Reading Journal Entry: The Children of the Company, by Kage Baker

Kage Baker's Company series is the awesomeest of awesome. BEST TIME TRAVEL SERIES EVER!

But damn it, I want to know what happens next! The last several books have only been inching slowly toward the crisis point in 2355. This one is no better. It's really more a collection of short stories than a novel. They're good short stories, but DAMN! Unsatisfying!

That said, the first story is a really wonderful re-telling of the Gilgamesh epic. And I TOTALLY wouldn't have gotten it if I hadn't read that as one of my very first great books.

In short, READ THIS SERIES! Start with In the Garden of Iden. Then read all the other ones. Because if you aren't reading this yet, this IS the best series you're not reading. Then you can come back here and bitch about this with me, because misery loves company.

OK, I threw myself into slang overload there - I need to go remember that I am 30 for a while. Have a good weekend!

Great Book: How German Is It by Walter Abish

A deconstruction of modern Germany by a post-modern author. Abish is on the list thanks to Bloom's list of the "Western Canon'. I previously read Alphabetical Africa which was a "woah, experimental" work. This has a plot and characters and stuff and in fact is very, very good.

Ulrich Hargenau is a German author, his brother Helmrich an architect, both of them involved in the construction of post-war German identity. But Ulrich's life is built on lies, and the new Germany is literally built on the bones of the victims of the Nazi regime.

Ulrich is trying to restart his life after his involvement in a widely-publicized trial of an anarchist terrorist group which included his (now former) wife. This destruction and subterfuge is a theme that dogs him throughout the book; there is a constant threat of violence and the constant hovering ghost of his past actions and those he betrayed. His father was executed during the war - but by which side? And which side is Ulrich on?

I got more impressed as I read. I'm still trying to figure out the cover image; a man with a striped shirt, wearing a hat, barefoot, on a horse, in shallow water. An image referenced multiple times in the text. Please someone explain to me what this means. And that's just the beginning.

I will be thinking about this book for a long time.

Reading Journal Entry: Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

Over the weekend I read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, participating in the Seattle Reads program initiated by everyone's favorite action figure (with amazing push-button shushing action!), Nancy Pearl.

Satrapi is coming to Seattle at the end of May and there are events throughout spring focusing on Islam and Iran.

For a double local bonus, Persepolis is published by locally-based comics book folk Fantagraphics.

Persepolis is Satrapi's account of growing up under the increasing repressive Islamic regime, ages 6 to 14. Marjane is an independent-minded cute child who starts out with ambitions to be a prophet but who in the end is unable to knuckle under to the religious strictures imposed by the regime. At the end of the book, her parents send her to Austria to finish her schooling. Her parents are liberal and the combination of their subversive viewpoint and Marjane's frank curiosity makes a killer POV combination for Western audiences.

The art is simple and arresting, perfectly suited to the subject matter.

For what it is - a mournful love letter to Iran - it's very good. I can see why the SPL chose it. It's heart-wrenching in places, very accessible, and will appeal graphically to a large audience. Downside: the limited scope makes it frustrating for the reader who is looking for a more nuanced view.

Reading Journal Entry: My Neighbor Totoro 4 by Studio Ghibli

I thought I was reserving the DVD of My Neighbor Totoro, an anime film produced by Studio Ghibli. Instead I got a cute little hardbound comic book that is number 4 in a series.

Unfortunately I can't recommend it, even though I enjoy manga and anime. The book is laid-out right to left in a way that makes the sequence of events hard to follow. Japanese exclamations and sound effects were not translated. The art appears to be merely repurposed frames from the movie. No effort has been made to take advantage of the differing medium. And there's about 1/4 of a plot.

Watch the movie instead!

Great Book: the poems of W. H. Auden

Poetry's not usually my bag. But I'm doing this to stretch the old noggin, so I'll try not to complain. Since I read so quickly, I find it difficult to slow down my eyes and mind and enjoy the rhythms. I try to find audio books of poetry whenever I can. Because readers talk more slowly than I read, I tend to get more out of it.

The Voice of the Poet series from Random House is an excellent series of poems read by the distinguished and mostly dead authors themselves. (Never before released recordings!)

I found the Five American Women volume annoying; this Auden collection was much more consistent and enjoyable. He has a wonderful speaking voice. I never felt like I had to get past the performance to the words. And the work is accessible. It even rhymes! Yay, expectations fulfilled!

The overwhelming impression I have of Auden is that he's depressed. We're all going to die eventually, life sucks, people are stupid and frustrating. It was funny, witty, work, but with a despairing, exasperated tone to it.

My favorite individual work was one of the lighter ones, a poem written for Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard in 1946 about the return to college of the veterans of World War II and the coming battle between Apollo and Hermes (knowledge and truth). It seems to fit right in with my recent discussion of academia. It ends with the Hermetic Decalogue:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor's thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
And take short views.

Reading Journal Entry: The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science by Horace Freeland Judson

Who was it who recommended I read this book? Step forward! Someone out there recommended I read this recently, I know.

Horace Freeland Judson is a science journalist who tackles the issues of scientific fraud. The content was interesting, especially in context of in light of the recent stem cell research scandal, but I felt the treatment was scattered and lacked focus.

Judson describes instances of fraud by some of the major scientists of the last two hundred years - Darwin, Pasteur, Haeckel, etc., and then jumps to a description of several high profile modern scientific frauds. How were they perpetrated? How were they discovered? What was the institutional reaction to discovery?

Those institutions and scientists who react swiftly and openly come out looking best. But even some quite prominent and respected figures have been shown to be involved in 'scientific misconduct', which spawns the gamut from tweaking results, to putting one's name on a paper that one has not authored, to outright fabrication and plagiarism.

Judson begins to lose his focus when he goes beyond specific instances of fraud into the wider implications. Clearly he is right when he concludes that fraud in science is not self-correcting; many egregious examples of fraud were discovered only by happenstance. Where he is on less solid ground is concluding that undiscovered fraud is widespread. How many things don't we know about? Hmmmm.

Judson also argues that peer-review of grant requests and refereeing of papers are two institutions greatly in need of reform, leading to greater opportunities to commit fraud and 'misconduct'. Grant requests are so competitive that review boards end up choosing between grants of 'equal scientific value' - demoralizing and an invitation to cronyism. Peer review of papers almost always fails to detect fraud, and is an invitation to plagiarism.

Judson's claim is that within the next ten years both institutions will be clearly different and better. But it's hard to imagine how this will happen without in the first case, grant review, without a huge influx of money from the government or a significant reduction in the number of working scientists. Refereeing of papers, on the other hand, which is currently anonymous, may well become an open process.

Not much of the theorizing was new to me, as I have a lot of academics in my family. Scientists are not all pure-hearted idealists, they are not more or less likely to misbehave than ordinary mortals. The only difference is that in science as contrasted to the rest of academia and the rest of the world, you are dealing with experiments and data.

The book's greatest weakness is that misconduct, bullying, plagiarism, appropriation are endemic in all of academia, and in the business world as well. Judson even throws in brief summaries of the big accounting and journalistic scandals that have happened over the past five to ten years in an introduction, for good measure.

Yes, scientists are people, and more people are cheating, and that means more scientists are cheating, and that is bad! But it doesn't really seem to be about science.

The material would have benefited from a narrower lens and a greater focus on historical cases. Where it succeeds is telling fascinating stories about people who 'done wrong', some of them people we respect. Where it fails is in becoming a generic polemic.

Reading Journal Entry: So You Want To Be A Wizard, by Diane Duane

I was familiar with Diane Duane from her early work in Star Trek novels (Spock's World, anyone?). Besides those best-sellers with Leonard Nimoy on the front, she is well-known as an author of young adult fantasy.

Duane has recently started up quite a furor with her new internet installment publishing scheme for The Big Meow. I read Diane's blog (I read every blog) so I heard all about her plans to follow in the trail blazed by Lawrence Watt-Evans with The Spriggan Mirror (in 2004) and Stephen King with The Plant (in 2000).

King's effort failed; Watt-Evans succeeded. King failed and suspended publication of his serial novel after about six months; Watt-Evans succeeded and not only financed the writing of his entire novel but then sold publication rights to a small press for (one hopes) further financial reward. Both King and Watt-Evans are, like Duane, already established authors trading on their existing authorship. King had, obviously, a larger fan base. Personally I attribute the failure of The Plant to the model he used; he set a condition based on percentage of readers paying a fee and required payment for each chapter, instead of basing his decision on overall income and allowing a 'subscription' for the entire book.

Duane has followed in Watt-Evans footsteps by setting an undisclosed 'break-even' point at which chapters will be posted on the internet for subscribers. A week later, the chapters will be made available to the general public.

I did not pay Stephen King any money for The Plant. I did send Watt-Evans some dough for The Spriggan Mirror, once I learned it was the only way I was going to get to see more Ethshar novels.

I find the whole online publishing venture mildly interesting and I might want to participate, but I'm certainly not going to jump into a series mid-swing. That is VERBOTEN! So I reserved So You Want To Be A Wizard (the first book in the first series set in this universe) at the library and read it last weekend.

So You Want To Be A Wizard a fairly typical 'precocious child discovers magical artifact that ushers him/her into a world of magic' scenario. There are a few things that make it stand out (besides a great title).

First, it's set in Manhattan and on Long Island, and set well. The geography is lovingly described in realistic detail that really grounds the action.

Second, ethnicity. The main character's name is short for Juanita. Her little wizard friend is Kit Rodriguez. THANK YOU! It is such a relief to have characters in a fantasy novel that aren't lily white little British kids.

Third, the standard good v. evil schema is given an interesting and somewhat sophisticated twist. Evil isn't some big evil nemesis dude. It's entropy! I can buy into that. Who hasn't railed against the inevitability of death? The horrible thing about the feeling that everything in the world is getting worse all the time is that it's true!

Fucking entropy.

We hate it.

Great Book: To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway

My dad forced a couple Hemingway works down my throat when I was in middle school (vague memory of bullfighting), but this is the first time I've revisited his work as an adult.

To Have And Have Not is a series of vignettes about life in the Keys and Cuba immediately post-War. Not immediately obvious post-what-war, though I eventually concluded it was the First one. Harry Morgan is a local boater bouncing around between the keys and Cuba trying to earn enough to feed his family through fishing, smuggling, etc. Then there are the conches - more desperate than Harry, trying to feed four mouths on the pay they earn digging ditches. There are the tourists, hating each other and their lives. There are the rich boaters, superficial, tight, and living off other men's blood. Of course, they're pretty much all tight now that I think about it. Drunk and mostly unhappy.

The one thing that seems to separate the hypocrites from the genuine article here is their connection with nature. Harry, his wife, and the conches are close to nature, connected to the ocean and the sky, fully physical beings experiencing their lives. They find refuge from the occasional horror and grinding routine of their lives in the natural beauty around them and in each other. But even that doesn't protect them from the casual brutality and corruption.

The book ends with a first-person narrative from Harry's wife, mourning him. If I had to draw a moral it would be from the comparison of her vibrant emotions of grief and love with the flaccid, pointless, lives of the denizens of nearby yachts. They don't experience grief, but neither do they experience the thrilling joy that comes from living live fully.

Alexander Adams annoyed me as a reader for Bill Bryson, but his voice was absolutely perfect for this work. I highly recommend this audio edition.

Reading Journal Entry: With No One As Witness, by Elizabeth George

I've been a big an of Elizabeth George for several years. Not big enough of a fan to buy the book, of course. I put myself on the waiting list at the Seattle Public Library and three months later they delivered me a 38 pound large-print paperback. But I am cheap; I am willing to suffer. Since it only took me about 36 hours to turn the book around it wasn't too much of a burden.

George's characters are a matched set of sleuths with many-layered and entangled histories. Old friends, upper and lower-class, about six characters (with associated coworkers) have twirled around each other for a dozen years and as many, or more, novels. They're just about tapped out; George's last two novels showcased, in A Traitor To Memory, a completely new character investigating a mystery from his past, and in A Place of Hiding, (no kidding) an old college roommate.

The latest installation delivers the facetime her fans have been craving, but at a cost. First, George trades the intricate psychological inspection of a single crime or crimes for the oft-retreaded ground of the serial killer. Borrowing a technique from her fellow American thriller writer, she includes scenes from the point of view of the psycho killer - not an improvement, in my opinion. Were these changes suggested by her editors as a way to make her work more similar to the blockbuster thrillers that dominate the market? Inquiring minds want to know.

Second, George fixes the problem of the characters not having much left to say to each other by giving the axe to an old friend, with hardly a by-your-leave. It didn't make much sense, and didn't seem fully integrated into the main series of killings. Frankly, it seemed a waste of a good death. But I have to admit I sobbed like a baby. And I have to admire the way she tied it all together thematically. BUT - and I am reluctant to be more specific - she really should have included more clinical details. I think the public is now sufficiently familiar with the situation in question. Especially when contrasted with the wealth of forensic detail provided in the examination of murder scenes, it seemed an odd ommission, and undermined the reality of the decision-making process.

Where to go from here? Certainly there are plenty of nice new psychological wounds for her to probe. But I just don't see the way forward, unless she tries to give poor bedraggled Barbara Havers a makeover and a boyfriend.

The first step is acknowledging you have a problem.

Items Out-
Checked Out: 27
Overdue: 0
Lost or Claimed Returned: 0
Hold Requests-
Requested items ready for pick up: 0
Requested items not yet available: 42

Reading Journal Entry: And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

After seeing numerous news stories about this children's book I decided to check it out for myself. Tango and his adorable penguin parents provoked a complaint from some patrons of a Missouri library. Why? THEY'RE GAY! Yes, Tango, the adorable penguin chick portrayed in this picture book, is the first penguin with two daddies.

The story of Roy and Silo, who bonded with each other instead of with female penguins, is a true one. They live in New York City's Central Park Zoo. After several years of unsuccessfully trying to hatch rocks, the pair were given an extra fertilized egg laid by a conventional penguin couple, and a family was born.

Recently the book hit the headlines (probably doing wonders for sales) because of the 'homosexual subtext'. Two sets of parents complained about the content and bam! the next thing you know, there's an AP story being picked up by outraged newspaper editors around the country.

The librarian in question claims that the whole thing is overblown. The book was moved from the children's fiction section to the children's non-fiction section, because it's a true story, that's all!

On the one hand, the book has not been restricted. On the other hand, she sure did cave in. Quite solidly.

It's quite a nice book. Wonderful watercolors, adorable subjects.

I wonder to what extent the original complaint has to do with the 'family values' perception of the movie The March of the Penguins (courtesy of Michael Medved and others). Penguins! They're so conservative! Except when they're wife swapping and indulging in homo-gayness.

A sad coda to the story of Roy and Silo: After several years together Silo converted back to heterosexuality, taking up with a sexy young female penguin named Scrappy.

No news on how Roy weathered the breakup.

Reading Journal Entry: Bodies From The Ash, by James Deem

Thanks to Fuse #8 for the recommendation. I was so fascinated by her description of the wax 'Girl From Oplontis' that I went searching for pictures of her online. I couldn't find any, so the Seattle Public Library once again came to my rescue.

It's a short, sweet account of the eruption of Vesuvius and the subsequent destruction of Pompeii. Apparently volcanic science has evolved a bit since I was a kid since I don't remember reading about superheated clouds of gas and stone roaring through town and immediately roasting everyone to 700 plus degrees Fahrenheit. THAT'S AWESOME!

I mean, tragic.

As an adult reader I very much wanted more gore than the kiddies can handle. The 'Girl From Oplontis' picture is pretty neat, but now I just really, really, want to see it in person.

Reading Journal Entry: The Forever Way, by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War is a science fiction novel about the Vietnam War, as Haldeman cheerfully acknowldges. Published in the 1970s, this work shows its age. The characterization is clumsy and some innovations have been ripped off so many times they now seem cliched. But it's a classic in the field, and a must for anyone who wants to be well-read in science fiction.

Mandella has been drafted (just like the author was in 1967) into a futuristic army that only wants the best of the best. Then it puts them through hell. Mandella and his cohort are involed in a war whose cause they don't understand, fighting an incomprehensible enemy. The downside? At relativistic speeds, two years on the march in space means over twenty years has passed before he gets back to Earth. He comes back to a totally different world. Nobody understand him! Everything has changed! Etc!

Like I said, it shoes its age. This is not groundbreaking social commentary - any more. In 1975 it was another story.

Mostly historical interest.

Reading Journal Entry: The Lion's Daughter by Loretta Chase

Good! Kick-ass heroine, hero has realistic but not repugnant flaws, setting of Albania is fully explored. More later.

I'll be on hiatus for the beginning of next week - I've got a guest!

Reading Journal Entry: The Self-Made Man, by Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent disguised herself as a man for eighteen months or so in order to provide an inside-out view of the difference between men and women. Now, my DH claims he already knows what it's like to be a man, and therefore he doesn't need to read this book. I don't think that's true. The point is that Norah Vincent, starting out female, will have an entirely different perspective on what it is to be male. Particularly since much of what she learns is something men have known so long that it's ingrained and unconsious.

It's fascinating reading about her initial transformation and her first forays out as 'Ned', the male alter-ego she creates for herself. Vincent samples a selection of male bastions, including of all things a monastery and a bowling league. Then she tries dating. Then she gets a job. It's merciless.

Vincent is six feet tall and kind of masculine for a woman, but apparently still makes a pretty effeminate man. A constant theme is men thinking she's gay. They're right (she's a lesbian) but not in the way they think.

Vincent has some great insights, especially in the chapter on dating, bu I couldn't help wanting something more. Norah checks herself into a psych ward at the end of her experiment after experiencing something close to a nervous breakdown. But she's oddly protective and reticent about the experience.

I came away thinking that Ned has pretty damn big balls, and Norah Vincent as a woman probably still has bigger balls than I do.

That's OK. I'm female.

I've never been so intimidated by a narrator before.

Reading Journal Entry: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

I have a crush on Jared Diamond, and have since I read Guns, Germs, and Steel. He writes wonderful, erudite prose - some of the only recently published prose that dares to break the 12th grade reading level.

How does he manage to float such complex yet readable sentences? He's got the skill of an acrobatist, not only in his enunciation but in his approach to a topic. How does he manage to enter into the viewpoint of every one of multiple contrasting viewpoints? I don't know, but he treats his interview subjects with a tact and respect bordering on the inhuman. And he's got a wry humor that leaks out between the words like sweet, treacly magic.

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond turns his eye on the ways societies end. He examines five societies which collapsed catastrophically: Norse Greenland, Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, and the Pitcairn Islands. He sifts through all the archaelogical evidence we have about the way these societies lived before, during, and after their collapse (in most cases, complete elimination of human society). He sorts through the ultimate and proximate reasons for their demise, and how each society reacted to the looming problems. He then examines several societies which were faces with similar problems but survived (Iceland being one example).

All of this examination is done with a conscious eye on the relevance to the modern world. Diamond in fact starts the book off by comparing two very similar large dairy farms; the main point of difference between the two being that one is in Greenland and the owners are all dead, and the other is in modern Montana.

Diamond's analysis of the environmental problems of two of his 'home towns', Montana and Los Angeles, help carry home his message that today we may be facing a confluence of factors great enough in magnitude to potentially bring us down. The fascinating analysis is only the sugar to help us swallow the pill: our current growth rates and consumption levels are unsustainable.

The hook of Collapse is 'What was the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree saying as he did it?' It's a good question, as fundamentally fascinating as more morbid curiousity about personal annihilations, and more relevant.

And finally, a short quote:

Are the parallels between the past and present sufficiently close that the collapse of the Easter Islanders, Henderson Islanders, Anasazi, Maya, and Greenland Norse could offer any lessons for the modern world? At first, a critic, noting the obvious differences, might be tempted to object, "It's ridiculous to suppose that the collapses of all those ancient peoples could have broad relevance today, especially to the modern U.S. Those ancients didn't enjoy the wonders of modern technology, which benefits us and which lets us solve problems be inventing new environment friendly technologies. Those ancients had the misfortune to suffer from effects of climate change. They behaved stupidly and ruined their own environment by doing obviously dumb things, like cutting down their forests, overharvesting wild animal sources of their protein, watching their topsoil erode away, and building cities in dry areas likely to run short of water. They had foolish leaders who didn't have books and so couldn't learn from history, and who embroiled them in expensive and destabilizing wars, cared only about staying in power, and didn't pay attention to problems at home. They got overwhelmed by deperate starving immigrants, as one society after another collapsed, sending floods of economic refugees to tax the resources of the societies that weren't collapsing. In all those respects, we moderns are undamentally different from those primitive ancients, and there is nothing that we could learn from them. Especially we in the U.S., the richest and most powerful country in the world today, with the most productive environment and wisest leaders and strong allies and only weak insignificant enemies - none of those bad things could possibly apply to us."

No, it's true that there are big differences between the situations of those past societies and our modern situation today.


Reading Journal Entry: The Man With The Iron-On Badge, by Lee Goldberg

Lee Goldberg's blog is what led me to The Man With The Iron-On Badge, which just goes to show: blogging counts!

Not that I bought it. I asked the Seattle Public Library to buy it, though, and they did.

Harvey Mapes is a night-shift security guard at a gated community in the LA area. One of the residents asks him to follow his wife for a few days and Harvey jumps (positively leaps) at the chance to fulfill some of the PI fantasies he's been harboring since he was a wee tot.

It would be a pretty boring book if the lady just went about her business, so you might guess she's messed up in some nasty stuff. You'd be right. And Harvey gets drawn in faster than you can say 'baseball bat to the head'.

Lee posted a couple of times about the research he did into the pop culture roots of the detective genre to write the book. I expected Mapes to be obsessed; he was more just a normal guy who's watched a few too many movies and is eager to find any way out of his boring life.

The mundanity of that life is the books' strength. Mapes is so solidly real, such an average joe, so tediously prosaic, that he grounds the subsequent action. What could seem far-fetched in another context (there are a couple coincidences I'm thinking of) seems, through Harvey's slightly desperate lower-middle-class eyes, completely believable.

Short notes: the plotting is competent, Harvey's voice is spot-on, Lee Goldberg could clean up his prose a little, I don't like the cover much, and why is this a hardback?

Reading Journal Entry: The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris, by Leon Garfield

Thank you to Fuse #8 for the recommendation on Leon Garfield.

This children's book is set in Regency England (hey, my favorite time period) and relates the adventures of a diverse group of individuals variously connected with Dr. Bunnion's school for young gentlemen. Mr. Brett, a timid soul, inspires two of his students with his stories of the Ancients. Specifically, the Ancients' practice of exposing infants on the hillside.

Conveniently enough, one of the young hoodlums is in possession of an extraneous younger sister, just seven weeks of age. Harris and Bostock hope to observe a wolf discovering and suckling the infant and make a big splash in the scientific community. They take Adelaide up to the moors, deposit her carefully in a grassy hollow, and wait for their fortunes to become assurred.

Unforseen events intervene! Lovely Tizzy Alexander, the daughter of the maths teacher, is walking with the schoolmaster's son, and stumbles across poor Adelaide before she can be succoured by a wild animal. But when the helpless babe is returned to the school, her father is more interested in learning why she was walking alone with noted tom-catter-about-town Mr. Ralph Bunnion! A challenge is issued! How will Harris and Bostock retrieve Adelaide from the poorhouse? How will Major Alexander avoid becoming a murderer, or becoming dead? Will Mr. Brett gain the love of the worthy Tizzy? Tune in to your local library to find out!

There are a number of adult themes: drunkenness, hints of intended sexual violence, adultery, and more. There's an underlyingly grim tone that's very reminiscent of Lemony Snicket's work. Given that Adelaide was originally published in 1971, I think he must have been a major influence. There are dark dealings here! Every character except the poor Mr. Brett seems to have ulterior motives.

The voice is absolutely delightful. It made me chuckle aloud more than once.

I don't know how I feel about this book. It's good, very good. But weird in some way that prevented me from wholeheartedly enjoying it.

Great Books: Birds, by Aristophanes

Man, I need to read some romance novels. This pace is wearing me down.

Birds is supposed to be Aristophanes' 'comic masterpiece', according to the introduction, but I couldn't enjoy it. With no obvious political message, like Wasps or Clouds, it's harder to grasp hold of.

And I'm tired. I've been overdosing on work and shorting myself on sleep. That + Greek theater equals a grouchy reader.

In fact, I'm going to go take a nap now.

Great Books: Wasps, by Aristophanes

Wasps is another comedy with a father-son relationship, like Clouds. This time it's Procleon, the father, who is the target of reform efforts by his son, Contracleon. Anyone noticing the political overtones yet? If so, congratulations - you are well educated.

Procleon is addicted to serving on juries. In Athens juries were made up of large groups of men over thirty who were paid a small fee. Contracleon, his son, first tries to lock him in the house to keep him from going to court. Eventually he convinces him that as a jurist he is being exploited by those who run the courts and persuades him to sit on a 'jury' at home, judging domestic disputes between dogs who have stolen cheese. The next step is to get Dad some decent clothes and take him out to meet some people, but Pater (<----deliberate irony) doesn't play along with the plan, and the reform efforts end in disaster.

Now, the references to dogs stealing cheese above might suggest that this is a bit surreal. This did not come as a surprise. I was prepared for the orating dogs. When, in the first act, a group of old men (Procleon's fellow jurors) threw off their cloaks to reveal yellow and black wasp costumes complete with gigantic stings (possibly, a helpful footnote explains, a combination sting/phallus) - in sum, when that happened, I prepared myself for the worst. Talking animals wasn't the worst. The cheese grater on the witness stand I handled with equanimity. There are also a lot of very bad puns. I rolled with the punches.

What really blew my mind was the crab people. From out of nowhere at the end of the play some fucking crab people come on stage, throw a few jokes out, then the play's over. Crab people? What the hell? Don't try to tell me Matt and Trey got crab people from Aristophanes. I won't believe it.

....walk like crab, talk like people....

Great Book: Clouds, by Aristophanes

Aristophanes was a dirty old bugger.

Clouds features Socrates as a character. The edition I am reading has a great description of 'Aristophanic comedy' that sets the tone for it:

"I would ask the reader to imagine a dramatic combination of the slapstick of the Three Stooges, the song and dance of a Broadway musical, the verbal with of W. S. Gilbert or of a television show like Frasier, the exuberance of Mardi Gras, the open-ended plot line of The Simpsons, the parody of a Mel Brooks movie, the political satire of Doonesbury (or your favorite editorial cartoonist), the outrageous sexuality of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkein, wrapped up in the format of a Monty Python movie.

Clouds features Socrates as a major character. Strepsiades is in a ton of debt because his no-good son races chariots all day long. He tries to get the brat to go to Socrates' school to learn how to defend him in court from his creditors. When Pheidippides refuses, Strepsiades goes himself. Hilarity ensues.

Socrates is protrayed as a bumbling windbag. Aristophanes lived about 400 B.C. in ancient Athens, which means that Socrates was around, and could get all up in his face about it if he wanted to. He and Aristophanes must have been pretty good friends, or pretty serious enemies. One or the other.

It's hard to tell how close this is to political satire, as my translator claims, because the contemporary references are so obscure to the modern reader. At times it reads like a fraternity house production - the characters rag on the audience, and on random people who aren't in the play, and make inside jokes. And there are a lot of sex jokes. Hmmmm. Maybe I'm on to something here. Athens was a pretty small community according to modern standards, very male-oriented, had a lot of weird 'initiation rituals'....

Aristophanes and Socrates as fraternity brothers! Quick, someone adapt this for a Luke Wilson vehicle.

Yes, folks, this is what our culture was built on. Fun stuff! But like all plays, you'd be better off seeing it produced than reading it cold.