The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

by Malka Older

Pleti is a young and very junior professor of classics, meaning that she studies the ecosystem of Earth before Earth became uninhabitable. Her college girlfriend, Investigator Mossa, appears unexpectedly one day, working a case and requiring expert advice. This happens on platforms that orbit high above Jupiter. They make a wonderful couple, in a world beautifully designed to support a classic timetable cozy.

by Laura Lippman

Amber Glass is a dealer in outsider art, specializing in the art of the incarcerated. She understand the incarcerated: she woke up in a hotel bathroom the morning after her high school prom in a pool of blood, with a dead infant on the floor. It was a tabloid sensation: Prom Mom/ She wound up in juvenile detention until she was 18. Now in her 30s, she’s back in suburban Baltimore, and back in touch with Cad Dad — who is married to a plastic surgeon.

This odd, slow-burning thriller takes a while to get moving, but once the acceleration kicks in it doesn’t stop.

Sep 23 13 2023

Baby Bones

Robbie George (a Princeton professor better known as a voice of the Catholic right) tweeted approvingly about Louise Perry’s “We Are Repaganizing”. Perry thinks we are all decadent Romans, and wants to remind us where that supposedly led. She begins with an anecdote about the archaeology of brothels:

Helen [Dale] was a classicist before she was a lawyer, and as a younger woman she had taken part in archaeological excavations of ancient Roman sites. “First you find the erotic statuary,” she went on, “and then you dig a bit more and you find the male infant skeletons.” Male, of course, because the males were of no use to the keepers of Roman brothels, whereas the female infants born to prostituted women were raised into prostitution themselves.

This is preposterous on several counts.

First: that’s not how archaeology actually works. Nowadays, that “you dig a bit more” would describe years, perhaps decades, of painstaking field work. Archaeology has changed since Schliemann.

Second: Helen Dale seems not to be a classicist. She studied English at the University of Queensland, taught for a while, then studied Law at Queensland, Oxford, and the University of Edinburgh.

Third: the archaeological evidence is extremely thin.

  • Yewden Villa in Buckinghamshire was excavated 1912-1921. Seventy infant skeletons were found (and packed away in cigarette cartons). A few could be identified by sex: 14 boys vs. 3 girls. Many of the skeletons seem to have been lost over the years, so they’re hard to restudy. The site, in antiquity, was in the middle of nowhere, which casts doubt on the brothel theory. Preferential preservation could explain the gender disparity. Something happened here, but we really have no idea what. (I don’t think there’s any erotic statuary from Yewden)
  • A late-Roman/early-Byzantine sewer in Ashkelon (the city for which shallots are named) contained 97 newborns. It might be associated with a nearby building that might have been a brothel at some point, but there's no decent evidence that the babies and the brothel date from the same era. (There's no erotic statuary in the sewer, either.)

That seems to be it for the archaeology. We have a couple more ancient brothels: one certain brothel in Pompeii, one plausible brothel in the Kerameikos in Athens, a few more possible candidates. None have infant burials. After a couple of millennia, it’s hard to distinguish a brothel, a tavern, and a house. If you doubt me, take a walk around Storyville in New Orleans today. Pretty Baby is set in 1917, only a few years before the excavation at Yewden Villa.

The anecdote’s “first you find the erotic statuary” seems to be invented. The phrasing suggests that this happens all the time — it suggests that the speaker has experienced it more than once. Perhaps it’s happened to someone, but I can’t find any reference to it in connection with any putative brothel outside Pompeii. (The brothel in Pompeii was excavated 1862. No infants. As at Yewden, no one at the excavation is alive to tell the story.)

There’s not much literary evidence for Roman prostitutes killing infants. If the practice was common and christians opposed it, it would have made a handy polemic cudgel. There are plenty of references to abandoned infants, but these are chiefly with regard to their legal status: could you assume a foundling to be a slave? Remember: everyone knew that Rome was founded by foundlings. Thomas Coram founded The Foundling Hospital in 1739; one presumes the England of George II was not really rife with infanticide.

We do know a ton about Roman prostitution because a bunch of our sources liked to talk about it. Plautus, Ovid, Martial, Juvenal, Catullus have plenty of prostitutes. None of them says much (anything?) about infanticide. Augustine knew prostitutes and knew christianity, but he doesn’t say anything about disposing of babies. Paul in I Corinthians 6 would surely have mentioned infanticide in his calumny of prostitution had it been thought to be widespread.

Louise Perry assumes that Roman brothel keepers would have no use for male infants. This is wrong in two ways. First, one thing we do know from literary sources is that male prostitutes were plentiful in brothels, that they were quite popular, and that their careers were shorter than the careers of female prostitutes. Second, if you were the proud owner of a new slave boy, and you wanted a new slave girl, you could walk down the street to a slave dealer and negotiate a trade-in.

Perry, of course, proceeds to drag contemporary abortion politics into the mix:

It was the arrival of Christianity that disrupted the Romans’ favored methods of keeping reproduction in check, with laws against infanticide, and then abortion, imposed by Christian emperors from the late fourth century.

The Roman state didn’t have trouble keeping population in check: it had trouble keeping population up. Major initiatives from Augustus on sought to increase population through tax incentives and other privileges. Between the dangers of childbirth and huge rates of infant mortality — perhaps approaching 50%— keeping the population stable was a challenge. No one worried about overpopulation. The christian takeover initiated a catastrophic population decline in the West, though evidence in the Byzantine world cuts both ways.

In the end, the whole argument is absurd. Its supposition that the only alternative to christianity is Roman paganism is wrong. Roman paganism wasn’t a monolith, anyway. It’s just christian propaganda to lump the followers of Mithras and Zoroaster with Isis and Buddha and Thor, with Jews and the Neoplatonists and everyone else. It presupposes that belief matters — a natural supposition to a christian, but one that surely would baffle Plautus or Petronius.

If you want to argue from history, it’s better to rely on evidence for what happened, rather than to make it up.

by Didier Erebon

Very valuable source of anecdotes of Lévi-Strauss, especially for his war years in New York when he taught under the name “Claude L. Strauss” to avoid confusion with blue jeans. One striking thing about the book is how relaxed Lévi-Strauss is about old rivalries, old slights, ideologies, ecological disaster, the War that was past, the War that was ongoing, and the War that was (and is) to come.

When critics of Structualism said (in May 1968) that, “Structures do not go out into the street,” they were not wrong. I don’t think anyone on the left today — anyone in academe — is half as calm as Lévi-Strauss seems to be in 1988.

Aug 23 18 2023

Little Monsters

by Adrienne Brodeur

Adam Gardner, a biologist, lives in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. He is about to be 70, he has always been bipolar, and he’s secretly adjusting his meds to take one last shot at a Nobel-sized discovery. His son, Ken, is making a fortune in real estate and running for Congress as a Republican. His daughter Abby is making a name for herself in the art world. It’s going to be one hell of a birthday party.

This is a quietly accomplished book, not least because it borrows some old-fashioned tools (a psychoanalyst for buckets of elliptical exposition, a regrettable will to foul things up, and an off-duty copy to unsettle everyone) for very contemporary ends.

by Helen DeWitt

A luminous, tiny little novel about an extraordinary young woman and her extraordinary mother. Maman has raised us to be resourceful and self-reliant. Now, we’re on our own.

Aug 23 9 2023

Tabula Rasa

by John McPhee

Over many years, John McPhee has written well about an extraordinary range of topics. Oranges, museums, shipping, geology, conservation, and basketball are among them. This volume collects lovely, and often hilarious, notes about subject that got away. Some were profiles whose subject died, or turned out to be busy. Some, like a profile of every other Princeton in the U.S. never quite gelled. “Nothing goes well in a piece of writing,” McPhee reminds us “until it is in its final stages or done.”

by Jessica Fellowes

If you’re in the mood for a solid, golden-age mystery, this is the ticket. It’s got upstairs and downstairs, crime on the railroad train, the niece of the creator of Downton Abbey, and a denouement at a ball. And it’s got Mitfords, ranging in age from debutante (Nancy) to infant (Deebo).

There are problems. The book is designed to culminate at Nancy’s first ball, which is fun but which leaves the other sisters mostly in the shadows. Nancy herself keeps shading into Nancy Drew; this is a hazard because, in a way, she’s our Basic Mitford. Muv and Favre are actually pretty good. But we don’t really get much out of her being The Nancy Mitford. To be fair, I think Fellowes does a nice job of little Unity, stewing by herself in a corner. A decade and change later, we know she will shoot herself out of love for Hitler, but getting there is, really, the point of historical fiction.

There are virtues, too. The book is filled with down-market characters who are drawn and are not picaresque, and that’s something even Sayers seldom could manage.

by Bonnie Garmus

This novel takes a long time to get going, but when it goes, it’s a hum-dinger. Elizabeth Zott is a scientist. It’s the 1950s, so everyone assumes that women cannot do science. Much of the book is a primer on why second-wave feminism was needed. What really works here is that this is an exceptionally good portrait of what science is like.

There’s also a dog named Six-Thirty (6:30) and a five-year-old daughter, Mad, and each is superbly drawn.

A Readercon find (thanks, Gwynn Garfinkel), this is a nifty anthology that explores lots of ways in which things might have turned out very differently. What if the lord our god, king of the universe, blessed be he, was running a few hours late one day and the Red Sea parted after the rebels had been rounded up? What, for that matter, might have happened if Miriam has seen Pharaoh’s daughter drowning a Hebrew infant and, in her incandescent and perpetual rage, had led a military revolt that burnt all the ancient empires of the Mediterranean to the ground? What if Spinoza had married and gone off to live in his wife’s village, and then led a massive flight of Jews from the pogroms to New York?

Not every pivot is picked up — I’m surprised, for example, that no one wanted to take on any of the various ways that Paul might have been thwarted and how that might have changed things. But never mind: a lot of this was fun, and some was fascinating.