Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Nearer Home, The Deeper Our Fears Increase

OmerosIn Omeros, Derek Walcott takes themes from both the Iliad and the Odyssey to build a new and resonant story.  Achilles sets out on an unlikely odyssey: a fishing expendition off the coast of Saint Lucia in the West Indies turns into a journey across the centuries to his ancestral homeland on the coast of West Africa.  They journey through unfamiliar lands, across the boundaries of space and time.

I sing of quiet Achile, Afolabe's son...
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water.

Throughout this book, different characters and communities (including Africans living in Santa Lucia, Indians, and British colonials) struggle with the meaning of being displaced from their homelands and with their tentative efforts to find their homes again.  As Walcott writes:

     The nearer home, the deeper our fears increase,
     that no house might come to meet us on our own shore.

The large tragedies of Black slavery and the destruction of American Indian communities are paired here with, as Walcott writes, "the interior, unwritten epic fashioned from the suffering of the individual in exile."

Those of you have been reading my classics posts know that I was shocked by my love for The Iliad and somewhat disappointed by The Odyssey (which I had read once before). In many ways, Omeros combines the more appealing plot line of The Odyssey with the depth I found in The Iliad--leaving me profoundly unsettled and also deeply moved when I closed the book.

Walcott's writing here is gorgeous--luminous poetry throughout, with gentle unobtrusive rhymes.  It begs to be read slowly, aloud--listened to, thought about.  Omeros is a beautiful tribute to Homer and an intensely powerful work of literature in its own right.

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Odyssey Through The Odyssey

This week, I'll be posting about a few modern books inspired by Homer's The Odyssey. Do you have any favorite examples? Please give me your suggestions in the comments!

No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through The OdysseyI'll start off with a non-fiction book sometimes called a literary travelogue: Scott Huler's No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through The Odyssey.  After Huler reads James Joyce's Ulysses more or less on a dare, he decides to read Homer's epic.  He already knew the basic story, as most of us in this culture do, since "its content creeps into our minds through back channels, like the symphonies we learn by snatches as background music in Bugs Bunny cartoons."  But only as a mature adult does Huler really read the story of Odysseus.  He is stunned by its power to speak directly to him.  As he writes, "by the time I finished, I felt the book had sought me out, that my need for The Odyssey had manifested itself and brought the book to me."  He continues, "I came to see the passage of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca as a metaphor, a series of adventures in which Odysseus demonstrates what he needs to learn--or unlearn--to live his life."

Huler became so obsessed with Homer's epic that he decides to make his own journey through the Mediterranean and explore the history of the epic.  "I wanted to go where Odysseus went," he writes, "to learn what Odysseus learned."  Like Odysseus, the author travels without knowing exactly what is coming next, letting the winds (metaphoric winds in Huler's case) carry him where they may.  Like Odysseus, his travels keep him away from his wife.  His desire to be back home is clear and profound--but he also admits to the wanderlust and excitement that also tempts Homer's hero.  (Huler doesn't have quite the same kind of temptations in his path.  As he says, "depressingly few goddesses demanded my sexual favors.")

The author's odyssey is of course rambling and shallow compared with the magical and magisterial journey taken by Odysseus.  Nevertheless, the two both learn lessons about the deep ties of home and family.  Odysseus traveled for years and was "so weary of travel and excitement that he hopes to never leave home again."  Huler hopes for the same commitment: "I aspired to even a tiny piece of Odysseus's weariness, his gladness to be through with adventure, to be home at last..., Wouldn't it be grand to feel so complete, so finished?"  The author returns home from his trip to his pregnant wife June--about to give birth to a little boy.  He promises that together they will embark on their next adventure: raising their child.

I enjoyed this book very much and found Huler's personal take on Homer to be a fascinating way to approach the text.  Sometimes he stretches the parallels between his odyssey and Odysseus's journey a little too much.  Sometimes I was irritated that Huler left his pregnant wife and talked about the temptations of other women (just as I was irritated by Odysseus).  But overall, I found his insights into Homer creative and thoughtful, his narrative appealing, and his efforts to make ancient literature seem relevant to our lives today highly laudable.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Literature of the Ouija Board

good bye
Picture by Jessie Terwilliger

I've been having a grand time reading Paul Collins's wonderful book Sixpence House (which I will discuss in an upcoming post).  Today I want to share a story he tells about Patience Worth.  "Her name is forgotten today," Collins begins, "but at one time she--or her spirit, at least--was very famous indeed."

In the early years of the 20th century, Caspar Yost claimed that he had discovered "a new poet and novelist; or rather, ... a very old poet an novelist."  Using a Ouija board, Pearl Curran--a St. Louis housewife--communicated with the spirit of Patience Worth, a Puritan woman who, as Collins writes, soon became "a veritable Oprah's Book Club in spirit form."

During the 1920s, a whole Patience Worth industry arose.  Worth authored a series of novels and poems, all written via Ouija board, and all of which were extremely popular.  As Collins writes, "People believed it--even, amazingly, after Patience Worth wrote a Victorian family melodrama.  Considering that neither Victorians nor novels had existed in Worth's day, this was an impressive achievement indeed."

I love Collins's snappy sarcasm--but his telling of this strange story is also full of insight.  He points out that Worth's popularity emphasizes how much we want to believe that "all writers are somehow vessels for Truth and Beauty when they compose."  He compares this to our desire to imagine characters who develop their own will and "take over a book."  But as Collins points out, "The reality tends to involve a spare room, a pirated copy of MS Word, and a table bought on sale at Target.  A character can no more take over your novel than an eggplant and a jar of cumin can take over your kitchen."

Singer in the Shadows: The Strange Story of Patience WorthI am thrilled to find that there is an entire book about the Patience Worth story, written by Irving Litvag: Singer in the Shadows: The Strange Story of Patience Worth.  I think this must go on my Halloween reading list.  This definitely gives a whole new meaning to the genre of "spiritual" writing!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Classics for Pleasure

Classics for PleasureIn his introduction to Classics for Pleasure, Michael Dirda acknowledges that many people believe that classic books are "difficult, esoteric, and a little boring."  We grow up being told they are as good for us as cod-liver oil.

But in reality, Dirda says, classics are classics not because they somehow improve us but because "people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century.  These books "speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions."  And they connect us and our emotions with the parallel feelings of people thoughout the history of humanity.

Dirda relates that he found a copy of Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan when he was young boy.  The book shaped his future reading profoundly: "This Fadiman guy made great books sound just as exciting as Green Lantern comics or the latest Tarzan paperback."

After working his way though most of The Lifetime Reading Plan, Dirda began to branch out in his reading and discover many more classic books that he seeks to share with his readers.  "Classics for Pleasure deliberately ignores most of the authors discussed in that [updated, more multicultural] 1997 Fadiman-Major edition," says Dirda.  "It seemed more useful--and fun--to point readers to new authors and less obvious classics."  The entries in Dirda's book proceed to do exactly that--introducing readers to authors from Edward Gorey and Italo Calvino to S.J. Perelman, from Elizabeth Gaskell to Eudora Welty.

Dirda's entries are not simply listings or summaries as Fadiman's are, or as Murnigan gives us.  Instead, they are mini-essays which explore larger themes and make his observations personal.  He connects the books to each other, across time and place, allowing them to have a conversation.

This book is not so much as an introductory guide as a lovely exploration of ideas--perfect before or after one has read the books discussed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Shakespeare Behind Bars

Shakespeare Behind BarsAs I nurse my sore and purple toes, I've been reading haphazardly and watching films on Netflix.  One movie I especially want to share with you is the extremely moving Shakespeare Behind Bars.  This documentary tracks inmates of Kentucky's Luther Luckett maximum security prison as they prepare for a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest.  It is a profoundly heart-wrenching and thought-provoking film which I highly recommend.

The inmates are brought together under a prison program run by an open-hearted teacher/facilitator who not only helps them understand Shakespeare's language and themes but explore their own identities and their own pasts.  The characters in The Tempest share a surprising amount with the prison inmates.  Like Prospero, many of the incarcerated men suffered from abuse or cruelty which led at least in part to the rage that allowed them to commit the crimes for which they were imprisoned. They too are isolated on an imprisoning island, removed from the outside world.  Just as Prospero must let go of his defense mechanisms in order to reintegrate into society. 

Many of the men involved in this production of The Tempest are facing parole hearings in their very new futures.  As they struggle to make sense of their anger and their guilt, as well as their ability to imagine themselves within the framework of humanity, they turn to the bard's words to help them grow.  What they eventually find through their work with the Shakespeare play is a script for redemption. 

As Prospero declares in his final lines,

As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I just returned from a wonderful weekend in the midwest--meeting an adorable young man who was far more interesting than the books I brought for the weekend.  This 7-month old baby is my fictive nephew--the son of a dear friend who is (at least as far as my parents and I are concerned) a part of our family.

What a joy to watch B. begin to point at our noses, sit up so confidently, and work on learning to crawl!  My son loved playing Scottish tunes on his violin while B. danced in his doorway jumper, keeping the beat.  I loved reading to him from his assorted board books.  (His favorites this weekend were a 3-page rhyme about pandas and a one-word-a-page color book with pictures of babies on each page.)

I'm afraid we had a little fun at his expense, too--dressing him up with a cabbage-leaf hat as we prepared dinner:

Unfortunately, as the visit ended, I tripped while emerging from the bathtub and seem to have broken a couple of toes.  They are swollen and purple--and elevated and iced.  I'll be spending the day on the couch with a couple of light books.

My brain right now is mush--from the combination of cuteness overload (good) and toe pain (bad).  I hope to be back to bookish blogging very soon.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Beowulf on the Beach

Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest HitsJack Murnighan's Beowulf on the Beach is a terrific introduction to reading the classics outside of the classroom.  His writing is quick, hip, and immensely readable.  What I like best is the author's emphasis on reading literature for the joy it brings.  As Murnighan writes, "Once you open yourself to the humor, drama, adventure, sex, poignancy, elegance, tragedy, and beauty of the great books, you'll see why they've long been considered among the most inspiring and engaging things ever written.  He continues, "I want you to feel these books in your heart, in your soul, and maybe even below the waist."  Yes--Murnigan is the same guy who wrote The Naughty Bits: The Steamiest and Most Scandalous Sex Scenes from the World's Great Books--but this book is a lot more than that. It is "an attempt to show you what's in the great books that make them really matter."

Make sure you don't miss "Tips on Reading Classics," a short section at the end of the book.  (In fact, I suggest reading it immediately after you finish the brief introduction.)  Although his advice is simple, it will really help you organize your reading.

Although he does not refer to the concept by name, Murnighan encourages us to join the Great Conversation.  "Put yourself in dialogue with some of the most brilliant minds, sensitive hearts, quick wits, vivacious spirits, and wise teachers the world has ever known," he says.  "The greatest men and women of all of history are speaking to you--and you can hear them."

The majority of Beowulf on the Beach is a compendium of annotated books, listed in chronological order. Murnighan includes offers a basic introduction the the author and the context in which the book was produced, a brief discussion of plot, and even a discussion of sections to skip or skim. His reviews are funny, irreverent, and utterly charming.

A couple of examples:

1. He calls the Iliad the "origin and apex of virility lit." What a wonderful coinage to add to "chick lit"!

2. When talking about the Odyssey, he says that Penelope's rowdy suitors are turning Odysseus's house in Ithaca "into a Cornell frat."

Finally, I like Murnighan's take on choosing which texts he uses in his book. As he points out, it is hard to choose what is the most influential or iconic books of all time. So he started his selection by asking people what they "felt kind of bad about" never reading seriously. In other words, "communal remorse dictated [the] first list." He then added a few additional items that critics and scholars have placed "among literature's finest achievements." He also included books that "carve out corners of literature that no one else occupies."

One could quibble with Murnighan about his choices. Perhaps because I read Fadiman so recently, I noticed the relative absence of classic Asian books. But unlike Fadiman, Murnighan never suggests that his desire would be for a complete list. "As to the so-called Great Books debate, i.e. whether we teach the dead white guys are keep opening up 'his-story' to other voices, call me a conscientious objector. He loves the classics, but he loves any books that help any individual reader feel connected to books and to life.

He makes a point that I find remarkably compelling: of course it is true that comic books or postmodern novels can be just as significant as Shakespeare or one of the other "great books"--but it is equally true that we can enjoy reading Shakespeare just as much as we enjoy reading the contemporary stuff. I think many readers of my generation believe that the classics are dry and useless, something boring only to be endured in the classroom.  Beowulf on the Beach heals us from those assumptions and gives us a great path for enjoying these books.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Irish Short Story Week

Mel U of the blog The Reading Life has proclaimed this week to be Irish Short Story Week.  I've been enjoying all the posts over at The Reading Life over the last few days.  Mel's recent posts have whetted my appetite to try some works by Dublin-born Elizabeth Bowen--the author of such novels as The Heat of the Day and The House in Paris. Although her novels are extremely well known, she is equally highly regarded for her shorter works.  As Newsweek said, Bowen is "quite simply one of the best short story writers who ever lived."

Until today, I had not read any of Bowen's stories or novels--though I have some battered volumes on my shelves which I picked up at a library discards sale a few years ago.  Her collection of stories has called to me for some time.  I'm looking forward to reading through the entire volume, inhaling her stories about life in England during the 1920s and 30s, through the war years, and beyond.

Mel's comments about one particular short story, "Oh, Madam..." really caught my eye.  Like Mel, I find this story to be immensely powerful.  The story takes place in London during World War II--specifically on the morning after a fine house has been damaged by a bomb.   The narrator of the story, a housemaid who has lived and worked in a home for many years, leads the mistress of the house through the damage, keeping a monologue as the two women survey the damage all around them.

I'm fascinated by the voice in this story.  In some ways, reading it feels like listening to a one-sided telephone conversation where the other part of the dialogue is obscured.   In addition, the protocol of servant-master manners limits what the maid can say aloud to her mistress.  The words seem immediate and disjointed, just as in need of a reader to sort the meanings all out just as the house is in need of the housekeeper to clean up the fallen plaster.  By focusing only on the maid's words and thoughts, Bowen is able to highlight her emotional response to the devastation rather than muddling it with the response by her well-heeled mistress.  What shines through the rubble of broken house and the broken lives is the maid's deep and complex connections to the house and to the family.

Have any of you read this story?  What did you think?  Any other favorite Bowen stories?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Women of the Odyssey, part two

The OdysseyIn my post about The Odyssey last Wednesday, I discussed Homer's characterizations of Penelope and Athena.  Today I want to think about a few other women who are central to the story: Calypso, Circe, and Nausicaa.  These three female characters seem to serve two major functions in the book.  First, they serve as obstacles (or potential obstacles) to Odysseus's quest to return home.  Second, they are all mirrors of some aspect of his wife Penelope.

Odysseus spends seven years on Calypso's island as her prisoner--spending every day weeping for home and his beloved Penelope and every evening sleeping with Calypso.  She, the immortal daughter of the Titan god Atlas, loves Odysseus and wants him to stay with her forever and become her husband.  Although Calypso promises him immortality if he will only marry her, Odysseus tells her that he wants to be a human man at his own human home.  After Zeus orders her to let Odysseus leave, Calypso sadly outfits a boat with bread and wine to see him off safely. 

Althouth we know Calypso has held the man of twists and turns against his will for many years, she remains a very sympathetic character for many readers.  Her unrequited love for her captive seems honest and terribly sad.

Circe, on the other hand, is not pathetic--nor is she sympathetic.  When Odysseus and his men approach her home, she feeds them poison and uses her wand do turn the men into pigs.  Informed by the gods to injest an herb to avoid being turned into an animal by her transformative powers, Odysseus maintains his humanity.  He then celebrates by spending a year there--feasting, drinking, and sleeping with Circe by his own choice.

While Calypso offers him love which he does not want, Circe offers him sex and other pleasures.  Odysseus does not weep on the shore while dreaming of home.  In fact, he has to be reminded by his men (who had been much earlier restored to humanity) that they really need to be getting on their way.

A third character who has the potential to delay Odysseus's journey home is Nausicaa.  The young and innocent daughter of the royal family of Phaeacia, Nausicaa offers Odysseus neither mature love (as does Calypso) nor illicit sex (as does Circe).  Instead, Nausicaa presents the opportunity for innocent and honorable marriage.  She tells her friend that she wants Odysseus to become her husband.  Her father hopes for the same outcome and in fact tells Odysseus that he would allow a marriage to take place.  Nothing seems to come of the affair, but Homer emphasizes the story enough that the possibilities become clear.

Although Homer portrays Nausicaa as an innocent and kind young woman, her presence is quite dangerous for Odysseus.  Here he has a possibility to start afresh, with a young woman just coming into bloom rather than with a wife now twenty years older than when he last saw her.  At the same time, the presence of Nausicaa might remind Odysseus of the pure importance of family life and of home.

Calypso keeps Odysseus away from home by force.  While she has Odysseus in the flesh, she does not have his love.  Penelope has the love of her husband but does not have him at home with her in her arms.  In other words, one has his body but not his heart, while the other has his heart but not his body.

Circe also presents a reversal or mirrored image of Penelope.  While Circe offers herself up to Odysseus sexually, the male suitors want sexual favors from Penelope.  And when Circe turns her male guests into pigs, Penelope also has to contend with a house full of "pigs" herself--the male suitors.

*  *  *

Thanks for sticking with me as I have journeyed slowly through The Odyssey.  I plan to discuss a few modern retellings of the Odyssey next week, then after that I'll head forward to the Homeric Hymns and to Hesiod.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I've spent most of the last few days asleep--fighting off a minor illness and getting very little of anything accomplished. While I was down for the count, my to-be-read stack expanded by 3 books, all won in recent blog contests:

Pocket Posh® William Shakespeare: 100 Puzzles & QuizzesGo check out the puzzle competition over at Shakespeare Geek for the new book Pocket Posh Shakespeare Puzzles. Although winners have already been drawn, his cipher entry puzzle will definitely amuse you.  I can't wait to look through the book which promises to provide many evenings of fun for my Shakespeare-obsessed family.

If you love Shakespeare and really bad puns, you absolutely must follow Shakespeare Geek on Twitter.  He and Bardfilm keep me laughing everyday with hashtags such as the recent #JudyBlumeShakespeare, #ShakesPoe #ShakespeareProductRecall, and even #ShakespeareanPickupLines. (Unfortunately, these all seem to be past the date when Twitter keeps them available--but if you tune in yourself, you'll get to be part of all the fun.)  Follow them at @ShakespeareGeek and @bardfilm.

*  *  *

The Lost Summer of Louisa May AlcottGiven that Little Women may have been the book that really started my career as a reader (depending on whether you count the entire Nancy Drew series or not), I must say how excited I am to be receiving the new novel The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees, given away--and signed!--by the author.

I'm also looking forward to reading Harriet Reisen's well-received biography, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.  Perhaps an Alcott reading extravaganza is in order!

*  *  *

Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin Student Editions) I was thrilled to win Amanda's blogoversary contest over at The Zen Leaf a few weeks ago.  In her post, Amanda called special attention to some of the blog reviews she wrote in her first year and listed a few of her favorites. She offered the winner of her drawing any book from her 2008 list.

Immediately, I knew I would choose Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea.  Having been a Jane Eyre fan since I was a young girl, I can't believe I haven't read this extension of the story.  (It is the story of the m******* in the a****, as Amateur Reader would say.)

I think I'll reread Jane Eyre before reading WSS--and perhaps I'll look through Lucasta Miller's study, The Bronte Myth, too.  Ah, yes.  One book always leads to another...

*  *  *

Thanks to all three of these bloggers for keeping my shelves--and all available floorspace in our house--brimming with possibilities.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Women of the Odyssey, part one

In Homer's The Iliad, the stories of men's exploits in battle almost entirely eclipse the possibility of women as significant characters.  Don't get me wrong: female characters are essential to the momentum of the plot and to the development of the male characters.  Without Helen, we might not have a Trojan War at all.  We empathize with Hector the Trojan partly because we see the pain of Andromache.  We understand Achilles's growth partly because we know about his relationship with Briseis.  But the women's presence in the story is to help us understand the men, not to explore female perspectives or understandings.

OdysseyThe Odyssey, on the other hand, puts women in very different kinds of roles.  First we have Athena, goddess of wisdom, a female god who sees herself as the parallel to Odysseus.  She is the divinity who mirrors his sense of trickery and cleverness.  As Athena says to him (in the Lombardo translation), "You wily bastard, you cunning. elusive, habitual liar!" Her words are not a criticism, as we see as she continues: "Here we are, the two shrewdest minds in the universe, you far and away the best man on earth in plotting strategies," acknowledges Athena, "and I famed among gods for my clever schemes.... Now I've come here, ready to weave a plan with you."  She loves the mortal Odysseus because of his similarity to her.  She assists him because he is her reflection.  For the reader, Odysseus and his adventures become a kind of stand-in for a female god's adventures--or perhaps a reader will see it the opposite way.  This narrative trick might expand the ability of a female audience member to identify with a male character--a cross-gender identification that many modern readers hesitate to do.

Penelope, too, is a mirror image of Odysseus.  Although she is faithful when he is not--over and over, both literally and theoretically--Penelope is just as capable of trickery and deceit as her husband.  Almost as well known as Odysseus's trick of the Trojan Horse is Penelope's trick of weaving a funeral shroud.  Her cleverness extends through other examples as well, such as her offer of an unavailable bed to the man who claims to be her husband--an offer only Odysseus will recognize as a false one.

How Penelope makes sense of Odysseus's long absence and eventual return is in direct contrast to the story of Clytemnestra--a story I'll be discussing more when I get to the Greek dramatists coming up soon.  But Homer refers enough to the story.  While Agamemnon is away at war, his wife Clytemnestra takes a lover.  She then murders her husband when he eventually returns from the battlefields of Troy.  "Will Odysseus face the same homecoming?" Homer asks us to consider.  The answer is no--perhaps because Penelope is MORE wily than Clytemnestra rather than less, MORE able to hold off alternatives.  Ironically, it is her dishonesty--her ability to be dissembling--that allows her to maintain her devotion to her husband.

What a fascinating portrayal Homer gives us!  The idea that lying allows faithfulness is one I suspect we'll see again and again as we go through the canon.  (Right now I'm thinking about Shakespeare and his comedies from Twelfth Night to As You Like It.)

I want to be impressed with Homer's literary playfulness, this pre-feminist exploration of alternatives, perhaps this proto-feminist analysis of choices.  But I am not happy.  Instead I find myself wishing that Penelope and Athena would abandon this jerk Odysseus instead of seeing themselves reflected in him.  I wish they would connect themselves to what we moderns mean by "hero": a character who changes and grows as the story progresses, a full human being who is self critical rather than just arrogant, a man who gets somewhere on his own personal odyssey.

Next time: a picture of some of Homer's other major female characters, including Circe, Calypso, and Nausicaa.
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