Sunday, January 17, 2010

The 2010 Reading Challenge: As it Stands

We are more than halfway through the first month of 2010 -- it still seems incredible. On the book front, the reading challenge (which encourages the four participants --Hannah, George, Mom, and me-- to read at least fifty books this year) is in full swing. Here's how it stands:

The Memoirs of Hadrian
The Space Merchants

The Lost Boys
Everybody's Dirt (not finished)

Bridget Jone's Diary
Stones From the River
The Road (not finished)

Christmas Carol
The Gum Thief
Confessions of a Falling Woman: And Other Stories

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Suicide in the Trenches, by Siegfried Sassoon

Here's a cheery little poem, set in the trenches of WWI...You'll never guess how it ends.

Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

If you still don't get the message, perhaps listening to this high school choir tear apart "What The World Needs Now" -- no doubt that will put it all to rights:

Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Memoirs of Hadrian is the most meticulously researched, and, as a result, the most historically accurate work of historical fiction I have ever encountered. Written intermittently between 1924 and 1954 by a French-American, homosexual woman, it has since become a bit of a monument of historical fiction, and, to a lesser extent, gay fiction. If not for its non-Roman, non-Emperor origins, it would surely be called a monument of autobiography and history. If only it were "real."

It convincingly portrays the inner thoughts of an old and dying Emperor Hadrian, as he looks back at an eventful life of over sixty years. It is told in the first person, as a long letter to the young Marcus "Mark" Aurelius, his young future successor. At first I thought this approach a bit clumsy. Yet it is believable: long works were sometimes addressed to friends of the author, as if letters; and Marcus Aurelius seems a convincing target. The Meditations and the genuine autobiography of Hadrian would have made a great pair.

Unfortunately, this book is not and never will be quite genuine. Hadrian did in fact write an account of his life, but it has been lost. This book can be viewed, from one direction, as an attempt to fill that void -- piecing together the evidence that does remain, filling in a few holes with fiction, and adding a poetical fancy over the whole. Everything flows nicely, with the author simply trying to patch up history rather than rewrite it.

As a scholarly experiment in history, literature, and biography the book rings and shines. If Mme. Yourcenar wished only to convincingly portray the emperor and his world, she succeeded wonderfully. Hadrian traces his entire life, from glazing over his childhood in Spain, to his imperial cursus honorum, to his accession and extensive travelling throughout the Empire. His many personality quirks and traits are also on display: like his great admiration for Greek culture, his artistic and literary pretensions, his passion for detail, his competency and justness as a ruler, but also his extravagance. As a historical figure, there is a bit of both Nero and Augustus in him.

Ultimately, he ruled competently enough for most people to overlook his idiosyncrasies. Antinous, a man-boy from Bithynia whom he fell desperately in love with, is a great example. After the young man died, by drowning in the Nile river at the age of twenty (some say accidentally; this book takes the more fanciful route of willing sacrifice), Hadrian deified him. He started a cult around the kid, founded cities in his name, and commissioned hundreds or even thousands of statues in his image. Yet, in a world of Suetonius and other scorned senators like him, no one seems to have batted an eye.

As entertainment, this book is sometimes lacking. It is caught between general, pure-entertainment historical fiction, and genuine historical texts -- between I, Claudius and The Meditations. It sometimes "smells too much of the lamp" -- like she did her research a little too well and didn't rely on her writing talents enough.

Perhaps she forgot that it was a work of fiction and not a history text. Though, for this very reason, this book probably would make a fun and informative read for students of an introductory Roman History course. The general reader, however, may want to brush up on their Roman history beforehand. The names of long-gone people and places abound, and footnotes and/or a glossary would have been nice. At least, these were lacking in the edition I read -- though the bibliographical notes and the author's notes on the book's composition were great additions.

"Convincing" is the best one-word review I can imagine for this book. It sucked me in, and only slipped a few times. Yes, occasionally, very occasionally, I felt the huge time gap, and perceived the work as a "fake." Yet, I am even convinced that, if it were not widely established as fiction, it could fool most people, even some scholars.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Generic Love Poem. by Kirsty MacDonald

The Internet tends to crap out a lot of worthless refuse -- and the world of Internet poetry is no different from its brothers. If it's not endless amounts of regurgitated e.e. cummings, it's something much worse: "original" poetry, which, as the irony quotes probably give away, isn't very original at all.

Yet, sometimes a gem falls out, proving once and for all that, if you eat enough, without restriction, you will eventually crap out a precious stone -- or at least something worth one read. I found this poem through StumbleUpon, on a site called Hello Poetry. I liked it because, while it is ostensibly a love poem, it calls itself a generic love poem, thereby accepting and embracing the popular concept of the generic. Less grandly, it takes a simple hook, a little gimmick, and takes it to a satisfying and clever conclusion. Ta-da:

Generic Love Poem. by Kirsty MacDonald
Call a doctor/ plumber/ priest*
My heart is broken/ leaking/ deceased*
My life is worthless/ so much better/ over*
I'm going to kill myself/ tell your wife/ Dover*
How could you leave me/ not know/ lie?*
I hope you return my stuff/ come back/ die*
I'll never forget you/ forgive you/ go away*
I need closure/ a DNA test/ to tell you I'm gay*
Your face/ crotch/ top of your back*
Is so beautiful/ lumpy/ unusually slack*
Your ex/ mother/ best friend from school*
Always made me great coffee/ feel inadequate/ drool*
I will miss you/ kill you/ stalk you forever*
That way we can be friends/ get away with it/ be together*
I'm sorry you did this/ I did this /we failed*
I promise to pay you/ dye it back/ get you bailed
Please don't leave me/ show the Polaroids/ write or call*

(*delete as appropriate, just delete it all.....)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

8 Nifty Books I Read in 2009

2009 was a good year overall, especially for reading. I read a little over a hundred books in that fabled land we now call Last Year. You can see the entire list on my Goodreads bookshelf. Or read about the 8 stand-outs below. Why 8? Well, it was going to be 15 -- then 10. I guess I just got lazy. Or maybe I like the number 8. Maybe I like the way it looks: like a sideways infinity sign. Maybe...

Chicken With Plums, by Marjane Satrapi (graphic novel) - This is the story of Satrapi's great-uncle, a famous Iranian tar player, who decides to lay in his bed and never come out. He holds on for eight days, as we look at the ups and downs of his life. Then it's over -- the book and his life. It's gloomy, it's powerful, and it's written and illustrated by the author of the two Persepolis books, and Embroideries -- all of which I also read this year. This one is not her most popular work but it is my favorite.

Ego & Hubris, by Michael Malice, Harvey Pekar, and Gary Dumm (graphic novel) - A libertarian businessman and professional A*hole, Michael Malice tells us the story of his life with the help of American Splendor's Harvey Pekar and Gary Dumm, writer and artist, respectively. My family and I visited Mr. Dumm at his house, in August '09. He's a very nice guy and I've been meaning to write of the visit for some time.

The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland - Two Staples employees, a middle-aged failure named Roger, and a 24-year-old goth girl heading for the same fate, Bethany, begin a solely epistolary relationship. There is absolutely no sex or even sexual tensions -- just two mundane people trying to grope their way (in the cleanest sense) to something better. And there's a novel within a novel: Glove Pond, written by Roger and displayed to us in fragments in-between the letters. A Goodreads friend recommended this to me.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë -After years of poo-pooing these "girly" and "stuffy" Victorian novels I finally decided to read one. A sallow, oppressed, middle-class English orphan gradually grows into a woman. When she leaves boarding school, after many years and chapters, it is to take up a position as governess for a young French girl, Adele -- who just happens to be the ward of the dark, brooding, and decidedly hunky Mr. Rochester. Then things get really exciting. I don't want to spoil the ending, yet I feel the novel's most famous line, "Reader, I married him." does it for me.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mr. Mark Twain - An illiterate boy from Missouri takes a long raft ride with a black guy. That description leaves us all doubtful, yet I will always love this book. It is the only book I am certain I will want to read again, even on my death bed.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage - Yuletide at King Arthur's court is interrupted by a green guy, on a green horse, who challenges someone to chop off his head. Sir Gawain takes the challenge and promptly cuts off the guy's head. Then, when the guy carries his head off, Gawain bound by honor to seek out this man in a year's time, to accept a similar blow. Much merriment, chivalry, questing, morality, and symbolism ensue. Armitage's Modern English translation -- accompanied, side-by-side, by the original Middle English -- really makes the poem sparkle and perhaps does for it what Seamus Heaney did for Beowulf.

Y: The Last Man series, by Brian K. Vaughn (graphic novel) - OK, this is really a mini-series, compiled into eight graphic novels. But it's still something you shouldn't miss! One day, all the men and male animals mysteriously and instantly die -- except for a dopey New Yorker, Yorick Brown, and his pet Capuchin monkey, Ampersand. A great comic book adventure. I have yet to read the last two volumes (Soon!).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

NB: This review contains spoilers.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManMy rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read this on an impulse; "impulse" has become a magical word for me. This mysterious force is what lead me back to Shakespeare and later introduced me to James Joyce; now here I am, finished with Portrait, working my way through Dubliners, and occasionally glancing warily over at those other two Joyce novels. I'm convinced: Impulse is a type of magic for the man who doesn't believe in magic.

There is something magical about this book, too. At least the combination of impressive passages that I could understand, and the sections that seemed just out of my grasp, together form something that I perceive as magic. Joyce created a brew of imagery and collage-like features that I can sometimes admire, sometimes only gawk at in awe and stupefied wonder.

Several words, no doubt, have been thrown about to describe this and other Joyce works: "fragmentary," "mosaic," etc. -- I prefer the word "collage." He has a style that loves to weave together seemingly unconnected scenes and paint gorgeous pictures. I was always amazed to see a thread of imagery weave its way from scene to scene, seamlessly. There is much art in blending images into a complete collage, one that has many, varied elements that somehow combine to form a continuity over the entire work.

Portrait is a "coming of age" story: it starts with a boy, naturally secretive and rich in imagination, and, through the steady processes of a good education, Catholic guilt, and Irish nationalism, gradually leads to a man. That man is either James Joyce or his literary alter-ego, "Stephen Dedalus." I have no idea where the boundary line sits, though I tended to think of the man/boy in the book as Joyce -- I received a jolt, on at least two occasions, when I suddenly found the name "Stephen" on the page.

It was fun to watch the steady progress of the boy into the man, the dabbler into the artist -- and to also watch the style morph and grow. Across the book's five parts, the reader sees the superficially Victorian beginnings transform gradually into the "real," full-grown Joyce-ing of Part V.

The beginning reminded me, at least superficially, of Jane Eyre: middle class child fallen on difficult financial times, boarding school, a childhood friend catches a disease and slowly fades away. I felt his childish fear and exhilaration when he made the trip to the rector's office; his imaginative twisting of The Count of Monte Cristo; and his excitement and confusion while sitting at dinner with the adults in his family, an onlooker to political debate.

The sense of Part II was more difficult for me to discern. Though the word "Admit." certainly has a chillier feel to it now -- uttered as it is by a schoolmate who harasses Stephen, a scene made even more chilling through the playful demeanor of the offending boy. Then there is the depressing, demeaning, even entropic, visit to Cork. His father tries to remember the good 'ol days as the rug slips out from under him. And then there is Emma, his "beloved" whom he never gets to know -- only a symbol of pure womanhood on a far off pedestal.

In the middle, my interest began to sag. Religion dominates: with the never-ending sermon, the "wicked" acts of Stephen, and the subsequent repentance. It certainly was not my favorite section, though I did like the description of sin as a "torpid snaky life feeding itself out of the tender marrow of his life and fattening upon the slime of lust" -- among other dire, Catholic images. And, despite his seeming happiness while living the "good life" of complete devotion after repentance I couldn't help but think how awful it must be to be Catholic.

Things pick up again when he is asked to join the Church, but declines. We get a small peek into the family cottage, and the full extent of his nuclear family. His relatives are simply "sister" or "mother" -- the distant between the main character and his world, not just his family, is always evident. At least twice he refers to the outside world as just so much noise, often an inconvenience. The book is remarkably self-centered, reflecting the title, as well as the author's natural introversion.

The last section of Part IV, in my mind, is the pivotal and best scene, in which he walks along the beach, ready to head to University, becoming a man before our eyes. The last line of the scene, for some reason, has stuck with me: "and the tide was flowing in fast to the land with low whisper of her waves, islanding a few last figures in distant pools." I'll let anyone reading this experience it, in whole, for themselves.

Then there is Part V, the shining gem and achievement -- the full man. We are bombarded with learned talks of esthetics and politics and theology, with loads of Latin (oddly, without translation in my edition), and many literary allusions. I began to strongly sense the tension between the three languages: English, in which Joyce will always feel a foreigner; Irish, newly revived among the upper class due to a surge of nationalism, though Joyce avoids it; and Latin, still the trusty and ancient language of the educated.

I don't quite perfectly recall or understand the ending. I'll get back to ya...

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Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Greetings

I wonder where these guys shop...