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Birthday books January 10, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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I got three books for my birthday and Christmas this year. I read the first two while I was in Sydney and finished the third while flying back to the UK. The first one was excellent, the second one was good, and the third one was seriously disappointing.

The first book was An American In Victorian Cambridge, by Charles Astor Bristed. He was a student at Trinity in the 1840s, and recounted his experiences in detail and at length. I learnt so many amazing things about what Cambridge was like then – did you know, for example, that everyone had to study Maths and Classics, and that all other subjects were basically unassessed and more for general interest?

But the most amusing thing about this book was realising how little anything has changed in Cambridge. Alcohol is still the main social lubricant, the rules of the colleges and university are still arcane and surprise you unexpectedly, and the Fellows are still brilliant but slightly misanthropic. We have, thankfully, however, moved on from virulent debates about Anglo-Catholicism.

The book also gained additional humour from the unintentionally hilarious nature of Astor Bristed’s narration. Every so often, he’d mention some bizarre or baffling experience, earnestly and with great seriousness, while failing to see that he’d been being made fun of by his fellow-students. It’s a really engaging book, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

The second book was a memoir by Kevin Crossley-Holland called The Hidden Roads. I was familiar with Crossley-Holland’s children’s literature and his translations of Anglo-Saxon riddles, so I was interested to read what his childhood was like (The Hidden Roads is a book that aspires to be like Roald Dahl’s Boy – a recollection of a childhood, written, for the most part, with a young readership in mind.)

For the most part, the book was successful. Crossley-Holland vividly recreates his experiences as a child in an intellectual family in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, and there are some wonderful little anecdotes, such as the time Rumer Godden taught him to tie a bow-tie. However, I’m not convinced that the addition of Crossley-Holland’s poetry (which was scattered at relevant places throughout the book) really added much to the tale. It’s not that it was bad poetry, more that it interrupted the flow of the narrative.

The final book I read was Lustrum by Robert Harris. I’d read very positive reviews of this book and the one preceding it – in fact, the way the reviewers went on, you’d think this book was the second coming of I, Claudius. I was greatly disappointed, but when I explain my reasons for disappointment, you may conclude that the fault was more with me than with the books.

The problem is, Lustrum is a retelling of the end of the Roman Republic. And I’ve already got my own canon when it comes to this time period: Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series. I’ve been reading Saylor since I first picked up a copy of A Murder on the Appian Way in the library at Narrabundah, nine years ago, and I’ve read most of the books in the series more than once. I’m so used to Saylor’s characterisation of all the major players – Caesar, Pompey, Marcus Crassus, Sulla, Catilina, Clodius, Milo, Marc Antony, and above all, Cicero – that for me, they are no longer Saylor’s interpretations of these historical figures, they are the figures themselves.

This makes reading an alternative interpretation of such figures very difficult. When I tell you that Lustrum is written from the point of view of Cicero’s slave and secretary Tiro, you’ll see the problem. Cicero in Saylor’s books is the consummate politician, a canny and cynical manipulator of the Roman political situation. He’s certainly not an idealist, and he’s mostly in it for his own gain (as are all the major players outlined above, except maybe Catilina). Harris’ Cicero is a staunch believer in the values of the Roman Republic, and above all is working as a politician not to further his own ends, but to do right by the people of Rome. It just didn’t ring true for me.

This is really the only time period for which I have such a decided view of the motivations and personalities of the historical figures (excepting maybe the Angevins and Poitevins as depicted by Sharon Penman), but it puts me at a disadvantage in interpreting books set in this period not written by Steven Saylor. I feel that the writing wasn’t great, but I’m not sure if this was caused by my discomfort at the non-Saylorian characterisation.

It’s a great shame that I’m not able to more adequately sum up the qualities of this book. I did like learning a bit more about Tiro. In particular, I was intrigued to learn that his famous shorthand was responsible for our abbreviations ‘etc’, ‘NB’ and ‘ie’, and the symbol ‘&’ for ‘and’. It’s a pity that I can’t say I enjoyed much more about the book.