The Boys from Biloxi

The Boys from Biloxi
© 2022 John Grisham
453 pages

Keith Rudy and Hugh Malco were among the best of friends,   who grew up playing ball and exploring the Gulf Coast together.  Third-generation immigrants,    they both admired their fathers intensely  – both men who had grown up in humble circumstances, gone to war, and then come back to create lives for themselves in entertainment and the law.    But as Lance Malco’s investments in clubs grew into a sprawling criminal enterprise with the police in its pocket, fueled by booze, hookers, and gambling,   it created a string of violence that provoked Keith’s father Jesse into running for district attorney – a choice that would pit the fathers, and then the sons, directly against one another in a story of heroism and tragedy.   The Boys from Biloxi is not quite a return to form for Grisham, but its mix of seedy crime and the drama of friends torn apart by their diverging dreams makes it more compelling than anything Grisham has written in the last ten years.

Although I devoured Grisham’s books in the 1990s and early 2000s,   most of what he’s written since 2009’s The Appeal has proven a disappointment, with lazy writing and uninteresting characters.    The Boys from Biloxi still suffers from that, with Grisham doing a lot of telling-and-not-showing,   but at least two of his core characters are interesting, and the relationship drama between the four gives them additional strength.  Friends who are like brothers turning against one another as their fathers pursue different paths makes for a stirring story, especially after Keith’s father Jesse makes serious progress against the Dixie Mafia that Lance Malco heads and Hugh decides to strike back on his father’s behalf.  The blue-collar crime setting (an array of clubs that serve as gambling halls, illegal bars,  whorehouses, and general dens of iniquity)   adds appeal, as does the historical appearance of Hurricane Camille that makes part of the story possible.  Frankly, reading about financial fraud is boring compared to rumrunners, strip joints, and erstwhile Klansmen wandering about with plastic explosives.

The Boys from Biloxi was a welcome surprise, both for the attraction of its story and its relative ambition, as it pushes towards being a generational/family epic without growing too large. The lurid historical setting also helped!

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Pompey and Caesar

And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone!

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

The narrative of Julius Caesar and the fall of Rome that we get in elementary school is a nice, simple one, rather like that which we see in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones which no doubt drew some inspiration from it. We have the Republic, and all the blessings of liberty; and then we have Caesar, accomplished and ambitious, who leads his men across the Rubicon river and seizes Rome, intent on creating an empire — and while that goal is thwarted by his being stabbed, his young nephew Octavian finishes the job. Bad ol’ Caesar! Hopefully as we mature we gain some nuance – -realize the Republic had long failed to function, appreciate that Caesar was an ambitious man but presented legitimate appeal to the masses of Rome — but the early narrative of a grand dream being toppled by one man’s ambitions still sticks As Plutarch’s survey of the life of Pompey the Great, and Lars Brownworth’s history of Caesar’s rise to power demonstrate, though, late-Republican Rome had many such men.

This is an odd double review, in part because both volumes are slim (100 for Plutarch, 200 for Brownsworth) , and because their subjects are united. They came of age in a period in which the Roman republic had already begun perishing, divided by civil wars between Marius and Sulla. Pompey navigated those wars, hitching his star to Sulla and finding great military success: he and others in Rome regarded Pompey as Rome’s answer to Alexander, and in view of his driving pirates from the Med and settling the recurring problem with Mithradates, it’s easy to understand why. Plutarch’s biography of Pompey is worth reading for his ocassional editorializing: in the Marian-Sullan struggle, for instance, he comments that Rome had long given up hope for liberty, and would settle instead for an easier master. Caesar was too young to play a part in this drama, though his family did unite in marriage to the Marians and Caesar would use that heritage to great effect when he began his political ascendancy — including the death mask of Marius in a funeral procession to arouse attention to himself, and to proclaim that Caesar was a man who wanted to bring Rome together again, to settle old differences. The titans of the day were not Lucius and Sulla, though, but Crassus and Pompey — two rivals with two different power bases, and each opposed by one another and by Cato (who also loathed Caesar, for both personal and political reasons). Caesar proposed the three work together to fulfill their personal ambitions and overcome resistance, but their triumvirate was short lived (owing to Caesar being sent to Gaul, Pompey’s marriage link to Caesar dying, and Crassus losing his head trying to win glory in Parthia), leading to first personal and then open conflict between the two men. Despite Pompey’s iconic status, young Caesar’s charisma, bond with his troops, and generalship would win the day and forever changed the world, to the point that the kings of Germany and Russia bore his title until they were topped by treaties and revolution.

Reading these books back to back was a treat, giving me first a near-contemporary Roman’s look at the civil wars and Pompey’s rise, and then an historian’s far distant appraisal. Plutarch was writing no hagiography, and I enjoyed this work far more than Caesar’s The Gallic Wars, in part for the editorializing. As for Brownsworth’s biography of Caesar, it’s an incredibly readable narrative that reccommends itself to anyone curious about Caesar’s life, especially appreciating the context which he came to power and then death, but who shies away from larger volumes. Brownsworth has many other very accessible histories of the Byzantines, the Normans, the Vikings, and the Crusades.

The War that Made the Roman Empire, Barry Strauss. On the conflict between the manchild Marc Anthony and the boyking Octavian following Caesar’s death.
Romans without Laurels, Indro Montanelli. A humorous history of Roman society and its people from an Italian in translation.

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Wednesday Blogging Challenge: Favorite historic personage to read about?

….favorite historic personage to read about, eh? That’s a tough one. There are a few people I’ve read several biographies about, including Joan of Arc and John Adams. I’ve found Joan fascinating since watching a CBS drama based on her life, with a strong cast and magnificent music. and even wrote a paper on her in college for a medieval history course. My favorite biography of her remains The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by no less than Mark Twain. Another favorite to read about is John Adams, whose prudent sensibilities and restrained idealism I admire: while he didn’t have the high hopes for humanity that Jefferson dead, he was more consistent about human liberty, refusing to own or even hire slaves. I can thank David McCullough for introducing me properly to Adams, but I’ve extensively on him thanks to Joseph Ellis. When it comes to favorite, though, I think I have to say…C.S. Lewis. I re-read his Surprised by Joy every year, for instance; I’ve read collections of his letters, read biographies of him, analyses of his literature and essays, etc. My devotion is not because I love his novels or find his apologetics than anything I’ve ever read: it’s because he’s such dashed good company, as Bertie Wooster might put it — and what’s more, a man of the old cloth, a genuine medieval humanist who was just as comfortable discussing literature as philosophy and gardening, who put no truck in the empty distractions of modernity but held on to that which was good — evenings spent in bars arguing with friends, intimate conversations in person or in letters, offering support and diversion, long walks with his brother amid the beauty of the English countryside, aged wine and older books. One can’t imagine him going into a McDonalds and sitting by himself, staring at tiktok videos on his phone and posting reactions to the issue-of-the-hour. He, like Henry David Thoreau, read not The Times but the eternities — and despite living with challenges his entire life long, from an emotionally difficult father to taking care of a friend’s mother who became more of a toxic chore by the year, to meeting the love of his life and then losing her swiftly to cancer — he found ways to take those adversities with grace. He’s a good chap, Jack, and I’ll never tire of spending time in his company via books.

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Paul Among the People

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his Own Time
© 2010 Sarah Ruden
240 pages

Although liberal Quaker Sarah Ruden had heard criticisms of Paul all her life,  after becoming familiar with the culture of the Greco-Roman world through a career in translating classical works into contemporary English, she realized there was something missing in most people’s approach to Paul. They took no consideration of the culture in which he wrote,    not realizing that his criticisms of particular issues were deeply countercultural, even subversive,  in his time.  Ruden writes not as a theologian or an apologist (though she does seem to be fond of Paul despite his irritability and does-not-play-well-with-others qualities), but as a classicist who sees in Paul’s writings a markedly different appraisal and hope for humanity than in his contemporaries.  

It’s very easy for contemporary readers to take cheap shots at those who have gone before us, because they have values we don’t, so I appreciate Ruden taking Paul in his context seriously.    Most chapters in here open a door into the Greco-Roman world,   often a violent and abusive place. Take Paul’s condemnation of ‘revels’, for instance: a contemporary reader might harrumph that Paul is the quintessential stick in the mud,  a proto-Puritan who hates parties,   without realizing that the specific word he used referred to a custom of drunk young men going out wandering the streets and stirring  up trouble,  creating a literal orgy of violence as they robbed, raped, and even kidnapped those in their way.  His condemnation of homosexuality, too,  doesn’t refer to homosexuality as we know it, because current views of fixed orientations didn’t exist:    what was rife was the sexual abuse of social inferiors, especially young boys, by men who wanted to prove their standing –   and so fiercely did the Romans look down on the passive partners in these liaisons, forced or not, that men often raped other men to prove the rapists’ manliness.  Paul turned tables by attacking the instigators.  In another vein, Paul’s fashion advice to women on wearing veils within church reads more differently when one appreciates that appropriate clothing for women varied widely on class and standing:   wearing a head covering was considered a marker of high status, reserved for wives and widows, and women  who didn’t wear such coverings were either suspiciously unmarried,  adulterers,  or associated with prostitution. Paul’s admonition was a call for women to conduct themselves with dignity, as beloved children of God, even if the secular world forbade them that dignity because of their economic class or past misdeeds. 

Paul Among the People is of general interest, in part because it draws so much on Greco-Roman plays, oratory, and letters, creating a picture of the classical world in the midst of upheaval from within, both by the still-emerging empire and the new force of Christianity. I’ve never read another appraisal of Paul, so I don’t know how Ruden’s analysis of certain topics like secular authority compares against them, but I enjoyed her insight into the culture at the time. Paul’s under-the-belt punches at Roman society remind me of Jesus’ own rebukes — as when he condemns not only actions, but the spirit of said actions, the habits of mind that lead to vicious behavior. I’ll definitely be reading more of Ruden, as she has translations of The Aeneid and Augustine’s Confessions.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Spring Reads

First up, a little Tuesday teasin’, from Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People. This interesting little read compares Paul’s understanding of humanity to that of the first-century Roman world.

Juvenal displays [women] as cheerfully, irredeemably evil. I am a woman, so I shouldn’t find any of this funny, but his women are funny, like a James Bond villain with a Persian cat and a shark tank, or like Inspector Dreyfus in the last Pink Panther movie, wanting to take a quick bathroom break before vaporizing the world.

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is….Spring TBRs!     Spring is typically my weakest season for reading, in large part because I’m distracted by all the pretty outside. Let’s see if I can’t entice myself into reading more with some promising reads, shall we?

Waters of the World, Sarah Dry.  (Science Survey)
Purgatorio, Dante. Trans. Anthony Esolen (Classics Club, Mount Doom, Lent)
Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Robin Dunbar (Science Survey)

The Victorians, A.N. Wilson (Mount Doom, Read of England)
British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution,  Don Hagist (Mount Doom, Read of England)
Paradiso, Dante. Trans. Anthony Esolen. (Classics Club, Mount Doom, Easter)
Rebecca, Daphne de Maurier  (Classics Club, Read of England)
Tuck, Stephen R. Lawhead (Mount TBR, Read of England)

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, Lee Siegel.
The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans,  Mark Bauerlein (Mount Doom)

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Stuff is not-life

I adopted anti-consumerism shortly after I began working, largely out of self-defense because I began to appreciate that paying money for a thing meant trading hours of my life for a thing. Was a $100 set of Star Trek dvds worth 2 days of my life? No. ($15 for a used set? ….well, ok.) So I started making myself let go of desires, and this was a couple of years before I ever began considering practical philosophy. It’s one of the reasons it attracted me, though, because it made me realize that there were other people out there who were thinking about things, and not just going with the flow. I wanted to find out what mattered. This was one of Henry David Thoreau’s intentions on moving to Walden:

“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to is lowest terms.”

One of the best books I read on this during that time was Erich Fromm’s piece, “To Have or to Be?” which scrutinized the modern tendecy to define ourselves by what we possess rather than what we have: this is not something as simple as keeping up with the Joneses, but extends to those who attempt to capture moments rather than living them. It’s one thing to capture a special moment: it’s another to spend one’s life with an upheld smartphone, attempting to live through the likes of others rather than through one’s own eyes.

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Thinking about women authors

A few years back, out of a matter of curiosity, I  went through my data on books-read since May 2007 and determined that nearly 80% of my reading came from male authors. This is not something that bothers me, since men predominate the genres and subjects I tend to read,  but when there was a flurry of chatter this week about International Women’s Day, I began thinking about women authors I’ve read and re-visited – and I found that they were mostly authors I’d read as a kid! 

Top row: Beverly Cleary, Gertrude Chandler Warner, K.A. Applegate, S.E. Hinton
Bottom Row: Ann M. Martin, S.D. Perry, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, and Anita Amirrezvani

Beverly Cleary and Gertrude Chandler Warner were my first ‘favorite authors’, as I devoured the Henry Huggins/Beezus books as well as the Boxcar Children series. In middle school,   Melinda Metz’s  Roswell High,   K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs, and S.E. Hinton’s  Oklahoma novels  were constantly in my pockets, in my backpack, or in my hand.  Those merged into high school, where I also found Ann M. Martin’s California Diaries series, the characters and stories of which are still close to my heart and mind, and discovered the remarkable urban fantasy of Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. (Her In the Forests of the Night is much battered from many readings over the years!). S.D. Perry became a longrunning favorite in the early 2000s because of her Deep Space Nine titles that initiated the Star Trek Relaunch.

In adulthood, though……there’s just not many pickings! J.K. Rowling, of course, whose Harry Potter books I first found in college and have subsequently read and re-read. Anita Amirrezvani’s books are like nothing I’ve read, but she’s not particularly active. Mary Roach (pop science on taboo topics), Alison Weir (medieval English history/biography), Rose George (um…shipping, sanitation, and blood so far) and Susan Strasser (garbage, consumerism) are three of the few female nonfiction authors I find consistently interesting, though Juliet Schor (consumerism, work) is one whose works I want to explore more. Over time I think Liza Picard’s social histories will make her a favorite.

Although reading more female authors is not a ‘goal’ of mine (I read according to my interests, not to check off a yay-me-I-do-diversity scorecard), it’s interesting to realize that I read females far more as a kid than now. I suppose it’s a natural effect of growing up: as we hit the teens and our bodies and interests begin differentiating more, the ways we relate to authors and the stories they tell changes. I don’t know that I would have found California Diaries, for instance, if I hadn’t entered the series with its sole male character, Ducky. If Maggie or Amalia had been the first books I saw, for instance, I probably wouldn’t have given the series much thought, having little-to-no interest in a preppie girl being moody because her dad ignores her, or in another girl’s dating woes. However, having encountered them in Ducky, and then Sunny, I developed an attachment to the characters, and was then more interested in reading about their lives.

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Betrayer and Betrayed

The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed
© 2006 Bart Ehrman
198 pages

In the 1970s a small collection of previously unknown texts surfaced, one of which (“The Gospel of Judas”) was of great interest to scholars specializing in Coptic texts, gnostic texts, and early Christianity.   I read what’s survived of the text years ago, via Elaine Pagels’ Reading Judas,  and so wasn’t particularly interested in this title – reading it at the urging of a friend who has the theology of an Episcopalian but secretly delights in presenting  books like this to his Baptist Sunday school class.  The gist of the Judas text is that Judas was Jesus’ closest friend who alone perceived the truth about him being a divine creature from another plane, and did him a great service by instigating the arrest that led to Jesus’ death and escape from our world after he’d fulfilled his earthly mission. There’s more to it, but it’s all hateful and dreary gnosticism.   Ehrman reviews the turbulent history of how the text came to be found and travel through the antiquities underground;  reviews the treatment of Judas in the various Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and succeeding Christian literature;    places it within the context of the Gnostic movement, and  concludes by arguing that Judas  and Jesus are both best understood through the light of Jewish Apocalypticism. He later expanded that into Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.  Having previously read Reading Judas and his apocalyptic argument, this was old hat for me, but I was intrigued by the fact that there’s debate currently over whether Gnosticism is purely a Christian heresy, or if it existed independently and some of its practitioners  became Christian and created a fusion. 

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The Other Side of the Bay

The Other Side of the Bay
© 2014 Sean Dietrich
177 pages

There’s a broken down  truck in the woods holding three men,  two drunk brothers and a passed-out football has-been.   By morning, the truck will be discovered in perfect working condition, and the has-been found to be dead in the drunk tank at the sheriff’s office. The Other Side of the Bay ranks among the most interesting of Dietrich’s works that I’ve yet tried, in part because of its unusual structure; it weaves back and forth between past and present, which run increasingly close together as the tale emerges,  and in the world of small, rural towns,  these two are not far apart:  as Faulkner commented, the past is never dead; it is not even past.  The continuity of this rural community is a strength and a theme of this story of two lonely men, a father and son who are  heartbroken by the loss of the woman who bound their lives together. Bringing them together again is a mystery in the back woods, one that will create a further mystery when the man being held overnight doesn’t wake up in the morning.    As Dietrich tells the story of Jimmy working through the mystery, attempting to figure out what happened and what the demands of justice are in this case,   we experience his past,  forever hovering in his mind – especially scenes of his father’s long service as the sheriff, a position Jimmy now inherits.   Fans of The Incredible Winston Browne will see a precursor of that other Panhandle lawman here,    as both Jimmy and his father are not merely hunters of speeders and ne’er do wells,  but community fixtures,  offering strength in wise counsel and steady presence rather than swaggering and boasting. It’s a strength born of suffering, as the reader shall see.    Although the book deals with serious themes – loss and revenge –  it also offers the comfortable escape of a small-town setting,  complete with quirky characters ribbing one another even as they join together in serious work like investigating a murder. Winston Browne was a better-organized book, but I thought Dietrich’s unusual structure ultimately effective in demonstrating the living presence of the past in the South, especially its smaller towns where all are bound together by shared memories.

Kindle Highlights:

“I hope they don’t have anything to do with Holbrook’s misfortune and untimely death.”
“Misfortune and untimely death?” I said. “What are you, Walt Whitman?”

“I’m supposed to be hunting right this very moment.”
“Is that what you call hunting?” Hooty said. “I thought it was called getting drunk in a cabin.”
“It is,” Billy said. “But to our wives, it’s called hunting.”

Investigation for my daddy meant riding around town during the dinner hours, stopping at folk’s houses, cordially inviting men out onto their porches, right in the middle of supper. “You have a good chance of getting a man to talk if he’s got his kids nearby.” My daddy would say as he walked up to someone’s porch. “Children have a way of reminding grown men of what’s right and wrong.”

“She’s at least twenty years younger than you,” I said thinking of Billy’s saintly wife, Francis. “Besides, I don’t think young Willa is in the market for a forty-five-year-old, beer-drinking, beardless Santa Claus.”

I realized that Daddy wasn’t telling his story to me at all, he was telling it to himself. He was revisiting something special. I just happened to be standing there, witnessing a moment that he kept locked away in his box of memories. It was the place inside him where that rural boy with the homemade slingshot still lived.

“The way I sees it,” Daddy said. “Sometimes evil infects a man like a disease. The disease eats him up inside, consuming his organs, weaving its way into his bones. Then it crawls up to his head and gets all in his mind. Before you know it, the man starts to froth at the mouth like a rabid dog, raising the hair on his neck, baring his teeth. You look into his eyes, and you can tell he ain’t even in his body no more, just the disease.”

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I SAY, Jeeves. Rather alarming, what?

Since it’s early March, I’m doing my April/Read of England planning, including a draft of the “Reading of England, 20__!” post I publish on the first. I’d written up a very brief intro paragraph in the style of Bertie Wooster, and then with a bit of whimsy I wondered if Bing could do it. I’ve been impressed by its ability to tell me the weather in the style of Foghorn Leghorn, and to tell me the day’s headline news as though Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner were doing a “Weekend Update” sketch about it.

The purple is my instructions, the white is my response. Amusingly, both my intro paragraph and Bing’s started with “What ho!”, though mine is “What ho, readers all!”.

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