‘Julian’ By Gore Vidal


JULIANA reminder that, as wonderful a public personality and intellectual as he was, he was also a fantastic writer. Julian, while not as brilliant as Burr, captures so many of the strengths of the public Vidal.

The philosophy within Julian is, of necessity, I think, the sophomore year dorm room variety (not freshman, but not folks who are more than half way through their philosophy B.A.s). Novels are rarely deeply philosophical and we should not expect them to be. Perhaps only Plato could have done both successfully.

The anti-religious Vidal is naturally sympathetic to the anti-Christian Emperor Julian, but he also gently mocks the protagonist’s own adherence to pre-Christian Hellenic paganism. But the depiction of a time when education meant, primarily, an education in philosophy and history, seems so wonderfully idyllic to a person like me (even if sanitation was undoubtedly worse). The various teacher-philosophers of Athens and Antioch are used to portray an achingly attractive milieu. And, in today’s climate, the idea of a leader who surrounds himself with leading philosophers sounds wonderful.

Narratively speaking, the best innovation is the form. It is a correspondence between two former teachers and devoted followers of the (real) Emperor Julian. Libanius wants to publish the memoirs of Julian, which he acquires from Priscus, who managed to grab them in the aftermath of Julian’s death during his military campaign in Persia. As the memoirs are copied and sent to Libanius by Priscus, you also see the annotations and notes of Priscus (defending himself against supposed inaccuracies and raging against some of the rivals for Julian’s ear). Then you see Libanius’ occasionally outraged remarks about Priscus’ parsimony and puffery. It’s a fantastic depiction of gossip and literary politics among intellectuals and semi-celebrities and you can imagine that no one does it better than Vidal.

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The Magicians


I suppose I am rather late on this one. The Magicians came out long enough ago to have had three or four seasons of an adaption on basic cable, yet isn’t (and probably never will be) some kind of classic that future generations will discover.

But, credit where credit is due, some two thirds of the book is a very good, very interesting take on the school for magic. In this case, a college. And like real college, the stakes can feel unimaginably high for the students, but everyone else know that they are really not. And real life is invariably a bit of a disappointment. Because, we all know that if Harry Potter were real, he would almost certainly have spent his first half decade after Hogwarts drinking and doing copious quantities of drugs to both medicate his PTSD and to recreate the feeling of being the ‘chosen one’ again.

The Last Argument Of Kings


There is a genre of fantasy known as grimdark, to which this more or less belongs. Game of Thrones would among the list. The granddaddy, to my uncertain knowledge, would probably be Glen Cook’s Black Company. Basically, things don’t always end nicely for everyone and many folks don’t turn out to be so nice. A bit of the old ultra violence, as Alex of Clockwork Orange might say.

This qualifies. And it is the most grimdarkest of the three in the trilogy, mainly by raising real and unanswered questions about whether you, the reader, have been culpable by having spent the whole trilogy on the wrong side. You never really get to hear the other side of the argument, as it were, which was a deliberate, authorial decision, I believe, but cannot help but suspect that the protagonists were being led along the primrose path, well paved with good intentions, but ultimately laid down by a character who, well, might be the secret villain. Another character, as well, is forced to consider that he is, in truth, a villain as well.

And I liked all that.

I did not like that insufficient time was spent laying the groundwork for this revelation. Sure, little hints placed here and there. But the reveals sometimes felt more sudden than retrospectively obvious.

Also, can we end the books faster? Once the climax has taken place, try to wrap things up quickly. And don’t complain, well Tolkien did it. Yes, he did. But number one, he earned it in a way you probably didn’t. And number two, does anyone really think his long, stuttering endings (even after the Scouring of the Shire, which I will defend as making an important point) are the best part of The Lord of the Rings? Because, if anyone does, their opinion is woefully incorrect.

The Warded Man


Enjoyable, but with notable caveats.

The world and the not too large cast of point of view characters is well done. The main conceit is that demons or ‘corelings’ manifest from under the earth from a ‘Core’ (the center of the earth) every night. Sunlight is fatal but they are nearly impossible to kill otherwise and the world must work around that. Buildings and property are protected with wards, which are usually carved, but a scratch to the carving or some other small disruption can make it useless, so families and whole villages are killed on a regular basis. A cultural effect of this is an emphasis on early marriage and procreation, because humanity is more or less in constant danger of being wiped out if not constantly replenished. However, this is no excuse for a male writer to have his female character talk about their ‘flower’ so often or even, really, ever.

Also, I was often disappointed in the action scenes. But the small things, like trade being done by Messenger (capital M), who use portable warding circles but are still respected for being willing to be outside at night for weeks at a time. Aspects of matriarchy creeping into societies, because motherhood is more than usually key to a locale’s survival.

Will I read the next one? Maybe. I’m not one hundred percent sold yet.

The Tattoo Murder Case


Rather like my first foray into Japanese mysteries, this one flips the script by providing a false protagonist for a large portion of the novel. Though the seeming person who will solve the crime, turns out not to, he (Kenzo, if you are curious) is, arguably the protagonist. Kyosuke, nicknamed the Boy Genius (I hope that sounds better in Japanese), a friend of Kenzo, is the one who solves the crime.

While a couple of items could have been guessed, like Doyle’s famed mysteries, the reader isn’t really given enough to definitively solve on her/his own.

I think I liked to the steady proceduralism of Points and Lines more than The Tattoo Mystery‘s more holmesian style.

The Barnes Foundation


This was my first time visiting the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and it was a moderate disappointment.

Many years, while the old Barnes building was being remodeled (they moved to the current location when it became clear that the original building simply could never be made suitable for safely storing and displaying the collection), I saw a temporary exhibit of many of the collection’s works at the Musée d’Orsay and it left a strong impression (though I was also pretty young back then).

I added that parenthetical caveat because, seeing it again in its new home, I was left unsatisfied. It didn’t seem like they actually had much gallery space and the curatorial choices were downright baffling.

The galleries were small, but items were hung in the style of traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century salons, but those salons were traditionally in much bigger rooms, so the effect is different and feels cramped. Also, every room had a long of ironwork on the walls. Not sure why.

I am not sure because there are not placards identifying the pieces, only individual room guides, which I didn’t have the capacity to view because I had a child with me. She loves art, but she is still a kid and not inclined to wait around while her father reads booklets.

I am also a little baffled about the choices of why paintings were placed together. It seemed vaguely but weirdly thematic (a room of mostly paintings of children; a room of mostly women getting dressed/undressed). And, if we are honest, in the service of these presumed themes, a lot of second rate paintings were put out. I love many second rate paintings and second tier artists, but I want some context, which context was placed just out of my reach.

On the good side, it was family day, so the little one got to make a sketch book and see a lot of dancing (hip hop, tap, Indian, and Cambodian).

The picture near the top is by yours truly, the coffee philosopher. The rest were taken by the little one. Like her father did at that age, she has a thing for African masks.

The Brightened Mind


For the life of me, I can’t remember what possessed me to put this book on hold. The best guess I have is because I read it was about Thai Buddhism. But, while the author appears to be a convert to that practice, it’s really just another, new age-y book about mindfulness and meditation for the keenly felt stress of being white and having money in a country that values both those qualities immensely (and where both those qualities are deeply intertwined).

Meh.