Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Agricola, Germania, and Dialogue on Oratory by Tacitus Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb

Tacitus (c. 56/57-ca. 125) was a Roman orator and historian. In a life that spanned the reigns of the Flavian emperors and of Trajan and Hadrian, he played a part in the public life of Rome and became its greatest historian. (From,204,203,200_.jpg

Tacitus is one of those writers whose name crops up in other books or reviews I've read so I downloaded a free edition of Germania onto my Kindle.  I enjoyed it so much that I bought the Leopold Classic Library Edition of Tacitus' Agricola, Germania and Dialogue on Oratory.

It was after careful consideration that I bought this edition after reading several reviews about other translations which received mixed reviews.  Frankly how do I know how accurately Church and Brodribb translated Tacitus' works?  But I do like how carefully they annotated each fragment of writing that has been preserved through the ages.  I also have the Penguin Editions but they received negative reviews.  Still, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to read them and compare.

Germania is the middle work in this trio of writings.  As a lover of all types of culture both past and present, I enjoyed Tacitus' thorough description of every aspect of ancient German culture.  Of course, this area encompasses broad swaths of Europe that includes many tribes which include the Celts as well as several others whose names are not remembered today.

We have a record of how they dressed, lived their daily lives, reasons for invasion and war and family life.  If these day to day descriptions of other people groups from a long time past, written in a fluid style interest you, I recommend reading Tacitus' account. 

The account is not long and I read it in one sitting. The other value is knowing the background of a race who played a significant role in Roman life, both as a slave class, bodyguard to Caesars (particularly Caligula), and ultimate invaders and defeaters of that tremendous Empire.  In other words, this work is a great supplement to scholars of ancient Roman History.

The Life of Agricola was also a quick read but not as interesting.  It is very fragmented with only bits of chapters.  Here Tacitus writes about his father-in-law who was the general of the army that invaded and maintained Britain.

There is a lot of speech making and pontificating about the greatness of Agricola and his army, although Tacitus can also be surprisingly critical of his wife's father.

The last work is called, The Dialogue of Oratory and is also is a collection of fragmented chapters. Tacitus uses a contemporary argument strategy, originated by the Greeks (maybe Plato) in which the writer makes his points through a series of dialogues between two or three fictitious characters.  One is for his argument, the other is against, and a third plays devil's advocate.  In this way we learn Tacitus' opinions about the importance of eloquence, emotion etc. and the other things he deems critical for successful oration and also his criticism of the schools that don't properly teach how to make effective speeches. He spends a good part of the speeches decrying the "decay" of Roman oratory.

I also have Tacitus' Annals and Histories of Rome published by Everyman's Library.  I will review that book after I have read it.

Incidentally, as of March 1st I have read 100 books and also have read an additional eleven books towards my next goal of 100 before the end of summer. 

File:Gaius Cornelius Tacitus.jpg

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ezra Pound by Peter Ackroyd, Rudyard Kipling by Kingsley Amis and Conrad by Norman Sherry

These three biographies were all published by Thames and Hudson as a part of their Literary Lives collection.  They're not very long, only about 120 pages, and are filled with photographs of the writers and their family, friends and other significant people from throughout their lives.,204,203,200_.jpg

The first one I read was Rudyard Kipling by Kingsley Amis.  His is truly the best simply because Amis is such a fluid and witty writer.  He does not pull any punches as to his opinions about Kipling's writing abilities, which stories were well-written and those that failed to live up to the great writer's reputation.

We learn that Kipling was an enormously spoiled child being raised by servants in India with parents who let him rule everyone with an iron fist.  After about six years, Kipling's mother apparently woke up to the fact that they were going to have an incorrigible child on their hands, sent him back to England and hired a middle-aged married couple to rear and educate him and his younger sister.

It's a mystery as to why his mother hired strangers to be guardians of her children when willing relatives were available. Of course, it's a mystery to me why someone would leave their young children and return to India, rarely seeing them again.  According to Kipling he was the victim of gross child abuse and neglect and records his nightmarish experience in one of his short stories, Baa, Baa Black Sheep.

How honest an account was this story?  According to Kipling's sister, not very.  Perhaps it was the shock of going from acting as a tiny Anglo-Indian despot to being expected to behave according to British standards, which was harsh enough by our present indulgent attitude towards children.  No sparing of the rod for sure.  But neglect?  We have only Kipling's vindictive story as evidence and I must confess at the time I read it I found it to be rather one-sided.

After leaving the horrible "Uncle Harry and Aunt Rosa", Kipling went on to attend a Navy University where he began writing.  The rest of this short book traces Kipling's development as a writer and travels back and forth from America (he married an American) to England.  It's interesting to note that many of his "exotic" stories  (The Jungle Book, Kim, Riki Tiki Tavi) were written down during the cool autumns and cold winters of a New England estate.

Amis is really funny and such a good writer that whether you like Kipling's writing or not, you will enjoy Amis' biography.
Rudyard Kipling 1865-1936

Conrad by Norman Sherry

I was surprised to learn that Joseph Conrad was born and raised in Poland and worked on boats and ships for eighteen years before writing.

Apparently he spoke English with such a thick accent people could barely understand him.  This makes it all the more remarkable that the author of such British classics and required school reading as Lord Jim and the Heart of Darkness was writing in a language other than his mother tongue.

Sherry traces the years of Conrad's shipping career and also connects the many captains, sailors and shipmates he worked with to the characters in his novels.

Like Kipling he was almost anti-social and, also like Kipling, guilty of neglecting his family for long swathes of time.
Joseph Conrad 1857-1924

But neither of these men can hold a candle to the American author in this Literary Library

For sheer narcissism, child neglect and marital infidelity (of which neither Kipling nor Conrad were ever guilty of as far as is known) the award goes to Ezra Pound.

Let's just say the man  was crazy.  I mean literally.  He spent almost eighteen years in an insane asylum, which I'm sure he found preferable to being charged with treason since he was a follower of Mussollini.

Pound was a part of the American ex-patriot group that traveled through out Europe, meeting in Parisian Cafes with the likes of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  He was great friends with many contemporary artists and writers such as W.B. Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska  but his anti-social and increasingly pro-fascist ideologies successfully alienated him to most of his friends.

He was a tormented soul and one wonders why his wife, the British painter Dorothy Shakespear (it's spelled without an "e") tolerated it, even when, while living in Italy, he sent their son off to England to be raised by relatives.  He never associated with his son and only child from his marriage for the rest of his life but became quite close to the daughter of his mistress, the violinist Olga Rudge who followed everywhere he and Dorothy lived.

At one time, Ezra's health was so bad that Dorothy and Olga lived together to nurse him.  Towards the end of his life, however, he and Dorothy became strangers and he died with only Olga in attendance.
Ezra Pound 1885-1972

All three of these books are loaded with photos of the writers and their lives and that is partly of what makes them gems to add to the biography section of any home library (I, of course, speak for myself, insert big self-satisfied smile here).

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Photographers: Andre Kertesz, Lewis Hine August Sanders and Nadar

One of my favorite type of book is collections of photographers.  Not just any type of photographer, mind you, but the ones that recorded every day people in both ordinary and dramatic life situations.  Sometimes this is a family sitting at the dinner table or children playing on the sidewalk.  Other times its men and women in war time.  The photographers' works I'm reviewing here documented the lives of ordinary people, nothing exciting or adventurous but poignant in the same way one feels about Vermeer's painting of a maid pouring a pitcher.
Lewis Hine (1974-1940) photographed people with a serious purpose.  He wanted to motivate the viewer toward social reform.  He took many now famous photos of children laboring in factories that helped created labor laws prohibiting children from work. 

Now I'm going to put myself on a limb and be called a bad person.  While I am glad that there are laws protecting children from exploitation and indeed all people from slave labor wages, the issue was not so cut and dry.

Many families needed every consumer of food in their house working so there would be enough food for everyone. The evil practices by share croppers that purposely caused people to work themselves into debt needed to be abolished and those plantation owners needed to go to jail. 

 But at the same time, safe, viable wages needed to be provided for families.  Many families desperately needed everyone to work to afford basic life necessities. When laws were implemented that prevented children under the age of fourteen to work, many families found that their life became more harsh, not less because fewer wages meant less food for everyone.

I'm not advocating child labor, I'm only pointing out that sometimes things aren't so simple.  Children today certainly aren't in the same kind of danger, working with machinery or in a deprived environment but are their lives less busy, going to before-school daycare, school for eight hours, after-school daycare, then whatever sports or activities they're enrolled in, homework, going to bed exhausted, seeing their parents for only a couple of hours a day?

And history shows that while new immigrant families lived under these hard conditions, their children did not continue in them.  They were able to better themselves, get a good education and achieve professional careers-in only one generation.  This was before the welfare state created the deplorable cycle of generational poverty that is now afflicting our country.

As Hines saw living conditions improve over the years he moved on to document war torn Europe.

 August Sander (1876-1964)  photographed people in his native Germany from every walk of life between the World Wars.  Because he saw how drastically his world changed after WWI, he realized that he wanted to preserve it in some way before it changed again.  His photos include school teachers, butchers, children, artists and soldiers, rich, poor and middle class.  He succeeded in encapsulating a period of time that no longer exists.,204,203,200_.jpg
The book I own is titled, Emblems of the Passing World which not only has Sander's photos but poems by Adam Kirsch that he wrote based on the inspiration he received from each photo.  

I personally did not find Kirsch's poetry that effective because I am more interested in who those people really were and not a reality that someone one hundred years later fabricated for them.
Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1820-1910) was a French photographer as well as journalist and caricaturist of the 19th century.  His photos are mostly portraits of the prominent people of his day:  Victor Hugo, George Sanders, Gustave Dore, Eugene Delacroix as well as poets, artists, writers, inventors etc.. that were famous then but not so well-known now.  Aside from the few people who I recognized, I didn't find his work as interesting.
The greatest number of books I own is by Andre Kertesz (1894-1980).  Kertesz took many photographs of village people, soldiers and animals in his home country of Hungary before moving to Paris in 1925.  There he documented not only people but buildings and public scenes.  He became known for his unorthodox angles and subject matter.

Being Jewish, he left Europe with the onset of WWII and immigrated to the United States.  He and his wife spent their remaining years in New York city where he photographed the buildings and city life.

When his wife died after forty years of marriage he sank into a depression but found his purpose again through a Polaroid camera that somehow became his grief therapy.  Although his reputation had diminished over the years he had a final burst of creativity and success with his Polaroid works.
Naturally, my favorite book of his is a collection of his photos of people reading.

Is there a particular type of photography anyone else enjoys?

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber, Pia Desideria by Philip Jacob Spener, Poor Richard's Almanacks by Benjamin Franklin

The pile of books needing to be reviewed is piling up again so here are brief synopses of three:
The Thurber Carnival

This is a collection of essays that James Thurber wrote for the New Yorker from the thirties and forties.  They each take a portion of life in general, his personal life, fictional characters based on real friends and draw zany, humorous and slightly surreal pictures out of it.

One of his more famous stories is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (nothing like the movie with Ben Stiller I'm told), which is about a hen-pecked husband who copes with the mediocrity of his life by living in a fantasy world where he plays the hero in every scenario. Another is The Catbird Seat where a mild-mannered man acts out of character to persuade his boss that an overbearing co-worker is insane and get her fired.

I must say some of my favorite stories are those that describe the household he grew up in: mother, father, brother, a various assortment of aunts, uncles and a grandfather who still thinks it's the Civil War who sleeps in the attic.  Nutty things always happen, such as slight flooding that, through rumor, is blown out of proportion causing panic through out the town with the masses running south from the inch-high water trickling in from the north side of town.

The Last section includes cartoons that Thurber drew to his poems in addition to other pithy bits of wisdom.
Pia Desideria by Philip Jacob Spener

Spener wrote his treatise on Christian living in 1675 but he might have written it today.  In it he admonishes the Church on not conforming to the world and how much the Christian body has, in fact, rendered itself almost indistinguishable from non believers in how they think, conduct their lives or ignorance of doctrinal truth.  It's a short, readable book and I highly recommend it.,204,203,200_.jpg
Poor Richard's Almanacks by Benjamin Franklin

Franklin wrote a yearly almanack with quotes and stories for each month under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders.  Almanacks were popular in colonial America.  They offered weather forecasts, advice for running a household, puzzles and witticisms. Franklin's almanacks are a funny satire on life in the 18th century and were famous for his wordplays.  Many famous sayings we still know were penned by Franklin in his almanac.  Here are a few:

Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead. 

Lost Time is never found again.

Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.

If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.

Franklin started writing his yearly almanacs in 1733 and wrote his last in 1758.  My book is a complete collection of every year. 

An aside, I'm one book away from reading 100 books and I see I have only reviewed a quarter of them.  I'm going to try to rectify that.  Have a good week!