shows a staff peeking out from behind a shield, its shape a lotus.

Apart from numerous references there is a lot of excellent archaeological information, including fragments of a leg greave. As you would expect, funerary monuments also feature prominently. Finally, the plate illustrations are first-class. I was pleased to see that the 5th century centurion in the final plate was based on the wonderful mosaics at Santa Maria Maggiore (perhaps my favourite church in Rome).

A thin volume for the price but an excellent reference. I wouldn’t recommend the kindle version unless you’re reading on a tablet because the illustrations add so much.

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Goodreads Challenge 5/65 – Barbarians

Another Goodreads review – this time Terry Jones and Alan Ereira’s Barbarians. I’m planning a novel set in the late Roman Empire, so this year’s challenge will have a lot of Roman stuff. Apologies for those of you uninterested in things Roman. Blame Goscinny and Uderzo. It’s all their fault. Also, while I seem to be crawling along with my reading, it’s the reviewing that’s taking the time. I will try to speed up, or at least not go on so much.

Enjoy your reading, folks!

Terry Jones' BarbariansTerry Jones’ Barbarians by Terry Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Barbarians is a revisionist retelling of Rome’s relationship with the peoples it came into contact with, that the Romans called ‘barbarians’. It seeks to show that these peoples were not ‘barbaric’ in the way that we understand the term today.

Jones and Ereira have not so much written a history as a sustained polemic. It begins by listing the things that we associate with Roman greatness: roads, laws, the Julian calendar. Also listed is the chariot. Unfortunately, I never got to study Latin at school, but no-one that I know with an interest in the period would consider the chariot as something peculiarly Roman. They going on to (correctly) talk about Caesar’s encounter with chariots during his two invasions of Britain. He noted that they were sturdy and aggressively driven. But here they are almost elevated to the status of a wonder weapon. This is ironic because the Romans were unfamiliar with the chariot as a weapon of war because they went out of use as a weapon of war elsewhere hundreds of years earlier. They were good for moving men swiftly to battle, but an effective weapon of war they were not.

This is doubly ironic because the information about their use comes to us from Caesar. Yet Caesar is derided as an unreliable chronicler of the Gauls because he described the elk as a creature that slept standing because their legs have no joints (a story he got from the Germans). It’s true that Caesar is not someone to take at his word. Why do so here?

There is lots of distinctly wobbly interpretations. They describe the quite sophisticated laws of the Celts, and note that Roman and Celtic law served different societies. No argument there. But Roman law was not based around paterfamilias, though it was an important component of it. It was largely to regulate property relations, though, like the Celts, there were also many laws that regulated socio-political functions. It’s doubtful that Archimedes’s mirror that could burn ships was actually deployed. The issue is not so much that the mirror couldn’t be built, but that it would likely be ineffective against a target that moves.

It’s also unlikely that Rome set back civilisation hundreds and hundreds of years because of the inventions that it effectively quashed. It’s true that the Romans did not make use of the many inventions that came out of the Greek world in the second and first centuries BC (and they list some of these). But the rulers of Rome, like the rulers of societies around then, made their wealth from exploiting slave labour. At the height of its power, some historians estimate that for every Athenian citizen there were three slaves (of course this doesn’t count women and foreigners). The inventions that they laud might have taken off at some point, but it’s likely that there would need to have been social upheaval within those societies for those devices to replace slave labour, rather than being a supplement.

It might seem from the above that this book isn’t worth reading, but this isn’t the case. I would say that the faults that they ascribe to the Romans are true. But they weren’t exclusive to the Romans. The Romans succeeded, and the others did not. Because there is much that they get right that often isn’t told. The dynamism of the middle-late Republic and early Empire was based on its success. Economic growth in the ancient world tended to be extrinsic rather than intrinsic. That is, your economy grew fastest by nick stuff from someone else. For Rome, military triumphs brought treasure and slaves into the economy. Once the Empire stopped expanding, inflation took hold. By the fifth century the city stopped being the administrative and economic focus for the elites, which doomed the state as the burden of tax shifted downwards.

This is not so much a history as a sustained polemic. Rome is cudgelled for killing cultural diversity, yet the end of the West is surely at least in part the result of different socio-cultural milieus going their own way? This book may annoy, but it remains thought provoking, and that surely was its purpose. In one sense, it’s a survey of all the peoples of the Mediterranean and Near East. No, the Romans were not universally good guys. But other peoples were not either. Some of Rome’s heritage is surely worthwhile. I am still in awe when I visit Bath or the Pantheon.

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Goodreads Reading Challenge 2014 4/65 – Millenium (Tom Holland)

Last year I was fortunate enough to attend the Adelaide Writers’ Festival and see a panel with Tom Holland and Tom Keneally on the writing of history. While there I bought a copy of Tom Holland’s Millenium. Despite my best efforts it remained on the shelves unread. But its call persuaded me that it would be a suitable volume to take on holiday over the Christmas/New Year period As I would be in Bayeux for a good chunk of it it proved to be an apposite choice. The events of 1066 get a chapter to themselves, and as it happened I read it while in Bayeux (and I still smile thinking about it).

I wanted to write a longer and more considered review, but I was in holiday mode, and took very few notes. Mind you, Bayeaux is completely beguiling, and probably no notes would have made sense.

This is the cathedral at Bayeux where for many years the famous Tapestry (ok, it’s really and embroidery) was housed.

The Goodreads review that is below will have to do. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed it, though it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

And, to finish, I go into sycophantic fan mode and show the photo that I took of the signed title page that I took just before I began. Also, in deference to the author, I won’t mention the words ‘Ashes’ or ‘KP’. Now, I really must read Tom Keneally’s book that I also bought at the Festival…


Millennium the End of the World and the Forging of ChristendomMillennium the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom by Tom Holland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A guy that I once played Dungeons and Dragons with was (and for all that I know is still) a member of the Society of Creative Anachronism. Its members dress as lords and ladies, knights, priests and monks (so far as I know, never as peasants). When we think of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, we think of a society with a strict hierarchy of classes based on birth in which peasants are tied by law to the land of a particular lord. More specifically, we think of a society in which the Roman church wields enormous power and that commands an infrastructure that sits alongside (and runs across) medieval kingdoms.

Millennium covers the roughly two hundred years from the early 10th to the late 12th centuries. The midpoint of this period is the turn of the millennium. Some thought that this would usher in the final Apocalypse. There was no universal agreement on the date – some thought that the Millennium of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, would mark its beginning and calculated the date of the final day accordingly. We are reminded, unlike the fears of a nuclear apocalypse in the late 20th century, ‘for the wretched, for the poor, for the oppressed, the expectation of the world’s imminent end was bred not of fear but rather of hope’.

The millennium as such is not really the focus of this work, though it casts a shadow across the length of the book. The focus is the forging of Christendom, and how it was that the Roman church spread far beyond the lands taxed by Roman emperors. Within that is also the struggle for power between Pope and Emperor.

Holland reminds us that the civilisation that we think of as medieval didn’t start the Middle Ages so confidently. At the start of the 10th century, Spain was under the sway of the splendour of medieval Islam. The great cities of Europe were by and large located there. Cordoba, we learn, ‘had originally been a Roman foundation – but the capital of Al-Andalus, as befitted so fattened on the fruits of peace had long since burst its ancient walls’. Meanwhile, Saracen incursions in the south of France and Italy were common, from their domains in North Africa and Sicily.

Nor did the church have the independence that we associate with the medieval period. On Christmas Day 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. Since then, Emperors took for themselves the right to appoint bishops within their domains.

For Holland, the decisive event was the humiliation of the Emperor Henry IV by Pope Gregory VII at Canossa. At stake was the right of a secular power to appoint bishops. Henry denounced Gregory as Pope, and in response Gregory issued a bull of excommunication. Travelling as a penitent to meet the Pope, Henry was refused entry to Canossa for three days. Henry backed down, and he was readmitted as a communicant.

It was a pivotal moment because by removing a monarch’s right to appoint clergy (inadvertently) opened up the possibility of a separation between clerical and secular polities.

This may be a confusing work for some because the scene changes from the Holy Roman Empire, to the Normans, back to the Empire, and so on. There is more material on the Roman west than on the Orthodox east, though if Holland is right and that Canossa is such a pivotal event, this is understandable.There are some lovely passages of prose which for me are dabbled in pleasing quantities, though tastes will vary.

I found this a thoroughly engaging work, and look forward very much to reading his prequel on the rise of Islam

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2014 Reading Challenge 2/65 – My Life in France (Julia Child)

The first two books for the year are both re-reads. Both well worth multiple reads, as it happens. I first read this twelve months ago and was captivated. We bought a second copy while on holidays (I must check when we get home to see whether we indeed already own a copy). No matter. It was worth the read. We got this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, a place that you must visit if you like second-hand books. It’s on the left bank, close to good food and the Notre Dame cathedral. They are also very hospitable and helpful.

Below is the original Goodreads review with a second reading postscript.

My Life in FranceMy Life in France by Julia Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having seen Julie and Julia, this was bound to end up on the reading pile sooner or later. Happily, it was sooner, for this cleverly crafted biography was worth every minute that was spent reading it.

Though really focusing on one slice of Paul and Julia Child’s life, it is soon apparent that the slice devoted to France was considerable indeed. From her first sole meunière at Rouen in 1948, Paul child and France remained her lifelong loves.

Though this book will appeal to the culinary set, it is a wide-ranging snap-shot of post-war France. The parade of characters include chefs such as Bugnard, and gourmands such as the eccentric Curnonsky. The Prince des Gastronomes adopted his pseudonym having covered a feast for the Russian royal family in Paris in the mid-1890s. Though a brilliant article, the author was unknown. His solution was the Russian-sounding pen-name. His reputation remained undimmed until his death in Paris in 1956.

Child is refreshingly forthright in her opinions, and doesn’t shrink from self-praise. Her indignation at failing at her first attempt to gain her certificate from Le Cordon Bleu almost makes the book shake in one’s hands as she lists her accomplishments. But it is deserving. Her optimism despite the stumbling blocks thrown across her husband’s career and the difficulties in publishing what would become Mastering the art of French cooking are simply so many obstacles to overcome.

Her love for Paul Child is manifest, and softens the few hard edges that that Julia shows. A talented artist, Paul joined the OSS during the Second World War (he met Julia working in Sri Lanka). Both Democrats, Paul was viewed with suspicion and, during the McCarthy witch-hunts was recalled to Washington and questioned about his political beliefs. His support for her projects was invaluable, and it was he who suggested that she should work in television (a remarkable observation as they hadn’t seen one at the time).

Enthusiasm for life and all that it offers, for good and ill, is the thread that holds this book together. Published posthumously in 2006, this is simply a wonderful piece of biographical writing.

Postscript – we picked up a second copy of this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris. If you get to Paris, visit them. They are very hospitable.

On thing that struck me again is how important a part of culture food is. I love visiting France because eating good food (and making the time to do so) is still seen as important (I love Italy for the same reason). This is not to say that all the food that you buy in France is great. But I suspect (but cannot prove) that it’s generally better that that consumed in the Anglo-Saxon world.

As I write this we are in Bayeux and most businesses are closed from 12:00-14:00. Perfectly civilsed. I have nothing against sandwiches (I love a good sandwich), but I dislike our modern preoccupation with food as something to get through. At work, we often feel that we have no choice (and many don’t). We are the poorer for it.

The other thing that came through the book is that the French, their reputation notwithstanding, are very polite and usually friendly. My wife saw a staff member at the Bayeux tourism office being extremely patient with an elderly Canadian gentlemen. The French also value politeness highly. It’s important to say ‘bonjour/bonsoir’ when you enter a business. Politeness to people who serve us our food or our services is also something of an anachronism in the Anglo-Saxon world, and again we are the poorer for it.

Not that France or the French are perfect. Julia’s description of the drawn out bureaucratic nightmare that constituted their efforts to get a telephone are still a feature of modern French life. If you have to encounter the French bureaucracy, roll with the punches. And be polite. You may be the better for it.

At one point, Julia exclaims that she must be French and no one had previously informed her of this fact. I concur wholeheartedly.

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Reading 2014 1/65 – The Hobbit

In the spirit of trying to write a review of every book that I read this year, I start off with The Hobbit, published on Goodreads. I say a little about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in the review, but it’s by no means a review of the film. I will try to do a review of the film when I get a chance to see it again.

The HobbitThe Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How do you review one of the most famous works in the English language? I was prompted to read this again after seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I don’t want to talk about the movie except to say that, on reflection (and despite the additions) I think that Peter Jackson has managed to capture the spirit of the book remarkably well. Additionally, Jackson has not only had to make The Hobbit films in the spirit of the book, but also to make them compatible with his earlier Lord of the Rings films.

This is relevant to me as a reader because I approached The Hobbit in much the same way. I had read The Lord of the Rings two or three times before I ever got around to reading The Hobbit. I knew of course that it was a children’s book and was therefore reluctant to try it. I found it difficult to get past the childish asides and, although I thought it a wonderful story, I much preferred its longer offspring.

While The Lord of the Rings was a sequel (because the public wanted more hobbit tales), in a sense it was not. The size and scope of the later work gives it a mythic quality suitable for the Middle Earth sketched out in The Silmarllion. So much so that it was necessary for Tolkien to make revisions to The Hobbit in order to make it compatible with its sequel.

But it remained a children’s book. A children’s book of giant spiders, of goblins and a terrible dragon, but a children’s book nonetheless. But, this time, perhaps I was mature enough to appreciate how bond up with Middle Earth The Hobbit really is. It draws out the bad blood between elves and dwarves. The siege of Erebor by Bard and the men of Lake Town and their elvish allies shows that the future enemies of Sauron don’t simply have a few differences of opinion, easily resolved. It’s only the quick thinking (and slippery fingers) of Bilbo, and the appearance of the goblins and wargs, that makes allies of enemies.

The first cut is always the deepest. I suspect that I will always read The Lord of the Rings by choice over The Hobbit because it was my first encounter with the Middle Earth that I also love. But that it is so reflects a fault in me. The Hobbit is deservedly a classic of English literature. Each journey through it is an enriching experience.

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Another review

Today’s #blogjune post is another review over at Goodreads.

HindsightHindsight by Melanie Casey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hindsight is the debut novel for Adelaide writer Melanie Casey. Cassie Lehman comes from a long line of women with a psychic gift, which differs for each of the recipients. Cass sees and experiences the final moments of those who have died violently. She sees and feels the full force of their pain and terror through their eyes. It’s a gift that has led her to live the life of a recluse with her mother and grandmother.

Detective Ed Dyson has never gotten over the disappearance of his wife and unborn child. He’s stayed more or less on track with the help of Phil, his partner, and together they have tried to piece together what happened to her in their off-duty hours. A killing witnessed in the alley of a country town brings Cass and Ed together in an unlikely combination to track down a serial killer.

It’s a pleasure to read a work set in familiar territory (in this case, South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula) , and Casey delivers a nicely paced tale that makes the pages turn faster than a pancake on a hot stove. The two main characters are both nicely well penned, though partner Phil once or twice felt a little stock-character-like.

What I really enjoyed was the struggle that Cass had with her gift. Though their gifts differed from hers, it was a struggle Cass has shared with her mother and grandmother. It is perhaps true that anyone who is especially gifted struggles with its use. While Cass very much wants to use her sight to find the killer, the cost for her is high. Like her namesake Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, her sight manifests like a psychic possession. While seeing her visions, Cass is helpless, and to an observer seems possessed. As the blurb states, this is a “not-so-sexy gift”. It has left her without friends, without romance and with uncertain social skills. A similar “gift” was used in the Star Trek: Voyager episode Ex Post Facto, where the memory of the victim was implanted into the killer. Their sentence – to relive the victim’s final moments every eight hours for the rest of their lives. This is not the stuff of gentle tea-leaves-at the-bottom-of-the-cup.

This was a debut work that was a pleasure to read. The relationship between Ed and Cass was perhaps closer at the end of the story than I thought it might have been, given the baggage both of them carry. However, the frantic climax perhaps burned away some of the layers of the past. The sense of foreboding that pervades Aeschylus’ Agamemnon is nicely acknowledged by quotes from the playwright himself at the beginning of each section. This is an excellent weekend read for the crime fiction buff who likes a subtle dose of psychic with their reading

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And that is all.