Classically Inclined

June 8, 2017

Book review!

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:15 am
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I am exceptionally excited that Seneca and the Ethics of the Family has had an extremely positive review from Brad Inwood on the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, which is the classics review platform of note. It is the sort of review that starts to get to grips with your actual ideas and offers some genuine thoughts about the big picture stuff, which is really the best sort of BMCR to get in my view. It’s also particularly because Brad Inwood is a really important voice in the field of Seneca studies who I hadn’t had any previous contact with – it’s great to find not only that he thinks the work has merit, but also that he’s happy to say that to the BMCR readership.

January 15, 2015

New publication: review of The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:31 am
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In the general spirit of ‘every little helps’, I’m delighted to share that my notice/short review of The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature has appeared in the latest edition of The Classical Review. This was quite a fun one to write, mainly because of trying to get as much information as humanly possible into five hundred words and still provide a fair and accurate impression of what the book was about!

The bonus of the piece being quite that short is that it fits on one page of the journal and thus the preview page is essentially the whole thing! If you’re interested, you can read it here.

November 25, 2014

Book review: The Ancient Curse – Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 4:21 pm
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I understand Manfredi has written a number of classically-inspired works; this is the first I have read. It roams a little outside the usual realm of these things, because it decides to play not with the Romans but with the Etruscans, the civilization which preceded the Romans to the north of their city. The Etruscans are notoriously tricky to get a handle on, not least because reading Etruscan is a nightmare (helped mainly by texts written in parallel with Latin versions), and very little of it has survived. Manfredi builds his story on an actual bit of Etruscan culture, a thing called a Phersu which appears most famously in a tomb painting from the so-called Tomb of the Augurs. (If you’re interested, there’s a recent article about the state of Phersu research freely available here, and some reasonable photos of the frescos here.) Manfredi does not restrict himself to the scholarly consensus (or whatever its condition was in 2001 when the book first appeared); instead, he takes the nuggets of scholarly work and builds up a story that suits himself – one which he can then use to build up a plot that mixes supernatural terror with a police procedural murder whodunit. The Ombra Della Sera statue also plays a significant role in unravelling the mystery of what happened centuries ago and how it is connected to a modern case of tomb robbery.

I will freely admit that the Etruscans are not my home turf and so I can’t really comment on Manfredi’s manipulation of the ancient sources. However, a couple of things stand out. The first is the way Manfredi makes the fragmentary knowledge of the Etruscans a feature rather than a bug – part of the problem faced by his investigators is that they know so little of Etruscan culture, heritage and language that they are often groping in the dark for hypotheses. Yet at the same time, Manfredi’s authorial voice allows him to claim knowledge of what Etruscan life was really like, particularly in a flash-back at the end of the novel to the events which ended in the tomb around which the plot revolves. There’s an interesting interplay between the supposed ‘lost’ world of the Etruscans, the contemporary characters’ lack of knowledge about it, and the author’s imaginative reconstruction of what fills in the gaps. It’s actually a really nice illustration of why fiction can help us think about academic subjects with a freedom that we don’t have in rigorously formal academic writing (although obviously the usefulness of that depends on how much attention is paid to the things that academics think can’t be ignored, but that’s by the by).

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March 4, 2014

Book review: Shadow of the Minotaur – Alan Gibbons

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 8:17 am
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During my big trawl for books that were retelling the Minotaur myth in the context of London, I was pointed towards Shadow of the Minotaur. I didn’t get my hands on it in time for the deadlines I was working towards, which actually is just as well – it’s located not in London, but Brownleigh, somewhere whose main characteristic is very pointedly not being London. However, it’s an interesting addition to my thoughts about how myth and place and space interact, particularly as the Minotaur seems to be a myth which offers a lot of scope for that kind of interpretative engagement.

Shadow is the first in The Legendeer trilogy, and while I haven’t read the second and third books, I think I can see where we’re going. From a literary point of view, I have to say that Shadow isn’t particularly thrilling – it’s fairly standard Young Adult ‘young man coming to terms with his identity and this whole growing up thing and how he feels about his parents and adolescence and not fitting in and STUFF’, which is all good standard material and themes, but I don’t think the writing is strong enough to make it have an appeal beyond its target audience. However, from the classical reception point of view, Gibbons does a very interesting thing. He makes the entry-point into the world of myth a computer game, which turns out to not actually be a game, but a world existing in parallel to our own which has come under the control of the Gamesmaster.

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September 18, 2013

Book review: Lavinia – Ursula Le Guin

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 12:42 pm
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There are two things I should fess up before we begin. First, I love Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. The Tombs of Atuan in particular formed a far larger part of my childhood’s imaginative backdrop than it perhaps should have done. Second, I have a really uneasy relationship with classical reception books set in actual classical periods. It’s one of the reasons I’ve yet to pick up Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, despite the critical acclaim it has received, and it’s one of the reasons that it took the SFF conference to shame me into picking up Lavinia at long last, despite the warm welcome it received among classicists. This is, I hasten to add, an extremely personal thing, and I don’t mean for one minute to suggest that texts which try to rewrite or write alongside classical texts are a bad thing – that the Song of Achilles won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 and Lavinia won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2009 sort of undermines that line of argument anyway. But from my personal vantage point as a reader, I find these sorts of works vaguely unsatisfactory. I can’t quite explain why. I suspect I’m not the only person to have this sort of reaction – when I said that I was reading Lavinia on Twitter, somebody responded to say that it was their favourite piece of classical reception, especially those parts which didn’t retell the Aeneid. But I digress.

Lavinia is a conscious decision to take one of Virgil’s most underplayed yet most important characters and put flesh on her literary bones. Lavinia, as I am sure you will all remember, is the princess of Latium, daughter of King Latinus, who will eventually marry Aeneas, give him a son, and thus begin the whole dynasty that will toddle on down to Augustus and Virgil’s Rome. When Aeneas turns up, she is being courted by a variety of suitors, the chief of whom is Turnus; his outrage at Aeneas’ interest in Lavinia is what causes war to erupt between the Trojans and the native Italians. So far, so standard patriarchy – woman as symbolic of rule of the realm, politics played out on the female body, and so on. Yet for a woman who is basically symbolic of whether we get to have Augustan Rome or not, Lavinia is weirdly absent from the poem – she does not speak, and her biggest moment is when her hair catches fire next to an altar during a sacrifice. Both her father and mother speak a lot for her, but there’s not really any substance to her – she remains unrealised, a blank parchment upon which to impose the future empire.

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August 20, 2013

Book review: Coalescent – Stephen Baxter

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:12 am
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I picked up Coalescent because it was recommended in a panel at Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space – mind you, so were plenty of other books, but Coalescent got to the top of the queue because it felt like a good choice for summer holiday reading. I’m not going to discuss it from an SF perspective, mainly because I don’t know the genre well enough to comment on how it tessellates with those expectations. What I found particularly interesting was the way that Baxter uses Roman Britain and late antiquity as a space for constructing a science fiction narrative which has consequences which spread into the distant future.

Warning: here be spoilers.

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January 17, 2013

Book review: Nemesis – Lindsey Davis

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:44 pm
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I expect that a lot of people who read this blog are already very familiar with the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis – in case you aren’t, pop along to Lindsey’s website and get a flavour of what’s on offer. Falco is an informer (in the gum-shoe detective tradition) living in a Rome ruled by the emperor Vespasian; he’s done his duty in the army in Britain, came home to his mum, and then set about making a living. Through the course of the novels, the reader becomes familiar with the colourful cast of characters who populate his world. Nemesis is what looks like the final book in the series (fear ye not, there looks like there will be a spin-off!), so if you haven’t read any of the Falco books before, then come back to this post when you have!

There are a couple of reasons that I wanted to blog about Nemesis, not least of which is saying goodbye to Falco, who has been a very enjoyable companion in my reading since I was a teenager. But there were also a couple of things about the book which, oddly enough, happened to coincide with the work I’ve been doing to get the ad Polybium article up to scratch, and I wanted to draw out how Davis explores that knotty historical issue in fictional form.

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February 14, 2012

Book Review: On Not Knowing Greek – Virginia Woolf

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:21 pm
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Alright, this is technically more of an essay review than a book review, but never mind. Woolf’s short essay is included in a collection of her criticism published by Hesperus, and while the other essays collected in this brief volume do look interesting, I want to concentrate just on this one for today. There’s an electronic version of the text here, although the Greek quotations don’t come through.

I should start by pointing out that for Woolf to write an essay on not knowing Greek was actually rather pointed in 1925, when the piece was first published. At that stage, in terms of the education of women, while Newnham and Girton were now well established at Cambridge, and Jane Harrison, Eugenie Strong and their successors had amply demonstrated women’s competence in the field of classics, women still were not being given access to the same educational tools as men. Prep schools still put little boys into Latin at five or six, and Greek not long after, meaning that the girls who first encountered the languages later in the schoolroom were already many years behind their male peers. (This still happens – I first started Latin at age twelve, and then at Cambridge found myself in the company of young men who had started at six or seven, and even that difference created a confidence gap. Let’s not mention my Greek, which I first began during my gap year, meaning I lagged behind anyone who had had the chance to do GCSE, let alone A-level.)  For a female writer in the 1920s to talk about not knowing Greek was a markedly deliberate act, a spikier version of which appears in A Room of One’s Own. It’s a statement about privilege, about opportunity, about social status, about gender and about class.

That said, Woolf doesn’t follow the point that the title implicitly makes (and arguably she doesn’t need to). In fact, her implicit dialogue with her title continues since she demonstrates that she actually knows Greek well enough to pick apart the language and comment on “useless” translations. The ‘not knowing’ to which her title refers is instead the inability to know how the Greeks thought, to pick up the resonances that the original reader would have heard – the foreign language holds us in thrall, but we cannot fully grasp its power. The only way to get anywhere close is to get back to Greek in the original, and Woolf devotes several paragraphs at the end of the essay expounding on the inherent beauty of the language.

Her overall point fastens on a central tenet of early twentieth century ways of thinking about antiquity – that the Greeks reflect something somehow pure. The characters of plays who have since become familiar types, like the King and the Queen, have a freshness: “here we meet them before their emotions have been worn into uniformity”.  The Greeks become archetypal, even down to the language itself – “then, spare and bare as it is, no language can move more quickly, dancing, shaking, all alive, but controlled”. This balance of vitality and restraint is what draws Woolf to Greek, as does the sense of the Greeks’ paradoxical innocence: “their actions seem laden with beauty because they do not know that they are beautiful, have been born to their possessions, are no more self-conscious than children, and yet, all those thousands of years ago, in their little islands, know all that is to be known”.

The academic in me is, of course, brimming over with comments about unhelpful attitudes to the purity of Greece and how that fits into a cultural contruct of Greece vs. Rome and general ideas of moral and artistic integrity associated with Greek and how that fits into wider social interpretations of the classical world. But all of that scholarly background noise doesn’t detract from the beauty of Woolf’s own writing – her own sparseness of expression, her own engagement with the texts, and her own very deliberate proof that, actually, she does know Greek.

January 24, 2012

Book review: The Good Supervisor – Gina Wisker

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:14 am
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Back at the end of October, I went for an afternoon of supervisor training. The point of this experience was so that I could get a bit of advice on how to go about providing useful feedback to the undergraduate dissertation students who have been placed in my tender care this academic year. While my experience with my writing group has given me some experience with how to provide useful feedback, the power dynamic with peers is very different to that with students and, as became clear during the session, there are important differences between how one deals with undergraduates and graduate students.

During that training session, one of the books we were pointed to as a further resource was The Good Supervisor, which deals in the main with how to deal with Masters and doctoral students, although there is some discussion of how to transfer the concepts to undergraduate students (namely, remembering that the average undergraduate thesis is not going to be considered for publication and is thus allowed to be a little less ambitious and more directed than would be expected of graduate-level work). The contents page certainly promises a comprehensive survey of the issues a supervisor will experience, from managing your first contact with a student to how to provide after-viva care. (more…)

January 2, 2012

Book Review: The Lake of Dead Languages – Carol Goodman

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:53 am
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A friend passed this on to me, saying that I would enjoy it immensely – and he was right. The Lake of Dead Languages is a murder mystery set at a girls’ boarding school, The Heart Lake School for Girls, in the Adirondacks. The protagonist, Latin teacher Jane Hudson, is an old girl of the school who has come back to take up the position that has not been successfully filled since her own school days, when she was involved in a particularly nasty set of suicides that implicated the then-Latin teacher, Magistra Helen Chambers. Whispers of the curse of the school are raised when the pattern seems to be repeating itself – but could there be more to it than that?

Well, the answer is ‘obviously’, but the novel manages to weave its tale very cleverly indeed, and it took me a while to cotton on to what was going on (although I should add that I’m normally quite bad at guessing these things anyway). The book’s strength is that the truth about what happened in the last year that Jane spent at Heart Lake is gradually revealed during her first year there as teacher; memories, new evidence and fresh realisations are pieced together by Jane as much as by the reader, and it’s a nice twist on the unreliable narrator trope to make the narrator unreliable because she is not in full possession of the facts rather than because of deliberate deceit on her part. (more…)

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