OK, so why put this on your "must read" list? To start, Mendelsohn is a brilliant critic who writes insightfully and without condescension t...moreBrilliant!
OK, so why put this on your "must read" list? To start, Mendelsohn is a brilliant critic who writes insightfully and without condescension to author, work or audience (reader, movie-goer, etc.). Even when he utterly demolishes his subject, he never descends to snark or gratuitous sniping. Many times, I got the sense of a man exasperated with how close these artists get to creating something of real meaning/value but keep missing the target.
In his introduction, Mendelsohn explains the criteria by which he judges -
(1) Meaningful coherence of form and content; (2) Precise employment of detail to support (1); (3) Vigor and clarity of expression; and (4) Seriousness of purpose (p. xv)
Quite independent of Mendelsohn, I'm happy (and perhaps a bit smug) to say my own judgments have come around to these selfsame points, even regarding the "brain candy" I may read when the "big issues" get tiresome. I find it nearly impossible to read a book anymore (or watch a movie for that matter) where the author can't write, doesn't take her job seriously, or both - even when it's "just" book #347 in Space Bimbos of the Black Sun series.
Oh, but we live in a "dark age" of culture where far too often we eschew wrestling with real tragedy for sentimentalism; melodrama; and feel-good, Lifetime movie endings. This is a common theme in many of the essays found here, from the first essay on Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones through stagings of Tennessee Williams and Euripides, reviews of Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodovar, to Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. (Regarding the latter, Mendelsohn compares Stone's film to Aeschylus' The Persians, and makes the point that, even writing of a glorious Hellenic triumph (Marathon & Salamis), the Greek playwright chose to portray the reactions of the Persians, asking his Athenian audience "to think radically, to imagine something outside of their own experience, to situate the feelings they were having just then...in a vaster frame" (p. 452), whereas Stone's "pretty much exclusive emphasis thus far on the `good'...in these entertainments is noteworthy, because it reminds you of the unwillingness to grapple with and acknowledge the larger issues...which has characterized much of the natural response to this pivotal trauma (9/11)." (p. 451))
Mendelsohn has inspired me to try opera - a genre for which I have little liking. I don't know why. I understand neither Italian nor French but it's not like I object to subtitles - I love Hong Kong martial arts flicks. And I dated a woman who adored opera and enthralled me with her enthusiastic descriptions of the medium. Whatever the case, the author's analysis of the Met's recent staging of Lucia di Lammermoor "forced" me to check out a DVD of Joan Sutherland's version from the library, and as I write this review, listen to a CD of Ion Marin's version with Cheryl Studer and Placido Domingo. Who knows where this could lead?
And, having read Mendelsohn's reviews of Troy and Alexander - the recent "epics" based on The Iliad and the life of Alexander the Great - I was again compelled. In this case to add them to my Netflix queue if only to see how badly they failed to capture their subjects. (Mendelsohn includes his review of 300 here as well but there are limits. The trailers were stomach churning enough.)
Lastly, I'm rereading Euripides' Medea in light of Mendelsohn's review of Deborah Warner's "vulgar, loud, and uncomprehending" (p. 418) Broadway staging of the play.
At the risk of spoiling your ability to enjoy guilty pleasures like Stephanie Meyer (as I know a few of my GR friends do :-), I strongly recommend this book to one and all.(less)
I originally gave this novel one star. I first read it as a teen-ager and couldn't finish it. I had had high hopes because - at the time - I had just...moreI originally gave this novel one star. I first read it as a teen-ager and couldn't finish it. I had had high hopes because - at the time - I had just come off of reading Ford's phenomenally good The Final Reflection and the brilliant The Dragon Waiting but I wasn't a Gilbert & Sullivan fan and my love affair with Shakespeare was unconsummated so much of it went over my head. And having come from The Final Reflection, I couldn't quite believe in the Klingon characters. Ford appeared to be sacrificing the authenticity of Kirk et al. and his version of the Klingons to writing a homage to G&S and Shakespeare, and it didn't quite work.
And it still doesn't entirely work. I remain a nonfan of Gilbert & Sullivan and I do get more of the Shakespeare references but the story doesn't ring true, and - for me - it remains a failed experiment.(less)
I initially gave this book two stars but upon a moderate amount of reflection, I'm bumping it up to three. It's still not a resounding three, but it's...moreI initially gave this book two stars but upon a moderate amount of reflection, I'm bumping it up to three. It's still not a resounding three, but it's more than 2.5, so I should round up (according to my math teachers at any rate).
Somehow, I became aware of the existence of Thomas Burnett Swann and what I read about him and his works intrigued me.
Green Phoenix is a tale about Aeneas and what happened when he brought his Trojans to Italy. The chief characters are Aeneas, his son Ascanius and the dryad Mellonia; and the antagonist is the dryad queen Volumna. It's a myth more than a novel so there's not much in the way of character development, and I found the writing style a bit odd (though by the end, I had become accustomed to it). Aeneas is depicted as a heroic warrior who doesn't enjoy war and is tormented by the destiny that forces him to abandon all of the women he loves. Ascanius comes across - in the beginning - as little more than a thug, a child so brutalized by war and the life he's lived for the last 20 years that women are little more than things to be raped and vessels to bear heirs. But he loves his father fiercely and is capable of feeling much more, a quality that becomes evident over the course of the story. Mellonia is an innocent dryad who bridges the gulf between Aeneas, his men and the coming Age of Iron and the remnants of the Golden & Silver Ages, the dryads, satyrs, fauns and other nonhuman inhabitants of Italy.
I'm still intrigued by Swann's work and continue to keep my eye out for the books that initially attracted me to him - Wolfwinter, How Are the Mighty Fallen, and The Gods Abide - but I'm still on the fence with him and can't quite recommend him yet.
On a side note - This is my first Kindle book. Yes, I finally took the plunge and acquired an electronic-book reader. I think I like it; I certainly like the fact that I now have the complete works of Shakespeare and H.P. Lovecraft at my fingertips any time I want (assuming the battery's charged) and I downloaded Andre Norton's Plague Ship for free. I've yet to learn how to bookmark my favorite passages though :-(
So far my experience with the Kindle library is like my experience with Netflix's streaming library: Yes, there are many books (movies) available but there are still far too many books (movies) that I want to read (watch) that aren't.(less)
Daughters of Danaus is a good but not a great novel. For one thing, it’s melodramatic and predictable. The villains (Hubert & Henriette Temperley...moreDaughters of Danaus is a good but not a great novel. For one thing, it’s melodramatic and predictable. The villains (Hubert & Henriette Temperley and Professor Theobald) are too villainous to be entirely believable, and the hero (Professor Fortescue, Hadria’s mentor) too saintly. Caird is capable, however, of creating complex characters as evidenced by Valeria Du Prel, a woman who lives the liberated life Hadria yearns for but desires the comforts of life she observes in more traditional women. The ultimate evidence is in the novel’s protagonist, Hadria, who – when we first meet her – is a young woman who dreams of becoming a musician and composer, and whose family is reasonably liberal. Unfortunately, that liberality only goes so far. It can tolerate Algitha, the older sister, leaving for the city and not marrying but two such pariahs is too many, and Hadria finds herself under enormous pressure to marry Hubert Temperley, who mouths progressive ideas but whose attitude – and that of his sister, who’s the real manipulator of the two – is thoroughly traditional.
The novel falls into three parts. The first introduces Hadria, her family and friends, and the invidious social milieu that promises to condemn her to a stultified, wasted life. The second part opens several years later. Hadria has married Hubert and has had a child. She evinces little affection for her son but she takes Martha, the illegitimate baby daughter of a dead woman, under her wing (scandalizing the locals, whose Christian charity has limits). Hadria and the child get a chance to escape these circumstances and they flee to France, where Hadria impresses the musical world with her talent and comes under the instruction of a famous composer.
Her idyll doesn’t last. Hadria’s mother falls ill, and her doctors strongly suggest that it’s because of Hadria’s actions. With all the doctors insisting that Hadria come back to England lest her mother die, she feels compelled to return, which opens the third part of the novel.
Caird piles on the tribulations now(view spoiler)[, the worst being the revelation that Professor Theobald is the father of Martha and he maliciously takes her from Hadria (hide spoiler)]. For all the melodrama and the soap operatic quality of the story, the climactic scene where Hadria realizes that she’s lost her Muse and her life has been wasted is still gut wrenching. It’s Caird at her best, and I quote it here in full:
Today, for the first time, the final ordeal had to be gone through. And her imagination had never conceived its horror. She was to be taken at her word. The neglected gift was beginning to show signs of decay and enfeeblement. It had given fair warning for many a year, by the persistent appeal that it made, the persistent pain that it caused; but the famine had told upon it at last. It was dying. As this fact insinuated itself into the consciousness, in the teeth of a wild effort to deny it, despair flamed up, fierce and violent. She regretted that she had not thrown up everything long ago, rather than endure this lingering death; she cursed her hesitation, she cursed her fate, her training, her circumstances, she cursed herself. Whatever there was to curse, she cursed. What hideous nonsense to imagine herself ready to face this last insult of fate! She was like a martyr, who invites the stake and the faggot, and knows what he has undertaken only when the flames begin to curl about his feet. She had offered up her power, her imperious creative instance, to the Lares and Penates; those greedy little godlets whom there was no appeasing while an inch of one remained that they could tear to pieces. She clenched her hands, in agony. The whole being recoiled now, at the eleventh hour, as a fierce wild creature that one tries to buy alive. She looked back along the line of the past and saw, with too clear eyes, the whole insidious process, so stealthy that she had hardly detected it, at the time. She remembered those afternoons at the Priory, when the restless, ill-trained power would assert itself, free for the moment, from the fetters and the dismemberment that awaited it in ordinary life. But like a creature accustomed to the yoke, she had found it increasingly difficult to use the moments of opportunity when they came. The force of daily usage, the necessary bending of thoughts in certain habitual directions, had assisted the crippling process, and though the power still lay there, stiffer than of yore, yet the preliminary movements and readjustments used up time and strength, and then gradually, with the perpetual repetition of adverse habits, the whole process became slower, harder, crueler.
“Good heavens! are all doors going to be shut against me?”
It was more than she could bear! And yet it must be borne – unless – no, there was no “unless.” It was of no use to coquet with thoughts of suicide. She had thought all that out long ago, and had sought, at more than one crisis of desperate misery, for refuge from the horror and the insults of life. But there were always others to be considered. She could not strike them so terrible a blow. Retreat was ruthlessly cut off. Nothing remained but the endurance of a conscious slow decay; nothing but increasing loss and feebleness, as the surly years went by. They were going, going, these years of life, slipping away with their spoils. Youth was departing, everything was vanishing; her very self, bit by bit, slowly but surely, till the House of Life would grow narrow and shrunken to the sight, the roof descend. The gruesome old story of the imprisoned prince flashed into her mind; the wretched captive, young and life-loving, who used to wake up, each morning, to find that of the original seven windows of his dungeon, one had disappeared, while the walls had advanced a foot, and tomorrow yet another foot, till at length the last window had closed up, and the walls shrank together and crushed him to death.
“I can’t, I can’t endure it!”
Hadria had leaned forward against the keyboard, which gave forth a loud crash of discordant notes, strangely expressive of the fall and failure of her spirit. (pp. 396-7)
If Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen are the A students in the English class, Caird would be the B student. She writes well enough, with the occasional flash of brilliance. Well enough that I’m definitely interested in reading more of her work. So a guarded recommendation. If you like 19th century feminist authors (or feminist works in general), you may get some enjoyment out of reading The Daughters of Danaus. Even if you’re not looking for a new feminist author, I still think a reader can profit from this book.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I like Finland, and while I'm happy enough to be descended from Celts on both sides of the family, I could wish to have some Finnish sap running throu...moreI like Finland, and while I'm happy enough to be descended from Celts on both sides of the family, I could wish to have some Finnish sap running through the family tree.
This is a quickly readable English translation (in free verse) of Vainamoinen's
wooing of Louhi's
daughter (sorry, no picture of the maid).
Louhi's daughter, Aila, is surprisingly astute - (view spoiler)[she'll have neither suitor (hide spoiler)] - though whether this is because she's a willful 14-year-old or canny enough to know what it's like to be married to a hero is up to the reader to decide.
Free (or only a penny) on the Kindle, this was more than worth it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I'm being generous in my rating. Really, the book doesn't deserve more than a 1.5, a 1.75 at most. I don't think I could have finished it if it had be...moreI'm being generous in my rating. Really, the book doesn't deserve more than a 1.5, a 1.75 at most. I don't think I could have finished it if it had been much longer than the 100 or so pages in my edition (I downloaded it from Amazon's Kindle Store but I can't stand not having a book cover so I'm archiving it under this edition).
Almuric is about a character, the Earthman Esau Cairn, and a setting that obviously didn't inspire Howard much, though the theme of "barbarism" being infinitely superior to "civilization" you find in the Kull and Conan stories is omnipresent. A good example being found early in the book: "My being grew and expanded. I tell you, the natural life of mankind is a grim battle for existence against the forces of nature, and any other form of life is artificial and without realistic meaning."
There's no real set up for Cairn's ensuing adventures on the planet of Almuric. He's running from the law and stumbles across the laboratory of a man who's able to transport him to Almuric, where he finds a culture amenable to his disposition. For Cairn is an atavar - a caveman born 20,000 years too late. The "good life" for him is carousing, fighting & doing manly things with other manly men. And the Guras fit that bill; they are skilled in "war, the hunt, and weapon-making" and "know nothing of painting, sculpturing, or the 'higher' learning."
And then there are the Gura women:
As the men assume all risks and responsibility, they naturally assume all authority....
Yet her lot [woman's] is not so unhappy as it might seem....
The duties of the Gura women are few, concerned mainly with child-bearing and child-rearing [written by a life-long bachelor]. They do no work heavier than the manufacturing of silk.... They are witty, merry, affectionate, playful and docile...and they are content in the protection of their ferocious mates and masters.
I don't need to spend much more time excoriating the many deficiencies of Almuric. When inspired REH could write some of the best fiction in the genre - "Beyond the Black River," "A Witch Shall Be Born," "Queen of the Black Coast," "The Cat and the Skull," etc. - but this is not one of those works.(less)
Daniel Mendelsohn’s choice of title in this collection of essays is not meant to convey a sense of impending doom as is usually associated with the ph...moreDaniel Mendelsohn’s choice of title in this collection of essays is not meant to convey a sense of impending doom as is usually associated with the phrase “waiting for the barbarians.” Rather, he wants to suggest its meaning in C.P. Cavafy’s original: The barbarians are awaited with a sense of hope; they offer welcome change and the possibility of renewal.
“Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion? (How serious people’s faces have become.) Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, everyone going home so lost in thought?
- Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come. And some who have just returned from the border say there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.”
Thus, the essays in this collection “consider the ways in which the present, and especially popular culture, has wrestled … with the past.” (p. xi)
The second theme found in these essays is what Mendelsohn calls the “reality problem”: The extraordinary blurring between reality and artifice, made all too possible by the latest technology, has bled beyond just our entertainments to affect how we think about and conduct our lives.
He divides the book into four sections: “Spectacles,” which reprints the type of reviews that initially endeared me to him – looking at popular culture through the lens of our past; “Classica,” which focuses on reinterpretations of the Classical canon; “Creative Writing,” which deals with more modern works of fiction; and “Private Lives,” which considers how a private life ends up represented on the printed page.
As with Mendelsohn’s other critical volume, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays, I was entranced by the author’s erudition and insights. Even stuff that I would not normally be interested in, Mendelsohn makes so interesting and relevant that I feel compelled to – at the very least – look at the source material to see what he’s talking about. (The compulsion sometimes passes – despite the reviews here, I feel no need to watch Avatar or rewatch Titanic (more about both below); on the other hand, his interpretation of Achilles’ character in his piece on Stephen Mitchell’s Iliad does have me itching to reread the poem.)
Below, I want to give an abstract of the reviews collected here. I cannot recommend this book too highly, and would encourage any interested reader to hunt a copy down and read it for themselves so they can get the full force of Mendelsohn’s arguments.
“The Wizard” – Mendelsohn begins with a review of James Cameron’s Avatar. His title refers to the movies’ similarities to The Wizard of Oz (which Cameron has alluded to). But where the latter film ended with a reaffirmation of reality, “by contrast, the message of the new movie … is – like the message of so much else in mass culture just now – that ‘reality’ is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, is whatever you care to make of it …. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don’t have to wake up. ‘There’s no place like home’ has become ‘there’s no need for home.’ Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie of our time.” (p. 17)
“Truth Force at the Met” – This is a laudatory review of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, an opera about the life of Gandhi. Mendelsohn concludes by writing, there is no plot but there is a structure which “achiev[ed] a large effect that exceeded, finally, the boundaries of the theater, this marvelous work made you feel that it had done something. And what is that, if not drama?” (p. 35)
Not a fan of opera, this was one of those essays that moved me while reading it but afterward my disinclination for the genre reasserted itself. I’m not sure I could feel what Mendelsohn does were I to see it (at the conclusion of the performance he saw, the author writes that he burst into tears), but the general point quoted above is a valid measure of what makes a book, a film or a play significant.
“Why She Fell” – “Why She Fell” is Mendelsohn’s thoughts on why Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man was such a disaster. Taymor attempted to combine the classical transformation myth with the modern American version. Her failure was two-fold. First, the two conceptions are incompatible. Where, in ancient tales, metamorphosis is a punishment and a humiliation, in the American version, transformation is empowering. And she tried to make a blockbuster movie rather than stage a play: “Like a character in some Attic play, she was led by a single-minded passion to betray her truest self and abandon her greatest virtues. These … lie not in elaborate Hollywood special effects … [that] make the fantastical seem real and persuasive, but in a very old-fashioned kind of magic that doesn’t pretend to be ‘real’ at all.” (p. 49)
“The Dream Director” – “The Dream Director” is a review of Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, a film about the final days of Hirohito’s reign as god-emperor of Japan. Mendelsohn also discusses Sokurov’s other works – Russian Ark and Moloch. The underlying theme of all three being the gap between “human realities and what [Sokurov] calls the ‘theater’ of ideological performances.” (p. 55)
“The Mad Men Account” – In this New York Review of Books piece from 2011, Mendelsohn rips into the TV show Mad Men, about which he writes: “The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the direction is unimaginative. Worst of all … the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic …. [I]t proceeds … like a soap opera.” (p. 67)
The show commits a surfeit of sins but they can be condensed down to four chief ones: (1) The show raises serious themes without giving them serious thought or textured characterization. (2) The direction is static and unimaginative. (3) The acting is unexceptional “and occasionally downright amateurish.” (p. 73) And (4) there’s an ad hoc quality to the writing.
But he goes on to argue that despite these manifest flaws (I don’t watch the show so I can’t attest to their veracity), Mad Men appeals to a viewing demographic who were children during the show’s time period and watched their parents living their lives – “the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.” (p. 78)
“Unsinkable” – Back in the day, my ex dragged me to see Titanic when it came out. In her defense, she went only because we were double-dating with her best friend, who was a fan. The film is really rather awful, an opinion shared by Mendelsohn. But he takes this piece of schlock as an opportunity to examine why the Titanic has become a modern myth. It comes down to two things. The story’s ability to be a canvas on which we paint our anxieties about modernity, technology, class, race and all the other problems we face. Mendelsohn compares Cameron’s vision of the myth to two Greek tales: Iphigenia, where two maidens are sacrificed to male egos, and Oedipus, where two heroes – symbols of achievement and overweening pride – are brought down by their own flaws. The second need the Titanic can fill is our perverse desire to see something beautiful destroyed.
“Battle Lines” – As I’ve mentioned, Mendelsohn has a genius for making the reader see a work in a whole new light. Such is the case in his review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad. Here, Mendelsohn argues that Achilles’ capacity to be human expands over the course of the poem but only at the cost of his closest friend – pathei mathos, we suffer into knowledge – and that Homer suggests “the whole range of human action and emotion – of an existence that … has meaning precisely because we, like Achilles, know it will end.” (p. 112) (He treats of a similar theme in the last essay from this section.)
Strictly in terms of Mitchell’s translation, the author is positive, and makes me want to get a copy to see the rest of Mitchell’s work. Compare this excerpt from the Lattimore edition to Mitchell:
LATTIMORE: “You wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart. Never once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people.”
MITCHELL: “Drunkard, dog-face, quivering deer-hearted coward, you have never dared to arm with your soldiers for battle.”
“In Search of Sappho” – In his review of Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, Mendelsohn’s primary focus is on Sappho’s role in modern imagination. Of the (reputed) nine volumes of Sapphic verse that reposed in Alexandria’s library, we retain one complete poem, one nearly complete lyric (recovered only in 2004), and a bunch of fragments (sometimes no more than a few words). And they’re found in the oddest places, such as Apollonius Dyscolus’ On Pronouns, or a quote from Herodian’s On Anomalous Words, included because it contained a curious spelling of the word “sky.”
Under such circumstances, “Sappho” is often not much more than a reflection of her translator or biographer. While the author praises Carson’s translations generally (e.g., eptoaisen = “put the heart in my chest on wings”), he criticizes choices such as rendering Fragment 108 as “O beautiful O graceful one” when the Greek clearly uses the word kore, “maiden.” Or translating optais amme (Fragment 38) as “you burn me,” even though the pronoun is plural and more correctly translated “you burn us.” “[S]he’s chosen to sacrifice what the words actually say in order to project an image of Sappho as we want her: the private voice of individual erotic yearning.” (pp. 135-6)
“Arms and the Man” – Mendelsohn argues that Herodotus was the first serious prose writer in Greek. Prior to his Histories, there wasn’t even a word for prose it was considered such a debased form of writing. While the Landmark edition reviewed here has some admirable qualities (particularly the plethora of maps and illustrations), it fails to capture Herodotus’s charm as a writer, and it fails to understand Herodotus’s purpose in writing: To make the actions of ordinary men as important as the deeds of the heroes in the Iliad and other myths. “Herodotus may not always give us the facts, but he unfailingly supplies something that is just as important in the study of what he calls … ‘things that result from human action’: he gives us the truth about the way things tend to work as a whole, in history, civics, personality, and … psychology.” (p. 156)
“The Strange Music of Horace” – This is another review that takes a translator to task for failing to grasp the meaning or importance of the works he’s translating – in this case J.W. McClatchy, who fails to reflect Horace’s meticulous use of form.
“Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar” – I don’t have any notes from this essay, which posits: What would Oscar Wilde have produced if he had become an Oxford don?
“Epic Endeavors”* – “Epic Endeavors” is a composite review of three recent novels based on classical Greek myths “that, to varying degrees, not only ‘do’ the Greeks … but … do the Greek thing: play with the texts of the past in order to create … a literature that is thoroughly of the present.” (p. 197)
David Malouf’s Ransom builds upon the scene where Priam and Achilles meet to discuss a truce so Hector’s father can bury his son. This is Mendelsohn’s favorite of the three books as (he argues) it successfully expands “the possibilities of Homer’s story.” (p. 202)
Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is not as successful. Some of Mason’s imaginings are clever but Mason’s tricks “pale, in both scale and complexity, beside the ones that Homer mastered three millennia ago …. The clever games that the Odyssey plays are, in the end, games worth playing. Mason’s book is merely jokey – too clever by half.” (p. 206)
The third book is John Banville’s The Infinities, which reimagines the Amphitryon myth in the story of a modern-day mathematician and his family. Not as good as Ransom but better than The Lost Books of the Odyssey.
All three books, however, in Mendelsohn’s estimation, whatever their flaws, are evidence of the “inexhaustible … potential of the classics themselves.” (p. 209)
“After Waterloo” – “After Waterloo” is another essay where I made no notes. It’s a rave about Richard Howard’s translation of Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma – both the translation and the novel in general.
“Heroine Addict” – I was excited to find this review in the collection. I discovered Theodor Fontane just this year (2012) and thoroughly enjoyed the two novels I’ve read so far – Irretrievable and Effi Briest. I became positively giddy to find that Mendelsohn shares my enthusiasm for Fontane, writing that the key to Fontane’s success as a novelist is his narrative style: “a gift for obliquity, for knowing what to leave out, and above all for letting the reader ‘overhear’ the speech of his characters …. It is this skill at delineating characters through dialogue … that creates the sense of intimacy that his novels have.” (p. 226)
I feel a sense of satisfaction when my own critical faculties are validated by a professional whose opinions I respect.
“Rebel Rebel” – This is a disquisition on the poems of Rimbaud. The most interesting thing I found in this piece was Mendelsohn’s observation that Rimbaud is a poet of adolescence. He stopped writing at the age of 20 because he grew up, and the urgency of rebellion died. (p. 256)
“The Spanish Tragedy” – “The Spanish Tragedy” introduced me to another author I’d never heard of – Antonio Muñoz Molina, and his novel Sepharad. It’s a glowing review of a book that Mendelsohn writes is “something of a masterpiece.” (p. 274)
“In Gay and Crumbling England” – In this essay, Mendelsohn reviews Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. While the essay is interesting to read, it’s about an author and a subject I have no interest in, so – again – no notes and nothing to write.
“Transgression” – “Transgression” was another essay I was pleased to see as I’ve had Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones on my wish list for a while now. (There’s a copy at one of my libraries but I’ve never gotten around to taking advantage of its availability.) Mendelsohn argues that the book is working on two levels: One is a historical fiction that addresses the violence and inhumanity that lurks beneath the “kindly” exteriors of ordinary people. The second level is a mythic-sexual element that asks “What is justice?” and how does it appease the desire for vengeance. In his estimation, separately the two threads work. The difficulty comes when Littell attempts to combine them into one novel. In making Aue (the protagonist) a “brother,” the historic passages excel but they’re undercut by the mythic ones, where it becomes harder and harder to understand Aue as a fellow human being. He becomes “precisely the kind of cliché of depravity that so many of this novel’s strongest passages successfully resist.” (p. 303)
In his conclusion, Mendelsohn recommends the novel as it “can give us nightmares that will haunt us long after the show is over.” (p. 308)
The final section, “Private Lives,” was the least engaging for me. In it Mendelsohn focuses on memoirs, with the most interesting to me being the essays on Noël Coward and Susan Sontag. Among the general claims he makes, I found this observation the most intriguing: “Ideally, a memoirist’s revelation of himself should seduce readers into a comparable willingness to examine themselves and their lives without vanity, without props. In this way, a literary experience can lead to a profound life experience.” (p. 375)
Let me reiterate here that this is a remarkable collection of essays, and I strongly recommend it. However, if there’s one criticism I would level at Mendelsohn it’s that many of his sentences are too long (“discursive,” to use a more erudite word; or “prolix,” to use another one I have a fondness for). He starts out with a beautifully simple subject and verb but then goes off on a tangent that occupies a clause or two before getting to the predicate (many of the ellipses in the quotes above are reflections of this). It’s a tendency I don’t recall from How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays. This may diminish the reader’s enjoyment but not – I would hope – enough to dissuade him or her from reading these essays.
* Mendelsohn has an interesting digression at the beginning of this piece where he mentions the ancient Greeks’ penchant for revising and retelling their myths. In Euripides’ Phoenician Women, for example, Oedipus and Jocasta are still alive many years after the revelation of incest and parricide; in his fragmentary Oedipus, the king’s blindness is a result of injuries sustained when he killed Laius. And in his Helen, Euripides dramatized a popular myth that claimed the real Helen spent the Trojan War in Egypt, remaining faithful to Menelaus; Paris spirited away a phantom. Anyone who’s read Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths will have already encountered this.
The topic is of interest to me because – as anyone who’s browsed my bookshelves will know – I happen to take an interest in several modern mythologies. Namely, Star Trek, Star Wars and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I’d like to see the owners of these properties relax their grips, ideally trashing the idea of “canon” entirely, and let us return to the days when authors like James Blish, Sondra Marshak, Diane Duane, John M. Ford (to name some ST authors) or Alan Dean Foster (to name a SW author) could write their own interpretations without being strait-jacketed. (I know there’s fan fiction out there that does this but its reach is very limited, even in the age of the internet. I want to see the phenomenon go mainstream, as they say.)(less)
I saw the movie "Serenity" and enjoyed it very much but it was only after Netflix began streaming episodes of "Firefly" that I actually watched and fe...moreI saw the movie "Serenity" and enjoyed it very much but it was only after Netflix began streaming episodes of "Firefly" that I actually watched and fell in love with the series. I'm not a Joss Whedon fan. The few episodes of "Angel" I watched bored me. I never bothered with "Dollhouse." "Buffy" was more interesting, and I loved the series' finale (far better, IMO, than BSG's). But in "Firefly" a number of elements came together so that it spoke to me, including the cast, the background and the generally excellent scripts.
I am a fan of most of Steven Brust's work and I was eager to read his take on a favorite series. I think he did a pretty good job. Brust captures "Firefly's" tone (especially the relationship between Mal and Zoe), with minimal stumbles.
The story takes place between "Objects in Space"* and "Serenity," and involves the reappearance of a figure from Mal and Zoe's time in the war. I'm not going to get into spoilerish details but I will mention two caveats I had with the story. The first is the Alliance agent - Kit Merlyn. I wasn't entirely sold on his relationship with Serenity's crew. The other quibble I had was with Wash ("I'm a leaf on the wind") and Kaylee's actions during the raid on Sakarya's compound. Particularly in Kaylee's case; it seemed out of character. (view spoiler)[OK, one spoiler question: Kaylee would really consider crashing Serenity? (hide spoiler)]
These concerns aside, I enjoyed the story and would definitely recommend it to "Firefly" fans. It's a piece of fanfic so those unfamiliar with the TV show would be lost, but I would recommend you get a hold of "Firefly's" one, too brief, season and then read this novella.
* I hate watching "Objects in Space" if only because of what the bounty hunter does to Kaylee. Of all the people in the 'verse who don't deserve to be hurt, Kaylee is in the top three.
** Many thanks to John S.'s review, which clued me in to the existence of this work.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)