The Histories and lesser works, by Tacitus
The story I now commence is rich in vicissitudes, grim with warfare, torn by civil strife, a tale of horror even during times of peace. It tells of four emperors slain by the sword, three several civil wars, an even larger number of foreign wars and some that were both at once: successes in the East, disaster in the West, disturbance in Illyricum, disaffection in the provinces of Gaul, the conquest of Britain and its immediate loss, the rising of the Sarmatian and Suebic tribes. It tells how Dacia had the privilege of exchanging blows with Rome, and how a pretender claiming to be Nero almost deluded the Parthians into declaring war. Now too Italy was smitten with new disasters, or disasters it had not witnessed for a long period of years. Towns along the rich coast of Campania were submerged or buried. The city was devastated by fires, ancient temples were destroyed, and the Capitol itself was fired by Roman hands. Sacred rites were grossly profaned, and there were scandals in high places. The sea swarmed with exiles and the island cliffs were red with blood. Worse horrors reigned in the city. To be rich or well-born was a crime: men were prosecuted for holding or for refusing office: merit of any kind meant certain ruin. Nor were the Informers more hated for their crimes than for their prizes: some carried off a priesthood or the consulship as their spoil, others won offices and influence in the imperial household: the hatred and fear they inspired worked universal havoc. Slaves were bribed against their masters, freedmen against their patrons, and, if a man had no enemies, he was ruined by his friends.
This one is about half the length of the Annals (Bookpost, July 2012), and makes up for it by somehow managing to outdo the earlier work in treachery and bloodshed. 69 AD was not a pleasant time to live in Rome. Nero was finally the fuck dead, putting an end to the Claudian Dynasty, and mayhem and hijinks ensued as assorted pretenders to the throne (Galba, Otho, and Vitellus)managed to hack and slash their way to the top for a few months each until Vespasian and his sons killed the last of them and put down the opportunistic rebellions in Germany and Judea that had erupted while the Roman army was busy killing its own. It’s like Game of Thrones without any of the likable parts.
Tacitus is a grumpy old man who has few nice things to say about Galba and Otho, except to add a touch of heroism to their deaths. Galba, his litter upset in the street, thrusts his neck forward and says “Strike, if you think it good for Rome!” (last words), while Otho, facing a battle in which both sides will surely see heavy losses, calls it off and kills himself rather than be responsible for the deaths of so many Romans. But Tacitus saves his special venom for Vitellus the Glutton, who is always, always at a lavish banquet, stuffing his face, whenever news from the front arrives, whose entire entourage deserts him in a crisis, and who meets his death being dragged through the streets, squealing like the proverbial pig. One wonders how he ever got to be a General. Vespasian and the Flavian dynasty are safely dead by the time Tacitus writes; however, from Tacitus’s deference, you’d think he still had to watch what he said. This is not the cruel, fickle miser and promise-breaker of Lindsey Davis’s Falco novels, but a neutral-to-good man who has the interests of Rome at heart. Maybe in Tacitus’s eyes, putting an end to Vitellus wiped out all faults.
The volume I read also included the short works A Dialogue on Oratory (feeble stuff compared to Quintilian and Cicero; the gist of it is that they don’t make great orators any more because Rome has become a degenerate sewer where no one respects their elders, Harumph!); Agricola (a biography of Tacitus’s father in law, who won a great victory over the Picts despite having a laughable idea of the geography of Britain); and Germania (best summed up as, “The barbarians are big and strong because they drink less, fuck less and keep their word more than you corrupt maggots! I wish I could be around in another 200 years when they come and beat the shit out of you and burn the city again and again, because you deserve it!”) .
Tacitus: Who peed in his garum?
The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius
Nero practiced every kind of obscenity, and after defiling almost every part of his body finally invented a novel game: he was released from a cage dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes. After working up sufficient excitement by this means, he was dispatched—shall we say?—by his freedman Doryphorus. Doryphorus now married him—just as he himself had married Sporus—and on the wedding night he imitated the screams and moans of a girl being deflowered. According to my informants he was convinced that nobody could remain chaste or pure in any part of his body, but that most people concealed their secret vices; hence, if anyone confessed to obscene practices, Nero forgave him all his other crimes.
Suetonius went a little farther than Tacitus; he chronicled the Roman Empire past Vespasian to Dominitan; however, once he got past Nero, he maybe understandably lost his appetite and just went through the motions. The last six of the “twelve Caesars” get no more than 20 pages each; the real meat is found in the first six. On the other hand, they didn’t manage to expurgate Caligula from this set.
If Tacitus was the H.L. Mencken of his day, Suetonius was the Maureen Dowd; full of salacious, gossipy details. He doesn’t write as well as Tacitus, but he certainly satisfies one’s appetite for scandal. He presents the good aspects of each emperor first, and having gotten that out of the way, concludes with abundant evidence that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even Caligula and Nero had some good aspects to them, and even Augustus was capable of tyrannical behavior, decadent overindulgence and ghastly, innovative tortures. They ALL were. The Roman people tended to rejoice in the streets when one of these monsters finally died, only to find out that the next one was no better, and was likely to be even worse.
Robert Graves, who translated the edition I read, drew heavily on Suetonius for his masterpiece I, Claudius, which was in turn the basis for the even bigger masterpiece that was the PBS television adaptation. If you’re familiar with Graves’ fiction, even Suetonius looks tame, horror and all. There is no indication in this history, for example, that Augustus was poisoned by his wife, or that Caligula was involved in the murder of his father. But then Suetonius includes historical details too disgusting for television. Definitely worth reading, and requires less concentration than Tacitus.
Conic Sections, by Apollonius of Perga
If from a point a straight line is joined to the circumference of a circle which is not in the same plane with the point and the line is produced in both directions, and if, with the point remaining fixed, the straight line being rotated about the circumference of the circle returns to the same place from which it began, then the generated surface composed of the two surfaces lying vertically opposite one another each of which increases indefinitely, as the generating line is produced indefinitely, I call a conic surface, and I call the fixed point the vertex, and the straight line drawn from the vertex to the center of the circle the axis.
And the figure contained by the circle and by the conic surface between the vertex and the circumference of the circle I call a cone, and the point which is also the vertex of the surface I call the vertex of the cone, and the straight line drawn from the vertex to the center of the circle the axis, and the circle the base of the cone.
I call right cones those having axes perpendicular to their bases, and oblique those not having axes perpendicular to their bases.
Apollonius of Perga continued Euclid's work, focusing on things that can be done with the cone shape, and ended up in an "ancient mathematics" volume of the Great Books of the Western World, along with Euclid (Bookpost, March 2012), Archimedes (May 2011) and Nicomachus (June 2012). I went through it this year mostly for completeness, and because Rome didn't have that much to offer in math and science compared to philosophy, history, satire and poetry.
It was rough going. It's a much more technical volume than the other math works cited. While I could follow Euclid and Archimedes just fine, and Nicomachus was almost philosophy rather than math, the conics defeated me in some places. It deals with a kind of math I studied in school, never touched again, and ended up mostly forgetting. The basics of the circle, ellipse, parabola and hyperbola, with their respective diameters, axes and asymptotes, are worth exploring, but the theorems, proofs, problems and constructions just didn't seem as elegant as they did in Euclid. It may be that it required more concentration to understand than I can find in a house with toddlers. Or it may be that this kind of geometry just doesn’t seem as important.
I Will Bear Witness, by Victor Klemperer
In the newspaper yesterday (naturally therefore in all newspapers) triumphant report about the end of the Polish campaign and a touching article, “At the Soldier’s Grave of Paul Deschanel.” French First Lieutenant, son of the former Prime Minister (I think) of the Republic...Tricolor over the bier—I once had a comerade—the Marseillaise—address by a battalion commander: nothing but compliments to France, with whom we want only peace, of whom we make no demands at all...
Is that a sign of strength on the German side? Is it merely a ploy? Will the French rise to the bait? Vox Populi (at Berger, the grocer)...He is in the West. In the West yet again? Well, it won’t last very long. Everyone thinks: England will give way. Perhaps they will turn out to be right about that, as with the German-Russian partition of Poland. But if not, the mood would shift tremendously. For the moment, people are still intoxicated by the destruction of Poland and do not know what the losses are.
When I went to the deutsche Bank yesterday to open my restricted account and wanted to pay in 300M, they were astonished. (What for? You can freely dispose of 400!). I should first of all go to the Currency Office today in person, in case there is some error.
Errand upon errand. Eva’s nerves and mine are completely shattered; for several days now, not a word of the curriculum.
Anne Frank (Bookpost, August 2010) is overrated. Victor Klemperer is underrated. Why have I never heard of him until this year?
Klemperer was Jewish by descent only, and was spared the full brunt of the holocaust by virtue of having married an Aryan. His holocaust journal begins with the election of Hitler in 1933 and continues into 1945, during which time the Nazis finally decree that even the spouses of Aryans will be taken to the camps. Klemperer survives only because the Allied bombardment of Dresden, (the same bombing which Vonnegut figured made the Allies as savage as the Germans) enabled him to escape. I wonder what Klemperer and Vonnegut might have said to one another, had they met.
I began reading more holocaust works this fall because the fascist Tea Party truly frightens me, and I needed to put things into perspective. Surely what’s happening today, even in the worst possible scenario, could never be that bad, right? Martin Gilbert’s merciless chronology (Bookpost, September 2012) was perversely reassuring on that front; it painted a picture of horrors so extreme as to create the impression that it could happen only once, ever, in modern history. Klemperer’s sole and gradual struggle far from Auschwitz and Treblinka, is much more ominous, because it takes place in an ordinary city, with ordinary people, in a place that could be anywhere in the western world. In Klemperer’s experience of the war, the death camps were the stuff of whispered, unreliable rumors, denied by the government and not verified until after the dates in Klemperer’s diary. The horrors Klemperer witnessed were more banal, more analagous to the treatment of minorities in America’s Deep South, with the distinction that in Germany, the victims started out as equals, and were declared to be non-persons and fair game for brutal special treatment all at once, over a single decade, as opposed to having been presumed as inferiors from the very beginning.
Here are the shopkeepers, the neighbors, the colleagues, even the police, who have known Klemperer for years, been his friend, known him to have earned honors in the German army during the previous World War, who commiserate with him and tell him how crazy all these new anti-semitic laws are, and who obey them anyway because, orders. Here is the gradual removal of a bourgeois middle class family’s dignity, a bite at a time. First they come for his job, then his jewelry, then his typewriter, then his homeownership. He and his Aryan wife are made to move into a special house for Jews, their ration cards reduced compared to their neighbors, eventually made to wear the hated yellow star. Rude comments and spitting from strangers, and stones thrown by small children who have been taught to hate. His wife shields him partially by doing most of the things that require being out and about, herself, though her health is not good. By the time they come to take him away, it’s just one more indignity.
Throughout the journal are references to the world outside, as filtered through German propaganda. The prayers for French and British intervention and the devastating grief when Chamberlain appeases the monsters and even does Hitler’s smackdown of Czechoslovakia for him. The contrast between the constant jingoistic trumpeting that Russia and Britain are on the brink of falling with the rumors of the truth that are whispered in the streets.
In all, Klemperer’s work is a fascinating and scary depiction of a nation’s descent into fascism, as seen from Main Street within, that suggests that it really can happen here. Take heed, and vote with care in November.
Nobody Loves a Centurion; The Tribune’s Curse; The River God’s Revenge, by John Maddox Roberts. Last seen in Palmyra; Time to Depart; A Dying Light in Corduba, by Lindsey Davis. A Murder on the Appian Way; Last Seen in Masilia; by Setven Saylor.
"My visit has no sinister implications," I assured Petra's minister, trying not to look depressed. "Rome's knowledge of your famous city is somewhat thin and out of date. We rely on a few very old writings that are said to be based on eyewitness reports, chief among them an account by Strabo. This Strabo had his facts from Athenodorus, who was tutor to the emperor Augustus. his value as an eyewitness may be tempered by the fact that he was blind. Our sharp new emperor distrusts such stuff."
"So Vespasian's curiosity is scholarly?" queried The Brother.
"He is a cultured man." That was to say he was on record as having once quoted a rude line from a play by Menander concerning a chap with an enormous phallus, which by the standards of previous emperors made Vespasian a highly educated wit.
--from Last Act in Palmyra
”How long is this rampart you’re building?” I asked Carbo.
“It stretches from the lake to the mountains to contain the Helvetii, about nineteen miles.”
“Nineteen miles?”, I said, aghast. “Is this Caius Julius Caesar we’re talking about here? The same Caesar I knew in Rome, who never walked where he could be carried and who never lifted a weapon heavier than his voice?”
“You’re going to meet a different Caesar,” he promised me. And so I did.
--from Nobody Loves a Centurion
Cicero considered the question. “Gordianus makes a good point. If Milo waits and frees the slaves at the wrong time, it could look bad. The earlier the better, I think.”
“You can always say they were manumitted out of gratitude, as a reward,” Caelius suggested. “They saved his life, after all.”
“Did they?” I said.
“Well, that’s what we’ll say,” said Caelius, looking at me as if I were a simpleton.
I shook my head in disgust. “You’re only talking about appearances, aren’t you, and nothing more? About this or that hypothetical version of what might or might not have happened, and whether people will believe it. You might as well be writing a comedy for the stage.”
“Better a comedy than a tragedy,” quipped Caelius.
Cicero looked at me thoughtfully. “We are advocates, Gordianus. This is what we do.”
--from A Murder on the Appian Way
She turned to Crassus. “Marcus Licinius Crassus, leave the City of Rome instantly, and bear your curse with you. Go forth to take up imperium over your province and accomplish whatever mischief is in your heart, but leave.”
Crassus wore the most frightful expression, compounded of rage and terror, his teeth grinding audibly. “That tribune has robbed me!” he finally choked out. “Today was to be glorious!”
“Go!” she said coldly.
“I do not care!” he screamed at the multitude. “He has taken my setting forth, but I will return in glory, and then I will kill him and all his friends!” He whirled and stalked out beneath the gate, where a small party of horsemen awaited. A great, collective sigh escaped the crowd.
--from The Tribune’s Curse
In order of my sisters’ seniority, [my brothers in law] were: MICO, the unemployed, unemployable plasterer. Pasty faced and eternally perky. He was bringing up five children on his own, now that his wife Victorian had died. He was doing it badly. Everyone felt obliged to say that at least he was trying. The children would have stood more chance of surviving if he had sailed off to Sicily and never came back. But Mico defended his useless role like a fighter. He would never give up.
VERONTIUS, Allia’s treasure. A shifty, untrustworthy road contractor who smelt of fish pickle and unwashed armpits. You would think he had been heaving shovels all day long when all he really did was codge together contracts. No wonder he sweated. The lengths he went to defraud the government were tortuous. A glance at Verontius looking half asleep and guilty was enough to explain all the potholes in the Via Appia.
GAIUS BAEBIUS, utter tedium. A ponderous customs clerk organizer who thought he knew it all. He knew nothing, especially about home improvements, a subject on which he liked to expound for hours. Gaius Baebius had brought Ajax, his and Junia’s spoiled, uncontrollable watchdog.
FAMIA. Maia’s darling was the best of the bunch, though I have to report Famia was a slit-eyed, red-nosed drunk who would have regularly cheated on Maia if he could have found the energy. While she brought up their children, he whiled away his life as a chariot horse vet. He worked for the Greens. I support the Blues. Our relationship could not and did not flourish.
--from Time to Depart
The soothsayer was keeping to himself, riding a little ways off. He turned his hooded head toward the soldier and spoke in a hoarse, strained voice. “I know why the Roman has come here.”
“What?” The soldier was taken aback, but recovered with a grin. “Well, tell me then! You’ll save us the trouble of torturing him to find out. Only joking! Go on, soothsayer, speak up.”
“He’s come to look for his son.”
The strange voice emerging from the faceless hood chilled my blood. Wings fluttered in my chest. Involuntarily, I whispered the name of my son: “Meto!”
The soothsayer reined his horse and turned about. “Tell the Roman to go home. He has no business here. There’s nothing he can do to help his son.”
--from Last Seen in Massilia
Marcus Porcius Cato was the enemy of all things modern or foreign. These things included sleeping late, eating well, bathing in hot water, and enjoying anything beautiful. He studied philosophy and even wrote philosophical tracts, but he was naturally attracted to the Stoics since they were the most disagreeable of all the Greeks. He believed that all virtue resided in the practices of our ancestors, and that the only path to greatness lay in narrow adherence to those practices. He revered above all others his ancestor Cato the Censor, the most repulsive man among all Rome’s many disgusting personages, most of whom were content to be cruel and vicious on their own behalf. Cato the Censor wanted everyone to be as nasty as he was.
--from The River God’s Revenge
My first run-in with Ion occurred the moment I stepped aboard my lead Liburnian, the Nereid. The master, a crusty old salt dressed in the traditional blue tunic and cap, took my Senate credentials without a greeting or salute, and scanned them with a barely repressed sneer. He handed them back. “Just tell us where you want to go and we’ll get you there,” he said. “Otherwise, keep out of the way, don’t try to give the men orders, don’t puke on the deck, and try not to fall overboard. We don’t try to save men who fall overboard. They belong to Neptune, and he’s a god we don’t like to offend.”
So I knocked him down, grasped him by the hair and belt, and pitched him into the water. “Don’t try to fish him out”, I told the sailors. “Neptune might not like it.” You have to let Greeks know who the master is right away or they’ll give you no end of trouble.
--from The Princess and the Pirates
Hot news just in from Tarraconensis! Word reaches us from Barcino that the family of a close friend of the Emperor may have a reason to celebrate. Details to follow, but rumours that the baby was delivered by the father while the mother yelled, ‘I don’t need you; I’ll do it myself, just like I have to do everything!’ are believed to exaggerate. M. Didius Falco, an informer, who claims he was present, would only comment that his dagger has seen a lot of action, but he never thought it would end up cutting a natal cord. The black eye he acquired while attempting to ministrate has already calmed down. His finger was broken entirely by accident, when the noble lady grabbed his hand; relations between them are perfectly cordial and he has no plans to sue...
--from A Dying Light in Corduba
”This fellow who calls himself Motho—do you remember which of his eyes is missing? Think carefully!”
“I don’t need to think,” I said. “I just saw him. It’s his right eye that’s missing.”
“Are you certain of that, Gordianus?”
I narrowed my eyes. I conjured the man’s face in memory. “Absolutely certain. He has no right eye.”
The expression on Lucullus’s face was ghastly. “And yet, always before, Varius was missing his LEFT eye. Now here he is, pretending to be this slave Motho, and as you yourself can testify, he’s missing his RIGHT eye! How can that be, Gordianus? HOW CAN SUCH A THING BE?”
--from A Gladiator Dies Only Once
Continuing the three sets of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, all three of which continue to improve as they go along.
John Maddox Roberts’s Senator Caecilius Metellus books are perhaps the weakest of the three, and have fallen well behind Saylor’s Gordianus books in timeline, but are still worthwhile. They’re also the shortest. I tended to get through his books at a rate of two one-hour sessions each e local gym’s cardio equipment, which provides a nice “to be continued” spot about halfway through. Since Steven Saylor’s series reaches the death of Clodius and trial of Milo at this point, I read more Roberts than usual, trying to get to the same point, as Milo and Clodius are major characters in Roberts’s series.
Nobody Loves a Centurion gives us a soldier’s murder during Caesar’s first command in Gaul (and during the Tribuneship of Metellus’s enemy Clodius, during which Metellius needs to be out of town and in a comparatively safe military encampment surrounded by Gaulish and German barbarians). There are stunning descriptions of military tactics and discipline, and an even more stunning description of an amazon superwoman who happens to be the German slave of the victim. The Tribune’s Curse takes him back to Rome, and to the final campaign of Crassus. Just as Crassus is leaving, an insane tribune calls down a curse on the whole army, invoking the Secret Name of Rome that no one but the holiest may know. Metellus must find out who revealed the secret name to the tribune, and the suspects include the leader of the Vestals as well as Julius Caesar. I have no idea whether this curse really happened, but given that Crassus never returned from the campaign, it makes a pretty awesome story. Things get even more complicated in The River God’s Revenge, in which Metellus levels up again, this time to an Aedile, and uses his office to bring down a conspiracy of corrupt contractors whose corner-cutting threatens the structural integrity of the whole city with building collapse and flood damage. The investigation includes some delightfully obnoxious appearances by Cato the Younger.
And then...no Death of Clodius case. The Princess and the Pirates has some throwaway exposition in the middle of chapter one, where we’re told that Clodius is dead and Milo in exile, before Roberts sends Metellus off to Cyprus to chase pirates with Cleopatra in a completely new matter. Given the series so far, this is the equivalent of announcing the offstage death of Lucius Malfoy, or Spike, or Krycek, or Bester, or any other multi-episode antagonist who deserves a climactic moment of defeat. It doesn’t help that Roberts has begun to straddle the supernatural by including minor scenes involving prophecies, curses, divinely inspired dreams and other plot devices inconsistent with realism, without emphasizing them enough to take the stories into historical fantasy.
In Saylor’s Gordianus timeline, Caesar is already well past Gaul and waging civil war on Rome. In A Murder on the Appian Way it is Gordianus who investigates the death of Clodius, even though neither Clodius nor Milo have even appeared in the series so far, while Roberts has them as permanent fixtures (until now, anyway). It’s hard to reconcile their minor roles in Saylor’s series with the front and center role they play as rivals from the very beginning of Roberts’s timeline. I read Rubicon out of order last month, which brought the war through the battle of Brundisium and earned Gordianus a new deadly enemy. Last Seen in Masilia similarly chronicles the blockade and seige of the city of that name, and has Gordianus again spending time in both camps as he simultaneously tries to locate his reportedly dead son Meto, investigates a mysterious death off of the city’s sacrificial rock, and becomes acquainted with the city’s scapegoat, scheduled to soon plunge from the same rock in absolution of the city’s sins. (Dying for the sins of others! I’m glad that’s an idea whose time has long passed). A Gladiator Dies Only Once is another short story collection going all the way back to the early parts of the series, with Eco as a mute boy. Again, it was jarring to leave the timeline, and the short mysteries are even more ridiculously easy than the novels, but they do immerse themselves in accurate culture. Saylor apparently likes to find actual events and build stories around them, such that every tale is centered around something that really happened—or, at least, was reported as true by the ancients, who Saylor suggests may be unreliable narrators, as in the part where Cicero discovers the lost tomb of Archimedes.
Set 150 years later, during Vespasian’s reign (see last month’s The Iron Hand of Mars to see how little the Germans, at least, changed since Caesar’s Gaul as described by Roberts), Marcus Didius Falco travels the empire from Spain to Arabia. Last Act in Palmyra (like most of all three authors’ books) is fairly silly as a whodunnit but a delightful romp as an adventure story. Falco and Helena his Very Superior Girlfriend are nominally on a mission to Arabia but spend most of the book improbably undercover as part of a traveling acting troupe where Falco takes the place of the recently deceased playwright/translator and manages to scrawl the precursor to Hamlet. The “last act” of the title involves a farce within a farce in which real and fictional killers, real and fictional clowns and some very real snakes and goats take turns stealing the show in ways that just have to be experienced. I loved it. Time to Depart, set in Rome, involves another corruption scandal similar to that of The River God’s Revenge, but set in lower places, as Rome’s most notorious organized criminal (The Caesar of Crime?) is finally convicted of a capital offense and given the customary “time to depart” into exile rather than face the executioner, leaving persons unknown attempting to fill the void with a sudden citywide crime wave. Falco’s adventures are a livelier romp than usual here, with plot developments taking him from his own squalid slums to high-end brothels to Vespasian’s palace. Finally, A Dying Light in Corduba has Falco take a very pregnant Helena with him to Spain in search of a plot to inflate olive oil prices, possibly with or without the approval of Vespasian. Mercifully, the usual adventures-while-pregnant tropes are not included, possibly thanks in part to having a female author. On the other hand, Davis is a bit of a wuss for abandoning the metal-themed titles after using up the “sexy” metals in the first five volumes. Glen Cook went on to make titles out of tin, pewter, lead, brass, mercury, and has probably gotten around to aluminum, pig iron, tungtsen and francium by now...
Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth
"They were planted out but last year, my lady," says I, to soften matters between them, for I saw she was going the way to make his honour mad with her: "they are very well grown for their age, and you'll not see the bog of Allyballycarricko'shaughlin at-all-at-all through the skreen, when once the leaves have come out. But my lady, you must not quarrel with any part or parcel of Allyballycarrick'oshaughlin, for you don't know how many hundred years that same bit o' bog has been in the family: we would not part with the bog of Allyballycarricko'shaughlin upon no account at all; it cost the late Sir Murtagh two hundred good pounds to defend his title to it and boundaries against the O'Learys, who cut a road through it."
I was expecting gothic horror of the sort Jane Austen made fun of in Northanger Abbey. No such luck. Castle Rackrent, published around 1800, is a piece of racist propaganda against the Irish that uses the fictional story of a clan of drunk, illiterate, brawling ignorant Irish who lose their ancestral estate through mismanagement, as an object lesson that the Irish are drunk, illiterate, brawling ignoramuses who need to be formally absorbed into England so that the English can tame and civilize and manage them. No really, that's the whole point of the tale; the author says so in a preface and epilogue. In between is 20 pages of family chronology of Rackrents dying of one vice or another, and then 50 pages more about the one final idiot who squanders what's left. Thankfully, the tale is short.
The same day i read it, I also learned of a state legislator in Arkansas who is right now claiming that dark-skinned people were better off as slaves than as free people, and that the Deep South did them a favor by bringing them here from their plague-infested African jungles to receive the benefits (and floggings, rapes and lynchings) of Christianity and civilization. So yes, it's topical. If you would be amused by a story about shiftless negroes licking their lips and stealing the preacher's watermelon, you'd probably enjoy Castle Rackrent too. Or, if you read about injustice to get pissed off about it, you'll find plenty to vent about.
American Nations, by Colin Woodard
In the end, the U.S. Constitution was the product of a messy compromise among the rival nations. From the gentry of Tidewater and the Deep South, we received a strong president to be selected by an “electoral college” rather than elected by ordinary people. From New Netherland we received the Bill of Rights, a set of very Dutch guarantees that individuals would have freedom of conscience, speech, religion and assembly. To the Midlands we owe the fact that we do not have a strong unitary state under a British style national Parliament; they insisted on state sovereignity as insurance against Southern despots and Yankee meddling. The Yankees ensured that small states would have an equal say in the Senate, with even the very populous state of Massachusetts frustrating Tidewater and the Deep South’s desire for proportional representation in that chamber; Yankees also forced a compromise whereby slave lords would be able to count only three fifths of their slave population when tabulating how many congressmen they would receive. People who weren’t allowed to vote, went the very Yankee reasoning, were not really being represented, and that fact ought to be reflected in the apportionment of congressional delegates.
This is the third book I've encountered that purports to divide North America, or the USA, into distinct sub-nations with distinctive opposing cultures, largely based on how people vote. All three agreed on the existence of a Latino-based Southwest, an Ecotopian northwest coast, a Southern culture, a farm belt, and a big thinly populated noncoastal west. If they included Canada, Quebec was recognized as a "nation", too.
To this, Joel Garreau added New England, a rust belt, and a Caribbean-centric area including South Florida to make Nine Nations of North America. Robert David Sullivan, who only counted US land, made ten nations in Beyond Red and Blue, by splitting "The South" between the Atlantic and cotton belt "lowlands" that still vote Democrat, and the Appalachian and Gulf coast right wing enclaves, by dividing the rust belt into a financial Atlantic Corridor and an industrial Great Lakes, and by splitting the farm belt into liberal and conservative sections (Ecotopia and New England were combined into "upper coasts" and South Florida was lumped in with the Latino "nation", as was Hawaii--because, hey, ethnic, same thing, right?). Sullivan apparently tried to make the ten "nations" equal in population, and failed, as by the time I read it, the Latino nation was much larger, and the liberal Farm Belt much smaller, than the average.
Which brings us to Woodard and his eleven nations:
1. The Inuit "First Nation" of upper Canada (liberal, undeveloped, environmentalist, cooperative)
2. "New France" (mostly Quebec, but improbably joined with bayou Louisiana--because French, and never mind that Quebec is maybe the most liberal nation of the eleven while Cajun Louisiana has pretty much aligned itself with the fringe right Deep South Baptists because, hey, at least we're not black)
3. "Yankeedom" (Woodard combines New England, the Great Lakes, the liberal farm belt all the way out to North Dakota and some pretty solid Republican land in, e.g., Michigan, to support a thesis that "The North" is one homogenous faction struggling for dominance of the US with a homogenous South faction. Liberal, statist, cooperative, environmentalist)
4. "New Amsterdam" (The Atlantic corridor, mostly New York City, with East NJ, Delaware and Baltimore thrown in. Liberal, corporatist, individualistic, allied with Yankeedom most of the time)
5. "The Left Coast" (Ecotopia--Liberal, individualistic, cooperative. Usually allied with Yankeedom but again a distinct entity)
6. Midlands (shaped like a squashed blintz; snakes around from Ontario down the Dakotas and around Yankeedom through most of the "swing states" all the way to Philadelphia on the east and the ends of Colorado and New Mexico on the west. If it was settled by Europeans not from England, France or Holland, Woodard put it here. Cooperative, moderate, suspicious of both big government and big corporate, and the most ready to assimilate a variety of cultures. Again, the land in question runs the gamut from some of the most liberal to some of the most conservative parts of America in defense of a pre-planned thesis, and it’s hard to see how urban Pennsylvania, Des Moines, and the Oklahoma panhandle are one culture, but whatever.)
7. Tidewater (Woodard is the only author of the three to identify the Chesapeake peninsula, most of Virginia, and North Carolina down to Charlotte, Winston-Salem and the Research triangle, as its own nation, but he may have a point. Traditionally allied with the rest of The South, it seems to be breaking away in very recent history--the only Southern states to vote for Obama besides Florida--on the grounds that it values education and civilization and does not respond to the vicious know-nothingism of the Teahad. Woodard doesn’t say so, but if the bluing of Tidewater and El Norte, the Democrats --identified with Yankeedom here—lasts, then Midlands is no longer necessary for a Democratic coalition and no longer plays kingmaker in national elections. Or maybe whoever wins two out of three controls America)
8. The Deep South (conservative, hostile, corporatist, statist, militaristic. The big enemy and competitor to Yankeedom, and the main proponents of racism from slavery through Jim Crow. Continues vote suppression to this day out of a belief that only certain lordly classes actually count as citizens.)
9. Greater Appalachia (conservative, hostile, individualistic, militaristic. The Deep South's big ally, differing in that Appalachia hates big government while the Deep South wants to use big government to enforce racist, classist supremacy. As with the Libertarian and religious wings of the Republican Party, it’s hard to see where the rednecks and the overentitled neo-Feudalists have any common ground, but apparently their hatred for the rest of the USA is palpable enough to overcome class distinctions)
10. Far West (conservative, corporatist, individualist, hostile) Differs from Appalachia in being willing to whore for corporate overlords while still claiming to hate big government)
11. El Norte (the Latino nation. Liberal, cooperative, statist. And once again, Woodard has lumped South Texas, Santa Fe, Durango, and Maricopa and Orange Counties together because Mexicans, and never mind that the land covered on the map runs the political gamut from kook to nut ).
If you were wondering, South Florida is left off the map entirely, possibly acknowledging Garreaus's "Islands" as a twelfth nation after all. Tampa, however, is “Deep South”.
Most of American Nations is a history of North America that attempts to show that these "nations" have been as they are since their founding. This works in some instances, as with the Far West's hostile climate, such that people pretty much had to tie themselves to corporate neofeudalists to survive there; and with the expansionist patterns that favored some nations while shutting out New Amsterdam and Tidewater. It's a little more dubious when Woodard tries to explain the differences among the nations in terms of cultural stereotypes, such that the Dutch, German, Scots-Irish, French and English "characters" made the nations what they are (I was a little relieved to be spared the cans of worms had there been a black or Jewish "nation". And Woodard fails entirely to explain how "Yankeedom", which was settled by Puritans, burned witches, and otherwise strove for Cromwellian religious ascendency in the old days, became one of the more secular and tolerant parts of the country today, while the Deep South, founded by rogue slaveholders to be a big atheist pleasure dome for the master class, with contempt for either religion or morality, has today become the "Bible Belt" and demands lock-step conformity with the strictest Old Testament-based beliefs. Why the big switch?
I'm a geography maven who loves to study quirky little corners of America, especially in terms of voting patterns, and so I lapped up American Nations eagerly, broad brush or no. Highly recommended, warts and all.
Wildlife, by Richard Ford
I opened my side and stepped out on the road just as she’d told me to. And the fire was all around me, up the hill on both sides and in front of me and behind. The small yellow fires and lines of fire were flickering in the underbrush close enough that I could have touched them just by reaching out. There was a sound like wind blowing, and a crack of limbs on fire. I could feel the heat of it all over the front of me, on my legs and my fingers. I smelled the deep hot piny odor of trees and ground in flames. And what I wanted to do was get away from it before it overcame me.
I got back in the car with my mother and closed the door. It was instantly cooler and quieter.
“How was that?” she said, and looked at me.
“It’s loud,” I said. My hands and legs still felt hot.
“Did it appeal to you?” my mother said.
“No,” I said. “It scared me.”
A short novel set in Montana. The narrator tells of when he was a young teen, his father lost his job and got another one fighting forest fires, which took him out of town. His mother had an extramarital affair with a creep. Bad Things happened. Many descriptions of wildfire and other destructive, hard to control natural forces, which are ham-handedly used as metaphors for the emotional turmoil surrounding the extramarital affair and the boy’s feelings. And...that’s pretty much the book. It’s short, fast paced and an easy read, but not the sort of thing I’m likely to remember for too long.
Satires, by Juvenal
Trebius, if you persist in these ways, so utterly shameless
That you think it is the highest good to live at another man’s table,
If you can stand for treatment the cheapest satellites never
Would have endured at the unjust board of an earlier Caesar,
Then I’d not trust your word under oath. I know, it takes little,
Little enough, to keep a belly content; if that’s lacking,
Is there no place on the sidewalk, no room on one of the bridges,
No smaller half of a beggar’s mat where you could be standing?
Is a free meal worth its cost in insult, your hunger
So demanding? By God, it would be more honest to shiver
No matter where you are, and gnaw on mouldy dog biscuit.
It may have been the translation, but I found Juvenal’s “biting wit” to pale beside that of Martial (last month’s Bookpost). For one thing, Juvenal had much less output, and what he had was less constrained by the need to be brief than the epigram format. For another, Martial is a “wit” while Juvenal just comes across as an angry old misanthrope. He hates everybody and everything, and is as equally likely to hate on the right wing for their corruption and on the left wing for their hedonism. He hates the high and oppressive, and the low and contemptible, often in the same satire.
He discusses a wide range of topics, from the above quoted diatribe against niggardly hosts and the twerps who put up with their abuse, to fathers who teach their children to be misers, to a crude attack on swishy gay men worthy of a modern Republican asshole, to an attack on philosophers, to an attack on people who go to small claims court, to...you get the idea. A few minutes with Andius Roonius.
The longest, and maybe the worst of the lot, is the predictably misogynistic “Against Women”, which reads like the kind of parody feminists have been setting up to rail against for most of my life: “If we’re strong, then we’re strident and bitchy, but if we aren’t then we’re ordinary weak females...” Juvenal does that, mocking the girly-girls who layer on oils and make-up with a trowel, and one page later mocking the ones who put on armor and fight “like men” in the gladiatorial games, but then---(wait for it!)---they take off their armor and sit in order to pee! Omigosh, do you suppose that one may have been actually funny the FIRST time it was said, 1900 years ago? Anyhow, it’s lighter than the Eclogues of Virgil (Bookpost, February 2011), and not much longer, but only twice as funny.
A Judgment in Stone, by Ruth Rendell
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. There was no real motive and no premeditation. No money was gained and no security. As a result of her crime, Eunice Parchman's disability was made known not to a mere family or a handful of villagers but to the whole country. She accomplished by it nothing but disaster for herself, and all along, somewhere in her strange mind, she knew she would accomplish nothing. And yet, although her companion and partner was mad, Eunice was not. She had the awful practical sanity of the atavistic ape disguised as twentieth-century woman.
Literacy is one of the cornerstones of civilization. To be illiterate is to be deformed. And the derision that was once directed at the physical freak may, perhaps more justly, descend upon the illiterate. If he or she can live a cautious life among the uneducated, all may be well, for in the country of the purblind the eyeless is not rejected. It was unfortunate for Eunice Parchman, and for them, that the people who employed her and in whose home she lived for ten months were peculiarly literate. Had they been a family of philistines, they might be alive today and Eunice free in her mysterious dark freedom of sensation and instinct and blank absence of the printed word.
This is not a whodunnit, but a “psychological thriller” that breaks all the rules and makes it work. The quoted passage above is the very beginning of the story, and it identifies the killer, the means and motive, the “big reveal”, and the ultimate consequences right up front, and yet the suspense when reading how it all played out is edge-of-your-armchair gripping.
Rendell never gets tired of reminding the reader that a shocking four-body-count murder is going to take place; the narrative is full of lines like, And then Jacqueline Coverdale, who had less than two months left to live, contentedly poured herself some tea. So the foreshadowing contributes to the suspense. So do a dozen little plot details of happenstance, any one of which would prevent the crime if they didn’t chance to happen just so. Finally, there’s the sense of utter pointlessness to the crime. The victims are kind, inoffensive people, and the housekeeper who kills them has few needs and wants nothing more than to do a job and be left alone apart from the cleaning and home management, and there seem to be few reasons why they shouldn’t all get along, or at the very worst, come to a parting of the ways without violence. That all changes because the housekeeper can’t read? Really?
Those of us who find ourselves rubbing elbows with both the educationally/financially gifted and with the illiterate poor sometimes don’t realize how little actual cross-socialization there is among classes. Few of us know what those of us more than a rung or two above or below us economically and educationally are thinking and doing on a regular basis, and the misunderstandings that result from the culture shock of high inequality are avoidable, unfortunate, and in this hypothetical case, deadly. Without once preaching, this book makes a compelling call for universal literacy. It matters.
Methuslah’s Children, by Robert A. Heinlein
It has been eleven years since the Families decided on the experiment of letting the public know that there were, living among them, persons who possessed a probable life expectancy far in excess of that anticipated by the average man, as well as other persons who had proved the scientific truth of such expectation by having lived more than twice the normal life span of human beings.
Like most people who go to conventions, I know some people who think Heinlein is the greatest writer ever. I've barely read anything by him; read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Citizen of the Galaxy decades ago, and they were nice but i didn't feel the need to go further. My sister in law recommended Methuslah's Children as a way to jump in again.
It's one of those stories I can't talk too much about, because the plot goes in surprising places quickly, and then does it again two or three more times. In fact, the book is divided into two parts, the second of which could almost be a sequel, it's so disconnected from what happens in the first part. Anyhow, the story begins with the premise that 100,000 or so people walk among us who have a hereditary gene that prolongs life, and that they've been selectively breeding with each other to the point of being bicentageneric and having ethical issues about whether it's incest to sleep with your great-grandchildren (who appear to be the same age as you). When the normal-lifespanned majority finds out, they assume the "Families" have been hoarding a scientific breakthrough, that by golly they're gonna get for themselves, by torture and murder if necessary, and then various things ensue, and things on top of things, most of which can be classified as culture shock.
Among the leaders of the Families is a stock Ornery Cuss named Lazarus Long, who appears in several Heinlein novels. Eastwood or Heston would play him in the big budget movie as a cowboy who may not have much book larnin', but he knows that water don't flow uphill and you don't go tryin' to teach a snake to whistle, and a buncha folksy aphorisms like that. In an environment where most of the rest of the cast is a high-powered official or an intergalactic space traveler, Long's aw-shucks drawl gets old, fast, and it doesn't help that he casually knows more science and philosophy than anyone else (it makes sense, given that he's over 200 gorram years old, but still). I've read better, and so have you.
Billiards at Half Past Nine, by Heinrich Boll
When they jumped me, I could smell what they’d been eating, even before they got real close, potatoes and gravy, roast meat, ham and cabbage. And while they were working me over, I used to think, why did Christ die, anyway? What good did it ever do me? What do I care if they pray every morning, take communion every Sunday and hang a big crucifix in the kitchen, over the tables where they eat their potatoes and gravy, roast meat, ham and cabbage? Nothing, that’s how much I care. What’s it all amount to, if they lie in wait every day and beat me up? It’s been going on like this for five or six hundred years. Yet, they’re always shooting off about how old their church is, and they’ve been burying their ancestors in the churchyard for a thousand years, for a thousand years they’ve been praying and eating potatoes and gravy, and ham and cabbage with the Crucifix on the wall. So what? You know what they used to holler at me when they were beating me up? God’s little lamb. That was my nickname.
20th Century Central European literature is my bete noir. It always translates poorly, explores dense philosophical concepts that do not make for a happy life if one accepts them, and if it’s German, my subconscious associates every official or soldier (and there are always officials and soldiers) with Evil Stormtroopers. I admit it; poor Heinrich Boll never had a fair chance with me, never mind that the clear message of the story is an encouragement to question authority, both government and religious.
There are literary techniques that are frustrating to one who wants a quick read. I eventually decided that, like Ulysses, it takes place over the course of just one day, about a decade after WWII. The reason it isn’t clear is that the story has more flashbacks than real time events, and switches the first-person narrator without identifying him or her at least once per chapter, so that one may have to flip back several pages having become utterly lost.
The central characters are three generations in a single family: the father/architect who designs a church; the son/architect who is conscripted into WWII against his conscience and blows up the church during a retreat, inciting beaucoup speculation as to whether his motives were military, anarchic, or oedipal; and the grandson earnestly trying to explain the family history out loud to himself and his girlfriend on the “present day”. The mother, who was put in an asylum after trying to board a boxcar full of Jewish prisoners about to be killed, either escapes or is released and has a gun. There is a sadistic gym teacher (as opposed to, I guess, gentle, nurturing gym teachers. Maybe one of those exists somewhere) who, of course, has a high old time doing nasty things for the SS. And the book eventually gathers everyone together to eat the father’s birthday cake, which is pointedly shaped like the church that got blowed up, and which is equally pointedly sliced by the son.
If that’s your thing, have at it. Recommended for literary scholars in the proper frame of mind.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, by Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley, and Jai Rodriguez
Primping ain't easy, boys. It takes work. But the real trick is doing it not just for someone else (though being aware of how you come off in public isn't a bad thing), but for you. It's time now to take your hygienic well-being into your own hands. Repeat after me: I am an uncouth, untweezed, improperly exfoliated stink-bomb of a man who'd best clean up my act (and bathroom) before five gay guys have to break down my door, restock my medicine cabinet, and forcibly tousle my hair.
I never really saw the TV show from the mid ‘00s, but the concept intrigued me. A gay hairdresser, decorator, fashion maven, gourmet and social host visit the heterosexual schmoe of the week and scold him for leaving trails of oily hair on the ground as he drags his knuckles across it. They give him and his rat-hole of a living space a makeover, and he finds true love, gets a raise at work and his cancer goes into remission, all thanks to the superior lifestyle tszujing of the Sassy Gay Friends. Things turn out quite different for you if you have a Sassy Gay Friend, you know.
It’s cute and entertaining, but problematical. The main problem with the book is, unlike an episode of the show, it’s necessarily not written with one specific guy in mind, and is therefore extremely general and basic. Kyan Douglas’s section on grooming, for example, is more than 50% about hair, and assumes that the reader has a full head of hair and no beard, which I, um, don’t. I did, however, read about skin care and invested in some “facial cleanser” and moisturizing cream. Do I feel all perky and look noticeably better as a result? Not so’s anyone tells me. Ted Allen’s advice on food and mixed drinks is stuff I’ve been doing for years, but he did tell me something about wine that I didn’t know. Jai Rodriguez has nothing to say about culture to anyone who has either grown up on Broadway and knows it like an actor, or who is never going to a major metropolitan area, ever. Thom Filicia’s home decor section is new ground for me, but I’ll have to wait to try to do anything with it until there are no longer toddlers in the house.
Which leaves Carson Kressley on fashion, and I’m not sure I trust him. Cowboy boots with a tuxedo? Denim shirts under a business suit? This is not the look that speaks to me. Kressley’s constant use of the word “people” as an interjection (“It’s a denim world, people!”) doesn’t help to inspire confidence either.
The second problem is that, being based on a TV show with sponsors, the book is heavily invested in urging you to throw down a lot of money you don’t have on high end clothes, kitchenware, hair product, and etcetera. I asked The Redhead about some of the things they thought every man should have, and my sweetie assured me that the world and our marriage would not be noticeably better if I only owned a nose-hair trimmer, a vintage denim jacket, a full set of Sisal rugs and some orange zest to put in my rosemary chicken. “Besides”, she told me, “What makes you think gay men are experts on what women want from a man?”
Um...The Redhead has won that argument.
Find all of my previous Bookposts here: http://admnaismith.livejournal.com/tag/bookposts