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.