Monday, December 20, 2004

Seven Famous Greek Plays

Including Prometheus Bound and Agamemnon by Aeschylus, Oedipus the King and Antigone by Sophocles, Alcestis and Medea by Euripides, and The Frogs by Aristophanes.

I think Antigone was my favorite. This is the story of a sister, Antigone, who defies the mandate of her king, Creon, and gives the corpse of her brother a decent burial. Creon prohibits anyone from doing so, allowing the brother’s corpse, Polyneices, to lay exposed in the sun to be eaten by wild dogs and maggots, because he had risen in insurrection against his other brother, Eteocles, who was then king. Both brothers died in the battle, leaving Creon sitting on the vacant throne. Antigone disobeys Creon’s command and is put to death as punishment, which for Creon only results in the death of his own son, Haemon, who was betrothed to Antigone, and his wife, Eurydice, both a result of suicide over the grief of losing one so dear to them. The lesson, of course, is that there is a natural law that supercedes the law of earthly rulers, and those who brazenly oppose it will suffer the consequences.

Why do I like it? Apart from the dialogue being the most readable to my modern and untrained eyes, it does a really good job of making the larger point, of illustrating the moral of the story, through the simple interplay of characters going through the mechanics of the story. The message is not heavy-handed, but it is clearly there for all to see.

Another thing I’m dying to know. When verse is translated from a foreign language into English, how much do they change the meaning to make sure it rhymes? I mean, the same words that rhyme in Greek won’t necessarily rhyme in English, so if the verse rhymed in Greek, how did they get it to rhyme in English without changing it? Wouldn’t it be better to just translate it word for word and not worry about making it rhyme?

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The First American by H. W. Brands

Gosh, it took me a long time to read this book. Some days I was lucky to get ten pages read. Having two kids is really starting to eat into my free time. It was a good read, I just wish I could remember the stuff in the first hundred pages.

Here’s something I do remember from the last hundred pages. Our bicameral legislature was one of the great compromises of the Constitutional Convention. The small states wanted representation by state and the big states wanted representation by population, so we get the House with one Representative per 10,000 people and the Senate with two Senators per state. Another great compromise was that a slave would count as three-fifths a person when calculating how many representatives a state got.

The first American, by the way, was Benjamin Franklin, and this was a biography of his life and times. And quite a life it was. The most famous person in the world during his lifetime and part of every major step in the birth of the American nation. On the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, chief negotiator charged with gaining France as an ally, co-chair (with George Washington) of the Constitutional Convention.

One of the most interesting things about him, of course, was how staunch a loyalist Briton he was until he was publicly humiliated in front of Parliament. Seeing first hand how the sickness of political corruption worked there, he decided that America’s destiny lay elsewhere, and dedicated himself from that point onward to its separation from Britain. His son William stayed loyal—he was the Royal Governor of New Jersey—and the two never saw eye to eye again. May not have even seen each other again except for a brief meeting in England after the war when William had moved back to the mother country and Ben was on his last trip home from France. There’s a story in there somewhere.

When the natural weakness and imperfection of human understanding is considered, with the unavoidable influences of education, custom, books and company, upon our ways of thinking, I imagine a man must have a good deal of vanity who believes, and a good deal of boldness who affirms, that all the doctrines he holds, are true, and all he rejects, are false.
Benjamin Franklin

Friday, November 19, 2004

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Another audiobook from the library. I’d heard of it vaguely before but knew nothing about it before listening to it. I like doing that. It’s nice having no pre-conceived ideas and letting the story tell itself. This was a good story but a totally ridiculous premise. You’re not supposed to rip the premise of these kind of novels, so says a literary website I looked up after finishing it. I like doing that, too. Listening to the story and then do some small amount of online research to learn more about the context.

This is a “dystopia” novel, like Brave New World and 1984, in which one utopian vision of the future has gone terribly wrong and is squashing the natural human spirit. You’re not supposed to judge the premise of such books, because the premise is not the point. The point is the ultra-orthodox views that are allowed to run wild in a way they never could in the real world and how horrible they are. I can respect that, and I don’t really have a quibble about how unrealistic the premise is. I shouldn’t complain if the premise is far-fetched, the premise is supposed to be far-fetched. But the world in which the characters live is unrealistic, and that is something I should quibble with.

Gilead is supposed to be America after the Christian Right takes over completely, but the characters talk and act as if they are British. That’s a fairly minor fault, but it really got in the way of me enjoying the story. The writing is good, and the characters are engaging, but the knowledge that Atwood wrote the book in reaction to Reagan being elected president (something I learned from a website) has really tarnished my memory of the experience. I’m sure the book was cheered in our institutions of higher learning, but I’m sorry, to think that the forces that brought about Reagan’s presidency could have made something like Gilead possible, no matter how dystopic the premise, is a fantasy based on irrational fear more than logic. Twenty years of hindsight sure goes a long way when it comes to judging the effects of social reform in our society.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Portable Medieval Reader assembled and illuminated by James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin

Yeah, I’ll take that book. I love medieval literature. What the hell was I thinking? This is one of those books I forced myself to read a few pages of each night just to get through it. Why bother? No one knows. I started out at 10 pages and then dropped it down to four. 690 pages later, what do I remember? Impaling children alive on fence posts. As in:

They tore children from their mothers’ arms and impaled them on fence poles where the little ones died in great misery, kicking and screaming.
Unknown, How the Prussians Devastated the Lands of Duke Conrad of Masovia and Kujavia

Before having children, this is the kind of sentence I would have read over and forgotten just as quickly. Now that I’m a father, however, the visual image evoked by this statement troubled me a great deal. Because in my mind’s eye, it wasn’t just any child, but it was my child, torn from my wife's arms, impaled on a fence post, kicking and screaming in terror and agony. And I wonder, is there anything more horrible in the world than this, than the callous and sadistic murder of children in front of their parents? I don’t think so.

Here's a few other items I took a moment to note:

Come now, brother, what is this body which you clothe with such diligent care and nourish gently as if it were royal offspring? Is it not a mass of putrefaction, is it not worms, dust, and ashes? It is fit that the wise man consider not this which now is, but rather what it will be afterwards in the future, pus, slime, decay, and the filth of obscene corruption. What thanks will the worms render to you, who are about to devour the flesh you nourished so gently and tenderly?
Peter Damiani, The Monastic Ideal

It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.
Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love

The source of merit is not in riches or in power; these are the gifts of fortune; but virtue only gives worth and excellence.
Heloise, On the Fame of Abelard

My youth was gone before I realized it; I was carried away by the strength of manhood; but a riper age brought me to my senses and taught me by experience the truth I had long before read in books, that youth and pleasure are vanity—nay, that the Author of all ages and times permits us miserable mortals, puffed up with emptiness, thus to wander about, until finally, coming to a tardy consciousness of our sins, we shall learn to know ourselves.
Francesco Petrarca, Letter to Posterity

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Another audiobook. I’m really starting to like this audiobook thing. When I finish one I can’t wait to get to the library and get another one. This one was okay. I liked it well enough but not to the level of some others. Maybe it’s because I’m listening to it instead of reading it, but I really got hooked into the gimmick of the book, that it is the story of the Vampire, told by the Vampire himself, as he is being interviewed by the Boy. Hyperaware of this construct, I found myself disbelieving a lot of the story because it was told with too much detail, told as if it was currently happening rather than as a recollection of something that happened 200 years ago. And then there was the necessity to keep reminding me that it was an interview by interrupting the narrative for an unnecessary exchange between the Vampire and the Boy. Interruptions that continued until about halfway through the book when they stopped altogether, perhaps because Rice had realized how disruptive they were. But don’t worry, the Boy comes back at the very end, after listening to everything the Vampire has told him, everything about a vampire’s cursed existence, and lo and behold, now the Boy wants to be a vampire, too. Thankfully, the Vampire does not oblige him, and the book ends with the Boy using his tape recording of the interview to figure out where the vampire who made the Vampire lives, and he goes off to find him.

One thing I did like about the book was the way a vampire who was created in one century had a difficult time dealing with the mortal reality of another, so much so that vampires rarely lived for more than a few centuries before taking their own lives. Makes them more fragile than anyone would expect. They are the masters of any single mortal life, but string those mortal lives together into the inevitable progress of centuries, and the vampire is little more than a frightened and senile creature, unable to make any sense out of the world that surrounds them.

I was also disappointed that the question of the afterlife was not explored in greater detail. It was alluded to a few times. What was the relationship, if any, of the immortal vampire to God and the devil? Louis wanted to find out, but he never did and neither do we. Maybe I shouldn’t fault Rice for teasing and then avoiding the subject. Perhaps I’m the only one who likes writing books about questions that can’t be answered.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson

I enjoyed this a lot less than I thought I would. I remember thinking Dickinson was really cool after being exposed to her in high school, but now having read her poems—all of her poems as near as I can tell—I am much less impressed. I think it might be poetry itself I have a hard time dealing with. I’ve never been much of a fan, and my eyes just seem to dance over those carefully selected words, the lines and thoughts always broken in a way that challenges my understanding. I’ll definitely stick with prose, thank you.

Despite these impressions, here are some of Dickinson's poems that seemed to stand out.

Life XI
Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
It is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur—you’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.
For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

Life CVI
I felt a cleavage in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind I strove to join
Unto the thought before,
But sequence raveled out of reach
Like balls upon a floor.

Time and Eternity LXXXIII
This world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.
It beckons and it baffles;
Philosophies don’t know,
And through a riddle, at the last,
Sagacity must go.
To guess it puzzles scholars;
To gain it, men have shown
Contempt of generations,
And crucifixion known.

The Single Hound I
Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be;
Attended by a Single Hound—
Its own Identity.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I think I was assigned this in that 20th century fiction class I took in college. It was a good read, but not the kind that makes me want to read more by this author. The title refers to a scene late in the book when Janie and Tea Cake and their neighbors try to sit through a hurricane.

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

As they try to flee the storm they see several instances of wild animals and men seeking shelter together and not fearing each other. Common danger made common friends. Nothing sought a conquest over the other. And yet there are white people who won’t let black people on a piece of high ground with them, and white people who press black people into service at the point of a gun to help collect and bury bodies when the storm is over. That’s one of the messages in the book that wasn’t subtle enough for me to miss.

Here are two more quotes that struck me:

The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again. So she put something in there to represent the spirit like a Virgin Mary image in a church. The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and laid down when she was sleepy and tired.

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.

Sunday, September 5, 2004

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C. S. Forester

The first of the Hornblower novels, not in the order that they were written but in the order of the chronology of Hornblower’s life. I knew next to nothing about this series before I bought this book for a reason I’m still not sure of. It was an OK read, but I probably won’t be buying any more. Good adventure. Not enough that makes you think.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

A Time to Kill by John Grisham

I was surprised by how racist the characters in this book were. Not just the “bad guys” who are supposed to be racist, but the “good guys,” too. They’re not black people, they’re just blacks, as if that word defined their whole existence. There are two blacks out in the waiting room. And nigger. Everyone used the word nigger, the bad guys as a slur, but the good guys too as a simple description of who people were. What do you expect from a nigger? Ha, ha. They’re all so slap happy. Felt like the South of the 1860s, not the 1980s. Well, you know how they feel about the Civil War down there. I guess it really is still being fought.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Ancient Egypt edited by David P. Silverman

This was definitely one of the history book club selections I was sent before I started caring what they sent me. It was an interesting read, covering lightly just about every aspect of life in ancient Egypt. It tried to make the point that even if our perception of the ancient Egyptians is as a people obsessed with death, in fact theirs was a culture founded on the principles of life and rebirth. All that they did for their dead, which went beyond building monuments to maintaining on-going funerary cults, was done based on the belief that the dead lived again after death, just as the sun rose each day after sunset. The specific history was hard to understand, but the cultural aspects were well represented and interesting.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I both liked it and didn’t like it. There were parts that were outstanding, where the prose was crisp and real and put you exactly where you needed to be to understand the scene and the characters in it. But overall it left me wanting.

Okay, I know I know next to nothing about the beat generation and the post-war world of disillusionment in which the book was written. But is there anything that makes Sal feel sad or remorseful? Does he want to do anything with his life except bum around and get high? For the first part of the book I was convinced we were never going to hear any women in the story speak. They were referred to, but never given voice or center stage. Then Sal meets Terri, and I think the change has come. But he goes off, spinning in a new direction which is really the same old direction he is always spinning in. He’s reminded of Terri a couple more times in his travels, but the memory has little regret and no real fondness. The two great unspokens in the book are Sal’s wife, who we never meet or learn anything about, not even her name, and his time in the Navy during the war, of which we learn only one detail more--that he remembers what it was like lying in his bunk below deck while the ocean slipped away beneath him.

Then there’s the trip to Mexico near the end of the book, which I am sure is going to lead to their violent and messy ends, only to hear it turn into the biggest drug orgy in the whole sorry tale. The end is an anticlimax to say the least. Looking back on his time on the road, Sal sometimes thinks of Dean Moriarty, thinks of old Dean Moriarty. It reminded me a little of Catch-22. I’m glad I read it, but wasn’t sure I would be while I was reading it. Unlike Catch-22, however, I don’t think I want to read On the Road again.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Nature’s Oddballs by Lisbeth Zappler

A book I got a long time ago, written for a juvenile reader, about a wide variety of animals that defy the standards and norms of taxonomy. Interesting at times, mostly because it reinforces the point that so much that we think of as “Nature’s Laws” are really just descriptions of observable phenomena, and that there are always those things that live on the edges of our conceptual constructs that are best ignored because they threaten to topple our entire house of cards. Birds fly—except for the ostrich. Mammals have live births—except for the platypus. F=ma—except when speeds approach the speed of light. It’s all part of the same condition. There is less order in the universe than we would like to think. A lot of the order that seems to be there is only so apparent because we have put it there.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Embattled Shrine: Jamestown in the Civil War by David F. Riggs

Not sure how this one wound up on my shelf, probably one of the monthly selections from the History Book Club before I started to care what they were sending me, or when I was buying everything and anything they had on the Civil War. It is the definitive study on this subject, but that makes it neither interesting nor important. Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English settlement in America, is an island in the James River that the Confederates used as part of their defense up to and during the 1862 peninsula campaign, and which the Federals took over and used as a communications link for the rest of the war. That’s it.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

This book belonged to my mother. On the first page someone, I’m assuming she, has written her name and “June, 1955.” That’s when she was fifteen years old. I wonder if she ever read this book and if she would remember it. Maybe I’ll show it to her someday and see what her reaction is. The book itself is OK, the only Trollope I have read, who was evidently a prolific and popular writer of the 19th century. It’s a small story about an honorable man accused of dishonorable things and how he and others react to the situation. I won’t read it again, not will I read any more Trollope. At least not until I read everything else I want to read.

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

A keeper. As I explained again to my wife tonight when she nagged me about all my damn books, I recently rearranged them all so that the only ones I am displaying are the ones I would consider reading again some day. This one will clearly go on that shelf. The rest are being packed away in boxes, with the idea of keeping them if at all possible, but sorted for possible disposal if it comes to that. The dust jacket said the author was wounded five times in World War I, and I can believe it after reading this grim account of life and death on those front lines. One of many citable paragraphs:

We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole; a lance corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces; we find one man who had held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death. The sun goes down, night comes, the shells whine, life is at an end.

The image of the man running on footless stumps will stay with me for some time, probably because I know it’s true, that it is something Remarque actually saw in the war. How men struggle to survive when their world has been shattered, when their own body, the very essence of their being, has been maimed and mangled by forces they have no ability or hope to control is endlessly fascinating to me and something I would like to explore more in my own fiction.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall

A provocative literary parody that explodes the mythology perpetrated by a Southern classic. So says the cover, and it sure does, although it takes more than half the book to figure out who is who and what the hell is going on. Told in the form of a first person journal, the narrator is Scarlett O’Hara’s half-sister and a slave, who also loves Rhett Butler, has an affair with him and marries him after Scralett dies, and eventually leaves him for a black Congressman who she doesn’t marry but for whom she secretly has a baby. So secret in fact that her journal barely knows it happened, skipping over years in the last few pages and only dropping tiresome hints. I did not like this book. None of the Gone with the Wind characters are referred to by their names, but by code names—R for Rhett, The Other for Scarlett, The Dreamy Gentleman for Ashley Wilkes. Hey, Alice, I read Gone with the Wind—and liked it better than your book—but I don’t have the damn thing memorized. How about helping me out just a little in trying to decipher your work? I couldn’t tell who was who and which were white and which were black until over halfway through. Maybe that was the point? OK. Good point. Bad book.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Metamorphoses by Ovid

Why on Earth did I read this? Because it was there. Was it good? Parts of it. The story of Phaethon losing control of the sun chariot was especially vivid, as was Nestor’s tale of the centaurs, in which they slaughtered each other in every way imaginable. Will I read any of it again? No.

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

East is East by T. C. Boyle

I love the way this guy writes and I very much enjoyed this book. Although I must say that I enjoyed the part I read on vacation better than the part I read at home. Being on vacation and being able to leisurely read 50 pages at a time probably had a lot to do with that, but maybe the end wasn’t as good as the beginning. When it comes to writing, beginnings are easier than ends, although I think middles are the easiest of them all. The middle of this book is really good. As I said earlier, his writing is crisp and inventive and his characters are deep and developed. That one chapter he started from Turco’s point of view was amazing. It was different than everything else in the book, but may have been the truest voice in there. Like that little bit was Boyle’s natural voice and the rest of it was an elaborately-built and well-executed construct. I want to read more of this author.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Guilty as Sin by Tami Hoag

Why did I buy this book? Don’t remember. Probably because I wanted to add some modern authors to my reading list. It was a decent enough thriller. It dragged in the middle—four instead of six hundred pages would have been plenty—and the sick killers weren’t nearly sick enough for my tastes. It read like a movie pitch. I could even see Julia Roberts and Russell Crowe in the leading roles. Can I get a job writing these kind of books?

Thursday, May 6, 2004

Rose Madder by Stephen King

This is one of those Stephen King novels where he tries to weave fable-like symbols and elements into the main story, and this time does it with less confusion and unbelievability than some other attempts. Although we never quite understand who Rose Madder is and what she represents, the parallels between Norman and the bull, and his transformation into it, is well if not obviously done. I will admit, however, that I found Gert’s confrontation with Norman in the real world to be much more satisfying than Rose’s confrontation with him in the fable.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Secret Prey by John Sandford

A mystery thriller with a studly, rich deputy chief of police named Lucas Davenport as the protagonist. An enjoyable read, but will any of it stick with me a year from now? Do I want to read it again? Sadly, no.

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Flight of Eagles by Jack Higgins

This was a very interesting experience for me. My first reaction was frustration based on how simple the book seemed. I mean, it is really just a report of things that are happening. No deeper meaning, no glimpses into the inner life of any one character. It is the kind of book anyone could have written, and yet here it was, the 28th book published by this author. But then I began to appreciate the speed with which the story was being told. You can cover a lot of ground when you’re not dealing with the inner life, and I began to respect it for the deftness it showed. It was a fairly good story, after all. I especially liked the way Higgins didn’t bother repeating anything the reader already knew. If one character had to tell another character what had happened in a previous chapter, we didn’t have to read it again. We were just told that the first character told the second character. That kept things moving pretty well. But finally I began to notice that all the characters were pretty much the same. Three different characters at three different times, when faced with being told bad news, all said, “Tell me the worst.” And they were all a little too shallow and melodramatic for my tastes. One brother giving his life to save the other and shrugging it off like one getting his haircut before the other. “One of us has to survive.” Please.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

The Best of H. P. Lovecraft by H. P. Lovecraft

A collection of short stories by, you guessed it, H. P. Lovecraft. They are all very well written and were engaging to read, and I’m sure were revolutionary when they were first published, but each and every one left me wanting just a little bit more. There are those who probably find the horrifying more horrifying when it is undescribed and left to the imagination, but I would have liked to go a little deeper into the horror each time. The worlds Lovecraft creates are complex and true, and I’m sure the deeper horror was there in his mind when he wrote, but the worst of the worst never seems to make it onto the page.

Wise men told him his simple fancies were inane and childish, and even more absurd because their actors persist in fancying them full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.
H. P. Lovecraft, "The Silver Key"

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
H. P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

I loved this book. The story of the whaleship Essex, which, in 1820 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was attacked by an eighty-five foot long sperm whale, rammed twice with its tremendous head, and sunk. Twenty survivors in three whaleboats found themselves faced with the task of sailing more than 3,000 miles back to the coast of South America with insufficient rations for the journey. Only eight survived the ordeal, three by remaining on one of the few islands they stumbled across on the journey and waiting to be rescued. The other twelve died along the way, seven of whom were eaten by the survivors, one of whom—Owen Coffin—was killed for that purpose after drawing lots. I knew I had stumbled across something special when I read the following description of the discovery of one of the remaining whaleboats in the book’s preface:

First they saw bones—human bones—littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast. Then they saw the two men. They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards coated with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. Instead of greeting their rescuers with smiles of relief, the survivors—too delirious with thirst and hunger to speak—were disturbed, even frightened. They jealously clutched the splintered and gnawed-over bones with a desperate, almost feral intensity, refusing to give them up, like two starving dogs found trapped in a pit. Later, once the survivors had been given some food and water (and had finally surrendered the bones), one of them found the strength to tell his story. It was a tale made of a whaleman’s worst nightmare: of being in a boat far from land with nothing left to eat or drink and—perhaps worst of all—of a whale with the vindictiveness and guile of a man.

This is the story on which Melville based the climactic scene in Moby-Dick, but the real story of the Essex’s crew is so much more than that. As the author says, it is a laboratory experiment designed to test the limits of the human animal. The cannibalism aspects of the story are obviously the darkest, but they are also some of the most compelling. The survivor who told his story in the excerpt above was the ship’s captain, George Pollard. Owen Coffin was Pollard’s nephew, and Pollard had been compelled to eat him in order to survive, committing “incestual cannibalism,” its most scarring form, and had to tell his sister and Owen’s mother about it when finally returning to Nantucket. Like Moby-Dick, the book is also filled with the real images and sensations of whaling. Dead whales smell like rotting flesh, not fish, proving beyond doubt that they are warm-blooded mammals. Their bones still ooze oil a hundred years after they have been cleaned and mounted in museum displays. Put this one on the list of books I’ll read again if I ever decide to start re-reading books.

Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Be My Guest by Conrad Hilton

A joke gift a friend gave me for my birthday. Mostly a dull read about a man who bought a lot of hotels and prayed a lot.

They [possessions] are very nice to have, to enjoy, to share. But if you find even one that you can’t live without—hasten to give it away. Your very freedom depends on it.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore

A book of short stories, many written in the second person, assigned to me for one of the creative writing classes I took in college. Some are funny, some are sad, some are funny and sad, most try to be funny and sad. “What is Seized” is probably the best, although my memory of one of my creative writing teachers is always pushing “To Fill” on me. "What Is Seized" is about a woman whose parents divorced dealing with the death of her mother and their bitterness toward her father.

Cold men destroy women. They woo them with something personable that they bring out for show, something annexed to their souls like a fake greenhouse, lead you in, and you think you see life and vitality and sun and greenness, and then when you love them, they lead you out into their real soul, a drafty, cavernous, empty ballroom, inexorably arched and vaulted and mocking you with its echoes—you hear all you have sacrificed, all you have given, landing with a loud clunk. They lock the greenhouse and you are as tiny as a figure in an architect’s drawing, a faceless splotch, a blur of stick limbs abandoned in some voluminous desert of stone.

If my wife read that, I wonder how much she would think it applies to our relationship. Another good one is “How to Become a Writer,” if for nothing else for these priceless reminders from creative writing class. But does it work? Why should we care about this character? Have you earned this cliché?

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner

I think this is Faulkner’s first book and there were parts I actually liked. I know, I know, Faulkner is supposed to be everyone’s favorite American author, but I always have a hard time getting into his books. The way he writes, it’s like nothing sinks in, it just kind of skims across the surface. I’m not sure I liked this book so much as I like the book it could have been. Donald Mahon comes back wounded, scarred, and dying from World War I and the buzz of small town life goes on its merry way around him, oblivious to the fact that the war has changed him. Small town life even tries to ensnare him in its petty machinations and does not notice in its self-absorption that he has become something outside of it and has grown beyond its influence. That’s the book I wanted this to be. There was some of that in there, but not enough for my tastes.

And that is already the curse of our civilization—Things, Possessions, to which we are slaves, which require us to either labor honestly as least eight hours a day or do something illegal so as to keep them painted or dressed in the latest mode or filled with whisky or gasoline.

Saturday, February 7, 2004

Hannibal by Ross Leckie

This is a historical novel written from the point of view of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who took elephants and an army across the Alps in the wintertime in an attempt to conquer Rome. It was a good read. One of the things that comes out quite starkly in the book is how violent and perverse the society of the powerful in Hannibal’s time was. Hannibal himself had had enough people impaled in order to know how to do it so the person would die slowly or die quickly. Hannibal’s father had given his 14-year-old daughter away in a political marriage, only to have her die of an infection caused by her husband stuffing her vagina full of ripe plums to provide a more sensuous cavity for his penis. Crucifixion was a regular punishment for cowardice or failure in battle and prisoners were routinely beheaded or buried alive. After the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C., in which Hannibal wiped out an entire Roman army by allowing his line to bend in on itself, creating a concave pocket in which to trap his opponents with his cavalry, Hannibal had the hands cut off all the Roman corpses and sent back to Rome to show them the damage he had done. When the hands of the dead did not add up to a full legion, he had an appropriate number cut from the living prisoners to round out the group, and then forced the mutilated men to haul the tribute back to Rome themselves.

Saturday, January 31, 2004

The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper

This is Cooper’s second novel and supposedly the first work that got him noticed as an author. It is pretty much an adventure story set during the American Revolution. Here again I find a character, like Natty Bumpoo in the Leatherstocking Tales and Long Tom Coffin in The Pilot, who lives, speaks, and thinks in the metaphors of his profession. Natty is a frontiersman, Tom is a sailor, and in The Spy, Archibald Sitgreaves is a doctor. Dr. Sitgreaves is a medical officer with the American army, and spends a good deal of time in the book tending to the injured and complaining about how the typical soldier on both sides is too careless when inflicting harm on the enemy, believing that there are ways to knock men out of combat without killing them or maiming them for life. He, like Tom Coffin, is a supporting character in the story, which centers on a family of divided loyalties in the Revolution, the Whartons, and their neighbor, Harvey Birch, who may or may not be an English spy (not, as it turns out in the end. He is in fact a double agent in the direct employ of George Washington himself).

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Secrecy by Daniel Patrick Moynihan

An interesting little read that explains the culture of secrecy that has permeated the U.S. government since World War I and blames it for a lot that has gone wrong with our foreign policy over the years. The most damning accusation is the misguided path administration after administration took trying to beat the Soviets during the Cold War that ballooned deficits and obscenely increased the number of nuclear weapons that must now be disarmed or otherwise dealt with, all based on faulty information provided by “experts” about how the Soviet economy was growing by leaps and bounds over the American and about the need for America to speed up to eliminate the predicted “missile gap.” The information was dead wrong, 180 degrees wrong, but nobody dared question it and nobody could double check it because all the sources were classified. Moynihan argues that a society in which nearly everything is open is much better able to deal with reality because it provides itself with discussion and debate on the real issues, not the worried imaginings of what the government is keeping secret. As Moynihan says, a government that hoards secrets breeds a society that hoards conspiracies, and that, at least, seems like a pretty accurate description of the times we live in.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

The Pilot by James Fenimore Cooper

One of Cooper’s early and lesser known books, written in 1823, the same year as the first Leatherstocking Tale. Most interesting thing is the character of Long Tom Coffin, a sailor who is in many ways the same character as Natty Bumpoo. Well, not so much the same character as the same kind of character. Long Tom is a sailor through and through the same way Natty is a frontiersman. His speech and thoughts are composed in nautical themes and metaphors, the same way Natty’s are based on a life on the woodland frontier. Second most interesting thing is the pilot (who is supposed to be John Paul Jones, but is never named as such) and his tentative ability to lead the other characters in the novel through the shoals of good and morality as well as those of the sea. It’s not fully developed here as it is with Natty, especially in The Pathfinder, but it is there, and I think you can see Cooper beginning to tinker with the idea. If I had nothing but time, I would go back and re-read The Leatherstocking Tales and see just how much Natty is a combination of Long Tom Coffin and the pilot.