dchaikin part 2 - lost somewhere in the Roman Empire
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A new picture, an engraving facing the title page of an 18th-century edition of Plutarch's Lives
1. ** Hebrews and the Catholic Epistles (read Dec 13 - Jan 5)
2. ***½ The Book of Revelation (read Jan 9-12)
3. ***** Becoming (audio) by Michelle Obama (listened Dec 7 - Jan 15)
4. **** James Baldwin : A Biography by David Adams Leeming (read Jan 1-19)
5. **** The Literary Guide to the Bible edited by Robert Alter & Frank Kermode (read Jan 21, 2012 - Jan 23, 2019)
6. *** Plutarch by D. A. Russell (read Jan 20-28)
7. **** Autumn by Ali Smith (read Jan 28-29)
8. **** How to Be Both by Ali Smith, read by John Banks (listened Jan 15-31)
9. **** Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (read Jan 6 - Feb 3)
10. **** Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (read Jan 30 - Feb 7)
11. **** There There by Tommy Orange, read by a cast (listened Feb 1-12)
12. **** A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʾo (read Feb 7-18)
13. **** The Golden Ass by Apuleius, translated by E. J. Kenney (read Jan 31 - Feb 20)
14. **** Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (read Feb 19-26)
15. **** Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen, read by Paul Boehmer (listened Feb 13 - Mar 8)
16. **** Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (read Feb 26 - Mar 9)
17. **** Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare (read Feb 16 - Mar 17)
18. **** Milkman by Anna Burns, read by Brid Brennan (listened Mar 17 – Apr 11)
19. ***** Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (read Mar 9 - Apr 19)
20. ****½ O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (read Apr 1-25)
21. *** Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare (read Mar 30 - Apr 28)
22. *** Plutarch's Lives, The Dryden Translation, Volume 1 (read Feb 27 - May 2)
23. ***** Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (read April 20 - May 3)
24. *** Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, read by Dion Graham (listened Apr 11 - May 3)
25. **** Winter by Ali Smith (read May 4-19)
26. ?? Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (read Ma7 27 - Jun 1)
27. **** The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (read May 12 - Jun 8)
28. ***** A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (read May 12 - June 10)
29. ** Plutarch's Lives, The Dryden Translation, Volume 2 (read May 4 - Jun 27)
30. ***½ The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo (read May 5 - Jun 29)
31. **** Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight, read by Prentice Onayemi (listened May 4 - Jul 5)
32. **** Nobody Knows My Name : More Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (read Jun 30 - Jul 6)
33. ***** The History of Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare (read Jun 22 - Jul 20)
34. **** Another Country by James Baldwin (read Jul 7-26)
35. ***½ Spring by Ali Smith (read July 26-30)
36. ****½ The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (read July 30 – Aug 2)
37. ****½ My Ántonia by Willa Sibert Cather (read Jul 1 - Aug 9)
38. **** Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi, read by Christopher Dontrell Piper (listened Jul 8 - Aug 14)
39. **** The Earliest English Poems by Michael Alexander (read Aug 9-16)
40. ****½ Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (read Aug 16-28)
41. *** The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (read Aug 4-31)
42. **** Beowulf : a new verse translation by Seamus Heaney (read Aug 29 - Sep 6)
43. **** An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma, read by Chukwudi Iwuji (listened Aug 14 - Sep 15)
44. ****½ One of Ours by Willa Cather (read Sep 2-21)
45. ***** The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (read Sep 23-28)
46. ****½ Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone by James Baldwin (read Sep 6 - Oct 3)
47. **** Quichotte by Salman Rushdie, read by Vikas Adam (listened Sep 16 - Oct 4)
48. **** Dante : A Life in Works by Robert Hollander (read Oct 3-12)
~100 Hebrews and the Catholic Epistles
~120 Plutarch's Lives, The Dryden Translation (translation 1683)
~160 The Golden Ass by Apuleius
~750 Beowulf (translation by Seamus Heaney, 2000)
1595 A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
1596 Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
1597 Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
1597 The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
1601 Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
1601 The History of Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
1831 The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
1913 O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
1915 The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
1918 My Ántonia by Willa Sibert Cather
1922 One of Ours by Willa Cather
1927 Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
1953 Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
1955 Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
1956 Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
1961 Nobody Knows My Name : More Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
1962 Another Country by James Baldwin
1963 The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
1965 Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
1966 The Earliest English Poems by Michael Alexander (1977/1991-2nd/3rd eds. Orig poems early middle ages)
1967 A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʾo
1968 Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone by James Baldwin
1972 Plutarch by D. A. Russell
1986 Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1986 The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
1987 The Literary Guide to the Bible edited by Robert Alter & Frank Kermode
1994 James Baldwin : A Biography by David Adams Leeming
2001 Dante : A Life in Works by Robert Hollander
2007 Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen
2014 How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Autumn by Ali Smith
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
2017 Winter by Ali Smith
Becoming by Michelle Obama
There There by Tommy Orange
Milkman by Anna Burns
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Spring by Ali Smith
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
Books read: 48
Pages: 10980 Audio time: 168:44
"regular books"**: 36
Formats: Paperback 22; Hardcover 12; Audio 10; ebook 4;
Subjects in brief: Classic 28; Novel 23; Non-fiction 13; Drama 6; Ancient 5; History 5; Essay Collections 4; Biography 3; Poetry 3; On Literature and Books 3; Memoir 1; Short Story Collections 1
Nationalities: United State 22; England 8; Scotland 4; Turkey 2; Greece 2; Canada 2; Kenya 1; Algeria 1; Northern Ireland 1; Russia 1; France 1; Nigeria 1; India 1;
Books in translation: 8
Genders, m/f: 32/13 unknown: 2; mixed 1;
Owner: Books I own: 40; Library books 7; Books I borrowed 1
Year Published: 2010's 13; 2000's 2; 1990's 1; 1980's 3; 1970's 1; 1960's 7; 1950's 3; 1920's 2; 1910's 3; 19th century 1; 17th century 2; 16th century 4; 0-1499 6
Books read: 1035
Pages: 271,036; Audio time: 1507:41 (62 days)
"regular books"**: 659
Formats: Paperback 553; Hardcover 226; Audio 145; ebooks 72; Lit magazines 38
Subjects in brief: Non-fiction 443; Novels 273; Biographies/Memoirs 187; History 172; Classics 132; Journalism 92; Poetry 85; Science 77; Ancient 75; Speculative Fiction 64; Nature 54; On Literature and Books 50; Anthology 45; Graphic 43; Short Story Collections 39; Essay Collections 38; Juvenile/YA 34; Drama 26; Interviews 15; Mystery/Thriller 13
Nationalities: US 618; Non-American, English speaking 186; Other: 228
Books in translation: 173
Genders, m/f: 668/270
Owner: Books I owned 688; Library books 273; Books I borrowed 65; Online 10
Year Published: 2010's 224; 2000's 272; 1990's 166; 1980's 113; 1970's 52; 1960's 42; 1950's 26; 1900-1949 35; 19th century 16; 16th-18th centuries 14; 0-1499 19; BCE 55
*well, everything since I have kept track, beginning in Dec 1990
**"Regular Books" excludes audio, lit magazines, small poetry books, juvenile, graphic novels, podcasts, etc. It is just meant to count regular old books that I picked up and read.
Themes by year
2012 - old testament
2013 - old testament and Toni Morrison
2014 - old testament
2015 - old testament, Toni Morrison & Cormac McCarthy
2016 - Homer, Greek mythology, Greek drama, & Thomas Pynchon
2017 - Virgil, Ovid & Thomas Pynchon
2018 - Apocrypha, New Testament & Gabriel García Márquez
2019 - Rome to Renaissance, James Baldwin, and, accidentally, Willa Cather and Shakespeare
Links to related tags in my library:
Cormac McCarthy Theme
Gabriel García Márquez Theme
Homeric Theme (includes Greek mythology, drama, Virgil & Ovid)
Thomas Pynchon Theme
Toni Morrison Theme
links to all my old threads:
2009 Part 1, 2009 Part 2, 2010 Part 1, 2010 Part 2, 2011 Part 1, 2011 Part 2, 2012 Part 1, 2012 Part 2, 2013 Part 1, 2013 Part 2, 2013 Part 3, 2014 Part 1, 2014 Part 2, 2014 Part 3, 2015 Part 1, 2015 Part 2, 2015 Part 3, 2016 Part 1, 2016 Part 2, 2016 Part 3, 2017 Part 1, 2017 Part 2, 2018 part 1, 2018 part 2, 2019 part 1
October: No Name in the Street, 1972
November: If Beale Street Could Talk, 1974
December: The Devil Finds Work, essays, 1976
And, if I want to keep going, there is all this:
Just Above My Head, 1979
The Evidence of Things Not Seen (essays; 1985)
The Price of the Ticket (essays; 1985)
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (essays; 2010)
Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems (poems; 1983 and 2014)
The Amen Corner (play; 1954)
A Talk to Teachers (essay; 1963)
Blues for Mister Charlie (play; 1964)
Nothing Personal (with Richard Avedon, photography) (1964)
A Rap on Race (with Margaret Mead) (1971)
One Day When I Was Lost (orig.: A. Haley; 1972)
A Dialogue (with Nikki Giovanni) (1973)
Little Man Little Man: A Story of Childhood (with Yoran Cazac, 1976)
Native Sons (with Sol Stein, 2004)
A cobbled theme from miscellaneous classics I want to read. Note - I'm open to ideas on how to prep any of these or on what translations to use.
September: Dante: A Life in Works by Robert Hollander
October: Dante Inferno
November: Dante Purgatory
December: Dante Paradise
something on Petrarch
Petrarch Canzoniere (The Poetry of Petrarch by David Young)
1. Alexander's Bridge (1912)
6. A Lost Lady (1923)
7. The Professor's House (1925)
8. My Mortal Enemy (1926)
10. Shadows on the Rock (1931)
11. Lucy Gayheart (1935)
12. Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)
1. The Taming of the Shrew (before 1592)
2. Henry VI Part II (probably 1591)
3. Henry VI Part III (probably 1591, published 1595)
4. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1590s, listed by 1598)
5. Titus Andronicus (Written in 1591/92)
6. Henry VI Part I (1592)
7. Richard III (1592 or 1594)
8. The Comedy of Errors (December 1594)
9. Love's Labour's Lost (1595-96)
11. Romeo and Juliet (1595-96)
12. Richard II (1595-96)
13. King John (between 1595 and 1597)
14. The Merchant of Venice (late 1596 or early 1597)
18. Much Ado About Nothing (Late 1598)
19. Henry V (1599)
21. Julius Caesar (1599)
26. Measure for Measure (1604)
27. All's Well That Ends Well (1603-06)
28. Timon of Athens (1604-06)
29. King Lear (1605-06)
31. Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07)
32. Coriolanus (1608)
33. Pericles (1608)
34. Cymbeline (1610)
36. The Tempest (1611)
37. Henry VIII (1613)
38. The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-14)
18. Milkman by Anna Burns
reader: Brid Brennan
format: 14:11 audible audiobook
listened: Mar 17 – Apr 11
Not entirely sure what I thought of this complicated novel in an unnamed place, full of unnamed characters, like Milkman, or Real Milkman, Maybe Boyfriend, Eldest Sister, Wee Sisters, Longest Friend, Somebody McSomebody and so on. Our narrator is Middle Sister, or maybe Maybe Girlfriend, and she's looking back, but it all takes place when she's 18, in the late 1970's, pretty obviously in unnamed Belfast during some of the worst of the Troubles, very likely going through the same world Anna Burns went through herself.
Burns is doing a lot here, focusing on the regular, non-political people trying to make their way through all this stuff, when it seems everyone has lost one or more family members to these Troubles, or maybe to suicide. Middle Sister gets stalked by Milkman, a prominent Irish Renouncer, despite her relationship with Maybe Boyfriend, and there is nothing she can do about it or about the rumors that make their way through her social world. And everything about her life, including her mind and emotional state, is compromised. As we walk her path, slowly, sometimes endlessly sitting on a threshold of information we really want to know now, and not after this latest set of circular thoughts, we get a very nuanced look at what life was like in this time and place. Powerful stuff.
Read brilliantly on audio, but really, a little too complex for my commute. Not sure who I would recommend it to, but I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it.
Never read Plutarch's Lives, but did read all of The Inferno in the same college class as Apuleius. The Lattimore translation. I look forward to your thoughts of Inferno. Have you read all or parts of it before?
>14 labfs39: re The Golden Ass. the original Greek novel is lost, although we seem to know a lot about it. I liked TGA a lot, actually. I did like the humor. The only thing I didn’t like was trying to follow the hidden meanings. Spending time on that just slowed down an otherwise pleasant the story for me.
Dante will be almost 100% new to me. (I’ve read one or two excerpts in translation in poetry books)
>15 mabith: (& >14 labfs39:) - at this point I can’t recommend Plutarch. It’s amazing, when I put it down and pick up another book, my whole body actually relaxes. I’m forcing it a bit. (I’m also 32 hours in, not counting Wikipedia time. Feel compelled to carry on)
>16 NanaCC: re Milkman: the reader is excellent. Beautiful accent I could not have replicated in my head. But, if you’re on the fence, i would gently suggest text over audio. You might try an audible sample to get a sense of the accent. I hope you enjoy. It’s quite a book.
>19 NanaCC: Didn't know you were born in Ireland, Colleen. Hoping you enjoy Milkman.
>21 labfs39:, >22 shadrach_anki: I've never regretted bailing on a book, even a good one. But I'll continue with Plutarch. Bookmark merely resistant to movement, not actually stuck. : )
left: Aristides right: Marcus Cato
dates:530 - 468
- The “best and most honorable man in Athens.” Praised by Socrates in Platos’s Gorgias and Meno
- The counterpoint to Themistocles during the great Persian wars. Whereas Themistocles was a commoner who was brilliant, wily, constantly breaking barriers and eventually upsetting everyone, Aristides was constant. He was a good person who everyone liked except when he was worked over by Themistocles and ostracized (that is, exiled from Athens for ten years)
- I thought he was good story, but Plutarch maybe thought otherwise. Half his book is the story of the anticlimactic Battle of Platea, where Aristides played one of the several key leading roles. (This battle, in 479, was where the Greeks defeated the remnant Persian army in left in Greece as a kind of oversized rear guard to protect and distract from the main retreating army and navy.)
- Known usually as Cato the Elder
- A smallish farmer and conservative who worked his way up the Roman political ladder (the cursus honorum), with help from prominent sponsorship and some military victories.
- A promoter of old traditional Roman values over that of the Greek influence. He was respected for this.
- Famous line: Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed)...but he was a political opponent of Scipio Africanus and tried to prevent Scipio from taking his army to Africa, where Hannibal was finally defeated.
- Maybe the first Latin historian, but I think all his works are lost
Two conservative secondary politicians who were very popular at high points in their nation's histories. Aristides was, by this mythology, someone we might like today. I don't think we would like Cato.
I took three audio books with me (I like having choices) with me on a recent 5 hour trip northeast and found myself unable to concentrate for more than 10 minutes on them while driving. I took Becoming, Fascism and The Moor's Account. What I heard of the latter (the author is Laila Lalami), which is a fictional memoir of Estebanico, a Moroccan slave of one of the explorers who sail in 1527 to "La Florida" with 600 other men, was very good—the voice is compelling. Just thought I'd throw that out there :-)
So, I’ve finished Lonesome Dove and now O Pioneers!, two terrific books. And I’m reading (only at night) Giovanni’s Room, which is beautiful and far more magical than I anticipated. But, as I’m finding the review mindset evasive, I’m not sure I’ll capture any of what makes these books special by the time I get around to reviews.
19. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
format: 858 page paperback
read: Mar 9 – April 18
time reading: 31 hr 56 min, 2.2 min/page
I'm a little removed from this book now, which maybe means it will be easier to review. I think this is the western classic, and the western that draws in a wide variety readers. It seems to have had a long evolution, including as a failed movie script over a decade before it came together as a novel. This is a masterpiece - of setup, pacing, adventure; and like a travelogue of an era, it takes us at the leisurely speed of herding cattle across the entire US American plains, from the Rio Grande north through San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Dodge City, Kansas, Ogallala, Nebraska, to the edge of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, and into Montana all the way to the Canadian border. Everywhere the natives have been evicted, the settlers are few, the buffalo are mostly gone, leaving open unclaimed land populated by scattered outlaws, starving natives, a handful of early pioneers and the odd straggler. The land is endless, welcoming and dangerous, beautiful and unpredictable and secondary...because the characters define this novel.
McMurty writes in his preference about the book's set-up, where in an uncharacteristically careless moment Captain Woodrow Call is bitten by the "unruly" horse he's trying to tame, named Hell Bitch. "Captain Call, a Stoic, says nothing about the mishap, but Augustus, an Epicurean, makes several comments, none of them welcomed by Captain Call. Thus, casually, begins Lonesome Dove..." I don't think I can emphasize enough, but this set-up makes this book (or breaks it, I guess). The play between these two ex-Texas Rangers, the expanded details of their character, and the complexity of their interaction, and of how Augustus, at least, interacts with everyone, leads to a hundred pages of a set-up without a plot, where the book goes nowhere. It's the best 100 pages of a really special book. Call goes out alone every night, to "sniff the breeze and let the country talk", whereas Augustus studies the prophets in the bible, "He was not overly religious, but he did consider himself a fair prophet and liked to study the style of predecessors."
The rest is an adventure story, drawn against the casual pacing. McMurtry fills his novel with an assortment of characters, not all men, but mostly men, and an assortment of dialogue, boredom, violence, and uncertainty. He probably hits every major western trope in someway, other than a cowboy duel, even if he does it all in a somewhat unorthodox and surprisingly believable way, even if he does exaggerate the violence, or maybe relish it. There is a sense, throughout, that except for some crazy coincidences, this story could really have happened. And it's a memorable story. But through all of this the larger than life Stoic and Epicurean draw our attention and our wonder.
lilisin got us to make this a Club Read group read in March. I think everyone else has posted something on it, with me coming in very late, the last straggler home. I've been meaning to read this for a long time, viewing it as a Texas classic, and as something I should read to get in touch with my place. It spends a lot of time in Texas, but extends well beyond that. But, regardless, thanks to everyone who nudged me to finally search out a copy and read this.
left: Philopoemen stoically extracting a broken javelin out of his leg, by David d'Angers, 1837 right: Titus Flamininus
- "the last of the Greeks", a successful general and leader of the loose Archaen league against Sparta at the twilight of Greek independence from Rome.
- Destroyed Sparta and ended the laws of Lycurgus.
- Led the Roman conquest of Greece, using mainly diplomacy
- presented himself as the liberator of Greece (from Macedonia)
- His defeat of the Macedonia phalanx at the Battle of Cynoscephalae in Thessaly, in 197, is credited as making the phalanx obsolete.
- blamed for causing Hannibal to commit suicide in Bithynia (along the Black Sea) in 183
Not sure why they are paired. Philopoemen, as the last famous Greek general, basically represents the end of Greek military significance. Where as Titus represents an aspect of the spread of the Roman empire - through battles, triumphs and savvy diplomacy.
left: Pyrrhus wearing a Thracian helmet, sculpture from the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, right: Gaius Marius, Roman sculpture of the 1st century BC
dates: 319/18-272 bce
- Considered the best general of his age, he was hired by the city of Tarentum to protect it from the rising Roman state, fighting the first Greek-Roman battles.
- After winning the costly Battle of Asculum (279), he said, roughly, one more victory against the Romans and we'll be utterly ruined. That is the source of the phrase "Pyrrhic victory". The lesson was that while he could beat the Roman army in battle, Rome was quick to raise a new army to fight again.
- Tried to take over Sicily, fighting against Carthage and allies, but was forced out, mythically predicting a Roman-Carthage showdown over the island
dates: 157-86 bce
- A lowly-born Roman who became Rome's main general, and changed the Republic forever by recruiting slaves and the poor into his army.
- (not in Plutarch, but previously there was a minimum income required to become a soldier, and the men supplied their own arms, so that the armies were entirely made up of men from landholding families. This ensured the men's loyalty was to their native land. After Marius's change, soldier's fortunes were entirely dependent on their generals, and hence their loyalty was to him, not the Republic.)
- Used this army to defeat an invasion over the Alps from massive Germanic tribes in the Cimbrian War (109-101), in the process becoming a Roman consul an unprecedented 7 times (7 one-year terms), including 5 years in row.
- When his one-time quaestor, Sulla, was given charge of an army to fight Mithradates in Asia Minor, Marius tried maneuver to get himself put in charge instead. Sulla turned his army around and invaded Rome (!!), chasing Marius into exile. (He would later return, become Consul again, and then shortly after would die)
Both were sort of rogue generals who had a lot of success and self-centered loyalties, but really didn't end up all that well. Marius, however, would be better compared to the other Romans of his own times, and shortly after - Sulla, Pompey, Caesar.
20. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
format: 309 page Paperback
acquired: from my in-laws in 2009. Someone penciled in Nov 80 inside the cover, probably the purchase date
read: Apr 1-25
time reading: 5 hr 32 min, 1.1 min/page
The first in Cather's Plains Trilogy, on the pioneers in the Nebraska plains. We follow Norwegian-born Alexandra Bergson, from the death of her father while she's a teenagers and all the new farms around her are failing in the droughts of of the 1880s, through her life and that of her family. The tone has odd formality to it, but Cather was a masterful prose writer and sometimes I felt the need to disconnect from the story a bit just to enjoy her descriptions. She plays a few games, but mostly she likes the land and the flawed people, and she gets us to appreciate Alexandra's conservative nature and practicality. I enjoyed reading and thinking about this.
>37 labfs39: yes, Plutarch was a slog, and yet I’m pretty happy I’ve read it. LD is terrific and I suspect would benefit from a reread. At least you’ll know within a hundred pages. Cather - her prose is wonderful. Her religion and sexism and social commentary are dated, but not offensive - unless you really think them through. Still, she was a kind of beacon of her time. And if you can avoid the problems overwhelming the prose, she becomes special, with some terrific visual nuance.
I've read a few shorter works by Cather, and I enjoyed them, and I will probably read more -- she's a skilled author -- but I'm staying away from that pioneers trilogy. I'm trying to cut down on US-based media, and the synopses and the reviews for those books just make them sound like prime American Mythmaking Material. I've read (and watched) plenty of that, and I don't think I could stomach any more without being unfairly harsh on those books.
Edit: I chose not to participate in the McMurtry group read for much the same reason.
Well, you’ve given something to think about. All “classics” are part of the world myth in some way, some more than others. Thanks for the post.
left: Lysander. right: Sulla (reconstructed from a Roman-era posthumous sculpture, now missing its nose.)
dates: ??-395 bce
- The main military leader who defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian war.
- His biggest victories were naval. He led the building of a Spartan navy
- Then led the initial set-up of unrivaled Spartan domination of Greece
Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix
- Invaded Rome successfully twice with a Roman army.
- After his second invasion, he made himself dictator and led a mass purge through proscriptions. If you believe Plutarch, he put on the execution list everyone he could think of. After this was done, he re-populated the Senate with his people and then retired to write his memoirs. (alas, the Republic was essentially done)
Two successful innovative generals who corrupted their countries. In Lysander's case, Plutarch blames him for bringing spoils into Spartan, corrupting their "Spartan" culture. Sulla as dictator corrupted the integrity of the Republic, paving the way for Caesar.
21. Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
editor: Claire McEachern, for The Pelican Shakespeare series
published: originally performed 1597-1598. Introduction for The Pelican Shakespeare 2000.
format: 167 page paperback
read: Mar 30 – Apr 28
time reading: 7 hr 29 min, 2.7 min/page
The play where Henry IV dies and Henry V must show he's not the drinking wayward lout he's been in his life up to this point. I read this with a group on Litsy and I think we had fun giving it a hard time. It's an awkward play, with some seriousness in the opening and some really beautiful language in the later acts, but in between is a whole lot of second rate humor around Falstaff. Maybe it does work on stage. But reading it, it just felt incomplete. As one person put it, it was like whenever Shakespeare ran out of material, he wheeled out Falstaff for diversion. Others felt there must be multiple authors. Or perhaps the bard ran out of time to complete it. Regardless, this felt like the cobbled Shakespeare, an unpolished script. It's now my least favorite of his plays...but it's still Shakespeare.
left: Cimon. right: Lucullus (maybe)
dates: 510-450 bce
- The son of Militiades, who was the Athenian general at Marathon, he became the military leader of the Delian League though which Athens dominated the Aegean Sea, and politically the aristocratic counterpoint to popularly supported Pericles.
- ostracized from Athens for being pro-Sparta.
- He also supposedly dug up the bones of Theseus - some ancient archaeology...
Lucius Licinius Lucullus
- A general under Sulla who tried to extend the Roman empire through Anatolia and farther east. He was successful until his army revolted.
- back at Rome, full of spoils, he retired and became a huge patron of the arts at his estate.
Two successful military generals respected for their character, but neither all the politically successful.
left: Nicias right: Crassus
dates: 470-413 bce
- A wealthy Athenian who bought his influence and found himself in charge of a disastrous Athenian invasion of Sicily (against his will). He lost his life and the entire force. This was huge loss for Athens, fighting the Peloponnesian War
- He earlier had brokered the Peace of Nicias, a brief interlude in the Peloponnesian War.
Marcus Licinius Crassus
dates: 115/112-53 bce
- A general under Sulla who became wealthy from all of Sulla's purges and found himself involved in the delicate balance of power in Rome's first triumvirate - him, Pompey and Julius Caesar.
- Mostly famous because he took a huge army to invade the Parthian empire and lost it and his life to a small force. Crassus exposed his army on the open plains to a Parthian cavalry of master bowman on horseback. (Think Custer, but an order of magnitude larger).
Two rich guys famous for spectacularly disastrous stuff.
The productions were back to back with a break for dinner, so it was both monumenetal and a bit of a slog. I don't remember to many of the details, but the death scene of Henry IV with Prince Hal was particularly moving. Though I'm not a huge fan of the histories in general, I'll take the Henrys over Coriolanus any day.
My mom STILL talks about it -- poking fun at how incredibly bad it was.
>48 ELiz_M: wow. Interesting article, but wow.
I was curious, reading these, how the Falstaff sections might be handled on stage. Especially in Part 2, because the play must be largely dependent on the performance. (I’m guessing Richard Maxwell hadn’t figured Falstaff out yet)
22. Plutarch's lives, The Dryden Translation, Volume 1, edited by Arthur Hugh Clough
written: circa 120 ce
translation: 1683 (and not by Dryden)
editing and notes 1859
format: 785 page paperback
read: Feb 27 – May 2
time reading: 48 hr 43 min, 3.7 min/page
A weird decision to read this, but it's become somehow meaningful to me in a way I don't exactly understand and that may not have anything to do with the text. The text is a strange relic of the Roman era. Plutarch was a Greek scholar during the high Roman Empire and wrote in Greek and may not have spoken Latin well. After doing whatever cultural touring he did in life, which included extensive travelling, collecting vast notes, he spent his later years in Greece as a priest at Delphi, writing. The parallel lives was his largest single work. The remnants of his possible 200 other works are collected in Moralia, mostly philosophical writings.
Lives has a philosophical underlying component, a kind of "Middle Platonic" view on the morality of leaders through history, but mainly it's an historical work, a collection of paired biographies. Each prominent Roman is paired with a prominent Greek with similar aspects in their life trend. These are lengthy biographies, collected from a variety of sources. Then their lives are compared in brief essays. The general consensus is that Plutarch should not be taken as historically accurate, as his interest was in the morality and the story telling, not the accurate, well-documented history of the modern sense. He does occasionally note his sources within the text, and even expresses notes of skepticism here and there. And he seems to be internally consistent, as he often covers the same event in different lives from different perspectives. But, despite the consensus of soft accuracy, you will find he is often cited today as the main source for parts of the histories of Greece and Rome. Some Wikipedia articles basically summarize his essays from this work as the entire article on historical figures who, outside Plutarch, are mostly unknown. These are the kind of things that force me to re-visit or re-think ancient history, that undermine to me what we think we know.
As a historian Plutarch is really frustrating in that he loves and focuses on rumors, attributing major historical occurrences to unlikely details in someone's personal life. I constantly had to ask myself, that, even if what he had just described were completely true, is there any way it could have been accurately recorded.
The reading of this is an odd experience. I always had in mind that I was reading the "Dryden translation", a translation John Dryden put his name on, but did not apparently actually contribute to, and so I have little sense of how accurate any of this is in meaning or tone. This work of Plutarch is famous because of the way he tells these stories. They are fast and bring in immense detail and sometimes that combination can make for some vivid stories. But it's a tough read. The rush through details, one on top of the next, is relentless. Then major points of the story will be sort of sneaked into the text, leaving this reader forced to backtrack here and there to find where I lost the thread. And every part of this info dump begs some critical evaluation and a whole lot of skepticism. I would try at times just to blindly believe everything he says, but I had force that.
Plutarch was important in the late Renaissance when his focus on morality was of interest. His works, translated to English by Thomas North in 1579, were key source material for several of Shakespeare's plays. But it seems his importance has faded. There are no major new complete translations of his work. Newer translations focus on parts, and may break up these lives into just some of the Greek or Roman characters (and presumably re-order them chronologically). For me, he's a name that caught my attention and that my brain somehow needed to pin down by reading. I'm halfway through.
23. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
format: 140 pages inside Early Novels and Stories
read: Apr 20 – May 3
time reading: 5 hr 50 min, 2.5 min/page
Baldwin is a theme for me in 2019, but I was discouraged by the first two books I read, that were each kind of difficult and somewhat unpleasant reading experiences. This is something altogether different. I was immediately transported by this book to some beautiful world of language and story and I was left there, comfortably relishing what should be a really disturbing story.
David's sort-of fiance, Hella, leaves him in Paris and heads off Spain to be away and on her own for a bit. It's the kind of relationship where she can openly write to him about some of the men she's apparently hooking up with. But, David, our lost American in Paris, is his having his own experience, not only fulfilling his homosexual tendencies, but in a strong emotional relationship with a male bartender, a very lost Italian country boy in Paris. David has no job, and moves in with Giovanni in his little closet-apartment on the outskirts of Paris, hence the title. Alas, Hella is returning and Giovanni's precarious life has some bumps coming.
Somewhere in there Baldwin confronts American emptiness and the inability of one to shed the demands of their cultural standards, here conservative American standards that are not accepting of any sense of homosexuality. That's in there in a way that lingers, but it's not what made this book so special to me, at least not alone. I simply loved the nature of his prose, the experience he captures. There is a openness about the text that leaves a lot room for the reader to get comfortable and look around. A five star read for me.
24. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
reader: Dion Graham
format: 12:18 audiobook (339 pages in hardcover)
listened: Apr 11 – May 3
I got worried when this opened on slave plantation in Barbados and the book tried to bring out the cruelty of the slave experience and the spirituality of some of the slaves in what felt to be very standard ways, and then brought in an English lover of science with all his equipment. We're in the early 19th century, still in the Age of Reason. This scientist wants to build a hot-air balloon, or, as he calls it, a cloud cutter. This was just all too predictable to me, and felt unoriginal, like I was being told at length assumptions of no substance that could have been easily captured in a few sentences. The book evolves and captured me along for a bit, but never shucked the skepticism it let grow in me in the early chapters. And when the audio reader starting voicing older male characters the way old museums voice Thomas Jefferson or whoever of that era, I started to laugh inside and I started to feel embarrassed for the author. Was it the reader's fault or the author's or just my silly perspective? Not sure.
OK, the book is doing some interesting and meaningful stuff, tracking the life of a scarred African-American boy across various atmospheres from the American South to the Arctic, to London and elsewhere in the early 1800's, looking for some meaning. But for me this was mixed experience, a book with a whole lot of weaknesses. Read at your own risk.
>54 Petroglyph: Hope you get there and enjoy. It’s a special book, a talented voice hitting an unexpected stride. His publisher wouldn’t publish this book, because they saw him as a “negro” writer and this wasn’t about race (every character is white), and because they were afraid of...more like petrified of... the homosexual relationship. He was told by the publisher it would destroy his career. Obviously they were expecting something a lot different.
>12 dchaikin: Loved the conversation about Milkman by Anna Burns. I read the print version and have the audiobook on my hold list at the library. Belfast is my home town but I haven't lived there for over forty years. Listening to Milkman may bring back my accent.
>30 dchaikin: Excellent review of Lonesome Dove! You have encouraged me to add it to my library wishlist - again! I have added and removed it a few times when I see the length.
(or maybe I did know, but only half realised, but I think maybe therefore, in my past history studentness, decided to be cautious -- my idiotness shows itself)
25. Winter by Ali Smith
format: 322 page paperback
read: May 4-19
time reading: 7 hr 17 min, 1.4 min/page
My Litsy post: Ali Smith has left me here thinking. If I could put what it is I‘m thinking into words, I would. Art, nature, politics, plastics, messaging, googling, Dickens maybe, and Psyche, which happens to vaguely tie in to the Shakespeare I‘m reading through Eros/Cupid, but also Shakespeare too. And, of course, relationships. She always seems to leave me just maybe following by grasping a thin fragile thread.
I'm not sure I can say anything better than that. I hope to get to Spring soon.
>58 VivienneR: hi Viv. I loved the accent on the auido of Millman. Enjoy. And read Lonesome Dove. : )
>59 tonikat: It’s a curiosity to me that Plutarch was a priest. He writes with a very non-religious feel. Of course, he was more moralistic philosopher than spiritual religious thinker. He has an interesting take on religious miracles. He’s a skeptic who believes but adds some doubt and preaches moderation.
26. Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
format: 80 page ARC paperback
acquired: from Lois in March
read: May 25 – Jun 1
time reading: 1 hr 8 min, 0.9 min/page
A young boy is shot by soldiers and the sound causes the whole town to go deaf. There is a play on the tension of the sudden suspension of sound, making images linger and leaving a lot of filled empty space in a commentary on political terror.
This was my first poetry in a while, a gift from Lois (avaland), who reviewed in her shared thread. It's tough for me, feeling ever inadequate with poetry, trying to sense and get in tune with the language and open space around it. But it's a moving collection and I'm glad I read it and am now thinking about it.
27. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
format: 334 pages within the ebook The Prairie Trilogy: O Pioneers!; The Song of the Lark; My Antoniá
read: May 12 – June 8
time reading: 16 hr 28 min, 3.0 min/page
Cather wasn’t supposed to be my theme this year, but here I am finishing a third book and committed to reading more. I always imagined her as a prairie writer, but each book has covered a different kind of atmosphere. Here we begin on the plains, in the sand hills of Eastern Colorado, in a small railroad town where we follow one of the daughters of a local minister. But then we make our way to 1890’s Chicago, the Arizona desert and the opera world of New York City. A young Thea Kronberg stands out in Moonstone, Colorado, drawing interest from a series of admirers. She doesn’t get along so well with those of her own age or of the small-town mentality. She seems to have the mindset and determination that can lead something important in her life and seems to draw those who want to help her.
Thea’s life is roughly based on the life of a Swedish-born American Opera singer Olive Fremsted, a quirky genius who grew up Minnesota and trained in Germany. In interviews, Cather was struck by her simplicity and deep focus on her work and saw parallels with the plains character she wanted to capture. So, Cather created her own variety of master opera singer, an artist of shear will and determination and focus, grounded in the plains, led by a variety of well-meaning men who all watch her move on. Not lovers, all of them, but admirers of the arts and of Thea. And then Cather throws in a detour to the Canyons of Arizona and the Anasazi cliff-dwellings. Arizona canyons…sun, sky, desert, mystery, isolation – this personal spiritual detour is the best part of this book and of anything I’ve read by Cather so far.
Cather is a writer of her time in terms of her ideas of art and culture, but she is a timeless prose artist and master at capturing the nature and experience of the landscape, the light and space and the mixture of permanence and change. She is also an especially good character builder and seems to make it her mission to create untraditional strong women characters. In the later, Thea is a classic example. This book is far more sophisticated than O Pioneers or Death Comes for the Archbishop (which are what I’ve read). Here she is trying to capture a stubborn powerful mind becoming an artist, almost always through the eyes of the beholders, her many mentors. She is there to be watched and experienced, and Cather uses a number of tricks to allow the reader to do just this. The result isn’t exactly a happy success story. There is a cost to all this. Her success depends on capricious iffy public taste. And one can feel Thea’s isolation, physical exhaustion, and her inability to bond with anyone who isn’t an admirer, her unwillingness to look around and take in the world. She is focused.
I’ve developed into a big fan of Cather. I love her prose, her characters and the landscape through her eyes. Looking forward to My Antiona. Recommended to anyone interested.
Aaaand... not only does my library have the ebook, it's available as a download. Guess it's out of copyright? Anyway, I've got me a copy now, and someday I will actually read it.
>78 NanaCC: thanks C. I'm not familiar with One of Ours, noting. I'll start My Antonia probably later this month. Since I'm reading with a group on Litsy, I'll stretch it out to four weeks (as I did with O Pioneers and The Song of the Lark)
I've downloaded the three books of the Prairie trilogy in English. Death Comes for the Archbishop is not available on project Gutenberg. Is it necessary to read the "prairie trilogy" in order or are they stand alone?
Thanks for all those authors that I get introduced to in your thread!
And you’re welcome. I feel the same on your thread, a lot of new stuff for me there.
>82 RidgewayGirl: Kay, she might make a nice detour for you.
>87 janeajones: I came across an article claiming Song of the Lark was her best novel. At time, having not previously heard of it, I was really surprised. It seems like the forgotten one in the trilogy. (I need to read more before I make any such claims myself.) Noting again, One of Us. Might make a good follow up to My Antonia.
As many as our shared lunations
The pin-hole suns between the leaves
And oh, on your skin
Sharpened shadows lie heavy
We two will be in eclipse
Of us, mixed and admixed,
Walk still under light
This may be the most obvious of my poems. Not only can I not decide if it is good, I can't even decide if it is a poem at all. It's probably mediocre. That is what most poetry is. I know I'm not Emily Dickinson.
I'd be very glad to share more if you were interested. I only have a few, because I only write when a poem falls on me, or in me, or something like that.
Cool, I hadn't heard of this.
>97 avaland: Thanks. I have enjoyed all three I've read so far. What do you think makes Song of the Lark stand out for you?
28. A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
editor: Wolfgang Clemen
published: originally preformed 1595, this edition from 1987
format: 202 page Signet Classic paperback with essays afterward
contributions in the afterward from: Sylvan Barnett, William Hazlit, Edward Dowden, Enid Welsford, Henry Alonzo Myers, John Russell Brown, Frank Kermode, and Linda Bamber
acquired: ?? (borrowed my daughter’s copy)
read: May 12 – June 10, an act every Sunday.
time reading: 7 hr 44 min, 2.4 min/page
I read this with a group on Litsy, one act a week. Maybe it would have read better to read it all in one go instead of stretching it out, but then I really enjoyed the conversations. It‘s the most charming play I've read from Shakespeare, partly thanks to his most charming troublemaker in the fairy-like Puck.
The other play we went to that year was Romeo and Juliet, which was performed in a more traditional theater, and I remember our teacher explicitly instructing the class that it was inappropriate to laugh during the "oh happy dagger" scene. It was a well done performance, but didn't stick with me like A Midsummer Night's Dream.
>101 lisapeet: this was a reread for me, but I’m free of school experiences. I read it on my own several years ago, the first time I did that with Shakespeare. Was so rewarding to kind of “discover” him that way, if that makes sense.
>106 janeajones: great picture, must have been fun roles to play, fun to watch too. I would really like to see it.
Plutarch’s Lives Volume 1
1: Mythical founders
Theseus mythic - mythical king of Athens who defeated the Minotaur, so, he represents beginning of Greek mainland autonomy.
Romulus fl. 771–717 bce - mythical first king of Rome. Cheated his brother, causing Remus's death. Founder of the Senate, dealt with the rape of Sabines ("the foundation of after friendship and public stability"**), the first Roman Triumph (on foot)
2: Mythical founders of cultural traditions and norms
Lycurgus fl. c. 820 bce - mythical lawgiver of Sparta credited with establishing Spartan military system and ethics (equality, military fitness, austerity). Gave the unwritten Rhetra - the Spartan constitution in verse. Discovered the works of Homer (in Ionia). So, he represents beginning of Greek ethics and government structure. The words "spartan", and "laconic" go back to this myth.
Numa Pompilius 715–673 bce - mythical second king of Rome, a Sabine. Connected to Pythagoras. Gentle and stoic, known for piety and wisdom. Peaceable and credited with placating the war-like Rome (gentling the Romans). Founder of key Roman religious sects and rites - notably the Vestal Virgins. Sets up where the king instructs the priests
3: Mythical founders of popular government (Democracy and Republic)
Solon 638–558 bce - mythical foundation of Athenian Democracy - in verse. Led to formation of main rivalries in Athens: economic-based, regional and aristocratic. Reformed law codes of Draco (Draconian laws). Cancelled all debts (Seisachtheia), with lots of controversy. Succeeded by the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus
Poplicola d. 503 bce - One of four founders of the Republic. (Another was Lucius Junius Brutus, who had his own sons tortured and executed for treason to the Republic). Deposed Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, 7th king of Rome. The setting up of the Republic was no simple thing, involving many stages and many wars. It seems Rome was fighting everyone. Born Publius Valerius. Received the name Publicola later. It means "one who courts the people" or "people lover". (The American Federalist Papers were signed "Publius“, referencing Poplicola)
4: Great generals at critical times
*Themistocles c. 524–459 bce - Athenian general, and a pre-sophist wisdom philosopher. Non-aristocratic, a beneficiary of Athenian Democracy (re-established in 510 bce). Pushed Athens to build a powerful navy and man it (using almost all common male citizens). Changed the world by leading the defeat of Persian fleet in naval Battle of Salamis in 480 bce.
Camillus 446–365 bce - "second founder of Rome". Established Roman ascendancy in the peninsula. Defeated the Gauls after they sacked Rome in 390 bce (which happened during his exile). Note: At this time Rome was still fighting wars in every direction, constantly. Note2 - confusing chapter
5: Great strategists ??
Pericles c. 495–429 bce - Greatest Athenian statesman, but also started the disastrous Peloponnesian War. The main builder of the Acropolis. Oversaw the flourishing of Athenian culture.
Fabius Maximus 275–203 bce - Famous Roman general who helped hold off Hannibal during the 2nd Punic War (218-201 bce). Famous for method of not confronting Hannibal, but attacking his supplies. (George Washington was characterized as using a "Fabian strategy")
6: The great traitors
Alcibiades 450–404 bce - talented Athenian general who switched loyalties. He joined Sparta against Athens and then later worked with the Persians before later returning to Athens and leaving again just before Athens fell to the Spartan general Lysander. Corruptible, but adaptable and well liked until he wore out his welcomes. He was successful in about all his military campaigns, to both the benefit and injury of Athens, but was part of the reason Athens fell.
Coriolanus fl. 475 bce - Brave Roman soldier who received his name after leading the capture of the Volscian city of Corioli. In the Patrician-Plebeian "conflict of orders" he was so intolerant of Plebeians, he was expelled from Rome. In vengeance he led a Volscian invasion of Rome, but turned his army back after his mother and wife confronted him, and pleaded him to stop. He was then killed by the Volscians. Inflexible personality, respected as a brave fighter, but otherwise not liked by anyone. (Source of Shakespeare's play Coriolanus)
7: The good conquerors (Plutarch explains they are role models for his own conduct, so that "I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life", through "the study of history".)
Timoleon c. 411–337 bce- Corinthian who liberated Syracuse from its tyrant. He also conquered the surrounding area from other tyrants and from Carthaginian influence. He stayed in Syracuse becoming undisputed unofficial leader of the city, but leaving behind a democratic legacy.
Aemilius Paullus c. 229–160 bce - Led the conquering of Macedon for Rome in the 3rd Macedonian war, taking the king and family back to Rome for his triumph.
8: The great generals who made one fatal mistake – good stories
*Pelopidas d. 364 bce - Theban statesman and general who led the Sacred Band and, along with Epaminondas, was key to the Theban revolt that overthrew Spartan domination over Greece. The Sacred Band was a fighting group made up of 150 pairs of Theban lovers. They were considered unbeatable. Won the Battle of Tegyrae over Spartans despite being out-numbered and played a key role in the Battle of Leuctra, the key victory of Sparta, won by a strategic trick of Epaminondas. Greek fighting was designed such that the best fighters were best used on the right, which became a place of honor. Epaminondas put his best warriors, including the Sacred band, on the left, directly against Sparta's best. Pelopidas would later be killed in a battle where he outran his forces, exposing himself (they won the battle)
*Marcellus 268–208 bce - Roman general famous for the spoila optima, the spoils gained because he killed the opposing general himself in battle. A colleague of Fabian (see above) in the 2nd Punic War. Took Syracuse in a siege resisted by the mathematician Archimedes and his machines. Archimedes died in the siege. Killed in an ambush while scouting Hannibal's army
9: The two great conservatives
Aristides 530–468 bce - The “best and most honorable man in Athens.” Praised by Socrates in Platos’s Gorgias and Meno. The counterpoint to Themistocles during the great Persian wars. Whereas Themistocles was a commoner who was brilliant, wily, constantly breaking barriers and eventually upsetting everyone, Aristides was constant. He was a good person who everyone liked except when he was worked over by Themistocles and ostracized (that is, exiled from Athens for ten years). I thought he was good story, but Plutarch maybe thought otherwise. Half his book is the story of the anticlimactic Battle of Platea, where Aristides played one of the several key leading roles. (This battle, in 479, was where the Greeks defeated the remnant Persian army in left in Greece as a kind of oversized rear guard to protect and distract from the main retreating army and navy.)
Cato the Elder 234–149 bce - Known usually as Cato the Elder. A smallish farmer and conservative who worked his way up the Roman political ladder (the cursus honorum), with help from prominent sponsorship and some military victories. A promoter of old traditional Roman values over that of the Greek influence. He was respected for this. Famous line: Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed)...but he was a political opponent of Scipio Africanus and tried to prevent Scipio from taking his army to Africa, where Hannibal was finally defeated. Maybe the first Latin historian, but I think all his works are lost.
10: Two great warriors
Philopoemen 253–183 bce - "the last of the Greeks", a successful general and leader of the loose Archaean league against Sparta at the twilight of Greek independence from Rome. Destroyed Sparta and ended the laws of Lycurgus.
Flamininus c. 229–174 bce - Led the Roman conquest of Greece, using mainly diplomacy. Presented himself as the liberator of Greece (from Macedonia). His defeat of the Macedonia phalanx at the Battle of Cynoscephalae in Thessaly, in 197, is credited as making the phalanx obsolete. Blamed for causing Hannibal to commit suicide in Bithynia (along the Black Sea) in 183
11: Two almost great generals who eventually failed
Pyrrhus 319/318–272 bce - Considered the best general of his age, he was hired by the city of Tarentum to protect it from the rising Roman state, fighting the first Greek-Roman battles. After winning the costly Battle of Asculum (279), he said, roughly, one more victory against the Romans and we'll be utterly ruined. That is the source of the phrase "Pyrrhic victory". The lesson was that while he could beat the Roman army in battle, Rome was quick to raise a new army to fight again. Tried to take over Sicily, fighting against Carthage and allies, but was forced out, mythically predicting a Roman-Carthage showdown over the island.
Marius 157–86 bce - A lowly-born Roman who became Rome's main general, and changed the Republic forever by recruiting slaves and the poor into his army. (not in Plutarch, but previously there was a minimum income required to become a soldier, and the men supplied their own arms, so that the armies were entirely made up of men from landholding families. This ensured the men's loyalty was to their native land. After Marius's change, soldier's fortunes were entirely dependent on their generals, and hence their loyalty was to him, not the Republic.) Used this army to defeat an invasion over the Alps from massive Germanic tribes in the Cimbrian War (109-101), in the process becoming a Roman consul an unprecedented 7 times (7 one-year terms), including 5 years in row. When his one-time quaestor, Sulla, was given charge of an army to fight Mithradates in Asia Minor, Marius tried maneuver to get himself put in charge instead. Sulla turned his army around and invaded Rome (!!), chasing Marius into exile. (He would later return, become Consul again, and then shortly after would die)
12: Two generals who destroyed their own cultures
*Lysander d. 395 bce - The main military leader who defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian war. He led the building of a Spartan navy and his biggest victories were naval. He also led the initial set-up of the Spartan domination of Greece. Plutarch blames him for bringing spoils into Sparta, corrupting their "Spartan" culture.
Sulla 138-78 bce - Invaded Rome, his own city, successfully, twice, with a Roman army. After his second invasion he made himself dictator and led a mass purge through proscriptions (official orders of execution). If you believe Plutarch, he put on the execution list everyone he could think of. After this was done, he re-populated the Senate with his people and then retired to write his memoirs. (alas, the Republic was essentially done)
13: Two generals of good character who failed politically
Cimon 510–450 bce - The son of Militiades, who was the Athenian general at Marathon, he became the military leader of the Delian League through which Athens dominated the Aegean Sea. Politically he was the aristocratic counterpoint to popularly supported Pericles. He was ostracized from Athens for being pro-Sparta. He also supposedly dug up the bones of Theseus.
*Lucullus 118–57/56 bce - A general under Sulla who tried to extend the Roman empire through Anatolia and farther east. He was successful until his army revolted. Back at Rome, full of spoils, he retired and became a huge patron of the arts at his estate.
14: Two rich and underqualified leaders of great military disasters
Nicias 470–413 bce - A wealthy Athenian who bought his influence and found himself in charge of a disastrous Athenian invasion of Sicily (against his will). He lost his life and the entire force. This was huge loss for Athens, fighting the Peloponnesian War. He earlier had brokered the Peace of Nicias, a brief interlude in the Peloponnesian War.
**Crassus c. 115–53 bce - A general under Sulla who became wealthy from all of Sulla's purges and found himself involved in the delicate balance of power in Rome's first triumvirate - him, Pompey and Julius Caesar. Mostly famous because he took a huge army to invade the Parthian empire and lost it and his life to a small force. Crassus exposed his army on the open plains to a Parthian cavalry of master bowman on horseback. (Think Custer, but an order of magnitude larger).
Plutarch’s Lives Volume 2
15: The banished become generals
Eumenes c. 362–316 bce – secretary of Philip II and Alexander, later a general
Sertorius c. 123–72 bce – Roman leader of rebellion in Hispania. With Marius, and against Sulla (and Pompey and Metellus)
16: Rulers who took over powerful armies and then fell
Agesilaus c. 444 – c. 360 bce – King of Sparta at height, and who saw fall of Sparta hegemony at Leuctra (Xenophon biography)
*Pompey 106–48 bce - A Sulla general and inheritor of his power. This is the guy Caesar crossed the Rubicon to chase out. He lost the Battle of Pharsalus.
17: The great successful generals who died in their prime
Alexander 356–323 bce
*Julius Caesar 100–44 bce – (Gaul was entertaining. “Vini Vidi Vici”. And he liked everybody. No proscriptions.)
(Where Plutarch writes: “It must be born in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. …I must be allowed to give my whole particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men…”)
18: The great powerless statemen
Phocion c. 402 – c. 318 bce Upright frugal Athenian stateman who convinced Alexander not to attack Athens after Thebes was wasted. Known as “The Good”. Later executed.
**Cato the Younger 95–46 bce Roman statesman who tried to preserve the Republic under the first Triumvirate (Pompey, Caesar and Crassus). Best character in the book who committed suicide rather than surrender the Republic to Caesar. (Cicero praised him in “Cato” and Caesar responded with “Anti-Cato”, Dante’s guardian of Purgatory.)
19: The failed reformers
Agis fl. 245 bce – tried to reform Spartan land ownership, executed young.
Cleomenes d. 219 bce – reformer who ended up trapped in Egypt and committed suicide (insight into how Ptolemean Egypt controlled Greece, funding both sides in wars.)
Tiberius Gracchus c. 164 – c. 133 bce – A Roman Tribune who tried to reform lander ownership and was murdered by senators
Gaius Gracchus 154–121 bce – Tiberius brother, and another reform-minded tribune murdered by senators
20: Two great orators
Demosthenes 384–322 bce – fickle and corrupt Athenian statesmen known for his speeches. (Cicero: He “stands alone among all orators”. Inspired Cicero’s Philippics against Marcus Anthony and the Federalist Papers. Called Batalus as an insult referencing “some part of the body, not decent to be named”)
Cicero 106–43 bce – Roman statesman aligned with Cato, but who surrendered to Caesar. He later wrote the Philippics against Mark Anthony and was later executed by direction of Mark Anthony, with the approval, as part of a deal, of Octavian. He had helped Octavian, who quickly abandoned him. Credited with translating the ideas of the Greek philosophers and thereby creating the Latin language of philosophy. For this, Julius Caesar wrote it was “more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit than the frontiers of the Roman Empire.” (Writings influence John Locke, David Hume, Montesquieu and Edmund Burke, among others)
21: Failed rulers
Demetrius d. 283 bce – post-Alexandrian Macedonia king who murdered his predecessor, Alexander V, and lost his empire and ended up under a kind of house arrest in Anatolia. (defeated by Pyrrhus, among others)
Mark Antony 83–30 bce – part of second triumvirate, with Marcus Lepidus and Octavian. Successful general under Caesar who defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins, the Liberatores, at the Battle of Philippi. Later corrupted by Cleopatra, leading to failed invasion of Parthia, a breakup with Octavian and finally defeat in the Battle of Actium. (Plutarch has a story about his grandfather’s community providing corn of the Mark Anthony’s army. The community would have starved, but Mark Anthony fled the battle and lost his army and so the corn wasn’t sent.)
22: Platonic philosophers and failed leaders
Dion 408–354 bce – Tyrant of Siciliy and disciple of Plato who was eventually assassinated.
*Brutus 85–42 bce – Along with Cassius, leader of the Liberatores who assassinated Julius Caesar. A Platonic philosopher and, as characterized here, really likable. (Cassius was an Epicurean and gets to present his atheist philosophy…shortly before his failure at Actium) According to Plutarch Julius Caesar had suspected Brutus might be his real biological son and considered him as a possible successor (but this is probably an example of Plutarch’s love of rumor. Octavian was the successor in Caesar’s will).
23: Leaders overwhelmed by the violent politics of their times.
Aratus 271–213 bce – Greek leader of Achaean league, fought everyone. Chapter made up of adventure stories and addressed to Polycrates. The rest of the lives are addresses to Sosius.
Artaxerxes II c. 440–358 bce – Persian king who dealt with numerous uprisings using Greek mercenaries and but managed to undercut Spartan domination of the Aegean.
Galba 3 bce – 69 ce – elder Roman general elected to become emperor after Nero’s suicide. He was killed short after arriving in Rome by his supporter, Otho.
Otho 32 – 69 ce – After knocking off Galba, Otho was emperor for 3 months. He was overwhelmed and committed suicide after fighting Vitellius to a draw, and Plutarch says his death was honorable as it avoided more civil war. (Vitellius, who had originally planned to fight Galba, would shortly be defeated and killed by Vespasian in the year of four emperors)
29. Plutarch's lives, The Dryden Translation, Volume 2 by edited by Arthur Hugh Clough
written: c 120 ce
translation: 1683 (and not by Dryden)
editing and notes 1859
format: 696-page paperback
read: May 4 – Jun 27
time reading: 42 hr 32 min, 3.7 min/page
It’s not a good thing when I’m disappointed I read a book. This, of course, isn’t a bad book. It’s a special relic, full historical details that are only captured here, or at least that are captured only here in this way, from this quirky 1900-year-old perspective. The cumulative impact of all these lives is a multifaceted view of a few key points in classical history – the rise and fall of the Greeks and their experimental governments, including the chaos that was the Athenian democracy, and the formation, tumultuous history and death of the Roman Republic, which faded into empire. The Greeks may come across a little tired and done over, but the leading characters in the later Roman Republic are fresh and come together to create a memorable synergy from all these full distinct enlarged egos colliding, with winners, losers, violent consequences, upper-class purges, some fascinating compatibilities, and ultimately the pulsing heart, the dedication to this Republic found most deeply in those who lost it. It’s easy to look on this, look at what Cato the Younger failed to do, and wonder at the reflection in our own times, and it’s not a comforting thought.
Plutarch was a Greek scholar who toured Rome and the empire and most likely taught his sort of middle-Platonic philosophy, who never mastered Latin, yet who took copious notes and who then retired back in Greece and began to write works in Greek that spread widely and are still around. The existing lives (it seems some are lost) are paired prominent Romans and Greeks with similar life trajectories. A lot of these characters are pretty obscure, but he captures the main names. For those who like ancient Greece, the lives of the great Athenians Themistocles, Pericles, and Alcibiades are captured, and criticized, along with some lesser ones like Aristides, Cimon and Nicias. And Lysander, the Spartan who eventually defeated Athens. Plutarch throws in Theseus, Lycurgus, and Solon for foundations, and Pelopidas because he co-led the Theban revolt against Sparta, leading the all-gay army of lovers, the Theban Sacred Band. The ancient Romans get covered too, from Romulus through the Punic wars. Odd names like Poplicola and Coriolanus or Cato the Elder show up. Publius, the name signed to the Federalist Papers, references Poplicola, as he helped found the Roman Republic. But Roman history really comes alive first through the civil wars between Marius and Sulla (around 80 bce), and then through the personalities involves in the death to the Republic. The members of the first triumvirate, Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar, each get a long chapter. Their counters in the Senate, the failed heroes of the Republic, Cato the Younger, Cicero and Brutus, make the best chapters in the book. This Cato the younger, who committed suicide rather than surrender to Caesar, was for me the most distinctive and memorable character here. Of course, there is also Plutarch’s famous take on Mark Antony and his dramas with Cleopatra, which led to a Shakespeare’s play. Three Shakespeare plays come from Plutarch – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra.
Plutarch captures something of the memories of these larger than life personalities. A happy Julius Caesar who liked everyone, even his enemies, and who, upon Cicero’s surrender, walked with him chatting amiably, leaves an impression of the clubby Roman upper class. As does the old man, Galba, another happy well-liked general who might not hesitate to condemn thousands to death, and who yet managed only about week alive in Rome as emperor before he was dispatched. Or Pompey the Great who was living it up so well and in such control of Rome yet found himself caught off-guard, completely unprepared, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon. And Plutarch captures the chaos of these eras. There was never any peace in Athenian democracy or its empire, or in the Roman Republic where senators would murder political enemies, or, so things evolved, where senators were killed in the hundreds in mass political purges, called proscriptions (by which Cicero fell). And, new to me, was the chaos left behind by the death of Alexander the Great. Asia was left with power vacuums filled inadequately by warlords at the mercy of their fickle armies. And Greece was left with no dominant power, and it seems everyone fought everyone, desperately and constantly, often with both sides of a battle funded by the same nearby Mediterranean power.
So, it’s not a bad book, actually it’s a gem, but it’s a tough read. It’s already a massive amount of data, but Plutarch makes it thicker, leaving the reader flooded in endless detail. Reading means wading through rumors and counter rumors and strange prophecies predicting everything. It’s tough to every gain any speed or momentum, only a slow inertia allowed me to slowly pass through. It’s a disappointing because it was work. Whatever the enjoyment, and there was some, it was far less than the reward. After four months of exhausted reading, 1481 pages at 3½ to 4 minutes a page, I’m putting this down thinking only, thank goodness, and good riddance. Maybe I’ll feel differently later on.
30. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
translated 1965 by Walter J. Cobb
afterword 1965 by Andre Maurois, translated from French by Phyllis La Farge
format: 502-page Signet Classic paperback
acquired: from my childhood
read: May 5 – Jun 29
time reading: 21 hr 28 min, 2.6 min/page
Was this a just fairy tale? I mean a darker fairy tale, where the frog didn’t get kissed, and instead ran away with the goat? (That’s a little of a spoiler). No, seriously, Hugo put a lot of time into researching this Paris of 1482, and this Cathedral, but he held off writing it until time became desperate, this according to Andre Maurois in the afterword. Then, he spent weeks locked in a room, wearing a head-to-toe sweater that he couldn’t leave the house in, and crunched out the actual text. So, there is a lot of Hugo’s outsized ego here, in all its, well, charm maybe. Actually he had a lot of fun with the text, which is full of expansive humor, long-winded ideas only Hugo appreciate, and a complete panoramic of Paris from the top of the Cathedral, recreated from his research and likely freely filled-in with details he didn’t know or wanted; in any case, the medieval city and this building are both very much there.
I read this with a group on Litsy over 8 weeks, in separate short burst with lots of in-app discussion between. The timing was in response to the tragic fire this past May. It really felt light read for such a famous classic. But then these characters are embedded in my head. I now feel I know Quasimodo and his keeper, the dark sorcerer archdeacon Claude Frollo of the Notre-Dame cathedral; Esmeralda and her anti-hero, the penniless philosopher Pierre Gringoire, and few other characters too, particularly Esmeralda's remarkable little goat, Djali.
My take is that this feels like eastern fairy tale, something maybe out of 1001 Nights, that was transported to medieval Paris, and then wrapped in light philosophizing lessons of sorts on love, beauty, corruption, mobs, fate, bad kings and fatally flawed presumed-guilty-driven legal systems. (Here justice isn't just blind, but also deaf.) Perhaps he might have had a recent failed revolution in mind, and a disheartening restoration. Maurois thinks it's a dark work and certainly the end is darker than a reader who doesn't know might expect. But the humor and fun touches are mostly what I have mind when I think about it.
While I did enjoy reading and discussing this, the book never really wowed me. I gave it 3.5 stars.
Paris sometime before the fire. (The image is from an article on the fire with some kind of cool panoramic visuals, here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-18/notre-dame-walk-through/11024512 )
31. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
reader: Prentice Onayemi
format: 36:57 audible audiobook (912 pages in hardcover)
acquired: May 3
listened: May 4 – Jul 5
Years ago I read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and was kind of blown away, not only because it was such a powerful book, but also because it seemed so beautifully written. Unfortunately I've long forgot any aspect other than my impression and few factual details. But that impression stuck with me. Not everyone was writing beautiful autobiographies in 1845, and no one had his story line. The memory made me quite interested when this book came out.
Frederick Douglass was a fascinating figure and lived a long constantly interesting life. And in these 900 pages, David Blights walks us, slowly, through the full trajectory of it, from childhood as a house slave, the disciplinary actions he was subjected to, his young adult life as a slave and dock worker with income, when he became a self-taught intellectual, to his escape, emergence within the abolitionist movement as a special and remarkably erudite speaker. And this is just the beginning. Phew. Douglass would go on to defy the peaceable abolitionist movements (led by William Lloyd Garrison), stake out his own name, and migrate towards promoting violence, meeting a few times with John Brown. He would rejoice in the American Civil War, where he recruited heavily for black soldiers to enlist, and pushed his sons to join...but did not sign up himself. His relationship with Abraham Lincoln was one of my main interests and it was way more complicated than I realized...and Lincoln was a bit more racist than I realized. But then the war ended and so did slavery...
So, what's an abolitionist to do once his mission seems accomplished...and he makes his living giving speeches. This is one of the odd aspects of Douglass, he was just a normal person trying to enjoy a normal life...kind of. He was human anyway, and flawed. Tightly knit with his family, but also keeping at least one mistress. He was at this point a famous speaker and drew in large crowds wherever he spoke. But, as that was his main source of income, and he had to constantly travel around country and speak, without his core message.
With our vision in hindsight, it's easy to track the major issues of the day. Jim Crow laws were expanding, Jim Crow life was north and south. But, worse in the south where the racism was violent, repressive, with newly freed blacks suffering massacres and lynchings. And we know today the cumulative impact of this. But Douglass was full of hope after the Civil War. He expected some trials and so he could only preach for black Americans to go make a living. It was a long time, and years of speeches, before it began to click with Douglass how serious these problems were. Lynchings peaked in the 1890's, after reconstruction efforts faded, and for the elder Douglass the shoe eventually dropped, but the vigor he put into the anti-slavery movement was no longer all there.
This is a long book. The opening was fascinating and Blight's style is elegant, but tires after a while, at least on audio. And so the book tends to fade in the less interesting parts, but they don't really last long. There always another surprise around the corner, another chance meeting, new role, or family issue or dramatic changes to what was happening, what he was experiencing and what he was saying about it. Really, a fascinating life that I'm grateful to know it in detail from a solid and impressive effort from Blight. Recommended to those interested.
Douglass in his 20's, in the 1840's and at age ~58 in 1876
Excellent final review of your reading experience.
And another doorstop in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
As I said in my review, someone needs to write a historical novel from the POV of Ottilie Assing. She would make such a good antiheroine/unreliable narrator.
32. Nobody Knows My Name : More Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
format: 150 pages inside Collected essays
read: Jun 30 – Jul 6
time reading: 6 hr 22 min, 2.7 min/page
The next book in my track through Baldwin's works. I had trouble with some of his writing in Notes of a Native Son, but this is a more developed, cleaner writer and these essays are excellent. Baldwin is always on the attack through psychology. He's looking inward to find out how he really feels, and then he lets it out. The target is the myth of American white society and the consequences of it, particularly for racism. As he puts it, "There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead." Or, in another way, "the thing that most White people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life is really in sum, their innocence... I am afraid that most white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order..."
Included here are essays he wrote after his first tour of the American south, where he looks into the pioneers of public school desegregation, children who are the only black person to attend their high school, and who deal with constant open ridicule of the students, and who are fighting for an education while being completely alone. The alternatives are the criminally useless all-black schools where nothing is taught. I should add, he's not shy on attacking divides within the Atlanta black community, creating extra types of segregation.
My favorite essay was his attack on Willam Faulkner, who considered himself a moderate intellectual, and yet was quoted as saying he would defend the South, and Mississippi, if necessary "even if it meant going out in the streets and shooting Negroes," !! Baldwin writes, "Faulkner--among so many others--is so plaintive concerning this "middle of the road" from which "extremist" elements of both races are driving him that it does not seem unfair just to ask what he has been doing there until now. Where is the evidence of the struggle he has been carrying on there on behalf of the Negro? Why, if he and his enlightened confreres in the South have been boring from within to destroy segregation, do they react with such panic when the walls show any signs of falling? Why--and how--does one move from the middle of the road where one was aiding Negroes into the streets--to shoot them?"
I'm quite fascinated by this path through Baldwin's work. I've started Another Country, his 3rd novel (which starts off wonderfully), and then I'll get to his most famous essays in The Fire Next Time. I might be looking forward to that a little.
That link about Notre-Dame is great. It's a shame that the cathedral was nearly destroyed by the spectacular incompetence of the workers, who were allowed to light cigarettes adjacent to the wooden roof, even though it didn't have a sprinkler system, and the security team, which took half an hour to realize where the fire was.
33. The History of Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
editor: Jonathan V. Crewe
published: Dated 1601/2, registered 1603, this edition from 2000
format: 156 page Pelican Shakespeare paperback.
read: Jun 22 - Jul 20m
time reading: 8 hr 36 min, 3.3 min/page
One of Shakespeare's problem plays because, well, for one, it's really difficult, but mainly because it's comedy but not really. Actually it's a very cynical comedy. Troilus and Cressida is long, generates a lot of confusion and frustration and has a limited stage history, but it's complicated in interesting ways, and, in the right mindset, very rewarding. I read this over five weekends with a group on Litsy, our 5th Shakespeare of 2019, not bad. I had force through it a little, but ultimately I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Shakespeare pulls from the Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, which pulled off the medieval tradition when Homer's texts were lost, and other literary traditions evolved from it. The Iliad's Briseis, the captive Achilles had to give up to Agamemnon, setting up the Iliad's main story, has been transformed into a Trojan princess, Cressida, who is traded to the Greeks for a warrior...but only after falling in love with one of sons of Trojan king Priam, Troilus. Shakespeare also would have pulled off of George Chapman's translation of the Iliad in 1598. Familiarity with the Iliad helped me pick up a lot of the humor.
This is a comedy with a hard cynical perspective on Homer, and also on power, war and romance. Every famous Homeric character from the Iliad is here dressed down and often exposed as fraud. Achilles, for example, doesn't leave off in isolation, but hides in his tent, on stage, leaving Patroclus at the entrance to say he isn't there when the embassy (Iliad Chapter 9) shows up. He also has others take down Hector while he watches and then takes credit.
There are many things that make this play work. The most brilliant, by the bard, was maybe the conversion of Thersites. Homer's version of Thersites is only in one brief scene where he complains to his fellow Greeks about the ridiculous war, then nine years old, and is put in his place by Odysseus. He became the standard of the bad soldier throughout the classical tradition. Here Thersites is converted into a Shakespearean fool, mocking every other character in clever and often hilarious ways, and providing a signpost to the audience (or reader) of the cynical perspective intended. "Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery, nothing else holds fashion," he sums for us. Then there's Troilus, with a youthful romantic idealism and a devout love of Cressida, and many beautiful lines, and Panderus, the uncle of Cressida, who views himself as a woe-begotten pimp, and provides the origin of our word pander. But the best character, for me, is Cressida, who plays a different role in every scene. Here mocking Troilus's romantic notions while giving advice for women to hold out on the sex, because for men "Achievement is command, ungained, beseech". Then, next she is wooing Troilus, then, once in the Greek camp, she quickly adjusts, smartly handling all the main Greeks in one scene, and working over the Greek she's been given to, Troilus's opposite, the crude, unromantic and sexually explicit Diomedes. A lot of the readers in our group (all women, I am the only male) found the treatment of Cressida and other women horrendous. They're treated as property, and suffer with no control or value as human. But, it's the setting that allows Cressida to evolve into a character worth some reflection and admiration. Pitiful me, I dwelt on the latter.
This was supposed to be a brief review, but got a little out of hand. Apologies for the length. I gave this five stars, recommended for the brave.
>130 lisapeet: Yes, lots in that play. How brave are you, Lisa? 😂
>131 sallypursell: Who knows, Sally. Maybe a play will click next time. Interesting about Lamb’s Tales
>132 AlisonY: it’s a really obscure one, Alison. Obscure enough I knew nothing about it when I started.
34. Another Country by James Baldwin
format: 390 pages inside Early Novels and Stories
read: Jul 7-26
time reading: 14 hr 12 min, 2.2 min/page
My litsy post, written just as I finished: Finished on my way out of town. Seems Baldwin aims to shock and had bought into Freud. Often called pornographic, there is a lot of sex in detail... sometimes it‘s beautiful, but it‘s always uncomfortable and it‘s never the point. He‘s looking at sexuality, race, psychology, and at the loneliness within the unnatural landscape of the heart of Manhattan. The books a mash, too much. Runs and sputters, fades, returns, irritating and powerful.
I had a strong opinion on finishing, so glad I captured a little of my mood in the Litsy review. I got too busy to review and now it's...well, it has a different feel. The hard lines have softened and my sense of the book has mellowed overall, both on what I didn't like and what I liked. I even changed my rating up ½ a star.
Apologies to short attention spans (I have one too) but I need to slow this down a bit. When Baldwin was asked about Giovanni's Room, a high profile openly and beautifully gay novel, he was asked why he didn't address racism, since his reputation was as a "negro" writer who wrote about racism (yes, the question is racist). He said it was too much, in one book, to address racism and homosexuality. He apparently changed his mind, or, the world was just rapidly changing in this era. A black bisexual musician, Rufus, opens this book and his homosexuality, his interracial relationships, his blackness and a variety of perspectives on race issues are only some of the "shock" elements in this book. It's a lot for one book.
Another Country is a book commonly banned, especially from schools, because it's considered pornographic. The opening is a play-by-play, emotion-by-emotion sex scene. (It's one of the most beautiful scenes in the book.) It's not exactly an unfair assessment, although Baldwin would disagree. He was trying to shock anyone uncomfortable with the various sexual connections he comes up with. Regardless of his purpose, sex is a tough way to drive a plot and the pace of this book is all over the place, dreamy here, fast here, slow and really dull there. It would have been an easy book to give up halfway through. Ultimately it's really rewarding; a character driven, thought-provoking look at many different things, especially at life in Manhattan and the loneliness of being in the midst of all those buildings and people.
On closing the book I was thinking a lot about the pace and about some sex scenes that really bothered me, and about some that were really beautiful. As the bright colors faded over this past week, I'm left with mainly the beautiful impressions, the dreamy quality and tenderness with which Baldwin creates his characters. An outrageous personality, nothing is simple with Baldwin, but he seems to have a little longing for some unobtainable peaceful simplicity.
Recommended for fans of Baldwin who have already read Giovanni's Room know this book is too busy to be anywhere as good as that one was, but still maybe has its own lingering power.
Several years ago I read and very much enjoyed the Baldwin biography you started with, but I'm sorry to say Baldwin's works are still on my to-read list. I have to get started on those. My wife and I did watch I Am Not Your Negro, the recent documentary about him though and were riveted.
Henry IV, 1 and 2 are my favorite Shakespeare plays. Just find them entirely compelling. Plus, I studied them as part of a great Shakespeare seminar in grad school.
My review of Milkman can be found on my "rocketjk catches up" thread here in Group Read. I was pretty much in awe.
Regarding Northern Irish accents, I have very little experience. I once met a whole group of folks from Belfast, though, who were staying over in the same hotel I was enjoying in County Sligo. Mostly, I could understand them fine, and they seemed to catch my New Jersey accent, as well. However, there was one fellow I encountered at the bar whose accent was so thick that I could barely understand a thing he was saying, other than the fact that he was being friendly. So I bought him a pint and had one myself, and that seemed to go over OK.
Hiv - I’m meeting Falstaff again in Merry Wives of Windsor. That’s really cool that you studied Hiv. Maybe you could have helped me with Part 2. : ) Of course, they’re memorable plays and no matter how hard I try to orient myself to the real history, these characters insinuate themselves into my default understanding and then everything else I know becomes a secondary correction.
I’ll check out your Milkman post. That one gets stronger over time and reflection and whenever I come across an excerpt, I’m riveted.
I guess beer solves a lot of problems.
I’ve been neglecting my book groups lately, just life trends and happenings. But when I get back (and this group is always my first and favorite, a comfort zone) I’ll spend some time on your thread. It’s nice having you active here.
>143 AlisonY: : )
35. Spring by Ali Smith
format: 339 page hardcover (with lots of blank pages)
read: Jul 26-30
time reading: 7 hr 48 min, 1.4 min/page (?? Mostly a guess)
I adore Ali Smith, and I liked this a lot. But I noticed this one is thinner than the first two seasons, and more plainly political. While she touches, nicely, on Catherine Mansfield, and Rainer Maria Rilke and the theme of Orpheus and Eurydice, she is focused on the current attitudes and mistreatment of refugees. She interviewed UK Immigration Removal Center (IRC) employees and refugees, creating some data for a basis here. It seems, in this book, her response, our prophet has maybe buried herself in the present. The first two of the quartet left me with more to think about than this did. Still, this is a nice addition to our times and I'm looking forward to Summer.
36. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
format: 56 pages inside Collected essays
read: Jul 30 – Aug 2
time reading: 2 hr 55 min, 3.1 min/page
I feel uncomfortable adding commentary to a text that I think is bigger and more meaningful then simply the words on the page. The title itself, and the threat implied, hovers over the 56 pages of text, and everything becomes a little taut. The essays within are maybe Baldwin's best, combining his strengths of striking autobiography and his thoughtful and always shocking psychological observations of racism and its pervasiveness, meaning and cost. The title for me held the most tension when Baldwin describes his meeting with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and captures the raw power around this movement even as he gently mocks it. The movement was bigger than him, as the book is bigger than me.
This is the book from which Ta-Nehisi Coates pulled his title Between the World and Me, and which Coates is most intimately conversing with as he responds to the long string of unarmed black men and children killed by American police. Baldwin captures a similar background of fear within his era of blacks towards the white society and authority, and the efforts of blacks to please white cultural judgment even has this wasn't possible. He describes this fear as something “nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel”, and then characterizes how the fears "rose up like a wall between the world and me.”
Plutarch - not really on my radar at the moment, although Arthur Hugh Clough is one of those niggling little interests I want to pursue at some point, so you never know...
Shakespeare - Troilus & Cressida is one of the few I've never seen on stage, having enjoyed your review I must get around at least to watching the BBC version. It seems to be a play that writers who like to live dangerously refer to a lot (Simon Raven, for instance).
Victor Hugo - still on my long catch-up list of French literature I missed out on when I was younger (and too tied up in German and English books).
Baldwin - The fire next time is an amazingly powerful bit of writing - of the Baldwin I've read, it's the book that impressed me the most.
And good to see that you and Darryl managed to meet. :-)
Slow myself on all things online that take...well, any concentration. My son's Bar Mitzvah is Friday. I'll have a whole of catching up to do.
37. My Ántonia by Willa Cather
format: 372-page paperback - Houghton Mifflin Sentry Edition from the 1980’s
acquired: from my in-laws
read: Jul 1 – Aug 9
time reading: 8 hr 38 min, 1.4 min/page
Cather oddly gets harder to write about as I read through her novels. I had her simplified as nature writer, or, at least a landscape writer, who also had a knack for characters. But this book requires a different perspective. I started this thinking so many things at once - it's her most famous classic, it's her first first-person book, the narrator is a man, there a restrained sort of love, things aren't getting said, there's the landscape, the prairies and the grass, there is the American mythology (looking at you, Petroglyph), there is outright defiance of the cultural expectations, there's a promise of plot, and then it skips out - like a rock skipping over water. After a long opening section, the book sort of devolves into disconnected glimpses, each less than the previous one. So, I found myself questioning, and tormenting up this poor author to figure what she's doing, and this is seriously such the wrong way read Cather.
Chill Dan, let it do whatever it does, I tell myself after I've finished and read the last paragraph and finally had someone point out to me that this final paragraph really is a major point of this novel, the book as a gentle self-realization by our narrator.
This was another book I read with a group on Litsy, spread out over several weeks (that group being the someone, or someone's noted just above). The third and last of the Prairie Trilogy, we're back in Nebraska and I expected Cather to tell me, "Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I.” Jim Burden is orphaned in Virginia as young boy and sent, by rail, to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. He doesn't tell us his state of mind, or his emotions as he takes in the Nebraska landscape in a kind of catharsis. "As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running." And shortly later he compares it to "a sort of loose hide", a living breathing entity.
As Jim grows up, he connects with families in neighboring farms, especially the Shimerdas, newly immigrated from Bohemia, and especially their older daughter Ántonia. The family has gone from a sort of comfort in the old country to a kind of state of desperation in Nebraska. Ántonia will be unschooled, hired out to do some of the most intensive field labor. Jim grows to admire, especially, the immigrant daughters, all raised to help their families and kind of sacrifice themselves for the sake of the family farms. While some of these girls will get married and start traditional families, they tend toward independence, many finding their own fortunes, creating their own businesses and making their own mistakes, all this in mythically old-fashioned, fin de siècle small town and rural Nebraska. The non-immigrant Jim will follow the traditional path, going to school and then college and becoming a lawyer in an apparently unhappy childless marriage.
The book is told in Jim's voice, and his affection for Ántonia in particular is clear throughout. And yet the reader is left to wonder, maybe, at the romantic potential Jim doesn't pursue. In Ántonia's greatest moment of need, Jim disappears...for 20 years. In his words, "I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again." We read this story and learn very little about Jim, while learning a lot about Nebraska, its landscape and these remarkable immigrant girls.
The book deserves some kind of big picture view, in light of its role as a classic in the American mythology and of the purity and strength of the small town and immigrant settler mindset. Cather was interested mainly in the women, and the strength and independence they possess, which isn't exactly the book's reputation, but isn't contrary to it either. She seemed to be trying to highlight what gets overlooked, and in this she was not entirely successful. She is also creating her own Garden of Eden, a nostalgic one that bonds all her characters to their life in this unstained small place and time. This she does terrifically.
(A nice touch, something you could only do on TV, was that the Greeks were in more-or-less Elizabethan military costume, but when you looked closely you noticed that they all had name tapes on their tunics, like GIs in an American war film.)
Best wishes for your son’s Bar Mitzvah!
My Antonia is one of those books I read way too young, in 9th grade English class. Your comments are making me seriously consider a revisit.
As to your son's Bar Mitvah . . . Mazel tov!
>157 rocketjk: Cather has a lot of surprises, especially in her prose - which My Antonia only brings out a little. In The Song of the Lark she goes off on the Arizona desert and, well, she is just in her writer element there. Also, thanks. Getting close.
BTW: I found the programme notes, which said the look Miller was going for in the Greek camp was M*A*S*H. I can see that - the same feel of a war that's been going on forever. But the characters in M*A*S*H were a lot younger than Miller's heavily-bearded Greeks...
I'm curious how you find these group reads on Litsy. I feel like there's a whole side of that app that I'm missing. I've been very streaky about going on it at all.
>160 RidgewayGirl: Thanks. That one line, "In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions." - That struck home with me. Not sure what I expected from Cather, but I recommend her for the prose alone - even in she sort of rations it out.
>161 japaul22: Jennifer - the first rule in Litsy is follow everyone. Go find people who follow people you also follow and just start adding names till you get to one or two hundred or even twice that (I haven't checked if you're already doing that). Then you will start getting a splash of information and see what you like. It's remarkably entertaining to see what people who are totally different than you read, among other things. With Cather I simply posted on a book of her, just another of my posts. This time someone said suggested to do a group read. And then others joined. So, it was very random and yet we're doing another (with only a small group now - five I think). We'll do One of Ours, I just need to come with a schedule (not doing that this weekend...)
>164 japaul22: maybe. I’m irregular too, go through stages when I’m really into it and when I don’t check much. It’s a different kind of thing than this, more throw away of the moment posting, whereas here I post thinking I might come back to it years later (because I do!)
>165 NanaCC: I think Jane posting something like that too, how much she liked One of Ours. I had never heard of it before this year. Won a Pulitzer. Noting.
And very nice review of My Antonia (which I haven't read since 7th grade).
>168 labfs39: So true, Lisa.
>168 labfs39: / >167 avaland: Interesting on Cather. She reads well for adults to. ! Lisa - can’t promise you would like Cather, but you would have a different impression now. I might argue she surprises more in other books - but then such a comment unfairly undercuts a little of the underlying stuff going on here.
>169 sallypursell: I am super proud of him. He did work hard (but probably not as hard as his mom to plan this whole thing)
>170 lisapeet: It was such a great weekend, such a good excuse to bring the family together. I miss everyone (says the one who struggles with any guests). So, yes, memorable in a good way, and thanks!
Just a few thoughts among the many that leapt out as I was going through:
>11 dchaikin: My book club just read the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf in August and I must say it was amazing. Luckily, unlike many others, I had not had any unfortunate experiences with it in college to taint my reading, having carefully avoided all courses in which it was included. If you can, get the illustrated edition, which adds so much to the reading and was a real eye-opener for me, featuring as it does items from the actual era in which the saga was written. Although I have the unillustrated version, I am ordering this one as well.
>114 dchaikin: I picked up The Hunchback of Notre Dame for a reread three years ago, but the time wasn't right. Like you, the fire inspired me to read it again, but unfortunately it still seems to be in a box. Your review will make me find that box and pursue it once more.
>121 dchaikin: James Baldwin on William Faulkner - will have to read that as well.
I can see how you would be sidetracked by Willa Cather. She has that effect. You've encouraged me to read more of her and also to start on Ali Smith who I am sure will be another distraction.
Has your classical reading given you any thoughts of learning Latin or Greek?
I have Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, but I don’t think there are any illustrations. (Guiltily, I haven’t checked). Michael Alexander translated some pieces in his Earliest English Poems, but not sure that did much for me. Will see how Heaney does.
Interesting that you’re considering rereading The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It’s not one I feel I’ll be drawn back to. But, for me, it was nice to touch my all too large 19th-century gap.
Cather has been terrific and a nice surprise in a way. Hoping you try and like Ali Smith.
Latin, Greek...don’t forget Hebrew and now Old English. I have no confidence in my ability with a second language, unfortunately. If I did, then I might be interested. I would like to learn some rudimentary stuff.
Thanks for stopping by, SL.
38. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
reader: Christopher Dontrell Piper
format: 19:08 audible audiobook (592 pages in hardcover)
listened: Jul 8 – Aug 13
This this is a history of racism and racist ideas, even if it's maybe more a manifesto more than a history. Kendi's motivation was the rampant racist American law enforcement we see today, not to mention all the other aspects of our current (well, pre-Trump, but was there then too) racism.
The book reads like a kind of black people's history of the United States, beginning with the Portuguese first encounters with black Africans and then tracing the path of the various European justifications for Christian race-based slavery. It's quick, fascinating and feels like a traditional history until he starts calling Frederick Douglass racist (accurately). His underlying point is that treating black people, or any people, as anything different then, well, people, is racist. This is straightforward on the surface, but there are a lot of ideas I hadn't considered before as racist. Assimilation is, from this perspective, fundamentally racist and one of our root causes of racism. That makes Martin Luther King a racist...and many of his ideas counter-productive. It makes all the early black leaders racist, although W.E.B Du Bois, author of The Souls of Black Folk, evolved his ideas over time, coming to a more Kendi-friendly position when he was older. It also leaves many Civil Rights era black leaders as essentially pushing racist ideas (exceptions include Huey Newton, Malcolm X and James Baldwin. Zora Neale Hurston is an earlier exception...although Kendi doesn't go into some of her more controversial comments.).
Among the ideas I took in was Kendi's concept of “upward suasion” - racism based on the idea that minorities must convince others not be racist by acting better than other people (and being better educated and more accomplished than other people). And the idea of the exceptional genius used to explain Frederic Douglass or Barack Obama, with the racist implication of their somehow coming from a inferior race.
I usually have a lot of issues with books that have an agenda, but I had few here. Kendi is essentially exactly right and I learned a lot. Recommended to those interested, with the note that it's mostly a nice read that keeps the readers interest.
39. The Earliest English Poems by Michael Alexander
published: 1966, revised 1977, 1991
format: 200 page Kindle ebook
acquired: Aug 3
read: Aug 8-16
time reading: 8 hr 4 min, 2.8 min/page
My Listy post: Wasn‘t sure what to expect. It was nice, the poems, and then I encountered The Wanderer and The Seafarer (the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon manuscript is below). You have to understand these were completely new to me. They have such a different perspective compared to everything I know of that‘s older. They look inward at an emotional state in their own kind of touching way. And to imagine, as I currently am, that they just came out of the mist.
Some reference links for anyone curious (note, these are long poems)
Michael R. Burch's The Seafarer - decent, easy to understand translation
Ezra Pound's The Seafarer - a classic translation. This takes some work to get through...but it's quite something.
Sean Miller's The Wanderer - decent, easy to understand translation, with a note about Tolkien's LoRT
40. Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
format: 193 pages inside Early Novels and Stories
read: Aug 16-28
time reading: 7 hr 15 min, 2.3 min/page
My Litsy post: There‘s a long path of Baldwin‘s life in this short story collection, capped, easily, by the magnificent Sonny‘s Blues. Baldwin does some lovely, beautiful gently-created characters and tears them up. The last story, the title story on going to see a lynching, hovers over everything else. These stories are about racism even when they‘re not.
41. The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
editor David Crane
originally performed: probably 1597, maybe 1601
this edition published: 1997, updated 2010
format: 173 page Kindle ebook from The New Cambridge Shakespeare series
acquired: borrowed from amazon while reading
read: Aug 4-31
time reading: 17 hr 10 min, 6.0 min/page
From Litsy: Glad I have now read this, but it‘s not a favorite Shakespeare on the page. Seems this one is dependent on the performance and if the actors can pull it off, it‘s probably great fun and Fallstaff strikes again, or is brought down again. But hacking through the text is a mixed experience.
(Took me longer to read than normal partly because the notes were more extensive and partly because the ebook format was a mess, requiring of clicking to flip between the notes and the text. Fortunately I rented it, instead of buying. So it only cost $2)
ETA: I should have added that Shakespeare apparently had all of two weeks to write this one.
>177 dchaikin: What a beautiful page that is!
Agree about The Seafarer manuscript. When I hunted down a picture, I didn’t expect it to be that beautiful. Its stunning.
However, see >11 dchaikin: which I just updated yesterday. Seems Shakespeare would often have several plays coming out in some years. These dates are mostly iffy, and he could have been using older material in many cases. But, regardless, you get he feeling he worked pretty fast.
>188 lisapeet: humanizes him, writing furiously for cash flow. I like these details too, and also like my authors human, and dealing with life and imperfect in their own way.
42. Beowulf : a new verse translation by Seamus Heaney
published: 2000 (original written c750)
format: 213 page paperback, alternating Old and current English plus 34 page introduction
acquired: December from a Half-Price Books
read: Aug 28 – Sep 8
time reading: 5 hr 54 min, 2.1 min/page
My Litsy post shortly after finishing:
The end of my little peak in Anglo-Saxon lit. Shorter than I expected, less poetic than I expected too (per Heaney‘s translation). I tried to slow down and absorb it a bit, but the story just rushes through making quick work of Grendel and Mom and focusing really on the end of the Geats after Beowulf‘s death fighting a dragon in old age. Some really great touches zoomed by in a blink. Someday I should reread with some reflection. Some day.Afraid I don't have much to add. Wikipedia tells me the Geats didn't end like the poem suggests. They did become part of Sweden, but the nature of the blending of the Swedes and Geats is left up to conjecture. The status of the Geats c750, for example, is uncertain. They may have been independent or may have been ruled by Swedes, or may have united themselves with the Swedes for protection from Danes and other invaders. But then an academic Beowulf website says confidently, "As the poem suggests, the Geats appear to have been conquered and disappeared into history."
43. An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
reader: Chukwudi Iwuji
format: 18:08 audible audiobook (464 pages in hardcover)
acquired: Aug 13
listened: Aug 14 – Sep 15
I was taken in early. Chinonso, a young Nigerian chicken farmer, sees a young woman looking over the edge of a bridge. He stops his truck, grabs a couple chickens, runs over to the woman and tells her not to jump, and, to illustrate why not, tosses his two chickens over. Then he drives off. We're left wondering about this young man who seems so gallant and cruel at the same time, and the odd and innocent way he created some kind of intimacy out of nothing of the sort. We we're left wondering what happened to the women. We're slowly told through Chinonso's Chi, a kind of Igbo guardian spirit. The Chi can read some of Chinonso's thoughts, and can mildly influence them, but the Chi itself has been around a long time, dealt with a number of Nigeria lives, and learned many things, and it can see the world around Chinonso in ways he can't. The Chi can even leave Chinonso and explore the world on its own. But it's not all-knowing and cannot see the future and cannot control Chinonso. Instead it becomes an observer and, as a our narrator, a nimble tool for a writer.
Over the long trend of the novel, this becomes a variation of the Odyssey-Aeneid-Divine Comedy theme of travel and other-worldly travels. Maybe there's some Milton too. But on the immediate page, we are in the midst of one the of the several worlds Obioma has created with his pen, each with its own overall atmosphere, tensions, feeling and so on, and we experience them slowly, our draw dependent on the storyteller's skill. It's not a book anyone could write. But Obioma has some mastery in telling these stories, and then in completely changing things, building another world without losing his reader. I do wonder at the role the reader, Chukwudi Iwuji, played in this experience. He reads the book with a strong Nigerian accent, and gives the Nigerian Pidgin English an accent and stress I never could have imagined just reading the text, changing fundamental emphases within the dialogue.
I guess what I'm saying is I loved the paradise Obioma creates and I loved the way he sets up the ending to this paradise, and all the ways he goes about it. We can sense a lot of problems over the edge, but we never know what it's going to be like when we get there and or how it will turn out, and I never lost interest. Fun book, especially on audio.
(My first on the 2019 Booker lists)
44. One of Ours by Willa Cather
format: Kindle book (roughly ~350 pages)
read: Sep 2-21
time reading: 13 hr 52 min, ~2.4 min/page
The 1923 Pulitzer doesn't exactly stand out from Cather's other works, but there are some things she does more intensely here than anywhere else. She slows the story down, relying more on her storytelling mastery, and she brings in critical research and eye-witness interviews.
This is a World War I book, and Cather is quoted as hating that classification. But it's here she takes us to France, into the trenches and so on. Inspired by a close neighbor who was a casualty of war, Cather, the onetime news reporter, went to France and walked the battle fields, and interviewed numerous veterans. And, of course, she partially grew up in Nebraska. Claude Wheeler, her main character, is partially her neighbor, and, apparently, partially Cather herself.
There is nothing about WWI in the opening, and no foreshadowing, no hint. Cather is again writing about Nebraska and, again, from a different perspective. Claude is the son of a prosperous farmer who has the money to send him away to school, in Lincoln Nebraska, but not the interest. So Claude, who never seems to get anything right, suffers through a second-rate religious school run by close-minded ministers who he can see through, and then comes home and works the farm, with a few other characters, all wonderfully drawn. Claude's dad is especially curious, outwardly kindly, inwardly sharp, calculating and all business. Claude will see through some of this, but still get worked over by his father, then stumble into a marriage without the awareness of what he's doing, and then have to figure out what to do next. Seems he never is able to see too far ahead, and neither are we.
All this takes half the book. Cather takes us through casually, and it's terrific. Of course, this is a WWI book, and Claude will volunteer and leave little behind beyond a compromised mother who is happy to see him off (another terrific and complicated character).
I'm going to leave this review off here because WWI has its own draw, and an effort at an accurate depiction will draw in whomever it does, and, as always, leave us readers wondering what is rosy and what is real. I think it's safe to say Cather doesn't flinch from anything, but she is hopelessly in love with atmosphere and landscape and she couldn't possibly keep herself in those trenches without a walk around. Also, her last page is worth the rest of book. I can't keep myself from adding that Homer and Virgil seem to be in every book I read recently. The simple tricks Homer uses in the Odyssey to keep the listener's attention as the story switches gears, toying with the underworld, arguably the central part of Virgil's Aeneid, and have their echo here too. Travel in general and the underworld, specifically, with its mixed awful and cleansing properties, seem to be cornerstones in all literature.
Cather so far comes recommended by me in all forms. Here is another. Terrific stuff.
45. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
format: 311 page paperback
acquired: September 17
read: Sep 23-28
time reading: 9 hr 7 min, 1.8 min/page
My Litsy post after finishing:
As I came to near the end, which I had completely forgotten, I had to wonder what Atwood would have done differently, if anything, had she known this would be such a persistently timely classic. And I wondered if she knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote it, or if she was stumbling in the dark trying to figure out how to get there. The language seems simple, the atmosphere pervasive, and it‘s more disturbing now than when I 1st read it.Arrogantly, maybe, I like what I wrote there, but there's a lot more to say. For one, I found it interesting in her new introduction (from 2017) that she explains that she had experiences from traveling recently in Eastern Europe in mind—behind the Iron Curtain in 1984. I think it's pretty well known that 1984 was a key influence and that a lot of readers see this as something like a feminist-perspective variation on this—an imaginable dystopia that pulls from what we actually see in our real world. But it makes the construction more interesting to me—that Soviet-dominated Eastern European surveillance may lie behind of lot of what is tangible in the nature of this world.
A second thing, on this reread, is that I started to pick up on the uncomfortable aspects of her memories. If you haven't read it, our Offred had a normal life in the 1980's before this slowly revealed world took over, allowing her to contrast our then and her now, and it gives this terrific color. But she is selective and provocative. She isn't remembering nice things, even if they may have been nice to pre-Offred Offred, she is remembering controversial and stressful things. Just, well, it's interesting.
Third, a few things left me puzzling what Offred is not telling us.
And last, I don't know that Atwood was stumbling in dark writing this, since it's probably more likely she had it all worked out, and carefully constructed. But, I liked thinking that while reading, and I liked thinking about all the problems she would have had to encounter and watching how she dealt with them, and wondering whether she might have dealt with them differently today.
Anyway, enough on a book most of us have either read or know enough about not to need another casual review. I enjoyed it, recommend it everyone and now I'm ready for The Testaments, which I'll start on audio on my way to work on Monday.
I thought you might want another perspective. Anyway, I imagined that not concentrating on her earlier life was something of a defense mechanism; it would have been something that could make her really miserable, and that going through the motions might be all that she could stand right now. I also thought she had all she could do to remain complaisant, and that thinking about other times might make it impossible.
I can barely imagine what this would be like! I lived in the 50's and 60's, and I remember how infuriated it made me to be treated like a child, have decisions made for me, have people assume I had no worthwhile input, that I knew nothing, thought nothing, and was too emotional to have a responsible work life. Even as late as the 70's I sometimes simmered over the oppression of women and girls, and I lived in mostly tolerable circumstances. At present it is still making me angry. If I had then been forced into a situation like Offred's, I would certainly have focused on the next thing I had to do, rather than the life I had left behind. It is no wonder how many women in this book showed behavior that got them punished or killed, and then not mentioned.
Some ten years ago we got behind on paying our income tax, and I had some trouble with them not crediting payments. When i called, I was told that I couldn't make payments with my own Social Security Number, I had to send it in with my husband's. This is the more weird because he had little income that year, and I was supporting the family. The worker said it was only natural that the payment I sent was not credited, as it was "improperly sent". I was told that if I did not reference my husband's SSN, mine were not valid payments. She agreed that she had a computer posting that showed a payment had been made. Nevertheless, it took me half an hour to convince her to credit it to our account.
Only 15 years ago I asked that our pediatrician put my name on the children's accounts. Instead, I was just told that all kids were listed under fathers' names, even if the dad never was there, the insurance and payments were in the wife's name, and they knew the wife by sight.
There's no point in going on with this. Those are just minor examples, although not out of line of the rest of my life. I had nothing like Offred's life, but I feel I understand her approach quite well. Of course, we never know what we are going to do in a crunch situation, do we?
She does have good memories in The Handmaid’s Tale. They aren’t bad on their own, it’s the implications. She tells how she made and had her own money, and how empowering that was - and inside I started stressing about the insecurity of my own income (which is kind of a manufactured worry - it’s not something I’m currently preoccupied with, anyway). And she had a single mother - what was her mother’s life like? She has an affair with a married man - what about his wife? All of this, in my head, undermines our imagined - falsely imagined - secure foundations. That’s what I was trying to get at. I suspect she did that intentionally. If nothing else, it reveals the kind of worries that lead to dystopian ideas.
I really did only want to give you the sense of having to put up with lack of agency. When I spoke of being "infuriated" I was referring to the fury that she surely had to tamp down all the time. I had a privileged childhood. My family was mostly egalitarian. But the society was not egalitarian, and fury did nothing except make the situation worse. I imagined that in Offred's life if she started to even consider her fury then she would be at risk of death. But can you imagine not even being allowed a name? Begin called by the name of your oppressor?
Some other of Atwood's heroines have failed to be admirable to me as well, but each was in a very difficult situation, and did what she could to tolerate her life.
46. Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone by James Baldwin
format: 484 page Vintage paperback
read: Sep 6 – Oct 3 (9 days reading, scattered)
time reading: 14 hr 3 min, 1.7 min/page
My Litsy review:
"I got more and more into this kind of sensitive look at a life from the Harlem streets to fame. It‘s a long slow book, and very intimate. Loneliness takes many forms."
As the cover indicates, this is somewhat centered on an interracial relationship, one that began during WWII when Leo Proudhammer was teenager. But while that might have a been a draw of some kind in 1968, it's not what the book leaves us thinking about. Leo welcomes us to his book as he's having a heart attack that began on stage while he was performing with Barbara, his white long-time partner. There are some oddities in his world, and in his perspective, in his relationship to his own stardom as his doctors and nurses fawn over him. There is no sense of personal empowerment or the kind of confidence you might expect in someone so successful. "You are news. Whatever you do is news. But it does not take long to realize, at least assuming one wishes to live, that to be news is really to be nothing." And then he looks back and begins to tell his story, growing up in Harlem, watching his revered older brother go to prison, practically divorcing his loving family to go into show business. The stress, dedication, wild life of being an actor without any income New York City, working all night, rehearsing all day, doing the crazy things we can do when we're young.
Baldwin was a tender writer, and all his characters capture your affection, even if it's slowly drawn out, as here. I picked this up three times, and put it down twice, I didn't mind reading, and I didn't mind letting it sit. And when I picked it up again, I got right back into the flow, the poverty, and off-relationships, all of them. Leo Proudhammer is, of course, another Baldwin alter ego. He has a tough background, an ingrained sense of racism, he's bisexual with unusual choices of attachment, and, perhaps, very lonely, partially in a self-inflicted kind of way. "Everyone wishes to be loved, but, in the event, nearly no one can bear it." That loneliness is what I felt strongly as I finished and put the book down. It's there from opening, from the way Barbara and the rest of the cast respond to his heart attack. But it seems to hit hard at the end. When I finished, the book left me with a weight I wasn't fully aware was accumulating. It hung around, all of it.
James Baldwin in 1968
Interesting thoughts and discussion around the book and Offred's character, especially >207 dchaikin: and how she makes choices and based on what.
Off to catch up on your next thread as well!