“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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“If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” by Italo Calvino

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if-on-a-winters-night-a-traveller“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.”

It’s been an interesting weekend in the UK. The news at the moment seems to be constantly full of very big, important stories, so my attention hasn’t been entirely on books. Hence, this short book has taken me longer to read than usual because of hours spent in front of news reports, as well as the book itself being incredibly dense. Anyway, this isn’t a political platform, so on with the business of reviewing fiction.

The novel begins with you, the Reader, settling down with a new novel, getting comfortable and telling the people in the room next door to turn down the television, and so on. You embark on the novel but discover a printing error; after thirty pages, it begins to repeat. Annoyed, you take it back to the shop to get a new copy, only to find that you haven’t even been reading If on a winter’s night a traveller, but instead Outside the town of Malbork which was in the wrong cover. You ask for that instead, return home, start reading, but find that this book is nothing at all like the one you just started.

This book becomes blank pages just as you’re getting into it, so you must return to the shop again, where you find the intriguing Ludmilla who is having the same problem. As you desperately try to finish the book, again and again you find yourself given copies of a novel that is nothing like the last and ends just when the story gets going. You are sent on a wild adventure where you must struggle with the police, who may or may not be undercover revolutionaries, your feelings for Ludmilla, and a conspiracy of faked literature. If you manage to keep anything straight in this book, then good luck to you.

What a novel. It’s so postmodern that it’s basically eaten itself. I really love the idea, as it really is a bunch of unrelated opening chapters interspersed with an increasingly confusing narrative, but I just couldn’t get into it very well. There’s not much dialogue, and paragraphs are generally huge and unwieldy. The use of the second person is an unusual choice, but you’re soon reminded why it doesn’t get used much, and doesn’t help when the “you” in question changes for certain chapters. It probably also doesn’t help that I read the last twenty or so pages after drinking, so they washed over me.

I don’t really know what to say about this book. Obviously it’s a modern classic, and it’s really interesting and it probably is very smart, but I’m just not smart enough to compete. The way in which each novel is stopped is quite good fun and they work as ideas, but I had real issues with trying to keep the narrative and the unrelated chapters straight in my head. You might have better luck with it, but Calvino has bested me, well and truly.

“You’re The One That I Don’t Want” by Alexandra Potter (2010)

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Fate has a lot to answer for.

Fate has a lot to answer for.

“The summer heat creates a shimmering haze, through which Venice appears like a Canaletto brought to life.”

The two themes that run through all fiction are, of course, love and death. Eros and Thanatos seem to control all the drama of literature, and indeed in the real world too. You find me a story that doesn’t concern itself with one or the other (or both) and I’ll eat my hat, providing I’m wearing my bacon hat. “Chick lit”, a term I discussed last month, usually brings great helpings of love to the table, although usually spends the meal complaining about cellulite and that they really shouldn’t have another scoop but go on then, as it’s a Friday and the diet starts tomorrow.

I’ve read Alexandra Potter before and I enjoy her slight twist on traditionally romantic fare. I bought this one for a friend’s birthday and it was proclaimed to be very good, so I borrowed it back off her. The thing with Potter is that while her characters are very much cut from the same cloth as every other protagonist in this sort of fiction, she adds a dash of the supernatural to her stories. For example, in Who’s That Girl? the heroine accidentally travels back in time and meets her younger self; in Be Careful What You Wish For, she finds everything she wishes for coming true. This time around, we’re dealing with folk legends and what happens when they come true.

The story begins in Venice in 1999 where teenagers Lucy and Nate have met and are rapidly falling in love. They hear a rumour from a street vendor that if they kiss under the Bridge of Sighs, they will never be parted and they will stay together for eternity. Deciding to give it a go – young love being what it is – they follow it through and then laugh it off as a silly superstition. They part ways at the end of their holiday and she returns to Manchester while he goes back to America.

Ten years later, they have entirely lost contact after the relationship soured, but now Lucy has just moved to New York to work for an art gallery. Her sister Kate is already a successful lawyer in the city, and Lucy moves in with new age hippie Robyn, a woman who casts spells, thinks tie-dye is the height of fashion and has been told by a psychic that her soulmate is called Harold. Then one day and quite out of the blue, Lucy bumps into Nate again. They rekindle their relationship when he admits that losing her was the biggest mistake of his life and soon they’re back to acting like lovesick teenagers.

But in the intervening decade, they discover that they’ve both changed, and not necessarily into someone that the other one likes. Lucy lives off junk food and loves spending time in art galleries. Nate is a wealthy TV producer who spends every waking minute on the phone and no longer has time for carbs or coffee. After a massive row, they break up again when it turns out that you can’t just pick up where you left off. But the legend of the Bridge of Sighs is apparently more powerful than either of them realised and suddenly they’re bumping into each other all over the city, as if the universe is determined to keep them together, just like it originally promised.

All of which makes it a bit awkward given that Lucy has just met Adam, and he might actually be a far better option than Nate ever was…

So there are clichés stacked up here by the crate – love at first sight, a creative protagonist who worries about her body, a love triangle, the sensible sister who is the polar opposite to the ditzy heroine – but it’s also quite refreshing. Not only is Potter genuinely quite a funny writer, this is a hugely interesting twist on the idea that we don’t always know what we really want for ourselves. We’ve all seen stories where people are told they’ll be together forever, and then have to fight the obstacles in the way, but this shows what happens when the people stop wanting to be together. The blessing becomes a curse and soon life becomes unbearable. After all, how would you feel if every time you got into a taxi, sat down in a restaurant or stepped into a shop, your ex was already there?

The secondary characters seem more developed than Lucy, but that’s because we’ve seen her type before. She’s an artist who is very good but had to give it all up. She’s clumsy, weak-willed when it comes to food, always late, and desperately seeking out The One. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book a lot simply because it takes an old idea and turns it upside down. Sometimes you don’t need a hugely different story (although it is nice). You just need to take a classic and shake it up a little.

“The Shape Of Water” by Andrea Camilleri (1994)

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Image“No light of daybreak filtered yet into the courtyard of Splendour, the company under government contract to collect trash in the town of Vigàta.”

There are many reasons that I buy books. Sometimes because the cover and the blurb has attracted me. Sometimes because a friend has endorsed them. Sometimes because I already love the author. And other times because they’re on an offer that means I get 100 points on my Waterstone’s loyalty card if I buy it.

Hence, Andrea Camilleri.

Not a name I knew, he adds to my collection this year of reading books that have been translated from European languages. German, Dutch, and now Italian. It’s a crime novel this time, and apparently the first in a series following the Italian version of Poirot or Holmes, one Salvo Montalbano. His methods are a little different to the aforementioned detectives, but nonetheless he gets the job done.

The novel is set in Sicily, and opens with the discovery of the body of an engineer, Silvio Luparello, in a location that is home to trash, drug dealers and prostitutes of every sort. Despite the shady circumstances surrounding this location and the death that has occured there, the coroner states that he died of natural causes (as Camilleri says, “refreshingly unusual for Sicily”). Montalbano is called in to find out what happened, if the causes really were natural, if a particular necklace has been found at the trash site and what famous political lawyer Rizzo has to do with any of it.

The novel is fast-paced and quick to jump from scene to scene, sometimes not giving you enough time to keep up. Of course, the names are all Italian and their similarities can make it difficult for a foolish Englishman like me to be able to differenciate at all times. The plot seems a little hashed together, but it ties up neatly and does make sense. Montalbano is something of a maverick and not above playing god to get the answers he wants. He seems smart, but doesn’t always let you in on how he has made certain deductions, making you wonder if it’s all just smart guesswork.

The book has an amazing use of language (even post-translation) with such wonderful words as “improcrastinable” and evocative phrases like, “Are you going to spit it out or do you need a midwife to pull the words out of your mouth?” It’s all very Italian, with discussions of the Mafia and the crime that seems to infest Sicily (I’ve never been, I’m going on this book), and lots of talks about food and the love of food.

It’s OK as quick reads go, but it doesn’t stand out for me in any particular way. I may return to the series at a later date (Montalbano is certainly a man with a complex life) but I’m sated on my Italian crime for now.