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williamjm

Third Quarter 2021 Reading

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Somehow we are now halfway through the year.

I'm currently about 2/3 of the way through Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education, which has been fun so far.

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I have revisited The Arabian Nights for the first time since I was a boy, and it is truly a different experience and a different book.  As a boy, it was all exotic thrills, while as a man, it is quite different.

First of all, the male characters and protagonists are uniformly pretentious, lazy, and dumber than a sack of hammers.  The text will call them out as wise and sophisticated, but then their actions will be that of a simpleton over and over.  Almost none of them achieve worthy objectives by hard work or intelligence or any other virtue.  Instead, they find magic rings or lamps, or a rich relative states that they are worthy of attention despite the fact that the things they do are ridiculous and inept.  As a class, the sultans and other leaders in the stories are so work-shy and uninterested in governing that it is a wonder that the states don't all devolve into anarchy within a month.  In summary, the male characters are a pack of highly unlikeable assholes, and reading about them is unpleasant.

Secondly, the overt racism is pretty astonishing.  I get that the book is written by wealthy Arabs for wealthy Arabs, but holy cow is the racism up front and in your face the whole time.  I get it, Jews are greedy and grasping, you don't have to repeat this trope every single time a Jewish character is mentioned for instance.

Finally, the characters inevitably make terrible and illogical choices.  Warned not to do a thing, you better believe that they will do that exact thing.  Warned not to do a thing by ten different one-eyed penitents?  You know he will do that single thing and also end up losing an eye.  Very wearying to read over and over.

Because I remember how the stories flow, I found that the unpleasant characters and the racist commentary caused me to wish that each one would just end so I could get on to the next one in the hope that it would still contain that sense of enchantment I remember from my first reading.  It never did.

Not an enjoyable visit to a fondly-remembered text.

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Last night I finished The Return of the Player by Michael Tolkin. This was a sequel to The Player which I read years ago. It's a cynical tale about a Hollywood executive named Griffin Mill who in the first book murdered a man and got away with it. In this book he is now 50, has an ex-wife and a present marriage going badly, 2 kids by first wife, 1 by second, and in this novel is "headhunted" away from the studio he works for by a tech multimillionaire who wants him to be an "idea man" so he can become a billionaire. It's very well written, but in the end too bleak a version of humanity for my taste. 

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Finished Roger Daniels's Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. It suffers slightly from being dated, the second edition including updates on the age of globalization and concluding shortly after 9/11. It was quite interesting learning more about the various waves of immigration and where various ethnicities settled and how they shaped those areas.

Starting Adrian Goldsworthy's Pax Romana.

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Posted (edited)
5 hours ago, Astromech said:

Starting Adrian Goldsworthy's Pax Romana.

This is a very interesting book. 

Over here, we're slowly reading aloud to each other now, Chris Wickham's (2009) The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400 – 1000. This book’s first section covers the same ground, though with a different perspective in some areas, as the also read-aloud, Peter Brown's (1971) The World of Late Antiquity. The perspectives are very different generally, since Wickham’s work is firmly within contemporary data based, statistical, demographic, archaeological, linguistic, etc. work that has changed historiography so much in the last half century.

I also relatively recently, i.e. this year, learned a great deal of the late Roman Empire in Douglas Boin's (2020) Alaric the Goth: An Outsider's History of the Fall of the Roman Empire.  These all fit well into June's discussion on Bret Devereaux's blog bundle as to whom the Romans actually were. Though he does seem to ignore that Alaric, despite how Romanized in all ways that he was, was refused citizenship, and even advancement beyond a certain level, in the army -- quite like what George Washington with the Brits in the French and Indian Wars. 

https://acoup.blog/2021/06/11/collections-the-queens-latin-or-who-were-the-romans-part-i-beginnings-and-legends/

https://acoup.blog/2021/06/25/collections-the-queens-latin-or-who-were-the-romans-part-ii-citizens-and-allies/

The two big arguments continue: Continuity / transformation, or sharp change / fall?  West vs. East.

I've been reading pretty continuously the newer "Roman" histories, such as James O'Donnell's (2009) The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History, for the 'general' reader over the the last few years.*

However, my real "recreational" historic interest (as opposed to my professional specialty, which is the Atlantic Slave trade, slavery in the Americas, and particularly the history of slavery in colonial era North America and the United States) is the transition from late antiquity to the middle ages -- Goths! Vandals! Visigoths! Ostrogoths! and mine true favorite, the Merovingians (along with, later, past the scope of this book, favorites, the Mongols and Turks)! Franks! Norse! --  which Wickham's book tries to cover in detail. One does have to consider the book's 600 years, and the book's not even 700 pages, which might mean a page per year? (It doesn't really work out that way, thank goodness, but still ....).

The one thing I know for sure is the 6th century really sucked, though we have less documentary evidence for the 6th than just about any other century of "Europe" except the 4th. Which is another signal of how bad the 6th century was, presumably.  I also believe the Church possessed more land in "Europe" in the 6th C than it has ever since.

* Oddly, as much as I respect and appreciate Mary Beard's work, I find reading her books a chore.

~~~~~~~~~

Now that half of 2021 has already gone by, I can speak definitely as to which three books were my most enjoyable, most informative reading, for the first half of this year:

Robert Irwin's (2018) Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography; Marie Favereau's (2021) The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World; and the history noted above, Chris Wickham's (2009) Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400 - 1000. 

Edited by Zorral

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2 hours ago, Zorral said:

This is a very interesting book. 

Over here, we're slowly reading aloud to each other now, Chris Wickham's (2009) The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400 – 1000. This book’s first section covers the same ground, though with a different perspective in some areas, as the also read-aloud, Peter Brown's (1971) The World of Late Antiquity. The perspectives are very different generally, since Wickham’s work is firmly within contemporary data based, statistical, demographic, archaeological, linguistic, etc. work that has changed historiography so much in the last half century.

 

I have these two titles sitting on my bookcase and settled on Pax Romana to jump back into this area of history. (It was Prof Paul Freedman's course The Early Middle Ages, 284 - 1000 that informed me of the two titles. Open Yale Courses is a fantastic option for learning more about various topics. Joanne Freeman's course on the American Revolution is excellent. I also intend to follow David W. Blight's course on the American Civil War as well. Finding time is the problem. https://oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-210 )

Have you read Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians?

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Posted (edited)

I did.  Like so many in my generation of historiography and the Romans, I can't quite hold to the proposition that it was barbarians that ended the empire -- particularly when the Eastern side of it continued to roll and collect taxes for quite a long time.  I myself l lean toward continuity / transformation for the Western side. The so-called barbarians, who weren't generally barbaric at all, even for several generations were the continuity certainly, along with the Church, which together pushed the transformation which eventually made Europe, per se.

OTOH, I can see where this might well be a teleological argument in many eyes. Ha!  You know, like the favorite Christian teaching that when Adam and Eve sinned, we all sinned, thus lost Eden, but that was the fortunate fall because it made for the Son of God to be born a man and redeem the sin, so we're all saved and can go to heaven.  Never ever even at 6 years old could buy that one!  Also like this other favored Christian reading of the Bible and its mythical figures and events pre-figuring Christ.

But still, this book is 1999, and comes through -- to me at least -- often as retro in terms of history.

 

Edited by Zorral

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11 hours ago, The_Lone_Wolf said:

The Satanic Verses 

How did you find it?

I read it when it was first published, and at the time it seemed pretty opaque to younger me.

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On 7/4/2021 at 11:36 AM, Ormond said:

Last night I finished The Return of the Player by Michael Tolkin. This was a sequel to The Player which I read years ago. It's a cynical tale about a Hollywood executive named Griffin Mill who in the first book murdered a man and got away with it. In this book he is now 50, has an ex-wife and a present marriage going badly, 2 kids by first wife, 1 by second, and in this novel is "headhunted" away from the studio he works for by a tech multimillionaire who wants him to be an "idea man" so he can become a billionaire. It's very well written, but in the end too bleak a version of humanity for my taste. 

I am a fan.  Also, the movie adaptation of The Player is among my favorites. 

I am currently reading Psychology in Modules, which is an introductory level textbook. 

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12 hours ago, Wilbur said:

How did you find it?

Are we allowed to discuss piracy :devil:

PDFDri*e. 

Oh! You mean as in interest finding!? Then I'd say Rushdie, Naipaul, Seth and Ghosh are my favorite Indian/origin English writers 

12 hours ago, Wilbur said:

I read it when it was first published, and at the time it seemed pretty opaque to younger me.

Wow. You're quite experienced. Then you know Rushdie. Opaque is too strong a word. Translucent? 

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5 hours ago, The_Lone_Wolf said:

Are we allowed to discuss piracy :devil:

PDFDri*e. 

Oh! You mean as in interest finding!? Then I'd say Rushdie, Naipaul, Seth and Ghosh are my favorite Indian/origin English writers 

Wow. You're quite experienced. Then you know Rushdie. Opaque is too strong a word. Translucent? 

Ha!

I followed the story for 80% of the book, but I also felt like I must be missing deeper levels of meaning, because the surface text seemed a little nonsensical.  Then I got totally lost at the end.  I gave it another shot about six months later and made it all the way through, but again the story didn't seem to make sense once it concluded.

Everyone around me was praising the book, so I set it down on the shelf for later.  Maybe now?

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I started reading War Lord the last book in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series. I am enjoying it, it's a good read in the way all his books tend to be, but it is bothering me a bit that Uhtred has to be about 75 at the youngest at this point. I just don't think it really fits having a 75 year old protagonist for the kind of book Cornwell is writing and that's probably goes even more for the 10th century. If he wanted to cover this time period with the series he probably should have done what he threatened to do in one of the books and switched to Uhtred's son.

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I tried Midnight's Children once and just did not like the style at all. Didn't love the prose, really didn't like the humour. Not sure if Rushdie's other books are similar in tone but I'm not in a hurry to check. 




Anyway myself I've been finishing up the third of Miles Cameron's Masters and Mages series, Bright Steel. It's fun, but I gotta say this series doesn't match up to Traitor Son, in large part because the pacing there was quite measured and made sure to allow each significant development time to breathe, whereas just this third book could easily have been at least two books on its own. Still, if you like his style it's a good read.

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22 hours ago, Zorral said:

I did.  Like so many in my generation of historiography and the Romans, I can't quite hold to the proposition that it was barbarians that ended the empire -- particularly when the Eastern side of it continued to roll and collect taxes for quite a long time.  I myself l lean toward continuity / transformation for the Western side. The so-called barbarians, who weren't generally barbaric at all, even for several generations were the continuity certainly, along with the Church, which together pushed the transformation which eventually made Europe, per se.

OTOH, I can see where this might well be a teleological argument in many eyes. Ha!  You know, like the favorite Christian teaching that when Adam and Eve sinned, we all sinned, thus lost Eden, but that was the fortunate fall because it made for the Son of God to be born a man and redeem the sin, so we're all saved and can go to heaven.  Never ever even at 6 years old could buy that one!  Also like this other favored Christian reading of the Bible and its mythical figures and events pre-figuring Christ.

But still, this book is 1999, and comes through -- to me at least -- often as retro in terms of history.

 

This is an even older history, but have you ever read Erich Gruen's The Last Generation of the Roman Republic?

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23 minutes ago, Reny fin de las Tormentas said:

This is an even older history, but have you ever read Erich Gruen's The Last Generation of the Roman Republic?

I have not.  I'd appreciate it very much if you took the time to tell me why I might want to! Thank you!  Not that it matters, but my real interest in Roman history is more how the late empire and antiquity in the West, which was one of the most urban and urbane civilizations in history, deeply involved with learning, literature and the arts marking them the ruling class, whose careers were in government administration and political offices, transitioned from that to the only careers that signaled dominance and superiority, were in the military and the Church with ownership or control of land as the reward.  In most places in the former Western empire this transition was nearly complete by the middle of the 6th century.

Though of course, like everybody else it seems I can never get enough of Julius and his heir. :D

Also, was Domitian as bad as Pliny says?  The Nero show at London's Victoria and Albert has been a rehabilitation of his ancient and surely permanent reputation. 

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Posted (edited)
42 minutes ago, Zorral said:

I have not.  I'd appreciate it very much if you took the time to tell me why I might want to! Thank you!  Not that it matters, but my real interest in Roman history is more how the late empire and antiquity in the West, which was one of the most urban and urbane civilizations in history, deeply involved with learning, literature and the arts marking them the ruling class, whose careers were in government administration and political offices, transitioned from that to the only careers that signaled dominance and superiority, were in the military and the Church with ownership or control of land as the reward.  In most places in the former Western empire this transition was nearly complete by the middle of the 6th century.

Though of course, like everybody else it seems I can never get enough of Julius and his heir. :D

Also, was Domitian as bad as Pliny says?  The Nero show at London's Victoria and Albert has been a rehabilitation of his ancient and surely permanent reputation. 

Back when I was in high school, someone on this board suggested I read Collen McCullough First Man in Rome. I've been hooked on Roman History since. However much like you my interests have strayed to different periods than just the end of the Republic. For me it's a similar period as you, but more focused on the split between Eastern and Western Empires and more specifically how the people that lived in either of any class viewed themselves.

Gruen's book was published in the '74, I'm just reading it now for the first time, but it was at the very least one of a range of books that started challenging the accepted narratives of why and how the Republic fell. From it being almost a fait accompli, to his preferred view of how the system was never in a state of persistent decline, but remarkably stable right down to the start of the Civil War. Nothing groundbreaking now though, because it's almost 50yrs old. I asked because I've noticed you talking about Roman history before and was just curious.  

 

Interestingly I visited Rome back in 2011, and the city museums were all doing exhibits on rehabilitating Nero's image. They had even spelled his name out in huge letters in the arches of the Colosseum. 

 

Edited: I tried reading a biography on Domitian, called The Emperor Domitian by Brian W. Jones. If you're looking for rehabilitation look no further. Although it's a dry read. A lot of focus on his court, and his interaction with them, and what that signifies. 

Edited by Reny fin de las Tormentas

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1 hour ago, Reny fin de las Tormentas said:

Back when I was in high school, someone on this board suggested I read Collen McCullough First Man in Rome. I've been hooked on Roman History since. However much like you my interests have strayed to different periods than just the end of the Republic. For me it's a similar period as you, but more focused on the split between Eastern and Western Empires and more specifically how the people that lived in either of any class viewed themselves.

Gruen's book was published in the '74, I'm just reading it now for the first time, but it was at the very least one of a range of books that started challenging the accepted narratives of why and how the Republic fell. From it being almost a fait accompli, to his preferred view of how the system was never in a state of persistent decline, but remarkably stable right down to the start of the Civil War. Nothing groundbreaking now though, because it's almost 50yrs old. I asked because I've noticed you talking about Roman history before and was just curious.  

 

Interestingly I visited Rome back in 2011, and the city museums were all doing exhibits on rehabilitating Nero's image. They had even spelled his name out in huge letters in the arches of the Colosseum. 

 

Edited: I tried reading a biography on Domitian, called The Emperor Domitian by Brian W. Jones. If you're looking for rehabilitation look no further. Although it's a dry read. A lot of focus on his court, and his interaction with them, and what that signifies. 

Thank you so much for taking the time.

Like you I was very impressed with McCullough's Roman series, which read a lot more like narrative history for the general reading public than fiction -- which isn't a criticism.  The amount of study she did and getting it all on the page was so informative to a general public reader like myself.  She is like Sharan Penman in that way -- always trying to get it right, and when learning down the line something that derailed what she'd already written and published, she would say so in the next book, and if possible, correct it.

As you say, the Split, so to call it, is really interesting as throughout that 600 years, from end of late antiquity, Dark Ages >?!?<, to early medieval era -- though a lot was going on in what would become Europe, what was happening that mattered was on the Eastern side.  Those multiple kingdoms on the mid-western Med didn't matter to the world particularly, either politically or in terms of trade -- or even which groups of 'barbarians' invaded.  The Eastern, Greek side was busy, busy, busy, with Sassanids and Saracens (who all called Constantinople "Rome'), and their trade routes and their bribes. O, and Arians and o so many other heresies. :cheers:

Thank you for the Jones work on Domitian.  I shall look into it later this summer.

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Posted (edited)
17 hours ago, Wilbur said:

Ha!

I followed the story for 80% of the book, but I also felt like I must be missing deeper levels of meaning, because the surface text seemed a little nonsensical.  Then I got totally lost at the end.  I gave it another shot about six months later and made it all the way through, but again the story didn't seem to make sense once it concluded.

Everyone around me was praising the book, so I set it down on the shelf for later.  Maybe now?

Hell Yeah! 

But to be honest I could assimilate only 70-80% too. 

Esoteric. Not culturally, that's revealing fascinating, psychologically 

Edited by The_Lone_Wolf

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