Bedside Books

Rome and Italy by Livy:  I’m still immersed in Imperial Rome, and now reading the historian Livy for the first time. This volume must be the definitive picture of Roman campaigns and battles, which were nearly ceaseless during the period covered here from 386 B.C. to 293 B.C., requiring Rome to police and maintain its power by defeating upstart states and tribes who resisted the Roman way. The Roman elite, of course, were all military men, that being the only pathway to the highest offices. The battles were hand-fought with spears, javelins and swords by armies ranging from around 5,000 to 30,000 men. This was man-to-man contact. You wonder if the same could happen today? To be safe, I would have to answer yes, simply because 2,800 years isn’t very long. Why should human nature and capabilities change? Battles involved the death of tens of thousands of soldiers and the same sometimes in civilians living in the towns that supplied the enemy soldiers.

Like a Rolling Stone by Greil Marcus: Here’s a nice change of pace. Marcus, who has an extraordinary way of writing deep, majestic prose that enshrines the nature and power of music, has written a hagiography of the making of the Dylan classic “Like a Rolling Stone.” Recorded unpretentiously on June 16, 1965, after a couple of days of getting the music down, it was something new. As always, the new takes time to decipher. It changed the way songs were written, virtually wiping out the traditional sweet Pop sound and replacing it, at least in the hands of the ambitious songwriters, with a powerful allusive poetry, a fractured lyrical impressionism that sprang from the Beat poetry of the day. Few could actually achieve that, of course, but they recognized the territory that Dylan had staked out. Marcus makes you appreciate the studio musicians who wrapped Dylan’s words in sounds that are apparently near impossible  to match in live performance because of the extreme jazz-like improvisations that combined to become the perfect accompaniment to his soaring accusatory wailing. This book is especially good for non-musical people like me who love to listen but don’t understand music itself. I respond, wishing I knew how musicians do it.  Dylan’s words inspired the musicians and their music inspired Dylan’s delivery. Dylan remains the fey, enigmatic ringmaster, the troubadour leading the flock anxious to be in his moment.

Life by Keith Richards:  Here you go. You want something on the dark side? Then don’t read Richards’ excellent book. It’s far too funny and perceptive. Think a rock and roll Marx brother and you’re close. A rock and roll surrealistic Little Boy Blue who wants to be bad, and actually almost gets there, at least bad to himself. For the folks around him, at least in his version, he’s more like a caring scoutmaster, always ready to lead the way and help. I believe him. The early, childhood section is really fine, and the young Richards had a lot of class. Poor childhood, the best kind with interesting people, but he heard what lives inside rock and roll music and the Blues. He heard where it comes from, which is different from knowing where it comes from. He knows how to love women who want to take care of him; he likes a good chat with whoever’s around. He’s one lucky guy to be alive after all the drugs, and that’s one of the things that never gets explained. Why did he do all the drugs? I wonder if he could have answered that, but didn’t? At any rate, he survived, and he’s enjoying his life now, and he and Mick created songs that will always be up there with Dylan and the Beatles. On the tough side. Try Some Girls and “Far Away Eyes” for starters.

Always Unreliable and The Meaning of Recognition by Clive James:  I keep saying Clive James is one of the top three essayists of our time, and I mean it. Very unique, a mind one loves to follow, sliding all around from very serious – read relevant – to very funny. The first book is a collection of three of his autobiographies, taking him from childhood in Australia to his conquering of Britain’s world of letters and television, a double that no one has ever achieved in the U.S. the way he has in his career. The autobiography is a slick bit of magic. It’s really a novel of the people and places in his life written in a way that creates a gentle, sympathetic romantic truth with him at center stage. The Australian growing up and Oxford sections are  alive with shimmering stories, portraits and wisdom. The other two? Gore Vidal and John Updike. What I like immensely about James is that, unlike Vidal and Updike who are “high” essayist, James is a work-a-day journalist in the great tradition, who switch hits between low and high with verve, brio, deep, dead-eye seriousness and sheer joy of living, of life. That said, his “high” style could not be higher. He’s given me some real wisdom in the areas of European history, Russia, Communism, literary criticism and poetry. Like a lot of smart, literary Brits, he loves America and allows me to see it fresh.

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