The Fall of the Roman Empire

The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History
Peter Heather

While loving Gibbon this side idolatry, I will concede that some of the conclusions he reaches about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire are not fully supported by the latest scholarship and archeological evidence (though on the whole I think he has aged rather well). In this lively and thoroughly up-to-date narrative account of the collapse of the western Roman Empire Peter Heather sees a coherent process of imperial disintegration consistently, if sometimes only indirectly, related to the sudden rise and even faster decline of the Huns. Perhaps not an entirely “new” account – still the triumph of barbarism, this time without the aid of religion – but an excellent synthesis that provides quite a bit of fresh insight.

Stephen Leacock

Stephen Leacock
Margaret MacMillan

Margaret MacMillan’s biography of Stephen Leacock is a brief and affectionately gentle account of the life of a man whose own most popular work was typified by those same qualities. Most writers do not lead particularly interesting lives and Leacock was no exception. MacMillan wisely avoids personal details (not very telling in this case anyway) and structures the book around introductions to different aspects of Leacock’s writing and thought: as a humourist, an academic, and a public intellectual. Dismissive of his conservative and conventional take on economics, history, and politics, MacMillan makes the case for why Leacock’s fiction still matters today.


Stephen King

Stephen King’s fifty-somethingth book starts off with a bang: A Romero-esque zombie apocalypse that has squads of the bloodthirsty living dead squeaking and gibbering in the streets. These zombies, however, are not your regular undead but rather human hard-drives wiped clean by a wireless power surge. Forced to reboot, we soon discover that underneath our civilized software we still have some instinctual programming for (oddly asexual) crazy violence. How this all works and what it all means is anyone’s guess. In any event, by the time the phone crazies start levitating we seem to have flown past Freud into the supernatural. A disappointment even for King fans, especially as his more familiar elements (plucky, threatened kids, anyone?) are starting to get more than a little stale.

This Way Out

This Way Out
Carmine Starnino

Carmine Starnino trains his eye on the here and now in this collection of poems, and finds in the sights, sounds and smells of a vacation in Rome as well as his home and native Montreal visions of the strangest things. The quotidian cracks open and is transformed – a butcher at his hack work develops into a portrait of the artist, and a woman four months pregnant gives birth to a memory of old men slumped on park benches, their rhyming shapes closing life’s parentheses. The few poems that don’t work tilt with rhetorical overload, but for the most part great conclusions are kept at bay and the poems “stick with small answers” rendered in finely measured lines that make careful use of sound effects and intervals of freighted silence.

Idiot America

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free
Charles P. Pierce

The problem, as Charles Pierce sees it, “is not that America has dumbed itself down” (though he obviously thinks it has), but that stupidity has become a dominant economic and political force in the land, riding roughshod over the spirit of the Enlightenment as represented by the book’s presiding founding father, James Madison. Truth has come to be measured by how many units it can move, how loudly it is broadcast, and how fanatically it is believed. The great American crank, a figure Pierce admires, has been superseded by the more commercially-oriented charlatan, defined as a “crank who’s sold out” and gone mainstream. The argument is a familiar one, and engages all the usual suspects (evolution-denying fundamentalists, talk-radio hosts, conspiracy theorists, global-warming skeptics, etc.) without saying much that’s new.

Dr. No

Dr. No
Ian Fleming

It’s never advisable to return to favourite books of your early youth. I read all of the Bond series as a child and thought them wonderful stuff. The experience of dipping into them again lo these many years later has been depressing. Like so much iconic literature – from Dracula and Frankenstein to the Harry Potter franchise – the writing itself is terrible. In this book we even have bad guys – the villainous “Chigroes” – who go “Tee-hee!” And who is James Bond, anyway? (Sean Connery, by the way, doesn’t count as an answer.) Has any fictional character of similar stature ever been such a total cipher? At least in this book the generic supporting cast of Bond Villain (Dr. No) and Bond Girl (Honeychild Ryder) are above average. But like so much iconic literature – from Dracula and Frankenstein to the Harry Potter franchise – the movie is better.

A Death in Belmont

A Death in Belmont
Sebastian Junger

“The predatory serial murder that lacks a component of sex – or more specifically, sexual sadism – has not yet been committed.” Nonsense. What about the DC snipers, or Harold Shipman? This isn’t even good journalism. Sebastian Junger’s foray into true crime has a personal connection – when the murder in Belmont took place, Albert “The Boston Strangler” DeSalvo was working as a handyman fixing up the Junger family home – but not much else going for it. The courtroom coverage is as dull as usual (the availability of full trial transcripts has, I think, been the ruin of many a true crime book), and the question of the killer’s identity is finally left up for grabs, leaving the reader with a “just suppose” story. After giving the language a metaphor for all seasons in The Perfect Storm, it’s starting to seem as though Junger has shot his bolt.