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by Antonya Nelson

Bloomsbury | 2010 | 229 pages | $25.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

“You’re one of the few women reviewers we have who’ll review books by men.”  My editor told me something to this effect and I felt a sort of smug satisfaction.  Basically, I was just excited to relay this information to my husband, who claimed I only read books by women.

Actually some of my favorite authors are men—I count Richard Ford and Jay McInerney, whom I discovered in college with his “groundbreaking” (at least I thought so) Bright Lights, Big City, among my favorite writers.  I also enjoy Sherman Alexie, T.C. Boyle, and Andre Dubus (as well as his son, Andre Dubus III, who has written short stories and the excellent House of Sand and Fog, but it’s true that I went through a period (OK, a decade) when I focused almost exclusively on women writers.

Perhaps in my late teens and twenties, I wanted to know what men thought and felt—what moved them, what filled them with the desire I was just beginning to feel—so I turned to male novelists.  That yearning actually led me to Montana (after reading the Richard Ford story “Great Falls,” I felt there was no way I could not live in Montana).  Needless to say, reading books by men did not solve the mystery of men.  In spite of wisdom gained from short stories and novels, men remained a mystery.  (And still remain a mystery.)  I met some cowboys, dated some good old boys, and moved on to female authors.

Reading female authors was a totally different experience.  When I read the likes of Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, and Sue Miller, rather than feeling like a spy delving into alien territory, I felt a heart-beating recognition.  Sometimes when I read an Alice Munro line I would feel the hair raising on my neck because what she was saying was so remarkably, precisely accurate.  Somehow she and the other female writers I read managed to write what I felt about love and longing.

They described things that I had only felt, not articulated.  Having it said in a story was almost terrifying.  My mind is ablaze even as I write this—I think of an early short story by Lorrie Moore.  The narrator is writing about becoming an author and how the work consumes her.  It seems simple enough, but the emotion behind the scene is extraordinary.  Or an Alice Munro story where she writes about the love, shame, and dependence that surround mothers and daughters.  How women keep the core of themselves intact while playing various roles seems to be the fundamental question these authors ask.

One of the authors I found during this period was Antonya Nelson.  She was one of those authors whom I “found” and devoured, reading her books over the course of a couple of weeks.  But Nelson was different than the other women writers I’d come across.  Something was different in her characters—they were freer, less trapped, and unburdened by feelings of guilt.  Nelson allows her characters to be naughty—they are lazy and irreverent, they smoke pot before teaching class and sleep around without “paying for it.”

Most of the female authors I’d read before placed their characters in stark moral dilemmas—for example, in an Alice Munro story, the narrator who is having an affair ends up giving up her children to her ex-husband in order to be with her boyfriend.  This choice is excruciating.  Similarly in the much-loved novel The Good Mother, by Sue Miller, a passionate love affair supersedes a mother’s duty to her child (it is more complex than that, but this is the essence).  And certainly in novels and stories throughout time women are caught, snagged, and entrapped for their transgressions and for following their desires--The Scarlet Letter, Tess, and Anna Karenina, to name a few.

But, lucky for them, Nelson’s women (and men) get away with their transgressions and somewhat hazy notions of “morality.”  This might be celebrated by feminists, and indeed, when I first read of women behaving more like men, I was thrilled.  But at the same time, the lack of consequences does not always work in fiction.  (In our fiction we might crave tragedy).

Bound, Nelson’s latest book, is no exception.  The book examines the lives of a couple, Catherine and Oliver Desplaines, at the point of which it intersects with the life of Catty, Catherine’s unknown Godchild.  (Catty is named after Catherine).  The Godchild is the child of Catherine’s best friend in high school, a wild girl named Misty, who included the more sheltered Catherine in her sometimes illegal, and often risky, pursuits.  Nelson spends a great deal of time on these high school recollections, richly describing party nights and haphazard plans.

Misty is a poor girl and a tough teenager, whose home life is not the best; Catherine is the underachiever of college professors.  Somehow the chemistry between them works.  However, by the time the book starts, Misty is long forgotten.  I find this a little unbelievable—that the girl who occupied Catherine’s life for so long could be reduced to a sketchy portrait, but then again, we probably do coax away the parts of our lives where we acted in strange, uncharacteristic ways (like Catherine acted when she was with Misty—sleeping around, stealing food from the places they worked together, etc.).

When Misty dies a tragic death, Catherine goes on a search to find her daughter.  In the meantime, she reexamines her teenage years.  The rebelliosnessness of her youth has flip-flopped, for now Catherine is the much-pampered wife of a highly successful, much older man, the entrepreneur, Oliver.

Oliver, who has been married two times before being married to Catherine, is in the midst of an affair with one of his employees, simply called “Sweetheart” in the book.  Although Oliver’s children remain furious with him for leaving their mothers (he has children from both of his previous marriages), he cannot stop himself from womanizing.  The repercussions for Oliver’s affair is nil.  There may be “internal questions” driving at Oliver, but really he gets through the affair scot-free—Catherine never finds out about it and the relationship to Sweetheart dies a slow death.

Perhaps the most fully realized character in the book is Catty, the girl who just lost her mother.  What could come off as clichéd—the bitter teenage outsider who is smart, friendless, and ironic—comes across as believable.  We yearn for this girl, just as she yearns for something elusive.  The bitterness of her phone message conflicts with her almost-buried compassion (for the war veteran who lives upstairs, for the animals that almost get killed).  Catty is sullen, not very pretty and astute; she refuses to give in to the theatrics that are expected of her when her mother dies, but rather turns toward the one boy at the private school she’s attending who accepts her, a boy with a permanent smile on his face.

He gleefully leads her to his own strange home life, where she hides from her counselors and teachers, avoiding what will become of her life.  It is not until she runs her car out on a desolate road that she is forced to let the adults who have failed her, help. 

Nelson writes with a remarkably keen eye about adolescence.  Every detail seems culled from an organic place.  When she describes Catty’s room—the creepy Goth look of the ceiling, the odd assortment of classic novels and jumbled clothes—it seems right on.  Likewise, the brutal lens through which teenagers view adults is pitch-perfect.  That lens is merciless and shows adults who are as quixotic as children.  I can think of no other author who writes about teenagers with such a deft, skilled hand and eye.

Of course there are young adult novelists, but this book is not intended for teens; it’s intended for adults, who will certainly consider their own lost loves—for many women, I assume the “lost love” will be another teenage girl, a soul mate.  Misty—the orphaned girl’s mother—becomes a hugely successful real estate agent when she grows up.  The shock of this—the way she picked herself up from her miserable childhood and ended up in a pre-fab house with all its accessories, seems perfect.  For as much as we assume we know what someone will become, we really don’t.  For Nelson’s characters, life is full of trouble, paradoxes, and surprise, but they are rarely faced with a stark moral dilemma—the dilemmas for these women are more subtle, more unusual, and more random.

Nelson is teaching us something in her own way.  If we are careful observers, if we wait and follow our own meandering paths, our moment will come.

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Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

by David Eltis and David Richardson

Yale University Press | 307 pages | $50.00

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

The transatlantic slave trade built the wealth of Europe, certain African countries, and all of the Americas as outlined in the prodigious research of this book. Using 200 maps, it depicts 500 years of international trafficking in human beings.  The information is separated into 6 parts (chapters) created and annotated by authors David Eltis (The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas) and David Richardson (director, Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation).  Both of these historians and scholars of African-American history also serve on the Electronic Slave Trade Datebase Project at Emory University.

The book immediately answers the question of why these Africans were enslaved. The answer is the greed of their captors. Precious minerals like gold and silver were mined in South America by Africans enslaved by the Spanish and Portugese. However, the minerals were eventually supplanted by the major drugs of the day: tobacco, coffee, rum, and sugar.  Today's science has declared all of these products addictive. Certainly their addictive quality played a large part in consumer demand even at the cost of another's freedom or life.

Eltis and Richardson characterize this demand first in marketing terms: "...our Western culture tends to worship the magic of the free market, the invisible hand that allegedly promotes the common good." 

However, that same adoration for capitalism had a tragic side. The authors continue, " Yet it was uncontrolled market  forces that determined how many African slaves could be crammed into the hold of a ship--with the chained and padlocked males lying together for five weeks...surrounded by feces or urine drenched satisfy consumer demand for sugar, rum, tobacco, and coffee." Paintings and documents describe how food and water were so inadequate that sometimes captives starved to death with a matter of days.

Why or how did the enslavers come to believe it was acceptable to subject other human beings to this kind of treatment? As the book elaborates, during the 1400s slavery became race based. According to the authors, racism ran deep and wide in most European countries. Darker skinned Europeans, Armenians, Italians, even Slavs (from which the word slave was produced) had been enslaved by lighter skinned Northern Europeans for centuries. However, only Africans or non-Europeans were enslaved to be shipped to the Americas.

The authors demonstrate how the most economically advanced European countries and the most agriculturally equipped African countries were involved in the trade first. The former countries bought the slaves; the latter countries supplied them. For Europeans, the slave trade was about profit. For the Africans (who were essentially selling their brothers and sisters), it was about profit, politics, and power. The victors in wars between linguistic groups enslaved the vanquished. Political rivals sold their competitors. 

Eltis and Richardson don't shrink from exposing the culpability of Africans in the slave trade. In part III, there is a painting of Gezo, King of Dahomey, 1849. (Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York). In it, the king exemplifies the arrogance and cool brutality of African slavers. According to the legend under the picture, the slave trade flourished under his reign. In fact, his cruelty was on par with that of European slavers. 

The painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), shows the killing of 132 Africans. The rationale of the ship's captain was killing the Africans would enable the vessel to weather the storm. The ships's officers expected their loss to be covered by insurance.

Insurance companies and other businesses prospered as a result of the slave trade. There were companies that specialized in selling slaves, and companies that specialized in selling branding irons. In one picture, there is a branding iron with a small heart on it as if the future owner wants the slave to feel loved.

Yet, there was resistance by the captives themselves. The book details "patterns of slave resistance." The majority of revolts happened close to the western coast line.

"By capt.  [sic] Wright of the Endeavour, from the Coast of Guinea, we had the following account of the loss of the Marlborough, capt. Codd, of Brtistol, by an insurrection of the Negroes the beginning of October last [1752]...,while most o fthe crew were below cleaning the rooms, and none but the captain and two white men, armed with cutlasses, left above to take care of the ship, all of a sudden the Negroes on deck snatched the arms from them, wounded the captain, and forced him up the foreshrouds, where they shot him dead."

Often the organizers of these revolts were women. This was because women were not shackled as the men were. The book also mentions that African women were often raped by their captors. It can be inferred that, because the voyages were so long (two years in many cases), babies were born aboard ship. The subject for another book would be how these women fared during pregnancy, childbirth, and what happened to their babies.

The other resistance was the worldwide abolition movement. The painting of the Zong  murders galvanized the British abolitionist movement. Although laws against slavery had some impact, nothing brought it to a halt like the abolitionist movement in Britain and the Civil War in America. After half a millennium, the transatlantic slave trade became reprehensible, even anathema in Europe, the Americas, and the United States.

The English lead this movement and had naval ships patrolling the high seas to rescue Africans and free them. Various European countries and America made it illegal to transport slaves.( Ironically, America didn't outlaw slavery inside the United States until after the Civil War.)

The British Government created a Court of Mixed Commission to try and to levy fines on all countries that engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. That government resettled captives in British owned colonies and also along the western coast of Africa and in the Americas. Although the intentions were good, there were tragic problems; thousands of Africans were recaptured by slavers who raided these settlements. 

Exact, yet sensitive, the book lists the horrors of going into bondage. Worthy attention is paid to the Middle Passage. "The only food we had during the voyage was corn soaked and boiled. I cannot tell how long we were thus confined... a great many slaves died upon the passage," wrote Mahomah G. Baquaqua who published this account after he escaped from slavery. Many survivors or escapees published their experiences and spoke out against the trade.

Eltis and Robinson consider the Middle Passage a way to determine how slavery "restructured the populations of both the society of origin and the society of arrival." History records that entirely new cultures were created in the Americas. Conversely, it can be assumed that entire peoples were lost because of this slave trade. The authors supply ship manifests detailing the deaths and dying of captives during the Middle Passage. They also give an invaluable jewel, the website,, which documents 35,000 slave ship voyages.

To say the information compiled here is awe inspiring is to almost do it justice. Listed here are names of victims; where they were kidnapped; how many came from which country; which year; and lesson plans on how to teach on the transatlantic slave trade.

The book also lays the groundwork for reparations. Because of its copious statistics, it's possible to calculate the financial cost of slavery. For example, using the website, a reader can  multiple the "cost" of a slave by the number of slaves sold in a country in a certain amount of time. Cost of slaves from various countries are listed in the maps also.

Theoretically, the transatlantic slave trade ended. However, in its aftermath came share cropping, segregation, and systemic racism. The descendants of the slaves that built the financial support of world powers have never received  any of the profits made by their ancestors. This book will be a real boon to the reparations movement and an aid to quantifying what is owed.

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Separate Beds

by Elizabeth Buchan

Viking, Penquin | 2011 | 372 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

All in the Family

There’s an old Jewish folktale about a poor man in a shtetl living with his wife, children and in-laws.  He goes to the Rabbi complaining about the noise and chaos in his home.  Week after week, the Rabbi urges him to let the cow, goat, chickens and pig into the one-room dwelling.  When the man reaches the breaking point, the rabbi permits him to remove the animals one by one.  The man is ecstatic: “Rabbi, I have such peace and quiet, it’s unbelievable, “What a lucky man am I!”  Sometimes this story is entitled, Things Can Always Get Worse.

Separate Beds echoes this story line:  An affluent working couple have all the material amenities they could possibly want, but are emotionally estranged from themselves and, to some extent, their children.  Then the Big Bad Recession knocks at the door.  Tom, paterfamilias, loses his prestigious job at the BBC and he and his wife, Annie, suddenly have to pare back on their lifestyle.  His aging Mom moves in with them, the nursing home having become too expensive.  Their daughter, Emily, reluctantly forsakes dreams of being a novelist to go out and earn a living.  Son Jake, a craftsman/carpenter, gets dumped by his ambitious and adulterous wife and left with the baby, and guess what?  His business does a nosedive, too, and he moves back in with his parents.

The reader, frazzled as much, or more, by this claustrophobic set-up than the ever-capable Annie, wonders if things can get much worse.  Oh yes, Grandma invites a mangy stray dog into the household.  Tom does some doubtful speculating on the market.  Jake’s wife sues for custody from America.  Annie has a wrongful death case to worry her at the hospital where she works.

A curious thing happens.  The chill between Annie and Tom shows signs of thawing.  They’re forced to room together after maintaining separate beds for years.  They begin to share and even discuss the traumatic events in their lives, including the angry departure of their radicalized daughter, Mia, five years before, with her shaggy-haired boyfriend. They have had no contact with her ever since.

nstead of implosion, the family pulls itself together though hard times do not necessarily let up.  Because this novel is set in London, the stiff upper lip code of conduct seems to apply.  Even in the midst of emotionally fraught exchanges, the conduct of all parties is surprisingly understated and contained.  Buchan’s omniscient narrator tends to over explain what is happening in the minds and psyches of the characters, telling us how brutal a remark was, rather than bringing it out in the dialogue.  Often, we don’t hear the shouts or feel the passion, but we’re told they’re there.  Heated arguments with nary a cuss word?  No hysterical crying?  How about a good tantrum?!

It may just be a British-American moment of disconnect.

The characters themselves are true to life and sympathetic enough, and we root for them to find new jobs, new loves, and a new purpose in the year we share with them.  The plot moves along in an interesting way and we hope the family will, as they say, “sort things out.” Warning: the book tires you out, especially if you are a middle-aged woman (as I am) and know viscerally what it is like to come home from a demanding hospital administrative job, and then have to make dinner for five or more people, do a couple of loads of laundry, bring your bookkeeping up to date, and, oh yes, walk the dog before going to bed.  And in between, you’re breaking up a few (verbal) fights and smoothing feathers all around.  Separate Beds, despite its upbeat ending, is not to be included in the category of escapist literature.

This novel is as topical as novels can get. (The collapse of Lehman Brothers provides a plot turn). Most of us have been forced to make adjustments in our lifestyles due to the current economic downturn and high rate of unemployment – like Annie, we may have given up certain luxuries such as the beauty salon, the cleaning lady, and the organic food market.  Like her, we may have had to hock our jewelry and a few of our prized possessions, too.  Some of us know what it’s like to be out in the job market at age 50.  What happens to this family – and what threatens to happen - haunts all of our nightmares these days.  To see that the family pulls through, more or less intact, is heartening and hopeful.

Yet, if we have to witness close hand the disintegrations of a family, isn’t it preferable to be taken along for a ride in one of Fay Weldon’s manic romps, or to witness the insane fun of A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon?  We love dysfunction as much as the next guy, but these other British writers prove it can be delivered with more than a dollop of humor.  So the key is to decide how much realism you’re after.

Buchan apparently has a dozen novels under her belt and a biography of Beatrix Potter, and, like Emily, needed a job first before venturing into a full-time writing career.  She worked in publishing, for Penguin as a blurb writer, and later for Random House as a fiction editor.  She lives with her husband and three children in London.

Armed with a graduate degree in English, Janet Garber deserted Academia, running off to Mexico and France for several years of wide-eyed adventure before settling back again in NYC.  As a sideline to her career in HR, she has published articles, book and movie reviews, and a book, I Need a Job, Now What?

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The Voice Across the Veil

by Sue Scudder

2010 | 256 pages | $26.00

Reviewed by Barbara Snow

Books that give us insight into our lives become friends we revisit. The Voice Across the Veil, by Sue Scudder, is such a book. Increasingly, quantum physicists document the holographic and multi-dimensional nature of our world, while literature on verifiable, near-death experiences corroborates those concepts with personal anecdotes. 

Sue Scudder nearly died when her body had an allergic reaction to general anesthesia. In clear and detailed language she describes her experiences, and more importantly, the effect on her life:

‘…the experience awakened an insatiable curiosity about the other side of life and all things mystical.”

Yet it was 19 years before the call came to begin the assignment given, a memory blocked until then.

 “You are to help others crossing from one side to another, just as you are experiencing.”

Souls would be drawn to her through her music and vibration. A gifted pianist, Scudder must work through intense discomfort to share her music. Also she must write a book triggered by a heart-breaking tragedy.

Human partners were given to her: three other women with related gifts who “showed up” to do the work. Scudder’s description of releasing souls locked in this dimension to transcend to Source is clear and humble. One group had been her beloved community in a prior life. As Scudder describes how this past life was revealed, you may be reminded of similar situations in your own life. This riveting segment shows the reason for her remembering: to free souls from that life still trapped by trauma.

The second part of Scudder’s story begins with the tragedy that broke the heart of an entire mountain community and resounded across the country. Scudder comments:

“…I realized the reason for my memory loss. Had I known nineteen years ago that, as a result of painful tragedies, I would be assisting and communication with ‘dead’ people, what would the last nineteen years of my life been like? Looking around every corner – what is the tragedy and who might it affect? Writing a book? I am not a writer! I would surely have lost my mind. It was a good and righteous thing to have had my memory erased for a time.”

Prepared by her prior work, Scudder knew how to help. Her vivid account may comfort you and encourage your own process of growth and service. The messages from the other side are clear:

“Think hard about your choices, as they make huge differences in the long run. As we become more connected with each other in a spiritual way, our loving thoughts alone will begin to make a shift in the consciousness of the world. We can heal the earth just by our loving thoughts and intentions. As we change our perceptions, we will consciously change the way we live…”

The courageous young spirit who continues to help from the other side insists, “Love, love, love, it cannot be said enough.” Scudder’s honest questioning of her helpers on the other side produces insightful responses to philosophical and practical questions. The information in this book can serve your own spiritual evolution. The validations that help us all include (1) awareness of the multidimensional nature of reality, (2) the love and support available at all times by simply asking, and (3) the eternal nature of our own individual essence. Sue Scudder’s book, The Voice Across the Veil, consists of true stories showing what fully integrated spirituality looks like. You will be informed, uplifted and inspired.

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WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY: Self-Control in an Age of Excess

by Daniel Akst

The Penguin Press | 2011 | 275 pages | $26.95

Reviewed by Michael Carey

The American Heritage Dictionary describes self-control as “Control of one’s emotions, desires, or actions by one’s own will.”  However, in We Have Met The Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, Daniel Akst proposes that this definition is inadequate.  It gives no consideration to the conflicting desires present in all of us.  To improve upon this definition, Akst acknowledges a hierarchy of human desires.  First order desires are any old desires that may cross our minds, while second orders are the ones we actually want for ourselves.  He writes, “What self-control doesn’t mean, in my book, is mindless self-sacrifice or knee-jerk self-denial.  On the contrary, it represents an affirmation of self, for it requires not the negation of instinct, but its integration into a more complete form of character—one that takes account of more than just immediate pleasures and pains.  The self-control I’m talking about means acting in keeping with your highest level of reflection.”

The author introduces the reader slowly to the excesses and temptations present in everyday life with staggering stats, figures, and examples. The Internet alone, for example, has made everything cheaper, faster, and easier; all three promote impulse decisions that undermine rational thought and make self-control more difficult.  However, Akst proclaims that to succeed in keeping focus on our second order desires, three things are needed.  To do so requires faith in the power to choose, imagination to visualize the possible future the choices will create, and cleverness to create methods that promote the desired actions. Akst gives us a few examples of historical and literary figures that employed forms of pre-commitment, and offers a few other solutions to help curb indulgence.  The story of Odysseus tied to the mast while listening to the sirens’ song, among other examples he uses, is meant to induce the reader into thinking about the possibilities and measures available for aiding in self-control.  Akst then dives into an exploration of how the world came to such excess.

Akst guides a path through history starting with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and their solution for a society of moderation.  He relates the success of capitalism and the rise of New World ideals, from thrift to profligacy, to the growing emphasis of the self in self-control. 

Akst does not fail to acknowledge the importance of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the teachings of Sigmund Freud as he brings the reader through the Great Depression, the liberation of the Sixties, and the inflation of the Seventies to the present.  Several times he references the recent financial crisis and explores it as a demonstration of our society’s failure, on many levels, to regulate and educate ourselves. 

The whole picture is painted as a meandering path that encountered many forks in the road along the way.  The majority made decisions about whose ideas to follow (or even how to interpret those ideas), and those decisions have led us to where we are as a society today.  Many social changes occurred along the way, and Akst discusses a few and the effect they have had on self-control.

There is a debate of Nature vs. Nurture that has been ongoing for many years with great support on both sides.  This argument has embedded itself, always at the root, into topics of humans, humanity, and the future before us.  Self-control is no exception.  Some wonder if we have any choice at all: Are our choices just responses to nature?

A great amount of science, and numerous studies have contributed to what is understood about the delay of gratification, evolution, and how the brain is designed and functions.  We Have Met The Enemy condenses this information through the exploration of experiments in conditioning, studies of children and adults’ choices of varying rewards as a function of time, as well as breakthroughs in medical sciences.

Akst is clear in his position implicating that some responsibility resides with the individuals for choices made.  Moreover, he is unafraid to dive into the influence that heredity, environment, and biology have and the amount of choices humans actually have, even though these issues have a potential to undermine his argument.  He also attacks controversial issues on the matters of addiction, crimes of passion, “cutting loose”, and the role of government. 

After introducing the reader to the many facets and ideas of self-control and the possible detrimental effects a lack of it can produce, Akst proceeds to constructively guide the reader to ways of strengthening willpower and offers guidelines and options that an individual can use to avoid a harmful faltering of the will.

We Have Met The Enemy is as much a testimony to the amount of research Akst compiled as to the depth of the issue of self-control.  I found the reading slow at times (It was more Encyclopedia Britannica than Encyclopedia Brown), but the way the author ties his ideas together was unique and enjoyable.  He uses humor and pop culture references to keep the mood light as he slides through the heavy subject matter. I took pleasure in reading this book and in the many interesting views and facts it presents.

I think this overview of self-control would be helpful to anyone even mildly struggling with temptations.  I’ll readily admit that I started reading this book with a beer in hand almost as a challenge to the author.  While he may not have succeeded in breaking me of bad habits, a basic understanding of the challenges and processes we face with each decision has helped me to look at my options and often make a better choice.

Akst also offers several clever solutions for those serious about changing actions and creating better habits.  In conclusion, I will end with a quote from Akst that sums a central theme in his book: “…for while we don’t have much say over the desires that we have, we certainly can decide which we prefer—and then search for ways to act on that basis.”

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by Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown and Company | 2010

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC in Babylon, his far-flung kingdom came to be divided into four parts—the Ptolemic Kingdom of Egypt, the Seleucid Kingdom, including Syria and Palestine, the Kingdom of Pergamon in Asia Minor, and the Kingdom of Macedonia. Within months of Alexander’s death, Ptolemy, the most enterprising of his generals, laid claim to Egypt, the wealthiest of his territories, and the breadbasket of the ancient world. He and his successors built Alexandria into the most cultured city of its time, replete with a gymnasium, the biggest library* in the known world, the splendid boulevard, Canopic Way, the fabled Lighthouse of Pharos, and numerous temples and palaces. The Ptolemies re-established the Hellenistic culture of Athens in Egypt. They ruled Egypt for nearly 200 years, until Cleopatra VII, its last ruler, died in 30 BC.

When Ptolemy found Alexandria’s library, he set out to gather every text in existence, some 100,000 scrolls. Alexandria’s patron saint was Aristotle and Euclid codified geometry there. Homer’s work was the Bible of the day. Eminent men in their fields wrote prolifically on medicine and maladies, specifically on eye and lung ailments. “A curious cure for baldness [Caesar was bald] was credited to Cleopatra; she was said to counsel a paste of equal parts of burned mice, burned rag, burnt horse teeth, beer, grease, deer marrow, and reed bark. Mixed with honey, the salve was to be allied to the scalp and rubbed until it sprouted.” The Talmud hails her for her “great scientific curiosity.” +

The Ptolemies carried on the Egyptian practice of family marriages between brothers and sisters. Intermarriage consolidated wealth and power, but lent new meaning to sibling rivalry and fratricide. Cleopatra was born in 69 BC—all five of her siblings, two of which she was briefly married to, came to violent ends.

Cleopatra was not a beautiful woman. She was small and dark, slight of build. Surviving busts show her with a hooked nose, razor sharp cheekbones, and an air of severity. What she lacked in physical beauty, however, she made up in charisma, intelligence and shrewdness—she was well educated and spoke five or six languages, including Egyptian, a language other Ptolemaic rulers had not bothered to learn. From an early age she enjoyed the best education available at the hands of gifted scholars in the greatest center of learning in existence.

When Ptolemy Auletes died in 51, the new queen was 18, and her brother was eight years younger. She ruled for 22 years.

In 48, Caesar dealt Pompey a crushing defeat. Pompey fled to Egypt where he was stabbed and decapitated on an Egyptian beach at the order of Ptolemy XII.

Ms. Schiff complains that her sources may be flawed but they are the only ones we have. After Pompey’s assassination, Julius Caesar ventured ashore and installed himself in a pavilion on the grounds of the Ptolemy palace. Legend has it that in order to gain audience with the great Roman general, the 21 year-old Cleopatra had herself rolled into a carpet, which was carried into his quarters and unfurled.

To Caesar, Cleopatra was a strong link to Alexander the Greek, the product of a highly refined civilization and heir to a dazzling intellectual tradition. The young monarch he encountered was to this man of curiosity both irresistible and bewitching. It’s unclear who seduced who, just as it’s unclear how quickly Cleopatra and Caesar fell into each other’s arms.

For all of its philosophic wisdom, Greek culture lacked the moral compass of the Jews. Alexandria sported an extravagantly hedonistic culture, lavish excess and a party-till-dawn mentality.

No Hellenistic monarchs did opulence better than the Ptolemies—among the greatest hosts in history, they sent their guests stumbling home with gifts following sumptuous banquets. No wonder the great Julius Caesar dallied in Egypt. When he finally returned to Rome, Cleopatra was pregnant with their child, Caesarion.

Compared to Alexandria, Rome was still something of a backwater, a crowded and dirty city, lacking in refinement.++ On neither of the two visits Cleopatra made to the city, each taking months getting to and fro, was she particularly welcome. The greatest orator and senator Cicero despised the arrogant young Queen, and called her “the Egyptian harlot,” but then he may have been intimidated by her wealth and because she, a woman, was his equal in eloquence of discourse.

During her second visit, on the 15th (the Ides) of March, 44, the great Caesar was assassinated by his colleagues in the Roman Senate. Cleopatra fled back to Egypt.

Ms. Schiff’s account is a bit bumpy at first and contains some non-sequiturs, but she hits her stride when describing the shifting alliances of those vying for the throne and the maelstrom of events set in motion by Caesar’s death. Her masterful narration becomes intensely interesting and is sustained to the book’s end.

On the one hand, Caesar’s assassins, Cassius and Brutus, who had more wealth at their disposal, opposed Octavian and Mark Antony. Octavian, Caesar’s appointed heir, was a sickly young man of twenty years. Though he was popular among the Romans, he had little experience governing an empire the size of the Roman Empire.

Mark Anthony was his senior by about twenty years. As a military general he was a seasoned warrior, but he was a wastrel who enjoyed women and levitation and was in Cicero’s eyes, “the belching, vomiting brute, prone to spewing rather than speaking.” I struggle to describe the character of the handsome Mark Anthony—he was exuberant and generous, but his judgment was often rash and faulty.

Despite the poverty of their financial reserve, the alliance of Octavian and Mark Antony proved successful at Philippi. They defeated Cassius and Brutus—both assassins committed suicide, Cassius on the very sword with which he had speared Caesar. Their victory raised Mark Antony to the seat of power because Octavian was but an inexperienced young man. As history has shown, however, it was invariably a mistake to underestimate Octavian.

Here the narrative grows dense. There are many interesting details that time and space do not permit me to include. From Philippi, Mark Anthony requested an audience with Cleopatra, but she took her time in coming to him. When she finally arrived, she floated up the river through the plains in a blinding explosion of color, sounds and smells. She reclined beneath a gold spangled canopy, dressed as Venus, while beautiful young boys like painted Cupids stood at her side and fanned her—the spin was that Venus had arrived to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia.

Plutarch pays tribute to Cleopatra’s irresistible charm and the persuasion of her discourse. She knew of Mark Anthony’s reputation, a messy one, and his tendency to be given to theater, if not melodrama. What ensued was a series of dinners hosted by Cleopatra and Anthony—Anthony returned on his fourth evening to Cleopatra’s barge to become knee-deep in an expanse of roses.

Her effect was immediate and electrifying. Mark Anthony followed Cleopatra to Alexandria, where she labored to provide him a magnificent reception. He proved to be an expensive houseguest but his capers went over well. He was all muscle and mirth and liked nothing more than to make a lady laugh.

By the end of 41, Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Alexander had Anthony’s build and curly hair. Throughout Italy, Anthony and Octavian were praised to the skies for bringing peace, but trouble was brewing between the two victors.

After years of pretending they were friends, they became increasingly at odds. The stakes were high, and it was a question as to who would rule the Roman Empire, including Syria and Egypt. Caesarion posed a threat to Octavian as the future heir. Anthony had moved his forces into Parthia, where he suffered heavy losses (Parthia, or Persia, was Rome’s age-old enemy. Fighting between the two empires stretched until the time of Mohammed, in the 6th Century AD).

In 37, Cleopatra ruled over nearly the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, from present-day Libya to southern Turkey. Anthony needed a navy, and she knew how to build ships.

For a while, the two seemed invincible. Their combined power was such that when Anthony made what is referred to as The Donations, he parceled out the East, including lands that were not strictly in his possession. The message was clear—whatever they intended did not include Octavian. The insult was such that he denounced Mark Anthony in the Roman Senate and declared war on Cleopatra. Octavian rallied his troops to march on them and insults flew back and forth between the two leaders.

As though they had not a care in the world, Anthony and Cleopatra partied in Ephesus, continuing to throw lavish banquets, as was their custom.

The confrontation took place at Actium, in 31. All was at stake -- the entire future of the ancient world. When Anthony’s fleet was destroyed, Cleopatra hurried back to Alexandria. Anthony’s legions surrendered to Octavian. Anthony followed Cleopatra. He fixed for himself a modest hut near the foot of the lighthouse and hoped he might live days in exile. Octavian marched on Alexandria.

August, 30 BC—Cleopatra knew she could not hold out against Octavian. On August 1st he arrived at the gates of Alexandria. The city was his. Cleopatra holed up in a newly-built mausoleum. Anthony tried and failed to kill himself. His body was dragged to the mausoleum’s roof and lowered to her. He died in her arms.

It was to Octavian’s advantage to take Cleopatra alive, but she outfoxed him. He allowed her to purify Anthony’s body and bury him. Legend has it that an asp was smuggled to Cleopatra in the mausoleum in a basket of figs. It is more likely that she and her two maid servants, Iras and Charmion, drank one of her poisonous concoctions. By the time Octavian’s soldiers broke in, they were dead.

Caesarion was murdered. Cleopatra’s three other children were raised by Octavian’s sister and Anthony’s wife, Octavia. Egypt became a Roman province and didn’t gain its independence until the 20th Century. (It was conquered by the Muslims in 639 AD.) Caesar Augustus, as Octavian was named, ruled the Roman Empire for the next 44 years. The sickly Octavian proved to the best ruler Rome ever had—his reign is referred to at the Roman Pax.

As a student of history, I mark certain watershed dates in order to better arrange events that preceded and followed. Fourteen ninety-two was the year Columbus sailed to the New World and the year the Moors and Jews were expelled from Spain at the hand of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Fourteen fifty-three was the year that Constantinople fell to the Muslims, and so forth.

Likewise, I like to compare simultaneous events in history. For example, when in the 6th and 5th Century BC Greek philosophers were formulating their principles, the Buddha was living in India.

Ms. Schiff thinks 30 BC is a watershed date, the beginning of modern times. I cannot help but note that Anthony and Cleopatra died about thirty years before the birth of Jesus. Given the treachery and violence of the times, it would seem the world was in need of a gospel of peace and forgiveness. King Herod factors in Ms. Schiff’s account as the murderous tetrarch of Palestine. The gospel of Luke mentions that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to enroll the census ordered by Caesar Augustus and that they fled with baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s decree that all new-born male babes be killed, returning after his death. The wise men that came to pay homage to Jesus were most likely from Parthia (Persia) and India.

Overlapping events continue into modern times. In 320 AD, after the Emperor Constantine converted, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The great Gibbons, who wrote The Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire, thought this seeded Rome’s demise…

Such speculations are numerous and fascinating. Surely Cleopatra was one of the most powerful women to have ever lived, rivaled only by Queen Elizabeth I, and, like Queen Elizabeth, deserving of our respect. It can be argued that the coffers of Cleopatra supplied the monetary resources that allowed the Roman Empire to stabilize and reach its zenith.

The new information presented in this book makes it a feast for the lovers of history. This is a must read!

*This library was unfortunately destroyed by the Romans. Its exact site is unknown. When I visited Alexandria in 2004 a new modern library hAD been built over the believed site.
+I am constantly amazed by the sophistication of ancient peoples, but then 2000 years in terms of the age of the planet isn’t all that long a time.
++Ironically, it was the wealth confiscated from Egypt after Cleopatra’s death that allowed Rome to be built into the magnificent city it became.

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