Friday, April 27, 2012

Reading List: The Anger of Achilles

The Anger of Achilles: The Iliad
by Homer, translated by Robert Graves

My Homeric marathon may end here (I may finally finish The Siege of Troy, depending how I feel after this one), with another modern translation of The Iliad, by Robert Graves, this time a little more expansive than An Iliad two books ago.  It sounds like it should be fun (but I've thought that before).  I expect to take more than a couple days reading this one, but it's always fun to read shorter books that only take a few days with a fairly leisurely pace (I'm not a fast reader and I don't typically devote most of my time to reading, but if I spend enough of it, I can usually finish any book in a month).

Thoughts on The Penelopiad

Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is kind of like Zachary Mason's Lost Books of the Odyssey...minus any real inspiration.

My prior experience with Atwood is The Handmaid's Tale, which is truly an inspired work of fiction.  That being said, I think when she approached The Penelopiad, she took the task too lightly and thus her art suffered for it.  At its heart, it follows handmaids of a different era, ones that served under Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who were murdered by him when he finally returned home after twenty years.  The narrative tracks Penelope's perspective (at least according to Atwood) and treats the maids as a Greek chorus, offering their own sad commentaries, mostly in rhyme.

The problem is that Atwood's feminist version of Penelope is still not especially flattering.  Penelope spends a great deal of time crying, laments that she isn't her cousin Helen, and still treats her position as one of infinite privilege, even though she doesn't have much to do.  She can't grasp the concept of nuance even though she's constantly claiming everything we know about her is basically lies and exaggeration.

It doesn't really add up.  If it'd worked, if it had been to the standards I experienced in Handmaid's Tale, it would have been brilliant.  But it isn't.  It treats everything with as little actual weight and all hollow posturing as possible.

That being said, it is again a work that I would not actively discourage others from reading, whether they're as interested in Homeric tales as I am or not, because it's a writing style I basically encourage and it's still a fairly ambitious effort, and that's always to be encouraged.

(Basically, if you like Percy Jackson, you'll probably like this.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reading List: The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad
by Margaret Atwood

Having read The Handmaid's Tale in college, I was always interesting in reading more Margaret Atwood, and so it was with pleasure that I discovered that she chose to write something based on one of my favorite stories, The Odyssey, basically, from the perspective of Penelope.  Having read a tiny bit of it, I am somewhat concerned that Atwood overdosed her narrative in skewed feminist perspective, but I'm in the midst of a Homeric marathon.  I cannot stop now.

Thoughts on An Iliad

When you're seeking to modernize something, perhaps it's wise to, well, modernize it.

I say this because that was the intention of Alessandro Baricco when he envisioned An Iliad, which began life as a project to bring back the oral tradition of Homer's Trojan War by staging a public reading of it, before he realized that to modern ears this would be insane, not just time-consuming but extremely cumbersome given changing sensibilities.  It's one thing for people to read The Iliad, quite another to hear its elliptical patterns.  Yes, maybe fascinating, but not compelling.

So Baricco set out to reshape the story, trimming it considerably in the process while absorbing a few select elements to give a more comprehensive look at the end of the war than Homer actually provides.  The problem is that Baricco doesn't really do much more than trim.  He keeps most of it almost exactly as you will remember it in verse.  Zachary Mason he is not.

Interestingly, he chooses to relate it from the perspective of various participants.  Not as interestingly, he rarely seems interested in capitalizing on those perspectives, instead sticking closely to the same chronicle of death that the original presents, and refusing to look very closely at any of the characters he selects.  It's maddening.

Yes, it is a nice summary of the existing narrative, but that's about it.  He also includes a fairly vapid, sprawling essay on the continuing appeal of The Iliad and the nature of our relationship with war, why we still engage in it.  There are some good points, but he's not good enough to make them clear, so instead he just trails on.

I would by any means dissuade anyone from reading An Iliad, but it's another project that did not match its ambitions, or at the very least, its potential.  Maybe ironic for the story of a war that dragged on for a decade for no more discernible reason than the force of convictions in each participant were not always what they should have been...

Friday, April 20, 2012

Reading List: An Iliad

An Iliad
by Alessandro Baricco

My tour of books inspired by the Homeric epics continues with this modern telling of, well, The Iliad, which was originally presented as a project to bring back the oral tradition of the narrative, before the author discovered it would be asking too much of contemporary ears to listen to the entirety of the original work.  So he set about editing it, and this is the result.  What can I say?  I don't grow tired of reading how Ilium was besieged by an angry horde of Greeks.  The song remains the same, by the notes change all the time.

Thoughts on The Lost Books of the Odyssey

I can't remember exactly when I first became aware of the Homeric epics known as The Iliad and The Odyssey, except that I had my first chance to study them in a special English class I took in high school my senior year.  I was a poor student but the best one in that class.

Raised Catholic, I developed a deep affection for Old World stories and the art of reinterpreting them, because in my early years I read and reread biblical tales fashioned for children, and became fascinated by their visions of a time long past.  Somehow I put that experience into other corners of history (none of my four siblings did, but then, none of them are writers today, either), and started my studies in Greek myth.  It's inescapable in doing so to stumble across the Trojan War and its complicated and thorny matters, names like Achilles and Odysseus, who together take center stage in the two basic works we still remember today about a conflict Heinrich Schliemann confirmed for posterity some hundred and fifty years ago.

So yes, I've read both The Iliad and The Odyssey in their entirety, translations by Robert Fitzgerald, and know fairly well their narratives.  I gave a clumsy report on the continuing debate on the existence of an actual Homer for a different high school English class (all the best work anyone can do academically is asked of them before they are properly prepared to do it, and then you have to deliver large sums of money to continue and then only if you're lucky or excellent in the art of education do you receive the guidance worthy of these funds).  I continued my amateur fascination with these tales after graduating from college, the main reason why I enjoyed the movie Troy and why I suspect most critics couldn't.  I have regularly sampled Eric Shanower's comprehensive graphic adaptation Age of Bronze, and continue to seek out all experiences that will allow me to continue this minor obsession.  I have been pecking away in spare time at Greg Tobin's Siege of Troy for the past few years.

That is how I have entered into a small marathon of modern works inspired by the Homeric epics, and why I cared when I stumbled upon Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey.  Simply put, I could not have been more rewarded.

Mason displays a keen understanding not only of his own literary prowess but the rich potential of historic inheritance and tradition.  With just a few chapters I knew I was reading what was to become one of my most treasured experiences.  Each chapter is a rumination and variation on the story of Odysseus, broken into fragments that reveal a vital individual, so that he is exhumed from the cloisters of musty pages and brought into our own times, a living and breathing individual who exists in the past but feels vibrant.

This is the difference between what literature can do and what film cannot, for anyone still trying to figure that out.  Many are the voices that have called film a poor substitute for the richness of literature, but few are the voices that have been able to articulate any real differences in the finished product.  Film is a visual medium, where narrative is a regular companion and must be followed fairly evenly in order for any meaning to be found.  Literature can break into whatever pattern it wants, can be enjoyed over a single reading or broken into as many moments as possible.  Mason understands this, and this is only his first book.

You don't need to have a Homeric bent to enjoy The Lost Books.  It probably helps, but all you really need is an interest in the human condition, and the way literature can offer an insight as you would never have expected.  Old stories used to be told and retold.  Somewhere along the way someone convinced us that to tell the same story again is to display a lack of creativity and inventiveness.  Here is an experience that will contradict this intellectual fallacy, in a most profound manner.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reading List: The Lost Books of the Odyssey

The Lost Books of the Odyssey
by Zachary Mason

So begins a short series on books inspired by the Homeric epics, which have fascinated me for years.  The fact that they are still popular today is a testament to their literary value, first in the complicated drama of the Trojan War and then in the long journey of Odysseus homeward.  Zachary Mason's book is another book that I discovered by sheer chance.  I wish there was as comprehensive reporting on new books as their is for new movies, music, and television.  There are many sources that cover literature, but none that cover more than a few isolated genres extensively, and mostly either from the perspective of what will be most popular among readers or among critics.  That leaves quite a lot that can be completely overlooked by the majority of readers. I realize it's a daunting task, but c'mon, books have been around for a long time now.  I think it's not too much to assume we can figure out how to keep track of them a little better than this.  But the good news is that every now and again, I do have the opportunity to stumble across exactly the books that most intrigue me, the ones that to my mind have the ability to survive the passage of time, just like the Homeric epics.  This time, the inspiration happens to be the same subject.

Thoughts on Black Elk Speaks

Having a long interest in Native American culture, it's a topic I regularly visit in my reading, and Black Elk Speaks is one of the very few close-to-primary sources available from the perspective of the 19th century.

As is recounted several times in the edition I read through prefaces and essays, writer John G. Neihardt visited Nicholas Black Elk in 1930 during the research for another project he was working on, and the encounter led to further conversations and a written narrative of Black Elk's experiences leading up to the massacre at Wounded Knee.  What proved most fascinating wasn't Black Elk's close relation to the famed Crazy Horse, but the visions he'd be granted during his life, which led him to becoming a medicine man.

Black Elk Speaks is referenced in its own pages as a spiritual classic, a work that will one day prove to be the foundation of a new religion, and completion of what Black Elk himself believed to be the culmination of his visions, the birth of a better tomorrow for his people.  In that sense, in relating the rapidly vanishing culture and its most sacred concepts and understanding about the need for harmony in all things, Neihardt will have achieved the goal he set for himself in recording an old man's memories.

The problem is Neihardt himself is not a good enough writer to have conveyed the importance and significance of what he learned.  His great-granddaughter is one of several essayists who chronicle his other contributions to literature, but the fact is today no one knows the name of John G. Neihardt except in connection with Black Elk Speaks, and even Black Elk was unknown in 1930 when Neihardt stumbled across him.  Black Elk comments on his own failures in the text, and so there's no reason to beat a dead horse in that regard, but whatever else he was, Black Elk was just another Indian who immersed himself in the rich culture of his own people, was relevant to that people, but who would otherwise have been forgotten had someone like Neihardt not come along.

Reading about Tecumseh's brother the Prophet recently was testament enough to that.  There are details Neihardt did not capture about how Black Elk came into his knowledge, that he either did not collect or did not feel was important, and their absence diminishes the impact.  The fact that he leaves the narrative on the dramatic note of Black Elk's failure and the horror of Wounded Knee further indicates that he had no real interest, despite comments to the contrary, to present a full portrait of the man or his significance.  He knew Black Elk personally for decades, and yet leaves his story off well before even their first meeting.

I do not seek to diminish the accomplishment so much as put it in context.  This is material for someone else's better work.  It is already secondhand, and so there will be little lost in translation, and everything to gain.  I have read contemporary spiritual and philosophical works that convey more power than is evidenced in Black Elk Speaks.  There are great thoughts to be found here, but they are buried.  Neihardt mostly writes an incomplete chronicle, a curiosity he all but admits in an essay actually included in the volume I read.

I am glad that Black Elk Speaks exists and that it is popular enough to still be in regular print, but it is another work that I wish had been written by better hands.  Here we discover trying to salvage the experiences of his youth, remembering better days and the worst of what happened to his people.  It is a cultural touchstone.  But it is, as Black Elk continually reflects in his handling of the visions he experienced in his younger days, improperly related, not as effective as it could be.

But it is a start.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reading List: Black Elk Speaks

Black Elk Speaks
by Black Elk & John G. Neihardt

My mini-tour of history continues, this time returning to the Native American experience in one of the more fascinating narratives available, a rare inside look at one of the more famous Indians (because that look is the reason anyone knows him today).  That's really what doomed Indian dominance of the American continent.  Europeans of every stripe were perfectly willing to interact with any tribe they ran into, and most tribes used the opportunity in some way to improve their lives (hence the introduction and assimilation of horses into tribal life on the Plains), yet too often Indians remained aloof and secluded, even amongst each other, which was the reason they really lost most of their ground to Americans, because they couldn't unite for longer than a few months, and were constantly spoiling for war with each other as much as their common enemies.  Americans understood this all too well.  Reading about Tecumseh made this a little too obvious, the basic flaw in the formula.  Yet I infinitely respect the Indian way of life, which has been thoroughly assimilated into American culture (and yet still excludes Indians themselves, whether by their own insistence at this point I don't care to speculate), and have always been intrigued by Indian culture.  (The fact is, there are as many great Indians in American history as Americans, and that alone should say something.)  This book is more or less the bible of that, and I'm excited to finally read it.

Thoughts on A Distant Mirror

Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror has worked itself into the historical nonfiction canon.  After reading it, I'm not sure it entirely deserves that distinction.

Tuchman clearly did her research (and earned her spot at the table, considering she won Pulitzer Prizes for other works), but this one's another classic example of a writer in dire need of an editor.  Her primary interest in this project was to look at the impact of the Bubonic Plague on the 14th century, but she ended up examining how one disaster after another drastically affected the citizens of Europe, primarily in France but also its rivals in England and surrounding nations.  She chooses as her central subject Enguerrand VII, the sire of Coucy, but admittedly doesn't actually feature him until the seventh chapter.  In fact, his presence amounts to regular cameos throughout the entire book.  That should tell you about how much thought she put into the actual structure of her narrative.

I read one review on Amazon that suggested she was a little detail-happy, but that kind of remark can tend to crop up, the token contrary opinion in a sea of praise for popular works.  In this case, the lone critic was right.  There was too little focus and too little emphasis on perspective.  It would be one thing if that were the intent of the book, but Tuchman clearly set out for a little more clarity.  She simply let that goal elude her.

The problem really centers, again, on Coucy.  Tuchman becomes blinded by the cracked lens of perspective.  In the absence of any comprehensive record of his life, Tuchman substitutes supposition and generalization, and forgets that she has already admitted that for most of what she writes about, accuracy is not the first intention of the chronicles she draws from.  Where she sees a relatively harmless embodiment of an otherwise hectic century, the critical eye will see a cipher, someone capable of drawing praise where most of the other subjects are unrepentant (until the deathbed) scumbags, simply because he chose to walk a more tentative path (famously turning down the role of Constable twice, as Tuchman carefully details, without questioning why), leaving the big acts to others because he was merely competent at the part of oppressor in the age of elites run wild.

So yes, it truly is a distant mirror she writes about, but her own thesis gets away from her as Tuchman gleefully writes about all the absurd excesses and atrocities that morbidly complement natural disasters and reshape the world.  In the epilogue, she skims through subsequent events in the fashion she should have chosen in the rest of the book.  There are moments of lucid brilliance, and it truly is a fascinating subject, and when there are moments worth dwelling on, it's truly worth reading.

But it could have been better.  Coucy is a subject worth studying, but not in this way.  Use this book as a primer, but not as a definitive portrait, as it should have been.
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