This month: the second Game of Thrones book, the Discourses of Epictetus, the Zingers of Martial, several historical murder mysteries from ancient Rome, Rebecca West, Clifford D. Simak, Timothy Findley, Penelope Fitzgerald, and a huge weighty tome about the holocaust.
Girl Look at that Body: Drop Dead Healthy, by A.J. Jacobs
I’m in the office of Dr. Lester Gottesman in midtown Manhattan. And he’s describing to me an elective surgery that he’s performed not once but several times.
It’s for people who want to change the way they sound.
When they fart.
Yes, these patients want to change the timbre of their flatus, usually from a high pitch to a lower pitch. From a piccolo to a bassoon. Apparently, that’s more aesthetically pleasing.
So he’s done several procedures to tweak New Yorkers’ sphincters. “I try to talk people out of [the surgery], but some people have a whole psychodrama about farts.”
I’m not sure how to react to this information. Mostly, I’m thinking that if the revolution comes, this fact alone will make it hard to fault the insurrection. “Well, I don’t approve of mass executions of the ruling class,” we’ll have to admit. “But on the other hand, there’s that trend of plastic surgery to upgrade our farts. We really were asking for it.”
A.J. Jacobs likes to do stunts like reading the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover and spending a year attempting to live by all the rules in the Bible, and then publishing an entertaining account of it, designed to make the experience seem as silly as possible. In this one, he attempts to become the healthiest person alive by consulting every faddish health expert he can find and noting their advice. As you may suspect, the main thing the experts agree on is that everybody else is doing it wrong.
Jacobs intentionally plays the role of Tim Allen/Ben Stiller-style average klutz for comic effect. He consults personal trainers who all have bullet heads, Hasbro doll muscles and marine corps attitudes, so that you know that fitness is for People different From You. He consults doctors who all have lab coats and thick accents so that you know they are experts. He poses on the front cover struggling like Grover to do one chin-up, and on the back cover making a broccoli smoothie without a lid on the blender, so that green stuff sloshes all over him. I think we’re supposed to want to scritch him behind the ear and take care of him.
The book is divided into approximately equal parts useful information and poking fun at weird fads like fart-alteration surgery. I happen to be a success at working out in the gym and a failure at sticking to a diet, and so when Jacobs agonizes over workouts, my inner voice sneers at what seems to be affected doofusness, and when he agonizes about food, I nod in sympathy. Food Spartans who don’t exercise may have the opposite reaction. Then, when he turns to aroma therapy, sleep aids, colonics, sex rituals, breathing filters, teeth whitening, pole dancing, running barefoot on city streets, alternative diets, workstation treadmills and posture gurus, we can all point and laugh, except those of us who actually do those things and benefit from them.
Jacobs spends an excessive amount of time describing his own family, and the things his fitter and smarter than he is wife has to put up with. He brings home organic pure cacao and she eats a handful thinking it’s regular chocolate, and gags, and the laugh track goes wild. He buys a platform designed to turn the family toilet into an elevated squatty-potty (good for the posture), and she says, “Flowers are a more traditional gift.” Moderately amusing, and with a few actually useful suggestions for lifestyle changes that could cause you to live longer and enjoy the process.
Life Without Pain. Or Pleasure: The Discourses, by Epictetus
Suppose, for example, that in talking to an athlete I said, “Show me your shoulders,” and then he answered, “Look at my leaping-weights.” Go to, you and your leaping-weights! What I want to see is the effect of the leaping-weights. “Take the treatise UPON CHOICE and see how I have mastered it.” It is not that I am looking into, you slave, but how you act in your choices and refusals, your desires and aversions, how you go at things, and apply yourself to them, and prepare yourself, whether you are acting in harmony with it. For if you are acting in harmony, show me that, and I will tell you that you are making progress; but if out of harmony, begone, and do not confine yourself to expounding your books but go and write some of the same kind yourself.
Epictetus picked Constitution for his high stat. His philosophy is about being able to take anything.
The Discourses is one of the most easy works to read and understand in the whole western philosophy canon, and one of the hardest to live by. All you have to do is not allow yourself to care about anything to the point where the loss of it would make you unhappy, except your own virtue.. If someone cuts you off in traffic, so what? If you lose your job and home, well, they were never yours to begin with. If someone kills your loved ones, no need to fuss. It would be most illogical to compound the loss with having unhappy feelings about it, which after all, wouldn't bring them back. If you face slow, painful death, well, who told you you were immortal?
It's like that, over and over. I've known some people who appear to be like that. Nothing perturbs them, they are so single-minded in being true to themselves no matter what. Part of me admires them very much; part of me fears them and part of me pities them. Maybe all three for the same reasons. It seems a wonderful superpower to have (and an easy and effortless one, according to Epictetus). The ability to endure the bad things that come, without breaking. You could be the rock that gets things done, the one everyone can depend on. The question is, can you get this power to endure without paying the price of losing the capacity to enjoy the good things that come? Do you lose an essential part of your humanity? My experiments and attempts to be tough like Epictetus have resulted in me walking around like I was encased in stone, shielded and disconnected from the good and bad alike. More was expected of me than from other people, and I would begin to resent people who didn't seem to be making the effort. Which meant I was doing it wrong. Epictetus would have said, "What of it?" ("What of it?" Is his standard response to anything). Other people's behavior is not in my power. I should ignore it.
Also, if I am Hercules, I should be Hercules, who would not complain about being held to a high standard. Otherwise, I should go ahead and be Thirsites, the clownish soldier from the Iliad; it's all the same to him.
Mine is the Path of the Frosted Mini-Wheat. I find it best to be a bit stoic and a bit epicure, leaning one way or the other as the situation requires. Seems to me, it's one of the most important dichotomies in philosophy, with equal and opposite arguments on both sides, and neither extreme being particularly healthy but being much food for thought. I highly recommend the Discourses as making the case for Stoicism.
Season Two: A Clash of Kings, by George R. R., Martin
Tyrion nipped at her small, hard nipple and nestled his head on her shoulder. He did not pull out of her; would that he never had to pull out of her. “This is no dream”, he promised her. It is real, all of it, he thought. The wars, the intrigues, the great bloody game, and me in the center of it...me, the dwarf, the monster, the one they scorned and laughed at, but now I hold it all, the power, the city, the girl. This was what I was made for, and gods forgive me but I DO love it...
And her. And her.
There were maybe a hundred other representative quotes I could have chosen for the second Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire book, but they were all too long or too plot spoilery. This little paragraph with Tyrion just about sums it up: when you play the game of thrones, you win...or you die.
The phrase, “veritable feast of feasts” is appropriate. I still haven’t seen the TV version, which is annoyingly unavailable on hulu or netflix, but the local library’s copy will eventually filter down to me, and that will be an interesting day. Then again, the events of the first book/season are TAME compared to what follows.
In Clash of Kings, we have no fewer than FIVE individuals claiming to be rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, each one denouncing the other four as traitors and seeking to form alliances with some of the others while maintaining control of hostile and turncoat sub-factions within their own faction. Bad Things are happening in every corner of the realm, and Martin keeps the reader informed of all of it by shifting the narrative between many characters on different sides, each of whom (well, most of whom) can claim to be “the protagonist”. Among the central characters are four of the six House Stark sproglets and their wolf familiars, all very far from one another. And yet, the real central character, if you ask me, is Tyrion Lannister, the “good bad guy” among Stark’s enemies. I could write a doctoral thesis comparing the dwarf Tyrion with my favorite fictional character of all time, Lois Bujold’s Vor lord from whom my online persona and my real-life son are named. Imagine Miles in a knights-and-castles story in which not just his planetary government, but his blood family to whom he is loyal, is a snakepit of backstabbing Machiavellian treachery where they hate short people like him, and you will begin to grok the surface of Tyrion Lannister. The delightful successes and devastating failures in his corner of the Game of Thrones playing field are Vorish enough to make my jaw drop. Again, I have yet to experience the pleasure of the show, but it’s not hard to imagine how Peter Dinklage became an Emmy-winning superstar in the role. He plays one of the most complex, magnificent characters in the genre.
There is more magic than in the first volume, and more supernatural creatures, and more backstory, and new characters. With a cast of hundreds, Martin can kill off very major characters in early chapters. There are classic tropes and variations: one of the realm’s mightiest warriors is a woman, who is in fact built for fighting and not for eye candy, and who is as ugly as you’d expect a broken-nosed, battle scarred veteran to be. There are good bad guys who surprise you with their honor, and bad good guys whose treachery stuns like a knife through the ribs. In A Song of Ice and fire, good and evil do not depend on which side you fight on. They depend on whether you are true to your word, your choice to honor your promises in spirit or letter (and either can be the right choice, depending on the situation), and especially on how you treat those who are helpless before you. Anyone who hurts children is going to come to a bad end, unless the child in question is Joffrey.
Just read it. Read it slowly, to savor the delicious irony in the plot developments, and in the dialogue. You’ll be glad you did. At least three more very thick books are already published, and it remains to be seen how many more Martin will produce. I hope it will be many. Very highest recommendations.
War Is Bad: The Wars, by Timothy Findley
”Why do the rabbits have to be killed?”
“Because they were hers.”
“But that can’t possibly make any sense.”
“Nonetheless, they must be killed.”
“I’ll look after them.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Robert. Gracious! You’re a grown up man.”
“Can’t we give them away?”
“Who to? Ten rabbits? Surely you can’t be serious.”
“What about Stuart? Why can’t he look after them?”
“Knowing Stuart, I can’t imagine why you ask that question.”
“I’ll take care of them. PLEASE!!!”
“Who’s going to kill them, then?”
After a while, all the WWI novels blur into one another. There’s All Quiet on the Westen Front; Farewell to Arms, Paths of Glory, The Regeneration Trilogy, The Enormous Room and this month’s The Wars and Return of the Soldier. Sooner or later, they all devolve into young men little more than kids, up to their necks in mud, blood, shit and chemical weapons, being sprayed with the entrails of their blown-up neighbors and overwhelmed with the senselessness of it all, losing limbs, losing sanity, abused by the horse’s ass of a general who gives them stupid, senseless orders before trotting back to safety behind the lines. WWI stories are like that, because authors who want to emphasize the existential stupidity of war choose WWI. Authors who write action thrillers about heroic protagonists killing the evil enemy against all odds choose WWII.
The Wars was written in the 1970s. A dozen or more famous WWI novels, most of them right after the war, had said it all before. What does Findley have to offer that’s new? I’m not sure. Unless it’s the animals.
The Wars is hard to follow, probably intentionally so. It shifts from first person to second person to third person narrative, which is disorienting. It dwells on psychological turmoil, both solitary and between people, hence the indication of more than one “war” in the title. With the exception of two or three intense emotional close-ups, it stands at a distance from the characters and, at 200 pages, is over before you really get to care about Robert Ross or any of the others. I had the same problem with All Quiet on the Western Front (Bookpost, October 2008); except for Kat, the characters are interchangeable and you don’t remember a thing about them. Here, the story is centered around Robert Ross, who goes a little nuts when his sister dies and her rabbits get shot. He reels into enlisting in the army from the pain. He ends up up to his neck in mud, blood, etc. And he encounters animals. Rabbits, horses, toads, hedgehogs, all of which no doubt symbolize something profound. And birds, many, many birds, who foreshadow that something bad is about to happen whenever they go quiet. The narrative also foreshadows that Ross is going to do something big at the end (Save them all? Kill himself? Kill his commander? Run across the trench yelling for both sides to stop all the shooting? Desert and join the Germans? It’s all been done), and when that moment finally comes, you just sort of shrug because you were expecting something like that. Or I was, anyway.
The Roman Murders: Sacrilege, The Temple of the Muses, by John Maddox Roberts. Venus in Copper, The Iron Hand of Mars, Poseidon’s Gold, by Lindsay Davis. Rubicon, by Steven Saylor
I came to a warren of low wineshops and whores’ cribs. The road had narrowed to an alley and took a right-angled turn to the right. On both sides rows of low doorways gave access to tiny cubicles and the services of their inhabitants. I ducked into one, and such was my state of heightened awareness that I still remember the sign above the doorway. It read: “Phoebe: Skilled in Greek, Spanish, Libyan and Phoenician” (this did not refer to languages) “Price: 3 sesterces. 2 denarii for Phoenician.” The smell within was rank, and from the back of the room came heavy breathing and the sound of flesh slapping rhythmically against flesh. I had my dagger and caestus out, and when a shadow crossed the doorway I lunged. There was a sharp indrawing of breath and the man toppled, clutching his belly. The face was bearded. Not Clodius, worse luck. Another man tripped over the one I had stabbed, and I kicked him in the jaw as he fell. I barged out the doorway, swinging at the first face I saw, and felt a jawbone crack under the bronze spikes of my caestus. Someone swung a short curved sword at me and I felt it draw a cold line along my shoulder, missing my throat by a finger’s breadth. Before the man with the broken jaw had a chance to fall, I got my unwounded shoulder into him and sent him crashing into Clodius.
--from The Sacrilege.
Rats are always bigger than you expect.
I heard him first: a sinister shuffle of some uninvited presence, too close for comfort in a cramped prison cell. I lifted my head.
My eyes had grown accustomed to near-darkness. As soon as he moved again I saw him: a dust-colored, masculine specimen, his pink hands disturbingly like a human child’s. He was as big as a buck rabbit. I could think of several casual eating shops in Rome where the cooks would not be too fussy to drop this fat scavenger into their stockpots. Smother him with garlic and who would know? At a furnace stokers’ chophouse in some low quarter near the Circus Maximus, any bone with real meat on it would add welcome flavour to the broth...
Misery was making me ravenous. All I had to gnaw on was my anger at being here.
--from Venus in Copper
”Tell me, sir,” I said, “what god might be worshipped in that noisy temple over there?”
From the lofty eminence of the Serapeum he stared down his equally lofty nose at the temple in question.
“That is the Temple of Baal-Ahriman, although in better days it was a respectable temple of Horus. I would recommend that you avoid it, Senator. It is a cult brought here by unwashed foreigners, and only the lewdest and most degraded of Alexandrians frequent it. Their barbarous god is worshipped with disgusting orgies.”
Hermes tugged at my arm. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
“We shall, but only because it is within the scope of my investigation,” I said.
--from The Temple of the Muses
Informers dread this moment, sitting in pitch darkness, waiting for a problem. I already knew quite a lot about the inhabitants of this house, even in the dark: Anyone who broke into their room stumbled over discarded amphorae. Their room smelt sour. They owned few clothes, and paid fewer laundry bills. They lived such abnormal hours that by the time they thought of washing, even the public baths had closed. As well as their own odors, which were plentiful, they lived among the complicated waft of pigments: lead, palm resin, galls, crushed seashells and chalks, together with lime, gypsum and borax. They ate cheap meals, full of garlic and those artichokes that make you fart.
--from Poseidon’s Gold
”You are a man who draws death like a lodestone draws iron. You are Pluto’s favorite, his hunting dog to chase down the guilty, a male harpy to rend the flesh of the damned and blight their days, as yours will be blighted.” She released my hand, almost throwing it back at me. As I fumbled the dagger back into its sheath, she contemplated the spiderweb of our mingled blood that nearly covered her breast, as if she read some significance in the pattern. A heavy drop gathered on the bulbous nub of her nipple, mine or hers, who could tell?
“All your life will be the death of what you love,” she said.
Unnerved as I had seldom been in my life, I scrambled to my feet. This was no mere fortune telling saga. This was a genuine striga.
“Woman, have you cast a spell on me?” I demanded, unashamed at my shaking voice.
“I have what I need. Good day to you, senator.”
Pompey turned to me. "I charge you with finding the man who did this. Bring me his name. I'll see to justice."
I shook my head, averting my eyes from Pompey's wild gaze. "No, Great One. I can't."
"What do you mean? You've done such work before."
"Very little since I last worked for you, Great One. I have no stomach for it any more. I made a promise to myself to retire from public life if I managed to reach sixty years. That was a year ago."
"You don't seem to understand, finder. I'm not asking you to find Numerius's killer. I'm not hiring you. I'm ORDERING you!"
"By what authority?"
"By the authority vested in me by the Ultimate decree!"
I’ve combined all three of the historical mystery serieses set in ancient Rome that I’ve been reading concurrently with actual Roman literature this year. The adventures of Saylor’s Gordianus, Roberts’s Metellus and Davis’s Falco have predictable patterns, and I don’t have that much to say about each volume that wasn’t said in earlier bookposts. It’s interesting getting different perspectives on the age, as seen through different eyes. Metellus is a patrician (and a Senator, at this point in the series); Falco a lowborn freeman, and Gordianus somewhere in between. They rub elbows with different strata of society in different ways, and have different sets of ethics, and I wonder if, if the three of them met and either had a symposium or worked a case together, would they get along, or would they annoy the living shit out of each other? Probably both. Interestingly, in all three sets of mysteries, I’ve stopped reading with the intent of trying to deduce the mystery before the solution is revealed. The whodunnit challenge isn’t there at all in Roberts or Davis, and Saylor is usually ridiculously easy, though this time he actually caught me napping. The real point of the books is the immersion in the splendor and squalor of Rome and the delightful characterization of persons historical and completely made up.
They do a bit of traveling outside Rome in some of these books. The change of scenery is refreshing.
The Sacrilege takes up an episode that Saylor completely passed over: the violation of the Bona Dea rites by Cicero’s enemy Publius Clodius. I was looking forward to it, and was disappointed. Roberts seems to have written the story with big budget movie adaptations in mind, and so the tale is long on action-packed chases through slummy Roman streets, Oscar-reaching bombastic speeches by the high and mighty, and improbable plot twists, and short on actually making sense in the context of history. I was more impressed with a throwaway line that implied that the “Who Killed Caesar?” plot I suggested as a joke (Bookpost, June, 2012) would actually come into play, the version we all know having been a whitewash encouraged by Augustus to cover up something else. The Temple of the Muses takes Metellus to Alexandria, where for once Roberts is free to indulge his penchant for high-level conspiracy stories without being encombered by a cast of high-levelers who really existed and whose histories and ends are known to the world. In Saturnalia, we’re back in Rome, where Metellus’s kinsman, a former consul, has been poisoned, and the family wants Metellus to find evidence incriminating the chief suspect, while his enemies threaten him, demanding that he find evidence to exonerate the same suspect. Metellus, naturally enough, promises both sides to find the truth. Any book now, we’re going to get to the moment for which Roberts has been building the whole arc so far: the real-life final showdown between Clodius and Milo. And that will be an interesting read.
Meanwhile, 120 years or so, later, the adventures of Falco and his Very Superior Girlfriend continue. Falco and Helena make wonderful partners, but Davis’s choice to inject constant drama and possibilities, that no reader will find credible, that they might break up, is unfortunate. Venus in Copper is the first in the series to turn from the “arc plot” involving the families of Emperor Vespasian, Helena, and Falco, to a single, self-contained whodunnit (and a good one, with the identity of the killer eminently guessable but the motive hard to spot). The Iron Hand of Mars takes Falco out of Rome and into the German frontier where Davis inexplicably passes up the chance to keep Falco mercifully apart from the already-getting-old family dramaz and immersed in the more wholesome sort of adventures that involve legions and barbarians. Poseidon’s Gold goes back to the arc plot and has Falco digging up bones about his family’s past; it is also the first of the Falco books to actually take me by surprise about a major plot development. I continue to find Davis the best of the three for the use of language and subtlety, communicating as much through what is unsaid as through what is said, and whipsawing from light humor to deep pathos within the same situation.
Finally, the next book in Saylor’s series, A Murder on the Appian Way, is out of the library and two weeks overdue as of this writing, and so I had to go out of sequence and jump to Rubicon, which unsurprisingly takes place as the big Pompey vs. Caesar steel cage match is beginning, climaxing with round one in Brundisium, Gordianus being confronted with family hostages on both sides. Saylor’s descriptions of the perils of life in wartime, in Rome, on the roads and inside and outside of a city under siege, was so gripping that it distracted me from the detail that Gordianus was actually investigating a murder, the solution of which was revealed well before the end and caught me completely by surprise. I’d been trained by the previous books to not bother, as the solutions were easy, and I can’t say whether I’d have gotten it if I’d been trying. It’s a pity, because it’s one of the more clever twists I’ve seen lately, and well worth the effort to try and puzzle it out. Stop after Chapter XXI if you want to try.
Infinite Cruelty: The Holocaust, by Martin Gilbert
Seconds later a naked baby was pushed over the ledge and dropped to its death directly in the truck below. We were in such shock that at first few of us believed it was actually a live, newborn baby. We thought it was an object of some kind until we saw another and another being hurled out the window and into the waiting truck. We had no more tears left. Our eyes had dried out. We could no longer cry and shout and scream since our throats were hoarse and parched as we stood there looking up to the window and to the Almighty. "Dear God, why are you doing this to us? If we have sinned take us, but why are you permitting this to happen to innocent newborn babies? Why? Why? Why?"
The SS seemed to enjoy this bloody escapade. Just then the youngest of the bunch asked his superior if it was all right to catch one of those "little Jews" on his bayonet as it was coming down. His superior gave him permission, and the young SS butcher rolled up his rifle sleeve and caught the very next infant on his bayonet. The blood of the infant flowed down the knife onto the murderer's arm and into his sleeve. He tried his talent once more, and again he was successful in catching the wailing child on his sharp bayonet. He tried a third time but missed and gave up the whole game, complaining that it was getting too "messy".
Like a lot of people who discuss politics on the Internet, I occasionally find myself breaking Godwin’s law and comparing politicians I don’t like to Hitler. Reading Martin Gilbert’s 800 pages of eyewitness accounts of holocaust atrocities inside and outside the death camps just to test whether one’s Hitler comparisons are valid is probably a very stupid reason, but what can I say? Sometimes I am stupid. In this case, at least, I have been punished for my stupidity. In fact, maybe being forced to read Gilbert should be a fitting sentence for breaking Godwin’s law. It is impossible to read without suffering if you have any empathy whatsoever, though of course your suffering will be negligible compared to that of the people who lived through the events described. THESE ATROCITIES REALLY HAPPENED.
(In case you’re as dumb as I am and were wondering, no, Mittens and the Tea Party aren’t Hitler. Neither is Obama. Neither are the Bush Administration, Wall Street, or even the slave-owning, black voter-lynching Deep South with all its horrors at any point in American history. These things just don’t compare).
We’re talking about a microscopic segment of history, no more than a dozen years, and arguably not getting to the full horror that sets it apart from thousands of other violent tyrannies until 1941. As compiled and told by Gilbert, it is specific to the Jewish people. And yet, the questions it raises about government, civilization, humanity and human psychology are timeless. Germany was considered a civilized nation, educated, reasonable, religious, hard-working, democratic. How is it possible for most of the population of such a nation to ALL descend to a level of monstrous cruelty that shocks the imagination? How is it possible? Is it simply “obedience to authority”? Peer pressure? It’s hard to justify it that way while reading Gilbert, because perhaps the ghastliest part of the eyewitness accounts is the evident pleasure that countless soldiers and citizens took in the opportunities to inflict death, torture, extreme humiliations on the helpless in a consequence free environment.
What would happen here in such an environment? What if, instead of “The Jews”, we had a government that encouraged the citizens to commit atrocities against “The Gays”, “The Blacks”, “The Mexicans”, “The Intellectuals”, “The Mormons”, “The Poor”, “The Rednecks”, “The Women”, “The Prisoners”, “The Atheists”, “The Evangelicals”? Maybe some subculture that you or I belonged to? No one is so homogenized that they can’t be isolated into a smaller group and victimized. Could we count on our neighbors, our police, to stand with us when encouraged to stand together against us? I’m reminded of the old V television series in which the first ones to be targeted for hate were “The Scientists” of all people, and the series pointedly included a Jewish family with an elderly holocaust survivor to tell people what the right thing was for good people to do in the face of mass hatred.
The Life of the Rover: City, by Clifford D. Simak
He stared absent-mindedly at his desk, saw the kaleidoscope lying where he'd left it. funny toy, he thought. Quaint idea. A simple thing for the simple minds of long ago. But the kid will get a boot out of it.
He reached out a hand and grasped it, lifted it to his eyes. The transmitted light wove a pattern of crazy color, a geometric nightmare. He twirled the tube a bit and the pattern changed. and yet again--
His brain wrenched with a sudden sickness and the color burned itself into his mind in a single flare of soul-twisting torture.
The tube dropped and clattered on the desk. Webster reached out with both hands and clutched at the desk edge.
And through his brain went the thought of horror: What a toy for a kid!
This is one of those science fiction books that causes it to make sense to me why my subculture of intelligent, quirky people chooses science fiction in particular, and not, say, mysteries, westerns, romances or great scholarly tomes as the genre to contribute a basic building block to their social and personal lives. It makes the reader think in a way that whodunnits or non-fiction philosophy or adventure set in the real world would not.
Where has City been all my life? You could have told me it was by Asimov or Bradbury, and I’d have been completely taken in. It would stand up against their best. Like I, Robot (Bookpost, January 2010) or The Martian Chronicles (June, 2010), City is a collection of interconnected stand-alone stories that run chronologically from soon in the future to the very distant future, each tale building on and following logically from the ones that precede it. It follows a human family named Webster, their robot named Jenkins, and their dogs, over the course of several thousand years on Earth and Jupiter. Jenkins is around for most of it, and the Websters refer frequently to their ancestors from previous chapters. The rest...I won’t spoil it here. In fact, I encourage you not to read the cover blurbs. The blurbs in the edition I read refer to a plot development that doesn’t become apparent until the last two stories, and which spoiled it for me, just a little.
I wouldn’t give City the coveted “delightful romp” rating; but it is distinctly whimsical. I was made quite wistful at the initial premise that drives the story from the beginning—the idea that the resources of the earth become nearly infinite and cheap for all humans because of technology, to the point where people abandon cities en masse and by acres and acres of land in the middle of nowhere dirt cheap, make it all blossom hydroponically, and commute hundreds of miles to work in minutes via airships, like the Jetsons. City was written in the 1950s, and the optimisim in that part of the story, compared to how it seems to have worked out here in 2012, broke my heart just a little.
Cammie Chameleon: Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, by Ally Carter
Of course, if you’re reading this, you probably have at least a Level Four clearance and know all about the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women—that it isn’t really a boarding school for privileged girls, and that, despite our gorgeous mansion and manicured grounds, we’re not snobs. We’re spies. But on that January day, even my mother...even my headmistress...seemed to have forgotten that when you’ve spent your whole life learning fourteen different languages and how to completely alter your appearance using nothing but nail clippers and shoe polish, then being yourself gets a little harder—that we Gallagher Girls are really far better at being someone else. (And we’ve got the fake IDs to prove it.)
This is #2 in a YA series that gives me a literary junk food rush followed by an urge to wash my hands. I’m not the target market, but I came back for more.
Growing up in the Free To Be You And Me era, I encountered a pretty frequent trope on kid television, in which formerly same-sex kid institutions (scouts, camps, little league teams, whatever) suddenly became co-ed, and a stodgy traditionalist kid or two had to cope with the presence of the opposite sex, accept that they were sometimes better than them at stuff, and notice that they weren’t bad looking. If you remember this trope, you’ll find some redeeming value in this book, as Carter has fun turning it on its head by bringing a bunch of dreamy eye-candy boy spies to the school where until now only girls were properly trained to break codes in seconds and kill enemies with their earlobes. OMG, what if they’re incompetent and cause a security breach? OMG, what if they’re better than the girls? OMG, that Riley Finn guy is cute!
After that, you may notice that the Gallagher Academy is a blatant Hogwarts ripoff, the girls in the school have pretty much interchangeable personalities, that the suspense is negligible and the plot “twists” can be seen coming from miles away, and that the writing style is utterly, utterly jarring. For all that, the basic concept is an innovative girlpower riff that’s worth looking at, at least for a couple of volumes.
Regarding Chris: The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West
He interrupted me with a sneer that we parsons are inveterately eighteenth century and have our minds perpetually inflamed by visions of squires’ sons seducing country wenches, and declared that he meant to marry this Margaret Allington. “Oh indeed,” I said. “And may I ask what Kitty says to this arrangement?” “Who the devil is Kitty?” he asked blankly. “Kitty is your wife,” I said quietly but firmly. He sat up and exclaimed, “I haven’t got a wife! Has some woman been turning up with a cock-and-bull story of being my wife? Because it’s the damnedest lie!”
“I determined to settle the matter by sharp common sense handling. “Chris”, I said, “You have evidently lost your memory. You were married to Kitty Ellis at St. George’s, Hanover Square, on the third, or it may have been the fourth”—you know my wretched memory for dates—“of February in 1906.” He turned very pale and asked what year this was. “1916”, I said to him. He fell back in a fainting condition.
Timothy Findley, above, was the wet blanket warmup calculated to cause me to hate this book, and he failed even in that. Oh no, I said, not yet another WWI broken soldier book.. I’d had enough of those, and was heartened only by the brevity (90 pages) of West’s book. I shouldn’t have worried. West manages to make you care more for the three main characters and their friend the narrator in 90 pages than many authors do in a full length novel.
Yes, a soldier “returns” from the trenches having lost something, and yes, there are passages describing the endless mud and blood and gas and the stench of rotting corpses, but there’s much less of it than you’d think from the title. The real conflict is not about guns or lost youth or existential angst so much as it is a tragic love triangle, in which the soldier, who long ago chose one path over another, has lost his memory and gone back to the crossroads and chosen differently, unaware of having already gone down the other path.
I had a hard time deciding whether west rehashed the tired old Madonna/whore dichotomy or turned it on its head. Of the two female love interests, the pretty, wealthy one is a cruel ice queen on the inside, while the “filthy scrubwoman” has a heart of gold. Does the man who made the wrong choice once upon a time now have a chance to start over? Does he face the “choice of Hercules” (pleasure vs. duty), and which is the right choice? Rebecca West doesn’t provide the answers, but she asks the most disturbing questions. High recommendations.
OH SNAP: Epigrams, by Martial
I wonder not that your dog turds oft do eat.
To a tongue that licks your lips, a turd’s sweet meat.
Lynus came to me, six crowns to borrow
And swore, god damn him, he would repay tomorrow.
I knew his word, as currant as his band
And straight I gave to him three crowns in hand.
This I to give, and he to take was willing
Thus he gained, and I saved, fifteen shilling
Stench from the pools of marshes newly drained
Vapors from springs that bubble sulphur-stained
Reek from a fish pond old and salt and black
Of he-goat straining on his partner’s back
Of soldiers’ boots, when they have been long worn
Of Jews who take no food on Sabbath morn
Of fleeces dipped too much in purple dye
Of criminals as loud as they sob and sigh
Leda’s foul lamp whose fumes the ceilings soil
Ointment that’s made from lees of Sabine oil
A fox in flight, a viper in her lair
All these compared with you are perfumes rare.
You relieve yourself in a golden urn
(Poor urn!) and think that’s fine.
But you drink from glass. I guess your shit
Is dearer than your wine.
Doctor Dialaus has changed his trade:
He now is a mortician,
With the same results he got before
As a practicing physician.
Reading this collection, I kept envisioning some Roman citizen being hauled before the forum and convicted of crimes against the Roman Republic. The Praetor pronounces that his punishment is for Martial to write epigrams about him. “NOOOO! Be merciful! Throw me from the Tarpean rock instead!”
Martial was vicious. He wrote a great variety of poems, but, like Richard Thompson, his greatest and most memorable lyrics were the scornful insults he threw at his enemies. The Muppet opera box guys would have loved him. So would Triumph the Insult Dog Puppet.
The edition I read , “Martial in English” (JP Sullivan and AJ Boyle, eds) is a fascinating collection of translations of Martial from the 16th Century until modern times, illustrating both the wide possibilities in translating a foreign language (several epigrams are included more than once, in very different form) and the danger in relying on a translation, which might have butchered the original intent. Donne, Dryden, Swift, Pope, Dr. Johnson and Ezra Pound are all represented here, along with many, many others. The liberties they’ve taken are glaring—references to European countries and forms of government that did not exist in Martial’s day; English currency denominations; London neighborhoods; several wags appear to have substituted the names of their contemporary enemies for the original Latins. “I do not like thee, Dr. Fell” is a rough translation of a Martial epigram.
Although Martial is known mostly for his insults, the coarse vulgarity of which caused Puritans and Victorians to clutch their pearls in moral horror, Martial did write plenty of innocent lyrics not at anyone’s expense. One of his most famous was one on “what one needs in order to be happy”, which I’ve included below, for balance.
Friend and namesake, genial Martial, life’s
Happier when you know what happiness is:
Money inherited, with no need to work.
Property run by experts (yours or your wife’s).
Town house properly kitchenned and no bus-
Iness worries, family watchdogs, legal quirks.
Hardly ever required to wear a suit.
Mind relaxed and body exercised.
Nothing done that’s just seen to be done.
Candor matched by tact; friends by repute
Won and all guests good-natured. Wise
Leavers and warm stayers like the sun.
Food that isn’t smart or finicky.
Not too often drunk or shaking off
Dolorous dreams. Your appetite for sex
Moderate but inventive. Nights like sea
Scapes under moonlight, never rough.
Don’t scare yourself with formulae, like
Equals nought, the schizophrenic quest!
What else is there? Well, two points at least—
Wishing change wastes both time and breath.
Life’s unfair, and nothing’s for the best.
But having started, finish off the feast.
Neither dread your last day nor long for death.
Philosopher’s Romance: The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald
His father and mother were already in bed and asleep, the clock on the wall ticked with a monotonous beat, the wind whistled outside the rattling window pane. From time to time the room grew brighter when the moonlight shone in. The young man lay restlessly on his bed and remembered the stranger and his stories. “It was not the thought of the treasure which stirred up such unspeakable longings in me,” he said to himself. “I have no craving to be rich, but I long to see the Blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else. Never did I feel like this before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world. For in the world I used to live in, who would have troubled himself about flowers? Such a wild passion for a flower was never heard of there. But where could this stranger have come from? None of us had ever seen such a man before. And yet I don’t know how it was that I alone was truly caught and held by what he told us. Everyone else heard what I did, and yet none of them paid him serious attention.”
The quoted passage, which appears twice in The Blue Flower, is apparently part of an unfinished story by an 18th century German Romantic writer named Friedrich von Hardenberg, who palled around with Goethe and Schlegel. Fitzgerald was apparently so impressed with it that she wrote a short novel about Hardenberg writing that passage and his friends and family thinking about it. To add something to the plot, Hardenberg at the same time falls in love with a sickly, dull-witted girl with not much to recommend her, disappointing his logical, sensible family, who think he’s worthy of someone better, and how can he do this to them? Then they bumble around for a while and the story ends without resolution. In a short afterward, Fitzgerald lets us know that they all eventually die.
The Blue Flower got the Booker Prize, which I’m starting to think is a special award given to the least enjoyable Serious Important Novel of the year. Maybe you have to be a fan of the German Romantics to appreciate it properly.
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