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Still on hiatus, still working on the next book – have you bought the last one yet? Yes? Thanks! – and still stuck at home. Tomorrow we get the car back. But tomorrow is Chuck E. Fargin’ Cheese night, too. It never ends. In the tradition of the December Slack-Off Bleat season, though, I should present a review of a book you could give as a gift, or read on the plane if you’re traveling for Christmas. Here goes. Quickly.

So why do we like the Romans? They were nasty bastards, after all, casually cruel, indolently sadistic when it suited them, tyrannical and arrogant. But they were civilized. At least for the time. They’re familiar. They had stadiums, plumbing, buildings whose visual vocabulary can be found in any American town, sculpture that looks startlingly vivid and real, and laws. (Too many laws, I suppose – and that bred an attitude towards the law that also seems familiar.) All other empires give off a strange and foreign whiff – the Egyptians come close, but their theology and architecture doesn’t resonate with the Western heart, and it doesn’t help that they wrote with pictures that make anyone channel their inner schoolkid and hum the snakecharmer ditty: “na na na, na, na. Nana nana nana na.” The other eastern empires had their odd gods with elaborately braided beards and lion bodies; the Aztecs et al are stuck in a Discovery Channel hell, with some historian attempting to decode inscrutable friezes about severed penises and human sacrifice while the soundtrack plays mournful pan flutes. They’re all very interesting. They’re all quite fascinating. But I think if you asked most people “of all the empires in human history, which would youn like to –“

“Rome,” they’d answer, before you finished the question. Oh, it would be different than we expected; you couldn’t begin to count the things you couldn’t anticipate. But you suspect – or hope – that you’d figure it out quickly. You could learn the ropes of Rome. You could pick up what you needed to know. If Western Civ is Mac OSX, Rome is DOS. Different interface, but you’re still using qwerty.

Or not. That’s all simplistic, of course. That’s what happens when you read historical fiction. I finished “Pompeii,” by Robert Harris; he wrote “Fatherland,” a great murder mystery set in 1960s Nazi Berlin. (One of those alternate universe things, obviously.) “Archangel” was a Soviet / Post-Soviet novel about Stalin and his heirs, so to speak, and while I couldn’t quote you a single line or scene it kept me up until 2 AM racing to the end. He doesn’t write in the Gripping Style; the prose is sturdy, consciously disinclined to writerly flourishes. The characters aren’t clichés, but neither are they particularly memorable. Beach and plane books, but high-minded examples. If Crichton’s books are breathless sprints through a syllabus masquerading as a plot, Harris’ books are careful, measured walks.

Until the volcano goes off.

“Pompeii” is about a volcano, yes, but it’s the finest novel about plumbing you’ll ever read. I’m not being sarcastic. The hero is the local official in charge of the water supply for the cities around Pompeii, and most of the book concerns his efforts to fix a break in the aqueduct. It’s a brilliant move – the politics of Rome may be fascinating and amusing from a distance, the amphitheater diversions appalling, but by GOD they were engineers of the finest sort, and to learn how they did what they did is truly a delight.

Of course, water is a commodity, so there’s corruption of the “Chinatown” variety. The conventions of the genre require a Real Historical Figure, so who do we get? Pliny. Fargin’ PLINY, friends.

If you know nothing of Rome or know a great deal, this novel will fascinate and delight. Especially if you’ve stood on a Pompeii streetcorner yourself and felt the ghosts rushing past.

This is Pompeii.

(To buy the book, go through either book link on the left. Pausing, of course, to buy the book before you enter “Pompeii Robert Harris” in the search field.)