Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Highly Recommended

"The landscape of history is not alone the solid earth of fact; above must spread the rolling cloudbanks of imagination."

-- Donald J. Grout, Preface to the First Edition of A Short History of Opera

I'm reading an outstanding new book called Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A. D. 800. It's a surprisingly suspenseful and beautifully written account of the years immediately preceding the Christmas morning in A. D. 800 when Karl, King of the Franks, became Charlemagne, the "first emperor in Rome in nearly 400 years."

In tracing the confluence of political forces which led to Karl's coronation, the book's author, Jeff Sypeck, provides plenty of the solid earth of fact, and then he rolls out the cloudbanks of imagination to wonderful effect. The book offers a vivid glimpse of different people, cities, and cultures at discrete moments in history and at the same time provides a sense of history's sweep and tragedy. I love the blending of the two sensibilities -- that of the reader of history, who, in a general sense, knows how it all turns out, and that of the actor in history, who touchingly and sometimes tragically doesn't.

Listen, for instance, to this pitch-perfect tale of the fate of the Barmakid family, the most prominent members of the kuttab, the brilliant "administrative elite" of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad:

"Although their story is lost in myth and poetry, the Barmakids were clearly intertwined with the Abbasids in complex ways. Yahya's sons Fadl and Jafar quickly rose to prominence. The flamboyant Jafar was the close friend who shares Harun's adventures in the pages of The Arabian Nights; Fadl was thought to be confident and more responsible. The brothers moved from one prestigious job to another at the whim of the caliph -- governorships, military commands, the vizierate, authority over countless lives -- but they also had the dubious honor of grooming the caliph's sons for succession. Most people saw them only when they needed to petition the government, but the Barmakids' wine parties and literary salons were the talk of Baghdad. Picture them in their black-tailed turbans, raising a cup of wine, laughing with the friends, enjoying a rousing musical performance, secure in the knowledge that they are the elite: feared, admired, praised, and loved."

"In a few years, in an incident that will shock the average Baghdadi and forever baffle historians, Harun will destroy them all." "Yahya and his sons Fadl and Jafar will be arrested. Jafar will be executed in the middle of the night; his dismembered body will hang from a bridge in Baghdad. Harun will confiscate all of the Barmakids' belongings and arrest their closest confidants. The poets they patronized so liberally will lament their downfall."

"Speculation will fly. Some people will tell the improbable tale that Jafar had married Harun's favorite sister Abbasa as a formality so the girl could join their drinking parties without arousing scandal. According to this rumor, Harun became infuriated on learning that his confidant and his sister had become more than friends. Like many stories about Harun and Jafar, this one will never be confirmed, but it will be remembered and enshrined in The Arabian Nights."

"But for now, the Barmakids were still makers of manners, feasting on delicacies by lamplight and running the Abbasid caliphate, oblivious of their fate. In the end, no one would ever know why Harun destroyed his foster father and his closest friends, except for Harun himself. And he, as usual, was nowhere to be found."

Becoming Charlemagne abounds with numerous such narrative gems, glittering with compelling historical detail, prodigious imagination, and beautiful prose.


Blogger stewdog said...

Is that anything like the Steely Dan song "Kid Charlemagne" from the Royal Scam album? I liked that. This one seems to have too many words and is like school.

November 28, 2006 2:05 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

The Steely Dan Book of World History is about your speed, O Stew of Dog. :)

Come on. Confess. I know you clicked on the link and bought the book, didn't you? You read actual books. You've even loaned me a few.

November 28, 2006 3:37 PM  
Blogger stewdog said...

I do read a few actual books a year and I look forward to retirement when I can read more.
I last read Baseball by George Vescay and Luckiest Man, about Lou Gehrig.
Thanks for reminding me that you borrowed my PJ O'Rourke books. They are overdue and the fines are piling up.

November 28, 2006 3:58 PM  

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