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SPQR on a manhole in Rome.

SPQR on a manhole in Rome.

On my first visit to Rome, what most astounded me was that “S.P.Q.R.” was actually imprinted on manholes in the street. I had expected to be awed by a sense of antiquity from the Coliseum, the Forum, and the many ruins sprinkled about the city. But, for me, standing right on the famous Roman phrase that I had studied in school was a palpable ‘history comes alive’ moment.

So I was most eager to delve into Mary Beard’s new book on ancient Rome, SPQR.

Note, this is a political history of Rome. There is an in-depth look at Pompey the Great, and also his namesake city of Pompeii, but very little about Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. Beard doesn’t bother with the importance of Roman Concrete or the development of aqueducts (covered extensively elsewhere). Instead she focuses on social and political innovations.

For example, while conquered peoples were typically brought back to Rome as slaves, Beard explains that a large number of these slaves would be freed within their own lifetimes. Some would even gain citizenship, living out their days in the city of Rome or returning to native lands.

Indeed, the definition and scope of Roman Citizenship continually evolved and expanded, adding to the cosmopolitan mix of the city and the empire. This idea of shared citizenship—that one could be a citizen of a province and also a citizen of Rome—was a totally new concept that fueled military success. This countered a longstanding tradition of parochial allegiance to city states or regions, setting a precedent that continues in nations today.

Beard also gives us a fresh look at the Romus and Remulus myth and how this founding story of fratricide was mirrored in the repeated violence of Roman politics. Well before Julius Caesar, murder was a method of the Roman Republic. One election was broken up when a cabal of angry senators bludgeoned Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters. Sulla marched on Rome with an army (twice), sparking a civil war that killed civilians in the streets and senators sitting in the senate house. Even Pompey the Great was decapitated by supporters of the up-and-coming Caesar. “His life lasted longer than his power,” Beard quotes Cicero.

This only intensified with the rise of the Roman Empire. Assassination was the de facto method of succession. “Vespasian in 79 CE was the only emperor in the first two dynasties to die without any rumors of foul play surfacing.”

SPQR coverIndeed, SPQR at times reads like a House of Cards take on Roman history, as Beard narrates with suspense the political wranglings, betrayals, and changing power players over the centuries. I found all of this particularly compelling—and relevant—in light of the recent political upheaval and shifting alliances in the United Kingdom following the Brexit vote.

Despite the intensity of her subject matter, Beard keeps it lively and readable.

She reminds us that Commodus was the emperor portrayed in the popular movie and Oscar Best Picture winner Gladiator. We also learn that famed British Celtic warrior Boudicca (who led an uprising against the Romans) is buried near Platform 10 of Kings Cross station. Nor is Beard too scholarly to resist calling Arminius “Herman the German.”

My only complaint is that, despite the title, Beard doesn’t really addresss the phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” aka S.P.Q.R., except for a brief mention in the introduction.

I’m still curious about the provenance of this fabled motto, which means “the Senate and the People of Rome” and how much it was really averred in its day.

Nevertheless, SPQR is an informative, fascinating, and engrossing read which I highly recommend.

Mary Beard, Cambridge Professor & Classics Scholar

Mary Beard’s Blog: A Don’s Life

Mary Beard on Twitter: @wmarybeard

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I love my sleep mask.

Sleep mask and comfy pillows.

Arianna Huffington dedicates her new book, The Sleep Revolution, to “all those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Here, here! We love (and need) sleep, but so many of us don’t seem to get enough of it. It’s brutal to walk around in a sleep-starved haze.

There was a time when I thought of sleep as a luxury, and, like many people, I managed to get by with attitude … and coffee.

Eventually, I woke up (pun intended) and realized that sleep is a magic tool we are given to help us confront challenges and pursue our goals.

Huffington gives a pretty scary example of how she collapsed from exhaustion and shattered her cheek bone. That was the epiphany which sparked her on a mission of sleep evangelism.

Her book looks at sleep via scientific, historical, medical, and cultural perspectives. Most of the information isn’t new, but—much like her namesake website—Huffington aggregates it all in a very readable manner, with fascinating tidbits perfect for cocktail party banter. For example, sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy a whopping $63 billion annually. And, before artificial light, our ancestors slept in two blocks instead of one long night. She also cites evidence that links improper sleep to maladies from diabetes to Alzheimer’s to weight gain.

The Sleep Revolution serves as a call to action in the face of what Huffinton calls “our current sleep crisis.” She argues that this is a serious health issue that we should address just like any health issue. Indeed, it’s scary how many people complain, or even boast, about lack of sleep. How did insomnia become our default?

Huffington also offers strategies and advice for “mastering sleep.” One of the best tips is making it a comfortable ritual—cosy pjs, lavender tea, a hot bath. This sounds corny, but if you practice compartmentalizing work thoughts and stressful items away from bedtime, it will become a habit. I went from dreading bedtime (anxiety that I wouldn’t nod off) to looking forward to it each night.

Still, Huffington reminds us, just because snoozing can be a pleasurable routine, we must remember that it is a necessity—not an indulgence.

The book argues for a new approach to sleep in the workplace—a rise in naps and nap rooms and a pullback on the 24/7 cycle of work-related texts and emails.

sleep revolution coverHuffington contends that getting the full forty winks is crucial to success. “Sleep is my weapon,” she quotes Jennifer Lopez. Other prominent sleep proponents include supermodel Karlie Kloss, tennis god Roger Federer, and investment mogul Warren Buffet. Speaking of business, there’s a whole chapter on successful men and women who pointedly get eight hours each night. Oh, and the legendary Tom Brady? He goes to bed at 8:30 pm.

I highly recommend this informative and fascinating read. It’s sparking a dialogue and—I hope—a new attitude toward the urgency of proper sleep. Bravo to Arianna for shining the spotlight on this issue. It’s proactive, not lazy, to get your sleep!

If you want to get more zzzs, this book will help motivate you. And if you are in the “sleep is for wimps” camp, it might just open your eyes … or help you close them.

 

Today I am writing about Jane Austen’s Emma over at Sarah Emsley’s blog. Mine is the twenty-third in a series of guest posts celebrating 200 years of Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow.

emma-in-the-snow2

I don’t have an “I Heart Darcy” t-shirt. To be sure, when reading Pride and Prejudice, one cannot help but be enamored of Mr. Darcy. But really, when it comes to Jane Austen’s heroes, my heart belongs to Mr. George Knightley.

He has all the advantages of Darcy—land, position, looks—but “with a real liberality of mind” (Volume 1, Chapter 18). Read on …

Adventure Christmas PuddingAfter three murderous mysteries, it was delightful to discover this festive and Christmassy caper.

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” reads like Agatha Christie’s ode to the traditional English Christmas. Hercule Poirot is invited to experience “an old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside” at Kings Lacey, a grand manor house that dates from the fourteenth century.

However, the finicky Poirot reisists at first, put off by fears of cold stone and large drafty rooms. Instead he finds King Lacy full of warmth (central heating set at 68°) and cheer, with charming hosts and excited children.

Of course, there are suspicious characters and rather curious doings, but the bulk of this longer short story focuses on the ritual of Christmas in a country house: crackling fires, holly and mistletoe, midnight mass, a feast with all the trimmings, plum pudding, and plenty of Christmas cheer.

This is certainly the coziest Christie I have read. She wraps it up nicely with some unexpected fun on Boxing Day. Indeed, Poirot tells himself, “he had a very good Christmas,” as did I along with him—so much so that I plan to make this story a part of my own Christmas tradition each year.

Double Sin“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is an extended version of a story called “Christmas Adventure” which first appeared in the Sunday Dispatch in 1928. This longer version debuted in a collection of short stories also called The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding that was released only in the U.K. in 1960. This story was also published in several other collections as “The Theft of the Royal Ruby,” which is the title of the story I read in Double Sin and Other Stories.

Under either name this is a most enjoyable and highly recommended holiday read.

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

A Christmas Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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hercule poirots christmas lg“It is, then, your opinion that Christmastime is an unlikely season for crime?” asks Hercule Poirot of Colonel Johnson, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (also published as Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder).

Johnson (whom readers will remember from Three Act Tragedy) has invited the mustachioed sleuth for the holiday and is anticipating a relaxing break free from any detective work. Poirot, however, is not so assured. Nor does he agree with his host regarding the value of a wood fire. The fastidious Belgian feels a draught about his shoulders and pines wistfully for central heating.

Nearby at Gorston Hall, a tyrannical and slightly mad patriarch Simon Lee has gathered his estranged, grumbling clan for their first Christmas together in years. Once again, Agatha Christie shines in providing an appealing cast of disparate characters, from the grasping politician, to the prodigal son, to the mysterious Spanish granddaughter, to the long-suffering loyal son and his well-bred, decorous wife who runs the house prodigiously.

The novel takes place from December 22 to December 28, so it’s fun to read over this time period. Christmas serves as a sort of ironic offset to the action, as the atmosphere is more lugubrious than jolly. After the murder, the traditional festivities are curtailed, and the characters themselves lament the lack of merriment.

Instead, this is a brilliant murder mystery. Christie incorporates both the “locked-room” setup (in which it seems that no one could have entered or left the crime scene to actually commit the murder) and the “closed circle of suspects” (in which the characters know that one of their small number did it).

Indeed, the already strained relations among the Lee family worsen exponentially when they each suspect one another of murder—quite a dysfunctional Christmas!

There’s also international intrigue with complications from the Spanish Civil War and from business ties to South African diamonds.

This whodunit kept me guessing. It seems likewise for Poirot, who in his summation makes a case for how each family member had motive and opportunity in this murder. Ultimately, the reveal is surprising and inevitable—as the best endings are.

Spoiler alert! Johnson and Poirot discuss the outcome of Three Act Tragedy so best to read that book ahead of this one.

Finally, Christie nicely rounds off the subplots and future plans are made to celebrate a traditional English Christmas with all the trimmings. All in all, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is another Christie classic. Most satisfying and highly recommended!

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

A Christmas Tragedy by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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Christmas Tragedy“A Christmas Tragedy” is a short story in The Thirteen Problems collection, which was also published under the title The Tuesday Club Murders. I particularly like the setup, in which the different stories are told by a group of friends gathered together to discuss mysteries.

Sir Henry Clithering presses Miss Marple for a mystery that has happened to her. She recalls an incident, which she quickly redefines as a “tragedy.” Indeed, I found this one of Christie’s more chilling stories. While Christmas serves a bit as a plot device, this is not a “Christmas story.”

Miss Marple recounts a visit to a spa for the holiday, but she recalls “a curiously eerie feeling in the air. There seemed to be something weighing on us all. A feeling of misfortune.”

Upon seeing a fellow guest, Mr. Sanders, she immediately knew that he planned to kill his wife. Miss Marple had no proof, however, just gut instinct.

13 ProblemsThe narrative progresses with tension and a sense of impending doom. Some of the characters are shocked by the happenings and some seem to take a “positively ghoulish” delight in it all.

Miss Marple holds it together though, offering one of her classic dictums: “a gentlewoman should always be able to control herself in public, however much she may give way in private.”

So while it’s not a cheery holiday fable, “A Christmas Tragedy” is a typical Christie whodunit—a fast read that ends with one of her trademark inverted plot twists.

 

Agatha Christmas: A Reading of Christie’s Holiday Classics

agatha christmas logo

4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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agatha christmas img lg“A Christie for Christmas” was a popular saying and holiday tradition back when Agatha Christie was writing a book a year. Her latest release would be timed so that it could be in stockings or wrapped up under trees. Reading the new Christie was somewhat of a Christmas Day ritual.

Christie incorporated the holiday into several of her mysteries, so I thought it would be fun to read these Christmas-themed works. I’ll be posting my (spoiler-free) reviews below over the next week.

Agatha Christmas to all!

4 50 from Paddington4:50 from Paddington
Novel featuring Miss Marple
After a day of hectic Christmas shopping, Elspeth McGillicuddy is certain that she witnessed murder on a train.

No one believes her but her friend, Miss Jane Marple …

 

 

 

Christmas TragedyA Christmas Tragedy
Short story featuring Miss Marple

Miss Marple goes to a spa for the holidays in this chilling, not cheery, tale.

Upon seeing a fellow guest, Mr. Sanders, she immediately knew that he planned to kill his wife. She has no proof, however, just instinct.

 

 

 

hercule poirots christmas  Hercule Poirot’s Christmas
(aka: Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder)
Novel featuring Hercule Poirot

“It is, then, your opinion that Christmastime is an unlikely season for crime?” asks Hercule Poirot of Colonel Johnson.

Christmas serves as a sort of ironic offset to the action in this brilliant murder mystery.

 

 

Adventure Christmas Pudding The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
(aka: “The Theft of the Royal Ruby”)
Short story featuring Hercule Poirot

This longer short story reads like Agatha Christie’s ode to the “old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside”with all the ritual and trimmings.

This is certainly the coziest Christie I’ve read and a perfect holiday read.

 

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

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