“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.

“Lagoon” by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)

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“She slices through the water, imagining herself as a deadly beam of black light.”

It’s always seemed odd to me, when I choose to not play along with the suspension of disbelief that films require of us, that whenever an alien invasion occurs on Earth, it seems to centre around New York or London, as if the aliens seem to know that those places are important somehow. When you think how big the planet is about how there are great swathes of land in, say, Siberia or Patagonia that are entirely devoid of life, it seems remarkable that aliens always somehow hit on a capital city anyway. Therefore, if nothing else, it’s refreshing to see it happen somewhere else.

What appears to be a meteorite slams into the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, and water begins to encroach the beach. Caught in the ensuing tsunami are marine biologist Adaora, famous Ghanaian rapper, Anthony, and a solider, Agu, three strangers who all possess strange and unusual abilities.  Once the water has returned them to the sand, they meet the first of the aliens, who looks human and Adaora names Ayodele. She insists that her people have not come to cause harm, but merely to cause change.

Adaora rushes Ayodele and the men back to her house where the sets about studying the extraterrestrial with her scientific equipment. It seems she’s not even made of cells and is capable of taking on whatever form she chooses, and apparently reading the thoughts of people in close proximity. When Adaora’s husband appears with the local bishop, word begins to spread about the nature of the visitor, and soon Lagos is plunged into chaos as Ayodele and her people are greeted with hostility by the general population. Our heroes set about on a mission to hunt down the missing President and bring him to meet Ayodele’s people, at which time, perhaps, a new era will dawn.

It might just be me, but I found the whole book somewhat disjointed. There are a lot of characters here and most of them get at least one chapter from their point of view. Aside from the three primary characters of Adaora, Anthony and Agu, we also have Adaora’s husband, their nanny, the nanny’s boyfriend and his friends, two witnesses of the rising tide that stole the heroes temporarily, the bishop, the President and occasionally a nearby animal, such as a bat or a spider. Among this are bits from a character that appears to be some kind of spider-god (it mentions Anansi as being a relative) which feels particularly weird given the rest of the novel seems to be science fiction.

One of the more interesting groups of characters are the Black Nexus, an LGBT group who begin to show themselves for who they really are just as the chaos really breaks into the streets of Lagos. Nigeria is not a country that deals well with homosexuality, so the inclusion of these characters is rather fascinating, but they disappear about halfway through and we never really find out what became of them.

I’m not writing the book off as bad, not at all. The prose is delicately beautiful at times, although the lapses into Pidgin English are distracting and if I had to flip to the provided glossary for every other word when they’re used then I would’ve never properly engaged with the text. You can get the gist of what’s going on, anyway. Some of the characters are too immediately accepting of the alien presence, which feels unrealistic, and the primary reason for reading this book, probably, comes down to the setting. I know very little of Nigeria, and even less of Lagos, so whatever else, it was fascinating to explore part of it and its culture.

It ends on a note that suggests a cliffhanger, but for a novel that’s very different to the one you just read. It’s one of those novels that is middle ground in the extreme for me – I enjoyed it enough, but I won’t remember anything about it in a year’s time.

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.

Podcasts: Part Three

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OK, so according to the views of this blog, people like reading about podcasts. Here are four more of my favourite podcasts and why I think you should get hold of them if you haven’t already. For more, see parts one and two.

podcast 9Podcast: The Message
Number of Episodes: 8

This is a really short one, but it’s completely worth it. It’s a story that follows Nicky Tomalin, a podcaster who is following a team of cryptographers as they try to decode The Message, a noise that arrived on Earth from somewhere far out in space in the 1940s. But as she and the team look into the history of the sound, which definitely seems to have extraterrestrial origins, it becomes clear that something is very wrong with it. Bad luck and worse follows those who’ve listened to the noise, and it isn’t long before disaster strikes closer to home…

I’m not going to say anything else about the plot because you need to listen to it to get the full impact, but it’s a punchy, well-performed piece of work and intensely creepy. Although there are only a handful of episodes, and each of those is only around fifteen minutes long, it’s enough to get across a story that grips you from the start and has you terrified by the end. It’s hard to say much else – this is just one of those one’s where you’re going to just do it, as my words can’t do it justice.

podcast 10Podcast: Desert Island Discs
Number of Episodes: 1000s
Release: Every Sunday

If you’ve never heard of Desert Island Discs then I worry for your sanity. It’s a radio show where every week (for the last sixty years) a celebrity guest is interviewed by a charming, affable host, currently the sultry-voiced Kirsty Young. The interview is built around a simple question; “If you had to be sent to a desert island, what 8 records would you take with you?” Then, a longform interview takes place about the interviewee’s life and career, interspersed with the eight songs that mean the most to them. At the end, each castaway can also choose one book to take (they all get the Bible and the works of Shakespeare automatically) and one single other luxury to make things more bearable for them, as long as it isn’t too useful (i.e. no speedboats).

Most episodes have now been converted to podcast form. All the ones of the last few years are there, and then there’s a selection of others dating right back to the forties. Guests range from musicians and actors, politicians and ambassadors, scientists and explorers, astronauts and soldiers. There’s nowhere easy to suggest you start from, so your best bet is to find some names you’ve heard of and download those. I’ve found that even with people I’ve only vaguely heard of, I find the episode hugely fascinating. Kirsty Young is a wonderful host and can get some really interesting stories out of her castaways, providing an interview that is often funny, tragic and fascinating all at the same time.

It’s also always quite interesting to see what luxury people pick at the end. Recently, Tom Hanks has gone for a typewriter and paper, Berry Gordy took a cellar of wine, Chris Hadfield opted for his guitar, and Kylie Minogue went for a family photo album. One of my favourite luxuries ever belonged to John Cleese who wanted to take Michael Palin. Since other people are forbidden, he was given the option, “You can have him as long as he’s been stuffed.” Cleese accepted.

podcast 11Podcast: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
Number of Episodes: 7
Release: Every Saturday

OK, so I admit that suggesting a podcast when it’s not even got ten episodes up is perhaps jumping the gun, but I’ve never fallen for a podcast so quickly. Part of me wishes I hadn’t discovered it so early so that I could have a good binge, but at the same time I’m pleased to be able to one of the people who can count themselves as a fan from the beginning.

The concept of this podcast is simple. Hosts Vanessa and Casper, a Harvard chaplain and minister respectively, are reading the Harry Potter books chapter by chapter as if they were a sacred religious text on par with the Bible and its ilk. I’ll stress that they’re not declaring Dumbledore’s dialogue the word of God or anything, they’re just examining the text through themes and seeing what it can tell us about our own lives. Each half-hour episode features one chapter and explores a theme. For example, “The Boy Who Lived” is looked at through commitment; “Diagon Alley” explores the idea of being a stranger. Each episode delves into examples from the text, followed by more intensive readings of certain passages, and then ends with a blessing for two of the characters in the chapter.

It’s really beautifully done. I’m not religious in the least, but these books do hold a real magic for me, and for millions of others, so it’s interesting to see them studied in a slightly different way. Perhaps one day, hundreds of years from now, future humans will find this podcast after the apocalypse and a new religion will begin. We can only imagine.

podcast 12Podcast: Talking Simpsons
Number of Episodes: 50
Release: Every Wednesday

By now surely everyone in the Western world has seen at least one episode of The Simpsons. Since December 1989 the show has had people hooked and it’s still enjoyed across the planet. But perhaps the biggest fans of all are the guys on this podcast. They’re responsible for several other podcasts in which they found they made a lot of Simpsons jokes and references, so started a new podcast where they could talk about nothing else.

Each episode of the podcast zones in on one episode of the series, and at time of writing they’re midway through season three, so there’s hundreds more to go. Each episode contains a rundown on what was happening in the world the day the episode was released (just to hammer home to point that this show has been running for a looooong time), anecdotes regarding both the series and the presenters, information from the writers and creators, explanations of jokes that went over our heads the first time round, audio clips from the episodes themselves, and a lot of really nerdy issues with continuity and character appearances.

Episodes run between thirty and fifty minutes, generally getting longer it seems as the show improves. If you’re looking for their analysis of season one, you won’t find it on iTunes, as it’s hidden behind a paywall, so while really die-hard fans might want to get their hands on it, there’s plenty enough for everyone else here. It’s really funny and brings back memories of some of the classic episodes and their greatest moments, all lovingly bundled up with new information and gags.

“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.

“Humanzee” by Susan Gates (1998)

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humanzee“The fleas had finished feeding.”

I really like chimpanzees. They are, after all, our hairier, more aggressive cousins who are better at climbing and picking things up with their feet. There’s little debate now that we share a common ancestor, but the exact moment at which we diverged will always remain out of sight. Is it possible for a chimp-human hybrid to exist now? Whatever else, it would raise a lot of uncomfortable questions. In this book, we meet a being that might be just that.

Humanzee is the story of Nemo, his parents and humanzee Chingwe who run the Whirligig Theatre Company, a travelling troupe that specialises in Victorian-style circus acts, primarily including a flea circus. Chingwe was rescued by the family several years before from a man who was keeping him locked up at a freak show, because while Chingwe seems to be an ape, there is also something definitely human about his appearance and habits.

Chingwe must be protected from the wider world as scientists, such as Dr Deklar, head scientist at the Primate Rehabilitation Centre, believe he may be a missing link (despite the fact that any missing link between us and chimps would be around three million years old) and want to study him. After another turn out on tour, the family return home to find that their water source, Hope Spring, has dried up. (Oh yeah, this is an alternate 1990s where global warming has reached a point that water is now more valuable than diamonds.) On his quest to find out what happened to the water, Nemo finds Martha and her devoutly religious family, who are none to pleased about the idea of proof that humans came from apes. Nemo and Martha have to keep Chingwe safe from everyone around them.

Confused yet? I was. The book opens with the characters in costume at their circus, giving the impression that it’s set years ago, only to then have a mobile phone ring during the show. And then suddenly it turns out this is a dry world where no one has any water. And there just happens to be a humanzee in the mix as well. There’s a lot going on here, and Gates almost struggles to try and keep it altogether. Truth be told, the book seems to be more about the water shortage than it does about the humanzee.

Obviously I’m way too old to be considered the target audience for this book (it’s been sitting on my shelf for a very long time), but it’s still rather poor. It might work as a half-decent introduction for pre-teens about evolution, grief, religious fanaticism, and how to write annoying protagonists (my loathing for child narrators is well-documented on this blog; Nemo is as irritating as His Dark Materials’ Lyra), but as a story it’s hardly great. Billed as a “thriller”, it doesn’t thrill.

Granted, towards the end there are some decisions made by the author that seem almost brave, and shake up the notion of the “happily ever after”, but this just leaves a whole host of questions unanswered, primarily, “What exactly is Chingwe?” Is it better that we never find out, or does it detract from the final piece?

I almost didn’t even bother reviewing this book, but that isn’t fair. Present it to a twelve-year-old and they might take great joy in it, but I’m happy to have it done with. If, however, you’re now going, “But a book about a chimp-human is exactly what I wanted right now”, then read Next by Michael Crichton. And beware the books that sit on your shelves for years: there’s probably a reason for that.

If you need something a bit more adult, then ditch the chimps and Christians and try reading about cannibalism and Celtic mythology in my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus.

“Hey Nostradamus!” by Douglas Coupland (2003)

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hey nos“I believe that what sparates humanity from everything else in this world – spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea cretures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley – is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins.”

Possibly in part because it has one of the most wonderful opening lines in all fiction (see above), Hey Nostradamus! is one of my favourites in the Coupland canon. It feels a little more grown up than his previous books, but still full of characters seeking meaning in their lives. In this case, we get to see the internal thoughts of four characters in four very distinct sections.

The first part of the book takes place in 1988 and is narrated by Cheryl. Cheryl is seventeen, secretly married and secretly pregnant. Her devoutly religious friends know none of this but suspect that she is sleeping with her boyfriend (or rather, husband) Jason and are quite content to let her know that they think it’s wrong. But then life takes a terrifying twist and Cheryl is killed by a fellow student in a high school massacre.

The second part of the book, and the largest, is narrated by Jason who is writing a letter to his nephews in 1999, eleven years after the death of his secret wife. Destined to forever be “that guy who never got over it”, he tells his version of events from that awful day in 1988 and explains what he’s doing with his life now, which mostly involves keeping his head down and trying not to attract any attention from people who want to know all the grisly details of his past.

The third part is narrated by Heather in 2002. She is a woman who meets Jason and finds within him a kindred spirit, and she becomes the first person he has opened up to in years. Between them they have invented a whole world populated by strange characters. But Heather is far from happy, for reasons that I don’t divulge here because you need some reason to read the book. The final and shortest chapter is written in 2003 by Jason’s tyrannical and devoutly religious father Reg, who struggles with the notion that while he’s sure he’ll be getting into Heaven, he can’t vouch for the other members of his family.

It’s a stunning book that deals with so many big issues – murder, grief, religion, suffering, familial relationships, marriage and guilt – but never once feels dense. The characters are fundamentally likeable (except possibly for Reg – it depends on your interpretation by the time you reach his pages) and they’re all lost for one reason or another, desperate for a sign that their lives have meaning, or at least that they aren’t entirely alone.

There are some macarbe and gory scenes, in particular the one where the surviving school students turn on one of the gunmen and kill him in an outrageously cartoonish way. The book was inspired partly by the events at Columbine, although the shooting takes place in a time long before that event has happened. The language and ideas presented, however, are as Couplandish (Couplandic? Couplandesque?) as ever, such as suggesting how useful it would be to have a gauge that measured how susceptible we are to different sins, just to give us a warning, and how you should never write down anything in a list that means anything to you. And one line that I adore and wholeheartedly agree with: “Forget drama and torrid sex and the clash of opposites. Give me banter any day of the week.”

To paraphrase another reviewer on the back cover of this book, it’s not a book that’s pretentious enough to offer up the answers to life, but it explains quite clearly that seeking them out is what makes us human.

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