Monday, March 31, 2014

2014 Classic #2

The Odyssey – Homer, translated by S.H. Lang and A. Butcher, 1879

I’d never read this classic in its entirely, ignorantly thinking that every “rosy-fingered dawn” and “crafty Odysseus” and “grey-eyed Athena”  and “wine-dark sea” would culminate in driving me  around the bend.  But then I chided myself for being so prejudiced; after all, epithets and glorified nicknames are part of epic territory.

Inarguably this epic is at the heart of our literary tradition, the forebear of myth, fairy tale, ghost story, and fiction. After I read this, I got into Look Homeward Angel and lo and behold Wolfe gives us this:

Gant had the passion of the true wanderer, of him who wanders from a fixed point. He needed the order and the dependence of a home— he was intensely a family man: their clustered warmth and strength about him was life.

After the urge to be culturally literate, another reason that I jumped into a prose rendition of this fundamental text of the Western culture was to prepare myself to read James Joyce’s Ulysses later this year.

I enjoyed reading about Odysseus' journey to return to his home, hearth, wife Penelope, and son Telmachus. Odysseus wriggles by all kinds of challenges and dangers with his formidable character, a mix of big-heartedness, bravery and cruelty. A model of decision-making, he believes in his own abilities. He uses both intelligence and cunning and weaves a web of lies if that seems like the right move. He’s all about all or nothing – when he snuffs the obnoxious suitors, he also takes out the good guy Amphinomus  who was the only wooer who took the hero’s part.

Odysseus, being the hero, is the center of the text. But I found the settings wonderful. The sea is our hero’s prime adversary, deadly and unavoidable. Rock-strewn beaches, the dense forests, the mysterious caves of the Cyclops and Calypso, the beautiful dwelling of the sorceress Circe – no wonder the Med draws us.

The themes are timeless. Foster resiliency to weather trials. If you want to receive friendship and loyalty and hospitality and generosity, have to give them. Distinguish settling for what you get from feeling grateful for what you get. Keep in mind things can always be worse. There’s no place like home.  It’s okay to believe the wary suspicion that hero or not, best efforts or not, we sometimes feel like the mere object of the whims of the unseen forces. Life’s pretty strange when you come to think about it.

Simply because it fell into my lap (as books tend do), I read Lang and Butcher’s 1879 version. I take the completeness and accuracy of translations on trust, but if the language feels flat, insipid, musty or dry, I drop it. As Joseph Brodsky said of Constance Garnett, "The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They're reading Constance Garnett."

Lang and Butcher’s Odyssey often sounds like the King James Version. Most of the time I found the antiquated language and style grand and stirring but I confess to moodiness. At other time I found the style quaint and schlocky. Near the end, I started to feel, “Persevere, you survived Tom’s elaborate scheme to free Jim, so you can handle Odysseus visiting his pop back on the farm.” This translation is available for tasting at

Friday, March 28, 2014

Vintage Mystery #3

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for L-3: Read a Book with a Spooky title

Death Comes to Perigord – John Ferguson, 1931

Young Dr. Dunn arrives on the sunlit Channel Island of Guernsey to substitute for a doctor in need of a spot of rest. The doctor is taken with scenery, which reminds him of the Near East:

Why look, for instance, at this very road, so long and narrow, stretching between those high blank walls, with invisible houses and hidden people behind them, I suppose.  And look at those tall palm trees which seem to be peering over the walls as if stretching their necks, watching for something to happen in this deserted alley.  Look at those shadows too, sharply cut as if by a knife in this brilliant white, un-English sunlight; and look at the colour, is that not Eastern?

Later he witnesses in the village square an old peasant woman railing against her rich neighbor de Quettville for stealing her garden statue. When the doc makes a house-call in aid of de Quettville, he finds him a cantankerous impossible patient but not necessarily mentally ill. Miser and usurer de Quettville mysteriously disappears. Dunn and two city officials and work on the case, in which psychiatric forensics plays a part:

The workings of a disordered mind are hard to follow, but it is an error to suppose an insane person cannot conceive, and adhere to a purpose.  There is method in madness; and with homicidal lunatics the doctor frequently becomes an object of intense hatred, the first enemy who must be removed before the original murderous intention can be achieved.

Dunn is driven to ask his asked his friend McNab, a private investigator, to clear up the mystery. The reveal, though predictable, satisfies.

As the passages above indicate, the suggestive setting, smart content, and elegant prose style result in a satisfying mystery from the Golden Age. Unfortunately for the author, many writers were trying their hand at the genre and this book was overlooked by critics and readers and so sunk out of sight until Dover Publications re-released it in the 1980s.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

2014 Classic #1

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens, 9781593081386

Charles Dickens’ second historical novel is set in the late eighteenth century during the period of the French Revolution. Originally published in weekly magazine installments in 1859, its four-hundred-fifty pages make up one of Dickens’ shortest novels though it deals with many themes such as social injustice, revolution, and the various forms of love and hate.

I always approach Dickens with trepidation. Will a tediously angelic female like Esther in Bleak House grate? Yes, Lucie Manette serves, gives, nurses and amuses, “impeccably good and vacant” (Thomas Wolfe, LHA). Will the rough humor irk? Yes, the comic characters of Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross come off just grotesque. Strangely, Dickens’ humor is little in evidence in this novel and he’s too often merely facetious.  Alcohol use treated unbelievably? Yes, Sydney Carton drinks amounts of booze that would stupefy a bull and still manages to function, never has a hangover, and quits drinking cold turkey. Insufficient motivation? Yes, we never really understand the reason Syd drinks so much nor is the reason Darnay puts himself in grave hazard persuasive. Coincidences? You betcha, in spades.

I also recalled with a shudder Bleak House in which a major character was introduced on, like, page 500. Yes, again Dickens throws into the action a new character, whose role in the story is anything but defined. I could only mutter to myself, Patience, reader, follow the narrative. To compensate for these moments of despair , be confident that all roads will lead, to, well, two cities in this case. Then be grateful.

Gratitude, because I couldn’t stop reading it. To my mind, the faults mentioned above and aspects of it as a political novel take a back seat to the sheer power of Dickens’ ability to set a scene, to make us see. For instance, in the first chapter, a wine barrel is accidentally broken open and its contents flow into the street.  The people of the poor neighborhood in Paris jostle each other to drink the wine out of gutters. Dickens describes Tellson’s Bank and the wine shop of Monsieur and Madame Defarge so that we understand the narrow worlds of stodgy bankers and political extremists. Dickens must have brooded on mob violence, since the scene in which the rioting mob dances the Carmagnole is ghastly and unforgettable. As is the scene when young Cruncher witnesses his father Jerry rob a grave. As is the holding cell stuffed with aristocrats when Darnay is checked into jail.

We post-moderns are apt to gripe that Dickens crammed his novels with too much pathos. A passionate guy, I don’t have a problem with narratives charged with emotion.  The incidents, characters, all the unfolding story all worked on my soul. Such is my sense of Dickens’ epic and striking ability to write. After the contrasts of that well-known opening paragraph, he gives us all the feelings of people interacting: love and hate, despair and hope, misery and happiness , darkness and light, betrayal and friendship, mercy and humanity versus ruthlessness, cynicism versus the hope of a better tomorrow.  Ah, Syd, you may have done stinky things working for that conceited shyster Mr. Stryver, but that doesn’t mean you were a stinker. Holding the hand of the seamstress was a far, far better thing than making Lucie happy.

To my mind, Dickens’ pathos is never tacky , overdone or cheesy. His sentimentality, if that must be word, comes out of his fabulous power to give life, to speak to our hearts with words. As Jose Chung said, “Still, as a storyteller, I'm fascinated how a person's sense of consciousness can be so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words... mere words.”

Friday, March 21, 2014

French & Indian War Epic

Read for the War Challenge with a Twist 2014 at War Through the Generations

Shadowbrook: A Novel of Love, War, and the Birth of America – Beverly Swerling

The British call The French and Indian War (1754 - 1763) The Seven Years’ War. Winston Churchill designated it as the first world-wide war because hostilities broke out from Canada to the Caribbean, from India to the Philippines. Most American historians have tended to see the conflict as a mere prelude to the American Revolution and emphasized it as the war in which young George Washington gained his knowledge, skills, and abilities in things military.

Beverly Swerling addresses this neglect. In this readable historical novel Swerling chronicles the life and times of Cormac Shea and Quentin Hale, half-brothers who have been brought up among Indians. Cormac is a “bridge person” assigned by his band to serve a mediator between the Indian and European world. Cormac’s dream is to settle Indians peacefully in what is now Canada, leaving the Europeans in what is now the US. Also in the story is Nicole Crane, a young Frenchwoman with an English father. Fighting against her romantic interest in Quentin Hale, she enters the Monastery of the Poor Clares in Quebec. These three characters provide the points of view for their particular group.

This story of loyalty, betrayal, love , hope, and war is told chronologically , in a variety of settings that border on confusing. Indian names a mile long add to the bewilderment. But persevering readers will be rewarded with a striking story.
The only background I had for this novel was the short history of the war by Fred Anderson but I thought that Swerling did a fine job balancing the history with the story. She emphasizes the importance of the Indians and the French in the conflict. For example, Swerling underlines how the British Wolfe totally failed to understand how to win Indian alliances. He paid for this lack of respect with his life.

Swerling’s prose is clear and comprehensible. I’m mildly impatient with the stock characters and themes and the inevitable love story in family saga and plantation stories. But these sections never felt too long until we got back with Indians trying to figure out how to deal with Europeans and fighting a war with no mercy.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lincoln at Gettysburg

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America - Garry Wills

Historian and biographer Garry Wills argues that Lincoln’s purpose in giving the Gettysburg Address was "to 'win the whole Civil War in ideological terms as well as military ones" by clearing "the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt." The sin and guilt stemmed from the inability and unwillingness of the founders and the generations in the early 19th century to deal with the national crime of race-based chattel slavery, an institution that made mock of the truths we hold to be self-evident. Wills contends that in the address Lincoln implicitly asserts the primacy of the Declaration of Independence over the Constitution as the supreme articulation of American government.

Wills says “Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.” Lincoln reminded the thousands of spectators and, when the speech was printed, thousands of newspaper readers of our country’s first principles those embedded in the Declaration of Independence. Wills notes that as early as 1854 Lincoln was urging his countrymen to "re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and, with it, the practices and policy which harmonize with it." By doing so, he exhorted, "we shall not only have saved the Union, but we shall have so saved it as to make and to keep it forever worthy of the saving"

The book is not only about Lincoln and the address, but examines other topics since Wills’ curiosity and intelligence range widely, from the history of art to the history of Classic Hollywood Movies. He respects his readers enough to assume that they will hear him out. For instance, in the first chapter he discusses the Greek Revival in America. He covers Edward Everett's career as an influential orator. He places Lincoln's oratory within the tradition of classical rhetoric, which Wills studied as a grad student. In the second chapter, Wills provides a fascinating account of the rural cemetery as a cultural institution new in the death-conscious, mourning-obsessed 19th century. 

"Up to the Civil War," Wills says, "'the United States' was invariably a plural noun ... After Gettysburg, it became a singular . . Because of it [The Gettysburg Address], we live in a different America."