Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Born to Be Posthumous

Born to Be Posthumous: the Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, by Mark Dery

My librarian co-worker and I have both been looking forward to this, and we had to have a polite argument about who got to take this book home first and keep it over winter break.  "You should take it first; I have so many books at home."  "No, you should have it -- I might not be able to finish it in time!"  I wound up with it and am due to take it back on the first day of the semester, which is tomorrow -- today by the time this is published.  So I'd better hurry up and get this post done.

Can you believe nobody has done a Gorey biography before this?  Me neither.  On the whole, it's an interesting read and delves into Gorey's childhood, Army service during the war*, and all other events through his whole life. There is a happy amount of discussion of Gorey's particular aesthetic, and the implications thereof. Of course, all writing and artistic pursuits are carefully documented, which is nice; I enjoyed reading about each little book and how it was produced.  I often had to go look at my Amphigorey volumes to study things.

Gorey was a ballet fanatic, and pretty much went to every performance of the New York Ballet for years and years.  He also watched movies all the time, and read a zillion books -- you end up wondering how he ever managed to do it all.  (the book's proposed solution: he didn't sleep all that much?)

The only trouble I had with the biography was perhaps one that is intrinsic to the pursuit of biography at all.  Gorey was an intensely private person and didn't necessarily like people poking into his personal life.  This shows up very starkly in Dery's preoccupation with Gorey's sexuality.  When asked, he said he figured he was gay, but pretty much asexual.  Dery has a really hard time accepting this, and often seems determined to diagnose Gorey as more of a gay man horrified by his own feelings, which isn't really very convincing at all, given Gorey's personal style and circle of friends.  Why not let him define himself?  It was sometimes uncomfortably like poking him with a stick or trying to pry him open.  Dery does kind of calm down by the end.  And as I said, perhaps this problem is intrinsic to the whole project of biography, at least when about people who like their privacy.  (Like me.  I hope I never get famous and have somebody try to figure out all my feelings!  Happily that is not very likely.)

I wound up with a short list of things to watch that were very influential; as above, Gorey watched a huge number of films and had a very filmy, theatery sort of brain, and he also remembered everything, apparently.  I have really got to watch some Feuillade films, especially this series, "Les Vampires."  Once you see the head vampire lady, you know you've seen her a zillion times in Gorey imagery!  This is the first of seven episodes, and she doesn't show up until episode two, but there are other things, such as the cat burglar at the end of this one.





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*Fun fact: Gorey was, for a while, posted to Camp Roberts in California, which he hated even more than he hated the rest of Army life.  The only real car accident I've ever been involved with was right next to Camp Roberts -- I and three friends were in two cars, and the other car lost control and went off the road.  No harm done, except a cracked oil pan, but the car was jammed into a curb and we had to get a truck to lift it off.  Every time I pass Camp Roberts I try to figure out exactly where that happened and I have never managed it.  I swear it happened, I even have a photo!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Three Weeks: the Glynalong

Three Weeks, by Elinor Glyn

Reading Rambo is a genius at coming up with insane readalongs, and as she said...
I never thought you could actually read Elinor Glyn's books; she seemed like some distant untouchable literary figure, referenced in The Music Man, but whose works were not to be seen by contemporary eyes. Well that is nonsense. They're right there on the internet for free.

This was a revelation to me.  I could read Elinor Glyn!  So I joined in the Glynalong and here I am, having finished one of Glyn's more scandalous novels, Three Weeks.  It's a romance novel of 1907 and it's no wonder it caused a fuss; this story straight-up involves an older married lady seducing a young man and having an affair with him for, you guessed it, three weeks.

Paul is a 23-year-old young man who has fallen in love with the Wrong Girl -- that is, one who is of a slightly lower class and isn't very pretty.  Isabella is a tall, strapping young woman with "large red hands" and "large pink lips," so she is worthless.  (As an owner of large hands and, ahem, fullish lips, I'm on Isabella's side, and I think she ought to dump Paul's sorry self and go on a trip around the world.)  Paul's parents send him to Switzerland in the hope that he'll forget Isabella.

And boy howdy does he!  Paul meets The Lady, a mysterious Foreigner (Russian?  Balkan?) who sets out deliberately to seduce him -- because she has a rotter of a husband and she wants to produce a baby to secure the succession away from him.  It's all put into very high-flown language, though, and Paul is instantly besotted with her.  There's a lot about how he worships her -- and a lot of her writhing about on tiger skins, too!  Tigers are a big theme.

The Lady forbids Paul from asking her name, or where she's from, or pretty well anything at all.  They're just going to live for the moment and their love shall wax as the moon does!  So they go off to a mountain where they can stay together, and then they go to Venice, and all in all Paul packs an entire life into his three-week affair.

There are some really awful bits of dialogue.  The Lady tells Paul that women will always love their men if they're sufficiently masterful and overbearing.  I was particularly annoyed by this bit:
They [ancient Greeks] were perhaps too practical to have indulged in the mental emotions we weave into it now—but they were wise, they did not educate the wives and daughters, they realised that to perform well domestic duties a woman's mind should not be over-trained in learning. Learning and charm and grace of mind were for the others, the hetaerae of whom they asked no tiresome ties. And in all ages it is unfortunately not the simple good women who have ruled the hearts of men. Think of Pericles and Aspasia—Antony and Cleopatra—Justinian and Theodora—Belisarius and Antonina—and later, all the mistresses of the French kings—even, too, your English Nelson and Lady Hamilton! Not one of these was a man's ideal of what a wife and mother ought to be. So no doubt the Greeks were right in that principle, as they were right in all basic principles of art and balance. And now we mix the whole thing up, my Paul—domesticity and learning—nerves and art, and feverish cravings for the impossible new—so we get a conglomeration of false proportions, and a ceaseless unrest."
"Yes," said Paul, and thought of his mother. She was a perfectly domestic and beautiful woman, but somehow he felt sure she had never made his father's heart beat.  
GAH.  Blergh.  I get that women's roles were overly restricted to the domestic sphere, but I'm unconvinced that the Lady has a solution here.  Paul, Lady, you are both terrible.

OK!  So!  At the end of the three weeks, at the full moon, the Lady abandons Paul.  He promptly falls apart:
...ere his father could arrive on Sunday, Paul was lying 'twixt life and death, madly raving with brain fever.
And thus ended the three weeks of his episode.
BRAIN FEVER!  Amazing.  I didn't expect that in a 20th century novel!  (I might need a gif here.  This is the most gif-appropriate moment I've ever had on my blog.)

Paul's life is in ruins.  After recovering from the nearly-fatal brain fever, he goes home and hates everything, or he travels and hates everything.  He's all sophisticated and stuff now, everybody loves him, but he doesn't care a bit:
And all the time Paul spoke he saw no sea of faces below him—only his soul's eyes were looking into those strange chameleon orbs of his lady. He said every word as if she had been there, and at the end it almost seemed she must have heard him, so soft a peace fell on his spirit. Yes, she would have been pleased with her lover, he knew...
I like that "strange chameleon orbs" bit -- did I mention that Paul can never decide whether the Lady's eyes are green, or purple, or grey, or what?

Anyway, Paul's father is full of a manly silent sympathy, but he's the only one who Understands Paul.  I won't tell you the bizarro ending; the whole thing is pretty weird. 

It's particularly odd how all the women characters except the Lady are so denigrated.  They are all terrible, according to the author.  Paul's mother is too fussy; Paul is condescendingly kind to her and pats her on the head every so often.  Isabella is too tall and hearty.  Other English girls are insipid and dull.  This is not exactly a feminist novel.

It's all incredibly over-written and dramatic and couched in noble language.  It must have been absolutely thrilling in 1907, but now it comes off as hilariously overwrought and swoopy, when it's not being outright terrible.   Makes for a great readalong, though!




Saturday, January 19, 2019

Books about making books!

Cover to Cover: Creative Techniques for Making Beautiful Books, Journals & Albums, by Shereen LaPlantz
Innovative Bookbinding: Secret Compartments and Hidden Messages, by Shereen LaPlantz
Bound: Over 20 Artful Handmade Books, by Erica Ekrem

I've been getting a little bit into bookmaking, which has been so much fun.   I've tried out several books on the subject, and here are three I looked at recently.


Cover to Cover is full of great ideas.  It's a very good general book about making books, and covers a lot of the basics.  Shereen LaPlantz seems to have specialized in taking simple ideas and coming up with a zillion ways to implement them in cool ways.  This would be an excellent purchase for somebody like me who wants to try out different things and is not yet very knowledgeable.  (Several of the books I've looked at in the past have turned out not to be very good, so this is a serious recommendation.)  There is also a lot of variety here; you can make a traditional journal with hard covers and a Coptic stitch, or an artistic oddity that could go into an exhibit.  The diagrams are quite good and fairly easy to follow.

Innovative Bookbinding is a reprint of a book that actually had samples of several of the illustrated techniques in it, but of course that made it intensive to produce.  My copy just has photos of those, and is a good deal easier to come by.  It is entirely about secreting small surprises into handmade books, and putting in various sorts of pockets, slots, puzzles, and so on.  I tried some of the techniques and I couldn't get the fancy flexigon right, but I did make a really cool little book and some puzzle samples.  All of the diagrams are hand-drawn, and there are not as many as I would like, but there are enough.   I liked this book very much and plan to go back to it for many ideas.

As far as I can tell, you can't go wrong with a book by Shereen LaPlantz.



Bound is a little different.  It's more about making new books from old -- that is, it has techniques for taking apart an old, worn-out hardback book and using the covers to produce new items.  Or you might like to use an old cigar box, a worn-out sweater, or even some leaves.  There are also some leather projects.  There are some nice ideas for spine stitching  I found this book to be frustratingly short on diagrams and illustrations.  The projects are cool, though also a bit too artsy for my taste. 



I do like to have a lot of diagrams and illustrations.   I always want to see every step and every detail, and I get frustrated when there isn't enough for me to easily grasp what's going on, or if I can't see inside an interesting feature.  And I'm used to sewing instructions that mostly do show everything.  Some of these things are meant more for inspiration than exact copying, and I'm all for that, but I still want to see every little bit!  How else can I know my options?

My main problem with bookmaking is that I like making the books, but I haven't got a lot of ideas about what to put in them.  I would mostly like to make blank books for other people to write in.   While I adore secret compartments in books, you have to put something good in them and I'm never sure what to put.   I need an artistic partner or something.  Or maybe if I keep making little samples, I'll eventually think of things to put in there?

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Secret of Sinharat

The Secret of Sinharat, by Leigh Brackett

Yep, I found another Stark novel!  This short novel takes place on Mars, before the story I first read in Black Amazon of Mars.  (In fact, that novel is also included in this volume, but under a different title, so I read a page or so before figuring it out.)  It's just as adventurous and dramatic as the others. 

Stark has been hired to go to Mars and fight as a mercenary, but his mentor finds him and explains that there's a lot more to the story than his employer has revealed.  He agrees to try to stop the imminent war instead, to spare the many tribes of innocents who will be slaughtered if the plan goes forth.  So Stark joins Delgaun and Kynon, who plan to unite the Drylander tribes of Mars, plunder the richer cities, and then take over the world.  It all seems straightforward enough, but it sure isn't!  This is all part of a deep plot by an ancient and hidden evil.

This was a fun one.  I enjoy Brackett's worlds and peoples!

My copy -- it's OK
A much more awesome copy





Thursday, January 17, 2019

Kar Kaballa / Tower of the Medusa

Kar Kaballa, by George Henry Smith / Tower of the Medusa, by Lin Carter


So fun to have an Ace Double title to read for Vintage Sci-Fi January!  It was hard to choose which to read first, but I went with

Kar Kaballa, which was pretty great.  I would happily read the other three books set in this world, but sadly they seem almost impossible to come by.  On Earth's twin world (in another dimension, not on the other side of the Sun), much is the same, yet different.  Our myths are their reality and vice versa; the Annwn Empire, with its capital of Avallon, is not the British Empire, but it was founded by Arthur when he was brought there by Morgan le Fay.  Shakespeare is a folk-figure who is popularly credited with great plays that are actually folktales sprung from the people. 

Annwn is complacent and has paid no attention to the Gogs across the sea, but Dylan MacBride, a Highlander soldier, knows that the Gogs (think Mongolian hordes) are about to invade in huge numbers.  He's desperate to convince someone of the truth, and then he meets this strange man who claims to be from a United States.  He has this machine -- a Gatling gun he wants to sell.  Perhaps together they can save the Annwn Empire from being overrun by the Gogs?

This was a very fun novel that can only be described as swash-buckling, and also kind of presciently steampunky.  Sword fighting!  Airships!  Gryphons!  Evil gods that lurk under volcanos!  Celtic priestesses!  Evil undead minions!

Tower of the Medusa, on the other hand, was dreadful.  An overblown mess, it was at least hilariously badly written and extremely short.  Set a thousand years after the collapse of a great galactic empire, as planets are only just beginning to re-master science, we have Kirin, the greatest thief in the galaxy, hired to steal the Medusa, a weapon which would allow the holder to grab ultimate power.  It's been hidden and fanatically defended by a cult for thousands of years.

No fewer than three people want Kirin to steal the Medusa, which lies beyond a complex and deathly labyrinth.  The mages, who want to destroy it; a witch-queen, who plans to rule, and the Veiled One, the evil manipulator who will simply wait until Kirin gets the device and then grab it.  Here are some samples of the text:

Then they [25 assassins] came at him again, silent and deadly as panthers. His boot-heel caught one full in the belly. The little monster fell backwards in the slop, gagging and spitting. Three more sprang at his throat. One he slew with a swift jabbing blow to the nerve-clump just below the base of the skull behind the ear—a stroke with stiffened fingers he had learned years ago from a Ghadorian nerve killer he met on Shimar in the Dragon Stars.
But more came at him through the mists. He fought them with everything he had. Never had he battled so desperately, not even that time the murderous priests of Zodah trapped him in the act of stealing the tiara of their harlot queen. But the little men with three eyes were the most deadly adversaries he had ever faced. They fought in utter silence with a grace and skill and economy of strength that was astonishing.Then he knew them for what they were—trained killers! Members of the weird assassin cult of Pelizon across the cluster from Zha.
The Death Dwarves!
The picture was now a scene of somber majesty and brooding terrors. No sound accompanied the space-vision, but the imagination of the viewer could almost hear the cold wind that shrieked like a banshee through the fang-sharp needle spires of naked rock that clawed up into the mist-veiled sky. There was a flat and barren plain, an endless desert of dim grey crystals that stretched from world's edge to world's edge. Over all stretched an eternal cloak of phantasmal fog, torn and tattered into a thousand leering faces and weirdly haunting shapes by the howling winds. The shadowy rags of mist streamed in undulant and serpentine tendrils above a titanic structure of dead black stone that loomed against the fog-phantoms like some colossal citadel of demons. The black castle was unthinkably huge, immeasurably aged. A forest of sloping turrets and grotesquely-formed domes, a wilderness of arcades and columns, squat towers and yawning gates like the leering maws of nameless stone monsters. The chill, the eerie cry of endless winds, the haunting air of mouldering decay and aeon-old desolation struck awe into the very roots of Kirin's soul. "That black castle is Djormandark Keep," the Witch Queen murmured at his side.
But he did not need her words to tell him this, for no man could mistake the colossal ebon fortress. Djormandark was one of the enigmas of the Universe, and the very world whereon its titanic ruin reared its cloven, castled crest was known as the Planet of Mystery—dark, legend-fraught Xulthoom, the World of the Hooded Men.
He was incredibly ugly. His mouth was a broad lipless gash and his three eyes were glowing slits filled with evil malignant glitter. His skull-like head was devoid of hirsute adornment.
"Master!" he croaked. The robed figure turned to regard him.
"Speak!" the robed one commanded harshly.
"We have lost contact with Pangoy," the Death Dwarf said. "His receptors went dead in the third quarter of the Hour of the Toad."
 Devoid of hirsute adornment!  The Hour of the Toad!  That's a band name, that is.  I've got to name something the Hour of the Toad.

Kar Kaballa was a lot of fun.  I would read that again.  Tower of the Medusa was so bad that it was only sort of fun, kind of like The Star Wars Holiday Special.  You think it will be ironically fun, but you're wrong.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Individualism and Economic Order

Individualism and Economic Order, by F. A. Hayek

This is the one book from my TBR Challenge last year that I didn't manage to read, because it is so very daunting.  So I decided it should be my first pick this year!  That way the scariest thing would be over with.  Imagine my dismay and consternation when I actually opened the book and read the words:

...I should in fairness warn the reader that the present volume is not intended for popular consumption.  Only a few of the essays collected here (chaps. i and vi, and possibly iv and v) may in a sense be regarded as supplementary...the rest are definitely addressed to fellow-students and are fairly technical in character.
 Now, I found Hayek's works for laypeople quite difficult enough.  I knew I couldn't wrap my brain around technical essays for fellow economists!   So I decided that I would read the four essays he thought regular people could handle, and call it good.  And indeed I bashed my way through them.  I found out that he was entirely correct to say that everything in those essays is also in The Road to Serfdom; evidently this book is just a technical expansion on that one.  So, don't read this.  Read that.

The essays were about philosophical or societal points: different definitions of 'individualism,' how knowledge works in a society, when and where 'free' enterprise can be free (or not), and various other things I didn't necessarily grasp.

Too high-level and technical for me, but I'm glad I tried.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Happiness Curve

The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch

All through his forties, Jonathan Rauch* was fairly miserable, and he didn't really have a good reason to be.  His career was doing well, he'd accomplished more than he'd dreamed of, his personal life was happy, he was healthy and strong -- and yet he couldn't stop telling himself that he should be doing far better.  He often felt like bolting from his perfectly good career.  Was this a midlife crisis?  Was he just a really ungrateful, terrible person who didn't appreciate his blessings?  The more he scolded himself, the worse he felt.

As a journalist, though, he could find out some things, and in fact he found out quite a bit.  It's quite stunning to me, but it turns out that it is normal to be kind of miserable in your 40s, approximately.  It happens across cultures, in every country.   In fact, it's hard-wired into us and other great apes do it, too.  Of course, our circumstances have a lot to do with it too; we're talking about an aggregate, shadow effect here, a tendency.

In this fascinating book, Rauch unpicks the causes of mid-40s malaise, calling it the U-curve of happiness.  It seems to be part of our brains reprogramming, changing from the ambition and high expectations of early adulthood to a more mellow, accepting, and even altruistic mindset.  American culture tells us that aging is terrible and we can expect to grow steadily unhappier after 45, but in fact it seems that people become, on the whole, happier after 50 -- even in the face of health problems and other life difficulties.  It becomes easier to be grateful and enjoy the moment.

Everybody over 35 should probably read this book, or the article that was its forerunner, or at least find out about it.  In fact, just knowing about the effect is a help, because then you know you're not just a terrible, ungrateful weirdo, or a person who needs to trash everything and escape your ordinary life; you're just going through a natural phase which will eventually end.  And Rauch hopes that we'll develop structures to help people transition, much like how we once assumed that teenagers were just gangly adults, but now have things like high school and a knowledge of adolescent development.

Check this book out from the library for your 40th birthday; you won't be sorry.

Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.” In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right.



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Jonathan Rauch is also the author of my Best Book for 2014, Kindly Inquisitors.  Read that too!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

1973 Annual World's Best SF

1973 Annual World's Best SF, ed. by Donald Wollheim

I think this series has been going forever!  I found the 1973 edition, with ten short stories, and about half were by people I'd heard of.  I really picked it up because it had a story by James Tiptree, Jr., and I've been hoping to read her (without any effort on my part, ideally -- no nearby libraries have any of her works and I've pretty much been relying on the donation table for vintage SF anyway, so I just sort books and hope something shows up).  On the whole, the stories were indeed pretty good!  Here are a few I liked:

"Goat Song," by Poul Anderson: long in the future, the world is governed by a god-computer, SUM, whose living representative is a woman rendered immortal.  Once a year people can petition her.  This guy is so sad that his girlfriend is dead, he petitions for her to be resurrected, and it's granted...but he has to walk all the way out without looking back.  Hello, Orpheus!

"The Man Who Walked Home," by the aforementioned Tiptree:  Two perspectives on the same event.  Most people see a monster, for just a moment, once a year, for several hundred years.  The poor monster's perspective is different.

"The Gold at the Starbow's End," by Frederik Pohl:  a starship is sent out to colonize a planet spotted around Centauri (which might be there, or not).  The scientist in charge of the project hopes for great things, but he thought he'd be able to understand them when they came.

"Long Shot," by Vernor Vinge: a long-term space voyage, from the perspective of the ship. 

"Thus Love Betrays Us," by Phyllis MacLennon: stranded on a very alien planet, a botanist befriends a local inhabitant and learn to communicate.  Except that a culture so alien as this -- well, can you ever understand what the other is thinking?

I enjoyed reading them, and most haven't aged badly at all.  I would like to know who W. MacFarlane was.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Educated

Educated: a Memoir, by Tara Westover

I've been hearing about this memoir, but I wasn't going to seek it out.  A friend of mine is visiting and said I should read it, so she lent me her copy...and I was hooked.  I read it in three hours!

Tara Westover was raised in very rural Idaho as part of a survivalist-minded family.  Their dad was convinced that the government, doctors -- well, anything establishment -- was out to get them.  The Ruby Ridge incident convinced him a good deal further.  As is often the case, they got more extreme over time, so that the oldest kids went to public school for a while, but the younger kids did not have birth certificates and never went to school at all.  The mom, who started off a home herbalist, was encouraged (well, pushed) to become a not-quite-illegal midwife and full-time healer.  In theory, the family homeschooled, but the necessity for work overrode most educational pursuits, and after a while they figured as long as you could read, you were fine.  Tara was the youngest of this family.

Westover's dad worked very very hard, mostly in scrap and sometimes in construction.  But the need for money, and it seems his own issues, drove him to cut corners and totally disregard safety.  The whole memoir is thickly strewn with dreadful injuries and car crashes, paired with an utter refusal to go to doctors, take even the mildest pain-killers, or put on seatbelts. 

And then there was the abuse inflicted by one of the older brothers.  Tara recounts her experiences as a teen, but later realized that the other siblings suffered too -- it was just when she was much smaller, and not something she saw herself.  People, it's a horrific account.  But all of this was ignored and smoothed over by a family that was tightly interwoven and dependent on not recognizing reality.

Escape was offered by Tara's older brother Tyler, who was always the bookish one and had insisted on going to college.  He told a sixteen-year-old Tara that she could go to college, too.  BYU would take homeschoolers, so all she had to do was get a 27 on the ACT.  Tara could read very well (having been raised mostly on 19th-century religious texts), but her math was minimal and her science non-existent.  She didn't think she could possibly take the test or go to college, but Tyler helped and she did it.

I guess I can't summarize the whole story for you, but Westover details a long, hard struggle to become educated and extricate herself from the tangled mess of her deeply-loved, incredibly dysfunctional family.  That second one is the harder job.  As Westover moves through BYU, then Cambridge, and then Harvard, she slowly starts to figure out how bad the situation is.  Her dad is getting more erratic (she figures he is probably bipolar) and then is burned in a ghastly accident, which paradoxically launches the family into the essential oils field, where they are now a large business. 

The end result is that Westover is close with a couple of brothers -- the ones who also left -- but can't contact others.  The remaining family members say she is dangerous and deluded.  The entire memoir is causing a bit of a kerfuffle, as Westover is accused of lying and making up the stories in the book.  I don't really see why she would do that.

Tara's family is LDS, as am I, but I think she is quite correct in trying to emphasize that their religion was not material to the family problems.  Her dad's ideas were clearly based in mental illness and survivalist rhetoric, though of course he picked bits out of their religion to justify his narrative.  He seems to me to have ignored a lot more.  The only thing I would say is that during her time at BYU, Westover seems to have worried that she might have been the only female student around who wanted to go into academics.  I suspect that the difficulties she describes made it hard for her to see the others; I find it quite impossible to believe that that there were no other ambitious female students or  professors.  Tara is my baby sister's age, 15 years younger than I am, and I certainly knew quite a few back when I was a student in the early 90s (even at BYU, which I did not attend).  

It's an excellently-written, gripping, harrowing memoir that deserves the attention it's getting.  My only caveat is to say that if you come from a family with severe mental illness and abuse problems, it will probably be too difficult for you to read.  Everybody else should take a look.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Agricola and Germania

Agricola and Germania, by Tacitus

I've been meaning to read Tacitus (well, the easy bits) for some time, but what kicked me into gear was the book on my shelf all about the influence of Germania on European culture and history.  I am allowed to start reading it after I write this post!

Tacitus is considered the best Roman historian -- at least, he's the best we've got!  We certainly don't have everything he wrote.  Large chunks are missing from one of his longer works.  I read two really short things; a life of Agricola, Tacitus' father-in-law, and this sort of tour of the territory of Germania, which was most of Northern Europe.

The largest part of Agricola's biography covers his time as governor of Roman Britain.  It has a short description of Britannia, and of how Agricola extended Roman rule right up to the Pictish territory; I think this is as far as it ever got, up to the Firth of Forth.  There are famous stories in here.  This is how we know about Boudicca and the Iceni rebellion, and where we hear of the Ninth Legion in border skirmishes (I have really got to read The Eagle of the Ninth).  The account of the occupation of Britannia finishes off with a fiery speech from a Caledonian chieftain to his remaining British allies, Agricola's corresponding speech to his troops, and the ensuing battle, which was a horrible slaughter for the Britons.  Of course, the speech from the chieftain is necessarily fictitious, and it's an eloquent condemnation of Roman brutality and decadence.

Tacitus recounts that after retiring from the British command, Agricola should have been in line for a really important post in Asia or Africa, but the emperor, Domitian, was jealous of Agricola's brilliant career and the general was forced to keep a low profile and refuse the opportunity.  Soon afterwards, he died....of poison?  Tacitus is clearly suspicious but doesn't want to openly accuse any particular person.

Germania is a description of Northern Europe as cold, dreary, and full of trees.  The inhabitants are strong but lazy, virtuous but dim, and tough but uncivilized.  They wear trousers.  They live in tiny scattered villages in houses made of wood (ugh), and have no interest in building cities.  Here we find the sentence that became the seed of 500 years of ugliness and horror:
...I accept the view of those who think that the peoples of Germania have never been tainted by intermarriage with other nations, and stand out as a race distinctive, pure and unique of its kind.
As the footnote points out, Tacitus then goes on to describe the Germanii in exactly the same terms as the Gauls are stereotypically portrayed: red hair, blue eyes, huge of frame, can't stand hard work or heat but good in the cold.  The account is actually short on praise, and where it does laud the Germans it's really to point out flaws in the Roman character; Tacitus contrasts German honesty and virtue with Roman cunning and decadence in order to tell Romans to shape up, not because he thinks the Germans are great.  Northern straightforwardness was held to come with a corresponding lack of intelligence.

And of course, that sentence is also pretty well meaningless.  What does it even mean to be a pure race?  Do we know what Tacitus meant by it, and could he have even said what he meant?.  Are they supposed to have sprung fully-formed from the earth or something?

All this only takes a few pages.  The rest of the very short book is taken up with describing where various tribes live, and any special characteristics they have (one group wears their hair in a different way, one is identified with a tribe that once sacked Rome long ago).

Both of these books are extremely short and easy to read -- together, they take up just about 60 pages in my book -- so they are a good taste of Roman history and literature for the nervous beginner.  Like me!  I'm not bad at Greek literature, but Roman is a whole different kettle of fish as far as I'm concerned.