Saturday, August 25, 2012

August 2012 Books

I am on vacation and finding lots of time to read.  Have also gone to several bookstores and so have added to my already mountainous TBR pile. 

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Published: 2010
Rating: 5

Reading Fitzgerald's concise history of the Roman Empire in The Aeneid led me to download a sample of this book in my iPad.  Then found an autographed copy while browsing through the Wellesley Bookstore while on vacation in New England.

I loved it.  The book reads more like historical fiction than a dry biography.  While reading, I did keep wishing for a timeline so in the end, I made my own in the back of the book.  Also, about 60 pages in, I went back and wrote key events at the top of each page which helped me follow the narrative.  Without getting bogged down, Schiff gives enough historical, cultural and political background to support the main character: Queen Cleopatra.

She was born in 69 BC, the 2nd of five children in the Ptolemy dynasty and motherless at twelve.  She was well-educated, articulate, intelligent, witty and most importantly, a survivor. Being a Ptolemy was a hazardous occupation; none of her four siblings survived past early adulthood.

Cleopatra was queen at eighteen and following Egyptian tradition, was married to each of her two younger brothers.  She was the lover of two of the most important Roman rulers of her time: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.  She ruled 22 tumultuous years and was dead by suicide at age 39.

This would be a most challenging biography to write as the only "original" sources are from Roman male historians writing decades afterwards.  In the absence of fact, a legend arose - with a little help from Shakespeare, Hollywood and of course, Elizabeth Taylor.  My daughter and I watched the 4+ hour movie; it was pretty good.  My husband tells me that a movie is coming out based on Schiff's book with Angelina Jolie in the lead role - I will definitely want to see it.

Schiff's writing is very descriptive with adjectives galore.  I wonder if she had a lexicon specifically for this project.   

In these excerpts from the introduction, we learn about Cleopatra:
A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine....she nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the last time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one....We do not know if Cleopatra loved either Antony or Caesar, but we do know that she got each to do her bidding....It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend.
I like how Schiff gives a modern context to Cleopatra's world.

Comparing Alexandria, Egypt to Paris, France:
Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality ad high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world; superior in its ways, splendid in its luxuries, the place to go to spend your fortune, write your poetry, find (or forget) a romance, restore your health, reinvent yourself, or regroup after having conquered vast swaths of Italy, Spain, and Greece over the course of a Herculean decade.
On Egyptian bureaucracy:
It was Cleopatra's role to tax the people, the people's role to fill her coffers....The Ptolemaic system has been compared to that of Soviet Russia; it stands among the most closely controlled economies in history.
 On her entrance by royal barge to meet Mark Antony in Tarsus:
In the annals of indelible entrances - the wooden horse into Troy; Christ into Jerusalem; Benjamin Franklin into Philadelphia; Henry IV, Charles Lindbergh, Charles de Gaulle, into Paris; Howard Carter into King Tut's tomb; the Beatles onto Ed Sullivan's stage - Cleopatra alone lifts off the page in iridescent color, amid inexhaustible, expensive clouds of incense, a sensational, simultaneous assault on every sense.
In the last chapter are fitting descriptions of the incomparable Queen:
She was a dutiful, father-loving daughter, a patriot and protector, an early nationalist, a symbol of courage, a wise ruler with nerves of steel, a master at self-preservation....In the end she was a mistress of herself, astute, spirited, inconceivably rich, pampered yet ambitious.
Schiff won the Pulitzer Prize for Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) which I started to read a while ago but put down out of disinterest.  I'll have to try again as I do like her writing. 

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Published: 1957
Rating: 3

I started this as an audiobook on a business trip to Virginia Beach and got bored half-way through.  I really didn't care about the characters, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise or what happened on their crazy cross-country trips filled with drugs, drinking, partying, shoplifting, hitch-hiking, sex, etc.

Despite all that, I did like the writing.  It is very descriptive and I would do well to study Kerouac's sentences - short, long and very long.   My favorite quotes:
On the horizon was the moon, she fattened, she grew huge and rusty, she mellowed and rolled, till the morning star contended and dews began to blow in our windows - and still we rolled.

Lying on top of the car with my face to the black sky was like lying in a closed trunk on a summer night.  For the first time in my life the weather was not something that touched me, that caressed me, froze or sweated me, but became me.  The atmosphere and I became the same.  Soft infinitesimal showers of microscopic bugs fanned down on my face as I slept, and they were extremely pleasant and soothing.  The sky was starless, utterly unseen and heavy.  I could lie there all night long with my face exposed to the heavens, and it would do me no more harm than a velvet drape drawn over me.  The dead bugs mingled with my blood; the live mosquitoes exchanged further portions; I began to tingle all over and to smell of the rank, hot and rotten jungle, all over from hair and face to feet and toes.  
A movie is coming out soon, from the movie trailer, it looks pretty good.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Published: 1623
Rating: 4

Shakespeare begins this tragedy with unrest amongst key Roman Senate members over Julius Caesar's increasing power and control over Rome exemplified in this lofty speech:

"I could be well moved if I were as you,
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me,
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament."
Many feared this was the end of the Republic and the beginning of a dreaded monarchy which they vehemently opposed for various reasons: envy, fear, loss of power, etc.  Only Brutus' reason for joining the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar was honorable and noble as he says later to the crowd after the horrible deed was done:
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's, to him I say that Brutus' love to Caesar was no less than his.  If that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
The crowd is fickle, first siding with Brutus, then with Mark Antony against Brutus.  A civil war ensues and the avengers of Caesar's death, Octavius, Caesar's heir, Mark Antony and Lepidus are ultimately victorious over Brutus/Cassius in the Battle at Philippi.  

The play is very dramatic; I would like to see it performed on stage.

horoscopes for the dead by Billy Collins
Published: 2011
Rating: 5

This was the second of two books purchased at the Wellesley bookstore.  I  bought it because of the provocative title.  A Google search reveals that Collins was the nation's Poet Laureate from 2001 - 2003 and served as the Poet Laureate of New York State from 2004 - 2006.  Who knew that states have their own poet laureates?

I liked nearly all the poems in this collection; they are refreshingly accessible.  He writes about everyday life using everyday language, albeit in surprising, witty and whimsical ways.  Here is an example of the shortest poem in the collection.  I wrote "funny" at the top of the page.


The woman who wrote from Phoenix
after my reading there

to tell me they were all still talking about it

just wrote again
to tell me that they had stopped.

His other collections are now on my wish list:
  • Ballistics
  • The Trouble With Poetry
  • Nine Horses
  • Sailing Alone Around the Room
  • Picnic, Lightning
  • The Art of Drowning
  • Questions About Angels
  • The Apple That Astonished Paris
He also edited an anthology, Poetry 180, poems that are meant to be read daily in high schools.  This site has all the poems. 

Two poems are on Josh's blog: Grave and Horoscopes for the Dead

 Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
Published: 1623
Rating: 4

Shakespeare's Cleopatra is the beautiful, manipulative, power-hungry seductress who has Mark Antony in her power and will do anything to keep him there. 

Makes for great drama but does nothing to show what an intelligent, capable ruler she really was.

Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini
Published: 1997
Rating: 4

A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin (#4 A Song of Ice and Fire Series)
Published: 2005
Rating: 4
Author's web site

*No spoilers in this review.
Before going on vacation, I downloaded A Feast for Crows into my iPad, refreshed myself (via Wikipedia) on the plot and characters from the third book, A Storm of Swords, which I read last year, and dove right back into the amazing world created by GRRM.

This fourth book A Feast for Crows, and the next book A Dance with Dragons, both pick up the action after A Storm of Swords.   While writing the fourth book, Martin realized that he needed to split the story into two books, but not in the conventional sense where one book follows the other, but rather by geography.  Therefore the action in both books run parallel to one another for a period of time.

This worked out great for me for when I was about one-third through Feast, I downloaded Dance into my iPad and picked up the story from the point of view of all the other characters.   I continued until some of the characters in Feast showed up in Dance.  At this point, I had to go back and finish Feast because according the Martin, Dance is a longer book because it covers a longer time period.  "In the latter half of this volume, you will notice certain of the viewpoint characters from A Feast for Crows popping up again.  And that means just what you think it means: the narrative has moved past the time frame of Feast and the two streams have once again rejoined with each other."

What a rich, layered, intricate and interesting world Martin has created.  He is a master at description so my reader's senses have no problem seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting his world - amazing.  

I loved both books but have given a higher rating to Dance because it followed some of my favorite characters: Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister.

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin (#5 A Song of Ice and Fire series)
Published: 2011
Rating: 5
Author's web site

Other things to share....
Upon perusing his web site, I've stumbled upon GRRM's "Not A Blog" blog - the posts are interesting and there are a number of YouTube videos of recent interviews - the guy can talk! 

I also found this fantastic food blog, Inn At The Crossroads, which features recipes/pictures inspired by the food in the book.  The bloggers have published a cookbook in which the foreword is from none other than GRRM.   I want to try Umma's Olive Loaf.  

in The Complete Plays of Sophocles translated by Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb
Bantam Classics: 1982

Oedipus at Colonus 
Originally published: 401BC
Rating: 5

Oedipus is now a blind beggar, exiled from Thebes, wandering with his two faithful daughters: Antigone and Ismene.  In the meantime, there is a power struggle between the two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles who alternately serve as kings with Creon as regent.  Eteocles does not give up the throne when his time is up so Polyneices declares war.

The oracle says that whomever has possession of Oedipus' grave will win the war.  Theseus, King of Athens grants Oedipus stay and backs him up when Creon tries to kidnap the girls.  Polyneices comes to beg his father to join his cause.  Oedipus' rebuke to his firstborn:
Villain, when you had the scepter and the throne which your brother now has in Thebes you drove me, your own father, into exile, and made me citiless, and made me wear this garb which you now weep to see when you have come to the same stress of misery as I.  The time for tears is past…..Now these girls preserve me, these who are men, not women, in true service.  But you are aliens and no sons of mine. 
He then curses the sons so they will kill one another.   Polyneices asks the girls to not leave him unburied, which ties directly into Antigone.

In the end, Oedipus is redeemed, dying amidst divine approval.

Trachinian Women 

Originally published: 420 BC
Rating: 4

Tragic story of the death of Heracles (unknowingly) by his wife, Deianeira.  Long ago, while she was being carried by a centaur for hire, Nessus, across deep waters while accompanying Heracles, Nessus touched her inappropriately and when she cried out, Heracles killed him with an arrow.  But before death, Nessus said that if she took the blood around the wound, it would act as a "charm for the soul of Heracles, so that he shall never look upon any woman to love her more than you."

As the play opens, Deianeira is concerned. Heracles has sacked the city of Oechalia and is sending slave women home, one of which is the young, beautiful Iole.

Age old problem - men wanting younger women.

Deianeira:  For I see that the flower of her age is blossoming while mine is fading; and the eyes of men love to cull the bloom of youth, but they turn aside from the old.  This, then, is my fear - lest Heracles, in name my spouse, should be the younger's mate.

She applies Nessus' blood to a robe which is sent to Heracles.  He puts it on and is poisoned, suffering in extreme pain.

Hyllus accuses his mother of deliberating poisoning his father which drives her to take her life.  So now Hyllus is without father and mother.   Chorus:  Rash indeed is the man who reckons on the morrow or on days beyond it, for tomorrow is not until today is safely past. 

Heracles wants Hyllus to kill him fire on a pyre and then marry Iole.  In the end as Heracles is taken off to be burned, Hyllus says these haunting words:

Lift him, men!  And grant me full forgiveness for this, but mark the great cruelty of the gods in what is being done.  They beget children, they are hailed as fathers, and yet they can look upon such sufferings.  
No man foresees the future; but the present is fraught with mourning for us, and with shame for the powers above, and verily with anguish beyond compare for him who endures this doom.
Originally published 409 BC
Rating: 5

Philoctetes was bitten by a snake while en route to Troy and tried the patience of his shipmate with his anguished cries and foul-smelling wound.  Odysseus elected to abandon him to a deserted island where for 10 years, he survives by Heracles' bow and nurses a deep hatred toward Odysseus. 

In the meantime, the Greeks are in a long war with Troy, either side unable to win.  The oracle says that  Troy can only be taken with the help of Philoctetes and Heracles' bow.   Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles' son must fetch them both. 

Odysseus' plan is for Neoptolemus to trick Philoctetes in surrendering the bow.   He is the consummate liar, politician, con artist for to him, the ends justify the means. 

N:  You think it no shame then to speak falsehoods?
O:  No, if the falsehood brings deliverance.

Neoptolemus tricks Philoctetes to giving him the bow but seized with guilt, reveals all and receives this rebuke: You fire, you utter monster, you hateful masterpiece of subtle villainy - how have you dealt with me, how have you deceived me!

Neoptolemus returns the bow (to Odysseus' horror) but rebukes Philoctetes for not helping himself by coming to Troy.  

N: You suffer this sore plague by a heaven-sent doom, because you drew near Chryse's watcher, the serpent, secret warder of her home, that guards her roofless sanctuary.  Know that relief from this grievous sickness can never be your portion, so long as the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, until you come of your own free will to the plains of Troy, where you shall meet with the sons of Ascleplus, our comrades, and shall be eased of this malady and, with this bow's aid and mine, shall achieve the capture of the Ilian towers. 

In the end, Heracles appears, admonishing Philoctetes to go to Troy, which he does. 

As the intro states, this is a play about 1) the individual vs his role in society (Philoctetes) and 2) the change from adolescent idealism (Neoptolemus) to responsible citizenship (Odysseus). 

Audiocourse: Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition Part 3 - Middle Ages by Professor Thomas Noble

See this post for bibliography

1 comment:

  1. I just picked up "Introspections" and am looking forward to diving in. It looks like the kind of book I'll read in bits and pieces over some time.