Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Works and Days by Hesiod, Translated by Richmond Lattimore (circa 700 BC)

My latest dip into Harold Bloom's Western Canon is the Ancient Greek poem The Works and Days by Hesiod (circa 700 BC). As Bloom suggests, I read Richmond Lattimore's translation (published together with Theogony and The Shield of Herakles, which I'm saving for later).

Hesiod was from a region in Greece called Boetia and may have been a younger contemporary of Homer. In The Works and Days, instead of getting the narrative journey of past warriors that we see in Homer's the Iliad or the Odyssey, we have a contemporary piece of writing addressed to Hesiod's brother, Perses. Hesiod and Perses' father was a farmer, and when he died his land and estate was distributed between the two brothers, but Perses used the influence of some local judges to take more than his fair share (at least that is Hesiod's story).

In this poem to his brother, Hesiod responds to Perses by evoking the Gods and their justice, the story of Pandora's box, and the punishment in store for an unjust humanity that has strayed from its godly beginnings. He then goes on to list some practical advice: What time of year to plant your corn, what you should be doing in the winter (hint, it involves a lot of work preparing your equipment for the summer), what kind of woman you should marry, when you should harvest your grapevines, and the very small chunk of the year when you can relax. He also briefly touches on the best seasons for starting a sea voyage, and then ends the poetic advice with a listing of the lucky and unlucky days of the year for various pursuits.

If this sounds a little dull compared to the battles and characters of Homer, well, it kind of is, but there is a certain beauty in Hesiod's lists and advice, as well as some well placed jabs at his ne'er-do-well brother:

I mean you well, Perses, you great idiot, and I will tell you. Look, badness is easy to have, you can take it by handfuls without effort. The road that way is smooth and starts here beside you. But between us and virtue the immortals have put what will make us sweat. The road to virtue is long and goes steep up hill, hard climbing at first, but the last of it, when you get to the summit (if you get there) is easy going after the hard part.

Classics can be pretty fun, and The Works and Days only takes an hour or so to read, so embrace the listy advice and learn a thing or two from Hesiod!

Friday, August 26, 2011

4 for the Future, edited by Groff Conklin (1959)

In this science fiction anthology, 4 for the Future (1959), Groff Conklin, the prolific sci-fi editor (and possessor of an excellent name) brings together strong stories by Poul Anderson ("Enough Rope," 1953), Theodore Sturgeon ("The Claustrophile," 1956), Henry Kuttner ("The Children's Hour," 1944), and Eric Frank Russell ("Plus X," 1956).

While the stories run the gamut from an alien-filled space opera to a quiet story of love in a separate dimension, all four of the stories focus less on technology or exploration, and more on the humanness of the characters and the power of thinking your way out of a tight spot.

All four of these stories were very strong, but I particularly liked the family drama of personalities at the core of Sturgeon's "The Claustrophile," and the light touch of Henry Kuttner's very literary "The Children's Hour." The 1940s and 1950s are my favorite era of science fiction, and this collection doesn't disappoint. Also includes adorable anachronisms like an ink well tipping over in a futuristic office. If you like science fiction, you will like this.

[Equally awesome back cover available here if you are into that kind of thing.]

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Book of Negroes by Lawerence Hill (2007)

My lovely Aunt Charlotte loaned me a copy of Canadian author Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes [published in the US as Someone Knows My Name] (2007) an embarrassingly long time ago, and it just recently floated up to the top of my pile. Even though I had heard so many good things about the book, it was hard to make myself pick up what I imagined had to be a very sad and upsetting story of slavery. I was right that Hill's novel is sad and upsetting, but it is also moving, occasionally uplifting, and a surprisingly energetic read.

Hill gives us the first-person story of Aminata Diallo, who at the start of the book (in 1802) is an older woman, without any family, who was brought to London by abolitionists who want her to testify before Parliament in their fight to outlaw the slave trade. As part of her work with the abolitionists, Aminata decides to write her own life story, and that is the book we are holding in our hands.

Aminata starts with her life in a small African village with her parents. When she is 11 and walking home with her mother, a midwife, from assisting with a birth in another village, the two of them are attacked and Aminata is taken by the slave traders. The novel takes us through Aminata's brutal three month march to the sea, chained to other captured Africans, the putrid and deadly sea voyage, and her eventual purchase as a "refuse slave" by the owner of a South Carolina indigo plantation.

Through a series of coincidences, providence, and her own strong personality and aptitude for languages, Aminata survives these ordeals, learns both black and white English, and learns how to read and write. She also, at the age of 15, has a baby boy with a young man named Chekura who had been her companion since the long march in Africa. Chekura ends up on a nearby plantation and is able to sneak away once a month to visit Aminata. As with many slaves, their family is broken up.

I don't want to give away too much of the book, so I'll just say that through more coincidence and bravery, Aminata ends up with her freedom in New York City, and ultimately works with the British Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. The British promised freedom to any slaves that worked for them, and after the end of the war, Aminata is asked by the British to help them register all the blacks that served the Loyalist cause in "The Book of Negroes" so that they can be transported to Nova Scotia.

As you might imagine, things are not much better in Canada. The land promised to the former slaves is never given. They are forced to live in a separate town miles from the white settlement where they work, and when jobs become scarce, lynch mobs and arsonists attack the black settlement. A group of British abolitionists organize an exodus of former slaves to settle back in Africa in Sierra Leone, and Aminata Diallo, who by this point feels she has nothing to lose and who wants to see her home village again, decides to go.

This is obviously an epic and sweeping book that covers a lot of time, a lot of events, and a lot of countries. Keeping the entire narrative tied to the first person experiences of Aminata and allowing us to view these unimaginable actions on an individual scale allows the book to sink deeper than a birds-eye view of the topic. And Hill does a wonderful job with Aminata. Her narrative is straight forward and unflinching, very physical, pragmatic, and intelligent. She is a character that you admire much more than you pity.

The Canadian section of the book and the move to Sierra Leone was the part of the slave story that I wasn't that familiar with. The Book of Negroes is a real document (actually one of the most detailed and comprehensive archival records of individual slaves), and Hill definitely did his research -- there are dozens of recommended books for further reading at the end of the novel. Reading a story about slavery, showing all the horribleness of humanity, is never a fun endeavor, but Hill gives us something new in The Book of Negroes and something that we shouldn't look away from.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Wicked Heart by Christopher Pike (1993)

Hey, guess what, guys! I found another Christopher Pike book from my secret stash, and this one pretty much tops all the other ones in bad descriptions, far-fetched plots, and disturbing violence. I'm talking about The Wicked Heart (1993), the story of a teenage serial killer named Dusty Shame and his chemistry lab partner, Sheila, who helps solve the mystery and bring his story to an end. Let me say that again: Dusty Shame.

I'll just let Pike describe Dusty for you:

He was a handsome young man. His hair was light brown, soft and fine like that of an angel, his eyes green as grass in evening twilight. He was five ten, fit and muscular, but plagued by repeated heartburn. He had a tendency, when in social situations, to be jerky in his movements. But when he was alone, especially when he killed, he moved smoothly and gracefully as a dancer. Always, though, he was quiet. Had he been more talkative, he certainly could have had plenty of dates. And maybe if he had spoken to more girls and listened to their voices instead of the one [in] his head, he wouldn't have become a murderer....

Dusty was in many ways like his nickname, Dust, and viewed everything from the ground level, where the insects that crawled through the mud were the best friends of the flowers that scented the air with their perfume.

Here we go (spoilers follow, but I don't know that it matters much):

As the book begins, Dusty has killed two teenage girls and is about to kill a third. A voice in his head tells him he needs to kill six girls and bury them in an isolated cave in the California desert, where six other old graves already lie. The other girls Dusty killed lived in other towns, but for this third murder he picks Nancy, a girl from his chemistry class, who was talking about how her parents were going to be out of town for a couple days.

When Nancy doesn't show up for class the next day, her best friend (and Dusty's lab partner) Sheila, is worried. Sheila is also upset because her boyfriend Matt recently broke up with her. She runs into Matt after school and starts crying so hard that he offers to drive her home, but she insists that they stop at Nancy's house to check on her. When there is no answer, Matt breaks into the house and they notice nothing out of place except that Nancy and her purse are gone, and there is a white card with a hand-drawn swastika on the bed. They call Nancy's parents and then the police. Eventually they get put in touch with Lieutenant Black who has been tracking the other murders.

The ridiculousness level amps up as Lt. Black entrusts Sheila with details of the ongoing investigation and asks her for help in understanding how the Einstein computer network works (an adorably described Prodigy-like creation), since it appears that the killer finds his victims using the message boards. Sheila doesn't know much about Einstein, but her lab partner Dusty does! Uh oh! Dusty and Shelia go to Lt. Black's house and meet his cute teenage daughter Dixie. Uh oh!

Then things get really improbable:

Lt. Black sends Sheila out to another city to talk to a retired police officer named Gossick who has a theory about this case. She decides to take Matt with her and they hear the guy out. Here is the outline: Back in Nazi Germany, Heinrich Himmler had a girlfriend named Frau Scheimer. They were both empty evil beings without humanity that fed off of the suffering of others. Gossick was present when Himmler and Scheimer were caught and Himmler killed himself before being interrogated. Frau Scheimer and her young daughter (uh oh!) were released and ended up going to California. A similar set of murders of young women started up and Gossick started investigating. Through a deep meditation regimen, he connected in with the mysteries of the universe and realized that Frau Scheimer was responsible for the killings. Things happen, Gossick ends up shooting Scheimer, burying her in a secret grave, fostering her daughter for awhile, and then getting fired from the force, and losing custody of the daughter, who he had grown to love. The daughter's adopted parents end up dying and she changes her name and has a son of her own. She loses her mind to Alzheimer's when her son is a young man, but the evil voice of her mother is still able to talk to him and tell him to commit horrible acts. That's right: Dusty Shame is the grandson of Himmler!

And now he has Dixie and is driving her out to the desert with Sheila hot on their trail. Gossick and Matt are trying to find them! So is Lt. Black! What will happen!

So, this one was satisfyingly ridiculous, but also one of the worst written of all of Pike's books. The dialogue is horrible, the descriptions clunky, and the plot ridiculous. This was written in the heyday of Pike's career (it was the fourth book he published in 1993) and it reads like a poorly edited first draft. It is much much darker than other Pike books, but the ridiculous plot and poor writing do little to help the violence and tragedy to coalesce into anything suspenseful or engaging. If you love to hate Pike books, this is the one for you. If you are looking for a good murder mystery, then you should probably stay away.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (2011)

The next LibraryThing Early Reviewers book in my pile is The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) by Arthur Phillips. Spacebeer readers who pay even more attention than I do will remember that I read Phillips' first book, Prague way back in 2006 for the first meeting of the awesome, but now defunct/transmogrified Smarter Than You Book Club. I remember liking Prague but having some reservations, and I feel similarly towards The Tragedy of Arthur, although Phillips gets way more ambition points with the conceit of his most recent novel.

"The Tragedy of Arthur" in The Tragedy of Arthur is an undiscovered Shakespeare play that our narrator's father discovered and liberated from a wealthy manor house over thirty years ago. Of course, our narrator's father is a talented forger who has spent most of the intervening years in prison. And our narrator happens to be a novelist named Arthur Phillips who has written several books, including a debut novel titled Prague.

Although he is suspicious at first, all the experts agree that the 1597 edition of "The Tragedy of Shakespeare" that his father found are authentic, and Arthur enters into a contract with his publisher, Random House, to publish this unseen play. Arthur secures the right to write the introduction and annotate the play for modern audiences himself. But when his doubts of the play's authenticity increase and Random House refuses to stop publication, he bulks his introduction to the play up into a 250 page memoir / explanation of his life, his father, his twin sister, his failed relationships, and everything else.

And then, just in case you didn't think Phillips was the smartest guy in the room, we have the text of "The Tragedy of Arthur": a five-act, straight-faced, iambic pentameter-ed, credibly Shakespearean tragedy. Complete with annotations by Arthur and co/cross-annotations by a Shakespearean expert.

Setting the novel's weaknesses aside, you have to admire Phillips' ambition and dedication to pull this off. It's awfully, awfully, clever, and he does it well. The meditations on forgery and reality are well thought out, and the comments on the legacy of Shakespeare are all pretty accurate and difficult to argue with, whether you love or hate the Bard.

While the introduction is well written, I was often put off by Phillips' distancing word play ("disparate desperate adventures," "disoriented in the JFK holding area where counterterrorism shades into countertourism") and meta-ness (it's a character, with the name of the author, writing an introduction, to a fake play, that really exists, and the introduction's like a memoir, and he tells us it's like a memoir! And why he hates memoirs!). I don't think that the revelations of the narrator's intentions end up being as emotionally connecting as Phillips' hopes they will be, and the unsatisfying twist that leads to those revelations is an out of character reaction to Arthur on the behalf of every other character of the novel.

Arthur Phillips' "Arthur Phillips" owes some literary debt to Phillip Roth's "Phillip Roth," and like Roth's novels that I've read, the narrator of The Tragedy of Arthur is very self centered, has ridiculous relationships with women, and kind of turns me off with his overly dude-centered ways. And although Phillips is a good writer, he doesn't have the dark, neurotic, over-the-topness that keeps me reading Roth even though I find most of his characters pretty despicable. I think that both Roth and Phillips want their narrators to be unlikable, but Roth pulls it off in a way that Phillips does not.

Either way, this book obviously gave me a lot to think about, and although when I just re-read what I wrote about it I realize I had a lot of criticisms, I really did like the novel overall. Anyone with a sense of literary playfulness, and particularly any English nerds who have read a lot of Shakespeare, will get a lot of enjoyment from this book.