Monday, June 11, 2007

Pompeii + A Man Without A Country

A couple of quick book reviews today ...

1. "Pompeii: A Novel" by Robert Harris

This historical novel is set in 79 AD, in the days leading up to and
immediately following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  It traces the
actions of Marcus Attilius Primus, the newly-appointed aquarius (water
engineer), whose job it is to make sure the Aqua Augusta is properly
maintained.  This aqueduct supplies fresh water to many cities
surrounding the Bay of Naples, including the the ill-fated Pompeii,
Herculaneum, Neapolis and Misenum (an important Roman naval base).

The new aquarius doesn't have long to settle into his new job, with some
major problems to deal with straight away.  The water flowing to a fresh-
water fish farm appears to be contaminated.  Worse still, the water
supply to some cities is under threat.  Readers have the benefit of
knowing that Vesuvius is about to blow, but at the time it was not
generally known that it was a volcano.

The story involves the mysterious disappearance of the previous aquarius,
the ambitions of a wealthy developer and former slave, Ampliatus, and a
love story between the new aquarius and the daughter of Ampliatus.  Pliny
the Elder, a famous writer and scholar of the time, features as a cool-
headed observer of what unfolds.

The book also provides interesting information about volcanoes, with
specific details of the impending eruption of Vesuvius.  Also, there's
a lot of interesting background about the ancient Roman water supply.
Aqueducts were built to very fine tolerances, with a gradient of only
34cm per km.  They were constructed using cement that set even when
wet, and many have survived largely intact for over 2000 years.

2. "A Man Without A Country" by Kurt Vonnegut

This is a brief collection of memoirs by Kurt Vonnegut, author of several
novels including one of my favourites, "Slaughterhouse-Five".

Sadly, Vonnegut passed away earlier this year.

Topics include humour, writing, humanity, politics and life in general.
He makes some interesting observations, for example: why don't the so-
called Christian leaders in the US say much about the Beatitudes?  In
fact, George W. Bush and Co seem to be stuck in the Old Testament ("an
eye for an eye"), rather than the New ("blessed are the peacemakers").