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KAPOW! celebrating ten years at Powells.com
KAPOW! Decade of Reading essay contest
What was your most memorable reading experience of the last ten years?

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Powells.com, we're asking readers worldwide to describe their most memorable reading experience of the past ten years. To get you started, a few well-known writers and Powell's employees have already taken the question for a spin. Here is one of their answers.
The Book of the Heart

The Book of the Heart
by Eric Jager

"The language of hearts and books shaped medieval consciousness for 1,000 years. Jager explores the variations of meaning with sensitivity." Times Literary Supplement
 
Your Price: $33.75
(New - Trade Paper)

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The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France

The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France
by Eric Jager

Your Price: $10.95
(Used - Hardcover)

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Pompeii

Pompeii
by Robert Harris

"Blazingly exciting...Pompeii palpitates with sultry tension....It is hard to imagine a more thoroughgoingly enjoyable thriller." The London Sunday Times
 
Your Price: $5.50
(Used - Hardcover)

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I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born 10 B.C., Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 (Vintage International)

I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born 10 B.C., Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 (Vintage International)
by Robert Graves

"Mr. Graves has simply given an ingenious and painstaking imitation of a historical work translated from the Latin." Graham Greene, Spectator
 
List Price $16.00
Your Price: $7.95
(Used - Trade Paper)

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Eric Jager Goes Back to Pompeii

Two years ago, during a trip to Italy, my wife and I spent a few days at Pompeii. One day we took a bus to the top of Mount Vesuvius and hiked around the crater of the volcano that erupted in 79 A.D., burying Pompeii. From the volcano's rim, high above the humid plain surrounding the Bay of Naples, it took a while to pick out the partly excavated city, nearly six miles away. And it was hard to believe that the shattered cone on which we stood had spewed out enough debris to bury Pompeii under a thick layer of rock and ash where it lay almost forgotten for more than fifteen centuries.

A year and a half after our visit, I felt that I had returned to the volcano, and the streets of the city far below it, when I opened Robert Harris's wonderful novel Pompeii. In a book that is by turns beautiful and earthy, haunting and violent, Harris masterfully combines history with human drama, archaeology with intrigue, to recreate the ancient Roman world at large and, within the vast and flourishing empire, the daily life of a sleepy Mediterranean resort town whose life came to a sudden, calamitous end on an August afternoon nearly two thousand years ago.

Harris vividly sets the scene, evoking the passions and the politics of Pompeii, as well as its all-important hydraulic infrastructure — especially the sixty-mile aqueduct, the Aqua Augusta — that furnished the city's villas and baths and brothels with its life's blood, like the scores of aqueducts that Roman engineers built up and down Italy and around the Mediterranean world to slake the empire's thirst.

As the novel opens, Pompeii is still recovering from a devastating earthquake that toppled buildings and buckled streets seventeen years earlier, and now, two days before the terrible explosion that (only the reader knows) is gathering deep in the earth below the city's unsuspecting inhabitants, strange signs are seen. The aqueduct has suddenly gone dry, whiffs of sulphur fill the air, and the engineer in charge of Aqua Augusta has mysteriously disappeared.

To investigate and fix the water problem, a hydraulic specialist by the name of Marcus Attilius Primus is dispatched to the scene. As Marcus tries to locate and repair the breach in the aqueduct, part of which lies underground, he finds his job complicated by corrupt businessmen, scheming politicians, obstinate workmen, and even a new romantic interest. Harris vividly describes the teeming Mediterranean resort town and brings to life its varied inhabitants — aristocrats and shopkeepers, retired soldiers and slaves.

In one of the novel's most brilliant touches-reminiscent of Robert Graves's classic historical novel, I, Claudius — Harris brings on stage Pliny the Elder, perhaps the most famous historical person who actually saw Vesuvius explode, who took field notes on the unfolding disaster, and who ordered a ship's crew to row him from his villa across the pumice-strewn Bay of Naples in order to investigate firsthand. Harris so adroitly combines history and fiction, making real and imagined Romans mingle in the story's action-filled climax, that you feel that you, too, are witnessing the disaster firsthand.

Water is everywhere in this story, from the artificial ponds that keep live eels fresh for the tables of the wealthy (and also provide sadistic sport for Roman masters holding the power of life and death over their slaves), to the lavish public baths where citizens of all ranks cleanse themselves as they socialize and relax, to the marvelous and yet vulnerable aqueduct that keeps life and commerce flowing through Pompeii and its neighbors around the bay.

But if the story begins with water, it ends with fire — the cataclysmic accident of nature on August 24, 79 A.D., that only seems inevitable, because it is now history, and because it froze forever Pompeii's streets and buildings as they were on that day, and turned the people of Pompeii almost instantly into stone. Harris's beautiful, haunting novel turns the people of ancient Pompeii back into flesh and blood. And whether you see the lost city through the misty air from the edge of the volcano, or in your mind's eye from your armchair, you will feel as though you, too, were there.


About Eric Jager

Eric Jager holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and has also taught at Columbia University. An award-winning professor of English at UCLA, he is the author of two previous books, including The Book of the Heart (a study of heart imagery in medieval literature) and numerous articles for acclaimed academic journals. His latest book, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, is due for release in October. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

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