Tag Archives: Mary Beard

Is It Time For Me To Head Back To The Ancient Classics?

It is funny how long you will deny something to yourself and indeed the reasons for doing so. From an early age I was brought up not just on fairy tales but on the stories of, and adventures around, the Greek gods and goddesses. You see my mother is something (understatement of the year) of a classicist and so as often as I would ask to be regaled with the story of Rapunzel again and again, I would also ask to be read and reread the tale of Persephone. I was also obsessed with Jim Henson’s The Storyteller spin off about the Greek Myths, I also just had a flashback to a phase I had of loving the animated Shakespeare series, especially Zoe Wannamakers Lady Macbeth. I digress. This all changed when I went to school, where Mum taught, and got 99% in my classics exam. Rather than this being a good thing, some bullying little sods at school made my life hell and said I was either a complete geek or my mum had told me all the answers. My response of course was to shut down and shut out classics. Wow, this is like therapy.

Almost 23 years later when I found myself picking potential holidays Cyprus (have I mentioned I have been on holiday at all) kept coming up and once I explored it, it wasn’t just the all inclusive four star hotel bargain that kept pulling me back, if I am being honest it was also the fact there were ancient tombs, moments, rocks, myths and legends about the island too – like being the birthplace of Aphrodite – that kept drawing me back. And when I got there it was the archaeological park that was one of the first places I wanted to visit, and oddly when I did I felt strangely at home.

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This might of course be because of all the times I went to these places with my mother as a kid (driving through the Greek mountains recently I was reminded of those trips where I played all Cathy Dennis’ albums on repeat) even the seven hour trip around Pompeii, which may have also hardened my heart to classics a little bit possibly. What I wasn’t expecting was for mosaics to bring such a sense of nostalgia back to me…

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But they did…

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And then I was really cross with myself when I couldn’t remember the stories surrounding some of the mosaics that we saw, even when I recognised the names. The more we saw the stronger the sense of nostalgic and slight pining for these tales of ancient times became.

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As did the sense of the ancient world suddenly being so vivid and overwhelming the more of the old ancient sites that we visited. Really there is nothing like standing in or in front of an old Odeon to bring back the spirits and beliefs of the people who would have been sat in there watching some performances.

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So the more we wandered round, and the more that we saw throughout the week, the more I started to get the old classicist itch, which I honestly thought was more dormant than Mount Vesuvius. So now I feel I need to scratch it, or if we want to go right down Pun Alley, the more I want to start an archaeological dig on my soul and start to excavate this side of me again.

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I have dabbled with the classics in the past few years. I read Poetics by Aristotle (who my mum once named a cat after) and thought it was a brilliant piece of writing about, well, writing. I loved Mary Beard’s collection of essays It’s A Don’s Life, and loved her TV show Rome but I love Mary Beard regardless, who doesn’t? I also really enjoyed Natalie Haynes’ The Amber Fury which weaves Greek tragedies through it, and enjoyed the nods to Greek tragedy in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And then there is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles which I love, love, love, love, love. If you haven’t read it you must.

The question is what next? I have just gone and ordered Natalie’s The Ancient Guide To Modern Life as I think that will be up my street and am debating both Robert Graves Greek Myths (as I want to be reminded of them all, if it isn’t dry and dusty) and Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone. In fact speaking of Ali Smith, I should get my hands on more of the Canongate Myths series really shouldn’t I? Oh and Vintage did kindly send me a copy of Euripides The Bacchae so that could be next. Blimey so much choice. What do you think? Any ancient classic texts you would recommend to me, or indeed any other retellings?

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The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2014

One of my favourite prizes of the bookish year is what we now know as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I have been a supporter of it for many a year now, trying to guess the longlist and then trying to read them. I normally stay up until the midnight announcement but as I appear to have aged by about 20 plus years in the last few weeks I couldn’t. I did wake up at about 5am, when Oscar decided to be sick behind the wardrobe, and then have a sneak peak and it’s a really interesting list…

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Before I go on to share the list can I just say there is so much that is brilliant about the above picture it is almost too much. Imagine being on a panel of judges with Mary Beard and Caitlin Moran, you’d just be in heaven. Anyway, the list of twenty books in full is as follows…

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood
The Dogs of Littlefield – Suzanne Berne
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon – Fatima Bhutto
The Bear – Claire Cameron
Eleven Days – Lea Carpenter
The Strangler Vine – M.J. Carter
The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
Reasons She Goes to the Woods – Deborah Kay Davies
The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert
Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri
The Undertaking – Audrey Magee
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride
Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson
Still Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen
The Burgess Boys – Elizabeth Strout
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Amazingly though I don’t have all of them I do happen to have thirteen (I am hoping this is not an omen) of them in the house 4.5 of which I have read.

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I didn’t try and guess the longlist this year (what a party pooper) because I didn’t feel after last year being my slowest and quietest year for reading what with Gran (who was a huge fan of the prize, I think it lead her to Rose Tremain, and would be happy I have posed the books on what were her sofa’s on which she did much reading and I will carry on the tradition of) and all that jazz I didn’t feel that I could give a good enough insight. Plus there is always the worry you look super smug, then the mild embarrassment when I am sooooo wrong and the invariable almost moan of ‘why wasn’t x and y book on the list?’ Speaking of which Naomi Wood, Fiona McFarlane? Moving swiftly on…

I would have stabbed a guess at All the Birds, Singing, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, Burial Rites and Almost English being on the list as they were all highlights of my reading year last year, so naturally I am thrilled for those to be on the list. I may also have hazarded a guess at Americanah and MaddAddam being on the list as they are by two of my favourite authors though shockingly I didn’t read these upon release, strange. I also would have guessed The Luminaries, The Goldfinch and The Flamethrowers as they have been three of the most talked about books and also interestingly three books which seem to really divide people, interesting.

Berne, Bhutto, Cameron and Carter I am excited about because I have them on my shelves, The Bear was actually one of the books I mentioned in The Readers ‘Books To Be Excited About January to June’ show. Yet, as always with me, it is the books I know very little or nothing about that are the ones that I instantly go off and look up.  Deborah Kay Davies is an author I have already read and was equally impressed and disturbed with True Things About Me so I will have to get my mitts on her knew one, Elizabeth Strout I know through Olive Kitteridge which I still haven’t read but Gran raved about, Lea Carpenter and Audrey Magee are completely knew to me which is most exciting.

So it is a really interesting list, some big names with big books, some debuts, some lesser known authors all in the mix. Now I just have to choose which one to start with… I was umming and ahhing about doing a shadow jury of beardy blogging blokes but I think to try them out as and when the whim takes me might be a better plan of action. So while I decide which one gets read next (I am leaning towards The Bear) which of these books have you read and what did you make of them? Which books are you keen to read? And what do you make of the list overall?

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It’s A Don’s Life – Mary Beard

If you had told me at the start of 2012 that I would have embraced the world of classic civilization over the next few months I would have looked at you with a raised eyebrow and the expression ‘I seriously doubt it’ all over my face. My mother teaches Classics and as a child I got all the myths, taken round Pompeii for about nine hours, endless (literally endless) trips round museums with Roman and Greek relics and then ridiculed at secondary school (where my mother also taught) when I got 100% in the Classics exam. I might have studied it further had that not happened and my mother being one of the only teachers who taught it. However this has changed this year, this is in part thanks to two women. One was Madeline Miller and her wonderful debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’, the other was watching Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’ which had me hooked and led me to ‘It’s A Don’s Life’ a collection of her blog posts for the TLS.

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Profile Books, 2009, paperback, non fiction, 224 pages, kindly sent by publisher

The things that I most liked about Mary Beard when watching her present ‘Meet the Romans’ was her warmth, humour, enthusiasm and the fact that she talks to the audience, which even though you know is lots and lots of people you feel is just you, in a down to earth tone without implying you are stupid. I was relieved, and rather thrilled to discover that as soon as I started reading ‘It’s A Don’s Life’ her blog posts, which read like brief essays, had exactly the same qualities about them. It doesn’t matter if she is discussing the academic world (she is a ‘Don’ after all), her students at Cambridge, politics, Amy Winehouse or a new historic place that she visits, the way she writes is like she is talking to you over a coffee. She never patronises or come across as ‘clever’ even though she clearly is.

“You have to pay extra to visit the harem and technically speaking you can only go round with a guide (parties leave every half hour). But despite fierce notices about not getting separated from your group, none of the guards seemed too much bothered if you hired an individual ‘audio guide’ and wandered pretty much at will.”

Even though I have been completely won over by the way she brought everyday Roman life to, erm, life in ‘Meet the Romans’ I worried that with this collection I might feel slightly out of my depth. I am no Cambridge student after all, though I wish Mary Beard had taught me, and I was worried that as the book went on the merge of the classical history and the academic life might prove too much. It doesn’t and that is for two reasons, as I mentioned before the book isn’t just about Classics and Cambridge, but when it is its insightful and funny ‘Pissing in the Pyramids’, ‘Keep Lesbos for Lesbians’ and ’10 Things You Thought You knew About The Romans… But Didn’t’ are all prime examples of that, there is also the fact that she will throw in sentences and asides that you empathise with and know about through daily life.

“I do have a soft spot for Woman’s Hour. I like the way it squeezes in wonderfully subversive feminist reports next to those drearily wholesome recipes for tuna pasta bake.”

As read in Verona Arena…

I almost want to call Mary Beard’s style of prose a little ‘naughty’ in some respects, on ‘Meet the Romans’ I loved how she gave us the nitty gritty side of Roman times like communal loo’s and tales of murder, here we have more Roman insight and all the Latin words for naughty bits (which I have been telling everyone about since and then praising the book overall) yet I think ‘wry’ is probably a better term for her demeanour.

 “Most people go onto Amazon to buy books; easy shopping, and it would be an entirely admirable enterprise, if it wasn’t killing all our local bookshops. Authors, though, sneakily visit Amazon to check how their books are selling… …But what every author wants to know is how many sales does it take to get you zooming up the Amazon ranks. I’ve always suspected we are dealing with single figures here. But proof came the other day when the husband decided to buy 4 copies of his own book on icons, which seemed almost as cheap, and a lot easier to obtain from Amazon than from the publishers. The result was that he zoomed more than 250,000 places up the rankings.”

The second reason that the book doesn’t get too much, I seemed to get sidetracked from this earlier sorry, is that by its very nature this is a book that you dip in and out of rather than simply read it in one or two sittings as you might a novel.

In fact one of the phrases that Mary uses in the afterword of this collection is “The book is also a convenient and portable commodity. No one I know reads their laptop on the underground, in bed or on the loo.” This seems most apt as I have been dipping in and out of this collection in all these places, well, swap the underground for an aeroplane and throw in a Roman Arena as shown above. Whether you know a lot about Classics and the Romans (even if its lain dormant or hidden) or nothing at all I would highly recommend spending some time with Mary Beard be it in book form, blog or on the television, it is a joy and you’ll learn things without knowing it. I am really glad I have the next collection ‘All In A Don’s Day’ in the TBR for similar style reading over the next few months.

So who else is a big Mary Beard fan? (Some of you may know I started a twitter account for ‘The Beardettes’ @welovemarybeard should you wish to follow it.) Are you a regular reader of her blog for the TLS? Have you read any of her other books such as ‘Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town’ or ‘The Parthenon’, if so should I give them a whirl? I am very tempted.

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Books By The (Hotel) Bedside…

So today in my only post not scheduled before we flew to Italy, where I am now, I thought I would bring you one of my ‘books by the bedside’ posts (where I share what I am reading in the hope you’ll share what you are) with a holiday twist as these are the books I packed…

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The Beard did raise his eyebrows at this amount however…I have to pack more books that it is likely I will read on holiday as you never know what you might be in the mood for when you get there do you? I also have to have a crime novel (like the Kishwar Desai) or a funny book (which I think Kerry Hudson’s is meant to be) for the flights as I hate flying and need something to concentrate on. The Desai was perfect on the way here.

I also like books set where I am going. I could have packed William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for Verona (we went to the balcony which I’ll be posting about when we are back) but it was a brief stint there though I did read some Mary Beard while we were in the Roman Arena as it felt apt.

In Florence I have been struggling with ‘The Villa (set in Florence) by Lucretia Grindle, it’s good and it’s teasing me that it’s going to be quite a thrilling mystery if I keep at it but there’s a lot of ‘his hair was like a lions mane’ and ‘she ate systematically if delicately, like a horse’ which is slightly grating so I might switch to Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ instead.

There is one major temptation though, the hotel we are staying at has the most stunning library (the building was once home Italian journalist and writer Ugo Ojetti, who held literary and art events here) and its brimming with books I want to read…

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So I might be tempted away! Anyway, we are having an amazing time and the suns out so I am off to the pool! What have you been reading of late and what’s on your bedside table? Do you pack more books than you really need for a holiday?

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Much Wenlock (A Town of Books)

What could be more perfect on my birthday than visiting a wonderful olde-worlde village brimming with history, antique shops, delis, tea rooms and book shops? Well actually going with my book loving Gran, mother and little teenage sister as it happens. Fortunate really as that is what I ended up doing on my 30th Birthday back in March. Knowing that if you read this blog it would be something that you would enjoy I took pictures along the way so you could do the jaunt with me, be warned though there are pictures of very tempting book shops and their contents ahead…

I didn’t know very much (pun not intended) about Much Wenlock before we took the thirty minute drive from my mother’s tiny village on my birthday morning. My 13 year old sister soon told me that it was the town which started the Olympics, which I refused to believe until my mother told me to ‘listen to your little sister, you might learn something sunshine’ and I learnt it was true. I have since found out it is the birth place of Mary Beard (who I am officially obsessed with at the moment) so it has grown on me favourably even more. The first thing I did notice was how quintessentially English it looked. To me this is the perfect stereotypical English country town in all its glory…

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One of the reasons we had headed that way was that my mother and I had had the idea that maybe for my 30th we should get something from an antique shop that I could keep forever as a memento, and we found a brilliantly bonkers little store on one street which was literally crammed with delights…

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Sadly nothing was quite what I was after, so we came away fruitless, though I was tempted by an owl…

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So next came the bookshops, first of which was Wenlock Books a tardis of a store which has both new books and old.

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You walk into the stores ground floor and are hit with a level of book porn which is almost too tempting for its own good frankly…

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And thats before you go upstairs…

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Where there are nooks and crannies of bookish delights awaiting you in secret corners.

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I chose something suitably apt as my memento of my visit there.

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Next up was Much More Books which is a solely second hand store just down the road.

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You walk in and are hit with that always welcoming scent of old books needing a new home and the possibility of finding real gems on every shelf.

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I made my sister spend her pocket money on this…

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How could I not? It was on a very impressive Penguin shelf. The sea of orange is always so tempting.

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I grabbed a rare piece of Daphne Du Maurier’s non-fiction which I had never heard of and seemed like it simply had to be bought by me and no one else.

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I didn’t buy, and am slightly kicking myself for not doing so, a copy of a very rare Daphne Du Maurier short story/novella ‘Happy Christmas’. It wasn’t the fact it was a lot of money, it was more the fact that it was a Christmas book and I don’t read those at any other time of year.

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I am hoping that someone (Mum, Gran, The Beard… anyone?) might just get me a copy for Christmas this year. Hint, hint.

So I came away with two treats, Gran with three, but my sister and mother did the best coming away with a whopping six books each! Well done them! Eventually, though it took a while, we were rather booked out and so we left (via a tea room, Abbey and a deli) and headed home for champagne. What a wonderfully bookish birthday treat!

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