‘Aeneid Book VI’ by Virgil – Translated by Seamus Heaney

 

‘Aeneid Book VI’ by Virgil    (Somewhere between 29 BC and 19 BC)    94 pages     Translated by Seamus Heaney

 

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‘Aeneid – Book VI’, this translation of the Roman poet Virgil, is the last work of the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney who died in 2013.

Most of the mythology that I have read before have been translations of the Greek, so this Roman work by Virgil was new to me.  I was amazed though how closely it followed the Greek stories.  Aeneas and his surviving band of Trojans who suffered their terrible defeat from the Spartans at the battle of Troy have landed their boat on the Italian coast.

Aeneas discovers that his father Anchises has died.  Aeneas asks the Sibyl if he can cross the river Styx to talk to his father one last time.  The Sibyl tells him that it is easy to descend into the Underworld land of the dead, “but to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, that is the task, that is the undertaking.  Only a few have prevailed.”

Aeneas must descend to death’s deepest reaches to see and talk to his father.  The ferryman Charon navigates his barge through the waters of the river Styx to take him there.   Along the way we are given a guided tour of Hades.  First we meet those who have not yet been buried – the shades – who are not allowed on Charon’s barge.

“Not until bones have found a last resting place will shades be let across these gurgling currents, their doom instead to wander and haunt about the banks for a hundred years.” 

Later Aeneas does meet his father who gives him plenty of pompous advice.

“So now I will instruct you in what is to be,

The future glory of the Trojan race,

Descendants due to be born in Italia,

Souls who will in time make our name illustrious –

I speak of them to reveal your destiny to you.”

So, according to Virgil, the glory of Rome was due to the descendants of this scraggly band of survivors led by Aeneas who escaped the far-off battle of Troy.  This is preposterous, but aren’t myths usually preposterous?

Those of you who have read Seamus Heaney’s translations of ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Burial at Thebes’ know how sensitive and intelligent a translator he was.  Of course this Book VI of the Aeneid is mainly concerned with a trip through Hell visiting the dead and learning about posterity.  Thus this is a melancholy austere work.  It is somber  and  not particularly fun, but if you are the type who enjoys reading the ancient myths in close to their original form, you will want to read this stately poetic book.

Journey of Aeneas

Journey of Aeneas

 

 

Grade:   A-

 

‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’ by Lydia Millet – My Shifting Assessments of Lydia Millet’s Novels

 

‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’ by Lydia Millet    (2016) – 250 pages

 

41ozBGZ4DcLI can think of not a single writer whose novels have caused more widely varying reactions from me than Lydia Millet.  The highs have been high; the lows have been so low.

So far I have read the following four novels by Lydia Millet:  ‘Ghost Lights’, ‘Oh Pure and Radiant Heart’, ‘Magnificence’, and now ‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’.

I found ‘Ghost Lights’ to be quite appealing.  At the time I read ‘Ghost Lights’, I wrote:

“A ‘Go To’ writer doesn’t have to go overboard to achieve his or her stories’ effects but is supremely confident, and we readers relax and let the writer’s steady hand at the wheel guide us.  Lydia Millet is comfortable enough in her own talent that she can be absurdist and realistic at the same time.”

At that time I was expecting a long and comfortable future sojourn of reading Millet’s novels.  It didn’t work out that way.

The next Millet novel I read, ‘Oh Pure and Radiant Heart’, was a definite step down for me.   This novel was a low comedy featuring the three atomic bomb scientists Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard. Though the novel is at times compelling, the main characters came across for me here as cartoonish and thus unable to sustain such a long novel.

Then I read ‘Magnificence’.  Even though ‘Magnificence’ was a sequel to the brilliant ‘Ghost Lights’, none of the mundane characters in the muddled interior monologue of this novel sustained my interest.  I selected this novel as one of my two worst reads of 2012.

So now we come to today’s Lydia Millet novel, ‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’.   In ‘Sweet Lamb of Heaven’, two separate stories are going on.  The first is a straightforward story of a sociopath politician husband harassing and using his wife and daughter for political gain.  This portrait of a Tea Party politician from Alaska is quite accurate and effective.

“Ned’s bible-thumping friends think they’re right and all others are wrong – their powerful fear of other groups that turns to hatred and plays into the hands of the profiteers.  But the profiteers themselves, with their millions of tentacles sunk deep into every crack in the earth, don’t give a shit about being right.  They’re powerful.”

The second paranormal plot of the mother having auditory hallucinations is much more difficult for me to accept or appreciate.  The mother and daughter flee from the sociopath politician husband to a Maine hotel where all of the guests as well as the hotel manager happen to hear voices.  Somehow these people have all gathered (coincidentally?) at this one hotel.  They speak of “an ambient language that underlies life” and of “the background orchestration of the deeper language”. The hotel occupants even talk of the Hearing Voices Movement.

Unfortunately this New Age-y metaphysical stuff just flies right through my head and out the other side.

But I still believe that in time Lydia Millet will write another brilliant novel on the order of ‘Ghost Lights’.

 

Grade:    B-

 

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera – You Don’t Mess with Makina

 

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera   (2009) –   107 pages     Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman

 

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‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ is a tough little Western novella written in distinctive heroic prose.  Every sentence has a fearless attitude.

The young lady Makina is on a mission for her mother.  She lives in the middle of Mexico, but she must cross the border into the grim and foreboding United States.

“Her mother, Cora, had called her and said Go and take this paper to your brother.  I don’t like to send you, child, but who else can I trust it to, a man?”

First Makina must meet up with a few shady guys including Mr. Aitch who “smiled and smiled, but he was still a reptile in pants”.

Here are the rules Makina lives by and which make her respected in her Village:

“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.

You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business. 

You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.

You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”   

Then she must go to the Big Chilango, Mexico City.  You don’t mess with Makina; just ask the young guy who tried to grope her on the bus.  Later she will cross via inner tube the Rio Grande River where she will encounter the contempt of some roughneck Anglo bastards. Of course many of the people she meets on the northern side of the border are both homegrown (from Mexico) and Anglo.  The story maintains an epic heroic quality that is only partially diminished toward the end.

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ was the surprise winner of the Best Translated Book Award for this year, deservedly so.  The translator Lisa Dillman should be recognized, because her translation of this novella is a sustained performance.  I have no doubt that the novella itself is a fine piece of work, but the difficulty here is to translate not only the words but the attitude.  It is the singular voice of the narrator of the story that gives this novella its edge. At times the language is strange and unique, and the translator had to come up with her own made-up words.  For example the invented words ‘to verse’ are used to signify someone leaving or exiting as in “She opened the door and versed”.

I can almost guarantee you that once you have read the first few pages of this sharp novella, you will be happy you chose it to read.

 

Grade:    A-

 

‘At the Edge of the Orchard’ by Tracy Chevalier – Misfortunes and Frolics on the American Frontier

 

‘At the Edge of the Orchard’ by Tracy Chevalier    (2016) –   285 pages

 

$_1One of the mistakes that too many novelists make is to have all their choice villain roles filled by males.  The women are all too often depicted as wooden paragons of virtue.  This is particularly true of frontier novels where the family is already up against the harsh natural elements.  ‘At the Edge of the Orchard’ by Tracy Chevalier is refreshing in that one of its main female characters is unexpectedly truly nasty and vile in many ways.   That fact alone makes ‘Orchard’ an inherently more interesting novel.

I was a bit behind the times with Chevalier as I still saw her as an author of European novels like her ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which is about Dutch painter Johannes Van Meer and the girl in his famous painting.  ‘Orchard’ is a novel of the American frontier which takes places in the 1830s and 1840s and 1850s mostly in Ohio and California.  It is a bit of a surprise for me to see her taking on the primitive rough simple lives of the early American pioneers.

I have found that Tracy Chevalier excels in character-driven story telling in her fiction.  This is the third novel of hers that I have read, the other two being ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘Remarkable Creatures’.  Part of that story-telling ability is that she gives her characters, both male and female, the freedom to misbehave.  It is always fun to read about obnoxious or frivolous people.

The characters in her stories make Chevalier’s fiction come alive.  Just like in Charles Dickens, we are given a wide range of spirited characters, some of them likeable and some of them despicable, all of them memorable.

In ‘Orchard’ we start out with a frontier family in the 1830s trying to make a go of it in the wilds of western Ohio.  They plant apple trees.  The family name is Goodenough which is such an eloquent name; I’ve known some Goodenoughs in my time.  The mother Sadie has twelve babies, seven of which die young from the various fevers and diseases.  John Chapman, otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed, visits their farm.

Later we go out to California for the gold rush with one of the sons, Robert.  At the point where he leaves Ohio, I was so fascinated by the Ohio story that I wished Chevalier had continued there rather than moving on to California.  Later, the California story also becomes engaging in its own right due to the offbeat characters.

I do believe that Tracy Chevalier has the gift of Charles Dickens for presenting a variety of colorful characters in all their charming and wicked glories.

 

Grade:    A-            

‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives – Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense’

 

‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives – Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense’  (2013) – 352 pages

 

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All of the crime stories in ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’ are written by women, and all were written between 1940 and 1979.  This time frame corresponds somewhat to the noir era, but extends beyond it.

One landmark in crime fiction written by women must have been when Alfred Hitchcock in 1951 purchased ‘Strangers on a Train’, the first novel by Patricia Highsmith. As usual, Hitchcock kept his name out of the negotiations to keep the purchase price low, and he paid just $7,500 for the novel.  Highsmith was quite annoyed when she later discovered who bought the rights for such a small amount.   The film is now considered a classic.  Patricia Highsmith does have the first story in this collection.

I was familiar before with only four of these fourteen story writers:  Patricia Highsmith (‘Carol’), Shirley Jackson (‘The Lottery’), Vera Caspary (‘Laura’), and Dorothy B. Hughes (‘The Expendable Man’).  One of the nice things about the collection is that a short biography is included for each author before their story.

Here is a list of the woman writers who were unknown to me in this collection: Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Helen Nielsen, Joyce Harrington, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Margaret Millar, Miriam Allen Deford, and Celia Fremlin.

So who were these women mystery writers?  Most of them wrote short stories for mystery magazines such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, or Manhunt.  They competed to win Edgar awards.  When television became popular, scripts were needed for the weekly shows, and some of the early series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, and Perry Mason bought scripts from independent writers.  If a writer was successful writing short stories and/or scripts, they might produce a novel.  I suppose crime fiction was a way for woman authors to write about the rough side of life.

For me, reading a good anthology of stories is a delectable experience.  I deliberately read the stories out of order, juxtaposing short stories with long stories, stories by familiar authors with unfamiliar authors, until I complete the whole book.  Each story is a new adventure just waiting for me.

Not every story in ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’ was a total winner for me.    Some of the stories are heavy on plot but thin on character development.  In some of the stories the authors seem to be so busy dealing with the contortions of the plot that the characters remain rather sketchy.  I am not going to rank my reactions to each story since part of the fun of reading an anthology collection is deciding for yourself which stories you like and which you don’t care for so much.

Overall, I consider ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’ a good anthology experience, and if you are at all interested in the evil that females can do or can imagine, you will enjoy it.

 

Grade:   B+

 

‘Mothering Sunday – A Romance’ by Graham Swift – A Perfect Novella

 

‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift   (2016) – 177 pages

 

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“Once upon a time…”  Thus  ‘Mothering Sunday’ begins that old reliable way, and by its end it fulfills my ideal of the perfect novella.

It is a simple story with broad insights into maids, class, love, sex, war, and writing.  It takes place on Sunday March 30, 1924.  Two rooms in the Sheringham manor have been left unchanged since two of their sons left for World War I never to return.  Remaining son to the manor-born Paul Sheringham is soon to be married to his arranged fiancé.  However the day is Mothering Sunday which is the one English day of the year on which domestic servants are given a holiday, and this is Paul’s last chance to dally in bed with the next-door neighbors’ household maid Jane Fairfield, his secret lover for the past six years.  All is told from the maid’s point of view.

‘Mothering Sunday’ captures the sunny ambiance of an unseasonably warm spring day in the Twenties and the sparks of an illicit but romantic love affair.

“It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feeling of being alive.”  

During the course of the story, we learn Jane Fairfield’s entire biography via flashbacks and flash-forwards from her days in an orphanage up to the time when she is 98 years old and a renowned writer.  As the years go by, the world changes, and new opportunities open up even for a girl who was born as a foundling.   Thank heaven that things are not set in concrete.

“Many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all.”

I completed ‘Mothering Sunday’ in one day, and I am not a fast reader.  Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with that other recent English romantic novella, ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan.  I believe ‘Mothering Sunday’ will hold up very well in the comparison.   From his early novels such as ‘Shuttlecock’ and ‘Waterland’, Graham Swift has been writing excellent unique novels that defy expectations.  Perhaps Swift has been underrated in recent years, but ‘Mothering Sunday’ should change all that.

‘Mothering Sunday’ is a good-natured exquisitely written small slice of life from the 1920s.  I can hardly wait for the movie.

 

Grade:   A   

 

‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo – Can One Complain About a Lack of Warmth in a Cryonics Novel?

 

‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo    (2016) – 274 pages

 

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It is not that I lack appreciation for Don DeLillo’s previous work.  I consider his three novels ‘White Noise’, ‘Libra’, and ‘Mao II’ among the finest totally captivating modern fiction I have read.  Somehow I still haven’t gotten to ‘Underworld’ which is supposed to be his ultimate masterpiece.

“In ‘Mao II’, DeLillo said, “Stories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror”.  DeLillo has confronted the all-encompassing horrors and frights of our modern world for his entire career from Hitler studies (‘White Noise’) to the Kennedy assassination (‘Libra’) to global terrorism (‘Mao II’).

However his new cryonics novel ‘Zero K’ did not work for me.  Sorry.

I fully expect that many of the robber barons of the 21st century, after gloriously partaking in all the good and great things in this short life, now are doing all imaginable to extend that life beyond its mortal limits.  If that means having their bodies frozen in a cryonic chamber until a cure for death can be found, so be it.

“Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”  

First, here are some facts about the reality of cryonics.  Way back in 1967, James Bedford was the first person put in successful cryonic suspension by the actual non-profit Alcor Foundation of Scottsdale, Arizona which is the largest cryonics organization in the world.  He is still waiting to be thawed.  Perhaps the most famous person to be suspended there is baseball Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams.   The Alcor Corporation currently holds 52 whole bodies and 94 human brains in suspension.

So the idea of cryonics has been around for at least 50 years.  DeLillo personalizes his cryonics story by putting his fully developed fictional characters in this situation.

DeLillo’s novel ‘Zero K’ mainly takes place in far-off Kyrgyzstan where an operation called Convergence has built a cryonics compound.  Wealthy businessman Ross Lockhart has brought his ailing wife here to be frozen.  Ross’s son Jeffrey accompanies them, and he tells the story.

“At some point in the future, death will become unacceptable even as the life of the planet becomes more fragile.”

Much of the dialogue in ‘Zero K’ consists of such pronouncements, and many of the scenes are apocalyptic visions rather than actual events.  All of these disembodied voices and images make the novel seem distant and cold, and I never did warm up to these characters.

The major part of the novel which takes place at the compound in Kyrgyzstan is at least susceptible to human understanding, stark and cold but still comprehensible.   However I found the later scenes that take place in New York to be a pointless portentous muddle.

By all means read Don DeLillo, because he is for sure one of the modern great fiction writers, but once again perhaps you might skip ‘Zero K’.

 

 Grade:   C+ 

 

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