Friday, May 30, 2014

My most popular book report evah: ILIAD

Get yer filthy hands off my krater.
Homer, The Iliad
Trans. Robert Fagles, 1998


Read May 2008
I'm often kept up at night brooding on my troubles, wishing I could find some solace that would help me sleep. But now I know that the best way to keep insomnia at bay is to get out of bed, hitch up my chariot, tie the corpse of my mortal enemy to the back, and drive around for a few hours, dragging him, until I cheer up and can go back to sleep. The Iliad is unmatched, in my reading, for works that describe the bloody, ridiculous, selfish lengths people will go in order to feel better. The sticks and stones fly (and gouge out eyes, smash skulls, slash livers and veins until the blood sprays--this poem is definitely not for the squeamish), but the real weapons of the Trojan War are name-calling, cheating at games, and stealing your best buddy's girlfriend or mixing bowl or ox. Most of the action occurs when somebody gets his feelings hurt, the baddie won't apologize, and the sensitive one throws a fit, which can involve letting all of his friends die while he gets an olive-oil massage, or else razing a city, raping the women, and joyriding over other men's bones. The Iliad suggests that even at its most glorious, war can be advocated only by people with the emotional lives of spoiled four-year-olds. 


Indeed, most people are like spoiled four-year-olds, and truisms like that have resulted in some very tedious books and movies, but the Iliad is never tedious, or rather, only ever horrifically tedious (more on that below), first because it's good art, and secondly because, while many artists have stated, "My emotional life is a shambles," Achilles' emotional life results in the destruction of the rules of engagement, of "civilized" warfare, and of a civilization itself: babies thrown from ramparts, old men cut down at their altars, generations murdered, while Zeus snickers. The Iliad demands that the individual reflect on his or her engagement with the world at large, and the world is not a comfort zone: is it okay to decimate a town, in retaliation for your best friend's death? (Yes.) When you're kidnapped from home and thrown to the soldiers for sexual sport, are you supposed to be grateful? (Yes, and cook them some cheese to show it.) When a man murders your son and desecrates his corpse, what will the gods, to whom you and your son have given many, many sacrifices, do to help you out? (Send you groveling to kiss the murderer's hands, give him some fancy shirts, and have him treat you to some barbecue.) 

What else does The Iliad say? That every life matters, and every death. The poem is a rolling casualty list, in which every man who dies has a name, a home, friends, and family who love or mourn or curse or disown him, sometimes a specified quantity of livestock who wonder where he is at milking time. Characters are introduced only to be killed, but their deaths are unique, and nobody dies without causing a change in the fortunes of his comrades or enemies, mostly by precipitating their own deaths. This is where the tedium comes in, but it's a harrowing kind of tedium: gruesome deaths, piled on, can cease to move Achilles, Agamemnon, or us, but they don't stop happening just because we've ceased to pay attention.

And what else? That war can make for great poetry. Fagles' translation is awesome (apart from a couple infelicities--the first "So help me" was hilarious. The fourth one was a little old). The verse is crisp, lucid, immediate, and very, very violent: the accessibility of the syntax and vocabulary make you read faster and faster, so the terrible scenes come upon you like an onslaught, entrails flying, chariots mowing people down, goddesses getting punched in the boobs, and behind it all the ever-present weeping. Egad.

Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain

Gao Xingjian
Soul Mountain
(Mabel Lee translation published 1990)
Read in May 2010

I'd like to start with a view that dissents with those of some other Goodreads reviewers, who (in praise, often) claim that this book works outside the rules of fiction, or is unlike all other books, or isn't even a novel. Of course it is a novel, and a hyperliterary one at that--and it operates within structures of fictional form that are common (even commonplace) in the twentieth century, not to mention in earlier works that share some of its more astonishing features (such as Don Quixote). And Gao got a degree in French literature and appears to have been well acquainted with modernism. So there's that, to start. 

I am not a huge, huge reader of nonlinear and/or nontraditional narrative myself, but the events surrounding this book's composition in the wake of the Cultural Revolution gave it a fresh interest for me. So to place this book within a literary context is hardly to denigrate it or to take away from what makes it wonderful (on the contrary, I think that that enriches it).  Also, if you don't know where Guizhou or Anhui are, look at a map. I promise that being able to follow the narrator's travels will increase your reading pleasure.

With all that said, there is probably something here to delight everybody, but that doesn't mean the work will be uniformly delightful for anybody except huge fans of the aforementioned types of narrative. And I for one am wholly uninterested in material having to do with either 1. spirituality, or 2. stories of middle-aged men getting it on with young women, and there's lots of both here. But I got sucked in by the travelogue, and the pandas, and the meetings with strangers, and the Miao Flying Songs....and I found myself, almost despite myself, getting interested in the cultural artifact that was Gao's attempt to map the narrator's self (and how those mappings must also relate to spirituality and younger women). I'm not too keen on selfhood, in general, but Gao turned me around with the varied attempts he made on it--he made it new for me.



Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories

Ernest Hemingway
The Complete Short Stories (first published 1987)

read in August 2010


This book contains some marvelous stories, including, in The First Forty-nine, a run of several that, by themselves, earn the collection four stars and support all the claims about Hemingway's mastery of the short story form. Among these stellar stories are "In Another Country" (a physical therapy story!), the much-anthologized "Hills Like White Elephants," "Che Ti Dice La Patria?" (a story about La Spezia, where we started our Italian vacation in 2010!), and the lovely "Big Two-Hearted River." 

And then in Parts II and III of the collection, there are a couple stories that are so good, with such complexity and grace and beauty, that they kind of reach out past the form itself and give you the satisfaction you get from reading perfect novels. These include the heartbreaking "The Last Good Country," the even more heartbreaking "An African Story," which is perhaps the best story about loneliness EVER, and, to a lesser extent, but differently, the grimly comic "Landscape with Figures." Over the course of his career, Hemingway wrote about a great many interesting things, but (almost) always, and more importantly, with the painstaking craft that he believed he owed to the subjects which had aroused his own interest.

Any complete collection will contain some dross. And in Hemingway's case, you get a serious dose of misogyny, colonialism, and macho shoot-or-stab-anything-that-moves attitude, in some of the best stories, too. You also get some Hemingway Sex Scenes, which are the last things anybody wants to read: all the ladies are talkers, and ye gods. And in the very last story, chapters from an unfinished novel later changed and turned into a different novel, you get some seriously oogie material that make you not want to finish the book, even though you've come 630 pages so far. But...Hemingway's stories at their very best are so surpassingly good that it's worth getting through even the worst moments.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love, and Love in a Cold Climate

Fantastic Jessica, herein reviewed Nancy, evil Diana,
evil Unity, and poor Pam.  Where's Debo?
Nancy Mitford
The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate:  Two Novels
(published together in 1974; first published in 1945 and 1949)
Read by me in 2010, I think.

It's hard to go into these novels already knowing rather a lot about the Mitfords, and especially as a worshiper of all things Jessica. Nancy Mitford mined her family and friends for characters and plots--the novels contain quite a bit of autobiographical fictioneering. But, while there are a number of felicitous, funny moments (the child hunt; anything said by Jassy--the Jessica stand-in--or Victoria; Lady Montdore going once in the morning and not needing to be let out all day like a dog; Uncle Matthew shaking Cedric like a rat), one can't help feeling (um, knowing) that there's a more interesting story not being told, and wonder why Nancy chose to relate or to suppress what she did. 

After a brief lunchtime chat with Karl about psychoanalytic crit theory, I wonder why Nancy chose the pink champagney, fey view of these aristocratic families in Cold Climate, the country eccentric version of them in Pursuit of Love--and omitted all the things that disrupted the light, humorous mood of both--but then chose to narrate both stories from the pov of an outsider by wealth, education, and disposition (the shy, dowdy cousin Fanny, daughter of the disreputable Bolter), whose own story occurs only in fits and starts, interrupted and upstaged by the lives of the characters she narrates. Mitford practically invites you to wonder about the concealments, the lives not guessed at--to read her novels as facades. She makes you wonder what narrative, personal, or political aims can be served by such extremely elided accounts of her own family life--and why, if she chose to elide them, she wrote about her family in the first place, and why she made it *fiction*. 

Moreover, one has to consider that Nancy was only too aware that she was writing for an audience that already knew what she wasn't saying--not just the Bright Young Things and the people she'd danced or dined with, but anybody who could pick up a newspaper, because the intimate lives of her siblings had started appearing in the scandal sheets when she was in her twenties. She was a celebrity from a notorious celebrity family. So, when she combined the antics of her sisters Diana, Jessica, and Deborah (notably, the other three writers of the family!!!) with her own, to make the character of Linda, what was she trying to tell us about family, representation, truth, public knowledge, and fiction? I don't know! While I didn't love these novels, and they're not the kind of thing I'd want to read by anybody else, the cleverness and the secrecy do stick and will make me think for a long time.

A.G. Mojtabai, Blessed Assurance


A.G. Mojtabai
Blessed Assurance:  At Home With the Bomb in Amarillo, TX
First published 1986
I read it in December 2008


Photo by Roberto Rodriguez.  Detonation during an event commemorating the dismantling of the last B53 nuclear bomb at Pantex.


A wonderful, fast-moving, nonfiction book, from an underappreciated writer, about "the intersection of nuclear reality and religious vision." If you're interested in fundamentalist Christian discourses and/or political, economic, and cultural accommodation to the war machine, this is a must-read. Mojtabai's style is crisp and lucid (the introduction is maybe the best I've ever read), and her observations on fundamentalist Christianity so impressively succinct as to convince me that, from now on, any discussion I hear on the subject will only be a waste of my time. My only objections to the book? First, that the jacket copy suggests that the book will attempt to "balance" the technocratic and/or millenarian discourses with peace activist discourses, which it doesn't: the book reports almost exclusively on the former. I didn't mind this, because I'm already more aware of and sympathetic to peace activism, but I was surprised. Second, I object to the implication that liberal, beatitude-minded, anti-war Christianity somehow approaches the "truth" of Christianity in a way that conservative/reactionary Christianity does not. While I greatly prefer the values of the former, I find the championing of those values as truer to the spirit of Christianity to be just as arbitrary and textually indefensible as the values themselves are, to me, morally superior. For a liberal, this is a self-defeating and dangerous discourse: it reifies the authority of the Bible as a determinant of "truth," and, as such, unwittingly justifies the attempts of fundamentalists to turn really awful Biblical injunctions into political reality, in the name of that same truth.

Since Blessed Assurance was published, Pantex has become not only a nuclear bomb assembly facility, but also a disassembly facility.  For more information, check this out.

Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson 
Ed. Thomas H. Johnson, 1976
(read over the course of a year, finished in May 2010)



What can I say about Emily Dickinson's poetry? Emily says it best.

#1247:
To pile like Thunder to its close
Then crumble grand away
While Everything created hid
This--would be Poetry--

Or Love--the two coeval come--
We both and neither prove--
Experience either and consume--
For None see God and live--

The things I expected to find in E.D. were the questioning of religion, and the gender ambiguity, and the verbal transgression, and I wasn't disappointed.


#376
Of Course--I prayed--
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird--had stamped her foot--
And cried "Give Me"--
My Reason--Life--
I had not had--but for Yourself--
'Twere better Charity 
To leave me in the Atom's Tomb--
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb--
Than this smart Misery.

And I got sucked in by the "bumble-bees and other nations" (#1746) she loved. I love bees, too, and birds and flowers and things. But Emily was interested in worms and caterpillars, too.

#885
Our little Kinsmen--after Rain
In plenty may be seen,
A Pink and Pulpy multitude
The tepid Ground upon....

It's also hard not to be sucked in by the pain/suffering/death stuff she relished...

# 280
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading--treading--till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through--

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum--
Kept beating--beating--till I thought
My Mind was going numb....

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
The Space--began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here--

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down--
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing--then--

Wow, isn't that amazing?

And it was a discovery to me that she was so interested in war (she wrote the majority of her poems during the Civil War), first with a kind of bloody God-wills-it kind of patriotism, and then with increasing ambivalence (not to mention art):

#1227
My Triumph lasted till the Drums
Had left the Dead alone
And then I dropped my Victory
And chastened stole along
To where the finished Faces
Conclusion turned on me
And then I hated Glory
And wished myself were They....

And finally, there are the abundant, marvelous "Huh? What?" moments...

#1749
The waters chased him as he fled,
Not daring look behind--
A billow whispered in his Ear,
"Come home with me, my friend--
My parlor is of shriven glass,
My pantry has a fish
For every palate in the Year"--
To this revolting bliss
The object floating at his side
Made no distinct reply.

Carol Bly, Letters From the Country (read Sep. 2010)

Carol Bly, Letters From the Country (first published in 1981)
Read September 2010 (Also read:  My Lord Bag of Rice and Backbone, both excellent!)



This collection of essays deserves to be read, at the least, just for "A Gentle Education for Us All," which provides the best defense of a liberal arts education I've ever read. Although the late, great Bly wrote these essays in the late '70s for a specific agrarian Minnesota audience, her criticisms and recommendations remain topical and useful for, say, a person living now in a major Eastern metropolis (to take just one example, anybody who follows sustainable farming in the U.S. will recognize some of her arguments). Her moral and political outrage, intelligence, humor, and compassion made her voice stand out anywhere. She was anti-apathy, anti-complacency, anti-smalltalk, anti-ignorance, anti-war. She was pro-dissent, pro-judgment, pro-arts, pro-feeling, pro-action, pro-farmer, pro-sustainability, pro-local-theater-productions, pro-conversation..... She wanted to talk with children and teenagers and old people about contemporary art and music and politics and farming. And she proposed solutions to the problems she identified, starting at the very grassroots level, with 4-H meetings, church groups, and the town parade committee, and urging people to seek accountability from Washington. She demanded respect for people living in Minnesota farms and small towns, and she demanded that these people learn to respect themselves, by which she almost always meant to educate themselves. That goes, of course, for everybody.


Because I respect her as a thinker, I have to say that there are a couple points on which we don't see eye to eye. I'm not so into psychology. I don't separate my "intellect" and "emotion" in approaching, well, anything, because I don't think it's useful. And so I find Bly's hostility toward Northeastern-type theory-talking academics, as opposed to spontaneous open-hearted people who respond to the true intention of literature, to be not only divisive and simplistic, but also unworthy of the fine intelligence Bly showed in defense of intellectual questing; the same goes for much of her reading of literature (she's all pro-feeling and anti-form, anti-discussion-of-metaphor, which I think is unworthy of a writer who obviously spent so much time in the pursuit of her own excellent craft). Bly had a purpose: to emphasize feeling in order to ameliorate literature for people who were alienated by anything too literary. But she, of all people, should have seen how this argument reduced the complexity and potential of language, cut off part of the dialogue, and deprived literature of some of its meaning and its challenge.

That's not a large quibble, though. She won me over with "Enemy Evenings" and "Great Snows," which excoriate the blandness and triviality of small town conversation. If she'd spent more time at the coastal city writers' events she seemed to love and hate, I think she'd have seen that bland, trivial conversation is only too common, and SHOULD BE ERADICATED EVERYWHERE.