The Penelopiad – 4/5
This short book was written as part of a mythology fiction project in the early 00s where contemporary writers took on classic myths. Karen Armstrong wrote an overall history of mytholy, David Grossman wrote about Samson and Delilah, AS Byatt wrote about Ragnorok. As she did with the Shakespeare project when she wrote Hag-Seed based in The Tempest, she knocked the ball out of the park with this one. I think this is in part because she already has written numerous texts that play in storytelling, and this is similar enough for her previous work. The story here is narrated partly by Penelope, Odysseu’s wife, who in The Odyssey awaits his return while suitor upon suitor starts piling up in her house, eating her food, and demanding that she make a decision about remarrying. This occurs for several years, and several years after she had been hearing about Odysseus’s attempts to get back to Ithaca. She lost sight of him for several years, when he was “imprisoned” on the island of Calypso, and that’s about when the suitors started showing up. Around this same time, her son Telemachus, whom Atwood writes as competitive and petulant toward his mother goes off looking for his father. So we get Penelope’s narration as she waits. The narrative position in this story is from the afterlife, so there’s a lot interacting with other dead figures. Namely, she spends some time detailing her relationship with Helen, her positioned as her cousin based in Robert Graves’s version of the Greek myths. She blames Helen for starting this whole things off.
The other primary thing going on in the story is her grief and guilt over the death of the handmaidens, whom Odysseus and Telemachus hang after the battle with the suitors for sleeping with the men. Penelope feels a lot of guilt over this because she had asked the handmaidens to act as spies for her, and had not been able to tell Odysseus about this when he returned.
The story is funny and weird, and the mythology is at play in fun ways as well. It’s a good reminder that there never has been a definitive version of any myth, so more versions are always welcome, especially when they’re well-done.
At Night All Blood is Black – 4/5
A short novel written in French about a Black Senegalese soldier fighting for France during WWI. His closest friend is killed, something that he thought would be impossible given his stature as a warrior, but if the 20th century has taught us anything, randomness and luck are the only things that truly keep a soldier alive anymore. This death destroys him internally and he begins to lose his mind. In retaliation, he begins to find ways to slaughter and destroy German soldiers, even though he knows that they were doing nothing that he himself wouldn’t have done in their place. This doesn’t matter. Only the revenge for the death of his friend does. What we clearly understand through all this, looking from the outside, is that he is also trying to reckon with his own confusing place on the French line. How did he, a Senegalese warrior end up fighting for an oppressive Foreign regime against soldiers who, up until now, had never even been in the position to do him any wrong? Now they have wronged him, but what led to this was being forced into the frontlines in the first place. These thoughts are too painful and complex for him to think about at times, and so he must push them down, if he wishes to focus on his newly found purpose. Of course, that’s not have traumatic thoughts work.
Hiroshima – 4/5
The small history of the bombing of Hiroshima (and by extension Nagasaki) by the American journalist and novelist John Hersey, and first published in 1946. The book was revised at numerous times to add in longer term effects of the radiation sickness and political conversations about the bombing, and to revisit survivors to hear their thoughts on the moral question of the bombing. The book is primarily a kind of oral/people’s history. Some details of the wider war and the decision to drop the bomb are laid out, but a lot of these details are still couched in the ways in which the immediate survivors of the bombing would have heard them–through government releases, journalism, and gossip. Gossip played a large part as different theories about what the weapon was circulate around the city at different times. The book focuses on a ground-level storytelling focusing on a few figures: a German Catholic priest, a doctor, and a young woman, along with many other characters who are of the story.
The book only briefly engages with the moral question of the bombing, and I have to suggest that the question is more complex than the brief mention the book gives it. Plenty of other writers have engaged with it, in different ways, in more thorough and complex ways later. But this book is a tremendous record of the trauma of the bombing, which regardless of your answer on the moral question, is undeniable.
Brighton Beach Memoirs – 4/5
The first of the Eugene plays by Neil Simon, which was followed by Broadway Bound about his time after the war, and Biloxi Blues, about his time in basic training. This play takes place before the war where Eugene is around 13 and his older brother is 19. His parents have brought in Eugene’s aunt, who’s husband died some years back, and his two cousins, a girl about 12 with health problems and a girl 16. A few things are creating conflict in this play. Like with all problems, there’s a lot of unspoken resentment, especially between the mom and her sister. In addition, Eugene’s brother is struggling with his own sense of place in the world and this is causing him to struggle at work, which is an issue because his family needs that money. His father is also working several jobs and this is taking a toll on his health. His older cousin is offered a possible job as a chorus line dancer in a show, but because of her age, both her mother and Eugene’s father need to weigh in. Eugene’s problem is two-fold, he’s fading into the background of this chaotic world and needs help figuring things out; two, he’s got a really unfortunate crush on his older cousin, and because he’s 13, it’s not exactly a chaste crush at that.
The Talented Mr Ripley – 5/5
The first of four books about Tom Ripley, the sociopathic narcissistic murderer who will do anything to have access to things he thinks he deserves in the world. The novel begins with Tom being asked to meet up with the father of one of his school mates from college. He and Dickie Greenleaf didn’t really know each other, but they ran in some of the same circles. The biggest difference is that he was a scholarship kid and Dickie came from a rich family. The father tells Tom that he’s concerned with Dickie, not in a super worrisome way, but that he’s in Europe and drifting away from his family and professional (within the family business) responsibilities. Dickie apparently wants to be an artist. So he tells Tom he will finance a trip to Europe where Tom should report back on Dickie’s situation and try to convince him to return home, if he has the opportunity. Tom is suspicious, as suspect people tend to be, but he agrees and when he arrives in Italy and meets up with Dickie, he begins to realize he has no desire whatsoever to send Dickie back. Dickie’s life seems pretty great actually. You do whatever you want, you have a hot girlfriend who adores you, and a bunch of friends and you sail and drink and eat. There’s also of course the slightly present but otherwise subconscious attraction to Dickie that manifests in a kind of lust for Dickie, a transference of that lust onto the girlfriend, and a desire to take over Dickie’s life. Which is exactly what he does. On a small boating trip, Tom kills Dickie with an oar and sinks the boat into the harbor. He then takes Dickie’s things, forges a latter to the girlfriend, and moves to a different part of Europe using his vague resemblance to Dickie in order to cash checks and use his passport. He then spends the rest of the novel fending off those who are looking for the truth.
This is the third time I’ve read this book, and this is the first time I am reminded of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, which begins with the same basic plot. This book is a kind of Black Swan of that book obviously.
Claw of the Conciliatory – 4/5
The second book of the first quadrilogy about Severian the Torturer. In the last book we ended with Severian being first exiled from the guild of the torturers, being poisoned and sent on a mission to recover a magic stone, and then a betrayal is revealed, and finally a play happens!
In this book we pick up right after this. Some things we begin to understand in this book is that this is not a fantasy, magical world after all. Instead, this is the far future, in which the technology of the past has mostly disappeared, and what remains looks like magic. We see this especially in a character who is revealed to be cyborg of types. In addition, there’s a great metaphor that Wolfe details about a tall building whose steel architecture had slowly eroded and disintegrated, but what did remain what the generation after generation of structural support, buttressing, and outside patching, so that now there’s nothing remaining of the original structure except for the shape itself. That is more or less what the book is heavily built upon, that sense of shape. Another terrifying moment is when our characters end up in a prison that has also operated generation after generation. The prisoners were born there and have never left. They say that their progenitors spoke of seven generations of prisoners in their family and each generation also spoke of seven generations. That is terrifying.
The book brilliantly captures a dying world, frozen in death however.
Death and the Maiden – 4/5
A play written by Ariel Dorfman, who has also written novels, about a country in Latin America, that is presumably Chile. It’s after the fall of the authoritarian regime. Our lead male character is a government official who has just been tapped to lead a kind of truth and reconciliation committee addressing the crimes of the past regime and to begin setting the country aright. This commission, according to his wife, feels too squarely symbolic, because the names of the criminals will not be named, and presumably no one will face actual consequences for their crimes. This is of primary concern to her because she had imprisoned by the regime before she met her husband, because of her work as a student activist, where she was raped and tortured, primarily by a doctor whose face she never saw, and who had originally been brought in to maintain the health of the prisoners, before he began taking part in their torture.
On this night, her husband, set to make a big speech in the following days, catches a flat tire on the way home and is picked up by a traveler who brings him home and is subsequently invited to dinner the next night. You see where this is going. The man shows up and is immediately taken prisoner by the wife who recognizes his voice and recognizes a reference to Nietzsche that he makes to the husband. The rest of the play is about whether or not she will be able to find her own justice, as opposed to the symbolic justice her husband offers. It’s also about whether or not this is actually the guilty man.