Archive for the 'Review' Category


Book Review: The Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian – Robin Lane Fox

Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To HadrianThe Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox

Written right on the cover of Robin Lane Fox’s book about the history of Greece and Rome is the word epic. It’s there three times, actually. I guess that’s a word which has lost it’s power in recent years, but it used to apply to the ancient world a lot, particularly to long poems by Homer and Virgil.

Neither of them really have a large role here in his book, but the sheer size and scope of Fox’s book sort of reminded me of them: he attempts to take a good 600-plus years of history, pretty eventful ones at that, and condense them down to 600 pages. He did a pretty good job, but it’s more of a casual history than something in-depth.

Lane opens his history with the archaic Greece of Homer, Hesiod and the rise of city-states (nothing, sadly on the Mycenaean era) and wraps up with the emperor Hadrian. In between, he looks at the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the rise of Rome and decline of Greek power, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemaic dynasty. He particularly writes with authority on the Roman years, especially when the last years of the Republic and the start of the Roman Empire. It’s all well and good, but it’s the kind of thing any textbook could have.

But where his book diverges is when it comes to literature and society, particularly in how they relate to the history he’s covering.

For example, his look at the first years of the Roman Empire is filled with references to the letters of the Younger Pilny, who he says produced the closest thing to an autobiography that’s come down to us. And the last years of the Republic are filled with references to the writings of Cicero: letters, speeches and works of philosophy. He uses these works of literature to show how people – at least the upper class, anyway – thought and felt, how they had to act publically and expressed in private.

It’s also interesting when he examines the roles of various forms of art, particularly portraits of people. What can the picture of a couple on a wall of a villa in Pompeii tell us about the people who lived there? What about the face of a boy painted on top of a mummy? There’s certainly some supposition, but Fox’s writing on what we know about these examples is fascinating stuff; I’ll admit to being a little haunted by the mummy portrait, too.

At the same time, his look at literature also jumps around and overlooks some people. Poets like Virgil and Horace show up a often, but others like Ovid and Juvenal barely show up at all. Lucretius, whose poem On the Nature of Things is arguably one of the most important pieces of literature to come out of Rome, is relegated to a single line.

But then again, he had only so much space to work with and condense into 600 pages. And there was a lot to cover. I’m reminded Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra, which tackled a similarly large, eventful era in a relatively small book. There was more ground covered there, but I think Fox did a similarly good job on this era. It’s readable, never gets bogged down in statistics or historical minutiae and should be pretty good for the general reader who’s interested in learning what happened so long ago and, more importantly, why we should know about it.

Rating: 7/10


Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

There’s been some buzz lately about Toronto bidding on a World’s Fair, which frankly sounds like a bad idea to me. Those things are expensive, take a long time to put together and don’t really have a lasting purpose. If I remember The Power Broker right, the World’s Fair is what brought Robert Moses down and he was as powerful a man as it got in New York.

Anyway, with World’s Fairs in mind, I decided to read a book I’ve had sitting around for a long time but never bothered to read: Erik Larson’s The Devil In the White City. Larson’s the author of several pop-history books: In the Garden of Beasts, about the rise of the Nazi party, and Dead Calm, about the sinking of the Lusitania. This one is about the 1893 World’s Fair, but also about infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes, too.

As far as pop history books go, White City is functional. There’s a story, characters and a setting. Things happen, characters explain why they happened and then something else happens. I suppose Larson deserves credit for that.

But as far as a good book goes, it misses the mark.

Essentially, Larson bounces back and forth between two plots, one about the Fair and another about Holmes. Occasionally, he follows a few other people, too, like crazed assassin Patrick Prendergrast.

In the left corner, there’s the story of how the fair came together, starting as a way to prove Chicago was a city on the same scale as New York and was the result of a few people’s focused visions: landscape, all-white architecture, the then-revolutionary invention of the Ferris wheel.

And in the right corner is Holmes, a manipulative and slick sociopath who constructed an infamous murder house, containing rooms that shot gas or contained soundproof incinerators. He killed perhaps dozens of people, typically young single women.

He weaves between these two plots (pausing occasionally to briefly follow Prendergrast) and tries to draw parallels and tie them together into one continuous narrative. It kind of works. Kinda.

The thing about these stories is how they all kind don’t really have anything to do with each other. They all happened at the same time, sure, but Holmes could’ve killed people in any city at any time, probably. Aside from a short visit to the fair, his story doesn’t really have any connection to the other plot. And on the other hand, none of the principals of the other story likely heard of Holmes before he was arrested.

But throughout the book, Larsen jumps back and forth at a nearly dizzying pace. One moment he writing about a specific kind of flower used in landscaping; a few pages later, he’s writing about how Holmes built a box to burn his victim’s bodies in. Eventually it’s hard to even connect the two, as Holmes moved on from Chicago to other cities: St. Louis and Toronto, most notably.

Taken as a whole, Larson’s book feels like it’s two underdeveloped books packed into one. Neither narrative really requires or builds off the other and at time, I felt like I was reading two padded-out magazine features at the same time. Before long, I found myself rushing to get through it.

But going a bit deeper made the book even more uninteresting. Larson admits his research methods rely heavily on period documents: he read many books, including Holmes own memoir. However, he admits he didn’t hire a researcher or use the internet, preferring to look at documents and make his own judgments. Which he does, quite a lot, packing his account with a lot of supposition.

This gets a little annoying and troublesome, especially for Holmes. After all, Larson admits, “what motivated Holmes may never be known.” Although he consulted with others on what he thinks happened, Larson tries to paint pictures of people’s final moments with Holmes and provide a motive where nobody can definitively say what happened or why. In other words, his accounts are colourful, but who knows if they’re correct.

Like I said above, the book felt like two stories that could’ve used some editing (particularly in how often they repeat information) and ran in a magazine somewhere. Here, they’re mashed together with some narrative twists and presented as one consecutive story. It’s too bad there isn’t one.

Rating: 3/10


Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau

Zazie in the MetroZazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau (translated by Barbara Wright)

Sometimes, I’ll call a book or story cinematic. Normally, I mean it as a way to say the writing is particularly visual, like the words immediately lend themselves to being seen. For example, when I think of Casey Plett’s story “Not Bleak” (review coming soon, I swear!), I can picture the wide-open fields of the Canadian prairies and the small Mennonite community, not to mention Zeke withdrawing into herself as they cross the border.

But here’s something else that seems cinematic, in a different sense of the word. Zazie at the Metro is cinematic in a Buster Keaton sense; it’s essentially the story of a young girl visiting her uncle in the city and wanting to ride the subway. But it goes off the rails in a series of increasingly madcap adventures, witty wordplay and punning, and alcohol. As written, the book practically is a screenplay; small wonder it was made into a film only a short while later.

As noted, it’s about a young kid visiting her uncle. That’s Zazie, visiting Paris to see her uncle Gabriel. She doesn’t like him, or anybody else, and is fixated on riding the Metro. Which is closed up because of a strike. Instead, Zazie starts amusing herself, stealing, lying and running amok through Paris. She – with Gabriel, his friend Charles and a handful of accomplices in tow – get mixed up in police conspiracies, different varieties of kidnapping and a drag nightclub.

It sounds simple enough, right? And it’s a wild story, the kind that gets crazier as it goes on, kind of like one of those old Keaton or Harold Lloyd flicks, where the hero ends up chased through town by thousands of people or climbs a skyscraper with their bare hands. The fun is in the telling, not in the realism.

Which gets me to my favourite thing about this book: the telling. During a life as a public intellectual, Queneau was known as something of a lingual jokester. One of his books is Exercises in Style, where a simple story is told in different forms, over and over, with Queneau parodying everything and anything. This is similar.

Throughout, he writes characters as a collection of clichés and accents, their words running together and slipping into puns. Zazie goes from childlike innocence to asking existential questions in a moment, characters emptily rely with “(gesture)” or “(sigh)”, and Queneau reaches for the wordiest of saying things: “the cameras crepitated,” and tourists talk with “a great berlitzscoulian effort.”

Or, for example, here’s a small taste of Queneau’s prose:

“Gabriel’s admirers had already installed him comfortably and, equipped with adequate apparatuses, were measuring the weight of the light in order to take his portrait with silhouette effect…” (pg 76)

The Penguin Classics edition is nice, coming with a decent introduction by Gilbert Adair, who sets the stage for the book: he sketches out Queneau’s biography, explains the reactions to this little book and draws a comparison between it and French New Wave, particularly to the films of Godard.

The translation by Barbara Wright is good, too. Between all the puns and linguistic wordplay, I imagine the text was a pain to translate. Although I found it a tad British at times – the police arrive in a black maria, for example – I can’t really speak to that being something she added or if it’s more a reflection of a particularly French synonym that defies translation. It certainly makes me want to polish up my abysmal French skills, anyway.

All in all, a wild, silly and highly enjoyable ride. If you’re the kind of person who likes re-reading stuff, there’s plenty of wordplay and such to go back and chew on; if you’re more into reading comic adventures, there’s a lot of that too. It’s probably a tad too clever for some people – I can imagine some saying it strays too far from reality for their tastes – but still, I’d recommend it unreservedly.

Rating: 8/10


Ranters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Ranters and Crowd PleasersRanters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Why should you or me or anyone at all read a book of rock criticism, especially when it’s filled with stuff about records from 30 years ago or longer, of bands who aren’t around anymore and musicians who aren’t even alive? It’s a good question. Why should anyone read Greil Marcus’ 1992 collection Ranters and Crowd Pleasers (also republished as Inside the Fascist Bathroom)?

It’s tempting to say something about how it putts music in a proper context, like reading a period review would help us get into the mind of that particular place and time. This might be true for some collections, I imagine, but it’s not really why I’m recommending this particular book of Marcus’ criticism.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a history of punk rock, either. Although it’s nominally a book about punk rock, particularly of English punk, and Marcus’ reviews cover a pretty good range of bands, generally a handful of names keep popping up, over and over: The Clash, Gang of Four, The Mekons and Lilliput. At the same time, more than a few seminal American bands fall to the wayside: there’s only a couple mentions of Sonic Youth and Black Flag, while both Husker Du and The Minutemen don’t ever show up at all.

So as a history of punk in the 80s, it only kind of succeeds; books like Our Band Could Be Your Life cover the 80s underground in a better fashion. So why am I recommending Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, then, exactly?

Basically because it’s a collection of criticism about music in the 80s, but is about more than just music. It takes music, ties it into pop culture and examines why this music was so important then, looks to deeper trends in the decade and gets to the core of why some of this music is so powerful and why the decade unfolded as it did.

Continue reading ‘Ranters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus’


Rome at the Brink: The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust

The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of CatilineThe Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust
(translated and edited by S.A. Handford)

The last years of the Roman Republic were a pretty wild time. Casear was running his army through Gaul, Pompey was battling out in the East and at home, there was discontent and riots. Two of the most interesting moments care rather early in the late period and were both covered by the same author in two short monographs.

Sallust was a senator and governor in these years. According to legend, he was wildly corrupt and made a killing before being asked to resign, when he retired to a private life of writing histories. Two of these have come down to us: one looks at the short war against Jurgantha, the other examines Cataline’s conspiracy to bring down the government in a coup. I can’t speak to Sallust the politician, but as an author, he’s an interesting one, if one that’s problematic.

Let’s start with the Jugurthine War. Jugurtha was a king in what’s now northern Africa and an ally to Rome, although someone who wanted power, which Rome wasn’t willing to give. He bribed people in the senate to overlook his naked power grabs as he marched up and down the country. He eventually ended up killing Romans and pissing off the republic, who sent an army down to deal with him. Sallust’s timeline isn’t exactly clear, but he generally follows as both Quintus Caecilius Metellus and Gaius Marius ran consecutive campaigns against him.

It’s pitched stuff. Roman armies come close to defeat, but pull out a win at the last moment. Roman leaders corrupt Jugurtha’s confidents, who then stage plots to kidnap and sell their king to Rome. Marius captures a city when a foot solider discovers an overlooked path that leads right around the strongholds. Finally, there’s an all-or-nothing battle where Jugurtha throws it all on the line and loses.

Meanwhile, the Catiline conspiracy is shorter, but even crazier. Catiline was “an ambitious careerist,” as Hardford puts it, who eventually decided he should rule Rome. After losing elections and seeing his enemy Cicero be elected to power, Catiline staged a conspiracy to put together an army and take Rome by force.

It wasn’t really all that crazy. At the time, Roman generals commanded a lot of personal power with their armies, who looked to them for everything from pay to a plot of land when they retired. And at the time, Pompey and his army were out in the far east.

In Sallust’s hands, it plays out like a morality play. Catiline corrupts people with his wealth and attracts all sorts of undesirables. Meanwhile, the upstanding leaders in Rome – Cicero, Cato and Caesar – investigate like detectives, debate appropriate punishments and set up resistance. Coming from a guy who was legendarily corrupt himself, seeing such moralizing is kind of funny. Although again: Sallust is great at setting tension and building a gripping narrative.

Here’s where the trouble comes in: he’s often confusing and misleading in his storytelling. At worst, he’s outright malicious and disingenuous. He places events where they have more dramatic impact, not when they actually happened. He gives people cool dramatic dialogue – “I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling down everything about your ears.” – but provides it at the wrong time (and, according to Cicero, gives us the wrong words, too!).

This is where a good editor like the late S.A. Handford comes in handy: he establishes the misleading errors, provides context and lays out a clear timeline in two introductions and keeps the taut, dramatic narrative intact. Even if Sallust wasn’t an accurate historian, he was still a pretty solid writer, although I’d rank him in a second class behind Livy (Previously reviewed: The Rise of Rome (Books I-V); The War With Hannibal (Books XXI-XXX); Rome and Italy (books VI-X)  or Tacitus (Previously reviewed: The Annals).

Rating: 7/10

View all my reviews


Book Review: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

NevadaNevada by Imogen Binnie

Oh wow, this one knocked me for a loop. A searing, memorable trip through New York, the Nevada desert and more, Imogen Binnie’s Nevada is great, a fantastic debut novel. It’s real good.

It follows Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York. She has a crappy job at a bookstore, rides her bike everywhere and lives by a punker ethos; it’s no shocker she sings along to her Fugazi CDs. She’s carefully crafted a life for herself she thinks works, but finds herself almost going through the motions, like she’s playing a role. When she gets dumped and loses her job in quick succession, she goes on a journey across the US to try and figure shit out.

It sounds like every road novel before it, but I think Nevada is smarter than the norm and certainly comes at it from a different angle. Binnie writes from the third-person and adeptly cuts between characters to show just how everyone is really acting: Maria is kind of selfish, troubled and emotionally stunted, for example. But Maria’s also compelling, funny and whip-smart.

The most striking feature of the novel is its cutting, smartass sense of humour. I think my favourite scene comes when Maria is writing, but can’t think of anything to say, so she writes a devastatingly funny little piece of Hemingway-ese:

“I am a soldier in the first world war. I don’t have very many feelings. I drink a lot and girls like me. We had a long conversation about whither she should have an abortion, but we didn’t use the word abortion. The whole thing was a dream and I am dead.” (pg 95)

In the book’s second half, Maria comes across a young stoner named James, who she sees a lot of herself in; James is alternately confused, annoyed and compelled by the bright-haired women who’s drifted into his life and wants to re-arrange things. Together they drive through Nevada, giving Maria lots of time to lay out her own theories.

It’s a funny novel, sure, but it’s also one with a sadness, too. Little lines here and there show the darkness lurking just behind Maria’s punker façade: parents who never want to see her again, a litany of messed up relationships, a miserable childhood and heavy substance abuse (try and keep up with her alcohol intake, for example!).

But the thing about it is they’re only hinted at: I think a lesser writer would’ve included those scenes in an attempt to show pathos. Binnie doesn’t, which makes her book feel a lot more honest and certainly less manipulative. Compared to books like Middlesex or Annabel, this book is refreshingly honest and direct, a clear voice cutting through a busy street corner.

The book also functions as a manifesto on gender theory and even as a how-to guide (shave with boiling water, use a decent foundation and put on lots of eye makeup; sparkles are an optional touch). Through Maria, Binnie cuts into conventional psychiatric theories like a hot knife through butter, absolutely ripping thinkers like J. Michael Bailey or Ken Zucker to shreds. In these sections, it reads more as manifesto than novel, which might grate on some readers, but is actually some of my favourite writing here. It builds on earlier authors, but speaks with a loud, distinct voice.

For what it’s worth, many of those authors Maria casually namedrops are worth reading: Kate Bornstein, Julia Serano, Michelle Tea. At times, it’s a stretch believing the characters are so literate in this specific area, but then again I’ve read those books, too. (I’ll get around to posting my Gender Outlaw essay someday, I swear).

Rating: 9/10. This one absolutely seared itself into my mind – literally one I found myself thinking about when I was doing other stuff – and over two or three days, I barely put it down. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, too. In sum: Nevada is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a while and it’s absolutely recommended, 100 per cent.


A Cat Down Under the Stars: Garcia – An American Life by Blair Jackson

Garcia: An American Life by Blair Jackson

Garcia: An American Life

This is a big summer for Grateful Dead fans, both the 20th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death and the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation. It’s no wonder the band is getting back together and playing a few shows – albeit at a rather expensive ticket price.
And in the years since the band’s legacy has changed a bit: people generally look past the troubles of their later years (rough performances, riots among fans, a grueling tour schedule) and focus on the brighter spots. Recent archival releases include their gig at the Gaza Pyramids, two box sets of their spring 1990 tour and an incendiary show from February 1968. So, lots of good times, then.

So with the big anniversary, it seemed appropriate to finally get around to Blair Jackson’s biography of the Dead’s lead guitarist: Garcia: An American Story. It’s a thoroughly researched, interesting book and does a good job charting his unlikely rise and all-too-predictable fall.

Garcia was born into a musical family: his father played in local bands and opened a bar that featured live music. But his upbringing was rough and troublesome: his dad drowned and Garcia wound up splitting time between his mom and grandparent’s place. He drifted into a rough crowd, dropped out of high school and spent time in the Army before falling into a burgeoning folk music scene.

These early years in San Francisco had a lasting impact: he met future band mates, his first wife and Robert Hunter, who’d have a life-long working relationship with Garcia: Hunter wrote the words and Garcia the music for many of the Dead’s most famous songs.

Jackson takes readers through these years fairly quickly, showing Garcia as a drifting, rootless musician: he’d crash with friends, play around in bands and didn’t seem to have much of a future planned. Eventually, one of his bands went electric and started playing around as The Warlocks; soon, they’d rename themselves as The Grateful Dead. They were certainly in the right place at the right time, quickly becoming the house band for Ken Kesey’s infamous Acid Tests.

From there the story is generally familiar to heads: the band slowly shot to fame, playing both Monterey and Woodstock and started releasing albums. But even at this point, Jackson shows Garcia’s darker side: he left his first wife and child to hook up Carolyn Adams, aka Mountain Girl, coming across as someone who doesn’t really think about consequences. It’s an attitude that comes up again and again.

As Jackson points out, Garcia’s musical career was long and varied. But except for the Dead, most of his side projects were very short lived. His bands with Merl Saunders lasted five years before Garcia abruptly fired him; Old and In the Way lasted just more than a year before falling apart. Despite his image as a friendly, almost grandfatherly figure, Garcia was a demanding musician for most of his career while also being someone who’d change directions on a whim – and leave the firing to someone else. It was often the same in his personal life, where he’d leave one partner for another, often leaving them hanging in the wind.

Early in the book, Jackson says he tried to write a positive biography – “the Forces of Light win in this book,” as he writes – but even so, Garcia’s story is tragic: starting in the mid-70s, he started using cocaine regularly and eventually graduated to smoking heroin. Compounded with a poor diet and a serious smoking habit, Garcia’s body gave out several times; a diabetic coma in 1986, a serious illness in the early 90s and eventually a massive, fatal heart attack in 1995.

However, the unspoken aspect of Jackson’s statement isn’t about how he’s treating Garcia, but about the reaction to an earlier oral biography of Garcia: Robert Greenfield’s Dark Star, a book that paints a dark picture of Garcia and his final years: already in poor health and surrounded by enablers, Garcia worked himself to death by relentlessly touring, both as part of the Dead and in his solo vehicles.

While Greenfield’s book is much darker than Garcia, both work well together: Greenfield for the darker elements of the life (including his relationships with doctors and enablers), Jackson’s for the positive aspects. It’s worth noting Jackson never specifically blames anyone for Garcia’s problems, but does come to the same general conclusion as Greenfield: the Dead just toured too much and for too long, especially when Garcia probably should’ve been relaxing and taking care of his health.

As a biography, Jackson’s book is packed with first-hand sources and interviews and provides a reasonably clear picture of Garcia: a talented musician, but someone who didn’t like taking responsibility and didn’t like (or react well to) the pressures and trappings of fame. There are moments where he perhaps overwrites a bit:

“His guitar could cry tears born of existential longing one moment and roar like a firebreathing dragon the next. Sometimes one crystalline, perfectly formed note was all it took to draw a tear or a smile or even ask a question.”

But then again, it’s The Grateful Dead, so you’ve got to expect a bit of hyperbole.

Rating: 8/10. A fully enjoyable, well-researched biography and one I’d recommend to fans of the Dead or Garcia’s solo music. There’s a nice annotated discography in the back, too, although it’s quite out of date at this point.