Posts Tagged ‘penguin books


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


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

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The Curse of St. Custards: Molesworth – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle

MolesworthMolesworth – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, with an introduction by Philip Hensher

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but I’ve never really held an opinion on private schools. I’ve sort of been aware of them, but even when I was younger, they seemed like something for rich kids, something of a British relic. Which is maybe why so many British novels deal with them while Canadian fiction doesn’t.
It ranges from older stuff like The Lord of the Flies and it’s marooned school children to something as recent as the Harry Potter series, which is basically about life at boarding school: trouble with headmasters, living in dorms and everyone clad in a uniform, although it’s all sprinkled with magic.

Recently I came across a copy of Molesworth, a collection of books by Geoffrey Willans, all of them illustrated by Ronald Searle’s cartoons and picked it up on a whim. I was pleasantly surprised: it’s another look at boarding school, but it’s laced with a savage, cynical sense of humour. And Searle’s cartoons – dark and dryly witty – add another element to its cutting humour. It’s great stuff.

Essentially, Molesworth 1, aka student Nigel Molesworth, aka “the goriller of 3b and curse of St. Custard’s,” narrates the books like he’s writing a how-to for students. He’s young, flunks all his classes and can’t spell worth a damn. He’s also irrepressibly clever and sees that class is worthless, the food is appalling and Master Sigismund is actually “the Mad Maths Master.”

His stories take various forms: daydreams, lectures on how to get out of assignments and chance moments in the schoolyard with classmates. They include his younger brother Molesworth 2, his friend “Peason,” and my favourite of all, Fotherington-Thomas ,a guy who skips around saying “Hullo clouds, hullo sky.” I think one of the best moments – and a good example of the kind of humour we’re dealing with – is when Fotherington-Thomas and Molesworth discuss existentialist novels while lazing through a soccer game.

The kind of humour that runs through here is clever satire, dressed up like it’s coming from a kid and it works on a few levels. Although Molesworth can’t spell a damn, he’s up on world leaders, classical composers and literature. Sure, it’s funny when he calls out his Latin teacher on how useless it is in modern society, but even a kid will enjoy seeing a pupil best a teacher.

Granted, some of the jokes are a bit dated. When Molesworth cuts into French class, it’s at the droll texts featuring a kid named Armand who visits the zoo with his father. The reference is lost on me, but Molesworth’s take is still fresh (note: all spelling in context):

“ ‘Thou art a good boy, Armand,’ he sa, ‘this afternoon I will take thee to a zoo.’
Ahha you think is not so dumb as he look he will thro Armand to the lions.
‘Are there any animals in the zoo?’ ask Armand.
‘Oh but yes,’ sa Papa without losing his temper as this feeble question.
‘Houpla houpla I am so hapy.”
Perhaps the lions are not bad enough perhaps it will hav to be the loups… You wonder if it was noel coward who wrote the dialog it is so nervously brilliant my dear how long can it be before Papa do Armand.” (pg 174)

I especially enjoyed Searle’s cartoons. They’re something of a mix of Matt Groening and Ralph Steadman; they’re cynical and chaotic, but composed with a dry, understated wit.

At their best, Searle’s lines can look as dystopian as a nuclear wasteland while the kids smile, slouch and light a cig in the background.

Generally, his illustrations are for what’s happening in the text – the Molesworth brothers setting a giant bear trap for Santa; an unhappy Molesworth 1 trudging across a cricket pitch – but some of the book’s best moments are when Searle draws harsh, hilarious caricatures: an advanced whip, complete with telescopic sight and rangefinder; stuffy, silly-faced adults; the master pleading “you boys think I’m soft, but I’m hard, damned hard.”

This one completely took me by surprise. It’s funny, dark and packed with great cartoons. While it’s a little dated – the schools are still segregated by gender here, for example, and female students are basically ignored until the end – it’s biting humour holds up. Recommended!

(images via: Forbidden Planet, Matou En Peluche)


Good Tunes and Bad Vibes: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent ViceInherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

At once Thomas Pynchon at his wildest and most accessible, funny and insightful and a mystery novel that isn’t really, Inherent Vice is a wild, great read.

Generally when people think of Pynchon, they think of big doorstopper books, weighty tomes of 800 or more pages. Hell, I read Against the Day earlier this year and the thing clocked in at over 1,000 pages. And even then, I wanted it to go on longer. This wasn’t like that at all.

For one thing, IV is a lot tighter than most of his books: I think only Lot 49 is shorter. But it’s also messy, a mystery that’s at once low-stakes and wide-ranging, impossibly high-reaching but also nicely wrapped up by book’s end with what seems like not a lot of revelation, but a tidy package of police corruption and organized crime.

Maybe its all the pot Doc Sportello smokes, but Pynchon’s circa-1970 Los Angeles exists in a kind of haze. It’s shadowy, maybe a little paranoid and definitely a little hungry: Doc eats everything from Tex-Mex to Greek to, yes, Pizza. Wouldn’t be a Pynchon novel without a slice or two. But it’s also a detailed place, packed with tidy, accurate details he uses to colour his city. One example: not only does he reference Zubin Mehta, then-conductor of the LA Philharmonic, but he casually refers to a show he did with Frank Zappa and the Mothers in yes, mid-1970. It’s impressive stuff.

The plot itself is reminiscent of detective noir, although not entirely of it. Millionare land devloper Mickey Wolfmann has gone missing and so does his mistress. While investigating, Doc is knocked out and a witness dies in front of Doc’s car. Before long, there’s a group of heroin dealers, a mysterious syndicate of dentists and a star LAPD detective named Bigfoot Bjornson are all involved, each after Doc in their own angle.
At times, I was reminded of Raymond Chandler’s fiction (especially The Lady in the Lake which has a similar plot), but as a whole, the mystery doesn’t really seem like the point here. It drives along the plot, but more as a device for Pynchon’s observations on society, where it was headed and where it is now. Mixed between the splashes of smoking and gritty detective work are sly comments on federal funding for police departments, the militarization of small police forces and big money’s influence on the government.

The book’s title comes from an insurance term referring to a hidden defect that destroys a product. In this book, the hidden impact of money and greed is what’s ripping apart the California Doc knows and loves. The police are paying off hippies to rat out their friends with money they get from the government, which only increases as more people inform on others. Landscapers move into communities and rip them apart to make new, more desirable places to live. And the musicians are slowly getting zombified.

But to me, it feels like gentrification is right at the book’s heart. Right at the beginning he opens with a quote on the beach. And more than once Pynchon writes about small neighbourhoods getting gutted and replaced by prefab, drab housing complexes. In one memorable scene, people wander around looking for a place that’s not there anymore:

“Now and then at the edges of the windshield, Doc spotted black pedestrians, bewildered as Tariq must have been, maybe also looking for the old neighborhood, for rooms lived in day after day, solid as the axes of space, now taken away into commotion and ruin.” (pg 19)

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. In some respects, IV is his funniest book. Doc’s stoner friend Denis is a constant supply of hilarious doped-up logic (“why is there chicken of the sea but no tuna of the land?”) and the rest of the cast is no slouch. There’s gambling on police investigations, sly comebacks, silly names and even a few songs here.

Compared to his other novels, IV initially seems like a departure, but quickly settles alongside his other books. He has the same vague paranoia and quick sense of humor he showed in Vineland, but here the cast is more human and has more of a spark to their lives. Likewise, it’s not as sprawling as Against the Day or Mason and Dixon, but even within it’s confines still ranges along the California/Nevada border.

If I had to compare this to his other novels I’ve read, I’d probably slot it ahead of Vineland and behind M&D and AtD. It’s a quick, fun ride and his observations into society are fascinating. He wrote this one over a half-decade ago, but we’re still having discussions about some of the points he slyly raises. Overall, IV is good and a good starting place for Pynchon newbies, but I’d halt before calling it his most successful novel, either. And if you’re looking for something up the noir genre, you’re bound to be a little disappointed, too.


Balloons, cowpokes and drugs – Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon

Against the DayAgainst the Day – Thomas Pynchon


A sprawling read, Against the Day is a romp through styles, politics and countries, not all of them real. It’s a little loose, more than a little all over the place but it also ranks right up there with his best, both for its insights into late-stage capitalism and for sheer enjoyability.

Generally, the book follows the live of Webb Traverse and his family. A dynamiter by trade and an anarchist by choice, Webb gets mixed up with Scarsdale Vibe, a corrupt, rich mine owner. Throughout the years, these two family keep running into each other, often popping up unexpectedly in places as diverse as Colorado, Mexico and Venice.

At the same time, Pynchon follows several others: private detective Lewis Basnight; early photographer (and amateur alchemist) Merle Rideout and his daughter Dahlia; a shadowy, cultish group of British mystics called the TWITs; and, by far my favourite, a Hardy Boys-esque group of young balloonists calling themselves The Chums of Chance.

As you’d expect from a 1000+ page read, the plot defies an easy description. Pynchon runs several seemingly unrelated plots all at once, bounces between different authorial voices (the Chums sections read like a pulpy boys book, for example) and goes everywhere: the Chums sail through sand dunes, fly missions across the Alps and even travel inside hollow Earth. Everyone has their own, similar personal journeys.

At the same time, all the loose threads start adding up and, to Pynchon’s credit, he gets everything to add together in the final 200 or so pages. It’s still a long, rambly book – it probably could’ve been trimmed down a bit, really – but he makes it all work into one giant tapestry. Mostly, anyway: I’m not completely certain where a couple of the threads led. But it reads better than other huge tomes like Infinite Jest, which has half the story and twice the pretension. A better soundtrack, too.

Side note: An incomplete list of Chums books Pynchon drops throughout the book:

  • The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth
  • The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit
  • The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis
  • The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash Into the Kremlin
  • The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of Yellow Fang

I would definitely read all of these.

Still, the deeper I got into this book, the more overwhelmed I felt. A few weeks in, I almost felt like keeping notes on who was where and when. I even did, from time to time. I expect most people will feel the same: it’s a daunting read.

But I’m glad I kept with it. Aside from some brilliant writing and insights into America (this book feels as timely as ever when Pynchon gets into the struggles between the rich and poor), but because it’s packed with fun little moments: punny names, dick jokes, bursts of song and drug abuse. One character gets hooked on a particular brand of psychoactive dynamite. A dog mauls another character’s crotch. Characters get mixed up in vendettas, world wars and, occasionally, fall in love. Oh, and because it’s a Pynchon book, there’s a section dealing with pizza.

I’ve only read a couple of Pynchon’s books and I’d have no qualms recommending this, but not over the other them. It doesn’t have the same heart, focus or emotional payoff that Mason & Dixon had and it’s a lot more sprawling and not quite as fun as Vineland, which was a wild ride through 20th century America. But I’m still glad I read it: not only is it a fun read, but it’s provoking, too.

An underlying theme in the book is the struggle between rich and poor, the free market versus trade unionists, the labour struggles of the early 20th century. As a private detective, For example, the anti-labour violence of the Pinkerton Agency appalls Lew. The Rideouts aren’t against violence, so long as it serves a purpose: “Nothing vegetable or human that ain’t of some use,” says Webb, “except mine owners, maybe, and their got-dammed finks.”

But the Traverse family eventually learns there are far more evil people than just mine owners and they’ll do just about anything to make a buck. Pynchon’s message about the lengths greed will go rings as true now as ever; it’s interesting he wrote this book just a couple of years before the financial crisis of 2008, during the high years of the Bush administration.

Rating: 8/10. Maybe a little long in the tooth and certainly a bit of a challenge, but still a funny, gripping, wild read. Recommended: it took me most of July to read this and for nearly that whole month, I was more interested in reading this than in anything on TV, in theatres or Netflix.