The Odyssey

I was captivated by Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, so I stuck with the master translator for the sequel, The Odyssey, which was an entirely different beast. The same rules apply of sacrificing to the gods = BBQ & drinking, but this story covers an immensely larger territory, dipping into the war over Troy (Trojan horse executed by Odysseus’ cunning), covering O’s journey back from Troy, blown off course, into the Lotus Eaters, Cyclops (O’s trickery in naming himself “Nobody”), Aeolus master of the wind whose bag of winds is opened by O’s crew when he is sleeping and blows them off course, cannibals of Laestrygonia destroy every ship but O’s, Circe turns his crew into pigs and they stay for a year, then Calypso takes him husband/hostage for many years. Meanwhile, Penelope is guarding her marriage bed against the myriad of suitors who drink/eat O’s food. Telemachus, son of O & P, goes on a brief journey to find word of his illustrious father. His return is after O has reached Ithaca safely, in the custody of the swineherd. O & T hatch a plan to sweep the suitors from his palace, which comes to fruition.
Notable:
* Telemachus’ sneeze seals Penelope’s prayer to the gods
* Bird signs are taken very seriously, winging to the right is good luck
* The swineherd’s actions are introduced in a very loving second person, “You”

Short Cuts

Raymond Carver is a master at telling creepy stories. This is the movie -> book collection, inspired by Altman’s movie of the same name. Every collection of stories I’ve read by him includes a version of “Scotty”, the story about the baker who crank-calls the couple who doesn’t pick up their son’s birthday cake because he’s hit by a car, in the hospital, and dies. There’s another disturbing story, So Much Water So Close to Home, where the husband is on a four day fishing/camping/drinking trip and they find a dead body on day 1 but choose to continue fishing/drinking/camping. The vitamin story shows up in this collection as well. And the dad who takes the family dog to get lost. Undercurrents of daily life held up for scrutiny and that make us all look strange, florescently- lit.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

I was inducted into the cult this weekend, devouring this collection of essays, enjoying the tapdancing in my head, exhausting my dictionary. All those rabid fans are right– Wallace is one of the greats. This collection includes extensions of work published in Harper’s, Harvard Book Review, Premier, Esquire, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. The topics cover: tennis in tornado conditions, the impact of television on culture, David Lynch, an Illinois state fair, deconstructionism, how pro tennis players differ from us, and a 7 day Caribbean cruise. It is hilarious, achingly well written, and mind-stretching. The work speaks for itself, I will not attempt my usual desultory summarization. Instead, I leave bread crumbs of words that I picked up from the 300+ pages. I am now interested in details like what Wallace circled in his dictionary. Rabbit hole, here I come.
A partial word list I learned or re-introduced myself to:

ectomorphic, melisma, strabismus, lacuna, senescence, thanatology, saprophytic, spume, gestalt, preterite, rictus, titivate, onanism, olla podrida, hermeneutic, ablate, crepuscular, anamorphic, pulchritude, weltschmerz, teleological, ad hominem, exergue, ostensive, otiose, commissure, promulgate, enfilade, plangent, soteriology, eidetic, solmization, coffle, solipsism, prurient, synecdoche, hebephrenia, saurian, glabrous, candent, miscegenation.

Some of my favorites from the above:

  • lacuna: blank space or missing part
  • spume: frothy matter on liquid (and called out as DFW’s favorite word learned on the cruise)
  • rictus: a gaping grin
  • titivate: to spruce up
  • ablate: to remove by cutting/evaporating; to vaporize
  • weltschmerz: depression about state of world compared to ideal state
  • otiose: futile
  • plangent: having a loud reverberating sound
  • solipsism: extreme egoism
  • glabrous: smooth, hairless

When my dictionary failed me, I searched for definitions online (for plumeocide), which led me to other people’s word-love with Wallace. I like this community.
Wallace seemed to prefer certain words, too. My unsophisticated noticing saw several uses of these in the book: miscegenation, plangent, sophist, instantiate, otiose, promulgate, weltschmerz.

On Life and Work

My ratio of reading dead vs. living authors must be around 9:1. Why, then, do I have tears running down my face, why have I been sobbing, after reading the Kenyon College commencement speech DFW gave in 2005? Simply because the author committed suicide in 2008, during my own lifetime, cutting short his output of amazing work? I am confused by my own reaction to this death, four years after the fact. Before I read his work, I wasn’t affected to the extent I am now. But today I am moping around, tragically struck as if one of my own family/friends were silenced. Perhaps if I had been extant in the 40s I would have had a similar reaction to VW’s death? But perhaps it is the twice mentioned suicide within DFW’s speech that sets a particular teary tone for me; he lays out his map (although in reality hanging vs. the mention of shooting) and then executes it three years later. Perhaps it is the reflection of his last line, knowing the context of his no longer being with us: “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.”

Top Picks of 2011

Well into Spring of 2012, I’ve neglected my annual wrap-up. Here ’tis, in all its corroded memory glory. Lots of re-reads made the list, and I went deep into the classics this year.
Winners:
1. Ulysses by James Joyce
2. Moby Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville
3. Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
4. The Notebook by Agota Kristoff
5. Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
Honorable Mentions:
1. You Can’t Win by Jack Black
2. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
3. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
4. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
5. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
Worthy Contenders:
1. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
2. My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
4. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
5.1984 by George Orwell
6. The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

The Iliad

A scrawled note in the margin of a much-read copy of Moby Dick screams, “What’s so great about Homer, anyway?” as I vented my frustration with being inundated with Homer references throughout literature. Eventually, I caved into curiosity and picked up Robert Fagles translation, a wonderfully readable and poetic work. The fact that my high school mascot was the Trojan and I wasn’t required to read this then is a glimpse into the priorities of public school.
Bernard Knox’s introduction was helpful, setting the stage for the story, explaining the repetition of phrases, explaining the mixture of dialects through the work (oral poets chose the best word for the line, inserting new stuff when it fit better).
In a nutshell, the Iliad is a book packed with poetic descriptions of violent deaths during the war between the Acheans and Troy. Helen was an Achean woman stolen by Paris (Troy), and armies of men sail to Ilium to protest. At the beginning, we see Achilles’ raging/pouting because he had a woman (Briseis) stolen from him by Agamemnon. War rages on and Achilles refuses to take part, hanging out in his ship while his allied armies battle to the death with Troy. The battle shifts back and forth, Hector (Troy) gaining glory through slaughter. The Olympian gods meddle with events, sometimes taking the battlefield against each other. Achilles finally sends his best friend Patroclus to fight in his stead, Patroclus dies, Achilles is beyond grief, rages against the Trojans, singles out Hector when the rest of the army has fled inside the city walls, and Achilles (what?) CHASES Hector around the city walls three times before Hector turns and fights, dies. Hector’s body is dragged back to the ships, paraded around Patroclus’ grave three times a day, and funeral games (think Olympics– wrestling, running, chariot races) are held. Hector’s dad Priam is granted safe passage into the enemy camp by the gods in order to save Hector’s body. Achilles gives Priam twelve days to mourn Hector and then war begins again.
Random thoughts:
* Sacrificing to the gods was merely an excuse to have a BBQ and get drunk, sing songs.
* These guys were overly concerned with “proper” burial instead of being eaten by carrion or worms. The battle over Patroclus’ body killed a bunch of folks on each side.
* Seemed like the only difference between this war and some of the more recent wars is the naming of every single person who dies. So and so, son of so and so.
* “Even a fool learns something once it hits him.”

Die, Die, Diet

Hilarious murder mystery solved with clever wordplay and double entendres. Diet pushers all over the country start winding up dead, the FBI is on the case with Agents Flaim and Stultz. Flaim is a strange character, a breathtaking beauty without the sense of smell and with a penchant for shopping. Stultz fumes about the Director’s use of his nickname, Bearcat, until Flaim tells him to embrace it, to BE the bearcat. Stultz is also inexplicably a baker in his free time, and struggles with his weight. The victims are a bit cartoonish: Suzy Pop who explodes with Pineapple Cake Surprise… although the author wants to be sure you get the grenade/pineapple connection so he spells it out instead of hinting you that direction; Les Legume, the mayor with a free breakfast program pushing beans and killed by rictin (extract of bean); the nutty professor who wound up choked in his food lab on a nut concoction; the attempt at the end on the sauna-loving Youngbody.
The anagrams at the heart of solving this mystery were a bit much, and the ultimate “bad guy” behind all of it was eye-roll-inducing. Regardless, a quick and pleasurable read of first rate writing. You’ll have some chortles along the way.