Sunday, May 28, 2017

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015)

We recently discovered Mary Beard's most excellent documentaries on You Tube (pirated, I fear); there weren't very many of them (one about Rome itself, one about the Empire, one about Pompeii, and one about Caligula) and we quickly devoured them.  She's truly magnificent; interesting, passionate, earthy, a touch of Magna Mater about her.  I bet her classes are a hoot.

Discovering Mary Beard fit in nicely with my personal quest to read Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization book by book, interspersed with modern books about the same time period, plus a biography and fiction book to top them off.  My journey through Greece was, mostly uneventful; I feel like I learned quite a bit, but I didn't  discover any new authors.  Caesar and Christ , though, led to Mary Beard, and I'm quite giddy.  She's as strong a writer as she is a television presenter.

She's a revisionist, and she's always questioning what we believe to be true about the Romans, and whether that can all be proved or not.  I loved this about her book.  I also loved the fact that she points out many times that the ancient historians did exactly the same thing.  Livy and others were always questioning the origin stories of Rome, trying to poke holes in sacred balloons, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  But they were not just storytellers or gatherers of facts, or propagandists.  That was something I did not know.

She obviously has a tremendously good sense of humor, and that showed through her writing, such as here, when she is writing about "Boudicca, or Buduica (we do not know exactly how to spell the name, but neither, presumably, did she)."  That clever little aside made me so happy.

Her prologue talks about us "engaging" with the Romans rather than "learning" from them, which I thought was cool; "to learn" is far more passive than engaging, becoming involved in the lives of the Romans.

A small shiver went through me when I read this:  "The month Sextilis, next to Julius Caesar's July, should be named August -- and so Augustus became part of the regular passage of time, as he remains." The Romans are still with us; in major ways.  We still worship the Caesars, whether we want to or not.  I wonder why this wasn't ever changed?  It seems very blasphemous.

The Durants are not dry; neither is Mary Beard, but their styles are definitely different.  The Durants have a more romantic style, flowery without being purple (well... maybe occasionally purple).   Mary Beard definitely is never purple.  The Durants are champagne; Mary Beard is a really, really good beer.

SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An exceptional book of history. Mary Beard brings back the Romans from the land of the dead and bored they inhabit in various textbooks and curriculum-driven classroom activities. As she so eloquently writes in her epilogue, the study of the "first millennial Romans" have consumed 50 or so years of her life; you can tell from her passionate and loving writing Rome and all her characters aren't merely marble statues to her, but actual people inhabiting actual places, having lived real lives. She wants us to engage with the Romans as she has engaged with them for so many years, and because of her strong writing, we certainly do are able to do so. She is a revisionist in all the best ways (and points out numerous times how Livy and other ancient historians also questioned their own origin stories and propaganda-as-history). Beard isn't some reverent solemn don either; her book is injected with witty humor. I was never bored; once I started reading this, I never wanted to read anything else; and I never wanted it to end.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad (2017)

A character towards the end of this book says "Everyone fights an American war", which is the sort of sledgehammer Omar El Akkad uses to pound this particular theme into our heads.  I rarely - if ever - read for anything other than pure pleasure.  Often (always?) I gain knowledge; I learn.  Sometimes themes seep in, but I'm usually a dummy when it comes to anything literary.  However,   American War is chock full of themes, and they are so obvious they even oozed drip by drip into my dense skull.  

The United States has devolved into a second civil war, in a post climate change world (Florida has been completely obliterated by the rising seas).  The same cast of characters who fought the first civil war are at it again, only this time divided into Blues vs. Reds (that sledgehammer again).  It's an engaging story, incredibly well written, with a gripping, disturbing plot and superbly drawn characters.  El Akkad certainly sets a time and place that chillingly may exist (except for a strange lack of smart phones and the internet) in the very near future.  He's done his research on what may happen to a world torn apart by climate change (huge, damaging storms, millions of refugees from rising sea levels).  He also isn't just re-telling Mad Max or The Hunger Games or any other apocalyptic dystopias.  His world feels real.  And that's scary.  

He weaves his themes throughout; they flow through the novel like the rivers he writes about (Mississippi and Savannah).  This could be a textbook on how terrorists and insurrectionists  and fanatics are made; he's also giving us a grim lesson on how American policy creates these fanatics world-wide.  A chilling (I keep using this word because it is so apt) description of how an empire outside the United States in fostering instability in the country reminded me uncomfortably of what is going on right now.  

I didn't mind those sledgehammer themes; I thought it gave the book extra punch, and it was already really gripping and good.  

I started this Goodreads review:  "You can't read a book about a second American civil war, between the North and South (here called Reds and Blues, as in "red states" and "blue states"), with a female protagonist, and NOT think about that other great American work of fiction about the first civil war with a female protagonist.  [book:Gone with the Wind|18405] this ain't (the main character is bi-racial, for starters) but the ghost of Margaret Mitchell occasionally said "boo."  Imagine Scarlett O'Hara trained to be an assassin.  That, however, makes"  and then erased it because it was way too flippant, and this book wasn't flippant at all.  I was making it sound like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter or something, which is definitely was not.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The United States has devolved into a second civil war with the same cast of characters who fought the first civil war, only this time around we are divided into Blues vs. Reds (as in, "red states" and "blue states"). It is little bits of setting like this that exemplify why this book is so good and so extraordinarily disturbing, and so memorable (it will stay with you long after you close the book). El Akkar indirectly references the instability of the last fifteen years and the impact it may have on us in the near future; this is mirror being held up to the current domestic and foreign policy of the United States that doesn’t show a pretty reflection. He's also done his research on what may happen to a world torn apart by climate change (huge, damaging storms, millions of refugees from rising sea levels; Florida being completely swallowed by the waters). He also isn't just re-telling Mad Max or The Hunger Games or any other apocalyptic dystopias; gladly and luckily this isn’t a carbon copy, but an original tale. He’s written a war novel, a text book almost on how fanaticism and terrorism can be nurtured, and chillingly homegrown. This feels so frighteningly real because he's written such an engaging, incredibly well written novel, with a gripping plot and superbly drawn characters. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Witch's Buttons by Ruth Chew (1974)

Somehow, my well loved Scholastic Book Services childhood copy of The Witch's Buttons has been lost, and I was forced to buy another one.  It came to me with a big bar code stuck right in the middle of the incredible cover of the two girls in front of the bubbling cauldron, in their seventies attire, and when I tried to take it off, IT RIPPED THE COVER.  What kind of monster puts a sticker on the front of a book like that?

To this affront, I say, six times:

I ordered a new copy.

I loved this book when I was growing up (even the space ship button).  Witches were VERY important in the pretend world I created, either with friends, on paper, or in my imagination.  Witches from literature always hold spots dear to my heart.  The White Witch (I know she's evil, but she's so BEAUTIFUL).  Samantha Stevens (although who am I kidding, it was ALWAYS Endora.  Always.).  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Mary Poppins, and even  Cruella De Vil all were witch-adjacent.  Later, Diana Wynne Jones captured my heart (Witch Week was first); and of course, much later there was Harry Potter.  

I don't ever remember playing or pretending this book with my friends, probably because they never read it.  But certainly, my ideas of what constitutes a good fantasy novel in part comes from The Witch's Buttons.  The idea that witches live among us, practicing magic in an urban or "muggle" setting, is still a trope I love.  Here, the setting is Brooklyn, although as a child, it never even occurred to me that Brooklyn was part of New York City or urban; these girls don't seem very urban to me.  Reading it now, as an adult, I was realized where they actually lived.  Probably some hipster Brooklynites are dressing the way she is on the cover even now, and collecting (or making their own) buttons.
The button seller behind the counter is Jewish!  All I ever noticed before was how much witch Betsy resembled a very young Agnes Moorhead.

I still love the illustration of the little black kitten running across the gutter at the bottom:

Ruth Chew never gives ages for Sandy or her new friend Janet, but when I was reading the book for the first time, I'm sure I thought Janet and Sandy were the same age as me (third or fourth grade). I , too, had a baby sister I had to occasionally babysit as well!

The book was published in 1974, so I can't be the baby in the book (I was four) but my brother could have been that baby!  

Love the bell bottom pant suit on the cover.  Very, very much.

In my original review on Goodreads, I commented that "I hoped Ruth Chew would make a come back."  Guess what - she has!  They are republishing her books with new covers.  No more bell bottoms (too bad) but still great books!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Definitely an early chapter book straight out of nostalgia for me (we didn't call them chapter backs in my school library in the 1970s; we just called them "books"). I think this book holds up remarkably well 40 years or so after being published. Other than the groovy, far out bell bottom pants suit on the cover, the magical adventures of Sandy and Janet are still quite fun. Perhaps not as rollicking as J.K. Rowling, but Ruth Chew weaves a pretty tight and exciting story. Truly urban fantasy; the book takes place in Brooklyn (although I don't think many Brooklynites of today would recognize it as such). I've had a love affair with witches of fiction for most of my reading life, which most likely germinating in books like this, read and re-read over and over in third, fourth and fifth grade. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Quiet Life in the Country by T.E. Kinsey (2014)

A Quiet Life In The Country (Lady Hardcastle Mysteries #1)A Quiet Life In The Country by T E Kinsey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The ghost of Agatha Christie haunts the various halls and county lanes of this cozier than cozy murder mystery, but Kinsey definitely has a writing style all of his own. This book is anything but quiet; it's actually quite dense, with a constant patter of dialogue that would have made the writers of screwball comedy quite proud (is there such a thing as a screwball murder mystery?). The two detectives, the nominal Lady Hardcastle, and her lady's maid and BFF Flo, are a dynamic duo; Kinsey populates his St. Mary Mead with just the right amount of unusual suspects to keep you going right until the very end. If some of it's gobsmackingly unbelievable (Flo knows martial arts, picked up in China) - we're all in on the joke (what cozy murder mystery isn't chock full of tongue and cheek; did we really believe a murder happened overtime Jessica Fletcher showed up?). Bollocks of fun.

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Caesar and Christ by Will Durant (1944)

Another bulky big (but delightfully so) Durant door stopper is put to bed.  The Durants are able to speak knowledgeably about everything and anything, which I find most impressive.  As I read these tomes, I am struck by their reading, research and reasoning that went into these books.  70 some years before the internet and databases, the Durants traveled the globe, spent 14 hours a day researching and writing, and were able to synthesize all that they learned into this incredible work of history; a true story of civilization (western, though).  

I love Durant's writing style; he is quite adept at elegant, often witty, always thoughtful turns of phrase. His books are full of sentences that can be taken out of context and used in various memes, with or without kittens. Maybe even dogs. Definitely gladiators. All kidding aside, I love collecting meaningful little bon mots and quotes like these:

"Life’s final tragedy is unwilling continuance—to outlive one’s self and be forbidden to die."  Describes the poor sad years of Augustus, with scheming relatives and a slutty daughter, plus a famous poet to exile to a cold, dark island.  But also a personal fear of mine, and I suppose of many middle aged people and older.  I don't think young people ever think of this.

"No nation is ever defeated in its textbooks."  Clearly written before the advent of revisionist history.  Now aren't all nations defeated in their textbooks?  Except in Texas, of course.  

This is a sentence that doesn't have any meaning other than what it says, but it says it in such a witty, wonderfully written way, that says everything:  "The Gauls believed in a variety of gods, now too dead to mind anonymity."  That last phrase is fantastic, a witty aside.

Whenever one reads about Rome, one always thinks about the Decline and Fall of the United States, right?  We are Rome (except, of course, when we aren't Rome).  Durant was writing 70 years ago, but he occasionally injects some 1944 worthy commentary throughout:  

"But antiquity took slavery for granted, and would have contemplated with horror the economic and social effects of a wholesale emancipation, just as the employers of our time fear the sloth that might come from security."  Class struggle always plays a part in anything Durant is writing; he was also writing in a time when class struggle had just come to a big, bad fruition in the form of World War II.  Employers of OUR time fear the same thing; so not much has changed.

"Contentment is as rare among men as it is natural among animals, and no form of government has ever satisfied its subjects."  Someone is always complaining about the government, and probably someone is always plotting, no matter how silently and in small ways, to overthrow it.

Durant isn't just interested in the strong men and this isn't a military history.  His story of civilization, at least for 1944, seems to stretch out to include the rising power of women in Roman society; and he once again has pretty nice things, if brief, to say about the gays of yore.  Well, perhaps not nice things, but he was cruel or dismissive or brushed them under the carpets of history.  They - like women - existed.  On race, at least African Americans, he's not a inclusive; Mary Beard's thoroughly modern takes fix some of Durant's errors.

I think this is what Durant is aiming at though, and occasionally he succeeds:  "We must not think of such banquets as the customary end of a Roman day, or as more frequent in a Roman’s life than the dinners-cum oratory so popular today. History, like the press, misrepresents life because it loves the exceptional and shuns the newsless career of an honest man or the quiet routine of a normal day. Most Romans were like our neighbors and ourselves: they rose reluctantly, ate too much, worked too much, played too little, loved much, seldom hated, quarreled a bit, talked a great deal, dreamed waking dreams, and slept."  He does spend much of the book talking about the banquets, but common people do walk through his pages, as much as he is able in this large tome.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I bought his entire set at a used book sale, sans the last volume (which had not yet been read) and I'm making my way through them. I love Durant's style of writing, which is this wonderful combination of academic and witty. It's sometimes like being a cocktail party with a really smart professor of history who tells great stories, but is also full of amazing pithy bits of wisdom that you want to remember forever, or maybe even make a poster out of it. "Life’s final tragedy is unwilling continuance—to outlive one’s self and be forbidden to die" he says of Augustus, alone and friendless in old age, surrounded by scheming family and an adulterous daughter (not to mention her disreputable friends like Ovid the poet); he also is writing to you 70 years in the future, contemplating old age. Or this one: "The Gauls believed in a variety of gods, now too dead to mind anonymity." That's historian wit; perhaps not slap your knees laugh out loud, but still humorous enough to make you smile and your eyes gleam because you've just read such a great line of prose. The book is full of too many of them. It's also full of great stories of Caesar, Cleopatra, Jesus and his apostles, the early martyrs, the various pagans, Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, Gauls, Germans, the whole cast of characters spanning a thousand years. Especially interesting are the lessons of Roman government and politics, which is haunting the world today; imperial autocracy doesn't take all that long to burrow in and take hold. 

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