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Eric J. Lyman RSS Feed (Roma, Lazio Italy)

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The Dream of Rome
The Dream of Rome
by Boris Johnson
Edition: Paperback
29 used & new from $3.15

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The EU won't be built in a day, September 15, 2006
This review is from: The Dream of Rome (Paperback)
Anyone observer of the European Union will almost surely wonder whether the 25-nation bloc is every really going to get it together. It's tempting to think the region just has too many languages, cultures, histories, and regional priorities to be able to ever make the leap from a trading bloc or customs zone to a real community -- notwithstanding the common currency. There are a thousand historical precedents to believe it will never work and just one to prove it can: Rome.

A thorough comparison of Rome at its height with the beleaguered EU is the centerpiece of The Dream of Rome, from author and British Member of Parliament Boris Johnson. To Mr. Johnson, there is an admiration for Rome's long-lasting pax Romana in the continent's DNA. Ambitious leaders from Charlemagne to Mussolini tapped into it and even since then symbolism abounds. Witness that the 1950s treaty that created the six-member European Coal and Steel Pact that became the EU and the 2004s signing of the European Constitution (since abandoned), were both signed in Rome with the same pomp and circumstance and one might imagine for a returning victorious Roman legion and the coronation of a new Emperor.

There's no doubt that the Romans succeeded where the EU has so far failed. Mr. Johnson argues that is because the former had a genius for assimilating of new cultures --anyone could become a Roman citizen as long as they conformed to the Roman ways -- while European today time after time chooses to ignore minority groups until there is no alternative.

Witness the riots in Paris in 2005, the barriers to Northern African immigration set up in Sicily and Greece, protectionist economic barriers going up all over the continent (even against goods from other members states), and restrictions on the flow of labor. Romans' assimilation included learning Latin, the common language, and the same educational values. The EU, on the other hand, seems bent on preserving even regional dialects spoken by a few thousand people and cultural and educational differences between countries, regions, and cities, are celebrated rather than looked on as a potential source of trouble.

The question is: is this good or bad?

Personally, I would never advocate the EU choose a more "Roman" path in its politics. For good or for bad -- and I think it's for good -- put a Portuguese, a Dane, and a Pole in a room and they'll have little to talk about, even if they managed to surmount the language problems. That diversity may eliminate any possibility of a pax Europea even before it gets out of the gate, but I think there are more important values to adhere to.

Trouble is, it's not clear what Mr. Johnson thinks about all this either. He never says what he thinks the EU should learn from the successes and failures of ancient Rome. The argument he makes are so neatly stacked and readably explained that a lack of some central lesson is conspicuous enough in its absence to be considered a major flaw.

(I read the British edition of this book)
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 19, 2010 10:04 AM PDT

Like Shaking Hands With God: A Conversation About Writing
Like Shaking Hands With God: A Conversation About Writing
by Kurt Vonnegut
Edition: Paperback
37 used & new from $0.01

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The art of Being, May 20, 2006
This is a wisp of a book. At less than 80 pages, I read it in one evening in the time it took me to eat a few tapas and down two pints of beer. By the time the check arrived, I was already writing down my thoughts inside the back cover.

But what an enjoyable wisp it is!

Almost everyone I know is a fan of Kurt Vonnegut, and so the colorful and curmudgeonly wisdom he brings to the table here is no surprise. But who is this Lee Stringer guy? By the end, I began to think of him as a superior version of James Frey (author of the badly written pseudo memoir "A Million Little Pieces") with the main difference that Mr. Stringer (1) writes well and (2) his tales about life on Skid Row are true. Actually, now that I think of it, that's kind of like saying I'm like Shakespeare except that he (1) writes a lot better and (2) he's been dead for almost 400 years.

Anyway, back to the book: I admit that Like Shaking Hands With God doesn't offer a great price-per-word ratio (it's slim and relatively expensive) but it does offer a great deal of wisdom on its handful of pages. Based on two conversations between two friends with a lot of respect for each other, these guys are smart, they know how to express themselves, and they've been around the block a few times.

The book bills itself as "a conversation about writing" and it is that. But it's more of a conversation about being, but a kind of being that involves writing. For a lot of avid readers, that's a perfect fit.

No Title Available

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Middlebrow, May 17, 2006
With all the hype and controversy around this film, it was difficult for me to determine how much of what I felt after seeing the film was due to my expectations and how much was due to the quality of film itself.

To be sure, I would almost be impossible for any film to live up the anticipation and expectations that distributors (for better or for worse) created for "The Da Vinci Code." And even though I admit to being a bit disappointed at all the muddled symbolism and impossible coincidences, and even though I watched the movie with what might be the most cynical crowd that could have been assembled (I joined hundreds of film critics at the opening viewing at the Cannes Film Festival), I somehow couldn't escape the feeling that it would have probably seemed like a pretty OK movie if I just happened to select it on a long flight and without being aware of all speculation and debate that it carries with it.

Of course, I don't think anyone in the world can truly separate the film from the controversy it stirred among theologians, historians, and devout Christians. Me included.

In the end, doing my objective best I must conclude that the film succeeds and fails in many of the same way the book succeeds and fails: compelling setting, quick plot, historical inaccuracies, confusing message, contrived ending and all. Whether you enjoy it or not will clearly depend on your opinion of those things. On that count I probably ought to recluse myself from a final judgment because I wasn't a fan of the book ... but I wouldn't have gotten this far if I intended to do that.

My conclusion: it's a middlebrow movie based on a middlebrow book, an adequate -- not extraordinary, not bad -- interpretation of unexceptional literature. It was like the kid in school who everyone probably believes deserves a C and then who gets one. Sounds like three stars to me.

Democracy in America (Signet Classics)
Democracy in America (Signet Classics)
by Alexis de Tocqueville
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
98 used & new from $0.01

16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Relevant, May 17, 2006
As an American living in Europe, I read with great interest Alexis de Tocqueville's book about a European experiencing America.

Like most people, Mr. de Tocqueville started out with a characterization of the United States, believing that the country's early 19th century prosperity was a function of its distance from rivals in Europe. But after his famous trip, he concludes that the real difference comes from each side's view of risk taking. It's an insight as relevant today as it was when it was written.

Mr. de Tocqueville predicted that the growing issue of state's rights would lead to bloodshed (it led to the Civil War -- though he wrongly predicted it would eventually lead to a breakup of the union, he was very nearly right on that point as well); he predicts the fledgling country's industrial rise and its emergence as a true world power; he recognized the symbiotic role between industry and democracy at a time when they were believed to be unrelated. His insights into the American psyche, optimism, and ambition at times seem timelier than most op-ed pieces.

More than a century and a half after it was written, I am hard pressed to conjure the name of a better commentary about America and Americans. It is an astonishing feat considering the brevity of Mr. de Tocqueville's four-month visit, his youth (he was in his early 20s), and early stage of development the country was in. But the result is something that shouldn't be skipped by any serious student of the political and social essence of the United States.

Leonardo da Vinci (Vita-Breve / Brief Life) (Spanish Edition)
Leonardo da Vinci (Vita-Breve / Brief Life) (Spanish Edition)
by Sherwin B. Nuland
Edition: Paperback
2 used & new from $33.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Anatomy of a biography, May 12, 2006
Because Leonardo da Vinci was so prolific and so ahead of his time in so many areas, the big temptation is for biographers to focus on one part of his biography -- both because it's easier and because most readers are likely drawn to him because of one particular part of his talents.

Ostensibly, this book does exactly that: it focuses Leonardo the anatomist, which, of all the great Tuscan's talents -- among his other talents he could have been renowned solely as a sculptor, painter, inventor, architect, designer, urban planner, philosopher, physicist, or mathematician -- is probably the least interesting to me. The focus of the book wasn't clear to me when I picked it up at an airport book store (which is a criticism, by the way), but it turned out to be an unexpectedly inspired choice, because Leonardo's study of anatomy was linked directly and indirectly to so many of his other pursuits.

Because of that, the first 2/3 of the book are background that touch on most of Leonardo's disciplines in chronological order, giving what amounts to one of the better overviews of the original Renaissance Man that I've come across (and I've read several). Only at the end does well-regarded author Sherwin B. Nuland tie it together by examining issues related to anatomy in more detail, at which point I admit I began to lose interest -- not because of any fault of the book's but simply because I get a bit queasy when the conversation turns to things like filling a human eye with different substances so it can be cut open and examined without it collapsing.

I give the book good marks for readability, no doubt inspired in part by Mr. Nuland's obvious passion for all things Leonardo. And the unusually thoughtful bibliography was a nice surprise.

But it would have been improved by an index and most of all by more illustrations, illustrations of all kinds: maps to show where places are relative to each other; examples of some of Leonardo's artwork which in parts is discussed and described at some length; perhaps a photo of Leonardo's unusual handwriting, which is examined and interpreted; reproductions of Leonardo's diagrams and drawings that illustrate the points being made, whether about the design of cities or war machines or of the anatomy so central to the end of the book. As it is, the book carries only four illustrations (all somewhat related to anatomy), and one isn't even by Leonardo.

Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack
Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack
by Clark Kent Ervin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $5.41
145 used & new from $0.01

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Spinning security issues, May 7, 2006
One of the most telling anecdotes in Open Target is based on when author and former Department of Homeland Security inspector general Clark Kent Ervin released a report in 2003 indicating that 40% of the deadly bomb parts and weapons government agents tried to sneak through airport security got through. With the distressing information in the public forum, Department of Homeland Security head Tom Ridge called Mr. Ervin into his office for a closed-door conference. But it wasn't to lament the unfortunate statistic, or to discuss ways to remedy it. Instead, Mr. Ervin says, his boss berated him for his conclusions and finally asked: Why couldn't you have at least said we were 60% successful? Wouldn't that have sounded much better?

That is the devastating theme of Open Target in a nutshell: that the United States' efforts to stem the threat of a terror attack is based on creating certain impressions, demonstrating bravado about being proactive, and, most importantly, to help rationalize extreme steps taken elsewhere.

Mr. Ervin is not a gifted writer, but he does effectively sound the alarm about where risks lie, and he goes on at great length about how they can be stemmed. His suggestions are not high-tech or complicated plans but rather critical but common sense approaches that in many cases simply require the expense of a little shoe leather from agents in the field. He suggests, for example, checking all containers arriving to U.S. ports, securing soft targets like athletic stadiums and water supplies, cross referencing databases of suspected extremists, and encouraging coordination between territorial agencies like the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, local and state police, the Pentagon, and the Department of Homeland Security.

It's hard to read Open Target and not be appalled and frightened by how astonishingly vulnerable the U.S. seems to be, at least from Mr. Ervin's perspective.

I brush aside one criticism I've read of the book, which is that Mr. Ervin was simply providing potential extremists with a laundry list of targets on the susceptible American underbelly. I had that critique in mind when I started the book -- but as I worked my way through it I realized that the vulnerabilities Mr. Ervin points out are so obvious that while it's beyond belief that security forces haven't worked harder to limit the risk, it's also very unlikely that hostile forces hadn't thought of them long ago.

One critical appraisal that does give me pause is Mr. Ervin's own point of view. He finished his 18-month stint as the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general in 2004, when Congress would not confirm him. He says the reason was that he was too effective in pointing out mismanagement and security lapses that legislators preferred not to have so much attention called to those failures. I can't say whether Mr. Ervin's assessment is correct or not, but while reading Open Target it is each to imagine that part of the author's reason for writing the book may have been to settle the score with those who wouldn't let him do the job he wanted to do and appeared ready to do well. If that's true, it's easy to understand, but it also undermines the book by coloring every assertion with a brush dipped in personal resentment.

Those aren't the kinds of overtones I'd select for a book like this one, but I also wonder whether anyone with the knowledge to write a book like this could do so without being involved. Perhaps that involvement is a necessary weakness.

Let Me Finish
Let Me Finish
by Roger Angell
Edition: Hardcover
129 used & new from $0.01

21 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Do you enjoy Vodka Martinis at The Club?, May 6, 2006
This review is from: Let Me Finish (Hardcover)
I had a hard time identifying with author and long-time New Yorker contributor Roger Angell and his "life sheltered by privilege and engrossing work" that he "shot through with good luck." I know Mr. Angell's essays, but in book form the sizeable silver spoon in the author's mouth at birth and a family tree that includes New Yorker legend (and a hero of mine and my fellow grammarians) E.B. White has a charming but foreign country club/Vodka Martini feel to me -- even though he discusses it so as-a-matter-of-factly that it isn't annoying, as it might otherwise be.

The book describes an America that probably never existed, at least outside very slim social classes: no crime, no racism, no poverty, no social strife, no politics. But it's all told so smoothly that the pages float by almost effortlessly.

There is no denying that Mr. Angell's has a subtle and smooth talent for words, matched only by his wit, charm, and insight. And yet the book always seemed on the verge of becoming unforgettable without ever making it there. At least for me, it never clicked. I have a hard time describing why, but it seemed to me like a painting that is technically sound and skillfully created but still missing the unidentifiable quality that would make it a masterpiece.

Cucina Piemontese: Cooking from Italy's Piedmont
Cucina Piemontese: Cooking from Italy's Piedmont
by Maria Grazia Asselle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.41
72 used & new from $8.69

5 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's not a Barbaresco, but ..., May 6, 2006
It's always been puzzling to me why the region I think produces Italy's best wines -- the Piedmont -- was so ordinary (at least by Italy's high standards) when it came to its food. The region does give the world the wonderful gift of delicate and precious white truffles, but aside from that it seemed to be an exercise in heavy beef and stew dishes, unexceptional pastas with butter-based sauces, loads of melted cheese, and a dependence on potatoes and other root vegetables.

I picked up Cucina Piemontese on a recent trip to the Piedmont and while I doubt it will ever make me favor the ristoranti of Turin over the unforgettable osterie of Naples for eating well, it did give me a new appreciation for the cuisine of the Piedmont.

The weak point of the book is that it is short on seductive images for the regions rolling landscape. It could also be cross referenced better, meaning it should be easier to find specific recipes in more different ways -- by the course, by the matching with wine, by the main ingredients, etc. Also, there appears to be a flaw in the binding of the edition I have, though this may be a one-off problem.

In its favor, the recipes seem to be well thought out for preparation at home, and the translation from Italian is not flawless but it appears better than most. The book's real strong point is the context it gives to the region's maligned cuisine. It won't change the way the food tastes, but knowing that a recipe dates back to the royal House of Savoy, or that the cooks in Garibaldi's army favored it does create a new level of appreciation.

Being There
Being There
by Jerzy Kosinski
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.42
203 used & new from $0.57

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Being Here, May 6, 2006
This review is from: Being There (Paperback)
After watching the film several times over the years -- but before reading the book -- I concluded that Being There was a prime candidate for one of the rare instances in which the cinematic version of a story was superior to the literature it was based on. The story is so simple and so much of it is communicated by expressions, gestures, and tone of voice that it seemed unlikely that the written word would be up to the task.

Instead, finally reading this thin but ambitious effort showed me again that good writing trumps good cinema almost every time.

To be sure, the film is good cinema. And the talented duo of Peter Sellers and Shirley McLean are so convincing in their silver screen roles that it is hard to imagine the characters they portray looking and sounding any different than the way they were played in the film (my effort to disassociate them from the story wasn't helped by the fact that my edition of the book has Mr. Sellers larger than life on its cover).

Yet the book takes the story to another level. Chance, the main character, is still a fortunate simpleton, But in the book author Jerzy Kosinski can reveal what is happening in his head, the swirling and disconcerting mystery that even the most obvious events seem to someone like him. These passages add an unexpected depth and darkness to the story, which is without most of the comic relief so prominent in the film.

The end result is a book that isn't the wry comedy with precision timing I expected after knowing the film so well but rather a biting and trenchant satire about the culture of modern media, politics, and business, and of the gullible nature of a people far too eager to follow anyone they think may be willing to lead.

Adverbs: A Novel
Adverbs: A Novel
by Daniel Handler
Edition: Hardcover
105 used & new from $0.01

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Get your adverbs here, May 2, 2006
This review is from: Adverbs: A Novel (Hardcover)
I didn't know about the connection between author Daniel Handler and his pseudonym Lemony Snicket until after I finished Adverbs, but I think I sensed a kinship between the two. Both are told with a certain deadpan humor, both wrestle the maximum meaning out of words and phrases, both stop just a hair short of becoming pedantic in their explanations.

Unfortunately, after a certain point, I think the unusual combination of characteristics under both names succeeds ... but at the expense of the narrative.

The biggest difference, of course, is that Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events is written for children (or, perhaps more accurately, at the parents who buy them for their children), while Adverbs is aimed at adults. And while the former explores some of the central themes of childhood -- fear of abandonment, need for approval, adventure, that sort of thing -- Adverbs focuses squarely on the main theme of adulthood: love.

The book is made up of 16 intersecting stories that, with witty pen and stiff upper lip, explore the frail state of love. The title of the 250-page volume comes from the fact that each chapter is named for the adverb that modifies the word love as it is described in that chapter.

I thought the first chapter -- entitled "Immediately" -- was the best, telling us about a couple on their way to hear a will read. Here's how it starts:

"Love was in the air, so both of us walked through love on our way to the corner. We breathed it in, particularly me: the air was also full of smells and birds, but it was love, I was sure, that was tumbling down to my lungs, the heart's neighbors and confidants. Andrea was tall and angry. I was a little bit shorter. She smoked cigarettes. I worked in a store that sold things. We always walked to this same corner, Thirty -- seventh and what's -- it, Third Avenue, in New York, because it was easier to get a cab there, and the entire time we were in love." Nice.

Looking over the book again, I think the second chapter was probably my second favorite, and I think the third was the third best ...

... which tips me off to a trend: like many books held together by a clever device like the adverbs theme here, the veneer eventually wears thin and the story suffers. After some reflection, I think that if I read some intermediate story first, that might have become my favorite. If I read the first one last, it might have started to feel as weary as I did when I finally put the book aside.

If I had it to read over again, I'd leave it at my bedside and pick it up every third night or so. I don't want to undervalue Mr. Handler's writing, which is smart and efficient and fun to read. But I can't escape the feeling that because of the book's hallmark timing, vocabulary, and style it is damned to be good but not great.

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