“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

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PODCAST: “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”

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podcast 11Earlier this month, on my podcast review I included this new podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. However, I was so taken with it that I since pestered the creators with some questions and have written a whole entry for it. So, without further ado, here is my first full length podcast review, complete with interview with the creators. Enjoy, and please download this podcast!

People take comfort from any number of sources, be it relationships, religion, food or literature. But sometimes if you combine some of those things in surprising ways, you find a whole new way of looking at the world. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text combines religious thought with one of the most popular book series of all time to bring joy and comfort in a new way.

Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, a Harvard chaplain and minister respectively, along with producer Ariana Nedelman, started the project as a reading group, but it has recently expanded into a podcast with wonderful goals. The idea is that each week takes a chapter from the Harry Potter series and explores the text with the fervour and depth that one may explore the Bible or Koran. They’re not comparing Voldemort to Herod, or declaring Dumbledore’s words to be direct from God, but merely seeing what the text can teach us about our own lives through a number of themes. The episodes also include thirty-second recaps on the events of each chapter, blessings for the characters, and the use of religious practices to get more out of the text.

The pair teamed up at Divinity School, where Vanessa was trying to come up with ways to use secular   texts in sacred ways, just to prove that that religion didn’t corner the market on treating things with reverence, and Casper was trying to create spaces of joyful belonging. They teamed up and, joined by their love of all things Potter, began a reading group at the Humanist Hub of Harvard. Word spread globally and soon people across the world were asking for the material. They got Ariana on board and the whole thing just fell into place.

hpst team

L to R: Vanessa Zoltan, Casper ter Kuile and Ariana Nedelman; the brains behind the podcast

“We hope that people will gain two main things [from the project],” said Vanessa. “Firstly, they will learn how to treat the world around them as sacred. Secondly we want people to feel as though they are part of a wide community of people beyond their immediate sphere.” Harry Potter already has a massive communal following, so it seems a natural starting point for a project like this. Vanessa also notes that it’s best to practice these activities on something you love. “If you want to learn how to have good table manners, might as well learn with cake!”

Vanessa has previous experience with this sort of project, having done something similar with Jane Eyre. When asked if she had come across comparable findings with each project due to their having plots that seem to echo one another – both are about young orphans thrust into a new world and trying to find their own way – she says that she hadn’t thought how alike they were, but that both held a big space in her heart. “The big similarity I see between Harry and Jane is that they are both young people on a journey to define their adult identities. The big difference […] is that there is a real evil in the Harry Potter series, whereas the evil that is in Jane Eyre is more implicit and insidious.”

Casper also seems to have an interesting career in the works, calling himself a “minister for non-religious people”. He says, “I grew up without a faith tradition at home, so I’ve never really felt comfortable using the language of religion – even though I’ve been through Divinity School! I see my work, including our podcast, as offering people an opportunity to connect, make meaning and be part of joyful belonging. And as that is ministry in my eyes, I thought why not call myself a trainee-minister for non-religious people! Ironically, I am now seeking ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister, […] but I don’t expect to serve in a parish or church setting.”

Religion seems less and less prevalent in many people’s lives these days, but this is a way of bringing something like faith back to secular people. The hosts have such soothing voices and you feel comfortable and safe in their audio presence. Each episode lasts about thirty minutes, but they pack so much into that time. Some people might dismiss the project as frivolous, but I think there’s something a lot more interesting and important going on here. It’s already been shown countless times in the last twenty years that so many people turn to the Harry Potter books when sad or in a bad mood. They have changed the face of the literary world so quickly that perhaps it only seems right that they be treated with reverence.

When asked if there were plans afoot to study anything else through this method, and what would be particularly good for it, Vanessa said, “I think that there are infinite things that can be treated as sacred, but we are focusing on Harry Potter for now.” Maybe, then, even if you’re not into this series, it might inspire you to pick a favourite book, film or album, and study it in a new way. Perhaps it can teach you something new about commitment, betrayal or love.

The podcast is still relatively new, but all the episodes so far can be found on iTunes by searching the podcast store for “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”. The team can also be reached at http://harrypottersacredtext.com or followed on Twitter at @hpsacredtext.

“Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes” by Cory O’Brien (2013)

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zeus“So everybody knows Zeus is the king of the gods right?”

Some people look at the myths and legends of old and go, “I can’t believe anyone used to believe that!” But be wary, because two thousand years from now the people of the future could well be saying that about the religions we’ve currently got going on.

Most people have some knowledge of a couple of the myths of old, because they’re still with us all over. Two major film characters at the moment are called Thor and Loki; the Mayan calendar messed everybody up a few years ago (how’s the end of the world going, by the way?) and the names of Greek and Roman gods are on pretty much everything – we even named our planets after them. But the reason they’re still not common knowledge to all is, I think, because in their original style and language, they aren’t exactly accessible. Enter Cory O’Brien and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, a fully modern update of some of the more famous tales of world mythology.

O’Brien takes us through a whistle stop tour of the myths of many cultures including Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Mayan, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Japanese, African, Chinese, Sumerian, Native American and even those that the modern USA have already invented for themselves. I will also say at this point before anyone turns against the book for assuming, say, “African mythology” is one single thing, O’Brien notes that there are many, many mythologies of Africa, and he’s just picked the stories he likes best.

But these are very, very modern retellings. They’re full of swearing, slang, tangents, modern references and sheer insanity. He laughs at names like Uranus, calls out characters on their stupidity, and isn’t afraid to get filthy quickly. For example, Zeus is introduced as “just cruisin’ around, right, pickin’ mortal women to bone”, and Loki is referred to as “the god of being a needless prick all the time”.

The story titles are also wonderfully descriptive. How spider god Anansi beat Death has the clickbait title, “Local Father Discovers Immortality with This One Weird Tip!”; the Greeks get stories like “King Midas is: GOLDFINGER” and “Narcissus Probably Should Have Just Learned to Masturbate”, and I don’t think I even need to describe the content of, “Noah Is on a BOAT”.

The final chapters bring it right up to date, with tales of America’s founding fathers, Scientology, and the current scientific theory of how the universe began.

Probably the most interesting thing about it is simply that you quickly realise that a lot of the early mythologies have a surprising amount of things in common. Both the Greek and Japanese tales involve a woman getting trapped in the underworld after eating pomegranates, trees of life are plentiful, and most of them have a great flood at some point or another. Are these coincidences, or was there early contact? Or, perhaps, there is some truth in what is said…

The style is fun, but the novelty wears off fairly quickly, although I must admit that all the creation myths are pretty interesting, and it’s fun to compare and contrast. It’s also great to see some of the lesser known mythologies like Sumerian and Mayan be played with. Also refreshing is the inclusion of Judeo-Christianity, showing both that it is merely a mythology and, particularly when written in this style, just as insane and unbelievable as what the Greeks came up with.

A fun and peculiar introduction to world mythology that is definitely not safe for anyone with a nervous disposition. But, then again, the myths never really were.

“Horns” by Joe Hill (2010)

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Devilishly good...

Devilishly good…

“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things.”

There are certain traits that are definitely genetic; eye colour, hair colour, that sort of thing. But then sometimes abilities or personalities get passed down through generations. The Redgrave family are all actors. Michael McIntyre’s dad was a comedian before him. And it turns out that Stephen King’s skill in the field of horror stories has been passed down to his son, Joe Hill.

I didn’t actually know that they were related until I was looking up the book just after having finished it a short while ago, but from the limited experience I have from King, I can say it hardly comes as a surprise.

This is the story of Ig Perrish who wakes up with a thundering hangover one morning to discover that he has grown a pair of horns in the night, frightful things of bone jutting out from his forehead. Speaking to his sort-of-girlfriend Glenna, he finds that she’s acting strange. Firstly she doesn’t even acknowledge the horns, and then she tells him that she wants to eat all the doughnuts in the box before her – would he mind if she did? It seems a bit odd, but convinced that things are wrong, Ig heads to the doctor’s surgery. There, more people beginning telling him secrets. A mother in the waiting room reveals her affair to him, a child declares arsonist tendencies, his doctor talks about wanting to sleep with his teenage daughter’s friend. They all seem to want his permission to do these things.

Ig heads to his parents house, desperate to see someone he loves, but worried that they’ll reveal more secrets. When he arrives, they do indeed pour out some secrets, first and foremost that they believe he was guilty of the rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend Merrin the previous year, something he was absolutely innocent of. However, his brother Terry has a slightly different confession: he knows who killed Merrin, and once Ig has the knowledge, the fires of Hell can’t hold him back from extracting his revenge.

Rarely have I read a book so incredibly immersive. Horns drags you in with jagged claws and holds your face to the flames as images pop up and you feel like you’re right there for every single page. Ig is an incredibly unlikely character to develop horns, having been someone always willing to help and unable to lie for the last quarter century, and this is what makes the changes in him so pronounced. The story jumps back and forth in time, detailing how Ig and Merrin met, how he became friends with the slimy Lee Tourneau, how Ig and Merrin eventually broke up and what he’s doing with himself now he has the horns and, apparently, the power to hear everyone’s darkest secrets.

There’s much in here about religion, about willpower and about sin, as well as copious references to songs and Christian mythology regarding the devil. Whether Ig has become the devil himself or merely one of his agents is never quite clear – in fact, a few things are a little unclear – but what is known is that he can now make people act on their vile urges, as well as control any snakes that happen to be nearby.

Ig is a lovely character who suffers greatly, even before the horns have appeared, although his suffering naturally gets worse from then on. Merrin is a fascinating girl who knows her own mind, but can perhaps be a little easily swayed on certain topics. The secondary characters – Lee, Terry, Eric, Glenna – are also an interesting patchwork, ranging from the truly despicable to the innocents dragged along through hellfire, well-meaning but perhaps stupid or just willing to follow whoever has the power. The chapter where Ig’s own family turn against him is torturous to read, as it’s almost impossible to imagine your parents thinking these things about you.

The book emphasises the fact that the devil is probably not actually the bad guy that we have painted him – he’s an anti-hero, rather than a villain. As Ig suggests at one point, if God hates sinners and Satan punishes sinners, surely they’re working for the same team? It also notes that the devil turns up in most religions as more of a trickster, or the one responsible for bringing life to the world. We may not always like his methods, but he does what he needs to do.

A dark book that is wholly graphic but thoroughly absorbing and will definitely haunt you once the final page is done with.