Sunday, July 2, 2017

Orestes by Euripides



Three desperadoes try to get out of a life or death situation

The Furies torment Orestes for killing his mother, even though the murder was committed at Apollo’s command.  Only his sister Electra can comfort him in his sickness.  Orestes pleads with his uncle for help.  His uncle declines – now Orestes and Electra must go before the citizens and argue their case.  Alas, they lose and Orestes and Electra must now kill themselves.  Orestes’s loyal friend Pylades arrives.  The trio concocts a plan to free themselves, which involves killing Helen their aunt, and Hermione their cousin and foster sister.  Luckily Apollo swings overhead from a crane, removes the death sentence and orders everybody to marry each other.

This Greek tragedy felt like a spaghetti western or like Bonnie and Clyde.  Orestes and Electra have no compunction about murder – they are only interested in getting out of their death sentence.  They try to reason with people.  When people will have none of it, they enact their rescue plan.  Orestes is persuasive at the beginning, as he suffers from guilt and madness.  Electra’s devotion to him is touching.  Their solution, however, is too cold blooded (perhaps only for modern readers.)





Sunday, June 25, 2017

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson


An American slaving ship transports an African tribe and their mysterious god

Rutherford Calhoun, the somewhat slick and sticky fingered recently freed slave of a master who tutored him in the finer points of Biblical and Greek scholarship, finds himself in trouble in New Orleans. Torn between marriage to a plain-faced spinster, or certain death at the hands of a crime kingpin, he stows away on board the Republic, a slave ship captained by the evil yet learned dwarf, Ebenezer Falcon. Once in Africa, the ship takes on board the enslaved members of the Allmuseri tribe along with a mysterious large crate. Strange things start to happen on board, storms and mutinies, and Calhoun, a much changed man, returns to the United States.

This was a great idea for a novel, touching upon America’s original sin, and its ramifications. In addition, this book had all the makings of a ripping good adventure yarn. However, the execution was lacking and the book finished in a welter of confusing action. First of all, Rutherford is the dreaded passive narrator. Things happen to him; he hardly lifts a finger to save himself. The book is barely 200 pages, and for most of it the pacing is staid and perhaps even marmoreal, yet I was left at the end with the feeling that I needed more pages to explain what had happened. I especially wanted to know more about the Allmuseri’s god in the hold, in that crate. I got that Calhoun was Ishmael; at the end I was disappointed to realize that Rutherford was supposed to be Odysseus as well.  The weight of all these references crushed the natural arc of the story.









Sunday, June 18, 2017

Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz


Surreal stories about America

These fabulist, comic and smart stories are unusually, more often than not, explicitly political rather than implicitly political.  The stories feel very American, suffused with racial unease, border wariness, and dealing with a buffoonish President.  Every story was humorous.  I loved “Visitors”, a 98 percent dialogue story about a young couple and her stubborn, asking for directions averse, parents.  “Saving Face” was surreal and so very good, about a dictatorship and its dictator, and the dictator’s omnipresent face. “Miracle,” like some of the other stories, draws its energy from white affluent American’s racial anxiety.  One of the strengths Budnitz has is a lack of fear.  She really goes there. The stories I didn’t like so much were the ones that felt “expected.”  “Elephant and Boy” seemed a easy – ok got it, clueless white Americans abroad are destructive.  “Immersion” is another thank god for saintly white folks type story.  “Preparedness” is about the world’s stupidest President.  Once you start out there, however, with that moronic President, you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver the plot.  “Motherland” about a war ridden land where all the children come from rape.  Again, moving, but nothing happened that was unexpected.







Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bough Down by Karen Green


The aftermath of a suicide

In exquisitely written paragraphs surrounded by white space and supplemented by haunting collages, a wife recounts in bits and pieces the story of her emotional recovery from the shocking assault of her beloved husband’s suicide. So many of the paragraphs are flat out funny, blackly humorous. Practical problems like dogs and dental issues circle the wife’s often times overwhelming feeling that maybe she should die as well. Surprisingly and wonderfully, part of the book is also about the wife missing her sexual partner. At the end the wife seems to come, or must come, to an understanding of the perishability of all things.

I loved this deeply moving and entertaining book. The writing is not, “not bad for a visual artist”, but truly superior. One of the best aspects is how many other characters are tellingly portrayed, even as the main character is in an understandable state of shock.  As I think about it, this writing is the exact opposite of David Foster Wallace’s writing. The compression, the truth in the lyricism valued almost above all else. The glancing insights require that the book be read at least twice to appreciate the structure..



Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


Scarred by a nightmarish dictatorship, Dominican immigrants try to adapt to a cold society

Oscar, the nerdy chubby son of a Dominican immigrant family, gets his entire family, tragic mother, adopted grandma, hot sister and best friend Junior involved, when he falls in love/lust with a Dominican policeman’s sexy girlfriend. This story is interspersed with the escape story of Oscar’s mother and the love story between Junior and the hot sister. All the parts add up to a mosaic of the evil Trujillo years.

I was really disappointed. Junot Diaz’s strength is his voice, and the voice here was flat. At the beginning the voice even felt strained, explaining everything in Oscar’s world with unneeded juvenile footnotes. Also I don’t believe this was a novel. A novel is not just beautiful language, a novel must have a structure, preferably beautiful, and Oscar Wao lacked any semblance of structure. The layout was Chapter One, Chapter One, Chapter One, Chapter One, and then the book ended. This wasn’t even one of these novel-in-stories deal.

Part of the problem is I didn’t care about the characters, and I felt I should have, especially for Belicia, Oscar’s tragic mother. But I had to wade through  lots of paragraphs describing her tits. I felt the book was attempting to be an emotional history of the Trujillo years and how the festering corruption infects an entire society. The entire thing was stunted.







Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Trojan Women by Euripides translated by Nicholas Rudall


What war really means

After ten years of siege, the Trojans are defeated by the Greek invaders. Therefore all the men are killed and the women and children enslaved, about to be scattered to many kingdoms. Hecuba, Queen of Troy, her daughter-in-law Andromache, her daughter Kassandra and her grandson Astyanax all must suffer grievously. Who is to blame for this suffering? Hecuba says Helen of Troy, the cause of the Greek invasion. A trial commences and it seems Helen is condemned. Or is she? That plot, sketchy as it is, must bear the emotional weight of the severe suffering endured by the defenseless defeated women.

Euripides is a courageous artist. This play is an indictment of Greek society, an indictment of the Greek’s foundational myth of the Trojan war, and an indictment of essential human nature. Our society lacks the platform and maybe even the courage to do create confrontational piece of art that is supported by the establishment. Although apparently this play came in last in the competition. It must have outraged many people.

It was difficult at times to read this – the dead baby on the shield at the end.



Saturday, May 20, 2017

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh



A young woman is trapped in a suffocating life

In 1964, shy awkward Eileen, twenty-four years old, lives in a small Massachusetts town with her drunken widower father and works in the office at the boys’ prison. She hates her life and dreams ineffectively about moving to New York. She nurses a crush on a handsome prison guard and hides her father’s shoes in the trunk of her car so he won’t terrorize the neighborhood with his revolver. Then one day, near Christmas, a new employee arrives at prison – a beautiful young teacher. The teacher has a scheme and entices Eileen to join in.

It’s almost as if Moshfegh came up with the oddball characters and dismal setting and then deliberately inserted a preposterous plot, almost even flaunting the ridiculousness of the plot. The oddball trapped characters are vividly drawn; they are monumental and snap into focus. The structure of the book is the old woman Eileen looking back. Eileen herself, at least in the past, spends a lot of time pondering disgusting things. All the lyrical descriptions of taking a shit are gross and funny, although after a while, I was asking myself, is that all this book is, very lyrical writing about taking a shit? Moshfegh has a dim view of human nature.