The World’s 11 Most Unique Bookstores?

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Somehow I started receiving e-mails from Fodor’s Travel the other day. I do not recall signing up for its newsletter but then I compulsively sign up for contests without reading the terms so it is probably that I agreed to get the news letter as part of the terms. There are worse fates in life.

Anyway it had an interesting piece entitled “The 11 Most Unique Bookstores in the World” mixed in with what to do in Cabo and similar pieces. I live near Powell’s City of Books, one of the largest independent book stores in the world (according to Powell’s) and was interested in what made the list.

A pair were also bars as well as bookstores, BookBar in Denver and Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Washington D.C. and while that is not a bad thing, I think I would prefer to do my drinking and reading combination in a more secluded environment such as a cozy café or at home after I have purchased a book. I could easily see drinking too many beers while ready some comedy. However they both look very comfy so maybe I should give them a try next time I am in the area.  A third was a champagne bar, Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar.

A slight variation on this theme is the Brazenhead Books in New York, where after his rent became to high the owner moved the store to his apartment and made it by appointment only. Oh, and he also made the place into a speakeasy as well. Kudos on creativity.

The largest is the Book Garden in Tehran, with 700,000 square feet and a rooftop park where you can go read. It even offers 1,000 free books to read on the roof. The photo supplied has a spacious, open store. I have to admit that I prefer crowded, stuff places that have the interesting book aroma.

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Bart’s Books

It has entries for most colorful in Saraiva Bookstore in Rio de Janeiro, the most outdoorsy in Bart’s Books in Ojai, California, and the most romantic with the aptly named The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, California. None of those really grabbed my interest to be honest. Another unique looking place, La Caverne aux Livres, in a former home of Vincent Van Gogh as well as in a train station and a few rail cars. In Auvers-sur-Oise, France it looks interesting but not sure I would go out of my way for it.

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Livraria Lello

The one that I would really have liked to visit, and had no idea about when I was there was the Livraria Lello, a gorgeous bookstore in Porto, Portugal. Purportedly the inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books and movies it is a combination of Neo-Gothic and Art Noveau stylings.

So check out the article and see if any appeal to you and if you have a favorite drop me a line and let me know about it. Not that I have anything against drinking and reading but four bars in the top 11? One fun fact is that in reading all of the bookstores’ web sites I found that Fodor had previously run a World’s 20 Most Stunning Bookstores article. I did not check it out but it seems to me that it’s cheating to then run one on 11.

That is no dragon, it is a turtle on the map!

A'tuin
A’Tuin

It is always fun when what you assume is just a piece of whimsy has an actual basis in reality. That happened for me last week when I opened my daily e-mail from Atlas Obscura, a site I have always enjoyed due to the unique and interesting people, places and things that it discusses.  The site had an article entitled “Why is the World Always on the back of a Turtle?” that instantly rang a bell with me.

Of course many readers will instantly think of Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels. For the few that are unfamiliar with the stories, they are based on a flat circular planet that travels through space held up by elephants that are standing on the back of a giant space turtle, named A’Tuin. I had always thought that this was a bit odd, but in a series that has walking, and dangerous, furniture, I never really gave it much thought.

According to the article it turns out that the idea of a planet floating through space on a giant member of the Chelonioidea family comes from ancient sources, appearing first in Hindu mythology. According to anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s Researches Into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, we have it all to blame (or credit) on the god Vishnu’s second avatar for starting the whole idea. Then the same motif developed independently in Native American mythology.

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I had always assumed that Pratchett had just created a funny vision of the world, and he may have come upon the idea independently, but I suspect that he just snuck in another cultural reference that so many of us would miss. Good for him. I was also surprised that when I mentioned this to several people at the local dog park they were apparently all aware of the Hindu tie in but not the Native American one.

Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

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I have had a copy of Roald Dahl’s autobiography, Going Solo, for years but just have not gotten around to reading it, a common problem at my house. Then a friend mentioned that he had one about his childhood, giving me another reason to delay reading Going Solo. Then last week at a garage sale I found a very battered copy of Boy: Tales of Childhood available for a whole quarter.

Dahl clearly states that the book is not an autobiography, it is rather the top memories that he has from his childhood. For instance he does not reconstruct his family life, for the most part, or go into lengthy descriptions of many aspects of his life and family. There is no listing of all of the siblings and their traits, and just a brief description of his parents. Instead it is a collect as advertised, tales from assorted years that have remained at the top of his memory.

Instead it is really just an enjoyable collection of tales, few of them really interconnected, aside from Dahl being the omnipresent character in all of the tales. Almost all are humorous, none are really side splitting funny, and all are interesting. I have never read any of his other books but I suspect that his wry sense of humor pervades them.

going solo

In some it makes you wish you were alive in that bygone age. When else could you ride your tricycle to school, unaccompanied by an adult, down the middle of the main street due to lack of cars on the street. Or taking a steam ship to Norway every year for a long summer holiday. Then you might have second thoughts on wanting to live then when you read about Dahl having his adenoids removed, sans pain killers, or his father having to have his arm amputated due to being treated by a drunk doctor.

The first family drive in a car results in his nose being almost completely severed, after the kids push his “ancient sister” to speed up to the unheard of speed of 35. His stories of public boarding schools make me very glad that I was not forced to attend them. You find out that he was a star athlete without any bragging, and a superb photographer, and did not like Latin. He wrote his mother every week of his life starting with school, and that has no doubt helped with his recollection of events as his mother saved all of the letters.

An interesting note is that at one school the candy maker Cadbury used to send the boys an occasional box of new types of chocolate to get feedback. He daydreamed of discovering the greatest chocolate yet devised. That was the kernel for the story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, written over 30 years later.

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One thing about the physical book that I purchased which amused me is that one of the previous owners was named Amanda. Written in six different color pens on the top of the book, and in bold black letters on the bottom. I wondered if the book was owned by an Amanda, or if it was owned by someone who had a crush on an Amanda? Some questions we will never know.

I greatly enjoyed the book; it was a pleasant journey through some of the memories of a person who lived in what is increasingly long ago bygone era. It was a pleasant, short afternoon read I can now with a clear conscious go on to Going Solo!

Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

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I was a huge Zelazny fan when I was younger and read a great deal of his work. I even went so far as to stand in line at the old Recycle Books in San Jose to get an autographed copy of Nine Princes in Amber. He crossed genres easily and I felt then and now that much of his work was way ahead of its time. So when I came across a copy of Jack of Shadows at a garage sale I snapped it up.

I had read the book decades ago but only had a faint memory of it, and a vague feeling of uneasiness about it. I could not put my finger on why prior to reading it and am still not sure why afterwards but I believe I have a better idea why now.

The world that it is set in is an earth that basically does not rotate. Half is always in sunlight and half in darkness. In the light section there is science and a mechanical world. In the dark there are ruling powers that have powerful magic at their command. The dark side keeps a shield in the sky that keeps the world as it is with magic while the daysiders have a mechanical shield. The people in the sun have souls and the people in the dark are immortal and will be reborn if killed. At the edge of these two areas is Shadow, an area that the titular figure inhabits, and where his power comes from. The world had a Dying Earth feel to it, but it is obvious that Jack Vance’s books were not an inspiration. You also get hints (in hindsight) of the powers and characters that will his Amber series, especially Corwin.

I really enjoyed the reread but I could clearly see why I had the unease when I was younger. When you are introduced to Jack, he is a cool character, just a master thief planning a job. When the plan goes off the rails he ends up struggling to survive (after being executed) and vows vengeance on all that have wronged him. And he brings off the vengeance with a flourish. At this time he becomes an unlikable character. His mistakes and arrogance start compounding problems and he has to take drastic measures to try and salvage the situation.

I think what had upset me was that when I read this, back when it was originally published, all of the heroes in books that I followed were basically good. Even a character like Conan, who off the pages looted, robbed and raped, was a chivalrous, almost do-gooder in the stories. Jack somewhat redeems himself, but not really. I think I was unprepared for a character like this at the time, and to a degree I still find it unsettling. Not that he did not reform but rather because I still somewhat liked him.

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I think that since I really enjoy Zelazny’s writing style and the imagery that he presents it is time to revisit other books that he has written. I think that Lord of Light, which won the Hugo in 1968, will be on my need to read soon list.

Far Away and Long Ago by William H. Hudson

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Reading a recent issue of The Smithsonian I read an article on William H. Hudson. I had never heard of him but he was a prolific author and a famous English/Argentine ornithologist who grew up on a plantation in Argentina during the 1840s and 1850s. In the article it talks about his autobiography about his childhood years, Far Away and Long Ago: A History of My Early Life. I found it interesting that amid the praise for the book that it was also a text used to teach children in Japan English. I suppose much like Caesar’s Commentaries are used to teach Latin, or was at one time.

I just have to say what a delight the book was. While written when he was 77 and the first draft started when he was fairly ill, it resounds with childhood’s innocence and wonder. I cannot recall a childhood autobiography that I have enjoyed more, although Little Britches  by Ralph Moody comes very close. The book kept reminding me of many things from my childhood which was odd since there is no parallel. It is just that Hudson manages to maintain the joy of discovering new things every day and project it to the reader.

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Growing up on the plains he was a small and shy child, in love with the outdoors and all that lived in it. While birds are clearly his first love, everything in nature seemingly fascinated him, flowers, plants, trees, mammals and so on. Without formal education he learned all about these things and their seasons. I was envious that at 6 he could identify so many birds simply by their call- all I can get right is a crow. One of my favorite stories in the book is how someone told him that if he put salt on a bird’s tale it could not fly. I wonder how old that joke is? The joy of childhood is also revealed in tales about his and his siblings loved how one neighbor laughed and another sang.

His life was anything but ordinary. Having a pony at age 6 and free to roam at will across the pampas by 8. Watching cattle and sheep drives, talking with old gauchos and witnessing them have knife fights. Having the remnants of a defeated army flow by his home. All through the books is a growing love of nature and most specifically birds, slowly at first and then with a growing admiration. His growth into reading and education as well as spirituality, and then subsequently questioning spirituality is very interesting, heartfelt and relatable.

Very rarely does he display cynicism that might have come with age but he does lament the loss of those days, and in part what he decries is the fact that the area where wild animals swarmed and birds flew is now plowed under to make way for corn fields.

One odd note in the book is that he never names his brothers or sisters, or his parents. His father is very rarely mentioned and his mother occasionally. His oldest brother obviously holds a very important position in his life, including a helpful push to be a naturalist, but is unnamed. I wonder why, as it does not sound like he disliked them, but I do get the impression that they were nowhere near as important as seeking a new bird or flower.

I am really looking forward to reading more of his writings. I found it incredibly approachable but I had to continually stop and look up what a bird or a plant looked like. His book about Patagonia particularly interests me.

Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee

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I was looking to see when Yoon Ha Lee’s follow-up to Ninefox Gambit was due and found a short story that she wrote called “Extracurricular Activity” that features one of the main characters in Ninefox Gambit, Shuos Jedao.

The events in Extracurricular Activity take places hundreds of years before Ninefox Gambit. For those that have not read the book he was frozen after a long and very successful career as an assassin and then as an innovative general, then he turned psycho.  Here Jedao is a young officer still making a name for himself and he is assigned to capture a lost ship, and rescue the commander, an old friend, and the crew.  He already has a growing reputation as being able to escape sure death and with a mission accomplished in his file. It really humanizes him. In Ninefox Gambit there are some flashbacks to his youth, but they are cut up because of the way that they are discovered. In them he is for the most part cold and distant. In Extracurricular Activities he has a great deal of self confidence, more humor and there is a strong sexual nature to the story as well.

ninefox-gambi

Two things instantly stood out on reading the story. The bizarre weapons and tactics that are an important part of Ninefox Gambit are almost entirely absent. No turning people into pillars of salt of sheets of glass. No altering formations to become invulnerable to foes weapons. It reads as a good short adventure story. There are still oddities such as a nation that fights duels with custom pathogens.

The second issue is how much smoother the writing seemed to me. Without the odd features, which in truth are what made Ninefox Gambit unique, the story really flowed much better. It is also so much less complex, and I do not think I would enjoy an entire book written like this, but as a short story I think it works just fine. However I expect to the next book tohave a oddly complex plot with even more strange tactics.

raven

The next installment is entitled “Raven Stratagem” and according to Amazon it is due to be available June 13, 2017 and it looks very interesting.  However Extracurricular Activities is an easy entrance into the world of Ninefox.

Unusual Libraries

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If you like odd and obscure information the Atlas Obscura is the web site, and book, for you.  I avoided for years because I was sure that it was just one of those schlock sites that bait you in on shock headlines and then had very mundane articles that attempted to titillate.

There is some attempt at this at the Atlas, to be sure. The headline on the page I am looking at has an article about how during the siege of 1870 Parisians ate a host of animals from the zoo as well as ones such as cats and rats. However also on that page is articles on the search for Caligula’s pleasure ship, and a free speech issue that oddly enough involves an inflatable Mario plus many more.

A friend is a big fan and sent me a few stories. Then I saw a couple of additional articles that interested me and I started subscribing to its newsletter and now I look forward to the news letter every morning.

What brings me to raise this issue this morning is an article on libraries, but not just everyday libraries. It is about ten of the most unusual lending libraries. You always hear about community lending libraries that might offer garden tools or, well really that is about all I have heard about aside from books.

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Carnegie Library, Braddock, Penn.

I will not go into detail on all of them but they cover everything from seeds and fishing poles to umbrellas. While I knew about Andrew Carnegie and his huge role in the growth of libraries in America, the history of the Carnegie Library in Braddock, Penn. is very interesting. Originally it had not just books but billiard tables, a bathhouse, music hall, pool and bowling alley. It has naturally evolved over the years and now sports a major Art Lending Collection with offerings from local artists.

This type of information might seem useless, and it might be, but it also makes me wonder what is available in my area that I might be interested in. I will look around this afternoon and see; my lawnmower just bit the dust last weekend.

I noticed that book, Atlas Obscura: An Explorers Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World is a New York Times best seller. I may have to add that to my birthday wish list.

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The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

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I am not really on a Hammett kick, it’s just as I was finishing The Big Knockover a package of books arrived from my father. One of them was The Maltese Falcon, but not simply the book, it is a history of the famous film version that was directed by John Houston in his first directorial effort, and what a directorial debut! The book, which was published under the Rutgers Film in Print label and is subtitled John Huston: Director. It is a trove of information, some of which I had heard about in the past but much I did not.

I did know that there had been two earlier versions as well as a host of television adaptations, but the only detail that I knew was that Bette Davis was in one. The first was from 1931 and I only recognize one actresses in the entire cast and that is my sum knowledge of that version. The second is more of an adaption, and does not retain the title or the names of the characters. Called Satan Met a Lady and starred Davis it was made in 1936, five years prior to the third version. It is interesting to read the three write ups on IMDM. Both of the earlier versions were at least partially slapstick comedies.

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Back to the book. It is broken down into four distinct sections, starting with an intro about the story, the genre, birth of Film Noir and some on the director. Hammett wrote the story originally as a five part serial for a magazine called Black Mask before becoming a best seller. While in many ways the film might not be considered a Film Noir, it is one of the foundations for that style.

It has the full script for the movie, and if you have seen the movie you know that it is almost word for word the book. I found the instructions for the cameramen and actors to be interesting. Apparently Houston simply had his secretary type the book out as a script, changing almost nothing and the studio bosses loved it. One thing that leaped out at me is how short the script was for a 100 minute movie, less than 100 pages. A scene was omitted, the loss of which is really not important, as were a pair of minor characters, also not altering the story in any way. Several scenes needed to be altered slightly to meet with the demands of the Motion Picture Production Code, such as implying that Sam Spade slept with Brigit O’Shaughnessy. The movie was also almost renamed The Man from San Francisco.

It is hard to believe but all of the actors were for the most part considered minor players in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart had achieved some stardom from his role as Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest but was then typecast for some time and Peter Lorre was famous in his native Austro-Hungary. It is well worth your while, and possible nightmares, to look up his very creepy performance in M. Mary Astor was possibly the most established of the cast, having started in silent movies at age 14. Also appearing in the film was Ward Bond, the great character actor and one director John Ford’s good friends and his good luck charm.

One of the actors in the movie, Sydney Greenstreet, has always fascinated me. He left home in England to become a tea planter in Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka. He had a brief acting career, from 1941 to 1949 and his role as Kasper Gutman in the Maltese Falcon was his first role. He appeared with a who’s who of stars during his short career and Tennessee Williams wrote a one act play The Last of My Solid Gold Watches for him, and dedicated it to Greenstreet. An amazing career for someone who did not get his first role until he was 62. Greenstreet suffered from a kidney ailment call Bright’s disease as well as diabetes and died five years after he retired.

The book ends with a section called Comments, Reviews and Commentaries. It features reviews, both contemporary and modern reviews of the film as well as a discussion on the older versions of the film, profiles of the director and a discussion on the movies place in film history.

There are so man fascinating tidbits of information in the book, providing an interesting look at all of the players, how films are developed, directed and promoted. I really loved the book and will be looking for more in the series from Rutgers.

The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett

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I was having a tough week so I decided to just reread a favorite book. I picked The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett, only because I could not find The Continental Op on my bookshelves. While the stories are very dated I find them very enjoyable, in part because of the beauty of his writing. He can paint a scene so clearly. In the story Fly Paper he writes about a body, “Her arms were stretched out over head. One leg was bent under her, one stretched out so that its bare foot rested on the floor. That bare foot was whiter than a living foot could be. The face was as white as the foot.” In Dead Yellow Women he describes a body guard “He was a big meateating wrestler-bull throated, mountain-shouldered, gorilla-armed, leather-skinned. The god that made him had plenty of material, and gave it time to harden.” The slang in it is very interesting. Yeggs for criminals, eggs in the coffee and duck soup for something that is easy, jungled up for a place to live and bees for money.

There is a casual racism in the book, mostly exemplified by people’s names, which while colorful are the sign of a different time. Wop Healy, Paddy the Mex, Hymie the Riveter and so on. I wonder if thugs had such colorful nicknames in that era. Hammett had been a private detective with Pinkerton so I assume he would have known. Other crooks nicknames include Fat Boy Clarke, Alphabet Shorty McCoy and The Shivering Kid, to name a few.

You sometimes forget how much the Bay Area has changed in less than 100 years. In the first story, The Gutting of Couffignal, the action takes place on a fictitious island in San Pablo Bay. For those not familiar with the geography of the Bay Area just imagine you sailed into San Francisco Bay. You simply sail along the coast across from San Francisco past Marin and you will reach the bay. The Napa River flows into the bay and you could go up the river, if you had a raft, and reach Napa. Anyway it took two days to reach the bay from San Francisco.

There was no Golden Gate Bridge, which opened in 1937 and the short story was written in 1925. I imagine he had to take surface roads down from San Francisco to San Jose and then up to Oakland and beyond. I always thought that it would be fun to write a modern detective story that takes place in San Francisco just using places mentioned in his stories. So many have changed or are now so unrecognizable as to be gone that it would be tough to follow if you were unfamiliar with his stories.

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If you have never read any of the Continental Op stories the central detective is a fat, tough operative who is never named. The op is considered the forerunner of all hardboiled detectives that were to come. He describes his boss as an old veteran detective who has had all of the emotion washed out of him, and the unnamed op is pretty much the same. He has his code, but it is flexible, depending on the circumstances.

The book also contains an unfinished novel by Hammett called Tulip. It is one of the few pieces that he has written that just does not appeal to me. It has a pair of related stories, The Big Knockover and $106,000 Blood Money, which are among my favorites. They have complex plots, interesting characters and some very good twists. However if you have not read Hammett’s short stories this is probably not the collection to start with. I think that either The Continental Op or Nightmare Town:Stories would be a better place to start.

One nice thing about leading a connected life is that when the fat detective sits down to protect some wedding presents and picks up a book entitled Lord of the Sea, I could quickly find out that it is a real book and just as wild as he said it was. Also ranked as the #17,449,108 top seller on Amazon! There are a couple of people and incidents that are mentioned in the stories, such as Coxey’s Army, that are real. Since Hammett said in interviews that all of the characters have at least some semblance to real people this should not have surprised me.

A funny thing about this book is that when I looked at it in a second hand store in Mountain View it had an inscription on its flyleaf that said it was a first edition. That was as far as I got before rushing to the register and buying it. Sadly it is about a 15th edition, something I discovered when I got home. That would have been a great buy for $1.50.

Juvenal-The Sixteen Satires

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The Sixteen Satires is probably my least liked ancient text that I have read. I have a pretty broad, but not deep, experience reading books not just from ancient Greece and Rome but also Indian, and the Near East.

I understand the importance of his place in history, and the importance that satires have as a literary form, it is just that it seemed like one long rant, like listening to a senile uncle complain about everything, and how nothing is as good as it was in his day.

No one is to be trusted, especially women. He hates gays, Greeks, Egyptians, Jews and probably a host more that I just did not take note of. He dislikes working people and the common man. The aristocracy is no longer filling a number of roles that it should be, and here is where I find it interesting.

He often complains about the changing role of clients to the nobility. At one time they were people that were followers of an aristocrat who in turn fed them and often entertained them. The aristocrats in turn provided him with an entourage that apparently showed to society at large how important that individual was. Juvenal was in the group. He complained that at one time they got great food and good wine, then food baskets and then just cash. He laments that a group has become professional followers and are (apparently) edging out people such as him.

I did learn a good deal about the sordid underside of higher Roman society, even if much of it is a bit sketchy on the facts, and should be questioned. While he presents it as a snap shot of everyday life most reviews I have checked have said that it is nothing of the sort. The book is basically on long litany of complaints and, at least to me, got very tedious.

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Another point not in favor of the book was the translation. I understand that translation is an art, and that often each generation gets a new one that reflects in some ways the current culture as well as what is being translated. I took Latin in high school and struggled mightily with Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, with results that often did not match what Caesar was saying. However translating a Latin phrase into a French one does not seem quite kosher. But that is one of the minor complains that I have.

The Romans did not have problems with the Prussians nor with the Moors. They did not use farthings or gold guineas. I am pretty sure that people who went to the race track (why not use hippodrome since most people reading this would know what that was?) did not wear track suits. The list goes on and on. For a book such as this I am assuming it is for more than the casual reader and they understand who any of the tribes the Romans dealt with as well as terms that deal with items used in daily life such as coinage. It takes away from the feel of the book by using 20th century terms instead.

The version I read was a Penguin Classics translated by Peter Green. I was interested to note that in looking at a review for a more recent translation by Green he laments the liberties he took with the version that I read, so I might give it a second look but honestly I doubt it.

I am sure that there are positives from the book that I did not take away. It did help refresh my memory about some of the short lived Emperors of this time, but right now that is pretty much all I can say. Well that and I discovered De Bello Africa, about Caesar’s campaigns against his republican enemies in Africa.