Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Roman Holiday

Shame-Faced Admission™: I've never read anything about the Roman Emperors.

I’ve encountered them, of course. I watched I, Claudius back in the 70’s but I don’t remember much of it - bare sets and nasty things happening off screen. I saw a production of Julius Caesar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1978. The only thing I remember about that is seeing Richard Dreyfus in a toga. (Yes, it was as unforgettable as you imagine.)

But there I was in Borders a few weeks ago and they were having a special on Penguin Classics. Among the three I bought (for the price of two) was Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars. The translation is by Robert Graves, who apparently used quite a bit of Suetonius’ material for I, Claudius. The Twelve Caesars takes you from Julius Caesar through Domitian in easy to read form. And it was very easy reading. I don’t know why I’m always so cowed by the ancient texts. They’re usually full of bloodshed and sex, just like my regular reading.

I thought perhaps I’d learn some business lessons from reading this book. I’m always on the lookout for management tips. If Star Trek and the Sopranos can be used to teach us about leadership, why not some of the most famous rulers of all time? Having finished the book, here’s the one lesson I can pass along: do not join a managment team where the mode of succession is assassination. It’s just not worth it.

The book was great reading. Each emperor’s entry starts out with some family history and then dives right in to the good stuff. Incest, cross-dressing, torture, murders. Not to mention buggering and pantomime. (But really, how could I not mention them?)

When I was little, our kitchen radio was always tuned to WNEW-AM. They had an ad for a restaurant called S.P.Q.R. that started with a man intoning “The Senate and the People of Rome.” I had his voice in my head throughout my reading of this book. It worked well – keeping me thinking about the people who had to live their day to day lives under this kind of regime.

There’s time for one more lesson. I pass it along for the benefit of those who will one day be celebrities (it’s too late for those who already are): untold riches, supreme power and terrestrial deification can lead a person to the worst kind of behavior. So do like the rappers say, kids, and keep it real.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Nobody does it better

I grew up in a house full of books. Not an intellectual house, like in a Woody Allen movie where the shelves are filled with Rilke, Schopenhauer and other great names. Nope, our bookcases had paperbacks stacked two-deep: Agatha Christie, Louis L’Amour, P.G. Wodehouse, John Jakes. All the popular writers were welcome. And I read them all.

Well, just about all.

Shame-Faced Admission™: I’d never read a James Bond novel. That is to say, an Ian Fleming novel whose main character was James Bond. There they were on the shelf: five, maybe ten volumes in red covers, but I never picked one up.

I can’t say exactly why. Maybe it was seeing Live and Let Die at 10 years old. The movie seemed silly and complicated. It certainly didn’t send me rushing to the novels. Not when Bertie Wooster was in the house.

But after seeing some Sean Connery Bond films I knew it was time to read a 007 novel. I’ve just finished my first: The Spy Who Loved Me.

The chief thing to know about this book is that James Bond is not the main character. Not by a long shot. The narrator is a Canadian woman named Vivienne Michel. Shapely of figure and ill-treated by men, she is taking a respite from her romantic complications in an Adirondack motel about to close for the season. She spends the first half of the book thinking back on how her naiveté and bad luck with men have led her to this isolated haven in the woods.

I kept waiting for super villains and secret lairs, but no luck. Or should I say great luck. By the time the bad guys show up we know this girl and hope she can save herself. Turns out she doesn’t have to because James Bond shows up too. There’s no steel-toothed henchman on his trail, just a flat tire causing him to stop at the motel. Of course he saves the day and our heroine gets a well-deserved romp with her hero. Most importantly she learns how a real man is quite different from the cads she’s known.

After their brief night together Vivienne wonders if their encounter will spoil her for other men. I wonder the same thing myself. Will the other Ian Fleming 007 novels, the ones with the global weapons and directives from M, pale in comparison with this one? Like Vivienne, I guess I won’t know until I try.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Papa, I Can Hear You

Shame-Faced Admission™: I’ve only read Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction. And not much of it at that.

“The Killers” turns up in numerous collections of noir writing and I devour it every time. “Fathers and Sons” I came across in an anthology, and it left a mark. There are one or two others, the titles of which escape me now. But his longer work is terra incognita to me.

Hemingway looms so large in American letters that I knew he had to be the first author I read as part of this project. So which book did I choose? The Nick Adams Stories, which:

a. is not a novel, and
b. contains the two stories I knew I’d read.

Hardly an auspicious beginning. But I view this process as a marathon. I don’t want to pull something early and come up lame.

The collection, originally published in 1972, is the first to put every story about Hemingway’s alter ego in chronological order, following Nick from childhood to fatherhood. Several of the pieces are incomplete, fragments of what Hemingway intended as longer works.

My favorite story was easily “Big Two-Hearted River,” in which Nick heads deep into the Michigan woods, builds a camp, and goes fishing. That’s it. The story benefits from being placed in sequence; it occurs after Nick has returned from action overseas, and his monastic trip is clearly a way for him to exorcise his demons. Curiously, “A Way You’ll Never Be,” the story that precedes it and illuminates what those demons are, was published eight years later.

But it’s not the context that gives the story its power; Rosemarie, who also read the book, said, “Sorry. All I got out of that one was fishing.” It’s the marriage of technique and theme. Hemingway describes simple actions with similar prose. The unadorned language mirrors Nick’s efforts: hard work, carefully observed, yields its own satisfactions. Knowing what Nick has recently endured only adds to the effect, allowing you to see how this trip heals him.

Rosemarie singled out “The Last Good Country,” an unfinished novella, in which Nick and his younger sister go on the run when Nick is accused of poaching. It has wonderful moments, but it’s obviously meant to be something more. “Fathers and Sons,” with Nick reflecting on his own youth while his son sleeps beside him, hasn’t lost any of its impact.

I’m ready to move on to Hemingway’s novels. Reading the short stories has been like peering into the windows of a house. Now I want to see what’s inside.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Ground Rules, Double

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. – H. G. Wells

Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding. – Ambrose Bierce

Good quotations, huh? Pithy, that’s what they are. I got them out of a book of quotations. I didn’t know them from their source material. But as Churchill said, “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.”

I wonder if that quote helps move copies.

‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read. – Mark Twain

I don’t necessarily think of myself as an uneducated man. I know, for instance, that Moby Dick is by Herman Melville, it’s about a whale, and that Homer Simpson is incorrect when he says that the moral of the book is “Be yourself.”

But I haven’t read Moby Dick. Nor have I attempted a great many other of the classics. I am not proud of this fact. It is one I would very much like to change.

Thus, Shame-Faced was born.

The proper study of mankind is books. – Aldous Huxley

It’s a bit of received wisdom that the first step toward solving a problem is admitting that you have one. All right. In this blog, I will admit which of the world’s great books I haven’t read by actually reading them. So will the lovely and talented Rosemarie, devoted pseudo-intellectual and former Jeopardy! contestant. We’ll suggest titles to each other, maybe tackle the same ones together, have a few laughs along the way.

If we don’t like a book, we’ll be honest about it. In the words of E. M. Forster, “Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.”

I haven’t read any Forster, either. Damn. Should probably add him to the list.

Speaking of the list, it won’t be all broccoli; popular authors that we’ve somehow missed will be on it as well. And it won’t be all books, either.

There is only one thing that can kill the Movies, and that is education. – Will Rogers

There are plenty of well-known movies, high and low, that one or both of us have managed to get this far without seeing. (Here’s a Shame-Faced Admission™ for you: I just watched Gone With The Wind for the first time last year. What can I say? I thought it was a chick flick.)

Not to mention certain legendary TV series. Any work of art or culture that we’ve been faking familiarity with for years is fair game. Maybe by the time we’re done, Rosemarie and I will have become the learned, well-rounded individuals we have always pretended to be.

But I kind of doubt it.