I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in November 2022.
Ever since I read a biography of Beregaria – the only English queen who never even visited England – I have been very keen on biographies of women who have just been overlooked. (It wasn’t Berengaria’s fault; she was married to Richard I while he was on his way to crusade, then he got kidnapped and then he was off fighting in France, so… she never got across the Channel.)
Did I know Cleopatra VII had a daughter? Yes. That she was taken as a prisoner by Octavian back to Rome? Yes, although it wasn’t as immediately accessible knowledge. Did I know that this daughter then went on to marry Juba. king of Mauretania, and that she ruled there with him for many years? NO I DID NOT. And I kind of feel a bit aggrieved that I got to be 42 without knowing this.
Draycott has written a quite splendid biography, especially considering the limitation of the source material available. One of the things I particularly like about her style is that she’s not pretending knowledge that she doesn’t have. The reality is that there’s very little information about Cleopatra Selene’s childhood, either in Alexandria or in Rome; so Draycott presents what is known for children and families in those places in those times, indicating that this is a good estimation. I like this approach a lot.
Having said that the material is limited, I was surprised at the sources that do exist – see above, not knowing anything about Cleopatra Selene’s adulthood. There are (probably) statues (identifying ancients in statue is notoriously hard); there are coins; and there are some written references, too. So it’s not all a guessing game ; and when Draycott does make some leaps (like Zenobia maybe being a descendent??), she’s pretty clear about the tenuous nature of the links.
It’s likely that both Cleopatra Selene’s twin, Alexander Helios (yes, yes, Mark Antony, you have a great sense of humour AND hubris), and their younger brother Ptolemy, both died as young boys – Draycott makes a compelling case that this was probably from natural causes, given that Rome was a malaria-ridden swamp and that there doesn’t seem to have been a reason to kill the boys and leave the girl alive. Cleopatra Selene marries Juba, also a sort-of captive in Rome, and then they’re sent off to rule Mauretania – possibly, Draycott argues, with Cleopatra Selene taking an active part as co-ruler, given the example she’d been set by her own mother. She seems to have lived there for around 20 years, although there’s no definite date of her death recorded anywhere.
Finally, I particularly liked Draycott’s handling of the question of Cleopatra Selene’s ‘ethnicity’. That modern understandings (or imaginings) of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are very different from what people of her time would have thought about themselves or others, that it can’t be resolved what colour her skin was given the lack of definite knowledge about Cleopatra VII’s ancestry, and so on. I think she deals sympathetically with the idea of Cleopatra being ‘Black’, within the context of both not knowing for sure and those ancient people having different notions of what it means; she does make the firm point that Juba himself was (what today would be called) a Black African, and therefore their children were ‘mixed race’ and ‘mixed ethnicity’ (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, African). I like that Draycott is aware of these issues and isn’t pretending that such discussions don’t exist, or that they are somehow irrelevant to the discourse she’s part of.
Well written, thoughtful, and giving a broad understanding of both Cleopatra Selene as a human (as much as can be from the limited sources) and her context in time and place. This is what I want from a biography.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2023.
I am conflicted about this book. It has some really interesting points… but it also makes what I regard as some silly, and some egregious, historical mistakes. The author isn’t a trained historian but he is writing about history so it really needed to not have those problems.
So. Firstly, in the timeline at the start, it says that someone ‘discovered’ the stethoscope. Uh, no. Maybe this is something that will be corrected before publication, but my copy doesn’t say this is an uncorrected proof. Minor, I know, but annoying. Also minor but annoying is saying that the Greeks “began practising medicine around 700 BCE” (p47), because I’m pretty sure that people were medicating themselves and setting bones in the place we call Greece well before that date, even if they did see illness as divine punishment; Asclepius exists as a god before that time.
Less minor and more than annoying is Figueredo’s insistence on the term “the Dark Ages”, which he seems to use to cover the entirety of what is more usually called the Middle Ages. I reject the term ‘Dark Ages’ for any period – it’s completely outdated and ridiculous – and I don’t remember ever seeing it used to refer to Europe beyond about 1000 CE? Certainly not after the 1200s. But on p26 he says Europe “fell into the Dark Ages for a thousand years” and that there was “a prohibition on scientific discovery”. I’m not going to say that the Church was throwing its arms open to science in this time, but at the same time – it’s just wrong to say that ‘science’ (whatever we mean by that) was in abeyance for a millennium in Europe. He also talks about the fall of the Roman Empire being in 476 CE, which is one of those superbly Western-oriented statements that must make historians of Byzantium tear their hair out.
One of the good things about the history part of this book is that it is not entirely Euro-centric. There’s discussion about how Hindu writings viewed the heart (around whether the heart was the seat of the soul etc), and quite a lot about Islamic views too. This latter actually leads to one of the other annoying statements, which is that without Islamic translations of ancient texts “the Renaissance in Europe would have begun with no past knowledge to build upon” (p72). Which is hilarious because it’s horse/cart: without those texts there IS no Renaissance. ANYWAY. He does give credit to the Islamic scholars so that’s excellent. There’s also some discussion of Mesoamerican attitudes, too, although perhaps a little too much focus on human sacrifice (which I thought was a bit more doubted these days, but I am definitely not an expert in that area).
My final annoyance with the historical aspect of the book is a linguistic one. There’s not very much discussion – or even acknowledgement – of the difficulties of translation around such words as ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ (as distinct from ‘that lump of stuff in your head’). Again, not the author’s area, but when you’re discussing cultural differences between whether emotions are seated in the heart or the brain, these things matter. So I found that disappointing. And this was only made worse by the start of the chapter about the word itself (chapter 28), where he states that the Indo-European word itself derives from the Greek and the Latin… which is another horse/cart problem, given how much earlier the Indo-European is. Again, maybe that will be fixed before publication, because it’s pretty egregious.
All of this makes it sound like I didn’t like the book, which isn’t completely true. I do think it’s an interesting overview of the place of the heart in ancient societies, and coming into the European medieval period. I think that the modern sections are fascinating, which realistically makes sense given that the author is a surgeon and therefore the modern science of the heart is, actually, his area. He writes well, and in a manner that is accessible for the non-doctor. I had no idea about the modern understanding of the heart-brain connection, or that there are neurone in the heart, so all of that was fascinating – the idea that the heart is a little brain is wild!
Maybe it’s mean, but I think the historical aspect needed to be treated a bit more seriously. If you want the book to be seen as a significant contribution to understanding the place of the heart in human culture, it needs to be as faultless as possible. This could be that, but it’s not quite there.
I received this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now, RRP $19.99.
I adore the Object Lessons series. It’s such a magic idea: take ordinary objects and explore them from as wide-ranging a set of perspectives as possible, and suddenly you show (what we all sort of know) that the ordinary hides an enormous amount of the un-ordinary.
They’re teeny little books – not even as tall as my handspan, and I don’t have huge hands. The cover is delightful, the overall design is lovely, and as an object I just love it. And the contents match that delight.
Volpert has written eight chapters: Science, Literature, Space, Time, Technology, Performance, Self and Other. They include a lot of research – into individual fragrances, the science of smelling (and not), the history of perfume production, the place of scent in narratives, and philosophy as well – plus a lot of the personal. (There’s an interesting moment where Volpert talks about the ‘loud’ fragrances she wore as a teacher, during the height of Covid while students and teachers were masked up… and then someone pointed out to me that if people could smell her perfume, they were probably wearing their masks wrong, and I was a bit dismayed.) Volpert talks about her own experiences with scent, and attitudes, and how her use and understanding of perfume have reflected her understanding of herself.
As well as being intrigued by the subject, I really enjoyed Volpert’s writing. The nose as “a helmet covering the outermost portion of one’s brain” is an image that’s likely to hang around as long as a 15 year old boy’s overdosing on Brut.
I have been ambivalent towards perfume all my life. I was gifted a perfume in my late teens, and that one scent has remained the one I’ve used for… an awful long time, partly because I like it and partly because I was both too lazy and too scared to go exploring other options. This book has challenged my thinking around what perfume means, and what it is for.
Off the back of reading half this book, I am going to a perfume masterclass from a local perfumery, and I’m pretty intrigued. I may not become an everyday-perfume-wearer, but I’m open to the idea.
Courtesy of Allex&Unwin, it’s on sale now ($34.99, hard cover, and it’s beautiful).
This book is wondrous – glorious – it’s poetic and soaring in its language, honest and brutal and passionate in its analysis of John Donne; a wonderful biography, a snapshot history of late Elizabethan/ Jacobean politics and drama, and an inspired defence and encomium for Donne’s poetry.
I loved it. Clearly.
I come to John Donne loving him for “Death be not proud”; I am not the greatest lover of poetry, but I know that piece by heart. I come to this book with some knowledge of the era, although not exhaustive. Neither of these things are necessary for an appreciation of this book – firstly, because Rundell chiefly praises Donne as the preeminent English poet of love (news to me), and also because Rundell gives a lovely, succinct explanation of all the things that have an impact on Donne’s life.
As a biography, the structure of this book is inspired. It’s largely chronological, thankfully, although bits of poetry and prose are scattered throughout to help illuminate Donne’s life. Each chapter, though, is structured around an aspect, or transformation, of Donne as a human. Early on these are the obvious changes, from child to youth and so on. But there’s also “The Convert (Perhaps)” – because Donne was born to a Catholic family in England when that could get you killed (like Donne’s own brother); and then the variety of positions Donne has, both personally: the Anticlimatically Married Man and Ambivalent Father; and professionally: The Flatterer, Clergyman, and (Unsuccessful) Diplomat. Throughout, Rundell’s conceit of Donne as a multifaceted man is born out – in his own experiences, and in writing. And his writing sings throughout, for all that – as Rundell points out, as people forget with Shakespeare and other contemporaries – there’s only one piece of Donne’s work in English in Donne’s own hand known to the 21st century. The rest has been put together by scholars over 400 years, and there are quibbles over words, so we’re really not entirely sure if what we have is what he meant (go look up the variations on Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech for an idea of what scholars are dealing with).
As a biography, this is masterful. As literary criticism, it’s very readable and gives me a huge appreciation for Donne’s mastery of language; he was brilliant and in love with language and with humanity and, indeed, both life and death. Rundell is unflinching in examining his misogyny, too, placing it in historical context as well as its personal meaning.
And as a book, Rundell has herself written a gorgeous, poetic, masterful work. She has a marvellous turn of phrase (“the Habsurgs kings with enormous jaws and close friendships with the Pope”), she is simultaneously devoted to and clear-eyed about her subject, and she conveys her ‘act of evangelism’ about Donne and his work in a way that I wish more people were capable of.
It’s not often I get to read and review a book that makes me so unambiguously happy that it exists.
How exactly did I get to this age without reading a biography of Matilda??
Well… it’s not entirely my fault, because there just haven’t been that many. And oh, couldn’t we talk about the reasons for that. And in fact Catherine Hanley does discuss some of the reasons for the lack of historical focus on this astonishing woman, and puts in the historical context for how she was discussed 900 years ago as well.
Let me say upfront: it may be 900 years ago, but the THEFT of the English crown from Matilda by her cousin Stephen STILL MAKES ME MAD.
Matilda: oldest child of the English king; married at 8 to a foreign emperor; widowed; named her father’s heir (because her brother had drowned); crown STOLEN by Stephen; spends many years fighting Stephen for the right to be monarch of England; eventually manages to have her son named Stephen’s heir, lives to see her son crowned king (although not literally, because being present would have made all the menfolk feel a bit uncomfortable). Matilda was amazing.
Matilda’s epitaph places her in the context of three Henrys: her father (Henry I of England), her first husband (with a complicated set of titles but eventually crowned emperor of ‘the Empire’; his lands included what is today Germany and various other bits), and her oldest son (Henry II of England). This epitaph is not surprising given 12th century attitudes. It’s probably also not the surprising that she has continued to be placed in this context.
Hanley does a really great job of using the existing contemporary documents (all histories written by men, mostly monks, as well as charters and other such legal documents) to give a reasonable suggestion of what Matilda was doing, Matilda was responsible for; reasons for Matilda’s actions and how she worked within, as well as bucking against, 12-century expectations of a royal daughter/wife/mother.
This is why a feminist, and now gender, lens is so important for history. Matilda was often described as ‘haughty’ and other such words… for doing exactly what her father, in particular, was praised for doing. She makes a really nice point of how when Stephen’s queen (…also Matilda, it was as bad as Henry) acted in a masculine way on behalf of Stephen, it was praised; but do so for your OWN benefit, and you’re a ranting virago.
Filling in a gap in my knowledge, this book was priceless (my MA was on this Matilda’s grandmother, also Matilda; this Matilda’s daughter-in-law is Eleanor of Aquitaine). As a thoughtful look at a hugely important part of English medieval history, I think it’s accessible to general readers who are prepared to deal with the Henrys and Matildas.
Not a review book! One that I saw in the delightful bookshop in Queenscliff and barely even stopped as I walked past, grabbed it, and paid for it.
(Who am I, reading historiography about Australian history? Australian history? My how I have changed.)
Sometimes I forget how much I love historiography. And I really, truly love it. A history of history writing/making itself? How much more meta can you get?? And Clark writes just so beautifully. This entire book is a delight.
Clark aims to present a history of how Australian History (the capital H is discussed very frankly and thoughtfully) has been written over… a very long period of time; and also how the writing of Australian History has helped to construct that history. Clark is under no illusions about the reality that History writing is part of the colonial project, and I think one of the great ongoing themes here is how Clark starts to unravel, deconstruct, illuminate, and reflect on that very process.
(Do the adjectives give a sense of how much I enjoyed this book?)
Another of the great aspects of this book for me is that it’s not entirely chronological – something else that she discusses frankly in the introduction. Chapters are thematic, and vaguely chronological, and also generally chronological within the chapter; but chronology is not the be-all of history writing, important as it is. I deeply enjoyed that there were chapters on ’emotion’ and ‘gender’ that ranged across time, to show how those things have affected history writing at various points.
Each chapter has a focal text, one that Clark uses as an instrumental text (in a broad sense) to get at a particular idea. Which is precisely something that I’ve done in the classroom, and it works really beautifully in the book to draw out and illustrate particular ideas. It’s a really great way of managing the flow of the chapters.
… it’s just really great. I think it serves as a good, thoughtful introduction to how Australian History has been written, thought about, and itself produced the Australia we live in today. Clark uses the ‘whispers’ and alternate texts and sometimes things that haven’t always been considered as history to give a sense of just what can be meant by ‘Australian history’. You don’t need an in-depth knowledge of history, or historical theory, to enjoy this – although you do need to be prepared to really think about the ideas being presented.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in November, 2022.
As a Jill-of-all-trades when it comes to history, I feel like “the Mongols” is one of those topics that a lot of people have vague ideas about but don’t really know what they’re talking about, or any details at all. Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, greatest land empire of all time… done.
Yeah. This book has made an enormous difference to the way I see the Mongols as a group, as an empire, as an historical force.
In his Introduction, Morton promises “a multi-perspective history of the Mongol invasions constructed from many different viewpoints”. And that’s definitely what the book delivers, as the way that the movement of Mongol troops – in and out of territory, sometimes staying, sometimes just installing new leadership after dismantling entire areas – impacts on a variety of pre-existing governments. The thing that surprised me is just WHERE that is happening… because it’s the “Near/Middle East” (which is a stupid term for an Australian to use, but there we go). The book is focussed on how the Mongols impact on everything from Egypt, through the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem, to Byzantium, and to Syria and Georgia and Armenia. I don’t quite know where I thought the focus would be – I knew the Mongols had briefly penetrated Europe and made everyone crap their pants – but this was not it. And the thing is, the Mongols are a significant force for DECADES. There are events in this history – across the 13th and into the 14th centuries – that I already knew but that I had NO IDEA were at least partly as a result of the pressure coming from the east, via the Mongols: either directly because of the Mongols’ actions, or because of the movement of people driven out by the Mongols (directly or through fear). How is it I had no idea of this?? I’m going to say it’s at least partly racism, and also partly the occasionally narrow focus of some histories – in trying to narrow down the historical story, some things get chopped. (Rant could be inserted here about how choices are made, etc… but I’ll spare my reader.)
One of the slightly odd parts of this book is that it is NOT as focussed as I had expected. There’s entire sections about the politics of the Franks in Jerusalem and the Crusader States… with no apparently connection to the Mongols. Morton gets there eventually, but it does sometimes feel like there’s a lot of extraneous detail that wasn’t required to actually understand the point of the book – the Mongols. Not that I didn’t enjoy the detail! It just wasn’t necessary.
Obviously, I learned an enormous amount from this book. About the Mongols themselves – how they were organised, how they viewed themselves (as having a mandate from heaven to rule, and that all religions were fine because they were all subsumed within their own), and how they dealt with subject people. I also learned a huge amount about what was going on in Egypt around the period of the Mamluks coming to power, and to the east I finally learned something about Georgia and Armenia, which hadn’t previously come across my radar in this period. Also more about the Crusader States, and generally how all of these states interacted with each other. Which is also something that I feel like has been missing from my knowledge here. Of course rulers were in contact, of course they were making deals and alliances, including across religious and ethnic lines… but I don’t really kn0w about them.
The book itself is well-written. I found it engaging – perhaps because I was already invested in the general period and area. As with all such books, I did sometimes find the names hard to follow… if only everyone in the past had differentiated their names more (did there need to be more than one Bohemond?). Morton has structured the book well, largely chronologically and within that, geographically. There are also some useful maps that make locating the changing circumstances of the various polities easier. Overall, definitely a good addition to my understanding of the world.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s out now; $32.99.
Things I knew about Budapest before reading this: it used to be two towns, and pictures of Soviet tanks in the streets in 1956. I think that’s about it, really.
An intriguing aspect of this book is that it’s written by a man born in Budapest, whose family fled Hungary when he was a child. Sebestyen makes no secret of this, and of his connection to the country and the city. So there’s a mix of ‘objective’ history, and also the occasional mention of how things relate to him personally. I like this kind of honesty a lot.
One annoying aspect – and this might just be a personal gripe – isn’t peculiar to Sebestyen, and is at least partly a reflection of the historical record (and my personal preferences). The book begins with a very brief look at what is known of the area around Budapest from pre-history, and then moves to what the Romans did. There’s barely a discussion of Attila and the Huns. By p30 we’re up to the year 1000. p109 and we’re already at 1800 and at p272 it’s the accommodation between Hungary and Hitler’s Germany. The book is 377 pages long. While I know that there’s a lot more evidence for the alter centuries, it always makes me despair that history is given such an unbalanced presentation. As if the modern world is the only bit worth discussing. Sigh.
Despite this preponderance of modern history, Sebestyen does give a good overview of the history of Budapest – as Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in the front cover quotation., it’s really a history of Central Europe. You can hardly have a history of the city without discussing the history of (what is now) the country; and in this particular case, at least some of what was happening in Austria for a few centuries. And so I learned more about the Turkish occupation, as well as how the Habsburgs managed to create Austria-Hungary as a dual monarchy; and of course the role of Hungary in both world wars and then as part of the Soviet bloc.
The story is largely told chronologically, with occasional chapter breaks about particular themes – one in particular that stood out was about the role of the Jewish population in the city. I had no idea that Hungary had been something of a haven for European Jews, although they were still not safe from the occasional pogrom (because anti-Semitism is apparently just too easy). The way that Jews stood outside of the feudal system, basically – and the incredibly bizarre way Hungarian feudalism was structured, with a massive number of nobles who refused to get into trade or anything similar – meaning that Jewish artisans and traders filled that niche.
This book fits into a tradition of using city histories as a way of looking at changes over time, to everything from culture and tradition to language and politics and everything else. The sub-title is pointed, here: part of Sebestyen’s argument is that Hungary doesn’t really fit into the way Europe sees itself, and doesn’t particularly fit elsewhere either. (The story of Hungarian as a language, and the efforts to revive and develop it, is a particularly fascinating part of the book.)
I do love a good adventure/ travel story, so when I saw this in a secondhand book shop I thought – why would I not read the book that as far as I can tell, arguably started the modern version of ‘person goes on crazy adventure and writes about it’?
I am… ambivalent, now, having read it. Basically one part positive, two parts negative.
Positive: it really is a riveting story. Six men in 1947 on a balsa wood raft, sailing from Peru to Polynesia. They have a radio and a sextant, and modern clothes and sleeping bags; but their raft is genuinely balsa wood, held together with rope. They have no particularly good way to steer. It’s made (apparently) as accurately as they could to match the descriptions from Spanish conquerors to the area. They truly have remarkable experiences, and they went 100-odd days crossing the Pacific. That is epic, as are their encounters with a whale shark, various other wildlife, storms, and just life in general. For that aspect, I don’t regret reading it.
The negatives… well. To start with the journey itself – no, even before. The description of cutting down massive old balsa trees for the construction of the raft had me cringing. Then there’s the seemingly-wanton ‘fishing’ while they’re at sea: they’re hooking and killing far more shark and other fish than they eat, which is just awful. (It is kind of hilarious to read of the flying fish just randomly landing on the boat, I will admit, and eating those makes sense – especially when they’ve been piling up throughout the night.) Also, Thor at least is married and… in the entire book, no mention of the wife. Ever. Not even before the journey, when he’s in America trying to convince people of his theories.
And, yes, here’s the rub, the sticking point, the main problem. Thor goes on this journey to show that it would have been possible for humans to sail from South America to Polynesia, and thereby be the progenitors of at least some of the people living in those islands, and therefore responsible for the impressive statues and pyramids and other ‘advanced’ things that can be found on some islands. But not the Inca, oh no, and not the Olmec, or anyone else you might have heard of: rather, it was a white, bearded race who apparently came before the Inca. And were more civilised, and taught them everything and then got chased off. So… yeah. His entire premise is deeply, deeply racist. This also comes out in descriptions of the Polynesians and others. I’m privileged because I’m white; if a person of native South American – anywhere on that continent – or Polynesian or, I’m afraid, Jewish descent said they were thinking of reading this, I would want to have a good long conversation with them so that they knew what they were getting into. This absolutely means the entire book is problematic, and being a ripping adventure yarn in no way excuses it. It is written in 1947, which offers some context for why Heyerdahl thought it was appropriate to write such things and the publishers apparently had no problem with it – hey, no Polynesian is likely to read it, amiright? and why would they complain even if they did? etc.
Did it have fun bits to read? Totally. Is the book problematic? Absolutely. Did I buy the other two books he wrote, to try and show that Egyptians AND Mesopotamians got to South America by boat? I absolutely did and fully intend to read them to rip the theories to shreds.
I received this book via NetGalley. It’s out at the end of May, 2022.
As an Arts student of the late 90s, who did do some mythology-type subjects, I have vaguely come across some of the ideas that Hutton explodes here. So that was quite the trip.
The main idea: that the four concepts, or beings, or narrative tools – Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, The Lady of the Night, and the Cailleach – are in no way part of a pagan religion that has survived sin Europe since pre-Christian times. No matter all the stories about witches as pagans or Beltane feasts.
In the opening Hutton revives a differentiation (first proposed by himself in 1991) between two concepts: ‘surviving paganism’, where a pre-Christian religion has actually survived beneath/within Christianity; and ‘pagan survival’, where a belief of object has been redeployed from a pre-Christian to a Christian religious context.
This book has a LOT of historiography, as Hutton explores some of the why and some of the how for the development of the idea that four specific concepts have a long, pagan, pedigree. The very first chapter was probably my favourite, as he explores the development of the study of folklore and how various academic and non-academic types explored and theorised beliefs – especially peasant beliefs – and how attitudes to those sorts of things changed over time. Following the thread from one person to another – occasionally from just one article to an explosion of theories, books, films, and other academic articles – was astonishing.
In the four main chapters, Hutton seeks to find the four characters he has chosen to interrogate – to find the earliest mentions, to find their possible connections to pre-Christian ideas, to find the ways in which they’ve been used in the academic literature. In every case, he comes to the conclusion that none of these are true ‘surviving paganism’ – always with the caveat that more information may be found, and that of course there’s a dearth of written information for so much of the early part of the pre-Christian/Christian boundary. He’s pretty convincing, unsurprisingly.
Moderately academic, but I think accessible for a reader with only a basic knowledge of both the historiography and the characters he explores (which is me).