My Literary Finds in Rome!

After a refreshing two-week vacation, the Book Club Babe is finally back home! I spent this trip of a lifetime traveling around Greece and Italy, and I absolutely loved seeing all the ancient ruins, meeting people from all over the world, and–of course–stuffing my face with delicious food!

One of my goals of 2016 is to visit five new independent bookstores. In March, I interviewed the owner of Recycle Bookstore in San Jose, CA, and last week I discovered Pocket 2000, a small book and comic book store in Rome.

The shop was small and quaint, but it had a ton of popular series in their native Italian. I knew that this would be the perfect place to pick up some souvenirs, since my brother and boyfriend are crazy about comics. The men who were working there that day weren’t English speakers, so I unfortunately can’t share any more information about them or the bookstore, but if you ever happen to visit Rome, but sure to check out Pocket 2000!

Another amazing hidden gem of Rome that I visited was the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps. Our Airbnb host shared some guidebooks with us, in which I learned that English Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley had both lived in Italy during the early 1820s and died shortly thereafter–Keats from tuberculosis and Shelley from a tragic sailing accident.

The two-room apartment that Keats stayed in for four months while suffering from his illness became his final resting place. Now it exists as a memorial museum for the two friends, with some of their personal possessions, including a drawing of Keats’ that inspired his famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

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I knew that I would be nerding out over ancient Roman sites like the Colosseum and the Pantheon, but I had no idea that this piece of history existed. In fact, the Spanish Steps were under construction during our stay, so it’s probable that without our guidebook, I would have walked past the inconspicuous building obliviously. If you’re a lover of literature like I am, you must make the trek to the Keats-Shelley House!

I could spend hours discussing my recent experiences in Europe, but right now I’m close to finishing the book everyone’s talking about, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Stay tuned next week for my review!

I, Claudius: Part Four

Cover of "I, Claudius : From the Autobiog...

Cover via Amazon

Rating: 3 out of 5

I’ve exceeded my own expectations and finished Robert Graves’ I, Claudius a day ahead of schedule! I must say that the last 150 pages went by so much faster, not only because I was determined to beat the clock, but also because the book finally gets to my favorite part: Caligula’s reign as Roman emperor!

Chapters 22-34 narrate the downfall of Tiberius, who in his 70’s is smothered on the whim of his grand-nephew Caligula. Tiberius had appointed Caligula as the next emperor because he thought someone even more evil than he would make him seem virtuous.

At first, the people rejoice that Germanicus’ son has taken the throne. But sure enough, Caligula proves to be one of the cruelest, craziest emperors of Rome. He succumbs to a grave fever, and even though he survives, he becomes absolutely mental.

He believes himself to be a god, and condemns anyone who doubts his immortality. In the vein of Jove, he decides to engage in incest with his three sisters. He also makes his favorite horse a senator. Not to mention, his lavish parties, festivals, fights, and orgies completely bankrupt the empire, so he has to murder rich Romans left and right to steal their assets.

The best scenes include Claudius’ clever responses to Caligula’s madness. He manages to save his own skin multiple times by depicting himself as the poor buffoon of an uncle. This tactic works, because eventually a group of conspirators corners Caligula after a theatrical performance and stabs him to death.

The novel ends with a huge riot between Caligula’s devoted German army and the Roman populace. The soldiers find Claudius hiding behind a palace curtain and declare him emperor, as he is one of the only remaining members of the Julio-Claudian family and a pretty weak one at that. Claudius’ hilarious final thought is that as the ruler of the empire, he can finally force people to read and listen to his histories. The ending sets up Graves’ sequel Claudius the God, which covers his  years as emperor until his own assassination.

As I’ve said in previous parts, I love the history of this novel. No one can determine how much of it is factual, but at least it draws from the accounts of a few ancient writers. If only the HBO show “Rome” was still airing, because this story would make for excellent television. Sex and violence galore!

Unfortunately, though, I have to mark I, Claudius down for missing that entertainment quality that is so essential to historical fiction. I felt myself relieved to finish it, when I should feel depressed that it had to end. I would only recommend this book to die-hard Roman history buffs–and even then, I think the original Latin texts (such as Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis) are better reads.

And speaking of Latin, I am going to carpe the heck out of the diem when my brother and I jet off to Tokyo in a couple days! We just received our yen in the mail and now all that’s left is to pack! I will be bringing books with me, of course, for the 10-12 hour plane rides, but no promises on being able to blog while I’m there! I’ll try my best, but if I can’t, I will return the first week of July!

Stay tuned!

Masterpiece Monday: Julius Caesar

Brutus (right) and Cassius after they have murdered Caesar on the HBO show "Rome"

Rating: 5 out of 5

Ten more days until the Ides of March, and since I’ll be too busy conquering my comprehensive exam on that day, I wanted to tell you to beware now!

If you aren’t familiar with the Roman calendar (which you should, because we owe Rome big time for our current system), I’ll share some tidbits. “Calendar” comes from the Latin term “Kalendae,” which meant the first of the month. Two other important days were the Ides (15th–or oftentimes the 13th–of the month) and the Nones (8 days before the month’s Ides).

These days were planned according to the moon, but the Ides of March have become famous due to William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, which narrates the events before and after Caesar’s assassination on March 15. I can’t believe that I’ve blogged for this long without reviewing a Shakespearean play for Masterpiece Monday, but better late than never, right?

In 44 BCE, Brutus and other prominent Romans, such as Cassius and Casca, feel threatened by Julius Caesar, who has become dictator for life. Afraid of his corruption and their loss of freedom, they plot to kill the ruler and restore democracy. Brutus is one of Caesar’s closest friends, and most of the play revolves around his struggle to commit such a betrayal.

Meanwhile, Caesar ignores many signs of his doom, including his wife Calpurnia’s dreams and a soothsayer’s warning to “Beware the Ides of March.” When he arrives at the Senate that day, he is met by the conspirators, who stab him to death. Caesar’s last words in the play are “Et tu, Brute?” meaning “And you, Brutus?” because he finally realizes his friend’s treachery.

Karma comes back around, however, when the public finds out about Caesar’s will, since the tyrant left large sums of money for every citizen. Enraged by his murder, the common folk demand the conspirators’ deaths. Brutus gives a famous speech offering his defense, but fellow Roman Marc Antony follows with his even more famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech and calls for the murderers’ exile.

The end of the play describes the battle between Brutus and Cassius and Antony and Caesar’s adopted son Octavius (who will become the future emperor known as Augustus). Caesar’s ghost visits Brutus and tells him of his defeat. During the fight, both conspirators commit suicide, and Antony gives the final speech, calling Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all” for his good intentions to save liberty.

I absolutely love this play, but I love the Roman history behind it even more. In high school, we had to memorize a speech from Julius Caesar, and I chose to perform as Portia, Brutus’ devoted wife, who also commits suicide by swallowing hot coals due to Antony’s rising power.  I think that all students should have the opportunity to experience the Bard’s exquisite words for themselves.

I don’t think that I learned anything as rewarding as Roman history, literature, and the Latin language–which is why I highly recommend this tragedy. Also check out the amazing HBO show “Rome,” which does a fantastic job showing Caesar’s rise and fall in season one.

I hope doom does not befall you on the Ides of March this year, so be sure to listen to your spouse and any fortune tellers walking around. And of course, don’t piss off your friends, because you never know when they might stab you in the back.

Favorite Quote:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come. (Caesar, 2.2.34)