Thursday 29 October 2020

Book review: Age of Conquests, Angelos Chaniotis (2018)

I bought this book at Abbey’s Bookshop in the CBD one day as they have a well-stocked ancient history section. I had wanted something to give me the same kind of broad overview of the early Greeks as the other, recent, reads had given me of the Roman political system. Other, similar reviews will follow this one …

The cover image is a mosaic from Italy in the Classical period, and the story the book tells includes that period, starting with Alexander the Great. His expansionist exploits – inspired by literature – formed a model for other Greeks, as well as Romans once they began to consolidate territory under their laws.

For the Greek city states, Rome’s involvement in local politics was part of a wider and older process of war. In fact, the Romans were invited to participate in the East by a group of city states who wanted to keep the Macedonians out of their territories, so it’s difficult to fault the Romans for “conquering” this part of the world. It’s difficult to see, on the surface, if anything at all was given up by conquered people, once they became of the pax Romana. Even before this political development, war was constant for most Greeks. In fact, the coming of the Romans seems to have allowed many people to live, for a change, in peace.

Chaniotis marshals an impressive array of facts in order to tell his story, and he does better than most in linking such ideas as religion, war, and kingship. But this book is, as the title says, mainly about politics, and for the most part the interests of ordinary people are only reflected inasmuch as they are mentioned as part of treaties, say, or celebrations. 

The role of religion was bound up with the idea of conquest, however, so it’s salutary to restrict the purview to bellicose activities. All adult men in the community were, presumably, involved in the processes of war and alliances, and women and children are largely absent from the records; occasionally a daughter is married off in order for a king to cement an alliance with a foreign city state. 

Philosophy at the time in question had to do with politics as much as learning (Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher), and art was mainly practiced in the service of a higher secular or holy power. 

There are sections on women, education, slavery and religion but the texture of daily social interaction might’ve been more consciously studied. When discussing political matters, it’s infrequently that the book addresses religion – Jews are an exception and, later, Christians – but for people alive at the time politics, identity and religion were all part of the same set of ideas that animated their thoughts. Just as the stories written by Homer and preserved over time by the Greek city states fomented action by such men as Alexander, the stories of the gods provided guides for the conduct of the same people.

The book nevertheless penetratingly chronicles how alliances were formed and broken among the collection of city states in the region. Such alliances made it possible for Alexander to achieve what he did, and they also ushered in the Romans (a notoriously tolerant people, who gave equal rights to waves of foreigners over a period of hundreds of years). The idea of the ecumene that began to gain a foothold in the popular imagination during the Classical period became more important during the Hellenistic period and, under the Roman emperors, even more so.

The nature of the world was changed by Alexander. It became possible to imagine the ecumene – the inhabited world, however vast. Then, subsequently, the ascendancy of the Romans in their pursuit of a universal peace and of booty (and other revenue streams), changed the world again. Hence the inclination of both the Greeks and the Romans to deify their leaders. The reach of empire encouraged encomium. Praise grew from conquest, but conquest grew also from praise.

Monday 26 October 2020

Book review: Ten Caesars, Barry Strauss (2019)

I bought this at Gleebooks while on a mission to find books on Rome. This is a good primer for the imperial period, achieving its goals by focusing on each of the main emperors – a term that in plain Roman terms meant “victorious general” – each in turn, starting with the first, Augustus.

Some readers will try to find their favourite, but I wager all readers will be entranced by Strauss’ exhaustive knowledge and attention to detail. Nevertheless, he proceeds apace and you never find the narrative flagging. For those who might, after reading this book, want more in-depth information on Nero, for example, or Vespasian, other books can be consulted.

As far as the topic goes, it’s clear that the emperor was never an absolute ruler, and functioned to manage a range of different interest groups – the Senate, the armed forces, and the public – and to ignore the wishes of any of which could be fatal. 

Much like a modern-day constitutional monarchy like Australia – where I was born, grew up, and where I live – ancient Rome was a place where people could succeed given cunning and talent. The imperial system to a certain degree freed up the elites of many countries, allowing them to participate more fully in a large, diverse polis. It is arguable that the self-contained Roman aristocracy, which controlled it during the republican period, was less flexible, and less able to accommodate newcomers. Certainly, Vespasian and his son Titus were able to even enter the pantheon, and rule effectively. They were better emperors than some of blue blood like Nero or Claudius.

The place of the emperor-as-god is something that others have described less well than Strauss, for example Mary Beard (whose ‘SPQR’ I reviewed recently). The ceremonial and formal duties of the emperor were critical for the health of the polis – as the Senate and the legions understood. This is clear if you read history. If anything, the ceremonial functions of the ruler are just as important as his or her executive or military functions, even in a place as warlike as ancient Rome.

Strauss’ book is a fabulous place to start for anyone keen to learn about it but more attention might’ve been given to the issue of religion, a failing that dogged the pages I read in Beard’s book as well. Further reviews on related matters to follow.

Monday 19 October 2020

Book review: Veritas, Ariel Sabar (2020)

I bought this book at Gleebooks while I was out looking for a book on Liszt. (I’d called the bookstore earlier and they’d told me to look up a title and ask them to order it, but my online researches weren’t fruitful. It took the woman behind the counter in the store less than a minute to find what I needed, and she ordered it for me. While I was standing at the back of the shop, waiting, I picked up ‘Veritas’ in order to buy it.)

Subtitled 'A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife', the book is sometimes a fascinating work of journalism – and sometimes dull – chronicling the participation of an esteemed academic in the unearthing for public scrutiny of a document a man who contacted her purported was an ancient manuscript. If that sounds elaborate, wait until you get to the section on the history of Harvard. I sometimes wondered if Sabar had just taken the technique of writing a magazine article and stretched it out (seemingly) indefinitely. I wouldn’t say that the book has structural problems, but I think that some people will find this overly-complex.

Starting in 2012, the story unfolds carefully in a way that allows you to understand the personalities of the people involved and the gravity of the outcomes of the case, which began when a professor at Harvard University named Karen King received an unsolicited email.

It’s salutary that her name is “Karen”, and the book makes frequent nods toward the online public sphere, where extreme views get all the attention. It’s a timely reminder of how abuse of trust can undermine a whole class of individuals and upset a fragile balance. Sabar began researching the case while writing a story for a well-known US magazine. 

The book is the result of a broader search for answers. It illustrates much about society generally, especially about our beliefs as a collective and about our unwillingness to listen to dissenting voices. In this way it’s a kind of parable about conformity and the mob, something that has, because of social media, become more obvious in recent years. Academics are complicit in perpetuating this dynamic and, as Sabar suggests, the poor conduct of one can damage the reputation of an entire class of individuals. 

The conflict between left and right is alive in these pages, and though Sabar goes a bit fast at times he is thorough and conscientious – both qualities that are essential a journalist.

I wasn’t impressed by all his assumptions, especially where he slates conservative voters’ objections to abortion to the issue of sex, and the church’s disapproval in relation to it. Personally, I think the idea that abortion is bad has more to do with concerns about the sanctity of life – something that religious people have, in all ages, valued higher than their secular counterparts (you can see the truth of this assertion for example in the fact that it was the religious who first advocated for the abolition of the slave trade in the 18th century). 

But this is a minor – though important – point to make and in doing so I don’t want to detract from the relevance of Sabar’s achievement, which is larger than what I have outlined here as in its second half the book veers off into truly strange territory. 

To explain how this happens would risk revealing the plot, so I’ll keep silent. Suffice it to say that Sabar’s story goes to the heart of the nature of the status of institutions of higher learning, which have come to signify so much about our civilisation: what, if anything, is wrong with the way that they portray themselves, and the way that we see them? If you are employed in a professional capacity by such an organisation, how should that fact work on your personal conduct? What is the ultimate responsibility of the academic, vis a vis the public and vis-à-vis herself? To the truth? Whose truth? And what, in a Postmodern age, is truth?

The image on the cover is of Harvard University and Sabar attempts to wound his subject but I think misses out on more productive leads though the narrative longueurs near the end suggest an appetite for detail. Sabar might’ve spent more time thinking about the nature of truth itself, rather than just allocating blame for certain actions to certain individuals.

The process that all of his major players are involved in should be the main subject of the book. 

No-one comes out of the wash looking particularly radiant, but it’s not clear what the ritual cleansing is in aid of. 

My guess is that each reader will take away different lessons, depending on their experience in life. I just wish Sabar had had more fun with his material.

Friday 16 October 2020

RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD (episode four)

It’s been about three-and-a-half months since I picked up my new car so I’ve had time to get used to things. Time flies, and so do you when you’re driving one of these beauties.

Thinking back, and on viewing YouTube videos of others reviewing the same car, it strikes me how accurate were the issues, in those early days, I noticed to remark on. The noisy drivetrain under pressure, for instance, is something that others have mentioned in their reviews, as is the nice feel of the car over any surface; its hard ride – something my father used to complain about in European cars (he drove a Holden Statesman) – is dreamy and effortlessly deals with speed bumps.

One thing that comes to mind as a shortcoming is the use of CarPlay, though this is a secondary function and won’t impact your driving or safety. My phone is an old one (I bought it in 2017) and so I have to plug it into the car in order to enable CarPlay; with newer phones you just place the device in the brown holding bay under the aircon controls and it automatically charges and connects. To connect mine via CarPlay I bought a short USB cable at the Apple store. 

A related issue is also of secondary importance. This is the irritating warning message (mentioned in an earlier review) that appears for the driver’s information every time you start the car, and which, if you need to get out into the traffic quickly because of a break in the flow of cars, prevents you from moving if you need to use CarPlay for some reason, for example to enable hands-free messaging, or if you need to punch an address into the satnav. 

What I do for music is, while at home I buy albums on the iTunes store and start playing them sitting on the couch and then, when I climb into the car and start it, simply wait for it to use Bluetooth to connect to my phone and play the same album at the point where I’d left of listening earlier. By using Bluetooth instead of CarPlay I avoid having to plug the phone into the car. These are minor points but they affect your decision-making every time you choose to drive.

When CarPlay is not in use Bluetooth integration of your phone is enabled. You can toggle between commercial radio and Bluetooth using the ‘Audio’ button (a physical button handily on the right-hand side of the centre console) to bring up a menu of sources to select. 

Bluetooth is a dreamy feature and can also work with podcasts and audiobooks, as you can listen at home and then, a few minutes later, resume listening at the same spot when inside the car, but while you can shift between tracks on an album easily to change albums you have to go back up a navigational level (by tapping the soft ‘Browse’ button) and then painstakingly select the phone again, and then ‘Albums’, before you get a list of the relevant titles to choose. This navigational quirk of the system takes some getting used to, and might’ve been avoided by better design of the interface. 

If you want to avoid this problem you can plug in your phone and use the CarPlay function. This allows you to navigate between albums, a task that is far simpler as CarPlay has a soft ‘Back’ button that, from the play screen of an album track, you can touch to go to a full menu of albums that are on your phone. It’s is very convenient.

Some items by design won’t work with CarPlay, including TV and YouTube. A safety function thus shelters drivers from distractions while in traffic and busy manoeuvring among fast-moving cars. 

A hands-free approach to using the popular messaging application WhatsApp was useful one day. On that day I knew I had to contact someone while on the road and decided to use WhatsApp to do so. The interface that allows access to this application is however slightly counterintuitive. You tap on the WhatsApp icon on the top level menu in CarPlay, then a Siri-like interface prompts you to say a name. When I said the name of the person I wanted to contact, the AI understood me and displayed his name on the centre console. Then I dictated my message, the AI captured it and asked me if I wanted to send it, reading out my message back to me. I sent it when I tapped a soft button on the screen but you can also reply to a prompt that lets you send your message without using your hands. 

The feature worked pretty smoothly but not all of the RAV4’s electronic and software features do. You get the promise of endless features but in the upshot your ability to use them can be limited by various constraints. This is obviously suboptimal and reflects an annoying problem that Toyota has with interface design. They do a terrific job with hardware and have perfected the art of manufacturing, but US companies do the soft part of IT better. Problems with the RAV4 driver interface system also reflect the hazards inherent in a car that almost has more functions than can be feasibly handled by a driver who must obey road rules all the time.

As one reviewer mentioned – and as I also found after some weeks of driving – you get about 1100 kilometres out of one tank of petrol. It comes out at around 47 miles per gallon, or five litres per 100km, which is pretty tops compared to all-petrol units (which is most of the cars on the market). 

I’ve been noticing more RAV4s as I drive around the city, but most don’t have the “EV” badge the state government issues. I got my badge in the mail and affixed the little triangles – made with blue reflective paint and the letters “EV” printed in white – to my number plates on 8 September. The badges are designed to alert emergency personnel and first-responders to the presence of a battery in case of an accident, so that they know immediately in case of fire which cars to attend to first. The front plate had less room for the badge than the rear plate, and you have to put them on without obscuring the registration details. It’s a bit fiddly; if you take care you’ll have no problem but if NSW drivers don’t have them on their hybrid or hydrogen or electric vehicles after 1 January 2021 they could cop a fine.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Book review: The Regency Revolution, Robert Morrison (2019)

I bought this book at a Collins bookseller near Wollongong.

This book of popular history varies the focus in successive chapters and because of the large quantity of primary sources is able to provide a good deal of detail about such things as sexuality as well as about more routine subjects like war. 

For Jane Austen fans like me, this book is catnip but can be meaningfully read by anyone who is interested in how the modern world emerged out of the Enlightenment. Few know what that word signifies but fewer know about the Regency, which encompassed the teen years of the 19th century. The Victorian urge to improve is anticipated by changes that took place during the years when the future George IV was regent, once his father George III was finally and terminally incapacitated by what appears to have been insanity (though I haven’t read a biography of this monarch, so am yet to be fully informed on this matter).

The fact that the American Revolution occurred in the years immediately prior to the Regency must make this book even more relevant, as that urge to improve certainly derived from secular events that are, today, known to a large number of people.

The Regent was lambasted strongly during his lifetime as well as in the Victorian era, though he did much to encourage the arts and sciences, both financially and in terms of the public honour he bestowed on practitioners. Fat, fond of a drink, and libidinous, George was an easy target for political satirists and it’s easy to grasp how an historian like Morrison would want to reformulate public perceptions (revisionism is one of the primary engines of history as a discipline), but I can see the merit in his point of view. 

While a bit too fond of hyperbole, Morrison does a solid job though his analysis of Australia – which grew rapidly during this period – is sketchy at best and adds nothing to one’s understanding of colonial history. Morrison might’ve done better to ask why names made famous by Walter Scott were used to label geographical locations.

I give this book a full three stars, as it’s worthwhile for people to read, especially for those who haven’t read much about this period before. For those, like me, who have, reading ‘The Regency Revolution’ is still profitable.

Saturday 10 October 2020

Book review: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple (2019)

I bought this book at Gleebooks for the usual price while there to pick up something else. The cover and the introduction promise one view of events, but the text delivers another.

This mismatch between a politically-correct view and one steeped in history is striking. Or at least it was for me. Dalrymple’s book is interesting for what it brings in the form of extracts from previously unused original sources, but the book’s gist – the East India Company (EIC) grew in power and influence almost despite itself – was already known to me from prior reading.

Founded by former pirates in London at the time of Old Queen Bess, the EIC had an inauspicious start. Steady application of a simple set of principles for 150 years led, in the mid-18th century, to it being embroiled in a new set of circumstances tied to what should be thought of as the first world war – between England and France. This conflict culminated in 1759 but the seeds of Company expansion were sown in North America; to be exact, in the Ohio wilderness. 

It was the French who first applied superior European military tactics in the subcontinent, but without French expansionary policies the EIC wouldn’t have started rebuilding the defences at Fort William (in modern-day Kolkata). This circumstance enraged the local Nabob, Siraj ud-Daula, who attacked it. His action led to an aggressive soldier named Robert Clive being brought in. Clive was later used by local bankers – the Jagat Seth – to get rid of the Nabob and install in his place Mir Jafar. But once British fighting abilities had been proven in the field that became a tempting recourse for local rulers eager to overcome their Indigenous enemies. Here lies the key to understanding what wasn’t a relentless rise at all but, rather, a rapid upslope followed by a bumpy plateau during which the Company’s dominance was tested by various actors.

The first use of the term “anarchy” precedes Plassey (the battlefield where Clive won against the Nabob’s forces) by a number of years. This is due to the fact that the Mughal emperor’s power had already waned and that other Persians were happy to capitalise on this fact. (The Mughal Emperor himself was of Persian background.)

Dalrymple sometimes ignores the sources he gained access to. On at least one occasion a source quoted in the book says one thing and then, immediately afterward, Dalrymple says the opposite. In general the text is undercooked and it’s clear that the author is not an academic. 

A bit more rigour would have improved things but Dalrymple’s method – to use individual events to develop a central thesis about kingship – is mostly effective. While the EIC had the knowledge and technology needed to stay ahead of those who would try to compete with it, it didn’t possess the loyalty of the people. And while the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam – which translates, optimistically, and in a way that gives you a taste of some of the chronicles of the era, as “ruler of the world” – was given help wherever he went even though he had no money and few escorts, he had no money and no military power. So the two institutions complemented each other. This is a good lesson to learn for those who say they prefer republicanism to constitutional monarchy.

More rigour might’ve been applied in cases where Dalrymple relies on primary sources, especially letters, to build a story. The kaleidoscope of influences and contemporary players – let alone the players in such debates as exist now, in the 21st century – are multiple, and include the Nabob of Calcutta (Mir Qasim), the factor of Forth William (whose name is Ellis), and the governor of Bengal, Henry Vansittart. You also have (just to make things more complex) Warren Hastings, who would go on to become the governor of India once Parliamentary control was introduced later in the 18th century. 

Just taking at face value the complaints of Mir Qasim about English traders, especially Ellis, without any corroborating evidence, is more than a bit slack, it undermines the whole enterprise, allowing innocent readers to draw conclusions that sit easily with the thesis situated in Dalrymple’s title and in his introduction but which – as we have seen – is often contradicted by other sources. To just drag in selectively chosen sources in an effort to bolster an already-discredited idea is bad scholarship. Maybe Hastings was being groomed for the position he would go on to hold? Maybe Ellis and the traders around Calcutta were just trying to do business so that the Company could earn the profits its investment warranted? Maybe Mir Qasim was unhappy with the new arrangements because it reduced his own personal income or influence? 

None of these possibilities is given much attention by Dalrymple intent, as he is, on making a point he’d already undermined. As a general rule I felt that the book is underwritten (despite the original sources) and that inadequate attention is given to individual events. More could easily be written on narrow chronological ranges, for example the Bengal Famine, or the Company’s victory at Buxar, or the relations between the Company and the Marathas. In the absence of such sustained scholarship, Dalrymple allows himself to veer skittishly across wide swathes of territory without sufficiently describing their peculiarities and characteristics. It’s like writing an account of a visit to India without getting of the train at any of the stations on the way from point A to point B.

In fact the rise of the Company wasn’t relentless and it wasn’t accomplished without falls. Indeed, there were many low points along the way, but one thing is certain is that the quantity of written material to do with it is one reason why it’s possible to read about people who might otherwise be ignored by history. Indeed, Dalrymple should have gone further and spent more time examining the lives of the common people rather than focusing to the exclusion of most else on the military and political activities of the great men of the era. If the Company is a lens through which to view an entire civilisation, then historians are obliged by the desires of their readers to raise up the little man and to show what life was like before the Company began its rise and what life was like afterward. For example, Dalrymple is quick to censure Robert Clive on account of insider trading, but he neglects to illustrate for the reader’s benefit what hardship for local artisans looked like in the wake of the victory at Buxar.

You can’t see the forest for the trees. Excited by the quantity of material he gained access to in his researches, it appears that Dalrymple has done what any undergraduate soon enough learns not to do: put everything in. And the emphasis on the political aspects of British India and the decline of the Mughal Empire is less than satisfactory, bringing me back to the fact that the troubles many communities had in the years between 1600 and 1850 can be slated to the effects of greed by a range of actors, notably the Persians.

This book was a missed opportunity and better editing wouldn’t have fixed its problems. A more serious and thoughtful approach to its subject matter – and possibly more time – might’ve allowed the author to produce something of lasting purpose.

Monday 5 October 2020

Book review: SPQR, Mary Beard (2016)

I bought this volume at Gleebooks for the recommended retail price. I like the minimalist cover design, one which points to the subject matter in a way that consciously borrows visual elements from the culture of the society the book promises to examine. Roman letters and twinned laurel branches are a fitting way to both acknowledge the high regard in which Beard is held by her peers and to accurately reflect the importance, to the community that harbours potential readers, of the Romans. Less is best, and according to the evidence – the books contains images showing the much-vaunted “warts and all” Roman approach to representation and ornament – it is most suitable for a cover of a book of this nature. 

The acronym stands for the Latin for “the senate and the people of Rome”. Merely to utter that syllable (“Rome” rhymes with “home”) enables you to evoke so many ancillary things, and Beard is conscious of this. She starts the book with an anecdote but other than that for most of the time concentrates not on individuals but on the Roman community more broadly. 

If anything the narrative tends toward the impersonal. In the first two-thirds of the book politics is its main focus though Beard makes a concession by inserting chapters on the family, women, and slaves. She gets onto literature in detail only at about page 450 but, even then, concentrates only on animal stories. The vast bulk of the literary output of Romans – either of the republican era or the time of empire – is passed over unacknowledged.

So the book’s contents match the cover but you are as a consequence made to feel slightly alienated from the story being told. I would’ve preferred more intimate glimpses of daily life and of the recorded meanderings of the minds of men and women alive at the time. It’s arguably more fun and informative to watch an episode of ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ than to watch ‘A Current Affair’. Beard is best when explaining the reasons for the successes of republican Rome. 

The relationship between the Roman people and their leaders, and between the polis and the people’s deities, is not so well articulated. This might be the reason why, when the time comes in the final century BC for the Roman people to transition from a republic to a system of government with a sole individual at the head of the administration, Beard has so many unanswered questions. The idea of a man who is the son of a god obviously has strong echoes in relation to the modern-day West, and it cannot have been an accident that both things – the birth of Christ and the appearance of the first Roman emperor – happened at the same chronological moment. 

It’s striking to me that, though I’ve been alive for almost 60 years, no-one made such a link in my hearing, nor in any of the tens of thousands of books and magazine articles or news stories that I’ve read since I started to read independently when I was about 12 years old. Is it not obvious to anyone else? The fact hit me with such force when it first came to my attention that, for a while, I could think of nothing else, and it was the big take-away for me from the book.

Which promises to be the first of many that I’ll read in order to find out more. Because Rome was ascendant such a long time ago, and because of its centrality to my own culture, it is arguably more rewarding to read about how people living in other societies related to Rome, than about Rome itself. Of course, if you want to understand what someone like the 18th century naturalist Joseph Banks or the 16th century scholar Erasmus thought of Rome, you’d better also know something about Rome yourself.


The lack of information from Beard about the Roman pantheon is, for me, this book’s major failing, and I also feel a bit let down by her making little of classical Roman literature. She notes that the available volume of textual material pre-empire is relatively low, though, at other times, she uses the merest hints found in the record to try to make her case, with regard to literature she doesn’t use much detail.

She makes solid sense of a large quantity of material and strings together a compelling story that coheres so that someone living in the 21st century can mostly make sense of it. One thing she fails to do is explain the early Romans’ constant military campaigning. She hints at a potential cause – the need to conquer nearby communities and secure their obedience in order to stop predatory raiding – but doesn’t explore far enough either to confirm it as the reason for Roman expansion in the early years or to rule it out in the reader’s mind. 

She does enable you to understand the benefits and strengths of the Roman method, notably the fact that people in satellite communities could become Roman citizens and that, under the republican model of government, the pool of candidates for leadership positions was wider than the traditional collection of established families. In fact, the extension of this right sits near the start of the story, at the point where republicanism was first practiced, in the 5th century BC. 

For about 500 years Rome survived as a republic but then (Beard tries to explain), due to geographical expansion, the political system was unable to ensure peace. It also failed to enable the proper running of such a vast empire. If anything, the administrative apparatus required to run it was better-developed under the emperors than it had been under the senate.

At around the time of Christ’s birth voting was abandoned although the emperor took pains to maintain the old structures. Instead of giving himself the despised title of “king” he arrogated to himself the powers, for example, of the consuls which, in the republican period, had belonged to elected officials. And he was, as Beard notes, consciously assuming for himself the guise of a god on earth. In fact, at least one predecessor of Julius Caesar, the first emperor, did the same.

If her book has one overall failing – apart from the ones already mentioned – it is that Beard uses qualifying linguistic formulas a tad overmuch. It’s usually “may” or “could” rather than something more definite. I can’t work out if this is due to the fact that she’s been unable to make the imaginative leap required to put herself in the shoes of the people she’s writing about, for certainly the Romans were different from us. Perhaps focusing more on the fiction produced at the time might’ve helped her to make that leap. Or perhaps if she was on top of the religion …

Her unwillingness to commit in such cases might also be due to the fact that there are so many viewpoints for any single event, with generations – nay, centuries – of historians writing about Rome, each of whom has had his or her own view about it. This problem becomes more noticeable at the end of the book, perhaps because at this point Beard feels the need to summarise her findings.

I was a bit alarmed by her reliance on a strongly Latinate vocabulary – something that, in my case, militates against comprehension, though her language is adequate for the task. A reluctance to delve too far was also, for me, a barrier to understanding – personal stories do more than increase the refinement of details available to the reader, they also enhance recall because when our emotions are engaged we remember details more faithfully – but at least now that I’ve felt the benefit of reading about ancient Rome, no doubt other, similar book reviews will follow this one.

Thursday 1 October 2020

Grocery shopping list for September 2020

This post is the twenty-first in a series and the seventh with rona. 

1 September

Went to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) Bega cheese, couscous and pumpkin, a sultana butter cake, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

3 September

Went to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) bread, Arnott’s biscuits (Chocolate Monte, Gaiety, and Caramel Crowns), flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and laundry liquid.

4 September

Went to Lakemba and bought steak, lamb chops, chicken biryani, aloo gosht, Lahori cholay, daal moth (a snack), and goat’s-milk yoghurt drink.

6 September

Walked to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) Nile perch, salmon, smoked hake, sliced ham, sliced silverside, lentil salad, coleslaw, tomato soup, lamb soup, cauliflower soup, Loacker coconut wafers, Caramel Crowns, Gaiety (another Arnott’s biscuit), bhuja, Calbee “Harvest Snaps” (black bean and dill pickle flavour), milk, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

7 September

Had to go to the tailor’s and while out popped in at Woolworths and bought flavoured sugarless mineral water.

10 September

While doing errands I popped in at Woolies and bought (see receipt below) couscous with pumpkin, sliced, ham, sliced pastrami, chicken noodle soup, bread, and sugarless flavoured mineral water.

14 September

Went to get my phone serviced, then dropped by to see fabrics for curtains and on the way home stopped at the Fish Market and bought (see receipts below) sliced smoked wagyu, sliced Morcon ahumado picante, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, a lettuce, swordfish steaks, salmon fillets, and some ling fillets.

15 September

Popped into Woolworths and bought lentil salad, Bega cheese, chicken and orange pate, a sultana butter cake, bread, potato salad, Jatz crackers, bhuja, biscuits (Caramel Crowns, Chocolate Montes, Loacker coconut wafers), instant porridge, and sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.25 each this time!). 

Later I drove to Vinnies in Waverley and while out bought some goat’s cheese and blue cheese at a grocery store. Still later I popped into the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

16 September

Had a local appointment and while out popped in at Woolies and bought sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.80 a bottle).

17 September

Popped into the convenience store and bought milk.

19 September

Walked to Woolies and bought sliced pastrami, a sultana butter cake, apples, taramosalata, hummus with harissa, marinaded goat’s cheese, lentil salad, couscous with pumpkin, pea and ham soup, chicken noodle soup, bhuja, Arnott’s Caramel Crowns biscuits, and sugarless flavoured mineral water (at $1.80 a bottle).

21 September

Walked to Woolies and bought milk and sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.80 a bottle) and later went down, with a friend, to the new house at Botany. After talking with Joe, the builder (and owner), we dropped in at a fruit and vege store and bought cucumbers, zucchini, corn on the cob, pawpaw, olives, and Napolitanke wafers in two flavours (“lemon orange” and nougat).

23 September

Went to the tailor’s and while out popped in at Woolworths and bought sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.80 a bottle) and toilet paper.

24 September

Back at the tailor’s on this day; popped in at Woolies and bought lamb chops, bread, tomato soup, pea and ham soup, chicken and corn soup, pastrami, sliced ham, salad (a mixture of black rice, corn and coriander), and some snacks.

26 September

Went to Woolies and bought lentil salad, mandarins, milk, a carrot cake, a sultana butter cake, bread, a lettuce, crackers, taramosalata, and sugarless flavoured mineral water.

29 September

Went to the pharmacy and while in the arcade popped in at Coles and bought flavoured sugarless mineral water ($1.70 a bottle). Later I went to Harris Farm Markets and bought eye fillet steak, pork chops, soup (one harira, one leek and potato, and one chickpea and bean soup), Danish salami, Hungarian salami, and some aged gouda cheese. On the way back home I stopped at the Fish Market and bought ling fillets, tuna steaks, snapper fillets, and some salmon.

30 September

Had some local errands to run and while out I popped in at Coles and bought blueberries, Jatz crackers, and sugarless flavoured mineral water ($1.25 each).