Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. 

For some reason or other, the club ended up reading no fewer than three modern reimaginings of Greek myths. I have yet to read Circe, but I did read Madeline Miller’s other book, The Song of Achilles. This book, by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, takes a look at the story of Penelope in The Odyssey from two different perspectives. The first is that of Penelope, who feels that the men who told the original myth got a number of things rather wrong about her. The second is from the point of view of the twelve slave girls who were hanged after Odysseus’ return. 

The majority of the book is told in prose by Penelope. She is rather interesting in her perspective. As we ended up discussing, the tough part was that her actual actions were rather constrained in The Odyssey (and in the lesser known myths about her, such as her origin story), so she couldn’t exactly act differently. On the other hand, Atwood is strongly feminist, so she tried to make Penelope a stronger and more interesting character than just the “faithful woman standing by her philandering man.” There was some disagreement in our club as to how successful Atwood was at this. Some found the reimagined Penelope to be whiny and ineffective. At minimum, I would say that she is an unreliable narrator whose motives are not as pure as she pretends. 

In between chapters, the Chorus sings - a chorus consisting of the murdered slave girls. Their voices are snarky and sarcastic, and deliver a delightful satire on the whole story. 

I was surprised to discover that this book was one of a planned series by different authors. The Canongate Myth Series was to be a series of books written by established literary authors retelling myths from around the world. Atwood’s contribution was part of the first set released. So far, 18 have been released, although only a few have turned out to be widely popular. I am tempted to at least seek out the one written by Alexander McCall Smith

Overall, I enjoyed the book, although it kind of seemed short. I imagine this is due in part to the limited material that Atwood had to work with, but may also have been one of the restrictions on the series itself, which appears to have envisioned shorter works of roughly uniform size. 

I rather liked the poetic interludes by the maids - while Atwood’s poetry isn’t on the level of the best poets, it is decent, and serves its purpose. She hits a range of genres along the way, which is kind of fun. 

I found a few lines particularly intriguing. The first is the description of Odysseus. 

And indeed the legs of Odysseus were quite short in relation to his body. It was all right when he was sitting down, but standing up he looked top-heavy. 

That’s actually a pretty good description of me: I’m 5’7”, with a 29 inch inseam. So, yeah. (My wife says I am a hobbit.) 

Helen of Troy doesn’t come off very well in this book. (Or indeed in most modern retellings.) For some reason, the idea of a manipulative woman who makes worthless men fall in love with her and start wars and such hasn’t worn well in a more egalitarian age. It is easier to identify with Athena or one of the more enterprising women in mythology than with the dazzling and shallow beauty. Here is Penelope’s scathing appraisal. 

Why is it that really beautiful people think that everyone else in the world exists merely for their amusement?

You could say that about many wealthy people too - particularly narcissists and those who inherit their wealth. I must say that Helen deserves her tarnished reputation - I would much rather have the intelligent woman than the simpering beauty who runs off with the first man willing to start a war over her.

In general, Atwood seems skeptical of the possibility of women treating each other well - the sisterhood, so to speak. In her other books as in this one, there are too many women willing to throw the others under the bus in order to profit a little more in the patriarchal systems they inhabit. In this book, it isn’t just Helen. It is Eurycleia, the old nurse of Odysseus, who seems to have a weird Freudian connection to him (and I agree with Atwood that this is very much present in The Odyssey as well.) It is also Anticleia, Odysseus’ mother. In Atwood’s telling, her most frequent expression to Penelope was “You don’t look well.” I made a full stop in my reading at this point, because this was uncomfortably close to a similar situation in my own life. I will leave it at that, without further detail. 

The consensus of our club was that, of the mythologically based books we read this year, Circe was the best. I guess I will have to read that one soon. 


Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Christmas Books and Music 2019

For seven of the eight years since I started this blog, I have made a short post about the books (and sometimes music) I received as gifts for Christmas. (And in this case, also the used books I found in my post-Christmas shopping.) In addition to being fun, it also serves as a teaser for the reviews to be written in the upcoming year. As usual, I try to link the reviews to these posts as I write them.

Here are the past editions:


Here are the books from this year: 

1. A Rare Benedictine by Ellis Peters

My brother (who has excellent literary taste despite liking Dirk Pitt), got me this one in a nice used hardback edition. A number of years back, I read and enjoyed the first book in the Cadfael Chronicles, A Morbid Taste for Bones. This book is number 16 in the series by date of publication, but isn’t considered part of the 20 in the official series. The reason for this is apparently that it is set fully 17 years before the first book, and is thus a kind of prequel to the main series. I assume it therefore tells of the early days of Brother Cadfael. “Ellis Peters” is one of the noms de plume of Edith Parteger, who wrote in a variety of genres, in addition to translating works from Czech. I have to confess that my brother also gave me a hardback edition of The Heaven Tree Trilogy, a set of novels she wrote under her own name - and I have not yet read any of it yet. I need to change that. 

Another one from my brother. This one was recommended to him by an acquaintance with Spanish roots, and is apparently much better known there than here in the United States. Falcones is a lawyer who happens to have written a bestseller. This one is set in the 14th Century, and is, if the cover is to be believed, “A historical thriller.” Sounds promising enough. In general, I have liked books written by lawyers, from Sir Walter Scott to C. J. Sansom, so that’s a point in this book’s favor.

3. The Patch by John McPhee

My wife’s sister’s husband got this for me. This is an unknown book and author for me, although it seems probable that I have read one or more of his essays in The New Yorker over the years without paying particular attention to the byline. McPhee is considered one of the pioneers of “creative nonfiction,” writing that is factually accurate but utilizes literary writing techniques to create compelling narratives. In other words, the kind of nonfiction writing we take for granted now. This book is his seventh collection of essays, published just last year. (Also, bonus points because it was purchased at Warwick’s in La Jolla.) McPhee’s style seems at a glance to be very much the sort of writing I enjoy, so I may well end up reading more of his books.

4. How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

This was a gift from my wife, and is one I have wanted to read since it came out. If the Trump Era has taught me anything, it is that there is a need for decent people to be actively antiracist, not merely “I’m not racist” collaborators with white supremacy. Kendi’s short articles really resonated with me, particularly his division of people into active racists (like, say, Trump and Stephen Miller), those who consider themselves “neutral” or “colorblind” - the “white moderates” MLK castigated, and true antiracists: actively pushing back against racism. 

5. How to Invent Everything by Ryan North

This one sounds like a lot of fun. “A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler.” North is also known for the Dinosaur comic, and his Choose Your Own Adventure remixes of Shakespeare’s plays. So, well, a weird variety of things. And definitely the sort of book I would read. 

6. Music

As usual, an eclectic mix. My wife got me The Goat Rodeo Sessions, an epic collaboration between Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Chris Thile, and Edgar Meyer. I’ve listened to it on streaming, and it is nice to have a CD copy. 

My wife’s brother has introduced me to a number of delightful and non-mainstream artists over the years. This year, he got me no fewer than four albums. First up was two albums by Tennis, namely Yours Conditionally, and Young & Old. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of the group, but my 16 year old had. Maybe I’m old? Next was Bon Iver’s latest, i, i. Finally, he found a promo copy of Future Me Hates Me by New Zealand band, The Beths. I got a chance to listen to this one on our vacation, and I am definitely digging it. 

I’ll add a final one in, which wasn’t technically a gift - except from myself. One of our local bands, the Jay Smith Group, released a couple of albums this year, and I really love their collaboration with Marlon Mackey (who sadly moved across the country so I don’t get to hear him in person now.) Just Stop is well worth the purchase

Monday, December 16, 2019

Christmas Poems 2019

This is my fourth (kind of) annual Christmas Poem post. I never got around to writing one last year You can read the others here:

And on a related note, last year’s Christmas Carol post.

Other posts on Christmas:


Let’s get things started with this jem from the incomparable Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets. Few poets can capture the details of nature in such brilliant fashion, and this poem exhibits her talent at its best. Most of my life, I have lived in places without show (well, except for that freak storm in 1999…), but I remember those few years living in the mountains with fondness. (And we still go places with snow, of course.) See if this poem doesn’t bring to life the amazing reality of a fresh snowfall. 

It sifts from Leaden Sieves -
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road -

It makes an even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain -
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again -

It reaches to the Fence -
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces -
It deals Celestial Vail

To Stump, and Stack - and Stem -
A Summer’s empty Room -
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them -

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen -
Then stills it’s Artisans - like Ghosts -
Denying they have been -

A hike in the woods during a snowstorm.
 Sequoia National Park, May 2019

This next poem was one I discovered just a few months ago, while reading the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay. That whole collection was a revelation, and rapidly became one of my favorite volumes. 

Millay wasn’t particularly religious, but wrote on religious themes. This one really hit home for me, where Christmas is everywhere and in one’s face, but little of Christ can be seen, particularly from those who speak his name the loudest. Christ has become a prop, an idol to be used to justify cruelty and hate. 

The sonnet form is used to perfect effect by Millay. The first quatrain encapsulates the commercialism contrasting with the reality of the first Christmas. The second is a snapshot of the fake religiosity that ignores the gospel. I can’t decide if the preacher is part of the problem or just ignored. “Honey and steel” certainly seems like the worst of professional preachers. The shift then occurs in line nine, as it should. The two tercets present the devastating reality. Nobody listens; the words mean less than the wind. Christ is in effect, dead, as he has had no effect. It’s not very optimistic, to say the least. But it sure fits our own times. 

To Jesus on His Birthday

For this your mother sweated in the cold,
A paper wreath; a day at home for me.
The merry bells ring out, the people kneel;
Up goes the man of God before the crowd;
With voice of honey and with eyes of steel
He drones your humble gospel to the proud.
Are all your words to us you died to save.
O Prince of Peace! O Sharon's dewy Rose!
How mute you lie within your vaulted grave.
Is back upon your mouth these thousand years.

This next poem is an excerpt from a longer poem. A MUCH longer poem. As in, about two thirds the size of Paradise Lost. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but now I really want to. This particular part really spoke to me. W. H. Auden paints such a realistic picture of the post-Christmas experience. I can’t even decide what I like best. Maybe the “we have seen the actual Vision and failed /  To do more than entertain it as an agreeable / Possibility” line? Or the part about going back to materialistic assumptions? Or perhaps the last few lines. Hot dang, those are good. This is just a great poem, any way you slice it.  

Excerpt from For the Time Being

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It. 

I’m going to call my choice of four poems a tradition. Hey, four years is enough to make a tradition, right? I’ll end with Paul Laurence Dunbar. After the kind of bitter taste of the two preceding poems, Dunbar’s exuberance and joy is refreshing. This, despite living in less-than-ideal circumstances. (Despite his education and obvious talent, he had to work as an elevator operator most of his life - Jim Crow and racism in action.) This is the ultimate hope of Christmas - that one day, all will be restored, healed, and made new. Ring out, ye bells indeed!  

Christmas Carol

  Ring out, ye bells!
   All Nature swells
With gladness at the wondrous story,—
   The world was lorn,
   But Christ is born
To change our sadness into glory.

   Sing, earthlings, sing!
   To-night a King
Hath come from heaven's high throne to bless us.
   The outstretched hand
   O'er all the land
Is raised in pity to caress us.

   Come at his call;
   Be joyful all;
Away with mourning and with sadness!
   The heavenly choir
   With holy fire
Their voices raise in songs of gladness.

   The darkness breaks
   And Dawn awakes,
Her cheeks suffused with youthful blushes.
   The rocks and stones
   In holy tones
Are singing sweeter than the thrushes.

   Then why should we
   In silence be,
When Nature lends her voice to praises;
   When heaven and earth
   Proclaim the truth
Of Him for whom that lone star blazes?

   No, be not still,
   But with a will
Strike all your harps and set them ringing;
   On hill and heath
   Let every breath
Throw all its power into singing!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Becoming Dr. Seuss by Brian Jay Jones

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was yet another of those books I picked up randomly off the new books shelf because it looked interesting. It was a good choice. 

Dr. Seuss presumably needs no introduction. Since 1937, his books - for kids but fun for grownups too - have been part of the American canon. I imagine even the most sheltered Fundies are aware of the subversive Cat in the Hat, and probably a few other characters. I would even go so far as to say that we of Gen X had our childhoods shaped by Seuss - and the Beginner Books imprint he pioneered. Although on a different level of reading, Seuss was my generation’s Harry Potter - and I would add that, like Millennials, our generation’s reading is partly responsible for the significant generation gap both generations have with many Boomers. 

Just to give a few examples, I grew up on The Lorax. Which, in a rational world, would be a thoroughly uncontroversial book. After all, natural resources ARE finite, and pollution DOES destroy things, and we should take action to conserve the earth. Except, here in 2019, one entire political party believes conservation is a liberal conspiracy, apparently. I cannot believe I live in such times. 

Likewise, The Sneetches shaped how I saw beliefs in racial and cultural superiority, and The Butter Battle Book brought “mutually assured destruction” to my mind at a young age. Looking back, in many ways, Dr. Seuss was shockingly “progressive” by the standards of our current age. 

This book is a fairly detailed biography, running in excess of 400 pages, plus extensive notes. It isn’t boring by any stretch, however. Brian Jay Jones hits the perfect balance between detail and narrative flow. Because Theodor Seuss Geisel lived a long and eventful life, there is a lot to tell. 

I’m not going to tell much of the story, because that is the point of the book, after all, and Jones is a far better biographer than I would be. There are, however, some interesting details that stood out. 

One is the progression that Geisel (and thus his pseudonym, Dr. Seuss) made over his lifetime. Giesel didn’t really hit it big as an author until the 1950s, when he was in his 40s, so he had quite a bit of a life before that. After a mediocre stint in college (he graduated but dropped out of grad school), he ended up working in advertising, while making a little on the side from his political cartoons. His whimsical drawings and verbal zingers kept him employed. During World War Two, he enlisted, and was paired with Frank Capra (and a few other names that would become big later: P. D. Eastman, Munro Leaf, as well as Chuck Jones and the usual suspects at the Warner Brothers animation studio) to produce propaganda films for the military. These films, the Private SNAFU series, are pretty dang funny, very Loony Tunes, and recognizably Seussian. (They are available on YouTube, if you want to check them out.) Geisel’s work on the documentary, Design For Death, would win him an Oscar. 

All this to get around to my main point on how Giesel changed over time. In his first book (And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street), he would use an unfortunate stereotype - which was also used in the propaganda films. His political cartoons, likewise, from his early era all too often use cheap jokes at the expense of the usual suspects of the time: African Americans, Asians, women, and children. These haven’t worn too well, as he would later admit. However, things started to change noticeably. Recently, one of his best political cartoons has been making the rounds of the internet:

As time went on, Geisel would become more consistently progressive in his politics. Although his books are not often overtly political (and are only “partisan” in an era when the very ideas of conservation or the common good are partisan issues), they do show his concern for the marginalized, for the environment, and for - dare I say it? - common sense. (More on the last one later.) There is a certain irony in the fact that Boomers bought Dr. Seuss’s books in vast numbers for their kids, not anticipating perhaps that they would undermine their own politics a generation later. 

Going back to near the beginning of the book, one interesting fact was that Geisel’s father, T. R., was a bit of an inventor of sorts (in addition to being, pre-Prohibition, a brewer.) He would, as the book puts it, solve simple tasks with “complicated-looking devices that would, to later eyes, appear...well, appropriately Seussian.

Also fun was the parallel between the early 2000s and another time when Americans did stupid stuff in reaction to European events. Anyone remember “Freedom Fries”? From that time when France urged caution in starting a couple of wars? (France was right, in case you hadn’t noticed…) Well, during World War One, the same nativism and xenophobia was turned against the Germans, and we had, rather than hamburgers, “Liberty Sandwiches.” For Geisel, as a German-American, he and his family received a good bit of prejudice during this time. 

Geisel had difficulty selling his first book, for quite a while. One of the common criticisms it received was that it had no moral. Furthermore, the narrator was not punished for making up a tall tale. Geisel complained about this, saying, “What’s wrong with kids having fun reading without being preached at?” This all sounds kind of familiar, from my wife’s Fundie days. And yes, Elsie Dinsmore does get mentioned in this book. 

On a related note, Geisel believed - and advocated for - a then-revolutionary idea: that children were humans, and smarter than they were given credit for. Thus, they hated being talked down to, and saw through stupidity and condescension. In Geisel’s view, children were to be talked to directly, as absolute equals. 

[Side note here: the whole thrust of the Patriarchy and Fundamentalist movements is to restore rigid hierarchies, including that of parents over children. Gothard in particular emphasized that - and it applied to adult children too…]

How about another weird fact? One that I didn’t know, believe it or not. Did you know that Dr. Seuss invented the word “nerd”? It’s true. The word was first used in If I Ran The Zoo. It referred to a grouchy imaginary animal, but the word took on a life of its own, and within a year made a Newsweek article on changing slang. 

There is a lot more in the book that I could have quoted. Dr. Seuss was certainly quotable, despite his shyness on a stage. I referenced The Butter Battle Book above, and there is a quote from him about that which I think bears repeating. There was a surprising amount of controversy over the book, which caught Geisel off guard. He particularly resented the accusation that he was anti-military. 

“I’m not anti-military. I’m just anti-crazy.”

And that is exactly how I feel. Like Geisel, I acknowledge the need in our world for the good guys to have access to force to oppose the Hitlers of the world. And I support our military. But I am anti-crazy, and would like us to use a lot better judgment in how we pick wars. (See “freedom fries” above…) 

One final thing chronologically: near the end of Geisel’s life, the San Diego Museum of Art presented an exhibition of his work, from the cartoons to the illustrations to the more “serious” art he painted. The critics were largely savage, claiming that what Dr. Seuss did was not real art. 

This is, to put it frankly, bullshit. 

It may not be “traditional” art, but it is certainly art. Take a look at any of the books. The drawings are at least as much of the fun as the words - probably more. And they took plenty of work to get right. 

Back in 2015, we took one of our regular vacations to the San Diego area, and went to see an exhibit on Dr. Seuss at the San Diego History Museum (it features local history, and Geisel lived in nearby La Jolla for the second half of his life.) Included were some of his paintings, as well as the whimsical “animal heads” that used real antlers and so on with stuffed versions of his creatures. (He had a collection of these in his home - proof of either weird taste or a good sense of humor.) 

 Wow, the kids are a lot bigger now...

One of the more typically "Seussian" of his works. 

 These two are definitely more unusual - and weren't seen until after Geisel's death. 
I think they are actually not bad - he specifically intended them as tributes to the modern artists they resemble.

Brian Jay Jones has also written biographies of Jim Henson and George Lucas, which I am inclined to read in the future. While this one was a largely positive portrayal, it did include some of the skeletons as well, so it wasn’t a straight-up hagiography. I thought Jones struck good balances throughout, making the book informative and interesting.