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Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, by Tony Perrottet

Title: Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists
Author: Tony Perrottet
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 416 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history, travel
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is not the sort of book I typically read, but I’m so, so glad I took a chance on this one. It’s completely delightful — Perrottet has a wonderfully accessible tone, and he melds history and the present day together in a fascinating weave.

Tony Perrottet, a travel journalist and lifelong lover of the classics, decides to go on one last final adventure when his girlfriend falls unexpectedly pregnant. He had, previously, always avoided the Mediterrannean as overcrowded and overhyped — but then he hit on the idea to embrace the mania and follow the trail of the first generation of international tourists. The book opens with a magnificent description of the unveiling of Agrippa’s world map, an enormous marble creation which displayed, for the first time, the world as they knew it in all its glory. Europe, Asia, and Africa, from Britain to India, Germany to the cataracts of the Nile, all laid out in a public gallery for first century Romans to peruse at their leisure. Even more importantly, at least for purposes of tourism, it showed the roads and shipping lanes which connected the empire. Suddenly, everything seemed so close — and so off they took, in droves. Perrottet arranged his journey, pregnant girlfriend in tow, to mirror theirs: starting in Rome, then south to the Bay of Naples, the peninsula to Brundisium and thence to Greece, to chart all the sites of the once-great empire, then island-hopping across the Aegean, travel by land up the coast of Asia Minor to Troy, then down to Egypt for Alexandrian indulgence and a Nile cruise.

Throughout the book, Perrottet hops back and forth between the experience of the ancients and his own. He tells us what excited first-century Romans, where they partied and where they studied. In so many ways, you can see how little has changed: they have the same complaints about greedy hoteliers and foreign food, road conditions and overpriced souvenirs, they seek out the best wine and the finest dining, they carve their initials on monuments — all motions that tourists today still go through in their millions. The priorities of the ancients don’t always align with ours, and what the sites meant to them was different, thanks to religious and cultural drift, but still — the humanity of them shines through across two thousand years of history. More than anything, Perrottet brings that commonality across.

The section on Rome was particularly fun for me, because I’ve been almost everywhere he mentioned. I went to Italy with a school group when I was 16, and while I wish I’d been older, to better appreciate it all, it’s still vivid in my memory. The Forum Romanum, the Coliseum, the coast at Baiae, the isle of Capri, the sandy streets (and looming mafia presence) of Pompeii, the tightly-reined terror of Naples. I have my own torturous tale, of thinking I was in for a day of shopping and then finding myself having to trek three miles uphill to Tiberius’s villa at the absolute highest point on Capri. I know what those places look and sound and smell like, and so this section of the book was a wonderfully nostalgic trip for me. And yet, there was still new information for me, both from the historical and the modern perspective. Pagan Holiday provides some delightfully salacious details that high-school students don’t get told when visiting sites, particularly in regard to the carnal indulgences of Baiae. Perrottet also actually stayed in Naples, where as we were herded carefully in and out, and the characters inhabiting that degenerated city that he draws for the reader are unforgettable. By and large, though, we walked a lot of the same steps, and it made me miss Italy terribly.

The rest of Perrottet’s journey, though, was unfamiliar territory to me. Perrottet makes Greece sound both like a great experience and like a significant challenge. I imagine it’s a lot more of the latter now than it was ten years ago, when he wrote this book, and, thanks to the Greek economic instability, it’s likely to stay that way for a while longer. But still, Perrottet finds the ancients awakened for him across the country, from the erudition of Athens to the bizarre ways in which the Spartan military legacy has lived on in Mani, from the ghosts of athletes at Olympus to the wilderness of Arcadia.

Of all the places Perrottet discusses, he most put a fire in me to visit Ephesus and its environs in Turkey, which he describes as a better-preserved, more lively, and less aggressive version of what you’ll find in Greece. He also states that Turkey is better traveled by land than by sea, which is encouraging for this hydrophobe. I had no idea that Ephesus was nearly equivalent to Pompeii as an archaeological site:

Nowhere else is the ancient Roman world so vivid, the intervening centuries so transparent; nowhere in Greece or Italy makes it so shockingly clear that the past actually happened. You couldn’t just see the ancients enjoying their holiday pleasures; you could hear and smell them.

I want that memory in my life. And, like Perrottet, I would love the chance to visit the anticlimactic ruins of Troy. His description of how Troy was already a tourist trap in the first century is pretty fascinating, since, of course, Troy was already 1200 years in the past for them. The Romans had a passion for all things Trojan, thanks to their cultural myth of being descended from Aeneas and other heroes who escaped the Fall. Perrottet connects their obsession with their fallen heroes to a story from World War II: not far from the site of Troy was where the battle of Gallipolli took place, a disastrous endeavour with heavy losses on both sides. In one of the book’s more poignant sections, Perrottet visits this site, finding on its memorial the name of an uncle of his who died there. He walks this recent battlefield, to which he has a personal connection, with Homer’s words ringing in his head.

I think my patience, much like Perrottet’s girlfriend’s, would have worn out somewhere in Egypt (even without the pregnancy factoring in). Of everywhere the author described, the process of traveling seemed least pleasant there — even worse than the terrible weather in Asia Minor and the desperately frenetic attitude of Greece — and I can only imagine it’s gotten worse in the intervening decade, given the current political circumstances in Egypt. I know they’re trying to lure tourists back in with assurances of safety and luxury, but frankly, I’m not buying it.

Part of it comes from having heard horror stories from a friend whose tour guide literally abandoned her group in the desert. That seems, from Perrottet’s descriptions, to be in-line with what tourists can expect throughout the country. I also was astonished to learn that, even a decade before the Arab Spring, terrorist attacks were so common in Middle Egypt that they shut down cruises on the Nile and that trains routinely expected to be shot at on the way to Luxor. I am curious, though, about how the Alexandrian scuba-recovery project is going, if any progress has been made on that front in ten years. And still, no matter the current climate, there is something tremendously compelling about the oldest extant places in the Western World. I remember, on a much smaller scale, visiting the Etruscan burial mounds in Italy, three thousand years old, and being completely bowled over by the age of them. To stand in the middle of something so profoundly ancient is an astonishment to the senses, almost incomprehensible. Egypt is another couple thousand years removed from the present than the Etruscan complexes are. Seeing those sites must be absolutely tremendous.

Perhaps the best part of the Egypt section is the tale of Perrottet’s very own personal mummy’s curse. After he literally pokes the mummy of Pharaoh Thutmose III — under invitation, by the way, of the curator — a series of disasters provokes a side-quest, to appease the ancient ruler’s spirit. I really enjoyed the way Perrottet wove this story in; it doesn’t overwhelm the narration, but the thread is there, and it mixes an appropriately ancient air of superstition in with the all-too-cynical mundanity of modern travel concerns.

I should very much like to read more travelogues of this kind in general and from Perrottet in particular. I appreciate how much detail Perrottet put in and how devoted he was to making sure his research was solid. I liked that he told us where his stories came from (and I now really want to find the account of Germanicus’s grand tour, that ended in his untimely death). And yet he never loses sight of his own stories, his own experience, and his own take on things. His insights are wonderful, personable, and often quite touching, yet always with a wry sense of humour attached as well. At the end of his trip, cruising down the Nile and suffering from archaeological oversaturation, he reflects:

…we decided to skip a few land visits. All we wanted to do was wallow in the pool and stare at the riverbank. I felt a little ashamed of this philistine behavior, until I read that Julius Caesar and Cleopatra had enjoyed the same sort of trip. Caesar was exhausted after years of battle. Cleopatra was heavily pregnant with his son. Of course, Julius had just conquered the entire known world. But apart from that minor detail, the parallel seemed fairly apt.

I recommend this book to any travel junkies or classical enthusiasts — there’s plenty here for both sets, and if you exist in the overlapping portion of that diagram, you’ll be in literary heaven. If I ever have the money (and the regions are ever completely safe to travel in again), I would love to re-create this same journey. It sounds like a blast.

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Timeless, by Gail Carriger

Title: Timeless (Parasol Protectorate #5)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 386 pages
Genre: steampunk adventure
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: For the series as a whole, Changeless-forward, really

I said in my review of Heartless that the Parasol Protectorate series just keeps getting better, and Timeless did not disappoint me. I think it’s the best of the series. All of the characters are handled well, Carriger’s descriptions are both vivid and precise, and her dialogue, as always, sparkles with wit and humour. Like the rest of the series, this is steampunk with a fine froth and a sense of humour. Timeless also continues the exploration of the political ramifications of the collision of the paranormal and the scientific, delving far back into he AU’s history as well as setting the stage for its future.

Timeless jumps two years forward from Heartless, two years that have been peaceful — well, as peaceful as anything is likely to get in the Maccon household, especially considering they live in a vampire’s closet so that said vampire can serve as adoptive father to two-year-old Prudence, who happens to be a metanatural. Born from her supernatural werewolf father and preternatural Alexia, Prudence possesses the capability to absorb a supernatural’s aspect — leaving said supernatural mortal until such time as Alexia can use her preternatural abilities to cancel everything out. It certainly makes life interesting — not least for their neighbours — but all in all, things seem to be sorting themselves out.

And then Alexia gets, by way of the local vampire queen, a summons to appear with her daughter in Alexandria (yes, the one in Egypt) before Matakara, the oldest vampire living. At the same time, Sidhaeg — Conall’s multi-great-granddaughter and Alpha of his old Scottish pack — shows up, looking for her missing Beta, who had been in Egypt on a mission for her. The Beta reappears, but gets murdered before he can get more than a few words out to Alexia. So Alexia packs up her family — and the Tunstells and their acting troupe — and heads out via steamer (werewolves being notoriously poor floaters). From there, the story whirls through a sequence of mishaps, supernatural political entanglements, and strange occurrences. The action clips along at a great pace, both in Alexandria and back at home, as the Maccons abroad and the wolf pack back at home both try to sort out the mystery of the God-Breaker Plague.

The really great thing here, which started to become prominent in Blameless and Heartless, is Carriger’s ability to not forget character development admist all the action. For a lot of the book, that really shines in Biffy and Lyall, though we do get a fair bit out of Alexia and Conall as well. Biffy’s swiftly becoming my favourite character in the whole series, really, because he goes through such a transformative journey from when we meet him to the end of this book. Without giving too much away, Carriger handles the various aspects of his personality and relationship dynamics really well, with a lot of tenderness and a lot of psychological awareness. She handles the expanding cast of characters without sacrificing any emotional realism, and she jumps back and forth between the two plotlines in a way that makes sure the reader never loses sight of what’s going on.

Carriger also does a nice job weaving multicultural elements into the story. I particularly like the “Drifters”, balloon-living nomads of the North African desert. We don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with them, but you get a sense of real cultural texture nonetheless. I love the idea of this herd of balloons, linked together by nets that the women and children use for social interaction. Her descriptions of steampunk Alexandria and Upper Egypt are a great blend of imaginative and clearly well-researched, and the cast of extras that the Maccon/Tunstell party meets there adds even more colour and excitement to the series.

I also commend Carriger for her ability to portray a toddler character — a notoriously difficult challenge in writing, and one that many authors seem to avoid at all costs. I’m convinced the difficulties in writing such young characters is the reason most happy-ever-afters end at the altar, or at least with the birth. But Carriger strikes it perfectly with Prudence. She has the right size vocabulary to reflect the state where vocalisation hasn’t quite caught up to cognitive reasoning; Prudence understands more than she can express, and this does seem to frustrate her at times. She also manages to make Prudence charming without being saccharine, another admirable feat; Prudence demonstrates the right balance of adorability, manic impulse, and short attention span for a two-year-old. She’s also part of the story without overwhelming it, which I appreciate; too often when series do incorporate kids, it becomes all about them. Alexia’s attitude goes a long way towards keeping this from becoming a trite or obnoxious trope.

I’ve said throughout the series that Carriger is at her best when she’s writing for herself, with her own style, rather than emulating other genres, and in Timeless, she seems to have trusted that impulse entirely. There are no moments of narrative awkwardness, where the story feels like something else has collided into it from the outside; rather, we are treated to the continuing adventures of Alexia et al in Carriger’s own witty voice. It’s a delight. My only criticism is that the denouement ties up a little too quickly. I could’ve used a bit more exploration of the new constructs our characters find themselves in at the end of the series, about how they’re going to move forward from here on out. Ultimately, it just ended way too soon; I could have happily spent a lot more time with these characters.

Timeless is an adventure story that manages to be lighthearted and emotionally tugging at the same time. Carriger gives us characters we can care about, but without ever taking herself too seriously. The series as a whole has fantastic energy, superb wit, and a sparkle that I’ve yet to find in other steampunk literature. The Parasol Protectorate series is just plain fun. I’m tremendously sorry to say goodbye to this series, but I’m delighted that Carriger’s world will be continuing in the YA Finishing School Series and the adult Parasol Protectorate Abroad series. The former will take place some twenty-five years earlier in the AU’s history; the latter is due to feature our Prudence, all grown up and taking on the world. Both are due out in 2013, and I eagerly anticipate their arrival.

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