strange_complex: (Cities condor in flight)
And now that I am finally up to date with film reviews and Doctor Who reviews, I can turn my attention once again to my much-neglected book reviews.

I should have read this one years ago, given that I'm a Classicist who loves stories of a fantastical nature, but it took me until 2011 to finally get round to it. And what a fool I was to wait so long, because it is completely ace! I knew that it involved the narrator going on a voyage to the moon, and for that reason has often been viewed as the first (surviving) SF story - but actually he and his companions travel through a whole series of wondrous settings. These include an island with rivers of wine, a giant whale so huge that there are colonies of people living inside its stomach, an island made of cheese, the Isle of the Blest full of Greek heroes, philosophers and writers, Calypso's island, an island inhabited by people with the heads of bulls, an island full of cannibalistic witches and finally a mysterious new transAtlantic continent which he promises to describe - but never does.

In its own time this was probably conceived as a satire on stories of epic voyages like the Odyssey and the Argonautica, so the settings which the narrator experiences are basically an exaggerated parody of places like the island of the Lotus Eaters, Circe's island, the all-female society of Lemnos, or the land of the six-armed giants in those works. Lucian knits his fantastical settings together using the same epic voyage format, but marks his work out as satire by declaring up-front that the entire story is a bunch of lies. This has kept scholars busy discussing ancient conceptions of the relationship between 'fiction' and 'lies' ever since (to little purpose in my view).

Reading from a modern perspective, I found that the succession of wondrous lands full of strange people reminded me more than anything of the Wizard of Oz series. That may simply be because the very lively and engaging translation which I read was published in 1913, though - i.e. right in the middle of the period when L. Frank Baum was writing the original Oz series (1900-1920). Certainly, almost any modern SF series which involves a core group of travellers visiting a succession of fantastical places could be compared to this, including Star Trek, Doctor Who and The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy (which incorporates the satirical element as well) and no doubt many more. Indeed, just as this work in itself relates closely to the Odyssey, the Argonautica et sim., so too do modern works of SF using the same basic voyage format - as Ray Harryhausen surely knew when he closed the circle by positioning Jason and the Argonauts as an SF film. Genres overlap and inform one another, and everything is intertextual.

From the translation I read at least, I can also say that this was a genuinely good read - funny, inventive, and (precisely because it is so fantastical) not really requiring any particular knowledge of the ancient world to 'get' the jokes. The Isle of the Blest section might drag a bit for non-Classicists, because that includes topical humour about particular heroes and thinkers - e.g. Ajax, Theseus and Menelaus, Alexander and Hannibal, Homer, Aesop, Diogenes the Cynic and so forth. But even there the basis of most of the jokes is pretty clear from the context. Otherwise, I can highly recommend this book to anyone - especially since it is available for free right here, and is only the equivalent of a couple of chapters from a modern novel long.

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strange_complex: (Corpus Agrimensorum colonia)
Ludicrous though this may seem, I am still working through my 2011 book reviews. So here's a review of a book I read a year ago. Yay!

I bought this after reading an enthusiastic review of it on [livejournal.com profile] nwhyte's journal, and was glad I had done so. It tells the lively, funny and yet also tragic tale of Zuleika, the daughter of Sudanese immigrant parents living in Roman London at the time of the emperor Septimius Severus. Spoilerific plot summary )

I was a little apprehensive before I started reading about the fact that the book is written entirely in verse, but I didn't need to be. This isn't the dull, pretentious poetry of school anthologies, but lively rhythmic stanzas which rattle along, sparkling with wit and infused with Evaristo's love of language and detail. A fairly typical extract runs thus )

That gives a pretty good idea of how Evaristo captures the feeling of a multi-ethnic empire, blending loan-words from Latin, cod-Latin and several other European languages into Zuleika's English, which itself expresses her unique blend of a street-urchin upbringing and the education which her husband has paid for. The balance varies from character to character, so that Zuleika's Sudanese parents speak with a more obviously exotic accent than she does, her bar-keeper friend Venus is a cheerful cockney who calls her 'ducky', and even the emperor himself uses the halting African accent which the Historia Augusta claims he retained into old age. And modern London is all part of the mix, with it night-life, its people and its place-names recognisable amongst the dinner-parties, amphitheatres and atria of the Roman city. It works well - not over-done or obscuring the differences between the two cultures, but helping to bridge the gulf between present and past, and revealing the cultural differences between the Romans and us all the more strongly for putting them alongside the similarities.

Evaristo wrote this book during a period as writer-in-residence at the Museum of London, and it's clear from the funeral instructions which Zuleika delivers to her life-long friend Alba as she dies that her character was inspired by the occupant of the lavish Spitalfields burial found in 1999. Actually this was recognised pretty much from the start as belonging to the early fourth century AD, rather than the early third when Evaristo's story is set, and DNA testing has also revealed that the Spitalfield lady's ethnic background was probably Spanish rather than Sudanese. But the third-century setting allows Evaristo to bring Zuleika, such a characteristic product of the Roman empire's capacity for enabling ethnic mingling and social mobility while still perpetuating huge social inequalities, face to face with the emperor at the centre of it (himself a product of those same systems), in a way that a fourth-century setting would not. And if the Spitalfields lady herself was not actually an African immigrant who had achieved high social status, then the Ivory Bangle lady from York shows that she had contemporaries on these isles who were.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves Roman history, the city of London, well-developed female characters and / or deftly deployed language.

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strange_complex: (Me Yes to Fairer Votes)
This is an assessment of all the main possible methods for electing national governments, written by a lecturer at the University of Reading with the explicit aim of making "the findings of research on electoral systems available to a wider audience ahead of the referendum in the UK planned for May 2011." A fellow Yes campaigner recommended it to me at the beginning of this year as a balanced, rigorous and accessible guide to the main strengths and weaknesses of both First Past the Post and the Alternative Vote, so that I'd be equipped to argue about both intelligently in the course of the referendum campaign - and it has certainly provided that extremely effectively. Not only that, but the timing of the publication means that the author wrote it in the full knowledge that a referendum on the issue was going to be taking place, so that he was able to draw on up-to-date material such as the outcome of the 2010 General Election and comment on up-to-date issues such as the planned constituency boundary changes. So although the book actually goes beyond simply FPTP vs. AV, it is particularly well-geared to the current debate between the two, and examines them with the specific circumstances of the referendum in mind.

Overall structure and approach )

First Past The Post )

The Alternative Vote )

Simple Proportional Representation and Mixed electoral systems )

The Single Transferable Vote )

Obviously, it would probably have been helpful if I'd got round to reviewing this book a little earlier than 10 days before the referendum, so that anyone interested in reading Renwick's views for themselves could have had time to buy their own copy and read it before putting their cross on the ballot paper. But thankfully, Renwick's views on AV specifically are readily available online in the form of this briefing paper produced for the Political Studies Association. I can recommend it very highly to anyone wanting a properly balanced account of the arguments. Like the book, his assessment of the various strengths and weaknesses of AV as compared to FPTP in the paper is balanced, nuanced and objective. But the fairly clear conclusion to me is that AV is a small but measurable improvement on FPTP - and therefore worth having.

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