Our book today is The Edge of Empire: A Journey to Britannia: From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall, an utterly winning and somewhat old-fashioned work by Bronwen Riley in which she imagines a sprawling travel itinerary of Antonine Rome through a narrative device that was once familiar in popular histories of ancient Rome, books with titles like A Day in the Life of Rome or Daily Life in Pliny’s Rome: pick a focal-point character and tell the larger story through that character. It’s an inherently limiting device but also instantly effective – it personalizes the presentation of an otherwise enormous amount of information.
The focal-point character Bronwen Riley chooses is Sextus Julius Severus, a successful general who in AD 130 set out from Hadrian’s Rome to his far-distant posting as the new governor of Britannia. Severus had been governor of Moesia Inferior on the shore of the Black Sea, so he’s perfect for Riley’s purposes: he had to prepare for his trip across the breadth of the empire, organize, pack, trek, and then arrive and adapt to life on the very edge of the Roman world.
“In this period,” Riley writes, “Rome was still the radiant centre of imperial power, the city where both the emperor and the ruling class needed to have a base and the place from which many high-ranking officials would have set out at the start of their postings to the provinces.” And throughout The Edge of Empire, our author is keenly aware of the inherent wide-screen drama of her story, starting at the heart of it:
It is April, AD 130. Rome is the teeming capital of an empire that stretches from the blustery north-western shores of Britain to the fringes of Mesopotamia, 2,500 miles to the east, and as far south as Africa and the desert of Sahara. The Roman Empire’s boundaries extend from the ocean where the sun god rises to the ocean where he sinks. Publius Aelius Hadrianus, a most complex and compelling man, has been emperor for fourteen years.
Once Severus reaches Britannia, The Edge of Empire settles in to a harder sell: a province-by-province, road-by-road tour of Roman Britain. There have been many such books: Arthur’s Britain by Leslie Alcock, A Guide to Roman Britain by Leonard Cottrell, The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bedoyere, Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins, and dozens of others, all of them more or less devolving into museum earpiece-guides for raincoated tourists trudging around ruins:
As the travellers draw near to Viroconium they find themselves in cattle country, the territory of the Cornovii (encompassing much of Cheshire and Shropshire). Sitting in a landscape of mixed arable and pastoral farms, Viroconium Cornoviorum is protected by the River Severn snaking around it to the west, and by the valleys of small streams to the north and south … Viroconium is built on the site of a legionary fortress established here in the late AD 30s as the base of the Legion XIV Gemina and the Legion XX Valeria Victrix. Here, on the higher east bank of the Severn at a place where there is a major ford, the army had control to the west and south and a convenient base for attacking Wales and for penetrating further north.
Riley’s book is bright, sunny company during these tours, but a reader in Baton Rouge (and with no plans to leave Baton Rouge) is going to find it occasional rough hoeing to keep the various legion encampments straight. Riley is a writer for the English Heritage organization, so it’s entirely likely that she gave neither a thought nor a care for whether or not her book would play well in the colonies. But she has a real flair for you-are-there writing about ancient Rome, so even armchair travelers will finish The Edge of Empire hoping she turns to the subject again. Perhaps a nice long look at Hadrian’s Rome?
Our book today is the latest from Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, bestselling author of such books as Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God. His new book is called Jesus Before the Gospels and has the opus-length subtitle, How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior.
As the book’s title right away makes clear, this is familiar territory for Ehrman, who has made a bestselling career out of explicating the historical and literary phenomenon of Jesus Christ. He’s also made a career out of repeating himself, and this latest book makes that fact clearer than usual, almost to an embarrassing degree. Ehrman has been pointing out for a long time now that despite the presence of the Gospels and the Acts, we have far, far fewer reliable even quasi-contemporary records of the life and ministry of Jesus – most of what we have are, as Ehrman frequently writes, copies of copies of copies of copies of anything resembling eyewitness testimony. The derivative nature of the tradition is never far from Ehrman’s concerns:
All of the people who told stories about Jesus – eyewitnesses, people who heard from eyewitnesses, and people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from eyewitnesses – remembered what they saw and heard. And their own stories were based on those memories.
The slow transformation of memories into oral tradition is the main subject of Jesus Before the Gospels, and Ehrman does his familiar best to stress the wider importance of the topic. “Remembering Jesus is not simply an antiquarian exercise. It is about today,” he writes. “Not only does the past impose itself on us when we remember; but also our memories of the past are always affected by our views of the present.”
It’s a bit roundabout, a bit tiresome, and Ehrman doesn’t help matters any by delving both into cognition studies and the Christian Apocrypha. No amount of horizon-widening, for instance, can paper over the logical leap in that earlier quote, that all the people who told stories about Jesus were working at some remove or other from things actually seen and heard, and that “their own stories were based on those memories.”
To put it mildly, Ehrman has no evidence to support such a claim – other than conclusions read backwards into non-contemporary sources in search of the claim itself. We have no writings about Jesus dating prior to half a century after the traditionally given date of his death, and the records that we do have aren’t exactly known for their internal consistency or agreement with each other. Looking at those records and saying, “Yes, these are a hodge-podge, but at least they all ultimately derive from a kernel of eyewitness observation” regarding Jesus is about as legitimate as saying the same thing about Hercules or Orpheus.
Ehrman sometimes comes close to acknowledging this himself, although perhaps not as close as some of his readers would like. He knows perfectly well that time and memory can fundamentally alter a story:
The gist of a message can change. Storytellers not only came up with their own ways of expressing traditions they passed on, they not only made up and altered details, and they not only embellished their accounts and added entire episodes. Sometimes their inventiveness went to the very heart of the matter so that what later became the gist of the tradition was not in fact an accurate memory, but one that had been generated as the stories were told and retold, hundreds of times, by hundreds of people, in hundreds of situations.
But in the case of Jesus, there’s no actual, textual reason to stop at the wholesale invention of “details” or “episodes,” and Ehrman’s methodology mostly refuses to countenance that fact. In a very real sense, there was no “Jesus before the Gospels,” hence the catchy, provocative nature of the book’s title. Ehrman does a very entertaining, very readable job of theorizing about the many ways memory and oral tradition could have warped the history of Jesus from what actual eyewitnesses saw – but he doesn’t really doubt that there were eyewitnesses, and that they saw something. It’s only details and episodes that are invented whole-cloth, not Jesus himself. It’s a curious self-imposed limitation: Ehrman very skillfully uses the tools of textual analysis and anthropology to peel back the layers of that have accreted over the story of Jesus … all layers but one. Maybe next time.
Our book today is the new one from Jerome Kagan, the emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University. The book is On Being Human: Why Mind Matters (a pleasingly sturdy hardcover from Yale University Press), consisting of a series of connected meditations on topics ranging from the power of societal norms to the suggestive effects of education to the nature of the human psyche – all rich, fat topics here examined in an easy, erudite prose that strikes a near-perfect balance between formal essay and personal conversation. When Kagan writes that his essays are “best read in the evening, preferably over a glass of wine,” he’s not being smarmy; these pieces really do feel like “the reflections of a retired academic psychologist who has morphed into a well-fed stowaway admiring the talented crew solving problems he could not have imagined in the summer of 1954 when he left New Haven with his pregnant wife to take his first faculty position at Ohio State University.”
The book will provide a feast of ideas for the challenge-hungry reader, but some of the bits are more easily palatable than others. The crux of the book, in fact, is downright indigestible.
Over and over, Kagan returns to the concepts of mind and brain, of genetics and the intangible, of biological materialism and … well, what lies outside of biological materialism? Narnia?
He spends a good deal of time writing about thoughts. Not neurons firing, not electrolytes flashing, but something else, some combination that’s demonstrably more than the sum of its parts. Throughout On Being Human, Kagan contends that although medical science understands the workings of the human brain better than ever, the human mind remains a mystery that cannot be scientifically quantified:
An understanding of the feelings and thoughts evoked by listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a quiet room on a winter night, seeing the torture of a prisoner on a television screen, or walking in an autumn forest when the foliage is at peak color requires evidence that a brain cannot provide and sentences that are inappropriate for neurons and circuits.
He looks at several series of experiments done to prove both a reinforcement and a disconnect of the thoughts in a human brain and the corresponding responses in a human body – including the famous placebo effect, in which a patient’s belief that he’s been given effective medicine can often produce physical results roughly analogous to what the actual medicine would have produced. In Kagan’s view, this powerfully intuitive phenomenon clinches that idea that we are minds inhabiting brains rather than brains manufacturing minds:
If Western scientists had not decided that material substances were the foundations of all events, there would have been no need to invent the word placebo. This term is needed to explain why immaterial thoughts can have beneficial consequences on the body or mood. Only those who believe that the water they are drinking has a sacred power benefit from drinking it.
But of course thoughts aren’t immaterial. They arise entirely out of specific physical, chemical processes (dead people don’t have thoughts; noses don’t have thoughts; kidney stones don’t have thoughts). It’s no more mysterious that “immaterial” thoughts could temporarily produce a placebo improvement in a sick person than it is that “immaterial” thoughts could make an athlete train hard and run a marathon.
“The neuroscientist’s distrust of the invisible, immaterial processes,” Kagan writes, “makes it easy to regard thoughts as epiphenomena that one day will be explained and understood as derivatives of the brain.” This is almost exactly right. Neuroscientists – indeed, all scientists – distrust the immaterial because nothing immaterial has ever been demonstrated to exist. Scientists distrust the idea of the immaterial because the immaterial is surpra-natural and therefore supernatural, and rational inquiry has been exposing and shrinking the supernatural for five hundred years without ever encountering a verifiable obstacle. There is absolutely no logical reason to think that process won’t continue. That process is continuing, in laboratories all over the world, every day. On Being Human thinks it’s an inquiry into the fundamental limits of neuroscience, but it isn’t. It’s actually just a progress report – and an inadvertently promising one at that. In less than a hundred years, in less than fifty years, Hell, some first-year med student might be having a crucial insight right now, there will be sentences completely appropriate for neurons and circuits. And they won’t make Beethoven’s Ninth in a quiet room on a winter’s night one single bit less moving.
As I’ve mentioned before here at Stevereads, it’s always a pleasure for me to see a glossy square-bound lad-mag divert from quick-ab workouts and $35,000 wristwatches to talk about some of the less venal elements of what goes into making a well-rounded person. The most vulnerable of those elements is of course the gentle art of reading, so it’s usually a distinct treat when a magazine like Esquire or Men’s Journal runs a short piece on the added value that your average bro can get from your above-average book.
The latest GQ (the one with a picture of a very old Clint Eastwood on the cover) has just such a feature: “21 Brilliant Books You’ve Never Heard Of (Championed by 21 Writers You Have).” Naturally, such a feature isn’t really going to present me with 21 books I’ve never heard of, but the title promises some off-the-beaten-path choices, and the feature delivers.
We get Ben Fountain praising Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, for instance, and we get Hanya Yanagihara recommending, oddly and delightfully, My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Wells Tower calls G. B. Edwards’ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page “a work of seaweed, heart, and waves that break on granite” (true enough, especially in how it reflects the thing’s readability). TC Boyle puts forward Denis Johnson’s great slim novel Fiskadoro, and A. O. Scott, bless his hitherto-inconspicuous heart, praises Mary McCarthy’s great novel The Groves of Academe while not actually talking about it all, and Marlon James singles out Russell Hoban’s masterpiece Riddley Walker (and pays the simple readerly respect we all must pay: “if it wasn’t for Salman Rushdie, I would never have heard of it”).
It’s true that the otherwise-trustworthy Emma Straub recommends the dreadful Stoner by John Williams, but we also get some of our best working novelists making cases for books they think are underappreciated: George Saunders writes about American Youth by Phil LaMarche, Junot Diaz praises The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel Delany, and the great Adam Johnson recommends Robert O’Connor’s terrific novel Buffalo Soldiers.
In fact, there was hardly any fault to lay at the door of the feature’s editors, who assembled a very thought-provoking mixture of lesser-known books and interesting recommenders. No, the fault came from the emphysema sandwich-buns that encased the feature: the last page of the magazine before the feature started and the first page after it ended – the absolutely inescapable brackets of the thing – were both full-page color ads for tobacco products, just exactly like this was a 1956 issue of GQ rather than a 2016 issue. One of the ads was for chewing tobacco, and the other was for super-sexy cigarettes, and in both cases, there were federally-mandated warning boxes telling readers that chewing tobacco isn’t a “safe” alternative to smoking, and that cigarettes contain elevated levels of carbon monoxide. No mention made of the fact that in studies not heavily subsidized by the tobacco industry, the data shows that fully 100% of idiots who use chewing tobacco develop tooth-rot and mouth cancer, and that fully 100% of idiots who smoke develop emphysema and lung cancer. No exceptions, unless the tobacco industry is paying for them outright. The ads instead offer only the very mildest finger-shaking admonitions – X isn’t safe, Y contains carbon monoxide – instead of This product will give you cancer.
And just as an editorial team was responsible for the quality of that “21 Brilliant Books” feature, so too is there responsibility for the ads that bracketed it: Jim Nelson is the Editor-in-Chief of GQ, which means that in order for those ads – extolling the cool-factor of weaponized tobacco, for Christ’s sake, in 2016, for Christ’s sake, when the science of how absolutely lethal this crap is has been settled for seventy years – to appear in the magazine, he either had to approve of them or else not quit his job because of them. So either Editor-in-Chief Jim Nelson wants GQ readers to get addicted to carcinogens in order to keep his ad-revenues flowing, or he’s too spineless to take a principled stand against it.
Either is despicable, and especially so in this case because there’s already a long-cultivated association (carefully encouraged by the tobacco industry) between being a writer and ingesting vast amounts of carcinogens. Thanks to the placement of these ads, that association will only be strengthened in the minds of the biddable young twentysomething men who are such a key component of GQ‘s audience. I’ll just have to hope that the ones who are smart enough to want to read some of these books are also smart enough to avoid the evil fate to which Jim Nelson wants to condemn them.
Our book today is a rattling good yarn from an author we’ve met before here at Stevereads: Rosemary Sutcliff, this time her 1965 novel The Mark of the Horse Lord, which follows the hard life and harrowing adventures of young Phaedrus, a slave in northern Britain in the first century who’s a gladiator when the novel opens and, in an unflinching twist typical of Sutcliff, must face his only friend in a fight to the death in order to win his freedom. This author excels at immersing readers in the sights and sounds of her time period, and the gladiatorial setting of the book’s opening chapter allows her to revel in the predictably cinematic elements of the scene:
Full circle round the wide rim of the Arena, they were close beneath the Governor’s box now. Automedon snapped out a command, and they clashed to a halt and wheeled to face the big bull-necked man who leaned there with the glowing wine-red fold of his cloak flung back from the embossed and gilded breastplate beneath: Caesar’s new representative, the giver of the Games. Their weapons flashed up in the windy sunlight, and they raised the full-throated shout, as though Caesar himself had leaned there.
“Hail Caesar! Those about to die salute you!”
Phaedrus wins his freedom and almost immediately falls in with the members of a norther tribe who want him to impersonate the young Prince Midir, blocked from the throne by the present queen, Liadhan. This takes Phaedrus deep into the social and religious worlds of the northern tribes, deep into the ceremonies and rituals of the people of the Horse Lord:
There was a smell of blood mingling with the smell of burning that still clung about scorched timber and blackened thatch, and a great wailing rose from the watching crowd. The old High Priest dipped his finger in the blood and made a sign with it on Phaedrus’s forehead, above the Mark of the Horse Lord. And the wailing of the Women’s Side was taken up and engulfed by a triumphant roar from the men, and that in turn was drowned in the deep booming splendor of sound that seemed to loosen the very thought in one’s head, as two of the priests raised and sounded the huge curved bronze trumpets of the Sun that had not been heard in Dun Monaidh for seven years.
I recently came across a paperback copy of The Mark of the Horse Lord at a thrift shop in a 2006 reprint from Front Street, with a cover designed by Helen Robinson very clearly intending to discard the brightly-colored earlier look and substitute something closer to the brooding imagery more common to today’s oh-so-serious YA market. Ordinarily, I’d grimace a bit at such pandering, but as with the case of Eagle of the Ninth, I found myself liking the more adult feel of the new design. Anything that stands a chance of attracting new readers for this great writer …
Our book today is one of my many re-reads: Penelope Lively’s 2013 memoir Dancing Fish and Amonites, her elegant and intelligent meditation – partly about her life and upbringing but mainly about the story of her life as she observes it in her own memories: “The memory that we live with – the form of memory that most interests me – is the moth-eaten version of our own past that each of us carries around, depends on,” as she puts it. “It is our ID; this is how we know who we are and where we have been.”
That’s a subtly complex construction of exactly the kind that tend to wind through her novels, and although I admit I could often be impatient with those novels – on how many reading afternoons did one after the next of her books strike me as fussily faint-hearted! – here in her memoir, it found more fertile ground with me. I read and liked this book when it first came out, and just recently I found a copy at a thrift shop (since of course my original copy promptly disappeared), snapped it up, and spent an hour re-reading it on a freezing cold afternoon, expecting to be distinctly underwhelmed the second time around.
Instead, I found myself again and again charmed by Lively’s straightforward, almost bald, reflections on growing older, reflections that show her usual combination of wide angle and precise detail:
Writing survives, for me. Other pleasures – needs – do not. I was a gardener. Well, I am a gardener, but a sadly reduced one, in every sense. I have a small paved rectangle of London garden, full of pots, with a cherished twenty-year-old corokia, and two pittosporums, and various fuchsias, and Convolvulus cneorum and hakonechloa grass and euphorbia and heuchera and a Hydrangea petiolaris all over the back wall (well, some of you will be gardeners and might share my tastes). It gives me much pleasure, but it is a far cry from what I once gardened – a half acre or so that included beans, carrots, squash, you name it, the lot. All I can do now is potter with the hose in summer, and do a bit of snipping here and there, thanks to the arthritis; forget travel, what I really do miss is intensive gardening.
This second time around, I found Dancing Fish and Amonites even more interesting than the first time, perhaps even enough to prompt me to keep it, although that might be asking a lot.
Our book today is a genuine stunner: Inside Venice by Toto Bergamo Rossi, with gorgeous photographs by Jean-Francois Jaussaud. The book is subtitled A Private View of the City’s Most Beautiful Interiors, and the folks at Rizzoli have pulled out all the stops in making it the Venice-themed coffee table book of the year.
It’s introduced with a winsome personal essay by filmmaker James Ivory, who writes about something – a perception, even a worry – that every newcomer to Venice will immediately recognize, the sense of two cities, one for looking at and another, much smaller and much more exclusive, for living in. Merchant recalls the first time he came to Venice (with the obligatory “no more than fifty dollars” in his pocket), looking up at the lighted windows of the grand palazzi, sometimes glimpsing people walking past those windows, living lives entirely out of reach of the tourist. And in the course of his essay, as his fame and wealth increase, he gradually shifts over to being one of those people up on the balconies, living their lives while outsiders file past down below.
But the shift doesn’t require money or fame – familiarity alone can manage it. Venice is a city under ceaseless assault, washed in waves of tourists in every day of every season, and this only intensifies the already inward-looking tendencies of the Venetian people. But if you stay long enough, dress and behave like an adult, and, with any luck, speak a bit of the language, that other Venice will open up to you, and you’ll find yourself reading Dante in gorgeous little home libraries, or sipping a delicious Valpolicella wine on a leafy terrace overlooking a quiet canal, or even living in a building two centuries older than your home country (with, alas, bathroom plumbing every bit as old).
If readers don’t have the means or the time to make the acquaintance of that other Venice, they now have the next best thing in the pages of Inside Venice. Toto Bergamo Rossi introduces each sprawling district of the city in general terms, as with the Dorsoduro:
A series of facades in different styles follow one after the other all the way to Ca Foscari, the outer limit of the Dorsoduro quarter, and now seat of the University of Venice. Once, valuable salt was unloaded from ships on to plain wooden rafts to be unloaded again on the Fondamenta della Zattere landing before being stored in the Magazzini del Sale. The old salt storehouses have since been converted into exhibition spaces.
And then he does just as his book’s description promises: he goes behind the grand facades, goes in through the water landings, up the renovated staircases, into the grand parlors and intimate studies and sunny outdoor decks of some of each district’s signature buildings, new and old. He’s talked with the current owners of several of these spaces, and he can discourse with easy familiarity on history of the spaces themselves:
The very old Giustinian family built twin palazzi sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, probably with the collaboration of Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon. The aim was to house two branches of the same family: the Giustinians called “dei Vescovi” occupied the palazzo bording on Ca’ Foscari, while the Giustinians “dalle Zoge” lived, until the mid-nineteenth century, in the palazzo currently owned by the Counts Brandolini d’Adda, who purchased it in 1876. Each palazzo has an independent ground entrance and a courtyard surrounded by high crenellated Gothic walls. Some of the rooms on the lower main floor conserve interesting stucco decorations executed by the school of Jacopo Sansovino, and a pictorial cycle by Palma il Giovane.
But of course the real highlight of Inside Venice isn’t verbal: it’s all those beautiful photos by Jean-Francoise Jaussaud, all shot with a light and airy warmth quite unlike the forbidding coldness of so many such coffee table books. I’ve slowly paged my way through more such books than I can readily count, and I can’t recall one I’ve liked better than this. And unlike so many of the books I talk about here on Stevereads, this one is brand-spanking new, just waiting there on the shelf of your nearest good retail bookshop, ready to part you from $60 of your hard-earned money. In this case, it’s well worth it.
Our book today is one I’ve mentioned briefly before: The National Geographic Society’s Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World from 1968, one of the series of great volumes they put out forty years ago and that are now staples of flea markets and yard sales all over the United States. At one time or another, I’ve owned virtually all of these volumes, especially of course Man’s Best Friend and Men, Ships and the Sea (although I’ve never yet found a copy of Song and Garden Birds of North America, so if you encounter it at your next yard sale, feel free to snap it up for me and ship it out to Hyde Cottage), but this one is probably my sentimental favorite.
These wonderfully inviting productions were overseen by National Geographic Society Editor-in-Chief and Chairman of the Board Melville Bell Grosvenor, and they feature artwork by Society stalwarts like Peter Bianchi, Louis Glanzman, HM Herget, Tom Lovell and half a dozen others. Like all the other historical volumes, Greece and Romefeatures a very pleasingly solid advisory board of actual experts, all of whom, like Merle Severy in the opening chapter “Quest for Our Golden Heritage,” try to strike that ‘informed general reader’ tone the National Geographic magazine has been hitting so perfectly for a century now:
Renaissance men proclaimed the rebirth of Greece and Rome, drank deeply at the wellsprings of their art, and enriched us with the masterpieces. The American and the French revolutions flamed with ideals of the Roman Republic and Athenian democracy. Our forefathers looked at their bold new world through Rome-colored glasses. The Roman patriot became the ideal citizen, the Roman tribune the guardian of man’s rights, the Roman general the most valiant of leaders. Rome’s laws and monuments were a vision of grandeur.
All the key marquee players in the Roman saga are here, most of them in chapters of their own, as with “The World of Alexander”:
A hero-worshiper, he was himself a hero on a grander scale than even Homer conceived. The single decade that brought him from youth to death took him beyond the known boundaries of civilization. Though his epic empire broke up in less time than it had taken him to win it, in death he achieved the ultimate ambition of his hectic life: He joined the demigods in the realm of legend.
Or “In the Footsteps of Hannibal,” where we get ancient history overlaid on present-day reality in the time-honored National Geographic way:
Glitter hides Hannibal’s trail along the Costa Brava. High-rise hotels and escuelas de esqui – schools for water-skiing – have tamed the Wild Coast, today the Spanish Riviera. Hoping for a detour into the past, I turned down a dirt road. It ended abruptly at an old deserted church, set in a deep cork-oak forest overlooking a broad valley – the kind of valley that would lure Hannibal’s foragers. Here slingers and spearmen might bring down game. Raiding parties would seize cattle and grain. Some natives, anxious to see the marauders move on, would surrender their crops and livestock. But not all yielded without a fight. In the 200 miles between the Ebro and the Pyrenees, Hannibal lost thousands of men in unchronicled skirmishes and desertions.
I was very pleased to find a copy of Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World the other day (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course), and unlike the previous copy I owned and mysteriously discarded, this one still had the little pouch in the back containing an absolutely wondrous huge fold-out map of the greater Mediterranean with hundreds of overlaid annotations marking all the various historical and even mythological events that took place in every nook and cranny of the region, back when giants walked the earth. I’m going to try to hold onto this copy.
Our book today is a genuine corker: Galapagos: World’s End by William Beebe, his 1924 account of the trip he took in 1923 with the Harrison Williams Galapagos Expedition to travel in the footsteps of of Charles Darwin’s expedition there with the Beagle in 1835. Beebe was already a prominent scientist and natural history expert when his book came out, and it sold like griddle cakes and lodged on the bestseller lists for months and months.
Its success was hardly a surprise – Beebe is such a smart and chummy writer that every one of his books makes the same kind of jumpingly lively reading. But even his normally vivid prose glows a little brighter when he’s playing his adventures off against the far more famous adventures that Darwin wrote about in his own (also delightful, it should be remembered) book. Beebe’s book parallels Darwin’s in several intriguing ways, including sometimes ways that even after many re-readings I still think are unconscious. For example, Beebe can no more resist than Darwin could the temptation to be a royal pain in the ass to some of the Galapagos’s most famous inhabitants:
To test the acquisition of fear, I caught an iguana of medium size, jerked him into the air, played with him for a few minutes and then loosened the noose and set him free. He ran of a few feet, turned and looked at me and offered no resistance to being again caught and swung through space. Six times I repeated this, and if anything he was tamer after the rough treatment than before, in the face of a series of experiences which would have driven any ordinary wild creature insane with fright.
(I’ve been to the Galapagos Islands twice, and on neither occasion did I feel the slightest urge to play tilt-a-whirl with the basset-sized lizards who live there – or to chuck them into the sea and watch what they do, as Darwin did; maybe it’s a weird quirk isolated to naturalists?)
Another parallel with Darwin is Beebe’s deep and persistent feeling of inquisitive awe at the largely unknown natural world around him. Every one of his observations feels as fresh as a sunrise, and his always-eloquent prose reflects that no matter what he’s writing about, from the mechanical intricacies of the Panama Canal to the surprisingly cutthroat world he observed
just beneath the gorgeous surface f the Pacific:
Fish savagery is always a striking feature of sea-fishing. Large fish are wary of attacking other large fish, but the moment either one seems to be in trouble or incapacitated he immediately becomes a victim. The attack seems more savage than the kill of the jungle, and the smell of blood arouses much the same instinct among fish as it does among jungle carnivora. The struggle for existence – for food – that takes place in the black depths of the sea is more fierce than that on land.
I was naturally quite pleased when I came across this old Dover paperback of Galapagos: World’s End at the Brattle last week; I’d forgotten the first-rate job Dover used to do with its line of nonfiction reprints. This volume, printed in 1988, is full of the color and black-and-white illustrations the author included in his original edition nearly a century ago, and it’s remarkably sturdy for a paperback – which is a very good thing when it comes to William Beebe, since anybody who reads him will certainly be re-reading him before too long.
Our book today is one we’ve mentioned before here at Stevereads: A Fair Wind for Troy, a 1976 YA novel about the lead-up to the Trojan War, one that centers, as classically-minded readers might be able to tell from the title, on the bloodthirsty House of Atreus and the willingness of its head, Agamemnon, to sacrifice his young daughter Iphigenia in order to appease the anger of Artemis and secure good sailing weather for the Greek armada bent for Troy.
The book is slim – well under a hundred pages – and it’s the sixth and final volume in a series of mythology-retellings Doris Gates did for the Viking Press. It’s aimed at younger readers, but Gates brings such texture and depth to her version of Euripides that, like all the best children’s literature, it can easily repay adult attention. Gates came late in her life to these adaptations of Greek legends, and they form a patchwork reflection of her own personality and upright morality, much like the similar work of her older counterpart, Edith Hamilton.Indeed, I’ve often wished some enterprising publisher would gather all Gates’ slim mythology books into a stout collection and maybe even call it Doris Gates’ Mythology.
A Fair Wind for Troy spends a good deal of its time performing running character studies of the great women of this grim story – only secondarily poor Iphigenia, and far more directly the girl’s mother, Clytemnestra, about whom we’re told that her dark beauty was “no threat to Helen’s dazzling loveliness.” Helen isn’t fond of her half-sister: “But there was also a dark intensity about her, an almost brooding fierceness, that Helen found repellant. There was no humor in her, no flippant charm, no playfulness whatsoever.”
And, refreshingly, we’re certainly not expected to be fond of Helen herself. Throughout the book, she’s portrayed as the quintessence of brittle vanity, as in the scene where handsome Trojan prince Paris is wondering how his plans to escape Sparta with Helen will be crimped by Helen’s young daughter. The picture of Helen we’re given by Gates is as stern as it is unappealing:
Paris had entertained some doubts about Helen’s daughter, Hermione. The little girl was now nine years old. A child had not figured in his plans, but would Helen abandon her willingly?
Helen soon put his doubts to rest. “The child means nothing to me,” she declared. Indeed, during the long months of pregnancy when her body had become swollen and distorted with the life growing inside her, Helen had known an agony of fear. Would she ever be beautiful again? Would this thickened waist ever return to its former elegant proportions? At the time of her betrothal, Menelaus had encircled it with his two hands. Now the grossest of her slave girls was more lissome than she.
And what of Iphigenia herself? Well, there’s only so much that can be done with one of the most pathetic fictional creations in all of classical literature, although Gates tries her best. She makes what I think is the tactical misstep of having Iphigenia embrace her victimhood, which might make for a stirring set-piece but also has the deplorable effect of making the girl complicit with her father in her own slaughter:
Clytemnestra took a step toward her, and Iphigenia stepped back. “No, Mother, do not try to weaken my resolve. I will die for Greece. Only I can give these ships the wind that will take them to Troy. It is I, and not our warriors, who will have caused her fall. I will save Greece, and my name will be honored for all time. What is my life against the lives of the thousands gathered here? To save one little life there will be woeful bloodshed, and this fine man here, fighting bravely for me, will surely be killed. Nor will you and I escape with our lives. No, no, my Mother. Much better that I should yield up my body in willing sacrifice so that our warriors can proceed to Troy and conquer it.”
A Fair Wind for Troy is illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak in somber pencils mostly depicting the very thing Gates herself scrupulously elides from her book: Greek and Trojan men-at-arms in full martial glory (one imagines there was some machination to get boy-readers interested in a book that’s very much about mothers and daughters). I’ve re-read the book many times in a scrappy little paperback that I’ve had for years, so I was naturally pleased to find a sturdy hardcover to go on the shelf and better withstand what I’m sure will be a few more re-readings!