What I read during the waning days of 2012.
While I included some Roman hits from the second Century AD, including my hero Marcus Aurelius, in honor of the holiday season I went heavy on the light reading. Hence a large number of Roman murders and other whodunnits and thrillers, my traditional christmas Dortmunder novel, Discworld, Terry Goodkind, Robert A. Heinlein and the brand new addition to the Dresden Files. Enjoy!
Grok of Ages: Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
Jubal E. Harshaw, L.L.B., M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinairy, and neopessimist philosopher, was sitting by his swimming pool at his home in the Poconos, scratching the thick grey thatch on his chest, and watching his three secretaries splash in the pool. They were all three amazingly beautiful; they were also amazingly good secretaries. In Harshaw’s opinion the principle of least action required that utility and beauty be combined.
Anne was blonde, Miriam was red-headed, and Dorcas was dark; in each case the coloration was authentic. They ranged, respectively, from pleasantly plump to deliciously slender. Their ages spread over fifteen years but it was hard to tell offhand which one was the eldest. They undoubtedly had last names, but Harshaw’s household did not bother much with last names. One of them was rumored to be Harshaw’s own granddaughter but opinions varied as to which one it was.
This is Heinlein’s most famous novel; it is simultaneously the most thought provoking and annoying of the half dozen or so Heinleins I have read and, it seems to me, second to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in quality and plot coherence.
All this time, I had thought the story would be about something else; primarily a civilization in space. In fact, most of the action takes place on an Earth not too unrecognizable compared to what exists today, and concerns the culture shock of a human raised by Martians trying to understand human society. The result runs the gamut from brilliant satire to gratuitous pessimism to incoherence. I imagine the 1984 Jeff Bridges/Karen Allen movie Starman was heavily influenced by Stranger in a Strange Land, as many tropes from the movie are lifted straight from the book. By the time the “man from Mars” encountered a slot machine, I was thinking, “Yup, he’s going to use his magic Martian powers to hit the jackpot while his Earth friends cringe at how much attention he’s drawing.”
The makers of Starman wisely left out any attempt to include the equivalent of Jubal Harshaw, Heinlein’s ubiquitous stock character of the species Ornerius Cussibum--old enough to know everything, always right, usually horny and surrounded by adoring hypercompetent beauties, alternates between long snarky monologues and joyfully roaring like Slim Pickens riding a warhead. If there’s some reason other than gender bias why Jubal, Lazarus, and the rest of Heinlein’s old cusses don’t count as the ultimate Mary Sues, I’d like to hear it. The worst part about Jubal is knowing that if I were to attempt fantasy writing, my protagonist would probably be a lot closer to that than I feel comfortable admitting, and I want to go scrub myself.
As with the two Heinlein books from my last two Bookposts, the plot takes a 90-degree turn about halfway through. The first half slams government, and the second half slams religion, mostly in the right places but with several spots where the chalk outlines show and it becomes painfully apparent that the author is ranting.
Stranger is as much part of the sci-fi canon as Tolkein, Wells and Bradbury. It’s an essential component of literacy in the geek subculture, mostly in that very special sub-subculture of people you usually find you didn’t want to get all that close to after all. But there really are some very shiny diamonds in the rough there. And anyone who can make up a word that ends up in the world’s general vocabulary has to get some points, right?
Evil Cerebral: The Case of the Gilded Fly, by Edmund Crispin
The destinations of these people in Oxford were various: Fen and Donald Fellowes returned to St. Christopher's; Sheila McGaw to her rooms in Walton Street; Sir Richard Freeman to his house on Boar's Hill; Jean Whitelegge to her college; Helen and Yseut to the theatre and subsequently to their rooms in Beaumont Street; Robert, Rachel, nigel and Nicholas to the "Mace and Sceptre" in the centre of the town. By Thursday, October 11th, they were all in Oxford. And within the week that followed three of those eleven died by violence.
A classic English Whodunnit from the golden era, complete with an impossible crime and a professorial sleuth who announces in chapter six that he knows who committed the crime but doesn’t reveal who until chapter fourteen, spending the intervening pages mostly telling the police inspector and the Watson prototype what fools they are not to see through the whole thing when the truth is right their under their very noses. He does announce the important clues specifically and pause to, in effect, indicate the moment at which the reader should put the book down and try to puzzle it out before going further.
Even with all that, I had to go back and read it twice before it came to me. I got the killer right, mostly by finding the clues that pointed to motive, but I got the method wrong, and in fact I still think the “correct” method could not have worked. It’s still an excellent mystery for fans of the locked room type of puzzle.
Oliver Runs Himself Over: The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford
She ran her hand with a singular clawing motion upwards over her forehead. Her eyes were enormously distended; her face was exactly that of a person looking into the pit of hell and seeing horrors there. And then suddenly she stopped. She was, most amazingly, just Mrs. Ashburnham again. Her face was perfectly clear, sharp, and defined; her hair was glorious in its golden coils. Her nostrils twitched with a sort of contempt. She appeared to look with interest at a gypsy caravan that was coming over a little bridge far below us.
“Don’t you know,” she said, in her clear hard voice, “don’t you know that I’m an Irish Catholic?”
The title is misleading. There are no soldiers, and not much good.
I’m relieved in some ways. I was afraid that any moment we’d segue into yet another WWI abyss. We don’t. Instead we get a quartet of antiheroes and antiheroines who keep slipping in my mind into identification with Monty Python’s “upperclass twit of the year” contenders, even though at least one of them is an American, some of them have intelligence if not wisdom, and none of them are actually members of the inbred upper upper aristocracy. They just have so much money and they keep doing such idiotic things that it’s hard to take their mutually created “saddest story ever” seriously. One of them loses more money in a week-long adulterous episode than I’m likely to see in my lifetime, especially adjusted for inflation since 1904 when the book begins, and his wife bails him out and is more concerned about the social scandal than about anything else. Yes, really.
John and Leonora are the practical, uptight “ant” characters. William and Florence are the passionate, morally incontinent “grasshoppers.” Naturally, the “ants” love each other but marry the “grasshoppers”, and then the “grasshoppers” sleep with each other. The big buildup is the way in which John, the narrator, looking back with 20-100 hindsight on the results, gradually comes to realize that it didn’t end all that well. Yes, really. Three major characters dead and one insane—and John manages to bullshit himself for most of the book that it was all happenstance. I have little patience for that. If you do, maybe The Good Soldier is for you.
And I still don’t know why the book is called The Good Soldier, or whether the “soldier” is supposed to be John or William. Maybe Ford was a hipster a century before it was cool, and it was supposed to be ironic.
,b>Chosen Seeker of the Magic Doodads LVIII: Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind
Richard’s skin went cold, and prickles bumped up along his arms in a wave that rolled up to the back of his neck, making the fine hairs there stand stiffly out. An anger deep within him awakened and his secrets stirred.
She had to be lying. No one could cross the boundary.
No one could go into or out of the Midlands. The boundary had sealed it away since before he was born.
The Midlands was a land of magic.
Yes! The protagonist is an honest, everyday country boy with an undistinguished past, and...Yes! His best friend is an old mentor with magical abilities who will probably die soon, and who...Yes! He knows all sorts of important information that he won’t tell the protagonist because it’s only chapter 4, and...Yes! the mysterious, beautiful woman he meets is brave and adventurous and has magic powers too, and...Yes! He has a destiny, which involves...Yes! Seeking the Magic Doodads that will help him destroy The Evil Overlord, who will first...Yes! The Evil Overlord will attempt to cajole Our Hero into being allies with him, but meanwhile, the lovers who should have been coupling at the first crossroads where they met must...Yes! They must be kept apart, arguing over little things, because Drama.
Make your own Bingo card/drinking game. Will there be elves? Will the Dark Lord turn out to be Our Hero’s father? Will the Old Mentor show remorse at having sent Our Hero on the quest without sufficient information, having thought the kid was too young to know the truth? Will the heroine have an amulet that her mother gave her, which will match a similar tchotchke that Our Hero has, proving that they’re brother and sister?
OF COURSE you’ve read it all before. Cliches get to be that way by being the best stories. This one does the standard adventure very well. Among the less tropish elements are a male and female hero who are actual equals; an interesting variation on the types of magic characters there are; an evil spoiled princess; and one of the most vicious torture sequences in the genre (this is not a book for kids). On the more annoying side, the main characters are required to unnecessarily keep too many secrets from one another for the plot to work; important characters who get killed must take a comically long time to die in order to explain things to the characters who get to live; and Goodkind never misses an opportunity to remind you how muscular everybody is. The hero is a big stalwart man, and just about every villain he meets is bigger than him (except the women, who are impressively “almost as tall” as he).
Also, don’t let the list of sequel novels scare you. Wizard’s First Rule is not part one in a set of cliffhangers; it is a complete stand-alone book with an ending. The sequels probably involve the same land and maybe the same characters, but you don’t end this book cringing with the need to know what happens next (though you do find yourself turning a lot of pages that way).
Spy Hunter: Cause for Alarm, by Eric Ambler
The car jerked forward. The wheels bumped twice and came to rest against the curb. The man in front got out again and again walked back. When he returned to the car he was wiping his fingers on his handkerchief.
“Sta bene?” said the driver.
“Bene”. He got back into his seat and slammed the door. “As soon as we have reported to headquarters,” he said as the car moved slowly along the tram lines across the main road, “I shall drink a bottle of cognac. This fog gets on to my chest.”
It was twenty minutes before a child ran screaming to his mother that there was a man lying bleeding in the street.
Long before Ian Fleming and John LeCarre, Eric Ambler made a name for himself in the spy thriller genre. Unlike the usual worlds of super-secret agents with gadgets and chess-master tactical genius, the typical Ambler story features a civilian Everyman who gets suddenly caught up in something way over his head and tries to make sense out of things while remaining alive. His best novels are Journey Into Fear and A Coffin for Demitrius.
Cause for Alarm is short, and typical Ambler. The protagonist, an out of work technical engineer, is driven by necessity to accept a job in Mussolini’s Italy, managing a factory that, among other things, is making munitions for the fascists. His predecessor in the job was found by that child in the bit quoted above.
Pretty soon, a stranger comes to him with a proposition involving selling information about the factory. Another man comes to him with another proposition. Each one tells him not to trust the other. His subordinate at the factory is following him around, his mail is steamed open, and the Italian (ordinary) police begin to give him a hard time while the (secret) police are more menacing still. Who should he trust? Anybody at all? Beatings, blackmail, and a desperate run for the border involving several disguises and dangerous train rides ensue.
It’s a little tame by modern thriller standards, but a quick read and very suspenseful. If you like Hitchcockian spy thrillers with Everyman heroes, this may well be for you.
Mixed Grillings: The Works of Lucian
The objects of their praise are more inclined (and quite right, too) to dislike and discard them for toadies--if they are men of spirit at any rate. Aristobulus inserted in his history an account of a single combat between Alexander and Porus, and selected this passage to read aloud to the former; he reckoned that his best chance of pleasing was to invent heroic deeds for the king, and heighten his achievements. Well, they were on board ship in the Hydaspes; Alexander took hold of the book and tossed it overboard; 'the author should have been treated the same way, by rights,' he added, 'for presuming to fight duels for me like that, and shoot down elephants single-handed.' A very natural indignation in Alexander, of a piece with his treatment of the intrusive architect; this person offered to convert the whole of Mount Athos into a colossal statue of the king--who however decided that he was a toady, and actually gave him less employment in ordinary than before.
I’ve called Tacitus the H.L. Mencken of his day; perhaps Lucian is the Mark Twain. His short works run the gamut from light frivolity to bitter cynicism; Lucian and Twain both reached the conclusion that the ability to tell right from wrong does not elevate humanity above other creatures if we choose wrong most or all the time.
In Lucian we have standard Roman oratory exercises (Roman intellectuals loved to postulate improbable legal situations and argue both sides), dialogues, short biographies, essays and parables, ranging in quality from the forgettable to the masterful. There are very short dialogues set among the gods or the dead, raising (maybe for the first time) discussions as to why Tantalus should be thirsty when he no longer has the need for nourishment, and whether someone predestined by fate to do evil should be punished for something he had no control over, and other topics now given over to high school sophomores. Here is Charon ferrying the dead to Hades and unable to tell Adonis from Thirsites since they’re both skeletons. Here is a discussion on “The Way to Write History” criticizing the more ludicrous habits of Herodotus and Lucian’s toadying contemporaries in a way that could well apply to some historians working today, next to a long-archaic discussion on language that makes sense only if you understand written Greek.
In short, Lucian is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. Pick up a copy and graze, skipping over the parts that bore you. There’s bound to be something that strikes your fancy. Edward Gibbon pronounced him the only Second Century author worth mentioning, passing over the much more famous Galen and Marcus Aurelius, who just happen to be reviewed below.
Materia Medica: On the Natural Faculties, by Galen
For this Nature which shapes and gradually adds to the parts is most certainly extended throughout their whole substance. Yes indeed, she shapes and nourishes and increases them through and through, not on the outside only. For Praxiteles and Phidias and all the other statuaries used merely to decorate their material on the outside, in so far as they were able to touch it; but its inner parts they left unembellished, unwrought, unaffected by art or forethought, since they were unable to penetrate therein and to reach and handle all portions of the material. It is not so, however, with Nature. Every part of a bone she makes bone, every part of the flesh she makes flesh, and so with fat and all the rest; there is no part which she has not touched, elaborated, and embellished. Phidias, on the other hand, could not turn wax into ivory and gold, nor yet gold into wax: for each of these remains as it was at the commencement, and becomes a perfect statue simply by being clothed externally in a form and artificial shape. But Nature does not preserve the original character of any kind of matter; if she did so, then all parts of the animal would be blood- that blood, namely, which flows to the semen from the impregnated female and which is, so to speak, like the statuary's wax, a single uniform matter, subjected to the artificer. From this blood there arises no part of the animal which is as red and moist, for bone, artery, vein, nerve, cartilage, fat, gland, membrane, and marrow are not blood, though they arise from it
The things I read are not for everybody. It takes a special kind of person to open a book where he left off, read the words Since, then, we have talked sufficient nonsense- not willingly, but because we were forced, as the proverb says, "to behave madly among madmen"- let us return again to the subject of urinary secretion, and sigh contentedly into his chair, relishing a session with an old friend. (I mentioned this to my father in law, in whose house I was reading On the Natural Faculties, and he began to indicate with great concern which chair he would prefer me to sit in, before I added that I did not intend to experiment with urinary secretion. But I digress).
Many historical works reference Galen the second-century physician, but few reference his actual works. Like Aristotle’s biological tracts, they’re dated and riddled with anatomical errors, as when Galen asserts that blood flows through arteries and air flows through veins. On the Natural Faculties, appended to the works of Hippocrates (Bookpost, November 2011) in the Great Books set, is his most popular book; it’s short, and, like Nicomachus on arithmetic (June, 2012), he’s short and interesting primarily for approaching a scientific subject like a philosopher.
According to Galen, there are four “natural faculties”: genesis, growth, nutrition and destruction. All things that happen within the body are one of the four. Galen devotes most of his text to describing these faculties in the context of digestion and excretion, and to snarkily refuting someone called Erasistratus, who comes across as a bumbling fool of a physician who asserts things Galen disagrees with and is harshly condemned as an idiot as a result. It’s nice to know that some forms of debate have lasted throughout the centuries. Recommended as a brief and palatable early scientific work.
Mad Madmen: The Big Clock, by Kenneth Fearing
In short, the big clock was running as usual, and it was time to go home. Sometimes the hands of the clock actually raced, and at other times they hardly moved at all. But that made no difference to the big clock. The hands could move backward and the time it told would be right just the same. It would still be running as usual, because all other watches have to be set by the big one, which is even more powerful than the calendar, and to which one automatically adjusts his entire life. Compared to this hook-up, the man with the adding machines was still counting on his fingers.
Crime writers typically either invite the reader to “chase with the hounds” (follow the detective to solve the crime) or “run with the hare” (follow the criminal’s efforts to get away). Attempts to do both at once are very rare (movies like The Fugitive and US Marshals, where attention shifts between law enforcement and a wrongly accused suspect, come to mind. The Big Clock is the only story I can think of in which the “hound” and the “hare” are the same character, without being either law enforcement or a criminal. In fact, it may be the only story possible to tell from that vantage point, and it’s a very short novel because the situation entailed is probably unsustainable for a full length work.
And that’s pretty much all I’m going to tell you about the plot, which twists and turns a lot, except to explain that my caption comes from the setting, in an old fashioned NYC office (news publishing, not advertising, but allow me a little license here). You know whether this is a book for you from whether that description intrigues you. It’s a classic worthy of Hitchcock, included in many anthologies; the language and style are worthy of Chandler in the constant undercurrent of cynical dark humor that runs through it, and I recommend it heartily.
Dortmunder for Christmas: What’s So Funny, by Donald E. Westlake
"It used to be," she said, "on display in a bulletproof glass case in the corporate offices of Gold Castle Realty in their thirty-eighth flooe lobby of the Castlewood building. But it is an extremely valuable family asste, and it is being violently fought over, so three years ago it was removed to be held by several of the law firms representing family members. Four of these firms are in this building. For the last three years, the chess set has been held in the vaults in the sub-basement right here, in the C&I International bank corporation vault. Isn't that wonderful? What do you think, Mr. Dortmunder?
"I think I'm going back to jail," Dortmunder said.
For years now, on the theory that Christmas should be as joyful a time as possible, out of all the books available, I have chosen to read a Dortmunder book for Christmas, and never mind that the hilarious crime caper stories have nothing to do with Christmas. This pretty much ought to tell you what you need to know about Dortmunder. The adventures and misadventures of Dortmunder, his sidekick Andy Kelp, Stan the driver, Tiny the behemoth ("When you walked with Tiny, you walked among him"), and the banter of the regulars at the bar where they plan their heists, are old friends to me, and will quickly become warm and cozy friends to you as well. the Dortmunder gang is smart, and expert in their various niches, and their plans are good ones, and yet everything goes wrong in the execution at the most comically awful possible moment...except when it all goes inexplicably right in spite of the disasters. Yes, except then.
This time around, Dortmunder is blackmailed by a cop-turned-private eye into making an attempt on a solid gold chess set, locked in an impregnable vault and too heavy for one man to carry. The set has been passed down through generations of heirs of the man who stole it from the ancestor of the private eye's client. Dortmunder knows it can't be done, but if he doesn't try, then the police will receive the evidence from his previous burglary. As usual, plot twist follows plot twist, and as usual, my Christmas was a lot merrier than it otherwise would have been, because of this book. Very high recommendations for the whole series.
Discworld for Christmas: Eric, and Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett,
At the bottom of the hill there was a round rock. Beside the rock sat a manacled man, his despairing head buried in his hands. A squat green demon stood beside him, almost buckling under the weight of an enormous book.
“I’ve heard of this one,” said Eric. “Man who went and defied the gods or something. Got to keep pushing that rock up the hill even though it rolls back all the time—“
The demon looked up.
“But first,” it trilled, “he must listen to the Unhealthy and Unsafety Regulations Governing the Lifting and Moving of Large Objects.”
Poets long ago gave up trying to describe Ankh-Morpork. Now the more cunning ones try to excuse it. They say, well maybe it is smelly, maybe it is overcrowded, maybe it is a bit like Hell would be if they shut the fires off and stabled a herd of incontinent cows there for a year, but you must admit that it is full of sheer, vibrant, dynamic LIFE. And this is true, even though it is poets saying it. But people who aren't poets say, so what? Mattresses tend to be full of life too, and no one writes odes to them. Citizens hate living there and, if they have to move away on business or adventure or, more usually, until some statute of limitations runs out, can't wait to get back so they can enjoy hating living there some more. They put stickers on the backs of carts saying, "Ankh-Morpork--Loathe it or Leave it." They call it the Big wahooni, after the fruit.
Every so often a ruler of the city builds a wall around Ankh-Morpork, ostensibly to keep enemies out. But Ankh-Morpork doesn't fear enemies. In fact it welcomes enemies, provided they are enemies with money to spend (In fact, the Guild of Merchants' famous publication "Welcome to Ankh-Morpork, Citie of One Thousand Surprises" now has an entire section entitled "Soe you are a Barbaeriean Invader?" which has notes on night life, folkloresque bargains in the bazaar and, under the heading "Steppe-ing Out", a list of restaurants that do a dependable mare's milk and yak pudding. And many a pointed-helmeted vandal has trotted back to his freezing yurt wondering why he seems to be a great deal poorer and the apparent owner of a badly woven rug, a liter of undrinkable wine, and a stuffed purple donkey in a straw hat). The city has survived flood, fire, hordes, revolutions and dragons. sometimes by accisent, admittedly, but it has survived them. The cheerful and irrecoverably venal spirit of the city has been proof against anything.
--from Moving Pictures
With the end of the Dortmunder series in sight, I decided to reserve my Discworld reading for December, so that the replacement tradition can be close to seamless. I can be CDO that way.
I read two Discworlds this time because Eric is so short that it merely whet my appetite for Terry Pratchett in the hour it took me to read it. It features the return of Rincewind and The Luggage in a parable about ironically sucky wish fulfillment. The Eric of the title is a horny teenager who tries to conjure up a demon (not recommended; according to Pratchett, this is like trying to beat mice to death with a rattlesnake) to grant him power, sex and eternal life. He manages to conjure up Rincewind, the genre’s most inept wizard, instead, and the resulting romp takes them from the primitive worshippers of Qetzovercoatl to a sendup of the Trojan War, to the creation of the Universe and the depths of Hell. You know—the usual.
Moving Pictures is a longer, typically Pratchett-wonderful fantasy that achieves the coveted “delightful romp” status, involving improbable forces that threaten to cause the destruction of life, the universe and everything by...causing the wizards, dwarves, trolls and other fantasy beings of Discworld to make movies and imitate (shudder) the stereotypical behavior of Los Angeles Hollywood culture. Yes, that’s really the plot of the book, along with a talking dog that disconcerts people by saying “Woof” instead of barking, and featuring the entrepreneurial skills of Cut-Me-own-Throat Dibbler, the schmoozer who can sell sausage rolls even to people who have bought them from him before! I can’t even...this is why I read books like these. Pratchett is reportedly advancing in dementia and likely to die soon, which saddens me in part because I feel like he’s the sort of wonderful demented genius I would have dearly loved to have conversations with; however, his output has been astronomical, and enough books remain in his series to keep me having happy holiday seasons until I’m old and grey.
The Roman Murders: Ode to a Banker; The Jupiter Myth; The Accusers; Scandal Takes a Holiday, by Lindsay Davis. The Judgment of Caesar; The Triumph of Caesar, by Steven Saylor. The Year of Confusion, by John Maddox Roberts
“I enjoyed your work”, Chrysippus praised me, with that whole-hearted enthusiasm authors crave. I tried to remember he was a retailer, not a disinterested critic. “Lively and well-written, with an appealing personal character. We do not have much like it in current production. I admire your special qualities.”
“So how much? What’s the deal?”
He laughed. “We are a commercial organization,” Aurelius Chrysippus said. Then he shocked me with the truth. “We cannot subsidize complete unknowns. What would be in it for us. I do believe you show some promise. If you want a wider audience, I can help. But the deal is that you will invest in the edition by covering our production costs.”
As soon as I stopped reeling at his effrontery, I was out of there.
--from Ode to a Banker
”Are we free to sail on?” said the captain.
“Not yet. All ships without exception are to be boarded and searched, and the names of all passengers passed on to the Great One himself. Nothing for you to be alarmed about; standard procedure. Now turn about, and we’ll escort you to the fleet.”
I cast a wistful glance at the bleak, receding shore. We had not fallen into the clutches of Caesar, or pirates, or renegade soldiers. It was much worse than that. Only one man in the world presumed to call himself Magnus, Great One: Pompey. The Fates had delivered me into the hands of a man who had vowed to see me dead.
Although the two I had first spotted at the baths had had the air of loose women waiting for customers, when relaxed at home the entire group seemed like woodland nymphs with nothing on their minds beyond perfecting scurrilous echoes. Laundered white gowns, endlessly combed long hair, manicured toes showing in beaded indoor slippers. You might discuss poems with these beauties—until you noticed their arrogance, their muscles, and their healed scars.
--from The Jupiter Myth
Senators had little rest during Caesar’s dictatorship. He thought an idle Senate was a breeding ground for plotters and that Senators owed Rome service in return for their privileged status. In truth, the Senate had grown disgracefully lethargic in the previous years. Except for occasional military or governing duties, both of which were expected to be profitable, few Senators felt inclined to bestir themselves on behalf of the state.
With Caesar in charge, we were allowed no such lassitude. Every man who wore the Senator’s stripe had to be ready at all times to undertake demanding duties and to travel to any part of our empire to perform them. From overseeing repair work on the roads of Italy to curbing the behavior of a client king to planning a giant banquet for the whole citizenry, we had to be ready to carry out his orders at once. The Senators didn’t like it, but they also disliked the prospect of being dead, which was a distinctly likely alternative.
--from The Year of Confusion
We had not owned a cook until recently. The one I had acquired last week from a slave dealer was resold two days after I bought him, and the new one had no idea what gravy was for. Still, this was an improvement. The first one had tried to fry lettuce.
“Try these intriguing hens’ eggs,” Decimus offered his wife. “Marcus tells me they are a classic Moesian delicacy; the little black specks take days to produce.”
“What happened to that other cook you had?” my unforgiving mother-in-law demanded. After one silent glance at the hens’ eggs with their curious jacket of caramelized skillet flakes, she ignored the glass comport on which they nestled.
--from The Accusers
At last, I have hit upon it! Calpurnia’s fears, which I had begun to think absurd, may be well-founded after all—and the menace to Caesar will come at a time and from a direction we did not anticipate. But I could be wrong. Consequences of a false accusation—unthinkable! Must be certain. Until then, not a word in any of my official reports to the lady and her soothsayer. I dare not write my supposition even here; what if this journal were to be discovered? Must keep it hidden. But what if I am silenced? To any seeker who finds these words and would unlock the truth, I shall leave a key. Look all around! The truth is not found in the words, but the words may be found in the truth.
--from The Triumph of Caesar
”He’ll be dead in a ditch,” said the fishmonger’s mother. “He couldn’t take the nightmare any longer, if you ask me. He’ll have done for himself. I can see him now, his torment was shocking. Tears streaming down his face, all blackened from the fire where he had tried to get back in the house. People had to drag him away. There was nothing he could do, the heat had gotten too intense. So he sat in the street then, whimpering to himself, over and over, ‘the bastards, the bastards!’ He meant the men who laughed at him, the ones in the guardhouse. He meant, they could have come to help when he begged them, but they just let Vestina die.”
--from Scandal Takes a Holiday
My year of Roman murders concludes with the end of Roberts’s SPQR series and Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa, but with a bit of Davis’s Marcus Falco still to be read. Maybe in future years.
The last in Roberts’s SPQR series, The Year of Confusion, published in 2010, is the last in the series as of this writing. It skips the entire Caesar-Pompey war that covered four books in Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series and goes straight from Decius Metellus’s praetorship to Caesar’s dictatorship, and concerns the practical difficulties in Caesar’s attempt to reform the calendar, not the least of which is the unfortunate tendency of his astronomers to turn up murdered. It was interesting to me, to read this at a time when a significant number of American idiots were really freaking out because they thought that the Mayan calendar would cause the world to end when it ran out of days.
Saylor has long passed the start of that war. The Judgment of Caesarencompasses the end of it, or at least of that chapter, including the death of Pompey, the meeting of Caesar and Cleopatra at Alexandria, and the war between Ptolemy and Caesar that ultimately brought Egypt into the Roman Empire. Mystery takes a back seat to history (the actual mysterious killing doesn’t take place until halfway through the book, and is solved well before the end), and that’s just fine. Sometimes a good buildup is worth it...and then, The Triumph of Caesar takes place during the same calendar-revision period of The Year of Confusion, and has Gordianus investigate allegations of a plot against Caesar’s life, in which the suspects include Antony, Octavian, the captured Gaul leader Vercingetorix, Cicero, Cleopatra and, yes, Brutus (spoiler: Caesar lives, for now). This was Saylor’s most enjoyable one yet.
Here endeth both Roberts’s and Saylor’s serieses so far. But they’re both still alive and writing, and either of them could come up with the “Who really killed Caesar?” speculative novel any time now. I’d read it eagerly from either of them.
The big one, and the most pleasurable to read, was Davis’s Falco series, which gets more inventive the more wild and crazy recurring characters there are. Ode to a Banker predictably combines poets, capitalists and murder. I’m not sure if Davis ever had a nasty experience with a scammy vanity publisher, but if she did, this is her revenge, as a nasty banker/publisher with a long list of screwed-over client authors is killed, and Falco isn’t sure whether to bring the killers to justice or kiss them. The mystery in The Jupiter Myth--something about a Celtic barbarian found drowned in a well in Roman London—was almost lost on me in the character and atmosphere, which includes the filthiest tavern wench in all London stories, the most hideous brothel madam, and a wonderful fight scene featuring a troupe of gladiatrixes (the leader of which calls herself “Amazonia” and has the hots for Falco. Of course.) beating the hmm-hmm out of some Roman soldiers and thuggish Britons. The Accusers is a surprisingly dull adventure involving a will dispute where the decedent either committed suicide or was murdered, and where multiple suspects have been accused of homicide simultaneously. Finally, in Scandal Takes a Holiday, the Falco clan goes to the port of Ostia on a mission to find a missing gossip columnist, and ends up embroiled with a dangerous kidnapping ring involving Cilician and Illyrian pirates, a corrupt builders’ guild and a shadowy mastermind.
And that’s it for the Falco series for a while. The main arc involves developments within the family as the cases progress, and is enough to make you need to read the books in order. Of the three sets of Roman mysteries I read this year, the Falco series is by far my favorite.
Opening Old Closets: Keeper of the Keys, by Peri O’Shaughnessy
”I don’t like the sound of this. I don’t like the lame way you’re talking. It’s like you’ve given up on ever seeing her again. She comes back, she calls, you tell her to call her mother.” Hubbel stood very close to him at the doorway, his big hard stomach pressed against Ray. “If I find out you harmed a hair on her head—well, I’ll kill you.”
This is not one of O’Shaughnessy’s Nina Reilly legal thriller books. Good thing. I was starting to find those insufferable. Instead, this is a psychological thriller about an architect obsessed with the past.
His unfaithful wife mysteriously disappears right after a bitter marital dispute and right before her former best friend from long ago shows up wanting to see her again. A lot of people begin to suspect that the architect may have done his wife in, and the way the book is written, we aren’t sure that he didn’t. At the same time, the architect, who used to move around a lot in his childhood, and who has begun to build models from memory of all the houses he used to live in, starts to go back and visit those old houses. The book’s title refers to the bunch of keys he’s kept over the years, one from each house.
There’s really only two possible solutions here, both of which have been done before. Recommended as a potboiler only.
The Dark Knight Begins: Cold Days, by Jim Butcher
At some point after that, Mab would try to kill me in increasingly unexpected and inventive ways. In the video in my head, there’s a shot of me eating my own meal again—until, just as I finish, the giant bed bursts into flames. I awkwardly flop out of it and crawl away before I roast. Then, obviously the next day, Sarissa is helping me walk to the bathroom and back. Just as I relax back into bed, a poisonous serpent, a freaking Indian cobra, falls from the bed’s canopy onto my shoulders. I scream like a girl and throw it on the floor. The next day, I’m fumbling my way into new clothes with Sarissa’s help—until a small swarm of stinging ants comes boiling out of them onto my flesh, and I have to literally rip the clothes right off of me.
It goes on like that. Sarissa and me on waist-high parallel bars, me struggling to remember how to keep my balance, interrupted by a tidal flood of red-eyed rats that forces us to hop up onto the bars before our feet get eaten off. Sarissa spotting me on a bench press, and then Mab bringing a great big old fireman’s ax down at my head at the end of my third set so that I have to block with the stupid straight bar. Me slogging my exhausted way into a hot shower, only to have the door slam shut and the thing start to fill with water. Into which freaking piranha begin to plop.
On and on. Seventy-seven days. Seventy-seven attempted murders. Use your imagination. Mab sure as hell did. There was even a ticking crocodile.
This is the newest book I read this year—it only just came out, and brings me up to date on the sometimes awesome, sometimes aggravating Dresden Files series.
After 14 volumes with an arc plot full of game-changing spoilers, I can’t begin to describe what Chicago’s only apocalypse-averting wizard-for-hire is doing by now, except that it involves a nasty errand for the Winter court of Faerie and yet another set of Most Horrifying Monsters Ever, enough to make Dresden hopelessly outmatched even after several volumes of leveling up. Also, if you’ve slogged through this far, you know the kind of book to expect and will probably enjoy it; if you gave up in disgust after the first few books or so, then the things that bug you are here too, most of them involving Bob the Offensively Always-Horny Talking Skull.
To me, Harry’s an old-ish friend by now, the kind of friend who often makes me roll my eyes, and who I wouldn’t want staying at my house for any length of time—in part because my house would probably get blow’d up pretty fast if he were there—but still someone I could trust, and who it would be good to have on my side. High recommendations.
The Climax of Ancient Rome: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not [only] of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in [the same] intelligence and [the same] portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.
I chose to close out the Year of Roman Books with this one, because it is my favorite from the era, and in my opinion the last great, enjoyable AND enlightening book before Rabelais. It was one of my father's favorite books of all time, and one reason I love it is because the sentiments remind me of him. Like the Philosopher-Emperor, my father was capable of bearing anything, slipping into an attitude of detached aloofness or a half-bemused I-knew-this-would happen when dealing with a crisis.
In fact, Marcus Aurelius has the same stoic principles as Epictetus (Bookpost, September 2012), but his attitude is less of a smug "Why are you fools letting worldly concerns bother you?" and more of a glimpse into the soul of a great man who, unlike Epictetus, really did have the cares of the world on his shoulders, and was talking to himself, not to others. As emperor of Rome, his assertion that there is more to life than power, than wealth, and that the things worth having can be cultivated in the soul of anyone, seem more sincere. The Meditations is very short, consisting of 12 chapters of 8 to 15 pages each, with each chapter a collection of many short pronouncements. You can read it in short bites while waiting on lines or whenever you have a minute between things. Like me, you might find yourself reading a passage when an interruption or other potential irritant occurs; maybe the passage you were reading will remind you that your response to said irritant, and even your emotional reaction, are within your control. I had several such experiences while reading it, and was proud of my Aurelius-induced ability to hold myself together and to not be That Guy, the one you see throwing a fit in a crowded, overstimulating store that is out of the item he made a special trip to get. Marcus Aurelius made me a better person when he was on my mind!
Aurelius is also one of the few occasions I've had to disagree with Bertrand Russell. While I've found the stoic ideal impossible to live up to, and its rejection of love as a weakness too high a price to embrace it totally, I have found something to greatly admire in those who do live up to it, to the extent that they can do what they should do and not do what they shouldn't do, single-mindedly enough to make it look easy. I also find that Aurelius does not reject love the way other Stoics do. He simply copes with the resulting inevitable disappointments with courage. Russell thinks of Stoicism as sour grapes: we cannot be happy, therefore let us pretend that virtue makes happiness unnecessary. I find that, with Aurelius at least, the message is that we can be happy through virtue, because virtue teaches us to be content with what we have. Russell further describes stoicism as a philosophy for bad times, focusing on endurance rather than hope. And it did indeed flourish as Rome was declining. However, it seems to me that meeting misfortune with stoicism was certainly a better choice than the magical thinking of those other Romans who hastened Rome's decline by sinking into Christianity and bringing on a thousand years of European misery...a millennium whose meager literary pickings I will be looking at in 2013.
the Meditations made my list of 100 all time great reads. Very highest recommendations.
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