Book Report: The Story of Egypt

Published June 20, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Well, it’s been a very long time since my last Book Report, hasn’t it?  That’s because my choice for Challenge #11 “Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location,” was this:

(Oddly, according to Goodreads, this is the paperback cover, but it’s the image on the cover of my hardback copy.)  So, before I get to the book, let me give a little backstory on why I had this sitting around waiting to be read.  In my family, everyone writes Christmas lists every year, so that gift-giving isn’t a pain in the backside.  Because a list of nothing but DVDs/Blu-rays would be excessively dull, I always make sure to put some books on there, specifically ones that feel appropriate (the one about the mistresses of Charles II, for example, did not seem holiday-appropriate) and usually hardbacks, typically new releases that I find browsing idly at Barnes & Noble.  Last year’s list had a paucity of books at first, but after another browsing, I spotted this one and figured “may as well add it” even though it didn’t particularly scream out that I needed to read it.  So naturally this is the one my mother decided to give me. (Should I have ever expected anything else?)  I chose to read it at this time because the other Christmas gift waiting to be read (which would also have worked for this challenge) is a book about Mycenae that’s about the size of a coffee table.  Not really convenient to read unless you do all your reading at a table, which I don’t.  Aaaanyway, that’s all somewhat irrelevant, so I’m not sure why I’m going into it.

Now, you may be wondering if it would normally take me a month and a half to read a 368 page book.  (The page numbers go up a lot higher than that, of course, but that’s due to the notes and bibliography and such.  The text stops on page 368.)  And the answer is “absolutely not.”  The reasons it’s taken me that long are multi-part.  One, I haven’t had as much time to just sit around reading, due to one thing and another.  Two, because I’m swimming again, I’m not taking baths very often, and I usually read in the bath.  (Why waste water bathing when I take a full shower after getting out of the pool?)  Three, this book was very frustrating to read.

Number three, of course, is the big one.  This is a very heavily researched book, but the author tried her hardest to obscure that fact.  Not only are there no in-text citations or endnote markers, the endnotes themselves are horrible.  Basically, only quotations are cited, and they’re done in the most infuriating way I’ve ever seen.  If you see a quote, you have to turn the back, where you’ll find a list (in order, thank goodness!) of all the quotations, listed by chapter but without any reference back to which page they were quoted on, which then gives you a source, by author’s last name and year of publication only, so you have to flip still further back to find the author’s works in the bibliography to see where it actually came from.  And if you want to know where some of her non-quoted information comes from?  You’re just plain out of luck.  There were many times when I wanted to know what her sources were on things that weren’t quotes, but she didn’t cite them, so for all the evidence she provided, she could have outright made those things up.  (I doubt that she did make them up, of course, but any teacher on the planet would fail her for such miserable citations.)  And when I say there are no in-text citations, I mean it.  Any time she wants to admit she’s quoting someone, she’ll just say “an historian said” or “according to one ancient source”, sometimes being as “specific” as Greek or Roman…but she never gives the historian’s name.  As if anyone would be reading a nearly 400 page book on ancient history who’d be put off at seeing the name Herodotus in the text?  Not giving the names of modern historians I can understand, but avoiding naming the ancient sources is not just annoying, but downright misleading;  knowing something came from Herodotus is very different than it coming from Plutarch, Diodorus, or whoever else.  And given the way these citations were handled, I wasn’t about to sort through them to look up which ancient source said every thing she quoted.  Some of the translations she chose for the ancient historians were entirely inappropriate for modern works, particularly the one for which I’ll present the entire citation:

‘a thieving effeminate ballet boy in curlers’, Cicero in Graves  1968, p. 96.

Seriously?  “Ballet boy”?  Ballet didn’t exist for another 1500 years!  How is such an anachronistic translation appropriate to a scholarly work?  And as to “Graves 1968″…it is not in the selected bibliography.  So what book is it?  Assuming that “Graves” means the classical scholar (and novelist) Robert Graves, one can go to Goodreads and see what he wrote in 1968…and find nothing.  According to Goodreads’ sort by original publication year, Robert Graves had things first published in ’67 and ’69, but not ’68.  So is it a reprint?  Is it someone else named Graves?  Fletcher doesn’t tell us.  (Admittedly, given the decidedly old-fashioned manner of dealing with an ancient Roman insult to a man’s masculinity, it’s almost certainly Robert Graves, and undoubtedly simply something that was reprinted/re-edited in 1968, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that she quotes and cites something without providing the most basic information on the work.  And in this case, she ought to have stated which of Cicero’s works it came from, so the reader could have sought out a more accurate translation if desired.)

Another reason I found this hard to read was the fact that it’s horribly edited.  In fact, kind of just badly written, from a grammatical standpoint.  A lot of strangely constructed sentences that either end up meaning nothing, or meaning the opposite of what she intended.  I only started marking them fairly late in the reading process, and I thought I marked more than one, but now I can only find one to share with you:

Finally ousting Ptolemy VIII and his brood, they fled to Cyprus.

What that sentence says is that the people who did the ousting then had to flee.  There’s no question about it.  When a dependent clause has an implied subject, that subject is always the subject of the sentence itself.  If you’re going to obey the rules of grammar — or even the rules of logic.  Instead, she switches subjects mid-sentence, so that in the first half of the sentence the subject is Kleopatra II and her troops, and in the second half the subject is Ptolemy VIII and his family.  For this sentence to make the sense she wanted, it would have to read

Finally ousted, Ptolemy VIII and his brood fled to Cyprus.

or

Finaly ousting Ptolemy VIII and his brood, Kleopatra II saw success as her brother fled to Cyprus.

Or just about anything, really, as long as both clauses had the same subject!

I’m sorry I didn’t mark more.  Many of the others were worse.  More convoluted, with five or six clauses.  Oooh, there was this one that…dang, did I really not mark that?  Ah!  I found it!

Although details are sketchy at best, his reign united the land and, aided by his Libyan military advisor General Sheshonq, the general eventually became king himself.

This is one of those sentences where you read it and say “wait, what?”  And you read it several more times.  Because it seems to be saying that Pusennes II, the subject of the sentence, was only a general when “his reign united the land” with the aid of his military advisor.  What she means is that Sheshonq went from being a general under Pusennes II to becoming the next ruler.  But that isn’t what the sentence says.  Really, all she needed to do was put the “and” after “aided by his Libyan military advisor General Sheshonq”.

What perplexes me about all of these mistakes is how anyone managed first to make them, and then never to notice them.  Even if she only wrote one draft and trusted aides/editors to do all the rest of the work, someone should have noticed them.  They happen at least once a chapter, probably more like three or four times a chapter.  Maybe not enough to bother most people, but every time I came across one, I had trouble moving past it because WTF?  This is a published book by a professional and highly educated Egyptologist, so why does it have the kind of error you’d rarely even see in a high school English paper?

All right, having gotten the “driving me crazy” section out of the way, now I should probably actually talk about the book.

It’s hard to know what to say, really.  It’s dense with information, because she’s trying to condense all of Egyptian history and pre-history up to the death of Cleopatra (VII) into under 400 pages.  Despite how much information there is, there’s still a lot left out.  And despite her stated intention of writing a history of Egypt that wasn’t focused on the ruling elite, it’s still pretty heavily focused on the ruling elite, because some 75-90% of our information on ancient Egypt comes from the massive amounts of data recovered in an elite funerary context.  She did manage to put in information here and there about  the common people, though, so that’s something, at any rate.

There was a lot of really interesting stuff in here.  Particularly things that I’ve often wondered about, like the original Egyptian names for various places, and/or the origins of the Greek names for the country and its locations, the names we still use to this day.  She even explained the origin of the word “pharaoh”…though I’m not clear on whose mispronunciation it is.  All the others are Hellenizations of Egyptian words, but I recall once being told that “pharaoh” was actually Hebrew, being how the Israelites referred to the Egyptian ruler.  (I’m pretty sure it was my mother who told me that, though, now that I think of it, so it was probably entirely wrong.)  I marked a number of passages that I wanted at the time to share, but now I totally lack motivation to do so.   (Sorry.)

I’m not sure who the target audience for this book is.  All the reviews on Goodreads (which I only glanced at as I was getting the cover image) talk about how it’s definitely not for the casual reader.  But it absolutely is not for academic readers.  Speaking as an academic-in-training, the lack of proper citations is maddening, and she quite frankly displays an ignorance of other ancient cultures that’s a bit shocking.  (Did she actually read Herodotus other than the parts where he’s talking about Egypt?  Because he made it very clear that there were far more than 300 Greek dead at Thermopylae…but she didn’t seem to know that.  Also rather overestimated the battle’s importance; given her subject matter, there was no reason to even mention it.)

Given that it’s apparently too scholarly for non-scholars, and it’s far too unscholarly for scholars, I guess this is a rare book with no target audience, and no one who can truly enjoy it.

I’m not sorry I read it, though.  If I ever decide to try to polish up my Young Adult series set a generation after the Trojan War, there’s a lot of good information about the Ramesside period that’ll be useful to me.  (Like the fact that many of the pharaohs may have been red-haired!  That’s going to radically change the way everyone in Egypt reacts to my red-haired heroine…)

However, I’m totally going to read something short and fast next.   In fact, I already started it.  It’s not for Read Harder, though.  (I’ll be posting a group review of it and a few other non-challenge books soon.  Just to give me something to post about.)

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