Post-Vacation Reading Round-up

Okay, so I was going to write something about the Key to Time arc episode The Androids of Tara for today but, honestly, I find that episode pretty unspectacular and I was stuck fast on even coming up with a title for this blog post. So, I decided to do something else.

My last little round of reading looked like this (in no particular order)….

The Social Life of Coffee, Brian Cowan.

I thought this book was going to be different than it turned out to be. While I cannot confirm this — without additional research I am unwilling to undertake! — I suspect that this is Mr. Cowan’s doctoral dissertation turned into a book. Lots of historians — and other scientists and social scientists — do this and it’s just fine. I mean, you’ve done all that freakin’ work — what are you going to do? abandon it? shove all your notes into a box and pretend it didn’t happen? Yeah, right. You’re going to milk it for all it’s worth and, in the case of Cowan’s book, it’s worth quite a lot. I was anticipating something more like a literally social history of coffee; Cowan spends a lot more time on the economic and trade aspects of simply getting coffee from the Eastern growing fields to the West — specifically, to Britain; more specifically, to England; even more specifically than that, to London. His discussion of the trade and sales aspects of the cycle of coffee growing, buying, and selling was interesting but, since economic tables tend to make me glaze and I have a hell of a time following arguments based around percentages, it didn’t grab me.

Cowan’s work on the social aspects of coffee in terms of drinking, use, coffeehouse culture, etc. was fascinating and I fully intend to mine his bibliography for additional reading. What I wanted — I found after reading his first two chapters about the selling and buying of coffee in the middle and far east — was a history of coffeehouse culture and the adoption of coffee into everyday life. While Cowan covers a little bit of that, I wanted more.

Swallowdale, Arthur Ransome.

I read Swallows and Amazons years ago as a child and, while I enjoyed it, I didn’t have anywhere near the knock-on relationship with the books that Anna and her siblings seem to have had. I vaguely remember trying to read Swallowdale — or perhaps it was Peter Duck? — when I finished the first book and finding it just too boring to go on with. Nothing happened; the kids just wandered around, found a nice place, made a camp in it, found a better place, made a camp in that, and the book was done.

Whoopdee.

While this is still essentially what happens — it isn’t like the ghost of Arthur Ransome has been sneaking around adding in Daleks or anything — I must have been in the right mood this time, because it struck me as being kind of sweet and rather restful. Nothing bad ever happens. Even when one of the children is injured, it’s okay because all adults are helpful and kind and want nothing more than to drop whatever they’re doing and be of assistance. The descriptions of the lake the kids camp around and the surrounding countryside are beautiful; probably the book is worth reading for those alone.

Winter Holiday, Arthur Ransome. (This isn’t the edition I read, but I couldn’t find that one and I love the “With Many Illustrations” caption on this one.)

Yeah, okay, I got on a roll. (But I bogged with the next one — Pigeon Post was just too damned hot.) Holiday, though, was nice and cold — all about Arctic exploration. Two new children are added to the original Swallows and Amazons group — I’m not quite sure why he bothered with two since the sister of the brother-and-sister pair gets little to do and almost nothing to say. I don’t think it’s that Ransome didn’t know how to write authoritative female characters — check out Nancy of the Amazons and the mothers of both sets of children — but Dora just seems…kind of pale. Perhaps it’s the name? Is there ever a good, muscular character named Dora?

Body, Mind, and Spirit, Elwood Worcester.

I don’t have a cover image for this one — just you try searching Google Images for ‘body, mind, and spirit’ — even adding an author name doesn’t help! In any case, the book is quite elderly since it was originally published in the early ’30s and I can’t imagine it had a huge readership then.

Worcester was one of two leaders of something called the “Emmanuel movement,” based out of the Emmanuel Church here in Boston and as far as I can tell, it was the one you walk past the Fenway going between the Simmons College residence campus and academic campus. (I’m not 100% on that one, so don’t quote me.) In any case, I’m researching this movement for a blog post I want to write for work because we have 5 gigantic — at least 4 inches thick — scrapbooks of newspaper clippings all about Worcester, his helpers, and the movement. Worcester himself was a clergyman and the movement combined elements of faith healing, spiritualism, and all sorts of odds and ends to make up a kind of “self healing through willpower” idea.

It was wildly popular in the very early years of the 20th century — between about 1905 and 1912 or so — and then had a brief resurgence in the World War I era. Worcester himself put a lot of time and work into the movement since it was all based on his concept of how the world could be made a better place. Body is one of at least two books that he authored about the principles of the movement and, brother, it’s a hoot. It’s a little painful to read at times because it seems pretty clear, to me at least, that Worcester wanted to help people and thought he was. From our 2011 point of view, though, he must have done incalculable damage to quite a few people — but probably helped some others. He wasn’t a trained physician or psychologist but clearly thought that his lay experience as a preacher and parish leader made up for the difference. Not so much, really, but a fascinating read.

And last but not least…

Livia, Empress of Rome, Matthew Dennison.

This is an attempt at a biography of Livia, wife of Caesar Augustus, first (technical) empress of Rome. Dennison’s aim here is to debunk the mythbuilding that surrounds Livia since the history-writing of the late Roman period (which villified her) and the exceptionally popular television series I, Claudius of the late 1970s which made her into a complete wicked witch figure.

Livia is a totally enjoyable read and I commend Dennison 100% for making early Roman history — which can be awkward and unreadable and loaded with so many classical allusions and tags that it’s just impossible to get through for the modern reader — a pleasure to get through.

As to his aim of debunking the myth of Livia as villain — eh. The problem with doing that is that there is so little evidence one way or the other. In case you never watched I, Claudius: for one thing, shame on you! Why would you deny yourself this fantastic pleasure? Go rent it immediately. For a second thing, Livia is the arch-villainess of the entire piece. And in a 13-some-odd hour series which also features Patrick Stewart as Sejanus and John Hurt as Caligula, that is no mean achievement.

Sian Phillips as Livia (with Brian Blessed as
Augustus in background.)

Livia is Augustus’ third wife (he is her second marriage) and, as Robert Graves writes her, she kills her way to the top. Not through Augustus’ other wives, by any means, but she poisons pretty much anyone who stands in the way of her eminence gris control of the Roman throne. If you don’t want to eat any figs after you watch the show, don’t blame me.

Dennison takes issue with this portrayal of Livia — while giving Sian Phillips a grudging amount of credit for her eyewateringly good performance — as based on partial and biased Roman historical sources, some of which were written years after Livia’s death and, potentially, for political reasons that required her to be toppled from a prime position in the early history of Rome. Unfortunately for Dennison, it isn’t like he has access to some great hitherto undiscovered trove of Roman primary sources either. He’s stuck with even less material — potentially — than the Roman authors he says smeared Livia’s reputation. And in his eagerness to clear Livia of charges of poisoning — which I would imagine would be the cold case of the millennium anyway; unlikely even to be taken on by the Waking the Dead crew — he does occasionally swing a little too far in the other direction.

Yes, okay, she probably didn’t poison every single person Graves thought she did in order to put together a compelling and dramatic story but she also survived for a record long time in a society that was pretty much made up of backstabbing and treacherous political maneuvering. And she died of old age.That’s a hell of a tight-rope to walk and keep your hands snowy white at the same time.

So, yes, read Dennison’s book — it’s enjoyable and you’ll learn things. But then watch I, Claudius. It is also enjoyable and you will learn different things.

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