“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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“Progress” by Johan Norberg (2016)

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progress“Terrorism. ISIS. War in Syria and Ukraine. Crime, murder, mass shootings.”

I’ve said enough along these lines on this blog already, but 2016 was a big pile of crap. All around us the news is full of doom and gloom, always telling us that humanity is going down the drain, becoming more intolerant, stupid and lazy. The rich get richer, the fat get fatter, the poor get poorer. It’s the same old story. But what if I was to tell you that, actually, it’s not all bad? Would you believe me? Try this book.

My friend gave me this book for Christmas with the statement, “You worry about this stuff more than us”. Given I’ve been in rather a black mood for the last few weeks, I decided that 2017 wasn’t going to push me around and I’d begin the year by looking at things a bit more positively. In this book, Swedish academic Johan Norberg takes a look at ten aspects of the modern world and shows that we’re actually improving on pretty much all fronts. He looks at food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the next generation and concludes, with the help of graphs and endless statistics, that things are improving left, right and centre.

Despite what we see on the news – and Norberg argues well that the main reason we think everything is so awful is because of news media – violence and poverty are down, and literacy and life expectancy are up. It may look awful when you see that there are still millions of people living in poverty, but when you consider how many more of us there are now, the proportions show that we’re actually doing fine. Of course, not everyone is rich or free or safe from disease yet, but the trends are looking good, as long as we take the current issues as a blip and focus on keeping everything moving forward. Humanity has advanced further in the last 100 years than it did in the first 100,000.

Norberg is blisteringly positive. He does concede, as I said, that only if we continue to fight the bad things will we continue to see progress, but this is a man who manages to even put a positive spin on the increase in the number of robberies in developing nations (they are proof that now even the poor have something worth stealing) and cancer (people never used to live long enough to develop it, which is why we’re now seeing an increase). He’s not saying that cancer itself is a good thing, it obviously isn’t, but it’s an interesting way of looking at things.

So while it may not be the lightest book to delve into first thing in the year, it’s definitely worthwhile and positive. Norberg is a skilled writer and weaves statistics and anecdotes together to create a readable book that might just remind us that things aren’t as bad as all that. Onwards and upwards, everybody.

“Animal” by Sara Pascoe (2016)

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animal“Writing a book is an arrogant thing to do.”

I really like Sara Pascoe. She’s a newer face on the panel shows and comedy programmes of our televisions, and I fell a little bit in love with her when she first appeared on QI and knew lots of stuff about London and pandas. She’s the kind of woman I’d love to tell, “Hey, I really like you. You’re so beautiful…” but before I could finish, she’d throw her drink in my face and yell, “What about my brain??” I’d splutter through the G&T or whatever she drinks before saying, “I haven’t finished! You’re beautiful, intelligent, funny and generally awesome.” And then I’d still feel guilty as I do right now about the fact I started with “beautiful”, and feel that maybe I worded the compliment badly. But it was a compliment – I’ve always been very attracted to women’s brains. A smart woman is a sexy woman, although I’m obviously aware that a woman is not an object to be looked at, and I don’t expect anything to come from the compliment, I’m just trying to be nice, I … I’m digging myself into a hole here, aren’t I? Look, I just like paying people compliments, I’m just a bit cack-handed at it.

(Sara, should you read this and I did it wrong, I sincerely apologise. Can we forget this ever happened and move on?)

A couple of my female friends have been reading Animal and they went on to me about how amazing it was. Finding myself with that free trial of Audible that everyone who listens to podcasts gets bombarded with a few times a week, and going on the suggestion of a friend that it’s even better when read aloud, I downloaded the book and it has become the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to. Sara has a wonderful voice, full of real warmth, like she’s talking to you down the pub. You and her, the writer and the reader, are mates, and she’s going to tell you what she’s learnt about the female mind and body.

Split into three sections – Love, Body and Consent – the book is part-memoir, interspersed with stories from her own life (some hilarious, some tragic) and part science book, talking about what it is to be a woman both now and throughout history. She covers every possible aspect of this, including but certainly not limited to whether humans are naturally monogamous or not, how menstruation is viewed and treated around the world, what the “right” age is for consent, how we define rape, why men feel sleepy after sex and women don’t, female genital mutilation, the politics of abortion, why women evolved breasts, the female orgasm, and why humans are one of only three species on the planet (aside from killer whales and pilot whales) to undergo a menopause.

I wondered, as a man, how relevant the book would be to me, but it turns out your gender doesn’t matter in the slightest. It is eye-opening, incredibly interesting, sharply funny, and while perhaps in another person’s hands the ideas could come across as lecturing or dull, Sara weaves genius throughout it. She’s naturally funny, and very frank and open about her own problems, concerns and issues.

It’s also given me a really interesting new discussion topic for others around me. Not strangers on the bus; I’m not confident enough to strike up loud “Did you know?” conversations about tampons with them (yet) but with friends and colleagues. Most of my friends are female, as indeed are most of the people I work with, and this book has granted me access to things I, shamefacedly, even as a sexually active man in his late twenties, still didn’t really understand. One of the most curious facts I found out was about how long a menstrual cycle could last. I’d always been under the assumption it was 28 days – about a month – and had never really considered that it varied that much between women. I don’t know why. I don’t think about it much, I guess. After finding out the truth, I asked the girls at work if they knew. They all said 28 days. I revealed that, actually, it could be anywhere between 20 and 60 days. None of them knew this, and one of these girls is at university studying to be a surgeon. Even if this fact had somehow slipped through the net of secondary school sex ed, then that’s one thing, but is medical school not even drawing attention to this?

And, yeah, while we’re at it, why are the boys sent out of the room when girls learn about menstruation at school? If you take the argument that it might be uncomfortable or embarrassing for pre-teen girls to ask questions in a room full of boys, then that’s fine and I totally understand it, but the boys should be taught this stuff too, separately. We might not have the equipment, but we should know how it works. It might remove some of society’s stigma about the whole thing. Boys should probably also get a brush up on consent, as barely a week goes by without some boy somewhere dodging a jail sentence because he’s convinced a jury that consent was granted. We need to update both our sex education and our rape laws. But Sara will explain all this much more eloquently than I ever could.

I believe firmly that everyone, regardless of whether you’re male, female or somewhere in between, should read this book. It’s fascinating, funny and might even save your life.

“The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978)

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bookshop“In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.”

I’ve covered elsewhere my love of bookshops, but if you haven’t read that post (and you should, because it’s bloody marvellous) it’s probably a given that I have a fondness for them. There’s nothing more enjoyable than browsing the shelves of a bookshop, hundreds and thousands of new worlds sealed up in paper and ink, ready for adoption by a hungry reader.

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Bookshop, we get the tale of middle-aged widow Florence Green who has decided that her small seaside town of Hardborough could really do with a bookshop. She purchases the building – a house that has been empty for seven years due to damp and a resident poltergeist – and despite various objections, begins running the only bookshop and lending library in the area.

As her success grows, so does her animosity with some of the other residents, not least the social climbing Mrs Gamart, who believes that the building should have instead been used to house an Arts Centre. However, others are far more willing to give their blessing, including young Christine Gipping and reclusive Mr Brundish. With their encouragement, Florence sets out against the struggles to make the best of the situation and inject a little bit of culture to the sleepy town.

This is a book about that peculiarly British issue of class. Florence is not a member of the high society, and perhaps that is why she is looked down upon by those who are. In fact, those who oppose the bookshop are the same ones who claim to be cultured, fighting tooth and nail to show that they are more cultured than everyone else by knowing what is best for the town in the fields of art and literature. The lower orders, who care little for social standing but rarely read, are much more supportive.

Florence is a magnificent character. I imagine that the late fifties were not the easiest time for a woman to make it on her own – the following decade would do much for equality – and perhaps this adds to the views of her detractors. However, through correspondance with her solicitors and bank manager, it is made clear that Florence can hold her own and has a core of steely determination. She will not be beaten back, not by inspectors, lawyers or ghosts, and she will fight against the vile people around her to do what she thinks is right.

It’s a charming, if emotionally poignant and gut-wrenching, story that shows a nasty side of human nature, and what happens when a force for good comes up against them. One for the ages.