The Aeneid by Virgil

The AeneidThe Aeneid by Virgil
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One. That’s how many lives I have, you guys. And sometimes I can’t force myself to fritter it away reading dull books when I have stacks of other books looking at me longingly, calling my name, whispering that they will love me so much better than that other book if I would only put it down and listen to them…

Anyways, I didn’t finish the Aeneid. Virgil’s writing is descriptive but not engrossing and the same could be said for his characters. The whole book is essentially a Roman version of The Odyssey, but boring. Aeneas and his ships escape their beloved city of Troy after the Greeks sack it and sail around the Mediterranean in a quest for the land Venus has promised them wherein to found their new nation. Madcap hijinks ensue. Or they would, if anything that happened was exciting and quirky. Dull road-trip is closer. There’s a lot of sacrificing bulls, pouring streaming bowls of wine and oil upon altars, sailing cautiously through dangerous passages, and the like. They have the ancient Roman equivalent of a sports day, with sailing, shooting, running, and sparring challenges complete with fabulous prizes (more bulls). They battle harpies. Once. The ships pass Scylla and Charybdis and nobody dies. One of the most legendary, feared sea dangers; a piece from the Odyssey which I have never forgotten reading and seen reproduced in other movies and books time and again, and Virgil has his fleet get insider’s sailing advice from a god and slip through without so much as an interested snuffle from Scylla, nor a bubble from Charybdis. It’s not that there isn’t enough death, just that after the fall of Troy the whole book becomes almost unrelievedly boring. One life, guys. Don’t squander it on draggy sagas.

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Ramayana by Valmiki, retold by William Buck

RamayanaRamayana by William Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What story has a cast of gods, demons, humans, animals and magical objects, spans thousands of years, features wars and curses and kidnapping along with tender scenes of romance and vibrant descriptive passages, and is way more interesting than you think?

Twilight.

No, I’m kidding. It’s Ramayana. William Buck discovered this famous epic poem around 1960, along with other priceless works of Indian literature, and was so captivated by it that he set himself to re-writing it for modern English speakers. Creative license was taken; the original was printed in chronological order but Buck has placed some later events at the beginning of the book, and in other places outright revamped interactions, even to the point of completely fabricating a letter which doesn’t appear in the original. Because this is my first experience with Ramayana I can’t speak to the veracity of Buck’s efforts, but I can tell you this is now one of my favourite ancient epic poems. Valmiki devotes lyrical passages to the beauty of the characters and saturates every page, body and outfit with rich colour and a wealth of ornamentation. People are by turns aggrieved, capricious, generous, forgiving, selfish, and kind. There is a handy list of characters at the front – to which I referred constantly – but no crash course in Hindu theology so if you aren’t familiar with the basics you may wish to do some light reading before embarking on Rama’s journey. It’s a very complex universe. Numerous gods reborn as different people, different gods, or whole sets of siblings. Since knowledge of this is sometimes assumed in the text it can be a little challenging to keep track of who is who. Even with the cast up front. Here’s a rundown: Ravana, the demon king, through devotion and will-power persuades Brahma to gift him with immunity from death by the gods or other demons. He then runs rough-shod over all the other gods, sacking heavenly cities and forcing their rulers into servitude. Indra, the rain god and king of heaven, after escaping from Ravana’s prison, goes to confront Brahma about Ravana’s omnipotence and how Brahma intends to stop him. Brahma sends him to see Narayana, who reveals his plan to be reborn as a man and defeat Ravana that way. Ravana saw men and animals as lesser beings and didn’t think to ask for protection from them. So Narayana, who is also Vishnu, is reborn as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna, sons of king Dasaratha’s three wives Kausalya (Rama), Sumitra (Lakshmana and Satrughna), and Kaikeyi (Bharata). Narayana’s consort Lakshmi is reborn as Sita, playing a crucial part later in the story. Despite all four of the sons being Narayana incarnate, the story revolves almost completely around Rama. Lakshmana is clearly an important supporting character, but Bharata plays only a minor role and Satrughna is practically irrelevant. Meanwhile Ravana has brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna, sister Surpanakha, son Indrajit (né Meghanada), and numerous wives, spies, demons, and councillors, all of whom play roles of various importance. Anyways, through various godly machinations Rama and Lakshmana spend their youth learning heavenly weapons, Rama and Sita meet and are wed, and they all return to Rama’s childhood home of Ayodhya for a few blissful years together before political intrigue gets Rama exiled for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refuse to be separated from him and join him as travelling ascetics until they cross paths with Ravana. And Ravana starts a war. In Buck’s retelling, the poem is related by a storyteller to his friend and unfolds in layers a little like 1001 Nights, where the character of one story becomes the narrator for a story within the first, and so on. It’s a literary device I quite enjoy. There are relatively minor content warnings for battle scenes and mentions of rape, plus the standard sexism you find in almost everything. Beyond that, there’s just guts, glitz, and glory. Ramayana is truly epic.

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs DallowayMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One hundred seventy two pages of deceptively complex sentences are what make up this delightful snapshot into the lives of Clarissa Dalloway and her friends, as she prepares to throw a dinner party for the upper class of London. Such simple premise belies the thought and effort Woolf put in to writing this and which you, the reader, will have to put in to reading it. Paragraphs that start with one person’s perspective can suddenly switch to another’s. Pronouns point wildly every which way like some sort of befuddled compass needle. Very “James Joyce”, but with well-off characters and no onomatpaeic sound words. Which may or may not be a perk, depending on how much you enjoy puzzling through unintelligible consonant strings. Mrs. Dalloway stood up well to a second reading and I suspect it will enjoy a place of respect in the literature canon for decades hence. Woolf’s ground-breaking writing style and interesting female characters merit a read from any dedicated literary buff.

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Medea by Euripides

MedeaMedea by Euripides
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Medea is an argument between high school students where almost everyone winds up dead in the aftermath. Hero Jason of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, after marrying the woman who gave him that glory, abandons her and their children to marry a princess. Medea, understandably, is not pleased. Jason can’t quite wrap his mind around why she isn’t thrilled that he’s moving up in the world and really resents her refusal to see that he is dumping her for the good of their family. Beyond the shock value, I can’t see why this play has been so popular for so long. It’s violent, sexist, and depressing. The writing is mediocre. The ending is grasping. After having a plot set securely on the ground, Euripides has a flying, golden chariot rescue Medea, which maybe was a normal literary tool for the ancient Greeks, but seemed very desperate to me. Euripides wanted her to have her final, horrifying confrontation with Jason but couldn’t think of a way to do it that didn’t result in her death. This way they can trade verbal jabs, but Jason can’t throw spears at her. No one in this cast is likeable. No one wins. To even call Medea’s actions a Pyrrhic victory suggests too strongly that her battle of egos with Jason had a winner of any type. It did not. Content yourself with the Cliff’s notes for this bloody play, and spend your precious moments on something else.

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Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

Oedipus at ColonusOedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Commit to Antigone. That’s what you will need to do if you read Oedipus at Colonus. It’s a cliffhanger. It’s also not as good as Oedipus Rex; I see even in ancient Greece sequels failed to live up to their precursors. OaC is longer than OR, but less violent. Sophocles has developed Oedipus’ character in the twenty year gap between the setting of the first play and the setting of the second play. He and his daughter Antigone have wandered and begged across Greece, arriving eventually at Athens, hoping Theseus will give them shelter. Meanwhile we discover Thebes is beset with governmental discord; Oedipus’ sons are battling for the throne and his brother-in-law intends to forcefully return him home. But Oedipus has been doing some thinking. His realizations about the nature of sin are comforting to read. Watching him stand up for himself was cathartic, after the craptacular hand he was dealt in OR. He’s still a proud and willful character, but he’s stopped self-flagellating. He really needs some advice on supporting the bereaved. Take this gem, spoken graveside to his heartbroken children immediately before his death: “You shall never have more [love]/From any man than you have had from me./ And now you must spend the rest of life without me.” If your goal was to completely crush someone’s heart right before dying, you could hardly have hoped to do better. Oh Oedipus. You tried. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find the cliff’s notes for Antigone and end this cycle.

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Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus The King: Oedipus RexOedipus The King: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You know the story. The famous king who *spoiler alert* unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. There are no surprises in this play. Except for the writing. Sophocles (and our hard-working translator) are amazing. The entire work is dialogue and choruses, but the writing is so evocative I was completely swept away. Such a gem! In a tragic, bloody setting, but still. There’s suicide on top of the murder and incest, and self-harm, too. Oedipus Rex is most definitely not in the ranks of feel-good literature. But it’s really short. You could whip through it in an afternoon, and have the rest of the day to think about it. Or read the rest of the trilogy; Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone continue the story of Oedipus and his children after he is exiled from Thebes. You can have a little more Oedipus to round out your day. It may help you appreciate the good things in your own life.

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Faust: Part one by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe's FaustGoethe’s Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A tragic play written in the 1800s, Goethe’s Faust bears many resemblances to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Both main characters are scholars who have grown disillusioned with their search for knowledge and make pacts with the devil; his service for the remnant of their lifetimes in exchange for their service for an eternity in hell, and of course realize this is a lopsided bargain much too late. Doctor Faustus was better. Faust is disappointingly sluggish, stuffed with dull poetry and crummy rhymes, difficult to follow, and has all kinds of Latin to translate. It’s also as sexist as you’d expect a work from the 1800s to be, with the full gamut of a young woman being seduced, impregnated, and then not so much abandoned as forgotten by her lover. He apparently just had other stuff to do for a year. At least Goethe is sympathetic to her. Any other race is most noticeable by its absence. I suppose this is all standard fare for books of that era, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Really I feel that if you’ve read one of these books you could check them both off of your to-read list, and that if you haven’t read either Doctor Faustus will keep you more engaged. After discovering the edition I was reading only had part one I will be following my own advice. Don’t bother looking for a review of part two here.

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Gargantua & Pantagruel, Book 1 by François Rabelais

Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book 1Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book 1 by François Rabelais
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A heavily abridged version of the first book of the tetralogy that makes up Gargantua & Pantagruel, this book has some unique features to offer the discerning reader of classic literature. Sermons. Multiple occurrences where thousands drown in urine. High minded discussion of classical education syllabuses. Potty humour. Soliloquies praising god and king immediately follow a lengthy, detailed discussion of codpieces. Of course Gargantua has the most fashionable codpiece, covering the most wondrous junk. Plus he’s a giant so his codpiece is huge. But how huge, you ask? Don’t fret! Rabelais includes measurements in case you want to make a scale model of Gargantua’s outfit. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book where the author’s giddy squealing about the perfection of the main character eclipsed the plot. It’s also been a long time since I read a book with so many codpieces in it. It’s been even longer since I had call to use the word codpiece five times in a row. Rabelais used it more frequently though. It’s a good thing this Great Books edition didn’t edit out all the talk of wardrobes and meals or the story would have been 10 pages long. Basically, Gargantua’s parents do the hokey pokey; after 11 months (because he’s awesome) Gargantua is born. His bad tutors turn him into a useless lump, he gets a better tutor and goes back to being awesome, goes on some awesome adventures, pees on some people, fights in a war, his horse pees on some people, and then he founds the most awesome monastery in the history of the world. Pantagruel doesn’t show up in this book, but he’s Gargantua’s son so he’s probably awesome too. If you’re really committed to fleshing out your classical literature checklist then I guess you should pick up Gargantua & Pantagruel, but otherwise only read it if you really like lowbrow humour. I basically covered it for you here, with mentions of sexism and some gore in battle scenes you now know all the pertinent details. You’re welcome. I know, I’m awesome.

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The High Window by Raymond Chandler

The High WindowThe High Window by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Class is a thing that has a way of dissolving rapidly in alcohol.” (183)

Turn of phrase is my favourite thing about Chandler. He’s got the best quips. The 30’s slang is melting my brain though. Readers unfamiliar with that particular lingo may wish to snag some sort of urban dictionary to help them puzzle through some of the more impenetrable sentences. From time to time I wasn’t sure what emotion a character was supposed to be communicating. Which made following the plot more difficult. Is this suspect angrily protesting their innocence? Or arrogantly brushing away an accusation? It’s a lot of “nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat” kind of banter, only this time both conversants are using it and you’re supposed to follow the conversation anyways. Conversations centering around all those Noir classics: blackmail, murder, and tall blond lipsticked dames. White faces, pinched lips. Ice-cold hearts. Coshes. Belly guns. Marlowe has a gun pulled on him for his sassy attitude numerous times in The High Window. Mrs. Elizabeth Bright Murdock hires Marlowe to delicately accomplish two things for her: return her rare and valuable Brasher Doubloon, and secure for her adult son an uncontested divorce from his estranged wife Leslie Murdock, whom the elder Mrs. Murdock suspects has stolen the coin. In his inimitable style Marlowe fails to accomplish either of these things and pisses everyone off doing it. He also stumbles across several murders. So there’s violence here, which is to be expected. Roughly on par with a newspaper article about a murder; enough description to set the scene but not so much that it gets…splashy. Chandler also tucks in a couple of scenes of domestic abuse, and mentions of suicide and sexual assault. To top that off, the language in this book (aside from the slang, I mean) reflects the societal attitudes towards women and POC of that era. If you’ve been reading a bunch of books published from around or before then it might not be too noticeable, but if you’re coming to The High Window after reading more contemporary novels the host of slurs and sexist attitudes is jarring. I think his other books were better, but I could be remembering wrong. And I wouldn’t judge anyone who avoided Chandler’s books because of it. Maybe there’s a modern writer who pens not-too-gruesome Noir mysteries with a hard-boiled private eye, but leaves out the terms we now know are wrong. If I find one, I’ll let you know. You’ll see my review here.

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The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx

The Shipping NewsThe Shipping News by Annie Proulx
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mired in the throes of grief after his despicable wife dies unexpectedly, Quoyle moves his damaged family to his ancestral home in Newfoundland. He manages to get a job at one of the local newspapers reporting on two subjects: car crashes and the shipping news. Whence the title. Driving around the rock he acquaints himself with the locals and the scenery, both of which are larger than life. To this point Quoyle has existed as a put-upon, fearful lump of a person and yet surrounded by these strange people and awesome weather events we finally begin to see him confront his personal demons and come into his own as a human being. It’s actually kind of inspiring. The changes arise because, for the first time in his life, he isn’t surrounded by people who treat him like dirt. There’s a lot to be said for extricating yourself from toxic relationships.
Proulx’s book really shines when you can immerse yourself in the prose for hours. During Quoyle’s first kick at the can as a newspaperman, one of his co-workers tries to explain to him how to write good copy. Short sentences. Short words. Snappy. Stylish. Proulx must have written The Shipping News with those instructions taped to the wall in front of her. Blunt sentences. Snappy dialogue. Unique descriptions. Unlike a newspaper, you may want a dictionary to read this book. It’s chock full of uncommon words. Ruvid. Pellucid. Caliginous. Endless lists of events and lists of nouns speckle the book. Reams of stories, some true and some certainly not. Some comical and some not and some outright horrifying. There’s drownings, suicides, murders and deaths. Domestic violence, several types of child abuse, rape, drunkenness, etc etc etc. It would probably be faster to list the things you won’t need a content warning for. I did appreciate Proulx’s minimal details and matter of fact tone when relating the difficult portions of the story, it definitely made them much easier to get through. But still, if any of the above is something you are sensitive to know that parts of this book may be very challenging. But then there’s Proulx’s prose. It’s staggeringly good. She represents the Newf accent so well I can’t believe she didn’t grow up there. Every oceanic ripple and breeze is photographically depicted in two words or less. Brilliant sentences, like “By January it had always been winter,” (284). “Two cribs jammed close like bird cages,” (15). The more you read the more her writing sinks in to your system. After a couple of hours you may find yourself thinking like Proulx writes. Although this novel won a Pulitzer, so maybe that’s not so bad.

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