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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.

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.

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.

The Big Read II: I, Claudius

Chapter 4: I’m impressed by how stoically Claudius’ father died. Just, “she read my letter?” and off he goes, a victim of his mother’s ambition. Nobody seems to get angry about these things (Livia is really the only one to show anger) – they just retaliate. Or renegotiate their political positio. And carry on.

Claudius manages to slip in his own birth after telling us about his father’s death – clearly we’re not going from egg to apple (I just looked it up – seems to refer to the order of a Roman feast, not like a chicken/egg thing) if Claudius was born a year before his father died. “But as my mother always accompanied my father on his campaigns a child had to be very hardy to survive.” Um, we have it SO EASY these days. Just saying.

Chapter 5: So I used to live on Palatine Hill. Not THE Palatine Hill, obviously a different one, but still, that’s what I picture with every mention of the place. Even though I’ve been to Rome and wandered up Palatine Hill (at dusk – very picturesque and the only time of day that such a walk was bearable in the hideous heat). It’s mildly distracting.

He refers to his illnesses so off-handedly. “I have heard it said that this pain, which they call ‘the cardiac passion,’ is worse than any other pain known to man except the strangury. Well, I must be thankful, I suppose, that I have never had the strangury.”

I’m really intrigued by the incident of the bear cub falling from the sky. While I think I get what it’s supposed to mean, I’m in disbelief that everyone who witnessed it managed to keep it a secret. They were all bound by an oath “never to refer to the portent either directly or in a roundabout way, in the lifetime of anyone present.” Even creepy little Livilla managed that? And all the other kids? Don’t buy it. Of course, if they were all killed off before too long, that might explain it.

Chapter 6: I suddenly got confused with all the names. While certain characters are active in the story, I can keep track of names, relationships, histories – but once the story moves on, I lose my grip on it, and any reference to a previous drama or relationship throws me for a loop. I remember that Livia killed Marcellus, but I don’t remember how, or who his parents were, or how long ago it was. I need a timeline and a vast family tree. But, it’s not so bad that I’m discouraged. I just don’t feel very sharp.

I’m in awe of Livia. I wouldn’t want to get within a hundred years of her, but wow, does she have a tight grip on things. Impressive in a thoroughly horrific way. Plotting to recreate history with Gaius and Lucius? To do to them what she did to their father’s rival, and then to do to their rival what she did to their father? And Tiberius is the only one who’s figured out that Livia is poisoning people? I flat out don’t believe that. Not only does Livia create her own elaborate plots, but she takes into consideration what elaborate plots others might be hatching: “which would make him [Tiberius] secure against assassination by Gaius, should Gaius think of removing him.”

Also, overall with the book, it’s difficult not to notice how history repeats the same depressing patterns. I, Claudius was published in 1934. Graves fought and was wounded twice in WWI. So I can’t help but think of parallels Graves saw between Classical history and his own time; and of course it all still holds true today.

“And who brought the Punic Curse on Rome? That same old Cato who, whenever he was asked his opinion in the Senate on any matter whatever, would end his speech with: ‘This is my opinion; and my further opinion is that Carthage should be destroyed: she is a menace to Rome.’ By harping incessantly on the menace of Carthage he brought about such popular nervousness that, as I have said, the Romans eventually violated their most solemn commitments and razed Carthage to the ground.”

Sound familiar? Except we don’t believe in curses anymore.

I’m a little late for the game, but I’m going to try & join in Leila’s Big Read discussion of I, Claudius. A lot of the reason why I enjoy these discussions is because part of me misses being in college lit classes – reading about librarianship is not a substitute for reading Howards End. They each have their place, and I miss this kind of reading and discussing.

At any rate, I’m just caught up with Chapters 1-3. I finally remembered to pull a copy off the shelf at work last night – a Modern Library edition that my library acquired in 1962 for the high price of $1.30. It’s lovely and well-worn and the pages are incredibly soft, and for some reason this seems suited to the nature of the book (a manuscript which Claudius is sure will survive 1900 years, thanks to the Sibyl’s prophecy).

First off, Rome seems to be popping up a lot lately, but it’s probably just because I’ve started to notice it. Kitri is addicted to her fluffy Roman mysteries (set a bit later in time, but still). We’ve started watching the TV show Rome – we weren’t sold on the first episode, but the second one got us hooked and now we’re eagerly anticipating the next disc. Watching the show reminded me that all I know about Roman history comes from reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and taking an art history class – hardly a comprehensive study. I probably know more about the Romans in Britain than I do about Romans in Rome. So I might have to check out one of those “How We Lived In Ancient Rome” type books from the children’s section, to fill in any gaps. Oddly enough, what I know about the characters on the TV show is actually helping me keep track of the characters in I, Claudius, even though the book is set a few years later.

The relationships are pretty tangled, especially with all the divorces and multiple marriages and cousin marriages and such, but I’ve got a decent grasp on what’s going on. A family tree might help, but it might leave things just as confusing.

I love the first sentence:

“I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and no so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.”

I’m enjoying the tone – much more of a dry wit than I expected (“It was nine years before Agrippa’s services could be spared.  Then he died suddenly…”) – and the digressions. I also like that while Claudius claims he is going to tell the story from “egg to apple” (I’ve never heard that expression before), he is clearly NOT. He was wandered and teased us and introduced us to his style of writing for two full chapters before he gets around to that egg. But what use is a first-person narrative if it’s not unreliable?

The story requires attention, but so far it’s rewarded me well. Plus, my ignorance about Roman history is adding a nice element of mystery to the story. Sure, the subtitle tells us that it is “from the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, born BC 10, murdered and deified AD 54,” but of course the suspense lies in how he reached that point. And I do love me some good historical fiction.

I am forever doing my school reading and chuckling over various things I come across.  This morning it’s the reminder that “patience and forbearance” are “traits that good reference librarians always have in surplus.”  (Celia Hales Mabry)  It shouldn’t be funny but it is.  I like reading things that would shake my family’s firm belief that I’m suited for librarianship.  Not that I can’t be patient and forbear, but that is perhaps not their idea of me.  Hmm?

In other news I have finished Rebecca and now I’m wishing I’d kept pace with the read-along gang because I’m dying inside not being able to talk about it.  I ended the book, um, confused.  Kind of like the time I had to read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school, and I didn’t realize there was an epilogue and thought “well, that’s an awfully vague ending – does he live?” until someone pointed it out to me.  Except Rebecca doesn’t have an epilogue.  Either there’s some intense vagueness going on or I missed a major clue.  Maybe I was reading too late at night.

Now I’m reading The Shadow Thieves which is alternately s l o w  and completely engrossing.  It’s heavy on the sentence fragments, which sometimes works and sometimes irritates.  The chapter on Hades turning into a bureaucracy had me howling, but other chapters drag out a bit too much, or maybe it’s the tone making the pace feel slower than it really is.  Still, I’m very curious to see where it goes.  I’m enjoying this doing-interesting-things-with-Greek-mythology trend in the kidlit world.

It’s time to buckle down to the school reading after a weekend of brunches, yarn stores, knitting, wine imbibing, movies, Thanksgiving dinners, out-of-town friends, in-town friends, and family.  Two more weeks till Christmas break – if only I’d kept up with things, I could sail through these two weeks!

I am leftoverless, unless you count the pie in the fridge.*  The leftovers haven’t even been cooked yet, since we ate a delicious dinner at my cousins’ yesterday, and my mom is making her traditional “we didn’t have Thanksgiving at home this year” low-key turkey dinner tomorrow.  So we can have all the leftovers our little hearts desire.

Yesterday’s food was pretty much perfection, especially considering my taste buds are numbed by the cold I got as soon as I got over my first cold.  Ugh.  I made a dark chocolate cream pie (from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion) which was delightful.   We sat around, drank wine, played cards, waiting for all the pre-made dishes to have their turn warming up in Di’s tiniest-ever oven.  (Fluxx words surprisingly well with a 3rd grader and a 1st grader, and would be even better if you took out some of the weirder rule cards.  In case you ever need to know.  Scrabble not quite so well, but perfectly fine if you give them suggestions and then make them figure out what the word is.  Oh, and tell them where on the board to put it).

As if in honor of the holiday, it’s suddenly gotten bitterly cold.  Okay, bitterly cold for Portland.   Wearing gloves in the car while you wait for the heater to kick in, keeping your coat on when you come home while you wait for the radiators to get that chill out of the air.  Leaping from bathmat to hallway carpet to avoid setting foot on the cold tile floors.

After a string of children’s and YA, I’m actually reading TWO adult books at once – I’m listening to Master and Commander in the car, which I’m enjoying although I could care less about nautical whatsis, and I’m reading Rebecca, which I’m whipping through after giving up on the skips-every-30-seconds audio version.

I’ve been commenting as I go along over at Bookshelves of Doom, where Leila is going through it 3 chapters at a time and taking excellent notes, but I haven’t managed to put together my own thoughts so I won’t join in at this late date (besides, I’m a little ahead and I would probably end up saying something spoilerific).  While I’m not a big fan of thrillers or scary stuff, I do enjoy old-fashionedly creepy things.  I blame an early middle-school viewing of Jane Eyre, which led to the Great Bronte Kick of my adolescence.  So Rebecca is quite satisfying in that regard, much like The Woman in White or Jane Eyre herself.  Speaking of, it’s been ages since I reread Jane.  I’m curious as to how sympathetic I would find her now, or if she, like the narrator of Rebecca, would make me want to slap her and tell her to get some guts.  I remember Mr. Rochester as being more of a dashing romantic hero than Maxim de Winter, but apart from that they do share some qualities.  Mr. R would get my pity vote, though, over Mr. deW.  Okay, I’ll stop before I go too far.

*As this post has gone on, more and more of the pie has ended up in my belly.  There will be less and less left to put back in the fridge.

December 2021

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