Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

SPQR on a manhole in Rome.

SPQR on a manhole in Rome.

On my first visit to Rome, what most astounded me was that “S.P.Q.R.” was actually imprinted on manholes in the street. I had expected to be awed by a sense of antiquity from the Coliseum, the Forum, and the many ruins sprinkled about the city. But, for me, standing right on the famous Roman phrase that I had studied in school was a palpable ‘history comes alive’ moment.

So I was most eager to delve into Mary Beard’s new book on ancient Rome, SPQR.

Note, this is a political history of Rome. There is an in-depth look at Pompey the Great, and also his namesake city of Pompeii, but very little about Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. Beard doesn’t bother with the importance of Roman Concrete or the development of aqueducts (covered extensively elsewhere). Instead she focuses on social and political innovations.

For example, while conquered peoples were typically brought back to Rome as slaves, Beard explains that a large number of these slaves would be freed within their own lifetimes. Some would even gain citizenship, living out their days in the city of Rome or returning to native lands.

Indeed, the definition and scope of Roman Citizenship continually evolved and expanded, adding to the cosmopolitan mix of the city and the empire. This idea of shared citizenship—that one could be a citizen of a province and also a citizen of Rome—was a totally new concept that fueled military success. This countered a longstanding tradition of parochial allegiance to city states or regions, setting a precedent that continues in nations today.

Beard also gives us a fresh look at the Romus and Remulus myth and how this founding story of fratricide was mirrored in the repeated violence of Roman politics. Well before Julius Caesar, murder was a method of the Roman Republic. One election was broken up when a cabal of angry senators bludgeoned Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters. Sulla marched on Rome with an army (twice), sparking a civil war that killed civilians in the streets and senators sitting in the senate house. Even Pompey the Great was decapitated by supporters of the up-and-coming Caesar. “His life lasted longer than his power,” Beard quotes Cicero.

This only intensified with the rise of the Roman Empire. Assassination was the de facto method of succession. “Vespasian in 79 CE was the only emperor in the first two dynasties to die without any rumors of foul play surfacing.”

SPQR coverIndeed, SPQR at times reads like a House of Cards take on Roman history, as Beard narrates with suspense the political wranglings, betrayals, and changing power players over the centuries. I found all of this particularly compelling—and relevant—in light of the recent political upheaval and shifting alliances in the United Kingdom following the Brexit vote.

Despite the intensity of her subject matter, Beard keeps it lively and readable.

She reminds us that Commodus was the emperor portrayed in the popular movie and Oscar Best Picture winner Gladiator. We also learn that famed British Celtic warrior Boudicca (who led an uprising against the Romans) is buried near Platform 10 of Kings Cross station. Nor is Beard too scholarly to resist calling Arminius “Herman the German.”

My only complaint is that, despite the title, Beard doesn’t really addresss the phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” aka S.P.Q.R., except for a brief mention in the introduction.

I’m still curious about the provenance of this fabled motto, which means “the Senate and the People of Rome” and how much it was really averred in its day.

Nevertheless, SPQR is an informative, fascinating, and engrossing read which I highly recommend.

Mary Beard, Cambridge Professor & Classics Scholar

Mary Beard’s Blog: A Don’s Life

Mary Beard on Twitter: @wmarybeard

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I love my sleep mask.

Sleep mask and comfy pillows.

Arianna Huffington dedicates her new book, The Sleep Revolution, to “all those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Here, here! We love (and need) sleep, but so many of us don’t seem to get enough of it. It’s brutal to walk around in a sleep-starved haze.

There was a time when I thought of sleep as a luxury, and, like many people, I managed to get by with attitude … and coffee.

Eventually, I woke up (pun intended) and realized that sleep is a magic tool we are given to help us confront challenges and pursue our goals.

Huffington gives a pretty scary example of how she collapsed from exhaustion and shattered her cheek bone. That was the epiphany which sparked her on a mission of sleep evangelism.

Her book looks at sleep via scientific, historical, medical, and cultural perspectives. Most of the information isn’t new, but—much like her namesake website—Huffington aggregates it all in a very readable manner, with fascinating tidbits perfect for cocktail party banter. For example, sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy a whopping $63 billion annually. And, before artificial light, our ancestors slept in two blocks instead of one long night. She also cites evidence that links improper sleep to maladies from diabetes to Alzheimer’s to weight gain.

The Sleep Revolution serves as a call to action in the face of what Huffinton calls “our current sleep crisis.” She argues that this is a serious health issue that we should address just like any health issue. Indeed, it’s scary how many people complain, or even boast, about lack of sleep. How did insomnia become our default?

Huffington also offers strategies and advice for “mastering sleep.” One of the best tips is making it a comfortable ritual—cosy pjs, lavender tea, a hot bath. This sounds corny, but if you practice compartmentalizing work thoughts and stressful items away from bedtime, it will become a habit. I went from dreading bedtime (anxiety that I wouldn’t nod off) to looking forward to it each night.

Still, Huffington reminds us, just because snoozing can be a pleasurable routine, we must remember that it is a necessity—not an indulgence.

The book argues for a new approach to sleep in the workplace—a rise in naps and nap rooms and a pullback on the 24/7 cycle of work-related texts and emails.

sleep revolution coverHuffington contends that getting the full forty winks is crucial to success. “Sleep is my weapon,” she quotes Jennifer Lopez. Other prominent sleep proponents include supermodel Karlie Kloss, tennis god Roger Federer, and investment mogul Warren Buffet. Speaking of business, there’s a whole chapter on successful men and women who pointedly get eight hours each night. Oh, and the legendary Tom Brady? He goes to bed at 8:30 pm.

I highly recommend this informative and fascinating read. It’s sparking a dialogue and—I hope—a new attitude toward the urgency of proper sleep. Bravo to Arianna for shining the spotlight on this issue. It’s proactive, not lazy, to get your sleep!

If you want to get more zzzs, this book will help motivate you. And if you are in the “sleep is for wimps” camp, it might just open your eyes … or help you close them.

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Rival Queens LGIf Shonda Rhimes were to write a book about Renaissance France, it would likely resemble The Rival Queens—a dramatic and almost soapy page-turner by Nancy Goldstone. I don’t mean this as a knock, but more as another case of truth being stranger than fiction.

The court of the Valois Kings was a treacherous place, rife with scheming, betrayals, love affairs, and murder. G.R.R. Martin has cited this era in France as a source of inspiration, and fans of his books (or of the Game of Thrones TV series) will recognize parallels and at least one major plot development.

The Rival Queens are Catherine de’ Medici and her daughter, Marguerite de Valois—two singular and fascinating women who both were queens of France. Their fractious relationship was par for the course in the House of Valois, which seemed to have nurtured few familial bonds. Catherine pitted her children against each other to the extent that they were, at times, in greater danger from one another than from their professed enemies.

Her oldest son, Francis I, was sickly and died not long after marrying Mary Queen of Scots. The younger brothers schemed and connived as they competed for the throne. Two of them succeeded to the crown, and Marguerite was married off to become Queen of Navarre. However, this made her position even more tenuous, and she had some close and harrowing escapes from assassins and kidnappers sent by her mother and her brother, King Henri III.

Goldstone felt that historians had been unkind to Marguerite and wanted to tell her story in a more sympathetic light. I must say that I came away with a real respect for this woman who thought fast under pressure, maneuvered through relentless threats, and somehow managed to survive. Also, unlike her mother, she was very popular with the French people who called her “Queen Margot.”

Goldstone zooms out to show how European rivalries and the rise of Protestantism fueled the wars at court. In addition to Mary Queen of Scots, both Elizabeth I of England and Phillip II of Spain appear as significant influences on French politics and diplomacy.

The book offers historical detail and insights into daily life, but its salacious tone reads more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a scholarly biography. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading Gregory. I enjoy her novels, but I know they are fiction. I find it disturbing, though, when “nonfiction” veers into unfounded supposition and sensationalism.

For example, without any cited source Goldstone credits Nostradamus as predicting “the tragic death of Princess Diana” and “the horror of 9/11.” Seriously? Which prophecies and which translations? This feels rather spurious and hokey. In particular, the 9/11 claim has repeatedly been proven to be a hoax—here I cite Snopes and LiveScience.

Goldstone is capable of much better than that and seems to have gotten a bit swept up by the melodrama of her material. I actually preferred her earlier work, Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, as that felt more weighty and academic, while still being so readable. However, I think that readers will take to this fictionesque style of writing—The Rival Queens really is hard to put down.

Overall, I recommend this book. It’s a riveting account of two extraordinary queens and of the machinations of a dynasty that is just as intriguing as the Tudors but has gotten much less attention.

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

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Jane's Fame LGIn 1820, three years after her death, Jane Austen’s publisher remaindered all copies of her books. She sunk into obscurity “out of print, out of demand, and almost out of mind.” Today, of course, Austen is a worldwide phenomenon.

Claire Harman offers an engrossing account of the erratic and somewhat inexorable rise of Austen’s popularity in Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Harman flavors her narrative with diverting bits of trivia, for example Rudyard Kipling was a fervent Janeite! He considered Austen’s gravesite at Winchester Cathedral to be the second holiest place in England after Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford.

Harman begins with a look at Jane the author. In particular, I was fascinated to learn that Austen devised a proto cut-and-paste approach to revision by pinning small paper cutouts with new wording over sections of a working draft.

Austen struggled, however, to get her works published. Ultimately she sold both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice at somewhat bargain rates just to see them in print. The success of these books allowed her to get a better deal for Mansfield Park, which financially was her most successful work, earning her £30 a year. Emma, however, sold the most copies on its initial run.

Tragically, it was just as Austen was gaining success and recognition—albeit anonymously as her works were published by “a Lady”—that she died. Her tombstone made no mention of her as an author.


An 1816 first edition of Emma.

An 1816 first edition of Emma.

During the nearly 13 years her books were out of print, copies were treasured and traded by a niche of faithful readers, including several luminaries of the literary world. Sir Walter Scott had the full set and read Pride and Prejudice at least three times. Other admirers included Robert Southey, Maria Edgeworth, Benjamin Disreali, Lord Tennyson, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—but not William Wordsworth because, according to Coleridge’s daughter, he had no sense of humor.

Both English and pirated translations of Austen’s novels were read in France, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and even in America. I was gobsmacked to learn that James Fenimore Cooper’s first novel was actually a reworking of Persuasion titled Precaution, which flopped.

In 1833, Austen’s books were reissued as part of low-cost series, Standard Novels, sort of the Penguin Classics of the day. These editions began to sell steadily, gaining steam as the Victorian age took hold. Interest in Austen the author also grew steadily, erupting by the 1870s into the cult of the “Divine Jane.” Noted literary critic Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, lampooned this as “Austenolatry”—a riff on “Bardolatry” the cult of Shakespeare. Not long after, another critic named George Saintsbury coined the term “Janeite,” still so popular today. At Winchester Cathedral, so many visitors turned up looking for Austen that her nephew and biographer James Edward Austen-Leigh erected a memorial plaque.

Janes Fame pb

During World War I, Austen’s novels were a favorite among British soldiers and were well stocked in the trenches. They were also prescribed reading material to the wounded for their soothing and “salubrious” effects. By the 1920s, a “Janeite cabal” ran the Royal Society of Literature which would brook no criticism of the author. Beyond these hallowed halls, Austen had also exploded into the mainstream, via magazine articles, compilations, decorative special editions, and Austenalia: sequels and continuations of her novels. There was also a clamor for her letters, juvenilia, portraits, and any other related memorabilia, all of which were unearthed and published.

Jane had her share of detractors, though. Ralph Waldo Emerson had found her to be without genius or wit—a startling and somewhat paradoxical appraisal, but then he was rather severe. Surprisingly, Henry James felt she was overrated. Mark Twain’s derision of Austen has long been celebrated by her detractors, but what I didn’t know is that Twain repeatedly tried to read her works.

Still, Austen continued to gather fans: W.H. Auden, G.K. Chesterton, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West, and even the crotchety Winston Churchill. Another unlikely candidate, Aldous Huxley, wrote the screenplay for the first film adaption of Pride and Prejudice in 1940.

Memorial plaque honoring Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

Memorial tablet honoring Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

There are so many other delicious tidbits, as Harman takes us through different film adaptations and pop-culture trends to the current online zeitgeist of fansites and blogs. But I don’t want to give away the too much of the book, which I highly recommend. Throughout, Harman manages to keep Jane very much in the present with anecdotes, family memories, quotes, and a clever musings as to how Austen would react to all this. Indeed, we all wonder and that’s part of what drives our Janeite mania.

Even after reading her novels, her letters, various biographies, and, yes, many of the Austenalia takeoffs—we still thirst for more of Jane Austen.

As Harman quotes Katherine Mansfield:

“The truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone—reading between the lines—has become the secret friend of their author.”

I read this book as part of the Austen in August annual reading event hosted by Roof Beam Reader. #AusteninAugustRBR

Worn Out With Civility at Mansfield Park

Jane Austen, Genius of Economic Game Theory?

How Did I Not Know About Marvel’s Pride & Prejudice?

Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks, from Boring to Brilliant

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Mx3 is a pre-Halloween celebration of books about Murder, Monsters & Mayhem!

death in the city of lightDavid King’s true account of a serial killer who roamed Occupied Paris during World War II served up an Mx3 triple play: murders, a monster, and mayhem. “The Monster of rue La Sueur” is what the French press dubbed Dr. Marcel Petiot, a well-respected and charismatic physician who led a macabre double life.

Petiot was convicted of murdering 26 people and suspected of killing nearly 60. The total body count could not be confirmed because most of the victims were chopped up and later found scattered around the city.

The doctor had set up a SAW-esque torture chamber, fitted with large hanging hooks and also a sophisticated Lumvisor viewer, so he could watch his victims suffer a slow, confused death. King offers an interesting look at the emerging field of forensics, as the police tried to identify Petiot’s victims from a mound of smoldering body parts.

The mayhem of wartime Paris worked to the killer’s advantage. Chillingly, he would lure desperate refugees to his lair by the dark of night, offering a safe passage out of France. At that time, people often disappeared at the hands of the SS, so few questions were asked when they did. French detectives initially held back on their investigation, believing that they had stumbled onto the work of the Gestapo. Petiot managed to elude authorities for months during the chaos of the German evacuation, the Allied Invasion, the Liberation of Paris, and the subsequent purge of the French police in which the detectives on his case were arrested for collaborating during the war.

King imbues Death in the City of Light with a smoky, atmospheric look at life in Occupied Paris: shrouded street lamps, air raid sirens, food shortages, a thriving underworld, and growing distrust among neighbors. As such, this book reminded me of Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City.

The patient, determined French Police Chief Georges-Victor Massau came off much like the lead in a detective novel. Turns out, Massau was a great friend of mystery writer Georges Simenon and was in fact the inspiration for Chief Inspector Maigret.

2013MX3My one beef, however, is that some of the most spine-tingling and conclusive revelations came in the Epilogue.

King dwells on the sensational trial, but relegates the harrowing, firsthand account of the only victim who escaped to the endnotes.

Halloween Reads on Word Hits:

Join Us for a Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read

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“While oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if
compassion is a form of love.”
—Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

YMaF paperbackMann Gulch, Storm King Mountain, and now, Yarnell Hill. Oh, it was awful to learn about the loss of those 19 brave Hotshot firefighters from Prescott, Arizona. It will be a while before investigators fully understand this tragedy, but the takeaway is that wild fires are erratic and unpredictable. So much so that even the most experienced and elite crews are risking their lives each time they head out to the fire line.

For those looking for some understanding, I highly recommend Young Men and Fire (YM&F), Norman Maclean’s brilliant, wonderfully written account of the Mann Gulch Fire which killed 13 men in 1949. Maclean, who also wrote A River Runs Through It, did not live to see YM&F win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. Not only is this a thoroughly researched and fascinating investigative report, but the book is also an eloquent, moving rumination of an aged man facing mortality:

“It was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky, but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”

By odd coincidence, I was reading Young Men and Fire back in the summer of 1994, when 14 men and women were killed fighting a fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado. As in Mann Gulch, these firefighters were confronted with flames that suddenly changed direction and began racing uphill towards them. Unlike people (especially those wearing bulky protective suits and carrying heavy gear), fire typically moves faster going uphill than downhill.

Maclean’s son John wrote about this second tragedy in Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. While it’s not the elegiac masterpiece of YM&F, John Maclean’s book is a compelling, page-turning read in the vein of A Perfect Storm. The younger Maclean shows how several seemingly minor human errors amassed together, leading the firefighting crew into an inescapable deathtrap. The snap of an American flag shifting into northwest wind (as noted by a National Weather Service forecaster) turns out to have ominous portent.

Usually I pass along books, but this hardcover I've kept.

Usually I pass along books,
but this hardcover I’ve kept.

Like those fires, early reports are that the Yarnell Hill fire took a 180-degree change in direction. Indeed the last photo taken by one of the Hotshots does not herald danger, but shows the men atop a ridgeline at a safe distance from the burn.

I’m ready for a reread of both books, as I try to come to terms with yet another group of promising, vibrant young people sacrificed in their prime. Thoughts and prayers of sympathy for their families and for the community of Prescott.

Meanwhile, I feel an immense gratitude and respect for those incredibly brave men and women, heroes, out trying to tame so many wildfires during this drought-ridden summer of record heat.

I think of Norman Maclean’s words, as I salute them:

“It is very important to a lot of people to make unmistakably clear to themselves and to the universe that they love the universe but are not intimidated by it and will not be shaken by it, no matter what it has in store.”

Young Men and Fire, University of Chicago Press

Young Men and Fire (Wikipedia)

The Mann Gulch Fire (Wikipedia)

Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, official site

The Storm King Mountain or South Canyon  Fire (Wikipedia)

Loss of 19 Firefighters in Arizona Blaze (CNN)

Last Photo Taken of/by Prescott Hotshots

How You Can Help the Families of the Fallen Prescott Firefighters

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Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

Thomas Jefferson,
by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

I recently got some fascinating new insights into the Declaration of Independence through Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson was chosen as author by default. He was the third choice, actually. The drafting committee wanted Benjamin Franklin, who was already rather a big-name celebrity in America as well as in England. But Franklin declined, saying he hated writing for a committee.

They turned next to John Adams, a fiery orator for ‘the Cause’ in the Continental Congress. But Adams recused himself, concerned that his vocalizing had caused him to be seen as a ‘radical.’ Adams wisely knew that they needed someone who was seen as a moderate to sway those who still hoped for a reconciliation with the Crown.

At the time the members of the Declaration’s drafting Committee of Five did not realize the importance of the project. Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and even Jefferson were each anxious to return to their home states, for the debates over state constitutions. These negotiations were considered to be the real grass-roots action. As Jefferson holed up in Philadelphia laboring over the Declaration, he yearned to be at the Virginia General Assembly.

Still, Jefferson poured his heart and soul into the Declaration of Independence, creating what was not only an historic legal document, but also a masterpiece of writing. The second sentence has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” by literary theorists.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

At the time, however, Jefferson’s genius wasn’t quite recognized and his opus was heatedly critiqued and edited by the Continental Congress. Jefferson “sat silently and sullenly throughout the debate,” which sounds a bit like the writer’s workshop from hell. “At one point, Franklin leaned over to console him, reminding Jefferson that this was the reason he never wrote anything that would be edited by a committee.” Ultimately, several large sections were cut, and it was this revised version that was printed and circulated throughout the country.

Ellis points out that almost more than the existence of the Declaration itself, Jefferson’s famous closing words, “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” became a rallying cry and a pledge that spurred on the revolution.

Still, Jefferson became a rather obsessed with his original draft. “He devoted considerable energy to making copies of his unedited version of the document, restoring the sections deleted by the congress, placing their revisions in the margins so as to differentiate his language from the published version.”  While he sounds like an editor’s nightmare (from my experience at magazines, it’s usually the writers who resist editing that need it the most), the congress took out some very key elements.

First, they deleted all references to slavery and also to Jefferson’s proposal to end the slave trade, which he roundaboutly blamed on George III. This ominous omission still haunts us today. They also cut a thorough anti-king argument which Jefferson modeled after the British Declaration of Rights, a seminal act which set precedent by limiting the Crown’s power, reinforcing Parliament’s authority, and outlining the rights of petition and free speech during England’s Glorious Revolution. This seems a most genius way for Jefferson to use Parliament’s own words and laws to reinforce the Americans’ rights.

They also rejected Jefferson’s doctrine of “expatriation,” in which he theorized the that since the colonists had come to America “at the expense of our own blood and treasure” (with no financial or other support of Great Britain), they were not beholden to that country. There were several other deletions including a tirade against George III for sending mercenaries to attack the colonists. In all, I tend to agree with Jefferson on many of his points. Then again, brevity is also important in these matters, especially when copies were made by hand. You can read Jefferson’s unedited version here.

revolutionary_summerEvery writer has known that mixed emotional jumble of having hard-wrought words deleted or rearranged. Often, however, a writer can find a strange satisfaction and even appreciation in this transformation. Not so for Jefferson. As he grew old and the country he helped found took shape, he grew less fixated on his version of the Declaration but never really got over it.

Ellis, however, defends Jefferson on this point. “At that time, he came off as a rather self-absorbed young man, though his early recognition that the language of the Declaration mattered a great deal proved to be prescient.”

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, by Joseph J. Ellis

The U.S. Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson

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