Review: The War that Killed Achilles, Caroline Alexander

What was I reading recentlyish that talked about the Dark Ages being defined by the lack of Homer and Ovid? Was it The Secret History? Or The Fall of Rome maybe? Probably it was Tom Stoppard, Arcadia or The Invention of Love. It sounds like the kind of thing Tom Stoppard would say. Anyway, whatever character it was, they said something about how the Dark Ages were Dark because we didn’t have the classics around, in all their universal brilliance, to explain us to ourselves. When the West got them back again (thanks, Arabia!), it was like being reborn, a Renaissance.

Caroline Alexander, author of The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, seems to be of this mind. As I understand it, the book began as a series of lectures on the Iliad, which she eventually expanded and wrote down in bookish form, and lo, they are now a book. I kind of like it that a book about one of the world’s most utterly magnificent oral traditions, the Iliad, started out as lectures. That seems fitting.

The book is mainly an explication of what’s going on throughout the Iliad, from start to finish, with many admiring asides and fun trivia facts. Alexander goes through the poem and explores why people are doing the things they are doing, and what it says about them, and what crafty tricks of the trade Homer is using to make his poem the enduring masterpiece of genius that it is. She writes about the boring bits and why Homer would have included them and what audiences of the time would have thought;and she talks about the various strands of mythic and poetic tradition and when scholars think they got added into the Iliad. It was so great. I kept stopping reading it and reading other books instead, just to make it last longer.

It has occurred to me that I need to add a new category to my categories of talking about books. Sometimes I read a book, and I have a response of overwhelming joy, but the joy is coming from a place in my heart that is unrelated to my critical faculties. Every time this happens, I think that if you read the book I’m talking about, and you hate it, you won’t know that I know that my response has been colored by, for instance, my passionate love of the classics and desire to snuddle Homer and Ovid and Virgil. And then you’ll go away and think, That Jenny, she thinks books are fantastic that we know are only sort of okay. What an idiot. Accordingly I have added a new category and I have called it “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts”. Hereafter, if you see that I have put a post in this category, you will know that my ability to be critical of a certain book has been overthrown by desperate, protective love for some aspect of it. Then you won’t think I have bad taste ever again.

Glad I’ve solved that problem.

You know the one problem with this book, which is otherwise really cool? Caroline Alexander is using Lattimore’s translation. What? Why would you? When Fagles is around, being obviously better and only using enjambment when it’s called for and not every single damn line. FAGLES. FAGLES. FAGLES. I have never actually read Fagles’s Iliad but I’ve read his Odyssey, and I know the man translates Greek like a champion. Lattimore? I think not.

By the way, here is another bit of Old School that I liked a lot and sort of pertains to this because it’s about classical poetry:

Augustus Caesar had sent our Latin master’s beloved Ovid into exile…Yet the effect of all these stories was to make me feel not Caesar’s power, but his fear of Ovid. And why would Caesar fear Ovid, except for knowing that neither his divinity nor all his legions could protect him from a good line of poetry.


I will never catch up on reviews

…if I don’t do a bunch of short ones all at once. Thus:

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

I checked this out on Gavin’s recommendation and because I love Alexander the Great. Your claims that he was a psychotic alcoholic have no effect on me because in my mind he is exactly the way Mary Renault writes him in Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. The Golden Mean is about Aristotle when he comes to Macedon to tutor young Alexander. Though Lyon was clearly influenced by Mary Renault’s books, she gives a more nuanced picture of Alexander, showing a brilliant but disturbed young man who provides real heads for plays and mutilates the bodies of soldiers he has killed. Lyon uses modern language, with much swearing, and although that could have come across as stilted, it, er, it doesn’t. Hooray. Also, check out Ms. Lyon’s list of ten very good books about the ancient world.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett

Advertised as Jane Austen with magic, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent completely failed to satisfy me. Other reviewers have noted that the book’s three sections are dramatically different in tone, the first being quite Jane Austen and the second quite Turn of the Screwy, and the third more straight fantasy. This bugged me, and I didn’t care for the characters anyway, and the world-building felt lazy. So, not a success. This was for the RIP Challenge.

The Fall of Rome, Martha Southgate

Big yes to this one. I have been wanting to read it for ages, on Eva’s recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint me. Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been the only black faculty member at a Connecticut boarding school for boys throughout most of his career. His ideas about decorum and racial equality are sharply challenged with the arrival of Jana Hensen, a longtime teacher in the Cleveland inner city, and Rashid Bryson, a young black student trying to get away from a family tragedy. Beautiful, complicated racial and family dynamics and lovely writing, multiple narrators, Latin, and a boarding school setting. I wish Martha Southgate had written fifteen more books besides this one, instead of only two. Behold this quotation, which I think is great:

“Racial integration?” He nodded. “What about it?”

“Well, I’m not against it, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, right? But there’s some problems with it that I just want to talk to people about. How this place isn’t really integrated enough. We – I mean people like me – are just here to round out somebody else’s experience. That’s what it feels like, anyway.”

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and the American Prison System, Sasha Abramsky

The American prison system is awful. It’s just awful in every way, what with the insanely punitive mandatory minimum sentences, and the poorly-trained guards, and the lack of care for the mentally ill, and the shortage of educational programs, and the–look, just everything. It’s awful. Sasha Abramsky is a careful, clear writer, and I defy you to read this book and not feel furious at the end of it.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore is just not for me. When I read his books, I think of how much in sympathy I am with his views, and how important a writer of graphic novels he is, but I do not think, Wow, this is an enjoyable read. I more think, Wow, this is rather a slog. Wish I could be reading something more awesome. Now and then an image or a plot element will catch my eye and please me greatly, but these never last long enough to make my reading truly enjoyable. I also found the conclusion deeply unsatisfying: just a big info-dump of cackling villainy. I was fascinated, as I always am, with the way the 1980s seem to have been predicated on the assumption that nuclear war with Russia was imminent. And then the Berlin Wall came down! Miraculous! This was for the Graphic Novels Challenge, which I have already been awesome at this year but I cannot stop being awesome at it because graphic novels are worthwhile! Even when they are not my particular cup of tea.

Glimpses, Lynn Flewelling

Glimpses is a collection of Nightrunner short stories, with lots of fan art. It was sent to me as an e-book by Reece Notley of Three Crow Press, for which much thanks. These are stories that fill in the gaps in Seregil’s and Alec’s history: how Seregil came to be Nysander’s student, a small glimpse of Alec’s life with his father, and like that. If you are a fan of the Nightrunner series, and do not mind lots of graphic sex (I admit I can be slightly squeamish this way), you should check this out. To me, the nosy girl who wants to know exactly how everything went down, this short story collection is an excellent addition to the Nightrunner world. Lynn Flewelling has a light, amusing way of writing, and I always enjoy spending time with her characters. But if you are a stranger to the series, do yourself a favor and read Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness first.


I have been reading a lot of nonfiction this summer. It’s been fun, but I am also a little starved for fiction, and I have a massive backlist of books to investigate when I get home.

Juliet Gardiner: The Thirties and Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here

When I read Gardiner’s Wartime, I wished it had said more about the experience of being an American GI in England during World War II. Turns out the reason it didn’t is that Juliet Gardiner wrote a whole book about being an American GI in England during World War II. Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here (the book in question), a short book with lots of pictures and excerpts from diaries, letters, and journals, held me over until The Thirties got in at the library.

At which point I’m afraid I was woefully disappointed. I gave up on The Thirties about a third of the way through. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or just aimed in the wrong direction. Gardiner writes a lot about labor and the dole and other bleak, depressing economic things, and I got bored. I persevered ages longer than I wanted to, because I had whined so much about the library not having the book when I wanted it.

William Harris: Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity

Harris examines classical texts from Homer on forward to get a grip on what kind of dreams the Greeks and Romans had and what their dreams meant to them. He devotes a whole chapter to discussing what he calls “epiphany dreams,” dreams in which an authority figure shows up, gives a message to the dreamer, then leaves again. These appear to have been very common up until around the eleventh or twelfth century, at which point they declined precipitously. All very interesting.

A. D. Nuttall: The Stoic in Love (essays) and Dead from the Waist Down

I’m going to be getting Nuttall’s last book, Shakespeare the Thinker, in the mail pretty soon. I got it because I want to be friends with Shakespeare again. I hate that we’re in a fight. But once it was already ordered, I started to worry that I wouldn’t care for Nuttall, so I went to the library and got a few of his other books. Y’all, as I was reading these books, I kept thinking that if A.D. Nuttall hadn’t died tragically prematurely of a heart attack in 2007, I would have move to whatever university he taught at and become his disciple.

Nuttall read Mods (roughly, that means classics) and English Literature at Oxford, and The Stoic in Love warmed the classics and English literature ventricles of my geeky little heart. There is an essay on Virgil’s use of the causal-but-simultaneous dum (generally translated as “while”) in the Aeneid, which, Nuttall argues, reveals a lot about Virgil’s perception of life-after-death. I also particularly liked the essay on Hamlet and the sources of its uncertainties in previous Hamlet stories as well as in Latin and Greek sources.

Dead from the Waist Down was weird but entrancing. Nuttall writes about sexuality and scholarship in literature and life, taking as his subjects two real scholars (one, Isaac Casaubon, an early modern, and one, Mark Pattison, a contemporary of George Eliot) and the fictional Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch. Fortunately the half of Middlemarch that I read was sufficient to carry me through this with a reasonable measure of comprehension, and Nuttall doesn’t assume the reader’s familiarity with the other two dudes. He also discusses three things I did not get enough of during college: Robert Browning, Tom Stoppard, and image clusters. In particular I appreciated his compliments to the (wonderful) Stoppard play Invention of Love: “It is a work of breathtaking brilliance….knockabout comedy laced with intense pathos,” etc.

The word [scholarly], I think, connotes a quality of completeness: at the lowest level, complete literacy (never a colon where a comma should be); complete, though not redundant documentation; complete accuracy even with reference to matters not crucial to the main argument, and, together with all this, a sense that the writer’s knowledge of material at the fringe of the thesis is as sound as his or her knowledge of the core material.

Exactly what I like in Nuttall, although he could just be giving the impression of being sound without really being, and I do not know enough to be sure. Though just as I was contemplating flinging myself in the river so that Nuttall could teach me classics in heaven, he said:

It will be said that I am describing the literary canon, which has been shown to be an instrument of oppression. I would have had none of that then and I will have none of it now.

Come on, dude. At least give some respect to the arguments of the people who are completely unrepresented in and disempowered by the literary canon. You are part of a privileged group, and the literary canon hasn’t been an instrument of oppressing you. Hrmph. But apart from this, I think A.D. Nuttall is very, very brilliant and interesting. He talked briefly about a Greek writer called Diogenes Laertius, who wrote gossipy, bitchy lives of philosophers and bad poets, so y’all should expect to be hearing from me pretty soon about that.

Review: The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Yeah, I remember the rule. I remember the exception to the rule. It turns out Animal Farm is exactly what you get when you make rules that you know you want to break. I started jonesing so hard for The Secret History, and when I saw it at a book sale last week, I was all, Blah blah rationalization, this copy here is a trade paperback and my copy is only mass market, this and that, it’d be better to have this copy than my copy.

Once I got it home, I tried to kid myself that I wasn’t going to read it. I checked out five books from the university library that I’ve been wanting, and I started reading (and enjoying!) one of them. But you know how when you are craving one particular book with all of your being, that book suddenly becomes Plato’s book? And all the other books in the world, which were perfectly reasonable a few days ago, are suddenly just shadow-illusions on the cave walls? That’s what happened to me. After a while I gave in. I’m only human.

When I read this book the first time, on my study abroad year, I was enthralled. I skipped all my Friday classes (and I only had classes on Tuesday and Friday) because I couldn’t bear to stop reading long enough to talk about the symbolist imagination. However, I considered it possible in retrospect that this was a function of my state of mind at the time. I was very depressed (bad meds + far from home + constant massive fights with then-boyfriend), and I felt very, very intense about nearly everything I read. I sobbed over Emily of New Moon and thought about how it was all just a Symbol For My Life. I hated We Have Always Lived in the Castle and sobbed because I had no good books to read and that was just a Symbol For My Life. So as you can imagine, I have been doubting the remembered intensity of my The Secret History reading experience. I suspected it would all be much more chill this time around.


The Secret History is about a boy called Richard who goes to a small liberal-arts college in Vermont, joins a strange, exclusive Classics program, and makes friends with the strange, exclusive Classics students, of which there are five apart from him: patrician orphaned twins Charles and Camilla; louche, studious Henry; wealthy Francis with a house in the country; and the bigoted joker Bunny. Richard, who comes from a poorish California family, has made up a complicated mess of lies about his background and is anxious to be friends with all of these people. They become friends, and one thing leads to another, and they end up killing Bunny.

To me, there are few things more suspenseful than stories about people who have committed crimes and might get found out. The Scottish play has me practically screaming with tension every time I read it, and The Secret History is just the same. I was deeply resentful of every life intrusion (work, meals, sleep) that kept me from carrying on reading it straight through. I was even forced to the expedient of reading it while walking to and from work, an activity at which I am very skilled but in which I prefer not to engage, as it reminds me embarrassingly that Past Jenny (in her tween years) felt that reading while walking proved to everyone else that she was above the things of this world. Oh, Past Jenny.

The adjective I would use for this book, and please appreciate that this is a high compliment from me, is elegant. Tartt has a trick of having her characters reveal things casually that shock the narrator and the reader, and at the same time seem perfectly plausible, indeed inevitable. Her characterization is sharp and yet ambiguous enough that you are not sure, when the book ends, who has done what and for what reasons. As Richard wonders about the behavior of each of his friends, you wonder too; you flip back and reread certain passages, trying to tease out the motives of each of the characters in light of what you now know. It’s not showy, the way she does it. It’s elegant.

Plus, you know, as a classics geek, I love it that this book makes Latin students seem super dangerous and dark and edgy. This is not necessarily the typical portrayal of Latin students, but it appeals to me: Watch out for us classics people. We are loose cannons and might push you off a cliff if you cross us. Or we might not. YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW.

In sum, this book is just as gripping as I remembered, and I also think it is an incredibly good book, what with all the writing and the characterization and the making you sympathize with murderers and the LATIN STUDENTS CAN KILL YOU. Read it, please, if you haven’t already. I feel like I have been going around saying lukewarm things about it since reading it a few years ago, when really it deserved raves. If I said something lukewarm to you about this book, disregard it! Listen to me now when I say it is superb and you must read it tomorrow. I would like to turn around and read it all over again, except that would be pushing things a little far, when I have these Dodie Smith memoirs and these amusing Lissa Evans books and Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties sitting on my couch.

When I lent this book to my sister, she said it was basically Special Topics in Calamity Physics with older, less sympathetic characters. This isn’t altogether fair, but there is a certain family resemblance. The Secret History is more tense, and more polished, and I tend to feel that the group of students is better characterized in it than in Special Topics. Special Topics has that raw, intriguing style of writing, and a more twisty and complex plot. I think if you enjoyed one, you’d be fairly likely to enjoy the other; but if you disliked one, it’s still perfectly plausible that you’d like the other.

What other people thought:

things mean a lot
the stacks my destination
Book Snob
reading is my superpower
Stella Matutina
Flight into Fantasy
Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-A-Holic
Six Lit[erate] Chicks
The parenthesis and the footnote
Seriously Reading

Let me know if I missed yours!

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist dystopian satire.  It was sort of a box-tick read, but it was very good, and well-written, and I’m glad I read it and I never ever want to read it again.  In slightly-future America, now a fascist misogynist theocracy called Gilead, Offred (but June, really) is a Handmaid.  This means that she has viable ovaries, and is responsible for producing babies.  Once a month she has sex with the Commander to whom she belongs, and her life is sharply circumscribed – she can’t read, can’t walk in public by herself, can’t talk to other men.

The book is not a straightforward narration of events – what fun would that be, for a Bad Future America?  June’s narration tilts between times, the present and the past and the little she can imagine of her future.  We gradually begin to get a picture of June’s life as a Handmaid – dancing around forbidden subjects with fellow Handmaids and other members of the household, trying to navigate changing relationships with the Commander and his Wife, who used to be an awful Phyllis Schafly person in the time before Gilead became a fascist theocracy.  And June talks about her life before, her husband and daughter, and the events that led up to where she is now, including her time in a women’s indoctrination school.

The Handmaid’s Tale made me feel upset – or, actually, as I have been rigorously trained not to say that anything makes me feel anything, I felt upset when I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  Obviously that’s the point!  I just don’t think I’m going to read it again.  She just makes it seem so viable – they draw a comparison with Iran, and I’ve been reading about Iran, and it’s scary.  Like, June talks about the speed with which she has adapted to her new life: it’s been only a few years, but already she is shocked to see the clothes on women from other countries, skirts to the knee, and lipstick.  I don’t know – June’s life has become so small, even from what it was at the indoctrination school.  Upsetting.

Something else that upset me: June tells stories about her friend Moira, a feminist who went to her same college, and who was at June’s same indoctrination school.  Moira is brave and rebellious – she swears and gossips and escapes from the school – and June admires this.  But still she recognizes that she isn’t as brave as Moira, and she tries to imagine that Moira finds a way to be free.  “Moira is right,” she says, almost at the end.  “I am a wimp.”  (I’m not brave either.)

Oh, but (spoilers here!) there was one of those lovely unresolved endings that I like so much.  I like these because then things always end happily.  In my mind, June escaped and  she found Luke and she went through the Phyllis Schafly person to find her daughter, and then she got her daughter back, and they moved to Canada, the true North strong and free (yeah, I know that song), and lived happily ever after.  I love it when grim books let you decide what happens in the end.

A bit I liked, about the pre-Gilead days:

There were places you didn’t want to walk, precautions you took that had to do with locks on windows and doors, drawing the curtains, leaving on lights.  These things you did like prayers; you did them and you hoped they would save you.  And for the most part they did.  Or something did; you could tell by the fact that you were still alive.

And this, from one of the women who indocrinates June.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia.  Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from.  Don’t underrate it….We seemed to be able to choose, [in the old days].  We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.

The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.  How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable.  They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers.  We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.  It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

I want to read more Margaret Atwood.  I love how she writes.  I only didn’t give this five stars because it gave me a nightmare.  Dammit.  Without even being true!

Other reviews: Book Nut, The Book Lady’s Blog, The Luscious Literary Muse, Books for Breakfast, The Bluestocking Society, Books and Other Stuff, Violet Crush, It’s All About Me, read warbler, things mean a lot, Valentina’s Room, Reading Reflections, In Spring It Is the Dawn, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Rebecca Reads, Boston Bibliophile, and let me know if I missed yours!

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

I got this for Christmas.  Dorothy Parker really liked it, but I didn’t think I would, due to the sadness.  On the other hand, I thought, it has layers, and I like layers.  On the other hand, they are layers of misery and depression and unlikeable characters; which is to say, not my favorite type of layers.

Revolutionary Road is all about this couple, Frank and April Wheeler (I just wrote Frank and Alice.  Twice.  Why does that sound so right?), who used to believe in their own independence of thought and action, but now they are living boring, stifling lives with two children and a white picket fence (so to speak) in 1950s suburbia.  They are always trying to maintain the illusion that they are somehow above these lives, better than their neighbors in some way, so the book is about the breakdown of that illusion.  Frank, who is in more denial about its illusory nature than April (I wrote Alice again!  Is there a couple called Frank and Alice that I can’t think of?), is the one whose point of view you get throughout the book.  And anyway they decide to move to Paris to escape from being boring.

See, it’s nifty.  It’s all about the ways that your freedom leads you into captivity, the tiny reasons for the things you choose, and how they can set you down a path to entrapment and stagnation.  Like, okay, when April gets pregnant with their first child, she comes to Frank and tells him all the steps she’s taken to finding how to abort it.  And Frank doesn’t want the baby either, but he’s mad that she acted so independently of him, so he decides to make a fuss about it, and they end up keeping the baby.  Which he didn’t want in the first place.  Voila, they are halfway to their life of suburban misery.  It’s that tension between freedom and confinement that drives the book.  All very interesting.

I really, really, really didn’t expect to like Revolutionary Road.  The whole time I was reading it, I was trying to think up interesting things to say about it, so that when the person who gave it to me asked whether I liked it, I’d be able to deflect the question by being insightful without actually saying whether I enjoyed it or not.  And for a while I really didn’t like it, because Frank and Alice – GOD.  Frank and April – just weren’t doing anything, apart from fighting and moaning about how lame their lives were.

BUT.  SPOILERS.  I read the end (after I’d got about ten pages in), so I knew April was going to abort her baby and die.  And that actually made the whole book much better, knowing that.  (My philosophy is proven right once again!)  Because Revolutionary Road is a tragedy, where you know it’s all going to end badly, but still, it always seems like it could turn out well – or at least okayish.  She is putting so much momentum into going to Paris, and you think it has to work out, because she wants it so much.  But no.  Too bad for her.  Anyway I don’t know if I will ever read this again, but it ended up being a really good book.  I copied a great big long passage of it into my commonplace book.

Longbottom.  Frank and Alice Longbottom.  Quite right too.

Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh

This weekend I did a lot of things I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, including covering my paperbacks with contact paper.  And in the process of doing this, I got started reading Harriet the Spy, which I haven’t read for ages and ages.  What a good book it is!  Harriet is an eleven-year-old girl who wants to be a spy, and she goes around spying on people and writing down everything she sees, and trying to figure out grown-ups.

I identified so strongly with Harriet when I was a kid.  I once got into huge trouble for writing a mean note to this girl in my class (she was called Jenny also, which may have contributed to my irritation with her), and after my principal fussed at me for an hour and said my note was chilling and made me cry, I got home and my mother said “So what we’ve learned is – never put anything in writing.”  A lesson I took much to heart.  I completely stopped writing my stories down on paper and took to writing everything on the computer, in documents with long complicated passwords; and when I reread Harriet the Spy not long after, I felt superior to Harriet.  Silly, silly Harriet, I remember thinking, putting things in writing when she clearly should not.

One thing Ms. Fitzhugh does terribly well is to convey how confusing adults are.  The adults in this book are completely incomprehensible, which is so true about being a kid, that thing of often not having any idea at all what all the grownups are on about.  And asking questions was so frustrating because they didn’t understand what you were really asking.  That comes through nicely in this book.  If you’ve never read it (which hardly seems possible), you should read it.  It cemented the nothing-in-writing lesson for me, and as well taught me about Dostoevsky at a very young age.  Harriet the Spy.  Check it out.  The Long Secret is also quite good, but I didn’t like the book about Sport.  Whatever it was called.

Henry VI, Part II, William Shakespeare

Ah, this is more like it.  Not – you know – exactly like it, but more.  Much more political intrigue than fighting battles, and that always makes for a jollier play.  It’s all about the political machinations going on around Henry VI’s rule – everybody wants to rebel against everybody else. Gloucester wants to carry on being Lord Protector but the queen and her lover don’t want that because they want to be the power behind the throne.  The Duke of York and his pals want Henry deposed, because they feel that their claim to the throne is superior – which, in case you’re interested, it really is. Everyone is doing evil things, and it ends up with York sending King Henry running back to London. I know nothing good is coming for King Henry.

Once again, this play isn’t as together as future plays will be, and that could have to do with its being a history play.  Maybe Shakespeare just didn’t feel comfortable leaving out John Cade’s rebellion, given when it happened, so he had to stick it in and use it as comic relief even though it didn’t really fit with a lot of the other stuff that was going on.  I should read some of his later history plays and see how he does with those.  It was interesting to see shades of later plays here – cryptic prophecies and Gloucester’s power-hungry wife are clearly going to grow into Macbeth, the changeability of a rebellious crowd is much like Coriolanus, which I recall not liking as much as I liked Henry VI, Part II (though to be fair I read Coriolanus when I was depressed, so it may be better than I thought it was).

Holy Mother of God, King Henry is such a Victorian maiden auntie in this! He’s all, Oh, nobody could ever possibly do anything wrong, and when something bad happens, you know what he does, do you know? He passes out! Excuse me, swoons. The man swoons. I’m not even kidding. He swoons because he’s Miss Drusilla Clack. Oh, and then when he revives, he’s all weepy and hysterical and he’s all like Nobody talk to me, okay, I’m having my sad time right now! And when people try to talk to him he’s like LEAVE ME ALONE LEAVE ME ALONE LEAVE ME ALONE. What a wuss. No wonder the Plantagenets took over.

But parts of this play were so, so funny. Like, like when Warwick is accusing Suffolk of killing Humphrey, and Suffolk’s really angry about it, and he says (I’m paraphrasing here) Your mother was a big slut!, and Warwick gets angry back and says (again, I paraphrase), That would make me angry if I didn’t know that the real truth was that your mother was the big slut, you bastard son of a great big slut. Hahahaha, they got into the your-mama jokes. Classic.

Oo, and the bit where John Cade (he’s a Commie rebel from Kent) was doing his demagogue thing, and there were all these comments from the peanut gallery while he’s giving his speech, and then he knights himself – it’s obviously comic relief and everything, but all the bits with John Cade in are very funny. Did you know this is the play from which we have “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”? I did not know this.  Here is part of the John Cade bits:

It can be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear … Away with him, away with him!  He speaks Latin.

Teehee.  But there were also some lines I really liked – “Let him shun castles” is oddly haunting for something so short, and I found this quite creepy:

Patience, good lady; wizards know their times;
Deep night, dark night, the silence of the night,
The time of night when Troy was set on fire;
The time when screech-owls cry and barn-dogs howl,
And spirits walk, and ghosts break up their graves,
That time best fits the work we have in hand.

There were others but I’ve just spent ages copying them all down in my commonplace book, and now I am too tired to write them all over again here.  You will just have to trust me when I tell you that Shakespeare?  He is hitting his stride.

Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirlees

And once again, I have Neil Gaiman to thank for some charming fantasy reading.  First Martin Millar (darling Martin Millar! My only, only regret about my recent abandonment of graduate school is that I can now no longer use the university’s interlibrary loan system to acquire for myself the rest of Martin Millar’s out-of-print books), and now Lud-in-the-Mist, to which, I have to say, I believe Stardust owes a hefty debt.  I’m always so pleased when I discover that Neil Gaiman has stolen his ideas or plots, mainly because the man is about ten thousand times more weirdly creative than any normal person needs to be, and I’m very envious, and I feel better about myself when I notice that he does the same thing I do – and everyone does, but since I admire Neil Gaiman so much as a writer it’s especially validating to see it in him – of swiping excellent ideas from other people’s books.

Lud-in-the-Mist is about a town called Lud-in-the-Mist in the fictional country of Dorimare, which borders on the realms of Faerie but legally denies the existence of these realms.  Everyone hates fairy things, because of the Law, and they’re not allowed to eat fairy fruit or talk about fairy things, and they definitely don’t ever go into the wicked fairy realms.  Such things got banished.  But then the Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist discovers that his son’s acting all crazy, and then more and more crazy (fairy-fruit related) things keep happening, and everything descends into chaos.  And it seems that this shady character called Endymion Leer is behind it all.

I love the names in this book!  They’re all Endymion Leer and Nathaniel Chanticleer and Mumchance and Portunus.  And the book itself is delightful – it’s funny in places and haunting in places, and Hope Mirlees has an excellent turn of phrase.  I wrote down almost as many bits of Lud-in-the-Mist in my commonplace book as I did of The Napoleon of Notting-Hill lo these many years ago (why is G.K. Chesterton so crazy awesome?).

Yummy.  Read it.

(I am coming to the end of my commonplace book, which makes me sad.  My eighth-grade English teacher gave me it after our school’s big anthology won a prize at English Day (I was its editor), and since I’m not a big writer-in-journals, I didn’t use it for ages, and I felt way guilty about it because my eighth-grade English teacher was so, so nice to me.  And then one day during a Shakespeare unit in one of my high school English classes, I went home and wrote down that line from Romeo and Juliet – “And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now” – which made tim sneer, sneery tim, but which I completely love – and the rest is history.  I’ll be sad to get another commonplace book when I’ve been with this one so long.)

Oh, I forgot to say – my one complaint about Lud-in-the-Mist was that it was a wee bit on the sexist side.  More than a wee bit.  None of the female characters are very realized – it’s a fairy tale, so the characters aren’t meant to be incredibly vivid, but the women never do anything but react to what their menfolk are doing.  Plus the main character, Nathaniel Chanticleer?  His daughter disappears into the fairy realm early on in the book, but he hardly even mentions that; when his son gets taken into the realm of fairy he’s like I WILL GO AND FIND HIM AND WILL NOT RETURN UNLESS I RETURN WITH MY BELOVED DEAREST SON.  He happens to rescue his daughter along the way, but I swear he doesn’t even notice because he’s so hell-bent on rescuing his son.  Lame.

Otherwise, good!  Thanks, Neil Gaiman – it saw me through some of the endless days I have to survive before I get to read The Graveyard Book.  (Next up on my distractions-until-The-Graveyard-Book: The Red House Mystery.  If I read it very slowly on purpose and take lots of breaks to cross-stitch and write my stories, that and whatever else I’m rereading – eyeing The Book Thief but not sure I’m up for the emotional commitment – should get me through until Chalice is released next week, and then it’ll only be another fortnight before The Graveyard Book.

Other views:

Darla at Books & Other Thoughts
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
Brief remarks by Neil Gaiman
Michael Dirda’s essay on it, which I really like

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:”Please, sir, I want some more.”

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralyzed with wonder; the boys with fear.

“What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.

“Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.”

Ah, yes, the famous wants-more-gruel kid. What a freak.

I actually picked up Oliver Twist and The English Governess in the Siamese Court at the same book sale in Maine one year, thinking I should try Dickens and also thinking that Anna Leonowens would be as good a writer as she evidently was a singer, and they were both such a depressing disappointment to me. I believe I gave the latter away years ago, but I kept the little orange copy of Oliver Twist, I suppose because it was small and portable, and now I am reading it for my Victorians class (lucky me).

When I read this book at age nine, I was vastly unimpressed, and it put me off Dickens for life. Apparently when I bought it in Maine, my mum tried to discourage me from reading it because she was afraid it would have this exact effect on me, and it really, really has. Apart from The Christmas Carol, I have never again had the slightest temptation to pick up a book by Charles Dickens. I have heard good things about The Pickwick Papers and a few people have had positive things to say about Great Expectations, and my mother has always maintained that David Copperfield is a genuinely excellent book, but I just haven’t bothered to read them. To be honest, if Oliver Twist is a fair sampling, I think Wilkie Collins had a vastly better grasp on the serial form than Charles Dickens (sorry, canon!), and I am much more in love with The Moonstone and The Woman in White than I believe I shall ever be with Mr. Dickens and his nonsense.

The only thing I remember about Oliver Twist from when I was nine is the scene where Bill Sikes calls and calls his dog and the dog won’t come.  That and deep disgust and a lasting annoyance that everyone in middle school (except me!) had to read Great Expectations when there were many better books from that time period (like Jane Eyre).  Actually I am still annoyed about that.

I liked Oliver Twist better this time around. I imagine that at nine I missed all the irony. There’s a lot of irony. It was funny in bits.  I loved the scene of the Artful Dodger in court.  I liked it when Mr. Grimwig says “It’s a trying thing waiting supper for lovers.”  So true, and I love the word “trying”.

I found the middle bits aggravating. All the stuff at the Maylie household – is it me, or was Mr. Dickens phoning it in to give himself some time in which to decide what he wanted to do with Nancy and Oliver and how (or if) he wanted to connect them with the Maylie family.  Damn boring to read.  And I didn’t like that entire thing with Oliver and Monks and his inheritance; went on for too long, and was much too contrived, as well as being boring as hell so you went through all this boringness hoping it was going to turn out interesting in the end, and it didn’t.

And now a word about soap operas and newspaper serials.

In soap operas, it takes ages for anyone to get to the point. For instance, on Guiding Light one time, Reva got cloned. I was completely hooked on this whole Reva clone thing (indeed it was the plotline that started me watching Guiding Light), because it turned out (shockingly enough) that the original Reva had not been killed in a plane crash but was alive and living on a desert island, from which she eventually returned. BUT while she had been gone, her grief-stricken husband Josh had had her cloned, and the scientist who cloned her also very conveniently had aging potion that would age the clone to proper Reva age, and the clone-Reva had fallen desperately in love with Josh and would do anything, anything to keep him!  And Reva finally got back to Springfield and the clone imprisoned her!  For a very long time in a secret cupboard and wouldn’t let her out, until! until! until Josh finally found her and they were reunited (joy!), and then the clone, seeing their true pure love, nobly took all the rest of her aging potion so that she aged to Very Old Indeed and promptly died, thereby leaving original Reva and Josh to celebrate their love forever.

But it took a long time for that to happen. In terms of plot advancement, very little would happen in one episode. Like, maybe in one episode the real Reva would hear the news that she had been cloned. Lots of dramatic music and talking about what she should do next. And that would be the plot advancement for that episode. Maybe the next day Reva wouldn’t even be on the show. Maybe that day would be completely focused on Harley and Philip (who I believe were together at this time). Maybe you’d see clone-Reva spending time with Josh.

Oliver Twist is exactly like that. Increments of plot advancement that aren’t very interesting in themselves, and then whole chapters where you’re just chilling with some characters that you aren’t awfully interested in because your main focus is when is Oliver going to get back to his old nursey. And then a few chapters where a very big thing that you’ve been waiting and waiting for finally happens.  Like Bill Sikes dying.

Basically, Oliver Twist would be better if it contained love-crazed clones. Hence the two stars – is it okay to give a classic two stars?  But I guess that’s true of everything.