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!    

 

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Review: Louise Penny's ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE

 



In this 2020 novel Louise Penny dives once again into deep state conspiracies.  Lurking behind and under the idyllic Three Pines with its gourmet pub and quirky characters always seems to lie a fetid swamp containing vicious public or private power mongers who will stop at nothing to obtain and keep their control.  In this outing Armand Gamache deserts the hamlet of Three Pines and travels to Paris to be with his daughter and son in law for the birth of their second child.  While there Gamache’s godfather is seriously injured in a hit and run accident that Gamache feels is no accident at all.  Needless to say from there on the darkness goes deep and the City of Light is fraught with plots from the tip of the Eiffel Tower to the sub-basement of a preeminent historic library. 

The twists and action come a mile a minute, as long as you accept the massive coincidences that set up the story. As in a number of her more recent works, the setup does push the “willing suspension of disbelief” to its limits. Would  Gamache’s Godfather, although a complicated pursuer of wealth and power himself, engage in actions that would knowingly  put his godson, his godson’s wife, their children, and their grandchildren in physical jeopardy?  I think not.  It is also hard to accept in these days that anyone could peddle a billion dollars of old master paintings in order to fund a plan without ringing alarm bells somewhere in the vast inter-connected international art scene.

That said, I also have to admit that the lack of credulity in the setup is forgotten about a third of the way through. After that you are caught up in the search and the monstrous horror of the developing conspiracy. Penny’s recurring theme of powerful people going wrong in their search for more money and more power takes over.  The fact that the suspects are often people that Gamache knows well puts him in the difficult position of deciding whether they are part of the solution or at the center of the problem itself.

Ms. Penny plainly shows her love for Paris on her sleeve. She has done her site research thoroughly and captures the sights, the sounds, and the food of the city with expertise and love.  I have visited the city twice over the years and  had no problem following the action and in believing what the title hints at.  Is it possible that “Hell is empty and all the devils are here?” 

Don’t neglect reading the acknowledgements at the end because they do add considerably to the creation of the novel and to Penny’s own life journey.   

  


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Review FIRST PRINCIPLES by Thomas Ricks

 

Right from the get go Professor Thomas Ricks’ Pulitizer Prize winning book FIRST PRINCIPLES  moves to change your thinking about history.  He begins with the bald and bold statement that “I have chosen to use the term “First Peoples” rather than “Indian” or “Native American”  because  they were here well before this land was called the Americas.   He proceeds from there to  note that although there have been numerous studies of the lives of  George Washington,  John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and  James Madison, none of them have emphasized “what they learned, where they learned it, who they learned it from, and what they did with that knowledge”  He also admits up front  that he has a definite concern for the “faults of our founders” because, as he puts it,  we have had a system from the very beginning that has always had at least one political party or faction that offered a home for white supremacy. 

Let me also warn you that this is a challenging read and asks perhaps more familiarity with the works of classical Greece and Rome than is possessed by the average person.  Notwithstanding that it still does add to the perspective needed in order to face and understand the challenges the country faces in the third century of our governmental journey.  

Our first four presidents had different educational backgrounds.  Washington was not a learned man, but became educated more by experience. President Adams graduated from Harvard,  Jefferson from     William and Mary,  and Madison from Princeton.  Ricks outlines each institution’s educational mindset, and concludes that The Scottish enlightenment and Calvinist Reformation  had a tremendous impact on all of them. As someone who taught at a Scottish Presbyterian college for almost forty years,  I found this most interesting.   

Each reader will, I am sure, find items like this throughout the book that will resonate with their own experiences.  My expanded  list includes the continual reminder that three of the four first presidents were slaveholders and that the horror of the Civil War was literally sown into the fabric of the Constitution.   We see Jefferson at his best in the Declaration and Madison at his best in the Constitution. We are reminded of the Jeffersonian anomaly that a man who never ventured west of the Shenandoah Valley shepherded the largest territorial acquisition in the country’s history.  We see Washington becoming a successful general by way of several defeats. We see John Adams as the eternal curmudgeon.  We find out that Madison was sickly but had a healthy impact on the country  and that Jefferson loved the plays of Euripides and was single handedly responsible for the Classical look for our governmental buildings.

The middle of the book takes us from the founding of the country into a look at how the Classical models receded as we approached the 19th century.  Washington  warns early on that the young Republic should steer clear of foreign entanglements and the next years see the rise of more vicious  partisanship, factionalism, and political parties.  As the country expands geographically and commercially more attention is given to free enterprise and the importance of individual freedom and decision making.  A hierarchy is less important if you are on your own and trying to make it  in the wild west.  Becoming more dominant, however,  is the hardening of the opposition to slavery and the building forces that would culminate in the Civil War.    

That war continues to this day as once again we find that the truest test of democratic republic is the ability of the old leadership to turn over power peacefully without a war. The closing chapter starts with the assertion that all of the founders would be appalled by how money has come to dominate politics as well as enterprise.  None of them, says Ricks, wanted a  country ruled only  by the few and the rich.  In spite of all the challenges they still did manage to build a “durable system” of checks and balances that has withstood a lot of trauma over the years.  

His final observations and recommendations come in list form.

We must drop the idea that corporations are people and enjoy the same rights as citizens.  We must refocus on things that contribute to the public good rather than policies that seem only to encourage  private wealth.  The government should focus on health care, education, infrastructure, the environment,  public safety, civic duty,  and respect for our core institutions.

The government must protect our freedom of speech but must not protect violence in the name of freedom.  It is difficult to pursue “happiness” while looking down the barrel of a gun.

Congress, he feels, has been the most disheartening failure of all.  It has become hog tied into passivity and unable to legislate or assert itself as a co-equal branch.

Above all we must know and respect history. We must acknowledge mistakes and realize that they can be fixed if we see them as a way station along the path toward a more perfect union.  The country’s  biggest and most tragic mistake was to  build  slavery into its original genetic imprint.  Now, although we no longer have slavery,  the belief system that set it in motion still lives on and it is still to our peril.

jdy  1/26/21

Wednesday, January 06, 2021


 

Riedel, Michael   Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway

Theatre gossip is hard to turn down, so I was delighted to see Michael Riedel’s Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway in my Christmas stocking.   In an earlier book (Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway), he covers the 1970’s and 80’s with a focus on a consortium of powerful theatre owners and two English giants  Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. As they take-back  the Times Square area from the sex industry. There is no question that, as a long time theatre columnist for the New York Post, Riedel has had an insider’s look at the Great White Way for a lot of years.  Singular Sensation treats the 1990’s and the compelling rise of home grown talents to take over the once foreign dominated Broadway scene.  I’ve been a theatre guy for most of my life and this book tells me why I have loved it.  It is informative, engrossing, and of course full of plenty of juicy insider theatrical gossip.   What more can you ask for?

Riedel begins with the story of the rise and fall of the last of the big British produced musicals. “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” They are still running but Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Blvd.” is running into problems due to high stakes jockeying for its leading role by Glen Close, Patti LuPone, and Faye Dunnaway.  That show is then pushed out of the spotlight by the new American wave with a detailed treatment of the creation of Johathan Larsen’s “Rent” and the story of the tragic demise of its author. One item I learned was  that the title had a double meaning. The characters could not afford their “rent” and everyone around them was being “rent” by AIDS, drugs, poverty, gentrification, and alienation.”

Although we do get some treatment of the big  “stars” who could make and break shows all by themselves, people like Nathan Lane and Patti LuPone do  have to take a back seat. The emphasis of Riedel’s story is on the moguls who own the theatres, the producers who are searching for the “hit,” and the creators themselves who are writing the songs and the scenes.  We are let in on the inside maneuverings to get the right property into the right theatre at the right time. You see up close the machinations of the Shubert and Nederlander organizations and follow the rise of the upstart on the block, Jujamcyn.  As one wag said, the name seemed more like a prescription for an antibiotic than a theatrical organization.  I did learn that the weird name was chosen by the original moneyed angel William McKnight, who was a theatre lover and the chairman of  Minnnesota’s 3M company. Jujamcyn was actually just a combination of the beginnings of the names of his three grandchildren--Julie, James, and Cynthia.  Mr. McKnight, by the way, was also an early supporter of Minneapolis’ Tyrone Guthrie Theatre.  A group of talented young actors who were some of my fellow grad students at the U. of Minnesota in the sixties were called  McKnight Fellows. A number of them went on to become long term and loved resident performers for the Guthrie company.  

One of the larger than life producers who seemed to dominate the 90’s was Garth Drabinsky.  He was tough, reckless, and rapacious and spent money with an abandon that would make King Midas look like skinflint.  A theatre insider was quoted as saying about him, that  “Garth was the only guy I knew who could overspend an unlimited budget.”  Drabinsky created his movie and theatre empire on the back of receipts from the Canadian rights to “The Phantom of the Opera,” but finally lost his golden touch and ended up spending time behind bars for cooking his own books.

Nearing the end of the decade and the tragedy of 9/11, we are treated to the engrossing story of Julie Taymor and Disney’s “The Lion King.”  That is followed closely by Mel Brooks and the saga of “The Producers.”   It might seem that this entire volume is focused on musicals and it cannot be denied that musicals are the big ticket items that drive Broadway.  On the other hand, fans of drama need not be too concerned. There is more than enough treatment in the book of the contributions of shows by Tony Kushner, Neil Simon, and Edward Albee to at least recognize that drama without music was still around.   

In sum Riedel gives you the privilege of loitering in the back recesses of the green room in order to overhear the making of the most important theatrical endeavors of the decade. I was also reminded that the business of making theatre is tougher than a cheap steak and that picking a winner is as hard as picking the right murderer in an Agatha Christie mystery.