“Troy and Homer”

Joachim Latacz

I enjoyed this book about the references to Troy (modern Hisarlik, Turkey) in contemporary documents (Hittite tablets, etc.) and the internal evidence in the Iliad for the antiquity of the story (names used that were antique even in Homer’s day, for example). Despite its deliberate and methodical pace it’s a fascinating book. Latacz makes a good case that the Iliad — written around 800 BC — contains elements that predate Homer and that it’s plausible that the city known as Wilusa to the Hittites was invaded by Greeks circa 1300 BC. I do wish that there was more in the book about the identification of the Troy VII layer at Hisarlik with the Troy of the Trojan War; Latacz does write about Manfred Korfman’s thesis that Troy VII is part of a larger city than previously thought.

“The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire”

Kyle Harper

This is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time. Harper synthesizes the latest climate, archaeological, and DNA research to tell the story of the influence of disease and climate on the fall of Rome. He avoids the trap of saying climate or disease “caused” the fall. He does claim that they weakend the empire and that at some point they combined with political factors to rob it of its resilience. He also points out how an earlier benign climate, specifically the “Roman Climate Optimum” from 250 BC to 450 AD contributed to the success of the Roman Empire.

The breadth of this book is remarkable; I learned new (to me) things about history, geology, climatology, astronomy, and biology. But he never ignores the human factors of fails to focus on how climate and disease affected individuals as well as the empire.

“The Aeneid”

Virgil (translated by Robert Fagles)

After reading “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey” I had to read Virgil’s story of the flight of Aeneas from the doomed city of Troy and his journey to Italy to found Rome.

It’s common, when visiting art museums, to see classical statues labeled “Roman copy of Greek original”. That’s when kept coming to mind as I read this book. Virgil, writing in the first century AD strove mightily to tie Rome to the ancient (ancient even to him) Greeks. I was almost always aware that it was a poem written to submit to the emperor to glorify Rome rather than a work of art focused on human nature (which is what Homer’s works are).

There are a lot of incidents in “The Aeneid” and some, for instance the fall of Troy and the story of Queen Dido, are satisfying on their own. As a whole, though, it’s like a modern action movie with some great scenes but a lack of character and dramatic pacing.

“An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic”

Daniel Mendolsohn

This is an engaging memoir about a classics professor and his father. The father takes the son’s class in “The Odyssey” and they subsequently take an Odyssey-themed Mediterranean cruise. Mendelsohn presents his relationship with his dad in counterpoint to that of Ulysses and his son Telemachus.

Mendolsohn’s refusal to use quotation marks is an irritating affectation. Despite that, I liked the book, both as a memoir and as a book about Homer’s epic.

“Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea”

Robert K. Massie

I like battleships. The older the better. I really enjoyed Massie’s previous book on the subject, “Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War” So this book should be right in my wheelhouse (or conning tower). But it was a huge disappointment.

The book plods, it relies way too much on participants’ self-justifying after-war memoirs (especially Churchill’s), and it barely mentions anyone below the rank of captain. It reads like a book that was written to fulfill a contract rather than because of the author’s passion for the subject (unlike “Dreadnought”).

“The Devil to Pay”

David Donachie

This is book eleven of Donachie’s John Pearce series. Since I’m reading a bunch of them in sequence…

OK, enough, it’s time to say something about this series.

I read a lot of naval historical fiction, especially novels set in the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic Era. I admit, I like them all. This series, however, really stands out.

For starters, Doncahie’s protagonist, John Pearce, starts out as a pressed man. Though he shares this with Julian Stockwin’s Tom Kydd, more of this series is devoted to the life of the common sailor and even when Pearce is — somewhat undeservedly — promoted, his seaman friends remain part of the story. Moreover Pearce is illegally pressed, and his quest for justice — and to get out of the navy — provides the narrative drive of the series. Pearce’s eduction in the navy is an interesting part of the story.

Another thing that distinguishes this series from others in the genre is that not all the men of the Royal Navy are heroes. One of two bad apples isn’t too unusual in this sort of book, but the Pearce books have barrels of them: there are cowards and money-grubbing officers, not to mention admirals more interested in politics than in their duties. But Donachie’s villains have their reasons and their backstories, which makes them both more interesting than cardboard baddies and more believable.

The morals of the era are respected. Which isn’t to say people don’t stray, but there’s always the risk of social consequences. Also, the poverty and hardships of the era are graphically portrayed.

One thing about that could use improvement: Donachie, though he knows and describes ship-handling very clearly, isn’t as good as some authors in describing naval battles. It takes a little effort to follow the events once the guns are run out.

(I don’t think I’ve ever commented on book covers in this blog, but I have to say: the ones for this series are really awful.)