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THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them.



  
From a random review:

  

« Finney, Jack: About Time | Main | MacLeish, Roderick: The Man who Wasn't There »

Paul, Jim: Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon

  

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Harvest Books © 1997, 272 pages [amazon]
2 stars

Jim Paul found a cool rock, a piece of Red Creek quartzite some two and a half billion years old, and the heft of the thing suggested a project to him: building a catapult. So he talked his friend Harry into helping him build one, and he talked the director of the Headlands Center for the Arts into giving him $500 toward the expense of its construction. Building the catapult and firing it, he evidently claimed in his proposal to the director, "would be a way of reliving the thought and action of the army men who had lived out there in the Headlands [where Paul proposed to fire the weapon]." Harry and he would be "recapitulating the development of weapons technology, putting on the mask of the weapon-maker. It would be a Conceptual Reconstruction." For some reason, the Center bought this claim of catapult building as art and handed the author a check. But taking this money imposed certain obligations on Paul, who now had a deadline to work under and a public talk to give after he'd fired the thing. Paul's book tells the story of the catapult's construction and firing, and of the presentation with which his relationship with the catapult was concluded. After the talk the machine was disassembled and put on a scrap heap.

The author's foolishness in this instance is one among a number of reasons that he--or the persona he adopts for the book--is an unappealing figure.Paul may have come up with the idea of building the catapult, but that seems to have been the extent of his intellectual contribution to the machine's construction. His friend Harry, a man with considerable mechanical sense, figured out how to build the weapon. Paul got the money, and he went out to pick up Chinese food when necessary, and he apparently read up on catapult history. As part of his research he even looked up the word "spring" in the Oxford English Dictionary. The next morning, armed with his new-found etymological expertise, Paul went off, sans Harry, and bought springs for the catapult--wholly inadequate springs for which he was overcharged, and which he purchased without any apparent consideration of the weapon's requirements.

The author's foolishness in this instance is one among a number of reasons that he--or the persona he adopts for the book--is an unappealing figure. There is also Paul's disingenuous bid for grant money, his attempt to make Harry contribute to the project financially, his flippant attitude toward his promises and obligations to the Center, the fact that he made a habit of throwing tantrums on golf courses when he was fourteen, and--potentially worst of all--his careless firing of the catapult without first surveying the target area. As he and Harry later discovered, their ammunition fell not in the San Francisco Bay, but on the beach, very near where sunbathers regularly lie out in the nude.

The book has other problems in addition to its principal character's questionable likeability. It contains illustrations, but they are wholly inadequate. Without decent drawings or photographs of the catapult at every stage of its construction, it is difficult to follow the author's discussions of the machine's various parts. More importantly, much of the book comes across as filler. The bare bones story of the catapult's construction could not sustain a book-length narrative--even with the page and a half spent on the protagonists' purchase of gloves:

"I picked up another pair of the same kind, and we tried them on. They were nice, soft, yellowish split pigskin--the toughest hide you can get, Harry said. They had a short nap like suede, three neat seams down the back of the hand, and reinforced thumbs. We both liked them. We paid for the gloves when we rented the comealong, and pulled the tags off them as soon as they were ours. We stopped in the parking lot to put them on, stretching our fingers inside them and punching our palms to break them in."

And even after the two and a half pages about Paul's trip to pick up Chinese food for dinner, something he proposed doing after, as he explains for a paragraph, he found himself with nothing to say to Harry and Harry's wife and brother-in-law. More filler was needed, and so we have numerous chapters inserted into the narrative--chapters about Bessemer and the history of steel-making, about the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the first century A.D. (it involved a catapult!), about Paul golfing with his father in his youth (hence those times when he would "stalk back to the clubhouse in tears"), about the Los Alamos project and, in yet another irrelevant chapter, about the post-War life of Frank Oppenheimer. In theory, a story that strays off-course at times to encompass interesting anecdotes only tangentially related to the main narrative is, as Martha Stewart might say, a good thing. But this peripheral information ought to arise naturally from the surrounding narrative. Paul's material just sits there, looking very much like something he foisted upon the book to add to its word count.

Indeed, one has the uncomfortable sense that Paul put this book together in the same spirit that he put his proposal to the Headlands Center for the Arts together, throwing in willy-nilly whatever he could think of to make the final product acceptable to its judges, and perhaps recognizing all the while that he was a little naughtily trying to get away with something.

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About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  






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Book-blog.com by Debra Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.