The Odyssey – 5/5 Stars
So my review is specific to the newer Emily Wilson translation, which I find particularly good and readable. She writes a long introduction that serves as a solid guide to the epic, to the writing, the historical context, and other important keys. This is long, but worthwhile, especially if you’re new to the story or it’s been a long time or you’re a little rough in your epic-reading.
From there, there’s a very good translator’s note of some length explaining her approach and argument for her text. She tells a little of the history of the translation of the text first to put it in some context, making the argument that all translations are “modern” in terms of their context. She also explains some of the choices made by past translations, especially the Alexander Pope and Samuel Butler (the elder) to shape the story into a various kind of argument, but especially to shape the language. The idea being that since this is a poem of great import, the language needs to read as such. But the issue with this is that it’s not really all that supported by the text or by the likely purpose of the text. While elevated printed language was of huge importance in Butler’s and Pope’s days, that was of quite limited readership, especially for an oral culture poem.
So her translation is meant to be both more straightforward and accessible, and it is, but to also try to correctly interpret some specific cases. Specifically she thinks about how women are described and tries to find words to capture the correct context and connotation, as opposed to something more anachronistic to today. She also spends some time explaining why she chooses iambic pentameter as opposed to the original meter. Her basic argument is that she couldn’t really recreate the effect of the ancient Greek in English, so chose instead to use a poetic structure commonly associated with English.
Otherwise, you know the story here.
Gerald’s Party – 3/5 Stars
|This book is kind of Robert Altman film by way of JG Ballard, if that sounds appealing. Specifically we are Gerald’s birthday party. He’s around forty, friends and family have gathered, there’s drinking, and smoking, and flirting and hints at affairs. There’s also a murder immediately, in the first line that is, and a police investigation, and then several more murders, and a lot of performing. In fact the whole book is a straight performance of post-modern structure and playful momentum. It’s most like books like Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (which came after) and High Rise (which came before) as well as some plenty other influences and influenced.
“Language is the square hole we keep trying to jam the round peg of life into. It’s the most insane thing we do.”
A Good Man in Africa – 3/5 Stars
I want to like this book more than I do, because I think it’s doing something particularly interesting, or I think I think that it is. The issue then is that it feels a little out of sorts contextually and I don’t end up liking the final product very much. Morgan Leafy is a British diplomat in the fictional African nation of Kinjanja. Boyd grew up in Ghana, so it wouldn’t be completely unheard of to assume some similarities. He’s drunk a lot of the time and always messing around with other men’s wives, and he believes cars are the most important status symbol. Mercedes are the best, but his Peugeot is a more suitable and cultivated look. He’s enlisted to help run (rig) a local election, and this puts him in a precarious position in the country, while threatening the life he’s carved out for himself, a life he mostly hates.
So all of this should sound pretty familiar to you, right? Boyd is hardly the first writer to cast a white British man in a made up African country (or real African country for that matter), and of course, we can think about Heart of Darkness as one potential model. If we want to be a little more specific to this book, we should be thinking about Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, which shares some similar elements, and I would say Greene’s other novel The Quiet American for some additional borrowing. Boyd even directly references Greene’s Heart of the Matter in the text, so the comparison is pointed here. So what are we doing here in this novel then? For me, if novels from the 1920s-1970s in British literature dealt with the guilt, the oppression, the exploitation, and specifically of giving up empire, then this novel is either completely anachronistic or doing something else. The novels that also stand out as influences, just to finish my point are George Orwell’s Burmese Days, Anthony Burgess’s The Long Day Wanes, Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, but even more so Staying On, various of VS Naipaul novels, PH Newby’s Something to Answer For, Forster’s A Passage to India, and finally, the three main novels by JG Farrell — Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur, and The Singapore Grip. These novels all waved goodbye to empire, in the explicitly colonial sense.
So what is this novel doing in 1981? I think it’s waving goodbye to the colonial novel of this sort. (Or would be if Boyd didn’t write a few more like this).
Revolutionary Characters – 3/5 Stars
This book begins with a complaint, one that I think is reasonable, that recent historical writing has taken second, third, and fourth looks at founding fathers, and found them wanting. The complaint is not that these writers have criticisms and even disdain for those historical figures, but that the writing itself has gone from attempting to shed light on the real men behind the reputations, and replaced them with characiatures, what Wood calls a dehumanizing process. I think this is probably write to some large extent. There is definitely a trend happening in public discourse to think too much along binaries, especially of “good” and “bad” and to categorize things. For most things out there, this isn’t really that big of a deal because we don’t pay attention to most things, so having a way to quickly discriminate among them helps. And like Wood, I find it especially troublesome when someone who really doesn’t know what they’re talking about decides that they’re an expert on something because they’ve read a few things, or decided one quote or one piece of writing is enough to label and classify. This happens a lot in literature where a given reading of a book is determined to be definitive and then opinions fall out from there. The issue I have, and I imagine some of the same things are happening with Wood, is that the people who are forming their judgments and opinions based on that original criticism didn’t also read the novel or didn’t also consider the question much on their own. The internet has turned this process into some near exponetial growth of ideas based on a faulty or unstable center. I think there ends up being a million students of a million ideas with no experts or teachers weighing in to guide. It’s the limits of the autodidact at play in large swaths. The same thing happens with the flattening of nuanced academic language in public discourse where the fine grain are quickly worn down through overuse.
So here! You have Wood reacting to this process somewhat and writing short narrative chapters on a handful of founding figures (all white men of course) as a way to correct the record. In theory, this seems really good and is similar to what Joseph Ellis did with his books Founding Brothers and American Creation, both of which as excellent. The chapters in Wood where the public perception of the figures is limited, the work is stronger. But in chapters like Thomas Jefferson’s and especially regarding slaveowning, Wood ends up doing the same thing he complains about but in reverse.
It’s the equivalent of a literature scholar trying to salvage the reputation of a disgraced text not by telling truths, but by elevating it well past reason. It’s a too violent swing in the opposite direction. The more complex charicatizations of Ellis’s books are more suited to the task.
If you’ve read Speak, Memory, Nabokov asks you kindly to not make suppositions about which stories from that memoir show up here in fictional form, and to not make guesses about who people are. Fine, he says, this person is this person and so on.
In addition to this, the introduction of the book tells a short history of the translations of the early Russian novels into English and the process by which he and his son Dmitry attempted this. All worthwhile.
My favorite part of Speak, Memory is the very Proustian theme of “I am just a rich fat baby who loves being a rich fat baby” and that feelings is coupled here, fictionally, with the anxiety of how those old world elements that would have worked wonders in the past have now been killed by the 20th century. A true loss. So the ironic use of the word Glory, which would be too crassly defined here as vainglory means that when you fail to win a girl on your inherited merits alone, especially when your whole family has been killed in a violent revolution, it’s time to get serious.
Pnin – 5/5 Stars
The more times I read this novel, the more I love it. It’s not a novel stripped of all artifice, but it almost feels like it, especially at first glimpse. In a lot of ways, it feels like a companion piece to Pale Fire, which involved Professor Kinbote completely colonializing his frend’s poetry for sinister lies and storytelling. Or in Lolita, when you take a slight digression from the main story, to the storytelling, you have the deep, linguistic manipulations of Humbert Humbert attempting to sway you with his words. You have both happening here, but presented in a falsely straightforward and deceptive way. Poor Pnin is a Russian literature professor on his way to a conference when he gets on the wrong train and misses the whole thing. But really what you’re reading is a colleague (it seems) relating the story of ridiculous Professor Pnin missing his train and missing the conference. This leads us back to the department and college meetings at their shared university where Pnin is being discussed and shuffled around. Specifically, he’s some kind of burden on the university, but not an actual liability as he’s a perfectly solid scholar and teacher, but one who doesn’t fit into the grand designs on the university that new administration has for him. So what’s to be done. Well for one, he should be made ridiculous. He helps plenty on that front as it is, so no worries there. The other issue is that his work can’t really be housed anywhere. He could teach French, because he speaks perfect French (if only passable English) but he can’t teach elementary French or advanced French. And it goes on and on and on.
Like all of Nabokov’s novels, you’re aware of so much more than what’s on the page, and you spend a lot of time trying to pin it down. And like with butterflies, to do so, would kill it.
(Original: In this short novel, we are introduced to a Russian professor named Timofey Pnin, who immigrated to the US to teach at a small liberal arts college in New England in the 1940s. The novel starts off with Pnin getting a train to report to a conference where he has been enlisted to give a talk. In a way not unlike To the Lighthouse it’s unclear if we’ll ever see him get there, not because of a series of mishaps and slip-ups but because the narrator in this novel can’t seem to move the story forward instead stuck in a loop where he just constantly to keep giving us background and context.
That’s kind of the whole point. We find out a lot of the details that lead us to this moment in Pnin’s life: the affair he’s having with a colleague’s wife, the reorganization of the academic departments at his college where because he’s affable and somewhat vaguely skilled in many fields, he is transferable, and what it means to be brilliant and alone in a foreign country whose very language is almost impossible for you to speak because of the way that languages shapes the very features of one’s mouth, tongue, throat, and lips in order to speak them.
Pnin is a really funny book. It’s very erudite and weird, and it’s a real joy to read.)
The Lives of a Cell – 4/5 Stars
A series of essays and columns about scientific topics told in poetic, contemplative, and future-oriented language and approaches. This collection prefigures some changes in scientific writing and clearly has a future in mind of popular science texts. Shares some similarities to The Double Helix and The Selfish Gene for their popular approach. There’s a truly wonderful array of different topics and an very excellent essay on language.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go – 5/5 Stars
At first I was like, wait why is this character named Richard Burton? That seems distracting. And then I was in on it a little. I was hoping for a moment where our Richard Burton learned about the other Richard Burton.
Anway, famous 19th British colonialist, solider, warrior, poet, translator Richard Burton (currently probably best well know as an interpretor of Arabian Nights tales) wakes up from his deathbed in a strange new world. He’s completely naked and rotating like on a spit along with other naked bodies in what seems like near infinite numbers. As he comes to again, he learns a few things. His body is no longer that of his 70 year old deathbed, but one of atheticism and youth. He’s also completely hairless. He begins to assess his surroundings and finds more people (as well as aliens, neanderthals, etc) milling about. They’re all in it together now. He finds out that everybody else has been revived from their deaths, restored to their youth, and brought to this new world. He also finds out that they come vastly different parts of the world and human history and some from other worlds. What they don’t know is why they’ve been brought back.
The leading theory is that this is heaven or hell, and they must figure out the rest on their own. Filled with a handful of other recognizeble figures, Burton begins to figure out the shape of the world, some truth about their origins, and a plan of action.
Scoop – 3/5 Stars
Man, what a nasty piece of work Evelyn Waugh was. The weird energy of being a devout converted (adult) Catholic probably figures in it. As he told Virginia Woolf one time, without it, he would have been way worse.
Anyway, in this novel we get the namesake of The Daily Beast, an internation news agency that will be covering the recent civil war in a small, unknown Africa state. For reasons that are not immediately sure, a young writer only known for pastoral local writing is impressed and sent to the country to write sensationalist war stories. He accidentally succeeds, and becomes an overnight success. He hates.
A satire on yellow journalism and muckraking, this novel is mired by its own racism.
South of the Border, West of the Sun – 2/5
This novel reads like Haruki Murakami fanfiction or like a bot or AI read all of Murakami fiction and churned out this novel as a result. But seeing how this was first published in 1992, maybe it helps to create that. Regardless.
Our novel focuses first on the friendship between Hajime and Shimamoto, both only-children. Shimamoto has a pronounced limp from a polio-like infection when she was young. The two share an intense friendship and then drift apart and stop speaking. Years later when both are older and Hijame is married with children, she walks into the jazzbar he runs and the two pick up where they left off. What’s not clear is whether or not romance will occur.
This book dwells in self-pity in a way that I can’t find endearing or real feeling, so what should be more heartrending feels completely false and melodramatic.
Nine Pinces of Amber – 5/5 Stars
Man, this book just hit right. I read it the same weekend as Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and they share some similarities. Waking up in a weird new context, awarenes of faint past, emergence of new information and awareness of old self, and that they end with some real clifhangering.
If those two books had come out and then disappeared, I would be furious. But coming decades later to the series, seeing that both have a TON of sequals each is great.
Our narrator wakes in a hospital after an accident. He doesn’t know how he got there, but has the vague memory of some kind of accident. He’s told his legs are broken, but they seem alright to him actually. So he hops out of bed, secures a gun, and escapes. Interrogating one of his captors, he gets a lead on a sister of his. When he visits her, he bluffs his way into some kind of truth. They are each members of a family of demi-god like figures and there’s a lot of backstabbing and political manuvering happening. He decides he might as well go for the king, and he’ll need some allies along the way.
It’s a very stripped down epic, and I love it for that.
Welcome to the Monkeyhouse – 4/5 stars
Like Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, there’s a lot of good here, and some bad. And like other story collections, there’s a lot of good here, and some bad.
This is a collection of 25 stories, contained within about 300 pages. That of course means that very few of stories are more than a couple pages each, and none of them is very long at all. You get his most famous story, “Harrison Bergeron” and since I have read that story about two dozen times, I was once again reminded of the weird little details in that story, and an ending I never can quite wrap my head around.
Other of the stories vary a lot. There’s a brilliant and terrifying story about a Chess game played with real people, which also speaks to the realities of military commands and very direct inclusion of civilians in 20th century warfare.
In weeks to come, those will likely be the only two stories that really stay with me.
Free-Lance Pallbearers -4/5 Stars
For book that is wild and confusing and erratic, this first novel by Ishmael Reed is probably the most accessible of his early ones for me. More so than a few others I’ve recently read.
In a way, it’s very similar to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, by way of late 1960s Black Panther, Black Arts, and student radicalism movements.
Dragons of High Lord Skies – 3/5 Stars
The book promises to be the telling of the dual stories of Laurana and Kitiara after the first section of Dragons of Winter Night. That novel begins with the retelling (in very thin detail) of the finding of the hammer in Thorbarden, and then moves on to Tarsis, its sacking, and then the stealing of the dragonorb from the ice palace, and being chased by the white dragon.
So this book picks up after the events of Dragons of Dwarven Depths, which told about the follow-up to the fall of Verminard. Here we get Kitiara starring in a novel since Darkness and Light, and giving us a lot of the backstory to her becoming a dragon highlord, working with the emperor and the deathknight Thoth. Also, we get the actual story behind the ice palace, which is WAY More interesting than the the dwarven depths luckily. Not a WHOLE lot of Laurana in this book I have to tell you. But maybe that’s because she figures so much in the Chronicles anyway, and this is Kitiara’s time to shine.
Books of Blood – 3/5 Stars
Am I just the only one who doesn’t find horror books to be sexy? Anyway, sexy horror stories, kind of.