Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard, Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet and Perfect Pitch: 100 pieces of classical music to bring joy, tears, solace, empathy, inspiration (and everything in between) by Tim Bouverie.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard (Princeton University Press), £30.
At certain points in history, statues have a bit of a moment. Who can think of the French Revolution or the Iraq War without vivid scenes of iconoclasm? And this summer, of course, was marked by images of Edward Colston taking a dip in Bristol’s harbour. Statues of leaders, politicians, and famous figures have always held meaning beyond their representational function.
It is this political power of images that Mary Beard draws attention to in her new book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern. Images of the Roman Emperors are unavoidable in the modern world – from Carry on Cleo (1964) to satires that place laurels on the head of any unfavourable politician to render them the object of ridicule.
Beard traces the importance of images of power through 2,000 years of history, from unknown graves, tombs, and busts to Renaissance paintings, and from Hogarth etchings to contemporary advertising. Her intention – to ask why these ancient figures are so often re-produced – makes for a fascinating romp through time and space, with all the hallmarks of a detective story sitting alongside intriguing academic research.
There are points at which Beard’s style of writing feels almost gratingly patronising in Twelve Caesars– she diligently tells her readers that “there is an inextricable two-way influence between the old and new,” but this is nit-picking in what is otherwise a fascinating read.
If you always skip the marble busts and torsos of emperors when walking through the V&A, Ashmolean, or British Museum, this book will make you look anew.
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Saraband), £14.99.
In the mid-1960s, a young woman became convinced that it was the experimental psychotherapist A. Collins Braithwaite who drove her older sister, a brilliant Cambridge academic named Veronica, to throw herself off a bridge in Camden.
Intent on proving the psychotherapist responsible for her sister’s suicide, the young woman decided to assume an alter ego – “Rebecca” – and visit him as a patient, writing detailed notes of their sessions together. Fast forward fifty years: an unnamed author is writing a biography on the since-disgraced 1960s psychotherapist when he receives an intriguing gift from a man named Martin Grey. Grey has sent him a series of five notebooks written by his cousin, which he believes could aid the author’s research.
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In this inventive and dizzying book, Graeme Macrae Burnet, one of Scotland’s leading contemporary novelists, weaves together the young woman’s notebook with the author’s own notes from his research on A. Collins Braithwaite.
The young woman is clearly disturbed: “Suicide makes Miss Marples out of all of us,” she admits. As her note-keeping progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that she is losing touch with reality. She begins to inhabit the alternative life she has created for herself as “Rebecca” and loses sight of her initial objective.
In his signature metatextual style, Macrae Burnet blurs the lines between fiction and reality for the reader too. It is easy to slip into thinking of the unnamed author as Macrae Burnet himself, and feel muddled over whether or not the psychotherapist and these vivid diary entries ever really existed.
Perfect Pitch: 100 pieces of classical music to bring joy, tears, solace, empathy, inspiration (and everything in between) by Tim Bouverie (Short Books), £9.99.
During lockdown, in an effort to cheer up friends, the historian Tim Bouverie emailed out a link each day to a favourite piece of classical music with a short note explaining the context and background. It was an inspired gesture and has resulted in this delightful short book of essays and notes highlighting 100 pieces of music from the greatest composers.
Bouverie writes affectingly but with clarity, a feat that is tricky when it comes to explaining music and what a composer might have meant. There are well-chosen recommended recordings listed too. Number 100 on the list is Strauss’s Four Last Songs, a piece of music that has obsessed me for years.
Says Bouverie: “The Songs may be seen to have a wider musical significance as a defence of tonality; proof that music, despite the discords of the world, could still be beautiful; a demonstration that the classical tradition lives on.” Perhaps it’s too early to be talking about “stocking fillers” and seasonal presents, but if you want to give someone you like a joyous gift, the gift of pleasure in music, send them this book.