Day 1215: The Flamethrowers

Cover for The FlamethrowersSet in the mid-1970’s, The Flamethrowers evokes two distinct but frenetic movements. In New York, it is the art scene, where performance art is coming to the fore and artists are trying to live their art. In Italy, it is revolution and the Red Brigade, where common people are rising up against business and political corruption.

The heroine, Reno, has grown up in Nevada ski racing and has a fascination with motorcycles and speed. She moves to New York to become an artist (although we never see her making any art) and eventually becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, a well-known, older artist.

Sandro’s family in Italy made its money in motorcycles and tires, and when Reno travels to the Great Salt Flats to do a time trial on her Valera motorcycle, she accidentally gets involved in the family business. As a result, Sandro reluctantly brings her to Italy during a time of great instability and confusion.

Kushner evocatively depicts both the New York art scene and the seething streets of Rome, although often the artists seem like poseurs to me. I don’t think the depiction is meant to be satirical, though.

However, Reno as observer seems to be a different person than the risk-taker who went to New York. Further, the narrative, which occasionally jumps to the story of Sandro’s grandfather, who started the company, feels disjointed and as if it doesn’t really add up. Although I was entranced by long passages of this novel, I ended up wondering what it really was about. In particular, the novel relies on Reno’s relationship with Sandro to tie it all together, but that relationship is barely touched on.

This is the first book I read specifically because it is part of my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

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Day 1084: Dictator

Cover for DictatorDictator is the final volume in Robert Harris’s trilogy about the great Roman statesman, Cicero. This trilogy has truly been spell-binding.

The novel begins in dark times for Cicero, when he and his family are hounded out of Rome by Julius Caesar, his greatest enemy. Cicero was made to look ridiculous in Colleen McCullough’s series about Caesar, but Harris sees him differently, as a man staunchly in support of the dying Republic. On the other hand, McCullough pictured Caesar much more sympathetically, while Harris shows him as a man run mad with the desire for power.

For me, this novel flagged just a little bit in the middle, while momentous events in Rome are described from afar. I think my reaction is partly because I thought I knew what happened to Cicero and was dreading it. But I actually didn’t know my Roman history that well, so I was a little bit off. In any case, the novel picks right up as soon as Cicero rejoins the action.

Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite historical novelists. He writes a good, tight political thriller based on true events. I am already looking for his most recent novel.

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Day 1059: In the Name of the Family

Cover for In the Name of the FamilyJust a short note about my Walter Scott Prize project. The committee has announced its short list for 2017, and I have updated my page accordingly, along with the links to Helen’s reviews at She Reads Novels. (I have read one of them but haven’t yet posted my review.) Do check it out if you are interested in historical fiction. So far, I have found most of the books on the short list to be excellent reading.

* * *

In the Name of the Family is the follow-up to Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty, about the Borgia family. It picks up in 1502, with Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, the son of the Duke of Urbino. This marriage is political. Her beloved second husband was murdered by her brother Cesare, because an alliance with his family was no longer expedient.

Like the previous novel, In the Name of the Family is mainly concerned with Lucrezia and Cesare. This novel also brings in Niccolò Machiavelli as a secondary character in his role as envoy from Florence. This role for Machiavelli is familiar to me from Michael Ennis’s The Malice of Fortune, although that novel was a mystery. Machiavelli was famously inspired to write The Prince by his fascination with Cesare Borgia.

One of Dunant’s aims in writing these novels was to redeem the characters of the Borgias, particularly Lucrezia. Of course, the Borgia men were ruthless and greedy, but it seems that all the other powerful families in Italy at the time were the same. Lucrezia apparently was an intelligent and charming young woman who won over most of the people she met, even the hostile court of Urbino.

Cesare begins as a brilliant strategist but begins to deteriorate mentally from syphilis.

link to NetgalleyI gave high marks to Blood & Beauty, but In the Name of the Family seemed to drag a little for me. I am not sure why. It could be because I read it in ebook form, and I have a much more difficult time concentrating on electronic books. However, that has not stopped me enjoying other novels in ebook form. Certainly, Lucrezia’s part of the story was not as important, and that was what I was most interested in. Also, I’m not sure how effective it was to occasionally introduce Machiavelli’s viewpoint.

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Day 1026: Imperium

Cover for ImperiumBest Book of the Week!
One of the books on my Walter Scott prize list is the second in Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero, so I thought I’d start with this first book. The only other straightforward historical series about this period of Roman history that I’ve read is Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series about Julius Caesar. This series makes an interesting contrast.

The novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and amanuensis. Cicero is already in his 30’s when the novel begins with his decision to prosecute the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres. Cicero is usually an advocate, but he sees in this case a way to further his ambitions to ultimately become consul.

Although corrupt governors are apparently not unusual, Verres has completely abused his authority, by even condemning to death without due process a Roman citizen or two, something that was unspeakable to the Romans. Still, as a policy the powerful aristocrats are behind him, including the renowned orator Hortensius, who is defending Verres. Cicero must take a trip to Sicily to collect evidence.

This novel is a really fine combination of a legal and political thriller. McCullough’s series was mostly positive on Julius Caesar and negative on Cicero, even faintly ridiculing him. Harris’s novel makes Cicero a complicated sympathetic character and Caesar a slippery conniver. If you are at all interested in this period, I highly recommend this novel. And for excellent plotting and writing, I recommend it if you are at all interested in historical fiction.

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Day 975: Master & God

Cover for Master & GodFor many years I faithfully read Lindsey Davis’s entertaining mystery series set in ancient Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco and his lovely wife Helena Justina. I only stopped reading after about 20 books because I was a little tired of the situation. Still, I occasionally pick up one of the series.

So, when I saw that Davis wrote a straight historical novel about the reigns of Domitian and Vespasian and Titus (Domitian’s father and brother), this seemed perfect to me. The novel covers the whole of the Emperor Domitian’s reign and has as its main characters Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a Praetorian guard, and Flavia Lucilla, a hairdresser.

And this was a bit of a problem. I initially had a hard time getting into this novel, and one reason, I think, was the sort of bifurcated story of Domitian’s reign. Gaius Vinius and Flavia Lucilla are just too far removed from the action to integrate them successfully into this story. The result is that the bulk of the novel is exposition, pages and pages of the author telling us what’s going on rather than events being told through the story of its characters.

Later, the two main characters become more important to the general thrust of the novel, and it improves. But for most of the novel, we’re left with a two-pronged approach, Domitian’s reign on the one hand and the romance between the two main characters on the other. This approach even becomes three-pronged during several years when Gaius Vinius is prisoner in Dacia. I couldn’t help contrasting this novel with Colleen McCullough’s excellent Master of Rome series (about Sulla, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony), or even better, Robert Harris’s series about Cicero (reviews upcoming).

This isn’t to say that I didn’t eventually settle down and enjoy the novel. I did. I just didn’t think it was one of Davis’s best. Occasionally, a hint of her trademark sardonic humor appears, but overall, I feel that she struggles to keep the novel moving.

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Day 434: Coriolanus

Cover for CoriolanusCoriolanus is one Shakespeare tragedy with which I was previously unfamiliar, and it is a powerful one. More than any other Shakespeare play I’ve read, it is about politics, class dissension, and the fickleness of popularity. It is also about excessive pride.

The play has references to events of the time it was written, for it begins with a riot over corn, the like of which had taken place in Warwickshire the year the play was written. Its war between the Romans and the Volscians is also a reference to the war the English and Spanish had been carrying on intermittently.

Caius Marcius is a warrior who has spent most of his life as a soldier and has no social graces. He is proud and arrogant and disdains the common man. After he soundly beats the Volscians in battle, particularly his bitter enemy Aufidius, and conquers their city of Corioles, the Roman generals rename him Coriolanus and the senate wants to award him a consulship. This office as ruler of Rome is the one that all great men aspire to. Unfortunately, to have the office, Coriolanus must beg the honor from the public and show them his wounds gained in defending the state.

He is reluctant to do so, knowing that he is unable and unwilling to ask for what he thinks he deserves, but his austere mother Volumnia and his supporters talk him into it. Two jealous tribunes, who are representatives of the people, are afraid that Coriolanus will strip them of their offices. So, the two, Brutus and Sicinius, work to enrage the people after they have already sworn to support Coriolanus.

The result is another riot, and instead of receiving the high honor, Coriolanus is declared a traitor. The tribunes even try to have him executed, but he is banished.

The seeds of Coriolanus’ downfall are sown both by the treachery of his rivals and by his own hubris. Things go downhill from there.

It is interesting that in the class divide, Shakespeare’s sympathies seem to align with the men of power even while he deplores Coriolanus’ flaws. There are several speeches about the public not being able to make a decision, about their fickleness, and so on, and the actions of the public seem to bear these ideas out. You can image what Shakespeare would think about a democracy or about our current political situation.

Day 415: Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and CleopatraOf the Shakespeare tragedies I have been reading, I think I have the least sympathy for the characters in Antony and Cleopatra (except perhaps for Othello–I have no sympathy at all for him). One of the problems is in, of course, how their relationship has historically been portrayed–with Cleopatra as a manipulative slut instead of a sovereign trying desperately to save her kingdom from being swallowed up by the Roman Empire. But the victors always get their way in portraying the conquered.

Antony and Cleopatra is, of course, the play about the last years of the relationship between Marc Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt, their political maneuverings with Rome and particularly with Octavius Caesar, and their deaths.

I believe the traditional way of looking at this play is of the great man brought down by his fascination with a rapacious woman. However, pay attention to the difference between how the characters talk about the nobility of the Romans and how the Romans actually act. I think something more subtle is going on here. I don’t see much evidence of a great man in this play. I see a soldier who pretends to be a noble Roman and is not. I see a female ruler who is more of an enigma, who controls her own shifting image, like a chimera.

image of The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald ArthurNot having the strongest grounding in classical literature, it is not always clear to me what is going on during the political maneuverings and battles, and which characters are on whose side. Of course, it is a historical fact that Cleopatra fled the battle of Actium with her ships at a strategic point, causing the battle to be lost. Why she did so is still a mystery.

For a different view of Cleopatra, although maybe a closer view than Schiff thinks, see Stacy Schiff’s excellent biography.