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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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of SolitudeOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When, many years ago, I read this book for the first time – on a recommendation in Cosmopolitan*, of all things – I was awed. One Hundred Years of Solitude was my introduction to magical realism, to García Márquez, and South American literature as an entity in the world of books. The story covers the founding and falling of the fictional town of Macondo, established by the matriarch and patriarch of the Buendía family, José Arcadio Buendía and Úrsula Iguarán. The story tracks their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren in a family tree – thoughtfully included at the front of my edition – that would be straightforward if not for the continuous repetition of names. Twenty-two Aurelianos! The Buendías go through all manner of trials in their lifetimes. Most of their suffering is self-inflicted. As a more mature reader, I can see the flaws I missed previously. Women are represented somewhat narrowly, with lives that revolve around childrearing, housework, or sex; even the ones who are independent and struggle against all the restrictions. Often, they are blamed for men’s poor behaviour, as if their very existence could control anothers’. Though this could have been more an extension of the time the book is set in than Márquez’s personal attitudes. Toxic masculinity is rampant. Other potentially cringe-inducing parts include the mention of infanticide, and instances violence; murders, sexism, sexual assault, rampant infidelity, and incest. Lots of incest. Márquez’s inimitable writing style flourishes in this book. Despite having regular punctuation, it seems to have been constructed almost entirely of run on sentences. Periods melt in the South American heat. The language is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read; metaphors drip from the pages as if mere paper can’t possibly contain so much creativity. Every line is magic. While the characters are frequently terrible, One Hundred Years of Solitude is just so incredible, and so different from anything I had read until that point I can’t not recommend it. If you’re looking for a voyage through a surrealist pseudo-history, or to expand your literary horizons, definitely add One Hundred Years of Solitude to your list.

*This was way back when Cosmopolitan had a section with book suggestions in it. That issue had three books and I eventually read all three. The other two were Hula by Lisa Shea and The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, of which I was fortunate enough to track down a wonderful edition that translated ALL of Shōnagon’s witty, fantastic book, and not the shrivelled, eviscerated cop-out translated by Arthur Waley and presented as a complete work. (Pro-tip: if your copy of The Pillow Book is less than two centimeters thick it’s missing something. Like the rest of the book.) I’m still surprised that a magazine like Cosmo had book recommendations pulled from the canon of classic literature and authors who weren’t all white male Europeans; instead of only books culled from contemporary pop culture.

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The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What a ludicrous experience this book was. Satan is one of the main characters, though he introduces himself as Woland. Pontius Pilate, Jesus, and the apostle Matthew are supporting characters. There is a vampire, witches, and writers. The Master shows up approximately a third of the way into the story, but Margarita doesn’t appear until over halfway through.

The Master & Margarita opens with two writers, recuperating from the spring heat on park benches, being chatted up by a stranger. An extremely odd stranger. He has come to Moscow to do an exposition on black magic as it is his area of expertise. And it isn’t long before Bulgakov reveals the stranger to be the devil. Why he has come to Moscow isn’t immediately clear. Unless it’s to wreck havoc on the Moscovites, which he does. Hundreds of people are tricked into trading possessions for worthless bits of paper, or nothing at all. An entire building sings show tunes uncontrollably, for the better part of a day. One character makes the mistake of lying to one of the devil’s attendants over the telephone, whereupon he is forbidden to lie or speak rudely to anyone – over the phone. His sporadic appearances throughout the rest of the book showcase his excruciating politeness anytime he answers a call. The madness overtaking Moscow is interspersed by excerpts of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, mainly told from the perspective of Pontius Pilate. But beyond that, Jesus doesn’t really feature at all in the novel. It really revolves around Woland/Satan. I can see why Bulgakov didn’t name his story Satan’s Vacation. It already had enough in it to be banned for almost three decades in Russia. As if the discussion of religion wasn’t bad enough, the Moscovites don’t come off very well either. Rude, greedy, dishonest. Obsessive rules-followers. Kindness and courage are infrequent. And everywhere there’s Woland and his minions, ready to teleport someone to a distant city for the slightest rudeness. Sounds like a useful skill.

Bulgakov follows some of the traditional rules for Russian literature: add more people, give them each three proper names and a nickname or two, and add a few more people. M & M isn’t as bad as, say, War and Peace, but there were still a few times where I wanted a map and a list of characters. Especially when a nickname is entirely dissimilar to the proper name, or two characters have names that are mirror images of each other. Nikanor Ivanovich and Ivan Nikolayevich gave me no end of grief. At least getting them confused didn’t cause too many issues. It just made me confused. And I’ve read enough Russian literature that I’m used to that.

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A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I only need two words to describe this story: strange and wonderful. (I’m still going to write a whole review, I just wanted to show you I could be concise if I felt like it.) It’s a veritable train wreck of a relationship; you can’t look away. And maybe you don’t want to, schadenfreude kind of shows up here too. Martin Lynch-Gibbon isn’t as unlikable a character as Charles Arrowby was, (The Sea, The Sea) but he’s still a bit of a tool. He’s done much less to bring it on himself, so it’s easier to sympathize. Murdoch has also created an excellent primer on how not to open your marriage! (A primer on the wrong way to have any sort of marriage, really.) While this may or may not have been something you were wondering about, rest assured Murdoch’s characters have done the hard work for you and made almost all of the mistakes – sometimes several times over – so you don’t have to! If only all fictional characters were so thoughtful, the world would be a much better place. Thinking about cheating on your significant other? Read this book, and then don’t! It won’t end well! I’d get more specific, but it would spoil things and there were some good surprises in the story. Just be aware that these seemingly rational characters are, well, not. Murdoch does a brilliant job of writing characters at the limits of their emotions. She wraps their antics in this incredible writing that wouldn’t be out of place in a book of poetry. I started out reading A Severed Head missing her wonderful descriptions of the sea, but after a chapter I didn’t notice they were gone anymore. She’s filled this story with details about light, fires, and decor. It makes the landscape positively luxurious. It’s becoming one of my favourite things about her writing.

You know what bothered me even more than the rampant cheating did? This one tiny tidbit: the claim from the back cover blurb that Martin Lynch-Gibbon is married “to a woman old enough to be his mother.” We are told Martin and his wife’s respective ages in the story. Martin is 30 when he and Antonia get married. Antonia is the staggering age of 35. Five years older than him. How is that old enough to be his mother?? How is that an age difference even worthy of notice? Murdoch doesn’t speak of the age difference as though it matters, and while Antonia does mother Martin a bit he also “fathers” her (in the parental and not generative sense; how strange that those two terms have such vastly different connotations!) It’s obviously just the opinion of the individual who wrote the synopsis. If I ever meet them they are going to get a stern talking to. There’s no need for attitudes like that.

In spite of the gruesome title, there’s minimal violence in this book. Fisticuffs, mostly, but one attempted suicide that could be painful for sensitive readers. There’s a lot of emphasis on the womens’ appearances, but it’s matched pretty evenly with descriptions of the male characters so it’s not as grating. There is some suggestion of drunk driving.