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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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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
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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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Niles, Kate: The Book of John

  Amazon  

3.5 stars

Kate Niles' The Book of John is a short, slow read that explores a turning point in the life of its main character, John Thompson. The action takes place against a backdrop of archaeological detail--the migration and diet and weapons of the Indians of the southwest, lithic analyses and bone experts and academic archaeological disputes and excavations. John is an archaeologist, and he is defined by his career to a degree that most of us are not. It's in his DNA--connecting to the dead through their remains, feeling his way, literally, to an understanding of their history. There was no other career that would have made him happy. John has accommodated his life to his job, made major decisions based on how they might impact his pursuit of archaeology--again, in ways that go beyond the norm. When we meet John, however, he has essentially run away from his job to the ends of the earth, to the Makah Indian community at Neah Bay on the Olympic peninsula. We don't know what prompted his flight initially, but eventually the pieces are fit together. He's run off because of his fear that his crippling dyslexia will prevent him from fulfilling his professional responsibilities. Normally he's able to muddle through the sort of reports he's required to produce, but the latest excavation he was heading turned out to be more complicated, and controversial, than anyone supposed going in. The report can't be a cut-and-paste job. John is burdened by his reading difficulties but also by his father's unspoken expectations of him, by his guilt at having depended for too long on the help of a series of enablers, by old love affairs and roads not taken.

The Book of John is beautifully written, its language often poetic, and it introduces readers to a world that will be wholly unfamiliar to most of us. There's a lot of archaeological shop talk, some of it on the dull side. I would have liked a little more hand-holding from the author: for example, the hobby that John spends so much of his time on, flint knapping, is not explained in a way that allowed me to visualize what he was doing.

John's crisis in this book is an emotional one, and naturally there is much talk of feelings. (At least one character--John's sister--is simply too perceptive about what he's going through to be believable.) The author does a good job of making us understand John's issues. He is a fully three-dimensional character. But if John were among your acquaintances you might eventually be tempted to tell him to stop whining and get on with his life which, after all, really isn't that bad: everyone has regrets; not everyone wallows in them.

Niles' book begins with an intriguing paragraph, which is what made me want to read the book. (Specifically, it was the "green-gray, green-gray" repetition that attracted me.)

"The Makah, who live at the extreme northwest tip of this contry, where the seas swell in the rain and everything is green-gray, green-gray, hunt whales in spare and beautiful canoes made of cedar. When the whale is finally dead, which may take three days or longer, one of the fishermen dives into the ocean and sews its mouth shut. He does this so the water will not enter the whale, making it too heavy to drag home. This is John, the story of John Thompson. He is the whale, lips sealed so he can bob along with the crowd, where they cannot tell he has lost his heart to the bottom of the sea all along."


The whale analogy makes sense, eventually, and the book ends very nicely, with a conclusion that revives the image and addresses John's evolution in the story. Very nicely done.

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