Friday, February 27, 2015

THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION III: CAESAR AND CHRIST






The Story of Civilization III: Caesar and Christ, Will Durant, Simon and Schuster, 1944, 672 pp



I have completed another milestone in my autodidact study of history. Caesar and Christ, which I have been reading off and on for three years, is quite a bit more about Caesar and Rome than it is about Jesus Christ and the beginnings of Christianity but there is good reason for that.

Early on in this volume on page 56 Durant lays out his thesis for the book: "The evolution of customs, morals, and ideas produced in one age the Stoic Cato, in a later age the Epicurean Nero, and at last transformed the Roman Empire into the Roman Church." I now understand in great detail how all of that came about.

The history of how a crossroads town called Rome became the Roman Empire reveals several aspects of the modern Western world. The Twelve Tables of laws written in 451 BC began what Durant calls Rome's greatest contribution to civilization: a legal structure. Another basic building block about which I have grave doubts was Rome's most basic institution: the patriarchal family in which the power of the father was almost absolute.

To my mind, a legal structure based on patriarchy inevitably leads to war. By war, empires are built but war depletes the empire building country and this sows the seeds of the empire's destruction. And so it goes. The empire of the United States of America, though it has taken a different form than that of the Roman Empire, is somewhere along that spectrum.

The most illumination in terms of my personal history came in the latter part of the book when Durant lays out the religious scene at the time when Christ lived on earth and makes clear how the spread of Christianity in its first 300 years incorporated elements of Judaism, Greek mysticism, Roman civilization, and many other spiritual beliefs and practices by the time its doctrine was codified.

Once Constantine, who was Emperor in the early 300s, converted to Christianity, which Durant considers possibly a consummate stroke of political wisdom, it was destined that the Church of Rome would succeed the Empire in ruling the Western world. That power may be waning today but it was the power that carried on Rome's government and civilization through the Dark Ages and beyond.

I understand Durant's thesis. His skill in making this part of history more clear to me leaves me in his debt. Next up is Volume IV: The Age of Faith, the longest in the series at 1086 pages. However long it takes me to read it, I know I have new revelations coming. At the risk of sounding like Plato, I feel it should be a requirement for world leaders to have studied these books or something similar.

Reviews of the earlier volumes:


(The entire Story of Civilization Series is shockingly out of print, but the volumes can be found through used booksellers and in libraries.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

THE SILKWORM






The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling), Little Brown and Company, 2014, 455 pp



Second in the Cormoran Strike detective series by J K Rowling (writing under a pen name), The Silkworm got off to a slow start for me. The magic in the relationship between Detective Strike and his office girl Robin seemed to have fizzled out. 

Meanwhile Strike, short on money as usual, overworked and in constant pain from his prosthetic leg, gets a new client. A famous author has gone missing and his long-suffering wife hires Strike to find him.

Though it took almost 99 pages to set up the whole thing, Rowling brought all kinds of threads together making for a breathless read to the end. I remembered that some of the Harry Potter books also had leisurely starts and then took off. She is quite amazingly good at plots.

The author turns up murdered, his agent and publisher have enough oddities between them to sufficiently confound the story, and Strike's relationship with Robin goes through plenty of change and development.

In her first volume, Rowling/Galbraith explored and exposed the evils of celebrity culture. In this one she lampoons the publishing industry. The dead novelist had just completed a manuscript divulging the worst about almost everyone he knew and there is even a leak about the forthcoming book by some loose lipped woman. Rowling gets her revenge, Strike and Robin get the murderer, and Robin gets what she has wanted all along.


(The Silkworm is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

DEPT OF SPECULATION






Dept of Speculation, Jenny Offill, Alfred A Knopf, 2014, 160 pp


I am as conflicted about this book as Jenny Offill seems to be about life. No, this is a novel so the main character, only called "the wife," is a fictional character who is conflicted about her life as a writer, a wife, a mother. But Jenny Offill must have experienced being conflicted because she writes about it so well.

In short sentences and short chapters she leaps from the universal to the individual. She throws in facts (antelope have 10X vision) and quotes from writers, friends, and even a tattoo. I started this book one day because it was short and on the Tournament of Books list and I was weary of long books as well as woefully under read as far as the TOB list goes. 

But every short chapter was rich and almost indigestible, so I could not read much in a day.

On page 8 the wife says, "My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things." But she did fall in love with people and finally she married.

That was hard enough but then they had a baby. And then and then. So the book is called a "portrait of a marriage" in the promo. It could as easily be called a portrait of an artist or a portrait of a woman.

It is written with great artistry. It is a portrait in words. It is a poem in free verse.

I was conflicted because Jenny Offill came so close to what has been difficult and wondrous and true in my life.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

THE ART FORGER






The Art Forger, B A Shapiro, Algonquin Books, 2012, 355 pp



The quality of writing in this novel is not really top-notch but the fact that I could not put it down and read it in two days means that it's not always about the quality.

Claire Roth is a fine artist who has not only never gotten a break but has been used by a male painter. Her former teacher and boyfriend took credit for a painting she had done, got rich and famous AND had her thoroughly discredited in the art world. This is the story of how she got her revenge.

Why is it called The Art Forger? Well, for one thing, Claire pays her rent by making expert copies of famous paintings for a company called Reproductions.com. She has the ability to paint in the style of some of the masters. The company is legit and its customers know they are buying a reproduction, but in the art world there are other gifted forgers some of whose paintings actually hang in museums as the real thing.

Claire gets herself into the most trouble when she agrees to reproduce a Degas painting for a New York art dealer in exchange for his promise to give her a private show at his gallery. We all know not to get mixed up with someone who says,"Trust me. It will be fine," but she does.

This is one of those mysteries where the wrongly accused suspect has to prove herself innocent before she gets locked up for good.  

It is a pounding good read.


(The Art Forger is currently available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED






And The Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead Books, 2013, 402 pp



After being less than blown away by A Thousand Splendid Suns, I was going to give this one a miss. Khaled Hosseini, you can thank two of my reading groups, The Bookie Babes and Tina's Group, for getting me to read it after all.

And I'm glad I did. This author has always excelled at creating an emotional impact through his characters, thereby humanizing Afghan peoples for Western readers. In his third novel he adds a more complex structure that moves back and forth in time as well as location.

The story begins in an Afghan village where a father makes the difficult decision to give up a daughter for what he hopes will ensure her a better life, as well as for a payment that will help the rest of his family live in the present. But the separation between Pari and her beloved brother Abdullah creates a chasm in each sibling's heart that longs for reconnection. As these two and other characters relocate from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco, as other villagers survive wars and "progress", and a plastic surgeon arrives from Greece, the story grows more complicated.

Despite a few too many characters and story lines, Hosseini once again weaves together the noble and the unforgivable in human interactions. I ended up with more compassion for human beings and the choices we make, often without being able to perceive their consequences.


(And The Mountains Echoed is currently available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A HOUSE IN THE SKY






A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout, Scribner, 2013, 367 pp



This memoir was picked by two of my reading groups last month. I am glad I read it.

Amanda Lindhout was an adventurous young woman who lived to travel. She liked middle and far eastern locations best. As a young girl growing up in a broken family, she would read National Geographic magazines and picture herself visiting all those locations.

She made her first journey at 19 years of age, having saved up her tips as a cocktail waitress in her Canadian home town. She wanted to know and understand the whole world and learned the life of backpacking, youth hostels, and living cheap. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Laos, Bangladesh, India, Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan were countries she traveled in during the early years of the 21st century.

She made friends easily and as her confidence increased she pursued breaking into the profession of reporting about foreign affairs. But in 2008 she recklessly entered Somalia, then considered the most dangerous country on earth, and by her fourth day there she and her former lover were kidnapped and held for ransom by young soldiers who worked for men who made big bucks and contributed to jihadists with those funds.

Amanda and her Australian friend were imprisoned and abused in a series of desert dwellings for 460 days until they were finally rescued. It is a harrowing tale well told by Amanda and co-writer Sara Corbett.

Some time ago I named a genre: Prison Camp Lit. I have read a good deal of it and have vacillated between morbid fascination and nauseous unease, learning how both captors and captives deal with some of the most degraded environments known to man. A House in the Sky would fall into a subgenre: Hostage Lit.

The book is a deep look into the psychology of both the kidnapper and the hostage, told through Amanda's perceptions. She was vastly more mistreated than her male counterpart. The fact is women without protection get raped. The "house in the sky" is an imaginative construct she built to give her spirit somewhere to go while her body was being put through horrendous pain and suffering.

Neither the Canadian nor Australian governments pay hostage money, understandable in terms of not wanting to encourage the practice but cruel in my opinion. Both Amanda and her friend's families eventually went into crippling debt to secure their release. I've read reviews of this book by people who probably have never experienced an unsafe day in their lives and criticize Amanda for being naive and foolish, for causing many people a lot of trouble, etc, etc.

Plenty of journalists are taken hostage not to mention all the military personnel who either come home with severe PTSD or lose their lives and are not thanked for their trouble except with the lip service, "Thank you for your service." Amanda admits she was heedlessly over-confident and has done much to make amends for the trouble she caused. The point to me is that she is a heroine of the first order, one because she survived and two because her book tells a huge amount of truth about our world.


(A House in the Sky is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, February 08, 2015

THE GODDESS OF SMALL VICTORIES






The Goddess of Small Victories, Yannik Grannec, Other Press, 2014 (translated from the French by Willard Wood), 464 pp



Another great read for The Tiny Book Club! What is it like to be the wife of a genius? Not that great.

Adele Porkert was working at a cabaret and living with her parents in Vienna. In 1928, she was beautiful and in her early 20s. Early one morning walking home from work she noticed a man walking slowly on the other side of the street. Alarmed because of rumors about gangs that snatched young women from the streets and sold them to brothels in Berlin, she bolted for her door.

But eventually, after seeing the same man at that same time and place for over two weeks, she decided he was harmless and became curious. Then one night he appeared with some friends at the cabaret. Adele met Kurt Godel, who was destined to become one of the most renowned mathematicians in the world. She finds him good looking and intriguing, so she seduces him and becomes his lover. Little does she know she has attached herself to a troubled genius. This is a fictional account of the marriage between them.

Yannick Grannec is French, this is her first novel, and she calls herself a math enthusiast. Researching Godel's life out of curiosity, she came across some scanty information about his wife and wanted to know how a woman could have loved such a difficult (paranoid, anorectic, depressed) man for fifty years. In an interview with her publisher she gives an account of writing the novel and the challenges she faced rendering concepts of advanced mathematical theories into simple words. 

The book is a fascinating study of love, devotion, and the painful interaction of two individuals driven from their beloved Vienna by Hitler's antisemitism and forced to assimilate into academic life in Princeton, NJ. Yes, my home town!

I grew up always aware of Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study (where Godel researched and taught) and the high intellectual status of my town. Einstein, Oppenheimer, Godel, and many others of genius proportions, all featured in the novel, lived and taught there, contributing to a sort of Golden Age of science in America in the 1940s and 1950s, though that was tarnished by the atom bomb. It was a time and place where great brains developed the foundations of the modern world as we know it in all its technical wonders as well as horrors.

It was not a good time for women. Adele was not lacking in intelligence and was well endowed with energy and courage. She poured all of that into Kurt and grew old, fat, tired, and discouraged. A woman today has to wonder how she could have been so devoted to a man whose mental difficulties overtook him as his genius burned away. (It is a well documented fact that most math geniuses burn out early.) Godel became more and more eccentric, more of a hypochondriac, subject to depression and he refused to eat. 

Because of a lack of biographical data about Adele, we will never really know but Yannick Grannec supposed a probable story of a relationship based on love, commitment, and mutual admiration even as these two drove each other to distraction. They are portrayed as a couple who needed each other, he for Adele's caring and protection, she for the fascination of his esoteric mind. Would they have been happier if they had parted? They never did until Godel died and then Adele was devastated. She lived on still caring for his destiny and proper place in the world.

I found the novel believable, entertaining, and informative. I loved that she called Adele a goddess. Now I need to find and read about some female geniuses and the men who took care of them.