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What I read last month, spanning the centuries from Virgil and Tacitus to current NY Times bestseller Blackout.

Of particular interest to political junkies is Jodi Kantor's behind the scenes biography of The Obamas and Tacitus's Annals, with parallels to the Imperial American government and a warning that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Enjoy!

Crunch all you want; we'll make more: Blackout, by Mira Grant  
"Isn't this cozy?" said Becks. If they fill this thing with gas and kill us before we know what's happening, I swear the first thing my reanimated corpse eats will be your face, Mason."
"I'm pretty sure I could kick your ass even if we were all dead," said Shaun.
Becks shrugged. "You won't reanimate. It won't be a contest."
The two of them continued teasing each other, using sharp comments and verbal barbs as a way to keep calm. Irwins. They all have a few basic personality traits in common, and one of them is a strong dislike for being pinned in small spaces that they don't control.

--from Blackout, the third book in a trilogy by Mira Grant, 2012. Published.

It didn't start out like this.  It started out with good intentions--God, such good intentions. They thought they were taking steps to protect the country. In the end, no one noticed when protection turned into imprisonment, or when 'for the good of the people' turned into 'for the good of the people in power.' It was all baby steps, all the way.
--from Blackout, the third book in a trilogy by Mira Grant, 2012. Published.

This is the final volume in the Newsflesh trilogy that included Feed (Bookpost, July 2010) and Deadline (June 2011), as well as the prequel novella Countdown (May 2011).  This one deservedly made it onto the NY Times bestseller list as well as various lists of the best Summer reading of the year

The series, in which brave, heroic bloggers fight the threats to civilization posed first by the Zombie Apocolypse and then by the inevitable police state that result,  tries to do way, way too much, and somehow succeeds. There are deep, touching friendships that speak to character, responsibility and the purpose of living.  There is political skullduggery, espionage, mad scientists and sinister, earth-shaking plots. There are devastating allegories applicable to the police state and “security” measures that affect America and other western nations right now. There are little excerpts between every chapter, from blog entries and messages by the various characters, punctuating the action with the kind of insight, joke, or background that many stories have to avoid because it would be awkward included in the narrative itself.

And there are, of course, zombies. Hordes of them, shambling around every corner. And they’re hungry.

It all works, fitting together so that you don’t really notice how many layers it has unless you’re really concentrating on it, probably on a second reading, since the fast-paced action and character development pretty much holds your attention tightly the first time around.  The climax and resolution satisfies. The series as a whole is one of the best-crafted works of fantasy/horror I’ve read in a long time and earns a place on my top 100 list. Very highest recommendations.

Rome is Great, etc.: The Aeneid of Virgil
And then,
when the toddler had taken her first hesitant steps,
Metabus armed her hand with a well-honed lance
And slung from her tiny shoulders bows and arrows.
No gold band for her hair, no long flaring cape.
A tiger skin that covered her head hung down her back.
With a hand uncallused still she flung her baby spears,
Swirled a sling-shot round her head with its supple strap
And bagged a crane or snowy swan by the Strymon’s banks.
Many a mother in Tuscan cities yearned for her
As a daughter. Futile. Diana’s her only passion.
She nurses a lifelong love of chastity and the hunt
While she remains untouched.

As you may have noticed from my posts or from reading the books yourself, the best Roman writing is in the history and philosophy, the Lucretius and Cicero and Plutarch and Livy and Marcus Aurelius. Virgil gets to be the King of Roman imaginative literature pretty much by default, and his biggest effort, the book students like me were still required to translate passages of from Latin, pales in comparison to Homer. It’s shorter and consciously imitative and suffers from the need to toady to the Emperor Augustus. In fairness, it remained unfinished at the time of Virgil’s death, and Virgil himself is said to have urged that the manuscript be destroyed, once he saw that he would not live to get it right. And maybe I’m just mad still at having been made to translate it.

I decided to give the book a fair new look by reading, for the first time, the Robert Fagles translation. Fagles had translated the big two-volume Homer that sat on my dad’s primary bookshelf for years, and which breathed life into Homer. When my sister-in-law complained about how dry and humorless the Iliad was, I refuted and delighted her by turning to the passage about Thirsites and reading it in a Bugs Bunny sort of voice.  Fagles is a master, and he did get me thinking about Virgil in ways I hadn’t before.  Or it could have been that this was the first time I had come to it already steeped in the history immediately preceding Augustus. Although the action takes place during and after the fall of Troy, centuries before the Roman Republic, there are many passages, from speeches of the dead to prophecies by the gods to the diorama on Aeneas’s shield, that foreshadow and describe key events from the Republic, Revolution, and early Empire.  Once you understand that the book is basically a political “manifest destiny” speech for the Emperor, everything fits into place.

Virgil also attempts to borrow the key themes from both the Iliad and the Odyssey in just twelve chapters.  From the Iliad, we get the Trojan War (and now you know...the rest...of the story), lengthy descriptions of ships’ crews, and the battle scenes from the last half, in which doughty warriors by the dozen, huge, unconquerable, fall to one another hard enough to register on the Richter scale. Really, the only ones who register on my radar, even after three readings of the book, are Turnus, chief antagonist to Aeneas, and the amazing Camilla, who may be the first badass female warrior in western literature. I thrill to the scene where her father rescues her from barbarians by tying her to a spear and throwing it across a chasm.

From the Odyssey, we get the story beginning in the middle, the long sea voyage followed by mass slaughter at the homecoming, and the trip to Hades. The whole thing reads almost as a modernized take on Homer, to the extent that anything written in a year ending with a BC can be considered “modern”. This time around, I liked it for the niche it occupies in history.  Your mileage may vary.

Catalina Conspiracy: Farewell My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler
They had Rembrandt on the calendar that year, a rather smeary self-portrait due to imperfectly registered color plates. It showed him holding a smeared palette with a dirty thumb and wearing a tam-o'-shanter which wasn't any too clean either. His other hand held a brush poised in the air, as if he might be going to do a little work after a while, if somebody made a down payment. His face was aging, saggy, full of the disgust of life and the thickening effects of liquor. But it had a hard cheerfulness that I liked, and they eyes were as bright as drops of dew.
I was looking at him across my office desk at about four thirty when the phone rang and I heard a cool, supercilious voice that sounded as if it thought it was pretty good. It said drawlingly, after I had answered:
"You are Philip Marlowe, a private detective?"
"Oh--you mean, yes. You have been recommended to me as a man who can be trusted to keep his mouth shut. I should like you to come to my house at seven o'clock this evening. we can discuss a matter. My name is Lindsay Mariott and i live at 4212 Cabrillo Street, Montemar Vista. Do you know where that is?"
"I know where Montemar vista is, Mr. Mariott."
"Yes. Well. Cabrillo Street is rather hard to find. The streets down here are all laid out in a pattern of interesting but intricate curves. I should suggest that you walk up the steps from the sidewalk cafe. If you do that, Cabrillo is the third street you come to and my house is the only one on the block. At seven then?"
"What is the purpose of the employment, Mr. Mariott?"
"I should prefer not to discuss that over the phone."
"Can't you give me some idea? Montemar Vista is quite a distance."
"I shall be glad to pay your expenses, if we don't agree. Are you particular in the nature of the employment?"
"Not as long as it's legitimate."
The voice grew icicles. "I should not have called you if it were not."
A Harvard boy. Nice use of the subjunctive mood. The end of my foot itched, but my bank account was still trying to crawl under a duck. I put honey into my voice and said, "Many thanks for calling me, Mr. Mariott. I'll be there."
He hung up and that was that.  I thought Mr. Rembrandt had a faint sneer on his face.

Who says the list is all work and no play? Earlier in the year, I was given Hammett's detective masterpiece Red Harvest, and now I have one by maybe the only author to surpass Hammett in the hard boiled noir detective genre.

Yes, there's a puzzle in the story, but it doesn't even scratch the surface of what Chandler has to offer. By the time we go from a murder at a club in a formerly white section of Lost Angeles to a slummy neighborhood, an upscale neighborhood, a top of the heap mansion, a quack psychic's office, a disreputable sanitarium, the gambling boats of Catalina Island, and several police stations and empty roads, we've developed an all-over feel for the city Chandler describes as one big, suntanned hangover with all the warmth and personality of a disposable paper cup. Class warfare waged by the rich against the poor. Democratic organizations and the rule of law itself bought out by people with enough money unencumbered by scruples to do whatever they want and get away with it.  A sad sack who needs a shave. He would always need a shave. A woman whose voice drops into a sad whisper, like a mortician asking for a down payment. It's little turns of phrase like that, that have more layers of meaning the more you contemplate them, that make Chandler a master.

Like Shakespeare, he's full of great language that became cliched after he wrote it.  Without me even having to mention them, you can think of the genre and immediately imagine the tough guy in the trenchcoat, the double-crossing dame, the ironic politeness of the well-dressed gangster, the smell of vomit in the cheap bar, the wisecracking cops, the rain-slick streets at night, and the hero PI, whose heart of gold is buried within the grime of years and whose thoughts turn from cynical humor to a short gut-wrenching burst of tragic truth in the same sentence.

I thrive on these stories. If you do too, Farewell, My Lovely, and Chandler's other six novels, are a literary feast for you.  If you don't like the genre, then maybe you should read only the Chandler books and leave it at that.  But don't cheat yourself of them. They're part of the world literary canon and popular with highbrow and lowbrow readers alike.  This was my second or third time with Farewell, My Lovely, and I still got something new out of it. Like I said, the puzzle part doesn't even scratch the surface.   Very highest recommendations.

Eating Crow: Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore
He met his day in the shower, washing his hair with shampoo that was guaranteed to have never been put in a bunny's eyes and from which ten percent of the profits went to save the whales. He lathered his face with shaving cream free of chloroflourocarbons, thereby saving the ozone layer. He breakfasted on fertile eggs laid by sexually satisfied chickens that were allowed to range while listening to Brahms, and muffins made with pesticide-free grain, so no eagle-egg shells were weakened by his thoughtless consumption. He scrambled the eggs in margarine free of tropical oils, thus preserving the rain forest, and he added milk from a carton made of recycled paper and shipped from a small family farm. By the time he finished his second cup of coffee, which would presumably help to educate the children of a poor peasant farmer named Juan Valdez, Sam was on the verge of congratulating himself for single-handedly saving the planet just by getting up in the morning. He would have been surprised, however, if someone had told him it had been two years since he had set foot on unpaved ground.

Christopher Moore is one of the most awesome living authors, , and whenever I realize it’s been a long time since I’ve paid his books a visit, I remedy the situation quite quickly.  He never fails to make the big, wonderful world out there seem even more big and wonderful than it was last time I looked.  In fact, Coyote Blue is the closest he’s come to failure so far, and it’s still an awesome, awesome book. Seriously, I’d be praising it wholeheartedly, except that he’s set the bar so high with such masterpieces as The Gospel According to Biff, The Stupidest Angel, and I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings.  Which really isn’t fair, since Coyote Blue was written before the others, while he was still getting his feet wet.

Coyote Blue takes us from a Crow reservation in Montana to a sprawling suburb in Southern California, and then to Vegas, where things happen that do not stay there.  Sam Hunter, a material success and spiritual failure is awakened from the routine of his upwardly mobile insurance shark’s life by two events. First, he meets a young waitress-mom and is felled by Cupid’s poleaxe instantly. Second, a mysterious Indian appears out of nowhere and punctures the woman’s tire, enabling Sam to get to know her.  After gets complicated.

The Indian turns out to be a manifestation of Coyote, The Trickster, who reminded me of an R-Rated, Native American version of Gilligan, or Paddington Bear, or Curious George. Simple. Mischievous. Always making messes and ruining everything in hilarious ways, except when he ends up Saving Them All.  Caught in the fray are crooked businessmen, banal homeowners’ associations, stoned surfer dudes, evil biker gangs, imposing casino security, drunk shamen and a zen auto mechanic named Steve.  Very highly recommended.

Foreshadowing Eclipses:  The Cateline Conspiracy, by John Maddox Roberts, and The House of the Vestals, by Steven Saylor
If ambitious men wanted to kill one another in the pursuit of power, they had my full blessing to do so. Every such demise made the world a better place. But in doing so they had no right to kill ordinary citizens guilty of no more than going about their everyday lives. If their armies wished to follow their generals and slaughter one another in furthering the ambitions of those men, I was satisfied. I yield to none in my admiration of the Roman legionary, but soldiers are men who bear arms, kill and die as a profession. That does not constitute a right to victimize those who merely go about their lawful occupations.
--from The Cataline Conspiracy

I felt a sudden superstitious dread. Hackles rose on the back of my neck, a sheen of sweat erupted on my forehead and I was unable to breathe. My heart pounded so hard that I thought the noise must be loud enough to wake a sleeping virgin. I wanted to clutch Rufus’s arm and hiss into his ear that we must go back to the Forum at once--so deep is the fear of the forbidden ingrained from childhood, when one hears tales of men found skulking in sacred precincts and made to suffer unimaginable punishments. Ironically, I thought, it is only through association with the most restpectable people in the world—like Cicero and Rufus—that a man can suddenly, unexpectedly find himself in the most forbidden spot in all Rome, at an hour when his mere presence could mean death. One moment, innocently asleep in my own bed, and the next—in the House of the Vestals!
--from The House of the Vestals

I have a feeling these sets of historical mysteries set in the Roman Republic are going to go together for as long as I read and review them.  They’re that similar.  Roberts’s protagonist/detective is a minor patrician and Saylor’s is a citizen of some means who calls himself a professional “finder”, and Roberts’s Rome is about ten years later than Saylor’s, but the characters and given circumstances are the same.  Also, if you have any experience with mysteries, you’re going to want to read these because you love the remarkably accurate and researched descriptions of Roman life and politics, not because you want a challenging whodunnit.

Roberts’s The Catiline Conspiracy, for example, has the detective investigating a mysterious conspiracy to overthrow the government, and trying to determine who is behind it. Even if you’re not familiar with Roman history, the book’s title offers a pretty conclusive clue. Saylor’s offering is a collection of short mysteries with solutions as well worn as those of the man robbing himself for the insurance and the suicide investigated as murder (those aren’t the tropes used in this collection, but the ones used are about that cliched).  Liked both books anyway.

Camelot 3.0: The Obamas, by Jodi Kantor
The Obamas, enjoying their outing, had no idea they were being attacked for it in real time. The pool reports made the president’s whereabouts public, and hours before the Obamas returned home, the Republican National Committee sent out a press release: “As President Obama prepares to wing his way into Manhattan’s theater district on air Force One to take in a Broadway show, GM is preparing to file bankruptcy and families across America continue to struggle to pay their bills,” it read. “Have a great Saturday evening—even if you’re not jetting off at taxpayer expense.” The Obamas had paid for their own theater tickets and dinner, but the federal government had paid for the transportation, as it had for the excursions of their predecessors—after all, there was no other way for a president to travel. Still, the trip played right into the Republican story line that the president was profligate with other people’s money and out of touch, and soon television pundits were debating whether the evening had been a mistake.

I was born too late to experience the JFK “Camelot”, but I heard about it from my parents. A wonderful, magical period of government in which the First Family set an example for the whole nation. They were cultured and well-read. Their high-achieving children were a joy to look at, and everybody respected and admired them. When I was a child during the Carter years, I pretty much expected Presidential families to be that way.

It never happened again, until now. I suffered through the Reagans, the Clintons and two half-wit episodes of the Bushes. Presidents and their opponents spoke in folksy aphorisms, had their pictures taken pretending to clear brush, milk cows and operate heavy machinery, and generally won by pretending to be dumber than they really were (which, in the case of Reagan and W Bush, may have been the most astonishing achievements of their presidencies).

The Obamas are the first first family in my lifetime to actually appear to enjoy their intelligence, to be setting an example as a family, and to be culturally literate in the highbrow sense of the world. And not only are there large segments of America that to not accept them as positive role models, but too many actually sneer as if it were “uppity” for a nonwhite president to live and behave better than rednecks. Where has this country gone wrong?

The Obamas, at its best, is a look at the lives of a good man, his good wife, and their good children, as they shoulder responsibility together and try to do the right thing for the country. At its second best, it devolves into presidential movie cliches, in which frantic handlers try to prevent them from being themselves in public and continually explain to the First Family why they can’t do what they want to do.  At worst, it becomes almost a hatchet job on the president in its zeal to “be fair to both sides” and portray the Republicans in Congress as if they were actually interested in working with Democrats, and the Teahad as if its threadbare excuses to hate were grounded in legitimate concerns.

The best part? Michelle Obama. She’s motivated, formidable, and her ideas are the good ones, politically and morally. If the handlers had listened to her, Pelosi would still be speaker of the House and the budget-busting Bush tax cuts would be dead.  I wanted to see a hint that she would one day seek the White House in her own right, or at least her husband’s old US Senate seat, which comes up for grabs in 2016.  Unfortunately, the book made it clear she has no intention of running for office, ever. The really best people never do. Shame on the electorate.

Clap Harder: The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
Human passions have mysterious ways, in children as well as grown-ups. Those affected by them can’t explain them, and those who haven’t known them have no understanding of them at all. Some people risk their lives to conquer a mountain peak. No one, not even they themselves, can really explain why. Others ruin themselves trying to win the heart of a certain person who wants nothing to do with them. Still others are destroyed by their devotion to the pleasures of the table. Some are so bent on winning a game of chance that they lose everything they own, and some sacrifice everything for a dream that can never come true. Some think their only hope of happiness lies in being somewhere else, and spend their whole lives traveling from place to place. And some find no rest until they have become powerful. In short, there are as many different passions as there are people.
Bastian Balthazar Bux’s passion was books.
If you have never spent whole afternoons with burning ears and rumpled hair, forgetting the world around you over a book, forgetting cold and hunger—
If you have never read secretly under the bedclothes with a flashlight, because your father or mother or some other well-meaning person has switched off the lamp on the plausible ground that it was time to sleep because you had to get up so early—
If you have never wept bitter tears because a wonderful story has come to an end and you must take your leave of characters with whom you have shared so many adventures, whom you have loved and admired, for whom you have hoped and feared, and without whose company life seems empty and meaningless—
If such things have not been part of your own experience, you probably won’t understand what Bastian did next.

When was this book written?  1979?  OK, then it’s somewhere in the middle.

I’ve said before that cliches become that way by making the best stories. This fantasy story, with all the tropes—the big trolls and dragons and little flying guys and fragile queens and ordinary kids with destinies and morals about whether success will spoil you and there’s no place like home—almost goes too far, backing the standard plot elements and Jungian critters of the unconscious up in a truck and dumping them—but by the time I got to the ending (despite the false advertising of the title, it really does have an ending), I was all weepy eyed and completely satisfied, even though I knew way ahead of time how it would all have to end. There’s only one way a tale like this ends.

Even the big plot gimmick, which I won’t spoil here, has been done before, and many times since. Never mind. You’ll enjoy looking at the same plot devices in a different way. High recommendations.

Cloisterfuck: Quiet as a Nun, by Antonia Fraser  
’Sister Rosabelle Mary Powerstock’, the story continued, ‘of Blessed Eleanor’s Convent, Churne, Sussex, was found dead today in a locked building on the outskirts of the convent grounds. It is believed that the forty-one year old nun, known as Sister Miriam at the convent where she had lived for eighteen years, had been taken ill and was unable to raise the alarm. Reverend Mother Ancilla Curtis said today that Sister Miriam would be a great loss to the community of the Order of the Tower of Ivory, and would be sadly missed by her many pupils, past and present.
‘Sister Miriam was the daughter of a former Lord Mayor of London.’
Before I had finished reading the short item, I had been transported back a whole generation.

This one is almost the polar opposite of the Roman historical mysteries by Saylor and Roberts, that have amazing characterization, atmosphere and plotting and not much mystery.  Fraser’s writing is pretty atrocious, but the whodunnit part is quite clever, and the tale short enough to make hunting for the culprit worth slogging through a bunch of half sappy romance style/half contrived gothic style about spooky nuns and hidden wills.

Fraser’s main character, Jemima Shore, is a 1970s era tv show host who apparently spent part of her childhood being schooled in an old fashioned nunnery, because it was a handy  rural place to hide children when London wasn’t safe during WWII. Shore is invited back to the nunnery following the mysterious death of an old school friend who had become one of the sisters, and who was also a rich heiress whose new will might have caused the church lands to be donated to a housing project for the poor, and so maybe she was killed to prevent that, or maybe she wrote the will and hid it in the church.  Meanwhile, the young students are telling stories about a ghostly nun who glides down the corridors foretelling death, but of course no one listens to these girls. They have hyperactive imaginations.

This story could have gone several places, playing up the clash between 1970s hedonistic values and the strictness of old religion, or the clash between church and state when it comes to poverty relief. Instead, most of the focus is on Shore being worried and doing foolish things like going off to explore crypts and towers alone in the dark so that scary things can happen to her.  The mystery challenge is a good one, but when the solution is presented, the subsequent resolution is anticlimactic and contrived.

Retentive Emperors: The Anals of Imperial Rome, by P. Cornelius Tacitus
Frenzied with bloodshed, the emperor now ordered the execution of all those arrested for complicity with Sejanus. It was a massacre. Without discrimination of sex or age, eminence or obscurity, there they lay, strewn about, or in heaps. Relatives and friends were forbidden to stand by or lament them, or even gaze for long. Guards surrounded them, spying on their sorrow, and escorted the rotting bodies until, dragged into the Tiber, they floated away or gorunded, with none to cremate or touch them. Terror had paralysed human sympathy. The rising surge of brutality drove compassion away.

Gibbon claimed that the Roman Empire was a great, great civilization that peaked with Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD or so, and then went to Hell. Juvenal wrote in the Second Century that it had already fallen from its greatness in the First Century. Tacitus said that the empire rotted way before that, with the emperors who followed Augustus, but that the Republic was kinda nice. Cicero believed that the peak of the Republic wasn’t a picnic either, since children no longer respected their elders and everyone had written a book.

In fact, the histories I’ve been reading all year suggest that Rome was in a constant state of war from its inception in 800 BC or so until the barbarians finally put an end to it in the 5th century.  If there was a “Pax Romana”, it must have existed by simply not counting what was going on on the frontiers.  Tacitus and his account of the “Silver Age” is no exception to the rule, but historians do suggest that he embellished the bad a little.

Tacitus was a bitter, cynical man. I’d compare him with a modern Republican in America, always going on about declining standards, except that he complains about political corruption and abuse of power as much as he does about loose moral standards and the lost golden age of the past, whereas modern American Republicans embrace corruption with every fiber of their being, as long as they’re the ones doing it.  Maybe if you imagine a William F. Buckley type with the standards of a Fox commentator, pretending that everything done by Republicans was really done by Democrats and that fascist police state America is really a world of socialist death panels, you’ll get the idea of what Tacitus is like. Except that in Rome, the death panels really existed, as a political, not medical program.

The Annals cover the reigns of the emperors Tiberius and Nero, with slivers of the Augustus and Claudius Administrations thrown in (a big chunk in the middle, about Caligula, has been lost, maybe censored by some Medievalist who found those perversities too much even for those who tolerated Tiberius and Nero).  All the characters that made Graves’ I, Claudius so compelling are there as well—Livia, Livilla, Sejanus,  Messalina, Agrippina, Piso—and a snake pit of Machiavellian intrigue they are. It’s a wonder Rome made it to Vespasian, much less Aurelius, if it happened as Tacitus said.   Tiberius in particular, one of the more complex characters treated by Graves and Suetonius, and perhaps my favorite character study in the I, Claudius universe, is here an unmitigated monster, surpassed only by Nero.

It’s a gripping read and an object lesson about how ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely.’  Take it with a grain of salt. Or several.

Privatus Informerus: Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis
I was brought up sharp from my reverie by two bullyboys whose greeting made me grunt with pain.
“Whoops!” (cried I). “Look lads, it’s all been a mistake. Tell Smartacus my rent’s with his accountant—“ I failed to recognize either, but Smartacus rarely keeps his gladiators long. If they can’t run away they inevitably die in the ring. If they don’t make it that far, they perish from starvation, since Smartacus’ idea of a training diet is a handful of pale yellow lentils in lashings of old bathwater. I assumed these were my landlord’s latest bruisers from the gym.
My assumption was awry. By now my head was gripped under the first bullyboy’s elbow. The second put his face down to grin at me; I had a sideways view of the cheekguards of the latest design of helmet and a familiar scarlet neckerchief under his chin. These beggars were army. I considered coming the old soldier but in view of my legion’s record, a dropout from the Second Augusta was unlikely to impress.
“Guilty conscience?” (cried the sideways face). “Something else to worry you—Didius Falco, you’re under arrest!”
Arrest by the boys in red felt familiar, like being tickled for cash by Smartacus. The biggest of these two big lads was attempting to squeeze out my tonsils with the racy efficiency of a cook’s boy podding peas with his thumb. I would have asked him to stop but I was speechless with admiration for his technique...

With Lindsey Davis and the “Private Informer” Marcus Didius Falco, I bring in a third series of Roman historical mysteries. This series is a little different, though, from those of Saylor and Roberts.

For one thing, Gordianus and Metellus are well-to do citizens with a certain amount of status and a code of morals and manners, moving in roughly the same era, the late Republic between 90 and 44 BC.  Falco, who lives in 70 AD, early in the reign of Emperor Vespasian, is a mere freedman, in a slum, living by his wits and not above bouts of drunkenness and wenching as he rubs elbows with an extremely colorful cast of laundresses, gladiators, beggars, thieves, wompsters, wastrels and shit-a-beds.

Further, although all three detectives investigate crimes, Falco does by far the most to imitate the Chandler/Hammet noir style.  All the hollywood tropes are there—the broke, slum-dwelling guy with a trenchcoat, an always empty refrigerator, and a bottle of cheap alcohol.  A background in the police—where he left or got fired after seeing the extent of the corruption.  Desperate poor people and snooty rich types involved in the same far-reaching criminal activity. Audiences with ironically polite gangsters and high and mighty politicians. Untrustworthy dames. Tough guys with weapons.  All of it portrayed in the First Century Equivalent, centuries before most of those things were even invented.

And Falco’s sardonic, cynical humor is a feast for my imagination. The throwaway lines, like the potter’s stall where the peddler hangs pots at head level, in the way, probably to demonstrate how well his wares can take a beating, are the best.

The first in the series takes Falco to the distant Roman province of Britain (“If you ever think you want to go there, don’t bother”), where a conspiracy exists to steal silver from the mines and use it to finance a coup against Vespasian. As with Saylor and Roberts, there’s not that much detection so much as gradual revelation, along with a star-crossed love affair one of the most foolhardy and pointless acts of heroic self-sacrifice I’ve ever encountered.  Then again, it may have been necessary since this is only volume one of a long series, and various characters and their growth will have to happen gradually. Very highly recommended.

Paths to Filth and Enlightenment, in that order: Golden Earth (Travels in Burma), by Norman Lewis  
By the end of Mindon’s reign it must have been clear that nothing could save Burma. The Burmese, together with all the rest of the Easterners, except the Japanese, were the prisoners of a cosmology composed of interlocking systems, all complete and perfect, and founded in error. Everything had been decided and settled once and for all two thousand years ago. No question had been left unanswered. It was all in the Three Baskets of the Law, its commentaries and subcommentaries; dissected and classified beyond dispute: the seven qualities, the five virtues, the six blemishes, the eight dangers, the ninety six diseases, the ten punishments, the thirty two results of Karma. Although Burma was a young nation, it had inherited a civilization with the hardened arteries of senility. By comparison with the certainties and self sufficiency of Eastern Asiatic thought, the people of Medieval Europe lived in intellectual anarchy. When the end came, the Burmese were beaten not so much by nineteenth century gunners as by the Galileos of three centuries before.

In 1951, with the Bamboo curtain firmly descended across China, and Korea becoming a military wasteland for the foreseeable future, Norman Lewis decided that if he was ever going to see part of East Asia while it was still accessible to the west, that was the time to do it.  I’m glad he did. It’s too late now.  Even in 1951, communist insurgents were shooting up the Burmese jungle, and today “Myanmar” is one of the more inaccessible, tightly controlled to tourism parts of the region, which is saying a lot.

Lewis’s journey goes from Rangoon to Mandalay to the jungle, with an air of detached bemusement, except when the scorpions are getting through his mosquito netting. The culture is Buddhist and stoical, and the people Lewis stays with discuss the condition of their souls around the dinner table the way people in America discuss the progress of their stock portfolios. People set out rat traps and then frantically run out at dawn to free any trapped rats before the ratcatchers come, because, you know, karma.  And so it goes.  Reading about the trip, you can get the sense of centuries of peasants, living as their ancestors did centuries before, enduring as empires rise and fall and armies show up to lay waste to the land and go away again, leaving the peasants to muse philosophically about it and go about their business, same as they’ve always done.  As with almost all travel books, I got the sense that it might be nice to experience the culture for a bit, but that I was very glad to be where I am instead of there.

Today?  Well, you can always experience one night in Bangkok, but it won’t be the same thing.

How to Scam Wenches: Ars Amatoria, by Ovid
I myself, I confess, can only feel desire
Under the stimulus of some hurt
But it mustn’t be too gross or overt.
Let your lover worry away and always suppose
Much more than he knows.
Pretend your husband’s a jealous bore, that a spy
Some scowling slave, is keeping an eye
On all you do...and he’ll be thrilled. Unalloyed,
Unmixed with danger, pleasure’s less enjoyed.
Though you’re free as any courtesan,
Appear scared. Though the door’s safe, have the young man
Climb in through the window, while you act afraid.
Then arrange for a well-rehearsed maid
To burst in later, crying, “All is discovered!”
And hustle the quaking boy into a cupboard.

If you ask me, I’d say Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and not Virgil’s Aeneid, is the single greatest work of imaginative literature to come out of ancient Rome, but what do I know?  Emperor Augustus made Virgil his Poet Laureate and banished Ovid to a dismal outpost by the Black Sea. Also, I’ve already reviewed Metamorphoses (Bookpost, September 2010), and so Ovid will be represented in my Year of Roman Reading by his other well known book, the Ars Amatoria, probably the book that got him banished. Augustus was a notorious prude who banished his own progeny for fucking.

Ars Amatoria is a fairly short, irreverent poem in three chapters (one addressed to women, and two to men) of advice to young people on how to get laid.  It’s the same advice seduction artists have been giving ever since: Act like you don’t want her, and she’ll want you; whisper sweet nothings to her; put her on a pedestal; dress and groom yourself well, and be yourself.  In between are long digressions on tangential myths like Icarus and Atalanta.

As literature it’s moderately amusing (Yes, it rhymes “discovered” with “cupboard”, but that’s the translator, not Ovid). As advice to the lovelorn, it’s not anything that ever worked for me.  Seems to me, it’s possible to scam sex, but you can never scam a relationship. Not for long.  Better to be the best person you can be, kick ass at what you do, and think about THAT rather than about sex, and someone who likes the things you excel at will notice you before too long.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

Originally posted to AdmiralNaismith on Wed Aug 01, 2012 at 05:53 AM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.


Mitt Romney reminds you most of which Roman Emperor?

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