Monthly Bookposts are now back on the Readers & Booklovers forum, at a new and (for me, at least) more convenient time slot.
This month, my year of reading Ancient Rome brings me to Will Durant, Pliny the Younger, Plotinus and the Emperor Hadrian, as well as the usual whodunnits by Steven Saylor, John Maddox Roberts and Lindsay Davis.
We also get my usual eclectic mix of everything under the sun, including 50 Shades of Grey (or as I like to call it, "Here Comes Horny Boo Boo", Mattheissen's excellent The Snow Leopard, Once Were Warriors, The Lover, Robert A. Heinlein and much more. Enjoy!
Horny Boo Boo: Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
”Stop, please.” I am stumbling in his wake.
He stops and gazes at me, his expression unfathomable.
“My heels. I need to take my shoes off.”
“Don’t bother,” he says, and he bends down and scoops me over his shoulder. I squeal loudly and with shocked surprise, and he gives me a ringing slap on my behind.
“Keep your voice down,” he growls.
Oh no...this is not good. My subconscious is quaking at the knees. He is mad about something—could be Jose, Georgia, no panties, biting my lip. Jeez, he’s easy to rile.
“Where are we going?” I breathe.
“Boathouse,” he snaps.
I hang on to his hips as I’m tipped upside down, and he strides purposefully in the moonlight across the lawn.
“Why?” I sound breathless, bouncing on his shoulder.
“I need to be alone with you.”
“Because I’m going to spank and then fuck you.”
“Why?” I whimper softly.
“You know why,” he hisses.
Cue Eric Bogle...
Now, when I was a young man, I carried my pack
Full of books across fields full of clover
And from Lois Bujold to Honore de Balzac
I would Hardy my Thomas all over.
Then in 2012, without naming names
Some fans of my Bookposts were playing mind games
And suggested a book written by E.L. James.
They said, “Trust us. It’s such a best-seller”
And the book quoted from Thomas Hardy
About Alec, and Angel, and Tess.
But with each page I turned, my stomach just churned
My eyes widened in shock at the mess.
Oh well I remember that terrible day.
When the storyline got more alarming.
As I read of that asshole she called Christian Grey
Like Mitt Romney, but not quite as charming.
By chapter 18, I’d collapsed in my bed
And when I gained consciousness, holding my head
And saw what James had done...I wished they were undead.
Never knew there were worse things than Twilight.
And the book quoted from Thomas Hardy
As Christian assaulted his prey
And with every slap, she’d just say, “Holy crap.”
While my sentiments ran the same way.
Where do I start? Probably with weeping for my country that of all the books in print, this abomination of human endeavor, this noxious, putrescent, foul stinkbomb of a book, this is what all the world chose to read over the past year. I put a request for it at the local library back in May, and was number 163 on the waiting list, that’s why I’ve only gotten to it just now. Thankfully, I can honestly say I didn’t feel a shred of impatience waiting for it.
Much has been written about the toxicity of the relationship in Twilight, and how Edward meets every one of the red flags that identify a classic sociopathic, predatory personality. (Holy crap--why are all these stories set around Seattle? Leave the poor Northwest alone; we’re not like that!). Stephanie Meyer has nothing on E.L. James, who writes Anastasia in a way that makes Bella Swann look like Lisbeth Salander. She approaches the phallic, chrome-and-steel corporate headquarters of Grey Enterprises like Jonathan Harker approaches Castle Dracula, only with fangirl squees, constant faux pas, and more self critical exasperation than Chris Farley used to display in his SNL interview schticks, beginning with--Holy crap--the stock trip and fall in front of him as she enters his office for the first time. Exactly the low self-confidence, poor self-image type that a predator thrives on, and with no other redeeming qualities. And Christian Grey is exactly the kind of monster to select her for a victim. While Ana is stammering and blushing and making a fool of herself, he cancels appointments to get to know her better. This will end well.
James tells us now and then that Grey is young and handsome and hawt; but the description is never convincing. The unrealistic amount of wealth and corporate power he has; the ruthless controlling behavior that defines his entire personality; the sadism; the army of servants; the cultured, ironic politeness he affects as he taunts those under his control—all this paints an overwhelming image of a much older man somewhere between Count Dracula, Mitt Romney and a James Bond villain. This impression is not conducive to erotic interest when--holy crap--they start having steamy sadomasochistic sex. Just imagine Mittens with a silk bathrobe and a riding crop, telling some poor intern that he’s going to treat her like the American working class, and you’ll have some idea of the revulsion these scenes inspired in me.
And--holy crap--Ana (who Grey insists on calling by her full name ‘Anastasia’ even after she tells him how much she dislikes it) initially resists the bondage, the spankings and the stalking behavior, but over time, she comes to like it, after Grey has taken a firm enough hand with her.
And, even worse--holy crap—she tames and civilizes him, learning about his dark past and helping him change. Somewhere, there is a young, impressionable woman, reading this “romance” and deciding that maybe the right man for her is a controlling ‘bad boy’ who she can change with her love. Somewhere there is an impressionable young man reading it and deciding that the way to treat women is to seize control and not take no for an answer, and, after their initial protests, they will worship him as a god.
And the worst part of all? It’s #1 in a trilogy.
Sic Biscuitus Disintegrat: Caesar and Christ, by Will Durant
The epigram had till now been a pretty conceit on any passing subject, sometimes a dedication, a compliment, an epitaph; Martial molded it into a briefer, sharper form, barbed with satiric sting. We do him injustice when we read these 1561 epigrams in a few sittings; they were issued in twelve books at diverse times, and the reader was expected to use them in small portions as hors d'oeuvres, not as a prolonged feast. Most of them seem trivial today; their allusion was local and temporary, too well timed to endure. Martial does not take them very seriously; the bad ones, he agrees, outnumber the good, but he had to fill a volume. He is a master of versification, knows all the meters and tricks of the poetic trade, but he avoids rhetoric as proudly as his prose patrician analogue, Petronius. He cares nothing for the mythological furniture that littered the literature of his age; he is interested in real men and women and their intimate life and describes them with relish and spite; "my pages," he says, "taste of men." He can "take down" some stiff aristocrat or stingy millionaire, some pompous lawyer or famous orator; but he likes better to tell of barbers, cobblers, hawkers, jockeys, acrobats, auctioneers, poisoners, perverts and prostitutes. His scenes are laid not in ancient Greece but in the baths, the theaters, the streets, the circus, the homes and tenements of Rome. He is the poet laureate of worthless men.
This is the third volume in Durant’s “Story of Civilization” survey of Western history, a series that improved dramatically with each volume, especially in the later books when his wife Ariel co-wrote. Each volume could stand as a good textbook for a high school history course, if high school devoted an entire semester to Rome instead of cramming 2500 years or so into a Sophomore course on “Europe”.
Durant gives one chapter to Romulus and the kings, four to the pre-Gracchi Republic, five to the revolution, ten to the Empire through Marcus Aurelius, five to a survey of the various provinces, and then goes back and gives three chapters about Jesus and the New Testament, one chapter covering the entire third century, and ending with Constantine and the fall of Rome to the Christians and the Barbarians, to be continued with The Age of Faith and the nadir of western history.
If you’ve been following along with me all year as I went through Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus and Suetonius, not to mention the poets and philosophers, you’ll see why I found this survey a little superfluous. Durant was heavily influenced by the same source material I was reading along with the book. On the other hand, Plutarch’s little biographies were choppy and not in chronological order, and so the chapters that showed how the Gracchi preceded Marius and Sulla, who preceded Pompey and Caesar, and how the acts of the first ones led inexorably to what followed, was somewhat helpful, and the chapters on the great writings not only gave me suggestions on what to read but provided nice reviews and criticism of the works, as with Martial above.
The best thing about Durant is that, unlike a lot of historians, he doesn’t limit world history to the wars and leaders, but pointedly includes the economic events, the life of the common people, and cultural advances such as art, music and science. The worst thing is, putting absolutely everything together like that leaves little room for depth anywhere. Still, the panoramic broad view can help you see things and make connections that you wouldn’t easily see when looking only at economics or culture or great works or wars and leaders. This is good stuff for an introduction or a brief refresher in Roman civilization.
That’s A Maori: Once Were Warriors, by Alan Duff
Then the council came along with men and machines and they laid a new concrete footpath in place of the ruined old one. Fixed the vandalizing little kids right up. So they, the kids, painted things on it, with old paint from backyard sheds, or stolen from somewhere. Obscenities, hearts with little arrows through them and initials inside of who loved who; and hearts with who hated who and the heart dripping with blood; they marked out hopscotch squares, noughts and crosses grids, with paint and lipstick and from spray cans (till they discovered, this new generation, the high to be got from sniffing the fumes from a can of spray paint) for years the kids put their marks on the footpath. So it looked no different to the area, the tone of Pine Block: neglected, run down, abused. And, you know (a woman’d have to think hard to find the right word), prideless.
Duff can thank Vilsoni Hereniko for writing an introduction that poisoned the whole book for me. Hereniko is apparently the Kiwi equivalent of the assholes in America who gush whenever something like The Bell Curve comes out, praising every cog in the Right Wing Propaganda Machine as “a lone voice in the wilderness that dares to stand up to the Politically Correct Thought Police and tell the TRUTH”, as if Limbaugh and Coulter and Hannity and the rest of the Fuckwad Brigade were somehow brave contrarians instead of being well-paid to spew the usual talking points, with as little civility as possible. Hereniko used the same buzzwords and dog whistles to praise Duff for urging the Maori to stop blaming white people for their plight and to take some personal responsibility for themselves. All right, I groaned, at least the book’s short; I’ll put up with the hate.
Turns out, Duff’s novel isn’t really like that. It’s more like one of those Bill Cosby rants about people in the slums who are failing to raise their children with any virtue or self-discipline. He seems to assume on the down-and-out a lot more ability for self determination than might be there, but because it’s Bill Cosby talking, you’re maybe inclined to give him a little slack for having their interests at heart. And, you know, maybe people with kids really do have an obligation to stop doing drugs and to take a role in teaching their young ones about dressing and speaking and behaving so as to have a shot at bettering themselves. (Of course, you see these rants in the first place, because they’re mainly posted by white racists who use Cosby’s words as evidence that it’s OK to hate the indigent black population because it’s all their fault). Now, if you’re an American reading this, try to imagine that the slums are filled with Native Americans at a time when Native Americans still have vague memories of their grandfathers riding Appaloosa and counting coup, and you have at least a starting point for approaching the Maori slums of Once Were Warriors
And so we come to the Heke family. Dad is an unemployed drunk whose semblance of self-esteem comes from being known as the baddest-ass brawler in town. The eldest son is in a gang. The younger son is in a reformatory for doing what white people get away with. The eldest daughter is a teenage suicide who leaves a note accusing dad of having raped her (he didn’t, but because he’s so drunk and blacked out, he can’t defend himself from the charge). Only mom wistfully longs for a better way, and takes steps to create a community center to achieve literacy, belonging, action to make the neighborhood better.
There’s a lot of tragedy, with a glimmer of hope, and the bad things that happen seem to result from equal parts bad circumstances and bad judgment, which seems fair overall to me. And the characters and their vernacular are very well developed, with the ones who make mistakes treated sympathetically regardless.
Gallagher Girls: Don’t Judge a Girl by Her cover, & Only the Good Spy Young, by Ally Carter
An efficient-looking man with a touch of grey sprinkled through his dark hair climbed out of one of the vehicles and walked toward us. “Ms. Morgan? Agent Hughes. We spoke on the phone.”
“Yes,” Mom said. “You’re the agent in charge of the McHenry Family’s security detail. That’s the term, isn’t it?” she asked, one hand against her chest as if this were totally new territory for her.
The man smiled and nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” he told her. “Now, I don’t want you to worry about anything. Our agents will be responsible for Ms. McHenry’s security. They’ll answer any questions you have and keep you informed of what the Service needs from you. No one is expecting you to think like a security professional.”
“That’s a relief,” my mother told him in the most utterly believable, non-ironic voice I’ve ever heard. (Have I mentioned lately that my mom is the BEST SPY EVER?!)
--from Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover
Despite having known him for almost a year, there were a lot of things I still didn’t know about Zachary Goode. Like how soap and shampoo could smell so much better on him than on anyone else. Like where he went when he wasn’t mysteriously showing up at random (and frequently dangerous) points in my life. And, most of all, I didn’t know how, when he mentioned the jacket, he made me think about the sweet, romantic part of the night last November when he’d given it to me, and not the terrible, bloody, international-terrorists-are-trying-to-kidnap-me part that came right after.
--from Only the Good Spy Young
I feel out of my element with Carter’s YA series about teenage girls in Spy School, but I come back because it’s cute and I just can’t help myself. These are the last two in the series so far. Carter is getting better at using the dichotomy of James Bond clandestine espionage paired with the gushing hormones of boy-crazy teens to both comic and tragic effect. She’s also getting more blatant about the parallels with Harry Potter and Buffy.
So far, it’s been campy, with most of the suspense being about whether a boy likes a main character, or about a spy situation that turns out to be yet another fake emergency made up by the teachers to test them under pressure. In Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover, we finally meet an actual Big Bad to be the arc antagonist; the mysterious boy starts giving off “Is he with us or against us” vibes; teachers may or may not be trustworthy; and Shit Gets Real. In Only the Good Spy Young, shit gets more real than that, plot spoilers ensue, and we get set up for a parallel to The Deadly Hallows just in time for the protagonists’ senior year. Recommended as a guilty pleasure.
No Place Like Rome: Letters of Pliny the Younger
The lingering disorder of a friend of mine gave me occasion lately to reflect that we are never so good as when oppressed with illness. Whereis the sick man who is either solicited by avarice or inflamed with lust? At such a season he is neither a slave of love nor the fool of ambition; wealth he utterly disregards, and is content with ever so small a portion of it, as being upon the point of leaving even that little. It is then he recollects there are gods, and that he himself is but a man: no mortal is then the object of his envy, his admiration, or his contempt; and the tales of slander neither raise his attention nor feed his curiosity: his dreams are only of baths and fountains. These are the supreme objects of his cares and wishes, while he resolves, if he should recover, to pass the remainder of his days in ease and tranquility, that is, to live innocently and happily. I may therefore lay down to you and myself a short rule, which the philosophers have endeavoured to inculcate at the expense of many words, and even many volumes; that "we should try and realize in health those resolutions we form in sickness."
I'm normally bored by collections of letters written by famous people to usually much less famous people. They're full of inside jokes I don't get and references to people or places I've never heard of, and it's rare when they're as well planned-out as an actual memoir or novel. Except when it is (yes, except then). I have a few that my grandfather wrote back in the day, and they are works of art, dripping with wonderful bon mots and reflections on the times. And Pliny the Younger is ever so much more so.
Pliny apparently exists to prove that live in the Roman Empire was not as corrupt and hideous and bloody and horrible as Tacitus and Suetonius (see last month's Bookpost) would have you believe. Pliny is enjoying life, both at home and at the Forum under Emperor Trajan. He writes to and about his fellow Senators, about the new villa he has purchased, about alleged supernatural happenings, about the eruption of Vesuvius, about life, the Empire and everything. He's full of little anecdotes and appropriate little philosophical musings, usually with a kind moral message. And he never seems to get angry (which is understandable when you consider that he only writes to people he likes). He made a part of me want to go back to writing handwritten letters to my friends and loved ones, before I considered that we're not too far from the day when instead of letters, they'll be publishing the "Collected Texts and Tweets" of Lindsay Lohan or whoever. O tempora, O mores!
I read Pliny largely because Second Century literature was so few and far between. I'm glad I did.
Radio Loudness: Dead Air, by Iain Banks
'Okay, we're back to that phone/vibrator thing. for those of you new to the show, this is our long running project to get somebody to build a mobile phone of the correct dimensions and, ah, proofness, to be used, by ladies, as...an intimate comfort device--I think that was the euphemism we'd settled on, wasn't it, Phil?'
'I recall so,' Phil agreed from the other side of the desk.
'So we're trying to get somebody to make it. come on, there must be some enterprising manufacturer out there. They can make the damn things waterproof these days, what's the problem? Not new technology. Okay, so there might have to be a thin sort of aerial thingy hanging down...again...'
'There's a precedent,' Phil supplied.
'It has to be safe, it has to be shaped, it has to be comfortable and it has to work. Phone sex will take on a new meaning. When a woman says, 'Call me', you'll know she really means it, even though you also know you'll probably never get an answer.'
If you read my Bookposts from Facebook or Livejournal, you'll understand when I tell you half of this book is the kind of thing I might write myself. It's about a 'controversial' radio personality in Britain, and so it provides a natural forum to recycle every snarky zinger and weird link a blogger might have found or written online over the years, to write as a vignette for the shock jock to say on the radio, to fill out the book and make it snarky and amusing. it's especially appealing as the main character, Ken Nott, has a political viewpoint that mostly aligns with my own, without the polite restraint for which I am so justly famous. Nott, for example, has a televised debate with a holocaust denier at one point, and where I might have limited my comments to a well-researched "Fuck you, you fucking antisemitic fuck", Nott punches the li'l fascist in the eye with the cameras rolling, and then denies having done so, dismissing all the evidence as having been concocted by the big conspiracy against him.
The rest of the book is definitely not something I could have or would have written myself, not about a character I agreed with. This is my first Iain Banks novel, and I don't know what he really thinks, but from the stupidity, tactlessness and self-destructive behavior he gives Nott, it wouldn't surprise me if he turned out to be a Right-leaning religious moralist after all. Nott hurts everybody in the book, especially the ones closest to him; he's drunk or on drugs a good deal of the time; and he sleeps with everyone who will let him, with not very nice consequences. And of course, when one of the women turns out to be married to the kind of feller you don't want to mess with...Nott isn't careful. And then the consequences get downright scary.
I've always wondered what it would be like to have a "nasty" media show host of any kind who was not a right-wing religious/corporate tool (that's the only kind we have in the States), and now I know. I also had wondered how the events of September 11, 2001, looked from Europe, and now I have an idea of that, too. The book is sort of centered around 9/11, except when it isn't (yes, except then); the cover shows a plane flying close to what looks a little like the WTC, but when you look a little closer, it's a couple of factory smokestacks and the plane is way over them. 9/11 happens in the first chapter, and the radio hosts rant about it from time to time throughout, just as they rant about George W Bush and about all the hot topics of 2002, but it doesn't really scrape the main story, unless 9/11 is a metaphor for the crazy-ass damage Nott is doing to himself. If so, I approve; it's a lot more subtle than the parallels in, say, Richard Ford's Wildlife (Bookpost, October 2012). Highly recommended if you're snarky; if you're not, you'll probably roll your eyes a lot and wish Nott would grow up already.
Among Endangered Species: The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen
The typical snow leopard has pale frosty eyes and a coat of pale misty grey, with black rosettes that are clouded by the depth of the rich fur. An adult rarely weighs more than a hundred pounds or exceeds six feet in length, including the remarkably long tail, thick to the tip, used presumably for balance and for warmth, but it kills creatures three times its own size without much difficulty. It has enormous paws and a short-faced, heraldic head, like a leopard of myth; it is bold and agile in the hunt, and capable of terrific leaps; and although its usual prey is the blue sheep, it occasionally takes livestock, including young yak of several hundred pounds. This means that man would be fair game as well, although no attack on a human being has ever been reported.
The snow leopard is the most mysterious of the great cats; of its social system, there is nothing known. Almost always it is seen alone; it may meet over a kill, as tigers do, or it may be unsociable and solitary, like the true leopard.
In 1973, Matthiessen and photographer George Schaller took a land trip across the Himalayas with several sherpa guides, in search of some Himalayan sheep and the rare snow leopard. A map at the front of the book indicates a big X with the notation, “Snow Leopard seen here,” and so I guess it’s not much of a spoiler to note that one is in fact seen by the end of the book. But the sight is anticlimactic. It is the journey itself that means everything.
The book consists of Matthiessen’s journal entries from pretty much October through November, with the usual descriptions of scenery and local people you expect in a travel book. The best parts are in between those, when Matthiessen gets introspective. Much of it reads like the seminal “pebble” scene from Bujold’s The Curse of Challion. Matthiessen is capable of seeing the world in a heap of excrement by the side of the road or the leaves of a fern. It helps that this capacity is common to the Buddhism of the local people, where a Lama is as likely to turn out to be the beggar by the road as he is to be a saffron robe-clad important official. There are discourses on life and death, on hallucinogens as a path to higher consciousness, and on evidence for the existence of yetis.
The Snow Leopard hit me at a good psychological moment for appreciating it. I was going through a rough patch in my life, and Matthiessen’s observations helped me to put it all in perspective. Highly recommended as comfort food for the soul.
Shakespeare in the Original Wodehouse: Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch
Here we were, sitting in Earl’s Court Road on a dusty sunny July morning on two suitcases, and where were we to go next? This was what always happened. I would be at pains to put my universe in order and set it ticking, when suddenly it would burst again into a mess of the same poor pieces, and Finn and I would be on the run. I say my universe, not ours, because I sometimes feel that Finn has very little inner life. I mean no disrespect to him in saying this; some have and some haven’t. I connect this too with his truthfulness. Subtle people, like myself, can see too much ever to give a straight answer. Aspects have always been my trouble. And I connect it with his aptness to make objective statements when these are the last thing that one wants, like a bright light on one’s headache. It may be, though, that Finn misses his inner life, and that that is why he follows me about, as I have a complex one and highly differentiated. Anyhow, I count Finn as an inhabitant of my universe, and cannot conceive that he has one containing me; and this arrangement seems restful for both of us.
There’s a certain inherent quirkiness about 20th century Britain that runs from PG Wodehouse to Kingsley Amis to Monty Python and Keeping Up Appearances, a mixture of absurdism and unflappability that can be either uproariously funny or just strange. Under the Net walks the line for a bit and ends up in the “just strange” category.
It’s described on the cover as a “comic novel”. The comic elements are there. The protagonist, Jake Donaghue, is an intellectual writer whose intelligence clashes with his poverty and his helplessness in negotiating the real world. Comparisons with Bertie Wooster are apt, especially since Donaghue is accompanied by a servant/manager named Finn. But the comparisons fail as they and their friends—Dave, Lefty, Hugo—rather than being happy go lucky drones, are impressively solemn, philosophical and wordy. They talk a lot, but they don’t reveal enough to make their personalities distinctive.
Several times in the book, Jake makes a good amount of money, or is given a chance to do so, and he loses it again or turns the opportunity away, without ever thinking through why. He makes decisions on a whim, and while sometimes the decisions lead to contrived comic moments, as when he impulsively steals a performing Hollywood dog or goes swimming in the Thames while several sheets to the wind, sometimes they lead to avoidable tragedy, as when he loses several interesting women, gives away money for nothing, or takes a degrading hospital job on a whim and gets the sack on an equal and opposite whim.
The book eventually ends in mid-note, without a satisfying climax or resolution. The characters simply continue doing what they’ve been doing, without much hope for anything changing, except superficially. I got the distinct feeling of a thick, gloomy base note threatening to drown out a veneer of lightness, as if a single coat of bright orange paint was placed over a dark olive drab.
Alfred Hitchcock in Space: The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, by Robert A. Heinlein
It was an easy walk to Gwen's compartment: downstairs to seven-tenths gravity, fifty meters 'forward' to her number. I rang.
Her door answered, "This is the recorded voice of Gwen Novak. I've gone to bed and am, I hope, happily asleep. If your visit is truly an emergency, deposit one hundred crowns via your credit code. If I agree that waking me is justified, I will return your money. If I disagree--laugh, chortle, chuckle--I'll spend it on gin and keep you out anyway. If your call is not an emergency, please record a message at the sound of my scream." This was followed by a high scream which ended abruptly as if a hapless wench had been choked to death.
At the start of the book, a stranger sits down at the protagonist’s table, attempts to hire him to commit a murder, and is shot dead right there in the restaurant before he can say much about the job. When the protagonist’s love interest returns from the powder room, the protagonist says, “A cliche, a tired cliche. If I plotted a story that way, my guild would disown me.”
So begins the science fiction equivalent of one of those madcap, suspenseful but campy plots found in various Hitchcock “mistaken identity” movies and episodes of The Avengers (the old Patrick McNee TV show, not the superheroes). The male and female leads turn out to have multiple secret identities, to be hyper-competent at various social, mechanical and combat skills that come in handy during improbable plot twists, and exchange witty banter during hairbreadth escapes from sooner-than-instant death, and to not be able to trust anyone, including each other. Oh yes—and for macguffin purposes, when forced to flee with limited time to gather a few handfuls of possessions, they choose to schlep along a potted bonsai maple around for, like, the whole book, serving no apparent purpose but to burden them while running. I kept thinking, “That stupid tree better turn out to save their asses in the end, or else!”
The constant clever dialogue that continues even during emergencies alternates between being amusing and annoying, as do the Heileinisms I’ve come to expect even after reading very few books, including a gratuitous lecture about “the disease of socialism” that comes from nowhere and which ought to have one of the “most of you will be bored; please skip this part” warnings Heinlein does include whenever he’s about to explain some hard science.
Part delightful romp, part thriller, part insufferable irritainment, I recommend approximately 2/3 The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. After that, it tends to break down into nonsense.
Short, Sad and Sweet: The Lover, by Marguerite Duras
One day, I was already old. In the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, "I've known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you're more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.
So begins Duras's short (117 pages), poignant love story between a teenage French girl in pre-WWII Vietnam and the son of a Chinese millionaire. The girl, who narrates, is dominated by her horrible mother and brothers. They have very little money, and what little they do have is always stolen by the older brother. It is revealed early on that the boy is subject to an arranged marriage and that he won't get to stay with her. The narrative goes back and forth in time frequently. Bad Things happen to the girl on almost every page. Her family members die, she goes back to France, and the lover obeys his father and marries the rich Chinese woman. We never do find out if or how the girl ultimately makes her way through life; it looks like she might die poor like her relatives.
It's obviously a very sad story, but not depressing so much as cathartic. The emotional power of Duras's writing is immense, even when translated into English. There are no chapters, just breaks between sections of story that are usually just single paragraphs, and just about every sentence is important. Highly recommended.
Yo Hadrian!: Hadrian's Memoirs, by Marguerite Yourcenar
My military successes might have earned me enmity from a lesser man than Trajan. But courage was the only language which he grasped at once; its words went straight to his heart. He came to see in me a kind of second-in-command, almost a son, and nothing of what happened later could wholly separate us. On my side, certain of my newly conceived objections to his views were, at least momentarily, put aside or forgotten in presence of the admirable genius which he displayed with the armies. I have always liked to see a great specialist at work; the emperor, in his own field, had a skill and sureness of hand second to none. Placed at the head of the First Legion Minervia, most glorious of them all, I was assigned to wipe out the last enemy entrenchments in the region of the Iron Gates. After we had surrounded and taken the citadel of Sarmizegethusa I followed the emperor into that subterranean hall where the counselors of King Decebalus had just ended their last banquet by swallowing poison; Trajan gave me the order to set fire to that weird heap of dead men. The same evening, on the steep heights of the battlefield, he transferred to my finger the diamond ring which Nerva had given him, and which had come to be almost a token of imperial succession. That night I fell asleep content.
The major facts in common knowledge about the Emperor Hadrian include: He ruled for about 20 years between Trajan and Antoninius; he built a wall across Scotland to fortify the northern border of Roman Britain; he traveled across most of the Roman empire and built many decorative and useful works; and he had a boy lover named Antinous whose untimely death in Egypt broke his heart, and who subsequently developed a following of cultists who worshipped him as a god. With these facts and many lesser known researched details, Yourcenar gave us what may be the first fiction-autobiography of an ancient historical figure, predating Graves’ I, Claudius (which set the standard as far as I’m concerned) and Vidal’s Julian.
Read it for the philosophy. Trajan, the wall, most of the travels, the Palestinian war, even Antinous more or less are described matter of factly and briefly, though Hadrians feelings toward Antinous get much more attention. The lynchpin of the Memoirs is that they are supposedly written for and to the young Marcus Aurelius as one philosopher to another. With this in mind, it is reasonable that most of the writing is didactic and reflective, focusing on the meaning of life, the purpose of life, the meaning of events, and what the aging emperor has learned from his youthful follies, his military successes and defeats, and his aching back. Some of the commentary ranks right up there with the best of Marcus Aurelius, who we may imagine was started on his Meditations by his predecessor’s example. Highly recommended.
The Roman Murders: Three Hands in the Fountain; Two for the Lions; One Virgin Too Many, by Lindsey Davis. A Myth of Prophecies, by Steven Saylor. A Point of Law; Under Vesuvius; Oracle of the Dead by John Maddox Roberts.
There was an obvious cause for our problem today. Public slaves receive no official stipend for their duties. Naturally I had come equipped with the usual ex gratia offering, but the clerk thought that if he made things look difficult he could garner a more spectacular tip than usual. The hour’s argument was needed to persuade him that I had no more money. He started weakening. Julia then remembered she wanted to be fed, so she screwed up her little eyes and screamed as if she were practicing for when she grew up and wanted to go to parties that I disapproved of. She received her birth certificate without further delay.
--from Three Hands in the Fountain
”Decius, I would hate to lose you. Aside from being a good prospect as a Caesarian, you are certainly one of the more interesting and unusual figures in our public life. But I fear you will not be among us for long if you fail to acknowledge the desperation of your peers. All of them: your family, the Claudians, both Marcelli and Pulchri, the Cornelians and Pompey, and the rest, they are all second- and third-raters. And they have been fighting and plotting and bleeding themselves white against each other! Now in Caesar, they are up against a man of the first class, and they have no idea what to do. They are all so jealous of each other that they will never agree on a policy. They have no man of comparable worth to rally behind. In their blind panic, they will bring on a civil war they cannot win.”
--from A Point of Law
I stared at the woman in wonder. There was something unnatural about the way she rolled her shoulders and swung her head in a circle. She held her arms aloft, her palms raised to heaven. Her eyes were rolled upward. The wailing I had heard was actually a sort of incantation. As I listened, I began to hear words amid the grunts and shrieks.
“Who is she, Caninius?” I said.
“How in Hades should I know?” he snapped. “I only know she’s been haunting the forum for the last few days, begging for alms. She seems normal enough, but every now and then, this happens—she goes into a sort of trance and shouts nonsense.”
“But who is she? Where did she come from?”
“She’s called Cassandra,” said Mopsus.
--from A Mist of Prophecies
The entertainers’ quarters were the most enjoyable part of the tour. Gaeto had bought Spanish and African dancers, Egyptian magicians, and Greek singers and reciters of poetry—men who could recite the entirety of Homer from memory and women who could play every conceivable musical instrument. It is possible that I lingered in this wing longer than was strictly necessary for the purposes of the investigation, but you never know what sort of information might turn out to be of use.
--from Under Vesuvius
The lion’s murder aroused her fiercest feelings. Other wild beasts were brought to Rome purely to be hunted in the arena, but Leonidus had had work to do in the circus. He ranked with her own animals and reptiles: a professional. “That’s terrible. Who would do that? And why?”
“I presume he had enemies—though everyone claims he was the sweetest lion you could meet. A benefit to the convicts he tore to pieces and ate, apparently. I’m working on the usual theories for a murder case: that the corpse probably slept around, amassed huge debts, caused fights when drunk, owned a slave with a grudge, was rude to his mother, and had been heard insulting the Emperor. One of those always turns out right.”
--from Two for the Lions
”None of my business?” I said, feeling my face begin to flame. “You come in here with no authority and tell me to hurry up and solve this mess and you say your reasons are none of my business?”
He jumped up and his chair went over backwards. “My authority is the authority of a man who can whistle up twenty legions, all loyal to him alone. Nothing else counts these days. Remember that, Metellus.”
I stood too, wanting to tell him how useless his twenty legions would be against Caesar’s veteran killers. But I didn’t and I felt it was incumbent on me to keep the peace.
--from Oracle of the Dead
Any person who needed to employ an informer was likely to have reasons to keep their private life unofficial on all fronts. They would be horrified to arrive for a consultation and find a large specimen of the official vigiles in his after-hours tunic, swigging a drink, with his feet up on the balcony parapet. I could not evict Petro. Instead I currently interviewed any clients who did turn up at my new apartment. Many a craftsman’s lockup in Rome is overrun by children; it may be fine if you only want to buy a bronze tripod with satyrs’ feet, but people dislike being interviewed about their life-or-death problems while an energetic baby hurls porridge at their knees.
--from One Virgin Too Many
Continuing the three sets of murder mysteries from the Roman era. It’s becoming apparent that I will finish the John Maddox Roberts and the Steven Saylor by the end of the year, but not the Lindsey Davis. Just as well. I won’t mind coming back to Davis in future years.
Davis seems to have gone from metals in the titles to numbers, once again starting too close to the end by counting down from three to one. Three Hands in the Fountain may be the best one in the series so far, calling on Falco and Helena to go after a serial killer who has been dismembering women for (apparently) several years, and disposing of the body parts in one of Rome’s aqueducts, where the smaller parts end up (guess where...go on, begins with an “F”) where citizens find them when coming to fill their water vessels. Tragic mayhem ensues. This is the only book so far in any series at hand that turns into the prototype of the “police procedural”, and it is fascinating to watch them investigate and track down corpses and killers with none of the modern forensic tools available today. Two for the Lions takes Falco and Partner from the gladiatorial arenas of Rome to two thinly populated provinces between Egypt and Africa (Tunisia)—they’re called Cyrenaica and Tripolitania here, though most other Roman histories I’ve read call then Marmacia and Syrtica—in a romp more amusing than suspenseful or deductive, despite several occasions in which Falco is in danger of getting killed and eaten by wild beasts. Finally, One Virgin Too Many involves the Arval Brotherhood, the Vestal Virgins and the Sacred Geese in a case where Falco’s youngest client to date seeks his help, claims someone is trying to murder her, is turned away by Falco back to her parents, and promptly goes missing; comic and tragic mahem ensues, as usual. The stories are good, but by this point you really need to read them in order, as various arc-changing things happen involving Falco’s own family as well as references to plot spoilers from the previous mysteries.
John Maddox Roberts is still set in the earliest phase of Roman history, still waiting for Caesar to cross the Rubicon in A Point of Law, while his detective-Senator Decius Metellius seeks the Praetorship at a time when Roman offices are about to cease to exist. Metellius himself becomes a murder suspect and must clear himself in time to qualify to stand for Praetor, exposing one of many conspiracies in the process. It doesn’t take a spoiler to deduce that he succeeds and goes on to spend the first part of his praetorship in the Pompeii region Under Vesuvius, where his first important mission is to administer justice in a murder in which everyone in the area and back home assumes the guilt of a nobody, and Metellus’s refusal to just close the case quickly leads to severe political pressure on him. Oracle of the Dead is basically a Scooby Doo episode with religious sect flim-flam instead of ghost story flim-flam. There are many murders, and yet these are only nominally whodunnits.
The only Steven Saylor book I read this month was A Mist of Prophecies, in which Gordianus too digs into a nest of conspiracies involving Ceasar, Pompey and their partisans, this time while both parties are at war in Greece and their surrogates are fighting for Rome. This is the first Saylor book that hints at supernatural forces, as the victim is a mad prophetess who has made several apparently impossible to fake, yet accurate, predictions to many of the leading women of Rome, and who dies in Gordianus’s arms shortly thereafter, having been poisoned. This is Saylor’s most structured novel, deliberately alternating flashbacks with real time in what turns out to be a very clever whodunnit, but which I solved, making me 10 for 11 in the series. You’ll enjoy seeing if you can, too.
Everybody Must Get Stoned: Enneads, by Plotinus
The soul looks down upon the wellspring of Life, wellspring also of Intellect, beginning of Being, fount of good, root of Soul. It is not that these are poured out from the Supreme lessening it as if it were a thing of mass. At that the emanents would be perishable; but they are eternal; they spring from the eternal principle, which produces them not by its fragmentation but in virtue of its intact identity: therefore they too hold firm; so long as the sun shines, so long will there be light.
We have not been cut away; we are not separate, what though the body-nature has closed about us to press us to itself; we breathe and hold our ground because the Supreme does not give and pass but gives on for ever, so long as it remains what it is.
Our being is the fuller for turning Thither; this is our prosperity; to hold aloof is loneliness and lessening. Here is the soul’s peace, outside of evil, refuge taken in the place clean of wrong; here it has its Act, its true knowing; here it is immune. Here is living, the true.
Plotinus is the big example of "Neo-Platonism", which is supposed to be important as forming a bridge between Western thought and eastern mysticism, or between ancient Greco-Roman mythology and Christianity, or something like that. Bertrand Russel, who I normally admire greatly, said that the Enneads (six untitled works of nine chapters each) contain beautiful poetry reminiscent of the final cantos of Dante's Paradise-o. If that's the case, I failed to see it. I found the Enneads to be the most dense, difficult, poorly organized, indecipherable mess of all the Roman classics I read this year. In order to digest it at all, I had to break it up, reading one ennead every odd-numbered month. Seriously, I have a hard time justifying why I bothered to slog all the way through it.
Reading Plotinus is nothing like Dante. It's more like listening to a stoned hermaneutics postdoc who made his own map of life, the universe and everything under the influence of a lot of controlled substances, complete with his own vocabulary, and who won't stop babbling about it in a tone of voice that suggests equal parts preachy inscrutable zen master and unhygienic hippy doofus. From the preface, I learn that Plotinus was ashamed of having a physical body and that he spent most of his time preaching in the desert while subsisting on the self-loathing diet.
The first three enneads have at least some relation to the real world, in that they contain definitions of time and space, attempts to explain such things as why there is evil, and exhortations on how to live the good life. Mostly, the good life consists of not actually doing anything, but contemplating higher realms while life passes you by entirely. Considering that, when Plotinus wrote, the barbarians were sacking the Roman empire and the real world was a miserable place to be, the idea of detachment from all that was not completely without comfort. In the 21st century, we can do better than that.
The last three enneads are where it gets seriously stoned. Catholic ideas about one God divided into a "holy trinity" may have stemmed from them. All souls come from one universal soul that created All The Things from matter, which is the source of all evil. The soul in turn is subservient to the "nous" or "divine mind" or "intellectual principle" that Plato had described (Plato being the one philosopher recognized by Plotinus; you won't find any Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno, Epictetus or the like here), which might well be God, except that this principle is itself subservient to The One. The All, the Highest and First, that encompasses everything, really everything and yet is indivisible, transcending being, and I completely forgot what I was going to say just now...
Oh, right. The One, and below that, the "intellectual principle", and below that, the one Soul from which other souls and creation spring. Our sould long to return to be absorbed into the one Soul, which is the highest purpose of existence. Detach from all things. There. Just memorize that bit and you'll know all the Plotinus you need to know for that world philosophy test. There's a reason people still widely read Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius while, unless you're a serious philosophy academic you might never have heard of Plotinus before now.
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