Rara Arithmetica by David Eugene Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another book on books, this time a rare treat for me that combines my bibliophilia with my love of mathematics. Rara Arithmetica is a detailed catalogue of arithmetic books and manuscripts in George Arthur Plimpton’s library that were written before 1601. It includes detailed bibliographic information, biographies of the authors and important facts about each book including its audience, reception and impact. It includes many reproductions of title pages and other pages within the books.

There were four types of arithmetic in the Middle Ages that were inherited by the Renaissance (pp. 4-7). They are theoretical, algorisms, abacus mathamatics and computi (computus). Theoretical works were based primarily on Boethius, a 6th century CE scholar who drew on Nicomachus and Euclid. Algorisms were practical works used by merchants and business for computations and weights, often using Hindu and Arabic number systems. Abacus arithmetics used roman numerals and were also used for commercial purposes. Computi were the arithmetics used for church calendars and various date calculations, especially for movable religious feasts.

Some highlights from Rara Arithmetica:

A book written in 1488 by the astronomer and poet Anianus, which also includes work by a 13th century astronomer, is a treat. Anianus has, for the first time in print, the Latin version of what we know in English as the 30 days hath September…’ (pp. 31-33):

Junius aprils september et ipse nouember
Dant triginta dies reliquis supadditur vnus
De quorum numero februarius excipiatur. (pp. 31-33)

Johann Widman’s arithmetic in German (2nd edition, 1500) is the first time that plus and minus signs were used in a printed work, although they weren’t used as addition or subtraction “but as symbols of excess or deficiency in warehouse measures” (p. 39).

The first modern encyclopedia in print was Gregorius Reisch’s Aepitoma omnis phylosophiæ (1504). It includes the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy), along with the natural and moral sciences.

There were several books written on numerical finger and arm symbolism, i.e. how to use your hands and arms to display a number. One neat one was Johannes Aventinus’s 1532 book. It provided illustrations for how to represent numbers up to one million that was useful in both the East and the West during the Middle Ages (pp. 137-138).

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Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald

Memorial: A Version of Homer's IliadMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled across a review of an upcoming collection of poetry from Alice Oswald (Falling Awake, August 2016) and read about this little volume called Memorial. One of the best unexpected things to happen to me in 2016. A very interesting and thought provoking translation/transformation of Homer’s Iliad. I’m a big fan of the Iliad and have read it many times in various translations. I’ve even taken a whack a few times with the Greek text. Her take is new and is so worth the effort. She writes in the preface “I write through the Greek, not from it – aiming for translucence rather than translation.”

Alice Oswald has created a stripped down Iliad, that focuses on those who died in the epic poem. But, she’s added to it as well, as any good oral poet would with such a great tale to tell. She starts, powerfully, with a list of the names of the people who died in the poem. It’s like when they do readings of victims names at memorial services, or on monuments like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At first thought/glance, you think it’s nothing. But, as you read one name, then another and continue on for pages, it builds in your mind and your heart. When you read the last name, here Hector, and then silence, it stops you dead (pun intended).

The afterword by Eavan Boland is well worth reading. He writes of the people who died: “They are the brothers, husbands, sons of every war. And as we put down Memorial we wonder whether we first met them in Homer’s epic or saw them on last night’s news bulletin” (p. 85). He highlights many things I saw, but also showed me things I missed.

I read this in one setting. Her pacing is fast but not rushed. I will have to return to this poem again and let it wash over me and transform me. Alice Oswald has created an excellent work with her version of the Iliad. I am so lucky to have stumbled upon it.

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Roller Ball Murder by William Harrison

Rollerball MurderMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was debating two or three stars, but looking back at my reading notes, I realized that two of the stories demanded that I give it the higher mark. I really enjoyed The Hermit (1968), probably my favorite piece in this collection of short stories. A well-developed story of two private men who hide themselves from the outside world. I also enjoyed The Good Ship Erasmus (1971), an intriguing story of a man surreptitiously selling cigarettes aboard a quit-smoking cruise. Many of the other stories felt too short to fully develop their ideas. There were nuggets and neat ideas raised, but more in an outline format rather than developed

The book is definitely dark, which is fun for me at times. But it’s also very violent, including murder, assault and rape. It’s also definitely sexist, with woman being one-dimensional characters composed of breasts, waists and little else.

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Aeneid Book VI translated by Seamus Heaney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As soon as I heard this was going to be published, I had it on my “must get” list. I got my copy the day it was released and just sat down last evening to read it. It exceeded my expectations, which is a hard thing given that my “levels” were set based on Heaney’s wondrous translation of Beowulf.

The text was stunning in its beats and pace, effortlessly pulling me from the opening line through to the last word. I loved that the Latin text was on the facing page. I tried to read words here and there, surprising myself at times, and increasing my desire to learn Latin more fully.

What a translator Heaney was. To make the story come alive in a different tongue, and to excite in me the interest to learn the original language. I don’t know if a translator can receive a higher honor.

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Lara, A Tale by Lord Byron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Byron’s Lara, especially the first canto. The passion and drive of youth and the reflection, sadness and loss of age. This work still sheds light today with this item from Canto 2, VIII (lines 867-8): “Religion–Freedom–Vengeance–what you will,/A word’s enough to raise mankind to kill”.

I have to say that I really enjoy such storytelling in verse. Byron does it so well. Today, some authors try to craft the perfect prose but forsake their story or plot. They craft beautiful structures but nothing adorns these empty shells. I think we’ve lost much with the passing of epic storytelling in verse.

My edition also included Jacqueline, a poem by Samuel Rogers. Not the best story, but some very nice verse. That’s something he was known for, especially with his most famous piece, The Pleasures of Memory (1792).

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The Corsair by Lord Byron

Thoroughly enjoyed The Corsair. Much better story and development than I found in The Bride of Abydos. The meter worked so well that I only sensed it just below the surface. I simply read the story but the structure was there throughout, guiding and accentuating.

It’s been fun working through Byron from his early to later works. You can see his talent develop and his various experiments with form as he gets more under his belt. Still more to read!

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The Bride of Abydos by Lord Byron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second of the Turkish tales wasn’t as good as the first (The Giaour). The story felt rushed, especially in the concluding canto. But, I enjoyed it, hence the 3 stars. I was especially fond of the XII stanza of the 1st canto. Fast pacing, lovely verse. The first few lines are:

He lived — he breathed — he moved — he felt;
He raised the maid from where she knelt;
His trance was gone — his keen eye shone
With thoughts that long in darkness dwelt;
With thoughts that burn — in rays that melt.

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