Friday, March 16, 2012

Bourgeois Book Club

Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles

A history of Carthage, the city-state that went from Phoenician colony to Mediterranean superpower and Rome's greatest enemy. Indeed, Carthage is in many ways how Rome became Rome; the conflict with Carthage shaped Rome's conception of itself, as well as launched it to become an Empire beyond the confines of Italy.

History is written by the victors, so most of the sources are still Roman or pro-Roman, making a fair history of Carthage a difficult case of teasing out and evaluating the biases of the sources, which the author does fairly well, in my view. Still, it's a little more Roman-centric than I wanted. Too much about the Punic Wars and not enough about the Carthaginians themselves. I wanted to know more about them in North Africa, in Spain, their relations with peoples other than Romans and Greeks, their post-Punic culture, the life of the average Carthaginian citizen, all of which is touched on, but not to the degree I wanted. Archaeology is used, but the ancient sources are still the mainspring of the knowledge.

Still, a worthy effort to bring an all-too-shadowy people to light.

Artemis by Philip Palmer

The second Palmer book I've read now, and a sorta-sequel to his Debatable Space which I have not read but isn't necessary to read in order to understand this one, Artemis is perhaps more interesting than it is enjoyable. It is different in its use of a vigorously unreliable narrator who quite openly omits information, as well as a second narrator that is the "editor" of this "autobiography" who just as honestly cuts out sections and contextualizes facts via footnote (which we know I always go for). It's also vigorously discursive narratively, jumping about in chronology, veering off into diversions and tangents. There is less emotional punch, though, than I feel was intended, and the attempt to make the primary narrator a "monster" less successful than Palmer aimed for. We're told she does horrible things, but we're meant to sympathize with her anyway, but she does horrible things to horrible people, and she's "endearing" personally. It just didn't quite add up.

I may just hold off on further Palmer books. The massive death tolls, genocide, and monstrous heroes are a bit... much, and it seems to be a hallmark of his work. He is totally a misanthrope. His opinion of humanity is loooooooooooooow, and it can be a little hard to take. And the constant battles and fights and bloodshed tend to blur together and deaden impact. They're interesting adventures, but I can't say I really like them.

Low Town by Daniel Polansky

In this noir tale of dark magic in a Restoration-meets-post-WWI-ish city, children are being abducted and murdered in Low Town, and it is up to local drug dealer Warden to find out who is behind the appalling crimes.

It's interesting in how the main character is given unlikeable character traits. He's a drug dealer and user, as well as a casual racist. Of course, he's still the hero, complete with a well-worn "orphaned war vet former agent of the law fallen on hard times because of a woman" tragic backstory. Underneath the world-weary small-time criminality, he's practically a superhero in terms of ultimate morality. But that's the thing about making an antihero protagonist, as both Polansky and Palmer try to do: you can't make them TOO "anti." Both authors end up telling us how much of a bastard their main characters are, but are not ultimately terribly convincing in making us believe it. They're just heroes who wear dirty clothes and say bad words.

There is a twist ending to Low Town, but you see it coming a mile away. Still, it's an enjoyable enough read, if not as successful at some of its own aims as it wants to be.

No comments: