Hellenic Traders

The four Hellenic Traders books.
The four Hellenic Traders books.
I recently discovered Harry Turtledove’s “Hellenic Traders” series (written under the pseudonym Turteltaub).

The four books follow two cousins from Rhodes who sail around the eastern Mediterranean selling luxury goods between 310 and 307 BC. In the first book (“Over the Wine-Dark Sea”) they sail to Italy with peacocks, in the second one (“The Gryphon’s Skull”) they try to sail to Athens with the skull of a dinosaur but end up getting mixed up in the infighting amongst the Macedonian generals who took over after Alexander the Great instead, in the third one (“The Sacred Land”) they sail east, to Cyprus, Sidon and Jerusalem, and in the last one (“Owls to Athens”) they travel to Athens.

Turtledove’s style is — as usual — very repetitive. The good thing about this is that you really get Ancient Greek culture hammered in with sledgehammers (he has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history and is clearly very knowledgeable about Ancient Greece). After reading the books, you’ll never confuse opson and sitos, you’ll know exactly how much water to mix into the wine depending on the occasion, and you’ll know much more about the sexual mores of Ancient Greece than you ever wanted to know. I’m sure I’ve learnt much more from reading these books than from the obligatory high school course in Greek culture (“oldtidskundskab” in Danish). The bad thing is you get utterly fed up with the same (at first vaguely amusing) lines being repeated ad nauseam; you might have to skip these bits to stay sane unless you have the memory span of a goldfish.

The last book doesn’t feel like the last book of the series. They’re dropping hints about travelling to Alexandria (the capital of Egypt) the following summer, Menedemos’ love life is in a crisis, and according to the history books, the Siege of Rhodes happened just two years later. Did Turtledove really intend to stop after four books, or did his publisher call an end to the series?

PS: The series has been reissued as e-books under Turtledove’s name, but you’ll pay more for these than for second-hand copies of the original hardcovers (linked to above).

Whit and all that

When Iain Banks died, Phyllis and I realised that we had never actually got round to reading anything by him. We decided to order a few of his books to rectify this issue.

Since then I’ve read Consider Phlebas, The Wasp Factory, Complicity and Whit (in that order).

I didn’t like Consider Phlebas at all, I must admit. I love some science fiction novels, but not all, and this was definitely in the latter category (together with for instance the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy and Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos books).

I then turned to Banks’s non-SF books. The Wasp Factory wasn’t at all what I had expected, but it was rather enjoyable in its own way, and it definitely made me want to read more of his books. Complicity was good, too, although surprisingly different.

However, in my opinion Whit is far superior. It’s a book about a small religious sect in Scotland, seen through the eyes of the founder’s granddaughter. The religion was invented by Iain Banks and he manages to make it very believable, which is no mean feat.

Perhaps it’s just my upbringing as the son of two theologians, but my main complaint about this wonderful book is that at 450 pages it is far too short. I thoroughly recommend it.

11.22.63

I got Stephen King’s 11.22.63 for Christmas, and I just finished reading it last night.

It’s basically about a teacher who gets a chance to go back in time and save JFK’s life. It appears to be well researched and it’s quite a page-turner (although I think the ending is weaker than the rest of the book).

My only real criticism is that the main protagonist (born around 1975) seems to be a little bit too comfortable with life around 1960. Could it be that Stephen King forgot that 1960 isn’t a sweet childhood memory for a child of the seventies in the same way as it is for a baby-boomer like himself? I definitely would be much less worried about trying to fit in around 1980 or 1990, because of have memories of that time.

It’s well worth a read, even if you aren’t particularly interested in Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy.

Matador, or documenting the recent past


I got the wonderful Danish TV series Matador (“Monopoly”, as in the board game) on DVD for Christmas.

It follows a range of characters in the fictional town of Korsbæk between 1929 and 1947. It was made in loving detail, so apart from being great TV, it also makes for great history lessons.

Obviously, by now few people can actually remember that time well, but when it was produced (1978-82), it was still relatively recent history. It was the idea of Lise Nørgaard, who was born in 1917, so she was basically documenting Denmark as she remembered it from she was 12 until she turned 30.

It would be a bit like if person born in 1953 came up with an idea for a TV series set between 1965 and 1983, to be produced between 2014 and 2018. If it was done really well, it’s likely people would still enjoy it in 2048.

I think it’d be equally compelling whether it was set in Denmark, in Scotland or somewhere else.

Tau Zero


I decided to read Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero because I was getting frustrated with the physical implausibility of most science fiction, in particular the ubiquitous use of the warp drive (i.e., faster-than-light space travel), and I had heard that this book explored space travel at slightly less than the speed of light.

Although this did turn out to be the case, I was ultimately frustrated, however. The book’s conclusion (which I won’t reveal here) strikes me as being just as physically implausible as the warp drive.

Why is there so little science fiction that is physically (and biologically) plausible? Most SF that doesn’t involve warp travel instead uses sleeper ships where the crew is kept in some form of stasis, but that is assuming some biological developments that are by no means certain to happen.

According to the principles of relativity, time on a space ship travelling at speeds close to light will slow down so much that putting the crew into stasis isn’t necessary at all. Why doesn’t this form of space travel get explored more? Is it considered too boring?

I think it would be fascinating to explore the cultural and linguistic diversification of worlds unable to interact in real time.

Julie & Julia

I’ve just finished watching the most amazing film together with Phyllis and Charlotte.

It’s about cooking and blogging, so it’s no wonder that it tickled our fancy (well, my dear wife’s and mine, but even Charlotte seemed to enjoy it).

It’s about a 30-year-old New Yorker, Julie, who decides to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook (available in two volumes, one and two) and blog about the experience. Simultaneously, we are following Julia Child’s life in Paris, her culinary education and the process of writing her cookbook.

It’s a great movie, and I just wish I had been the first person to get the idea to blog every single recipe in a famous cookbook.

Given that I must own at least a hundred cookbooks, would there be any merit in blogging a random recipe every single days for the next thousand and one nights?

Kitchen Stories


Phyllis and I watched the Norwegian/Swedish film Kitchen Stories (“Salmer fra Kjøkkenet”) again last night.

We enjoyed it the first time we watched it a few years ago, but it turned out that it is one of those rare movies that actually are better the second time.

I’m not sure explaining what the film is about is a good idea — the plot just sounds too weird and boring, so it would put everybody off ever watching it. However, the movie itself is wonderful, heartwarming and very entertaining.

Who would have thought that a film about a Swede observing a Norwegian bachelor in his kitchen could be so compelling?