Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Women of Trachis by Sophocles (circa 430?)

I read the very old play Women of Trachis by Sophocles (circa 430?) as part of my journey through Harold Bloom's western canon list, and I think it might be one of my favorite very old plays ever.

Here Sophocles tells the story of Deianeira, the long-suffering wife of Heracles (yes, that guy, the one the Romans called Hercules). She's been basically abandoned and raising their children while Heracles goes off to war and has adventures. She hears that her husband is finally coming home, but in the group of women prisoners from the city he sacked is one beautiful well-born lady, Ione, and Deianeira finds out that Heracles brought her back to take as a mistress. Deianeira tries to play it cool, but is feeling insecure and old and lonely and ends up using a love potion she got from a centaur to try and keep Heracles eye from straying. The potion plan goes horribly awry and after a bunch of death and some exceedingly amazing tragedy, things end and no one is happy.

The translation I read is extremely crisp and modern-feeling, but other translations I looked at online have much of the same feel to them, so some of that has to come from the original. I love that this play is almost entirely told by a woman, Deianeira, and a chorus (the titular Women of Trachis), and the usual hero, Heracles, doesn't come in until the final section of the play (and isn't all that heroic when he does arrive). And the tragedy, my God, the tragedy! This is one that everyone should read, and one that I'm definitely going to read again.

[Interested? Read the whole damn thing for free here, because very old plays are totally in the public domain. Just try reading the first monologue and see if you can stop yourself from reading the whole thing. Go on, I dare you.]

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Troop 142: A Graphic Novel by Mike Dawson (2011)

My lovely friend John is storing a couple boxes of graphic novels and other assorted books at our house for an indefinite period of time, and rather than just leaving them sadly alone in a closet, I've put them out on a couple of shelves and I'm planning to read my way through most of them. Lucky for me, John and I have similar taste in books, but he also buys a lot more graphic novels than I do and knows about way more cool authors.

The first random book from the John pile is Troop 142: A Graphic Novel by Mike Dawson (2011). This comic tells the story of one week with the Boy Scouts at Pinewood Forest Camp, New Jersey in the summer of 1995, complete with badge earning, campfire singing, pranks, drugs, (thinking/talking about) sex, and lots and lots of horseplay.

I've never been a boy, a Boy Scout, or attended any kind summer camp, but the uncomfortableness of adolescence and the weirdness of being stuck with a group of your peers is relatively universal. The point of view of the book changes, but we are often seeing things through the eyes of one of the chaperones, a "new to camp" dad of two of the boys. Moving from the teenage to the adult perspective keeps the story from getting too bogged down in either camp (ha!) and the cartoony drawings have an unexpected amount of depth and heart.

This one was a good first step into the wonderful world of some of John's books!

Friday, December 05, 2014

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1970)

My Debbie Downer book club (for which we only read depressing books) may have hit on our saddest book selection yet: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1970). In fact, this book is so sad that I'm the only member of the four person book club that was able to cry my way through the whole thing. That shouldn't reflect badly on my fellow book club members though, while this book is important and enlightening and well-researched and I'm so glad I read it, it is hard. Some chapters physically hurt to get through. I'm glad I did, and I honestly feel changed by it, but I wouldn't want to read it again.

Brown takes us from about 1850 to about 1890, and covers tribes primarily west of the Mississippi river. Part of what makes the book so extra depressing is the repeating pattern of betrayal, misunderstanding, violence, and inhuman treatment. It happens over and over and over again, to tribe after tribe after tribe. Even when there is a glimmer of hope in a sympathetic general or helpful interpreter, it never ends up anything but extremely sad.

Because of what was going on in our current often very sad world while I was reading this book, I couldn't help but make a connection between the treatment of Native Americans in the 19th century (and beyond, really) and the treatment of African-Americans in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and elsewhere. The troops who violently attacked tribes in the 19th century were often decommissioned Civil War soldiers who needed something to do in order to keep the war budget up. They had lots of guns and not a lot of enemies and their actions were exacerbated by exaggerated stories of the danger of the Native Americans. They often felt threatened when there was no threat, blamed any group of natives that they saw for the actions of unrelated people, and took actions as mob that they may never have done as individual men.

Since I'm the only one of my book club that read the whole book, I suggested a couple of chapters that we read together to discuss. If you don't feel like you can take the whole thing on, you might also check out Chapter 8 ("The Rise and Fall of Donehogawa," about an actual Native American head of Indian Affairs) and Chapter 16 ("The Utes Must Go!" which features the same general sad story as other tribes but with an interesting media twist and a rather bizarre agent. I'm also pretty fascinated with the second half of chapter 18: The Dance of the Ghosts (starting on page 431 in my copy with "In the Drying Grass Moon...").

So, yes, this is rough stuff, but I learned so much about the history of our country and the things that happened in the region of the country where I grew up. It might take you a while, but this one is worth the hurt.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Horn of Time by Poul Anderson (1968)

The Horn of Time by Poul Anderson (1968) is a collection of previously published science fiction short stories from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nothing on the cover of the book hints that these are short stories and not a continuous novel so I spent some brain power for the first couple of stories trying to make them fit together into one universe before realizing my mistake.

I've always enjoyed the Anderson that I've read and, particularly for this era of science fiction, I think that the short story can be a much stronger vehicle than the full-length novel. Anderson is in top form here with stories that combine time periods, space travel, post-apocalyptic futures, and well written characters. My favorite of the bunch is probably the last story, "Progress," which takes us to a Earth that is healing from a long-ago nuclear destruction and running into conflicts as the now-powerful Maori people try to keep the other societies in balance and stop any chance of future nuclear wars.

Since these were written in the late-50s and early-60s there is some inescapable strong anti-communism running throughout several of the stories. In some cases this gets a little distracting (particularly in "The High Ones"), but it is a reflection of its time and its author, so what are you going to do.

Overall this is some solid and unique science fiction, and a must read if you are a fan of Anderson or the genre.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014)

My long-standing book club (go DAFFODILS!) selected an uncharacteristically hot off the presses read for our next book, Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014).

Our narrator is Sean. When he was a teenager an accident (or maybe "accident") with a gun left him disfigured. He leads an isolated life as an adult, partially filling his time and making a little money running a play-by-mail adventure game called the Trace Italian, a game that he created while recovering from his injuries in the hospital as a teenager. In the game, players find themselves in a post-nuclear apocalypse society, trying to save themselves by finding and getting into the Trace Italian, a safe and complicated series of chambers somewhere underground in the middle of Kansas. We learn that the adult Sean is being sued because two players of his game, a young couple, took the play too literally and one died and the other nearly died somewhere in the wilds of Kansas.

While that covers most of the plot of the novel, the real action is happening inside Sean's head as we move back and forth between his pre- and immediately post-accident teenage self and the man he has become. The accident and his isolation in some ways have frozen him in time and the feelings that brought him into this state are never that far from the surface. As the book moves on, we see Sean interact with his nurse, an old friend, his mother, and (hilariously) some teenage hoodlums out behind the liquor store. All of these interactions serve to deepen Sean's character and, to me at least, highlight how he is ultimately happy in his isolation. There are no pat answers or neatly tied up endings here, but some nice character development and a very real and effective world. 

If you are a music fan, you may recognize Darnielle's name as the core of the band The Mountain Goats. I haven't listened to much of Darnielle's music (although I just listened to this and the three songs pick up several themes from the book), but a bunch of my friends really like him, so I feel like I should give him some time. This book (his first novel, although he's also written a non-fiction book [correction: this was actually a novella!] about Black Sabbath for the 33 1/3 series), proves that Darnielle is creative in at least two modes, particularly seeing that it was nominated for a National Book Award. I can't even be irritated at this guy for his dual success -- the novel really is quite good.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 3 (1792)

In my continued slow trot through the books in Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, I've come to The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 3 (1792). One thing to know about Samuel Johnson is if you have decided to read his complete works, there are going to be a lot of words to read. Luckily for this reader, Johnson is a pretty amazing writer and this third volume of his collected works continues to demonstrate the wide-ranging nature of his interests.

In this volume we get a couple of pieces on Greek theater, some extensive notes on Shakespeare's Macbeth (and some well-placed jabs at other editors of Shakespeare), an extended series of essays from The Adventurer, and the philosophical novella, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

While all these works have something to offer, the writing that is most accessible to the modern reader can be found in Johnson's contributions to The Adventurer, a bi-weekly newspaper to which he contributed a number of pieces, both signed, anonymous, and under the names of various characters. These brief essays hit on innumerable topics, contemporary, historical, and literary, but the most fun of all are when Johnson takes his pen out of its sabre and points it at various irritating types of the day. Consider, if you will, the essay from Tuesday, December 11, 1753 in The Adventurer Number 115. You can read the whole essay here (and you should!), but here's a taste:

Some indeed there are, of both sexes, who are authors only in desire, but have not yet attained the power of executing their intentions; whose performances have not arrived at bulk sufficient to form a volume, or who have not the confidence, however impatient of nameless obscurity, to solicit openly the assistance of the printer. Among these are the innumerable correspondents of publick papers, who are always offering assistance which no man will receive, and suggesting hints that are never taken; and who complain loudly of the perverseness and arrogance of authors, lament their insensibility of their own interest, and fill the coffee-houses with dark stories of performances by eminent hands, which have been offered and rejected. 

It's amazing to me that Johnson can still be so relevant (or, I guess, that humanity is so consistent) that 261 years later, these same words could be written about innumerable tweets, facebook posts, and blog comments.

And how about this section from The Adventurer Number 137:

It is difficult to enumerate the several motives which procure to books the honour of perusal: spite, vanity, and curiosity, hope and fear, love and hatred, every passion which incites to any other action, serves at one time or other to stimulate a reader.

Some are fond to take a celebrated volume into their hands, because they hope to distinguish their penetration, by finding faults which have escaped the publick; others eagerly buy it in the first bloom of reputation, that they may join the chorus of praise, and not lag, as Falstaff terms it, in "the reward of the fashion."

Some read for style, and some for argument: one has little care about the sentiment, he observes only how it is expressed; another regards not the conclusion, but is diligent to mark how it is inferred; they read for other purposes than the attainment of practical knowledge; and are no more likely to grow wise by an examination of a treatise of moral prudence, than an architect to inflame his devotion by considering attentively the proportions of a temple.

Some read that they may embellish their conversation, or shine in dispute; some that they may not be detected in ignorance, or want the reputation of literary accomplishments: but the most general and prevalent reason of study is the impossibility of finding another amusement equally cheap or constant, equally independent on the hour or the weather. He that wants money to follow the chase of pleasure through her yearly circuit, and is left at home when the gay world rolls to Bath or Tunbridge; he whose gout compels him to hear from his chamber the rattle of chariots transporting happier beings to plays and assemblies, will be forced to seek in books a refuge from himself.

Don't let the old-timey language dissuade you, folks, this is amazing stuff.

Volume 4: here I come!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (2012)

In the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer (2012), Derf Backderf tells the very unique story of his time as a teenager in a small town in Ohio, just outside of Akron. Most things about his high school experience are pretty ordinary -- cliques, drinking, boring teachers, clueless parents, but one thing, in retrospect, eclipses everything else: Backderf went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, who would go on to become a serial killer.

As you might expect, Dahmer was not a super popular guy in high school. He was, in fact, just one or two rungs up from the very bottom. Backderf and his friends, however, were amused by Dahmer's antics and incorporated him into some of their stunts and inside jokes. You get the impression from the book that rather than feeling he was being made fun of, Dahmer liked hanging out with these guys, even though the "friendship" was mostly based on Dahmer acting like he was having convulsions and yelling out some catchphrases.

As they move through high school, Dahmer's connection to his friends and a regular life becomes more and more tenuous. He is drinking heavily, experiencing upsetting thoughts of sex and death, dealing with his parents' ugly divorce, and is eventually left alone in the house when his mother (who has had frequent mental health problems herself), moves back to Wisconsin with his younger brother. Then things go really bad.

Backderf, of course, had no idea how bad things had gotten with Dahmer and no way of knowing how bad they would get a decade later in Milwaukee, and much of the book gets into Backderf's feelings about Dahmer now and how he can reconcile his own memories of being a teenager with the life of Dahmer.

The book is thoroughly researched -- through published interviews and books, Backderf's own documentation, and conversations with mutual high school friends -- and satisfyingly footnoted, which gives the reader a lot of context without bogging down the panels. The art has personality and the book has a great pacing. You can tell this isn't Backderf's first time at the drawing board, and he gives his story the space and seriousness that it deserves.

[Finally, I'm not always a fan of video trailers for books, but it kind of works in the context of a graphic novel..]