The Twelve Caesars

The Twelve Caesars
Matthew Dennison

Matthew Dennison’s revisiting of Suetonius is probably unnecessary even for the general reader, adding little to the familiar story of the first dozen Roman emperors either in terms of new scholarship or fresh interpretation. Still it’s hard to go wrong with these colourful illustrations of how the power of an office corrupts. It may be that some of the worst of the bunch in fact wanted to do a better, more responsible job, but that was never in the cards. Following Augustus, though with less restraint, they resigned themselves to playing their part in the comedy.

Dying Every Day

Dying Every Day
James Romm

James Romm’s previous book, Ghost on the Throne, did an admirable job summarizing an almost impossibly complex and sprawling story: the breakdown of the Classical world after the passing of Alexander the Great. Dying Every Day may be seen as a contrasting, systolic movement, narrowly focused on the career of Seneca at the court of Nero. It is not a biography or general history of the period but an essay that tries to identify which of the “two Senecas” handed down to us in the literature is a closer approximation of the man. Was he a time-serving hypocrite and enabler of Nero’s despotism, or a philosopher aware of his own falling short of Stoic ideals who nevertheless did the best he could in a bad and ultimately fatal situation, a true hostage to fortune?

There’s no way of answering such a question now, but for what it’s worth Romm takes a sympathetic approach and tends toward the latter reading. It’s easy, perhaps inevitable, to become compromised living under an absolute dictator. Not coincidentally, this makes the historian’s job even harder, as the members of a dictator’s court have roles to play that require concealing , by various subterfuges, their real thoughts and feelings. It seems likely that Seneca had no idea how bad Nero was going to turn out, and when he did it was too late to do anything about it or even to save himself. In retrospect he probably realized that the only way to win was not to play the game.

Better Living Through Criticism

Better Living Through Criticism
A. O. Scott

In these essays on criticism (or “how to think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth”) the film critic A. O. Scott quickly disposes of originality. “Imitation is not the erosion of originality; it is the condition of originality.” “Really, there is nothing new under the sun.” Well, I didn’t have to put that second one in quotation marks, but it’s what he says.

This is an essential first step in such a book, as Scott has nothing new to say. The usual, and very familiar, subjects and sources are canvassed. I didn’t find much to disagree with, which is both good and bad. Good in that Scott doesn’t say anything very stupid; bad in that his main point is that criticism is all about thinking, with the critic being, ideally, a kind of catfish (to borrow a contemporary trope or meme for a disruptive force). And yet despite this one feels inclined to skim the pond.

I think critics are important, but are they essential? One of the saddest things about Scott’s book is the interchapters that take the form of interviews or dialogues with himself. Or perhaps even sadder is the fact that the book’s impetus seems to have been a tweet made by the actor Samuel L. Jackson about one of Scott’s reviews. I doubt Jackson cared about Scott’s response, leaving the prominent critic to spend a good chunk of the book talking to himself. You have the sense of a man very much alone in a room, knowing that when he leaves he’ll be the one who has to finally turn out the lights.

Censored 2016

Censored 2016
Ed. by Mickey Huff, and Andy Lee Roth with Project Censored

This volume in the annual Project Censored series marks their fortieth anniversary, and I’ve been along with them for most of the ride (see my earlier comments on the 2003, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 instalments). In terms of the editorial structure, it seems as though they’ve dropped the system of “news clusters” that was only introduced a couple of years ago. That’s no big loss, and I would recommend the Junk Food News section for further pruning in case anyone is listening. This section has turned into a bunch of unnecessary scolding. Introducing this section by saying that the past year was “jam-packed with more junk than Courtney Love’s veins” is a bad indicator of where things are headed.

As for the stories themselves, few of these are surprising. This is probably due to the way that the news, having migrated to the Internet and now constituting a “networked fourth estate,” is less monolithic now, making mainstream censorships more difficult. The top story, for example, that half of global wealth is now owned by the one percent, is only a milestone on what has been a long and well-reported trend. Among the other stories, what is most revealing, in a depressing way, is how much worse stories involving the environment and state surveillance are than we may have suspected.

Public Enemies

Public Enemies
Bryan Burrough

The story of “America’s first crime wave” is certainly an exciting and explosive one, packing a lot of action into a remarkably brief time frame. From 1933 to 1936 such now legendary figures as John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd roamed the American South and Mid-West, robbing banks and kidnapping, and leading directly to the rise to power of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Bryan Burrough has gone through the FBI archives and come up with a detailed account of the who, where, and whens. There is, however, no real attempt at explaining the psychologies of the different players, or much beyond their most basic cultural context. The project was originally envisaged as a television miniseries and was later made into a movie, and I can’t help but think that this played into the presentation here. But then it’s probably also true that none of the public enemies had a very interesting personality anyway. Robbing banks was difficult, dangerous work, often for very little in the way of a pay off. They did it because the banks were there, yes, but also because they weren’t capable of thinking of anything better to do.

Wicked Intentions

Wicked Intentions
Kevin Flynn

Female serial killers are not unknown (see, for example, Patricia Pearson’s When She Was Bad), but they are less common than their male counterparts and tend to play by different rules. Most female serial killers that we know of have, for obvious reasons, used different methods than men. Poison is a particular favourite way of dealing with their victims. In addition, women tend to not be as sexually compelled as men when it comes to serial murder. It has been suggested that all (male) serial killers are acting out a form of sexual violence, which is a slight overstatement but not by much. Women, on the other hand, seem driven by other motives.

Sheila LaBarre was an exception to all these rules. Technically she might not have met the strictest definition of a serial killer since she only admitted to the murder of two men, but there’s reason to think there may have been more. What makes her case stand out is how her violence took a very masculine form: physical domination driven by a perverse and hyper-aggressive sexuality.

Kevin Flynn doesn’t go into any of this background in his book on the LaBarre story, but has nevertheless produced an excellent account, well paced and surprisingly well structured. LaBarre herself is revealed as a sadistic bully; not insane (at least as ultimately determined by a jury) but mean. Could she have been stopped? Society has to do a better job identifying such types and responding to them.

Crash to Paywall


Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption
Brian Gorman

You’ve probably heard by now that these are tough times for newspapers. The standard story has it that the Internet with its “culture of free” and alternative advertising avenues delivered a perhaps mortal blow to the industry, exacerbated by the economic downturn that struck in 2007-2008. Brian Gorman doesn’t disagree with this, but wants to expand the narrative, casting a wider net of blame while at the same time pointing to some signs of hope. While changes in technology have played a key role, in particular up-ending the traditional model of classifieds and advertising that has long sustained newspapers, the industry has also brought a lot of its pain upon itself by cutting costs and in many cases putting out an inferior product (this has been a particular problem with large chains). That said, there have also been many success stories at both the national and local level, with a lot of first-rate journalism still being practised both in print and online.

The greatest danger moving forward, especially in Canada, is increased concentration of ownership and uniformity of message: the press as a “gated community” with a narrow range of interests, mainly directed toward serving elites. The situation today is so much in flux it’s hard to say how things will ultimately play out, but Gorman provides a great map to the territory we’ve entered and identified the importance of what’s at stake.