Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Seven Ages by Louise Gück

I was disappointed by The Seven Ages by Louise Glück. The winner of the Bollinger Prize in 2001, The Seven Ages was very good, but, to be honest, I was expecting something better. I had a preconceived notion that I would absolutely love Gl¨ck's poetry, but I didn't. That isn't to say that it wasn't good. I particularly enjoyed Radium, From A Journal, Balcony, and Unpainted Door. But reading The Seven Ages just wasn't the life-changing event I though it would be; perhaps I should not have had such high expectations, but I did.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Genesis by Bernard Beckett

In the post-apocalyptic world of Bernard Beckett's Genesis Anaximander is taking an exam to enter the Academy. Anaximander lives in a society modeled after Plato's Republic. But all is not what it seems. This society, intended to be just and good, is in many ways dark and cruel. Against this dark background, Anaximander's exam, in the Beckett's hands, turns into a philosophical riff on consciousness. A plot twist at the end leaves the reader wondering about the same tricky issues touched on during Anaximander's exam.

Despite it's deeply philosophical theme, Genesis was a fairly quick read that left me thinking about some serious issues. If you enjoy philosophy or science fiction, I think you should give Genesis a look.


Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Almond by Nedjma

Written anonymously through the use of a pseudonym, The Almond is the fictional tale of the sexual awakening of a Muslim woman from a small Moroccan village. She is married off to a cruel husband, who brutalizes her on her wedding night. Badra swears from that night on her husband will make love to a corpse. It is not until she flees her horrible marriage for the house of her aunt in Tangiers that life for Badra changes. She is introduced to Driss, a rich cardiologist. Badra becomes his mistress and Driss shows her the pleasures of sex. Badra's life becomes a fairy tale as the rich Driss keeps her in good style, despite living in a strict Muslim society. But Driss's libertine lifestyle soon stokes jealousy and Badra's love for him turns to hatred. But the hate eventually cools; Driss and Badra are reconciled after many years of separation.

I really enjoyed reading The Almond. The prose and story are erotic and, at times, terrible. Some, however, might find the frank sexual language offensive. While there is some question about the veracity of the story, I found it an enjoyable read that, even if not entirely accurate, makes me sympathetic to the plight of women in bad marriages, arranged or not.


Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

Thousand Cranes is the third Kawabata novel that I have read and by far the best. It is the story of a man haunted by the mistresses of his father. Kikuji is invited to a tea ceremony by one of his father's former mistresses, Chikako. She invites him in order to arrange Kikuji's marriage to Yukiko. But another of his father's mistresses, Mrs. Ota, also attends the tea ceremony, accompanied by her daughter. Kawabata weaves a sad and romantic tale from Kikuji's relationships with all four women.

I have described Kawabata's prose before as spare. In Thousand Cranes, he does a magnificent job of using this spare prose to touch the reader's heart with this romantic tale. For the first time I see why Kawabata deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he won in 1968, shortly before his tragic suicide in 1972. Thousand Cranes certainly makes up for the last Kawabata novel I read, House of the Sleeping Beauties, which was awful. If you are looking to read some Kawabata, Thousand Cranes would be a good place to start.


Ballistics by Billy Collins

Ballistics by Billy Collins, a former U. S. Poet Laureate, is full of the poetry of everyday life. For example, Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant is about aging and, perhaps, loneliness. Brightly Colored Boats Upturned on the Banks of the Charles about a tableau of boats that Collins must once have seen. Other poems are about the stray thoughts that Collins has; little fantasies like Hippos on Holiday or The Golden Years. Some are deeper, more ominous, like Looking Forward, a poem about death. Ballistics is full of poetry that is simple, full of the unadorned beauty of everyday life.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth is about the abstinence movement championed by fundamentalist Christians. She justly questions the way this movement fetishizes feminine virginity. This fetishization of virginity constructs a social reality where virgins are seen as pure and good and non-virgins are seen as corrupt and bad. It reduces women's value to their sexuality alone, completely discarding the whole of their behavior in favor of a single item by which to measure their morality.

Valenti also questions the wisdom of abstinence-only sex education, which is clearly ineffective and dangerous. Statistics show that abstinence-only education programs do not reduce the likelihood of sexual activity but do reduce the likelihood of condom or other contraception use. Too often abstinence-only education efforts are riddled with mistaken information, at best, but more likely outright lies.

One of the more disturbing components of the abstinence movement is the purity pledge. A purity pledge is undertaken when a young woman, a girl really, pledges to her father that she will remain a virgin until she is married. The father pledges in turn to "cover" his daughter, providing a moral "shield" to protect his daughter, her virginity above all, from the immorality of the world. These pledges, which often take place at "purity balls" are eerily reminiscent of wedding ceremonies. These ceremonies seem to me, and Valenti's father, to have an almost incestuous overtone.

Valenti's book is an interesting contrast to Kathryn Joyce's Quiverfull. Both books are about the ideals of patriarchal Christianity. Unlike Joyce, Valenti makes no attempt to be respectful to the other side. The Purity Myth is, at times, a feminist rant, albeit quite justified. I agree with all of Valenti's criticisms of the Christian obsession with sexual purity, and I am strongly opposed to abstinence-only education. I liked this book, but found it less enjoyable than Quiverfull.


Quiverfull by Kathryn Joyce

In Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement Kathryn Joyce covers three distinct but related pieces within the growing patriarchy movement in fundamental Christianity.

Once piece concerns the complete surrender of a wife to the "headship" of her husband. Called Titus 2 after the scriptural justification of this surrender.

That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,

To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

Titus 2:4-5

Titus 2 wives do not work outside the home. Instead they engage in homemaking activities, which the Titus 2, or complementarian, philosophy sees as the more naturally female endeavors. These women are to be unquestionably obedient to their husbands. Titus 2 wives must also be sexually available to their husbands at all times.

This sexual availability supports the second piece of the patriarchy movement. Quiverfull families eschew any kind of contraception, surrendering to God the question of conception.

Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.

As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.

Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

Psalm 127:3-5

Quiverfull families have and raise as many Christian children as God sees fit for them to have. Many see their large families as growing armies in a cosmic war between Christians and non-Christians.

The final piece of the Christian patriarchy movement, discussed only briefly by Joyce, is the surrender of daughters to the "headship" of their father as well. This surrender is seen as a kind of preparation for the daughters immanent surrender to her future husband.

Kathryn Joyce does a wonderful job of covering the Titus 2 and Quiverfull movements, but the third part about daughters seemed to be a late and hasty addition to the book. Joyce's opinion of the Christian patriarchy movement is clear from the beginning, but she shows a great deal of respect for the men and women adhere to what the author thinks are mistaken ideals. If you have any interest in the Christian patriarchy movement, or just in fundamentalist Christianity, you would do well to read this book.

As both an atheist and stay-at-home-dad, I find these patriarchal ideals to be fascinating but anathema. The idea that women are unable or unfit to work outside the home; that only men without any masculinity can be nurturing and do housework, is ludicrous. I admire the convictions of the Titus 2 and Quiverfull families that can follow these ideals without harm. But it seems to me that these ideals can be dangerous. One only has to read about the spousal abuse and abject poverty suffered some by some of the families in Joyce's book to see the danger.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness is a story about Genly Ai, an envoy sent to the ice-bound planet Winter to convince its peoples to join the Ekumen. Winter is inhabited by people that are bi-gendered. Once a month they enter kemmer, a time where they change into a man or woman. The man/woman in kemmer pairs with an opposite gendered person also in kemmer in order to have children. With no tendency to favor becoming a man or a woman during kemmer, inhabitants of Winter can be fathers and mothers to several children.

This bi-genderedness is the attention getting concept in The Left Hand of Darkness, but it is really just background to the actual story. Ai's mission proves difficult when he gets caught in the web of internal and external political struggles in both Karhide and Orgota. But, he does make a friend, Estraven, a once powerful figure in the government of Karhide now banished. Their mutual struggles make up the plot of this sci-fi classic.

A winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, I had high expectations for The Left Hand of Darkness. I was disappointed, for the book did not meet my expectations. The bi-genderedness of the inhabitants of Winter is, without a doubt, brilliant. But for me it wasn't enough to carry the entire novel. The plot, while decent, did not really excite. In the end, I found The Left Hand of Darkness to be a mediocre read.


I read The Left Hand of Darkness for:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Human Dark With Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy

Human Dark With Sugar, winner of the 2007 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, is full of poems in which there is delightful play with words. The poems do not have a strong narrative element, which I usually prefer my poetry to have, but Shaughnessy's use of language is beautiful and evocative. I enjoyed reading her poetry so much it inspired me to sign up for the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Poetry Challenge.


The Conference of Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar

The Conference of Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar is a mystical poem described by Reza Aslan in his book No god but God as by far the most famous parable describing the Sufi Way. Written in the twelfth century, Attar's poem describes how the birds of the world have gathered to elect a bird to lead them to the Simurgh, the King of the Birds. They elect the hoopoe to lead them. Before departing several birds question the wisdom of making the journey. The hoopoe answers each in turn with stories and parables. The birds then journey through the the Valleys of the Quest, Love, Mystery, Detachment, Unity, and Bewilderment before arriving at the Valley of Nothingness. Thousands of birds began the journey, but only thirty complete it. When they finally look upon the Simurgh they see themselves, for Simurgh means thirty birds in Persian. They struggled through the various challenges of the arduous journey only to discover that it was themselves they sought.

I heard about this book from Reza Aslan's No god but God. I looked forward to reading it, but was very disappointed upon doing so. The majority of the poem is taken up by the questions asked by the various birds. The parables and stories told in response were often seemed boring or repetitive to me. I would have liked to have read more about the actual journey, but it takes up surprisingly little of the poem. There were a few bright spots though. I especially enjoyed the story of Story Of Shaykh San‘an, which you can read for yourself at this online translation of The Conference of Birds.


The Clover, Bee, And Reverie Poetry Challenge

I know I'm participating in many reading challenges right now. One of the things I like best about reading challenges is the challenge part. If chosen well, reading challenges encourage you to read things you would not have otherwise read. The Clover, Bee, And Reverie Poetry Challenge is such a challenge for me.

I have never really been a reader of poetry, so I was intrigued when I saw this challenge in my feed reader. I thought about it, but poetry? Nah. Besides, I had so many other challenges going. But over the last couple of months it kept nagging at me.

Then I read the Sufi mystical poem The Conference of Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar for the Read Your Own Books Challenge. I didn't really enjoy it overall, but there were a few luminescent moments. So, on my next trip to the library, I randomly grabbed a book of poetry from the stacks: Human Dark With Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy. Even though the Shaughnessy's poetry isn't the kind with a strong narrative arc I prefer, I enjoyed reading it. I now have several books of poetry checked out from the library with the intention of reading them and I'm looking forward to completing The Clover, Bee, And Reverie Poetry Challenge .

Monday, March 22, 2010

Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation by Elissa Stein & Susan Kim

In the book Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation Elissa Stein and Susan Kim cover a broad number of menstrual topics: how we talk about it, the history of hysteria, religious views on menstruation. Most of the book is devoted to the growth and influence of what they call the femcare industry. They cover these topics with a great deal of humor. So much so that at times the prose feels forced. They often seem to try to hard to be hip or be funny. I could almost hear the laugh track in the background. Their humor also seemed at odds with their efforts that the topic be treated seriously. In fact I was disappointed at the lack of serious academic history. But do not let these minor quibbles put you off reading this book. It is a light read that you just might enjoy.

I know that it might seem weird that a man would read this book. I have to admit, I was curious. After all, my wife suffers through a period every month. Though never unsympathetic about it, I certainly have much more sympathy for her (and all women) after reading this book. So, perhaps more men should read it.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louÿs

During the Carnival in Seville, a young Frenchman, André Stévenol, spots a beautiful young woman. But before he can speak to her she disappears. Fortunately he sees her again in a carriage. He chases it to a house. He knocks on the door but is turned away by the butler. André sees a match seller on the corner, who gives him the woman's name. She is Doña Concepción Pérez, the wife of Don Manuel Garciá. When André returns home, he finds a letter promising a rendezvous with the young lady.

Before his rendezvous, André visits with an old friend, Don Mateo. When Don Mateo finds out that André is meeting Conceptción, or Concha, he is becomes quite agitated. He urges André not to meet Concha. When André asks why, Don Mateo tells him that he was once Concha's lover. Don Mateo relates the story of how, over the course of several years, Concha cruelly teased him. While Don Mateo supports Concha and her mother, she continually led him to believe that she would sleep with him, but for years she never relents to do so.

Will André keep the rendezvous? What will Don Mateo do not that he has learned that Concha is in Seville, the very city in which he resides? You must read The Woman and the Puppet to find out.

This is my third Pierre Louÿs book. I enjoyed reading it, but thought Aphrodite and The Songs of Bilitis were better.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More Challenges? You have got to be kidding!

I find myself unable to resist signing up for some more challenges. I have been making good progress on the ones in progress. I finished the Much Ado About Shakespeare and Centuries challenges. I have only one more book for the Numbers and GLBT challenges. I am considering, however, going up a level on the GLBT Challenge. Given the progress I have made, I thought perhaps I have room for some more challenges.

I have kept my eye on the Women Unbound Challenge for some time. Today I checked out the book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation from my local library as a catalyst for signing up for the challenge. I must say that I feel a little weird reading the book since I am male. But I did see a favorable review of the book by a man on Amazon. Plus the Reader's Bill of Rights says I can read whatever I want to. Anyway, here are some of the books I am considering reading for this challenge:

  1. Flow: the Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

  2. The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

  3. Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Joyce, Kathryn

  4. O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm by Jonathan Margolis

  5. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

  6. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

  7. Infidel by A. H. Ali

  8. Grotesque by N. Kirino

I will also be participating in the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. But no list of possibles for this one. I like to wander through the library picking things at random for this challenge.

Two Erotic Tales by Pierre Louÿs

Two Erotic Tales by Pierre Louÿs includes The Songs of Bilitis, which I have already reviewed, and Aphrodite. Aphrodite is the story of Demetrios and Chrysis. Chrysis is a famous courtesan in Alexendria; Demetrios the famous sculptor and lover of the queen. During a chance meeting between the two Demetrios falls in love with Chrysis. But she is disdainful and says she will only bestow her favors upon him if he gets her three gifts. Demetrios must steal a silver mirror from Rhodopis, another famous courtesan; an ivory comb from the wife of the high priest of Alexandria; and the pearl necklace from around the neck of the statue of Aphrodite in the temple. All three are bold crimes which Demetrios commits. After the crimes Demetrios finds that he is indifferent to Chrysis, but she, convinced that his crimes means he loves her, has fallen in love with him. When Demetrios tells Chrysis where he has hidden the three gifts he rejects her loving advances and demands that she put all three gifts on and walk through the middle of Alexandria wearing them. Chrysis, her passion for Demetrios driving her on, does so. She is arrested and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Demetrios, however, escapes punishment.

Louÿs' poetic language made it a treat to read Aphrodite and The Songs of Bilitis. Aphrodite has more of a narrative; The Songs of Bilitis is a series of prose poems with a looser narrative arc. I really like the plot of Aphrodite. The crimes and their consequences, while horrifying, were riveting. Demetrios' eventual rejection of Chrysis followed by her execution lend the story a sense of tragedy. Aphrodite is a great story, but with its erotic themes, it is not for everyone.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Seven Pleasures by William Spiegelman

William Spiegelman, a professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has written a collection of essays, Seven Pleasures, about everyday things that make him happy: reading, walking, looking (at art), dancing, listening (to music), swimming, and writing. Each essay is a light, personal meditation on one of these activities. The essays are engaging and enjoyable to read, but ephemeral and soon forgotten.

I am glad I read this book, though not for the Spiegelman's essays themselves. More intriguing is this idea of ordinary activities that can bring one pleasure. Reading Seven Pleasures made me wonder what ordinary activities I would class as bringing me joy. Like Spiegelman, I too enjoy reading, looking at art, listening to music, and writing, but are there any other activities?

I couldn't think of many beyond those I share with Spiegelman. Just hanging out with my eight year old son can bring me real joy. I love tea and drinking a cup good Chinese black tea is a very ordinary happiness I enjoy every morning. But truly, reading is the ordinary happiness that I come back to over and over.

What about you? What are the ordinary everyday things that make you happy?


Read for:

  • Numbers Challenge

  • GLBT Challenge - because Spiegelman happens to be gay, although he only mentions it in passing and it doesn't really have anything to do with his essays.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

In William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are separated by a disastrous shipwreck. Viola, believing her brother dead, finds her way to the court of Duke Orsino in Illyria. There, dressed as a man, she becomes the confidant of the Duke under the name Cesario. Orsino is madly in love with Olivia, a wealthy countess. The duke sends Viola to woo Olivia in his name, but Olivia falls in love with Viola and Viola falls in love with the Duke.

While all the wooing and falling in love is happening, Sir Toby Belch, kinsman to Olivia, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a friend of Sir Toby's and suitor to Olivia, pull a practical joke on Olivia's steward, Malvolio. Maria, Olivia's lady in waiting, forges a letter that she drops where Malvolio will find it. The forged letter convinces the steward that Olivia is in love with him. It instructs him to dress and act in a way guaranteed to annoy the Duchess. Upon doing so, Malvolio is thought to be mad and finds himself confined to the cellar.

Sebastian, rescued by the sea captain Antonio, now arrives in Illyria. Antonio gives Sebastian his purse to use while sightseeing. Antonio cannot go with Sebastian because he is a wanted man in Illyria, and so leaves to find lodging. Meanwhile, Sir Toby decides to prank Sir Andrew, convincing him to challenge Viola/Cesario to a duel over Olivia. Sir Toby conspires to convince both would be combatants that a duel is unavoidable. When the fracas begins, Antonio stumbles in and intervenes, mistaking Viola for Sebastian. Antonio is promptly arrested. He asks Viola for his purse, hoping to pay his way out of his legal troubles, but she of course knows nothing about it. Antonio curses the confused Viola.

Sebastian, while wandering about the city, encounters Olivia. The countess takes him for Viola and bundles him off to the church where they are married in secret. Later, Orsino visits the Countess. When he once again proclaims his love, Olivia reveals the secret marriage to Sebastian. But it Viola in attendance, not Sebastian. Viola denies the marriage, but the priest is called in to verify it. Orsino curses Viola as a betrayer and Viola is finally forced to reveal the truth that she is a woman. Orsino falls in love with Viola. Sebastian returns to the court and is reunited with his sister. Malvolio is freed from the cellar. Everyone agrees that his was badly used, but Malvolio remains angry and stalks off at the end of the play.

I rather enjoyed this play. It is certainly not on the level of Hamlet or King Lear, but it was a delight to read. I would recommend it if you have already read Shakespeare's great plays already, but this is not where I would recommend the new reader of Shakespeare begin.


Read for:

  • Much Ado About Shakespeare Challenge - an extra because it's Shakespeare and he is that good.

  • Numbers Challenge

  • GLBT Challenge - because of Viola's cross-dressing and Antonio's professions of love for Sebastian along with what he says about his time with Sebastian: ... and for three months before, / No interim, not a minute's vacancy, / Both day and night did we keep company.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's newest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, is about a professor Cass Seltzer. Cass is a professor of psychology and his field of academic study is the psychology of religion. Cass has written a book, "The Varieties of Religious Illusion", that discusses the novel's eponymous 36 arguments. The book, a best seller, has propelled Cass to fortune and fame. If academic success weren't enough, Cass has garnered the affections of a beautiful mathematician, Lucinda Mandelbaum. Cass, in the midst of this extraordinary luck, feels as though he has been mistakenly given someone else's life.

The novel alternates between Cass' famed present and his past. We learn about his ex-wife, Pascale; his ex-girlfriend, Roz; and his ex-mentor, Professor Klapper; as well as his relationship to Lucinda. Goldstein does a fantastic job of moving events in the past and present forward toward toward a climax. Will things work out with Lucinda? What about Roz, who, retired from an academic career as an anthropologist, has resurfaced in Cass' life? What about Azarya, a child prodigy who must choose between his phenomenal mathematical gift and his duty as the next Rebbe to the Waldeners?

I loved this book. It is everything a novel is supposed to be, an engaging narrative about human life and relationships. It is full of memorable characters: Professor Klapper, Azarya, Pascale, Roz, and Lucinda. The characters are so wonderfully developed I found myself rooting for a particular outcome. I cannot recommend you read this novel enough.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Moral Relativism by Steven Lukes

I was disappointed by Steven Lukes Moral Relativism. I had expected an interesting treatise on the philosophical aspects of moral relativism, but instead the book is grounded more in sociology and anthropology, which, by personal taste, I find less engaging.

Lukes makes some interesting points about moral relativism. He asserts that there are two kinds of moral relativism. First is the concept that there are many moral systems instead of a single universal one; Amazonian tribal peoples have a different moral system than suburban Californians. Moral relativism also encompasses the belief that no moral system should be more privileged than another and that the morality of a particular behavior depends on the context. It is this idea that agitates people.

Lukes' discussion of moral relativism made clear to me that moral disputes can be a disagreement over the fundamental facts of the matter in question, rather than a disagreement about a particular moral precept. The prohibition of murder is an example of a fairly universal moral precept. But, how does this relate to the death penalty? I am against the death penalty because I think it is murder, the intentional killing of another human being. I live in the state of Texas where many people are pro death penalty. Does that mean they don't believe murder is immoral? Of course not. We disagree not about a prohibition against murder, but about whether execution of a convicted felon is murder. It seems that many disputes about morality are like this, more about definitions than about actual morality.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Othello by William Shakespeare

In William Shakepeare's Othello, Iago seeks revenge upon Othello, a general in the Venetian army, when Othello passes him up for promotion. Instead, Othello steers the promotion to one of his friends, Cassio, provoking Iago to fury. The ensuing mayhem of Iago's revenge destroys many, including Othello, his new wife Desdemona, Brabantio, and even Iago himself. Want to find out what happens? Well then get thee to a library or a bookstore to get a copy of Othello to read.

Othello is another fantastic play by William Shakespeare, fully on par with King Lear and Hamlet. Iago is a wonderfully delicious villain, unapologetic in his evil ways. Othello, Iago's unfortunate dupe, is sympathetic, even though it is his own anger that leads to his downfall and the tragic end of the play. And what can we say about poor innocent Desdemona? Really, do go out and find a copy of this play to read. You won't regret it.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Songs Of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs

Pierre Louÿs was a nineteenth century French author known for lesbian and classical themes in his writing. His short work The Songs of Bilitis includes both of these themes. It is a sensual collection of prose poems that were originally published as translations from the ancient Greek. Louÿs alleged that Bilitis was an actual lesbian poetess from Sapphic antiquity. But this was a hoax; Bilitis and the poems are the creation of Louÿs.

Many of the short prose poems are very beautiful. Some are erotic, but in a subtle rather than graphic or lascivious way. I rather enjoyed the short work. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I read two translations of The Songs of Bilitis. One by Michael Buck published by Capricorn Books in 1966. The other by Mary Hanson Harrison published in 1995 by Evanston Publishing. Buck's translation is more archaic, a thee and thou kind of translation. Harrison's uses more modern language. Both are beautiful in their own way, but Harrison's is often easier to read. Harrison's translation is part of Two Erotic Tales by Pierre Louÿs, which includes The Songs of Bilitis as well as Aphrodite, a better known work by Louÿs.


Read for:

  • Decades Challenge (1920s)

  • What's In A Name Challenge (Music Term In The Title)

  • GLBT Challenge

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

What can I say about The Old Man and the Sea? It lived up to all the hype I had heard about Ernest Hemingway. The sparse prose, the theme of man against nature, and absolutely brilliant writing. The story is rather minimalist. An old man, fishing in the sea hooks a large marlin. What ensues is an epic battle between the man and the fish. Written so beautifully, Hemingway kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire novella. I know that I am gushing, but really I cannot say much more than brilliant, simply brilliant! If you love literature and you have not read The Old Man and the Sea, do so as soon as possible.


Read for:

  • Book Awards IV Challenge (1953 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit)

  • Decades Challenge (1950s)

  • What's In A Name Challenge (Body of Water in the Title)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres epitomized for me what the Reading Challenges are all about because it is a book that, but for the challenge, I would not have read. It struck me as much more Women's Literature than I would normally enjoy.

A Thousand Acres is a retelling of William Shakespeare's King Lear. In Iowa of the 1970s, Larry Cook decides to split his farm, all 1000 acres, among his three daughters. The youngest daughter, Caroline, is not interested so the farm is split among the remaining two, Rose and Ginny. But the family is soon torn apart by both new and old wounds.

Jane Smiley is a wonderful writer. She did a fantastic job of describing both the land and farm life. The book deserves its Pulitzer Prize. However, I did not find the book itself to my taste. I did like that in Smiley's retelling of King Lear the two older daughters are not villains but victims, a change that added nuance and ambiguity to the story. Be warned though, a monster lurks in the pages of the book; a monster that made reading many parts of the book an uncomfortable experience.


Friday, February 05, 2010

Yet Another Challenge

Despite already participating in a number (get it) of challenges this, I could not resist doing the Numbers Challenge again this year. Especially since I have already read a book with a number in it, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. I hope to go for the brass ring and read five books with numbers in it. My tentative list is:

  1. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

  2. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

  3. Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness by Wilard Spiegelman

  4. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

  5. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Alternates include:

  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

  • Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado

Friday, January 22, 2010

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

I am not much of a reader of Westerns, but Riders of the Purple Sage is a classic. On the Utah frontier, Mormons and Gentiles are in constant struggle. Jane Withersteen, the wealthy owner of a prosperous ranch finds herself at odds with her fellow Mormons, squarely in the middle of the struggle. What follows is a moving tale of intrigue and secrets, of sorrow and love.

I enjoyed reading Riders of the Purple Sage. However, I found that language a little archaic and the pacing somewhat slow. Still, as I said Riders of the Purple Sage is a classic and deserves to be read by any bibliophile.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Love's Labour Lost by William Shakespeare

Often called one of Shakespeare's most intellectual plays, Love's Labour Lost is a witty comedy full of wordplay. The King of Navarre and his three companions swear an oath to live an austere life of academic study for three years, most notably swearing to give up the company of women. No sooner is the oath sworn than the Princess of France visits Navarre's court as an emissary from her father. She has with her three ladies in waiting. Unsurprisingly, the King and his three companions fall in love with the French women and high jinks ensue.

I did not originally intend to read this play for the Much Ado About Shakespeare Challenge but I happened to record Kenneth Branagh's 2000 film of it. So, before attempting to watch the film, I read the play, which is a good read, but not as spectacular as Hamlet or King Lear. The film, on the other hand, is atrocious. Branagh adapted the play into a musical. Now, I have nothing against musicals per se, but Branagh's adaptation reminded me of Cop Rock, a very short lived television show which could have been called Law & Order: The Musical. Both the television show and Branagh's film had singing in all the wrong places. I didn't watch more than the first ten minutes.

If you really dig Shakespeare, give Love's Labour Lost a read. It is one of eminent critic Harold Bloom's favorites. But, if you are just looking for a taste of Shakespeare, you would be better served sticking to some of his more acclaimed plays.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Deadly Viper Character Assassins by Mike Foster & Jud White

I grabbed Deadly Viper Character Assassins from the New Books shelf at my public library. A well designed book with funky graphics, I checked it out. The book is about maintaining an upright character. The authors list six character assassins that you must beware:

  • The Assassin of Character Creep: Do not cut corners when it comes to your character. That is how most people begin their fall.

  • The Assassin of Zi Qi Qi Ren: Zi Qi Qi Ren is the Chinese term for deceiving yourself while deceiving others. The authors caution you not to drink your own kool-aid, better yet, don't serve any kool-aid. Be straight with everyone including yourself.

  • The Assassin of Amped Emotions: It is easy to lose your head and make a rash, harmful decision when your emotions are running wild. Think before you speak or act.

  • The Assassin of the Headless Sprinting Chicken: Beware burnout. But, also beware the seductive illusion of balance. You cannot be everything to everyone at the same time. Sometimes you work hard, sometimes you play hard, just don't do both at the same time.

  • The Assassin of Boom Chicka Wah Wah: This one is just what it sounds like. Sex is a very powerful force in human lives. Engage in it responsibly.

  • The Bling Bling Assassin: It is OK to enjoy your stuff, just do not let your stuff take over your life.

  • The High and Mighty Assassin: Remember, no matter what your title or position, you are human just like everyone else, whether you are the CEO or the janitor.

Overall, Deadly Viper Character Assassins is a short, fun read. I did not find anything earth shatteringly enlightening about it, but reading it gave me some things to think about. I was surprised to find that the book is classified as Christian non-fiction. I did not find any overt Christian content in the book and Christianity does not have a monopoly on upright character, so I would call this a self-help book instead. Also, I felt the authors tried a little to hard to be funky and fresh, which distracted from the actual content of the book. Reviews on the internet indicate that many Asian readers were offended by the author's stereotypical portrayal of Asians. Personally, I found their facile treatment of the martial arts a negative as well.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is a fantastic play. This is my third reading of the play, my first using the Arden series. In the introduction, the editors of the play discuss King Lear beginning to eclipse Hamlet in popularity. Having just read King Lear, I would have to agree somewhat. Before reading King Lear, Hamlet was my favorite Shakespearean play. However, I did enjoy King Lear more than I did this reading of Hamlet. Hamlet is about a young man and King Lear about an old man. Perhaps as I age, I have more sympathy for Lear than for Hamlet.

This is not to take away from Hamlet. It remains a superb play; one that every reader of the English language should read. So, if you haven't, go out and get a good copy, the Arden or Oxford would be my recommendation, and read it as soon as possible.


Saturday, January 02, 2010

Challenge Extravaganza

A new year means a new set of Reading Challenges. I toyed with the idea of foregoing challenges this year, but I just can't help myself. So, without further ado, here are the challenges I am going to do this year:

Now, I know what you are thinking. That is a lot of challenges for a guy who was thinking about foregoing challenges this year. But, like I said, I can't help myself. The challenges last year pushed me to read books I might never have read before. I am hoping that will be true this year too, especially the GLBT Challenge.

I am happy to have several repeat challenges: The What's In A Name, Colorful Reading, Book Awards, Decades, and Chunkster Challenges are all ones that I completed last year. The rest are new to me.

The challenge I am most excited about is the RYOB challenge. I have so many books on my shelves that I have yet to read, so this is a great challenge. I am committing to read 36 of my own books this year, that is 3 per month. I hope that fulfilling the other challenges using my own books this year will make it easy to complete the RYOB Challenge.