A Fun Way to Learn a Bit of Latin

Amo, Amas, Amat… and All That: How to Become a Latin Lover by Harry Mount

While I love all things ancient and Roman, and can have a go at translating easy bits of Latin, I can’t claim to be able to write it at all. I can hear you exclaiming, “But you have a Latin motto on your blog! What’s that all about then?” “Simples!” (as Alexandr Meerkat would say – sorry!) – Mottos just sound better in Latin. I did have a go at writing it myself with the aid of a quite scholarly grown-up teach yourself Latin book Learn Latin. In the end though I needed help, and my colleague Dr Ridd from Abingdon School sorted my schoolgirl Latin out.

Then my other half gave me this book for Christmas. It combines all the Latin grammar an amateur needs, with added bits about all things Latin and Roman. These include discussions on the famous Monty Python sketch in Life of Brian and Jeeves’ propensity to spout bits of Latin amongst other references. Also included is an etymological list of common Latin expressions in use in English today. All of this is written in a jocular fashion and is thoroughly entertaining.  I’m sure a bit more of the language has sunk in. I’ve certainly got a new appreciation for many a Latin phrase, but also much English grammar along the way. 

I also found out that the author despises the Cambridge Latin course – which was a rather touchy-feely way of teaching Latin introduced into schools in the 1970s (and still going).  Of course that’s how I learned my Latin!  About a third of the O-Level marks were for earned for spouting about ancient Roman life – which was fab.  Unfortunately, you didn’t have to learn conjugations and declensions off by heart as in the trad approach, so while you could always translate the stems – you didn’t always get the sense of the syntax/grammar properly.  I still managed to get an ‘A’, but possibly because we had previously translated the ‘unseen’ Pliny passage in the exam for prep the month before, and I really did know my set text Virgil off by heart …

If you want to brush up your grammar and learn how to use Latin in everyday English, this book will be really useful in a fun way; as a Latin primer though, it’s far too much fun (but good for revision)!  (7/10)

Down and borassic in 1930s London

At the Chime of a City Clock by D J Taylor

This novel is a cleverly portrayed slice of 30s noir. It’s set in the seedy backstreets of London in 1931.

James Ross is an aspiring writer, but there’s no chance of making a living at it. His landlady is always after the rent money – but he’s permanently borassic. (Boracic Lint = Skint). So he gets a job as a door-to-door salesman flogging carpet cleaner – his commission gets him 2/6 – a whole half a crown per sale – could be a nice little earner. Then he meets Susie, a real looker, and falls head over heels for her – it seems she likes him too. She works as a secretary for the odd Mr Rasmussen who, James is sure, is up to no good. Meanwhile a chipper lad called Leo is also trying to make ends meet, but is not above helping out in shady deals.

James is desperately trying to save up enough money to take Susie away for a dirty weekend, when an opportunity arrives to take the place of a friend at a houseparty to which Rasmussen is going – and he’s taking his secretary…

This novel was really successful at recreating 1930s London, when guys wore hats and everyone met at Lyons tea shops where they drank cups of ‘ackermaracker’. The language was full of slang including swear-words – ‘Berkshire’ (Hunt) took me a while to cotton on to! In fact I got out the ever-reliable Eric Partridge Dictionary of Slang to check a few – it appears that ackermaracker comes from an elaborated prison blackslang word for tea!

It was less successful in terms of plot. The front cover proclaims it as a thriller – I’d call it ‘thriller-ish’. There are scams going on, but they’re almost incidental to James trying to make a few bob all the time. At first we alternate between James and Leo which is slightly confusing, but gradually James moreorless takes over the plot.

I enjoyed the read for the evocation of London life, but wished there had been more plot. (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme, 7/10)

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #1

I won’t deny that I get loads of ideas and inspiration for posts and blog improvements from other blogs – don’t we all? A huge thank you to everyone who’s inspired me in this way. Something a lot of bloggers do, and I haven’t so far, is a regular round-up post.

Doing a quick survey, Simon at Savidgereads does his Bookish Bits on a Saturday, whereas Jackie at Farmlanebooks does an end of the month summary, and Teresa at Shelflove gives us weekly Notes from a Reading Life as part of her Sunday Salon posts.

While I like the idea of the Sunday Salon it is closed to new sign-ups having reached the number of contributors that the software can cope with. Looking for an USP, I thought I’d make my round-up ‘Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany’. It won’t happen every week, but it will appear on Wednesdays. So here goes …

*****
Simon T’s Ten Random Books Meme, is spreading. It was such fun to do, and my version is here, and here are more fascinating results for your delectation …

*****

Last Thursday I took part in a Blog Blitz organised by Kelly at YAnnebe to highlight great YA novels that not many people have read. Kelly used the power of the Librarything tagging system to analyse the numbers of LT users that owned each YA tagged book. Over 25,000 LT users own Twilight for instance, but there are thousands of books owned by 500 people or less. Then invited LT users with public catalogues who are bloggers to highlight some of their favourite rarely owned YA titles, and even gave us personalised lists to work from. This must have been a massive project and nearly 50 bloggers took part by posting – and I’ve added to many to my wishlists from others’ posts! To sum it all up, Kelly is publishing some final data from all the books highlighted. Go Kelly!!!

*****

Lastly this week – Incoming. New arrivals at Gaskell Towers include:

  • The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar – it’s steampunk. A masked terrorist is putting bombs into books – oh no!
  • Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. First published in 1947 in Germany, this book chronicles the horror and terror of German life during WWII. It’s also a chunkster with over 500 pages.
  • The Mayor’s Tongue by Nathaniel Rich. Scott Pack said this reminded him of Paul Auster . Well anything Austerish will attract my attention.
  • Intuition by Allegra Goodman, a novel of Bad Science. This medical thrillerish novel was bound to appeal to the scientist bit of my brain.
  • Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – I finally gave in on and bought this one – in hardback too even though the paperback is out this month.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – after all the posts and comments around on this book – I succumbed.
  • And finally, with many thanks to the lovely Dovegreyreader, a boxed set of Oxford Bronte essentials arrived. I won this set in one of her Twelve Days of Christmas giveaways. Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights in nice new Oxford World Classics editions will now grace my shelves.

But darling the virus won’t affect us, will it?

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

The 1950s saw an explosion of science fiction and cultural dystopias. In 1951 there was John Wyndham’s ground-breaking novel Day of the Triffids, followed by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. Then there was Quatermass on the television. William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies was also published in 1954.

Then in 1956 The Death of Grass was published. John Christopher was an established author, but this was his breakthrough novel. Readers may recall The Tripods BBC TV series which was made in the mid-70s from a trilogy of books he later wrote for older children. But back to The Death of Grass. It’s not really a science fiction novel, despite the catalyst for all that’s to come being a rather realistic virus that kills grass (compared with the monstrous triffids). It is dystopian though, and survival is the key.

In the beginning we meet two brothers, John and David Custance. David grows up to inherit the family farm in a remote Westmorland valley, John becomes an engineer in London and has a family of his own. John and Ann, and their best friends the Buckleys, Roger and Olivia live a nice life in suburbia with their kids. They fervently believe the virus which is rampaging in Asia will burn itself out or be cured before it reaches them, but governments are planning for the future…

At the beginning of September, the United States House of Representatives passed an amendment to a Presidential bill of food aid, calling for a Plimsoll line for food stocks for home use. A certain minimum tonnage of all foods was to be kept in reserve, to be used inside the United States only.
Ann could not keep her indignation at this to herself.
“Millions facing famine,” she said, “and those fat old men refuse them food.”
They were all having tea on the Buckley’s lawn. The children had retired, with a supply of cakes, into the shrubbery, from which which shrieks and giggles issued at intervals.

And they continue to bicker about the famine in the East…

Roger stared back. “We once agreed about my being a throwback – remember? If I irritate the people around me, don’t forget they may irritate me occasionally. Woolly-mindedness does. I believe in self-preservation, and I’m not prepared to wait until the knife is at my throat before I start fighting. I don’t see the sense in giving the children’s last crust to a starving beggar.”
“Last crust…” Ann looked at the table, covered with the remains of a lavish tea. “Is that what you call this?” …
… Olivia said: “I really think it’s best not to talk about it. It isn’t as though there’s anything we can do about it – we ourselves, anyway. We must just hope things don’t turn out so badly.”

All so nice and cosy, but there are intimations that the men are willing to be heroes if needed, and of course they are to get their chance. Things get much much worse, and they get just a few hours notice to get out of London before it’s sealed. The two families plan to go north to Westmorland, but stop off first at a gun-shop where they meet the owner Pirrie, who’s a good shot. ‘Persuaded’ to take him with them, the rest of the book tells of their journey north. But the army are already manning road-blocks out of London, and it’s amazing how quickly the men transform from well-meaning middle-class blokes into ruthless killers.

They are to encounter many more troubles as they make their way north. Pirrie, (who reminded me of Donald Pleasance in nasty mode), makes himself very useful to the group’s leader John, who finds himself having to make tougher and tougher decisions as they travel and to harden his heart. Ann his wife, remains the group’s conscience.

This immediate transformation of the country into a miriad of small fiefdoms and garrisons, with its accompanying moral disintegration may have happened rather fast, but kept things moving towards the conclusion. John and Roger were ex-Army, so had the discipline to do what they had to do, the women were 1950s housewives, but at least Ann had a mind of her own, despite some rather dated, arch and cheesy dialogue.

This new Penguin classics reissue with the super cover also has a great foreword by Robert MacFarlane, the landscape writer, which puts it into context and surveys the (eco-)dystopian sub-genre. For another excellent review, you can visit John Self’s blog at Asylum.

I was totally won over by this book. It’s our Book Group choice for next month, I’ll report back on what they thought of it later. I feel I may have to revisit the Triffids though. (9/10)

A tale of two families at war with themselves

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan

There is a much used quote of Leo Tolstoy’s from Anna Karenina: -“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is particularly true to the two chronicled in this novel.

Firstly we meet Meridia. Her mother Ravenna had nearly died giving birth to her, and her father Gabriel never forgave her for being a girl. Her father and mother have barely spoken to each other since, and the atmosphere in the house is arctic. Her father holes up in his study and her mother rules the kitchen. Her parents’ displeasure at each other is personified by coloured mists that encircle the house.

Then one day Meridia meets Daniel and they fall in love. Time to be introduced to his parents – Elias the jeweller, and his wife Eva. Eva is an elemental force and when she’s wound up, the bees buzz all around. When she and Meridia meet, it’s obvious that it will be a case of the irresistible force meeting the immoveable mountain. Eva tries to micro-manage every aspect of Daniel and Meridia’s lives together. Meridia is strong however, and is able to hold her own against her conniving and manipulative Mother-in-law.

The novel is set in an old-fashioned town which feels hot and Mediterranean – there are no cars or telephones – but there is a cinema, and life revolves around the marketplace where much bartering goes on. The three women rule this novel. Of the menfolk, Daniel and Elias appear rather timid and doormatish, letting Eva get away with far too much. Gabriel has pushed his emotions so far down, he could be an Easter Island statue – only Ravenna can stand up to him and it’s driving her mad. They all have secrets, and it’s Meridia’s job as matriarch of the next generation to work out what is behind both families’ strangeness. But will that knowledge help sustain or corrupt her own new family?

While, at over 400 pages in hardback, the book was too ong and I got fed up with most of the characters some of the time, I did have to keep reading to see if Meridia would get to the bottom of her parent’s cold war; to see if she could outwit the scheming Eva; amd most of all to see if her relationship with Daniel would survive. It has been billed as a fairy-tale, but the magic of the bees and mists is essentially incidental to the family drama within. An engrossing debut. (Book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme, 7/10)

…and the Winner is

Names went on slips of paper in a bowl, mixed then shaken until one fell out and the winner of a signed copy of “The Girl With Glass Feet” by Ali Shaw …
… is…
(don’t you just hate the way they do that on the TV)
Savidgereads
Well done Simon – another triumph for your BBB (book-buying-ban).
Thank you to everyone who entered and told me their favourite fairy tales. I’m going to try to read some of them soon, and look out the Angela Carter and Margo Lanagan ones too.

Five of the best YA books you haven’t read …

Today I’m taking part in a blog blitz organised by Kelly at YAnnabe. Kelly has been researching librarything to find YA books that LT users have rated really highly, but that not many people own, then asking people who own them to champion them.

I was only too happy to oblige, as I feel that the very best YA books deserve to have an adult readership also. Often the differences between a YA and an adult novel are very small – the main characters are usually younger YAs themselves, and obviously bad language and sex are toned down, but everything else that makes a great novel is still there – plot, setting, characterisation, and beautiful writing …

The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean who is one of the UK’s mostly highly regarded children’s authors, having written many books for all ages, including the official Peter Pan sequel Peter Pan in Scarlet.

This, her latest novel is for young adults, and it’s superb. Imagine your aunt had prophesied that you would die at the age of fourteen, and worse still that everyone believed her. That’s what happened to Pepper Roux and he wasn’t going to let it stop him having a life.

Read my full review here.

The Kiss of Death by Marcus Sedgwick is set in Venice, which immediately gets my vote, and also features proper old-school vampires from Eastern European tradition. Read my review of it here.

Readers of this blog will also know my fondness for his fictional biography of Arthur Ransome’s years in Russia Blood Red Snow White.

He’s coming to a school’s event in Abingdon next month, and I’ll be helping! – Looking forward to that hugely.

Pastworld by Ian Beck is another recent read that deserves to be huge! Read my review here. Imagine that London has been turned into a Victorian theme park and you’ll get the idea.

The book has an absolutely fantastic website here – there is a filmed trailer for the book too – I think it gives a little too much away, but the whole site is great.

Numbers by Rachel Ward is the debut novel by a new British writer that I read last year. It’s about a girl who sees numbers above everybody’s head – they represent the day they will die.

Read my review here. I hope she writes more.

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. Sally is an author and illustrator who has been working her way up the age range. The Red Necklace is her second YA novel, and it’s set during the French Revolution. Full of adventure, wonderful characters, and her magical touch it is a fabulous novel. Read my review here.

I must read its sequel The Silver Blade too. I saw Sally speak at an event last year and she was fascinating to listen too – she’s severely dyslexic and had huge problems at school as a teenager, but never let that stop her!

With the exception of the last novel, less than 65 LT members own any of the other titles mentioned above. I loved reading all of them, and recommend them all to you if you fancy reading YA. If you stop by YAnnebe’s blog you can link to all other bloggers taking part today – I’m sure you’ll find a YA book to tickle your fancy!

Simon’s Meme – What Your Books Say About You

Simon T at Stuck in a book developed this meme. Simon S at Savidgereads has since done it, and both have made fascinating reading. It’s a development of the ten random things about yourself type of meme. So I thought I’d have a go too. Here’s how to do it…

1.) Go to your bookshelves…
2.) Close your eyes. If you’re feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.
3.) Select ten books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or… basically, wherever you keep books.
4.) Use these books to tell us about yourself – where and when you got them, who got them for you, what the book says about you, etc. etc…..
5.) Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn’t matter if you’ve read them or not – be creative. It might not seem easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.
6.) Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to…

That last point was to prove very useful. As my books are just everywhere, I thought that to get the best sample, that I’d use a random number generator to pick the books from my Librarything catalogue. If I couldn’t think of anything to say about the books – I moved to the next down the page. Well – it is meant to be fun (see rule 5)!

1. Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov

I got this particular Corgi paperback from the Girl Guides jumble sale, where my Dad & I always managed to control the book stall, from which we did rather well over the years. So you can see that even at the age of about 12 I was addicted.

This was my first proper science fiction read too, and was to spark off a passion that lasted through university. I was also able to enjoy the SF classics that we read at school – Day of the Triffids and Brave New World amongst them. I still enjoy an occasional SF novel today, and I adore SF movies. I also make no secret of have been a huge Trekker, although I never went quite so far as to buy a uniform – it was close for a while though!

2. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I’m going to have to re-read this one, having read it shortly after it was published. I remember it left me slightly cold, but that was before I started writing notes on my reading so I can’t remember why. I haven’t read many novels by Canadian authors apart from Atwood and lots of Robertson Davies some years ago. I have a couple of Mordecai Richler’s books on the TBR pile, but am very open to recommendations for others.

I’d love to visit Canada one day too – I have some distant relatives, that I’m pretty sure that I’ve never met, who live in the wonderfully named town of Copper Cliff, Ontario. One day I may make contact! …

3. The Wind in the Willows by Alan Bennett

Bennett really is a national treasure – and never more so than at the National Theatre where his plays have had their debuts in the past few decades. I saw The Wind in the Willows twice on successive Christmases, 1990-1. The casts were different, Griff Rhys Jones & Patrick Barlow were the Toads, supported by great casts of British character actors. Bennett’s gentle and hilarious adaptation made great use of the Olivier Theatre’s moveable stage – rising up to create Badger’s sett and Ratty’s waterside hole.

Also of note, the music to this production is by Jeremy Sams – who was a great musical star at my brother’s school, Whitgift in South Croydon. Sams has gone on to compose for film and TV, winning a BAFTA, and directed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End amongst other accomplishments. I remember all of us girls admiring him from afar at the school concerts!

4. Pompeii by Robert Harris

We holidayed on the Sorrento peninsula back in 2007. It was one of my favourite vacations. Naturally, one of the must-see sites nearby was Pompeii. We had been advised that the way to get the best out of it was to hire a private official guide there – they would be able to unlock houses that joe public don’t get into. The only problem was a guide was €70 and no-one else wanted to share when we got there. Pompeii itself was huge, crowded and hot, and bloody hard work clambering over the lumpy roads and pavements.

Later in the trip, we went to Herculaneum which was small and perfectly formed with no crowds or closed houses. Guess which I preferred?

5. WLT: A Radio Romance by Garrison Keillor

I had a very small moment of radio fame last year – when I got to do a book review on Radio Oxford one afternoon in their monthly book club feature. I did it by telephone – and although the DJ Jo Thoenes put me at my ease, I kept on interrupting as I couldn’t see her and her regular bookseller guest. I’m sure I ummed and aahed more than I would have liked too.

I never did listen again though, but I’d love to have another go if they’d have me …

6. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

The inhabitants of Barbary Lane in Maupin’s tales of Bohemian folk in San Francisco in the late 1970s have such a good time! As a tourist in San Francisco in the mid 1980s though, although a lovely, friendly city, you wouldn’t recognise it from its hippy heyday in the late 1960s. We went to the famous Haight/Ashbury intersection but didn’t get any vibes. The City Lights Bookshop where the Beats hung out was nice though, and I found it easy to buy some books to get a souvenir bag!

7. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
Last autumn in October I launched my Season of the Living Dead. I only read vampire books for a month, and loved it all – the good, the bad and in the case of Let the right one in downright scary. At the moment I’m minded to do it again this year, but to widen the scope slightly to include all types of undead, so I can add ghosts, zombies and all manner of supernatural beings. I shall certainly include some of Paul Magr’s splendidly humorous Brenda and Effie series.

8. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

I have a deep love of fairy tales. When I was little, I read all the colours in the rainbow and beyond in the collections of Andrew Lang, the twelve of which were published between 1889 and 1910. I still have my original Puffin Book of Princesses which had lovely illustrations of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and others which I carefully coloured in.

However, I can’t get my daughter to share in my love of fairy tales, myths and legends – she’s reading and enjoying Harry Potter, but I think she’s missing out on a rich banquet of super storytelling.

In Maria Tatar’s illustrated volume of some of the greatest fairy tales, each one is accompanied by a scene-setting introduction with historical notes, variants, and many interesting insights which any lover of fairy tales would find fascinating.

9. School Dinners by Becky Thorn

I couldn’t believe it when the random number generator picked this book – I actually double-checked for Becky is my sister-in-law. This is her first book which can help you reproduce all your favourites from school dinners back in the 1970s in family sized portions, (minus the Spam fritters). There are main course recipes for pies and non-pies, and loads of great puddings – Butterscotch Tart – I can feel a Homer drool coming on. The text evokes the experiences we all had wonderfully and the whole book has a nice retro 1970s feel to it with the design. An ideal present!

10. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

…and finally. I haven’t read this one, but it does appear to go on, and on for ever like this shaggy dog story of a jest supplied by my daughter…

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs who went to a restaurant. When the waiter came to take their order, the biggest pig chose, “Roast beef, mash and gravy” the middle pig said, “Fish and Chips” and the smallest pig said, “Two pints of water please.”
“And what would you like for dessert?” asked the waiter.
The biggest pig requested, “Apple crumble and custard.” The middle pig said, “Crème Brulèe.” The Smallest pig said, “Four pints of water please.”
“And what would you like to drink with that?” asked the waiter.
The biggest and middle pigs both wanted tea. The smallest pig asked for, “eight pints of water please.”
The waiter was totally confused and said to the smallest pig, “Your brothers are all having a normal meal. Why are you just drinking water?”
The Smallest pig replied, “Well, I’m the little piggy who goes wee, wee, wee, all the way home!”

*****FINIS!!!*****

An Evening with Ali Shaw & Book Giveaway

It was off to Mostly Books last night to see one of the best new young authors around. Ali Shaw’s debut novel is the magical and wonderful The Girl With Glass Feet which I reviewed here.I have a signed copy of the new paperback to giveaway. See the end of the post for details…
But back to Ali whose own website and blog can be found here. He hails from Hardy country – Dorchester in Dorset. He studied English at Lancaster, and then like Dick Whittington, set off for London, where he perked coffee, worked in a bookshop and then for a publisher, writing in the small and early hours. Having submitted the manuscript to an agent and hearing nothing, he went off to work at the Bodleian in Oxford having an interesting time in the special documents department. Then he got the call … and The Girl With Glass Feet became a reality.

Ali read a chapter from the book to us, and then chatted at length with questions from the audience about his inspirations and influences, and in particular – the use of magical elements in the story.

He loves fairy tales, particularly the sad, dark ones of Hans Christian Andersen, which always show that there is a price to be paid for benefitting from magic. He also wanted the magic in his book to be a natural extension of the character’s lives, giving the example of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a bureaucrat wakes up transformed into an insect and essentially carries on with his life! His advice was to be careful with magic – to work out your rules for incorporating it, to consider up and down sides, and to keep it natural.

Finding it hard to pitch his book at first so that it wasn’t pigeonholed as genre fantasy, (which it is not!), he latched upon The Time Traveller’s Wife as a comparison which successfully opened the doors. Ali proved to be an entertaining and articulate speaker who had interesting and mature things to say about his craft – and he’s only in his twenties! Novel two is in the works – I for one can’t wait.

Now for the Giveaway … For your chance to win a signed copy of the paperback of ‘The Girl With Glass Feet’ -please leave a comment telling me your favourite fairy tale – are you a traditionalist – Grimms, Andersen or Perrault perhaps? Or do you prefer a more modern style – maybe one of the ‘magic realists’? … Comments by Friday lunchtime please, I will send worldwide.

P.S. Hello to Vikki who went to uni with Ali. We’ve crossed paths on the internet before, and it turns out that we both live in Abingdon. It’s a small world sometimes – and it’s always lovely to meet virtual friends in real life.

Starting the Canongate Myths series …

A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

One of my reading resolutions for 2010 is to read the entire Canongate Myths series – re-tellings of age old stories by great authors. While I’m not intending to read them in strict publication order necessarily, (I managed to snaffle a copy of the latest addition Orphans of Eldorado by Milton Hatoum from the publisher – thank you Canongate), it is sensible to make Karen Armstrong’s scholarly appraisal of the role of myth in history the first.

But, what is a myth? Chambers dictionary defines it as:

myth / mith or (archaic) mīth/ n an ancient traditional story of gods or heroes, esp one offering an explanation of some fact or phenomenon; a story with a veiled meaning; mythical matter; a figment; a commonly-held belief that is untrue, or without foundation. [Gr mythos talk, story myth]

This doesn’t get us much further, as there is scope within that definition for rather almost contradictory ideas – from tales of the divine exploits of ancient Gods told for a moral purpose, to the tabloid-fuelled rubbish we’re pushed to believe today.

However, for Armstrong myth is spiritual; it is all about belief and the evolution of human society. She takes us from the Paleolithic belief in the sky gods, through the development of more anthropomorphic gods, to the great classical era when cities were built and the ancient Greeks started philosophising. The balance between myth and what the Greeks call logos – the logical, pragmatic thinking was beginning to change.

Plato disliked tragedy, because it was too emotional; he believed that it fed the irrational part of the soul, and that humans could only reach their full potential through logos. He compared myths to old wives tales.

Then she carries on beyond this time when mythical thinking began to pivot towards logic, to the crises in belief systems that occurred later as science began to come of age around the time of the Renaissance.

Scientific logos and myth were becoming incompatible. Hitherto science had been conducted within a comprehensive mythology that explained its significance. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62), a deeply religious man, was filled with horror when he contemplated the ‘eternal silence’ of the infinite universe opened up by modern science.

She ends by bringing us up to date by looking at T.S.Eliot’s poem The Waste Land which looks at “the spiritual disintegration of Western civilisation”, through the symbology of Picasso’s Guernica, to the Homeric tribute of Joyce’s Ulysses.

In conclusion, myth is proabably more important than ever. Going back to the dictionary definition above, wherein myths give meaning, it seems to me that we need myth to help explain the spiritual side of life, the universe and everything really!

I really enjoyed this short overview of the world of myth, particularly as it introduced me to many Middle Eastern and Asian mythologies that I am less than familiar with. Appetite whetted, I can’t wait to get going on the stories themselves now. (8/10)