Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, May 29, 2009

"The Aeneid" by Virgil

I'm sure you all know the story. Aeneas, a hero of Troy, escapes its sacking by the Greeks and sets sail with a group of noble refugees, guided by his mother Venus. The first half of the book covers their travels that eventually take them to Italy; the second half vividly describes the gory battle scenes that take place as the new arrivals skirmish with the previous inhabitants of the land. This is another book I thought I had read in high school, but now I'm not so sure. I am also not sure how this epic fits with the story of the twins Romulus and Remus who are also credited with founding Rome. They were briefly mentioned in this book but it was unclear as to whether they came before Aeneas, who merely later added his seed to the lineage, or if the twins were on the scene in years following Aeneas, or if they are separate and mutually exclusive myths. Either way, I thought it was appropriate that I began to read this book on my way to Rome.

As poetry, this story seemed exceedingly prolix. I would think that a message just as forceful and exalted could have been presented in a poem more the length of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (a long poem, to be sure, but nowhere near a 331-page epic).

When I first picked the book up, I inwardly scoffed at the glossary at the back (containing mainly the names of people and places), but as I read I found myself referring to that index multiple times. Without the glossary I would have had a bit of trouble remembering the difference between the Danaans (the Greeks) and the Dardans (the Trojans)--definitely an important distinction, but a difficult one to remember due to the similarity of their names. However, at other times, as during battle scenes, unless a key character was being discussed, I found it didn't matter much who they were talking about.

It is notable that, although I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book to others as an enjoyable read, the last few pages were downright suspenseful for me! Aeneas and his enemy Turnus were locked in single combat, and until the very last lines, I wasn't quite sure who would win!

Monday, May 25, 2009

"Given", poems by Wendell Berry

I first came across author Wendell Berry in my Most Awesome First Saturday Book Club when we read his novel, The Memory of Old Jack. When I saw that he had published a book of poems, my interest was piqued; and when I read on the cover that "for those who believe that life and the world are gifts, this is an invaluable book," I was hooked.

I have been sampling these poems bit by bit for over a month now. I find I can not sit down and devour a book of poetry from cover to cover the way I can a novel. Perhaps because poetry is too rich. I have enjoyed reading a selection each morning as I eat breakfast.

Some of my brief favorites:


If you imagine
others are there,
you are there yourself.

I disagree, but what a profound thought!

Seventy Years

Well, anyhow, I am
not going to die young.

That's one way to look at it! Is it an optomistic outlook on the future, or looking on the bright side of the present? Really, this is just a twist on saying "I am old," which is not so optimistic after all.

A Position

I'm philosophically opposed to iced drinks;
Last should equal first, for a man who thinks.

Maybe that one isn't so profound, but there is a smart truth in it.

A Passing Thought

I think therefore
I think I am.

This one makes me laugh! Especially since I find this take more logical than Descartes' Cogito, ergo sum. I had always agreed with the original, but now I see that thinking really is not proof of existence as I had originally... thought!

The ongoing Holy War against evil

Stop the killing, or
I'll kill you, you
God-damned murderer!

Definitely a statement on America and our presence in the Middle East in this "war that is not a war" even though soldiers and death are involved. But he's right. Killing is killing. Why do we justify some of it (ours) and not others of it (theirs)? One possible explanation I can see is that killing soldiers is justifiable because they have signed up for that possibility, but killing civilians is never acceptable. Even so, that does not sit well.

"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote

I became interested in reading this book because I watched the movie Capote. This movie was not an adaptation of the book in question, but it took place during the time that Capote was writing it, and the movie piqued my interest in the story of the murdered Clutter family. I had written this book down on my "list of books I should read" but was never interested enough to seek out a copy to read until I was looking for books to bring with me on my trip.

I must be honest and say that this book was rather dry and dull. It satisfied my morbid curiosity about the murders, but I had to force myself to read it; I did not look forward to picking it up, and I never had trouble putting it down. In fact, if I had not had a limited number of books available to me on my trip, I may not have read it at all. Not only that, but I read synopses for five other Capote books listed at the end of this one, and none of those sounded any good to me either.

One interesting difference between the book and the movie: unless I am remembering incorrectly, the movie left one with the idea that the guilt of the two men convicted of the Clutter murders was in question, whereas the book made it clear that the two men were undoubtedly the guilty parties.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Atonement" by Ian McEwan

I chose this book to take on a trip with me, and I'm pretty sure I judged it by its cover in order to make my selection. I had never heard of the author, the book, or even the movie adaptation that was released in 2007.

It took me longer than usual to "get into" this book but by the time I'd read half of it I found it was a really good read. By the end I had great respect for this novel.

It was interesting the way I was allowed to see into the mind of a writer (mainly with the narrator, Briony, but also briefly with Robbie) as they attempted to figure out how to express emotion on paper.

I usually don't care for war movies or books but, although the second part of this book was set during World War II, it really did not delve into any battle scenes (though it did cover their aftermath) or war strategy, so the plot was able to maintain my interest.

Once I finished reading the book, I could not wait to see the movie. It is often that way when I know a book I've enjoyed is being transformed into a movie--I am eager to see what they've done with it, to see if they've envisioned it as I have. There are always some parts I look forward to seeing just because I can not imagine how they could possibly translate to screen; I guess most often I come to find that those parts have either been left out or have been altered beyond recognition, but I always tend to hope for the best.

The "Afterword" of this novel (set in 1999) was at first something between disappointing and heartwrenching, but even though it was somewhat of a shock--seeming to hit me in the pit of my stomach--it was, at the same time, so right; it's as if I knew that was the way it was, the way it had to be. It had an air of inevitability, of finality, and a ring of truth. You finally see that the novel itself is the "atonement" spoken of in the title, and that Briony has spent her entire life working towards it.

The end of my copy of this book gave perhaps a half-dozen brief introductions to some of McEwan's other works, and just about all of them sound very interesting to me. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that our local library will have at least some of them (though I'm not holding my breath).

Friday, May 22, 2009

"The Glass Castle: A Memoir" by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle drew me in from almost the first page. It had a tendency, of course, to be horrifying, as so many novels written for adults seem to be, but somehow through all of the terrible situations the author was forced to live through as a child, she was able to infuse the novel with humor. I actually found myself laughing out loud a few times.

At the beginning of The Glass Castle I found a quote from a Dylan Thomas poem entitled "Poem on His Birthday," and one line caught my eye: "Dark is a way and light is a place." To me, that speaks of darkness being a journey, something to pass through, something to be endured, something temporary; and light, the destination, the goal, a place of security and quiet joy. After having read the novel, I find that this line (and my take on it) definitely applies here.