I don’t know if anyone misses my usual chatty, sometimes florid reviews, but they’re impossible to do on a phone. More mini-reviews it is!
Continuing my onslaught of the TBR pile, I finished Lives of Famous Romans, by Olivia Coolridge. This was a library discard, and contains twelve mini-biographies of various Roman leaders, chiefly political figures like Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, and Diocletian. There are some surprises in here, however: Cicero, Horace, and Virgil are the non-rulers among their ranks. I greatly enjoyed the tenor of the sketches, though I was familiar with most of the subjects already, save Horace.
Next up, and most appropriate considering I’m taking care of 4 dogs and 4 cats in quarantine, was Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside a Dog, a thoughtful consideration of what it’s like to be a dog. Horowitz invites us to step into a dog’s umwelt, to consider what it’s like to perceive the world from their angle — largely through the nose. Although that might sound a little silly, Horowitz offers serious food for thought by reviewing the natural history of canine evolution, noting that dogs are animals with an asterisk; they are truly domesticated in that their natural habitat is among humans: left to themselves, they are sloppy hunters, having exchanged strong pack dynamics and a wolf’s keen intelligence for social intelligence, instead…a special kind of social intelligence, the kind that allows them to read human behavior better than even our closest primate relatives. Horowitz asks her readers to try to understand dog behavior according to a dog’s nature — to consider the importance of smell to their existence, for instance, and to not be so eager to try to make them furry little humans, constantly plunged into paths and closed off from the world through little canine shoes. As a lifelong dog lover, I was delighted by this one — as was the dog lover who recommended it to me in the first place.
Most recently, I finished the thoroughly depressing Black Wave, a history of how Saudi and Iranian rivalry for influence as global leaders of Islam has sown chaos throughout the middle east. Ghattas opens in the fateful year of 1979, when cross-ideological revolution against the Shah resulted in victory in the streets for religious reactionaries. At the same time, extremists in Saudi-controlled Arbia committed an act of terrorism and sacrilege by taking over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, turning it into a battleground and humiliating the spawn of Saud. Having only recently taken over the country, the Saud family were roundly condemned for having failed to better protect the central sites of Islam. Already dependent on religious zealotry to provide support of their regime, the Saudis doubled down on it and began promoting a narrow view of Islam across the middle east, just as the new powers in Iran were also trying to export their revolution into places like Pakistan and Egypt. Although their primary noxious influence came from petrodollars, the Saudis were also able to exercise influence through economic prowess: as people flocked to the Gulf to take advantage of the growing oil-driven economy, they absorbed Saudi standards and took them home. Culture throughout the middle east became increasingly vitriolic, hostile, and puritanical, as people tried to fit themselves into ever-smaller groups and attacking with ever-great ferocity those outside the groups. People who grew up in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Iran before 1979 were astonished at how rapidly their countries changed around them, turning into warzones filled with acrimony. This is a thoroughly depressing book, though Gattas gamely tries to offer the reader hope: not only is there constant, rising resistance, but people are tired of fighting. She also believes that some countries like Iran have too strong a culture to be defeated by a few narrow-minded old men.
Coming next week…English history, German history, ancient Mesopotamian history? We’ll see…