Monday, September 18, 2017

The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens


I have no voice.  The change in weather always does this to me.  I get a cold in my head, it sinks to my chest...up and down and on the way it takes my voice away.  Luckily you can't hear me. I sound like a fog horn.  A fog horn with laryngitis.  I'm just croaking my days away.

 You, however, can listen to the smooth and luxuriant sounds of Jean Sibelius' Symphony Number Five.  It will be a much more aesthetically pleasing experience.

The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess DianaThe Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana by Peter Hitchens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Peter Hitchens is in a sense is a prophet. Not the type that predicts the future, but the sort that clearly looks at the world and sees what is right and what is wrong.

In his book, The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana, he traces how the culture in the UK changed dramatically from a people owning a proud nationalist identity and Christian morals, even if they weren't particularly religious, to what we have today: people who are ashamed to possess anything other than a "global" identity and accepting any sort of social more or amoral code whatever.

He explains how this happened. Mostly through ideologues who made good use of the new medium of Television to change how people think about themselves and others. They did this through sitcoms that provided a "normal" that in the fifties and sixties was not normal and in fact different than most people's lives. However, as people lost contact with their community and spent their free time in front of the TV they developed a sense of community with the characters on the shows they were watching.

Lifestyles that had historically been considered perverse or deviant were now normalized. People can only be shocked once. Then it is accepted. Which means the shows' producers have to come up with even more shocking subject matter, which is then normalized and so on. I would point out certain televisions shows that are popular today as examples of how far we have sunk, but people I know personally watch those shows and far be it from me to offend anyone.

I especially like his observation that TV doesn't really show how people live, because if it did, it would show people sitting around for hours watching television.

He describes how legislation ostensibly designed to help the downtrodden has proliferated the downtrodden population.

Making divorce no fault, even if someone is at fault and forcing the man to financially support the woman, even if it was her fault and allowing her custody of the children regardless of the reason has simply multiplied divorces, and increased the number of women and children living off the state in poverty.

The other tool used by ideologues is education. Discipline and strong lines of right and wrong were dismissed, as was classical training. The rich plethora of classical literature that should rightly be the pride of Britain has been moved aside in favor of popular literature.

This came home to me one day when I met a young woman who had moved back home after teaching literature in various European countries for several years. I asked her if she was eager to begin this fall.

She said that she did not look forward to teaching the required reading list because it was all about college entrance.

"Oh," I said. "That must be limiting. What do you have to teach?"

"Greek and European literature from the last two thousand years. It's all Western culture. It doesn't represent other parts of the world."

"What country's literature would you like to teach?"

"I like Japanese."

I personally like classical Japanese literature so I asked, "Have you read 'Tale of Genji'? Or 'Shirobamba'?

She had never heard of either the oldest novel in the world or the classic story of a young boy's life in pre WWI Japan.

"What do you want to teach then?"

She then listed a number of current best sellers by popular Japanese writers.

"The problem is," she said, "is that the parents at school are hung up over language and sex. I didn't have that objection when I taught in London."


All that to say, Hitchens acutely diagnoses England and frankly, the western world's cause of cultural deterioration.

His best point is to expose the "imaginary" Puritan. This is the mythological person that is "shocked and appalled" over the "morally reprehensible" lifestyles of anything non conforming to Victorian cultural norms.

This person, as Hitchens points out, doesn't exist. But the media needs him and her to exist to feel as if what they are doing is "cutting edge" and "revolutionary". After all, you can't be a rebel unless you are rebelling against something. That something disappeared fifty years ago.

Today's ideologues have mastered the art of shaming to perfection. No one is going to publicly admit they think that certain modes of living is wrong or, dare I say, immoral. All sorts of "deplorable" names will be attached to you.

The final thing I admire about Hitchens' book, or at least Hitchens himself is that, as opposed to most authors who only include blurbs of glowing recommendations on the flyleafs, Hitchens includes people's remarks that obviously don't agree with him. Here are a few:

"Hitchens can do what he does best: provoke."

"Some passages are almost laughable in their old fogeyness while others are just plain offensive."

And my favorite:

"He stands like a latter-day King Canute, trying to turn back a tide of progress."

I have over simplified all that Hitchens has to say. He says much more. Such as how such a development took place in the first place without any kind of fight back from Traditionalists. The reason being that tradition is not a good reason for preserving anything, only immutable design and purpose of life that has always existed since the dawn of time stands the test. You cannot have a moral code without admitting that Someone created that code in the first place. And if this is true, society will flourish under that code and it will destruct if it deviates from it.

His writing style is fluid and I personally consider this a perspicacious declaration of where society is and how it got there, even if he was only talking of Britain.

View all my reviews


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Anatomy of a Ponzi: Scams Past and Present by Colleen Cross

I am a huge fan of Paul Hindemith.  Not everyone is, I know.  I accept that.  But I have also learned not to apologize when I tell people I'm performing a work by Hindemith.  Everyone assumes that because the piano part is a beast to play that I must hate playing it.  No, I love playing everything by Hindemith.  I, in fact, know what I am getting into when I decide to learn a Hindemith piece.  Music that requires several hours of practice is what I signed up for when I became a professional musician.

The piece I am listening to now is Symphonic Metamorphosis.

Anatomy of a Ponzi: Scams Past and PresentAnatomy of a Ponzi: Scams Past and Present by Colleen Cross

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

" My game was simple. It was the old game of robbing Peter to pay Paul." -Charles Ponzi

In anatomy of a Ponzi, Colleen Cross endeavors to expose the world of investment scams to protect future victims and also hopefully create laws that provide more than a slap on the wrist to scammers.

The first section of the book is a general overview of the sort of mind that creates Ponzi scams. They share ten characteristics with psychopaths. In fact she calls them financial psychopaths:

1. Superficial Charm.
2. Grandiose Self-worth
3. Need for Stimulation, easily bored
4. Pathological liar
5. Manipulative
6. Lack of remorse
7. No emotional depth
8. No empathy for others suffering
9. Parasitic Lifestyle- lives off others money
10. Poor self-control

Hmm...reminds me of a man I once dated...

After giving the general description of Ponzi schemers she gives us the history of several from the past century, starting with the one who gave his name to the fraud, Charles Ponzi.

In 1920, Charles Ponzi discovered that the United States would redeem stamps from around the world at the US rate, even if the stamps were purchased more cheaply in European countries, like Ponzi's home country Italy.

He sold stamps to thousands of people leading them to believe that they could get great returns. He bought the stamps from relatives, then sold them to Americans, assuring them that they could then redeem them with profit.

The problem was that there were no where near enough stamps to accommodate all the thousands that wanted in on the deal. Ponzi did not want his clients to know that so he would pay out the initial investors with the money later investors gave him and hoped nobody would ask for a redemption.

As eventually happens with Ponzi schemes, people want their returns. Often this is provoked by a financial crises that has everybody running to get their money. Of course in a Ponzi scam, there is no money because the scammer was actually spending the money on a lavish lifestyle, giving back just enough to make people believe their investments were making money.

In the end Charles Ponzi defrauded investors of 20 million dollars (225 million in today's dollars).

His prison sentence? 12 years.

Cross devotes several chapters each to other scammers ending with the biggest, Bernie Madoff who defrauded his investors of 65 billion dollars.

Each chapter is a case study of the scammer, his particular investment, how he carried out the scam and his final fate. With the exception of Madoff who got a life sentence because of the publicity, most only got a few years in prison, even though they scammed people out of their life savings.

Ms. Cross also lists the signs of a scam and how they can be avoided. To simplify, if it's too good to be true, it is not true. Any investment that promises unrealistically high returns that over shadow any other investment is probably a scam. She admonishes investors to do their research and provides resources that help to learn the integrity of professional investors and also where to turn if you suspect that you have been the victim of an investment scam.

All of the book was highly informative and if she had stopped with what she knew it would have been a highly instructive book. Unfortunately she felt she had to make her dig against the capital market, pointing out the such scams can only happen where there is free enterprise because countries where governments control business, one will be free of fraud.

Right. Because socialist governments are comprised of people with sterling morals and capitalist governments produce politicians that are greedy goons. Human nature is apparently determined by government structure.

The final mistake Cross made was to predict the next big Ponzi scheme. She asserts that a 100-plus billion dollar Ponzi scam will take place during the next presidential election, on a Monday to be exact, November 14, 2016 to be even more exact in a New York hedge fund. It will be exposed by a rival hedge fund. He will be a highly respected man in his fifties, a lawyer or an accountant. And he'll be driving a Bentley.

Most of her prediction is unimpressive because with the exception of one woman, all the Ponzi scammers in her book meet her description so all she has done is create an amalgamation. The same goes for the type of investment fund.

Ms. Cross took her own gamble and lost. She wrote this book in 2013, and 2016 has come and gone. But hey, it could still happen.

At least I learned a lot about hedge funds, reverse engineering, and how former communist countries are the most vunurable to scams. Ioan Stoica defrauded 4 million Romanians out of 1 billion dollars in 1994 with his Caritas Company, mutual aid scheme. He even had commercials on TV promoting his wonderful "investment". One out of every five Romanians were greedy for high returns on their newly acquired money.

If one doesn't quibble over Ms. Cross' presumption over economic systems or her own fortune telling; if you are interested in the design of a Ponzi scheme and the sort of criminal minds that create them or if you'd like to understand how to avoid them, I would recommend this book.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Take A Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

Schubert's Trout Quintet is playing.  You should really wait for the last movement with the piano bubbling all over  the place like a trout swimming through a frothy river.

 My birthday month is August and Josh gave me a generous Amazon gift card.  I kind of went berserk.  These are the complete collections of the museum and cities I visited in Italy a couple of summers ago.  I am so excited to dig into these!!

 Take a Girl Like YouTake a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hardly know what to say about this book. I do not know whether Kingsley Amis is approving of his characters' life choices or trying to come to grips with the abruptly changing moral landscape of England in 1960. Does he really believe the moral paradigm that traditional relationships grounded in Christian principles to be outdated and incapable? Or is he simply calling it as he sees it?

He certainly does not glamorize what he sees as traditional morals' replacement. His characters lead quite dreary lives. But to sum:

Jenny Bunn is a twenty year old girl from the North of England who has traveled south to a town near London to work as a teacher. She lives with Dick and Martha Torkington who rent a room to her and a French girl named Anna.

Jenny is very pretty and she is conscious of that without being particularly concerned, and even if she was unconscious she is constantly reminded of her looks by the wolfish and lustful gazes of every single man she comes into contact with. Even Anna is attracted to her.

Amis' male characters are all lechers who cannot stop themselves from groping, leering, propositioning and otherwise sexually harrassing women. Not that any of the women mind, not even Jenny, who, though a good girl, does not seem to possess any kind of discernment as to the quality of men she should associate with. She doesn't even appear to mind when Anna sexually harasses her, although she makes it clear she's not interested.

Jenny is old-fashioned. She's not particularly religious, but she does believe she should remain a virgin until she's marries because that's how she feels and she's quite firm about it.

Patrick Standish is a young headmaster who teaches at a nearby secondary school and happened to be at the Torkington's when he meets Jenny. He immediately goes about trying to seduce her. Jenny likes Patrick and wants to pursue a relationship with him but makes it clear that they will marry before any sex happens.

Patrick makes it equally clear that marriage is not a goal of his, only sex. And he doesn't have any intention of being monogamous either. He does not hide his opinions from Jenny in either word or deed.

One asks oneself why Jenny would remain interested in someone whose quality of character is laid out so clearly before her. But Jenny seems to live in kind of a somnambulic state as she passively watches her world go by.

Patrick is determined to have her and sleep with her. He gets himself quite worked up to the point where he sleeps with a divorcee while dead drunk (he was dead drunk not she and I'm not quite sure how he accomplished that) and also with an underage girl for whom he "magnanimously" finances an abortion.

As the story progresses we wonder who is going to win? Jenny or Patrick? Jenny never compromises. She gets roofied at a party and Patrick takes advantage of her. Hence he gets what he wants but without her permission.

One then wonders what is going to happen. Is Jenny going to wake up? At first she seems to. She gives Patrick a telling off and asserts she is never going to see him again. I gather that women did not report date rape to the police back then or statutory rape or consider that someone like Patrick is a repulsive sleazeball. Patrick however does not give up and she finally relents.

Her conclusion is that it was unrealistic of her to believe in commitment and marriage and all that. In fact, it was selfish of her to expect more than to be one of Patrick's many amours.

As I read the book, aside from the brilliant and witty writing at which Amis is a master, I wondered if Amis' real point was to show how modern (at the time) life had emptied out all real meaning as regards relationships. That the Church had rendered itself obsolete but had left a moral vacuum into which the young generation had climbed. What was left?

"I don't love you, you don't love me; I am using you but that's all right because you are using me as well and that is the most anyone can expect while they are alive."

If Amis was intending to create a scene of hopelessness and despair, he succeeded.

Luckily, I don't mistake his book for the Gospel.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

I had a growing collection of books that I decided to get rid of and I thought, since they're in good condition, I'll sell them on ebay.  What I earn would help feed my little book habit, while clearing the house of books whose only future was to collect dust and take up valuable shelf space.

It took three hours to photograph the books from every angle, inside and out, decide on a decent price and post.  That was three days ago and so far, nobody is nibbling.

I'm trying not to check the status on my account every hour. Ebay is supposed to notify me if anyone orders a book.

Do people really make money selling off ebay?  Maybe not with books unless you have a warehouse full.  Oh well.  It seemed like a good idea.  Live and learn.

I am listening to some gorgeous music by Anton Bruckner  Symphony No. 2 in C minor, conducted by George Solti

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, #1)Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Around the turn of the last century and a little before, a number of 19th century writers turned their hand to a brand new genre. Nowadays we call it Steampunk, which is just a hipster name for Science Fiction written during the late Victorian and pre WWI years.

Most of them painted a bleakish picture of our future. Maybe they were afraid of change or had a pessimistic view of man's ability to rein in the technological age the industrial age was ushering in. There were many unknown factors. Would the power received from all sorts of wonderful inventions make life easier for the general populace? Or would it make it easier for power mongers to destroy the world as it was known and create an enslaved class of proportions never before seen in the history of mankind?

H.G. Wells is our best known Science Fiction writer of the time and he certainly expressed in stark descriptions the sort of world we would all be living in if man learned how to become invisible or create giants or time travel.

Even E.M. Forster provides a provocative possibility in his short story "The Machine Stops" of how alienated humans could become to each other thanks to modern inventions "taking care" of our every need.

As much as I enjoy Wells, Forster, as well as any number of Steampunk authors, the fact is none of them inspire hope. The landscape is gray, desolate and godless.

Which brings me to why I love C.S. Lewis's Science Fiction trilogy so, so much.

Lewis has the ability to give the reader a clear-sighted view of man's heart (which is desperately wicked) while showing that there is a Power higher than that desperate wickedness that is ultimately going to triumph.

As a result, one finishes Lewis' Science Fiction heartened, encouraged, and ironically feeling greater love for humankind and hope for the future and the human race, at least a portion of us. Some of Lewis characters willfully rush towards eternal destruction.

Out of the Silent Planet is the first book in a trilogy. I have read the first and last and will soon start on the middle. There is a reason I read it out of order that I won't get in here, but this is the third time reading it so it doesn't really matter.

Our hero is Dr. Elwin Ransom, and the inset of the dustcover informs us that Lewis based this memorable character after his dear friend J.R.R. Tolkien.

Ransom is a philologist. Like Lewis and Tolkien were fond of doing, Ransom is on a walking tour through the countryside. Soon he is tired, hungry, and hopelessly lost. He approaches a house where he hopes for a little hospitality.

What he finds there, to his surprise, is an old schoolmate named Devine, the least favorite of his old schoolmates and with good reason as we'll see, and another man, Weston, who turns out to be a megalomaniac scientist. Of course Ransom doesn't initially know Weston is megalomaniac but he soon discovers it as he realizes the two man have nefarious plans for him.

Those plans consist of kidnapping him and taking him to another planet. The planet is called Malacandra and I won't tell you which planet that is so as not to ruin the surprise.

I also won't tell you too much of Ransom's adventures there for the same reason. However, being Lewis, the creatures are of such a sort as to inspire awe, fear, dread and respect and also love.

There are certain beings that exist there that are unknown to humans but actually exist on Earth as well. Because of humankind's fallen nature and the "bent" Oyarsa that rules the planet, these beings are invisible to the human eye. Man's corrupted eye cannot see them although originally they were supposed to.

Ransom learns all of this while he is on Malacandra after talking with the Oyarsa of the planet, but we meet him only later in the novel. We first meet the physical beings that Ransom can see and gets to know.

Eventually, Ransom discovers why Devine and Weston have brought him to Malacandra. But even they do not realize that they are merely tools unwittingly carrying out the evil intent of Earth's bent Oyarsa.

This final revelation is a prelude to the second and third novels in the trilogy.

This story is adventurous and suspenseful but most of all, it inspires the reader to care about all of the characters, even the bent humans, because Lewis is able to project his own unconditional love onto each person, terrestrial and extraterrestrial, and in turn make them lovable to us.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford

Mozart's Rondo in C major K 373 arranged for flute is playing.  Rain has finished falling outside, providing much relief from the relentless heat here in Texas.  There's an old folk song about the Devil asking the Lord for a bit of land so God gave him Texas.  The Devil gave it back saying the place was hotter than you-know-where.  If you have ever visited in the summer, which I don't recommend, you will appreciate the Devil's lack of gratitude.

I wrote the above a couple of weeks ago before the hurricane.  My prayers to those in South Texas.  Fortunately, we up here in NE Texas are safe.

Giant Oak outside my dining room window.

ZeldaZelda by Nancy Milford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some biographies can trudge along but this one bubbled and flowed as Zelda would probably say based on her writings and her penchant for using loads of metaphors for absolutely every concept she was trying to express.

Nancy Milford spent years producing exhaustive research and it shows.

She starts with Zelda's parents and Zelda's birth in Montgomery Alabama. We get an idea of the sort of family Zelda was born into and it gives us a better idea why she developed into the sort of woman she ultimately became.

While Zelda's father, Judge Sayre, was strict, formidable and emotionally detached from his family, her mother Minnie, doted on her and let her do whatever she wanted.

Zelda's natural inclination was to be strong-willed and she thrived on attention. Reading about her social life exhausted me. She must have dated every single young man in Montgomery. Every weekend was filled with dances.

And she was rather daring for the age (this was the 19-teens). She wore a nude colored bathing suit, not just at the beach or pool but around town. She was flirtatious, bold, and addicted to attention.

She met F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was stationed in Montgomery for the war (WWI). Fitzgerald, according to his own temperament, fell for her with all the neurotic passion that forever colored his life.

Through a lot of rolling hills of conflict between themselves, between her family, they finally married in 1920. Zelda was twenty years old and Fitzgerald was twenty-four.

Zelda left her small, warm Southern community for the Big Apple. This might have intimidated some small town girls who had spent all their life in a certain culture but not Zelda. For her New York meant everything she adored on a larger scale: parties, drinking, and being the center of attention.

Neither Fitzgerald nor Zelda had temperate personalities and everything was done in excess. They spent more than they had, they drank more than they could handle. Friends began to dread their parties. A stint in Paris was no different except that Fitzgerald's fascination with the Manic Pixie Girl he had married was beginning slightly to wane. He needed to write and their lifestyle was interfering with that.

At first Zelda seemed to spur his writing, after all, all of his stories are centered around her. Reading about their life together I can safely say most of his books are autobiographical. The heroine is Zelda over and over.

Some have criticized Fitzgerald saying he "stole" her writings or her ideas. That is nonsense. Milford includes scads of Zelda's writings to allow the reader to make an informed comparison. While Zelda is certainly intelligent and at times bordering on brilliant, her writing is no match for Fitzgerald's. After one gets past the glitzy gloss of her descriptive phraseology, one finds very little and much of it is incoherent.

My only criticism of Fitzgerald's writing is that he simplified her. The real Zelda was more complex as Milford's biography shows.

She did try to write and get published and some of her work did get published but I doubt anyone would have looked twice if she had not been Fitzgerald's wife.

She also became obsessed in her late twenties, while they were living in Paris, in becoming a classic dancer. She practiced hours and hours each day with a Russian teacher. There is no coherent reason why she wanted to become a professional ballet dancer. Perhaps to find an identity seperate from her husband, but those who knew her saw strangeness from the get go.

I think without her life with Scott she probably would have become insane anyway, but the excessive drinking and night life probably accelerated her decline.

Frankly I don't know who was worse, Zelda, who ended up in an insane asylum or Fitzgerald, who drank and smoke himself to death at forty with a sudden heart attack.

It's a fascinating study in people who are desperately trying to find meaning in their lives through outside stimulation to the point it pushes them over the edge. Maybe they were terrified of what they might have seen if they stopped and stayed still for a few moments. Their frantic rushing off the cliff was a continual running away from what was inside of them.

Eventually Fitzgerald resorted to writing Hollywood scripts in order to pay debts, including Zelda's stay at a good hospital and their daughter, Scottie's, education.

Very little is mentioned about Scottie. One can only wonder how the effect of two narcissistic and unstable parents affected her. She's seems to have turned out OK and married outside the glamorous world of her parents.

While Fitzgerald stayed in Hollywood, Zelda had returned to Montgomery and lived with her mother, a rather invisible life it seems, after the legendary one. Her illness finally deteriorated where she had to return to the mental hospital. Her last words to her mother was, "It's OK. I'm not afraid of dying." and she ran off. Was this prophetic? She was to die in the hospital as it burned to the ground.

She still outlived Fitzgerald by eight years.

I suppose there will be endless fascination over this infamous couple and this is a good biography, but I don't know if it is necessary because after reading it, I realize that Fitzgerald faithfully recorded their lives in all of his stories.

View all my reviews

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

I cannot get enough of French music.  Here is Debussy's Pour Le Piano L. 136 no. 11 performed by Cecile Ousset.

The Case of the Broken Butter Dish.

The other night, or I should say early morning (five-thirty am is still night for me) my son Derek was leaving for work when he saw a cat underneath the bird cage.  She bolted out of the house as soon as she saw Derek, but this was disconcerting to say the least.

We have a doggie door and that is undoubtedly how the cat entered but why?  

I understand that Breeya is past her prime.  Poor Breeya.  Her littermate Odie has crossed the river Jordan a few weeks ago and she's alone.  Deaf and mostly blind as well, she's just our little geriatric dog.  In a human nursing home, she'd be the old person in a corner by herself rocking back and forth in her wheelchair asking for  family long gone.

There was a time when a cat would not show her head in our yard and now one is coming into our house?

I started shutting the dog door at night, but one morning after spending an hour cleaning up doggie do off the floor (in the washroom, in the kitchen, in the living room...) I started leaving it open again.

Then we woke up to find our butter dish  on the kitchen floor broken into little pieces.  All human members of our household claim innocence.  My son thinks the cat did it.

Why, cat, why?  Why are you persecuting our household?

I'm not sure what to do.  I hate to leave Breeya outside all night.  I don't like broken butter dishes and I really don't like cleaning up dog manure.

So far I have not come up with a solution.  But Josh did get the cutest little butter dish.

CloudsplitterCloudsplitter by Russell Banks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought Cloudsplitter because the Wall Street Journal's book club had decided to read this book together on Facebook.

Synopsis: John Brown the slave abolitionist insurrectionist is already hanged and dead. Several years later, one of his sons, Owen, in old age relates his life story to an unnamed journalist.

First the positive:

The writing is gorgeous. Banks creates a luscious backdrop as he paints people and landscapes in a pre-Civil era. The reader easily enters into that time period.

Secondly, he writes a good story. If one ignores that he is writing about historical figures, the events and interpersonal relationships and how they are carried out is interesting.

The negative:

Owen Brown has apparently spent his life fighting his inner demons and trying to make sense out of what his father did.

The narrator's voice is spoken in a relentlessly heavy monotone which casts a grey haze over everything as one is imagining the story playing out in one's head while reading the words. It makes reading the book a practice of self-discipline and at 728 pages it can at times be tortuous.

Secondly, Banks is obviously superimposing 21st century cultural attitudes on a bygone time. That is not only annoying it makes the story telling suspect. How accurate is it? I have arrived at the conclusion that if I want to learn about historical events it's better to read several non fiction sources.

View all my reviews

 I think someone asked this on another blog but I also ask:  what are people's feelings about historical fiction.  Do they enjoy it or do they prefer to non fiction history books? And why?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles translated by David Grene; The Frogs by Aristophanes translated by Benjamin Bickley Rogers

I read the book Fifteen Greek Plays by Oxford University Press (published 1943) while bouncing up and down on my elliptical.  I read a play for each exercise session which meant exercising on the elliptical for up to an hour and a half per play.

This was not easy and I must admit I had a habit of checking to see how many more pages were left as I bounced and read.

On the positive side, I have lost twenty pounds since January and, frankly, reading while exercising makes a stationary machine a lot more bearable.

Hercaloo and I exercising and reading The Frogs
I have reviewed some of the plays on a previous post, I have not reviewed all of them, I don't feel particularly qualified to review any of them, but here are my impressions of the final two plays, one for each drama mask .

Oedipus Rex  (The Theban Plays, #1)Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Oedipus is the son of the King of Thebes.  He is sent away as an infant because an oracle prophesies that he will kill his father and marry his mother.

 Not much to say. Can't fight the fates. It took Sophocles about fifty pages to arrive at that conclusion. This is one of three plays concerning this tragedy.  The other two are Oedipus at Colossus and Antigone.

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus has already become King (Rex) after, guess what, killing his father.  Oedipus does not know that he is the murderer of his father who he thinks is the shepherd who raised him.  After listening to an oracle telling him he would kill his father, he had left home and traveled to Thebes in order to avoid committing patricide. On the road to Thebes he kills his real father in an altercation.  He spends a large part of the play searching for his father's murderer and upon discovering that he is the murderer and also guilty of incest, he gouges his eyes out. (Did I mention this was a tragedy? See unhappy face above.)

Most of this play is dialogue with the chorus coming in at the very end.

One thing worth noting. At first I thought the chorus was the third person narrator to break up the dialogue between the characters. It does provide that function on one level by making general observations about what is occurring. But the chorus also chimes in with a personal identity with emotions. Often the chorus is a lament at injustice and cruelty.

Such is the sad fate of Oedipus. All three plays are worth reading, not only because of their poetic eloquence (even in translation) but also for the sociological and cultural values one can learn from a people who play a role in developing the norms, values and culture we experience today.

View all my reviews

And now, as Monty Python would say, time for something different:

The Frogs of Aristophanes: Acted at Athens at the Lenaean Festival B.C. 405; The Greek Text Revised with a Translation Into Corresponding Metres, Introduction and CommentaryThe Frogs of Aristophanes: Acted at Athens at the Lenaean Festival B.C. 405; The Greek Text Revised with a Translation Into Corresponding Metres, Introduction and Commentary by Benjamin Bickley Rogers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Frogs is a comedy, and a rather saucy, bawdy one at that, by Aristophanes. The god, Dionysus and his slave, Xanthias, go to Hades to retrieve the great tragic poets, Aeschylus and Euripides, because there are no good tragedy plays among the living anymore.

Dionysus asks his half-brother Heracles for advice on the quickest way to Hades. Heracles, after laughing uproariously at him, informs him of the quickest ways, all of which involve dying. Dionysus prefers to get there alive and, knowing that Heracles did it, dresses up in a lion skin, hoping to impersonate Heracles and with Xanthias arrive at a lake (isn't it the River Styx?). Charon ferries Dionysus across but Xanthias has to walk. Xanthias also gets to pretend to be a donkey on which Dionysus rides.

While crossing the lake a chorus of frogs sing. And that is all you're going to hear about them so why are they part of the title? Another mystery hidden from me when trying to understand Greek literature. Sigh.

While in Hades Dionysus trades places with Xanthias but this backfires on him as Xanthias, pretending to be Heracles acts offended with Aeacus, the doorman to Pluto's house, and demands Aeacus flog his "servant" (Dionysus) to prove his innocence. Later both Dionysus and Xanthias claim to be gods and are tortured to see if they are. The dialogue to this is pretty funny.

Aeacus: I'll give you blow for blow.
Xanthus: A good idea.
Aeacus: I struck you.
Xanthias (increduously) No.
Aeacus: Now then I'll strike the other. (Strikes Dionysus.)
Dionysus: Tell me when?
Aeacus: I struck you.
Dionysus: Struck me? Then why didn't I sneeze?
Aeacus: I'll try the other again.
Xanthia: Good gracious!
Aeacus: Not hurt you, did I?
Xanthias: No, I merely thought of the Diomeian feast of Heracles.
Aeacus: A holy man! 'Tis now the other's turn.
Dionysus: Hi! Hi!
Aeacus: But why these tears?
Dionysus: There's such a smell of onions.

And so on. It goes on for a while and each time Xanthias and Dionysus react in pain they find some excuse to explain away their reaction. It's pretty funny.

What I enjoyed, apart from the silliness, was the structure of the poem. How accurate Benjamin Bickley Rogers was I'll never know because I'm no ancient Greek scholar but his translation into English was highly successful in its rhythm and rhyme. I found myself rollicking along on my eilliptical as I read the "question and answer" dialogue. Here's an example:

I showed them scenes of common life,
                                                           the things we know and see,
Where any blunder would at once
                                                          by all detected be.
I never blustered once
                                                         their breath and wits away
By Cycnuses or Memnons clad
                                                         in terrible array.

The highlight of the play is when in the halls of Pluto, Dionysus and Xanthias come across Aeschylus and Euripides in a contest that aims at displaying for the audience a literary criticism of the aims and merits of each man's work.

Aeschylus wins and accompanies Dionysus back to Earth. Even so, Aristophanes shows a critical appreciation of Euripides and also Sophocles. The chorus are the voters who chant the same song the dead frogs were singing at the beginning of the play.

What I would surely enjoy is watching a performance, perhaps even in the original language.

View all my reviews