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It was interesting to see Niall Ferguson, whose book Colossus I reviewed this June without really knowing much about Ferguson, disgraced in August for fudging facts in a hatchet job on president Obama that he wrote for Newsweek.  For all my ancient classics, sometimes I actually read something topical.

This month, I've moved to the much more though provoking and honest Paul Krugman's book End This Depression now!, along with a wonderful memoir by America's favorite Sarah Palin impersonator, the most recent Dresden Files book, and for fans of the ancient world, texts by Horace, Petronius, Seneca and Quintilian, along with Daniel Defoe, Arthur Ransome, and the Hogwarts Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women


American Heroine: Bossypants, by Tina Fey  
Oh, the Cable News Reportage! The great thing about cable news is that they have to have something to talk about twenty four hours a day. Sometimes it’s Anderson Cooper giggling with one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Sometimes it’s Rick Sanchez screaming about corn syrup. They have endless time to fill, but viewers get kind of bummed out if they supply actual information about wars and stuff, so “Media Portrayal of Sarah Palin” and SNL and I became the carrageenan in America’s news nuggets for several weeks. I was a cable news star, like a shark or a missing white child!
The downside of being a cable news star is that any asshair with a clip-on tie can come on as an “expert” to talk about you. One day, by accident, I caught this tool Tom something on MSNBC saying that he thought I had not “conducted myself well” during all this. In his opinion, Mrs. Palin had conducted herself with dignity and I had not. (I’m pretty sure Tom’s only claim to expertise is that he oversees a website where people guess incorrectly who might win show biz awards.)  There was a patronizing attitude behind Tom’s comments that I certainly don’t think he would have applied to a male comedian. Chris Rock was touring at the time and he was literally calling George W. Bush “retarded” in his act. I don’t think Tom something would have expressed disappointment that Chris was not conducting himself sweetly. I learned how incredibly frustrating it is to watch someone talk smack about you and NOT BE ABLE TO RESPOND.

Tina Fey isn’t as dumb as she looks.  And she doesn’t look dumb to begin with, unless she’s doing that spot-on Sarah Palin impersonation that helped to avert the disaster that would have been a Republican win in 2008, and that earned her permanent Heroine status in my book.  I’ve had a schoolboy crush on her for her brains, looks and humor for just about as long as I’ve known she exists, and her autobiography did nothing to make me feel disillusioned on any of those counts, despite the odd cover photo showing Fey peering wistfully out at the reader with what looks like Jackie Gleason’s hairy arms filling her shirtsleeves.

Fey seems to have been exactly the kind of person I would have wanted to be friends with at every stage of her life. She did a lot of the same things I did, in similar neighborhoods (New Jersey and Chicago rather than New York), and went on to do things I only wanted to do, like succeeding in show biz and making a difference in a national election.  Amazingly, there was a time when she was single, insecure, and believed herself to be devoid of looks, talent and a future.  Today, you can’t even be her Facebook Friend because she’s passed her maximum. You can “like” her pro page, however, which earns you an instant ad urging you to buy Bossypants.

Fey is not only hilariously funny, right down to the endorsements on the back of the book (”Absolutely delicious!”—A guy who eats books), but apt to zing you with a serious statement about the treatment of women, artists, or people in general in this modern life when you least expect it. Yay Tina! You also don’t want to mess with her. She devotes a chapter to replying to dorks who have insulted her on the internet (One idiot trolled her site and said “You don’t have a funny bone in your body”, to which she replies, You know who does have a funny bone in her body? Your mama, every night for a dollar).  

Additionally, Fey gives advice on what music to play during a photoshoot.  Upon reflection, I’ve decided that the primary music during my photoshoot will be “Rock Lobster”, “Turning Japanese”, “For the Wings of a Dove”, and “Mal’s Song.”  And you read it here first.  

It’s a very fast read, but I read it slowly on purpose for the same reason I eat high quality chocolates slowly. Fey’s company is something you want to savor.  Highest recommendations.

Food Porn: The Satyricon, by Petronius
Would you believe it, Spartans’ dogs joined in, and began to bound round the table. Behind them followed a tray with a massive boar on it, wearing the cap of freedom. From its teeth hung two small baskets woven from palm leaves, one filled with fresh dates and the other with the dried Egyptian variety. The boar was surrounded by tiny piglets of pastry, seemingly crowded over the teats, which indicated that the beast was a sow. The piglets were in fact gifts to take away. The slave who came in to cut up the boar was not the same one had mangled the poultry, but a huge bearded figure. His legs were encased in puttees, and he wore a multi colored hunting coat. He drew his hunting knife, and plunged it enthusiastically into the boar’s flank. This incision prompted thrushes to fly out; fowlers stood at the ready with limed reeds, and speedily trapped the birds as they circled round the dining room. Trimalchio ordered each guest to be served with his helping of pork, and then he added, “Do also notice what refined acorns the woodland pig has devoured.” Slaves at once approached the baskets dangling from the boar’s teeth, and in time to the music shared out the fresh and dried dates among the diners.

Satyricon is a badly fragmented bit of ancient Roman prose fiction that apparently survives mostly because ancient Roman prose fiction is so rare.  The two best examples, The Golden Ass and Metamorphoses, I’ve already reviewed. (Bookposts, July and September 2010, respectively), and so Satyricon it is, if I want to represent it at all in this, The Year The Admiral Reads Rome.

There isn’t much of a plot. A couple of lower class rogues make their way from various brothels to food orgies to naughty trysts and con games, occasionally competing for the affections of a young lad.  The best parts are section 6, describing a lavish banquet given by a new member of Rome’s One Percent, long on appetite indulgences, conspicuous consumption and boorishness, and low on refinement and wit; and section 10, in which a man who is himself a dishonest rake and a scoundrel goes on a lengthy diatribe about declining moral standards in Rome, in a spirit modeled today by pastors who rail against gays and feminists between their own bouts of molesting children while high.

Trippingly on the Tongue: The Institutes of Oratory, by Quintilian
Elegant, sublime, and rich, the true orator commands copious materials of eloquence pouring in upon him from all sides. He that has reached the summit ceases to struggle up the steep. Difficulty is for him who is making his way and is not far from the bottom, but the more he advances, the easier will be the ascent and the more verdant the soil. And if, with persevering efforts, he passes also these gentler slopes, fruits will spontaneously present themselves, and all kinds of flowers will spring up before him which, unless they are daily plucked, will be sure to wither. Yet even copiousness should be under the control of judgment, without which nothing will be either praiseworthy or beneficial. Elegance should have a certain manly air, and good taste should attend on invention. Thus what the orator produces will be great, without extravagance; sublime, without audacity; energetic, without rashness; severe, without repulsiveness; grave, without dullness; plentiful, without exuberance; pleasing, without meretriciousness; and grand, without tumidity. Such judgment will be shown with regard to other qualities, and the path in the middle is generally the safest, because error lies on either side.

Here’s an ancient textbook on rhetoric that I found much more useful than either Aristotle (Bookpost, December 2011) or Cicero (May, 2012).  Aristotle was mostly a grammar lesson that had to be translated into English, while Cicero’s technique was accepted in Roman courts but would never be persuasive or allowed in formal debates or legal arguments today.

Quintillian has twelve major sections, each of which is divided into several chapters. Topics range from the educational background an Orator needs (or, What You Should Study Undergrad Before Going To Law School—the answer, as usual, is, lots of everything, from PE to music to astronomy. It’s all relevant somewhere) to the ethical obligations of the orator to basic propaganda (catchy slogans, post hoc, begging the question, ridicule—it’s all there) to the structure of an argument to, yes, some grammar.

I found it excellent reading and food for thought for anyone interested in persuasive speech or even persuasive writing. Your mileage may vary.

Canadian Gothic: Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies  
Who are you? Where do you fit into poetry and myth? Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business.  You don’t know what that is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in europe you must have a prima donna—always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who plays the lover to her; and then you have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.  So far so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out.

Rarely have I read a Big Important Twentieth Century Novel that's supposed to be heavy and literary, and walked away feeling so satisfied.  I can get the feeling from a good fantasy book, or a well-crafted mystery, or even from horror--but the basic non-genre novel is usually too weighty and calls for too much concentration, or has too much introspection and feelings and not enough plot.  Non-genre 20th century novels have too often lost the capacity of a tale to delight, just by telling a story.  I may not have noticed this until I basked in the effect Fifth Business had on me, and realized how rare the feeling was.

It's almost, but not quite, magic realism.  The narrator, Ramsay, who will grow up to be an eccentric professor, is just a kid when a snowball thrown by his frenemy misses him and hits a pregnant woman in the head, causing her to give birth prematurely, become not right in the head, and possibly develop saint-like powers of precognition and healing.  Ramsay's concern and feeling of obligation to mother and son becomes an obsession, influencing his life's work in research on saints.  The son becomes an uncommon stage magician, and the boy who threw the snowball becomes a Success in Business but does not fully escape the consequences of his action.  The story is the stories of all of these characters, held together by the narration of Ramsay, who is simultaneously outside of the action and central to it--hence the "Fifth Business" title.  It has literary meaning, but the literary aspects do not prevent the story from being wonderful, just as a story. Highly recommended.

I Came, I Saw, I Conked Out: Arms of Nemesis, Catalina’s Riddle and The Venus Throw, by Steven Saylor
Mummius looked very grave--the way that men look on a battlefield, not in the rush of excitement before the killing, but afterward, amid the carnage and despair. "Not a life", he said slowly, "not merely a single life at stake, but many lives. Scores of lives--men, women and children--all hang in the balance. Unless something is done to stop it, blood will flow like water, and the wailing of babies will be heard in the very Jaws of Hades."
I finished my wine and set it aside. "Marcus Mummius, will you not tell me outright who sent you, and what it is you want me to do?"
He shook his head. "I've said too much as it is. Perhaps, by the time we arrive, the crisis will be over, the problem solved, and there'll be no need for you after all. In that case, it's best you know nothing, now or ever.

--from Arms of Nemesis

Do you know what I did for a living? I called myself a Finder. Advocates hired me to find proof of their enemy's crimes. Politicians--may I never see another!--hired me to uncover scandal about their adversaries. I once thought that I served truth, and through truth, justice, but truth and justice are meaningless words in Rome. They might as well be obliterated from the Latin tongue. I discover a man is guilty of some heinous crime, only to see him acquitted by a bribed panel of judges! I learn that a man is innocent, then see him convicted on spurious evidence and hounded out of the city! I discover that the scandal attached to a powerful man is true enough, but for all that he is a sound and honest man who has only the same failings as other men; even so, the scandal is all that anyone cares about, and he is expelled from the Senate, and the true reason is some political maneuvering by his enemies, whose true agenda I can only guess at. Meanwhile, a total scoundrel charms the mob and bribes their leaders and gets himself elected consul! I used to think that Rome was growing worse and worse, but it was I who changed. I've grown too old and weary to stomach such beastliness any longer.
--from Catalina's Riddle

”These days, in such a case as this—in a matter of murder—I usually defer to my son, Eco. He’s younger, stronger, quicker. Those things often matter when the stakes are so high. Sharp ears and eyes can mean the difference between life and death. An old fellow like myself—“
“But your son never knew Dio, did he?”
“Even so, I think it’s Eco you want.”
“Well, never having seen him, it’s hard for me to say whether I would want him or not. Does he look like a younger version of you?” She looked me up and down, as if I were a slave on the auction block. I bit my lip for having mentioned Eco, imagining him in my place, alone with such a creature. What was I thinking, recommending him to her?
“Both of my sons are adopted,” I said. “They look nothing like me.”
“They must be ugly, then,” she said, affecting a frown of disappointment.

--from The Venus Throw

For a couple of months now, I’ve been reading Saylor’s historical mystery series about Gordianus “The Finder” simultaneously with John Maddox Roberts’ “SPQR series of equal and opposite historical mysteries, both set in the Roman Republic of the First Century BC. Both authors draw extensively from actual historical events such as Cicero’s legal cases and the Cateline conspiracy; and feature portrayals of real people like Crassus (who both authors agree was a very bad One Percenter); however, Saylor begins 20 years or so before Roberts, and since they’re both apparently going to present parallel investigations of the same events (I’ve looked at their later titles on the library shelves, and it seems that both have interpretations of Clodius and the Bona Dea rites and the assassination of Caesar), I decided to read ahead in Saylor until he caught up to Roberts chronologically.  Hence, three adventures of Gordianus this month.

Arms of Nemesis is pretty masterful historical speculation, combining the life of Crassus, the Spartacus Freedom Uprising, and the Sibil of Cunae, with a nod to De Rerum Natura (see Bookpost, June 2012) and a setting south of Rome among Pompeii, Vesuvius and Capri.  Saylor has a tendency to write dialogues in which characters back up historical trivia in a truck and dump it, to show how well-researched the book is. I get off on that kind of thing, but if your mileage varies, I can cope.  Saylor—like Roberts—also might as well have large pictures of hands in the margins pointing to the clues to the solution of the mystery; they’re that obvious.  Nevertheless, the story and the history are enough to over come those things, and the book stands as a suspenseful thriller not for the deduction problem but for the constant danger and the speculation as to how Gordianus and his mute assistant Eco will save 100 slaves from being executed for a crime that might have been committed by one of them, and make it back to Rome alive.

Catalina’s Riddle, just #4 in a series that runs to several volumes, is jarring to read right after Arms of Nemesis, in that ten years go by, people who were kids in the first book are growing up, and Gordianus, who has apparently read his Virgil and Horace before they were published, is already in his “Sherlock Holmes the Beekeeper” stage of character development, having retired to enjoy carefree, bucolic life on a farm in the country (see Horace, below), and wants nothing to do with Rome, investigation, or his old patron Cicero, who is now consul and portrayed in a very negative light. This book parallels Roberts’ Cataline Conspiracy (Bookpost, July 2012), and is the first instance where Roberts and Saylor write about the exact same event. The friend who recommended both to me did so especially because of the fascination to be found in juxtaposing two visions of Republican Rome, and of characters like Cicero, and he was right.  The historical characters are completely different, even granting that both Roberts and Saylor are kinder to Cataline than history was. Roberts, viewing the key events up close in Rome, pretty much gives the traditional account of Cataline as the Enjolras character from Les Miserables, bubbling over with youthful exuberance and starting a revolution he can’t finish—with just a couple of plot twists you’ll have to read for yourself.  Saylor, on the other hand, while being absolutely faithful to the actual speeches and their aftermath, writes a whole different story, in which Cicero and Cataline all but become stand ins in a dialogue between the Stoics and Epicurus, and Gordianus, observing from too far a distance, is never sure which of them is actually telling the truth about Cataline’s doings, even as his sons become partisans on opposite sides. The secret of the headless bodies that keep popping up on Gordianus’s farm is fairly easy, but certain details are not. If you can deduce the identity of the first corpse—and there are clues that reveal it—then you’re more observant than I.

The Venus Throw goes back to the formula of the first book of the series, constructing a plot around the details of a Cicero oration that really exists.  This formula works in part because Rome was so corrupt that the mere fact that someone was historically convicted or acquitted is not real evidence of their historical guilt or innocence. Saylor is faithful to the actual speeches; the details of what happened are left to the author’s license.  Saylor gets surprisingly philosophical on the topic of passion, on what motivates otherwise clear thinking people to think with their gonads and change their moods from ecstasy to despair to murderous fury in seconds.  Also of interest is an appearance by Catullus (Bookpost, March 2012), whose actual poetry provides both clues to the crime and a whimsical reference to Gordianus himself.

Seeing Dead People: Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher
Pain used as a weapon is one thing. Personal pain, the kind that comes from just living our lives, is something else.  Pain isn’t a lot of fun, at least not for most folks, but it is utterly unique to life. Pain—physical, emotional and otherwise—is the shadow cast by everything you want out of life, the alternative to the result you were hoping for, and the inevitable creator of strength. From the pain of our failures we learn to be better, stronger, greater than what we were before. Pain is there to tell us when we’ve done something badly. It’s a teacher, a guide, one that is always there to warn us of our limitations and challenge us to overcome them.  For something no one likes, pain does us a whole hell of a lot of good.

Of the Dresden books so far, this one is Butcher's masterpiece.  And I can't tell you why, because the very premise of it is a plot spoiler for anyone who hasn't read the entire series up to this one.

Okay, I can tell you some things.  Butcher clearly mapped out his storyline early in the series, in which modern Chicago is semi-secretly haunted by ghosts, wizards, werewolves, fallen angels, vampires, faeries and random demons, while Harry Dresden, Private Investigator and Wizard, keeps the baddies from taking over his city, and sometimes, the world, the spirit world, or the Faerie world.  The previous book, aptly named Changes, changed everything. Things that happened in previous books happened for reasons that become apparent here, and have consequences that also become apparent here.

And Dresden's primary mission in this volume is the investigation of a murder, centered on a twist that has been done before, but with a solution that I believe has not.  As a pure whodunnit, it fooled me, and I am not easily fooled.  The answer comes a little earlier than you might be ready for, so if you want the chance to out-think the detective, you'll want to stop at the end of Chapter 45 and try to puzzle it out then, before the usual epic battle with the forces of darkness under impossible odds.

Well played, Jim Butcher.    Extremely well played.

Doldrum Et Decorum Est: Odes and Epodes, by Horace
Accumulating money creates the greed
for more. I was right to shrink from raising
my head to conspicuousness, Maecenas, you
flower of knighthood.

The more a man denies himself, the more
he will get from the gods: a deserter, I long to leave
the money'd side, and seek the camp of those
desiring nothing.

I am more the master of the wealth I spurn
than if, still poor amid my riches, I had
in my barns the produce of all that the busy
Apulians plough.

A brook of pure water, few acres of timber,
and confident hope of harvest: my lot
is more blessed than that of fertile
Africa's bright lord.

Though Calabrian bees bring me no honey,
no wine matures in Laestrygonian
jars; no dense fleeces are growing for me
In Gallic pastures

yet irksome poverty does not come near,
nor if I wanted more would you refuse it.
By scanting my desires I shall the better
augment my income.

than by adding Alyattes' to Mygdon's realm,
the two be contiguous. Who wants much
lacks much. Bless'd is he to whom the gods have
given just enough.

--“In Hurricano Non Expectorandum Est”

(sigh) Horace is supposed to be the Ancient World's greatest writer of Lyric Poetry (as opposed to epic or dramatic poetry, where Homer, Euripides, Virgil, etc., come in), and so I assume that the flaws I see came from the translation. Or maybe I’m just a philistine; when I look at lyric poetry, the first questions I ask are, does it tell a story, and can I sing it to the tune of a popular folk song?  If not, it often leaves me flat.  I’m told the experts have somewhat different criteria.

Part of  Horace’s problem was the way he was forced, like Virgil, to devote so much of his subject matter to whoring for his patron, the Emperor Augustus. So we get ode after ode praising the mighty, godlike Dear Leader, and urging citizens to join the army and fight wars of manifest destiny.  And, because Augustus liked agriculture and wanted Rome to be able to get grain without having to import it from Africa, we get propaganda about the carefree, bucolic life of ease to be had farming land in the campagna, which those who have actually farmed land, especially with their livelihood depending on the crop, cannot read without either bursting into merry peals of laughter or losing their lunch.  The call to thrift, quoted above, is likely more of the same.  Not all of the odes are like this, but enough of them are that the great beauty of them is lost on me.

Speaking of lost beauty, some of Horace's most memorable lyrics are vicious, as in this epode laughing at an old prostitute:

That you, rotten, should ask what it is
that emasculates me, when you've
just one black tooth and decrepit age
ploughs up your forehead with wrinkles,
when a diarrhoeic cow's hole gapes
between your dehydrated buttocks!
What rouses me is your putrid bosom,
your breasts like the teats of a mare,
the flaccid belly and skinny thighs
that top your grossly swollen shanks.
Be bless'd, and may triumphant lovers'
likenesses attend your corpse.
May no wife perlustrate laden
with fatter, rounder pearls than yours.
What though stoic pamphlets like
to lie between silken pillows?
Illiterate sinews stiffen,
and hamptons droop, no less for that.
(Though if you hope to rouse up mine,
your mouth is faced with no mean task.)

--“So Nastibus Io Matria Est”

The little volume also includes "The way to Write Poetry", a little essay that I had hoped would teach me something about lyric writing from The Master; no such luck.  The memorable parts refer to writing verse plays, and talk about what not to make your characters do on stage. The less memorable parts read like neo-Confucianism, all about the nine acceptable meters and the twelve acceptable topics and needlessly limiting things like that, all topped off with words to the effect of, "...and then put it in a box and don't look at it for ninety years, because once you hit 'send', it's all over."

As always, when I pan works by someone universally regarded as Great, I invite people more aesthetic or knowledgeable than I to explain to me and my other readers what I'm missing.  Like I said, I suspect it may be something inevitable in the translation.

The Bleeding Obvious: End This Depression Now!, by Paul Krugman  
So right there is a stimulus of $300 billion per year that could be accomplished simply by providing enough aid to states and localities to let them reverse their recent budget cuts. It would create well over a million jobs directly and probably something like three million once you take the indirect effects into account. And it could be done quickly, since we're talking about restoring cuts rather than about initiating new projects.
That said, there should be new projects too. They don't have to be visionary projects like ultra-high-speed rail. They can be mainly prosaic investments in roads, rail upgrades, water systems and so on. One effect of the forced austerity at the state and local level has been a sharp drop in spending on infrastructure, representing delayed or canceled projects, deferred maintenance, and the like. It should thus be possible to get a significant burst in spending just by restarting all the things that were postponed or canceled these past few years.
But what if some of these projects end up taking a while to get going, and the economy has fully recovered before they're finished? The appropriate answer is, so? It has been obvious from the beginning of this Depression that the risks of doing too little are much bigger than the risks of doing too much. If government spending threatens to lead to an overheated economy, this is a problem the Federal Reserve can easily contain by raising interest rates a bit faster than it might have otherwise. What we should have feared all along is what actually happened, with government spending inadequate to the task of promoting job creation, and the Fed unable to cut rates because they're already zero.

The quick summary: The W Administration fisked up everything more than you thought they did, and it will take a reincarnation of the New Deal to put it right again.

This is what Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize winning economist and neo-Keynesian, has been saying all along.  All through the housing bubble, he urged that the boom, not the bust, was the right time for the government to reduce spending. They didn't. Instead they spent it all while cutting taxes, on purpose, to get their coveted "government you could drown in a bathtub". Congratulations, America; you got what you wanted.

Then we finally got a President who was interested in governing, in the middle of the bust, and Krugman urged that this was the time to prime the pump hard.  They didn't.  They put up a woefully inadequate stimulus package and, when that wasn't enough, both political parties shouted that this proved that spending didn't work.  And here we are.

Krugman has been proved right again and again, and yet the Very Serious People continue to laugh at him while they ignore his advice and America continues to decline.  He has learned from the mistakes of history, and he watches other people repeat them.  But he still keeps on trying, a voice of reason in the wilderness, pointing out that the only way to stimulate demand is for the people to have money in their pockets, that firing people will not create jobs, and that a slight amount of inflation and dollar devaluation will actually help reduce America's deficit.

His suggestions make sense. The Republican plan to destroy benefits just when the people need it the most makes no sense. But guess what the important guys in suits on TV are urging, all the gorram time?  Read Krugman. Vote the bastards out.  There's still some time left.  If you think the deficit and inflation are the biggest threats to the economy, read this and rethink your premises; if you’re a New Deal Democrat already, read it and have some ammo against the austerians.

Learner’s Permit to Kill: I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, by Ally Carter
Instantly, the corridors went from empty to overflowing as girls ran and staff members hurried and the red lights continued to pulse off and on.
A shelf of trophies spun around, sending the placques and ribbons commemorating winners in the annual hand-to-hand combat and team code-breaking competitions to the hidden compartment behind the wall, leaving a row of awards from swim meets and debate contests in its place.
Above us, in the upper story of the foyer, three gold-and-burgundy “Learn Her Skills”, “Honor Her Sword” and “Keep Her Secrets” banners rolled miraculously up and were replaced by handmade posters supporting someone named Emily for student council president.
Buckingham whirled and raced up the staircase to the second story landing where Mr. Moskowitz and Mr. Smith were trying to wheel a statue of Eleanor Everett (the Gallagher Girl who had once disabled a bomb in the White House with her teeth) into a broom closet. We swept through the Hall of History, where Gillian’s sword slid smoothly into the vault beneath its case, and was replaced by a bust of a man with enormous ears who was supposedly the school’s first headmaster.

This is one of the more entertaining of the copycat “secret special school” stories that have popped up since Harry Potter.  The secret passages, suspicious teachers and Forbidden Forest are all there, but instead of a wizardry school in Britain, we have a super-secret agent school in Rosewood, Virginia, and instead of wands, charms and potions, the teenagers at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women practice lethal combat training, chemical weapons, covert ops and James Bond gadgets.  You know...girl stuff.  And instead of being shielded from outsiders by magic, the school is presented to the world as a ritzy, ditzy prep school for pampered heiresses.

And of course, between high-stress homework and concerns about whether their super secret agent parents are coming home from the dangerous mission du jour, the girls obsess about boys and weight gain. You know...more girl stuff.

The premise and storyline are marvelous. The writing style is hideous, but this is intended as tasty junk food, not a feast for the literary gourmet.  I’ve suffered through enough Important Literature with great stylized writing and no plot that I can appreciate the other extreme a little.

I was also a little put off by the attempt at town-and-gown conflict, which underplays the obnoxious reputation the school is supposed to have on the outside, and instead one-sidedly plays the townie kids as mostly jerks.  There was a missed opportunity there.  What DOES come off very well is the conflict between the adult responsibilities of high level espionage and the gushing hormones and self-esteem crises of the average teenager.  The main plot device has one of the girls falling for a boy on the outside, who must not learn the truth about the school, and the best scenes involve culture shock, as the girl’s best friend swoons about how dreamy he is, while the other best friend worries that he might be an enemy “honeypot”, or the girl during a date panics with equal intensity about whether the boy will encounter a lethal security probe and whether she might get milk duds caught between her teeth.

If you enjoyed some of the girlpower cartoons my kid used to watch (Kim Possible, Totally Spies, etc.), this book may be for you. If you’re looking for John LeCarre Jr., you won’t find it here.

Nor Iron Bars a Cage: The Enormous Room, by e.e. cummings  
To convince the reader that this history is mere fiction (and rather vulgarly violent fiction at that) nothing perhaps is needed save that ancient standby of sob-story writers and thrill-artists alike—the Happy ending. As a matter of fact, it makes not the smallest difference to me whether anyone who has thus far participated in my travels does or does not believe that they and I are (as that mysterious animal “the public” would say) ‘real’. I do however strenuously object to the assumption, on the part of anyone, that the heading of this my final chapter stands for anything in the nature of happiness.

That’s odd.  All this time, I thought e.e. cummings was English, mostly because he was eccentric about spelling his name in all lowercase letters and doing odd things with line justification and such.  Turns out he was American, and Americans can maybe do that, too.

Anyhow, this is a partly autobiographical novel, and I’m not sure what parts are true.  Apparently, cummings really was arrested in WWI France, and put in a concentration camp mostly because French officers were dicks. The Enormous Room purports to be his account of what happened.  The “enormous room” in the title doubles both as the big dorm full of cots where several dozen prisoners must sleep without privacy, and as the vast reaches of “inner space” into which cummings and his imagination can flee. They can’t follow him there.

I had a hard time determining whether the story was a bit of historical autobiography, a Kafka-esque nightmare of bureaucratic nonsense, or an episode of Hogan’s Heroes. More than half of the book consists of character sketches of various lengths, of the various people cummings meets in the camp, from the guard he nicknames Appolyon, who tries to be a vicious badass and who comes across as a French version of Colonel Klink, to the prisoners called “The Zulu”, “The Fighting Sheeny”, etc. France apparently being the world’s foremost tourist mecca, even during wartime, there was quite a heterogenous mix of people there.

Cummings noticed that the French officers appeared to have learned nothing from their humiliation in the Dreyfus affair a few decades earlier, and he knew that his book would probably, over time, be the most likely medium in which these particular officers would be remembered, and so his purpose was to document the nasty thing they did by way of exposition (his family was wrongly informed he had been killed, and when that was retracted, told for several months that his whereabouts were unknown), and with that out of the way, to have a little fun within the “enormous room” of his imagination.  Dave Carroll may have had similar feelings when writing a song about how United Airlines had broken his guitar.

More of the Same old Garbage: Dialogues and Moral Essays, by Seneca
Whoever has joined the ranks of virtue, has given proof of an honorable nature: the man who pursues pleasure is seen to be enervated, broken, no longer a true man, likely to descend into shameful practices, unless someone helps him to distinguish between pleasures, so that he knows which of them reside within the bounds of natural desire, and which rush headlong onwards, transcending all limits and proving the more insatiable, the more they are satisfied. Come then, let virtue lead the way, and every step we take will be safe. It is, moreover, excess that makes pleasure harmful: in the case of virtue excess should not be feared, since in virtue resides moderation; something that is afflicted by its own magnitude cannot be a good. Furthermore, what better guide can be offered to creatures blessed with a rational nature than reason? Even if such a combination appeals to you, if you think it is a good idea to travel to the happy life in such company as this, let virtue lead the way and pleasure attend her, hovering about the body like its shadow. Only a man who can conceive of nothing great in his soul would be prepared to hand over virtue, noblest of mistresses, to be the maidservant of pleasure.

Seneca was famous for three things: These dialogues and essays; a large volume of tragic drama (as far as I know, ancient Rome’s only surviving tragic dramas), rarely read or performed today; and attempting and failing to be philosophy tutor to the evil emperor Nero, who forced him to kill himself for his trouble.  In fairness, Nero was probably uncontrollable by any teacher, and Seneca’s brave death was right up there with those of Socrates and Cato the Younger in terms of setting an example to the world by the leaving of it.  Still, it’s not hard to see why Seneca’s teachings didn’t leave much of an impression.

As usual, I find myself wishing there was more balance between the Stoics and the Epicures among the surviving Roman works.  De Rerum Natura (Bookpost, June 2012) is all that the Stoics and Christians failed to destroy, while the Stoic platitudes of Seneca exist in dozens of other works, and were set forth much more eloquently by Cicero, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.  They gave themselves a monopoly on philosophy, and for lack of opposition seem so noncontroversial as to be boring.

Once again: the secret of virtue is to make a heartless, unfeeling iceberg of yourself. Don’t care about friends, family, pleasure, poetry.  Care instead about virtue, justice, truth and the Seven Habits of Highly Priggish, Judgmental Gits. Life is only short if you deserve it by being a prodigal. Luck doesn’t exist, except that it favors the virtuous.  When life hands you a pile of shit, make shit juice, quaff it down and say, “Yum-BO!”  Stoicism’s failings are never made more obvious than in Seneca’s attempted “consolation” essays, in which he urges bereaved people to rejoice in their loved ones’ deaths because, hey, we all gotta go sometime and, hey, the departed wouldn’t want to see you suffering on their behalf, and hey, why make things worse by feeling bad about it on top of things? It’s not like you’re going to bring them back by crying. Hey Ho, so it goes.  I think if Seneca had come along to say those things right after my father died, I might have punched him. His “consolations” taught me to appreciate those who just mutter “Sorry for your loss”.

Once again, in fairness, there is much to admire in Stoicism. You just don’t get it from Seneca.  Stoicism is very much a “practice, don’t preach” sort of way of life, where you try as hard as you can to be the very most you can be, maybe even make yourself an example to others, but it all falls apart once you start holding other people to that standard and condemning them for being ordinary fallible humans.  Or so it seems to me.

I Came, I Saw, I KILLED!!!: Shadows in Bronze, by Lindsay Davis  
”You look as if you’d been poked in the ear with a broom.”
“Nothing so subtle!” I said.
“Excuse me,” Larius goaded heartlessly, “But who was that?”
“That? Oh, her in the ribbons? The honourable Helena Justina. Father in the senate and two brothers in the foreign service. Married once; one divorce. An adequate education, a passable face, plus property worth a quarter of a million in her own right—“
“Seemed a pleasant sort of woman!”
“She called me a rat.”
“Oh yes, I gathered you two were very close!”, my nephew declared, with the casual, candid sarcasm he was honing to perfection nowadays.

The plot of the second Marcus Didius Falco novel stinks. Some nonsense about the conspirators from the first book, Silver Pigs (Bookpost, July 2012) being bumped off, maybe by their servant who blames them for not succeeding and making him servant to the Emperor (yes, really. Or just a theory).  The treasure is the style.  

Davis is writing a tragicomedy of manners noir, with togas instead of trenchcoats, in which the banter between Falco and his star-crossed love Helena Justina alternates between the kind of withering viciousness possible only between people who love each other deeply and would rather die than show it, and perfect tenderness.  

You don’t have to put on the red light: Roxana (The Fortunate Mistress), by Daniel Defoe  
I told him I had perhaps differing notions of matrimony from what the received custom had given us of it; that I thought a woman was a free agent as well as a man, and was born free, and, could she manage herself suitably, might enjoy that liberty to as much purpose as the men do; that the laws of matrimony were indeed otherwise, and mankind at this time acted quite upon other principles; and those such, that a woman gave herself entirely away from herself in marriage, and capitulated only to be at best an upper servant, and from the time she took the man she was no better or worse than the servant among the Israelites who had his ears bored, that is, nailed to the doorpost, who by that act gave himself up to be a servant during life.
That the very nature of the marriage contract was, in short, nothing but giving up liberty, estate, authority, and everything to the man, and the woman was indeed a mere woman ever after, that is to say, a slave.

Eighteenth century literature is weird. The novel as we know it was more or less beginning to take form, and the innovators of the day were learning by experience what worked and what didn’t.  some authors—like Defoe—erred on the side of writing works that were more imaginary chronicle than plot, lacking in character depth and suspense in favor of detail, and going out of their way to create appeals to moral values with all the subtlety of a kick in the ass.  But Roxana has more to it than that.

If Robinson Crusoe is a hymn to the ability of man to survive by intelligence in a wild, uncivilized environment, then Roxana may be an equal and opposite jeremiad on the ability of woman to survive by intelligence in the equally wild, uncivilized environment of misogynistic 18th century “civilization”.  The heroine begins the book with an unwise marriage to a brewer who fritters away his fortune and hers before absconding and leaving her with five hungry children and an amorous landlord who wants his rent.  After a couple of pages of moralistic agonizing, Roxana buys the landlord with her body, becomes his mistress, and eventually regains her fortune through the wise investment of gifts given by a succession of admiring gentlemen, up to and including a French prince.. Rags to riches via industry and thrift, eh?

The tone of the book changes dramatically, from lamenting the heroine’s degradation to “whore” status, to feminist empowerment characterizing the heroine as her own boss, rising in society through her own choices (see the quoted part above, for example. More than one male who assumes she has no choice but to marry after sleeping with him is utterly confounded at her refusal), to sudden fits of preachiness and guilt over her presumed “wickedness”.  It doesn’t know when to end; having ultimately settled down, the heroine is plagued through the final book with fears of “being found out” as if, even in command of a large fortune, she’ll be jailed or ridden out of London or something if anyone finds out she’s been a courtesan.  Hard to understand at times, but interesting nonetheless.

Amazons Without Swallows: The Picts and the Martyrs, by Arthur Ransome
They had not far to go, but every single thing had to be carried by hand. There were the two packed suitcases that the four of them, two to a suitcase, found quite enough to manage, going up the steep place through the hazels where the overflow from the beck had washed the path away. There were the hammocks, a three-legged stool, a Tate & Lyle sugar case for a table, a hurricane lantern, the scarab flag, the folded paper skull and crossbones, the big camp kettle, a huge saucepan, a teapot, mugs, spoons, knives, forks, plates and more stores than could go into all four knapsacks. There was the little barrel, filled with lemonade, that had to be slung from a pole and carried up by Nancy and Peggy, who explained that in the ordinary way they carried their grog slung beneath an oar.

Yes, it’s a series for kids, and yes I enjoy it anyway and sought out the next volume in the series as the best way I could think of to round off my Summer reading. It’s that good.

By now, there are at least four standard clusters of protagonists, and this time around they’re shuffled so that the Blackett girls, with Dick and Dorothea take center stage. Their parents have left them the run of the lake house while they make plans for the usual sailing, mining and imaginative adventures.  But then the interfering biddy of a great aunt, mortified that “children” would be left alone, invites herself over to take charge of the house.  For reasons of plot development, Nancy Blackett decides that, rather than just tell her to go jump in the lake, they need to capitulate and pretend Dick and Dorothea don’t exist.  So Dick and Dorothea become “the Picts” by taking up residence in an abandoned hunters’ cottage in the woods while the Blacketts become “the Martyrs” by putting on “perfect young lady” masks for the Great Aunt. The spectacle of Nancy, who normally swears like a sailor, wearing pinafores and practicing Shirley Temple manners, is alone worth the recommendation of the book.

I was a little put out at the idea of distant relatives just showing up at someone’s house and expecting to be in charge.  In Mary Poppins, there’s even a former nanny who does that, and Mr. and Mrs. Banks seem to take it for granted that they have to take her in, be at her beck and call, and even dismiss Mary Poppins (who, of course, turns out to have her own ways of making the old bat go away).  I guess Britain between the wars was a different culture in more ways than I had realized.  As always, the Calvinball-ish imagination of the characters is the strongest part of the book.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

Originally posted to AdmiralNaismith on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 12:54 PM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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