Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World

Over the past few weeks, as I have been telling people how much I liked this historical biography of a Roman empress, I have gotten some very skeptical responses. And I get it–it doesn’t sound like the kind of book you might pick up for a casual read on a Saturday afternoon. But I promise, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon is fascinating and compelling and funny and sad. Even though I knew Agrippina was not going to get a happy ending, I was still reading along as fast as I could, desperate to know what happened to this incredible woman who lived 2000 years ago.

The basic facts: Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus, and spent decades at the center of the imperial family and of Roman politics–she was Caligula’s sister, Claudius’s wife, and Nero’s mother. Her life was shot through with tragedy (imperial family disputes had a tendency to get bloody) but also with glory and ambition. Historical information about her is limited, since Roman writers only occasionally even bothered to mention women, so a lot of the book is Southon explaining what sources do mention Agrippina, and what we can assume in places where the historical record is silent. Southon (who is also lots of fun on Twitter @nuclearteeth) also does a really excellent job of both making sure that we remember that Agrippina was a real person with fears and loves and emotions, while also making it clear that Agripppina lived in an entirely different culture and time. For example, when discussing Agrippina’s first marriage, Southon talks about how disturbing she finds it that the 13-year-old bride was married to a man more than twice her age, but also makes the point that we really have no way of knowing how a Roman princess would have thought about this.

Southon is also really funny, and that’s what really makes this book stand apart. Yes, it’s a very detailed, academic history book that is rigorous in the treatment of its primary sources. But it’s also like hearing a snarky friend gossip about people you know. She calls Caligula “subtle as a brick,” says that Agrippina’s first husband was “a dick,” and is entertainingly exasperated with the Roman habit of giving everyone some variation of the same four names. It makes the book so readable, and helps bring the historical figures to life.

One final note: in the UK, where this was initially published, the title was Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore which is way more fun! I guess us Americans can’t handle that level of excitement in our history.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Tragic, yet funny.

You might also like:  For some more educational history enhanced by dry humor, check out A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, or any of Sarah Vowell’s historical books–I particularly like Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book

10percenthappierMeditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book
by Dan Harris, Jeffrey Warren, and Carlye Adler
read by Dan Harris and Jeffrey Warren
2017

I ran across this book a year or so ago at someone else’s house and noted that it looked interesting. The  elevator pitch that originally caught my eye: it’s written by a TV news anchor who had an on-air panic attack and got into meditation in the aftermath as he dealt with his issues. So when I was looking for a good audio book to listen to on my commute, I remembered it, requested it at my library, and gave it a shot.

As it turns out, a book on meditation is not necessarily the best thing to listen to while driving. While the authors are very specific about how you don’t have to actually stop and meditate when they do through a meditation, it’s something I might have enjoyed doing otherwise. And driving along as the speaker says, “close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing” isn’t the safest way to drive, especially if I want to do so.

Also, as I should have realized from the title, I’m not actually the audience for this book since I’m not a skeptic about the benefits of meditation. I don’t care for the spiritual and transcendental elements that sometimes come along with meditation, but I’m quite well aware of the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of meditation. Sadly, there are all sorts of things I know would be good for me that I still don’t do, which is why I wanted to try this book out. But while it was a reminder that I should try to meditate on a semi-regular basis, I found a lot of the self-deprecating bonhomie humor of Harris, the primary author, not to my taste and a reminder of one more reason why I don’t watch TV news chat shows.

But it did seem like a good book for the right audience. And as an audio book it was recorded in some ways like a podcast with Harris and Warren switching off reading their sections and occasionally interacting with each other in scripted conversations. So to sum up, a relatively good book but not really my cup’a.

Halloween reading

Hallowe’en Party

By Agatha Christie

Halloween_PartyWe don’t manage it every year, but we like to read seasonal books when we can, especially spooky Halloween stories. Not especially spooky, but I was thrilled that Agatha Christie had a Halloween novel! Hercule Poirot is summoned by a friend to a small village after a young girl is found drowned in the apple bobbing bucket at the end of the village’s halloween party. This probably wouldn’t have been an intriguing enough mystery for Poirot to expend his energy in retirement on, but the drowned girl had been insisting earlier in the party that she had witnessed a murder. A known liar, no one had believed her, so it seemed somewhat reckless for the murderer to then do away with her and give her words more importance.

As with all of Christie’s mysteries, this was excellently plotted and I had only the faintest guess as to the conclusion shortly before it was revealed. Despite this, Hallowe’en Party is not one of my favorites of hers. Published in 1969 towards the end of her life, I couldn’t help but wonder she was getting cranky in an “old man yells at cloud” kind of way. There is a fairly heavy-handed theme of the degeneracy of the younger generation, with at least half a dozen of Poirot’s contemporaries mentioning the rising crime rate among youths and the misguided mercy of showing them any leniency in the justice system. Which does not read very well in today’s climate of harsh and obviously biased policing. I was concerned that the entire plot would serve as a platform for this philosophy, but fortunately, Christie was too canny of an author to fall into that obvious indulgence.

Pumpkin Heads

By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

PumpkinheadsI was a little hesitant about reading this since Eleanor and Park broke me a little bit, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for any more of Rowell’s type of coming-of-age story, but this is much more light hearted! Deja and Josiah are best friends who work together at the world’s greatest pumpkin patch – I mean, there are pumpkins, of course, but there’s bumper cars, mini golf, s’mores bonfires, petting zoo animals, pony rides, corn maze, and every possible fall-season snack you can think of (and a few more)! (In the afterward, Rowell says she was inspired by some of Omaha’s excellent pumpkin patches, but that she and Hicks created their fantasy patch.)

Anyway, Deja and Josiah have worked together at the Succotash Hut (perhaps the one stop that I wouldn’t have been super excited about) for the last four years, but they are graduating high school, and going on to college, so this is their last year. In fact, this story is the last day of their last year, and Deja is determined that shy Josiah will actually talk to the girl that works at the fudge shop (yum!) that he’s been pining over from afar for the entire time.

This leads them all over the park, into and out of various hijinx, and of course they learn important things about life and themselves along the way, but with a light touch that mostly just celebrates everything fall, holidays, and friendship. Rowell’s writing is so funny and empathetic, Hicks’ art is lovely and really brought this dream park to life, and the whole thing left me feeling very warm hearted!

ComicFest_2019Also, this is your annual reminder that today is Halloween ComicFest, so if that’s your thing, see if one of your local comic shops is hosting an event here. We stopped by two of our local shops, and picked up an excess of kid-friendly comics, since we’ve found them to be even more popular with trick-or-treaters than candy.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

CertainDarkThingsCertain Dark Things
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
2016

This book was listed on the tumblr post Adult fantasy books not by straight white men and only realized afterwards that Anna was already reading a book by the same author. This book was summarized as “vampire noir in Mexico city.” It is really good!

It’s a vaguely futuristic dystopian world where there’s so much extreme poverty that the futuristic elements are minor flashes that just highlight how nothing has changed for the vast majority of people. It’s also a world where all the vampire legends from different lands are based on real beings, and there are ten confirmed types of vampires. It’s only been a few decades since vampires were revealed as real creatures but it’s now the norm, and the norm is that vampires run several of the major drug cartels. So in addition to the conflicts between government and drug cartel, there’s also conflict between government and vampires, between different vampire species, and between different drug cartels. And it all gets extremely messy and extremely bloody.

While the novel switches out point of view between several different characters, our main character is Domingo, a human guy in his late teens I think, who starts off feeling pretty good about himself and his place in the world: he’s got a steady income picking through trash and finding things he can sell and a place of his own in an abandoned metro tunnel. And then he sees a beautiful woman and tries talking to her and she actually acknowledges him! How lucky is he?

And just, he is kind of lucky because of all the vampires that he could have met she needs help that doesn’t involve him dying. Mostly.

It is also very much a noir. The bad guys are the bad guys because they are truly horrifically evil and the good guys are the good guys because at least they’re not as bad as the bad guys. But it’s a gritty world and no one is truly innocent. In the end everything works out in the best possible way but there’s just no real chance at a happy ending.

Actually, I take that back, spoiler alert: the dog lives. So that’s happy.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

By Joan Lindsay

Picnic_at_Hanging_RockI took a rather winding road to get this book: Nicole Cliffe, who’s newsletter I’ve recommended before, linked to a 2018 list of the 100 most influential horror movie scenes. For the longest time, I thought I didn’t like horror, since I don’t particularly like the slasher movies that were the fad when I was a teen. However, I love both old-school Hitchcock suspense and our current heyday of psychological horror, and I found the evolution of the horror genre in the article fascinating.

Anyway, the description for the film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock made me laugh: “notable for the absence of violence or even a conventionally advancing narrative.” As my friends and family can attest, I have seen (and imposed on other people) my fair share of movies lacking “conventionally advancing narrative.” I don’t have as much patience for them as I used to, so wasn’t super interested in seeing this movie, but when Bookbub recommended the novel to me the next day, it felt like fate.

And I absolutely loved it! Four schoolgirls wander off from a picnic party to get a closer look at the titular Hanging Rock, and only one returns, hysterical and incommunicative. The impressive thing is that we, the reader, are with them the whole time, too (or at least with the returning fourth girl). We ‘see’ the three girls walk deeper into the rock of their own volition, while the fourth seems to just freak herself out and run away from them. She can’t describe what happened because nothing did happen, and that’s what’s so unnerving!

There is no act of violence or even maliciousness. For a novel about the disappearance of schoolgirls, it is almost unbelievably serene. After the build up to the disappearance and then the subsequent panic of the search, the novel deals almost entirely with the ripple effects, both good and bad, this one event has on the details of daily life for the surrounding characters. It reminded me quite a bit of On The Beach, another Australian novel I loved and that focuses entirely on mundane details during a cataclysmic event.

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic_DSTraffic: why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)
written by Tom Vanderbilt
read by David Slavin
2008

Since I’m listening to audiobooks on my commute, I figured I might as well listen to one about traffic patterns. This was not my best idea ever. Not only does the reader try to input emotional import into every single one of his sentences to make it sound important and high energy and highly emotional (not what I want first thing in the morning as I drive in or after a long day’s work), but it also has a tendency to tell me what the average person’s commute is like and how people with longer commutes are unhappy with those commutes. I dislike being told I should dislike something that I don’t currently dislike. Look, there are enough things in the world that I do dislike, that I don’t need to acquire more just to fit in! And yet, I start double-guessing myself: am I unhappy with my commute? Should I be? Urg.

But aside from all that, it’s still a really interesting book.

While not in specific sections, this book addresses traffic in three different ways: as a psychologist about human behaviors, as a game theorist about best options, and as historian about stories. As it turns out, I really enjoy the stories (did you know that LA traffic has a central command hub that is largely automated except for Oscar night where there are people literally manipulating the light cycles to try to get the limousines all through? Because I hadn’t and I love it!), I find the game theory interesting (when lanes merge, late merging benefits everyone, so don’t merge until you absolutely have to!), and I find the psychology really, really irritating (as stated above, I don’t like people telling me what I do or do not think, and I’m not sure whether it’s worse when they’re wrong or when they’re right.)

Overall I do recommend the book and have found that even as I waited a month or so to actually post about this, that many of the stories and concepts have stuck with me.

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods_of_Jade_and_ShadowOoh, this book is so good (and how gorgeous is that cover)! It really does stand as uniquely its own, but all the descriptors I can think of are derivative of other books: it’s like American Gods but gentler, funnier, and somehow just more feminine; it’s got elements of both The Last Unicorn and The Labyrinth, a couple of my favorite pieces of media. Basically, they all have common motifs of mortals discovering the unexpected power they have to either help or resist immortals.

Set in 1920s Mexico, Casiopea is the poor relation in a wealthy family, in her own words: treated like Cinderella, but without the sweetness of character that earns Cinderella her eventual reward. She instead balances duty and resentment in a very recognizable way and chafes at her endless days of drudgery until she accidentally releases a God of Death from imprisonment. At which point, she is basically conscripted in his search for vengeance against those that imprisoned him, leading her from her small town, where her family at least was a large fish in a little pond, into progressively larger cities and exposing her to an array of beings, both natural and supernatural.

This is where it gets tricky. Our heroine is human in the most empathetic way, trying to do what is right while struggling with all the human weaknesses of anger and anxiety, while the god is charming in his own aloof, uncompromising way. The two are supernaturally connected for the duration of this quest, to the peril of both. There is a predominate theme, similar to in The Last Unicorn, of how lengthy exposure to mortals and the mortal world weakens/tarnishes immortals so that they are never as pure as they were to begin with, and that is very effective suspense for me.

A serious trigger warning, however: this is a God of Death we are talking about here, so there is plenty of death abounding, including animal sacrifice and suicide. Now both of those are things that I’m pretty sensitive to, and I was able to read it without trouble because they happen quickly and matter-of-factly instead of really delving into the gritty details, but take care.

While I was reading this, Rebecca sent me a link to a Tumblr post, which gives a variety of excellent recommendations for “Adult fantasy books not by straight white men!” The poster organized it by general tone, which is so, so useful. Under “Urban Fantasy,” one of my favorite sub-genres, she recommends a vampire noir in Mexico City by Moreno-Garcia, so that’s definitely on my to-read list!

Similarly, Rebecca then also sent me a list to “Become Very Well-Read Without Reading Anything by a Man” where you can see how many well-known (not necessarily classics) books by female authors you’ve read, and I love an opportunity to show off my reading! This was not that opportunity because I’d only read 36 out of the 250 books, but it did give me a lot of additional recommendations to look forward to!

— Anna