SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard (2015).  I guess I will never tire of reading books about ancient Rome.  This is a good one.  It starts at the very beginning, examining the mythical founding stories of Romulus and Remus and the early dynasty of kings of Rome, and then marches up to the year 212 A.D. when emperor Caracalla made every free male inhabitant of the empire a Roman citizen.  Beard doesn’t focus much on the big names of Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus, but Cicero gets quite of bit of ink.  Very readable, but I did get slightly irritated when Beard would interject little comments about how barbaric or how sexist some particular ancient practice seems by today’s standards.  I didn’t really need her to prove her up-to-date sensibilities to me.

The Diary of a Young Girl (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank.  I had never read this famous book before, but when I signed up for a vacation trip to Amsterdam I figured I should read it first.  I got about halfway through before my trip rolled around, but that was enough to help give me some context when I visited the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam.  I finished the book over the course of the trip.  Anyway, it is an interesting book, and Anne comes across as a lively, spirited, and strong-willed teenager.  It does get a little repetitive, perhaps, but how could it not, given that Anne lived in hiding in a tiny space with the same group of people for two years?

The Clockwork Universe (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick (2011).  Aw.  I just pulled this book off the shelf and discovered it still bore a price tag from my beloved Borders Bookstore, may it rest in peace.  Anyway, this is an enjoyable read about the scientific revolution in and around the time of Sir Isaac Newton.  Dolnick keeps it pretty simple and even interesting, which is saying something considering that I generally find science pretty boring.  But Dolnick knows how to tell a story, leavening the science stuff with juicy tidbits about the plague, methods of execution, and the wicked personal rivalries between some of the scientific figures of the day.  I plan to send this volume on to my scientist sister and see what she thinks of it.

Dying Every Day (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, by James Romm (2014).  Seneca was an ambitious philosopher–poet–politician in ancient Rome.  He became a tutor of Nero, who was heir-apparent to Roman emperor Claudius, and attempted to instill Stoic philosophy and virtue in the young man.  Unfortunately, Nero turned out to be a homicidal maniac who, among other things, arranged for the murder of his own mother.  Things ended badly for Nero, Seneca, and lots of other people in Nero’s orbit, but only after a reign of terror that lasted about 13 years.  It’s definitely an interesting story, and well told by Romm, a classics professor at Bard College.

Kearny’s March (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Kearny’s March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847, by Winston Groom (Alfred A. Knopf 2011).  This book of popular history is not really my usual fare, but I saw a good review of it somewhere and then saw it on sale somewhere else.  It is an interesting read, mainly about the Mexican-American War and the conquest of New Mexico and California by the United States.  There are, as the title suggests, heroic marches across unforgiving wilderness, and also a few pitched battles that Groom describes in some detail.  I was mainly struck by how few combatants seemed to be involved in the battles—the clashing armies seldom seemed to contain more than a couple thousand men, and sometime only a few hundred.  Groom also gives a thumbnail sketch of what happened to the infamous Donner party (the band of settlers that got stuck in the mountains trying to get to California and wound up turning cannibal).  I thought it was a good book.

A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe, by Christian Meier (Oxford 2012). Seems like I just can’t get enough of those ancient Greeks and Romans. This is a dense book by a leading historian and scholar of our toga-clad forebears. Meier sets out to discover why a “culture of freedom” arose in ancient Greece and seemingly nowhere else. Interestingly, he focuses on the centuries before the part of Greek history that is usually written about—that is, he writes about the centuries before the rise of Athens, before the Greeks’ successful defenses against Persian invasion, and before the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Because the historical record is so thin, there’s necessarily a lot of speculation about what went on roughly 1200-500 B.C., but Meier seems to be the right man for the job. It’s not a fast read, but it’s an interesting and thought-provoking one.

A Little History of the World (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

A Little History of the World, by E. H. Gombrich (Yale 1985).  This is apparently quite a famous book, but I learned of it only recently.  Its background is quite interesting.  In 1935, a twenty-six-year-old Austrian named Ernst Gombrich had his doctorate in art history but no immediate job prospects.  An acquaintance asked him to review an English-language history book for children, and Gombrich opined that he could do a better job.  The acquaintance invited him to try, and in six weeks he banged one out.  It was published in 1936 and became a success.  Thirty years later he put out a second edition, and it too was a success.  Finally, he and his granddaughter translated it into English, and here it is.  Although the book is pitched to the level of a reasonably intelligent child, I would say it is a pleasure to read for all ages.  Gombrich’s authorial voice is gentle and humane, and he does not treat our ancestors and their beliefs with condescension.  The title is a touch misleading because Gombrich’s focus is strongly European, with only a few scattered glances at China, India, Japan, Africa, and the Americas.  But if you’re going to write all of human history in 284 pages, I imagine some things are going to have to get short-changed.  I quite enjoyed it, and I may have to keep my eyes peeled for Gombrich’s even more famous work, The Story of Art.