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Goodreads refugee (http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/1257768-sarah) exploring BookLikes. 

Homer's Daughter - Robert Graves

Robert Graves, best known for I, Claudius, uses Samuel Butler’s theory that The Odyssey was actually written by a Sicilian woman as the inspiration for the novel Homer’s Daughter. Nausicaa, daughter of an Elyman king, faces a host of unwelcome suitors while the king is away and has to devise a means of getting rid of them. Luckily, she is quick-witted and resourceful in facing her conundrum. She also has a knack for poetry and has a bard in her debt who happens to be a Son of Homer. With these advantages, she is able to ensure that her words, if not her name (at least not as authoress), live on for eternity. 

After a rocky start explaining the origins of all the regional tribes and Nausicaa’s ancestry in excessive detail, Graves finds his rhythm in this clever and witty story. It’s fun seeing what he comes up with to explain various elements of the Odyssey as envisioned by Nausicaa. The writing captures the style of the original Iliad and Odyssey perfectly, complete with over-the-top declamations, implausible feats, and gross-out violence. This is fan fiction, but it’s the fan fiction of a classical scholar who knows his stuff, even if he is a touch irreverent and unorthodox.

The Anger of Achilles: The Iliad - Homer, Robert Graves

When I first read The Iliad, I was way too young to fully appreciate it. I understood, of course, the backstory - a spiteful goddess is left off a wedding invitation list, she retaliates by giving the Trojan prince Paris a golden apple to reward to the best-looking goddess (because that can’t go wrong), he picks Aphrodite because she promises him the incomparably beautiful (and already married) Helen, angering the other goddesses in the process, Paris selfishly steals Helen (and a lot of treasure) from her husband Menelaus, proud blowhard Agamemnon makes the Greeks attack Troy, they spend ten long years in a siege, and then . . .The Iliad begins. 

Some of the more memorable moments from the Trojan War, like Odysseus’s Trojan horse and Achilles’ death by an arrow to his famous heel, aren’t even in the book. What we do get is mostly Achilles in a snit over being insulted and death and destruction. And a lot of sacrificing and roasting meat. It seemed to me like the more interesting parts of the story came before and after The Iliad, not during it. 

I think, though, that if I had read this translation instead of the tedious one I read as a child, I might have felt differently. Here Robert Graves chooses to render most of the work in prose, reserving verse for certain "dramatic and lyrical occasions" which seem to call for it. The poetry is "poetic" in English, with rhyme and meter, giving a sense of what the original might have felt like to the listeners in ancient Greece as they heard the dactylic hexameter. The overall result is a readable, entertaining narrative that is still faithful to the original. 

One thing that struck me about the story is how violent it is, to the point of absurdity, with every imaginable death by spear described with gruesome relish (and a large helping of irony). There are eyeballs popping out, heads rolled like bowling balls, and characters still able to make impressive speeches while holding on to parts of their livers. I got the feeling that Homer (whoever he was, if indeed he was one person at all) was having fun grossing out his listeners. There is comic relief also, such as in the character of the elderly Nestor, who recalls his glory days repeatedly and at length, describing his heroic feats with a certain amount of what we might generously call “embellishment." The gods and goddesses are, of course, characters themselves, integral to the story, with their own rivalries and histories coming into play. They toy with the lives of the hapless mortals (or is it that "Apollo bumped my elbow" was a good excuse for a misfired spear?), but even Zeus himself can't control Fate.

While I imagine this translation may offend some purists, it brings the story back to what it was originally - entertainment. I would recommend this version for anyone who has ever slogged through The Iliad thinking it wasn’t much fun. It is worth revisiting this dusty classic. Even after almost 3,000 years, it is still a good story.

St. Peter's Bones by Thomas J. Craughwell

St. Peter's Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found . . . and Then Lost and Found Again - Thomas J. Craughwell

According to the New Testament, St. Peter was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, the apostle that Jesus called the “rock” on which he would build his church. Church history holds that Peter travelled to Rome to spread Christianity after Jesus died. Peter was eventually martyred, probably while in his mid 60s, as part of the Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians after the Great Fire of Rome. According to legend, Peter was crucified upside down because he told his executioners he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.

st_peter_square

Peter was executed in Nero’s arena. The Egyptian obelisk that stands in St. Peter’s Square was the turning point on the arena’s chariot track.

The Roman Catholic church considers Peter to have been the first Pope and a saint. After Peter died, early Christians buried his body near the site of the execution, in a cemetery on the Vatican hill outside the walls of Rome. Because it was the location of St. Peter’s grave, the site was considered holy. It was the site of a shrine created to honor him, and eventually the Emperor Constantine built a basilica over it. Much later, in a construction project that took over a hundred years, the basilica was built that stands there today. The altar of St. Peter’s Basilica is said to be directly over the tomb of St. Peter. 

bernini_baldacchino
Bernini’s bronze baldacchino (canopy), something of a Baroque monstrosity, marks the high altar of the basilica and St. Peter’s tomb below.

St. Peter’s Bones tells the story of the search for the tomb and the remains of St. Peter. In 1940, excavations were begun in the grottoes below the basilica. Work was slow and painstaking, since the grottoes are the location of numerous graves, both Christian and pagan, going back more than 2,000 years. As with many archaeological sites in Rome, evaluation required delving through layer after layer of history, identifying medieval coins and deciphering pagan graffiti, while workers tried to make sense of it all.

Over the course of decades, the exploration of the tomb proceeded with contributions from archaeologists, anatomists, historians, theologians, and an expert in ancient inscriptions, working together (and sometimes against each other) to determine which remains, if any, belonged to the saint. Thomas Craughwell weaves together the story of the historical Peter with the modern-day search for his tomb in an intriguing mystery. The truth will likely never be known with certainty, but contemplating the puzzle makes for an absorbing story.

creepy_mosaic_angel
If this guy knows, he isn’t telling (mosaic in the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica).

st_peter_dome

"To the glory of St. Peter, Pope Sixtus V in the year 1590, the fifth of his pontificate" (inscription in the dome of the basilica, directly over the baldacchino, altar, and tomb).

A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley/Crown Publishing.

Reblogged from Karen's books:

Review of Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir

Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World - Alison Weir

Elizabeth of York (1466-1503) is a woman who gets a little lost in history, overshadowed by her more flamboyant relatives. Her son, Henry VIII, surrounded himself with larger-than-life drama, while her father, Edward IV, was enmeshed in the conflict of the Wars of the Roses. Her uncle was the notorious usurper Richard III, immortalized by Shakespeare as one of history’s great villains. He probably had Elizabeth’s young brothers murdered in the Tower of London, but mystery surrounds those events to this day. Her mother and grandmother were accused of witchcraft. Next to these striking characters, Elizabeth fades into the background. 

Yet Elizabeth’s role in English history was pivotal even if she lacked a personality forceful enough to upstage her colorful family members. The Wars of the Roses had been raging on and off for thirty years between the houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose) when Henry Tudor took the throne in 1485 and became Henry VII. Henry had defeated the forces of Richard III, who died in the Battle of Bosworth Field, but his claim was relatively weak. Many thought Elizabeth, as the eldest surviving child of Edward IV, was the rightful heir. By marrying her, Henry conveniently took care of that objection (and prevented anyone else from marrying Elizabeth and claiming the throne through her). The houses of Lancaster and York were united at last. 

Elizabeth_of_York

queen of hearts

Elizabeth of York may have been the inspiration for the Queen of Hearts in the deck of playing cards

Alison Weir faces a challenge in writing Elizabeth’s biography. Like most women of the time, even high-ranking ones, Elizabeth had no political voice. She may have influenced events behind the scenes, but if so she did it quietly and discreetly. Her importance to the era’s events was largely limited to her ancestry and her ability to extend the Tudor dynasty through her children. 

There are few surviving letters written by Elizabeth (though Weir does analyze one bombshell of a letter in detail that implies that Elizabeth gave serious consideration to marrying her despicable uncle Richard III). For the most part, her thoughts and feelings have to be inferred. So much of what Weir writes is conditional - Elizabeth might have, would have, could have - since the facts aren’t known with certainty. I respect Weir’s scholarship. She does not fill in historical blanks with speculation passed off as fact. Still, it can be frustrating to read, especially when there is the sense that we are on the edges of a more nuanced, personal story. 

Weir’s style is exhaustive (and at times exhausting). She describes the clothing, down to the queenly undergarments or lack thereof, food, housing, account ledgers, the names of the ladies-in-waiting, and every work of art ever done of her subject.

In the midst of all this detail, though, a more human picture emerges. Elizabeth lost her father while young, throwing her life into uncertainty as murderous struggles for the crown raged around her. After her marriage, even with a more stable political situation, various pretenders claimed to be her lost brothers, motivating armed uprisings. Elizabeth lost several of her own young children. We can only guess how she felt during all this turmoil, but Weir’s picture is the most complete we are likely to have.

A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley/Random House.

OFF-TOPIC: The Story of an Internet Revolt by G.R. Reader - G.R. Reader

Vote for Off-Topic as a write-in in the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Nonfiction and Best Debut Goodreads Author!

 

*****

On September 20, 2013, Goodreads “announced” a policy change with a single post in the Feedback forum. This post informed Goodreaders that certain reviews and shelf names were being deleted if they were deemed to comment on “author behavior.” Initially, they targeted only 21 users, inexplicably leaving alone similarly named shelves and equally harsh reviews from many other users. Even stranger and more ominous, many of the deletions were not of actual reviews, but of blank review space followed by comment threads, implying that it was discussion that was offensive, just as much as the rating of a book.

Those subject to the deletions were given no warning or chance to modify or save their content prior to deletion. The policy change was never announced to the Goodreads community at large. Instead it was buried in an elephantine thread in the Feedback forum (now numbering more than 6000 posts), seemingly with the hope that no one could actually read it all.

Deletions were later extended to reviews critical of the policy. Those reviews were classified as “potentially off-topic.” Other reviews, written to highlight the absurdity of the prohibition on discussion of author behavior when extended to its logical conclusion, were also deleted. Again, either due to incompetence or some obscure intent, the deletions were arbitrary, with some reviews removed while others that committed the same violations were allowed to stand. 

Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt is the story of these events, told by Goodreaders in their own words. It is an epic tale - informative, irreverent, snarky, witty, analytical, heartfelt, and heartbreaking. The sampling of reviewers whose work is included here is not monolithic. These reviewers read authors and genres across a wide spectrum and have responded to the controversy in their own individual ways. The theme that seems to unite them is a belief that a community for readers and book lovers that stifles discussion and squashes dissent is an oxymoron. 

Reducing book reviews to inoffensive but generic marketing blurbs takes away their value. People who want to engage with books in creative, intellectually stimulating ways will not stick around to stare dumbly at advertising copy. Books will always be more than “products” to passionate readers. Trivializing them as such takes the heart out of Goodreads. All that will be left behind is an echo chamber of spambots blasting blurbs at each other, with no one left to listen.

Off-Topic is available as a pdf from Lulu for $0.99.

Or download here for free (legal due to how the licensing for the contributions was set up).

 

Disclaimer: I was a contributor to this book.

Off-Topic - Vote for it in the Goodreads 2013 Choice Awards



Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt

Vote for Off-Topic in the Nonfiction category of the Goodreads Choice Awards!

I also voted it for GR debut author work.

Obviously you will have to vote it as a write-in, but it's easy - you start typing "off-topic" and it will autocomplete. 

 

This was from Lobstergirl in the monster thread.

 

 

Reblog at will!

 

 

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1499741-important-note-regarding-reviews?page=123#comment_number_6106
The Nature of Alexander - Mary Renault

I recently read and enjoyed Mary Renault’s trilogy of novels about Alexander the Great (Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games). I was curious to see her approach the topic from a nonfiction perspective. The Nature of Alexander is her biography of the Macedonian king who managed to conquer Greece, Persia, part of India, and Egypt, creating an enormous empire without ever losing a battle.

 

Alexander's empire (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Despite ruling for only thirteen years, Alexander is renowned for his military brilliance. Holding together an empire that vast, with populations of such diverse cultures, languages, and religions, was at least as challenging as conquering it in the first place. He died young without having a clear successor. The power vacuum left after his death created a setting ripe for murders, revolts, and usurpations. The massive empire did not last for long, at least not in the form in which Alexander left it.

 

Renault can tell a good story. The narrative quality of the biography, which focuses on what is known about Alexander’s interpersonal relationships as much as on his battles, makes it a pleasure to read. Alexander was an interesting character: intelligent, disciplined, and courageously unconcerned with his own comfort and personal safety. He led by example, and his men were (usually) fiercely loyal to him. At times, though, Alexander could be surprisingly emotional. He is described as sulking in his tent for days when his soldiers, exhausted by years of military campaigning, refused to go farther into India.

 

Renault draws on ancient sources for this biography, particularly Curtius, Arrian, Plutarch, and Ptolemy. There is inevitably a certain amount of historical reconstruction involved, as much information has been lost. The ancient writers often refer to other documents closer to the source that are no longer extant. Many of those writers had an angle they were pushing. There was quite a bit of propaganda, both for and against Alexander, so any biographer has to sift through the details and decide what is most likely to be true.

 

Renault’s objectivity is questionable at times. She is clearly in the pro-Alexander camp. There are many historical controversies regarding Alexander’s life, such as whether or not he was involved in his father’s assassination or was an alcoholic. There are also accusations of atrocities, such as a story about him ordering that the defeated leader of Gaza be executed by having him dragged behind a chariot by his heels until he died, a grim allusion to Achilles having Hector’s (already dead) body dragged around Troy. Renault calls the story “Athenian propaganda,” which it well could be. Unfortunately, though, her lack of footnoting makes it hard to evaluate her claim that “all good historians have rejected [this] story.”

 

The retrospective medical analyses of certain events here are unconvincing. The author scrutinizes the death of Hephaistion (Alexander’s best friend and possible lover), twisting and stretching small details in a convoluted fashion seemingly to justify Alexander’s execution of the doctor. Renault seems to come out on Alexander’s side on every dispute, taking great pains to justify his actions and sometimes protesting a little too much.

 

The Nature of Alexander is an enjoyable biography of a fascinating historical figure. For a more balanced account of Alexander’s life, readers should look elsewhere, but this book is a well-told introduction to the subject.

 


Alexander and Hephaistion (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Who Were You on Goodreads?

Reblogged from Ceridwen:

[Reblogged from Ceridwen]

 

If you're like me, it's hard to keep up with the diaspora, especially because screen names and avatars are often different from platform to platform. Petra X started a goup here for the Goodreads immigrants to note their other identities. 

 

http://booklikes.com/thread/364/who-were-you-on-goodreads-

 

Reblog at will. 

George Orwell: English Rebel - Robert Colls

In George Orwell: English Rebel, a book that is part biography, part literary criticism, Robert Colls evaluates his subject through the lens of Orwell’s “Englishness.” It is a fresh approach for discussing a man who has had many books written about him, but not much addressing his relationship with his country and national identity.

 

Orwell lived in turbulent times. He is of course best known for writing Animal Farm and 1984, books that attack totalitarianism. What is less well known is that he also frequently wrote about little cultural details, like naughty picture postcards or how to make the perfect cup of tea. In Colls’s view, this aspect of Orwell kept him anchored in what he calls a “belly-to-earth” way, even when tackling, and at times encouraging, socialist revolution. In 1984, a novel concerned with larger and darker themes, we see how Winston Smith is drawn to commonplace objects like a glass paperweight. Orwell never lost his grounding in ordinary life, no matter what the topic was, and he considered it worth preserving.

 

Colls is helpful in giving the details of the political backdrop in Orwell’s day, information which can otherwise be a little fuzzy to readers, particularly American ones, more than 60 years after Orwell’s death. Orwell is considered a leading political writer, but his writing rarely addressed the nitty-gritty facets of electoral politics. His focus was on big picture concepts. This emphasis helps keep Orwell’s writing relevant today, but he could also be vague when it came to translating political ideas into reality. Colls brings Orwell down to earth on some of the issues, helping us see where Orwell, master of plain speaking and plain writing, was wriggling out of having to explain how his political concepts would actually work.

 

Colls also looks at Orwell’s relationship to his class and elucidates the nuances of 1930s British class divisions for modern readers. Orwell was a champion of the working class, but never of it, and was never completely able to shake his “lower-upper-middle-class“ upbringing and accent (see The Road to Wigan Pier, ch. 8), nor his Eton education. Colls also discusses regional variations in the north and south of England at the time and how those played into Orwell’s views.

 

I appreciated Colls’s analysis of the novel Coming Up for Air. While this is probably one of Orwell’s better novels technically, it has never interested me as much as the others, even weaker books like Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman's Daughter. Colls’s interpretation helped with that, putting the novel into the context of the 1930s class system with nuances that had previously been foreign to me as an American in the 21st century.

 

Colls relies a bit too much on Orwell’s book/pamphlet The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941) to justify his theories about Orwell’s political views. It is true that this is one of the few places where Orwell lays out explicitly what he means by socialism and socialist revolution, and certainly it serves as a useful reference for Colls’s discussion of Orwell’s Englishness. In 1949, though, Orwell listed this book as one that was he did not want reprinted (see Orwell/Davison A Patriot After All: 1940-1941 pg. 391). The reasons for that are not entirely clear, but he listed it along with Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, two books he was not proud of. It is reasonable to believe that by that time The Lion and the Unicorn no longer represented Orwell’s definitive take on socialism.

 

George Orwell: English Rebel is also weaker when playing the parlor game of What Would Orwell Say? The final section gets bogged down in whether, if he had lived, Orwell would have been a Cold War warrior or neo-Conservative or New Left or socialist or Tory anarchist, etc., etc. Of course it is impossible to know what exactly Orwell would have said about issues he couldn’t have envisioned, and the further the matters in question are from his lifetime, the more speculative this game becomes. If we take his actions during his life as a guide, I suspect Orwell would have shied away from labels and would have changed and refined his positions over time, throwing in a few twists to keep biographers guessing.

 

A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley/Oxford University Press.

Fire from Heaven - Mary Renault

Alexander the Great lived only thirty-two years (356 - 323 BC), but in that time he attained a stature unequaled in ancient history. Celebrated as one of the greatest generals of the ancient world, he expanded his kingdom of Macedon into a vast empire, throughout Greece and extending as far as Egypt and the Himalayas. Alexander was a legend in the minds of the Romans who came afterwards, nearly a mythical hero. Suetonius reports that the Emperor Augustus, who lived 300 years later, had Alexander’s sarcophagus removed from its mausoleum so he could show “veneration by crowning his head with a golden diadem and strewing flowers on the trunk.” (Suetonius The Twelve Caesars) In Gore Vidal’s novel Julian, the Emperor Julian dreams of being the first to surpass Alexander’s victories in Persia, since in the seven hundred years after Alexander’s reign, none of the great Roman generals had done so.


Mary Renault begins her series of novels based on the life of this fabled character with Fire From Heaven. The novel covers the first twenty years of his life up to the assassination of his father, Phillip II of Macedon. In the Author’s Note, Renault acknowledges that there are no contemporaneous sources for Alexander’s life, and for his boyhood, the only reference is Plutarch, who lived a few hundred years later. The lack of historical information presents an opportunity for a historical novelist to fill in the gaps, but with the challenge to do so plausibly.

Renault succeeds in balancing the contradictions of a character who is believable as a future myth and legend, but also credible as a real person. Alexander the child, who is of course radiantly beautiful, hates having his golden hair combed and resents his little sister. As an eight-year old, though, he is quite willing to stick a dagger in a man who insults his mother, and kills his “first man” at the age of twelve. While a youth, he tames the untameable horse Bucephalus, a story which has become a legend in its own right.

Alexander_Bucephalus
Alexander and Bucephalus (image source: Wikipedia)

Phillip II and Olympia, Alexander’s parents, have a contentious relationship that disturbs their son greatly, setting the groundwork for near-Oedipal conflict later. Alexander’s incredibly close attachment to his cherished friend Hephaistion, a friendship that was to endure for their entire lives, is depicted with subtlety. A sexual relationship is implied but not explicitly depicted, which is a reasonable way of handling a topic which has been the subject of historical controversy.

At times, the story suffers from clunky exposition. Characters engage in conversation about military and political events in a way that occasionally feels contrived. The readers need some necessary background, but the style in these sections is not as smooth and enjoyable as elsewhere.

Overall, though, Fire From Heaven is engaging historical fiction, reminiscent of books like I, Claudius (though without Robert Graves’ snarky wit). The tone here is worthy of the classical subject but readable, bringing a mythical hero down to the level of a mortal, but one slightly less mortal than the rest of us.

A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley and Open Road Media.

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters Downton Abbey meets [b:The Shining|11588|The Shining (The Shining, #1)|Stephen King|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1353277730s/11588.jpg|849585] in a house worthy of [a:Daphne du Maurier|2001717|Daphne du Maurier|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1357663068p2/2001717.jpg]. A creepy, atmospheric, and puzzling ghost story. Or is it?
The Heretic's Wife - Brenda Rickman Vantrease Historical fiction of the Tudor era has an uphill battle. There are just so many novels about that time, from Philippa Gregory’s blatant romances sprinkled with a touch of history to Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning, erudite, and decidedly unromantic [b:Wolf Hall|6101138|Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)|Hilary Mantel|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1336576165s/6101138.jpg|6278354]. The world is not exactly crying out for more variations of the Henry VIII-Anne Boleyn story.

Still, I had some hope for The Heretic’s Wife. It focuses not on the portly serial bridegroom Henricus Rex, but on the sister of a bookseller who plays the dangerous game of selling Lutheran (i.e., Protestant) books in England. She becomes involved with historical characters John Frith, a Protestant writer and reformer, and his friend William Tyndale, famous translator of the Bible into English.

In those days, the idea that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves was a perilously radical one, and it could result in its proponents ending their days burned at the stake the final ending for both Frith and Tyndale. While King Henry had sympathy for some Protestant viewpoints, he was hardly theologically progressive, and didn’t hesitate to dictate the same punishment for those who took the wrong view on transubstantiation the idea that the bread and wine at Communion are literally the body and blood of Jesus. During those turbulent years, what was considered safe, orthodox belief changed at the whim of the king and whatever powerful people he currently held in favor.

Tyndale

”Lord, open the king of England’s eyes” - Last words of William Tyndale, executed in 1536.

The Heretic’s Wife plays fast and loose with some of the historical details, but most of the changes don’t detract too much from the story. The bigger problem lies with the anachronisms. Characters worry about being “broke,” Henry VIII has “flings” with women, and the lawyers seem a lot more concerned with due process and illegal search and seizure than they should reasonably have been in early 1500s Tudor England. Occasionally, the characters pop out with a “verily” or two to remind us of the setting, but with the uneven prose, it isn’t convincing. What is worse, the relationship between protagonist Kate and her romantic interest John Frith commits one of the unforgivable sins of historical fiction, transplanting 21st century sensibilities into people who lived 500 years ago. The effect of the clumsy language and shoehorning of the blandest of chick-lit romances into an otherwise tumultuous period of history is jarring, making it difficult to be absorbed in the story.

It’s a shame, because other aspects of the novel are more compelling, particularly the depiction of the king’s chancellor Sir Thomas More (canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1935). More comes across as a villain with sadomasochistic impulses who takes a little too much pleasure in not-so-gently convincing heretics to renounce their beliefs as he marches them to the stake. He is set in contrast to the reformers, who are equally convinced that they are on the path of the righteous. Like the reformers, More was willing to be martyred over his religious beliefs when he was executed for refusing to support Henry VIII’s divorce.

The early Protestant Reformation in England was a dangerous time for people on every side of the religious question. It makes a good background for a novel, but maybe not so great of a setting for a love story.

2.5 stars
Inferno - Dan Brown

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate. Or something.

dante_zpsd126c31a
Statue of Dante by Enrico Pazzi, Piazza Santa Croce, Florence

When I took this picture a couple of months ago, I thought Dante’s dour expression must be because he was pondering the horrors of hell. Now I think it’s because he was dwelling on the ignominy of having his masterpiece turned into this Dan Brown novel.

By the fourth book in the series, the formula has been well-established: Robert Langdon, the intrepid Harvard professor and “symbologist,” must race against the clock to decode a series of obscure clues left by a madman to save humanity from destruction. The only thing surprising is that Langdon continues to be dumbfounded when he finds messages from shadowy cabals hidden in the pockets of his Harris Tweed. You’d think he’d be used to it by now.

Unfortunately, the book reads as part dressed-up travelogue, part Wikipedia entry. On the plus side, much of the discussion is about Florence, one of my favorite cities. Brown does name-check some good places (I’d agree with him that “No trip to the piazza [della Signoria] was complete without sipping an espresso at Caffè [sic] Rivoire.”) The problem is that these observations about Florentine tourist destinations are interspersed with scenes of our valiant heroes racing through the narrow streets, fleeing heavily armed paramilitary operatives who want to kill them. Langdon is never too distracted to pontificate about history and Renaissance art, but it's probably more likely that he would give the Frommer’s a rest during this particular tour.

hercules_zps791e0a2c
Brown seems fixated on this statue of Hercules in the Palazzo Vecchio. It is rather. . . gripping. 

The real disappointment, though, is in the lost opportunity. A Dante-inspired thriller has a lot of possibilities, but this novel is strangely bloodless. It’s just a prolonged scavenger hunt that turns out to be pointless designed to show off all the places Brown researched. I’m sure he had fun doing the research, but he never gives us more than any decent guidebook would. Brown has so much potential material, with the city of Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, the Medici, and Savonarola. What he comes up with, though, is bland and forgettable. His bad guy doesn’t come close to stacking up against either history’s bad guys or Dante’s imagination. I don't think anyone reads Dan Brown's books expecting literary masterpieces, but a little excitement and unpredictability wouldn't hurt anyone.

I did read, though, that they locked the translators for this book in a secret bunker in Milan while they toiled at their work. It’s perhaps a bit too easy to draw an analogy between that and The Divine Comedy, so I’ll refrain, but maybe it could be the seed for Brown’s next book?


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Death mask of Dante Alighieri, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. (Pivotal to the story. Or it would have been if Langdon's clue decryption actually made any difference to the outcome.)

The Secret History - Procopius I found this book after reading Bird Brian’s
terrific review
. First, though, I read [b:Count Belisarius|324312|Count Belisarius|Robert Graves|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348678970s/324312.jpg|315214], a work of historical fiction by Robert Graves (author of [b:I, Claudius|18765|I, Claudius (Claudius, #1)|Robert Graves|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348245799s/18765.jpg|4232388]) written about the same people - the Byzantine/Roman Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, and leading general Belisarius and his wife, Antonina. In Graves’s novel, Belisarius emerges as a sympathetic character. In Procopius’s contemporary history - not so much.

Procopius lived during the first half of the 6th century. He was secretary to Belisarius and is known for writing several sober histories of the period. In The Secret History, though, he lets it all out, attacking his subjects with a lurid fervor unmatched by any modern day tabloid. The narrator in Count Belisarius described the origins of The Secret History, saying, “Then Procopius in the bitterness of his heart wrote a book of libels not only upon Belisarius and my mistress Antonina but upon the Emperor himself and dead Theodora. Sometimes he told the truth, sometimes he distorted the facts, sometimes he lied - according to his vindictive purposes.”

That’s putting it lightly. In his section on “The Tyranny of Women,” Procopius makes sure that we are left with no doubt that Theodora and Antonina were wanton sluts who manipulated their husbands shamelessly and had no regard for the collateral damage wreaked on the Roman empire. The conservative Procopius was no fan of powerful women in general, and the Empress Theodora, demanding displays of servile obeisance from patricians as she pulled Justinian’s strings, made him apoplectic. But in her younger days, according to Procopius, the future Empress could sleep with more than 30 men at a single dinner party, and she had a trick involving nudity, barley grains, and geese that it’s best not to get into on a family website.

Procopius doesn’t spare Emperor Justinian or Belisarius, though. He tells us Justinian is worse than the bubonic plague (with the plague, “just as many people escaped as had the misfortune to succumb - either because they escaped the infection altogether, or because they got over it if they happened to be infected. But this man not a single person in the Roman Empire could escape.”)

Justinian may also, in fact, have been a demon. Justinian’s mother said she conceived him not with a man but with a demon (I wonder what Byzantine birthers had to say about that). Later on, a witness noticed the Emperor’s head disappearing from his body while he paced the floor, and then returning spontaneously to its usual location, a sure sign that something was up.

Procopius tell us the greedy Justinian was the worst Emperor the Roman empire has seen, which is saying a lot: “So that if one chose to add up all the calamities which have befallen the Romans from the beginning and to weight them against those for which Justinian was responsible, I feel sure that he would find that a greater slaughter of human beings was brought about by this one man than took place in all the preceding centuries.” He also blames him for floods, earthquakes, and the plague, since he feels anyone that awful surely must have provoked divine retribution.

As history books go, this one may not be the most reliable, but it has to be the most entertaining. It makes [b:The Twelve Caesars|29022|The Twelve Caesars|Suetonius|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347187766s/29022.jpg|372997] seem like a sedate, measured analysis. I’m not sure what exactly Justinian and Theodora did to Procopius to make him so mad, but he certainly has his revenge here. He tells us he writes for the “enlightenment of future generations,” and it turns out he gets the bonus of giving tabloid journalists something to aspire to.

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Empress Theodora, as depicted by Procopius
Storie Italiane: Short stories in Italian for young readers and Italian language students - Long Bridge Publishing Calling these "stories" is a bit of a stretch. These are short vignettes in Italian, organized around different locations in Italy. The concept is good, but the stories themselves are very, very simple. There isn't much to them, but they help with practicing simple Italian grammar and vocabulary.