Greece versus Rome

No, I’m not going to offer a view on Greece’s economic plight, or anything about the PIGS. Go to A Fistful of Euros for that.

What provoked this post was the coincidence of reading two recent novels inspired by the classics. One is a likely bestseller, but the other is one of the most thrilling books I’ve read in ages.

Start with the bestseller. Robert Harris’ Lustrum (retitled Conspirata for some reason in its US edition) is the sequel to Imperium, and follows the machinations of Cicero’s reign as consul in the Roman Senate, followed by his period as Pater Patriae (father of the nation). As with all of Harris’ novels, it’s a great read, with enough warp and weft from ancient Rome to tickle readers who care about classical history.

Before you put your feet up with Harris, however, run to your nearest bookseller to buy Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. I read Michiko Kakutani’s scintillating review in The New York Times (“stunning and hypnotic”) and went straight to my local bookstore. The conceit of the book is that it uncovers 44 lost episodes, fragments, dead ends, reimaginings from Homer’s epic. If you’re a Homer freak like me, your head will be spinning in amazement and awe. If you only have a passing knowledge of Homer, I’m sure you’ll still find the invention wonderful.

I can’t recall the last time when, in the process of reading a book, I’d finish a chapter and then go back to the beginning of the chapter to re-read it. That’s how gripped I was by Mason’s art. Unmissable.

The Times also did a profile of Mason, who is a computer scientist working at an unnamed start-up in Mountain View. If his programs have a tenth of the wit and inventiveness of his first novel, I’d love to use them.

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