What I read last month.
Of special interest to political junkies is Niall Ferguson's ultimately disappointing but big look at Bush (and American in general) foreign policy in Colossus and my long overdue introduction to Game of Thrones.
Also, that famous book by Nabokov, and what that famous book club in tehran found in it; the return of Swallows and Amazons; a quick look at morals and manners; and more Roman classics (Lucretius, Nicomachus, Cicero) supplemented by the excellent historical mysteries of Steven Saylors and John Maddox Roberts. Enjoy!
Physics for Poets: De Rerum Natura, by Lucretius
This, then, is what we term Venus. This is the origin of the thing called love—that drop of Venus’ honey that first drips into our heart, to be followed by numbing heart-ache. Though the object of your love may be absent, images of it still haunt you and the beloved name chimes sweetly in your ears. If you find yourself thus passionately enamoured of an individual, you should keep well away from such images. Thrust from you anything that might feed your passion, and turn your mind elsewhere. Vent the seed of love upon other objects. By clinging to it you assure yourself of the certainty of heart-sickness and pain. With nourishment the festering sore quickens and strengthens. Day by day, the frenzy heightens and the grief deepens. Your only remedy is to lance the first wound with new incisions; to salve it, while it is still fresh, with promiscuous attachments; to guide the motions of your mind into some other channel.
Do not think that by avoiding grand passions you are missing the delights of Venus. Rather, you are reaping such profits as carry with them no penalty. Rest assured that this pleasure is enjoyed in a purer form by the healthy than by the love-sick. Lovers’ passion is storm-tossed, even in the moment of fruition, by waves of delusion and incertitude. They cannot make up their mind what to enjoy first with eye or hand. They clasp the object of their longing so tightly that the embrace is painful. They kiss so fiercely that teeth are driven into lips. All this because their pleasure is not pure, but they are goaded by an underlying impulse to hurt the thing, whatever it may be, that gives rise to these budding shoots of madness.
Stoics love to bash Epicures by calling them shameless hedonists, and they tend to go unrebutted, because while the Stoics spent much of their lives in dusty attics, scribbling about virtue, the Epicures were mostly out enjoying life...and the works of the ones who wrote were burned by Stoics. The works of Epicurus himself, except for a few letters (one of which explicitly denounces hedonism and praises learning and wisdom and refinement among the great “pleasures in life” that are the highest good) were destroyed millennia ago, and so the one great example of Epicurean writing is De Rerum Natura. Being an Epicure, naturally, he wrote it as a poem. I chose a prose translation rather than either attempt the original Latin or deal with the limitations of a translation forced to stretch itself to come up with English rhymes for Latin concepts. I wanted the meaning of the philosophy.
One of the wonderful things about it is that most of the philosophy is about science, not ethics or metaphysics. Living in an age without microscopes, telescopes or the scientific method, he got it mostly wrong about atoms, the weather, the way the senses work, and the cosmos...but the beauty of Lucretius’s descriptions is worth the errors. Don’t read it to learn science; read it to become more curious about the way things work. If what we taste is not affected by sharp, prickly atoms for bitter flavors and round, smooth atoms for sweet flavors, then why aren’t they? Reading Lucretius, I sometimes felt like I was a tiny soul riding on an atom. Whee!
Lucretius—and perhaps the Epicurean philosophy in general—is perhaps the only major philosophical system that is frankly atheistic. Lucretius identifies religion (correctly, it seems to me) as a scam perpetuated by clergy to gain temporal power for themselves, and the source of a great deal of human misery. People invented religion out of fear of nonexistence following death...and promptly invented Hell for an afterlife. Silly humans. Lucretius, however, defines death as being no different than an eternal, dreamless sleep, neither to be feared nor looked forward to. And in this point, he agrees in part with Cicero the Stoic (who hedged his bets, as usual, arguing that this was true and cause for comfort if there was no afterlife, but that if there was an afterlife, you didn’t have to fear death either).
De Rerum Natura is curious, fanciful, infectious, and a delightful romp through science and philosophy. One of my favorite ten or so philosophical works, and very highly recommended.
Philosophy You Can Count On: Introduction to Arithmetic, by Nicomachus
There is, however, a method very exact and necessary for all discussion of the nature of the universe which very clearly and indisputably presents to us the fact that that which is fair and limited, and which subjects itself to knowledge, is naturally prior to the unlimited, incomprehensible, and ugly, and furthermore that the parts and varieties of the infinite and unlimited are given shape and boundaries by the former, and through it attain to their fitting order and sequence, and like objects brought beneath some seal or measure, all gain a share of likeness to it and similarity of name when they fall under its influence. For thus it is reasonable that the rational part of the soul will be the agent which puts in order the irrational part, and passion and appetite, which find their places in the two forms of inequality, will be regulated by the reasoning faculty as though by a kind of equality and sameness. And from this equalizing process there will properly result for us the so-called ethical virtues, sobriety, courage, gentleness, self-control, fortitude and the like.
Mortimer Adler loves Nicomachus of Gerasa. He included Introduction to Arithmetic in his set of "Great Books of the Western World' and in every list of the western canon he ever put in as an appendix to one of his books. Aside from Adler, I've never seen references to Nicomachus anywhere. Euclid, Plutarch, Cicero are everywhere; they make use of Homer, Plato and every other "Great Author" who came before, and are mentioned or heavily borrowed from by countless "Great Authors" who come afterward, but Nichomacus stands alone.
His very short tract (20 pages of double-column in a Great Books volume that also has 400 pages of Euclid) is one of the odder works in the set; it treats mathematics as a philosophy, with numbers as a stepping stone to music, astronomy, and ultimately, to life, the universe and wisdom itself. The actual math discussed is very basic--prime numbers, perfect numbers, some sequences and proportions, a meditation on infinity--and the vocabulary appears to be unique as well. I was unfamiliar with words like "superpartient" (a number that is one more than a number that divides another number evenly) maybe mathematical people use those words frequently, but once I had the definition, the sequences involved were easy.
I found almost sweetly naive the notion that simply being able to count could be all that one needed to live a rich and ethical life. Know the greater and the less and you can easily discern the true value of an investment, understand your rational self-interest, make the right choice in any given situation. Know numbers and you understand the philosophy behind the harmonic scale. Introduction to Arithmetic is too brief to present these ideas in a really convincing way, but the mere act of asserting them is enough to inspire you to squint at the world in a wholly different way, using only what you probably already knew before starting. Most math texts aren't even in the same category. The only things I can think of that compare are the mathemagician sections from Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth...and certain fitful dreams I've had when sick with fever, in which I've imagined sets of rods arranging themselves in various shapes and sequences to illustrate mathematical rules, and then stepping back in a "See? This is what it's all about" sort of way. Well worth the hour or two it will take you to read and study it
Poets and Murder: Head of a Traveler, by Nicholas Blake
”So how was he murdered?” Nigel asked.
“There were no marks of violence –e’eh—on the body.”
“No trace of poison in the organs,” replied Blount, evidently enjoying Nigel’s mystified expression.
“He wasn’t drowned. He wasn’t poisoned. He wasn’t shot, stabbed or beaten to death. What sort of corpse is this?”
“He was wearing a mackintosh—no other clothes at all. Faint traces of bloodstains were found on it, in spite of the immersion,” continued Blount with stolid complacence.
“But how the devil?—
“Mostly on the outside of the mackintosh. The deceased was judged to be about five feet, eight inches in height.”
“What d’you mean, judged to be? Haven’t the Oxfordshire police got a tape measure?”
Blount’s climax, for which he’d certainly worked hard enough, now arrived. He said,
“Well, e’eh, ye’ll no’ judge precisely of a man’s height when his head is missing.”
Nicholas Blake continues to be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. He runs the gamut from bad to beyond awesome. Head of a Traveler leans towards the Awesome category. It suffers a bit from "Murder, what fun!" syndrome, and uses the trope of defining all of the suspects as "eccentrics" so that the author can have them make witty comments and behave obliviously in the face of what is supposed to be a tragedy (I've never had a murder in my household and so I'm not 100% sure what it would be like, but I doubt I'd be having stimulating conversations about it or planting clues to throw suspicion on myself to protect my loved ones, while the police were around), but those are the only weak points. It's very well plotted and carefully salted with the right amount of clues and misdirection, and when all is said and done, the final truth is deeply moving, eccentrics or no eccentrics.
The main setting is the country estate of a well-known poet who lives with his wife, son, daughter, two tenants and a mute dwarf (yes, really). Strangeways the detective is very fond of the poet's work and is conflicted at the thought that such a man may be responsible for the headless corpse that turns up in the area
I was always one move, but no more, ahead of the detective. I came up with what I considered to be a clever hypothesis for a solution early on, only to read one chapter later that that theory was the one that the bumbling Lestrade figure proposed for the main detective to laugh at. Then I noticed a couple of inconsistencies and began to draw conclusions from them, and then found the detective emphasizing those same inconsistencies in the next chapter, and confronting the suspect and getting more answers one chapter after that. And so it continued for another four or five rounds, until two chapters from the end, when the detective finally went, "AHA! I now understand the significance of Clue X, and therefore know who did it.", and I understood right along with him and got--barely--to smugly read along to the solution. Which is maybe the most satisfying way of all to read a mystery.
Just Like The...:Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
Oh, do not scowl at me, reader. I do not intend to convey the impression that I did not manage to be happy. Reader must understand that in the possession and thralldom of a nymphet the enchanted traveler stands, as it were, beyond happiness. For there is no other bliss on earth comparable to that of fondling a nymphet. It is hors concours, that bliss, it belongs to another class, another plane of sensitivity. Despite our tiffs, despite her nastiness, despite all the fuss and faces she made, and the vulgarity, and the danger, and the horrible hopelessness of it all, I still dwelled deep in my elected paradise—a paradise whose skies were the color of hell-flames—but still a paradise.
So, when I went looking for Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory (see below) in the library, my eye was caught by the (coincidentally because Nafisi is next to Nabokov in the bio section) Reading Lolita in Tehran (again see below), and realized that I couldn’t really read about “Reading Lolita” without first having actually read Lolita...and so June’s bookpost gets three in a row, so to speak.
Humbert Humbert is in a relationship with Lolita, and it’s complicated. I’m not much of a fan of statutory rape and had until now contented myself with the movie version as enough of a Lolita experience for me. This month, I figured it was time to find out for myself if Nabokov’s modern classic was really good literature or just creepy. The answer is, of course, both. We are large, we contain multitudes.
In fact, the book has a wickedly perverse humor to it that appealed to my penchant for satire the same way Swift’s “modest proposal” that the impoverished Irish be encouraged to eat their children appealed; the same way a telling of the rise of Josef Stalin told in the style of the young hopeful trying to make it into show biz would appeal. Lolita would be a classic three-hanky romance novel but for the insurmountable detail that the “protagonist”, Humbert Humbert, is a narcissistic, personality-stunted pedophile.
Humbert, like many pathological predators, manages to make himself perversely likable, in large part because he presents himself to the reader (as opposed to those unfortunate enough to know him in the story), warts and all, without apology, and invites you to have fun watching his antics. It’s a technique used in many depictions of rogues, from George MacDonald Frasier’s Flashman series to Olivier’s portrayal of Richard III to Ian Richardson’s Urquhardt inHouse of Cards. Humbert is English, cultured, erudite and very articulate, and one can even sympathize with him, just a little, if...but, no. He is one of the most unreliable narrators in fiction, and so his claims of having been seduced by the 13 year old Dolores should be taken with several grains of salt. Similarly, people who make excuses for Humbert because of Lolita’s allegedly provocative behavior are asserting that Humbert is telling the whole truth, and that a preteen is more responsible for her behavior than a fully grown adult.
I liked the send-up of culture in post-WWII America. Toward the beginning of Part 2, Humbert and Dolores take a long road trip through America, the description of which includes a panoramic view of the sights and sounds to be found throughout the country in that age. That panorama may well be the best part of the book.
So yes, I recognize real literary merit in the book and encourage most of you to set aside disapproval and savor the wonderful irony and character study in Lolita. I say “most of you”, because if you’re triggered by pedophilia issues, this isn’t the book for you. It’s not the movie. The movie makes it ambiguous whether Humbert ever actually lays a finger on Dolores or whether he’s just obsessive about her. And Quilty, a major—and frightening—character in the movie—is barely a blip on the radar in the book until the final chapters. There is no such ambiguity in the book--there is sex, presented from Humbert’s frame of mind as if it were a wonderful, erotic expression between consenting adults. Highly recommended anyway.
...Old Man In...:Speak, Memory (An Autobiography Revisited), by Vladimir Nabokov
All my life I have been a poor go-to-sleeper. People in trains, who lay their newspaper aside, fold their silly arms, and immediately, with an offensive familiarity of demeanor, start snoring, amaze me as much as the uninhibited chap who cozily defacates in the presence of a chatty tubber, or participates in huge demonstrations, or joins some union in order to dissolve in it. Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing. The strain and drain of composition often force me, alas, to swallow a strong pill that gives me an hour or two of frightful nightmares or even to accept the comic relief of a midday snooze, the way a senile rake might totter to the nearest euthanasium; but I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me.
It’s a relief to see that Nabokov seems to be a decent enough person, although there are quirks of writing specific to Nabokov that are jarring when his autobiography is read right after Lolita, where the equally cultured but indecent narrator has the same patterns.
People looking for insight into Lolita will be disappointed; Nabokov wrote Speak, Memory in stages before Lolita, and though he revised it to make some passing references to the 1950s, he barely mentions any of his novels. The first twelve chapters are about his childhood in Russia, and the last three are about travels in exile in Europe. Many of the chapters were first published separately as magazine pieces, which make the book easier to read in short bites but which give the autobiography as a whole a disjointed aspect, going from a chapter primarily about his father to one about butterfly collecting to one about his first schoolboy crush.
Like Samuel Johnson, Nabokov’s observations on the world are a bit too conservative and too full of himself for my tastes, but also like Dr. Johnson, his exuberant personality makes up for it. Read it for the ability to craft a great turn of phrase and vividly describe a scene.
...That Book By Nabokov: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
For nearly two years, almost every Thursday morning, rain or shine, they came to my house, and almost every time, I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color. When my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes. Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self. Our world in that living room with its window framing my beloved Elburz Mountains became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.
This is one of the very best books I’ve read this year so far. It works on many, many levels, pulling together literary analysis, modern history and religious oppression into a girl-power story about the potential to change the world through...a book discussion group.
I put my bookpost on several online forums, always sort of hoping that a big admirer of a particular book will comment and tell me what I was missing about a book I didn’t like or to share thoughts in depth about a book we both adored. Reading Nafisi in Oregon is maybe the next best thing. Starting with Lolita and continuing with E.C. Bentley (Bookpost, December 2011) and Dashiell Hammett (April, 2012), she’s read many of the same big literary and minor literary classics I have, and has something to say about them. So do the students she took under her wing at her house when teaching conditions at the University of Tehran became too intolerable for her to continue as a professor there.
Reading Lolita in Tehran combines Nafisi’s own backstory, from experiencing the 1960s in America to the overthrow of the Shah, Iran-Iraq war and the establishment of a misogynistic theocracy in Iran, with the development of the book discussion group, and comments on world events and on works of literature by Henry James, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of course, Nabokov. All of these aspects interlock magnificently.
In the United States, where our leaders long for an excuse to invade and occupy countries with oil resources, we are exposed to such a non-stop drumbeat of anti-Iran propaganda that I tend to take what I read with several grains of salt. According to Nafisi, not only is it all true, but it’s worse than what they tell us. It’s like the world of The Handmaid’s Tale(Bookpost, August 2009), except that it exists, here on Earth, today, in a country where women are treated like minors, not allowed out without male supervision, forced to wear degrading clothing and held responsible for being beaten and raped on the grounds that they are provocative and men can’t be expected to control themselves. And this is what American Republicans want to bring to our own country. One of the most jarring descriptions in the whole book, to me, was that of students occupying the American Embassy in 1979, marching in the streets---not for freedom and civil liberties, as countless Americans are occupying Wall Street today, but to establish a theocratic regime of honor killings and dress codes. For Allah.
It is into that environment that Nafisi and seven of her female students, selected as being the smartest (there is one male student who must come separately at different times, since mixed-gender gatherings in homes are Forbidden) gather to empower themselves by drawing lessons from Humbert Humbert’s treatment of girls, from the options available to the Bennett girls, from the “wicked” heroines of Henry James and the Brontes, and from the (deeply hated, blasphemous even) capitalist American dream as personified by Jay Gatsby.
I figure if this had been an Oprah Club selection, something on the book cover would have pointed that out. It’s just the sort of book that should have been, and at the same time much better than what many people usually think of as Oprah Club selections. I renewed it and gave it to my mother-in-law to read as soon as I was finished.
Nafisi emigrated to America in 1997, when she’d had as much of the religious bullshit as she could take. I wonder if today she’s seeing the same disturbing parallels I do.
Farewell to Cicero: Selected Letters and Treatises
Certainly, if you had been here, you would have enjoyed to a fuller extent and more directly the benefit of the services which I am bound to render you. Moreover, in taking vengeance on those whom you know in some cases to be your enemies, because you championed the cause of my recall, in others to be jealous of the splendid position and renown which that measure brought you, I should have done you yeoman’s service as your associate. However, that perpetual enemy of his own friends who, in spite of having been honored with the highest compliments on your part, has selected you of all people for the object of his impotent and enfeebled violence, has saved me the trouble by punishing himself. For he has made attempts, the disclosure of which has left him without a shred, not only of political position, but even of freedom of action.
The idea of people having their private letters published always sort of bemuses me (”Dear Woogums: I am fine. How are you? It’s raining a lot over here lately. Thank you for the nice sweater....”), and I don’t read them very often. However, the introductions to the other Cicero works I read over the past few months gushed so about Cicero’s writing style in his letter compared with his orations, that I picked out a not-too-thick volume of his major letters.
I wasn’t all that impressed. The letters aren’t dated, and are written mostly to people I never heard of. He talks about events that are re-hashings of what I already read in Plutarch and the Orations. Boy, is Cicero ever proud of his prosecution of Clodius, who dressed up in drag to get a forbidden look at the sacred rites of the Bona Dea! How frequently he refers to this, even thought the prosecution failed and Clodius later got Cicero banished from Rome for a time in revenge. How sad it is that he lost a daughter. These letters are maybe valuable as a snapshot of history, but they aren’t exactly my cup of cocoa. I’m glad the volume was thin.
Also included were Cicero’s treatises “On Friendship” and “On Old Age”, which are noncontroversial enough to be maybe the Cicero writings most often included in low-level humanities classes. Friendship is a good thing, if you were wondering, second only to virtue in goodness, and only possible between virtuous people. You should be loyal to your friends. Also, old age isn’t so bad, because you can keep your passions in check; the approach of death means either an afterlife, which is good, or no afterlife, in which case there’s nothing to be miserable about (This is another point on which Cicero apparently agrees after all with those Epicureans he likes to denounce as undisciplined hedonists); and strength is for wusses, wisdom is what really counts. The decline of the mind as well as the body is dismissed on the grounds that only unworthy, dissipated people become senile. My mother, who kept herself on quite a tight rein before succumbing to dementia, would be mortified.
And that’s the last of Cicero’s main works, and the last example of literature from the Roman Republic. Coming in July: On to the literature of the Empire.
Not just for the Rose: The Names, by Don DeLillo
Places, always places. Her memory was part of theconsciousness of lost places, a darkness that ran deep in Athens. There were Cypriots here, Lebanese, Armenians, Alexandrians, the island Greeks, the northern Greeks, the old men and women of the epic separation, their children, grandchildren, the Greeks of Smyrna and Constantinople. Their true home was to the spacious east, the dream, the great idea. Everywhere the pressure of remembrance. The black memory of civil war, children starving. Through the mountains we see it in the lean faces of men in flyspeck villages, stubble on their jaws. They sit beneath the meter on the cafe wall. There’s a bleakness in their gazing, an unrest. How many dead in your village? Sisters, brothers. The women walk past with donkeys carrying bricks. There were times when I thought Athens was a denial of Greece, literally a paving over of this blood memory, the faces gazing out of stony landscapes. As the city grew it would consume the bitter history around it until nothing was left but gray streets, the six-story buildings with laundry flying from the rooftops. Then I realized the city itself was an invention of people from lost places, people forcibly resettled, fleeing war and massacre and each other, hungry, needing jobs. They were exiled home, to Athens, which spread toward the sea and over the lesser hills out into the Attic plain, direction-seeking. A compass rose of memory.
My reading of The Names was unfortunately colored by two other books I read recently: Underworld (Bookpost, January 2012), which is considered DeLillo’s masterpiece and which I found to be 800 pages of annoying baby boomer wanking; and The Name of the Rose (Bookpost, April 2012), in which Umberto Eco does so excellently what DeLillo attempts to do with The Names that the comparison suffers. In fact, the literary and skullduggery aspects of Eco and DeLillo are so similar that I would have wondered if DeLillo had ripped off Eco’s idea, except that DeLillo was published first.
The Names was written in 1982, about the year 1979 (It’s exact, as the hostage crisis in Iran and other Middle Eastern terrorist crises of the day are referenced as a key thematic element), and has not aged well. The wealthy Americans gallivanting around the Mediterranean having nihilistic marital difficulties and talking about themselves may accurately reflect the culture of the 1970s, but today their behavior seems more alien than that of the swarthy Mediterranean “others” in whose countries they act as boorish tourists.
The protagonist, James, is a risk assessor for a large corporation, which helps to let you know that “risk assessment” is part of the theme of the book. The parallels with Umberto Eco are twofold: the obsession with language and symbols (DeLillo or his protagonist at one point asserts that language and meaning are the great gifts that Americans bring to the Greeks, an assertion that had me drop my jaw), and the existence of a secret cult. The cult in The Names apparently indulges in ritual killings, the victims and locations of which are determined by wordplay involving their names (get it?), and James spends much of the second half of the book feverishly working to discover the cult’s secret, heedless of the risk (get it?) to his own safety.
DeLillo’s 1979 is a world full of political and emotional upheavals, the importance of which are measured by the effects they have on the central characters’ mid life crises. I look back and see the tail end of my country’s Golden Age; a time when we had the only President in my lifetime who never lied to the American people, not once; a time when the destruction of America’s economy and culture under Reagan and the Bushes had not yet begun; a time when people were free to do their own thing, excessively at times, without having to line up and piss in a bottle under the threat of mandatory minimums. And yet, a lot of people were still deeply unhappy at the time. We never knew how good we had it.
Slow Boats: Missee Lee, by Arthur Ransome
”You’ll hear plenty of fireworks if you’re going across to the China coast,” said the harbormaster. “They let ‘em off whenever a ship comes in.”
“Good,” said Roger.
”Can’t think why you don’t make straight for Singapore.”
“Oh look here,” said Nancy. “When we’re so near. We can’t go round the world without just having a look at China...”
“It’s a rum place,” said the harbormaster. “And rum people. I’d be sorry if the next I hear from you is a finger in a matchbox and a hint of more to follow.”
This is the tenth in Ransome’s awesome Swallows and Amazons series that has me enthralled even though it’s supposed to be for kids. It’s one of the better of the “real adventure” books where the characters, instead of playing at being pirates in the English country lake, encounter real ones. This time, the Swallows and the Amazons, with Captain Flint, lose the Wild Cat at sea and get captured by Chinese pirates and taken to an island fortress. Imagined and actual mayhem ensue.
As always, Nancy Blackett steals the show. I enjoyed how Ransome managed to make her swear like a sailor without using actual profanity. The depictions of the Chinese are problematic. Ransome resorts to the cliche of the inscrutable, sinister “oriental” who says things like, “Ah you suplise I speakee English so well?” and “You no leave island! Chop-chop head!”, and can never be trusted. Ransome apparently traveled in China during the Kipling era, and absorbed the whole “white man’s burden” nonsense. If you can put aside your reaction to such racism and enjoy what is otherwise a decent juvenile adventure that redeems itself with gender equality that was uncommon for its day, I recommend this book along with the rest of the series.
Mr. Manners Approves: Choosing Civility, by P.M. Forni
1. Pay Attention
2. Acknowledge Others
3. Think the Best
5. Be Inclusive
6. Speak Kindly
7. Don't Speak Ill
8. Accept and Give Praise
9. Respect Even a Subtle "No"
10. Respect Others' Opinions
11. Mind Your Body
12. Be Agreeable
13. Keep it Down (and Rediscover Silence)
14. Respect Other People's Time
15. Respect Other People's Space
16. Apologize Earnestly
17. Assert Yourself
18. Avoid personal Questions
19. Care for your Guests
20. Be a Considerate Guest
21. Think Twice Before Asking for Favors.
22. Refrain from Idle Complaints
23. Accept and Give Constructive Criticism
24. Respect the Environment and Be Gentle to Animals
25. Don't Shift Responsibility and Blame
I don’t think I’ve ever chosen my representative book quote from the table of contents before, but there’s a first time for everything and the above probably is the most helpful indication of what the book is about. It’s like one of those Cracked lists of “Ten movie protagonists who are really villains if you think about it” or “Eight ways your grocery store is trying to kill you”, only somewhat longer and more important. If that table of contents has things you already have a firm habit of doing, it’s not likely to tell you anything new. If not, or if the ideas make you curious, or you’ve had poor results in getting along with others, it may be a life saver.
One of the nice things about reading a variety of books at once is that ideas from one book speak to ideas from another book, and you start to make connections. Hence, reading Choosing Civility at the same time as Cicero and Lucretius turned a standard light etiquette book into a work of moral philosophy, in which I tended to ask myself whether and why it was right to do various things. Also, Azar Nafisi’s recurring theme of a villain being distinguished from a hero based on ability to understand other people’s needs is significant. The sections on each “rule” are fairly short, and I read each one slowly, thinking it over as I went. Each “rule” is a reminder that your daily life provides hundreds of opportunities for each of us to make our little corners of the world just a little bit happier and better functioning.
An election year is a good time to read this book. Political and religious opponents seem to pride themselves on being uncivil, apparently as if rudeness and shouting were evidence of Alpha superiority. My idea of Alpha superiority is to mark my territory with sunshine rather than piss.
O Tempora, O Mores: Roman Blood, by Steven Saylor, and The King’s Gambit, by John Maddox Roberts
Rome has no police force. There is no armed municipal body to keep order within the city walls. Occasionally some violence-weary senator will propose that such a force be created. The response on all sides is immediate: “But who will own these police?” And they are right. In a country ruled by a king, the loyalty of the police runs in a clear, straight line to the monarch. Rome, on the other hand, is a republic (ruled at the time of which I write by a dictator, it is true, but a temporary and constitutionally legal dictator). In Rome, whoever plotted and schemed to get himself appointed chief of such a police force would simply use it for his own aggrandizement, while his minions’ biggest problem would be deciding from whom to accept the largest bribe, and whether to serve that person or stab him in the back. Police would serve only as a tool for one faction to use against another. Police would merely become one more gang for the public to contend with. Rome chooses to live without police. --from Roman Blood
These were evil times, the previous years having been marred by civil wars, insurrections, rebellions of provincial governors, the actions of self-seeking generals, even a massive slave rebellion. There had been proscription lists, dictatorships, the unprecedented seven Consulships of Gaius Marius. Within my own lifetime soldiers had actually fought within the city, and there had been bloodshed within the sacred precincts of the Curia.
Yes, they were evil times, but in my long lifetime I have come to see that the times have always been evil, and the idyllic old days of nobility and virtue never really occurred, but are only the fantasies of poets and moralists. Many men involved in the politics of my younger days used this supposedly unique depravity of the times to excuse unconscionable behavior, but I could not.
Very well, if there was little virtue to be found in public life, there was still duty. I was a Caecilius Metellus, and no member of that family had ever betrayed Rome. As long as there was even the appearance of a danger to the city, I would pursue this case to its very depths and bring the guilty parties to justice. --from King’s Gambit
All right, so maybe it isn’t farewell to Cicero after all. When I read his Orations, I remarked in last month’s Book Post that the orations suffered for lack of a prosecutor, and that it was hard to see why prosecutions were even brought, if the facts and evidence were indeed as Cicero asserted them to be, his clients seemed that innocent. A friend recommended the historical mysteries of Saylor and Roberts. They are 20th century fiction, but now I have a better idea of what those prosecutions might have been like.
Roman Blood is the first in Saylor’s “Roma Sub Rosa” series, which begins around 80 BC, toward the end of Sulla’s dictatorship and centers around “Gordianus The finder”, Republican Rome’s equivalent of “It was half past my hangover when The Dame walked into my office, her figure describing a set of parabolas that would have distracted even Archimedes”. Gordianus is hired by young Cicero, just beginning a career as an advocate, to find evidence for the defense of Sextus Roscius, accused of killing his father. As it turns out, I just happen to have recently read the actual oration of Cicero in the defense of the actual Sextus Roscius, who really was accused of killing his father. It was one of those orations I had complained about, in which the prosecution appeared to have no evidence while the defense had conclusive proof of innocence...and Saylor’s whole book builds up to that oration, which is climactically presented in the novel as it was actually delivered, right down to the open assertion that the whole thing was a politically motivated fabrication by Sulla’s greedy underlings...and now it all makes sense to me. And no, knowing the oration is not a spoiler. The fun of the book is getting there, sharing Saylor’s wonderful speculation about the parts of the case that are not known to history, and a plot twist or two that is consistent with history but naughty nonetheless.
A key element of Saylor’s plot is the influential Metellus dynasty of aristocrats and potential suspects. In John Maddox Roberts’s “SPQR” mystery series, set a couple of decades later during the Pompey/Crassus Consulship, the narrator/detective happens to be a Metellus—Decius Caecilius Metellus, beginning his statesmanship career as a minor official in charge of certain police and fire brigade functions in an age without actual police or firefighters.
The book fails as a mystery (the clues pretty much leap out at you, and the big reveal is so obviously foreshadowed as to be almost comical) but it rocks as historical fiction. The action takes place right as things are beginning to seriously go down in Rome’s revolution from Republic to Empire, and Metellus rubs elbows with just about every major and minor player. Banquets and chariot races are held, at which people say things like, “Keep an eye on that Caesar—he is an ambitious one” and “Mark my words, one of these days that Clodius is going to dress up as a woman and violate the sacred Bona Dea rituals” (all right, I may have imagined that part, but it gets close).
Both mysteries paint a probably accurate of ancient Rome as a snakepit of pre-Machiavellian intrigue similar to that of Graves’ I, Claudius, only with the grandparents of the participants. Each series goes into several volumes, and I anticipate reading them by the pair and reviewing them together for the rest of the year. Saylor and Roberts complement one another like coffee and donuts. Very high recommendations.
Giant in the Playground: Colossus (the Price of America’s Empire), by Niall Ferguson
Is there any way to reconcile the American impulse to get home fast and the manifest need for long-term commitment in Iraq if nation building is to work? Again, there is something to be learned in this regard from the British experience, though the place to look for a lesson is not Iraq but Egypt. Iraq was, after all, a relatively late addition to the British Empire, more or less run on a shoestring. The British never quite had their hearts in the matter, and financial constraints would have checked them even if they had. Egypt was another story. It was acquired in the 1880s at the very height of Britain’s economic and strategic power. It was run until the Second World War as the very model of what a liberal empire could do. Yet from the outset the British publicly insisted that Egypt was being run not by them but by the Egyptians.
The resemblances between Britain’s occupation of Egypt 121 years ago and America’s current occupation of Iraq are indeed uncannily close. There is also an obvious lesson the Bush Administration might learn from the earlier case. There is in fact a great deal to be said for promising to leave—provided you do not actually mean it or do it.
Ferguson had me and then he lost me. His veneer of impartial reasonableness and his use of statistics is persuasive through the first half of the book, which is about America’s historical involvements and assertions of dominance in other countries (the current U.S. States, except Hawaii and, briefly, Texas, are not counted as ever having been part of other nations), from the War of 1812 through Vietnam, Grenada and Panama. The second half is about Iraq and Afghanistan as of 2004 when Colossus was published. And that’s where the reasonable-looking veneer slips.
Ferguson apparently wrote an earlier book, The Cash Nexus toward the end of the Clinton Presidency, in which he pretty much argued, “We have the mightiest army in the world and the will to fight! Let us go forth and conquer our enemies, see them driven before us, and hear the lamentations of their women!” Ferguson wanted Clinton to govern the way W Bush and his puppetmasters did—in 2003, he got the foreign policy he had asked for, and he feels duty-bound to defend it. And so Ferguson resorts to a Kiplingesque argument for America’s interests lying with a Victorian England-style empire with bases around the world, shouldering the White Man’s Burden and all that. It got uncomfortable to read after a while. Except for scolding the Bush Administration for not actually providing for their war to be paid for, he has nothing but good things to say about them.
At times, Ferguson’s reasonable-looking veneer hides inaccuracy. Ferguson decries America’s short little span of attention, claiming that the citizens or the government just don’t have the guts to see an occupation through to colony status. His analysis seems to be backed up by facts, but he never seems to mention that America has two parties—the Intervention Party and the No Intervention Party—which exchange power every so often and produce results about as predictable as having the No Taxes Party and the Free Stuff Party taking turns giving the public what they want.
Another time, Ferguson compares Europe unfavorably with America, claiming that countries like Germany are less productive than the United States. To support this, he shows that the typical German worker works fewer hours than the typical American worker, due to those pesky workers’ rights and their vacations and shorter workweeks and all that rotten old socialist stuff. He does not point out that more German workers per capita are actually employed under this system, and that the Americans he doesn’t count who are unemployed or incarcerated at much greater levels than the Europeans, and who have zero productivity, might erase or reverse the claimed productivity advantage per employed worker.
If you’re a political or economic dominionist, you’ll love Colossus and get ammunition for your arguments. If you’re an isolationist, or even just cautious about where you want our military to rush in, you might enjoy the challenge it poses, and you should be prepared to answer his claims. For what he does, it’s well-written and not wisely ignored.
Signs and Portents: A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin
”I swear to you, sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one. Laws are a tedious business and counting coppers is worse. And the people...there is no end of them. I sit on that damnable iron chair and listen to them complain until my mind is numb and my ass is raw. They all want something, money or land or justice. The lies they tell...and my lords and ladies are no better. I am surrounded by flatterers and fools. It can drive a man to madness, Ned. Half of them don’t dare tell me the truth, and the other half can’t find it. There are nights I wish we had lost at the Trident. Ah no, not truly, but...”
“I understand,” Ned said softly.
Robert looked at him. “I think you do. If so, you are the only one, my old friend.” He smiled. “Lord Eddard Stark, I would name you Hand of the King.”
Ned dropped to one knee. The offer did not surprise him; what other reason could Robert have had for coming so far? The Hand of the King was the second most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms. He spoke with the king’s voice, commanded the king’s armies, drafted the king’s laws. At times he even sat upon the Iron Throne to dispense king’s justice, when the king was absent, or sick, or otherwise indisposed. Robert was offering him a responsibility as large as the realm itself.
It was the last thing in the world he wanted.
The plot is riddled with cliches, some of which look like they were ripped right out of Tolkein, TH White, and Frank Herbert. The plot also inspires other cliches, like “grabbed me at page one” and “I couldn’t put it down.” The plot is one of the most fantastic, awesome creations I’ve encountered, maybe since Tolkein, White and Herbert. There’s only a finite number of basic plots, after all, and cliches get to be that way by making the best stories.
If you like stories involving culture shock, castles and knights, diplomacy, treachery and honor, factions played off against one another, battles won by skill at wit as well as at arms, and youths coming of age while learning life lessons that still haven’t been learned by some people you know or see in the news, then Game of Thrones is for you.
It gets complicated. One realm encompassing seven lesser kingdoms, each of which has rulers, spouses, offspring, siblings and advisers taking sides against one another, plus
Klingons a hostile warlike nation overseas, a vengeful scion of the previously deposed king, and supernatural horrors (the only really supernatural element, other than some prophecies, in the first book) beyond the great wall to the north. Instead of numbered chapters, the narrative shifts between the point of view of eight or so major characters. As you might imagine, the plot turns frequently, with many plot spoilers. Eight hundred pages, and I read it all in a week and wanted more. Fortunately, there are at least four more books in the series.
Martin is very good at taking tropes and standing them on their heads. Several characters who are instantly pegged by readers as being stock “untrustworthy” types turn out to have some honor after all, while some “heroes” turn out to be not so heroic. Lancaster, the “Slytherin” among the kingdoms, has some sympathetic characters, including the one who fascinated me most of all, while Stark, the “Griffindor” is not unified at all. The fact that the kingdoms marry externally has something to do with that. The “scrappy girlpower protagonist” is refreshingly not a hot babe with handsome suitors following her around; she’s a swordswoman, not an archer; and she doesn’t even have a bunch of magical anthropomorphic animal companions to help her through the tight spots. The “advisor to the king” is not the chief villain; in fact, he’s one of the big protagonists; and he’s not secretly the most powerful person in the kingdom.
Martin is also great with little vignettes that don’t necessarily advance the plot, but are unforgettable. The backstories of the fat coward who will probably end up saving them all, the disfigured protector of the prince, and the recently deceased predecessor to the King’s Hand are especially compelling, as is the history of the revolution that took place 15 years or so before the story opens.
I haven’t seen the TV series, except for a couple of viral YouTube segments, like the bit with Tyrion slapping Joffrey (it’s nice to finally know what that was all about and why it was so satisfying to watch). Loved, loved, loved the book. Very highest recommendations.