Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Half-year review: best books of 2018 so far!

I’m back! As you may have seen on my Instagram, I was recently on holiday (again) and so everything was a bit quiet… but I’m now back and ready to get back into blogging. I am right at the end of Emma by Jane Austen, so I will be writing about that soon, as well as my visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum. But for now, as it’s July, it’s time to look back at the year in reading so far. Here are my favourite books that I have read since the start of the year (in no particular order) – have you read any of these?

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1932)

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My copy of this had been hanging around on my shelves for a while, and I finally got around to reading it this year – and I loved it. As I expected from Fallada, the writing and story are both incredibly true to life, and make the ordinary into the extraordinary. My review is here.

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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This was a random find on GoodReads recommendations, and I couldn’t resist it. The author’s mother was a model in the 50s and 60s, was a bridesmaid for Grace Kelly, and ended up living in a homeless shelter. It’s a fascinating story of mothers and daughters, growing up, and being a woman. My review is here.

The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor (2014)

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I came across this book in my professional life in academic publishing, and was so pleased I decided to read it earlier this year. It’s a bit heavy-going and very detailed, but if you have the interest in women in the ancient world, it’s definitely worth it! My review is here.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

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The striking cover of this book caught my eye on social media, and I bought it soon after. It’s short and easy to read, and is one of the most engaging and moving novels I have ever read. Highly recommended! My review is here.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

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I reviewed this really recently, so I won’t go on too long, but if you love Jane Austen and haven’t read any other biography of her, this is a MUST. My review is here.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

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This book got a lot of attention when it came out earlier this year, partly because it is genuinely brilliant, despite the author passing away before finishing it; and partly because the subject of the book, the Golden State Killer, was identified and arrested a couple of months after publication. Highly recommended to anyone interested in crime and investigative journalism. My review is here.

I’d love to hear if anyone has read any of these, and your opinions on them! Any related recommendations would also be awesome sauce.

Happy reading!

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I saw this book at a conference last year, and it sat on my reading list for months until I received it for my birthday in January. I was a bit apprehensive about reading it as I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a light read, and the paperback is 429 pages (not counting the appendix, notes, and bibliography). But once I had a copy myself, I knew I had to just go for it, which is often the best option for long or intimidating books (for me at least).

I have been keen to read more classics stuff outside of work (where I work on classics books), but wanted to avoid feeling like I was working, which is why I chose a non-academic book like this one. It is written by a professor, and published by a university, but it is not a textbook. In the introduction the author describes it as a sort of encyclopaedia, which sort of makes sense, though it reads like a biography or history. The encyclopaedic aspect comes through in the sheer volume of information and the huge amount and range of sources that are cited, from myth, history, and archaeology.

The latter is crucial to Mayor’s argument that there really were women who were like the mythical Amazons – equal to men in combat and status, riding horses, fighting and going out to battle, etc. Mayor carefully defines the difference between the Amazons of Greek myth, that we see in their art and literature, and real women across the ancient world who lived Amazon-like lives. The real women that Mayor discusses were from the lands north and east of Greece, covering what is now south-east Europe, parts of Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and over into Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. It is a huge area – hence the huge book.

Mayor assumes that her reader has a good base of knowledge about ancient Greek society and gender roles, and uses this as a starting point to compare the women of these various regions with women in Greece, as well as the Amazon women in Greek myths. Mayor points out that there are some classicists who theorise that the Amazons were purely something from Greek myth and not based on any real people – and she disputes this. There is plenty of historical and archaeological evidence for ‘warrior women’ in multiple tribes, peoples, and places throughout the regions mentioned, and Mayor catalogues many of this in detail. This cataloguing can get a bit overwhelming, but it’s worth the effort for the incredible stories of these warrior women and the lives they lead.

As someone who only studied classics up to A-Level, it was fascinating to learn about more of the ancient world outside of Greece and Rome. I loved hearing about these women who lived like men, rode into battle, and yet still formed families, had children, and lived full lives. Greece starts to look like the anomaly instead of the norm, with its women confined to the house for all their lives, never having any freedom or choice.

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(image: pinterest.com)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the consideration of how ancient Greek people, both men and women, would relate to the warrior women of the east – whether mythical or actual. The common mythical trope was that the Greek hero and the Amazon would be more or less equal in combat, their fighting charged with potential sexual tension, but ultimately the hero would overpower and kill the Amazon. The most famous (and earliest) piece of Greek art to feature an Amazon is Exekias’ vase showing Achilles and Penthesilea at the moment that they lock eyes and fall in love, exactly as his spear enters her chest and he kills her (see right). Penthesilea was a mythical Amazon queen who led her band of female warriors to Troy to help defend the city against the invading Greeks. They managed to kill plenty of soldiers until Achilles and his band of men attacked, and the women were all killed. The story was immortalised by Exekias, and the Greeks loved this interplay of sex and death on the battlefield, in the Greeks’ most famous victory over their eastern neighbours.

The Greeks seemed to have a weird fixation on Amazons as ‘wild’ women who must be overpowered by heroes; they held a certain fascination as both ‘manly’ and strangely alluring. Mayor details several Greek myths in which the sexual tension between the Greek hero and the Amazon is a very important factor, included in all versions. This fascination with Amazons meant they were included in huge amounts of ancient Greek art and literature.

Mayor argues that the Amazons of myth were based on real women encountered by ancient Greek travellers and historians, most famously Herodotus (I have just bought myself a copy of Tom Holland’s translation of his Histories). Having read her book, I completely agree with this. So many tribes throughout Scythia, the lands around the Black Sea, and over towards China, contained women who lived almost exactly like men – or who at least knew how to ride, shoot arrows, and fight to some degree – that it is impossible to refute the notion that mythical and legendary Amazons were based on real women.

The Amazons is a wonderful blend of mythical stories, histories, art, literature, and archaeology all being discussed and analysed, giving a broad overview of the lives of women outside Greece in the ancient world. While it is a dense and sometimes heavy-going book, it is also fascinating, engaging, and ultimately very rewarding. It is one of the most authoritative books I have read on the ancient world, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the lives of women in antiquity.

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Published by Princeton University Press in 2014 (hardback) and 2016 (paperback). I read the paperback edition, pictured above.

 

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Articles, Non-Fiction

I’m Still Here

I realise it has been a bit quiet around here of late. As per my last post I am still reading The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor, which is taking me longer to read than I expected, and is the principle reason I haven’t posted reviews since my late January round up.

It’s funny when you’re enjoying a book and yet it still takes a long time to read. The Amazons is a very dense book packed with a lot of information, a lot of detail, so I think that’s why it’s taking me a while to read. The start of 2018 for me was blighted by illness and I think I’m still recovering as I constantly seem to be tired, so there have been a lot of days when I have just not felt able to read, as much as I might want to. That’s a horrible feeling.

At least I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for reading. I had a bit of an online binge and bought ten of the new Penguin Modern series (a bit like the Little Black Classics), as well as a copy of The Histories by Herodotus, as it’s referenced so much in The Amazons. I also bought a copy of Jenny Mollen’s book Live Fast, Die Hot. I don’t exactly love the title, but I’m keen to read this one – I follow Jenny on Instagram and find her funny and engaging, and I like her frankness about life. Similarly, I pre-ordered Busy Philipps’ untitled book that I have heard her talking about on Instagram. She is definitely worth following – I love her.

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It’s easy to feel like there is sometimes just too much out there that’s amazing and worth devoting time to, and it can feel impossible to commit to everything that you’d like to. This applies to books, but also to other media like TV and movies – but also to friends and social life, work, housekeeping, relationships… throw almost constant anxiety into the mix (hello!), and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Reading is my retreat, but I need the time and space to do it. Sometimes life overwhelms you to a point of paralysis. I am lucky that we have enough space in our house that if I want to, I can take myself off to another room away from the TV, my husband and the dog, and just read in peace for a while. I always feel restored when I am able to do this.

I’m now close to the end of The Amazons, so I will try and do a write-up as soon as I can once I have finished it. I absolutely love classical stuff, but I think I’ll take a break and read some of the Penguin Moderns I bought next. What joy can be found in these small perfect books!

More soon.

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Articles, Comment, Non-Fiction

Things I’m reading that aren’t books

I read a lot of books, but I also read a lot of other stuff that doesn’t require quite so much concentration and/or time. A lot of this is book reviews and blog posts, but it varies. Here is what I have been reading recently:

Fern Riddell’s article on History Today – Sanitising the Suffragettes: Why is it so easy to forget an unsavoury aspect of Britain’s recent past? You can find Fern on Twitter here.

Speaking of suffragettes, I also liked Mary McGill’s article on Constance Markievicz over on The Pool.

I’m also enjoying the LARB’s review of 2017 in horror. My husband is really into horror and I’ve worked out what I do and do not like about the genre, and there is plenty that I love. Get Out was one such film, of course.

I’m keen to see The Alienist, whenever it is available in the UK, and will definitely be reading the book at some point. This article is pretty good.

Another big thing for me recently has been the new episodes of Star Trek: Discovery (so good!!). I’ve been reading a few things about the new developments, including these on io9 and Vulture (spoiler warning). Personally I still think it’s awesome, and still love Tilly and Stamets. And I still find it hilarious that Shazad Latif, who plays Ash Tyler, also played Clem Fandango in Toast. Reading-wise, it’s been the Wikipedia page for the series, as well as the Memory Alpha page.

I recently went to see Möngöl Hörde live for the first time (drove to Birmingham and back in one night), and it was awesome. It has got me back into their album, as well as Frank Turner’s back catalogue (he’s the singer!). I’m also refreshing Ticketmaster to try and get tickets to his upcoming tour… not a reading thing, but just a thing for me at the moment.

I am of course also reading a book at the moment, which is The Amazons: Live and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor – and I am loving it. I adored Classics at school and currently work on the Classics list at Routledge, so it’s a big thing for me. This is the first time in while that I have read a Classics book outside of work, and I love it. It’s technically an academic book given that Mayor is a Professor at Stanford, and it’s published by Princeton, but it’s still accessible and not presented as a textbook. Very pleased with myself for choosing it.

That’s me for now.

What are you reading, that may or may not be book?

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