Homer. Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles

git yer hands off my Corinthian column-krater, ca. 600 BC, Louvre

I’m often kept up at night brooding on my troubles, wishing I could find some solace that would help me sleep. But now I know that the best way to keep insomnia at bay is to get out of bed, hitch up my chariot, tie the corpse of my mortal enemy to the back, and drive around for a few hours, dragging him, until I cheer up and can go back to sleep. The Iliad is unmatched, in my reading, for works that describe the bloody, ridiculous, selfish lengths people will go in order to feel better. The sticks and stones fly (and gouge out eyes, smash skulls, slash livers and veins until the blood sprays–this poem is definitely not for the squeamish), but the real weapons of the Trojan War are name-calling, cheating at games, and stealing your best buddy’s girlfriend or mixing bowl or ox. Most of the action occurs when somebody gets his feelings hurt, the baddie won’t apologize, and the sensitive one throws a fit, which can involve letting all of his friends die while he gets an olive-oil massage, or else razing a city, raping the women, and joyriding over other men’s bones. The Iliad suggests that even at its most glorious, war can be advocated only by people with the emotional lives of spoiled four-year-olds.

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Herman Melville. Moby-Dick

Edo period, 18th-19th c., color on paper: Tokyo National Museum

Avast! Here be spoilers!

I loved this book. But this isn’t about my feelings; this is about how Melville wrote a truly radical book, a book that turns the world upside-down, one of the Best. Books. Ever.

Moby Dick begins as the story of a fastidious Yankee schoolmaster who signs onto a whaling voyage but finds himself in the realm of topsy-turvy. At first he is terrified and disgusted by his boarding house’s filth and by his bedmate, Queequeg, a South Pacific cannibal, idolater, and tattooed guy. But Queequeg’s affection, integrity, and bravery destroy many of our whaler’s prejudices about race, nation, religion, and relationships between men: “Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.” He even consents to worship Queequeg’s little carved idol Yojo: after all, if his own Presbyterianism demands that he do unto others blah blah blah, and if he would have Queequeg join his own faith, “Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.” So far this is all charming, funny, and slyly subversive. But Melville’s project seeks to upset even more fundamental prejudices about humans, nature, and God: that these categories exist in hierarchy, that they are not interchangeable, and that they possess any discrete characteristics at all.
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Helen Phillips, And Yet They Were Happy

Photo: by Alan

This book is marvelous. Humane, beautifully observed, and funny! Full of wonderfully crafted sentences and paragraphs, such a work. All about love and family and marriage and houses and communities and time, but I’ll pick out these two excerpts on America.

From “envy #2”:

The colonists on the ship that brought the first honey-bees to the New World suffered a worse passage than all other colonists. In addition to everything–stenches, storms, sunburns, hunger, thirst, constipation, nostalgia, insomnia, uncertainty, cold moons on black waters, the desperate yearning for sugar, the infuriating weight of one’s body, its tyrannical needs, how heavily it moors one to the stinking wooden boards,preventing one from experiencing other, more abstract desires–they’re subjected to bee-stings, most earthbound and gardenbound of sufferings, a pain historically mitigated by the aroma of peaches, grass, dirt, roses, usually forgotten by the time the sunbeams turn to honey, warmly recalled as the worst mishap of a perfect day (and anyhow aren’t honeybees responsible for peaches, roses, the metaphor of honey?), but there’s nothing in this waterbound world to mitigate the pain, and so they howl, howl until gender and age vanish and each becomes just a creature, howling. Meanwhile, a tiny golden carcass falls to the salty boards.

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Colson Whitehead. The Intuitionist.

Elisha Otis’s Elevator Patent Drawing, January 15, 1861

If you don’t know what to do with all your good feelings about this book, just imagine Colson Whitehead putting all of Richard Ford’s books in a pre-Elisha-Otis elevator: the kind with no free-fall brake. Then, he cuts the cord. But that elevator shaft doesn’t have a bottom. The car just falls into the depths of hell.

Whoosh! You feel relief and joy now.

You’re welcome.

Read: March 2015

Dawn Powell. My Home Is Far Away

Not your typical coming-of-age story. There are plenty of writers who show the suffering of children at the hands of adults, and some who can make poetry of neglect and abuse (Dorothy Allison. Charles Dickens.) And even some who refuse to valorize children and their illusions, despite the monstrous self-regard of the adult characters or the wishfulness of the books’ readers (Christina Stead comes immediately to mind). But I think that this book shows, more powerfully than any other book I’ve yet read, how alike and entrapped children and adults are in their desperation for escape. Coming of age, in this book and in many others, signifies the accession of privileges, pleasures, freedoms, and the ability to turn one’s back on the family. But if this is so, then the child’s dream of freedom–often the best thing she has–uncomfortably mirrors that of her neglectful parents, who flee both the families that made them and the families they’d made. (Four years later, I can suggest Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows as a comparable book.)
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Iris Murdoch. The Sea, The Sea

J.M.W. Turner, “Sunrise with Sea Monsters,” c. 1845

I was wary about reading Murdoch again after Under the Net, which I didn’t enjoy at all. This one had everything that I love in life and don’t often find united in a novel: elaborate planning for simple tasty lunches; the English seaside; ludicrous and highly improbable action (a sea monster? Can anything more awesome possibly show up in a heretofore realist novel?); and a lot of thought about how to be good and how to love.
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Katherine Mansfield. The Collected Stories & The Garden Party

After reading The Garden Party in April 2009:
This will not be a terribly thoughtful review, just an expression of excitement. I don’t know how I got this far in my life without anybody telling me what a wonderful writer Katherine Mansfield was. She was a master of the modern short story. When I consider most of the 20C short story collections I’ve read, I think that Mansfield got there first, and did it better. And there was a terrible moment when I saw why Virginia Woolf felt so threatened by her, because, if I’d read the book with no cover or front matter, I’d have thought, Wow, Virginia’s in really good form here! I’d only have been puzzled by the references to New Zealand.
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Zadie Smith. On Beauty

József Rippl-Rónai, “Kitchen Detail”

My first Zadie Smith, and fantastic. Smith nails her Forster. It is SO right. She totally understands that “only connect” doesn’t actually work as a motto or guiding principle for life. Life requires so much more than that, and Smith shows you the hows and whys, with such humor and pathos and BEAUTY. If you love Forster, this is a magnificent tribute. If you don’t love Forster, you will. Because it’s so fantastic, I’ll go ahead and say that I think her view of U.S. university employment is a bit off. And, she really skewers some of her characters in a way that makes me slightly uncomfortable, a Mavis Gallant kind of uncomfortable. But it’s such a wonderful book that you feel kind of grateful that there are errors, and places where she might lean a little too hard, because otherwise you might just go insane with pleasure.
Read: March 2014