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14 March 2018

Book Review: Pompeii

PompeiiPompeii by Robert   Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I devoured this book. As someone said in the Goodreads thread, "To focus on the water systems of Pompeii and surrounding towns as effected by the imminent volcanic eruption is genius and I can't put this book down. Think it is a great way to add interest to an event we already know of the outcome."

The idea of aqueducts has always been fascinating, though I lack the specific engineering understanding to fully comprehend how amazing they actually were. I've seen the ruins of several (most impressively, Segovia in Spain and Pont du Gard in France) but knowing that before laser measuring and surveying, Roman engineers were able to build these massive, yet delicately-designed, structures. "The great Roman roads went crashing through Nature in a straight line, brooking no opposition. But the aqueducts, which had to drop the width of a finger every hundred yards--any more and the flow would rupture the walls; any less and the water would lie stagnant--they were obliged to follow the contours of the ground. Sometimes it was only the eagles, soaring in the hot air above some lonely mountainscape, who could appreciate the true majesty of what men had wrought."

Harris is a good writer in the sense that I was never given pause by his structure. Nor was I frequently blown away by his prose, save for a few dog ears like this one, where he is describing how smell and touch set off memory;

"But lately almost anything could set it off--a touch, a smell, a sound, a colour glimpsed--and immediately memories he did not know he still possessed came flooding back, as if there was nothing left of him any more but a breathless sack of remembered impressions."

I enjoyed every bit of it. Not once was I thrown off by the anachronistic coupling of language using modern terms cuddled up with Roman terms. Nor was I thrown off by the fictionalization of known Roman citizens.

Harris puts thoughts into Pliny the Elder's mind (and I'll leave it to the learned historians to determine how accurate his imaginings might be, although in the Acknowledgements, Harris says that Mary Beard read the manuscript and provided feedback; having just finished SPQR, I tend to trust that Beard knows what she's talking about) but one stream of consciousness Harris attributes to Pliny's thought process was particularly moving;

"Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and then dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails--and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?"

Ampliatus, the villain of the piece, wants his work in Pompeii to be important through the ages. He also wants to use predictions of the future as a way to solidify his power, so he commissions a sibyl, a fortune-teller, to give him a prophecy. And it's this prophecy that causes him to stay in the town as it is being pelted by ash and pumice; his conviction that Pompeii will survive.

"She saw a town--our town--many years from now. A thousand years distant, maybe more. She saw a city famed throughout the world. Our temples, our ampitheatre, our streets--thronging with people of every tongue. That is what she saw in the guts of the snakes. Long after the Caesars are dust and the Empire has passed away, what we have built here will endure."

The moral? Interpreting prophecy can dangerous.

"It killed more than two thousand people in less than half a minute and it left their bodies arranged in a series of grotesque tableaux for posterity to gawp at. For although their hair and clothes burned briefly, these fires were quickly snuffed out by the lack of oxygen, and instead a muffling, six-foot tide of fine ash, traveling in the wake of the surge, flowed over the city, shrouding the landscape and moulding every detail of its fallen victims.The ash hardened. More pumice fell. In their snug cavities the bodies rotted, and with them, as the centuries passed, the memory that there had even ben a city on this spot. Pompeii became a town of perfectly shaped hollow citizens."

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Book Review: SPQR

SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The snob in me was prepared to hate this book. Like a learn-ed history teacher probably should.

But, me, I am not so learn-ed. And my knowledge of Rome was spotty, at best. SPQR helped me put everything together in a chronological order that finally helps me understand Rome.

See, it's not just empire. First it was a city-state run by Etruscan kings. Then there was the Lucretia incident, a likely mythical tipping point for Roman citizens to overthrow their foreign king and form a republic (I actually played Lucretia in the Britten opera once but never quite made the connection as to what point of Roman history all of it...too busy learning notes and blocking to learn history; shame). The Roman Republic was born at approximately the exact same time as Athenian democracy, but neither was glorious and fully formed at any point in history; at best, it was always a bunch of rich people struggling to retain their power. Then Julius Caesar is murdered, because they were worried he was becoming too powerful, and Octavian becomes Augustus Caesar, who became the power-concentrated-in-one-person those who killed Caesar feared.

Beard puts all of this together in an attractive narrative that gives just enough detail to keep me interested and intrigued but not so much as to overwhelm. I'm what she knows about Rome that she left out of this book would fill volumes.

As usual, the greatest pleasure of history is the interesting trivia about things I've never thought about before.

Like the word "Aborigine" comes from ab origine meaning "from the beginning."

Or September comes from "7th month" (October, 8th, November, 9th, December (10th) because the old Roman calendar was structured differently and then suffered from development as they were continuously challenged to find a way to keep time that was consistent but also matched with the natural rhythms of the world, which has 365 1/4 days in a lunar year (back then, once in a while, they'd add an extra month to get things back on track; now we add an extra day every four years)

Or the fact that, of course, they did not calculate time like we do. BC, AD, BCE, CE; all a product of our modern sensibilities applied after-the-fact to ancient times. Romans usually referred to dates by the names of the consul who held office.

Or the fact that in the 4th century BCE, the base of the main platform for speakers in the Forum was decorated with the bronze rams of enemy warships captured from the city of Antium during the Latin War. The Latin word for "rams" is rostra, from where we get the word "rostrum."

Or the idea that the very idea of an electoral government is flawed because of the eternal conflict over whether the elected official is a "delegate," bound to vote exactly the way the people who elected him wish him to, or a "representative," elected to exercise his own judgement.

I'm writing this review 3 full days after I finished the book and I've already forgotten 80% of what I learned.

So I'll have to read it again. Then again. Then one more time. And I suspect it will be enjoyable each time because I'll have forgotten that I learned all this once or twice before. Everything old is new again.

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03 December 2017

Book Review: The Fault in our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just got back from a quick weekend get-away to Amsterdam, my first time in the city. Before we left, I handed my 13 year old this book.

I had read it myself, years ago, but didn't remember much about it. But I love John Green's voice and see much of that style in my own son's writing. Plus, Amsterdam! We love reading books that take place in the places we currently are.

My kid read it on the flight from Africa to Amsterdam. He reads quickly so he finished it in the Schiphol Airport while we were trying to figure out how to buy train tickets. He did not cry. He already knew the ending. He knows all the endings. The internet and his natural curiosity have created endless moments for us to say, a la River Song, "Spoilers!"

Then, as we were traipsing along the canals and bridges, we stumbled across the now-famous "Fault In Our Stars" bench, where in the movie adaptation, Gus tells Hazel he's sick again.

Then we went to the Anne Frank house and I suddenly vividly recalled Hazel's struggle with the stairs.

Currently, the last room you go to in the museum is a space where they have filmed people, regular people and famous people, discussing the impact of Anne Frank.

And there John Greene was on the screen, reading from The Fault In Our Stars "At the end of the hallway, a huge book, bigger than a dictionary, contained the names of the 103,000 dead from the Netherlands in the Holocaust. The book was turned to the page with Anne Frank's name, but what got me was the fact that right beneath her name there were four Aron Franks. Four. Four Aron Franks without museums, without historical markers, without anyone to mourn them."

So when I got home, I borrowed the book back from my son. I'm a quick reader, too, apparently. I just read it in one sitting.

And then I read some of the reviews; the anger of some people who think that teenagers don't talk like that and the whole book is pretentious.

But, see, some teens do talk like that. And the whole point of Gus WAS that he was pretentious. Hazel loved him most in those moments when he wasn't, but she was charmed when he was. "When surprised and excited and innocent Gus emerged from Grand Gesture Metaphorically Inclined Augustus, I literally could not resist."

And I loved the conversations they had about scrambled eggs.

Frankly, one of the reasons I love John Green is that I see my son in so many of Green's characters; too clever by half, gloriously nerdy, and awkwardly kind and generous.

So all ye who think these characters were not typical, shush. There is no typical. And just because the world likes to present all teens as vapid consumers of media and junk food, some teens defy that generalization.

Yes, the book is a little over-wrought. It's like watching the movie Titanic, which I have never done, because who wants to get attached to a bunch of characters who you know are just going to die in the end?

But isn't that was life actually is? Getting attached to characters who are just going to die in the end? "I am in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I'm in love with you."

Hazel and Gus are philosophical in a way that I find totally believable. They are smart, thoughtful kids who have been in the brink. When you have been to the brink and somehow survive, the way you approach the world changes entirely.

When Hazel veers off into cynical philosophy, the wisdom doesn't seem out of place in a 16 year-old's body. Because that 16 year-old has tasted the end and remembers what it tastes like:
"Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy? (This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.)"

Or when Gus is desperately (though we don't yet know it's desperate) trying to make a mark, even while playing a video game, we understand that he understands what it's like to look death in the face and wonder if you've done enough with your life:
"All salvation is temporary. I bought them a minute. Maybe that's the minute that buys them an hour, which is the hour that buys them a year. No one's gonna buy them forever, Hazel Grace, but my life bought them a minute. And that's not nothing."

The character of Peter Van Houten was a stretch, but in a book laced with metaphor, he fit perfectly:
"My response is being written with ink and paper in the glorious tradition of our ancestors and then transcribed by Ms. Vliegenthart into a series of 1s and 0s to travel through the insipid web which has lately ensnared our species, so I apologize for any errors or omissions that may result."

The process of healing:
"Each sleep ended to reveal a person who seemed a bit more like me."

The revelation of seeing yourself through someone else's eyes:
"You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are."

And the knowledge, that must be relearned on every bad day, that every day you are alive is, literally, a chance in of lifetime:
"I was thinking about the universe wanting to be noticed, and how I had to notice it as best I could. I felt that I owed a debt to the universe that only my attention could repay, and also that I owed a debt to everybody who didn't get to be a person anymore and everyone who hadn't gotten to be a person yet."

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15 October 2017

Book Review: The Medici

The Medici: Godfathers of the RenaissanceThe Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance by Paul Strathern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We are living overseas in a place where books in English are not easy to find.

We bought book this at a train station in Florence after we had been traveling in Tuscany and Rome. We also bought The Agony and the Ecstasy. We looked at SPQR and passed it up this time; it was too thick and heavy to fit in our luggage.

I have always been intrigued by the Medici family. My degrees in music have encouraged more than a passing interest in these patrons of the arts.

However, this book didn't do very much to enlighten me further. It DID re-emphasize why the family is important, but I found the whole thing an oxymoronic combination of tedious and vague.

The family tree at the beginning was useful; putting all the Cosimos and Lorenzos and Pietros into some semblance of era.

There were a couple of anecdotes I hadn't heard before. Like when Brunelleschi was being hounded to reveal how he was going to build the dome, he refused to reveal his plan. Instead, I took out an egg and asked the committee how they could make it stand up on its end. When no one could come up with an answer, he slammed the egg on the table so that the end was crushed flat, making it able to stand. The committee rolled their eyes and said that anyone could have done that. Brunelleschi replied, "Yes, but you would say the same if I told you how I intended to build the dome."

I also had never made the connection between the Medici fortune and the alum trade; before alum was discovered in Italy, Europe was beholden to the Muslim Ottoman empire for alum (which was used for dying clothes beautiful colors). Europe hated being beholden to the Ottomans. When alum was discovered in Italy, the pope made it illegal to buy alum from the Turks, thus giving whoever had rights to the Italian alum a monopoly. Who had the rights? The Medici.

Strathern's perhaps over-simplified explanation of the conflict between Da Vinci and Michelangelo may not be accurate, but made the concept of how much having the "Renaissance" mindset made one an outlier; "Leonardo simply detested Michelangelo, and made no secret of it. He saw himself as a cool-headed scientist with no need for God; Michelangelo, on the other hand, was obsessed with God. Leonardo wished to record the precise and subtle nature of what he saw and understood, while Michelangelo sought to record humanity's spiritual struggle. To Leonardo, Michelangelo had a medieval mind; others have seen his work as the epitome of the Renaissance spirit--the embodiment of the humanist ideal struggling and suffering in its attempt to realise itself."

The Machiavellian concept of virtu and fortuna means not virtue and fortune but power and destiny. Kind of like that concept I've seen best described in Eat, Pray, Love; "We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses--one foot is on the horse called "fate," the other on the horse called "free will." And the question you have to ask every day is--which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it's not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?"

About 3/4ths of the way through the book, it became useful to me. It solidified certain concepts of history that had only been rattling around before. Like the fact that Leo X was a Medici pope and he was trying to finance the building of St. Peter's so he increased the selling of indulgences, which finally pushed Martin Luther over the edge and led Europe into the Reformation and, eventually, the Counter Reformation.

Luther wasn't against the church. He was against the power of the papacy. More specifically, the power of the current Medici pope, Leo, who may not have even believed in God, his position in the church being more of a political move for his family. Luther was also protected from the wrath of the powerful church by the politics of the Holy Roman Empire and the rest of Europe. And, behold, there are now a myriad of Protestant denominations. Because Leo X was an agnostic Medic and Luther, who found powerful friends, got mad.

Of course, the papacy didn't work if it wasn't political. After Leo X died, his cousin Guilio, also a Medici, tried to ascend to the power. In the attempt, he put forth a name, Adrian Dedel, a deeply spiritual man. His assumption was that no one would want that and Guilio would be elected without competition. It backfired. Pope Adrian VI was in power for two years. He lived on a florin a day, ate only thin gruel, and ordered all the cardinals and archbishops to leave Rome and go serve the dioceses they represented directly (many of them had never laid eyes on their dioceses before). Arts patronage dried up. Rome sunk into a fiscal depression. Then Adrian died unexpectedly (likely poison) and the world welcomed a Medici pope, Guilio, who became Clement VII, with open arms.

Though this book was tedious, I had a little a-ha moment whilst reading it. It's amazing to me that, despite how well-read I am, and despite the fact that I've taught history for several years, there are some things I just have never really understood; words I hear bandied about that I don't fully comprehend. Concepts that are fuzzy. This is one that was made clear in a moment by Strathern's words; "Galileo's ideas on the close relationship between mathematics and physics led him to make a distinction between two different qualities of objects. First there were those physical qualities that could be measured, such as length, weight and so forth; these belonged to the objects themselves. Then there were qualities that could not be measured, such as the small of an object, its colour and its taste; these did not belong to the objects themselves, but were the impressions caused by the objects on the people who observed them. This crucial distinction would later be taken up by the English philosopher John Locke, and would form the basis of his philosophy of empiricism, the first genuinely scientific philosophy, which stated that all truth must be based on experience."

Also, a page later, this; "With hindsight, the conflict between the Church and science can be seen in context: it was both historically inevitable and in an intellectual sense utterly unnecessary. Its origins lay in the part Christianity had played in preserving Western civilization. During the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire, ancient knowledge had survived only in remote Christian communities. With the coming of more settled times in the medieval era, this knowledge had spread throughout the countries of western Europe, but had remained the preserve of the Church. This process had reached its apotheosis in the comparative intellectual stasis of the high medieval era, when the Church had still regarded all philosophy, all knowledge, all learning as its own: knowledge and the teachings of the Church were one. With the revival of intellectual enquiry prompted by the Renaissance, the Church found itself in a difficult position. Unwilling to relinquish its monopoly on knowledge, the Church decreed that any new knowledge must agree with its teachings, which meant paradoxically that the new discoveries of science were acceptable to the Church only when they were the same as what was already known."

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17 September 2017

Book Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live HereThe Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What was everyone else doing while Harry Potter saved the world? While Katniss was kicking ass and taking names?

So much YA fiction now is about an alternate universe; a dystopian world; a magical realm. As if the trials and tribulations of teens aren't enough to fill a book, we have to add saving the world and aliens and magic and evil and superpowers to make it interesting and readable and best-seller-y.

This book takes place in a dystopian world. One that has been wracked by zombies and soul-eating ghosts and vampires. And now a new threat; the Immortals. But the book doesn't talk about the kids who are fighting the Immortals. It imagines what life is like for the bystanders.

Each chapter opens with a short synopsis on what the "indie kids," the chosen ones, are doing. Chapter by chapter, we follow the magical story but only in summary. Only in parody.

"Chapter the tenth, in which indie kids Joffrey and Earth disappear from their homes, their bodies found miles away; Satchel goes into hiding at an abandoned drive-in with fellow indie kids Finn, Dylan, Finn, Finn, Lincoln, Archie, Wisconsin, Finn, Aquamarine, and Finn; seeing a blue light in the night, Satchel meets the boy from the amulet, the handsomest one she's ever seen; he tells her this isn't a safe place for her or the others and that they should run; then he tells her she's beautiful in her own special way and that's when she knows she can trust him; the indie kids go back to their homes."

Then the chapter continues on with the everyday lives, worries, and loves of the not chosen.

I have never read Patrick Ness before, so I had no preconceived expectations in diving into this book (which my kid read in a record 2 hours)

And I liked it. A heck of a lot. Maybe because I'm so tired of wading through all the YA fiction that buys into the idea that you aren't special unless you are tragic. Or magic. Or tragic and magic.

**Warning: A "Back in MY Day...!" old-person rant to follow**

When I was a kid I read Narnia and Tolkien. But I also read Blume and Hinton. And, usually, I liked Blume and Hinton better. One of my most favorite books as a pre-teen was some book about a girl who got a part-time job in a bakery. I don't even remember what it was called. Or who wrote it. But I read and re-read and re-read. Because that girl, that character, gave me a template for what I wanted to try to turn my teenage life into. I'd never go save the world. But maybe I could find a cool part-time job, two supportive adults-who-are-not-my-parents who believe in me and, bonus!, a cute, shy, brilliant boyfriend with great hair.

I don't think enough of those types of books exist today. And reading the reviews of THIS book, I understand why; so many people thought this book was sooooo boring. "Who wants to read about normal people?" the reviews say.

We've trained ourselves not to be interested in ourselves. We are not special unless we pretend to be more than we are on social media. Unless we're keeping some deep, dark, traumatic secret. Unless we are secretly a god or a superhero or a spy. The criteria for what makes someone special has increased; the bar is set too high.

Ness lowers the bar a bit (though he cannot take it all the way back down; his cast of characters includes a recovering anorexic, a kid with OCD, and the god of cats, though, to be fair, the god of cats is only a quarter god and he wants nothing more than to be normal, going as far as to using his boring, milquetoast middle name instead of his unique and powerful first name) and gives us a book about people. "Normal" people. Bystanders in the midst of typical YA-fare strife and adventure, but carrying on with their trivial lives, trying their best not to be touched by the burden of saving the world.

And I thought the concept was brilliant. I enjoyed the characters. I enjoyed the writing, too. Things like, "It's not the answer to everything but it's the one thing that's going to make the questions bearable." Or a girl who has that "combination of total self-belief and utter self-doubt that is more common than people think." Or "I wonder if realizing you're not sure about stuff is what makes you a grown-up?"

Or this; "Pity is an insult. Kindness is a miracle."

"Most people just have to live their lives the best they can, doing the things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while knowing that the world makes no sense but trying to find a way to be happy anyway."

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14 September 2017

Book Review: Nemesis

NemesisNemesis by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For me, 1970s Agatha Christie is just not as good as 1930s-50s Agatha Christie. Since I was alive in the 70s, the romance of the era is gone. Christie's books are much more fun when they are also describing a world that no longer exists.

This one is kind of a shattered cozy; limited set of characters but not limited enough. Limited locations but not limited enough. Miss Marple is front-and-center finally, but I found myself actually wishing she was back in St. Mary Mead being visited by flummoxed investigators and dispensing seemingly non-sequitur wisdom.

But I do admire her pluck. When I am old, I shall wear a pink shawl and call myself "Nemesis."

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11 September 2017

Book Review: At Bertram's Hotel

At Bertram's HotelAt Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

*** Spoiler Alert ***

It broke my heart that Bertram's Hotel was just a front for a crime syndicate because I really wanted to go stay there. And eat "well-buttered muffins," whatever those are since what I know as muffins are derided as a "kind of tea-cake with raisins in them. Why call them muffins?"

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