March 2010


Author Rating: A

I first discovered David Sedaris listening to NPR’s This American Life in the 1990s. He’s as much fun to read as he is to listen to. His stories and essays are drawn from his life experience.

Naked (read 1998) recommended

Stories about his growing up.

Holidays on Ice (read 1998) recommended

Stories about Christmas.

Me Talk Pretty One Day (read 2000) recommended

Stories about adulthood.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (read 2004) recommended

A mixture of stories spanning his life. I thought the first three were more hilarious than this one, but it’s David Sedaris, so it’s all good.

Author Rating: A

A Wrinkle in Time (read 1968) recommended

An amazing science-fantasy story for children. Meg is considered something of a problem by her teachers and parents but when her father, a scientist, disappears under mysterious circumstances, it falls to Meg to find him and bring him back.

Author Rating: A

I read all of these during the 1980s and 1990s and highly recommend them. They are not for those easily offended by the grimier side of life.

Ham On Rye

“A crude, brutal, and savagely funny portrait of an outcast’s coming-of-age during the desperate days of the Great Depression.”

Post Office

Bukowski’s first novel, based on his career as a post office employee

Hot Water Music

It’s a novel but each chapter is really a short story.

South of No North

This is a group of wonderful short stories that left me feeling very sad.

Pulp

Bukowski’s last novel is a spoof of hard-boiled detective novels.

Author Rating: A

Seven novels make up the Masters of Rome series which detail the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire.

Palace of the Caesars, Rome. Between 1860 and 1890. (Library of Congress)

  • The First Man in Rome (1990) (read 3/11/10) recommended

The main character in the first book, The First Man of Rome, is Gaius Marius, a Roman general, who successfully defeated the Germanic hordes threatening to overrun Italy and served a record-breaking seven times as consul, but it’s not all war and battles. The reader is introduced to people at every level of Roman and non-Roman society. Two of my favorite characters are Lucius Cornelius Sulla, brother-in-law to Gaius Marius, and Aurelia Cotta, sister-in-law to Gaius Marius and mother of Julius Caesar.

It’s absolutely worth the time (it runs over 1,000 pages). It’s amazing how little politics have changed in over 2,000 years. Many of the events described could have been ripped from today’s headlines. But the thing I appreciate most, after the engaging writing, is all the background material that McCollough provides — a pronunciation guide, information about Roman name structure and a substantial glossary containing all kinds of useful and interesting facts.

  • The Grass Crown (1991) (read 4/14/10) recommended

The second book in the series focuses on Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s rise and the last gasps of Gaius Marius. Marcus Livius Drusus attempts to extend citizenship to all of Italy but the “old boys” want to keep Rome for the Romans and murder him, civil war breaks out and a struggle for control of Rome between factions of change and the status quo ensues. Taking advantage of these distractions, King Mithridates VI of Pontus, ruler of the area that now encompasses northern Turkey, starts his push to invade Turkey, getting as far as Greece. Gaius Marius wants the generalship to fight Mithridates but Sulla is consul and, for the first time in history, brings an army to Rome to enforce his right to prosecute the war. Hundreds of thousands of people die horrible, brutal deaths during these conflicts. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  The book ends with the death of Gaius Marius after the brutal murder of hundreds of Romans by his followers.  These events profoundly affect Gaius Julius Caesar who at time was 13 years old.

  • Fortune’s Favorites (1993) (read 5/10/10) recommended

Fortune’s Favorites, after Marius, were Sulla, Pompey and Gaius Julius Caesar. The book begins with Sulla’s return to Rome — with his army. He’s really annoyed that he’d had his command of the war against Mithridates taken away by Marius, but after the killing was over he was really quite a reasonable dictator, stepping down after a year and going into retirement to write his memoirs and enjoy some rest and relaxation. Pompey is a bit of an ass. It’s hard to understand how he wasn’t crushed like a grape. But Caesar really was quite a guy. It’s not until the fifth book that their relationship comes to the fore, although in the next book Pompey marries Caesar’s daughter Julia by his first wife Cinna.

The downside to these novels is that they weren’t very well edited. I can imagine that producing three novels of this length in three years didn’t leave much time for that kind of thing. In this one there were sections that could have done with some heavy cutting, but there is so much of interest that it’s still a worthwhile read. Spartacus makes his appearance in this one. That was the section that I enjoyed the most. It turns out that he wasn’t a slave in the sense that he was sold into bondage. He was a Roman soldier who had been convicted of mutiny and sentenced to become a gladiator. The other small complaint I have is that the maps are not adequate to easily follow the action, both because they do not have on them all the places mentioned and because locations are identified by their Latin names only.

  • Caesar’s Women (1996)  (read 6/8/10) recommended

As the title suggests, this one features the women in Gaius Julius Caesar’s life — his mother Aurelia, his second wife Pompeia, his lover Servillia and his daughter Julia. The more of these books I read, the less satisfied I am with the quality of the writing, but they are nonetheless enormously interesting for the Roman history they impart.

  • Caesar (1997) (read 8/15/10) recommended

Caesar is all grown up, and what a man he has become. Unfortunately for him, there are many against him, including Cicero, because of humiliations they suffered at his hands (he cuckolded many of his political opponents) and jealousy of his talent and success. McCullough gives a fictionalized account of Caesar’s Gallic Wars based on his commentaries, followed by his famous crossing of the river Rubicon to defeat those who wanted to deprive him of his honor and position.

  • The October Horse (2002) (read 9/13/10) recommended

This last novel covers the period from Caesar’s dictatorship through his death and the early career of his grand-nephew, heir and posthumously adopted son Gaius Octavius Thurinus, the man known as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus and first emperor of Rome.

The parts covering Caesar’s time in Egypt, as well as the political scene in the greater Middle East, I found particularly interesting. The Jews have a much more complicated history than most of us realize.

I am very sad to have reached the end of this terrific series. But my fascination with the history of Rome has only been whetted. Next I am going to tackle Robert Graves’ I, Claudius series which picks up where this series leaves off.

  • Antony and Cleopatra (2007)