Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Review of Steven Saylor's Empire


I have just finished another trip through classical Rome with via a 2010  historical novel by Steven Saylor titled Empire.  It covers the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Hadrian and is connected to the history of a fictional family named Pinarius.  The original father, Lucius, is an Augur (that’s a kind of prognosticator  who tells the future through various signs from the natural world.  This man has twin sons named Kaseo and Titus, one of whom becomes a Christian and is killed in the arena. The surviving twin has an illicit affair with a vestal virgin and that relationship produces a son who is a sculptor and architect. He has a son who becomes a personal friend of young Marcus Aurelius who will become emperor as the book ends. 

I am no judge of the accuracy of the history portrayed, but Saylor has good scholarly credentials and fiction writing chops. He keeps you as involved in the Penarius family fortunes as he does with the Emperors—most of whom (like Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian) are a pretty despicable lot.  The machinations, the killings and the sexual deviations definitely keep the pages turning while the Pinarius family provides good lessons on survival while perched on the fringes of power.  

 Saylor also does a fine job of integrating major historical events into the narrative.  As the years pass you get a nice sense of the destruction of Pompei, the great fire of Rome,  the opening of the Colliseum, and of course the persecution of Christians.

Contemporary relevance can be found by considering conquest and the looting of foreign lands as the path to absolute power and  noting how the casual  acceptance of slavery eased the lives of the privileged and helped build the great monuments of the Empire. Slavery and conquest have certainly evolved in the modern era, but there is enough remaining of both to conclude that the world has changed all too little since the Romans ruled it.

Saylor has also written a novel titled Roma which deals with the Republican period in Rome.     

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Review of Dictator by Robert Harris


Dictator by Robert Harris 

From long ago comes a vivid memory of a Shakespeare Memorial Theatre production of Julius Caesar that my wife and I attended in Stratford Upon Avon.  At the end, dressed in a royal toga,  a victorious and arrogant Octavian (soon to become Augustus) strode out of a center door and advanced purposely downstage.  As the curtain descended he planted his feet at the proscenium and stared imperiously out at the audience.  

Dictator, published in 2015, is the third in a series of historical novels about the rise and fall of Republican Rome as seen through the eyes of the Roman politician and orator Cicero. With this year’s Ides of March approaching, I selected this volume from the growing pile of unread volumes on my study file cabinet. My only other experience with Harris was with his Pompei and that was why I picked this one up when I recognized the author’s name. It turned out to be a similar type of novel with a fictional re-creation of historical events underpinned by an incredible amount of background research. I shall now have to accept the fact that my unread pile will get bigger as I will be on the lookout for the first two volumes.   

We begin Dictator in 58 B.C. Cicero has been driven into exile by the machinations of his enemies and Julius Caesar is heading off to conquer Gaul.  Tiro, a slave who historically served Cicero as his secretary, is the almost invisible narrator.  “I seem to have been blessed,” he admits, “with the sort of personality that nobody notices.”  This makes him an ideal observer. He is there always but makes minimal moral judgements on the right or wrong of his master’s choices. Meanwhile the main subject in the book is the great game of Roman politics and throughout we get tidy first hand glimpses of Caesar, Brutus, Clodius, Cato, Cassius, Antony, and Octavian. The personal meetings with the great figures are also nicely countered by the fictionally re-created private moments of Cicero’s family life.

You may find the first two thirds of the book a bit too deliberate in pace, but things pick up with the assassination of Caesar. After that the alliances and double crosses come at you faster than a golf ball hit by Bryson DeChambeau.     

Cicero was the preeminent lawyer, politician, and orator of his generation and his words of wisdom are legion. (Oh Lord, pardon the Roman pun.)  One I liked was: “You can only train for death by living a life that is morally good.” Since I did teach Public Speaking and Theatre during my working life, I also tagged a point I used to cite in one of my old lectures.  “A speech is a performance not a philosophical discourse: it must appeal to the emotions more than to the intellect.” Most cogent though was the pervading sense throughout the book that the challenges faced by Cicero were not much different than those we continue to face today.  As he said:  “To argue that to preserve our freedoms we must suspend our freedoms, that to safeguard election we must cancel elections, that to defend ourselves from dictatorship we must cancel elections, that to defend ourselves from dictatorship we must appoint a dictator—what logic is this?”  

So who can legally vote?  How can power be transferred peacefully rather than through the trauma of endless wars? How does a citizen follow or interpret a constitution that has both strengths and areas of interpretative difficulty?  How does a citizenry deal with the assertion of unfettered individual power over more democratic governance?

Here Cicero falter a bit.  He says, “The best way for us to show confidence in our institutions is to allow them to function normally and to elect our magistrates as our ancestors taught us in the olden time.”  Unfortunately, quite recently our Democracy has been violently attacked with lies about fraudulent elections and now multiple states are attempting to pass laws that will suppress voting rights for large numbers of citizens. Neither Cicero or Harris was writing about 2020, but that does not means that today’s readers cannot make contemporary connections.  

A final lovely thought.   

  “I have put out my books and now my house has a soul.”  Cicero




Sunday, February 21, 2021


McCall Smith, Alexander 

Pianos and Flowers

This is a slim throwaway read. According to the forward, McCall Smith was asked to write some short stories for the Sunday Times and he responded by suggesting that he pull some old photos out of their archives and imagine the people and stories the photos depicted.  I also remember being asked to do a similar assignment by a creative writing teacher some sixty years ago.  It is a great imaginative prop, but based on the stories invented (even by a master storyteller) it is more of an exercise for personal development than a true artistic endeavor.  If nothing else is on the library shelf, check it out.  Otherwise take a pass. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Review Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell


HAMNET by the Irish author Maggie O’Farrell is, among other things, an imaginative recreation of the emotional stress caused by the death of a child. It is historically pinned to the real death of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway’s only son of the bubonic plague in 1596.  Even though the mother is called Agnes in the narrative (because that was the name on her will) and Shakespeare’s surname is never mentioned (though the husband in the novel has a career in the London theatre), it is perfectly clear who the main players are.         

I am not quite ready to echo the sky high jacket superlatives about this novel, but there is no question that O’Farrell can hold her own when it comes to writing evocative English prose.  When she writes about childbirth, the mysterious ambiance of an English wood,  or the raw streets of London, she demonstrates absolute control of sight, sound, and emotion.  Here are just two passages of the many that grace this book.  

               “In the countryside there was a forest. . . . And what a forest it was. Dense, verdant, crazily cross-stitched with brambles and ivy, the trees so closely packed that there were whole swathes, it was said,  that received no light at all. Not a place to get lost then. . . .There were creatures in there who resembled humans—wood dwellers they were called—who walked and talked . . . had lived all their lives in its leafish light, its encircling branches, its wet and tangled interior.”

               "Agnes cannot believe the noise and the stench. All around are shops and yards and                taverns and crowded doorways. Traders approach them, holding out their wares—potatoes, cakes, hard crab-apples. People shout and yell at each other across the street. Agnes sees, she is sure, a man coupling with a woman in a narrow gap between buildings.  Further on, a man relieves himself into a ditch.”

Her sentences may run on too long for some, but then again mine do too.  

Let’s now turn back to the Shakespeare connection.  Hamnet was Shakespeare’s only son and about all we know about him is his recorded birth and death in the annals of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. O’Farrell takes this snatch of biography and weaves it into a moving tapestry of the life and inner souls of the entire Shakespeare family.  This includes the families on both sides, his wife, and their three children—Susannah and the twins Judith and Hamnet.  Hamnet gets the nod for the title since a few years after his passing the absent father gives a variant of his name to his famous play. Scholarship over the years has attempted to tie the play Hamlet and others of his later plays to the dead son, but has been hampered by the fact that there is no real proof to back any of it up.

Hamnet is the lynchpin of this story, yet he is not its central subject.  O’Farrell appears more interested in the inner life of Agnes(Anne) and how she tries to deal with her blended families, her long distance marriage, the death of her son, and her own sanity. Her husband’s absence is  perfunctory until it explodes in the text into an astonishing reversal in the pages of the play that makes a character called Hamlet into a household word for a tortured  young man who is dealing, not with the death of a son, but with the death of a father. I admit to a bit of confusion here.   

There is one final historical note that gives me pause. There are repeated mentions that the physical theatre and the acting company of our absent London husband and parent was “his.”   This exaggerates the status of playwrights in the Elizabethan period. The theatre Shakespeare wrote for did not belong to him nor was the company he acted in “his.”  The chief player in the company as well as the property owners were named Burbage. The shareholders, one of whom was Shakespeare, were certainly consulted about how to run the operation, but they were never the boss.  

Some readers may be slowed down by the non-linear time shifting that O’Farrell uses. She jumps back and forth between the early romance of the couple, the arrival and growing up of the children, and the aftermath of the death of Hamnet rather arbitrarily.    

A final positive note is that there is a fairly long semi-chapter that imagines how the bubonic plague was transmitted over months throughout the ancient world from a market in Alexandria, Egypt to a small town in England.  I don’t know if this was inserted in the last edits before publishing or was a fine piece of super clairvoyance, but it sure hammers home the point that our current Covid pandemic bears many similarities to the plague of old.  

In sum this novel does stimulate the mind, does a masterful job of lushly portraying a particular historical period, and brings any reader into confronting one of the most searing experiences that any parent can ever know—the death of one of their children. 


P.S.  One of my relatives was employed as the nanny for the children of a professional couple in Newtown, Connecticut.   My wife and I happened to be at a family reunion where this woman was present and was called by her employer to summon her back to Connecticut from Arizona to help deal with the tragedy of losing their son to a hail of bullets. There was no happy ending there either. The family she worked for was destroyed. The marriage dissolved and the husband went into a mental decline that ultimately ended with his suicide. But for the grace of God!