Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Bourgeois Book Club

My Trip Down The Pink Carpet by Leslie Jordan

Star of stage and screen, and big ole sissy, Leslie Jordan takes us on a tour of his career in Hollywood. With a Southern queen's flair for the dramatic and a raconteur's talent for a humorous turn of phrase, the book will keep you chuckling, but it isn't all fluff and frills. Brutally honest vignettes explore the emotion that dominated and almost destroyed his life: shame. Shame about his homosexuality, shame about not living up the expectations of his family or society, shame about the drug and alcohol addictions to which he succumbed because of shame. Only a strong purging of himself of shame and internal homophobia at lasts frees him, and his career reaches its height with an Emmy. Sprinkled with Hollywood gossip (Luke Perry is a slob!) and filled with inspiration for anyone who has wrestled with the demon of self-hatred and longed to be fully themselves, My Trip Down The Pink Carpet is easy, breezy, quick read that makes you laugh as it inspires.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

We all know the periodic table. Well, we all know what it looks like, and maybe a vague idea of what it means half-remembered from half-understanding it in high school chemistry class. But it really is an extraordinary achievement of scientific understanding, elegant in its simplicity and information density, unparalleled in its scientific utility. From its arcane collection of numbers and letters, all of chemistry and a great deal of physics is revealed.

What the periodic table describes and systematizes are the atomic elements that literally make our world. Skip horizontally and vertically through the periodic table, and you find strange family trees, complete with black sheep, rebels, snobs, and goody-goodies, all with their little quirks and personalities and strange careers in medicine, geology, biology, technology, or nuclear physics. Add in the rogue's gallery of discoverers and researchers, the colorful characters who have studied the elements and their relationships, and you've got yourself a rollicking good read like The Disappearing Spoon (the title comes from an old chemistry prank where spoons of gallium, which looks like aluminum at room temperature, melt in hot liquids).

Kean is an excellent writer, clear and brisk, with a bit of humor thrown in. (He's also, judging by his author photo, totally dreamy!) This book is popular science at its best, taking chemistry and nuclear physics, subjects of which most people are ignorant and scared of, and making them understandable and readable. Highly recommended.

Rome Sub Rosa by Steven Saylor

I'm a Roman kind of guy. Greek mythology was my first love, but I've never quite liked the ancient Greeks themselves. Something a bit too cerebral about them (which is an ironic thing for me to say, since if I'm anything it's too cerebral). Of course, I can certainly admire their achievements and the debt Western civilization owes to them, both of which are extraordinary. But if I actually had to live in the ancient world? The Romans with their baths and their clean water and their roads are much more my style.

I'm also a historical mystery kind of guy. There's something about a drawing room or a medieval monastery or a Roman villa that makes murder more entertaining for me. Therefore, one of my favorite series of books is the Rome Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor. I've read every book, but it had been some years since I'd revisited it, and I had never read the whole series right through in order, so I decided to do so and see how it holds up. Fortunately, it does so, and more.

Ten novels and two short story collections tell the story of the Roman Republic's tumultuous late period through the eyes of Roman gumshoe Gordianus the Finder and his adventures investigating the mysteries of the Eternal City as it spasms and jerks towards Empire. All the leading lights of the time, Cicero, Caesar, Pompey, and more, appear as Gordianus's clients or suspects. His unconventional family, Bethesda the Jewish/Egyptian slave-turned-wife, his daughter Diana, his adopted sons Eco and Meto and Rupa, Hieronymus the houseguest, Davus and Belbo the doormen, round out the regular characters and join the investigatons (sometimes as suspects).

The series follows Gordianus through over thirty years of his life, from swinging bachelor days to venerable, and surprising, respectability. I've really never seen such a convincing portrait of growing older. The Gordianus at thirty really is quite different, and yet exactly the same, as the sixty-year-old one. Change is the byword of the series: the change in Rome and the change in Gordianus and those around him. A man with no family to a respectable citizen with a house on the Palatine; the racuous, unsettled Rome of the civil wars to Empire.

One of the triumphs of the series, I think, and what makes them such supreme examples of historical fiction is Saylor's ability to make a different world come alive. It really feels like a different time and place, with different people with a different sensibility and society, not twenty-first century characters in togas. For instance, I was somewhat shocked by how horny the books are. There's sex everywhere. Nothing graphic, of course, but some very hot moments nonetheless. I think it convincingly portrays pre-Christian attitudes towards the body and sex, i.e. not so damn fraught. There are gay, straight, and bisexual characters. Also shows some of the fluidity or Roman sexuality: penetration was the divider, not gay and straight.

The later books have an air of melancholy in them, the melancholy of an old man who has outlived many and seen tremendous tumult. By the time of the last book, many of the prominent characters from previous books -- Clodia, Cicero, Caelius, to name a few of the C's -- are either dead or mere shades of their former selves. The confusion, the topsy-turviness of a world dying to make way for a new is palpable. The last few decades of the Republic were a violent, uncertain, unsettled time, but there still is some bittersweetness to watching it die.

I'm not always terribly pleased with Saylor's portrayal of women. He tends to make them inscrutable and utterly exotic. It's a pet peeve of mine when men think women are just sooooo inscrutable and totally baffling to men. I happen to think all people are equally weird and yet often predictable, but that's just me. And, really, it's the only major criticism I have of Saylor.

Saylor, a former editor of Drummer magazine, is a superb writer. Not everyone can write convincing historical fiction, let alone historical mysteries, but Saylor's research and inherent cleverness enable him to more than hold his own. You can tell he loves Rome and the Romans, even while he showcases their many faults and prejudices. The mysteries themselves are well-formed; since I was rereading rather than coming to them fresh, however, it's hard to say if the solutions were obvious. I don't think so, because I still managed to be surprised, and even when I knew who the murderer was, I often was still at a loss for how and why.

For any who love a good mystery, or just a lot of sandals and swords, Rome Sub Rosa is a treasure.

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