Hannibal, by Patrick N. Hunt***

HannibalHannibal was the first general to defeat the forces of Rome, and Hunt is the man qualified to tell us about it. I read my copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. This book becomes available to the public July 11, 2017.

Early history has never been my area of concentration, but since retirement, I push myself out of my usual comfort zone, often to excellent result. This time it proved to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Hunt is unquestionably qualified to discuss this topic. He is an historian of renown and has dedicated years to the study of Hannibal, even embarking on an expedition across the Alps in order to see what Hannibal experienced—or the closest proximity to it in modern times. On the other hand, I confess I was in it for two things: military strategy and history, which does interest me, and of course, the elephants.

Imagine riding into battle on the back of an elephant. Not only is an elephant massive, it is also impervious to most of the weaponry available at this time. Spears and javelins would just bounce off its hide. War elephants had their tusks sharpened, and being charged by such a force had to be terrifying. And in reading this history it occurred to me that Hannibal’s men would have been bemused indeed if they had known that elephants would be regarded by many of us, in future days, with great sentimentality. They would never have believed the elephant might become endangered. Who could kill elephants? But these are my musings, not Hunt’s.

Hunt is meticulous in demonstrating what Hannibal did and why he did it. He starts with his family background, in particular that he was the son of the great general Hamilcar, who took him to a temple, made him stand at the altar where the live sacrifice had been made, and swear lifelong hatred of Rome, whose government and military made war against Carthage and caused a lot of suffering. Hunt carefully separates what actually happened, from what probably happened, from what maybe happened, but the speculative language—may have, would have, almost certainly—slows me down, because each time the narrative picks up and I immerse myself in the text, I see the modifiers and draw back. I go back and reread in order to find out what is actually known, mentally removing all of the guesses and educated guesses, and then I am left with what is known. And although I appreciate that there are not vast treasure-troves of primary documents sitting around for Hunt to access, given the antiquity of the subject, I wish there were some way to read only the known facts. At the 70% mark I became frustrated and bailed.

Hunt quotes often from Livy and Polybius, both of whom I read many years ago as an undergraduate, and which still grace my shelves. My initial impression was that it might be more useful to go dig up those books, reread them, and give this one a miss. However, what Hunt does is sift through their information and provide an analysis that is deeper and more objective than theirs. Livy was, after all, a Roman; he is renowned as a scholar, but not necessarily objective.

And so those that have a serious interest in the history of Northern Africa and/or Southern Europe, or an interest in military history, can count this as a strong title to add to their historical libraries. To put it another way, what it lacks in terms of easy flowing narrative, it makes up for in accuracy and analysis.

Recommended to those that have a serious interest in world history or military history.

Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance*****

PilgrimsOh my stars. Keillor is at his finest here. I’ve never read anything funnier. Every now and then I permit myself to read a title that isn’t a new release but that I’ve been considering reading for a long time. This is one of those.

By now you probably have an idea whether or not you are a Keillor buff. His appeal is largely (but not limited to) the boomer generation. His trademark capacity to satirize people from rural Minnesota, and in particular Lutherans and Norwegians and most of all himself, is legend. He somehow manages to tug the heartstrings occasionally and evoke bittersweet feelings that are experienced by those of us who grew up in the USA during a particular time period, even if we are not from his part of the nation or his culture.

Keillor seemed to me to be sort of a hit-or-miss writer for awhile, but lately, he’s been hitting, at least for me. Liberty, Pontoon, and this one, which parodies Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, carries on without slowing or hitching or ceasing to be interesting and at many times (especially the end) a total crack-up.

If you have never read Chaucer and don’t intend to, that won’t wreck it. The basic contours: Chaucer wrote about people going far away, in a limited group, and Keillor uses the same style of poetry Chaucer used to mark the beginning and end of this book. If there are other parallels, then I am not deep enough to find them, but if I found this to be a good bedside read with only that much recollection, then it will likely suffice for you too.

Here are the story’s components. (I actually flagged fifteen hilarious passages, and then realized that if I quoted them here, it would ruin it to you, so I’ll just give you the basics and set you free.) Margie is 53 and very unhappy. Life has sort of ground to a dull halt; the nest is empty, and husband Carl has moved to a different bedroom. She doesn’t know why. She hopes that if they take a romantic trip to Italy, it will rekindle the flame.

Writer Gary Keillor comes to town. No one includes him in anything. They all assume he is being standoffish by not coming, and he is hurt that no one invites him; very Scandinavian. Before he knows it, he has livened up the speech he is giving (and which is obviously boring his audience senseless) by offering to fund the trip to Italy. Holy smokes! What has he done?

On top of all of it, the town hero, Gussie, their fallen Norwegian soldier who fought in World War II, should have his grave decorated. His daughter Margo, born in Italy outside the sanctity of wedlock, has never gotten around to coming to the USA to meet him, and his remaining brother, very elderly and in a nursing home in another part of the USA, has long wanted someone to convey a photo of Gussie to his grave site. A simple request, and nobody would do it. Now, Margie calls to tell him she’ll be happy to help, and joy of joys, he sends her a big pile of money, and on his deathbed, he refers to her as his “daughter, Margie.” She is entirely untroubled about taking his money as the little band from Lake Wobegon sets out on its vacation and its mission to decorate Gussie’s grave.

This should give you enough information to decide if you want to see the rest. I will only tell you this: the story has some surprises in store at the end; it is not as predictable as it appears to be at the 75% mark.

I found my copy during an annual pilgrimage of my own, to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. It has been available to the public for some time.

Hilarious, and highly recommended!