Monday, 9 December 2019

SPQR by Mary Beard

SPQR is a brief modern history of Rome from its earliest beginnings to the end of its prime years of empire.  Beard has a full and distinguished career as a classicist behind her, and in SPQR she writes fluently and insightfully not only about what we know about ancient Rome, but also about what the Romans thought they knew about Roman history, what most of us think we know about Roman history, and what we actually don't know and can't now ever know.

For example, did Livia really poison Augustus by painting the figs on a tree with poison to clear the way for her son Tiberius to become emperor?  Was Claudius really so in love with gambling that he outfitted his carriage such that he could continue to dice even as he travelled from place to place?  Did Nero use a self-sinking boat in an attempt to assassinate Agrippina, and was her maid murdered in her stead when the maid falsely claimed that she was her mistress assuming that the guards would rescue rather than kill her? 

These are the kind of stories that make Roman history the stuff of melodramatic television series almost 2000 years after the fact, and these are the kinds of stories that we love to read about Rome.  However, Beard points out that in most cases, we do not have contemporary accounts of these events. Roman historians like Suetonius or Tacticus wrote 50 or 100 years afterwards.  Just how could some of the stories they tell have escaped the palace walls in the first place?  How accurate were those stories 2 or 3 or more generations down the road? Especially when contemporary politics made it convenient to play up the debauchery of a Nero, or the competence of a Hadrian? It seems likely that substantial parts of the stories about Rome that we love to read might just be pure invention. 

Beard brings this kind of questioning perspective to the full sweep of Roman history, from the competing mythologies of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome by Aeneas to the economic and political reasons behind the fall of the Roman Republic.  She asks questions about what we think we know, and reminds us how much of our knowledge is based on a somewhat random collection of surviving stones and inscriptions, and a very incomplete collection of stories, letters, and histories. 

SPQR is an interesting read. 

But as I was reading, I wondered why. Knowing more about Roman history, or even knowing more about historiography, doesn't really serve any long term interests of mine. And SPQR, while well-written and erudite, isn't one of those amazing books that turns your understanding of some part of the world upside down. 

Fundamentally, these days I feel that I no longer have an infinite number of books in my future.  I've recently given myself permission to put down novels part way through if they aren't really working for me.  Maybe it's time to be a bit more selective about what which of my random curiosities I choose to pursue by reading nonfiction?

Unfortunately, saying that out loud makes me feel rather old. 

Sunday, 13 October 2019

On Writing by Stephen King and Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

These are very different books.  On Writing is partly memoir, partly an inspirational work, partly a guide to the writing life, and also, in small part, a guide to writing.  Steering the Craft is a technical writing workshop in written form, complete with exercises and instructions on beginning your own writing group.

In composing his writing manual, King relies almost entirely on story.  He tells stories to illustrate the importance of "reading a lot, and writing a lot". He tells stories about the pernicious adverb,  and invents stories to illustrate their evil.  He tells stories about agents, about writing careers, about adding and removing detail in your work, and even tells stories about writing the book that we hold in our hands.  What his book is NOT about is language. This is ironic, given that the story that King tells about the origin of On Writing is that he was inspired by Amy Tam, who bemoaned the fact that no one ever asks writers of popular fiction about language.

In contrast, it's no surprise to learn that Le Guin is the daughter of professors. Steering the Craft reads like a beginning textbook for a creative writing class.  Let's start at the sentence level, and cautiously expand to discuss elements of story like Point of View.  Let's illustrate our points with references from various literatures. Let's give students an opportunity to practice what we've just covered by including exercises.  Let's learn.

I found both books useful, but I picked up more useful nuggets from King's book than from Le Guin's, despite the fact that I love Le Guin's novels and don't find King's very interesting.  Oh well.

I do regret a bit that I read these two books simultaneously.  I have a long-standing insecurity about paragraph breaks. After you get past the basics of  "one subject, one paragraph", just how are you supposed to decide exactly when to start a new paragraph?  I've always felt that there was some secret that I was missing.  But one of these two books gave me a great insight: after you get past the basics, paragraphs are about the rhythm of the work.  I wish I knew which of these two authors to credit.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Northhanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Yes, of course I've read Northanger Abbey before.  But I ran across an omnibus edition of Northanger Abbey that includes Lady Susan and Sanditon, and thought it might be interesting to read Jane Austen's juvenilia and unfinished last work, respectively.

I started with Northanger Abbey.

What struck me on this reading is how much Northanger Abbey reminded me of a Georgette Heyer novel.

Why?  The book focuses on a young heroine making her debut in the world, as so many Heyer books do, and Northanger Abbey takes place in Bath, the scene of so many Heyer novels. But the greatest similarity is that this is a light book, written to provide amusement.  The heroine of Northanger Abbey faces no life-altering stakes.  Her immediate happiness is very often at risk, as is her social comfort.  At one crisis point, she is humiliatingly embarrassed by her own lapse of judgement -- but she learns from it, and becomes closer to the friend who provides her with guidance.  Even the climax of the novel, where she is thrown out of the Tilbury's house and forced to make her own way home, unprotected and uncertain even of how to get there...passes without serious threat.  Catherine Morland makes her way safely back to her family. And just as in a Heyer novel, the climax of Northanger Abbey is quickly succeeded by our heroine's marriage to her worthy and much-loved suitor.

This lack of stakes is in sharp contrast to Austen's more mature works.  When Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr. Collins, she is putting both her own future and the future of her sisters and mother at jeopardy. Elizabeth's only hope is a good marriage, but the neighbourhood has a paucity of eligible gentlemen and she and the other girls have only their looks and their characters to recommend them -- which is very little in a world where property is the primary requirement for belonging to the class that they were born into.  In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price lives as an undervalued poor relation -- but in much greater comfort and with much greater gentility than is possible for her mother and younger siblings, who suffer from their mother's improvident marriage.  Not to mention that the book features the utter ruination of Maria Norris, who marries for money but then falls into scandal when she afterwards falls for the fickle and irresponsible Henry Crawford.

Northanger Abbey is the book of a young woman, full of high spirits, who is amusing herself with her writings and aims to amuse her readers too.  The book not infrequently "breaks the fourth wall" when the author speaks directly to her readers with asides about the value of novels, or the happy fate of her protagonist.

Heyer doesn't explicitly do the amusing asides -- although she delights in showing her characters in a charming and yes, amusing light -- but almost all of her books very much feel like this one.

Comparing Austen to Heyer is of course absurd -- Heyer wrote in imitation of Austen.  But after re-reading Northanger Abbey, it seems that in particular Heyer wrote in imitation of Northanger Abbey, as well as in imitation of the types of melodrama that Austen satirizes here.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Summer will show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Pages: 329
Published: 1936

This is an odd novel.

It does some things very well.  I'm not sure I've ever read anything that seems to capture so well the experience of living through momentous events.  As you live your life, you don't necessarily know that you're living through something that history will regard as significant.  And as the experience drags on, day by day, week by week, month by month...well, you have to eat, and get dressed, and be hungry or bored just as you would if History weren't happening. Your friends will still misunderstand you, your ex-husband might still betray you for the most personal of reasons.  And the fact that you're literally part of a Communist plot might not feel as important to you as your lover's life or happiness.

Some parts of the characterizations are also skilful.  The entire first section of the book captures in a very plausible way the interior life of an upper class British woman of the mid-19th century.  Mrs Willoughby of Blandameer is both focused on perfectly meeting the obligations of raising her children and of managing her estate, and is impatient with them.  The doctor's wife is a mouse who is fiercely, secretly opposed to meddling in her neighbour's life. The lime kiln keeper is equally indifferent to the expectations and the griefs of his mistress.

And yet, the novel does some things so badly.  It's disjointed:  there are jumps in time that don't really make sense.  The fatal, compelling attraction of the main character to her ex-husband's mistress Minna isn't well drawn, and the previous mutual attraction between the ex-husband and Minna seems implausible once you meet both characters. It also assumes things you may not be familiar with:  if you don't know much about the European revolutions of 1848 you might not realize that the characters are in the midst of them, and the ending of the novel will not have the same resonance if you don't recognize that Sophie is reading the Communist Manifesto.

I picked this up at the library, initially thinking that it was an imprint of the Virago Press. Instead it's a similar 'lost classics' imprint from the New York Review of Books.  It has a similar interest:  in the moment, it is impossible to tell which books will be thought to be important by a later era.  And yet, the books that "don't last", that aren't characterized as "classics", and that don't join the "canon"....can still be interesting reads.  This is one of them.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

On not finishing books ... or why I am going to abandon my bookclub

If I start a book, I usually finish it.  But over the last year or so I haven't been finishing much non-fiction: particularly not complex, long, and intellectually challenging non-fiction.  I'm looking at you, Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis and The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt!

Okay, both of those books are really popular non-fiction, but each of them has complexities.

In the first, Varoufakis explains the history and economics of the credit crises of 2008, the underlying causes of the ongoing collapse of the Greek economy, and the various proposals that the Northern European economic superpowers had for "fixing" the problem, along with his own analysis and counter-proposals to lift his home country from the mess.  It's actually a fascinating read, even before you dive into the personalities, politics, and maneuverings of the brief era when he was the Greek finance minister.

I didn't finish it.

I rarely read -- have never read? -- a book like this in isolation.  As the title of this blog implies, I'm usually reading more than one book in parallel, often one "serious" book and one simple consumable book at the same time.  But that's not really the problem here.  Over the past year or so I've just had other things that I've needed to do that have limited the time and attention that I have to spend on a book like this.

That's what happened with Adults in the Room. I'd read 50 pages, 25, a hundred, then go on with the other things in my life that were a more immediate priority.  I'd come back to the book several days later, and read 5 pages more.  Somehow a week and a half would elapse, and suddenly, I couldn't keep the thread anymore.  What was that economic argument again?  Who was that person? What does that acronym mean?  When is it, in the life of the book?

Something similar happened with The Righteous Mind.  It's a book about moral psychology.  How do humans make moral judgements? What current research is there on how and why we do this? What are the impacts of our moral psychologies on our politics, our society, on our everyday human interactions?  What does all of this say about (mostly) the current US political scene, and what are the practical implications for politics and society?

In the case of the Righteous Mind, it wasn't so much the difficulty of following and remembering the arguments and terminology of an unfamiliar field that gave me grief.  The difficulty of the book came in following, remembering, and accepting controversial research and ideas.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm willing to learn, and to be challenged. But 95+% of anything I've ever read that has resembled sociobiology has been a smug, self-serving, "just so" story composed to justify the author's reactionary ideas about why people and society HAVE TO be exactly as they are. "Women have evolved to be loving baby-carers while men are intrepid hunters, because I made up a story about hominids based on stereotypes.  So shut up and get back into the kitchen, you sweet little no-nothing.  It's SCIENCE."


To be fair, very little of Haidt's book is based on sociobiology. (That's just my allergy talking.) The book is overall pretty interesting and I felt that I was learning some important things even as I was mentally arguing with the author.

I didn't finish it.

I'd been following Haidt out onto a limb, step by step.  He had evidence, he explained limitations, he was travelling in an interesting direction that seemed worth exploring. I followed him, with reservations, preparing to leap with him into the next tree to see where we might end up. But.... my breaks in reading his book became longer than the intervals of reading, and at some point foot slipped, I missed the branch, and I plummeted out of the tree.

In other words, Haidt's arguments felt and looked like garbage again.

It had just been too long for me to remember how we'd gotten to the spot we were at, and it would take too long for me to retrace my steps.

Before I'd begun them, I'd been really interested in reading both Adults in the Room and The Righteous Mind.  As I read them, I learnt something, and the reading was a pleasure, not a chore. But...instead of finishing these books, I just have the regret of not finishing.

Which is why I'm finally quitting my bookclub.  My book club books have become one of the things that keep me from reading the books I really want to.

In the end, I'd far rather have read Adults in the Room or The Righteous Mind than The Parcel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, At Home, or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And while I enjoyed Less, The Sympathizer, and A Gentleman in Moscow, would my life have been less rich or interesting if I hadn't read them?  Maybe, a little.  But of those three, only The Sympathizer really gave me any insights I wouldn't have otherwise had.

So, even though The Origin of Waves is beautifully written, I'm going to gracefully detach myself from the group by expressing my appreciation for being included and by talking about how my other priorities don't allow me to continue.  Maybe in August, seeing as I won't be around for July's book anyway.

I'll miss the social aspect, but there are so many other books I'd rather read than the ones that this bookgroup is interested in.  There might even be other books that I'd much rather write.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Property Values by Charles Demers

Each member of my book group takes turns suggesting what we'll read next but there is an element of democracy.  The proposer brings a list of three books and the group chooses one of them as next month's selection.

Last month was my turn.  Of the three "Vancouver" books that I proposed, the group chose Property Values.  (The other two options were Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor and JPOD by Douglas Coupland.)

Now that I've read it, I have to say that Property Values is the most "Vancouver" of the three. JPOD had as much or more to say about tech culture as it did about Vancouver, and Stanley Park was also about contemporary food culture.  Property Values is squarely about Vancouver and only Vancouver.

Nominally, Property Values is a crime novel.   The plot follows the adventures of our hapless hero as he gets caught up in a gang war between the "Underground Riders" and the Da Silvas. Along the way, we hang out with a multi-cultural cast of characters, experience the craziness of the local real estate market, and watch our characters touchily navigate every variety of political correctness.

Yes, the whole book is nothing but Vancouver tropes. Does that sound deadly?  It's not.  Every page is funny, and almost every laugh comes from playing with "true stereotypes" of the city and its people.

The Polis restaurant is "an authentic Hellenic experience" owned and operated by a Sikh family who've been in Canada longer than 90% of the white residents of the Lower Mainland.  When our hero plans a drive-by shooting of his own house in an attempt to drive down its value, he considers several options for a getaway car -- including a Car2Go.  At a "meet" with a biker, our pretend-gangster hero decides that he can't order his usual decaf London Fog because it's not a masculine-enough beverage.  Not only do the hero's best friends come from Asian, Indian, and Egyptian backgrounds, his Asian friend is half Korean and half Chinese "meaning that whenever people guessed at Josiah's ethnicity -- as they invariably did -- they were always a little right and a little wrong".

Even the gang warfare featured in the novel is a Vancouver trope. The Asian Gangs era of the 90s was followed by the 00s era of the Bacon Brothers, the United Nations Gang, and the Independent Soldiers, who all operated alongside the ever-present Hell's Angels.  Our current outbreak of shootings of people "known to police" hasn't been publicly attributed to any particular gang or gangs.  But maybe that's because of the continuing decline of local reporting....which has also been a constant theme since the 90s. ("The glamour of the [news] office had been in decline for decades, but in the rearview mirror the Golden Age kept getting paradoxically closer.  Five years ago, things had felt austere -- but today, five years ago seemed like Old Hollywood with unlimited budgets and bacchanalian Christmas parties, not to mention city council coverage and a theatre reviewer.")

Is Property Values high art?  Well, it's an entertaining read that reflects Vancouver back to itself. It's fun and it feels true.  That seems like more than enough.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

At Home: A short history of private life by Bill Bryson

Over its 19 chapters At Home  explores every aspect of private life in Western societies.  It ranges widely in time and space, outlining what we know about the evolution of domestic life from the Neolithic onward.  Along the way it discusses everything from the origins of agriculture to the historical composition of paints to the vagaries of personal hygiene through the ages.

Each chapter uses a room in Bryson's English home as a jumping off point.  Some rooms provide obvious subjects.  "Kitchen" and "Dining Room" deal mostly with food and drink, nutrition, and social habits around consuming food.  Other chapters have a more tenuous connection with their titular room.  "Cellar" mostly deals with building materials, such as concrete, wood, and brick, while "The Passage" is mostly about the telephone, although it begins with a long introduction about the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the excesses of the Gilded Age. 

These kinds of digressions are highly typical, and key to the book's charm.  As At Home progresses you feel that you are being led a wandering path across the landscape of knowledge by a genial guide.  One paragraph leads to another and before you know it, you are learning about the 18th Century Kit Kat Club when you thought you were  here to discuss the concept of comfort, the idea of crop rotation,  the workforce of the Industrial Revolution, or English Country Houses, all of which are discussed in the first 4 pages of "The Drawing Room".

Given the book's scope, you are likely to encounter familiar faces (such as Thomas Edison) and familiar ideas (the discovery of the critical role of Vitamin C in preventing scurvy) as well as much less familiar ones (the idea that Edison's genius largely consisted in his mastery of systems, necessary to roll out electric lighting on a large scale, or the revelation that it was decades after John Snow demonstrated that cholera was spread by bad water before public health officials accepted that 'bad air' was not to blame).

But fundamentally, this is a comfortable book.  You will learn many new things, and unfamiliar perspectives on familiar things.  But you are unlikely to be faced with uncomfortable facts or to be really challenged.  Bryson spends 4 pages discussing tea, but no time at all informing you of the fundamental role of slavery in the transatlantic sugar trade.  He characterizes death duties as 'punishment' of large aristocratic landowners, without discussing the implacable economic and social forces that led to that taxation, and the unprecedentedly egalitarian and democratic society that this dilution of wealth fostered in the 20th Century.

Bryson is writing popular nonfiction for the reading class, which in his implicit understanding is at least upper-middle-class.

This is a warm, idiosyncratic, eclectic, and rambling view of British and American society.  Be prepared to google for pictures of the many grand buildings he mentions, and for more background on some of the many surprising facts he mentions in passing.  But don't expect analysis, and don't expect to be challenged.  At Home is a warm bath, not a cold shower.