27 October 2009

Rage, sing, goddess

It's no secret that the Iliad is important to me; in what was once referred to as "the most pretentious tramp stamp ever," I've got the first three words (menin aeide thea, the beginnings of the invocation of the Muse) tattooed at the base of my spine. It's a fitting place for these founding words of Western poetry, at the root of the spinal cord, the walled-in fortress of the nervous system (and, to switch traditions, the location of the kundalini chakra). In many ways, the Iliad is Western culture, violent and tender, pulled in opposite directions by the forces of war and domesticity.

Caroline Alexander's The War That Killed Achilles is a lovely, well-written exegesis of the Iliad's chronicle of the devastation and pity of war--a peculiarly human notion, but rarely so well put. For me, as for millennia of readers, the characters of Homer's epic are immediate and familiar, such that I still tear up when I read about Hektor taking leave of Andromache and Astyanax--still more so when Alexander points out that in light of this scene, where Hektor's infant son is terrified by his imposing helmet (whereupon the warrior laughs and takes it off, de-heroizing himself for the sake of his doomed posterity), Hektor's common epithet "of the shimmering helm" is less honorific than poignant detail of his martial duties' cutting him off from his family.

One still encounters people who claim the Iliad glorifies war. I can only surmise they haven't read it. The Iliad begins with rage and ends with two funerals; even Achilles would give up his glory to die quietly in old age, at home.

18 October 2009

Adventure kitty!

All right, so one moves a mere 1400 miles (to Bushwick, Brooklyn! Everyone is allowed one "I guess you're not in Kansas anymore" joke. Just get it out of your system) and one's blog falls by the wayside. And looking back it seems reading itself has fallen off a bit: though I did deeply and unironically enjoy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and another paranormal Austen sequel, Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy, Vampyre. (The "y" just makes that title, doesn't it? Also it's dedicated to Catherine Morland.) On the gritty-realism side, there's As God Commands by Niccolo Ammaniti, translated from the Italian: I can't characterize it better than a back cover pull-quote from La Repubblica calling him "a modern-day Dickens"--just that kind of ordinary darkness, the underpinnings of polite society, with a child at its center. Ammaniti's a much finer prose stylist for my tastes, though.

Currently: Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, about New York pop-culture obsessives. My favorite kind of postmodern freestyling prose, checked by arresting metaphors.

And I have a new bookstore gig: WORD, in Greenpoint. Stop by!
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