May 9th, 2017

cass, can you not

Books! (Romans, Danes, and People More Roman Than Dane Edition)

The Terror (Arthur Machen, 2017/#31): Much like The Great God Pan, I found it ridiculous in form, content, politics, and spirit, and yet somehow not unenjoyable. Censorship plays a large role in this novel, but not as something to be feared — the whole text lies upon a bedrock of trust in the Government — and the explanation of the explanation, so to speak, echoes the least agreeable sides of Chesterton (now that I think about it, there's more than one Chestertonian element in the novel, not all of them unsatisfactory ones).

Harvesting the Biosphere (Vaclav Smil, 2017/#32): Mostly a bunch of numbers interleaved with why most of those numbers are unavoidably imprecise estimations, with some drily snarky asides as to how other numbers are avoidably imprecise estimations, but as those numbers are probably our current best guesses as to how much biomass the Earth creates every year and how much we take off it (for varying definitions of both, historically and in the past) it's a pretty fascinating book. You could make a good case for having a year-long high school course based on his books; they can be usefully understood without a lot of background, and they provide the same sort of framework that, e.g., general historical surveys do, but for aspects of the world that are seldom covered.

Pax Romana (Adrian Goldsworthy, 2017/#33): Something of a complement to The Limits of Empire, with more of an emphasis on the way the Empire worked, rather than on the ways it didn't. It's not sparing on the brutal and self-serving nature of Rome, but puts it in the context of a world where that was pretty much the norm, and notes that local polities, at least at the beginning of Roman influence, saw them more than anything as a tool in their own internal conflicts. A good book.

Popes, Cardinals, and War (D. S. Chambers, 2017/#34): As described by its subtitle: The Military Church in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe. Interesting, although heavier on events than causal forces (and the epilogue is a bit uncomfortable; you'll know what I mean if you read it). Read just after Pax Romana, at some level it feels like a farce — can't anybody *keep* a conquest any more, dammit? — but the comparison isn't fair. The Romans first expanded in that same geographical environment, which was also a patchwork of near-peer polities, but everything from economics to the military was different (in large part due to the Romans' own developments) and they never had to deal with the temptation of inviting the French, the Spanish, etc (given how often *they* were called into a zone in the same way, you could read this book as karmic comeuppance for the previous one, if you were so inclined).

Understanding Latin Literature (Susanna Morton Braund, 2017/#35): A very good introductory text, specially for a relative newcomer like me.

Hamlet (William Shakespeare, 2017/#36): A frequent reread. This time around, I noticed that you could stage a version of the play where almost everybody is, as Tumblr says, "sassy af" (with Hamlet on his own category of "savage af") without changing a single word, just adding ironical expressions and eye-rolling at key places, which I'm not convinced isn't how Shakespeare directed it. Heck, even the melancholy Dane spends almost as much time cracking jokes as deploring the world, some of them quite bawdy. The audience might have cried or booed at Ophelia's death (and, I'm sure, cheered during the duel), but they also laughed a lot. By the same token, Polonius can be played as much less of a fool than he's usually portrayed as; he doesn't necessarily lack self-awareness or insight (although he's handicapped by lacking Hamlet's supernaturally sourced information), and if nothing else, he knows his job. He's overly verbose, yes, and slow to get to the point, but (a) part of it is just CYA I can relate to, (b) I shouldn't cast that particular stone, and (c) Hamlet of all people shouldn't cast that particular stone. Hamlet's relationship with Yorick gets a lot of analytical millage, but I think the young prince got part of his love of and skill in verbal jousting from Polonius, whether he knows and accepts it or not. He certainly didn't get it from his father! This directing choice, I think, wouldn't be Shakespeare's, with the foolish counselor being such an obvious character, but I can see their interactions framed by Polonius' perpetual expression of long-suffering patience as the Prince keeps throwing barbs he knows very well Polonius won't reply to in public. Frankly, I think insofar as Hamlet gives a rat's ass about anything in Denmark, he cares about his mother; the only times he really gets into the spirit of things while not being cajoled by the ghost (bad pun not intended) is when he's berating her, when he thinks the King is *in her room* (in contrast with every other time he has been near the King, here he didn't had to talk himself into or out of doing anything, he just went from zero to *swordstab* in half a second) and after the King has accidentally killed her. Even after he foils the King's first death trap for him he's just "meh, I'll get him in a bit."