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I finished I, Claudius!  It was great!  The ending took me totally by surprise – I knew I was almost done, but then I turned the page expecting more and that was it.  I had slumped a little about 2/3 through, probably because I started to get that feeling of how much more crappy stuff can happen?  A lot, it turns out.  I need a little break, but then I might attempt the miniseries and the sequel.

In the meantime, the big book news in my world is that I finally got around to reading Mary Doria Russell’s The SparrowIt had been recommended by Babelbabe, and I had read A Thread of Grace and thought it was great, and I was sort of saving The Sparrow for a rainy day* because I knew I would like it.  I even picked up a copy from the library’s shelf of donations for sale, so I could read it at a moment’s notice.  I picked it up on Sunday night for a little bedtime reading, and it was awfully hard to put down to go to sleep.

The best way I can describe it (or the experience of reading any really captivating book) is this: you start a book, sort of a doorway into another experience.  And sometimes you step through for a while, and forget a little bit about the world behind you.  And those are good books.  And some books, you just peek through and think “I can imagine how someone would like it over there, but nothing is pulling me through.”  And books like this?  You step into the other room and close the door.**  Every once in a while, you remember the door is back there, and you step out for a moment to eat or sleep or talk to other people.  But you’re entirely capable of sitting on the couch and downing several chapters while your roommate watches a movie, without being truly distracted.  And, okay, let’s pull this metaphor to death and describe the experience of finishing the book as leaving that door ajar, so that even though you’re not in the other room anymore, you still get the occasional glimpse.

So I spent most of Sunday afternoon and evening reading the book.  I came home from church, chatted with K, ate some toast and tea, and sat down with the book.  Somewhere around 10 pm, I realized that my eyes were tired and I had less than 100 pages left.  I felt like I needed a break, physically and emotionally, so I saved the end for this morning.   Here’s my Goodreads review:

Wow. If the premise of this book sounds at all interesting to you, and if you have some time to devote to being completely addicted to a book, don’t pass this by. Even if you don’t have time to be addicted, it will be worth it. I’m not a big sci-fi person as a rule, but the combination of spiritual struggles, friendships, travel, anthropology, linguistics, and, yes, humor, was so engrossing that I practically swallowed this book whole. It’s that rare combination of a completely engaging and expertly written – like a delicious but healthy meal, like dinner and dessert at the same time. I want the sequel NOW but my sanity might require a small break. Say, a few hours. 

*Actually, it hailed.  One minute it was sunny, less than five minutes later the ground was white.

**I’m cracking myself up here, remembering a Sunday school class in high school, where we listened to some spiritual talk on tape, and the guy had this very polished English accent and described death “as though they had stepped into the other room and closed the door.”  I think you had to be there.  Although perhaps it’s appropriate that I’m associating these two things, because the book is definitely centered around faith – “the risks and beauties of religious faith,” Russell says in the readers’ guide.  And it feels rare – especially in contemporary stuff – to find fiction that really deals with faith in any meaningful way.  I don’t want preachy and I don’t want warm fuzzies – I want to see characters that feel real dealing with life.

Whenever I have a day-long baking project, or bake multiple things, I always (okay, often) think of Ma – Caroline – and her baking days. And washing days. And ironing days. I can’t remember all of them, and I still haven’t gotten around to stealing the boxed set of Little House books from my parents’ house, but you get the idea. Each domestic activity has its day.

Most chores aren’t so time consuming these days, which I’m certainly grateful for, but every once in a while it’s nice to do something which requires a time commitment. Ten minutes of kneading by hand. An hour to rise. Another hour to rise. Baking time. I wouldn’t necessarily want to go through that for every loaf of bread I consume, but I want to do it more often. I want to be a person who bakes bread. Today I’m using it to fight the blahs, and it’s working pretty well, along with a quick walk during one of the risings. It’s about to go into the oven, and now I feel like I’ll have something to show for my day – two loaves of Oatmeal Maple-Honey Bread.  It’s also a good excuse for cranking up the heat – it’s not for me, it’s for the bread!

From the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion:

Vermont Oatmeal Maple-Honey Bread

makes two sandwich loaves

  • 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups (18-20 ounces) boiling water
  • 1 cup (3 1/2 oz) rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup (2 3/4 oz) maple sugar or brown sugar (4 oz)
  • 1/2 teaspoon maple flavor (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 4 tablespoons (2 oz) butter (I used canola margarine)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon instant or active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups (7 3/4 oz) whole wheat flour
  • 4 cups (17 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour

In a large mixing bowl, combine the water, oats, maple sugar, maple flavor, honey, butter, salt, and cinnamon. Let cool to lukewarm.

Add the yeast and flours, stirring to form a rough dough. Knead (about 10 minutes by hand, 5-7 by machine) until the dough is smooth and satiny. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let the dough rise for 1 hour; it should double in bulk.

Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a loaf. Place the loaves in two greased 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch bread pans. Cover the pans with lightly greased plastic wrap and allow the loaves to rise until they’ve crowned about 1 inch over the rim of the pan, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Bake the loaves for 35-40 minutes. Remove them from the oven when they’re golden brown and the interior registers 190 F on an instant-read thermometer. (I don’t have a thermometer – I’ll have to use the old-fashioned tap method – should sound hollow when tapped.)

So it’s Lent.  Have I mentioned that it’s Lent?  I’m mentioning it again because people get confused.  My coworkers, they know about the whole being vegan for Lent deal, and I told them that my Lent started later than Western-style Lent (ie, the Lent that all you non-Orthodox know and love, or completely ignore except for the Easter candy part, no judgment).  But then of course on Monday my coworkers think, “Easter came and went, she can have Real Food again!”  But I can’t.  Because it wasn’t Easter for us.  (At work, there’s this ongoing joke that I don’t eat “real food.”  And it has nothing to do with the fast.)

But, to make up for it, we get a patronal feast, a feast which includes SALMON.  Oh, delicious salmon.  I love you ever so.  I love the feast, too, and a nice crowded candlelit church, and a god-daughter who can’t stand still but keeps tripping over her own feet, and some socializing afterwards over the aforementioned salmon.   It’s a lovely little break in Lent.  Which is not over until late April.  Pascha is April 27.  This will be on the test.

This year I made some vegan cupcakes for the feast – apparently last year I made vegan cupcakes, too, but I didn’t take note of the recipe.  These were pretty tasty, when I scarfed one down last night.   Here’s what I changed in the recipe: I didn’t have instant coffee (who does?) so I omitted that from the batter.  I used almond milk instead of soy.  For the frosting, I used half coconut oil, half canola margarine.  I strongly recommend coconut oil if you enjoy a mildly coconut flavor to your vegan baked goods.  I would use it constantly and exclusively if it weren’t so expensive.

The Big Read II: I, Claudius

Chapter 20-22

Chapter 20: Ewwww. But then, of course, I’m laughing: “I am only somewhat superstitious.” And, “He made a propitiatory sacrifice of nine black puppies.” I shouldn’t find that funny, but I do.

And again, why am I not surprised? And, was Caligula somehow responsible? Who else could be? All the same, it’s surprisingly sad.

Chapter 21: Rome needs a CSI team or something to investigate all these suspicious deaths. Of course, they would probably be in Livia’s pay and the results would be faked so that they would continue to appear to be suicide or accidental death or a stomach ailment. So I guess it wouldn’t really help. But despite my complete lack of interest in shows like CSI, I’m somewhat tickled by the idea of a CSI: Rome.

Ooh, the people are really against Livia now? I wonder how long that will last.

Chapter 22: “What had begun to impress me as particularly ominous, though I could not altogether account for my feelings, was the strong bond between Livia and Caligula.” Uh-oh. But of course they’re drawn to each other. “I don’t mean to suggest that there was any indecent relationship between them.” No, of course you don’t, Claudius. You’re just reassuring us. You’re not denying it just to put the idea into our heads, no no.

I’m in chapter 26 now, but I’ve fallen behind on the recaps and I’m feeling incredibly sluggish these days, so I think I’ll drop the recaps and come back with some final thoughts at the end.  If I manage to pry myself back off the couch to post.

The Big Read II: I, Claudius

Chapters 17-19

I am, of course, behind again on my recaps.  This continues to be one of those books that really rewards you for a close reading.  If you zone out and skim, it loses all its vim and vigor and turns dull.  I think that’s the problem with a lot of “classics,” actually, or rather the reason why people think they’re boring.  If you’re not willing to pay attention, the book’s not going to give you anything.  A lot of less-literary newer stuff doesn’t demand quite so much from the reader.  Me, I like a variety.  Some challenges, and some breaks.  Anyway, enough of the generalizations and blanket statements.

Chapter 17:  I love that there are senators who will pick on Tiberius.

Gallus was therefore fond of referring, as if accidentally, to Tiberius as ‘His Sacred Majesty.’  When Haterius, who was always ready to carry on the gag, rose to rebuke him for this incorrect way of speaking he would apologize profusely and say that nothing was farther from his mind than to do anything in disobedience of the orders of His Sacred…oh, dear, it was so easy to fall into that mistaken way of speaking, a thousand apologies once more…he meant, contrary to the wishes of his honoured friend and fellow-senator Tiberius Nero Caesar Augustus.

Not Augustus, fool,” Haterius would say in a stage whisper.  “He’s refused that title a dozen times.  He only uses it when he writes letters to other monarchs.

Mostly I love that they can (at least temporarily) get away with this.

We learn more about Claudius’ relationship with his son, who is being raised by grandma: “my mother scolded me so often in his presence that he learned to have no respect for me.”  Of course, by this point in the story I can’t remember anything about Claudius’ mother and what we’re supposed to think of her, but I can’t help but think this is on purpose.  Or at least that she doesn’t go out of her way to be nice to her son.  Sheesh.

Oh, the prophetic dream!  I do love a good prophetic dream.  “So choose a good tree, Master Claudius, and don’t come down till the last of the thieves are dead.”  Of course, Claudius then tells us that this was “all very remarkable in the light of what happened later,” but that he has “no great faith in dreams.”  Didn’t he say the same thing about omens?

Chapter 18:  Why am I not surprised?

Chapter 19:  What’s with all the side stories about Hermann?  And very interesting that he gets himself killed only because he tries to act like a king (sound familiar?).  Also, I can’t help but wonder how much Recent World Events effected Graves’ depiction of Germans.  Ya think?  “‘The Germans…are the most insolent and boastful nation in the world when things go well with them, but once they are defeated they are the most cowardly and abject.  Never trust a German out of your sight.'”  Thanks for that bit of wisdom, Germanicus.  Graves mentions in the author’s note that he used the most familiar geographical names for convenience, but I can’t help but wonder if he wanted the place names to have added resonance for a post-WWI audience.

“A class of professional informers sprang up.”  That never bodes well.

Shocking, isn’t it?  Me with a cup of black coffee?  I’ve definitely done my usual Return to Tea for Lent, but those coffee-making instincts die hard and I’ve been rather enjoying it black with a tiny dab of brown sugar.  It makes me feel hard-core (not the brown sugar part, though).

I thought I would take a break from all the I, Claudius posts, mostly because I spent the weekend reading other books and neglecting poor Claudius.

I finally finished up One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke, which had gotten set aside when the Claudius craze began.  It was delightful and slightly dreamy.  I recommend it.

  The characters spend a fair amount of time sleeping and dreaming, and the book ends up with an appropriately dreamy quality to it. It’s got its details, though, and a delightfully large cast of characters, and the loveliest little descriptions of things. And while there is a great deal of coincidence, particularly at the end, the characters admit that so much coincidence is bizarre, and that things like this never happen to their family, and probably never will again: it is, of course, their one whole and perfect day. The characters cover a nice age range, too – our main character, Lily, is in high school, but we spend a fair amount of time with the parents and grandparents, with her older brother and other students at his college, all of which I enjoyed. I have to admit a particular fondness for Jessaline, the astigmatic linguistics student turned cooking student, who stays up late baking and passes around her cookies and cakes. I may have been a trifle biased in her favor.

It also continued this recent trend of characters with names similar to mine.  The first time was in Long May She Reign, in which the character was the crabby odd-ball in Meg’s dorm.  No, I don’t identify with that character, either!

I read Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell (her of Chicken Boy fame) on Sunday evening.  I’d gotten a copy from The Other Library, the one where I actually have to pay fines, so I had to hustle to read it before the due date.  It was one of those focused stories, where the action takes place in a limited time and place (one summer, mostly in an army rec center and at Jamie’s house) and doesn’t try to evoke the entire world (being a first person narrative) yet it still manages to leave you a good sense of the larger picture.

Here’s ye olde Goodreads review:

It’s a slim and focused summer story about an army brat whose brother has just left for Vietnam. She learns to develop the film he sends back to her, and she changes her perception of war. While that sounds a little didactic, things are never heavy handed with Frances O’Roark Dowell, even when they are serious (I have fond memories of Chicken Boy). There’s plenty of gin rummy, great depictions of family dynamics, and a historical element without the story being too bogged down by historical detail. The jacket flap says Dowell was an army brat herself, so you know parts of the story are based on personal experience to some degree, but there’s never that sense of nostalgia that a lot of not-so-distant historical fiction acquires (see, Criss Cross; see, books I hate). So the story was excellently done, but who do you hand it to? Jamie is twelve (“I’ll be thirteen in December”) but the story could read younger; there are mentions of the horrors of war that Jamie sees in the pictures she developes, but nothing overwhelming. I think it could be passed off to somewhat thoughtful kids who like either historical fiction or realistic contemporary fiction, because the style is really more contemporary than historical. But I don’t think this would be a crowd-pleaser, reluctant reader type hit. I would’ve enjoyed it around 5-7th grade, when I was fascinated by my uncle’s pictures and letters from Vietnam, which I found deliciously tragic. This book would have given me a better perspective.

Which reminds me, a note about the ending – it’s neither maudlin and sentimental nor brutal and tragic, although it is heart-wrenching, and I thought it was the best possible way to end a story like this.

Thirdly, I finally got around to reading the last Printz Honor, Repossessed.  It sat on the shelf looking amusing and snide and irreverent, and I wasn’t in the mood.  In reality, it turned out to be amusing and a wee bit snide but not really irreverent – almost surprisingly thoughtful.  I enjoyed reading it – plenty of laughs and a good tone that reminded me a bit of Bartimaeus as a narrator, but ultimately not something that really stuck to my ribs.

It was a very interesting mix of Printz Honor books this year, and now I’ve managed to read them all it seems even more interesting.  One fantasy, with a historical fiction feel  (the fantastic Dreamquake), one contemporary fiction (One Whole and Perfect Day), one biography in verse (the depressing Your Own, Sylvia), and one contemporary fiction/fallen angel story (Repossessed).  Not to mention the winner, The White Darkness, with its combination of polar exploration and creepy suspense.  Whew, what a year.  They’re all solid choices, though – I don’t know if I would have picked the same books, but they’re all worth reading and recommending in their own ways.

The Big Read II: I, Claudius

Chapters 14-16

Whew, I think I’m actually caught up with the game – I’ve just been reading lately, and not paying attention to chapters, and I realized I’m already in Ch. 18. Only my chapters are in Roman numerals (of course) so it’s Chapter XVIII. Fortunately there are only XXXIV chapters, so it won’t go beyond my realm of comprehension. Once you get into the Cs, I’m lost.

Chapter 14: Augustus crossed the line. Livia’s line, of course, which means goodbye, Augustus. While I’m sure that there are lots of theories about how Augustus really died, I like imagining history as a series of personal motivations. Of course the random chance factor is just as interesting – I think about that with situations like Henry VIII – if his brother hadn’t died, if he hadn’t married Catherine, he’d had a son by Catherine, if Catherine had agreed to divorce him, if Anne’s son had lived – all of the small but incredibly consequential factors. I, Claudius, on the other hand, is a story where more rests on individual decisions than on chance. It’s a controlled and ordered world, although of course controlled by the few.

The whole discussion about how Augustus ended up getting declared a god is priceless. I like Gallus – he’s got gumption.

“I will not write more about Augustus’s funeral, though a more magnificent one has never been seen at Rome, for I must now begin to omit all things in my story except those of the first importance.” Uh-huh. I’ll believe that when I see it.

A missing will! Of course there’s a missing will!

Chapter 15: I was a bit bored by the whole Rhine mutiny thing. Soldiers, money, negotiations, blah blah. Haha, I love that he ends the chapter with, “But this has been a very ill-judged digression, leaving Germanicus, as it were, waiting anxiously for his money while I write a book about dice.” Classic Claudius.

Chapter 16: We meet Caligula. The over-indulged child never comes to a good end. Actually, I don’t know anything about Caligula’s place in history, but a name like that is never promising. Neither is a book cover which describes him as “the mad Caligula.” House-burning is also not a good sign.

More mutiny, more negotiations, a few more deaths slipped in there. I get distracted looking up Roman naming conventions and watching more episodes of Rome (not to say that I’m doing these things simultaneously, but they took my interest elsewhere).

The Big Read II: I, Claudius

Chapters 11-13

My brain, as well as the notes I made while reading, seems to have escaped me. So we’ll go with random impressions from this batch of chapters.

First, I’m still rooting for Postumus. He’s on the loose, and I have a bad feeling about how it will all end, but he’s got my vote for a character who really ought to survive against the odds. Obviously Claudius himself will also survive against the odds, but he manages it by slipping under the radar and appearing harmless.

I started watching the TV show Rome again, and I’m trying to remember back to who in the show is related to who in the book. If I have it straight, the kid on the show, Octavian, will grow up to be Augustus. So as I’m watching the episodes, and him dealing with his power-hungry mother, I’m thinking two things. First, did he learn nothing from all his mother’s conniving? He has to go and marry the same kind of woman? And second, Atia has nothing on Livia. The show makes Atia out to be the powerful woman behind the scenes, plotting and arranging marriages and murders and divorces, but Livia would grind Atia into the dust. She probably did.

Now I need to go poke around Wikipedia to get all the family trees straight in my head.

My head hurts. 

The Big Read II: I, Claudius

Chapters 7-10

Chapter 7:  Claudius drops a mention of a certain Urgulanilla, “to whom I was married at this time” – before going back to tell us about the girl he really liked, Medullina Camilla.  So of course you know that anything with Camilla – any love match EVER in this book – can only end badly.  “I stood, very nervously, in my chaplet and clean robe waiting with Germanicus by the family altar for Camilla to appear.  She was late.  She was very late.”  And you know what THAT means. 

Chapter 8: I got confused for a bit here and mixed up Urgulanilla and Urgulania and thought that Claudius was saying he’d been married off to his grandmother’s crony.  For all the other horrible things that happen, at least that didn’t happen.  *Shudder* 

“‘The Chief Vestal, poor woman, being so unworldly.’”   For whatever reason, this line of Livia’s cracked me up.  

I’m not really paying enough attention to how the story is laid out – the back and forths in time, the way the emphasis of each chapter changes – since I’m more caught up in the story and trying to keep characters straight.  But I have a feeling that there’s some significance to the order – and that there’s some greater order.  It’s a smart enough book that I doubt the stories are thrown together willy-nilly.  (And how on earth did Graves keep it all straight when he was writing?)   

Chapter 9: Great discussion about history and historical writing – I particularly liked the comment that Livy credits “the Romans of seven centuries ago with impossibly modern motives and habits and speeches” – one of my pet peeves in historical fiction.  The comments about comparing today’s immorality to the virtue of yesteryear also never goes out of date.  “‘Perhaps there isn’t so much difference really between their wickedness and ours.  it may be just a matter of scope and opportunity.’”  Claudius has it figured out. 

Hmm, that’s interesting little comment from Pollio advising Claudius to exaggerate his physical problems.  He’s a smart one, Pollio. 

Chapter 10:  Claudius compared to a parrot.  Nice one, Livia.  “I refuse ever to eat in the same room as that fellow: it would give me indigestion.”  She’s past-master at twisting things around, is Livia.

In a recent conversation about fasting, and why we fast or don’t fast, the question was raised of whether fasting might just lead to gluttony before and after the fast.  It’s kind of hard to gorge (or rather, really easy to feel satiated) after a fast, especially after Holy Week, but before a fast?  Sure, I’m more likely to take a second helping of pie and ice cream when I know it’s my last chance.  But I’d probably take the second helping anyway.  And being eased into it – first no meat, then no dairy – limits the gorging to certain items each week.

This week, knowing it’s my last chance for dairy has led to more appreciation than gluttony.  I get off work and realize it’s my last chance for a real latte until the end of April, and I hie myself to the coffee shop.  And I walk home on a nice (almost) spring evening, enjoying the last latte, just like I’m enjoying the extra hour of daylight.  And just like I’m tired from missing that hour of sleep, I’ll miss the milk and cheese and eggs tomorrow.  But it doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

March 2008

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