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 Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes it seems like all of my book reviews start off this way, but The Left Hand of Darkness was not what I was expecting. It begins with political intrigue swirling around a clueless ambassador, and slugglishly morphs into a polar expedition that would make Shackleton proud. Emphasis on slugglishly. I didn’t get really drawn in to the plot until after the first 100 pages. This edition is only 300 pages long. That’s a lot of slogging for not a lot of payoff. Even if this book is practically legendary now. The world of Gethen and its nuanced cultures, religions, and governments certainly merits praise. Though I wish things were more fleshed out. There’s a lot of vocabulary to puzzle through and not quite enough contextual clues to easily unpuzzle it. I’d speculate that what really made this story famous are the Gethenians themselves. This is the first story I’ve ever read where the characters are ambi-sexual. It’s fascinatingly done. Like human women, the Gethenians have a monthly hormonal/sexual/reproductive cycle. Unlike humans, during the reproductive portion of each cycle a Gethenian may become either male or female. And perhaps the opposite during the next cycle. One may father children, then mother children. There are no rigid sexual roles. They may vow fidelity or not, as they please, and neither choice is praised or denigrated. For a book published in the 1960s, The Left Hand of Darkness is ground breaking. With so much flexibility in genders, it’s a little difficult to determine if this book passes the Bechdel test. Anyone not actively female is referred to as “he.” There are no homosexual relationships. There’s mentions of incest, but only from the perspective of equal consenting adults. Minimal violence. Almost no gore. As befits a tale of political intrigue, Le Guin has written in forcible confinement and drugging too. It’s quite the package, and if the beginning hadn’t been so boring I would have given this book five stars. Should you be bored and bookless one day, consider The Left Hand of Darkness.

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Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad SaysSh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely not a book I would have expected my devout, church-going mother to hand me. But that’s what happened, and now you’ve got a book review to read. Life is full of surprises.
As you might expect from the title this book is chock full of cursing. At least on any page where the elder Mr. Halpern speaks. Which is most pages. If pressed I could go back and probably pick out the one or two f-bomb free sentences. Really the only thing about the cursing that phased me was knowing he was talking to his young children this way. But by chapter two, the surprisingly compassionate, no-nonsense life advice he imparts to those impressionable tots handily outshines the swearing. I was not expecting this to be a parenting primer. Now I want to give it as a shower gift to all my pregnant friends. This is a great read when you want something light and funny to brighten your day. It’s short, sweet, and simple.

You may wish to do some censoring if you read it aloud, though. Just a suggestion.

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The Penguin Book of Caribbean Short Stories edited by E A Markham

The Penguin Book of Caribbean Short StoriesThe Penguin Book of Caribbean Short Stories by E.A. Markham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m still not a huge fan of short stories. But I was fishing through a pile of books and this caught my eye, and considering I have little to no experience with Caribbean writing I was hoping – knowing nothing whatsoever about the editor – that this would give me an introductory crash course. Further broaden my literary horizons, if you will. TPBCSS certainly lives up to expectations. Markham starts off with a lengthy introduction, one I couldn’t finish, covering the evolution of Caribbean writing and their famous authors. I’m sure if you can keep your eyes from glazing over it’s extremely informative. Personally I managed to read roughly seven pages out of 65. Even that was a struggle. Once you conquer the introduction Markham starts you off with the basics: Caribbean folk tales and legends. Some are told in Caribbean patois. Should you be unfamiliar with such it can be challenging to follow. Pushing through is worth it, as overall they are quite good. The following section is the short story collection; tiny print stretching almost 400 pages. This isn’t a book you can slam through in an afternoon. It’s a sizable undertaking. I know typically my review of a short story collection includes a one or two sentence synopsis of each story, but in this case I will have to skip it because my review will be a week long. I’ll cover some highlights for you. There’s very little violence. One story stands out as having the only LGBTQ characters in the entire collection – Baby – but it also has a very descriptive rape and murder scene and homophobic ranting, so do be extra cautious around that one. You Left the Door Open also includes a burglary and rape. Those are the only two noticeably violent tales. A few I especially enjoyed were Miss Joyce and Bobcat, The Laughter of the Wapishanas, The Man Who Loved Attending Funerals, The Baker’s Story and The House of Funerals. There are epistolary stories, ones told by beggars, by immigrants. A little something for everyone. So much variety, you’re sure to find a couple you enjoy.

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Feedback: Newsflesh #4 by Mira Grant

Feedback (Newsflesh, #4)Feedback by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grant has done it again. Her Newsflesh series is set in the near future United States, after two man-made cures for unrelated diseases unexpectedly combine and mutate, infecting the world’s population with a virus that causes the body to reanimate after death. The story is told through online bloggers, who have risen to become the dominant journalistic force in the new world. Feedback follows Ben Ross, Aislinn North, Audrey Liqiu Wen, and Mat Newson as they battle the sinister plans of sinister forces. The first three books in the series are told by Shaun and Georgia Mason, and Buffy Meissonier. This one takes you back to the plot of Feed, but has our new quartet following the opposing political candidate for the election. It’s a page turner. I had to force myself to put the book down or I would have finished it in a day. Who needs sleep when there are zombies to out run? Or kill. With that in mind, violence and bloodshed are a regular feature of this book. Guns abound. Suicide makes an appearance, as does a cult. I was not expecting there to be a cult.

Aside from changing the main characters, Grant also introduces her first gender-neutral character! Mat Newson runs a fashion blog for the team, disassembles everything they can touch, and prefers gender-neutral pronouns. I adore Grant’s cast stuffed with a range of LGBTQ people, and am delighted that she’s expanding it for her new series. And don’t get me wrong, even though Feedback looks bigger than any of the previous books, it almost has to be the beginning of a new installment. Grant ties her loose ends up very nicely in the other books, and Feedback doesn’t quite reach the same level. So it’s got to be the first offering in a new mini-series within the Newsflesh universe. Or I will be one disappointed reader.

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water for ChocolateLike Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Esquivel has created a succulent book stuffed with romance and drizzled with fantastical happenings. Her unnamed narrator takes us through the life of Tita De la Garza, whose brilliance in the kitchen is legendary. Tita struggles against the restrictions tradition and family place on her. Her longing for love and desire to be a whole person are an undercurrent to the delicious cooking she does. She shares a recipe per chapter. The story is told in monthly installments but takes place over decades, giving a sense of connection across generations and tying the beginning to the ending, but also reinforcing how little life varied on a daily basis. One April hardly differed from another. But when they do! Esquivel speckles the plot with magical occurrences: meals that spread the cook’s emotions to all who partake. A woman lights a rustic outdoor shower on fire with nothing but lust. Chickens make a poultry hurricane. Overall the whole novel has a tone of distance – akin to someone recounting a memory – that makes the few disturbing parts easier to handle and imparts a sense of peace to the plot. Speaking of disturbing parts: sensitive readers should be aware of a few things. The ranch setting means some scenes of animal butchering/castration, though they are very rare. There are a couple of rapes, which are not described, and the use of slapping/beatings (also not described) as a disciplinary tactic. And a teensy bit of slut-shaming. Standard for the pre-automobile era. Like Water for Chocolate is equal parts passionate, wonderful, and surreal. So satisfying. Like any good meal.

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Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

Preparation for the Next LifePreparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Preparation for the Next Life received many five star reviews on Goodreads. People raved about it. Wretched protagonists Zou Lei and Brad Skinner start an unlikely romance – she’s an undocumented immigrant, he’s a traumatised war vet – after meeting in a decrepit basement noodle shop. The writing is sparse, the sentences are simple, and every word is crushingly depressing. Lei and Skinner barely scrape by. The landscape is one of endless garbage and graffiti, rot and refuse. Attempts at progress end in failure, when they’re undertaken at all. Supporting characters exist only to undermine their plans and drag them back down. The whole novel is a bucket full of crabs, except someone has thrown in weapons. Graphic violence proliferates. Sexual coercion, rape, and the threat of rape are frequent themes. Brad’s relationship with Zou Lei verges on abusive, and while he’s presented in a sympathetic light and the problems are shown to stem from the emotional, physical, and psychological trauma he endured in Iraq – and for which the army refuses to treat him – I had a hard time seeing this as an “unsentimental love story” as The New York Times describes it on the cover. I kept thinking of Lolita. It’s constantly described as a romance, but is really a horrifying story of kidnapping and child abuse. The unrelieved despair soaking from every page made the ending almost cathartic; there finally seemed like the smallest chance that luck was changing. When you live right on the margin of society, dull stability is a dream come true. Glorious triumph? Not so much.

Because of the subject matter, violence, and overall heartcrushingness of the plot, I found this to be a very emotionally draining book. It’s definitely well written. The story is unique. But I’m recommending it with heavy caveats. Tread carefully.

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The Sea of Monsters: Percy Jackson and the Olympians #2 by Rick Riordan

The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #2)The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sea of Monsters is one of those book/movie duos where they only have the slightest resemblance to each other. The basic plot carried through, but the specific events diverged so greatly you might as well have been watching another movie all together. As per usual, the book is better. Riordan makes different people his heroes, instead of it being only Percy all the time. He recreates the Odyssey more closely than the movie has. Percy and Annabeth’s quest is a young adult, modern version of the Odyssey. Which is interesting and cool! I love the magic of reading a new story for the first time and seeing woven through it motifs from famous tales. You don’t get that same rush watching the movie. Those motifs are left out.

Beyond the usual fisticuffs, sword fights, and chariot races, with mild violence, there’s not much to warn for in this book. It’s a quick, easy read that zips along from demon dodgeball to chariot race to sea battle, without asking too much of you to come along.

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