December 4, 2010

Literary Blog Hop: "What is your favorite poem and why?"

The folks over at The Blue Bookcase sponsor "The Literary Blog Hop," a weekly meme, that gives all of us who read and write about books an opportunity to find and make new friends, and exchange ideas.  This week's question was submitted by Gary at The Parrish Lantern.

What is your favorite poem and why?

I normally do not qualify answers to questions, but I'm making an exception here.  I consider myself quite the connoisseur and a serious student of poetry.  As many of you know, I post lots and lots of poetry here at ProSe.  I also have an extensive collection of poetry that I am continually delving into.

Okay, so why do I feel compelled to qualify my answer to Gary's question?  For me, it just isn't as simple as saying that this poem, or that poem, is my most favorite poem.  Depending upon my mood, time, or place, I can think of many, many poems that would, or could, be my favorite poem.  From the perspective of the most perfectly written poem that really packs a punch, I might be inclined to suggest that John Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad rises to the top.  At another moment it might very well be Emily Dickinson's poem No. 712, Because I could not stop for Death--.

Be that as it may, at this moment in time my favorite poem is by Christina Georgina Rossetti, an English poet of the Victorian era.  She was the youngest sister of the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (at right is his pencil sketch of Christina).  Christina Rossetti was born in 1830, and died in 1895.  She was truly a prolific poet, writing something over 1,000 poems over the course of her life, and is perhaps best known for her epic poem, Goblin Market.

An Echo From Willowwood

"O ye, all ye that walk in Willowwood." D.G. Rosetti

Two gazed into a pool, he gazed and she,
Not hand in hand, yet heart in heart, I think,
Pale and reluctant on the water's brink
As on the brink of parting which must be.
Each eyed the other's aspect, she and he,
Each felt one hungering heart leap up and sink,
Each tasted bitterness which both must drink,
There on the brink of life's dividing sea.
Lilies upon the surface, deep below
Two wistful faces craving each for each,
Resolute and reluctant without speech: —
A sudden ripple made the faces flow
One moment joined, to vanish out of reach:
So those hearts joined, and ah! were parted so.


One of the things that I love so much about this poem is its relationship to the back-story.  This poem is an example of the poet utilizing his/her unique life experiences.  In An Echo from Willowwood, Christina is telling the story of the love between her brother, Dante, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and his wife, Lizzie Siddal.  At the same time, Christina has crafted her sonnet to play off of Dante's earlier 'Willowwood' sonnets that were written about his wife, who died in 1862 due to laudanum addiction. So the story goes, Lizzie had left sketches of herself and Dante looking into pools of water together; these sketches then inspired the poetry of both of the Rossetti siblings. Finally, you might also be interested to learn that Lizzie Siddal served as the model for Sir John Everett Millais's famous Pre-Raphaelite painting "Ophelia."  Somehow, I think that Christina has perfectly captured the tenderness and deep love that Dante and Lizzie shared, but I also think she very effectively touches upon the sadness to come.  To me, this is a meaningful, very beautiful and poignant poem.


Book Blogging & "Busting the Newbie Blues"

I ran across an interesting posting over at Small Review's blog entitled, Busting the Newbie Blues.  She has developed a set of questionnaires associated with what we are all doing--i.e., book blogging.  I chose her questionnaire for "Established Bloggers" (I guess that's what I am).  Her questions kind of made me stop and think for a few minutes about why I am maintaining my blog and what purpose it serves.  Personally, I think a periodic assessment and reassessment of my blog is a pretty healthy thing to do.  I am thinking it may actually help me improve on what I am doing here.  So, without further ado, here are the questions and my responses.

1.  When did you start your blog?  I started seriously book blogging in August 2009.

2.  Why did you start your blog?  Honestly, I started this blog solely to create an on-line journal for my own creative writing as well as recording my thoughts about the books I was reading and some of my thoughts about my landscape photography hobby.  At the time, I truly never imagined that one other person could be the least bit interested in my scribblings or thoughts.

3.  What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?  Did you make any mistakes new bloggers can learn from?  I suppose the biggest challenge for me has been in maintaining my discipline, and coming up with new and creative postings associated with the literature that I am reading.  Also, another challenge is to ensure that I do take the time to periodically check in with some of the wonderful new friends and their blogs that I have found over the past year and a half.  It has truly been inspirational to encounter so many great book and literature blogs here.  Regarding any mistakes that I made early on--I think it comes back to the discipline thing.  You just have to take the time to sit down and do some writing.  It really does keep the creative juices flowing.  If I don't talk about the particular book that I am reading, I am famous for digging into my extensive poetry collection and finding a poem to share on ProSe.

4.  What did you find most discouraging about being a new blogger? How did you deal with this?  Trying to figure out how to do things (e.g., formatting, etc.), posting images, and just generally spiffing up my blog to make it look like something bordering on sophisticated (trust me, it ain't ever gonna be elegant ;-).  And practice makes perfect.  I just keep trying new things as I go along too.  Seeing what others have done has been extraordinarily helpful as well.

5.  What do you find most encouraging?  Without a doubt it has been the positive response I have received from all of those who've read and commented on my various postings.  I simply could not have imagined the response I've received to this blog of mine.  Simply amazing!

6.  What do you like best about the blogs you read? Have you tried to replicate this in your blog?  I love reading about all of the books that other folks are reading, and the reactions they've had via the excellent reviews that everyone is writing.  Reading these reviews has definitely made me a more discerning reader and a much better writer.  I most certainly do try to replicate the high quality of the writing and the book reviews that I've encountered in and among my own efforts here on ProSe.

7.  What do you dislike about blogs you’ve read? Do you try to avoid this?  I'm not particularly big on religiously participating in a bazillion memes.  I do like to participate in some memes periodically, because it really does make you get outside of your box or routine.  But I kind of do it as the spirit moves me.  I also am not a fan of adding buttons, badges, or other gizmos to my blog.  I figure that this blog is about the books I'm reading, the poetry I like, and some of my landscape photography.

8.  Do you have any advice for new bloggers?  Just make it a practice to visit your own blog a couple of times a week and write down your thoughts.  Even if no other person sees it, you'll have the overwhelming personal satisfaction of having accomplished something meaningful.  Your thoughts are very important--they are important to you!  Find and develop your own creative niche, and don't worry about whether anyone else will see it, read it, or comment on it.  My advice:  Write your blog just for you.  Nothing more, and nothing less.  If you've done your best and you're satisfied; well, there's not much more that you can do.  Now, have at it!

9.  How did you bring your blog to the attention of so many people?  I didn't do anything other than visit other peoples' blogs.  I didn't feel compelled to visit other folks' blogs in order to solicit reciprocity; I visited these blogs because I was genuinely interested in reading what they had to say.  I have thoroughly enjoyed finding a blog and a writer who has read a book that I've read (or want to read), and then reading their review and discovering what made that particular book or poem meaningful to them.  It is simple as that.

10.  Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience?  Most of all I'd like to make the point that blogging about books (or anything) should be part fun and part intellectually challenging.  I have found that blogging about the books and poetry that I am reading has made me a much better reader.  I am looking at things a little differently now.  In other words, I have become a more serious reader versus just a casual reader.  I now tend to make notes in the margins of the books I read, or on the fly-leafs that later help me frame my thoughts in developing a review or recommendation.  I also keep a reading journal where I record important quotes or observations associated with the literature that I am reading.  Book blogging has added ever so much to my overall reading and comprehension experience, and I am sure that it can for you as well.


December 3, 2010

Reviews: "The Wheel Weaves as the Wheel Wills" -- Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time' Series of Novels

For twenty years I have been avidly following a terrific series of fantasy novels written by the American author, James Oliver Rigney, Jr., under the pen name of "Robert Jordan.  This truly amazing set of 'fat' books is generally known as The Wheel of Time series.  I read the first novel in 1990, when the first novel, The Eye of the World, was released and I have been solidly hooked ever since.  In November of this year, the thirteenth novel, and second to last, the Towers of Midnight was published (Tor Fantasy, NY).  While I have been so damned busy with work of late, I darn sure made time to read the latest installment in this fabulous story!

This series is set in a different world and in a time that is somewhat reminiscent of the 18th century.  At just over 11,000 pages (so far), this is not a series for the less-than-serious.  You gotta make a commitment with this massive set of of books, but in my opinion it is well worth the effort.  The characters are complex, complicated, interesting, and in some cases deeply flawed, i.e., just like each one of us.  This is your classic Manichaean struggle between 'Good' versus 'Evil', the 'Light' versus the 'Dark'.  While it is easy to say, "Well, this has been done before by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings; and while that is, on the surface, a truism; Jordan has done something astounding here.  These books completely immerse the reader in a world and with characters that they can completely relate to.  If anything Jordan is the uber-Tolstoy in constructing the scope and sweep of this immensely epic story--this really is the ultimate War and Peace.  There are story arcs upon story arcs in this tale, all woven together in an exciting and hair-raising framework.  Much, much more than just magic-wielding characters, or armies struggling on battlefields, these novels are more a sophisticated blend of political intrigue, diplomacy, lessons in command and leadership, as well as an in-depth study of human psychology and interpersonal relationships.  I have read the series, from start to finish, several times now; and it still continues to be very, very difficult to put the book you are reading down for the night.  That is the magic of Jordan's writing, he just pulls you in deeper and deeper into his world and his characters.

While the primary thread  of the tale revolves around a young 'hero' by the name of 'Rand al'Thor', and his continuing struggle with the 'Great Lord of the Dark', one of the things I love the most about this series is the supporting cast and Jordan's creation of some of the most amazingly powerful female protagonists and antagonists.  Women are so important to this series in so many different ways.  As I said above, this is not your typical swords-and-sorcery or swashbuckling type of fantasy fiction.  No, not at all.  This is the thinking person's fantasy.  As a general rule of thumb, and with very few exceptions, it is the women that hold and exert the real power to influence the course of events in the plot.  This is especially true for the women that can wield what is know as the female half of the "One Power", or saidar.  Most of these women are Aes Sedai, their use of saidar, and their close-knit Ajah societies are to me some of the most fascinating characters in the novels.  And let me just finish up the description of the novel's characters by saying that the evil characters, men and women, are really, really bad and really, really scary; and the good ones, while good and decent, definitely have issues.  For me it it is so captivating and somehow just feels real.  I know people like the characters in these novels!

Sadly, 'Robert Jordan', James Oliver Rigney, Jr., died in 2007 of a very rare heart condition.  Fortunately, he did have the time to prepare a set of very detailed plotting outlines to finish the series.  He worked feverishly over his last few years to write portions of the conclusion of the series.  After his death, his wife and publisher selected the up-and-coming fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, to finish the series.  Using Jordan's outlines and notes, Sanderson has done a sterling job of beginning to bring the story arcs together, and wrapping up the million-and-one loose ends and developing an incredible conclusion to the series.  Sanderson, working with Jordan's outlines and notes, has authored The Gathering Storm and the Towers of Midnight, and is working on the final novel in the series, A Memory of Light, due to be released in Spring 2012.  I have to say too that Sanderson's writing is very, very good.  He has done a superb job at preserving Jordan's voice and perspective as he completes this amazing story.  I am very pleased with the two novels that he has added to the series.

So, if you're looking for an epic fantasy that grabs you from the get-go and just doesn't let up, I highly recommend Robert Jordan's (and now being finished by Brandon Sanderson) series of novels--The Wheel of Time.  If you love the Arthurian legend, Tolkien's Middle Earth, Ursula K. LeGuin's Earth Sea, or George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, et al., you will dig Jordan.  Start with The Eye of the World and begin to become completely swept up and lost in "Randland".  If you doubt the veracity of my words here, I dare you to 'Google' "The Wheel of Time".  You'll be gobsmacked!  There is a universe of fans and on-line forums and communities, personal blogs, etc. associated with Jordan's massive creation.  These novels, the plot, and the characters are studied and analyzed as much or more than just about any other works of literature.  Have fun, and let me know if you start reading this series.  You'll be hooked, I guarantee it!


Happy, Happy Holidays!

I want to take a minute and apologize for my lengthy absence from my blog! [Nearly two weeks!] Unfortunately, I have been crazy busy at work of late.  My boss recently retired, and I have been named acting director of my agency until a nationwide search has been conducted, and the position filled.  Ughhh!  It all has only reinforced my desire to retire in five or six years, i.e., as soon as I am able.  Anyway, with a new incoming governor in January, things are in an incredible state of flux.

So, I'd like to wish you all the very best in the holiday season, and I hope that you are able to create some wonderful and meaningful memories with family and friends.  Please stay safe, have fun, and take a moment to extend the hand of peace and love to those around you, whether you know them or not.

November 13, 2010

A Poem for the Day: "The Falling of the Leaves" by William Butler Yeats

Even here in southern California, fall has finally come.  The leaves are falling, the mornings are crisp, the days are short, the nights are long, and I am reminded of these two melancholy stanzas by the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats--

The Falling of the Leaves

Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,
And over the mice in the barley sheaves;
Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,
And yellow the wet wild strawberry leaves.

The hour of the waning of love has beset us,
And weary and worn are our sad souls now;
Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,
With a kiss and a tear upon thy drooping brow.



[The photograph of the fall colors is courtesy of Matt Princing, and just seemed to fit Yeats' poetry perfectly.]

November 12, 2010

Literary Blog Hop: My Most Difficult Read -- "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy

The folks over at The Blue Bookcase sponsor "The Literary Blog Hop," a weekly meme, that gives all of us who read and write about books an opportunity to find and make new friends, and exchange ideas.  This week's question was submitted by Debbie Nance at Readerbuzz--

"What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read?  What made it so difficult?

At first blush I thought that this'd be a snap.  Then I re-read the question again.  "What is the most difficult literary work you've read?"  Ahh, well then, I guess I can't talk about the dozen, or more times, that I have tried to read Ulysses by James Joyce, and ended up hurling it across the room in frustration several days later.  Yes, gentle reader, I even broke the back of an edition of Ulysses in one of my momentary fits of rage and frustration.  I have since entered a 12-step program that has kept me Joyce-free for nearly fifteen years now, and I have never injured another book.

Okay, back to the question at hand.  My answer to the question must surely be Cormac McCarthy's horrific novel Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West published in 1985.  While not profoundly intellectually challenging like one of Joyce's novels, or something by Pynchon, McCarthy has basically put a small thermonuclear device between the covers of this novel, and then double-dares you to open it and read it.  This novel is probably the most relentlessly brutal and savage novel that you'll ever read.  I compare reading this novel to looking at and trying to decipher the meaning of a painting by the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516).  Blood Meridian is ostensibly based upon a series of historical events that occurred along the U.S./Mexico border region from Texas to San Diego in the mid-19th century, involving a gang of outlaws (the Glanton Gang) led by the fictional 'Judge Holden'--a man so evil that he almost defies description.  And like Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, the novel is loaded with biblical references and imagery.  The ending is vintage McCarthy too, i.e., completely and totally unexpected.  Harold Bloom considers McCarthy's Blood Meridian to be one of the great American novels of the 20th century and called it "the ultimate western."  Bloom and several other critics have compared it to Melville's Moby-Dick in its literary quality and importance to the American canonEven though it is a tough read, every time I read Blood Meridian I am able to discover something new, kind of like peeling an onion, layer-by-layer and gain a better sense of the novel's message.  I have come to the conclusion that Cormac McCarthy is the modern-American equivalent of Thomas Hardy--bleak, dark, and that fate and chance play a major role in his plotting.

Is Blood Meridian McCarthy's best novel?  Well, the critics would sure have you think so.  For me though, I think that I like his much earlier novel Outer Dark (1968) even more; and then his "Borderlands Trilogy" that includes All The Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998) are truly amazing novels that I re-read every few years.  And for those of you who have read McCarthy's No Country for Old Men (2005), or saw the recent film adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen of the same title; well, you obviously have an understanding of McCarthy's penchant for unrelenting violence and a difficult ending.

Well, there it is--my most difficult novel to read--Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy.


Veteran's Day, PTSD, and Classic War Literature

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the great guns finally fell silent across Europe.  The First World War, the War to end all Wars, was over.  Unfortunately in just over 20 years the world was again at war; and again tens of millions of humans would be killed and millions more displaced.  Yesterday, the 92nd anniversary of the end of World War I, was Veteran's Day in the United States; and as a veteran myself, I first want to take this opportunity to thank all of my brothers and sisters who have served and are serving in this nation's armed forces.  Where ever you are now please take care of yourself, and look out for your comrades too.

Last night I watched James Gandolfini's HBO documentary, "Wartorn: 1861-2010" about the impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) upon combat veterans, their families, and society as a whole.  While we still have a long, long way to go to fully understanding the psychological impacts and effects of intense combat upon the human mind, both in the short-term and over the long haul, I do believe that we are finally beginning to address this issue and the obligation that society has to treat and care for those afflicted with PTSD.  We simply must do the right and honorable thing for all of those who served our country with honor and dignity themselves.  I highly recommend taking the time to watch Gandolfini's documentary.  It was hard to watch, but an important step in the right direction toward helping these men and women cope with combat-related PTSD.

As most of us who read know, there are great classics of war literature that have been written over the ages.  One can go back nearly three-thousand years to Homer's The Iliad and find descriptions of the savagery and horrors of war, including descriptions of soldiers that were probably afflicted with PTSD.  In fact, Sophocles in his play, Ajax, tells the story of what happens to Great Ajax after he loses the competition with Odysseus for the right to claim the armor of the slain Achilles.  Ajax awakens from a dream, and while 'under the spell' of Athena, he slaughters a flock of sheep thinking that they are the Achaean leaders, including Agamemnon and Odysseus.  When he comes to his senses, he realizes what he has done and is so shamed that he commits suicide.  To me, this sounds like the actions of a combat veteran suffering from PTSD.

Other great examples of classic war literature that describe the horrific effects of combat upon the human mind include Stephen Crane's novel of the American Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage.  Erich Maria Remarque's novel of World War I from the German perspective, All Quiet on the Western Front.  World War I from the American perspective can be found in Dalton's Trumbo's horrifying novel, Johnny Got His Gun.  World War II combat literature includes James Jones' From Here to Eternity, and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.  More recently, the American novelist, Charles Frazier, looked back at the Civil War through the eyes of a young Confederate soldier leaving the war and his odyssey to return home in the beautiful novel, Cold Mountain.  This literature, while extraordinarily painful to read, has the power to inform us of the human costs associated with war, and the lesson to us all that war should never, ever be casually entered into.

As this country enters its tenth year of having its armed forces engaged in fighting wars abroad, I ask that you spend a few moments reflecting on the price being paid by our men and women--our soldiers, sailors, and airmen--and the impacts upon their families and our society.  Some of you may even have brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, or fathers and mothers who are abroad, in uniform, fighting in this global war against terrorism.  Thank them for their service for me, and tell them that I am ever so profoundly grateful for all that they do, and what they endure on a daily basis.

Finally, I included the image of the poppies in this posting as poppies have become the symbol representing veterans because of the poem In Flanders Fields, by the Canadian military physician, Colonel John McCrae. In the poem, McCrae wrote of the poppies that bloomed in some of the most bloodied battlefields of Flanders during World War I.  Here is Colonel McCrae's poem--

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

(December 8, 1915)


November 8, 2010

Review: "Ransom" By David Malouf

This is without a doubt one of the best books I've read in a while.  It was so damned good that I turned around and read it again as soon as I had finished reading it the first time.  It doesn't take long to read, at just over 200 pages, but it packs a big wallop.  Ransom, published in 2009, is Australian poet and author David Malouf's most recent offering after nearly ten years; and I have to say that it was well worth the wait.

Malouf's novel takes as its inspiration a series of events that occur near the end of Homer's The Iliad (my review of the Fagles translation of The Iliad can be found here), including the following:  the death of Achilles' friend Patroclus (Book 16), Achilles' killing of Hector (Book 22), the funeral of Patroclus (Book 23), and Priam's late-night visit to Achilles to beg for the return of his son's body (Book 24).  With little more than passing references in his novel, Malouf wisely leaves it to Homer to tell the story of the first three events, and instead focuses most of his book on the last--that of the Trojan King, Priam, and his efforts to claim his son's body from Achilles.  Homer's description of Priam's meeting with Achilles is, in my opinion, the most emotionally charged and powerful scene in the whole poem.  In his novel, Malouf, the poet/author, lyrically and tenderly delves into the psychology of the grieving warrior over the loss of his friend, and the grieving father and his efforts to retrieve the body of his slain son.  While this is surely one of the saddest stories I have read of late, at the same time the reader cannot help but be buoyed up by Malouf's beautiful portrayal of the innate sense of decency, goodness, and the inherent need for redemption that resides in each of us--even in the face of great adversity and tragedy.

My impression of the Trojan War comes from reading The Iliad, and largely seems to be nothing more than a game board set up on a table and surrounded by the pantheon of gods and goddesses who reached down and pushed playing pieces about; with one side gaining a brief advantage, and then the other.  The upshot was that for ten long years the war between the Achaeans and Trojans reeled back and forth across the Scamander Plain outside of the walls of Troy, and resulted in the bloody slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands, of Greeks and Trojans alike.  Reading The Iliad left me with the overwhelming feeling that it all seemed preordained, and that the story just had to play out as foretold.  What Malouf does so brilliantly in Ransom is to 'liberate' a portion of this epic tragic tale from the control of the gods and Fate, and gives the power of 'free choice' and decision-making to two of the primary protagonists--Priam and Achilles.

For ten days in a row, following the death of Hector in single-combat with Achilles, Priam and the Trojans have watched Achilles drag Hector's body behind his chariot around the funeral mound of his slain friend, Patroclus.  Finally, Priam can take it no longer, he must do something.  Late one night he has a vision of something "new" occurring.  He sees that he must go to Achilles, not as King of Troy, but as the father of a dead son, and appeal to him man-to-man for the body of his son.  He will ride to the Achaean camp without all of the trappings of his authority on an old and unadorned cart pulled by two mules with an old grey-haired Trojan country rustic as the cart-driver.

A goodly portion of this little novel is the story of the carter, Somax, and Priam and their journey out of the city and through the countryside to the Achaean camp.  The two old men begin to get to know one another, and slowly but surely develop a tremendous amount of empathy for one another.  After a few hours of slow plodding in the wagon, Somax stops at the bank of the river they have to ford and has the King wade out into the river just to feel the coolness of the water.  He feeds the King some of his daughter-in-law's simply-made buttermilk griddle cakes.  He tells the King about the loss of each of his children, and that all he has left is his daughter-in-law, his little four-year-old granddaughter, and his two mules ('Beauty' and 'Shock').  What Malouf has masterfully done in this part of the novel is to help the King reestablish his connection with his own humanity and the land around him.  It is precisely the preparation that he needs in order to be successful in his upcoming supplication to Achilles.

I don't want to say too much more about the meeting between Priam and Achilles, as it really is the climax of the novel, but suffice it to say that it is an emotionally riveting experience.  With tears in my eyes, I found myself almost holding my breath as the two men quietly talk in a dark corner of Achilles' tent in the middle of the night.  It is heart-wrenching stuff.  I do want to share just a bit of Malouf's beautiful writing of this intimate meeting too, especially these few words from Priam--
"'Achilles,' he says, his voice steady now, 'you know, as I do, what we men are.  We are mortals, not gods.  We die.  Death is in our nature.  Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us.  That is the hard bargain life makes with us--with all of us, every one--and the condition we share.  And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another's losses.  For the sorrows that must come sooner or later to each one of us, in a world we enter only on mortal terms."
Upon reading this I suddenly realized that Malouf wants us to realize, just as Priam and Achilles have, that being Human, and therefore mortal, is better than being one of the Immortals.  Humans, with all of our warts and short-comings, have reasons to live and love, reasons to do the right things, and reasons to make our brief lives mean something that might be remembered through the ages, or even just for a few moments.  Homer, through The Iliad, makes us remember Achilles and King Priam, and Malouf's novel helps us better understand why we should.

I suppose that there is always the danger of trying to retell even a portion of a story that is so well-known as The Iliad.  I submit that Malouf has not run that risk here at all, and has not over-reached one-jot in telling this powerful story.  This compact novel, with its Homericly noble prose, is rich with pathos, emotion, empathy, compassion and humanity.  It is not the story of the gods and goddesses; no, it is the story of humans and human failings and feelings.  Most of all I think it is the story of the triumph of the human spirit even in the depths of despair and tragedy.  Priam takes a chance to retrieve his son and finds his humanity.  Achilles takes a chance by giving up his rage and finds his inner peace and redemption.  Nearly three-thousand years later we still weep for and admire both of these men for what they suffered and went through.  Malouf's superbly well-written Ransom poignantly and touchingly reinforces those feelings we harbor in our hearts, but may not have fully understood why.

I highly recommend this novel, and unhesitatingly award it five of five stars.  If you do read this novel at some point, and I sincerely hope you will, please consider going back and reviewing the books of The Iliad that I referenced in the opening paragraph.  When you finish reading David Malouf's Ransom, please drop me a note and let me know what you thought.


November 4, 2010

"The Odyssey" by Homer and "The Penelopiad" by Margaret Atwood

Well, you're gonna get a 'two-fer' tonight; a review of Homer's The Odyssey (translation by Robert Fagles), and Margaret Atwood's brilliant little novella, The Penelopiad.  Secondly, I am sharing this with the Literary Blog Hop at The Blue Bookcase.  These women are writing and promoting some very fine book reviews.  I encourage you to go their blog and have a look.  I have learned to truly love the cross-pollination that occurs on the world-wide-web; particularly when it comes to the books we read and our impressions.  Think about it for a moment, but where do we really learn about most of the books we read?  Yup, from other people.

Some of you may be aware, but I read Homer's The Iliad recently and loved it (my review here).  I figured that the smart thing to do was to go ahead and just follow it up with a reading of Robert Fagles's 1996 translation of The Odyssey.

Robert Fagles's translation is a modern and contemporary, yet extraordinarily lyrical translation that just seems to preserve the classical feel of Homer, i.e., it begs to be read aloud.  This puts the reader squarely in the midst of the Homeric oral tradition of the itinerant bard and the hexameter verse structure of this ancient epic poem.  Fagles has masterfully brought this feeling to his English translation.  Now it is time for a 'Warning' from the Management--If you haven't read The Odyssey before, and are truly concerned about plot spoilers, I suggest you toddle along and find another blog posting to read right now.

The Odyssey is a nearly three-thousand year old 12,000 line poem that tells the tale of the Greek warrior, Odysseus, and his return from Asia-Minor following the sack of Troy.  While it took the Achaean army ten years to defeat Troy, it takes Odysseus ten more years to return home to his island kingdom of Ithaka.  Suffice it to say that Odysseus has nearly every adventure that you're likely to imagine, and then some, during his journey before he reaches his home.  This is a rollicking good read with loads of action-packed hand-to-hand combat, scary monsters, femme fatales, and damsels in distress.

Intermingled with the story of Odysseus's macho-man Mediterranean cruise is the concurrent tale of his patient, but suffering, wife, Penelope, holding down the fort on Ithaka.  She is not only trying to raise their surly teen-aged son, Telemakus, but simultaneously fending off the less than honorable advances of the hordes of suitors who now assume that Odysseus is dead and want to take over his kingdom (and wife).

Meanwhile, during the course of all of his mad-cap adventures, Odysseus is called upon to use every ounce of his guile and inventiveness to outwit his foes and safely return to Ithaka to his wife and son and the host of suitors pursuing Penelope and looking to supplant him.  And deal with them he does.  Near the end of the poem Odysseus and Telemakus go on a premeditated spree of horrific violence and slaughter all of Penelope's dastardly suitors and her twelve palace maids.  It ain't pretty, folks; nope, not at all.  This is bloody in-your-face killing Homeric style, and a lot like today's video games.

Reading The Odyssey will not only keep you enthralled from the first page to the last--and it is an amazing travelogue after all--but it will cause you to dip into your Bullfinch's or Hamilton's mythology too.  Reading The Odyssey is quite like peeling an onion--layer after layer--one story leading to the discovery of another related myth.  Also, do pay attention to the bits about Penelope and her defense of the homefront.  This will become important in the next part of this posting as I review Margaret Atwood's marvelous little novella, The Penelopiad.

If you haven't read Homer's great epic, The Odyssey, I simply can't recommend it enough.  I strongly suggest reading The Iliad first though.  They go together, like hand-in-glove.  I also strongly recommend reading the translations of Robert Fagles of both of these classic epic poems.  I recently read Richmond Lattimore's translations; and while very beautifully done, I truly believe that the Fagles translations are the renditions for our time.  For The Odyssey, I award five stars out of five, a genuine classic.


Okay, now lets turn our attention to Margaret Atwood's 2005 novel, The Penelopiad.  At just under two-hundred pages, I read this novella in one sitting, and enjoyed it immensely!  Also, having just finished reading Robert Fagles' marvelous translation of Homer's The Odyssey, finding and reading The Penelopiad seemed more than serendipitous.  This is a retelling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus's wife, the 'patient' Penelope.  Atwood uses humor, pathos, and a significant dose of imagination and creativity to tell the story of Penelope and the twelve maids.  With one of the niftiest opening lines I've read in some time, this is an innovative piece of modern writing that finds Atwood cleverly reaching back to the ancient Greek dramatists as she structures the entire book as an ancient classical drama, with the interesting literary device of the 'Twelve Maids' providing the voice of the Chorus.  The Chorus of the Maids interjects quite frequently (eleven chapters) in the midst of Penelope's soliloquy (eighteen chapters) to share their perspective of Penelope, Odysseus, and the on-going events in the palace on Ithaka.  Some of these choral interludes include bits of funny poetic doggerel, a lyrical and well-written lamentation, a folk song, an idyll, a sea shanty, a ballad, a drama, an anthropology lecture, a court trial, and a love song.  I have to say that each of these choral interludes works very well in bringing to life these twelve, largely unknown, maids.

At first blush the reader might be tempted to dismiss this little book as nothing more than a light-hearted bit of fun that Atwood has at the expense of elements of Homer's great epic.  In my opinion, that would be a mistake though.  There's a lot going on in this book, and much of it doesn't manifest itself immediately.  I re-read it this morning on the train to the office, and I'm now even more in awe of Atwood's talent as a writer.  While acknowledging the patriarchal and male-centric tone of The Odyssey, Atwood in her The Penelopiad has brilliantly explored the feminine side of the Palace of Ithaka, as well as in Hades (the Underworld) where Penelope; her cousin, Helen-of-Troy; and the maids now all reside.  Atwood tastefully, but emphatically, uses her brief little tale to illustrate the double-standard that existed between men and women, not only that contained in the oral tradition of Homer's epics, but that of the ancient classical world.  After my recent reading of Homer, I found her use of a completely different voice and gender to tell the story of Odysseus' return to his home after twenty years, and the horrific violence he inflicts on 'the suitors', as well as the Twelve Maids, to be simply fascinating.  Also, while Homer goes to great lengths to highlight Odysseus as the "trickster", "dissembler", and "tactician", Atwood is equally successful in causing the reader to continually sift through Penelope's thoughts and statements for the kernels of Truth in her story, and in this task it is sometimes wise to pay attention to the Chorus.

Is The Penelopiad intended to be a feminist interpretation of Penelope, or The Odyssey?  No, I really don't think so.  This wonderful novella seems to be nothing more than Atwood's contribution to the Canongate Myth Series (a terrific series of books, by the way), and simply addresses the Odyssean mythology from the perspective of one female protagonist and a series of events that have received little scholarly or literary attention prior to this.  Having said that though, I found the book to be a very well written and cleverly constructed story by one of Canada's great living authors.  In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed The Penelopiad, and I'm quite glad that it has taken up a permanent home on my shelves.  For me, this book rates a solid four stars out of five.


October 27, 2010

A Poem for the Day: "The Pine Planters" By Thomas Hardy

This morning, on a whim, I picked up Thomas Hardy's novel The Woodlanders againYes, I just read it a few months ago; but it doesn't matter at all, I just felt that I needed to read it again.  Interestingly, now that I have completed reading most of the classical ancient Greek tragedies, I am realizing just how Sophoclean this tragic tale of Hardy's is.  While folks will tell you to read Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure (and you certainly should), you would be certainly remiss in not reading his beautiful and lyrical The Woodlanders.  To reinforce the point, I am sharing Hardy's beautiful poem, written in 1909, that he mated up with his novel, The Woodlanders.  Can the man write a love poem?  What a lamentation--it simply breaks my heart every time I read this poem...

The Pine Planters
(Marty South's Reverie)


We work here together
In blast and breeze;
He fills the earth in,
I hold the trees.

He does not notice
That what I do
Keeps me from moving
And chills me through.

He has seen one fairer
I feel by his eye,
Which skims me as though
I were not by.

And since she passed here
He scarce has known
But that the woodland
Holds him alone.

I have worked here with him
Since morning shine,
He busy with his thoughts
And I with mine.

I have helped him so many,
So many days,
But never win any
Small word of praise!

Shall I not sigh to him
That I work on
Glad to be nigh to him
Though hope is gone?

Nay, though he never
Knew love like mine,
I'll bear it ever
And make no sign!


From the bundle at hand here
I take each tree,
And set it to stand, here
Always to be;
When, in a second,
As if from fear
Of Life unreckoned
Beginning here,
It starts a sighing
Through day and night,
Though while there lying
'Twas voiceless quite.

It will sigh in the morning,
Will sigh at noon,
At the winter's warning,
In wafts of June;
Grieving that never
Kind Fate decreed
It should for ever
Remain a seed,
And shun the welter
Of things without,
Unneeding shelter
From storm and drought.

Thus, all unknowing
For whom or what
We set it growing
In this bleak spot,
It still will grieve here
Throughout its time,
Unable to leave here,
Or change its clime;
Or tell the story
Of us to-day
When, halt and hoary,
We pass away.



The photograph I have included is one that I took late one evening in the Bartholomew's Cobble Preserve near Sheffield, in south-western Massachusetts.  I went back east with my oldest daughter to attend an Edith Wharton biennial conference that was being held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  I invite you to 'click' on the photograph for the larger view.  In some respects this photograph reminds of the woodland country that Hardy's Giles Winterborne were living and working in around the little 'Wessex' hamlet of 'Little Hintock.'  I do hope that the poem and the photograph inspire you to read this beautiful novel.  I'd love to hear your thoughts about the novel if you read it.

October 25, 2010

A Poem for the Day: "Cloverton" by Me

Tonight I am featuring a poem that I recently wrote.  I just returned from a week-long trip to Nebraska visiting my daughter and her husband.  My daughter and I took the opportunity to drive a few hours over to Red Cloud, Nebraska and spend the day in Willa Cather country.  Cather is one of America's great novelists of the early 20th century, and was the second female to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1923 for her novel, One of Ours (Edith Wharton was the first in 1921).  One of the stops we made was at the tiny Cloverton Cemetery where Anna Pavelka is buried.  Just down the road from the cemetery is the old farm-house where Anna Pavelka lived and raised all of her children.  Anna was the inspiration for Cather's great character, 'Antonia Shimerda' in her wonderful novel, My Antonia.  This visit to this cemetery, and seeing Anna's grave truly inspired this humble effort of mine.  I'd love to know what you think of the poem.


In the wind, the prairie grasses—
Sweep to and fro, and time just passes.
And here, in quiet, now you sleep,
In dark prairie soil, your rest now to keep.
The wind through the trees—a song of peace,
Song of fleeting seasons, never to cease.
South, down the dusty track, a mile or more,
The house, where thirteen children you bore—
Beneath the pale blue Nebraska sky,
Where among the clouds your soul doth fly.
Fields of grain and grasses gently sway,
And song of the Lark still heard at end of day.
Faded silken flowers, that will never grow—
By the stones of Cloverton, a bit of color they show.
Beneath the pale blue Nebraska sky,
Where among the clouds your soul doth fly.

[The photograph I have included is an example of the native Nebraska  tall-grass prairie ecosystem that I took at the Nature Conservancy's Spring Creek Preserve.  This is precisely the prairie ecosystem that Willa Cather and Annie Pavelka would have known growing up in the Red Cloud area.  Unfortunately, it is an incredibly endangered ecosystem these days; there simply isn't much of this native prairie left.  Please do 'click' on the photograph for a larger view.]

October 22, 2010

Cather Country!

How many of you have read the novels and short stories of Willa Cather?  She is one of my favorite American novelists!  I just returned from spending a week in Nebraska visiting my daughter and her husband in Lincoln (home of the University of Nebraska).

We took a couple of day trips and were able to visit Cather's hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska.  My daughter is quite the Cather scholar and really gave me a superb 'busman's tour' of all of the important Cather sites and scenes from many of her novels.  It was just an awesome experience!

I took several photographs while visiting Red Cloud, and thought that it might be fun to share them with all of you.  The photograph at top upper-right is a black and white conversion that I made of Cather's childhood home in Red Cloud.  Please do make sure that you 'click' on each photograph for the larger view.

Here's Cather's home in color.  The trees are all just starting to change into their fall colors too.

This black and white photograph (at right) is the Miner House (the fictional 'Harling' house), and is where Willa Cather frequently stayed when she came back to Red Cloud to visit family and friends.  This house is thought to have been built in 1878, and is in the Italianate style.  She dedicated My Antonia to two of the Miner girls, Carrie and Irene ("To Carrie and Irene Miner, In memory of affections old and true").

This is the house that Anna Pavelka lived in out on the Nebraska prairie outside of Red Cloud.  Anna is the woman that Willa Cather generally based her character Antonia Shimerda upon in her classic novel, My Antonia.  The root cellar (tornado shelter too?) in the foreground is the one that Jim and Antonia climb out of followed by the gaggle of little children.  While this old abandoned house is owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society, it is in a desperate state of disrepair.  I hope that the means can be found to protect and restore this beautiful piece of Americana.

The photograph, at right, is of Anna Pavelka's grave in the tiny Cloverton Cemetery.  This cemetery is miles from anywhere out in the midst of the endless Nebraska prairie.  It was truly poignant to stand at this woman's grave and realize all that she had accomplished.  Besides being a muse and inspiration for Willa Cather's writing, she bore and raised thirteen children and lived a long life.  I do wish that they (whoever 'they' are) had not planted that ugly metal sign right on top of the poor woman's grave.  Even if one had had to browse about to find her grave, it shouldn't have taken very long.  It isn't a big cemetery at all.

This is a photograph of the St. Juliana Falconieri Catholic Church in Red Cloud.  This is where Annie Pavelka's ('Antonia's') baby was baptized.  It is now owned and protected by the Nebraska State Historical Society.  It was built in 1883 and was used by the diocese until 1903.

This is a photograph that I made of the Red Cloud Burlington Train Depot.  This is the train station that Willa Cather would passed through in her journeys to and from Red Cloud.  It has been lovingly restored too, and was fascinating to visit.  During Red Cloud's heyday, this depot would have seen something like ten trains a day passing through town.  Red Cloud was on the main-line between Kansas City and Denver.

Finally, I am including a photographic portrait of Willa Cather that I have always liked.  The necklace that she is wearing was given to her by her very good friend, and fellow author, Sarah Orne Jewett (The Country of Pointed Firs and Other Stories).  This photo of Willa is thought to have been taken about 1912 and was taken in New York.

Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, and died in 1947.  When Willa was nine years old, her family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska.  She later attended and graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska.  She then went back east and worked as a teacher, newspaper writer and editor, and an editor of magazines.  Most importantly though, Willa Cather is known for her beautiful novels.  To finish this posting I am including a listing of all of her novels, in the order in which they were published.

Alexander's Bridge (1912)
O Pioneers! (1913)
The Song of the Lark (1915)
My Antonia (1918)
One of Ours (1922, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1923)
A Lost Lady (1923)
The Professor's House (1925)
My Mortal Enemy (1926)
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
Shadows on the Rock (1931)
Lucy Gayheart (1935)
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)

October 10, 2010

Review: "Antigone" By Sophocles

I have just finished reading four different translations of Sophocles' classic tragedy Antigone, which was chronologically the first of his three great 'Theban Plays.'  The other two, in the order written, include, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at ColonusAntigone is thought to have been written around 441 BCE.  I thought it might be interesting to briefly compare and contrast the four very different translations that I read.  As is to be expected, each had strengths and weaknesses.  At least you'll get a sense of what the various translations are like; and if you are a high school English teacher this might even be a helpful posting.

First though, it is probably worth just giving a thumbnail sketch of the plot of the play.  Antigone, Ismene, Polyneices, and Eteocles are the adult children of the accidentally incestuous marriage of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta.  The story of Oedipus and Jocasta is told in Sophocles' other two 'Theban' plays (mentioned above).   Also, if you have never read Antigone, and are worried about 'Spoilers,' you may just want to scroll down to the bottom and look at the comparisons between the four versions, and skip the next five paragraphs (i.e., those between the ***).


In Antigone, we find the two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, together in the Greek city of Thebes where a great battle has just concluded, and both of their brothers have been killed.  In fact, Polyneices and Eteocles have killed each other in single combat; with Polyneices fighting on the side of the Argive army attacking Thebes and its defenders, including his brother Eteocles.  The new king of Thebes, Creon, is their uncle (their mother, Jocasta's brother).  While Creon orders full military honors and funeral rites for the slain Eteocles, he issues an edict that the sisters' brother's body, Polyneices, be left to rot and be eaten by scavengers.  This harsh order profoundly offends Antigone's sense of family honor, and it completely runs afoul of the wishes of the gods that all dead are treated with respect and buried with appropriate honor and dignity.  Creon further adds that if anyone attempts to bury the dead man that they will be immediately executed.

Antigone asks her sister to go out on the battlefield and give their slain brother's body its proper funeral rites.  Ismene, however, is afraid of violating Creon's orders and refuses to help.  Antigone is appalled at her sister's weakness, and goes out by herself.  She finds her brother's body, purifies it, and covers it with earth to protect it from the scavengers--all done in direct defiance of Creon's edict.  The covered body is discovered by Creon's sentries, and is re-exposed to the elements.  The disobedience is reported to Creon as well, who is enraged that someone would disobey his direct orders.  Of course, Antigone is then caught attempting to rebury her brother's body, and is brought before the king.

The dialog between Antigone, Creon, and the Chorus is truly amazing and quite powerful.  It is the classic example of someone standing up and doing the morally correct thing, and knowing full well that what they do may cost them their life.  This represents the power of the individual against that of the State.  In fact, early on in the play in an example of imperial hubris, Creon utters a statement that we seem to hear from our political leaders time and time again--"And he who cherishes an individual beyond his homeland,/he, I say, is nothing."  Antigone stands up to Creon by simply stating that her honor, and the honor of her family, compelled her to do what she had done, and that it was also the law of the gods.  Creon says that she must pay the ultimate price for her "treachery" as he puts it.  He sentences her to death, and that she must be walled up inside of a tomb.

At this point the Chorus, comprised of Theban elders begins to doubt the wisdom of Creon's actions against Antigone.  On top of that, Haemon, Creon's son comes in and begs his father not to kill Antigone.  Haemon loves her and wishes to marry her.  More importantly, Haemon also believes that what Antigone has done for her slain brother is only right and proper.  He tells his father that even the citizens of Thebes believe that Antigone has simply upheld her family honor, and has committed no crime and should be spared.  Creon cares not for the opinions of the citizens and does not relent.  He orders Antigone to be taken away.

Later the blind 'seer,' Tiresias comes and chastises Creon for his hubris and arrogance, and ultimately convinces Creon that his edict was wrong-headed.  Creon accepts this verdict and orders the release of Antigone.  But it is too late!  When Creon and his guards arrive at the tomb, they find that Antigone has hanged herself, and that Creon's son, Haemon is in the process of committing suicide to be with her in the Land of the Dead.  Unfortunately, it only gets worse for Creon.  Upon returning to his palace in Thebes, he finds that his wife, Eurydice, has killed herself over the suicide of her son, as well as the death of her older son in the recent battle--both deaths she lays at the feet of her husband, Creon.  The Chorus has the last word--
"The mighty words of the proud are paid in full
with mighty blows of fate, and at long last
those blows will teach us wisdom."

Okay, here are the four different translations that I read.  I have to say that they are all quite good; and while the plot is obviously the same, there are subtle differences in meter, lyricism, tempo, and use of contemporary language.
  1.  The first version I read was in an edition entitled Sophocles I from the University of Chicago Press (1991), and the translation was authored by David Grene.  This was very solidly done and quite poetic.  It also comes with the other two "Theban" plays, referenced above.  
  2. The second version I read was from the "The Greek Tragedy in New Translations" series entitled, Antigone, from the Oxford University Press.  This 1973 translation was prepared by Richard Emil Braun, and was also very well done.  Like Grene's translation (No. 1), seemed to emphasize an adherence to a classical interpretation and felt rather scholarly.
  3. The most modern and intriguing rendition was the one prepared by the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney in 2004.  Heaney's version is entitled The Burial at Thebes.  I found this to be a fresh, fast-paced, and a very poetic and lyrical modern translation.  Heaney also incorporated an interesting structure in the poem, and uses a meter of three-beats per line for the dialogs of Antigone and Ismene, four-beat lines for the Chorus (similar to the old Anglo-Saxon of his Beowulf translation), and then iambic pentameter for Creon.  Cool, huh?
  4. My favorite translation of Antigone was that of Robert Fagles in the Penguin Classics edition entitled, The Three Theban Plays (1984).  This edition includes the two 'Oedipus' plays and the Antigone, and was nominated for a National Book Award.  I really enjoy Mr. Fagles' translations, as they truly seem to feel classical, but are very understandable.  I truly enjoyed his translations of The Iliad (reviewed here) and The Oresteia; and this translation of Antigone is just as majestic and lyrical.  I highly recommend the Fagles' translations of any of these enduring classics.
So, there you are--a quick review of four different versions of Sophocles' Antigone.  This is an important play to read and ponder.  The moral message put forth in the play illustrates a dilemma that just about each of us probably encounters at least once over the course of our lives.  What the Antigone teaches us is that it is the choice of an individual to stand up and be faithful to a code of ethics, with honor, integrity and personal responsibility in the face of external pressures, sometimes forcibly applied, from others advocating a different, but immoral course of action.  This is important stuff today, just as it was in Sophocles' time.

    October 8, 2010

    Review: "The Iliad" By Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles)

    "Homer makes us Hearers, and Virgil leaves us Readers."  So wrote Alexander Pope, in 1715, in the preface to his translation of The Iliad.

    I have just completed reading a magnificent translation of Homer's The Iliad, and couldn't have enjoyed the experience more.  I had read bits and pieces of The Iliad over the course of my life, but I had never read the entire poem from start to finish.  I recently purchased the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of a translation by Robert Fagles that was completed in 1990.  While I am not qualified to compare or judge the work of one translator versus that of another, I can say that I truly enjoyed Fagles' lyrical translation that largely maintains the hexameter verse structure (i.e., six beats per line) of the original Greek texts.  For a six-hundred page poem, it was eminently readable, and a darn good story too!

    Simply put, The Iliad is the story of the last year of the ten-year long Trojan War, long thought to have been fought between the Achaean (Greek) forces and the Trojans in the 12th or 11th century BCE.  The Iliad is thought to be about 2,700 years old and is, in essence, a transcript of an epic poem in hexameter verse that was originally shared via an oral or bardic tradition.  As I was reading the poem, I couldn't help but stop and imagine a traveling story-teller stopping in a small village, and standing in the village square next to a bonfire at night and recounting this tale to a rapt and wide-eyed audience.

    In some respects, The Iliad could have been easily titled "The Rage of Achilles" (and indeed, that is the title of Book One).  The poem opens with Achilles, and it essentially concludes with Achilles.  In between is recounted the tales of the battles of egos among the primary characters and among most, if not all, of the gods on Mount Olympus.  For example, the Greek leader, Agamemnon, and the Greek's greatest warrior, Achilles clearly don't like one another; and this initially leads to significant problems for the Greeks as they battle Hector and his Trojan battalions.  Similarly, on the Trojan side, Hector doesn't think much of his younger brother, the "magnificent" Paris (a simpering dilettante).  Unfortunately, for the Greeks, because of his ongoing 'tiff' with Agamemnon, Achilles sits on the beach drinking wine and sulking for much of the poem, and doesn't enter the fray until his best friend, Patroclus, is killed in combat with Hector.  Once Achilles commits to the fight though, he becomes the true definition of a 'berserker,' and is clearly the indomitable and heroic warrior; although I have to say that Diomedes and Great Ajax are pretty darned impressive fighters too!

    I very much enjoyed how the poem wove in the politics and actions of the gods and goddesses as they continually intervened and influenced the human protagonists during the course of the tale.  Some of the gods side with the Achaeans (e.g., Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Thetis, etc.), and others with the Trojans (e.g., Ares, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc.), with Zeus paternally watching over them all.  The poem also makes quite the point of describing the hubris, selfishness, deceit, and the treachery behavior exhibited by both mortals and immortals alike.  While the poem assigns the blame for the Trojan War on Paris' abduction of Menelaus' wife, Helen (i.e., "the face that launched a thousand ships"), I happen to think the poem also implies that the war was fought because of prideful stubbornness on both sides.  Also, from a historical perspective, I have to wonder if the Trojan War really wasn't the result of a Greek desire to expand its hegemony for simple economic reasons--i.e., to control the trade routes through the Aegean Sea.  Anyway, it doesn't matter, it was simply grand to read the poem and to be completely swept up in the drama and passion of it all.

    I must caution readers that The Iliad contains some of the most savage, intense, and vivid combat imagery that I have ever encountered in literature.  This ain't your typical 'So-and-so slew So-and-so' nondescript poetic characterization.  Oh no, this is gory, explicit, and very descriptive writing that tells precisely where the great bronze spearhead struck some poor fellow, and then what it did to his body, face, or internal organs.  After one reads The Iliad, one realizes that hand-to-hand combat and butchery with spears, swords, bows and arrows, chariots, and rocks and clubs is a very personal business, messy and very, very dangerous.

    I suppose that one's experience with reading The Iliad is influenced by the particular translation that you pick up, and there are a great number of them out there.  I chose the translation by Robert Fagles, largely based upon reading reviews and my own experience reading his translation of Aeschylus' The Oresteia.  Fagles' translation of The Iliad, for me was just magical and the poem seemed alive with richness in a contemporary framework that I could readily understand.  As I mentioned above, his translation is quite lyrical and loosely maintains a meter of five- and six-beats per line throughout.  Read it aloud, it just rolls off of the tongue, and becomes simply enchanting.

    I wanted to provide a couple of examples of the poetic flavor of The Iliad for you to experience.  The first example is from Book 4: "The Truce Erupts In War" and is a description of the Greek Army advancing across the Scamander Plain to meet the Trojan Army in combat--

    "As a heavy surf assaults some roaring coast,
    piling breaker on breaker whipped by the West Wind,
    and out on the open sea a crest first rears its head
    and then pounds down on the shore with hoarse, rumbling thunder
    and in come more shouldering crests, arching up and breaking
    against some rocky spit, exploding salt foam to the skies--
    so wave on wave they came, Achaean battalions ceaseless,
    surging on to war." (Book 4: Lines 489-496)

    One can almost imagine the soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, spears pointed forward, rank upon rank, advancing across the dusty plain, screaming and bellowing at the top of their lungs as they move toward their Trojan foes.  What a terrifying sight it must have been!

    The next sample I want to provide is from the last book of The Iliad, and recounts the late-night meeting between Achilles and the Trojan King, Priam.  I don't want to spoil the poem for any first-time readers, but suffice it to say that Priam is there for a very important reason; and after nearly ten years of war, the two adversaries sit together talking in Achilles' tent late at night.  It is truly a tender, touching, and most poignant scene; especially this almost pensive reflection on the human cost of the war that Achilles shares with King Priam--

    "Come, please, sit down on this chair here...
    Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts,
    rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.
    What good's to be won from tears that chill the spirit?
    So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
    live on to bear such torments--the gods live free of sorrows.
    There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus's halls
    and hold his gifts, our miseries in one, the other blessings.
    When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man,
    now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn.
    When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrows only,
    he makes a man an outcast--brutal, ravenous hunger
    drives him down the face of the shining earth,
    stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men."
    (Book 24: Lines 609-622)

    So, so sad; and somehow one suddenly realizes that Achilles has become a very, very wise young man.

    Almost 3,000 years ago, the Human Race was given a gift--a great gift from a largely unknown itinerant poet--The Iliad.  It is a treasure for all humanity.  Read it, think about it, learn from it, and most of all pass it on--tell this great story to all who will listen.  It is their story too.


    October 6, 2010

    My Top-Ten Favorite Authors

    Well, I am a little late for "Top-Ten Tuesday," but that's okay!  Like my friend, Lisa, over at Bibliophiliac, I am intrigued with the notion of thinking about and listing my top-ten favorite authors, rather than trying to identify my top-ten favorite books (which seems an incredibly daunting task) .  I like doing this periodically too, as my list of favorite authors (and books) seems rather dynamic and changes over time with all of the reading I do.  So, I may revisit this topic a couple of times each year.  I am hopeful that it will record my maturation as a reader.  Finally, I should point out that "Top Ten Tuesday" is an original feature/weekly meme created by the folks over at The Broke and the Bookish.

    So, here is my Top-Ten Favorite Authors list.  I am also endeavoring to include an example, or two, of their works of literature that I particularly admire.  This list is in no particular order, and includes--

    1. Homer--  What can I say?  The Iliad and The Odyssey are two of the greatest epic poems known to humanity, and ripping good yarns at that!  I highly recommend the translations by Robert Fagles too.  They are masterfully done, and incredibly lyrical.
    2. Aeschylus--  Aeschylus' trilogy of tragedies, The Oresteia, is stunningly powerful.  This is the story of the House of Atreus of Argos, and its journey from a dark and bleak legacy of treachery and vengeance to the establishment of a process for formal determination and atonement of guilt through the use of a trial and jury--the process that we now know as Justice.  Again, I highly recommend reading the Fagles translation.
    3. Emily Dickinson--  The 'Belle of Amherst' is, in my humble opinion, perhaps the most important American writer to date.  You simply must read her The Complete Poems.  Her poetry is brilliant, powerful and evocative.
    4. John Keats--  Much like Dickinson, Keats is a singular and unique poetic voice; a 'Bright Star' that was dimmed all too soon, with his death at such a young age.  Keats' Complete Poems is a volume that I continually visit.
    5. Jane Austen--  Austen's novels are some of the finest fiction in the English language; and her Persuasion and Emma are my two favorites.
    6. Charles Dickens--  In my opinion, Dickens may have been the Shakespeare of his day.  His stories are steeped in the human experience and have great meaning even now.  I highly recommend his novels, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.
    7. Thomas Hardy--  One of my favorite authors!  Hardy's appraisal and characterization of the pastoral human experience in his fiction and poetry is almost unparalleled in my view.  Whether intentional or not, I find in Hardy's poetry and novels the thread that reaches back to the ancient Greek tragedies that binds the story of Human Life inextricably with Fate and Destiny.  Reading Hardy's Complete Poems, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, and Jude the Obscure was a transformative experience for me--I just look at Life differently now.
    8. Leo Tolstoy--  For me, Tolstoy's fiction is the voice of what it means to be Russian (similarly, I think that Anna Akhmatova is the 'poetic voice' of the Russians).  In reading Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the reader cannot help but inexorably become swept up in the passion, pathos, and drama of the heart and soul of the Russian peoples against the backdrop of that great land.  I highly recommend the new translations of these two novels by the husband-wife team of Richard Pevear and Lara Volokhonsky.
    9. George Eliot--  In my view, Eliot is the giant of the Victorian pantheon of writers!  Eliot's fiction is some of the most profoundly important literature that I have ever read.  Like Tolstoy and Hugo, Eliot is didactic, but her teaching, moralizing, and philosophizing flows ever so smoothly from the printed page to the reader's consciousness.  It makes sense and just rings True!  While I love all of her books, my two favorites are The Mill on the Floss and the monumental Middlemarch.
    10. William Shakespeare--  Again, what can I say?  Harold Bloom seems to see a Canon of Literature that is 'Shakespeare-centric' in that all literature revolves around the works of 'The Bard.'  I don't disagree.  Also, I love his sonnets and narrative poems!
    Well, there it is; my list of my 'Top-Ten Favorite Authors.'  I'd love to know what you think too.  Take a minute and tell me about your favorite authors and their great works?  Happy Reading!

    October 1, 2010

    Book Beginnings on Friday

    Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Becky at Page Turners. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading. If you like, share with everyone why you do, or do not, like the sentence.

    This week's book beginning sentence comes from The Iliad by Homer (translated by Robert Fagles)--
    "Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end." (Book One: Lines 1-6)
    This is an awesome translation!  I have come to profoundly admire Robert Fagles's skill at translating the Greek classics and giving them life and lyricism for new generations.  I am also participating in a group-read of Fagles' translation of The Oresteia by Aeschylus in one of my book groups on Goodreads (see my earlier review of The Oresteia here).  My version of The Iliad is the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 1998, 683 pp.  I also highly recommend Fagles' translation of The Odyssey.

    I wish you all a wonderful weekend, and Happy Reading!

    September 28, 2010

    A Poem for the Day: "Retty's Phases" by Thomas Hardy

    The poem I want to share with you tonight is one that haunts me in many respects.  I come back to it, time, and time again.  It is a sad, poignant, and beautiful lament associated with young love.  This poem has the distinction of being thought to be the oldest surviving manuscript of any of Thomas Hardy's poetry, and was written in 1868.  The original manuscript of the poem is preserved in the Dorset Museum.

    Retty's Phases


     Retty used to shake her head,
    Look with wicked eye;
    Say, 'I'd tease you, simple Ned,
    If I cared to try!'
    Then she'd hot-up scarlet red,
    Stilly step away,
    Much afraid of what she'd said
    Sounded bold to say.


    Retty used to think she loved
    (Just a little) me.
    Not untruly, as it proved
    Afterwards to be.
    For, when weakness forced her rest
    If we walked a mile,
    She would whisper she was blest
    By my clasp awhile.


    Retty used at last to say
    When she neared the Vale,
    'Mind that you, Dear, on that day
    Ring my wedding peal!'
    And we all, with pulsing pride,
    Vigorous sounding gave
    Those six bells, the while outside
    John filled in her grave.


    Retty used to draw me down
    To the turfy heaps,
    Where, with yeoman, squire, and clown
    Noticeless she sleeps.
    Now her silent slumber-place
    Seldom do I know,
    For when last I saw  her face
    Was so long ago!


    Thomas Hardy appended the following note to the manuscript--
    "NOTE.--In many villages it was customary after the funeral of an unmarried woman to ring a peal as for her wedding while the grave was being filled in, as if Death were not to be allowed to balk her of bridal honours.  Young unmarried men were always her bearers."
    Now, isn't that a tale?  Beautiful, lyrical, and oh so sad.  It never fails but to bring the tears to my eyes as I read it.  And it did again tonight...

    I have mated this poem with a beautiful painting by the English painter, Edwin Harris (1855-1906).  The painting is entitled, "Apple Blossom at Newlyn," and it just seems to fit the image of young Retty that I carry in my head.  [Be sure to 'click' on the image for a larger view of the painting.]

    Meme: Teaser Tuesdays

    TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
    - Grab your current read
    - Open to a random page
    - Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
    - BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
    - Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
    "The round downy chicks peeping out from under their mother's wing never touched Hetty with any pleasure; that was not the sort of prettiness she cared about, but she did care about the prettiness of the new things she would buy for herself at Treddleston fair with the money they fetched.  And yet she looked so dimpled, so charming, as she stooped down to put the soaked bread under the hencoop, that you must have been a very acute personage indeed to suspect her of that hardness."
    My teaser is taken from George Eliot's first novel, Adam Bede, published in 1859, and is well known for its realism, its portrayal of the lives of the country rustics in late-18th century England.  I have been reading the novels of George Eliot all summer, and I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying Adam Bede.  I am reading it with one of my on-line groups on Goodreads.
    [The rules for Teaser Tuesdays comes from MizB at Should Be Reading]

    September 24, 2010

    Review: "Agamemnon" from "The Oresteia" By Aeschylus

    I am in the midst of participating in a group read and discussion of Aeschylus' extraordinary trilogy of plays known as The Oresteia with one of my on-line groups on Goodreads.  First of all, I need to acknowledge that I am pretty much a neophyte when it comes to any form of study of the great written works of antiquity, and this applies even more so to any of the surviving examples of ancient Greek drama.  I am currently in the process of remedying this woeful deficiency.  Sure, like most of us, I was required to read bits and pieces of The Iliad and The Odyssey in high school, but I don't recall ever having picked up any of the great classic plays of antiquity.

    I also want to point out that with all of the reading that I have done over the course of my adult life I have encountered countless references and allusions to various ancient literary works, and I have always had to sheepishly read over that reference or allusion and therefore not fully comprehending the point.  Clearly, many of the authors of the great literature that we all read and love so much owe a great deal to these earlier poets and authors of antiquity for the classic essays, poems, and dramas that have survived.  One immediately thinks of Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and William Butler Yeats, just to name a few, as representatives of those who've relied upon and embraced that ancient story-telling tradition in their own works.  I finally came to the realization that in order to fully understand and appreciate many of the world's great literary works, that I needed to spend some time studying these earlier classics, including the ancient Greek canon.  This was my rationale for joining my on-line group in the discussion and analysis of The Oresteia by Aeschylus.

    It is generally believed that Aeschylus was born near Athens in 525 B.C. of a noble family.  It appears that Aeschylus fought with the Greek army in its classic battle against the invading Persian army at the Battle of Marathon.  Over the course of his life, Aeschylus wrote more than seventy plays, of which only seven have survived in one form or another.  Three of those surviving seven plays make up The Oresteia and were written by Aeschylus in 458 B.C., two years before his death in 456 B.C., at the age of sixty-nine years old, at Gela in Sicily.

    The Oresteia is unique in that it is the only surviving example of the ancient tradition of the usual trilogy of Greek tragic drama.  The fourth part of The Oresteia that Aeschylus would have originally presented as the normal Greek dramatic tetralogy, the satyr-play, was entitled Proteus; and would have presented the gods and heroes in comic situations that would have lightened the mood of the audience following its viewing of the preceding three tragedies.  Unfortunately, The Oresteia's satyr-play has not survived.  The three tragedies that comprise The Oresteia include:  Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.  Collectively, the three plays tell the story of a royal family, the House of Atreus of Argos, and its journey from a dark and bleak legacy of treachery and vengeance to the establishment of a process for formal determination and atonement of guilt through the use of a trial and jury--the process that we now know as Justice.  In essence, the three plays recount Aeschylus' allegorical telling of the history of the Athenian people's journey from the chaos of vendetta-law to that of an enlightened civilization establishing order through the fair application of justice.  As Robert Fagles and W.B. Stanford say so eloquently in their introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Oresteia, that it " our rite of passage from savagery to civilization."

    In a nutshell, Agamemnon is the story of the triumphant return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War and of his murder by his wife, Clytaemnestra.  The Trojan War, prosecuted by the Greeks with the help of the gods, resulted in the deaths of a great many Greek soldiers and the utter destruction of Troy and all of its peoples.  Homer's Iliad tells us that the Trojan War was initiated when the Trojan prince, Paris, wooed Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and spirited her off to Troy.  Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, then rallied the Greek army and set off in hot-pursuit to 'rescue' Helen and avenge the insult done to the Greek peoples' honor.  In order to obtain favorable winds for the Greek fleet to sail eastward to Troy, Agamemnon was compelled to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia; an act that Agamemnon's wife, Clytaemnestra, cannot forgive, and which she broods upon during the entire ten-year period that Agamemnon is gone fighting.  Are you seeing a theme emerging here?  There's a whole lot of killing going on, and most of it is associated with revenge--i.e., the application of vendetta-law.

    Reading the Agamemnon turned out to be a truly amazing experience for me.  First, it is an absolutely riveting and horrifying tale that simply comes to life on the page.  Obviously, I read an English translation of the play, but it still just feels ancient.  Fagles' translation is incredibly lyrical and spare and very effectively conveys the emotions of the players and the sheer horror of the plot.  Secondly, the moral messages embedded as adages in the play almost leap out at the reader.  A few of the more well-known adages include the following: 'violence begets more violence,' and 'Helen--the face that launched a thousand ships,' or that 'the sins of the father are visited upon the son,' and so forth.

    The play starts with the watchman notifying Queen Clytaemnestra that he has spied the signal that Agamemnon is finally returning to Argos.  She begins preparing the palace for his return.  In the meantime, the Chorus of elders comes in and provides us with the back-story of the House of Atreus and its bloody legacy, the reason for the Trojan War, and the sacrifice of Iphigeneia.  At this point a messenger arrives detailing the breadth and scope of the Greek victory over the Trojans as well as the great losses suffered by the Greek army.

    Finally, Agamemnon arrives at the palace and is welcomed by the Chorus.  Clytaemnestra comes out, almost like a spider emerging from its lair, and cajoles her husband to step down from his chariot onto a broad tapestry of red cloth that she has placed on the ground from his chariot to the palace doors.  The symbolism is rich as she says,
    "Quickly.  Let the red stream flow and bear him home
    to the home he never hoped to see--Justice,
    lead him in!"
    The vision of the red tapestry reminded me of the elevator scene in the movie adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining when the elevator doors open and the blood spills out in a great gush across the floor!  Also, you need to know that only the gods can set foot on crimson tapestries, so Clytaemnestra is able to make Agamemnon commit an egregious offense by walking on it.  Symbolically, Agamemnon has turned his back on the audience watching and walks toward his doom as he enters the spider's lair, his wife also has the last word as she closely follows behind him.  The palace doors close.

    At this point we realize that there has been another person in the chariot with Agamemnon.  It is Cassandra, one of the daughters of the late King of Troy, Priam.  Cassandra is an oracle, a prophet, whose powers were bestowed by the god Apollo, but he also made it such that she wouldn't be believed.  Standing in the chariot she immediately begins to foretell the bloody murder that is about to occur inside the palace.  [The photograph, at left, is of Ms. Lilo Baur in the role of Cassandra in the Royal National Theatre's production of The Oresteia in November 1999.  Awesome, huh?]  Cassandra tells the Chorus,
    "Murder.  The house breathes with murder--bloody shambles!"
    She sees that with the murder of Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, that the curse on the House of Atreus continues; nothing changes, and chaos and the Furies still rule.  The Chorus listens to her with mounting horror; as they too now have a sense of impending doom.  Cassandra tells the Chorus that she too must die at the hands of Clytaemnestra, but that she will go to her death with honor and dignity--a daughter of a King--and not a slave as the booty of war.  Before Cassandra enters the palace to meet her own death, she leaves the chorus with an important prophecy,
    "There will come another to avenge us,
    born to kill his mother, born
    his father's champion."
    This entire scene between Cassandra and the Chorus is absolutely spellbinding, and the pathos and drama is palpable.  Some of the most powerful dialog I've ever read.

    I can almost hear Colonel Kurtz from the movie Apocalypse Now,
    "Oh, the horror...the horror..."
    The play now essentially comes to its terrible conclusion with the opening of the palace doors and the Chorus then witnesses the wrathful Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus standing over the bloodied and butchered bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.  Clytaemnestra has exacted her bloody revenge upon Agamemnon for his killing of their daughter.  Violence begets more violence.  Chaos rules!

    The Agamemnon is Aeschylus' portrayal of why vendetta-law cannot work for a civilized society.  He has now set the stage for the profound moral questions that Orestes and Electra, the surviving children of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, must answer in the next play in the trilogy, The Libation Bearers

    Stay tuned for my review of The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides.

    [This review is based upon the Agamemnon, the first play included in the Penguin Classics softcover edition of The Oresteia, translated by Robert Fagles, 1979, 335 pp.]