It’s getting to that time of year when I look back and realise how many brilliant books I’ve read but not yet got around to reviewing. So for today’s post, I want to play catch-up and tell you about three brilliant non-fiction titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in 2021.
Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes
The Greek myths are one of the most important cultural foundation-stones of the modern world.
Stories of gods and monsters are the mainstay of epic poetry and Greek tragedy, from Homer to Virgil to from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides. And still, today, a wealth of novels, plays and films draw their inspiration from stories first told almost three thousand years ago. But modern tellers of Greek myth have usually been men, and have routinely shown little interest in telling women’s stories.
Now, in Pandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Greek creation myths as her starting point and then retelling the four great mythic sagas: the Trojan War, the Royal House of Thebes, Jason and the Argonauts, Heracles, she puts the female characters on equal footing with their menfolk. The result is a vivid and powerful account of the deeds – and misdeeds – of Hera, Aphrodite, Athene and Circe. And away from the goddesses of Mount Olympus it is Helen, Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Antigone and Medea who sing from these pages, not Paris, Agamemnon, Orestes or Jason.
I’ve been a fan of Natalie Haynes’ fiction ever since her debut novel, The Amber Fury, and have also greatly enjoyed her amusingly informative podcast, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.
Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myth utilises both Natalie’s extensive knowledge of classical myth, legend, and literature with her ready wit to look beneath the surface of what we know – or often assume – about the women of Greek mythology. Was Pandora really to blame for the release of all the evils of the world? And did she even have a box from which to release them? Was Medea really the evil mother of legend? Did Helen of Troy really choose to leave her husband and run away to Troy with Paris?
The answers to these questions, as Haynes ably demonstrates in this lively and knowledgeable book, are far more complicated than popular culture might lead us to believe. Indeed, many of these women whose stories we think we know so well have been, Hayne argues, viciously maligned by – you guessed it – predominantly male writers in the ages since.
Thoroughly researched but told in with humour and insight, Pandora’s Jar is a fascinating foray into Greek mythology, a call to arms for the reconsideration of maligned women in mythology, and a timely reminder of the importance of female voices in classical literature.
Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials by Professor Alice Roberts
This book is about belonging: about walking in ancient places, in the footsteps of the ancestors. It’s about reaching back in time, to find ourselves, and our place in the world.
We often think of Britain springing from nowhere with the arrival of the Romans. But in Ancestors, pre-eminent archaeologist, broadcaster and academic Professor Alice Roberts explores what we can learn about the very earliest Britons – from their burial sites. Although we have very little evidence of what life was like in prehistorical times, here their stories are told through the bones and funerary offerings left behind, preserved in the ground for thousands of years.
Told through seven fascinating burial sites, this groundbreaking prehistory of Britain teaches us more about ourselves and our history: how people came and went; how we came to be on this island.
I love history but my own studies have been woefully lacking on anything that can be classed as ‘prehistory’. As a kid, I always preferred knights in shining armour to dinosaurs and ‘cavemen’ and, as I’ve got older, the closest I’ve got to studying early civilisations is watching Ice Age.
Professor Alice Roberts’s fascinating book Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials changed all that, however. Combining archaeology, anthropology and, scientific enquiry into early DNA, Roberts tells the story of the earliest ages of humankind through seven remarkable prehistoric burials. What emerges is a picture of surprisingly complex – and deeply human – societies that reacted to changing food sources, social patterns, weather conditions, and climate.
Each chapter focuses on a specific burial – from the famous Amesbury Archer to the Paviland ‘Red Lady’ (who might, it turns out, not be a lady at all) – and examines not only what these burials might tell us about pre-historic Britain and its people, but also how scientific enquiry and excavation techniques have developed to allow us greater insight into these early peoples and their societies. As with Haynes, Roberts busts more than a few myths about pre-history during the course of her book and explains with ease the often complex science behind various theories and reasonings.
An informative yet accessible guide to a fascinating period of history through the examination of bones, pots, early weapons, and fragmentary remains, Ancestors made for a riveting read.
Why is Italy called Italy? How old is curry? Which people from history would best pull off a casino heist? Who was the richest person of all time? When was the first Monday? What were history’s weirdest medical procedures that actually worked? How much horse manure was splattered on the streets of Tudor London? How fast was the medieval Chinese postal system? What did the Flintstones get right about the Stone Age? Who gets to name historical eras, and what will ours be called in 100 years’ time? How do we know how people sounded in the past? How old is sign language?
In Ask a Historian the author, BBC podcaster, and public historian Greg Jenner provides answers to things you always wondered about, but didn’t know who to ask. Responding to 50 genuine questions from the public, Greg whisks you off on an entertaining tour through the ages, revealing the best and most surprising stories, facts, and historical characters from the past. Bouncing through a wide range of subjects – from ancient jokebooks, African empires, and bizarre tales of medicinal cannibalism, to the invention of meringues, mirrors, and menstrual pads – Ask A Historian spans the Stone Age to the Swinging Sixties, and offers up a deliciously amusing and informative smorgasbord of historical curiosities, devoured one morsel at a time.
As with Haynes’s work, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Greg Jenner’s previous books, as well as his fantastic podcast You’re Dead to Me. Ask a Historian is another triumphant mix of interesting yet esoteric history, cheerfully irreverent storytelling, and bum jokes.
I listened to the audiobook of this one – read by Jenner himself and featuring some additional content – and it was an absolute hoot. Not only did I learn a lot but I also laughed out loud on more than one occasion. It’s also an audiobook I can see me re-listening to – always a bonus in my book!
Given the nature of the book – 50 questions that bounce across ages and continents – Ask a Historian made the perfect read to listen to whilst out for a walk or commuting to work. The book would also be a perfect read for dipping into and out of alongside other reading – and would make a great gift for a history-loving friend or relative this festive season.
So those are three brilliant non-fiction titles I’ve read in 2021 and wanted to share with you. Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or intend to pick any of them up!
If you do decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
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