Monday, October 19, 2009

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician

The end of the Roman Republic was shaped by the actions of men such as the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian...even more "minor" figures (e.g. Cato the Younger, Clodius) added their own brand of outrageousness to the events of the day.  It strikes me that there have been very few times in history where the lives of so many larger-than-life personages have intersected one another during a relatively short period.

My most recent read was a biography of one of Rome's most influential figures during the first century BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero.  While the story centers around Cicero, Everitt's book is also a great introduction to the events and personalities that eventually led to the fall of the Roman Republic.  The book is clearly written with a relatively vigorous pace that does not dwell on any one event in too much detail.  While attention is also given to Cicero's contributions to philosophy and oration, the majority of the account centers around Cicero's struggle to save the Republic he so dearly loved.

I didn't know that Cicero was actually offered a place in the Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey.  I wonder what might have happened if he had set aside his misgivings about going against the Roman constitution and chosen to join his colleagues in their unofficial power-sharing scheme.  Cicero is a rather unique Roman politician in that he had little military experience--nor did he have any desire to lead an army.  As a result, Caesar and Pompey would certainly still have dominated the alliance from the head of their armies.  But from this position, might have Cicero brokered a more stable solution to the problems that developed out of Caesar's assassination?  Perhaps, at the very least, he might have curried enough favor with Mark Antony and Octavian to avoid the proscription that claimed his life the following year.

It is actually quite amazing that the Roman Republic lasted as long as it did once it slipped the tracks when Sulla marched on Rome (87 BC).  It is hard to conceive today of a political system that relied almost solely on personal accomplishments/relationships/decisions to steer a vast central government.  This kind of system almost begs for an ambitious person (or a whole series of ambitious people) to exploit it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Reality Dysfunction: Expansion

Hmmm...there's honestly not much to say about this book other than it continues the story in the first book.  My previous complaints about Emergence carry through this volume as well.  I guess the main problem is I can't really tell what the author building up to (surely it must be something if there are two other parts to the Night's Dawn trilogy).  Sure, everybody is going to band together and defeat the Reality Dysfunction but I have absolutely no inkling, not even a speck, of how that might be done.  I don't really even know what the nature of the Reality Dysfuction is and I haven't been given many tantalizing clues that make me want to read more to find out.

I will say that we did get a couple of interesting, although brief, glimpses of the Laymil xenocs in Expansion through the sensory data stored in the artifact recovered by Joshua Calvert.  Going into this series expecting something akin to David Brin's Uplift novels was clearly a silly assumption on my part.

Overall, I'm torn about whether I want to invest the time to read more of the series.  I did PBS the next volume, but I've put it on the back burner as I currently have a 3 foot pile of other books that I'd rather read first.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Duma Key

I finished listening to the audiobook of Stephen King's novel Duma Key this morning on the way into work and all I can say is WOW!  As my wife will tell you, I've developed into quite the Stephen King fanboy over the past several years since reading the Dark Tower series.  What can I say other than that the man has a genius talent for writing?  I think that Duma Key is right up there with the best of his novels that I've read to date (not nearly all of them, btw).

Edgar Freemantle is horribly injured in an accident on a job site, losing his right arm and damaging the speech center of his brain.  After his marriage falls apart, he moves to Duma Key off the Florida sun coast to convalesce on the advice of his therapi.  He discovers an innate artistic ability and begins to sketch, and later paint, scenes that are unnaturally realistic.  He soon discovers that his works of art come with the ability to affect the real world.  Through his friendship with a fellow named Wireman, Freemantle comes to know Elizabeth Eastlake who grew up on the island and experienced a similar phenomenon early in her life.  As events proceed it becomes clear that the same ancient evil that used Eastlake in the 1920's has plans for Freemantle in the present day.  The novel culminates with a confrontation of this ancient evil in a furiously-paced conclusion to the book.

King's description of the Duma Key environs are rich and evoking.  I particularly enjoyed the wisdom of Jerome Wireman that pervades the prose (my favorite Wireman-ism:  "Do the day...and let the day do you.")  Being a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I can almost describe Duma Key as a modern-day take on the Cthulhu Mythos (with Perse playing the part of an Ancient One).

Of course, reading any King book, I always look for references to the Dark Tower, and I did manage to find a few in Duma Key.  Hey, maybe one might even have been on purpose?  First, one of Freemantle's paintings depicts roses growing up through the shell bed that lies underneath his house on the Key.  Roses are often used by King to denote sacred spots that are safe from evil.  Freemantle's artistic talent immediately recalled that of Patrick Danville (whose life is saved in King's Insomnia) who used his power to ultimately allow Roland to enter the Dark Tower.  Finally, the color red is used throughout the book to denote anger or evil.  A red haze would come over Freemantle's vision when he lost control of his anger, Perse's cloak as she stands on the bow of her ship is red, etc.  Perhaps the Crimson King was somehow influencing events in this world?