Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece by Robin Waterfield

This map gives you all the major players during the Roman conquest of Greece.

Book Review
Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece
by Robin Waterfield
Published February 25th, 2014
Oxford University Press
Ancient Warfare and Civilization Series

  I'm not a huge fan or Rome, Roman Civilization, or the narrative of the Roman Empire but I'll take a look at a new book, of reasonable length (250 pages) that deals with a discrete area within that realm that piques my interest.  And so it is with Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece, which is a part of Oxford University Press' Ancient Warfare and Civilization Series.  If you are some kind of deranged Roman partisan (as appear to be some of the more hostile reviewers of this work on, you might Waterfield to be a "moral relativist."  This assertion seems to be based on Waterfield truthfully pointing out that when the Romans conquered a recalcitrant city, they would murder, rape, pillage and sell any survivors into slavery.  The Romans weren't alone in such behavior, but ancient commentators often left descriptions of the carnage out of official accounts because it was simply taken for granted.

 As Waterfield points out, there are decided similarities between the Roman Empire in Greece and the United States in the post-Vietnam era:  Both powers attempted to assert their sovereignty without formally conquering subject areas.  The Romans did not simply invade and conquer Greece, rather they diminished regional powers and cultivated allies, ultimately creating a balance of power situation where all parties had to look to the Roman Senate for guidance.  This approach was facilitated by Greeces fractious internal politics and their couple hundred years of subjugation at the hands of the Macedons.

  How did Rome do it?  First they established a beach head on the Adriatic by besting the Illyrians and creating a friendly vassal state in the south.  Next, they targeted the Macedonians, who helped the Romans along the way by attacking various Greece city states which had fallen out of Macedonian orbit, angering the remaining Greek polities.  Roman forces, under the command of the largely autonomous Titus Quinctius Flamininus came up with the brilliant idea of waging a war of "liberation" on behalf of the Greeks, bringing them under Roman protection.

  After defeating the Macedons and vanquishing them back to the north, attention was turned to the Seleucid Empire, under the command of Antiochus.  The Romans defeated him in battle, then pressed an unfavorable treaty upon him that cost him Asia minor and millions of "dollars."  The main military historical point that Waterfield makes is the superiority of the Roman Legion to the Greek phalanx (employed by both the Macedons and the Seleucids.)   The Phalanx was a diamond shaped group of soldiers who used spears and shields- they relied on tight formations to make them essentially invulnerable to direct attack.  The Roman Legion was a looser formation of soldiers who carried shields, short throwing spears and, here is the kicker: Swords. The Roman sword was a much deadlier weapon than the spears of the Phalanx, and the Romans added to this a level of savagery that was unfamiliar to the Greeks, whose own battles were more choreographed, civilized affairs.

  After the reduction of the existing powers, Rome drained the region of resources but generally kept a light hand.  The exception being in Macedon, which they divided into four regions literally called 1, 2, 3 and 4. Resistance and rebellion was not treated lightly by the Romans, but they kept an army in Greece, they would just ship one over when needed.  Occasionally this led to embarrassing defeats and underestimating the strength of opponents, but there were always more legions to follow.

  Greece's cultural superiority to Rome was a sore spot for the Roman elites and the Romans both mocked and emulated the Greeks, simultaneously "Orientalizing" them (calling them effeminate and libidinous) while taking much of their "high culture" directly from them.  In this they were assisted by the enormous number of artistic and cultural artifacts that Roman armies looted during their campaigns.  To the victors, go the spoils.

Foreign Correspondent (1940) d. Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock

Movie Review
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
d. Alfred Hitchcock
Criterion Collection #696
Criterion Collection edition released 2/18/14.

   Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood and released two films in 1940: Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent.  Both were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Rebecca won, but Foreign Correspondent is probably the more relevant film in 2014, with a topical "Europe at the cusp of war" background and international spy story plot.   John Jones (played by Joel McCrea) is a crime reporter working at a Daily paper somewhere in the United States.  The editor, frustrated by the low quality of the reportage coming from his European reporters, sends Jones to the United Kingdom with the explicit direction to interview Dutch minister Van Meer, who "holds the key to war and peace" for unnamed reasons.

  He chases Van Meer from London to Amsterdam, where Van Meer is (seemingly) shot in front of his very eyes- HITCHCOCKIAN HI JINKS ENSUE.  There is laughter, tears, action sequences, unexpected plot twists, all of the elements of classic Hitchcock, right there the first year he shows up in Hollywood.  Hitchcock is truly one of the paragons of artistic and commercial success in the area of film art.  He was an inspiration for the "Auteur" concept, with his rigid control of every element of production from casting to, of course, directing.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Month That Changed The World: July 2014 by Gordon Martel

Map of Europe at the beginning of World War I

Book Review
The Month That Changed The World: July 2014
 by Gordon Martel
Published May 8th, 2014
Oxford University Press

It is the hundred year anniversary of the start of World War I, so there are a bunch of books out.  I'm not into military history, which is a HUGE sub-category of history.  Walk into any used book store and the "Military History" section is often as big as the rest of the history section combined.  Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, those are the big four.  World War I is a distant fifth, but hey hundred year anniversary- that's bound to arouse some interest.

Map of Europe at the end of World War I- Austria lost, big time.

 As the introduction carefully explains, The Month That Changed The World is an attempt to write the start of World War I in a kind of narrative format- he cites as inspiration detective fiction.  Considering approximately 100% of the action is diplomats writing letters and heads of states having meetings with government officials, detective fiction is a stretch, but Martel does create a convincing day to day narrative.

 Sooooo.... who started World War I?  The Austrians, with their strange obsession with Serbian nationalism, and their quixotic desire to "avenge" the death of a crown prince that everyone already hated, are prime culprits. With his careful discussion of the background and personalities of the principle actors, Martel demolishes the idea of an unavoidable war- World War I was anything BUT unavoidable, and the sheer amount of finagling that went on prior to the commencement of hostilities belies any claims to the contrary.

 Second prize goes to the Germans, who were a willing aiding and abetter of Austrias' aggression. After the war turned into a huge disaster for the Germans, they took the lead in trying to erase the idea that they might have been instrumental in causing the war in the first place, but the evidence that Martel collects is hard to rebut.

  Third place would have to be the Russia, though with them it seems more of a case of simple incompetence vs. real ill will.   The Russian military was unable to pull off a "partial mobilization" specific to Austria, and their clumsiness pushed the Germans closer to the brink.

  After that you've got the English, French, Italians and Turks, who were all involved, but ultimately were in the passenger seat.   I don't think The Month That Changed The World: July 1914 is quite the general interest book the author set out to write, but it is a good take on the how and why of the start, and  isn't the beginning the only interesting part of war?

Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922) by May Sinclair

Author May Sinclair, early modernist

Book Review
Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922)
by May Sinclair

   May Sinclair is credited on her Wikipedia page with coining the term "stream of consciousness" in a piece of literary criticism.  Her Life and Death of Harriet Frean- more a novella (52 pages) then a novel per se, traverses vast distances of time in between paragraphs, and is coupled with her developing interest in the emerging field of psychiatry and the idea of the unconscious.  

  Life and Death of Harriet Frean is the LAST unread book I had on my Kindle- I lost the device some months ago on the train between Los Angeles and San Diego, meaning since then I've had to read Kindle books on my Nokia phone- which sucks. I haven't bought a new one because the titles after the mid 1920s are no longer free, I moved next door to the San Diego Central Library AND reading works of modernism on your cell phone is a draaagggggggg.

 Trying to read a book on a phone is disorienting enough without having to deal with stream of consciousness, abrupt shifts in time and location and experiments in grammar and vocabulary.   In a little over 50 pages, Sinclair covers the entire life of her subject. It's a study in loneliness and regret, about a woman who doesn't marry, doesn't bear children, because of her complex feelings for her family. It's dizzying how fast Sinclair moves Frean from her childhood to death in the blink of the eye. 

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

An Angel at My Table (1990) by Jane Campion

Kerry Fox as New Zealand author Janet Frame.

Movie Review
An Angel at My Table (1990)
by Jane Campion
Criterion Collection #301

  An Angel At My Table is Jane Campion's 1990 bio-pic on New Zealand author Janet Frame. Frame was notably confined to a mental institution for 8 years in her mid 20s, and given "over 200 rounds of electro-shock,"  as the story goes, she was rescued from a "fast-track lobotomy" at the last minute when her book of short-stories won an award.  She was hastily deemed "cured" (decades later a board of English psychiatrists would issue a ruling that she was never schizophrenic).   Her new found status as a prize winning author was sufficient to get her a grant to travel to Europe, England and Spain in particular, where she was able to "live life."

  With a biography that itself evokes many of the literary themes of the mid to late 20th century: mental illness, early death of a sibling, loneliness, etc. there is an obvious question about whether (to quote the accompanying Criterion Collection essay by Amy Taubin, "Frame's autobiography is fictional or her fiction autobiographical or both."  Under both formulations, it makes for a good movie, or miniseries for that matter.  An Angel at My Table was originally shot as a television series, and its origins are revealed both by the three part one hour episodes (which correspond to the three volumes of her auto biography) and the fairly static "workmanlike" visual style, which is in sharp contrast to the stylistic virtuosity of Sweetie.

   The themes of artistic development and being an "outsider" is central to both the 1001 Books project and the Criterion Collection.  A high volume of "break through" projects by artists are based on the most interesting aspects of their personal history.  "Write about what you know" is a truism of 20th century college education, but a more accurate statement might be "Write about what you are."

   Janet Frame is emblematic of an artist turning personal flax into artistic gold, and it is easy to see why Campion, or any other artist would be interested in giving her life story the feature film treatment. 

Monday, September 08, 2014

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin

Book Review
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)
by Alfred Döblin

   Berlin Alexanderplatz is either a "lost modernist classic" or "one of the most important German novels written during the Weimar Republic" or both, I suppose.   The book jacket of the translation I read compared it to James Joyce's Ulysses...the cover of the book jacket made that comparison.  That often made comparison combined with the 630 page length made me hesitate for months but like so many other books in the 1001 Books Project, once I actually buckled down and read the darn thing I enjoyed it.

  Franz Bierkopf is not what you would call a hero, existing somewhere between the hard drinking miners of mid 19th century Zola and the seedy underworld of the detective novel.  In the first chapter he walks out of German Prison near Berlin after doing four years for accidentally murdering his wife/girlfriend.

  Out on the streets, he tries to "go straight" but is unsurprisingly lured back into a criminal lifestyle after losing his arm at the tail end of his inaugural heist after release.   After losing his arm he reinvents himself as a pimp, a transformation that is glossed over considering much of the other events are documented in excruciating "stream of consciousness" style detail.  The disorienting impact of the modernist technique is mitigated by the use of little explanatory paragraphs at the beginning of each of the sections (every 75 pages or so.)  Doblin also shies away from unexplained movements between different narrators and shifts back and forth in time, making Berlin Alexanderplatz less experimental but still very modern.

  Doblin also crafts a compelling ending that again belies the "modernist classic" tag- since usually "modernist classic" means either an ambivalent finish or even no ending at all.  The gritty criminal class world of Weimar Era Berlin should appeal to early 20th century fetishists at fans of crime fiction, but it is way too dark for readers of more genteel literature from the mid 19th and early 20th century.  

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