Saturday, June 6, 2009

Thoughts on THE ILIAD

Tonight I finished listening to THE ILIAD of Homer on audiobook. First I listened to a great audio course from The Teaching Company, taught by Elizabeth Vandiver, on The Iliad, then I listened to the poem itself. So the Trojan War has occupied my commute and my walks for weeks now. I wish I was studying the poem in a classroom setting and could discuss it with other interested students. For a poem purportedly written some 2800 years ago about events thought to take place 3400 years ago, so much of it feels startlingly contemporary. To put myself in a place where I could appreciate it best, I tried in my limited way to set aside whatever cultural biases were incongruous with Homer's (if there was a Homer. I know.) and let myself be led by the values manifest in the text. I tried to understand Achilles as a hero and as a wrathful figure, whose first wrath was for bruised honor and whose later wrath was caused by inconsolable grief. I wondered why he remained heroic, though his inaction cost the Greeks so much. I tried to see his actions through the lens of a different code of ethics, one valuing devotion to a panoply of gods at war with each other; one where Fate could be blamed for all things; one prizing retribution and conquest. I tried to understand the motivation for the war. Was it really Helen? All the jargon from the Greeks in the beginning about avenging her cries of pain when she was raped by Paris don't seem to gel at all with the relationship between Helen and Paris. In the Odyssey she refers to herself as a whore for her adulterous union with him. So which was it? Does it matter? Was it about woman as property? Or was that simply a justification for land and wealth conquest? The scope of the war was baffling -- so much time, so much cost, so much death. How does any of it make sense?

Things I loved: the sumptuous language. The richness of metaphor. The gruesomeness of battle details. The vividly memorable and wholly human characters. The many moments of deep pathos. Laugh out loud moment: Zeuss's praise for Hera's sex appeal. Unforgettable images: Achilles' battle yell in the ditch with a cap of fire, his chasing Hector around the city, his battle with the river. Priam's grief, Hector's valor, Patroclus's courage, Aegamemnon's waffling, Hecuba's pleading, Odysseus's arrogance, Hera's cunning, Athene's ruthlessness. The starkness of specific details which carry the ring of truth. The deep complexity of Achilles -- a contemplative musician, a devoted friend, an arrogant boaster, an invincible warrior, a citizen of his community and an exception to the rules of community, a servant of the gods and an impious slaughterer, one who honors and desecrates, one unable to forgive, yet one who fully forgives and empathizes.

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

I realize I may be the last person on the planet to read American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, but even so, here I am posting my thoughts.

Superior storytelling on countless levels, including but certainly not only the graphical. Skillful and convincing weaving of comedy, legend, satire, and contemporary school story. A sophisticated and unsentimental look at race, culture, and identity, and, simultaneously, an impressively candid tribute to the author's faith. Funny and poignant and painful, a hopeful, many-layered narrative, and a watertight comic. Strongly recommended for approximately grades 7 and up.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

A reverent tribute to The Jungle Book which moved me as much for its devotion to the beloved classic as for its affection for its characters. There's a boundless, ungovernable quality to the universe Gaiman conjures. It combines life, afterlife, other realms, and ancient legend, and while I imagine this aspect of the novel could incur criticism, it felt appropriate to me. Gaiman's universe is as brooding, savage, and ungovernable as Kipling's jungle. A novel filled with deep compassion; strongly praised and recommended. Reading The Jungle Book first is encouraged.